He went into the forest, Gabe said, and Steve had said, Okay, but now he's regretting not asking for more concrete directions.
The woods are crowded with thin young trees, blazing red and orange, eyewatering against the blue, blue sky. The floor is hopelessly overgrown, crawling with amputated roots, remnants of the behemoths that must have towered here before the last war blew them into kindling. Steve almost kicks an ancient stick grenade that's probably still live, and not long after, nearly falls into a soft-sided trench blanketed with moss and wet leaves. He follows the trench for a time as it meanders north, looking for evidence of human passage.
Just when Steve is thinking of giving up and letting Bucky find his own damn way back to camp, he hears a voice.
He follows the sound through a tight cluster of saplings and up a hill. Looking down into the valley, he sees a massive crater with a long boulder down inside it, nearly the size of a house. He's coming down the slope and wondering how on earth a boulder that size could have rolled into a crater like that—when, stutteringly, it all resolves into sense. What looks like an ivy-smeared boulder from above is actually a stone roof—no, concrete, and it's not a crater, it's a man-made dip in the landscape.
Steve edges down into the dip. The entrance to the building is well-carved, and even has a lintel. Inside, the floor is covered in dirt and leaves, but it's dry. An unexpectedly cheerful brick fireplace hunkers in one corner, and close by, sitting against the wall and absorbed by something next to him, is Bucky.
Steve breathes a sigh of relief. Instead of giving in to his impulse to shout invective, to demand to know why Bucky broke camp without telling anyone, why he keeps doing that, Steve says: “Who you talking to, Buck?”
Bucky pats something on the ground and shifts his leg. Steve, a cold little thread crawling up his spine, realizes it's a human skull under Bucky's hand. Bucky looks down and moves his hand on it fondly, like he's tousling a child's hair or stroking a dog's soft head.
“Just my friend here,” Bucky says.
“You know that belongs to somebody.”
Bucky shrugs. “Found him about a half mile from here. Near the village. Kids had him up a tree, hitting him with sticks. Rescued him when they got bored. I kinda figured he'd be safer here.”
“Where's the rest of him?”
“God knows. Didn't see any other bones.”
Steve groans and flops down next to Bucky. A small plume of dust floats up; settles.
Bucky picks up the skull in both hands and examines it like he's appraising a diamond. Steve watches, equal parts appalled and fascinated.
“Well, Captain Professor?” Bucky peers into the hole at the base of the skull, where the spine would have once been set. “Who is this poor schmuck?”
“Hard to say,” Steve hedges, but Bucky is clearly waiting for an answer, so he thinks harder. “This was a battlefield, or near enough. Late in the last war, I think. This thing—” elbowing the wall behind himself, “—this is German, I'm positive. But he coulda been anyone, Buck. All the little advances and retreats in places like this, it just turned into one big melting pot.”
“Kids probably thought he was German,” Bucky says.
“Or they didn't care.”
“Or that.” Bucky sets the skull on his crossed ankles and taps its cheekbones with his thumbs. “Probably our age. I mean, statistics.”
“Probably younger. Whole lotta boys slipped under the radar back then.”
“Probably, unless he was from the colonies.” Steve see-saws his hand. “Still, statistics.”
“When we're dead, we all look the same,” Bucky says, almost as if he's quoting from something. “Maybe there'd be a whole lot less wars if everyone could figure that out. You think we're gonna keep starting fights until the end of time?”
“I live in hope we'll learn eventually,” Steve counters.
“Optimist,” Bucky says, halfway between fond and exasperated.
Steve makes an amiable noise.
“Kinda makes you wonder what the point is,” Bucky continues. He doesn't sound like himself, but oddly hollow, like something has scooped out his torso and let his voice echo around inside. “What's it all mean? Do we just fuck and fight and then we die?”
“Bucky,” Steve says carefully. “Are you drunk?”
“Nah.” When Steve looks, Bucky has his head tilted back against the wall. He rolls it back and forth limply. “Can't get drunk no more, Stevie.”
Steve looks away and swallows what feels like a whole bucket of broken glass.
Because he's been wondering, hasn't he?
It's all little things, things he's not sure anyone else would have noticed, not unless they'd known Bucky for as many years as he has. It's in the way Bucky was up and running from that table so quickly. It's in the way Bucky walked for three straight days, hardly eating, his eyes fixed stone-solid on the road ahead. It's in the way that Bucky never misses a shot when they're in the field, even at distances Steve thinks are outright impossible, and the way his gift mysteriously shrinks into mere skill when they're back in camp. It's in the way Steve knows, absolutely knows for certain that Bucky was shot in the stomach with an armour-piercing round last month, and it should have killed him, and it didn't. It's in the scars Bucky doesn't keep.
Erskine said Schmidt wanted to be a superior man. America wanted super-soldiers to fight its battles. It's not inconceivable that Germany wanted the same thing.
With a factory full of human guinea pigs at its disposal, what might HYDRA have accomplished before Steve burnt it down?
“I'm sorry, Buck,” Steve whispers.
Bucky scrambles to his feet like wolves are after him, and then stops, shaking his head, saying it all: what can you do? He looks down at the skull. Steve has an unsurprising fancy that the skull is looking back, at one of them or both, the shadows at play in its empty sockets creating an illusion of hangdog mournfulness. Bucky picks it up and takes it to the fireplace in the wall. With care and reverence, he digs a little pit, sets the skull into it, scoops a mound of dirt up around it, and scatters a handful of dead leaves over the whole thing. He crouches there for a long parcel of moments, thinking thoughts Steve can't begin to fathom. Steve used to be able to guess, an almost telepathic connection bred from infinite hours in one another's company, but the war has changed something about both of them, and Steve can't seem to find Bucky's wavelength anymore.
Bucky stands abruptly and heads for the door, such as it is. Steve trails after. In the little valley, Bucky stops, looking up through autumn leaves to the electric sky, squinting.
“I don't think we can die,” Bucky says, without inflection.
Steve feels momentarily ill. “Nothing's that tough.”
“Well,” Bucky says, striding off with false cheer, “Only one way to find out.”
Thirty-seven days later, hands fisted on the controls of the plane, snarling into the freezing wind like he's going to snap it between his teeth, Steve's last conscious thought is: God, I hope he was wrong.
“The hell is that?”
“A bunker,” Steve says. When Sam raises his eyebrows, Steve adds, “Sort of. I read the Germans built these all over France when they dug in—I think the generals used to hold court in 'em. Wasn't nearly so...” Steve makes an inarticulate gesture in front of himself. “...green, last time I was here.”
“We're skipping a legit down-home French breakfast to see a bunker, is what you're telling me.”
“Anticipation's half the fun.” They're here following of Natasha's leads—a false one, as it turned out, of a sighting near Boureuilles; some hapless vagrant carrying a mylar blanket, transformed by active imaginations into the Winter Soldier and his quicksilver arm. “It was the last place—” Steve's traitorous throat closes. “The last place Bucky and I were alone together.”
Steve gives a short laugh and shakes his head. “Not like that. We talked. About death, mostly. And how much war sucked. And we talked, uh, around other things. Bucky's—anyway. I just wanted to see if it was still here.”
“Still here,” Sam says. “Shall we?”
They half-crawl, half-skid down into the dip, which is much steeper than the last time Steve was here, and slick with mud besides. Erosion doing its slow work. The structure itself is beginning to crumble under tree roots and dirt, creeping vines finding cracks in the stone. There's hardly six inches without a fuzzy coating of moss, and one corner, near the back, has collapsed entirely. The doorway is smaller than before, layers of mouldering leaves building up the threshold. Some of the windows must have been filled in by dirt-slides over the years, because the interior looks pitch-black.
“This is some horror movie shit,” Sam complains, but he's heading straight for the doorway. “And, just so you know, cultural note? The black guy always dies first.”
“Maybe we should split up,” Steve teases, and then walks right into Sam's back, because he's stopped two feet into the bunker. He edges in, and squints past Sam into the dark room.
The fireplace has mostly collapsed, its bright brickwork crumbled away. What remains is etched with names and dates from decades Steve slept through, and above it on the wall, more graffiti: flags, countries, a half-smudged slur.
And, slumped in front of it all, a man.
Steve looks at Sam. Sam looks at Steve.
Steve approaches the corner, slowly and cautiously but with very deliberate movements, making enough noise to clearly telegraph his location. He kneels down. There's no reaction.
Bucky looks rough. His long hair is terribly matted, badly enough that Steve thinks it might have to be shaved off entirely. He's wearing filthy camo pants, mud-caked combat boots that are nearly falling apart, and two hoodies. The metal arm hangs limply by his side, fingers sluggishly dripping some sort of oil or lubricant into the dirt. It's hard to tell under the layers, but Steve thinks he's lost a lot of weight since DC.
“What if he's not there?” Bucky whispers.
Steve glances at the fireplace, and shakes his head. “He's still there, Buck.”
Bucky breathes heavily and erratically, sometimes through his nose, sometimes through his mouth, his flesh hand clenching fitfully against his belly. Steve hurts just watching him.
“I can't,” Bucky says at last, thin and cracked. “I can't.”
“I can,” Steve says. “I can show you. Do you want me to?”
Nothing, nothing—and then, small:
Steve brushes the leaves away, then sweeps a little harder, taking off the mounded dirt. It's set almost like clay, moist and undisturbed for years. When the white gleam of bone peeks through, Bucky gasps. It's not relief—it's more like being shot in the gut. His eyes slam closed. His hand makes a fist in the fabric of his hoodie.
“Hey,” Steve murmurs. “Hey, you're okay. It's all right.”
But Bucky's hitchy panting doesn't clear, and he starts to shake, bone-deep shudders running through him like he's fevered. Steve can see the effort he's putting in, but it's swamping him, panic or memories or something tearing him up from inside. Entirely unsure whether it's the right thing to do, Steve carefully edges closer on his knees, and just as carefully, reaches out. He puts one hand feather-gentle on Bucky's spine. When Bucky doesn't flinch away, Steve increases the pressure, rubbing up and down in what he hopes to god is a soothing motion.
“It's okay,” Steve says quietly. He has no idea if Bucky is even hearing him. “You're gonna be okay. I got you. You're safe.”
To his astonishment, it seems to help. Bucky manages one deep, slow, unsteady breath, and not long after, another, focus rising back into his eyes. Maybe all Steve's doing is grounding Bucky back in the real world, but he's damned glad he didn't do the wrong thing.
A minute later, Bucky tilts right into Steve like he's taken a blow. Steve has to sit down hard and put his arms around Bucky's shoulders so they don't both fall over. He's terrified that the sudden restriction of Bucky's limbs will inspire new panic, but Bucky shudders once, hard, and then relaxes. Shivers still run through his limbs, but he's not fighting them. Steve rests his chin tentatively on Bucky's head, his eyes fearful-wide. Bucky makes a sound almost like a sigh, low and resigned.
Steve startles when Sam comes around and sits in front of them both, but Bucky doesn't. When Steve looks, Bucky is watching—not with fear or wariness or, really, anything at all. Twisting off the lid of a water bottle with his teeth, keeping his other hand open, Sam takes a few good swallows and then passes it to Bucky. Steve thinks Bucky would have drank it anyway, but he appreciates the message behind the gesture: we're making sure you're safe, even among friends.
Bucky only manages half the bottle before he slumps back against Steve. Sam raises his eyebrows and tilts his head: what are we gonna do, man? Steve tries to convey I have no earthly idea through the twist of his mouth.
Bucky murmurs something too quiet for comprehensibility.
Steve leans down, his ear against Bucky's mouth. “Pardon?”
Slurred: “Wanna go home.”
“You got it,” Steve says, like his heart isn't breaking into tiny pieces. He warns Bucky before he picks him up, settling him into a bridal carry, his limp left arm hanging down. Sam leaves the bunker ahead of them.
Bucky is appallingly light. Steve thinks he might even weigh less than '43, when he was sick and half-starved and sweating out whatever chemicals Zola had pumped into him. Steve can see a small pile of wrappers and discarded packages in the opposite corner of the room—how long has Bucky been down here, playing chicken with his memories? Steve has a sudden, terrifying thought: if Bucky ran out of food, and then energy, would he even have been able to make it out of the crater?
But maybe he's catastrophizing, because a circuit around the building gets him a place on the slope that's less steep, less muddy, and it's an easy climb even with Bucky's awkward, negligible weight in his arms. He finds Sam on the satellite phone, calling Tony for extraction.
“—what? Buttfuck Nowhere France, is where, can't you track—”
“Argonne Forest,” Steve says. He shifts Bucky's weight so he can touch the applicable wrist, and checks his pulse. Thready, but persistent. “Hey, stay with me, Buck.”
“M'here,” Bucky mumbles into Steve's jacket. “Told you.”
“Told me what?”
“Don't think we can die.”
Steve looks up through the leaves to the sky—green foliage and heavy clouds, not the Picasso-vibrant autumn he remembers; it's spring, rain coming in on the horizon, poppies smeared across the hillsides—and thinks: God, I hope he's right.