Chapter 1: Part I
Okay, Bucky conceded. As Clint would say—this looked bad.
His arms and legs were bracketed against a concrete wall in a cell that stank of hard water and stale sweat. Scratchy cheap clothing scraped against old wounds, and an electric current pierced him and rattled his teeth every time he tried to shift. He’d woken up worse ways, but not recently. Not since he stopped belonging to someone else.
Opposite him, a grainy television screen mounted in the wall crackled to life. Scan lines raced over black and white closed-circuit footage—Steve and Sam and Wanda and Clint, all in similar rooms, in similar predicaments. Bucky groaned and tipped his head back against the wall.
God dammit, Steve. That’s not how this was supposed to go.
“It would seem you all are enjoying a very lively retirement,” a disembodied voice narrated through the television speakers. “Let’s see just how badly you wish to stay alive.”
The view settled on the camera in Steve’s cell, and a square of white light spilled over his face from an opened door. Steve jutted his chin up, defiant. No, Steve. Don’t. You’ll only make it worse—
Then the black shadow of an approaching figure stretched across him.
Bucky couldn’t be sure who screamed first: Steve or himself.
It had started, as trouble often did, with one of Steve Rogers’s brilliant ideas.
Bucky woke with a start. He rarely had nightmares now that Sam and Wanda had blunted the codewords in his head. But bad dreams still got their teeth in him sometimes. Tonight he dreamed he was drifting in a dark lake, starlight glimmering in its depths. But the starlight kept getting blotted out by something lurking in the water below. It had been enough push him into fight or flight and tear him from sleep’s grasp.
“Steve,” he whispered, and reached for him. How quickly he’d gotten used to it—Steve beside him, ready to pull him into his arms and lull him back to calm. But as he reached over, he found Steve’s side of the bed empty.
Bucky’s eyes flew open and he bounded to his feet.
“I’m here.” Steve stood at the panoramic windows across the suite, outlined in silvery moonlight. “Sorry. I couldn’t sleep.”
Bucky let out his breath and waited for his crackling nerves to stop. Then moved toward Steve, wrapped his arms around his waist from behind, and propped his chin on Steve’s shoulder. “My fault?” he asked, in a tiny voice.
“No—no, that’s not it at all.” Steve clasped his hands over Bucky’s at his waist. “You weren’t . . .”
He wasn’t screaming. Well, that was something. Small steps, he supposed.
“No,” Steve continued, “I was just thinking. About the people who are after those gems. They’ve got to have a reason for it, and a reason for knowing about them. They’ve gotta have backing, you know? These haven’t been your average mercs.”
Bucky exhaled against Steve’s skin, then breathed him in: soapy-clean and soft. “We just got done beating up those AIM douchebags. Don’t you think you deserve a break?”
“Not when someone’s out there trying to kill us all.” Steve turned in Bucky’s arms, facing him now, and looped his arms around Bucky’s neck. “But if you need to sit this one out . . . I understand.” He traced his thumb against Bucky’s jaw. “When I told you it was your choice to help me, I meant it. And every time, it’s your choice.”
Bucky smiled, even as his throat tightened with some unnamed emotion. All Steve had offered him was a choice, ever since they left Siberia. His choice to go under cryo. His choice to follow Sam and Wanda’s therapy plan, though he’d fought against it at first. His choice to join Steve and his crazy crusade to fight all the battles that Stark and his Avengers couldn’t and wouldn’t fight.
Most of all, it had been his choice to be with Steve.
It hadn’t been perfect—there was no fairytale for them, not after all they’d lived through. But it was everything he’d wanted. Steve was everything he’d wanted. Patient and understanding and always, always honest, in a way they never could be with each other in their old lives. There was nothing left to hide. And Steve—Steve was always worth fighting for.
“If we do this plan of yours,” Bucky said, “ do you promise you’ll take a break after?”
“A break?” Steve raised one eyebrow. “What do you have in mind?”
Bucky tilted his head toward the misty Wakandan mountains beyond their suite, gleaming with reflected stars. “I’m thinking . . . you, me, some poolside drinks. And no unlocking the suite for anything except room service for a week.”
Steve laughed softly, then pressed a kiss to Bucky’s temple. “All right, I think I can live with that.”
The tension in Bucky’s chest eased. “Then first thing in the morning, let’s round up the troops. Hear your next crazy plan.”
Twelve hours later, they’d brokered a deal, and landed in Marrakech to see it through.
They camouflaged the quinjet in the mountains outside of town. Clint headed into the city to scout for a base of operations while they waited for the sun to sink into the sea. “Found us a cheap hostel,” Clint said, when he returned. “It’s got a great sniper’s perch. Coverage on three sides, open square beneath it, a floor taller than its neighbors, easy vantage of all the entrances.”
“Any objections?” Steve asked the crew, while signing the same to Clint. Bucky, Sam, and Wanda all shook their heads. “Then lead the way.”
But as they wound through the narrow, labyrinthine streets and the hostel’s rusted sign came into view, Bucky stopped cold.
Felt the sharp claws of memory raking across his skin. Heard the click of a trigger. The echoing screams.
“No.” Bucky’s jaw trembled as he tried to form words. “Can’t stay here.”
Steve studied him for a moment. He was shaking, stomach churning with unnamed dread. Please don’t ask, Bucky thought. Please don’t ask me to explain. Steve reached for his shoulder, question already forming on his lips, but Bucky shook his head. Please. No.
He doubted he could put it in words, anyway. Some of the soldier’s memories were images and nothing more—surveilling an area, slipping into a hideout, waiting out the endless hours and days until his target came into view. Boring in its repetition. Dangerous in its boringness. And always ending much the same—a spray of blood, the smell of fire, or a squirming body going still.
Steve released Bucky’s shoulder. “Then we’ll find somewhere else.”
Bucky closed his eyes and curled his hands into fists, waiting for his unease to dissipate.
“Give me a minute,” Wanda said. “I think I have an idea.”
Ten minutes and a flurry of French haggling later, Wanda secured an entire riad for rent several blocks away: three stories of Moroccan-style townhouse, the rooms all facing a central interior courtyard. Only a few windows, all of them covered with dense metalwork lattices. Good roof access, which put Clint and Sam both at ease. And the smell of za’atar and roasted lamb from the souk around the corner was nothing short of divine.
“You guys set up base,” Bucky told the team. “I’ll go get us some dinner.” It was the least he could offer them, after balking at the first hostel.
“I can go with you,” Steve said.
But the memory was still itching under Bucky’s skin; the enclosed tile courtyard of the riad was pressing in on him from all sides. He forced a casual smile and shook his head. “I’ll only be a minute.”
Steve grimaced, but didn’t press.
In a loose linen tunic and trousers, Bucky looked like any other tourist strolling the narrow stucco streets of Marrakech, nighttime breezes toying with his hair. He wore a holographic mesh over his left arm to make it look like his normal skin, but kept his hands tucked in his pockets as he walked anyway, his expression light.
No one gave him a second glance as they carried groceries home or lingered at the cafés. It felt good to be invisible sometimes—like he was anyone and no one, caught between a stranger and a shadow. Strangers had no past, no future. Shadows had no scars.
When he reached for the door handle on the souk, however, he caught a glimpse of two men watching him across the street, their faces reflected in the glass.
His vision narrowed. Blood thudded in his ears. In the space between heartbeats, he remembered his protocols.
He committed their appearance to memory as best he could: one tall and gaunt, far too pale, and wearing mirrored aviators despite the hour. The other at least a head shorter, and in a seersucker suit that spoke of too much money. Could be their contacts, scouting them out. Or could be the buyers they were about to double-cross. Bucky suspected it was the latter. They looked like just the sort of men too easily lured by promises of power and glory.
He yanked the door to the souk open and browsed through the food vendors’ stalls, ordering in French and angling himself just enough to keep one eye on the door. The men stayed where they were at the café across the street. Watching. Not speaking to each other. Once he’d finished, Bucky stacked the carry-out bags up and down his arm, and moved calmly as he could out the same door he’d entered. After about a block, he heard their loafers shuffle along the sidewalk behind him.
He reached the front door to the riad, but deliberately walked past it. Had to shake these guys first. Assuming he wasn’t being paranoid, which, god, always seemed too likely. Last month they’d been tracking down a lead in Bangkok. Someone had approached him to ask directions, coming up in his blindspot, and he nearly threw them through a wall. Steve managed to smooth the situation over, but even now, some of the team members were giving him a wider berth.
Bucky stopped to peek inside a souvenir shop, and caught the men’s shapes in reflection as they slipped toward a doorway to hide. Not paranoia, then. He squared his shoulders with a faint whir from his arm. If they knew what he was, what he was capable of, then they might have brought something to counter him, but they didn’t appear to have any weapons. No tell-tale bulks of holsters. All the same, he needed to ditch them quick, then double back to the riad.
Then, down the street, he heard the throb of nightclub music, and spotted a thick crowd waiting to get in. Crowds. Perfect. He remembered a time where witnesses and bystanders were the last things he wanted, but no more. The more eyes on him—and the men—the more cautious they’d have to be.
Bucky wove through the throng, carry-out bags bumping against people, and offered a few half-hearted apologies in French before he slipped inside a narrow alleyway.
Now the soldier’s skillset could really come out.
A run, a high jump, and a bounce off a low window ledge. He caught hold of the roof’s lip with his metal hand, painted tiles crunching in his palm, and swung himself onto the roof. Below him, the two men staggered into the alley, then stopped, turning back and forth. With a quick hand signal, they headed back onto the street and pushed their way toward the club’s entrance.
Bucky allowed himself a faint smile, then took off at full speed across the rooftops back toward the riad.
As he landed on the riad’s roof, Clint swung toward him, staff at the ready, but then lowered it as his eyes adjusted. “Fuck. There you are. Cap’s about to pace a hole in the floor wondering where you went.”
Sorry, Bucky signed. Had to shake a tail.
Clint grimaced. “How many?”
Two, but there could be more. No idea who they are. Our buyers, maybe. Unarmed.
“Okay.” Clint eyed the bags of food. “Leave some grub with me, and I’ll take first watch tonight.”
Deal. Bucky unpacked one of the containers and passed it over to Clint, then slipped through the roof access panel into the riad.
“About freaking time.” Sam reached up to help Bucky climb down. “Your boyfriend was this close to calling in an airstrike.”
“Was not.” Steve offered a sheepish shrug. “But I shouldn’t have let you go alone.”
Bucky scowled at him as they headed down the stairs to the courtyard. “I can handle myself.”
“I’m not saying you can’t—”
Bucky shot him a look, and Steve held his hands up. “Sorry. You’re right.”
Sam and Bucky set up the tagine meats, khoubz bread, and platters of couscous on the tiled lip of the courtyard fountain while Wanda grabbed some plates from the kitchenette. They dug into their meal in silence for a few minutes, but Bucky sensed Steve watching him, his blue eyes tense.
“So,” Steve said. Trying his best to sound casual. “What was the holdup?”
Bucky set his plate down in his lap. “Someone was watching the corner. I think our buyers might be suspicious.”
“They should be,” Wanda said with a toothy grin. “Anything we can’t handle?”
“Two goons. One might be the buyer himself—don’t know for sure. I managed to ditch them outside a club a few avenues away.”
Steve’s face tightened, and Bucky braced himself. He knew what was coming next. And after his episode when he saw the hostel, he couldn’t entirely blame Steve. But god, he wished Steve wouldn’t.
“—I handled it fine, okay? They don’t know where we are.” Bucky locked eyes with him. “Please,” he added, softer. You trusted me enough to bring me onto your team. Please trust me now.
Steve was silent for a moment, but then finally unfolded his arms. “Tomorrow’s problem, then.” A huge smile painted his face—too big, though Bucky wasn’t going to complain.
“Although . . .” Bucky looked down at his plate. “I think I might have an idea.”
Sam exhaled. “Oh, boy. Here we go.”
This time when Steve looked at him, it was with a crooked grin and a dimple in his cheeks. “All right. Let’s see what you’ve got, Buck.”
“Eat first,” Wanda said, waving a plastic fork at them. “Then we formulate a new plan.”
“Why do I have a feeling something terrible is about to happen?” Sam asked.
“Because it’s us,” Wanda replied. “What else is new?”
Bucky managed a faint grin. “Trust me. I think you guys will like this one.”
“I should’ve gone with you.” Steve splashed his face in the sink, then crossed their bedroom on the riad’s top floor. His eyelashes were dewy in the lantern light.
“Steve. Come on.”
Steve had kept his doubts to himself while they reworked the mission plan. He’d done nothing but roll his eyes with Bucky while they listened to Wanda and Sam argue about some drinking game they had. But in private now, Steve’s unease had surfaced again, tightening his shoulders and making his expression long. “I was too busy thinking about tomorrow,” Steve said, “and I didn’t think . . .”
“Would you drop it already? I told you it’s fine.” Bucky sank onto the edge of the bed, which rested on a raised tile platform. Gauzy curtains framed the bedposts, and he reached out and absently toyed with one of them. “This is what I’m trained for, after all.”
“Yeah, I know.” Steve laughed, humorless, to himself. Embarrassed. “I guess it’s just that sometimes, I like to think . . .”
Bucky shook his head. Steve turned away from him now, tugging his shirt off overhead; the complex knot of muscles along his shoulders stretched and bunched as he did so. That sight tightened inside of Bucky like a screw—he didn’t think that feeling would ever fade—but right now he was too irritated to act on it.
“You like to think that it’s like old times,” Bucky said. “Like when we were with the Commandos. Am I right?”
Steve turned back toward him with a tired smile. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Sleeping under the stars, drinking with our pals, and the only people we ever put in our rifle sights were one-hundred percent Bad Guys. Yeah?” Bucky tilted his head to one side. “That everything is new and fresh and I don’t have decades of bad memories lurking in the shadows of every alleyway.” He clenched his teeth. “That you don’t.”
Steve glanced down, the tips of his ears flushing pink. “Yeah. Something like that.”
“You realize that even before you pulled me out of that Hydra labor camp, I’d racked up eight kills as a sniper.” Bucky’s voice lowered. “And by the time you formed the Commandos, I already had the serum inside of me.” God, he didn’t want to fight—that was the last thing he needed, before tomorrow—but he needed Steve to understand. “That time was never what you thought it was. Never what I thought it was, either. But if you think I’m not ready to deal with this—”
“I don’t think that at all. It came out wrong, is all.” Steve stood before him, statuesque in the light trickling through the lanterns overhead. “You’re more than capable of handling yourself. I get it.”
“You saw me get nervous about the hostel, though. It got you fired up.” Bucky tugged Steve toward him, holding him by his hips between Bucky’s thighs. “Because you’re still the same scrappy son of a bitch.”
“Scrappy?” Steve echoed. Body tensing under Bucky’s touch. Bucky smirked, his irritation ebbing away, and ran his thumbs in slow circles around Steve’s hips.
“The moment someone you care about is upset, or hurt, you’re looking for someone to blame. Someone to punch.”
Steve laughed, then it turned sharper as Bucky pressed his lips to Steve’s stomach, just above the waistline of his boxer briefs. “Stop, stop.”
Bucky caught the elastic waistband in his teeth with a laugh of his own. With a quick inhale of air, Steve went very still. Bucky leaned back, tugging the band open, then let it snap into place. “No?” he asked softly. “Feeling shy all of a sudden?”
“Well, these rooms aren’t exactly private.” Steve gestured to the metal lattice door—all that separated their room from the balcony overlooking the central courtyard.
“Trust me,” Bucky said. “Sam and Wanda are otherwise preoccupied.”
“Wait—no.” Steve backed away from him. “No. Really?”
“I’d put money on it. I can see where that’s headed.” Bucky slid out of his linen tourist clothes and peeled off the wrapping around his left arm. “In fact, I’ll bet you they’re down there playing tonsil hockey right now.”
Steve glanced back at him with one raised eyebrow. “All right. You’re on.”
As Bucky climbed beneath the covers, Steve peered down at the courtyard below, hands on his hips and a wry grin on his face. Ever the soldier, Bucky thought as he looked at his stance, even without his uniform or his commission. Yet he was the right kind of captain, the one with his heart so full of love for his troops that he never forgot what they were fighting for. He shouldn’t take it personally that Steve was concerned about him. Maybe he’d have worried the same over Wanda or Clint or Sam.
But Bucky had spent too long feeling breakable. Broken, even. He still felt too far away from whole.
“They’re playing chess, actually.” Steve turned toward the bed and strode toward it.
“With their tongues?”
Steve sat on the edge of the bed, still grinning. “Afraid not. You can pay me later.”
“Damn. Wanda’s probably cheating, too.” He rose up onto his knees and wrapped his arms around Steve’s torso from behind. “I guess we’ll just have to make up for them.”
Steve curled his hand around Bucky’s, pressed against his chest, and laced their fingers together. Rested for a moment, letting their breaths rise and fall together. “You’re still worked up,” Steve said softly.
Bucky felt the tension coiled under Steve’s skin; it was in him, too. Bucky’s heart felt too much like a loaded gun tonight, and it didn’t do them any good. Tomorrow was for work—their mission, Steve’s endless mission to save the world from itself. Tonight, Bucky just wanted to forget.
Just the way his honed senses had clenched him like a fist as he wove through the darkened streets, trying to lose the men. The way the old hostel looked, familiar and not, and the cold unemotional snapshots of memory that unfolded around it. Like looking over a mission brief. Not caring that there were living people in that café, innocent bystanders as he’d slid the detonating charge through the kitchen door.
It cannot look like an assassination, soldier. It cannot be a precision strike. This must appear the unfortunate byproduct of a larger war.
“Not nothing,” Steve said.
Bucky shook his head and rested his lips against Steve’s shoulder. “Memories.” The pieces of shrapnel he carried every day. A part of him, now. He’d accepted that. But sometimes they shifted and scraped at the most inopportune times.
Steve turned his head and kissed Bucky’s cheek. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.”
Their eyes met: question and answer. A wordless exchange they’d perfected over the past few months. No, Bucky didn’t want to talk about it. Fine, Steve wouldn’t press. Bucky breathed in, counted to three, breathed out, just like Sam taught him. And then he had to carry on.
“You’re right, though,” Bucky said wryly, speaking right into Steve’s ear. His voice was only a rumble; his tongue flicked against the tip of Steve’s earlobe, sending a shiver through them both. “It is kinda like being in the field with the Commandos.”
Steve reached behind him and gripped Bucky’s hips. “I think I like this much better.”
“Yeah,” Bucky murmured, “me too.”
He tugged Steve down onto the mattress, still holding him from behind, metal arm crooked under Steve’s neck and right hand splayed across the granite of his abs. All the tension drained out of Steve as they sank into the soft mattress.
“I definitely don’t remember anything like this when we were shivering our asses off in the Schwarzwald,” Steve said, his voice turned husky.
“Mm. Don’t tell me you never thought about it, though.” Bucky pressed his hips against Steve’s ass as he slipped his fingers under the waistband of Steve’s boxer briefs. Trailed his fingertips down the taut V where Steve’s abdomen met his thigh. “I know I did. Quietly, so the rest of the guys wouldn’t hear . . .”
Steve answered with a sharp inhale of breath. “It—it might have crossed my mind.”
“Huddled together for warmth . . .” He let the words curl against Steve’s neck, grinning. “I always liked those nights best.” He feathered his hand against Steve’s shaft, the faintest brush of fingertips. “I know we definitely woke up this way a few times.”
“Yeah, and you always apologized, said you must have been dreaming of some dame.” Steve’s eyes fluttered closed as he rocked his hips back against Bucky’s.
“Well, I was a filthy liar.” He nipped at Steve’s neck. “All I wanted was you.”
Steve shuddered as Bucky stroked him and his cheeks flushed red, deepening Bucky’s grin. Bucky curled the metal fingers of his left hand over Steve’s mouth and quickened his pace.
“Buck . . .” Steve clenched a fist against the mattress.
“Now, now, I thought you wanted to be quiet about it,” Bucky teased.
Steve clenched his jaw and arched his back against Bucky in response. With a muffled whimper, he came, muscles locked tight, teeth digging against Bucky’s metal fingers. Bucky kissed his shoulder and stayed still for a moment, body curled around Steve’s, then slowly eased his hand out of Steve’s underwear.
“That,” Steve murmured, “would have made those missions a hell of a lot more interesting.” He turned in Bucky’s arms to face him, and kissed him. Soft at first, but again deeper, insistent, the edge of his teeth grazing against Bucky’s lower lip. He tasted like sunshine—like everything Bucky had gone without. He never wanted to take it for granted again.
“Well, better late than never.”
Steve grinned and climbed out of bed to go rinse himself off. Bucky watched him for a moment, then rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. His nerves were still crackling, even if he’d somewhat abated them. Too much restless energy still inside him, but he’d need it for whatever tomorrow brought.
Two months now they’d lived this way, making their way across the globe, tracking down both the gems and the slimebags who sought them, stepping in wherever the Avengers wouldn’t or couldn’t or never even knew enough to care. Two and a half months since they’d pulled him from cryo and gave him the tools to defuse the bomb Hydra built inside his head. Since he’d told Steve the truth—that loving him had been a wound that never healed, one that Hydra salted every time they put him to work.
And yet Steve accepted him. Loved him. The man he was and the soldier he’d become, all knotted together like scar tissue. They didn’t have to run away from themselves anymore. This was their life, and it set them free.
When Steve returned, the boxer briefs were gone.
Bucky let out a low appreciative whistle before Steve clapped a hand over his mouth. With a grin jagged as glass, Steve climbed on top of him, raised Bucky’s arms over his head with his other hand, and pinned them in place. The knot in Bucky’s stomach pulled tight as Steve covered Bucky’s body with his own, brushed his golden lashes against Bucky’s cheek, kissed his forehead, his eyelids, his temple . . .
Steve’s lips paused against his ear. “All right, Big Talker,” he whispered. “Let’s see just how quiet you can be.”
The sound of a safety switching off pulled Bucky out of a dead sleep.
“Steve—” Bucky hissed, as he dove for the .44 he’d taped underneath the night stand. But it was gone. Dim shadows circled the bed from the other side of the gauze curtains. Bucky swung his left arm at the first one he saw move, but when his fist connected, pain flared all the way up his arm. An electrical current. The metal arm went limp at his side as the circuit failsafes temporarily shut down.
Steve flew out of bed, fists swinging, but as the curtains fluttered shut behind him, Bucky heard a sickening crunch. “Steve!” He shoved his way through the curtains, left arm still dangling uselessly, and skidded to his feet on the tile floor.
Five men in full riot gear surrounded the bed, moonlight sketching them as little more than hulking shapes. And Steve—
Steve lay crumpled before him on the floor.
With a roar, Bucky charged the closest man and tackled him to the ground. The arm was coming back online, but he had no time to wait; he brought his fist down again and again on the man’s visor until three of the soldiers wrestled him back.
“If you want your friend, or—” The squadron’s apparent commander looked him over with a sneer. “—Or whatever he is to you to survive this, I suggest you start cooperating, Winter Soldier.”
With a whir, Bucky’s arm snapped back into operation. But the moment he tried to yank it from the soldiers’ grip, they struck him with another electric shock, and his arm went offline all over again.
Bucky sagged in their arms. Not worth it. Not if they were capable of hurting Steve.
“That’s better.” The commander smiled, then reached for the radio attached to his shoulder. “We found the last two. Bringing them in now.”
Then a needle slid into Bucky’s neck and everything swirled into hazy gray.
Chapter 2: Part II
Bucky woke up in a concrete cell that stank of rust and death. He’d been suspended, bracketed to the wall: thick metal cuffs pinned his arms and legs, with an extra set on his left arm, for good measure. Whoever had taken them had obviously been prepared. Not some spontaneous attack. He tested the bracket at his ankle, first, but couldn’t find the slightest bit of give. Only the hiss and sigh of an electric current, warning him against fighting too hard.
Too many memories crowded inside his head—rusted bars and electric prods and the metronome Russian voice urging him to give in, to become the soldier he was meant to be. He clenched his jaw until his teeth ached. Walked through his therapy exercises. The words couldn't hurt him; Hydra couldn’t reach him; no one could command him again.
It didn’t make him feel better.
The television screen mounted on the wall opposite him crackled to life. Scan lines flickered over black and white footage of Steve, similarly restrained, though it had taken a hell of a lot more restraints. Steve raised his head, defiant, and Bucky’s heart sank.
Oh, god, Steve. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
The screen cycled to cameras trained on Sam and Clint, each of them handcuffed and bound in a chair, and Wanda, her hands wrenched behind her back and encased in some sort of lead-lined mitt. Bucky swore again. He and Steve were made for this—forged in a furnace and tempered in endless war, but the others weren’t so well-equipped. Sam was a soldier, no stranger to war, but he didn’t have the strength and healing that they did; Clint was pretty much a walking disaster without a bow in his hand. And Wanda—she was barely an adult, and already had suffered so much.
But they’d all signed up for Steve Rogers’s war. They’d all known the risks—that sooner or later, it was bound to come to this. All they could do was fight back.
Bucky sighed. That was at least one thing that was to his advantage. The Winter Soldier had been made for fighting, but Bucky Barnes, he’d found, was made for fighting back.
“It would seem you all are enjoying quite the lively retirement.”
The voice came from all around them. Faint hint of an accent—British, maybe, but someone who’d spent a good deal of time away from the Isles. Bucky turned toward the screen, but it was still displaying the five captives and no one else.
“Captain Rogers—or is it merely Steven now? What are you, after all, without your shield? Wanda Maximoff . . . a former agent of Hydra, if I recall correctly, yes? You certainly have a knack for collateral damage.”
Bucky’s temper rose, matching the electricity’s hum as he shifted in his restraints.
“And Sam Wilson, ohh, you really should know better than to run around with these dangerous sorts. You maintained that spotless service record when you were active duty . . . but you seem determined to tarnish it these days.”
“I serve those who deserve it,” Sam said, before the camera cut away from him.
“Clint Barton, well, what can be said—you make enemies wherever you go. This should come as no surprise to you. And Bucky Barnes . . . or is it the Winter Soldier? Who can tell for sure? Certainly not you, I hear.”
Bucky bared his teeth toward the screen. “How about you come over here and find out?”
“No, no, I have other plans.”
The door to Bucky’s cell—triple reinforced steel, no visible hinges—rattled as a lengthy set of locks were disarmed. On the screen, a square of white light spilled across Steve, then the black shadow of a figure fell over him. Bucky jerked forward, biting the inside of his cheek against the pain of the electric current. “Leave him alone,” Bucky shouted.
But then his own door opened, and a guard in full riot gear stepped inside.
“Patience, Soldier,” the voice on the screen said. “You’ll get to show off your skills soon enough.”
Soldier—we have a mission—
Bucky squeezed his eyes shut and drew a ragged breath until the memory subsided. He looked his guard over more carefully, dressed the same as the faceless men who’d captured them the night before. His stance and weapons said former military—something Western, though not necessarily American. Private security, maybe, most likely from one of the top-dollar mercenary firms that had flooded in to fill the Blackstone void. Unlike “true believer” henchmen, they were in it for the money, prestige, and usually a twisted desire to play god and executioner—which meant they were ruthless and efficient, but also that they weren’t above cutting their losses when things went tits up.
“When we heard someone was looking to sell an infinity stone on the black market, well—it seemed too good to be true,” the voice on the speakers continued. “A nice, shiny lure like that is bound to attract all manner of villains, vying for supremacy. That was your plan, wasn’t it? Toss out the lure and see what idiots bit.”
Steve shrugged his shoulders—then winced as the shocks rippled through him. Bucky flinched. God dammit, Steve. Just play along. Don’t get your stupid ass hurt.
“Gotta admit, it’s not a bad plan,” Steve said.
“No, I suppose not. A lesser organization than ours might have fallen for it readily. But we are more cautious in our approach. Someone capable of dangling an infinity gem on the market could be a formidable ally—or foe. Which is it you wish to be?”
“I guess it depends on who’s asking.” Steve raised his head, wearing his soldier’s battle face. Bucky loved and feared that face—the way it snapped him into line as surely as it did back in the war.
“Wouldn’t you love to know,” the voice said. “Fortunately, ours is a reasonable organization. We prefer bartering, but if you leave us with no choice . . .”
Steve glanced away from the screen for a moment, presumably scanning the guard in his room as well. Bucky wondered if he was noticing the same things he had. “We’re plenty reasonable, too,” Steve said. “All we want to know is why you’re after the gem in the first place.”
“Oh, Steven. Don’t flatter yourself.”
The camera cut to Sam as he snorted. The screen had swapped to him as soon as he’d made noise, Bucky noticed. Maybe it was activated by sound. “Yeah, good luck with that.”
“I know you didn’t bring the gem with you, now, did you? You and your friends never intended to sell it. Whatever happened between you and Mister Stark last year—no one would believe you’ve given up on being anything but the same insufferable sword of justice you’ve always been.”
“Yeah, yeah, you know plenty about us, we get it,” Sam said. “How about you tell us a little about yourself?”
There was a long pause. “Let’s say my group is enterprising, and leave it at that.”
Bucky rolled his eyes.
“The gem offer was too good to be true, yes. But we had our suspicions as to who was offering it. I’m very pleased those suspicions were correct.” Bucky could almost imagine the slimy smile behind that voice. “At first, we thought about simply capturing you and selling you to the highest bidder. A handful of ex-Avengers and the most notorious Soviet assassin in history are bound to command a high price on the black market.”
That thought dug into Bucky’s mind like bits of shrapnel. It wasn’t the same, it wasn’t the same, and yet he heard the metal bars clanging shut deep in his Siberian cell. Felt the spray of the hose. Lost himself in the voices who stripped him of his name, his thoughts, of everything until there was nothing left for him to become but theirs.
“I think we’ve had enough of serving other people’s interests,” Steve said. Sure enough, the screen switched back to him as he spoke. His gaze bore straight into the camera, and Bucky took a steadying breath. It would never come to that again. He’d never belong to anyone again.
“But then I thought, why should we hand them over to my competitors? Such a waste. We’re far better off using you all for our own purposes.”
Wanda laughed, switching the camera to her. Despite her restraints, she looked feisty as ever. Bucky felt a strange sense of pride—just in the short time he’d known her, she’d come a long way from fearing her powers to fully embracing them. “If you’re looking for the Avengers who follow orders,” she said, “you came to the wrong team.”
“Oh, you sell yourself short, my dear. You can be trained, in time. All of you can.”
—You are no one. You are the soldier and you will comply.
Bucky jerked his arm forward, intentionally giving himself a shock. It stung like hell, but it dispelled the fog.
“But let’s start with something simple.”
At the man’s words, the guard’s stance shifted. Bucky cut his eyes toward the man. Fingers resting loosely on the barrel of the AR-15 strapped over his chest. Weight on the balls of his feet, like he was ready to leap for Bucky at any moment. Bucky tensed his muscles, trying to keep the blood flowing into his extremities—being bound up this way was doing him no favors to prep for any kind of fight.
“There is a large shipment coming through Marrakech in an armored truck. It is always a risky thing, driving through these narrow streets. Accidents are bound to happen. And with your unique set of skills, I am certain you can cause a most impressive accident.”
“You’ve got trained mercs here,” Bucky said. The guard’s jaw clenched, but he made no other response. “Knocking over an armored truck is kid stuff. Why do you want us to do it?”
“Let’s call it an audition,” the man said.
Steve’s face flashed onto the screen. “And why the hell should we want to audition for you?”
“Ahh, yes. I forgot the most important part. Guards, please. Show our guests their new jewelry.”
The guard stepped forward, producing a thick plastic collar. On the screen, Wanda and Sam instinctively reared back, but Bucky stayed still. No sense trying to fight just yet, not when they had no more advantage than they’d had a minute ago. The guard clicked the collar into place, and after a moment, it made a soft beep.
Bucky swallowed, and the collar shifted against his throat. A familiar weight. Almost comforting, if Bucky was honest with himself, though that thought turned his stomach. There was no sense in fighting back. He’d learned that lesson long ago.
No sense in fighting back just yet.
“Let me guess,” Steve said. “Detonating charge?”
“More than just a pretty face, Rogers.” The man’s laughter echoed against the concrete. “Yes, it’s terribly trite of us. But so very effective, you must admit. Do as we say, or else you—or one of your friends, perhaps you can never be sure—will be no more.”
Bucky’s mouth felt dry and cottony as he watched Steve’s face on the screen. Jesus, Steve. It was never supposed to be like this. But Steve’s gaze stayed steady, and slowly, his chin dipped in the faintest nods.
Bucky squared his shoulders. The mission must go on.
“Now,” the man’s voice said. “Who’s going to help us rob the king of Morocco?”
Bucky tipped his head back against the wall, lower lip trembling. He felt the weight of a rifle in his hands and the smooth, fluid movements of his mechanical arm. He was weaponized; he’d been made to carry out far worse orders with far less control of his actions. Even in the war, he’d been the shadow to Steve’s light, bloodying his hands so Steve’s red, white, and blue gloves could stay squeaky clean.
As he looked at Steve’s face on the monitor, he told himself he could endure it again. One more time.
Bucky said, “I will.”
Chapter 3: Part III
In those early days free from Hydra, Bucky’s mind was a leaking bucket, but he kept trying to fill it up all the same. He drifted through public libraries, museums, computer stores, and more, seizing Internet access in fits and starts, snatching up every scrap of history he could find. His own face—no, too much, after the museum he couldn’t bear to see that optimistic eulogy about giving his life for his country. How he’d wished that could have been true. But the smaller scraps of memory, those stuck pixels unmoving against the static of his past—he couldn’t stop himself from staring at those.
The Hydra repositories Natasha dumped on the web were incomplete—most of the Siberia records hadn’t been digitized, after all—but the press practically did his job for him, putting together all the twos and twos. What the press couldn’t verify, forums and conspiracy groups were more than happy to speculate, and then the #OpWintersHeart group filled in even more gaps. Prague residents in 1968 claimed to have seen a metal-armed man serving as the Soviets’ vanguard, appearing like a banshee to warn of the tanks coming to crush their revolt. A flash of metal and his “cold, dead stare” (the theorists sure loved that phrase) in the crowd just before Benazir Bhutto’s car erupted in flames.
He knew a lie when he read one because he felt nothing. The lies were only words on a screen. When his adrenaline started to churn and his muscles twitched with instinct, though, that’s when the images would come.
According to the Wikipedia article, it happened in 1989, though he’d had no concept of years, of countries, of anything but his mission at the time. It was meant to be a historic peace talk in Marrakech to defuse tensions with the PLO. All the soldier knew was his assignment.
Do not be seen.
Do not be heard.
The higher the body count, the better.
The sniper’s perch on the hostel roof was ideal for the soldier; it fit all the parameters he’d been trained to seek out when setting up a post. His handler had suggested a café as his target, as they were a signature of the groups they meant to implicate. And this one looked to be quite popular. Wide open patio out front that spilled onto the square; crowds of students and workers alike filling the streets. The warm smell of roasting beans and baking bread wafting in the air, though everything smelled stale and dull to him in those days.
After two days of monitoring, the soldier determined that lunchtime was the busiest hour of the day.
Confusion meant multiple explosions. Blame meant just enough deviation from the groups’ usual methods to sow doubt. Gaddafi, the PLO, Al-Aqsa all pointing fingers at one another and the peace talks in shambles—so the Wikipedia article explained, the black text on the white background searing itself into Bucky’s head. To this day, no groups have made any credible claims of responsibility for the Marrakech square bombing.
All it meant to the soldier was a job well done. His handler’s praise, sweeping out the dark corners where doubt tried to fester the longer he was awake. A warm meal and a shower before he sank back into endless white sleep again. But in truth, he didn’t need even those incentives. Just to serve would be enough.
He placed one crude pipe bomb under the café awning the night before; concealed it with matching fabric. Loaded a rented Toyota with a fertilizer bomb and left it two blocks away, uphill, the parking brake ready to release when he triggered the remote. Finally, the morning of, he dressed like any other Moroccan resident and went for a walk.
As much as the soldier felt a fondness for anything, he favored his round detonating charges. So easy to roll beneath a kitchen door, so small and unremarkable, like maybe a child’s toy. By the time anyone took notice of them, it was always far too late.
The investigative committee concluded that three separate explosions occurred in close proximity, less than one minute apart, the Wikipedia article continued. Each explosive device featured drastically differing levels of sophistication and efficacy, further clouding questions as to what group might have been responsible for the attack.
The smell of burning plaster and flesh and the tang of ammonia clung to his throat as he returned to his lookout post. The screams and too-distant sirens echoed in his ears all the way back to base.
Further compounding the casualties were reports that radio frequencies had been jammed in the area, which frustrated first-responders’ attempts to reach the scene.
Do not be seen.
Do not be heard.
The soldier always performed.
Peaceful resolution is a lie, soldat. His handler liked to practice these speeches on him sometimes, polishing and buffing them before presenting them to his superiors. The only true peace comes from security. It comes from surrendering control.
And only Hydra is fit to control us all.
Ultimately, they conscripted Sam and Clint for the theft as well, though Steve and Wanda were deemed too difficult to control. (Understatement of the century, Bucky thought, at least where Steve was concerned.) The guards shackled and blindfolded the three of them and led them from the compound into what Bucky could only assume was a troop transport vehicle of some kind.
“Man, this is some second-tier action movie bullshit,” Sam muttered under his breath. The truck jostled around on what must have been the rocky terrain beyond Marrakech’s city limits. Clint was way better at discerning things like that.
“Doesn’t matter. We’ve got to follow along.” Bucky’s throat tightened. “For Steve and Wanda’s sake.”
“I don’t think Steve’s too used to playing the damsel in distress,” Sam said. “Please tell me he’s not gonna try something extra stupid and heroic back at the compound.”
“You saw the restraints they had him in. The ones for Wanda, too. I don’t think he’s going to have the chance.” But Bucky knew if there was a way to do something dramatic, Steve would find it. He just hoped he’d read Steve’s cues right. God, he hoped he was still reading Steve right.
“Enough talking,” one of the guards said. “Don’t want me to miss the check-in call, do you?”
Bucky slumped back against the van wall. Every three minutes, the compound would check in to make sure they were “behaving.” (Complying, the voice whispered at the back of Bucky’s mind, but he swatted it away.) If their guards didn’t check in, off went the charges. Never mind that the only reassurance Bucky had that Steve and Wanda would be all right was this organization’s own greed. He wasn’t exactly in a position to negotiate.
Finally, the van rolled to a stop, and the guards yanked the bags off of their heads. Bucky blinked into the harsh afternoon sunlight spilling through the van’s opened back door. “Avenue Bab El Khemis is that way,” one of the guards said, voice muffled from behind his mask. He pointed behind him—east. “Musee de Marrakech is that way.” He pointed west. “We need to intercept the truck somewhere between the Avenue and the museum delivery docks. This looks like the best spot.”
Bucky closed his eyes; slowly, the mimeograph street map he’d studied in his handler’s mission brief stitched itself together in his mind. He needed a good reason, and enough bluster to see it through.
“Are you kidding me?” Bucky said. “This setup’s awful. We’ve got no cover. We’re exposed to the intersection of three major streets one block up, any one of which the truck could book it down if they start to smell something fishy. And the roads are as wide as my—”
The guard silenced him with a jab from his rifle’s muzzle. “I said, we’re using this spot.”
Clint and Sam exchanged a look. Bucky didn’t know their looks anywhere near as well as Steve’s, but he was pretty sure the message was This asshole’s gonna get us all killed. “Listen,” Sam said, “if this is what we have to work with—”
“Buddy, you scooped us up because you wanted the infamous Winter Soldier pulling this job. Not whatever second-rate wannabe-Blackwater bullshit you think you can pull off,” Bucky said.
The guard lurched toward him. “I was a Green Beret, you fuck, and so are most of these guys—a couple SEALs, Mossad, DGSE—”
Behind the guard’s back, Sam grinned at Bucky. Fleeting, but it was there. Point: Team Cap.
“And I’ve picked through all of those services’ top men like they were fresh out of Basic,” Bucky said. He almost managed to say it without his voice wavering, without a wave of revulsion. “So are you gonna let me actually use my skills, or not?”
The lead guard gritted his teeth; the other guys were looking to him, unsure if they should be hoisting their rifles now or not. Finally, he relented and waved them off. “Fine. Let’s hear your brilliant plan. Just remember—no funny business, or it’s your boyfriend’s head.”
Bucky narrowed his eyes and glared at the guard until he looked away. That “cold dead stare” still had its uses, occasionally. Then he gestured with his shackled hands toward the southwest. “This alley’s no good, but two blocks over is a small square with a fountain—two entry points, one of which we can block easily. Room for us to maneuver, but not enough for them to get out.”
“And where do you want us to set up?” the lead guard asked.
“There’s a hostel that’s a floor higher than the surrounding rooftops.” Don’t be seen—don’t be heard—He couldn’t look at Sam or Clint as he spoke. It didn’t help. The memory was pulling at him like a noose. “We—we can set up over there.”
From when they left the compound to the time they reached the hostel’s roof, the guards had answered seven separate check-ins, and used a different code word to respond each time. So much for figuring out a pattern. The guards removed their shackles with another round of warning not to try anything cute, then they split up to do a quick perimeter sweep.
“You’ve killed a lot of good people, you know,” the lead guard said, right at Bucky’s shoulder, as they walked the sight lines of the roof. “In the services, too. The president was an idiot for pardoning you. And now he’s gonna see it.”
Bucky’s mouth tasted ferrous and oily; a filthiness he couldn’t seem to wash away. But he couldn’t let it show. He couldn’t give these assholes a single inch to dig at him. “Yeah, well, I had Hydra breaking down my will for seventy years. So what’s your excuse for helping these goons?”
The guard snorted. “Just seeing the way the world’s going. You keep working with us, you’ll see it too. If not, well . . .” He shrugged, and made an explosive noise with his mouth. “A few less paper tigers like you and Rogers in the world—seems like a good start to me.”
They completed their sweep, and the guard made another check-in as they rendezvoused with Sam and Clint and their respective guards. Bucky tried to scrub the bad taste out of his mouth on the sleeve of his lightweight khaki jacket, but nothing seemed to help.
“All right,” he said hoarsely, signing for Clint as everyone spoke. “We’ve got our setup. Who wants to take which role?”
After the three initial explosions, debris blocking the entrance and exit points of the café square further frustrated efforts to evacuate the area, or allow emergency teams to respond . . .
“I’ll block the exit point, then handle the drivers, pin them down with some roughhousing and suppressive fire,” Sam said. “Clint can cover the backup vehicle. Bucky, you’re in charge of smashing into the cargo hold. As for you jackasses . . .” Sam motioned to their guards. “Just stay back and try not to get killed.”
“Hey, hey, hey.” The lead guard snapped his fingers. “What’s with the hand signals?”
“Well, you’re the morons who took Barton’s hearing aids, so unless you want him to be dead weight, you might want to let me tell him the plan,” Bucky said. “Jesus. What kind of incompetent operation is this—”
“The kind that captured you, Winter Soldier.” The guard unlatched the weapons crate and pried out an AR-15. “So you might want to show a little more respect.”
Bucky snatched the AR-15 from him as soon as he held it out. “My name is Bucky.”
But as the chilly calm settled across him, as the gun weighed in his hands, even he wasn’t so sure. The haze of memories around him made him not so sure.
Sam headed for the alley with his guard to rig the distraction and block the square, while Clint and his guard made for the opposite roof above the new building that had replaced the café. As Bucky scanned the square from his perch, he could spot all the signs of repair from twenty-plus years past: a discolored line in the plaster where a building façade had been patched, variation in the concrete on the square. A bronze plaque in French and Arabic, commemorating the dead. He swallowed, trying to ignore the guilt lodged in his throat.
What’s done is done, Sam had told him during their therapy sessions. What happens next—that’s all you can control.
The lead guard’s radio crackled with a question; he reached to his shoulder and answered with another phrase, different again from all the others. Though Bucky kept his face turned toward the street, he watched the guard from the corner of his eyes.
“How’d your company advertise this post to you, anyway?” Bucky asked him. “Babysitting job for senior citizens?”
“Cute. You’re trying to get information from me.” The guard smirked. “Sorry, Grandpa. No can do.”
Bucky silenced him with a raised hand and a twist of his head.
Footsteps, Bucky mouthed.
Too quick, the guard was on edge, moving quietly to his feet. Bucky listened a moment longer, then pointed toward the side edge of the roof that overlooked the approach to the square. Then Bucky pointed to himself, and tipped his head toward the opposite edge of the roof.
The guard regarded him for a moment. Weighing his options, most likely. He could trust Bucky’s call and risk getting shot in the back, but then it’d be Steve’s head, something he had to be reasonably sure Bucky didn’t want. Or he could ignore Bucky’s call, and risk blowing the whole op.
Finally, with a tightness in his jaw, the guard nodded and headed toward the other edge of the roof where Bucky had motioned.
The desert boots they’d given Bucky had thinner soles than he was used to, but it made it easier to move across the roof without a sound. He kept his left arm perfectly still—not even the faintest spin of gears. He had twenty seconds, maybe thirty, before the guard got suspicious.
He rounded the roof access door and approached a low wall. Blinked back the echo of memory and the cold determination he’d felt back then. Almost thirty years—god, it had to still be here. They didn’t want to risk checking it the night before, in case they were still being watched. But if Bucky had to live with these memories, then the least they could do was leave him something useful behind.
And Steve was counting on him. They all were. Bucky smiled in spite of himself, thinking of the first time he’d seen Steve’s face after waking from cryosleep. He hadn’t been there in person—it had been too raw a moment for both of them—but he’d left Bucky a video that he clung to through the whole deprogramming process. Those bright blue eyes had danced with hope and guilt and so much more as he leaned toward the camera, his expression the most unarmored Bucky had ever seen Steve before.
Stay with me, Buck. I can’t lose you again.
Bucky punched through the plaster wall, metal fist aimed at a patch that was a fainter shade of pink than the space around it. And let out his breath when his fingers closed around the soft cloth bag within. Five seconds left . . . He dug out one of the boxes from inside the sack and slipped it into the thigh pocket of the tan BDUs they’d issued him. The other went under his lightweight jacket; and finally, very very carefully, he tucked the spherical device into the calf pocket.
When he walked away, the guard was already heading toward him. “False alarm,” Bucky said, still keeping his voice low. “It was coming up through the vents.”
The guard glanced over Bucky’s shoulder, then looked at him again, eyes narrowed in suspicion. But then the radio at the guard’s shoulder crackled.
“Truck’s headed down Avenue Bab El Khemis,” Clint’s guard reported. “Places.”
The lead guard’s smile looked far too hungry for the firefight ahead. Bucky hoisted the AR-15 into his hands and tried not to think about the violence ahead.
“Time to give your boss the show he wants.”
There was something almost meditative, Bucky thought, in an attack. Like conducting a symphony. He could almost forget what was happening around him, forget the voices and the flesh and the metallic taste of blood, and reduce it all to abstract art, rising and falling in orchestrated movements. He shifted through the stages of a fight as instinctively as breathing, habit taking over and directing his actions. Sam called it ‘depersonalization,’ but to Bucky, it was merely survival.
It started with the armored truck threading its way through one of the narrow archways over the streets.
When Sam’s charge on the opposite archway blows, it’s a cymbal crash. When the truck’s brakes scream, it’s a tremolo of strings. Clint’s first detonating arrow strikes the truck’s rear tires is the steady thud of brass. The truck spins as the reinforced tires blow, unable to withstand the onslaught: the melody building. The people in the square scatter with a steady bass line of not again not again not again.
Now for the bold chords.
Bucky’s feet hit the top of the truck with a crunch. He remembers flinging his body around like a corpse when he was the soldier: no regard for any damage it might do to him or whatever he hit. It’s hard to make himself do it again, now that he has something like a self-preservation instinct. But force is what’s needed here. The triple-layer metal dents under his weight, but otherwise doesn’t yield. No matter. These things are built to withstand a lot, but they aren’t built with him in mind.
The drivers are climbing out of the front cab, yelling; Sam’s yelling back, AR-15 waving; the backup car is pinned down under Clint’s suppressive arrow fire. Bucky ignores it all. Aims his rifle’s muzzle along one of the metal seams of the cargo hold and unloads, shell casings pinging and bouncing every which way. It doesn’t punch through, but it softens it up. So he crushes his left fist into the weak point he’s made and wrenches back like he’s opening a tin can.
“Soldat de l’hiver—” The cries raise all around him. If he were more aware, more awake, he’d say: you’re wrong. But in this moment, he is the Winter Soldier, and it’s what allows him to see this through.
The musty darkness of the truck’s cargo hold opens up to him. With one quick glance at the interior, crammed with crates, he leaps inside.
5R-1225. The crates inside the hold aren’t in any particular order, but at least they’re all marked. Antiquities, mainly, priceless artifacts bound for the museum. What the hell does this guy want with some pottery shards and jeweled daggers? But there it is—a small box labeled 5R-1225. When Bucky closes his arms around it, a faint hum ripples through him, making his stomach twist. He tilts his head—does he have enough time to check inside? But Sam’s counting on him. They’ll have to catch a glimpse later.
If there’s a later.
He climbs from the hold, back onto the top of the truck, and makes the hand signal for Clint. Walks toward the cab, where Sam has the driver pinned against the engine block, rifle muzzle pressed to his throat. Holds his free hand out to Sam.
“Took you fucking long enough,” Sam says.
Clint’s next shot whizzes overhead and plants itself in the hostel’s plaster wall. With his free arm, Bucky wrenches Sam up on top of the truck, then hands him the box. Sam wraps his arms around the box; Bucky wraps one arm around Sam; then with the other, grabs hold of the magnetic pulley dangling from the carbon fiber wire attached to Clint’s grappling hook shot. And up and away they go, the shouts and panicked rifle fire only a coda.
Bucky signed hastily to Clint as soon as they were safely on top of the opposite roof to confirm the plan they’d signed earlier. You marked our route?
To the inch. The compound’s in the southern quadrant. Beneath the hydroelectricity station at the dam.
Perfect, Bucky said. We’ll wait for you.
One check-in as they rode in silence, arms shackled in front of them once more. Two. Three. Each time the call completed, Bucky’s muscles tensed, waiting for Clint’s cue, then he unfolded when he realized it wasn’t coming. They must be taking a longer route back to the compound. God, he hoped they were headed for the compound. It would certainly complicate things if not.
After the eighth check-in, though, he sensed Clint shift his weight on the bench. Bucky clenched his jaw and curled his hands in his lap, right by the thigh pocket where he’d stored the first box. They had to be pulling into the compound—he felt the van slow, felt them tip forward as if they were going down a steep incline. For a moment, Steve’s face flickered through his mind: stoic, jaw tense, eyes fixed straight ahead. Accepting whatever came next. Trusting Bucky to get the job done.
Steve gave up his shield for him; he’d promised to be Steve’s shield now. He hadn’t meant it quite so literally, but whatever it took . . .
The call came. The word went out. The van began to slow as the surface leveled out. Bucky curled into his chest.
“Now’s good,” Clint said.
Bucky launched himself forward, barreling head first into the guard seated opposite him on the bench. “What the fuck—”
Already he heard another guard scrambling for his radio, but Bucky pressed his elbow into the box at his thigh, and the old radio jammer in his pocket crinkled to life. No emergency responders to waylay this time—just a truck full of asshole mercs. The guard whose face Bucky was currently bashing with his shackled hands tried to fire off a few rounds, but they pinged harmlessly against the truck’s interior. Hot wet blood splashed against him—he knew he had to stop now if he didn’t want to outright kill the guy, but a dark hollow in his mind whispered, urged him to keep going, not to stop until every last one of them were dead.
Instead he closed his hand around the guard’s throat. Pressed his thumb and fingers against his carotid and jugular until the guard went completely still. Five minutes, maybe ten of unconsciousness—it would have to be enough.
Bucky wrenched the black bag off of his head to find Clint and Sam already fumbling with their shackle keys, their guards limp as well. They all exchanged a look, chests heaving. “You good?” Sam asked, voice soft. Bucky nodded. With a click, his shackles fell away. “Then let’s get our damsels in distress.”
Chapter 4: Part IV
Bucky, Sam, and Clint wrenched the rifles out of the guards’ hands and stormed from the back of the van into a yawning concrete cavern. “The cells were to the right and two floors down,” Clint said. “I can go bust Steve and Wanda out if you want to hunt for Dickface.”
“I’m not risking it.” Bucky checked their corners into the compound’s entrance. No signs of guards rushing to meet them yet. Was it too much to hope that the three who’d escorted them were the only ones in the whole place? He tossed the activated radio jammer to Sam. “I’ve got one more jammer ready to go, and I want it as close to Steve and Wanda as possible. Just in case.”
“Make it quick. The sooner we can get these collars off, the better I’ll feel.” Sam wrenched open the door, scanned the first room, then signaled all-clear. “We’ll broadcast our location as soon as we can.”
Bucky flicked two fingers from his forehead in salute, then sprinted down the right-hand corridor, just like Clint had described. He still didn’t understand how a guy with Clint’s aim and uncanny sense of direction ended up so bruised and battered all the time, but he’d take it.
As he flew down the hall, he knew he should be scanning the compound, looking for more evidence of who these guys were and just what they wanted the gem for—that had been the whole point of the plan they hatched last night, after all. Bait the “buyers” into bringing them in, then milk them for all the details they could before soundly demonstrating just what a handful of ex-Avengers and assassins were really capable of. But there was a very narrow gap between pulling it all off and getting everyone’s heads blown to bits, and Bucky was not too interested in being stuck in the gap any longer than necessary.
His feet hammered down one flight, then two. The stink of metallic water grew sharper down here, matching what he remembered when he’d woken up in the cell. The doors to his cell as well as Sam’s and Clints stood open, but two were still sealed up. The moment he stepped through one of the doorways, he’d appear on their captors’ CCTV system, if he hadn’t already—
Deep in the compound’s bowels, an alarm began to bray.
Bucky swore under his breath. Great. He fished out the second jammer with his right hand while he wrenched the lock away from the first door with his left. Wanda’s head jerked up from where she’d been handcuffed in the chair.
“Took you long enough,” Wanda said.
The active light on the jammer flickered. Fuck fuck fuck. Bucky tapped the box against the wall, and the light went to full power. Please stay—
“I hope our mystery friend’s been villain monologuing at you two this whole time, because we haven’t got much to go on.” Bucky grabbed hold of the chain sealing her hands inside the lead mitts. “Hold tight—”
“Sadly, not a word.” She winced as he snapped the chain and started unwrapping the mitts.
“Well, I’m sure you can persuade him.” He stood back. “Good?”
“Good.” She pushed herself to her feet, wobbling a little, but steadied herself against the wall. “Is your old crappy Soviet tech going to hold up?”
“The one I gave Sam and Clint seems to be working just fine. This one looks a little more temperamental, so let’s move fast.” The video screen crackled and sparked as the signal strained to get through.
“Won’t be a problem now.” Wanda looked at him with a smirk, and red strands spun from her fingers and extended out into the hall. He heard the faint click of the locks on Steve’s door undoing and falling away.
Bucky rushed out into the hall and yanked the door open to Steve’s cell. Steve raised his head, expression guarded, but he sagged with relief as soon as he saw Bucky with Wanda close behind.
“Steve.” Bucky cupped Steve’s face in his hands, thumbs tilting up his chin. “Steve, talk to me.”
Steve’s eyes fluttered as he tried to focus on Bucky’s face. “This was a terrible idea. You guys really shouldn’t listen to whatever asshole came up with this plan.”
“I never do,” Bucky said, and pressed his lips to Steve’s. He was about to cry with relief, even though he knew they had a long way to go still.
“Very touching.” Wanda flicked open the restraints on Steve’s limbs, and he tumbled into Bucky’s arms. “But maybe save it for later, boys?”
Bucky grunted as he helped Steve to his feet. “Jesus, you’re heavy.”
“You don’t usually complain.” Steve clapped Bucky on the back and righted himself with a weary smile. “Wanda, think you can do something about these collars?”
“Already on it.”
Threads of red swirled around the collar around Steve’s throat. With a click, it fell open—then flashed with the brilliant glow of flame. Bucky shouted and launched himself forward, but Wanda’s magic restrained the explosion. She flicked her wrists and sent the collar, mid-blast, hurdling toward the concrete ceiling of the cell.
Bucky shoved Steve down and threw himself over Wanda as chunks of concrete and steel rebar rained down on them.
“Shit.” Wanda’s accent sharpened the swear. Bucky stifled the urge to laugh.
“It must be rigged to blow if we try to pull it off, too.” Bucky swallowed, throat scraping against his own collar. “So, uh, be advised.”
Wanda spun her strands around Bucky’s collar, and he stiffened, afraid to so much as move. The heat of the detonation singed at the underside of his chin just before she launched the whole collar up at the ceiling once more. At least she had an energy shield at the ready this time.
“You know, you just might punch through the ceiling with the third blast,” Bucky said.
She grinned. “I was counting on it.”
Footsteps thudded down the hallway. Quickly, Wanda ripped away her own collar and flung it toward the ceiling as it exploded. A hole, just barely wide enough for supersoldier shoulders to squeeze through, opened into an unknown space.
“One at a time,” Wanda said.
Before Bucky could protest, she’d tangled him up in red webbing and was shoving him up through the ceiling.
He rolled to the side, clutching the AR-15 to his chest to keep the muzzle away from his face and anyone else’s. The room Wanda had launched him into was completely dark. He slammed against something heavy and pointy that halted his roll and groaned; it shivered with a strange current that swirled through the air as he pushed himself away from it. He barely had time to roll onto his hands and knees before Steve came flinging up after him.
“What the hell is this place?” Bucky asked.
“Looks like some sort of storage room.” Steve reached out for Bucky’s hand and pulled him to his feet. Then decided to steal a kiss, because of course Steve Rogers thought the moments right before a firefight was the perfect time to catch Bucky’s lower lip between his teeth. Not that Bucky was complaining.
“When I tell you boys to get a room,” Wanda said, landing beside them, “I don’t mean this one.”
Bucky squeezed Steve’s hand. “I’ll keep that in mind next time you and Sam are making sad puppy dog eyes,” he said.
“What?” Wanda cried. “What? There isn’t—we don’t make—”
A hail of automatic rifle fire from the empty cell below them cut off whatever else she was going to say.
Wanda stretched a net of red energy over the hole in the floor while Bucky positioned himself at the edge. Two guards crouched in the cell below them, wearing riot gear rather than the street fatigues their chaperones had worn. The Kevlar would pose a minor problem, but Bucky supposed if bullets didn’t work, the three of them could figure something out. He gave Wanda a nod, and she snapped the shield closed.
Four quick sprays. Two dead guards. One smug supersoldier.
“Armor-piercing rounds,” Bucky said, appreciative. “I want two thousand.”
Steve ruffled his hair. “We’ll make sure to stop by their armory on our way out. But first, let’s figure out what our gracious host is up to. Can you light up this room?”
Wanda stitched together a globe of red light and floated it above them, illuminating the room. The hulking thing Bucky had slammed into earlier turned out to be a massive statue, probably eight feet tall, of some kind of ancient figure. The metal on it was oddly segmented, and if he stood close, he could feel that humming sensation again, same as the crate they’d stolen from the armored truck. The rest of the room was honeycombed into an array of shelves holding trays of what looked like pottery shards or bones.
“If this guy’s just some overambitious antiquities smuggler,” Bucky said, “I’m going to be a little annoyed.”
Steve pulled out one of the trays. “Not just antiquities.” He grimaced, and leaned away from it, nose wrinkled. “These are Kree.”
Shit. Wanda and Bucky looked at one another. “You mean that Star-Lord prick was actually right?” Wanda asked.
“Looks that way. And our friend here is probably paving the way for the first wave of an invasion of some kind.”
“I hate to say it, but I don’t think the five of us can hold off an invasion,” Bucky said. “I mean, we’re pretty damned good, but—”
The door to the storage room flew open. In an instant, Bucky wrapped his right arm around Wanda, pulling her to his side opposite the entrance. With his left arm, he shoved Steve at the door’s entrance as hard as he could.
Steve’s mass slammed into the two guards who were halfway through the door, knocking them both over. Bucky released Wanda and handled one of the dazed guards while Steve handled the other. Metal and flesh flying, Steve’s punches almost balletic where Bucky’s were raw, unrestrained force. The guards crumpled in no time under their barrage.
Clint and Sam came jogging down the hall toward them. Clint had recovered his hearing aids, bow, and quiver, from the looks of it, and Sam’s pack was slung over his shoulders, though he’d also snatched an assault rifle for himself.
“No signs of Doctor Evil yet,” Sam said. “I’m hoping his megalomaniacal ass didn’t launch an escape pod or whatever he’s got in this place. Are you guys all right?”
“Bucky used Steve as a battering ram,” Wanda announced. “It was great.”
“I’m just gonna pretend that isn’t a euphemism for anything,” Clint said. “Don’t correct me if I’m wrong.”
Wanda set to work unfastening Sam’s collar first, dropping it down into the cell below to detonate, then worked Clint’s free. While she handled that, Bucky snatched extra ammunition clips off of the guards, tucked one into his belt, and tossed the other to Sam.
“Also,” Wanda said, “there might be aliens involved.”
Clint groaned. “Why does it always have to be aliens?”
“Don’t know. Let’s find our pal and ask him.” Steve stepped over the felled guards and took off at a sprint, and it was all the rest of them could do to keep up.
Bucky liked to imagine how fearsome they looked—three soldiers, the archer, and the witch—when they hunted down their targets. Weapons dealers, smugglers, mercenaries, they’d faced them all in just two months’ time, plugging the gaps that the “real” Avengers were too bound up in red tape to fill. And they worked together beautifully.
That was the sight that greeted Edward Prentiss, head of the North Africa branch of the Consortium, when he poked his head outside the control room to see where all his guards had gone. It didn’t take long for Bucky and Steve to subdue him, and even less time for Wanda to scrape through his mind for every bit of information she could. The Consortium was working with unknown forces to bring the Kree to Earth in search of the same gemstone Steve’s team was trying to protect. That was the extent of Prentiss’s knowledge about his superiors, for all his bluster, but it would have to be enough for them to go on. They had gotten used to scraping by.
It would have been easy for Bucky to fall into old patterns again. To imagine they were just like the Howling Commandos, doling out vengeance to obviously ruthless villains, but the truth was a little murkier. They were outlaws still in large parts of the world, and the groups they were fighting—like this mystery Consortium, it would seem—more nebulous still. Everything seemed a lot more high-contrast back in the war.
But Steve’s misfits had a rhythm all their own, and a moral code that didn’t worry about laws and politics so much as right or wrong. Which was only fair, Bucky thought—he wasn’t at all the same soldier he’d been with the Commandos, either. He was the asset and the sniper and the soldier and the dumb kid from Brooklyn he’d always been, all woven together, and the more he accepted each of those parts of himself, the better he worked.
SORRY WE HAD TO STEAL YOUR ARTIFACT, the note read, pinned to a man in seersucker via multiple tranquilizer darts. He was slumped against the front door of the Marrakech police headquarters, his hands and feet duct-taped together. IT’S KINDA REALLY DANGEROUS. BUT YOU CAN PROBABLY GET A GOOD REWARD FROM INTERPOL FOR THIS ASSHOLE IF YOU WANT.
—The artists formerly known as Falcon, Hawkeye, and Winter Soldier
“So.” Bucky sank onto one of the cushions scattered around the courtyard of their riad, where they’d assembled for a late dinner. “Aliens?”
“Aliens,” Steve said.
Bucky wrangled his shower-damp hair back into a bun. “Nice aliens?”
“Bloodthirsty warmongering dictatorship, according to Mister Star-Lord,” Wanda said. “And also, I quote him here, ‘colossal dicks.’”
Steve nodded. “I just sent a message to Quill with pictures of most of the artifacts we recovered from the bunker. Not that I expect him to have any idea what they do . . . but he can probably put us in touch with someone who does.”
“Who is also an alien,” Sam said.
“Almost definitely.” Steve shoveled a khoubz-ful of couscous into his mouth and chewed for a minute before continuing. “Now the question becomes whether we tip off the task force.”
Clint curled his upper lip back. “Ugh, speaking of colossal dicks. Do we have to?” He turned toward Bucky. “Maybe Hydra left you a magical existential threat-defeating device in a dead drop somewhere. Anything’s better than letting those assholes in on this . . .”
Bucky raised one eyebrow. “Buddy, Hydra was the existential threat.”
“Well, it was worth a shot.”
Steve sank back on his cushion, propping his back against Bucky’s side. “At the very least, we should send word about this Consortium to someone official. Doesn’t have to be the Avengers, but if there’s an international criminal group making bargains with alien hordes, then someone needs to deal with them. Doesn’t have to be us.”
“There’s a novel concept,” Sam said.
Steve gave him a look. “As for the Kree themselves . . . We can talk to T’Challa first, and give Lang and Strange a heads-up, too. Wakanda seems a safe enough place to store eight tons of almost certainly lethal Kree artifacts. And if we do need to get the Avengers involved to stop some kind of invasion, I’d rather do it through official channels. Like, say, his royal highness.”
Bucky propped his head on Steve’s shoulder, eyes half-lidded. “And while T’Challa deals with that, I believe you promised us all a week off.”
Sam raised his beer bottle in salute. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, yeah, we’re all owed a break,” Steve said. “Amazing work, team.”
Everyone clinked their beers together, then they fell into an easy silence, devouring the makeshift feast as the courtyard fountain bubbled away. When Wanda had finished eating, she piped some music through her phone, and yanked Sam to his feet to join her for a dance party. Clint slipped off to let his family know that no, he and his “weirdo friends” hadn’t actually turned to a life of crime, no matter what Al-Jazeera and CNN were claiming, that there was a good reason for everything, and he’d see them very soon. And Bucky and Steve stayed side by side on the cushions, watching everything with weary smiles.
“What’s the matter?” Wanda asked, as the track changed over. “You grandpas don’t know how to dance anything other than the fox trot?”
We are the people who rule the world . . . the singer crooned, as Wanda swayed, eyes closed, looking the most peaceful Bucky thought he’d ever seen her. They all did—exhausted and elated and relieved to be alive.
Sam pulled Wanda into a twirl, then spun her free. “Steve has a pretty epic white boy shuffle dance.”
Wanda clapped her hands together with a clank of her rings. “Oh, please let me see.”
“Trust me, no one wants to see that.” Bucky covered his face with his metal hand.
Steve batted his eyes, dimples popping, then stood. “Maybe some other time. I’m afraid I’m going to call it a day. Buck?” He looked back down, expression more serious. “Are you good?”
“Go ahead. I’ll be there in a little bit,” Bucky said.
Steve nodded, and slipped off to their room. After a beat or two, Bucky headed up to the roof access, and let the cool desert night wash over his face. A thick blanket of stars hung over him, and below him, he savored the sounds of life carrying on. Car horns and friends chattering and forks scraping against plates at a nearby café. The smell of za’atar and coffee and a desert winter on its way.
Bucky closed his eyes.
You have performed wonderfully, soldier. Karpov had spread the photographs out before him, culled from newspapers and other more sensitive sources. Blackened husks of cars and people running from the square, peppered with ash and blood. An impressive amount of casualties. And the peace talks? He’d smiled in that way he had of lowering his chin as he did so, casting shadows over his eyes. Obliterated.
The praise was all he’d cared about, then. The assurance that his work was good. Valuable. As long as he’d had purpose, as long as they’d promised he was useful, he’d carry out whatever they asked.
Bucky held the metallic sphere in his right hand, the only thing from his rooftop stash that he hadn’t needed to use. He was so used to the weight of those charges; they’d been as instinctive for him to use as the shield had been for Steve. Four blocks away, he’d used one to shred apart countless families and twist the world toward fear and strife. Now, they’d been able to catch wind of a devastating plot before it had chance to take full effect.
He screwed open the charge. Then laughed to himself. The detonating trigger crumbled instantly; it had long since corroded and rusted away.
“Everything okay?” Steve asked, as Bucky slipped into their bedroom.
Bucky tossed his linen pants and tunic over the desk chair and sat on the edge of the bed. Steve dog-eared the novel he’d been reading and set it on the nightstand, then rolled on his side toward Bucky, head propped in one hand.
After watching him for a moment, Bucky nodded, and slid beneath the covers. “It is now.”
Steve curled around him, protective. His nose pressed against Bucky’s neck as he dropped a lazy kiss on the scar tissue where metal met flesh. “Thank you,” Steve murmured, his voice rumbling against Bucky’s skin. “For being here. For . . . everything.”
Bucky managed a weak smile. “Well, it isn’t every day I get to throw Steve Rogers at people.”
Steve laughed, but then looked up at him through a fringe of golden lashes. “You know what I mean. For . . . being brave. For agreeing to all my crazy ideas. I keep waiting for you to decide it’s not worth it, that this isn’t the life you wanted to wake up for . . .”
A lump welled in Bucky’s throat. He trailed metal fingertips down the crease of Steve’s spine, searching for the right words. “I—I didn’t want to wake up at all.” The confession hung between them; Steve’s breath had stilled. “But I’m so glad I did.”
Steve exhaled. “And using your—skills. The same tactics, even the same gear, as they made you use . . .”
“I’m glad for it.” He brought his other arm around to brush Steve’s hair back from his forehead. “It means I have those skills for something good. That I don’t have to ignore that part of me, or pretend it isn’t there.”
Steve’s smile spread at that. When he looked at Bucky like this, Bucky felt maybe he could see every side of Steve, too. The officer and the scrawny punk and the man who wanted nothing more than to make things right. It loosened a tension Bucky didn’t realize he was still carrying.
“I love every part of you,” Steve said.
Bucky stifled a laugh. “Some more than others.”
“You know what I meant.”
Bucky nodded. With the amber light spilling over Steve’s body and the weight of their mission gone, he was in love, so in love with Steve and their team and every single thing, good and bad, that had led them to this moment. Against all odds and the best efforts of countless forces, they were here. Together.
Bucky kissed Steve’s forehead. “I love you, too.”
Steve rolled onto Bucky, and cradled Bucky’s face in his hands. Stroked the dark wisps of hair back from his temples. They stared at each other for a moment, and the warmth of Steve’s body suffused him, strong and intoxicating.
“So,” Steve said. “I know I said we could take a week off.”
Bucky groaned. “Oh, Jesus—”
Steve adjusted his position, hips digging into hips. Bucky winced as his pulse shifted, his body responding. “But I was thinking—what if we went to meet with Quill—”
Bucky silenced him with his mouth, parting Steve’s lips with his tongue. Steve relented with a soft sigh and closed his eyes as they yielded to each other. Bucky rolled them over, pinning Steve beneath him now, and covered Steve’s hands with his. Their fingers dug into the mattress together as Bucky rocked his hips into Steve’s.
“Steven Grant Rogers,” Bucky breathed against Steve’s ear, “you are taking a week off if I have to chain you up myself.”
“Tempting . . .” Steve arched his back, and Bucky shuddered as pleasure spun hot inside him.
“Break first. Space after.”
Steve grinned, still every bit the willowy little punk without a lick of remorse. “Convince me.”
With the cool breeze fluttering gauze curtains and the golden lanterns caressing their bared skin, Bucky did.