The first Hydra base that Steve and Sam hit with Natasha's new intel had been completely gutted. Whatever it contained had been blown to cinders, and on the back of its inner door, askew and dangling off its bottom hinge, was written a message in crimson: “STEVIE. NO.”
Steve was positively vibrating with hope and excitement. “That's what he used to say when we were kids and I started a fight I couldn't finish--”
“--which, if I understand correctly, was pretty much all of them,” Sam replied.
Steve Rogers, Captain America, kicked at some soot on the floor of the base, trying to hide his blush. “Well... I started fights. Bucky ended them. He'd shove in, move me aside, say 'Stevie, no', and then hand whoever it was their ass.”
Sam walked back outside and breathed in the cold night air. He was torn. On the one hand, Steve had come so alive, searching for Bucky. From being a figurehead, who smiled and shook hands and punched bad guys and did all the right things then went back to an apartment as bland as a hotel room where he'd listen to the same old records over and over, to this... this grinning, blushing idiot looking at the remains of the Winter Soldier's violent mayhem like it was Christmas at the Ritz.
On the other hand, the longer they kept up this wild goose chase, the more Sam became convinced Bucky Barnes was a person that they'd be better off – hell, the world would be better off – if they never, ever found. “He ever lose a fight?” Sam called back over his shoulder.
“Not really. No, he did, once. Big Italian guy named Gino. He did a little underground boxing before he got drafted. I swear he threw it, though. That guy was big, but he was slow.”
“You want to get back to the jet, head to the next base? Nothing here but wreckage, Cap.”
Steve loped out and corrected Sam in his best Captain America Has Something Important To Tell You voice, complete with the full earnestness of his blue-eyed gaze.
“Sam, he left me a message. That message proves he remembers.”
Sam sighed. “Cap... It was written in blood. I'm guessing it wasn't his blood.”
The second Hydra base was in Siberia, in the forests near Lake Baikal. And still standing. Steve huffed out a quiet “thank God”, as they came over the ridgeline and saw it, a squat ugly concrete thing embedded into a rocky hillside. No visible enemy, but given the number of Hydra facilities the Winter Soldier had already hit (lots) and the number of survivors (zero), desertion rates had to be pretty high among the lower-echelon staff tasked with guarding remote bases.
By the time Sam processed all this, Steve was already sprinting down the hillside towards the base, in a prime example of Steve Rogers Bad Habit #1: Pace And Attitude Is Totally The Same Thing As A Plan. Sam was readying his Falcon wings and muttering under his breath about asshole supersoldiers with oatmeal for brains and cement for bones, when a bullet puffed into the snow barely six inches in front of Steve's foot, causing Captain America to dodge sideways, slip on the fresh powder, and fall on his star-spangled ass.
Steve got his shield up and turned back to yell, “Sam! Down!” just as the entire base sheeted outwards with orange flame in what, Sam later had to admit, was one of the more impressive explosions he'd ever seen. By the time they'd dusted themselves off from the debris and snow, and gotten their hearing back, the Winter Soldier was long gone. It still didn't stop Steve from combing the entire area for tracks, or a note, or anything, for hours, until Sam, shivering and blue in the sub-zero weather, demanded they go home.
. . .
They didn't make it to the third base.
Tony Stark called them back to Avengers Tower on a matter of highest priority. Somewhere over China, Sam punched in new co-ordinates to the jet's autopilot, and thought about the nice hot shower he was going to have in about eight hours. As he went to get some shuteye, he pressed his hand on Steve's shoulder. Steve was muttering, “Can't believe he's pulled Avengers Assemble on me. This is a priority. The Winter Soldier is a priority.”
“And meanwhile your buddy does our work for us, taking down Hydra.” Sam offered. “Let's go see what's got Iron Man's panties in a twist. He pays the bills.”
And lo, judging by the face Tony was wearing when he met Steve and Sam on the rooftop jet-pad, the iron panties were indeed in an almighty bunch. This was the most still and focused Sam had ever seen Tony, who was usually bouncing from idea to sarcastic retort to ridiculous plan like an over-sugared child. Natasha was just behind him, half in shadow, wearing her usual expression of detached amusement. Banner leaned in the doorway, watching Steve thoughtfully as he got out of the jet.
“What's up?” Steve asked, looking from assembled expressions of fury, wry amusement and... pity? Was that pity on Banner's face?, and trying to work out the common thread.
“Go to the conference room, I'll explain there,” Tony responded.
“Oh, um... well, after you,” Steve said, deferring to Tony's ownership of the building and Avengers leadership.
“No,” Tony said, the edge in his voice deepening to a downright surliness, “after you, Steve.”
Sam rolled his eyes as Steve, turning to look at each of his friends, launched into Steve Rogers Bad Habit #2: I Will Disobey Any Direct Order. “What's going on? Tell me. Bruce?” (Bruce was suddenly very interested in his fingernails.) “Tony? Is it--”
And before Steve could say the thing on his mind, the thing that was always on his mind lately, Natasha bumped his shoulder with hers affectionately and said with a dry smirk, “Just go to the conference room, Steve.”
Steve went to the conference room, the rest of the Avengers trailing behind. The conference room was the conference room, boring, bright and white with bulletproof, ceiling-to-floor windows looking over Madison Avenue, papers on a big fancy meeting table--
Steve walked over to the table and put his hand on the large crimson letters that stretched across it, letters in a scrawled, all-caps handwriting that was achingly familiar to him. Letters that spelled out, “STOP CHASING ME”.
He sniffed his fingers, then smiled at Sam.
“Sam, it's paint. It's just paint.”
Sam did something akin to wilting, then turned around and pressed his forehead against the wall.
“Paint? As opposed to..?” Banner whispered.
“I'll tell you later,” Sam moaned back.
Then Steve saw what sat on the pile of papers in the centre of the table. His heart felt like it suddenly weighed a hundred pounds. He half-sat, half-fell into the nearest chair and reached out, willing his hand not to shake. Two little pieces of aluminium, a metal cord... BARNES JAMES B, CATHOLIC, a record of a life... underneath, a three-inch pile of photocopied papers, in Russian, in German, the most recent in English... large parts of them blacked out. A record of another life. Hydra files. The complete Winter Soldier operational files, or near as dammit. He couldn't read most of them, but could grab a word here and there.
Steve pushed down an almost unbearable desire to press Bucky's dog tags to his lips. He looked up at Tony, eyes shining with emotion. “He came here,” Steve whispered.
Tony's furious stillness finally broke into storm. “Cap! Cap, yes, he came here. Your Hydra murderbot ex-best friend came here. Into Avengers Tower. Into my home, where I sleep, and where my girlfriend sleeps. The man who, I might remind you, killed my parents. I have feelings about this and none of them are remotely in the realm of okay.”
“He left us a whole lot of classified information, Tony,” Steve said, indicating the papers.
“He destroyed a $60,000 table!” Tony squawked, waving stiff-armed at the mahogany monstrosity now bearing original, one of a kind Winter Soldier graffiti.
Steve tried to look suitably upset on Tony's behalf and failed. It really was an ugly table. Big whale of a thing. And $60,000? For a table? Really? He glanced over at Sam for help. Maybe Sam could bring up how this was the least property damage they'd seen from Bucky, well, anywhere since (and including) DC. But Sam was busy pressing his forehead against a wall.
Tony looked around. “Is anyone else not cool with the Winter Soldier just wandering in here? Because I am not over-reacting here.” Tony pointed at Steve. “I'm not asking you. I'm not talking to you any more. You're insane.”
Natasha sidled into the chair next to Steve's and reached, in a way which was a little too casual, too disinterested, towards the big juicy pile of classified papers. She arched an eyebrow at Tony. “Don't be mad, Tony. Think of it as a security audit. Now you can have fun thinking up improvements.”
“Wait. Wait wait wait,” said Tony, striding towards Steve. “You didn't lose your mind and give him a pass to the tower?”
Steve smiled and held up his Avengers ID card.
“So he broke in, and somehow got around Jarvis.” said Bruce. “No, I'm not good with that either.”
Tony blanched, turned on his heel, and strode out. “If anyone wants me I'm going to be in my lab with a case of Jack Daniels and a prototype plasma cannon.”
Sam slipped after Tony. “Need any help with the Jack?”
Steve could hear their voices fading as they reached the elevator, Tony telling Sam thank god someone sane was making sure Rogers didn't go off the deep end.
“I want to talk to you about all of this, Steve,” said Bruce. “Steve?”
But Steve was looking over Natasha's shoulder, at records in languages he didn't speak. Natasha flicked through them with a practiced, bored air, which didn't fool Steve one bit. He raised his eyebrows.
“Give me a moment,” she said.
She flicked through the files, back and forth, reading a bit here, a bit there. Minutes passed. Her lips pressed together, and her eyes slid away from Steve's imploring gaze. “Natasha?” he prompted.
Natasha stood and tucked the papers under her arm. “I... I can't summarize these. I'll have to translate them. I'll do it as fast as I can.”
Steve reached out to her. “Leave me the English ones--”
Natasha smoothly edged away. “No. You need to read this as a complete package, Steve. It's, um... it's a problem.”
“What kind of problem?” he called out to her retreating back.
Natasha waved her hand in the air as she walked away. “You know. About six feet tall, 250lbs, metal arm, not the person you think he is.”
Steve sighed. Banner was still there, and still looking at him with that damn expression like he pitied Steve.
Steve put his head in his hands. They felt cool on his cheeks. The lights were too bright in here. He mumbled at Bruce, “Please don't say anything to me.”
Bruce, well versed in the psychic landscape of anger and despair, raised his hands in silent acquiescence and made to leave.
“I'm not crazy, Bruce.” Steve mumbled. “I'm not.”