“There’s another squad headed your way,” Sam stated. His voice was calm, but Steve could hear the edge of worry in his voice. Steve couldn’t reassure him; he had neither the time, nor the breath. “Maybe you should get out of there.”
Throwing the shield, taking out a line of Hydra guards in the hallway, Steve chased after it. Yanking it from the wall, he slammed it into the face of the guard coming around the corner, then ducked behind it as the squad Sam had warned about opened fire. There was another group coming up behind him and Sam was right. They had needed more Avengers, more backup, but this mission wasn’t sanctioned, and Steve wouldn’t put his friends in danger like that. The only reason he wasn’t alone was because Natasha was always suspicious, and Sam knew Steve like the back of his hand.
“I can’t, Sam,” Steve said, gritting his teeth.
“We know, Rogers,” Natasha replied. “I need thirty seconds to get to you.”
“Don’t have thirty seconds,” Steve answered. He could hear the other squad getting closer, at his back, but the squad ahead of him had set up a firing line, pinning him down behind the shield. By the time they ran out of ammo, he would have nowhere to hide. “Keep on target. Find out where he is.”
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Natasha snapped.
“Don’t think I have a choice.”
And he didn’t. This entire mission was so fucked, it wasn’t even funny. The Avengers should have been here, should have been allowed to take out a Hydra base. The fact that they weren’t… It hadn’t sat well with Steve. He’d dug deeper, ignoring orders, and had a guess as why they were keeping him away. Bucky. They had found him after the mess at the Triskelion, and he was here, somewhere, being reprogrammed.
What was worse, at least in Natasha’s opinion, was that the person who’d got hold of Bucky this time wasn’t just any Hydra operative. It was a Colonel from the Red Room itself, a woman old enough to know the full extent of Bucky’s programming. What Steve had seen in DC wasn’t it, Natasha had said afterwards, suggested that when Red Room sold Bucky to the American branch, they had…kept things to themselves. What Natasha knew of him, what she remembered, was more than the uncommunicative, barely-functional man on the bridge. It meant that this reprogramming session would be so much worse, so much more thorough than anything Bucky had been subjected to in the last twenty years.
Steve wouldn’t leave him behind twice, not his best guy. Even if it meant going rogue, going against the new S.H.I.E.L.D., and losing the life he had just been starting to build. It wouldn’t be a big loss; he’d avoided putting down too many roots, and strongest tie was to an organization that was still corrupt enough to allow Hydra to grow unmolested not once, but twice.
Gritting his teeth, bracing for the pain, he threw himself into the air, twisting to make himself that much more difficult to hit, and threw the shield. Landing, he launched himself at the few goons still standing. Pain burned through his hip, his stomach, and against his shoulder, but he forced it away. Catching the shield, he punched the edge into one man’s neck, grabbed another by the front, and threw him against the nearest wall hard enough he slumped bonelessly when he hit the ground.
The last two were already training their weapons back on him. Grabbing one, he forced his gun up, grabbed the knife at his belt and threw it at the second, ignoring the twinge of guilt he felt when it embedded in the man’s collar bone. He’d live, so long as someone got to him in time.
Tearing the gun from the last guard’s hands, Steve slammed the stock into his face and spun. Crouching, he propped the rifle against the rim of his shield and used it as cover as the second squad came around the corner firing. They weren’t nearly as coordinated as the first, didn’t form a proper firing line, and that’s all that saved Steve’s ass. He had never been as good a shot as Bucky, but he picked them off one by one, making every short burst count since he had no way to know how many rounds were still in the magazine.
The last man fell and Steve allowed himself a moment to breathe, assess his injuries. Pain continued to burn in his stomach, though his shoulder was mending since it was itching so badly. His hip throbbed,it was bad, but nothing was broken. It was his stomach he had to worry about; something vital wasn’t mending as quickly as the rest, indicating a worst-case scenario: the was bullet still inside him.
Footsteps sounded down the hall and Steve snapped his head and gun up. Natasha walked slowly through the carnage, looking down and around as if seeing death for the first time. It wasn’t that, he knew. She’d never seen him use a gun before.
“I was in a war, you know,” he said sarcastically.
“Just making sure you didn’t leave a body part behind,” Natasha replied.
When she reached him, she offered her hand and Steve took it because fuck it hurt to stand.
“Where is he?”
Natasha was staring at his stomach, so he pressed his arm over it. Probably better for the bleeding anyways.
“Not far,” she answered neutrally.
“You guys need to move,” Sam demanded. “Someone’s set off an alarm and they’re all converging on you. Five squads, at least.”
“Is that what that red flashing light and blaring siren means?” Steve asked, trying to hide how out of breath he was.
Sam ignored him.
“I know you said you can’t, but Steve, I really think you should get out of there. You’re not good to anyone dead.”
Steve swallowed, then looked to Natasha.
“You can go. I’ll understand.”
“Don’t be stupid, Rogers,” Natasha snapped, turning on her heel and marching down the hall. Steve followed, forcing the pain back down. There was no time to indulge himself. Bucky was so close, finally, and Steve wasn’t going to lose him again. Not ever again.
It surprised Steve just how close he had been when Natasha pushed open the lab doors. There were two sets, the ones they pushed easily through, flimsy aluminum without a lock, and another heavier set of steel doors. The second led to an empty space with a concrete floor, tech equipment pushed up against the walls, and the chair. Steve had seen it in his files, the black monstrosity that had taken everything that had once been Bucky and made him little more than one of Tony’s robots.
And there, sitting in it, was Bucky. Nothing but lean muscle, half-naked, chest heaving and flexing in agitation that wasn’t showing on his face. He looked at them blankly, no recognition, no fear, no anything. Even the siren and the flashing alarms didn’t seem to be important to the man in the chair.
“Kill them!” someone screamed and Steve managed to look away from Bucky to see they weren’t alone. An old woman, white hair cropped short and wearing a Russian uniform held a red book in her hand. The tech looked startled, realizing she was talking to him, and made the mistake of reaching for his gun. Natasha fired before Steve could blink, but her gun jammed empty.
Realizing she was in the line of fire, the Colonel darted away and started shouting words from the book.
The words that erased the man he knew, and brought out the mindless machine.
“Get the fucking door open!” Steve shouted, despite his breathing being shallow from the pain in his gut.
Natasha was already on it, sliding some weird electronic device over the console and tapping away at her datapad. Anxious, Steve hovered by the locked doors, biting his tongue to keep from harassing her. It was past fucking time he learned to do shit like this on his own.
Steve was through the door in a heartbeat, raising the gun and firing. The words stopped, cut off before the Winter Soldier could be activated, but Steve’s relief was short-lived.
“They’re nearly on top of you,” Sam barked.
“Natasha, bar the door,” Steve ordered.
Swinging the rifle over his shoulder, he held out his hand to Bucky.
“It’s time to go.”
Bucky’s eyes didn’t even flick towards him. Didn’t move from whatever spot they’d chosen in the middle distance.
It was as if he wasn’t even there.
“Bucky?” Steve tried, but there was still nothing. It was like looking at a doll. The only sign that Bucky was even alive was his agitated breathing. Not like before, when there was at least a glimmer of recognition. This body, the body of a man he’d loved more than anything in the world, didn’t know him.
“We don’t have time for this,” Natasha snarled, back bracing the medical cart she’d shoved before the doors. “Use the codes and we’ll figure it out later.”
Slowly, Steve’s gaze turned to the book still clutched in the hand of the dead woman. She was right; they didn’t have time for this. But using the codes? Being no better than Hydra? Steve didn’t know if he could, if he could take any remaining autonomy away from Bucky after so many had thought it was their right. It wasn’t Steve’s, it wasn’t anyone’s, but if they stayed here they would die. Steve would die, Natasha would die, and they’d just make Bucky a monster all over again.
As if reading his mind, Natasha said quietly, “Better the devil you know, Steve.”
He picked up the notebook.
Even as he looked at the words scribbled by hand on the yellowed pages, some distant part of him wondered if maybe it wouldn’t be better, more merciful to just put the gun to Bucky’s head and end the torment once and for all. Even though he understood the logic in that action, he knew he could never make a decision like that. He was too weak. Couldn't stand to think it, much less actually follow through.
The codes were in Russian, but someone had scribbled beneath the Cyrillic in pencil. Not just the translations, but the transliterations. Well, lucky him. He couldn’t speak Russian, but he had heard enough to vaguely know how it was supposed to sound. Imitation without understanding the words, but he didn’t need to know what they meant. Only what they would do.
“Zhelaniye. Rzhavet. Semnadstat. Rassvet. Pech. Devyat. Dobroserdechny. Vozvrashcheniye na rodinu. Odin. Gruzovoy wagon.”
Steve didn’t know what was supposed to happen now that he’d said the words. The cooling body of the old woman was still bleeding out at his feet, but he had eyes only for Bucky. There was no way to know how much Bucky was aware of in this state. Had he actually seen Steve kill the old hag? Did he realize they were under attack? Did he know the Colonel was Red Room?”
Neither Steve nor Natasha moved, watching Bucky’s stillness, both of them waiting with baited breath as someone began pounding on the outside doors.
“Ya gatov otvietchat,” Bucky finally spoke. His voice was terribly raspy, as if he’d spent hours screaming, or maybe hadn’t spoken in years.
Natasha let out a loud breath, jolting as someone slammed into the doors again. Steve looked from her to Bucky and back again, waiting for her to say something. She didn’t, remaining quiet, her gaze fixed on Bucky.
It took a moment for Steve to realize that Natasha couldn’t be the one to order Bucky, not in this situation. She wasn’t the handler, he was because he had said the codes.
Steve’s stomach was burning with more than pain when he breathed in and said slowly, “Can you understand me?”
Something flickered in Bucky’s gaze. Not recognition, he was still looking at Steve as if he’d never seen him before in his life, but he was looking at Steve. It wasn’t the blank eyes of a doll any more, the velvet grey gaze had awareness to it, if only situational.
“Angliski,” he said, whatever that meant.
Steve was opening his mouth to speak, when Bucky beat him to it.
Losing all trace of a Russian accent, he said in perfect English, “What is my mission?”
“Get us out of here,” Steve ordered. He didn’t want to, didn’t want to make Bucky do anything, but he was hurt worse than he wanted to admit, and Natasha was running low on ammunition. If they stayed here any longer the whole mission would be a bust, and not only would they fail to save Bucky, but would lose any chance of ever saving him.
“Acknowledged,” was all Bucky said.
Steve watched as he climbed from the chair and looked up. Helplessly curious, Steve looked up too, but all he saw was the high industrial-styled ceiling. Looking back to Bucky, he watched him scan the whole room in a glance, the slight downturn of his lips indicating displeasure. Steve had no idea at what exactly, or even if that look meant what it used to.
“Structural integrity of the door will be compromised in less than sixty seconds,” Bucky informed them. It was pointed, as if Steve was somehow lacking intelligence by not being aware of that fact. When Bucky looked at the two handguns in Natasha's hands, Steve's shield, and his bleeding gut wound, his lips twisted a bit more. “Weaponry inadequate.”
Steve felt judged. Judged and found wanting. When waking the Winter Soldier, he hadn’t been expecting to be told he was a lousy handler within the first minutes after delivering the codes. Then again, Bucky always had been good at getting under his skin. Even now, with no recognition in his eyes, not even mostly human, Steve wanted nothing more than his approval.
Bucky went to the steel door leading directly into the lab, not the corridor that was currently being battered, and climbed up onto it to crouch on the top edge of it. There was only a scant inch of metal, but he balanced easily, almost absently. Steve was captivated.
“Getting out of the line of fire is recommended,” Bucky said gravely.
Glancing at Natasha, she shrugged, but didn’t move. Moving beneath Bucky, he ignored the burn of those eyes on him and held out his hand to Natasha. Smirking, because god this was so fucking stupid, she shifted, bracing her foot against the medical cart and leaped at him. In a long, fluid motion, he caught her in his arms, shielding them both behind the vibranium metal, and threw them sideways. They slid through the dead technician’s blood, but the bullets that rained through the doorway shot harmlessly above them, then behind them. When they stopped, Steve could hardly breathe the pain was so all-consuming from where Natasha’s hip had pressed against the stomach wound.
Bucky didn’t move, didn’t flinch, looking almost serene crouching there above them until the first Hydra agent was through the door. The guard’s gun was up as he turned towards Steve, bullets spewing in short bursts from his rifle. The white hot pain still searing him, Steve had only enough strength to bring up the shield to cover Natasha. Over its top, he could still see Bucky, and if he was going to die, at least he had a great view.
Bucky’s expression didn't change. The long brown hair was loose, drifting in front of his face as he leaned down. Muscles in his chest and back flexed as Bucky’s metal fist closed over the Hydra agent’s shoulder, clenching tight enough that Steve heard the crunch of bone over the gunfire. In that same, almost lazy manner, Bucky followed. Using his hold on the agent, he flipped him over and locked his legs around the goon crowded behind the one screaming in agony. There was another crunch, and all three of them went down. Even as they fell, Bucky was already twisting with effortless grace that Steve was used to seeing in Natasha, not in men of Bucky’s size. They fell all the harder for the simple motion, Bucky using his weight and momentum to his advantage to crush the two beneath him. Even as he did, the flesh arm caught hold of the rifle the first goon was clutching, pulled it over the man’s shoulder and fired blindly. It wasn’t as though he needed to aim; the corridor leading to the lab forced the agents to crowd close together, like sardines in a tin.
Untwisting his legs from the dead man's neck, Bucky flipped over again to land on his knees facing the oncoming agents. In a flawlessly smooth continuation of movement, he pulled the body of the first agent up to use as a shield. From the sound, at least ten guns opened up, but Bucky was perfectly positioned that the goon’s kevlar vest covered him. The only things outside of its protective range was the metal arm, which was impervious to bullets anyway.
As the left arm held the body-shield up as easily as though it was made of paper, the flesh one rifled through the dead man’s front pockets. The first discovery was several grenades which Bucky placed near his knees. Then came knives; one serrated, one smooth, and one thin, with a long black blade; followed by a small handgun, possibly a Glock, which he tucked at the small of his back.
Bucky cast a glance sideways, checking Steve’s position and his cover before reaching for one of the grenades. It was the longest look Steve had been given since they arrived. Between the shock of it and the pain, Steve didn’t notice what picking up a grenade meant. Natasha did.
“Oh shit,” she murmured, turning and bracing herself for the shockwave. It jostled Steve further, and it was all he could do not to cry out.
Pulling the pin with his thumb, Bucky waited a moment before throwing it into the corridor. As panic ensued, Bucky fell sideways to the floor, pulling the dead body over himself like a blanket. The explosion was tight, the grenades luckily calibrated for indoor fighting, but all the more efficient in the tight space. Even Steve, as protected as he was by the shield, was briefly stunned by the shockwave. Ears ringing, he could see Natasha pressed tight to his chest, eyes squeezed shut. Probably fighting off the dizziness too.
When he looked up again, Bucky was not bothered by anything as mundane. He was a blur of movement, throwing his cover away and exploding out of sight into the corridor. As Steve shook off the blast, tried to regain control of his body and mind, he could hear bursts of gunfire and the occasional scream. Then silence. Not settling over them, but an abrupt cessation of all sound.
Carefully rolling Natasha off him, Steve looked up to see Bucky back in the doorway. There was a strap of a rifle slung over his naked chest. What was strange, however, was the dead body he was dragging behind himself by its collar. Steve stared, then slowly let his eyes wander over Bucky, over the body he’d once known so well. Ostensibly it was to assure himself Bucky wasn’t hurt, but he had to admit the man looked good. Bucky’s bare right shoulder was splattered with blood, but after a moment’s panic, Steve realized it wasn’t his.
Incongruously, Steve realised that Bucky was still barefoot. The pale appendages were smeared with the blood he had waded through. Steve flicked his eyes from Bucky’s naked feet, so strangely vulnerable, to his grey eyes, pale and so alien.
“Uh, why did you…” Steve looked at the body, still hanging from Bucky’s metal fist.
“Equipment,” Bucky, or rather the Winter Soldier, responded. His cold eyes focused on Steve with something he couldn’t help but think of as disapproval. “Proper equipment.”
With a thunk that was even more pointed than the words, Bucky dropped the body, but didn’t move much more. His flesh hand was closed over the rifle slung over his chest, the barrel not quite pointing at Steve and Natasha, but… Something was wrong. It took Steve a moment, but he knew that stance. Bucky was blocking the way out, not guarding it.
The Winter Soldier wasn’t standing down.
“You have not followed standard waking procedure.”
Steve blinked. Well, fuck.
“Is it normal procedure to awaken under attack?” Steve shot back. He wasn’t getting up and neither was Natasha. Provoking Bucky likely wouldn’t end well, and Steve was nowhere near up for a fight with the Winter Soldier right now.
“No,” Bucky said carefully, “What is more concerning,” he dropped the body, flipping back the man’s collar to reveal the silver Hydra insignia, “Is this.” Cold eyes swept over Steve, then Natasha. “You are not Hydra.”
“We are,” Natasha said quickly. “They aren’t. Colonel Dietrich has gone rogue and taken her people with her. Sold herself to the Americans. Captain Rogers is here to make it right. Bring you back in.”
Though he was in agony, Steve knew the part she was handing him before she’d even finished her second sentence. A part he could play, because before they’d made him a soldier, they’d made him an actor.
So, he was a Hydra agent. What would a Hydra agent do?
“Hydra was damaged,” Steve said, slowly sitting up, “Attacked after some idiots exposed our existence too soon.” Natasha looked at him, but was too good at this game to look surprised. “Splintered. These imposters aren’t Hydra. They do not follow the mission.”
“You have no insignia,” Bucky repeated, but more hesitantly.
Steve snorted, waving Natasha towards him to help him up. She did, but cautiously.
“The world has changed. Only idiots openly display their allegiance and those idiots quickly die.”
“Cut off one head-”
The words in Bucky’s mouth made Steve want to tear the world apart.
“We are the risen head!” he snarled. “Do you think we wanted to come here, just the two of us? Where’s the rest of our men, Soldier? There are none. We have to rebuild, and why the hell am I arguing with you anyway?! Stand down.”
The gun swung towards the floor and Steve might have given them away by breathing easier except he couldn’t through all the pain.
“What is your codename?” Bucky asked.
“This is Black Widow,” Steve answered, stalling as he grasped for a name for himself. What could he say? Captain America? Oh yeah, that would go over well. Besides, he wasn’t any more, not after this. Not after disobeying a direct order. Not that he wanted to follow a country that would allow Hydra to continue. So he was without a country, without a home, but not without a purpose.
Bucky nodded and Steve carefully tried to stand on his own. Looking worried, Natasha hovered at his side until he nodded and pressed his fist back over the bleeding hole.
“Well,” Steve said to Bucky, “Get us out of here.”
The Winter Soldier nodded, just once, and led the way.