Of course Christine's phone rang at 9:48 at night, just as she was finally—finally—getting to go home after a twelve-hour shift that should have ended nearly four hours earlier.
Of course the phone also startled the heck out of her. She'd been wrapping her scarf around her neck on autopilot, having vague, sleep-foggy thoughts about what she might actually do with the glorious three days she had off, other than stay in bed. And then her phone rang while she was putting on her coat, and she screamed so loudly that the other, equally exhausted doctor in the locker room jumped and stared at her like she'd been stabbed.
"Sorry," Christine muttered. She said a swift, silent prayer as she pulled her phone out of her pocket, pleading to God and the universe in general that it wasn't Stephen wanting her to assist during an operation. Honestly, she was pretty sure that she saw him more often as her ex than when they were going out. She loved watching Stephen work, but she was much, much too tired to deal with his ego and music trivia tonight.
It wasn't Stephen, thank God, but Claire Temple. Christine really liked her. They'd hit it off immediately from the first time they'd shared a shift in Metro-General's Emergency Department. Christine had been horrified when she found out Claire had been fired. She'd tried advocating on her friend's behalf, but it had been too little, too late. Christine was always happy to talk to Claire, but Claire didn't normally call this late.
"Hi, Claire," Christine said, wondering if her smile was as audible as the exhaustion in her voice. She put the phone between her ear and shoulder, awkwardly buttoning her coat as she walked to the elevator. "I'm just heading home. What's up?"
"Hey," Claire said, and the tone of that one word had Christine stopping dead in the corridor. "I know it's late. I wouldn't be calling, but I need your help."
"Of course." Christine straightened, awake and alert again now the way she clicked into place in any emergency. "What is it?"
There was a breath of Claire's hesitation on the other end of the line. "Remember the other day when you came over and we had wine and I bitched to you about how I keep meeting people with special needs?"
"Oh my God," Christine said. She turned back the way she'd come, trying to check if anyone had noticed her without looking suspicious, but the one other person going towards the elevators didn't even glance in her direction. Christine ducked into the washroom meant for disabled people and their helpers, because it was just a single room and the door locked. The door was almost soundproof, but she still lowered her voice to a whisper. "Is it Daredevil?"
"No, not this time," Claire said, though she hesitated again at the end of it, as if she wanted to say something else about him but chose not to. "It's someone else. A friend of a friend. I haven't met them yet, but they're being brought to…my new workplace. And they're really hurt."
Someone like Daredevil who Claire hadn't met? What on Earth? Christine put that part aside; it wasn't relevant. "Bring them here," she said immediately. "I can have a surgical team ready."
"Oh, God. No. Bad idea. Very bad idea," Claire said on a laugh with a bit of hysteria in it. "But, they don't need surgery." Christine wasn't too proud to sigh inwardly in relief. She hadn't wanted to do more surgery tonight. "It's second degree burns, with a couple third degree. The wounds are infected and need abrading. They also have pneumonia. I need antibiotics and pain control. A shitload of it."
Which Claire was expecting Christine to steal. Holy Christ. "How much is 'a shitload'?
She could practically hear her friend's wince. "Remember that conference you went to last year? The one you were all excited about?"
There were three conferences last year that Christine had managed to scrape together the time and energy to attend, and they'd all been pretty exciting. But there was only one Claire could possibly be talking about: the one about advancements in medicine for super-powered beings. "Oh, my God," she whispered. "Do you mean—"
"Shh!" Claire cut her off. "No," she added immediately. "No, I don't."
Not Steve Rogers, then. That was initially a relief, but then even more worrying. Steve Rogers' injuries and subsequent treatment after the fight over D.C. had motivated the conference. So if it wasn't him, then who was she talking about?
"Who is it?" Christine asked, because Claire had gone unsettlingly quiet again.
"Just…bring whatever you can get and trust me, okay? Please?" Claire sounded apologetic in a way that made Christine's stomach cower against her spine. "I would never, ever ask you for this, but someone's life may be depending on it."
"I know you wouldn't." Christine didn't add how much trouble she'd be in if anyone caught her. It wasn't as if Claire could be ignorant of that. "All right. I can't promise anything, but I'll do what I can. I'll text you when I have what you need. Or get arrested."
Claire didn't laugh, which was fine because it wasn't really a joke. "Thank you, Christine. I owe you big time. See you soon."
"Yes you do," Christine said, but Claire had already hung up.
She put her phone back into her breast pocket, then stood for a moment with her hand on her forehead, working on keeping her heart from pummeling its way out of her chest. She could handle medical emergencies just fine, but burglarizing from her work was another category entirely.
"How would Stephen do it?" she muttered to herself, then straightened, thinking. Stephen would brusquely order someone to get it for him, then just walk out of the building with it. He exuded the kind of arrogance and authority that nobody questioned.
Christine was too nice for that. But she was fairly sure she could sneak a few vials of ketamine and morphine from the dispensary and walk out with them in her purse. No one would question her. Why would they? And things went missing from hospital inventories all the time.
"All right." She squared her shoulders, unlocked the door and strode out into the hallway. She stalked to the elevator like she had every right to go anywhere in the hospital she wanted to, channeling Doctor Strange all the way.
In the end, it worked like magic.
Claire's night clinic looked like a condemned basement apartment. It'd been a barbershop, before the place had been shot up twice and the original owner was murdered. Claire hadn't even bought the shop from the man who had more-or-less inherited it. She'd just moved in and apparently no one had noticed or cared.
Claire had jokingly said she should name it 'Claire Temple's Convalescent Home for Particular Idiots'. Christine promised that she'd get a her door plaque.
In reality, there was no sign at all to show that the building was even in use. Plywood still replaced the windows and door, covered with so much graffiti it'd all become an illegible mass. Claire said she liked it that way, at least for now. Considering who her clients were, Christine could understand it. She just hoped that no one thought it was weird when a white chick in scrubs showed up out of the blue with a key.
Then she heard the shouting from inside as she got to the door, and weirdness was the last thing on her mind.
She stabbed the key into the lock, then shoved the door open, ready to barrel in there and throw herself into what sounded worryingly like a fight. Christine wasn't big or imposing, but she worked the ED; maybe she startled easily, but not much scared her anymore. And most people went down when you tackled them.
On the other hand, the two men in the middle of the suddenly not-very large room were awfully startling.
One of them was a giant. He had to be as big as Thor. Was he an Asgardian? Was Claire friendly with Asgardians now? How the hell was Christine expected to help with an Asgardian?
The man the giant currently had in a death grip around his chest was a little smaller but still built like a tank. That one had to be the 'friend of a friend' Claire said needed help. He certainly looked terrible—'terrible' was generous, actually—but he was fighting the giant for all he was worth: arching, flailing and kicking like his life depended on it. His left arm was some kind of grimy prosthetic, hanging limp at his side. He was the one shouting, using a barely comprehensible mixture of English and a language that might've been Russian. The only words Christine recognized were 'no', 'nyet', and 'please'.
The poor man was absolutely terrified. The giant was talking to him, switching from English to the Slavic language whenever his friend did, telling him that they were safe, that he was okay and no one would hurt him. It really wasn't helping.
But Claire was on the floor with her back to the wall, holding her ribs and looking exactly like she'd been thrown across the room. She was next to the folding cot she'd bought at a sporting goods store, which was dragging a clear vinyl shower curtain from one corner. Claire had been preparing to abrade the friend of a friend's wound, and clearly he'd refused pretty violently. He was obviously the one like Steve Rogers, unless they both were. Or they were both Asgardians. Jesus Christ.
"Oh, my God." Christine ran to Claire, remembering at the last second to put her bag down gently rather than just dropping it. She did drop to her knees, ready to assess her friend's injuries. "What happened?"
"I'm fine." Claire pushed her hands away. "Just catching my breath."
She really wasn't fine, but she was breathing, conscious, not bleeding visibly and coherent. There were also two very large, possible Asgardians still struggling less than twenty feet away from them. And one was gasping, barely conscious or coherent, and obviously bleeding. Christine knew her priority.
"I brought the stuff you asked for," she said. "Maybe if we both grab him…?"
Claire shook her head. She pulled herself to her feet using the wall, but pushed Christine's hands away again when she tried to help.
"Stay here," Claire said, then marched right at the two men like Jesus walking into hell. "Hey!" She didn't shout, but she was using her 'don't-fuck-with-the-nurse' voice. "Hey, Barnes! Cut it out!"
Unbelievably—or maybe not so unbelievably, really, Claire radiated the same kind of unignorable authority as Stephen—Barnes did. He hung in the giant's arms, panting in pain and clear, heartbreaking fear. His breath whistled out of his drowning lungs like wind through a tube. He was sheened in sweat, clumps of his filthy hair sticking to his face and hanging in his eyes. His entire body was shaking.
Barnes dwarfed Claire the way Claire dwarfed Christine, but he let her go right up to him and cup his face in her hands. "Sergeant James Barnes, you are safe," she said, slowly and clearly. "I know it hurts. I know you're scared, but we're trying to help you. I promise we will do everything we can to keep you comfortable, but we need you to calm the hell down and let us. Do you understand?" Her voice was much gentler now, but hadn't lost any of the authority.
Barnes didn't answer, but his sunken, glazed eyes were fixed on her like she was the only one in the room.
The giant still holding him said something in the Slavic language, probably repeating everything Claire had said. It seemed like a long time before Sergeant Barnes understood what he'd been told in either language, but finally he nodded.
He said something in what Christine was almost certain was Italian. That was another what the hell? to add to the growing list of the night, along with how the name Sergeant James Barnes sounded so familiar when she knew she'd never seen him before.
"He says he is sorry," the giant said. He had an accent that went with the Eastern European language he'd been using. He glanced at Christine, and his mouth twitched into a grimace before he added, "He thinks we are in Italy."
"Sure. Whatever." Claire softly patted Barnes' cheek, smiling before she let go. "Thank you, James." She motioned Christine over. "My name is Claire. I'm a nurse. This is my friend Christine. She's a doctor. She's going to give you something that will stop the pain, and then we're going to fix you up. Do you understand?"
Barnes thinking he was in Italy made no sense whatsoever. But Barnes was delirious, so it wasn't surprising. "Hello, James. I'm pleased to meet you," Christine said, hauling up the aura of warm confidence she'd perfected over years of dealing with frightened patients and distraught loved ones. "I'm going to take good care of you, I promise. You're going to be just fine." She didn't know that for sure, but he'd definitely be in much better shape if they could get antibiotics into him. She gestured at the upturned bed. "Claire and I are going to fix the bed, and then I need you to lie down. Understand?" she added, because that seemed like a good idea.
James glanced at the bed, and his pale face went even paler under the grime, save the red splashes of fever on his cheeks. "No!" He began to struggle again, nearly breaking free from his friend's relaxed grip. "No! No! You're not getting me on your fucking table, you bitch—!" He fell into a fit of thick, wet coughing.
Christine was about to blurt that it was fine, perfectly fine if he stood or lay on the floor or whatever he wanted. But this time it was the giant who calmed him. He supported James heaving body while he hacked and tried to breathe, rubbing his back and murmuring to him. James was much too thin, but he was still a big man. His friend held him up like he weighed nothing.
Mercifully, James was finally able to spit a wad of bloody phlegm onto the floor. After he'd finished shuddering, his friend repositioned him so James head was on his shoulder, then murmured something else to him, still rubbing his back. The giant gestured at Claire and Christine with his chin, then pointed at the cot.
James responded in the same language. He sounded stricken, and when he blinked tears spilled down his flushed cheeks. He didn't seem to notice them, just dropped his gaze to the floor and nodded, limp with resignation. Christine felt like she'd just kicked a puppy into a pile of kittens.
"Tell him we can give him the painkillers while he's standing," Claire said to James' friend. Christine could have hugged her. "He doesn't have to lie down. We just need him to keep still."
The giant spoke to James again. James blinked, looking confused. He lifted his head, asking his friend something. Whatever the giant answered made James blink another time. He looked back at Claire and Christine, assessing them with his bleary gaze. "You're girls," he said, as if it was a sudden revelation.
"That's right," Claire said without missing a beat. "You're safe, James. We want to give you painkillers, that's all. Just a couple needles, nothing other than that, I promise. Illya will be right here, making sure nothing happens to you. But we can't do anything while you're still in pain. You need to help us, so we can help you. Can you do that, James?"
He looked at the cot again. "I'm not lying down."
"That's fine," Christine said quickly. "You can stand or sit or whatever you want."
James hesitated, then nodded. "Okay."
Christine went to her bag immediately, only letting out the long breath of relief when her back was turned. There was a still-intact folding table in the far corner of the room, where Claire had put out everything she needed to abrade James' burns. Christine borrowed part of it for the vials and her syringes.
At the conference, the presenter had said Steve Rogers responded to ketamine and morphine as well as a normal person, but they'd had to use, well, a shitload of it. James was apparently like Rogers, but he was underweight and it didn't seem like he healed the way Rogers did. Christine decided to start with a normal dose. She could always double or triple it. She'd brought—stolen, good Lord—enough for that, provided she and Claire worked quickly. Very quickly.
Well, there was always the morphine, but that was supposed to help him stay out of pain afterwards, and she hadn't taken as much of it.
She pulled on a pair of medical gloves, prepared a syringe and brought it over. The easiest place to inject it would be James' arm, but he was still wearing his jacket. She didn't want to wait while Claire cut it off him, especially if it made him panic again. Saying the poor man didn't like doctors would be a ridiculous understatement.
"Hold his shirt up," Claire instructed the giant Illya, when she saw Christine hesitating. He did, speaking quietly to James in what had to be Russian the entire time. James kept perfectly still, trembling like a doomed rabbit. Claire pulled a couple alcohol swabs out of her pocket and cleaned a spot on James' side. It practically shone next to the dirt surrounding it.
Christine smiled her thanks. "This will sting, but not for very long, okay?" She waited until Illya repeated it in Russian and James nodded, then she took a breath and gave him the injection as quickly as possible. She realized afterwards that she should've let Claire do it, since she had more experience. But James didn't even twitch.
But Claire got her turn to stick him a couple of minutes later, because all the first shot did was make James blink sleepily and sag a little bit. Christine mentally crossed her fingers that two vials would be enough, then almost cheered out loud when James relaxed completely in Illya's arms. James said something softly in Italian, a tiny smile gracing his drawn features. Illya responded just as quietly, smirking a bit. James' smile widened slightly as his eyes slid shut.
"He asked how the butterflies got in here," Illya said. His smile was relieved and incredibly sad.
"Fuck me. It worked," Claire yanked off her own gloves, wiped her forehead with the heel of her hand, then took a second to hold the side of her chest and wince. "Okay. Now we get him clean."
To be fair, which Christine tried to be to everyone, she had a lot more on her mind than James' interesting but apparently useless prosthetic. She'd mostly been focused on how they were going to keep him from destroying the clinic or dying in front of them. So, maybe it wasn't so unreasonable that Sergeant James Barnes and metal arm didn't meet in her head and immediately make a relevance baby. But she'd barely even registered the prosthetic until after they'd abraded his burns, given him more ketamine, washed him head to toe, bandaged his side and then hung enough antibiotics to nuke every germ in his body.
Illya had taken the lead for the bed bath. That was unexpected but great, since Christine knew the principles but had never done it herself. Illya was an orderly, he'd told her; he did this for a living. He did it well, too: fast, thorough, and efficient, partially thanks to his unbelievable strength. But he was so careful and gentle it brought tears to her eyes.
Well, it'd been a long night.
But, the arm.
Christine only really noticed it when it was as clean as the rest of James Barnes, gleaming like artwork on an overturned box to keep it away from his side. Maybe it was the red star she could actually see on his shoulder, or maybe it was how beautiful James was. She'd given him the morphine to help him sleep, and he looked like a gaunt, weary angel, finally at rest.
Whatever the reason, the pieces finally knit in Christine's very tired brain, and she realized he was oddly familiar because she'd fucking read about him two years ago.
"Oh my God." She slapped her hand over her mouth, partially so she wouldn't shriek and wake him. "That's the Winter Soldier," she whispered frantically at Claire. "That's the Winter Soldier. He's dead! What the hell is he doing here?"
"He is not Winter Soldier," Illya said. He was in a chair next to James' head, holding his lax right hand in both of his. He'd been staring at his face, but turned long enough to scowl at Christine. "His name is Bucky. He is my brother, not…not that. Hydra did that to him. Was never choice."
That broody anger certainly seemed very Russian. "He's your brother?" Christine asked, because why isn't he dead? seemed a bit inappropriate.
"Not genetically," Claire filled in. She'd cleaned up James' phlegm and was using a towel to mop up the drops of water on the floor, pushing it around with her feet. "Hydra also stole little boys and raised them to be Super Soldiers. Like Captain America."
Illya nodded. "Hydra…." He rubbed an eye with the heel of his hand. "They killed my father and pulled me out of my mama's arms when I was five years old. That was 1942." He nodded when Christine gasped. "I do not know why they took me. Maybe because I was large child, for my age." He shrugged, like the reason didn't matter. Maybe it didn't, so many years afterwards. "I was one of six, then. Hydra's Summer Soldiers." His mouth curved in an angry, bitter line nothing like a smile. "Only one who survived."
"I'm so sorry," Christine said.
"It was long time ago." Illya turned back to his brother, chafing James' hand between both of his. "I met him when I was eight. 1945. He was also prisoner. Hydra made this deal: we did what they wanted or the other got hurt." Illya's mouth worked like he was suddenly fighting back tears. "From that day, he was my brother too." He swallowed. "Bucky let them make him into Winter Soldier. For me."
"He must love you very much," Christine said.
Illya's breath caught like she'd punched him. Then he put his free hand over his eyes and hunched over, crying. He was wracked with it, but the only sound he made was the ragged stutter of his breath.
"Hey, hey. It's all right," Claire said, while Christine was feeling horrible and trying to decide if he'd let her touch him. Claire abandoned the towel and crouched next to him, her hands on Illya's shoulder and arm. "He's here. You found him. He's got antibiotics and people who care about him, and that super soldier healing will kick in and he will be fine."
"I failed him," Illya said. He didn't shrug Claire's hands off, but he turned his body away to make her let go of him. He lifted his head, wiping his eyes with one hand. The other still held James'. "I should have helped him before, when he escaped. But I didn't. I gave him back. I gave my brother back to Hydra. My own brother. And I never looked for him."
"You thought you were doing the right thing," Claire said. "You were helping him the only way you knew how."
"Everyone thought Sergeant Barnes was dead," Christine added. "Why wouldn't you?"
"Yeah," Claire said. "You're really good at a lot of things. But you're not psychic, Illya."
"I should have known!" Illya snapped. "Stupid. Stupid boy. I knew how capable he was. I should have known he did not die."
"You are definitely not stupid," Christine said. She went to him then, barely needing to crouch to meet Illya's eyes. "I agree with Claire. There's no way you could have known."
"It does not matter, what you say," Illya said wearily. "I know I failed him. I have failed everyone I have ever cared about. Everyone." He pulled his lips back from his teeth in a soundless snarl, but was exquisitely gentle when he tucked James' hand under the blankets. Then he stood and stalked towards the door.
"What are you doing?" Claire rushed after him. He was fast, but she managed to slide herself between him and the doorway.
"My brother is safe," he said. "You don't need me now."
Those simple words must have implied something very bad, because Claire's eyes widened in alarm before narrowing in anger. "Bucky needs you!" she hissed. "He's going to wake up with two strangers in a place he doesn't recognize. What if he panics?"
Fear flashed across Illya's face, momentary as lightning. He looked at Bucky over his shoulder, as if making sure he was still there. Christine assessed James automatically as well. His breaths were still wheezing but steady, and he was still deeply asleep. He was fine.
"Your friend will also wake up with strangers in a place he does not recognize," Illya said. "And you know what they will do to him."
"Yes I do," Claire gritted back. "And I'm still telling you that you need to stay here."
"I can't!" Illya exclaimed, his voice sibilant with repressed emotion. "He is not like us. He doesn't heal as fast. If they use the Chair he won't come back!" He took a few deep, fast breaths like he was fighting for control. He'd been tapping his thigh; now his hands curled into fists. It occurred to Christine that he could have just picked Claire up like furniture and set her aside. Stephen would have, but Illya didn't so much as twitch towards her. "Claire," he said, desperate, "they will destroy him."
"I know," Claire's breath hitched once, and then she hauled her composure back like a shield. "What if they destroy you too?"
Illa grinned in a wolf's rictus of teeth. "I will die before I let them do that."
"Bucky needs you alive! They both do!" Claire said. "Illya, you don't even know where he is."
"I know where to look."
"And they'll be waiting for you!"
"Wait. Wait," Christine cut off whatever Illya was about to growl in return. "Where are you going and who are you talking about?"
"Daredevil," Claire said, clipped with frustration and fear. "Hydra have him."
"He came with me, to find Bucky," Illya explained. "Hydra was waiting for us. He stayed to fight, so I could save my brother."
"Oh my God." Christine had never met any of Claire's 'special needs' patients before tonight, but she knew Claire and the vigilante were good friends. She'd also read enough about what happened to James Barnes to know she never wanted to think about it ever again. "But…Hydra's gone. Captain America got rid of them. Didn't he?" she asked when Illya shook his head.
"Cut off one head, two more grow in its place," Illya said. "There will always be Hydra."
"Like cockroaches," Claire spat. "Please, Illya. Don't do this."
"Wait," Christine said again. "Our patient really is Sergeant Barnes, right? I mean, he's not…I don't know, a clone or something?"
Illya nodded grimly. "He is my brother."
"Okay," Christine said. "Then, shouldn't we let Captain America know he's alive? I mean, they were friends. He should know," she added, because Illya's expression went icy with anger.
He was afraid, she realized, but she didn't know why.
"Christine's right," Claire said. She put her hands over Illya's shaking fists. "You know she is. Keeping it secret isn't fair to either of them."
Illya's jaw worked like he was grinding up his rage. "What if Bucky attacks him? What if Rogers brings the others, and he attacks them?"
Christine didn't think Bucky would be able to stand, let alone attack anyone. But Claire said, "that's why we need you here. To keep your brother safe."
Illya swallowed. "Matya is my brother too."
"I know," Claire said gently. "But we can't help him right now. Our priority has to be the one we can."
Illya didn't answer, but his breathing sped up, the knuckles on his fists bleaching white as the bone. He looked like he was on the brink of either a panic attack or putting his fist through the wall.
"Breathe with me, Illya," Claire said. She pulled in a slow, deep lungful of air. "Come on. You know how to do this."
He just shook his head mutely. He was trembling all over, holding himself in check by the skin of his teeth.
"Okay, okay," Claire said immediately. "Outside." She took Illya's arm. "There's an abandoned car in the parking lot. Please try not to hurt yourself." She kept hold of him, guiding him to the back door of the building as if he couldn't find it on his own.
Illya opened the door softly, then shut it softly behind him.
"Is he going to be all right?" Christine asked.
"Yeah. He, uh, he has difficulty controlling his anger, sometimes," Claire said. "Hydra trained it into him." She blinked a few times, then looked up at the ceiling.
"Are you okay?" Because Christine had done the same thing enough times that she knew Claire was trying not to cry.
Claire sniffed, then swiped at her eyes with the pads of her fingers. "Not really." Her voice was ragged with anguish. "Illya's right. About what they'll probably do."
"Oh, God. I'm so sorry." Christine hugged her, then hugged her more tightly when Claire held on with awful desperation. "It's going to be okay, though. You saved Captain America's best friend. I know he'll want to save yours. I mean, it's his job. And he owes you a favor."
Claire gave a tiny, wet smirk, then pulled back. "Welcome to my life." She took a breath, squaring her shoulders. "He owes both of us. I couldn't have done this without you. Thanks."
"Anytime." Christine smiled tiredly. "What's a few stolen vials of controlled substances between friends?"
Claire's return smile was just as tired, and tight around the edges with fear. "Okay. Break's over. You check on our patient. I'm going to make sure Illya hasn't accidentally sliced his arm off. And then…" She shook her head in incredulity. "Fuck me. I'm actually going to call the Avengers."
"Another thing off your bucket list," Christine said dryly. She pointed at the break room. "I'll make coffee."
And meet Captain America, apparently. After meeting a Russian Super Soldier, finding out Hydra still existed, and treating a World War Two legend who wasn't actually dead. And she'd been exhausted even before Claire called.
"Well, Sergeant Barnes," she sighed, "at least I know how I'm going to spend my days off."