When it finally happens in Mumbai, thousands of miles from home and from Bucky, Steve just feels calm, like he's plunged into a deep warm pond, sunlight and silt floating around him, so far down his ears pop. In some ways, he's been expecting this since Siberia, since dropping one target had painted another on his back. He's been branded a traitor to the free world, marked as a terrorist. He's been hunted for months. Honestly, he's had more time than he expected - time enough, at least.
"Sam," he says into the comms and he's glad his voice is steady and he's glad Sam's there, in his ears, like a talisman or a lighthouse. "Sam, they've got me pinned. I can keep them on me. Get to the airfield."
The sun is sizzling hot over metal roofs, making everything shimmer like there's a thick glaze spread across the world, and he leaps again, from roof to roof like an obstacle course. The black chopper is heading toward him, rotors thumping too quick to see, and he can hear the humvees plowing through the street below, sirens wailing. When he lands in a roll, metal and sand and blue all blurring around him, the world pinwheels, the roof is hot under his shoulder and he only has a moment to get his feet before bullets slam like geysers around him. He thinks he's bleeding from somewhere around his gut. Not badly. Not enough to kill him. What is? But it’s enough that he's slower than he would be otherwise.
"Sam?" he asks again, the sweat settling behind his ears. It reminds him of fevers in Brooklyn, of Bucky wrapping their hands together and singing low under his breath.
"Steve. Give me your coordinates. I'll pick you up." Sam sounds a little winded, flat against the backdrop of whistling air.
"No time. Get to the airport. Get the book to Wakanda. That's an order, Sam." He makes his voice firm like a commander. All the moving pieces of his world are spread out below him on a game board: Sam glinting in the wind, the dark chopper, the glowing safe haven of Wakanda, Bucky safely cocooned within.
There's silence and Steve lunges, feels the rip of an explosion sizzling behind him as he dives behind a half-slumped chimney. The helicopter is close now, thumping hard so that fine grit is spraying across his face and Steve doesn't have ammunition and he doesn't have his shield.
(Sometimes he thinks of it and wonders if his shield is still in that dark bunker in Siberia. He wonders if it's lying there, cold and forgotten and a relic of another time. Other times, he imagines Tony took it with him. He tries to picture it in some dark closet of the Avengers compound or laid out on a lab table. He hopes that Tony took it, hopes that it's bringing him comfort or at least good memories.)
"I'll come back for you, Cap," Sam says and Steve knows he really means it. "We'll pull you out."
The helicopter is 20 feet from the roof, hanging suspended, ugly against the horizon. Steve can see the gunner, dark flashes obscuring his face, pushing the safety off the machine gun. Before they'd been trying to take him alive, had the orders changed?
"Tell Bucky it was worth it," Steve says, the sun warm across his hair, and he leaps from the roof, aiming for the machine gun.
The helicopter spins wildly when he lands in the open door, the gunner's surprised face flashing to panic as Steve throws him from the helicopter to the safety of the roof. The pilot is twisting in his seat and, from here, Steve can see the city spread out below them like a child's picture book.
Steve charges forward, grabs the pilot's headset in both hands as the whole bird tips, spinning toward the ground. Outside the windshield, the dirty street below is deserted and Steve feels a grim sense of self satisfaction. He managed to get out of the city center then - there won't be civilian casualties.
"I'm sorry about this," he tells the pilot.
It's a kid, barefaced and wide-eyed. He's grappling with Steve for the controls, flailing desperately against Steve's hold. They're going to crash.
Steve grabs for the kid's seat belt, pulls it free and hauls him backward over the seat. They're spinning past empty windows and Steve thinks he can hear Sam screaming over the comms. There's no time though.
He pulls the kid close, tucks him against his chest so that his head is braced against the suit’s body armor, and then the world turns into a fiery, metal inferno, heat blasting across Steve's shoulders. It's loud and the kid is screaming and something is searing across Steve's spine, into his body. His head snaps back and then there is nothing.
Fourteen months later.
For the first 20 miles of his swim through the icy ocean toward Antarctica's coastline, Bucky Barnes focuses on the water churning beneath his arms and the steady rhythm of his legs. He lets his mind stay blank, drifting in that gray stillness that he's found to be both a blessing and a curse over the long years of his life. A weapon does not think, after all, it only does.
The salt water is close to freezing, ice floes drifting by the closer he gets to the continent. He keeps near to the surface, the slim oxygen tank hooked to his back is only good for about 30 minutes and he'll need to reserve as much as he can for when he's in range of sentry searchlights. The suit he's wearing is black and slick, extending from the tips of his fingers and toes to the top of his head. It's rubbery and shiny, almost like a seal. There are carefully designed air pockets along his arms that help buoy him, counterbalancing the solid vibranium of his new arm. He's wearing a slim helmet that extends to a clear faceplate that fastens below his chin, leaving no skin exposed to the elements. The helmet has mouthpiece that prevents water from getting in and provides a limited supply of oxygen. As long as he's close to the surface, the oxygen is replenished and he breathes easily without ever lifting his head.
Natasha and Sam had dropped him off 35 miles from shore. Well. They had hovered one of T'Challa's jets about 60 feet from the water and he dove from the open cargo bay. Steve would be proud. Any closer and they risked detection, even with the jet's sophisticated cloaking technology. Sam hadn't been happy, tugging at the wetsuit to do the final checks and then muttering to himself about fool errands.
"Steve will kill me if you drown," he had snapped as they'd stood together in the back of the jet, a bitterly cold wind rushing past their faces. "So you better not even think about it."
Bucky should've said something comforting then, but nothing had come to mind and Sam had rolled his eyes and muttered to himself as he’d checked over the seals in Bucky’s suit and equipment.
Just before Bucky had jumped, though, Sam had leaned close one last time. "Bring him back, okay?" He'd kept his voice under the quiet hum of the jet engines and the turbulent water below. "You bring him back."
So Bucky’s been swimming, a steady rhythm that's just as clear as the cold night air around him. Even with the suit, he can feel a numbness in his outer limbs and he has to use one hand to brush aside the ice that gathers at the corners of his faceplate.
Sam had suggested using a pair of wings to fly in and Clint had suggested a tiny motorboat - but the sensors surrounding the base were cutting-edge Hammer technology. If anything bigger than a large seal or any sort of engine approached the base by air or sea, the entire base would go into lockdown.
Swimming had been the best option - and it wouldn't have been an option for anyone but him, much to Sam's apparent disapproval.
Wilson had made no secret that he thought he should be the one to go after Steve, a mixture of his own desperation, reluctance to put Bucky in danger, and fear of what would happen if someone at the base knew the trigger words. The wet suit the Wakanda scientists had created was the best of its kind - but it couldn't work miracles. Anyone except Bucky or Steve would still die of hypothermia long before they had reached the shore.
During the test runs, before the they had reconciled themselves to the fact that their only hope was a brainwashed ex-Hydra assassin with a head full of active triggers, Sam had tried it on himself a couple times. Natasha had shown Bucky the videos before she let him agree to their plan. The first time in the water, Sam had barely lasted 20 minutes in the large pool they had cooled to simulate arctic waters before he'd been shivering too hard to continue swimming. The second time, he had lasted 28 minutes and his lips had been a sickly shade of blue. Not to be deterred, even after Bucky had been woken and planning had begun, Sam had made one last attempt. The longest he had managed to stay afloat was just under 40 minutes and he'd been almost catatonic from hypothermia when they had at last forced him from the freezing water. The swim to the continent would take hours.
There had been risks for Bucky too, of course, and Natasha had gone over them with him in excruciating detail. While Sam was angry that he couldn't be the one and Wanda was quiet in her desperation, Natasha was the one that had told him he had a choice - that no one would think less of him if he refused. "Steve wouldn't want you risking your life," she told him, face steady like a rock. Bucky had agreed anyway. There was a programming deeper than anything Hydra could ever shove into his head that drove him to protect Steve Rogers. He may be Hydra’s weapon - but he’d been Steve’s right hand man long before that.
So, he and Natasha and the scientists had gone over all the risks: the suit tearing in his initial dive or the oxygenator’s tiny pump failing as its parts froze together. The seal keeping out the water could fail - if the icy sea water started leaking in, even Bucky wouldn't last long. This mission, however, was worth all those risks and more.
The water sluices across his face plate and, as he gets closer to the shoreline, gentle swells start pushing him forward and the sharp spike of worries start to push up against the steady blankness that swimming through miles of ocean had provided.
The water is black beneath him. A giant creature could be a dozen feet underneath him and he'd be none the wiser. He could be swimming over the hulking wrecks of ships and submarines and plane crashes. His brain catches. Plane crashes.
He hadn't been aware when Steve had driven the Hydra plane into the ocean almost 80 years ago. He thinks of Steve staring down the black water and white ice and then slamming down and down until the sunlight couldn't even reach him. There would've been no protective suit, no oxygen tank, no escape. Steve would've died alone.
There will be an escape this time.
A larger swell lifts up and propels him forward and, as the clouds overhead part for a moment, he's close enough to see the massive ice shelf of the aptly named (in his opinion) Ross Sea, looming out of the darkness like a cliff, catching the starlight like the ice is somehow alive. It's majestic and terrifying in its height and width. Icebergs are sloughing off the sides, hulking out of black water like great, overturned ships.
Something about the expanse tugs at his memory, a sense of deja vu. It's a familiar sensation these days, with his brain caught between programming and his burgeoning self awareness. There are a lot of vivid memories of Hydra, of the war, of Brooklyn - but even more that is shadowed and lost, only coming out when confronted directly. Now, he just files the image away. He'll have time to contemplate it later, when Steve is safe.
On one side, he can just make out the dull red lights of McMurdo Station, flickering like a beacon - but that's not his destination.
He kicks out once and uses the momentum to flip onto his back, staring at the stars to get his bearings. Then, he uses his finger controls to turn on the computer in his helmet.
Green lines fill his vision. He doesn't want to leave it on long, even though the king's sister, and chief scientist, had sworn personally that the best scanners wouldn't be able to pick it up. Scott had made some crack about senior citizens being scared of technology when Bucky had brought it up; and then quickly shut up when Bucky's new vibranium arm had whirred in his direction. Bucky has to admit, though, that he doesn't trust computers like T'Challa and Scott do.
However, they definitely have their moments. A heat map of the coast line spreads out. He can see the scientists sleeping in their beds at McMurdo station. He can see the heat glowing far in the distance from the volcano. He's not interested in any of that though.
Carefully, he widens the scope, scanning across the ice. It's a blue screen of freezing cold until he's almost all the way to the other side of the ice shelf - then, a pinpoint of gold heat like a tiny jewel in a mine. He calibrates the screen again, zooming in. There's not much there, a brush of gold that he follows up and then a barely green outline, imbedded deep on the bluffs across from McMurdo station. That's it: the base that doesn't exist.
He focuses on the gold in the ice. If their sources are right, that's an exhaust port that extends from the underbelly of the base, through the under part of the ice shelf and ending in the water underneath the relatively shallow section of ice shelf. It's about 3' by 3' and covered by a fine mesh grate, extending upward at almost a 70 degree angle. It's just big enough for a single man to crawl up. That's his target - his way into an non-existent but impenetrable base. If he swims fast, he'll be there right as the night shift is ending.
As he gets closer to the shelf, the icebergs will grow thicker around him and make a steady, quick pace more difficult - so he needs to make good time swimming parallel to the shelf before he begins his approach.
When he gets close, he'll have to stay below the surface as much as he can stand to avoid any motion sensors or searchlights - not to mention the ice floes will be thick enough there to prevent easy resurfacing. Once he's at the shelf, it'll be a swim straight down of somewhere between 200-300 feet and then swimming under thousands of pounds of ice another 100 feet to reach the grated shaft. Bucky has a long night ahead.
He flips off the scope and resumes swimming, faster now, churning his legs against the water. He falls into a mechanical rhythm, seeking that still, almost dead place in his mind. The water rushes, gritty and dark, against the face plate and he forces his breathing into a calm pace. He's almost there.
Steve, he thinks, as the stars disappear again behind clouds, I'm coming. Just hold on.
Tony Stark forces himself not to even twitch as the cold-faced soldier take his starkphone, sealing it into the opaque black bag. "Careful with her," he says. "She's a lady. Actually, are we sure about this? She's very discreet and..."
Ross gives him a look from where he's standing by the window, silhouetted against the gray sky. There are mountains in the distance, wild forests of Argentina stretching out beyond the single airfield. "Tony. We had an agreement."
"I know. I know." Tony holds up hands just enough so his expensive watch flashes on his wrist. "You can't blame a guy for trying. Bye, baby," he waves as the bag disappears. He's wearing a dark blue suit, carefully pressed and tailored with a white shirt and a light pink tie. His shoes are Italian leather and he'd made sure to daintily step around every puddle coming in. There's a flask in his breast pocket and when he'd gotten out of the private plane that had dropped him off here earlier, he'd been sure to leave his jacket open so Ross could get a good, long look at it.
"No other recording or electronic devices on you, sir?" the young guard asks. He looks like he's just out of West Point, fresh faced and soft. His father or grandfather or mother, whoever, must've called in some favors to get him this cushy gig, guarding bigwigs at this isolated station.
"Nope. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Nunca. Satisfied, Ross?"
They're in a small gray room with only one window, a narrow thing that looks over dark mountains capped with snow and the wide gray waters of the south Atlantic Ocean. He can barely hear the soft rumble of the aircraft carrier waiting for them on the tarmac.
"I've tried to impress upon you the gravity of the situation, Stark. This technology has the potential to redefine how we think about medicine, border defense, and weaponry. This isn't something we show lightly."
"I heard the spiel last month, Ross. I thought my generous campaign donation was enough to convince you how serious I am about this." It better have. Tony may be wealthier than god but $50 million was a lot to hand over at a black tie ball in the middle of Washington D.C. on just a chance. Not to mention, if the FEC caught on, Tony might be paying even more in fines. That had been a dinner party. He'd stumbled in an hour late, stinking of booze and ranting loudly to anyone who would listen about what a disgrace Steve Rogers was to this country. It had been a stunning success.
Ross smiles, showing all his teeth. He's like a wolf, sensing a full meal. "Your donation was extremely generous, Tony, and I'm sure you'll be pleased at what your donation bought."
Tony keeps his own smile firmly in place. "We'll see, Ross. I haven't been impressed with the other nonsense your pet project has churned out."
"You'll see soon enough." Ross gestures. "We'll take off as soon as the final security checks have been cleared."
"Great. Now I need to use the little boy's room. That way?" He points toward the long hallway they'd come from.
Ross nods, already directing his attention to his secure sat phone. "Be back in ten, Tony. We don't want to be late. It's three hours to the labs."
The bathroom at the end of the hall is damp and freezing, not connected to the rest of the pristine air filtering and heating that has been installed in the rest of the base. They may be in the middle of nowhere Argentina, but this U.S. base has seen a lot of high-profile traffic since the newest black site had opened in Antarctica eight months ago. With the caliber of officials going through here, the U.S. had hired a some contractors to do some quick upgrades to ensure their comfort. In the rushed, shoddy renovations, bathrooms like this one had been forgotten, dank holdovers from the original barebones structure.
Today, their sloppiness works in his favor. Tony'd pinpointed this particular one on the floor plans weeks ago. There are no cameras, no bugs - no monitoring equipment to record what goes on here. He flips on the white noise filter that's imbedded in the slim black glasses he's wearing and then opens his black sports coat.
"You okay in there?" he asks his pocket, the one opposite the flask.
There's a tiny rustle and then Scott pull himself up, perching against the large metal button that deflects scanners from picking up any signal from his suit. "Did you have to put so much cologne on this morning, Stark?"
"Your nose is unrefined, Lang. This cologne costs more than you can carry with both arms." Tony can't see his face but he bets Lang is scowling. "Get back in there."
Lang flips a barely perceptible finger up and then hops back down into the nicely pressed silk.
They haven't been friends long, if Tony would even call them friends now. When he'd arrived with Natasha in Wakanda after a circuitous almost 40 hour journey to cover his tracks, Scott had been there with Clint to greet them.
"I don't trust Starks," he'd said almost immediately, "but I don't have quite the history with you that the others do so, welcome aboard."
"Well I don't trust thieves - but since we're breaking into a prison, I guess you'll have to do."
Once Scott seems to be secured back in the pocket, Tony grabs the metal trash can next to the urinal and flips it over next to the sink.
Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he climbs up and grabs dirty metal tines that surround the air vent. He rattles and the screws fall into his hand. He tucks them into his pant pocket and then reaches further inside the dark space. The whole area feels wet and slimy and he grimaces.
Then his fingers land on slick plastic and he pulls the thin package from its hiding place. He rips it easily and pulls out the slim starkphone.
"Back in business," he murmurs to himself, sliding the phone into the metal lined interior lining of his coat. It'll function as a faraday cage, keeping Ross's scanners from seeing it. Carefully he rights the trash can, turns off the white noise device, and rips the plastic from the bag into tiny pieces.
There's a knock on the door.
"Mr. Stark?" calls the guard from earlier, voice muffled through the solid door. "We're preparing for departure now."
"In a minute," he says back. He dumps the plastic shreds into the toilet and then flushes, watching to make sure they all disappear down the ancient plumbing system. Then he flips on the sink and carefully washes his hands, making sure the edges of his shirt sleeves get a little damp. Drunks are clumsy after all.
They've come too far, he thinks, to not see this all the way through.
Natasha had first called him over a year ago, just after the US military had pulled Steve from the wreckage of a helicopter crash in Mumbai. She'd been cagey at first and then, when she realized he honestly hadn't heard, laid the cards on the table. They hadn't been sure, in those first harrowing weeks, if Steve was even still alive, given the silence of the intelligence community on the subject. By the time Tony had confirmed that Steve had been taken to a black site hospital off the coast of the Philippines, Steve had already been moved again by a nameless government agency and had fairly disappeared into the ether until just nine months ago.
A single line item had appeared in the Pentagon’s budget for a “complex experimental study of the modern application of World War II serums.” The payment had been made to a small defense contractor, co-owned by Thaddeus Ross through several shell corporations. Even then, they hadn't been sure until they'd traced Ross’s travel schedule to here and spotted the scurrying efforts at setting up a new black site.
Just before he goes, Tony pauses to look at himself in the dingy mirror. His hair is just the right amount of mussed and his cheeks have a hint of sallowness. He's lost weight since the Accords and then lost even more over the last few months since this crazy plan had been hatched. He doesn't look like Iron Man anymore, he thinks. He looks like a tired, middle-aged CEO, superhero dreams behind him and only thoughts of booze, young women, and money to keep him company. He looks like a hundred other middle aged men, teetering on the balance of productivity and alcoholism, success and desperation. He's played the part of the aggrieved, disillusioned, and calculating businessman for almost a year and he can almost taste the prize. He just has to do it one more time.
Tony smiles into the mirror and pulls at his shirt sleeves, dusting away any specks that might have caught onto his coat. It's finally show time.
Near the foot of the ice shelf, the floes are thicker than Bucky had expected. He has to use more of the oxygen tank than he wanted, swimming beneath the broken ice. The gaps for air are more difficult to find than he had even anticipated.
In the last few feet of his journey, there's no light coming through the cracks. He feels the ice scraping the backside of his helmet and he puts both hands out, searching for the break. He feels the pressure of rough ice endlessly above him, keeping him submerged.
You're not trapped, he tells himself. You're not stuck. You're not in cryo. They do not have you. You're not going to go to sleep. You are here. You are James Barnes.
The parts in his head that still belong to Hydra pound harder but he ignores them.
His hands hit open water and then the freedom of air. He pushes through the cracks, resisting the urge to gasp or surge high above the water. Instead, he treads, breathing shallowly, eyes closed as forces himself to calmness.
When he opens his eyes, the ice cliff is just yards away. This close, the sheer size makes Bucky feel small and inadequate. The expanse extends further than he can see up and seemingly endlessly in both directions.
His oxygen is low so he keeps his head just above water, letting the tank replenish his supply as he pushes the floes aside to get to the edge of the cliff. When he's there, he rests both hands on it and breathes.
When he turns and looks back, he sees miles of black water and ice, the ocean vanishing into the endless night of the Arctic. The wildness settles something deep inside of him. This is no lab or silo. He’s not a weapon in the hands of Hydra.
Slipping just below the water line, he flips on his faceplate, watches as the green lines spread across his vision. The heat map filters in and he sees the vent just ahead of him, the golden glow stronger now that he's closer. He won't be able to turn this on again and stay hidden. It's about 80 feet under the edge of the shelf - but it'll be pitch black even with his small light and he'll have to rely on his sense of direction to keep himself headed toward it.
He checks his oxygen. The gauge is green. Thirty minutes of breathing time. He has 30 minutes to find the bottom of this ice shelf and swim deep into the blackness underneath it. Bucky hasn't let himself think about this part - hasn't let himself think about getting lost under the ice shelf, in the cold and darkness and running out of oxygen and feeling everything just stop. Would he freeze like Steve had? Like he did in Hydra's chamber? Maybe he wouldn't die. He'd just sink to the bottom and never be found. He wouldn't die for hundreds of years. He could rest, a weapon retired. Until the polar caps shifted and some scientist dug him up and the world would be different and maybe there would be flying cars that time and maybe no one would remember his name or the trigger words and he could find a quiet apartment in a quiet city and just duck his head and while away the years.
But there would be no Steve.
Bucky checks the oxygen meter again, checks the position of the vent one last time and flips off the computer. He draws a long, even breath. The stars are beautiful when he slips under the water.
He kicks hard, keeping one hand on the ice shelf to guide his path down. The water gets inkier around him, colder if possible. He thumbs a button on his left wrist and the air shafts that had been his buoys deflate with a hiss and he can feel how heavy his arm is now, dragging him down.
Up and down start getting muddled the deeper he goes. An ingrained animal instinct is screaming for him to turn back, harsh and unrelenting. Bucky makes himself breathe calmly through it.
Don't waste your oxygen.
He thinks he sees the gray flash of some fish once and he jerks back, pressing against the ice like it won't spot him. But whatever it is doesn't seem to care about him, swimming on without a backward glance. He thinks briefly about turning on the light in his faceplate - but he doesn't want to risk it until he's under the ice shelf.
It feels like hours go by as he forces himself downward, sinking further into the depths.
Kicking hard, he feels as the ice shelf starts to curve inward so he follows. The ice is almost soft here, tiny chunks dissolving under his hands like snowflakes as he pushes downward. He's in space, following the curve of the moon, he imagines. There's nothing but emptiness behind him, no heavy cliff of ice weighing down on his head. He lets himself flip on his helmet light. At this depth, nothing will reach the surface and if they have cameras down here, he's caught anyway. The light doesn't penetrate the blackness far; it's more of a cold glow than a beam. All he can see is water and ice, like he's trapped at the top of some massive cavern.
Resolutely, he does not check the oxygen tank. It'll chime a warning when he only has two minutes left of oxygen anyway. Either way though, there are no other options left at this point. He couldn't get back to the surface with even fifteen minutes left of oxygen. Plus, returning to the surface would mean giving up on Steve and if there was one thing Bucky Barnes would never do, it was give up on Steve Rogers.
He reaches forward, cupping both palms and pulling handfuls of water toward himself as he strokes downward. The ice is leveling out further; he is truly under its belly. Then he hears it: a gentle whooshing like air being forced into water.
He almost sobs. Another couple strong kicks and he's there. The water glows around him as the ice ceiling lifts a little, dipping upward toward the pipe. He still can't see more than a few feet but it helps with the claustrophobia. Right above him, the vent is a dark, gaping maw, incongruent with the clean, almost blue white ice surrounding it. The grate covering the open is almost a mesh, soft and fine in his fingers, and he rips it easily from the sides of the metal pipe. He shimmies directly under it and pushes up, sliding from water to air in something that feels strangely what he imagines birth to be like.
The metal is dank and he can smell mold even through the filters around his mouthpiece. He checks the oxygen tank, bracing himself against one wall. He'd had two minutes and fifteen seconds of air left.
He gives himself a moment then, lets himself lean his forehead against the interior pipe wall and takes greedy gulps of air, free from conserving his oxygen for the first time in almost 12 hours. Then, he braces himself and pushes fully into the pipe.
The pads of his gloves and feet are lined with a faintly sticky, magnetic grip that lets him easily brace himself in the small space. Once he's free of the water, it isn't hard to begin scooting himself upward. The pipe begins to even out after only a few yards, making his climb more of an upward crawl.
He keeps his pace steady and as noiseless as possible. As far as they can tell, they're not directly monitoring this pipe but he'd prefer not to take that risk. This pipe is old, part of the original base design, and wasn't replaced when the base was commandeered again a few months ago.
It's the only reason a rescue attempt like this is even feasible - the site's security was cobbled together in a flurry of activity when it became apparent they would need somewhere to hold a valuable, enhanced prisoner where no one would be the wiser. Technically, the land here was claimed by the U.K. but this site had been part of a joint cooperation with the U.S. right after World War II had ended. It had been mostly abandoned until recently.
Peggy had been here once. According to the records, she had visited briefly in 1956 and soon after, whatever experiments had been going on had been shut down. Much of the documentation detailing what exactly the projects here were had been destroyed or lost. Whenever Bucky looked at the scant old photographs, though, something tugged uncomfortably in his mind.
His entire head feels like a swampy, foggy minefield, layers of crud compounded over time. The Wakandan scientists had done their best - but the code words had been layered deep, hardware designed into the core processes of Bucky's being. Rooting out all of Hydra's damage, they said, would be also rooting out his personality and intelligence and all the memories he'd managed to salvage. They could do it - but he'd no longer have any semblance to a functional human being at the end of it. Part of Bucky had wanted to give up with that news - had wanted to burrow deep into a warm sleep and just fade away.
Steve had never given up. Even that last mission when Ross's people had snatched him up, he'd been chasing down another Hydra scientist, hoping that this would be the one who had a different answer. The notebook full of copious, clinical notes that Sam had delivered faithfully back to Wakanda, though, had been just as fruitless as the ones before.
Wanda had been the most help, when science had been unable to make any progress. After Steve had been captured, she had pushed through her own trauma and did her best to neutralize the trigger phrases not his mind that they at least knew. It hadn't worked perfectly - but it at least gave Bucky a fighting chance on the field.
The slope of the vent is beginning to level out even more now and Bucky takes a moment to rest, leaning against the pipe's interior. He checks the tiny watch sewn into his suit on the underside of his left wrist and crawls on. Only an hour left.
When Tony walks down the helicopter ramp in Antarctica, Scott instantly feels the cold biting through the thick parka, the suit jacket, and then his own suit. The wind is a long continuous wail, making the space around him shudder. He fights back a shiver and then braces himself to climb out of the interior suit pocket.
The helicopter flight from Argentina had been bumpy, a storm kicking up in the volatile air currents that surrounded the Antarctic coast. Tony, playing the part of the inebriated billionaire, had been holding a tall glass of straight vodka the entire time. The rockiness, combined with the heavy smell of cologne and alcohol, had been making Scott sick for hours.
It would've served Tony right if he'd thrown up in here, he thought; but then he would've been sitting in his own sick and that wasn't a pleasant image. He takes advantage of the cold air to clear his head as Tony clomps loudly across the windy runway.
He can hear Tony's voice, muffled and slightly breathless, asking about security and cameras and Ross's annoyed tone replying.
"I feel like I'm going into a Soviet cellar," Tony says. "You couldn't have hired a decorator? Or just gotten someone to splash some paint? Christ, this is rusty."
"We had to make our upgrades efficiently, as I'm sure you're aware."
"I saw the contract the state department sent over. Motion detectors, infrared cameras... you spent a pretty penny on security. Not that I don't appreciate the healthy profit margins for my company - but even I thought it was a little over the top. Afraid of your animal test subjects getting loose?" Stark says it casually, even with the tiniest slur like the vodka from the helicopter is still floating heavily in his veins.
Ross is silent. They've stopped walking now but they must be standing next to a wall because the wind is quieter. "You're a smart man, Tony. You know we're not experimenting on animals. That's for universities and small men doing small things. This is the cutting edge," he says tightly. "I don't think you would've written that check otherwise."
Scott stiffens but Tony seems unbothered.
"You're right. In fact, I'm sure this is something that could get us both hauled before the ICC since we're both walking toward a blast door on goddamn Antarctica. So why don't you cut the bullshit and tell me what my money bought."
"Things have been hard for you," Ross says, voice going soft and gentle.
Scott cringes. He’s heard that same tone before. The memory of Ross’s voice, in a prison deep under the ocean, rattles against his skull: "Don't you want to see your daughter again, Scott? You must miss Cassie a lot. Just tell me where Steve Rogers is and everything will be okay."
He shakes his head hard in the present and tries to focus, sliding along the ridged hems toward the carefully designed opening near Tony's armpit. From there, he wiggles out into the bulkier fabric of the jacket.
"I hear Colonel Rhodes is undergoing another surgery soon," Ross continues. "He still doesn't have any feeling below his waist? That must be difficult to watch. And Steve Rogers is still on the run - you were friends and he just abandoned his job, his country... you."
Tony doesn't speak.
Scott peers through a buttonhole and sees that they're standing before what looks like a blast door in the middle of a snowy field. The area is lit by a single bulb hanging over the door and the long lights from the waiting helicopter. There's a guard standing to Ross's left.
"So what do you want, Tony?" Ross asks, like he's talking to a reluctant nephew. "What are you holding to find at the bottom of this elevator? A cure for Colonel Rhodes? A way to bring Steve Rogers to justice? The next cutting edge weapon to line your pockets?"
Metal screeches against metal as the blast door squeals open, saving Tony from needing to answer. It's a single 5' by 5' cargo elevator, thick metal bars lining the walls and yellow recessed lighting glaring from the ceiling. Scott swallows, remembering the schematics of the base. One way in. One way out. The elevator is designed as a death trap. Position guards up here as someone escapes and they die in a small metal box in hail of gunfire once they reach the surface.
Ross steps aboard the elevator and smiles. He's in a dark parka and his hair is slicked back. He looks soft and clean and well slept, like any other politician.
Scott glowers back beneath his helmet and imagines he can see the slick black oil of Ross's soul beneath the placidity.
Tony steps forward then and Scott has to grab ahold of the button hole to keep his balance. "This is dramatic," he says, standing shoulder to shoulder with Ross. "You have Hannibal Lecter waiting for me down there?"
"Something like that."
The door seals shut and the minimal glow from the airstrip is shut away. The dank elevator lights do nothing to calm the situation.
All the guards stayed behind on the surface, Scott notes. It makes sense that the crew manning this station would be kept to a minimum. When you're keeping a prisoner with the notoriety Captain America chained below the earth, it’s best to keep the circle of knowledgeable people small.
The elevator ticks downward. There are no buttons inside: no need when there are only two places the elevator can go. Scott can't tell how fast the elevator is moving but the journey stretches on longer than he thought possible. Neither Ross nor Tony say a word. When the elevator comes to a stop, it does so smoothly and silently. For all its antique appearance, the elevator's mechanisms must have been refurbished.
He thinks about Cassie as they sink further into the earth. If she knew he was here, she'd probably ask him to bring home a penguin and add that to her collection of pets. Wouldn't that be a trip: a giant ant and a penguin walking around the neighborhood. It's been two years and three months since he's seen Cassie. His gaze goes back to Ross. Hopefully, not much longer, though.
That's the hope. That's the mission. Save Steve Rogers and collect the evidence needed to discredit Ross. Then, they can go home - really go home. Not the admittedly lovely house in Wakanda or the endless supply of safe houses Natasha seems to have. He can go back to Cassie.
When the doors open soundlessly, Scott is ready. He darts forward, clambering up the fold of the collar and scooting around so he's braced at the nape of Stark's neck. He reaches back one time to make sure the backpack is still secured and then, as Stark walks from the elevator behind Ross, he throws himself forward, aiming for the thin floor grate just to the left of the elevator. He tumbles and rolls, sliding between the metal bars just as the elevator doors close, muffling the sound of his impact.
He looks back once before he runs down the metal insulation that had been set up between the old walls and the new walls. Tony is giving a thumbs up, hidden by the long sleeve of his coat.
Scott smiles and then checks his watch as he darts through the thin framework. Forty-five minutes.
Bucky hears them before he sees them, the steady tread of boots and the hushed murmur of voices.
He'd crawled from the vent into the network of the old ventilation system, a complex web of pipes and crawl spaces mostly plastered over from when they'd been prepping the place last year. Everything smells faintly of fresh paint and antiseptic with an undercurrent of mold.
As best as they had been able to tell, the vent had ended on the laboratory level. The plans Sharon had pulled from Peggy's files had shown four levels: control center, offices, barracks, and laboratories. The entire base was built like a silo: bored straight down through the ice and into the side of a massive cliff right off the ice shelf, each floor a uniform shape and size, only accessible from the floor above or below it.
They're not sure where Steve is being kept, but Bucky is willing to bet they wanted to hide him as deep as possible.
He checks his watch. Thirty-five minutes. He wiggles toward the sound of the voices, trying to keep his movements quiet. Around a corner, a small grate is casting beams of light across the pipe interior and he pauses next to it.
The grate is at floor level, he can see smooth white linoleum and what looks like the wheels of a cart across a narrow hallway. The lighting is harsh, bright LEDs designed to glare. He blinks, keeping his breathing steady.
If he cranes, he can see down the hallway and into an open doorway. There are metal chairs and a computer bank and a lab table with a microscope set up. A man in a white lab coat walks into the room, grayish and mousey. He's holding a folder of papers and reading as he walks. He hums to himself and then walks down the hallway, sensible black shoes squeaking past Bucky's hiding place.
"How much time do we have?" he asks someone out of Bucky's view.
"Stark arrived a few minutes ago - they're upstairs in the demo room. They're downstairs getting ready to prep the subject now."
Bucky freezes and feels his stomach twist. Downstairs? There's another level? That hadn't been in any of the schematics or notes they'd reviewed. If it's true, there won't be an old ventilation system down there - no crawl spaces for him to sneak through. He swallows. He can't get down there.
Scott follows the humming cables to the rumbling server room, scampering past the security checks and locks through the tiny fissures in the walls.
The space around him is dead in a way he's never seen before. There's no mold, no animal droppings, no tiny scuttling creatures - save for him. It's like being on an alien planet, in a way. All the life forms he's used to are stripped away down here, leaving nothing but cold and metal.
It's unnerving - but, then again, his entire life has been unnerving since he stole this suit out of a safe and got a call from Captain America. He misses California deeply, especially in here in the gray cold. He misses the windy beaches, the warm hills, and the ants that crawl into his house in winter. He misses his daughter. Not that his apartment in Wakanda isn't nice and his teammates aren't friendly. He just always gets the feeling that he's the outsider. They're a family, forged in blood and tears and memories, and he's the acquaintance that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he'd volunteered for this, Clint had pulled him aside and reminded him he didn't have to be involved at all.
"It's gonna be dangerous, man," he'd told him quietly in an alcove overlooking the interior gardens of the Wakanda Research Center. "Think of your daughter."
"You have kids too," Scott reminded him, matching his tone. "Just because I haven't been with you guys as long doesn't mean I'm not part of the team, okay? What did you say in there? They come after one of us, they come after all of us. Let me do my part."
Clint had just stared back, steady. "I owe Cap my life," he said. "But I want to be sure you know what you're getting into."
Scott slides around the door of the control room and stares up at the towering banks of servers and lines of monitors. Hallways, elevators, stairways, and rooms all fill the screens, timestamps scrolling across the bottom. There's a single guard sitting on a rolling chair, eating chips out of a crinkly blue bag, with his elbow resting by his keyboard. In the blue light of the room, his face is slack like he's about to fall asleep.
Scott darts down the row of servers, looking for the right one. He finds it at the end of the row, right behind the main terminal hub. Climbing up to the series of USB ports near the top is harder than Scott had anticipated. The face of the server is slick plastic and it's hard to get a good grip. By the time he makes it to the first port, he's sweating in his suit.
He perches on the port's edge and fishes out the knapsack, pulling the zippered top open. In an inner pocket, there's a series of mini USB drives that almost look like hollowed sleeves. If someone were to walk by the server, they wouldn't be able to tell there was a USB present. They're one of Stark's inventions and Scott remains skeptical. He settles the miniature drive inside the USB port and does his best to center it. Stark has said it wouldn't matter, but the last thing Scott wants is to jam the entire port with a malfunctioning drive. He slides out of the port and balances on a nearby light. Popping open the control panel on his sleeve, he takes a deep breath and punches in the sequence.
There's a low whine that Scott hopes isn't audible to anyone but him and then a satisfying click as the hollowed USB drive enlarges and pops into position inside the drive.
Scott peers over the edge of the server. The guard is still eating his chips, thumbing through different perspectives of a tiled hallway. Scott can see Tony and Ross walking, shoulder to shoulder, under the security cameras. He ducks back down and pulls out his handheld. It takes a moment to power on - but when it does, Scott exhales for what feels like the first time in hours. The security system for the base loads seamlessly, logging him in automatically.
"Have fun, FRIDAY," he whispers as he sets Stark's AI free on the internal system. Then he goes looking for the next USB port.
It's easy after that. He sets up five more USB ports (three main ones and two redundancies, just in case) and then finds a crack in the wall, settling on a dusty beam. "Are we ready, FRIDAY?" he asks quietly.
"Yessir. I have established control over all the cameras and base surveillance and mapped in the biometrics of yourself, Sergeant Barnes, Captain Rogers, and the boss. All your movements will be overwritten and will not appear on camera or flag any alarms."
"You're the best. If you ever get tired of Stark, I'd be happy to treat you right."
"I'm sure you would, sir," she says drily.
He smiles. "Okay. Let's get to it. Locate Stark and Barnes and turn on their comms devices, cloaking the signal of course, and get me a location for Captain Rogers."
"Be back in a jif," she says and he hears the tiny processor whirring.
He takes the opportunity to pull up the schematics and start flipping through the plans. He locates the demo room and locker room, before noting the location of all the elevators. Then he moves onto scanning the sewage system, following the pipes and trying to figure out where Barnes had probably popped out. He follows the pipes and then pauses, tracing them again.
There are five floors. "Oh shit," he breathes at the same time Barnes says in his ear, FRIDAY having successfully patched through their comms, "Lang? we have a problem."
"There's a fifth floor." He's typing furiously, clicking through the plans. "An elevator on the north side of the silo, goes from the laboratories, down. But there's not... there's no floor plan and the vent system doesn't go down there."
Barnes sucks in a breath and Scott feels sick inside at what he must be feeling. Barnes is cold and big and dangerous but Scott had been in the room when they'd told him Steve had been captured and imprisoned. Scott had seen his face break for just a moment, bending forward like something deep inside had been crushed to dust. When he'd sat up, his face had been blank again but his muscles had been locked, ready for battle. To be so close, now, and to watch it slipping away, Scott can’t imagine.
"FRIDAY?" He asks desperately. "Something I'm missing here?" He scans the layout. Barnes is on the fourth floor down, northwest quadrant. Stark is on the second floor, where the offices are, near the center, where they had hypothesized the demo room to be based on the old schematics.
She sounds just as sorry as he feels. "The fifth floor is on a closed circuit security system. We can't access it from here. Heat signatures through the floor suggest ten individuals, one running several degrees above normal human body temperature."
"Steve," Bucky says, absent like he's not even aware it popped out.
"I believe it is Captain Rogers," she confirms.
"Well, there goes plan A." Barnes sounds tinny like he's in a small place.
"And plan B," Scott says back. "I don't have access to the fifth floor elevator. I can try to get down there and access the security system - but the access points were designed with specifically this system in mind. I don't... FRIDAY, how long would it take to reformat our current software to work below?"
"Without seeing it myself, I can only guess at their level of security. If it's anything like this one, three hours to crack all the passwords and rewrite the code."
"We don't have that kind of time," Barnes snaps back. "Lang, can you get me a gun?"
"A what? No! You can't shoot your way out of here. You'll never make it past the first elevator." There's panic clawing at his lungs now. He's gonna see both Captain America and Bucky Barnes dead and full of bullet holes. "Both of you are gonna get killed." He scrabbles at the keyboard, checking Stark's comm. It's still off. He wishes he were next to Barnes and not crouched in a crevice three floors away. "Just... let's wait for Stark."
"I'm not gonna get anyone killed, Lang." Barnes sounds impatient. "I have a plan."
Bucky isn't lying when he says he has a plan. It's just... not his best plan. Honestly, though, Bucky thinks he deserves credit for overriding his core deep impulse to simply blow a hole in the linoleum floor and pull Steve to safety by sheer force of will.
With Scott and FRIDAY's help, he navigates the old air duct system up to the barracks, one floor up. Most of the floor there is laid out like an army dormitory, bunk beds stretching out across a wide open space. There are a cluster of walled bedrooms on one end and a communal shower and locker room on the other end with a rudimentary gym tucked in a nook nearby. The walls are bare gray and the floors are the rough thin carpet present in every office space Bucky has seen. Bunks are pressed together, leaving very little privacy. Thankfully for them, the small cafeteria and dining area is up a floor in the office space.
Per their research, 25 highly trained ex-military guys had been hired from an off the books private security force to guard the base. Their identities were all highly classified, along with the 12 scientists who worked here full time. All the security wore masks that covered their faces below their eyes while on duty.
"It's a precaution," Romanoff had explained, forcefully detached. "It's to prevent retribution from the people they're guarding."
Today, that was in their favor.
When Bucky slides from a ceiling tile and onto an unmade bunk bed, the room is empty: everyone is up eating breakfast and assumedly getting ready for the demo for Stark. He can hear the shower running, though, and he slides down carefully.
"Okay," he whispers into his mic, "which locker?"
"Uh... third from the left." Scott taps again. "One guy in the showers - he's in the middle one."
"Got it." Bucky pulls the mask off he's been wearing since he jumped from the chopper. "You got the security system all taken care of, FRIDAY?"
"Only I can see you now, Sergeant."
He nods. "Okay then." He creeps across the floors toward the shower. There's steam spilling out and he can hear humming as he slips carefully across the damp bathroom floor. He pauses by the sinks, gauging the distance. The shower doors are the kind that swing outward, frosty plexiglass that is dappled with condensation. He can see the smudged blur of a man on the other side, his towel hanging on the door. Bucky springs forward.
He grabs the towel in his metal fist and rips the door open with the other.
The guy doesn't even make a noise before the towel over his head and Bucky's metal palm is over his mouth and nose while his other arm pins the guy against his chest. He's well trained, body going slack and purposefully heavy even while his leg kicks backward, looking for Bucky's ankle. Bucky is stronger and faster though. He easily sidesteps and then shoves them both into the corner, bracing the guy against the slick shower wall so the water is pouring right across his face.
It only takes a few moments. The wet towel across his face and the hand pressed there leeches any hope the guy has of getting air and his struggles go desperate and uncoordinated before diminishing into stillness. Bucky holds him there for an extra thirty count, just to be sure, before loosening his grip.
"Is he dead?" Scott asks, voice high and tinny in his earpiece. He'd been absolutely silent throughout the whole process.
Bucky checks his pulse. "Nope."
He turns off the shower then and lugs the guy from the stall. Scott directs him to zip ties in a nearby locker and he lashed the guy's wrists, elbows, ankles and knees, gagging him with the towel, before pushing him into the ceiling crawl space. Then he heads for the lockers.
At the third one from the left, he eyes the combination lock attached to the front. "A little help here?" he asks. "The guy has a padlock."
"What kind of padlock is it?" Scott asks. "Most basic locks can just be opened by..."
Bucky gives a solid yank and the lock comes apart in his hand, the spinner's face cracked and bent together. "Never mind," he tells Scott as he drops the pieces to the floor.
The uniform is the only thing in there, along with a pair of boots and a helmet. Everything is sleek and black and relatively new. It takes him longer than he expected to peel out of the wet suit and slip into the uniform. The pants and shirt are made of heavy rough fabric with fine metal woven through the threads. "What kind of material is this?" he asks.
FRIDAY makes a humming noise. "It's a synthetic polymer with aluminum and nickel woven through. I can't ascertain for what purpose. Such metals would be expensive and make the materials less flexible. The helmet is made entirely of nickel with a coating of platinum."
Bucky raps the side with his fist, listening to the solid clanking sound. "It's definitely heavy."
He pulls it on and settles the face mask in place. Only his eyes show between the two pieces of metal. This isn't Hydra's uniform, he reminds himself. He is not the Winter Soldier. Not anymore. He grabs the ID badge from the shelf and clips it to the bottom of the heavy tactical vest. There's no name, rank or photo on the card; just a barcode and a number. "Guns?" he asks.
"On your left hand side, you'll see the weapons locker. Scan your badge to get access."
It opens with a beep and a green light. The guns are all standard issue but there are also stun batons and tasers, things that you would use for unruly prisoners. The sight of them makes Bucky flinch inwardly. Everything is made out of a thick plastic, nothing metal. He slides two handguns into the holsters in the pants and the stun baton dangles from the belt. The taser fits on the left side of the vest.
He pointedly does not look at himself in the mirror as he crosses toward the elevator down to the laboratory. "Okay. Let's do this."
The bland halls and furniture of the base make Tony's eyes bleed. "What was the line item in the budget for this whole base?" he asks, kicking at a chair that looks like it was in style when Reagan was president. "And you couldn't spend a little bit for a decent decorator?"
"We don't get many visitors." Ross is sitting on a gray fabric couch, decorated with several dark unidentifiable stains.
"Not for visitors. For employees. This is like working in a prison." Tony collapses into the chair and takes the flask from his pocket. It's a special concoction he made himself: smells like vodka but, in reality, is just vitamin water. He takes a swig.
Ross stares back blandly.
Well, so much for small talk.
Tony screws the lid back on and puts the flask away.
After Scott had jumped free, Tony and Ross had been met by two nervous scientists, both in plain white coats and dark pants. They'd been introduced as the project leads and Tony instantly picked up on the shimmer of sweat on the edges of their hairlines, even as they told him how happy they were to have him here. He and Ross had then been escorted to this dank little room and then left alone.
"What are we waiting for?" Tony asks finally, the silence feeling oppressive. He can feel the weight of his phone in his inner pocket. Hopefully, Scott's in the mainframe by now and Barnes is fast on his way to finding wherever they're keeping Steve in this godforsaken base. Any moment, the alarm will blare and Tony can stop this charade, once and for all.
"Sometimes the experiment takes a little while to get ready. We want to make sure we have a demonstration worthy of such a distinguished guest." Ross smiles. "They'll come get us when they're ready."
"Can you at least give me a hint? I've been so patient and you know how much I don't like surprises." Tony sits forward on the edge of his chair. "You've dragged this out long enough, Ross."
Ross sighs and gets up, going to what looks like a thermostat imbedded in the wall in the door. He turns his shoulder so Tony can't get a good look - but he hears the beep from across the room and then the wall across from the door peels back, showing a larger dark room, filled with shining screens, data spilling across them. There's a giant glass wall on the far end, surrounded by readouts in a bright green font, and a row of observation benches right next to it.
"So this is what you spent all that money on," Tony says, making a point of not getting up. "Looks like a low tech version of my labs back home."
Ross ignores him, walking forward to a small cabinet in the corner furthest from the glass wall. He inputs a short key code and the door swings open. "Here," he says, "you'll need to put this on." He pulls out a heavy jacket and a domed helmet that has a glass mask across the front.
"Are we going cliff jumping?" Tony asks. "Sky diving? Some adrenaline junkie sport? I'll tell you, after I stopped putting on Iron Man regularly I sort swore off helmets..." he trails off as he takes both items from Ross. "Is this plastic?" he asks, weighing the helmet carefully.
"It's a polymer our scientists here developed. It won't melt like plastic, even in extreme heat, and it'll withstand almost two tons of pressure before breaking."
"Impressive," Tony tosses it back and forth. "You could make some money with this. This isn't easy to make."
Ross smiles from behind his own helmet. "Our scientists were highly motivated. Come this way."
Tony slips the helmet on and follows him to the computers.
"Take a look." Ross enters a password and then steps back.
It's measurements, Tony realizes. Test results. They're measuring bone density and skin elasticity and electrical currents and... he squints. "What, are you guys just playing with a really big magnet?" He clicks to the next screen. It's a medical report, MRIs and x-rays. He scans the notes.
"Did you know," Ross says conversationally, "that your father worked to replicate Dr. Erskine's success for almost 20 years? Nothing worked, even after they exactly duplicated the serum. At most, it made people stronger than they were before - but not superhuman. No healing ability, no increased endurance. He had a theory, near the end, that the reason it couldn't be replicated had nothing to do with the serum and everything to do with a magnetic anomaly in that specific location, at that specific time and the way it affected the radiation applied to the subject. He theorized that Erskine had chosen that basement because of the position and placement in the magnetic field and time the initial experiment to coincide with it. Your father killed almost 20 men, trying to replicate that. Then, he discovered this spot. Here. Right on top of a huge magnetic anomaly - the biggest one on the entire planet, according to my scientists. He got funding for this facility, got it all set up, and then Peggy Carter came to put a stop to it. She didn't have the vision. She didn't understand that all great scientific achievement requires sacrifice. His notes were classified and this base was sealed up."
"Until you," Tony finishes, keeping his voice steady.
"What Howard was proposing in his notes was something beyond enhanced strength, beyond even Captain America. The powers we could unlock. Forget nukes, with one man we could bring entire nations to their knees. Our scientists thought they had a working formula, between the serum and the radiation and the magnetic anomaly. All we needed were the test subjects. Or, subject."
There's a punchline here and Tony knows what it is. Ross looks like he swallowed a giant, bright yellow canary and there are feathers puffing everywhere.
Tony plays dumb. "Yeah? What lucky SOB did you get to agree to this?"
Ross’s soft face twists in a facsimile of gentle amusement. "You remember Steve Rogers, right?"
Bingo. Tony keeps his face steady. "He's hiding out in Wakanda."
"We caught him a few months back in India. He was going after some book that he thought would cure Barnes - but we had planted it. We pulled him off the street and once our doctors had cleared him, brought him here. The man is the equivalent of a 40 megaton nuke, it would be dangerous to hold him anywhere else."
"So what did you do? Make him a 100 megaton nuke?"
"We unlocked what was already inside of him. The serum had only been doing a fraction of what it was capable of - it just needed a little boost to reach its full potential."
"Steve Rogers," Tony says evenly, trying not to give anything away, "would never be a soldier for you."
Ross smiles, beatific. "That's why you're here today. We've officially created a new super soldier, based on what we learned from Steve Rogers. Today, you'll see his first demonstration."
Well, that's a little unexpected.
"Another super soldier?" he repeats. "Who?"
Ross brings up a profile on the computer. A blond, unsmiling man stares up at them. He looks corn-fed, handsome in that harmless Midwest way. He's blue-eyed and apple-cheeked with a jaw that's just a little too strong for his face. No Steve Rogers, Tony thinks dourly, but he can see why he was chosen.
"First Lieutenant Thomas Pierce. We recruited him from the Rangers."
Tony looked up sharply. "Pierce? Any relation to our dearly departed Secretary of Defense? Who was also a traitor, by the way?"
"His nephew. And don't judge, Tony. Thomas has a spectacular, pristine record and he was thoroughly investigated after what happened with SHIELD. They found nothing. He's dedicated, hard working and unquestioningly loyal."
"So the perfect weapon?" Tony asks.
"The perfect weapon. We were able to better tailor the application of electromagnetic forces with Pierce and even improve upon the original model, I believe."
"What's going to happen to Rogers now?" Tony asks. Pierce's eyes are cold, Tony thinks.
"We can't leave a flawed weapon with such disastrous capabilities lying around to be used against us. You understand that, Tony." He says it with that same gravitas he always has; like he's a grandfather sending his only grandson off to die in a war.
Something turns over in Tony's stomach. He wraps his fingers around the edge of the table and squeezes. What had Ross done. "What does that mean?" His voice goes croaky at the end and he can't bring himself to care.
"Captain Rogers has served his purpose and he's been designated a traitor to his country. He committed treason and countless lives were lost because of him. Execution is the price of those crimes."
Tony hasn't seen Steve since that day in Siberia. They haven't really talked since that day in Germany.
"I don't really want you gone," Tony had said. Those words echo in his head now. "We need you, Cap."
Steve had been taken in India months ago and, yet, not once since Natasha called him to tell him the news, has Tony doubted they would get Steve back. Steve was Captain America, after all. He was the nearest thing currently on God's green earth to indestructible. Tony hadn't let himself imagine a scenario where they were too late.
This isn't how it ends. There's still so much to be said.
He forces his hand to release the table where it's clenched, smoothing out his expression. "That seems a little harsh, don't you think?"
"It's practical." Ross's expression turns pitying. "I know it can be hard to hear - but he's too dangerous to be left alive. You wouldn't leave a nuke lying around with no way to disarm it. It's irresponsible."
He's not a weapon, Tony thinks, feeling sick. He's a person.
Ross must see the skepticism because he sighs. "There's something I should show you," he says. "You need to understand how dangerous he's become."
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," Lang says in his ear. His voice has been getting higher and higher over the last few minutes. Bucky can almost hear him vibrating over the comms. "Just hold on. Let me get in touch with Stark and..."
Bucky nods politely as a white coated scientist scurries past him. The hallways of the labs are mostly empty but Bucky can see people bent over microscopes and staring at computer screens in some of the bright rooms he passes. They're all buzzing about something and it's making him nervous. Everything is spotless, harsh lights glaring off of smooth surfaces, only broken by grated drains in the floor. Everything feels clinical and cold and it makes him itch deep in his soul. He needs to get Steve out of here; the sooner, the better. "No time," he murmurs back, grateful that the black faceplate covers his mouth. "We were on a tight schedule before all this."
"If I may, Sergeant," FRIDAY says. "Once you go down to the lower level, I cannot guarantee that I'll be of any assistance to you. They seem to have sophisticated dampeners in place that..."
The bark takes them all by surprise, even FRIDAY's carefully modulated tone cuts off abruptly and Lang inhales deeply in Bucky's ears. A tall fit man with narrow eyes is striding out of the nearby lab, his gaze locked onto Bucky. He's balding and he has on a strange, white plastic breastplate looking thing over the top of his lab coat.
Bucky straightens, curls his fingers into his gun. The man is unfamiliar but Bucky recognizes the set of his mouth from grim faces looming over him while he writhed on metal tables. He keeps his shoulders stiff, though. If he moves quickly, he could get the barrel of the gun in his mouth before the trigger words finished. He won't go back, won't do that to Steve or Scott or the world. He wants to murmur something over the comms, tell Scott to get Steve out no matter what, but there's no time for that now.
Bucky forces a steadying breath, a long inhale and exhale over the sound of his heartbeat in his ears, mostly silent in the gray hallway. Bucky burns cold in the battle, a dark rushing river under ice or a flagpole after a snowy night. Now, especially, he leans on that chill, pushes it through his bones until he is a rock, a mountain, a shield. He is the oncoming ice storm. "Sir?" he answers blandly.
"Did they send you down to help with the transport?" Up close, the man is a bit sweaty, even though the labs are cold. "They need you down there. It's a ten man minimum and we're short and I'm not breaking protocol and risking lives just because we have bigwigs on a time schedule." He takes his glasses off and rubs his nose. "Christ. Why did I sign up for this?"
In the lab behind him, an alarm starts flashing, along with a low whooping noise that echoes against the slick walls. The man turns to look. "Fuck," he curses loudly. "Just go down to the cell. The rest of the men are already waiting for you. We want to get this over with."
"Sir." Bucky backs away toward the dark elevator that must lead to the lower floor, to Steve. He holds the ID card to the reader, grateful when it immediately flashes a bright green. He can hear Scott sighing in relief in his ear as he gets on and pushes the down button. The doors slide closed silently.
"Sir," FRIDAY murmurs, her humming voice pitching even lower than normal. "Good luck. We will be in contact as soon as you are back on this network."
Bucky nods and then hears a rush of static as he passes onto the lowest level.
They're on their own.
But that's always been enough for him and Steve.
The doors slide open just as soundlessly and Bucky is immediately looking at a group of soldiers, all dressed like him. Their gazes swing around as he steps off.
This level is darker than the upper ones, all the light recessed into the walls so that only a greenish glow comes through. The floor is dark and slick and thumps hollowly when he steps onto it. It's colder too; Bucky can see his breath cloud even through his mask. There are no doors or chairs or offices on this level, just the dark hallway extending wide, smooth and straight, to a heavy door that seems to suck in the light.
"They said you needed one more guy?" he tries, keeping his voice low and gruff.
"Yep," a taller man says, distinguished only by the red stripe across the front of his helmet. "What took you so long?"
"Got held up in the labs," Bucky shrugs. "I'm here now."
"Let's get this over with then."
Something in Bucky's brain is buzzing and he viciously tamps it down, trying to clear his head and return to the blankness he'd found in the ocean. There's no plan but he'll do whatever he has to do. He falls into a rough formation, lingering to the back of the group.
They're all twitchy. He can see sweat on foreheads, fingers tapping on the holsters of weapons, feet shifting noiselessly on the ground. Something has them spooked.
He drifts, lagging behind and taking the opportunity to look for cameras or sensors. There are slitted vents midway up the wall and when he passes by one, he hears a steady hiss and hum. They're on their own air filtration system, he realizes. Oxygen could be completely shut off to this floor, leaving whoever was down here to suffocate. It's efficient and clean and a mark of how terrified they are of what they're keeping down here.
The guard with the red stripe across his helmet uses his palm print and a code he enters on a little digital pad to open the wide door at the end of the hallway. It peels back to reveal another door, this one with thick bolts across the front. This one has a retina scan.
The last door is plain - about the size of a normal doorway. The effect of the multiple doors is a narrowing of the hallway so only one man could come through the door at a time. It's a bottleneck, Bucky thinks. He can see it clearly. Men would stand at the opposite end of the hallway, maybe even in the elevator, and would fire down the corridor at the doors. Whoever was coming out wouldn't stand much of a chance.
If they have a hope of getting out of here alive, Bucky needs to get Steve off of this death trap of a floor.
The final door swings back and there's just the darkness of a small cell behind it. The space is as narrow as the door itself but Bucky can't see in more than a couple feet. If he thought the hallway was dim, the cell is a cave.
"Captain Rogers," the lead guard says, his voice hard. "Please turn and face the wall."
Bucky clenches his hands together. He could kill the two guards on his right in seconds, before the others even had time to react. He could kill three more before any of them even got their weapons out. He forces himself to breathe.
He can see a dark shape shuffling inside the murk of the cell, almost just a reflection of shadow more than a person.
Two guards move inside the doorway. Their hands are still on their weapons and they keep their backs to the other guards, radiating tension and hostility. There's a sickening familiarity in their movements. He'd been the dangerous creature in the cage too.
Bucky flexes his fingers and reminds himself that he and Steve will both die if he reveals himself now. He takes a deep breath and forces himself to stillness, forces himself to wait.
"Mr. Lang," FRIDAY says quietly, just a few moments after Barnes's feed had cut out. "Secretary Ross appears to be showing Mr. Stark some relevant footage, shall I put it on your display?"
"Yes, please," Scott says. He needs a distraction. If he focuses on the silence too long, he remembers that he's basically stranded in a hostile base in one of those most deadly landscapes on earth. He'd done some reading about it before they'd come.
People could die in this wasteland in just mere hours, from exposure to the elements. Further inland, there was no wildlife to hunt for food. You'd starve or freeze to death or fall off a cliff in a blizzard. This time of year, there was no sun to break up the never ending freezing cold. With the powerful winds that swept across the ice shelves, you could get buried in a snow drift and die just feet from safety.
A video pops up on his screen. It shows a large gray room that must be one of the labs, a white timestamp ticking away at the bottom of the screen, nine months ago. There is a dark tank in the middle of the room, smooth and heavy looking, about six feet long and three feet wide, lifted about four feet off the ground. Cables are running to and from it and Scott thinks he can detect a faint humming and a blue cast to the air around the almost black exterior.
“Allazein Experiment number 56: complete," a voice says. "The energy density inside the unit reached our highest levels to date and air temperatures were in excess of 121 degrees Celsius. Core body temperature reached 48 degrees Celsius. Commencing removal now. Commencing standard battery of tests on Subject Rebirth."
Four black-helmeted figures stride toward the tank, stun batons swinging from their belts. One taps a code into a panel and the top of the tank begins to crack open, black giving way to darkness that even the glaring overhead lights don’t penetrate. They lean over the opening. Scott can’t hear what they are saying but he can see their mouths moving, calling out maybe to whoever was inside. Then, the tallest of the figures reaches into the tank, both arms, like he is preparing to pull a recalcitrant child from bed. After a moment, the others join him. It takes all four of them to drag Steve Rogers from the inside of the tank.
The first thing Scott noticed was that they had shaved his head, leaving behind dark blonde fuzz that made his face look even skinnier, cheekbones standing out sharply. He’s limp with eyes closed, neck falling back so that his head bumps over the lip of the tank as they pull him out, drop him onto the long stretcher. His chest is heaving, like all his focus is going into breathing. He is naked, as far as Scott can see, and his skin is reddened and splotchy like it had been burned. There is blood on his teeth when he opens his mouth to gasp, smeared on his chin, and deep purple bruises are spread over his chest and shoulders in the shape of thick restraints.
The men work quickly, securing heavy black clamps across Steve, securing him on his back with both arms spread out like he’s on a cross. Steve seems to come back to himself and starts fighting midway through, twisting under their hands and arching his back as they screw him down.
“Subject is fully restrained,” one of the helmeted men says, his voice strained. White coated figures swarm across the screen then, attaching electrodes to Steve’s head and chest and taking his blood pressure. Steve is biting his lip, staring at the ceiling like he’s trying to go some place else. A woman, her hair tucked up into a scrub cap, swabs something over the inside of Steve’s outstretched elbow and ties a tourniquet over this bicep, like they’re preparing to put an IV in his arm.
That’s when the bone saw comes out.
Scott realizes what is about to happen just before the first blood sprays across the white coat of the scientist holding the saw. It’s partially blocked by the body of the scientist but Scott can see Steve’s face, screwed up in agony, and Steve’s fingers, clawed against the stretcher until they go limp as the nerves and tendons and muscles are severed at the elbow.
Within a few seconds, it’s over but Scott still has to shove his fist in his mouth to keep the gorge from rising from his belly. He breathes deeply.
This isn’t what any of them had signed up for, he thinks hysterically as two of the scientists carry Steve’s forearm, already growing gray, over to another table while others continue to cluster around Steve. Sometimes he has nightmares of the Raft, of that tiny gray cell and the lights that never turned off and the claustrophobia of being under the ocean and trapped. Steve had come though. Steve had come. He’d appeared from the depths and the dark and opened the door and now Scott was sitting here and watching people cut him apart and he needed to get it together so he could get Steve out of here.
He stares upward, at the metal lattice work and the cold dark, not wanting to look down at Steve’s blood and his pain wracked face. We’ll do this, he tells himself. Barnes is down there now, pulling Steve from whatever is on that fifth floor and Stark is above, keeping Ross distracted and this will all be over soon. The king’s doctors - they’re the best. Scott repeats this to himself. They’ll get Steve a new hand, a new arm. He and Barnes can match.
“Sir,” FRIDAY suddenly says. “I believe you should watch this.”
Scott looks back down. The camera has moved closer, focusing in on the bloodied stump of Steve’s arm. The blood is pooling beneath it, dark and slick, and Scott can see his upper arm trembling, muscle twitching. As he watches, though, Steve’s arm twitches again hard and Scott sees something thick and semi-transparent growing over the wound, covering the blood and tissue like a gory moss. It's cloudy like mucus or sap, but, as it settles, becomes opaque and skin colored.
Steve is breathing hard, high pitched whines coming out of his nose and the scientists are all murmuring excitedly. The camera operator pulls away, talking quietly. “Apical ectodermal ridge is fully formed after 96 seconds. That’s the fastest time we have on record.”
They had done this before.
The stub of Steve's arm begins to bulge outward, rounding off and growing down into a forearm. Scott can see fine hairs sprouting in pale skin, muscle rippling as it forms. The scientists take samples, scraping away at the newly formed skin and depositing it into Petri dishes and test tubes. They are efficient and cold, uncaring while Steve pants and squirms beneath them, his face turned away from the camera.
The arm takes ten minutes to fully regenerate: pink, brand new skin covering the bone and muscle. They prick a newly grown finger and Steve jerks as a tiny drop of blood beads. The camera operator says excitedly that this is the quickest regeneration yet of the right arm.
Scott can’t hold it back anymore and leans to the side to lose all the contents of his stomach: the dried protein bars he’d eaten right before they landed in Argentina hours ago. This is what they’d been doing to Steve for months, cutting him into pieces and growing him back.
He looks back when he hears a high pitched beeping from on the screen. They have a scalpel now, holding it to one of the newly grown fingers and Scott cringes, knowing what’s coming. Steve does too, because he cringes and shakes his head. Scott can see his bare feet jerk and press against the table. The sharp blade presses in and it’s like Steve can’t hold it in any longer because he screams, neck stretching back.
The restraints holding Steve to the table snap, thick metal breaking like thin, brittle ice. The dark pieces shatter onto the floor and Steve surges upward, breathing hard and already reaching. The scientists are falling back and the helmeted guards are surging forward. Steve swings his legs off the table, faltering only briefly against the side. His face twists and he reaches out like he's trying to steady himself. A guard reaches forward with his gun and Steve grabs at it. The thick metal bends and then splits, cracking and bending and falling to the floor like a broken child's toy. Steve uses the broken piece to pull the guard closer to him and then he grabs the helmeted head in both hands and just pushes. The metal gives like paper, crumpling inward and there's just a brief scream from the guard before he's dropping to the floor, motionless.
“Peters?” Someone else shouts and another guard goes to his knees as Steve grabs his arm and twists, bone cracking sharply and then blood spraying as the entire limb just comes away. The scientists are banging on the glass door, terror on their faces
"Oh god," the camera operator said, high and fast. "We need containment in Lab 3. He's killing them. They're dead…”
He's still babbling when Steve turns toward the camera, blue eyes huge in his gaunt face, and his teeth bared in a grimace that Scott doesn't recognize.
That’s when the recording goes blank, and all Scott can hear is his own labored breathing in the cold, dark space.
The first thing Bucky sees is Steve's eyes, burning like the side of a blade that's been left in the fire too long. It's a sight that makes the breath catch in Bucky's throat and he swallows hard to mask it.
If he's the winter storm, Steve has always been fire and heat; the desert sky stretching across red sand, marked only by a blazing sun. Bucky is the ice planet orbiting, drawn in by the immense force.
Steve's standing in the doorway of the cell, a guard on either side and his wrists and ankles in manacles. He's the brightest thing in the gray hallway, a slash of energy and fury in the freezing, sterile space. It almost hurts Bucky just to look at him. There's a heavy collar around his neck, wide enough that it forces his chin up. He's skinnier than Bucky remembers from Wakanda but his shoulders are still straight and broad inside the shapeless gray t-shirt he's wearing. He's barefoot, toes poking out pale and vulnerable from rough looking gray pants that are just a little too short to fit right. He stands with his feet a shoulder's width apart apart and steady like a rock. The dim, almost green light of the hallway washes out his hair and his skin, only making his eyes that much harder to tear his gaze away from.
It's been too long since he's gotten to be on the other side of that fire. The heat hits him deep in his gut, like black streets in Brooklyn summers or underground springs in Wakanda winters. Siberia after a long flight, blood thrumming deep down and constant. Steve's eyes are a song, a melody and rhythm that his innards have never forgotten, even when his own name had been shrouded in mystery.
The guards around him twitch uneasily.
He looks dangerous, Bucky thinks, in the way of a starved bobcat, cornered in a quarry, with hunters closing in fast. There's no succor here nor absolution for what they're about to do. He will not make this easy for them.
The sight makes his stomach warm in some deep way, like whiskey in Brooklyn after a long cold day. Steve hasn't been broken. Steve isn't going down without a fight.
He doesn't tug against his bonds but Steve runs his hot eyes run over the guards, catalogues them, skims over Bucky.
For a slipping moment, Bucky wonders if Steve will see him through the black face mask that all the guards wear, wonders if Steve's gaze will burn right through the face covering and see the spread of Bucky's soul, know that a friend has come. I'm here, Bucky wants to tell him. I'm Bucky and I'm here. I've come for you. Steve’s gaze just keeps going.
Both guards nudge him then and Steve move forward, steps shuffling under the chains. He points his gaze above the gathered force and Bucky wonders where he is, what visions his mind has created to make this all bearable.
They move back to the elevator, slower to accommodate Steve's laborious steps. Everyone is uneasy now, figures stiff and twitchy. The stench of fear in the enclosed space is strong and it's not coming from Steve. Steve looks raw and vulnerable compared to the thick body armor surrounding him on both sides. The heavy metal collar has already left a faint red mark around his neck.
What has Steve done, Bucky wonders, to make all of these heavily armed men so terrified?
They march down the hallway together, an odd huddle of penguins. Bucky watches Steve's back and thinks of lying in a sniper's blind, high up in trees with snow below. It was his meditation: to limn the shape of Steve's neck and arms and the way his hips tapered. When he'd been lost (this is how Wanda refers to his time with Hydra - like Bucky had made a wrong turn in the Alps and ended in a dark forest, wandering in circles until Steve called his name), sometimes he would think of Steve's form, a nameless man that needed protection. It never left.
In Europe, when Bucky was still learning the new shape of him, Steve had been awkward, bungling through tents and trenches like an overgrown puppy. In this new century, he's grown into the breadth of Captain America, solid and commanding in just his posture. He is calm now, shoulders rising and falling steadily and steps deliberate, but Bucky thinks that Steve Rogers calm is like a sandpit filled with snakes.
At the elevator, there's a confused cluster as no one wants to turn their back on Steve. In the press, Bucky gets pushed next to Steve's left elbow and, he can't help himself.
His fingers slide away from the butt of the gun and brush over the bare skin of Steve's forearm. It's electric, warm skin and ropey muscle. Steve doesn't twitch, doesn't turn his head, but his shoulders stiffen just a little to show that he noticed the contact.
Bucky rubs his fingers just a little, just once, hopes that the touch somehow conveys that there is a friend here now. It will all be okay. Everything will be fine. I'll get you out of here.
If Steve gets the message, nothing in his body gives anything away. From his angle, Bucky can only see the swoop of his jawline and his left cheek, the corner of his eye, framed by long lashes. The edge of his mouth, tight like a bow, doesn't quaver. He's like a rock under Bucky's touch, face and gaze pointed steadfastly ahead, and Bucky withdraws, touches his hand again to the butt of his gun as the rest of the guards position themselves around Steve.
The elevator dings shut and they're rising upward.
There's a faint burst of static and Bucky hears FRIDAY almost instantly in his ear when she murmurs, "welcome back, Sergeant."
He can't respond but he nods just a little, knowing they'll see it.
"Barnes?" Scott says and he sounds hoarse. "They've been experimenting on Cap." Bucky can hear something stretched to breaking in his tone. "They... they were trying to improve on Project Rebirth. They were... I'm not sure. I'm backing up all the data now. I'll send it to the palace when we're out of here. But you'll need to..."
The elevator doors open and Bucky forcibly redirects himself to the present, tamping down the instinctual nausea that rose when Scott said experiments. They had expected this, after all. Whatever it is, they can fix it. Whatever it is, they will overcome it. They'll go back to Wakanda and the warmth and the golden sunlight and the wide rooms that never feel claustrophobic and the doctors that are always gentle and respectful. He wants to touch Steve again but they're all moving forward, a pack of antelopes herding a lion into a trap.
Ahead, the scientist who Bucky'd met before the elevator is standing next to an open door. He has a slim metal box in his hands. "They're just about ready," he says, "I just wanted to check him before we go up."
"Up where?" Lang asks over the ear piece.
"Can you hold him still?" The doctor asks like two burly men aren't already gripping Steve's biceps hard enough to bruise, like there aren’t heavy weights hanging off of his neck and legs and arms. Another soldier comes and plants both palms on Steve's shoulders, keeping him from stepping back.
The doctor is at least a head shorter than Steve and Steve fairly looks down his nose at him, silent and ungiving.
"Captain," the doctor says. "This should only take a moment."
"I'm in no rush," Steve's voice is tired but also laced with something wry and familiar.
The words make the doctor twitch but he holds up a black device that lets out a high pitched beep and flashes a long blue. "Vitals are slightly elevated," he reports into his earpiece. "But within normal range. Subject Rebirth is safe to proceed to the Demo level." He lowers the device and looks at the guards. "They're up there waiting. The secretary, First Lieutenant Pierce, and Stark are all in attendance."
Bucky is close enough to Steve to pick up the flinch that goes through him at Stark's name. He doesn't make a noise or make any other movements though.
"This isn't good," Lang murmurs in his ear. "FRIDAY, can you figure out what they're planning?"
The doctor steps away and they're all moving forward, herding Steve into the elevator.
Bucky grips his gun tighter.
Tony feels the sweat on the back of his head under the thick helmet and he's holding his flask in one hand so hard the metal bends a little. For the first time on this whole excursion, he wishes it were actually full of vodka. He takes a swig anyway, trying to cure the dryness at the back of his throat.
"What did you do to him?" he asks, grateful he's standing a little ahead of Ross so that the other man can't see his face. He keeps seeing Steve's face in his mind, that agonized grimace twisting his features into a man he barely recognized. He feels sick.
"We tapped into the serum's true power," Ross says quietly, almost like the recording sobered him too. "Erskine's serum made him faster and stronger - enhanced his ability to heal. This..." Ross shakes his head. "What you saw there was the beginning. He's stronger than the Hulk. He can regrow a leg. He can regrow both legs. You reach into his chest and rip out his heart and he regrows his heart. With Lieutenant Pierce, we've honed that ability." He raises his voice just a little then. "Why don't you come in here, Lieutenant?"
Another door at the end of the room opens and a tall, muscular man strides into the space.
Tony recognizes the First Lieutenant's eyes immediately from the picture but the jaw is wider and the shoulders are broader than the image. He's wearing a dark blue uniform, a silver eagle on his large chest. He comes to attention and salutes Ross briskly.
"Do you like it?" Ross asks. "We had the designers model it after Captain America's old uniform. We modernized it, of course. We're thinking Colonel America will be the code name."
This is Steve's replacement. Tony feels a little sick.
"I'm honored, sir," say Colonel America.
"This is the future, Tony," Ross is saying. "First Lieutenant Pierce has all the enhancements Rogers has and more. He's faster and stronger and smarter. We'll have squads of him. Armies of him. Safeguarding America for years to come."
Horror is building in Tony's gut but he forces himself into the present, forces himself back into his role. "This is your big advancement?" He's proud when his voice is steady and snarky. "This is what you've already spent millions of dollars on? One man that can regrow a finger if he accidentally cuts it off? How many men did you kill trying to make just him and how many more will you kill before you actually create an army? This is impressive, Ross, but this is just recycled World War II tech with a few cool mods. Not the future."
Ross smiles. "We'll see, Stark." He turns back to the control panel and holds down a green button. "Bring him in."
On the other side of the glass, a panel slides back and ten men march out, all in black, facemarks covering everything but their eyes, and, in the middle of them, is Steve Rogers.
Tony feels something cold in his gut. Where is Barnes? Barnes should've broken into the cell by now and grabbed Steve. An alarm should be going off somewhere and the lights should be flickering to darkness and that's when Tony was supposed to spring on Ross, bind his hands with his own tie and then they would head up the elevators and Sam and Natasha would be 30 seconds out in the jet and T'Challa would be in Wakanda. They should be having a beer on the jet and Steve should be looking constipated and also staring at Barnes like a lovesick puppy. They should be well on their way to being victorious.
Instead, Steve is being marched into this dark space surrounded by armed men and Tony has a flask half full of vitamin water and a phone that is supposed to tell Sam and Natasha that they're ready for pick up.
Tony cracks his neck. "Rogers," he says, going for bland.
"We don't need him anymore," Ross says. "He's last year's - last century's model. World War II tech, as you so aptly called it. But I thought, given your history, that you would like to do the honors."
It takes Tony a moment to realize that Ross is holding out a gun, butt first with his fingers curled around the barrel like this is just a day at the shooting range. Tony yanks at the chinstrap of his helmet again, mouth suddenly like thick cotton. "Will that even work?" He asks. "Can't he just like... regrow his brain?"
Ross smiles. "You won't know unless you try, Tony. I thought you'd jump at this chance. You've talked about nothing but your revenge these last months. Isn't this what you've wanted? Steve Rogers on his knees before you?" He proffers the gun again. "Take it, Tony."
He swallows. Where the hell is Barnes? Where the hell is FRIDAY? Or Scott? Or anyone? What is this? Is this a test? Does Ross know? "What about in the lab? He killed those scientists."
Ross knocks on the breastplate. "This polymer. It can withstand the pressure. We had it especially created after his last little escape attempt. Plus, Lieutenant Pierce will be there. This is your chance, Tony. Take revenge. For your father, for your mother. For your company."
Tony wipes his hands on his pants and takes the gun.
Ross smiles and gestures toward the observation glass.
The armed men force Steve to his knees as they come through the sliding panel on the far end of the observation glass. Each footstep, each movement seems loud and harsh and Tony counts his own breaths to keep the panic down. There's no suit here. There's no Barnes. There's no one but him and Steve.
He forces himself to stop cataloging the room and look at Steve.
Steve's eyes are locked onto Tony but he doesn't seem surprised to see him, sad maybe. He's skinnier than even in the lab recording, cheekbones defined sharply and his hair is still buzzed back. He's so pale. Steve was never pale. He loved the outdoors and the sunshine. Back when Tony had lived on the compound, Steve had been up with the dawn every morning, running into the sunrise like he was chasing something. Now, Steve was just pale and tired, Tony thinks. Weary. Finished.
"Are you surprised to see him, Rogers?" Ross asks like this is one big game. A family outing. "I told you would be seeing an old friend soon."
Steve tilts his chin back like he's expecting a blow but he doesn't even look in Ross's direction. His gaze flickers briefly to the gun in Tony's hands and then he just looks sad. "Tony," he says softly. "I'm sorry about everything. I didn't get to say that before. But I am. Can you get a message to Sam? Can you tell him..."
He stops, breathes, and Tony can see something dark and painful in his face.
Kill the lights, FRIDAY, Tony thinks, even though he can't say anything out loud. Kill the lights. Even if there's no hope or plan, even if we're all just going to die here, let us die fighting. Let us not go quietly in this fucking shithole.
The lights stay on.
Something must have happened. Maybe Scott got discovered. Maybe they realized they had been hacked and rebooted the mainframe and FRIDAY is trying desperately to get back in but it'll all be too late.
Tony raises the gun, sees a flicker of movement from one of the guards behind Steve. "I'm sorry," he says. Maybe Barnes and Scott will get out here. Maybe they're watching on video even now and cursing Tony because this isn't the plan - but he's running out of options. "I'm really sorry."
If this is some kind of loyalty test, he's officially going to fail it. He pivots, already squeezing the trigger and feels nothing but satisfaction when a dark hole appears in the high forehead of First Lieutenant Pierce.
The next-gen super soldier falls backward gracelessly, even as Tony is already spinning back around, already reaching for Steve to free him.
But Barnes is already there.
"Where did you come from?" Tony says, feeling breathless.
Steve looks breathless himself, looks knocked on his ass and like he's already died and gone to heaven. "Bucky," he's saying, hands fluttering as Barnes waves an electric key card over the locks.
Barnes has already taken out the two guards holding Steve and two more are on the ground, motionless. Another is running over to a lit up control panel on the side and it's easy enough for Tony to send a bullet into his back.
That's when the lights finally cut out.
"What should I do?" Scott says out loud for what feels like the hundredth time as he watches Cap be frog marched through the 3rd floor toward the next elevator.
When he'd first seen Steve step from the elevator into the labs, he hadn't been able to stop the whoosh of relief that had gone through him at the sight of Cap walking, under his own power with two legs and two arms. His head was still shaved down and he looked skinny under the muscle and the manacles - but it was better than Scott had feared after that recording.
"Barnes, buddy, you got to give me a signal here. Tap your gun twice if you want me to kill the lights."
Barnes stares straight ahead and his fingers don't move.
"You can hear me, right? FRIDAY, he can hear me?"
"He can hear you," FRIDAY affirms. "But given his proximity to both the hostiles around him and Captain Rogers, I would caution against making any noises."
"Great. Okay. Fantastic." Scott thunks his head back into the wall. "Okay. Well, Barnes, tap your gun twice if you have a plan."
Barnes does nothing for a moment and, then, just as they got into the third elevator, his gloved fingers tap twice on solid gun butt.
"Why am I not reassured? Barnes, that isn't reassuring." Scott groans. "Okay. Here's what I know. Stark is on the second floor with Ross and this creepy First Lieutenant Pierce guy that is juiced up on some version of the serum that may or may not allow him to grow extra limbs like a fucking octopus or something. There are four scientists on that floor, along with ten guards, on top of the nine that are with you. There are four of Ross's men waiting on the jet above and two men guarding the elevator to the surface. FRIDAY can kill the lights and can control the locks from here. But you need to give me a signal when you want me to do any of that. Got it?"
Barnes taps his gun twice.
"And you need to give me a head's up so I can get out of here too. Don't..." Scott takes a deep breath. "Cassie will be mad if you leave me behind."
Barnes taps the gun again, hard as if also saying what an idiot Scott is.
Scott sighs. "Is Cap okay? I can't... he looks okay."
"Captain Rogers's vitals are steady and regular. His weight is down about 20% since the last physical of his I have on file but he is healthy. He will be just fine with a good meal and a warm bed."
"Hopefully we all get those sooner rather than later."
The elevator doors open and Scott edges closer to the screen. "Show time."
As soon as they're in the room, Barnes jockeys around and manages to end up standing right behind Cap's back as two guards on either side of Rogers and force him to his knees. Barnes and Rogers are the only people in the room, Scott thinks, that don't look like they're about to piss themselves.
Stark looks fairly green, wobbling a little in the heavy armor Ross put on him and Scott isn't sure how much is an act for Ross's benefit and how much is lingering nausea from the recording. The gun in his hand trembles just a little.
Lieutenant Pierce is stiff, faintly automaton - just what Scott would expect from Ross's flavor of super soldier. He's staring at some point on the wall that's just out of sight of the camera angle.
Scott frowns. Something is off.
Ross is wearing his stern grandfather face, lips pursed like Cap had gotten one too many DUIs and he was about about to make an example of him.
When Tony raises the gun, Scott feels his entire body clench down. "What should I do?" he asks. "Barnes? FRIDAY?"
Barnes doesn't move, doesn't even twitch. Steve is on his knees, faintly pleading, and Scott thinks he's going to be sick again.
"Should I cut the lights?" he wonders as Stark stares down the barrel for never ending seconds. "Should I... FRIDAY?"
"Hold on, Mr. Lang," FRIDAY gently. "I believe the sergeant now has a plan."
Stark takes a deep breath, visible even on the camera and then, spins, firing the gun at the same time. First Lieutenant Pierce goes down.
Barnes is moving then too, jabbing the stun baton into the belly of the man on Steve's left and breaking the neck of the man on Steve's right almost simultaneously. Then he's going for Steve's manacles. There's a card reader on the front that goes green when Barnes waves his stolen ID in front of it and Scott has a front row seat to Cap's face when he finally sees Barnes.
"Bucky," he says, breathless. His face had been so cold and blank and now it's like the warm sun dawning.
The guards are pulling themselves together now, pulling their own weapons and Ross is backing up, heading for the door of the containment area.
Barnes looks up, without taking his hands off of Cap, and barks, "Now."
FRIDAY plunges the room into darkness.
Barnes tugs Cap to his feet, just the outline of him visible on the infrared FRIDAY helpfully set up. He's thrown off his helmet and presses one of the guns from a dead guard into Cap's hand. "Follow my lead," he says quietly and it takes Scott a moment to realize he's talking to Cap.
"Stark is on your two o'clock," Scott tells him. "Four steps. There you go."
With both Cap and Stark behind him, Barnes turns back to the wider room and sprays bullets across it. "Get to the door."
"Ross has left the room via the side door and is attempting to seal off the area," FRIDAY says. "I'm holding him off for now. Access code to the control room will be 0314. I suggest you hurry, Sergeant."
Barnes dives across the room toward the door, Steve putting down cover fire behind him. Scott winces as the sharp, loud noises echoing in the confined space.
"Now would be a good time for a shield," Stark says, loud enough that Barnes's mic picks it up.
"I kind of dropped it," Cap says back, completed deadpan in a way that Scott hasn't heard from him, and Barnes snorts a little as he jabs in the access code. "Thanks, FRIDAY," he says as the door springs open.
"No problem, Sergeant - I suggest sealing off the room yourself as Ross is about fill it with what appears to be a gaseous sedative." She is silent and then says, "I fear they have discovered my presence in the system and have taken back the security footage. I still have access to the elevators and locks, but I suggest moving fast."
On the screen, Barnes jerks the door open and reaches back for Cap. "Gotta go," he says and they all duck into the control room. The door slams behind them just as thick white steam starts pouring from the vents above, looking ominous in the red emergency ceiling lights that finally have flicked on.
"Okay, Scott," Barnes says, already heading for the door to the offices. "I think now would be a good time for you to join us."
The tone in Steve's voice stops Bucky in his tracks from where he's about to open the door the offices.
"Steve?" He turns, already reaching out on some deep ingrained instinct, the world narrowing to Steve's skinnier frame and, god, why hadn't he done this right away? He’d just dragged Steve into the middle of a firefight after months of isolation and torture. He gets Steve's shoulders under his hands and Steve folds into him, wrapping his arms around Bucky's waist and holding on like Bucky's the only calm in the storm.
Bucky freezes, feeling stiff and overwhelmed by the feel of Steve surrounding him. He closes his eyes and lets himself grip back. It chases away the remaining chill from the miles of freezing ocean. "Steve," he says again, soft.
When he'd woken up in Wakanda and Sam had been standing next to his bed, hands clasped behind his back and eyes solemn, he feared that they'd just dragged him from the cold dark to tell him Steve was dead. There had been warm sunlight and soft sheets and beautiful trees and mountains and all Bucky had been able to think was that they shouldn't have woken him. They should have just let him sleep, he thought in those long moments of Sam staring silently at him, they should've buried the tube down deep and let him sleep because there was no light or warmth in a world without Steve.
Then, Sam had told him the whole story. He'd apologized first for letting Steve be captured, asking for absolution like Bucky was a priest. Bucky hadn't bothered offering forgiveness because he knew it wouldn't help.
In the intervening weeks of planning, Bucky had never let himself imagine this moment. It had seemed too greedy or too hopeful, like if Bucky had let himself imagine it and it hadn't happened, the absence would break him.
Now that it was here, now that Steve is safe and in his grasp, it feels like coming up for air from under the iceberg, like waking up from cryo, like summer fruit, and like Steve standing in his apartment with sunlight coming through the window.
Steve pulls away just a second later but his eyes are bright. "You came," he says, sounding wondering. "I thought you were..."
"I'm here too," Tony says from behind, sounding disgruntled. "I spent a lot of money and time and..."
Steve huffs a short bark of a laugh and it sounds scraped raw but still real. He turns but doesn't let go of Bucky, fingers tight around his arms. "It's nice to see you too, Tony. I'm," he hesitates and offers his hand. "I'm sorry about how we left it."
Tony lunges forward, so fast that Bucky feels his arm twitch forward on instinct, but Stark just wraps his arms around Steve's shoulders and squeezes in a rough hug. "We'll work it out," he says. "We'll figure it out."
In his ear, Scott huffs. "Don't want to interrupt the reunion, Sarge, but my ETA is two minutes to the Control floor elevator and I'd really like to know we have a plan to get out of here."
Bucky nods. "We're ready, Lang." He has to refocus. Steve is here - but ‘here’ is still in an underground base in Antarctica with just moments before Ross and god knows how many men are busting through the door. He scans the room quickly and finds a storage closet at the far end. The door comes off under his hand and he tosses it against the wall.
He finds exactly what he'd wanted. There are several dark blue coats, clearly used by lab techs when they wander outside the base. They'll do. He tosses the biggest coat to Steve. "Fast. We gotta go," he says.
Steve slips it on obediently.
The hallway outside the room is deserted. An alarm is flashing red and white in sequence but FRIDAY has silenced the noise. It's unnerving.
"FRIDAY," he whispers as he takes point down the corridor, Steve on his six and Tony next to him. They're moving slow: too many doors and corridors and inlets for a full out run to the elevator. "Where did Ross go?"
"He went into the demo room in the far north corner. I think he might be trying to send up a distress signal."
"What's she saying?" Tony asks at a loud whisper, leaning close. "You know, you should really give that to me. She likes me better."
Bucky pulls the earpiece out and passes it over. No skin off of his nose.
"FRIDAY, you lovely thing. Did you miss me?" Tony croons.
They round a sharp bend in the hallway and the elevator doors are ahead, the only break in long doorless hallway. The light above them is green.
Steve reaches out and grips Bucky's arm. "They can trap you in the elevators," he says, sounding strained. "It's set up to seal the car and pump enough knockout gas in there to take out an elephant." He says it with the heavy weight of knowing. How many failed escape attempts had there been?
"FRIDAY, did you catch that?" Stark is already pressing the elevator call button.
Bucky turns and keeps the hallway behind them in view. It's silent but that's just as unsettling.
"She says that she still has control of the elevators and security. For now," Stark reports as the doors slide open. "Once we get to the last elevator, we'll have the signal to hail Romanoff and Wilson and my suit. Then we'll be scot-free, Cap. No offense, Scott."
The elevator dings open and Stark jumps in first, holding the door while Steve and then Bucky follow him in. Steve's face is locked down, hands clenched into fists like he's facing down a demon with every step. Bucky wonders how many times he made it just this far, only to be trapped in this very spot. He looks down, scraping at the little Hydra has left him for something comforting to say, something to make Steve's face lose that tension. ‘I won't let anything happen to you’ feels empty and meaningless.
Steve is still barefoot.
"Your feet," Bucky says, feeling nonsensical. "We need something or they'll freeze up top."
Steve shoots him a look and Stark make a noise under his breath and then instructs FRIDAY to take them up.
"It'll be okay," Steve just says as the elevator rises. His voices is hard, almost bitter. "Don't worry. I'll be fine."
Bucky wants to argue. He may not have all of his memories but he knows Steve always having shoes was important. No shoes meant cold feet, meant coughing and fevers, meant cool cloths and sleepless nights, meant terror and panic and please don't leave me. He clenches his fingers around the gun, lets that work as a touchstone.
"It's a fifty meter straight run to the last elevator," he says, keeping his voice clinical and his face impassive. "The control room is third door on the right - that's where Scott is coming from."
"FRIDAY says there are eight other heat signatures on that floor and there's more coming behind us now." Stark sounds more comfortable now that he has FRIDAY back in his ear.
"What about up top?" Steve asks.
"Six soldiers and the helicopter pilot." Stark grimaces. "Iron Man is on the plane with Romanoff and Wilson. Once I call the suit, it'll be here in 95 seconds. When we came down, the elevator ride took 110 seconds. If we time it right, the suit can take care of the guys up top before we even get there."
There had been a better plan. A plan where Steve and Bucky slipped into the ventilation systems and slithered their way to Scott and they climbed up an empty elevator shaft with Ross occupied with Tony below. No one would've noticed Steve missing until they were already up top with Natasha and Sam streaking toward them. What was that saying? If wishes were horses.
The elevator doors open soundlessly and the first gunshot slams just over Steve's shoulder. It splinters into the wall and Steve dives to the right.
"Down!" Bucky barks and rolls out to the left. He comes up firing. Everything is magnified in the tight space and the muzzle flashes are bright in the dim lighting. Two helmeted soldiers fall and then a bullet slams into Bucky’s shoulder, spinning him around and throwing him against the wall. He's up a second later, jerking his gun around, when the ceiling above him suddenly explodes downward.
The figure dropping from the ceiling to crouch between him and Steve is tall, broad-shouldered and blonde in a black flight suit. From his angle, Bucky can just see the slope of a high forehead and a square jaw.
He'd last seen this man dead back in the room with Ross with a dark bullet wound in his head. This man is not dead and there's no bullet in his brain, no sign of any injury.
Pierce ignores him. "Captain," he says instead, almost patiently. "If you stop now, we'll let your friends live."
Steve is braced in a crouch position, gun solid in both hands and pointed at Pierce's head. "Or I can just kill you now," he says. He doesn't seem surprised, Bucky realizes.
Pierce lunges and Steve fires, three shots to the head and Pierce crumples forward, bleeding out at his feet.
Steve doesn't flinch. He stands up fully and kicks the body over: the eyes are glazed and staring. "C'mon," he says. "They'll be more of them."
"More of what?" Tony asks, sounding well and truly freaked out. Bucky agrees.
Steve steps over the body and heads for the last elevator. "More of Pierce."
"What?" Tony grabs for Steve. "What the fuck. Does he just come back to life? Should we tie him up? How did he get ahead of us?"
Steve shakes himself free. He has that caged look again, like he's about to rip someone's throat out by his teeth. "Cut off one head, two more shall rise," he says. "Or in this case, cut off one body part and another body shall grow."
“So when Ross talks about an army of Pierces, he meant a literal army of Pierces?” Tony’s voice seems strained to the breaking point.
Stark gapes and Bucky swallows, his gut souring. What Steve is saying doesn't make any sense - but Bucky is beyond thinking that things are impossible. Pierce was dead a floor below. Now he's dead again at their feet.
"Are there more here now?" he asks gruffly, honing in on the most relevant detail for right this moment. The rest can wait. He checks his shoulder. The bullet wound is just a graze. It won’t slow him down.
"Most likely," Steve says. "I don't know how," he falters. "I don't know how many they made. It was slow at first but they could've gotten faster."
"There was a recording," Stark says, hoarse. "They cut off..."
He's interrupted by a loud bang and Scott Lang falls through the door to the control room, full size. "They're right behind me," he gasps.
Bucky grabs Steve and hustles him forward, keeping himself tight on his back, as much of a human shield as he can be. Get Steve out. Don't let Steve die here. Don't let them take Steve again.
"FRIDAY," Stark says, sounding like he had regained his equilibrium, "we need the elevator waiting. It's all 'Attack of the Clones' down here."
There are gunshots coming from behind them but Bucky doesn't waste time trying to turn around. He fires over his shoulder, feels the bullet wound in his arm pull and tug painfully. It feels like just a graze but it still throbs.
The elevator dings open ahead and Bucky puts on a burst of speed, dragging both Steve and Tony into the elevator. He can see a black helmeted head sticking out from the door and he fires back as the doors slide shut.
"Up, up, up!" Stark shouts, pressed against the left corner. "FRIDAY, get us out of here!"
Scott is on his knees in the other corner, face plate pulled up so that his pale, sweaty face is the only thing visible. "Almost," he gasps between heaves. "Got stepped on. Like five times. And then I almost got shot. Christ. I need some juice."
Steve is upright, face hard with his gun gripped tight in both hands, still staring at the door. He makes Bucky think of bloody fields and chasing down the enemy even though the battle has already been going on for hours, something more animal than man driving on even as death is a tangible presence.
He sidles closer, trying to be non-threatening and comforting. "We'll be in Wakanda soon," he says, because he can't ask if Steve's okay. That answer is obvious. "Wanda is there. She's been... she's doing good. She helped me. Sam's been worried. Natasha, too, even if she mostly just scowls."
Steve's eyes slide toward him. "And you. Are you..."
Bucky grimaces and taps his head. "Still programmed but Wanda has ideas and..."
The elevator grinds to a halt with a shriek, shuddering hard enough that even Steve takes a step to keep his balance.
Scott slowly stands up. "Guys? That's not good, right? That's really bad. Really bad."
"Of course, it's bad, genius." Stark looks toward the ceiling. "FRIDAY? How's Iron Man doing?"
Bucky clutches the gun tighter. Iron Man is powerful but he's not even sure the suit can get down the blast door and through the top of the elevator before they're all too unconscious to do anything. "How long do we have until the gas?"
Steve is pale, hands clenching and unclenching, eyes starting to glaze over in something that looks like defeat. "A minute? Maybe less."
This is on Bucky now. He has to get them out of here. Steve won't go back to them. Bucky knows what it's like to be dragged back to a small cell and unimaginable pain - back to people who consider you nothing more than a weapon to be molded. He fingers the trigger of the gun. He doesn't know what they did to Steve - doesn't know after the hallway if Steve can even die but he won't let Steve go back. "Okay. Then we only have one go at this. You gotta help me here."
It takes a second but Steve focuses, turns his head and the glaze fades and he's nodding, pulling back from the edge of death and back to survival. "Okay. Okay. What do you need?"
"I need a boost." Bucky drops the gun and strips off the glove that had been covering his metal fist, flexing and rolling the fingers. The roof of the elevator is at least a couple inches thick, some sort of reinforced metal that looks dark and heavy. But it's not vibranium.
Steve gets down and drops his hands, making a stirrup. Bucky steps into it and leans into the hoist, sending a clenched fist into a barely perceptible seam in the thick roof. There's a hollow clang and a thin cracking noise.
"Again." Bucky uses Steve's braced hands to lunge upward again, aiming for the same spot. This time, he leaves a clear dent and the seam widens to something his pinky could slip through.
Scott is standing next to him now, staring up at the crack. There's no light coming through from the other side. "I can get through it. Pull from the other side."
It's a good idea.
Bucky glances at Steve and then nods. Scott drops his visor and then he's gone, just a tiny, dark speck scrambling up Steve's pant leg and then Bucky's. Carefully, Bucky cups his hand and lets Scott leap from the tips of his fingers and into the crack. There's a thud against the ceiling as Scott resumes his normal size.
"We're only about 30 feet from the top," he calls.
Tony grimaces. "I don't know if that's close enough for the signal to go through."
"Here we go. One," Bucky says, counting off for Scott's benefit. They can figure out how to climb the shaft once they're out of the elevator. "Two, three."
He slams upward again, feels the metal give and hears Scott grunt as he strains to pull the thick panel up.
"One more time," Scott calls back. "And I think we got it."
There's a hiss from the corner of the elevator and Steve jerks a little. Almost yellow steam (mustard gas, Bucky hears in Steve's voice, almost like a memory) is starting to trickle from some corner of the floor. Stark darts to it and tosses his suit jacket over the source.
"Bucky," Steve says, not afraid - just matter of fact. This is it.
Bucky just nods and pushes himself at the ceiling one more time. The metal gives completely with a splitting screech that echoes in the small space. The seam has peeled back like an overly ripe fruit and Scott peers through the roughly man-sized hole they've created.
"C'mon!" he calls down, offering his hand. He looks earnest and eager and like a mission has never ended badly. That's not right. Bucky remembers the airport clearly, remembers Scott shifting up and up, just to give them a chance. This is what Scott does, Bucky decides, he gives other people chances.
"Tony first," Steve says already pulling Stark over by the elbow. "He needs to get Iron Man here."
"Nuh uh, Cap. You first. They're not gonna chop me up into little pieces if they get me back." Tony digs his fingers into Steve's shoulder and looks at Bucky directly like Bucky has ever been able to change Steve's mind once in his whole life. "You tell him."
Steve doesn't even bother with a reply, just hoists Stark up in the air like a bag of flour. Tony flails briefly, a sharp squawk in his throat, but manages to grab Scott's hand and pulls himself from the car, scrambling to get his feet on the roof.
"Now you," Bucky says quietly. "No time for arguing."
The gas from the floor has a strange sweet smell and it's starting to thicken the air, even with the jacket slowing its progress. Bucky can taste it in the back of his throat, hanging like phlegm. Something is fuzzy in his head now. They don't have long.
Steve spares a glance at the gas. "You better be right behind me, Buck," he says. He jumps upward, grips the edge of the opening with both hands, and pulls himself up, pale feet dangling vulnerably for just a moment. His face reappears a second later, arm reaching down. "Let's go."
Bucky grips Steve's hand with his flesh one, feels their callouses slide together, and the side of the hole with his vibranium one. Between the two, he hoists himself up and Steve pulls him through the opening. The air is dank but clean and Bucky sucks in a deep breath, trying to clear his head from the swimming sensation and settle the nausea in his stomach.
"We're gonna have to climb," Steve says as soon as they're all balancing on top of the car. He stomps on the peeled-back edges of the elevator, trying to keep the gas inside.
"Maybe you guys will," Tony flashes a grin. "But my ride is here. Scott, want to hop on?"
There's a bang 30 feet above and a flash of gold and crimson. Bucky flinches. It's instinct, not real fear. He doesn't dream much, not after Wanda helped him with some of the louder parts of his mind, but sometimes, in twilit moments, he remembers the dark bunker in Siberia and the flash of blue light, burning through his arm.
He tears his eyes away from it and sees Tony looking back at him as the suit closes around him. "Don't worry, Terminator," Stark says. "We're all on the same side this time. As long as you don't try to rip out the arc reactor again."
Bucky doesn't dignify that with a reply.
"C'mon, honey-I-shrunk-the-kids," Tony says, faceplate still up, and Scott vanishes down, disappearing into the suit. Tony nods to them. "I'll get the top clear for you," he says and then he's shooting upward, weapons already extending from his shoulders.
Steve tucks his gun into his pants and leaps, grabbing the thick cables and hauling himself up. "C'mon, Buck," he says. "Do you remember... we used to climb onto the roof on the nights it got too hot to sleep. Up over the fire escape."
Bucky stays just behind him as they work their way upward. "I don't remember," he says, not unkindly but wanting to be honest. "I don't remember much."
I don't know if I'm him, he wants to say. I don't know if the shape of me fits with the shape of him - with the shape of you. One morning, I'm afraid you'll look at me and realize I'm a stranger and your friend is dead and then where will I be.
He can't see Steve's face in the dark so they just climb.
When Stark crests the top, the floodlights are all glaring across the runway and there's a shrill siren wailing. He can't see much beyond the lights, just a formless dark that seems as claustrophobic as it does endless.
"Romanoff?" he says, once he's clear of the heavy blast doors that had been blocking the signal. "Tell me you're out there."
Her voice comes back just a breath later, like she had been expecting him at any moment for hours. "Of course, we're here." She takes a breath. "Is Steve..."
"Coming up now. We'll need a pick up soon." An alarm trills on his screen. The crew of the helicopter is setting up an anti-aircraft gun. He zooms upward, the coast spreading out below him on his sensors. He can see the heat signatures of the helicopter crew, the shapes of Barnes and Rogers scaling the elevator shaft, the frantic figures in the guard tower scrambling around, no doubt trying to get the elevator working. He fills his lungs deeply, feeling confident for the first time since he got off the plane in Argentina. "Let's do this."
He hears the familiar sharp whine of his suit gathering energy and then he sends a small missile shooting downward toward the anti-aircraft gun. The explosion seems absurdly bright on the dim airfield, the dark shadows of the crew being tossed backward like rag dolls. Tony stays just long enough to confirm that the gun has been reduced to just twisted, unusable metal before pulling up and heading toward the helicopter.
Tony can see the pilot inside, headset on, no doubt radioing the Argentina forward base that something has gone terribly wrong. He checks his charge levels and then sends a blast toward the long tail of the helicopter. In the resulting glow of the explosion, he sees the dark silhouette of Barnes cresting the top of the elevator shaft, pulling Cap out behind him.
"We're all out," he announces over the comms to Romanoff. "Just waiting on our chauffeur."
She huffs over the speaker and he smiles.
"Uh. Stark?" Scott's voice is tinny from inside his suit. "I think..."
He doesn't even have to finish before Tony sees what got Scott's attention. His suit blares an alarm that makes Tony's teeth hurt.
Someone in that control tower or maybe down further below has just started the sequence to launch missiles. Their sensors must've spotted the Wakandan aircraft off the coast and they guessed what was going on. Even a hundred feet in the air, Tony can hear a low grating rumble as a section of snow and ice at the end of the runway begins to peel away, revealing a dark cavity in the ice. An alarm from the guard tower screams and he can see the glow of computer screens lighting the faces of the techs inside.
Tony looks around wildly and spots Barnes and Cap (still barefoot) racing across to the tower. They must've figured out what was going on too. With a big jump, Barnes catches hold of the lower struts of the tower and hauls himself up onto the platform by the guardrail, his metal arm just a silver glint. In a quick zoom of the tech's face, Stark sees pure terror as Barnes stalks around the grated balcony, slamming his metal fist into the thick glass of the guard tower door. A spiderweb of cracks begins.
Well, it looks like they have that covered. Stark changes trajectories in the air and heads for the opening missile bay. "FRIDAY? How long do we have?"
"Maybe five minutes, boss," she says, calm as always. "Targeting systems are locked on Agent Romanoff's jet. I've broadcast a warning to her controls."
"Did you get that?" Stark asks over the comms. "Natasha?"
"Got it," she says tersely.
"I'm gonna try to stop it," he tells her. "There should be a manual override..." Tony skids to a halt in the launch bay, flipping on his headlights.
There are six warheads, all no bigger than 100 pounds. He recognizes the insignia from Hammer Industries. "Okay. Let's see what we got here."
Scott jumps from the suit, just a tiny blur, landing along the nearest missile's smooth, curved surface. "I got this one," he calls back, sliding into the tiny crack in the missile's cover.
Stark pops the lid on the next one. "Fuck," he says when he sees the control panel. It's Hammer's latest model of warhead. He'd gone to a demo of it six months ago, somewhere off of the coast of Canada. These suckers could be locked onto a target based on a combination of its heat, mass, and makeup. Once launched at a target, it was almost impossible to shake. Hammer called it The Bloodhound.
Tony ignores the LED screen and manual switches and uses his suit to laser into the missile's underpinnings. When the wires are exposed, Tony slices through the yellow wires and the LED screen goes dead.
He's moving onto the second when FRIDAY trills a sharp alarm in his ear. "Boss! They're overriding the launch countdown! You have thirty seconds."
His stomach drops. Not good. "Lang!" he barks. "Get out of there now!" There's no time to finish with the wires, no time for finesse. "FRIDAY, can we do a localized EMP? Knock them all out at once?"
"Not without almost draining the power from your suit as well."
Tony curses and checks the energy read outs. She's right. With the energy he's already expended getting across the ocean and out of the elevator shaft, even a highly localized EMP that wouldn't affect the workings of his suit or Scott’s would drain his reserves so significantly that he'd be at a severe disadvantage until he was able to recharge. It didn't matter though.
"And we'll all die if Romanoff and Wilson can't pick us up. Do it!" He turns, looking for Scott in the dark space. "Lang! We got to go!"
Scott leaps from a nearby missile and Tony reaches, just managing to snag him with his fingers, tucking him close into the suit as he powers upward and out of the launch bay. The missiles are just smooth gray metal below him, glinting dully in the airfield lights, he aims down with his hand, focusing on the center of the six warheads. Under his left eye, the charge bar zooms upward toward green.
Seventy percent charged. Eighty percent charged. Ninety...
The heavy blast on his left takes him by surprised, rattling him down to his teeth. He gets off the EMP even as he tumbles sideways, alarms screaming. He hears the concussive boom and his ears pop, everything going quiet and dark just a second before he hits the ground.
When Steve takes his first step into open air for the first time in almost a year, the cold of the ice under his bare feet is shocking. It almost burns. Some latent survival instinct, the last part of his body that still thinks he's normal, still thinks he's human, is screaming that he won't survive this. Steve ignores it and charges after Bucky. Icy air fills his lungs and the arctic wind is in his face like a slap.
He's free. The realization starts a heavy buzzing in his ears and his vision goes hazy. He'd never made it this far before.
Above ground is just as dark as the cell that had been his home, just yellow ground lights and the burning weaponry breaking the blackness. He only remembers this airfield in flashes - they had drugged him heavily for the flight from Argentina to Antarctica and he'd only managed to catch blurred glimpses as they had hustled him into the silo he had thought would be his tomb. It had been daylight then, blinding sunlight across endless white snow and dark water. He had stared into the sun with watering eyes as the elevator had opened and swallowed him whole. Now, it's night and the dark feels ready to swallow him whole.
"They're launching missiles!" Bucky shouts over his shoulder, like he's calling from across a massive canyon. When Steve had first seen him below, he'd thought it was a fever dream, something his brain had cooked up but then Bucky was real, flesh and bone and so warm under Steve's hands.
Steve keeps getting distracted - by Bucky's hands, by Bucky's arms, by the smooth plane of Bucky's back. It's a like a feast: the first bottle of cool water after years in the desert. Steve wants to stare at him, to feel every part of him, to know all the parts he had missed. He has questions.
Maybe he's in shock. He hears another explosion, a gust of hot air briefly breaking the chill, but it all seems far away. All of this matters. All of this is important. Steve is just drifting after Bucky, though. He's just a speck caught in the ferocious ebb and flow of this man, drawn on roughly and inexorably.
Bucky's running toward a guard tower, leaping, and Steve doesn't think about anything except the curve of his ass in the tight black pants he's wearing, the way his shoulders flex briefly. Steve is definitely in shock.
He follows Bucky. This, at least, is instinct; something so ingrained into his muscle memory that he can do it on autopilot. Steve is bracing one foot on the lower rail and vaulting onto the guard tower after Bucky, his mind faraway. He almost over balances, tottering briefly on the slick edge, and his thoughts slam back into the present jarringly. It's almost shocking to him that his body is corporeal. His fingers go numb almost instantly where he grips the freezing metal and he sways against the railing.
A whiff of something salty grips him and has him turning away from Bucky and toward the darkness. There, just visible in the circling searchlights, is the ocean. It's dark and wild, spotted by white and movement, stretching out to meet the stars. The last time Steve had seen something like that was through the windshield of a crashing airplane.
That view clears his head and he wrenches his brain back to laser focus. Glass shatters to his left.
Bucky has broken the glass window on the guard tower door with his metal fist, reaching through the hand sized hole to flip the latch. There are three men inside, scrabbling at computer keyboards like that will save them. They're all young and fresh faced and one of them has an American flag mousepad. They don't look like soldiers. They look like techs.
"Hands up!" Bucky shouts, swinging his gun and sending a warning burst of gunfire into the floor.
The guy closest to the door lunges off his chair and comes up firing. Bucky jerks his arm up and the bullets clang as they bounce off his arm and harmlessly into the wall. Without pausing, Bucky raises his own gun and the man tumbles backward like a rag doll.
"Stop the goddamn launch," Bucky says again to the two men left alive, tone lower this time but almost more frightening. "Shut it off!" Steve feels off balanced and useless.
One of the men hits a key and suddenly the screens flash red. "Traitor!" the man screams. "Both of you! You betrayed..." That's as far as he gets before he falls with a dark bullet hole in the center of his forehead.
The last man lunges at Bucky and Steve shoots him before he's halfway there, something black and angry overruling the dazed feeling in his chest. He takes a deep breath, trying to clear his head. There’s iron in his nose and he wipes his mouth like there’s blood there.
"Shit," Bucky says. There’s a fine spray of red gore over the monitors and Steve steps close, staring down.
On the radar of the surrounding airspace, a tiny green blip is heading toward the coast - the heat signature already locked into the missile targeting system. It's a plane, Wakandan serial number, with two passengers.
Steve understands with a rush. "Natasha?" he asks because she's pretty much the only pilot he'd trust in some of the most unpredictable and dangerous weather on the planet. He’s missed her so much these last months.
Bucky is flicking furiously through the commands. "And Sam," he says, shortly, eyes never leaving the screen. "Our ride."
That's when the persistent droning alarm is broken by concussive boom and Steve looks up in time to see a bright flash of red and gold tumbling across the end of the runway, a bright spot in the black horizon, and slamming into the ground, cement curving up like a ripple.
"Tony!" He shouts it and lunges forward at the same time, swinging around the door and back into the freezing never ending night. "Tony!"
Behind him, he hears the sharp crack of a gun and a black figure falls from the top of the elevator hutch, bazooka crashing to the ground with him.
There's a sharp hiss, like air releasing and Steve just sees a puff as three missiles are ejected from the bay. But he can't think about that now. He leaps from the guard tower, feeling his muscles burn with disuse. The serum keeps him steady though and he lands in a full run. He hears Bucky leap after him.
Tony's lifting his head by the time Steve gets to him, shaking it a little like a dog that just got unexpectedly wet. "Jesus Christ," he swears, pushing up so he's supporting himself of both hands. "I would not recommend that."
Steve crouches next to him. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, Cap. Just stunned." Tony flips up the mask and his eyes are looking beyond Steve, at the sky and the ocean and the jet beyond. "The missiles." His mouth is a hard line. "Natasha?" he says into his earpiece and what she says makes him close his eyes.
"What, Tony?" Steve feels Bucky kneel beside him, finds himself leaning into the other man's bulk instinctively.
"They're gonna deploy countermeasures but those things are top of the line," Tony is grim, nothing glib in his eyes. "I don't think. It's gonna hit in five minutes. They're gonna have to bail out... they have the wetsuits from Wakanda but..."
"The longest Sam ever lasted in the water, even with the suit, was 30 minutes," Bucky says, like something inside of him is cracking.
"You have to go get them," Steve says. "You can pick them up, right?"
"I destroyed the helicopter," Tony says, gesturing to the burning wreckage, "and with that blast... even if I could, I wouldn't be able to carry all of you and make it to some place they won't shoot all of us on sight. I drained my suit’s power trying that EMP. It's gonna take at least 20 minutes for me to get out to them - I can't go top speed."
"You don't need to carry all of us," Steve says, "just them. And Scott. Bucky and I will hole up here. You'll come back for us."
Stark stares at him. "Are you crazy?" he snaps. "Do you know how much goddamn money and time and just plain shit I went through to get you out of this god forsaken place? Like hell I'm leaving you here."
"He's right, Stark." Bucky is gruff and his eyes look desolate. "You need to leave us here and go get them. Steve and I have the higher odds."
"Don't I get a vote?" Scott clambers out of Tony's sleeve. "We shouldn't leave you here, Cap," he says.
Steve lips go firm but his eyes soften just a little. "Captain's orders," he says, pushing steel into the words. "Save them. Come back for us. Can I count on you?"
Tony wavers as he shoves himself to his feet. "Stay alive," he instructs, hoarse. "Don't let anyone have any body parts while I'm gone."
Bucky pulls Steve to his feet. The glow from the burning helicopter catches the dark brown of his hair, makes it something golden and lustrous. "I'll keep him safe," he swears.
Tony stares at them for a long moment and then nods sharply, shutting his faceplate. "I'm gonna hold you to that, Lassie." He hesitates a moment longer, bright facemask staring at Steve like he’s the answer to some soul deep question. Then he jets off, a fading blue glow as he disappears into the night.
Steve stares after him for several beats, trying to fight the sick feeling in his stomach that he just condemned himself to another long period in a dark prison. For Natasha and Sam though, he swallows around his dry throat, it’s worth it. He can lie down on this wire.
Gently, Bucky touches his arm. Orange firelight lights up the world behind his head, making him look wild and dangerous. It comforts Steve. “C’mon,” he says, “let’s go.”
Together, they head back to the guard tower.
Bucky shoves the dead bodies to the floor and types at the controls. "They're working on getting the elevator started again. It's not gonna take much longer."
One of the the dead bodies has feet about Steve's size and he bends down to strip his boots and socks, sitting down on the floor to slide them onto his icy feet. It reminds him of the war: long marches and desperate men. His feet are a deathly white and tingly, fading to a deep bruise at the toes - something else he recognized from the war; battlefield triage centers with men crying out and blood soaking into the heavy wood surgical table that used to be someone's kitchen table. He stares at his feet and remembered men who lost toes and feet and legs. Well, he can just regrow a pair, can't he?
He stands up, tests the feel of the new shoes. They pinch a little in the toes but they will do.
Bucky slings his gun over his shoulder in a graceful, practiced movement and, as Steve focuses on him, something deep wells up inside of him. It's close to reverence and awe.
"Buck," he says and Bucky turns from the cabinet where he'd been pulling MRE packets from the shelves and shoving them into a knapsack he'd pulled from under the desk. He's almost shimmering, so alive and awake and vibrant. He's dark lightning in the dead space.
There must have been a look on his face because Bucky frowns. "Steve?"
"Thank you," Steve says and he doesn't even know what it's for. For saving him? For waking up? For living? For remembering? They're here, alone, and Steve can't remember a time he has felt safer.
Bucky's face softens. "I wouldn't..." he says, "I'm gonna be here now."
Bucky steps close, touches his arm like he's something holy and delicate, something wholly different than Steve feels inside. "We need to go. Inland. Wakanda has a research station on the Weddell Sea. I have the coordinates and they'll take us in. We can't wait for Tony here. We can't wait for him to rescue us."
It's logical. It's smart. It's the right plan. Steve can't stop the fissure of panic that cuts through him and cracks all over his face.
Of course, Bucky sees it. His touch turns to a stabilizing grip. "We can't stay here. We can't hold them all off for help to come to us. I'm not letting you go to back to them. Okay? No matter what, you are not going back them." He says it confidently and Steve finds his eyes drifting toward the gun at his hip.
"I don't know if the gun will work on me anymore," he says, going for blunt honesty. He knows every bit of his fear is written all over his words.
Bucky closes his eyes, like he’d felt a pang from deep within. "I'll figure it out,” he swears. “You will never be theirs again.”
Steve nods and follows as Bucky tugs his arm, guiding him toward the darkness outside. Just as they reach the door, Steve turns to look back at the monitors. The elevator is moving again, going back down now to pick up Pierce and Ross and the soldiers and the scientists. Bucky's right. Of course, he's right.
Steve gathers himself, pulls together the bits and pieces he's kept deep and protected for months and build them into something resembling fortitude. "It's gonna be a long walk," he says instead as they leave the guard tower. He pauses briefly against the guardrail again, face turned toward the salty ocean.
Bucky nods. "I have a plan. We can make it. Do you trust me?"
Steve shudders and then follows him off of the tower. "Always."
The airfield looks like a war zone: fire, wreckage, and dead bodies lying where they fell. Beyond this, the wildness of this continent looms as the biggest threat. Bucky tries to narrow his focus to just the next goal. One step at a time, he tells himself, checking again to make sure Steve is keeping up. It’ll be okay - just tackle one things at a time.
Back in Wakanda, the weeks between waking up and chasing after Steve hadn't been all swimming lessons and deprogramming.
As they jog from the guard tower, Bucky tries to visualize the detailed maps that had been projected onto the smooth plane of one of the big rooms in palace. They'd darkened the windows and the maps had twisted and grown from the walls and smooth center table, showing the topography of Antarctica, taken from carefully positioned satellites and exploratory planes. The Wakandan embassy is almost 1,400 miles away, across ice and snow, desolate, freezing desert and volcanic mountains. Reasonably though, Bucky knows leaving the shore is their only chance.
When he'd looked at the computer, he'd seen the distress signal that had gone out. They had maybe 30 minutes before F-15s were lining up strafing runs. Not to mention that there had been almost 50 heat signatures crowded at the base of the elevator. Even if they could only come up ten at a time, eventually they'd be overpowered, especially if they were all like Pierce.
This flat open airfield was the least defensible position he could imagine. They'd be killed or taken back and then there wouldn't be another escape.
In the shadows of the airfield, Bucky finds the squat garage that they'd spotted on the satellite footage. There hadn't been much movement or life that they'd been able to spot in the dark over the weeks they had spent observing - but they had been able to track some of the scientists going on short excursions across the ice shelf to take measurements from Mount Erebus. He breaks the lock with his fist while Steve stands at his back with the gun pointed toward the elevator. There are four gleaming military grade snowmobiles inside, shining white and gray under the beam of his flashlight, the Hammer logo on one side. Bingo.
The fuel tanks on two of them are full and he finds the keys, carefully labeled, hanging on hooks next to the desk, next to sprawled paper maps. Bucky spares a glance at the maps, taking in blue pins and red x's scattered across the white landscape. There are goggles and facemasks in a bin and he tosses a pair to Steve before he loads the MREs and extra cartridges he had grabbed from the guard tower into the saddlebags. There are GPS units on the handlebars and he yanks them clean apart with his fist, leaving wires dangling behind. He won't make tracking them any easier.
"Ever ridden one of these before?" Steve asks, tugging the gloves over his hands.
"Maybe," Bucky says. He has an impression of Alaska in the winter, a cabin far off the beaten road where a retired arms dealer had holed up in an attempt to carry out a quiet life. Hydra hadn't allowed it: they had sent their pet assassin. Had the man begged before he had died? Or had he gone quietly, almost relieved that his past had finally caught up with him?
Steve runs his hand over the curved body of the seat. "Can't be much different than a motorcycle, right?" There's an eagerness in his tone that makes Bucky look at him. Steve has gained a light in his eyes, like he finally believes they can make it. The sight warms Bucky.
Even with mufflers on the engines, Bucky cringes at the loud rasp when they turn them on in the empty space, echoing over the sparking fire. They need to put some distance if they don't want Pierce and Ross right on their tail.
Bucky checks his compass and tries to orient himself in the pitch black as they start gunning the bikes away from the yellow lights. Steve is ahead of him, his blonde head just a blur in the darkness. As they move away from the ice bluffs, the wind starts whipping faster, burning his cheeks and sending flecks of ice against his goggles. Good. It'll cover their tracks as they move inland, away from the station and toward the ice caves that are carved into the base of Mount Sidley.
It was Natasha who had found the caves. She'd flown into Washington D.C. on some trip to see Tony and had, somehow, made it into both NASA and one of the private intelligence libraries in the Pentagon. When she'd come back, she'd come to his room and spread old maps across his bed.
"The others don't want to talk about failure," she said brusquely. "But if you get trapped, you need a plan."
Whatever Howard Stark had been looking for on the Ross Shelf, Hydra scientists had been just as desperate. With no nationality to call their own, their base had been embedded in the rarely explored area of Mount Sidley. There had been pictures in the Intelligence archives: red hydras painted on dank walls and long steel tables littered with medieval-looking machinery in cavernous rooms.
"Do you remember it at all?" Natasha had asked, soft, as she watched him flip through the photos.
He didn't. Per the records, the Winter Soldier had been held there for two years in the early ‘50s but nothing even niggles at his memory. He wishes it did - maybe then he wouldn't be relying on decades-old maps and satellite footage of an ever shifting landscape to pick his way to shelter.
Steve is ahead of him and Bucky is constantly cataloging the length of his reach, the bunch of his shoulders, the tautness of his neck. He doesn't seem to be affected by the cold; Bucky feels his teeth start chattering when they make it to the open snowfields and ice is blowing in his face - but Steve could be out for a bike ride down the coast. He sits astride comfortably, hunched just a little against the wind and swaying with the bike as they hurtle up the ice hills. The sight reminds Bucky of a knight on a white horse, galloping through the frame of a picture book. Bucky must've read a story like that to his sisters, he thinks. The image has an almost golden haze like all of his memories of before have: before he died, before the serum, before the war.
Almost a hundred years ago, young James Barnes read a book about knights and monsters to his sisters and now he's following Steve Rogers through the everlasting Antarctica night because monsters are real. He gets a glimpse of Steve's narrow, hardened profile in the beam of his headlamp, the shorn dark of his blonde hair where the goggles and hood don't fully cover his face. At least, he thinks, monster slayers are real too.
They follow the bobbing beams of their headlamps through the darkness. The light is just a circle of pale yellow light, barely illuminating the route they follow.
As they crest the first ridge, an explosion goes off behind them and Bucky twists briefly in the seat, looking back through the darkness. The tower is just a flaming pyre now, shining like a beacon on the ice bluff. In the orange light, Bucky can see the shadows of men running to and fro across the white landscape, scurrying like fat, black beetles around a nest. They had gotten the elevator working.
It won't be long until they figure out they've fled and start tracking them. They need to put as much space between them and the base as possible. Their snowmobiles thump across the icy ridges, rumbling in the stillness. In optimal conditions, bikes like these could top out at 100 miles per hour. These aren't optimal conditions. Between the unknown terrain and the darkness, Bucky finds himself lagging behind the breakneck pace that Steve sets, pushing hard on the open flat to keep up as Steve goes over hills hard enough to go airborne. Snow sprays up as they dodge around ice mushrooms that balloon out of the landscape like sculptures. It's almost eerie, the way the untouched ice and snow catch the beam of their bikes, shining like a crowd of a thousand ghosts in the darkness.
Mount Sidley is almost 400 miles away. Their destination in the caves will only be a little closer. They're going to have to stop and refuel at least once but they can probably be there in just under seven hours. What they can't afford, Bucky knows, is a blizzard. The wind is heavy against them now but their visibility, even in the darkness, isn't bad. If a blizzard starts, riding even 10 miles per hour could be deadly.
Another explosion rips through the darkness and Bucky hears the scream of a jet and another percussive boom. The F-15s have arrived. He can hear the streak of their payloads, a high pitched whine that puts his teeth on edge and tries not to imagine the missiles that would've streaked toward Natasha and Wilson. He'd seen Sam after the last of the swimming tests: lips and skin going gray blue and muscles so lifeless they weren't even shivering anymore. That had been in the carefully controlled environment of the Wakandan labs and the doctors had rushed in with warming blankets and IVs when Sam had been pulled from the water. There would be none of that succor here. He looks up at the sky and tries to imagine Stark pulling both of them to safety.
They cross one last ridge and the landscape begins to slope down, guiding them into a gentle trench that provides some shelter from the pelting wind. Sounds are muffled too, explosions finally fading until they're lost under the hum of motors. It's almost peaceful here: just the throbbing engine and the sleek ice, moon and stars overhead as some of the cloud cover finally clears.
No one comes after them.
Bucky can't shake the tension though, constantly turning to scout behind. Even if they get a few hours, he knows Ross won't give up Steve. Bucky has to be ready. He has to hold tighter, fight harder, think faster. His life has been defined by missions and this is the original one. The most important mission to be put on his shoulders.
They have to refuel their bikes after about three hours, parking behind some large ice formations that provide a little bit of shelter. The sky is inky, broken only by thousands of bright stars, more than Bucky can ever remember seeing in his life.
Steve pushes his goggles onto the top of his head and stretches his fingers and arms out, flexing, while Bucky carefully pours the fuel from the white storage tanks. The glug glug of liquid and Steve breathing are the only sounds he can hear besides the wind. An alien planet, he thinks again, as the beam of his light sweeps the barren landscape around them.
"Do you think they're okay?" Steve asks after they both stuff MREs in their mouths. He stays near to Bucky, never more than an arm's distance away even though there is nothing but space around them.
"Stark will do everything he can do save them," Bucky replies, trying to reassure.
Steve’s laugh is brittle, almost disbelieving, but with something glad in the noise. "Last time I saw him before today, he was trying to kill you. When did that change?"
Bucky frowns, pulls the thick coat tighter around him, edging closer to Steve like his warmth can touch his soul. The yellow light makes Steve's skin look like wheat. "I woke up," he says, staring into the yellow shadows cast by the bikes. "And you were captured or dead. We had to get you back. A common cause is," he hesitates over the next word, mulling options. "Cleansing." He wipes his hands on his pants. It's vulnerable to bear himself. "We needed each other to get you back."
Steve is quiet for a long moment and then he steps forward, fast. "I needed you." His eyes are wide and wretched, guilty already over the words spilling out. "I needed you. And you..."
This man, Bucky thinks. "I didn't go to sleep because I didn't need you," he fairly whispers. He needs him to understand. "I went to sleep because I needed you too much."
Steve blinks, eyelashes smudging together in the darkness, starlight and moonlight backdropping the contours of his cheekbones. His eyes are clear and deep, like the hallowed halls of somewhere great men worship. Bucky lets himself sink into them. Steve takes another step forward until they're sharing space and air and the snow is surrounding them, muffling all noises except their breaths.
Bucky parts his lips as Steve leans forward, inhaling once before Steve's raw lips touch his own. His hands come up and cup Bucky's face, thumbs pulling over his unshaven cheeks. They're cold in the darkness but their shared air is hot, burning almost, and Bucky groans, leaning close into something he had barely even acknowledged wanting. He lets himself reach, using both hands to cup the back of Steve’s head, shorn hair bristling across his fingers.
This is more, he thinks, than anything he let himself believe he could ever have. Just Steve’s presence, just Steve’s life existing in the same sphere as his, was already something to be treasured. To have Steve like this (to have Steve giving him everything that Bucky wanted to give him) was beyond compare.
Steve sucks in a noisy gasp, breaking the kiss, like there's a thousand things to say just behind his teeth, like this is the culmination of reams of thoughts, and just presses their foreheads together. He's quiet.
Is there anything to be said? Are there words in any language to envelope the feeling in Bucky's tired soul?
"I dreamed of you," Steve finally says. "I dream of you," he amends a second later.
The world is white ice and Steve is a banked hearth against Bucky's chest. He stares out, over Steve’s too thin shoulder, into the blackness beyond, the bright moon hanging low on the horizon like a child's charm. How far does the world go? How much space exists between them and the next living soul? What price would he need to pay to spend another minute or hour suspended in this very spot?
Constellations could spin on to their inevitable conclusion and Bucky Barnes would just ask for one more moment to exist in this embrace.
"We need to go," he says instead. "I don't know how far they'll be behind us."
Steve nods, touching his face with both hands once before he steps back and fits the goggles back over his face. The thick glass obscures his eyes and Bucky misses them immediately.
He should say I love you, he thinks as he climbs onto his own bike. The wind swirls his hair and he pushes it out of his eyes, feels the rough material of his gloves drag over the same spaces that Steve had touched.
They shouldn't be here. They should be safe in the jet, on the way to Wakanda. They should be curled together in the bunk, hands wrapped together. Their first kiss should've been shared at the foot of a waterfall, with sunlight spilling down their shoulders. There should be birds singing and flowers blooming. It should be a summer day.
Some day, he promises himself, as they ride on from the meager shelter they had found. The wind cuts through his coat and gloves and he feels frozen over. Some day, though, they will stand on the beach in the sun. They will live to see that faraway, golden place.
Time feels endless. The landscape is unchanging in the dark, nothing beyond the cut of their beams. They could've ridden all day and night without knowing it, beyond the way Bucky's fingers were increasingly numb and his stomach was increasingly empty. Gradually, the sky lightens and the moon slips down, turns to deep dusk. There's no real sunrise, no real light, but he can see dark shadows and shapes beyond the stretch of his beam. This is high noon on the bottom of the world. He tries to judge the landscape by the height of the hills they go over and Bucky, more than once, checks his GPS and they have to course correct to keep heading toward Mount Sidley.
It's Steve who hears the rhythmic thumping first. He doubles back on the snowmobile, circling behind Bucky, head cocked toward the dark gray sky. Then he pulls their machines parallel and points back.
"Helicopter," he shouts over the wind. "Going slow. Still a distance."
How did he hear it?
Bucky nods and checks his GPS. The caves are only about 30 miles away. If they push it, abandon the cautious pace they'd been using over the last few hours, they can make it in 20 minutes. It could be friendlies: Wakanda Air Force coming to the rescue. They can't take that chance.
The terrain is getting rougher here as they draw closer to the mountains. Bucky can feel his treads skidding against sections of slick ice as the ground unexpectedly dips and rises. Each skid makes him feel weightless for a moment, hurtling without control forward with something heavy and dangerous pressing behind them. Without the slight easing of the dark, Bucky isn't sure they'd be making it across.
He hears the thumping just minutes later and, when he turns, he sees the bright white beam of a searchlight sweeping across the ice hills behind them, cutting through the snow streaked gloom. He can just see the shape of helicopter enough to know it's not Wakandan.
His adrenaline jolts, surging forward and making his hands grip tighter. They can't go back. How did they find them so fast? How are they heading directly in their direction?
There must be another tracker in the snowmobiles. He curses out loud, the consonants lost in the wind. He should've taken more time to check.
The thumping gets louder and he hunches forward, watches Steve do the same, trying to make themselves smaller targets in the landscape. It won't do any good. He check his GPS. They're only 17 miles away from safety. He's seen the pictures, studied the entrances. Once they get close, the giant ice pilings and ridges will make an air pursuit impossible and they can slide into the hidden entrance and be safe. They can do it.
He doesn't expect the bullet that slams into his back. He hears the sound of machine gun tearing up the snow and ice behind him and then something hot and heavy punches between his shoulder blades. The pain pulls his attention and his grip on the steering bars waver. The front of his tread hits a slick patch of ice.
There's no time. Everything tips forward and he can't re-balance fast enough. Steve is just a few yards ahead and he turns and Bucky sees his mouth open in a shout. It's all too late. He feels the weightless drop of sliding for a moment and then the snowmobile flips. He sees white and gray, spinning, and then his face is pressed into something cold and he's sucking in ice.
It's quiet, with his head buried in the snow. There's a heavy, painful weight over his legs. He heaves upward, grabbing for the gun at his waist. The helicopter will be upon him soon. His leg is broken, maybe in two places.
He lifts his head and the first thing he hears his name. It's Steve. He's shouting, screaming.
"Bucky. Bucky. Bucky."
The noises echoes, backdropped by the helicopter thumping and the snowmobile rumbling. Bucky swallows. There's blood in his mouth and his nose feels hot. It's probably broken. His ribs are broken too - he can't catch his breath so at least one lung is punctured. Adrenaline is ripping through him but he knows that this type of bullet wound is bad. Probably not fatal - not for him or Steve - but bad. It's bad enough that he won't be able to keep up with Steve for those last ten miles to safety. He knows that for sure - he’ll be a burden, just slowing Steve down. There’s only one thing left to do. He doesn't look back at Steve.
The overturned snowmobile provides some cover and he kneels behind it, dragging his body into action with the sheer force of will and determination. He pulls up the gun and braces it across the tread sticking into the air, aiming down the sight at the glass windshield of the helicopter, looming over the hill behind him. He coughs again, feels the hot blood slicking up and down his throat. He can see the gunner readying the machine gun again. His flesh arm is shaking a little but his metal one is steady as a rock.
This is it for him but Steve... Steve can get to the caves. It's only ten miles and if Bucky can bring the helicopter down, he'll definitely make it. He'll get to shelter and Tony will find him and Steve will be taken to warmth and Wakanda and…
I love you, he thinks.
Steve screams past him on the snowmobile. He's going much too fast for the slick terrain and Bucky can see how the back of the bike is skittering dangerously on the ice. Steve keeps his seat though, holding the course by sheer force of will. Bucky is reminded again of the knight astride his horse.
Terror catches in his throat because Steve is heading right for the helicopter and Bucky can see the machine gun out the front start light up again, barking out bright gusts of fire. Bucky aims for the dim shadow behind the gun, pulls the trigger hard and feels nothing but satisfaction when the shadow crumples.
He should've kept going, Bucky thinks, headed out to safety and let Bucky guard his retreat.
Steve is shouting wordlessly into the wind and noise as he careens forward, like he can stop the helicopter by his grit alone. They're just yards apart now, closing fast, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. The helicopter is near to the ground, spotlight pointed dead at Steve and Bucky knows that a bullet won't be far behind.
"Steve!" he tries to call out but his lungs won't bring in enough air and he chokes on blood again.
Steve leans forward and then seems to surge up, cartwheeling over the bars of the snowmobile with a shout and Bucky is terrified for a split second that he's been thrown from the bike, that he's going to land in a crumpled heap on the snow with a broken neck. Time hangs for a moment and then something large and heavy slams into the helicopter with a screech that echoes over the icy plain. Fire blooms, roaring up and the helicopter is spinning, crashing.
Steve had thrown his snowmobile at it.
Bucky feels breathless in ways that have nothing to do with a bullet in his lungs.
Ahead of him, limned by firelight, Steve is on his feet and sprinting toward the helicopter. Bucky can see a helmeted man struggling out of the flames, dazed and staggering. Steve slams into him and they topple. A moment later, Steve gets up alone. The burning helicopter sparks around him.
Bucky crumples backward, feels his adrenaline fading. His blood is freezing to his skin and he is so tired. He needs to get up, tell Steve to run, tell Steve to get to the caves before they are tracked by more men and more helicopters and more guns. There are so many things to tell Steve before it's too late. He stares up at endless stars until his eyes close.
"Bucky, Bucky." Steve is chanting his name, right above him, when Bucky opens his eyes again. Steve's face is flickering in and out of the orange light, swimming like a mirage. The stars are behind his head, spread out in overlapping galaxies across the dusky sky. He has soot streaked over his cheekbones and his goggles are pushed up into his hair and his eyes outshine all of the stars. His hands are moving over Bucky's torso, his legs. "We need to move," he says, desperation making the words sharp. "Bucky, can you hear me?"
He groans. It's so cold. He hasn't been warm since Wakanda. He hasn't been warm since Brooklyn. "I hear you," he says because he'll always take one more step for Steve.
Steve's hands scrabble at the tac jacket and pressure is jammed against his back, wrapping and cinching tight. "You gotta hold on," Steve is saying. "Keep your eyes open, Buck."
The wind is howling around them now, ice flurries ripping through the sky and obscuring the stars. Bucky watches them dance across his sight while Steve tightens something around his leg.
"The bullet," Steve is saying, "is still in there. Hear me, Buck? I can't do anything here. We have to get to the station. Okay? They'll help us."
Bucky shakes his head.
"It's okay," Steve says, sound a little frantic, "stay with me. What's wrong? What hurts?"
"We're not going to the station," Bucky tells him. He swallows. "It's too far. We wouldn't make it in the night."
Steve is quiet and his hands delicately soothe down Bucky's sides. "You need to tell me the plan, Buck. Okay? I need to know what to do."
Bucky struggles and then manages to sit up, wavering in the wind. He stares out at the gray shapes of mountains in the distance. "Hydra had a base at Mount Sidley. All signs point to it being abandoned. But we can hole up there. The sun rises in a few weeks and we can cross the mountains then."
Steve is quiet, face turned down.
He wants to go home, Bucky thinks. He wants to be safe in his own bed. He'd imagined, dreamed, that he could have that soon. In a matter of hours, he had thought, this would all be behind them.
"I'm sorry," Bucky tells him.
Steve shakes himself, a full body shiver that has nothing to do with the cold and presses one gloved hand to Bucky's face. His eyes grab Bucky's, so much blue. "Okay," he says. "Okay. Let's go."
Both snowmobiles are totaled. One is a twisted, burned pile embedded in the cockpit of the helicopter and the other is cracked in two pieces. Steve makes one attempt to get it back together and then abandons it. He pulls the MREs and weapons from the saddlebags and hoists the knapsack across his own back.
Bucky watches him and tries to breathe steadily and evenly. He feels sick and tired, the night of swimming and cold catching up with him.
Steve crouches by him and Bucky can feels his hands, skimming across his back. "You'll be okay," he says, just above the wind. "It's already bleeding less. It's already healing. C'mon, Buck."
It takes a few seconds. The bleeding may be easing but each movement makes his ribs ache and his leg won't support any weight. He has to swallow bile when he finally manages to drape his arms around Steve's shoulders, lips white with the effort to keep from crying out. His metal arm does most of the work.
Steve heaves him up, hands tucked below Bucky's knees, bending forward a little so Bucky can rest his head on the back of Steve's neck. Bucky knows he tries to do it as smoothly as possible, but he can't keep a sob from pushing past his clenched teeth.
"It's okay. It's okay," Steve is crooning. His thumb rubs a circle around Bucky's kneecap. "It's only ten miles right? We'll make it."
The world is dimming again but it could just be Bucky's vision. He nods against Steve's neck. Steve smells of sweat and stone and something chemical that he doesn't like.
Steve starts off, not running but moving quick. He's light on his feet like he doesn't have a 200 pound limp weight on his back.
"Remember," he says once the sounds of the burning helicopter have faded behind them and Bucky closes his eyes to stop from being sick, "you carried me like this once. It was home from school. I shouldn't have gone that day. I'd been feeling sick for days but I hated being cooped up. After school let out, it was cold and I started coughing too hard to walk back. You picked me up like this and took me all the way home." Steve is silent and Bucky can feel his ribs expanding with a deep breath.
"I was angry at you," Steve says, low. "I was angry a lot back then. I think you knew that. I didn't want to burden you. I didn't want to make you resent me and so I hated myself so you wouldn't."
Bucky doesn't remember but there are things he knows. He opens his eyes but all he can see is Steve's bruised and dirty cheek. "I would never hate you," he says to Steve's salty nape. He's not cold anymore, Steve is a furnace beneath him.
"Then let me carry you," Steve says.
You already are, Bucky thinks fuzzily, and then the world fades away.
Bucky doesn't make a sound when he goes down. Steve catches the way his snowmobile flails out of the corner of his eye and, by the time he turns fully in his seat, Bucky is already tumbling through the air.
The shout that tears from Steve hurts his throat. He can see the helicopter coming closer, thick blades chopping up the murky air, but all he cares about is how Bucky lands, crumpled under the bike. "Bucky!"
He has to draw their attention, give Bucky a chance.
"Hey! Hey! You motherfuckers," he screams into the wind, circling his bike and sending a spray of ice behind him. Some of the flecks hit his face and and freeze on his cheeks.
The spotlight is sweeping like a long tentacle across the snow and ice, drawing closer and closer to where Bucky is lying beneath the snowmobile.
Except, Bucky is moving now, slithering out from beneath the broken pieces of his bike. First, he's getting to his knees and then pulling out the long rifle he'd taken from the guard tower. He's crouching down behind the broken snowmobile, bracing the long muzzle of the gun against its pieces, aiming for the helicopter.
He'll have no chance - but Bucky was always one for last stands.
Steve wants a grenade launcher or a flamethrower or his shield. Anything. He takes another spin on the hill, feels the treads skid beneath him on the slick blue ice. Anger surges up in his gut. This will not be how it ends.
For months, all he had thought about was Bucky and home (and the intertwining of those two) - long months where they treated him like a weapon, like a prize, like a puzzle to unlock. He flexes his fingers on the handlebars, thinks of his limbs being cut away and regrown and masked faces staring down at him impassively. He thinks of Bucky in the chair, under Hydra, or on the table in Steve’s place. That would not happen.
They had made him stronger, they made him faster - now that would be their undoing. No matter the odds, Steve Rogers always came up with both fists ready.
He circles back up to the top of the small incline, engine revving, and then starts down, cranking the engine as hard as it will go. The gears are whining beneath him and he can feel the straining judder as the treads fight to stay steady on the smooth ice. He passes Bucky in a blur, gets a glimpse of his gray eyes, wide in his pale face.
The helicopter is so close that the rotor blades whip his hair back, ice flying into his goggles and partially obscuring his vision. He shouts with the effort of keeping the bike steady, feels every muscle straining against the steering.
From the open door of the cockpit, the machine gun barks again and he feels a heavy punch in his midsection. There's no pain though. Nothing matters except that he and Bucky cannot go back to that small, black cell beneath the ground. The gunner falls and Steve smiles. Bucky is watching his back.
He's 20 yards away. Fifteen. Ten. He kicks his feet free of the footrests, stands up so he's balanced on the narrow seat, hands still gripping the handlebars. One, two, three.
He somersaults over the front of the snowmobile, pulling up on the handlebars with all his new, considerable might. The world is just the noise of the rotors and the strain in his shoulders as he pulls up on the heavy machine.
His feet hit the ground and he screams into the dark air as he hurls the snowmobile over his head. He's afraid, for a moment, that he didn't get it high enough, that the machine will crash harmlessly back to earth and that will be it.
Then the snowmobile connects, slamming into the rounded nose of the chopper with a boom that knocks him backwards, flaming pieces of metal spinning out. He stays on the ground, where the explosion hurled him, feels the burn in his back as the helicopter spins violently in the twilit sky. The pilot is dead. All he can see of the cockpit is a raging inferno.
With a giant roar, the helicopter hits the earth, rotors digging up the ice and snow in huge, black gouges. Flaming bits fling outward, dotting the white ice with tens of tiny campfires.
Steve pushes to his feet, feels woozy for just a second, and then pushes into a run when he sees a dark figure stumble from the flames. He's wearing the dark mask and helmet of all of Ross's soldiers and Steve doesn't hesitate for a moment before lunging and snapping his neck. Then, Steve stands there, just outside the ring of fire, staring in, waiting to see if anyone else is alive. He pushes up his goggles to the top of his head, after a moment, when nothing emerges.
The black metal skeleton of the helicopter is already warping and twisting inside the heat of the fire and Steve can see the outline of his snowmobile, buried deep in the cockpit. Nothing moves, beyond the steady collapse of the frame.
He sucks in a breath, almost coughing at the contrast between hot smoke and cold air. Embers float around him like fireflies. Something about the burning heap is cathartic.
You won't take me back, he thinks viciously as ash settles against his skin, turning his face sooty. You will never have me or him ever again. You can all burn in hell and I will salt the earth with your ashes.
Back in Mumbai, he'd also brought down a helicopter. He remembers being worried about casualties then. One lost life, even of the men trying to kill him, had been one too many. Had Ross burned that out of him as well?
Steve deliberately turns his back on the burning mass then, leaving the bodies where they fell. The snow is already blowing over them, wiping them away from the earth.
Bucky is right where he left him, on his back behind his snowmobile, arms spread out like Steve had caught him in the middle of making a snow angel. He's blinking slowly at the sky and there's red spreading on the white snow beneath him, vivid even in the dim half-light.
"Bucky," Steve says. Don't leave me, he thinks. Don't leave me alone here by myself. I've been alone for so long and I just got you back. "Can you hear me?" How bad is it? Steve’s entire head feels blurry, like he's fighting through gallons of water. He needs to think, needs to assess, needs to see how close to the end he could be.
Bucky’s eyes drift and then seem to focus in on him. There's blood streaking from his nose and down his head. He coughs and there’s blood lining his teeth. His leg is clearly broken and when Steve props him up to check his back, he groans, trying to hold his ribs. "I hear you," he says, faint and wrecked.
"You gotta hold on," Steve tells him. "Keep your eyes open, Buck."
The bullet had gone in low - it doesn't seem deep but he can't tell out here. It could have punctured his lung. There's no exit wound but he can't do anything here. He strips the bottom of his own coat, wraps it around Bucky's ribs, cinching it tight. The Wakandans will help.
After Siberia, after Steve had dropped his shield, the new king of Wakanda had taken them straight to the medical facilities near the palace. Steve had been paranoid and Bucky had been only semiconscious - but Steve remembers the sweeping windows and the gentle hands, how they had cared for Bucky like something precious, without any hesitation of questions.
"We respect all life," the doctor had told him gently. "All our patients are deserving of the most respectful, thorough care we can offer."
If they can just get to the station that Bucky has been leading them to, everything will be alright. They can go to someplace warm and safe and all this will have just been a terrible nightmare.
He settles Bucky back, pulls him in close like he can share his warmth, comfort him somehow. "The bullet is still in there. Hear me, Buck? I can't do anything here. We have to get to the station. Okay? They'll help us."
They're so close now, so close to this all being over.
Bucky swallows with a thick click and his hand scrabbles at Steve's, winding their fingers together. "I'm sorry," he says and the words make Steve's stomach drop.
He shakes Bucky a little, his free hand going to dig at Bucky's neck, pressing into his pulse point. He he missed something? Stay with me. "It's okay," he says, "stay with me. What's wrong? What hurts?"
"We're not going to the station." Bucky's gaze keeps wandering to stare out over the hazy mountains. "It's too far. We wouldn't make it in the night."
Steve grips him tighter. They wouldn't have come out here without a plan. "You need to tell me the plan, Buck. Okay? I need to know what to do."
Bucky groans and struggles upright, leaning heavily against Steve like he can't quite manage his own weight. "Hydra had a base at Mount Sidley. All signs point to it being abandoned. But we can hole up there. The sun rises in two months and we can cross the mountains then."
They are going to a Hydra base in a cave, deep below the earth.
All the air catches in Steve's chest. He shakes his head. The very last thing he wants, the very last thing he imagined doing was going back into an underground lair of his enemies. He wants to be done with this. He wants to go home.
"I'm sorry," Bucky tells him. He's staring at Steve with hazy eyes and his cheeks are pale beneath his dark scruff. There's blood in the edges of his beard and he's apologizing to Steve.
It'll be okay. Steve draws his courage around him like a shield, buttressing up his strength that had waxed and waned but never failed entirely during his long months under the tender care of Ross's scientists. He's with Bucky now. He's not a prisoner. They are waiting for the sun and then they are going home.
There is no other option. If Bucky dies here, then Steve will die too. He'll dig them a grave in the ice and snow and they'll both finally finish falling, finally finish dying, like they should have 70 years ago. They can be at peace, lost to a world that, in the end, treated them as weapons to be used and then discarded.
He presses his hands to Bucky's face, wiping up thick streams of blood with his thumb. This is all that matters. "Okay," he says. "Okay. Let's go."
First, he checks Bucky's snowmobile. The front tread is snapped clean in half and the steering gears are just a twisted mess of wires. So he pulls the MREs and ammunition from the saddle bags, hoisting them in the knapsack that Bucky had been carrying earlier.
Out of Bucky's sight line, he opens his coat to check his own midsection. There's dark blood streaking from his hip to armpit and he finds two neat entrance wounds under his ribs. He touches the hot skin and winces. There's some pain now, leaking through the adrenaline. He forcibly pushes it away. There will be time for this later.
He pauses, icy wind ripping against his cheeks, to stare at the smoking helicopter and the bodies lying around it. You did this, he tells Ross in his head. And, now, you won’t be able to stop me.
Then, he goes back to Bucky.
"You'll be okay," he tells him as he helps Bucky sit up, bracing his shoulder against his chest. "It's already bleeding less. It's already healing. C'mon, Buck." It's only a small lie.
Bucky is groaning and weak but he clings tightly when Steve manages to get him up onto his back, legs wrapping around Steve's middle and arms winding about his neck. Piggy-back, they had called it as kids.
"Just hold on tight," he tells Bucky, though he's not sure if Bucky can hear him. He thinks he might feel Bucky's tears in his hair.
The wind is picking up as he strides away from the twisted snowmobile. He tries to keep his gait smooth. Bucky tries to bite it back but Steve hears his groans at every jostle and bump. He can feel wetness on his hands and he's not sure if it's his blood of Bucky's. He counts every hitched and panted breath he feels against his neck.
Mount Sidley is looming before them and Steve fixes his eyes on it in the gloaming as he marches forward.
He talks, rambles really. He isn’t even really sure what he says. His voice is the only sound for miles, save for the wind. He sucks in the freezing air and plants one foot ahead of the next one, moving with an assurance he doesn't feel.
They can do this.
When Bucky goes heavy and limp across his shoulders, Steve almost panics. He jostles Bucky harder than he intends, squeezing his legs tightly. "C'mon, Bucky," he pleads, clinging to each exhale he feels against his spine. "Wake up. You gotta wake up. I can't do this alone." He doesn't stop though.
The darkness is returning now, thick clouds banking across the sky. He flips on the one flashlight they had with them, holding it braced in his armpit as he trudges across the hills.
He rambles about simple times: the smell of Brooklyn after a summer rain, the color of the flowers he'd seen in Wakanda, and the way the sun spreads over a stormy ocean. There are other things he can't talk about, even now with open wilderness around him and free sky above him.
In the last few days, buried beneath tons of stone and ice, Steve had managed to find a sort of peace in his prison. The experiments with Pierce had been proceeding well and it was easy to see that his survival was ticking fast toward being a liability. He was last year’s model, as one of the scientists had told him once. He'd lain on his hard cot, so far from home that he might as well have been on the moon, and hoped that, however they did finally dispose of him, it would be fast and painless.
I'm so tired, he had thought, over and over again. I am almost 100 years old and I am so, so tired.
He hadn't prayed. He had no illusions left about gods or demons or a life after death. He was raised a Catholic because he was raised as the son of an Irish immigrant in New York City in the 1920s. He grew up on fire and brimstone and Hail Marys. He hasn't prayed since Peggy died.
The only other god he would have prayed to had been sleeping thousands of miles away in a quiet room with sunlight. Steve had hoped from his dark prison that, if this were the end of him, that Bucky would keep sleeping. This world is too dark for someone like him, he had thought to himself as the scientists marched him to the labs yet again. Bucky deserved his rest. He deserved to sleep through what men could do to him.
The guards and the scientists - the men who he had seen every day, who had fed him and clothed him and cleaned him and cut him into pieces only to watch him regrow - never let him have pen and paper. He only asked once, when it had become obvious that there was no escape - that he would never leave there as Steve Rogers in any meaningful way. It had been after his fourth escape attempt. He had made it as far as the last elevator before they used the knock out gas and Pierce (or one of his clones) had dropped from the ceiling like the stuff of nightmares. Steve doesn't like to remember that. The guards and scientists had said no to his request easily though, already viewing him as something less than human.
He hadn't ever been a man to them - he'd been a science project, a weapon to craft and mold into the image they desired.
Steve remembers the bitter helplessness in his throat after that: the fear that he would die alone without a final word to anyone who had ever cared about him. It wasn't death he had feared, but the world he was leaving behind to them.
When Bucky had made the decision to go back into the cryochamber just after Siberia, Steve had nodded and stiffened his lip and made his hands (knuckles still bruised from Siberia) as gentle as they could be when they touched Bucky's shoulder. Inside, he'd felt ripped to shreds. He'd wanted to scream at Bucky to stay awake, to be alive, to stay with him. It had felt too much like giving up, too much like admitting that he was, and always would be, exactly what Hydra intended him to be. Months later as he lay on a hard cot with tons of stone on top of him and around him and nothing but ice beyond that, Steve had understood.
He hadn't expected to survive. He hadn't expected to escape. So he had resigned himself to saying I love you into the stillness, hoping somehow that whatever remained of his soul at the end of this would find its way to Bucky, give him some comfort in a world gone cold and dark.
Now, Steve places one foot in front of the other. He breathes in freezing air and moves carefully to protect the precious cargo on his back. He is free. He is whole. Bucky is with him. Around him, the mountains blur against the sky, dark and hazy, blending into the dusk like smeared watercolors.
They may be walking into the unknown, miles and miles and days and days between them and rest, but this is more than Steve had ever imagined getting from his life again. They've both been cold for so long - maybe soon they will be warm again. They are free and they are together. No one is using them.
He follows the coordinates that Bucky had plugged into the GPS, tracing a circuitous route along the base of the mountain as the terrain gets rougher. There are towering ice ridges that have bloomed out of the landscape, formed by the sweeping winds and ancient volcanic deposits. He feels small next to them.
"It's beautiful, Buck," he says over his shoulder, unsure if Bucky can even hear his words. He's starting to feel a little dazed and he can feel where his own blood is soaking through his layers. "Never seen anything like it before. Some day, after, we'll come back here and I'll bring my sketchbook. We can do a picnic in the snow."
He should’ve said something more, he thinks, back when they’d refilled the fuel tanks and Bucky had gazed back at him with clear eyes. Steve, however, has never been good with the delicate intricacies of expressing immense emotions out loud. He’s good with fighting words and noble speeches - but laying himself bare before Bucky’s gaze? He wants to, that’s not a question, but he feels thick-tongued when he thinks of all the things he wants to say, the vastness of the words that live in his heart.
It had taken so long to even understand those words for himself. The kid he had been in 1938 and in 1944 hadn’t even been able to comprehend the vastness of what he had felt for Bucky Barnes. Bucky had been his North Star, the feeling of a full belly, air drawing easily into his lungs, the warmth of his bed after a long, cold day. He’d been so young and naive. Even after Bucky died and left that gaping maw in his lungs, in his heart, in his head, he’d only just begun to understand the measure of their love.
He thinks of the moment he dropped his shield, when he had measured Bucky against his duty and his country and his freedom and his life and all his friends. There hadn’t even been a contest and he had seen clearly, all pretense scorched away, exactly what he felt toward Bucky.
Bucky breathes against his neck and Steve keeps walking. He may not be able to say all all the perfect things - but he is strong and he can carry Bucky as long as he needs to.
The route guides them into an ice canyon, so narrow that Steve could almost touch both sides if he stretches out his arms. Under the beam of his flashlight, the ice is almost blue around him. Thick black volcanic stone bumps out from the ice in random places, like dark fingers stretching out from the underground. The canyon takes him around a corner and that's when he sees the door.
From the distance, it would just be another sheet of volcanic rock, protected from ice build up by the way the ridges had formed. As Steve draws close, squeezing Bucky's knees tight in his hands, he sees the thread thin lines and the depression of a handle. There's the outline of Hydra’s emblem carved into the top right corner, tentacles curling around the skull-like face.
"We're here," Steve breathes. He stares at the symbol that has meant pain and death and fear for so long. "Buck," Steve jostles him slightly. "We made it. We're here."
He slides to his knees, tries to gently maneuver Bucky so he's leaning next to the door, out of the way in case someone comes out shooting. Bucky's pale and cool to the touch but he's still breathing in even wheezes. The blood under his nose has dried and the bruises on his face are already fading. Steve checks his pulse and finds it strong, sliding his fingers against Bucky's neck like a caress. The jacket tied around his middle is soaked in the back but the wound is already scabbing over. He'll be okay. Propped up in the ice like he is, Bucky could be a fairy prince, just waiting to be awoken. It's a nice thought.
Steve checks his own wound briefly. The skin is struggling to knit itself together. He must've kept opening it on the long walk. The blood is still oozing, fresh and vicious, from both bullet holes. He breathes deeply and goes to the door.
There's no immediately obvious place to push or pull. Steve runs his hands along the sleek ridges, using the flashlight to trace each dip and swell.
"Hail Hydra?" he tries reluctantly and the words are bitter ash in his mouth. The door stands silent and immovable before him. His hands trace the door again. He pushes on the slight depression and then pulls at the crevices. He pushes on the hydra and then kicks at the base of the door. The wind is whistling now, the beginnings the blizzard. Below him, Bucky is shivering again, lips fading to a dusky gray. They need to get inside.
He kicks the door again. They've come so far. They're not going to freeze to death outside the door of shelter.
Bucky moans and Steve gives up on the door. He kneels beside him, curling so he can get his own body beneath Bucky's.
"It's okay," he says, "I'm here."
Bucky blinks and open his eyes. He looks hazy and his tongue is pale when he licks his lips. "We there?" he asks on a breath.
"Yes," Steve kisses his brow, tastes the dried blood left there. It feels overwhelming: having Bucky here in his arms after it all. "We're here."
"Help me up." Bucky grunts and then groans as Steve hoists him upward, taking most of his weight. Steve can feel the stiffness of dried sweat and blood in his clothes. Bucky wavers but stays upright, staring at the dark door.
"They took me here once," he tells Steve, almost dreamy. "I don't... there's not much I remember, even now, of anything. Just flashes, impressions. I remember you in winter. I remember falling."
Steve remembers falling too.
Bucky places his hand on the door, on the gentle impression where a handle should be, and says something in Russian.
The door groans like it's waking up from a long hibernation and creaks like old bones. It doesn't yawn all the way open but sets itself ajar.
Steve helps Bucky lean against the ice again and then puts his shoulder into it, heaving inward. There's no movement and then the door gives, swinging inward under Steve's steady pressure.
Inside is musky and damp but the warm air that blows out makes Steve almost weak with relief. Shelter.
He keeps his gun out and Bucky slightly behind him as they stagger inside. Abandoned as it seems, this was still a Hydra base once upon a time. The door leads immediately to a dark hallway; not pitch black though, there's a yellow glow coming from deeper inside the cave that bathes the walls in a slightly eerie glow.
They turn a corner and the dark space opens up into a large room. There's a steel table in the middle of the room and a giant red Hydra emblem decorates the long wall across from them. Steve runs the beam of his flashlight over the dusty chairs. There are no computers, no maps, and nothing moves in the dim space. A single chair is overturned. There are indents in the wall with yellow light emanating out, giving just enough light to see by.
Bucky is sagging against him and Steve lowers him into one of the chairs, makes sure he has a loaded gun.
"Wait here, okay?" He pushes a gentle had over Bucky's forehead. There's no fever and his eyes are looking clearer now that they're out of the cold.
The base is actually smaller than Steve had expected. There's the short entry hallway and the main room and then another short hallway connecting a small living quarters area with a dank, colder room that Steve assumes to have been the lab. He pauses there, stares at a heavy steel table in the middle of the room with thick cuffs and an iron cage the size of a man in the back.
He wishes he could leave now, just shut the door and pretend this place doesn’t exist, block it from his mind forever. The ghosts here loom large and all he wants to do is escape. There is something he needs though. He takes two steps into the room, fighting hard against the urge to flee.
There’s a cabinet near the cage and he goes directly to it. The doors are locked but a single jerk tears the metal hinges like paper and the doors come off into his hands. He tosses them aside, uncaring where they clatter. Inside, there are shelves of gauze and medical tools. He does his best not to think of what they were all used for 60 years ago. He finds rubbing alcohol and tweezers and even a basic First Aid kit sitting on the lowest shelf. He scoops up the gauze, the rubbing alcohol, and the First Aid kit before spinning around and crossing back to the door in two long strides, eager to be rid of this room for good. He closes the door with the finality of closing a tomb. It takes him a moment then: he swallows down acid and leans against the wall, head tilted back so he’s staring at the ceiling, until his hands stop shaking.
We are safe, he tells himself. Neither of us are going back. We will die first. Never again. We are not theirs.
He returns to the main room, settling the supplies onto the table. Bucky stirs briefly, blinking at him blearily.
“Shh. It’s me. I need to get you taken care of, okay? Can you let me do that?”
Bucky nods. “‘Course.”
“Okay. Let’s get you up.” He tries to be as gentle as he can but Bucky still groans, face squishing together in pain. “Sorry. Sorry. Easy. I’m sorry. This won’t hurt for long.”
He’s no medic but years in the field have taught him enough about patching up wounded soldiers. He slides the thick coat off of Bucky while he leans upright against him, not wanting to cut into some of the only warm clothes they have. The shirt underneath is buttoned and Steve silently rejoices. He works each button, one by one, easing the blood stiffened fabric off of his torso. Carefully, he helps Bucky lie back on his side, metal arm beneath him. Bucky’s chest and back are deeply bruised, the dried blood from the bullet wound streaked down his bare skin like some weird modern art.
“This is gonna sting,” he warns, splashing the rubbing alcohol over the wounds.
The choked gasp Bucky makes goes straight to his heart. This has to be done, though, and it has to be him who does it.
“Did I ever tell you,” he murmurs, using a gauze pad to wipe the blood away so he can see. The bullet isn’t deep. It was slowed down by the thick fabric of the parka and the shirt, just punched a couple centimeters into the long muscle in Bucky’s lower back. “About the movie shoot I did in Hollywood? Back during the war?”
Bucky shakes his head, metal fist clenching into the table, so hard that Steve can see dents forming. Steve had told Bucky this story - back when he’d first pulled Bucky from the Hydra and they had some downtime in London. Hydra had stolen that too. No matter - Steve will tell it again.
Steve talks, lets his voice go soft and lilting like he remembers his mother’s being when he’d had the fever again. She always sounded like she was singing some Irish folklore, even when she was just reciting Steve’s medication list. He grabs the scalpel and use it to carefully widen the wound. Fresh blood drips down.
He talks about the bright Hollywood sign and the glittery dresses and feathers. “So many feathers, Buck. If I’d still been allergic, I’d’ve had hives for days.” He describes the dark, swanky restaurants they’d taken him and the slick managers that had promised to make him a star. “Clark Gable just walked right in, Buck, like he owned the place. I just about tripped over my own two feet when he came over to shake my hand.”
Bucky doesn’t open his eyes but Steve can tell he’s listening.
When the bullet comes out, Steve almost laughs in relief. “Got it. Alright there? I got it now.” He cleans the wound quickly, taping it up with gauze. He cleans the graze on his shoulder quickly and wipes up the other superficial wounds from the bike. The leg is already knitting itself back together so Steve just checks to be sure everything is straight.
“You’re all done, Buck. All better.” He leans close, plants a brief kiss on his forehead and then his bare shoulder, just above the bandage he’d put in place. “Good as new.”
Bucky smiles a little, fingers coming up to grip Steve’s shirt. “Thanks, Steve,” he mutters, still sounding woozy.
“Just doin’ my job,” Steve says back. This work doesn’t come naturally to him. His were hands made for war - but it feels good to be bringing healing, cleaning. He’s not a weapon, he reminds himself again. His hands can do more than kill and maim. He bunches up Bucky’s shirt beneath his head as a pillow and covers him with the coat. “Wait here, okay? Gonna go check everything else out.”
“Be careful,” Bucky might murmur, but the words are slurred and sleepy.
Steve palms his shoulder and then heads back down the hallway.
Everything in the base is undisturbed, slightly dusty with age. There are no files left behind, no hints at what went on here. Someone had carefully packed up all the tools and documentation when they had left and closed this base tightly behind them, leaving it untouched for decades. In what must have been the storage closet, he finds cans upon cans of beans and dried MRE packs. They won't starve at least.
He pauses at one of the bedrooms and studies the wall indents providing light. They're hot when he runs his hand over it and when he bends down to sniff, he realizes. Magma. They were using the molten rock still churning at the base of this ancient volcano to heat and light this space. He laid his palm flat on the wall and felt comforting heat pulse from within. They wouldn't need to worry about it cooling down.
At the other end of the hallway, he finds a curved staircase leading down. When he rounds the bend, he pauses, almost awestruck.
The walls here are the same volcanic black, but they're rimmed by thick blue ice that almost glows against the rock. In the center of the room, there's a natural pool with clear water that shimmers blue and gold against the algae and stone. Tendrils of steam rise up in the space, licking into the cooler air. There are no Hydra tentacles here - just natural stone arching like the interior of an ancient cathedral. Something about the space feels holy and untouched, like it had been preserved just for them.
Steve kneels next to the pool. It's easily big enough for several bodies, the first part shallow and sloped before extending into a deeper area. When he tentatively touches his fingers to the water, he finds it hot but manageable.
There's a stream running from the opposite end of the cave, coming from the ice cliff itself, and mingling with the steaming water of the spring. The stream water is clear and cold, a constant source of fresh water to the whole cavern. Steve drinks his fill.
When he goes back to Bucky, the other man hasn’t moved, eyes closed and lashes fanned across his pale cheeks. His bruises stand out sharply, already purpling and yellowing across his bones. He picks up his head when Steve comes in, looking a little blurry. He rubs his fists into his eyes like a child. "All safe?" he says and he sounds so much like Bucky right after Azzano that Steve feels his lungs catch for a brief moment.
"All safe," he confirms. Then he helps him up, taking his metal arm across his shoulders. "C'mon. There's something you'll love."
Navigating the stairs take a bit of work but it's worth it at the bottom to see Bucky's face. The blue and gold lighting plays off his face and his hair and Steve thinks his eyes match the pool. Bucky hobbles to the edge and lowers himself down, draws his fingers through the water.
"It's so warm," he says, almost amazed.
Steve nods. "Thermal hot springs. I've never seen one but Tony's mentioned them a few times. They have some out in Yellowstone in Wyoming. People say they have healing properties."
He kneels next to Bucky, starts helping him out of the stiff pants. It takes a while. Bucky can’t move his leg much and the thick guard pants from the base have way too many buttons and zippers. When he's finally stripped down to just his underwear, Bucky sits gasping a little. The injuries are no longer fatal but Steve knows they'll bother Bucky for a while. Steve used to be like that too, injuries lingering like hot, uncomfortable bruises as his body fought to heal them.
Maybe Bucky is a bit thinner than Steve remembers from Bucharest and all that came after that? Steve isn't quite sure. Bucky is muscular and filled out in ways he never was back in Brooklyn. There's a heft to him now that has made Steve ache since that apartment in Romania. He's solid, present, and real. Alive. Steve leans close, rests his head on Bucky’s bare shoulder, right where the metal and flesh are fused together in a brutal reminder of what Bucky has survived. This goes on the list of moments he never thought he would have.
Bucky groans, low and rumbly, when he slides into the water. He keeps his healing leg outstretched, floating in the water. The dried blood melts from his skin and turns the water rusty for a moment before being washed away.
When he's settled, leaning against a larger rock with his hair tossed back, dark tendrils clinging to the sides of his face from the steam, Steve strips quickly. It's easy for him. Just the thick parka he'd grabbed from the guard tower and the prison garb he'd been living in for months. They had given him only two sets of pants and two sets of shirts, to be washed on a rotating basis. He kicks the pants as they fall away. He'd burn them if he had other clothes to wear.
Bucky's panicked voice makes his head shoot up, already moving forward. Bucky is looking at him, face twisted in horror, reaching out with both hands.
"Christ. Steve. Why didn't you say you were injured?" Bucky is trying to stand up, tilted and awkward in the water, so Steve sits down, slides into the water so Bucky can grab at him, paw at his bruised middle, at the two bullet holes that are now just ugly, fresh scabs.
"I'm okay," he tries to reassure. It comes out funny, tripping on his tongue, and Bucky gives him a long look that cuts through all the bullshit. Steve sighs. "Whatever they did to me, Buck, it's going to take a lot more than two bullets to even slow me down."
Don't ask me, Steve silently begs. Don't ask me what they did. Don't make me tell you and relive all of that. Let's leave that out there, in the cold and the wild, let this warmth be just for us. They can't touch us here so let us not bring them with us. No demons.
Bucky rests his flesh hand, damp and warm, on Steve's chest, like he's feeling his heartbeat, and his gaze doesn't leave Steve's. He swallows and Steve watches the way his unshaven throat bobs, watches how his dark hair shifts as he leans closer. "Just tell me, Steve," he says and they're so close that Steve can see all the little gray and blue flecks of his eyes. "Just tell me that you're okay."
Steve remembers screaming when they sliced off his fingers and toes, remembers his body knitting itself back together, remembers burning pain from their radiation tank. He remembers it all with the long memory of a man who has seen more than he has ever wanted or cared to see. But here? In this precise moment?
"Yeah, Buck," he says, "I'm okay."
Bucky opens his eyes, the first morning in the Hydra base at the foot of Mount Sidley, and Steve is curled around him like they’re both kids again. The mattress beneath them isn’t what anyone would call comfortable but peace is suffuses the air anyway. He can hear Steve breathing, even and calm, and the wind whipping by outside. He stretches his leg a little in the small space and feels the slight tug of knitting bones. Everything feels better this morning. He still has aches and pains but they’re the clean hurt of healing.
He shifts, tugs a little, and is almost surprised when Steve doesn’t wake up. After he’s swung his legs to the side of the tiny bunk they’ve squeezed themselves into, he turns and runs his flesh hand over Steve’s shorn scalp. The hair is feather soft and slightly bristly under his fingers. His hands drops lower and he rests his palm over Steve’s heart, the rhythm is strong and familiar.
For the first time since Wakanda, he has the opportunity to thoroughly study Steve, catalog all the changes that have gone on during their forced separation. The planes of his face are hollow, paler than he ever remembers in this century or the last one. There are dark circles under his eyes, deep bruises that make his lashes look longer. His lips are raw, chewed through. Bucky runs his hand along the side of his head, cups the delicate curve of his skull. His ribs stand sharply in his pale chest. Do his muscles look smaller? Bucky can’t tell, but he’s narrower.
He’s exhausted, Bucky realizes. Worn almost to the breaking point. It hadn’t been obvious in peak adrenaline but, now, in safety, Bucky sees the weariness written in every line of his skin, the way his mouth tugs down even in sleep. In his own, stomach Bucky feels his protectiveness surge.
Let this be our sanctuary, he prays to whatever or whoever is listening. Let this be our chance to rest.
Steve shifts, snuffles breathily, settling immediately when Bucky pets his side.
“Sleep,” he murmurs. “Just rest.” There are a thousand endearments on his tongue but it doesn’t feel right to say them for the first time when Steve can’t hear.
Quietly, he gets up and slips from the room, limping on his bad leg. He glances briefly down his own body, cataloging the wounds. The graze on his shoulder is a thick, brown scab. He can’t see the bullet wound in his back, but it just tugs a little when he stretches.
He hadn’t been that aware last night. He remembers the bitter cold and Steve’s warm back beneath him, the jolting gait as Steve carried him across the snow; then the sheer relief as they entered the caves. Steve’s tender ministrations over his wounds. Steve undressing him, gently, and then sitting together in the warm hot spring until their muscles had slowly unlocked. After, Steve had carried him to this tiny bed and they’d slept together.
How long did they sleep? There are no windows, and even if there were, he’s not sure if he’d be able to suss how much time had gone by. He wanders down the hallway, sees their dragging footsteps from last night in the fine layer of dust spread across the floor.
When he comes to the main room, the dark red Hydra against the wall gives him pause. He hadn’t noticed it last night, between the relief of the warmth and Steve patching him up. Something dark and ugly wiggles in his gut. They’re sleeping in Hydra’s bed, under Hydra’s roof. They’ll be eating Hydra’s food. He takes a deep breath, fills his lungs slowly with stale air and then releases it slowly.
“Take that, motherfuckers,” he says into the stillness.
They had tried to kill him, break him down to just spare, barely functioning parts and piece together something vicious and inhuman. He had been their pet monster. The Fist of Hydra. They tried to make him nothing. Yet, here he is, standing in the belly of the beast: alive and whole; loved and in love. He is so human that every bit of him aches with the feelings inside, new and old.
He skirts the table and then heads for the door. It’s heavy, some sort biometric lock covering most of the inside. He remembers saying the words to unlock it when they had arrived - but he doesn’t remember how or why he knew them. The stone is cool when he rests his palm against it and it swings inward easily enough when he pulls.
Instantly, freezing, howling wind whips into the space with a flurry of thick snow and ice. A blizzard. Visibility is nothing - Bucky might as well be staring at a white wall two inches from his nose. He slams the door shut again, leaning his back against it. Jesus. What if they had been trapped in that? How would they have ever found this place? What if they’d just wandered and wandered in circles until they’d collapsed from exhaustion and been buried in the snow and ice for another hundred years?
“Bucky?” Steve steps into the room, still bare chested. Only a faint hint of purple bruises remain, two twin pink scars below his sternum are already almost invisible. He’s rubbing his hand over his hair like he’s just now getting used to the feel of it again. “What’s going on?”
“It’s a blizzard out there. Good thing we’re in here.”
Steve smiles and it chases away all the cold. “C’mon,” he says, “I could use another bath.”
Days pass like this. All they have to eat is beans and MREs and all they have to drink is water - but they’ve both had much worse. They try not to venture out much. Ross is probably still hunting for them and the last thing they want to do is lead anyone to their hide out.
For the first few days, Steve sleeps almost constantly. A couple times, as they sit in the hot spring together, Bucky has to jostle him awake when he nods off unexpectedly. Slowly though, the dark circles and the hollowed contours of his face fade. He doesn’t really fill out - after all, they’re only eating beans - but he loses that starved, hunted edge he’d had when Bucky had first laid eyes on him deep beneath the earth. He even starts smiling a little and, every time he does, Bucky swears his heart skips a couple beats. His hair fills in and slowly his scruff turns into a full beard.
Living out of each other’s pockets feels familiar in all the best ways, like returning to his own bed after a long, long time away. Bucky feels like the most privileged of all men, getting to spend every moment of every day gazing at Steve, learning about Steve, letting Steve know him.
He feels stripped down to bare bones before Steve, raw and exposed like a nerve ending. Did Bucky Barnes of 1943 feel this way? he wonders as he presses into Steve’s bare chest so he’s not even sure where he begins and Steve ends. He must have, Bucky decides. This all-encompassing, overflowing love that surges up in his chest doesn’t feel new - it feels old. It feels like the grand palaces in Wakanda, made all the more stunning by the centuries and hardships they’ve endured. Could a love feel like this and not be as old and grounded as towering oak trees?
“Have we done this before?” he asks once, as they lay sweaty and tucked together like they were hewn from the same mountain.
Steve smoothes his sweaty hair off his forehead, kisses his eyelids. “No,” he says, lips bitten red. “I don’t think… we were both so young, before. There was so much I didn’t understand.”
“We’re old now,” Bucky says, staring at Steve’s unlined face and clear eyes.
Steve swallows and his fingers tighten on Bucky’s bare shoulders. “We grew up,” he agrees. “And we found each other again.”
Bucky thinks about that, about the miles and the trials and the years that it took them to reach this very point. He kisses Steve: first the curve between his shoulder and his neck and then his mouth. “I’m glad it’s you and me,” he murmurs into Steve’s beard.
There are some things they don’t talk about. Steve rarely brings up the months he’d spent with Ross. His eyes go dark and distant whenever they are mentioned. He has nightmares - screams himself awake every couple nights, shaking and sweating until Bucky carts them both down to the hot spring and settles them inside. Steve will float, held against Bucky’s chest, silent and staring up at the ceiling. He’ll cry, now and then, soundlessly; just big fat tears rolling down his cheek to get lost in the warm water.
Bucky never knows what to do. Sometimes, he wipes them away and other times, he pretends he doesn’t see.
“You’re not there,” he tells Steve fiercely, when he thinks it’ll help, cupping his face and making Steve look at him. “You are not there. You are with me. You are Steve Rogers and you are free.” The water laps around him and the steam drifts up into the air.
Steve returns the favor. Bucky tends to have his nightmares quietly - but Steve always seems to know, kissing him awake and pressing his chest into Bucky’s like he can anchor him to the present by his sheer body mass.
Just once, Bucky voices one of the biggest fears in his gut. “There’s not… they didn’t grow clones of you? Like they did Pierce?”
He can hear Steve breathing deeply against him, controlling some inner storm. “No,” Steve says shortly. “No. That part of… they never managed to get my cells to do that. I don’t know why. They didn’t know either and they weren’t… that was upsetting to them. Can you imagine? If they could make a Captain America without all of Steve Rogers?”
Bucky says nothing, his brain recoiling in horror at even the thought of an empty shell of Captain America, emptied of all of Steve.
“Even with Pierce,” Steve continues, “they never figured out how to make the clones last. They could make ‘em - but they all died within hours. Something was never quite right in their bodies.” Steve went quiet then and didn’t speak for several hours, lost in the horrors of his own mind. They never speak about it again.
They also don’t talk about cryo or the trigger words or the Accords. As if by mutual agreement, they keep the ugliness of their lives carefully outside the warm walls of their refuge.
Instead, Steve tells stories of their childhood and Bucky talks about the months he spent in Romania: the nosy woman who lived down the hall from him, the old man who played the violin at the corner of his building, the little girl that Bucky had helped find her cat.
“You think,” Steve says one day, wistful as they lay in bed, Bucky’s hand in his hair, “that we could ever have that again? Together? An apartment? Neighbors? A cat?”
Bucky pauses. His metal hand catches the light. Can they? “I don’t know,” he says honestly.
“We weren’t made for that, were we?” Steve turns his face to the side, tucking it into Bucky’s chest. Defeat laces the words, like he's already given up on the dream and it makes Bucky impossibly angry at the world.
“I think,” Bucky says, pondering over his words. “I think that we can have whatever we want. Who gives a fuck what we were made for? I think this hand could change a lightbulb.”
Steve’s shoulders shake once as if in surprised laughter. “And I’m pretty sure these muscles could carry out the trash.”
“See? We can do whatever we want.” Bucky strokes Steve’s hair, feels where the strands are starting to lengthen. “We can make our own lives - do whatever we want. Be whatever we want. Together.”
“Together,” Steve repeats.
Slowly but surely, the gray hours of the day begin to stretch out, getting and longer and longer until the days seem caught in an almost perpetual gloom. When Bucky ventures outside of their refuge to look, he can see the peak of Mount Sidley and the rest of the mountain range extending deeper into the continent.
Almost reluctantly, they start preparing for the trek across the continent to the Wendell Sea. It will be almost 1000 miles of travel across vast snow and desert. Bucky has no doubt they can make it (the serum has to be good for something), he more dreads leaving the quiet sanctuary they have built in this unlikeliest of places.
They have left all the darkness and all the wickedness far outside these walls. Hiking back to civilization may be a return to safety - but it is also a return to the burdens and cares of before. Above them all, the cryo tube and the trigger words loom large in Bucky’s mind.
There will be decisions to be made, Bucky knows, when they return to something resembling safety. He’s still just a few words from being nothing more than a weapon in the hands of his enemies. That is something that he’ll never be able to live with.
For now, though, he pushes those worries to the back of his mind and focuses on what they have now.
Two months later.
Sam Wilson, even if he lives to be 200, never wants to see snow again. When he was a kid, white Christmases had been magical and he had screamed Frosty the Snowman at the top of his lungs while sledding down a white slope. Now, as he stands with his hands tucked into his massive parka, staring over miles of windswept snow and ice, he's just angry.
In two days, it will have been 18 months since Steve Goddamn Rogers brought down a helicopter in a sparsely populated area of Mumbai to give Sam a chance to escape.
When he closes his eyes, he can still see the bright blue sky and dusty skyline and then the bright flash as the helicopter exploded and Steve's voice had gone in dead in his ear.
It had taken almost four weeks for them even to get confirmation Steve had survived the crash. In those awful days, Sam had found himself gravitating toward the medical wing, toward the chair set up there with a super-soldier buttprint pressed into the leather. Barnes had looked serene in his glass tube and Sam had envied him his ignorant bliss.
"It's not fair," Sam had told him once when yet another contact of Natasha's had shaken their head helplessly. "It's not fair that you get to sleep through this."
Bucky had slept on silently.
When they had finally confirmed Steve was alive and deduced where Ross had taken him, a whole new desperation had taken over all of them. The day that Sam had to admit that he couldn't be the one to save Steve still sits sour and rotten in his belly.
It had been a near thing when Stark had pulled him and Natasha from the arctic water. Sam can remember staring up at a star spangled sky and trying to pray but the thoughts kept muddling and getting stuck before completion. He doesn't even know what he'd been praying for there in the end.
He hadn't fully been aware again until they'd all been safely ensconced in a private jet heading for Wakanda. Stark had been already heading back to the ice shelf when word came that the US Air Force had dropped two Patriot missiles on the base, blown the entire thing to smithereens. There was no airfield anymore, no elevator shaft, no cell, no lab. Nothing that any suspicious eyed congressman could sniff out to prove that anything untoward had been going on at the secret base.
After all, there wasn't a secret base anymore.
Ross had returned to the US just a day later, from what was officially described as an extended South American trip, and First Lieutenant Pierce had been quietly discharged for medical reasons (officially due to complications from injuries acquired during a training accident) and had dropped off the grid. Stark and Wakandan intelligence had trackers and algorithms hunting the globe for him, but thus far they had turned up nothing.
It made Sam (and many others) nervous. Top secret government experiments weren't allowed to just escape into the ether. Something had to be brewing but the chatter was frustratingly silent in the weeks following Antarctica.
No one even mentioned the names of Steve Rogers and James Barnes.
In the interest of preserving some semblance of neutrality, Wakanda had been unable to launch a full scale search party into the Antarctic wilderness once Tony had returned, heartsick and empty handed.
Sam, along with Rhodes and Stark, had launched solo missions from the Wakandan research station - but their range was only what they could do in a day and the vast wilderness and unpredictable weather made it almost impossible to do grid searches.
The king had been the first one to suggest that Steve and Barnes could've perished in the missiles dropped by the F-15s. He'd been kind but pragmatic, kingly. Ross wasn't searching for them, he pointed out. Maybe he had information they didn't.
The sun had risen over the frozen landscape and Sam had left Wakanda and took a bunk at their Research Station. Natasha was in upstate New York taking lead on trying to track down Pierce. Stark was in Manhattan engaged in some complicated dance of intrigue involving Ross and an upcoming presidential election. Scott was with Clint in a secret farmhouse in Pennsylvania. Wanda was in Wakanda with Vision. Thor and Banner were who knows where.
The world was ticking placidly onward, despite the ominous sensation that something was bubbling just beneath the surface.
Sam is here, watching the horizon for something that may never materialize.
His days are peaceful, at least. That's something he hasn't been able to say for years. He can kayak around the tiny cove the research station is tucked into. He can watch the colonies of penguins waddling along the beach and catch glimpses of fat seals lounging on sea rocks. He can close his eyes and dream of Riley falling and Steve falling and Bucky falling.
Sometimes he replays those last moments before Barnes jumped into the water, the way his gaze hadn't ever left the direction of the continent, like his soul was already there. They've had their differences but Sam thinks that there had been a kinship blossoming between them, the type of bond born from war.
Today, he's walking along the upper ridge above the cove, gloved hands tucked deep into his pockets as he stares in turn over the blue, rippling sea and the white, ridges of ice that extend the opposite way. The sun is still low in the sky and it will be dark again soon - but these are the moments he can stare over the wilderness and wonder if anyone is out there.
He's about to go back, about to put another quiet, fruitless day in the books, when he sees two dark smudges disrupting the clean white horizon line.
Sam squints, wiping a hand over his eyes. There's not much unexpected life out here. The nearest station is 600 miles away and most of the wildlife stays close to the shoreline. He fumbles in his coat, pulling out the binoculars Stark had gifted him when it became clear that Sam wasn't planning on leaving the continent any time soon.
The landscape scrolls by as he focuses, weeding past the rocks and ice mounds, before focusing on the two shapes. The internal computer whizzes and then beeps.
They're still much too far away to make out facial features, even with Stark's fancy gadget. Sam watches them, reminding himself to breathe. After several long moments, one lifts his head and Sam sees golden hair catch the sunlight and he knows.
He meets them a mile from station, jogging clumsily in his heavy coat and boots. Steve sees him first, lifting his hand against the sun and then gently knocking it against Barnes's shoulder.
"Took you long enough," Sam calls over the distance, going for casual. He's already dashed his hand against his eyes more than once and he's pretty sure whatever redness lingers can be blamed on the cold.
He drinks them in.
Barnes looks much like he did when he dove from the jet into the freezing ocean: scruffy and dangerous. His hair is a bit longer and wilder, falling past his shoulders now. His beard is a bit fuller and he's thinner, sharp lines across his jaw and the width of his shoulders. He still looks wolf hard but something seems easier in his gaze, like a deep tumult has at last been calmed.
Steve is the one that takes him aback for a moment. He's sporting a full beard now, thick and heavy like an Alaskan woodsman or something equally manly and unkempt. His hair is a darker blonde, speaking to less time in the sun. Underneath the beard, his mouth is a hard line and his cheekbones stand out sharply. There's no rage there, but something soft has been stripped away, Sam thinks. Steve has been burned and starved down to his unbreakable edges.
Despite all of that though, Steve smiles, full and real, when he sees Sam and rushes the last few steps to embrace him quickly.
They don't linger but Sam sees that Steve's eyes are as bright as his when they both draw back.
"It's good to see you," Steve says and Sam is gratified to hear the same warmth as always in his tone. "You had me worried. Natasha is okay too? And Tony and Scott?"
"All good, Cap," Sam tells him. "We were worried about you."
Steve nods and his eyes dim just a little. "It's been a long year," is all he says.
Barnes steps close and touches his back once, familiar affection bleeding though the gesture. His hand lingers.
Admittedly, Sam hasn't spent a good amount of time around the two of them together when they're both conscious, but the ride from Berlin to the airport had been marked by furtive looks and respectful distances. It had almost been a game: Steve drinking Bucky in and then his gaze darting away before Barnes turned back to him and visa versa until Sam had been ready to scream.
"Barnes," he says, going for something gruff and staid. "Welcome back."
Barnes only nods but his mouth is soft. His eyes return to Steve.
They're both ravenous. Sam has always been impressed at what Steve could pack away in one sitting. He'd taken him home for Thanksgiving once and his mama's eyes had fairly glowed with pleasure at how many plates Steve had tucked into during the meal.
Sitting down at the station mess, though, is another level entirely. Around the fourth plate, Sam just stops counting.
"No food out there?" he ventures when Steve pauses for air.
Steve shrugs. "We had food but there are only so many cans of beans you can eat before you say enough is enough."
"Amen," Barnes mutters.
They call Natasha on the sat phone and her lips tug upward in what Sam would call unadulterated joy. Steve looks pretty pleased himself and Barnes manages to not look quite so murderous.
After that, they call Stark. He'd already been notified by Wakanda but he still looks a little watery the first time he lays on Steve. "Going all mountain man? King of the wild frontier?" he says, thickly, when he sees the beard.
Steve's mouth curves up. "It's good to see you too, Tony."
Their first night in the base, their first night somewhere that feels safe and like home, Bucky stares up at the ceiling and feels overwhelmed. In the water, in the cave, in the wilderness, he hadn't needed or wanted to spend a lot of time thinking about the future. The world had been forcibly narrowed to Steve's safety, to his next breath, to not dying. They had been able to stay wrapped in each other and let the world pass by in silence.
Now, there's a soft mattress and warm blankets and food and Steve is back with his friends, the people who care about him most in the world. He remembers, back in the darkest moments, dreaming of after. He'd thought of warm beaches and cool breezes and Steve smiling in front of a setting sun.
He can feel, though, that old exhaustion creeping into his bones and muscles. It had been what he felt Bucharest and Berlin and Siberia. In the caves, he’d been able to shuffle that to the side and bask in just Steve. Here, he's tired, tired of fighting and being afraid of himself and afraid for Steve.
As Sam talks about Wakanda and the future, his thoughts return more and more to the medical wing and the cryo chamber. Steve will be angry - Bucky doesn't doubt that; but the more Bucky thinks about it, the more he thinks it's the right thing.
Steve must see it in his face because when Sam closes the door to the bedroom he showed them to, he rounds on him, hot and snarling and glorious like only Steve can be.
"I won't let you," he says. His eyes blaze up and his mouth is hard like glass and Bucky can only think how beautiful he is. "Do you hear me, Buck? This isn't over. You don't get to just go to sleep again."
"Steve," Bucky says and he goes for gentle, the cool mist to the rages of Steve’s fury. He lifts his hand, lays it on Steve's cheek, rubbing his thumb through his beard. He'll miss this, when he's sleeping. "Nothing's changed."
"Everything has changed," Steve spits back. It was like the last few months had burned away all the coolness and placidity Steve had gained as Captain America and he'd returned to just the raw passion of Steve Rogers. "You and me. You can't leave me again."
"I'm not leaving you," Bucky tries and Steve just chokes on a laugh.
"Bullshit. You can do what you want but you don't get to pretend it's anything but abandoning me."
The words hurt and Bucky lets his hand fall. He shakes his head. "In Wakanda, I'll talk to the doctors. I'll talk to Wanda. Okay? I won't... I won't do anything I don't have to do." He feels pinioned by Steve, caught between a present and a future and a past that he doesn’t think will ever let him go. "Just," he shifts closer to Steve, gentles his hand over his arm, trying to pull him back. "Let's not fight? We're home. We're safe."
Steve's shoulders slump, the fight draining like a popped balloon. "You saved me,” he says the familiar refrain like a mantra, keeping him safe from the dark. He leans forward, rests his head on Bucky's shoulder, hunching like he can make himself small and slot all of his broken pieces directly inside Bucky's arms.
Bucky closes his eyes and his mind's eye he sees the cell door, deep below the earth, open again and Steve's eyes, burning in the darkness, never broken. "You saved yourself," he says.
When Steve kisses him, it's bruising, like he can drive all thoughts of rest and escape from Bucky's head. Bucky tries to let him.
That night, though, when Steve is asleep, Bucky is left staring at the brown ceiling. He finally gets up, near two am, slides his shirt back on and slips from the room, padding down the hallway in just his socks.
Most of the base is quiet this time of night, but, as he draws closer to the main offices, he hears urgent voices and the slight whir of an alarm in the stillness. He follows the noises down the hallway and sees light spilling from one of the conference rooms.
There are a handful of people, bent over computers and talking on phones. Two lamps are on and there's a carafe of coffee sitting on a table with half drunk mugs scattered around it. Sam is there, face locked and mouth hard in a frown, staring down one of the largest monitors. There's a map of the US on it, a dozen yellow lights pinpointed in the middle.
Sam sees him in the doorway and the frown on his face deepens even more. "You shouldn't be here," he says, coming toward the door with both arms held up like he's going to usher Bucky to bed like a recalcitrant child. Bucky thinks he's going for brusque but it just ends up tired.
Bucky looks behind him at the bank of computers and the single red alarm twirling. "There's something wrong," he says, ignoring Sam. He steps around him, toward the screens. "What is all this?"
Sam rubs both hands over his face. "Maybe nothing," he says while his tone says the opposite.
"Show me," Bucky demands, sourness sitting heavy in his gullet. He's tired of this, he thinks. He's tired of fighting and then fighting some more.
"I don't know if..." Sam sighs. "FRIDAY was able to save a lot of data from Ross's labs before it all got blown to smithereens. The experiments they were doing there - on Steve and on Pierce - produced a very specific radiation signature. Tony has been running global scans trying to find that signature again. Up until now, no hits. Then, about an hour ago, we got readings off the charts." He pointed to map and the cluster of yellow dots.
Bucky leans close. "Wyoming."
Sam nods. "Ever heard of a supervolcano? Well they're all clustered right there on top of one of the biggest in the world, there in Yellowstone. We're getting seismic readings off the charts. Park rangers are already talking about trying to evacuate the area." He shakes his head. "This could all be just normal geological movement but..."
"We don't think so." Sam rubs a hand over his mouth. "I'm taking the jet in 20 minutes. You and Steve should stay here."
There are waterfalls in Wakanda, blue skies and brightly colored birds and soft beds. There's a cryo tube and peaceful, dark sleep. Bucky stares at the map and longs for that path as it slowly slips out of reach.
"We're going, Sam." Steve's voice comes from the hallway, soft and firm.
Bucky turns and sees him, sleep soft and rumpled, with his feet apart like he's preparing for a long march. Fondness fills his lungs and Bucky can barely breathe with the force of it.
Steve comes closer, steps close so that they're shoulder to shoulder, sharing warmth and space. "Pierce and Ross. This is our fight. We need to finish it."
Sam nods, mutely. "Jet takes off in 20 minutes," he repeats. "Tony and the others, they're on their way too."
Steve steps off the jet in a clearing in Wyoming, ringed on one side by the Rocky Mountains and the other side by dense forest, and realizes this is the first time he's been on American soil since before Peggy's funeral. It startles him, for a moment, the length of time that has passed since he's been in the country of his birth - both of them. He remembers who he was when he last left: the captain of a team, the symbol of a nation. The titles feel awkward against his skin now.
Natasha is the first person he sees. She's outside the command center, hair dark brown and pulled back in a tight bun, dressed all in black. Her mouth loosens only a little when she sees him, stepping around scurrying park rangers, Homeland Security agents, and military men to his side. "Welcome back, Steve," she says, lightly. "Wish it were under better circumstances." Her eyes look him up and down, assessing. "This is a new look for you."
It wasn't like there'd been extra red, white, and blue flight suits laying around a Wakandan research station - but one of the Wakandan soldiers had found a sleek black training suit in his size (maybe a little tight across the shoulders). There was silver trimming on the sleeves and vibranium woven in the middle as a sort of bullet proof vest. Bucky had seemed to approve when Steve had slipped it on, anyway.
"Do you like it?" he asks for Natasha, reaching for that familiar rhythm of their old friendship.
The corners of her eyes twitch. "You look like you're going to the funeral of America."
Steve shrugs. "I'll take it."
She motions behind her. "Tony's in there. You'll want to speak with him. I'll connect with Barnes and Wilson." She smiles, real and soft. "It's good to have you back, Steve."
He steps inside the command center and Steve spots Tony right away, standing with his hands on his hips in front of a glass panel map, red and yellow dots scattered across it. There are men and women in Park Ranger uniforms, military green, dark suits, and white coats scurrying around him.
Steve flinches reflexively at the sight of the white coats, some animal part of him anticipating being forced to his knees and carted off to a lightless cell or a lab. No one seems to notice him, though, too wrapped up in the crisis to pay any mind to the bearded stranger in a dark flightsuit with no insignia.
Rhodes is there too, standing with his hip leaning against a nearby table, his pants looking slightly bulky with whatever fancy gear Tony has set him with to help him walk. He sees Steve first, chin lifting to point toward him as he murmurs something to Tony. Then, louder, "Steve. Good to see you." He takes a step forward, extending his hand.
When their hands clasp, Steve feels a heavy burden on his shoulders ease, just slightly.
Rhodes must see something in his eyes because he shakes his head. "It was a long time ago, Cap," he says.
Steve clears his throat, trying to swallow all the months he'd spent replaying those minutes at the airport and then rehearsing this moment. "You're a good man," is all he manages.
Tony steps forward then. "Well, Captain Lumberjack, you're looking a sight better than when I last saw you. Looks like someone managed to feed you even. Hair growth supplements, by the looks of it. I'm sure someone in my R&D department is dying to know what..."
An alarm blares behind him, cutting off Tony's monologue. He spins, shoulders stiffening as he stares at the map.
"What do we have?" Steve asks, stepping close.
Tony shakes his head, running his hand through his already rumpled hair. "An earthquake swarm started 14 hours ago, accompanied by radiation signatures that match the ones FRIDAY captured from the experiments they did on you. Park rangers started evacuating everyone eight hours ago and most civilians have now cleared the area. Two hours ago, we started getting vents forming in the surrounding area, releasing some pretty noxious gas into the air. It's like we're squeezing all the warning signs for a major eruption in one day."
Steve crosses his arms. "You're thinking Pierce and Ross are somehow causing this."
"Them and their Dr. Frankenstein lackeys." Tony breathes out through his nose. "I told people that Ross couldn't be trusted. I told them. I thought we had more time. I thought he'd have to gather funds to start his little science project again and I could just follow the money and grab him."
"You did all you could," Steve says. "Now we just have to figure out how to stop it." He surveys the map. "Do we know where they holed up?"
"No - and that's part of the problem. I have 1,500 square miles of wilderness that they could be hiding out in and the park rangers," he raises his voice with contempt on those words, "don't want me flying over the area due to the dangerous conditions."
"You mean the random blowholes spouting boiling, toxic, sulfurous gas almost 100 feet in the air?" Rhodes says, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Yeah, they're real spoilsports."
Tony grimaces, opens his mouth with a reply, and then the earth shifts beneath their feet. Steve has the sinking sensation like the ground has turned to sand and it's all being pulled away before a hard jar makes him reach for the table to keep his balance. The map sways and a chair nearby topples over.
"That was a 4.8 on the Richter scale," someone announces behind them when the tremor stops. "They're getting closer together."
Bucky comes in then, Sam tight on his tail. "Cap," he says, showing no signs that the earthquake had rattled him at all. "We've got someone headed right this way. Not one of ours."
Steve frowns. "I thought the civilians were cleared?"
"They are." Tony is already moving toward the door. "Which direction?"
"From the caldera. Natasha is moving to intercept." Bucky follows Stark, but lingers long enough for Steve to match him, stride for stride. "Are you okay?" he asks, under his breath. He's carrying a sleek automatic gun and his hair is pulled back from his face.
Maybe the light in Wyoming is different than Antarctica, Steve thinks, watching the way his eyes catch the sun as they step from the dim tent and into the brilliant sunlight. He looks so alive here. He touches Bucky's arm, leans close. "I don't like this," he says, "watch your back."
Bucky gives him a slightly affronted look. "You watch your back, Rogers," he says shortly. "Mine is fine."
The Wyoming sun is bright, shimmering against vibrantly green trees and grasses. In the distance, Steve can see the Rocky Mountains and hints of a white ash plume starting to drift upward. It's lovely. As different as it could be from the Antarctic terrain he'd left behind - yet he still feels a familiar chill settle in his bones as Natasha strides from the trees, toting the body of a man tossed over one shoulder.
She drops him in the middle of the clearing, ignoring the Park Rangers, the Homeland Security agents, and the geologists, and looking directly at Steve. "It's him," she says and he thinks she means Pierce until the man rolls over and he sees Thaddeus Ross's pale, sweaty face peering up from the grass.
Someone has broken his nose and his cheekbone. There's blood in his hairline and dark, purple fingerprints spreading across his throat. He's wearing a suit jacket and a tie but the sleeve is ripped and the front is all muddied, like he'd slipped and fallen repeatedly. He's missing a shoe and his one pale foot is dark with dirt and blood.
Steve takes an involuntary step back. Nausea settles in his throat and his head swoops so drastically he wonders if they're having another earthquake.
Back in the cold lab in the ice, Steve had opened his eyes the first time they'd strapped him to that lab table, already sick and weak from that tank they'd been dropping him into once a day, and seen Ross staring down at him, handkerchief over his soft mouth like Steve was something that smelled particularly unpleasant.
Ross hadn’t gotten close but he’d bent a little closer when he’d seen Steve’s eyes open, like he was going to share a secret. "I am sorry about this, Steve," Ross had said, slightly muffled around the white cloth still pressed to his lips. "But you must understand that there are always sacrifices in the name of science and country."
Steve had spit in his face, aiming for the soft skin not covered by the handkerchief. A few minutes later, the scientists had cut his hand off for the first time while he’d screamed. Ross had watched impassively, cold-eyed like a shark. It had taken two weeks for his hand to grow back.
He can't hurt you now, he tells himself, straining hard to keep himself planted in place. You escaped.
Bucky moves forward, touches his shoulder and Steve swallows hard, tries to reach deep inside for that calm place: Bucky and him, floating together in that pool, dozens of feet under ice and volcanic rock, the warm water seeping into his bones and the steam making Bucky's hair stick to his forehead, the way his skin sizzled when Bucky kissed him, touched him, stroked him.
Ross sits up and his gaze finds Steve’s unerringly, even with Steve’s new beard. He must've known Steve would be here. "Steve," he says, sounding slightly nasally and slurred from the broken nose. "Thank god, you're here."
Behind him, Bucky snorts and Tony makes a strangled noise.
A Homeland Security agent steps forward. "Is that the Secretary of State?" he asks. Rhodes hushes him.
"What's going on, Ross?" Steve says, keeping his voice flat.
The older man swallows, tugs at the tie that's askew and bloody over his shirt. "Lieutenant Pierce, he..." He looks around at the gathered park rangers and security officers like he's seeing all of them for the first time. Something shutters in his face as he pulls the shreds of his dignity around himself. "Maybe we should discuss in private," he says. "The information is highly classified and sensitive."
Steve barks a laugh. It sounds ugly, even to his own ears. "Ross. You had me declared an enemy of the state and now you want to discuss classified information with me in private. You held me in a secret prison and had me tortured in the name of science."
Bucky lays a hand on his arm and Steve steps away.
Steve isn’t even close to finished yet. "No. Let's put it all out there. You ran a secret lab that did human experimentation on the government's dime and then you tried to have us murdered to cover it up. That's what happened. So any sensitive information you have to share can be said right here."
He can almost feel the tension and from the shifting government agents behind him, sees Rhodes lifting a hand for calm out of the corner of his eye. He keeps his gaze tightly pinned on Ross, though.
Ross glowers, wipes at the blood still trickling from his nose and then swallows. "About eight months ago, once they realized the potential applications of our discoveries in Antarctica, the DoD established funds," he says roughly, "in order to create a platoon of elite, enhanced soldiers."
"Little clones of Pierce, you mean," Tony interjects.
There's a beat and then Ross nods. "They were based on the master DNA of previously enhanced soldier, Lieutenant Pierce, yes. We needed a massive energy source in a location with a specific pattern of magnetic anomalies and this location fit. The US had a classified, secure base embedded in the caldera already, studying the volcano from within. It was easy enough to commandeer it. We had started production even before you set foot down in Antarctica, Tony."
Tony shakes his head. "So on the base - those were all clones of Pierce there, weren't they? He was already long gone by the time we got there."
"Yes. Lieutenant Pierce has been stationed at the Wyoming site for almost six months now."
"So what happened?"
"Pierce has been growing increasingly unhappy with the... methods and the duration of the project. When he heard word a few hours ago that Rogers had survived, he snapped. He killed his handlers and the scientists on site. I was called in to try and contain the situation. But..." Ross takes a deep breath, face going impossibly paler, and then leans to the side and promptly vomits, bright yellow bile mixing with red. No one moves to help him. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. "There are currently three viable clones on site. Along with Lieutenant Pierce, they took over the lab and proceeded directly to the center to the energy rooms. I believe he's trying to use the volcano as a distribution device for the same radiation cocktail we used on you and him."
"So his plans are to detonate one of the largest volcanoes in the world just so he can bathe 80% of the US with super soldier rays?"
"That's what he's threatening." Ross finally climbs to his feet, favoring his bare foot, and stares right at Steve. He's sweating and pale with his cheeks unnaturally flushed, shaking all over now, fists clenching spasmodically. "Pierce - he wants to see you, Steve. That's why he let me go. He wants you to go talk to him. He knew you’d come when you heard."
Steve takes an involuntary step backward. His interactions with Pierce, the real Pierce, had been minimal. They'd passed each other in the hallway, deep underground, Steve fettered and Pierce free. They'd lain on cold lab tables, side by side. Steve had heard him shout out in agony, just the same as him. Steve had watched clones with his face die. Pierce had spoken to him once, standing near each other in one of the many elevators, apologized for what his uncle had done. In Steve's mind, he had blurred together with the rest of his captors.
"Why me?" he asks and is proud when the words are steady.
"He's cracked," Ross says, voice laced with anger. "Who the hell knows why he wants what he wants?"
Steve closes his eyes and leans back, knowing Bucky will be there to support him.
"You don't have to," Bucky immediately says into his ear, all sincere and righteous indignation. "We can just walk away. Go back to Wakanda. This damn volcano won't reach us there."
Ross is looking increasingly unsteady on his feet, wavering back and forth, and then leaning over to vomit once again.
"What's wrong with you?" Sam asks bluntly, arms crossed across his chest.
"Radiation poisoning, I'm pretty sure," Ross says blandly, spitting a last bit of bile onto the grass. "Our scientists have never exposed a human to such massive doses of the radiation all at once and without it being accompanied by the serum. So it's 50/50 right now whether I'm going to sprout giant muscles or go into cardiac arrest. And this is what’s going to happen to the rest of the country if he gets his way.”
Tony steps back and spins, already shouting for a containment unit. Bucky is tugging Steve away, urging him back into the tent.
"Don't do this," he says when they're back far enough that Ross won't hear. "Don't do this. Don't leave me."
Steve touches his face, hears the echo of his own words from last night. "Don't you see I have to?" he says gently. He wills Bucky to understand.
"I saved you," Bucky says and then surges forward, pressing their mouths together. "I saved you. Don't throw that away."
Steve feels a sob build in his throat and he leans in, inhales as much of Bucky as he can. Would there ever be enough time? Even if they lived a thousand years, he thinks he’d always want one more moment. "I think," he says, "you may have saved me for this."
"Let me come with you then," Bucky returns. "You need someone to watch your back."
"You know we can't take that chance," Steve says. He cups Bucky's face. "Just wait for me, alright? I'm coming back for you. I'm not leaving you. We have so much we have left to do."
Bucky nods and then kisses him again.
In the end, despite Stark's protestation, Steve leaves the command center and marches toward the entrance of the base with a starkphone in his back pocket, a tracker in his belt, and a single handgun strapped to his ankle. He'd vetoed the AK-47 ("He said he wants to talk to me, Tony. I have to believe that") and the radiation suit and left out alone.
They'd had two more earthquakes and Ross's prognosis was sliding more toward cardiac arrest than bulging muscles. Rhodes had left to coordinate as much of an evacuation of the blast zone as possible - though with the fallout potentially reaching Los Angeles and Chicago, there weren't many places for people to go.
Steve marches out, following roughly the trail Ross had left through the forest. When he's out of earshot from the command center, it registers how silent the forest is. All the animals have fled, sensing the imminent peril. As he gets closer to the center of the caldera, though, he begins picking up a faint rumble that seems to echo through the trees. It's coming from underground.
The entrance to the base is exactly how Ross had described it, hidden in a cliff face between two boulders. It's not as ominous as the steel doors in Antarctica and the door is already open, yawning widely as if in welcome.
He steps through the doorway.
The inside is bland, beiges and whites and industrial lights, matching the base in Antarctica and probably a hundred other government facilities throughout the world. There are desks pressed against walls, chairs overturned and lamps smashed against walls. The rumbling is louder in here, shaking down to Steve's bones. An alarm on the wall flashes red silently. He can almost taste the radiation on his tongue.
"Hello?" he calls down. "Pierce?"
There's a gust of hot air and a sheaf of papers on a desk ruffles. He steps into a hallway and there's a man in a white lab coat, lying on his back, the side of his head bashed in so Steve can see gray brain. His face is frozen in a twisted grimace, pale eyes wide open.
Steve recognizes him, the slope of his hairline and the way his narrow lips are pulled back. He'd held the camera during some of the experiments, sometimes across the room and sometimes leaning close to get every little twitch of movement as Steve's body knit itself back together. He remembers hearing his excited chatter, monologuing the changes, as Steve had screamed.
His mouth goes dry as he steps around the body.
The lab is the next room. Steve recognizes it like he recognizes his own nightmares. The black tank sits against one wall. There's the steel table with the straps, the shiny instruments in a tray. One body is slumped over the table, still holding a scalpel. There are the microscopes and the Petri dishes and the smell of alcohol and industrial disinfectant and blood and piss. Another body is crumpled against the far wall, like he'd been thrown there. The neck is at a stretched, crooked angle - but Steve can still make out a familiar set of eyebrows, matching it in his memories to a man that had scraped samples of his newly grown skin off of his newly grown muscles.
Steve does vomit now. The gorge rises up his throat and he loses the dinner from last night all over the floor. He gags, wipes his mouth, and then straightens, pushing his hair back from his forehead.
He jerks up, reaching for his gun.
Pierce is in the doorway, hands partially raised. He's bare chested, blood and black dirt streaked across his skin. They've buzzed his hair back now too and Steve can see the familiar thick bruises on his arms and upper chest where thick straps had restrained him to a lab table. "It's just me," he says, taking one step closer. "I'm glad you came."
Steve swallows, mouth sour. "Lieutenant Pierce. You need to stop whatever you've been doing to the volcano. A lot of people are going to die." His voice is steady, coming from some deep reserve within that has remained placid even as Steve feels the anxiety thrumming through his nerves.
"Did he tell you?" Pierce asks, ignoring him. His pupils are huge. "They told me you had died out there. They told me Stark had killed you. I knew I shouldn't have believed them. I heard last night, just a few hours ago. One of the scientists - the one with the piercings? - he let it slip that they'd intercepted a phone call saying you'd made it out, that you were safe." His eyes are darting around the room. "And then I knew," his voice cracks over. "I knew what I had to do. Not just for me. For both of us."
"Had to do what, Pierce?" Steve asks, gently. There's a frenetic quality in Pierce's voice that Steve recognizes. He remembers how, each time right after he'd been cut apart and regrown, every nerve ending would be firing and every sense magnified until the entire world was loud and hot and painful. He remembers shaking so hard his teeth rattled and his brain felt like it would melt right out of his skull.
Pierce licks his lips and then shakes his head hard like he's trying to clear a fog. "All the scientists are dead. I killed them all for what they did to us. Secretary Ross. He... we were just weapons to him. Malfunctioning missiles. I thought I'd be serving my country. I thought I'd be a hero - but I was just a weapon to him. I didn't want to do it anymore. I just wanted to..." He trails off as a another earthquake trembles the floor beneath them.
Something clatters and falls behind them but neither of them turn to look.
Pierce grabs the doorframe and then looks around the room like he's seeing it for the first time as the tremors calm. "Come with me, Captain. I have something to show you."
Steve has no choice. The radiation is starting to make him feel dizzy but he follows him out of the lab and deeper into the hallway. There's another body right before they reach a stairway leading down. It's Pierce, slumped back against the beige wall with his legs sprawled across the beige tile, eyes closed like he's asleep.
Pausing next to the body, Pierce looks down. "They never fixed it, you know. The clones only live for five, maybe seven hours. They'd cut me up, grow them like fucking weeds and then we'd watch them all die in glass rooms and then they'd cut new parts off of me. I stopped counting. Do you know how many times I watched myself die? And I..." Pierce stops, steps over the body and proceeds down the stairs.
After a moment, Steve follows him.
The room at the bottom of the stairs is boiling hot, like a sauna, instantly oppressive. There is none of the bland tile here - this places was carved from the volcanic rock and the floors and ceilings are shiny black. There's a large, thick pane of glass and Steve can see the bright orange of magma roiling past like a great river. He can see a series of large, metal probes extending into the miasma, wires and tubing leading back to a bank of computers next to the window. Beside those, there is a tall machine that Steve thinks he recognizes from the labs in Antarctica. The gamma radiation machine. It's humming, connected by wires and coils and tubes to a thick probe that extends into the magma. Another Pierce is bent over the machine, adjusting settings. Against the glass, the body of yet another Pierce is slumped, also dead.
Steve pauses on the last few stairs, almost unwilling to step into the dark, hot space below. This is a version of hell, he thinks. He can feel the radiation in the air, the thick crackling of it reminding him being crammed into that black tank in Antarctica and the scientists cranking the pressure and the temperature ever higher. He remembers screaming.
"Ross said we were nukes," Pierce says quietly from behind him. His face is lit orange from the bright lava below, making him look otherworldly. He's smiling just a little, like he's watching something beautiful be created. "He made us nukes. He made people scared of us. You and me... we can't ever go home. We're not normal. We're freaks. If everyone was like us, though, we wouldn't be freaks. We'd be the new normal. We'd be humanity. Ross couldn't stop all of us."
Steve stares down at the innards of the volcano. He thinks of Wanda and the red power dancing in her hands, staring down a world that feared and hated her. Would she ever get to this point? "You have to know it won't work like that," he says, trying to keep his voice steady. "You're just going kill a lot of innocent people."
Pierce shrugs. "I'm just a weapon malfunctioning. Nuclear reactors melt down and kill innocent people too."
"You're not a weapon, Lieutenant," Steve says. "No matter what Ross says. You're a man and you have a conscience and I can't believe you want all of those people to die." He thinks of Vision, of Natasha, of Scott, and of Bucky. Himself. All of them making the decision again and again to protect and not to harm.
The rumbling grows louder and Steve can see lightning like flashes coming from the depths of the magma.
"When I thought you had died," Pierce says quietly. "I was jealous of you - but it gave me hope. It gave me hope that I could die too someday. Do you think about that, Captain? How they cut us and burned us and destroyed us and we didn’t die? When you died, I thought to myself that there was a way out. But you," his voice breaks into an incredulous laugh. "You're alive. You're alive and that means I still don't know if I can die. I watch my clones die every day and I'm still here. And, if I can't die, if I'm stuck in this body, in this life, then what do I care if all those innocent people die? They're the lucky ones."
The Pierce clone below has stopped poking at the machine and is now staring up at them. He looks pale, Steve thinks, how long does he have left? He turns to look back at Pierce.
"You know that I can't let you do this," Steve says, almost gently. "You must've known that when you brought me here."
"Don't you want to make Ross pay? To make him live with what he made us?" Pierce steps forward, gaze almost wild with desperation. His hands reach out, wanting to grab Steve and pull him close.
Steve shakes his head, steps away from the searching hands. "He didn't make me, Lieutenant," he says quietly but the with absolute conviction of knowing a truth way down to his bones. "And I am not a weapon."
Pierce stares at him, nostrils flaring, and then he lunges, tackling Steve off the stairs and into the cramped space at the bottom. They fall together, rolling across the slick black floor. Pierce's hands wrap around his throat, squeezing, and Steve gets his knees up and slams into his belly. The other man gasps and falls back and Steve lashes out with his foot, connecting solidly with his temple.
Steve scrambles up, reaching for his gun, but then the clone is there, swinging a metal stool at his head. Steve blocks it with his forearm, feels the shock of impact reverberate down his spine, and grabs the metal legs, using the force of the clone's swing to throw him into the wall.
The clone hits the wall head first, with a sickening crack, and doesn't get up.
"C'mon, Pierce," Steve tries as the other man circles him. "Prove Ross wrong. You don't have to do this. We can walk out right now. Get lawyers. There are people who will help you. I’ll help you."
Pierce has blood running down his face from where Steve kicked him. "It's too late for that," he snarls and swings wildly for Steve's head. “They need to pay.”
An earthquake ripples through, shaking so hard that the glass shudders and the computers groan. Fine dust rains down from the ceiling and tiny rocks bounce down the walls. Steve barely stays on his feet as Pierce throws himself forward again.
They had done strength testing, back in the labs, after Pierce had first undergone the serum and the treatments. The two of them had been pretty evenly matched. Down here, Pierce has a crazed edge that makes him sloppy and Steve has been free from the tortures of the lab for months now.
Steve dodges the first attack, slides under his reach to punch him solidly in the kidney, putting his considerable new strength behind it, and then backs up two more steps when Pierce involuntarily doubles over. It gives him just enough time to get his gun out.
Pierce surges forward with a cry and Steve sends two bullets neatly into his skull in quick succession.
For a moment, Pierce wavers, eyes wide and mouth still open like he's surprised, and then he falls soundlessly, limbs akimbo like a discarded puppet.
Steve kicks him over. His gaze is sightless and when Steve checks his pulse, there is none. Still, just in case, Steve pulls out his shoelaces and uses those to tie his feet and hands together.
When that's done, he sits back on his heels and stares down at the bodies around him, trying to breathe through his pounding head. The dizziness is growing worse, nausea settling deep in his gut. Radiation poisoning.
"I hope you find your peace that you couldn't find in life," he finally says - but that is all the time and pity he has.
He's already pulling out his phone and dialing Stark before he even gets back to the computers.
"Steve?" Tony picks up instantly. "Are you okay?"
"I'm okay. Pierce is dead. They were pumping the magma full of radiation with some kind of probe. I'm not sure how it works." He flips the camera around so Tony can see the displays. "You're gonna need to tell me what to do."
"Let us come to you. I can do this faster when I'm there."
Steve shakes his head. "This whole base is flooded with radiation. That isn't a good idea."
"What about you then?" Tony asks, sharp.
"I have the serum and they’ve been exposing this to me for months," Steve replies easily, though he doesn't know how true his words are. "I have a much better chance than any of you."
Tony is quiet for a second and then he acquiesces, "Okay, here's what you need to do."
It's a painstaking process, slowly manipulating the probe to cool the magma. Steve has to pause every few minutes to take readings and relay them to Tony while the scientists at the base scramble to confirm that they’re heading in the right direction.
"How's Ross?" Steve asks at one point, turning away from the camera to hide how his hands are beginning to shake. He takes a couple deep breaths, swallowing down the sick that keeps creeping up the back of his throat. Just a little longer, he promises himself.
"Dead," Tony says flatly and Steve doesn't say anything else for a long while.
How did he die? he thinks, feeling dark and weak. Did his skin melt from his bones and his blood bubble in his veins like mine did in the tank? Did he cry and scream and long for death at the end? Steve’s lungs burn like the blood filtering through them is too hot and the thoughts make him dizzy. Will I follow him soon? He forcibly pushes the thoughts from his head.
Bucky hovers in the background behind Stark and sometimes Steve can catch a glimpse of his hair or hear the timber of his voice through the speaker. He aches, deep inside, to be near him again.
Near the end, he can't hide his nausea any longer and has to pause to throw up every few moments, hoping that the camera doesn’t catch the dark blood streaking through the bile. His vision is blurring and he can't stop the tremors in his limbs.
"Almost done?" he croaks when he sends over his eighth set of readings.
Tony is biting his lip. "Almost done," he says softly. He looks like he wants to tell Steve to stop - but he knows he can't.
Steve lifts one corner of his mouth slightly. "I wouldn't recommend this as your next vacation," he says, though it sounds more wheezy than he wanted it to.
Slowly, like bringing a raging wildfire under control, the volcano calms and the earthquakes subside. There's still way too much seismic activity for the Park Rangers and the geologists to be calm, but the immediate danger has passed. Steve slumps over the controls. He can't stop shivering.
"Get out of there, Cap," Tony says, voice sounding like it's coming from down a long corridor. "We're sending medical teams to you now."
It takes a moment. There's a heavy weakness, seeping through his limbs and he's so tired. He's been tired, he thinks, since he woke up.
"Cap!" snaps Tony, louder and afraid.
Steve groans. It would be so easy, he thinks, to just stop fighting, to lie here and let the radiation finish what it had started over 70 years before.
"Steve," Bucky's voice filters through the phone speaker. "Steve. Can you hear me? You gotta get out of there. Okay? We're coming to rescue you but you gotta get out of there."
Everything hurts. Steve whimpers, feels his entire body clench with agony as the radiation seeps into his marrow. He gets his hands underneath himself and heaves upward until he's standing. Steve sways, fights to keep his balance, black shadows crawling across his vision.
What's the use? He gazes up the stairs. They seem almost insurmountable in his current state. His body is rebelling, dying. That would be better, he thinks, than his body changing again, more of his humanity being warped away. Steve contemplates the floor, just curling up there next to Pierce and seeing what comes. When the thought settles fully in him, he shakes himself, hard.
This isn't the place he wants to die. He doesn't want to die at all. Bucky is out there and Bucky is waiting for him. Steve straightens as best he can, swallowing back more bile and blood, pushes himself upright and stumbles to the stairs. He pauses there, sparing one last glance at Pierce, who is still on the ground with empty eyes.
Stay dead, he wills, for both of us.
He staggers up the stairs and then down the hallway, avoiding the lab and the dead bodies. The world narrows to each halting step and each aching breath. His lungs feel like he has asthma again, squeezed tight in his chest like wrung out sponges.
By the time he gets to the doorway, he can barely stay on his feet any longer. He stumbles through the still cracked doorway and manages to shove it shut behind him before his legs give out fully. He slides into the lush green forest and rolls onto his back. Green trees tower above him like a canopy and, beyond them, endless blue sky fills his dimming vision. The breeze ruffles across his face.
There's the faint smell of sulphur in the air and just a few wisps of volcanic ash. The rumbling has stopped and Steve lets the warm sun soak into his bones, chasing away the last of a deep chill. He focuses on breathing.
Bucky is coming, he reminds himself, blinking slowly and pressing his head back so he can feel the solid earth behind him. It feels like he's breathing through a straw, his lungs struggling mightily against the fluid building in them. The sunlight blurs and dances, sparking across his vision until it reminds him of the stars in the Antarctic sky. He licks his dry lips and digs his fingers into the dirt and moss beneath him like an anchor, tethering himself to this world, to this moment, as another surge of pain rips through him like a wave. He coughs as his lungs spasm. Bucky is coming.
It would be easy to get lost; to let the pain and nausea carry him to another time where his world was dark stone, heat and pressure, where scientists poked at him with knives and diced him into pieces. He is not there, he reminds himself, staring at the sunlight so hard his eyes water. Bucky saved him. He is not a weapon. He is Steve Rogers and Bucky is coming.
The world fades. He must've closed his eyes because the next thing he hears is Bucky's voice, not from his memory or down a hall or over the speaker of a phone, but right in his ear. There are gentle hands on his face and then over his shoulders and he's being cradled against something solid and comforting. He can smell sweat and aftershave and vibranium.
"Steve," Bucky says, right in his ear. "I'm here. I'm here now. Can you look at me?"
Steve blinks, the sunlight suddenly too bright. Bucky is just a dark imprint against the brilliant sky. He blindly reaches and warm fingers grab his own and squeeze. "Buck," he says, even though his teeth hurt and his bones hurt and his lungs hurt.
"Right here. Hold on for me, okay?" He sounds so reassuring. There are hands on his chest, feeling his ribs and his stomach, like what’s killing him is a wound to be stemmed.
Then the ground under him falls away and he feels weightless. Bucky is carrying him. Steve feels small again, like the decades have vanished and he's a kid in Brooklyn, being carried home from school on Bucky's back in the snow, once again.
He struggles, gets his eyes all the way open, so he can see the underside of Bucky's jaw, the curl of his dark hair and his eyelashes. He imagines that he can see all the way inside Bucky, to the blood surging through his veins and the electrical currents in his heart. It's beautiful, the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. He can see all of Bucky’s body, moving and working in a synchronous dance, graceful and febrile and so human.
Steve twists his head to see better because he never wants to stop knowing all of Bucky. He can see his elegant bones and the way his muscles are strong and flexible. He can see the sparking, bright synapses in Bucky’s brain and the way some of them are dark and quiet and twisted like someone had torn them to shreds. "Buck," he says again, insistent because this is important.
"I'm right here," Bucky murmurs. He sounds afraid, Steve thinks and that makes him sad. Bucky should never be afraid again. He jostles a little, like Bucky jumped over something. “It’s okay,” Bucky tells him. “You don’t have to talk. Just hang on.”
Insistent, Steve reaches up, places his hand flat so his fingers extend up along Bucky’s temple. Don't hurt anymore, he tells Bucky’s brain. It's okay now. We’re okay now. You don't have to be afraid of them any longer.
The air around Bucky flares like a sunspot, the hallowed intricacies of his body gleaming like galaxies. It’s lovely. When the light fades, weariness crashes over Steve and he lets his hand fall back to rest on his stomach. His gaze drifts. There are so many trees. Steve gets distracted by the leaves, tiny veins crawling up green fronds, sucking in sunlight and water and breathing back into the world. They delicately waver in the wind.
“Steve?” Bucky asks sharply but Steve can't answer. The trees are so alive.
Bucky squeezes him tighter.
It could be seconds or minutes later but then he's being set down on something firm and soft, a pillow under his head and a cool sheet being dragged over his body.
Steve blinks and Bucky is there, face bent close like he's afraid Steve will miss him if he's too far away. His hand is under the sheet, fingers wrapped together like a knot. He tries to smile but Steve can see where his strong, determined muscles can't quite get there.
The world seems to be stretching around Steve. All of the spaces between things expanding around him, air going syrupy all the way up to the sky, stars hidden by the bright blue. He remembers the stars in Antarctica, endless and bright, the closest Steve has ever come to witnessing infinity. In Bucky, though, he can still see the intricate, infinitesimal details, microscopically delicate. He breathes and thinks of his blood vessels contracting and expanding to the same rhythm as Bucky.
"We're gonna med evac you, okay?” Bucky says. “You're going to the Avengers facility in upstate. Tony already has the doctors waiting. Just keep breathing, alright?”
Steve clutches his hand tight when Bucky makes to pull away, clings hard and does his best to draw him closer even as the bright details of the world starts to lose their luster. The sunlight blots to dimness and he's left with just Bucky’s face, brow puckered with worry. "Ross," he says, "didn't make me."
Bucky frowns and strokes his hair and it feels so good. "No," Bucky agrees, "he didn't."
"Erksine didn't make me," Steve continues, voice going raspy over his wrecked throat. "Zola didn't make you. Hydra didn't make you. We are not weapons. We made each other." He blinks hard, tries to bore his gaze into Bucky's and make him understand. If he can impart nothing else, let it be this. Bucky’s eyes are so deep, pupils contracting and expanding, refocusing. It's mesmerizing.
Bucky leans down and his lips touch Steve's brow, cool and soft like a benediction. "I love you, Steve," he says. "You're going to be okay."
Steve’s lips twitch into one of his rare smiles. He can see all of the stars now, hovering around Bucky’s head like a crown. "Love you," he mumbles back, the dark space behind his eyelids already sweeping him under, and he doesn't protest when the stretcher is pulled away. He is healing. He can feel it.
Bucky doesn't wait for anyone, the second the line goes dead in Stark's hand. He charges out of the command center and into the crystalline sunlight, even as he hears Sam and Stark shouting after him. There's a medical team already preparing to leave, hazmat suits bulky and slow. Their heads turn in his direction but Bucky doesn't even slow.
He should've insisted earlier, he thinks as his feet find the path Steve's had taken and Ross’s before that. He shouldn't have waited. The second Ross had died, blood leaking from his eyes and gums and nose, Bucky should've just gone, been ready the second Steve stepped from that death pit. It had only been perhaps the sentimental notion that Steve could see him on the screen - that he could see Steve - that had kept in place until the last possible moment.
The forest air is still, like everything has slowed in response to the jack hammer of Bucky's heart. Sunlight filters down between the thick, ancient trees, puddles of untouched light as the ash plume dissipates above. He jumps over fallen logs and mossy rocks and the terrain creeps upward, winding toward the very base of the caldera.
Steve is glowing when Bucky spots him, lying amongst the mountainside greenery, bathed in sunlight and radiation until he's just a shimmering mirage in the dense brush. He looks like an angel fallen all the way to earth, broken and holy.
Bucky reaches his side, lands on his knees in the thick grass, hands already going out to grip the fabric of Steve’s shirt, like he can shake him awake. Steve’s eyes are closed and Bucky pulls him against his chest even as he tastes the thick, metallic radiation on his tongue. He feels almost blasphemous, shaking his shoulders, tugging him back from wherever he had almost gone.
Then Steve opens his eyes, blinks, like Bucky is the one that's too bright. "Buck," he says, around a thick, wet drag of air. He doesn't say anything else but his eyes stay open. His lips are dusky and it sounds like he's breathing through sludge, raspy and choked.
Ross had been like this too, near the end, like every gasp of air had needed to come through a layer of mud. They'd had to breathe for him near the end, stuck a plastic tube down his throat and forced air into his lungs until he'd seized and his heart had failed.
Bucky touches Steve's chest. His heart is pounding wildly, like a racehorse on the final leg. Hold on, he thinks, or maybe says out loud. He can't hear his own words past the roaring in his head.
Where is the med evac team? Bucky looks wildly into the quiet woods surrounding them and then back at Steve. His eyes are still open but they're drifting away, like Steve's forgotten Bucky is even here. He'll have to take Steve to them. They can't be too far behind but the woods aren't ideal for hazmat suits and bulky medical equipment.
Steve is an ungainly burden but Bucky manages to get him up, cradles him to his chest with one arm under his shoulders and the other under his knees. Steve's blond head rests on his chest, lolling downward like he can barely keep his head up. His skin is hot with the fever burning him up from the inside. Bucky clutches him tighter.
He can feel what a struggle each breath is, the bunch of Steve's shoulders in his arm.
"Buck," Steve says again. His eyes are half mast, just slits of fading blue in his pale face, and Bucky isn't even sure if he actually knows Bucky is here.
"I'm right here." Stay here, with me.
Steve murmurs something, too garbled to make out, and then his hand, which had been resting on his stomach, touches the side of Bucky's face. It's exceedingly tender, like Steve is holding a baby bird that he knows will die soon, and Bucky feels cold and hot all over. It feels like a goodbye. He looks down and Steve's eyes are wide, but they don't seem to see Bucky. They're looking somewhere else, somewhere beyond, somewhere Bucky can't see, like Steve has already left this realm and the beauties of heaven are spread out before him like a valley.
His skin tingles where Steve's fingers lie, a warm benediction. Bucky closes his eyes, revels in the sensation. When Steve's hand falls away, the panic surges up sharp and fierce, pulling Bucky's lungs into his throat. "Steve," he snaps and, when there's no answer, he can only cling fiercely to the tangible presence of Steve's body, dragging him back from wherever he is trying to go.
Steve breathes deeply, eyes wandering the blue sky and the trees. He licks his upper lip and Bucky sees blood on his teeth. His gaze drifts, skims over Bucky, and then his eyes drift close, like he’s too tired to keep them open.
He finds the medics at the base of the hills, struggling up the first little bit of an incline. They have a stretcher between two of them and Bucky goes right to it, settling Steve onto the thin mattress. Medics hover opposite, using shears to start pulling off the contaminated clothes, covering Steve with a sheet. Just when Bucky is about to pull away, take one side of the stretcher and high tail it back to where the chopper is waiting, Steve's eyelashes flutter and suddenly, he's looking at Bucky, gaze clear and focused.
"We're gonna med evac you," Bucky tells him, tries to keep his voice as gentle as possible so Steve doesn't hear his fears.
Steve finds his hand, where it's resting on his ribs, and clutches it tight, twines their fingers together like Bucky is the tether and he is the kite, sweeping with the wind up into a blue sky. "Ross didn't make me,” he says it like he’s been thinking about this for hours and not swimming in and out of awareness. His forehead is sweaty, turning his blond hair dark and making it stick to his pale skin in clumps.
Bucky wipes it back, presses his metal hand to his forehead, hoping to quell the heat raging there. "No, he didn't," he soothes.
"Erskine didn't make me," Steve continues, pausing to suck in air. "Zola didn't make you. Hydra didn't make you. We are not weapons. We made each other."
Bucky kisses him, tastes the salt and sweat and something ugly and chemical. He feels windswept. He thinks of all the broken spaces in his brain and heart and how these ugly hurting parts seem to align with Steve's darkness, somehow making them both whole. We have made each other.
"I love you, Steve," he says. The deep fear in his chest settles and calms. He feels like he's glimpsed some great, rarely spoken truth and, now that it's taken root, he can see the entire universe more clearly, a great expansive thing that stretches around them in never ending circles. "You're going to be okay."
Steve nods and he smiles. His eyes are the color of the dawn sky and Bucky doesn't feel afraid, this time, when he closes them.
The flight to the Avengers Facility is long. They stop trying to get Bucky to leave and the medics just work around him, hooking up leads and IVs. Steve's heart is tripping and speeding, fever soaring and then breaking in vicious cycles that leave Bucky feeling off-balance. Steve doesn't open his eyes, the only movements involuntary twitches and jerks as the fevers and chills sweep through him.
Bucky is a little dizzy himself, not that he mentions this to the medics, radiation tasting heavy in the back of his throat. Halfway there, he feels the beginnings of his own fever building behind his eyes and he has to swallow to keep the nausea down. He can see the crew casting him looks as they cluster around Steve in their thick suits. Bucky gets a glimpse of some of the readings, sees that they're off the charts for Steve. He'd be dead thrice over if not for the serum.
Bucky squeezes his hand tighter.
Avengers HQ has decontamination units just steps from the helipad and Bucky is finally forced to let Steve go alone. It's drizzling in New York, gray and damp as the summer finally loses its grip. The air smells like grass and oil and Bucky presses a firm kiss to Steve's pale mouth before he lets himself be guided to the decontamination chamber. He stands in the hot spray, the disinfectant almost burning his eyes.
A doctor materializes, a thin tablet in his hands, when he steps out. "Sergeant Barnes? You have a mild case of radiation poisoning. We’d like to observe you for the next 48 hours and run some tests, see if the radiation is causing any lasting changes in your body.”
“No tests.” Bucky shakes his head. Cold fingers crawl up his spine at even the suggestion. “No observation.” He takes a deep breath, quelling the lingering sickness.
This had clearly been anticipated. The doctor accepts his refusal placidly. “Drink lots of water. Don’t go far. Captain Rogers is in Room 306. One floor up.” He smiles. “If your fever or nausea get more than you can handle, let a nurse know.”
They’ve shaved Steve. His beard is gone and his hair is once again buzzed close to his scalp. His face looks strange and bare to Bucky now, devoid of the thick scruff he’s sported for months in the wild. He’s thin. Bucky had forgotten how much weight he’d lost and how much he hadn’t regained in the cave. His hands lie palms-down at his sides and the sharp ridges of his wrists terrify Bucky anew, just like they had in that prison deep below the surface.
There’s a chair in the corner of the room and he pulls it over, ignoring the nurses hovering around the bed. Days blur together in that small room. Stark hovers and vanishes seemingly without any pattern. Sam and Natasha join his vigil briefly, but they’re both still officially wanted for crimes against the United States, so they return to Wakanda on a private plane just a few hours after they land.
Steve drifts in and out of consciousness the first two days, rambling incoherently in his first moments of wakefulness. Sometimes, it’s about lights and colors. “It’s so beautiful, Buck,” he says, staring out the window at the dreary green of the training grounds. “All the blades of grass. They’re growing.”
Bucky nods and holds his hand and tries not to wonder what the radiation had done to him.
Other moments, Steve wakes, terrified, reliving the days in the lab or the volcano. He cringes into himself like his memories have come to life and are painted on all the walls around him. He doesn’t scream or cry - but the silent, absolute terror on his rigid face is almost worse. Bucky feels helpless, reduced to murmuring nonsense and gripping his hands as tight as he can, trying to remind him of the present.
The doctors return several times, asking politely and respectfully for samples of Bucky’s blood or hair or skin cells. Bucky always refuses. They say they’re looking for signs that the radiation poisoning has resolved itself - but Bucky thinks they’re looking for any sign that the radiation had triggered another serum-like enhancement.
“I’m fine,” Bucky keeps telling them, turning them away. “Just me. I’m not throwing up anymore. I don’t have a fever. And I’m not regrowing my arm. I’m fine.” He keeps the truth to himself.
The first morning after the volcano, Bucky wakes up on a cot in Steve’s room, opens his eyes, and realizes that the ache from all the dark spots in his brain, the pain that has become such a part of his consciousness, is gone. It’s like losing a limb, a sudden lightness that is almost painful in its absence of pain. He holds his breath, terrified that any movement might send the familiar agony cascading back. But there is nothing.
Bucky fairly tiptoes through the day, reveling in the sensations and bracing for the inevitable return of the pain. This must just be a brief reprieve, he thinks, over and over. Don’t get used to this. Don’t hope for any more of this. The pain doesn’t return, though; not that day, nor the next.
Steve is more lucid, then, but has splitting headaches that make light unbearable. His heart keeps falling into weird arrhythmias, like it can’t quite find a normal beat. He won’t eat, says it makes him sick. Bucky feels like he’s reliving Brooklyn, in winter, and the clarity of the old memory shocks him. He can see Steve’s narrow chest and sharp cheekbones, smell the smoke and sewage, feel the chill in his bones as cold crept through rattling windows. He explores the memory, pokes at it, views it from all sides - but it holds it shape and color.
When the doctors come to look at Steve in the afternoon, Bucky thinks about mentioning it but the words stick in his throat. The lack of pain, the clarity of memories, they feel like a fantasy, something too good to be true. The doctors in Wakanda had told him, repeatedly, the impossibility of curing the brain damage caused by the years with Hydra. If he speaks this aloud, he’s afraid this will vanish as quickly as it came. They’ll run tests and all the old damage will be there on the screen and Bucky will know that this was just a mirage.
Today though, they’re focused on Steve. He’s healing quickly, more quickly than they had expected, and there are some interesting things in his blood chemistry if Steve would just let them… Steve is coherent enough to shake his head when the doctors make noises about further testing. “I don’t need them,” he says firmly, sitting up in the bed with his arms wrapped around his stomach.
The next day, Steve seems more aware, present in his own skin in a way he hasn’t been in months. Bucky takes the opportunity to go to Wanda. She’d arrived the day before - Tony has arranged some sort of amnesty deal for her and the others once he had gone to congress with all the information they had on Ross. The DoD and all elected officials were desperate to distance themselves from Ross’s program. In return for the nitty gritty details of the Antarctica base to remain classified, full pardons were being given to all of those that had been declared traitors after the Sokovian Accords.
Wanda finds them an out of the way conference room and places both hands on the side of his head. The air suffuses with crimson and his brain feels like warm steam is enveloping it, fogging over his thoughts briefly before disappearing in a rush of cool air.
She pulls back, her eyes huge and bright in her soft face. “It’s fading,” she says with undisguised wonder. “The shadows, the darkness, the damage - it’s melting away like it was never there.”
Bucky had swallows hard, eyes closing in relief. So it hasn’t been all in his head. “Was it the radiation?” he asks, surprised at how hoarse his own voice is. Could he be that fortunate?
Wanda had purses her mouth, laying a single finger across her lips in thought. “I cannot say. It is something powerful and cleansing at work. I will continue monitoring it for now.”
“Thank you.” He leaves then, feeling a lightness in his steps he can’t remember from before.
That night, he and Steve are allowed to leave the medical wing and move into small quarters in the residence wing. There’s a kitchen and a living room and a single bedroom with large paneled windows, looking toward the forest. Steve sits at their kitchen table, still in the scrubs from the medical wing, staring at his fingers.
“I don’t want to know what it did,” he confesses quietly to Bucky, while Bucky dips thick tea bags into steaming mugs. “I don’t want to know if it changed me again. I don’t want… it’s better that way, I think. Maybe someday. But not now."
Bucky sits down next to him, puts his hands on Steve’s. “Whatever the radiation,” he has to stop and clear his throat. “I know they did terrible things to you. I know you watched terrible things happen. But I think… Wanda thinks. I went to her, today, and she confirmed it. I think it’s healing me. All those damaged parts of my brain that no one could fix. I think they’re being fixed.”
Steve absorbs his words, mouth opening like he’s going to speak, and then he lifts his hands to his face, covers himself from forehead to chin. “I’m so glad,” he says, muffled by his palms, after a long moment. He takes a long shaky breath. “I’m so glad something good could from this.” Then, he leans close, then, big hands spanning the sides of Bucky’s face and kissing him like oxygen is an afterthought.
There is no more talking that night.
After that, Bucky goes to Wanda on a weekly basis, having her check the progress of the damage. She makes noises briefly about a CAT scan but Bucky refuses.
"No doctors. No scientists. No tests," he says firmly, and both she and Steve fall silent with understanding.
Without fail, every week, Wanda finds that more of the damage in his mind is healing, brain tissue regenerating and dark shadows fading. "You are healing," she says, awe in her voice. "It is just a matter of time now."
Even with Bucky's memories coming back, though, they don’t want to try the trigger words right away. There is too much of a risk, Wanda says, of undoing the healing or causing additional damage. It’s best to wait.
"You will know," she had told Bucky, with conviction, "when it is time."
On a crisp fall day, the first snap of a cold storm in the air, Bucky knows. He’s ready.
While it’s still dark out, they choose one of the training rooms on the far side of Avengers HQ where no one will come this early in the morning. The large window across from Bucky shows a gray sky, not a hint of dawn peeking through yet.
"Are you sure about this?" Wanda asks gently from where she's seated cross legged on the floor. Her hair is pulled back from her face and her fingers are delicately stroking the red notebook she's holding. "There is no rush. We can still wait."
Bucky tests the restraints holding him against the wall. They're firm, strong, but not painful - they'll be enough to hold him if he loses himself to the words Wanda is about to read.
Steve stands behind Wanda, fists clenched together like he's ready to go to war. He’s starting to put back on the weight he lost on Antarctica: his face is filling out and his cheekbones no longer look sharp enough to cut glass. He still hasn’t talked much about what happened in Yellowstone, deep under the earth with Pierce, but something in his eyes has settled since then, like a great riddle has finally been resolved in his own mind. He still wakes from nightmares but there’s an ease in his face now that hadn’t been there before.
Bucky refocuses on Wanda and takes a deep breath. He nods. It's time. He keeps his eyes fixed on Steve when Wanda begins to read. Steve's eyes look slightly watery but his shoulders are as broad and strong as ever and the set of his shoulders could be now or 80 years ago.
No one, Bucky thinks, as Wanda reaches the third word, has an imagination wide enough to make Steve Rogers.
"Daybreak," Wanda says in Russian and Bucky thinks of that first dawn in Antarctica after they had escaped, sitting together in the ice ridges in the shadow of the mountain and watching the entire world be reborn under the spreading sunlight.
"Furnace," Wanda says and Bucky thinks of the way he feels when Steve pulls him close, their mouths and limbs pressed together. He thinks of their bed, here, warm with sheets pushed to the foot of the bed and smelling of both of them.
"Nine. Benign. Homecoming."
Home. Bucky smiles at Steve.
"One. Freight car."
Bucky relaxes, feels the tension bleed from his body. He has been unmade. He is not a weapon. His mind goes back to the long walk through the ice, Steve the only warmth for miles and miles. They have survived, together.
"Bucky?" Steve says, stepping close. His eyes are like stars and his strong fingers are so gentle on Bucky's cheeks. He is warm and alive and so Steve that it makes Bucky ache in a clean, purifying way.
Outside the window in the far wall, morning light is creeping over the green fields of the Avengers HQ, suffusing the trees and buildings with a warm pink.
"I'm here," Bucky says, "I'm okay." He leans forward and lets Steve kiss him.
They are ancient, Bucky realizes as Steve clings to him. Years spanning centuries live between them. The pair of them have been weathered and tested by decades of fear and pain inflicted by the very worst of humanity. They have been made and unmade and begun anew. They have been through the fire and the storm and they are still standing and they are still together, unbroken.
And that, he thinks, is beautiful.
First Lieutenant Thomas Pierce
In Wyoming, in a deserted, dark space, pale fingers twitch against black ground and, a moment later, thin bindings snap.