“Steve, this is the last thing in the world he would have wanted for you,” Peggy says. Over the phone, it's hard to tell that she's been touched by time at all.
“Yeah, well, I guess he shouldn't have died,” Steve responds. The files in his hand, translated from Russian by Natasha, have charts and technical specs and instructions. It reads like a manual; it reads like reducing the most important person in Steve's life to a thing, a possession. That stings, but it's nothing, nothing, to the title page, where “DEACTIVATED” is stamped over the words “Operative: Winter Soldier” in menacing red.
(“What does it say?” Steve asks her, trying hard not to sounds as impatient as he feels. Whatever happened to Bucky is typed on the paper in Natasha's hands.
Natasha scans the files, steely-eyed. “It says he went off the farm and didn't carry out his last mission.” Her face is tight. “In the coming weeks, the crack in his programming grew continuously. Attempts to reprogram him were not successful.”
Something flickers across her face, and Steve knows that what's coming next isn't going to be good.
“It says that the operative was deactivated.”
There's a finality to her voice, and Steve knows, but he has to double-check. “For the people who had him, what does deactivated mean?”
“It means he died as your friend, not as the Winter Soldier.”)
“Peggy?” He says.
“I'm sorry I missed that dance.”
Peggy laughs, and it's different, more melancholy than the woman he knew. “So am I, Steve. So am I.”
(“So you're telling me that Captain America's going on some motherfucking half-cocked vengeance quest?”
“Yes, Sir,” Steve says.
“Why are you telling me this, Rogers?”
“I'd rather do this with SHIELD's support than without.”
Fury gives him an incredulous look. “What makes you think I'd support this? In fact, give me one good reason I shouldn't just have your ass hauled down to the brig and cut this thing off at the root?”
Steve taps the star on his chest.
“Yeah, yeah. Captain America's a national icon,” Fury says. “Someone else could wear the suit.”
“The people responsible are members of a currently-inactive Red Room splinter cell. We found out about Bucky's death because you had the Black Widow investigate them to determine whether or not they were a threat. Eliminating them will serve SHIELD's interests, not just mine.”
Fury continues to look unimpressed. “I take it you can't be talked out of this.”
“No sir,” Steve tells him,
“So what you're saying is, my options are take Captain America into custody, or let him take out a bunch of former Soviet mad scientists?” Fury says, still disbelieving.
Steve nods. “That is, indeed, what I am saying, Director Fury.”
“Guess I choose the version of this story that doesn't involve having to find someone else to fill out that suit.”
“Thank you, Colonel Fury, sir.”
“Rogers—there are rules,” Fury says. His face is steel. “Don't make me look bad. Don't get caught. Don't kill any innocents. You're a good asset to SHIELD, Captain, and a good man. I'd hate to have to make you disappear into a SHIELD prison.”
“Got it, sir.” Steve grins. “Don't make a mess.”
“Don't do anything that makes Agent Coulson roll over in his grave, Cap.”
“I'll do my best,” Steve says. “But you know, Colonel, recently, I've been learning that people aren't always dead when I think they are.”
“I haven't a clue what you're talking about, Rogers.” Fury's expression does not change. “Call if you need medical or a quick ride home.”)
The next name on the list is a Mikhail Makovsky.
In Natasha's notes, in her precise writing, it says, “After he was subdued by Gorbov and Temersky, with the assistance of Azurina and her modified tranq. gun—” On the list, Lev Gorbov, Anton Temersky, and Nastya Azurina have all had their names slashed through in red. “--Makovsky put him into his final cryosleep, so he'd be out of their hair while his fate was decided.”
(Natasha doesn't ask if he's sure he really wants to go through with this, not like everyone else. Instead, she tells him, “I don't suppose you'd like me to help.” It's not a question.
“I need to do this alone,” Steve says.
“Here, take this.” Natasha produces some papers and a small notebook, and shoves them into his hands.
There's a list of names, typed, and a timeline filled with question marks and approximate numbers. Steve flips through the notebook—Natasha's filled every other page with her neat writing. “What is this?”
“It's a list of everyone who was involved in his death, and a rough timeline of everything that happened beforehand,” she tells him.
“And the notebook?”
“I explained what they did,” Natasha says, “The blank pages are for you to explain what you do to them.”
“This is--” Steve flips through and skims the pages. “You didn't have to do this.”
“You're not the only one who's ever been in love with him, Rogers.”
Steve smiles. “That obvious?”
“Yeah,” she says, smiling back. “That obvious.”)
He's finally closing in on Makovsky. By all accounts, the doctor's cracked somewhere along the way, which is the reason Steve's currently in a Siberian outpost, waiting on the coordinates of a hand-built cabin.
The radio is hard plastic in gloved hands. The crackling silence taunts him. All Steve can feel is the waiting, the languid drip of the only thing standing between Steve and the next person responsible for Bucky's death: time. It must be cold—he is, after all, in Siberia, but Steve doesn't feel it.
He doesn't let himself feel much of anything these days. Well, he tries not to—there's not much that can be done about the steady beating of a hopelessly devoted heart.
(“Why are you letting me do this alone?” Steve asks her.
“I loved the only good thing in a bad place,” Natasha says, “James and I, we loved the broken pieces of each other. We loved with what shreds ourselves that we could scrape together. I will always care about him, but I don't love him, not anymore. You still do. Completely.”
“You're not wrong,” Steve admits—about him, that is. Steve's fairly certain she's lying about not being in love. But if it is a lie, it's one that she herself believes. Steve will not be the one to strip her illusions.)
The radio crackles to life.
(“As far as you knew, he'd been dead for seventy years,” Tony says. “Why is this different?”
Steve's eyes are steel. “When Bucky fell, I took Hydra to pieces. For him. I did it all for him.”
“So you did the Avenger thing already, and avenged him. Why do it again?” Tony asks. “You really wanna get in seventy more years as a capsicle?”
“If I have to, I'll freeze again. While I was under the ice, Bucky was going through hell. Someone's going to pay for it.”)
Doctor Makovsky is a sniveling wreck of a man who flies at Steve with a hammer the instant he comes through the front door. It takes Steve half a heartbeat to get the thing away from him.
Makovsky presses himself against a wall; he's cowering. «Вы ангел. Бог вас послал меня наказать.»
“I don't speak Russian,” Steve says, and then he's swinging the hammer, every inch the avenging angel he's been taken for. The doctor's skull caves with a grisly crack after one blow, but Steve comes back for another, and another, and another.
When Steve leaves the cabin, Makovsky's head is a red smear on the rough-hewn wood floor and a colorful story for Natasha's little black notebook.
(“How'd the mission go, Barton?”
“You really gonna do this, Cap?” Clint asks, completely ignoring Steve's question. “Like, you serious?”
Steve smiles; it's hollow. “As a heart-attack.”
“You, Captain Perfection-a, are going to hunt down and kill a bunch of ex-Soviet scientists and crazies?” Clint is incredulous. “Nat says you are, but I kind of wonder if she isn't confused and you're just gonna like...take 'em all for therapy or something.”
Steve snorts. “You do know I was a soldier, right, Barton? I've killed men.” His face goes severe. “I don't like to do it. But you do what you have to for the people you love.”
“That was war, and this is, well, something someone like me would do,” Clint says. “You're Captain America! White knight and national icon extraordinaire. Every time you do something bad a bald eagle dies and American babies weep in unison.”
“I've read up on US military conflicts during the time I was...sleeping. I don't even think someone called Captain America should be a white knight anymore.”
“Hey, not everything was sunshine and roses back in your day, old man,” Clint says. “I mean, I think the Native Americans were before your time, at least.”
The mirth drains out of Clint's face. “You sure you wanna do this, Rogers? I know you and Barnes were attached at the hip and whatnot, but isn't a killing spree a bit much?”
“That's not even a fraction, not even a drop in the bucket, compared to what I'd do for Bucky,” Steve tells him.)
The next name on the list is Vladimir Stross. Natasha's notebook says, “Stross, who was born in the US to an American father and a Russian mother, and defected after earning his Ph.D—just thought you'd like to know that—figured out a recipe for a paralytic which would work with the Soldier's enhanced physiology. The drug carried the side-effect of severe pain, but Stross decided that this was unimportant, particularly since the Winter Soldier was most likely going to be killed before he had the chance to complain, or more importantly, get angry.”
Stross is hiding by the Black Sea, on the southern Georgia coast. Batumi is a tourist city, and it's still quiet in the first thaws of spring. The scientist is not hard to find.
Steve knocks and is let in through the front door of Stross's apartment, on the ground floor of an old, charming building.
«Боже мой,» Stross says, his Russian perfect. “When the members of our organization started dying off, I thought the Winter Soldier himself had come back for us.” His English is perfect, too. “I never expected...you. What business does Captain America have avenging the Winter Soldier?”
“You know who I am?” Steve asks.
“My dad was a fan. I watched the cartoons growing up, and the footage of the Howling Commandos.”
Steve raises an eyebrow. “But you don't know who the Winter Soldier really was?”
Stross shakes his head. “I knew he'd been an American, and there were rumors, of course. He was programmed long before my time.” He laughs. “Maybe I should have listened to some of those rumors.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Maybe you should have.”
Stross chooses that moment to turn tail and run for the window. Steve catches him in one long stride, one fist bunched in the already-wrinkled fabric of his button-up shirt, and a steely arm across his chest.
They're close, Steve's chest inches from Stross's back. He can hear the man's frantic breathing, the too-quick beat of his heart.
Steve doesn't hesitate before plunging the knife into Stross's spine. There's a sick crunch as metal severs bone, even though between Steve's strength and the sharpness of the methodically-kempt blade, it glides in smooth as butter. Stross chokes out a low, gurgling sound. There is blood coming out of his mouth, red on fair skin, and even through gloves, Steve can feel the warmth of the life spilling out of him.
Steve leans in and hisses “Now you have some idea of what Bucky felt like before he died” into Stross's ear, and then he twists.
He leaves the knife and his bloody gloves on the scene. The chill of the early-spring air doesn't bother him in the slightest.
(“Cap, I know I don't exactly have the best track-record when it comes to anger management,” Bruce says—he's sheepish, hands in the pockets of caramel-colored jeans. “But I do know a little something about being angry.”
Steve's grin is wry. “Yeah, Doc?”
“You're a good man, Steve. You can fight this.”
“A good man, you mean unlike—”
Bruce laughs. “We're not here to talk about my problems.”
“Yeah, yeah. Guess it's my turn this week.”
“You don't have to do this, Steve,” Bruce says. “You can just...let yourself grieve.”
“I'm not angry for me, Bruce. I'm angry because people hurt him, and I'm not letting them get away with it. It's...it's not anger, it's righteous fury.”
He sighs. “I guess there's no talking you out of this one.”
Steve's looking in Bruce's direction, but his eyes are somewhere else—Brooklyn, London, a Hydra factory, a train. “No, there isn't.”)
The next name on the list is Mira Volnova. Natasha's notebook says, “After they put him in cryosleep for the final time, it was quickly and unanimously decided that a Winter Soldier that could not be programmed could be of no further use, and was, in fact, a danger. Though some among the group suggested keeping the Soldier on cryo, Volnova pointed out that he would still pose a risk in the form of rival groups attempting to acquire the Winter Soldier for themselves. It was determined that he would be brought out of cryosleep to be killed.”
Steve finds Volnova in St. Petersburg, where she doesn't even seem to be hiding. She keeps an apartment in the middle of the city, leased to a flimsy alias. There's no army of thugs guarding the building; she's not isolated by miles of frozen wasteland. This one is different.
When Steve kicks down the door—no one's ever called subtlety his strong suit—there's a woman in a wooden chair facing it. There's a gun to her head. She's stunningly nonplussed. “Captain Rogers,” she tells him. Her speech is lightly-accented and very clear. “Don't be alarmed. She's not going to shoot.”
The woman holding the gun—Volnova—is dressed to kill. Her heels look as lethal as her weapon. «Меня зовут Мира. Это моя переводчица, Вера.»
“This is Mira,” says the woman with the gun to her head. “I am Vera, her translator.”
«Я тебя ждала.» Volnova purrs. «Если ты согласишся са мнои поговорить по нормальному, я могу убрать писталет. Он нам не нужен. Мы не хотим невинниых жертв. »
“She says she's been waiting for you,” Vera echoes. “If you'll just agree to talk to her, she'll put away the gun. She doesn't need it. We don't want any innocent victims.”
Steve nods; Mira lowers the gun.
«Ты наверно хотел бы знать почему я не прячусь как все остальние.»
“You're probably wondering why she's not hiding, like all the others,” Vera translates.
Another curt nod; Steve can feel his gun in its holster, knows just how fast he can draw it, knows just where he'd shoot her.
She smiles. «Я городская. Женщины как я не прячется в лесу. И я знаю где мой коллега спрятал труп твоего друга.»
Vera quirks an eyebrow. “She says, 'I belong in the city. Women like me don't hide in the woods. Also, I know where my colleague hid your friend's body.”
Steve draws a sharp breath. The thought of Bucky's remains, the last thing left of him in the entire world, being with one of his killers sends an ugly chill down his spine.
«Так. Что тебе хочется сильнее, убить меня, или похоронить любимого?» Volnova asks.
“So, what do you want more?” Dina repeats, “'To kill me, or to bury your beloved?'”
She's got it right—it's a matter of which one he wants the most. That overly familiar tone, coming from one of the people responsible for Bucky's death, it sickens him. Steve wants to put a bullet right between her pretty eyes. She's delicately-built, and Steve is a soldier—he can size up weakness, has already noted that she lacks Natasha's deadly grace. Volnova relies on sky-high heels and poise to make her seem imposing. She can probably shoot that gun with deadly precision, but that wouldn't help her against Steve. He could snap that little neck, and it would hardly take any effort, hardly any effort at all.
But there's the small matter of Bucky, and Bucky will always win, when Steve's the one deciding. Leaving Volnova alive is a small price to pay, if it means burying him with the respect he deserves, means having a grave sit by on pretty days. The timbre of her voice might drive Steve halfway-insane, but there's no comparing it to the idea of leaving anything of Bucky, even if it is just his unfeeling corpse, with the people responsible for his death and his painful last days.
“Deal,” Steve tells her. “I get his body, you get to live.”
Vera looks up at Mira. «Он согласен.»
(Bucky and Steve are on some Brooklyn rooftop. It's Steve's birthday, and the Fourth of July fireworks light of the New York skyline. Steve is not watching the show; he is watching Bucky's face, watching his eyes crinkle when he smiles. He looks at Bucky like he is the lights, the same way he always does. It's the look of love if there ever was one, but Steve will never tell. Bucky is this beautiful thing who can have no reason to want him.
The lights in Bucky's eyes have gone out by the time Steve finds him, but they reignite the moment he sees Steve's face. Steve tells himself it is just the relief, just the joy at seeing a familiar thing in a terrifying place. He keeps telling himself when they camp in the woods on the long march back, and Bucky tucks himself against Steve's chest—for warmth, but the real warmth is Bucky's eyes when he thinks it's too dark for Steve to see him looking. There's a new voice in Steve's head that tells him that maybe he's worth this, that maybe he rates Bucky Barnes, the man he's never not wanted. But the voice is still small, and Bucky doesn't look at him like he's something new, he looks at him like the thing he's been missing, and Steve just can't reconcile himself to the possibility that Bucky could have possibly felt any of that for skinny-sickly Steve Rogers. Captain America, maybe, but never Steve.
They're somewhere in London, tumbling around the city on their scant shreds of leave. It's hard for Steve not to feel guilty for resting, especially with the skyline all scarred from the blitz like it is. But Bucky is looking up at him, smile looser than it's been since Zola's table, and Steve can't regret it. He knows the look in Bucky's eyes now, knows what it means, that it has always been there; he knows these things because he feels them, too, has always felt them. But it is war, and they are soldiers. His men come first.
They're in some pub, tumbling around London. Steve grabs Bucky's hand under the table, and promises, “When this war is over.”
Bucky just leans into him and smiles, sly, like he knows a secret. Later, Steve will realize that the secret was that he could promise “when” all he wanted, for all the good it could possibly do while he was looking at Bucky that moon-and-stars way. )
Volnova gives Steve a name, and a location—Anatoly Umansky, the last man on Natasha's list, and he's at a dacha in Vinnitskaya Oblast', Ukraine. Natasha's notebook says, “Umansky was the head of the operation, and as such, he claimed the right to be the one to take the Winter Soldier's life. Umansky injected the Soldier with Stross's compound while Chernikov, Laskin, and Pyryev—“ men who'd have to wait their turn to be buried, Bucky first—“held him down. Even with his arm disabled, it took their three strongest to restrain him.
“Umansky dragged the Winter Soldier, now paralyzed, into the alley behind the lab, joking that it was the proper place to put down a rabid dog. There was one shot fired. Umansky dragged the remains to his vehicle to dispose of him at the operation's most secret dump site, the location of which only he was privy to. Note: Consider conducting an interview with him to figure out where it is. Call if you need help or techniques.”
Steve smiles like a ghost. Though he's planning on taking his time with this one, he's not going to need to interview anyone—Volnova took care of that.
(“Umansky said he was going to bury the Winter Soldier at one of our dump sites,” the translator tells him, “She says she didn't believe him for a second. The Soldier was a trophy for him. He would have kept the body as a prize. That address is his dacha. Look in the basement.” Volnova grins like a wolf as Vera says, “He kept all sorts of interesting prizes down there.”)
Volnova gives Steve a name, and a location. The rest is easy.
(The last, frantic moments of Bucky's life—or so Steve thinks—he is falling. Bucky is falling, and Steve is reaching. Their hands almost touch, and that second stretches to eternity. Their hands almost touch, and in that hair's breadth of time, a whole reality unfolds. In that sliver of a no-time-at-all, Bucky grabs Steve's hand, and Steve hauls him up like he weighs nothing; Steve pulls him close and kisses him on the mouth, because it doesn't matter who sees—they can hang, Zola can hang; everyone can hang, because he almost lost Bucky, and he won't wait, not for this, not for another second.
Bucky doesn't, though—he doesn't grab Steve's hand. The last moment of Bucky's life—as far as Steve knows—he's looking up at Steve's face as he falls, as both of them scream. The last moment of Bucky's life stretches to eternity, and Steve learns what it means to love someone to their last breath, and then beyond. )
The dacha is picturesque, on the outside. There are lilac bushes in the font and fruit trees, in full blossom, in the back.
Steve's got his hand around a man's throat.
“Show me the basement,” he says. Of course the entrance to the basement is hidden, of course it is.
Umansky just laughs and laughs, like some kind of suffocating hyena. Steve digs the fingers of his free hand in behind the man's collar bone, pressing until he hears a pop. Umansky makes a pained, guttural sound, but keeps laughing. “What you find down there will be of no use to anyone.” His English is accented, but good.
“The basement,” Steve says, following up the statement by backhanding Umansky. He just cackles in response, now with bloody teeth. There is something of the jackal in his face.
Steve grabs one of Umansky's hands, and dislocates a finger. “I'm getting impatient now.”
Umansky says nothing, hardly even yelps. Steve dislocates another, and another, only yielding strangled, painful sounds each time. He's impatient now. Steve balls up his fist and aims a focused, brutal punch to the ribs; he revels in the resulting sickly crack and inarticulate moan.
“Your methods aren't nuanced, but they're quite effective,” Umansky rasps. His breathing is wrong now. “You could benefit from the Red Room's techniques, though.”
Steve wonders, for a moment—only a moment, how exactly he wound up so far across every line he's ever drawn for himself. Bucky's face flashes the next second, though, and all doubts are behind him. “I'll be sure to ask Natalia for some tips and tricks, next time, then.”
“Natalia?” Umansky asks, the change of realization flickering across his face. “You do not mean...”
“We both know who I'm talking about,” Steve says, before breaking his wrist.
Umansky hardly notices the broken bone; he is transfixed, fear and desire twin flames in his eyes. “Would she come, if you called, the Black Widow?”
Steve is reminded that he is dealing with a madman who is obsessed with collecting all the Red Room's broken toys. “Oh yeah,” Steve says, “believe me, she'd love to meet you. She'd demo all those Red Room techniques I've heard so much about for me, right here.”
“The Black Widow would come here? Has she no fear of her past?”
“Natalia has no fear of anything.” It's a lie—Steve has seen Natasha awake too many of the nights that he's spent trying to blink away his own nightmares not to know that. She would, however, never even think about letting that fear stop her.
“The Red Room's two greatest triumphs, collected under my roof...”
“Yeah, good luck collecting Natasha,” Steve says.
“I would pin her between glass slides like the spider from which she takes her name.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Again, good luck with that.” The woman he knows could dismember Umansky with a shard of one of those slides. “How about you show me the basement, and then I call her?”
Umansky nods like a greedy child. He shows Steve to a wall, and slides a painting (a cabin, in snow) out of the way. Behind the painting there is a sophisticated armed security system that is at odds with the rustic surroundings—it takes a retinal scan, a fingerprint, and a verbal pass-code («Красный снег») to open up the dummy wall. What's on the other side of the wall is even more incongruous with the fancy tech. This part of the house is dilapidated—there is a massive chasm in the middle of the floor, crossed with several unsteady planks of unfinished wood; beneath them, there is darkness.
Umansky gestures at the door across the way. Steve evaluates his unsteady stance and hauls the man over his shoulder. It must, he thinks, with some satisfaction, be hell on the ribs he broke. Umansky hardly even groans. It occurs to Steve that the boards may not bear his weight alone, let alone the two of them combined, but he steps without trepidation, compelled by something too powerful to pin down. Everything left of Bucky in this world lies somewhere on the other side of that door.
The wood shudders and moans in complaint, but holds. Umansky unlocks the door (with his good hand) and an elaborate key. In a bizarre twist, the door opens to a staircase—no landing, just wooden stairs, winding down, down, down. Steve keeps a hand around Umansky's neck, but lets him stumble his own way into the darkness.
Steve's eyes adjust quickly enough that by the time he gets to the scarcely-illuminated room at the bottom of the stairs, he can see that it's something from another world. A portion of the basement seems to be the chasm Steve had earlier crossed, and the only light (besides that in the trophy-cases) is that which filters through the broken floor. There are, as Mira described, all sorts of morbid prizes on display. There are skeletons and twisted cybernetic limbs in glass display cases; there are guns, and knives, rusted with blood on the blades; there is a domino mask displayed in such a central location, with such veneration, that Steve knows exactly to whom it must have once belonged.
There is every manner of Red Room relic, and in one corner of the room, half-illuminated, but shadowed to the core, there is a man. His skin is ash, pale with the gray tint of the grave; he has knife-blade ribs; Steve can see every bone that isn't hidden by darkness. An absurd manacle is clamped around a delicate wrist—his right. His head hangs like he lacks the strength (or will) to lift it, long, lank hair covering his face. All the same, there is another chain to hold his neck.
If Steve had ever had a moment's doubt about talking his time with Umansky, it is gone now, with the man's handiwork emaciated and clinging to life before his eyes. Steve presses the button that summons medical on his comm, and silently communicates, in Morse, that he's not the one injured.
The fact that the creature responsible for this horror-show was the man to kill Bucky makes something feral unfurl in Steve's chest. He imagines in, vivid detail, the myriad of painful things he will have the time to do to Umansky before medical arrives—every smashed bone and dislocated joint and broken tooth. There's just one thing standing between him and perfect, bloody retribution.
“Which one is he?” Steve asks, voice betraying none of the dark things that are brewing. Bucky used to say he couldn't lie to save his life. Steve wonders, dimly, what Bucky would say now. Umansky just laughs in response, and then a moment after that, Steve doesn't wonder anything at all.
The ghost in the corner of the room looks up, the struggle visible even in the smooth, controlled motion with which he raises his head, and blinks dead, unfocused eyes. The hair falls away, and well, Steve would know that face, even gaunt and starved for light, anyplace, anywhere at all.
For a heartbeat, Steve's vision goes white with the rage of it, of finding him in this state, but then Bucky looks up at him, says, “Steve. Steve, I hate it when I see you in this place. You shouldn't be here.” His voice is hoarse from ill-use, and from darker things, but it's the most beautiful thing Steve's ever heard. The anger drains out of his body as if siphoned, and what replaces it is a flood of joy, and concern, and most of all the overwhelming love he's always felt for this man. He snaps Umansky's neck—the crack of it reverberates, but it's quick and painless, because that tide of love has brought back with it mercy, but still death, because Steve didn't come here to be the good guy.
He came here for Bucky.
Steve spans the distance of the basement hell in two huge strides to kneel at Bucky's side. From up close, the damage is that much worse. Steve knows about the metal arm, but it's a shock to the system, seeing it disabled at Bucky's side, tragically, comically over-sized for his emaciated frame. Bucky's skin is so pale it's translucent; Steve could count bones and map veins—veins which are marked with a plethora of track marks—on his arm, his thigh, his neck. The sickly hue makes sense, then. There's whatever Bucky's been injected with, the obvious starvation, the bitter cold of underground. The only color in his face is in Bucky's bitten-red lips, and in the wide, blue eyes currently struggling to focus on Steve, to drink up the whole of him before he vanishes, away like smoke and apparitions blow. Bucky's the best sight of his life.
“I should stop believing people when they tell me you're dead,” Steve says, brushing a tangled curl away from Bucky's face. “They're almost always wrong.”
“You always were a bit slow on the uptake,” Bucky tells him, before collapsing against Steve's chest. “You feel so real this time...”
Steve chooses to temporarily ignore the fact that Bucky seems to think that he's a delusion, and strokes the delicate skin of Bucky's inner arm, lingering on the crook of his elbow, marred by innumerable track marks. Bucky flinches at the gentle touch, and Steve's snatches his hand away, instead letting it settle on the heavy cuff on Bucky's wrist. “We've got to stop meeting like this, Buck.”
“I'm on board with this plan. Just need to get the evil scientists to agree to stop capturing me.”
Steve smiles a sad little smile. “We've got to get you outta here.”
“I've tried,” Bucky says. “You see where there's no ceiling?” He laughs. “It's been a while since I could do that, though.” Bucky looks down at Steve's hand, and his tone takes a mournful turn. “You stopped touching me.”
It's ridiculous, because Bucky's resting against Steve's chest, but Steve will oblige him anything. He takes Bucky's hand in both of his own. “That better?” Bucky nods, and Steve continues. “Well, you've got me to break things for you. Just hold on, yeah?”
“'S that a promise?” Bucky smiles, weak but blinding, and Steve could have fallen in love in that instant, if he hadn't already been long gone.
“Promise,” Steve says. “I'm gonna let go of you for just a sec, but I promise it'll be worth it.” He releases Bucky's hand, and breaks the cuff around Bucky's wrist, thick metal twisting between preternaturally strong hands like tissue paper. Bucky makes a sound, startled and low. Steve looks mournfully at the vicious ligature marks on the newly-exposed skin, and then goes to work on the contraption around Bucky's neck. “This is gonna take a sec.”
“You might be all star-spangled and big as a house, but even you won't be able to get that thing offa me, pal,” Bucky says.
Steve makes to pry open the device, and Bucky braces himself, gritting his teeth.
“Bucky, I'm not going to hurt,” Steve says, before he's cut off by an electrical current that rips its way through his body and Bucky's, and Steve takes back Umansky's easy death, because Steve has never been able to handle Bucky in pain, and this is Bucky frail and beaten down. This is a version of Bucky who's already been hurt too much. And that? That thing around his neck? It's a shock collar. Steve can deal with the sickly prickle of electrical burn on his own skin, but seeing Bucky humiliated like this, watching him shake well-after the shock subsides, has Steve out for blood.
“Told you that was harder than it looked,” Bucky says, voice weak and trembling.
“Jesus, Buck, I am so, so sorry. I should have figured it was wired. Are you alright? Where does it hurt? And you! Why didn't you tell me?”
“Easy, tiger.” Bucky chuckles. “Can't even get you to stop fussing over me in my cracked brain.” With visible effort, Bucky reaches up to touch Steve's hand where it's staked protective claim on his shoulder. “To tell you the truth, I kinda miss it, you playin' momma bear.”
“As if you were ever any better!,” Steve says, “'Steve, don't pick fights with people twice your size,'' 'Steve, don't join the army, you'll get hurt!' 'Steve, you're twice my size now, but you shouldn't run into that burning building, it might collapse.'”
Bucky laughs, but it turns into a rattling cough. Steve takes another good look at him, and all lightness is gone. The pallor of his face has spread to his lips; Bucky's shaking has gotten worse, and he's doing a piss poor job of hiding how much pain he's in. Steve needs to get him out of this place, to warmth and to medical care, to some kind of dreamy Brooklyn loft where they can hole up together and Bucky can stop being this dead-eyed boy who thinks he's bantering with shadows.
“Buck, this needs to come off,” Steve says, keeping his words measured so that the panic doesn't creep into his voice. “Now that I know the shock's coming, I'll be able to break it. Do you think you can handle another round?”
“What, are you worn out? Me? I could do this all day,” Bucky tells him in a voice weak, but decisive. Steve's heart melts in his chest.
“I've got you,” Steve says, “I'm getting you out of here. You ready?”
Steve waits for Bucky's weak nod, and then goes to pry open the evil thing around his neck. Steve ignores the bite of the electricity and concentrates all his strength on the device, focusing on the task at hand and nothing else at all, because if he lets himself notice Bucky convulsing with the current, there will be no choice but to stop. The contraption holds up remarkably well against the onslaught of super-soldier determination, but stubbornness wins out, and finally, finally, it breaks.
Steve lets himself look at Bucky, then, and the sight staggers his heartbeat. Somewhere over the course of the ordeal, Bucky wound up laying on the cold, concrete ground. The convulsions now stopped, he is terribly still. Steve can't even tell if he's breathing, so he presses searching fingers beneath Bucky's jaw, carefully avoiding the burns and contusions on his neck while looking for the telltale rhythm there. “Come on, Bucky. I'm gonna get you out of here. You can't die on me. I can't lose you again.”
Bucky's eyelashes flutter the instant before Steve catches the flutter of his pulse. Bucky stumbles back into consciousness with several ragged, painful-sounding breaths. “Ease up, pal. You ain't getting rid of me so easy,” he rasps out. “'Sides, I'm the one who loses you.”
“What do you mean by that?” Steve says. He's pulling off his leather jacket.
Bucky says nothing.
Steve sighs, and helps Bucky into the jacket, doing up the zipper despite Bucky's protests. (“I ain't some kid, Steve. I can do it myself.”) He settles into the skin-warmed leather with a contented murmur the next second, though, so it's just talk.
“Let's go, Buck. The lighting down here does nothing for your color,” Steve says, and then he scoops Bucky up off the floor.
“Hey! Where do you get off carrying me outta here like some dame?”
“Let's see you walk up those stairs, big shot,” Steve says, but he's cradling Bucky to his chest like he's got the world in his arms, so it's all talk.
Steve kicks in a door, and just like that, they're out of the basement where Bucky's spent the past three nightmare years. Bucky nuzzles into the crook of Steve's neck as they take the corkscrew stairs up towards the light. Bucky has to feel the way Steve's heart is trying to beat its way out of his chest—Steve's sure of it, but he can't seem to care. He's getting Bucky out of here, and there is no force, human or nature, that will stop him.
There is, of course, the chasm in the floor to deal with. Steve looks at the gap and the rickety boards crossing it and knows that there's no chance in hell he's risking walking on them again, not when he's got Bucky. Steve keeps staring down into the darkness, until a possible solution dawns on him. “Hey, you think I could jump that, Buck?”
Bucky smiles the ghost of the challenging grin Steve used to know. “Dare you to try.”
“You know you're coming with me, right?”
“I've seen you jump further than that through fire.”
Steve laughs. “Fair 'nuff. Was saving your ass that time, too.”
“Someone's gotta be the one to test your mettle.”
Bucky sounds vulnerable, so Steve kisses his hair, and then jumps before Bucky has time to dwell on the gesture. It's a leap like taking flight, but Steve lands because he doesn't have the luxury of falling.
“Not too shabby, big guy,” Bucky says, words light even though the impact of the landing has him shaking. “Looking forward to seeing how you go through that wall, though.”
Steve smiles to ease his doubts and says, “Don't you worry your pretty head, Buck. I've got a plan.”
“You got charges? Tech to hack that fancy lock?”
“I'm thinking a bit more old-fashioned.”
“You don't actually think you can—“
“Watch me,” Steve says. “I've pried open fancier doors than this. I'm gonna have to set you down for a minute, though.”
Bucky's dead eyes go darker. Steve carefully puts him down a safe distance from the chasm and helps him lean against a wall. Bucky curls in on himself.
“Hey, look at me,” Steve tells him, bending back down and cupping his jaw. “I'm not going anywhere without you, Buck.”
Bucky casts his gaze somewhere beneath the floorboards and says nothing, and Steve goes to take out his frustration on the hidden door, which he forces open, and then breaks for good measure. Steve scoops Bucky up. “Not gonna leave you. If you don't believe me, I'm just gonna have to prove it.”
Steve holds Bucky close and then carries him through the broken door, and across the dacha's main room, and through the door he'd earlier kicked in, and into the sun. It's warm and bright outside. Bucky blinks at the light and shivers from the gentle spring breathe. The air smells like lilacs.
Steve settles down under one of the trees, and settles Bucky into his lap, close, knees tucked in, so Steve can try and keep him warm. Steve pulls out him comm, presses some buttons, and says, “Whoever's flying me in medical should step on it.”
Bucky rests his head against Steve's chest—not that he has much choice in the matter; with the adrenaline of escape worn off, he lacks the strength to lift it—warm, broad, and solid. Steve looks down and smiles. “You comfortable? We have to wait a while, but I've got help coming.”
“What, I don't get to ride out on the back of your bike?”
“Don't have a helmet for you, and I wouldn't want you getting any stupider.”
Bucky laughs and then goes very quiet. There is wonder in his eyes and wonder in his voice when he says, “You're real.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, breaking into a grin, “I am.”
“You came for me.” Bucky echoes his smile. “One person in the entire world knew I was alive, and you still found me.”
Steve shrugs. “Yeah, well, guess I kind of like you or something.”
They stay like that, beaming at one another, until Bucky says, “Hey, Steve. Pretty sure the war is over.”
Steve laughs, suddenly and inexplicably nervous. The man he loves is curled against his chest, damaged but alive, looking up at him, eyes soft, and expectant. Everything is warm; Steve's pretty sure his palms are sweating—Steve really hopes his palms aren't sweating. He cups the side of Bucky's face in one hand, and ducks down to press a careful kiss to his mouth. Bucky's lips are chapped; he's too weak to really move, and Steve is terrified to hurt him. But there's lilac blossoms falling down around them and the sky is blue, and this is a kiss most of a century in the making.
They break apart and Steve kisses Bucky's forehead, and his hair, and the shell of his ear. Bucky giggles and wrinkles his nose. “Stop it, stop it! I'm already in love with you. Don't make it worse.”
Steve says, “I love you, too,” and kisses Bucky's nose. “You're the one who made that face,” he says at the indignant noise Bucky makes in response.
“So we're really doing this?” Bucky asks.
“I'm in if you are,” Steve tells him. He's got a hand in Bucky's hair—he can't stop touching, just because he can.
“It's...I'm not gonna be easy—don't you dare make the obvious joke—to be with. I've—done a lot,” his voice cracks, “and had a lot done to me since...:” Bucky trails off, and then chokes out. “I ain't exactly the guy you knew.”
Steve strokes soothing circles on the bare skin of Bucky's knee—it's too sharp. Steve thinks about everything he's done, all the people he does not regret killing. “If I was put off by 'not easy,' pal, I'd have quit about seventy years ago.”
“You're something else, Rogers,” Bucky says. “But then again, I already knew that. 'S why I put up with you for so long.”
“'D it pay off for you, Sergeant?” Steve teases.
“You just carried me out of hell, Steve.”
He doesn't have to look to know Bucky's rolling his eyes. Steve knows that tone of voice.
“You just killed the man who spent years torturing me because I broke through my brainwashing.” The sarcasm in his tone has been replaced by unmasked adoration. “If I could get up, I'd kiss you stupid—well, stupider—right now.”
“There'll be time for that when you get better,” Steve says, ducking down so his lips brush Bucky's ear as he speaks. “We've waited. We can wait.”
Bucky lets his eyes flutter shut. Steve can see the exhaustion painted on his face; he strokes Bucky's cheek, and Bucky smiles at the touch, and says,“Yeah, we can wait.”