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Chapter Three

The Fire

 

The fire at the Facility’s core is still burning.

Tony’s Iron Legion is airborne, but there aren’t nearly as many of them responding as there should be, and the units he can see are smoke-blackened and battered. Considering the origin point of the smoke and the condition of the IL units, the fire must have started just below Tony’s labs, where the Iron Legion was housed, and it must have started with an explosion. Steve felt more than one rattle the north wing’s windows just before the collapse. Could have been the oxyacetylene canisters from the workshop. Steve wonders if it had been Banner who set the blaze. Tony had been headed toward the labs, last time Steve had spoken to him. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he starts preparing himself to find out that Tony’s gone.

A dozen bodies on the ground by the front entrance. Essential personnel from the labs, from medical. From ops. The snow makes the blood surrounding them stand out. They way they’d fallen, the amount of blood, leads him to believe that they died after escaping. Gun shot wounds. He’s seen enough corpses like those to recognize that particular pattern of carnage. They’d gotten out of the Facility safely, and then someone had executed them.

In the distance beyond the Facility, another plane drops out of the sky somewhere over Chazy. That’s a second passenger plane, dropping out of the sky like a stone. Farther off, there are other columns of smoke. Might be more aircraft down. Might be whole towns burning.

No emergency vehicles in sight. No sirens. No choppers or military planes in the air. No apparent rescue effort.

Looks like the end of the world.

Probably is. Seemed like somebody was always trying to start over, these days. Burn it all down, usher in a bright new beginning on their own terms. Somebody was bound to succeed, sooner or later.

A few hours ago, it would have been his job to save it. Now, he can see how big the world is. How astronomical the end is. Death and destruction on an immeasurable scale. And he’s just one man who doesn’t stand a chance against it. He’s got no team. No Facility. No mission. Feels a little bit like freedom.

The rubble and flames right in front of him is all he cares about.

He walks back over the fading trail he and Ruth had left across the grounds and starts at the stairwell and wall that had trapped him at the moment of collapse, along with Brooklyn. Works his way over the barely-solid pile of wreckage, glass crackling like hot oil under his shoes.

The structural failure must have started at the south end of the building. Looks like the support beams through the center of the south wall had been completely destroyed. As the building had tilted in on itself, the north wall had popped like a bubble.

The western half of the building is still in one piece, but it’s melting to one side and tipping precariously inward over his head. Looks like it had split just east of the main hallway. If Bucky had fled back into their quarters, then he might still be trapped up there with no way down. That means Steve has to find a way up.

He searches beneath the sagging bulk of the west wing, finding very little that he recognizes within the strangely empty, hollow cavern of the ground floor. The force of the upper floors coming down must have sent an awesome blast of wind through the lower levels.

The elevator shaft should be just in front of him. There’s nothing but a pile of broken concrete and the metal doors, folded in half and jutting out of the dusty drop-ceiling tiles littering the ground. The wall to his right looks more intact. Behind the hill of loose debris, there should be stairs. In the unfamiliar, treacherous dimness, Steve begins to dig. Every piece he hauls away from the pile is accompanied by a vivid thought – the leaning, unstable floors above him disintegrating, burying him – but he keeps going until he finds a way in.

The stairwell door is bulging outward under the weight of the crumpled floors, but that’s left a gap near the handle wide enough that Steve can get his arm inside. Teeth gritted and a sudden burst of adrenaline coursing right down to the tips of his fingers, he tears away the door with a shout.

The stairwell is more difficult.

Inside, it’s pitch black and filled with sharp rubble and the knife-points of the broken metal banisters, tilted forty-five degrees toward the building’s center, bending backward like a snapped spine. Somewhere around the fifth floor, the passageway is totally severed. Now that his eyes have adjusted to the nearly lightless environment, Steve can see the gap and the tangle of beams, dust, cable, and warped rods just below. The other side is a little more than two yards ahead and three yard above him. He doesn’t look down into the debris for long – instead, he jumps and grasps at the first thing his fingers touch without further thought or hesitation. The shattered concrete stair in his right hand crumbles instantly, but the crushed metal guardrail in his left holds his weight. Hand over hand, he pulls himself up into the next section, and climbs faster, driven forward by surge after surge of desperate strength.

The access door to the sixth floor is wide open. The fracture of the sealed stairwell must have put tremendous pressure on it. Steve clings to the doorway, and makes his way along an intact section of wall.

The elevator shaft to his right is nothing but a dark, gaping hole, leading back down into the debris pile, and the walls and ceiling around it are black with smoke damage. The left side of the floor beyond that looks strangely unharmed, except that it’s tilted forty-five degrees to the right. A few feet worth of the communal kitchen is still there, granite counters blanketed in dust, appliances gone, cabinets hanging listlessly open. And beyond that, the building is cracked right down to the north wall. The center portion is now unrecognizable debris on the ground floor, but the entrance to his family’s quarters is still here. Sam’s apartment —and last known location—is gone.

The weight of the ceiling has jammed the door to his rooms shut, but it’s only made of wood. Even with the bad leverage created by the structure’s lean, it only takes a few hits and a bloodied fist before it buckles and bursts.

He pulls himself inside, not yet knowing how hard it will be to see it.

He looks reflexively to the bowl on the table just inside the door. It’s overturned, and his keys are cradled precariously between the wall and the table. The coffee pot in the kitchen has fallen off the warmer and shattered on the tile floor. The television in the living room is still clinging to part of its wall mount, crooked, but unbroken. The neatly folded laundry from the sofa is strewn across the carpet. A bookshelf has fallen. The air smells like smoke.

Everything else is exactly as he’d left it.

He takes a flashlight from the kitchen cabinet, along with two spare burner phones, which he pockets, and searches the apartment. The bathroom is empty. Lincoln’s room is empty. When he sees it like that, shaken into chaos, something begins to hurt inside of him that doesn’t register as emotion. Something that feels more like internal bleeding than sadness. He moves on to the bedroom.

One nightstand is on its side. The other is still standing, supported by the bed. The lamp is lying across the pillows, shade askew. The curtains are hanging away from the walls, pulled out of place by gravity, and the cold breeze from the broken window behind them gives them a gentle, ghost-like motion. The covers are still in the same crumpled configuration as the moment Bucky had kicked them away to evacuate. The blood on the pads Steve had laid out to protect the sheets still looks eerily red and fresh. Steve is suddenly aware that it hasn’t really been that long since they fled this room. Brooklyn’s bassinet is overturned.

But none of that can matter. The singular fact that the room is empty is all that matters. Bucky isn’t here. He could have made it over to the main building. He could have fled into the woods. Or he might have been standing on the wrong side of the hallway.

Whatever spot inside him that was hurting is in agony now. He takes a deep breath, trying to manage the pain, but the stench in the air he takes in only makes it worse. He falls back, reclining against the bedroom wall for support and then, with the last of his capability for thought or movement, he rolls to his side. He can taste the fire and dust in his vomit.

He gives himself thirty seconds after the dry-heaves subside, and then he gets up and moves on. He dumps the contents of his gym bag on the floor and fills it with what he wants to keep. Their important documents. The old Kiev files. The battered folder recovered from Tîraine, and its contents – photographs of Lincoln’s birth, photographs of Bucky holding him, years ago, images of their whole family. All the things that link them all together. There are no digital copies of those photos. He takes his keys and checks to see that they’re all there – motorcycle, storage unit, and the keys to his own safe house, down in Red Hook, hidden inside the key-fob. And he takes his shield.

He makes it out of the north wing much faster than he’d made it in. Breaks the balcony doors. Lets himself fall down the incline of the west wall, the bag clutched tightly against his side, shield screeching and sparking against the building’s metal exterior. Remembers at the very last second to tuck and roll just before he hits the ground. After the climb, after seeing the rooms where his family had lived and the home of all his best memories tipped over and poured out like a box of unwanted things and finding no sign of Bucky, the rush of falling feels better than the persistent ache in his throat.

He moves on. Circles back around toward the main entrance, still not looking at the bodies on the ground, until he reaches what must be Ruth’s rental car. Damage on the windshield and front end. She must have driven through the security gate. He glances inside, checks for her cellphone or the rental’s keys, which she had left behind. None of it’s there. A quick survey of the back seat and the trunk reveal that the boxes she had been carrying are gone, too. He’ll parse out the implications of that later and for now, he’ll add it to the growing list of victories for his invisible enemy.

Steve leaves the car doors open and makes his way into the Facility through the main entrance. Except for the flashing emergency lights and blaring alarms, the usually teeming atrium is enveloped in a strangled aura of calm. The broad, elegant curve of the stairs is empty, save for one lab coat, dropped near the bottom step. Tendrils of smoke float in the air undisturbed. The floor shines with little cubes of shattered glass and the snow still blowing in from the destroyed windows.

He hides the bag full of his family’s belongings beneath the information desk – he can hear the whisper of the sprinkler system ahead. Unburdened, he raises his shield and makes the long, cautious walk to the lab, looking around every corner for combatants and finding nothing but encroaching fire.

Every route through every hallway proves inaccessible. The smoke is too thick, even for his enhanced lungs. When he feels himself getting dizzy—chest burning, eyes streaming—he turns back, but by the time he’s made the choice to leave, his body is so hungry for breathable air that he shoulders open the door to a stairwell, praying that the smoke won’t be so thick inside.

It’s only a little better. He coughs and gasps, the heavy taste of ash permeating his nose and mouth as he spits out watery saliva.

For a moment, Steve thinks his own coughing is echoing its way back up the concrete stairwell. But he gets a deep breath and manages to stop. The weak sound coming from just below his current position continues on without him.

Someone else is coughing intermittently, but their voice and lungs are so weak now that the rasps sounded more life the crackle of flames than a human voice. The voice belongs to a woman. In between each coughing fit, Steve thinks he can hear crying.

There’s a loud, screaming fear somewhere in his brain—long-suppressed but too deep-rooted to ever really overcome—that begs him to disregard the sounds of distress and run toward oxygen. The feeling of his lungs buckling under the strain of convulsions is too familiar, and the fear turns to bitter resentment as he makes his way lower, reminding him that he’s here to look for Bucky, nagging at him to return to Lincoln and Brooklyn rather than take another step down the stairs. The smoke may be thinning, but the temperature is rising significantly as he descends. His three hours may already have slipped away. He’s not sure.

The exit from the bottom of the stairwell has caved in, and it looks like another interior wall has collapsed along with it. The voice is harder to discern now that the static-like whisper of fire is closer. Steve still wants to walk away. He almost does, and then the woman coughs again and groans in pain, and without another thought, he’s tossing blocks of crumbling concrete and scorched drywall to the side, digging his way in.

He’d place the temperature around one hundred and twenty degrees now. Whoever is trapped here, so close to the fire in the labs, they’re not going to be alive much longer. He’s only been clearing debris for a minute, but the woman hasn’t managed to cough again.

He finds Sharon Carter lying face down in the ash and dust, pinned from the waist down by a stainless steel worktable.

The table leg is almost unbearably hot to the touch when he lifts it off of her. She remains unresponsive as he drags her up off the floor and over his shoulder. He only makes it ten steps back up the stairs before he realizes that might not be breathing at all and sets her down on the first landing, wondering if trying to resuscitate her here is futile or if waiting would be the deadlier option.

Miraculously, the moment her back hits the concrete, she begins to cough again. She comes around to a state of half-consciousness and he rolls her onto her side, and the dry, wheezing coughs become deep and chest-rattling until she spits ash-gray saliva onto the ground. She might be out of the most immediate danger of the fire and heat, but Steve entertains the grim thought that she still might not make it. The war had been full of fire. He’d seen smoke take a day two to kill a man before.

Sharon has no voice left and hardly a full breath in her lungs, so it takes her a few attempts to get Steve to recognize her sibilant exhales for what they are. “Sta-” she tries again, and this time, Steve understands.

“In there?” Steve asks flatly, calmed by blind resignation . He hauls her up into a sitting position on the stairs and, clinging to the metal rail by her head, she manages to stay there. She nods.

“Su-” She pats her chest to illustrate.

“Suit on?”

Sharon gives another nod. That means Tony might be alive. That makes a search worth the risk.

Steve takes in one last gulp of breathable air and plunges into the lab, protecting his eyes with his forearm and covering his head with his shield, keeping the rain of embers out of his hair. It’s almost too bright inside the lab to see. Everything is distorted and warped by the extreme heat. After a quick sprint through fire, Steve reaches a point in the room’s center that hasn’t yet been engulfed, and from that vantage point, he bites back a wave of panic, ignores the burning air, and takes one long, painstakingly careful look around the blackened remains of Tony’s lab.

By the time he catches sight of Tony’s leg, he has no time left to be delicate. He rushes forward, grabs his friend’s ankle in one hand, and drags him back through the fire and out into the stairwell. Thankfully, the carefully engineered metal of the suit is barely warm in his hand, and when he throws Tony over his shoulder, the armor doesn’t add much weight. With no thought in his mind except the desire for clean air, he hooks Sharon by the arm and pulls her up each flight of stairs stumbling and gasping, and he doesn’t let her stop until they’ve reached the atrium.

Only when Steve sets Tony down on the ground and takes a better look at Tony does he realize that something is wrong. The suit’s eyes are dark. No light from the palms, either. Only the chest plate is glowing, and even that is dim.

“Friday,” he pants desperately, not expecting a response. “Gimme his vitals.”

“Gunshot wound,” she replies from the suit’s external speakers, which must have been damaged in the attack. Her voice is slow and distorted. “No accurate readout on vitals available. All sys—currently redirected to life support. Do not...attempt...move...t.”

Do not attempt to remove suit.

Steve knew that there had been a gunman. Or multiple shooters. There was enough evidence of that at the main entrance. As far as he knew, Stark had been working inside his lab at the time of the disaster.

The question now became: did the shooter work their way in from the outside, or had they been inside the Facility all along? If Tony was the target, they’d make sure to take him out first, in which case the bodies at the door were an afterthought. Cleaning up witnesses. Exceeding expectations. Maybe just adrenaline.

If they had come in from the outside, though, there couldn’t have been a singular target. The Facility was too expansive, and the staff was trained and armed, even if their attackers had found a way to compromise them. The goal in that case was nothing but a body count. Chaos.

Steve sits back on his heels, wiping black dust away from his eyes. The cavernous atrium is silent now, apart from the distant crackle of flames and the wind humming across the shard-rimmed frames of the windows high above his head. He only allows himself a few seconds to think about it all, but in that short time, his feverish mind finds too many variables to contend with: multiple shooters converging on the Facility. The explosions. Maybe well-placed charges, maybe something else. Something volatile in one of Tony’s storage facilities. The contagion that had swept over North Korea and Jericho – anyone in the Facility, regardless of motive, could have become an active shooter. A single shooter, working their way in from outside of the grounds, mowing through every barrier on their way to the higher-ranking Avengers – but that would be nearly impossible. There weren’t many people that could do it, apart from Bucky.

Then again, there were the files that Ruth had been carrying. Evidence that Hydra had created more agents near Bucky’s caliber before, and could do so again. Files that were now missing.

Stop thinking. Stop asking ‘why.’ Not your problem to solve. Just find Bucky.

He’s already two hours into his three hour excursion, and now he has Sharon and Tony on his hands. He can leave them here and keep looking for Bucky, or he can walk them back to the bunker. Tony isn’t conscious and Sharon’s not going anywhere on her own. They both desperately need help.

“Come on,” he says softly, voice rough and flat, tone straining against resentment. He retrieves his gym bag from the spot where he’d left it, fixes his shield to his forearm, and hauls his friends up, slinging Tony over his right shoulder and supporting Sharon’s unsteady frame on his left.

He hates every step he takes back toward the bunker. He hates the sound of Sharon coughing and wretching and hates every ounce of Tony’s dead weight. He has his own family to worry about, and he had promised himself that they would be his only priority. He had used that promise like a bargaining chip as he made yet another deal with God over Bucky.

Just before they reach the woods, Sharon faints. Her last coughing spell had deprived her of oxygen for a little too long, and Steve leans down to let her fall over his shoulder as her knees give out. The walk back to the bunker seems longer than ever.

He skirts the bunker’s electronic perimeter and trudges through the icy mud at the edge of the lake. One at a time, he carries Tony and Sharon down the ladder and into the panic room at the back. Ruth and Lincoln watch him wordlessly, sitting up straight and rigid, wide-eyed with hopeful expectation. Brooklyn goes on sleeping on Ruth’s shoulder. He doesn’t look at them as he passes.

As he shuts the door to the panic room, he can hear Lincoln just beginning to cry. He puts the room in lockdown.

He sets a bottle of water beside Sharon, who’s still too dazed to drink it without aspirating. Checks her pulse and finds it quick and fluttering, but acceptable. Finishes off a bottle of water of his own, still tasting the dusty air of what used to be his family’s quarters. Behind him, there’s a hydraulic hiss and whisper of metal.

Tony groans as he removes his helmets, arms visibly shaking and weak even with the assistance of his suit. There’s drying blood on his lips and chin, probably from internal bleeding.

Steve wastes no time. “What do you need?”

“Suit detected the entry wounds once...I got it on, got ‘em plugged up,” he says breathlessly. “Chest, abdomen, shoulder. Don’t think she got my lung. I’m good.”

“Who?”

Tony nods toward Sharon.

He must see the way Steve’s face hardens. He shakes his head slightly, wincing. “Not her fault. She got hit with it, too. She wasn’t in control.”

“Did you see Bucky?”

Tony’s face pales. Looks like it would crumble if not for the way he sets his jaw. “No,” he says, eyes steady and unblinking. “Kids?”

“Got ‘em out.”

“Jesus,” he replies, letting out a pained, rattling breath.

“What did you see?”

“Fuck. All happened at once.” Tony struggles for every word, but Steve isn’t waiting any longer for more information. “Carter dragged her ass into my lab, said she was sick. Shot me three times before I could get her into containment. Got my suit on, called for backup. Guess Bruce finally came down with it.”

“I know,” Steve nods. “We saw him.”

“Must have been in his quarters. They’re close to that lab. Busted right through the wall a few seconds after I put out a call for reinforcements...and he was different. Worse, like when Wanda got to him a couple years ago. Something in the lab blew—not his fault, though. Somebody planted something. Close to the oxyacetylene tanks. Hell of a fire. Spooked him pretty bad. He took off. Guess the glass on the quarantine area saved Carter’s ass. Somewhere in there, must’ve...passed out. Suit shut down everything but life-support for a while.” He takes a moment to get his bearings again. Steve can see the tension in his face, lines deepening as he fights past the pain of three gunshot wounds. “You got anything?”

“North wing collapsed.”

Tony’s expression doesn’t change, but something in his eyes does. They’d been cloudy and distant before, and now they could make a clean cut through glass.

“Saw a few commercial planes go down nearby. Looks like there are some big fires burning over in Chazy. Haven’t seen any emergency vehicles. No military, nothing. Whatever that was in Korea, Tony, it’s everywhere.”

“Armageddon. Great.” Tony laughs emptily. “Guess we missed our window. Lost this one,” he rambles on softly as his laughter trails off. “Didn’t even know where the fight was.”

“I’m going back out to look for Bucky.”

Tony nods and moves his hands to his sides, bracing himself against the concrete floor, and somehow pushes himself up to stand. “Okay,” he forces out resolutely. Steve gives him a withering look that he knows will communicate all his complaints and advice to Tony, who responds with a glancing smile that’s meant to be reassuring, even though it looks more like a grimace of discomfort. “I’m good. Suit’s doing all the work.”

“I’m not carrying you back here again.”

“Fair enough. Call me an Uber if I pass out.”

Sharon stirs from her position slumped against the wall, eyes fighting to focus in the dim panic room, and then shifting frantically between Tony and Steve has her vision adjusts to the half-light. Steve kneels down and puts the open water bottle in her hands as a fearful gasp tears through her raw throat.

“Hey, it’s alright,” Steve assures her quietly, trying to help her bring the water bottle to her lips. She takes one drink and one good, deep breath, and then finds she can speak.

“I did—Steve, I—”

“Chill out, Carter, I already tattled on you,” Tony says gently. “What’s a few bullets to the chest between friends? We’re good.”

No.” Sharon practically spits the word through her teeth, voice cracking through her damaged airways. “Everything.”

Steve’s hands still against Sharon’s, both still closed around the bottle of water. Her fingers a clenching, shaking against his palms. His mouth hangs open, but he has no reply.

“I did all of this. All of it.”