Bucky stands under the shower, head hanging. He's so exhausted he's barely able to stand, braced on one trembling arm, letting the water cascade over him. There's a chill gust that lasts half a second and then the slide of skin against skin. Warm hands. Steve.
"Thought you'd drowned in here," he says and Bucky can't help the tinge of satisfaction that Steve--superhuman, super soldier Steven Rogers--sounds just as tired as Bucky feels.
He manages a ghost of smile over his shoulder. "Feels like it." He feels Steve's hands on his shoulders, turning him, then Steve's pressing him up against the tiles (cold for a moment against his skin), lips on his throat, jaw, mouth. Okay, maybe Steve's not quite as tired.
Bucky sighs and tips his head back, wrapping his arms around Steve's shoulders, letting Steve support his weight as they rock against each other, skin slipping together. Fuck, it feels good. "God, I've missed touching you," Steve murmurs in his ear and Bucky shudders when Steve licks at the water running down his throat.
"Missed you too," Bucky manages, words slurring together. He slides his leg around Steve's hip, pushing back against him and they rut slow and lethargic to completion. He's almost boneless after, barely able to keep his eyes open, and it's without even a protest that he lets Steve wash him clean, bundle him in towels and guide him through to their bedroom.
"Go to sleep," Steve says, easing him down onto the bed, and his voice sounds like it comes from a million miles away. Bucky resists a moment, because there's something he's missed, something they haven't done. Can't sleep yet, not until they block the doors, bar the windows. He's gotta stay awake, can't sleep here...
"Shh, Buck, we're home now. You can sleep."
"Let go. I've got you."
As his eyes sink closed and he releases his grip on consciousness, the last thing he feels is Steve curling around him. Somehow he finds Steve's hand with his.
Bucky's so tired that he sleeps without dreams, without nightmares. When he wakes it's to the smell of frying bacon and the murmur of Steve's voice. He rolls over, tugging the blankets around him tighter, letting the rise and fall of Steve's voice wash over him.
No doubt he's calling in to S.H.I.E.L.D. like a good little super soldier, debriefing Fury or Deputy Director Hill or whoever wants to take the call this time on the mission in Chicago. Bucky knows it frustrates them all to no end now Steve's running missions with his ex-WWII sidekick, ex-Soviet assassin pal (whom he also happens to be sleeping with--and Bucky doesn't doubt they know that too) when he doesn't immediately turn up at a S.H.I.E.L.D. office on completion of a mission, unless the information warrants it.
They go home first.
Steve's decided that's more important.
And it's... well, it is a home of sorts to Bucky, now that it's not some apartment in a building in Boston. It's Steve's apartment in New York, locked down and safe when the infection overran the neighbourhood. Most of New York has been given the all clear by now, six months on; while there are still random outbreaks, with the city under curfew and martial law most are quickly contained.
Sometimes it's hard to remember how bad it was, and then he sees empty, scarred buildings and the remaining solid concrete of the quarantine walls.
Bucky yawns and burrows down into the blankets further. Under the blanket his metal fingers find the bite scar on his arm and he rubs at it. Even though it and the scars on his chest have healed cleanly, sometimes they itch and burn, like the virus is still alive under his skin. He yawns again, turning his face against the pillow as he hears the soft tread of Steve entering the bedroom.
"How are you feeling?" Steve asks, because somehow he always knows when Bucky's awake.
"Tired," Bucky mumbles into the pillow. "Could do with another... how many hours did I sleep?"
The bed dips as Steve crawls on to it next to him. "Five."
Bucky groans. No wonder he still feels like he's been steamrolled. He doesn't remember coming in last night but the sheets are clean and he's clean, the stench of death that lingers even after they've left an infected zone gone.
"Could do with another five," Bucky says as Steve works his hands under the blankets. "Hey," he protests as Steve systematically peels him out of his blanket cocoon.
"C'mon," Steve wheedles, "I made bacon sandwiches. I know they're your favourite."
Bucky brightens. He'd come across the wonder of bacon sandwiches during the war. "Can't you just bring it here?" he asks hopefully, giving Steve his most imploring look.
It doesn't result in a bacon sandwich, but a kiss. Which was satisfying in its own way, Bucky thinks as he wraps his arms around Steve's shoulders and hauls Steve over him.
Steve pulls back, looking down at him with a raised eyebrow and a faint grin. "You don't want your bacon sandwich?"
"Bacon sandwich'll keep," Bucky said, suddenly far more interested in slipping his hands under the waistband of the soft cotton pants Steve is wearing.
"It'll get cold."
"You'll get cold," Bucky mutters which, okay, doesn't make any sense, but he's only just woke up so he's hardly expected to be at his sharpest. Steve's laugh turns into a pleased moan as Bucky slides his hands over the bare skin of Steve's ass. Bucky loves the feel of Steve's weight over him, but the blankets still wedged between them are seriously hindering his attempts at getting laid. "You gotta move, Steve," he grunts, trying to wiggle free.
But apparently Steve has other ideas and he just bears down more with his weight so Bucky can't move at all, dipping his head for another kiss. "You've already been into the bacon," Bucky says accusingly when Steve lets him breathe again.
Steve rolls off him and sits up. "I'm the cook. It's my prerogative. Anyway, up you get, it's time for breakfast."
"Aw, c'mon," Bucky says, sitting up himself. He presses up against Steve's back, sliding his hand over Steve's belly and down under his waistband again. Steve's half hard in his hand and he smiles, presses a kiss to Steve's shoulder and says, "Got something different in mind for breakfast."
Steve inhales sharply. "We have to be at S.H.I.E.L.D. by ten," he says, but Bucky can feel Steve's fighting a losing battle.
"Y'think I can't get you off quick enough?" Bucky squeezes and is rewarded with a jerk of Steve's hips. "I'll blow you," he offers, licking his lips.
Slowly, Steve pulls Bucky's hand from his pants. "Not just now," he says regretfully and Bucky can't even believe it. In six months Steve has never once been able to resist Bucky's hands--or mouth--on his skin. (And Bucky knows, because he's used it at times when Steve's questions have become too persistent about things he didn't want to talk about. He's not proud, but he's not ashamed either. He's not the boy Steve once knew.)
Steve turns so he can look Bucky in the eye and Bucky realises there's something else there, a hint of something that could almost be fear, if Steve Rogers ever got scared. Steve says, "I promise when we get home I'll let you do anything you want," the attempt at a sultry tone falls queerly flat, "but we have to go to S.H.I.E.L.D. first."
Bucky tries to ignore both Steve's fear--something he always used avoidance to deal with back in the day--and the flutter in his stomach. "Why?" he asks a little belligerently as a result. "The fact we found nothing in Chicago can't be that important. I'da thought you'd tell 'em that in your call."
"I did," and Steve reaches out, brushing his thumb over Bucky's bottom lip. "They weren't surprised."
"They still stupid enough to think it's just a naturally occurring virus mutation?" Bucky didn't. He mightn't know shit about viruses and biological warfare and mutations, but he knew that a virus that turned 23% of the population along the eastern seaboard alone into the living dead without successfully jumping the border, bar a few insignificant outbreaks, was a bit suspicious. The United States wasn't Madagascar. The borders might have been closed as soon as the powers in charge realised the extent of the situation, but there's no way the virus could have just faded out once it hit international waters.
No, Bucky didn't think there was anything natural about it at all.
"They don't think that anymore. A team sent into Washington found patient zero and--" Steve hesitates. "No, we'll talk about it when we get back," he finishes abruptly. "We have to go to S.H.I.E.L.D."
He stands, but Bucky catches his wrist before he can bolt for the door. "Why?"
Glancing down at him, Steve's mouth tightens a moment and then he sighs. "They want you to come in for interrogation. They've brought in a doctor. One of their mind specialists."
Ah. The directive has finally arrived.
"Well that's good, isn't it?" It's what Bucky's wanted since he ran into Steve in New York over six months before, and he knows Steve knows that. He wants someone to go into the minefield the Red Room made of his brain and make sure there are no tripwires or triggers, he needs to know that the switch that flipped to give him his life back wasn't flipped deliberately.
That he's not a walking time bomb, waiting for the right words to be said to set him off.
Steve has never been able to understand that Bucky doesn't trust himself. Stupid, noble Steve Rogers, who only believes the best of him. Bucky doesn't even know if Steve's read those damn notebooks, where he lay out in brutal detail everything that he'd done and everything he could remember that had been done to him.
And that was what scared him. It was only everything he could remember. Because he couldn't remember a lot of what had been done to him. His memory was moth eaten patchwork; brain wiped again and again until he was surprised anything could take. Who knew what they had done to him in those missing moments?
Steve just gives him an anxious look.
"Hey," Bucky says. "C'mon. Think of how much of a relief it'll be to know all this--" and he gestures around his head, "--is sorted, and you don't have to worry about what might be going on in there."
"I just..." Steve scrubs his hand through his hair, "if anything was going to happen, it would have happened by now, wouldn't it? It's been six months, Buck. You've been doing nothing but good work for S.H.I.E.L.D. and this just... it feels like they don't trust you, still, after everything you've done."
"It's not like you haven't had a hundred chances on these missions to kill me, if that's what your--your secret parameters were. Easy enough to fake an accident when we've spent most of the past six months in zombie territory--"
Bucky tries again. "Steve--"
"No, listen. I think you should tell them to sh--"
"Steve. I ain't telling 'em to shove it." Bucky reaches out, takes Steve's hands, tugs 'til he's sitting down again. If Steve grips back a little too tight, Bucky's not going to say anything. "I want this. I need to know. And you gotta realise I don't care if they trust me or not or even if you trust me or not, 'cause I don't trust me."
Bucky meant to words to reassure Steve but if anything he looks even more upset. Well, fuck.
He knows Steve's scared of what S.H.I.E.L.D. might find inside his head. He's not sure if Steve's more scared that they'll find out how truly broken Bucky is, or if what they find might have him jailed for the rest of his natural life, no parole, no do-overs. Bucky's scared too, though he'd never admit it to Steve. Not of the result--regardless of what they find, he'll live with it they way he lives with everything else he's done--but of the thought of someone else, once again, rummaging around in his brain.
After decades of brain-washing and mental implants, he's never going to be comfortable with someone else in his head.
But the difference between his fear and Steve's is that he, at least, understands the necessity. And after this he's going to get Fury to sign something to say never again. He's done with it. His brain will be his own again for good.
Steve's insistent that he's going along--ostensibly to debrief on their mission, but Bucky knows it's to keep an eye on him--and they're met at S.H.I.E.L.D. by a painfully earnest and polite agent called Rossen. "Please accept our apologies that Director Fury was unable to be here today as intended, however he wishes the interrogation to proceed as planned. "
"At least you acknowledge it's an interroga--"
"Hey," Bucky says sharply. He's getting sick of Steve's hangdog expression and general stroppiness over this. He'd hoped the fact that he wanted it would have shut Steve up, but no. "You want me to make you go home?" Not that he could have, but still. Steve gives him a tight angry look and Bucky suspects they're about thirty seconds from a dust up. He softens his expression and reaches out to touch Steve's arm. "I'll be okay," he says encouragingly.
Eventually Steve's shoulders loosen. "I just--I don't like this." He looks pointedly at Agent Rossen, like it's his specific fault. "I'd be happier if Fury was here."
"Duly noted," Rossen says with a polite nod. Bucky appreciates the way he doesn't back down in the face of a cranky Captain America. Steve in a snit had cowed more than one S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (Bucky thinks it's the reputation as a nice, eternally polite, good man that catches people off guard; Steve is all those things and more of course, but he's still just a man with irritations and dislikes too).
"Hey." Bucky touches Steve lightly on the arm again. "You go work it off in the gym. I'll be fine."
"I'd rather stay close, in case--" Steve's mouth snaps shut and he looks annoyed with himself this time.
"'In case' what?"
"...In case you need me."
Bucky grunts. Steve's never been good at lying. And that, well, that mightn't have been a total lie, but it wasn't the truth either. "In case something goes wrong, you mean."
Steve hesitates. "I just don't want to risk y--anything."
Which is as much as Bucky had expected. But he doesn't want Steve hovering and says as much, and Steve's seems to be so relieved that Bucky's not shitty with him that he doesn't even protest when Bucky orders him to stay outside the small medical wing.
Agent Rossen ushers Bucky through the door, promising to get Steve a chair. It wouldn't do to have Captain America standing around glowering at everyone who walked past, after all. He could do it well enough seated and Bucky had no idea how long this interrogation was meant to take.
The first room he's ushered into is an office, and the mind doctor they've brought in is far younger than Bucky expects. She's wearing a white lab coat, and her hair is covered by pretty blue scarf. When she turns he sees her face is equally as nice as her scarf and brightens. Maybe this won't be as bad, he thinks, with a pretty face to look at.
"Dr Junah Al-Masaari," she says. He sticks out his hand for her to shake but she waves him off with an polite smile and a small bow. "I'm a telepath with a particular sensitivity to physical touch," she says apologetically. "I thought Agent Rossen may have warned you in advance. And thank you."
"What for?" Bucky asks, baffled.
"Thinking my hijab is pretty." Dr Al-Masaari points helpfully to her scarf. Hijab. Right. He knew that. No. He knows that. Somewhere in the part of his brain that isn't Bucky Barnes, he knows, the part that remembers years of duststorms and minarets, the echo of the adhan and the lingering scent of spice markets.
"I, uh. You're welcome?" Oh man, if she'd heard that thought, she would have heard the one about her being pretty. And this. She'd be hearing this too--
"It's okay. Once people are aware that a telepath may be able to hear them, they tend to shield their thoughts a lot better."
Bucky nods, but can't help the flutter of suspicion. It would be a nice fiction to believe, and he's ready to be here, to do this, but the thought of someone fingering through his fractured mirror mind without permission still gives him the deepest twist of terror in his gut. He buries the fear.
"So," he says, "you gonna be able to deal with all this in here?" He taps his temple.
She smiles. "I received my training at Xavier's Institute for Higher Learning. I'm quite sure there's little to you that should pose any great challenge."
Bucky narrows his eyes at her, not sure if he should be offended or not, and her smile widens. She really is an attractive dame, he thinks then mentally corrects himself, lady--no doctor, because hey, who knows who might be eavesdropping. She murmurs, "Thank you, Mr Barnes," as she moves past him and into the corridor. "Please, if you'll follow me."
He hurries to keep up with her. "Please," he echoes her in his most charming tone, "if you'll call me Bucky. Or James, if you'd prefer."
It's been a long time since he's flirted with anyone so his skills are a little rusty (he's never needed to with Steve, and there was no time for games as Natasha carved up his heart during the Cold War) but she offers up a hesitant smile, a little different from the ones she'd given him only moments before. Different, but familiar to what he remembers before dying. Girls in their prettiest dresses on his arm, and laughter and parties and dancing. He was good at dancing, once. Now the only dancing he's good at involves guns and knives and death.
"Does Captain Rogers know you flirt with all the girls, James?" she asks in a tone that indicates she knows perfectly well the nature of his relationship with tall, broad and blond, who's probably still sitting outside the medical offices sulking because Bucky didn't need his hand held.
"A guy comes to expect it after a while," he says, delighted that when he winks she blushes. Yeah, he's still got it. "Human nature and all. So. What can I call you? Can I call you Doc?"
"You can--you can call me Doc, sure," she says, pleased. "I'd like that."
While Bucky hates to ruin a nice moment, he still has one thing he has to ask before he lets this nice doctor loose in the minefield that is his brain.
He reaches out and catches her sleeve.
"Wait--Doc, wait, I just gotta ask before we do this... what I meant before," and he pauses, wets his lips, "when I asked if you're gonna be able to deal with what's in my head is... is that I've seen a lot of terrible things and I've done things even worse. You go in there to find out what booby traps the Red Room left behind, you need be prepared is all I'm saying." The light-hearted look fades from her face as she takes in his serious tone, the change in body language. He thinks of the worst of the Winter Soldier nightmares that haunt him, thinks of the living dead in the streets not so long ago, thinks of blood and gore and teeth buried in his skin, and he thinks it all at her.
Dr Al-Masaari blanches and steps back. "I'm sorry," Bucky says, reaching out to steady her. "I shouldn't have done that without warning. But you gotta know what you're up against. All that is barely scraping the surface of what's in here," he taps his temple. "And you're gonna have to wade through all of it."
She blinks at him a moment before nodding. "I'll be okay," she says, "we have ways of filtering through those kinds of memories and I have trained assistants who will be able to help with the questioning and any issues I might encounter. But... thank you. For the warning."
Huh, Bucky thinks, she's sincere too. He gave her a flash of the worst of him and she thanks him for it. He doesn't even know what to do with that. If anything, it deepens his apprehension. He doesn't want to hurt her, this Dr Al-Masaari, who is an innocent to the true horrors this world holds.
As Dr Al-Masaari turns away saying, "Now, please come through this way," he's hit by a sudden, sharp stab of vertigo; there's something in the way she moves in her white lab coat, in the way the corridor is lit, something even in the stale aircon bite in the air. Something has gone wrong, he's sure of it and he can't--
"Through this way, James," she says (and he doesn't hear 'James', he hears Winter Soldier), gesturing to the door to an examination room. The door is ajar and his feeling of disorientation intensifies as he can see the examination apparatus through the gap. He knows this room, or an echo of it, over and over. He knows this pain.
"Wait," he says, tries to say, but the word catches in his throat and he can't stop, momentum carrying him inexorably forward.
Bucky sees his hand reach out--metal fingers splayed against white painted timber as he pushes the door open, then--
He wakes slowly. His arms are wedged awkwardly under his chest and his mouth is drier than a desert, lips parched and cracked. He tries to push himself up and is overcome by a wave of pain so strong that if he had any strength he'd retch.
Once the pain recedes a little he isn't sure there's an inch of him that doesn't hurt. He can't move to take stock of the damage, but it hardly matters since he can't see anything in the dark either.
He inches his hand up and touches his mouth, feeling the sandy, crystalline grit of dried blood crumbling under his fingertips. There's a sick lurch in his stomach and he's not sure why, but when he feels the wet of fresh blood oozing from his cracked lips he sighs in relief. It's his own blood. That's good. He doesn't know why, but he knows that's good.
But he still can't move and it scares him, for a reason deeper than just a fear that there's something physically broken in him. There's something else.
"H-help," he says, his voice an unintelligible raven's croak to his own ears. He can't remember what's happened. The last thing he remembers... the last thing he remembers is...
No. He doesn't remember anything. The sudden surge of fear gives him a kick of adrenaline and this time he manages to move, pushing himself awkwardly to his knees. The movement sends pain licking through his body, every limb aflame with agony, and his vision explodes in reds and yellows and oranges as the pain in his head crescendos. He does retch then, weak dry heaves that make him feel worse.
He doubles over, gasping for breath. His mouth isn't dry anymore, full of the taste of blood and bile. He licks at the blood on his lips and spits, tries to raise his hand to wipe his mouth and...
His hands are cuffed together and the focused pain in his flesh and bone wrist tells him he's struggled with the cuffs before. It's only now he's more aware that he realises his metal arm is nothing but dead weight too. He sighs, helpless, and sinks forward again until his face touches the floor, then over on his side in a fetal position.
"St-Steve?" he whispers, "Steve." He doesn't know who Steve is, but he knows he's important. Can feel it. Steve means something to him. Has to, when it's the only thing he can remember, a name that's not even his own.
His eyes slowly adjust to the dark, which isn't the absolute dark he'd first thought it was. The roof seems to be softly illuminated, but barely so, like the main light it gave off was just on the edge of the spectrum the human eye could see. He makes out a shape jutting out of the wall, next to another lower, blocker shape. Sink and toilet, he thinks. Which means behind him should be the bed.
For some reason he recognises this kind of place, not like he's been in this one before, but one somewhere else. It's a cell. A prison of some kind. On the heels of that thought a rectangle of light opens in the wall and he cries out at the suddenness of the bright light stabbing into his eyes, pushing his face against the floor.
Eventually, through streaming eyes he manages to looks up at the two soldiers who stand over him, guns trained like he is a danger, like he could even move enough to hurt them.
"--known he was dangerous. But with how hard she hit him, I'd be surprised if he's anything more than a drooling vegetable now."
"But Captain Rogers--"
"He only caught the edges of it. Psionic backlash. Knocked him out and I heard he had a helluva headache when he woke, but that's it. This guy, though..."
"Look at the poor bastard--"
"If you'da seen what he did to Rogers and the doc before she took him down you wouldn't give him a minute of pity." He can hear the revulsion in the man's tone. "He's a fucking monster."
They're talking about him, he realises. He's the monster and he did something. Hurt someone. A doctor, someone else, someone named Rogers...
And it's right there, just beyond his grasp, but gone with the sudden burst of pain in his side.
"Hey, hey whoa, don't--"
"He deserves it--"
"Yeah, but ya can't just--"
"He deserves it."
He can't just take it. He won't. It's not who he is. That he knows.
"Oh no, you don't!" As he struggles to get to his knees, braced on his cuffed hands, the guard sinks his boot into his ribs again. Something gives and he gags on the pain.
"Stand down, soldier!" a voice bellows. He knows that voice, he's sure of it.
There's a sudden silence, broken only by his rough breathing, then the guard who kicked him says in a guilty voice, "Director Fury, I didn't--"
Wait. Director Fury. Director Nick Fury. He remembers Nick Fury. Eyepatch. Bad temper.
He remembers brightness and warmth, loss and need.
He remembers the doorway to the doctors office, and then nothing. Blackness and rage, so much rage, and then waking up here, in this cell. Intermittent pain worse than the constant, like this had happened before. But... Steve. Where is he? Why hasn't he come? Why hasn't he come? He's thought that before, he knows, though how could he? He was dead, he was dead and he couldn't understand why Steve didn't come for him through the ice and the cold, the long years, and even as they rebuilt his brain into an obedient killing machine he still thought why hasn't he come? and he never understood why--
"C'mon Barnes, let me get those cuffs off you," Fury says, crouching by his side, his tone gentle like he's speaking to a wounded beast.
He (Barnes, okay, that's him: James Buchanan Barnes, codename: Winter Soldier... yes? no?) doesn't even have the strength to growl, barely wind in his lungs enough to say "...Steve?" in a shallow tone around the pain in his ribs.
"Rogers is okay. Rogers is always okay." There's the careful touch of fingers against his wrist, a click and then the weight of the cuff pressing against abused flesh is gone.
"You'll see him soon enough," Fury says and he sounds angry, not at Bucky though, at something else. At Steve? No, Bucky doesn't think so.
Maybe he doesn't plead (he doesn't remember that, not yet), because Fury hesitates as he looks at him, before leaning right down, carefully lifting Bucky's arm and hooking it around his shoulders. "He's not here yet," Fury says, "but he's on his way. Now put your other arm around my neck and I'll get you up."
"No... Can't move it."
"No, I don't suppose you can." Fury gives Bucky a thin-lipped, unamused smile as he lifts the weight of Bucky's metal arm up around his shoulders too. "Hold onto your other wrist, I'm gonna put you onto the bed." Bucky bites down on his lip as Fury lifts him slowly and carefully but a ragged groan of pain escapes anyway. "Junah--Dr Al-Masaari--destroyed the circuits when she tried to cook your brain. It's all the damage the Russians did that saved you from being fried like an egg, though. Nothin' in there to grab hold of." He jerks his chin at Bucky's head. "She says you musta hidden away in there, thinks it's how the real you kept breaking through on the Russians back in the day. Says you're stronger up top than most normals she knows. C'mon, let's see what they've done to you."
"What happened?" It's easier to focus on Fury's voice and breathing shallowly as the man pokes and prods at him, a distraction from the pain each touch brings.
"Later," says Fury, "I won't go through this twice when you don't remember it later."
He gets a sudden flash of memory: blood, a woman in a white lab coat laying on her side, her pretty headscarf askew, dark eyes wide with fear (he's seen that fear a lot, he thinks; it's familiar now, this fear of him).
"The doc... she okay though?" Because Fury hadn't said. She'd been able to answer Fury's questions, so she wasn't dead at least, but Bucky had to know. He had to know how badly he'd hurt someone else who'd just wanted to help him (and he remembers another white coat, flesh between his teeth and warm blood running down his throat, and he shudders).
"She will be."
Will be. It's as a cagey an answer he's ever heard, and Bucky has to hope that if she's okay enough to speak, she'll be okay in the long run. It doesn't help, though, not when he knows there are hundreds of injuries he could have inflicted on her that would leave her damaged for life, yet telepathically still able to put the words of what happened directly into someone's head. Whatever he did to her, he didn't kill her. He doesn't know why he didn't kill her, but he didn't, so that has to be something.
Yeah, unsurprisingly enough that thought really doesn't help.
"Where is he?" The shout echoes down the corridor outside the cell.
Bucky knows that voice, even if he doesn't recognise the rage. "Steve." Then: "Help me up," he says urgently to Fury, because he can't meet Steve like this.
"Kid, you're in no--"
He brushes Fury's hand away and struggles off the bed, knees almost buckling as he staggers forward.
Again: "Where is he? Bucky? Bucky!"
It's Fury who shouts: "He's in here, Cap," as Bucky tries to keep his breathing shallow through the pain and the lightheadedness that stubborn, sudden movement gave him. Bucky feels Fury's knuckles digging into his spine, the pull of his shirt and--oh. He stands just behind Bucky's shoulder, holding him up as Steve bursts into the cell.
He looks a wreck. He looks like he did when he came into the isolation chamber at S.H.I.E.L.D after Bucky had been bitten. Bruised and scared. And god, the idiot even has his shield.
When Steve sees Bucky, there and upright (and even though it was stupid pride, Bucky can see now it was the right choice), for a moment he looks like he wants to rush forward. But Bucky guesses from the shocked look on Steve's face that he must look as bad as he feels and instead Steve creeps forward, gingerly reaching out.
His fingers are gentle as he touches Bucky's cracked lips, gaze flicking over Bucky's shoulder to Fury for a split second--
"It's my own," Bucky says because he understands now. Understands his own fear and relief. Because he'd been bitten, and he'd bitten someone else, and he remembers the burn and itch of the scar where there shouldn't be any feeling and the fear buried deep, deep down that maybe he wasn't cured and maybe the virus still lived in his cells. That maybe he would turn again like in those mad few seconds of hunger and rage.
Steve's face twists at the gravel of Bucky's voice, but his relief is still palpable and he throws his arms around Bucky in that unashamedly affectionate fashion that always makes Bucky uncomfortable in company. Fury lets go of Bucky' shirt as Steve takes his weight, smoothly enough, Bucky knows, so Steve won't know Bucky's weakness. He appreciates Fury for that. He doesn't appreciated Steve squeezing the shit out of his abused ribs.
When Steve eases up and Bucky can breathe again, he mutters, "Get me outta here."
"Do you want me to--"
"No," Bucky snaps. He knows what Steve was going to ask before he even says it. He goes out of here on his own two feet, no other way, certainly not like a sack of flour over Captain America's shoulder.
Still, Steve wraps an arm around his waist and takes most of his weight, which at least gives the illusion that Bucky's motoring along under his own steam. Bucky's frankly glad of it when the hallways seem interminably long, and it feels like an eternity before they're buzzed through the last door to freedom, Fury stomping ahead.
As they approach the open doorway though and achingly bright sunlight streams through the wide-open doors, Bucky feels a wash of dizziness overtake him, frightening and familiar echoes of what happened at the S.H.I.E.L.D. office. "No," he mutters, lurching away from Steve. "No, no, no, oh god please, not again--"
When he opens his eyes he's on his back on a gurney in the back of a quinjet. "He's awake," Steve says to someone else, peering down at him. "Hey," he says with a soft smile. "You're awake."
Bucky blinks. "What--what happened? Didn't hurt anyone, did I?"
"When you fainted? Of course not." Steve touches Bucky's face with a cool, wet cloth, then dabs at his lips.
"Yeah," and that's Nick Fury, sitting against the wall. "What d'you think happened?"
"Thought it was like... thought it was something like at the office."
"Nope, nothin' sinister." Fury says.
"I fainted," Bucky repeats. Well that's fucking embarrassing.
The affection in Steve's smile turns to amusement. "It's not like you didn't have reason too."
"Yeah, but... I fainted." He knows he's complaining, but he fainted. He doesn't faint.
"It was done in a very manly way, if that helps," Steve offers.
Behind him, Fury snorts. "Enough of this," he says. "We gotta talk about what happens now. Dr Al-Masaari didn't have time to rummage through that skull of yours before everything went to shit, so we still have to get into your--"
"No," Steve snaps immediately, rounding on him. "You almost got him killed--"
"Steve," Bucky says softly.
"--last time, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let you--"
"--risk him again like that. He was fine until this, until you thought it was time to fool around with his head. He never tried to hurt me or anyo--"
"Steve." Bucky thumps his heel against the gurney for emphasis. He understands Steve's scared again, but he also knows Steve's letting himself be blinkered by his feelings. Whether he's blind to the realisation that what happened could easily happen again with just the right triggers, or he's refusing to see it, Bucky at least gets where Fury is coming from. Even though the thought scares the piss out of him, he needs to know that the Red Room hasn't planted more special treats in his head, to be triggered by a particularly perceptive moment.
Everything that's happened now is proof positive that Bucky needs someone to go in there and set his head to rights. Surely Steve can understand that.
"What?" Steve snaps.
Bucky ignores him, takes a deep breath and says to Fury, "What do I need to do?"
"Nothing." It appears Fury's good at ignoring Steve too, and Steve stands there between them, hands clenching and unclenching. He seethes in silence, which is good enough for Bucky, even though he knows he's gonna have a job to make all of this up to Steve. (Hates hurting him, always has, even when it's for the best. Especially when it's for the best.)
Fury continues, "We're already on our way to--well, you don't need to know that yet. Just in case." He pushes himself to his feet and steps around Steve who is soldier enough to step back. "Now, even if the Russians put another trigger in your head, you're not gonna be able to act on it, because we're gonna strap you down and we've given you a sedative that should kick in soon--"
"You goddamn sonuvabitch." Bucky laughs bitterly, unable to help his involuntary jerk away from Fury at that, at the spill of fear into his gut. Fury knows how he feels about drugs--any time he'd come back from a mission less than healthy, he'd bore the pain without complaint, unable to trust in what might be given to him. He remembers the hospital and the nurses, and Steve lying through his teeth so they could pump him full of truth serum.
So much for Fury's trust in him.
And Steve, of course, well Steve stares at him in mute anguish, because Steve's never quite forgiven himself for his role in that incident. Bucky's gut twists and maybe he's never quite forgiven Steve either.
"It's for your own good," Fury points out. "A little something for the pain and a little something to send you off to fairyland--"
"You knew about this?" Bucky growls at Steve who looks painfully guilty, and Bucky knows he shouldn't blame Steve, that he's not being fair, this this isn't his fault anymore than the last time was, but he can't help it, can't help himself.
"He did," Fury says, "and tried to talk me out of it, so it's on me, kid. 'Sides, once we got you to our destination, you'd need to be put under anyway, 'cause in addition to whatever work you need doing up here," and he touches his temple, "they'll be fixing your dead arm, your ribs, your wrist and anything else you busted up along the way. You can't just will the pain of that away."
Up front the pilot calls for Fury and when he heads forward Steve, still looking as awful as if he'd done all this to Bucky himself, sidles over. Bucky gestures to him and Steve sits by the gurney, reaching out tentatively to curls his fingers around Bucky's, where they poke out from under the bandages swathing his arm from knuckles to elbow.
Perfect timing and Bucky's had some sedation in his time but nothing quite like this. It starts with a faint sweet taste in his mouth followed by a wash of light-headedness like he's had a few too many beers. "Steve..."
"I'm here, Bucky," Steve says,"I promise you'll be okay. Fury didn't--this isn't like last time, I swear. It's just what he says it is." Steve's voice is soft and smooth to his ears, all rounded consonants. It's getting harder to focus. "This is something special they said will keep your mind relaxed, so you can't even be triggered when you're under. And I'm going to be with you the whole time. I promise I won't let anything happen to y..."
Bucky closes his eyes and when he opens them again and it's dark again and unfamiliar. He's in a bed, not on the gurney, and it's huge and soft. His cybernetic arm responds when he reaches out to the edge of the bed and as he moves he hears someone else in the room stir. "Buck, you awake?" It's Steve.
It's always Steve.
"Yeah." Is that his voice? Fuck, he sounds even worse than when Fury found him in Rykers.
"You want me to turn on the light?"
"No! No light!" He groans. "God, my head--"
"Ms Frost--Emma--said you might have a headache, might feel like your skull is too tight. Said it'll pass quickly though. And she--she asked me to apologise, she said maybe she wasn't as gentle as she could've been at the start."
"She... blamed you for what happened to Dr Masaari--the doctor who tried first. 'Til she saw what was in your head. What they did to you. She tried to minimise the pain after that, but at first... well. Yeah."
"Can't 'pologise herself?"
"You've never met Emma Frost, have you?"
Bucky grunts. The name doesn't ring a bell, but considering that's how his head is ringing, it's not at all surprising. He squints in the dark, and eventually the darker shadow by the bed resolves into Steve's silhouette. There's a glimmer of light behind Steve, like the light leeching around heavy black out curtains. "So'm I okay now?" Bucky can't help the quaver in his voice when he adds, "I came back on my own?"
"You did," Steve says. "You came home all on your own. And yeah. You are okay now." He doesn't sound entirely certain though, and Bucky shifts uneasily. Steve reacts instantly. "No, you are okay. She found a few other triggers--they're gone now, of course, she removed all of them, but..."
"Emma could explain it better, but she said she found other triggers that should've already set you off like the one at the S.H.I.E.L.D. office did. But they didn't and she doesn't know why. I don't remember seeing you fighting yourself the way you did with the doctor. I saw you..." His voice trails off.
"Saw me what?"
He hears the click of Steve's throat when he swallows, feels Steve's fingers slide against his metal ones (and that's something right there; Steve rarely reaches for Bucky's left hand if he can help it). "You had your hands around the doctor's throat," Steve says, "and I watched you fight against what they did to you, you fought it so hard and I've never seen that before. I didn't see any of that struggle in you back then. It was like you weren't even affected."
Steve squeezes Bucky's hand. There's not a lot of give, but he feels the pressure like it's real, like it's flesh and bone. "When we found each other in New York," he says.
There's a pause and Bucky has to prompt him. "And?"
"What they programmed in you was very... detailed. Not detailed for a zombie plague, but detailed enough to cover as many contingencies as possible if you went rogue on them again. If you went looking for me. If you found me. The things you were supposed to do to me, all the possible scenarios... Buck, so many of those things happened and you never once looked at me once like you looked at that doctor. You never tried to hurt me."
"No." He'd never hurt Steve, not like that. Not like how they programmed him to.
But he remembers wanting to hurt him and not understanding why. When he'd first saw Steve running into the alley, he'd imagined Steve another zombie and wanted to gut him with his machete. Each zombie kill after that had something of Steve in them; his blue eyes, the same shade of blond hair, his mouth, his hands. As they'd slept, curled under the blankets together, he'd dreamt of putting two bullets between Steve's eyes and woke, disoriented and reaching for his gun. The moment he'd half-raised his rifle as Steve sprinted for the clean room, thinking Bucky was right on his heels.
"No, never tried to hurt you," he says. "Never wanted to."
Steve leans forward and presses his cheek against Bucky's fingers. "I know."
Bucky sighs softly, helplessly. His head hurts too much to deal with anything right now. "C'mon," he says, tugging on Steve's hand.
Steve resists a moment. "You've forgiven me?" he asks, sounding unexpectedly vulnerable.
"For letting Fury drug you--"
"Got nothin' to forgive you for. C'mon." Bucky tugs Steve's hand again and this time he goes.
Bucky runs until his legs ache. His feet hurt, not from running, but because running shoes have never fit him quite as well as combat boots.
It's only a coincidence that he arrives at the SHIELD offices at the same time as Fury, and as he sees the Director climb out of a black car, the idea that's been circulating in his head solidifies.
"Director Fury," he says.
"Nick," he says.
"We need to talk," he says, and for a moment he's distracted by the way the dawn light glimmers on the droplets of water on Fury's bald head. The worst of it is how he's too easily distracted these days.
"Barnes," says Fury, "you're still on leave."
"I know. I need a mission. I need to... do something," is what he says, but leave is what he means. He needs space, he needs to atone. "I owe a debt," he says, thinking of the debt of the Winter Soldier and the new hurts added to that tally these weeks past.
How he didn't kill anyone he'll never know; Steve likes to think it was him--Bucky--like he had any free will left in the rotten apple heart the Winter Soldier made of him, but Bucky thinks it was Steve stepping in between him and the innocents, strong enough to take the violence Winter Soldier offered and to give it back in turn. Thinks maybe that's why Steve smothers him now, with care, with love, with fear that Bucky will turn on him--not as the Winter Soldier, but as himself--for the hurts Steve inflicted, like he blames Steve for the pain and the prison and the blood.
Fury snorts. "It's in the training, I bet." It doesn't make sense and Bucky looks at him blankly. "We have another Russian assassin who says the same thing."
Bucky's not surprised; she's always hated having an unbalanced ledger, for as long as Bucky's known her (longer than most).
"Then you should understand."
Fury nods. "Cap know?"
Bucky doesn't answer, just stares at him stonily.
"For how long?"
"For as long as it takes."
Again, Fury nods. "Come up to my office," he says. "I think I've got some things that might suit."