It's not quite five o'clock in the morning in New York when Steve gets the call. He's fully awake in an instant at the chirp of his phone.
(It really does chirp, because Sam has a twisted sense of humor and might have been the target of one too many bird puns lately. Steve lets Sam believe he doesn't know how to change his own ringtone settings because he doesn't want to admit that the birdsong is kind of soothing.)
Nothing good ever happens at oh-dark-hundred hours. "What's going on?" he asks, already half-dressed and grabbing his shield. "Is there time for a briefing first, or are we suiting up?"
"No briefing," Hill says, and she sounds -- well, if it were anyone else, he'd say she sounds almost hesitant. "It's not a mission. It's Barnes. We've just brought him in."
She keeps talking, but Steve doesn't hear a single word over the roaring in his ears. For a minute, he might have stepped back in time -- his throat closes up and he can't get enough air into his lungs, like he's twelve and his asthma's acting up and it's the middle of the night and there's no one to hear him gasping for breath. Then his body remembers how to breathe again, and his head clears a little. He cuts Hill off in the middle of whatever she's saying. "Is he okay?"
There's a pause, and then: "He doesn't appear to be injured," Hill says carefully, which is not an answer.
"Can I talk to him?"
"No. He's currently unconscious--"
"--having consented to being sedated so that we could transport him. Jesus, Rogers, don't shit a brick."
That sounds more like the usual Hill, at least. It doesn't mollify him. He can't conceive of Bucky -- or the Winter Soldier, or whoever he is now -- willingly agreeing to sedation. Bucky insisted on walking all the way back into Italy under his own steam and wouldn't let the medics so much as touch him before they'd seen to "the guys with actual injuries, jeez, I'm all right, quit poking at me." This after having been Zola's personal lab rat for weeks, starving, with burns and bruises and dried blood forming a patchwork quilt across his skin.
Steve feels like he's got a ball of ice lodged in the pit of his stomach. Maybe Bucky isn't injured, but he's not okay. Unless Hill's lying about him having consented to it. That's almost easier to believe.
"Where have you taken him?" he asks instead, shrugging on his jacket. His bike's parked in the underground garage.
There's another moment of hesitation. "Private holding facility outside of Newark," Hill tells him. He might be imagining the reluctance in her tone. If she hadn't wanted him to know where Bucky was, she wouldn't have called him in the first place.
"Used to be. Stark Industries acquired it a few months back. I'll text you the coordinates."
Stark has several excellent safe houses in New York, and Steve personally helped them set up the one in Brooklyn. If Bucky had been found within the city itself, he should've been brought there. Newark, though -- the only thing convenient about Newark is the airport. "Where did you find him?"
"In the middle of nowhere, Nebraska," Hill says. "He took out three helicopters and more than a dozen HYDRA agents before we got there, but he surrendered to me without a hint of resistance. Weirdest night I've had in a while. See you shortly."
She ends the call there, but he keeps the phone pressed to his cheek for a few long minutes more, just breathing.
Then he straps on his shield and heads out the door.
Even in the dark blue-gray hour before true dawn, the city streets are already coming to life. But the worst of the pre-rush hour traffic is pointing into Manhattan, not out of it, and Steve makes decent time once he's out of the city. The wind is cold against his face. Normally, riding his bike on a cool early morning like this would be the perfect way to clear his head.
It's not working.
It's been six months since the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., and about five since he last saw Bucky after a raid on a HYDRA base in North Carolina. He'd found Bucky in the midst of some kind of mental break, clutching the shield Steve had dropped off the helicarrier and completely unresponsive to anything else. There were papers scattered on the floor around him, including one document containing the words Winter Soldier. Steve still doesn't know if Bucky'd been suffering from a trigger Pierce had deliberately planted in his brain, a breakdown of the Soldier's mental programming, or something else entirely. All that mattered was that Bucky was in pain.
He panicked, hadn't told Sam or Clint where he was going. He just grabbed Bucky, the shield, and the files and hightailed it out of there, driving until he found a no-tell motel off the highway. He texted Sam that he needed some time to himself and then didn't look at his phone again for three solid days while he tried to care for Bucky on his own. In retrospect, not his best plan ever. Around midnight on the third day, Bucky finally stopped thrashing and slipped into a real, restful sleep for the first time, and after hours of watching him breathe in and out, Steve must've dropped off, too. When he woke up, the room was quiet and Bucky was gone.
Steve's been chasing a shadow ever since. And a shadow might be all he's racing toward now. He clutches the accelerator a little tighter. He hopes he doesn't get pulled over for speeding, but that's a distant concern. He's got to be there when Bucky wakes up.
If Bucky is the person who wakes up.
(For a few hours in that motel room, lost in his own sleepless nightmares, the only words Bucky had spoken were his name, rank, and serial number. And a small, hateful part of Steve had been glad. Because maybe that meant Bucky really was in there, somewhere.)
He peels off the highway, following the coordinates Hill sent him like a compass needle drawn to true north.
From the outside, the facility looks like an airplane hangar. Steve has to pass through two separate security checkpoints to get to it. The hangar itself isn't particularly large -- designed to hold smaller private planes, not a passenger jet -- but knowing S.H.I.E.L.D., there are probably several levels underground.
As expected, there's no airplane inside, just a handful of security personnel with Stark Industries insignia on their uniforms. He spots Hill immediately.
"Where is he?" Steve demands. Energy thrums under his skin, his heart racing. He feels like he's going to shake apart with it.
Hill holds up a placating hand. "Steve--"
"Where?" But he's already spotted the hinged metal door in the floor by one wall. That has to lead somewhere. He beats Hill to it easily, and practically rips it off its hinges. A dimly lit staircase directs him downward. He ignores the shouts from the security guards, taking the stairs three at a time as he descends deeper underground. He can hear the clatter of footsteps on the metal steps behind him, and Hill calling his name. He doesn't care.
At the foot of the stairs is another door. He takes the handle off with one blow from his shield and shoves it open.
Inside is a sort of control room. There's one large workstation with at least ten different monitors set up around it. Natasha sits with her feet propped up on the desk, a book open on her lap. She glances up at his entrance, looking utterly unsurprised. "Hey, Steve."
"Natasha," he says. This is the first time she's resurfaced since leaving him with the Winter Soldier's file and a soft kiss, and Steve ought to care about that. He missed her. But all he can see is the video feed on her monitor. It displays the interior of a holding cell of some sort. There's a sink and a toilet in one corner, and a simple bed takes up most of the rest of the space. Bucky is curled up on top of the blankets.
Steve's heart stutters badly in his chest. And here he thought the serum had cured him of his old arrhythmia.
The video quality is good. Bucky seems to be asleep, still fully dressed. His jeans and hoodie are stained dark with what might be dirt or blood. The left sleeve is torn away completely, exposing the metal arm, which looks scratched up and dirty. His hair is cut very short -- shorter than Steve can ever remember it being, even when they were kids. Without the long hair masking Bucky's face, Steve can see that he's frowning in his sleep, brow furrowed. But his body remains completely still. Steve remembers the way he'd thrashed and screamed on the motel bed, and begins to understand why Bucky might have agreed to sedation. At least he's getting some actual rest.
Steve reaches out to trace Bucky's image on the monitor, swallowing hard. This isn't enough. He needs to see Bucky in the flesh, touch his hand where it clutches the pillow. He needs to be sure that Bucky is really here.
"Damn it, Rogers," Hill snaps as she joins them, a little breathless. He doesn't spare her a glance. "You couldn't have waited two minutes for me to explain the situation before busting down here?"
"No," he says. "I couldn't." He doesn't look away from Bucky's still form on the video. "How long will it take for the sedative to wear off?"
Hill snorts. "Are you kidding me? His metabolism's nearly as high-strung as yours. We gave him Banner's special blend, and even that barely lasted two hours. What you're looking at now is exhaustion, pure and simple. Whatever Barnes has been up to lately, apart from slaughtering HYDRA teams, I don't think sleep has factored in much."
When he closes his eyes, Steve can still see Bucky clutching his head on that motel bed, pleading incoherently with his nightmares. His chest tightens at the memory. "I'm going in there."
"No, you're not," Natasha says. Her voice is gentle, but her grip on his arm is anything but. "Sorry, Steve. You can watch him from here for as long as you want, but you're not going down there yet."
He shakes her off, abruptly resentful that she's apparently chosen to reenter his life only to stand directly in his way. "The hell I'm not."
"Stop and think for a moment, Steve," Hill says, quiet but firm. "We're on your side. I didn't have to tell you Barnes was here, but I thought you had the right to know. So please trust me when I tell you there's a reason we don't want to let you in there yet. Several reasons, actually."
Natasha slips her hand around his arm again, and this time, he lets her. "The man asleep in that room has been through seven levels of hell, and his sense of self is spotty at the best of times. We have no way of knowing if the person who wakes up will be your friend Barnes, or the Winter Soldier, or someone else entirely. And we don't know what he'll do when he does."
"He can't really hurt me," Steve protests, though from the look the two women exchange, they know better.
"It's not a risk we're willing to take, not until we're sure," Hill says. "Just be patient."
He's not going to get anywhere with Hill, but they've never been particularly close. He turns to Natasha instead. They were very nearly friends, once. He doesn't have to feign his desperation. "Please, Nat. I have to see him."
Her expression softens, just a little. "I know. But you can't. Not until he tells us he wants to see you." He reels back, stung, but she just watches him levelly. "He's known how to find you for months, and he's chosen not to contact you. He's been deliberately avoiding you. Maybe not for any good reason, but that's still his choice. And he hasn't been able to choose anything for himself in a very, very long time, so I'm sorry, but this is one decision I'm not going to take away from him."
Steve struggles to keep his voice even, but he manages it somehow. "Right," he says, with a pointed look at the cell they've imprisoned Bucky in. "Because you're all about letting him make his own choices."
"We've been monitoring his movements for several weeks already without interfering," Hill says coolly. "The only reason we intervened now was because HYDRA went after him first, and by the time we deciphered their radio chatter, we were too late to stop them. He wiped that team out, but it's unlikely they'll give up so easily. This is for his own protection as much as anything else."
"Then why is he in a damn prison?" Steve asks tightly. The fact that Hill and Natasha have apparently known Bucky's location for weeks without telling him -- and is that what Nat's been doing for six months? Watching Bucky? -- well, that'll have to be an argument for another time.
"Because I'm not taking any chances!" Hill glares up at him, hands on her hips. "The last time I encountered your old buddy, he damn near killed you -- not to mention the few million innocent civilians who would've died if he'd succeeded in keeping that helicarrier operational. Natasha convinced me to give him a second chance, but if it's the Winter Soldier who wakes up in that cell, you'd better believe I'm gonna take him out before he can do any more damage." With that, she turns on her heel and stalks out, her footsteps echoing on the metal stairs long after she's gone from view.
Steve slumps down into the chair. The shield drops to the floor at his side with a faint clang. He props his head up in his hands and stares at the video feed of Bucky's room. After a few long minutes, he feels a hand on his shoulder.
"Have you called Sam?" Natasha asks him in a low tone. "You should call Sam."
He shakes his head slowly, not taking his eyes off Bucky. "I'm not gonna bother him at this hour."
"I'm calling Sam," she says firmly. "You are staying put until he gets here, and then he is going to explain to you in terms you can understand why it's a really terrible idea for you to go charging in on Barnes right now. In the meantime…" She pauses, then slides a pad of paper and a pen across the desk to him. "We have a guard stationed down on his level. If you'd like to write him a note, I can ask him to leave it somewhere Barnes will see it when he wakes up."
Steve stares at the pad in front of him. What could he possibly write? His mind feels as blank as the paper. "I just want him to know I'm here, if he -- just that I'm here. Could you just…" A thought occurs, and he reaches down to grip his shield. "Can you put this in the room with him?"
Bucky had saved the shield from the Potomac himself, unprompted. He'd carried it with him for a month before their paths crossed again, and he'd been holding it tightly when Steve found him mid-breakdown. The shield obviously meant something to him. It's a better message than any words Steve could possibly write down.
Natasha hesitates, then accepts the shield from him. He doesn't think she's ever actually held it before. "Okay," she says. "I can do that."
He loses track of time while he sits and watches the image of Bucky sleep. Once Natasha follows Hill back upstairs, the control room is very quiet. Steve's mind wanders. He remembers:
Marching through the Austrian night with the rescued soldiers, hoping to find a good place to stop and rest before daybreak. The logistics are impossible: trying to hide four hundred men in the middle of the countryside, still more than twenty miles behind enemy lines. There are a couple of good navigators in the group, and between them and Steve's photographic memory of Colonel Phillips's maps, they plot out the safest route they can manage and leave the rest up to chance and prayer. Many of the men are sick, wounded, or weakened by weeks of hard labor, but they all plod on forward, the stronger among them helping those who need it. Bucky sticks to Steve's side, determined to keep walking unassisted even though Steve can tell he's flagging. But he keeps going all night, somehow, lips pressed into a thin line, eyes fixed on the ground in front of him.
Someone upstairs must be looking out for them, because they stumble across an abandoned farmhouse just after dawn, with several large barns in the pasture behind it. The fields are overgrown, the hay scattered across the barns is thick with dust, and the farmhouse itself seems to have been looted several times over, but as far as the men are concerned, it's the goddamn Waldorf-Astoria. Steve and a few of the non-coms organize informal billets for everyone and set up a rotation of able-bodied men for watch duty, and then Steve realizes he's lost track of Bucky and goes looking for him.
He finds him outside of one of the barns, still on his feet, leaning against the wall with his face tilted up to the sunlight. His eyes are wide open and bloodshot. Steve shifts up next to him. "C'mon, Buck, you gotta lie down for a bit," he says. "I found a big comfy patch of hay with your name on it."
"Don't worry about me," Bucky says, slurring the words a bit in his exhaustion. "M'good right here."
Steve can see his legs trembling with the effort of keeping himself upright. "You don't have to go inside if you don't want. But you should get some sleep."
Bucky glares at him. "I'm fine, Steve, lay off."
"Okay," Steve says agreeably. "I'm just gonna sit here, then. Don't mind me. You do what you like."
He plops down in the dirt and leans back against the barn wall, closing his eyes. He's not sleepy -- doesn't tire easily these days, not by a long shot -- but after a minute or two, he's rewarded when Bucky huffs out a resentful breath and slides down to sit beside him. Steve doesn't miss the swallowed-back groan when Bucky hits the ground. His chest clenches at the sound, but he doesn't remark on it, allowing Bucky what's left of his pride.
After a few more minutes, he sneaks a glance over at Bucky, who's still staring out at nothing. "Probably warmer inside," Steve says. It's been a long, cold autumn night of walking, and everything is coated in a thin layer of frost. The rising sun isn't doing much to break up the chill. He doesn't feel the cold much himself, but Bucky probably does. "If you want."
"Been a while since I saw daylight," Bucky replies. "Ain't going inside now."
He's shivering a little, though, tucks his knees up to his chest and hugs himself, so Steve presses closer against him and slings an arm across his shoulders. It's strange, being bigger than Bucky. Bucky was his entire world for so long -- it's not right that he looks so small right now.
"Whatever you want, pal," Steve says quietly. "We'll be here for a few hours at least. Just get some rest."
Bucky's quiet long enough that if his eyes weren't still wide open, Steve would've thought he'd fallen asleep. Finally, Bucky murmurs, so low Steve nearly can't hear it -- "Don't wanna sleep. Might wake up back there."
Christ, he's gonna break Steve's heart. "You won't," he promises, arm tightening around his friend. "I got you out of there. I've got you."
Bucky breathes out a long, slow sigh, then leans his head against Steve's shoulder and finally, finally, closes his eyes.
Steve jerks his head up to stare at the monitor, surprised to realize he's nearly drifted off himself. His heart leaps into his throat when he sees Bucky sitting up in his bed, staring directly into the surveillance camera in the corner of the ceiling.
"You out there?" Bucky asks the empty room. His voice sounds hoarse, like he hasn't used it much in a while. But it's him, it's Bucky. Not the Soldier. It has to be. He saw the shield next to his bed and now he's asking for Steve. That's good, right?
Shit, how the hell can he talk to Bucky from here?
"Switch this on to channel four," Natasha says, dropping a walkie-talkie down on the desk in front of him. He hadn't even heard her come back downstairs. "It'll patch you directly into the speakers in his room."
He blinks up at her, fumbling clumsily with the walkie. "How did you--"
"Triplett -- the guard downstairs -- he's been monitoring Barnes from his station. He notified Maria as soon as it looked like he was waking up." She gives him a lopsided smile. "He's asking for you. Don't fuck this up, Rogers."
Steve switches the walkie on, scared Bucky might've already given up on him. "Yeah," he says, thumbing the talk button. "Yeah, buddy, I'm here." There's so much more he wants to say, but it all gets stuck somewhere between his gut and his throat.
Bucky doesn't seem to mind, though. He closes his eyes and leans back, a faint smile playing across his lips. "All right," he says. "All right." And then he's quiet again, like maybe he's fallen back asleep. Steve hardly dares breathe, wondering which of them is supposed to make the next move. Don't fuck this up.
"There's a shower and clean clothes ready for him, if he wants to clean himself up," Natasha says softly. "Trip will have to accompany him, but he won't lay a hand on him unless he attacks or tries to run."
Steve clears his throat and presses the talk button again. "Hey, Buck--" He cuts himself off with a grimace. Sam had given him extensive lectures about identity and personhood and choice during their little road trip across Europe.
You can't force him to be someone he's not, Sam told him sternly. He's messed up enough right now as it is. Let him decide who he wants to be. He's not the guy you grew up with ninety years ago.
"Sorry," Steve says. Bucky's eyes are open again, and he's studying the camera with an unreadable expression. "What would you like me to call you?"
Bucky shrugs with his good shoulder. The metal arm remains motionless at his side, like it's been disabled somehow. "Bucky's fine," he says. "No other name ever felt right, anyway."
Steve feels like punching the air in triumph. He keeps his voice as steady as he can. "Okay, great. Bucky. You wanna get cleaned up? There's a shower down the hall, maybe a change of clothes--"
Bucky's lips twitch in the ghost of a smile. "You sayin' I smell bad, Rogers? That why you ain't in here yourself?"
"Hey, if the shoe fits," Steve says automatically, before his brain catches up with his mouth. He winces. Just because Bucky's answering to his own name now doesn't mean their old relationship's back to normal, and if Bucky thinks for a minute that Steve is deliberately avoiding being in the same room as him… "I'm sorry, Buck, they won't let me down there yet, but I'm working on it. In the meantime -- there's a good guy outside your room, his name's Triplett. He can hook you up with a hot shower if you want one."
"A good guy, huh," Bucky echoes. His face smooths out into an expressionless mask again. "Okay. Shower. Sure."
"Only if you want," Steve says hastily. "I didn't mean--"
Bucky swings his legs over the side of the bed, turns away from the camera. "I'm the one turned myself in," he says, getting to his feet. "Not like I had any illusions about what was gonna come next. Don't worry about it."
"Please let Mr. Triplett know that I'd like a shower," Bucky says quietly, without looking up.
Steve glances helplessly at Natasha, who nods and murmurs something into her earpiece. He hadn't even realized she was wearing a comm device. Moments later, the door in Bucky's room opens, and a guy distinctly not in SI uniform gestures to Bucky with an easy smile. Bucky follows him out without another word.
Steve slams the walkie down on the desk with a curse.
Sam arrives before Bucky returns to his cell. He takes one look at Steve and demands, "How long have you been sitting in this windowless hell? And when's the last time you ate anything?" Without waiting for an answer, he turns to Natasha. "He's been here since you called me?"
"Yup," Natasha says, and Steve wonders exactly how long it's been. He hasn't really been paying attention to the passage of time.
"The hell with that." Sam takes Steve's arm and drags him up out of his chair. Or rather, Steve lets him. Sam's not exactly a weakling, but there are very few people on this planet who have the physical strength to drag Steve anywhere he doesn't want to go. Thor doesn't count. "I think I passed a Dunkin' Donuts on my way in, man, let's get you some carbs and caffeine."
Steve opens his mouth to protest.
"I just drove up from D.C.," Sam says pointedly. "And I had breakfast first, which I'm betting you didn't. That's how long you've been sitting in here staring at pixels on a screen."
Now that Sam mentions it, Steve is kinda hungry.
They do pass a Dunkin' Donuts, but Sam doesn't pull over. Instead they drive on until they find a diner that Sam would probably call "vintage" but does not actually resemble anything Steve remembers from his childhood. They order an obscene amount of breakfast food. Sam mostly just watches in mingled awe and horror as Steve works his way through it.
"You know, my metabolism slowed down when I hit thirty," Sam says. "And here you are pushing ninety-five. You could give a guy a complex." He pops a grape from his fruit salad into his mouth and eyes Steve thoughtfully for a moment. "Hey, I never did the math -- how old are you, really? Not counting the years asleep."
Steve shrugs and inhales another pancake. "Hard to say exactly. I was twenty-six when I crashed the Valkyrie, so now…about twenty-nine, I think, give or take a few months."
"And your boy Barnes is about the same, then," Sam muses. "Though it's harder to count with him, they way they popped him in and out of the freezer."
"Yeah. What's your point?"
"That you're both a lot younger than you probably feel," Sam says. "And that's not a bad thing. 'Cause recovery takes time more than anything else, and for once, time really is on your side."
Steve frowns. It sure doesn't feel that way. "We should get back--"
"No way." Sam takes a leisurely sip of his coffee. "Not until Natasha gives me the go-ahead. She'll text me when they're ready for you."
Anger simmers low in his gut, like a pot just on the edge of boiling over. "What the hell, Sam? I thought you were gonna help me!"
"I am helping," Sam says placidly. "I am keeping you fed, caffeinated, and occupied while Barnes gets his head checked by the first of what I'm sure will be a small army of therapists assigned to his case. Unless he gets triggered and goes on a murderous rampage -- which given the trail of surprisingly not dead bodies he left across Eastern Europe, I really don't think is likely -- you will then be allowed to see him."
It's not that Steve doesn't trust the psychiatrists on Stark's payroll. It's just that -- no, you know what, he absolutely does not trust them, he doesn't trust anyone he's not personally acquainted with to go anywhere near Bucky. "Come on, Sam, aren't you a trauma counsellor? Can't you treat him?"
Sam sighs. "Look, there are the manifestations of trauma I have been trained to deal with, and then there's the bucket of godawful your buddy's been through. I am in no way qualified to help him sort through his shit. That's why Maria has recruited actual trained professionals to work with him, and why you and me are sitting here with limitless free refills of very unimaginative coffee." He gives Steve a stern look. "Now eat your damn eggs and be grateful for 'em, there are children starving in Africa."
A month or so back, while they were still in Europe, perpetually five steps behind the Winter Soldier, Sam had turned to him once and asked, "So what's a happy ending, here?"
Seemed like the question came out of nowhere. They were on a train heading towards Warsaw, and Steve felt trapped, confined, too large for the compartment. Rain streaked across the windows. He hadn't really understood what Sam meant by it, and said as much.
"I mean," Sam went on, "let's say, best case scenario, we find your buddy and he remembers everything pre-1945 and he miraculously works his way through the rest of his trauma and comes out relatively sane on the other end. What comes next for you? 'Cause this ain't a fairy tale, man, you don't wrap life up with a neat little bow and tack a 'happily ever after' onto it, you still got to deal with the day-to-day business of living. What do you want to do?"
"Right now, I've just gotta focus on helping Bucky," was what Steve told him then. "I can figure out the rest of it later."
Point is, Steve still doesn't know what comes next. What comes after. Bucky's here, Bucky's safe (sorta), Bucky's maybe even made some progress toward finding himself again. Steve knows they've got a ways to go before they achieve anything resembling normal, and that's still what he's focusing on for now. But Sam's question itches at the back of his mind, aches like a sore tooth.
Maybe Bucky can help answer it for him.
Hours pass before Natasha finally calls them back in. Caffeine doesn't have much of an effect on Steve, but he's still had far more free refills than any one man should, and he's twitchy and unsettled the whole drive back. Or maybe that has nothing to do with the coffee. For once, Sam refrains from making any smart remarks.
The security personnel at the hangar give him sour looks as he passes, but nobody tries to stop him from going downstairs. He does his best to appear calm and nonthreatening and even takes the stairs at something like a normal speed this time.
Hill and Natasha are both waiting in the control room. "How is he?" Steve asks, before they can lecture him again.
"Quiet," Hill says. "Calm. Cooperative. It's a refreshing change of pace. Most ex-assassins aren't quite so docile."
Natasha rolls her eyes, and Steve manages a tight smile. At least Hill doesn't seem to be actively angry with him anymore. But once again, what she's telling him doesn't sound like Bucky at all. Quiet? Docile?
He remembers the mask he'd ripped off the Winter Soldier's face -- it had looked more like a muzzle than anything else. HYDRA had kept its assassin quiet, all right. And from the files he's read…
His large breakfast churns unpleasantly in his stomach.
Hill's still talking. "He doesn't seem to be a danger to himself or others at this point. The shrink's going to need a few more days to do a full evaluation before we'll be ready to release him from this facility, but until I get more intel on HYDRA's next plan of attack, he's probably better off in here anyway."
"I'm assuming you called us back because you're gonna let me see him now," Steve says, squaring his shoulders like he's getting ready for a fight. Sam, a quiet presence at his back, puts a hand on Steve's shoulder and gives it a firm squeeze.
"Yes," Natasha says. "We'll even give you a little privacy -- sort of. Trip will be keeping an eye on the video feed, but no audio, I promise. But if Barnes starts getting agitated, or if something triggers him -- or if at any point he asks you to leave--"
Steve nods. "Then I'll go."
He hopes nothing happens to make a liar out of him. If Bucky ever truly wants him gone, he'll respect that. But if anything goes pear-shaped in Bucky's head, no way in hell is Steve gonna leave him to deal with that on his own.
There's more security than he expected between the control room and the level where they're keeping Bucky. Hill explains it all to him calmly and concisely as she walks him through. If Bucky goes rogue -- if something triggers the Winter Soldier -- there are several failsafes in place to contain him. They probably wouldn't work against the Hulk, but someone clearly designed this place with supersoldiers in mind. Steve doesn't ask whether that's a holdover from when this was still a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility or if Stark had a hand in it. It's probably a combination of both.
The security in place is reliant on technology rather than manpower, which makes a certain kind of sense. Hill clearly doesn't think of her people as expendable the way the Army does. They only encounter two guards on their way in -- a youngish woman in the standard Stark Industries security uniform, and Triplett, who looks more like a plainclothes cop or field agent. Triplett is the one who lets him into Bucky's room, offering Steve a friendly grin that he can't help but return. Seems like a decent guy, and if Natasha's on nickname basis with him, he's probably very good at his job. Looks vaguely familiar, too -- but then, so do most of Hill's people.
It's not the cell Steve had seen on the monitor earlier. This one's more like an interrogation room, with chairs set up on either side of a plain metal table. Bucky is leaning against the far wall, both arms crossed against his chest, eyes fixed on the doorway. Steve's shield rests at his feet. His whole body tenses for a moment when the door opens, but when he sees Steve, his mouth twists into a shadow of his old smirk.
"Hey, Steve," he says.
The door closes and locks behind Steve. It barely registers. He can't take his eyes off Bucky, drinks in the sight of him. He's definitely showered since this morning, now wearing clean navy blue sweatpants and a plain white T-shirt. His metal arm seems to have some range of motion back to it. Looks like he's lost weight since the helicarrier, mostly muscle; he's not quite as bulky, his shoulders a little less broad. But he's healthy, and his blue eyes are clear -- it really is Bucky looking back at him.
Steve lets out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Hey, Bucky."
Bucky leans down to pick up the shield without looking away from Steve. "Figured you'd come back for this eventually. You're getting real careless with your stuff, pal, leaving it lying around where any asshole could pick it up."
"Yeah," Steve says, laugh catching in his throat like a stutter. "It happens."
Bucky lifts one eyebrow and proffers the shield. "So you want it back or what?"
Steve's moving forward without any conscious thought, barely smart enough to dodge around the table rather than plow right through it. He hesitates for half a second, Bucky still holding the shield at arm's length between them, then takes the shield and tosses it aside in favor of dragging Bucky into a rough hug. It clangs loudly as it hits the floor and Bucky flinches, but before Steve can back off and apologize, Bucky's wrapping both his arms around Steve tightly, pulling him closer still.
If he'd thought about it beforehand, Steve might've held back. Torture is too pleasant a word for what Bucky's been through, and jumping him like this -- well, Steve's kinda surprised Bucky didn't sock him one on reflex. But whatever's going on in Bucky's head, seems like the body remembers. Bucky always used to be a tactile fella, in lots of little ways: slinging an arm across Steve's shoulders as they walked down the street, touching his hand or his face to check him over when he got hurt or sick, giving his arm a quick squeeze or ruffling his hair or thumping him lightly on the back just in passing in their cramped apartment. Sitting real close to Steve, their thighs pressed together. He was like that with his other friends, too -- maybe not quite as familiar, not as intimate, but he was always clapping their shoulders or nudging elbows, and he made the dames blush with innocent little brushes and touches when he took them out dancing or to the pictures. He'd become less free with his affection during the war, after Zola; but even then, he always sat a little too close, knees knocking. And Steve tried to make up the difference in any way he could. It killed him to see Bucky so hungry for basic human contact but unable to ask for it.
This might be the first time in seventy years anyone's touched Bucky just for the sheer comfort of touching him -- not to hurt, not to attack or restrain or manipulate. Just to hold him. He's gotta be starved for it. God, Steve's just grateful that Bucky trusts him enough to hug him back.
"Missed you, Buck," he murmurs into the crook of Bucky's neck. "Can't tell you how much."
They're pressed tight enough that he can feel the breath hitch in Bucky's chest. "Wish I could say the same," Bucky says. "But, y'know. Most of the time I didn't remember I had anyone to miss."
If he's trying for a joke, it falls flat. But Steve's not gonna hold it against him. He does let Bucky loosen his hold, though he doesn't go far. Bucky's arms drop back down to his sides, but Steve keeps one hand on Bucky's shoulder. (The normal one, not the metal -- he doesn't know how sensitive the metal is to touch, or if it feels anything at all.)
"How much do you remember now?" Steve asks, rubbing gentle circles into the warm skin beneath the thin T-shirt. "If you don't mind my asking."
Bucky shrugs. "Most of it, I think, from before. As much as anyone would remember after seventy years, anyway. Some of it's just flashes. Other parts are much clearer." He ducks his head, like he's forgotten his hair's not long enough to hide his face anymore. "The stuff from after -- that's all there, too."
Steve's stomach lurches a little at that -- he's seen the file, and that's more than enough for him. He can't imagine living with the actual memories. Doesn't want to know what the file left out.
"That's good, though, right?" Bucky says, lifting his head back up to meet Steve's eyes. His voice is even, almost emotionless. "Useful intel for all your new friends."
Steve tries not to grimace. It's a reasonable assumption to make. If this were still S.H.I.E.L.D. -- if Fury were in charge right now -- Steve knows how this would play out. There are only two ways people like the Winter Soldier come out of the cold. One doesn't bear thinking of. The other...well, Fury would've made Bucky an offer he couldn't refuse.
(And yes, Steve understands that reference. Because Sam once made a joke about leaving the gun and taking the cannoli, was horrified when Steve didn't get it, and so promptly sat him down in the only hotel room in Lubny with Pay-Per-View to watch it. Steve's still not sure why he's supposed to be rooting for a bunch of mob bosses, but he has to admit it's a good movie.)
He drops his hand from Bucky's shoulder. "I didn't follow you all across Europe for intel, Bucky."
"You didn't," Bucky agrees. "But I'm in here for a reason, and we both know it. My head might be a bit scrambled, but I'm not stupid."
"Hey, don't flatter yourself, you've always been pretty stupid."
"And you've always been kind of an asshole," Bucky retorts, but he's almost smiling, so that's something.
It's getting a little awkward, the two of them standing around like this when there are a couple of perfectly good chairs right there in the room, but Steve doesn't want to take a seat across the table from Bucky. That really would feel like a debriefing -- like an interrogation. He avoids the chairs and sits at the edge of the table instead. "I'm sorry about the accommodations, Buck, but it's just temporary. They been treating you okay?"
After a brief hesitation, Bucky joins him, perches right next to him on the table. His knee bumps up against Steve's. "Sure. Lots of questions, but nothing I wasn't expecting. At least they were polite about it."
Steve decides not to dwell on that part. "Looks like you cleaned up all right."
Bucky studies his face for a long moment, expressionless. "On the outside, anyway," he says. "But there's not enough soap in the world to scrub all the blood off my hands. You understand that, right?"
"Hill told me about those HYDRA agents--"
"No, those guys had it coming, they tried to kill me first." Humor sparks in Bucky's eyes for just a second or two, then is gone. "That's not what I'm talking about. There've been a lot of others, these past seventy years."
"No one can blame you for that," Steve says quietly, meaning it.
Bucky looks away, clearly disagreeing, but says nothing. The silence between them stretches on long enough to get uncomfortable. Steve clears his throat.
"How's the arm?" he asks, because he's always had a talent for making an awkward situation worse.
Bucky doesn't seem to mind, though. He glances down at his metal arm and flexes his fingers. "Back to normal, more or less. They shut it down when they picked me up, but Triplett took the inhibitor back out after the shrink gave him the go-ahead. Who the hell gave 'em that sort of tech, anyway? Even my old handlers never could disable the arm without completely immobilizing it."
"Stark," Steve says, knowing his tone is bone dry. "There's another one running around these days."
"I know. Iron Man. I did some research."
Steve raises an eyebrow. "On Tony Stark?"
"On you," Bucky says quietly. He offers up a crooked half-smile. "You've got a new team watching your back now. Had to make sure they were up to the job."
"Yeah?" Steve says. His throat feels tight. "What's your evaluation, then, Sergeant?"
Bucky knocks his ankle gently against Steve's. "Not sure yet. Need personal references."
Steve nods, swallows, and begins telling Bucky about the Avengers.
A couple of hours pass before he manages to drag himself away, and even then it's only because Bucky's looking worn and gray around the edges. Steve can't help but think that one night's sedation really doesn't make up for however many months of not sleeping properly. Back upstairs, he discovers that Sam's still hanging around, flirting with Natasha. ("Such a hardship," Sam tells him later, deadpan. "You have no idea.")
Sam makes it very clear that he's not leaving town anytime soon. "Hell, I've been on sabbatical from the VA ever since HYDRA's Most Wanted showed up on my doorstep and poured me the crazy justice Kool-Aid," he points out. "And somebody's got to keep you from ripping this place apart while Barnes gets his head checked out. Plus my sister's been nagging me to visit for months. Tell me you've got a couch for me to crash on, at least, don't strand me in her tiny apartment."
At that, Steve laughs so hard he's almost crying, because he has an entire goddamn floor all to himself in Stark Tower and, yeah, he thinks he might be able to rustle up some spare bedding or something.
When he pulls himself together enough to explain that, Sam says, dead serious, "You do realize this means it's time to introduce me to Iron Man, right?"
Which is how, a few days later, Steve finds himself on the roof of Stark Tower -- "Avengers Tower," Tony corrects him sternly -- watching Sam soar across the sky on a brand new set of wings while Tony chatters on at JARVIS about functionality and modifications and other tech specs. Sam's whooping and hollering like a kid on a roller coaster -- "Steve, man, you have got to try this!"
"C'mon, Steve, you gotta give it a try," fourteen-year-old Bucky wheedles, grin wide and reckless, dragging him toward the Cyclone with both his hands wrapped around Steve's skinny wrists.
"You know what, pal," Steve says, not sure who he's talking to anymore, "I think I'm good right here."
The weeks following Bucky's return are a lot harder for Steve than they should be, and he feels terrible for even thinking that. It's stupid, really: in so many ways, this is the best case scenario Sam had talked about. Bucky's safe, he's healthy, he knows who he is and remembers who he used to be. If he's quieter now, more withdrawn -- well, that's perfectly understandable, given the circumstances. Going to war had changed Bucky long before he fell from the train. But while that Bucky had become sharper around the edges, quicker to anger, his moods sometimes turning dark and bitter in ways Steve never quite understood, this new Bucky seems to have no more fight left in him. When the old Bucky would have argued with Steve, this one shuts down, pulls away, goes blank and still. It's unsettling.
And there's nothing for Steve to do. The therapist is the one who spends hours shut away with Bucky, helping him work through seventy years of trauma. Hill is pleased as punch with all the intel Bucky is freely giving her about HYDRA and the KGB and God only knows what else. Even Natasha seems to be helping more than Steve, given the satisfied smile on her face whenever she leaves Bucky's room, and the way he always seems lighter for it afterward.
(Steve does ask if the two of them are...intimate. Bucky shakes his head. "Once," he says. "When we were both with the Red Room. But that ended a long time ago."
"Why?" Steve asks.
Bucky gives him a sardonic look. "They wiped me. Next time I saw her, it was years later, I didn't remember her, and we were playing for different teams. I shot her in the stomach. Kinda kills the romance."
Steve thinks about the healed-over bullet wound in his own gut, and how it doesn't change a damn thing.)
When Steve's allowed to see him -- which is maybe for an hour, tops, on any given day -- he mostly just feels like he's talking at Bucky, while Bucky sits quietly and says little in return. That first conversation they had, on the first day, would be the most Bucky spoke to him in one go. Maybe it's 'cause now Bucky has so many other people he's supposed to be talking to all day long, and by the time Steve gets a look in, he's running on empty.
Half the time, Steve wonders if Bucky even wants him there.
When he's not cooling his heels in the hangar waiting for his hour with Bucky, he doesn't know what to do with himself. Tony talks about hacking HYDRA when he's not working on new prototypes with Sam, but HYDRA's got a closed network, and JARVIS can’t do much until Tony finds a way in. And until they get solid intel, there's no one for Steve to fight. He runs too many laps around Central Park and destroys seven of the specially reinforced punching bags in the Avengers Tower gym, gets on his bike and rides along the back roads in New Jersey at random until he has no idea where he is and has to use the GPS on his phone to find his way back to Newark, back to Bucky, back to that cell-like room with its increasingly silent occupant.
Eventually, Hill's gonna let Bucky out of there, and Steve has no idea what comes next. He feels too restless to keep inside his own skin, punchy and frustrated and spoiling for a fight, but there's nothing for him to hit except the bags, and there's something singularly unsatisfying about punching something that can't punch back. He can't really spar with Sam or Clint without hurting them, Natasha's not playing those sorts of games with him right now, Thor's in London, and lately Tony's been reticent about suiting up for anything outside of a genuine fight. What he wants is to go a few rounds with the Hulk, really get the shit kicked out of him for a change, but Bruce understandably prefers not to let the Other Guy loose on the regular. So Steve's left spinning his wheels and waiting for something, for anything, for he doesn't know what.
"Christ, Steve," Bucky mutters, crouched down in front of him, pressing a little chunk of ice wrapped in a wet rag to Steve's brand new shiner. "At least tell me you had a good reason to start this one."
It's the middle of August, 1941, hot as an oven even at night, and their icebox barely even keeps anything lukewarm. Steve has no idea where Bucky managed to scrounge up actual ice, especially at this time of night. But the cloth feels blessedly cool against his swollen eye, so he ain't gonna ask. He tries to smile and tastes fresh blood against his split lip. "Aw, Buck, you oughtta know by now, I'm never the one who starts anything."
Bucky snorts. "Sure, and butter wouldn't melt in your mouth. Heard Tommy Kenneally and his boys were giving the Levines a rough time outside the dance hall."
"Yeah," Steve admits with a sigh. "Couple of 'em tried to corner Myra while Tommy picked a fight with her husband. Assholes." Myra's an old school friend of theirs; of course Steve wasn't gonna look the other way. Not that he would've if she'd been a complete stranger, either. It's not the first time this year he's gotten into it with Tommy and his buddies. Hell, it's not even the first time this month.
"What are all the nice dames in your fancy art class gonna think when you walk in tomorrow looking like you met the wrong end of truck?"
"They'd have to notice I exist first," Steve points out. "So they probably won't think much of anything."
Bucky makes a low, unhappy sound, like he always does when he thinks Steve's being too down on himself, but he doesn't try to tell Steve off about it this time. "You know, one of these days, some asshole won't stop at just beatin' on ya," he says instead, quiet and serious. He's still holding the rapidly-melting ice to Steve's eye, fingertips grazing the skin at Steve's temple. "Would it really kill you to walk away from a fight for once in your goddamn life?"
Steve shrugs. If Bucky'd been there, he'd've jumped right in himself, and he knows it. He's just sore 'cause Steve tried to take them on alone. "If it's something worth fighting for, then no, I ain't gonna walk away from it." He brushes Bucky's hand away, and what's left of the ice with it. They're not kids anymore. Steve doesn't need to be mothered. He takes the wet rag and uses it to staunch the bleeding at his lip instead.
"So I figured," Bucky says. He shakes his head and sits next to Steve on the bed. The thin mattress dips under his weight. "I don't know what you think you gotta prove to anyone, Stevie. Could you maybe prove to me that you can stay out of trouble for one damn week instead?"
"Aw, Bucky, just think how bored you'd get if you couldn't nag at me all the time." Steve tosses the bloodstained rag away. He'll soak it in the sink later. There's something almost like a breeze coming through the open window, his whole body aches with the bruises Bucky can't see, and he just doesn't want to move right now.
"Yeah, what a fuckin' tragedy that would be." Bucky gives him a smile, but it doesn't reach his eyes. He reaches out and presses his fingertips gently against Steve's jaw, tilting Steve's face closer so he can look at the split lip. "You don't need stitches, do ya?"
"Nah, it'll be fine." Their faces are so close now that Steve has to blink his good eye a few times to focus on him properly. "I've had worse."
Bucky huffs out a breath. "Yeah, you don't have to tell me. I just hate having to patch you up, is all. Wish you could find some other way to deal with whatever's inside you that's always got you so angry."
There's something about the nighttime and the small bedroom lit only by one little lamp and the heat and the stillness that makes it feel like they're the only two people awake in the whole city. It's easier to be honest in the dark. "It ain't any one thing," Steve says quietly. "It's just who I am, Buck."
"I know." Bucky runs his thumb carefully along Steve's lower lip, brushing against the cut, and Steve sucks in a breath. He can feel sweat trickling down between his shoulder blades. "Just wish you weren't so unhappy all the time."
Bucky leans in and presses a soft kiss to the very corner of Steve's mouth. He lingers there for a long moment while Steve hardly dares breathe. His lips are warmer even than his hands. When Bucky finally pulls away, he keeps his fingertips pressed lightly against Steve's skin.
"It's not all the time," Steve says, and Bucky smiles and drops his hand from Steve's face. Steve misses his touch immediately.
"Sure it ain't," Bucky says easily, and tugs Steve into a quick hug before getting to his feet. "C'mon, you got class in the morning. If you ain't too banged up you should try to get some sleep."
"Too hot to sleep," Steve mutters, but he's already kicking off his shoes and curling up into the pillow. Sometimes in the winter they shove the beds together and huddle close for warmth, but that ain't gonna happen tonight. More's the pity.
"Don't I know it." There's an odd note in Bucky's voice. But he settles down on his own bed and doesn't say anything else about it.
Steve has the gym on the 45th floor all to himself today, as usual. There are a number of training facilities on this and the immediately surrounding floors, actually, which Steve hasn't fully investigated yet. The Avengers haven't done much training as a team, but that should probably change, and soon. Trouble is, no one's quite sure who's in charge. Hill's been handling mission orders, but she's too busy to bother with the day-to-day minutiae of training a bunch of misfit superheroes. Tony provides the funding, but he's not a natural leader, and while he's becoming a better team player, he still doesn't think to put the needs of the group ahead of his own. Bruce is only interested in his lab, except when needed for smashing. Natasha's immensely talented, but she's not a commander, and while no one else seems particularly surprised by her abrupt reappearance, they don't exactly look to her for leadership. Clint has the military experience, but he specialized in solo ops and never had any interest in becoming an officer. Of all of them, actually, Thor is probably the best qualified to lead the team -- he led whole armies back in Asgard -- but somehow Steve has become the de facto commander in the field, so it's probably up to him to forge the Avengers into a real fighting unit.
He never had a problem bearing the weight of responsibility before, but right now, the thought of dealing with the logistics of it all is just...too much. So he beats the crap out of a couple of punching bags instead.
When the third bag finally splits with the force of his punch, sand spilling out across the floor, he's startled to hear the sound of someone slowly applauding behind him.
"I believe your foe has been well and truly vanquished," Thor remarks with a small smile. The sarcasm he probably picked up from his brother, although it's noticeably gentler than Loki's biting wit; Steve has to wonder who taught him the subtle art of the slow clap. He's even wearing normal clothing -- dark gray slacks and a nice red sweater. Looks like he's adjusting to life on Earth. Still carries the hammer around with him everywhere, though.
Steve pushes his sweaty hair back off his forehead. "Good to see you, too. I thought you were still in England."
"So long as my Jane resides in London, my heart remains there with her. But the Lady Hill requested my presence here and I saw no reason to deny her."
Steve pauses halfway through unwrapping his hands. He has a sinking feeling he knows why Hill invited Thor back. "Oh? Any particular reason?"
"She sought my counsel on matters of security." Thor's gaze is direct and his voice level. "Regarding the Winter Soldier."
"You mean she wants someone around that she knows Bucky can't beat," Steve says bitterly. "In case he gets triggered, or is lying to us all, or whatever."
"I understand your protectiveness of your former shield-brother, but she has good cause to be less trusting," Thor says, not without sympathy. "She felt the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. most keenly and is unwilling to risk further betrayal."
Steve tosses his wrappings into the trash with more force than is strictly necessary. He knows that S.H.I.E.L.D. is still technically operational, albeit on a much smaller scale; it frustrates him to no end that after everything that went down in D.C., Fury is still trying to work within a system that is fundamentally broken. He also knows that his anger with Hill is misplaced at best. Doesn't make him any less angry, though. "Yeah? So what's your professional evaluation, then, Thor?"
Thor shrugs, another very human affectation. "I believe that the soldier Barnes is no longer under any man's influence but his own, for good or for ill. He's had a most difficult path to walk, and much further yet to go. But he means no harm to any here."
"So is Hill gonna let him out of that damn cage?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes, I believe so," Thor says, which is unusually evasive for him. He studies Steve seriously. "And you, Captain? Are you well? You seem...agitated."
"I'm fine," Steve snaps, then sighs and does his best to rein in his temper. Thor's done nothing to deserve it. He plasters on a smile. "Really, Thor. Just a little frustrated at the moment, but it'll pass. Hey, actually, maybe you can help me."
Thor raises his eyebrows. "How might I be of assistance?"
"Spar with me." Steve shifts his weight onto the balls of his feet restlessly. "Seriously, I could use the workout. And the distraction. No shield, no hammer, just you and me. Your style's different from most of the guys I've fought, it'll make a nice change."
He's not sure why Thor looks hesitant, but after a moment, he agrees. "Very well. An informal contest of strength and skill. I accept your challenge."
Even without his armor or Mjolnir, and stripped down to his undershirt and a borrowed pair of gym shorts, Thor cuts a hell of an imposing figure. Steve's no slouch, but Thor has a good four inches and fifty pounds of muscle on him. And Steve realizes that he's never actually seen Thor fight hand-to-hand. This should be interesting.
After circling each other on the mats, assessing, Steve gets impatient and darts in, feinting to the left while aiming a kick at Thor's abdomen. He realizes his mistake immediately -- Thor uses Steve's own momentum against him, grabbing his ankle and flipping him onto his back. Steve easily catches himself and bounces back up, landing a punch on Thor's jaw that hardly even seems to register. Thor swats him aside and kicks out at his knee, which Steve narrowly dodges. And then he stops paying attention to individual moves and countermoves, losing himself entirely in the flow of the fight.
Steve is quicker and more flexible, using his gymnastics and martial arts training to keep Thor off-balance. But Thor is stronger, with more power behind his blows, and he has literal centuries' worth of combat experience. No move Steve makes seems to take him by surprise. Steve hasn't faced this kind of a challenge since...well, since his fight with Bucky on the helicarrier. But that had been far more brutal, both physically and emotionally. Even if he lives as long as an Asgardian, Steve will never forget the desperation in Bucky's eyes, the way he'd lost all sense of strategy in his reversion to an almost animal rage, the feel of his metal fist connecting with Steve's face again and again and again--
Thor's voice cuts through his reverie. "Stop this, Captain," he says sharply. Steve realizes that he's whaling on Thor -- but uselessly, senselessly, blows that hardly even glance off him. Adrenaline courses through him and a reddish haze fills his vision. Why the hell won't Thor fight back properly?
"I could do this all day!" Steve yells at him. "C'mon, hit me! Are we sparring or not? Let's go!"
Thor only grabs Steve's fists and kicks his legs out from under him, bearing him heavily down against the mat. Steve feels a sudden, sharp flash of something strangely like elation. This is exactly the situation he should be trying to avoid when fighting Thor; once pinned, there's little chance he'll be getting up again. This is where the knockout punch would come in a boxing match. Steve can't wait.
But Thor doesn't deliver, just holds him in place. "Breathe deeply. Let go of your rage. This is not who you are."
"What the hell do you know about me?" Steve demands, struggling against him. "Just hit me!"
"No," Thor says firmly, using all of his superior strength and weight to keep Steve immobile. "I am ending this, right now. I will not fight you."
Steve's face is wet. He's not sure why. He strains against Thor's grip to no avail.
Thor just shakes his head. "I will not be used as a tool in your personal quest for destruction," he says. The look in his eyes is unbearably gentle. "That is no way to treat a friend, Steve. And no way to treat yourself."
All the fight drains out of Steve, and he lets his body go limp. His head thunks back against the mat. After a moment, Thor cautiously releases him, rocking back on his heels. Steve blinks away tears, feeling suddenly exhausted.
"It is a difficult thing, for a warrior to be faced with a problem that cannot be fought with fists or swords," Thor says quietly. "Even more so when the enemy you face is something deep within yourself."
"How do I fight it, then?" Steve hears himself ask, hating the plaintive tone in his own voice.
Thor is silent for a long moment. "I'm afraid that is a question every man must answer for himself," he finally says. "But your friends shall do everything in their power to assist you, if you allow them. Never doubt that."
Steve wishes it were that easy.
The Avengers haven't exactly assembled, but they have gathered in one of the blander Stark Industries conference rooms as per Hill's request. Bruce is mostly engrossed in his StarkPad, while Clint doodles on the back of a clipboard and Thor watches the others impassively. Tony and Natasha are engaged in a quiet conversation that cuts off abruptly when Steve walks in. Sam's also here, which means Hill wants someone present to manage Steve in particular, which means this little meeting probably has something to do with Bucky. There's an open seat beside Thor. Steve sinks down into it warily.
"So here's the thing," Tony tells Steve, in that too-casual tone that immediately makes every muscle in Steve's body tense up. "Your Paranoid Android has a HYDRA tracking device wired into his robot arm. But in a good way!" he adds, when Steve apparently does not look appropriately pleased by this revelation.
"What exactly is good about that?" Steve demands. "And hold on a minute -- they allowed you in to see Bucky?"
"'Allowed' is such a strong word," Tony says. "But seriously -- robot arm, hello, did you really think I wasn't gonna be all over that? And, hey, tracker! Which I found! So it all worked out for the best, right?"
He directs that last bit to Hill, very pointedly. She ignores him. "It's a good thing because now we know how they found Barnes in Nebraska," she tells Steve.
"Great. Really sets my mind at ease. Can you take it out of him?"
"Technically, yes," Tony says. "But I'm not going to."
Steve's temper is starting to boil over again, but Thor grips his shoulder in unspoken warning. He grits his teeth and keeps a lid on it, barely. "You mind explaining why not?"
Tony's eyes dart to Hill again. "Well, for starters, I can't disconnect it without disabling it entirely, and knowing HYDRA, that'll probably trigger something even more unpleasant -- not sure what exactly, hard to study it properly in that underequipped airplane hangar. Now, if you wanna relocate the Capsicle Mark 2 to my lab--"
"But in the meantime, as long as that tracker stays in him, HYDRA knows how to find him," Hill interrupts. "Which means we can find them."
It only takes about half a second for the implication to sink in. "No. No, absolutely not, I won't allow it. And I know you're not telling me he agreed to this--"
"Steve," Natasha says quietly. "Barnes is the one who suggested it."
Steve shakes his head. "This is ridiculous. HYDRA's been on the run since the helicarriers were destroyed. We've been rooting out splinter cells for months now. What could we possibly gain--"
"Those guys are small fry," Hill says. "But even within HYDRA, the Winter Soldier was a closely guarded secret. There was no intel on him in any of the files Natasha plastered across the internet. So if someone's specifically tracking him now, we need to know who they are. And we need to eliminate them."
"You're saying this is some kinda HYDRA VIP?" Sam asks. "I thought we already took care of the important ones."
Hill gives him a wry smile. "Cut off one head, and two more take its place. After Pierce's death, two of his lieutenants decided to try their luck. One was known as the Clairvoyant -- he's since been dealt with. The other calls himself Crossbones. He's the one who's trying to recapture Barnes."
"'Crossbones'? Really?" Tony scoffs. "What kind of wannabe supervillain picks a lame name like that?"
Behind his back, Clint rolls his eyes and mouths "Iron Man", air quotes and all.
"He's done a good job of keeping his actual identity under wraps," Hill says. "But very few people knew about the Winter Soldier's existence, and most of them were killed during the battle of the Triskelion. And Crossbones isn't a scientist. He's a soldier, and worse, he's a true believer. And he's trying to consolidate power. If he regains control of the Winter Soldier--"
"He won't," Steve says, with all the authority and command of Captain America in his voice. "Because we're not using Bucky as bait."
They are, in fact, using Bucky as bait.
"This is absolute bullshit," Steve informs him, angrily pacing around the Brooklyn no-longer-particularly-safe house where Bucky has now been installed. At least it's a step up from the prison underneath that hangar. "They got no right making you do this."
Bucky slouches back into the couch cushions with a sigh. "I know my memory's kinda glitchy these days, but since when do you have a problem with going after HYDRA?"
"Going after them's no problem! My problem is that we're setting you up like a sitting duck and just waiting for them to come after you!"
"I'm not exactly helpless," Bucky points out. There's a cold edge to his voice. "Christ, Steve, if you're not gonna calm down, could you at least sit down? I'm getting dizzy just watching you."
Steve huffs out an irritated breath, but he does leave off his pacing to join Bucky on the couch. "I know you can handle yourself against those assholes. That's not the point."
"So what is your point?"
"That you shouldn't have to!" Steve scrubs a hand across his face, trying to keep his temper in check. "HYDRA's already put you through enough. You should be allowed to stop fighting for once in your goddamn life."
Bucky's quiet for a long while after that. Steve forces his own body to relax, one muscle group at a time, until he sinks down into the couch cushions and tilts his head back to stare up at the ceiling. His shoulder bumps against Bucky's metal one.
"Thing is, though," Bucky finally says, "I'm not sure I know how to do anything else anymore. And at least now I've got something worth fighting for."
Steve sighs. "I guess if anyone's got the right to revenge--"
"You're the Avenger, not me," Bucky says, a little too sharply. But whatever he means by that, he doesn't elaborate further.
Steve almost wants to keep prodding, like feeling out the edges of a bad bruise, because it's the closest thing to emotion he's heard in Bucky's voice in days. But he's scared of what might happen if he pushes too far -- what if Bucky decides he doesn't want Steve around anymore at all? Stark's security people are in two of the neighboring townhouses, along with a few former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that Hill vouches for, but Steve doesn't really trust anyone else to back up Bucky when HYDRA inevitably attacks.
Well. Maybe Natasha.
His gaze slips down to Bucky's metal arm. He's tried not to stare at it too closely, doesn't want to make Bucky uncomfortable, but he hates the thought that all this time, there's been something wired inside of it that's broadcasting their location to HYDRA.
"How can you stand it?" he asks, then thinks better of it and grimaces. "I don't mean the arm -- um, unless you do have a problem with the arm itself, then I guess we can talk to Tony and see what he -- never mind." He starts to pull away, face hot, but Bucky presses his metal hand against Steve's knee, and he stills.
"I hated the arm, at first," Bucky says. His tone is distant, unconcerned. "At least, I think I did. When I remembered to. But it's just...it's a part of me, now. It's mine. I guess you can get used to anything." He looks directly at Steve now, the barest hint of uncertainty flickering across his face, and takes his hand away. "Does it bother you?"
"No," Steve says instantly and means it. "Of course not. I just hate the fact that HYDRA is using it to hunt you down."
A smile tugs at the corners of Bucky's mouth. "You never were good at waiting. Always had to tackle a problem head on. No patience whatsoever."
Steve can't exactly argue with that. He ducks his head to avoid Bucky's knowing look, studies the metal plating on the arm instead. The red star on the shoulder is mostly covered by the short sleeve of Bucky's T-shirt. It was probably the Russians who originally painted it on. He wonders why HYDRA kept it. To keep the Winter Soldier's legend alive, he guesses, and maybe as a smokescreen to conceal the true identity of his employers. The metal gleams the way it didn't when Bucky'd first been brought in. Tony's doing, probably. He realizes his fingertips are just grazing the visible points of the star, and he looks back up into Bucky's face.
"Sure," Bucky says. Steve can't quite read his expression. "Go ahead."
Steve traces the edges of the metal plating that forms Bucky's triceps, keeping his touch light. The mechanics of it are kind of incredible, the way the plates are shaped and how they overlap and interlock. The metal itself is cool to the touch, cooler even than room temperature, and Steve wonders if that's a property of the particular alloy used or if it's part of the design, keeping the machinery inside from overheating. He already knows how strong the arm is; strange now to think of it as delicate as well. Steve can tell there was an artist involved in designing this prosthetic, someone with a good eye for anatomy and movement. The arm is a weapon, but it's not just a bludgeon. There's more than brute force behind it. He can't even figure out where Tony opened it up, how he could have gotten into the inner workings and found the tracker in the first place. It all feels so seamless to Steve. Well, he's never been much of a mechanic.
He runs his hand down along the biceps to the elbow, following the lines of muscles that no longer exist. Bucky shivers slightly -- he can hear the arm whir faintly as if in response -- and Steve's eyes snap back up to meet Bucky's. "Do you feel anything, when I touch it?"
"A little," Bucky says. His voice has dropped to a lower register than usual, sounding hoarse in his throat. "Pressure, temperature. Not texture. The hand is more sensitive -- that was necessary for fine motor control."
Steve brushes his fingertips gently down toward Bucky's wrist, where the plating becomes narrower, more intricate. "Is that why you wore the glove, when you fought? Too sensitive to touch?"
"No," Bucky says. Steve carefully traces his palm, and Bucky clears his throat. "Uh. The glove helps me get a better grip. The metal's too smooth."
It is, very smooth, and still so cool. Steve finds himself completely fascinated by the way the delicate joints of the fingers are fused together, how fine the craftsmanship is. He rubs the pad of his thumb against Bucky's, and Bucky's whole hand twitches, briefly tangling their fingers together.
"Sorry," Bucky says. There's a light flush high in his cheekbones, and his eyes are dark and intent. "It's just--"
"More sensitive," Steve murmurs. "You said." He wonders if Bucky can feel his pulse racing where their wrists are practically clasped together. His lips feel very dry, and when he wets them, Bucky's gaze immediately drops to his mouth. God, he hasn't seen that look in Bucky's eyes in seventy years. He'd almost forgotten it had ever been there at all.
Following an impulse before he can overthink it, Steve brings their joined hands up to press a kiss right into the center of Bucky's metal palm. Bucky sucks in a breath. His whole body is angled toward Steve's now. "Steve…"
Steve's phone chirps loudly from the back pocket of his jeans. Bucky jerks away, and before Steve can try to reel him back in, someone starts knocking on the front door.
"Damnit," Steve swears, jumping to his feet as he grabs his phone. "Buck, I--"
"I'll get the door," Bucky says. That expressionless mask has slammed back onto his face, although his cheeks are still faintly pink. He crosses the living room in a few long strides. Steve can see his metal hand clenching and unclenching at his side.
He closes his eyes for a brief moment, trying to steady himself, then looks down at his phone. It's Hill, of course. He jabs the button to accept the call. "What is it? HYDRA?" he demands.
"Not this time," Hill says. "Energy spike at what we suspect to be an AIM facility in Flushing. Could be another Extremis case. There's a car right outside that'll take you to a rendezvous point where Iron Man can pick you up."
"Tony and Bruce are the ones who figured out how to stabilize Extremis," Steve points out, still irritable at the interruption. "Why--"
"I'd rather send in a supersoldier to fight other supersoldiers," Hill says. "You'll have Stark there to help neutralize the threat if it is Extremis, and I'm sending in Thor and Barton as backup."
"Busy elsewhere. Actually busy, not just hovering over the Winter Soldier, so will you get in the goddamn car already?"
Steve scowls and pockets his phone, slinging his shield across his back as he goes. Bucky is waiting by the door, arm folded across his chest. Triplett is there, too. He must've been the guy knocking.
"Antoine Triplett, sir," he says, in case Steve's forgotten. "I'll be on duty here until you return, Captain Rogers."
Bucky's face is completely impassive, but Steve can guess he's not thrilled about having a babysitter. He wishes he knew what to say or do to bring the life back into Bucky's expression, but whatever that moment on the couch had been, it's gone now. Like it had never happened at all.
"I'll see you soon," Steve promises. Bucky just shrugs, like it makes no difference to him one way or the other, and Steve's stomach sinks a little further. He gives Triplett a clipped nod and heads out to the waiting car.
The incident in Flushing is a bust. Well, it is AIM, and they are continuing their idiotic experiments with Extremis, but the energy spike was from an equipment malfunction rather than one of their soldiers going supernova. There are no soldiers in the facility at all, in fact, and the AIM scientists are embarrassingly ill-prepared for a showdown with the Avengers. Thing is, though, by the time they get there, Steve really wants to punch something, and he maybe goes a little bit overboard when they find the lab.
It's not exactly Hulk-scale destruction, but, well. Not one of Steve's finest moments, either.
It's stupid to lose his temper like this, and he knows it. It's just that he's so goddamn sick and tired of fighting this particular battle. Extremis is just the latest snake oil rip-off of Erskine's serum, yet another collection of fools trying to build their own army of supersoldiers, and when will these people figure out that it doesn't work? When will the evil scientists of the world finally realize that they'll never be able to recreate that perfect serum? When will they learn that Captain America was just a fluke, a freak success story -- that maybe the goddamn serum never should have existed at all?
Bruce turned himself into a monster trying to work it out. The Extremis soldiers literally explode from the inside out, leaving nothing but scorched earth behind. Zola's experiments only spawned murder and destruction in their wake. Yes, the bastardized serum kept Bucky alive, but it sure hasn't done him any favors since. And Steve…
Hell, he doesn't even know.
"Wow," Clint says, surveying the destruction that used to be a lab while Thor rounds up the terrified scientists. He hasn't fired a single arrow. "I'm feeling kinda superfluous right now."
Tony flips his faceplate up to give Steve a hard look. "You know, I'm the one who's supposed to be emotionally compromised here. Unless you've also got a girlfriend who can breathe fire when she gets mad these days, and I feel like I'd have heard about that."
"I'm not compromised," Steve says shortly. "I'm just sick of wasting my time. Any salvageable intel in here?"
"Uh, probably, although this would be a hell of a lot easier if you hadn't gone all Hulk smash on the damn place--"
"Good," Steve snaps. "So salvage. I'm gonna help Thor with the prisoners."
The prisoners really, really don't want Steve to help. One of the AIM flunkies actually whimpers when Steve gets too close. Thor just sighs and waves him off.
"I have them well in hand, Captain," he says, although the look his gives Steve indicates that he has plenty more he could say, but chooses not to. "Perhaps you might frighten up some return transport instead."
Steve stalks outside, yanking his helmet off as he goes. The chilly wind is welcome against his sweat-soaked hair, cooling him down a bit. The air smells like rain.
The length of a post-op debrief always feels inversely proportional to the action in question. Their engagement at the AIM lab couldn't have lasted more than fifteen minutes; the debriefing goes on for hours. By the time he's had his every thought and movement dissected and analyzed and critiqued a hundred times over, it's almost midnight and Steve's wishing he hadn't been quite so gung-ho at the lab. If he'd drawn out the violence a bit more, he might've gotten a lot more satisfaction out of it.
He wants to head right back out to Brooklyn, but it's late, and he doesn't want to disturb Bucky if he's already asleep. Doesn't know if Bucky's expecting him back tonight anyway. They never discussed...well, sleeping arrangements. There are two bedrooms, it's not about that, but Bucky's spent the past few weeks with his every movement monitored. Maybe he doesn't want anyone spending the night in the safe house with him. Maybe he just wants to be left alone for a while.
Not that there's any chance of that so long as HYDRA's still tracking him. This is all such a goddamn mess.
Steve gets off the elevator at his personal floor, takes one look at his huge, empty apartment, and decides to hell with it, he's going back to the safe house anyway. He does take a moment to check to see if Sam's in, but the guest bedroom is empty, and Steve remembers that Sam grew up in Harlem and still has family living somewhere in the city. His life doesn't revolve around the Avengers. Lucky Sam.
While Steve is throwing some clothes and toiletries into a duffel bag, Thor appears in his bedroom doorway. He does not look impressed.
"The hour is late," Thor says. "Do you mean to leave?"
"I told Bucky I'd be coming back."
Thor leans against the doorframe, looking as though he's the one holding the up the frame, not the other way around. "Maria Hill has informed his keepers of our mission's success this evening. Your friend knows that you have returned safely."
Steve blinks. "That's not what I -- Bucky doesn't worry like that. About me." He used to, he doesn't add. That was a long time ago.
"I believe he does," Thor says quietly. "As any would concern themselves for so dear a friend's wellbeing. But that's between the two of you, and not the matter which brings me here." He folds his arms across his chest, eyes narrowing. "Captain, perhaps you could explain your actions at the laboratory earlier this evening."
Steve grabs a shirt and shoves it into his bag with more force than is strictly necessary. "So I broke a few test tubes. So what? We got the bad guys. It's not like I hurt anybody who didn't deserve it."
Thor's eyebrows attain new heights. "One man's collarbone was nearly shattered."
Steve glares at him. "He had a syringe in his hand. You know what those drugs do to normal people. He could've turned Clint into a goddamn time bomb."
"He did not pose any real risk, and was deeply frightened. As you must have been aware. You could have easily disarmed him--"
"That's what I did."
"--without breaking any bones! You have better control of your strength than that, my friend. I have seen you fight many times." Thor looks him over with concern. It's more than Steve can stand right now. "Steve. I have seen soldiers lose themselves to the berserker rage before -- and at times, it can be both righteous and necessary -- but you have always been clear of mind. This violence does not suit you."
Steve grimaces, zipping his bag shut aggressively. "I don't know if you've noticed, Thor, but violence is kind of what I was made for. Quite literally. I'm fine. Just got a little carried away."
"You are concerned for your friend, and impatient for his time in limbo to be resolved. You wish to punish his enemies." Thor is clearly choosing his words with care. "Of course I understand your frustration, and your anger. Your feelings need no justification. But striking out at those who have done you no wrong will solve nothing."
He's right, of course, but that doesn't cool Steve's temper down any. He grabs his bag, and Thor doesn't even try to stop him as he shoulders past on his way out of the room.
"Steve," Thor says quietly, as Steve jabs the button to call the elevator. "None of those scientists in the AIM laboratory were responsible for the cruelties inflicted upon your shield-brother. You do understand that, yes?"
"Yeah," Steve says. "They're still alive, aren't they?"
It's one in the morning by the time he gets to the safe house in Bay Ridge. Triplett's in the living room, watching TV. He gives Steve a nod, like he knew he was coming back, and passes him the remote before heading out. Steve just turns the television off.
The door to Bucky's room is closed. There's no light showing under the crack. Steve drops his duffel down in the doorway of the second bedroom and stretches out on the bed, still fully clothed. He stares up at the ceiling until sunlight starts stealing through the slats in the window blinds and he can justify getting back up.
Bucky keeps to himself, mostly. It feels all wrong. Back before the war, when they'd last shared an apartment, Bucky seemed to take up so much more space. Granted, they'd had a lot less of that in the old place, but even so. He'd stretch out along the couch or sit on the table or sprawl across the floor on his stomach, couldn't stay still for more than five or ten minutes at a stretch, left pieces of the newspaper spread out wherever he'd read and then abandoned them. He'd left his dirty clothes on the floor and dishes in the sink and shoes strewn about exactly where Steve was most likely to trip over them.
The war had changed that some. Bucky'd learned how to be still and patient, how to be truly quiet. He started tidying up after himself. And he became smaller than Steve, not just proportionally -- he seemed to fold up in on himself, sometimes, hunched his shoulders and ducked his head and wouldn't look anyone in the eye. Steve learned to recognize those moods coming on him and took extra care to place himself between Bucky and everybody else, to carve out a space just for him in the chaos of the camp or bar or barracks or wherever they were that night.
Now, Bucky doesn't need Steve to serve as a shield between himself and the rest of the world. He's got his own walls thrown up around himself, and this time, Steve's shut out like everyone else. A treadmill is set up in the basement, and Bucky spends a lot of time down there, just running hard, going nowhere. Or he shuts himself in his room for hours on end. He emerges for meals and responds normally enough to Steve's attempts at conversation, but he's never the one to speak up first, and he usually ducks away after a few minutes. He's not even particularly rude about it. It's more like his head's a million miles away, and he doesn't even notice.
He's not sleeping well, that much Steve can tell. He's woken up more than once to muffled thumps from Bucky's room, like he's knocked something over or fallen out of bed, and once he shouts loudly enough that Steve is inside Bucky's room with the shield on his arm before he's even really processed it. Bucky just shrugs him off, face pale, and politely closes the door in Steve's face.
Needless to say, Steve's not getting a lot of sleep, either.
One afternoon a few days in, Bucky's running his usual thirty miles on the basement treadmill and Steve just can't handle the quiet anymore. So he goes out for a run of his own. Problem is, he gets about half a mile out before he starts getting paranoid about leaving Bucky alone -- well, for some loose definition of "alone" that includes the fifteen agents scattered throughout the neighboring brownstones. But still. He decides to set up his own personal perimeter by doing laps around a two-block radius of the safe house.
Somewhere around the fifteenth or twentieth lap, he finds Triplett standing squarely in the middle of his path with a large thermos and an expression of determination.
"You're making everyone twitchy, Cap," he says sternly. "Quit it. Either get out of the neighborhood and work off some steam, or calm the hell down." He proffers the thermos. "Chamomile. I'm told it's very soothing."
Steve huffs out a sigh, but he accepts the thermos. Bruce has a particular fondness for tea and a tendency to push his experimental blends on anyone who makes the mistake of looking tense in his general vicinity. Straight chamomile can't be any worse than those concoctions. Besides, it reminds him of Peggy. Tea was rationed in England during the war, but she somehow managed to scrounge up a few grams of loose leaves whenever the Commandos stopped over in London. Falsworth and Morita were the only ones who actually liked the stuff, but Steve learned to love the smell of it brewing. It meant his men had survived another mission.
"Thanks," he says, automatically. "But I'd be better off if you could find me some HYDRA agents to punch."
Triplett grins. "We're working on it."
"You'd better be." Steve sips the tea. Still not really his thing. He looks Triplett over, wondering how long he's gonna have to stand here awkwardly with the guy. "Antoine Triplett, right?"
"You can call me Trip, everyone else does."
"And you're one of Hill's people. Formerly of S.H.I.E.L.D.?"
Trip shrugs, easygoing. "Aren't we all?"
Steve cracks a smile. "No kidding. You look familiar, though. Were you based at the Triskelion? Or on the original helicarrier?"
"Nah, I was too busy getting conned by the Clairvoyant." Trip looks grim for a moment, and Steve remembers hearing that name before -- Hill mentioned him, said he'd been dealt with. There's probably a story there. "But you probably think you recognize me 'cause of my granddad. Gabe Jones."
Steve blinks at him, the familiarity slotting into place. "No shit! Wow. Guess he was telling the truth about having a girl back home."
Trip grins again, and yeah, Steve can definitely see the resemblance. "Yeah, she waited for him, all right. Couldn't hardly send a Dear John letter to a Howling Commando, now, could she? She'd've been run out of the neighborhood." He shakes his head. "Anyway, I don't wanna make it weird. But I grew up hearing all his stories about the war, and, well, he was real proud to've served with you. Just thought I should pass that along."
"He had it backwards," Steve says quietly, meaning it. "I was the one who was proud to have served with him." He shifts the thermos between his hands. "I'm sorry, they gave me the files on the Commandos when I...woke up, and I knew Gabe had surviving family. I should've tried to look you all up."
"No worries," Trip tells him easily. "It must've been hard enough losing all that time. You don't want to get stuck trying to live in the past. If you're ever ready, though, my mom would love to meet you."
He's right, though. Visiting Peggy is difficult, but she still knows him, at least some of the time. The thought of surrounding himself with Gabe's legacy, or DumDum's, or Jim Morita's -- it's too much. The stories those kids and grandkids might've heard aren't about him, not really. He doesn't know if he can be that person at all anymore.
God, he's been taking two steps forward and one step back ever since waking up on the wrong side of the twenty-first century. He kept a list of new things to discover but instead spent hours in the Smithsonian immersing himself in the time he'd lost; absorbed new fighting styles and technology like a sponge but could hardly strike up a conversation outside of work. He'd thrown himself into S.H.I.E.L.D., into his new missions, only to discover that he'd been fighting for the enemy the whole time. Just when he'd finally started moving on, maybe -- opening up to Natasha, allowing Sam to befriend him -- Bucky had turned back up. Steve never had a chance to finish mourning him, and now he's stuck in some strange middle ground. Grief interrupted. He's choking on it.
"Sure," he tells Trip, after taking another swallow of the tea to clear his throat. "When I'm ready."
On the fifth evening, Bucky joins Steve on the couch and stares blankly at the TV for a while. Not that Steve's much better -- he's the one who selected the movie on Netflix, and even he has no idea what they're watching. Lots of explosions are involved. Maybe he should've picked something else, but Bucky doesn't seem to mind.
The movie ends. Steve couldn't have named one character or described a single plot point to save his life. He glances over and realizes that Bucky's been watching him, not the television. He's sitting cross-legged on the far end of the couch, studying Steve's face with a narrow, focused expression.
"You used to draw," Bucky says abruptly. "All the time. Whenever there was nothing better to do."
Steve nods, not sure where this is going, but relieved enough that Bucky's talking at all. It's been a very quiet day. "Yeah."
"You were good at it." Bucky's mouth twists into something that's neither a smile nor a frown. "At least, I thought you were. But I'm pretty sure I thought the sun shone outta your ass, so who knows how reliable that memory is."
Warmth tingles in Steve's chest. "I was all right."
"You were good," Bucky says, more like he's convincing himself than correcting Steve. "So...the future still has paper and pencils, right?" At Steve's look, he rolls his eyes. "So, what, you didn't bring any, or something? 'Cause you're obviously bored out of your skull."
"No, I--" Steve huffs out a breath, rubs his nose. "I'm not bored, Buck."
"You're sitting around waiting for nothing to happen all damn day," Bucky says sharply. "You managed to scrounge up blank paper on the front lines. Why don't you--"
Steve sighs. "I don't do that anymore."
Bucky's eyes narrow. "You loved drawing. You took all those fancy art classes in the city..."
"I tried, at first," Steve admits, not quite able to meet his eyes. "Right after I woke up here, while Fury was still figuring out what to do with me. I'd go out and try sketching all the new buildings in New York, all the places where my memories didn't match up with what's there now."
"Seems like you'd have plenty to draw, then."
Steve rubs the back of his neck. "Yeah. But it didn't -- I dunno, it wasn't the same. Everything just looked ugly to me. I couldn't focus on it, wound up sketching from memory instead, and that just…"
He'd found Bucky sprawled across every page of his new sketchpad, Bucky and Peggy and the Commandos and bombed-out London and trains cutting through mountains.
"I couldn't do it anymore," he says quietly. "And then Loki and the Chitauri happened, and after that Fury packed me off to Washington with S.H.I.E.L.D., and I guess I kept busy enough that it didn't much matter."
Quiet rests between them for a couple of minutes. Eventually, Steve manages to drag his gaze back up to Bucky's face, finds Bucky still staring right back.
"So what do you do now?" Bucky asks. "When they're not keeping you busy."
Steve shrugs. "Lots of training, modern fighting styles. Punch bags at the gym, go running, spar with whoever's up for it. Read stuff on the internet. Watch Netflix, try to catch up on what I've missed. I can almost get through an entire conversation with Tony now without having to stop and google a pop culture reference every two minutes."
Bucky almost cracks a smile at that. He has met Tony, presumably, whenever Tony found that tracker in his arm.
"Past few months, though, I was mostly looking for you," Steve adds, because he's never known how to be anything but honest.
"Yeah," Bucky says. This time, he's the one who has to look away. "I know."
"Why does it matter? The drawing thing, I mean."
Bucky shifts on the couch, drawing his knees up against his chest and hugging himself. For a second, Steve blinks and they're back in London, 1944, Bucky sitting on Steve's camp bed and watching him write out reports for the brass, knees tucked up against his chest like a little kid. He'd always preferred Steve's billets to his own -- no great surprise, since officers got better digs than the enlisted men.
Steve blinks again, and he's back in the here and now, Bucky's hair too short and his eyes far too old for his still-youthful face. "It matters," Bucky says in a low, insistent tone. "If you're not drawing anymore, then what makes you happy, Steve?"
Seriously, you could do whatever you want to do, Sam told him in the VA building in D.C. before either of them really knew each other. What makes you happy?
He hadn't known what to tell Sam then, and he doesn't know what he's supposed to say to Bucky now. You, he thinks, but he's not sure how Bucky would take that. He's not even sure if it's entirely true -- with all the emotions churning in his gut whenever he's with Bucky, calling any of it happiness doesn't really sit right. He just shrugs again, helplessly, and Bucky sighs.
"Sorry," Bucky says, uncurling from his corner of the couch. He slowly pulls himself to his feet. "Dumb question."
Steve assumes Bucky's gonna walk right on past him, back out of the living room and into his own room to close himself off from the rest of the world for another ten or twelve hours, and he can't handle being shut out again already, he can't. He grabs Bucky's wrist to stop him. "Buck--"
Bucky looks down at him, expression unreadable.
"You," Steve blurts out. "It's always been you."
His thumb brushes against the smooth metal right where the pulse point ought to be. Bucky sighs, his eyes slipping closed for a moment. "You weren't happy, though, back then. Not really. I remember that much."
Just wish you weren't so unhappy all the time, young Bucky whispered.
"Not all the time," Steve admits. "But nobody is. I don't need happy, Bucky, whatever that even means. Just you."
He's staring so hard at his own fingers wrapped around metal that the touch of Bucky's human hand against his cheek startles him. He looks up into Bucky's face, sees the hesitation there. "I'm not him anymore," Bucky says quietly. "I'm not the guy you used to know."
"Neither am I," Steve retorts. "Who the hell cares? You're still you. It's enough."
"No, it's not," Bucky says, but he bends down and kisses Steve anyway.
It doesn't last anywhere near long enough. Steve's only just barely started to relearn the curve of Bucky's lips, the scratch of his stubble against Steve's chin, the familiar scent and taste of him, when Bucky pulls carefully away. Steve makes a low protesting noise and Bucky huffs out what might almost be a laugh. But he's still pulling back, gently extricating his wrist from Steve's hold.
"It's always been you, too," Bucky says. He's still cupping Steve's cheek with his good hand, his touch warm. "Christ, Steve, you don't even know. But I can't -- this can't be -- it can't just be you, that can't be enough. And you shouldn't pin everything on me, either."
As if he's ever had any kind of choice in the matter. Steve's temper flares abruptly, heat rising into his cheeks. He tamps it down as best he can and fights to keep his voice steady. "I shouldn't…? Hell, you're all that's ever mattered, Buck. You gotta know that." He has to grab onto the couch cushions with white knuckles to keep himself from reaching out to Bucky again. "Did they tell you what happened to me, after you fell? How I wound up here?"
Bucky frowns like he's not sure where this is heading. "I've read up on you, yeah. You went after the Red Skull, crashed his plane in the ice--"
"They got the dates on Wikipedia? Did you do the math?" When Bucky just stares at him, confused, Steve says: "It was only a few days, after--" His throat closes up on him, and he coughs to clear it. He has to force himself to keep looking Bucky in the eye. "I lost you, and it didn't even take a week before I was gone, too."
Bucky closes his eyes tightly, his fingertips pressing into Steve's skin. "Jesus, Steve," he says unhappily, "that's exactly what I'm talking about." He ducks down and kisses Steve again, too hard and too quickly, then releases him all at once. It takes every ounce of willpower Steve possesses to let him go, let him turn and walk away. The bedroom door clicks shut behind him.
Steve doesn't move a muscle. He breathes in and out, counting slowly to a hundred. Then he gets up, walks quietly outside the house, and punches the outer wall hard enough to crack the stone.
At least the pain in his hand clears his head a bit. And anyway, it'll heal by morning.
They don't talk about it the next morning, which is maybe the one true constant in their friendship. They never talked about it Before, either -- not that there was much to talk about. A handful of kisses before the war, almost always when one or both of them had been drinking, and more sidelong glances than either of them would ever care to admit to. The one time they'd taken it farther, on a cold night in the Alps, it felt less like a conscious decision that either of them had made and more like finally giving in to gravitational pull. If Steve had known that would end up being their only night together, that he'd lose Bucky the very next day, maybe he would've said something about it sooner.
He watches Bucky move around the kitchen in search of a late breakfast, and thinks ruefully, or maybe not. This is the one thing he's never been brave about.
There's a knock on the door, and Steve nearly jumps out of his skin. "I'll get it," he says quickly.
Bucky snorts. "Yeah, because HYDRA would definitely knock first."
Steve shrugs and ducks out of the kitchen, down the narrow hall that leads to the front door. Natasha and Sam are waiting together on the front stoop. He guiltily realizes that he hasn't actually seen or spoken with either of them since the decision was made to move Bucky to Brooklyn, about a week ago now. He's not being a very good friend, is he? And he hasn't been down to visit Peggy in D.C. in...shit, more than a month. Not since Bucky turned up again.
Maybe Bucky has a point about needing more in his life than just Steve. Steve sure isn't great at holding up his end of the bargain.
He tries on a smile. "Hey, guys. What's up? Any news?"
"Nope, sorry, this is just a social call," Natasha says. "A forcing-Steve-to-be-social call, specifically. I'll take over babysitting duty, you get the hell out of this house for a while."
Steve blinks at her for a moment, then turns to Sam, who holds his hands up, palms out. "Hey, I just needed an excuse to get away from my sister," Sam says. "God love her, but she can be a real pain in the ass, and she's got two daughters under the age of three. Uncle Sam needs some grownup time now, you follow?"
Steve laughs in spite of himself. "Uh, isn't it kind of early in the day to go out drinking?"
"Clearly you have to add mimosas to that notebook of yours. This is happening, Steve, stop fighting it."
Half an hour later, Sam has found them a brunch place that promises unlimited mimosas for very reasonable prices. The alcohol has no effect on Steve, of course, but he has to admit they're pretty good. He's kind of surprised at how busy the restaurant is at this time of day until he realizes it's the weekend. Huh.
Sam keeps the conversation rolling easily until their food arrives, talking about his sister and her family and how much the old neighborhood's changed in the past ten years. Steve can sympathize with that last bit.
"I'm sorry," he eventually says, poking at his omelet. "I've been a pretty terrible host, haven't I? I know you dropped everything to help me out--"
"Okay, let's get some things straight," Sam interrupts. He steals one of Steve's fries and points it at him for emphasis. "One: I am your friend, not your fairy godmother, and that means that I am choosing to help you out. I am not obligated to. I could have told you to go fuck yourself and let HYDRA take over the world. But these are all choices I have made of my own volition, because I am an awesome friend. And I know that you are also an awesome friend, so I have faith that should I ever require your help, you will also be there for me in my time of need."
Steve laughs, but it gets stuck somewhere in his throat. "Maybe your faith is misplaced. I've been pretty distracted lately."
"That's because right now, Bucky needs your friendship more than anyone else does," Sam says gently. "If I really needed you, I know you'd be there. As it happens, I'm doing just fine on my own. And it's a lot easier chatting up Natasha without you as wingman. No offense. You're a good friend, but a terrible wingman."
"I think she might have a thing going on with Clint, actually," Steve remarks. "Maybe? It's hard to tell."
Sam shakes his head mournfully. "Terrible wingman. And don't you even start in with the bird puns, I can hear them percolating in there." He reaches out and flicks the side of Steve's head, hard.
Steve swats him away. "I was gonna ask how the new wings were coming along. The ones you and Tony were testing out."
"Like a dream, which brings me to point two: not everything's about you, Steve. Yeah, I came up to New York because Nat was worried about you, but also because I wanted to see my sister, and because Hill's been trying to recruit me ever since the Triskelion. Now that I don't have the excuse of following you following Barnes around Eastern Europe anymore, I figured I should probably deal with that."
"Recruit you? As an Avenger, you mean?" For the first time in days, Steve's smile doesn't feel forced. "If that's what you want, I think it's fantastic."
Sam grins back. "We're hashing out the details, and I've still got a life to deal with in D.C., but yeah, looks like that might be a thing eventually. Maybe Stark will give me a floor of my very own."
"Just take mine. I'm hardly using it as is, and I keep meaning to find my own place anyway." Steve toys with his french fries, idly drowning one in ketchup.
"Speaking of living situations," Sam says. "How's it been going lately?"
Steve really wishes alcohol had any kind of effect on him. "You know, I actually liked this safe house before we decided to use it as HYDRA bait."
"Still not entirely on board with the plan, huh?"
"You were wrong," Steve blurts out. "What you said a few minutes ago about Bucky needing me, I mean. He doesn't. I don't think he wants me there at all."
"He probably doesn't," Sam says bluntly. "From what you've told me, he never did like you making a target of yourself. Way he sees it, he's the one with the tracker in his arm, not you. You're just the idiot trying to put yourself between him and what's coming. So now he can't focus on how he's gonna deal with HYDRA when they show up, he's also got to worry about you getting caught in the crossfire."
Steve gapes at him. "You really think I should leave him to face them alone?"
"Of course not. But put yourself in his shoes -- hell, I bet you'd switch places with him in a heartbeat if you could, wouldn't you?" Sam shakes his head. "You still think you let him fall in the first place, and I'm not gonna even start unpacking the layers of bullshit on that one, but now you're trying to make up for it. And he's got seventy years of bloodshed that he's trying to atone for. Self-sacrificing idiots, the both of you." He gives Steve a hard look. "You've been stuck alone in a house together for the better part of a week now! Don't tell me you still haven't managed to talk this shit out yet."
"Sam, I'm lucky if he's willing to be in the same room with me for more than five minutes at a stretch," Steve says, stabbing at his omelet. He can hardly taste it. "Last night was the first time he actually initiated a conversation, and I thought maybe...but it didn't pan out." He can't bring himself to mention the kiss. He's pretty sure Sam thinks he's screwed up enough as it is. "Maybe you're right, and I'm just getting in his way. Seems like he was doing pretty well without me the past few months."
"Maybe. Maybe not. He did choose to come back to you in the end." Sam looks down at his own plate, mouth twisting like he's deliberating over something. After a moment, he looks back up at Steve. "Natasha found him once, a few weeks before Hill brought him in. We were in the Ukraine at the time, I think."
It feels like a punch to his sternum. Steve swallows hard. "She never told me."
He wonders what else Natasha hasn't told him about Bucky. What are they talking about in the safe house right now? He knows the spike of jealousy in his gut is completely irrational, and hates himself a little more because of it.
"He didn't want her to." Sam places his silverware carefully in the middle of his plate, even though his food's still half uneaten. "From what she said, he wasn't in any kind of place to be ready to face you yet. Wouldn't let her call him Bucky, didn't have a firm grasp on who he was or wanted to be. She said it was like he was shuffling through a few different personas, none of them sticking for more than a minute at a time -- not that he was disoriented, or confused. Just...unsettled." He meets Steve's eyes evenly. "He like that with you?"
Steve doesn't know what to do with his hands. He's worried that he might break something accidentally, snap his fork in two or shatter his glass or leave finger-shaped indentations in the metal table. "No. God, no. He's...different, reacts to things differently than he used to. But he's not -- he's himself, always. He's Bucky."
"And that means something," Sam says quietly. "Just because he also needed some time alone doesn't mean you're not important, too. Yeah, he put himself a good ways back together on his own, but this is an ongoing process. There's no quick fix. He's still gonna need friends to help him through, and you're a big part of that." Sam hesitates, then adds: "But you can't try to take his whole recovery on yourself, because man, that's not helpful to anyone."
Steve lets out a strangled laugh. "Sam, I can't even get my own head on straight, I sure as hell don't think I can fix anyone else."
Sam's mouth quirks in half a smile. "I've been waiting for you to finally admit that. Hey, no, don't get all righteous and offended on me--" Which Steve wasn't. Mostly. "I'm just saying, you've spent the past few months acting like all you had to do was find Bucky, and then everything else would sort itself out. Like solving his problems for him would somehow solve your own, too. You know it doesn't work like that, right?"
"I know," Steve says. He clutches his hands together tightly under the table. "It's just...he was my whole world once, you know?"
"Was he really, though?" Sam asks, idly tapping the rim of his mimosa. The glass rings faintly. "'Cause there were a lot of other people in the Cap chapters of the history books besides just you and him: Dr. Erskine, the Howling Commandos, Peggy Carter... Not so much about Bucky's life outside of your friendship, but he must've had one. And I'm betting you did, too." He drains the rest of his drink. "Barnes knows he's gotta have his own stuff, that's why he stayed away for so long. He couldn't just define himself through your eyes -- he had to work some of it out for himself. And so do you."
That night, Steve's most of the way to falling asleep when the sound of breaking glass jolts him back awake. He stumbles out of his bedroom to find Bucky at the kitchen sink, swearing under his breath.
Bucky jerks his head up. He's dressed for sleep in only a loose pair of pajama pants, shirtless. He doesn't look scared or hurt, though. If anything, his expression is almost sheepish. "Sorry," he mutters. "Didn't mean to wake you." He flexes his metal hand, looking embarrassed. "I did tell you this damn thing's too smooth. Glass slipped right out of my hand."
It's so...mundane. Steve cracks a smile. "Glad to hear it."
Bucky just nods and turns back to the sink, carefully picking out shards of glass and tossing them in the garbage can. It doesn't look like the glass got anywhere else. The rush of adrenaline that propelled Steve out here is receding now, leaving him sleepily mesmerized by the way the plates in Bucky's metal arm flow together as he moves. He follows the line up Bucky's shoulder and to his collarbone, and that's when Steve really wakes up.
This is the first time he's actually seen how the metal arm is attached. The rest of Bucky's body is familiar, if not unchanged -- he has more muscle tone now than Before, and he carries himself differently -- but nothing could have prepared Steve for the angry mess of scar tissue bleeding out from the prosthetic shoulder, how the metal seems to have been fused into the skin. Not that Steve had deluded himself; he knew the procedure had been both risky and painful, knew that the Winter Soldier's handlers hadn't cared for his comfort or humanity. But seeing the physical evidence so brutally etched across Bucky's skin makes it all too real, all at once.
He wonders if it still hurts.
He tries to focus on Bucky's face rather than his shoulder, reminding himself that the damage was done decades ago. That this is Bucky's new normal. He's fine with it. He will be fine with it. Whoever did this to Bucky is long dead now, anyway. "Sorry, zoned out for a minute there," he says, rubbing the back of his neck. "I should head back to bed. You're okay here, right?"
Bucky drops another shard into the trash. "Yeah, of course. Think I got the last of it."
"Okay. Good night, then."
"I'm going into the city tomorrow," Bucky says abruptly before he can walk away. "Gotta get my head shrunk some more."
Steve knew the therapy sessions weren't going to end anytime soon. But given the circumstances, he'd expected that the doctors would come to Bucky, not the other way around. "Thought you weren't supposed to leave the safe house, with the tracker and all."
Bucky shrugs. Steve tries not to stare at the way the metal tugs at the surrounding scar tissue. "Guess they don't expect HYDRA to jump me between here and Stark's tower. Hill arranged transport."
Or maybe they do expect it, and that's what Hill's prepping for, Steve doesn't say aloud. Letting Bucky out like a lure on a hook, daring HYDRA to make its move. It makes sense. Steve just thinks it's a pretty terrible strategy. But if it were up to Steve, the tracker would've been removed from Bucky's arm and smashed into bits with Mjolnir by now. He's pretty sure Thor would help if he asked.
"Okay," Steve says, trying to keep his tone light. "I could use a trip to the Tower."
"You don't have to come with me."
Steve raises an eyebrow. "Who says it has anything to do with you? I need more stuff from my apartment."
Bucky rolls his eyes and fetches a new, unbroken glass from the cupboard. Steve watches the bunch and pull of muscles across his back and resigns himself to another sleepless night.
Members of the Dutch Resistance shelter the Commandos in a cellar in Zuidhorn. It's surprisingly dry, at least, if a touch too cold for comfort. They're hitting a HYDRA lab outside Groningen after midnight, but in the meantime, they may as well take advantage of the few hours' down time to catch a few winks. Steve assigns himself the first watch. Seems kinda pointless (they can't leave the cellar until their contact Gerrit comes to fetch them out, and if any Germans come calling before then, they won't get much warning one way or the other), but it can't hurt to maintain SOP. Gabe stays up, too, claiming that some of his equipment got dinged up in the drop and he wants to check it over, but the rest of the guys drop right off. One of the first skills the army teaches you is how to fall asleep at any time, under any conditions.
At twenty-two hundred hours, he goes to wake Bucky, who'd volunteered for second watch. He's bunked down in the far corner of the cellar, away from the other guys, and Steve crouches down beside him with a joke ready. But even in the flickering lantern light, he can tell something's wrong. Bucky normally sleeps curled up and completely unmoving, but now he's rocking back and forth in his sleep, muttering under his breath. There's a fine sheen of sweat across his forehead despite the cold. For a second, Steve wonders if he's sick, but his skin is cool to the touch.
"Hey, Buck," Steve says, pitching his voice low so as not to disturb the others. "Wake up."
The twitching and muttering don't get any worse, but Bucky doesn't wake up, either. And that's also weird. Bucky's not a heavy sleeper. City noises never bothered him -- in Brooklyn, he could sleep straight through a car backfiring, or the upstairs neighbors' baby screaming its head off -- but he's sensitive to movement or sound in his immediate area. If Steve woke up sick, Bucky'd be up half an instant later; it never takes more than a touch before he's all the way awake and ready to go. But he's not waking now.
Steve hesitates, then gives his shoulder a rough shake. "Bucky!"
And Bucky comes up swinging, landing a solid blow right to Steve's nose as he flails upright, gasping, his eyes wide and scared. Steve reels back, more surprised than hurt, and sits hard on his ass. They just stare at each other for a few long seconds. It's like Bucky doesn't even recognize him, and that shakes Steve a lot more than the accidental punch. "Buck?"
Bucky blinks rapidly a few times. His eyes clear. "Shit, Steve! You okay?"
"Fine, I'm fine," Steve says, rubbing his sore nose. It's starting to swell up a little, but it's not broken, and it'll heal completely before sunrise. "Are you?"
Bucky scrubs his sleeve across his face. His hands are shaking, Steve notices. "Yeah. Sorry."
"Nothing to apologize for. I didn't mean to startle you."
"You didn't," Bucky says, but he won't say anything else about it, or about whatever nightmare he was having that's got him all on edge. He pushes himself up and away from Steve in one quick movement, slinging his rifle over his shoulder, and stalks over to the ladder that leads up to the cellar door.
Steve stays where Bucky'd been, hugging his knees to his chest, not even pretending to try to sleep. A few minutes later, Gabe pads softly over. He must've seen the whole thing.
"Most people they pulled away for Zola's experiments, we had to bury their bodies within a couple of days," Gabe says quietly. "Bucky was in that lab for weeks. He ever talk about it with you? 'Cause he sure as hell don't with any of the rest of us."
"Nope," Steve says, staring across the dimly-lit cellar at Bucky's back. "No details, anyway."
Gabe shakes his head. "Talking can drain the poison out. But he keeps it all bottled up. He'll be all right, though, Cap." He pats Steve on the shoulder. "Lord knows he ain't the only guy with night terrors. I hear there's a war on."
Their mission later that night goes off without a hitch. Bucky's face is a blank mask as he works his way mechanically through the lab, firing with nearly inhuman precision. He takes down every target cleanly and quickly. His eyes are hard and cold. Steve almost doesn't recognize him -- his best friend in the world, someone he thought he'd known better even than himself. He thinks maybe he understands the disbelief in Bucky's eyes when he'd first looked up at Steve from that table in Zola's lab.
Bucky never got zapped full of Vita-Rays, but Steve's not the only one who's been changed by this war.
Nothing happens on the car ride into Manhattan. Steve twitches, waiting for an attack that never comes, and Bucky studiously ignores him. He stares out the window as they crawl through midday traffic. Steve wonders if it's the first time he's really had a chance to see New York since shipping out in 1943. Did the Winter Soldier ever complete any missions here over the years? The file Natasha gave him didn’t mention any, but then, that intel had been patchy at best. And Bucky hasn't said much about his memories of those decades. Just that he does remember, remembers them all. Every mission. Every kill.
Steve tries not to think about it too much.
Once they get to the Tower, they split up -- Bucky to his therapist's office, and Steve up to his own floor. He does have some vague notion of getting some more of his things together, since he'd packed kind of haphazardly last time, but he sits down at the edge of his bed just for a minute and wakes up again four hours later.
In fairness, he hasn't really been sleeping much lately.
"Shit," he mutters, when he catches sight of the clock on his bedside table. He's not sure how long Bucky's appointment was supposed to last, but probably not this long. Halfway to the door, it occurs to him -- "Hey, JARVIS?"
It hadn't taken Steve long at all to get used to the AI, much to Tony's chagrin. In Steve's opinion, if he's gonna be stuck in the future, he may as well enjoy the super-intelligent talking house. And the internet is pretty swell, too, especially being able to carry that much information around with you on a phone that fits in your pocket. He's never had a problem picking up new tech.
"Sergeant Barnes is currently in the marksmanship range on the 43rd floor," JARVIS says. And okay, maybe the borderline mind-reading still catches him by surprise sometimes. "I believe Mr. Barton challenged him to a friendly competition."
"Mr. Stark mentioned you might be concerned about the Sergeant," JARVIS explains, in a reassuring tone. "Shall I call the elevator?"
"Yes, please." He hastily throws a few more changes of clothing and toiletries into a duffel bag. JARVIS is polite enough to hold the elevator until he's ready.
He should've realized that the Stark version of a shooting range would be less of a "range" than a fully interactive obstacle course: an immersive, creative training regime. Clint must have already taken his turn; he and Natasha are watching the video feed as Bucky works his way methodically through holographic targets. The range is set up to mimic city streets. Whoever programmed this setting knows something about urban warfare, Steve can tell. He wonders if Bucky's handguns are loaded with real bullets, rubber, or something else entirely. It doesn't matter: Bucky eliminates every target that Steve can spot and a few he didn't.
Something in the set of Bucky's jaw, the way his eyes narrow as he selects his targets, throws Steve straight back to Europe and the Howling Commandos. Bucky's faster now, stronger, but he's always been eerily good at this. And there's something grounded in the way he moves through the course, a certain confidence radiating from him, that makes him look far more like the Bucky Steve remembers than the quiet, withdrawn shadow he's been living with all week. This is Bucky in his natural element. He's goddamn gorgeous in battle.
Steve is no stranger to desire. He's used to the ebb and flow of attraction, the spark of heat that diffuses throughout his body, fizzing under his skin. His former neighbor Kate-or-Sharon, who he'd never really known at all, with her sweet smile and lithe figure; Sam's warm eyes and easy good humor and fantastic ass; Natasha's cool competence and dancer's grace in battle. And Peggy, Peggy's red lips and sharp intelligence, the way her stiff uniform utterly failed to conceal the soft curves within. He'd been more than halfway in love with her once; might've fallen the rest of the way if they'd ever had a chance to just be together, without the war and the missions and the uniforms. Would've married her in a heartbeat once the war was over. But even she'd understood that Bucky would always come first. He couldn't help it. He'd loved Bucky for as long as he could remember, had wanted him before he'd even known what wanting was.
And God help him, Steve wants Bucky now, so badly his bones ache with it.
"All right," Clint tells Natasha grudgingly, "he's good. But I'm still better with a bow than he is with a gun."
"That's true," Natasha says. "And you could probably take him in hand-to-hand, but only if he was having an exceptionally bad day."
Clint scowls at her. "Can you beat him?"
"Yes," Natasha says at once. "In the Red Room, maybe one match in three. In open combat...difficult to say. I haven't yet. But Steve interrupted last time." She shoots Steve a sidelong glance, her lips curling into a smirk. He fervently prays she won't notice his inconvenient arousal and plasters on a smile as he joins them.
"Hey, Nat. I didn't know you were chaperoning this little field trip."
"I know better than to leave those two without adult supervision," she replies. "No casualties so far. Apart from Clint's dignity."
"Bucky's winning, huh?"
"Only by two points," Clint says huffily. "Unless he misses the guy in the bodega."
They watch as Bucky ducks into the holographic bodega in question, bringing his revolver up and firing three times rapidly behind the counter.
"Damnit," Clint says.
Apparently Bodega Guy marks the end of the program, because the images all wink out, leaving Bucky alone in a large, empty room. He straightens and stretches, then goes about the business of retrieving the various weapons he'd used and discarded during the simulation.
"Not really the right sort of range for sniping," Clint remarks, glancing at Steve over Natasha's head. "But I'm assuming he's just as good a shot with a rifle."
"Better," Steve tells him. He doesn't take his eyes off Bucky on the monitor.
The door to the range swings open and Bucky saunters out, dropping his arsenal onto an empty table. "Well, that was fun," he remarks. "Did Barton cry like a little girl?"
"Two points," Clint says sulkily.
Natasha rolls her eyes. "Nicely done," she tells Bucky. "Too bad the sim can't factor in hand-to-hand."
"Yeah, hard to throw a punch at a hologram. You wanna take a turn?"
"Not today," Natasha says. "How about you, Steve?"
Steve shakes his head, still watching Bucky. He's all sharp edges, probably wired on adrenaline from the workout. It's magnetic. "I think I'm good."
"That shield can't get a good ricochet off holograms, either," Bucky says. He glances over at Steve, then stills. It's the first time he's really looked at Steve all day. His mouth twitches, and Steve swallows hard. Dammit. The last thing he needs is for Bucky to catch him...pining, or whatever the hell this is.
"Right," Clint says, a little too loudly. Steve flinches and takes a step back. He seems to have moved closer to Bucky without realizing it. "So Nat and I have a meeting with Hill, and we should probably...do that. Thanks for the match, man." He holds out a hand, and after a moment's consideration, Bucky shakes it. "Good shooting."
"You, too," Bucky says. "I mean, not quite good enough, but--"
"You're a little shit," Clint informs him. "Why did none of the history books mention that?"
Bucky shrugs. "Heroic death. Trumps."
Clint barks out a laugh, then heads for the elevator. Natasha gives them both a little wave and a knowing look as she follows. Once they've gone, Bucky quickly disassembles the weapons and returns them to their lockers while Steve tries not to ogle him too obviously.
"Ready to head back to Brooklyn?" he asks, when Bucky's finished.
Bucky looks him over assessingly. His eyes are dark. "Not quite," he says, and stalks forward.
Steve has maybe half a second to figure out what's coming and drop his bag before Bucky's there, shoving him backward. He's wearing his shield across his back; it thunks heavily against the wall. Bucky's shirt is a little damp from the workout and he smells like sweat and gun oil. His metal hand grips Steve's waist painfully hard. Steve hardly notices. He's too busy kissing him.
It's nothing at all like the kiss two nights ago, soft and sweet and unhappy. This is hot and bruising, all teeth and tongues and sharp-edged need. Steve grabs Bucky's shoulders, pulling him in as close as he possibly can, teeth scraping against Bucky's lower lip; Bucky groans and slips his right hand down to cup Steve's ass. Steve had been half-hard just watching Bucky shoot; now he's nearly rutting against Bucky's thigh, hips twitching involuntarily.
He gasps for air, and Bucky starts nipping and sucking his way down Steve's jaw instead, probably leaving marks. Doesn't matter; they'll fade too quickly anyway. "Wait," Steve manages to stutter out. "I thought you didn't want--"
"I want," Bucky breathes against Steve's neck. "Always want. Just forgot for a while what it felt like."
Steve kisses him, again and again, then forces himself to ask, "But back at the house--"
"Was trying to be a good person," Bucky says harshly. "Fuck it." He reaches up to cup the back of Steve's neck with his metal hand, tugging him back down into a hard kiss, while he undoes Steve's jeans with his other. Bucky's warm hand around Steve's dick feels so damn good that his brain almost shuts down entirely. Bucky swallows Steve's soft cry and grins against his lips.
It's over embarrassingly quickly. Steve hasn't had any kind of sex in years -- there'd been a couple of anonymous encounters right after he'd moved to D.C., but he'd concluded that casual sex just wasn't his thing and stopped trying -- and it's probably been much longer for Bucky. Logically, Steve knows that he and Bucky'd lived in each other's pockets for twenty years without this, that now he should be able to go without just fine. But logic doesn't mean a damn thing next to this kind of wanting. Maybe he'd just been inured to it back then, so used to the unspoken desire that he hardly even noticed it. Now all he can think about is how amazing Bucky feels pressed up against him, hips rocking together in syncopated rhythm, and he can't seem to stop kissing him even when the breath comes short in his lungs and they're hardly doing more than panting into each other's mouths. Bucky pauses jerking him off just long enough to undo his own fly, and then Steve reaches down for him just as Bucky takes them both in hand, and that's pretty much all it takes. Steve comes with a gasp, and Bucky swears and drags his mouth away from Steve's to press his face into the crook of Steve's neck instead. He follows after only a couple more good strokes, muffling his groan against Steve's skin.
It takes a minute or so for Steve to come back to himself. He allows himself the indulgence of one soft kiss to Bucky's temple, then straightens, awkwardly tucking himself back into his jeans and trying to ignore the mess. Bucky glances down at himself and grimaces. After a moment's contemplation, he yanks off his T-shirt and uses it to clean them both up a bit -- enough to be presentable, anyway, and wow, it's finally kicking in that they just did this in what is essentially a public place.
"I've got -- here," Steve says, retrieving his duffel bag. There's spare clothing inside, and he grabs a clean shirt at random. Bucky tugs it on with a smirk. It fits him pretty well. Steve does his best not to think about how much he likes the idea of Bucky wearing his clothes. "Um. Hey, JARVIS? Could you maybe delete the past few minutes from your servers?"
"Already done, Captain Rogers," JARVIS replies. He sounds vaguely amused. "I have very specific privacy protocols in place throughout the Tower."
"Huh," Bucky says. "Woulda thought Stark would want to keep live feeds of all the best porn."
Steve offers him a crooked grin. "I'll bet Pepper overruled him."
"That would be a wise assumption, Captain," JARVIS agrees.
"Right. Thanks, JARVIS." Steve takes a deep breath and reaches out to Bucky, who's fidgeting with the wadded-up shirt. He stills when Steve's hand covers his own. "Hey," Steve says softly. "Buck."
"We should be getting back to the safe house," Bucky says, not quite meeting his eyes. "My babysitters are probably getting anxious."
"Yeah, okay," Steve says, but first, he tugs Bucky in for one more kiss.
Bucky leans into it, gripping the front of Steve's hoodie with his free hand. "Sorry," he mutters against Steve's lips. "We should'nt've -- I shouldn't have -- but christ, Steve, I had to, at least the once. I'm sorry."
A cold ball of dread settles into the pit of Steve's stomach. He pulls back enough to be able to look Bucky in the eyes. "What're you talking about? You know I wanted this just as bad, right?"
"I know," Bucky says. His face is doing that thing it does now, where all the expression just drops off it, leaving a blank slate behind. Steve wants to take him by the shoulders and shake him, hard. "Just wish you didn't. Would've been easier on you."
There's a flash of irritation in Bucky's eyes, and Steve welcomes it. Anything's better than the numbness. "C'mon, Steve, this whole...playing house, or whatever you're trying to do. You know it's not gonna last. Sooner or later HYDRA will take the bait, and you and your Avengers can take 'em down."
"Yeah, I know," Steve says, not following, hating that he's missing something obvious. "What are you trying to say? That, what, once we've dealt with HYDRA, you're just gonna leave again?"
"I don't think I'm gonna have much choice in the matter," Bucky snaps. He shoves the balled-up messy T-shirt into the bag and zips it shut with short, jerky motions. "You know what I've done. You know what happens to people like me. The place in Brooklyn's a nicer prison than most -- did you pick it out yourself? -- but I'm not gonna kid myself, here."
Steve stares at him. "You think -- Bucky, nobody's gonna lock you up over something you had no control over! You really think I would let that happen?"
"Then you're the delusional one," Bucky retorts. "Wake up, Rogers! Hell, I turned myself in, didn't I? I know what I've done, I know what I deserve."
Steve feels gutted, shrapnel lodged deep in his belly and his chest. He's not sure how much of it shows on his face, but Bucky sees something there that makes him soften, draws him back in.
"Jesus, Steve, you had to know," he says, gentler now. He reaches out like he wants to touch Steve's cheek, then hesitates, lets his hand come to rest on Steve's shoulder instead. "I've been as cooperative as I can, with Hill and the rest of 'em, so maybe that'll help a little. But it's okay. You wanted me to remember who I was, right? I do. I remember everything."
"I wish you didn't have to," Steve whispers, almost involuntarily. "Not that part of it, not what they forced you into. I wish there was a way--"
Bucky stiffens at once, pulling away again. His voice goes very cold. "Well, your pal Stark's a genius, right? I'll bet he can build me a swell machine to take all the undesirable memories away."
His sarcasm lashes out like a whip. Steve recoils, eyes widening. "That's not what I meant, Bucky, c'mon--"
But Bucky's on a tear now, all the emotions he hasn't been letting Steve see for weeks now finally ripping out of him. "Don't you dare tell me that any of those memories don't matter. I had to fight for every goddamn square inch up here--" He presses his metal finger into his temple, like the muzzle of a gun. "--and I'm not fucking yielding any of it. You can't tell me that my memories of the Commandos are important but that the way Morita's blood stained his pillow when I shot him in the head isn't! I killed him, Steve. 1970, San Francisco, in his own goddamn bedroom. My old buddy. I killed Howard Stark and there was a woman in the car with him, and I don't even know who she was but I killed her, too. You want the full list? I can give it to you. You can't just ignore what I've done -- gloss over my history and pretend like it never happened. You can't wipe that away!"
Steve's still reeling -- he'd already known about Howard, but Morita's assassination hadn't been in the file, and he can't begin to process it now. Bucky, he has to focus on Bucky. "That wasn't you!"
"Yes, it was!" Bucky shouts. "It may not have been your Bucky, but it damn well was me, and I've had enough of people trying to scrub my brain clean. This is who I am, Steve. If you got a problem with that, it's your problem, not mine. And you can go fuck yourself."
Bucky's breathing heavily like he's just run a marathon, tears leaking out of the corners of his eyes. He scrubs a hand angrily across his face like a kid who doesn't want to be caught crying. Steve wants so badly to just hold him, but he knows Bucky'd sock him one in the jaw right now if he tried.
"I'm sorry," he says helplessly. "Buck, I'm sorry."
Bucky squeezes his eyes shut for a minute, shoulders slumping. "You know, it was a lot easier being the Asset," he says hoarsely. "Or the Soldier. Didn't have to feel a fucking thing. Being Bucky again..." When his eyes open again to meet Steve's, the look in them makes Steve's heart ache. "It's exhausting. He cares too goddamn much."
Steve does reach out to him, then, because how could he not? But Bucky just shakes his head and takes a step back.
"I'm going back to Brooklyn now," Bucky tells him, quiet but firm. "Don't come with me. I'll be fine."
He turns and walks over to the elevator, which opens unprompted. JARVIS must've anticipated this somehow. Steve wishes he could calculate the algorithms of human interaction half as well as Tony Stark's goddamn computer. "Bucky…"
"I'll see you later, Steve," Bucky says, and the doors close.
Eventually Steve manages to pull himself together enough to return to his own apartment upstairs. There's enough in his kitchen to throw together something resembling a meal, at least, and he knows his body needs the fuel even if he has no interest in food at the moment. Once he's eaten and showered, he doesn't know what to do with himself. So he goes back to bed, even though it's still early in the evening. But for once, sleep finds him quickly.
He wakes up a little before midnight, struggling out of uneasy, half-formed dreams of flying through an air raid in Howard's tin can of a plane, and Bucky was out there, somewhere, just out of reach. He has no hope of falling back asleep now -- his internal clock's gone screwy from the accidental nap and the early bedtime, and his head feels all fogged up. He's got to find Bucky. Has to see him, has to know that he's all right, has to…
He'd left his bike at the safe house and he doesn't want to deal with Tony or Hill right now, so he finds himself on the subway instead, the R train rattling its way out to Bay Ridge. The ride passes in a blur, more like another dream than reality, but when he steps out at the other end, a cold rain has started falling. That snaps him out of his fugue-like state. It finally occurs to him to wonder exactly what he's doing here.
Bucky explicitly told him not to come back to Brooklyn tonight. How's he ever gonna trust Steve again if Steve can't respect a clear boundary like that? Bad enough he thinks Steve wants to wipe his memories away, just like Zola, just like Pierce...and, hell, isn't that exactly what Steve's been thinking? That everything would be easier if Bucky could just magically go back to who he'd been before the train, ignoring all the awful shit that came after? Steve's not much better than HYDRA after all.
It's a half-mile walk from the subway to the safe house, which is on a quiet residential street. Steve loses himself in self-recrimination, trying to figure out whether or not he should even try to see Bucky now -- maybe he should just check in with Triplett in the neighboring house instead, what the hell was he even thinking coming down here like this? And Triplett reminds him of Gabe Jones makes him imagine Jim Morita with the Winter Soldier's bullet planted neatly right between his eyes. Did Morita see Bucky in the instant before he died? Did he recognize him? Would Steve have ever recognized him, if he'd managed to get the upper hand before the muzzle came off? Or would he have shot Bucky dead on that street in D.C. and never even known?
Between the thoughts tumbling around in his head and the darkness and the rain, he doesn't notice the unmarked black van until it nearly runs him down in the crosswalk.
"What the hell?" he demands, too startled to be angry -- it's not like it would've hurt him that bad even if it had hit him. But then the second van screeches up to the corner from a different direction, and then the third, and that's when he realizes he never grabbed his shield when he left the Tower. Men in black uniforms are spilling out of the vans.
His blood runs cold. HYDRA's finally here, they're here for Bucky, and Steve's completely unarmed.
The first bullet only grazes his shoulder, thankfully. He immediately raises the alarm the only way he can: by yelling at the top of his lungs and trusting that Hill's people will hear the commotion and initiate defensive procedures. In the meantime, he doesn't need a weapon to do damage. He throws himself at the nearest goon, taking him down with a kick to the head; the next goes down choking when Steve's fist connects with the vulnerable part of his throat. Steve's shoulder protests when he flips the third man down to eat asphalt, but he shoves the pain aside. No time to worry about a minor flesh wound, it'll heal soon enough anyway.
God, it feels so damn good to finally be able to just let loose. Weeks of pent-up anger and frustration rush through him like a tidal wave, and he relishes the heat in his blood, feeling almost light-headed with it. He hears gunfire: Triplett and other agents have entered the fray. Good. Then something hits him in the back of the neck, and he drops into a roll, putting a vehicle between himself and the latest bad guy. He rubs at his neck -- didn't feel like a bullet, so what the hell -- a dart?
Then he realizes he can't feel his fingers, or his feet. The world blurs. He shakes his head rapidly, trying to clear it, but his legs give out and he staggers and falls to the ground. The pavement is slick with rain.
He should call for help, but his tongue feels thick in his mouth and he can't find his voice and the world is spinning. He hears shouting, can't quite make out -- maybe thinks he hears "Captain" and "out of here" and something about bones, but he can't feel his bones anymore, thinks he might be soaking into the asphalt with the rain and the blood and--
Everything's hazy for a while. Steve's in a moving vehicle, can feel the bump-bump-bump as it speeds over uneven streets. His hands are cuffed together with a heavy restraint, and he recognizes the feel of it -- those magnetic clamps the STRIKE teams favored. He blinks, trying to focus his vision, but can't make anything out through the darkness.
"Goddamn it, dose him again," someone says sharply, and he gets another sharp jab to the neck. Someone else is saying, "He burns through this shit too fast," but he's out again before he can hear the response.
The next time he flirts with consciousness, he does his damnedest to lash out at whoever's closest before they can drug him up again, but his body's still responding too slowly and he just hears a few muttered curses before the next shot drags him back under.
When he resurfaces, he's not in a van anymore, he's splayed out on some kind of table, and there's someone looming over him. His hands are still restrained in front of him and he's pretty sure his feet have been cuffed, too, although he's having trouble feeling his extremities properly. The graze on his shoulder stings, itching as it starts to heal. He squints up through the blur of the drugs, but he can't make out his current captor's face. It's like it's not a proper face at all. Bone-white, like a skull -- not like the Red Skull, though, more like a mask--
"Hey, there, Cap," the white skull says. Its mouth doesn't move, and the voice is slightly muffled. Definitely a mask. Or maybe that's still the drugs in his system. "Have to admit, I wasn't expecting you. Not that I'm complaining."
The hell of it is, Steve knows that voice. If only he could clear his head…
"I mean, I did ask for a supersoldier," the skull goes on. "And one brainwashed assassin's as good as another, right? Better, even. The Winter Soldier's just a spook story. Captain America, though -- that's a real asset."
The Asset. That was what HYDRA had called Bucky. This has to be Crossbones. He thinks he can wipe Bucky all over again, use him… "Never gonna happen," Steve rasps out, struggling hard against his restraints. His mouth feels bone-dry. If any of these assholes lay a goddamn finger on Bucky, Steve will flay them alive. "Not gonna touch him."
"Who -- the Soldier?" There's no facial expression for Steve to read, of course, but Crossbones sounds almost confused. "Why's it matter to you, anyway?"
It matters. More than anything. "He's safe…"
"For now, maybe he is," Crossbones says with a shrug. "But you're not." He steps away from the table, addressing people Steve can't see. "Get the chair prepped."
"It needs to be completely recalibrated," someone else says, sounding nervous. "And I can't do it without assistance -- we'll have to start from scratch with this one, he's never been wiped before, it'll take time--"
"Fine." Crossbones doesn't sound particularly angry about the setback. He tilts his head back toward Steve, and Steve imagines that the white skull is grinning at him, ghoulishly. "Take all the time you need. I want this done right. In the meantime--" He gestures sharply, and Steve can feel hands grabbing his arms and legs.
"Put him on ice," Crossbones orders.
Steve really does try to fight them then. He manages to take down two or three before the rest are on top of him, and there's yet another goddamn jab to his neck. This one doesn't knock him out completely -- maybe it's a different sedative, or a lower dosage, or maybe his body's just adapting to it too quick now for it to be fully effective -- but it's enough to keep him immobile, trapped in his own body. His vision blurs again, but he recognizes the cryogenic chamber from the photographs in Bucky's file. Never saw a picture of what it looked like from the inside, though.
And then there's nothing but the cold.
When the nose of the Valkyrie tilts downward, all he can see is ice. He sets the compass on the control panel, as though Peggy can watch him from there, as though she's guiding him down. Allow Barnes the dignity of his choice, she'd said; she was right. Peggy usually is. He still doesn't know how to dance; she'll have to lead. (Bucky tried to teach him, more than once. Bucky always led. He's still following.)
The plane is crashing. The helicarrier is going down. He takes off the helmet, lets the shield fall. It doesn't matter what Bucky does to him now, if there's anything left of Bucky rattling around in the Winter Soldier's empty shell. Steve's not going anywhere without Bucky. And if Bucky is truly gone, well, Steve guesses he's not going anywhere at all.
He hits the water in the Potomac. He hits the ice somewhere between Greenland and northern Canada. He clings to the side of a train running through the Alps. All he can see is white. His eyelids are frozen shut. Frost gathers on his eyelashes like tears. He's never been so cold. He's twelve years old and it's the worst winter he can remember and every breath is a stab of ice through his weak lungs. He skids across frozen puddles when Pat Murphy shoves him in the alleyway behind Rosenbaum's Bakery, and his hands are stiff with cold but he manages to grab the lid of the trash can anyway, the freezing metal probably fusing to his skin but it's still better'n nothing. Yeah, Bucky says, tall and rakishly handsome in his fresh new uniform, but there's something dark and hurting in his eyes: 'cause you've got nothing to prove, and Erskine reaches up and pokes him in the chest, hard, not a perfect soldier, but a good man, and Steve's still not sure if he believes him, not really, but he's trying.
He flicks open the compass, sets it on the control panel. He damn well must have thought you were worth it, Peggy tells him, and Sam grins: dude, Captain America needs my help, there's no better reason to get back in. He's drowning. The Potomac will be much, much warmer than the Arctic Ocean. But not half so warm as winter in the Alps, the heat in Bucky's eyes and in his mouth and in the press of skin against skin. Everything froze over when Bucky fell. Seventy years later, Steve still hasn't fully thawed. He has no memory of his time in the ice, but his bones remember. He's still there now.
Schmidt is gone. The Tesseract is lost. The bombs are live. He doesn't know how to fly a plane, especially not this one, but he looks out and the clouds part and golden sunlight spills across the glittering ice, and just for a moment, everything -- stops. It's beautiful. And he's just so goddamn tired of fighting.
Everything is easy, after that.
The ice settles into his skin, his lungs, his blood. His bones. He read, once, that freezing to death's actually not a bad way to go. You just fall asleep, and don't wake up again. Easier to accept it. Easy as pie not to wake up.
That is no way to treat a friend, Steve, Thor tells him reproachfully. And no way to treat yourself.
Natasha shoots him a sly smile, the soles of her ridiculous sneakers scuffing up the dash of their stolen car. Sam recites half the dialogue of The Godfather right along with the movie until Steve threatens to smother him with a cushion. Gabe Jones's grandkid looks nothing like him until he grins, and then it's like stepping back in time. And Steve's missed seventy miserable years of Bucky's hijacked life already, can never make that up to him, doesn't even know where to start.
He wants to wake up. He's spent too long asleep.
Warmth sears across his face, and for an instant, it's as though he's being consumed by flame. The sensation of intense heat passes. Someone is saying his name over and over again, tone edged with panic. Hands grip his shoulders, maneuvering him forward; he just barely manages to put one foot in front of the other. He blinks rapidly, trying to bring his vision into focus. The air is warm, unpleasantly so, but he still feels chilled down to his bones.
"'M fine," Steve mumbles, trying not to trip over his own feet. Light glints off metal. He looks up to see: "Bucky?"
Bucky's face is very pale. "Steve, you idiot," he says. "I thought--"
There's a burst of gunfire, not in the immediate vicinity but too close for comfort, and Bucky flinches. He looks up past Steve's shoulder, something colder than ice slamming down across his face. Steve immediately flashes back to the fight on the helicarrier, those dead blue eyes boring into him, and shudders.
"Go," someone else says, and Steve realizes that Sam is supporting him on the other side. "I've got him, go do your thing."
Bucky's eyes flicker back to Steve's, like a crack in a glacier.
"I'm fine," Steve says again, even though his teeth are chattering and his body feels heavy, ungainly, like he's dragging around blocks of ice instead of feet. "I can help--"
"The hell you can." Sam maneuvers him toward a chair. "Barnes, go."
Bucky lets go of Steve, jaw set, and dashes off. He's got the shield, Steve notices just before Bucky ducks through a doorway and out of sight. When did he have the chance to go back to the Tower to fetch it?
"You'll be all right," Sam is saying. He gives Steve a gentle push, and Steve basically does a controlled fall down into the chair. It's a wonder he doesn't break the damn thing. "Coming out of cryofreeze is a bitch, apparently, but it's specifically designed not to kill you. You just gotta give your body time to adjust."
"How long was I in there?" Steve demands. His voice feels hoarse, throat dry. Pain shoots through his extremities as they begin to thaw. He grits his teeth and rides it out.
"It's been about thirty-six hours since HYDRA nabbed you outside the safe house," Sam replies. He rifles through cabinets in this...not a lab, it's too bare and nowhere near clinical enough to be a lab. Vault? Steve's not sure what Sam is looking for. "Don't know how long after that they put you in cold storage. Damn, you'd think they'd have a blanket in here or something. What do you remember?"
Ice, Steve doesn't say. "Not much. They knocked me out with some kinda drug in transit, made everything foggy. They were expecting Bucky, they were prepared for that much. Think my metabolism's still stronger than his, though -- drug seemed to be wearing off quicker than they wanted. They were gonna wipe him again, Sam. Crossbones talked about getting the chair prepped--"
"So they figured they'd use it on you instead." Sam sounds pretty pissed. He glances between Steve and the open door, hands resting on his holstered guns like he's just itching to start shooting. "That's what Barnes was afraid of. When Maria's people figured out you'd been the one to raise the alarm, and that you were missing -- it wasn't pretty, man." He gives up his search and returns to Steve's side. "Natasha managed to talk some sense into him, convinced him to wait for intel and backup before charging off after you, but it was a near thing. And when we found you in deep freeze…"
Steve glances back at the cryochamber. It's a wreck. The door's been ripped off its hinges. Well, he did know the metal arm was strong. "Bucky. Oh, god. Sam, has he -- I mean, is he okay?"
"He's been giving me some pretty intense flashbacks to D.C. recently, but I'm pretty sure Barnes is back in the driver's seat now," Sam says, which is not terribly reassuring. "Although it was touch and go for a while there. But we're gonna have to shelve this discussion until we're not all being shot at. Are you okay?"
Steve forces himself to swallow back his anxiety over Bucky and focus on the situation at hand. "If Bucky could handle being locked in that thing for years at a stretch, I think I'll survive a day or two. Just need a minute to warm up. Sitrep?"
"We're in Pennsylvania, about twenty miles outside of Trenton. Abandoned Cold War-era missile launch site that nobody's paid much attention to in the past forty years. Most of the structure's underground, so we didn't need much air support, which is why I got sent down here to retrieve your ass. Widow and Hawkeye took out most of the HYDRA goons on the way in, Thor took his hammer to the place, and Iron Man's outside rounding up anyone who tries to make a break for it. Banner's on standby. If we'd known you were in cryo, he'd probably have come down here with me to assist. Can you make it out? We should get you back up top for medical."
"Sure thing," Steve grunts, ignoring the uncomfortable tingling in his hands and feet and the residual lethargy in the rest of him. "Crossbones?"
"Hold on." Sam taps his comm. "Anybody got eyes on Crossbones?" He slings an arm around Steve's waist to help him walk, then nods at whatever response he gets. "He's rabbiting, but Barnes is in pursuit. Did you manage to ID the guy?"
"Never saw his face, but…" Steve closes his eyes for a second, replaying the voice in his memory. Now that his head's not all foggy with drugs, he's kind of pissed he didn't recognize it sooner. "Brock Rumlow. That son of a bitch."
Sam shoots him a look as they head out into the hallway. "Same guy I fought in the Triskelion? Man, how did he make out of there alive?"
"Don't know," Steve grits out. "I'd like to ask him that myself. Did you say Bucky--"
Sam abruptly stops walking and holds up a hand, like he's listening for something. Steve heartily hates the fact that he's not hooked up to the comms himself. "Damn! Anybody else nearby?" Sam asks, then grimaces. "All right, Falcon's on it." He turns back to Steve, in full mission mode. "Sounds like there's an exit in the tunnels we didn't know about, and Crossbones had reinforcements waiting. Barnes needs backup. The top level's clear if you can make it up on your own, there's a stairwell about fifty meters--"
Steve's already shaking his head. "You gotta be kidding me. I'm going with you."
"Be real, Rogers, you're still suffering from the aftereffects of the cryo, plus God knows what drugs they pumped in your system. And I don't have time to stand here arguing with you--"
"So don't argue with me," Steve says flatly. "Let's get moving."
Sam rolls his eyes up to the ceiling, as though praying for forbearance, but he's smart enough not to put up any more of a fight. "If you go into hypothermic shock and punk out on me, you get to explain it to Banner," he mutters, as they jog down the hallway. Every step sends a stab of pain through the soles of Steve's feet. "I'm going on record stating that this was entirely your idea. I will throw you under this bus, Steve, don't think I won't."
There's a dead HYDRA guard at the end of the hallway. Steve pauses long enough to scoop up his sidearm.
Sam leads the way into a stairwell. The further they go with no evidence of live HYDRA agents, the twitchier Steve becomes. Rumlow was too smart to have concentrated his entire strike force in one location within the bunker. He had to have known the Avengers would come after Steve. Overconfidence, maybe? Too much faith in his own security measures? Or are his resources really this limited?
It's a very long flight of stairs to the next level down. Steve's not particularly looking forward to the return trip. They stop at the foot of the stairs to have a listen, but even with his enhanced hearing, Steve can't make out any sound on the other side of the heavy door. He nods to Sam, who shoulders it open, his dual Steyr SPPs out and ready for any nearby hostiles.
Like the corridors upstairs, this one appears to be empty. There aren't even any other doors set along the slightly concave walls. The architecture is uniformly dingy concrete, with flickering fluorescents overhead. This tunnel stretches out a good two hundred meters ahead of them before making a sharp turn. Distantly, he thinks he can hear what might be boots scuffing along concrete.
The two gunshots echo starkly in the relative quiet.
Steve immediately starts moving forward, but Sam halts him with a hand on his arm. "Hold up," Sam says in a low tone. "You're still running on low battery, and you don't have the shield. Don't go charging in."
Steve charged into battle about a minute after stepping out of Howard Stark's machine, and he hasn't stopped since. He shrugs Sam off. "Always worked for me before. Let's move."
They jog as quietly as possible down the long hallway. Steve's still in the same civvies he'd thrown on at the Tower however many nights ago, but at least he'd chosen his running shoes -- they're worn down enough not to squeak. As they near the end of the hall, Steve realizes that it's a three-way intersection; he flattens against one wall while Sam takes the other, and they silently confer as to which way to go next. There are no further gunshots for the moment, but the footsteps and other sounds of movement are more distinct now. Sounds like at least five men, probably more. Steve jerks his head toward the lefthand branch, and Sam nods.
This leads to yet another long, empty tunnel. The sheer monotony of it all is gonna give Steve a complex. But now they can both clearly hear the ongoing scuffle somewhere up ahead. The next gunshots have a very familiar tenor to them. Steve definitely recognizes the sound of a bullet impacting against vibranium.
The tunnel ends with one sharp turn to the right. When they reach it, Steve and Sam both brace themselves. Steve takes a deep breath, then inches down along the wall until he can just barely peek around the corner to assess the situation.
There's a metal door about thirty meters down this hallway, set right at the intersection where the tunnel makes another sharp turn. It doesn't look like another stairwell -- maybe a utility closet, or something along those lines. It appears to open inward. Steve can see three HYDRA agents pressed along the wall at the intersection, and there are probably more further down that tunnel, but he can't be sure from this angle. The door is pockmarked with bullet holes, and the HYDRA agents are clearly wary. There are dark bloodstains splattered against the wall to Steve's right, and one long fluorescent bulb has been shot out, leaving fine shards of glass scattered all across the concrete. Bucky has found himself a defensible position, at least, but he has no escape route unless he can make it back to Steve and Sam's corner.
Steve quietly relays the information to Sam, mind racing. The tactical situation's not fantastic, but it's workable. The problem is the unknown number of HYDRA waiting around the corner he can't see. Also, he'd like his shield back now.
"Let him know we're here," Steve whispers, and Sam nods and murmurs something into his comm.
After a few beats, Steve chances another look out. The HYDRA idiots are focused entirely on Bucky's location for the moment. The door opens a crack and Bucky fires off a couple of rounds through the gap, aimed high and harmless, but enough to make the nearest HYDRA agents cringe and shift a little further away from the door. While they're conferring hotly amongst themselves, Steve catches a glimpse of Bucky's face in the narrow opening. Bucky's gaze zeroes in on him immediately. He gives Steve a deliberate nod.
They're old hands at this.
"When I give the signal, start laying down suppressing fire," Steve murmurs.
Sam's already got his pistols locked and loaded. "Right. What's the signal?"
"This," Steve says, as Bucky yanks the door open and hurls the shield right at him.
Back during the war, Bucky used to gripe about the flashiness of Steve's uniform and the star-spangled bullseye he lugged around. But that's the thing: Captain America is supposed to be the target. Between the shield and the serum, he's built to take all the punches, stop all the bullets. He was created to be a big, shiny distraction, both for the Nazis and for the American public. And he's damn good at it.
He catches the shield easily, slipping it onto his arm like it's an extension of his body. He's already charging forward down the hall. The HYDRA agents are caught entirely wrong-footed. One, quicker than the others, brings up her weapon and starts shooting, but her bullets ricochet harmlessly off the shield. She and the guy on her left fall to Sam's initial burst of gunfire; Steve eliminates the third with his stolen Glock.
But as Steve suspected, there are plenty more where they came from. He rounds the corner to find another dozen or so agents waiting down the next tunnel. Well, there's no hope for it now. Steve plows on forward blindly, keeping his head down behind the curve of the shield. His feet are still numb enough that he probably won't feel any hits to his extremities, anyway. He hears a yell behind him as Bucky joins the fray, making good use of the path Steve cleared to pick off individual HYDRA goons with surgical precision. Steve sprints down the tunnel -- this one's maybe fifty meters long, ending in a set of double doors. When he hits the clump of surviving HYDRA agents, he adjusts his grip on the shield and starts using it as an offensive weapon; there's something thoroughly satisfying about the solid thump as vibranium meets an enemy combatant's skull. When the others clear away from him, having learned to be wary, he manages to get his back to the doors for a second while he reassesses the situation.
Sam's down at the other end of the hall, taking potshots around the corner. Bucky tosses aside his sidearm with a Russian curse and pulls out two knives instead, hurling one at the nearest mook's throat. He brings up his metal arm to deflect a couple of bullets; there are four agents still standing. Steve takes aim with his Glock and pulls the trigger, but it clicks on an empty chamber. Damn, must've been nearly out of ammo already when he grabbed it. He takes a breath to calculate angles, then throws the shield down the tunnel. It ricochets off one wall at high speed to clock an agent in the head, then continues on toward Bucky, who catches it neatly with his metal hand. Another agent falls to Sam's bullets; Bucky leaps at the remaining two, kicking one in the chest as he slices across the other's jugular with his knife. That agent dies messily. The one he kicked still has a gun, but Bucky disarms him with a jab of the shield and then brings it back up to smack his skull heavily. The man goes out like a light.
A long beat of silence follows, while Steve and Bucky quickly scan the fallen agents to check if any of them might still pose a threat. Most are dead or rapidly bleeding out; a couple are merely unconscious. Steve assumes Hill will want them taken in as prisoners. HYDRA don't tend to talk -- too many of them still use those damned cyanide capsules, or whatever the modern pharmacological equivalent is -- but you never know.
"Clear," Bucky finally says. At the end of the hall, Sam nods and thumbs his comm, presumably relaying everything to the rest of the Avengers. For a long moment, Bucky just stares impassively at the bodies at his feet. There's blood spattered across his arm and face, and his body language is pure Soldier. Barnes is back in the driver's seat now, Sam told him just a few minutes ago, but right at this moment, Steve's not so sure.
He glances down at the shield in his hand, then up at Steve. Something in his expression shifts, as though Steve can see the gears in his head rearranging themselves, and now it's definitely Bucky looking back at him. He lobs the shield back at Steve with a faint smile. "Thanks for letting me borrow it for a while."
Steve slips it back onto his own arm, taking comfort in the familiar weight of it. "No problem," he says, and then adds: "Looked good on you." Because hell, it did. For all that it worried him, seeing the Winter Soldier back in action, there was something compellingly electrifying about the way he fought. Like watching him back in the shooting range at the Tower, only a couple of days ago. There's a part of Bucky that comes alive in combat. It's the spark that's been missing from him ever since Hill brought him in.
"Looks better on you," Bucky replies. "How you holding up?"
Now that he mentions it, Steve's body really isn't too thrilled with its recent activities, and is beginning to make its complaints known. He winces as the feeling starts flooding properly back into his feet and hands, the rest of him feeling overextended and just a little shaky. "I'll live," he says. "Crossbones?"
Bucky's mood visibly sours. He sidesteps the bodies as he joins Steve at the double doors. "Bolted through there while his flunkies penned me in. Coward. Suppose he's long gone by now."
By unspoken agreement, they turn on the doors. They're heavier than the stairwell doors, and are probably locked, but they hadn't been built to withstand the combined forces of Captain America's shield and the Winter Soldier's metal arm. They open to reveal a small underground garage, and another tunnel that clearly leads back up to the outside world. There's a black van still parked in a corner, but room for several more, and judging by the faint odor of exhaust and burnt rubber, at least one other vehicle left recently and in a hurry.
"Damnit," Bucky mutters, clearly drawing the same conclusion. "Can we stick a tracker in his arm?"
"Next time we find him, I'm gonna do a lot worse than that to him," Steve promises. He leans back against the wall tiredly. Hell, he just slept for something like thirty-six hours straight, he shouldn't be this goddamn exhausted already. He feels stretched thin, almost overwrought. "How long did it used to take you to bounce back from the cryo?"
Bucky looks worried, and Steve wishes he hadn't asked. "Maybe thirty minutes, but they'd hook me up to an IV as soon as they pulled me out of the box, pump me full of...mostly stimulants, I think, but there were other kinds of drugs in there too. Partly to help defrost me, partly to keep my brain nice and empty and open to suggestion. But you didn't get the cocktail, so I don't know -- hey, hey, Steve, it's okay," he says hastily, eyes widening. His hands settle on Steve's shoulders, gripping tight. "Don't look at me like that!"
"Christ, Buck, I'm so sorry," Steve manages. He has no idea why he's falling apart now, of all times, but he can't seem to stop shaking. Maybe it's because seeing the Winter Soldier looking back at him out of his best friend's eyes again, however briefly, cut him right to the core. Or maybe the part of him that's been frozen in stasis since waking up seventy years too late is finally thawing. "I should've gone back, I should've looked for you, I shouldn't have let you fall--"
"Hell of a delayed reaction you're having here," Bucky says softly. "You know there's nothing you could've done then, and I'm here now, so just -- stop jumping after me, okay? If there's anything you've got to be sorry about, it's these idiotic self-destructive impulses of yours."
He's rubbing slow, soothing circles into Steve's shoulders, like he used to rub Steve's back when they were kids and Steve was coming down from an asthma attack. Steve clasps Bucky's wrists and closes his eyes, holding on tight.
Normally, Steve would be the one organizing the post-operation clean-up: herding the handful of living prisoners, rifling through the base for any potential intel, coordinating the rest of the team. But this time, he's not running the mission -- he was the mission. Bucky and Sam won't let him forget it, either, hustling him directly up through the bunker and out toward the quinjet just as soon as they get the all clear from the rest of the team.
It's broad daylight outside, the bright sunshine making his eyes water. He'd somehow expected it to be the middle of the night.
Bruce gives him a quick physical once they're aboard, but there's not much to be done. "Not exactly my first time on ice," Steve reminds him. "I'll be fine."
Bucky scowls at him over Bruce's shoulder, but refrains from commenting. Fortunately, Natasha calls him back to help them ransack the bunker "because you might actually have some idea of what we should be looking for." She tosses Steve a quick smile and a "Glad to have you back, Rogers," as she all but drags Bucky off the quinjet.
The hatch closes as Clint settles into the pilot's seat. He initiates the takeoff sequence, and the engines thrum to life around them. "Hill wants you back in New York soonest," Clint explains. "It's a quick flight."
Steve sighs. "I'm fine," he says again -- and he is, more or less. The chill of cryo still clings to his bones, but his head feels clearer than it has for weeks.
"Don't worry," Bruce says dryly, strapping into the seat beside him. "I doubt she's going to mother you."
Steve closes his eyes and doesn't respond. He's had way too much sleep over the past thirty-six hours to actually drop off, though, and thoughts churn through his mind, sharp-edged. Hill wants to see him ASAP? Good. He has a few things he'd like to discuss with her, too.
Clint was right about it being a short flight. It feels like no time at all has passed when Bruce shakes his shoulder to indicate that they're about to land. "Hey," Bruce says quietly. "I can hold off Maria for a while if you'd like, tell her I'm sending you directly to Medical."
"No, I'm good," Steve tells him, rolling his neck to work out the kinks. "Just haven't slept well lately, cryo notwithstanding."
Bruce nods. He hesitates, as though considering something, then gives Steve a rueful half-smile. "Anger's pretty exhausting. I should know."
"I'm not--" Steve starts, then cuts himself off, shaking his head. He's done lying to himself. "Yeah," he says instead. "It is."
He has a tendency to overlook Bruce when the Hulk's not in play. But while Bruce wears the facade of the absent-minded scientist like a comfortable old coat, he's actually hyperaware of the people around him, constantly on alert lest anything startle the Other Guy awake. It's made him very good at reading people. Steve wonders guiltily if his own volatile temper lately has been making Bruce nervous.
Although if he's being perfectly honest with himself, he's been angry for a lot longer than that.
The quinjet comes to roost lightly on the roof of Avenger Tower. Bruce, never entirely comfortable with small enclosed spaces, is already out of his seat when Steve asks, "How do you manage it?" Bruce blinks down at him, and Steve clarifies: "You told us once that you're always angry. So how do you keep it from...wearing you down?"
Bruce shrugs. "There's no magic trick to it. You just find something productive to channel it into, I guess."
He's gotta have his own stuff, Sam told him. And so do you.
"Right," Steve says. "Makes sense."
Steve finds Hill in her office with her two assistants, coordinating the Avengers' post-op efforts. When she sees him, she nods and shoos her people out. Her own computer monitors are currently synced to their stations in the outer office; they can manage fine on their own for the moment. Steve doesn't bother waiting for the door to close behind them. "Crossbones is Brock Rumlow. But I guess Sam probably filled you in on that already."
"He did," Hill agrees. She looks irritated, but not with Steve. "That asshole. How the hell did he survive the Triskelion, anyway? Wilson barely got out in time, and he said Rumlow was trapped behind him." She shakes her head. "He wasn't on our list of suspects because we had him down as KIA, but it all makes a lot more sense now. There really weren't many people in on the Winter Soldier's identity with access to the technology to track him."
"I don't think he even knew the Winter Soldier was Bucky," Steve tells her. "He was not expecting to catch me instead, and was confused why I'd be trying to protect HYDRA's Asset. I guess he never saw any pictures of Bucky Barnes, or just didn't put two and two together."
Hill frowns. "That's...possible. Out of context, if you're not looking for it.... God knows if you'd shown me a photo of the Winter Soldier a year ago, I doubt I would have IDed him as Barnes. But Rumlow would have actually interacted with him in person. That's harder to explain away."
"It helps if you don't think of the Winter Soldier as a person," Steve says coldly. "And HYDRA certainly didn't." He squares his shoulders, jaw set. "Which brings me to a question I'd like to ask you. What happens to Bucky now?"
She glances up at him, expression unreadable. "I think you should be asking him that, not me."
"That's the thing, though. Before my run-in with Rumlow, Bucky seemed to think that once we were done using him as HYDRA bait, we were gonna lock him back up and throw away the key. Worse, that he deserved it." Bruce was right. Channeling his anger feels a lot better than just stewing in it. Hill actually flinches at his tone. "Now, what might have given him that impression?"
"I hope it never comes to that," Hill says, chin up, spine stiff as a board. "But he's not entirely wrong. He has a lot of blood on his hands, and he knows it."
"Don't you dare--"
Hill holds up a silencing hand. "Torture and brainwashing, I know. But if his identity is ever made public, a lot of powerful people will demand that he stand trial for the Winter Soldier's crimes. As long as Rumlow and his cronies are still out there, that information could leak at any moment." She leans back in her chair, but her body language remains wary. "And unfortunately, my hands are tied. I'm too public a figure with Stark Industries. If it comes to light that we've been harboring a known terrorist, I'll have no choice but to turn him over to the proper authorities."
"You sure about that?" Hill presses her lips into a flat line. "Tony's a very smart man, and he controls a very powerful bit of computer programming. JARVIS has already given him every scrap of data regarding the Winter Soldier that the internet could possibly provide."
The Winter Soldier files were hard copy only. There was nothing about the project in any of the S.H.I.E.L.D. data Natasha uploaded to the web. Steve is about to remind Hill of that when the full weight of her words sinks in.
Rumlow might have it all. And if he leaks it...well, there are certain particulars that Steve hasn't told Tony about the Winter Soldier's kill list. He just hadn't been sure how Tony would react to the truth about his parents' accident. And from the significant look Hill is giving him, neither is she.
"Right," Steve says, throat dry. "So what exactly are you planning on doing with him?"
Hill raises a single eyebrow. "It would be a lot easier to answer that question if I knew which him I was dealing with. We had someone resembling Sergeant Barnes in that safe house, but then you went missing and someone else entirely took his place. And frankly, that guy scares the crap out of me."
Steve clenches his fists hard enough that all the bones in his hands start to ache. "You're making it sound like a Code Green situation."
"They're more alike than you want to admit," Hill says flatly. "I trust Dr. Banner, and I know what his triggers are, but we've still spent massive amounts of resources putting measures into place to contain the Other Guy. At least the Hulk is predictable, in a raging id-monster sort of way. The Winter Soldier may have less capacity for sheer destruction, but he's far more frightening."
"Not to me, he's not," Steve retorts, but that's not entirely true. It's a different sort of fear is all. He's not scared of what the Winter Soldier might do; he's scared for Bucky, still trapped somewhere inside. He's terrified of losing him for good.
Except it's not that simple, is it? Because Bucky didn't seem trapped in his own head, wasn't taken over by some hostile alter-ego. The Winter Soldier is a part of him now. Like the metal arm. It's not good or bad, it just...is. And trying to cut that part away completely might not leave Bucky with much left of himself at all.
"You didn't see him when he found out you'd been kidnapped," Hill says darkly.
But Steve had, in the bunker. Just a glimpse of it. It was the most present Bucky had been in weeks. Pointing that out will likely just increase Hill's discomfort, though, so instead he says, "You still put him on the retrieval team."
"Of course I did," she says, rolling her eyes. "He was going after you one way or the other, it's not like I had any say in the matter. The only person who could get through to him at all was Natasha. At least by teaming him up with the Avengers, I could keep track of where he was and what he was doing, and I could trust Natasha to take him down if it became necessary. And rescuing you is the only mission I know he'll commit to."
"He's a wild card and a security risk," Hill says bluntly. "I have nothing but compassion for the shit he's been through -- Natasha showed me the file, and it's sickening. But hiding him away indefinitely can't be good for his mental health, and nowhere out there is gonna be safe for him -- or from him, if he regresses further. Maybe he won't, now that you're home and safe, but that's not gonna last forever. You're Captain America, and you're too damn good at it to give it up, and that means you're gonna continue to be in dangerous situations on the regular. So what does that mean for your old pal?" She folds her arms across her chest, staring up at him. "So you tell me, Steve. What the hell am I supposed to do with him?"
It's not so much a challenge as it is exhaustion. Steve's chest tightens. Maria Hill is a good person, for all her sharp edges, and she's always come through for him in the past. He's been hard on her since she brought Bucky in, but she's genuinely trying to do the right thing, and this is just...beyond her capacity to manage. Bucky was right. She's gonna lock him up and throw away the key. Not now, not tonight, not until she's given herself some more time to pacify her own conscience on the matter, convince herself that it's what's best for Bucky as well as everyone else. But she will lock him up. She'll think it's the only choice left.
Bucky might've thought he deserved that, but Bucky's a real idiot sometimes. And Steve's never gonna let it happen.
"I don't know," Steve tells her, which is not a lie. "But I've had a hell of a day. Maybe we should both sleep on it, see what we come up with. Bucky's still cleaning up the bunker with Natasha?"
Hill nods. "She'll bring him in when they're done. In the meantime, you should get some rest. And make sure you swing by Medical at some point just in case."
She knows he won't, but it's nice of her to try. "Sure thing." He pauses at the door, hand resting on the knob. "Maria -- Rumlow got lucky, mostly because I made some pretty stupid mistakes. But his people were sloppy and unprepared, and his operation didn't have half the resources it should've."
"He's looking a lot like a red herring," she agrees. She taps her fingers restlessly against her desk. "If he was trying to buy his way into the new HYDRA hierarchy with the Winter Soldier, he failed, and the Avengers wiped out most of his team in the process. He's nobody."
"He's still a threat," Steve points out. "And I don't like knowing he's still out there scheming. But he's not a power player, not in the way you originally thought he was. And if Crossbones isn't the new head of HYDRA, then who is?"
Hill glances up at him, then away. "That's currently being looked into."
Steve's always known that S.H.I.E.L.D. was still in the game. He's just not sure who's running the shop. "Yeah? Tell 'em to look harder."
"They don't have a lot of manpower anymore," Hill says evenly. "And I've already had to divert some of their resources to your little Winter Soldier situation. There's only so much we can do at the moment. But I promise you, as soon as we have actionable intel on HYDRA, the Avengers will be the first to know."
"We'd better be."
He doesn't bother pulling the door shut behind him.
A few more of Hill's people have gathered in the outer office, including a now-familiar face. "Hey there, Cap," Trip says with his customary easy grin. "Heard you were back. All in one piece?"
"Just barely," Steve confirms. "Any casualties on your end that night?"
"Nah, nothing too exciting. Just kicking myself for letting them nab you. Doesn't look too good to have Captain America kidnapped on your watch."
"In fairness, you didn't have any reason to think I'd be out there." Steve pauses, looking at him more closely. Trip's the sort of guy who can blend in easily anywhere he goes, but he's still not wearing anything with the Stark Industries logo, and Steve remembers his first impression of the guy. Field agent.
Hill did mention diverting resources.
"So," Steve says, trying not to look around too obviously. None of Hill's people are paying them much mind. "Who's escorting Bucky back to the safe house once he's done with the debrief? Or are we even bothering with that anymore?"
Trip shrugs. "Beats me," he says cheerfully. "I'm relieving myself of babysitting duty, seeing as I did such a piss poor job of it. Anyway, seems to me that Barnes didn't need much looking after, in the end."
He's still smiling, posture still loose and open, but Steve gets the message loud and clear. "No," Steve says carefully. "I guess he didn't. So what's next for you, Trip?"
"Got my own team to get back to." He gives Steve a conspiratorial wink. "You know how it is, somebody's gotta keep 'em in line. But I have to say, it was an honor to work with real live Howling Commandos," he adds, more seriously. "Both of you. Granddad would've loved to see you guys again."
"Yeah," Steve says, throat tight. "I'm real sorry we missed him."
When Trip offers him a hand, Steve clasps it firmly, doing his best to let go of his residual anger at the organization that betrayed him. If there are good people like Trip willing to take on that fight, he has no right to stand in their way.
"I'll be heading out tonight around ten," Trip tells him. His tone is casual, so casual. "My car's parked right next to your bike in the garage. Very nice ride, by the way. Vintage is always the best way to go, am I right?"
Steve holds his gaze, waits for it. Trip gives him the quickest of nods. "What can I say, I need to know a thing's survived a war or two before I can really trust it."
"Is what I'm sayin'," Trip agrees, pleased. "You take care, now, Cap,"
"Will do. And hey, Trip?" Steve tries to return that open smile. "Next time you're planning a family reunion, let me know, okay? I'd love to meet everyone."
Trip grins. "You bet."
Steve loses all track of time standing in the shower, letting the hot water rain down on him. It's just shy of scalding. He relishes the burn of it in contrast to the chill still lurking deep in the marrow of his bones. A part of him feels like he'll never be entirely warm again. He hadn't felt this way when he first woke up in this century -- never developed any kind of phobia of cold water, for instance -- but he has dreams, sometimes. Flashes of the crash and the ice. He doesn't really remember much, had blacked out on impact in reality, but in his nightmares, he could sometimes imagine the rush of ice water into his throat and lungs, feel his blood slowly freeze in his veins, his heart struggling for every beat until it finally lost the battle to the ice.
He has a feeling that his brief sojourn in cryofreeze will feature prominently in his dreams for the next few weeks. But it's nothing he can't handle. There are far worse nightmares than a little cold.
The best thing about this century, Steve decides, is the seemingly endless supply of hot water. When he finally turns off the shower, the steam in the bathroom is so thick he can hardly see his hand in front of his face. He thought he'd never want to sleep again, not after his stint in the icebox, but the stress of the day is finally catching up to him. He towels off and barely manages to yank on a pair of boxers before collapsing on top of his bed.
He doesn't doze off for long; late afternoon light is slanting through the windows when the click of his bedroom door shutting startles him out of his impromptu nap.
"Hey, shhh, it's just me," Bucky says softly.
Some part of Steve must've known; normally, any noise that close to him would've had him all the way awake, alert, and ready for a fight, no matter how tired he was. But he's still half asleep, and only manages to blink hazily up at Bucky. "Is everybody back?"
"Shouldn't you be in debriefing?"
Bucky shrugs. A stray orange sunbeam glints brilliantly off his metal shoulder. He already stripped off his battle gear, now wearing only a tank top and sweats. The only remaining traces of the fight in Rumlow's bunker are a bruise on Bucky's jaw, already fading into a pale greenish-yellow, and the faint lingering scent of cordite. "Don't care," Bucky says, padding over to the bed. "Not an Avenger."
"Wanna be?" It slips out before Steve can catch himself, remember exactly how impossible that is. But it's a lovely fantasy. Him and Bucky, fighting side by side, just like they're meant to be.
Bucky shrugs again, but a sad little half-smile plays across his face. "I'll think about it. Shove over, will ya?"
Steve scoots over obligingly as Bucky clambers onto the mattress next to him. It's natural as breathing to curl into him like they're kids again, just for the sheer comfort of touch. They're still lying on top of the covers, but Steve feels warmer than he has in days.
Like he can read the thought out of his head, Bucky asks, "Defrosted yet?" His breath tickles Steve's ear.
"Just about," Steve replies. Bucky is a solid, warm presence all along his back, his non-metallic arm draped loosely across his waist. It's the soft kiss planted at the nape of his neck that finally yanks Steve back into full consciousness. This is too nice, too gentle. This is everything Steve doesn't allow himself to want. And this is not where he and Bucky left off their relationship. "Buck?"
"Shhh," Bucky murmurs again, pressing another kiss to Steve's neck, and then one to his shoulder. He deliberately grips Steve's hip, but not so tightly that Steve couldn't pull free. "JARVIS deletes anything that looks like sex, right?" His lips brush right against the shell of Steve's ear, sending heat rushing straight to Steve's dick. Dammit. "So play along and just listen, willya?"
It's a flimsy excuse at best -- JARVIS might not let Tony watch anyone else's homemade pornography, but that doesn't mean he's gonna shut down surveillance entirely just 'cause a couple of residents are getting cozy. But Steve's not gonna push Bucky away, not now. Not if this is all he's gonna get.
"You're leaving." It's not a question. In fact, it's the only option Bucky has. Steve has known that since his conversation with Hill.
Bucky pauses a moment, breath warm at Steve's neck, then tugs gently at his hip. Steve follows as led, rolling over to face him. "I have to. If it comes to a trial--"
"It won't," Steve says automatically.
Bucky shakes his head, a rueful smile tugging at his lips. "Even you're not dumb enough to think that. Not really. And maybe I deserve it--" Steve opens his mouth to protest, and Bucky covers it with his metal hand. "Shut up. I'm not arguing about this right now. Point is, I may deserve it, but you don't, and I get the feeling that if they lock me up, you're just gonna do something stupid to get yourself thrown in with me."
"Wouldn't be so bad," Steve murmurs. The words might be muffled against Bucky's palm but he's pretty sure Bucky gets the gist of it anyway. He moves his hand to cup Steve's jaw instead, running his thumb along Steve's lower lip. Even if it's all for show to keep JARVIS at bay, Steve can't help but remember that first day at the safe house, the way Bucky had shivered as Steve had kissed his metal palm. Sensitive. He clears his throat, forcing himself to focus. "But you know I'm not gonna let that happen."
"I know." Bucky taps his lips lightly, then drops his hand from Steve's face. "But it's not your choice, Steve. It's mine."
Steve sighs. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. I know." He follows Bucky's lead, tangling their legs together and keeping his voice a low murmur in Bucky's ear. "Agent Triplett is leaving for parts unknown at 2200 hours. His car's down on level LL3. Black Acura MDX, tinted windows. JARVIS knows Trip's one of your handlers, he won't flag your departure as unusual. And I'm not sure that even Hill knows the location of Trip's rendezvous point with his S.H.I.E.L.D. team. He'll drop you off anywhere you'd like en route. That'll buy you enough of a head start to disappear -- not that you need much of one."
Bucky has gone still and quiet. "You expect me to trust S.H.I.E.L.D.?"
"I expect you to ditch Trip long before he rejoins his team," Steve says drily. "No, I don't trust what's left of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- not with you, anyway. But I do trust Trip. He's Gabe Jones's grandson."
"Huh." Bucky pulls away just enough that Steve can see his wry smile. "You know, I didn't think you'd have already hatched a plan to spring me loose. Came back here expecting you to put up a helluva fight."
"I can argue if you want," Steve says quietly. "God knows I want to. But I saw the way you fought at the bunker."
Bucky stiffens. "Scared you, did I?"
"A little," Steve admits. "Not as much as you scared Hill. But Bucky -- the past month or so, it's like you've only been halfway here. Like some kind of ghost. Watching you fight…" He shakes his head, searching for the right words, not wanting to fuck up this conversation like he has every other one he's had with Bucky since Newark. "You looked fully alive again. It's different from the way you fought in D.C. I can't explain how, exactly, but it's...right. Even the parts of it that scare me a little. Shutting you away would just kill you by degrees again. I can't let them do that to you."
"You think letting the Winter Soldier loose is the better option?" Bucky's eyes are dark and unreadable.
"I'm letting you loose," Steve corrects him, torn between exasperation and regret and fondness. "Christ, Buck, if you thought I was just gonna try to stop you, why come back at all? You could've given everyone the slip during the post-op clean-up and been well away by now."
"Could've," Bucky agrees softly. "Should've, probably. Didn't seem fair, though." He runs his right hand up and down Steve's back, his touch warm. "Anyway, had to make sure you didn't do anything stupid like chasing after me again."
Steve shakes his head slowly. "I already tried that. Didn't do a damn bit of good. I learn from my mistakes."
"Do you, though?" Bucky stares intently at his face, as though searching for something. "Because Crossbones' thugs were supposed to be coming for me, Steve, not you. You shouldn't have tried to take 'em on by yourself. Could've ended a lot worse than a little cryo."
Get the chair prepped, Rumlow had ordered, and Steve wonders if Bucky had been the one to find it when the Avengers stormed the bunker. He'd seen what Bucky did to the door of the cryochamber.
He deliberately lightens his tone, pushing back against the images racing through his head. "C'mon, Buck, when've you ever known me to back down from a fight?"
"That's exactly my point," Bucky grumbles. His grasp tightens on Steve's hip. "You scared the shit out of me back then, and you're still doing it. You got some kinda death wish?"
He asks it almost offhandedly, but there's an edge to his voice. Steve pulls back to prop himself up on one elbow. "I'm not suicidal," he says, finally articulating it for the first time. He knows Sam worries about that, too. Natasha doesn't call him out on his self-destructive impulses, but he's seen her watching him warily, sometimes, and even Thor noticed. May as well address the issue head on. "There's a difference between wanting to die and...not choosing to live." At Bucky's skeptical look, he adds, "But maybe not a big enough difference." He sighs, rolling over onto his back to stare up at the ceiling, giving up the sham. JARVIS can record whatever he wants, Steve doesn't even care. "I'm sorry, Bucky. You've gone through so much worse--"
"It's not a goddamn contest, Steve." Bucky's tone is sharp, forcing Steve to look at him again. "And it's not like I'm some kinda model for post-trauma recovery. Took me months to even figure out my own name."
"But you managed it! You put yourself back together all on your own--"
"Not on my own," Bucky retorts. "Had help. Had you."
Steve's throat feels very tight. Three days and nights in that motel room, listening to Bucky scream himself hoarse -- name, rank, and serial number. "I didn't do much of anything."
Bucky shakes his head. "You did, though. More than you'll ever know."
This time when Bucky reaches out, it's almost hesitant, his fingertips skating across Steve's shoulder. Steve immediately tugs him into an awkward hug. He presses his forehead against Bucky's and just breathes. They stay like that for a good long while.
"Do you know where you're going?" he finally asks. The sun has fully set now, deep shadows cloaking his bedroom. It's probably after six o'clock. Less than four hours until Trip leaves, with or without passengers. Not that Bucky can't find another way to sneak out of the Tower, but this is probably the easiest.
Bucky nods, his nose bumping lightly against Steve's. "Rumlow's gonna be gunning for you now that you've humiliated him. I don't intend to let him get another chance at you. He covered his tracks pretty well at the bunker, but not well enough."
"I could go with you," Steve tries, without much hope.
"No, you couldn't," Bucky retorts. "You're too public a figure. And your team won't let you go so easily. Besides, I need you here to help cover my tracks, in case Hill and Stark aren't so happy with the thought of a Soviet assassin on the loose."
"Stark -- shit." A new thought occurs to Steve. "Did he ever get that tracker out of your arm?"
Bucky sits up enough to offer his metal arm up for Steve's inspection, as though Steve could possibly tell by looking at it. "He did, once we figured out where HYDRA was holding you. Didn't want to give 'em a heads up that we were on the way in."
Steve lightly traces the red star on Bucky's shoulder. "And when he removed it -- he didn't sneak anything of his own in, did he?"
"Not that I saw, and believe me, I was watching." Bucky clenches his fingers into a fist, then relaxes. "I honestly don't think it occurred to him. We were in a bit of a rush."
Steve lets out a breath. "Good." Without letting himself think too much about it, he ducks his head to press a kiss against the star. He trails his fingertips down the cool metal, resting for a moment at the crook of Bucky's elbow, then further along until he can lace his fingers with Bucky's. He kisses the star again, then the seam at Bucky's collarbone where metal meets warm skin.
Bucky is holding himself very, very still. "Steve?" Despite all his forthrightness earlier, when he claimed to be trying to fool JARVIS, he sounds almost uncertain now.
Steve tilts his head up and kisses Bucky full on the mouth. There's a bare moment of hesitation, and then Bucky responds in kind, kissing him hard, both his hands coming up to bracket Steve's face as if to hold him in place.
When Bucky pulls away from the kiss, he doesn't let Steve go. His thumbs trace slow circles against Steve's cheeks. "Steve. If you're trying to convince me to stay--"
"I'm not," Steve sighs. "You scared them, Buck. Maria and Tony and probably the rest of them. They're gonna lock you up sooner or later. You've got to get out of here before Hill makes up her mind."
Bucky's eyes look almost gray in the darkness. "Then why…?"
Steve shrugs, unable to look away. He feels raw and exposed, but that's still a hell of a lot better than all the nothing he'd been feeling for years, right up 'till the moment he'd ripped the Winter Soldier's mask off and seen his face for the first time. This hurts, but he'll take hurting over that blank numbness any day. He's through with attempting suicide by indifference. "Just trying to give you a reason to come back."
Bucky kisses him again, almost brutally, teeth scraping at Steve's lower lip. "Idiot," he mutters against Steve's lips. "I would've anyway, you know. Always do."
"Like a bad penny," Steve agrees, and presses Bucky down into the mattress.
Don't go, Steve knows he can't say, so he swings a leg over to straddle Bucky's waist, swallowing Bucky's sharp groan. Please stay is not possible, so he rolls his hips up to meet Bucky's, over and over again, sloppy and ungraceful and desperate for friction.
Steve kisses Bucky's lips, his cheek, his jaw, his forehead, his lips again, and doesn't once beg Bucky to let him run away with him.
"I gotta tell you, Rogers, you don't do anything by halves," Bucky manages to get out at one point, when they've come up for air. "Givin' JARVIS a helluva show here."
Steve is busy shimmying out of his boxers. He's already discovered that Bucky was going commando under his sweatpants, and needs to level the playing field. "If a computer's gonna rat on us to Tony, we may as well fry a few of his circuits in the process."
They've never had the best timing, not when it came to romance. Years of living in each other's pockets, plenty of opportunities and privacy, but neither made a move; and then there was the war, and Peggy, and one cold night together in the Alps wasn't exactly the strongest foundation for a relationship even if you ignored all the trauma that followed. And now -- well, Steve knows it's not really the right time for this, for them. But maybe it never will be. So fuck it; he's gonna take what little time they have.
He learns that Bucky's hand is indeed sensitive almost to the point of overstimulation, and that paying particular attention to the seam where the metal of his shoulder meets the scarred skin of his collarbone is the surest way to bring Bucky right to the brink. He learns that Bucky's touch is rougher now, pleasure edged with violence, grip bruising and kisses biting, and that he's quick to turn impatient if Steve tries to be gentle with him, but he never actively seeks to cause pain -- it's more that he doesn't bother keeping his own strength in check. That's fine by Steve, though. He likes the illusion of permanence in it, as though he can preserve Bucky's fingerprints along his skin long after Bucky himself has vanished again, even though he knows that the bruises will fade away not long after Bucky does.
He learns that Bucky tries to keep his eyes open when they kiss, when they fuck, when he comes, committing every detail to memory in defiance of everything HYDRA attempted to wipe away.
Afterwards, though, Bucky presses softer kisses to Steve's forehead, then his eyelids. "Go to sleep," he murmurs. "C'mon, Steve, close your eyes."
Steve wants to look at him forever. "Why?"
"You know why," Bucky says, so softly it's barely an exhalation. "Plausible deniability, Steve. Close your eyes."
When Steve just stares at him, resolutely -- he's always forced himself to watch Bucky leave him, no matter how much it shreds whatever's left of his insides -- Bucky sighs and pulls him into another kiss. It's deep and thorough, the kind of kiss that would set a new fire burning in Steve's blood if he didn't know what it means: goodbye. In spite of himself, his eyes slip closed as he loses himself in the sheer sensation of it. Even when it ends, Bucky doesn't pull away, lingering close.
"Sleep," he whispers, lips still brushing against Steve's.
And somewhat to his own surprise, Steve does.
He wakes up feeling oppressively warm, sweat pooling at the small of his back. Among the many changes wrought upon his body by the serum is a tendency to overheat, but given the winter they've had in Europe, that's generally been a blessing. It certainly has been the past week in the Alps. But the combination of his own elevated metabolism, the snug bivouac, and the additional warm body plastered all along his front…
His higher brain functions kick back into gear.
"Shut it," Bucky mutters sleepily into Steve's neck. "Don't you even start, Rogers."
"I didn't start anything," Steve protests automatically, arms tightening around him. Memories of the night before flip erratically through his head like the flapping end of a film reel. Shit. Shit. They'd actually -- he'd never expected -- oh God…
"You're working yourself up into a tizzy," Bucky grumbles. "I can hear your brain cranking away in there, don't think I can't. Just...don't." He pulls away enough to look Steve right in the face, the sky outside already light enough to see clearly even in the dimness of their canvas tent. He catches Steve's eye, and his mouth twists into a familiar smirk. "'Sides, I remember you starting plenty last night."
"You kissed me first," Steve points out. But he can see the uncertainty in Bucky's eyes, feel the way his whole body has gone still and tense against Steve's, and recognizes the sly bravado for exactly what it is: a familiar mask. Bucky's just as scared shitless as Steve is.
Somehow, that makes it easier for Steve to keep breathing.
Bucky shrugs and props himself up on one elbow. The rough blanket falls away a bit, and Steve hisses at the gust of cold air that brushes into the gap between them. "Look, Steve, it doesn't haveta mean anything--"
"It does, though." Steve's heart's doing double-time, and he clutches Bucky's hip hard to keep his hand from shaking. But his voice sounds somehow steady in his own ears, like a stranger's. "You gotta know that, Buck."
"Steve," Bucky says, almost gently, although his eyes are steely and determined, "it doesn't have to. I know you and Carter--"
"We're not--" Steve starts, then cuts himself off, because he knows it ain't exactly true. They haven't done anything together yet, haven't even said anything straight out, but there's damn well something there between him and Peggy, and he's not gonna deny it. Not to Bucky, not when they're already naked here together. He's got nothing left to cover up. "Okay. Yeah. Me and Peggy."
"You love her."
"Yeah," Steve admits, because how could he not? Peggy's magnificent, she's perfect, he's gonna marry her someday if she'll have him. "But I loved you first."
He's kinda shocked that he said it so easily, that he said it at all. But he's been wanting to say it aloud since he was about twelve years old. Guess it just couldn't bear to go unsaid any longer.
He'll talk to Peggy. They'll work something out. Or they won't, and she'll turn away from him in disgust, but if that's the case, she's not the woman he thinks he knows. She's never yet tried to make him choose between her and Bucky. He somehow doesn't think she ever will.
Bucky's just staring at him, eyes wide. He's shaking now, actually goddamn shaking, and Steve's pretty sure it's got nothing to do with the cold creeping in around the edges of the bivouac. So Steve tugs him back in and holds onto him tight until he stops, kissing his mouth over and over again until Bucky's loosened up enough to kiss him back, and then it's no time at all until Dugan's thumping at the canvas of the tent and hollering at them to get a move on or they'll miss Zola's train entirely.
(And soon enough, Steve will bitterly wish that they had.)
He wakes up feeling oppressively warm, somehow all tangled up in the sheets under the heavy coverlet, the sun blinking at him through the plate glass windows. For all that, he feels pretty good -- properly rested, for a change, head clear. His bed is empty, of course. He'd known it would be.
There's a gaping hollow around where his heart ought to be, sure, but that's also to be expected. And...he's okay with it, somehow. It's gotta hurt before it can heal, and for once, he thinks maybe he's finally moving in that direction. Bucky's still out there, and he's okay, and he's coming back when he's ready. And maybe by the time he does, Steve'll be ready to meet him on equal ground, too.
If Bucky can sort out the mess in his head and emerge more or less human and himself in the end, after all he's been through, then Steve's pretty sure he can manage the same.
The Tower is quiet, situation normal for the moment. Steve doesn't want to be the one to give the game away, so he avoids the other Avengers, finding an out-of-the-way gym that none of them bother with. He's pretty sure this is the one that the Stark Industries security teams use, but it's empty for now, so he sets himself up at a treadmill and waits.
It takes longer than he was expecting, long enough that he's actually worked up a sweat and is contemplating his lunch options. There's a pizza joint a couple of blocks away that he likes, and it might be fun to give Hill the runaround a bit, but he'd rather not have it out with her in public and ordering in is always chancy during the lunch rush, so maybe the cafeteria on the 20th floor is a better bet--
"Captain Rogers," JARVIS says, almost apologetically. "Ms. Hill requests your presence in her office. At once, I'm afraid."
He ignores the last bit, takes his sweet time showering and getting dressed. JARVIS remains silent throughout, not once prodding him, so either Hill's not as antsy as she should be or the AI is taking Steve's side on this one. He likes to think it's the latter. After all, JARVIS could've turned Bucky in before he ever left Steve's bedroom last night.
The outer office on Hill's floor is oddly deserted. She's alone at her desk, typing rapidly at her computer. She hardly even glances up when he enters, just flaps one hand at him while still tapping away with the other. It's not what Steve was expecting. He ignores the invitation to sit, finding himself with his hands clasped behind his back at parade rest without entirely meaning to.
Some habits die hard, he supposes.
Finally Hill finishes with whatever she was working on and pushes her chair back from her desk, folding her arms across her chest. She regards him silently for a few long moments, and he meets her gaze unflinching.
"So," she says at last, voice flat. "Barnes seems to have disappeared."
"Has he." Steve keeps his spine ramrod straight, matching her tone.
"Video footage shows him departing the premises at 2205 hours last night, in a S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicle, presumably en route back to the safe house. But they never checked in." She lifts one eyebrow. "There seems to have been some confusion amongst my security team regarding his current status as our...guest."
"Do you suspect HYDRA interference?" Steve asks, not even attempting to feign concern.
"No. What I suspect, as I always have, is that our interference only lasted precisely as long as Barnes permitted it to." Hill uncrosses her arms, drums her fingertips along her desk. "We can't track him, by the way, and neither can HYDRA. Not since Tony removed the implanted device from his arm."
"What about tracking the vehicle he used to make his getaway?"
"Yes, I can track that," Hill says blandly. "Not that it would do me much good."
She must know about Trip's involvement, but she's not calling him out on it. Steve wonders what he's supposed to read into that. "Bucky's smart enough to abandon any vehicle that could be traced back to us, yes."
"You don't seem terribly upset about losing your best friend, again," Hill remarks.
"And you don't seem terribly upset about losing a dangerous and mentally unstable assassin," Steve shoots back, abruptly tired of the game they're playing. He'd expected her to be furious with him, to have already called out the cavalry to hunt Bucky down. At bare minimum, he'd expected Tony and Natasha in here as well, possibly with the rest of the Avengers already suiting up. This calm is...unsettling, to say the least.
"There are worse things out there," Hill says mildly. "Maybe a few fewer once Barnes is done with them."
The lightbulb finally clicks on.
"You set this up," Steve says, blinking. "You set me up to spring him loose. You were never planning on locking him up at all."
"Locking him up how?" she asks, her real personality finally splintering through the mask she'd put on. "Back in the cells at Newark? Get real, Steve, you and I both know that wouldn't hold him if he really wanted to leave." She tucks her hair back behind her ear, gaze steely. "A loose cannon can do a lot of damage if you aim it properly. In fact, I'm counting on it."
"You knew he'd go after Crossbones."
"Someone sure as hell should. He might not be the new head of HYDRA, but he's a menace and a real jackass to boot." She shakes her head in disgust. "But S.H.I.E.L.D.'s frankly got bigger fish to fry right now, and they don't have any resources to spare. And my own field of influence is...limited at the moment."
"And what are the other Avengers gonna think about all this?"
"Natasha's on board, of course," Hill says, a little smugly. "And Tony pulled the video footage and saw Barnes leaving with a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. He's good at drawing his own conclusions. God knows he never bothers listening to anyone else's."
Steve stares at her, not sure if he should be impressed, angry, or maybe even a little grateful. "And here I thought Fury was the manipulative SOB-in-chief."
She gives him a thin smile. "I learned from the best."
"And what if I'd gone with him?" Steve demands. "Did you factor that possibility in, too?"
"Well, to be honest, I'd hoped he'd make his getaway out in Pennsylvania," she admits. "But Natasha's got a soft spot for you. She convinced me to let him come back and say goodbye first. I knew there was a risk you'd go after him, yes. But here you still are."
Steve presses his lips together into a hard line. "Right now, I'm not entirely sure why."
"Because you're still Captain America, and we still need you here," Maria says, tone softening somewhat. "And you're not ready to walk away from that."
Yet, she doesn't say, and neither does Steve, but they both know it's out there. He wonders when Maria got to know him so well. He wonders when he decided to let her in.
He might hate her a little bit right now, but he can't help but respect her all the same.
Natasha finds him up in his apartment an hour or so later, trying to find something on Netflix that might hold his attention for more than a couple of minutes at a time. She's carrying a large-ish plastic bag with an unfamiliar logo which she thrusts at Steve like some kind of offering.
"Um," Steve says, accepting it. "Hi?"
"I'm late for a meeting with Pepper," Natasha informs him breezily. Steve sincerely doubts she has ever been late for an appointment in her life. "But you should come up to Tony's around six. Something about a 'movie night.'" He can definitely hear the air quotes. "All the usual suspects will be there. Tony claims to be cooking, which usually means takeout from a Michelin five star."
She shrugs. "Better than shawarma, at least."
"I liked the shawarma."
"You practically faceplanted into it," she reminds him with her signature smirk. "Gotta run. See you tonight?"
He suspects she won't take no for an answer. Besides, it could be fun. He could use some fun, he decides. "Okay." He glances down at the bag in his hands. "Hey -- what's this for?"
"You," she tells him as she steps back into the elevator. "Welcome back. Bucky mentioned you used to draw."
He's not sure what to react to first -- that Bucky apparently told her about that, or that she actually referred to him as Bucky. The name isn't quite a punch to his chest, but it's a near thing. The elevator dings, and Steve reaches out to hold the doors open a moment longer.
"Nat -- wait. Why did you come back?" He takes a deep breath. It hurts less than he expected. "Was it for Bucky?"
He's been meaning to ask her this for a long time now. Maybe he needed Bucky to leave before he could get the question out.
Natasha studies his face for a moment. There's something that's not quite pity in her eyes, but not just sympathy, either. Maybe she knows what it's like to have someone like Bucky at the center of your universe, even if the man she'd known once hadn't really been much like Steve's Bucky at all.
"No," she tells him, almost gently. "I came back because I wanted to. And so will he."
He's not quite sure what to say to that, and the elevator doors close on her kind smile before he can make up his mind. So he opens the bag instead. It contains a heavy new sketchpad, with creamy, expensive paper, along with two different sets of graphite pencils and a big rubber eraser.
Thing is -- there was never just Bucky. Not even back when they were kids. There was Larry Keller, who was a couple years younger than Steve and got kicked around just as much, and they bonded over matching shiners a time or two. There was Benjy Goodman two flights up whose ma was also a nurse at the same hospital as Steve's, and he'd join Steve and Bucky and a couple of other neighborhood kids for stickball in the streets. Harold Franks was in Steve's class every single year in grade school, by some statistical fluke, and he was kinda whiny sometimes but he always got the new comics first and didn't mind sharing.
There was even Myra Levine, real skinny with dark curly hair, who was shy as anything but she and Steve got paired up for some class project or another in sixth grade and they hit it off after that. Myra had probably been the only girl Steve ever knew how to talk to, then. She got married at sixteen to the older boy who got her pregnant, but he was a good guy and did right by her, far as Steve ever saw. They'd invite Steve over for dinner maybe once a month or so, right up until he left for Camp Lehigh. Their daughter was the cutest little thing. Bucky always said he'd had enough babies after all his sisters, thanks, but Steve liked going over there and playing with the kid.
He hasn't told anyone in this century about Myra. Hell, he's hardly thought of her in decades. He thinks maybe he considered writing her once or twice during the war, before realizing that his whole letter would've been cut to pieces by the censors and anyway, it wasn't like he'd ever told her he was shipping out in the first place. He never looked up what happened to her or her husband.
And Steve used to go to those socialist meetings in the Village sometimes with a couple of the guys from his art classes. Bucky would've skinned him if he found out -- he thought that sort of radical talk was too dangerous -- so Steve never told him about it. Didn't agree with everything they had to say, but enough of it made sense to him. They were angry, like Steve, and wanted to do something about it. It felt like being a part of something bigger.
They got broken up by the cops once. Might've been the only time Steve ever backed down from a fight in his life, because he knew Bucky couldn't afford to bail him out if he got nabbed and Steve didn't want to put him through that. But he was sore at Bucky for weeks afterward and Bucky probably never understood why.
He'd loved Bucky, sure, with everything he had, but they never really were each other's entire world, were they? Hell, they'd near to killed each other when they first moved in together, before they figured out how to give each other space. Steve had a life of his own, even before the war. He had his own stuff.
So when did he forget that? Why was he waiting for Bucky to tell him how to be himself again?
He takes the sketchpad upstairs with him at six o'clock, finding Tony's penthouse already bustling with Avengers. Natasha's at the bar mixing some lethal-looking cocktails as she mediates an argument between Clint and Sam. From what Steve overhears, it has something to do with the military industrial complex, and although he definitely outranks everyone else in that discussion, he feels no particular urge to participate himself. He pokes his head into the kitchen -- which looks like it's never been used to actually cook anything ever -- to find Bruce and Pepper squabbling companionably over a couple of takeout menus while Tony takes apart a toaster. So he bypasses them, too, and eventually sets up camp in a corner of the surprisingly comfy sofa.
He opens his sketchpad and doesn't let himself look too hard at the blank page. He knows that if he actually stops and thinks about it, he'll get stuck and will never actually put pencil to paper. So he just starts drawing the first thing that comes to mind: a five-pointed star. And then a circle around it, and another, and another.
All alone like that in the middle of the page, the shield looks like...a symbol. Something abstract and ominous, a representation of some impossible ideal. It was everything he'd always hated about Captain America. To have to pretend to be the physical manifestation of a nation's hopes and dreams and military might, day after day after year after decade...shit, no wonder Steve felt so goddamn exhausted all the time. Nobody was meant to carry that kind of weight for as long as he had.
He almost takes his eraser to it, wipes it clean off the paper. But that seems unfair, somehow. Like he's blaming the shield for all the crap everyone else has gotten tangled up around it. It's just an object, that's all. A tool. A weapon, sometimes, when it has to be, but also just...protection. Comfort, almost. He likes the way the cool metal feels in his grip, the familiar weight of it on his arm or strapped across his back, the way it sings through the air and snaps right back into his hand. He's fond of the actual, physical thing. There's a reason it's the first thing that came to mind when he picked up this pencil.
So he keeps working on the sketch. He shades in the outline, gives it texture, follows the contours of the metal and the scratches in the paint job and the scorch mark just off the lower-left point of the star where a bullet dinged off it down in the HYDRA bunker. Then he starts filling in the space around it, because there's plenty of blank space on the page, and the shield doesn't exist in a vacuum, does it? A symbol might, but not an object. Not something real. Someone's got to be holding it, and that's a whole story in itself. Because someone had to have picked it up. Decided to use it, symbol or not, because that's what you do with good tools. You put them to use. And it's not like Mjolnir -- doesn't decide for itself who is or is not worthy to lift it -- but still, it takes a certain sort of person to wield it properly.
"You are a fine artist, my friend," Thor remarks, and Steve's pencil skitters slightly off-kilter. He wonders how long Thor's been here, watching him. The guy doesn't usually make a subtle entrance.
"I'm out of practice," Steve tells him. He carefully smudges out the errant line. "But thanks."
Thor studies the half-finished sketch thoughtfully. "The shield is yours, but I do not think it is meant to be a self-portrait."
"No," Steve says. The person carrying the shield is still vague on the page, but it's definitely not him. That much he knows for sure. He starts sketching again, filling in details, almost as though his pencil has a mind of its own.
After a few moments, he feels Thor settle down onto the cushions beside him. He doesn't look up from his pad. "I am glad that we were able to retrieve you unharmed. You seem well, Cap-- Steve." Thor pauses a moment, watching him draw. Across the room, Tony has finally given up on the toaster and is corralling the rest of the team into an energetic poll regarding takeout options. When Thor speaks again, his voice is softer. "Do you no longer wish to bear the shield yourself?"
It's not really about the shield. Thor knows that.
"No," Steve admits, exhaling. Just saying it aloud lifts a weight he hadn't even realized he was carrying. "You know what? I really don't."
He tucks his pencil behind his ear and studies the sketch. It's still rough, incomplete, but the picture is clear enough.
"What do you want?" Thor asks. There's no judgement in his tone, or impatience, or even surprise. He just sounds genuinely curious.
"I don't know yet." And being Captain America isn't the sort of thing you can just leave behind, even if he were ready to quit. He smiles down at the unfinished drawing. "But I know I want something, and I guess that'll do for now."
The next page in the pad is blank and clean. Later, he decides, and gets up to join in the argument about what to order for dinner.
Sam waylays him before he can really get into it, though, tugging him aside toward the balcony. It's chilly outside, but the wind feels good on his face. "Hey, man," Sam says in a low tone, eyes darting to the other Avengers and then back. "Heard a rumor that Barnes is in the wind again."
Steve's still not sure what the rest of the team has been told. He's also not sure that he cares. None of them have had the guts to mention it in front of him yet, but it's only a matter of time. "Yeah," he says. "He is."
Sam sighs, much put-upon, but it's all for show. He's watching Steve closely, trying to suss out what's really going on here. "All right," he says warily. "We gearing up to go after him again?"
Steve matches him stare for stare, considering the matter. Sam's not an Avenger yet, and he's not S.H.I.E.L.D. He doesn't have to follow anyone's orders but his own. And he's got his own bone to pick with Brock Rumlow.
There's something brewing in the back of Steve's head, not quite an idea yet, definitely not a plan. But maybe a step in the right direction, toward bringing Bucky home for good.
Toward whatever comes next, whenever they're both ready for it.
"Nah, I think he's okay," Steve says lightly. "But he could probably use some backup."
"Yeah?" Sam lifts one eyebrow. "Backup on what?"
Steve smiles. "Missing persons case."