"Maybe you should try landscapes or something. The view is beautiful."
Steve dropped the most recent wad of crumpled paper onto the coffee table, then flipped over another sketchbook page without looking up. He knew Tony wasn't trying to be an ass, so he did his best not to snap at him. "I don't feel like it."
Tony was right, anyway. The city's nightscape looked like a glittering, crystalline wonder from the windows of the tower's penthouse. Steve had even come up there for the view. But he didn't want to draw the city blanketed with cold and snow. He couldn't bear it.
"You don't seem to feel like drawing portraits either. Just saying," Tony said. "You know that's wasting paper, right?"
"Stark Industries recycles everything."
"Good point." Tony came around the couch and sat next to Steve, then leaned back with both arms along the top. It meant that his right arm was just behind Steve's shoulders, as close as possible to giving him a hug without Tony actually doing it.
Steve didn't want a hug. He didn't want Tony there at all. But being alone hadn't done him any good either. Tony also took any kind of rejection personally, though he hid it well. The last thing Steve wanted was to hurt one of his friends. He'd already lost so many.
"I'm trying to draw Bucky," he said before Tony asked. "But I can't. It's like…the shapes won't come. I can see him in my mind so clearly, but—"
"You can't get it to your fingers." Tony nodded knowingly. "Been there, done that, occasionally destroyed stuff in a ragequit." He sighed and patted Steve's far shoulder. "It fucking sucks. But, you'll get it back. Just give it time."
"I've given it time!" Steve gave up on his temper and snapped at him. "It's been nearly a year and a half!" He gritted his teeth, wiping angrily at the tears pooling yet again in his eyes. Sometimes it felt like the grief would kill him; tonight it was very hard to care.
"That's not very long," Tony said. "No, seriously," he added when Steve glared incredulously at him. "Believe me. I grieved for Jarvis—Edwin Jarvis—for at least a decade. Hell, I made J.A.R.V.I.S. the A.I. because of him. It took me even longer to deal with the death of my parents. Probably because I spent about eighteen years not dealing with it at all. And I still miss them. Just a little bit, but pretty much all the time."
"It's not the same," Steve said wearily. He wiped his eyes again. "I already grieved for him. I was…I was doing better. I thought I was…that maybe I'd even be okay. And then…." He stopped, breath shuddering.
"You found him and lost him again in less than twenty-four fucking hours," Tony said.
Steve nodded, then let his head hang. Tony moved his hand to Steve's back. "It's not just missing him," Steve said. "It's knowing he was alive all that time, and suffering. And that he died…he died scared and in pain. Because of me."
"Because of Hydra," Tony said, sharply enough to make Steve look up at him. "Hydra put him there. You only did what you had to." He rubbed Steve's back. "You saved the world. That's like…that was laying down on the wire. Like you told me. Sometimes you have to make the sacrifice."
"I didn't sacrifice me. I sacrificed him." Steve's next breath broke. "Oh, God, Tony. I tried to save him. I tried so badly to save him, but I couldn't. I had to hurt him. And he was so scared. He died—" Steve put his hand over his mouth, as if that could stifle the anguish trying to tear out of him.
"I know," Tony said. "I know, Steve. I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry." He kept rubbing Steve's back. It didn't help, but nothing did. Nothing ever would; not for this. "I wish I'd been there. I wish I'd known about it."
Steve sniffed, wiped his eyes again. "It happened really fast. And you had your own issues to deal with."
"I would've come anyway. You're my friend."
"I know," Steve said. "I'm sorry."
"Jesus, Steve, you don't have to apologize!" Tony gave him an awkward, one-armed hug across his hunched shoulders. "I just mean, I wish I'd been there. Maybe things would've ended differently."
"Yeah." Steve pulled in a thick, trembling breath. "But they didn't. And now he's gone. And there's nothing I can do about it."
"Nope," Tony said. The word was flippant but his voice was full of sympathy, and his arm was still across Steve's back. "That's gotta be the worst fucking thing, huh? Everything we'd do differently if we could. But we can't."
"You should invent time travel," Steve said.
It was supposed to be a joke, ease the pain a little bit before he started bawling again. But, "I tried," Tony said seriously. "But there's too much physics to subvert, and even I can't figure out the technology."
"Oh," Steve said. "Thanks anyway."
Tony clasped Steve's arm. "You will get over this, I promise. It'll take time and it'll be, well, fucking awful. Which you already know. But, you'll get over it."
"I don't want to get over him," Steve said. "I just want it not to hurt."
"Okay," Tony said.
"Illya, please. Stop pacing. You're upsetting the patient," Christine said.
Illya barely glanced at Bucky. "He is asleep."
"Fine. You're upsetting me. I'm getting anxious just looking at you." Christine sighed and rubbed her forehead, then pulled the open plackets of her coat closer around her. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor with her back to the wall, beneath the mirrors. Claire had paid some local kids under the table to take the barbers' chairs and shelves out, and Christine had reached the level of exhaustion where the exposed plywood was fascinating. She was also really cold, despite Claire trucking out a couple of space heaters that were chugging merrily in two corners of the room.
Illya was down to his tee-shirt. Then again, he'd been pacing like a lion on amphetamines for the last half hour. But Christine always got cold when she was tired, and right now she was freezing. There were more blankets in the back, but she'd have to stand up and cross the room to get one. Freezing was less effort.
Illya reached the end of his latest circuit and spun around as he started back. "What is taking so long? Why must Claire keep calling? She is using Daredevil's phone!".
"I don't know. I can't hear what they're saying. I don't have super soldier hearing." Christine watched Illya retrace his route with the kind of frustrated despair that hit when she was running on whatever was left after the fumes were gone. She thought wistfully of how she'd give her left arm for a coffee and a muffin, then realized where the inspiration for that hyperbole came from and almost burst into tears.
She managed to keep it together by sternly reminding herself that she was just hungry and really, really tired. And how her colleagues always thought it was hilarious when she got maudlin after working for more than twenty hours straight. Christine usually just sniffled and told them to fuck off, then gritted her teeth and went back to work.
"What is wrong?" Illya asked.
"Nothing." Christine sniffled, then searched fruitlessly through her pockets for a tissue. Naturally they were in her purse, which she'd moved to the back room with the blankets to keep out of the way. And she was not going to cry about not having tissues, for goodness' sake. "I'm just really tired."
Illya had stopped his pacing to give her his full attention. He looked concerned, which was unexpected and oddly sweet. "You are cold?"
She nodded. "I get cold when I'm tired." She sniffled again, thought longingly of a tissue, then gave up and wiped her nose on the sleeve of her coat.
"You should go home, then. Sleep," Illya said, as if that wasn't eyerollingly obvious. But instead of going back to his pacing, he sat next to her against the wall with his legs splayed. "Come here," he said, opening his arms.
The imperiousness was annoyingly familiar. On the other hand, Stephen would've just snorted and told her to put on a sweater. And she could feel the warmth of Illya's body radiating off him.
She scooched closer to him, then let him position her so she was bracketed by his pulled-up knees with her back to his chest. He took her hands between his bearpaws and just held them, warming them up. Both his hands were bandaged. They'd been burned when Christine met him, especially his right, and after smashing the car he'd needed stitches too. She was sure he'd also broken knuckles on both hands. Illya had refused anything but the bandages, of course. He said he would heal, and he didn't want to take their time.
Claire hadn't even argued, just huffed out a breath of resigned frustration. She was obviously used to this.
Particular Idiots. All of them. Christine really should get Claire the door plaque.
"Better?" Illya asked. It had to hurt him every time he flexed his fingers, but she couldn't hear any strain in his voice.
"Yes. Much better. Thank you." Christine sighed, relaxing as she warmed. "You're like an oven. Are all super soldiers this hot?"
"No. But Bucky is close," Illya said.
He was so deadpan and Christine was so tired that it took a moment for her to get why he sounded smugly pleased. "I didn't mean that!" she said. Now she was blushing; at least her face was warm.
Illya chuckled. "I know. Actually, I run more hot than Bucky. Probably because I am bigger." He let go her now-toasty hands and wrapped his arms around her waist. She put her hands over his, feeling the rough gauze of the bandages and the warmth underneath. His chest pressed into her back when he sighed. "He would do this for me, when I was small. We would sit on the cot in his cell like this, and he would keep me warm."
There was an entire life's worth of tragedy tangled in those simple words. "I'm glad you had him," she said, because she didn't have the energy to unravel his past tonight.
"So am I," Illya said softly.
They both went quiet for a moment, watching Bucky breathe. There was a cheap oxygen monitor on his finger that Claire had bought on Amazon, but Christine could tell just by looking that Bucky's lungs were still congested but otherwise working fine. He already had better color in his face, too.
It was like jumpstarting a car, she decided: all he needed was the boost and then he could run on his own again.
"What?" Illya asked when she giggled, amusement in his voice.
"Nothing." She shook her head. "I'm punchy. Giddy from lack of sleep," she clarified when he seemed not to know the word.
"Go to sleep, then."
The offer was no more intimate than what they were already doing, but the idea of sleeping in Illya's arms made Christine's face heat again. "You're so nice," she blurted, then winced at his snort. "I meant, you're just really…nice. Even after what Hydra did to you. And I'm probably too tired to be speaking."
"It's cute. I don't mind." He ducked his head so his cheek brushed her temple, as if in thanks. "It was…difficult, to be kind. Hydra said kindness was weak. They killed a boy. Alosha. One of my brothers. He and oldest boy, Vadik, were close. Like me and Van…Like me and Bucky. But they said Alosha was 'distraction'. So they shot him."
"Oh, my God. I'm so sorry," Christine said.
"It was a long time ago," Illya said. But he ducked his head again as if using her for comfort. "But I mean, it was bad. To be nice. Kind. But Vanya—" He sighed. "Bucky. Hydra called him Vanya," he explained. "Made us forget it was not his name. But Bucky was always kind. Always good, even when Hydra had taken everything from him. I learned this from him. Strong should help weak. Protect them." She could hear the smile in his voice, weighted as it was with sadness. "When he was still Bucky, he told me stories of Steve. Little, tiny friend who was stubborn and brave. Who tried to protect weak, even when he was not strong enough himself. Bucky tried to be like him, always. And I tried to be like Bucky."
"I think you are like Bucky," Christine said. She had a lump in her throat.
"Thank you," Illya said quietly, but then growled and hit his head against the wall. "They hung up again."
Claire started cursing loudly enough that even Christine could hear it. "The Avengers must get a lot of crank calls."
Illya snarled something in Russian under his breath. "And meanwhile Matya is tortured and they do nothing." He hit his head again, harder.
"It's going to be all right, Illya. Stop that." Christine gripped his wrists so he wouldn't hurt his hands. He wasn't shaking yet, but she could feel the rage kindling in him like a bonfire. "I know you're scared for your friend. I am too. But you know how stubborn Claire is. If anyone can get an Avenger to answer the phone, it's her."
"Someone does," Illya snapped. "Same person, every time. He just hangs up. Said he will call cops if she tries again."
"They don't care that she's using Daredevil's phone? Or that he's in trouble?"
"No. It could be found or stolen, he says. He does not believe her."
"Damn it." Christine rubbed her forehead. "I could try." She barely knew anything about what had happened, but she'd gladly use whatever credibility she had if it would get someone to listen. "Maybe if they know I'm a surgeon…?"
"No." Illya stood. He kept his arms around her waist, lifting her up with him and gently setting her on her feet. "Enough. I will do it." He stalked to the back of the building.
"Oh, dear." The rush of cold was shocking, but Christine was very much awake now. She raced after him.
"Come on, J, she's obviously delusional," Tony said. "Either that or she's hoping for a quick handout. Just stop answering and tell the police."
"I am still uncertain that would be wise, Sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. said with uncharacteristic persistence. "She has been consistent in her narrative, and sounds quite concerned. She is also determined to speak to Captain Rogers."
"Maybe we should just let her," Steve said. He'd wadded up yet another piece of sketch paper with no recollection of doing it. He wanted to rip the entire book apart. He only didn't because he knew it wouldn't stop his heart from racing, or the sick, helpless mess inside of hope, despair and rage. "She said…." He swallowed, squeezed the paper into a tighter ball. "She said Bucky's alive."
It was a lie; of course it was. Bucky was dead. Drowned or worse. Steve, Sam, and even Tony and Natasha had searched long enough to be certain. If there'd been some sign Bucky was alive they would've found it. But it'd been a year and a half and nothing. It had to be a lie.
"Yeah," Tony scoffed. "Her and how many thousands of other wackjobs out there? I'm sorry, Steve." He sounded like he really was. "But if Bucky was alive, do you really think you'd find out from some rando chick calling from an—"
"An abandoned barbershop in Harlem, Sir. At least according to the coordinates," J.A.R.V.I.S. filled in for him.
"See?" Tony spread his hands. "How fucking sketchy is that, huh? Believe me, I've been through enough of this shit. She's a bitch and being cruel as hell, doing this to you. But at best she's nuts and at worst she just wants something."
"What about how she has Daredevil's phone?" Steve wasn't sure why he was protesting. Tony was right: this was incredibly cruel, whatever the woman's agenda. Steve was barely hanging on through his grief as it was. This sliver of hope was sharp as a knife through his heart.
"She has Daredevil's number," Tony corrected him. "He refused a StarkPhone 'cause he's an idiot, so all he has is downmarket crap a toddler could hack during naptime." Tony came back to stand in front of the couch. He put his hand on Steve's shoulder. "Steve," he said. His voice was so sympathetic it made Steve angry, though he had no idea why. "Daredevil's the only Avenger who's real identity is still secret. Which means whoever's pulling this off knows we'd have to find out who the fuck he even is in RL before we could verify if he's dead or missing or whatever. So of course they're gonna use him."
"But…" Steve gritted his teeth. This was stupid. He was being so stupid. "But, how do they know we don't know Daredevil's real name?"
"They don't." Tony said it like it was immaterial. "They probably guessed, since none of the Avengers' publicity ever mentions it. It doesn't matter. What matters is that there's nothing waiting for you at that fucking abandoned barbershop in Harlem other than misery and pain. It doesn't matter how persistent Ms. Claire Temple is. Hell, she got fired from Metro-General a few months ago. She's probably just looking for money. If that's even her. Which I doubt."
"Yeah, okay," Steve whispered. He felt sick. The paper was a damp ball the size of a marble in his hand. He dropped it onto the table. There was a metaphor in letting go, he was sure. He didn't want to think about it. "Just don't answer, if she calls back again."
"I'm afraid she already has, Captain," J.A.R.V.I.S. said.
"Then hang up!" Tony exclaimed. "Jesus Christ, J, I'm going to donate you to goddamn call center! What the fuck?"
"If I may, Sir, she gave the phone to a man after a brief argument. His accent is clearly Russian."
Tony and Steve looked at each other. "Definitely scammers, then," Tony said.
"Again, I am uncertain if that is the case," J.A.R.V.I.S. said. "He told me to relay a message to Captain Rogers."
"Fine." Steve scrubbed his face. Looked like Tony was right. Now Steve was really, really angry. "What is it?"
J.A.R.V.I.S. played it back verbatim: Tell him, You went to see Wizard of Oz on September second, 1939. I know Bucky did not keep ticket because of film.
The blood drained from Steve's head so fast he got dizzy. He was thankful he was sitting, or he'd probably be on the floor. As it was he only realized he'd stopped breathing when Tony shook him.
"Steve? Steve! What is it? What'd that mean? Are you okay?" His eyes were wide with concern. "What the fuck did he say? You look like you're going to pass out."
It took a moment for coherent thought to fumble its way through Steve's head. His heart hadn't drummed this badly since before the serum. "Put him through," he managed to grind out.
"I mean it! Put him through!" Steve found the coordination to get to his feet, fists clenched and shaking. "How do you know that?" he demanded before J.A.R.V.I.S. could say the stranger was connected. "How the hell do you know that?"
"Because he told me." The accent was definitely Russian. The speaker sounded about Steve's age, but Steve was certain he'd never heard his voice before; he would've remembered.
"For fuck's sake, Illya. This isn't a spy movie." That had to have been the woman—Claire Temple?—who'd made all the calls. "Illya grew up with him. With Hydra. Not in Brooklyn. They were prisoners together. Look," she said on a breath, "I know how it sounds. I know you think I'm nuts or we want something. I'd think the same thing. But I swear to God that all we care about is getting Bucky and Daredevil safe."
"How do we know Bucky's even there?" Tony said. He had his hand on Steve's arm, as if he was trying to keep him from running to Harlem right that second. "How do we know you're not happy Hydra goons waiting to Winterize Rogers the second he steps into your lair? We know what they did to Bucky. You could've pulled that out of his head along with everything else."
"They didn't," Steve gritted. "The ticket was in his journal. He didn't have it when he fell. And he never told anyone but me."
"Apparently he did," Tony said.
"Um, do you…are you using a camera phone?" That was yet another voice, a second woman. "Couldn't we just Skype them?"
"Skype with the Avengers?" Claire sounded like that would have never occurred to her in a million years. Steve could understand that. "Shit. That's a good idea. Can you set up a video conference? We can show you."
Steve looked at Tony.
"Yeah, sure," Tony said. "Just a sec. Mute it, J. This is…obviously not what I thought it was," he said to Steve. "But, it could still be a trap. Using him to get you."
"I don't care," Steve said immediately. "Do it. Let me see."
Tony nodded. "All right."
A holographic screen burst into life in front of them, showing the face of a beautiful woman with black hair and the expression of someone who was down to her last nerve. The other people with her were offscreen, though Steve caught glimpses of the sleeve of a brown wool coat. The other woman said, "Oh my God, is that Captain America?"
Claire hushed her. "Can you see me?"
"Where's Bucky?" Steve said.
Claire glared at him. "I've been trying to tell you that for forty minutes. Keep your fucking pants on." The phone moved with her into what was obviously the larger room of the barbershop. He could see mirrors along one wall, and small craters in the plaster that he was sure came from bullet holes. The chairs were gone, but there was a low cot near the far wall of the room. And Bucky was lying on it, with his metal arm stretched out on a box beside him. He was asleep, breathing steadily despite the wheeze in his lungs.
Breathing. Bucky was breathing. He was alive.
The next thing Steve was truly aware of was that he was sitting on the floor among the remains of the coffee table. "I'm fine," he said automatically, not even sure which of the worried voices he was responding to. He wiped the clammy sweat off his forehead with a badly trembling hand, then started to get up. "I'm going over there."
"Uh, not yet you're not." Tony heaved him up only as far as the couch then pushed him onto it. "You dropped on your ass like a brick and you still look like you've seen a ghost. Which you kind of have. Give yourself a minute."
"No! That's Bucky!" Steve tried to get up, but his head swam and Tony just pushed him back again.
"And he'll still be Bucky in a couple minutes," Claire said. "And he's sleeping. He's not going anywhere."
"What happened to him?" Steve demanded. His voice was trembling. He meant, Where was he? How did he survive? Why is he with you and not with me? The words couldn't find their way out of his mouth.
"Arm malfunctioned. Became too hot," the man with the Russian accent spoke again. Claire handed him the phone so Steve could see him. He was tall, maybe taller than Steve. Handsome, but with a kind of danger to him that reminded Steve of Bucky during the war. "He was cold," the Russian continued. "He did not have enough food or sleep for months. He could not heal. He caught pneumonia, burns became infected."
"Oh my God," Steve breathed. "Is he all right?"
"Yeah, now he is," Claire said off-camera. "We cleaned him, bandaged him up and gave him antibiotics, and kept him warm. It seems like without all the stress his body's started healing on its own again. He's going to be fine, but he's badly malnourished and he'll be starving when he wakes up. All I've got here is a couple packs of Ensure, so if there's any super soldier food you could bring that'd be great."
Steve glanced at Tony, who nodded. "We can do that."
"What about his arm?" Tony asked. "You said it malfunctioned. Is it still burning him? I could fix—"
"You would not answer phone, and now you stand talking while your comrade is prisoner of Hydra," the Russian snarled at them. "Devil may be new Winter Soldier or dead, and we are doing nothing!"
The second woman shushed him, and a petite hand came into frame to rest on the Russian's arm.
"And who are you?" Tony asked coolly.
"Illya Kuryakin," he said, just as coolly. Steve wasn't sure if the name was supposed to mean something or not. Illya took a breath, banking his temper with clear effort. "Please. I cannot leave Bucky alone. And if I go after Daredevil myself, I probably won't come back." He sounded like it pained him to admit it. "Get what you need and come here. I will tell you everything I can. But if we do not go soon, I do not know if we will find someone we can save."
Claire gave them the address. They didn't need it because of J.A.R.V.I.S., but neither of them mentioned that.
"We'll be there in, like, thirty minutes," Tony said. "With super soldier food. And I'm still bringing my toolkit." Part of Tony's eagerness had to be Bucky's arm itself, but Steve still appreciated it. "Anything else?"
"Clothes," Claire said. "Clean clothes. Warm stuff."
"And antibiotics!" the other woman chimed in, taking the phone and moving into frame. She had reddish hair and delicate, anxious features. "Oral meds will be fine, I think, since he's a super soldier. But if you can bring enough intravenous for another day first, that'd be great. Oh. I'm Christine Palmer," she added, giving a little wave. Dr. Christine Palmer."
"Thank you. All of you," Steve said. It was seeping in, just how much he owed these people he'd never met. "Can I…Could I see him again? Please?"
Christine blinked, then her expression softened. "Of course." She turned the phone and let Steve watch Bucky breathing.
"We'll be there soon," Tony said, then had J.A.R.V.I.S. cut the call. "You'll get to see him in person, Steve," he told him when Steve couldn't help crying out at the loss. "But we need to get stuff first." He winced. "Fuck, Daredevil really is in shit, isn't he?" he said like he'd just realized it. "We have to figure out where the hell he is, and how we're going to get him back."
"Yeah. Of course. Of course we do." Steve couldn't say he knew the man behind Daredevil's imposing mask any better than any of the other Avengers, but he liked him. And he would never forget how Daredevil had tried to comfort him one particularly bad night. It hadn't helped, but it had been very kind.
Steve would have gone after anyone captured by Hydra. But Daredevil, whoever he was, was Steve's friend. And all Steve could think of was how he'd found Bucky in the Isolation Ward at Azzano: bruised and bloody and mindlessly repeating his name, rank and service number over and over again. That, and all the other men before him who hadn't survived.
Daredevil already had enhanced abilities; God only knew what Hydra would do to him.
Steve could have run there, the barbershop was so close. He wanted to, but Tony insisted on driving. "You don't think It'd be kind of suspicious? A big, blond white guy racing through Harlem at a hundred miles an hour in the middle of the night? No way, Flash. Besides, we've got cargo."
The 'cargo' was a large box of nutrition shakes specially created by Stark Industries' R&D for Steve, Thor, and any other enhanced being with an abnormally active metabolism. There was a second box of energy bars, and a week's worth of the warmest clothing Steve had. Tony had even found a new, unopened package of boxers. They were sized for him, but Bucky had looked so gaunt on the screen that Steve figured they'd fit.
Steve also packed a couple of belts.
Tony had vials of I.V. antibiotics, a ten-day oral supply, and "enough Ketamine to knock out a horse, just in case," all taken from the medical suite of the tower. Steve really hoped they wouldn't need it. He hated the idea of Bucky being in that much pain.
Tony also darted into the 24-hour cafeteria on the way out, emerging proudly with a carafe box of coffee and bags full of quick breads. It was thoughtful of him. Steve hadn't even considered it. Then again, he was ready to run to the makeshift clinic in nothing but jeans and a tee-shirt. The only thing he could think about was getting to Bucky.
There was a car in the parking lot behind the building that looked like someone had gone at it with a sledgehammer.
Steve didn't wait for Tony, just grabbed all the heavy stuff and went right to the back door. He knocked as politely as he could by kicking it with his foot.
Illya yanked the door open. He stood there looming with his considerable height, fists clenched and eyes blazing. He was obviously prepared to take Steve's head off, but then relaxed to just glowering at him. "Should have come through front door. I almost killed you." He took the two boxes with no effort, and suddenly what Claire said about Illya growing up with Bucky made horrible, logical sense.
"You're like him," Steve said, hushed with shock. He hadn't thought there was anyone else like him or Bucky in the world.
"Of course," Illya said, like Steve should have known. He turned around and brought the boxes inside.
His hands were bandaged. It made Steve think of the destroyed car.
"What my friend means is that it's good to meet you, Captain Rogers. Thank you for bringing all this." That was Claire, who graced him with a weary smile as she took the antibiotics and Ketamine from him as well. "Bucky's in there." She pointed to the larger room. "He's still sleeping. I can imagine how badly you want to talk to him, but please don't wake him."
"I won't," Steve promised. He remembered to say 'thanks', then went into the other room.
Christine was carefully putting an oxygen monitor back on Bucky's finger. She startled when she saw Steve, letting out a tiny squeak before clapping her hand over her mouth. "Hi," she whispered, still wide-eyed, then composed herself and smiled. "His oxygen saturation's at 95%, which is low but normal range. And his fever's down to 102. He's doing great."
"Thank you," Steve murmured. She stepped aside for him, so he could move the scuffed wooden chair nearer to sit. He took Bucky's right hand in his; the closest substitute when he couldn't pull Bucky into his arms.
He didn't wake him. Bucky's hand was too warm and too thin. Steve could see his veins, like a map of Bucky's life beneath his translucent skin. The oxygen monitor still said 95%. Steve could feel Bucky's pulse: overly quick with his fever but steady enough, like his breathing.
"Thank you," he said again. His voice went taut, then crumbled like clay as Steve started to cry. He clenched his jaw, swiping helplessly at his streaming eyes. He was happy. He was so happy. But this was a hard-edged, bruising joy. It felt like he'd been cold for so long he'd lost all feeling, and now he was suddenly warm again. And it hurt.
It was better than anything he'd ever hoped for. But dear God, he'd never thought relief could cause this much pain.
Christine handed him a small package of tissues, briefly put her hand on his shoulder before quietly retreating. Steve didn't want to let go of Bucky's hand long enough to take one from the package. The flimsy tissues would be useless anyway. Steve hadn't cried like this since the first time Bucky fell. Or the day he'd given up searching, because he was sure there was no one to find. Always for Bucky.
But Bucky was alive.
Steve was peripherally aware of Tony greeting everyone and offering food and coffee, but ignored it until Tony ambled over and sat cross-legged on the floor. He was on Bucky's left side, sitting so he faced the back of his metal arm.
Steve sniffed, gulped, then reluctantly put Bucky's arm down so he could attempt to clean his face. "What are you doing?"
"Fixing his arm while he's still dead to the world," Tony said. He didn't glance up from setting his tools out. "Cold War, show me how to open this thing."
"Shh!" Christine hushed him in a harsh whisper. She came over, looking worried. Both her hands were wrapped around a paper coffee cup, as if she needed the warmth. "You shouldn't do that now. What if he wakes up?"
"He will not." Illya walked over as well. "This is healing sleep. Very deep, very hard to wake him from. I have seen it many times."
Claire gave him a flat, mild glare. "And you didn't mention this because…?"
Illya shrugged. "Was not sure, before. I am now."
Steve blinked, freeing the tears trapped in his lashes. He hadn't known that. He'd actually witnessed it, he realized, after they escaped from Azzano. As soon as Bucky had made sure everyone was safe and organized for the trek, he'd crawled into the back of one of the stolen trucks and slept for fourteen hours. Steve hadn't been able to wake him; for a while he'd been terrified that Bucky never would. But Bucky did wake up: weak and starving, but still in good enough shape to walk the last fifty miles.
The bruises on his face had faded. Steve hadn't really noticed it at the time. He was too happy to have Bucky with him to think about anything else.
"Jesus Christ," he said. "I didn't know. I…I saw him like that. But I didn't know. I didn't know it meant anything. I didn't know—" He started crying again, grief-stricken and ashamed. If he'd just noticed, if he'd just taken a second to fucking think about it, maybe he would've known Bucky was different. Maybe he would've realized he should go after him. "I didn't know." He wiped futilely at his eyes. He'd used up Christine's tissues. She handed him another package. "Thanks," he murmured. "Sorry."
"You have nothing to apologize for," she said.
"Yeah," Tony chimed in. "Your BFF came back from the dead. I figure that entitles you to a minor breakdown." He looked at Claire. "So, are we doing this, or what?"
"Fine." Claire sighed and pulled her hair to one side of her neck. "Go ahead, then, if he'll sleep through it," she said to Tony. "But just know that if he wakes up because you hurt him, I will kill you."
It was a joke, but the way she said it had an underlying promise. Tony nodded like she meant it. "Sure. Avoid death by angry nurse. Works for me." He pulled on a headband light, then snapped his fingers at Illya. "Yo. Red Menace. Let's get this show on the road. How do I open this thing?"
"'Peril', not 'Menace'," Illya said absently. He stayed standing. "You should not fix his arm. If he panics when he wakes, he will be more dangerous."
"If he wakes up with only one arm, he's more likely to panic," Claire said. "He'll feel safer if he knows he can protect himself."
"That is what worries me," Illya said. "That he will protect himself and hurt you. He already shoved you into a wall, Claire! And that was with only one arm!"
"That was an accident. He wasn't aiming for me. And I'm fine," Claire said. "I just have a bruise."
"And next time you might be dead!"
"Isn't that why you're staying, though?" Christine asked him. "To make sure he doesn't wake up scared?"
A muscle in Illya's jaw jumped. "He is stronger than I am."
"Not right now, he isn't. Illya," Claire said on another, deeper sigh. "It's been a very long night and it's just going to get longer. Stop fucking arguing and help Tony fix Bucky's arm."
Illya scowled at her, but he crouched obediently next to Tony. He put the fingers of both hands in a complicated pattern on Bucky's triceps, then pushed. The arm opened with a smooth click, panels swinging aside like shutters.
"Now we're talking," Tony said. He licked his lips, studying the workings. Steve couldn't see much from this angle, but it was clear Tony wasn't impressed. "Did Hydra make this with an Erector set?"
"I had to pull out wires, to shut it off," Illya gritted.
Tony blinked. "There's no off switch? What if it…. Oh," he said at Illya's expression. "Right. No off switch. Who gives a shit if your Winter Soldier's in terrible pain? Okay." He worried his bottom lip, thinking. "All right. No big. I'll just save the best for last." He leaned closer, picking up one of his tools. "So, the red, tentacled bastards have our red, horned buddy. Ideas?"
"Work on the arm," Illya said.
"I can multitask."
Steve was finally sure he could speak without bursting into tears again. He took Bucky's hand. "Would Bucky know where they'd have taken him?"
Illya stood up. "Possibly. Doesn't matter. I know where they will take him."
Tony gaped up at him. "Seriously? Just like that?"
"Not precisely, no." Illya grimaced. "But, there are three places I know of." He hesitated. "Four, but the last one is in Siberia."
"They'd really take him to Siberia?" Christine asked.
"I do not think so," Illya said. "Winter Soldier and I were moved to U.S. after fall of Soviet Union. The other places are all in United States. Pennsylvania, South Dakota and here, near Long Island."
"All right, that's a place to start," Steve said. "What are these places? Which one would Hydra use for a prisoner?"
"Any of them," Illya said. "They are all big enough. All equipped with cells and…" He glanced at Christine and his mouth twitched unhappily. "Interrogation rooms for prisoners."
"Torture chambers?" Christine said.
Illya nodded. "Exactly. They are also all former military installations, supposedly abandoned. In Pennsylvania, their base was in Alvira, under unused munitions bunker. Here it is Coram Airport. The facility is hidden in nearby forest. One of Minutemen missile silos in South Dakota is really bunker."
"Great. So we've got three James Bond evil villain lairs to choose from," Tony said. His entire focus seemed to be on Bucky's arm, but he'd clearly heard everything. "Give us something to narrow it down, Red Peril. Where would they take Double D?"
Illya sucked in a breath. "Don't—" He cut himself off when Tony looked up at him in confusion, then shook his head. "Never mind. Keep talking."
"You said they'd want to make him into another Winter Soldier," Steve said. "Why?"
"It's complicated, and you don't need the full story right now," Claire cut into Illya's sudden hesitation. "But since they didn't get Illya or Bucky, they will definitely use Daredevil instead."
That was enough to make Tony look up again. "But, he's not a Super Soldier. Won't doing that kill him?"
"Killing him may be best-case scenario," Illya said. "Next time, answer phone."
"Noted," Tony murmured. He went back to working on Bucky's arm. "That narrows it down, at least. Which of those places can accommodate a chamber of horrors like that?"
"All of them," Illya said.
"Well, fuck." Tony sucked a tooth. "Okay. I can have J.A.R.V.I.S. search for any abandoned bunkers etcetera siphoning electricity in those states. That electric chair and walk-in freezer have to need a ton of it. If they're on the grid, that'll show up like a beacon."
"Wouldn't they just use a generator?" Christine said. "I mean, hospitals have generators in case of power failures. It'd make them less detectible, right?"
Illya shook his head. "Large shipments of fuel to middle of nowhere is suspicious."
"Good thinking, Red," Tony said. "J, do a search for unusual energy usage in South Dakota, Pennsylvania and Upstate New York."
"Certainly, Sir," the response came cheerfully from his phone. "It will take a few minutes."
"Knock yourself out," Tony said.
Except, none of the three places were on the electric grid. None of them had had any visitors at all, let alone anything big enough to carry fuel.
J.A.R.V.I.S.—Tony's handmade supercomputer, he explained—expanded the search to any place in the continental U.S. that fit Illya's criteria: big, unremarkable and away from a lot of people. Preferably abandoned.
Unfortunately, that left a hell of a lot of places. It would take hours, Tony's computer said. And that was only if they didn't have to expand the search anywhere else.
"I still say we go anyway, make sure he is not there." Illya had gone back to pacing, back and forth along the far wall like an engine working up steam. Claire kept her eyes on his hands, but they were still steady. So far. "So what if satellites show nothing? Hydra is very good at keeping themselves secret."
Tony grunted in annoyance as he pulled on a wire, then did something that worked and smiled. "If we start raiding former Hydra bases willy-nilly, they'll know we're coming."
"They already know we are coming! How could they not know we are coming?"
"I agree with Tony," Steve said. "It makes more sense to wait until we have an actual target."
Illya sneered at him. "You just don't want to leave Bucky."
"Of course I don't," Steve said, in the kind of reasonable tone Claire just knew would drive Illya that much further up the wall. "I especially don't want to leave him for a useless plan just so you can feel like you're doing something."
"None of us are doing anything!"
"Please keep your voice down, Illya," Christine said. She was sitting on the floor against the wall again, heavy-lidded with another cup of coffee beside her. It definitely wasn't keeping her awake. "I can't speak for Steve or Tony, but you need to sleep. Claire and I definitely do. This would be a good time for it. And you'll also be here in case Bucky wakes up." She yawned. "And I won't die watching you."
"You don't have to watch," Illya said.
Claire tugged her hair over one shoulder, running it through her loose fists while she thought. "Actually, I think Illya's right," she said. Everyone looked at her. "If Daredevil's there, you can save him. And if he's not, all you've lost is time, which we're all wasting right now anyway."
"Excuse you, I'm fixing Sleeping Angsty's arm," Tony said.
Steve looked down at Bucky's hand, still gripped in both of his. She watched as he gently lifted it to his lips and set a tiny kiss on the palm. The he placed Bucky's hand back at his side under the blankets and stood. He brushed back the hair from Bucky's forehead, smiling at him with a heartbreaking fondness, then squared his shoulders and lifted his head. "No. She's right. So is Illya," he said. "I don't want to leave Bucky. I uh…" He made a small sound somewhere in the same country as a laugh. "I never want to leave him again. But Bucky's safe. Daredevil isn't. If there's even a chance we can find him, we need to take it."
Illya blinked at him. "You said plan was useless."
Steve shrugged. Now his smile was only heartbreaking. "Wouldn't be the first time I carried out a useless plan. You don't have to come, Tony," he said to him.
"Right. Sure," Tony said on a huff of air. "There are no other Avengers available. So I'm just going to let you and Ra, Ra, Rasputin go there go by yourselves and get captured when it turns out it's a trap. No, thank you." He leaned closer, peering into the depths of Bucky's arm. "I'm almost finished here. Then we can go back to the Tower and suit up. Then Operation This Will Most Likely End Badly is a go."
"Thanks, Tony," Steve said.
Illya looked at Steve, then at Bucky. "I need to stay. In case he wakes up." He sounded like each word was being dragged out of him. He grimaced. "In case he thinks he is in bad place, and hurts the women."
Christine smirked tiredly with her eyes closed. "'The Women'. Thanks, Illya."
"But…." Steve glanced at Bucky, then back at Illya, stricken. "But I could—"
"No." Illya shook his head. "I am his brother. He knows me. He might not know you. Think you are mission."
"He knew me before he knew you," Steve said, close to snarling it.
"And he has known me for longer," Illya snapped, then he took a breath. "You are not only one who thought he was dead, Captain," he said, gentle now. "Thought they were alone. No one left for them in world. I know how you feel. More than maybe you can imagine. But Daredevil is my brother, like Bucky. It is complicated." He waved away Steve's unasked question. "But, also true. He is my brother. Do you think I want to stay here while I know what Hydra will do to him?"
"No," Steve said quietly. "Of course you don't." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm sorry. I'm not…" He gave another sort-of laugh. "I'm finding it kind of hard to be rational right now."
Tony lifted his head, eyes big with sympathy and worry. "You sure you're up for this, Cap?"
Steve nodded. He did something with his jaw, and suddenly he was every inch the legend and heroic leader of the Avengers again. "Yes. Absolutely."
"Good," Illya said. He stalked over to Steve with enough vehemence that Steve backed up a step. But Illya only held out his hand. "I know this is difficult. Thank you."
Steve nodded. They clasped each other's forearms. "We'll find him. If not now then soon. I promise."
"And I promise I will keep your friend safe," Illya said.
"I know you will."
"And…done!" Tony shut the panels in triumph, then threw up his hands like a gymnast sticking a landing. "The genius came through again! You're welcome."
"I still say it is bad idea," Illya said.
"Yeah, well," Tony said, packing his tools, "we're Avengers. Bad ideas are kind of our specialty."