It was hard to tell whether Bucky was puking over behind a downed tree because of the concussion or because of the bad news that they were gonna die here in the godforsaken Balkans. Barnes didn’t seem the type of guy prone to panic-puking, but Sam had really only just begun to dig down into the meat of who Bucky really was, so he supposed that wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. Dancing together, traveling and climbing, and laughing in the face of death had given him a few more clues about what Bucky was really like, but...
Sam dragged himself over closer to Bucky’s heaving back, digging around in the kit to see if there was any anti-nausea medication. “Okay, you have to let me look at your eyes now. This is serious shit.”
With one last retch for emphasis, Bucky muttered, “I’ll heal,” and raised his head, wiping spittle from his mouth. One entire side of his forehead was mottled purple and black, and the gash that trailed up through his hairline still oozed blood under the gauze bandage. Bucky cupped a handful of snow to his mouth and shivered as he sucked it down.
“Shut up and let me see.” Bucky grumbled but staggered up next to him. “How many fingers?” and Bucky stared at his hand for way too long, appearing for all the world as if he might fall asleep and that struck another chord of worry in Sam, before he held up his middle finger. Sam popped his lips and exhaled loudly. “Aaookay, I’m just gonna fly on out of here and leave you to die. ‘Sorry, Steve, nothin’ I could do. It was just his time to go. It was such a dangerous plan to begin with.’”
“Right, you’re in excellent shape to fly. You should see you. You look like you’ve been bleached. You’re grey.” The sign of a truly better man was that he knew when to let it go, so Sam waved a hand and levered himself down to the ground.
They both rested back against the tree trunk and sighed at the same time. Honestly, Barnes was right, it was a toss-up which one of them was in the least worst shape to use the wings. But they weren’t getting out of here anytime soon using the four-wheel-drive, although maybe Bucky could think of way to send some kind of signal using the radio—that is, if there was even a way without playing right into Hydra’s hands. “How’d it look back there when we were getting out?” Sam asked. If it was true what Bucky had said, that most of the personnel would be in Austria still looking for them, then maybe they were regrouping, waiting for reinforcements for a tactical assault.
“That bad, huh?” Aw, geez, there was clear fluid draining from Bucky’s left ear. They were so very fucked.
“War is hell.” His face showed that thousand-yard stare Sam remembered from when Bucky’d first come home with Steve; the head injury, sure, but he was also probably running scenarios in his head—capture or kill, quick death versus slow torture, Sam as leverage or collateral. They’d probably set everything in motion the minute they started up that mountain road.
“Wait. Do you have the space blanket?” Sam was freaking freezing now, and Bucky was right, he was far too shocky to reliably fly them back to the Land Rover and they’d be perfect targets for missiles, but on the other hand Bucky looked like he’d have to die to get better.
He dug into his pack with a stricken face. “Shit, did we leave it at the—”
Okay, so Sam wasn’t the better man: “Gee, wish we hadn’t left the emergency GPS beacon back on the plane as well.” Not that it would do them much good at this point.
All he got in response was a weak “Me too.”
“Be honest with me, Buck.” At hearing the name only Steve used for him, Bucky’s eyebrow crept up his forehead. It seemed to take everything he had to focus and answer the question.
“I can’t see well out of my left eye, it doesn’t want to focus. I’m struggling not to puke again. It’s hard to focus even on this conversation, too sleepy.” He shrugged, an eloquent statement of futility. “I don’t know how to use those wings and I could get us killed learning, but I don’t know that you’re in much better shape and I know you don’t have the strength to lift me.”
“Bleeding’s stopped. Pain’s down. But yeah. If my blood pressure drops any more and we’re up there, or they start shooting at us...”
“Rock paper scissors?”
“Nah. Just let me do it. Let me drink some more water and then we’ll go.” They would be like a fat bumblebee overladen with pollen.
The distress and doubt on Bucky’s face would have been funny if it wasn’t so goddamn tragic. “Tick tock, Wilson.”
“Didn’t you say most of them were probably in Austria looking for us?” Sam knew how stupidly wishful he sounded.
Met with a grunt, Sam finished off the water in his canteen and struggled to his feet. “Unlock me.” He pointed to the top of the wing pack, since he didn’t trust himself to reach back the way he’d usually do and not topple over like a Jenga tower, then popped his elbows back to open the wings and hit the repulsors; both wings flared, but only one of the jets fired. Sam closed his eyes in despair. Why the hell had he expected anything to go their way? A couple more frantic tries produced the same results.
“Uh...that’s not supposed to happen, right?” Bucky eyed the wings skeptically. “The other two’re supposed to light up when you do that with your arms?”
Sam began, “Can you—” but Bucky was already kneeling behind him to inspect it, whacking it like a computer or an old TV or something, jiggling anything he could find to jiggle. Stark would have lost his nut over this.
“Shit,” —and Bucky’s raised eyebrows pretty much told Sam all he needed to know; his heart divebombed straight down to his boots. “I can’t tell what happened, but the thing’s fucking cracked.” So was Bucky’s voice; there was something monumentally demoralizing about that sound coming from a supersoldier. Maybe the housing had been damaged in the snowmobile explosion, or when Bucky landed on him. Stark was gonna get a memo about quality control. From heaven, apparently.
“There’s no way I can carry both of us on one engine.”
“I figured.” They were silent for a time, and Bucky said, kneeling in the snow, head down, “You lost someone too, right? In Iraq or Afghanistan?”
“Yeah. My wingman, Riley. There were four of us in the program. We were close,” Sam said, before Bucky could ask.
“You never really stop feeling that, do you—the guilt? And responsibility.” Bucky turned his eyes up to Sam. “Steve thinks he’s the only one with guilt, but I guess...this past year, when I started getting some memories back...I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I left him, when I reassured him all the time I was with him to the end of the line.” A shiver wracked him and he tucked his hands under his armpits. “Feels like I’m letting him down again, leaving him alone one more time. I shoulda let him come with.”
The exhaustion made him punchy, wobbly, but he couldn’t let Bucky go to that place just yet. Sam said, “I’ve made a million different choices, saved Riley’s life hundreds of times in my head. You can’t really survive that way, you know?” It might have been a weird thing to do, but he smoothed his hand over Bucky’s wrecked head. “Anyway—I think in a contest for who has more guilt in that story, Steve’s gonna win every time. Guy is fueled on guilt, I swear.” Sam flashed him a smile and Bucky shook his head.
With a raggedy inhale, Bucky stumbled to his feet. “All right, listen, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna tuck you up all nice and cozy under these boughs, and then I’ll hump it down to the Land Rover and call in some help. The farther away I get from the site, the better the likelihood of me getting a signal out. By the time I get down there I should be in better shape.”
“Or you could collapse in the snow and die all lonesome.”
Instead of the laugh Sam had hoped for, Bucky had a weird, faraway look on his face, hope falling to the ground like hailstones. “They did worse to me in the tests. I’ll survive.” In most people’s mouths that word would be almost meaningless; in Bucky’s it was chilling.
“Tests.” Maybe it was Sam’s turn to start barfing now. “You mean torture.”
“The...yeah, you know.”
“What the fuck did they do.”
Barnes was always puzzled when people offered him sympathy, as if he was still unable to believe he deserved to be treated like a human being. “There was basically two kinds of...torture” —he waved a hand around, acknowledging Sam’s word but not necessarily accepting the truth of it— “one to tear my body down, see what would happen in different scenarios, how successful their work was.”
“Okay. And two?”
Bucky’s head twitched, he rolled his shoulders. “Break the rest of me, I suppose. The soul—break down whatever made me human, made me Bucky Barnes once.”
Sam pressed his lips in a tight line and swallowed, breathing out his nose. Fuck, he so did not have the strength for this. “So you’ve had concussions before at that level. They...tested how far you could survive with extreme blood loss, severe head injuries.”
“Among other things. The point I was trying to make is that I’ve been pushed to limits you would think I shouldn’t survive, and I know what those limits are. I don’t heal as quickly as Steve, but I heal fast, and I can usually recognize when things are getting dangerous. Where I’m going to lose consciousness and might go past the point of no return.”
“You guys are just sad and creepy and you give me nightmares, you know?” Bucky huffed out a little laugh. “So that was the guy back there, ASCI-Face. The guy who broke you down and did those tests.”
“Yeah, at first. He gave me the arm. Mostly it was—he was the one who did the experiments that helped me survive the fall.”
“Wait, yeah, Zola. He was a computer program before, right? Steve and Natasha were talking about it when they got to my place, they’d almost been blown up at some old location—where Steve went to basic.”
Something about that made it difficult for Bucky to find words; he nodded instead, face a grim map of lost memory. He pulled Sam over to help him deeper into the trees, ripped a few limbs off with his metal hand, and built Sam a pleasantly aromatic bough-fort.
“Gimme that—that—gizmo thing.”
“You mean the satphone?” Sam said archly, and Bucky scowled at him. Sam handed him the phone, looking into his eyes. Cognitive trouble was another really bad sign and Sam didn’t want to say it but Bucky taking off alone at this point was another terrible idea.
“If it looks like they’ll get here before I do, use the—the wings. Better you get out of here on your own than let them take you. But I’ll be back,” Bucky said, hesitating, and then he threw his right arm around Sam’s shoulders and hugged him; Sam was so stunned that he almost missed the chance to pat his back in response. Sam was a real hugger, not a bro-hugger. Bucky gave him one last glance, shrugged his pack on, and then headed off through the trees.
It was in Sam’s nature to be positive and hopeful. But it was pretty tough to find the kernel of hope in this situation; he was in shock and Barnes wasn’t much better off, supersoldier serum or not. It had been a couple hours hike up here and that was with snowshoes on—Bucky’d be sinking into knee-deep snow in spots, his body temperature taxed to extremes. And they both knew the wings wouldn’t get him very far, and if Hydra got that close they’d just shoot him down anyhow.
Still, he kept checking his pulse in between periods of leaning back and resting, not entirely willing to give in to the panic that slithered through his guts, until he heard the distant sounds of aircraft and knew he was screwed. Didn’t sound like choppers, but just because they hadn’t seen large aircraft up here didn’t mean some fancy Hydra plane hadn’t been scrambled from a nearby town. Sam leaned back and closed his eyes: this was the way the world ended, not with a bang but a goddamn gunshot wound in Bulgaria.
The sound of the aircraft got louder, and Sam wasn’t sure but he thought he caught a strange high-pitched hum underneath it: after a few seconds he realized it sounded a lot like the whine of the wing pack’s repulsor engines. He pushed the boughs off and dragged himself to a slight clearing where he could get a look toward the northwest direction; after scanning the horizon a few minutes he saw it—the red and gold of Iron Man, about thirty seconds out.
They didn’t need to call in the cavalry: the cavalry was already here.
“For the last friggin’ time, you are not jumping out of the plane until we land. I’m gonna have Nat tranq you if you don’t shut up.” Clint pointed to the back of the plane with a clear message: Sit. Stay.
Steve knew what it was like to battle with his body: the fight for air scraping through unwilling lungs, the too-rapid heartbeat that left him dizzy and swaying, the frigid tremble of a fever shaking him from head to toe. All things he thought he’d left behind long ago but here he was doing battle again, and all the more humiliated for his lack of control.
Tony’s voice came over comms, halfway between soothing and riled. “I got this, for the love of god, Cap, just chill.”
“As soon as I find a safe place to land” —and Clint muttered something unintelligible Steve couldn’t hear but that sounded like rocks and snow— “I will open the damn doors.”
“Study the schematic of the facility that JARVIS just put up. Do your breathing,” Tony said. “Say your words.”
They all saw this with much greater clarity, Steve knew that. But Bucky was—Sam was—who knew, at this point? They were over eastern Austria at the time JARVIS had discovered the fighting inside the facility, so it might as well have been New York for the good it would do them to ride to the rescue. Hydra must have thought it was early Christmas, having the Asset walk right into their lair—and Sam would be worthless, something to be swept aside.
At least—at least Steve could be grateful that Natasha had suggested they get over to Europe on the double; at least they were that much closer to Bucky and Sam. Once Steve had told her about Bulgaria she’d summoned meetings with her contacts; something hadn’t sat right about that for her. They’d discovered that most of the U.S. intelligence agencies had known something was up in Buzludzha back in the Cold War—a lot more concrete had gone up there than was necessary to build the monument, but after Socialism died its quiet death in Bulgaria, nobody looked at it twice again. Some digging produced files showing that a few years before the Insight project had even been greenlit, new activity was spotted at the facility: maybe they were rebuilding the monument, the analysts thought, or maybe they were filling it in, but nobody cared all that much—the Cold War was over, Buzludzha was an artifact, a tourist attraction, and whatever else had happened there, it wasn’t of concern, not after 9/11.
After Bucky and Sam had been attacked in Austria Steve was no longer as sanguine about their chances of wandering around Hydra’s territory and coming out of it in one piece. This ridiculous plan of Bucky’s seemed to Steve like so much more than simply getting closure for his past—as if he was trying to make up for leaving Steve at home, for pushing him away, by bringing Steve a special present or something: here’s where Hydra took the party, now go blow them up some more. He’d promised to stay with Steve, but he hadn’t, and now Bucky believed he had to make up for breaking that promise.
Steve had asked everyone to give them breathing space when he’d brought Bucky home to his apartment in Stark Tower, and they had, though someone—Pepper, he was certain—had brought in fresh flowers and stocked the refrigerator and ensured everything was tidied, even set up the second bedroom for Bucky with everything he might possibly need.
They’d stepped out of the elevator doors into the foyer and Steve had shut it off, while Bucky scanned the room, taking in the view from the large bank of windows. “That’s something,” Bucky said and smiled self-consciously; Steve had tried to prepare him for what he’d see on the plane trip home, but it was hard to explain this place to himself, sometimes, let alone someone who had lived the life Bucky had all those years, who’d lived on the run in the months since.
“It really is,” Steve said, and tucked a lock of his hair behind his ear. Bucky was here, he was with him in his home—he hoped it would eventually feel like it was Bucky’s home, too, prayed Bucky would continue to stay—and every heavy beat of Steve’s heart physically hurt. Steve cupped the back of Bucky’s head and drew him forward, and Bucky favored him with a true smile that invited a kiss. He nipped at Bucky’s perfect lips, slid his hand around his waist. Bucky pulled his jacket off as they kissed, draping it over the nearby table with a light toss: a familiar gesture from long ago, a comfortable one that said, “I’m home.”
“Are you tired? Hungry?” Steve asked, slipping his hands up under Bucky’s shirt, shivering as Bucky slid his real hand into his jeans, over his ass.
“You gotta stop asking me that,” Bucky said, pressing his forehead to Steve’s. “We flew in a fucking fully stocked private jet, what else could I want for?”
“Anything. Anything you can think of to want, it’s yours.”
“More of this. All I need. This is all.” He kissed Steve again and tugged his hand so they could move into the living room. “Why don’t you show me around.” Everything seemed to catch Bucky’s interest: he ran his hands over the furniture, played with the flowers and the knickknacks, as if their textures were a revelation, as if he was new to the world, and Steve supposed in a way he was. While he might have had more experience with the modern world through the years Steve had been simply gone from it, that world had been filled with brutality and deprivation instead of homely things and Steve was overcome with a desire to make up for that.
And Steve watched the way Bucky moved through it now, just as he had watched it back before the war, always seeing him, always noticing. There was a composed quality about Bucky now where before he’d been all passion and motion; Steve was discovering that he contained these icy pockets of stillness within, and that such stillness could be every bit as intimidating as a weapon.
“There’s a bedroom for you,” Steve said and opened the door.
Doubt clouded his face as he looked at the tastefully furnished room, his metal hand balled into a fist. “I’m not staying with you?” Bucky asked with the slightest catch to his voice.
“I thought...maybe you’d want privacy.” Maybe you’d want to be away from me.
“Well, I don’t,” and Bucky’s tone took on a wounded edge—he was playing it out in his mind, the damage he’d done and believed he couldn’t repair. “But if it’s—”
“Don’t say ‘safer’ because that is not what I meant. I just didn’t know how much of me you’d want to deal with. I do have a tendency to hover, or so I’ve heard.” Bucky scrutinized him, looking for some crack in the lie because Bucky knew just what a terrible liar he was, but when he was satisfied at the truth, he let Steve pull him to his room.
Bucky made a murmur of approval when he saw the huge bed, and put his hands on Steve’s face. “I’m staying, then I’m staying here. We could pitch a half-squad tent on that thing.” And all Steve cared about in those words was that he was staying, wanted to stay in his bed, and Steve couldn’t risk jinxing it by saying “forever,” so he swallowed it back and kept that hope to himself.
Natasha had been watching his face as they got closer to Buzludzha, sometimes checking and rechecking her weapons, just for something to do, Steve thought. “Do you think—” he began but was cut off by Tony: “Got eyes on ’em.”
“Got eyes on a place I can land?” Clint asked, exasperated, when the display over the controls lit up with a topo image from Tony’s HUD. “Tight squeeze,” Clint commented.
“Everyone’s a critic,” Tony said and Steve could almost see his eyes rolling.
“Have a little faith,” Nat said to Steve, smiling at him with her crooked style, and he scoffed.
“It’s not that I don’t have faith in him. Them. But— In the time it took to get here they could have been overrun. They weren’t exactly prepared to wade into battle.”
“I think Barnes is always prepared to wade into battle.”
“I suppose that’s the thing. He wants to—to not be. I know he wants to somehow put that behind him and that’s a lot of what this is about.”
“What about you? I think you want to put this behind you, too.” Her transparency was laughable—keep him distracted again so he wouldn’t throw a tantrum.
He pushed a finger up under his helmet and scratched at his temple. “I do, sometimes. But then I also think that this was a gift, you know, to live past thirty, to see something wrong and be able to fix it. I know things aren’t the same, but I think that part of me has never changed. Bucky says I was always this guy, I just didn’t always have the means to do anything about it.”
“You’ve got some red in your ledger, too.” The corner of her mouth stretched up into a full, sweet smile, and he grinned back at her.
“We’re kind of a collective of idiots all trying to atone for things or fix the problems of the world.”
“Fasten your seatbelts, kids, because this could be a really bumpy landing,” Clint hollered over his shoulder, and Steve grabbed a bar before snaking an arm around Nat. Some rock gave way under the landing pads of the jet when they first touched down, but other than that little bobble everything went fine and as promised, Clint hit the switch for the doors.
“Go,” Natasha said and shooed him, even though he didn’t exactly need coaxing. In his earpiece Tony was talking to Sam—but Steve was brought up short by Tony flying straight toward him, carrying Sam in his arms. Only Sam.
“Cap, get back in the quinjet, now,” was all Tony would say. There was nothing like trying to run fast in snow when you had no idea what kind of terrain was underneath it, but he beat it back to the plane double time as Tony rushed Sam inside.
Sam was—shit, he was ashen and his pants leg was black with blood. Natasha took the wing pack off carefully so Tony could lay him down on the jumpseat. “Oh god, Sam,” Steve said. Where the fuck was Bucky? If Sam was alone...
At first Steve thought he was unconscious as he knelt down next to him, but Sam gave him a sleepy half smile and put his hand on Steve’s arm. “Hey, it’s the Seventh Cavalry. Just in the nick of time.” Next to him, Nat was setting a med kit up; Steve took his gloves off so he could hold on to Sam if necessary.
“Tell me what to do,” Steve said, but Clint pulled him aside, saying, “Let me. Wilson can talk me through this better’n you.” It was true, Clint was a good field medic, but Steve felt the weight of being helpless like he hadn’t since he was small.
“Go get Bucky,” Sam said with urgency. “He took off for the Land Rover when we found out the wings were broken. He’s got a head injury, I’m worried he might not have—seen you coming” —and Sam’s eyes were pleading with Steve not to lose his shit. Head injury. God. This was what he was reduced to: a haunted house, nothing but an accumulation of fears and regrets and mistakes.
Tony slapped Steve’s gloves in his hand and dragged him by the arm out of the plane; before he knew it they were airborne and talking to JARVIS, who claimed he was having trouble locating Bucky despite having found the vehicle and the satphone. There was no way for Steve to read Tony’s expression with the faceplate down, but it seemed as though Tony’s gauntleted fingers clutched him tighter, like he thought Steve would try to jump off. When they spotted the vehicle there was no sign of Bucky—but Steve told himself he’d know that Hydra would be on the move looking for him, maybe he’d hidden himself in tree cover...
“The footprints end about ten meters back that way,” Tony said as he dropped Steve to the ground and landed.
“And are his the only footprints?” He thought he might snap off the straps on the shield if he gripped them any tighter. Steve stalked over and picked up the phone. Everything was—too loud and too quiet, the teeming nothingness and too-muchness of it all left him teetering at the edge of something black, like a canyon as it recedes into the distance when a train carries you away.
Tony faced him as he tromped back, watching with that fucking expressionless mask and those goddamn glowing eye holes; somehow that made the whole thing feel about a hundred times worse than it already was. The facemask flipped up and Tony said gently, “No. I can’t tell how many guys there were, but it’s more than two. It looks like he must have run that way, before they...”
Taking a breath, Steve faced the direction Tony pointed and asked, “Where do they go after that?”
“Into the woods. Feels like I should break into the Sondheim.”
With a hot glare, Steve snapped, “Whatever the hell that means.” Jesus Christ, the last thing he needed was a bunch of smartass pop culture references right now. He touched his earpiece. “Clint, can you ask Sam if the facility entrance is accessible through the forest?” Maybe it was like that place, the old NORAD facility he’d read about when he first came out of the ice.
“I’ll try, but he’s kinda busy right now telling me how to fix his leg without killing him.” Steve’s stomach played hopscotch inside him for a while as Tony stared impassively, until Clint said, “Yeah, okay, Sam says it’s an access tunnel almost directly north of where Stark found him, but he says that if you enter through the access in between the monument’s tower and the flying saucer it’d probably be faster.”
Next thing he knew Tony’s arms lifted him up and they zoomed through the trees straight toward the flying saucer, like in that Star Wars movie where they sped through the forest on those hovering motorcycle things.
“Oh look, the Welcome Wagon’s here,” Tony said, words punctuated with an RPG fired at them. He tucked Steve into his side and Steve brought the shield up as they veered left with practiced precision.
“Hey kids,” Tony said, “you got two choppers headed your way.” The reinforcements had arrived; obviously not in time to stop Bucky and Sam from leaving the facility but definitely here for the main act.
“We’re a bit busy right now.” Natasha was terse, they hadn’t finished working on Sam, so Tony barrel-rolled them back toward the quinjet. From the back of his suit the mini rockets lifted into formation.
“Are we playing historical preservation society here, or is the monument collateral?” Steve couldn’t tell if Tony was excited about the idea of blowing it up or sad that it might have to be destroyed.
“Let’s...try not to anger the Bulgarian government if we can avoid it.” The last thing he wanted was to provide another country with a good reason to come after the Winter Soldier. Or at least the second to last thing he wanted.
“I gotta admit, I’m almost tempted to see if I can buy it and renovate. What a fabulous mountain lair this would make.” Steve heard the familiar click of the rockets firing; two rockets went swooshing above Tony’s head before splitting in a Y. The helos were dangerously close to the monument when they blew.
“Honestly, that just showed no respect for us. I feel personally attacked.”
“Hang on, guys, we’re done,” Clint said, “I’ll be with you in a minute. Soon as we get Sam situated.” There would be more troops coming after the quinjet; Steve didn’t doubt that Natasha would probably enjoy turning Stark’s new repulsor cannons on them.
“Let me down,” Steve grumbled. “I gotta find that access route.”
“I’d say ‘your funeral’ but it’d be Barnes’s too if you go in half-cocked. Jeez, Rogers, let us help you. Let us make you fully cocked.”
Of course Tony was right; Steve was operating on pure panic, something he only did over Bucky. They had no idea how many opponents they were facing—or even who, really, because someone had to be in charge of this operation—or what Bucky’s status was.
Tony set Steve down, slipped over to pick up Clint, and Sam came on comms to tell them he was mission control now.
“What did you give him?” Tony asked, and Clint grinned. “Is he giggling?”
Natasha said, “He’s very relaxed now. Just—be clear about your questions.”
Steve waved his hand in the air. “I can’t believe he’s still awake.” The three of them slogged through the snow to the front of the monument. “Must have been the really good drugs.”
“Oh yeah, they are,” Sam murmured. “I feel nooo pain.”
Steve froze. Above what looked like the main entry at the top of the stairs the words “FORGET YOUR PAST” were painted in red—the hair stood up on the back of his neck and he sucked in air.
“That’s...evocative,” Tony said, flipping his faceplate up, Clint halting on his right, mouth open. “I mean, not that I think Barnes would resort to tagging cherished Socialist monuments, but are we sure he didn’t leave that here?”
Sam said, unnaturally cheerful, “Nah, that was there when we got here. The creepiest thing, ain’t it? Made the damn hair stand up on the back of my neck.” Steve thought “creepy” was an understatement—it was as if they were reading some kind of message left specifically for Bucky.
What a thing for Bucky to have seen, when he’d come here to try to remember his fucking past and face it head on, to stand strong against the weight of such brutal memories dragging him under. Steve’s blood was on a slow simmering boil, his face and his head were hot. Those fuckers had Bucky again, inside the very facility where they’d destroyed him as a human being, and whatever minuscule pretense of control Steve had disintegrated. “Tony, take me back the other direction, to the access tunnel. We’re going in that way.”
The hard gleam in Tony’s eyes—which said he wanted to take these sons of bitches apart—was a contrast to his words. “Steve. You think they haven’t blocked that off with a hundred more guys?”
“I don’t care.” If Tony wouldn’t take him, he’d get down there on his own. But Tony reached out and hauled him back by the straps of his shield harness.
“I’m pretty sure we got out of Saigon with less drama.” Steve narrowed his eyes. “Christ, I don’t know—Dunkirk, for the age impaired.” Tony shook his helmeted head. “Barnes already walked into one trap, the last thing we need is you walking into another without backup.”
Steve hefted his shield; apparently the lesson had been lost about what he was willing to do to help Bucky. “Then you take out the entrance and get me inside. I feel the need to make my presence known.”
The faceplate snapped down, Tony was laughing under there. “You’re so hot when you’re burning with righteous fury.”
He picked Steve up and Steve said to Clint, “You head down through this route, pick ’em off if they try to get out. Tony, you pour it on and carve me a path—keep it coming until they’re all down. And Nat, if you see any more reinforcements coming in, use the new cannons, even if it puts the monument at risk.” They were in the air and back down the mountain to the access road in no time: it took him and Tony about ten minutes to clear a safe path before he was inside. Hydra had been stupid, concentrating too many people at the outside mouth of the tunnel and not enough inside at multiple strategic points to pick off either Steve or Clint. Steve loved it when the enemy was stupid.
“Don’t go in angry!” Tony called to him as he made his way around the bodies and headed deeper into the tunnel.
“Yeah, too late for that.” After a couple minutes he stopped and looked around the corridor he’d found himself in. “JARVIS, I’m inside the facility. Which way do I want to go?” Steve asked. This was—it reminded him entirely too much of Schmidt’s fortress; maybe the only difference was that there was no bank of windows the rest of his team could come crashing through. Yet he recognized the same kind of fury he’d had then: someone had taken Bucky from him, someone was doing something terrible to Bucky, and there would be a motherfucking reckoning.
Waking brought a profound sense of disorientation: he was dreaming—or no, he was in cryo—no, wait, he was in some foreign city, it didn’t matter where, they were all the same: grey, featureless, anonymous. Bucky felt Steve’s foot slide up along his ankle to his calf, strong arms tighten around his waist, and remembered: Steve was tucked up behind him in his bed, and they were home.
The midafternoon sun shone through the huge windows facing west—Steve had comforted him by explaining that the glass allowed them to see out unimpeded but filtered the view from the outside—and Bucky stuck his arm out, letting the rays spill across his skin, nearly as warm as Steve behind him. Steve continued to rub his foot up and down Bucky’s lower leg, while Bucky leaned his head back against Steve’s shoulder.
“We should get up. Imagine your friends will want to meet me and inspect me, and we can’t sleep the whole day away.” His fingers caressed Bucky’s palm. The first time they’d slept together Steve had run his fingertips along the lines of Bucky’s hand just like this, as if reading his future and Bucky’d thought: I will be happy every day when I go to sleep, happy when I wake up, always happy as long as you’re there; just live past twenty-five, live past thirty, live past—
“We’re jetlagged, remember? We have very, very serious jetlag, dangerous jetlag.” Steve snaked his hand down atop Bucky’s thigh, flirting at the edge of his balls.
“Oh, is that what they’re calling it these days?” Little pecks were delivered to the back of his neck and he sighed into them, closing his eyes, inhaling the musky-sleepy sex scent. Bucky turned to face Steve, pressed his forehead to his. “They’ll have concerns. They’ll want to vet me if I’m gonna stay here. It’s a legitimate fear.”
There was that long-suffering look on Steve’s face, and Christ but Bucky had longed for it once he’d started remembering things: withering under Steve’s disapproving indignation, hanging his head in chastened remorse, all the while knowing that nothing he could ever do would make Steve love him any less.
“I don’t think they’re afraid of you, not anymore. They’re too smart for that, honestly—they’ve all lost pieces of themselves, they have red in their ledgers.”
But none of them held the river of red he did. And yet, somehow, Steve still loved him.
“It feels like a dream,” Bucky said idly, and he recalled it: that liminal moment when the ice came down and he wasn’t blank and black inside just yet, and flashes of a life he knew couldn’t have been his shone in his mind. They were beautiful and fragile and lit with faces that smiled at him and hands that touched him with tenderness: the laughter of little girls and a woman who held him tight in her arms, a man who clapped him on the back with pride, a soldier’s uniform decked with commendations; took him down rows of big black cars on a street dotted with yellow light, the glowing wood of a dark bar, a small narrow bed in a crackerbox apartment. And always a pale, skinny boy with dark blond hair and forget-me-not eyes.
“It does.” Steve sighed into the crook of his neck. “Whichever one of us is dreaming this, I hope he never wakes up.”
Bucky was drowning, wet and cold, water running down his face and into his open mouth. Arms aching, his toes just barely touching the ground. Where was—oh, he’d almost reached the Land Rover but a team had been there. A hand grabbed his drenched hair and yanked his head upright; one eye was still cloudy but it was enough to see that he was looking straight into Rumlow’s eyes.
His face was covered in a map of red burns and gnarled flesh; he moved stiffly, awkwardly as he stepped in close to Bucky, almost dragging one leg. In his hand was a stun baton and he smirked as he held it up, zapped it for show. “Thought you supersoldiers healed from your boo-boos more quickly than this—seemed like you were never gonna wake up.”
Rumlow let go of Bucky’s hair and hit him with the baton, just under his ribcage; Bucky seized up violently, flinging his head back, the water choking him. He uncurled coughing and gasping, hawking snot and phlegm at Rumlow’s feet. Somehow they’d disabled all but basic functionality in the weapon arm, his wrists were locked in the old bindings they’d used on him when he acted up. Between the cuffs ran a length of heavy chain which Rumlow had hung from a hook. Bucky remembered this—the freezing water they’d hose him down with when he disobeyed or sometimes just for the hell of it, the electricity, the hook. Those early days when there was still a fragment of him left to fight back and this was how they subdued him.
When he’d caught a breath again Bucky looked around the room—a table behind Rumlow held a few dozen implements; a portable computer terminal; on the wall monitors with different views of the facility and the mountain access road. It took a few seconds to focus his good eye, Bucky couldn’t see well enough to catch all of it—but there was fighting, oh yeah, definitely fighting. Iron Man showed up on one monitor, and on another was—Steve. Steve was here, he’d brought his team. They must have found Sam, they had to have found Sam and he was all right...
Rumlow stepped in front of him, blocking the view of the camera feed. “Uh-uh,” Rumlow said, wagging his finger.
“Kill him. This is a waste of time,” an all-too-familiar voice said, and Bucky looked at the laptop to see that same fucking image of Zola flickering on the screen as he’d seen in the computer room.
“Go back in your box,” Rumlow said over his shoulder. Jesus, they were arguing about what to do with him. Rumlow and a Zola computer program were fighting. This was so not the way he’d wanted to die.
“W-why are you w-wasting...my t-time,” Bucky snarled, every bone and muscle in his body on fire, spasming. He sucked in as much air as he could, pulled the pain under the anger so he could function and think about what to do, how to hold out long enough for Steve. “Just do as it says like a good little dog. Get it over with.” Rumlow’d always had a hard-on for suffering; the longer Bucky could keep him engaged, the better for Steve.
“Oh no, no, you don’t get off that easy. We’re gonna dance till your boyfriend cuts in, and then you’re both gonna answer for this.” He waved a hand around his head, then down by his leg. “He dumped a building on my fucking face because you didn’t do your goddamn job. It’s a tossup right now which one gets to watch the other go first, but I’ll decide that when he gets here. Would have liked to get that asshole with the wings, but you two lovebirds will do.”
Bucky kicked his feet up to get some swing so he could catch another glimpse of the monitor; Rumlow punched him in the kidney and hit him with the baton. He screamed; it was as if the arm would tear right out of his shoulder as his muscles contracted and he went limp. Bucky was going under; the concussion hadn’t had a chance to heal before they’d knocked him out back at the vehicle and he had no idea how long he’d been hanging here or how many times Rumlow had stunned or punched him.
The Zola thing’s voice cut through his fog; he opened his eyes as wide as they’d go and blinked repeatedly to make himself focus. “Just shoot him and put me in the case. This revenge fantasy of yours serves no purpose!” it screeched. “The captain is in the facility!”
“It serves my purpose. Cap’s gonna come to the rescue of his damsel in distress and we get two supersoldiers for the price of one. Finish building your new army.” Rumlow turned his gaze on Bucky. “I always knew you were trouble, the minute I saw who you really were. Goddamn war hero Bucky Barnes, how pathetic. You believed all that shit they pumped into you, you were such a good little Hydra soldier. But I told Pierce, I told him bringing you to the States was a bad idea.” He backhanded Bucky across the face. “If he’d listened or you’d have done your goddamn job, none of this would have happened.”
“Aw. Daddy always liked me best.” Bucky spit blood onto Rumlow’s shirt. “Hhnngggaugh!” he bellowed as the baton was driven into his belly.
It was worth it, because he caught another glimpse of the monitors and saw Steve for a quick second. The walkie on the table squawked to life—Bucky only made out a few words, but it sounded as if Hawkeye had secured the first level, possibly by coming through the monument’s access point. They were panicking. This was good.
Panting, Bucky tried to bring his heart rate down and stop spasming, but the cold water had lowered his body temperature too much for him to control his shivering and shockiness, the muscle contractions. But Steve was here, he told himself, Steve was coming for him. Depending on when he’d first entered the site, it might take him at least thirty minutes to locate Bucky and fight his way through. And to think he’d always given Steve shit for being such a daredevil.
“I am a computer, I have calculated at least twenty moves ahead. The odds are not in our favor regarding Captain America and his friends. Take me out of here and we will regroup later.” For a computer program, the Zola thing was really worked up—and it was agitating the hell out of Rumlow.
“Shut the fuck up. Just because you told me how to disable his arm doesn’t mean you’re in charge of this operation.”
It was beyond Bucky not to laugh, no matter how much it hurt. Rumlow turned his beady black stare on Bucky, incredulous. “S-sorry, it’s just s-so—so hilarious.” Bucky raked in a huge breath, released it, attempting to control his laughter, because ow. “You are s-so fucked. Steve’s a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to me. Didn’t you read your fucking history?”
Rumlow advanced on him, thunderous, driving his fist into Bucky’s kidneys again and again. Breathe in, out, Bucky told himself when Rumlow let up. He swung his legs up in the air, bicycle kicking to get some leverage, and punched out with his lower body to knock the baton from Rumlow’s hand. Then he wrapped his legs around Rumlow’s neck, locked his legs, and squeezed his thighs together with every bit of strength he had left. Whatever had happened to Rumlow had left him too damaged to fight back at his former strength and he flailed as Bucky swung sideways, trying to pull his legs away. Zola shrieked something Bucky couldn’t hear under the blood pounding in his ears.
Finally Rumlow sank his teeth into Bucky’s inner thigh and broke away from him, picking up the baton, driving it into Bucky’s side over and over as Bucky screamed and screamed. When he was done with his tantrum he stood back, gulping in air.
“Stop this at once!” the Zola thing screeched.
It wouldn’t be long before he’d lose consciousness again, but Bucky didn’t care—there was a certain perverse sense of delight in watching Heckel and Jeckel bicker while Steve mowed his way through the facility.
Bucky eventually raised his head, eyeing the monitor. “Oh, l-look,” he panted. “S-Steve’s got—got guns.” He sucked in air. “H-hasn’t used those since—since the war. But you’d know about that, wouldn’t you?” Bucky glared defiantly at Zola. “I heard he pistol-whipped the shit out of your fat fucking fa—”
“Enough!” it screamed. “Enough of this!” No matter how much Bucky had misbehaved in the first months of his captivity, Zola had never lost his shit the way this program was—not having control over itself was its worst nightmare. That would be something Stark could exploit once they got out of here. “You do not understand. This will be the most powerful version of my mind once my program is complete and I am uploaded to the proper hardware. I will have total control over an entire army, a perfected army, unlike these...failures, these meat sacks I have been forced to rely on. I must be preserved.” The image on the screen broke apart, reformed, as if its tantrum was interrupting its program. Hearing that voice had paralyzed Bucky when he and Sam first encountered it, but whatever power it had over him before had vanished—it was nothing but a terrible cartoon he was forced to watch before the main picture started.
“I’m in the room too, you know, I’m one of those meat sacks, you piece of shit. Someone’s gotta carry you out of here in a suitcase if you want your precious program to survive, so maybe you oughta think twice about including me in your disposable tools—”
“Shut up! Kill Barnes now and be done with this. We must leave immediately.”
“Jesus Christ. I can’t believe I ever thought you were frightening. Seriously, death would be preferable to listening to you two bleat at each other,” Bucky said.
Before Rumlow could hit him with the baton Bucky scissor-kicked up and sent it flying. Rumlow pulled his SIG out of his belt as he limped back a few steps. If he’d been at one hundred percent, Bucky never would have lasted this long, but Rumlow was blinded by his rage and weakened by his injuries. Bucky tried to swing up again, make himself a moving target, but he couldn’t get the momentum. His heart was in his throat, tears pricking behind his eyes: he should have done everything he could to stay alive, he should not have given in to the temptation of provoking them. He should have stayed alive for Steve.
As Rumlow thumbed the safety off, the door flew off its hinges and crashed into the room. Steve was flinging his shield at Rumlow as he tried to fire at Bucky, and all the while the Zola image wailed in the background. Bucky gave a relieved cry as Rumlow went down, turned his—probably red-rimmed and tearful—eyes up toward Steve. “You punk. What took you so long?” he whispered, letting loose a half sob.
“Well, some jackass kept telling me to stay home.”
Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky’s waist and lifted him enough so Bucky could pull the chain off of the hook, lowering him gently to the floor as Bucky dropped his aching arms and the chain over Steve’s shoulders. He let his head fall forward against Steve’s neck; he smelled like gunpowder and sweat—it was heaven. Bucky allowed himself to sink into Steve’s strong embrace. “I got you,” Steve said as he brought his hands up to cover Bucky’s on his shoulders, kissed Bucky’s temple. “I got you this time.”
“Yeah, you do.” Bucky shuddered. “They disabled my arm somehow,” Bucky said; he wanted to pull the cuffs off and break the chain but he seemed able to move the metal arm only up or down, and even then not well at all. “Sam?”
“We got him, too. He’s doped to the gills and laughing his ass off in the jet.”
“My hero.” Steve rained little kisses over his face, his neck, and Bucky held him as tight as he could with one useful arm. “Why’d you do this, Stevie? You coulda got yourself killed. I’m not worth it.”
With a frustrated grunt, Steve said, “When Nat looked into this place, she found out they’d started building it up even before Insight. I figured we could hang back in case of trouble—better to apologize later than ask permission first. But everything blew up a lot faster when you got inside, I guess.”
“I had ’em on the ropes.”
“I know you did,” and if there was the tiniest sob coming from Steve’s throat, Bucky wasn’t going to say anything about that. Steve slid his hand along Bucky’s metal wrist and snapped one of the chain links.
Bucky’s legs were shaky as hell, but he stepped away from Steve and picked up the shield, kicking Rumlow for good measure. “I am gonna set him on fire, and then I’m gonna put him out. And then I’m gonna set fire to him all over again.” He kicked him once more, then went over to the portable terminal, wrapped the chain around his right hand, and proceeded to beat the now mercifully silent Zola computer into tiny shards.
When he eventually stopped, he looked up to see Steve touching his ear. “Yeah, I got him. Yeah, it was Zola again—the computer version of him, anyway. And Rumlow. I know. Well, he’s not gonna escape custody this time.” He pulled Bucky against him, smoothed his hair back. “Sam said you had a severe head injury. What else happened?”
“Ah, nothing that won’t heal. I’m a little wobbly, not gonna lie.”
Steve glanced at the stun baton on the floor, ran his hand along Bucky’s soaked t-shirt and jeans—he knew what kind of burns and bruises would be underneath them, his face was doing that thing Bucky knew all too well: all his features drawing together, his eyes going red around the edges. “Were they trying to get information from you or...” Steve wouldn’t want to say the word “punish” but Bucky could tell that’s what he was thinking.
Shaking his head, Bucky said, “I think if Zola’d had his way, they would have lured you in for the rescue and then used our genetic material to finish building a new army. They were setting up for that. But Rumlow just wanted payback—for one of us to watch the other one die.”
“Man, to think I used to like working with that prick.”
“I think he had a crush on you.” Bucky grinned and Steve’s eyes rolled toward the ceiling.
For once, Bucky couldn’t read the look on his face; there was a darkness in his eyes he’d never seen before. “You need medical attention,” was all Steve said, tucking Bucky against his side, arm underneath his, placing his .45 in Bucky’s right hand. “Stark’s got the lower levels cleared, and Barton’s just above us, but there will still be pockets of resistance. Watch my six and stay behind the shield.” They hobbled out of the room—he was half tempted to tell Steve to go on his own, he’d only slow Steve down, come back for him later, but Bucky really didn’t want to spend one more goddamn minute in this shithole. “Sorta like the good old days, huh?” Steve remarked, smiling his shy smile, and Bucky was so overcome by the love that surged up inside him that he swayed on his feet. Steve was—indefatigable in his devotion, he had never given up on him, never once, and he never would. Somehow, though Bucky’d never thought to deserve one, this was his reward.
“The only thing good about the good old days was you, pal,” and Bucky kissed him in gratitude.
~ ~ ~ ~
“Seriously, if you say you’re sorry one more time, I’ma punch you.” Sam had apparently managed to recover sufficiently that he had stopped finding everything incredibly funny and settled into a happy, mellow state where he could hold steady enough to suture the wound on Bucky’s forehead. His color had returned, too, though Bucky hoped they’d be on their way home soon so he could get the real care he needed.
“I owe you.”
Sam glanced down at him. “No, you don’t. You’re harder on yourself than anyone else could ever be. Some of us just wanted you to find what you needed, so you can stop that debt shit right now. That’s what friends do.”
His throat felt hot and tight, so he told Sam to stop suturing and got up. Now that he’d had a chance to clean up a little, eat something, and their reinforcements had arrived, he wasn’t certain what to do with himself; he felt extraneous, as if somehow the reason they were here wasn’t because of this journey he’d started.
As he exited the plane, Sam said, “Hey, Bucky.” When Bucky turned to him Sam was putting away the suture kit, a half smile on his face. “In spite of all this” —he motioned at his leg— “I’m really glad you let me come with you. I’m really glad I had the chance to get to know you.”
Bucky nodded at him, said, “Likewise.”
After trudging up to the monument stairs, Bucky looked around but didn’t see Steve, or anyone else for that matter. He stood there for a while, a cloak of soft late afternoon sun settling around the building’s shoulders, staring at the words that had shaken him up so badly only a handful of hours ago. Now they just seemed like words, like all the rest of the graffiti and the crumbling raised concrete Cyrillic letters that were falling away from the walls.
Bucky turned to head down the mountain toward the access road and there was Steve, smiling at him. “How are you feeling?”
“Better.” Steve pushed a lock of hair back behind his ear, ran his hand along Bucky’s neck.
“Buck.” His gaze was curious, worried, intense. “When I saw those words” —he waved a hand at the Forget Your Past sign— “I think I finally understood that you were trying to put all of this behind you, not relive it. And I’m sorry I made it so hard for you. I promise I won’t do that again. I want to know what’s going on inside you.”
Bucky dropped his head, tears quivered at the corners of his eyes and his head ached. Sorrow surged through him like some molten tsunami, unstoppable and hot and it scored him to the bone, the grief and the tears burning behind his eyelids, his throat on fire. His body shook as he pressed his hand to his eyes, tried to calm his breath and the wet, hiccupy sounds coming from his chest.
“I miss who I used to be.”
God, this was so humiliating, yet somehow he felt enclosed in the silence of the snow, embraced by Steve’s tender concern. Finally Bucky wiped at his eyes and stared at the ground and said, swallowing his dark hot tears and shame and confusion, “I hate this—I hate being broken and sick inside and—he’s still in here but I can never be him again. And I—I miss him. And I know you miss him, too.” Bucky stopped, too ashamed to finish, pressing his hand to his eyes.
Afraid to look at Steve, he stood there, crushed by this terrible heaviness, but when he felt Steve’s hands on his arms Bucky turned his eyes up to Steve’s face. Tears glittered in the light—on his lashes, his cheeks—and his chest heaved up and down as when he was little. He dropped his shield in the snow. “I miss who I used to be, too, and I know you miss him, that little guy who was too dumb not to run away from a fight.” They stood there for a while, trembling, lost, but holding each other up the way they always had. Steve wiped the tears from Bucky’s eyes and then his own. “You’re right, I do miss the old you, just the way I miss the old me.
“But even if—even if none of the things that happened to us had happened, we’d be different, wouldn’t we? We wouldn’t have stayed the same fellas we were then. I love you, Buck. God, I love you. And I don’t want the memory of those boys we lost along the way to stop us from finding out who we’re going to be next.”
Steve pushed them both down into the snow, a little explosion of white puffing up all around them, and Steve was grinning and kissing him and pushing his hair back and there were tears and snot and huge wet ragged breaths but it was good, it was all okay, they would make it okay.
Bucky reached up to cup the back of Steve’s head, pulled Steve’s mouth to his. “This is the rest of it—us here together, living our lives. I know it can’t be easy for you but... Whatever you have to do, I’m behind you, I have my hand on your back,” Steve said. “I’m pretty crazy about this guy right here.”
Bucky kissed him hard. He was freezing and wet and he ached all over and there was an elephant crushing his battered chest, but all he wanted to do was lie here and kiss Steve for maybe the rest of his messed-up life.
“Okay.” Bucky nodded his head.
“You do whatever you need to. You go wherever you need to go,” Steve said again and peppered Bucky’s cheeks with kisses, tucked his cold wet face into Bucky’s neck. As they held each other Bucky felt a stillness wash through him, a flicker of warmth at the corner of his mind and he smiled against Steve’s skin. “Just don’t go without me.”