When he woke up, he remembered the asset first. He wouldn’t let the asset— He would stop this. Whatever they wanted to do he would fight it, kill them, kill himself, anything.
That was his first instinct.
Sam Wilson said, “Hey,” and Bucky Barnes remembered he was in Wakanda, and he put his head back and shut his eyes because the relief was more than he could take.
That was his second instinct.
Bucky Barnes had poor instincts and was not to be trusted. Because the next thing that happened was Sam opened his mouth and Bucky knew that his relief had been wrong. He said “Steve” the same time Sam did.
Sam nodded. “Yeah. He’s not dead.”
“Lead with that,” Bucky said weakly. “Next time.” He climbed out of the cryo chamber. It felt weird not to have the metal arm. Off balance.
“I led with it this time,” Sam said. “He’s missing and I’m worried. Talked to him two weeks back, he seemed happy as a clam, doing volunteer work with Nigerian folks displaced by Boko Haram. Said he was heading to New York next to update his vaccinations and figure out his passport.”
Bucky’s heart jolted at vaccinations, but then he remembered, it wasn’t the same now. By now it was safer, and even if it weren’t, Steve was himself safer. “Why does he need vaccinations? We can’t carry infection.”
“Focusing on essentials, great,” said Sam, eyebrows raised. “He’s got a fake passport, he needs his shots to get the visas he wants.”
Steve got sick from the whooping cough shot. He didn’t get the shot when he was a little kid, cause he was too sick, so he was twelve when he finally went to the doctor and had it done. After that he was sick a whole week. Seems like the cure’s worse than the disease, said Mrs. Rogers, trying to laugh. Hope it takes.
Up to then, Bucky hadn’t known there was such a thing as medicine not taking. He thought doctors knew better than that.
When you were Steve’s friend, it was best to know that doctors were wrong sometimes and they lied and cheated you and gave you medicine that wasn’t anything more than fancy sugar water and didn’t listen, never listened, didn’t take him seriously.
“Hello?” said Sam.
Fuck. “I’m listening,” Bucky said, putting an edge of annoyance into his voice, like it was Sam’s fault for not continuing. His head was a noisy place. He couldn’t always pick out the most important thing and stick with it. “So—he didn’t make it to New York?”
“He was on the flight that arrived in New York, I checked on it,” said Sam. “But after that, nothing. I can’t get him on the phone. I called Stark, asked for—”
“You called Stark?” Bucky had to stop himself from hitting Sam. Don’t hit friends. Said Steve. Oh fuck, Steve. “He’s going to, he’s not, fuck, you can’t tell him what’s happening, he’s just gonna—”
Sam said, neutrally enough that Bucky honestly had no idea what he thought of it, “They’ve been talking. I thought Stark might have some idea what happened. He wasn’t—very helpful.”
“No shit he wasn’t helpful.”
Sam’s eyes crinkled, but all he said was, “If you need to piss before we leave, do it quick. I packed you a bag and we’re wheels up in an hour.”
Wheels up turned out to mean a Wakandan helicopter that dropped them off in Kampala, where Sam hired a car to take them to Entebbe International, where Bucky spent half an hour being poked at by security because his arm socket set off their metal detectors and Sam had to bribe them to hurry the process along so they wouldn’t miss their flight.
“When you said wheels up,” Bucky said, lengthening his stride to keep up with Sam.
“Can it, smartass.”
Because Bucky got distracted trying to snap his backpack’s chest buckle one-handed, Sam boarded first. He snagged the window seat and left the middle one for Bucky. They were flying economy. Like jets didn’t exist.
“I’m uncomfortable,” Bucky announced.
“Should’ve walked faster,” said Sam, who was reading a safety information brochure from the seatback pocket.
“T’Challa doesn’t have a jet?”
“T’Challa has lots of jets.” Sam folded the information brochure with the inside fold on top and put it back in the seat back.
“You folded it wrong. I don’t like flying in shitty fucking airplanes.” At the corner of his eye, Bucky saw the guy sitting next to him scowl. He clenched his hand into a fist, unclenched it, and took his arm off the armrest. Immediately his seatmate put his arm there. Asshole. To Sam, Bucky said, “Why couldn’t we take one of T’Challa’s jets?”
Sam put his head down against the plane window. “Cause that shit’s military issue, man, and he’s done us enough favors. Plus he didn’t offer. If you don’t like the flights I booked, you can pay for ’em next time.”
No, he couldn’t. Bucky was shitty with money. The asset was never allowed to carry any. On long missions it had to steal what it needed: food and supplies only, never cash. It couldn’t be trusted with cash, it spent it wrong, or gave it away. If they found it with money, it was punished.
(Steve thought the same, though he didn’t say it. When they were together, Steve paid for everything, even vending machine snacks. Bucky wanted to ask how Steve thought he got by after Washington anyway, did he think he just went around stealing shit? But that probably was what Steve thought, and Bucky had stolen some things, when he had to, and he didn’t want to get in a fight about what constituted had to, so he didn’t ask.)
“Flights?” said Bucky.
Sam’s head snapped up. He’d been falling asleep. “Huh?”
“We still talking about the flights?” Sam said, rubbing his eyes.
“Flights?” Bucky said, again. The fingers of his human hand—only hand—dug into his neck. Too many fucking people, it made him antsy.
“You can keep saying the same thing over and over, but I’m not going to get any better at reading your mind.”
“It’s not direct?”
Sam angled himself towards Bucky so his whole torso could convey his disbelief at the question. “From Kampala to New York, you’re asking me if it’s direct.”
Bucky shrugged. People always tried to make him feel stupid for not knowing what the world was like. He was used to it, he didn’t care.
“No, it’s not direct,” said Sam. “We’re stopping in Addis Ababa, that’s in Ethiopia. Then Frankfurt, that’s in Germany.”
“I know where Frankfurt is,” Bucky snapped.
Sam threw his hands up. “Okay, then. We’re done talking. Go the fuck to sleep and let me go to sleep. I’m tired. I just flew in and I’m tired, I want to rest.”
Obediently, Bucky shut his eyes and tilted his head back as far as he could with the seat upright. They were still taxiing for takeoff, and the cabin was uncomfortably warm. The guy next to Bucky was obviously going to hog the armrest the whole time but it was okay. Sometimes people on planes were assholes. People could be assholes and not be planning to attack you.
With his eyes closed, it got way harder not to think about Steve. Who would have taken him? (Anyone. Literally fucking anyone. He didn’t have anyone watching his six, and he took stupid risks, always had, that was Steve.) And of course because Sam was stupid the same way Steve was stupid and trusted everyone, he’d basically told Stark they were coming.
Bucky was off-balance without the arm. He hated it and he needed it.
Fucking Tony Stark.
He didn’t want to sleep. It wasn’t fair for Sam to make him. He wasn’t tired, he’d been sleeping, he’d slept out the better part of seventy years. Like when he was a kid and his mom made him put on a sweater because she was cold.
The guy next to Bucky shifted in his seat and elbowed Bucky in the ribs. Bucky made himself hold still. He was supposed to be still, supposed to be sleeping.
Go to sleep, go to sleep.
Go to sleep.
But he couldn’t.
Sam exchanged some money in Addis Ababa, and they had tibs for breakfast. Bucky carefully ate half and stared at what was left on the plate for so long that Sam laughed and asked if he should get another order.
“If you’re still hungry,” said Bucky.
“Are you still hungry?”
Bucky said he wasn’t. The airport exchange rate was bad, and Bucky didn’t have his arm and he wasn’t the mission asset that he ordinarily would be.
On the flight to Frankfurt, he didn’t talk to Sam. This time Sam let him have the window seat, and Bucky slumped down as low as the seat would let him and thought about weaknesses in the Iron Man suit. The problem in Russia was he was trying to get away, not trying to fight. Fucking Steve said run and he ran and that was how come Stark got his arm off and left him—
“It doesn’t matter, Buck,” Steve kept saying afterward. Doesn’t matter, Buck. I don’t care. Anything for you, of course you’re worth it, you’re my best friend, and Sam had said “Hey,” trying to lighten the tension by playing offended.
It did matter. Steve always thought he knew better than Bucky. Ever since the Winter Soldier, even before that. Since the serum.
In Wakanda, Steve had said wearily, “Why are you always mad at me?”
“I’m not mad at you,” Bucky said.
Once Steve would have fought him on that. After the serum, he had. Now he was too scared, and Bucky wasn’t sure if he was scared of him or for him. Both were bad.
Sam was asleep when the stewardess brought around food, so Bucky ate both of their meals and all of Sam’s snacks. Too bad if Sam wanted it. If he wanted it he should’ve stayed awake or told Bucky specifically not to eat it. Or gotten enough food at the airport. Not like this was the first time he’d ever encountered a supersoldier metabolism.
Their layover in Frankfurt was six hours. It turned out the airport had had a bomb scare the previous week so there were men with guns walking around, grim-faced. Bucky hated Germany. The asset had hated it too. The first time Pierce sent it to the newly reunified Germany, he hadn’t told it that the Berlin Wall had come down. As a joke. The asset thought it had been dropped in the wrong place and lost three hours figuring out what was going on. Then it missed the rendezvous with its contact and it wasn’t so funny anymore.
The taste of German in his mouth made him think of things that—
“Hey,” he whispered to Sam, who was reading a newspaper he’d picked up for free at their gate when they were disembarking. “Wanna play a game?”
Sam looked at him like he was nuts. “What, like Hangman?”
“No, let’s do, we’re setting a bomb and we have to disable the security and then—”
“Wow,” said Sam. “No. Please don’t talk about b-o-m-b-esses when we’re in the middle of an airport, okay? That kind of thing tends to make people twitchy.”
Bucky sighed and pounded at his hip with his fist for a second. “Okay, okay, the game can be defusing it. Okay? Instead. And, but, all the security guys are in on it, so we gotta take ’em out quiet until we can figure out where the—the package is. Okay?”
Sam looked at him for another minute, stone-faced, and Bucky thought maybe his forehead would relax and he’d smile and play along. But he said, “This shit ain’t a game. I didn’t wake up your sorry ass so you could dick around with BPOL, you get that? I came get you because—”
“I’m not saying we really do it!” Bucky said.
Too late, he realized he’d shouted. People were looking. Sam thought he was crazy and unstable, and now so did everyone at the gate. Bucky wanted to go to the food court, but he didn’t have any money, and Sam wasn’t hungry (even though he’d slept through lunch and dinner, what the hell).
“Quit shouting,” said Sam. Unnecessarily. Bucky wasn’t stupid. He’d already noticed, he wasn’t stupid.
Softer, Bucky said, “I wasn’t saying really do it. That’s why it’s a game. We’d have to get access to one of the executive lounges, right, to dump the bodies, and we could set up interrogations in the showers too. Drown ‘em out with the water? You any good at picking pockets?”
Sam folded up his paper and thwacked it down on the table between them. He leaned over his armrest and said, “Listen. I’m tired. I don’t have time for this kind of shit. Either shut up or take a walk and think about this somewhere else.”
I’m not actually trying to attack airport security. Wouldn’t even be fun to attack airport security. Shooting fish in a barrel.
This airport’s fucking boring and you booked us the longest flight in the world and if you gave an actual damn about Steve and his safety you’d have begged or borrowed or goddamn stolen a jet from T’Challa, because every fucking second we sit here—
Bucky exploded out of his shitty, uncomfortable chair. They weren’t even chairs, they were those shitty plastic-and-metal rows of things that kind of looked like chairs so everyone pretended that’s what they were cause this fucking century, this goddamn millennium, was just one mass fucking hallucination.
And there wasn’t anywhere to walk to in an airport. Just people staring at him because of his arm. And people in airports walked slow. Bucky’s body fell naturally into walking like in New York, fast on the left, slow on the right, but travelers were stupid and dumb and they didn’t pay attention. They’d stop suddenly to jabber to each other in German and French and Portuguese and Arabic, forcing people to swerve around their kids.
Bucky swerved around a kid who’d stopped to check something on her backpack, and a fast-walking man in a suit shoved his shoulder and hissed Scheisskerl at him. Bucky put out his left hand to steady himself, but he didn’t have a left hand anymore so he fell. He curved his shoulders to drop and roll, but he was in public and regular people didn’t fall like that, so he aborted the motion, and then it was too late to catch himself any other way. His nose and chin and right knee bashed and scraped on the scraggy airport carpet.
“Fuck!” he yelled. The mother of the kid with the backpack glared at him, like it wasn’t her kid’s fucking fault in the first place.
His nose bled a lot. People kept coming to check on him, even after he stood up and backed up against a window and scrubbed at his face with his sleeve. One of the checkout clerks from the coffee shop across the way. An American family who wouldn’t leave him alone until he swore at them. Two security officers, because they saw the missing arm and thought he was a fellow soldier.
(Ironically, it would have been the perfect opportunity to separate one of them out from the pack for interrogation. If they had set a bomb, and it was Bucky’s job to find it.)
More to escape the attention than anything else, he went to the bathroom and got a wad of paper towels to hold under his nose. On the way back to his gate, he swiped an unopened sandwich out of someone’s tote bag. He was hungry.
Back at the gate, Sam had fallen asleep again. Great. So anyone could just walk away with their shit. Bucky kicked his ankle irritably as he sat down, and Sam came awake in a hard jolt that made Bucky’s stomach ache with familiarity. It was a hard thing to shake, that jolt. The asset—
“Hey,” said Sam. “What’d you—” He blinked a couple of times. “Are you bleeding?”
Bucky shrugged. Before Sam could ask if he’d been in a fight, he said, “I fell. It was dumb. I just fell.”
“Oh.” Sam drew a hand across his mouth. He looked awful, now that Bucky stopped to pay attention. Tired and drawn, not up to a fight, if they had to. “Are, um. Are you okay?”
“I just fell,” Bucky repeated.
“You’ve got blood.” Sam drew his hand over his mouth again, to show him where, and Bucky felt stupid for not realizing that was what he had been trying to indicate to Bucky the first time. Not meeting Sam’s eyes, he swiped his water bottle, poured a little on his wad of paper towels, and scrubbed them across his face.
“Got it?” he asked.
“Yeah. Shit. Sorry. I fell asleep with all our stuff, that was—pretty dumb.”
“The wings’re still in your backpack,” Bucky said, leaning over to say it quietly.
“Yeah? You checked? Trying to steal my shit, Barnes?”
Bucky laughed, and Sam’s face relaxed a little, too. “The bulk,” Bucky explained. “Same as when I left. Asshole.”
“Everybody’s jealous cause I’m the only one with wings,” Sam said, stretching his arms up and out. The motion reminded Bucky of something. He couldn’t put his finger on it. A good memory, from before. A James Buchanan Barnes thing.
“Want this?” he said, before he could think about it, waving his sandwich at Sam.
“You’re not hungry?”
“I ate your food on the plane.”
Sam really did smile then, which made his face look sort of okay, and he took the sandwich. The flight from Frankfurt to New York would be a long one and Bucky could eat then. And the sandwich had avocado in it, so he didn’t even want it; Bucky didn’t get why everyone in this millennium went nuts for avocado considering it tasted like slimy nothing.
When they got to New York, Sam went to see Stark, and Bucky hunkered down in a corner of their hotel room and tried not to think.
Stark told Sam, “Rogers isn’t missing, he’s just chickening out. Trust me.”
“Fuck that,” said Bucky, when Sam relayed this to him. “Stark doesn’t care if he’s dead, he would have fucking killed him if—”
(don’t, don’t, don’t)
His fingers felt cramped.
“Well,” Sam said. “You remember me saying they’ve been talking?”
Bucky wanted to break a window. Yes, he remembered. He was not so fucking broken, his mind was not so damaged, that he couldn’t remember a conversation from the previous day. Steve talked to him this way too. He shrugged.
“Okay, well, yeah. Stark thinks Steve got upset with him for something he said and just, I guess, blew town. Which, considering it’s Stark—”
“Or he has him stashed in a fucking lab somewhere and he’s fucking—” Bucky snapped his mouth shut so hard his teeth clicked. He couldn’t think about that, he couldn’t think of Steve on a table somewhere—
Sam’s face changed, and he said gently, “You good?”
Impatient, Bucky hissed between his teeth. “Just, we gotta check up on Stark first. Get into his tower, that’s the number-one thing, see if we can find clues where he mighta— Would he give you access? Like if you were visiting—”
Sam reached out and put a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, the metal side. Bucky shoved him away. His hand hurt, his fingers. Jaw, too.
“Okay,” said Sam. His voice was very measured. “Sorry, I won’t touch without permission, it’s good you made that clear to me. That’s good, okay?”
“Shut up,” Bucky snapped. “You didn’t answer my—”
“Do this,” said Sam. “Real quick. Cause you’re stressing me out, buddy. Take two deep breaths in and out. I’ll answer while you’re doing that. Sound good?”
Bucky glowered at Sam and sucked in a breath.
“Okay,” said Sam. “Good. Thanks. Now, I’m hearing you say you’re worried that Stark’s the one who’s responsible for Steve disappearing. I get that, cause last time you saw him was rough for you, and that’s okay to feel that way.”
Still holding his breath, Bucky rolled his hand in a circle to show that he wanted Sam to get on with it. He didn’t need fucking permission to think what he thought.
“Don’t hold your breath. I said in and out. Okay, where I’m worried is that Steve trusted Stark enough to make plans to see him, and—”
“Steve trusts everybody! He—” Sam cocked an eyebrow, and Bucky scowled and did another deep breath in. It didn’t make him feel better. He didn’t feel bad in the first place. Everyone thought they knew what was best for him.
“And,” said Sam, pointed, “if we spend the next three weeks planning a big heist on Stark’s mansion, we’ll probably still get caught, he’ll have a reason to rat us out to the feds for using forged passports, and if it isn’t Stark—do one more for me—that’s three more weeks’ head start the real bad guys’ll have on us.”
He was right, dammit. Bucky exhaled loudly. “Least Stark’s a lead. Not like you have any leads.”
Sam rolled a shoulder, shaking out the kinks. “Neither do you. Guess the tactical genius thing didn’t come out of the super soldier serum tube.”
“Fuck you,” said Bucky, without heat. “You tell Stark about me?”
Sam shut his eyes for a second. “He—yeah. He asked. He’s making—”
“I don’t care! I don’t care about Stark. I don’t care. Just wanted to know if I gotta spend half my time watching my back while we’re looking for Steve. What else did he say when you talked to him?”
“Steve! Fuck! Who are we trying to—Steve!” Bucky wrapped his arm tight around his torso, so he wouldn’t use it to punch Sam.
“Tell you what,” said Sam, his voice cool. “I’mma get some ice. When I get back here, you can tell me two places you think Steve’d visit if he came to New York, and you can not raise your voice to me when you do it. How about that?”
Bucky hadn’t raised his voice. He hadn’t, but Sam was already out the door.
He didn’t know any places Steve would go. He didn’t know Steve, not this Steve, and not even, fuck, he couldn’t even say he knew the old one. There was so much missing from his head, memories that Steve would throw his way and Bucky would he pretend he knew about them too. After a while, reading through his notebook (the old one, lost now, didn’t matter), he wasn’t sure what memories were real and what he’d reconstructed in his own head because Steve wanted so badly for him to remember: The smell of gingerbread when Mrs. Rogers was still alive. Trying to finish a jigsaw puzzle before the last of the light went.
Remembering crummy things was always easier. Bitch of a world he’d woken up to.
Mrs. Rogers. Her grave. That was where.
They split up to do the graves, because Sam pointed out that if Steve was visiting graves, he’d stop by Peg’s as well. Bucky got to choose which one he wanted to visit. He picked Holy Cross, even though it was farther away from the hotel which meant no time to sneak back around and scope out Tony Stark’s tower because he hadn’t forgotten that the last person to talk to Steve was almost certainly Tony Stark—
Anyway, he chose Mrs. Rogers because there was nobody else to remember her but him and Steve, and Bucky barely remembered her anyway and it wasn’t right. And he didn’t want to think about Peggy Carter dead in a box. At least with Mrs. Rogers, he’d had time to get used to it. Eighty years, almost. So what if he hadn’t lived through all of them.
Nothing about Holy Cross looked familiar. How could he remember the name, and not the place? Did Steve not let him come along to the gravesite, when he visited his mother?
Maybe James Buchanan Barnes had his own gravesite visits to pay. Bucky couldn’t remember where his parents were buried, and that wasn’t right either. He should’ve asked Steve. Steve would’ve died of joy if Bucky had asked that. He’d have gone with Bucky to buy flowers for the graves.
Sometime back, James Buchanan Barnes must’ve come to this grave, because Bucky’s feet carried him right to it. Sarah Rogers. Cherished wife, beloved mother. When Bucky and Steve came in wet with mud and laughing so hard they had to cling to each other to keep upright, she’d smile at Bucky like he’d given her the moon.
She called him “scamp.”
There were no flowers on the grave. Steve hadn’t been there, or he’d been there long enough ago that the groundskeeper had cleared them away already.
It wasn’t right.
If he had an armful of flowers (somewhere nearby must sell flowers), then when he went to talk to the groundskeeper, they’d trust him. More. And he could leave them at the gravesite afterward. He should’ve made Sam do both cemeteries. Selfish to come to Mrs. Rogers’s grave alone, knowing that he looked like a weapon, dangerous, trouble, nobody whose questions you’d want to answer. Just so he could remember her eyes, blue like Steve’s, sad in the same way (but she was always glad to see Bucky).
She called him scamp, and smiled with crooked teeth.
The sound of his phone ringing—Sam had gotten him a burner—jolted him so badly that he dropped to a crouch. A family twenty yards away heard it and glanced over, angry with him for disturbing the quiet of the graveyard. Clumsy, he fished the phone out and answered it.
Sam said, “I got something.”
He was standing in the middle of a desert of ice, white as far as he could see.
He was strapped into a chair, blindfolded, restrained by his arms and legs, while people spoke indistinctly around him.
Both of these things were true at once, which meant he was mentally compromised. Ordinarily he would think, would be sure, that the ice was the untrue thing. (He dreamt of ice, often.) But the restraints were leather; he could twist his fingers back far enough to feel them on his wrists. He could break leather, thicker than this, easily, but he was struggling and he was not free of these restraints. So then what?
He was cold. Cold to the bones of him.
“Where!” shouted one of the voices. A woman.
“He’s coming in and out. I think we went too far.” This one was a man’s voice, lightly accented.
The last thing he remembered: He was hunched over, hiding behind something, why would he hide? He couldn’t remember why. Trying to get a message back to the Avengers. He was slow at texting. If he had one of Tony’s fancy phones he could have whispered to it, not bothered with punching buttons. Why hadn’t he ever asked Tony for one, why hadn’t—
You couldn’t ask for favors from a man you had left broken and bloody and grieving and alone at an abandoned Hydra base in the middle of Russia.
You couldn’t ask for favors.
The ice was gone. His stomach heaved, and he vomited painfully. Three people (he was pretty sure he’d heard three, and three was okay, he could take three) made noises of disgust. “Call Anders, have him clean him up,” said one of them.
(Okay, four. He could take four.)
Someone patted his cheek, open-palmed. “Hang in there, Cap,” he said. A smoker’s voice, husky.
He said, “Go to hell,” and spit out a gob of bile.
Here was a question. If you left someone broken and bloody and grieving and alone at an abandoned Hydra base in the middle of Russia. If you did it because you had to, because it was the only way to stop him from killing the person who wore the same face as the man who killed his mother. If you had to because it was Bucky, but also because if he succeeded, he would look back later and wish it undone, and you were the only one who could give him that.
Wait, there was more to the question.
If you sent a helicopter, after. So he wouldn’t be stranded.
If you sent a phone, and it took three tries before he didn’t hang up on you.
If he called you pumpkin and asked when you were coming by. If, daring, you said, asked—
(His mouth tasted like vomit, but better that than ice.)
Would he still come after you, then?