Steve's shoulder aches like he's the one who got hit with the industrial-strength sedative dart. In fact, it's from where he hit a metal table and then the ground in quick succession, with enough force to shove the round head of his arm bone right out of the socket. It's back in place now, but it's not keen on letting him forget that it happened.
He's also got, by Sam's unimpressed verbal tally: a few broken ribs, a would-be-broken-on-anyone-else ankle, a deep laceration across the muscle belly of his right bicep and a good baker's dozen of shallower cuts in various locations, a truly stunning black eye, and a lower lip that cracks open in two places whenever he smiles.
Steve's smiling anyway; Steve's feeling pretty good, all told. Tip-top. Swell. Fan-fucking-tastic.
This is entirely due to the fact that the actual recipient of the sedative is currently asleep in his lap.
Even worse than the pain of injuries received--most of which are healing already, Steve can tell--is the niggling and ongoing discomfort of Bucky's weight sprawled across his thighs, the unyielding metal of Bucky's shoulder wedged against Steve's stomach. Plus the thin scratch of motel carpet, and the awkward angle of Steve's back against the wall.
Steve has his left hand resting on Bucky's chest, his right arm bent into a pillow of sorts beneath Bucky's head. Discomfort or no, it'd take an SC250 to move him now, and even then he'd put up a damn good fight.
A couple of hours ago Sam tactfully tapped out in favour of his own bed in the smaller second bedroom of the motel suite. Sam can do a decent combat sleep, so Steve doesn't know if he's dozing lightly or if, like Steve, he's planning to spend the whole night with his back against a hard surface and his mind whirling.
They calculated the dose based on Natasha's best intel on metabolic modification filtered through Banner's best estimates of pharmacokinetics. Bucky should be out for close to twenty-four hours, but if he isn't, Steve's face is going to be the first thing he sees.
And after that...whatever happens, happens.
There's no knock before the door opens and Natasha steps into the room, as though summoned by the recent thought of her name. Steve blinks hard, but everything still hurts too much for him to be dreaming. She's wearing a green jacket and balancing two large takeout coffee cups in her hand, one on top of the other, and she turns to nudge the door gently closed behind her.
"Right," Steve says. After two heartbeats the initial surprise has faded into irritation. "Of course. You've been tracking us."
Natasha gives him a faint smile that doesn't hide the sharp sweep of her eyes, down and across Bucky's still form.
"You didn't think of showing your face earlier?" Steve asks.
Now she shrugs. "You fellas seemed to have the situation under control."
She walks over and holds out one of the cups. The coffee is still very hot, when Steve sips at it.
"We're in the middle of nowhere, how did you...?" but he gives up, because there are some questions it's useless to ask Natasha Romanov, and 'how did you manage that?' is one of them.
Natasha slides down and sits next to him, against the wall, the foot of one bent leg just touching his knee where a few strands of Bucky's hair spill over it.
Steve turns his cup around and squints in the poor, yellowish light at the green Starbucks logo.
"Really?" he says.
"I am told," Natasha says, "it's a meme."
She pronounces the word as carefully as Steve did the first time he heard it. He appreciates the gesture, from her. From Tony Stark it would have been insulting as hell.
"So why now?" he asks. "Just checking in?"
"I'm here for the debrief."
"SHIELD doesn't exist any more," Steve says, carefully.
Natasha says something short in Russian, and Bucky's face flickers. In the midst of an adrenalin flare Steve forces his legs to stay relaxed where Bucky's resting on them, but it takes so much effort that he feels every muscle in his neck and shoulders seize in complaint.
Bucky's eyes remain closed, and after a few moments he settles again.
"Oh," Steve says, dry. "That debrief."
He takes a few long sips of the coffee, swirling it in his mouth, before he sets the cup down on the dull grey carpet.
"You're calling him Bucky, aren't you?"
"In here." Natasha taps her own forehead. "That's how you're thinking of him. You shouldn't."
"Natasha," Steve says warningly.
"He's the Winter Soldier, Steve. He's not James Buchanan Barnes. Not yet," she adds, an uncharacteristic gift.
"I don't recall you calling Barton by anything other than his name," Steve points out. He can play this game. "Even when he was clearly one of Loki's tools."
Natasha gives him an odd smile, sidelong somehow, even though she's looking right at him.
"Sure. But this is different. They've had decades with him, they've had time to tailor their techniques to the individual subject. A blue spear of sparkly mind control is effective, I'll grant you, but a little...one size fits all."
"I don't think they cared about him as an individual," Steve says, trying to keep the violence in his throat from echoing in his voice. "Not one bit. His masters, the ones who were your masters--they were just like everyone else." He's bone weary, he's been weary since he woke up, and right now he knows he sounds like it. "Doing terrible things in the name of ideas that were good, once."
Natasha leans into him with her shoulder, a sly nudge. "I know how you feel about communism, Rogers," she says. Her voice still has that sidelong smile in it.
"Support for the workers, instead of the workers being the support on which privilege is built? A society that fairly distributes its discoveries, its vaccines, its food, its water for pete's sake--" Steve takes a deep breath. "I reckon it's obvious how I feel about that. In theory."
"The world isn't kind to good ideas," Natasha says.
Steve snorts. "Yeah, it only took Lenin five minutes to realise that Soviet Communism wouldn't work, and another five to replace it with Soviet Socialism."
"Authoritarianism," Natasha says. It sounds neutral. Most neutral statements in Steve's life are tests.
He gives a mental shrug and picks up the bait.
"From what I can make out, socialism wasn't meant to be sustainable. It was meant to be the compromise, the in-between step. But the end point was that you can't exist as a communist state in a capitalist world."
He sounds angry. He doesn't care; he is angry. The Winter Soldier looks painfully, gut-wrenchingly young, as Steve gazes down at him. The line of his jaw and the slope of his cheekbones are a crucible for the ashes of Steve's past, his present, his future. Two boys went to war because they believed in what they were fighting for: making the world better, safer, for good ideas of all kinds.
Yes. He's angry.
Natasha says softly, "True. You can't ignore your place in the universe."
"It's no secret," Steve says. "It's my damn name. I'm the symbol of a country that as far as the rest of the world is concerned is the last word in capitalism. And here's me believing in shared resources and in fronting up to the harm done by class warfare."
"That's what it turned into, didn't it?" Natasha says. "Socialism. It's easy to be for the toiling peasant masses, but when you're trying to organise them, you have to fall back on the idea of deciding what's good for people and then telling them what that is. A ruling class coming from within the oppressed class--you could keep going forever, like a matryoshka doll."
"All animals are equal..."
Natasha raises her eyebrows at him. Her expression carries the unflattering suggestion that Steve is a dog who has just performed a particularly neat trick. Steve sighs; that one was in his notebook, he read it a couple of months ago.
"Exactly," she says. "Any attempt to abolish classes, to abolish rulers, has failed. You don't think it points to an essential truth of human nature? A need for structure, a need to be dictated to from above."
An echo stirs, somewhere. Steve frowns.
"No, I don't believe that."
"I didn't think you did." Natasha smiles.
"Do you think I'd have made a good Russian?"
"Perhaps," Natasha says, lightly. "But not a good tool. You think too much."
"Your friend Bucky thought, past tense. I told you, that man is the Winter Soldier. He's not made to hold ideas."
"Bucky's in there somewhere," Steve says. "I'd have thought you'd agree, if anyone would."
Natasha looks at him.
Steve thinks of this woman as an ally, one of the closest things he has to a friend, even though the only person who really fits in that category is breathing with mechanical--no--with normal human steadiness, beneath his palm. But he doesn't know her. Right now, her eyes are strange, and Steve wants to shiver with a kind of cold that his mind can't recognise, but his body can.
He doesn't know her at all.
"Do you think you need to forgive him, then?" she asks. "The part of him that you're convinced was in there when he killed all of those people."
"You sound very certain," Natasha murmurs. Steve thinks about Barton, again, and Loki.
"None of that is on him," Steve says.
It has to be that simple. It is.
"Do you think he needs you to forgive him?" she asks. This time it sounds even less like a question.
"Whatever he needs," Steve says, with the weight of truth like blood in his mouth. "I'll do it."
Natasha shifts, stretching her knees out straight. This creates more contact between them, her whole leg warm against his, but Steve feels increasingly alone, marooned with his sleeping past in this disappointment of a future.
"I rebuilt myself," Natasha says. "I'm someone, now. But I'm not whatever I was before."
"For what it's worth, though," she goes on, "I think you're probably right. Ideas are like gods. You can never really kill them, just banish them to obscurity through forgetting."
There was a lot of forgetting. Steve's read the Winter Soldier file, over and over, heartsick. All of Bucky's brilliance, which was his humour and his generosity, banished to the smallest crevices between one neuron and next. Crawled in deep like tiny cave-dwelling creatures, washed by the endless freezing tides of chemicals and reprogramming. But stubborn. Holding on, surviving. Waiting.
"He doesn't have to rebuild himself," Steve says, softly. He runs the tips of his fingers up into Bucky's hair, sweat-tangled in the nape of his neck, and aches. "He's got me for that."
"Be careful." Natasha says. "A discarded tool is an invitation, and fragments are very inviting. The smaller the pieces, the more you can make out of them. You might find yourself with some competition."
Steve moves those fingers to a firm grasp, his palm now cradling Bucky's neck and the base of his skull.
"That's not going to happen," he says. "But thanks for the warning."
"It seemed only fair," Natasha says. She's levering herself to her feet. "Sharing the available discoveries, right?"
Steve smiles, even though it's not that funny. He feels the sting as the cuts on his lip reopen. "You know me. Captain Communist."
Natasha looks down at him with a similar kind of smile, one that's more about satisfaction than humour. She splays and curls one of her hands by her side, finger by finger, restless.
"I wonder if any of them know," she says, casually. "How close you were to plunging back into an ocean of one kind or another, before this man's mask fell off."
That knocks the automatism out of Steve's lungs for a few seconds. He reminds himself to inhale.
Natasha says, "I'll leave you to your mourning, then."
First Steve looks at the window, puzzled--it's not dawn yet--and then her meaning clicks, his chest seizes and he presses down more firmly, questing, with the hand that's been, he realises abruptly, monitoring Bucky's heartbeat for hours through layers of torn fabric, bruised skin and dented ribs. It's still there. Steady and strong.
"Come on, Captain," she says, with a quirk of her mouth. "You're an artist. You know a Pietà when you're sitting in one."
That was almost cruel, and Natasha...he doesn't think of her as cruel. She can wield cruelty like any other weapon in her repertoire, but she doesn't do so without clear purpose.
She slips out of the room and closes the door behind her.
Steve picks up the coffee cup again. The coffee is cold by now but he drinks it anyway, and he stays awake until morning light kisses the curtains as his body knits itself back together and his heart--delirious with obstinate hope, kept alive by the echo of itself in Bucky's pulse--begins to do the same.
He becomes gradually aware of the murmur of voices on the other side of the door, and finally unfolds himself with reluctance from beneath Bucky, who doesn't look any closer to consciousness. Steve stretches out some cramps and then fetches a pillow from the too-soft bed and puts it under Bucky's head.
"I'll be right back, pal," he says
The vague smell of fresh coffee reminds him to bring the empty Starbucks cups with him, to put in the trash, as he heads out into the common area of the suite with its tiny kitchenette. Every single muscle in his body is aware of his fatigue, but his brain has taken its cue from the dawn and is gearing up for another eighteen hours of necessary alertness.
Natasha is sitting at the table smiling at something Sam's said, her hands wrapped around a white hotel-issue mug. She's wearing a different outfit, paler jeans and a dark red sweater instead of the green; she must have napped on the couch and then changed her clothes.
"Hey," Sam says in greeting. "Look who decided to drop the shadow act."
Natasha gives him a small wave.
"More coffee, Natasha?" Steve smiles. "Thought you'd have had enough."
"What?" she says.
"Unfair, man," says Sam. "You did a Starbucks super-run and you didn't get me any? Not all of us can cover fifty miles in the time it takes to choose between a latte and a macchiato."
Steve frowns. "No, Natasha brought--last night."
"Steve," Natasha says. "I got here ten minutes ago."
She's a superb liar, but she doesn't lie without reason any more than she'd be cruel for the heck of it, and he doesn't think she's lying now.
Steve looks down at one of the cups in his hand. Solid evidence. It's cool and it's creased, and the rim is frayed where he took the lid off and then worried at it with his teeth and fingers. The other cup looks untouched, for all that it's empty, and in the sunlight he can a single letter L scrawled in the space meant for the customer's name, finished off with a careless trickster flick of the pen.
"Steve," Natasha says, much more sharply. "What is it?"
All kinds of tides are receding, all kinds of tenacious things are beginning to crawl out of hiding and towards the light.
Gods are like ideas.
"We might have a problem," he says.