With every lead on Bucky running dry before he could even chase it, one of the biggest effects the day of the helicarrier battle actually had on Steve, four months later, was the fact that Natasha had leaked SHIELD's entire email directory and now the whole world knew his email address.
At first he'd tried to read all the email that came in--all of it that made it past the spam filters, anyway, which was a lot but not a totally unmanageable flood--but eventually he accepted that he couldn't respond to twenty or thirty emails from strangers every day. He skimmed them, deleted the blandly nice and repetitively nasty ones, occasionally forwarded something to Maria to find out if it was a real tip or threat. If there was a photo of a kid or a kid's artwork, he tried to respond with a few friendly lines and a selfie or a quickly-snapped picture of his shield.
He got a new, secure email address for people who actually knew him to use, but he never stopped checking his leaked address once or twice a day, or as often as he could around missions and crises.
Everyone in the world knew his old email address, and that meant it was out there for Bucky to find, if he ever wanted to get in touch.
That was the thought that had him booting up his laptop when he got home to Avengers HQ after sixty hours in Antarctica. He'd had about six hours of sleep in the last three days, most of that on the ride home. He was nowhere near being actually rested, but he wasn't quite desperate enough to wreck his circadian rhythm further by going to sleep at six PM.
He had a couple of hundred emails, but he could plow through them pretty quickly these days--delete, delete, forward, delete a dozen in a row, block an address that had sent him fourteen angry screeds in the last three days, delete, delete, leave for later, leave for later--
HYDRA went back to the beginning with this project, the email said, and there were a set of coordinates--somewhere above the 39th parallel, which put it a little way north of DC, but over 86 degrees west, which was... Steve swallowed hard and tabbed over to a new window, tapping in the coordinates to pull up a map.
The map centered at something called Camp Atterbury, but in the upper right corner of the screen was a name Steve had known for a very long time. Shelbyville, Indiana.
Bucky had been born in that town. His folks were from there, and Bucky and his mom had moved to Brooklyn to join his dad when Mr. Barnes demobbed after the war.
Back to the beginning.
Steve clicked back to the email. It might not be about Bucky, although he couldn't think of anything else even remotely related to HYDRA that had begun in Indiana.
I am very much afraid that the project is about to be terminated. This materiel should not be destroyed.
Steve felt cold. Materiel might just be a misspelling for material--files, information, anything. Or it might have been used in the military sense of materiel: hardware.
This materiel: one asset. One asset whose beginning was in Indiana.
One asset who couldn't be found.
There was a time and date listed: 8/7/15, full dark.
Steve hit another window, pulling up the time of sunset in Indiana and then tacking on half an hour for twilight--
He had about three hours.
The from: field in the email was, he realized, blank. He tried the few tricks he knew to make the message headers divulge some information, but there was simply nothing there--as if an email had been slipped under his door instead of traveling through the mail. Internet. Whatever.
Steve pressed his hands to his face. Three hours was not enough time to vet this, and it was not enough time to give his team enough information to decide whether to follow him into a possible ambush or wild goose chase. It was barely enough time to get to Indiana, even if he commandeered a quinjet, and he couldn't--well, didn't think it would be a good idea to--do that on the strength of a single cryptic email. He could be misinterpreting, he could--
There was an attachment, he realized belatedly. His email had blocked it from showing in the body of the message like they usually did, because the email was suspicious.
No fucking kidding, Steve thought, irritated with it. At the same time his heart beat with something like panic at the thought that this message could have vanished into the spam filter, never seen.
God, what if the weather had been worse in Antarctica? What if they'd decided to sleep a night there instead of grabbing the first available window to safely depart?
He clicked on the attachment.
The picture was small, but the quality was good enough to make his breath go out like he'd been punched in the gut.
It was an eye--not even the whole eye, just the iris, a familiar variegation of blues and grays. Steve would know those eyes--that eye--anywhere. He had long since memorized those colors. He even knew the sheen of unshed tears reflecting the light.
"Bucky," he breathed, touching his fingers to the screen without thought. They had him, they had him and he was going to be killed tonight--
Steve could smell the rain, the army tent, the Italian mud. He made himself take a breath, and then another. He had to go.
He couldn't go alone. He couldn't just run off. He had a team now; he had responsibilities. He wasn't just abandoning the USO tour.
Steve reached for his phone and dialed Sam without looking away from the screen.
"Hey," Sam said when Steve raised his phone to his ear. "You need help getting to sleep, or help staying up?"
Steve was so far into a mission mindset that the warmth and ease of Sam's voice was not just shocking but baffling for a second. But of course that was what Sam thought--they'd just gotten in from a mission, Steve was calling him from his quarters on the next floor. Of course it would seem like an invitation; it was an invitation Steve would have gotten around to making in an hour or so, once he was done with his email, if not for this.
"Sorry," Steve said. "I need you for something else right now."
"Of course," Sam said immediately, his voice going calm and serious. "Just me?"
"Just you for this," Steve said, holding the phone against his shoulder so his hands were free for the keyboard. "I need you to look at your email and tell me what you see."
"Okay." There was a pause; faintly Steve could hear the sound of Sam typing, and then a stillness.
"You recognize that eye?" Sam asked.
"I do." Steve couldn't look away from the liquid brightness of it. Tears. What were they doing to him?
"Looks like a hostage situation to me," Sam said. "Or bait in a trap. Maybe both."
"Yeah. That's about what I was thinking."
"Also looks like a quinjet will get us there in about seventy-five minutes," Sam added. "If you still want this project between me and you we could get somebody to drop us at the airport in Indianapolis, get transport, and get there in time, as long as we leave now."
Steve closed his eyes and exhaled. "Sam, it might be..."
"I know. But there's no way you're not taking a shot at this, and there's no way I'm not with you. Am I gonna need my wings?"
Steve clicked back to the map and zoomed in, studying the terrain. "Yeah, could be handy."
Steve and Sam left the truck they'd rented at the airport on the shoulder of a county road a mile and a half away from the point marked by the coordinates in the email. Steve changed into his uniform once they were under the cover of the trees, and Sam gave Steve a lift from the edge of the trees to their target. The buildings within the fence were quiet and dark when they arrived; there was an air of vacancy about them, not just night-quiet. Everyone had cleared out.
The project is about to be terminated.
Steve glanced up at the sky, dark blue but still holding a little light.
"Still some glow on the horizon," Sam said through their radio link.
"We just have to find him." Steve looked over the layout. "I'll start at the south end here, you take that building on the north, we'll work toward each other."
If they'd just left him behind, if it was that simple, if he were locked up somewhere in one these buildings...
"Got it," Sam agreed, banking in to let Steve drop gently to the roof before he took off for the furthest building. Sam disappeared quickly into the dark sky, and Steve swung himself over the edge of the roof and dropped, running for the nearest door. He broke a lock and was inside within seconds.
The building had a distinctly familiar hospital air to it, with clean linoleum floors and bare institutional-green walls. Lights came on in the corridors, tracking Steve as he jogged along looking for signs of life. He passed one open door after another, all of them revealing emptied rooms. Nothing made the slightest sound but his own footsteps. When he'd toured the first floor and found nothing, he stood at a stairwell door and considered for a second. Stairs went up to a second floor and down underground.
This was HYDRA. Steve went down.
The lights stayed stubbornly off on the lower level, and Steve's footsteps seemed louder. When he came to locked double doors blocking off one end of the corridor--the only closed doors he'd seen yet--he didn't have to think twice before forcing his way through.
The sound of rending metal gave way seamlessly to the sound of a baby screaming, and Steve broke into a run. There was a closed door with a low light showing beneath it. Steve didn't even have to break the lock, only shouldered through.
The baby had climbed up onto the railing of a metal crib and was stranded there, crying and looking around in bewilderment like a treed cat with no idea how to get down. Steve rushed up to catch him before he could fall. The baby's screaming ratcheted up like an engine changing gears; he recoiled from Steve and nearly fell back into the crib before Steve grabbed him.
The baby arched hysterically away from Steve, shrieking so loudly that the building could have been shelled to the ground and Steve wouldn't have heard a thing but that siren wail. It occurred to Steve to pull his helmet up and off; the baby froze in the middle of a howl to stare, bewildered, at Steve's suddenly-revealed face.
Steve stared right back, because when he wasn't screaming the baby opened his eyes wide enough to show their color. Steve knew that blend of blue and gray. He knew that sheen of tears.
The rest of the little face was familiar, too, so much so that it felt like a punch in the center of his chest.
He knew that bright chestnut-brown hair, silky-soft and just getting long enough to curl. Steve knew the soft contours of the baby's pudding cheeks; he'd pencil-shaded the cleft in that stubborn chin, too determined for a baby's face, about a hundred times. The pink cupid's bow mouth opened on another sob, and Steve hoisted the baby against his chest, hugging him close.
"Jesus, Buck," Steve whispered.
There was no way the kid in his arms was anyone's but Bucky's. He was the living image of the photograph Bucky's parents had had taken when Bucky was a year old; it had been tinted, even, to capture Bucky's blue-gray eyes and brown hair, which had already been darkening to its grownup seal-brown when Steve met him at age five. Steve had copied that picture again and again, using it to learn to draw, and this baby was the spitting image.
Back to the beginning. Had they started over with a fresh copy? Not an ordinary child but a clone?
"We're getting you out of here," Steve promised the baby, who was already ratcheting back up in volume of wails, but had gotten hold of one of the straps of Steve's shield harness. "Shh, we'll get you out of here."
The baby had to be what the email was about--it had never been Bucky himself; that was why the photo had only shown the iris of his eye, the one feature Steve could mistake for Bucky's. They had known he would come running for Bucky, and even if he'd known he couldn't have done any less for Bucky's child.
This materiel should not be destroyed.
They had planned to dispose of him somehow. They'd left him here alone, evacuated the buildings...
"Sam," Steve said, activating his radio as he looked around for anything that looked like explosives. "We need to get out of here. Now."
"Steve? Is that--"
The baby's crying must be carrying through along with Steve's voice.
"I found what we came for," Steve said flatly, turning back to the crib. "I'm exiting at the ground level and running for the fence line, and I need you to get clear, because I don't think they meant to leave any evidence."
"Heading up," Sam said crisply.
Steve reached into the crib and fished out a blanket to wrap around the baby, who screamed and sobbed and fought it, nearly breaking Steve's grip. Steve set him down after a fruitless few seconds of trying--he didn't dare use his full strength to hold on to the baby, but that meant he was going to need help keeping hold of him on the way out of here.
The clock in his head was counting down. How much light was left in the sky? What was going to happen at full dark?
Steve looked around the room--there were toys and books, a brightly-colored rug on the floor, but nothing useful. The baby was screaming louder and had pulled himself up the bars of the crib again. He was reaching for Steve and sobbing.
Steve shook his head a little, despite everything; that was just like Bucky, always wanting whatever he didn't have. Steve picked up the blanket and tied the corners to the straps of his shield harness, making a little hammock against his chest.
The baby calmed a little when Steve picked him up again, only to start howling and fighting as soon as Steve tried to slide him into the blanket. It took a couple of minutes, in which Sam checked in twice--"Steve," and then, "I'm coming in there if--"
"Negative, get clear." The baby finally went rigid at just the right second and slid into his blanket-hammock. Steve curled his left arm around the baby, steadying him and encouraging him to curl up small on Steve's chest. "We're on our way."
When he stepped out of the lab Steve's attention was arrested by the closed doors down the corridor. There was no light behind any of the others, but he had to stop and open each one to make sure there wasn't another nursery behind it. The baby was screaming again, flailing inside his blanket, by the third one Steve kicked in, but he found only darkened empty labs and one blandly furnished room on the end, something like an efficiency apartment stripped of any personal touches--lodging for caretakers? There were no other sinister nurseries, and no sign of anyone else still present.
Steve found another stairwell at the end of the corridor and raced up it, pulling his shield as he headed for the exit. They had to be getting close to dark, and whatever was about to happen, he needed to be able to protect the baby from it.
He angled his left hand away from the baby to slide the shield onto his arm, covering his chest and trying his best to keep the baby curled behind it. He got it in place a second before he barreled through the door, and the baby went abruptly, eerily silent. Steve actually broke stride and looked down, reaching in with his right hand to feel whether the baby was still breathing, but he was. He'd just gone still when the shield settled in front of him, like a parrot in a covered cage.
"Steve, come on," Sam said, sounding relieved. Steve looked up reflexively to see him circling overhead. Beyond him the sky was nearly black. Steve could see stars.
He burst forward in a flat-out sprint for the fence. After a few strides the weight of the baby against his chest settled into place. It was like running with a heavy weapon or a field pack; he wasn't going to set any personal records for speed, but he would outpace most things coming after him.
"Steve," Sam said abruptly at the same time Steve heard a huge, dull thump somewhere behind him. "Run faster."
Steve had thought he was running as fast as he could, but he found a new gear. The fence was looming up fast, topped with razor-wire, but there was no time for anything else. Steve hurled himself up and over, twisting in midair to get himself under the baby before they landed. He rolled and came up running again, but only made it about ten strides before he saw the trees in front of him lit up by a flash from behind. Steve managed to drop and curl around the baby in the fraction of a second before the shockwave hit, sending him rolling again.
He opened his eyes and looked first toward the baby, who was thrashing and screaming against his chest even before Steve dropped his shield, and then toward the flames making the woods as bright as day. The entire facility had to have been destroyed. Any files, any traces of who had sent that message, any evidence of where this baby came from or what they'd done to him, they'd all gone up in flames.
He stared into the fire and remembered Bucky screaming, Not without you.
He hadn't been there. It was only the baby. Bucky hadn't been in there. Bucky had never been there. It had never been Bucky. It couldn't have been.
Steve was still staring at the blaze, the baby flailing energetically against his chest and shrieking, when Sam eclipsed the light of the fires. Steve jerked out of his frozen daze and looked up. He realized he was on his knees as Sam crouched down and said, "You wanna let me have a look at your friend there?"
Steve looked down, startled by the sight of the baby clamped in his arms. He realized that the baby had just been knocked around by an explosion and tugged hastily at the knots holding the blanket-sling together. Sam made a quick catch when Steve got one end undone, saving the baby from tumbling into the dirt.
The abrupt change startled the baby into silence for a moment, and then he caught sight of Sam's face, took a deep breath, and shrieked. Sam nearly dropped him, and Steve reached out with both hands, getting one behind the baby's back to help Sam hold on. He yanked Sam's goggles up and off with the other.
Just like he had with Steve, the baby was startled into shutting up by the sight of the human face revealed from behind Sam's goggles.
"Sam," Steve said in the few seconds of relative quiet, "meet Baby Barnes."