"Twenty-four, hours," Phillips says. It's just Steve and Phillips in the command tent. Peggy has already spirited Zola off to London to begin interrogation, and the Commandos are waiting outside. "You have twenty-four hours to get back here and on a plane to London. Take twenty-five hours, and I will have you declared AWOL and your star-spangled ass court martialed."
Steve doesn't argue. He knows he's lucky to have even that much time to bring back Bucky.
No, that's not right.
To bring back Bucky's body. Bucky's dead. Steve couldn't reach him in time, and Bucky fell, and now Steve's best friend, the person in the world he loves most of all, even more than Peggy, is dead.
Steve can't bring Bucky back home, but he can give his body back to his family. He can make sure the casket they grieve over contains their son and brother. He can give Bucky the funeral he deserves. It won't stop him from seeing Bucky fall every time he closes his eyes, but it's all he can do.
"What's the word, Cap?" Jones asks when he emerges from Phillips' office.
"I've got twenty-four hours," Steve says, hoping it's enough.
"You mean we've got twenty four hours," Morita says.
"I can't ask you…" Steve starts to say.
"You ain't askin'," Dugan says. "We're tellin'."
"We aren't leaving the Sergeant behind," Falsworth says.
"Oui," says Dernier. "C'est impossible. Nous devons venir avec toi."
All the Commandos give Steve grim-faced nods.
"Thank you," Steve says, more grateful than he can say that his men are behind him.
From that point on, he has a constant countdown running in his head. Twenty-four hours until Phillips' deadline. Twenty-three. Twenty-two. Not that he's unwilling to face a court martial himself (after everything Bucky did for him, he'd do far more than that for Bucky's sake) but he won't let his men face punishment for his choices.
By the time they're rappelling down the side of the gorge at the place where (they think) Bucky fell, Steve's countdown is at eighteen hours. More than enough time to do what he's come for. As he touches the floor of the gorge, with Dugan, Jones and Falsworth behind him, he has to block from his mind what's waiting for him here. He still can't think of Bucky as just a body. He was always so very much alive that it's impossible to think of him as dead.
They trudge through the snow, Dugan dragging the sled they'd brought to carry Bucky back, dodging around boulders large and small, and struggling to keep their footing on snow that hides loose scree underneath and could tip them into the river beside them at any time.
They've been walking for what seems like too long (seventeen hours and fifteen minutes to go) and Steve is beginning to wonder if they're going the right way, if they're even in the right place. But then he sees it.
He's tried not to think about what must have happened to Bucky, about what falling into this gorge with its jagged spiked sides and rocky bottom would have done to flesh and bone, but now he can see the evidence of its cruelty: blood on the snow. He can't yet see a body among the scattered boulders, thank Christ, but there's so much blood. He stops with a shudder, feeling himself unable to go on.
He starts at the feeling of a hand on his shoulder.
"We'll do this, Captain," Falsworth says, his voice sounding slightly closed up. "You stay here."
"No," Steve says, straightening his shoulders and preparing to face the horror ahead. "It has to be me." In his head, he's back clinging to the outside of a train, watching Bucky fall, but he tries to keep that horror from his expression. "I need to look after him."
He moves forward, and he can hear the crunch of his men's boots in the snow behind him. He's so glad they're with him.
He rounds the boulder blocking where the blood seems to have flowed from, and finds…nothing. No body, no shattered shell of the man who meant more to him than anything. Nothing but blood in the snow and footprints. So many footprints, leading away into the distance.
Steve had been so prepared to face a nightmare that he finds himself unable to handle its absence. His knees give way, and he finds himself dropping to the ground. He barely feels the cold of the snow seeping through his uniform's trousers.
"He's gone," Steve says, trying to process the lack of a body. "Someone took him." He turns to Falsworth, who's crouched down beside him, looking at him with concern. "Why would someone have taken Bucky's body?" Bucky has suffered so many indignities in Europe, Steve can't imagine him suffering yet another one in death.
He hears movement, and sees Dugan and Jones carefully examining the place where Bucky must have fallen, the place where the blood is darkest, and the footprints surrounding it. The two of them huddle, and they begin talking fast and low enough that even Steve's enhanced hearing can't make it out.
It's Dugan who finally comes over to him, crouches beside him and Falsworth and looks at Steve with sympathy in his eyes.
"It looks like ten men took the Sergeant. Jones found that many different footprints, and there's the trail of a sled like ours being dragged with them. No sign of what side they're on, though. Could be Krauts, could be the Ruskies. Could be fucking Hydra." Dugan spits in the snow at that name.
"But why would they have taken his body?" Steve can't help asking himself that over and over.
Dugan looks at him, and the sympathy in his eyes deepens.
"Well, that's the thing, Cap." He stops and clears his throat. "We don't think they took his body."
"But…" Steve can't think this through. Dugan isn't making any sense.
"We think—well, Jones thinks, and I agree—that the Sarge is still alive."
"Alive?" Steve breathes out the word, and it's the worst sort of hope. Because how could Bucky have survived that fall? He looks at the snow around him. How had Bucky survived losing all this blood?
"Alive," Dugan says. "We found a few more drops of blood going down the trail, beside the sled tracks. And, well… dead men don't bleed."
Steve doesn't say anything. He just looks up the sides of the gorge, the terrible height of it, and thinks of the damage the fall must have inflicted on Bucky. Alive, he might be, but grievously wounded.
He stands, determination taking the place of despair.
Bucky's alive. He survived the fall.
He needs Steve.
"How long ago were those men here?"
"Well," Dugan says slowly, "it snowed last night and the tracks aren't covered, so it can't be any more than six hours ago. It might be less."
Six hours. Bucky might be six hours ahead of him. There are seventeen hours before Phillips' deadline.
Steve isn't coming back without Bucky. But he needs to travel fast. Bucky is six hours ahead of him and he might be in the hands of Hydra.
"I'm going ahead," Steve tells the others. "Follow if you can, but don't miss Phillips' deadline. I don't want you court martialled for me. For us."
He sees the others share rebellious looks, but they're smart enough not to protest. Not to his face, anyway.
"And you, Captain," Falsworth says. "Are you going to miss Phillips' deadline?"
"If I have to."
He checks that his shield is securely in place, that his guns are loaded, that his gear is all secure, and then he takes off at a run before his men can say another word.
He runs as fast as he can through the gorge's floor, dodging boulders and rocks, struggling not to turn his ankle when he hits a patch of loose rock under the snow. He does slip into the river once, one boot submerging to his ankle, but he ignores the discomfort. He follows the tracks, the ten men and one sled, the drops of blood that occasionally appear on the trail beside the sled's tracks. (Dead men don't bleed, he thinks. If he's bleeding, he's still alive.) He pushes himself to move faster and faster, until his lungs are burning in the frigid air, until he feels like he did when his asthma would strike and he couldn't breathe, the air wheezing in his lungs. And still he doesn't slow down. Bucky needs him, needs his strength. Needs him not to fail him a second time.
Soon enough, the sun crosses beyond the top edge of the gorge and the light begins to fade. Only mid-afternoon and it already seems like twilight. Steve eases his speed, not wanting to stumble in the shadows, and it's then that he hears them: voices on the trail ahead.
The floor of the gorge has widened at this point, providing enough room for a small camp. The river here is just a pleasant stream. He slows his speed to a crawl, keeping behind the larger boulders so he'll be out of sight of the men ahead until he knows if they're friend or foe.
He steps carefully, trying not to make a sound that will give his position away, and listens to the voices, trying to figure out what language they're speaking.
Russian. They're speaking Russian. His hopes rise. Russia is an ally against Hitler and his mad men. He might get Bucky back without a fight. Might, but might not. He knows that Peggy and Phillips don't always trust the Russians, that they're uncertain of their true loyalties. So he proceeds carefully, keeping himself hidden.
Finally, he sees two soldiers in Soviet uniforms ahead of him. Steve recognizes the universal posture of soldiers on sentry duty, that mixture of boredom and anxiety that takes over when you're guarding a camp far from the front lines, but have faced enough ambushes to understand no position is safe.
Steve waits until the sentries light up cigarettes, concentrating more on their smoking than the world around them, and then works his way around more boulders so he can get eyes on the main camp, desperate to confirm this group has Bucky. He edges close enough that he can see more men. Three, four and five mill around a small camp fire. Six and seven stand off to the side, digging into their packs. He shifts his position, and then he sees it, the edge of the sled he's been tracking. The sled that must hold Bucky.
His heart starts hammering in his chest at how close Bucky is. He needs to see him. He needs to confirm he's still alive. He needs to see his face. He belly crawls around another boulder, and then he can see two more soldiers (eight and nine) and the whole sled. He can see Bucky.
The man in the sled is turned away from him, but Steve recognizes his blue jacket, the shape of his shoulder, the curl of his hair. Steve debates trying to get Bucky's attention, with a whisper or a thrown stone, when the tenth man comes into view. This man is dressed not in a Soviet uniform, but in the black leather coat of an SS officer.
No, not SS, Steve realizes as he notices the man's uniform insignia. Hydra.
Steve clenches his jaw in anger as the Hydra officer approaches the sled, looking down at Bucky with distaste. He barks out something in Russian, and then kicks the sled sharply. Bucky gasps and flinches in pain, and finally turns his face towards Steve's position. His skin is pale, spattered with blood and looks too tightly drawn over his skin. His eyes look glassy with fever, and Steve isn't sure he's aware of his surroundings.
Steve is overcome with the need to kill this Hydra son of a bitch, but ten against one aren't good odds. Not with Bucky in the line of fire. He'd risk himself in an instant, but he won't risk losing Bucky again. Not when he's been given a second chance. With a final look at Bucky, Steve fades back to the perimeter where he left the two sentries, and begins planning his attack.
The gorge has lost nearly all light when he acts.
Steve waits until the first sentry is walking the perimeter on his own, then takes him out with a hand over his mouth and a knife between his ribs. (Hollywood's Captain America wouldn't kill a man from behind. Steve Rogers will do whatever is needed to save Bucky Barnes.) He pulls the body out of sight behind a boulder, then breaks the second sentry's neck with a single, well-practised movement.
He moves closer to the main encampment, and catches one more man unaware. One more body is hidden in the shadows.
And that's when his luck runs out.
He enters the camp and one of the soldiers sees him, shoots at him with a pistol. Steve uses the shield to block and then strike, and the man falls at his feet. Then it's chaos, and Steve has no time to think as the remaining five Soviets descend on him. He fights dirty, using every trick he learned on the streets of Brooklyn, and every manoeuvre he's learned in the field. He fights to survive. He fights to save his friend. He fights for everything that means anything to him.
It feels like it takes forever—the Soviets live up to their reputation as tough fighters—but in the end there are five more bodies strewn around him.
Which leaves only the Hydra officer.
Steve pulls out his pistol, hefts up the shield, and moves to where he left Bucky, dreading what he might find. As he pulls around the rock formation hiding the sled, he finds the man standing over Bucky, a Mauser pistol aimed at Bucky's head.
From this angle, Steve can finally see what was hidden from him before, the reason there was so much blood where Bucky fell. There's nothing remaining of his left arm but a bloody, mangled stump. The Russians have put a dressing on it, but the dressing is already soaked through with blood. Bucky looks like he's hanging onto the edge of consciousness.
Steve is hit with a wave of revulsion. His body wants nothing more than to drop to the snow, to vomit up the horror of the situation, but he doesn't have time for that. Bucky's life depends on him, so he slams the door on his own distress and concentrates on getting them both out of this alive.
"Captain Rogers, I presume," the man says, his English only lightly accented and very precise. Steve wonders if he studied in England before the war.
"That's right." Steve doesn't let his own aim drift from the man's heart, letting his growing anger give him strength.
"I am Obersturmbannführer Reinhardt. It is good to finally meet you."
"I can't say the same."
"I imagine you can't," Reinhardt says. "Now let us get down to business. Throw your gun aside and drop your shield, and I will let your friend live." Reinhardt smiles, an expression that has absolutely no humour in it. "I presume this is your friend, the famous Sergeant Barnes. Dr. Zola told me so much about him."
"Zola doesn't know anything about him," Steve barks out. The only thing keeping him from pulling the trigger is his fear that Reinhardt will kill Bucky before Steve can kill him.
"There are things Zola knows about the sergeant that you do not," Reinhardt says with a smile. Steve is drawn back to that Hydra facility, with Bucky strapped down and reciting his name, rank and serial number to an empty room. Bucky's never said what happened to him in that place, but he's not going to give this Hydra asshole the satisfaction of knowing that.
"I imagine Dr. Zola is telling our interrogators what he knows right now," Steve says, putting all the steel he can into his voice.
"Ah, yes, I did hear you'd captured the good doctor. Fortunately, Schmidt didn't share everything with him."
"I'm sure he shared enough. Now put down your weapon," Steve says.
"Then we have a stalemate."
"Not quite," says Reinhardt. Then, with a slight turn of his hand, he shoots Bucky in the leg. Bucky screams in pain. "Drop your shield, Captain. Or I will shoot him again. After what Zola did to him, I imagine it will take quite a few bullets to kill him."
"Steve?" Bucky's voice is soft and strained, but his eyes are clear now. The pain has cleared away his confusion. "Don't do it, Steve. I'm not worth it."
"Oh, Sergeant," Reinhardt, says, his voice utterly calm, "I think you drastically underestimate your value to the Captain." He turns his attention back to Steve. "Doesn't he?" It's not really a question. Reinhardt has discovered his one true weakness, and he has nothing left to fight with.
"He does," Steve agrees, wondering if he can keep Reinhardt talking long enough for the Commandos to finally catch up to them. "He means the world to me." He looks at Bucky, and hopes he can read into his words everything Steve's never told him. Everything he's wanted to say to Bucky and couldn't. Because if these few minutes are all they have left, he wants to make them count.
"How touching." Reinhardt's tone makes Steve want to bash his skull in with the shield, but he knows he couldn't do it before Reinhardt shot again. "Now if you please, drop the shield."
"No!" Bucky says.
"I'm sorry," Steve says. And he is. Because there's no good way, no clean way out of this. If he drops his shield, Reinhardt will shoot him, and there will be no one who can protect Bucky. Reinhardt with either kill his friend or, worse, he'll give Bucky to other Hydra scientists and he'll be back, strapped to a table, repeating his name, rank and serial number. If he doesn't drop his shield, Reinhardt will shoot Bucky. Again and again. Both options are unbearable.
Two bad choices, but there's only one way for him. There's only ever been one way. Steve realized on that train how much he'd do to save Bucky. He'll do everything if it means keeping Bucky alive. He'll sacrifice himself and trust that Reinhardt can't make it back to a Hydra base with Bucky before the Howlies catch up to him and gut him like a fish.
"You're running out of time, Captain." Reinhardt's tone is impatient. "I'll give you to the count of three. One."
Steve takes in a deep breath.
He flexes his fingers and drops the shield into the snow.
"Thank you, Captain."
Steve doesn't answer Reinhardt, doesn't even look at him. He keeps his gaze on Bucky's panicked eyes. Even if he can't touch him, he wants his last sight to be Bucky.
"Ah, Steve," Bucky says, and there's such grief in his face. Steve is sorry to be the cause of it, but not at all sorry if it means saving Bucky's life.
He tenses, waiting for the shot that will kill him.
There's a blast, loud enough to make him blink, but no pain accompanies the sound. He looks up in confusion, and sees that Reinhardt's face has been obliterated by a shotgun blast before the man drops to the ground. He rolls and grabs his shield, raising it to defend himself and Bucky against a new enemy, only to see Dugan, Falsworth and Jones enter the clearing.
"You don't half take chances, Cap," Dugan says as he slings his shotgun back over his shoulder.
Steve doesn't answer. He's kneeling at Bucky's side before he's made a conscious decision to move, pressing his hand against the wound on his leg. Reinhardt hasn't hit an artery, thank Christ, and Steve manages to stop the bleeding quickly.
"Are we dead?" Bucky asks, his face covered with sweat in spite of the cold.
"No, Buck. We're alive." He takes Bucky's remaining hand with his free one and holds it tight. "You're alive."
"Must be why it hurts so fucking much," Bucky says, returning the grip on Steve's hand with the little strength he can muster.
The beginnings of a shout for help form in Steve's throat, but Falsworth and Jones appear at his side with a Soviet medic's kit before he says a word. Jones gives Bucky a shot of morphine without being asked, then the two of them busy themselves putting a proper dressing on the stump of Bucky's arm before and binding the wound on his leg. Before they finish, Bucky passes out, though whether from the morphine or the pain or all the shit he's gone through, Steve doesn't know. All Steve can think of is that Bucky is alive. Alive. It's seems impossible, but it's true.
"We gotta move, Cap," Dugan says. "We're getting close to Phillips' deadline."
"Fuck Phillips' deadline," Steve says without looking up. He's completely lost track of his countdown to the deadline because he honestly doesn't give a fuck how long they have. He would face court martial for himself ten times over to have this moment, Bucky alive and with him.
"And we don't know if the Ruskies have pals nearby."
"Shit," Steve says under his breath. Because Dugan's not wrong about that.
"We need to get the Sarge medical help," Jones adds, and that's what sets Steve quickly back in motion.
Reluctantly, Steve lets go of Bucky's hand, and helps Falsworth wrap him up in blankets taken from the Russians. Bucky whimpers slightly when Steve comes too close to the stump of his arm, but otherwise he's so quiet that Steve keeps checking he's still breathing.
When they're ready to move, Steve insists on being the one to pull the sled. Dugan and Jones take the lead and Falsworth brings up the rear, keeping a constant eye out for anyone following them. The return trip takes longer, and even Steve feels worn out by the time they reach the place where the ropes they descended on are waiting for them.
Steve ties Bucky into the sled himself, testing every knot, making sure there's no way Bucky can slip out on the way up. Then he clips the sled to one of the ropes and pulls on it three times, the signal for Morita and Dernier to begin hauling Bucky back up to the train.
Steve doesn't wait for them to get Bucky all the way up. He starts climbing another set of ropes on his own, needing to stay as close to Bucky as he can. He makes it to their commandeered freight car as Morita is untying the ropes around Bucky, looking at him with shock.
"Fuck, Cap," Morita says, shocked. "He's alive."
"Yeah," says Steve. "And I need you to keep him that way."
That's exactly what Morita does. By the time Dernier and Steve pull the others up the side of the gorge, Morita has redressed his wounds, dusting them with sulfa powder to prevent infection. He's got Bucky on a plasma IV to begin replacing the blood he's lost. At some point, Dugan, Jones and Falsworth begin readying the engine for the return trip.
All the way back, Steve stays by Bucky's side, holding his hand, soothing him when his drugged sleep is disturbed by nightmare. He notices the others sneaking looks at him, but he doesn't give a damn what they think. And anyway, they're his Commandos, his and Bucky's. If they haven't figured out how he feels about Bucky by now, they haven't been paying attention.
Come to that, Steve feels like he hasn't been paying attention to how he feels himself. It took losing Bucky to make him realize how important he is. And now that he's got him back, he doesn't know how he's ever going to leave his side. Not when Bucky's so broken. Not when he's going to need Steve so much.
Once they reach the train station, they shanghai a truck. (It's easy to talk people into things when you're Captain Fucking America.) Steve rides in the back with Bucky. Morita hovers beside them, making sure Bucky is stable. Jones and Dernier are back here too, talking quickly and quietly in French. Steve doesn't know what they're saying, and he can't really find the energy to care. All he cares about is the man beside him.
Phillips is waiting for them when they reach the landing field. And Steve doesn't think he's ever seen him quite so furious. Which is saying a lot. Phillips seems to operate on a spectrum of mildly annoyed to completely pissed off.
"Twenty-seven hours, Rogers," Phillips bellows at him when he jumps out of the truck. "You and your men are two hours over your deadline. What have you got to say for yourself?"
Steve doesn't say anything, he just takes the edge of the sled that Morita is pushing out of the truck bed and lets Phillips see Bucky. Lets him see that Bucky isn't just a body they've recovered.
"Hmmph," Phillips says, and it's the closest to speechless Steve has ever seen his C.O. "I should have known you'd pull off a miracle," he finally says. "Seems like you're prone to them."
"Some Soviet soldiers had found him in the gorge," Steve says. Phillips goes from irritated to attentive in the time it takes Steve to blink.
"I didn't know our Russian friends were operating in the area."
"They had a Hydra officer with them."
Phillips raises his eyebrows.
"Now, that is very interesting. I don't suppose you interrogated this Hydra officer."
"Dugan shot him, sir."
Phillips shoots Dugan an annoyed look. Dugan, being Dugan, only shrugs.
"In Corporal Dugan's defence, the man was about to shoot me, sir."
"I suppose I can't fault him for that. You're one of my most expensive pieces of equipment."
Steve bristles at that, but he doesn't say anything. He picks his battles with Phillips, and it's not like he doesn't know that most people who aren't Bucky, Peggy or the Commandos view him as either the freakish result of a science experiment or the not-quite-human symbol of America.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Phillips asks, waving them in the direction of the C-47 on the runway. "You have thirty seconds to get you and your men onto that airplane. We take off as soon as the doors are closed."
All of the Commandos carry Bucky onto the plane, and Steve is more grateful than he can say to have them supporting him.
Steve spends the flight back to London at Bucky's side. Phillips glares at him whenever he catches his eye, but Steve doesn't care. Because Bucky is alive.
They're halfway over the Channel when Bucky wakes briefly, his eyes fluttering open.
"Hey there, punk," Bucky says, his voice so weak Steve can barely hear it over the drone of the engines.
"Hey yourself, you jerk." Steve's not going to cry. Not with the Commandos and Phillips so close by. He's not.
"Am I still alive?" Bucky looks vulnerable and young. At least as young as when he'd quit school to work the docks.
"Still alive." Steve squeezes his hand.
"Good." His eyes start to close. "I knew it."
"Knew what?" He's not even sure Bucky hears him.
"Knew you'd come for me."
Steve's heart nearly breaks as Bucky's breathing evens out into sleep once again. Because what if Steve hadn't come? What if he hadn't gone back for Bucky's body? What if Bucky had died in that gorge waiting for Steve? What if Hydra and the Russians had taken him away and continued what Zola had started. (He thinks again about what Bucky must have gone through in Zola's lab and feels ill.) What if, what if, what if…a hundred horrible possibilities tumble through Steve's mind.
He clutches Bucky's hand tighter and vows he'll never have to go through anything like this again. Not if Steve has anything to say about it.
It's a whirlwind when they land. Bucky is loaded into an ambulance and bundled off to hospital. Steve and the rest of the Howling Commandos are shipped to SSR headquarters and given a chance to clean up, while Phillips disappears into whatever cell they have Zola hidden in. Steve doesn't see Peggy at all.
While he's in the shower, Steve's gear disappears from the room he's been assigned, replaced by his dress uniform, the only clothes he leaves in London. He wanders the halls, searching for something to occupy him, but avoiding Dugan and the others. He doesn't want to have to explain to them how he's feeling. Not when he's not sure himself.
When he realizes he has no idea how long he's been pacing the same corridor back and forth, he makes a decision. He finds one of Phillips' aides, gets directions, and heads out into the city.
Queen Alexandra's Military Hospital is full to the rafters, but being the best friend of Captain America has at least gotten Bucky his own room. A nurse directs Steve down the right corridor, and he finds Bucky in a room at the end. His eyes are closed, but he looks better than he did on the plane. The stump of his arm has a proper dressing on it, they've cleaned the blood from his face, and he's wearing crisp, clean pyjamas and tucked into crisp, white sheets.
Steve places the room's one chair, a battered wooden thing that's more functional than comfortable, on Bucky's right side, then reaches out for Bucky, prepared for a long vigil. But as soon as he takes Bucky's hand in his own, Bucky stirs.
His long lashes blink and Steve can see him try and work out where he is.
"You're okay, Bucky," he says, trying to keep his voice calmer than he feels. "You're in the hospital, and they've got you fixed up." He runs a finger over Bucky's knuckle, back and forth, hoping the touch will ground Bucky. "You're going to be fine."
Bucky laughs, and it's a hollow sound.
"As fine as you can be with only one fucking arm," he says. His voice is rough and his words are slurred slightly from whatever painkillers they have him on. Bucky closes his eyes and Steve sees a flash of pain travel across his face.
"Hurts," he says.
Steve tries to pull his hand away from Bucky's, afraid he's hurt him somehow, but Bucky tightens his grip and won't let go.
"Not that hand," Bucky says and opens his eyes again. "The other one."
Steve blinks, afraid that Bucky's confused, that the painkillers are affecting his mind.
"Phantom pain," Bucky explains. "They told me it might happen. It's worse than a phantom, though. It feels like the fucking thing's on fire."
"Bucky, I –" Steve stops himself because he wants to help Bucky, but he can't help with this. He can't stop pain in a limb that doesn't exist anymore.
Bucky looks at him and frowns.
"Don't treat me like a problem to solve." Bucky tries to sit up, and Steve sees the exact moment when the pain stops his movement. By reflex, he nearly moves to help him, but that would just be proving Bucky's point, wouldn't it?
"I'm not," Steve insists.
"You are," Bucky barks back, and Steve freezes in his chair. He's used to Bucky being mad at him—Bucky was furious every time he had to save Steve from a beating, every time he tried to talk Steve out of righting a wrong that was too damn big for a scrawny kid from Brooklyn to handle—but this feels different. This anger has bite to it. This anger wounds. "You can't punch someone to make this better. You can't blow up a Hydra base to get me a new arm."
"You were working out some way to fix this, weren't you, Rogers? Admit it."
"I don't know, Buck. I honestly don't know." He feels adrift. Bucky has been his friend for so long, practically forever. Bucky protected him when he couldn't protect himself, and now when Steve most wants to return the favour, Bucky's right: there's nothing he can do.
He clutches Bucky's hand tighter and bows his head, and then before he can think it through, he brings Bucky's hand to his lips.
It's a light touch, the sort of touch Sarah Rogers dropped onto the forehead of her only child, but it brings so much alive in Steve's chest. Feelings that he's always buried, because what good could they do? Back in Brooklyn they were impossible because why the fuck would Bucky want anything to do with a skinny kid like him when he could have any dame in the neighbourhood? Or any guy? (Bucky had always stuck to dames, but Steve had seen his eyes follow handsome men on the street, and he'd always felt the burn of jealousy that Bucky never looked at him like that.)
And after, after the serum, after Azzano, they were impossible because they were in the fucking army and it was against regulations and he didn't want to find out what would happen if it got out that Captain America was queer for his sergeant. Not that he was afraid for himself. He'd take what was coming to him, just like always. But he was afraid that Bucky would be in for far worse than a dishonourable discharge if they got caught.
"Stevie…" Bucky's voice still holds anger, but now there's something else there. Something injured. "What'd ya wanna go and do that for?"
"Sorry," Steve whispers, and he tries to pull away his hand. But Bucky won't let him. He holds him with more strength than Steve expects from a guy who's fought Hydra, fallen off a mountain, lost an arm, been rescued from the Ruskies, and had surgery, all in the last 48 hours.
"Don't apologize," Bucky says, his mouth a quivering line, his eyes focused on the wall just above Steve's head. "Just shut up a minute, would ya?"
Steve shuts up. Not much else he can do, because he doesn't have a clue what to say. He shuts up and watches Bucky's expression as he goes through more emotions than Steve can name, not all of them good. But not all bad, either. The expression that finally settles on Bucky's face is fond, the way he'd looked at Steve back when they were kids. It was the same look he'd get on warm summer nights when Steve had gone a week without getting into a fight and the two of them would sit on the fire escape as the sun went down. Steve would squirm his toes against Bucky's side, pretending to sketch the building next door when he was really sketching Bucky. And Bucky would rest a hand on Steve's calf, pretending to look at the girls passing on the street below when he was really looking up at Steve every few seconds. Steve had loved those evenings. They'd felt like moments stolen from the life he really wanted, the one where he and Bucky spent the rest of their lives together.
"I gotta tell you something," Bucky says, and his expression goes from fond to upset in an instant. "Something I've wanted to tell you for ages, but I never had the courage for."
"You're the bravest man I know," Steve says, and it's true. He thinks of Bucky in that train car, with them separated by a blast door. He'd caught a glimpse of Bucky's face during the battle, how absolutely terrified he'd looked when his ammo was nearly out. But that hadn't stopped him from facing down the maniacs with science fiction weapons Hydra was throwing at them. That was true courage, going on in spite of your fears.
"You're full of shit, Rogers," Bucky says, but he smiles, just a bit.
"That's real funny, coming from you," Steve says. "You're more full of shit than I am." He's glad things aren't so serious that they can't throw insults at each other. And maybe that will make all of this easier. "So, what's so important?"
"Just…this." Bucky doesn't say another word. But he does bring Steve's had to his mouth and brush Steve's knuckles with his lips, echoing Steve's gesture.
"Aw, jeez, Bucky." He wants to do so much right now. He wants to throw his arms around Bucky, wants to hold him tighter than he's ever held anyone. He wants to kiss him.
He doesn't do any of that, because they're in the middle of a military hospital where a nurse or a doctor or anyone might walk in on them at any time. And because Bucky doesn't look up to handling anything more than a light pat on the head at the moment. Steve examines him closely, and sees how pale he is, how red-rimmed his eyes are. He clutches Bucky's hand with both of his and can feel Bucky tremble in his grasp.
He struggles with what to do, and then he remembers what Bucky had told him right after his mother's funeral.
"I'm with you 'til the end of the line, Buck. Whatever you need."
It's the right thing to say.
Bucky smiles, and it's like someone's turned a light on in this gloomy room. One smile, and hell, it's like the sun is shining in here.
As quickly as the sun rises, it sets. Bucky is suddenly looking far too serious, and his eyes scan to the right.
"Ma'am," he says, and lets go of Steve's hand. Steve turns, expecting to see a nurse behind him. Instead, he finds Peggy looking at them both with a raised eyebrow.
"Sergeant," she says. "I hope they're looking after you."
"The English nurses are swell," he says. Steve's amazed at how quickly Bucky can fall into the role of the cocksure asshole out to chase a few skirts, even when he's in pain and drugged up. Now, Steve sees it for the camouflage it is, hiding the heart he's just revealed.
"I'm sure they are," Peggy says, as unimpressed with Bucky as she always is. Steve never used to understand why the two people who mean the most to him in the world have never quite gotten along, but now things make complete sense. It's like recognizing like, neither knowing if there's room in Steve's life for both of them. Hell, Steve isn't even sure what to do with what he's learned today. And if Peggy heard anything… he's not sure what her reaction will be. After all, she once shot him with live ammo for letting a girl he didn't even know kiss him. He's not sure what she'd do with the knowledge that he and his best friend love each other in every way possible.
But today it seems that she isn't in a jealous mood. As Steve watches, her expression softens.
"I was sorry to hear about your injuries," she says, and she's looking at Bucky with compassion.
"Th-thanks," Bucky stammers out, his armour cracked by Peggy's kindness. "Just gotta live with it, I guess." He swallows and smiles and some of that armour falls back into place. "I'm guessing you're not here just to visit me."
"No, I'm afraid I'm not." She looks at Steve, her posture all business. "Zola's given us the location of Schmidt's last base. Phillips wants you back for the briefing."
Steve sees a new pain form in Bucky's eyes, and this time he knows it's not physical.
Bucky reaches out and grabs Steve's arm.
"You watch your six, you dumb punk," Bucky says.
"I will." Steve puts his hand over Bucky's and squeezes it.
"And Agent Carter," Bucky says as Peggy begins to move into the hall. "Don't let Steve do anything stupid."
"How can I?" Steve jumps in before Peggy can say anything. "You'll have all the stupid here with you." He ruffles Bucky's hair, careful to keep his touch as gentle as he can.
"I'll keep him from doing anything especially unwise. But you know how Steve is. One can only do so much." Peggy's tone is dry. "I'll wait out in the hall for you," she says to Steve. "Take care of yourself, Sergeant."
Bucky watches as Peggy leaves the room, his expression more than a little admiring.
"You should marry that lady," Bucky says. "'Cause if you don't, I will."
"Bucky…" Steve chokes out. Because how the fuck is he supposed to take that? Steve is suddenly terrified at the thought of the two of them ganging up on him. He'd never survive it.
Bucky still has hold of Steve's arm, and he tightens his grip hard enough to hurt. Steve lets him.
"You look after yourself," Bucky says, his voice choking in his throat, though his expression is steady. "You look after her, and you look after all those other mooks. I bet Dugan won't know what to do with himself if I'm not there."
"Good. Because you gotta come back." Bucky pulls him closer. "And when you're back, safe and sound, we gotta talk."
Steve makes a sound part way between a snort and a sob, but before he can figure out if he wants to laugh or cry, Bucky pulls him all the way down and kisses him.
Steve's so shocked, he closes his eyes and lets it happen. He concentrates on the feel of Bucky's lips, chapped and raw from his time in the snow, and the scrape of beard against his face. He focuses on the warmth of Bucky's breath and the feel of his hand, gripping his arm with an unexpected strength.
When Bucky finally lets him go and pulls back, Steve stays in place for a second, savouring the moment. Steve doesn't have much to compare it with, but he think it's the finest first kiss a fella could have.
"I'm coming back, Bucky," he swears, and he has never meant a promise more.
Steve looks long at Bucky before he leaves the room, memorizing his face, his body, his expression. His last sight of Bucky is of a wicked smile and tear-filled eyes.
Then he's following Peggy down the corridor. They're both silent as they walk together. Peggy seems thoughtful. Steve is trying to sort out his feelings, his loyalties.
Peggy has a jeep parked out front, and they get in. But Peggy pauses before she starts up the car, twirling the keys around her finger before she finally speaks.
"It's not the girls at headquarters I need to worry about, is it?"
She's jumped to the truth more quickly than Steve expected, and he's shocked into honesty.
"No," he says with a shake of his head.
"Hmm," is all she says in return. They're both silent on the drive back to headquarters.
It's not silence but chaos that greets them in the situation room, with Phillips growling out orders as his people run around performing their various duties.
"Welcome back, Captain Rogers." Phillips sounds as cynical as usual. "Are you ready to work another miracle?"
That's exactly what he does.
According to Zola, Schmidt's base is impenetrable, impossible to breach. So Steve and the Commandos devise an impossible plan to take it. One that depends on guts and determination and more than a bit of luck. Steve is resolved to make his own luck. Besides, this once, he figures the universe owes him.
In mere hours, they've concocted their plan, gathered their gear, and radioed ahead to have an assault team rendezvous with them. Whoever took Steve's uniform has returned it, cleaned and repaired, so when he and the Commandos board the plane for the flight back to battle, he's back in red, white and blue, the shield on his arm, his helmet clutched in one hand.
He sits alone on the flight, in the plane's tail section, wedged in between cases of ammunition and his bike. Morita checks in with him once to make sure he doesn't need anything, but after that the Howlies leave him alone. Steve doesn't know whether it's courtesy or because they don't know what to say to him about Bucky, but either way he's grateful.
He doesn't see Peggy at all. Phillips has her busy at the front of the plane, doing all the paperwork that's needed on a raid of this size. He's grateful for that, too.
He uses the time alone to think. Because he's in an impossible position. He loves the two best people in the world, the only two living people in the world who saw his worth before the serum. (Doctor Erskine did as well, of course, but the Doctor didn't live to see this day.) Sometimes it feels like he's the only one who sees their worth as well.
To the world, Bucky is a smartass, Brooklyn guttersnipe, capable only of violence. Only Steve knows how gentle Bucky is with his sister, how fiercely he's defended Steve against both bullies and pneumonia. Only Steve knows the way he'd hide away and cry after the most savage battles.
And to most of the men they encounter, Peggy is a posh limey bird who doesn't belong on a battlefield. But Steve has seen her deck a man nearly twice her size, and stand up to Philips when she thinks he's wrong. He's seen her stand her ground on a battlefield when the men around her have run.
He loves Peggy, but Bucky has been part of him for practically his whole life. He hates that he lives in a world where he has to choose between them, and where loving one of them could earn him a beating, or worse.
When he feels the plane start to descend and the landing gear shuddering into place, he's no closer to knowing what to do.
They land at a makeshift landing strip, their plane directed in by a skinny Canadian corporal who gapes at Captain America and his Howling Commandos as they leave the plane. They take over a Quonset hut beside the landing strip and begin final inspections of their gear. Dernier loads up on explosives, Morita tests his radio gear, Dugan, Falsworth and Jones check their ammo, and Steve goes over every ridiculous weapon Howard has installed on his ridiculous bike. When Phillips calls a ten-minute warning, he's suited up and ready to go.
That's when the nervousness that always comes before an operation gives way to a worse worry. A worry that he kicks himself for not having sooner. A worry that only one person can help him with.
He moves through the hut to where Phillips and Peggy have set up a command post. Phillips is on the radio with the commander of their assault team. Steve takes advantage of his distraction to grab Peggy's hand and direct her out the back door. After the echo chamber of the hut, the sound of aircraft taking off and landing in the distance seem practically peaceful. This close to the front lines, it's the nearest thing to privacy they're going to get.
Steve knows this isn't the time for bashfulness. It's not the time to stall or stumble over his words. So, he takes a firm grip of Peggy's hand and speaks.
"I've got a favour to ask of you, Peggy. It's not fair to you, and I'll understand if you refuse, but you're the only person I can ask."
"What is it, Steve?" Peggy looks like she's bracing herself for a sudden impact. Steve isn't sure if what he's about to say is better or worse than her fears.
"If I don't come back –"
"You're coming back," she interrupts him. She throws off his hand, and her jaw is as determined as Bucky's in a fight. And maybe that's why he loves them both, that tremendous fierceness they both have.
"But if I don't," he insists. "Because we both know it could happen. If I don't come back, look after Bucky for me."
She gasps, and that tells Steve she'd had no idea what he was going to ask. He continues before he can run out of courage.
"I know you two don't always get along, but you're the only one who knows what he is to me. Bucky's proud, he's not gonna want to take help from anyone, but he might take it from you if he knows I asked you."
He feels a prickling in his throat and behind his eyes, and he pushes past it. Because this is important. He needs for Peggy to understand why it means so much to him.
"I saw them in Brooklyn, the guys that came back from the last war missing an arm or a leg or an eye. Half the time, they were the ones begging on a street corner, or getting what food they could from a soup kitchen. We didn't have much, but Ma would give them what we could afford, even if it was only a hardboiled egg or a couple of pieces of bread." He catches a sob in his throat. "I don't want to think of Bucky like that."
"Steve," Peggy says in warning, but he can't stop now. He tries to gather the words to explain Bucky to Peggy.
"I've known Bucky my whole life. Or at least all the parts of it that matter. He was my only friend for years. He protected me and irritated me and got the doctor when I was sick and made fun of how much I liked baseball when I couldn't play the game worth a damn. He's everything to me, Peggy. I only realized that after the train. When I watched him fall and it felt like I might as well fall with him. Like there was no point in me being alive if he wasn't with me.
"I don't want him to feel like that. If I don't come back, I want there to be someone who gives a damn about him. I want him to have a reason to go on.
"He's smart, Peggy. Really smart. Was always good with gadgets and fixing things. Maybe you could talk Stark into hiring him. Or maybe the SSR needs a smart guy who can work with his brain and his hands. Hand, I mean." He know he's babbling, but he can't help it. He needs to know that Bucky will be safe, that he won't be alone, whatever happens.
"Steve." Peggy's voice is as gentle as the hand she puts on his arm. "You're going to come back. But if anything happens, I'll make sure Sergeant Barnes has a place. I'll look after him, as much as I'm able, and as much as he'll let me." Her expression becomes more firm. "But you must promise me something in return."
"Don't throw your life away cheaply. Neither of us will forgive you if you do."
Steve takes a deep lungful of air before he responds.
"Good." He leans down to hug her, but Peggy grabs the front of his uniform, pulls him down and kisses him.
Her lips are softer than Bucky's, but her kiss is just as intense. It takes his breath away, knowing that there are two people in the world who love him enough to kiss him like that.
But the kiss has to end, and soon enough they're putting their plan into action.
Steve rides his bike like he's chasing the devil, facing down Hydra soldiers and their impossible weapons without a second thought. He stands up to Schmidt without backing down because he knows this is a battle he has to win. He fights Schmidt's men, and Schmidt himself on the plane, because he will not let these bombs reach American soil. He won't let Hydra destroy his home.
And when Schmidt is dead and that cube is in the ocean and he's at the controls of this monstrous plane, Steve knows that he's only won by losing everything.
"This is Captain Rogers. Come in."
"Steve!" Peggy's voice is the best and worst thing he could hear at this moment. "Are you all right?"
He can't answer that. Because he's not all right. Not by a long shot.
"That's good!" She sounds so hopeful. He wishes he didn't have to kill her hope.
"But this thing's moving fast and it's headed for New York. I gotta put her in the water."
"No, you don't. I'll find you a safe landing site."
"There's not going to be a safe landing. Right now, I'm in the middle of nowhere. If I wait any longer a lot of people are gonna die."
His face feels wet. He tells himself it's just his eyes watering from the wind. He concentrates on the mission. On the good he's doing. On the people he's saving.
"I kept my promise, Peg. I'm not throwing my life away cheaply." He looks behind him, where the bombs that could gut his country, his city, await a target. A target he's going to deny them.
He takes a breath and pushes down on the controls. The plane's nose points down immediately.
"I'll keep mine," Peggy says. Steve tells himself that the catch in her voice is only static, and he almost believes it. "I'll look after Sergeant Barnes."
"Thank you, Peg." He can't bear to think of her crying in Schmidt's control room. He just can't. He wants to make her smile one last time.
"Did I ever tell you how much Bucky loves to dance?" he asks. He breaks through the cloud cover and can see the ocean looming below him.
"No." Peggy's voice is a cracked whisper.
"He does. Bet you're a good dancer."
"I'm not bad." That sounds more like the Peggy he knows. Brave and smart and just a bit cocky. Seems like he's got a definite type.
"I bet you're fantastic." He has a vision of Peggy sweeping around the dance floor in her partner's arms as the grey water beneath him becomes white ice. "Maybe you could teach me. You and Bucky. You could show me how it's done."
"I'm sure between us, we could manage." That almost sounds like a laugh in her voice. He smiles.
"Where should we meet?"
"I've heard the Stork Club is the best place to dance in New York."
"Only the best for you, Peggy."
"A week next Saturday, then. We'll be waiting for you on the dance floor."
Wind is rushing through the cracked glass in front of him, and the ice is looming ever faster towards him, but he loses himself in the fantasy of hitting the dance floor with his best guy and his best girl. In his fantasy, Peggy is wearing the red dress she wore in that pub in London. Bucky is in his dress uniform, a crooked smile on his face, his body whole and handsome. Bucky takes both Steve's hands in his, then twirls him off to Peggy. Back and forth he goes between them, all of them well, all of them happy, all of them in a world where they can love each other.
"Don't be late, Steve."
It's a beautiful fantasy.
It's only a fantasy.
He blinks. The ice is right there, and the plane slams into it.