Emotion was deeper than remembering. Passing into the airspace above the Urals brought to Bucky a deep, rumbling dread that spread with every anxious beat of his heart. The sight of those mountains was closer to déjà vu than memory. He knew he had been here before, seen the shape of the landscape, and walked on its grounds. All the same, he couldn’t remember the life the memories had belonged to.
He knew Steve’s eyes were on him. The more pressure he felt from it, the more ardent he was about not turning around. He knew his silence was a torture to Steve, and had been for a while. It wasn’t something he was inflicting. It was necessary.
“We’re close,” Steve said, breaking the carefully cultivated silence. “I’m putting this bird down outside a small town. I did some research. I think it’ll be a good place to start putting things together.”
Bucky nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”
“We should take a day in the town. Get a room at an inn, talk to the locals—"
“The sooner we get out there, the sooner this will be over.”
It was Steve’s turn to be silent. It hung in the air until he had to break it.
They walked into the small town from down the road a way, looking just like hiking tourists. They carried everything they needed in their packs. It wasn’t likely anyone would recognize either of them by the way they were dressed, even with the unfortunate publicity that had followed in the wake of the mess in Berlin. Their windbreakers hung loose, the best way to hide their unusual frames, and they wore glasses and caps. They were too burdened by the accessories of typical hikers to be conspicuous. Especially not when Steve had left his shield back in the jet. Deciding not to shave for a while helped a bit.
“Any memories?” Steve asked, turning to him as they walked up the road.
Bucky shook his head. “Doesn’t mean I haven’t been here before.”
The little Russian town was quaint, but bustling. It was clearly a way-point for outdoorsy tourists. There were others dressed like them, getting ready to head into the Ural Mountains, and the locals helped them prepare.
“You sure you don’t wanna take a day at the inn?” Steve asked. “We could learn a lot more that way.”
“No,” Bucky said. “It’s better if we camp outside of town. Just in case.”
“I don’t think anybody’s going to recognize us.”
“That’s not the point.”
The specter of something darker made itself known. An ever-present reminder that it wasn’t himself alone who was in danger when Bucky’s past came to call. The people around him weren’t aware of how his presence made them potential casualties, should Hydra or some other individual or organization with a grievance find out where he was. And no matter how well removed they had been, he still flinched with a pavlovian instinct, though he knew that the words which controlled him had been unstitched from his mind.
From the labored sigh from Steve, there was a clear understanding, if not an agreement.
“Before we go on, there’s something I want you to see,” Steve said. “It should be up the road. Maybe—maybe it’ll spark something.”
The memorial was a simple obelisk. The base was a solid plinth and on it were etched nine names. The grass was somewhat overgrown and the trees around it were beginning to crowd. Someone was taking care of it, though it began to seem like a ruin. The marble was clean, the letters free of dirt.
Bucky crouched down at the base of the statue. He reached out a gloved hand to brush some of the dirt from the grooves of the letters. The names were deeply etched and, though they had worn since the sixties, they were still legible. Touching their names with his fingertips, Bucky waited for something, some flash of memory or understanding. There was only a sorrow that felt as if it were pushing out from the center of his chest, pressing against the muscles of his heart with a firm palm.
“Thank you,” Bucky said. “I think I needed to see—”
“I know,” Steve said.
“Oh yeah, that was 1959. I was…,” the old man barked a laugh. “Well, much younger than I am now. The news spread fast, of course. This is a small town, and all the villages around here find any excuse to chatter among themselves as well. Are you journalists? Every now and then a journalist comes and digs up the old story. Somewhat vulgar, I find.”
“Not journalists,” Bucky said. “Just hikers. But we had to ask about what happens. We’re very fascinated with true stories, especially when they’re odd.”
“I think most people are, if they’re honest with themselves. Ha! I know of a dozen old ladies who act delicately around gossip and then try to pull every little detail out of the story.”
“I am that old lady.”
The old man laughed and slapped his knee. Steve, only understanding a smattering of Russian, raised his brow. Bucky smiled softly to let him know it was going well.
“What was so different about these hikers?” Bucky asked.
“That’s what is so strange,” the old man said. “They were experienced hikers, mostly students. Very bright, but not remarkable in any way that we knew of. And they were outsiders, like most people trying to tackle the mountains. They stayed in the local inn for one night before going out to the pass. Many of the staff were there. You might talk to them as well.”
“I will. But do you remember anything about the incident?”
The old man leaned back as far as he could, rubbing his stubble with the flat of his palm.
“I remember the mood,” he said. “We were all shocked. They were so young, and it was so horrible. No one should have to die like that. No one.”
“I was just a girl,” the woman said. “So young. But I grew up on the stories. Awful, awful things. But it’s our history.”
“I’ve been told you’re a bit of a historian yourself,” Bucky said.
“Oh, it’s just a hobby. Someone has to keep track of it all. I have many documents. Would you like to see them?”
The inn was small, and old-fashioned. Nothing grand, and very rustic. Snowy weather seemed to have brought in every hiking tourist from that part of Russia. There were students gathered around the fire in the inn’s lobby, laughing and talking, dressed in puffy vests, boots, and warm hats.
Bucky and Steve passed the students by as the innkeeper took them behind the front counter and back into an office. It was cramped with papers, binders, and books. Her desk was piled high with a mess of papers and personal objects. All the same, everything seemed to have a place, and she knew exactly what she was looking for. She pulled down a large album and laid it on top of the desk. It tottered as it tried to lay flat over all the piles. She flipped through until she found the clippings she was looking for.
“Your friend doesn’t talk much,” the woman said.
“He’s shy,” Bucky said, leaning down to look better at the old newspaper article.
The woman twisted her mouth to suppress a flirtatious smile. Steve had to look away, pink rising in his skin.
She pushed the album closer to the two of them. Steve, though he couldn’t read the article well, still leaned in, peering at the images. Above the byline was an image of two rescuers standing over a tent, shredded, half-buried in the snow. The ancient newspaper was yellow and the image bleeding, obfuscating the details of it. It was like looking into another time through a dark mirror.
“Can we take photos of these?” Bucky asked.
“I don’t see why not,” the woman said. “What is history for, if not to share? Things are different now, but you never know when you can’t do this anymore.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I used to have to bury these albums under the floorboards.”
The hiker still looked like a teenager, all acne spots and elbows, but he said he was in university. When Bucky approached him to talk about the incident, the student’s eyes went wide.
“Don’t talk about it too loud,” the student said. “It took me forever to convince my girlfriend the mountain wasn’t haunted.”
“We don’t have to say haunted,” Bucky said with a slight grin. “Say it’s storied.”
The student laughed. “That might work.”
“You’ve heard of it even out in St. Petersburg?”
“Oh yeah. It’s an old story, but people still like to tell scary stories. Especially on the internet. I’m on some creepypasta forums, that’s where I heard about this place. When my friends were wanting to go hiking I may have steered them in this direction.”
Bucky had discovered the vast world of viral creepy stories through initial research. That was before he had even told Steve, when all he knew were the impressions and the images the dreams gave him. Stumbling on the forums and websites was surreal. The whole story had felt like the sort of thing that would only be revealed through espionage and investigation, but it was laid bare for anybody to look at and speculate about.
Speculation that had somehow to made it to him.
“Do you think you’ll find something up there?” Bucky asked, leaning in conspiratorially.
The student’s eyes bulged and looked away. Bucky could see the imagination churning, but also the work of chewing on his potential words.
“In my wildest dreams?” the student said. “I can get something I can put on the forums. A video or an audio clip. Just a picture of something. I mean, there’s gotta be something on that mountain.”
“Something like what?”
The translation program worked its way through the articles and documents the innkeeper had given them. The tablet in Steve’s hands gave him the information in English. He read it quickly. Tucked away in the little restaurant, they crowded around the tablet like conspirators.
“All the authorities were able to say is that death was from an ‘unknown compelling force,’” Steve said. “I’m not sure I know what that means. Is it a translation error?”
“Welcome to the world of Soviet documents,” Bucky said, a humorless, slanted smile tilting his face. “Speaking of—”
“Yeah, I read the dossier.”
“Then you know what’s in it.”
“It doesn’t mean—”
“The inquest was pretty clear.”
“We don’t know how many enhanced individuals were out there. The Soviets, Hydra, elements we don’t even know about. Why does anything in that inquiry tell you that you were even here?”
Bucky’s hands turned into claws that were shaking as he tried to find the words. Under the table, Steve couldn’t see the frustration, but he couldn’t help but shake in the shoulders. He hoped, but didn’t expect, that Steve hadn’t noticed.
“I just know,” Bucky said. “I read about it and I knew. I’ve been here, Steve. Right now, it’s just…you remember when we’d try to get radio stations from as far away as possible? We’d turn the dial back and forth and every time we thought we were getting something, we lost the signal. It’s kind of like that. Every time I turn the dial, every time I try to look directly at it, I lose it a little bit. Then with all these stories I can start to make it out. I was here, Steve. I was here.”
Steve crossed his arms. The way he brought his shoulders in, it was like he was trying to be anything but broad and tall. He shrunk into the shadow of the corner and it stung his heart to look at. Bucky’s ribs collapsed as he took the sight of him.
“We’ll figure it out,” Steve promised.
The thickness of the whisper was a knife in the ribs. Steve had the same nod as he always had. No reason to be confident, but saying it anyway. It brought with it a pain, twisting, and he didn’t know what to do with the fact that he cherished the way it hurt.
They trudged through the deep snow until nightfall. The bulk of the day was spent in silence or stark, utilitarian conversation. Steve was giving him the silence he had coveted, and it needled at Bucky like a scratchy wool sweater.
In the dimming light they set up their tent in concentrated movement, going through the task with an unspoken efficiency. By the light of a simple, compact fire they heated some food and settled into the quiet around them. Bucky looked around the mountains by the dim of twilight, at the white slopes that looked soft enough to touch, but knowing that the wrong shift could bring the whole mountain down on top of them.
“You always did like the outdoors,” Steve said, taking a sip of hot cider.
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Camping never felt like this before. It’s so…”
“I didn’t want to be the one to say it. I can’t tell if it’s me, this place, or both.”
“Well, at least the stars are out. I never quite got why you liked the outdoors, but you really can’t get this view in a city.”
“No, you can’t.”
Bucky followed Steve’s gaze up. The stars were always crisper in the snow, the bite of the air giving them an icy sheen. A thunderous rolling dread moved within him and he shrunk under the gaze of those stars. It was as if they were looking back at him. He never feared the stars. But the stars that hung over this place, these mountains, his presence there—they were full of terrible intent and Bucky had nowhere to hide from them.
Bucky could see Steve in the dark. It was a trait he was still not used to having. It sometimes made it hard to sleep, to have eyes that could always see in everything but complete dark, even if only dimly. He was sure Steve could see him, too, because he was looking away. They both nestled into their sleeping bags, a strange coldness between them which had nothing to do with the weather.
He could feel Steve’s presence radiate out like an aura. Even if his eyes were closed, he would know where Steve was, exactly. All the same, he didn’t reach out in the dark, controlling the hand that wanted to reach out to touch, just to touch.
Thinking on the consequences of touch were too much to bear.
Despite not feeling as if he could, the moment he pulled completely into his sleeping bag and laid his head on the small, insufficient pillow, he was swallowed by sleep.
He knew he dreamed in color. The orange lights in the sky were something he could taste and feel, so wholly otherworldly that it demanded to be something more than a color. He stood in the snow, stance wide, staring it down.
The lights wanted him to look down.
There, under the orange light illuminating the dark, a tongue sat on the snow, pink and fresh, bright crimson drops pooling around it.
Waking came on as simply and as jarring as opening his eyes. His heart was jackhammering against his ribcage, but his body didn’t even jerk. He heard nothing but silence, broken only by the soft, shallow breathing of Steve lying next to him.
He sought out Steve and found his face relaxed. In the dark, as well as he could see in it, he could almost pretend that a slighter, frailer figure was lying underneath a bulky sleeping bag. They had moved closer to each other in the night, Steve’s face falling toward his. Before he knew what he was doing, his arm was out of his sleeping bag. His hand hovered near his face, but not quite touching.
It occurred to Bucky that he could do it.
He could sneak away and disappear into the snow.
Steve didn’t have to be here for this. He didn’t have to see any of it. It was Steve that held on to the hope for the both of them, because Bucky couldn’t find any for himself. The memories weren’t there, but he knew what was lying under layers of snow and ice, buried under the weight of years.
He could do this alone.
All he had to do was walk out of the tent.
The nylon rustled. He didn’t want to turn to look at Steve. Bucky stood on the side of the hill with his arms crossed over his chest, staring out into the wilderness below. He was cold, but it was only a sensation. After years and years, cold had become a thing to be endured, a thing which could be endured. It was just the weather. Weather passes.
Steve held out Bucky’s coat, all the same. Bucky stared at it hanging from Steve’s hand, as if it weren’t something he really needed. Then, with great care, he took the jacket and threw it on over his henley. Steve seemed satisfied, as if he’d just accomplished a feat.
“Figure it’ll take us the whole day to get there,” Steve said. “The GPS will put us right where it happened. You’re still okay with this?”
“It was my idea, Steve,” Bucky laughed.
“I know. It’s just…it’s grisly stuff. Feels almost wrong, somehow. Like we’re actually going to dig up the bodies.”
Bucky shrugged, dipping his hands deep into his pockets. “We’re digging something up. Might just happen that it’s metaphorical.”
Steve laughed through his nose, shaking his head in a slight, controlled way. Bucky watched his eyes train on the landscape they had just come from. Thought took the smile from his face and creased his brow.
“You know, it’s still not too late,” Steve said. “If you want to go back.”
“Thank you for looking out,” Bucky said. “But you wouldn’t say that if it was you that needed to walk up this mountain.”
“It’s your choice.”
“Yeah, but I think you want to know what’s up there almost as bad as I do.”
Steve’s face all but admitted to it.
At any other time in his life, Bucky would have found the hike exhilarating. He liked the challenge to his muscles and endurance, and the buzz that came when it was time for a rest. They’d found some stones sticking out of the snow near a copse of trees and Bucky took the chance to sit down. Steve put his hands on his hips and looked at the path that laid before them.
“I can’t believe you used to think about doing this for fun,” Steve said.
“You’re not having fun?” Bucky said with a grin.
“That’s not what I meant.”
Bucky’s smile grew wider at the sight of Steve’s annoyance. That grin became infectious and Steve succumbed to a shy smile. He dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out an energy bar in a plain wrapper.
“What are these?” Bucky asked.
“Specially designed for super-soldier metabolism,” Steve said. “Had ‘em made special.”
Bucky opened the wrapper and examined it critically from all sides before biting into it. His face soured and pulled down in confusion.
“Tastes like cardboard,” Bucky said.
“Yeah,” Steve sighed. “When I said I needed nutrition bars I guess I neglected to ask for it to taste like anything but nutrition.”
“Blueberries next time.”
Steve nodded in agreement. He took a seat next to Bucky on the rock. Quiet gathered again, familiar and unwelcome. They ate in silence and the knowledge that they were nearly there was the quiet third party among them.
“You know, whatever we find,” Steve said. “Or don’t find—”
“I’ll be able to handle it, Steve,” Bucky said.
“That’s not what I mean.”
“I didn’t bring you along to be a babysitter.”
“I’m not your babysitter. That’s not what you need. You need a friend right now. Someone who’ll still—who won’t—”
Steve sighed, his wide chest heaving as he inhaled and exhaled breath in a thick cloud.
“Steve—,” Bucky whispered.
“I’m not going to run,” Steve said. “I won’t. Whatever’s up there in that pass, it won’t change anything.”
Bucky’s smile wouldn’t reach his eyes. Steve saw the lack of light in his eyes, but was willing to take what scraps he could get. He leaned down and clapped Bucky on the shoulder.
“Time to get going,” Steve said.
That rattling feeling of remembrance was enough to take Bucky to his knees. Still, he stayed standing.
It was no longer a feeling of déjà vu. It wasn’t even like the kind of gentle memory that wandered through his head and pushed him gently forward. This was something with claws. It stuck nails into his brain and pulled until what was hidden revealed through the cracks.
“Bucky?” Steve asked.
He tried to compose himself. Steve had heard the rattle in his breath, the desperate gasp. His eyes would be shaking and watering. He looked away and made himself still.
“You were here,” Steve guessed.
Bucky shivered all over and put his hands over his face. The light and the bright landscape of the pass with the temperature while Steve looked at him—it was too much. Every sense was overloaded. Loud. Sharp. His breath came in through his teeth in a sharp hiss.
“Bucky?” Steve said, worry shaking his voice.
Bucky wanted to say that he was okay, but the words simply wouldn’t come out. Not them, nor any others. He was stopped up like a bottle, the pressure pushing at the cork. Hands grabbed him by the shoulders and steered him. They caught him as Bucky tilted, his center of gravity getting lost somewhere along the way.
By degrees, he came back to himself. He hadn’t realized how little he could see until his vision finally cleared up, how little he could feel until the cold air ran over him like a soothing touch.
At the look at Steve’s face, he felt the embarrassment sink his stomach. It had come and gone, and now he felt fine. He’d worried Steve and made an ass out of himself for something that lasted less than half a minute. It was as if what had just happened barely happened at all.
“What was that?” Steve said.
“It was nothing,” Bucky swore.
“That didn’t look like nothing.”
Bucky blinked and concentrated. He tried to remember what he had just remembered, but it was as hard to grasp as a dream after waking. It had its own logic and purpose when he was assaulted by it, but now it was just a sense of dread and a knowledge of a color he couldn’t remember.
“We have to keep going,” was all that Bucky said.
“Okay,” Steve said. “The GPS says we need to go north, so—”
“No,” Bucky said. “It’s over there.”
There were no signs, and no landmarks. No one had ever thought to mark the spot. The trees were far afield, and the landscape was only virgin snow. All the same, Bucky took four steps forward, away from Steve, and stopped abruptly. He stared down at the spot in front of him. He bowed his head and ran both hands through his hair, slow, pressing it down with hard pressure.
“It was here,” Bucky said. “This is where their tent was.”
He could see the structure of it in the snow. It sat on top of it, transparent, like a ghost in an old movie. It was still as it was when he first saw it—erected and whole, lights on inside. It had been dark then. The tent glowed from the lanterns.
Steve stepped up beside him. Though Bucky was staring straight down, he could tell the intensity in Steve’s face.
“What is it about this memory?” Steve asked. “Why is this one so hard to get back?”
“Maybe the memory doesn’t want to be found,” Bucky said through a voice thick with frustration. “Maybe my brain knows better than me.”
Bucky turned to Steve, who leveled his eyes at him. Steve wasn’t going to budge, and part of him was glad. There was an unspoken accord that Steve would push him, but no further than Steve knew Bucky could go.
With a sinking dread, Bucky knew he could go on. More that that, he needed to, and Steve knew it.
He sunk down, crouching, and put his hand in the air in front of him. He waited, as if waiting for someone to restart the projector that would play the events of that day.
There was nothing more. The reel burned out and snapped.
“The report said they cut through the tent from the inside,” Bucky said.
“Do you remember that?” Steve asked.
“They left clothes and lanterns—everything they need to survive—even their shoes. They left it all behind.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Maybe…maybe they knew we were coming. Maybe they knew what we were.”
Bucky stood up and continued to walk in the snow. His feet were carrying him, and he let himself wander. There were times he could trust his body to do things by muscle memory. Normally, that meant combat. Here, it was discovery.
Dread was gathering all the more as he trudged on toward the trees. His body knew why he was stopping before his memory caught up with him. His hand hovered over the spot on the ground.
“He was lying here,” Bucky said. “Face-down. I saw him. It’s where the rescue party found him.”
“I remember,” Steve said. “He was the leader. It was in the report.”
“The snow hadn’t covered him yet. It would. I knew that when I walked away from him.”
“You don’t have to comfort me, Steve.”
Steve’s brow was set, concerned, when Bucky looked back at him.
“Let’s keep going,” Steve suggested. “If you still want to.”
“It’s not about wanting,” Bucky said.
He followed the trail of absent bodies. The Soviet report had told him what happened to them—so had the townspeople and the old, half-censored newspaper—but those had been details in the abstract. The grit of it was in his teeth. He’d never get the taste out of his mouth or the images burned behind his eyes to fade. Those were not sensations black ink on paper could imprint on him.
“Talk to me, Buck,” Steve whispered.
Bucky hadn’t noticed that he was massaging his forehead.
“I did this,” Bucky whispered.
“It wasn’t you,” Steve said, every word a stomp.
The snap of Bucky’s voice echoed through the air, mingling with the howl of the wind. “Then who was it? No one else was there! It was just me, and the snow, and the cold—”
He pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, shocked at his own outburst. He blinked as if each flutter of his eyelid would help wake him up to himself. He did, to some degree, calm, his heart beating slower and blood cooling down. He had to look away, afraid of what he’d see in Steve’s face, and knowing that on some level there would be understanding there.
“I have to keep going,” Bucky said, tremulous, as if he were going to be sick.
Steve followed Bucky as he walked the rest of the way down the slope. Bucky stuck his legs down at the base of a stream. It was still bubbling, alive with the sounds of water, as it travelled towards the sea.
He knew Steve couldn’t see the body laying in the water. That was for memory. He couldn’t see her face. She was laying on her stomach. He stretched out his hand and looked at it through shades of memory. Metal fingers covered in beading red. He wobbled, faint, but caught himself immediately.
Though the memory wasn’t complete, he knew she didn’t have a tongue.
He tilted his head up. The sky was dark. On some level he knew that it was daylight, but all his senses could feel was the deep dark. The moon was almost full and lit the world up from behind. Sixty years past and the stars had the same flickering consciousness, staring down at him, remembering him, recording his deeds with exacting detail and complete indifference.
“This is it,” Bucky said. “This is where they called me off. The work was done.”
“Did they ever tell you why they sent you here?” Steve asked.
“You don’t tell a gun why you’re pointing it at someone,” Bucky said.
“You weren’t a gun.”
“There were lights.”
In the silence that followed, Bucky heard how strange his own words had sounded. They had come out without conscious preconception of them. They made sense, in the moment. Now he couldn’t recall why he’d said them.
“What lights?” Steve asked.
His arms had uncrossed, and he stepped closer to Bucky, into his eyeline. As if compelled to, Bucky locked eyes with him. Steve’s brow was hard and heavy. He was asking a question that he didn’t have the words for.
“I don’t know, I just—,” Bucky started. “I remember lights. I don’t know what they were for, but they were orange. In the sky. It didn’t feel like headlamps or spotlights or something.”
“Was it Hydra?” Steve asked.
“They sent me out alone. I didn’t need light. It was more efficient that way.”
“If there were lights that means there were people. Other people. Maybe the people really responsible.”
“How many times do I have to tell you—”
“All that’s left is me, okay? Just me. Do you really think anybody from Hydra is going to step up? To mourn the dead? To look at what they did straight in the eye? They won’t. But I will. That’s the difference between them and me.”
Bucky caught and controlled the tremble in his lip as soon as he became aware of it. Anger rose and then deflated like a lung and when it passed all he was left with was the cold well inside him.
Steve’s face moved from surprise to a softening understanding. In that understanding was a sorrow, and Bucky could tell he was fighting against his own sense of justice. Maybe it wasn’t fair. But there was nothing either of them could do about making it fairer.
He couldn’t look at Steve anymore. He turned his gaze to the river again, memory no longer laid over it. He let it just be water, a different water in a different season in a different year than when he knew it last. He let himself be a different person than the one who stood over it, bathed in orange light.
“It’s going to get dark again soon,” Steve said. “Let’s find somewhere to set up camp.”
“Here is fine,” Bucky said.
Steve looked pointedly to the ground. “No, it’s not.”
Bucky could still hear the river as he drifted off to sleep. Combined with Steve’s breath, he was lulled into a kind of peace that he didn’t want to get in the way of. He felt buoyant, as if he were rocking in a hammock. Nearly asleep, his eyes relaxed into slits.
Through them he saw the black figure.
He jerked away, pulling his feet away from the thing by his feet. He found the lantern and turned it on, holding it out in front of his body like a shield.
Steve stirred awake next to him, blinking into wakefulness, trying to find the danger that Bucky’s entire body was pointing to.
“What is it, what’s wrong?” Steve said in a huff.
Bucky backed himself into the corner of the tent. He knew what he looked like. He was shaking and his eyes were wide, but the fear had a hold on his body.
“Bucky?” Steve repeated.
Nylon rustled, a high, fast sound, as something moved against the outside of the tent. Bucky’s hand found his knife before he even thought about it, retrieving it from under his pillow.
“What’s happening?” Steve said. “What are you doing?”
Bucky listened, every sense alive and vibrating. The crunch of something pressing down snow was slow and deliberate. It was close. It was right outside.
It took every ounce of control not to cut out of the tent from the inside. He unzipped the tent flap and went out into the snow, the half-moon only somewhat illuminating the hillside. His eyes scanned the horizon but saw nothing. He still held his knife in a tight, backwards grip. He felt the presence of someone always at his right but when he turned and turned, there was nothing, but for a shadow in the corner of his eye. Always in the corner.
“Bucky—,” Steve whispered.
Bucky saw Steve through a shaking filter as his breath rattled in his lungs and his vision tried to clear. But there were shadows pressing against his vision, preparing to cloud it completely. He could see and hear Steve, but as if through a black mesh filter.
The crunch of snow sounded again and he turned his head sharply, eyes wild as he tried to fix on what had made the sound.
“I know you’re here,” Bucky said.
“Who are you talking to?” Steve asked.
He couldn’t find a way to answer. He stepped further out into the darkness. He heard Steve go back in the tent. By the time he came back out, Bucky was heading down the side of the mountain.
He was tracking something. What, he didn’t know. His senses were alive, bringing him along, knowing there was something there. It was alive, and it was elusive, and it had answers, if only he could shake them out of whatever it was.
The crunching of snow stopped, and so did the sense of breath and shadow. There was quiet all around him. He jolted back to himself and was aware of where he was. He was alone. Steve wasn’t there. He wasn’t even close enough to hear. He whorled around, trying to find some landmark.
He was lost.
Looking down, he also saw he was barefoot, and in only one layer of clothes. He had shot out of his sleeping bag and out into the snow without thinking. Cold started to pool in his feet, but his enhanced circulation kept his teeth from chattering. He’d been in colder places, longer, and further away from help than he was now.
They had been found without their boots. Without protective clothing. Rushing out into the woods ill-prepared, just as they were.
He’d chased whatever it was, but he put himself in the shoes of those kids. They weren’t soldiers, like him. They would have cut their way out of their tent from fear of this thing.
Bucky’s breath hitched as realization swamped him.
If Bucky had been the one sent after the hikers, they wouldn’t have had the chance to run.
But they had ran, just as he had ran, down the mountain, certain that something was there. Bucky listened hard and peered into darkness. Whatever was there couldn’t be seen, though that didn’t mean that it wasn’t there. The quiet was heavy and it crowded around his ears.
Unknown compelling force.
Even with a deep understanding of Russian, he still couldn’t find the nuance in that phrase, but it seemed to put a shape to the unseen thing that surrounded him. It wasn’t enough of a shape. It was clouded in dark and without form. If it had skin and blood, he could kill it, wound it, find some way to stop it.
It wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t him. It was a force.
Something had compelled him down that mountain. He had felt it, and he had hunted it.
Now he was alone, standing barefoot in the snow.
His head tilted up. The trees and the mountainside around him sloughed away. He felt more than he saw the expanse of them. He was a speck on that hillside, and to the watching stars he was even less. The mountain broke underneath him and it was void.
His feet were so cold.
Feeling ground underneath him again, Bucky brought his gaze down and turned to look behind him. Steve stepped forward, something in his arms. It was Bucky’s boots and jacket. He approached Bucky but stopped an arm’s length away. He held out the items for Bucky to take.
Wordlessly, Bucky took them. He slipped on the boots without tying them and slipped into the coat.
“Was it something I said?” Steve asked with a shy smile.
Bucky’s face relaxed, but he didn’t quite laugh. Shaking his head, he gathered his thoughts.
“You didn’t feel that?” Bucky asked.
“Feel what?” Steve asked.
“A presence. A force. There’s something here, I can feel it, I just… I don’t know what it is. It got me to follow it this far.”
“I think so.”
Steve had been worried but he hadn’t looked frightened until just then. His eyes shifted back and forth, trying to penetrate into the darkness on the mountain. His stance widened and steadied and he began to circle closer to Bucky.
They were back-to-back, turning together as they scanned the darkness. To steady himself, Steve reached his hand out and it found Bucky’s forearm. At the sudden touch, Bucky stiffened. It wasn’t the sudden touch that had startled him. It was how much it had soothed him.
Steve’s hand lowered, sliding down, until their hands slid together. Bucky squeezed, feeling his flesh against Steve’s, trying to take as much of the calm which the touch gave him as he could before—
Something crushed snow nearby and he stiffened, grabbing Steve’s hand tighter. Steve grabbed back. They both stared in the direction of the sound of crunching snow. Bucky’s left hand adjusted its grip on the knife handle. He waited for something to come from under the trees. The leaves rustled, going up and down as if controlled by a breath rather than the wind.
The trees went still and stiff. Bucky unwound his fingers from Steve’s. The only sound of crunching snow was Bucky stepping forward to the spot where he heard the footsteps.
Virgin snow. No footsteps but the ones he left behind him.
They waited and waited, but nothing came out from between the trees. As they moved closer to the spot where before a presence filled the air, they were less and less afraid. Fear dissolved like salt into too much water, leaving nary a trace of itself behind.
If he was sure of anything, Bucky was sure that the compelling force had gone.
He ran his hand through his hair, slicking it back in frustration.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky mumbled. “There’s nothing here. I just thought—”
“If you felt something, you felt something,” Steve said. “Just because I didn’t see anything doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. You were at least remembering something that was real.”
“You didn’t feel it? Like the air was thick.”
“I was a little spooked, but, no, nothing like that. It was just on account of how afraid you were. But I didn’t feel anything.”
Bucky stared into the distance. His mind finally calm, he settled into the silence. The air between himself and Steve had lost a certain quality. It was no longer begrudgingly given. It was a restful silence, a break after so much of Bucky’s mind had races and swam in tumultuous memory.
It was all so completely, suddenly clear.
“They sent me after it,” Bucky said. “They didn’t care about getting to it before it hurt anyone. They let those hikers die.”
“Did you catch it?” Steve asked.
“I didn’t bring anything back with me. I made it about this far down the pass and whatever it had been—that compelling force—I never saw it. Just what it did.”
With a sigh, Bucky hung his head. A wave of exhaustion passed over him and for a moment he swore he wouldn’t be able to take another step. Especially not uphill through such a high drift. All the same, he gathered what strength he had and turned to face Steve.
“Let’s go back to the tent,” Steve said. “I’ll stay up and watch. You need the sleep.”
Bucky pulled off his boots and jacket and slipped into his sleeping bag. Gathering some of his things for a long night of standing watch, Steve fumbled in the dark.
Bucky found his face in the darkness, cupping his jaw to turn him. He laid a single kiss on Steve’s mouth, long and chaste. Steve froze as Bucky pulled away.
“I thought you said you weren’t ready for this,” Steve said.
“Maybe I’m still not,” Bucky said.
Steve pressed his forehead against Bucky’s. He closed his eyes and Bucky followed after. Steve kissed him on the cheek, a deep longing in how much it lingered. He took his things and went outside, zipping up the tent behind him. Bucky went heavy with exhaustion. Slipping into his sleeping bag, there was a peace that came with knowing there would be no dreams.
Bucky woke well into the morning, the warm rays of the sun hitting his face right as he exited the tent. Steve was outside, sitting on a collapsible chair, mug of steaming coffee in his hand. The percolator had been taken off the butane stove and was still steaming. He took in a great breath. Crisp snow and strong coffee. It was quiet, he had the best of company, and they were miles from anything. A smile crept up one side of his mouth. Looking up into the sky, there were no stars. Just pale blue stretching into the horizon.
Leave them, the man said, faceless and ghostly in the dream. The snow will bury them.
He wrapped his gloved hands around the tin of coffee and put the chill of the night behind him.
Bucky and Steve dropped into their apartment with the same weight and dignity they gave their duffel bags as they fell onto the kitchen floor. They unceremoniously dumped hiking equipment, souvenirs, and precious dossiers over counters and couches. Jet or no jet, travel was still travel. They had wound their way back down the Urals, through the villages, and to where they parked, then bringing it back the hangar just blocks from where they hung their hats.
Bucky stood in the middle of a spartan living room and pinched the bridge of his nose, wishing that having the winter soldier serum pumping through his veins would prevent jetlag, of all things. He was bone-tired and ready to get to bed.
Arms wound around his waist. Steve laid his face down into his shoulder. He sighed through his nose, taking Steve’s hands in his. They stood and swayed, too exhausted to do anything else but prop each other up by their respective leaning.
“Let’s get Chinese tonight,” Steve mumbled into the fabric of Bucky’s coat.
A warm smile curled Bucky’s lips. “That sounds amazing,” he hummed, barely audible.
Steve laid a quick kiss on the side of his neck and slipped away. Bucky had to force himself to let go of Steve’s forearms as they slid from his body. Absent of him, Bucky shivered, but not from cold. Cold didn’t get past the skin anymore.
He shook out of his coat and laid it on the back of the couch, folding it neatly. He heard the ruffle of brochures that they had collected in the neighborhood they hid out it, a selection of everything from Thai, to Indian, to Southern comfort food. As Steve began to order his and Bucky’s usual, Bucky put his hands on his lumbar and pressed, stretching his back, and rolling his head to stretch his neck. A few pops and clicks and everything went back into alignment.
Steve’s voice as he chatted and ordered faded into the background. Quiet descended, as if the entire neighborhood had been hushed. The apartment filled with a static energy wrapped around silence. Dread seeped into his body like a hand roaming up his chest to bury itself into his chest and seize his heart.
He was drawn to the right of him, but he couldn’t quite turn his head.
There would be something there. If he even darted his eyes to check he knew with certainty that he would see something he did not want to see. Staring straight forward and standing stock still was the only assured way he knew of not to have to see.
But he had to see.
The empty space where he knew it was turned out to be worse than if he had seen the monster he had been expecting. There was no mass of teeth and fur, no terrible face, no gnashing jaw. Just empty space, a void behind a lintel and frame, knowing him. And he knew it. The hall pulsed with the presence of the unknown, compelling force.
In the next moment, Steve was standing next to him. At Bucky’s body language, he froze and followed Bucky’s eyes. Steve reached out, wrapped his hand around Bucky’s bicep to hold him still as the chill of the moment descended. They stood stock-still, eyes fixed on the exact same spot.
Whatever solace there was in silence was stolen for a while as the compelling force made itself known, departed, and left them with the promise that it could always return.