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The Drowning Wasps

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It was May 9, 2015: just over a year since Project Insight brought SHIELD to its knees, and just over three months since the last time Bucky pulled a knife on Steve. On his laptop back home in DC, Steve had a Firefox tab open for Expedia, a finger tap away from buying a cheap Lufthansa ticket back to Europe, one-way.

He’d had him. He’d fucking had him.

“—grid. Steve? You with me?”

Steve blinked and crossed his arms over his chest, not at all defensive. Some stupid excuse was on the tip of his tongue—of course he’d heard her—but Natasha saw straight through him, and he didn’t dare try to convince her otherwise.

“He’s off grid,” Natasha repeated. “That’s a good thing.”

Steve huffed out a laugh, and she probably saw through that, too. “Or HYDRA’s got’em,” he said, the thought somehow not solvent until it left his tongue. His stomach dropped, a trap door giving way into –

“HYDRA does not have him. Steve.” She worked to catch his eyes. “He’s still coming down. Trust me. Okay?”

He still did – trust her. One of the few. Which is why he felt comfortable admitting, “I’m thinking about going back over there. I shouldn’t’ve let him go.”

This time, Steve saw through Natasha – but only because of the way her face fell, because of the way she held her breath a second too long, because of the way her eyes froze. He instantly regretted ratting himself out; it’d’ve been far, far better to have her find out while he was halfway across the Atlantic.

“He’s putting two halves of a life together. There are cracks, Steve.  He did you a favor.”

Even though he heard the uncharacteristic waver in her voice, and even though he saw the hesitation written all over her face and body language, and even though he heard her—loud and fucking clear—he was revolted.

A favor.

Something harsh and unforgiving crawling toward the tip of his tongue, Steve didn’t get a chance to say it, not when Tony walked in.

It’d been a gullible dream to have ever thought Tony wouldn’t start right in. “Welcome back, Cap. Heard he pulled a knife on you. A+ friend.”

Steve turned a hard glare Natasha’s way, more surprised by her loose lips than he should be. She, of course, didn’t dare look contrite. She only lifted a shoulder at him.

A hot, burning feeling rippled through him, chasing the moment when he realized: he didn’t like these people. He hadn’t chosen these people. He couldn’t trust these people.

These fucking people.

He was going to catch the Amtrak back home, tap the button on his Firefox tab, and fly out tomorrow morning at 0900. He was going to re-find the only person in this world worth a damn, and he was going to drag him home, no matter the cost.

“Steve, I—” Tony.

Steve met Tony’s eyes and said a simple, “Goodbye, Tony.”

If Tony sputtered a response (only in Steve’s imagination would Tony be flustered enough to sputter anything), Steve didn’t hear it. If Natasha said a word, Steve didn’t care to hear it.

He didn’t hear the elevator ding, didn’t hear its soft whoosh as it descended dozens of floors, and didn’t hear a damn single thing beyond that until, pounding down the sidewalk, shouldering through New York throngs of people, car horns barely registering, he heard, “You wanna get a drink?”

He knew the voice: the nurse across the hall of his old apartment. Natasha called her Sharon.

Steve didn’t know why he ducked into the nearest storefront’s entryway, or why he stopped to talk to her, but he did both.

Face to face, in a small space made smaller by his large frame, he let his bad mood talk for him. “With you? Not really.”

Sharon looked to be an easy mark: too easily surprised by the rebuke. Then, her expression steeled. “I was doing my job.”

He resisted the urge to step forward deeper into her space. “I’m not your damned job.”

Sharon nodded, lips pushed together. “No, you’re not. Sorry I asked.”

She melted back onto the sidewalk, nearly disappearing into the mass of people. An instinct, a thought, a something told him that watching her go was a mistake.

An old voice, not his own, ricocheted inside his head: Christ, Steve, you don’t have to burn the world because HYDRA did.

His own voice followed with shut up, Buck.

“Hey.”

Sharon stopped, and he quickly trotted her way. 

Face to face with her, a person he barely knew, something strange happened: his shoulders relaxed, and some of his bitter, angry tension unraveled. “How about that drink.

Her response was immediate and prepared. “You’re buying.”

Steve lead her to an old bar down the street. Back in the day—how laughable was that—it’d been a bar, easily recovering into a booming business after the end of Prohibition. By the time he and Bucky could drink, the place had become legendary.

That day, it was more of a restaurant than a bar. The name on the front of the building was different, but the floors were the original, refinished wood; the bar was the same dark mahogany; and the upper tier of horizontal windows near the ceiling were the same colorful stain glass.

Steve held the door open for her; if she rolled her eyes, he pretended not to see. He followed her to the bar, where she swiftly sat before he could pull her chair out.

“Chivalry’s dead,” she commented.

In no mood for yet another argument today, Steve scooted up beside her. “Apparently.”

The service was quick, drink orders taken within seconds and delivered within mere minutes.

Sharon pulled a glass tumbler of something dark toward her. “Looks like you’ve had a bad day.”

Steve stared down at his stout glass of amber-colored Scotch and huffed out a laugh. “‘A bad day.’”

Try a bad five years, with something around sixty-five before that.

That old voice sniped, Pity yourself much?

Shut up.

“What?” Sharon asked – as if he’d said that out loud.

Oh. He might’ve.

Steve took a sip of his drink—he’d had better—and avoided looking over at her. “It’s been hard. He’s out there.”

It occurred to Steve that Sharon didn’t know who he was. That she probably didn’t know anything about Bucky, or about the last few months of trying to find him – of how that ended up.

“My aunt—great aunt, actually—spoke of him. Said she wished they’d gotten along better. She said it was the strangest feeling, how she expected you all to die but never saw it coming when you did. She warned me about that when I joined SHIELD.”

Ever since the serum, Steve’s body didn’t do unexpected things. Muscles didn’t spasm. Bones didn’t ache. His heart didn’t skip. Not usually.

Steve turned his attention from his drink and to Sharon. He saw that she was still looking down at hers, hands and shoulders tense. She wasn’t breathing, even though he knew that she knew better.

“You’re Peggy’s niece.”

Sharon nodded, slow. “There’s a chance to set the world right, the way she always wanted. Do you need help finding him again?”

Set the world right. A nice thought.

Steve dragged an answer from his throat. “He doesn’t want to be found.”

Maybe Bucky was gone, to anywhere, nowhere in the world. Maybe that plane ticket was meant for Steve to get lost, to also not want to be found.  Maybe Natasha was right.

Natasha.

A well of anger boiled up inside of him, and he let it. “How intentional is this? You?”

Sharon smiled, lips twisting around the lip of the glass. She didn’t wince with the taste of the alcohol. “Do you trust any of us?”

That was a good question. He thought he did, especially after Insight. But then –

The easy answer was “no.” It fueled a stronger feeling than the one he’d felt when Bucky’d drawn a knife and walked away.

It wasn’t them. It was him. It was Bucky. It was the past year. It was the world not fucking bending the way he knew it could.

“I’m not intentional. This time.” Sharon looked over at him, blue eyes not kind. “There are very few ways to right the world. You know that.”

Steve glanced at the clock above the bar: twenty minutes until his train back to DC left. A laptop waiting for a finger tap on the button for a one-way ticket to Europe. Bucky: somewhere out there, a sliver of the world drifting further away with every tick of the clock.

“SHIELD was never right,” Steve said, also not kind. “Hiring Zola? Really?”

He pushed his glass away and stood up, the wooden legs of his chair screeching across the creaky wood floor. He threw a wad of cash onto the bar and ignored the errant penny that clanged to the ground.

After three long steps made toward the door, her voice caught up to him.

“We can make it right. Give him something to come back to.”

That should have upset him. He should have told her that she had no idea what she was talking about, and he should have kept walking: to the train, to his laptop, to the airport.

Instead, he turned back around, and that voice, that old, annoying voice, prodded him: look, she has a point. Stop being a fucking twit.

His heart ached to hear that voice.

“I’ll think about it,” Steve said, and then offered her a nod.

“Think fast.”

Steve left, a fucking twit committed to thinking real fucking slow about it.

*** 

The thing about “jogging” with Steve was that Steve’s idea of “jogging” was Sam’s idea of a brisk run.

“You want to go back to Europe?” Sam wheezed. His thighs burned, calves twitched, lungs ached. Before Captain America burst into his life like the fucking Kool Aid Man on speed, Sam liked running. Figured he’d been good at it. “You don’t know if he’s still there.”

He didn’t say: the person Steve still wanted to find was toxic as shit and better left to some desolate, unknown corner of the world. He didn’t say: your friend didn’t survive them, and I’m sorry for that.

“I’m not asking you to come,” Steve said, annoyed and showing it.

“Good. I’m asking you not to go.”

Steve jogged to a dead halt, stepping off the concrete path. Dread in his veins, Sam followed in kind, waiting for the person that the media didn’t talk about: pissed off, shitty Steve Rogers on a tear.

“What if it was Riley?” Steve charged.

“I’d know when to let him go.”

“You say that.”

Sam should have been angry. He should have yelled at Steve for going too far while too blind. He decided on something worse. “I was there, man. I heard the words that came out of his mouth.”

“He’s sick,” Steve said, every single part of him oozing disappointment.

Sam almost, almost felt bad. He’d never tell Steve that he so much wished HYDRA’s dirty secret was still frozen in some base, never to be discovered, so the rest of them could move on.

Steve looked down, off to the side, and heaved out a giant breath. When he looked back up, there was something different in his expression. Vulnerability, maybe.

“Nat says he’s off grid. What if he’s dead? What if HYDRA has him? What if he—put a gun in his mouth. I can’t just—” Another giant breath. “I can’t sit back and wait to find out.”

Sam sighed and internally acknowledged, maybe, that he didn’t know what it was like. That was especially why Steve should have listened.

“He’s not giving you that choice.  As hard as it is, it’s not something we can control – or change.  He’ll—” Sam held his nose and made himself say it.  “He’ll come around when he’s ready.”

Steve turned away before Sam could catch his reaction. “I’ll see you around.”

Steve walked, and Sam took too long to find his words. He finally came up with, “If you’re gonna do something, just call me first, okay?”

Steve didn’t respond, but Sam was pretty sure he was still in earshot when Sam breathed, “You fucking asshole” – not referring to Steve. 

***

Only three days later, Sharon rapped on the door to Steve’s apartment. Steve closed the lid to his laptop—another tab in Firefox opened to another click-away from a flight to Europe—and trotted to the door.

In Sharon’s hand, a hefty bottle of Jim Beam hung by its stem. Steve popped his eyebrows at it. “You’re not messing around.”

She shrugged. “I can’t paint. Figured I’ll need the inspiration.”

Somehow, he doubted that. He also doubted her as one to drink. It was for show, a cover, a step from a lie.

Relax. Steve didn’t know if that was his voice or the made-up, imaginary-friend one. Didn’t know if it mattered anymore.

Steve stepped aside. “After you.”

She set her bottle of liquor down on an out-of-the-way tabletop. “What made you stay?”

Word traveled fast.

Steve stepped by her, picked up the bottle, and carried it into the kitchen. He put it next to a growing collection of microbrews and IPAs from Sam and a few other bottles of harder, more potent liquors. None of them did much for him, except help him feel like a scrawny kid desperately trying to be something more.

On his way back into the foyer/living room, he stopped to lean in the doorframe of the kitchen. Her back to him, Sharon admired—or, at least, pretended to admire—his built-in bookshelf and collection of “historical” books.

“Haven’t decided yet,” Steve admitted, part truth, part bait. A little something he’d learned well from Natasha.

Sharon’d learned it from someone else. Someone familiar. Still admiring those books, Sharon commented, “Oh? How about we go?”

Coming from her, the entire damn thing sounded ridiculous. That was the point.

Tongue stuck between top and bottom incisors, Steve looked down at the hardwood floor. “You know, in my head, he’s still in the old town by the boxcars. Waiting.”

Sharon turned around, arms crossed, feet planted square. It struck him that she was all but a stranger – but, oddly enough, someone he felt as though he’d known for a long time.

“He’s long gone,” Steve added. He didn’t need to say “to anywhere else in the world,” or “to somewhere I’ll never find,” or “hopefully still alive.”

“When you’re lost, you stay put,” Sharon said, “and let help find you. He knows where to find you.”

Steve crunched his eyebrows together. “Am I lost?”

“You seem like it.”

“He’s alive,” Steve explained, as if that explained it all. Maybe she’d understand – more than Sam, more than Natasha, more than any of them. “And it was him.”

Sharon didn’t understand. “That’s why he’ll find you.”

Steve had read the file and learned enough to know that throwing that file into a burning fire wouldn’t be enough to exorcise the sins. Steve knew Bucky: enough of him left for Steve to know that Bucky wouldn't dare come near this place. Near Steve.

It’d been three months since Poland. Three months since Bucky’d used Steve’s shield to kill HYDRA soldiers, to save Sam’s life – and then run away as fast and as far as he could. Three months since Bucky could have come home.

That bottle of liquor sounded good. Useless, impotent, but good.

Sharon jerked her head toward two 8x10, white canvas-stretched frames on the floor. “How about that painting lesson?”

Right. The one she’d asked for him over text two days ago. He wanted to know how she got his number, but, then again, didn’t need to ask. Natasha liked to meddle.

“Sure.”

They sat on the floor with a tray of paint, a glass of water, and a bowl of brushes between them. “Teaching” how to paint didn’t happen, so much as the two of them attacking their respective canvases with neither a plan nor an idea about the final product.

After a while, Sharon commented, “You don’t seem like you’re here.”

That was fair. “He’s out there. And I’m here,” Steve gestured toward his ugly canvas, “doing this.”

Sharon made an “mmm” noise and swirled her paint brush between drops of white and red paint. Wide stripes of gradient red and oranges swiped across her canvas – a sunset, maybe. Maybe.

“What’s the last thing he wanted you to do?” Sharon quickly clarified, “When he was still him.”

Steve didn’t need to think hard. He remembered a vicious conversation—well, vicious only in hindsight—that revolved around two points: they’re never gonna let you go and we’re gonna go home. “You’re SSR’s puppet,” Bucky’d said but never, not once, said, “I bought you art school, idiot.”

Steve looked at his own aimless canvas. It was filled with abstract swipes of runny, drab colors, a form of erratic art that he’d never enjoyed making.

“Whatever it is, maybe it would help you move forward.”

That wasn’t possible – a kneejerk thought told him.

The intercom next to the door buzzed. That would be call-ahead takeout he’d ordered. Steve almost didn’t hear it, not as his thoughts swirled around art school: the brightest colors, the best paint, the most beautiful canvas.

Those thoughts reminded him of an empty road near the Adirondacks, encircled by glittering golds, rosy reds, glistening yellow-oranges, and so many shades in between, with a backdrop of a deep blue sky and white clouds that rolled on by. Time held still that day.

Well, doesn’t that beat all. Never a question, always a grin and a low-key drawl, because Bucky Barnes was going to take the world. Go paint something beautiful, Steve.

***

 August, 2015. Stark Tower. High up and deep inside, Steve and almost the rest of the Avengers sat around a long, shiny, wood conference table.

Steve caught Sharon’s eye by chance, and she smiled at him with her eyes and a tight, nearly imperceptible tug of the corners of her lips. Whatever they were, or whatever they were becoming, he liked it.

He let the eye contact drop and turned his attention to a Stark-issued tablet. All said: he didn’t remember why they were meeting today. He didn’t know why Maria was here, or why she needed Tony, and Rhodes, and Natasha, and Bruce, and Sharon, and Steve himself here for it. He didn’t remember why Sam wasn’t invited, or if Sam had been and told Maria “hell no.” He knew Barton wasn't ever coming back, not after April 2014, and he figured Thor had more important things to do than bicker with them over -- whatever this was going to be about.

“Welcome, everyone,” Maria greeted.

Even those two words confirmed to Steve that he was doing the right thing. For now. The right thing for now.

On his tablet, Steve dutifully flipped through the digital pages, catching Maria’s spoken words here and there, but his eyes blurring the written words into jumbles of gibberish. After a minute, he decided against reading it.

He opened the sketching program, leaned back in his chair, looked at Maria, and drew her jaw line.

Maria spoke. Tony interjected. Rhodes rolled his eyes. Natasha shook her head. Bruce smiled, the way he did when he wanted to be pleasantly surprised but hadn’t been.

Steve drew Maria’s ears and sketched out her eyes and nose.

Maria raised her hand and aimed a black device at the holographic wall screen. Steve glanced at it and saw a graph. Tony asked if she’d done that in Word, maybe needed some clipart to really make it pop.

Steve started on Maria’s hair: quick swipes for the bangs, tighter lines for the stern bun.

The rest of them talked and discussed, went over certain pages, argued points. It sounded civil, and that was really all Steve heard of it: the tones. He kept his eyes on Maria, back and forth between her and his tablet. He didn’t notice Natasha watching him.

“Captain Rogers, you’ve been quiet. What do you think?” Sharon.

Steve heard his name more than anything, and he knew that he was finally up. He raised his free hand and muttered “hold on.”

The lines weren’t sharp enough. He finished up some rough shading, some half-assed blurring, and a bit of sharpening. It wasn’t done, but it was identifiably Maria.

“Steve, c’mon,” Rhodes pushed, impatient. “You don’t have to read the whole thing to have an opinion.”

Steve looked up and flipped his tablet around for all to see. “I’m going to art school next month.”

Every single one of them leaned forward, each caught in various stages of surprise, except for Sharon and Natasha. Sharon’d known the whole time, and nothing got by Natasha. He tried not to laugh.

Maria tossed the clicker onto the table, crossed her arms, and sighed loudly. “Really. Are any of you taking this seriously?”

“Yeah, Bob Ross. Are you?” Tony: all shit, all the time. For not the first time, Steve considered how exhausting it was to catch up, jab back, play along, and try to keep the peace—and the pace. “I don’t think the afro would really suit your face.”

Tony,” Rhodes admonished, the ever-ineffective keeper of Tony’s tantrums.

Steve flipped the tablet closed, slid it to the center of the table, and stood up. He pointed his index finger at Tony, and, as lightheartedly as he could manage, said, “I don’t know who that is. But I’ll find out at art school.”

Before he left, Natasha caught his eyes. Her small smile and accompanying nod gave him power where he hadn’t realized it was needed.

All the way to the elevator, he picked up snippets of discussion.

“Is he for real?”

“Did he just quit?”

“What if we need him?”

“What if he’s happy for once?”

It wasn’t like he was leaving the planet. If anything happened, he’d still be here – and willing, of course. Natasha knew. Sharon did, too.

Steve stepped into the elevator car and pressed “G.” When the doors closed, something lifted off his shoulders. Something.

He half-expected the elevator to stop in the middle of the building, for Tony to pull some sort of stunt using JARVIS. The elevator slid smoothly to the ground floor and opened its doors without a blip of hesitance.

Three steps toward the building’s entrance, Tony’s voice carried down the hallway.

“Is this because of Barnes?”

Steve spun around, his calm happiness evaporating into thin air. He waited for Tony to catch up before stepping deep into his space. “I don’t know, Tony. Is he here?”

Tony stepped forward, face angled up. “Why don’t you try dealing with your shit, instead of leaving the rest of us hanging. This work is important. And you’re gonna go to art school? Draw titties with the teenagers? There’re laws against that, by the way. Wasn’t sure if you knew. Heads up.”

If Tony was red-hot anger, Steve was white-hot, the type of heat that felt cold but blistered through skin.

“I don’t owe you anything,” Steve said, each word clipped but calm. “What more do you think I need to give you?”

Tony telegraphed the move long, long seconds before he made it. Steve willed him not to say it – his lungs frozen, the hallway blurring, and Tony’s face becoming ugly, as if Steve was seeing him for the first time.

“How about some fucking clarity. You let a murderer go. Murderer, Rogers. If he was anyone else, and not your fucking boyfriend from ’43, you wouldn’t’ve thought twice.”

Steve stepped back, heart pounding, done with this. 

For a moment, he worried that this choice would give Tony an excuse to go after Bucky.  No matter what Tony said or thought, SHIELD couldn’t find Bucky any more than Steve could – and, if they tried, he could still rely on Natasha and Sharon to tell him.   

“What’s that phrase these days?” Steve asked. “Oh. Right back at you. Did I get that right?”

He turned around and stalked toward the door, the busy City street outside within sight. Hand palm flat against the door, Steve was a step past the threshold when Tony finally scraped up his best and only retort.

“No, actually, you got it completely fucking wrong. Enjoy art school. Bob.”

“You bet.”

***

In early September, Steve didn’t see much of anyone. Sharon was busy with SHIELD. Sam was busy with his counseling classes.

Steve set one foot on the art school’s campus. Surrounded by twenty-somethings who didn’t spend time looking past Steve’s sunglasses and ballcap, or his fake name of Tyler Smith, he was immediately happy that his program was mostly online.

At night, he went to his building’s rooftop and sketched through dozens of pages in the humid moonlight. When the sky was clear and the stars shone brightly, he traced Orion with his eyes and sent thoughts to a person: There’s Orion. I hope you see it.

Near October, Sharon came almost every weekend. With her, she brought the distinct smell of the City – and of the commuter train.

She also brought laughter: the kind that made Steve’s stomach hurt. She brought smiles: the kind that made Steve’s eyes crinkle. She brought coffee he didn’t like, movies he watched three times over in the days between her visits, tickets to events he never would have sought on his own, and ideas to restaurants he never would have found.

In the days between, Sam texted him things like, “Have u asked her out?” “dude what r u waiting for” “man I dont even know with u sometimes” and “oh shit u’ve never dated.” With friends like that…

“Sam - Thanks, -Steve,” Steve answered.

(Sam replied, “Dearest Cap, dude no come c me for texting lessons.")

In late October, as the leaves turned to yellows and oranges, as the air turned crisp, and when the wind turned bitter, Steve asked her, “Are you for real?”

In the middle of Meridian Hill Park, right in front of the grand central cascade of water, people shuffling past them, Sharon stopped and looked him squarely. “I’m imaginary. You’re still in the Arctic.”

She wanted him to roll his eyes, and he obliged. “You know what I mean.”

She stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets. “This is real. I’m not spying on you. I’m not handling you. They want me to. I won’t.”

Steve studied her face—earnest, empathetic, and annoyed enough to show it. He believed her.

“All right,” he acquiesced. “What are we then?”

It’d been five months, and he didn’t know, even with Sam’s terrible efforts at advice.

Sharon cocked her head and raised her eyebrows. “Slow?”

Steve took the hint and solved the problem with a very public-facing display of affection. That old voice said a very modern sounding thing: Get it.

Shut up.

In November, Sam and Sharon came for Thanksgiving. No one else - not Tony, not Natasha, not any of the rest of them. His apartment wasn’t that big, he told himself. As it was, his neighbors complained plenty about Sam and Sharon's effusive screaming at the televised football game.

In December, Sharon handed him a rectangular box wrapped in bright red and gold-dotted shiny paper. Butterflies flapping in his gut, Steve reciprocated with a small cube wrapped in plain green paper.

Sharon’s impatient excitement flipped to fear. He knew what it looked like. It wasn’t what she thought.

“Same time?” Steve offered to Sharon’s accepting nod.

He unwrapped his box by breaking the tape on each end and carefully flicking up each flap of paper. He poked out a heavy white box and found the newest Apple drawing tablet – the one all over TV with trendy commercials.

“You better use it,” Sharon warned, voice tinged with the sarcastic humor that he might have loved. “Talk about a pretty penny.”

Steve didn’t reply – but he had a reply locked and loaded, only waiting for her to open her little box.

She did. Instead of the ring she feared, it was a plain silver key cut in a hardware store, atop a pre-paid commuter pass for the DC to NYC train. Her eyes flicked from it to him.

“You better use it.” Steve didn’t allow himself a smile – not yet. “Talk about a pretty penny.”

“You want me to move in,” Sharon said, that tone he loved schooled into perfect, spy-like neutrality. “Live here.”

In the back of his head, a Sam-like voice laughed, Too fast, man; way too fast.

“No,” Steve responded, “I want you to use it. When you want.”

She nodded, committing to nothing.

The Internet said that the first possessions that tended to migrate over were toothbrushes, hairbrushes, and clothes. Steve found out the Internet was wrong, when he trudged into the kitchen one early January morning and noticed a bright green, budding houseplant on the windowsill. Maybe a hyacinth.

“Okay,” he said to himself and only then gave himself that smile. "Don't kill it."

Later in January, still near the start of another brand new year, he had dinner alone with Natasha. At a not-so-fancy restaurant tucked along a red-brick street somewhere in DC, she asked him, “How are you? Really?”

Steve was fine. Better than he’d been in a long while. “Decent. How’s the team?”

“Decent.” Natasha took a bite of cream-slathered pasta. “You’re not going to ask?”

Steve speared a raw onion, paired it with a roasted grape tomato, and swallowed her bait. “Any news about him?”

Nerves rattled his gut. Maybe they’d found his body somewhere. Maybe they’d discovered that HYDRA had him again. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

With a shake of her head, Natasha did nothing to dispel the myths Steve had convinced himself of. “Entirely off grid. Still.”

So. Alive and hiding – unlikely. Dead and gone – more likely. Captured by HYDRA – most likely. Meanwhile, Steve was in art school, fifteen credits under his belt and about to start the Spring 2016 semester. How fucking stupid.

“Steve.” Natasha worked to catch his eyes. “You’ve gotta let him go.”

Let him go, Steve repeated in his head.

“Everything I know, Bucky taught me,” Steve said, hoping to convey to her a single ounce of how impossible it was to let him go. “Everything. Do you know what I’d be without’em?"

Natasha tilted her head and shook it, almost contrite but at least willing to listen.

“I wouldn’t be a lot. Let’s put it that way.”

Steve took a bite of food to keep himself from talking. She didn’t need to know more.

“Give yourself credit. He wasn’t whispering in your ear, when you took out Krausberg.”

Steve laughed, closed his eyes, and shook his head. Now he was hearing things. “You sound like him sometimes.”

Natasha sipped water, something bubbling under her surface but never, not ever, revealing itself. “How’s Sharon?”

Steve felt himself light up, and, most importantly, he let himself do it. “Sharon’s great.”

February came with a toothbrush, a hairbrush, a pile of women’s clothes, and another houseplant. He’d killed the first one and said it’d fallen out of the window.

In class, he turned in a black and white sketch of a desolate, snow-tipped train track winding through the depths of the Alps. On paper, it’d been seventy-one years since he’d seen it in real life; in his mind, five years, and he could see it, smell it, feel it as if he’d been there yesterday.

March was a bad month. Sharon went off on an assignment: confidential, eyes-only, very dangerous. He didn’t hear from her the entire time. Classes were dull and boring. TV was inane; the news, even worse. He used his drawing tablet to draw, paint, sketch, imagine. He only put one sketch to real paper and hoped a fool’s hope that a certain person would one day see it.

Early April came and went. The TV stayed off from the first through the seventh, the usual period of time when the news still went batshit (a great new word he’d learned) about Insight.

After, he took a walk near the Potomac, near the old Triskelion, below an empty spot in the air where he’d once fought his best friend over the fate of millions – and couldn’t help but scan the crowds, every face, every shadow in the hope of finding that friend.

Buck.

At the muddy bank of the Potomac, Steve peered into the murky water. In his gut, he knew: that friend would never be found. Steve hoped he was dead and not worse.

Steve went home and found Sharon sleeping on his couch. Her face drawn with exhausted lines, her hair pulled into an unintentionally messy bun, and her legs wrapped around a wool blanket, she was back from her mission. He didn’t miss the bruise on her cheek or cut on her forehead.

He draped another blanket around her shoulders, watered the surviving plant, and let her rest in silence. Meanwhile, he stared at the blank screen of his drawing tablet, nothing left to give. Not that day.

In May, Peggy died. The news cameras filmed. Sharon eulogized. Steve, among others, carried her casket. Tony watched them from a distance; when their eyes met, Tony only shook his head and turned his back. Natasha squeezed Steve’s arm and said words that he didn’t hear.  Peggy was dead, and that was all that mattered.

In June and July, Sharon slept too much. Ate too little. Stared and daydreamed instead of talking and listening. Circles colored the skin under her eyes dark reds and grays, like a bad morning at sea. Forgot his birthday, even - who cared.

“Work’s busy,” she explained, head lolling on his shoulder. “A lot’s going on.”

“Take a break,” he suggested, because, yeah, that would honor Peggy’s memory: burning it all to the ground and walking away. Perfect. “Even a week.”

She shook her head until it nearly teetered off his shoulder. “No. It’s not that bad.” She lifted a hand and pointed at the French doors toward the balcony. “We should get window planters for there. It’s not too late.”

Eyebrow raised, Steve took out his smartphone, scrolled through Amazon, and bought a set. “Done. But if I kill’em, you can’t yell at me.”

She smiled and scoffed, “When have I ever yelled at you?”

“Have to start sometime.”

She laughed, and he believed her: she was okay.

On August 3, it’d been a full day: up at 0400, out the door by 0500, and tearing down VA-467 with the dormant sun behind them, to reach Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve by 0600. Together, Steve and Sharon had hiked all twenty miles of trails, stopping only to eat and admire the random river-side otter or rare bird sighting.

Banshee Reeks wasn’t particularly difficult terrain, but she’d kept up with him, every step of the way. Not something he’d expected. By then, he should’ve known better.

At 2025, dusk settled over DC. Crispy, dry sweat pebbled over their skin, they clamored into their apartment, dropped two backpacks at the door, and toed off their hiking shoes.

“Air conditioning!” Sharon smiled.

Steve smiled back at her, but it wasn’t because of the air conditioning.  

She caught him staring. “What?”

Her smile changed, from one of relief to one that was flat-out indecent. With both hands, she shoved him back-flat against the front door, raised up on her toes, and brushed her lips against his.

The tingle drove him crazy, and she knew it.  She knew it so well, that she caught his chin in her hand, smiled that smile again, and pressed her lips against his.  She tasted like sweat and salt, smelled like fresh lake water and sun-bleached air.

Steve slid his hand up her shirt, trailing his fingertips over the skin of her stomach, up her ribcage, and then under her bra.  She knew his sweet spot, and he sure as hell knew hers. When he got to it, her whole body jumped.

She bit his lower lip, that smile still on her face.

He pulled his lips away from hers and asked, “So, that’s how you want to do it, huh?”

“That’s how we’re doing it.”

So be it.

Steve picked her up, her legs wrapping around his torso, and carried her to the bedroom. She nipped and bit at his neck the whole god damn way there. On the bed, he put her down flat and stretched himself over her, pinning her wrists above her head with one hand and going under her shirt again with the other.

Before he knew what happened, he was flat on his back, and Sharon was straddling his hips. “Nice move.”

That smile was gone, her face blank. She leaned over him, reaching toward something he didn’t care about, and he took the opportunity to push her shirt up and lightly bite her abdomen. It usually drove her nuts, but not this time.

A drawer clicked shut.

She straightened.

He saw something long and thin in her right hand.

“What’s—”

She stuck it into his neck, a pinprick jab that stung. He didn’t even have time to pull away, or see what it was, or even ask her what she was doing.

His mouth got as far as saying “Sha—” when his world bled into a rush of noise and blackness.

Sharon.

First, he smelled dank, chalky mildew. Second, he felt the cold, hard ground. Third, he saw the darkness: pitch black, stretched forever.

He wasn’t restrained. He wasn’t in pain, except for a dull ache in his head. He still had his clothes – but no shoes.

Steve dragged his arms toward his body, palms flat against the gritty ground, and pushed himself to his knees. Even in the dark, the room tilted, his head doing loops, and he swallowed away a burst of nausea.

Drugged. You’ve been drugged.

Woozy, he forced himself to his feet, and then forced himself to take one step, then two, then three, until his hand found the first wall. It felt cold, chalky, and coarse. He kept his hand on that wall and walked, dragging his hand across. He found the corner, turned, and kept walking, hand trailing against the wall. He counted every step.

One.

Two.  

Three.

Four.

Five.

Six.

Wall.

Six steps to the north wall. (He didn’t know if it was north, but it sure as hell was “north” now.)

He turned left and walked the west wall, counting steps the same way.

One.

Two.

Three.

Metal door. Flat. Smooth. Seamless with the wall. No window, no handle, no hinges.  He reached to its top and then all the way down to its bottom and felt nothing—absolutely nothing—that he could exploit. He kept it in mind and kept walking.

Four.

Five.

Six.

Wall. He turned south and found that it was six steps to the west wall and the six steps back to the north wall.

His stride was three feet long.

The cell was 18’ by 18’. Big. He’d rather it be small.

He went back to the door, laid down flat on his stomach, and tried to look under it.

Nothing. No light, no air, no nothing. It was like it was airtight.

Bad thought.

He felt along the door’s side edges, finding nothing to slip his fingers into.

He stepped away from the door, took three steadying breaths, and then kicked it as hard as he could. He fell hard on his back, pain reverberating up his ankle and into his knee.

He stood back up and ran his hand over the metal – he hadn’t even dented it.

Bad. This is bad.

Steve decided to sit by the door: back against the wall, knees pulled to his chest, arms wrapped around his knees.

He stared into the darkness and began to count.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

Five.

Six.

Seven.

And on and on. Counting the seconds, until the seconds turned to minutes, and the minutes turned to an hour.

One.

He started over.

Two.

And again.

Three.

He was almost to four, when the metal door lurched: a high-pitched, reverberating sound of tearing metal.

Steve scrambled to his feet and kept his back to the wall. One chance.

The door opened away from him, light suddenly shining through, and Steve waited one, two, three, four seconds, before –

A black-clad person walked through, and Steve attacked with a punch. The person blocked it, grabbed Steve’s arm and twisted it behind Steve’s back.

“Stop!”

The word “stop” did nothing to stop him. Steve kicked the side of the person’s knee, yanked his arm out of the person’s grip, and tried to backhand the person across the face. The person deflected the attack, and Steve –

“Steve!”

Steve stopped.

Blinked.

Gave his eyes precious time to adjust and his brain time to catch up.

Bucky?”

Bucky came into focus: short, brown hair, black tactical pants, a black t-shirt, a shiny metal arm, and armed for a war. He looked tired but like himself, and that’s all that mattered.

“You okay?” Bucky asked, voice flat.

“Yeah,” Steve answered, shock coloring his voice. Of all the people he’d expected to find him here – and that number, by the way, was actually “zero” – Bucky was dead last.

“I followed HYDRA here. Why do they want you?”

Steve shook his head. Right now, he didn’t care about why HYDRA wanted him. He cared about one thing and one thing only: the person standing in front of him.

“You’re alive,” Steve said, a little dumbly. The truth of the words wrapped around him, and, even though he was a prisoner inside a HYDRA base, the weight of the world lifted, replaced by stunning relief.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Bucky asked, then quickly moved on. “We need to get going. They don’t know I’m here. Not yet.”

Bucky drew a nine-millimeter handgun from his left thigh holster and handed it to Steve, butt first. Steve took it, cradling the weight in the palm of his hand.

Bucky turned and headed out the door, when Steve caught his right arm. Before, in Kraków, he’d done the same thing and gotten a knife in his face for his trouble. This time, Bucky turned, eyebrows hiked and asked, “What?”

Steve pulled him into a hug, arms tight around Bucky’s back. He smelled like military-grade shampoo, sand, and gunpowder. Bucky’s arms came up, loose and unsure around Steve, but Steve would take anything at all.

“I missed you, Buck,” Steve breathed, and he couldn’t care less that they were standing inside a HYDRA base, and he couldn’t care less that he was putting the brakes on his own rescue.

Bucky was the world.

“Yeah. We’ve gotta get going, Steve. Now.”

Steve pulled away, looked at his friend, and nodded.

Together, they left the cell and stepped into a round, concrete hallway lit by reams of rectangular, bright fluorescent lights.

Weapon aimed, expression deadly focused, Bucky lead them down the long corridor, past multiple closed, metal doors. The corridor was empty: not a sound, not a person, not anything except those doors.

“Did you see them bring Sharon?” Steve asked.

Bucky didn’t stop moving. “Who?”

Right.

“Blonde, tall. She was with me, when—”

The memory was fuzzy. He wasn’t sure what had happened, only that they were about to have fun times, and then the room went black.

Bucky shook his head. “I only saw them bring you.”

Steve didn’t know if he should be relieved or worried. Maybe they’d left her alone.

Please. Let her be okay.

Bucky lead them to a stairwell, the treads gray concrete, and started to head down them. Not up.

“Buck – why’re we going down?”

Bucky didn’t even look back at him. He kept moving down the steps, and Steve chose to follow.

“There’s an emergency tunnel. They don’t watch it. If we go out the front door, we’ll have to fight every step of the way.”

Steve nodded to himself. Made sense.

He followed Bucky down four flights of stairs, the air chilling into a dull, seeping cold. Bucky pushed open a door marked “14” and immediately shot three people dead: three bullets, straight through their foreheads.

Steve didn’t give the bodies a second look.

He looked at the back of his friend, a litany of emotions rumbling through him: relief, fear, pride, disgust, gratitude, excitement.

Bucky was back.

He was back.

He was here.

“This is it,” Bucky said, as he opened a heavy steel door.

Bucky blended into a dark, dark room. Steve followed him inside and never expected the metal fist that sunk into his face, or the prick against his neck that toppled him to his hands and knees.

He couldn’t see.

He felt hands wrap around his wrists, the gun tear out of his boneless fingers, and his body drag along the floor, then raise up. Cold restraints locked around his wrists.

The hands went away, and he couldn’t support his own weight; his body rested entirely, agonizingly on his wrists.

Somebody cut away his shirt, the stale air prickly cold against his bare skin.

Something thick and wet slathered onto his chest and stomach; he tried to follow the pattern – circular, with curly tendrils. It almost felt like glue.

He heard a lighter flick to life and smelled fresh cigarette smoke.

“Welcome to your new home, Steve. I hope you like it.”

Footsteps pattered along the concrete, and the door slammed closed.

The overhead lights sizzled to life, and, already, Steve’s eyes were unaccustomed to brightness. He blinked and squinted, vision blurry and bouncing.

Drugs. It’s the drugs.

Even through the haze, he saw Bucky smile, a lit cigarette between his lips. Like always. Like before.

“Buck,” Steve said, slurred. “What’re you doin’?”

Bucky took that cigarette out of his mouth, looked at it, blew out smoke, and then looked to Steve. “White phosphorus. Have you heard of it?”

It couldn’t be real. Couldn’t be.

Bucky used that cigarette to light the glue on Steve’s chest, and Steve – 

***

 

The story will continue in Chapter 2: Ride and Die.