1930 -- Brooklyn, New York
The war started in the early afternoon on Saturday, and would last the whole day until dinner. The boundaries were a good four-block radius with Calhoun's grocery store as a center point. Two teams, led by Andy Pike on the one side and Billy James on the other, nominated by informal committee, which was really Andy calling Billy a fat-head and Billy then claiming Andy still wet his bed. Everyone agreed Andy couldn't let that stand. He was fourteen years old and did sometimes smell of urine but that was an insult that required action. Any excuse for a war. This was the third war since school ended.
Steve thought they should extend the boundary over to Columbia Street, but no one was asking him. It would make a better canvas, and the buildings were more defensible.
He fidgeted, standing in line, restless. Movement caught his attention and he saw a dark-haired kid run in and skid to a halt. Steve inwardly grimaced, recognizing Bucky Barnes.
"Good of you boys to wait for me," said Bucky before pushing his way into the middle of the line right next to Steve.
"Watch it," said Steve, shuffling to make room.
"Pardon," Bucky answered with an unapologetic grin. "Hey, I know you. You're that kid who got pummeled in the Hanson back alley."
Steve felt his face heat up. "Yeah," he said. "Um, thanks for helping."
Bucky was silent for a minute. Steve glanced at him. "Nah," said Bucky. "You didn't need my help. Couldn't bear to let you have all the fun. My name's Bucky."
Steve couldn't help but grin back. "I know," he said. "My name's Steve."
"Nice to meet you, Steve."
At that moment, a loud banging filled the air as several more boys marched over from around the corner, banging sticks against trash can lids. Steve stood up straighter.
"Quit fidgeting," said Bucky.
"I'm not fidgeting." He wasn't. He was just trying to look down the line to see who else was there.
"Yes you are." Bucky put a hand on Steve's head and swiveled it to face front. "Eyes forward, soldier."
Steve took a breath to relax, watching Billy and Andy step up to address the line of boys.
"All right, ladies. You know the rules. Even teams on both sides. If you're killed, you sit the rest of the game out. Losing team has to ride the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island naked, singing The Star Spangled Banner."
There were rumblings down the line. Steve thought they should pick a different song but he held his tongue. Billy and Andy faced off. Billy was younger than Andy but bigger. Big face, big hands. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a nickel. "Call it."
"Heads," said Andy.
Billy flipped the coin, catching it and slapping it down on to the back of his hand. "Tails," he whooped, and flipped the coin at Andy's chest. "I guess I go first."
"Yeah, yeah, hurry it up already," said Andy.
Billy smirked, swinging a baseball bat around and smacking it against his hand. He walked down the line, making a big show of inspecting everyone. Steve wanted to roll his eyes. It was no secret who Billy would pick first, and sure enough a second later he called out, "Barnes," to the surprise of no one.
Steve couldn't even be jealous since anyone would be an idiot not to pick Bucky if they had the chance. Bucky saluted the rest of the line, then ambled his way over to stand by Billy. Andy picked his first choice -- Tommy Blye. Then Billy went next picking Ned, then Andy again picking Bertie.
Steve knew he wouldn't be one of the first to be picked, but he thought, this time, this time he might get on a team. He wasn't sure which team he preferred. In the previous wars, neither Andy nor Billy had shown any real leadership, and the games ended with a bunch of boys turning hooligan throwing rocks at each other until the cops blew their whistle and sent everyone scattering back home.
One by one the line of boys dwindled till there was just Steve standing alone.
"That's it," said Billy. "We got our teams. Fifteen minutes till the first battle."
"Wait," said Steve, going first to Andy and then to Billy. "Come on. Let me on your team."
"Aw kid, scram," said Andy. "Teams are even now. We can't have odd numbered teams, that's the rules. Maybe next time."
But Steve couldn't count on next time. It had to be this time. He knew he'd never hope to match any of the other boys in speed or strength. Not only was he smaller, but he was younger than a lot of them, too. He could help though. He'd be useful. And he wanted to play. "Just this one time," said Steve, moving to block Billy's path, skipping backwards. "I'll do anything. Just let me play. You won't regret it."
"Forget it," said Billy. "Get out of here. Go play with your other little friends."
Billy gestured to the kids who hadn't even bothered to stand in line but had watched from the side.
"Please. I'd be--"
He pushed Steve out of the way and Steve fell backward onto the gritty street, hitting his head on the asphalt, the wind knocked out of him.
"Hey, come on, lay off already. What's the harm?" asked Bucky, bending over to help Steve back up to standing. "He wants to play, let him play. What does it matter?"
Billy scowled at Bucky, but Steve held his breath. If there was one person that could convince Billy or Andy to let Steve play it was Bucky Barnes. Everyone liked Bucky, and no one wanted to get on his bad side or have him quit on them and swap to the other team.
"The rules are the rules," said Billy, with a mulish lip curl.
Bucky stood up straighter. "Either he gets to play or I—"
"No," said Steve, grasping at Bucky's arm. "It's okay, really. Thank you, but you don't have to do that."
Bucky looked straight at Steve. "I don't have to play," he said, with a shrug and a little bit of a smile.
"You should though. I want you to. It'd be a shame if you didn't." As much as Steve wanted to play, he'd hate to be the cause of anyone else missing out.
Before Bucky could say anything more, Steve turned to walk back to the stoop where he could watch. There were a few kids there already, their eyes on Steve and he stood up straighter even though they'd seen him fail again.
"Hey Rogers," called Billy. Steve stopped, his hands balled into fists because he knew whatever Billy was going to say wouldn't be anything good and he had to stop himself from running back and punching Billy. "If you want to play so badly, why don't you make your own sissy team?"
Billy thought this was real funny. Steve could hear Billy's snorty laugh until someone must have shoved Billy or punched him because he cried out and stopped.
"Don't mind him," said little Lily James, Billy's kid sister and one of the only girls who ever hung around to watch the wars. She took Steve's hand in hers. "I'll be on your team."
He smiled at her. "Thanks, Lily." He looked at the other kids who hadn't even bothered to stand in line. There was Lily of course, a little slow but always kind, Liam Butler who walked with crutches and braces on his legs from the polio that hadn't killed him, and Max Levi, who was a strong, good-looking kid, but no one ever picked him because he was Jewish.
"Well," Steve said, looking at all of them. "He said we could play. Care to be on my team?"
Max waved his hand at Lily and Liam. "You're nuts. We'll get clobbered."
Steve didn't deny this. "Yeah, so what? We could play or we can sit here and watch. Which one will it be?"
He was met with silent stares. But after a moment Liam said, "I'd like to play. I got my sling shot." He pulled out his prized possession from his pocket. "And I guess I could trip some of them with my crutches?"
"That's the right idea," Steve nodded, clapping Liam on the shoulder.
"I'll play, Steve," said Lily.
Steve squeezed her hand. "I knew I could count on you." She beamed a watery smile at him.
Max stepped down from the stairs to stand level with Steve. He seemed to be weighing his options, and Steve held back from begging Max to stay. There was no point in denying they had no team at all without Max. Then Max lifted his chin. "So, what's the plan?"
They regrouped in the alley, huddled in a circle as Steve took a piece of chalk from his pocket and quickly sketched out a map of the surrounding streets and city blocks, marking out the grid he'd been thinking of all afternoon.
"Draw Father Michaels," asked Lily.
Steve shook his head at her but quickly drew a caricature for Lily.
She laughed. "Draw Billy!"
"Enough," he said, but he drew Billy and Andy approximately where he knew their camps to be. "We have work to do. First things first. We need eyes on the other teams. In the previous wars, they camped out here," he pointed to the two drawings of Billy and Andy. "And here. Lily, do you know where these are?"
"That's the lot next to the church," said Lily, pointing to Billy before pointing to the other drawing. "And that's the yard behind the grocer's store."
"You're going to be our spy. They won't suspect you." No one ever paid much attention to Lily, but he'd noticed her unerring knack for popping up at the right time at the right place, and she always knew the best gossip. "I want to know everything they say and do, what their plans are, who they're going to target first. Do you understand? Report to me."
Lily touched the two drawings on the map again. "Yes," she said, then with a wet kiss on Steve's cheek, she skipped around the corner of the building.
Steve rubbed at his cheek and Max snickered at him. "Right," said Steve. "Liam, how good are you with that sling shot?"
Liam took the sling shot out of his pocket, picked up a small rock from the ground, and shot it at the building behind Steve's. Before Steve could stop him, Liam let the rock go. It shattered the glass in a third story window, leaving a baseball-sized hole in the middle.
Max cursed, and the three of them scrambled out of view just as they heard a lot of yelling and a window opening.
"Uh, that's great," said Steve, unable to hold back a laugh. Next to him, Max was laughing too, peeking back to look at the shot-out window. "But let's not shoot at any more windows. I need you up high, on one of the fire escapes or a rooftop with a good view. Can you do that?"
"Yeah," said Liam, "I can do that. I know just the place."
"Perfect. You'll be our guard. You'll cover Max and me, whenever someone from the other team gets close or tries to jump us. Got that? Uh, try not to seriously hurt anyone."
Liam had a startlingly feral grin for a twelve-year-old kid on crutches. "Okay, I'll try," he said, shuffling his way out to the sidewalk.
Max was giving him another calculating look. "This will never work. They don't even know we're playing."
"Well," said Steve. "I guess that's our job. Let's go make sure they know."
Steve walked in the direction of the church. It only took a moment for Max to follow him.
It became quickly apparent that the team to beat was Billy's team, not because Billy was a particularly inventive leader, but because he had Bucky Barnes on his side.
"We should concentrate on Andy then," said Steve, and everyone agreed.
Steve sent Lily with a message for Liam, containing a grid point location and instructions. Max, Steve and Lily then approached Andy's base in the yard behind the grocer. Steve crouched behind a couple of boxes and watched Lily wander into the other team's midst as happy as you please, not caring when they all yelled at her to go away. Steve raised his hand, making a hand signal, hoping that Liam was watching. In the next second, Steve was rewarded with a DING as a small rock hit a trash can right next Andy's head.
Andy shouted. A second rock whizzed past, bouncing off the brick wall behind him, hitting Tommy on his shoulder. Then another rock flew, then another. The rocks ricocheted off walls, making it difficult for anyone to figure out were they were coming from. The boys yelled, jumping up and down as the rocks hit their backsides and sprayed right at their feet. Steve had to cover his mouth to keep from laughing. He looked over at Max across the way, holding up his hand: wait, wait.
Liam sent rock after rock, sometimes more than one at a time, until he bedeviled Andy and his team into running pell-mell in every direction.
Steve let his hand drop: NOW.
Max tackled several of the boys as they went running, quickly putting the loose canvas bags over their heads that marked them as out of the game. Lily tripped a boy as he ran, then, with a shouted "Sorry!" put a bag over his head.
As Andy passed by, Steve leaped onto his back, nearly getting flung off but he grabbed a tight hold of Andy's shirt and breathlessly managed to put a canvas bag over Andy's head.
When he caught his breath, Steve jumped up and down with a whoop. Lily and Max also jumped up and down, everyone shouting with glee as a rock whizzed past in a victory DING. Steve turned to where Liam was hiding, but then he heard a loud clapping. Bucky Barnes was leaning casually against the wall of the grocer's, smiling with his arms crossed.
Bucky gingerly walked around a boy lying on the ground with a canvas bag over his head. He whistled. "Thanks for getting rid of the other team for us," he said, with a cheeky grin.
Steve stepped in front of Max and Lily. "There's plenty more where that came from, whenever you're ready."
Bucky shook his head. "You're something else, you know that?"
Max took that moment to lunge after Bucky before Steve could stop him. Bucky side-stepped away and then swerved toward Steve, but several sling shot rocks landed right at Bucky's feet, causing him to skid to a halt then stumble and fall backward when he lost his balance.
Steve took a couple of steps forward but then stopped. Bucky laughed with a bright easy smile. He saluted the sky, then scrambled away at a fast run. Steve watched for a moment until realization fell on him like a ton of bricks.
He grabbed Max and started running. "Quick, we have to get to Liam."
Max, who was faster, ran ahead, but they were too late. When they got to Liam's perch on the fire escape of his apartment building, Liam was sitting there, crutches resting beside him, with a bag over his head. "Sorry," he said, sounding miserable.
Steve let out a long breath. "Not your fault. It's mine. Should have known he was tricking us."
Without Liam they needed to work more covertly, and picked off members of Billy's team one by one. Either Lily or Steve set up a distraction or a trap, separating one or two kids from the group, isolating them until Max could ambush and neatly put a canvas bag over their head. They set up a system of code to make sure they were safe from the other team, leaving chalk marks: an O equals clear, an X equals danger.
Lily proved to be the best at tricking someone away from the safety of their team. Despite the fact that most of the boys were not very tolerant or even nice to Lily, they were unwilling to fight or "kill" her, especially her brother, knowing that she had a tendency to bite hard.
Steve, up on Liam's fire escape so he could get a lay of the land, saw Lily skip into an alley where Bucky was waiting for her. He yelled but she didn't hear him. Then, he rushed down, tripping and scraping his knee. He didn't know if Max had noticed, if he could get to Lily in time.
On street level, Steve ran as fast as he could, his chest bursting. He watched Lily try to leave the alley and Bucky blocking her escape. "This had to happen," said Bucky just as Steve ran up, out of breath and unable to yell.
Lily sighed with her whole body, nodding several times. "I know. Sorry, Steve," she said, as Bucky put the bag over her head.
Playing her part, Lily staggered around, clutching her chest, and both Steve and Bucky were distracted as they watched her "die" dramatically all over the place, until finally she lay flat, lifted up the bag from her head and said, "Run, Steve!" then collapsed to the ground.
Steve looked at Bucky, who was trying real hard not to laugh, clearly having the time of his life. Steve smiled back, but then turned and beat it out of there.
Ultimately, it came down to Steve and Max against Billy and Bucky. They faced off all four together, on the street corner where they'd first picked teams at the start of the war. Neighborhood kids gathered around, those that had played and those that hadn't.
"You have to go for Bucky," said Steve to Max, standing next to him in the makeshift arena. "I'll take Billy."
Max looked sideways at him. "Are you nuts? Billy will demolish you. He won't play fair. Bucky will bag you for sure but he won't actually hurt you."
"I know, I know, but if I'm out, it'll be Billy and Bucky against you. If we're going to have a chance at winning this thing, you have to take Bucky out. I can hold out long enough against Billy until you can help."
Max broke eye contact with the enemy to face Steve. "Are you sure?"
Steve nodded, noticing that Bucky was watching him and Max with sharp, shrewd eyes. "Yes."
Max faced forward again, but he put a hand on Steve's shoulder. "Thanks, Steve. It's been a helluva day."
Without taking his eyes off of Billy and Bucky, Steve smiled a little. He noticed Bucky quirk his eyebrows, almost a question. Well, he might as well start them off, and without warning, yelled and headed straight for Billy. Max followed half a second after him, running for Bucky.
As Steve charged at Billy, he saw the shock on Bucky's face when he figured out what Steve was about to do. Bucky cried out, "No, Steve!" but in the next moment Max was on him, and they tumbled together to the ground.
Billy, grandstanding and parading for the audience, was slow to realize that the fight had started. Steve managed to get in a couple of good punches before Billy snapped into fighting mode. He punched Steve and Steve went down, but he scrambled back up, ramming against Billy. Steve used his elbows and his knees. He kicked as hard as he could. He knew that if he got Billy mad enough he'd forget the game, wanting only to pummel Steve into dust without putting the bag over his head. The rules were very clear: you weren't dead until that bag went over your head. Steve just had to hold out long enough.
He tried to see what was happening with Max and Bucky -- he could barely hear their fight over the noise of the onlookers yelling -- but he curled in on himself on the ground as Billy got ready to kick Steve in the side. Steve pushed to get away, then he brought up his knee, right into Billy's stomach. Billy bellowed, spitting as he grabbed Steve by his shirt and shook him back and forth.
"You little prick, I'm going to kill you," yelled Billy.
But Steve was smiling. "No, you're not," he said, stuttering as Billy kept shaking him hard.
He glared at Steve. "Who's going to stop me? You?"
"Yes," said Steve, pulling the canvas bag from where it was tucked into his trousers. "Because, I just killed you."
Steve wasn't expecting the sudden drop to the ground as Billy clutched at the bag over his head. Billy grunted with rage, ripping the bag off, red-faced and sweaty. He started after Steve. Steve stepped backwards. "The rules, the rules," he said, "You're dead now."
"Fuck the rules," said Billy, but just as he was reaching for Steve, someone came flying and tackled Billy to the ground.
Steve saw that Max was sitting off to the side with a bag on his head half on, half off, looking pretty disheveled and bruised. Then Steve looked back at Billy and realized that it was Bucky who was fighting him. Bucky had rolled Billy onto his back and was punching him silly, his shoulders taught with concentrated anger, wholly changed from the laughing boy Steve had come to know him as. Bucky swung his fists with everything he had. Steve got his arms around Bucky and dragged him off.
"Okay, I think that's enough," he said. Bucky flailed before slipping out of Steve's grasp to fall down on all fours.
Bucky gasped for breath, but he pushed back onto his knees, looking up at Steve with a beatific smile. "You crazy bastard. I surrender."
Steve pulled Bucky up to standing, and they stood grinning at each other. "I accept your surrender."
It was the best day of Steve Rogers's life.
Washington D.C., the day before the Insight launch
The fight evolved. The Winter Soldier wasn't just strong: He was inventive and relentless, the line of his shoulders taught with concentrated anger, sparking a memory within Steve. From firepower, to hand-to-hand combat, to knife work, around and back again, the Soldier attacked. Steve let instinct take over, his body responding before any thoughts could form.
They were too evenly matched. Steve grabbed the Soldier around the waist and slammed him backward into the asphalt. Steve rammed the shield into that metal arm, then used the edge to hit the Soldier in the face, distracting him long enough to flip him over. The Soldier rolled to his feet, the mask falling with dull sound to the asphalt.
Natasha worked at ignoring the pain from her injured shoulder. Fury's secret hideout grew more damp and chilly as evening descended.
Steve looked over at Natasha. "You'll be okay?" he asked.
She glanced down at the bandage, then gave a dismissive shrug, rolling her injured shoulder back. It hurt, but the doctor had injected a mild painkiller. It'd be okay in the morning. "Ready for that bikini."
"The three of you should get some rest, while you can," said Hill, and they followed her down a darkened hallway to another room with a dingy-looking full-sized mattress pushed up against one wall and a short two-seat sofa on the other. "Sorry," she said, "It's not the Ritz-Carlton, but it's all we got."
Hill left them to figure it out. Natasha headed straight for the mattress, lying down on her uninjured side. She watched Steve and Sam look around the room.
"Guess I could do with a marshmallow bed right about now," Steve said to Sam.
Sam laughed, and Natasha could hear the wry amusement in it. "Careful what you wish for, huh?"
Steve went over to the sofa, obviously planning on taking the cushions and using the floor.
"Come on, guys," said Natasha. She patted the mattress. "I promise I won't take advantage."
Steve shook his head at her but seemed honestly more than happy to share, and with a nod at Sam, took off his jacket to lie down on his side facing her. Sam took Steve's other side and they all cosied down together.
"Unless you want me to take advantage of you," she added, unable to let the opportunity pass.
Steve sighed. "Nat."
She chuckled. "You know, Cap, it's way too easy to ruffle your feathers."
"I know," he said, with a measure of resignation. "I'm working on it."
"I kind of like it. It's sweet. Hey Sam, we have a Cap sandwich."
Sam had a warm, easy laugh. "You are a troublemaker."
"Yes she is. You're not actually making it any better," he said to her.
She laughed softly again. His blue eyes caught the light from the open door. "You know, Stark and Barton have a running bet on whether or not you're still a virgin."
He rose up on one elbow. "What?" he asked, incredulous.
"Well, you have this, I don't know, mystique about you. It makes people speculate and wonder," she said innocently.
"You'd think Stark would have better things to do."
"He's dead certain you're still a virgin. Barton thinks you must have slept your way through the USO girls when you were on tour."
He huffed, lying back down. "Neither of them would win that bet."
She raised her hand, combing lightly through his hair.
"Before going into the ice, I only slept with four people. But, well…" then he trailed off.
"Tell me," she said, surprised he was willing to even say that much. It spoke to how much Steve trusted Sam, even after so little time. And she guessed, how much he trusted her.
"Why does it matter?" Steve asked, sounding like he really wanted to know.
It didn't matter, not really. But tomorrow would be another desperate day, and who knew what the future would bring. "You're my friend," she said.
It seemed to be the right thing to say. He breathed silently for a half a minute.
"I was nineteen. There was this girl, Nancy Ann. A neighborhood girl. She was always real nice. I didn't know how to talk to most women but Nancy Ann was kind and patient and never took offense at anything. She had this boyfriend, Donald, a, well, Bucky called him a 'fancy man.' Lots of nice suits, no discernible job. She had a bit of a reputation, and her father got wind of it, kicked her out of the house, and Donald didn't step up. She didn't have a place to go."
"You took her in."
Steve half nodded. "I shouldn't have. It only hurt her reputation more, but she was crying." He closed his eyes, then opened them again. "It was only going to be until she could figure out what to do next, or her father relented. I never expected anything from her, but, like I said, she was kind. I… thought maybe, she and I might--"
He broke off and fell silent, and that far-off expression returned. Natasha could read the different emotions passing over Steve's face: regret and shame. She wondered if Sam was listening.
"What happened?" she prompted.
"The boyfriend changed his mind, and she went back to him," he said, with just a light shading of an old, faded, broken heart.
Natasha could see the entire story painted vividly with Steve's emotions. She pictured Nancy Ann in her mind and tapped lightly on Steve's head until he looked at her. "She didn't believe she deserved you."
He rolled his eyes.
"I'm serious. I've been many women in my life. Any one I needed to be for the job. Confident or shy, brave or weak, I've been them all. I can tell you that Nancy Ann didn't believe she could trust happiness."
Steve looked curiously at her. "Well, maybe."
"So that was number one," she said, relieved he hadn't spiraled into a mood. "What about number two?"
He scratched the side of his head. "Well, Barton's not totally wrong."
Natasha pinched Steve on the arm. "Hah, I knew it."
"Ow. I didn't 'sleep my way through the USO girls.' It would have been unseemly, and besides most of those girls had boyfriends or husbands serving in the war. Things were different back then."
"Oh, please. Things weren't that different. What was her name?"
He sighed, giving up. "Millie," he said with a smile. "She was thankfully unimpressed with the whole Captain America thing. And--" he paused, struggling with what he wanted to say. "This was after the serum. Everything was different. Not just my body, but my entire life. Sometimes it felt like none of it was real, that I didn't have any control over things. The attention I got was for Captain America, not for Steve Rogers. Not that I complained. Millie didn't care, one way or the other. She had her own ambitions. She stayed in New York when the tour went overseas."
"And then, nothing. We were at war. I left the tour behind."
"Who was number three?"
Steve's eyes darkened, his entire face shuttering closed. He struggled for a moment but then said, "Bucky."
It was Natasha's turn to go still, and she wondered if it was her imagination that all three of them collectively held their breaths for a moment. It wasn't so much that she was surprised, but she could admit she wouldn't have expected Steve to be honest about it.
He didn't look at her as he spoke. "Several months after the Commandos were first formed. In Austria somewhere, all of us holed up in an abandoned barn."
"Steve, you don't have to say."
He shook his head, although he still wouldn't look at her. "It was only that one time. Maybe it doesn't count. We didn't…we couldn't do much."
"It counts," she said. He did look at her then, and she almost wished he hadn't, but he gave her a small smile. "You know better than the rest of us, Cap. War is hell. I got no judgment for whatever comfort someone can get in the middle of a sucky situation."
"Yeah." Then his dark-eyed, lost-in-thought expression returned. "All those years, while I was in the ice, he was alive."
"Hey," she said, tugging on his hair. "Don't do that."
He sighed, and they fell silent. She was reluctant now to ask who the last might have been.
They lay there, breathing in the same air. "So tell me, Romanoff, what about you? Is there anyone special?"
Natasha listened to the quiet noises around them: Sam shifting position, a distant suggestion of conversation between Fury and Hill, and water dripping somewhere. This was a very wet, hollow place. Steve was watching her, waiting. "We have more in common than you'd think," she said.
Steve touched her chin, then traced the bandage over the gunshot wound on her shoulder. He leaned in and kissed her, gentle, not particularly sexual. The kiss ended, but he kissed her again.
She smirked at him when they broke apart. "You like kissing," she said.
"I do. And you're right. I don't get to do much of it these days. Practice."
She smiled as he kissed her one more time, staying just shy of asking for more. These were comfort kisses, and Natasha relaxed as they parted. "Who was the last one?"
He traced her face, brushed her hair away. "Peggy," he said. "The night we returned to London after Bucky… fell from the train."
That was all he said. She knew the history and recalled the photograph of Peggy Carter in the secret bunker. So, at least they had one night together. Although, that might have made it more painful. She leaned in, pressed her forehead against his. "I'm sorry," she said.
After a long silence, she heard Steve say, "Hey Sam?"
"Yeah," said Sam. "I'm here."
In the darkness, as she drifted off to sleep, Natasha saw Sam roll closer and place a hand on Steve's arm.
After Natasha had already left to intercept the Councilwoman at the airport, Steve stood outside the bunker, deciding what to do about a uniform. He thought about Bucky being there for him when his mother was sick. He thought of Bucky not saying a word about Nancy Ann, not even when Steve picked a fight with her boyfriend and had gotten beaten up pretty bad. Bucky had just dusted him off, slapped him on the back, and then didn't leave his side for a month solid. He thought of that one night in Austria, and Bucky's shamed and darkened eyes.
He heard Sam walk up beside him.
Later that same day
A distant beeping woke him a second time. Light from the window had darkened into dusk. He saw Natasha sitting in a chair at the foot of the hospital bed. Sam continued sleeping in the chair next to him. It was quiet. Someone had turned off the music. Outside, the hum of hospital noise continued unabated. Natasha was watching the activity in the hallway. He took a moment to consider this small team of his, together after everything that had happened in the past few days. A welling of gratitude pushed at the back of his throat.
"Report," he said, barely above a whisper.
She turned and smiled when she saw that he was awake, rising from the chair to sit next to him on the bed. "Hey."
He watched her catalogue the bruises and cuts on his face. One finger traced the stitches on his cheekbone. He'd been cut badly before. He knew they wouldn't leave a mark.
She let out a small breath. "We picked up Barnes's trail where we found you. It led us to a bank, downtown. It was apparently where Pierce was keeping him in between missions."
Steve had never known Natasha to evade much, and he watched as she forced herself to meet his eyes. "It's about what you would expect," she said. "A cryofreeze unit. Electro-shock equipment. Restraints. A small pharmacy of drugs. Other things. Aside from the equipment, there wasn't anything else useful that remained. A lot of it had been destroyed. The CIA confiscated the rest. I made sure they knew to provide a copy of the report to you."
He registered a dull pain in his gut, throbbing. He breathed in, then let it out. "Thanks. I'm guessing the trail went cold after that?"
She gave him a wry smile. "If the Winter Soldier doesn't want you to find him, he won't be found."
He didn't want to admit that she was probably right. He had to try anyway. "There has to be a file on him somewhere, with Hydra, or before. Seventy years is a long time. There has to be a start. A beginning."
"I can make some inquiries, if you want."
"I'd appreciate that."
Her eyes picked up the green accents throughout the room. "There are a lot of rumblings on Capitol Hill already. They're talking Senate hearings. It's quite the dust up."
He sighed, although Natasha seemed more amused then concerned. "I guess we'll have to testify."
She shook her head, contemplative. "Only if you want to. I can handle it."
He had no doubt she would handle it. Politicians had nothing on Natasha Romanoff. "They won't know what hit them."
"That's the idea." She breathed in and looked around the room, dropped her eyes.
He thought he knew her pretty well, although he wondered if he only knew her as much as she allowed and not any further. "There's something else. What is it?"
She took her time looking at him and he felt like she was slowly taking him apart, bit-by-bit, examining all the different parts of him. She opened her mouth, and he could see the moment when she changed her mind about whatever she was going to say. "When do you get to leave?"
He thought briefly of pushing for an answer, but then decided to trust her.
"Tomorrow, probably. Do me a favor?" She met his eyes with the slightest assent. He nodded at Sam still dozing in the chair. "Take him back to his place? I don't want him sleeping in that chair all night."
She rose from the bed. "Deal. Hey there," she said, a gentle hand on the side of Sam's head.
Sam breathed in as he woke, looking around, first at Natasha, then at Steve. "Nice of you to join us," he said with a flirty smile.
"I've been here for hours. Come on. I'm taking you home."
"Even better," said Sam, but he first looked at Steve.
Before Sam could say anything, Steve shook his head. "Go. Come back in the morning before I start climbing the walls."
Steve wanted to say a lot of things at that moment, 'thank you' being chief among them, but Sam gave him a little negative shake of his head. "Don't go there, man."
He felt a wave of unexpected emotion, swallowing it all down. Sam squeezed his hand, then stepped closer to touch his forehead to Steve's before following Natasha from the room.
Six months after Project Insight -- Buffalo, New York
The Oktoberfest celebration took over the entire Niagara Square, bleeding into the side streets and beyond. The stench of spilt beer and marijuana filled the air, as did the noise of the raucous crowd. Groups of men and women were singing, accompanied by a traveling band of horn players, everyone dressed in white and green lederhosen, sloshing mugs of beer around. Steve kept searching the crowds.
"Man, I could use one of those beers," said Sam through their comm unit.
"We get Rollins and you can have all the beer you want," said Steve.
They'd tracked Jack Rollins to Buffalo, New York, where they suspected he might try to cross the border into Canada. It was just their luck that it coincided with Oktoberfest. Steve was on edge with so many civilians around.
He spotted a tall man wearing a baseball cap, the collar of his jacket flipped up. Despite the attempt at a disguise, Rollins stuck out amongst the lederhosen.
"Got him," said Steve. He started shadowing Rollins from a distance. "Dark cap, navy jacket. Northwest corner of the square."
"I’ll circle around to his other side."
At that moment, Rollins turned his head and met Steve's eyes across the crowd. Then he bolted, knocking over a woman with long blonde pigtails.
Steve ran after him. "He's made me. I'm in pursuit," he said, weaving through the crowd as best he could, picking up speed once he was clear of the square. The noise from the celebration decreased to a dull roar in the side streets of downtown Buffalo. He was regretting not bringing his shield, but it would have been too conspicuous in the crowds.
He chased Rollins, closing the distance, twisting around corners, up alleyways, sidestepping swerving cars, till Rollins turned down a narrow street and abruptly stopped with his back to Steve.
"You know you can't out run me. Get down on your knees," said Steve. "Hands up."
Rollins was breathing hard but didn't turn. Steve waited for the tell, reacting moments before Rollins spun and threw a shuriken. Steve heard the throwing star imbed itself into the far brick wall.
"That wasn't very nice," said Steve.
Rollins's unamused eyes flared with hatred. He pulled out a 9mm handgun and pointed it at Steve. "You can't dodge every bullet. You don't have your shield."
Steve shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not."
Rollins tightened his grip, leveling the gun at Steve's head. Then his eyes shifted, confused one moment then widening in fear the next. Steve felt the hair on the back of his neck rise as he followed Rollins's line of sight. Bucky was standing behind him.
It should have been a relief to see him after so many months of near misses and strange roundabout clues, but it was a surprise more than anything else. Steve hadn't given up, but he'd realized early on that Bucky was following them, not the other way around. He kept hoping Bucky might come in on his own.
Before Steve could say anything, Rollins fired the 9mm and kept firing it as Bucky charged, blocking every shot with his arm. Bucky flipped over Rollins and grabbed the gun, twisting Rollins's arm back, metal hand ready to break his neck. Rollins's arms flailed.
"Wait, wait. Bucky, don't kill him." Steve held out his hands. Bucky looked up and their eyes met.
Steve stood straight and tried to appear non-threatening. A second later, Sam ran up behind him. Bucky's eyes shifted briefly to Sam, then back to Steve. Without turning, Steve held his arm out, asking Sam to back down.
He couldn't read Bucky's expression. Couldn't tell if he remembered anything more of who he was, if his memories had returned. Bucky's eyes were dark, unwavering, dispassionately controlling Rollins's continued efforts to escape without ever looking away from Steve.
"You don't have to kill him," said Steve.
Bucky took in a big, shuddery breath, then he put Rollins in a choke hold. In less than five seconds, Rollins was unconscious.
Steve stepped forward but immediately regretted it when Bucky dropped Rollins like a hot potato, scaling the building wall, breaking a window and disappearing from view. Steve ran after him.
"Steve. I'll head him off," said Sam, speaking into their comm unit.
"Negative," said Steve, keeping Bucky in sight through the hallways and rooms of the building, grateful it was a Saturday and the building was empty. "Secure Rollins. Stay with him."
He could sense Sam's silent objections, but he knew he would do as asked. He chased Bucky up to the roof. They leaped from building to building, then Bucky jumped down to street level. Steve followed onto a highway, down the thoroughfare, dodging honking cars. Bucky leapt from an overpass. Steve leapt too, but when he landed on the dried grass of an embankment, Bucky was nowhere in sight.
Steve started running in one direction, then stopped, listening, breathing. He strained his eyes, searching for clues, a sign, anything. There was the slightest of movements behind him. He spun around, slamming his assailant against the cement wall but he swallowed a curse when he saw that it was Natasha.
"Christ, Nat." He bent over panting.
"Okay, sorry. That wasn't the smartest move," she said, rubbing the back of her head.
"Ya think?" Steve straightened, looking around. He knew it was futile. Bucky was gone. Or at least, Steve wouldn't find him. Bucky had never let him get that close before, but he was gone now and who knew when Steve would ever get that close again? He looked down at Natasha. "What are you doing here?"
"Nice to see you, too."
He frowned until she rolled her eyes. "Looking for you, of course." She paused and pursed her lips. "We need you to come in."
Steve sighed, ducking his head. "All right," he said. "Let's head back and you can fill me in."
By the time they returned, Sam had already contacted the local FBI office to officially transfer Rollins over to their custody. They would handle the interrogation -- it had become apparent that the STRIKE team wouldn't confess anything to Steve. Sam's connections would get them the report and video of the interrogation, and they'd go from there. Maybe Rollins would give up Rumlow. Maybe he'd accidentally reveal something useful. It was better if it was someone other than Steve who did the asking. He kept telling himself that, even if it meant no one asked the right questions. It kept the search for Bucky off the books, kept him a secret. No one could hunt a ghost.
Steve didn't like relying on others. Hydra infiltrating SHIELD made him suspicious of everyone. He couldn't be certain the information they received hadn't been tampered with, but Sam trusted his buddy in the FBI, so Steve did too.
Sam was giving his statement to one of the agents. Rollins was conscious, guarded by an agent on each side, handcuffed and glowering at everyone. When he saw Steve, he focused his bad attitude on him.
Steve lifted his chin at Rollins. "You have something you want to say?"
"Why'd you stop him from killing me?" asked Rollins.
Steve considered not answering, figuring Rollins probably saw it as a character flaw, but then shrugged. "You weren't worth it."
Rollins's glower deepened. The two agents then manhandled him into the back of their sedan.
Sam shook the agent-in-charge's hand before joining Steve and Natasha where they stood off to the side. Several of the men gave Steve an awkward salute before they got in their cars.
"Thanks for handling that," said Steve.
Sam nodded, his eyes gentle as he recognized the chase hadn't resulted in Bucky choosing to stick around. He turned his attention to Natasha instead. "Well look who's here," said Sam. "My favorite redhead."
"Hey Sam," she said, and they hugged with genuine affection.
Steve smiled at them, overcome with fondness, and it eased the heavy disappointment he was feeling having both of them there.
Sam said the agents had given him a recommendation for a hotel near where they'd parked their rental, and they took their time walking, letting Sam lead.
"What led you to Rollins?" asked Natasha, brushing against Steve.
He glanced at her. "Something Sanchez said when the FBI caught him in El Paso. Sam's friend at the Bureau's been sending us regular reports. Rollins has connections in Toronto. We believe he's been going in and out of the country regularly."
He knew she was actually asking how he'd known Rollins would lead him to Bucky. But he hadn't known. He'd hoped, but he hadn't known. In each of the other STRIKE team manhunts he and Sam had participated in there had been signs that Bucky was following them, mostly evidenced by the babbling, incoherent fear that would suddenly render the STRIKE team easy to catch. Or those few occasions when they'd been found dead.
She watched him with her far too perceptive gaze and he saw that she saw everything he hadn't said.
"I keep thinking that if I could talk to him, he might decide to trust me."
"I don't think it's a matter of trust," she said. "He's not ready. He might never be ready."
Steve raised his hand to rub at his forehead. After a moment, Natasha squeezed his hand, and Sam came close to his other side as they came up on the hotel's front entrance.
Natasha handled booking the room while Sam retrieved their overnight bags from the car, and soon they were all ensconced together.
"So, fellas," she said to each of them. "Is the honeymoon over? You boys sick of each other yet?"
Sam chuckled. "Please, save me from this guy," he said, cuffing Steve's head in a mock annoyance, settling himself comfortably next to Steve on the sofa.
"All right, Romanoff, what have you got for me?" asked Steve, more than ready to retreat into business, letting Sam elbow him.
Natasha smirked and pulled out a folder from inside her jacket, handing it over to Steve. He opened it to a color photograph of Loki's scepter. He quickly read the attached report on its missing whereabouts.
"You've got to be kidding me," he said, letting Sam read over his shoulder. The rest of the file included intelligence on several suspected Hydra bases with corresponding reports of Hydra's efforts to continue recruiting and the chaos surrounding the remnants of SHIELD. He paused on a list of all the new players that were cropping up, noticing both Maria Hill's and Natasha's signatures, and that the entire file came from Stark Industries on Avengers letterhead. Despite the graveness of the contents, seeing the Avengers logo eased his concern, even as it gave him mixed feelings.
"We didn't realize it was missing until a few weeks ago," she said, poking through the mini-bar. She shrugged as Steve gave her a disgusted look. "Hydra was good at covering their tracks. Truth is I don't think SHIELD ever had the scepter. It was shuffled to Hydra the moment it was handed over."
Steve refrained from pointing out that, at that time, SHIELD and Hydra were more or less one and the same. "Where is it now?"
"Somewhere in Europe, we think." She perched on the arm of the chair, sipping at a bottle of water. "Those Hydra bases have to be searched and taken down. The scepter's too dangerous to be left in play. It takes precedence. The Avengers are assembling, and we need our captain."
Her words were like soft explosions all around him. He at once felt guilty for not paying more attention to the remnants of SHIELD and Hydra, and reluctance to stop his search for Bucky. But the mission wasn't complete, and he'd sworn not to rest until Hydra was erased from every corner of the world.
Sam elbowed him again, taking the file from Steve's hands and tossing it on the coffee table. "I'll keep searching for him while you're off Avenging," he said. "You've got a job to do."
Steve shook his head, ready to argue but Sam interrupted him before he could speak.
"Don't make me beat you up."
Steve had to laugh, then ducked his head, reaching over to grip Sam's hand in gratitude.
"I see the honeymoon isn't over yet. You guys are cute together," said Natasha, amused.
Steve, who was used to Natasha's teasing, merely shot her a warning look. Sam snorted, offended. "Woman, I don't know what you're talking about. I am always cute."
She smiled. "Oh, you think."
"I know. And Steve wouldn't know what to do with a fine specimen of manhood such as myself," Sam added.
Steve inclined his head in agreement. "I should be so lucky."
He'd intended to continue the joke, but it came out quiet and sincere. The mood in the room dropped.
Steve stood up from the sofa, gripping Sam's shoulder. "I meant it," he said, then found the room service menu and tossed it to Sam. "Order whatever looks good. I'm going to get some air."
In the hallway, he searched for the stairwell that lead up to the roof, ran up the stairs reaching a locked door and twisted the doorknob till it gave. Outside, the day was darkening to dusk. He walked to the edge of the roof, looking out over the lights of Buffalo.
"Bucky," he said. He didn't know how he knew Bucky was listening. If he searched the entire roof, Steve wouldn't find any sign of him. "Hydra's still out there. There's a lot of work left to do. And you know how much I love nothing more than busting up Hydra every chance I get."
He paused, rocking back on his heels, hands in his pockets. He closed his eyes and tried to listen for any little sound that might indicate that he wasn't crazy, that he wasn't standing alone on a rooftop like the stubborn, deluded punk he knew Bucky would have called him.
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and he turned but there was no one there. "Do me a favor? Don't follow me to New York. I know you're going to want to do that. And I'd give anything to have you with me. But I also don't want you anywhere near Hydra anymore. Keep an eye on Sam for me. Don't give him too much trouble. Do that for me, Buck?"
The wind picked up and made his eyes water, tugging at his jacket, flapping around his pant legs. He stood there, silent, for several more minutes.
Before he returned to the suite, he found a courtesy phone and asked the hotel staff to deliver three chilled steins of beer. He'd promised Sam beer, and he didn't want to break another promise.
Avengers Tower, in between missions
Steve watched Natasha and Bruce together without letting on that he was watching. She was helping Bruce on parts of Veronica, preparing it for the launch into space. They were talking, sometimes laughing as they moved around the satellite. Steve had come in wanting to see if Natasha would go over his plans for the next mission, but when he saw them together he'd moved off to the side.
It tugged at his heart, to see this side of her, to know this was closer to the real Natasha. She had her hair up in a ponytail, wearing a loose sweater over a black leotard and pink tights, pink ballet slippers on her feet. It made her look younger than she was already.
Steve was about to make himself scarce when Tony entered the lab, heading straight for Bruce.
"Hey buddy," said Tony, clapping Bruce on the shoulder. "About done here? I could use your help with that thing. You know that thing? I need your big sexy brain."
"Um, Tony?" said Steve, trying to edge in front of Tony. "Can I talk to you?"
"In a minute," said Tony, pointing to Steve. "In twelve minutes," he added. "In twelve minutes I'm all yours, Cap." He turned back to Bruce. "Stop stressing over Veronica. You need a break."
"I'm not stressing," denied Bruce.
"Yes you are. How many times have you gone over every inch of her?" Tony turned Natasha. "How many times has he fondled her matrix? Don't answer that question."
Natasha was smiling but she didn't answer, separating herself from Bruce and moving to lean against a workbench.
"See? She agrees. Look, you can help with the Hulkbuster suit, if that'll make you feel better."
"Uh," said Bruce, with a pained apologetic look at Natasha. "Excuse me."
She shrugged as Bruce followed a still talking Tony from the lab. Her eyes were on the floor when Steve leaned against the workbench next to her.
"Sorry," he said. "I tried."
She gave him a chagrined "oh, well" smile. "Thanks."
"You should tell him."
She turned incredulous eyes on him. "Steve Rogers, are you giving me relationship advice?"
He laughed. It felt good to laugh. "Hey, I figured it was my turn to give you a hard time. Okay, okay," he said, holding up a hand in defense. "I know I don't have the best track record."
"Steve, you don't have any track record."
He frowned. "Now, that's not true."
"Did you ever call Sharon?"
"I…" he hedged. He'd seriously thought about calling her but the months searching for Bucky had put her out of his mind. Her number, written in Natasha's handwriting on a yellow post-it note, sometimes popped up amidst his paperwork, a reminder that too much time had passed. "No. I didn't," he said, then poked Natasha in her side. "I'm serious. Just tell him how you feel."
Natasha gave Steve a side-eye glare. "I don't think feelings are the right approach." Then, with a quiet sigh, she faced him proper, a hand on her hip. "I'm not trying to have any approach, actually."
Steve realized how difficult this must be for her. No artifice, no tricks, no clever one-liners, none of the tools she normally employed as easily as breathing. Just Natasha, uncertain and vulnerable. "Anything I can do?"
She smiled and took his hand. "Keep me company?"
He followed her to the dance studio. He thought he'd sit back and watch her work, but she made him stand at the barre facing her, teasing and cajoling him into learning the ballet steps. She liked bossing him around. He was predictably terrible at the surprisingly difficult and precise movements, but he liked learning the French terminology: sur le cou-de-pied, dégagé, ronde de jambe .
The hour flew by until he stated that superhuman strength didn't protect him from sore ankles and he sat down against the mirrors to watch Natasha dance solo in the center of the room.
One month after Sokovia -- Jacksonville, Florida
Sam wondered how this had become his life, crouching in a windy corner of a rooftop, searching through a pair of binoculars for some crazy dude with a metal arm.
The adjacent building was an old Hydra outpost that he and Steve had cleared out months ago, located in the industrial area outside of Jacksonville. They'd infiltrated and captured or contained the personnel, and had called in the FBI to do the clean up. A dead end -- no Barnes, no clues that might help in their search, not even anything useful to help locate other Hydra facilities, a disappointment all around. The only thing of interest about the place was how it had tied in directly to the Jacksonville Electric Authority, sucking in huge amounts of power, untraceable, for a purpose that wasn't clear. They made sure the connection was cut and then had moved on to the next cold lead.
By all accounts the building should be abandoned. It looked abandoned. Sam adjusted the focus on his binoculars, searching for any sign of life. No activity, the remnants of caution tape fluttering in the breeze, the doors locked up. He was halfway to convincing himself he should go home, except that the oddity of a building with no purpose sucking in that much power had left a quiet little itch in the back of his brain.
He pulled out his phone and did a quick internet search for anything unusual, and almost immediately pulled up a news article about a Jacksonville Electric Authority employee going missing after a routine maintenance visit to the area.
It could still be a coincidence, but he knew in his gut that something hinky was going on. It might have nothing to do with Barnes, but he still couldn't let it go. He should call for back up of some kind. He should call Steve, but Steve was still in New York dealing with the fallout from that Ultron business. From their last phone call, Sam knew Steve had his hands full. He didn't want to pull him away if it turned out to be nothing.
Cursing and wishing he had his exo wings, Sam suspected the entire exterior of the building was under video surveillance, and he didn't see a blind spot he could exploit.
Just then, a truck drove up, backing into the loading dock. From a side door, out popped several men wearing black clothing and black caps. They began unloading large wooden crates.
He wasn't going to get another opportunity and made his way down to ground level, and around the block to approach the building from the opposite side, creeping in as close as he could to the men unloading the truck without being seen.
One man stood back from the others, casually smoking a cigarette. He had an automatic rifle slung across his back. Sam cupped his hands around his mouth, and loudly whispered, "Hey. Hey, you."
When the man turned, Sam waved him over. "My friend," he said, crouching low, making himself seem pathetic and homeless. "You there, can I bum a cigarette? I could really use a cigarette."
The man puffed once, then flicked his butt at Sam before swinging the rifle into his hands and aiming it at Sam's head. Sam grabbed the barrel and jabbed the man in the neck before kneeing him in the groin. He plucked the cap from the man's head as he tumbled to the ground.
"Guess not," said Sam, relieving the man of his jacket and putting the cap on his head, swinging the rifle over his shoulder. He took a couple of minutes to tie the man up with his own belt, then, as easy as you please, slipped into the mix with the others unloading the final crate and marched into the building. Inside, Sam peeled away, melting into the shadows.
The interior of the building looked much like it had months ago when he'd been there with Steve -- a honeycomb of different rooms with cubicle farms and offices.
Sam tailed the men carrying the crates, but there was something off about the layout of rooms and he got turned around. He went up stairs, then down stairs, then up stairs again, losing track. He began wishing he'd brought breadcrumbs, making his way down one hallway only to hear footsteps approaching. He retreated, but heard more footsteps coming up behind him. With nowhere to hide, Sam took a deep breath, swinging the rifle forward, ready to make a stand. The marching grew closer. A flash of movement caught his eye and he looked up to the ceiling a second before an arm reached down, grabbed him by the collar, and he was hauled up into the air duct, coming face-to-face with James Buchanan Barnes.
Sam lay on his back in an awkward position, his heart beating strong and fast, taking in the sight of Barnes dressed like a hipster reject with dark jeans, frayed hoodie, and knitted skullcap snugly pulled down over his head. It was cramped in the air duct. His legs were pressed up against Barnes' knees.
Barnes put a finger to his lips, replacing the air vent grating. Sam heard two different groups passing -- these guys weren't a chatty bunch, he'd noticed. It was eerie to hear ten or twelve men moving silently through the hallways just from the sound of clothing brushing against clothing, boots on tile and carpet.
After several seconds of complete silence, Barnes must have deemed the coast clear because he lifted the grate and dropped down to the ground. Sam followed. They stood staring at each other.
"Hey man," said Sam, like he'd happened to meet up with Barnes at their local Starbucks. "What are you doing here?"
Barnes's eyes were steady, unwavering in his focused attention on Sam. "Steve said to keep an eye on you," he answered, hands on his own gun.
Sam was as stunned that Barnes spoke as he was with what he said, wondering just how Steve had asked him this. He adjusted his rifle, and then went to move ahead of Barnes. "Right," he said. "Come on, then."
He took point, Barnes followed, and together they moved methodically through the hallways and rooms.
"Any idea who we're dealing with here?" he asked.
"Rival Hydra faction."
Sam stopped in an empty hallway and looked at Barnes. "Rival Hydra…? Are you kidding me? One Hydra was plenty."
"These are Zemo's people," Barnes said.
He could see that Barnes was serious, although to Sam the name Zemo sounded like a character from a Disney movie or possibly a cereal box. "Barnes, if they capture you—"
Barnes looked vaguely insulted. "You're here."
Sam didn't have a response to that. The silence in the hallway was oppressive. Barnes was unreadable in the dim light, giving nothing away. He realized that neither of them would be in this situation if Sam hadn't gotten it into his head to follow a hunch. Barnes was only there because of him, because Steve had asked Barnes to "keep an eye" on him. If something happened to either of them, it would be Sam's fault.
He faced Barnes directly. "Do you have any idea what it would do to Steve if they got their hands on you?"
Barnes's eyes did change then -- a hint of confusion -- but the mask dropped again. Sam got the impression that Barnes was reading him like a book, that he was only waiting for Sam to make a decision: to continue or to retreat.
They heard the now familiar sound of men marching through the hallways, and they both flattened against one wall. The marching sounds intensified but then ended abruptly, leaving heavy silence in its wake. Sam could have sworn Barnes was laughing at him despite the fact that Barnes's expression hadn't change one bit.
"All right, whatever," he said, then gave a little smile before nodding once. He readjusted his grip on the rifle, trusting Barnes to follow. They moved as one unit through the maze of hallways, going in the direction from where the marching had come from, until they came up on a dead end. Sam raised his hand to halt and Barnes stood at a loose attention.
He stepped back, thinking they made a wrong turn somewhere in this white-washed maze of blank rooms and hallways, but then he stopped and turned back to face the dead end. "Something seem off to you?" he asked Barnes.
Barnes didn't answer, but with a quick glance at Sam, stepped closer to the wall, turning his head as if he were going to press his cheek against it. Sam mirrored him on the other side. At first, Sam didn't hear anything except his own breathing, but then there it was, just the barest, softest buzz of electricity.
Sam pressed his palm flat against the wall. But there was no wall. His hand passed through.
"Well damn," he said, pulling his hand back, realizing he'd found the source of the electricity drain. Holograms were pretty common, but not ones that looked so real and solid.
Barnes looked at the wall, up and down, then stepped forward as if to walk through.
"Oh no you don't," said Sam, blocking Barnes with his rifle. He didn't know what was on the other side -- he wasn't about to let Barnes go through first. Barnes hesitated, and Sam could have sworn he was about to argue, but then he moved to let Sam lead.
Sam took a deep breath before stepping through. The first thing he noticed was noise, like when his ears popped and suddenly there was all this sound that he hadn't even noticed was missing. The second thing he noticed was that he was standing on a metal catwalk overlooking a vast warehouse. Below were hundreds of men, moving in some sort of organized fashion through different assembly lines.
Barnes came through the fake wall right behind him. They stood watching the activity below.
One part of the action dealt with the crates he'd seen unloaded from the truck outside -- the tops had been removed, revealing packed firearms, automatic and semi automatic rifles, some kind of energy rifle, grenades and handguns, boxes of ammunition, boxes of explosives. Another part of the action was reserved for what seemed to be a fairly straightforward drug operation -- a powdered substance poured into little bags, the little bags gathered together in a larger box, the boxes stacked and crated.
But the majority of the warehouse contained what Sam could only assume was some kind of lab, featuring flat operating tables, different kinds of restraining chairs and gurney type things, large vats of unknown liquids bubbling. He recognized equipment from Barnes's file -- similar at least, if not exactly the same as the cryo units. A chill went up Sam's spine.
Beside him, Barnes focused solely on the lab.
"Come on," said Sam. "Let's get out of here."
Barnes didn't follow but instead reached for the catwalk railing, obviously intending to drop down onto the unsuspecting men below. Sam stepped in front of him.
"You don't do this by yourself," he said, getting in Barnes's face, forcing him to look at Sam. "We're going to call Steve, and we get some back up. I know you can probably kill everyone in this building with just your pinky finger, but--" Sam paused, waiting for Barnes to really look at him. Those blue eyes shifted to meet his. Sam smiled. "Not this time."
Once again Sam thought Barnes would argue. After a long moment, he took a half a step back, but Sam could tell how much it cost him. He felt it in Barnes's increased breathing, in the shuttered, distant look that replaced his normal cool detachment.
Sam was figuring out how to thank him when an alarm shrieked, ripping across the air. He glanced down at the floor and saw each and every one of the men staring straight up at him and Barnes. As one, the men moved toward the metal stairs and scaffolding holding up the catwalk, climbing up like rats.
"Oh, damn," he said. With only seconds to spare, Sam shoved Barnes back. "Sorry man," he said before kicking Barnes in the chest hard enough to propel him back through the fake door to the other side. Barnes disappeared and Sam turned to face the first of the men climbing up on to the catwalk.
"Hey guys," he said, eyeing the next two men that jumped up onto the railing. "Sorry I'm late for work."
No one answered. The fact that he hadn't heard one of these guys speak a single word was beginning to freak him out. The first guy pounced, and Sam fought back, kicking him over the side of the catwalk, but then the other two joined and it got harder to fight. They locked his arms behind, forced him to arch his back to avoid dislocating his shoulder. He saw two men go through the fake wall but they returned seconds later empty-handed. Sam relaxed -- Barnes hadn't been caught, he was still in play.
They dragged Sam down the metal staircase to the ground floor. As they carried him over to the lab, he began to get a bad feeling about what he'd gotten himself into. "Okay, this isn't funny anymore," he said, kicking, twisting as much as he could trying to break their hold on his arms and legs. "Can't we talk about this?"
"No, they cannot."
Sam whipped his head around to see a man standing in the shadows, his face obscured. He had a cultured accent he couldn't quite place.
"They've all had their tongues cut out to prevent that sort of thing."
The men holding him, as well as those that surrounded on all sides, smiled grotesquely wide so he could see the stub of their tongues flexing in the dark pit of their mouths. He'd been unnerved before, but now he was truly frightened.
"Strap him in, please," said the man in the shadows.
Sam yelled as he twisted and fought to break free. They carried him over to the center chair, locking one restraint around his left arm. He knocked one man down but another took his place. A hand slammed hard against his forehead so he couldn't move. Sam looked up to see the headgear start to lower, but he saw a flash of bright metal up above on the catwalk. In the next instant Barnes leapt down, flipping in mid air, already shooting even as he landed on his feet.
The men holding Sam dropped dead and he wasted no time releasing the restraint on his arm, hopping from the chair and taking a rifle from one of the dead guys. He joined Barnes, covering his right side, shooting back-to-back before they took cover behind one of the giant vats.
"You're injured," said Barnes, crouching beside him.
Sam looked down at the three-inch long gash on his upper left arm oozing blood. He hadn't noticed being grazed, but suddenly pain blossomed along his left side. "I'll live," he said, still rattled by what had nearly happened and trying to catch his breath. "Thanks for sticking around."
Barnes met his gaze, as unreadable as ever, but then nodded.
"Ready?" asked Sam, resettling his grip on the rifle.
"Ready," answered Barnes with a slight tip of his head and a hint of a smile.
They both stepped out from under cover, firing as they crossed. Sam searched for the man in the shadows but couldn't see him. Barnes took time to aim, precise and calculating, before taking a grenade from one of his pockets and lobbing it over to where the weapons and explosives were kept. Sam curled down around Barnes as an explosion lit up the warehouse, shaking the ground.
In the flickering firelight, Sam spotted a man moving against the far wall. He aimed and fired, bullets sparking off cement. The man held up a hand, pressing a remote before he stepped back against the wall and disappeared.
A hissing started, followed by a gray-green slow-moving cloud of gas rising from vents along the floors. The shooting had stopped as men began clawing at their throats and eyes, groaning in agony, unable to scream.
"Barnes," yelled Sam, climbing on top of an operating table, getting to higher ground. A man pulled at him, trying to climb up. Sam kicked him in the chest and sent him flying.
Barnes was right beside him, punching another man before he could pull Sam down. "Quick," said Barnes, bending down with his left hand right in front of Sam.
Sam said, "Oh, Jesus," but didn't stop to question as he placed one foot into Barnes's hand, looking up to spot the catwalk. Barnes launched him into the air and Sam was flying without his wings, reaching up with both hands and grasping the metal railing of the catwalk.
Hanging, Sam twisted to look for Barnes standing on the table, the gas beginning to rise as high as the tops of Barnes's shoes. The warehouse was now covered with a layer of gray green gas with men convulsing in a near silent sea of agony. A few men crawled to the operating table, trying to climb up, grasping at Barnes's legs. Barnes shot them in the face, a mercy at that point, while raising his left hand up. A thin cable with a grappling hook shot out, latching onto the ceiling. He swung through the air to land on the scaffolding, then nimbly climbed up to the catwalk. Sam flipped himself over, collapsing next to Barnes.
"Dude," said Sam, stumbling as he stood. "Let's never do that again."
Barnes smiled at him -- an actual smile -- and Sam was momentarily struck by the transformation. He patted Barnes on his back and arms.
"The roof," said Barnes, pulling him toward the end of the catwalk that linked to a spiral metal staircase leading to a door. "The gas may still come up this high."
Barnes shot out the lock, and they emerged into sunlight and wind. Sam bent over, breathing in as much air as he could. He glanced up and saw Barnes standing close to the edge, staring up at the sky, a hand shielding against the sunlight.
Without looking at him, Barnes lowered his hand. "They should be here any second," he said.
Sam took a good look at Barnes, seeing him in full light for the first time. The wool cap had gone missing, and his hair, still long, fluttered around his face. The hoodie had a washed out Hulk drawing on the back that made Sam smile. It took a moment for Sam to realize what Barnes had said. "Who should be here?"
Barnes met his eyes, then nodded to the horizon. "I texted Agent Romanoff. They should be here any second."
"When I realized it was Zemo, and that you were going in without back up, I sent them the location of the building."
After the heat and smell of the warehouse, the wind was a chilling balm, drying the sweat that had soaked Sam's shirt and jacket. The graze on his arm stung. "I had back up," he said. "I had you."
Barnes gave him a ghost of a smile, and a quick side-glance.
"Hey man," said Sam, because he knew what Barnes was going to do next. "You could stay. You know Steve wants to see you."
He got silence as an answer, and for a moment Sam thought it might happen. The Winter Soldier might come in out of the cold. But Barnes said, "Keep an eye on Steve for me."
Sam opened his mouth to say something, anything, but Barnes was already leaping off, his legs and arms circling in mid air, landing in an easy tuck and roll, and he was gone in the next instant.
The air above began to flatten and a second later a quinjet landed delicately on the roof. The door opened and the first thing Sam saw was Captain America's shield, followed by Captain America himself, Black Widow next to him.
Steve didn't have his helmet on. Behind Natasha followed a whole mess of agents in combat gear. Realizing that the immediate danger was over, Sam shivered.
"Keeping busy, I see," said Steve, with a hint of concern as his eyes landed on the graze on his arm, halting a couple of feet away from Sam.
"What, did you get bored?" added Natasha.
Sam chuckled self-consciously. He turned to Natasha. "Careful going in there. Some kind of neurotoxin was released, in gaseous form." He gave a quick rundown of stats, including the holographic walls, tongueless hostiles, and warehouse laboratory. "The leader got away," he said. "I think he escaped from the north side."
Natasha gave orders over comms, then turned to Steve and said, "I've got this," before waving over agents to coordinate the clean up, leaving Sam alone with Steve.
Steve took a step forward and Sam sighed into a strong one-armed hug, protecting his injury.
"I'm sorry, Steve. He was here. Barnes was here. But he wouldn't stay."
The rest of it choked in Sam's throat, and he took a deep breath as he stepped back.
"It's okay," said Steve with just a little bit of sadness, taking Sam's hand in his. "Let's get that arm looked at and you can tell me the whole story."
They entered the quinjet and Sam sat down near the medical bay, struggling out of his jacket, wincing slightly at the pull against the wound, getting a good look at it for the first time. It was still oozing blood, but he'd had worse.
Steve rifled through the medical supplies. "I've come to accept that Bucky won't come in until he's ready. There's not much I can do about it without making it worse, except wait, and keep doing what I've, we've, already been doing."
Sam watched Steve, who shrugged as he sat opposite him, setting down the supplies on the ledge. Steve took Sam's arm and turned it to look at the wound.
"This'll probably need stitches," he said.
"Yeah, I know," answered Sam. "Hey," he said, "About Barnes," Steve met his eyes but then looked away, and Sam suddenly didn't know what to say.
"Start at the beginning," said Steve, carefully lifting the sleeve of Sam's T-shirt out of the way. He began cleaning the blood.
Sam started from the moment he'd got it in his head to give Jacksonville a second look, all the way through to when Barnes jumped off the roof and disappeared. He made sure to make a point of this being a rival Hydra faction and that Bucky had mentioned someone called Zemo. Steve listened, the occasional scowl crossing his face, as he treated the wound. The disinfectant stung and Sam winced until Steve put one of the special bandages on, the kind that numbed the pain and minimized scaring.
"The name Zemo's come up in intel. I'll have Hill start looking into it further," said Steve. "That feel better?"
"Yeah, thanks." Sam stretched his arm. "Barnes saved my life," he said. "Things could have gone downhill fast if he hadn't shown up." He tried to catch Steve's eyes. "He said you asked him to keep an eye on me."
Steve's eyes widened a little before he furrowed his brow and shook his head. "In Buffalo, when I went out to get air. I just… I had no proof he was listening, just a hunch. I did that sometimes. Talk to him, hoping," he added, like a confession.
Sam watched the shamed yet brave way Steve rubbed at his forehead. "I know," said Sam. "I followed you once. So you had two of us fools listening."
That made Steve smile, but then he got serious. "I asked him to keep an eye on you for him as much as for you. I didn't want him following me and I didn't like leaving you on your own." He shrugged.
Sam sorted through his mixed up feelings, at once uncomfortable with Steve asking Barnes to babysit him but also warmed and confused that the opposite was true as well, that by asking Barnes to keep an eye on him, it meant Steve trusted Sam to keep an eye on Barnes. And now Barnes asked him to do the same for Steve. This shit was complicated, he thought, reaching across to take Steve's hand in his, threading their fingers together.
At that moment, Natasha showed up, smirking at the both of them as she leaned against the wall of the quinjet. "All clear. It's a mess in there. There's a truck coming to remove the tech, and a team analyzing the gas samples. Simpson and Rodriguez are canvassing the area and will report if they find anything. Nothing left for us to do. We'll be ready to roll in ten minutes. Did you ask him yet?"
Sam looked from Natasha back to Steve. "Ask me what?"
Steve got that slightly chagrinned look Sam knew all to well. "You know how you said Avenging wasn't your world?"
"I believe I said Avenging was more your world," Sam corrected. "And your world is crazy. Which it is." It took Sam a moment to realize what they were getting at. "You're not serious?"
Steve lifted one eyebrow, then asked without asking, and Sam could see he was concerned that Sam would say no. "What do you say?"
All the different reasons for and against paraded quickly through Sam's mind, but he couldn't get past the unsure, hesitant blue of Steve's eyes, unwilling to push. And Barnes had asked him to keep an eye on Steve, after all. "Hell, yeah, man. Let's do this."
END PART 1