He wakes in the dark, cold and soaking. The only light is faint and dark green, shining with no real illumination like he's looking up at it through water. Ruskaly, he thinks, but he doesn't remember drowning.
It's hard to remember anything. His thoughts rise sluggishly, breaking like bubbles. It takes a long time to realize he's breathing, longer to understand that he's not looking out through water but glass. He only realizes he's trapped when he tries to touch the window and the back of his hand hits something cold and unyielding. Metal.
Fear creeps in, then the bright, icy stab of panic. He's in some kind of cylinder, barely wider and taller than he is. He can feel the seam of the hatch, but it's locked. Sealed tight. He doesn't know how long he's been in here or how much air is left. But he knows if he doesn't get out he'll die.
He doesn't want to die.
He's weak, trembling with cold and fear, and he has no room to hit. But he can push. He has no idea how long he pushes before something gives, only that he's shaking with fatigue by the time the metal finally creaks and bends and then rips open. He cuts his hands folding the metal back, then his arms and legs as he fights his way out. A gash runs from his side to the base of his spine. His spilling blood feels hot.
As soon as he's free of the cylinder his legs give out. He lands on his hands and knees, concrete under his stinging palms. The green light is shining from a corner near the ceiling. There's something important about the light, the fact it's green.
In case of power failure, it is necessary to resuscitate the Soldier immediately.
The cylinder must have lost power. But there's no one here.
He remembers the metal table he uses to claw his way back to his feet. He isn't surprised by the clothes or the box of IRP rations. Everything is covered with a thin rime of dust, and when he shakes out the wool blanket some insect hits the floor with a tak and scurries away.
He folds the blanket around his shoulders then tears open the cardboard box. He fumbles out the tiny scythe of a can opener and rips open the tins. The rations are years out of date but he eats everything anyway, all three meals at once. They taste just as disgusting as he expected, though he can't remember eating them before. He feels a little clearer when his stomach's full, but he still isn't warm.
The clothing is military: green shirt, olive green pants with lots of pockets, only he doesn't recognize the style and the labels are in English. American sizing. He blinks at the innocuous tags for a while, squinting a little under the useless green light. The last place he remembers clearly is…
Nowhere at all.
It's all right, he tells himself through the rush of fear. This has happened before. He knows it has, even if he has no idea where that knowledge comes from. He remembered the green light; almost remembers the cylinder. He knew the table would be here, recognized the rations and the blanket. He doesn't know why he's been given American clothes, but that doesn't matter. It'll come back. He'll figure it out. Someone will find him and tell him—
Someone will find him.
The blind, crushing panic is so sudden and overwhelming he has no room to wonder at its origin. He only knows he needs to run. He can't be here when they get back. He must not be here when they get back. He yanks the pants on, leaning against the table. The waistband digs into the wound on his back but he doesn't care. The room has changed from merely too small to claustrophobic, but when he gropes his way to the door it won't open. He's trapped again.
He kicks the door until he can see cracks and his bare feet are bleeding, then throws himself into it shoulder-first. The door is wood. It should break more easily than this. He keeps throwing himself at the door until his right shoulder hurts so badly he needs to switch to his left. He's probably broken it. He doesn't care.
He just tries harder.
Claire Temple finishes yanking the clean scrub top over her damp (ugh) sports bra in time to hear a crash from the storage room.
She freezes like a rabbit with her hands holding the hem of her top. Maybe it's the supply people finally coming back, though God knows there's enough chaos upstairs to keep them running around delivering shit for the rest of the night. It might be nothing, or it might be another victim of the Punisher currently regretting his life choices. Or it might be the Punisher. Or yet another fucking vigilante trying to steal home surgery supplies.
Claire shouldn't even be down here—it's not forbidden, just normally unnecessary for medical staff to get their own crap—but all the clean scrubs were used up. Claire isn't the only nurse who got covered in body fluids. She was trying to remember the last time she descended to the bowels of Metro-General as she squelched (ugh!) down the cracked concrete stairwell, and couldn't. Hell, she barely remembered how to get to the damn laundry.
She remembers how to get back to the stairs at least, but the storage room is practically right next door. And even if it's like a cross between a sadistic rat maze and Hangar 51 from the Indiana Jones movies, well…It's right next door. And that crash was close. And loud.
"Fuck me," Claire murmurs. She does a quick check around her, but unless she wants to lug a gallon of bleach in there, she's pretty much SOL on improvised weapons.
There's another, even louder crash while she's still figuring out what the hell to do about the first one. So, either she's dealing with the worst thief in existence, the absolute worst assassin, or someone who's actually stumbling into shelves because they need help.
She edges the short distance down the hallway and eases open one of the double doors to the storage room. It makes no noise she can hear, but there are people out there who can hear a mouse sneeze twelve blocks away. Maybe she should've brought the bleach.
The third crash sounds like it's the entire fucking hospital coming down. Claire grabs a pair of plastic-wrapped crutches off a nearby shelf, then hefts them like a baseball bat as she creeps down the path made by the looming towers of supplies. She's pretty sure by now whoever's down here is yet another wounded gang member, but she's not stupid. He may be stumbling around like a rhino, but that doesn't mean he's not dangerous.
She inches around a corner, wondering what he's doing all the way back here anyway, when she finally sees where the hell the crash came from. One of the goddamned warehouse-sized shelving units has been shoved out at an angle from its original position in front of the wall. Not just shoved out, but tipped over into the shelf perpendicular to it. There're bedpans and emesis basins scattered all over the floor. And behind the now empty, precariously leaning shelf, is a fucking half-naked, blond, bleeding giant. He's leaning heavily on the edge of a hole that used to be part of the wall, like he just smashed his way through the concrete
"Oh my God." Claire tosses the crutches aside and runs to him. She gets there just as the giant attempts a teetering step beyond the hole and nearly falls right into the metal shelving.
He weighs a ton. He's also soaking wet, which makes holding him even more difficult. The best she can manage is to grab the waistband of his pants, which at least keeps him upright long enough to more-or-less direct his collapse to an almost clear part of the floor. Claire goes down with him, trying to ease the landing for both their sakes. But he's just too big. He's also freezing, shivering like he's just climbed out of a lake. Both his shoulders are badly bruised too. The right one looks broken. He might be in shock. Fantastic.
Claire has seriously never seen anyone this large in her life. He looks like Thor, at least what she imagines Thor would look like up close after someone beat the shit out of him. And fuck, this guy just bashed his way through a concrete wall. Maybe he's from Asgard too.
His hair's short and his eyes are a very pretty, very bright blue, which is easy to see because of how wide and liquid they are.
He's actually gorgeous, which she ignores easily next to all the freezing cold, half-naked and bleeding. Not to mention how he rears away from her in panic, hitting the tipped shelf so hard that the entire thing wobbles.
Claire lets go of him the instant he moves. Both her hands come away stained with blood.
"It's all right," she says quickly, making her voice low, matter-of-fact and calm. "My name is Claire. I'm a nurse. I want to help you but I need to touch you for that. I promise I'm not going to hurt you."
"Where am I?" He has an accent, thick enough that she can't tell if his words are slurring from shock. But she recognizes it.
He's Russian. She's all alone with a fucking Russian giant who punched through a wall in the ass end of the storage room. And for a second she's back in the dim recesses of a filthy garage, nose full of the stench of gasoline, exhaust and her own blood. The only thing that keeps her from snatching up a bedpan and smashing him in the head so she can run is how he's still trembling like a kitten and looking at her like she's even more terrifying than he is.
"Metropolitan General Hospital," she says. Keeping her voice even is difficult.
"Hospital," he repeats, like he's trying to remember what the word means. He mutters something that sounds like "ballneesta," then rubs his face, leaving a smear of blood from his palm. "How," he says. The word sounds like a demand instead of a question, but he still looks so scared. "How long…?"
"How long what?" Claire reaches for him again, thinking longingly of the disposable gloves that are roughly 200 miles of shelving away from her. "I need to touch you so I can find out how hurt you are. Can you tell me your name?"
He blinks at her, then his beautiful blue eyes go wide again. He twitches like he's about to rear back again, but stops. He's just about panting now from fear. "Are you my handler?"
"Your handler?" She has no idea what that is. "No. I'm a nurse." Her hands are still hovering over him. "Your back is bleeding pretty badly, and I think your right shoulder is broken. I'd really like to take a look. What's your name?"
He shakes his head. "No. No doctor." His arms give out and he sags against the shelf, still shivering and muttering something that's definitely a swear word. "Cold."
"Yeah. I can see that." Claire tries to touch him again but pulls her hands away when that just gets another flinch. "I'm not going to hurt you," she repeats, making her voice as gentle as possible. "I just want to help."
"My back is fine," he says immediately. "Back, shoulders, everything. It is all fine. It will heal." He glances through the metal shelf to look down the aisle she came from. "The ones…." he hesitates, clearly floundering over the words, "I was revived. But, alone. That is wrong. They will return. We must leave."
"They will return," he repeats, like the problem is she didn't hear him. He lifts a trembling hand to point weakly at the gaping hole. "Was alone. But they know, now. They will come back."
"Who? Who's going to come back?" No one she wants to meet, going by his reaction. Amazing how finding random, bleeding guys in places they don't belong always leads to that.
He grits his teeth, and she can tell by his eyes that he's trying to remember, but in the end he just shakes his head. "They will hurt you."
"Great." Claire gives up on trying to get him to do anything for the moment, and looks where he pointed instead. All she can see is green light and shadows. "Stay here."
She stands to go see what he's talking about. He tries to get up, but can't. She just steps over his legs and goes in.
The room is tiny, barely big enough for the large, very broken cylinder thing in the back left corner, and the table and chair against the wall on the right. The storage room shares a wall with the parking garage, but Claire has no memory of anything jutting out from the other side.
With the light from the storage room it's easy to see his bloody footprints, along with more debris from the wall. There's blood all over the floor, as well as a dusty, bloodstained wool blanket, and a pair of boots with the socks neatly folded inside. The metal table is covered with open, empty tins. Whatever was in them smells terrible. Everything she can see has Russian lettering.
There's even more blood coming from the cylinder. Looks like the giant bashed his way out of that, too. The dark green tube is badly dented and torn from the inside. It's cold, like standing in front of an open freezer. The bottom of the cylinder is full of water, leaking out onto the concrete floor.
There's more Cyrillic writing on it: two words in a neat stencil under the dripping oval of glass.
Claire gets the hell out of there. She grabs the blanket off the floor and goes back into the storage room and the comforting, everyday reality of the shelving and lousy fluorescent lights.
It should be comforting. It's not. It's not, because she's seen a tube like that before. Probably everyone in the entire country has by now. The 'special issue' of Time Magazine that came out in December is still on the table in the break room. Its cover looks like it was painted in the 1940s, and its title is The Crucible of Bucky Barnes.
She didn't read it, but she looked at the pictures. She knows damn well what this green cylinder is for. No wonder he's cold.
The parking garage was added to the hospital in the late 1990s. Jesus Christ.
Claire drapes the blanket over his shoulders. She very, very badly wants nothing to do with this, or the bewildered, bleeding man on the floor.
"You're a Winter Soldier," she says, stunned. "Hydra made you, didn't they? It's Hydra who stuffed you in there. Oh my God. They just…left you?"
He nods, but his eyes are still distant, confused. Claire thinks of the other pictures she saw in that fucking magazine, and is very glad she's not prone to freaking out. "Letniy soldat," he says. "Not…Winter. He was…." He sucks in a breath and looks up at her, his expression suddenly bright and alive. "The Winter Soldier—you have seen him?"
Oh, God. She thinks with distant longing of calling Matt, but her phone is in her locker upstairs. Not that Matt could help with this anyway. What the hell could his enhanced senses possibly do?
Claire crouches down, facing him, and he has to know what she's going to say already, because his expression instantly changes from hopeful to shattered. He pulls the blanket more tightly around him.
"I'm so sorry," she says. "He's dead. He died last April, fighting Captain America."
For a moment he just stares at her. "No. You are wrong."
She shakes her head. "It's true. He was…." She hesitates; has no idea how to explain goddamned airships exploding when she'd barely believed it herself. "He drowned." It's the easiest answer and kinder than the truth, which is that the Winter Soldier likely burned to death before he hit the water. The Potomac's full of silt, and there were a hell of a lot of debris. She doubts they'll ever find a body, if there's even a body to find. But that's nothing he needs to know.
"Drowned," he repeats, whispering. He looks completely lost. "Gaby?" he asks, voice hushed and terrible. "Napoleon?"
They sound like code names. Maybe they belonged to Hydra too. "I've never heard of them. I'm sorry."
"What year is this?"
Two minutes ago she would've thought he had brain damage, asking something like that. Now she's only distantly surprised. "2015. July 2015."
He looks away from her, blinking as his eyes fill with tears. Then suddenly he throws his fist into the wall, and again, and again. He's screaming in rage.
"Hey, stop! Stop! Don't do that, you're hurting yourself!" Claire doesn't reach for him because she's not stupid, but maybe her words work anyway, because his next blow is his palm smacking the wall below the crater he made, and staying there. He hangs his head and weeps.
"I know. I know it hurts. You're not alone. I'm right here." She puts her hand on his back, well above the gash he won't let her help him with, murmuring comfort until his breathing mostly evens out and he lifts his head and wipes his eyes.
"Sorry." He swallows, then takes a shaky breath. "We must go. Hydra will come."
"Hydra's gone," Claire says. "They were destroyed. Their leader was killed."
"No!" He grimaces when she startles. "It is Hydra," he says quietly. "There are more. There are always more. And they will come here to find out why their soldier is not sleeping." He wipes his eyes again. "If they find you here, they will kill you. I will not be able to stop them."
He can't be right. She knows he can't be right. But his absolute certainty still makes her blood run cold. "Can you stand?"
He has to think about it, but he nods. He gets to his feet with effort, using Claire and the wall for support.
"I really wish you'd let me take you upstairs. I don't like the idea of you running around with those injuries." She's a nurse. She can't not say it, even if she already knows how he'll answer.
"No. No doctors. I will heal."
"I hope you know what you're talking about, buddy."
She sighs. "Boy, do you remind me of a friend of mine. Can I at least help you into your boots and the tee-shirt? You can't go outside like this."
He hesitates, glancing down the corridor again as if Hydra's already there. "Yes. Please," he adds a beat later, like he's not used to saying it.
"Thank you." She doesn't want to go back into the closet from hell, but she forces herself to for long enough to snatch the shirt, boots and socks. It's clear how very little he wants her help to get the shirt, then his socks and boots on, but she could give a shit. "Keep the blanket," she tells him, re-wrapping it around his shoulders. "You're still cold."
"I am used to it," he says, but doesn't protest more than that.
It's sweet, sad and annoying how he refuses to lean on her as they make their slow way out to the main corridor. The supply crew aren't back yet, thank God, and no one's around when they get to the door. If Hydra's really about to converge on the place they're being pretty damn casual about it.
"Look," she says quickly before he shoves the door open and starts the alarm. "I can't believe I'm doing this, but…My name is Claire Temple. If you need help, find me. I will help you. You got that?" Her smile's only slightly bitter, she's certain. "I've done this kind of shit before, with people like you."
He looks stricken. "The Winter Soldier?"
"No. Not him," she says immediately. "Others. Other people. Not him." She puts her hand gently on his arm. "I'm truly sorry about your friends."
"He was my brother," he says.
"I'm sorry." She takes his red stained hand in both of hers. "Find me, if you need help. My name is Claire Temple. Remember that."
He nods, even gives her something close to a smile. If he were happy he'd be breathtaking. "I will remember that, Claire Temple. Thank you." He shoves open the door. The blast of thick, hot air makes her wince, and then the door alarm starts wailing. At least no one will worry about it since the emergency doors get opened all the time.
"Hey," she says, just before he leaves, "you never told me your name."
She sees his hesitation, how his lips form a word then smooth out again. "Illya," he says finally. "Illya Kuryakin."
"Nice meeting you, Illya Kuryakin," she says.
Illya smiles at her, and even if it's forced it's just as breathtaking as she imagined. He lifts her hand and drops a kiss on her knuckles, like he's just about to board Humphrey Bogart's airplane. "A pleasure, Claire Temple," he says, then steps out into the night.
She doesn't watch him go.
What she does is use the ancient payphone in the hospital's main entrance to call the Avengers anonymous tip line. She doubts an actual superhero will show up, but anyone who isn't Hydra will be just fine. Not that she really thinks they're still around after the whole Triskelion disaster, but. Just in case.
When she finally gets home later that morning, she does a search for "other Winter Soldiers" on the internet. She's not surprised that no matter what terms she uses, she doesn't find anything.
Two weeks later she's accessing Matt's injuries yet again, and trying not to think of how vulnerable he looks in his worn hoodie. Or how certain she is that this life he's chosen will kill him.
And for a minute, just a minute, Claire wishes he were like Illya, who smashes bricks with his hands and could ignore a likely broken bone and was so confident all his wounds would heal. And then she thinks of Sergeant Barnes' Time Magazine cover, and the cylinder in the tiny little room, and feels horrible for wishing that on anyone.
What Matt went through is bad enough.