"You used to have balls Soldier.” The hissed comment slid across his brain.
“I got balls, pal. Don’t you worry about that.” Bucky’s mumbled words wrapped around the lip of a bottle. A sidelong glance at no one, his muttered “I got all kind of balls,” brought his head back, the bottle in his raised hand, he let the smooth, cold creamy liquid flow tasteless across his tongue, numb his throat and flush his skin with the deception of warmth.
Eyes closed, the wash of alcohol invited in waking dreams of memories. The yellow-hued dimness of a dingy safe-house lost among the scattered landscape of time and place. The ache of broken bones crept across his body, the putrid smell of blood and sweat found its way back into his nostrils; the shiver of his real-time cold brought back the memory of unrelenting pain that racked even his enhanced body. Echoes of insistent Russian words from countless faceless men, rough hands forcing him down, holding his head, drowning the aftermath of a mission gone bad. He choked then and now on the harsh taste of cheap vodka poured down his throat to overwhelm his fight and pain.
He swigged down another deep gulp.
"Really? In case you haven’t noticed, said balls are literally frozen to the hood of a pickup truck, Stolichnaya vodka tucked between your legs instead of Steven Grant Rogers, and you’re contemplating throwing your inebriated ass at the feet of Iron Man. Those balls are shriveling by the second.”
Bucky shook his head. It helped clear the snow from his hair and toss his memories into a fleeting disarray; it didn’t do much to dislodge his tormenting internal monologue. It never did. His muttered confession, “Shoulda done this in Siberia, way overdue,” was solemnly heard by the silent falling snow; it went ignored by his inner companion. An awkward brush across his face to clear soaked hair from his vision, he raised the night vision goggles towards the sprawling complex below the old access road vantage point. The left to right then back again scans lingered at one spot, a visual speed bump on the path of his self-imposed quest for atonement. The giant A on the side of the building apparent to his eye despite the fog of two quarts of vodka and a thick veil of snow and sleet.
“Look at you, the pathetic embodiment of existential angst. A far cry from our glory days raining down unapologetic chaos without a free-will induced thought crossing your mind. Mother would be digging in her trunk for her favorite stun prod. You remember her, right? That saint of a woman who helped create the Soldier nurtured your glorious career, protected you from that red-faced rival, Alexei Shostokov from the Red Room all those years. She’s the one you dumped in that wasteland prison a few months ago. You ungrateful cur."
“Correction. Not Mother.” His drunken attempt to tap the bottle to his temple slid across his forehead. “Gieta Sokolov. Black Widow extraordinaire, mistress of the Red Room,” He dragged in a deep and staggering breath, announcing to the captive audience of trees, “Master of psychological conditioning, the creator and the destroyer of the words in my head.” A raised bottle salute towards the Northern sky slurred words heart-felt but dampened by the falling snow, “May you rot in that puke green cell for whatever years you have left. Not a lot since you’re as old as me and Steve. Good, hope you live to a hundred and twenty stuck in that shit-hole where I left you.” The final drops of vodka slipped down his throat, a commemoration of his table-turning efforts against his old handler from the Red Room days. Alcohol blurred eyes examined the bottle, assured of its emptiness, he lobbed it far to land silently in the woods.
“Agent Sokolov didn’t un-trigger your brain so you could addle it with cheap alcohol and freeze to death five miles from that quaint house the Captain retrofitted as a Nomad lair. If you die out here, Wilson’s going to take your bed, your Captain America sleepwear, the stash of Thin Mints, and all your guns. Knives too. Greedy bastard.”
Bucky squeezed his eyes shut against the unrelenting commentary from the Voice in his head. The experiment with alcohol failed. His low whispered, “I kinda hoped you’d get drunk too,” was meant as a personal commentary that he hoped would be missed by the Voice. Discouragement washed over him, there were no secrets from his own mind.
“Dream on, Soldier. Not how it works. Your lack of fortitude just set me free. Alcohol; the great lubricant, indiscreet sex, dancing on tables, truths told that are best kept quiet. How about we call Romanova and tell her how we really feel about her? Or Wilson, then again that would be pointless, he already knows you hate him, but you could tell him about the jealousy. Yes?"
A stinging gust of icy wind tore across the hilltop, pulling the tears that come from the cold, he tugged his hood onto his head. The numbing wash of alcohol dulled the frigid temperatures tamped down his hearing and pulled his vision into a darkened blur of mist and shadow. His reconnaissance of the New Avengers Facility fell into an exercise in self-loathing fueled by guilt, comforted by the cold and drowning in enough alcohol to put Wilson under the table for a week. A fact that brought on a perverse sense of pride. The events from three nights previous wandered to the forefront of his mind, he replayed the call that led to his frozen midnight vigil:
“There, right there.” Bucky’s groaned words fell next to Steve’s ear, rough-skinned hands maneuvered his willing body, pushing deeper into him; hips relaxed wide to take all of Steve between his legs. A low hiss of pain when metal fingers disrupted flesh, his worried withdrawal of touch was discouraged as Steve’s bite to his lip pulled a hint of blood washed away with his tongue. Colliding flesh, blended moans, the rhythmic complaint of the bed with Steve’s drive to fill him, overwhelmed the Voice’s relentless commentary; a few moments of reprieve. Quickening breaths, the pulse of blood in his groin, a flash of sweat across his thighs that mingled with Steve’s, all building to a final climax interrupted by the abrupt and jarring ring of the phone.
Steve pushed through, ignoring the intrusion, he braced his hands on Bucky’s cheeks, trying to keep him focused. “Look at me, forget that. Just look at me.” An open-mouth exploring kiss, a push to drive deeper inside of him, to distract his inevitable panic whenever the phone rang couldn’t overcome the insistent buzz as the caller simply hung-up with each roll to voicemail and tried again. And again.
Bucky's groan reverberated against Steve’s neck, “For fuck’s sake, it’s 3 AM. Who the hell is calling you at 3 AM.” He struggled to free himself from Steve’s grip, squirming out from under him, pushing him off, he rolled to his knees on the floor.
Steve sprawled across the bed, reaching to hold on a few seconds longer until he slipped out of his grip. “Us. Someone is calling us. We all live here, remember, you, me, Natasha and Sam.” He slapped at the phone on the bedside table, his terse “Yes,” when he answered was stopped short by the caller.
“One big happy family.” Bucky threw a hand in the air and muttered, ”I’m not taking any calls, thanks since I’m still wanted in a hundred and seventeen countries.” The anxiety that bubbled under his every waking and not-waking minute urged him into his clothes. The ever-present Beretta tucked in the back of his jeans; he settled on the floor, knees drawn up, fake-ignoring Steve’s side of the conversation, the initial “Yes,” followed by “Tony,” ending exactly nine minutes later with an emphatic “Stark.”
Steve turned on the lamp by the bed, taking too long to turn his gaze towards Bucky, his tone matter-of-fact, "That was Stark."
Bucky sat statue-still, breath long and slow, a settling choice when faced with a crisis; his head pressed back against the wall, hands braced on his knees. “No shit.”
"Right.” Steve reached for his jeans. “He got the Hydra data from the Boston mission. The data you chose to send to him. He wants to talk."
"At 3 AM? He calls you to talk about a data dump we did three months ago. I thought he was a genius. It took him three months to figure it out?"
"He wants to meet.” Steve watched the tension spread across Bucky’s body, the return of the faint head shake, a remnant of the memory suppression machine's gift of seizures; the ominous settling of the plates in his metal arm. “He’s got good leads and wants to meet, with me.”
"And you're gonna go? After all this time, and what happened, the Accords are still in place. He could just as easily take you in."
"He's not going to take me in." Steve crossed to kneel in front of Bucky, he brushed the hair from his face, "We dumped those files into his servers remember, we trusted him to do the right thing, and he has. There are good leads there he wants to talk about it."
"Give me a break." Bucky ducked his head from Steve's hand, "Three months is a lifetime in my world. What was left of Hydra went underground, anything worth following should've been dealt with days maybe a week after we dumped it. Not three months. No. You can't go. I don't trust him."
Steve wrapped his hands around Bucky's bare feet, "I do." He studied the worried look then added, "There will be no discussion about you."
“No. It’s not about me.” Bucky shook his head, “Where and when? I’ll track you. Got your back. I won’t let him take you. I promise I’ll kill him if he touches you.”
Steve’s raised eyebrow question, "I thought you swore a no killing oath?” Was met with a snarled response, “There are exceptions to that rule.”
“Buck, I can take care of myself.”
“Bullshit. It’s my job to watch your back. Where are you meeting?”
“At the Avengers Facility,” Steve ran his hands up Bucky’s calves to rest on both knees, “Tomorrow morning.”
“New York City? Tomorrow? We’ll need Fury’s chopper.”
A long deep breath helped Steve steady his tone as he slid his hands onto Bucky’s chest, searching for his heartbeat. He braced, "Ah, no. Not the city. It's in Upstate New York. About fifteen minutes from here. Stark lives right down the road.”
“There are only three good reasons for him to call at 3 AM, somebody died, somebody needs to die, and phone sex. Maybe four reasons; clandestine planning to give you up to your arch enemy but that violates your anxiety-driven OCD rule of only numbers divisible by three, so we’ll forget that last one for now. It does need to be said again, why the hell didn‘t the good Captain tell you that Stark lived so close you might haggle with him over the arugula at the local mini-mart?”
“Not Captain,” Bucky mumbled and flopped back on the hood, blinking against the falling snow, arms spread wide, chewing on the inside of his lip. He launched into a fair imitation of Steve’s tone and cadence, laced with an undercurrent of sarcasm, “You were so vulnerable, Buck, unstable, you ran when Sharon and Fury contacted us, that old Widow handler from your past kidnapped you, tortured you. Pal, you fucking tried to kill yourself. I watched them pound on your chest to bring you back. I wasn’t gonna tell you that Stark’s complex was five miles away. Not until you were better. I’m sorry, but I did what I thought was best to protect you.”
The groan that followed was as much a comment on Steve’s excuse as it was for the effort to sit up. The slide from the hood fell into a stumble, he caught himself on the fender and steadied the spin in his head. “Fuck, let’s get this over with, hiding behind Steve all this time, thinking I could avoid paying the price for the shit I did.” He dropped his head to the cool of the windshield, “Stark deserves this for what I did to him. I deserve this. What an idiot, thinking Steve and I could, you know, be together. Acting like nothing happened.” He rolled his head to cool the other cheek on the glass. “You’re right; I hate it when you’re right, no balls. Gonna do it. Give myself up. Let Stark have what he wants.” He held onto the truck as he tripped his way towards the driver’s door.
“Soldat, You're a free man now. All those decisions now on you alone, so much responsibility. The smorgasbord of life, making choices, living with the consequences of ignoring the sage advice of SGR, abhorring the scolding looks of the Good Widow, mocking Sam-the-Other-Boyfriend-Wilson`s cruel yet insightful commentary.
You. Are. A. Free. Man. Or child as the case may be argued.
Remember last week, your snarking insistence on trying an all-you-can-eat buffet while scoffing at their advice. Who knew nine trips to the shrimp boat coupled with six bowls of mac and cheese and 12 jalapeño poppers would end in super-serum puking? Points for keeping it all divisible by three, at least your OCD numbers fetish remains intact. A perfect example of free-choice without heeding good counsel. I particularly enjoyed Romanova holding your hair off your face in the men's room while protective Steve Rogers stood guard. Glory days indeed.”
The firm tap of his forehead to the door didn't’ help him fathom what the Voice was getting at or dislodge its manic advice.
“Short answer: Bad idea to face Stark now. You’re drunk. Bad form.”
Bucky nodded as he climbed into the front seat, the fumbled attempt to put the keys in the ignition ended with them on the floor. A sighed, “Too late, I’m doing this, and I’m not gonna take advice from a damn auditory hallucination.” He sprawled across the seat, pawing in the darkness, a quick temptation to fall asleep and be done with it all was thwarted by the Voice.
“Or this is all about your dick. You can’t get it up so, therefore, distract Steve with this piss-poor plan of surrendering to Stark.”
“I am not discussing my sex life.” He dragged his hand through the trash on the floor, “With an imaginary Voice.” Fingers raked across the mats, a metal digit snagged the keys. “In my head.” He sat up triumphant, “Sorry.”
“So I’m right. You're avoiding him."
“You, yes. Steve, no.” The fight to get the key in the ignition ended with the truck’s whined protested start.
“We haven’t tried all the Ben & Jerry's flavors yet.”
“We?” He mumbled as he threw it into gear, “There is no we but me and Steve.”
Bucky sped towards the main entrance to Tony Stark’s New Avengers Facility. The truck’s rear end slipped and slid on the ice-covered roads, bouncing against the snowbanks as he headed for the fate he believed was inevitable. What he deserved. The headlights danced their jigging reflection off the narrowed roadway as he jerked the wheel to compensate for every slipping loss of traction. Wet streaks of sleet streamed sideways off the windshield, pushed by the clicking, rhythmic motion of the wiper blades. His thoughts fell under the mesmerizing spell of alcohol, snow, and darkness.
"Then think of Steve. You’ll never see him again. Never feel his gorgeous firm body lying on top of you, he’ll never use the handcuffs; remember how hot that was even if he fake locked them just to be respectful of your PTSD. You won’t ever hear him groan your name when he comes, never feel him inside of you again…”
“Enough!” The sudden motion of slammed on brakes, lurched the truck sideways to spin a full circle and a half when the tires refused to grip the snow-packed roadway. It pinballed back and forth, bouncing off the remnants of plowed snow, slamming through a line of mailboxes to finally come to rest perched on a snowbank yards from the facility’s front gates.
Bucky gripped the steering wheel, heart pounding into his temples, he sucked in a halting breath and pressed his forehead to his hands. ”Nothing’s gonna shut you up is it? Not getting drunk, not sleeping, not meds, not sex, nothing.” His metal fist closed and shot towards the dash, only to stop a hair from connecting. A shiver tore through him, he reached into the glove compartment and dragged out the Beretta. The cold metal clung to his flesh hand; his finger caressed the trigger for a heartbeat, familiar, comforting; he tossed the gun to the floor. His whispered, eyes closed begging request, “Please stop torturing me. Please let me go" futile. He let his head fall back against the headrest, “Never thought I’d miss Hydra; miss having my brain fried into nothingness but it was the only thing that shut you up.”
“Hydra’s dead and gone. Thanks to your self-righteous mess in Boston that masqueraded as a pathetic attempt at redemption, the one true family you've had for seventy years are scattered to the wind. Let's face it Wilson called it. The Barnes Redemptive Mission Debacle. You still owe Fury fifty-five million dollars for the damages to the historic underground trolley system there."
Bucky swallowed hard as he raised his head. Even as his own thoughts rose and faded they were inextricably wrapped around the Voice’s monologue. Like some parasitic invading species that burrowed into his brain to curl its insidious tendrils around each delicate nerve. The Voice wouldn’t go away. No hope for ever extricating himself. He pushed it aside and did what he felt was the next right thing. He slid down the snowbank and stumbled up to the gates of the New Avengers Facility. The surveillance camera panned to take him in, the lens spinning to focus, he looked straight into the eye. He’d vaguely rehearsed his speech for this moment. Variations of “I’m here. It’s time. Do you want me? I’m ready. Let’s do this. I'm so ridiculously sorry.” None of his imagined confessions included being turned down. He pressed the call bell. Nothing happened.
“Speaking of being a screw-up. Fury’s still pissed about the chopper you stole; Wilson bet Romanova that you wouldn’t last three straight months on the medications and Nomad is already looking for a new boyfriend. You heard him whispering on the phone; the jerk, he knows how paranoid you are. He’s interviewing your replacement with you sitting right there. Oh, and Wilson’s going to pitch a fit over your using the truck as a slalom sports vehicle --- again.”
“Buck, you here?” Steve’s hand slid across the cold sheets, the empty space next to him crept into his dreams and pulled him to wake whenever Bucky left their bed for too long. The door was open enough to let in the hallway light, he searched the shadows of the room, no form curled in the corner, no figure staring out of the window.
His last remnants of sleep chased away by the intrusion of a phone. A rush of worry, he scrambled to answer. The caller left no room for formalities and launched into their terse and loud statement. The click ending the tirade could be heard across the bedroom where Natasha and Sam stood in the doorway.
Sam opened, “Let me guess, he’s been picked up jaywalking and the cops want his parents to come and get him. I say let him learn his lesson and leave him in the slammer overnight. Nothing like a night in jail to teach a kid a lesson.”
A raised eyebrow from Natasha ended his sentence.
“Very funny, not appreciated.” Steve jumped up with a sheet wrapped around himself. “Do you mind?” He waved them out of the room.
She tried a more supportive approach from the hallway, “At least he’s calling you. The last time he disappeared it took us a month, an army of Fury’s men and an abandoned horse to find him.”
Sam added, “The truck is gone. He took the truck again. How much damage?”
Steve shook his head as he pulled on his clothes and hurried past them towards the stairs, “That wasn’t him calling.”
Natasha grabbed his arm, “Who then and where are you going?”
The twitch in his jaw gave her a hint at his concern, “That was Stark.”
A disapproving tic crossed Sam's face, “How many nights is that now? No wonder Barnes took off.”
“Still not being helpful,” Steve said as he ran down the stairs and grabbed his jacket.
Natasha followed him,“Where is he?”
“Stark? In New York.”
“Steve.” She blocked his reach for the front door. “Where’s Barnes? Is he okay?”
Steve pulled in a breath, his gaze wandered to the floor then back to connect with her stare. “Buck’s at the Avengers Facility. He’s drunk, prowling the gates for the past hour or so, demanding to give himself up to Stark.”
Sam’s huffed breath ended with “Jesus, what an idiot.”
Natasha said it for Steve, “Still not helpful. Let me go with you.”
“No. It's better if I'm alone. I can handle...” he tripped over the word. “Shit, I hate when I say that.”
Natasha squeezed his arm, “It’s just a phrase, let me go with you.”
“No. Thanks. I’ve got this.”
Natasha and Sam watched as he sped off towards Stark's home.
Dark gray snow clouds gave way to a stripe of brightening blue as the morning light crept into a new day. Bucky knelt before the looming metal gates where he’d finally stumbled to his knees after spending far too long humiliating himself at the doors of the Avengers Facility.
He’d paced, prowled, demanded and begged to be let in, to see Stark, to pay for his sins. It never crossed his mind that anyone would deny him his punishment. His only company through the night had been the red blinking light over the surveillance camera and the faint whirr of the lens as it tracked his every move.
Burning shooting pain coursed from his toes to his hips, it passed into the dull ache then overwhelming numbness of cold and cramping immobility. A familiar sensation as the Soldier. Hours in the same position, waiting for fate to arrive. Time passed by his desperate quest for atonement, ignoring his guilt, leaving him abandoned to his demons, kneeling unacknowledged at the gates of his enemy.
Long wet tendrils of hair fell across his down-turned face, the moist drip caught in his upturned metal hand, his thoughts lost in the rivulets that formed across his palm, slipping between the plates. Snow soaked clothing clung heavy to his skin, weighing his body down, he shivered silently, the physical numbness spilling over to his mind. The Voice had gone silent, the one upside to his ill-thought out plan of surrender.
Steve pulled the car to stop a few feet away from where Bucky knelt. A tight grip on the steering wheel, deep breaths to steady the well-hidden anxiety that gnawed at his chest, a protected given, amplified with the return of Bucky to his world. A secret he'd never share with him.
The new fallen deep snow muffled the engine’s rattle, quieted his steps; he made a cautious angled approach.
“Hey, what's going on?” He moved closer.
“You’re soaked.” The flinch when Steve’s hand caressed the back of his head was nearly imperceptible. “What are doing here?” Steve knelt behind him, wrapping his arms tight around his shoulders, his face buried against his neck, “This isn’t the way.”
A shiver shook Bucky's body with the first muscle twitch he’d made in hours. Steve’s breath warmed the deep cold of his skin, “Come home. Let’s go home.” The coarse hairs of Steve's beard rubbed along his cheek, pulling a shaky breath from the prickling caress. He wrapped his hands around Steve's and leaned back into the only embrace he would allow.
“I’m sorry. Stupid, stupid plan. How did you know?” Bucky’s voice stuttered through clenched teeth.
Steve rubbed hard along both arms, “We can talk about the merits of the plan later, let’s go home.” He pulled him to his feet, “Stark called me. Saw you on the surveillance camera.”
Bucky turned towards the gate, “Why didn’t he come out, face me. I want to do this. I need to do this.” He struggled to break from Steve’s grip. “I deserve this, he needs this.”
Steve held tight, “No. He's not here. Buck, staff called him. He called me."
A tug on his sleeve pulled him towards the car, a protective arm around his waist, Steve didn't hide his touch. “Let’s get you home, warmed up.” He let a long hard stare linger on the surveillance camera before taking the driver's seat. The iris of the lens spun to refocus, the blinking red light flashing as he headed back down the road towards home.
Bucky leaned on the window when they passed the truck teetering on the snowbank, "Wilson's gonna be pissed."
"He'll get over it. You're keeping him young. Always pissing him off, otherwise, he'd be in the recliner channel surfing." A subdued shared laugh came to an end when they saw Natasha wave them down at the airport road.
"Sorry boys, change in plans." She tossed two bottles of water in Bucky's lap, "Stark called. There's a hot lead on a shipment of Chitauri based weapons heading into Cartagena, Columbia the quinjet is gassed up and ready to go, I've got your go-bags in the car."
Bucky stared straight ahead as they followed Natasha down the barely plowed road to the tarmac. His muttered "This is payback,” was met by Steve’s agreeing “Without a doubt."
Steve kept his worry close as he glanced towards Bucky and replayed the warning call from Stark, “Your boy is stalking me, Rogers. When I’m ready to take what I’m due it’ll be on my damn terms, not his. I don't care about his regrets. Keep him on a short leash or I'll suddenly recall your address and text it to Secretary Ross.”