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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.

Chapter Text

Barnes leaned his fishing pole against the wall of the cabin. The butt of his cigarette joined a soggy pile of others on the ground. The last word on his smoking habit was that it was going to kill him; he didn't much believe that, not when nothing else in this world had.

He led Steve around to the front door, but, before going up the steps, he had words – the ones he should've said years ago. He stopped walking, turned just a bit, and looked straight at Steve.

"I should have said this a long time ago. I wish I'd said this a long time ago. I'm sorry, for everything I did—on the rooftop, on the highway, on the helicarrier. In Kraków. And thank you, for bringing me back. Because you did."

Steve flinched, and then hugged himself. He didn't respond at all to what Barnes had said. Not exactly the dreamed-about homecoming. It might not ever be.

It wasn't that he expected something. Natasha's text—a warning sent a few minutes ago—had been clear: even after something like half a year, Steve still wasn't well. Her ridiculous advice was to "proceed with extreme discretion."

Whatever that meant.

He pulled a silver key out of his pocket, climbed the steps, and opened the front door. He went in first and held the door open for Steve, half-expecting Steve to take off.

Steve came inside.

Barnes closed the door, leaned against the kitchen counter while Steve wandered, and looked at his own place from someone else's perspective: decent furniture, newer appliances, clean, and very small.

Except the books, everything in it had come with the place. He'd done nothing to it, not in the nearly two years he'd owned it – all cash, totally under the table, because the little old lady who'd wanted to get rid of it despised the government, and, sometimes, just sometimes, the stars aligned and shit worked out.

"How long have you lived here?" Steve asked.

"Almost two years. Kinda love it."

Almost immediately, he knew he'd been too honest. Both Natasha and Sam had told him: when he'd gone off-grid, Steve had assumed the worst two options – dead or captured. Not living in the backcountry of upstate New York.

Steve nodded, body tight and tense and still. It didn't matter how big or small he was, Steve hadn't changed, and Barnes recognized that reaction.

He tried to explain why here. "The town's small, out of the way from all the touristy shit. I know the people. Weird enough strangers come through, and people start talking."

Didn't help.

"Oh, yeah?" Steve hedged, distant.

"Yeah," Barnes shrugged, frowning. Extreme discretion – he still didn't know what that was supposed to look like, but he was done lying to protect Steve. Every path forward, whatever those paths looked like, were going to be god damned clean. "You got lost three times and finally asked Susie Marie for directions."

He'd gotten that text, too: super weird, small town intelligence.

Steve's faced screwed up, eyebrows lifting. It was his "I don't give a fuck" face.

Great.

"You're happy here?"

The problem with that "clean path" was that it was ugly. Rough. Treacherous, even.

Barnes watched Steve pick up a paperback and flip the pages.

They'd either make it through, or die on it. Simple enough.

"I'm done being a weapon. This is the only place I've found that doesn't flip that particular switch every five minutes."

Every word was more or less the truth.

After finding Nick Fury's millions of dollars and life-changing letter in Zurich—what the fuck what the fuck what the fuck, he remembered thinking—he'd wandered for a month or two. "I quit" was easy; finding some sort of purpose, not so much.

"You can work on fixing that, you know."

By any measure, Barnes wasn't a saint. Hadn't perfected this "I get it" thing yet. Often, lashed out.

Words were coming out of his mouth, before he realized Steve had flicked a sore point. "I had 512 confirmed kills as your overwatch." On average, thirty-four a month, more than one a day. Fucking insane. "HYDRA didn't really have to work for it, you know?"

Barnes looked down, suddenly raw enough that he didn't want to look at Steve. Another sore point: even back then, especially back then, they'd been tearing each other apart at the seams. There was only so much blood Steve could wipe onto his sleeves – and only so much they could survive, even before they'd died.

"What's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test about?"

What the fuck.

Barnes sighed, almost laughed, and answered, "I don't know; I haven't read it yet. What do you want from this, Steve?"

"I don't know," Steve whispered. Barnes watched him bury his face into his open palms. "I don't know."

He sounded so, so broken; so, so confused; so, so lost. Shoes toed off, bare feet still river-water soggy, Barnes walked the short way to the living room and dropped into the chair across from the sofa.

"How're you doin'?" Barnes asked. It could be early 1943, the last time they were the same people they were always supposed to be. "After... After Death Valley?"

"I'm doin'," Steve answered, palms still hiding his face. "It was only three months."

It didn't matter how long, only that it had happened. HYDRA didn't let people like them go easily. The only reason Steve wasn't still there was because HYDRA'd gotten stupidly ambitious, and they'd gotten lucky.

"They had you. It's not easy to let that go."

Steve's palms dug in harder. "They still do. There's just a gap. I'm working on making it longer."

Said like a person who didn't think he was working hard enough. Who thought he wasn't doing good enough.

"You're doing great, Steve. Real great."

"No. No, it's already started, and I can't... I just needed to see you. I just... Are we good?"

So, that was the point of this: to be good. As if any of this would ever be good.

In the distance, Lockheed-Martin engines cut through the sky. A Quinjet. Then the distinct sound of a motorcycle's revving engine. All sooner than he'd expected.

"We're good," Barnes answered, not a care in the whole fucking world that his voice shook, or that his eyes stung. "No matter what, we're good."

Steve nodded, palms still pressed into his face. "One day, okay? One day."

He was going to lose it. He was going to fucking lose it and that wouldn't be fair to Steve. He forced himself to hold it together and say, "One day."

Not nearly god damn enough.

Steve's palms dropped, at the same time he rapidly stood up and turned away, gaze on the floor. His hands were tight fists.

Steve couldn't look at him. He couldn't look at him. But he could look at the fucking knife block.

"Steve?"

No response. Only the stare locked on the knives.

Right. Like the broken beer bottle back at the river.

"They're ceramic," Barnes said. "They'll just break."

Maybe.

The front door open, the roar of Natasha's motorcycle closer, Steve said, "I gotta go, Buck."

Barnes answered, "Goodbye, Steve," but it wasn't nearly god damn enough.

Four days of seething later, he demanded to know, "What the fuck was that?!"

Barnes stared at Natasha and Hill, eyes wide, more unhinged than he would've liked. Too late now.

"Barnes—" they said, simultaneously. Hill looked worried, tense; Natasha, discouraged.

He took a breath. Calmed down. Sort of. "That's where he is, after seven months? was better than that after seven months."

Hill's gaze went to the floor, arms tightening around her chest. And he knew. He god damned knew, and he barely even knew her.

"The therapist?" He drew forward, eyes wide again, because he'd asked her.

Hill raised her index finger, eyes off the floor and transformed into a harsh, hard glare. "You left. You had a chance to stay, to help. You left. Don't come here like this."

Her hand dropped; the glare didn't.

Natasha didn't offer a word of support, for either of them.

Barnes held Hill's gaze and, without dropping it, asked, "Nat, can you leave?"

Hill's eyes narrowed.

He hoped he wasn't showing his cards: how he was floating above the room, how he'd formulated this plan in the space of a second, how unsure he was of what he was about to do.

Natasha kicked off the wall, brushed past him, and, out of the corner of his eye, saw her look at them until she was clear through the door.

"Am I still SHIELD?"

Hill blinked once. "Barely."

That was the best kind of "yes."

"Let me take Steve, while you figure out why SHIELD's still HYDRA."

Hill's expression got really fucking blank, and her eyes pierced into his for moments that slowly grated into longer moments. When she finally looked away, her jaw worked, wheels turning. "You get a month. Take Wilson. There's a safe house in Brazil."

"What, so HYDRA can have a map? You trust me or you don't, at this point."

Expression still revealing nothing, Hill answered, "It's safe. Brazil. One month. You're SHIELD or you're not, at this point. Get off the fence."

It felt like a defining moment in time, and he came down from it while lying on Natasha's bed, his head in her lap. He had a great view of the ceiling, while her fingernails danced over his forehead and through his hair.

She always knew how to bring him back down.

"You didn't tell me." She didn't sound mad.

"I didn't plan to do it."

A too-long silence.

"Steve is dangerous. Your plan is terrible."

He could've laughed. First: what plan? Second: "Is that what you told him about me, way back when?"

"Yes." Natasha didn't mince her words. He might have loved her for it. "He doesn't have your control. He doesn't compartmentalize well. He's never rebounded. He's raw, and you touch the nerves."

Steve didn't cope with shit: not news. He never had. He dug deep and shut down. Steve Rogers was never well-adjusted, or so they called it.

None of that mattered. "You have no one else to do this. Unless you're gonna call that Thor guy?"

He felt her head shake. "Be careful."

Sam didn't take it as well. "Seven months. And now you're here? And you want to skip the country?"

"Yeah."

Sam threw his head back and laughed a high-strung, end-of-the-road laugh. He sounded and looked done. "You are… out of your fucking mind."

"Sam," Barnes said, planning on beginning a very articulate, well-reasoned argument.

"No. You know what Hotwheels are?"

Barnes furrowed his eyebrows and determined that, no, he did not know what Hotwheels were. He shook his head.

"Little toy cars that you put on little toy tracks. They do loops. When I was a kid, I had this little, gray track, and my cars did little loops on that track, all day long. Sometimes, the car would fly off the track and crash into the carpet. But it was okay – I just picked it up, put it back on the track, and watched it do its loop."

Barnes stared, lost.

"Steve is the car. His entire world is that little, gray track. You got him on a good day. On a bad day, all he can talk about is that you're dead, HYDRA's got Sharon, and we're all liars. On a really bad day, we can't stop him. I don't think you can."

Sam said it all, like he expected Barnes to come to some sudden realization that, oh, god, no, this wasn't doable.

"Okay," Barnes shrugged. "On my bad days, back in 2014, I killed people."

"HYDRA," Sam responded, flat.

"Shitty people," Barnes compromised. "You call it a loop. I call it circles. Stepping away from that world was the only thing that stopped them for me." He paused, not for dramatic effect, but because this might get ugly. "Does he have that choice?"

Bitter anger flashed across Sam's face. "You left. You decided that you couldn't do this. You decided that we could. Where was all this grand, bullshit wisdom seven months ago?"

Barnes nodded and nodded, agreeing with it all. He didn't—couldn't—rebuke Sam's anger.

"I'm here now—"

"For now," Sam interrupted.

"I think it's the right path. I would appreciate you being there. Also: Hill's insisting."

The server set down a thin-crust pepperoni pizza, slices cut huge – the kind that needed folded in half, the only kind.

Sam grabbed the first slice and warned, "Don't you fucking eat it all."

Barnes grabbed and stacked two. "Learn to eat faster."

"If you're gonna be like that, the answer's no."

Which meant: the answer was yes. All he had to do was get Steve and go.

***

On the bleached gray tarmac, Stark's private hangar sitting closed behind them, Sam slips off his cotton jacket and ties it around his waist. At 0228, it's already sticky humid, oppressively hot, and drizzling warm rain. Brazil calls this "winter."

"You said anywhere I wanted," Steve bites, a harsh glare aimed at Barnes.

To his credit, Barnes ignores the tone. He pulls on a black ball cap—backwards, and that's new for Barnes, Sam notices—and regards Steve calmly. "For now, here."

"What, you don't like 80-degree humidity at three in the morning?" Sam hopes to cut the tension. "This is gonna be great."

"Something like that."

The drive over to Sao Paulo is going to be fantastic; Sam can feel it. Nine more hours of awkward tension.

At the car – one of Tony's, a discreet dark blue sedan – Barnes says to Sam, "I flew; you drive." Then, to Steve, "You want the front passenger seat?"

"Shotgun, man," Sam says. "That's called 'shotgun.' And you're doing it wrong."

Barnes ignores Sam, not that Sam blames him.

Steve's pissed-off expression hasn't changed since landing. His left eye twitches, though; a tiny tell that had preceded several violent outbursts in the last seven months.

Sam's got a pocket full of Natasha's taser discs, and Sam can think of nothing worse—or maybe nothing better, he doesn't even know—than turning right back around and going home.

"Not really. I don't trust you behind me," Steve says.

"'Kay." Barnes seems nonchalant but that's a word that historically means he's upset. "Get in the back."

Sam thinks that's it: good to go. He makes toward the driver's side, keys in his hand, when he hears it: SMACK, CRUNCH. The car lurches into him, moving two, three feet in a second, so hard that it knocks him down.

"Hey—"

"Don't fucking do that. Pretend it doesn't bother you. I know it does."

Sam jumps to his feet, spins around, heart racing, and sees Barnes pinned against the passenger side of the car, both of Steve's hands clenched around Barnes' t-shirt.

"Steve. Steve. Steve!" Sam shouts, running back toward them without one damned clue about what he's supposed to do.

"Right there, where you're pushing – it still hurts."

Steve's eyes drop to where his hands are, and, in that moment, all three of them might share a memory. Sam would love to close his eyes right now, scrub that awful image away, but – he doesn't trust Steve. And he doesn't trust Barnes to protect himself.

"Steve, step off!" Sam barks.

Steve doesn't. But he blinks, and his expression softens, and Sam barely hears, "It's so scrambled, Buck. This isn't…"

"Isn't you. I know. Trust me, I know."

Steve's hands fall. Metal crinkles and pops, leaving a Barnes-shaped dent in the rear quarter of the car.

Ten hours in, and the Ride-or-Die couple has already transcended to Ride-and-Die. Just perfect.

"Get in the car, Steve," Barnes says, gentle in a way Sam's never heard.

Without another word, Steve does—slips into the back seat, still not the front—and Sam watches Barnes close his eyes, tilt his face toward the cloud-wisped sky, and breathe deeply.

Sam wipes rain and droplets of sweat from his forehead, biting his tongue harder and harder: so much on his mind and not one damn decent way to say it. This is a mistake fights to be heard.

Barnes pulls a cigarette and lighter from somewhere. The lighter flicks to life, yellow-orange licks of fire stark against the darkness. A cloudy musk of cheap, filtered tobacco folds into the muggy air. Sam loves the smell; always has.

He doesn't quite love what Barnes says next. "Hotel's twenty-five miles southeast. I'll meet you down there."

Sam laughs, already done with this insane plan to "help" Steve. "Dude, it's been ten hours. You really wanna go a month like this?"

"I'll be there in an hour or two. Text me the room. Don't get a shitty one."

If Sam's learned anything, it's that once Barnes is attached to a stupid idea, he doesn't let go of it. Barnes and Steve are too alike that way.

"Yeah" is all Sam can bring himself to say, and he leaves Barnes behind, the car's smooth motor revving before he's fully realized his decision. He glances in the rearview, Barnes already gone.

"Where's Bucky?"

Sam shifts the car's transmission into drive. "He'll meet us there."

Steve scoots down, clothes rustling against the leather seat, and doesn't respond.

Sam drives.

***

Barnes takes his time, reaching the hotel in a bit over two hours. When he crosses the edge of the parking lot, he's coated in thick droplets of sweat: his shirt is stuck to his back, and his jeans are damp against his thighs. He fucking hates humidity.

The four-story hotel looks like a dump but is one of the best things he's seen in a long, long time. He hasn't slept since Steve found the cabin – and, even for him, that's pushing it hard.

Barnes walks into the hotel's front entrance, strides passed the unattended front desk, finds the stairwell, heads up to the third floor, and knocks on the cracked, brown door to Room 320.

He hears a thump, then footsteps, and then the squeak of a latch releasing.

Sam opens the door. "Every room was shitty."

Barnes nods and shoulders his way into the room. It smells old and musty. Translucent dust particles float in the air. The subfloor under the yellow-orange carpet squishes under his feet.

Beyond that, it looks small. The bathroom is to the left of the room's entryway; ahead of him, a tiny living room and an even tinier hallway, which must lead to two rooms.

"Steve's on the left. I've got the couch."

Barnes doesn't argue and, by the time he's stripping off his sweat-damp clothes inside the right-hand bedroom, he can't remember if he even responded to Sam.

Fuck. Whatever.

He picks through his backpack and gets re-dressed, just in case an instinct not so easy to shrug away. He strips the bed of its coarse, stale bedding down to the stained, white flat sheet. It all reminds him of the shitty Super 8 between Omaha and Des Moines, the one he'd stayed at a lifetime ago in 2015.

On another instinct, another one he can't so easily put to rest, he grabs his newer SIG Sauer and slides it under one of the flat, yellowed pillows. He leaves a CZ-75 in the middle of his bag, tucked between folds of clothes.

Sleep comes easy. He dreams of his childhood home existing inside the windowless, brick walls of the Arctic cosmodrome. He dreams of his folks, of his siblings, of Anna, of other people—people he hates, who took everything—existing in the same space, the same world, and he wakes with the insides of his chest twisting.

The dream fades, its details dimming, and he simply rolls over and goes back to sleep, no point in chasing irretrievable vapors.

The rattling of a handgun wakes him from that feather-light sleep. He rolls over from his right side onto his back and blinks upward.

His own gun—the CZ-75—is aimed at his face.

In the living room, Sam snores loudly: no help there. Not that he needs it. Rather, he simply reaches up with his right hand and twists the gun out of Steve's grip.

Steve only whispers feather-light apologies: "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry. I can't control it."

Barnes slips the gun under his pillow, next to the other one, and simply says, "Go to sleep, Steve."

"No. I'm going to hurt you. I'm sick, Buck, and I'm—"

"You're not sick," Barnes says, intentionally keeping his tone of voice even and factual. "SHIELD is still compromised. Someone there was making you sick. I'm sorry – that I left you there for so long. Okay. Sleep, okay?"

Barnes closes his eyes and rolls over, his back to Steve, but Steve doesn't move. He just takes a ton of little breaths and blows them back out; it sounds like he's wanting to say something, but keeps deciding not to.

"Steve?"

"Do..."

Everyone always expected small, skinny, sickly Steve Rogers, with his dead dad and working mother and no siblings and not a lot of friends, to be timid and shy. No one ever expected his strong voice, or his resolute strength, or his stubborn resolve.

Steve Rogers was never timid or shy, and he never stumbled over his words. He was a fucking incorrigible spitfire.

And, yet.

"Do you... Do you wanna go up to the roof? Like when, you know, like when we were kids?"

Barnes doesn't hesitate, even though he really wants to—needs to—sleep. "Yeah, sure. It'll be fun."

The stars are clearer than they've been since they landed in Brazil. To Barnes, they look exactly the same everywhere in the world: glowing dots and specks of white. If he thinks too long about what it all means—that, really, he's the speck—he ends up going down a bad, bad path, the one Natasha and Sam are always so worried about.

"That one's Scorpius."

Barnes follows Steve's finger up to the sky, but he's not even looking.

"Look, there's the stinger," Steve urges, tracing an imaginary line. "You see it?"

His chest is tight with anxiety, and phantom pains shoot through his body. It's almost like he can feel the bullets and the last couple of seconds of life leaving his body. These words—this half-assed tradition from decades ago—hurt, and he wonders, just for a moment, he wonders, if Steve knows—

"Yeah. Yeah, I can see it," he lies, breathless and hoping Steve doesn't notice.

Steve goes on like that a couple more times, a couple more constellations, his enthusiasm waning with each one. Barnes closes his eyes, giving nothing more than "uh-huh" and "yeah" answers, physical and emotional exhaustion ripping at his seams.

Steve's arm thuds against the blacktop. Barnes snaps his eyes open, the dark sky a muddled blur. Somewhere, the sun's coming up, but, here, not for a little while longer.

"I killed you."

The voice is small, unbelieving. It's nothing like the Steve he remembers.

"Still here," Barnes says, casual.

Sam once mentioned that Steve read a file; Barnes imagines that file might have mentioned a handful of would-be deaths. It's maybe too much to ask for Steve to realize that dying doesn't carry nearly the same weight for him as it seems to for others. It's okay that he's here – but it'd be okay, better even, if he wasn't.

"I can't stop thinking about it. You told me not to." Steve laughs through the last part, a dragging moan cutting through the rumble of the passing highway cars.

In that Death Valley room, Steve a feral animal circling him, Barnes had meant every word. He doesn't know how to say something so small that carries such huge expectations—to a person he once could tell almost anything to.

"We didn't end there," Barnes says. "That's what I'm saying now."

Steve shifts, pulling his arms under his head. "That's a hell of a promise."

It might be one he can't keep, but if he's learned anything—anything—it's that the world can bend. His mind spins around that thought, a sluggish centrifuge.

His eyes drift shut, heavier than cinderblocks, and if he pretends—if he pretends enough, hard enough, this can almost be like before the War. Crashing hard after a long day and a longer night at his jobs, Steve a quiet, immutable presence, with a screeching-music mystery on the crackling radio, the kind that Steve always ruined by figuring it out so quick.

Forget the War. Forget Krausberg. Forget HYDRA. Forget the Winter Soldier. Forget the worst part of a century.

It's a warm, hollow cluster of thoughts that drag him back to sleep, the air sticking to his skin and sitting heavy in his lungs, the sky and its passing clouds dark.

***

Sam jerks awake about ten, fifteen times between 0300ish and 0900. It's the most worthless jab at sleep he's had in months, and his body is pushing for food and, most importantly, coffee.

He sits up, head pressed to his knees, back muscles stretching, and listens. He hears the ambience of the highway out front, and the quiet din of the low-volume TV beside him.

Otherwise, he doesn't hear the tell-tale sounds of sleeping: Steve's incessant snoring, or the upset whirring of Barnes' arm. He doesn't hear the shower running or voices talking.

That worries him.

Sam puts his feet flat onto the shaggy, squishy carpet, and shifts the faintest bit of pressure onto his aching, screaming left knee. It's already going to be that kind of a day.

He walks it off the best that he can, planning on digging a bottle of anti-inflammatories out of his bag in a few minutes. Before that, he wants to find Steve and Barnes.

He checks the bathroom first: the lights are off, the curtain dry.

Sam backtracks to the living space and checks Barnes' room. He leaves the lights off, but, even in the dark, he sees clothes and bed covers on the floor. The bed itself is cold and empty.

Back in Europe, Barnes often wandered to rooftops, alleyways, and busy streets. For a sniper, he didn't like to be still. So, that's probably what's happening here.

Sam's gut tells him it's not.

When Sam turns around, his arm brushes against something unexpected. He damn near jumps out of his skin.

Heart pattering, lungs frozen, limbs on god damn fire, Sam steadies his eyes, looks through the darkness, and sees Steve: only Steve, standing still, arms at his side, quiet and staring.

Sam takes a breath, forcing his lungs to start working again. "Cap. Where's Barnes?"

Steve visibly stiffens: his shoulders drawing up, has-its-own-zip-code chest puffing out. It's a harsh reminder of the hugeness of Steve's stature—and that, often now, he's scared of Steve.

I miss you, Sam thinks at the person standing right in front of him.

"His name's Bucky." Steve is palpably upset.

"Okay," Sam acquiesces. "Where's Bucky?"

Steve steps forward, closer than close. Sam can feel his huffs of warm breath. He can see the bloodshot whites of Steve's eyes, even in the dark.

"Don't patronize me."

There's no time to lock up. All his life, people—his parents, teachers, coaches, friends—said one thing: Sam T. Wilson is lightning on his feet, cooler than a blizzard. Nobody had nothing on him. None of that prepared him for this, is the thing.

"Where'd that nickname come from?" Sam asks, changing the subject ever so slightly. "His middle name?"

Steve closes his eyes and swallows, his shoulders coming down a fraction. "No."

"His sister made it?" Sam guesses. Becca makes Rebecca makes Becky and isn't a huge leap to Bucky. Kids are good at twisting names like that.

"I tried to shoot him."

A chill winds through Sam, prickling from the back of his neck down to his feet. He's dead.

"Steve, where is he?"

Silence pulses between them, a quiet, still boxing match of bubbling nerves and livewire tension. Not for the first time, Sam's reminded of the hours between the helicarriers crashing into the ground and Steve's body being spotted on the river bank – of the dead calm, near-certain conclusion that Steve had been killed and his murderer was nowhere to be found.

It's so fucking backwards.

"Steve."

Steve's eyes roam around the room, aimless. "I tried to shoot him. Is he… I think he's dead."

Sam's got only one, useless thought left in his head: Natasha should have come. "Where."

Steve's eyes lock onto a point behind Sam. Sam briefly looks behind himself to see what it is – and sees a blank, beige wall.

Steve's on one of his downward loops: clarity dissolved, lucidity barely-there, with absolutely no power to think beyond HYDRA's distorted reality. This is where it usually gets violent, and here, right now, Sam feels like he's powerlessly watching a bad car accident.

His phone, taser discs, and wings are in the living room. Steve is between Sam and the door. They're four stories up, and a jump out the window guarantees at least one broken leg.

"Is Sharon…" Steve's head tilts. "HYDRA has Sharon."

"No, man, they don't" is Sam's typical response, said when Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Maria Hill, and, hell, even the Hulk are all on-call with a murmur from JARVIS.

"How about a run?" Sam asks instead, hoping to get Steve out of this room.

If Sam can get to his wings and his phone, he can—

A door clicks open and then closed. The hallway dimly illuminates. Quiet footsteps start down the hall, and Sam swears he hears the familiar whir of Barnes' arm.

Sam lets go of a long-held breath. He's alive.

***

Barnes rounds the corner and stops inside the doorway, wholly unsurprised to see Sam and Steve in his room.

He looks at Sam for a moment—Sam's body language screams scared—and then flatly asks Steve, "Were you going for the gun?"

For all Steve reacts to the question, Barnes doesn't exist. "Where is she?" Steve asks.

Barnes wonders who "she" is supposed to be.

These handful of hours have made it crystal clear: Barnes should have spent the past few months tearing HYDRA apart again, not terrorizing fish and reading shitty books.

Sam stands motionless, arms loose at his side, expression neutral, his entire purpose to de-escalate Steve. "I don't know. But I do know that she's not—"

In a single, endless fraction of a second, Steve's body tenses, he takes a long step toward Sam, and his hands move threateningly toward Sam's chest.

Barnes doesn't wait to see how Sam handles it. One punch can kill him. He lunges for Steve, grabs the back of his shoulder with his left hand, and pulls him back.

Steve has never known when to stop, let alone when to back down. He whips around, left fist swinging, eyes wide and raging. Barnes slaps the Steve's fist away with an open hand, steps backward, and lures Steve away from Sam.

Steve keeps coming: another punch, a back kick, aggressively pushing Barnes further and further backward. Barnes' body hits the hallway wall, Steve a breath away.

His face is hatred.

Steve swings, and Barnes drops to the floor to avoid the punch. Steve's fist crunches through a single layer of drywall, yellowed sheetrock dust exploding into the air.

Barnes comes up under Steve's legs, carrying all of Steve's weight on his shoulders. He springs up and forward, then sloppily throws them both to the ground. Barnes tries to roll away, but he's not fast enough: Steve kicks him in the jaw, and his neck painfully cracks.

Someone is yelling – a loud voice, a panicked tone, but the words themselves are lost to a jagged memory of Death Valley.

His chest and right shoulder throb with deep, barbed aches. The hallway pulls away; lightheaded, he feels like he floats above it, a spectator to a one-sided fist fight. Strangely, he's not afraid more than he's overwhelmed by sadness and loss.

Steve. This is Steve: the one person none of this was ever supposed to touch.

Senseless, Barnes pushes Steve away with his left hand. Maybe Steve was kicking, or maybe Steve was punching, it doesn't matter. He sees Steve land on his back meters away, but he doesn't hear a thump or a shout.

Barnes stands up. He hears his own breaths echoed in his ears. He still feels those aches but knows they're not real. Wet droplets tickle his right hand, and he smells blood – now, that's real.

Steve gets up, like Steve does. Barnes watches the dramatic heaving of Steve's huge fucking chest, with boobs like Mary Miller's, and remembers that he can't really be one to judge anymore.

"Are we done?" Barnes asks, although he's not sure his brain is entirely working. His voice sounds distant.

Steve's eyes flick back and forth between Barnes and a point behind Barnes, which is probably Sam. "Yeah, we're done," Steve says with venom and permanence. He turns toward the living room.

They're nowhere near fucking done.

For now, Barnes sags against the wall, even more exhausted than before, and closes his eyes. He wants a long, hard sleep, buried under thick covers, in a dark, cold –

"Steve!"

The Winter Soldier would have never let it happen. He would have heard the footsteps, heard the changes in Steve's body, and fended off the attack before it became an attack. The Winter Soldier, unfortunately, is buried under years of thoughts, experiences, and distractions. He doesn't usually consider it a problem more than a victory.

Steve pins him against the wall: one arm across Barnes' throat, the other hand merciless around his right elbow. The hatred isn't any less.

"How's that arm?"

Barnes first thinks that Steve is talking about his left one, until he puts it together: Steve's grip on his right elbow is tighter and more painful. Steve's threatening to break it again, like on the helicarrier.

He can't—won't—let him do that, to either of them.

Barnes shifts his weight into Steve and wraps his left hand around Steve's. He squeezes enough for Steve's fingers to involuntarily weaken their grip. When they do, he pulls his right arm free, bats away Steve's other arm, and retreats to a safe-ish distance.

"What the hell'd they do to you?"

He should have kept his mouth shut, walked away, and de-escalated this. But holy fuck – there's something sadistic writhing under Steve's skin, something vicious that HYDRA had never managed to warp into his brain – things he would do when told but never enjoy.

Barnes hears Sam move behind him. Barnes holds out his left arm, blocking Sam from moving forward.

HYDRA is good, real good, at tugging out the brutal parts of their victims. He's witnessed it dozens and dozens of times. When he thinks about it these days, he's reminded of his mom's seam ripper and how she knew to pull on precisely the right threads to unravel a garment.

Every part of Steve radiates barely-contained bitterness. "You know."

"C'mon, move," Sam whispers. "He's—"

"No."

Barnes isn't moving until Steve comes back down. He hasn't thought ahead to the possibility that, one of these times, Steve won't make it back down.

"What if they'd killed you, before anyone ever knew?" Steve asks. "Where would we all be?"

Those questions come from a place of hurt, and Barnes' response comes from an equally unhurt place. His only goal is to shock Steve back into himself. "Would've saved you the trouble, huh?"

Steve draws back, as good as being slapped in the face. The color drains from his cheeks, his brow twitches, and he's got precisely zero words to say about that.

A god damn miracle descends from heaven: Steve turns and moves away, stiffly walking out of the room and back toward the living area, for good this time.

Barnes rubs his eyes with his right hand, silent until he notices Sam's stare. "What."

"Tell me you don't believe that. That it'd be better if you'd…"

It would be better. Absolutely undeniably.

Barnes shrugs, avoiding eye contact. "Doesn't matter."

"It matters."

Irritation turns his body restless, and his mind yearns to lash out—and take a chunk of meat out of Sam.

Instead, Barnes takes a breath. "Not right now."

"More on that later," Sam warns, a finger pointed.

Whatever.

"Look. It's been less than a day, and he's—" Sam apparently can't say unstable and hostile. "We should go home. There's no shame."

Sam's version of "go home" is Barnes' version of "disappear." No more cabin in upstate New York; no more dumb river with the dumb fish; no more Susie Marie and weird, small-town intelligence. Steve found it, and so will HYDRA.

"HYDRA really…"

Unlike Sam, Barnes doesn't have a problem saying it, but this hotel room is small, and Steve can hear every single word. That's the only reason he doesn't finish that sentence with "fucked him up."

"Welcome to the party." Sam has the defeated, tired tone of someone who's lived this, breathed this, and dealt with this every day for seven months. "You're late."

For no reason at all, Barnes thinks of yesterday—my god, just yesterday—with Natasha. Is that what you told him about me? And her decisive response: Yes.

Dangerous.

Barnes swipes the back of his right hand across his jaw and glances at the blood it collects. He decides right then.

"Jesus, Barn—"

"We're not going back."

Nothing is stopping Steve from finding his way back, not anymore. Barnes won't leave him to do it alone.

***

Sam's duffel bag drops onto the red tile floor. "This is it? Home sweet home?"

Barnes shrugs. He'd rather be in Europe. Sweden, maybe. Somewhere cool and overcast.

There's nothing wrong with Brazil: it's beautiful, scenic, and doesn't rattle any bells in his head. He just doesn't like sticky, humid tropical weather.

Barnes looks behind his hologrammed shoulder at Steve, who's hanging back at the front door. Hesitation is written into every bone in his body. His right hand is wrapped around the black strap of his bag, knuckles white.

Decades ago, he'd looked the same way, when he'd moved into Bucky's Brooklyn apartment. It'd taken weeks, before it sunk in that it was Steve's place, too.

Barnes misses the time when the helicarrier and his own inability to make a move were the biggest obstacles between them. That's saying something.

Steve's eyes shift to him. "I want to go home."

"No," Barnes says, before Sam can do more than open his mouth. "We're staying, until Nat gives us the all clear."

Steve doesn't give up anything: not anger, not frustration, not acceptance. Knuckles still white, he finally moves further into the foyer, then past Barnes, and then turns toward a hallway that probably leads to the bedrooms.

Not a word. Nothing.

Barnes takes the few steps to the living room, sinks into a cracked brown leather sofa, and looks at the beige stucco wall. A framed photo of a tacky pineapple hangs crookedly, while a green, plastic crocodile clock shifts its tail side-to-side with every tick, tick, tick.

Who the hell at SHIELD is in charge of replacing safe house batteries, he wonders.

Behind him, he hears Sam's footsteps: slow, unsure. It's not long before Sam comes into view and then drops into a gray microfiber chair at a right angle from the couch.

"Are you ready for this?" Sam asks. "Hotel's one thing. This place is small."

Barnes shakes his head and lets out a deep breath. "After Kraków, I almost turned back and tried to find him. If I had—"

"Don't," Sam interrupts, firm, "go down that path. HYDRA was gonna do this, no matter what you did."

He nods, not because he believes it. "Thanks for being here."

"Wouldn't be anywhere else."

From Sam, he believes it.

***

The gunshot isn't as loud as it should have been. He feels it in the way there's no breath left in his body, in the way the world tumbles out of control. He's on the ground before he knows it, his body prickly cold except for the warmth spreading through his chest.

A handful of words come to mind: the Winter is warm and fuck.

Steve stands above him, gun aimed. Barnes tries to say "it's not your fault" but all that comes out are violent coughs and what tastes like blood.

He doesn't hear the second gunshot, but he sees the world bleed black inside of a second. The inky swirls of it disperse into sunlit, transparent clouds, far above the exposed innards of a helicarrier. As he falls, he glimpses the metal catwalk, the control relay, and tendril-like flashes of yellow-orange – dreamscape fire and explosions.

He falls, like he's fallen before, in his dreams and nightmares, down, down, down, until he hits the water like concrete. It's almost as if his chest cracks in half and dumps out of all of his blood, for all that he can see through the dark, murky waters of the Potomac.

But he sees enough: red, white, and blue sinking down, down, down, until all he sees is a shock of blond hair, and then nothing but wavy, rippling water.

Barnes dives, no breath to hold, no life to give – but one to save. He kicks himself down, down, down, fingers outstretched, reaching, grasping and finding nothing.

The currents of the river rush against his ears, and he can't hear Steve's heartbeat. He can't breathe, can't smell Steve's blood. His mouth opens, empty and hollow air bubbles escaping with his frantic, "Steve!"

Down, down, down, deeper and deeper, finding only handfuls of water. Seeing only murky black ink, the world bled dry.

Steve.

His fingers brush by something short and soft: hair. He grasps as much of it as he can, pulls, and holds Steve's limp body against his own. He kicks and kicks, up and up, toward rippling darkness.

Together, they break the surface of the river – but Steve is limp, not breathing or coughing, and it's almost too much to pull his dead weight to the shore of gray cobblestone, red tulips, and too-long blades of grass. Shakespeare Garden.

Breathless, Barnes pants over Steve's pale, soggy body, tasting sweet scents of flowers and crisp earthiness of autumn leaves with every gulped breath. Blood drips onto Steve's face, barely perceptible in the darkness.

"Steve," he begs. "Steve, please."

He fervently pounds compressions into Steve's chest and desperately gives Steve oxygen Barnes doesn't have to give.

"Steve. Please. I—"

A gunshot isn't as loud as it should have been. He feels it in the way there's no breath left in his body, in the way the world tumbles out of control. He's on the ground before he knows it, his body prickly cold except for the warmth spreading through his chest.

The sun shines over a blue-sky garden, rolling clouds stacked like glaciers. Crinkling, orange leaves rattle overhead, while pink cherry blossoms float between bursts of warm wind. Grass scratches at his bare arm.

Lips tinged blue, skin sallow and soggy, Steve stands above him, gun aimed. Barnes tries to say "it's not your fault" but all that comes out are violent coughs and what tastes like blood.

The third bullet doesn't come. The Man and the Woman do - from the cosmodrome – neatly stepping up on either side of Steve, who accepts them, doesn't fight them. They have Steve - who none of this was ever supposed to have touched.

Barnes tries to say "Steve, shoot them," but all that comes out are violent coughs and what tastes--

"He's actually asleep. Wow."

Barnes opens his eyes: his breaths calm, his voice silent, his body fucking surging with adrenaline and fear, and his heart skipping, skipping, skipping. He doesn't move, although his blanket is drenched with sweat and tangled uncomfortably around his body. The skin of his right arm sticks to the leather couch.

Steve grunts.

Running shoe soles squeak against the tile.

"Remember: you're my partner. You run with me."

"You can try running with me?"

"Oh, you're funny, except for the funny part."

The front door opens and then shuts. He hears the sound of shoes pattering across asphalt, and, then, about a block down, he hears Steve say "on your left" and Sam answer "don't you start." They fade from earshot, which means: they're gone.

Barnes rolls off of the couch and lands back-flat on the generously cold floor. His heart won't slow down, and he gives into the panic: breaths heavy, body flashing with sweat, head rolling in lightheaded loops.

Calm down. It didn't happen.

"Calm down. Calm down. Calm down."

It doesn't help.

His right hand flops to his chest; his shirt is damp with sweat, no bullet holes. His arm isn't covered in needle-pricks. Steve is alive, not shot, stabbed, drowned, and killed. He's in Brazil, not in the cobblestone Shakespeare Garden or sweltering Death Valley.

It didn't happen.

He wraps his arms around himself, tight, and waits for the anxiety and panic and dread to pass. It's not so easy, not with a sprinting, ceaseless mind. It bounds and leaps and soars, until it finds one place where it can take that one awful step.

Back to the room. Back to Steve, with the CZ-75. Back to the gunshot, and then the two that followed. He imagines what it was like lying dead on the floor, when Sam and Natasha found them. He thinks of HYDRA storming the hospital, getting close enough to inject his body with their new serum, to nearly finish a plan to keep Steve and take him back. His brain takes the step: it almost happened.

It almost happened.

It almost happened.

It's only taken him seven months to figure that out.

The wooden feet of the coffee table screech across the tile floor. A knee digs against his stomach. Fingers press against his throat, and he catches the wrist those fingers belong to.

"Hey." Sam. "Talk to me."

He opens his eyes. His chest feels hollow. The room seems small and faraway. He can barely breathe.

"Barnes. Talk."

Sam's face is flushed and sweaty from a long run, twisted from worry. His voice is distant.

"Had a dream," he manages to say.

"A memory?"

"No. It almost happened."

Sam's worry fades to confusion. "What—" His face steels, the change in expression surreal. He's like a Flannel Face toy from the '40's and what a stupid thing to think about right now. "It didn't. You're here. You're safe."

His heart's beating so quickly and so out of sync with the rest of his body that it hurts.

"Breathe. Okay? Breathe."

Barnes blinks, looks past Sam, and sees Steve: expression blank, arms limp at his side. He blinks again and, for a piece of a second, sees Steve from that room in Death Valley: victory bleeding to blankness, left arm limp at his side, right hand rattling a handgun.

He sits up, shoving Sam away, eyes stuck on Steve.

"You okay?" Steve asks, tone flat. He might as well have said "fuck you."

"Your pulse is off the charts, even for you. Lay down." Sam.

"You're a social worker, not a fucking doctor," Barnes snaps, breathless and sounding like it.

"Back to that. Okay."

A spot on his thigh suddenly goes cold; Barnes looks down and sees Sam's handing moving away from it.

That's okay. He's done with this, anyway.

Barnes grabs his phone from between two couch cushions, climbs to his shaky feet, and focuses on getting to his bedroom. If Sam or Steve say anything, he doesn't hear them.

The moment he's in his room, he shuts the door with his foot and calls Natasha.

He presses his phone tightly against his cheek and ear. It rings and rings and, instead of her voice cutting in, he hears three beeps and "lamentamos mas a sua chamada não pode ser completada."

He dials, again and again and again, the same three beeps and the same message, over and over and over again.

He nearly throws the phone at the wall. Instead, he takes a deep, shuddering breath, phone clenched in both hands up by his face, and he tries to calm, calm, calm down. Calm.

The world's caving in, and he's paralyzed. She would say, "that's the anxiety talking; you know it will pass," and he would curl up next to her, only with her, and let her chase that anxiety away, only her with that vulnerability weaved in her hands.

Barnes lays down on the bed, with its dusty, stale sheets, pulls a flat pillow to his stomach, and thinks and breathes: one, two, three, black. One, two, three, red. One, two, three, black. One, two, three, red.

Until his mind slows down from a panicked dash to a sluggish crawl, and the barbs of fear and anxiety untangle and unwind.

HYDRA still does it for him, every time.

Knock, knock, knock. "Barnes?"

A deep breath. CenterStay centered.

"I'm good," he answers.

He wishes he could talk it out with Natasha. Speak his fear that he's doing this for Steve but that Steve triggers him as much as he triggers Steve, and if that's true –

If they have no future.

If they'll ever go as far as a brutal fight on a helicarrier, a manufactured, manipulative argument in Kraków, Poland, and a cold room under Death Valley's scorched sand.

Those are pretty solid ifs.

***

Rap, rap, rap. "Barnes?"

"I'm good."

In the kitchen, Steve gulps a glass of orange juice – all pulp, no sugar, a different taste than he's used to, and it might be ridiculous that he's thinking about different flavors of orange juice, when Bucky's a mess.

He hears Sam's footsteps coming toward the kitchen, back from the bedroom. He waits until he senses Sam enter the doorway, before he turns and asks, "Is he always like that?"

Sam crosses his arms around his chest and leans against the door frame. "No."

Steve wipes orange juice from his upper lip, waiting for Sam to say more.

"I lived with him for over two months, and he never showed it. Not random like that."

Steve considers that and quashes the handful of questions he thinks to ask – most of them about those two months. About how they'd gotten so close.

A pang of jealousy shoots through his gut, but he ignores it, because he has to.

He'd sensed that they'd become friends, from the way Sam talked about Bucky: no animosity, no doubts, only affection. Now seeing it for himself: the nonverbal communication – how Sam can read Bucky in ways that Steve can't anymore; the bickering and teasing; and even how they stand so closely together, familiar inside each other's personal space.

That's good – is what he tells himself.

"It's me" is what's true, and Steve says it. He is what Bucky's scared of. He is what's knocking Bucky back down.

"I doubt that."

Steve corrects himself. "It's what I did."

"It's what HYDRA did."

He's about to argue, when Sam lifts a finger, warning all over his face.

"When it was Barnes, all you could say was how it was HYDRA this, HYDRA that. Not him. And you were right. So. Let's talk about how that applies to you."

It –

Steve shuts his eyes. He can see more than that room. He sees dull, brown eyes, over and over again, and remembers the pull of sleep, sleep, sleep. He presses his palms into his eyes: tries to push away the heaviness, the itching, the images. He knows now that he'd killed a lot of people wearing photostatic veils, but –

That doesn't change the conditioning of Bucky dead meaning good things happening.

"I should have fought harder," Steve says, only because he trusts Sam with it. "Held on longer."

Steve opens his eyes, in time to see Sam shrug.

"I guess he should've, too." Another shrug. "It's a two-way road."

He knows that Sam means well and can only work with what he thinks he knows. That road isn't so simple as "two-way" or "one-way." It's not so black and white, and Steve knows, because he remembers believing it, too.

Steve nods instead of trying to explain it. "Yeah."

***

Late the next morning, it's 28 Celsius with the cool ocean wind blowing through the back patio. Shards of blue sky trickle through the green, leafy branches of a small thicket of trees and overgrown weeds.

Barnes finds Steve sitting in a wooden deck chair, long legs stretched out, bare feet flat on the brown terracotta tile. He's got his khakis rolled up to his calves; Barnes can see faint hints of scars around both of his ankles.

Scars take some doing. A lot of fucking doing.

Steve's neck is stretched down toward a thin, black tablet. The way he moves the stylus across the screen is fervently focused, almost like he's drawing.

"Hey," Barnes greets, infusing as much false confidence into that one word as he can. His mission is to strive for normalcy—as if he even knows what that is. "What're you doin'?"

Steve's shoulders draw up and tense, almost imperceptibly. In the middle of a stroke of the stylus, his hand stops moving.

If the Man or the Woman came up behind him, and if one of them started a casual conversation with him, he'd do more than draw up his shoulders. As much as he'd like to think he would get up and kill them, he'd probably settle for having a(nother) nervous breakdown.

Without much difficulty, he imagines that it must be the same way for Steve. He also imagines "it wasn't me" doesn't go very far. It was Barnes' voice and his face and that's all that matters.

"Drawing," Steve finally answers. "It's a graphics tablet. Sharon makes me use it."

Barnes pulls a thread. "'Makes you'? What does that even look like?"

A smile pulls at Steve's lips. "I mean, it's not paper, but – I like using it."

Keep it going.

"What're you drawing?"

The smile disappears. The screen goes black after an intentional press of Steve's index finger. "Nothing."

He means "it's private." Steve never shared his work with anyone. He wouldn't draw if someone else had the barest line of sight, with one unfailing exception: Bucky.

"I had every chance, and I'm so fucking sorry" are words that don't leave his mouth, no matter how loudly they're screaming to be said.

"Okay. The tablet's really neat" is what Barnes says instead, before he turns away and walks back inside.

Sam sits at the small island in the kitchen, sipping at a sweating can of Pepsi and reading a regular old newspaper.

Barnes almost walks past him, but, at the last moment, stops, arms crossed around his chest. Errantly, he thinks it's still so weird to see skin instead of metal. He doesn't like it.

"I think – I think I'm making it worse. What if I—"

Sam doesn't even look up from the paper. "No."

"Sam."

"How long did it take you?" Sam asks, still without looking up. "To even start thinking straight?"

Nazarri's lab. The leaning white shed. Begging HYDRA to take him back, yearning to "go home," and killing them all anyway. Withdrawal and hallucinations in the boat. Every time his brain shut down and blacked out. Until his thoughts started to come together, and then most of the person he is today slowly started to crawl through, right before Hill and Fury decided what to do with him.

Not even then, though, had he been thinking straight. Not when blowing up a building had been a good plan, even if he'd never even gotten close to doing it. He thinks back and back, trying to pinpoint a moment, or a day, or even a week, when he could say "that's when it clicked."

It'd clicked, when he stopped killing: when he left a base in the middle of a hit and left that twisted world behind.

"Almost a year."

Five months to have some semblance of clarity of thought. Ten, eleven months to comprehend that he wanted to do more than circle HYDRA like a crazy fucking wasp buzzing a soda can. More than a year after that, before his emotions started to catch up, and even longer after that, before he could feel those emotions behind the memories.

Sam's eyebrows shoot up, and he frowns, like a caricature. "And that was a clean break. Steve's spent seven months being brainwashed by his therapist. It's not you. He loves the fuck out of you."

That might have been true before, but not anymore. "Before —"

Sam looks up. "No. Trust me. Still. How are you doing?"

Barnes lifts a shoulder. He's doing. He hadn't slept last night – started a new Michael Crichton book, clicked through Wikipedia – so.

The look on Sam's face says, I have shit to say to you, but his eyes go back to the newspaper. Sam looks older: tired, stressed. He's here, instead of living his own life; that's dangerous.

"How are you doing?" Barnes asks, tapping into an emotional energy not often used. It's rusty, and probably real shitty, but it's less than fair that Sam gets dragged along for these rides.

Sam's eyes flick up, surprise in his expression. "I'm good."

"Can I give you advice? That you take for whatever you think it's worth?"

That surprise grows. "Shoot."

Barnes hesitates, grabbing words before they disappear, and somehow strings together something decent, something honest. "This is what we do. We support each other until we burn. Don't sacrifice yourself for us. Don't burn. If you keep going like this, you will."

Sam chuckles: strung-out, sad. "My best friend, my wing man, got shot out of the sky right in front of me. RPG. All I could do was watch." That strung-out smile fades to a grimaced frown. "Now him. Just slower."

"I didn't know that" is all Barnes can think to say.

"Never told you. It was a while ago. Never leaves you, you know?"

He can think of people – people he'd loved, people he'd liked, people he'd hated. Long ago, back then, he remembers learning that no one's forever and people aren't guaranteed.

A little later, learning: nothing's guaranteed.

Nothing.

***

One by one, the reams of overhead lights sizzle to life, the ones nearest him first. The last two, twenty meters away, illuminate a black, metal cylinder shrouded by thick, black cords and tubes.

He takes a step forward, compelled further and further toward it. Over the sound of his own, harsh breaths, he can't hear the smooth hum of its motors. Even still, the memory of the sound of those motors—their vibration against his back—is as good as hearing it.

He knows what it is.

He swallows, spit catching in the back of his tight, dry throat. His face prickles. His stomach coils. His hands—both of them—tremble.

He looks at his left hand: skin, veins, pores, scars. He thinks to turn off the hologram, but it doesn't deactivate. With his right hand, he pinches the skin of his left hand: it hurts. It's real.

What the fuck.

"Buck!"

Behind him.

He turns and sees Steve—small Steve, in brown trousers and gray suspenders—tossing and catching a baseball. Straight up, straight down, over and over again.

"Buck, c'mon. We gonna play or what?"

"No. Get outta here."

"What, you afraid you can't hit? Just a couple throws."

Hissssss.

Hydraulics purr.

Whoosh.

Cherry-blossom, autumn-infused air breezes against his back.

He turns back around, ignoring Steve, and, every part of him a fiery, paralyzed knot, watches the cryo door lift upward. The opaque fog of ice dissipates amidst leaning red tulips, a gray cobblestone pathway, and a deep blue sky of glacier clouds.

He sees black combat pants, all he ever wore. A black vest and naked right arm, riddled with blue-lit sensors and prickly wires, to make sure he didn't somehow die inside the tank. An IV taped to his right hand, always – a very specific combination of drugs. A black mask, almost like the one he wore during missions. Long, icy hair. Dead eyes.

He can't move. But he can still talk. "Steve. Run."

POCK!

A baseball hits the outside wall of the cryo chamber: plonk.

POCK!

Another one hits the Winter Soldier's left arm: plonk.

He pushes through his fear and spins around, mouth open to scream at Steve to fucking stop are you fucking nuts run!

It's not Steve.

It's Anna: red curly hair, brown eyes, dark freckles across her cheeks. So young. So clueless. So gone. It's Anna, tossing up baseball after baseball, striking each one with a wooden Orion baseball bat, with sandlot-honed form.

POCK! Plonk. POCK! Plonk. POCK! Plonk.

"You should run, too," he urges, knowing she's dead but, somehow, in this dream, that not really mattering much. "We should both—"

Anna doesn't stop throwing and hitting, but she shakes her head and sighs, familiar exasperation all over her face. "You'll both be all right, James."

POCK! Plonk.

"What?" he asks, dumbly. "Anna, he's com—"

Plonk, plonk.

Red mist sprays the floor behind Anna's head. A perfect, round hole is gouged into her forehead, a fine trickle of blood running past her nose. She crumples to the ground and disappears in a burst of yellow-orange dust.

He turns around and sees the Winter Soldier, somehow different now. A black t-shirt, black tactical pants, untied boots, short hair, and no mask. Bruises ring his wrist and color his cheekbones. The only part about him that's right is the SIG Sauer in his left hand, aimed.

The Winter Soldier strides forward, calm, even, not fast and not slow. He remembers what it was like – how HYDRA'd suppressed his fright/flight instinct. Fight was fucking it.

Barnes doesn't move, feet planted and as good as glued and screwed. He doesn't know if he can't move or won't move, if he's terrified or if he's calm.

He looks to the black luminaire, then to the brass fountain where Becca'd split her lip. Small songbirds flutter and sing. The midday sun warms his face, while the lukewarm breeze slips around his skin.

He could stay here forever, even with –

The sidearm drops to the cobblestone path. The Winter Soldier keeps striding.

In 2014, he couldn't pick himself out of a photograph. He'd stared at a museum memorial and convinced his brain to link "James Barnes" with a stranger's image on a wall. He'd studied his reflection—in windows, in mirrors, in puddles—and still saw a stranger. That's an important bit of history.

Face-to-face with the worst, lost version of himself, he says, "Remember this place?"

The Winter Soldier's left hand wraps around Barnes' right, and it's nothing the way he snaps, snaps the wrist bones, and it's nothing the way the metal fingers dig into his skin, crushing veins and –

Barnes opens his eyes to darkness and agony in his right arm. He lays flat on his back, willing away the sick remnants of that dream-like nightmare.

Not real. Not real. Not real.

He can still feel the way his bones snapped. Can still feel the pressured tearing. Can still smell blood. Exactly like the cosmodrome.

A creepy-crawling sensation runs down his chest, then another and another. He goes to itch that feeling away, when he feels an unrelenting pressure wrapped around his forearm.

Barnes looks down, his eyes adjusting to the dark, and he sees the outline: his left hand wrapped around his right forearm, his forearm laying over his chest. His left fingers snap up and pull away from his right arm, taking with them skin and blood.

There's so much blood.

Fucking Christ.

Mind spinning with hazy panic, Barnes sits up, gets out of bed, and walks calmly to the hallway bathroom. He keeps his right arm at chest-level, cradled there, blood spilling down the bare skin of his chest and abdomen.

With his left elbow, he turns on the bathroom light and nudges the door closed with his right foot.

Red droplets splash against the red tile floor.

He grabs a yellowed towel from a shelf and holds it under his arm.

He sits down on the floor, back pressed against the wall, and looks.

His forearm is broken. His fingertips are blue, fingers stuffy and hard to move. There are four deep gouges on the inner side of his arm, violent bruises already coloring his skin purple. On the vein-ridden, fleshy underside of his arm, the skin is deeply torn and bleeding like hell.

It's bad. It's really, really bad.

He can hear the crackling, high-pitched buzz of the overhead light.

He can hear water trickle through pipes.

He can hear the sound of his own rapid breaths.

He can feel too-hot sweat flash and prickle against his skin.

Sharp pains shoot through his chest.

He closes his eyes and resolves to just get through this: set the bones, sew up the gouges, throw on a black jacket, clean the floor, and let it heal. Steve and Sam will never know.

That's the plan.

He opens his eyes and, for the umpteenth time, wishes he had his real left arm – the one that could feel.

He wraps his left hand around his right arm, sucks in a quiet, deep breath at the excruciating pain even that causes, and feels out the break, using his left hand to make pain for his right arm.

It's a bad break.

It's –

Click.

Barnes turns his head toward the door. It opens, and Sam, wearing only a pair of boxers, steps in, bleary-eyed.

"What—" Sam blinks, and his face steels. He stands there and stares for many, many long, long moments.

"I had a dream," Barnes offers, as if that explains this whole mess. "I didn't mean to do it."

Sam nods. "You seen a medical kit around here?"

"Kitchen, far right cabinet."

Sam nods again. "Don't move."

He won't. As Sam walks out of the bathroom, Barnes looks down at the floor, then closes his eyes so he doesn't have to look at the splotches of blood.

He hears the cabinet squeak open, the scrape of plastic on wood, and then the hollow slap as Sam closes the cabinet door. He hears drawers slide open and then closed, little plastic wheels tearing down up and down metal tracks, and the sound of rummaging. He hears Sam's quiet, bare footsteps against the tile floors, and opens his eyes a few moments before Sam steps back into the bathroom, a med kit and two wooden spoons in his hands.

Wordlessly, Sam sits across from Barnes and takes his arm into his hands. Even that small movement is excruciating, and a hiss of breath escapes his mouth before he can bite it back.

Sam's eyebrows pull together, panicked. "I'm sorry."

Barnes shakes his head once, because it hurts to move. "No, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"Don't be." Sam takes a huge breath, nods, and warns, "This is gonna hurt."

Last time, after the cosmodrome, it'd felt like Natasha was tearing his arm off. This time, he waits for it, relaxing his body. "I know."

When Sam straightens his arm, it's agony, and when Sam pulls and pulls with his right hand, his left pushing against Barnes' shoulder, it feels like his arm is being ripped apart, tendrils of fire and red-hot blades cutting through the nerves and muscles.

Every bit of training tells him to don't move, don't make a sound, don't blink, breathe normally. That conditioning works for the first, endless twenty seconds, but Sam keeps pulling, and, god damn it, he's not the Winter Soldier anymore, and he doesn't have to pretend.

He screws his face up, body shaking, and sucks in a deep, trembling breath, tears in his eyes. He closes them tight and tries not to scream—tries not to wake up Steve, or make Sam feel bad for doing a good job.

Finally, he feels the first bone align, and, five eternal seconds after that, he feels the second bone slip into place. The pressure in his numb fingers alleviates.

Boneless—or wishing he was—Barnes falls back against the wall, puts his weight onto his left arm, and lets his body tremble and tumble into a cold sweat, exhausted and drained.

"Are you okay?"

He shakes his head "no."

"Okay. I'm gonna put an ice bag on your arm. You need stitches."

He nods his head "yes," the back of his hair rubbing against the wall. He can hear snaps of static.

A cold, plastic bag wraps gently around his forearm. It doesn't feel good or bad. His stomach rolls.

He hears Sam rummage in the kit and knows exactly when he finds the suture thread and needle.

"I need you to hold the bag, B."

Barnes doesn't comment on the new nickname. He readjusts his body, putting his full weight against the wall, and, eyes still closed, holds the ice bag in place with his left hand.

"You ready?"

Barnes nods, and, not even two seconds later, feels the hooked needle pierce his skin. He doesn't watch.

"What was the dream?"

He's not afraid to tell Sam. "Winter Soldier. Couldn't stop'em. He broke my arm." Barnes doesn't pretend that it doesn't sound ridiculous. "It's stupid."

"It's not stupid," Sam replies, like he believes it. "Is this the first time since Russia?"

"Yeah. I thought it'd be easy by now."

His voice cracks at the end, and that's okay. There are tears leaking out of his eyes, and those are okay, too. Sam's seen everything, and Sam's still here. He opens his eyes to wipe the tears away, but remembers that he doesn't have the resources to do that.

Sam's eyes flick up. "You don't make it easy. I've told you that before. You don't listen."

Harsh words, said kindly.

"You have a home with us. You have a team. You have friends. People who'd—"

Oh, and there it is. Sam catches it, knows it before he says it, but it's too fucking late to stop there.

"What – die for me?" Barnes leaves the rest unspoken: Enough people have died for me.

A weaker person would shirk away and stop right there. Sam's not weak. Sam knows who he is, knows what he believes, and never backs down. He's an asshole.

"Help you," Sam corrects, each word pronounced sharply. "You don't survive Death Valley and just get over it. You seeing him, him seeing you—"

Sam sighs hard and doesn't finish that thought. He shakes his head and loops another suture. "I can't change how you think."

Even six months ago, he would have lashed out, defensive. He thinks about it – thinks about saying "you must not be very good at your job" or "great, you want me to get help from Steve's evil HYDRA therapist" – but stomps both thoughts dead.

"I know," he says instead, as loud as an exhaled breath.

Sam pauses mid-stitch, and Barnes doesn't look at him to see why. He closes his eyes again and wills this to be over, so Sam can go back to bed and Barnes can go do something that's not this.

The needle pulls, then pierces more skin. "You trained sharpshooters during the war, right?"

A couple. Back then, they called him one of the longest surviving and, more importantly, one of the most accurate marksmen. Even then, he didn't fail. The Army didn't ignore things like that.

"Yeah," he answers. "A couple, here and there."

"You trained Steve?"

At Goldie's Gym, before the Army laughed in Steve's face a half dozen times. During the War, because, although Bucky hated what Steve had done to himself, he'd only wanted to see Steve succeed.

"A little."

"He says a lot."

He shrugs with his left shoulder. There's a reason why Steve survived their fights on the highway and the helicarrier, when not a whole hell of a lot of other people on this planet could've.

"You know they're stretched thin, right? They can barely keep up. Rebuilding's not easy, not with all this. Not with all the missions they have to run. A couple of organizations are trying to fill HYDRA's void, even while HYDRA's growing faster and faster. SHIELD could really use someone. A trainer. A pilot."

Barnes glances at his arm and sees that there's still a long way to go. Fuck.

Sam moves his left hand and the bag of ice, then starts suturing another gouge. "Are we not talking?"

"Okay. So. What am I gonna do – tell'em that sometimes I destroy my arm, but don't worry about it?"

"You start slow and get better. That's what you do."

"Not gonna happen."

Sam cocks his head, eyes still somehow focused on the needle and thread. "Okay, I'm gonna therapy you for ten seconds, and that's it. It takes about a year, entirely removed from trauma, before a person starts to heal."

It's too heavy. It's too much. It's – "That wasn't ten seconds. You're a rip off."

"You're a fucking dick," Sam laughs, and Barnes has missed this. He's missed Sam. "Also, this is going to hurt."

It's Sam turning his arm over, bottom side up, and it does hurt. It brings back the cold sweat and the hot prickles and the too-fast breaths. He clenches his jaw and rides through it.

"It's almost done."

He knows that.

He watches Sam inspect the damage, so much worse on the underside, and watches Sam's face fall, and Barnes knows that Sam has no idea what to do. Not with the crushed veins, bone-deep hole, seeping blood, and bruising as deep purple as bruises come.

Sam wipes away what he can with a stinging alcohol pad, but that doesn't do a lot.

"It'll heal," Barnes assures, even though he sees the problem: not enough skin to do any stitching. So, it'll be the grosser route. "There's gauze. Pack it in."

Sam packs it in, while Barnes pushes his face into his left shoulder.

Sam says, "Hold," and Barnes supports the weight of his right arm with his left, ice bag resting on his knee.

Finally, he feels thin gauze start to be wrapped around his arm, then those stupid spoons, more gauze, then tape, and then the ice bag. The throbbing stabs fade to throbbing aches.

He opens his eyes and sees Sam stand, grab a small towel, drench it in warm water, and hold it out for Barnes to take. There's blood all over his body. While Sam slides latex gloves off his hands and washes his own self up, Barnes wipes away the blood on his chest, legs, and, painstakingly, his left arm.

Sam is mopping the floor with another towel and his foot, when Barnes thinks to say, "I'm sorry" – again. "Thanks for doing this."

Tiredness in his eyes, Sam replies, "I've seen you dead. This is nothing. But you're welcome. All you had to do was ask."

Those words catch him by surprise. It's easy for him to forget that his three closest friends lived that. He ignores the twisting emotions those thoughts bring and surveys the three bloody towels, the red-stained latex gloves, the extra thread. The metallic smell of his blood hangs heavy in the air.

All he has to do is ask.

"We're here for Steve. He can't know about this. Can you throw all this stuff away somewhere else? Don't tell him?"

Sam hesitates for a quick moment. "Not telling Steve. Can you hide it that long?"

Broken arm, bouncy C-17. Can do.

***

The only issue with "don't tell Steve" is that Steve has a super serumed nose.

Early the next morning, right before he sticks his head into the refrigerator, Steve complains, "This whole place smells like blood."

Barnes goes for razzle-dazzle (protip: actual military term). "I'm on my period," he says, then takes a bite of avocado-slathered toast.

It sounds like Steve hits his head on one of the refrigerator's shelves; he's so far in, the god damn thing must be the doorway to Narnia.

That's the only reaction Barnes notices. He focuses on his tablet, where he's reading Jurassic Park, and gets his head back into the story.

He actually doesn't like the book – way too much of it hits way too close to home, with things like "all major changes are like death; you can't see to the other side until you're there" and "living systems are inherently unstable; they may seem stable but they're not – everything is on the edge of collapse." In any case, Hammond is being a grade A fuckface for the twentieth time, when glass shatters.

Barnes doesn't react. He only moves his eyes to Steve. The jagged bottom of a drinking glass is clenched in Steve's right hand, the sticky pulp of spilled orange juice coating his skin. The look on his face is –

Barnes goes back to his tablet, heart racing, intent to not show it. The screen is an unreadable blur.

He hears Sam get out of bed, everything quick: covers shifted, feet on floor, door opening, footsteps pattering down the short hallway.

"Look at me."

Barnes does and sees the same person from inside that room in Death Valley. He knows what it's like: wires crossing, mazes in his brain, thoughts that won't make sense. But - he'd had mostly balanced instincts, and they'd mostly guided him through those irrational times. He doesn't see the same from Steve. He sees someone whose every system is running out of sync.

"You—" Steve says only that word.

"The glass'll just break." Like the beer bottle and the ceramic knives. "What're you doing?"

The bottom of the glass crunches against the wall, and Sam, who'd a moment ago entered the kitchen, yelps, arms curled protectively over his head. Blood beads along his forearm and smears on the floor.

"What the fuck?!"

Barnes thinks it's the first time he's ever heard Sam yell.

With the left sleeve of his jacket, Barnes wipes orange juice from his face. He's got a broken right arm and a left one designed to kill. If Steve really goes off, one of them will be done.

"Sam—" Steve, sounding small, looking mortified. "I'm…"

Sam pulls his bent, right arm up, twisting it to see the cut along his elbow. He shakes his head, face contorted with barely restrained anger.

"How many times," Sam says, not asks.

Barnes doesn't know what that means.

Steve opens his mouth, then closes it again.

Barnes wants to help Sam, like Sam had helped him last night, but that means leaving Steve alone here. Instead of doing anything, he turns his attention back to the blurry words on the tablet, pretending to read.

Steve and Sam stand opposite each other, meters between them, mired in a silent battle of wills.

"I can't control it," Steve finally says.

He can't control it, because HYDRA hadn't been done with him. They'd torn him down, made him do something terrible, and never had the chance to finish the break and build him back up. His therapist had been dragging him in intentional circles.

A sick, sick thought comes next.

If HYDRA had taught him anything, it was how to control their chaos inside his mind. How to ignore the slivers of memories; how to push past the nagging, horrible feelings of wrong disgusting bad evil don't don't don't don't do this; how to function and exist within their dream.

For decades, it'd mostly worked, until it all crumbled away, and they took back the fragment of autonomy they'd allowed him. But. It'd worked, for long enough, and it works, to this day, when he lets it.

He flinches, but he says the words that make him sick to his stomach: "I can show you how."

He'd showed Natasha, and all the other Black Widows. He'd showed countless Soviet operatives. He'd built HYDRA's arsenal.

Two sets of eyes turn to him.

"I can't ask you to do that," Steve says, yet another switch flipped, this one back to Steve's normal. Steve's managing him – or, at least, trying to.

Do you hear yourself? Barnes wants to ask, but it's too adversarial. "Up to you."

***

Couch cushions on the floor, like when they were kids. Side by side, like always.

"Breathe."

"That's the trick?" Steve asks.

"You're not breathing."

"I'm sorry for—"

"Breathe," Bucky snaps.

Steve clutches the sides of the leather cushion, takes a deep breath, and lets it back out. It feels like breathing: it doesn't feel helpful, it doesn't feel good, it doesn't feel right.

"That's 'one.' Breathe."

"Meditation? Buck. C'mon."

Bucky sighs hard and glares at him, like back in the day, when Bucky'd been trying to read a book and all Steve wanted to do was talk.

"It's not meditation. It's about shutting down your mind."

Steve would prefer meditation. There's nothing he wants to do less than have Bucky teach him HYDRA's brainwashing –

Stop.

He can't stop.

"Is this what he would've done next?" Steve asks.

"Yeah. It's what they'd do next," Bucky answers, sure and calm. "Think of it like sparring. Having control of yourself. Because, if you don't, you lose."

"Do I close my eyes?"

"I don't. I find a point and look at it. Like the crack in that wall. Anything."

Steve sees it: the crack in the plaster, left of the blank TV. He traces its short, jagged path up the beige wall.

"Breathe."

Steve takes another deep breath, lets it back out. One.

"That's one. Breathe."

Another deep breath, in and back out. Two.

"That's two. Br—"

Steve wonders: "When did you first learn this?"

Another hard sigh. "Steve. You're not focusing."

He has a thousand questions, years and years to catch up on, and he can't sit here and breathe. Bucky's here.

"When?" Steve presses.

"When I was cutting my arm open and wasn't allowed to make a sound. Breathe."

The only person who breathes is Sam, and he breathes, "Jesus," from his spot on the only cushion left on the sofa.

Steve stares, and Bucky stares back. The file had said "the subject self-mutilated for four hours, before breaking protocol." Steve doesn't know what he'd thought that meant. Hearing it – he realizes that they would have made Bucky do it, no matter how long it took, until he "broke protocol."

They'd done that to his friend. To Bucky.

Seventy years.

Steve takes a deep breath: in, out, shaking.

"Good. That's one. Make it to three."

He makes it to three, eyes open and staring at the crack, because, if he closes his eyes, he sees red.

"And then you think 'black.' Start back over at 'one.' Breathe."

He makes it to one and a half, before another thought scampers across his mind. "How are you you? After all that?"

Why aren't I me?

"Steve—" Sam had promised not to get involved, only to watch and make sure they both stayed safe.

"I don't know," Bucky replies, superficial patience drenching his tone. He's irritated, like when Steve wouldn't answer, and the other Bucky would find a knife, a gun, or a – "I need you to focus, before you hurt someone again."

Hurt.

A thought curls around his brain, tighter and tighter, a garrote. It splinters into more: the butterfly-bitted drill, the serrated-edged knives, the hot needles, the searing poison, the fire scorching his skin, the metal-fisted beatings.

Hurt.

His fingernails dig into the skin of his palms, tighter and tighter and tighter and tighter, and all he can hear is a flood of white sound, and, when the violent red clears from his vision, he sees Bucky flat on his back, writhing on the floor, his left hand indecisively hovering over his right arm, back and forth back and forth back and forth, before he finally smashes it into the floor.

Pieces and splinters of red tile burst into the air and scatter across the floor.

Sam's on his knees, next to that arm, saying words that Steve can't hear. His fingers are hidden in Bucky's short hair.

"What happened?" Steve thinks he says, his own voice lost to white sound. "Bucky?"

Sam shakes his head. Bucky's knees draw up; his socks have hands making middle fingers on them.

Steve can't remember what just happened, but he thinks he knows. It's like every other time he's lost a handful of seconds to uncontrollable anger and found holes punched in walls, hurt friends nursing gruesome injuries, and wary weapons aimed at him by familiar people.

This whole charade is a paradise made for fools.

***

Flat on his back, right arm on his stomach, left arm splayed out, Barnes lies on top of his bed. His body feels hollow, cold, and numb, all at the same time.

Sam brings a bag of frozen, spoiled peas, wrapped in a moth-eaten linen towel, and gently folds it around the worst of the break.

"You got any other ideas?" Sam asks.

His eyes are heavy and cold. The ceiling isn't as sharp as it should be. He last slept about seven hours ago, and he's already tired. Drained. Exhausted. Plowed over. Buried.

"It'll work," Barnes mumbles, his throat dry and head pounding. "He can't focus."

"How'd you do it?"

Barnes laughs, and then really wishes he hadn't. The laugh sends fiery splinters into his newly, totally-re-broken arm, the one Sam'd re-set and re-bandaged. Because Steve had thrown a punch, and Barnes would not ever again use his left arm against him.

"I didn't have a choice. It was either do it, or end back in a fucking cell, with… bad things."

Sam sighs. "How does the whole thing go? Maybe I can help."

"You've got black and red. Breathe in for three seconds, and you've got black. Breathe out for three seconds, and you've got red. Over and over again. It's about timing."

"That's meditation."

"Fine. It's fucking meditation."

Sam laughs, the vibration moving through the mattress and straight into Barnes' arm. Barnes intentionally doesn't show the pain it causes.

"You gonna sleep?" Sam asks.

"Yep."

And he does, deep and hard, a rare, good sleep.

Sam's either too brave or too trusting, when he nudges Barnes awake with a couple of pokes to his right thigh.

That headache hasn't gone away. His arm doesn't feel any better. Actually, he feels worse.

"Food?"

Food.

Right arm held close to his chest, he doesn't bother putting on his jacket. His green t-shirt's good enough, and the air inside the house is on the wrong side of warm. He also doesn't bother with pants, because who the hell cares.

"You don't like pants, anymore?"

He shakes his head "no."

Sam's already got the food: half a dozen rectangular, foil containers, all sitting on the wide, square coffee table – "modern," people call it – in the living room, where Steve is sitting on the couch, seemingly contrite.

Predictably, Steve's eyes go straight to the mess that is Barnes' right arm, then to his hologrammed left arm, then to the scars on his legs. A couple new scars had joined the mix seven or eight or whatever months ago, and those are still fresh enough to stand out.

Barnes sits as far away from Steve as he can, while still being able to reach the food. He doesn't miss the way Steve swallows and tenses, silent.

Sam sits between them, grabs the TV remote, and turns the volume up. It's a show called MegaBingo, until Sam pulls out his phone, opens up Hulu, and casts Brooklyn Nine-Nine onto the TV screen.

Barnes makes a face, looks closer at the TV, and sees a new addition: a little flash drive sticking out of the side.

Whatever.

Barnes grabs a container of food and a fork and starts eating. He's starving, and he barely tastes the food. He thinks it's rice, beans, and a heaping load of shredded chicken. It doesn't taste bland, and it doesn't taste bad, and that's good enough for tonight.

"You should have seen us, Rosa! Charles and I were amazing."

"I somersaulted through a window, cut the crown out of a briefcase, and replaced everything in under a minute."

"Yeah, I guess you helped a little. But our fake argument was super convincing, and, all of a sudden, we had to make it longer, and we did!"

It takes a few seconds to sink in, but, when he finally hears it, Barnes smiles.

Steve coughs, almost like he's choking.

"You okay?" Sam asks.

Barnes sees Steve nod and wave him away.

It seems like an okay show, but his mind drifts away from it. His white plastic fork scrapes against the bottom of the foil pan, about at the same time his vision blurs and eyes struggle to stay open. He slides the pan into his lap, leans against the arm of the couch, and lets go into another rare, smooth sleep.

The only upside of his dreams are that he knows they're dreams.

The clean, smooth-concrete hallway lit by rows of bright, fluorescent lights isn't real. His bare feet and bare right arm aren't really cold. He spares a glance at himself, and, yeah, he really is wearing a green t-shirt and wrinkly black boxers, and he really does have his left arm concealed with Stark's hologram, but this place isn't real.

He walks down the hallway. New, steel doors dot its length on either side, and he tries to open a few of them. Their metal lever handles are cold and locked, immovable even against the crushing strength of his left hand.

The building smells new, in that it doesn't have that familiar stench of damp mildew, crumbling rock, and musty concrete. He can tell that it's not deep underground, not like so many others.

Iodoform, antiseptic, and the smell of stainless steel lingers in the air. Fresh paint mingles with those scents. So does blood.

His right arm aches and burns. Seeping, bloody gouges ring his upper arm – not real. It's not real, and so he ignores it.

He comes upon an elevator bank with shiny metal doors. The reflection is him, the way he is now. In the reflection, he's flanked by four armed, helmeted soldiers, two on each side. Although it's only a dream, his chest seizes, and his lungs forget how to work. Afraid, he forces himself to look to his side – and, fuck, they're there!

Whoosh.

Barnes spins, ready to fight, but so completely misjudges. His center of balance dissolves into aching, pounding, sweating adrenaline, and he teeters for a millisecond. It's too late.

He falls and falls, down an empty, deeply black elevator shaft. Weightlessness sucks away his stomach and breath, as he falls down, down, down, like so many times before –

Barnes jerks awake: shoulders bunched, legs tense, teeth clenched, palms clammy. His heart thumps-thumps-thumps.

Something like agony thrums through his right arm, and he takes the time to notice that he's got it in a left-handed vice grip. Knowing it's going to hurt even more when he lets go, he unlocks his fingers and closes his eyes to the burst of pain.

It doesn't feel more broken, but it badly hurts.

"You good?"

Barnes opens his eyes. Sam is sitting on the chair across from the couch, a tablet in his lap. A different show is on the TV; Barnes hears the characters say something about "the Tandy man can."

"Yeah. Stupid dream." That's all it was; one of the better ones, even. "Where's Steve?"

"Went to bed about an hour ago. You've been out for four." Sam swipes at his tablet's screen. "Wanna talk about it?"

Barnes shakes his head and answers sharply. "No."

"Okay. How are you feeling?" Sam asks.

His right arm is almost literally on fire, but his headache is gone. Actually, he could eat again and wonders what might be in the kitchen. He forgets what dinner was but he remembers that it was good. Maybe some of it is left.

"…did you hear me?"

"Oh. Yeah. Not bad."

Sam looks up from his tablet, with an expression made of purpose and concern.

Preemptively, Barnes worriedly asks, "What?"

"Don't bail on—"

"Christ, I just woke up."

Sam laughs, but it doesn't sound like because he thinks this is funny. "You don't know."

Barnes responds with a heavy sigh. He leans deeper into the couch, slouching like an asshole teenager, and wishes he was still asleep.

Sam persists. "Can you do this?"

"We already talked about—"

"You broke your own damned arm. And just tried to again."

"I did not" is on the tip of his tongue, but new finger-like bruises are already forming around his arm. Broken blood vessels are mottled red.

He wants to disappear inside a hooded jacket.

"You're a wreck."

Sam's honest, but he has no idea about the hot shame that roils through Barnes' body. Bucky and the Winter Soldier had at least one thing in common: neither had ever been a wreck. Put the two together, and, somehow…

Maybe the worst part is that he doesn't disagree with Sam.

"It's been worse since we got here. I don't know why." Barnes wants to plop his face into his hands and rub his eyes, but his left hand fucking sucks for that, and his other one doesn't want to move right now. "This is the only way I know to help him. Maybe it was a mistake. I don't know."

Sam is quiet for a long time after that. Shame and guilt weigh heavily enough to keep Barnes planted in his seat, fake-watching the show to mask how his mind is spinning. He doesn't dare look at Sam, but he hears the sound of fingers tapping and swiping at a touch screen.

Then, finally: "Tell me about '45."

Barnes trusts Sam almost as much as anybody else, but that's not for anyone, even someone he owes quite a lot.

"The first two months of '45," Sam clarifies. "I don't need the rest."

"Why?" Barnes puts some clipped bite into the question, meant to be a gentle warning shot.

Sam bites his cheek for a second - long enough to prepare Barnes for the gut punch. "A couple years ago, he told me that you hated him in '45."

Oh. That.

"That's a strong word," Barnes says.

"Is it a wrong word?"

A flash of anger threatens Barnes' composure. He shifts his focus to the throbbing ache in his arm and to the always-present soreness in his chest and back. He thinks about those things, instead of all the ways he wants to lash out right now.

"Look, I'm not trying to jump you. I think HYDRA exploited whatever it was."

Barnes purposefully looks at the TV to avoid Sam's eyes. "It wasn't Steve. But…he was a good target for it."

"…for?"

Krausberg – something that should pale compared to everything that came after but somehow doesn't. Zola – someone who somehow threaded marionette strings through his skin and shrunk the world into a dark, claustrophobic box, years before the rest of his life rumbled away on a set of icy railroad tracks. The War – the graves, the bodies, the piles of shoes, the dead friends, the indomitable enemies, and the sniper rifle that somehow became the most familiar, sustaining part of his life, and then Steve – who somehow, somehow, fucking somehow found a way to not be that.

"He never should have been there," Barnes says. "I resented him for being there. I never hated him."

Sam seems to understand that. It's a little unexpected that he does.

"You know, he didn't change. Not a bit. Same person, ridiculous costume." Barnes tries to make it a joke, but he fails to find the right energy for it. To his own ears, he sounds bitter. "I'd changed. In my head, he was the way back home. Wasn't fair to him."

Sam slowly shakes his head. "Did HYDRA know about any of that?"

Sam's a friend: unfailing, trustworthy, loyal. If he was anything less, Barnes wouldn't admit, "I told them everything."

His dinner threatens to come back up. Barnes leans back, shifts his center of gravity, and breathes deep, finding comfort.

"'Cause I bet they gave you that choice."

Barnes glares. "Don't."

Not that Sam seems to be the least bit intimidated by him anymore. It seems more like Sam is mentally filing that reaction away into his therapist file.

Of all things, that realization reminds Barnes of Whitney Eakley, a young kid he'd trained at Goldie's, and of the moment when they'd shared an actual conversation instead of Eakley's typical, choked one-word answers. Sam's nothing like that, but still – the memory comes.

"I'll talk to him," Sam says. "Try to find the bottom of this."

There's a joke in there somewhere.

***

11/3/16 21:15 – i killed him

11/3/16 21:16 – are you there

2/2/17 23:41 – are you there?

2/2/17 23:50 – can we talk?/

2/2/17 23:52 – i

2/3/17 05:18 – it's early but are you there?

2/3/17 05:19 – ok. have a good day ok?

2/4/17 22:32 – have a good night too

3/5/17 12:26 – it's been warm here for a few weeks.

3/5/17 12:26 – the tulips in shakespseare park are already coming up

3/5/17 12:27 – we could go?

3/5/17 14:18 – or not

3/5/17 16:22 – i guess not

4/14/17 08:39 – fuck you

4/15/17 01:56 – i'm sorry

5/2/17 20:43 – I miss you.

5/2/17 20:47 – Bucky's here. He's almost the same.

5/2/17 20:48 – You were right about a lot of things.

5/2/17 20:49 – I wish

Steve's pinkie hits "enter" by mistake. "Shit."

His fingers hover over the "t", "h", and "i" keys on his tablet. He wants to say "I wish things were different," but that's not enough. He decides on a different route:

5/2/17 20:51 – this could all be different.

5/2/17 20:53 – April 14 was a bad day after a bad day. I'm sorry I said that.

5/2/17 20:54 – It's probably good you're not here.

5/2/17 20:55 – I don't blame you for anything. Take care of yourself.

"Cap, seriously, MSN Messenger was cool when I was sixteen," Sam says. "Probably not even then."

Steve looks at Sam's socked feet, perched on the coffee table next to a can of Pepsi, and minimizes the messenger program. "It's not whatever you're talking about. It's secure."

"Suuure." Sam nods. "Any luck?"

"No. Do you know where she is?"

For months, he'd believed—believed—that HYDRA had Sharon, like he'd believed that Bucky was dead. He'd learned how to spin sticky webs of lies, and that therapist had – Doesn't matter.

In being away from Stark Tower, even for this small handful of days, he's found a pocket of cool, fresh clarity. It finally feels like progress.

"Nope. Where do you think she is?" Sam asks.

Steve realizes he's talking to Sam the therapist and sighs. "SHIELD, somewhere. Getting better."

"That's a pretty good guess." Sam leans forward, elbows-on-knees, feet off the table. "You really believe that, or are you playing me?"

"Both," Steve admits, somehow finding a smile. "It's getting easier to think. I've been a real asshole to you."

Sam keeps nodding – but also smiling. "It's okay. I feel like I might've been an asshole to you, too. I wish I would've made it easier for you the last few years. He's a good guy."

That's not getting easier.

Steve looks at the grimy floor, fingers intertwined together into a mass of white knuckles. "Yeah."

"He's got better taste in music than you, too."

Steve doesn't respond. He knows Sam is trying to lighten the sudden tension, but what a way to miss the mark entirely.

Sam clears his throat and sits up straight. "I have a theory. Kind of a shitty one."

"About?"

"Why this is still happening the way it is."

Again: missing the mark. Because: what could Sam possibly know enough about this to be able to form a theory. The only other person on this planet who knows is a person Steve can't bear to be near. These days, he thinks that's called a catch-22.

For the first time in a long time, Steve clamps down on a spewing rush of insults. "I can do without," he manages to say instead.

Sam exhales heavily. "Bucky thinks it's—"

"Leave it," Steve snaps angrily.

Although it's a normal anger, Sam flinches in fear, and that right there squares the last eight months.

"I'm gonna get some shut-eye."

Steve's already halfway off the couch by the time he announces it, and he's halfway across the room when Sam's relief comes through, loud and clear.

The first day he'd had the serum, he'd noticed the sounds that people's bodies made: the speed of their respirations, the wet clacking of their blinks, the crackles of their bones and creaking of their skin, their barely-there whispers, and the racing thump-thump-thumping of their hearts.

He hears the same from Sam: his shallow, quick breaths, his rapid blinks, the snap snap of his balled-up knuckles, the whispered "holy shit," and the sinking tempo of his heartbeat. It's a language that translates to ebbing adrenaline and respite.

Steve can't blame him.

In his room, Steve lays awake on top of the dusty covers. Not my life trickles through his head, an album track skipping over and over again. He knows better than to think it.

A room over, the temperate, smooth voice he yearns to hear is as reliable as a minefield.

Boom.

***

The story will continue in Chapter 3: The Sleeping Graves.

Chapter Text

Thanksgiving 2015. The Panthers beat the hell out of the Cowboys, and it was past midnight when Sam's sixth beer bottle clinked onto the hardwood floor. Sharon slept, curled up on a small upholstered armchair, something like drool (Steve had learned better than to either call it that or verbally acknowledge its existence) on her chin.

Sam slurred out a question. "You still all about going back over there? To Europe?"

Steve backed out of some new Roku app called Sling TV, navigated into Hulu, and mindlessly scrolled through shows and movies he'd never heard of. "Can we not?"

It wasn't said meanly, or even sharply. To his ears, he sounded tired; he truly, honestly, didn't have it in him tonight to go down this path, either arguing with Sam or wondering about Bucky.

Sam slunk down into the sofa, boneless and sloppy, his head nearly to the cushions. "They just added all the 007 movies. Don't know if you'd like them, but you've gotta watch GoldenEye."

Steve sipped at a bitter IPA gone long warm, the condensation on the bottle already dry, and nodded. He couldn't find GoldenEye in the list and moved on to another category.

A sigh grumbled out of Sam's throat. "Shouldn't've said anything. Sorry, man."

Steve's eyebrows raised. "Don't worry about it. And, no, I'm not."

Even though saying that, still, after all these weeks and months, made his throat feel tight. He's out there: entirely alone, considered a criminal, and being hunted by HYDRA as much as Bucky was hunting HYDRA. In all likelihood, he was already dead, or, worse, captured.

I had you.

"If you had a mirror, you could see the look on your face right now."

Even drunk, Sam was genuinely one of the most insightful people Steve had ever known. Most times, it was entirely terrible to have someone see straight through him.

Steve clicked into a random show—who cared—and leaned back. His shoulder brushed Sam's, but he didn't dare look away from the screen. "I let him fall once. Now twice."

How poetic.

Sharon called it "dramatic." Natasha thought it pathetic, without ever voicing that word. And Sam? Sam still thought Bucky was someone better off gone, for everyone involved.

"When he's ready—"

"He's not coming here," Steve interrupted, each word said sharply, eyes still on the TV. "What they made him do… He'll never forgive himself. He'll never put it behind him. He'll never show up here. Even if he's alive."

And hadn't eaten a gun, or been captured.

Fire shooting from his gut up into his chest, Steve followed up with an unfair, true statement. "You can stop acting like you care, any damn time you want."

Sam shifted his head, so that his attention was wholly on Steve. Steve locked his jaw, tight and square: this is exactly why he hadn't wanted to go down this path.

"You told me enough from that file. You think I blame him, but I don't. Sleep deprivation will make a person do anything. It's not about being strong. It's not about ego. It's not about how tough someone thinks they are. It's bad shit, Steve. I get that."

Hearing that doused a small, not insignificant part of the fire roiling inside of him.

Less than a year later, Steve's entire body was on fire. Maybe literally. He didn't know if he'd ever even know.

Sleep deprivation will make a person do anything. It's not about being strong. It's not about ego. It's not about how tough someone thinks they are. It's bad shit, Steve.

A sharp prick stung the top of his left hand. The room was blurry. A gray figure skittered left to right, left to right, left to right. He blinked and blinked, but his vision didn't get any better. Cold numbness slithered through his body, his skin tingling, maybe like what hot oil heating on a hot pan would be like if the pan was cold and the oil was cold and that didn't make sense but it did.

One by one, the needles were plucked out of his fingers, and then the metal chains were peeled away from his wrists. The floor rushed to meet him, hard and cold. It barely hurt. It almost felt good, the way his tearing, burning shoulders didn't have to hold his weight.

Fingers curled into his hair and pulled, dragging him across the hard, cold floor. He didn't fight it. He blinked and watched the blur of gray blur past.

The fingers dropped him. He closed his eyes, thinking that he could find dark, deep relief in sleep, but sleep didn't grab him the way he'd thought it would. It ran away, like the fucking sleep cat in the stupid fucking sleeping pill commercial.

Language.

"No sleeping."

Not Bucky. Male. Accented. Eastern European, maybe.

"You kill this person, you sleep. Five minutes to decide. Five days, if you don't. And it dies, anyway. Don't you want to sleep?"

What person?

Footsteps circled back around him, then stopped somewhere behind him.

Sleep deprivation will make a person do anything.

Somehow, his brain spit out a decent thought: the person he used to be would never have thought what person. It would have thought no fucking way or we'll see or I can do this all day or something tough, strong, resolute.

But, seriously: what person?

He concentrated, pushing away strings and circles of thoughts, and finally heard it: wheezing, fast breaths, muffled. Right in front of him. Close.

On his own, he lifted his head, opened his eyes, blinked and blinked and blinked, and saw a person in front of him: a black hood over their head, down on their knees, right arm behind their back, left arm – left arm silver and limp.

He shook his head, a sharp jab right, and blinked.

"What…"

It didn't make sense. Why would Bucky –

"Kill him, and it all stops. One minute. Don't you want to sleep?"

"I – What?"

Why –

He squeezed his eyes closed. Pulled his arms over his head and ignored the blistering pain. Chased the sleep cat, in circles and circles and circles, because, if he caught it, and if he could sleep, he could think and this would all make sense and he could fix it.

Three gunshots: bang, bang, bang.

thud and the sick crack of a skull hitting the floor.

He opened his eyes: red blurring with gray, the black hood inches away. Footsteps thudded toward him. Fingers picked up his left hand, and there was something sticky, something uncomfortable there.

His hand flopped back to the ground, and he saw scuffed, black boots walk toward the person. The hood came off, a slow blur of black, and then blue, dull eyes. Bucky's face.

"Paint something beautiful."

Paint something beautiful.

Paint something beautiful.

Paint something beautiful.

Three worms burrowing into his brain: paint something beautiful, paint something beautiful, paint something beautiful.

"You will not sleep, until you do. Don't you want to sleep?"

The next thing he knew, he was hung back up, and Bucky wasn't dead, and what the fuck what's real what's real what's real if I could sleep sleep sleep sleep.

Everything Bucky did was worse than before, in unspeakable, unthinkable ways, for days and days and days.

Somewhere in the middle of it – or the beginning, or the end, or nowhere in between, he didn't fucking know – his body jerked, fingers stretching for the gun holster strapped to Bucky's thigh. There was no way to get it, but it was the instinct, the urge, the compulsion to grab that gun and make this end.

Bucky didn't miss it. He drew the SIG Sauer P-220 from its holster, drove a bullet into the chamber, and waved the weapon, barrel pointed toward the ceiling.

"Weiselheim. The mass grave, behind the factory. You wanna know a secret, Steve?"

It wasn't that long ago, except it was a fucking eternity ago. He remembered: puking, his friend's hand on his back, something like "we're gonna beat'em" almost making it all okay.

"I remember thinking – how could anyone become a person who could dig a hole in the ground that deep – and fill it with bodies? I thought – that if I ever became that person, that I hoped someone would kill me."

The gun waved again.

"You act like you want this gun, but Steve – you let me go. You let me fall. I've filled so many graves. Because of you."

Steve squeezed his eyes closed. He might have hated the sound of Bucky's voice. He might have cried, with hot, silent tear drops spider stepping down his face.

The gunshot sizzled lightning through his head, rang bells in his ears, pushed red, red, red into his eyelids. His left leg gave out, its bare ounce of remaining strength replaced with agony.

Maybe he screamed; he didn't know.

Maybe he slept; he didn't know.

Sleep sleep sleep. Please sleep deprivation will make a person do anything. It's not about being strong. It's not about ego. It's not about how tough someone thinks they are. It's bad shit, Steve.

Another sharp prick in the top of his left hand. The room was blurrier; a black-clothed figure skittered left to right, left to right, left to right. He blinked and blinked. He was numb: so much, so much, so much that it became nothing, nothing, nothing, and he wanted to sleep.

One by one, the needles were plucked out of his fingers—he didn't know how he had fingers left—and then the cold, metal chains were peeled away from his wrists—and he didn't know how he still had skin there. The floor rushed to meet him, hard and cold and sticky and metallic.

Fingers curled into his hair and pulled, dragging him across the hard, cold concrete. He couldn't fight it.

The fingers dropped him. He closed his eyes, not expecting and not finding sleep. He wondered how long he could go – without sleep, without food, without dying. Then he remembered what he'd read in the file – how HYDRA broke people.

It's bad shit, Steve.

"You kill this person, you sleep. Five minutes to decide. Five days, if you don't. And it dies, anyway. Don't you want to sleep?"

Not Bucky. Male. Accented. Eastern European. Same as before.

Footsteps circled back around him, then stopped somewhere behind him.

Sleep deprivation will make a person do anything.

On his own, he lifted his head, opened his eyes, blinked and blinked and blinked, and saw another person in front of him: a black hood over their head, down on their knees, right arm behind their back, left arm – left arm silver and limp and it still didn't make any fucking sense.

Language.

"Kill him, and it all stops. Don't you want to sleep?"

Fingers stiff, inflamed, painful with every twitch, he dug their pads into the concrete, and pulled himself an inch or two forward, his right leg helping. His left leg wasn't helpful. Legs were supposed to be helpful.

Another inch. Another inch. Another inch. Icy sweat drowned his skin.

He could hear the person's breaths: wet, ragged wheezes. He could smell blood and burnt skin that smelled differently than his own.

Close enough, he reached up, right shoulder cracking and popping, shoots of lightning running into his hand, and pulled off the black hood.

Bucky's face. Glassy, dull blue eyes.

Fucking blue.

In the sunlight, gray. Ebbets Field, in the back row, Bucky's foot pressed against the wooden chair in front of him. Steve: hunched over, a pack of peanuts crumpled in his hand.

"C'mon, I could hit better than that!" Steve would mutter under his breath, and Bucky would never correct him and say, "No, Steve, you couldn't." And Steve might've looked over at him, to make sure he wasn't laughing or rolling his eyes or gone – but he was there, always, eyes gray, until the sun disappeared and turned them brown or blue or –

Those days –

"I'd give anything, Buck. I'd give anything. It all."

Sleep deprivation –

Steve dropped his head, bottled strength and everything special gone, and waited. Cried into the concrete, because it wasn't about how strong he couldn't be.

Three gunshots: bang, bang, bang.

Another thud and another sick crack of a skull hitting the floor.

Footsteps thudded toward him. Fingers picked up his left hand, and there was still something sticky, still something uncomfortable there.

He – he didn't know why he was crying. Something about baseball. Peanuts. A shitty hit.

Fingers curled into his hair, pulled his head up. He kept his eyes closed, until a hand slapped his face, and they opened on reflex.

Bucky's face, Bucky's eyes, all of him dead on the ground.

"Paint something beautiful."

Paint something beautiful.

Paint something beautiful.

Paint something beautiful.

Three worms, burrowing into his brain: paint something beautiful, paint something beautiful, paint something beautiful.

"You will not sleep, until you do. Don't you want to sleep?"

The next thing he knew, he was hung back up, and Bucky wasn't dead, and what the fuck what's real what's real what's real.

"'Buck. I'll make this as short as I can. I was wrong.'"

Jaw clenched, teeth aching, Steve tried like hell to ignore the sing-songed, twisted words. The ones he'd written in a letter two years ago.

He hated the sound of Bucky's voice.

"'I told you that you've known me your whole life, and that's not right. I've known you my whole life. I don't remember a time before you. I don't remember a time after you.'"

Bucky's voice stopped, but his brown eyes kept moving, left to right, stretching all the way down the letter. Steve watched expression bleed from his face.

Finally, Bucky frowned and lowered the paper. "This is sweet, Steve," a half-whisper, a deep breath. Steve's stomach somersaulted: hope. "I'm sorry it has to be this way."

"Doesn't have to be. You know that."

The only voice Steve had left was crackles and rasps. Even those thin, croaked words sparked fire in his lungs and stretched apart the dry, bleeding cracks in his lips.

He only wanted to sleep.

A blurry, silver knife twirled between Bucky's fingers. Steve blinked, wanted to rub his eyes but couldn't move his hands. Time was sluggish and moved in jilted waves.

Suddenly, Bucky was inches from him, hot breath pounding against Steve's face, and he felt the tip of the knife cut a deep line across the underside of his arm.

"You don't know how much I hated you. For years. 'The Little Guy From Brooklyn Who Doesn't Know When to Back Down.' Really? How 'bout the little burden from Brooklyn, who didn't know how to do shit for himself. For years."

The knife stopped at the crook of his elbow, its tip balanced against the crease.

Steve barely noticed it. He only noticed the venomous resentment in Bucky's voice and the rage that gouged lines in his face. Brown eyes – and that was wrong, wasn't it? Everything else –

"—three jobs for you. I couldn't god damn move, when I got home. And all you fucking did was bitch about your fucking paints and your fucking paper. It's all you ever did. We barely had food, but Steve wants his paper. And, no, you know what really gets me? Do you want to know, Steve?"

The world lifted up, a hot air balloon, higher and higher and higher, spinning and spinning and spinning. Those words, all of them, were –

"I barely had anything left after Krausberg, but you wanted to play war hero. That fucking guard raped me for two months straight, and you couldn't see it," Bucky snarled, somehow controlled and precise in how he spoke. "You didn't even notice. That my world was fucking gone, but, it was all okay, because you got yours. You'd give it all? You took it all."

Higher, and higher, and higher. Spinning, spinning, spinning.

He was cracking in half.

His eyes got blurrier, wetter; throat dryer, stickier.

"You don't feel it—do you?"

Steve heard the words, but they didn't mean anything. He felt the pain in his elbow—excruciating, the kind that meant permanent damage—but it was nothing, nothing, compared to what Bucky had said.

His heart skipped, over and over.

He felt a metal fist smash into his right cheek, heard "you fucking answer me," but the balloon hadn't crashed yet. It didn't know how to: the world had crumbled away.

"Fine. I've got alotta things you're gonna feel."

He heard the knife clatter to the floor, then the whir of a drill. Bucky's smile stretched to the corners of his eyes.

"Come back, Steve. There isn't a world without you in it."

Unspeakable things happened, until the other man came back: pricked his hand, dropped him to the floor, dragged him across the room.

He wanted to –

Sleep deprivation will make a person do anything.

On his own, he lifted his head, opened his eyes, blinked and blinked and blinked, and saw a person in front of him: a black hood over their head, down on their knees, right arm behind their back, left arm – left arm silver and limp and it still, still, still didn't make any fucking sense.

"Kill him, and it all stops. Don't you want to sleep?"

He dragged himself to the person, pulled off the hood, and found the same thing: Bucky's face, with glassy, dull blue eyes.

HYDRA never let Bucky die. Eight attempts, none mattered, and Steve wondered –

Then lost the thought, a wisp of smoke curling into thin air.

"'l-l-lease. S-t…'eve."

His voice. It was Bucky's voice.

Steve's entire body reacted: muscles seized, tendons tensed, stomach flipped, adrenaline twisted him into knots and boiled bile that bubbled up his throat, until he heaved it out onto the floor.

"Please."

The voice. The fucking voice. Steve pressed his head against the floor and wished he could reach into his head and take out that voice.

"Don't you want to sleep?" The other voice, Eastern European.

A knife dropped to the floor and clattered by his hand. Steve's fingers wrapped around its hilt.

"P-pl-ease."

Sleep deprivation will make a person do anything.

Steve came down hard on the ground, his right arm buckling.

He heard a thud and the sick crack of a skull hitting the floor.

Blood spider stepped across the concrete. Steve blinked and saw: the neck sliced clean open, the hilt of the knife bloody, and –

That voice gone.

Footsteps thudded toward him. Fingers picked up his left hand, and there was still, still something sticky, still, still something uncomfortable there.

"Paint something beautiful."

Paint something beautiful.

Paint something beautiful.

Paint something beautiful.

Three worms, burrowing into his brain: paint something beautiful, paint something beautiful, paint something beautiful.

"Very good, Steven. Pleasant dreams."

The footsteps thudded away. A heavy door scraped opened and clanged shut.

He didn't have the strength to drag himself away, to find somewhere better to sleep, so he slept right there, blue eyes watching.

***

Out on the patio, Barnes squirrels in one-armed push-ups before Sam wakes up. His arm still aches, but the bones have healed well enough. The pain is muscular, superficial, nothing.

In the few days it's taken the bones to knit back together, Steve has barely said a word to him. Will barely stay in the same room.

It's okay. They'll get there, somehow.

An hour later, Barnes is still sitting in the corner of the patio, hunched over an e-book called Airframe, when he hears Steve's footsteps, then the door sliding open.

"Good morning," Barnes greets, even and neutral. He flips a page.

The silence drags on for long enough that Barnes really doesn't think Steve's going to answer.

"Morning."

He hears Steve drop into the chair, then the soft tapping of a stylus on a screen.

In the book, Casey is climbing a fucking plane, in the middle of an abandoned warehouse, while trying to evade some super elusive attackers, and he can't think of anything stupider to do in the entire world than that, and he happens to say out loud "why the hell would you do that?"

"You mind?" Steve snaps.

Pissy Steve. Wonderful. Historically, Pissy Steve sucks.

"No. If you've got an issue, spit it the fuck out," Barnes says.

Silence.

Fucking fine.

He keeps reading.

Steve's stylus doesn't slip across the screen. His breaths are loud and getting louder, working up into something.

"Art school."

"What about?" Barnes prods.

In his peripheral vision, he sees Steve looking at him. When he meets Steve's gaze, Steve raises both eyebrows, expectantly.

"I don't know what you're asking," Barnes bites, each word clipped. Adversarial. He doesn't have the patience for this. He's not ready for this.

Steve's eyes search Barnes' face, and he has no idea what Steve's looking for.

Fuck it.

He stands up, leaves his tablet on the ground, and brushes seasons of dirt and dust off his pants. "Are you talking about the art school that you never mentioned once, during the War? That one?"

Still adversarial. It's a raw point, when it really shouldn't be after an entire lifetime, but he remembers why it is.

Steve's expression confirms: yes, that one. The asshole snipes, "Were there two?"

If Steve's not going to communicate, then Barnes will assume the question is "why?"

Why.

"No one was making it back. It was the only way I knew how to take care of you, when I didn't come home. Is that what you wanted to know?"

Evidently not, when Steve stands up, and, with charged, superficial neutrality, asks, "Do you remember everything?"

"I don't know."

Steve shoots him an incredulous look. Like everyone else thinks: it should all be easy, because a tiny piece of it might be.

"I don't know what I don't know," Barnes says, feeling the power of those words. They feel good.

"Were you mad at me?" Steve asks, nothing in his tone.

That stops Barnes: mouth open, eyebrows crunched together, breath locked in his chest. After a too-long moment, he closes his eyes and shakes his head. When he opens his eyes after another too-long moment, he focuses on the partly-open bloom of some orange flower – nowhere near Steve.

Sam was right: HYDRA used it.

"Yeah. I was."

"Did you hate me?" Steve sounds angry again.

It takes a couple seconds for that question to register, for the words to make sense in his head, even though he knew to expect them.

He hadn't expected the anger. Hearing it from Sam wasn't a big deal. Hearing it from Steve – fuck that.

"Is that what you think?" Barnes hisses, taking too many steps toward Steve, before he even knows what he's doing. It's an aggressive move.

Steve doesn't answer. Doesn't waver. Doesn't step forward or move back. Only waits, icy fury in his eyes.

"I never hated you. Christ."

He sees Steve move, recognizes the shift in his body language, and knows that Steve is going in for a right hook and a shove toward the stucco wall of the house. Even pre-war Bucky Barnes could have evaded the attack. The Winter Soldier would have caught Steve's fist with his left and crushed bone.

The person he is today, the person he decided to be to help Steve, takes the hit, pain blossoming over his right cheekbone and up through his skull. He lets Steve slam him against the wall, and he lets the back of his head smack into it.

"I don't believe anything you say," Steve jeers. "You're a god damn liar."

Steve draws back for another punch, an uglier one, and Barnes doesn't fucking think so. He sees an opening: a good one.

The stucco cracks and buckles under Steve's fist. It's too late.

Barnes' arms are wrapped around Steve's torso, tight and unrelenting. He forces Steve away from the wall and says, "Yeah, but I love you anyway."

Steve's back and shoulders are tense, though his arms hang loose at his side. He's not even breathing, probably out of spite.

Barnes doesn't know if it's the right thing to do. It's the only thing he can do, as the patio and its vibrant trees and overgrown weeds and blossoming flowers spin in a centrifugal blur of green, and even as he and Steve might even be swirling in nauseating, Cyclone circles.

"I love you." Barnes' mouth goes faster than his maybe-bruised brain. "More than I knew. More than you know. More than they can take."

He sounds nothing like Bucky used to – and, now, right now, that's more than okay.

Steve breathes. His arms come up, loose and lukewarm. Barnes hears Steve whisper "black" and "red," spread three seconds apart, over and over again, his arms wrapping tighter around Barnes' body.

Which is great, because the spinning patio has little black spots all over it. The more he blinks, the more those spots grow, and the heavier his eyes become. Little bolts of lightning crackle up his forehead, splintering, splintering, splintering.

His body bleeds strength, legs weaker and weaker, until he's pretty sure that Steve is holding him up.

The patio does one more spin, and then Steve really is holding his unconscious body upright.

***

"Sam!"

Steve's voice is all panic and fright. It sounds nothing like him.

Sam's tablet skitters across the coffee table and lands on the floor. He's barefoot and isn't wearing pants, but none of that matters. He runs toward the patio.

"Sam!" Louder: more scared, more panicked.

He doesn't even want to know what –

It's Barnes, flat on his back, unmoving. Blood bright on the terracotta slab. Steve hovering over him, hands clenched in Barnes' gray t-shirt.

For a piece of a second, the world blows up like a hot air balloon: up, up, and away.

He's dead.

Like walking into a room, minutes behind three gunshots, and finding the same body.

Barnes isn't dead: his chest rises and falls. His right leg draws up. He accidentally whacks himself in the face with his left hand, then groans.

Relieved, Sam takes the few steps to where Barnes lays.

"What happened?" Sam asks, even as he sees a bruise forming around a deep, red gash on Barnes' cheekbone. The blood is oozing from the back of his head, and, by happenstance alone, Sam glances up and sees a spot on the stucco wall: dark blood, brown hair, about six feet up on the wall.

"I hit him," Steve answers, suddenly flat. "I can't control it. I told you."

Barnes' eyes don't open, but his eyebrows crash down. And he says something—something fierce—in what sounds like jumbled Russian.

"No, Buck. We God damn do."

Sam looks up at Steve, wondering but not asking.

Steve stands and backs away, hands tucked under his armpits. "I'm gonna kill him."

Barnes says something that includes "nyet" three times in a row. It's not hard to grab the meaning.

Right now, Sam doesn't care about any of that. More blood is oozing onto the ground, and Barnes' face is pale, cool, and clammy. Even speaking Russian, Sam can tell that Barnes is slurring his words. It's a head injury – and that last one, back in the cosmodrome, hadn't gone so well.

"Open your eyes," Sam instructs.

Barnes does, but only for a split second. He covers his face with his right hand. His chest freezes, jaw clenches, and his fingers dig into his forehead.

Sam squeezes his right shoulder. "Hey. Breathe."

Barnes does him one better: goes completely limp, hand sliding off his face – but he starts breathing again, at least.

Out of nowhere, the proverbial lightbulb snaps on, brighter than anything Sam's ever seen.

***

Eight months ago, deep inside the medical suite in Stark Tower, Barnes looked completely miserable: right ankle in a cast, right arm in a sling, and his abdomen probably still like jelly – on top of everything that had happened in Death Valley.

Sam rapped on the door frame, more of a courtesy than a request for permission.

"Yeah," Barnes groused without even looking Sam's way.

Sam stepped inside the room. "Just checking in."

"You don't have to be here," Barnes said, still without looking up. It was completely obvious that Barnes meant I don't want you here.

"I know," Sam replied, as he made himself at home on the bottom half of the bed. He tossed a rubber-banded deck of Phase Ten cards onto Barnes' lap.

"Shuffle those," Sam said, right before remembering that Barnes' right arm was supposed to stay immobile. "Nevermind."

Sam grabbed the deck back and began to shuffle them himself. "How are you doing?"

"I want to go home."

Sam kept shuffling, but only to keep his hands busy and Barnes talking. "Where's that?"

"Not here."

"I get that," Sam said. "DC all the way, man. This place is very Tony."

Barnes kind of flinched. Sam wondered which part of his body had caused that and glimpsed at the IV stand. He couldn't make out the labels on the bags; he hoped one of them was full of something good.

"How's Steve?"

Sam tilted his head, before shaking it. He began to deal the cards. "He'll be here for a while."

Barnes sunk his head back into his pillows, eyes staring up at the white ceiling. "'Kay."

Sam hated it when Barnes said that word. "I'll pay you ten bucks, every time you want to say that but choose not to."

Barnes grabbed his pile of cards and scooted up, until his back pressed into the mound of pillows.

"Can I ask you a question?" Sam asked, barely focused on sorting his cards.

"What's the first thing we have to do?"

"Two sets of three."

"Yeah, that's not gonna fucking happen," Barnes complained, as if he actually cared about the game. He didn't. "What?"

"Why'd you run from HYDRA? You told me you trusted them." Before Barnes could dig in or freak out, Sam added, "It might help Steve."

Barnes stared the uneven mess of cards in his left hand. "Besides because a fleet of helicarriers fell flaming out of the fucking sky and you don't fail a mission as catastrophically as that?"

Sam bit back a laugh—he heard the dark humor in Barnes' tone, and he loved it—and nodded. Because yeah: besides that.

"I was end-of-life."

Caught off guard, Sam fumbled his cards.

His Compaq laptop was end-of-life. His Kodak camera was end-of-life. His five-year-old running shoes with a worn-down, flapping heel were end-of-life. Human beings weren't end-of-life.

After taking a moment to collect himself, he squared his jaw. "Don't say it like that. That's not what you are."

Barnes only looked at his hand of cards. "That's what they called it. I knew. I ran. I went back. I got shot. I ran again. I didn't know what to do. Is Steve like that?"

Sam nodded, distracted. "A little."

He couldn't think of a good reason why HYDRA would classify their multi-million dollar, seven-decade investment as end-of-life. "Is it because Steve found out about you, or because of something else?"

"I don't know."

"Dude."

Suddenly, Barnes' eyes were staring into Sam's, and the only word Sam could think of to describe the expression was "desperate."

"Let it—"

"Excuse me."

Sam looked behind his shoulder at the same person who'd drawn Barnes' attention: Dr. Eicher. She stood in the doorway, with an empty syringe and a small glass bottle in her hand.

"Your last D-dimer came back elevated. I'm worried you're going to throw a clot." Eicher raised and wiggled the glass bottle. "Can I come in?"

Eicher was firm but incredibly aware, on very short notice, of how to avoid Barnes' pain points. Sam admired it, as much as he could while his head still spun around why end-of-life, agitating like his parents' ancient washer that would rock itself around the utility room.

Barnes gave her a nod and a "yeah."

She came in and went straight to his right side. She showed him the bottle, and he took the time to look at it.

"This is Heparin. It's an anti-coagulant. I'd like to start you on a high dose; we may have to titrate it up and take more blood draws. We'll also have to watch for kidney function, as well as thrombocytopenia, which is a form of bleeding. What do you think?"

She kept the syringe at her side, her hand perfectly still. Sam believed that if Barnes said "no," she wouldn't argue for a "yes." He wondered if Natasha had said something.

Like clockwork: "And if I don't?"

"You could develop a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot that travels to a lung. In average humans, those are often lethal. In you, I don't know. I'd like not to find out."

Sam didn't think that's what Barnes had meant.

"Fine, do it."

"Okay," Eicher said. "I'll need your right hand."

As he extended his right hand toward Eicher, Barnes looked to Sam. "Can you go?"

He didn't want to go. He wanted to finish their discussion. He wanted answers. Instead, he scooped up the cards, said "I'll see you around," and walked into the hallway. He turned the corner and stopped.

End-of-life.

"How's the IV? Does it sting?"

"No."

"Any trouble breathing?"

End-of-life.

"No."

"Can I examine your abdomen?"

"Sure. Sam, you're still standing there."

End-of-life.

Sam moved his feet, one step after another, on auto-pilot as he walked down the hallway, that one thought still agitating: Why.

***

The end-of-life, one-hit wonder has been in and out of it for three hours. Threw up twice. Either won't or can't speak English – and it's only a little creepy that Russian is still his default.

Right now, for now, he's lying on his side, Sam's cell phone against his ear, Natasha on the other end, using her Russian to…do something. All Sam can hear is her tinny, unfocused voice, and Barnes' slurred mumbling. His eyes are damn near all the way black, pupils blown wide.

Sam sits on the floor, Barnes in eyeshot, and listens, watches. He hears "nyet, ni nada," "da nyet," "ya ponimaju," and "Nat" a lot. Then strings of Russian, none of which Sam catches. Finally, maybe "packer," right before Barnes holds the phone out toward Sam and says something like "here's a glove box."

Sam stands up, takes the phone, and sits on the edge of the bed, Barnes' knee pressed into the small of his back. "Hey, Nat."

"He's slurring but coherent. Watch for the basics, but he sounds…not horrible." A long pause. "It's your call."

Not what he wanted to hear. "How's it going on your end?"

"We've found issues."

Sufficiently vague. Sam's learned that probably means one thing: she doesn't think the call is secure. That means that Steve is safer here than there, until he's at least somewhat back to baseline.

Sam looks to Barnes. Right before Sam's eyes, a dark purple bruise has spread across Barnes' right cheekbone, his right eye mottled purple.

He gives voice to an awful thought: "I don't want to have to choose between them."

Barnes mumbles something Sam doesn't understand and then "Steve." Sam knows him well enough to know he'd said, You choose Steve.

Natasha's final word on this issue is, "Trust Barnes and get to thirty. Gotta go. And Sam – thanks."

The call ends.

Sam sighs, feeling like he's been left out to dry. He sighs again, breathes "fuck," and braces his elbows on his knees.

Ants scramble in and out of a hoard of Pepsi cans on the floor.

Fucking Barnes.

After a long moment, Sam sighs one last time. "He's going to kill you."

Barnes says something in Russian. Once again, Sam doesn't need to know the language to know what he's saying.

On the tip of Sam's tongue is your brain can't take hits like this, and you fucking know it.

Sam looks at Barnes again, sees his eyes close and stay closed, as quick as that. Dread twists around his stomach, but his only option is to press on and fix this – whatever part of it that can still be fixed, at least.

Sam slides off the bed, grabs the melted bag of once-frozen cauliflower, walks to the kitchen, tosses the cauliflower back in the freezer, pulls out a bag each of frozen carrots and noodles, wraps them both in kitchen towels, walks all the way back to Barnes' room, and sets one bag on Barnes' right arm and the other on his busted face.

Barnes whines a word that sounds a lot like "stop."

"Keep those on."

He's not going to, but at least Sam can say that he tried.

***

Knock, knock.

"Steve. Steve, man, I'm coming in."

It's about a two second warning. The door opens, and Sam steps through, closing it behind him. Sam leans against the door, arms crossed.

On his bed, Steve sits up, fragmented thoughts turning to half-formed words that lodge in his throat.

"B's doing okay. Sleeping."

Steve nods. The relief he feels is only that Bucky is alive; otherwise, the dread and terror of this entire situation blankets him, tighter and heavier.

"You know he doesn't blame you."

Steve could laugh at that, and so he does. To his own ears, he sounds fucking nuts, but, beyond that, all he can think of is what Zola had said: your whole life, a zero-sum.

"Is that funny?" Sam asks.

Steve shakes his head, still silent. There's nothing to say and nowhere left to take this.

"Are we not talking?"

Steve sighs. "What do you want me to say to you?"

"Where's your head?"

Steve laughs again. "That's a gr-ea-t question!"

Sam hangs his head, not a trace of humor on his face. "Steve."

There's nothing to say, except for the vomit of words that storm out of his mouth: "You think we're gonna hug this out and go home? You think there's a future here? Because there's not, I can tell you that much."

"You chased his ass around Europe, thinking you could hug it out and go home. Don't give me that shit."

Given that Sam was there for all of Europe, Steve has no idea how Sam's perception of that trip can be so skewed the wrong way. Europe hadn't been about hugging it out: it'd been about saving whatever part of Bucky was left to save, even if it meant putting him down.

Maybe that's what they should be doing for him.

"Help me understand what's going on with you."

What's going on: there are minutes, where he's able to think clearly and focus. Have a conversation. Ask questions. Learn the person that Bucky's become: see the warm similarities, note the stark differences, and relax into a world where his brother is alive and here. Once those minutes have ticked away – he's back in that room, that voice ricocheting inside his head, his entire world reduced to a jagged splinter, and the only thing that can make it better is –

Kill him.

A gun to the face. A broken arm. A split-open skull. Lucky it's not been worse – like it'd been eight months ago.

"I can't control it. How many times do I have to god damn say it?"

Sam remains as patient and calm as ever. For a moment, Steve regrets his attitude – but then he remembers that Bucky's in the other room with his head cracked open.

"Bucky can help you in a way that no one else can. Is that something you can let him do, or is that too much?"

Sam isn't being judgmental; he's asking a real, honest question. The real, honest truth is that Steve thinks it's too much.

Steve hunches over, elbows on his knees, and buries his palms into his eyes until he sees colorful spots and flashes of light. He doesn't know why he does it – if it's because he can't look Sam in the eye, or if it's because he doesn't want Sam to see him.

"They made it so that I killed him when I heard his voice. I can't stand his voice."

Sam sucks in a breath. The mattress's springs creak and dip, and Steve can feel Sam's body sit next to his.

"We didn't know that. Steve. Man. That's dangerous."

"I know. I know. I shouldn't have let him do this. I—" Had known it was selfish. Known it wasn't right. Let Bucky do this anyway. Because. "What happens to him after this?"

He can't see Sam's face to know why he doesn't answer right away. It's tempting to look up, but he doesn't.

"I don't know. Maybe he sticks around."

Those words one year ago would have jolted the world back onto its axis. They don't.

He takes a huge breath, clears his sinuses, steadies himself, and pulls his hands away from his face. He looks over, blinking away spots until Sam comes into focus, and pretends to be Captain America, one last time. "He needs that more than I need him. Get him out of here and go home."

Sam blinks a lot of times in a row. His face asks Steve if he could be any more of an idiot. "You just let me know when you're done playing hero."

That hits a nerve made raw by HYDRA. He keeps that to himself. "Sam. Please."

Sam nods, a novel written into his expression. "Once, you told me that you thought he hated you. Sounded like you two weren't really on that great of terms back in '45."

He remembers saying something like that, on the flight back to DC in 2015 – but he's not tracking what Sam's saying. "What?"

Sam lifts a shoulder. "I'm just sayin' – if that's what you thought, there's something behind it. And the most you've seen of him since then is right here."

Ice cubes might as well be sliding down his back. His shoulders tense. His neck bristles. Goosebumps prickle his arms.

"I don't know HYDRA. I know you. And there is nothing in this world, that would have made you do that in Death Valley or all this here – except for him. Did they use that?"

That's a lot to unpack. A lot to think about.

Sam stands up, like he's noticed that all Steve wants is to be left alone to sift through that avalanche of shit.

"Think about it. I'm gonna be with Barnes. Don't be shy, man. And: don't you fucking leave, because I guarantee you that he'll find you in ten seconds flat. He's scary that way."

Right. Steve doesn't plan on coming back out of this room anytime soon.

The clock says it's hours later, when another pound, poundpound comes from the door.

Steve looks over toward it. "What."

A piece of white paper shoots under the door crack. It flits a couple inches into the room.

Perplexed, Steve rolls off the bed, picks up the paper, and reads it: "Hey." It looks like Bucky's handwriting.

Wood creaks, and the door bends inward. Steve can visualize Bucky sitting with his back pressed against it.

A pen skitters underneath the door. Steve stops it with his bare foot and picks it up.

Of course Sam told Bucky.

After a couple long sighs, Steve sits on the floor and shoots the pen and paper back under.

"I'm sorry," Steve says out loud.

He waits.

The paper comes back through. Steve knows what it's going to say before he reads it.

"Don't be. I'm fine. Are you okay?"

Bingo.

For years, Steve wished Bucky had been here – yearned for that connection, that shoulder, that safe place to bleed. Bucky's less than two inches away, and it's not so easy anymore – to bleed on people.

"I don't know how to fight this," Steve grinds out. It's a hard thing to admit.

"Maybe" – Bucky's letters are scratchy, uneven – "you should stop fighting it."

"Not an option. You know that."

He waits again.

And keeps waiting.

He scratches the skin of his thumb until the top layer peels away.

He thinks about opening the door and having a real conversation – and then thinks about Bucky going limp in his arms, blood dripping onto the patio tile.

The paper comes back.

"Sometimes it means accepting that you can't go back and finding a way to move forward. You know how to do that. You've done it."

Steve laughs out loud. Bucky couldn't have it more wrong.

"I didn't move forward, Buck. Before you…" He shakes his head, remembering. "It was only you."

Bucky's response takes far longer than the others. In fact, it doesn't come at all.

An inexplicable burst of panic scrambles Steve to his feet. He yanks open the door.

Already, Bucky is a blur of black fabric, the writing paper flat on the ground. Bucky springs down the short hallway toward the door of his room, but his blue socks slip on the tile floor, and Steve watches him go down hard onto his left thigh.

It's enough to give Steve time to gain ground, but Bucky is a hair faster, just out of Steve's outstretched hand – sliding into his room, slamming the door shut, and keeping it closed.

Steve only pulls hard enough on the knob to not tear the door off the hinges.

"Bucky! Damn it!" He shouts, slapping his open palm against the wood of the door. "You—"

A loud slap comes back his way.

"Ah-hem."

Steve freezes. Sam's standing at the end of the hallway, arms crossed, a done-with-you expression on his face.

"I am not the babysitter here."

A snort comes from behind the door.

"And I heard that!"

Steve appreciates the concern, truly. "We're good, Sam."

Though he appears skeptical, Sam slowly steps away, backwards.

Steve sits cross-legged on the floor. "Before Insight, I went back to Brooklyn, to our apartment. It's still there, somehow. The owner actually let me in, even. Back in 2011, some historical organization tried to buy it, turn it into a museum." Steve laughs: everything of theirs got turned into a museum. "The guy'd just remodeled the whole place – new floors, new walls, new kitchen. All ritzy."

Steve leaves it at that, suddenly realizing that the paper's down the hall – and Bucky won't talk. This is as good as having real fake conversations with Bucky, his imaginary friend before Insight.

For no reason at all, that same feeling from that day in April 2014 – catastrophic, world-dropping numbness – tangles up inside his chest. You're alive; you're...

Captain America's eyes don't sting with threatened tears; Steve Rogers' might.

In his back pocket, his cell phone vibrates. He pulls it out and finds an unknown number has texted him: "Good. That place was fucking ugly."

Steve swipes the back of his hand across his nose, clenches his jaw, and gets a grip."Says the man who hasn't seen the neon yellow walls."

"Do you still have trouble looking at your older artwork?"

"Yeah," Steve answers. He hates seeing the imperfections, the mistakes, and the lack of detail, focus, and skill. It's embarrassing.

"It's like that. I haven't gone back."

"Buck, you're not—"

Steve stops himself right there. Sam's right: this is the most they've been near each other since 1945, and even now, Steve's barely seen enough of Bucky to know what he's like or to see what's left.

"We've both changed." It's truer than it should be, and so's what he says next. "I think I wouldn't be able to stand the person I was in the War. And especially before."

Steve backs out of the message screen and dreads—dreads—the response. The screen turns black. His hand tightens around the thin metal, until it begins to creak and bend. He could crush the insides, smash the screen, and never see Bucky's response. It wouldn't matter, though; he already knows what it's going to be.

The phone buzzes. A tangled pit of nerves bounces between the walls of his stomach, but Steve puts his thumb on the "home" button and pushes, then taps into the messages screen. He focuses his eyes on the black text.

"I loved who we were back then. I'd give anything to have those days back."

Steve reads the words, over and over and over again, filtering them against another voice. A different voice.

Suddenly numb, suddenly done, Steve gets to his feet and walks out to the patio. The sun beats its south-equator heat against his skin and his scars, warming a deep, implacable cold.

***

At 0814 in the morning, Barnes wanders into the kitchen, his nose leading him straight to bags of local-café breakfast bagels and coffee.

Sam doesn't comment that Barnes had spent an hour in the shower and used all of the hot water this morning. All of it. Likewise, Sam doesn't comment that Barnes' hair looks real fucking amazing – short, clean, hair-cream-styled.

Silently, Sam watches him, having had plenty of time to stew, think, process, and conclude. He doesn't waste any time. "Your brain can't take hits like that, and you fucking know it."

Barnes picks up a tall cup of coffee and a bag of food, then sits directly across from Sam at the small round table.

"Good morning," Barnes quips. Between sips of coffee, he follows-up with a carefree, "Yep."

Sam can't be neutral about this. He can't be cool about it. He can't be whatever the hell Barnes is being right now. "It's not funny."

Insufferably, Barnes shrugs.

To burn off energy, Sam stands up and walks to the counter. Those four steps don't really help. "How long have you known?"

Barnes slathers cream cheese on a bagel, then licks the knife. "No jam?"

"B."

Barnes tosses the plastic knife onto the table and looks Sam straight. "HYDRA knew before Insight."

Not an answer. Also: no shit. Sam already knew that. He lets it go. "When were you going to tell someone?"

The bagel hits the tabletop, face up, uneaten. Barnes leans back, arms crossed.

Barnes pauses for a long time, but Sam can tell he's wrestling with something else. Something to say. Sam waits, ass pressed into the edge of the counter, arms crossed tight across his chest. His knee twinges.

"After Insight, they didn't try to come after me. They didn't think I was gonna live. Who is it you think I should tell that to?"

Barnes' ability to draw accurate conclusions from thin air is, typically, incredible. Right now, it's infuriating, because there's nothing to support that – but Sam knows not to touch it. Barnes believes what he believes.

"I didn't think I'd care. But I do. I—" Barnes catches himself with a frown. "I don't want to die that way."

The suicidal person who'd once relinquished to Sam a handgun and three knives might not have cared. Telling, how that same person dragged himself back to life three days later. Barnes doesn't want to die at all.

Sam takes a deep breath and plunges into a world he wants nothing—nothing—to do with. He knows what HYDRA did to Barnes, and, specifically, how they controlled the flow of his memories.

"Maybe it's not that they couldn't fix it. They couldn't sustain it. That doesn't mean that we can't fix it."

Barnes closes his eyes momentarily, opens them, and pins Sam with a pointed stare. "One hit."

"A hit you didn't defend against, from someone as strong as you. Anyone would have gone down."

Barnes nods, infinitesimal, not buying one pile of the shit Sam's shoveling. "Don't tell Steve. Please?"

That's twice now. Briefly, Sam thinks about the benefits of telling Steve – and, genuinely, can think of none. Steve can't control the black-outs, not yet; meanwhile, knowing this little bit of trivia would devastate what's left of him.

Sam nods agreement.

***

Barnes pushes out the screen of his bedroom window and crawls through the opening. A Sam-like voice in his head admonishes, Use the fucking front door, man.

He doesn't want Steve or Sam asking and doesn't want either of them coming. No front door.

Phone in hand, he drops into soft, sand-strewn grass and gets distance from the house. Winding through back alleys, between rows of colorful houses, and past strip malls of random businesses, he purposefully ends up in a small, grassy park near the city's center.

It's 1430, nearing the hottest part of the day. There aren't many people out here. Nevertheless, he identifies an out-of-the-way tree, slips behind it, and sits on the hard, silty ground.

Humidity settles heavily. Moisture saturates the air from the low-hanging clouds that meander through the gray, overcast sky. Even without the beating rays of the sun, it's too hot, and sweat bubbles out of his skin. He hopes it rains soon.

He calls Natasha and wills it to ring through.

Ring.

Ring.

Ring.

A beat of static-laced silence.

"Hey. How are you?"

The sound of her voice evaporates the heat and incinerates the humidity. It calms a jittery, restless energy he hadn't realized was coursing through him until now.

"Not as bad as Sam thinks."

His arm's healed, he hasn't tried to break it in the last two weeks, and the oddball dreams have evened out into the usual nightmares about Insight, the cosmodrome, and faces of people long murdered. All back to normal.

"And you?" he asks.

A question she avoids answering, tone turning to business-only. He hates it when she does that. "You have ten days left. Is it manageable?"

That's a good question without a lot of great answers.

"He can control it, unless I talk," Barnes replies. "We had a great conversation over text message yesterday."

That should tell her everything she's looking to know. It might get better, after the therapist's—Russell's—influence wears out of Steve's system. Even once that happens, everyone involved knows there'll never be a return to Steve's normal.

The person who came to Kraków is gone.

That infinite chance is gone.

We're not friends. Is that clear enough for you?

"I'm sorry, James."

He doesn't want her apologies, or her pity. It's about Steve, not him.

"Otherwise, Sam says he's lucid. Paranoia's gone. Volatility's better."

That's almost verbatim Sam's assessment, along with, "The Hotwheels track is getting longer."

"That's good improvement," Natasha says. Her tone tells him she even means it. "It's wearing off."

He's happy about that. Steve has a future and a chance to finally rebuild his life, with better people around him than Steve might realize. In ten days, Steve will go home to them, and, with an ounce of luck, they won't let another one of HYDRA's super-secret double agents fuck with his head again.

Over the phone, he hears her take in a breath. "How are you really?"

He wishes she was here. In his head, the team is Sam and Natasha, like in Europe last year. Sam's incredible, but the brains of the team is in New York.

She's more than that. Has been for a while.

He wants her to touch him: his arm, his back, his hair. Her touch brings him down, always. And: he can't exactly ask Sam to pet his head. Steve would do it for five seconds, lose his mind, and punch him, so.

He wants to touch her: trace the scars, avoid the bad ones, write promises, remind them both that they're human and free to have this, whether they deserve it or not.

He sums that all up into one half-lie: "Good."

"Okay. We have another assignment for you, when you come back. It's optional. We can talk."

He's almost mad that she's assuming, that she's saying it like it's a foregone conclusion, when he thinks of his first question, a bad one, to Hill: Am I still SHIELD?

Get off the fence. You're SHIELD or you're not.

That's what the assignment is: time to choose. No more freelancing.

His silence unnerves her. She prods, "Think about it?"

He actually might. "Any tips for this one now? With Steve?"

It's her turn to be silent for many long, stretching moments. But she comes back to the conversation with actionable advice. "You don't sound like you, when you speak other languages. Avoid Russian – your accent's bad. Try French. German, maybe. At least you'll know."

She can't see him smile. HYDRA'd stopped trying for that accent after a while: wasn't happening.

He senses an urgency in her voice that tells him the call is nearly over. A tickle of adrenaline surges and apparently tells his brain and throat to blurt out, "I miss you."

It provides her the perfect opportunity for getting in the last word. "In ten days, come home then. Gotta go."

The call ends, the screen going black. Barnes holds onto the phone with both hands, elbows propped up on bent knees, and tilts his head toward the gray sky.

Home.

Tempting, but something that won't mean much, can't be much if the sound of his voice devastates Steve. He'd never do that to him.

Time to find out.

***

Bucky strides through the living room, a black hoodie in his left hand. At the door, he stops, meets Steve's eyes, and gestures at the door.

Steve shakes his head "no," but Bucky doesn't move. He gestures again.

With a sigh, Steve asks, "What're you doin'?"

He earns an index finger pointed at him, then at Bucky himself, and then at the door, each motion punctuated with Bucky mouthing "you," "me," and "let's go," respectively.

Steve's not going to win this. At least he's dressed halfway decently.

Outside, Bucky intentionally matches Steve's pace, putting them walking side-by-side. Bucky points east, toward the city center with its high rises and sounds of bustling people; that's as good as any other place.

For long awkward minutes, it's only their shoes scuffling across the sidewalk. Silence is terrible when it's the only choice.

"This is stupid," Steve comments.

Hands stuffed into his jacket pockets, Bucky shrugs, as blasé as ever.

"Maybe we should learn sign language," Steve bites, being a real pill and knowing it. "Doesn't that sound like berries to you?"

He gets a smile, popped-up eyebrows, and a customary head shake, at least. He can all but hear Bucky say, no one talks like that anymore.

They round a corner into an upscale commercial district. Shiny storefronts and restaurants mix with shinier windows of stout skyscrapers and hotels, concrete and metal tempered by strategically placed and manicured trees, giant flower pots, and rectangles of green grass.

He follows Bucky's lead, no idea where he's going or why. Maybe they're going nowhere, the whole point to finally get out of the house and rejoin the world.

Steve scans throngs of people moving about the street and sidewalks. Specifically, he's looking for SHIELD agents, his ever-present shadows. Everyone back home calls it protection – and he hasn't had the guts to ask for who?

Truthfully, he hasn't had a need to ask that. He knows. He knows what it's like to not trust himself, to not want help, to not want pitiful stares, to not want to be dissected by psychologists, friends, and governmental oversight alike.

Steve chuffs out a laugh. "I get how hard it is to do this. Why you flipped out in Poland."

We're not friends; is that clear enough for you?

Bucky tilts his head back and groans. "Je ne peux pas continuer."

Steve almost checks to see who said it to them. Of course, Bucky had, but his French is higher pitched than his English, and his entire way of speaking changes. Dernier would be proud.

It's brilliant.

"Bon, qu'en penses-tu?" Bucky asks, then continues in French, "Natasha's idea."

A smile pulls at Steve's lips. "I think Sam's going to be real damn lost."

Steve watches Bucky return the smile. Like the other night during dinner, it comes nowhere close to his eyes, not anything like how the other one had put so much sick mirth into his.

In French, Bucky says, "It's harder than anyone seems to understand. Even Nat. Poland doesn't feel that far away."

Which begs the question. "What are you going to do after this?"

Bucky shrugs, added to by a shake of his head. "Je ne sais pas. Sometimes SHIELD…seems doable. In a real way." Bucky glances at his right arm. "Most times, not."

"You could stay." It's an offer, request, and demand, all wrapped into one hasty statement.

Gently, Bucky replies, still in French, "There's that easy thing again."

"We could go." For a second, Steve convinces himself that idea isn't ridiculous. "Forget I said that."

Steve is aware that Bucky is silently looking at him: appraising eyes, locked jaw, unknown thoughts sifting through all of Steve's possible fates. The eyes are different – blue, not brown – and Steve knows that Bucky wasn't the person in Death Valley – but the face is the same. That look is the same. The voice is the same.

Steve stops walking.

The fear is the same.

"Qu'est-ce que c'est?"

His lungs seize, still. Inside that stillness, his heart palpitates, fast and hard. He hears the whir of a drill; the clink-clink-clink of a new bit being inserted; and the grinding click-click-click as it locked into place.

A butterfly bit, the same kind he'd used to make a cord hole for his home office desk. The one that had thrown wood shavings and sawdust all over the room.

Don't, don't, don't – please don't, begged through cotton in his throat, his brain spitting out pleas because the panic it was throwing to every bit of his body wasn't going to change a damn thing –met with appraising eyes, a locked jaw, and unknown thoughts sifting through all of Steve's fates. And then a smile, stretched all the way to his eyes, and –

The face belongs to a stranger. That smile never existed.

Honk! Honk! Honk!

Across the street, a yellow and orange Shell station sticks out of the side of a round, white parking garage. It reminds him of the City.

Bicyclists stream across a crosswalk made of painted white bars.

Steve finds himself sitting on a concrete garden planter enveloped by neat green shrubs. He tilts his head back and stretches his eyes up a towering building made of tan limestone and gleaming windows.

"Está tudo fixe. Obrigado."

"Tem certeza disso?"

"Sim, tenho."

Bucky shoos a passerby away but looks uneasy and even stressed. He doubletakes at Steve – and then seems supremely relieved.

"Hé là. Ready to head back?" Bucky asks, slipping from Portuguese to French like it's nothing.

They've only been walking for 30, maybe 45 minutes. It can't be time to go back, only…

Steve knows he'd blacked out. Everyone calls it symptoms of PTSD, and everyone except Sam makes a big deal of it.

He must have taken too long to say anything.

"My first time was during the War. By myself, out by Soldau. I had no idea what it was." Although Bucky doesn't smile, he ends with an impossibly lighthearted, "Hasn't gotten better since."

That's Bucky. During the worst of the Depression, the worst of the War, that was all Bucky – calm, honest, optimistic realism. It was only years ago – a hand's stretch away – so close.

Right here.

A friend's face. A brother's words.

"You're alive," Steve realizes out loud.

It catches Bucky off guard. His expression melts into furrowed eyebrows and a half-open mouth, almost comically. Something clicks, and he reclaims his composure. "Yeah, I am. Let's go home. Storm's coming."

Bucky gestures up at the dark gray sky. Bundles of low storm clouds inch their way across, while thunder rumbles in the far distance. A fat raindrop taps Steve on the shoulder.

"Left arm, y'know? Glad you came back when you did."

Steve doesn't ask how long he'd been "out," because he's still sort of stuck on home. Although Bucky doesn't mean New York, the world jolts closer to its axis.

***

Steve rubs the back of his hand against his forehead, bare feet slapping against the floor on the way to the kitchen. He yawns wide, while his stomach grumbles, and he thinks of coffee and—

Standing at the stove, Bucky has a red spatula in one hand and the handle of a pan in the other. "Sunny side up still, right?"

Steve knows he's gaping, but he can't move his thoughts away from the early 1940's, when Bucky would cook breakfast on his mornings off. Eggs were hard to come by, and he'd always take painstaking care to avoid breaking the yolks. No re-dos, you know.

"English, dude. English," Sam groans, but more to break the awkward silence than to legitimately complain, Steve suspects.

"Désolé, je ne peux pas," Bucky replies, coupled with an easy, shit-eating shrug.

"Grey Poupon to you too."

Sam's dumb comment spurs a genuine, throaty laugh from Bucky. Right hand up to his face, Bucky turns toward the stove to hide the reaction but not before he lets loose an incidental snort.

"Nice."

The last Steve had known, Sam had wanted nothing to do with Bucky and was more than happy to have permanently left him behind in Poland. A few short months later, it's clear that they've created an easy, comfortable friendship. The world unquestionably moved on without Steve, but Steve can't say he doesn't love where it's stopped, in this small, homely moment.

"It sounds great, Buck," Steve finally replies.

Bucky raises a left-handed thumbs-up.

Steve sits next to Sam. He's reading a real newspaper, the pages folded into a small rectangle. A while ago, Sam had mentioned that his dad used to read the paper every morning, taking more time to fold the pages than he ever took to actually read the stories.

"Where'd you find one in English?" Steve asks.

"Supermarket down the road. It's huge, has everything."

He and Bucky had probably passed it yesterday. He hadn't noticed.

Steve relaxes into the wood chair, sprawling his legs and stretching out the muscles in his back.

Sam is truly engrossed in the paper, while Bucky quietly hums a made-up melody, like Bucky's mom used to.

Oil spits and crackles. Food sizzles. The spatula scrapes across the metal skin of the pan.

Steve sneaks a glance at Bucky. A piece of crispy toast hangs out of his mouth, and Steve swears he's bouncing. It wasn't until Steve lived with him that Steve understood cooking hadn't been about Bucky pissing off his dad. Bucky honestly loved to cook.

Still does, by the looks of it.

Bucky scoots the handle of the pan away from the edge of the stove. Always has, since the day Becca'd clipped the edge of a spaghetti pot and spilled the whole vessel of boiling water onto his left arm.

It feels like home. Smells like home. Sounds like home. Looks like home. And it'll taste like home.

A swell of emotions overcomes him, as Bucky slides two mammoth plates of wobbly sunny side up eggs and browned toast onto the table. Another equally-sized plate stacked with bacon comes next.

"How much did you make?!" Sam loudly asks.

"All of it," Bucky answers, another piece of toast in his mouth. "You eat like I do, right?"

Verklempt, Steve doesn't have an answer. Sam doesn't know French and can't bail him out, and so Steve settles for nodding.

Sam notices. "You okay?"

Steve keeps nodding. Tears prickle his eyes, but he won't cry here. He doesn't bleed like that – never for anyone to see. Or so he likes to believe.

Bucky's hand squeezes Steve's shoulder. It shatters his resolve, and the first tears roll down his cheeks.

"Regardez, Sam: jam." Bucky pulls his brows together and frowns. "Sounded better in my head."

Sam crunches through a piece of toast. "I got the jam thing. Whatever the hell else you said – fuck off."

"C'est quoi ce bordel! Also: can you pet my hair?"

Sam keeps eating, and it's almost funny that he has no idea what Bucky is saying. (Steve's not even sure if he'd heard that last part right.) "Nope, no idea."

Almost funny. Mostly not.

Steve wipes his face with his hands and pulls himself together. "English, Buck."

"Bah non, ça va," Bucky replies, concern clear on his face. "It's fine."

Steve focuses on pulling food onto his empty plate: eggs and toast, then half the bacon, because Bucky'll cook it but not eat it. Meanwhile, Steve avoids eye contact, if only because he knows his are red. "I mean it. Stop."

Steve pushes an egg onto a piece of toast and then bites straight into it. The bread tastes grainy and distinctly not American, but the egg tastes familiar – more pepper than salt, just enough real butter, cooked just this side of runny. It does taste like home.

Bucky's alive, and HYDRA doesn't have either of them anymore. They're both somehow more than what HYDRA tried to make them.

More tears run down his cheeks, and he wipes them away. His face burns red. His throat constricts, and the insides of his chest reconfigure into a jumbled, emotional frenzy of grief, relief, and anger.

It never had to be this way.

"Mahlzeit!" Bucky declares with a lift of his coffee cup. He pointedly ignores an incredulous stare from Sam.

"You're a fucking show-off."

Sam and Bucky exchange verbal volleys—in English—laced with increasingly foul language and something about Rachael Ray that makes Bucky throw a piece of bread at Sam. It's a ruse to keep the attention off of Steve.

It never had to be this way, for either of them.

Hearing Bucky in English doesn't do anything. Doesn't trigger anything. Maybe it's the tone, or maybe it's something Steve hasn't even figured out yet.

"How many languages do you know?" Sam wonders.

Back in the day, Bucky had picked up conversational French from Dernier, and, from his mom, the entirety of Romanian.

Bucky thinks and eats but mostly eats. "French, German, Russian, and Polish are the best. Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, and Spanish aren't bad. There's some Middle Eastern and Asian ones. Oh, yeah, English. I know English."

Sam laughs out loud. "You're in a real good mood today."

"It's a good day," Bucky replies. He looks to Steve. "When did you learn French so well?"

"Sometime between the end of the War and 2013."

The minute it's out of his mouth, Steve knows he's opened a door, and he knows Bucky is going to walk through it.

"Took you a while, huh?"

"Ha, ha," Steve deadpans. "Didn't see that coming."

Irrationally, the joke irks him. Maybe it's not even the joke.

Maybe it's the thought of Dernier and of the War, and maybe it's seeing so much of the Bucky he remembers in the person sitting at this table – acting like nothing is or should be wrong.

Maybe it's the question of why – why the hell didn't you tell me during the War?

Maybe it's the memory of we're not friends; is that clear enough for you?

Maybe it's the idea that it took those three months in 2016 and Steve killing Bucky for Bucky to – do this, be this, have this. Why did I have to…

Maybe it's the certainty that all of this could have been different.

His fingernails dig into the skin of his palms, tighter and tighter and tighter and tighter, and all he can hear is a flood of white sound. When the violent red clears from his vision, they're somehow both standing. They hadn't –

"Steve. Steve." Sam.

Bucky's eyes flick from Steve's to a point behind Steve—probably Sam—and he shakes his head. His eyes return to Steve.

"Is this what you want? 'Cause I probably can't go get us another helicarrier. They won't give me one of those." Bucky makes his "oh well, don't care" face, one Steve hasn't seen for years, and backs away toward the kitchen's entryway.

It's a variation of what Steve said to Bucky in Kraków, years ago, when Bucky had drawn a knife and told Steve to go live his life.

Steve breathes, breathes, breathes red, breathes, breathes, breathes black, the turmoil that curls his body into a live wire drifting away.

His fingers—tight balls of white-knuckled fists—ache. He stretches all ten of them out.

"Have you asked?" Steve kids, and he knows he's a god damn pinball that won't do what it's supposed to do, no matter how much Bucky and Sam and everyone else shake the machine.

Bucky pauses, eyes searching Steve's face, and then he smiles, hesitantly – nowhere near his eyes. "No. I have not asked Nick Fury for a helicarrier."

Steve loses the moment, his thoughts drifting to one idea: that HYDRA has pushed them both to the point where the helicarrier can be made into a joke.

"Christ," Steve breathes, and he turns away, walking blindly to the grease-splattered counter. He braces himself against it, palms pressing into the peeling formica edges.

"Hey. Hey. You did it."

Steve lets out a heavy breath like a bomb. "What."

Bucky is suddenly right next to him, leaning against the counter, arms crossed. He's crazy for getting so close so defenselessly. "You didn't do anything, like yesterday in the city. I mean, you killed the chair."

Steve turns and finds the dead chair. On the ground, the back rest is awkwardly angled and partly detached from its housing. Meanwhile, Sam is eating an oozing egg and bacon sandwich, apparently no longer paying either of them any attention.

"You've got this," Bucky states.

Dread gnaws and builds into things he doesn't want. He wants this – this breakfast, this time, these people, this chance.

With a fervent shake of his head, he pushes Bucky aside and retreats to the living room. Restless and confused, that dread twists and twists into knots and tangles, so tightly he could scream until this house collapses.

"Okay." Bucky. "Let's go. What is it?"

Steve turns around and somehow finds the bottled courage to meet Bucky's eyes.

***

"Okay. Let's go. What is it?"

The upside is that Steve responds by looking at him. The downside is that Barnes doesn't think he really wants this conversation. Call it instincts.

A pit in his stomach, Barnes sits on the sofa in the living room. Steve finds the chair, where his tablet has been sitting idle for two days. Steve picks it up and powers it on, stylus pulled from its slot by habit: something to keep his hands busy.

Steve's eyes stay on the screen. "I don't want to do this."

So, there's something that Steve feels the need to do. The pit grows bigger.

"Why?"

Still no eye contact. "Because I don't."

Barnes has no idea what Steve could be on about. He rewinds the morning – a little rough, a little awkward, but with something like a breakthrough. It'd been good.

So. It's something that Steve's been stewing about, probably since 2014 – three long years.

Great.

The pit grows to about the size of a black hole, with the sucking vortex to go along with it.

"Just say it," Barnes urges, recognizing that his insistence is more to get this off his plate than to assuage Steve.

"Oh, sure, I'll clean up! No problem!" Sam's voice carries from the kitchen.

Automatically, Barnes twists in his seat and shouts back, "I cooked!"

"Whatever!"

When Barnes twists back around, Steve is looking directly at him. It's an intense stare. Barnes waits a moment – not quite afraid, but nowhere near comfortable.

There's something different in the air. Something off enough to rattle his instincts.

"Turn the hologram off?" Steve asks.

Barnes can't help the concerned, questioning expression that overtakes his face. It's a really weird request.

Something flashes across Steve's face. "C'mon. You don't like it, anyway."

He sounds like himself.

Fine.

The digital skin melts away into slotted, silver metal. A restless buzz inside of him quiets. No matter what it is or where he'd gotten it, it's still his arm, and it's literally saved his life more times than he can remember. It's not that he likes it – but: it's his fucking arm.

"I like the hologram fine. It's a strategic advantage."

Steve gives a small smile and shakes his head. "Really?"

Steve really sounds like himself.

"What!" Barnes protests. "It is."

The hologram's ability to get him through metal detectors—especially the ones at airports—alone makes it worth it.

Steve ignores him, gets up, walks to the sofa, and sits almost thigh-to-thigh with Barnes. To his credit, Barnes doesn't tense or shirk away. Steve's his once-was best friend and is essentially his brother. If they can't do this, then they won't make it.

Fingertips outstretched toward the arm, Steve asks, "Can I touch it?"

Barnes sidesteps his urge to point out that Steve has touched his arm plenty of times, and vice versa. Instead, he plays it off, like he's been playing shit off all morning. "Touch it? You can have it."

Steve plays. "I don't want your crazy metal arm, Buck."

Steve drags his fingertips over the metal of his upper arm, feather light at first, then harder. His fingers dip, dip, dip over the slots, further and further down, over his wrist and to the top of his hand. Barnes voluntarily turns his hand over, palm up, and lets Steve study the intricacies of the individual pieces.

"Do you feel anything?"

Barnes shakes his head: no. The arm doesn't. If it gets too cold or too hot, he might feel the induction of energy in his chest, but that's it.

Steve moves back up, higher and higher and higher, to where the star used to be.

"When did you do this?"

Referring to the black spray paint, which flakes off completely about once every three months.

The first time happened in the winter of 2015, on a particularly bad day. He stormed into the shed, looking for anything, anything, anything to get rid of the star besides an industrial metal shredder, and put his hands on a years-old can of black Krylon spray paint. He ruined a shirt and a pair of pants, but the star was gone. Kind of.

It's due for another swipe of paint: the red's showing, and a faint image of the star is visible in the right sunlight.

"Winter '15."

Steve rubs his fingers over the black paint, intentionally scraping more of it off. The flakes settle on the leather of the couch.

"The star won't come off?" Steve asks.

As if it'd still be there, if it would. He lets a prickle of annoyance show in his answer of, "No, Steve, it won't."

The expression on Steve's face turns to an all-too familiar one: challenge accepted.

Nope.

Barnes flips the hologram back on, metal replaced by perfect digital skin. Game over. He readjusts his shirt sleeve, crosses his arms, and slouches down in his seat.

Never one to be so easily deterred, Steve steamrolls. "Does it hurt?"

At the last second, Barnes stops himself from rolling his eyes. "Yeah."

"Why don't you let Tony fix it? He had a—"

"'Thing in his chest and now you can't even tell.'" Barnes rattles off the words like a grocery list. He'd heard them once and doesn't need to hear them again. "Because it's my god damn arm."

To start with. Also: in a world littered with people itching to invite him back to HYDRAland, the arm is a bona fide strategic advantage that he can't sacrifice, especially without a guarantee that Stark's replacement would benefit from the serum. The allure of having two real arms doesn't trump freedom.

"No, it's not."

Incredulous, Barnes slowly turns a stabbing, angry glower onto Steve. Then he sees Steve's earnest, worried, dumb face and remembers: this is still back-alley Steve, fending off bimbos twice his size with trash can lids, fat lips, black eyes, and breathless platitudes. This is kinda what he does.

"You're a fucking idiot," Barnes snaps, far, far less than the lashing he could deliver. "And it's none of your business."

Steve's smile pulls taut the tension wire between them. His response is slathered in sarcasm. "Haven't heard that before."

This isn't like Brooklyn, when the two of them would jab at each other and start petty arguments over barely anything. This isn't like one of their old insult-fests, building into stupider and dumber strings of made-up put-downs.

This is real.

He can't see where it's going. The fear borne of that uncertainty fuels a new strategy he's learned in the last few years: retreat. "Okay, let's stop."

Everything had been going fine this morning, and, damn it, he wants one good, clean day. One.

Steve's eyes pierce through him. "No. You said to do this. Let's do it."

Unnerved and not ready for this, Barnes hastily stands up and makes for the hallway. His heartrate picks up, for no reason other than I don't know where this is going.

"You lied to me."

That's where this is going.

Barnes stops mid-stride, his back to Steve. He reminds himself that Steve can't see his stomach bottom-out, or the droplets of sweat dampening his palm, or how he suddenly floats above himself, a step removed from this.

Cotton-mouthed, a part of him is still able to admit, "Yeah, I did."

Steve's tone hardens. "You lied to me."

Whetted instincts force his body to turn and face the threat. Steve's long, fixed stare is cutting and irate.

"Yeah, I did."

"I asked you, and you told me that Zola didn't do anything to you. I asked you about the door handle, and you blew it off. I asked you why HYDRA was fucking with you, and you told me it was a bad grenade." Steve's hand tightens around the tablet stylus. The plastic bends. "You lied to me for years."

"Yeah, I did."

Steve snaps the stylus in half and flings the tablet against the far wall. His fingers make fists of his khaki pants instead of fists flying at Barnes' face. "Is that all you have to say?!"

For a moment, Barnes is scared. That fright snaps him out of his emotional frenzy. He crashes back into his body, pissed off and ready to fight out of the corner Steve thinks he's put him in.

"Yeah. It was seventy years ago," Barnes replies, putting a snippet of his anger on display. "What, six for you? Catch the fuck up."

Steve's face screws up into a sneer. That's the Steve Rogers that Barnes remembers most clearly: raging, pissy Steve on a tear, before a serum told him how to be a war hero.

"Don't pull that."

"Pull what? Look, I'm sorry that it's all still so close for you, but it's not for me. It's done, it's over. I rolled the dice and I lost and it has nothing to do with you."

Had nothing to do with Steve. Until Steve became HYDRA's target twice over.

He doesn't take the words back, but the anger dissolves into a deep, wistful regret. He's never needed Steve to dredge this wound. He's never needed anyone to open it for him.

Steve's sneer becomes anger: a red face, heavy breaths, strained silence. Until: "'Nothing to do with me.' Do you know what they did? Because of you?"

He hasn't needed anyone to dredge that one, either; but it's Steve's to dredge.

None of this was ever supposed to have touched Steve. That brutal, inhuman world was never supposed to have taken him.

Steve closes his eyes, takes a deep, clarifying breath, and opens them again. "Why, Buck."

What Steve wants to know is why couldn't you trust me with this? It's a fair question, and the answer isn't at all about trust.

"I thought I could make it out and not have to tell anybody."

Almost. Only a few months. In the face of seventy years, it was a fucking rounding error.

"I didn't want to spend my life fighting wars." His voice rises, and he tells himself to lower it, to back this down to something reasonable. "I wanted to go home."

If he looks to Steve for comfort, there's none there for the taking. Steve's mad. "Work on that."

That wound is bigger than it's ever been. It's open and infected and inflamed. The anger rushes back, a lit match finding a gasoline trail.

"What's it like to have a choice, Steve?" Barnes steps into Steve's space, while Steve stands his ground, albeit with a brief flash of stinging hurt in his expression. "Why don't you fucking tell me that?"

Those words come from a bad, deep place. Steve doesn't deserve that kind of resentment; he's done nothing wrong.

But Steve had been given a choice—serum or no serum—and all the luxuries that came with that choice. And Bucky – Bucky had been strapped down to a lab table, where there were no god damned choices – and then spent seventy fucking years being the worst thing he ever could have been.

Steve says the worst, as he grabs his shattered tablet and stalks away. "You had a choice. Everything could've been different."

He'd drowned in that truth for years, before HYDRA showed some modicum of mercy and took those memories out of his head. It'd been real fun, when he'd put those pieces of his life back together and came up with it was your fault you could have changed everything.

"Yeah, I never fucking knew that before! Thanks for fucking telling me! FUCK!" Barnes yells.

Steve doesn't turn around, and Barnes can't stay – not with adrenaline and rage and guilt and shame and everything, everything in between twisting his muscles and making him feel sick and ready to frag the fuck out.

When he leaves, he slams the door so hard windows rattle. Before he's out of earshot, he hears Sam exclaim, "Are you two for fucking real?!"

Outside, it's hot, the sun high in the sky and pounding its shitty heat against his black hoodie. Barnes doublechecks the hologram, shrugs off the jacket, and ties it around his waist, not missing a step.

He knows where he's going: fifty miles south to the beach in Guarujá. Maybe long, far, and away enough to settle his nerves and calm him down.

He pays cash for the bus ride down to Guarujá and knows the moment that Sam sends out the proverbial distress call: three back-to-back texts from Natasha, followed by phone call after phone call, followed by one final text: "When you're ready, call me."

Not today.

In Guarujá, he finds a decent enough place to sit: near the dunes covered in long grass and sticky thorn plants.

Watches the white surf roll in, back out, back in, and back out.

Closes his eyes to the strong, warm breeze against his face.

Breathes in the air: salt, seaweed, wet sand, sunscreen, fresh seafood from somewhere down the shore.

Shoves his right hand under the sand and digs a hole, separating broken shells from the sand by touch alone.

Listens to the swells of water, roll in and out, in and out. Hears birds squawk and complain, fighting over left-behind bits of food.

Looks back out over the water: jet skis bounce in the waves, fishing boats lurk along the blue horizon, and birds dive into the water to pull out tiny, gray fish.

Glances at his un-broken, green-bruised right arm and yanks out remnants of sutures, then buries them in the sand.

Stretches his eyes to the blue sky and its sluggish, white clouds.

Sits there, long after the sun has reached its peak, made its course toward the west, and begun the gradual slip into dusk. Long after families have taken their vacation and sunset photographs. Long after the sweltering heat has cooled to a once-was chilly night.

He listens.

Just listens.

And thinks.

Just thinks – about making it home, years and years and years and years ago, about what it'd meant.

It was actually seventy-three years and some odd months ago. His face was pressed into a dirty mattress, rusted chains embedded into the skin of his very human wrists and ankles, when light spilled into the dark room.

Back then, he didn't know German, but he'd picked up enough words that he could string together the gist.

"Nicht jetzt." Irritated. Not now.

"Name?" Emotionless. Name.

"Ich…Namen nicht." Still irritated. I don't know name.

Fingers curled into his hair, clenching and pulling back, hard. His head lifted, whether he wanted it to or not.

"Name?" Angry.

He thought of Steve at home in his first semester at art school and what he would do if word came back. About what would happen to Steve. About what his face would look like. About his promise to Sarah.

He'd fought back once, bit the fucker hard, and, an eternity later, laid curled in a corner, blood in his throat, fire in his lungs, a swollen feeling in his head, thinking he was going to die, he was going to die, he was going to die, and he couldn't fucking die because Steve. Steve.

He had to survive this. He only had to survive: a beating heart, two breathing lungs, blood pumping through his veins. That's all he had to be, in this brutal, inhuman world called Hydra.

"Barnes, James, Ser—"

The guard pushed in deeper, and a pained, half-scream floated out of his mouth, alien to his ears. It was funny, because the guard laughed. It was real fucking funny.

Make it home. Make it home. Make it home. I have to make it home.

"Hmm. NeinIch habe ihn nicht." Still emotionless. I don't have him.

The guard pushed his face into the mattress, hard enough that it felt like his nose was breaking, and hard enough that he couldn't breathe. He felt cold fingers; a long, burning prick in the skin of his wrist; and heard "töte ihn nicht"—don't kill—and words he didn't know; and then the light bled from the room.

"Bereit?" Excited. Ready?

Make it home. Make it home. Make it home.

Maybe nine or twelve times later, the light and that person bled back into the room. The only words he could make out were "Herr Schmidt" and "Arnin."

He got cleaned up. Got his clothes back. Someone new took him back to where everyone else was, where Dugan saw the deep, chain-link shaped bruises and cuts around his wrists. Then, Bucky met Dugan's eyes, defiant because defiant was all he ever knew how to be, and Dugan nodded, not a word spoken.

It was a week later, pneumonia broiling inside his chest, when a different guard grabbed his arm and lead him down the same hallways, the ones he'd seen twice before. And he figured – at least he knew what was going to happen.

He actually didn't know shit.

Instead of the small room, it was a large lab that smelled like antiseptic and metal, and the words spoken in perfect, accented English were "your blood has a very interesting marker in it, Sergeant. Let's take a closer look."

Stories about brutal human experiments had gotten around, even before Krausberg.

He knew enough right then. Steve was in art school, had a future, was taken care of, and it'd never meant more than in that moment: he wasn't going to make it home.

The last thing his father had said to him was, "When shit gets rough out there, don't fall apart. Fall together." At the time, he'd thought it'd meant "make sure your unit comes together." That wasn't at all what it'd meant. It'd meant: they could take his life, his dignity, his body, but they couldn't take him.

Only: he screamed so fucking loud that his jaw cracked and popped. If he hadn't been strapped down, he would've clawed out his own fucking eyes. He begged "please stop," and Arnin had said, "But you are doing so well. We may even finish the entire course."

It wasn't just one time: it was over and over and over again, and he was too fucking stubborn to look over and see what Arnin was doing. He found a real nice water stain on the ceiling and stared at it for weeks—along with a stupidly large map on the other wall. It wasn't so stupid, though, not when no one survived to talk about it.

He couldn't sleep. Could barely think. Hadn't eaten since they'd brought him here. Felt lightheaded, spinning in dizzy, gonna-puke circles. Wanted to tear his hands off, rip his aching head off, stab every fucking nerve ending until they all just fucking died and stopped hurting.

And he wondered – every now and then, not always, not even most of the time – what Steve would think, and that wonder only ever lasted for a sliver of a second. This shit would never touch Steve, and that was all that mattered.

Sophomore algebra. Every day at 11:10 a.m. Mrs. Scott. Would make you come to the chalkboard and solve a problem. If you got it wrong, Mrs. Scott would yell—fucking yell—"IN-COR-RECT!"

At least she didn't show up.

Steve did. Less small.

The world stopped. Home vanished, a puff of smoke disintegrating into thin air.

What'd you do.

Why're you like this.

How could you do this.

Why.

Why.

Why.

You took the one thing they couldn't take.

***

"It all could've been different," Steve says, his fork stuck in a pile of scalloped potatoes. Captain Gets Kicked Out of All-You-Can-Eat Buffets has taken all of two bites.

"Rubbing his face in it?" Sam shakes his head, oh so neutrally. "You're better than that."

Even if everything really could have been different, time and time and God damn time again.

Otherwise: this isn't Sam's argument, and it's not his relationship. This is on them to work out. He's too close to them, to all of it, to ever give them the counseling they (fucking desperately) need.

Steve shakes his head: lethargic, body too still, face crestfallen. "I'm mad at him."

"Clearly," Sam answers around a mouthful of fish. "You really blame him for HYDRA getting ahold of him?"

"No," Steve answers, a whisper. "I—" His head jerks, a sharp jab to the right, then nothing else.

Sam thinks Steve might, at some irrational level, blame Barnes for HYDRA getting ahold of Steve. Knowing how the Autumn of 2016 went in HYDRA's European funhouse, Sam thinks it would have happened anyway, Kraków be damned.

"Then what is it?"

Steve shakes his head and moves his fork.

"Is it a rational anger, or the HYDRA kind?"

"Neither. Not HYDRA."

That's fine. That's real fine. Sam's got one last thing to say. "Over the past two, three whatever years, I've watched both of you waste chance after chance. How many second, third, fourth chances do you think you're gonna get here?"

Steve takes a meager bite of potato. "Not many."

"Yeah," Sam agrees. "Not many. That argument earlier, though – that didn't end the way I thought it would."

Steve glances at his shattered tablet—one of his last tangible links to Sharon, irreparably broken—and pushes food around on his plate.

A chair this morning. Then that. But not Barnes' face. Progress – and not because Barnes knows fifty billion languages.

"It was Russell, wasn't it," Steve says, a certain fact said with something of his old authority. "What was she doing?"

It's not that Barnes isn't helping Steve. It's not that this, being here, away from all that, and dealing with six or seventy years of HYDRA trauma drama hasn't been a catalyst for good progress.

It's more than that, and it happened every day at lunch time for seven months.

"She was poisoning your food, like with Sharon."

All the paranoia. All the fixation. All the blackouts and flip outs. Barnes' voice might trigger him – but it's something that Steve, on his best day, can damn well control, like he had twice today.

After twenty-two days here, HYDRA's mindfuck potion should nearly be out of Steve's system. A blood test would absolutely show it, and, when they get back in eight days, it will.

Steve stills. His fork clinks onto his plate. He swallows, slow and stiff. Then, he disappears into their shared bedroom.

Sam cleans up and retreats to the living room. Waiting, watching the numbers on his digital watch tick further into the night, then further into the morning. Worry flips to anger flips to anxiety to helplessness.

It's nearing twenty hours, and Sam doesn't think he's coming back.

It's 0616, right after sunrise, when the front door finally clicks open and the asshole finally skulks inside. He brings with him the unmistakable scent of ocean and sand, as well as dirt, mud, and grass on his shoes.

Barnes sees Sam and freezes, only for a second. The door clicks shut. "Hey."

"I'm going to bed," Sam responds and gets up to do that. "Finally."

"I'm sor—"

"Nope."

"—ry. Okay."

Sam almost feels bad for that, before he remembers that it's past 0600 and some of them here actually have to sleep. He passes Steve in the hallway and glares at him.

These fucking people are going to be the death of him.

***

Sam goes and Steve comes and "I've been thinking" is how Steve decides to approach this.

Barnes heads him off, staring at his hands. "Krausberg was bad. Worse than you know. One of the guards – did some really bad shit, and then Zola did his shit. Thinking of home – of you – is what got me through."

Steve sucks in a breath. "Buck."

He isn't done. "I'm not saying it makes any sense. That it was rational, or right. I just… hated that war, and I knew, that no matter what me and you did, we could never go back."

"We can now."

That's good. Real good. Steve sounds exactly like himself, like he's forgotten that he'd spent three months being tortured, brainwashed, and twisted in circles on HYDRA's accelerated Hotwheels track to hell.

Steve lets out a breath, a little like relief. Then, he gears right back up to another mess.

"What'd that guard do to you?" Steve asks, voice suddenly small and not with any of his confidence. He sounds a little sick, actually.

Barnes shakes his head. Even after seventy years, even after everything HYDRA did, he's not ready to talk about it. Plus: it's been seventy-three years since Krausberg, so.

"I can guess," Steve says. That "sick" sound in Steve's voice has flashed to anger, as if he's finally put some pieces of some puzzle together.

Barnes doesn't want something Steve can't afford to give.

"Really wish you wouldn't," Barnes says. "And I can't tell you how much I wish you hadn't read that file."

He finally looks at Steve, his neck stiff and hard to move that way.

Steve looks at anything besides Barnes, his face flushed red in a way his fair skin's never been kind enough to hide. "I thought the file was a way to understand, to help. I didn't think you'd ever be like this again. You—"

Had been long far gone.

"Christ," Steve breathes, head planting in his hands.

Awkward silence follows, neither of them sure where else to go.

Barnes has an idea, a selfish one. He's got Steve talking, and, apparently, he's got Steve in a somewhat docile mood. Which is good, because Steve's closer to 1945 than anyone else on this planet. It'd be nice to have his opinion.

"So, I've been digging. Trying to put some pieces together."

Steve drops into the chair across from the sofa, elbows on his knees. He looks like he hasn't slept in too long, and his hair is a crazy mess of blond cowlicks and dry static.

"Oh, yeah?"

"I think Lacy was HYDRA."

Steve's expression turns to skeptical confusion. "George Lacy?"

Barnes nods.

"He went missing in March '45. His whole fireteam. Bucky – he was awful."

Barnes remembers how "awful" Lacy was: how incompetent, how new, how unsure of himself. Barnes remembers liking the guy, because he listened and tried to learn. He remembers how closely they worked together. He remembers being careless around him, showing things he shouldn't have shown.

"I don't know when, but he came. Acted all surprised to see me. Said he was gonna get me home. He said it'd been eleven years. I killed him that day."

Steve sits back in the chair, confusion still all over his face. Barnes expected some form of anger, not this. "A fake memory? Like your folks?"

Well, at least one thing's settled: Stark's got a big mouth.

Barnes shakes his head. "I found his body in September, when we were looking for you. That's a confirmed kill."

Steve looks at a point on the floor, eyes distant. He's thinking. "They were gunning after you, the whole time. He was spying on you."

"They call that a 'handler,'" Barnes corrects. "So. You think it's possible, from what you know."

Steve makes a skeptical face. "What about his wife? His boy?"

"Elizabeth Lacy never had a child, and she fell off the face of the planet in 1946. If she ever existed. And Whitman College, where he said he went, wouldn't talk to me, but I couldn't find any record of a graduation announcement. I mean, it's Whitman College; you announce it."

All this leads to one more theory, one that maybe Steve can confirm or shoot down: "Phillips didn't know, but he knew enough. I think he sent Lacy after me. I think that's how it happened."

Steve blows out a breath. "How else did they find you." It's not a question. "Fuck."

That reaction brings a great deal of relief: to have that theory affirmed, even if it's only from Steve, and even if he'll never know for sure. It's good enough that he can peel George Lacy's image from his fantasy wall of the people he's killed. He can toss away the guilt of thinking someone came to rescue him and that it all could have ended right then and there and that so many lives could've been saved.

Only – Steve's eyes are distant again. Red creeps back into his cheeks and streaks down his neck. His shoulders are tense.

Fuck.

"Steve. Breathe."

Steve blinks, eyes flicking up to Barnes. "Four days after you fell, Phillips wanted to know if you'd ever said anything about Krausberg. If I'd ever noticed anything. I told him off. I wouldn't listen."

Steve's hands tremble.

"He would've sent me, instead of Lacy, and I could've—"

Changed everything.

Barnes leaps off the couch and onto his knees, sliding to where Steve is sitting, like the old days. Back then, he'd have his hand on Steve's Adrenaline Chloride nebulizer in a second flat. Instead, he grips Steve's knees and stares him down.

"Breathe. You're not breathing, Steve."

Exactly like the old days.

"You didn't know," Barnes says. "Breathe."

It's a panic attack, not a black out. Even if it was, Barnes doesn't think he'd do anything differently.

Steve closes his eyes, and Barnes sees the moment Steve falls into HYDRA's rhythm. Sees the moment his hands still. Sees his body relax. Watches the splotches gradually fade away.

When he thinks it's safe to talk, he says, "It's over. You have to let it go. You've gotta look forward."

Steve's eyes open, a shining, dark blue in the dim, morning light. "You've always made it sound easy."

Only because Steve's always had it so hard.

Razzle-dazzle time. "The whole thing with Lacy means that Norman killed Eunice."

Steve's face screws up. Razzle-dazzle works. "Buck…" He tilts his head. "Norman Studebaker and Eunice Mahoney?"

Despite himself, despite everything, Barnes huffs out a small laugh, nods, and proudly says, "Yeah."

"They were there?" Steve's having a hard time holding back his own laugh, it seems. "The Bible Thumper?"

Once Steve goes off, hardly able to get out "thumper" before he's laughing, Barnes can't help but laugh too.

He remembers that day in high school. He remembers when Steve got detention for genuinely groaning "they're gonna start callin' him the Bible Thumper now," while Norman Studebaker, with his gooey Bible and unzipped pants, got dragged down the hallway by his earlobe. He remembers slipping an obscene note under the door of detention hall, so he could sit with Steve.

It's good to see Steve laugh.

The laughs churning out of his own chest don't feel good. They don't feel right. As easy as that, his laughs stop, that moment from another time scratching on the turntable.

The person who fired a rocket into a passenger plane isn't the person from that high school's hallways. Barnes wishes he could say that's the worst thing he ever did. On the list, it's nowhere the near top.

Shame, regret, and disgust twine their way through his body. His throat tightens.

Steve still laughs. "Remember that note you slid under the door?"

Barnes shakes his head, wanting Steve to understand and stop. Instead, Barnes realizes: Steve is barely in his thirties, and their life back then is still a finger's grasp away.

Steve's got ahold of his moment in time, and he isn't letting it go. "I was in detention with Mrs. McGowan. You slid a note under the door, and it said something like, 'I'm so proud of you, Rogers' and had this real shitty picture of a dick thumping a Bible."

Steve grins.

Barnes hopes he's done talking.

"It looked like a hotdog on a grill. Because you can't draw for shit."

That teenager grew up to torture, kill, and worse on a single word's command. Barnes has no idea why Steve wants him to be that same person.

"McGowan stomped out into the hallway to find you, and you were already there waiting. So we could have detention together. Anything?"

"It was a long time ago, Steve."

He means let it go, before the chasm gets bigger. It's a naïve thought: there will never be a version of this where they come out whole, or where Steve understands.

The grin fades from Steve's face. Barnes doesn't try to say anything to bring it back.

"We used to tell each other everything," Steve comments. "What aren't you telling me?"

Barnes laughs again, quick and dirty, and wishes he had a drink of something real, inhumanly strong. "You and I don't remember things the same way."

"You think I romanticize it," Steve says.

"Okay, Sam."

Steve looks away at something random. "I probably do."

A thread of anxiety wraps around the thought of voicing a thought. Something about remembering that life as clear as day, but knowing—god damn knowing—that there isn't a way back. Knowing that the person Steve thinks he is didn't survive—and knowing that the person he is today often wakes up and wishes he hadn't survived at all.

"No, it was a good life," Barnes says, absolutely nothing convincing about how he says it.

On a good day, he means it. Today isn't a good day.

Steve looks down. His left hand goes to his stomach. "What was the worst thing they did to you?"

A bad thing happens: he opens his mouth to answer, starts to says "I," but can't finish even that much. A weird, crackly sound comes out of his mouth.

He closes his mouth, restlessly looks around the room, and lets out one deep breath.

Steve doesn't let him off the hook.

He stares at scratches on the tiled floor. Dust. Dried pineapple juice. Water spots.

"No," Barnes decides.

He's tortured, killed, ruined, destroyed, and let himself be a person that deserves nothing of what Steve and his friends want to give him. He's damn well capable of saying "no" to Steve Rogers.

Except, his heart skips. His mouth turns dry. A chill trembles through his chest.

Steve doesn't say anything. In that silence, so many thoughts scratch to be heard: I did horrible things, I did what they wanted, I did things, I am what they made me, I can't be around you, you remind me of what I'm not.

He chances a glance at Steve and that glance becomes a stare. Steve's eyes are wet, tracks down his cheeks. It's barely imaginable that Steve knows. That means that Barnes is missing something. Why the tears – why –

"You came. You said you'd followed HYDRA. You told me that you knew a way out. I followed you into a dark room, where they drugged me, and hung me, and the first thing he did was this."

Steve pulls his t-shirt up, right up past his nipples, and—

Barnes can't breathe. Can't move his eyes. Can't think.

"It burned. It hurt for days, and, when it stopped, he did it again. I believed it was you."

It's white phosphorus. It's HYDRA's symbol. It's a raised, permanent, healed scar, from his chest to his belly button.

He – That's his playbook. That's what he would've done. He knows what it does. He – He showed operatives how to do that, how to make it hurt the most, how to make it damage the most, without killing. When to do it again. What to do in between. How to make a person crumble.

That's why they did it to Steve. Because of him. All of it –

Steve is right to blame him.

Steve drops his shirt.

Barnes still can't breathe. Still can't think. He wants a gun, and he wants a list, and he wants to go.

Somewhere, his own name should be on that list.

It's his fault.

Unexpectedly, Steve hugs him, arms tight and warm. On age-old instinct alone, Barnes' arms come up to reciprocate.

"I'm sorry for what I did," Steve says. "What I've done."

"Don't be sorry," Barnes manages to say.

Steve pulls out of the hug, eyes going straight to Barnes' chest, hand halfway stretched out. Barnes preemptively recoils.

"Can I? Please?"

Finally, he nods, only because he's said "no" so many times already.

Steve lifts Barnes' shirt, like they're two grade-schoolers playing I'll-Show-You-Mine.

The scars are there. The three bullet holes, now tight spider-webs of puckered, pearl skin. Two thin lines down his sternum; only one's recent, and only one's from Steve.

He doesn't have the heart to tell Steve that he's looking at the wrong scars. That first stab wound alone, the one that had damn near cut all the way through his body, had been enough to do it. The HYDRA in him is proud of Steve for it: it'd been a fucking good kill strike.

"How can I not be sorry for this?" Steve breathes, fingers brushing the scar over his right lung, then down the sternum, and then gone.

Easy: "They were never going to let me die. You didn't even come close. Don't fool yourself."

Barnes fixes his shirt and leans away from Steve, arms crossed.

Steve blinks, confused. "No one's told me much."

"Their plan was to revive me and keep you. And then there'd be two," Barnes says, even and neutral. He owes Steve something more, something better than what he helped HYDRA do. "I was your room-full-of-kids moment. The moment you don't want to come back from."

He's never mentioned those kids to anyone, except Natasha. Steve's smart enough to grab the context and put it together. The twitch of Steve's lip and flicker of surprise in his eyes says it all.

"How do you talk about it like that? So calm?"

"Experience," Barnes replies, willing to go no deeper than that.

"'Experience,'" Steve repeats quietly. "I killed you. I almost let them have you. I—"

"Will learn to live with it," Barnes interrupts, blunt. "Natasha calls it a ledger. Doesn't quite work for me. I picture it as a wall with faces on it."

People aren't names on a list. They're real: they had families; they had lives; they had futures; they had dreams and ambitions. They had one life, and he took it from them. Their faces—in his dreams, mistaken for lookalikes on the streets, in history books—are everything he sees.

"Find something that works for you and work to break it down."

There's a little bit of shock in Steve's expression. His Adam's apple bobs, and the way he swallows is awkward and dry. Undoubtedly, he's used to hearing "it wasn't you" and "it's not your fault" and "it'll get better."

"Buck?"

Always, so much packed into that one little word. Steve could fit a dictionary into it, and, once upon a time, Bucky could piece the words together to find Steve's perfect meaning.

"You'll wake up with it crushing you, before you've even opened your eyes, and, the next day, you'll forget to think about it. And the day after that, you won't be able to breathe again. I don't want you to live like that. I don't blame you. I know what they do."

He knows what he's done. Steve is living proof.

Steve rubs his eyes, his fingers pressing into the sockets, over and over again. Barnes watches him breathe in three second intervals.

"Do you forgive me?"

There's nothing to forgive, except "HYDRA did it" doesn't erase that Steve was the person behind the gun, or Barnes behind many, many more. "HYDRA did it" means shit, when it was you they made do it.

Thing is: Steve's not special. He's another in a long line of prey, and, as far as people who have managed to kill Barnes, Steve's hardly the first. Maybe it's what Steve needs to hear.

"You think that was the first time HYDRA's killed me to get something accomplished? Stop giving yourself the credit."

Once, after the time he didn't say something correctly and Eunice gave him an injection and locked him in their cell, his memory skipped.

One moment, his body shook and his heartbeat battered away at his eardrums, a forbidden scream locked down deep in his throat. The next, he opened his eyes to reams of overhead lights above him, with hard, flat metal underneath him, and his throat nearly too swollen for him to swallow.

Seventeen has failed. But it will not die.

He wonders what SHIELD did to the cosmodrome. If those buildings still stand, if that cell still exists.

If Eunice really died after Lacy came.

If Norman is still alive.

If he'll ever really know for sure.

At least Steve knows for sure.

Steve sits there and stares, his brain and mouth apparently too tangled up to respond.

"It's a good serum," Barnes says with an easy shrug, although he again feels as though he's floating above himself, watching and listening to himself pretend to be someone who hasn't existed for sixty-four years.

The world with Steve in it - with Becca, his brothers, his mom, his dad, his friends, his wife and that future, himself and that person - is gone. That person died in a cell, in the last moment that the last "kill me" crawled silently past his lips.

He remembers that last moment, and the next when he'd killed a handful of kids in exchange for a handful of hours of sleep. The person Steve is looking for here died then, with those last words and with those young children.

"Yeah," Steve agrees. "I'm glad for that."

Barnes barely hears it.

All of this... This sad attempt at playing pretend, as if there's any sense left to Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, playground friends and wartime heroes.

That day, when he'd killed the first set of kids, and when he'd taken the bloody blanket from the pile of them, he'd glimpsed a silver necklace. It had an identification plate stamped with a date: 18-01-1947. Its wearer was about six-years-old.

It's most of an answer about the person Steve's been trying to find. It's the last thing Barnes can do for Steve.

"1953," Barnes says. "That was it."

"What?"

Barnes gives Steve a half-hearted smile. Steve'll get it. "Nevermind. Look, I'm tired. I'm gonna turn in."

Disappointment shows on Steve's face. "Yeah. Yeah, sure."

"We're good, right?" Barnes asks, more for peace of mind than for anything else.

"No matter what," Steve answers.

Barnes doesn't know if he entirely believes it, but it's good enough.

He gets to his feet and walks past the crocodile clock. Its green, plastic tail shifts back and forth, counting the seconds and minutes. Five hours have slipped by since sunrise, without a blackout or a near-miss.

It's a blink in time neither of them should have had.

***

Sam rubs his eyes and walks down the cool-tile hallway. Tonight marks evening number twenty-three at Casa Melodrama; Sam can easily walk these handful of hallways blind.

Seven more days, he reminds himself, and then home.

A better home than the one he'd left, even.

Sam rounds the corner into the kitchen and leans in the doorway. A pot of water boils on the stovetop, and the oven dial reads 425 degrees. Sam thinks he smells chicken.

"Man, I have never seen you cook."

Steve glances up from the tablet in his hand. "Stuffed chicken sounded good."

"Oh, it suddenly sounded good to you? After twenty-two days?"

Another day in another time, Steve would've charged back with, "Oh, so you're counting?"

Steve shrugs, less sheepish than guarded. "We were trying Blue Apron. Neither of us ever learned to cook. Not really. It was nice."

Sharon, Sam realizes. He's talking about Sharon.

"Is she really okay?" Steve asks.

A cheap digital timer lets off a continuous beep, beep, beep.

Sam steps inside the kitchen, kills the timer, and looks Steve squarely in the eyes. "Yes, Sharon is really okay. Last I heard, she had some assignment in Europe."

Shouldn't've said that. Totally shouldn't have said that.

Steve lets out a breath and nods. "Get Bucky. It's almost ready."

Sam looks in the living room first, then peeks out to the patio, before finally realizing that Barnes is asleep.

The bedroom door is closed. Sam knows better than to force his way in and startle him. He pulls out his phone and dials Barnes' phone number. It goes straight to voicemail.

From the kitchen, Steve whistles "San Francisco" out of tune. Porcelain dishes clink. A glass baking dish slides onto the hollow metal stovetop.

You fucking son of a bitch.

Sam thinks it, only because he knows Steve would hear it if said out loud. He thinks it, because his gut is telling him one thing only: Barnes is gone.

Despite that, Sam pounds on the bedroom door again. "B! C'mon."

Silence.

Sam opens the door and steps inside the empty room. The bed is made, corner to corner. The ever-present pile of Pepsi cans is in the trash can instead of on the floor. Barnes' bag isn't by the window, which, for the record, is open and missing its screen.

"Are you guys coming?" Steve's voice carries into the room.

Right.

For all Barnes ever talked about Sam getting saddled with their messes, here he is with another one.

Sam closes the window and walks back to the kitchen. It only takes Steve one glance to get it.

For a handful of quiet, tense moments, Steve stands there, gaping and huffing, before his eyes lock on a distant point and his eyebrows press together.

Sam grips the door jamb so hard the white paint flakes onto his hand. It stops him from stepping backward into the slightest of a head start. Adrenaline flushes through his arms and legs, then up his neck.

Steve shuts his eyes and hangs his head, then blows out a short, nasally laugh. "He told me."

Sam's hand drops from the door jamb. He even lets himself breathe. "He told you? That he was taking off? Out the window?"

The look Steve gives Sam is plain resolve. "Call Nat. We're getting him back."

***

The sky was deep blue; the rolling clouds stacked like glaciers. Branches of crinkling, orange leaves rattled overhead, while pink cherry blossom petals floated between bursts of warm wind. Small songbirds fluttered and sang. Too-long blades of grass scratched his bare arms.

That wasn't right.

He sat up to rows of vibrant red tulips, a black wrought-iron fence, and a gray cobblestone pathway that winded around to a black luminaire and brass drinking fountain. Shakespeare Garden.

Could it really –

He looked at his left hand; it was real skin, real bone. On habit, his thumb played with the too-large gold band around his ring finger. He'd taken that off before he'd walked into the enlistment station. He'd never put it back on.

"You loved this place."

Stunned, he stood up and turned, immediately matching that impossible voice to a name trapped between his throat and his thoughts.

Red curly hair, brown eyes, dark freckles across her cheeks. The day they'd met, she'd put him down flat on a gym mat, his nose bloodied, and walked away with a nervous shrug.

She smiled, sad and warm – bleeding pity.

He remembered everything.

The name Anna died on his open lips, replaced by a hopeful, "Am I dead?"

A flash of lightning splintered across the sky. A jagged barb of pain cut through his chest, and his throat – it felt broken. It felt broken where the collar squeezed.

"For now." Anna tried to smile again. "You'll be all right."

His eyes stung, not because of the pain, but because he understood that this wasn't real. The horror was real, and it was waiting for him.

He sucked in a deep breath, inadvertently taking in the sweet scents of the flowers and the crisp earthiness of the autumn leaves. The midday sun warmed his face. The lukewarm breeze slipped around his skin. He wanted to stay here forever.

"Please." That impotent word meant nothing. "Please, Anna."

Anna embraced him, strong, always like before. He held onto her desperately.

"You will be all right," she said. "You will be."

"No, they…" He closed his eyes, accessing information that he knew he no longer had. This place had impossibly given it all back. "They've already…"

He couldn't say taken me.

"Anna."

"I know what they've done. I know what they'll do. And you will be all right. You will be, James."

Another barb of pain splintered through his chest. His throat burned. The left side of his upper body ached, deep and agonizing, where his arm had been cut away.

Hot tears tracked down his face, and he held onto Anna tighter. She smelled liked familiar lavender, like her blouses, like her pillowcases, while familiar terror squeezed his body.

He knew this wasn't real, and he knew he couldn't stay. It was waiting for him.

"Is the worst over?" he asked, only because he knew it had to be. It had to be.

Her arms didn't leave his body, but her face drew up. Her lips pressed a kiss onto his jaw, and her forehead came to rest on his collarbone, like so many times before.

"No," she said, and then the sunny, blue-sky garden with its leaning, red tulips, its wafting, pink cherry blossoms, and its rolling orange leaves faded from his memory.

In their place, reams of bright lights affixed to a ceiling of gray concrete; cold, flat metal under his body; biting shackles around his wrist and ankles; and a bony, leathered face with inspecting, hard eyes standing over him.

There was no one named Anna. There were no flowers. There was no sky. There were colors – red, black – and numbers – one, two, three – and there were instructions.

"Seventeen has failed," said the bony, leathered Woman. "But it will not die."

He stared past her at the ceiling, obedient. He saw her hand raise high in the air, and he saw it streak back down, but he didn't move, and he barely felt it against his face.

His throat ached, but no one had asked for a report.

Her striking hand stayed on his face, while her other went to a place he did feel. She leaned her mouth close to his ear, said "I will make it fail," and then did exactly that. His right hand shook and shook and –

The glass in Barnes' right hand trembles. He switches it to his left hand, gulps down the total waste of money formerly known as Scotch, and slides his right hand under his leg. Even there, it shakes.

New memories come at bad times. That one in particular seems to build into worse and worse—and weirder—things. Ghost Anna and the Bitch from Hell, Part Three.

The plane's airframe creaks and brutally bounces, a moment before the seatbelt light flickers on and the intercom alert tone cuts through the silence of the sleeping jet.

"We're flying through a rough patch of weath—"

Barnes tunes out the announcement and instead looks to the flight tracking screen on the seat in front of him. It's just past 0230, with twelve more hours until Copenhagen.

Despite himself, he thinks of Steve and Sam, and he wonders if, by now, they're on a plane to New York. For sure, by now, Sam is remembering how to hate him, and Steve is hopefully learning to do the same.

Barnes pages for a flight attendant and buys another useless drink. He'd rather blow through a pack of cigarettes, but, this way, Natasha already knows where to find him. Credit cards don't keep good secrets.

He wonders how many more phone calls and texts he's missed from her.

At 1441, the plane touches down at Copenhagen Airport. A carry-on bag to his name, he walks to Terminal 3, buys a Metro ticket at the DSB's ticket office, and rides to Kongens Nytorv.

Outside, it's a cool, overcast 64 Fahrenheit, a welcome shift from the blistering humidity of São Paulo.

Barnes walks the short distance to Café Norden. He buys a simple cup of coffee and waits at a tiny, round table that faces floor-to-ceiling windows, certain that he won't be disappointed.

A third of a way through his seventh refill, Barnes sees her: red hair, red lips, black nails, black clothes, striding straight toward his tiny, round table.

Suddenly, he feels all too aware of what he's done. He reminds himself that he's done much worse than leave at least one person better than how he'd found them.

Natasha sits across from him, eyes looking straight past him, her arms crossed. "You wanted to be found."

"No, I wanted a cup of coffee," Barnes lies.

"Seven of them," she retorts, ice cold.

Barnes unconsciously crosses his arms, right over left, and studies her. Her face is schooled into extreme neutrality, which, in itself, skews against him. She's either pissed or someone else.

"What did I write on your stomach?" he asks.

"Love and home," Natasha responds without the least bit of hesitation. "Interesting way of show—"

He doesn't care to hear the spiel. He knows what he's done. "I won't be around Steve. I'll be what SHIELD needs but not around him."

Her expression doesn't change. Her gaze doesn't stray to him. "Why."

"He showed me what they did. It was me." He tilts his head and finally, finally catches her eyes. "It was me."

She knows what that means. He shaped her into a Black Widow, the best, the brutal.

Her eyes narrow. "That's the hard part I told you about. You won't outrun it. And it's no way to live."

He doesn't want her advice. "Take it or leave it."

He doesn't know if he wants her to take it, or if he wants her to leave it. He doesn't know.

"The world's a small place, James. You—"

"Don't. Really. Don't."

"—can't avoid him forever."

The café pulls away: the windows melting into the city, the voices of patrons dulling into a hushed hum, the smells of roasting coffee mixing into a sickeningly sweet scent.

"You'll never find me," he thinks to say, because that's the safety point where his mind has decided to lick its wounds. Somewhere gone.

He knows it's a bad, uneven, exaggerated reaction. Running is easy. Hiding is easier. Staying is the hard part, and he's not fucking ready at all. Not after what Steve said, and not after what Steve showed him.

"What SHIELD needs, not around him," Barnes repeats. "Take it or leave it."

Natasha's concerned eyes search his, before she pulls a ready train ticket out of her jacket. She slides it across the tabletop's surface. Without touching it, he sees that it's to Brussels.

With a cool air of finality, Natasha stands. "You'll receive further instructions on arrival."

She walks away without a glance backward.

Take care of him, he thinks at her.

After the busy sidewalk conceals her, a funny thing happens: he feels unbearably alone in the world, as if he's lost something that he can't ever regain.

***

The story will continue in Chapter 4: God Likes Trinity.

Chapter Text

Upstate, New York. About sixty miles north of Manhattan. The last yellow moving truck pulls onto the two-lane, asphalt road and disappears between two thick rows of autumn-orange trees.

Perched atop the fresh blacktop roof of the new SHIELD headquarters, Steve crosses his arms and sucks in a deep breath that cuts refreshing life into his lungs. From twelve stories up, he has a small bird eye's view of the expanse of Stark-owned land: an open spread of green grasses, acres of trees tipped with age-colored leaves, and the edge of a glittering pond beyond those trees.

He'll never admit: it beats the glassy, metal sprawl of the City. The sound of a hundred birds chirping and crooning beats the sound of a hundred shrill car horns. During the day, the sky here is light blue; instead of commercial jets shaking the building, gaggles of geese soar in clean V-shapes, honks echoing. Even now, as the sun begins its long drop down, cicadas drone, katydids chatter, and crickets chirp.

Here, it's quiet in its own loud way. It's still in its own lively way. It's the way it was growing up, and the way it was in 1940. It's not home, but it's as good as.

Steve'll take it.

"Hey."

Only Natasha can sneak up like that. He hadn't heard the access door open or close; hadn't heard even one of her footsteps; but she's beside his arm, red hair shifting in the stiff, evening breeze.

"It's nice up here," she remarks.

Steve nods agreement. "This was a good move."

Her lips twist into a teasing smile. "Don't let Stark hear you say that. It'll go straight to his head."

"It already has," Steve replies, not so much joking. It's half the reason he's up here: Tony suddenly turning into a bouncing, won't-take-no-for-an-answer tour guide is what the kids call "not a good look" these days. "He really likes the floors."

"He hasn't shown you the labs, yet, then. He had me in the one on Twelve for two hours." Natasha sits down on the roof's ledge, legs kicked out and crossed at the ankle; the good humor curdles into a concerned seriousness. "How are you doing? Are you?"

Steve lifts a shoulder and frowns. "I'm good."

But. Since she went there.

"How is he?"

It's been five months. All Steve knows is that Bucky's safe and "taken care of" – whatever that means. He hasn't heard a word otherwise, not from Bucky, not from Sam, not from Natasha, not from anyone.

Give me something. Please. Steve won't beg.

Natasha doesn't bat an eyelash. "He's real good."

She could be lying, and he'd have no idea. After all, it's her job to lie well.

Stop it. Those are the old thoughts. He's past them – and can't afford to have them.

Steve pushes aside the irrational, old doubt. "And Sharon?"

"Still on assignment in Europe. Hasn't forgive herself yet. Have you?"

Although Natasha tries to hold his gaze, he turns his eyes down to the black slate rooftop. He's not sure what she's asking: has he forgiven Sharon, or has he forgiven himself? Absolutely, and absolutely not.

Either way. "It'd be better if they were here, and you know it."

Eyebrows raised, Natasha tilts her head, green eyes dark. "In time. I miss them, too."

A mocking, bitter scoff held back, Steve bites his tongue to hold something worse back: that she's known Bucky for all of maybe five months altogether, and she doesn't have a right to pretend to know what it's like to miss him. Same for Sam.

Natasha's more than smart. "You grew up with him. I—"

"Twenty-five years," Steve quickly snaps. Give or take. You have no idea.

Calmly, Natasha continues, "It's his choice. And Sharon's. All we can do is respect that, for as long as it takes."

It must be that irrational, poisoned voice talking to him again: it almost sounds like Natasha's trying to convince herself of that more than him. He doesn't want to ever hear that voice again.

Steve nods and drops the line of conversation. "I still have unpacking to do," he lies.

He'd only brought eight boxes – clothes, books, what Sharon used to call knickknacks. Moving in hadn't taken him long.

"Okay," Natasha kindly relents.

Steve retreats through the roof's access door and down a gleaming set of sparkly-gray, black-specked granite steps. They match the floors that Tony's so excited about.

In the stairwell, each floor is marked by a large number in fresh, glossy black paint. Twelve and Eleven belong to Bruce, with incredible lab space, equipment that makes Steve's head spin, and plenty of room to fuel SHIELD's research and development.

Ten, Nine, and Eight are living quarters for analysts, agents, techs, and others. Seven hosts Avengers quarters, while Six has an armory, training rooms, and the Cafeteria.

Steve pops open the door for Seven and strides down the hallway to his apartment. With a flick of his eyes upward at the optic reader, the wood-covered steel door clicks open.

With a spacious, furnished living room, dark hardwood floors, and floor-to-ceiling windows that provide a grand view of a grassy, expansive meadow, the apartment should be bright, sunny, and warm.

Even since move-in day, he's kept the lights set to "low." He tells himself he can see fine in the dark.

A dead plant from his apartment in DC sits in its pot, on the floor in front of one of those windows. It's been dead since probably sometime in September 2016. Throwing it away means giving up on her.

The blacked-out windows don't provide any way for that plant to find life. With a couple words to JARVIS, natural light could spill into the room during daylight hours. With that, though, would come his reflection; something he doesn't want to see.

In his bedroom, a sheet of last year's Christmas paper covers the full-length body mirror. It's holly, jolly, and merry. In the bathroom, a fluffy white towel hangs over the counter mirror. Thing is: he learned how to shave by touch during the War, and he doesn't need a mirror to see if his uniform of black pants and a black shirt match.

For better or for worse, it's home. He's had worse.

His smartwatch chirps. Steve glances at his wrist and finds a simple message from Sam: "Late dinner? Cafeteria."

The only part that sounds good is Sam.

Steve heads back out into the hallway made of sparkling granite, trots down the stairwell, and pops open the door for Six. He stalks down another hallway with more granite flooring, a tall ceiling adorned with wide oak beams, and walls of segmented, gray rectangular panels. Every now and then, a potted green plant or a bright blue bench adds a "touch of warmth," or so says Tony. Steve isn't sure what that means.

Outside the Cafeteria, strings of orange Jack-o-Lanterns hang along the wall, leading up to a witch on a broomstick floating in the doorway. The cute decorations don't soothe the knot in his stomach. No, that only tightens and grows as he walks inside the Cafeteria, skims past packed-full tables of employees, and beelines to Sam.

"Not eating?" Sam asks, even though he damn well knows better.

"I ate earlier."

That's true: he had. It'd been something packaged from a café down the street from Avengers Tower, and that is something Steve's going to quickly miss. The nearest town is at least a half hour away.

Sam takes a big bite of a burger, chews, swallows, and doesn't lecture Steve on how no one here is HYDRA, no one here is poisoning the food like Russell had, and that Steve has nothing to worry about.

"Stark's got the food service coming in tomorrow. He's really proud of the 'fully stocked kitchen' plan he has."

Even that – Steve's not so sure about trusting that food, either.

Up on Seven, every cluster of four apartments shares an admittedly incredible kitchen, completely with two wall-ovens, a stove, the biggest refrigerator Steve's ever seen (even bigger than the ones back at the Tower), and every appliance a person could want (some of them Steve can't name). The Cafeteria is a convenience for them.

It still relies on other people handling the food. People he doesn't trust, doesn't know.

Sam gets that. "Or. We can make a grocery run every week. Me and you."

He can't put that on Sam. He's already asked for and taken enough. "You don't need to do that."

Sam smiles around a crisp, golden French fry. "I also don't need Tony Stark deciding my lunch menu for the rest of my life."

"Fair enough," Steve replies, mostly in the hope that Sam will let it drop. He doesn't need someone minding him.

Mid-bite, Sam's smartwatch vibrates. Steve's chirps out an alert a split second later. It can only mean one thing: they're on.

Sam chews and swallows fast enough to choke. "Do we have anyone out?"

Steve pushes back in his chair, stands, and reads the short message: emergency mission – Ops ASAP. "No."

Together, they rush down the hallway toward the east stairwell and haul down two flights of stairs. Through the glossy red door marked "3," Ops is a nondescript door halfway down a glassy hallway on the left.

That's where Steve goes. Sam keeps pounding down the stairs, toward the subterranean hangar bay and his waiting jet.

Inside Ops, Steve strides past the glass conference table and glances up for access into the War Room.

The War Room is dark, even with two dozen flat-screens lit up with imagery, diagnostics, tracking, and coordinates. Two dozen agents sit at stations: some talking, some typing, all working hard.

Maria's waiting by the door. "Seven minutes ago, we received a distress call from an unknown installation outside Murcia, Spain. The call was preceded by a universal SHIELD identification code. We're launching Quinjet Eight with Romanoff and Wilson to investigate; Stark and Rhodes are on stand-by."

Steve glances up at the flat-screen that displays coordinates and GPS information. At speed, the installation is a little over two hours out.

"Any idea who it is?" Steve asks.

Maria shakes her head "no." "Could be anyone who was SHIELD between 2014 and 2016. It's an old code."

A testament to how quickly a jet can be scrambled in this new base, Quinjet Eight's transponder goes live and appears on the coordinates screen. A tech near Steve counts them down: from the elevator lift, to ground-level, to lift-off.

Sam and Natasha blast into the evening, dark night sky of New York. 

***

Ten miles from the targeted installation site, Sam jumps from the back of Quinjet Eight. Wings fully extended, he ignites his thrusters and arcs backwards through the early morning, dark blue sky of Spain. 

Far below, the sun-bleached beiges, shadowed yellows, and spotted greens of the arid Tabernas desert blend together into weathered ridges, jagged canyons, shallow valleys, and dusty, limestone plains. It's an understatement to say it reminds Sam of the Middle East – and even more of one to say it reminds him of Death Valley.

Sam shakes off those memories and feelings. He ignores the twist of his gut. All that matters is this mission and, right now, ensuring Natasha can make a safe landing and a safer infiltration of that base.

"All right, JARVIS, bring me online."

A transparent map of the immediate area overlays the lenses of his goggles. A gridwire, neon orange outline of the installation looms in the distance – along with a low-flying aircraft marked green and two artillery auto-sentries marked yellow.

Not exactly impenetrable defenses.

Sam brings his left arm up and taps an inconspicuous button on a silver bracelet. It triggers a cascade of black and gray armored plates to crawl up both of his forearms. Atop both sets of that armor, a thin missile launcher extends up.

Thank you, Tony.

Locked.

Loaded.

Sam purposefully overshoots Natasha's jet and blasts toward the installation. From all appearances, it's an old, abandoned, gray-concrete building that stands at one story.

In seconds, he reaches minimum safe distance, targets those auto-sentries, and fires off two mini-missiles. He doesn't stop to wait around and see if those missiles find their targets. They will.

Sam breaks from his flight path, angles up, and spirals higher into the sky. Focused on taking out that green-marked aircraft, he shoots toward it at three miles and counting.

"Targets A and B have been eliminated," JARVIS informs. "Destruction estimated at 97%."

Sam allows himself a small smirk. That's as near a bullseye as it gets.

He closes in on the aircraft. Looking through the targeting overlay in his goggles, Sam can actually see it: a gray Russian Mi-26T. It's a large transport helicopter with a red star on the back of the fuselage. No question: it's HYDRA.

Taking out gun sentries on the ground is one thing. Shooting down a suspected enemy aircraft in someone else's airspace is a tiny little bit different.

"Base, Falcon. I'm approaching a Russian transport helicopter, in-flight. Request instructions."

Steve's voice fills Sam's ear. "Falcon, Base. Hold fire and shadow only. SPAF is en route and will intercept."

Then SPAF should be able to take care of it, while he turns back and takes the base with Natasha. But those aren't the orders. "Roger that."

Against his better judgment, Sam intercepts the helicopter: 200 meters east of it, matching the altitude of 8,000 feet and the helicopter's relatively slow speed. He keeps far and clear of the booming, whooping blades; admittedly, the lashing, whipping air feels refreshing against the burgeoning heat of the desert day.

"Base, Black Widow. Eight is landed. Proceeding with recon as planned."

There's a plan? Sam thinks to himself. Last he knew: not really.

"Black Widow, Base. Roger that. Proceed."

Steve sounds perfectly professional, a perfect fit as their eyes, ears, and expert guidance back at Base. There's no question, though, that the bare hint of impatience in Steve's tone leads back to one truth: he wants almost nothing more than to be back out here with them.

That's a long time away, at best. At worst, this is the best it gets.

"Base, Falcon. Bogie intercepted at 200 meters. Altitude and speed matched."

Sam tries to look inside one of the helicopter's round windows but can't see anything except shadows. He wonders how many people are inside; who they are; where they're going; what they were trying to do – the mystery of HYDRA. He also wonders if the person who sent the distress signal might be inside; if that person can see him; if that person is wondering, hoping, praying that he actually does something.

"Falcon, Base. Acknowledged and receiving telemetry from JARVIS. Proceed without engaging."

Orders being orders. "Roger that."

Sweat beads along Sam's hairline. For a desert, the Tabernas offers a relatively gentle heat – but it's still hot. Dry. Borderline suffocating. He'd love for the Spanish Air Force to come, like, right now, so he can knock out the base with Natasha, figure out what happened inside, and get the hell out of here.

Peel off his sticky, wet clothes.

Take a long, cool shower.

Eat a big, warm meal.

Wipe the basketball court with Steve, who can throw frisbees all day long but is too damn bulky to be anything more than decent at—

BOOOOOOoooooom.

The rumble sputters along the ground far below. Even from 8,000 feet, Sam sees violent vibrations upheaving rock, sand, and dirt. Sky-high plumes of gritty, gray dust spew into the air.

"What… JARVIS, what was that?!"

A red alert on his lenses pulls his attention from the helicopter toward the installation site. The beige ground around the old building collapses into a wide, circular sink hole, swallowing the walls, the roof, the rock, and Quinjet Eight into nothingness.

The helicopter forgotten, Sam stops flying and holds in place. "Natasha? Natasha!"

Natasha's in there – and his comm replies with static.

***

It doesn't start with a thunderous, booming growl.

It starts with empty, abandoned hallways. Vacant, hollow rooms. Not a soul in sight. Not one.

It starts with the instinctive, sinking knowledge that this—all of this—is a set-up.

It starts too late, when Natasha is already precisely clearing the dark, red-tinged second subfloor.

Then comes the growl.

Then comes the deafening gale of buckling metal girders and beams, disintegrating concrete walls and ceilings, and teeming tons of earth, sand, and limestone.

Then comes the rumble under her feet, above her head.

Then comes the intense, liquid quivering of the structure around her.

Natasha runs.

Down the hallway, feet light atop the liquefying, crumbles of the floor, she runs through a curtain raining thick dust, sharp shards of concrete, and slivers of glass. She can no longer see the stairwell door.

But it's there. It's there, and it leads to the safest part of this structure.

Her comm crackles with a half-formed word that sounds like part of her name. There's no time to respond.

There's no time.

A concrete beam crashes to the floor, right in front of her. On hard-won reflexes alone, Natasha leaps over it, transitions into a somersault, and launches to her nimble feet. She shoulders through the stairwell's steel door.

CLANG-CLANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-CLANG!

All she needs to know is that those sounds are coming from above. The smoke, the dust, the destruction is coming from up.

Natasha dashes down – down the stairs – and disobeys every instinct, every piece of training, every textbook tidbit of knowledge that screams at her to go up – up – up!

Down is a death sentence: buried under tons of concrete, a slow, suffocating death.

So is up: killed quickly – or buried alive by rubble for days, a slow, gruesome death.

Subfloor Six goes by.

Her weapon-mounted light bobbles and wags, erratically casting yellow, quick gazes and dark, confused shadows against the cracked walls.

Subfloor Seven goes by.

Subfloor Eight. She dares to stop.

Dares to hunker in a falsely comforting corner: weapon in her hand, arms covering her head, eyes peering from between the folds of her black uniform.

White dust and gray ash sprinkles atop her hair, her arms, her shoes, like the first, fluffy snow of the year.

The ceiling doesn't collapse.

The walls don't crumble.

She's not incinerated in a blast of yellow-orange heat.

It's fortified.

"Why?" was the question she'd been taught to ask of every situation: take nothing, except orders, at face value.

So: why fortify this part of the complex to withstand their own base detonation? What were they keeping here that was so important? Both good questions better answered later.

Black, putrid smokes blooms into the stairwell. Her eyes sting and water; lungs, burn with it. The smoke thickens and swells, so dense that she can't see the floor, the walls, her own hands.

Knowing she can't stay near that smoke, Natasha slinks through the door for Subfloor Nine. She closes it tight behind her with a quiet CLICK.

Dry, hacking coughs surge from her chest, as she aims her sidearm down the dark hallway. She blinks her gritty, teary eyes and squints.

Nothing. It's as empty as the rest of this base.

Except for a dim light flickering from under a closed door midway down.

Natasha takes a deep, cutting breath and lets it back out with a ferocious cough. Black-tinged phlegm coats the back of her hand; she wipes it on her pants.

Back pressed against the same wall as the lit doorway, Natasha inches down the hallway, weapon held in front of her. Its mounted light provides little relief.

Five inches from the doorway, she smells blood.

Two seconds later, she discovers why.

Dark, dried blood slathers the inside of the door's narrow, vertical window. On the floor, she sees a dark patch of blood that had seeped under the thin threshold.

Natasha loosens her grip on her weapon, grasps the lever handle with her free hand, and turns it. She pushes the door open, weapon aimed.

There's no need. Someone has already been through here.

Natasha steps over a dead body and surveys the room. Bright, quivering generator lighting reveals a small medical lab, outfitted with an empty, clean autopsy table and an equipment table busy with vials, syringes, and basic examination equipment.

The rest of the lab is a massacre. Two dead soldiers—both of them missing service weapons—and four dead people wearing once-white lab coats. Natasha toes one of them over to find a neat, fresh slash wound across the jugular.

Not a set-up. Not a trap. Not entirely. The distress call had been sent genuinely, and HYDRA self-detonated the base – waiting until SHIELD came to do it.

Who sent it?

Opposite the lab table, a wall is papered with large screens, their images still pulled up. She recognizes them as PET scans of a brain, and she knows enough to know that the asymmetrical, widespread black isn't healthy. A monochrome MRI scan shows white splotches and wires leading to several rectangular devices.

Disinterested, Natasha turns away from the brain scans.

On the examination table, droplets of half-coagulated blood resemble candlewax – left too long unattended, dripping. Glass from an unlabeled, broken vial mixes with it.

Out of curiosity, she hovers her phone over the blood and scans for DNA.

She has no expectation that it will match to any sample in SHIELD's database. This entire base seems to be a medical research complex; human experimentation is a foregone conclusion. Undoubtedly, the blood belongs to an unfortunate human being, caught in the wrong pla –

Barnes, James B. (SHIELD). DOB: 3/10/1916. Height: 5'11". Identifying marks: metal prosthetic, left arm. Status: Active.

A picture comes with the results. It's an official one, taken in October 2016 before he'd left Stark Tower. It had gone on an access card that also served as a badge, and he'd complained, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?" She'd answered, "Use it."

It throws her for only a moment. There's no conceivable way that HYDRA has James here. SHIELD would have known.

Natasha pockets her phone, skeptical not of its results but of the source of the blood. The broken vial on the table points in a certain direction.

On a rolling cart near the lab table, she notices more vials of blood, an empty syringe, a roll of clear medical tape, a yellowed iodine swab, dried alcohol wipes, and an array of unmarked medicine vials.

She doesn't spare herself time to second-guess, speculate, or worry. James is safe in Berlin, running busywork missions with one of their best agents.

The only explainable conclusion is that HYDRA is experimenting with leftovers of James' blood, likely trying to recreate a good serum, and their test subject had taken advantage of the diversion.

Meanwhile…

She's trapped under at least five floors of concrete and debris, inside a fortified HYDRA installation, alone except for an unknown number of HYDRA operatives – and a person with unknown intentions.

She means to find that person. She can't afford a wild card in this hand.

Natasha looks at the bodies again, before evaluating the egress points. Only one exists: the door leading back into the hallway.

Natasha backtracks through that door. She has two options: right or left. Her gut points her left, down to the opposite stairwell than the one she'd entered from.

She finds nothing more than empty rooms, storage closets, and a maintenance bay full of floor cleaning chemicals. That leaves her at the end of the hallway, into another stairwell.

Inside, toxic black smoke, soot, and ash dwindle from the upper floors. If her wild card found a way up, he or she is either stupid – or desperate to escape.

The stairwell leading down is clear and open, for the most part.

She's better off staying put, staying findable and as near the surface as possible. But the mission is to investigate the distress signal, and that hasn't changed. Someone with a SHIELD distress code was or is here; investigating that to a finite conclusion is worth her safety.

Natasha goes down. 

***

It takes Tony and Rhodes 114 minutes to blast their way across the ocean and to the destroyed Tabernas base tucked into the jagged, limestone badlands of Granada Plateau.

Natasha doesn't answer even one of Sam's endless attempts at communication. She's dead, or buried, while he uselessly paces under the desert heat for 114 minutes.

Sam spends each minute helpless to do anything.

Tony lands, while Rhodes flies low and surveys the puckered earth and smoldering remains of the once-was HYDRA installation.

Tony's helmet shifts away to reveal a worried, tired face already moist from salty sweat. "Any sign?"

Sam shakes his head. "Nothing. Not one person."

Tony nods his acceptance of that answer and looks past Sam to the remains of the base. "Two jets are right behind us; couldn't keep up. SPAF said the helicopter crashed – no bodies to be found, but they're picking up radiation from the debris. Nothing from Romanoff?"

Sam doesn't care about the helicopter, that it crashed, or whether or not SPAF ever finds the bodies of HYDRA's latest crop of assholes.

Sam does care about Tony asking the same question twice. A shade removed from irritated, Sam sharply repeats, "Like I said: nothing."

Tony glances back at him, a moment before Tony's helmet reconfigures itself over his face. Iron Man's resonant voice instructs, "Get some water when those jets get here. JARVIS – get me a full-spectrum scan of that base and prepare to deploy the Full Monty."

Later, Sam would learn in an AAR that the Full Monty is actually "FLMNTI": Focused Laser for the MouNtain Terraforming Initiative. Something about an old Stark Industries project for the US military that had been SHIELD-adapted for SAR missions.

In the moment, Sam had no idea how they were planning on rescuing Natasha—or her body—out of tons and tons of shredded concrete, steel, and debris. He was relieved to hear that Tony had something up his sleeve – and also to hear about that water.

Within twenty minutes, Quinjets Three and Seven approach and touch down in a flat limestone LZ about three hundred feet from the base. The ramps lower and a trove of medical personnel, engineers, and black-clothed SHIELD agents filter out of both.

The engineers flock to Tony and get a face full of floating-six-feet-off-the-ground hologram. It looks like that full-spectrum scan of the base, and none of them waste time marking up the hologram display with circles, squares, and points of interest.

The agents beeline to Rhodes and are quickly deployed to establish a defense perimeter. That's what Sam loves about the military: that's all there fucking is to it.

The medical personnel pop up a quick tent. After guzzling four bottles of water, Sam helps them offload supplies and build a triage zone. It keeps his mind off worrying about Natasha—worrying doesn't help her, doesn't change what's happened to her—and obsessing over what Tony could possibly have in mind.

Tony's voice cuts through the limited, Avengers-only comm. "Iron Man, Base. Do I really have to request permission for this?"

Maria responds almost instantly. "Base, Iron Man. Spanish authorities have granted permission. You may proceed."

"So… The answer is 'yes.'"

Sam can all but see Maria rolling her eyes – while Steve, with any luck, has kept it together. He and Natasha are close, and she's been his shoulder now for a long time. Losing her might mean losing him, all that hard-won stability and progress putrefying into grief-fueled wrath.

"Base, Iron Man. Yes, the answer is 'yes.' Stop wasting time."

Sam's watch reads 3.3 hours since the base imploded. Time wasted could make the difference between life and death.

He walks away from the medical tent and into the empty area a couple hundred meters from the destroyed base. Rhodes has flown clear away, that perimeter of his expanding to a radius of 400-meters.

Tony flies even further out but hangs out low in the sky. "All righty, everybody. Don't move. Keep clear of the base. JARVIS – let's make this daddy dance. Deploy the Full Monty."

Sam waits for a giant device to drop from the sky, or for a massive machine to appear from thin air, or for something red and gold to razzle-dazzle and make this magical day from hell all better.

It's so much more anticlimactic than Sam ever would have dreamed. And it takes four minutes to happen.

A matte gold cylinder about the size of one of Sam's tennis shoes drops from the sky: cuts through the clouds, spins through free air, and then deploys the cutest little thrusters Sam's ever seen. It uses those thrusters to slow itself down about a hundred meters above the center of the base.

Sam squints to see it. The gold metal glints in the sunlight, which helps. Given its size, it has to be some sort of scanner, something to help plan for –

"You all think this is stupid," Tony says, without giving time for everyone on the ground to agree. "Don't be alarmed: I can read your minds. But, please know: just you fucking wait. Here goes."

A mass of green lasers sprout from the bottom of the cylinder. Instantaneously, the lasers pierce through the crumpled dirt and piles of broken concrete. The ground under Sam's feet vibrates, rocks and dirt jumping and hopping like bursting kernels of popcorn.

"What—" Sam doesn't finish asking the question.

Instead, he flies over to the engineering camp, where that mid-air hologram is being assailed by the intense stares of three engineers, two female and one male.

It shows what Sam thinks is the inside of the base. At first, he sees only packed, dense debris – dirt, concrete, metal, the works – and one side of the screen continues to show that. The other side of the screen shows clean, cleared space.

"It's evaporating the molecules of the dirt and material," one of the engineers marvels. "Look at that. Where's the output?"

Sam thinks to warn them to stop, no, you'll wind him up – but this little cylinder thing is the magical razzle-dazzle that might make this day all better.

So long as: be alive, Nat.

("Built it in a cave," Tony boasts, then: "Just kidding. Could've!")

***

Natasha creeps down a floor and pushes open a still-shiny steel access door. Weapon aimed, she enters a different hallway. Though damaged and soot-covered, she notices that the floors are fresh and smooth poured concrete, while the walls haven't taken on the usual tinge of pungent age.

Eyes adjusted to the dim, red lighting, she sees the shadows of closed doors all along the walls. As she walks, she tries some of the stainless steel handles, finding each of them locked, without any sign of recent disturbance.

She comes to a T-intersection about a hundred meters down. Along the floor, ash and dust have collected into a fine layer.

To the right, it's untouched, like morning snow. The corridor itself remains lit by red emergency lights, exactly as it should be.

To the left: a thick, long drag mark reveals a path. That corridor is dark, without lighting.

Natasha squats down low and shines the light of her weapon at the path. It's wide – wide enough to be a body. Messy scrapes of handprints dot the trail. Somebody crawled.

Weapon aimed, Natasha slinks down the corridor, eyes primed and searching for her wild card.

The darkness devours her weapon's light, which barely shines through the space in front of her. Her visibility is maybe three feet.

That's why she doesn't see two shadowed bodies sprawled on the floor, until she's nearly on top of them. That's why she doesn't realize the light bulbs above her have been shot out, until her boots crinkle-crackle atop the broken bulbs.

Goosebumps prickle up the backs of her arms. She catches up to the play, a moment too late.

A stinging pain erupts in her left shoulder. The accompanying BANG! warns her of the bullet.

Natasha twists away and spins herself into the air. She lands on her left foot, squats, and drops her center of gravity. As she goes down onto her butt, she pushes off the floor, sliding backward with her sidearm aimed –

BANG!

That hadn't been her.

Only one. The sound of the bullet doesn't reveal a direction. The wall next to her doesn't splinter or throw fragments. A soft clang echoes from the hallway.

Every part of her knows what's happened.

She skids to a stop, weapon aimed steady, eyes trying to cut through the darkness, and her entire body listening for threats.

There are none. Not anymore.

Natasha stays low and compact, left shoulder limp at her side. She unsnaps her light from its scope and rolls it down the hallway. She aims her weapon again, for enough seconds to say she followed protocol.

In those seconds, she notices the drizzle of disintegrated concrete sprinkling onto the floor. The groaning of warped steel above her, maybe or maybe not strong enough to support the collapsed, burning building above it. A broken pipe somewhere inside the wall, whispering drip-drip-drip, drip-drip-dripdrip-drip-drip.

The light reveals an unsurprising, shadowed body: wilted, supine, and motionless on the floor.

The burnt crisp of spent gunpowder tickles her nose, even after all these years, but her stomach doesn't turn at the certainty of what she's going to find.

The wild card has made her life easier.

She walks to the body, calm and controlled. In the dark, she distinguishes the shadowed outline of a handgun, then twists it from a ragdoll hand and slips it into her own SOB holster. It fits, even.

She presses two fingers against the warm neck and patiently waits five seconds, confirming: no pulse.

Like she'd been taught, she takes the closest appendage—a right arm—and drags the body back the way she'd come.

Metal scrapes along the floor.

A belt buckle, maybe. A knife. Gear.

In the lighted hallway, she drops the lifeless arm, turns, and doesn't flinch.

Doesn't breathe.

Doesn't blink.

Doesn't move.

Her vision blurs from staring for too long.

In all her years, there was ever only one dim light in the depth of the darkness. Only one person who didn't fit like the others, who hesitated split seconds too long, who bled specks of regret as if they were the molecules of his being disintegrating, breaking up and crumbling like a nose-down Tupolev spiraling at full cruise.

"It's Bucky," Steve had said on that cold day in April 2014. She'd had a bullet in her shoulder then, too. It'd made a sort of sense, she'd thought then, and she can't say she'd ever been surprised. Not about that.

He's surprised her today, though. He's done finding her.

Бог тро́ицу лю́бит, they say. "God likes trinity," it means, and that itself means the third time is lucky.

***

Four days after their icy conversation in Copenhagen, James sent one, solitary text message to Natasha: "Thanks for fucking me over. Real nice. We're done."

Many would say that close personal relationships weren't necessarily her strong suit – but what? Hill had made the assignment; by all measures, it was a plum station in a good city with one of their best agents.

Natasha called his phone, surprised when it went to voicemail after one ring. He'd swiped her.

Natasha texted James' partner: "How's everything?"

"He's fine," came the response. Then a quick follow-up: "And expensive."

That was great. Helpful.

Natasha texted James: "Care to elaborate?"

To his credit, he stayed the promised course with absolute silence.

"What do I do?" she asked Sam, since, as established, personal relationships were not her strength.

Sam read James' text and laughed, loudly and openly, right in the middle of the Tower's cafeteria. No one cared. "He thinks he's one to talk. Oh, man, that's priceless!"

Natasha stared at Sam, purposefully blank but kindly patient, given she knew many, many ways to kill him with her fork.

"What'd you do?" Sam asked.

Natasha hiked her eyebrows and waved her hand – like she knew?

"Well. Now he's bailed on—"

Unannounced, Steve dropped a takeout bag from someplace down the street onto their table and sat next to Sam. The spoken rule was that Steve would hear nothing—absolutely nothing—about James, either good or bad, beyond, "He's working for SHIELD, and he's fine." Despite the undeniable improvement in his overall demeanor and temperament, Steve still tended to fixate.

A thick golden French fry halfway to his mouth, Steve glanced up at Natasha, then looked sideways at Sam. He'd brought proverbial crickets to the table and knew it.

"Really?" Steve rolled his eyes. "Fine."

He took his bag of food and left, far out of earshot.

Sam chewed his food and changed his original thought. "He pushes when he's freaked out. It's probably not anything you even did."

Natasha didn't think so and still didn't know what to think.

A week turned to two turned to three and then to a month.

Then two months.

She wasn't going to beg, but she tried one more call. That one went for eight rings before an automated voicemail message read her his phone number. She tried one more text: "Talk to me."

Three months.

Four months.

The plan was to give James and his partner a full twelve months removed from SHIELD proper. Time away from trauma, from high-stakes pressure, from do-or-die missions, and from the loved ones who had warped into draining stressors and terrible reminders. "A long-term investment," Maria justified it, "with short-term pains."

It didn't have to be a time of no-contact, or a sort of exile. It didn't have to be what he'd made it.

Once, he'd written "home" and "love" up and down her body. She knew that he'd meant it, and she knew well the struggles of surviving HYDRA. Clint and Nick both had battle scars from her journey.

Home would be here, and he would learn that he didn't have to push.

Five months came and went.

Eight days after, he's gone forever.

***

Natasha examines the damage: a bullet between the eyes, a clean black hole ringed by blackened, burnt skin, and a curved line of blood that hasn't made it all the way down his right cheek.

Not once in seventy years had he tried to put a bullet in his brain. He preferred chest shots, both in how he tried to leave this world and in how he decided to take it from his targets.

"Heart first. Head shots require precision and aren't guaranteed," he'd said, decades ago, and pressed his hand against her chest. "Anywhere here with a hollow point, you're dead."

His body tells a story, and she reads it.

He's wearing only a black shirt, black tactical pants, and unlaced boots. No holsters. No gear. His left hand is a tight, hard fist. His right one is a mess of tight, thick scars through the palm, topped by a tape-slicked IV catheter.

Eyes closed. Hair still cut short. Dry blood splatter on his arms – his right one littered with worm-like scars and finger-tip shaped gouges. Rings of dark green and deep purple bruises around his right wrist – deeper around his throat. Cracked lips. Sallow, pale skin; the skin beneath his eyes is thin, shiny, and purple. Faded bruising on his cheekbones and jaw.

He'd fought.

Natasha kneels, hand cupped over her mouth and nose to block the stench of blood and gunpowder. She rests her weapon on the floor and brushes her fingers over his cheek, confirming that it's not a person wearing a mask.

By habit alone, she again presses her fingers against his inert carotid artery. His skin is still warm; blood tacky but not dry. There's no chance.

Three separate sets of footfalls echo from down the hallway. She hears a male voice yell "there!" Natasha picks up her weapon and shoots all of them dead, with hardly a glance in their direction.

She puts her entire attention back on James, in time to see the plates on his arm shift and his metal fingers make an impossibly tighter fist. Fresh blood trickles from his nose.

There's nothing left in his brain to tell his lungs to breathe or his eyes to open. The rebooted ICD in his arm—the one Stark had been able to deactivate but not remove in 2016—can do nothing but push blood through a dead body.

Natasha grits her teeth and swallows sorrow.

Like a time not so long ago, she won't leave his body anywhere near HYDRA.

Further down the hallway, she forces her way into a locked, red-tinted laboratory marked 9A-2.

It's big enough to hide and fight in, and it's where she slides James' body.

Behind a work table, she runs her hand through James' hair. Skin-to-skin contact would settle him in the slightest, most powerful of ways.

Again, his left hand makes a tighter fist, and his body jerks and bleeds.

Это ещё цвето́чки, а я́годки впереди́, they say. "These are just flowers; berries will come soon," it means, and that itself means this is nothing compared to what is to come.

***

Twelve hours and twenty-three minutes after the base imploded, Sam is the first one through the door marked 9A-2.

With a blinding, high-powered flashlight in his hand, he combs the room from side to side – and easily finds Natasha: standing near the corner of the room, her sidearm hanging by her side, finger on the trigger.

"Stand down," Sam says. "The base is clear to this level."

Between the red emergency lighting and his overpowered, small-dick-compensator light, it's hard to really see her. Shadows play tricks on the human eye, and the mix of lights creates a false frenetic energy.

She looks more than shaken, more than upset – devoured, maybe, is almost a right word. He doesn't think it's because of the light.

"Nat?"

Her finger leaves the trigger. With her head, she gestures downward, near her feet.

Reluctant, Sam takes uneasy steps around a set of steel lab tables—stacked with centrifuges, chemical vials, DNA sequencers, typical HYDRA shit—and shines his light toward the floor, no idea what to –

No.

No.

He sinks to his knees, and his eyes drink in the impossibility laying on the floor. He reaches out to touch the right hand.

It's already cold and stiff.

Dead.

"I'm sor—"

"Nope."

"—ry. Okay."

There was supposed to be time.

He was supposed to be safe, doing SHIELD's low intensity work in former Eastern Bloc areas, no big deal. Maybe – and it's all that makes sense – he ended up here as part of one of his missions, and someone got the jump on him – but that wouldn't make sense of the black, lacerated bruises around his wrist and neck, or the discolored gouges on his arm, or the IV catheter taped to his hand. All of that speaks of time.

"How…"

"He shot himself in the head. He ran out of ammunition."

Sam stretches his eyes up. Natasha still looks devoured; she sounds detached. She's been here with Barnes' dead body for nearly thirteen hours; all things considered, she looks and sounds great.

"Don't make me say it."

Sam's never heard Natasha plea and never wants to hear it again. He nods and speaks into his comm. "Quinjet Seven, Falcon. Requesting a body bag and med transport from 9A-2."

"Falcon, Quinjet Seven, transport en route. ETA 5."

Natasha gives him an infinitesimal nod of thanks. "Don't leave him."

"Whoa, Falcon Crest, care to clarify?" Tony. "How's everyone's favorite spider?"

Sam wets his tongue and forces words from his brain. "Black Widow is fine. It's someone else."

"Aaaaaand that someone else issss…."

Sam won't make Natasha say it. But he knows that Steve listens to the comms in Ops.

That hits him like a bag of bricks. Steve. Christ, Steve.

"Falcon?"

Sam takes a breath, lets it out, closes his eyes, and fakes it. "You'll have to wait and see. We're a grab bag of surprises down here."

"Oh, goody. Better be good."

"I never disappoint," Sam responds. "Thirty minutes or it's free or something."

"Yeah… Work on that."

Natasha's jaw clenches so tightly he swears he can hear her teeth creak. Her sharp, shaking intake of breath reveals it's not anger but another something she's never showed, not even the other time Barnes was dead.

Sam watches her walk into the hallway and hears her slide down the wall, culminating in a thump and the scratch of boots pulling across concrete.

He looks down at his friend.

His forehead is burned, with a round, black-rimmed hole drilled through his skull. Sam knows from the Middle East how quickly a bullet to the brain kills. He knows from his schooling what a bullet does to the brain, especially when fired against the skin, like this one had been.

Sam would like to say it was quick and painless, and, while technically true, the rest of the body says otherwise.

Sam sits, arms rested on knees, and breathes through the fingers he has clenched over his mouth and nose. He's breathing in the decay of a friend.

Steve.

As promised, the body bag, stretcher, and med team arrive. If they're a minute late, Sam doesn't know; it seems like hours have dragged on by. The crew is mostly new, hired to staff the new headquarters, and Sam thinks only one of the three recognizes the face.

"Is this…"

She does recognize Barnes, and Sam recognizes her. She was part of the 2016 med team.

Sam nods quickly. "Keep it off the comm."

"Yeah, of course."

Sam walks with Natasha up the eight flights of newly-cleared stairs. She refuses a nose mask, even though the worst-hit subfloors are still filled with thick, black smoke and gravel-laced dust particles. The higher they climb, the hotter it becomes, too: capturing the desert heat from above. Sweat prickles and coats his entire body.

It's not until Two that he notices the bloody wound in her left shoulder.

"Nat, you're hurt."

"He shot me."

Good to know. He'll make sure she gets medical attention.

The stairwell on One leads to a metal ladder poking through the twisted remains of the surface structure. Yellow sand and marlstone from the Tabernas drizzles into the opening.

Natasha climbs the ladder first, helped through the opening by a SHIELD agent. Sam goes next and has never been happier, ever, to be outside in his life.

It's still daylight, at least: sunny, cloudy sky, a dry 85. The ugly, jagged limestone badlands still surround them. Chalky smoke sticks to the back of his throat, and he wipes black-gray slime from the edges of his nostrils.

With all the benefits of the soon-to-set sun, Sam can finally see Natasha. Covered in black soot and gray ash, Natasha looks pale, ghostly. Her red hair is caked in it. Her skin has drowned in it. In the base, he hadn't noticed the tear tracks carving lines through the layers of grime. Sam tries not to look, to acknowledge.

Balanced on a mass of concrete chunks, he waits next to Natasha and watches the team maneuver the black body bag through the tight opening.

He's not nearly as heavy as he looks. Sam remembers that.

Natasha follows the bag, and Sam follows her. The debris field gradually levels into flat, packed sand and limestone, and then to the LZ with the med tents, engineering cluster, and patrolled perimeter.

Tony and Rhodes are already waiting at Quinjet Three: guzzling bottled water and broiling inside their helmetless suits, faces shiny with smelly sweat.

"Nat needs medical attention," Sam announces, regardless of how pissed Natasha might get. "GSW, left shoulder."

"It's a flesh wound," Natasha responds, walking straight past them, following the bag. "It's been hours."

"Hours in toxic smoke and who knows what else," Rhodes says, genuine concern clear in his voice. "Get checked out and cleaned up."

"Sure," she replies.

"Ditto." Tony nods toward the bag being loaded into Quinjet Seven. "Who's in the mystery bag?"

Sam tells them: a single name and a cause of death, the only two data points he knows.

Bruce owes Sam five dollars – for Sam being the first to make Tony speechless this month.

***

Months before Steve came to a riverbank to find peace, Natasha had come. It hadn't been the first time, but it would be one of the last.

"Sputnik."

Barnes blinked at Natasha, eyebrows scrunched together. "Rasputin?"

Natasha mirrored his confused expression, and he shrugged, explaining, "I thought we're saying random Russian things? Is that not what we're doing?"

She held back a smile. He could see it in the way her jaw twisted, because of the entertained spark in her eyes. It faded as quick as it came.

"The word 'sputnik' shuts you down. Like in the cosmodrome."

Anger—and distrust—was a knee-jerk instinct, and he didn't fight it. He glanced out his kitchen window, looking for government agents and finding none, sensing nothing off-kilter. His eyes jerked back to her.

"Then why did you say it?"

Natasha's expression went cold. "Because you think you're dangerous to us, but their words only work when a very specific combination of drugs are in your body." She paused and looked over her shoulder, out that same window. "You think I would do that?"

He opened his mouth and couldn't find a response. Yes. No. Maybe. Some days, they should. Other days, he'd kill them, if they would.

That drug thing - was a game changer. A world tilter. Huge. He was more focused on that.

"I'm gonna go," Natasha said.

He didn't want her to leave, but she was already out the door, walking toward her motorcycle. He stood in his kitchen, like an idiot, for too many long, long moments.

Their words only work…very specific combination of drugs.

The body-slicing ache for weeks. Collapsing inside a fiberglass boat, in the dead winter of Siberia, shaking, sweating, aching, seizing, motherfucking dying. Puking into fresh, sparkling snow, the wind twisting his long, knotted hair into icicles. Hallucinating Steve. Coming down, down, down into something, something, something like clarity.

The sixteen puncture wounds in his arm, eight more in his leg. The Slovenian hotel room bleeding into focus, a person beside him on the sofa, sleeping. A singing show on the television. Car horns and birds beyond the window. Standing up, pushing his muscles past the buzz of sickeningly familiar drugs. Walking to the kitchenette, slatted wood creaking under his feet; then past the bedrooms, then to the balcony.

The smell of bread – like home. Cool air – like another place that still, still felt like home. The thin edge of a metal rail digging into the skin of his right hand, clanging against the plates of his left. The stout, red cityscape beyond. Sieving through the circles, circles, circles, grabbing bits of pieces, pieces, pieces – then, a hand around his arm, a voice saying "HYDRA," and then a gun aimed at a face – what face – who – don't do it –

The same drugs still in his system, when they went to Death Valley, and when he couldn't fire his weapon, couldn't call for help, couldn't move, couldn't do anything except – the Winter is –

The front door banged open under the flat palm of Barnes' left hand, and he tore down the steps after Natasha.

"Nat!"

He sprinted right past her. She was leaning against the side of the cabin, next to the front door, her appraising eyes trained on him. As he turned and re-centered his balance, his shoes skidded atop the dirty, gravelly layer of snow. His left arm whirred, and he didn't care to control what it told her.

Steadied, he faced her. "Are you sure."

She only nodded.

He needed more than that.

Snowflakes floated through the air, icy and wet against his cheeks. Natasha brushed a flake off her nose.

His heart damn near eviscerated his chest. His neck muscles might as well have cut right through his skin.

Finally, fucking finally: "Banner and Eicher and Cho—you don't know her—are sure. You're marginally more susceptible than anyone else." She bit her cheek, uncrossed her arms. Her brow twitched. "Come home."

Stark Tower wasn't home. Natasha and Sam – and Steve, whatever was left of him – they were home.

But.

That was a giant move, and it came with expectations, consequences, demands, accountability – it came with frightening things. It came with Steve, who didn't deserve him for so many reasons.

"When you're ready," she tacked on, a flimsy addition borne of whatever he'd let show on his face.

"When Steve's ready," he said, only somewhat hedging, wholly aware that, somewhere along the way, he'd lost the person who'd once adamantly not lived to make Steve Rogers happy. "Are you still my handler?"

Yet again, her expression cooled. "Is that what you think?" she asked, bait like worms dripping out of her mouth.

He fucking hated when she did that.

"Don't do that with me. Just answer the question."

"No. I'm not. I'm your friend. I'm here as a friend."

The snow picked up: thick flakes carried by whistles of winding wind that chased the setting sun. They should go inside: drink wine, put something on the TV, and calm down back to normal.

He was fucking done with normal.

"Is that all?" he asked, baiting her. "Friends?"

"I told you. Not until you remember."

A rule that hadn't held up so well in a hotel room in Kiruna, Sweden. About that: "Fuck buddies?" He lifted an eyebrow and shrugged, dismissive, like he would've done in another life.

She held his eyes, fire in hers, and didn't say a thing. She wasn't going to move.

He did.

"Natalia. Red Room. It's why I didn't shoot you in the head, or the heart. I remembered how to care, and we burned for it."

At first, she swallowed, a lump all but traveling down her throat. Her eyes searched his face, a dimming searchlight that ended with the uptick of her lips.

"I – It doesn't belong somewhere I want to forget." The ironic thing was: his memory was really, really good, and he remembered her words, verbatim, from last August. He remembered that atrocious night, ending with her hands electrifying his skin. "Let's talk."

Her hands came up to lightly rest on his shoulders, and her nose brushed his. Distracted, brain going a thousand miles a second, he didn't see it coming: how she flipped him around, pushed him against the cabin, his hands pinned to his sides, her knee very intentionally pressed against a very sensitive, wanting area.

Her nose never left his, and her breath came hot against face. "That's all you want to do? Talk?"

"Hell no," and he fucking went for it.

Later, his left arm tucked under a pillow, he traced words on her stomach, intoxicated by her bare skin. He wasn't afraid of a word like "love," and he wrote it with rolling, looping cursive in every language he knew.

He floated his fingers up her body, along her ribs, over her breasts, across the thin skin of her sternum and collarbones, until he found the rough, puckered patch of skin near her left shoulder.

She slapped his hand. "No."

He could count the millimeters of the Winter Soldier's mistake. Of his mistake. He could pull dozens of memories of telling his trainees about the best, most-certain way to kill someone: not with a bullet to the head but with a bullet as near the heart as possible. Lungs, arteries, valves, aortas – the nerve center had nothing on oxygen and blood flow.

Millimeters.

"I mean it," Natasha warned. "Not me."

I'm sorry sat on the tip of his tongue. If he said it, she'd sit up, and he didn't want that. He wanted to keep touching.

"Okay," he said and moved on.

He wrote "home" across her chest, with the same looping writing, in all the languages he knew.

Дома. Dom. Acasă. Додому. Kodu. Maison. სახლში. Zuhause. Casa. Главная.

He wrote and he wondered and he let himself have a bit of a dream for a bit of a moment.

***

Steve trots down sparkly gray granite steps, his hand hovering over the smooth black hand rail by habit. On his left, bulletproof windows stretch from floor to ceiling, showcasing the autumnal, crisp beauty of upstate New York.

Better yet: good news from the Tabernas Desert. No fatalities, and, though wounded, Natasha is fine. That's a good day. A stressful, powerless sixteen-hour day trapped in a dark Ops center – but a good one.

Positivity counts, Sam always says.

Steve sees Three and Seven approach for landing, Seven taking priority while Three circles. Good timing.

See? Positivity.

The windows end at ground level. He doesn't see Iron Man blast out of the back of Three, diving toward the rooftop helicopter pad.

Steve looks up at the optic scanner for access to the subterranean jet hangar. The glossy red door slides open for him, and he makes his way to the flight deck.

Seven is lowering down, its landing skids locked onto the elevator platform. Hydraulics hisssss as the platform pivots, aligning the cargo door with the flight deck.

While Three lowers down, Steve waits for Natasha – and whoever was so important that Sam couldn't announce their name over the comms.

The black body bag rolls out of Seven first. Natasha walks behind it, her left arm suspended in a black sling, her hair turned gray-white with ash, and her face mime-like with soot. A med team trails her with an oxygen mask and impatient, concerned looks.

Three pivots and aligns. The cargo door opens immediately. Sam and Rhodes damn near run down the deck, both sets of their eyes firmly on Steve. That's a little weird.

On a positive note, Natasha is alive. On a non-positive note, Steve instantly cues in that she's not doing – not at all.

He steps toward her, avoiding the body bag's gurney, and squeezes her arm. "Hey, what's going on?"

Natasha stares past him, watching the gurney disappear toward the elevator bank. Her once-was black t-shirt is wet with fresh blood, but the med team keeps a strange distance.

Steve's hand drops, and he turns towards Sam and Rhodes.

"Where's Tony?"

Usually the straight-shooter, Rhodes replies with too many details and a nonlinear explanation. "He went to see Hill. It's a medical research laboratory. We'll need a lot more resources to get through it all."

It's a bad lie. Rhodes is the one who coordinates resources with Maria. Tony pays the bills, throws tech at them, and makes a nuisance of himself at random times.

Steve raises his chin and then decides to nod, to play along. "That sounds important."

Sam is a sick shade of gray; his stare, a thousand miles away. A lot like Natasha.

They wanted to keep the identity of the person inside the body bag off the comm. Tony rushed to talk to Maria in person. Natasha and Sam are both devastated.

Steve counts the team: Rhodes, Sam, Natasha. Maria, Bruce, and Tony are inside. That's everyone.

Steve cycles through the others: Clint, Thor, Fury. Steve doesn't think Sam's ever met Clint or Thor, and Sam was never something Steve would call "close" to Fury.

It's Sharon or Bucky.

It can't be either one. It can't be.

Steve looks to Sam. "Which one?"

He asks the question, but he thinks, again and again, that it can't be either one of them – until he finally sees Sam. He sees the stress lines, blood-sucked skin, downturned lips—and, most of all, a defeat that burdens the bones of his body and turns Sam's face into that of a stranger's.

Sam never really knew Sharon, not like that.

"No." Steve's voice echoes, a thick glob far, far above him. "No."

"I'm sorry, Steve."

Air vaporizes. His lungs seize with the gut-punch. His heart is a stone skipping over water—skip, skip, skip, skip—before it runs out of skips and sinks, sinks, sinks, down, down, down.

Seven years ago, centimeters away and useless, Steve let Bucky fall. The world had fallen with him.

Steve brushes Rhodes' sudden hands away, then shoves Rhodes' entire body away. Words are said but he doesn't hear anything but a dull sound.

The world is that bag.

Bucky's in that bag.

How.

Sam's voice smashes through Steve's meaningless thoughts. "Steve, are you okay?"

Steve looks to Sam. "How."

Sam doesn't hesitate. "He shot himself in the head."

Not very long ago, Steve told Natasha that he worried Bucky would "eat a gun." He'd heard the phrase in a movie maybe, and it'd stuck in his head. It was a good turn of phrase – explicit, dramatic, got the point across in only three words.

Natasha had dismissed the entire concept. "No, he wouldn't do it like that."

"'Like that,'" Steve repeated, dumbfounded when he really shouldn't have been. He'd read the file, and a bullet to the head, surprisingly, had not been in the list of suicide attempts. Then he'd realized, disgusted: he was mulling over how Bucky—Bucky—would kill himself. "Nevermind. I'm done with this."

Bucky.

He's in that bag.

How is the wrong question but the only one that makes sense. His brain stuck on that single word—how, how, how, how—Steve asks it again. "How?"

How.

Steve doesn't notice how seamlessly Sam understands the same word twice baked. "It looks like he'd been there for a little while. Let's go upstairs and talk more. Okay?"

How.

The person Steve used to be would have focused more on how Sam and Natasha were doing. He would have remembered to recognize that Sam and Bucky had been friends and that Natasha and Bucky had been something more.

Seven years ago, he'd grieved in his own solitude last and supported his team in their grief first. He hadn't fooled them, but it hadn't mattered. It'd been his job and a core, critical part of his person to get the job done. He still doesn't know where HYDRA has put that person. It's a damn good hiding place, is all.

The world is in that bag. Bucky is in that bag.

"I need to see him," Steve says.

When Sam blinks, his eyes stay closed long enough that Steve doesn't know if they're ever going to open again.

"Okay," Sam says.

***

Natasha goes to Medical on Floor Four, and Sam walks with Steve to Subfloor Four, to the shiniest morgue he's ever seen in his entire life.

Subfloor Four also houses SHIELD archives: old shit no one wants anymore, next to all the dead people. There's a sense to it.

The morgue is a single, large room beyond an optic-sensor door. Steve fixates on the narrow, horizontal window, his stare a few feet beyond the glass pane. Sam glances in and sees why: the bag and the gurney are sitting right there, with a tech using a black Sharpie to prepare a toe tag.

Sam looks up at the optic sensor and wills the damn door to open, before Steve decides to knock it off its frame. Within a second, the door clicks, and Steve barrels through it. His hand dents the metal.

The stupid, naïve, clueless tech looks up. He's got the Sharpie cap lodged in the corner of his mouth. "I'm sorry, Captain, you can't be in here."

Preemptively, Sam steps between Steve and the tech. Steve's gotten a lot better about blacking out and knocking shit around, but, today? Sam expects it.

The tech sighs. "Look, I get it, but neither of—"

"Can't you give him a few minutes?" Sam levels with the guy. "It's his best friend."

Sam holds his breath, simultaneously waiting for the tech to God damn say yes; please God damn say yes and Steve to give Bruce a run for his money in the smash department.

Finally, the tech nods. "Just…don't touch the body. We still need to collect forensic evidence."

As the tech walks to an office, Sam wonders what the guy is smoking. Forensic evidence is used for criminal investigations and justice. That's not going to happen here.

Also: the body. The truth of it settles: Barnes is dead.

Not gone. Not with God. Not peacefully resting. As a counselor, Sam knows better than to use euphemisms as emotional crutches. The only acceptable word is dead.

Barnes is dead.

Steve unzips the bag.

Sam doesn't look. He's already seen the gunshot wound; the bruising and lacerations; the pale, thin skin; the clenched left fist; and the IV hook-up. He's seen it all.

He hears the crinkle of the plastic, and then, even while Sam's waiting for it, a heavy, sharp inhalation.

Grief isn't so much visible as it is tangible. It supersaturates the air, until it's hard to breathe, hard to walk, hard to do anything. Right now, Sam could reach out and take a handful of Steve's grief, playdough in his hands—but he's not a counselor today. Not today, or for a while.

"They used to use cotton mattress covers," Steve comments, a drive-by non-sequitur if there ever was one. "Ponchos, sometimes. Curtains. This is nice."

Sam has nothing to say to that, though his brain latches on to the thought. Body bags are also called cadaver pouches and, best of all, human remains pouches, so, when you die, you get at least one shitty word wrapped around you.

Sam looks in Steve's direction for long enough to see Steve's shaking hand touch the face. He watches Steve's fingers root around the jawline, up toward the ear, undoubtedly looking for the seam of a mask.

Steve accepts that the body is Barnes, sags a good two inches, and plants his fingers in Barnes' fucking amazing, nice hair.

Sam'd never seen someone—anyone—care so much about their hair, until Barnes slinked onto the scene with bottles of hair product and hours to spare. In 2016, after they'd brought back Steve and fixed up Barnes, Sam had even given him a pile of shit about it.

Barnes had revealed, "They wouldn't let me touch it. Identity."

Since Barnes wasn't a client, Sam could say, "So you spend hours petting yourself with hair product, because HYDRA wouldn't give you a comb?"

Too far, Sam'd thought. Too dismissive.

"Yeah," Barnes answered, without an ounce of shame, and, without an ounce of shame, made a jack-off motion with his left hand. "And my left hand feels fucking a-ma-zing petting my dick."

Barnes wasn't fragile.

There's a hole in his head today.

Grief lights up muscles and veins as good as a decent line of cocaine, without the euphoria. It strangles the chest wall into crushing waves of aches. It makes legs and arms thrum with too much blood, the body forgetting where to put it. The stomach warps worse than a cheap piece of sodden plywood. Grief is real.

"At least we know for sure."

Steve's voice is a hollow echo in this room made of tile floor, metal walls, and a concrete ceiling. Everything in this room is hard and unforgiving.

"Yeah" is all Sam's got, because he's got no idea what Steve means.

A restless silence shivers between them, a live wire a thin cord from snapping. Sam's eyes dart from the metal drawers, to the smooth floor, to the too-low ceiling, to his own hands – anywhere but Steve and Barnes. Anywhere but there.

He can't stand being here.

Steve breaks the pounding silence.

"He moved to Brooklyn from Indiana when he was six. Didn't know anybody. Didn't talk right. Didn't know how to act. At school, he sat with me at lunch – just us two. We played together, went to each other's houses. After about two weeks, everybody wanted to be his friend. He was that kind of person, even at that age."

"Magnetic," Sam fills in. He knows it, believes it.

"I thought that was the end of that. He'd move on. Then he punched Walt Murray in the face and asked if I wanted to go fishing with his dad."

Sam doesn't know what to say. Undoubtedly, Steve has a hundred more stories about the person a good, dead man fought like hell to reclaim.

"What they've done to him." Steve's tone is steeped in bitter, loathing enmity. It's dangerous, for so many reasons.

Sam's heart skips. His face is hot; palms, damp. Stomach flipping and flopping, he makes it to the other side of Steve, to the other side of the gurney and the pouch, and tries not to look down.

He tries to look at Steve, but Steve is looking down.

"The last thing he'd want is for you to go down that road. Feel what you have to, but don't, don't do anything."

Steve's eyes flick up. "He didn't deserve any of this. He—"

"He deserved more," Sam affirms.

Steve's eyes close, and his head hangs lower.

Despite himself, Sam looks down at the body.

The skin's paler and bluer; the bruises, darker, more brutal. The face is almost 2014 thin: all sharp angles and hollow shadows. His left hand is still that locked fist. That IV is still taped to the right hand.

Sam understands the hatred.

Steve's eyes never leave the body. "We had him." His fingers curl over the right hand; Sam looks away. "I had you."

That last night in Brazil, they'd argued over six loaded words: it all could have been different.

Once and again.

***

"You know that we autopsied him."

People die. People die. James isn't special.

Natasha nods.

"There is evidence of traumatic brain injury, inflicted prior to the bullet. Multiple strokes. His bloodwork came back positive for sedatives and anti-convulsants; he was likely suffering from seizures."

"Curable?" Natasha asks.

Eicher shakes her head. "Treatable – but, no, not curable. The damage was irrevocable. In an average human, likely vegetative."

What Eicher is saying is that he wasn't the same person when she'd found him, and he wouldn't have ever been the same person again, even if she'd found him sooner - not even considering all the likely stolen memories. Natasha's almost surprised HYDRA kept him alive.

"How long?"

Eicher leans against a clean autopsy table, crosses her arms, and doesn't look directly at Natasha. "Months."

Ice runs down Natasha's back. There's only one way to interpret that.

Three sublevels and two floors above the morgue, Natasha chooses not to sit in Maria's office. She stands inside, leaving enough room to shut the oak door.

Maria locks her gaze distantly out the window. "We're investigating the unit."

"Her," Natasha clarifies. It was a two-person unit: one of them is dead, and the other has been lying for five months. "You're investigating her."

Had that text message even come from him? Natasha's gut tells her no. It'd been a decoy to explain the lack of contact. She should have known better. Should have flown to Berlin and knocked down his door. Should have.

Maria shuts her eyes, stands up straighter, and turns a hard look Natasha's way. "Need to know. You know how this works."

Natasha doesn't provide any sort of answer. This mess has layers, one of them being that she'd put James on a train to Brussels with a connection to Berlin, delivering him to someone she'd somehow thought they could trust again.

James had trusted her to have his back.

"I ask that you keep any information you have from Captain Rogers." So formal. So procedural. "It would be dangerous to compromise the stability he still has. Are you agreeable to that?"

Agreeable to lying to a close friend – close enough to be considered family, whatever family is. Agreeable to playing with his head, to betraying him again with lies and secrets, to taking from him not only a person Steve considered a brother but the truth about that person's death – again. Agreeable to pretending someone he cares deeply about is safe and not brainwashed.

"Yes," she says and knows she doesn't mean it. After all, she has to lie to someone.

Once, the mission came first and only. People and their feelings hadn't mattered. More and more, she thinks she's been in the wrong business for a lot of years.

"I'm genuinely sorry about Barnes," Maria offers. "If we'd known…"

Practical. Superficial. Natasha won't be the same.

***

Steve glances up at the optic reader and pushes at the door to the morgue. It doesn't open.

A female voice tells him "access restricted."

Steve forces the door open, breaking the hinges and denting the steel, then strides inside. Immediately, a shrill alarm sounds. Steve ignores it and heads left, toward a wall of stainless steel drawers.

Bucky's inside one of them.

Eicher's voice echoes through the cold, clinical room. "JARVIS, cancel the alarm."

JARVIS immediately complies. The alarm silences.

"Captain—"

Steve doesn't want her pity, her judgment, her advice, or her. He stops inches from the wall and runs his eyes up and down the 4x4 block of options. He'll open them all, if he has to. "Which one?"

Eicher walks from the examiner's office across the room to him. Without hesitation, she unlatches the third drawer in from the left, second from the bottom, and then slides it out.

A thick white sheet covers a long body from head to toe. The body doesn't move. Lightheaded and a step removed from himself, Steve puts his hand atop the sheet, where he thinks Bucky's hand is – and finds a cold, stiff, frozen lump of flesh.

Buck.

A stinging prickle runs up his sinuses.

"The autopsy's done?" Steve assumes, somewhere between a question, a statement, and a lament.

It means the body has been cut and splayed open from clavicle to pelvic bone. It means the organs have been removed, weighed, documented, and slid back inside a hollow, dead husk of skin. It means the facial skin has been peeled away, the skull cut open, the brain removed and studied, and all of it stitched back together. It means he's dead.

It means…

Eicher crosses her arms. "Yes. The autopsy has been completed."

Stingers dive into his eyes, but the rest of him feels vacant. "Can you go?"

"Captain. We'll take good care of him. He's safe here. You—"

That's exactly what Natasha had said five months ago: he's safe, he's taken care of. Here he is.

"Can you go?" he repeats, as if he hadn't asked the first time. But he had, and he begs, "Please, Alicia."

Eicher doesn't step away from the drawer. "I don't want you to be surprised by what you see."

He's seen incisions and sutures before. He's seen death. He's seen bodies, piles of them, fields of them.

"He was physically tortured. There are scars."

Noted. Even as he tries to look through the sheet. "Can you go?" he repeats, tone resembling pitted, brittle steel.

Finally, Eicher gives him a small nod. "It's not him."

He only hears those three words. His brain hears them, a record scratching to a halt on the turntable. His heart hears them, disintegrating as every bit of grief piles up into a brick wall that it hits mid-beat. "What."

"This is only a body. It's not him."

She means for it to help. He hates her for it.

His lips twitch uncontrollably. His sinuses liquefy. More of those stingers threaten to drown his eyes.

Eicher brings him a stool and then leaves through the broken door.

Steve folds back the sheet, past the bullet hole in the forehead, past the deeply shadowed eyes, past the wan purple-green bruising swathed across the neck, to the tips of the vector-like autopsy incisions that stretch from his clavicles to sternum and then down under the sheet.

He sits on the stool and takes the thickly scarred, cold hand into his own, thumb rubbing those tight, contractured scars.

Bucky was left-hand dominant but could shoot with both hands. There's no explanation in the world for HYDRA to essentially cripple his right hand.

We had youYou were safe.

Steve folds down another few inches of the sheet, revealing shoulders, more of the unending incision, and the top of the chest.

Blood really can run cold.

Viciously stunned, Steve bunches the sheet down to the hips. Eyes wide, he forgets to breathe.

It's white phosphorus. It's HYDRA's symbol. It's a raised, permanent, healed scar, from his chest to his belly button.

"It burned. It hurt for days, and, when it stopped, he did it again."

Mottled spots from broken blood vessels shade that scar red – "I always liked boxing, Steve. See? You're better than a punching bag."

Hypertrophic, jagged scars slather his arm – the same kind that Steve has on his arms from the hundred cuts of a serrated knife.

He swallows rising bile, puts his face in his hands, and breathes deeply, willing his body to settle.

They did it to Bucky. To Bucky.

Steve pulls the sheet back up to the collarbone. For the rest, he has a map of where to look for the damage.

He finds more than he ever, ever expected.

He finds the drill marks and the gunshot wounds to the thighs. Steve has those, too.

He finds both knees have been shot and healed into deep bands of scar tissue. Steve doesn't have that.

They'd taken him, so they could do this. They hadn't wanted him for his serum, or his knowledge, or his abilities. They hadn't wanted the Winter Soldier. They'd only wanted to hurt him, and they had.

We had you.

Steve takes his hand again. "You're safe, you're home, you're here."

You're dead.

***

A paper banner made of smiling orange Jack-o-Lanterns hangs in soft, loose dips across both hallway walls on Six. A cut-out of a flying witch floats in the center of the threshold into the Cafeteria, while a bowl of individually-wrapped chocolate candy has recently been set inside the doorway.

Happy fucking Halloween.

Face resting in his open hand, Sam swirls mashed potatoes on his plate. He hasn't had an appetite for at least a day now. Hasn't slept. Hasn't done anything except stare and remind himself that – yeah.

They finally got him here.

Natasha sits down across from him, a shiny red apple in her free hand. Her other is occupied by a black arm sling. She puts the apple on the table, sits back, and doesn't say a word.

That's okay. Sam has words. "We going to bury him?"

"I don't know."

Stronger, Sam insists. "We should bury him."

"We should do a lot of things. Have you seen Steve?"

Sam could laugh. Steve needs help, now more than ever, and he won't get it. "The morgue, probably. He broke the door to get in this morning. We're burying him, Nat."

As quickly as she came, Natasha gets up and leaves.

Sam drops his fork, plops his arms on the table, and hides his face on top of them.

***

The only truly quiet place in the new headquarters is on the roof. No one else seems to have discovered it yet.

Steve sits at the south edge, furthest from the Quinjet landing pads. His legs dangle off the limestone ledge, far above the concrete sidewalk and grassy expanse that leads to miles of forest.

Bucky would've liked this place. He might've even stayed.

I had you.

Steve buries his face in his hands, eases into the darkness, and tries not to think about that last day in Brazil. Of course, he fails.

Bucky had only been free from HYDRA for three years, and Steve had burdened him with everything – every bad thought, every bit of blame, every crummy question, everything HYDRA had done to him. If he hadn't pushed so hard, Bucky might've come home. He'd be alive.

Steve presses his palms into his eye sockets until he sees colorful splotches.

The metal access door slams.

Steve drops his hands and blinks away the colors. He inhales deeply, clearing out his system with cold fresh air, and locks his eyes on a tall, thick mass of gray clouds.

"Hey, Steve." Natasha, all superficial smooth. "How you doing?"

He huffs out a pitiful laugh. It's been thirty-eight hours. "Really?"

"Just a question," she replies, evidently back to her ever-cool self. She sits next to him, almost touching. "Heard you broke a door today."

He spares her a glance—the tiredness in her face and the dullness in her eyes betrays how cool she wants to sound—and then looks back out toward the horizon. "What do you want?"

Natasha slips her arm out of its sling and pulls her hands into her lap, wincing. "A shoulder. Like old times."

The old times were less than four years ago, and she'd been his shoulder to lean on. He'd never been hers. Wrong on all counts.

"I think you're on the wrong rooftop."

He feels her eyes bore into him, but he holds steady. He stays calm, using Bucky's one-two-three-calm, one-two-three-relax, one-two-three-calm.

"Just say it, Rogers." She sounds impatient.

One-two-three.

He's got nothing to say. "You tell me."

One-two-three.

"Tell you what?"

He whips his head around, anger blackening the edges of his vision. He barely keeps it verbal-only, barely keeps himself from yelling, and barely keeps his ass planted. "How the hell that happened!"

Natasha doesn't recoil. She holds his eyes with hers. And says nothing.

"SHIELD is eighty people." Give or take. "How do you lose one and not know?"

He knows how. He god damn knows. So does she. So do all of them.

He saw the body – the marks, the bruises, the blood, and the horrific, purposeful scars. HYDRA had Bucky for months, when it's only been five since Brazil.

"Maria is investigating James' unit."

"Investigating? Jesus Christ, Natasha—" She's not stupid. She doesn't need him to say it, but he does anyway. "SHIELD handed him right to HYDRA."

And somehow—god damn somehow—covered it up.

"That's a very serious accusation" is all she says, flatly.

A very serious accusation. He gapes at her, astounded. "Bucky's dead. He's dead."

"Steve."

Even after all of it – after Insight, after 2016, after Brazil, after being there when Bucky took his life – Natasha is still a SHIELD loyalist, through and through. It sickens him. She sickens him.

Legs weak, he gets up and prepares to stalk away, before he can't control what he does. "You – He trusted you."

And look where it got him.

"We thought we got them all. We were wrong." Through pursed lips, she takes a shuddering breath. "handed him to HYDRA."

Out at the cusp of the horizon, the sun is setting behind a pitch of dark clouds. It isn't a vibrant orange or illustrious yellow sunset this evening; it's a dull gray and carries the threat of a storm.

"From Brazil, he flew to Copenhagen. He let me find him – in a café. He wanted to work for SHIELD." Natasha pauses and bites the inside of her cheek. Her freebie tell. "We were ready for that. I gave him a train ticket to Brussels, with instructions to proceed to Berlin. It was supposed to be easy work – nothing dangerous, nothing heavy. We trusted the agent we assigned to him. Maria is investigating that agent. But we know. We know."

Steve believes her. He believes all of it.

He sits back down. The sun collapses behind the clouds.

"It's not your fault."

Her answer is quick. "I know. I wish—" She stops and doesn't finish.

Steve might get it. "After he fell, I wish I'd tried harder. Listened to the people around me." His gut twists, even after all this time and everything—everything—else that's happened. "I could've changed it all."

"Something like that," Natasha agrees.

A morbid thought crosses his mind, one he nearly laughs about. "How many times can you grieve for the same person?"

"Six," Natasha replies.

He almost misses it.

Six.

***

"How many times can you grieve for the same person?" Steve wonders.

Natasha's number is six: after the Red Room, after defecting to SHIELD, after Odessa, after Insight, after Death Valley, and now. She only tells Steve that number: six.

James is dead, and their secret no longer matters.

People die every day.

"Six" jolts Steve out of his grief. Natasha doesn't have to look at him to know he's trying to count her ways and coming up very, very short.

Natasha lets Steve's silence dominate the space between them, while she stares into the sunsetting darkness of the wilderness beyond them. Dark gray clouds litter the moonless, starless sky; the only light comes from the ambiance of the dim security lights twelve stories below.

"What." It's not asked like a question, or even said like a statement. It's a word left dangling.

"He valued himself more than he valued his life," Natasha deflects. It's true. "I don't think he'd want us to grieve."

"How six."

Natasha can't look at Steve. She counts back to 2014 and thinks of all the ways she could have changed the trajectory of each of their lives. Of the different kind of help she could have given but didn't. Of everything she'd known but withheld.

Like now, still. To protect Steve from the hurtful truth.

As she speaks, her throat dries, lungs deflate, and somehow, eyes sting. "They called it the Red Room. He trained me. Even how he was then, he was the one good thing in my life."

Natasha finally looks at Steve, those tears in her eyes, fear palpable on her face, even things their friendship had never shown, laid bare.

Steve, on the other hand, seems more introspective than upset. After a long stretch of time, he reflects, "During those first few months working with you, you fought like him. The way you'd look at me was the same way he would. Still is. I thought I was nuts, but now. Now, I guess I was just real observant."

"I wish I'd known," Steve adds, an afterthought, "about you two."

Natasha schools her face and turns it away. She wonders if Steve realizes what he said: that his Bucky was her James, the difference between them null.

After many long minutes, she says, "We should talk more."

"Yeah. That'd be helpful."

A handful of words creep up her throat, chased by nervous vapors emanating from her lungs.

Somewhere around three and a half years ago, she'd realized that SHIELD didn't so much matter anymore. Without SHIELD, they were still the same people, and all they had was each other.

All they have is each other, and she won't sacrifice that for a secret, or an easier way through this.

"The agent assigned to James was Sharon."

Steve's hands crunch clean through two new limestone blocks, chips and chunks careening to the ground.

***

Sam doesn't have to force his way through the door to Steve's apartment. Not when Steve crashes his way in, bending reinforced hinges from the doubly reinforced frame before JARVIS can unlock the door.

Likewise, Sam doesn't have the time to gape at the intentionally dark surroundings. He barely has time to dodge the sofa he can barely see, and he doesn't have time to avoid bashing his bad knee into the coffee table.

"Fuck," Sam hisses. "JARVIS, l—"

"No lights!" Steve snaps, even as he stalks into his bedroom and starts banging around. "Get out, Sam."

Natasha's in the hallway. Tony's hopefully on his way, armor and all. That's the only reason Sam plants his feet outside Steve's bedroom door, fear pounding his heart raw.

That's the only reason he says, "No, Steve. I won't. Stop."

In the near-pitch dark of the room, Sam thinks Steve's got a duffel bag on the bed, and Sam thinks Steve is hastily stuffing it with clothes from a dresser.

Steve's tone turns from raging hot to slippery cold in a second flat. "Go."

"Steve—"

"It's too fucking late for him!" Steve shouts, back to raging hot, winding around his Hotwheels track. Only the shine of the whites of his wide eyes is visible in the dark. Sam sinks his fingers into the door jamb. "But it's not for her. I'm going. I'm finding her. I'm ending this."

"Steve, SHIELD wil—"

Back to slippery cold. "Fuck SHIELD."

The zipper of the bag rips shut, followed by a heavy huff and an ominous, sudden quietude.

"Where's my shield?"

Sam's about to say it's in the gear-up room down near the hangar bay, but it's not. It never made it to the Tower, even. October 2016 through June 2017 had been nothing but panicked, exhausting, understaffed turmoil. June 2017 through now had passed too quickly, still understaffed, especially with the transition out of the Tower and into the new headquarters.

A pang of shame stabs at him: they'd forgotten all about it, which in itself means that not one of them ever thought—or thinks—Steve will ever again be Captain America.

Duffel bag hanging from his shoulder, Steve steps into Sam's space, his shadowed, dark stature sending Sam's heart off again. "Where's my shield, Sam?"

Natasha's right out there. She's got his back. And she's quick, so when Steve flips out, she'll be here.

Sam swallows a lake of saliva and meets Steve's eyes. "Stuck in a tree somewhere in northern Italy. B threw it up there in August last year."

Only last year. Fuck. It feels like longer.

Steve's jaw slackens. His hand kneads the strap of his bag. "What."

Sam lifts a hand and then drops it: shaking his head, shrugging, still ashamed that they'd never sent one fucking jet out there to get it. They could've spared one for a couple hours. Or Tony could've taken a joyride.

"He didn't say why. But – it would have drawn attention." It had in 2014, when he and Steve had crisscrossed Europe on a fool's errand. "I figured that's why."

Steve sounds perplexed and frustrated more than out-of-control and irate. "Where."

"I don't know. Somewhere near Gran Zebrù."

The whites of Steve's eyes roll – but not in a funny, ha-ha, long-suffering way. "You only had a year. Move."

Sam moves, in lieu of getting punched, backhanded, or shoved into an unsuspecting wall.

In the bright hallway, Natasha stands ready and waiting: leaning against the wall, arms crossed (and that has to hurt), one foot pressed flat against the smooth oak. Sam tries not to put his relief on display. She can shut this down, can reason with Steve like no one else.

Steve sees her and stops. "Don't e—"

"It's only ten miles from the base we found. I logged the base coordinates in the AAR."

Steve's shoulders relax a millimeter. His knuckles turn from paper white to eggshell white. Progress.

Sam expects her to say that they'll finally send a team to go get it. She expects her to wind Steve down, talk some sense, do something magical.

Not: "We go. Get your shield. And find her."

It's Sam's turn to drop his jaw. He looks to Natasha from behind Steve and knows he's showing her his gut-punched, probably-pissed expression.

She looks directly at Sam. "You saw what they did to him." Then to Steve. "I'll get a jet."

"No. No jet. No SHIELD. I mean it."

Great: Steve sounds exactly like himself from 2014, and then again from 2015. Only, it's 2017, and he's unstable, and this half-assed plan is entirely insane.

Sam steps around Steve, blocks the path to the nearest stairwell, then turns and regards both of them. "He wouldn't want this. You fucking know it."

The calm presence Steve exudes is unnerving and as natural as standing in the eye of a vicious, swirling storm. "He's dead. Sharon's not. I'm not asking you to come."

No, this is how you choose to not grieve, Sam thinks but doesn't dare say – not yet.

Between both of them, he won't win. Somehow, "give me twenty minutes to pack" comes out of his mouth.

God damn it.

***

It's only over 4,000 miles to Italy. Only more than eleven hours for the flight from JFK to Orio al Serio near Milan – which is another 200 miles from the Italian backcountry near Sulden.

Sam stretches, visualizing his spine expanding upward, and pulls his shoulders back as he cranes his neck forward. Something in his back satisfyingly pops. He extends his bad knee out, a tennis-shoed foot intruding on the aisle. Most of everyone's asleep; no one's going to mind.

Next to him, Natasha stares at an easy game of solitaire on her tablet. She hasn't made a move in fifteen minutes. Guilt tripping about Copenhagen takes a lot out of someone, and Sam counts her as another friend lost to this never-ending mess.

Next to her, head propped against the fuselage, Steve's distant gaze drifts somewhere in the vapors of the dim, starless gray-cloud sky. He's got AirPods in but doubtfully anything playing through them.

Years ago, they'd sat together in similar seats, on a similar flight, and Steve had talked about how Bucky hated him. So fucking wrong, but maybe better if Steve'd been right, if Barnes had hated Steve and died doing it.

All you had to do was stay. It'd all be different. Sam thinks it at a dead person. Dead people don't care.

Sam thinks I hate you at that dead person and could shrivel up and die for it. I don't. I'm sorry.

Dead people don't listen, either. And probably don't mind read.

He spends time trying to convince himself that they're doing this for Sharon. That it wouldn't be far more effective and efficient to use all of SHIELD's resources to find and help her, rather than running off half-cocked, like they had in 2014 and again in 2016. That this isn't Steve and Natasha taking the Avengers moniker too literally.

"We had him, Sam."

Steve says it, but Natasha finally taps the Ace of Clubs up and pulls the King of Spades over. Her face flushes – and Sam wonders how that last conversation in Copenhagen had gone, if there'd been any room to talk Barnes down, and what might've happened if she'd dragged his diva ass to one of his nice hotels for a couple nights.

It's not her fault.

But.

Sam looks past Natasha to Steve. "Yeah. I know."

When they land, it's a cool 50 Fahrenheit. Sam shrugs on a jacket, shoulders his light backpack, and leads the way to the vehicle rental counter. Whether Steve likes it or not, SHIELD pays for a red 2017 Volkswagen Polo.

Natasha drives, Steve sitting shotgun. Sam sits in the back and watches Bergamo's cityscapes blur into empty, beige farmland.

No one talks.

Electrical towers sprout through the fields. When he was a kid, he'd pretended they were robots. Transformers or old school Cylons or something cool like that.

Cars and semi-trucks whizz by, as Natasha tails a black BMW. Red-rimmed circle signs announce that Natasha is speeding far faster than the 40 km/h limit. The minute the highway expands into a median-divided, two-lane expressway, she passes, eyes calmly focused on the long journey ahead.

Blue signs written in Italian announce ignored attractions and nearby towns.

Shadowed mountains loom in the far, overcast horizon, while the empty fields become barren, stripped vineyards.

Don't sacrifice yourself for us. Don't burn.

Too late, man, Sam thinks, as his blinks stretch into a doze, then into a nap.

It's a light enough sleep that he knows when they ease into the mountains, by the way the car swings and dips and bounces. He cracks an eye and sees tall, jagged mountains covered in autumnal hues, a hand's stretch away. If he pretends, they could be in Appalachia, at the corner of Pennsylvania and Maryland.

He thinks they have another two and a half hours to go, at the least.

Still, no talking. No radio. This is more of a funeral procession than a rescue mission, and he wonders if either of them realize it.

Natasha's phone rings, and she silences it after a glance at the caller ID. Sam's phone goes off next; it's Maria. He thinks about answering it but swipes her. Steve's next, and he doesn't even bother reaching for his phone. He lets it ring through.

They rip through a dark tunnel, then pass through Trento, where he, Natasha, and Barnes had stayed for a night. They'd caught a train to Germany the next morning.

"I'm afraid of what I don't know."

"Did you know that Rachael Ray sucks?"

Sam got away with the comment, or so he thought, until he heard the tell-tale shifting of Barnes' left arm.

"Don't you shift your fucking plates at me, man."

"Watch yourself."

He's dead, Sam realizes. He's not coming back. And they're circling the sun, waiting to melt.

"Where to after this?" Sam asks. He means, What's the plan?

Natasha is quick to pull herself out of her own thoughts. "Berlin. They had a few safe houses. We'll go from there."

Hardly a plan.

Sam closes his eyes again and sleeps, until they slow down at the outskirts of the out-of-season ski resort town of Sulden. Exactly as he remembers it, troves of pines surround them on either side; directly ahead, picturesque, snow-capped mountains cut a jagged edge through the deep blue sky.

Natasha pulls into the lot of a small, locally-owned hotel, cuts the engine, and drops her hands into her lap.

Steve pops his door open.

A year ago, they'd stolen a car here and driven straight to Trento. Back then, Sam'd wondered if they'd ever find Steve. Although he doesn't want to be here, thinks it's the stupidest idea any of them have had in at least six months, he takes a single moment to appreciate: Steve's here.

Steve, who's already standing outside of the car. Steve, who already has a SHIELD-issued handheld GPS powered up. Steve, who's already using his thumbs to input the base coordinates. Steve, who says, "We get a room, and we go."

Natasha and Sam get out of the car. Sam would say that he expects Natasha to be on his side, on his same page, but that's not so much been happening lately. For all he knows, she'll nod and say that's the second greatest stupid idea she's willing to agree to all week.

"Steve," she says, "we have four hours of sunlight left. We eat, rest, and go first thing."

Eyes hard, Steve glances up from the GPS. "You can stay. I'm going."

"It's enemy territory," Sam adds, finally feeling as if he's not throwing himself against a brick wall by merely speaking. "We don't have weapons."

"Better find the shield, then."

Sam's ready to mutter a capitulatory "fuck," when Natasha finally stands ground.

"Steve. We stay. We go first thing. I'm not asking."

Steve rounds the front of the car, accidentally kicks the cement stopper a few feet toward the hotel building, and saddles up real, real close to Natasha: face to face, height difference notwithstanding.

"You had a year," Steve spits, that slippery cold thing mixing with that raging hot thing. "What, thought I'd never ask? Need it again?"

Natasha's ice cold, baiting. "What's another couple hours. Knock it off, Rogers."

Steve searches her eyes, while she searches his, neither of them budging for several, tension-filled seconds. Finally, Steve pushes the GPS unit at her and stalks off toward the hotel's lobby.

Natasha bites at her cheek and chances a glance at Sam. "Thanks for being here. I know you'd rather not be."

Sam could laugh at that. He takes the more adult route. "You know this is a mistake. Not going after Sharon – but doing it this way."

"Steve would have disappeared and come on his own. He's not alone this way."

That stops the churning bitterness and alleviates some of his anger. It's a fair point that Sam concedes with an easy nod.

She veers in another direction. "You blame me."

Automatically, Sam shakes his head and says, "No." And it's true. "He was gonna do what he was gonna do, like always. You put him somewhere you thought was safe."

They could drown in maybe's and what-if's. It won't bring him back. It won't save Sharon. It won't salve Steve.

Natasha nods acceptance of that, while her eyes tell him that she doesn't believe a word of it.

In time.

***

In 1943's Italy, a week, maybe two after Krausberg, the dark circles under Bucky's eyes had mostly faded back into pale, healthy skin. He was thinner than Steve'd ever seen him, not really a problem that their meager Charlie-rats could solve.

Steve didn't miss the frequent far-away stare. The furtive, heated conversations with Dugan. The startles and flinches, worse at night. Steve didn't know what it was, and so he thought of it simply as: the War getting to Bucky. And Steve knew: being here with him, bringing a familiar piece of home, would make the difference.

Back then, it hadn't seemed naïve.

On that particular day back then, Bucky'd almost been himself. "Howard Stark offered you anything… And you picked a pie tin?"

That pie tin was Steve's newly painted shield, and it laid on the grassy, cold ground, gleaming in the waning sunlight.

Steve resisted the urge to stick his hands in his pockets. Members of the military weren't supposed to do that: it not only was undisciplined, but, worse, it was disrespectful to the uniform.

He shrugged instead and resisted another urge: to say it reminded him of a garbage can lid. Wouldn't really help his case.

"It's Vibranium," he said with feigned authority, as if that explained it all. "Stops bullets, flat."

Next to him, arms crossed, Bucky tilted his head. "What the hell else you gonna do with it?"

Steve sucked in a breath and blew it back out, using that time to wonder if his idea would really work. "Giordano."

Made the best cheese pizza pie in Brooklyn, in a dive-looking, hole-in-the-wall shoebox off Metropolitan Avenue – but his temper was legendary. Like when Bucky's kid brother Andrew popped off at the mouth, and Giordano had thrown a pie tin at Andrew's head: a perfect spiral cutting a clean path through the grease-tinged air. The image of Andrew's gashed, bleeding forehead had haunted Steve for years.

Given the current situation known as a World War…

Steve glanced over at Bucky, in time to see him rock on the balls of his feet, an interested eyebrow twitching upward. "Only you. Let's see it."

Steve bent over and picked up the shield, not yet having even thought of learning how to kick it up from the ground. He looped the straps over his right arm, thought better of that, and switched it to his left.

Like when Peggy expertly shot bullets at it—not at him, he'd convinced himself—the weight was unfamiliar but balanced. It felt good, natural. The metal was smooth and sharp – far more lethal than one of Giordano's joed tins. It would work; he knew it.

Bucky jerked his chin toward the tree line about 150 meters to their south. "Hit the big one."

In the fading sunlight, Bucky's eyes were gray and appraising, ever the trainer. Bucky stepped back, giving Steve distance and himself space to scrutinize.

Bucky never made him nervous. They'd known each other since 1922, and Bucky had stood by him through every illness, every bad mood, every hare-brained idea, and every trip-for-biscuits back-alley fight. The serum hadn't changed that.

So, when the shield wobbled low and hardly sailed 50 meters, Steve couldn't blame it on nerves. Maybe it was too heavy, something he couldn't gauge: nothing was heavy anymore. Maybe it wasn't built to fly like a pie tin (though pie tins weren't built to fly, either). Maybe –

"Your form's shit. Plant your feet and turn your knees toward the target. Use your other arm to aim, like a football."

Steve'd never thrown footballs. Bucky knew that.

The serum made him tall, healthy, built – but it hadn't taught him form, hadn't made him entirely comfortable in his new, thick body, and hadn't given him experience to temper newfound ability. Leave it to Bucky, and only Bucky, to see that.

"What, you think you can do better?" Steve taunted, knowing that the SSR's serum had already won that challenge. It was something to distract, because maybe Bucky did make him nervous. Maybe he wanted to finally be…equivalent, and this proved him opposite.

Bucky strode toward the shield, throwing back a "hell no" as he went. He scooped it up with a quick grab, came right back toward Steve, and lightly tossed the shield at him.

"It's pretty light," Bucky remarked. "It should fly."

Must be. Bucky'd tossed it like it had the paltry weight of a baseball. Steve slipped it back over his arm and tried to guess how much it weighed, before accepting that he had no clue.

"Hit the big one," Bucky repeated. "Plant your feet."

Steve did: both feet square, center of gravity low, weight evenly distributed.

In one smooth, innate motion, he turned his knees toward the tree, twisted his right arm around until his elbow lined up the flight path, and flung the shield at the big, winter-bare tree.

The smooth metal cut a clean path through the dusk-tinged air. It whistled as it flew – high pitched, hardly perceptible even to his ears, but a sound he'd never, ever heard before. He watched it soar, ferociously spinning, until it lodged deep into old wood.

Nothing to it.

"How to make a flying pie tin work for you," Bucky smiled, like old, like home, the tiredness evaporating. "But why no fucking pie, Steve?"

A worry-like dread lifted from his shoulders, replaced by a relief he hadn't known he'd been seeking. It worked. He worked.

"Tell you what," Steve said, sharing that smile. "It's the first thing we do when we get back."

"As long as you're buying, pal."

Steve's smile grew wider, a laugh sinking into the inky night, right before he took off into a dead-heat sprint toward his shield.

Bucky chased, keeping an impossible pace for too many moments. Bucky's smile faded into the burgeoning, weighted burden of understanding. Hindsight being what it is, and all.

***

Steve doesn't disappear into the night, either to search for his shield or to start his own search for Sharon. The hotel doesn't have a blacktop roof to sneak onto.

No, Natasha finds Steve far down a side street, sitting on a crinkly-grass embankment, bare feet soaking in the cold, rushing water of a narrow river. Natasha joins him but keeps her shoes on and limbs dry.

In the distance, the tall steeple of an old church rises high into the night sky. The coarse angles of a ring of mountains chip away at the stars. Blankets of deciduous trees sink into the dark night, keeping secrets and mysteries, unknowns and never-to-be-founds.

It's a cold night – below 30 Fahrenheit, she estimates. She tucks her hands under her armpits and condenses her body, scraping heat wherever she can find it.

"Down by the pond," Steve says.

Natasha's breath soaks into the cold night air. "Hm?"

"Where we bury him."

A cemetery in Brooklyn already has an empty grave with his name on it: 1916-1945. Better to let that play and allow a family to rest undisturbed in happier lies.

"By the big oak, up from the shore," Natasha agrees. "He'd like that."

Steve reaches into the water and lets it run through his splayed fingers. The bubbling, ever-moving water creates a soothing, lethargic ambiance. Here, it's peaceful. Here, it's temporary.

"I know what you're doing. I'm not stopping, until we have her back."

What she'd told Sam earlier was something of a half-lie. She came for Steve. She also came to end this. HYDRA's had their fill.

"You can stay, or you can go," Steve says, nothing angry, nothing unkind. "I don't care, either way."

He won't mind when she stays, then.

She absentmindedly pushes her hands into the frosty grass and pulls her knees closer to her chest. "I didn't forget about your shield. I was waiting for you to ask."

Steve exhales a long breath, then flops onto his back. He points at the stars. "That one's Orion."

Natasha tilts her eyes up. She only knows the constellations well enough to give her a basic sense of her place in the world. A hemisphere.

"There's the shield," he says, voice flat like day-old soda.

She wraps her arms around her knees, appreciates the painful pull of her still-injured shoulder, and wishes she hadn't made her hands cold with the grass.

Steve's hand drops to the ground with a dull thud. He has nothing else to say.

Somewhere, the sun's coming up but, here, not for a little while longer.

***

Thick green grass and weeds have grown over a thick crater that, once upon a time, had been a hidden HYDRA base. Someone's come through and removed the charred, match-stick trees, but broken concrete slabs and rocks dot the landscape like trip mines. Otherwise, time has tolled the damage from the explosion, abundant life finding a way.

Sam toes over one of the slabs, revealing rolled up potato bugs and sluggish, surprised worms. They won't survive winter up here, anyway.

A few steps later, he actually, honest to God finds Barnes' dirty, torn, charred black t-shirt. By now, it's sun bleached and little more than a wet, muddy wad of fabric, likely infested by happy insects.

It's burned.

It's fine. HYDRA'll be here; let's go.

Sam leaves it and waits for Natasha and Steve. Not a one of them has admitted that they can't find the shield; hence, why they've walked all the way back to this old, shitty base.

"Your sneakers were inside," Natasha comments.

"I liked those." Steve spins in a slow, shuffled circle, drinking in the scenery. "I never came here. It all happened…there."

"Bad intel," Natasha replies. "This was a trap, something to keep us from finding you."

Had to find something, right? Sneakers, the shield, and Steve's planted blood had done the trick. Plus: without Sam's wingpack, they all would've been crispy fried morons. Game over. Win-win.

"We went this way," Sam announces. He looks to Natasha and points at the t-shirt. "This is where he changed shirts."

Natasha nods, not yet worried. All the trees look the same, and, this late into October, yellow-orange and deep red leaves still thickly coat each branch. It's going to be hard to see the shield - they've probably already walked straight past it. 

Fantastic.

Steve and Natasha make their way to him. They all three together follow a half-remembered path back toward Sulden, eyes scanning the trees, feet pulverizing fallen leaves. It'd been night, back then: pitch black, no moonlight, hard to see.

Sam absolutely hates this place. He hates the person he'd been here, saying shit like, You can't die, It's not your choice, and It's the only reason I'm here, doing this with you.

Looking back, it seems like there were more bad days than there were ever good ones.

"It's going to be near here somewhere," Natasha says. "It looks familiar."

Sam shakes the melancholy and wonders if it'd be worthwhile for him to take to the sky. Also: "We could buy you a pack of frisbees and call it a day?"

Steve doesn't laugh, glare, tell him off, or otherwise respond. Once and forever more, Sam misses the person standing right in front of him.

"'Kay," Sam sighs to himself.

He taps his bracelet, feels his new Stark-designed wings ripple across his back, and flies low, slowly weaving between trees. He checks each trunk for an embedded shield.

Birds scatter.

Squirrels squawk and scamper.

Beetles and ants pace along rugged pads of bark.

In the distance, something that almost looks like a deer runs.

Somewhere, Barnes is laughing at them, if only dead people could laugh.

CRACK!

Sam startles and flips around, automatically taking a defensive air position.

But it's not HYDRA or an attack. It's Steve, blood trickling from his busted knuckles. A proud, old oak tree, dated by its thick and weathered trunk, sluggishly, painfully tumbles to the ground with a whimpered puff of yellow-orange leaves.

A storm of left-behind leaves rain to the forest floor. A couple of spooked animals scatter into the depths of the forest. Smaller trees crack! and snap! under the weight of the first.

It's only a tree – but what a waste.

Steve walks the length of the fallen trunk, slaps away thick and thin branches, plants his feet squarely atop the bark, and yanks his shield free from the wood.

No quip. No celebration. Barely any relief.

Sam sets down next to Natasha.

Unexpectedly, Natasha tilts the screen of her phone toward Sam, showing him a text message from Maria: "We have Agent Carter in a safe location. Return to base. And see me."

Sharon's safe. Sam closes his eyes and lets the relief of that settle: Sharon's safe.

Then, he lets a second wave of relief settle: we're done here.

The not-so-hidden implication of that message: Natasha's gonna get reamed for ever being here, for letting this so-called mission happen. So what: SHIELD can't afford to lose anyone else. The worst Maria can do is yell.

Steve walks back down the trunk, hopping off once he clears the tangle of branches.

The shield isn't looped over an arm. Rather, it's held almost violently between both hands, as if he thinks he can crack it in half. The paint is scratched, scorched, and faded, but the metal is as smooth and strong as ever.

Steve's face flushes red, jaw clenched tightly – right before he drops to his knees and turns his back to them. Autumn foliage crunches under his weight.

"Steve," Natasha says, her tone carrying an unmistakable warning of finality. She waits for his head to tilt slightly toward her voice. "SHIELD has Sharon. She's safe."

He doesn't ask how, or where, or when. His shoulders slump into rounded boulders, hands still trying to crack his shield.

Sam doesn't think it's because Steve's upset that Sharon is safe. Going after HYDRA and rescuing Sharon gave Steve—and Natasha—something to fix. Something to control. A shot at retribution.

Sharon being safe means: go home and live with this. Selfish, but human.

There isn't going to be a mad dash rampage across Europe. There isn't going to be a heroic rescue. There isn't going to be anything.

"Steve. It's over."

Steve goes from his knees to his ass, shield still clutched in his hands, body hunched forward until his forehead presses into the metal. The last person to touch it had been –

Sam sinks down next to Steve and perches his hand on Steve's back. Natasha settles on the other side. All the regrets, mistakes, and sorrows stretch between them.

It's over.

***

The story will continue in Chapter 5: Lastlook.

/***/

He rolls over, scope in one hand, and an aimed SIG Sauer in the other. He takes a millisecond to confirm who it is that he's killing—black tactical clothes, loaded AR-15, HYDRA helmet, only a meter or so away—and then kills.

BANG!

The gunshot is a beacon: I'm here, right here, come get me.

Barnes shoves his scope into the side pocket of his backpack, flips up to his feet, holsters his SIG Sauer, steals the dead soldier's rifle, and doesn't run. He fucking runs.

A harsh, pulsating siren screams through the air. Voices yell and shout in Russian: "there, over there!" They're the grunts; he can outrun them, no problem.

His pack noisily bounces against his back, up and down, up and down. He should drop it, but it carries his tablet, phone, passport, research on the east Berlin base, and money. It's too valuable to drop.

He pounds down the asphalt road, past tall, white stone, windowless buildings. He cuts left, rounds a building, and sprints down two more streets before making a sharp turn right. The goal is to confuse them enough that they can't find him, and at least give himself enough time to get out of Kozerska and into the countryside. He knows the path to Warsaw.

A bullet ricochets off his left arm. Instantly, he calculates the angle and velocity: there are snipers on the rooftops. The next bullet won't be as wasted.

He zigs and zags as he runs, eyes on the next left turn that will give him a clear shot into the railyard, then into the forest. A bullet whistles past his right ear and shatters brick from the wall next to him.

Barnes picks up speed, maneuvering erratically, and baseball-slides around the corner of a tall, red building. Shards of brick rain over his head.

He runs his right hand through his hair and swipes away the debris. He hopes it still looks okay.

It's a three-hundred meter, open air run to the tree line. At his top speed, it would take nearly thirteen long seconds. So: possibly suicide, unquestionably painful.

Barnes checks the rifle for ammunition and serviceability. Satisfied, he shifts it into single-shoot mode and gets to work.

Everything they are today is because of what he was yesterday. He knows how to unravel them with a few quick pulls of the thread.

He shoots the first sniper in the back of the head, the second through the right eye, and the third through the heart. A hoard of footsteps pound from around the corner, and he waits, moments passing by, until the timing is impeccable.

Standard issue gear includes frag grenades, with a fuse delay of four seconds, an injury radius of fifteen meters, and a fatality radius of five meters. During the War, they were called pineapples. Cute.

Barnes steps around the corner, halts the squad lead with his left hand, and then pulls the pin of one of lead's utility belt pineapples. A simple push launches the soldier into a panicked, backwards stumble.

The entire encounter takes only a second.

Barnes turns and runs, screams cutting through the air, followed by a BANG further and further behind him. He goes faster, sudden anxiety gripping his stomach. He doesn't think all of that was good enough to net him thirteen seconds, not by far.

He can see the forest at the edge of the meadow – through the dead brown weeds, spotted with rotted freight cars, where Steve tackled him years ago.

Then, he'd wanted Steve to disappear to anywhere else in the world. It'd be the greatest gift if Steve could be here with his stupid shield. And a jet. And Natasha and Sam.

Chapter Text

Köpenick, Berlin, Germany. Almost instantly, the blue, afternoon sky shocks into overcast, gray tones that bleakly bleed through the empty, black branches of early-winter trees. A weird, cool, sort of minty sensation runs through him; nerve damage or something, or so Eicher had once babbled about.

Barnes keeps walking.

Thirty-eight minutes ago, Barnes had parked a rental in an empty parking lot near Müggelheimer Damm, stepped off the main road, and disappeared into a sprawling, forested wilderness more suited for Appalachia than a major European urban center.

He's got a backpack on his back, a Wenger compass watch strapped to his right wrist, a SIG Sauer P-220 holstered under his black jacket, and a handful of paper maps clutched in his hologrammed left hand.

The mission is inexplicably called Lastlook. The objective is recon of a potential, abandoned HYDRA base only: do not engage. That means the squirrels, birds, and couple of venison he's seen out here, in the middle of former Soviet Germany nowhere, are safe. He will not engage them.

Reliant wouldn't laugh at that. Something about "not fucking around." It's been eight months since he's seen or spoken to Natasha, Sam, or Steve. Reliant is his sole, embittered link to that world.

Despite that, he's mostly content, and he's doing okay. He lives in a decent apartment with decent neighbors, earns a decent paycheck, and does decent, boring work that's probably better suited for a historian than an assassin.

This mission, like all the others, is busy work, without much of a purpose. They're – Fury, Hill, Reliant, Natasha, who knows – having him circle shit in a holding pattern. Nevermind that he'd ask –

Unexpectedly, the forest floor slopes downward into a rocky, steep decline.

Barnes stops walking and firmly plants his feet in the dirt. He peers down the slope and thinks it must be at least eight meters until it flattens out. That's a big dip – and not one that officially exists.

He crouches down and unfolds his most recent topo map of this area. He easily approximates his location and then doublechecks the contour lines.

The lines are far apart: flat ground. No lines indicate steep terrain. The entire area of forest, not only this location, shows flat contours. To be sure, he checks two older topo maps and finds the same.

The maps could have been written incorrectly, maybe; or altered by HYDRA, like with the cosmodrome. That thought worms under his skin.

Ridiculously, he looks up past the bare treetops: no Faraday cage in the middle of Berlin. Shocking.

Barnes decides to update Reliant, to be safe. He pulls out his phone, opens the Messenger, and shoots her a quick text: "Maps don't match terrain. Moving forward." He logs his GPS location and stores it on his phone.

Reliant's answer is "received." He hadn't expected anything more.

He slides the phone and outdated maps into his backpack, then stands up. He again looks down the jagged slope with its moss-covered rocks, piles of dead leaves, long-fallen branches and logs, and patches of tall, stiff weeds. Not horrendous.

It'll be decidedly worse on the ascent back up. He hadn't brought rope – not for the flat terrain indicated by the maps.

With that thought in mind, Barnes navigates that unpredictable, slippery terrain with casual precision. Should anyone be watching—and no one is, of that he's sure—he would look like a semi-skilled civilian on a day hike. If that hypothetical person would look closer, they would notice that loose rocks don't skitter down the slope, leaves and dirt aren't sunken with boot-print impressions, and barely any sound is made by his descent.

Within minutes, he makes it to the bottom of the slope without so much as a slip or a stumble.

Down here, it's appreciably colder by at least five degrees Celsius. Although it's 1205—midday—frost still crystallizes atop brown leaves and beige grass. Naked tree limbs and that overcast sky provide the only shade.

Fear is still new to him. Something about this place makes that fear seem real, real old.

He resists the urge to draw his SIG Sauer, and he ignores the chill that runs up his back. There's nothing to this place except an abandoned base and bad maps.

Relax.

He gets going, no longer content to take his time in this place. He wants to get in and get the fuck out. Sunset's at 1557: a little over three hours.

As he moves through the forest, it becomes apparent that the maps aren't kinda wrong: they're for a different planet.

There's nothing flat about the terrain. Round hills, shallow valleys, and craggy boulders —in Berlin—chew up the ground. He takes them head-on, operating under the knowledge that a straight line is the shortest route: he powers up those hills, slides down those valleys, and navigates the rocky land with reckless speed.

From tip to tip, this area of Berlin is supposed to be a tad over three klicks. It's only supposed to have taken a couple hours to navigate the easy terrain, find the base, document and log it, and then get back to the car, well before sunset.

After forty worthless minutes, with no end or boundary in sight, he stops moving at the bottom of a dip between hills. His boots sink into half-frozen sludge. His heart takes a moment to settle into a normal rhythm.

He swings his pack off his shoulders and holds it against the side of the hill with his knee. From a small compartment, he pulls out his phone and pins his current GPS position.

Fuck a straight line.

Backpack re-shouldered, Barnes walks the valley easterly for about two klicks, until it finally meets a flat, frosted-grass confluence of gorges. He cuts south and sees only flat forest ahead.

Briefly, he considers checking in with Reliant, but he doesn't quite know what he'd say. With a little luck, he should almost be on top of the base, and, with a little more luck, it'll only take a handful of minutes to gather data and leave. He could still make it back before sunset.

Five minutes later, he comes upon a ledge of loose dirt and hard rock that shouldn't exist here. With a heavy pit in his stomach, he walks to the edge and literally sighs relief.

It's a four-meter drop into leaves and a tangle of exposed, thick, upraised tree roots. In the near distance, maybe 1,400 meters out, metal gleams in the dim sunlight.

The base.

He drops down the ledge, lands silently with bent knees, and slides to his stomach. He leaves his pack on his back and takes out his tactical surveillance scope. The roots are upraised enough that he manages to shimmy underneath them.

Scope to his eye, Barnes focuses it on the gleaming metal. Within the space of seconds, he sees an unmapped pond, a barely identifiable black triangle entrenched in the ground, a rusted Lada automobile, and then something that chills him.

He's not going home tonight.

Barnes slides back as far as he can, then twists fully sideways to ensure his entire body is hidden by the roots. He brings the scope back to his eye and lays picture-perfect still.

The pond is bigger than a puddle, smaller than a lake, a couple meters across and a couple more meters long. The water is deep, gray, and murky. Near the middle of the pond, he strains to make out the black triangle, as it blends almost perfectly with the water; it's metal, maybe, or granite. Manmade.

Once upon a time, something else had been here, marked in time by antiquities. A two-meter tall mass of moldy bricks, covered in moss and vines, to the far left of the pond. That old Lada five meters to the north: windows gone, tires rotted, paint long rusted orange. Carved into a tree to the Lada's right, nearly faded away to time and overtaken by bubbling bark, is the Soviet hammer and sickle.

And that something that spooks him: a couple meters north of the Lada, he spots a mildewed, wooden freight car rotting away into the forest. The barest hint of sun-bleached, molding Polish writing flakes on its side. Polish writing in Soviet Germany, in a place where a railway never was, for all the sense that makes.

That ridiculous fear and instinct to get out of here should have evaporated by now. There's no people, cameras, fences, or buildings. Whatever had once been here is worthless and taken under by the water.

But the maps don't match. A Polish freight car, like the one from the town called Kozerska near Kraków – with the human experiments, the subterranean rail station, and the cracked streets and windowless buildings that scared him, even in 2015 – sits in the middle of east Berlin.

There's something here.

He can feel it. His instincts scream it.

He doesn't dare move his arms, let alone reach for his phone to check in with Reliant. This is why they still use him: to do shit like this.

Using the scope, he snaps photos of the site to the internal storage; the GPS location embeds with each photo. They'll be enough to drive research and intelligence efforts back in western Berlin.

The scope's battery ticks from 98% to 97%. It should hold until morning. He lays and waits, the scope as good as a rifle, and the base as good as a target.

The deep orange sun sinks low and dusk gives way to dark. The night sky is cloudy, dark blue, not a star in sight. The tips of black-branch trees bend in the moonlight.

He shifts the scope to night vision mode; bright green overtakes the landscape.

Although it's late December, it's been warmer than usual, today notwithstanding. Crickets still chirp. Bats still squeak. A couple of owls whistle and hoot back and forth. The wind's rough enough to rattle winter leaves and crackle brittle twigs.

For a moment, he's reminded of his first night alone during the War, unsure of every sound; his eyes had created dark, sinister shapes where nothing existed. That person is long far gone – in a good way.

The engines of commercial jets hum overhead. Small animals forage, birds hunt, and the wind warbles between trees and end-of-season brush. The nocturnal world isn't quiet; it's alive, bustling, soothing.

The hours creep by: 1630 to 1700 to 1800 to 1900 to 2000. He wishes he was in his flat with a book, the TV on for background noise. He wishes he hadn't stayed here. That's all: a wish, maybe a realization that all this isn't –

Crunch, crunch, snap, snap, crunch.

The nocturnal sounds cut out, a stereo needle at the end of its record. A swath of artificial light cuts through the darkness – a powerful flashlight, maybe – and flashes against the tree trunks to his left.

A person stands directly above him, on the ledge.

Barnes doesn't breathe.

Crunch, crunch, snap, snap.

Whoever it is isn't great at whatever it is they're trying to do.

Crunch, crunch.

It's close. It's only one person: the same pattern of steps, the chaos of only two feet pounding through the forest.

CRUNCH.

The person drops onto the ground, a few meters to Barnes' left. It's a solid four-meter drop – not a height a normal human could safely jump. Through the roots, Barnes can only see a dark figure, tall and built.

The light slips and bends across the tree trunks, slow and steady.

Barnes watches, more curious than afraid. But he is afraid.

This isn't a coincidence. This place is remote, lost in a tangle of woods that itself is lost to a long-lost Soviet time. He'd poured over microfilm records, near-ancient local history books, and decades of topographical maps for weeks to pinpoint this general area. People don't come here – and any regular person wouldn't have hiked over those treacherous hills and rocks in the dead of night.

And then – a person who can take a four-meter drop like it's nothing, who damn near walks right over him. Not a coincidence.

This place is monitored. He'd tripped something.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

The footsteps move forward, the light bobbing with them, advancing toward the pond.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

Barnes keeps his position, perfectly hidden under the roots. Any other time, he'd be changing his location and gaining the best strategic advantage, but, this time, although he knows the terrain well, he doesn't know the situation.

Crunch, crunch, snap, snap, snap. It keeps moving away, until it walks into view of his scope.

He sees what he'd originally expected: tall, thickly built, likely male. He's wearing dark, tactical-like clothing and has short, messy, light-colored hair.

Barnes increases the focus and can clearly see an AR-15 assault rifle in the man's left hand. In his right hand – Barnes blinks and looks hard. It's something wide, round, and black; he doesn't know what it could be.

The light turns toward him. Barnes silently palms the scope to avoid a chance reflection off the lens.

In his head, he runs through how this could play, and he plans how long it will take him to draw and aim his weapon, then the best route to escape.

The light turns away, flashes a brilliant blue, and then goes pitch dark.

Barnes brings the scope back to his eye.

Alarmed, he sweeps it across the forest, then zooms out, and then zooms in. He can't find the person.

He makes his heart beat slower and his breathing shallow. This is no time to panic.

Again and again, he methodically scans the forest with the scope and listens to every rustle and crackle around him. The person isn't there.

What the hell doesn't cover it.

A couple years ago, he wouldn't have thought twice; he would've already been there, finding out what the hell had happened. Today, words float inside his head: teamtogetherreport inback-up. A small voice adds to the mix: you're not what you used to be.

His gut tells him to get back to the car and finish this out with Reliant. Unsettled, he has no intention of moving until he has the advantage of sunlight. Also, his mission is to recon the base, especially now that something happened near it. That's the mission, and that's the job. That's his worth.

The battery ticks lower, down to 66%. It'll last through morning.

Barnes returns his attention to the scope, purposefully scanning the forest for infrastructure that would typically support an installation. He doesn't spot cameras, traps, or operatives, nor does he see fences, defense lines, or weapons. Nothing.

He relaxes his body and lets it meld into the dips and curves of the uneven ground. He exhales, loosens his shoulders, settles the scope against his eye, and waits.

His mind wanders, at once both focused on the forest and winding around aimless thoughts.

He thinks of the word indomitable, what he used to be. He wonders if he misses it – and can't arrive at an absolute answer.

He thinks of SHIELD, what he furtively is now. It's been months since he began working with Reliant, and he still doesn't know if he likes it, or if the appeal is in how the work satiates an irreparable part of him.

He thinks of his mom, decades gone, and of her favorite platitude: if you know something is broken, why haven't you repaired it? Back then, she said it about study skills, relationships, simple mistakes. She never dreamed that he'd be beyond her simple repair, and she probably never dreamed that he'd be ruminating over her stupid truisms almost a hundred years later.

If she's up there, he hopes she's not watching.

That minty, cold sensation comes over him again. Goosebumps prickle up and down his skin: his neck, his arm, his thighs. He blinks, body tensing, and focuses in on the motionless branches. The leaves there don't move with the wind.

He hadn't noticed –

The right side of his face smacks into pitted, cracked, moss-grown cement. It tastes like old dust, dead chlorophyll, and chalky gravel. The sun shines brightly and warmly, where, moments ago, it had been the dead of night.

Barnes looks up and finds a familiar, frightening town taken by time. Skeleton, stone buildings. Devoured, gray concrete roads. Beyond that, a hundred kilometers of pure countryside.

Kozerska.

The stagnant air tastes stale, its mustiness sticking to the back of his throat. Kozerska, he knows, has been abandoned for fifty years, and yet there are no animals, no birds, no insects.

In 2014, he'd known it, felt it: this is a bad, wrong place. No one should be here. He doesn't know how the fuck he's here now.

It doesn't matter.

He rolls over, scope in one hand, and an aimed SIG Sauer in the other. He takes a millisecond to confirm who it is that he's killing—black tactical clothes, loaded AR-15, HYDRA helmet, only a meter or so away—and then kills.

BANG!

The gunshot is a beacon: I'm here, right here, come get me.

Barnes shoves his scope into the side pocket of his backpack, flips up to his feet, holsters his SIG Sauer, steals the dead soldier's rifle, and doesn't run. He fucking runs.

A harsh, pulsating siren screams through the air. Voices yell and shout in Russian: "there, over there!" They're the grunts; he can outrun them, no problem.

His pack noisily bounces against his back, up and down, up and down. He should drop it, but it carries his tablet, phone, passport, research on the east Berlin base, and money. It's too valuable to drop.

He pounds down the asphalt road, past tall, white stone, windowless buildings. He cuts left, rounds a building, and sprints down two more streets before making a sharp turn right. The goal is to confuse them enough that they can't find him, and at least give himself enough time to get out of Kozerska and into the countryside. He knows the path to Warsaw.

A bullet ricochets off his left arm. Instantly, he calculates the angle and velocity: there are snipers on the rooftops. The next bullet won't be as wasted.

He zigs and zags as he runs, eyes on the next left turn that will give him a clear shot into the railyard, then into the forest. A bullet whistles past his right ear and shatters brick from the wall next to him.

Barnes picks up speed, maneuvering erratically, and baseball-slides around the corner of a tall, red building. Shards of brick rain over his head.

He runs his right hand through his hair and swipes away the debris. He hopes it still looks okay.

It's a three-hundred meter, open air run to the tree line. At his top speed, it would take nearly thirteen long seconds. So: possibly suicide, unquestionably painful.

Barnes checks the rifle for ammunition and serviceability. Satisfied, he shifts it into single-shoot mode and gets to work.

Everything they are today is because of what he was yesterday. He knows how to unravel them with a few quick pulls of the thread.

He shoots the first sniper in the back of the head, the second through the right eye, and the third through the heart. A hoard of footsteps pound from around the corner, and he waits, moments passing by, until the timing is impeccable.

Standard issue gear includes frag grenades, with a fuse delay of four seconds, an injury radius of fifteen meters, and a fatality radius of five meters. During the War, they were called pineapples. Cute.

Barnes steps around the corner, halts the squad lead with his left hand, and then pulls the pin of one of lead's utility belt pineapples. A simple push launches the soldier into a panicked, backwards stumble.

The entire encounter takes only a second.

Barnes turns and runs, screams cutting through the air, followed by a BANG further and further behind him. He goes faster, sudden anxiety gripping his stomach. He doesn't think all of that was good enough to net him thirteen seconds, not by far.

He can see the forest at the edge of the meadow – through the dead brown weeds, spotted with rotted freight cars, where Steve tackled him years ago.

Then, he'd wanted Steve to disappear to anywhere else in the world. It'd be the greatest gift if Steve could be here with his stupid shield. And a jet. And Natasha and Sam.

Barnes breaches the meadow. The forest is still 150 meters away.

His instincts scream: not going to make it. He knows.

He expects a haze of bullets to the back, or another one of Rumlow's EMPs, or one of HYDRA's tranquilizer stars.

What comes is not any of that.

A solitary pair of steady, quick footsteps fall in line behind his: crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. Barnes doesn't spare the time or speed to look behind him, but he can tell that the person is only a hundred or so meters behind.

How in the fuck.

He's already running as fast as he can, which is far beyond the speed of even the fastest normal human. The person behind him sounds even closer.

The meadow gives way to the forest, and the terrain morphs into the rocky unevenness characteristic of this mountainous swath of Poland. The only problem stems from that "indomitable" thought: he's still not used to running, and the treacherous terrain only serves to slow him down.

A couple years ago, he'd researched this area for weeks: analyzing records, memorizing topography, putting pieces of a decades-old puzzle together to find the hidden subterranean complex. He knows this area.

A tributary of the Tatra River, at the bottom of a 35-meter-deep gorge, is only a klick northeast. It's not ideal, but it gives him his best advantage: he can be underwater for nearly an hour before needing air. It wouldn't be a hiding place but a bona fide means of getting the hell out of here.

Barnes forces his legs to move faster, and then even faster. He darts over rocks, hops over fallen trees, and balances himself against the ever-changing contours of the ground.

The footsteps gain ground on him. The person behind him is faster.

Barnes looks ahead through the splinters of trees, over the sharp rocks and mossy mounds of dirt, and calculates the likelihood of making it in time.

It'll be close enough that he's certain he won't make it. Another rounding error.

He thinks about ending this: turning around and going offensive. His gut says nomistake. Maybe that's the voice of fear.

The pelting of boots reverberates across dead leaves and hollow, rotted logs. A set of heavy breaths mixes with his own and the telltale sound of rushing water.

It's close. So close. It's all so close.

He can see the edge of the forest.

The gurgling of the water, hurried steps behind him, and depleted wheezes of his own inhalations weave into a frenetic percussion. It is fear: unfamiliar, disabling, chaotic.

It's only three meters –

Two meters –

One meter –

The sound of leaves crunching underfoot precede the hand that wraps around Barnes' right bicep. That hand grips Barnes' arm hard and yanks him backwards.

Something agonizingly painful tears through his body, sucks breath out of his chest, throws sparks from his left arm, and dims his vision into gray splotches. It's another EMP.

No one knows where he is. No one will ever find him.

No.

Barnes turns into the grab, shifts his center of gravity, and drops low to the ground. It's enough that the person loses grip, and it's enough that Barnes has a single opening to draw his ankle knife, roar up, and slash through skin.

It connects.

The person soundlessly stumbles backward.

His vision is too blurry to make out the face, but he unmistakably sees blond hair and a thick build. It almost –

Barnes doesn't waste the time trying to get a clearer look. He spins around; left arm a limp, dead weight; and leaps over the gorge's cliff.

He falls, like he's fallen before, again and again in his dreams, in his nightmares, in his daydreams and thoughts.

He sees the brownish-gray of the rock wall and then feels the shock of frigid water. He plunges down, down, down, and sinks, sinks, sinks into murky, muddy river water.

His body buzzes and burns, muscles twitching and contracting. Bubbles spray from his nose, oxygen bleeding from his body. Something stings the back of his right shoulder; other somethings plop, plop, plop next to him in a neat line.

Bullets.

He pushes the pain away and focuses on surviving.

Barnes flips his body, so that he faces the river bottom and the opposite direction of the Tatra. The current rushes against him. It's a risk to move against it, but it's a move that affords him two things: cover and surprise.

Although he can't see the bottom, he kicks himself downward. His legs don't work properly: he consciously forces his feet to move and compels them to find a rhythm. His chest is already burning with the craving for fresh air, and it's been, like, five seconds.

Ignore it.

Daylight drains from the water. The shimmering shadows from the promises of above are the only light he can see. The water turns colder in a distinct way – cold like dark stones, the cold of dark and old.

He unclips HYDRA's rifle and lets it sink.

He stretches out his right hand, shoulder screaming that it's not okay to do that right now, and couldn't ask for anything better: it hits muddy silt. He digs his fingers deep.

Barnes pulls his body parallel to the river bottom, and then begins to drag himself against the current, as if ladder rungs were built into the mud. One pull at a time, he glides through the water, away from the bullets and the fast, blond man.

His lungs ache. His muscles are frozen, unwilling, but he forces them to move. The plates of his left arm grate asynchronously. Dark spots pour into his vision. He shoves it all away, because he knows he's good for this. He's done this. HYDRA made him into this, and he won't let them down when it matters the most.

He pulls with his right hand, counting:

Four, five.

Six, seven.

Eight, nine.

Ten, eleven.

Twelve, thirteen.

He tells himself one-hundred. When he counts to a fair, even one-hundred, he can go up. A handful of years ago, HYDRA would have expected exponentially more, and he would have found a way to give it to them.

Find a way.

He focuses on the numbers and ignores his body's demands. Only the numbers matter. Only the numbers. He counts them two at a time, disciplined in their timing, and pulls himself along the river bottom.

By the time he counts one-hundred, he imagines he's glided a worthless 300 meters, and only that, if he's lucky. But his lungs feel shriveled, his forehead pounds with pressure, his sinuses sting, and his legs and arm muscles burn and seize: there's no choice but up.

His hand leaves the river bottom, and he kicks upward and toward the river bank closest to Kozerska. Up, up, up: his body craves the surface, knows it's coming, and tries to convince his brain that it can't wait any longer.

He knows it can, despite the perpetual, dark spots shadowing his vision.

It has.

It will.

His right hand connects with the submerged bank and sinks into the gritty, cold sediment. He can see daybreak, only a few meters above.

He ascends the rest of the way in a precise manner, using his hand to control his speed. The goal is to avoid coming up with splashes and gasps. Centimeters from the surface, cold water slips over his face, and he lets only his nose break the surface.

Long ago, HYDRA had taught him to control his body against brutality: no screams, no sounds, no movement. Only calm, precision-paced breaths were allowed. This was their purpose.

He doesn't gulp in air. He doesn't gasp or cough or arch his body. He holds himself perfectly still and breathes with precision pace, the sky above hazy and gray. He relaxes his body so it can recover faster.

He hears voices in the near-distance: calm, brief sentences, clipped words of acknowledgment, and words like "north" instead of "south."

Barnes holds position, both because it's too risky to go to shore and because it gives his body more time to recover.

As the voices fade, and as the white clouds above slowly pass, his lungs calm and his heart stops pounding its beats into his ears. His right shoulder aches, his left arm still sporadically shifts and grinds, and his eyes battle against heavy weights sewn into their lids. He can smell his own water-diluted blood.

He thinks of his bed in Berlin and, of all things, Reliant's commentary on the effect of his bedding choices on their unit budget. "You're very expensive."

The voices long out of earshot, Barnes painstakingly swims further upstream until he feels secure enough to pull himself onto the meager, rocky shore.

He looks up 35 tall meters of the rock-gray canyon wall.

His left arm spazzes.

Over the past few years, he's heard a phrase: fuck my life. It might apply here.

Briefly, he weighs swimming upstream against climbing the wall. Upstream gets him deeper into the mountains. Up the wall gets him closer, faster, to Kraków's train station.

He tries to move his left arm, but it's sluggishly responsive at best. When he tries to make a fist, the fingers jerk and lock up, half-curled. Worthless. Also: his right arm burns and bleeds, so there's that mess, too. There's no way.

Barnes decides to split the difference. He begins walking along the uphill shoreline, eyes on the terrain and ears focused on the skies.

As far as he can see, the shore is walkable, though precariously uneven, rocky, and wet. At full energy and physical ability, it wouldn't be the slightest problem. Today, he's noticeably dragging and not so indomitable. Even now, no matter what happens here, he doesn't miss being that.

He misses Natasha, Sam, and Steve. Hell, he even misses Reliant. He misses home and knows so, because instead of pushing the thought of them away, he uses it as motivation to put one foot in front of the other.

One step, then another, then the next, and one more. Shallow, cold water and bits of muddy gravel splash onto his pants. A worry lingers in the back of his mind: if HYDRA doubles back far enough, he's easily tracked.

So be it.

Barnes draws his SIG Sauer and checks it for serviceability. He drops the clip and clears a bullet from the chamber. Water drains from the slide and barrel. He pops the clip back in, then manually cocks and uncocks it. He thinks it'll fire.

If not: well, that usually depends.

After a time, the river bank thickens, and he comes upon an inlet with a few shaded, rocky outcroppings. He approaches the nearest one, finds it to be appropriately deep enough to provide cover, and slides under it. An unhappy brown spider scrambles away.

Barnes unshoulders his soaking wet pack and plops it between his legs. In one swift motion, he unzips the bag and spreads the flap downward.

He pulls out a wad of wet, paper maps, all of them matted together, ink running in thick splotches. Maps of Berlin aren't helpful in the middle of Poland; these maps in particular may never be helpful again. He sets them aside.

His falsified German passport is soaked but in appreciably better condition. It's embarrassingly useable. He starts a pile separate from the maps, and then adds a handful of Euros and a credit card to the new pile.

His scope is still good, though its battery is nearing 50%. He powers it off, on, and then back off to conserve battery. He clips it to his belt.

The screen of his tablet is smashed. With his left index finger, he pokes shards of glass onto the ground. It's pretty well fucked, so he sets it next to the maps.

His phone is the worst of it. It's crushed. Literally, crushed. The screen is so far gone that its circuit board and wires are exposed. For kicks, he presses the "on" button, then the "home" button. Of course, nothing happens.

Without the phone or tablet as links to SHIELD, he's on his own. For the first time in a long time, it actually matters. He's gotten used to having people. A team. That acquired taste for luxury won't serve him too well.

The phone goes into the "too fucked to matter" pile.

So, he's got a watch, a SIG Sauer, an empty knife holster strapped to his ankle, a passport, some money, and a record-y scope.

Way back when, soon after a train to Brussels lead to a train to Berlin, he'd called it that – a record-y scope – in the meager hope of breaking some sort of ice with Reliant. She'd looked him square and snapped, "It's a tactical surveillance scope. I'm not here to fuck around with you." There was no doubt in his mind: in April 2014, he'd killed someone she'd known, cared about. And Natasha knew it.

He didn't like Reliant, and she didn't like him, but he still wished to god she was fucking around with him right here, right now.

With food.

He didn't bring food. Or cigarettes.

God damn it.

His hair also feels dry. He hates it when it's dry.

Without thinking too much, he reaches toward a shallow pool of river water with his right hand, and bites back a gasped groan. There's a bullet in his right shoulder, and, without adrenaline, it hurts. He still dips his hand in the water and swipes it through his hair.

He decides not to mess with his shoulder. He'll deal with it later.

Barnes packs up: everything still good in one part of his bag, and everything too fucked to matter in a separate part. He pushes the errant shard of glass from his tablet into the water.

He stands onto stiff, aching legs, shoulders his pack, and doublechecks the shelter for obvious signs of activity. It looks good enough.

He stands still and listens – no voices, no aircraft, nothing human. He hears the gushing water, the calls of birds, and the scampering of winter critters. Although Barnes doesn't trust it, staying put is a death sentence. He's gotta keep moving.

Hugging the canyon wall, he hikes along rock and gravel. The incline is subtle but perceptible, nothing terrible. He barely cares where the tributary takes him, so long as it's away from HYDRA's territory and somewhere he can either blend in or find quick transportation.

It's a funny thought to have, when not even thirty minutes later, he glimpses something that violently rattles and shakes him.

Barnes ducks down, back flat against the wall, and conceals himself under a shallow outcropping.

Panic crawls up his arm.

A tattered red marker is nailed into the rock face. To a civilian, it would be a curious novelty, maybe something to put a nice filter on and stick on Snapagram or whatever. To anyone with a hint of recon experience, it's a surveillance camera guide.

He hasn't been walking out of HYDRA territory. He's been walking deeper into it.

That's the only panicked, uncontrolled thought he allows himself.

Briefly, he contemplates going back the way he'd come. His instincts scream no, not that they're exactly loving the alternative. It's a bad situation, either way.

That's as far as he goes: a cold, realistic understanding that this predicament could hardly be worse.

But he knows HYDRA, and he knows that a camera here means that something is here. And that something must have an easier point of access than through the bottom of a gorge.

Barnes clenches his left fist, then wiggles his fingers – thinking of Stark, of all people, when he does it – and is happy to find that he's regained some dexterity. Maybe not enough to pull a trigger, or enough to scale a rock wall, but enough to smash a face.

He closes his eyes and takes stock of his body: muscles are stiff, some downright nonresponsive. He feels the bullet wound, a heavy, conflicted pull of exhaustion, and the thrum of adrenaline. His breathing and heartrate are fine. Good enough.

Resolved, Barnes steps out of hiding, draws his sidearm, turns, and pinpoints the camera – affixed high up on the rock wall, lens aimed at the marker. He precisely plugs a bullet straight into the lens—look, his firearm still works—and continues to calmly walk up river.

Not even three minutes later, he sees what HYDRA has here.

He blinks and looks harder, doublechecking himself.

It can't be that easy.

But it is.

It's really there: an oblong, new metal grate built into the rock, a few centimeters above where the rock face meets the river.

Barnes yanks it open, its hinges whining. Water dribbles from the edge of a dark, round tunnel constructed of pitted concrete. He peers inside of it and finds its size remarkable. It has to be at least 2.5 meters tall and 1.5 meters wide – man-sized.

It goes somewhere.

Without wasting any more time, he steps inside and walks.

After a few minutes, the river far behind, not a glimmer of sunlight pierces the tunnel. Even with his enhanced vision, he can't see the walls, or even his hands. It's strange that there isn't emergency lighting – for what almost has to be an emergency egress tunnel.

He keeps walking, right fingers dragging against the tunnel's wall, ears focused on finding threatening sounds. His heart beats too loudly for that.

His throat contracts, as if something has wrapped around it. He dares takes his hand from the wall to check – and, of course, all he finds is his own cold skin and a perfectly intact windpipe.

Creak-creak, creak-creak, creak-creak. Just like the light in the cosmodrome room, when the world stretched between it, a hallway, and a lightless, cold cell.

Barnes takes a deep breath and slowly lets it back out. The world calls it PTSD. He calls it a really fucking bad time for this.

Creak-creak, creak-creak. That tight feeling around his throat again. Raw, throbbing pain around his wrist. Exhaustion chiseling him hollow from the inside out.

Not now.

He puts one foot in front of the other, fingers dragging. A familiar numbness overtakes his body: buzzing and vibrating and pulling him above himself. It takes every second of training and conditioning across seven decades for him to keep advancing forward, but he does: a step, then a step, another step.

Creak-creak, creak-creak, creak-creak.

Time bends and warps: seconds or hours or minutes pass, or maybe no time at all. He floats, body numb, and walks, no different than a drifting plane set to auto-pilot, until his left boot drags through standing water.

Water.

He stops and realizes that the tunnel has changed, almost imperceptibly. Damp, mildewed moisture hangs thickly, almost claustrophobically, in the thin air. The edges of his fingertips collect cool beads of moisture from the wall.

He thinks of his research from years ago and zeroes in on a hazy memory: a body of water named Lake Kręta tucked between two mountains, uphill from Kozerska, nothing to be found except water and trees.

This isn't an egress tunnel.

It's a Soviet-era spillway.

Potentially, it could be a nice way to scale the gorge, only he has a sinking feeling that he knows what type of spillway this must be.

It doesn't change the fact that he's advancing into HYDRA territory, while wounded, tired, and mentally compromised. He doesn't see another way. So, he keeps going.

As he walks, the expected incline is barely there and certainly not as steep as he was hoping. He's not surprised. He knows exactly what it means and exactly what he's going to need to do to get out of the tunnel.

Creak-creak, creak-creak.

Barnes stops walking and purposefully drops to his knees, palms flat on the damp ground. The fingers of his left hand dig into the rock, deeper and deeper, until he hears a palm full of crushed bits of sediment and shale give way. He throws the broken rock down the tunnel—pop-pop-pops of drizzle echoing further and further away—and twists into a sitting position.

He stares into the darkness, alone but for his own breaths and the hollow echo of resonating ambient noises. Stress, fear, frustration, and dread bundle in his right shoulder and twist tight, aching knots into his neck.

He feels powerless and out of control. Helpless, even.

Of all the stupid things to think of, he thinks of Brazil – of the chance, of the wasted opportunity, and of this mistake. He thinks of Steve and of that last, charged night – of what it meant to make it home.

Of what it would mean to make it home. Or worse: to not.

He will.

Barnes stands and goes.

Twenty interminable minutes later, he comes to the drop shaft. A pinprick of light shines from a round hole thirty meters above, a straight vertical ascent from his position.

Barnes finds the wall where the spillway conduit meets the drop shaft. The light doesn't reach this far down, and so he relies on touch alone. The wall isn't smooth but it's also not quite uneven. Not an easy climb.

He spares a moment to think through what he knows from the past and has observed from today.

Could it be so easy?

Right hand on the wall, he walks forward only a few steps before his fingers slide against a cold, thick metal rung. He reaches up, shoulder muscles shaking and screaming, and confirms that an access ladder is affixed to the wall. Its metal feels smooth and solid, almost new. There's something –

He has that thought only a half a second before he hears a loud, short lurch – something heavy scraping across a floor. It hadn't come from above him, or from back down the tunnel. It came from a point behind the wall a meter to his right.

Then: muffled voices, too indistinct to understand, but their tones casual and at rest.

Barnes takes his hand from the ladder's rung. He grabs his almost-forgotten scope, flips it on, and looks through it.

The green, night vision tint illuminates a tall silo – the drop shaft. He slowly turns, seeing the tunnel, then a blank wall, and then, unmistakably, a rounded rectangular hatch door next to the ladder.

Maybe it's a data center, like the one where he'd killed Brock Rumlow. Maybe it's another R&D lab, like the one in Latvia. Maybe it's where HYDRA soldiers live, or maybe it's another base where HYDRA does more experiments on humans.

It's something. Everything here is something more than he'd ever realized, and that – that almost scares him.

The GPS coordinates are logged in the scope. He takes a handful of pictures with it, just to be sure.

Any other day but today, he'd rip the door from its hinges and tear their secret base apart.

Barnes turns off the scope, clips it back onto his belt, and pulls himself up the ladder, a rung at a time. His left hand is more responsive, the fingers moving almost smoothly as they softly clang-clang-clang against the rungs. He hopes his right arm can hold out long enough.

The pinprick of light grows bigger, wider, and brighter; the air, fresher and warmer. As it does, his right shoulder becomes stiffer and harder to move. Every next reach for a next rung requires more focus and raw willpower.

He doesn't dare stop moving. It's not panic or fright; it's the knowledge that a wasted second, or a single misstep, could make the difference between going home or going back.

He won't go back.

Hand over hand, step after step, he nears the top of the shaft. He's close enough to see that the sky is darkening into a bright navy blue, the moon a slivered crescent. He's close enough to smell the scent of fresh, cold water, while a brisk breeze carries the transient smell of fish. It reminds him of Sheepshead Bay, of another home and another place where he won't ever return.

He doesn't hear voices, breathing, or blood pumping. As he climbs, he listens for the sounds of anything – but only picks up on birds squawking, water plopping, and the dull echo of air blowing through the shaft.

In a moment, he crafts a plan, and, in less than a moment, he executes it. His left hand crests the top of the shaft, and he launches himself up and over it into a smooth roll that propels him into the frigid water of Lake Kręta.

As he rolls, he catches a quick glimpse of something very interesting: another black triangle sticking out of the water, like the one by the forest pond.

His right boot connects with the outer concrete shaft, and he springs off of it, pushing himself as deep into the lake as possible.

Down, down, down, his right arm extended, his hand waiting for silt, feet kicking. Down, down, down – and bingo.

His hand sinks into slimy, sandy mud. He pulls his right shoulder in close, protectively, and uses his left hand and both feet to slowly swim the 20-meter length of the lake bottom.

West is mountains and forest, then a string of villages on the way to Michašta – and then a quiet train to Berlin. That's the plan, then: head west, steal the first vehicle he can, and get to the train station.

Gradually, the lake bottom slants upward, and the depth turns more and more shallow. Dim rays of the setting sun drill through the water. Still, he doesn't hear voices or footsteps – nothing that alarms him.

He still doesn't know that he trusts it.

The shore of the lake is a mix of natural rock and muddy sand. He rapidly scales it and slips into the evening dusk of the thick forest.

Like Berlin, the trees here are bare, dark sticks that bluntly contrast the deep midnight blue of the sky and the brilliant, searing simmer of the setting sun. A swarm of bats zoom through the air, while bursts of translucent white snowflakes melt into spits of rain.

Barnes huff out an intentional breath, to see its white puff dissolve. He doesn't bother his shoulder by running his hand through his hair.

He's suddenly aware of a number of things: how stiff his shoulder is, how cold it is here, of how cold it's been, and of how his pants and shirt uncomfortably cling to his body.

Maybe that will-be stolen car will have dry clothes in it.

That car is over three hours from the lake, and it doesn't have dry clothes in it.

It's a 2000-something gray Volkswagen Jetta, with orange rust creeping around the wheel wells.

It's sitting in an unlit, gray-gravel driveway, hood-to-siding close to a two-story gray-stone house trimmed with flaking cornflower-blue shutters.

The sun long gone, he feels at ease in the darkness, and even more comfortable sliding into someone else's car. Barnes doesn't need to hotwire the ignition or even tip the keys out of the visor; the scratched, black square FOB is already plugged into the ignition, a single red-rimmed house key dangling from the ring.

Barnes twists the key, fires up the ignition, and cranks up the heat. He calmly backs the car out of the driveway, tires crinkling and crunching the gravel, and pulls onto the empty rural road.

His lower back pops as it settles into the lackluster cushion of the seat. The rest of his body wants to pull over, stretch out, and rest.

In the rearview mirror, the house's lights remain dark. Its occupants are either gone or asleep. He hopes for "gone," so at least they might have another vehicle besides the one he's stolen.

Steve would call it "borrowing."

Miss you. The automatic thought surprises him.

As he turns onto the main road to Michašta, alone on a dark stretch of two-lane highway, his body aching and eyes drooping, he wonders how Steve's been doing. How Sam is coping. Where they are, what they're doing, what their lives are like.

At 0430, he parks the car in an empty, dim parking lot near Michašta's station. He cuts the engine and sits. Outside, an expressway roars close by, vehicles whizzing across smooth asphalt every few seconds. In the parking lot, he hears a low-pitched buzz from a dark-yellow, flickering light pole.

His right shoulder has stiffened completely and won't move.

He leans his forehead against the steering wheel, stretching his taut neck muscles, and closes his eyes. He tumbles into the kind of sleep where it's not really sleep at all. He can still hear the buzz of the light and the whiz of the traffic, and then new sounds: car horns beeping, loud voices lighting up the morning before the sun catches up, and the piercing eee-oh, eee-oh, eee-oh of a police siren approaching closer and closer and close –

Barnes snaps awake, a deep breath frozen in his chest.

Eee-oh, eee-oh, eee-oh!

That's real. Getting closer.

God fucking damn it – he's sleeping in a stolen car, bloody, filthy, and damp, with a loaded gun in the backseat. In Europe. He's done stupider things, but this makes the top five.

He sits still and waits, a quick plan already crystallized: nonlethally incapacitate the officer, ditch the car, and disappear low into the city. Michašta isn't big enough to hide him for long, but for a day, he'll be –

The sirens turn west and bleed away into the night, dimmer and dimmer, until they're gone.

Barnes lets that breath go.

He flips the ignition key a notch. The digital clock lights back up on the dash: 0502 built with lime green pixels shaped like numbers. Not terrible.

Barnes gets out of the car, grabs his bag, and numbly walks nine dull, dizzying blocks to the train station.

Inside the station, the schedule says Michašta to Berlin departs at 0630 with a scheduled arrival of 1403, with a ton of stops but not one change for him. He thinks it sounds like a fantastic opportunity to catch up on sleep. At a touchscreen kiosk, he buys passage in a private cabin, with a little less than an hour to burn.

His stomach grumbles.

A shower and a good look at his shoulder would be fucking wonderful.

A change of clothes—and dry socks, especially dry socks—would be fantastic.

Food and a cigarette.

Hair gel.

Fucking done.

On the kiosk, Barnes taps "mapa," then "sklepy." A long list of stores fills the screen, and, with a tiny spark of hope, he taps on "Tesco." Hours: 24/7. The map indicates it's a few blocks to the west. Barnes taps the "home" button to clear the screen and heads out of the station.

The sun is still below the horizon, but the streets are lit well by tall streetlights. He finds Tesco without trouble.

Inside, the lights are too bright and weigh heavy on his eyes. The aisles are long and damn near endless.

He quickly navigates the aisles for basics: deodorant, hair gel, antibacterial wipes, gauze, tape, baby wipes, two small kitchen towels, a t-shirt, jeans, socks, and underwear. In the food section, he picks up seven random deli wraps and five tall bottles of water. At the checkout, he grabs a newspaper, fresh off the press by the smell of the ink, as well as a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.

Outside, on a bench in a dark area by the store, he tears into the wraps and finishes every bite within five minutes. The waters go as quickly, the bottles crumpling thin. He throws away the plastic in the nearest recycling container, then ducks behind one of the store's pillars and lights up glorious cigarette after cigarette.

He closes his eyes and inhales every particle of smoke, holding it, letting it take him down, before slowly exhaling. He doesn't understand how nicotine still affects him, while alcohol does nothing, but what the hell. He's not complaining.

He drops a stub, steps on it, and lights up another.

By now, Reliant should have noted the credit card transactions coming out of Poland. He wonders if she's already put out the "holy fuck, what's he doing" alert. More to the point, he wonders how short the leash is – will he be asked "what did you find?" or "what were you doing?"

He's exhausted enough to expect the latter, hands down. Also: he can't fucking answer the first question.

Barnes visually scans the street and thinks no HYDRA. It's weird, maybe, that they didn't grab him at the dam, or follow him here, or –

Stop.

They're not here. He made it out. In a few hours, SHIELD can take care of it.

He checks his watch and sees that he only has twenty minutes. He walks back to the station without much time to spare.

The train comes early, and, almost surprisingly, he boards without trouble. He can only imagine what he looks and smells like, but the first-class private cabin ticket masks sin, he's learned.

Door closed, curtains drawn, he immediately strips and wipes down. Flecks of dirt and bits of gravel and dead leaves sprinkle to the carpet. He pulls on the underwear and pants, leaving his feet bare. New t-shirt in hand, he debates on if he cares to worry about his shoulder right now.

He really wants to sleep, and the shoulder will heal. He can hear Natasha, and Sam, and probably Steve say "So?" It's a good thing they're not here to yell at him.

He pulls on the gray t-shirt, then runs a blob of gel through his dry, formless hair. And that, just that hair gel doing what he wants it to do, is enough to drain his body of tension, ease his mind of worry, and allow him to settle into the seat and close his eyes as a human, rather than a HYDRA asset being put down until the next mission.

Barnes listens to the smooth whoosh of the train gliding across the tracks and to the soft thrum of the humming engine. He finds solace in the peaceful rhythms and doesn't know the moment he falls asleep.

He dreams of Steve sinking into the inky, murky water again. This time, Barnes frantically grabs at empty water, coming up with handfuls of red tulips from the river's depths – but never Steve. They never make it to the gray cobblestone shore, never to the orange leaves, never to the black luminaire and brass fountain.

Long after the sun has risen and the air outside has turned a little less bone-deep cold, Barnes startles awake, an unsettling sense of dread weighing heavy.

His eyes instantly adjust to the dimly lit cabin, and every one of his systems work in sync to hastily determine that no threat exists.

The wind outside whistles against the train's metal hull.

Barnes huffs out a puff of air and rubs his still-heavy eyes. He can't remember the dream, but there's something dreadful gnawing in the back of his mind. It feels different than a memory but like something he should know. Something obvious – and bad.

Barnes slips the curtain open a sliver. Droplets of early morning rain cling to the window.

He hadn't slept for shit, evidently. It can't be any later than 0900.

Five hours to go.

Barnes relaxes back into the seat, although his right shoulder is extremely unhappy with the unnecessary, minute motion. The raw nerves throb, but he really doesn't want to mess with it.

He glances at the folded newspaper from the store, and also doesn't want to mess with that.

He closes his eyes and enjoys the immediate, sweet relief. In the darkness of his own mind, he wonders – what the hell happened yesterday?

How did I go from Berlin to Kraków?

What are they doing?

That's not the right question. He'd known in 2015 that Kozerska was a bad place; he'd felt it in how panic shredded through his skin and in how that feeling—bad, wrong, leave —had eclipsed every irrational thought, until it only mattered that he made sure Steve and Sam got out of there.

So, the right question might be: What have they always been doing there?

In 2015, he'd found an abandoned research base there. The hallways had been pitch black except for the pinprick of his weapon's fading light. The walls had been crumbling and the doors creaking and rusted. Only, it hadn't really been abandoned. On the ninth subfloor, he'd killed a starved, rabid human experiment and been caught on camera doing it.

He'd run, hidden, waited for SHIELD, and then gone back in to help Steve and Sam. Then, he'd run again and hadn't stopped running until he'd boarded a train much like this one, on a track to as far away as possible as quickly as possible. He'd never thought about going back.

Barnes' eyes open.

He'd only seen a sliver of that sprawling complex. He hadn't explored at least a dozen subfloors, or barely any of the underground subway station, and not even an inch of the town.

Newfound, restless energy surges through his body. He sits up straighter, mind rolling with thoughts, conclusions, and questions – but circling back and forth around only one: What the fuck are you doing there?

Too wired to sleep, Barnes pulls the window curtain open and watches the winter-gray Polish countryside blur by. That thought repeats, over and over, as if the words themselves contain the answer: what are you doing there, what are you doing there, what are you doing there?

Poland gives way to Germany, Frankfurt comes and Frankfurt goes—you fucking idiot, you drove it straight into a wall—then Jacobsdorf, the forested expanse of Glieningmoor, Fürstenwalde and tiny glimpses of the Spree, until the outskirts of Berlin blend into rows of houses.

Kurpark whizzes by. He can see the edge of Köpenick and Müggelheimer Damm but none of its mysteries.

What are you doing there?

The train passes the stadium, buzzes past Biesdorfer Baggersee, and curves around Rosendelfer Ring, before gently pulling into Berlin-Lichtenberg station.

Home.

His watch says they're early even: 1415.

Quickly, he puts on his socks and shoes, shoves everything else into his bag, and stiffly departs the train, only to buy a train ticket to the Berlin Reinhardtstraße station, close to his flat.

About 30 minutes later, he walks across a pedestrian bridge over the Spree, then down Albrechstraße past a lot of small restaurants and coffee shops that make his stomach rumble with hunger, and finally to his narrow, brick street.

In his building, Barnes trudges up the creaky wooden staircase, hangs a left, walks across the noisy floor, and stops outside of his flat's door. His hands uselessly pat the empty pockets of his new pants.

"Son of a fucking god damn motherfucking bitch," he breathes.

His keys are somewhere at the bottom of a river in Poland. He hadn't even –

Fuck.

This day can't get worse. It can't.

Barnes breaks the door handle, steps inside, and shoves his backpack against the door to keep it closed. He latches the door for good measure, then squats down and takes the scope out of the pack.

He hooks it up to his laptop, authenticates in to SHIELD's secure network, pings Reliant, and begins uploading the contents of the scope. He opens the messenger screen and types dinner sounds good; somewhere with IPA.

It's code for: need to meet ASAP.

With that going, he starts a pot of coffee, then strips down naked, leaving a path of cheap supermarket clothes all the way to the bathroom. He turns the shower on full blast, full heat, steps in, and melts.

Dirt, specks of leaves and gravel, and blood swirl down the drain. He runs his left hand through his hair and leaves it on the nape of his neck, the muscles of his back jumping from the shock of the water.

He lets the water pound into the shoulder wound, as painful as it is. Three dark clots of blood hit the tub and roll stubbornly down the drain, followed by a stream of fresh, red blood. It's running clear and bright, which is good.

While his shoulder runs its course, he plops a blob of shampoo into his hair, rubs it around with his left hand, rinses, and gets out. He wants coffee and a talk with Reliant more than he wants the luxuries of home.

He dries off, stuffs a messy wad of gauze into the wound in his shoulder, gets dressed in black and gray wools and cottons, runs cream through his hair, pours a cup of coffee, and checks on his laptop. The upload is still running—at 76%—and Reliant hasn't messaged back yet.

"Come the fuck—"

The date on his laptop is wrong. It's four days ahead.

It needs reset, of course. Out of curiosity, Barnes goes over to his bag, grabs this morning's newspaper, and sets it down next to the laptop. He takes a few gulps of coffee before glancing at the date on the paper.

Four days ahead.

"What the hell."

He's exhausted – maybe his brain has it backwards. Mentally, he runs through it.

The mission began on Tuesday morning. He spent the night in the forest, inching into Wednesday. Then he magically disapperated or something to daytime Poland and made it to Michašta by Thursday morning. Today should be Thursday.

The laptop and paper say Monday.

"What the hell," he repeats, hearing the panic in his voice.

Had he blacked out? He's lost hours while drifting on memories, but never whole days. A worse thought crosses his mind: HYDRA had gotten him, did something, and sent him on his way.

He shakes off that thought. If HYDRA managed to get ahold of him, they'd keep him, no question.

Barnes locks onto one detail: it'd been daytime in Poland, when it'd been nighttime in Berlin. It had to have happened then.

What the hell are they doing?

The upload chimes: 100%.

Still nothing from Reliant. After four days of being off the grid, he can only guess what measures she's taken and what theories are being thrown around. And all he's got is a stupid story about time travel and teleportation that sounds ridiculous in his own head.

Wonderful: he can hand in some Harry Potter books as a mission report. Easy.

That aside, this is big. The weight of it feels much like it had during the War, when he couldn't believe his eyes – and, later, when the mass graves, human experimentation laboratories, and maps filled with HYDRA installations seemed too overpowering and devastating to overcome.

For now, he does all he can do: drains his cup of coffee, while absentmindedly drawing circles around the newspaper's date and waiting for Reliant. After a few minutes, he tosses the pen onto the floor, leans over the table, and buries his head into his arms.

His shoulder can't decide if the stretch of muscles hurts or feels good.

He closes his eyes and dozes, head spinning in loops and dives.

Chirp-chirp.

Barnes uses a hand to pull his laptop closer and turn the screen toward him. He raises his head high enough to use one eye to read the message from Reliant: 1700, Omega 2.

Not a whole lot of time to get there.

He drags himself out the door.

Omega 2 is a small flat down Köthener Street, near the Park. To get there, he takes the bus to Leipziger. It's SOP to walk the rest of the way, in case someone happens to be following.

Barnes walks toward Potsdamer Platz, the reaching skyscrapers glittering down the street. He rounds a corner and cuts through the backside of Leipziger Plaza, toward Erna-Berger-Straße, and juts through a parking lot with a few cars parked in it.

He comes up on a round, concrete plaza, encased by a half-circle of tall white and gray buildings filled with shops, restaurants, and offices. He walks its sidewalk, ignoring passersby and the rumbling zoom of traffic next to him, his thoughts once again back to what the hell are you doing there?

What are you—

A fucking car spinning through the fucking air fucking hits the left side of his fucking body. It propels him into the air, its 1400 kilos of weight absolutely outmatching him.

His back hits a brick-and-glass building, pain splintering up through his neck and into his head. Shards of glass pelt against his head and face.

The car, its metal red hot, heaves into his chest and abdomen, pushing and pressing and burning, until it finally, finally crashes to the sidewalk.

It lands on its driver's side, glass crunching, metal crushing.

Barnes topples on top of the crumpled car. His ears ring and vision blurs. He smells burnt plastic, acrid smoke from an explosive, and cooked flesh.

He blinks, vision clearing only marginally, and looks inside the windowless car door. In the front two seats, he sees two dead people. In the backseat, he finds a boy of about nine: bloody, glassy-eyed, but breathing and alive.

His training urges him to forget the kid, get away from the car, and evaluate the threat. His brain demands a weapon and asks why he's been wandering around anywhere without a sidearm.

Something else entirely, something from somewhere inside of him, says out loud, "Give me your hand" and that something else entirely extends his right hand toward the kid.

To his own ears, his voice is a thick echo from faraway. That sharp, splintering pain going up his neck builds and builds, a horrible pressure mounting inside the right side of his forehead. His fingers are numb, which makes two hands he can't feel.

None of it matters. Only the mission matters, and his mission is this kid.

This kid, who doesn't move. It's shock, and it's okay.

Barnes reaches into the car, his right shoulder and stomach uncomfortably pressing into the door, and manages to grab the kid's red jacket by the very tips of his fingers.

The kid doesn't react, and that's still okay. Barnes pulls him up, a weightless 35 kilos, and slides him through the window opening. A glossy, red burn slicks down the left side of the boy's face and neck; glass shards are embedded in his cheek.

"Es ist okay."

Bullets plink plink plink against the car.

With those bullets, the world catches up.

Screams of bystanders. The pattering of shoes running across the concrete. Police and ambulance sirens wailing a few blocks away – eee-oh, eee-oh, eee-oh. Toxic black smoke curling into the air, tingling the back of his throat.

Through that smoke, through the flickering black blurs of his vision—not now, not now, bad time, not now—he sees a group of black-clothed figures, all carrying rifles, and one of them –

A hollow-point bullet hits his left shoulder; another plunges into his left thigh. Neither are very consequential to him.

Barnes jumps off the car, the boy in his arms, and runs toward the Clovis restaurant down the sidewalk. He doesn't know if anyone is still inside, but, with him, the kid is dead.

Bullets whistle past his body. He hears the distinct sound of an RPG-17 being loaded, and he hears the pop when it's fired. He keeps running, because maybe if he can save this kid, if he can make one difference, he can –

One of the sirens goes dead: a shrieking eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee as it cycles down, the grinding scraaaaaatch as its car is propelled across asphalt, and a booming, shaking explosion when the vapors in its fuel tank ignite into a scorched-metal fireball.

It's out of his playbook.

He keeps running, a guttural moaning sound coming from the boy. He's only a couple meters from the restaurant when he hears a unique whistling sound.

It's the sound of smooth metal cutting a clean path through the smoky air.

It's a sound he's known for more than seventy years.

It's a sound he helped create, while fucking around with his best friend in 1943's Italy. How to make a flying pie tin work for you but why no fucking pie, Steve.

Barnes spins around, shifts the boy into the crook of his right arm, and catches Steve's shield with his left hand.

It's all-black: no stripes, no star, no color.

Back near the destroyed car, Barnes sees a figure standing inside the smoke: broad-shouldered, tall, thicker than fucking Tolkien. He's got blond hair, Steve's face, and is wearing all black – no stars, no spangle. He's armed for war, with an AR-15 cradled in his hands.

Another piece of yesterday's puzzle slides together.

Barnes can't breathe, can't move, can't think. The world begins and ends with one reality: HYDRA has Steve.

Eight months. It's only been eight months. How –

Steve aims the rifle.

Barnes turns and dashes for the restaurant, pushing it all away. Everything.

He feels a sting in his lower back. It's only a sting.

He makes a sharp turn and yanks open the restaurant's locked door. He hears crying, gasps, and whispered prayers. The first person he sees is a guy, maybe 40, huddling underneath a booth.

Barnes gently sets the boy down next to that booth. In German, he says, "His parents are dead. Take him and stay hidden."

When he turns back around, Steve is already inside the restaurant, weapon aimed.

Heart skipping, sweat beading, Barnes wastes no time: he runs toward Steve, black shield up, bullets ricocheting, and slams into him at full speed.

Steve budges only a meter or two, barely out the door, his left hand wrapped around the top of the shield. Barnes' street shoes don't provide enough traction to strong-arm Steve the rest of the way.

Face to face, Barnes tries to find something of his friend. Steve's expression is blank, but his eyes are – angry and hate-filled. 

"You've killed people," he tries, and fails.

Nothing: not a flicker, not a blink, not fucking anything. Which is great, absolutely great, because Barnes remembers the highway bridge and the helicarrier, and he remembers being the same fucking thing.

"Please don't make me do this," he tries again, and fails again.

Steve tries to twist the shield out of Barnes' hands, but Barnes uses the move against him: leveraging his body the opposite way, ripping the shield out of Steve's hand, dipping down, grabbing the sidearm out of Steve's left thigh holster, and back-kicking Steve square in the chest and straight through the restaurant's glass door.

Something in Barnes' back tears; he goes down to one knee, fingertips splayed on the tile floor, oxygen harder and harder to come by. Droplets of sweat drip onto his hand.

He pushes himself up, resolved to see this through – for Steve.

Outside, Steve's not alone. Coming up behind him, there are at least sixteen HYDRA soldiers, armed and ready.

They are…not fucking around today.

If they start firing, people in the restaurant are going to die. People in every one of the buildings will die. Bullets aren't neat, aren't controllable. They rip through walls. He knows.

He's got a nine-millimeter with an unknown amount of ammunition; a couple new bullet holes in his body; and a shield. Less than optimal.

Barnes looks beyond what he has and almost instantly sees a useable weapon. It's about five meters to his right, almost dead center between him and HYDRA. It won't stop Steve, but, if he can get there, it'll stop most of the others.

He sprints.

Bullets fly. If some hit him, he doesn't notice.

His eyes are only on the empty, green car five meters to his left – the thing he can make a weapon, the way HYDRA'd trained him. Anything can be a weapon.

Four meters out, he picks up speed, his injured thigh beginning to burn, and then, two meters out, he jumps feet-first at the bottom of the driver's side of the car.

The car hurtles toward the sixteen HYDRA soldiers, side-over-side, glass shattering, metal crunching, asphalt gouging. Barnes transitions into a low back handspring, and then uses his left hand to spring his momentum into another sprint: behind the rolling car, nine-millimeter ready to go.

As expected, they don't see him. Six of them are on the ground; some bloody and injured, some already dead. Barnes shoots: one bullet to kill each person, calmly progressing from soldier to soldier. Three of them die before the rest of them notice.

Barnes throws Steve's shield at the front of the group, then kills the fourth nearest him by ripping out her trachea. He keeps ahold of her body as a new shield. It's dirty, but, today, necessary.

He drops the nine-millimeter and uses her AR-15 to shoot three others. Her body is pelted with bullets, one after another after another. Flashes of metal spark from his hologrammed left arm: plink, plink, plink, plink.

He kills the last four standing, unclips the AR-15, drops his human shield, and executes the six soldiers that had been hit by the car.

Even though Steve is still here, somewhere, Barnes stupidly turns around and looks at the bodies, at the blood, at the destruction. He hates the person that can kill so easily and efficiently. It doesn't matter why. It only matters that he had and that he does.

Sixteen people.

That's all the time he has to angst over that.

Barnes spins and raises his left arm, batting Steve's shield away. He doesn't care to see where it lands. His eyes find and lock onto Steve.

None of this was ever supposed to have touched Steve. But it has. It has.

Barnes flips the rifle to single-shot. "We're not doing this again."

Like Steve ever listens.

Steve runs toward Barnes, and Barnes gets off three shots—right arm, stomach, right thigh—before Steve is too close. Barnes raises the rifle and brutally brings its butt down hard into the side of Steve's head.

In one smooth motion, he lets go of his rifle and grabs onto Steve's, twisting its strap into an X, then front-kicking Steve square in the chest with his right leg. Something crunches under Steve's jacket – not bone, because something blue and bright sizzles right after the crunch.

Part fear, part rage flashes across Steve's face. Barnes doesn't waste time wondering.

The strap snaps, at the same time Steve grabs Barnes' leg with both hands. Steve tries to flip him down, but Barnes taught Steve that, and hell no.

He uses the momentum from Steve's attempted countermaneuver, with a little added oomph from his waning left leg, to launch himself over Steve's head, pivot around, and garotte the body of the rifle against Steve's throat.

Steve's hands wrap around the rifle and try to pull it away, but Barnes has the infinite benefit of his left arm. Nothing and no one moves that arm.

Barnes uses the time to move them around in a full 360° circle, so he can check for other threats.

A building is on fire, billowing thick, black smoke. That police car is burning through black plumes of rubber. Through all of the smoke, he doesn't—can't—see anybody. He hears sirens and the distinct whap-whap-whap of an approaching helicopter, but that's all.

It's only him and his brother, locked in another vicious dance.

His left arm gives. The surprise shocks him for a second he can't afford.

Steve elbows him in the face and rotates, combat knife drawn and extended. Barnes feels it cut through his street clothes, dig into the skin of his stomach, and slash across the underside of his right arm.

It nicks the artery.

He's gotta end this.

Steve comes at him, fast and intense, that knife still in his hand.

Barnes steps back, back, back, back, dismantling the rifle with each step, step, step, step, and defends the first swipe with his left arm. Steve strikes again, and Barnes dips under the lunge, coming up behind Steve. He pulls Steve's wrist with his left hand, then pushes Steve's elbow with his bloody right hand.

Snap.

A scream, the first.

Barnes catches Steve's dropped knife and viciously kicks Steve in the back, propelling him into that green car.

Steve flips from his stomach onto his ass, but he doesn't so quickly get up, not with three bleeding bullet wounds and a broken arm. The leg wound is a gusher.

Not that Barnes' arm or thigh are doing any better. Twinsies.

Barnes takes a step forward, knife firm in his hand.

Last year, Barnes had made the very wrong mistake of thinking that Steve didn't remember him. It hadn't been that at all. The only way then and the only way now that Barnes knows to save Steve – is to do the worst thing.

He takes another step forward.

It's something he still wishes someone would have done for him.

And another step.

It's just…

Paints and a thick book alongside a quiet, autumn road in the backcountry of the Adirondack. Radio shows in the living room, the backdrop to vivid conversations, half-witted arguments, and sometimes quiet evenings that only required easy company. Absurd adventures through the Boroughs of the City – running out of cash at Coney Island, hopping rides in the back of ice trucks in Brooklyn, bar fights in the alleys, beehives in Prospect Park, and passing out drop dead drunk in elevators and trains alike.

Another step.

Steve struggles to stand – left leg supporting his weight, right arm held to his side. Barnes sees fear. Smells it. Feels it.

A desperate plea on a helicarrier: "You've known me your whole life."

So wrong, but so right.

Barnes makes it to Steve, bats away a decent punch, and shoves Steve against the car. He kicks Steve's left leg down with his own, raises the knife—Steve flinches—and drives it into the metal of the car, hilt-deep.

Steve's reaction is human, very human: eyes wide, a jagged exhalation, and more fear. A lot of hate.

The difference here—maybe HYDRA hasn't realized it—is that Steve was never a killer. He was a kid who went to war to save lives, and he's still a kid, all of thirty-four years old.

Whap, whap, whap.

That helicopter is close. It's not military – it's civilian.

No Quinjets. No gunfire. No stomping of feet.

It's done.

He thinks to disarm Steve and is about to do that, when he hears the clack of a sidearm and a shaky, "Polizei! Hands up! Turn around!"

Turning around means putting his back to Steve, and there's no god damn way. None.

His eyes locked on Steve, Barnes puts his hands high up and answers in clear, slowly spoken German words. "I'm U.S. government. He's armed."

"Turn. Around!"

Steve's hand reaches for the Beretta in his shoulder holster, a sort of smile on his face. Steve's smart and getting brighter about it.

"Don't you fucking do it." Barnes isn't sure if he's warning or begging Steve. "Don't do it."

"I said turn around! Last cha—"

Everything happens at once. Steve pulls the Beretta, Barnes lunges for him, the officer shoots, Steve shoots, Barnes' palms and knees scrape against asphalt, he smells blood, and that whap-whap-whap is deafening – wind blowing and spinning cyclone plumes of dust and debris around him – the roar of engines piercing his ears—and Steve is gone.

The officer is dead – skull blown through.

Blood drips onto the asphalt – from his arm. Whatever.

Barnes looks up and sees that helicopter—a fucking news helicopter, anything to get a story—low to the ground, with a blur of blond pulling himself into the open passenger area.

Barnes sprints toward Steve's black shield, picks it up without stopping, and pumps his legs as fast as they'll go. Looking across the plaza, he times the throw and the jump against his speed.

First the throw: he flings the shield at a white-brick building. It whistles through the air and lodges into the bricks above a white-and-yellow sign that tauntingly advertises happy deutscher Kaffee.

At full speed, Barnes hurdles onto the back of a sedan, runs along the roof, and then springs off of his least injured leg – up, up, up, and up toward the shield.

His right foot lands on the shield, and he immediately launches off of it. It gives under his weight but miraculously holds long enough to provide him the height he needs.

He soars and soars through the air, the helicopter banking away as his sticky right palm hits the middle of the left landing skid. He grips it, spins himself around, and pulls himself up, high enough to punch through the bottom of the fuselage with his left fist.

The helicopter levels off and picks up speed, jumpy in a way that screams "inexperienced pilot." Too bad for Steve, because even though he hasn't done something this extreme for a good, solid year, the instincts, clarity, and razor-sharp focus snap back.

Nothing can stop him, not even the Sam-like voice in the back of his head saying, dude, use the fucking door.

He punches another hole in the fuselage, then another, ignoring a tangle of wires and the dim screeching of alarms from the cockpit. He pockets the knowledge, however, that the helicopter is going to go down, and it's his job to make sure it doesn't take out a building when it does.

Barnes rips a him-sized hole in the floor of the helicopter, pops the jagged metal up into the cabin, and pulls himself through. Instantly, he zeroes in on three bodies on the floor: neat bullet wounds in each of their heads, two with their eyes open.

For a moment, only a moment, the sight stops him.

Barnes pushes himself to his feet, street shoes sliding on a small pool of blood, and strides to the cockpit. He sees the top of Steve's head – a pile of unruly blond hair. Still hears those alarms, louder now, and knows that Steve can't figure out how to fix the problem.

For a moment, Steve stops trying to fix it. He reaches around with a SIG Sauer MOS-22.

Barnes figures the angle inside of a split second and doesn't even bother dodging; the bullets bounce off of his left arm, and he keeps on walking, right up behind Steve's seat. He grabs Steve's hand with his right, forcing Steve to aim the weapon away, and wraps his left arm around Steve's throat.

"Steve, stop."

The helicopter nosedives.

Barnes glances down and sees Steve's hand around the collective, pushing it low. The engine speed doesn't decrease. They're going to crash into the city, unless he can take the controls.

He squeezes Steve's throat tighter and struggles to keep the MOS-22 pointed away. It fires two bullets through the cockpit's windshield and another into the controls. Barnes manages to push the gun lower, and the next bullet, with Steve's finger on the trigger, goes into the side of Steve's right knee.

Steve screams, a strangled sound, his face deep, dark red. It's a sound Barnes never wants to hear again and something he never wants to see again. The gun clatters onto the flight deck's floor.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," Barnes whispers, even as he watches Berlin's buildings and congested streets fill more and more of the windshield. "I'm sorry."

Steve's body goes limp, finally. Barnes pulls him straight out of the seat, then out of the cockpit. He drops Steve on the floor and rushes back into the cockpit, taking the damaged controls. He doesn't have time to think of strapping in, or doing anything except steering the broken helicopter.

His adrenaline spikes a notch higher.

The collective control is dead: it jiggles back and forth in his hand, useless. Without it, he can't change altitude. They're going to crash; it's only a matter of where and who it kills.

Fuck, fuck, fuck –

The Spree.

Barnes looks out the left window and sees the Spree. A few days ago, he'd ordered a glass of incredible beer from Brauhaus Georgbrae, right along the riverbank, while waiting for Reliant.

It's maybe a klick away, which means they're maybe 15 seconds away at their current speed.

Barnes shifts the cyclic control to bank the helicopter left, and then swings the nose left with the tail rotor pedal. The river comes into view, below the rooftops of buildings.

It's going to be so fucking close.

The seconds bleed out of time, too quick to count. The helicopter's flight panel screams with blinking lights and high-pitched alarms. The dead collective shakes and shakes, its plastic taptaptaptaptapping back and forth against its metal casing.

A tall building soars into view, one that they're going to hit.

That's it.

He's dead, and Steve's dead.

He banks around the building, losing precious position too close to the river. In about three seconds, they're going to hit the water sideways, and they're not going to survi—

A blur of shiny red and gold fills the windshield. He doesn't have time to think about what that blur might be. His body becomes weightless, out of his control, and he feels himself flinging forward.

Glass shatters.

He sees that red and gold again, for the half of a split second before he feels a burst of tremendous, paralyzing pain.

Berlin and the Spree bleed to black, out of reach and far away, and he knows he's falling—falling like he's fallen before, with the world rumbling away on a set of icy railroad tracks—but he's gone before he hits the gray ripples of the river water, and he's gone before his body sinks, sinks, sinks, down, down, down.

***

The story will continue in Chapter 6: The Wrenchworks.

/***/

“I walked into this base, knowing what could happen. I don’t blame you. I’m not mad. I’m good with this. Don’t let HYDRA have anything more than they’ve already taken. Don’t think about this.”

Tony stood still. His hands fell to his sides. He locked his jaw.

“Trust me. I won’t.” Rogers.

“Then finish it. ‘Cause I’m with you, ‘til the end of the line.”

Tony tensed, bracing himself for the inevitable gunshots. They didn’t come. Rogers yelled, “You’ve taken everything! You can’t have that!” and then “I’m going to kill you I’m going to fucking kill you!”

Frantic coughs and pleas cut through Rogers’ yells. Words like “stop” and “Steve.”

Tony went back to the glass window, arms wrapped around himself now. The colors on the monitors had flipped around. That one doctor wasn’t bouncing anymore. Internal defibrillators that looked like tongs were out.

On the video, Tony heard groans and coughs.

Then silence, stretching; Tony’s stomach, curling. He knew how it ended. He was looking at it.

“I didn’t mean what I said in Kraków last year.” Barnes’ voice was raspier than Steve’s. “I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.”

Another stretch of silence.

“Steve?”

Bang!

Wet, thick coughs.

Bang!

Bang!

The audio bled to static.

Later, Tony would try to watch the video again but only manage to watch the timestamp run through numbers for fourteen minutes and thirty-five seconds. To be exact, 14:35.02 was how long it took for Barnes to let Rogers kill him.

Barnes’ vitals crawled into the single-digits, and his god damn right arm came up again. The anesthesiologist shook his head, sweat running down his forehead: an I don’t fucking know if Tony’d ever seen one.

Medicine was precise and pre-calculated; if X happened, do Y. People like Rogers and Barnes were the proverbial wrenches in the works, the grit in the oiled machine. Their bodies didn’t react to medicine the expected way.

Tony wasn’t a doctor, but he was a scientist, and it didn’t take one who studied rockets to figure out that those doctors down there were playing a blindfolded game of Pin the Tail.

The vitals crashed again. Tony didn’t look away. The impossibility of a person down there wasn’t the person who’d killed his parents.

A year later, almost to the day, at some time past three in the morning, Tony rode an elevator inside the new SHIELD headquarters. It glided to a soft stop, and a computer he’d programmed announced “Subfloor Four” in a sugary female voice.

The doors slid open.

Tony hesitated, considered going back up, but made himself step into a cold, gray, bright, sterile hallway. They could’ve done better with the design down here. Something less on-the-nose.

The doors closed. The empty car glided up.

With a purpose he didn’t have, Tony strode down the cold, gray hallway, passing gray, steel doors, one after another after another, until he came to a set of locked double-doors. He glanced up at the optic recognition system and heard an expected click.

He pushed through the doors and stepped into the morgue.

The lights were already on. The drawer was already open. Steve was already sitting with the body: shoulders hunched, head low, his hands clutching a dead person.

Tony wracked his brain for a single fucking thing to say. “Don’t let him thaw out – it’d be pretty gross” crossed his mind. Sometimes Tony hated himself.

When his parents had died, he’d only wanted to be left alone. He hadn’t wanted to talk or see people. Instead of any of that, he’d inherited a multinational weapons company and friends who’d only seen a kid guarding a cache of wealth with a Styrofoam sword.

Tony grabbed a stool, set it beside Steve, and sat.

A few days after Death Valley, with his right hand encased in red and gold armor, Tony had escorted Steve to a mutually safe place in the Tower – something akin to a psych ward.  Halfway there, barefoot and broken, Steve had begged, “Take care of him.  Please, Tony.”  All Steve had needed to hear was, “I will,” and Tony had given him that, meaning it. 

I will.

Tony hadn’t kept the promise.

Briefly, Tony glanced down and saw everything he didn’t want to see. The autopsy incisions made it real: no miracle, no last minute save, no coming back, find a new friend.

Somewhere along the line, SHIELD had so significantly failed.      

Shoulder-to-shoulder, Steve and Tony sat in silence, and Tony thought that, once upon a time, all of this could have not been this.

Chapter Text

On a cold day in April 2014, "what the hell happened?" was Tony's first question, lobbed at Romanoff outside a bustling hospital cafeteria. He would have asked Hill, but she was nowhere to be found. Likely.

Romanoff stared at him, a rare sort of shell-shock written all over her face. "We're HYDRA."

Plus details.

Once he got over the little tidbits about Fury being dead, about HYDRA being spic-and-span all right after seventy fucking years, about SHIELD being now-you-see-me-now-you-don't gone, he asked, "Barnes? As in, James fucking Barnes? The other guy my dad never shut up about? He's alive?"

And HYDRA.

And Rogers' shining light and everything nice.

Romanoff nodded.

Tony blew out a long breath and scrubbed his hands over his face. "Okay. We've gotta find him. Bring him back. Get him help. Uh…"

Romanoff wasn't saying anything. He dropped his hands, blinked his eyes, and asked, "Right?"

She was so easy to read. He wondered if she knew.

"Your parents…" Natasha said. "It wasn't an accident. It was HYDRA."

Maybe she expected him to be blown backwards, to fall apart, to react in some way. But the police had always suspected; the news outlets had all speculated; and, in his rock-bottom, awful moments, he had read all the ample conspiracy theories running rampant online. Maybe he'd even added some to the mix.

It was weird, though, how she'd linked "we've gotta help Barnes" to "HYDRA killed your parents."

Tony stepped backwards. His body shook for one, maybe two seconds. His crossed arms damn near crushed his lungs. The world turned spotty gray. He didn't know how he spoke, but he did: "Was it him?"

Romanoff tilted her head, everything about her still, and, really, she was easier than an Introduction to Basic Spanish Phrases for the Dumbest Tourist Imaginable book. "We don't know that."

Killed Fury. Put Rogers so far in the hospital that they still didn't know if he was going to be all right. Killed – killed Tony's mom. His dad. And how many others.

Tony turned, the world a lighter gray, hallway spinning, and walked away. Romanoff didn't call out, didn't run after him, didn't do anything.

He walked. Sat in his car. Drove circles. And thought, of all people, of all the fucking people, Obi.

How ironic, Tony. How ironicWhen I ordered the hit on you.

After he ran a red light in an empty intersection, hands maybe shaking but who knows, he pulled off to the side of the street outside a Five Guys. DC's finest.

When I ordered the hit on you.

Finally, Romanoff texted, "Steve made it out of surgery. He's okay."

Good. That was real good.

He texted back something stupid, something that should never be in writing: "If I find him, I'm going to kill him."

She called, and he let it ring through to voicemail. He listened to it immediately: "No, you're not. You're not that kind of a person. When you get a chance, Steve would love to see you. Don't mind Sam – new guy on the team. Stay in touch, Stark."

In fact, Steve did not love to see Tony. In fact, after Tony visited Steve, and after Tony poisoned that well, Tony didn't see Steve again until two times in 2015, both times when Tony made another ass of himself.

In particular:

"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, and Tony realized that they were both done with whatever this had ever the fuck been.

"What's that phrase these days?" Steve baited. "Oh. Right back at you. Did I get that right?"

Tony churned those words over and over and over in his head, and damn near asked JARVIS for a fucking translation. Until it clicked: Tony wouldn't care at all, if Barnes hadn't killed his parents.

Fuck.

True.

That wasn't a day where "yeah, maybe we're both right, and I'm sorry" was going to be said.

Before Steve made it out the door, Tony called after him, "No, actually, you got it completely fucking wrong. Enjoy art school." He worked his jaw and added, "Bob."

A+ friend.

They had time to fix it. Steve would calm down and figure out that he needed the Avengers. Tony would be there, ready to be somewhat but mostly not gracious about it.

Not a great plan.

It crumbled with a phone call from Sharon: "HYDRA has Steve. HYDRA… I'm HYDRA."

Swaths of dried, dark red blood streaked across the hardwood floor. It was Sharon's, not Steve's. She was fighting for her life, a messy bullet bleeding her body dry through a hole in her neck.

Steve was…

A dead trail. Flight logs to nowhere. An apartment full of drawings and sketches. Two tablets. Textbooks. A cell phone. A 40" TV set to National Geographic in front of a coffee table with an open notebook and a fine tip Sharpie. The notebook had writing in it: "Google: Ceres, stargazing sites, Grand Canyon, climate change, Antarctica looks neat cool (ha), when did football become more popular than baseball."

Beer in the fridge. A half-devoured fruit tray. Three boxes of pizza that could've been condensed into one. Artisan cupcakes. Produce in the wrong drawer; the asparagus, mushy. The milk was fresh.

That endless, bottomless night, after Rhodey shut down Andrews, after a SHIELD team came through and left with over a dozen listening devices, after it was clear that HYDRA was better at this than they were, Tony sat on Steve's new couch and clutched his hair in his hands.

If he'd…

Tony took and released a deep breath, clearing out his lungs.

If he'd let it go last year. If he hadn't needled Steve until Steve punched back. If he'd…

Romanoff looked sick. "You okay?"

"Oh, yeah. HYDRA's ripping us apart from the inside, but I'm great. 100%."

Of all people, Sharon. She could run circles around most of them. She was their link to pretend-Millennial, finding-myself, hipster-mode Steve. How in the fuck.

"This is what they do. They tear good people apart."

Tony stood up: frustrated, angry, sick, tired, exhausted, fucking god damn done. "This isn't about him. Steve is—"

He couldn't say it. Couldn't say that Rogers was being torn apart. Couldn't say that he'd watched all the old war videos, specifically to pick out his father and Barnes interacting, and god damn couldn't square the person in those videos, the person from all of his father's stories, with the person from 2014. There wasn't math good enough.

He couldn't say that Rogers had been captured by the same people who'd already perfected an impossible equation.

Romanoff didn't flinch against his shouting. "If Sharon is compromised, we're compromised. Clint won't come; he already said. I'm bringing Barnes in on this."

Not sure if his ears had picked that up quite right, Tony walked forward, head cocked, eyebrows all the way down to his eyeballs. "I'm sorry?"

Romanoff shrugged with a shoulder, infuriating in her composed silence.

HYDRA had Steve, and that was all that mattered. Nothing else, no one else mattered.

Tony sat back down, legs like burnt spaghetti. He rubbed his face with his hands again, but his eyes felt tied to cinderblocks. "The schematic you sent Banner last month. I didn't start on it."

"He's fine without it."

"He can't fly commercially without it. He'll slow you down."

"It'll be fine."

Tony sighed, dropped his hands, and stared at Rogers' handwriting next to a doodle of a giraffe riding a motorcycle through a constellation. Art school for kindergartners, apparently. "You're sure? Sure enough to bet Steve's life?"

She didn't even hesitate. "I don't make bets."

What was he supposed to have done.

For two months, two weeks, and three days, he worked on a hologram for a left metal arm, based on a schematic that Romanoff had found. He ran satellite imagery, audio analyses, simulations, and then anything else Hill asked for, trying to find one hidden person on a planet of eight billion.

He closed himself in his lab and worked on everything and anything, sleeping once a week, maybe. Working. Searching. Developing. Waiting for the moment Hill would tell him that Barnes had flipped on them and turned this search for one into three.

It mostly happened, when Romanoff and Wilson came back, and Barnes stayed in Europe.

"So he bailed."

Romanoff sighed loudly and sent him a warning glare. She didn't challenge the statement.

Hill said: "Helpful. Be helpful."

"I'm sorry – how have I not been?" Tony asked, intentionally missing the point.

"You know what I mean."

Tony did know. Didn't care. "So, Romanoff. Guess you were wrong about that."

Bait.

Another glare. To Romanoff's credit, she looked exhausted. Wrung out. Beyond a limit or two. He should have probably stopped. Probably.

"About what?" Romanoff asked.

Hook.

"Betting Steve's life on HYDRA's favorite toy. That whole thing."

Sinker.

Tony waited, something vicious impatient and thriving. Being right about Barnes fixed some part of this.

Romanoff licked her lips and nodded. "There's something I need you to do. It'd be helpful."

Leaning back in his chair, left leg poised on his right, Tony spread his hands. "Shoot."

"Go somewhere not here and fuc—"

"HYDRA has Steve," Hill said, angry. "This? Will not bring him back. Was he right about us?"

Romanoff bit the inside of her cheek and gave the slightest shake of her head.

Tony looked down, thinking of that impossible equation. Wondering how nearly three months fit into it. Wondering about what might be left of Rogers to solve.

"We need to be better," Hill finished.

She meant do better. Tony couldn't do a fucking thing in this room, poking at shit with a couple of SHIELD spies. He needed to be in his lab.

He stood up, chair spinning in circles, and walked toward the elevator. He had to pass Romanoff to get there, which was fairly awesome.

He stopped for a short chat: leaned down and whispered, "This is my tower. I will not fuck myself in my tower."

"Oh? That's not what Pepper said."

Hill threw her tablet down, loud and hard. Tony walked away quickly, before she decided to shoot one of them.

He didn't leave his lab for days, again. He didn't eat, sleep. He worked on a hologram that its intended recipient would never see. He ran more satellite imagery, audio analyses, simulations, and anything else Hill asked for, no matter how many times he'd already run it. He flat-out ignored Romanoff, another well poisoned.

That impossible equation gnawed at him in different ways, like the impossibility of sixty-nine years: no one finding him, no one knowing, no one realizing. The impossible made improbable, more than a singularity. Mathematically, it could happen to Rogers.

He opened flight logs, mapped the routes and marked off locations. He tracked the logs of all of the original destination points, mapping those routes and marking off those locations. He listened to Rogers' voicemail on a rolling loop for hours and hours, until he could hear Rogers' voice lolling inside his head.

Hot. Smells like rain, creosote. It's hard to think. It's san—

A voicemail worth nothing, traceable to nowhere. All it meant was that Rogers was still alive, something a below-average five-year-old could have already surmised.

They had nothing. Three months, and nothing, absolutely nothing, to show.

On a Friday at 1:32 p.m., JARVIS announced, "Sir, a visitor."

Annoyed, Tony flicked his eyes toward his bank of surveillance screens. It was Barnes, hands stuffed into jacket pockets, looking nervous. Good: the tower doors didn't open for everyone.

Barnes glanced up, hard eyes squarely staring into the invisible camera, then looked right back down at the doors.

"What he does he want?"

"Are Natasha or Sam here?" Barnes asked, and, fuck it, he sounded young, young like a kid hoping his friends could come out and play before it got dark. Nevermind that he'd turned 100 that year.

If he turned Barnes away, he'd never hear the end of it. More importantly, it could royally fuck Rogers, if Barnes had managed to come up with something actionable. Big fucking if, by the way.

"Let'em in," Tony groused. "Do a weapons check in the elevator."

JARVIS, as always, complied. Tony watched Barnes step inside the elevator, hands at his side, and he watched JARVIS' green scanner run and up and down Barnes' body four times.

Big surprise: JARVIS found a sidearm and four knives. Tony didn't care about those.

"JARVIS, zero in on the left arm. What is that?"

No one had ever said Tony Stark couldn't be petty. Resentful. Retaliatory. Usually, he got a few more kicks out of it, but the way Barnes looked up into the camera, deflated flatter than a decade-old Mylar balloon stuck in a Coachella Valley acacia, and said "it's my arm" made Tony feel like an asshole.

"Take'em to 90," Tony instructed, then turned the monitors off. "He damn well better have something good."

Barnes had something better than good: he damn near had the location of HYDRA's desert base. That's all they needed from him, whether anyone else liked it or not.

No one did.

And Tony didn't care.

Soon after, Hill said to him, "You're not going. The team is Romanoff, Wilson, and Barnes. We're the back-up. Rhodes will handle airspace and permissions; it's a touchy area."

Tony barely bothered to look away from his computer screen. He knew when he'd lost, and he knew when his own heart wasn't in the fight. "You know he's HYDRA, right."

Her reflection on his screen shook her head, arms crossed. "He's been an active SHIELD operative since September 7, 2014."

Tony spun around in his chair. It was as often as never that SHIELD, these days, got one over on him. Hill was nowhere near as slippery as Fury, not that she knew it. "You recruited him?"

"It's been a reliable arrangement."

Fucking spies. All of them.

Hill's stance squared up. "We need you on board."

A zinger crossed his mind—something about a Monopoly game board and wanting to be the dog instead of the thimble—but he couldn't find the energy for it. He missed Rogers' perfect, dumb face too much to throw up walls, and he could feel how close they were to getting him back.

"What do you need?" he asked.

Hill let slip a glimmer of relief. "A private jet to Las Vegas, a four-wheel drive vehicle at the airport, and a cover story. They want to leave tonight."

Tony spun back around in his chair. "JARVIS, you heard the lady. Get it done."

Hill was slow to leave his lab, some jumble of unspoken words left hanging in too-tense air. When the extraction alert came in at 4:32 a.m. PST the next morning, Hill and her teams vanished to Death Valley in the blink of an eye.

Alone, Tony sat in the War Room, waiting. He scrubbed his hands over his oily, bearded face but didn't dare leave long enough for a shower and a proper shave.

Pushed to maximum speed, the Quinjets could do New York, New York to Brevard Creek, Death Valley, California, in 28 minutes. They should be there by 5:00 a.m. PST on the dot. Mentally, he allotted them fifteen minutes to rendezvous with Romanoff, and so that was the magic number: 5:15 a.m. PST.

He paced: hands in his oily hair, then hands around his wool-sleeved arms, then arms swinging back and forth – doing anything to burn the adrenaline through the dragging, crawling minutes.

He should've been out there with them. He still had suits. He was still –

"Want company or no?"

Tony turned to address the voice and didn't hold back. "You read the file. What are we looking at?"

Bruce frowned with a shake of his head. "Oh, no. No. We're not going there."

Not good enough. Tony had never asked for Bruce's protection, and he didn't want it. "Bad?"

Dumb question, but whatever. Whatever.

"That's a…small word," Bruce answered. The frown deepened, as Bruce leaned against the wall by the door. "You ever pluck the legs off a spider?"

Tony shook his head "no" and tried to hide the shaking of his chest. His chest, and he remembered, distinctly, what it was like to wake up in a dark cave with a car battery wired to it. He remembered the abject terror and the helplessness, until he'd found a way to take control. He tried to never think about what it would have been like to not have had that control.

"That's what the file reminded me of," Bruce finished.

"Super," Tony said, so glad Bruce decided to come hang out.

"You asked," Bruce retorted. "Any news?"

Tony glanced at the clock. "Hill's team should be there."

It wasn't two minutes later that a crackle of comm static preceded two glorious words: "Mission successful."

Bruce clapped his hands together. Tony felt like he was breathing for the first time, lightheaded.

We have Rogers. We have him.

"Rogers and Wilson are inbound on Quinjet Eleven. Requesting an additional trauma team be ready in 28 minutes for Quinjet Nine inbound. The injuries are critical."

They already had a medical and trauma counseling team on stand-by for Rogers, which meant either Romanoff or Barnes had been injured. While JARVIS got to it, Tony couldn't help but ask, hoping to hear one name and not the other, "Who?"

"Barnes, multiple GSWs. I'm returning to the enemy base with the secondary team. I'll be in touch. Hill out."

Tony and Bruce shared a look, Bruce more concerned than Tony felt. At least it wasn't Romanoff or Wilson, and at least Rogers was safe.

Rogers was safe and was going to be home in the time it took to get take-out. That was a win, no matter the loss.

The gurney that rolled off Quinjet Nine had an unrecognizable body on it, save for the silver metal arm strapped to the side of the mattress. The rest was shrouded by injuries, blood, medical equipment, and the sheer speed by which the medical team pushed it off the landing pad.

The electrocardiograph monitor fluttered with a rapid blipblipblipblipblip, followed by the calm statement of, "Blood pressure is bottoming out again. He's back in v-fib." Tony watched one of the doctors or nurses or whoever the hell he'd hired jump atop the gurney and begin manual chest compressions.

Next to Tony, Bruce muttered, "Holy shit."

Clang, clang, clang.

Behind them, Romanoff stepped down the jet's ramp, as worse for wear as Tony had ever seen: hair disheveled; dirt and blood streaked across her face, neck and arms; clothing ragged. The worst, of course, was her demeanor: shell-shocked.

Nothing rattled Romanoff. God damn nothing.

"Hey, hey. You okay?" Bruce asked, in a gentle, ironic way that almost made some sort of warped sense coming from the Hulk.

Her eyes jerked Bruce's way, and even Tony, whom Pepper had once called "as emotionally intelligent as a blob of goopy gum stuck on a sidewalk," noticed something like rawness there.

"Of course," she lied – and badly, for a spy.

"He'll be all right," Bruce said, and, wow, maybe Bruce had witnessed a different spectacle just now.

Romanoff shook her head "no." "He… They couldn't get him back on the way here. Where's Steve?"

"Inbound in about five," Tony responded.

"Be ready," Romanoff warned, but not the way Tony expected. He expected the warning to be more "he's bad in shape," but her tone spoke more of something dangerous. "He shot Barnes."

That not only didn't compute, it destroyed the entire fucking computation. Fruitlessly, Tony looked down the corridor, empty now. Everything had cycloned into the operating room, two floors down.

"What, on accident?" Bruce asked, and, yeah, Tony could envision an accidental something or other happening. Something heroic while fighting off HYDRA and busting out of the base, right?

Romanoff looked Bruce in the eyes. "No. HYDRA kept busy."

Bruce huffed out a laugh, the way he did when the world was disappointing him again. "C'mon, it's Steve. He runs the fan—" His face crumpled. "HYDRA used it."

Romanoff's nod was slow. "Be ready."

Quinjet Eleven touched down two minutes earlier than expected. Even after Romanoff's warning, Tony wasn't ready for who stepped out of the cargo hold.

Wilson—face bruised and bloodied as per the theme of the day, and his clothing literally caked in dried blood—had one hand on Steve's elbow and the other around Steve's torso. Three medical staff trailed behind them, one carrying a very obvious syringe.

Steve's hand—fingers inflamed red and blackened with dirt—shielded his eyes from the late morning sun. Under that hand, Tony noticed a busted nose, flaking blood caught in the thick beard covering his chin and neck. His bare arms were striped with dirt-crusted cuts and burns, bruises of every color, and healed scars overlapping other scars and lacerations.

Holy shit.

Steve limped down the ramp, Wilson somehow supporting the bulk of Captain America's weight.

"You said I could sleep," Steve croaked through deeply cracked lips and a voice long gone.

"You're home now," Wilson replied. He waved Bruce and Tony back with two quick swipes of his hand. "You can sleep for a week."

"I killed him. You said."

Bruce tensed up. "Remember that 'always angry' thing?"

Because, yeah, there was some aggression radiating off Steve. Tony was very suddenly aware that no one on this landing pad quite had the natural ability to take Steve down, and – this was not the way he'd imagined the homecoming would go.

"A couple more seconds, man," Sam cajoled.

Steve's hand dropped, and his eyes—somehow red and black, puffy and thin, all at the same time—peeled open against the sunlight. Tony reached up to his own head and felt around for sunglasses, before remembering that he hadn't worn any that morning.

"Welcome back, Cap," Tony tried, as glib as he could pretend to be. "Love the beard. Do you like plaid? I don't have any, but I could get some. You know, finish the look."

He felt three pairs of incensed eyes try to light him on fire. That was the one superpower none of them were allowed to have – Avengers Tower policy.

Steve was Steve, no matter what HYDRA had tried to do, and Tony wouldn't change how he treated him.

Steve didn't have an acid retort for Tony's jabs. Steve didn't say anything to any of them.

Steve and Wilson limped further down the walkway, Romanoff cautiously moving out of their way. When they passed Tony, Tony consciously stopped himself from gagging at the smell of old blood, new blood, and unwashed, burnt skin.

"Sleep," Steve rasped.

"A little bit longer, and I promise," Wilson answered, then looked at Bruce and Tony. "Natasha got hurt, by the way, in case she didn't tell you guys."

Steve didn't catch the last part, apparently. "I killed him. I get sleep."

"I know. You can sleep in a little bit. I promise."

A wheelchair and another medical team came to the end of the walkway, and Wilson somehow coaxed Steve into it without an argument. In fact, if Tony had to guess, he'd say that Steve actually fell asleep the moment his ass hit the seat, judging by the way his body folded.

Steve and Wilson were both surrounded by the medical team and whisked away, down the corridor and to the medical wing.

"So, when we thought this nightmare was over, we were actually just getting started?" Bruce commented.

"He's home," Tony said, having long ago mastered the art of the bullshit deal, only he didn't know who he was trying to fool. "Home" wouldn't mean shit to Steve, if it meant… "Barnes has to live."

Steve was the person who went ballistic, if someone said Barnes' name with a slightly negative tone. Steve was not the person more concerned about a nap, when Barnes was barely alive. In a couple days, Steve would be enough of himself to crumble under the weight of what he'd done.

Barnes had to live.

"What happened to you?" Tony asked Romanoff, before he forgot.

She shook her head dismissively. "Shoulder wound, through-and-through. It's fine."

He told her to get it looked at anyway, and Bruce left the landing pad with her.

Tony hung behind and watched the hydraulic system raise Quinjet Nine into the hangar, and, of all things, wondered how the hell they'd ended up with three jets all numbered—

JARVIS' voice filled the landing zone. "Sir, you are needed in Operating Room Number Two."

"The hell?" He'd no sooner said the words than he realized: the arm posed a problem to non-HYDRA modern medicine.

Bingo.

"He has what we think is an Internal Cardiac Defibrillator somewhere in his left arm," Dr. Eicher explained. She even pointed at a completely worthless x-ray of the left side of a body – but it did show leads winding through the heart's ventricles. "He's not stable enough for a lead extraction from the heart. Can you turn it off from the source?"

The schematics he'd seen hadn't been anywhere near detailed, and they definitely hadn't pointed to an ICD anywhere in the arm. It would take too long to try to find it, which meant he'd need –

"Tony, he'll die. I know how—"

"I'm thinking," Tony snapped, as if, Christ, he was going to let the guy die. As if he was going to let Steve live with that. "It'll take too long to find it. I'll have to cut power to the whole thing."

Eicher nodded, and, as he tried to leave to get equipment, she grabbed his arm. "His chest's cut open. Can you handle seeing it?"

"Yeah, sure" was his answer, because there was no choice: save Barnes, save Rogers.

Nothing could have prepared him for it, anyway.

Neck secured in a precautionary brace; eyes taped shut; breathing tube down his throat; naked, scarred skin down to his upper hips and then only a white blanket, with all sorts of wires and bloody drainage tubes everywhere – no big deal. Tony could barely see his face, and, really, if it wasn't for the metal arm, Tony might not have even recognized him.

The haunting shit was the red-saturated sheet under his body. His chest was cut open, straight down the middle, and kept splayed by bone spreaders. The left-side rib cage was gray and riveted with screws. A surgeon had her hand inside the chest cavity, massaging the heart, while three others and a handful of nurses attacked the bullet wounds.

"Welcome to the party, Mr. Stark," one of the surgeons said. Tony thought her name was Milojevic, the lead surgeon. "We appreciate your assistance."

Tony nodded brief acknowledgement.

"Blood pressure stabilizing. Heart rate and respiratory stable. Oxygen saturation still remarkably low."

"Mac, source that low saturation. Something's going on. Embolism, maybe?"

"Well, that'd be a great party favor."

Tony stopped listening and quickly set up next to the left arm. Behind his uncomfortable surgical mask, Tony breathed, "Shit."

He'd never touched this arm before in his life.

It'd touched his parents. His mom.

He could let him die. He could fire everyone in this room. He could pretend to not know how to hook up to the arm. He could take a scalpel and stab a gaping hole in his heart. He could make good on a threat.

Tony sat on a metal stool, woke up his laptop, and got to work.

The primary access port was near the middle of the bicep. Tony peeled off the first two plates to reveal an intricacy of glowing blue wires and circuitry. On paper, it was an intriguing design; in person, it was impressive work.

He removed another three plates and found the access port. The schematics had provided the type of plug-in, for which he'd already created an adapter and a software program. Tony plugged in, and his laptop screen inundated with lines of codes and commands, all languages he spoke.

Tony attacked.

His fingers sped over the keyboard, switching between coding languages and sending dozens of commands that would hopefully streamline this process. Line by line, the code simplified, but not by much.

The arm was an incredible piece of work in and of itself, let alone when considering the software behind it. HYDRA's scientists had managed to seamlessly replace tendons, ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels with manmade code – and that, that, was –

Tony swallowed too hard. The space between his jaw and earlobe cracked. His fingers stopped.

It was like he was –

Hacking a human being.

He looked at the arm—up the bicep to the top of the shoulder down the jagged scar line where flesh fused with metal. Beyond that, he could still glimpse the screw-riveted, metal-covered ribs; from a simple engineering standpoint, it made perfect sense to reinforce the skeleton against the extraordinary physical demands of the arm.

The only problem was that people weren't engineered. People weren't hackable. And yet.

Tony's mouth suddenly became cotton-dry.

"Got a bleeder down here. Good news is no apparent damage to the spinal cord. Do need some suction."

"How's his blood pressure? Do we need a transfusion yet?"

"Stable but low. No."

"No? Well, shit."

"Oxygen saturation decreasing."

"Mac, source it."

Tony blinked and looked back at the screen. His fingers started moving across the keyboard again.

He knew the command line he was searching for; it was only a matter of finding it. He wrote and deployed a simple algorithm to eliminate unrelated code – and was still left with hundreds of lines to sort through.

It might actually be faster to dismantle the arm. Actually, it might be faster to build a br—

The fingers twitched.

Tony hadn't done anything.

"He's finally playing ball with us, at least. It's been a good, what, ten minutes?"

"Maybe seven."

"Ooh, lucky sevens."

Tony glanced over at Barnes' right hand and saw those fingers curling into a fist. "Uh, is he awa—"

Barnes' right arm came up, pulling with it IV lines, wires, and leads. The nurse on that side caught the arm and pushed it down, firmly gentle but panic scribbled on her face.

Barnes' legs came up, bent at the knees.

Alarms screeched. The electrocardiograph went nuts; Barnes' heart rate exploded, the numbers climbing, alerts ringing.

His back arched up, curving in a way that could spill his guts onto the operating room floor. The doctor previously holding his heart in her hand hopped back, bloody gloved hands held in the air.

The left arm whirred and reached for the endotracheal tube. Tony grabbed the arm and pulled, surprised at how easily it came back down to the table. With no muscles, all it should have taken was a thought to lock in the motion.

Tony didn't think Barnes was going to let the arm be moved like that again. He had to do something.

"Bucky! Stop! You're safe! You're safe!" Tony shouted, not knowing if the guy was even able to listen through the drugs – or if his voice would even be a welcome sound. "We're not HYDRA. Romanoff and Wilson brought you here. You're safe. But you have to stop moving. Stop moving."

The burly nurse holding down Barnes' legs yelped, broke a sweat, and put his whole upper body over Barnes' still-struggling legs.

"Get him anesthetized! Now!"

Tony earned himself a gold star with the left arm theory: without muscle, it only took a series of small, stubborn thoughts: upgrab, squeeze. Even effectively blind, Barnes easily found Tony's convenient throat and locked it into an agonizing strangle-hold.

Tony screamed while he still could, his own hands coming up to uselessly wrap around Barnes' immovable wrist. He managed to scrape out "Bucky, stop, stop, stop!"

The next thing Tony knew, he was half-flying, half-stumbling across the OR. He crashed into a supply cart: metal clanging, plastic thudding, and all kinds of shit raining down onto his head. Something painful smacked into his forehead.

His ears rang with a high-pitched wailing. He was faintly aware of holding his throat and sucking down gulps of oxygen. The room was black, until he opened his eyes to the white brightness.

The entire medical team had swarmed over Barnes. The monitors flashed red, numbers ticking down, down, down. The heartbeat spikes of the ECG were shorter and less frequent – a complete turnaround from the race it'd been running moments ago.

Shorter. Less frequent. Dwindling down.

"No," Tony said. "No, do something. Do something!"

The high-pitched wailing turned to a flat, monotone beep.

Flatline.

Flatline meant dead, done, deceased, everyone go home, find a new friend. TV got it wrong.

Flatline meant Steve killed his best friend. It meant Steve wasn't coming home. It meant the world had irrevocably changed for the worst.

The burning inside Tony's lungs signaled to him that he had forgotten to breathe.

A surgical tech held out his hand. Tony automatically took it, thoughtless. Blood dripped onto his forearm.

"Your forehead is lacerated, Mr. Stark."

"Is he— What happened?" Tony demanded. "Explain that."

"I don't know, Mr. Stark. Your forehead, Mr. Stark."

Tony ignored the tech. The team hadn't stopped working. He saw a nurse squeezing a bag and two doctors still working inside the chest cavity.

"Suction. Somebody turn off those alarms, huh."

"Metoprolol, 500 mg. Another round of epi."

"500?"

"500. He's a big guy."

The left hand clenched into a fist. The ECG blipped, its readings spiking.

"There he is," Milojevic said, totally unsurprised. "Welcome back, James. Please don't do that again."

"Suction. Lots of suction. Wasn't ready for that."

"It's ARDS. We need to re-intubate. The bag won't do it."

"Talk about a gift that keeps on giving."

"Mr. Stark," Milojevic called, "how about that arm?"

Yeah. Right. He stepped forward and picked his laptop off the floor. He tried not to watch what the team was doing, but he couldn't help but ask, "What the hell happened?"

"He pulled out the ET tube," Milojevic replied, dually focused on her work and, stupidly, on answering Tony's question. "And also managed to gift us with a medial rupture of his aorta. We need the ICD off and you out."

"Blood pressure is approaching critical again."

"Yeah, well, that's kind of a good thing right now."

Tony didn't ask any other questions. While a nurse cleaned and sutured his forehead, he searched lines of codes for the proverbial "off switch," hyperaware of every minute that ticked by. When he blinked, he saw remnants of the numbers and letters, and he knew he was going to be dreaming about this nightmare for a long time to come.

It would have to get in line behind the others.

At 10:53 a.m., Tony found the "off" switch and flipped it. He exhaled, a bit of his internal stress ball unraveling. The morbid asshole that lived inside his head thought it's really a disarm switch.

The ECG's reading fluttered with a handful of close-together, too-fast beats. Almost as quickly as it happened, the readings returned to what had been counting as normal for the past few hours.

"That was me," Tony quickly announced, although he'd never expected that to happen. "It's off."

Milojevic didn't look up at him. "Thank you, Mr. Stark. We'll keep taking it from here."

Tony gathered his equipment, baffled more than relieved. How the hell did the disarm switch affect the heart –

There was one obvious option.

On a hunch that made him want to hurl, Tony instructed, "Don't pull those leads out of his heart. You'll kill him."

His next project was, hopefully, finding the ICD and all the other inevitable, nasty surprises.

In the hallway, Tony sat his laptop and equipment on a green, padded chair, tore off and balled up his surgical mask and disposable scrubs, and then leaned himself against the wall.

His head throbbed and his neck ached. Between obsessive thoughts about Steve and horrifying, permanent images of Barnes burned into his mind, the only other thing Tony could think about was a tall decanter of aged Scotch.

What a fucking morning.

His phone beeped. Tony thought about leaving it and going to put his head down on his lab desk.

He didn't. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and found a video file from Hill, along with a text message: "Contents may help focus Rogers' recovery. Be sitting down."

Fucking Christ, Tony thought. Scotch or whiskey, either way.

Was it too late to quit SHIELD?

"Hey."

Tony palmed his phone and yawned in Bruce's face. "How's Rogers?"

"Sedated and still being evaluated for injuries," Bruce replied. "Eicher's writing a freaking novel. Barnes?"

That was a good question with a lot of answers. Tony shook his head – and flinched when that movement sent stabs of pain through his forehead.

"What happened there?"

Tony popped his eyebrows up and waved a hand in the air. "Don't ask."

Bruce wasn't one to push. "Some preliminary bloodwork is available, for both of them. Want to look over it with me?"

"In a bit, maybe," Tony said, his thoughts drifting back to Hill's video.

"Okay," Bruce replied, his tone bordering on questioning. "Get some sleep, Tony. Since you won't, you know where to find me."

Once Bruce was out of earshot, Tony asked JARVIS, "Where are Romanoff and Wilson?"

"They are both in Ms. Romanoff's suite" came the answer.

Sleeping, probably.

Hill was in California, and Rhodey was in DC. No eavesdroppers. Tony could go anywhere in the entire tower to watch the video, but only one place, of all places, felt right, for a reason he couldn't articulate.

He went to the empty, soundproofed observation deck of Operating Room Number Two, powered his laptop back on, clicked on Hill's secured link, and pressed play.

It showed Rogers standing still near the back of a concrete room. He wore the same clothes and had the same injuries from this morning.

Tony cupped his hand over his mouth. He knew what this might be.

"Paint something beautiful," an unknown, tinny voice said.

"Steve! Are you al…" Barnes. "Steve?"

Tony heard fear in that voice.

Rogers raised a gun and fired three times, then came the sounds of metal ricocheting off metal.

"What'd they tell you, Steve? What'd they make you see?" Barnes came into view, as he kicked Steve into the wall. He twisted Steve's gun away and dismantled it. "Find another way—"

Expression hateful, Rogers backhanded Barnes and kicked him hard enough to fling him backwards into the air.

Tony hit pause, tossed the laptop onto a chair, and stood up.

Hands in his hair, Tony stared down into the OR. He had a bird's eye view of the damage Hill wanted him to watch happen on a video. His eyes crept to the vitals monitors: oxygen finally in the green, blood pressure still in red, and heart rate in yellow. One of the doctors rocked on his toes as he worked.

Tony spun around, decision made in a split second. He pressed "play" on the laptop and turned back to the window, stinging forehead pressed against the glass.

A crashing noise. Grunts that sounded like Rogers.

"You were in kindergarten; I was in first grade." Barnes. He sounded in control. Spoiler alert: the ripped-apart body down below gave away the ending. "The first kid I punched out for you was Walter Murray."

Unintelligible, desperate screams, all Rogers. Tony closed his eyes.

"We've known each other since 19-fucking-22. We grew up two blocks apart. You gonna let it end like this?"

Bang!

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Tony counted a magazine of shots. He didn't know how many had found their target.

Another scream from Rogers.

Tony's leg jerked, his body wanting to turn and see what was happening on the video. He pulled away from the window, hands clasped on the back of his neck, and paced.

"On the helicarrier, you let me almost kill you. I'll never forgive you for that."

Funny way of showing it.

"Remember hotwiring that Mercedes in Frankfurt? All we did was argue. It was pitch black outside, and the fucking 303rd was bombing the fuck out of us. We weren't even supposed to be there, and we were 100 fucking miles from the extraction point. We finally got it to start, and you—you fucking idiot—you drove it straight into a wall."

Barnes laughed at the end, every word dripping with unmistakable fondness. He sounded like an A+ friend, and he sounded like –

He sounded like a real person. Not a story from his dad, a bundle of platitudes from Steve, a folder full of typewritten words, or a malevolent ghost concocted by the angry fears and stale wounds of a teenager long far gone.

"That wasn't you." Steve's gravel voice barely made the tape.

What.

The audio filled with white noise for several minutes. Tony could make out the sounds of hand-to-hand combat: shuffling, skin hitting skin, fast breaths, groans. Then, finally, a shouted cry – but not from Steve.

Steve hissed, "Does it feel good? Do you like it?"

A scream. Not Rogers. Another cry.

"Stop! Stop screaming!"

It was the loudest Steve had been the entire time. He sounded unhinged, irrational, and, worst of all, desperate.

"We laughed." Barnes, breathless. "We sat in that fucking car, and we laughed until we couldn't breathe. It was March 22, 1944. There isn't a world without you in it. Come back, Steve."

"Bucky." Steve was almost amiable. "You sound like you used to."

Trap, it's a trap, Tony thought, almost forgetting that he couldn't control what was happening.

Of course it'd been a trap. Barnes screamed again.

"What if I cut you? Will it feel good? Will you like it?"

Tony kept pacing, mind circling around the audio, around Steve from this morning—not even two hours after this had happened—and around the person barely hanging on in the operating room below him.

The arm whirred. Steve made a pained, gasping sound.

"I walked into this base, knowing what could happen. I don't blame you. I'm not mad. I'm good with this. Don't let HYDRA have anything more than they've already taken. Don't think about this."

Tony stood still. His hands fell to his sides. He locked his jaw.

"Trust me. I won't." Steve.

"Then finish it. 'Cause I'm with you, 'til the end of the line."

Tony tensed, bracing himself for the inevitable gunshots. They didn't come. Steve yelled, "You've taken everything! You can't have that!" and then "I'm going to kill you I'm going to fucking kill you!"

Frantic coughs and pleas cut through Steve's yells. Words like "stop" and "Steve."

Tony went back to the glass window, arms wrapped around himself now. The colors on the monitors had flipped around. That one doctor wasn't bouncing anymore. Internal defibrillators that looked like tongs were out.

On the video, Tony heard groans and coughs.

Then silence, stretching; Tony's stomach, curling. He knew how it ended. He was looking at it.

"I didn't mean what I said in Kraków last year." Barnes' voice was raspier than Steve's. "I didn't mean it. I'm sorry."

Another stretch of silence.

"Steve?"

Bang!

Wet, thick coughs.

Bang!

Bang!

The audio bled to static.

Later, Tony would try to watch the video again but only manage to watch the timestamp run through numbers for fourteen minutes and thirty-five seconds. To be exact, 14:35.02 was how long it took for Barnes to let Steve kill him.

Barnes' vitals crawled into the single-digits, and his god damn right arm came up again. The anesthesiologist shook his head, sweat running down his forehead: an I don't fucking know if Tony'd ever seen one.

Medicine was precise and pre-calculated; if X happened, do Y. People like Steve and Barnes were the proverbial wrenches in the works, the grit in the oiled machine. Their bodies didn't react to medicine the expected way.

Tony wasn't a doctor, but he was a scientist, and it didn't take one who studied rockets to figure out that those doctors down there were playing a blindfolded game of Pin the Tail.

The vitals crashed again. Tony didn't look away.

The impossibility of a person down there wasn't the person who'd killed his parents. The person down there was somehow decent.

A year later, almost to the day, at some time past three in the morning, Tony rode an elevator inside the new SHIELD headquarters. It glided to a soft stop, and a computer he'd programmed announced "Subfloor Four" in a sugary female voice.

The doors slid open.

Tony hesitated, considered going back up, but made himself step into a cold, gray, bright, sterile hallway. They could've done better with the design down here. Something less on-the-nose.

The doors closed. The empty car glided up.

With a purpose he didn't have, Tony strode down the cold, gray hallway, passing gray, steel doors, one after another after another, until he came to a set of locked double-doors. He glanced up at the optic recognition system and heard an expected click.

He pushed through the doors and stepped into the morgue.

The lights were already on. The drawer was already open. Steve was already sitting with the body: shoulders hunched, head low, his hands clutching a dead person.

Tony wracked his brain for a single fucking thing to say. "Don't let him thaw out – it'd be pretty gross" crossed his mind. Sometimes Tony hated himself.

When his parents had died, he'd only wanted to be left alone. He hadn't wanted to talk or see people. Instead of any of that, he'd inherited a multinational weapons company and friends who'd only seen a kid guarding a cache of wealth with a Styrofoam sword.

Tony grabbed a stool, set it beside Steve, and sat.

After Death Valley, with his right hand encased in red and gold armor, Tony had escorted Steve to a mutually safe place in the Tower – something akin to a psych ward. Halfway there, barefoot and broken, Steve had begged, "Take care of him. Please, Tony." All Steve had needed to hear was, "I will," and Tony had given him that, meaning it.

I will.

Tony hadn't kept the promise.

Briefly, Tony glanced down and saw everything he didn't want to see. The autopsy incisions made it real: no miracle, no last minute save, no coming back, find a new friend.

Somewhere along the line, SHIELD had so significantly failed.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, Steve and Tony sat in silence, and Tony thought that, once upon a time, all of this could have not been this.

***

In the corner of Tony's HUD, Berlin's N24 news channel streams live aerial footage of a fight between a man who Tony knows, for a fact, is dead, and a man who Tony knows, for a fact, is in Moscow.

"Hill, tell me you know what's going on," Tony demands.

"Negative," Hill responds. "We still have his body. Proceed with caution."

Fucking great.

"I don't know, you guys, this one is looking like ours," Rhodey says, right after the Barnes in Berlin kicks a car into a group of HYDRA soldiers, and then brutally, efficiently shoots enough enemy combatants that the footage cuts to the newsroom.

"JARVIS, switch to satellite," Tony says. "Make it good."

"Repositioning satellites now."

Once upon a time, Tony had made a promise: I will. This time, he's going to damn well keep it. Not being able to see what's happening in Berlin isn't so much helping. "Now, JARVIS."

"Tony, relax," Rhodey chides. "He's got this."

Also not so much helpful. "Oh, yeah? Didn't end so well last time."

Nothing Tony has seen says that it will end any better this time.

From Moscow to Berlin, it's 1,004 miles. At Mach 4, both of their suits can push about 3,000 miles per hour – a solid twenty minutes of flight. They've already been in the air for five. If Barnes can hold out for fifteen more minutes, the whole thing is over.

Tony thinks of the video from Death Valley: 14:35.02. He'd never thought to ask: why did you let him do it? It's not like it takes a genius.

Tony's HUD feed cuts from news channel talking heads to a high-def, aerial satellite feed. The thing about spy satellites, particularly ones owned and operated by Stark Industries, is that they're always good. This one gets as close to the ground as about ten meters – low enough for detail, high enough to capture the action.

What Tony sees sends him further into a proverbial tailspin. Barnes knocks away Steve's shield and just fucking stands there.

"Move, damn it!" Tony shouts.

Steve launches toward him, blood bursting from his arm, stomach, and thigh. The bullets don't stop Steve in the least. Barnes whacks him in the head with the rifle – and, what, no, that can't be all that Barnes has in his toolkit.

Barnes is holding back, because he thinks it's the real deal Steve Rogers. He's going to get himself killed, again. (Again again.)

"Maria, get Barnes on the books," Rhodey requests. It's a good call. "Make him an Avenger, or he's gonna go down for this."

Because whacking the shit out of Captain America in the middle of Berlin doesn't score you the good kind of points.

"He has been since Brazil. If it's him," Maria responds. "Your airspace is cleared. Shut this down."

Black smoke consumes the sat feed and every bit of useable imagery. Before Tony can get a word out to JARVIS, JARVIS announces, "No satellite imagery is currently available. Repositioning satellites has failed."

Tony doesn't argue the point. There's nothing to argue, and he knows it.

I will.

He pushes his suit faster, rerouting power to thrusters, and ticks his speed up to Mach 4.3. It will net him mere seconds, but, sometimes, seconds can make all the difference.

In the other corner of his HUD, a photo of Steve zonked out on Thor's magic juice pops up with a green "INCOMING CALL" notification.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Tony snaps, aggravated, frustrated, and in no way prepared to talk Steve up, down, off, or over this ledge. "No. JARVIS, tell him to go away."

Steve calls back twice more, before Tony decides to block his ass.

"Okay, now he's calling me," Rhodey complains. "What do you want me—"

"Don't answer it," Tony angrily says. This is ridiculous. "JARVIS, location?"

"Passing Vilnius, Lithuania."

Ten more minutes. There's no way.

I will.

"We'll get there, Tony," Rhodey says, still trying to be helpful and still failing.

One way or another, they will get there. Tony's more concerned about what they'll find when they do and how he's supposed to tell Steve that Tony let his best friend die. Again. (Again again.)

All Steve had ever wanted, from day fucking one, was for them to take care of his friend. All he'd gotten was let down.

Not again.

I will.

The sat image worsens – more smoke, blacker, thicker. A car or rubber or both are burning. The satellite cameras don't have a chance of cutting through the smog.

When they do get there, they could find anything.

"JARVIS, pull up a map." Rhodey. "Where are we now?"

A topographical map pops into Tony's HUD. Past Warsaw. Four more minutes.

The sat feed strays from the smoke. It hovers far over an in-flight news helicopter with a person hanging from one of its landing skids. Tony squints, doublechecking the image.

It's Barnes, with Steve nowhere in sight, and it's Barnes punching a couple holes through the helicopter's hull, before disappearing inside.

"He knows there's a door, right?" Rhodey asks.

Tony has no idea what the hell Barnes knows or doesn't know, except that Steve must be in the cockpit. It's the only scenario that makes sense.

The helicopter gains shaky altitude, its flight less than smooth and narrowly dodging buildings. The important thing is that it does gain altitude, rapidly, and enough to put it far above the skyline.

"A minute thirty."

And then the helicopter plummets. Nosedives. Careens downward.

Tony stops breathing. Rhodey's out of platitudes.

It keeps going down, faster and further, as if no one is at the controls. Maybe they're both dead. Maybe it doesn't matter, because the helicopter is going to smash into the city.

Tony and Rhodey enter Berlin city limits, and, against everything his heart wants to do, Tony reduces speed to below Mach 1.

JARVIS sets a waypoint, and Tony follows it at maximum safe speed, lowering his altitude to street level. He weaves between buildings, zips through streets, buzzes past cars, soars over screaming people, and intersects the Spree.

I will.

He makes a bone-bending right-angle turn and rockets straight up the Spree, sprays of water surging behind him.

"Kill the feed, JARVIS," Tony orders.

He sees it in the best high-def there is: real life.

The helicopter veers around a building, its survivable angle of entry gone. It's going to hit the river sideways too fast for anyone, serum or not, to survive. No question.

Repulsors maxed, Tony hugs the curve of the river, gaining altitude an increment at a time. His eyes barely leave the helicopter.

"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon," he mutters.

I will.

He times the interception impeccably: thirty feet above the river, the nose caught in both armored hands, reverse thrusters already engaged to account for—

Glass shatters.

A body hits his upper chest.

He hears a crunch.

Dark red droplets splatter against his helmet.

"No!" Tony shouts.

The body flops to Tony's right and falls, legs and arms limp. Tony sees the left arm flicker back and forth between flesh and metal.

Barnes.

Barnes splashes into the river. His body plunges under the choppy surface, gone within seconds.

"Rhodey, get—" Tony shouts.

Rhodey's already diving toward the river, a long five seconds out. "JARVIS, I need depth."

"Depth map displayed. The river is deep enough for your current angle and speed."

"Start scanning, JARVIS," Tony orders. "Find him."

"Scans running to detect both blood and the metal composite of his left arm."

Fuck.

Tony watches Rhodey cut through the water – and then remembers that he's holding onto a helicopter, its blades spinning and engine smoking.

Tracks of blood run down his helmet.

He hadn't considered basic fucking physics.

"JARVIS, where the hell is he?" Rhodey.

"Still scanning."

"Do better. I can't see shit down here."

When he'd created Iron Man, Tony hadn't banked on SHIELD. He hadn't banked on Steve Rogers coming back from the Arctic dead (great name for a band). He hadn't banked on the Avengers, or on his dad's other perfect man crush coming back from the great Alpian dead (not a great name for a band). He hadn't fucking prepared.

"Sir, your heart rate is above normal and rising."

It's beating out of his god damned chest, because there's no way he's telling Steve, or Romanoff, or Wilson that he killed Barnes. No. Way.

"Just find him," Rhodey says. "C'mon, JARVIS. Tony, are you good?"

Tony blinks, breathes, snaps out of it. Unhappy helicopter: in his hands.

Tony fires a repulsor beam to kill the engines and rotors. He engages his forward thrusters and carries the helicopter the hundred or so feet to the concrete river front. The metal scrapes and skids across a walkway and a slit of grass, down and neutralized.

Preoccupied with the idea that he's killed Steve's shining light and everything nice, Tony leaves the helicopter and flies back out over the river, torn between waiting or diving in. "Rhodey, do you have him?"

"Colonel Rhodes – three meters to your right, above you one meter. Location marked orange."

"JARVIS, cut me a feed," Tony demands. "Now."

A square panel pops up in the left corner of his HUD. The feed is night-vision green, with small, artificially-bright debris floating through murky water. Rhodey blasts toward the orange marker.

After a few seconds, a green outline fills the panel: Barnes drifting on his back, while his head, legs, and arms hang limp. A cloud of light green seeps from his head, leg, and arm.

"Injuries?" Rhodey.

That's the wrong question; Tony would have asked if there were vitals.

The outline of Barnes' body highlights red with areas of injury, of which there's a fucking lot. His vitals pop up on the right corner of the HUD: respiration, 0; pulse, 40; temperature, 99.

"Heart rate below normal. No respiration detected. Lungs are fluid-filled. C4-5, C5-6 fractures. Open skull fracture. Rib fractures. Multiple gunshot wounds."

Tony's stomach somersaults. "I broke his neck?"

"I got him, Tony. We've got him. Focus."

Rhodey surges the final few meters to Barnes' drifting body. Tony watches his hand slide under Barnes' neck and his other pull Barnes' body in tight.

"JARVIS, lock my hand; don't let it move. Best traum—"

A step ahead, Unfallkrankenhaus Berlin pops up, marked orange on a city map. It's only five mil—

A blinding flash of blue thrusts Tony forward several feet. He compensates with his repulsors and spins around, ready to fight.

Instead, he freezes.

It really is Steve: his face, his hair, his build. He's limping away from the helicopter: arm broken, right knee blood-soaked and noticeably wobbly. Four soldiers dressed head-to-toe in black, geared to the teeth, surround and walk with him.

Nope. Wherever it is they think they're going, it's not going to be that easy.

Behind him, Rhodey blasts out of the water and heads east toward the hospital. Tony doesn't turn to look. In the corner of his HUD, he can still see what Rhodey's seeing: the overcast sky, Berlin's orange and gray rooftops, and Barnes' bloody face.

Tony blasts forward and over not-Steve and his HYDRA friends, then lands several feet in front of them, intentionally hard enough that the concrete craters under his feet.

Both hands primed to fire at them, Tony stands his ground. "Yeah, no. You can stop right there."

Sometimes, people listen. Some other times, people don't.

This is one of those other times.

One of the soldiers taps something under his black tactical jacket, and all of them—all of them—vanish in a swirling, transient flash of blue.

That flash of blue had black wisps around the edges. Curls of blue, darker toward the middle. Black in the center. Like something else he's seen: a Tesseract portal.

***

Outside the Emergency Department's waiting room, Natasha trots up behind Tony's retreating frame. "Is it him?"

Tony stops walking. A cup of vending machine coffee in his hand, he turns around, face weary.

Instead of making up some pop-culture zinger that might win him all of the day's available cool points, he shakes his head and responds, "I didn't talk to him. I don't know."

Natasha doesn't know what to do with that.

"I caught the helicopter, and he flew out of it. He hit me. He fell." Tony's eyes grow wide, his face muscles taut, his body language suddenly guarded. He shrugs and shakes his head, nervous and trying to hide it. "It might be bad."

On auto-pilot, Natasha says, "He's made it through worse."

"Yeah, sure."

Natasha somehow musters a small smile, one that pities Tony's naivete in the shadow of their world. "He was built to survive worse."

Tony's nervousness evaporates, replaced by righteous anger. Natasha lets him step into her space, then calmly looks up into his eyes.

"People aren't built."

She lifts an eyebrow and a shoulder to go along with it. "We were. Sit down. Calm down."

He at least sits. She chooses the chair next to him and picks up a crinkled back copy of Elle.

Tony's leg bounces, and Natasha wishes Rhodes had stayed.

After a while, Tony asks, "How's Rogers?"

"We sent Sam to get him," Natasha answers, neutral. The truth is that Tony and Rhodes shouldn't have left him alone, but what's done is done.

"If I—" Tony's leg bounces faster. "You didn't see him."

She'd seen the same video feed as Tony. She'd seen and still wasn't seriously worried about James; she worried about the body in their morgue and if the person in that feed could possibly somehow be him.

She worries more that Tony is here for the wrong person.

Natasha flips a page and studies a full-page ad for something Michael Kors. "Are you here for Steve or for James?"

The bouncing stops. Tony crosses his arms and slouches in his chair. "No one calls him that," he mutters under his breath.

Natasha doesn't argue the point, and Tony never answers the question, not even when their wait turns into seven long, uncomfortable hours and too many cups of bad coffee to count.

It's Eicher who comes in to the waiting room, a clipboard and a tablet clutched in the same hand. Natasha wonders how the hospital agreed to let her treat here, but then thinks – not many doctors have experience with James' hardware, and not many come backed by Tony's clout and money.

Tony doesn't stand up. He flicks his eyes towards Eicher, then closes them – either too cool for school, or not dealing too well, either way.

Natasha drops her tenth magazine and gets to her feet, her heart and her stomach sharing the same space.

"You're listed as his next-of-kin," Eicher says.

Before leaving the Tower in October 2016, James had made sure of that. He'd looked her in the eyes and said, "I mean it," unquestionably referring to his wish to never again have heroic measures used to keep him alive.

"You," Tony comments, some strange mix of surprise, skepticism, curiosity, and something like anger coloring that word.

Natasha turns to meet his open-again eyes, unapologetic and daring him to say something else. For her trouble, she has the pleasure of witnessing the moment he puts two and two together.

That math is old. Doesn't calculate the same way anymore.

"Oh. Do you have any idea how scary this is?"

If that's all he's got, she considers herself lucky – and responds by walking away with Eicher.

They go up a floor to a lab, where Eicher hangs up old style, translucent gray x-ray sheets on lighted, white panels. Natasha makes out a skull, a spine, and a rib cage with a pair of lungs. When Eicher finishes, she turns around and leans against a metal lab table, arms crossed.

"This one makes more sense," Eicher comments. "Between you and me. And Hill."

Natasha can't parse the sentence fast enough. It's an odd feeling to lag behind.

"He matches our surgical work from the damage Captain Rogers inflicted in 2016. And he doesn't have three bullets that I distinctly remember having removed from his shoulder, stomach, and ankle."

Eighty-six days.

For eighty-six days, Eicher and Maria have known that the person in their morgue wasn't him.

Natasha thinks of Steve first. They could lose him entirely over this.

"Who else knows?" Natasha asks.

Eicher shrugs. "I don't know. In Hill's defense, we didn't—don't—know. Fingerprints and DNA match. The one in SHIELD headquarters is James Barnes. The one here is James Barnes."

A Steve in Moscow and a Steve in Berlin. The Tesseract-like portal.

HYDRA has built something terrifying.

Natasha wants a closer look at the other James, to find the differences and pinpoint a timeframe. But: this one first.

"How's he doing?"

"Well, I think he's had a few adventures in the past few days." Eicher rattles off a grocery list of injuries, ending with a shrug. "Being what he is, he'll be fine."

Natasha stops herself from biting her cheek. This other Steve hadn't pulled any punches, like before in Death Valley.

"He never coded. He's breathing fine now. Expect a full, perhaps even quick, recovery. It's incredible."

Not the word Natasha would use.

"The cervical fractures were difficult to treat, mostly because of the existing hardware. There are no indications of damage to his spinal cord. I don't think he's lucky; I think…"

Eicher makes an inscrutable face. After several long seconds, she still doesn't voice a thought. From Eicher, that's weird.

Natasha takes a guess. "HYDRA engineered him to take the damage and keep going."

Eicher closes her eyes, opens them again, and smiles tight. "He's not careful."

Meaning: he still uses his body like a disposable battering ram. Those wires aren't easy to uncross.

"In any case, his neck needs to stay immobilized." Eicher briefly lifts her eyebrows and cocks her head, clearly indicating that she realizes what a challenge that will be. "He won't have much of a voice for a few weeks; in most patients, it's months. He may not remember the past few days. Bottom line: he's going to feel like he got hit by multiple buses and not remember why."

Natasha nods through all of it.

"Given everything, he's sedated, mostly for pain management, but also to ensure he gives himself time to heal."

Natasha shakes her head. "Bring him out. We need to talk to him."

Eicher stands taller, immediately preparing for a fight. "His body will heal, but it needs time and rest to do it."

"His body is in our morgue." No matter what the x-rays say. "You know that. I'll only need a few minutes to make sure."

Eicher blinks rapidly, looking away. "A few. And I'll call it."

Natasha nods agreement.

***

James peels his eyes open, an audible groan rumbling from his chest. For a moment, he's perfectly still, expression blank, and then his right hand drags toward the brace around his neck.

Natasha takes a step forward, ready to stop James from tearing the brace off, but he only feels around the plastic for a couple of seconds, before his hand slides down to his lap.

"My neck hurts," he says, his voice a thin, crackly rasp, and his words a mushed-together slur. "What's wrong with my voice?"

"You broke it," Natasha says, perhaps a few seconds too late.

James pulls a slow-motion face, eyes barely open. The skin underneath them is bruised and swollen. "My voice?"

"Your neck."

"Oh," he breathes, but he looks confused. He blinks and blinks, then keeps eye contact with her. "Hi. I didn't say 'hi.'"

"Hi, James," Natasha replies and can't hold back a smile. It's him. A long far gone piece of the world has slid back into place, and a smile is barely enough. "Where have you been? It's been a few months."

His confusion deepens. "Berlin."

Natasha briefly meets Tony's eyes and sees naked relief. Whether because he's genuinely happy that it's James, or genuinely happy for Steve that it's James, Natasha isn't sure that it matters.

Natasha looks back down and sees that James' eyes are open wider, but distant, unfocused – accessing information, always thinking. Eicher thinks he won't remember much, and maybe that's true. What Natasha knows is that, ironically, his memory is impeccable.

She sees the moment he remembers: the panicked spark in his eyes gives it away.

His legs draw up, like he thinks he's going somewhere. "Steve."

"Is fine," Natasha says loudly and puts a hand on James' closest leg. "He's fine. It's not what you think."

James doesn't buy it, not for a second. He tries to push himself up.

Alarms trip. Two nurses swarm forward, and Eicher looks at Natasha with hard eyes.

"James. Do you trust me?" Natasha squeezes his shoulder with purpose. She waits for him to look at her, more patient than she feels.

He musters out a weak, "Yeah. He—I don't know."

James collapses back into the bed, too hard. He winces.

"It wasn't Steve. We don't know what's going on, or who that Steve is, but he wasn't ours. He's safe and himself. I promise."

That's all it takes. His legs slide down, and he closes his eyes in relief.

"Okay," he says, voice about as thin as a crumpled piece of old paper.

"That's enough," Eicher decides. She nods at a nurse, who begins pushing a syringe into James' central line. "His body needs to rest."

"Nat, Nat. Nat. Nat," James begs, eyes still closed, waning against the drugs but never without a fight.

"I'm here. Go to sleep."

"No, no. Weidenstraße, Erik Albrecht. You should, um, you…" His breaths even out, and his whole body relaxes.

He's out.

He's alive.

He's not the body crumpled against a wall with a bullet in the head.

"He knows something," Natasha comments to Tony. She squeezes James' shoulder again and then backs away, toward the door. "I'll be back."

Tony makes a noise, panic on his face. "Um, no? Where are you going?"

"German apartments go by name, not number," Natasha calls back. "Stay with him."

"Fuck."

***

Weidenstraße is a nice, car-lined brick street in eastern Berlin, flanked on each side by tall, gray apartment buildings.

Natasha walks the sidewalk with purpose, eyes pointedly peering at each nameplate she passes. Her intended vibe is not a tourist. Blend in, always – whatever that looks like at sometime past 0100 in the morning, skulking through the dark Berlin streets, sifting through apartments.

Natasha reaches the end of the first sidewalk, crosses the street, and begins to stroll the opposite side.

The hair on the back of her neck stands. Someone is following her.

Someone not good at their job is following her.

Or.

Without warning, Natasha stops and simply waits.

It never takes long.

"Hey."

Before turning around, Natasha rolls her eyes. Unbelievable.

"You're not supposed to be here," she says, annoyed and letting it show. "The police are…not happy with you."

Steve grins and points at his ball cap. "But I'm wearing a hat," he says, innocently.

A ball cap on a dark winter night, when it's barely 20 Fahrenheit right now. Convincing.

Natasha doesn't indulge him, although she enjoys this playful, happy side of him – rare, these days. And she gets it: James is alive and himself, where a half a day ago, he was frozen inside their morgue. Somehow, given that, it's easy to see past an international mess.

Steve turns serious, focused and intense – with a hint of vulnerable fear. "Is it him?"

Without hesitation, Natasha nods. "It's him."

She keeps to herself that at least two of their own had known, lied, and stonewalled for months. Now is hardly the time. She lets Steve have his moment of pure, alleviated happiness.

"Where's Sam?" Natasha asks.

Steve blinks. "…New York?" he guesses.

Abandoned in Moscow, more like. It's then that she puts together that Tony had clued Steve in on this specific location. She'd be mad, but Steve couldn't have gotten here this fast if he hadn't already been in Berlin. He'd had more than seven hours to get here.

"Not New York?" Steve tries. "I tried to call."

"Don't worry about it." Natasha nods her head toward a faded black door a few feet down the sidewalk. Partially illuminated by the kind rays of a streetlight, the small door sign reads 'Albrecht, Erik.' "That's the one."

"Do we know whose it is?" Steve asks.

Natasha shakes her head "no," although she's near certain that it belongs to James, if not SHIELD.

Together, they enter the apartment building.

The floors are old, wooden slat boards, creaking with every one of their steps. The thud, thud of their shoe soles echo through the openness of the foyer. Ahead of them, a timeworn staircase made of plain brown wood crawls up the five stories of units. Every step toward it creak-creaks, creak-creaks.

Steve grimaces, visibly irritated.

Natasha smirks. It's a brilliant place to live.

"No point in trying," she says to Steve. "Early warning system."

Steve sighs, shakes his head, and starts up the steps, his weight a groaning monstrosity against the aging treads.

Natasha stays a few steps behind him, trying to listen for unusual sounds of movement or voices.

At this time of night, the complex is as quiet as expected, and nothing of the ambiance unnerves her. Then again, with Captain America and his 230 pounds of weight stomping up the stairs, anyone with a sliver of brain and a need to leave would already be long, long gone.

Natasha keeps that thought to herself.

At the fifth floor landing, Steve shoves his hands in his pockets and looks down the right wing of a long hallway. Natasha goes left, confident that she knows exactly James' strategy.

The left wing of the floor leads to a corner unit with only one window and one hallway access point. James hadn't chosen this building for an easy escape but rather for security against intruders. From inside the apartment, he would be able to hear every footstep, and he would know that a strike team would only have two impossible entry points.

That corner unit has a name on it: Albrecht, E.

Natasha eyes the outer door for obvious traps, finds none, but observes that the door handle has been broken. The damage doesn't appear to be via a tool or a blunt-force object; it looks more like it had been crushed.

Natasha lightly pushes against the door and finds gentle resistance: something lightweight is holding it closed.

She unzips her jacket, unlatches her sidearm holster, and looks down the hallway at Steve. She patiently waits for him to trot her way.

"You're slowing down in your old age," Natasha comments.

"I did retire."

"How was art school again?"

He gives her a dirty look. It's nice, she thinks, to have him be like this again, even though she knows it's momentary.

Steve shoulders his way inside the apartment, always first. Natasha casually walks through behind him, alert and ready.

The flat is a touch bigger than a studio. The floors are dark hard wood; the walls, made of smooth, light gray plaster. A small kitchen is nestled on their left; bags of potato chips and other assorted junk food fill the narrow countertop, along with a cluster of yellowed, bruised bananas, a half-loaf of fuzzy green French bread, and a crumpled pack of Davidoff cigarettes.

Directly in front of them, the living room is a small rectangle with a single, wide, curtained window, a dark blue sofa, a scratched-up coffee table, and a few stacks of books towering next to a boxy TV. A handful of empty Pepsi cans pile on the floor.

The most interesting part of the flat are the wrinkled, cheap clothes—a shirt, a jacket, pants, underwear, socks—forging a clear, strewn path toward a closed door. Likely a bedroom with the only bathroom.

Everything except those clothes is markedly James. He's not careless with his clothes, even cheap clothes, and he's not messy this way. Natasha deducts he'd been in a rush – and that he hadn't expected anyone to come here.

"Definitely his," Steve comments, a rare, wide smile on his face.

Natasha agrees but still doesn't see why James told her to come here. A book and a folded newspaper lay on the coffee table – that's all. No computer, no gear, no maps – nothing.

Natasha nods toward the closed door. "Check out the bedroom."

As Steve moves toward the door, Natasha goes to the coffee table, her attention on the folded newspaper. Maybe he wrote something there.

In her peripheral vision, she sees Steve open the bedroom door and step inside.

Natasha picks up and unfolds the newspaper. It's written in Polish and is dated for yesterday morning. The pages are wrinkled near the middle, as if he'd clutched it in his hand. The pages are clean, except for a hand-drawn circle around the date and a coffee ring on the bottom of the front page. She scans that page for handwriting, finding none, then reads the headlines of each of the articles.

The Greatest Films of 2017.

The Cartoons of the Year.

More Money for Pop, Rock and Ja—

A voice carries from the bedroom: "Hi, Steve. You're very loud."

***

The books. The junk food. The Pepsi cans. Hell, even the worn-in, comfortable-looking sofa. They're all clues pointing to one person.

"Definitely his," Steve smiles.

The old fruit and bread mean that Bucky has been here within the past few days.

Bucky's alive.

He's alive and okay.

It's almost the only thought that matters, before another one smashes to the foreground: Sharon isn't HYDRA.

Whatever is happening is bigger than them, but it feels like another endless chance has fallen into his lap. He won't waste it.

"Check out the bedroom," Natasha says, something like worry coloring her tone.

Steve's happy to do that. He moves toward the closed white door, leaving Natasha to explore the living room.

As he nears the bedroom, an aroma of hair cream, gun solvent, soda, coffee, and a tinge of cigarette smoke pierces the air. The combination of scents distinctly reminds Steve of a small house in São Paulo. He never thought he'd smell it again.

Steve pushes the door's handle down and open. The floorboards creak as he steps inside the lamp-lit bedroom.

The closet is organized, clothes hung neatly. The white window blinds are open, a bright streetlight streaming through. The queen bed is made, while a person rifles through a bag set atop the wrinkled white duvet.

That person is Sharon.

Steve freezes up, not sure he trusts his eyes. He hasn't seen Sharon for over a year, not since… Not since.

She looks up, unsurprised. "Hi, Steve. You're very loud."

"You're okay," Steve blurts before he can even think to stop himself. He grits his teeth and locks his jaw, hoping it's enough to keep his mouth closed.

She makes eye contact, her lips pressed thin, and her body language telling him that she's as unsure as he is. A long, faded red scar mars the front of her neck, nearly on top of her jugular.

They…

"How is he?" Sharon inquires.

"Bucky?" he asks, dumbly.

Sharon lifts her eyebrows and almost rolls her eyes. "Yeah."

It makes sense. A few minutes of the fight had been broadcast, and the whole incident is still being covered by the news. Steve knows: his own image is being pummeled, and the world demands to know about the newest, unknown Avenger. All things that Maria and Rhodey are handling, or so he constantly reminds himself, and if they fail – police will swarm here.

A small line of panic curls up inside his stomach, overridden by the healthy, right-minded person standing not even six feet away from him.

"He's doing okay," Steve answers, mimicking most of Tony's words from last night. "Why are you here?"

"He was supposed to meet me. He didn't make it." Sharon holds up a night vision scope. "I came for what's on this. I need you to leave."

So: Bucky's been working with Sharon for the entire three months Bucky was supposed to have been dead. And Sharon's been right here in Berlin, not recovering with SHIELD in some secret, safe, undisclosed location. Another set of SHIELD's dirty lies.

In October, they'd been a train ride from finding them here.

A line of anger coils up alongside the panicked one.

Right now, he focuses more on Sharon than that. On how she's all business, so cold it burns. She hasn't asked how he's been doing. Hasn't said "I missed you." Hasn't called. Hasn't anything.

"The window planters came," Steve says. "They sat by the door for months. Decent neighbors, I guess."

"Depends on how you look at it," Sharon responds. "I need you to leave."

He tries to count away the building barbs of anger but only gets to two. "We had plans, Sharon. What HYDRA did doesn't—"

"Captain," she interrupts. Her severe expression distorts her face into something he barely recognizes. "I need you to leave, so I can leave and do my job."

Captain. It's been a long time since Captain.

"What's in Poland?" Natasha suddenly asks.

Steve doesn't bother turning around; he keeps his eyes on Sharon, trying like hell not to show her that a needle is pricking holes into his heart.

Sharon looks past him and shakes her head. "I don't know. Why?"

He hears paper crinkle and then smells an odd mix of newsprint and coffee. "James was in Michašta yesterday morning."

That throws Sharon, badly. Her face crumples with confusion, and she even takes a step forward before she catches herself. Her eyes open wide. "No. He— He doesn't do things like that."

How Sharon says that, like SHIELD controls Bucky, shoots adrenaline through Steve's body. He tries to count and breathe, but today's not been so great for that. "What do you mean."

"His assignment was to recon a Soviet base in eastern Berlin. He checked in that afternoon. Then he went completely off-grid for six days, until yesterday. That's not like him."

"He did," Natasha replies. "He sent me here. What did he think I would find? You?"

Sharon's eyes flick to Steve, then back to Natasha. She holds up the night vision scope. "This."

"What's on it?" Steve asks.

"Not here," Sharon says, right before she picks up a dirt-streaked, damp black backpack. "Follow me."

***

Sharon leads Natasha and Steve to the unit's safe house in central Berlin. Of safe houses, it's more than nice. Tucked into the corner of the twelfth floor of a condo high rise, it's also not quite a "house." It's more Stark than anything.

The white kitchen tends to serve as Ops, and its natural-wood island is where Sharon unceremoniously deposits Barnes' soggy backpack. Natasha isn't shy about joining her there; Steve hangs back, arms crossed, body tense.

Sharon ignores him and barely acknowledges Natasha. Neither are part of this unit, and neither should be here.

Regardless, she unzips the pack and empties its contents. At Barnes' flat, she had only gotten as far as unpacking wrinkled wads of wet clothes from it. She finds a soggy passport, wet Euros, matted paper maps, a smashed tablet, and a crushed phone.

The phone explains why he hadn't checked in.

Poland may explain the wrecked gear.

Nothing explains Poland.

Sharon looks to the tactical surveillance scope. Its video is the first thing he tried to send her. It has answers.

She hooks it up to her laptop and directly accesses its media files. There are two.

As the first one cues up, Steve draws closer. Sharon glares over her shoulder, until he stops.

"He uploaded these to SHIELD's server. The files I received were too damaged. I'm hoping it will read better directly from the source."

She'd spent too many long hours trying to fix those damaged files, hoping to avoid going to his flat. Even if SHIELD clears him, the chance had still existed to walk into the middle of an Interpol raid. Either SHIELD has done its job well, or Barnes had avoided CCTV cameras. Probably both, when she thinks about it.

The timestamp on the first video is for 1532 on 26 December 2017. The picture focuses on a pond and a very old vehicle. It shakes and tilts toward the ground, then refocuses on a freight car with Polish writing on the side. A photo icon pops up on the bottom corner of the video, indicating that Barnes had logged fifteen photos.

The freight car is odd, but, overall, nothing. For some reason, Barnes had thought it was something.

"That's from Kraków."

Sharon pauses the video and reluctantly turns to address Steve. "How do you know that?"

"Because it was there," Steve replies, "when he pulled the knife in '15. Same freight car."

Sharon's eyes flick to Natasha.

Natasha's eyebrow raises. "He told me about that place. It spooked him."

Baseless conjecture. Sharon holds onto that comment and un-pauses the video.

It holds steady on the pond for many long minutes. Sharon fast forwards, watching the minutes tick as dusk wanes into bright green night vision.

At 2013, the image jerks.

Sharon slows the playback down to normal, wishing it had sound.

It jerks again.

A foreign light reflects off the rusted metal of the vehicle and bounces off the flat surface of the pond. That light bobs, again and again.

"Someone was out there," Steve says. "Someone was there."

A few seconds later, Steve is proven right. A tall, thick-figured man walks into the scope's line of sight. Light-colored hair. Round shield. Assault rifle.

Sharon pauses the video, not because she wants to analyze the frame but because her heart is racing, while shame blossoms across her red-hot face.

"It was the other you," Natasha corrects. "James tripped something."

Steve handles it well. "Doesn't explain how he got to Poland."

No, it doesn't.

Sharon presses play.

After a minute, the light flashes toward Barnes and the video turns black. Stupidly, Sharon holds her breath. They all know the end of the story.

The scope reorients but the video shows only a green-lit, empty forest. Again and again, the video pans back and forth through the trees, hopelessly searching, fear palpable through the screen.

After many, many minutes, the video settles. It becomes still enough that Sharon suspects the playback has frozen.

Too much water, Sharon suspects.

She reaches toward the trackpad, at the same time that Steve extends his hand, a hair away from hers. She hadn't realized he'd wandered so close.

He pulls back. "It's still going. Timestamp."

Sharon shifts uncomfortably and flicks her eyes back to the screen. He's right: the slider inches sideways, and the timestamp ticks through numbers. The video holds still – a sniper's steady hand at videography.

She fast forwards again, sifting through hours of unmoving footage. Then, all of a sudden, it jerks and flashes a brilliant blue.

Daylight shines on the video, replacing the nighttime forest in a split second. The timestamp syncs with a satellite and updates the date: 31 December 2017. Happy New Year.

"The timestamp changed dates," Steve notes, never one to miss a single detail.

She hasn't let herself miss that.

The image tilts sideways into a too-fast blink of tall, windowless stone buildings and moss-covered streets.

"No way," Steve breathes. "That's the town."

No wonder this was the only thing on Barnes' mind.

The video flips to a black-clothed soldier who quickly dies in a burst of blood. It shakes and turns, then only shows black netting and the ground. It bounces and bounces, over and over. He was running.

Sharon speeds up the video. The terrain turns from cracked concrete to grass then to forest foliage and mountainous rocks. For a long time, it bounces and bobs, wildly jolting up and down, faster and faster. A nauseated headache mounts behind Sharon's eyes.

Startlingly, the video jerks and drags backwards, then spins back around. It only shows leaves and rocks. The image spins once more, jolts, and then hurls a stomach-curling image of a hundred-plus-foot drop into a river far, far below.

It hits with a violent shudder, then sinks into dark, blurry water. That's all it shows for nearly fifteen minutes, until it transitions to a gray shore of gravel and pebbles.

For the last time, Sharon fast forwards the video, through an hour and sixteen minutes of walking through rock and water, until the footage ends.

All three of them stay silent, unsure of what to say.

Steve is the first to break that silence. "We all saw that. It's not only Tesseract portals."

Sharon doesn't comment that having two Steves running around had been a decent clue on its own. Instead, she comments, "There's another video. Same day."

Natasha says nothing, either in expression or in words.

Sharon clicks into it. The video is only 55 seconds and starts by peering up a high-reaching vertical tunnel, then down a long, horizontal tunnel that leads into pitch blackness, before focusing on a hatch door built into a concrete wall next to a ladder.

The photo icon pops up: eight photos, GPS logged.

The video ends.

"That was another base," Natasha states.

"He thought it was important," Sharon agrees.

"So did HYDRA," Steve points out. "He found something they didn't want him to bring back to SHIELD."

A fair theory.

Attacking in broad daylight in a major city center is either a bold move or a panicked one. They'd sent Steve to kill him.

Sharon looks to Natasha, one thought on her mind: We go.

Natasha meets Sharon's eyes and gives a small nod. "We'll need maps."

"Let me see what I can pull together." Sharon checks in with herself and decides she can't afford to fight against the tide known as Steve and Natasha. "Food is in the fridge. Bathroom." She gestures around the corner. "Gear is in the living room."

She grabs Barnes' paper maps and walks toward the bedroom that hasn't been a bedroom since SHIELD moved in. Before her time here, it had been converted into a war room, complete with Stark Industries' newest, state-of-the-art technology.

Sharon flips the lights on and lays the wad of maps onto a smart table. With a few quick swipes of her fingers, a soft green light emits from below the glass top and scours the maps from every side and angle.

From the table, Sharon has a clear view into the living room. Steve paces, shoulders tight and arms crossed, like he does when he can't take control of his worry. Natasha sifts through the cabinet of computer hardware before pulling out a Lenovo laptop.

"We're going, right?" Steve asks.

Natasha tilts her head, then turns to face him head on. "You shouldn't be here."

Steve's shoulders drop, arms by his side. "He's alive, Natasha. Where do you think I'd be?"

An odd statement.

Sharon watches Natasha's expression turn to something like apprehensive concern. Managing Steve is often like walking a high wire: recognizing when to stop, knowing how to balance, and understanding that the blowing wind isn't always predictable. At least, that's the Steve she remembers.

"New York," Natasha answers, "with Sam. You're not cleared to work in the field."

Sharon feels her cheeks burn, and she looks down at the maps. The green light is still scanning.

"Not cleared… It's Bucky, not a god damned field assignment."

"When you're arrested, how are you going to help him?"

"Who the hell is going to arrest me in the middle of a Polish mountain range?" Steve catches himself in his own outrage and dials it back. "I can still do this. I'm still— I've been there. Neither of you have been."

Against all odds, Natasha softens her approach, the strong friendship between them showing. "I know. Let's look at the aerials."

Steve acquiesces with the slightest of nods.

A notification pops onto the corner – 86% reconstructed. Not terrible.

The reconstructed maps appear above the table, five of them holographically displayed in crystal clear high definition. Too wet, the system couldn't reconstruct Barnes' handwritten notes, and the blue ink illegibly bleeds across the landscapes.

That's a shame. The notes would have been the most helpful.

No matter. Sharon pulls up the coordinates that followed Barnes' message of "Maps don't match terrain. Moving forward." She runs them both against a live satellite aerial of Müggelheimer Damm and against Barnes' maps.

They match to the outskirts of the Tatra Mountains south of Kraków, Poland.

Open mouthed, Sharon can't take her eyes from the aerial image, mind spinning around the impossibilities. Barnes had crossed four hundred miles and not even known.

Sharon shakes the shock and goes about this a different way. She pulls the timestamp from his message – 1150. The mission began at 1000 that morning. Sharon calculates his likely speed – ability tempered by sensibility – and creates a working set of bounds for where he might have been upon realizing the terrain was wrong.

She expands the square containing Map One—the most recent topo map of the Müggelheimer Damm area—and overlays the bounds. She sends the map to her phone and tablet. If they go, that's a place to start.

In the living room, Steve points at Natasha's screen, once, twice, three times, in different spots each time.

Natasha pushes the laptop to Steve. "You're Ops. Map it out."

Steve takes it, a strange mix of satisfaction and resentment in his body language. Always a doer.

Natasha leaves him alone on the sofa and comes into the War Room, shutting the door behind her.

Sharon gestures toward the holographic map and fills Natasha in on her findings. Amusingly, when Sharon gets to the "somehow in the Tatra Mountains" part, Natasha's jaw doesn't drop – but her eyes widen.

"We still have no idea what it is that HYDRA is doing," Sharon comments, then wonders. "Do we?"

Natasha shakes her head: no, they don't. Sharon believes her, even. "There are parts of this that you don't know about yet. Not that those parts are particularly helpful."

Unsurprising.

Sharon moves on, unwilling to beg for information. "They're clearly using technology derived from the Tesseract." It had been in SHIELD's hands for seventy years, which means it had been in HYDRA's hands for seventy years. There's no question. "I don't know that we have time to spare on this. We need mission approval."

Natasha glances at the door—toward Steve—but nods a limited form of agreement. "We're shorthanded on this one. But he's laying out the playing field and coming up with a game plan."

Sounds good enough. Even a recon mission to collect intelligence would be helpful – more helpful than stumbling around blind, like they apparently have been for weeks.

Which begs the question. "Where did SHIELD learn about the Berlin base?"

Natasha raises a shoulder and shakes her head twice. "Ask Hill." Said like a person holding onto resentment. Interesting. "You think it was intentional."

Sharon glances at the holographic map and thinks back to the scope's video. All things considered. "I don't believe in coincidences."

"Neither do I."

Could be a bad mission from the start. Could be another mission of theirs that HYDRA had somehow known about – a nasty little habit they still haven't been able to kick.

Awkwardly, Natasha looks at her, jaw working enough for Sharon to notice. "How are you doing?"

There it is. A question asked from someone who knows better than to think them friends. Sharon replies as a professional. "It's a good unit."

Barnes does his job and doesn't make trouble. Easy.

"Doesn't answer my question," Natasha retorts, expression telegraphing that she's unwilling to let it go. "We assigned him to you for a reason."

Sharon shows her skepticism, loud and clear.

"You're not doing."

Sharon bristles, shoulders tense, teeth gritted. Her control slips. "I'm doing my job. That doesn't include fucking Captain America."

Not in the literal sense, at least.

Natasha doesn't show a reaction. "Okay."

Something else is on Natasha's mind, or so says the half-inhaled breath and uncertainty in her eyes.

"Just say it," Sharon snaps, more than ready for this to be over and already regretting asking for a mission with them.

"HYDRA had another Barnes. He died three months ago."

Sharon is hardly taken by surprise. It also explains the odd coffee date with Hill back in October.

Given everything else, it makes sense that they would. The problem is finding out how they're getting, finding, or God forbid, making extra people.

"And?" Sharon prompts.

Natasha plays it off, ever cool. "FYI."

"Good to know. When do we go?"

***

Tony happens to glance up and notices a pair of blue, glazed eyes blinking at him.

"Hey." Tony waves his tablet in the air and gestures at Barnes' left arm. "I'm fixing the arm you trashed. That okay with you?"

"Yeah," Barnes says, his voice the consistency of a scrape. "Thanks."

Tony doesn't say "don't thank me for breaking your neck." He has a sense of where Barnes would take it. Instead, Tony nods and puts his attention back on the arm.

A few seconds later, Barnes asks, "How many?"

Tony looks back up, only for a moment. "Not including HYDRA, seven. Could've been more."

Honest to god could've been, and this impossible equation of a person keeps adding variables. Or losing them. Tony hasn't decided.

Barnes' eyes wander away. "'Kay."

"You in pain?" Tony wonders, probably a bit too late.

Tony doesn't hear an answer, and he glances up. It looks like Barnes has drifted back off. That's good – easier. Tony's not sure if he's relieved about it.

At least a minute and a half later, Barnes actually answers. "No. Is Steve really okay?"

"How does your head feel?" Tony tries to sound glib, but the guy had cracked his skull open and bruised his brain not even 24 hours ago. He still has the ugly forehead laceration and under-eye bruising to show for it.

The sharp, intense stare Barnes pins him with disproves brain damage. Probably. "Steve."

"Wasn't him. I was with him in Moscow, when the one in Berlin jumped you. We don't know how, so don't ask."

A funny thing happens: Barnes doesn't look so much confused as he does introspective, before he closes his eyes again.

"Okay." Tony lowers his tablet and leans back in his plastic chair. "Time to spill. What do you know?"

"I saw him the other night in Berlin," Barnes says, his voice so decrepit that Tony needs to lean back in to hear. "I didn't realize it then. And again in Poland."

"Poland?" Tony decides that it probably doesn't matter. "What's at the apartment?"

Barnes reopens his eyes. "What?"

"Erik Albrecht. Weidenstraße. You told Romanoff to go there."

It doesn't seem like Barnes remembers that. Regardless, he answers, "Video. They're doing something."

When Steve says "they" like that, he only ever means "HYDRA." The same cereal box decoder ring works with Barnes, evidently.

"Yeah, we kinda already got that," Tony bites, because, uh, they had. Maybe a bit of fear influences his next step. "Before 2012, did you ever hear about HYDRA working with the Tesseract? SHIELD had it, so HYDRA had it."

When Barnes melts into confusion and rasps, "What the hell's a Tesseract?" – well, Tony believes him.

"Glowing blue box? Makes portals? Made all of HYDRA's weapons back in the day?"

To his credit, Barnes looks like he's thinking back, but he ends up trying to shake his head. The brace won't let him. "Oh. That. I never saw that."

"Shame. Get some sleep."

Surprisingly, Barnes doesn't fight the advice. He slips back asleep, his right hand keeping a fist of the blankets.

Tony lets his eyes hover on Barnes, thoughts rolling aimlessly. The biggest of those thoughts is that he's like a different person to Tony – two separate equations entirely.

Tony puts his attention back onto his tablet.

The hologram is fine and perfectly responded to Tony's command to lock into the "on" position. It's the arm itself that's the problem.

Tony can't tell if it's the arm that's shot or if it's the chips, but the code isn't responding the way it's supposed to. Parts of the software are completely wiped out, leaving no good way to explain how the hell Barnes had survived Rogers.

What he thinks is that he needs better hardware to even start fixing this. An argument stands to be made that Barnes is the one who could stand to use an upgrade.

An hour and fourteen minutes later, after Tony's ass and brain are far past numb, Sam walks through the doorway.

He stops partway in, his eyes scouring the train wreck lying in the bed. "Jesus Christ… Is it him?"

Sam sounds like relief, skepticism, and shock all rolled into one knotted-up ball of confusion.

Tony quickly glances up, nods, says "you bet," and gets back to his work. The shine of the surprise has worn off: they'd gotten duped, plain and simple, and it's time to move on and take care of the latest HYDRAgenated mess.

"How is he?"

"He's fine." Well. "Will be fine."

"He looks like shit." Sam sits on the other side of the bed, arms perched on his knees. His eyes don't leave Barnes. "This whole thing is crazy."

That quickly, Tony's not really listening. His focus is back on his tablet and the maze of code. He can't fix it with this, but he can tag problem areas to make his life easier tomorrow.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Sam reach for the area of Barnes' right arm that isn't bandaged, make contact, and instantly get rebuked. Barnes pulls his arm away and croaks, "Stop," without really ever waking up.

On Tony's tablet, lines of code change. Either an aborted movement on Barnes' end, or a reflection that his entire system, one way or another, is wired into the arm.

Sam huffs and leans back in his chair, arms crossed. "Great. It's him."

Tony tries not to smile. "You here to stay?"

Sam nods.

"Best news I've heard all day."

Tony powers off his tablet and stands up, his lower back popping and shoulders cracking. He grabs his jacket and heads toward the door.

"Wait. Where are you going?"

"Picking up some hardware. Be back in a while."

As Tony leaves, Sam tosses a "nice to see ya" his way.

***

At 0316 in the morning, Sam in the transition between reading the end of a long Atlantic article and battling the pull of sleep, he hears purposeful rustling and heavy breathing. He moves his eyes toward the former unmoving lump in the bed, right in time to see a plastic neck brace sail through the air and bounce, bounce, bounce across the floor.

Tablet on the ground, Sam shoots to his feet and doesn't think before grabbing Barnes' right arm. "Dude, you broke your neck, stop."

In the dim room, Sam can mostly only see the whites of Barnes' eyes. A little threatening.

"I don't care." The right arm rips out of Sam's grip. "Steve."

"He's fine. I swear to God, he's fine. It wasn't—"

Sam can't speak quickly enough. The eye-whites disappear, and he hears bare feet slap against the floor. Blankets and sheets whip through the air. Monitors shriek: heart rate spiking, blood pressure too high.

Sam races to the other side of the bed, flipping the lights on as he goes, right in time to see Barnes fall hard onto his tailbone. Worst of all, he stays down.

Head tilted against the wall, eyes closed, Barnes laments, "What the hell?"

"You're hurt. It's not like you're careful."

"Oh my god, I'm not talking about this again," Barnes breathes.

It's definitely him.

Through the petulance, Sam can feel waves of panicked helplessness roll through the room. Barnes can't rely on himself right now, and that apparently doesn't settle so well.

Sam takes a chance and sits down on the floor, legs crossed. He pulls a blanket off the bed and tosses it at Barnes. Barnes takes it and uses it to cover his lap and legs. Even covered, Sam can tell that his left thigh isn't doing him any favors, and so Sam reaches up for a pillow. Barnes even lets him slide it under his left leg.

"It was Steve," Barnes says.

Sam knows of only one thing he can say to shut this down, but it's not for him to say. It's not for any of them to say. "It wasn't. I promise."

Anger bubbles under Barnes' skin. The monitors shriek louder. Sam swears he's gearing up to try to stand again. "It was. I was there. It was him."

Nothing will stop him except the truth.

Sam licks his lips and pulls the proverbial trigger. "Three months ago, you killed yourself inside a HYDRA base in the Tabernas Desert. I helped take your body home. I had to tell Steve. We mourned you. Kinda tried to avenge you. Here you are."

Barnes freezes so perfectly that time may well have stopped. His eyes move first, darting back and forth, filtering through unvoiced thoughts, while his jaw slowly but surely drops.

The monitors go silent, except for the steady beep, beep, beep, beep of his heart.

Finally, fucking finally, Barnes says something. "Bullshit. That base is gone."

It's like being with Steve: circles, round and round, orbiting the same irrational point. There are some good reasons why.

Coupled with the head injury, the IVs pierced into Barnes' chest and hand are still connected – and must be dripping real nice, potent drugs into his system. In the light, his eyes are glassy, bloodshot, and dull. Beyond that, his face is drawn and exhausted, while fading raccoon bruising from the head injury exaggerates hollow, dark circles under his eyes.

None of that matters, not when Barnes keeps talking.

"I went there in 2016 after Kazakhstan. It was filled in with concrete." Barnes' voice gives, but it doesn't stop him. "About three hours west of Murcia, right? Near the mines?"

Give or take.

It's Sam's turn to freeze up, as he thinks back to the newer (destroyed) floors, the shiny (soot-covered) elevator doors, and the newer equipment inside of the Tabernas base. Nobody fills in a subterranean complex with concrete and somehow rebuilds it without anyone knowing – and not in less than a year. No way.

A heavy, icy chill trickles through his body. Like Insight, like 2016, this feels insurmountable, and he doesn't even know what the hell it is.

Barnes looks past Sam toward the door. Sam follows his line of sight and sees Eicher pick up the neck brace.

"You don't sleep?" Sam asks.

"Not today."

She means not with him here. Sam knows the feeling.

Eicher walks to them, tosses the brace onto the bed, and crosses her arms, all ten of her smooth blue-painted fingernails tapping the backs of her elbows. "How are you feeling?"

"Perfect," Barnes replies, like an asshole.

"You could say 'thank you,'" Sam admonishes – and, Christ, he sounds like his mom.

Eicher nods, as patient as could be. "Good to hear. You still can't stay down there." She tilts her head, eyes on his left leg. "Did your leg give out?"

Barnes quietly sighs. "Yeah. And my back." He lifts his right hand. "What's in this?"

Sam's gut twists, his thoughts hovering on a body back home.

"Toradol for pain and Ativan for sedation; saline to dilute. Nothing you're used to." Eicher has a way with words; between the lines, what she's saying is that it's nothing HYDRA used on him recently. "The point was for you to stay still and heal."

Barnes has nothing to say to that. Also: he's fading, or so say the long stretches of time between his blinks.

"C'mon, off the floor."

Sam moves out of the way. He marvels at how smoothly Eicher helps Barnes to his feet and how gently she deposits him back into the bed. Barnes lets her do it without one complaint.

She drags a white sheet and a light blue blanket over his lower body. "How's your neck?"

An answer doesn't come, because he's already passed out asleep.

He trusts her, Sam thinks.

Even asleep, Eicher keeps talking to him. She describes everything she's doing—checking his leg, checking his back, checking his ribs, checking his arm—a hair before she does it. She says something about ordering a portable x-ray of his neck to see about the brace and gets in a jab about not having enough equipment available to check his head.

Meanwhile, Sam cracks his back, then lays down on a five-foot, three-cushion banquet seat against the far wall. He twists himself so that his legs stretch across the floor, and, for now, it's comfortable enough.

Sam watches her check the IV on Barnes' hand and the IV in his chest, then squeeze the couple of bags hanging on the IV stand. When she's all done, it's impossible to tell that, ten minutes ago, a couple of guys had been hanging out on the floor.

"He looks okay. I'm bringing in a portable x-ray to check his cervical spine."

"Already?" Sam inquires; it can't already be anywhere near healed.

"He heals quickly. We'll see." Eicher puts her hands into her lab coat's pockets and considers him. "Security here is good. I'll be here. You can sleep."

Sam nods, the lights steep into a dim darkness, and not long after he falls into an uneasy sleep.

He wakes up to the sound of shrieking monitors.

God damn it.

His body wedged into the tiny five-foot corner, Sam simply opens his eyes.

Barnes is a fucking idiot.

He's already gotten through most of the leads. According to those shrieking monitors, he doesn't have a pulse, or a blood pressure, or oxygen in his blood, and he isn't breathing.

Sam doesn't think the monitors are too far off, what the white pallor that's extremely contrasted by his dark beard. His eyes are still glassy, and Sam swears to God he's wobbling on his feet.

At least he's on his feet. He is a fast healer.

Sam rolls to his own feet, shakes out his pant legs, and rubs his eyes as he walks.

"B. What're you doing."

Unapologetically, Barnes glances at Sam, croaks "pants" like some confused frog, pulls out the hand IV, and sucks the top of his hand to stop the bleeding. He gestures at his dick area with his left hand and looks at Sam expectantly.

There are days, like today, when Sam misses the time they could barely stand each other. Being friends with this mess is asking too much.

"You know you look like a pile of cold shit, right?" Sam doesn't wait for some sort of new gesture. He plows ahead. "We just did this, like—" Sam has no idea how long it's been, so he guesses. "—seven hours ago."

It might have been longer.

"Pants."

Sam doesn't budge. "That the only word you know?"

"Fucking pants."

Despite it all, Sam genuinely laughs, until it hits him: somehow, Barnes isn't dead. Better yet, he's alive and himself.

Sam watches Barnes close his eyes and keep them closed, a glimpse of sweet relief crossing his face. All he has to do is stop pushing for five seconds and let himself rest. He'll never do it – and certainly not here.

Maybe if they get him back to New York…

Sam texts Tony to pick up clothes, which probably means Tony will have JARVIS somehow make it happen. He thinks about mentioning to make sure the clothes are dark – black, gray – and decent material – Sam's noticed that – but that would only give Tony an opening to pick up something distinctly not any of those things.

Tony's answer is almost immediate: "Sure. On my way back. He's leaving?"

"He thinks so," Sam responds.

"Clothes are on the way. I'll get a nurse for the other stuff – don't pull it out, okay."

Barnes opens his eyes, blinks a few times, and then slightly nods. "Thanks."

It's an opening for something deeper, something that Sam's been wanting to say for eight months. Later, maybe.

"You're exhausted, aren't you?" Sam notes.

Another slight nod. "Not here."

Sam's no doctor, but he figures Barnes is stable enough to hop a SHIELD flight to New York. If he'll go there, and if he'll stay there. There's nowhere else that's safe, is the thing.

Eicher walks in, nose pressed into a tablet, her chipped red nails tapping its backside. She has a syringe held between the fingers of her free hand. She glances at the hospital bed. Instantly, her face falls, and the tablet drops to her side.

"Hey, Doc," Sam greets. "He thinks he's leaving."

"I am," Barnes argues.

Her eyes snap to their side of the room, as if she hadn't seen them there. "You need to stay. You're not well."

Sam stops himself from facepalming. There are probably worse fighting words than that, but, in a pinch, those'll do fine.

"Fuck you," Barnes rasps.

Eicher advances forward, and Barnes actually surrenders ground with a step backward. His back is almost literally in a corner, and Sam knows him well enough to feel his panic.

Sam darts between them, hands out – one to stop Eicher, the other to calm Barnes.

Stone cold, Eicher states, "It's an antibiotic. Sit down and let me put the IV back in."

Barnes breaks his laser-focused eye contact for a millisecond – to spare a look at the window. His left arm announces the plan with an odd-sounding click-click-whir.

"Don't break the fucking window, man," Sam warns. "What're you gonna really do? In a hospital dress?"

"I'm leaving," Barnes bites. He turns a full glare back onto Eicher, someone he trusted a handful of hours ago. "You don't come near me."

"It's an antibiotic," Eicher repeats, hard and unforgiving. "Get back in the bed."

The arm whirs again. Barnes' elbow bends and his shoulder draws up. He's gonna break the window and jump.

Sam steps deep into Eicher's space, hands on her shoulders. She might not realize how aggressive a move it is.

They're done here.

"He's leaving. Tony's bringing clothes. That's it."

Eicher stares past Sam for way too many long, long seconds, her head cocking as she bites the inside of her cheek. Then, finally, she shrugs away from Sam's hands, turns around, and leaves.

Sam balls up a mound of stress and pushes it away for later. He turns around, preparing to lay into Barnes for being a stubborn dumbass – but Barnes' right hand is visibly shaking, and there's nothing but defiance in his face.

Three months ago, someone exactly like him committed suicide – backed into a corner, nowhere left to go, a single bullet to his name.

Sam understands.

"I'm going to go talk to Eicher. Tony should be back soon. Please don't break the window."

He gets a miniscule nod of agreement.

Sam tracks Eicher down to a nurse's station. She sees him, shakes her head, and begins poking at her tablet.

That's all well and good. She knows better than this. Hell, she'd been one of the key people involved in keeping Barnes calm and cooperative after Death Valley.

"You scared the shit out of him," Sam announces.

Eicher doesn't bother looking up. Plainly, she states, "It was antibiotics."

Sam stops himself from crossing his arms. Purposefully, he loosens his arms, keeps them at his side, and squares his stance. "You know his background."

Eicher laughs, not quite bitter, and regards Sam. "This is a hospital."

Sam crosses his arms, tight and tense, and has no idea why they're having this conversation. "Remember the one back home? The one who detonated a base and put a bullet in his head?"

Eicher visibly flinches, her face comically freezing into shock and surprise, while her eyebrows quiver. She swallows and nods agreement. "Is he still leaving the hospital?"

"Ooooh, yeah. Nothing's stopping him except maybe pants."

"He needs a doctor. Where is he going?"

Sam shrugs. "No idea. We'll keep you posted."

Eicher fixes him with an intense, strangely familiar stare. "Please do."

As he walks back to Barnes, all Sam can think is that he can't wait to go home and put these fucking crazy days behind them.

It's a naïve thought.

***

As the day ekes into the late afternoon, clothes finally come, and Barnes can't get them on fast enough. His shoulder feels better. His neck and left leg don't, despite all the drugs buzzing through his body. In fact, his left leg can barely support his weight.

Sam watches him limp – every step, every falter, every wince. As expected, as Barnes pulls on shoes, Sam snipes, "Just saying I told you so."

Barnes doesn't reply. He leaves the hospital gown on the floor and doesn't look back.

Without any fanfare—no discharge process, no attempt at a wheelchair—Sam leads him toward the parking garage. Not the entrance.

Afraid to ask but more afraid of not knowing, Barnes asks, "What about the police?"

Sam punches through the push bar on a set of double doors, holding one of them open for Barnes to proudly limp through. "Congratulations. You're an Avenger. Comes with perks. Hill already gave your statement, and Rhodes is taking care of the rest."

It shouldn't be a surprise, since Hill had been all over him about that last year. But it's different to hear it said as a reality. It's different to hear Sam say that they more than had his back. When his eyes prickle, he tells himself it's the drugs. Has to be.

Sam ends the nice moment with, "Yeah, your new codename is 'Stupid Fuckhead.'"

He's tempted to laugh out loud, but the thumping, pounding pain in his head warns against that. "Ha."

On the third floor of the parking garage, a glistening black BMW SUV idles parallel to the door. Barnes slides into the spacious backseat. The leg room alone is more than enough to let him fully stretch out his left leg, and, if he wanted, he could almost comfortably spread out across the back seat.

It's tempting. Although he has exactly zero regrets about leaving the hospital, he yearns for a quiet, dark place to lay down for a really long time.

The door closes behind him.

Sam doesn't get in.

What the –

He looks out the tinted-black window and sees Sam standing with Stark about two meters from the vehicle. They think he can't hear them.

"They went where Barnes went. They're not responding to any form of communication."

He spins "they" around in his head, deducing quickly that Stark is referring to Natasha and probably Reliant.

Sam steps backward and spins in a circle, hands scrubbing over his face and through his hair. "Are you— God damn. How long?"

"Over twelve hours." Stark's hands stuff into his pockets. "Look, he can barely stand up straight, let alone walk. We send him home to New York – and it's you and me. We go there, get them, and go home. Figure it out from there."

"Oh, simple," Sam snarks.

It's a bad plan. They have no idea what they're up against. Even worse, neither does he—and he's been there.

Conversation apparently over, they get into the vehicle: Stark in the front passenger seat, and Sam next to Barnes in the back.

"JARVIS, you know where to go."

Barnes is almost too tired and now too wired to notice that the vehicle turns itself on, maneuvers its own steering wheel, and sets its own speed. It drives itself without anyone in the driver's seat. Even he, who has pretty much seen it all, marvels at how fucking cool it is.

"You okay?" Sam asks.

Barnes tears his attention away from the self-driving vehicle, turns his neck to look at Sam, nods, and doesn't admit how much that all hurts his neck. "I'm coming with you."

Sam makes a face. "Yeah. You're in the same car. That's kinda how it works."

"I heard you out there." Barnes gestures at his ear. "That's kinda how it works."

"Yeah, no, you're not," Stark butts in, a distant, unseen voice from the front of the vehicle. "You're going home."

You don't know where my home is, Barnes feels like saying, then realizes he's never going back to that little street and the loud wooden stairs and the tiny flat with the view of the cobblestone, ivied courtyard and annoying streetlight.

"I can—"

He barely gets those two words out, before Stark flips around in his seat and stares at Barnes from behind a pair of dark sunglasses.

"I told Rogers I'd take care of you. So. That's what I'm doing. You're going home, not neck deep in your old territory."

He's supposed to be touched or something by the first part, and probably also insulted or something by the last part, but the first part more than makes him mad. "I don't care what the fuck you told whoever."

"See, that's not even a sentence. Know when to stop."

Stark turns away, like they're done or something. Barnes sees the glow of phone's screen and hears tell-tale tippity-tapping.

"You really think walking in blind is going to help anyone?" Barnes asks.

"Uh, no," Tony retorts. "We'll be flying, in fact, while you're flying to New York."

He pushes away pride and a heap of defensiveness. Natasha's out there – more than capable, more than dangerous. But she and Steve are out there, with all the unknowns and maybes and ifs ifs ifs ifs. He won't be—can't be—anywhere but right here.

Worst case: he ditches them and heads out on his own. That truly is worst case. Worst of the worst. He really doesn't want it to get that far.

"Let me help," he pleads. Pleads.

Finally, Sam speaks up. "Tony. He's right."

"Christ, fine. JARVIS, head to the safe house." Stark spins back around, index finger pointed. "All you're going to do is feed us intel. Ass planted. Got it?"

It actually sounds…not bad. Given the circumstances.

"Like milk," Barnes replies.

Stark pauses, and his eyebrows disappear under the frame of his sunglasses. "I'm not impressed that you know that."

Barnes sags into the corner of the door and the seat, relieved. He notices Sam's stare and doesn't have the energy to address it. There's one thing he wants to get a jump start on, as much as possible.

"I'm gonna need—"

"Maps," Sam interrupts, accurately. "We've met."

Despite it all, Barnes pays Sam a miniscule smirk. "Who the hell are you?"

It's worth it to hear Sam laugh.

***

"We should've gotten you crutches."

Though meant genuinely, Sam still gets himself a nasty look from Barnes. That's all fine and good until the elevator dings at the twelfth floor, and Barnes hesitates long enough for Sam to know that Barnes knows: he can't make it to the suite's door.

With an eye roll, Sam drapes Barnes' left arm around his neck and steps out, tugging Barnes along with him. It's a testament to how out of it Barnes is that he lets Sam do both.

"You don't need—"

"Let's go, Stupid Fuckhead," Sam interrupts.

Sam counts the steps to the door, all fourteen of them. Barnes is quiet about it, tight-jawed and eyes closed, while Sam is somehow complicit in this effort in ridiculousness.

"You should be in a God damn hospital."

Barnes doesn't answer, until Sam has deposited him on a gray couch inside the safe house. "Not a regular one? I'm fine."

Sam's reply is too quick to guard against pure and total honesty. "Your idea of 'fine' is fucked up beyond belief."

"Tell me how you really feel."

Sam sits next to him. With Tony downstairs, there's no better time than to tell Barnes exactly how he really feels. "That was a shitty thing you did."

"Be more specific."

"Yeah," Sam nods, "you're pretty good at compounding fuck-ups. Brazil."

After all this time, Sam's not too bad at reading the situation that is Barnes. Right now, he reads that Bucky had never had that problem, and it kills him that he can't snap that person back into existence.

"Look," Sam redirects, "no one's mad. Especially after…"

The last three months compared to the last day helps to put things into extreme perspective.

Barnes fishes. "Natasha?"

"That's between you two. But, really, damn. Of all the people to cut out, Natasha's one hell of a choice."

Barnes takes in a deep breath. "I thought… Don't worry about it."

Sam lets that hang, while he sifts through what he knows. The nasty text message almost right after Brazil. Knowing how angry and bitter Sharon was the last time he'd seen her. Both of them SHIELD. It's easy.

"Nat wouldn't do that. None of us would do that to you."

Barnes screws up his face in what looks like genuine, disgusted shock. "How the hell—"

"It used to be my job. Okay. People puzzles."

That look wipes clear off Barnes' face. "'Used to be'?"

Sam drops eye contact, and his hands suddenly become interesting. "2016. It caught up. Can't really help people, when I'm out there kil…" It occurs to Sam that he's explaining this to someone it doesn't need explained to. "You get it."

Really, all Sam expects is some level of nonverbal agreement, maybe a "yeah, no shit." Usually, Barnes' well of givable emotional resources is bone dry, and that's okay. It's part of the deal.

"During the War, HYDRA sent this little girl out with a grenade. She got close to the unit. I killed her." Although Barnes' voice breaks into a whisper at the end, Sam doesn't think it's because of grief or remorse. "It changed everything. Even if nothing else had ever happened."

Part of Sam had died that day in the sky, an RPG and body parts of his best friend reflected in his eyewear. No one he knows now will ever know the whole version of him, like he'll never know the whole Steve, the whole Barnes, or the whole Natasha. It doesn't make any of them less real, only different than who they had once been.

"I think you're a good counselor," Barnes tries.

Sam grins, because they're both sitting here, both alive, and this wreck of a person is trying to make Sam's life better. "Do you even really know what a counselor does?"

Sam earns a rare smile – a glimpse into the far gone past. "No."

"Thought so."

"Did I ever tell you about Gernhardt?"

"Dude, you can barely talk. Save it for later."

Like Barnes ever listens.

***

Tony tosses a tablet Barnes' way. "You asked for maps. Take a look at these."

After a momentary glance, Barnes recognizes the area as the subterranean complex, Kozerska, and Lake Kręta. An orange waypoint marks each location with a letter - Y for the complex, Z for Kozerska, and X for Lake Kręta.

That's interesting.

"Do you have their mission plan?" Barnes asks.

Tony crosses his arms and leans back against the kitchen island. "They didn't file one."

Barnes looks to Sam in disbelief. In over seventy years, he's never seen an agency make mission plans optional.

"Not even with Maria?" Sam questions.

"Nope. All Romanoff told me was that they were going where Barnes went."

Which could be any number of places. Not really helpful.

Sam blows out a breath and regards Barnes with stony weariness. "We've had issues. They have intel on our missions. Might explain why you ran into trouble. Discretion, you know?"

Barnes bites back a "still?" "Okay. I'll see what they left here."

Tony pulls a chair up to the island and opens about five thin laptops, while Sam stays put and flips on his tablet.

He thinks he already knows that Steve marked the map, and he thinks he already knows where they went. He's not having these two go there, until he's absolutely certain.

Barnes leans back against the couch and digs into the tablet's contents. He swipes through map and after map, finding many of his own – the ones from a few days ago, and, surprisingly, some from 2014. Natasha had gotten into his cloud account and pulled them.

He ekes out a scratchy laugh. He hadn't thought to change the password after Kiruna.

"What?" Sam asks.

Barnes swipes through more images, seeing that none of them have been notated beyond his old scribbles. "Nothing worth talking about."

Sam goes quiet for about a split second. "So, you and Sharon don't get along?"

Barnes pauses mid-swipe, eyes searching thin air to make sense of that.

He's heard that name before – Sharon. Steve's Sharon. The one HYDRA got to so they could get to Steve. He saw her once outside Steve's apartment—another bottle blonde out of thousands—but he doesn't know her.

…Reliant has blonde hair. Similar build. Similar height. Can't be.

Without thinking through the implications, he asks, "Who? I mean, what?"

"You and Carter. Do you get along?"

Sharon. Carter.

He doesn't think he ever knew Sharon's last name was –

"Carter?!" Barnes exclaims, his brain so far behind his mouth. "Steve totally fucking would."

"Yeppers," Stark replies absent-mindedly, more focused on his computers. "Oddly, not as weird as it sounds. Well: sounded."

"Dude." Sam lets that stupid word hang for a second. "You've worked with her for how many months, and you never got her last name?"

Maybe it's the lack of sleep, or the head injury, or the way his brain is a pan of scrambled, soggy eggs at this point – but what the hell.

Steve's ex-girlfriend is Reliant. Reliant is Peggy's granddaughter or something.

All those times she'd stonewalled him weren't about Insight. They were about HYDRA and what had happened to Steve. He gets that, plain as fucking day.

Sam hadn't been lying about Natasha.

Natasha.

Oh, fuck.

He'd gotten it all wrong.

"Wait," Sam laughs, "did you even get her first name?"

Barnes looks at him, but not before he can wipe the giant oh-fuck-me expression off his face. "She was mean."

In some sort of overjoyed disbelief, Stark spins around in his chair. The corners of his pressed-together lips quiver. "Oh. Do tell. Because I kinda, you know, can't wait to."

He wants to sigh, but his throat hurts, and he wants to shake his head, but his neck is a fucking red-hot rod iron, and he wants to say "fuck you," but Stark is still Howard's kid.

"You never got her name?" Sam repeats in genuine disbelief. "After eight months?"

Barnes will and does say "fuck you" to Sam.

***

Not that Sam's counting or anything, but five hours and six minutes after leaving the hospital, while Tony does Tony shit to Barnes' arm, Barnes announces, "They went to the base – Location Y."

Barnes slides his tablet across the kitchen island, his right arm stretching out with it, and lays his head down.

"I told you not to move," Tony snaps. "Also: you feel like explaining that, John Edward?"

Sam stands up and stretches his arms, cracks his neck, and shakes out his achy knee. His wingpack's ready to go. After he grabs a couple pieces of gear, they can be out of here in no time at all.

The only problem: it's 1700 and dark outside. It won't be any better in Poland, let alone in enemy territory. It's a good twelve hours until sunlight.

Without raising his head or sitting up, Barnes mumbles, "Steve did the map. Who's John Edward?"

Tony stays completely silent, staring at Barnes with unblinking, round eyes.

"He can't see you do that," Sam points out. "You know that, right?"

"I'm trying to light him on fire. You're ruining my concentration."

Although Barnes doesn't say anything, let alone make any sort of sound, Sam can all but hear a would-be groan as he sits up, dragging the tablet back across the counter. He shoves it over to Tony.

"I told you to not move."

Barnes holds back a damning glare, his nose and lip twitching. If Tony was anyone else.

Sam walks over and peers over Tony's shoulder, a tangled mass of discolored wires, and a layer of metal plates. The map displayed on Barnes' tablet is the first one from hours ago.

"Y is 'yes,' X is 'no,' and Z is 'rendezvous.' Steve and I came up with it in the '40s. Natasha pulled my research on the underground base. That's where they went."

"That seem weird to you?" Sam asks. It does to him.

Barnes rubs his right hand over his face. Like a reverse Etch-a-Sketch, he looks more tired when his hand falls away. "I don't know. It made sense to them, and it's probably where I'd go. Steve knows the place."

"Good enough for me," Tony pipes up. "Give me thirty to get the arm back together. We go tomorrow before sunrise. And by 'we' – you know who I mean."

Barnes doesn't argue. For now.

Sam spends those thirty minutes watching a magnificent scene unfold in the kitchen.

Barnes is half-sprawled across the island, head once again laying on his right arm. The way his chest rises and falls suggests that he's fast asleep, even as Tony fits his left arm back together a piece at a time.

Maybe, at some point, with some luck, they can all end up home, in the same place and on the same page. Maybe.

Finally, Tony stands up, scoots his chair back, and slaps Barnes on the back. "All done, Sleeping Beauty."

Tony wanders away, without realizing that Barnes didn't wake up. Sam's pretty sure he's not dead again, if only by the way his rounded back rises and falls with easy, steady breaths.

Nope. He's not sleeping there, like that.

Tony disappears into a room – a bathroom, a bedroom, a whatever-room – while Sam pads to the kitchen and puts himself as in-front-of Barnes as he can manage.

"B."

No progress made there, Sam dares to land a hand on top of Barnes' right shoulder and give it a little shake. "Barnes."

"What," the idiot croaks, even as he flinches that shoulder away from Sam's prodding. "I'm fine."

Some days, Sam thinks Barnes is equivalent to a kid's See 'n Say toy: pick a topic, crank the knob, and enjoy shit like "I'm fine," "fuck you," "whatever," "fuck you some more," "'kay," "fuck," and "how does my hair look."

Sam cranks the knob. "You're not sleeping here. C'mon. Move to the couch."

"'Kay." Barnes says that but doesn't move.

"Your hair's messed up," Sam tries. It's not a lie, even.

Barnes' brow furrows and his right hand stiffly comes up to check. It's a tad longer than he usually has it, a little dirty and oily, and a mess of cowlicks and flat spots. "It is," he mumbles.

"It's really bad. You should go fix it," Sam suggests, knowing exactly what's going to happen. "Bathroom's riiiight over there."

Like clockwork, Barnes drags himself off the kitchen island, winces as he puts weight on his left leg, and blearily blinks at the kitchen, then turns at blinks at the living room. Sam comes up behind him and, with two hands, directs Barnes toward the living room: straight ahead.

"C'mon, man," Sam shamelessly manipulates. "I've got your back."

"I'm tired," Barnes says, everything about him screaming barely awake.

He should be in a fucking hospital.

Sam helps ease Barnes down onto the sofa, not a single effort at a fight or a mean word spared.

As Barnes stretches out, Sam sits at the end, tosses Barnes' shoes onto the floor, and drags a blanket over both of them. It won't be comfortable like home, but it won't be bad, even with Barnes' legs draped over Sam's knees.

Click!

Sam looks to his right, only to find Tony smirking and holding his phone up, as if he's –

Taking a picture. It'll last longer, right.

"Way too cute," Tony jabs, though light-hearted. "Can't believe the hair ploy worked."

Sam snorts, then shuffles down into the couch, getting more comfortable. "HYDRA wouldn't give him a comb."

Tony puts his phone away, while his other hand comes up with a snack-pack of nuts. He pops an almond into his mouth. "Tragic. We leave at 5 a.m."

Sam thinks to set his alarm for 0400: it'll only take him ten minutes flat to gear up. The rest of that time is meant to talk Barnes down, off the inevitable "they're the only people I have, and I'm god damn fucking going" ledge.

Sam wakes up at 0300, the alarm unneeded. His neck aches from its awkward sprawl, and his legs are numb from sitting in the same position for – oh, wow, eight whole hours. It'd been a decent sleep.

With a glance to his left, Sam sees Barnes: absolutely dead to the world, but alive and breathing. In the dark, it even looks like his color is better, some bruising and swelling down to almost nothing.

Sam slides off the couch and finds Tony already awake and based in the kitchen, working between a sea of laptops and tablets.

Tony's eyes briefly flick up. "Still nothing from them. It's been nearly 24 hours."

So: something is genuinely, seriously wrong. Even on Steve's worst day, he's still capable, still Captain America. Add Natasha and Sharon into that mix, and HYDRA shouldn't have stood a chance.

Add the other Steve—the one from a day and a half ago in Berlin—into that mix… Sam wonders if that's who happened to them. He prays that it's not.

"05, still?" Sam asks.

Tony nods, attention back to his devices.

Sam takes a long, hot shower, gets dressed in black combat clothing without the gear, and plops in front of the couch. He turns on the TV but finds the news is still fixated on what the hell Captain America was doing attacking civilians in Berlin.

Sam turns it right back off, then spends over an hour reviewing maps of the SAR area. Behind him, Barnes quietly snores, even when his left arm extends out, elbow locked, and whacks Sam in the head.

At 0445, Sam returns the favor by flipping on all the lights and then dropping a few pieces of light gear onto Barnes' stomach. Barnes doesn't complain: only sits up, letting the gear drop to the floor, and then pushes himself to his feet.

His left leg wobbles.

Sam only woke him up to let him know that they were leaving, so he wouldn't wake up twenty hours from now and not know what the hell happened.

It's ridiculous that Sam even has to say, "No, you're not going."

Barnes sags, every ounce of energy leaching out of his body. "Keep your cam on, comm in. I'll do what I can from here."

Sam doesn't buy it: too easy. He gives Barnes a shitty look, clearly conveying that he knows Barnes is full of it.

"I'm dizzy just standing here," Barnes quietly says, eye contact a mile and a half away.

Barnes doesn't play games, and he rarely outright lies. Sam also knows that very little in this world can stop Barnes from going after the two most important people in his life. The fact that he's willing to stay behind tells a story.

"Are you going to be okay here alone?" Sam asks, though he thinks he already knows the answer is no.

If they can pull in Rhodes, one of them can stay here with Barnes. It would only set them back a half hour, at most.

Incredulous, Barnes rolls his eyes and limps toward the kitchen, apparently done with the conversation.

"It's a fair question," Tony cuts in, not harshly.

"Priorities," Barnes responds, not kindly.

"You're one of them," Tony counters.

It's weird, Sam thinks, watching them play ball.

A rare glimpse of a gamut of thoughts pass over Barnes' face. He's finally learned to watch what he says. "I'll be fine," he decides to say. "They might not be."

Tony takes a moment to consider, then shrug, and then look to Sam. Tony wiggles a raised wrist adorned with a red and gold bracelet. "I'm ready whenever you are."

Sam glances at Barnes, in time to see him discreetly drop into a black office chair and seem exhausted for all the effort it took.

This is ridiculous.

"If HYDRA finds this place, you know you're screwed, right," Sam states.

"If HYDRA finds this place, we're all pretty fucked," Barnes answers. "Go."

They go, every one of Sam's instincts blaring huge neon signs that read "no" and "stay."

On street level, Sam stops outside the building's door. Tony power walks ahead, not realizing he's alone until he's nearly half a block ahead.

Streetlights hum. One or two vehicles swish by them, Berlin still asleep as the morning begins to stretch.

"I can't. Not like this."

Hands in pockets, Tony strolls back to Sam, shoulders infuriatingly relaxed, and an amused grin pulling at his lips. "Relax. JARVIS already called Eicher. She's on her way to set up shop."

Sam stifles a laugh, before he remembers the last encounter she'd had with Barnes. But: it's an ally, a friend, and a doctor. "Oh, he's going to be thrilled."

"We should probably tell her to not be too mean."

It's not even an hour later when Barnes' crackly voice comes through their comms: "I hate you both."

***

Less than an hour after Sam and Stark leave the safe house, the door opens without a knock.

Immediately, Barnes rolls off the sofa, grabs a handgun from under the thick cushions, and aims it at the door.

Eicher freezes in the doorway, hands slowly raising, an odd smirk on her face. Her leather work bag slips from her shoulder and lands in a lump on the floor.

He doesn't lower the weapon. "How did you know to come here?"

"Stark called," she answers, voice even and sure. "He wasn't comfortable leaving you here alone. It's not even been two days since the attack."

Barnes lifts his eyebrows, at once both a prompt and a cue that his patience is waning.

"Drawing, head, dairy, timber."

Those are the magic words of the week. Before lowering his sidearm, Barnes taps his comm and informs his new team that he hates them both. Though a strong statement, it's not an entirely incorrect one.

He's fine.

"You're welcome," Stark replies. "Play nice."

Barnes doesn't bother replying to him. As he sticks his weapon under the sofa and painstakingly pushes himself to his feet, he regards Eicher. "I refuse care. Leave."

Her response to that is to slide her bag into the flat, step inside, and then close the door. "After a physical exam, I will. Promise."

Not so long ago—barely a day ago—he trusted Eicher with his life. She had been firm, honest, and open with him after Death Valley, despite their rough start. He liked her.

The incident from earlier today had shaken him in a now-rare, previously-familiar way. If he wants people in his life who shove unwanted needles into his body, he knows exactly where to find them.

All said: if she tries that again, he can easily overpower her, even in his limited condition. If she looks him over, maybe Sam and Stark will shut the hell up about it.

Barnes sits on the sofa. "Thirty minutes, and you're gone."

She gives him a close-lipped smile, picks up her bag, and approaches him. "I'll start with your throat."

He watches her unzip the bag, pull out a pair of latex gloves, and snap them over her hands.

She tugs out his ear piece, then peels off the antibiotic tape that covers the incision across his neck. He wouldn't say it hurts, but the incision burns. Barnes glances at her face and can't read the expression.

Eicher throws the tape away. "May I palpate your throat?"

His nod earns him all ten of her cold, gloved fingers palpating his neck in a gentle, roaming pattern. A few spots feel unusually tender, more so whenever he swallows.

"Swallow."

He does. It hurts the bottom of his throat.

"Pain, tenderness?"

The question is standard. TV doctors ask it of their TV patients. HYDRA doctors ask it of their HYDRA assets, and those assets owe those HYDRA doctors a brief, honest "yes" or "no."

This whole thing is like that and not like TV. For a moment, the room tilts sideways and loses its sharpness.

"Pain or tenderness?" she repeats, tone sharp.

"Yeah, both," he says, uncomfortable but determined to find a way to be…normal. "It's only been a day."

She presses in a few more places and then sticks the eartips of her stethoscope into her ears. "Is your voice usually better than this or worse?"

He's almost used to the scratchy unevenness and random breaking of words. More importantly, it's a poorly worded question, and he's nervous enough that he wants to ease his own tension.

"I don't know; I usually have one," he says, trying more for impudence than derision. "I love sounding like I'm thirteen again."

The stethoscope diaphragm presses against his chest. "You didn't have a voice when you were thirteen? That's weird. Deep breaths."

He obliges but doesn't keep the banter going. In his head, he thinks of random words, purposefully out of sync with his deep breaths. Duck, ball, book, paint, window, tree, maze, red –

Not red. He'd been thinking of Natasha's lipstick, but it doesn't matter. Not red.

"Your heart palpitated," Eicher calmly notes. "Is that normal?"

"Oh, darlin', you have no idea" crosses his mind. Maybe when he was twenty-five. "No, I thought of something," he says instead. "It's fine."

"Oh, where'd you get your MD?"

Barnes doesn't take the bait. He lets her move the diaphragm to his back, and he keeps taking deep breaths. Candy, chips, fries, pizza, shrimp, water, sand, shell, gas, car, road –

Eicher steps back, hangs the stethoscope over her neck, and then peels the tape from another incision. Her fingers crawl to the back of his neck. That one stings, too. He wants to ask why they went into his neck from both sides, but he wants her out of here more.

Eicher stands back and snaps off her gloves. "You have swelling on both incisions. That's why you need a good, intravenous antibiotic."

Although he hears her, he's distracted by her nail polish. It's red: bright, chipped. At the hospital yesterday morning, the color had been blue—smooth, fresh—and her left thumb had had a perceptible, deep divot on the tip. Today, he can't see it.

He thinks back to their stand-off yesterday: so completely unlike her.

"I'll take that as an 'okay,'" she says.

Out of the blue, Barnes comments, "I never thanked you."

"For what?" she asks, in an off-hand, disinterested way that shakes his instincts.

Sometimes, those instincts are damn near all he has left. He listens to them.

"Talking to me about Steve, back in '16. It helped me find perspective."

A transitory smile crosses Eicher's face, and her eyes meet his. "I'm happy it did."

Thing is: they hadn't talked in 2016. She had been professional, open, and honest; he'd acted like a bratty, petulant five-year-old.

Any other day, this wouldn't have been much of a problem.

Walking, right now, isn't so easy. His neck muscles ache and spasm, and his dull, ever-present headache has been more like a drill boring into his skull. He runs out of breath faster than Steve used to. He hadn't gone after the only family he still has because he knew, and he knows, that his body probably won't hold out for long.

He watches her walk to the kitchen island, plop her bag on top of it, and begin to rummage through. She pulls out a plastic-wrapped syringe, IV catheter, and a small, unlabeled glass bottle.

Panic grips him: a full-blown attack of cold sweat, seizing lungs, and an uncontrollable rush of memories. The top of his right hand stings with those memories. That tiny spot was their most reliable control point; using it, they could do anything with him.

The panic winches around his chest. The Winter Soldier wouldn't have let it affect him. The person he is today wants to explode – literally explode like a literal bomb and take the building and this bitch down with him.

They're never going to let him go.

Those items in her hands, Eicher gives him a tight smile. The bottle isn't filled with antibiotics; it's a sedative that will knock him out for days. Game over. That's what yesterday had been about: she'd blown her mission.

"Are you all right?" she asks.

"Yeah," he responds. Not today. They're not getting him today. "Tired. That's all. Sam says I should be in a hospital; he's probably right. Don't tell him that."

She steps back over and sits down next to him on the sofa. She takes his right hand into her lap.

His throat locks up.

It's reminiscent of another time. It reminds his body of those times. The reminder is enough to trip something in his head, and, without realizing what he's doing, he's pushed Eicher away and has escaped to the other side of the room.

Fuck. He might've blown it.

She's still sitting, though. The apartment is still quiet.

He stares out the window, barely seeing Berlin, all of it washed in pre-dawn darkness. Across the street, seven stories up in another building, a shadowed sniper has a rifle pointed squarely at him. Barnes looks down at the handful of toy cars scurrying down the street far, far below. He pretends not to see the black SUVs that sit parallel to the building's curb, waiting. Surrounding.

Bits of dread pile up in the back of his mind.

"You're not invincible. Your body still needs support. Sam's not wrong."

"I know that" somehow tumbles past his lips, not much of a voice behind the words. Hundreds of needles have pierced his skin; hundreds of times, HYDRA's ideas and wants pulsed through his veins.

His comm piece is with her. Even if Sam or Stark try to reach him, they'll figure he fell asleep, that Eicher's taking care of him.

Natasha, Sharon, Steve, Sam, and Stark aren't coming back here for days. Hill's on another continent.

He's alone.

He reminds himself of April 2014: a broken arm, no memories, no friends, no world to claim as his own. He'd barely had himself, and he'd survived. He'd made it to this point in time.

He reminds himself of a few days ago: caught completely off guard, hundreds of miles from help, wounded and hunted by someone faster and arguably stronger. He'd survived, and he'd escaped.

In the window's reflection, Eicher stands confidently, syringe held like a cigarette between her fingers. Her next statement isn't one he expected, but it's one that threatens to make him sick.

"What can I do to make it different this time?"

Anger replaces the panic. They know. They've always known – what they were doing. How much they violated.

Push it away.

Barnes turns. He decides on a plan.

"Not much," he concedes with a small smile. He steps toward her, arms at his side, body relaxed, nonthreatening in every way he knows. Only a half-meter or so away, he reaches up to run his fingers through her red hair.

She's good: doesn't flinch, doesn't question, doesn't move back. She's sliding together scraps of a simple puzzle and reaching an unmistakable conclusion.

He thinks of Natasha and demolishes the personal space between them. "I missed you," he whispers as his lips brush her ear.

It's almost natural, when he takes both of her hands with his – not aggressively or forcefully but how he might if it was Natasha, or a lifetime ago, Anna. The syringe is still in her right hand; again, she's missed her chance to use it.

"We—" she protests, finally revealing uncertainty.

Barnes steps her backwards toward the wall, gentle but firm, face still close to hers. A memory of Bucky says, "We should."

Besides the sniper and the team on the street, he's sure the door is covered. He'll only have a few seconds to flip the kill switch – and then fight his way out.

Her back hits the wall. He kisses her on the lips, and she reciprocates forcefully, desperately, convincingly committed to seeing this through. His left hand still around her right, he brings his own right hand to her cheek, next to her ear, presses down, and catches the edge of a photostatic veil.

Her eyes widen, and he only gives her enough time for that. The needle of syringe slides into her thigh, and he depresses the plunger with one quick push.

That's it.

Barnes turns away from her and calmly, very calmly, walks across the room: past the sofa with the tousled throw and pilled pillow, and past the kitchen island.

The living room window shatters. A bullet hisses past the back of his neck.

Calmly, very calmly, he walks into the kitchen. Another bullet takes out the black toaster; it's not a bad shot, but rather a shot fired by a person unfamiliar with shooting the person who'd trained HYDRA's best.

He goes to the too-large pantry.

The flat's front door BANGS open.

The pantry door swings open to a floor-to-ceiling server rack. Barnes presses three red kill switches, ducks under the island, takes the loaded FN-RAL assault rifle from the spice shelf there, and comes right back up, shooting and walking.

It's only a six-person team inside this small flat, and it's only six people that he kills, and only a seventh slumped dead against the far back wall, a too-powerful syringe stuck in her thigh.

That sniper keeps shooting, and Barnes simply drops the rifle, grabs one of the black go-bags from the wall-mounted coat hook, and leaves the flat.

Just in time, too: the smoke from the sizzling server rack is getting to be a bit strong.

***

The Avengers will return in Chapter 7: The Only Luck of the Day.

/***/

When Barnes' knees hit silt, he trudges to the muddy bank, his feet sinking into the ground. Seconds pull away, sluggish and slow, like him. He focuses on the tree line, one step at a time, and holds back a fit of coughs his body compulsively tries to spit out.

His hand aches. His thigh and neck burn. His right arm is numb. His lungs feel stripped raw. He wants to collapse and sleep for days.

More than anything, he wants Natasha or Sam. He needs a friend to say we’ve got this, you’re not alone.

Barnes steps into the forest, looks ahead about ten meters, and knows he’s going to die.

It’s a cloudy night: still late, still dark, without much moonlight. He doesn’t need daylight to see the shadowed, dominating metal-suited figure with glowing red eyes, standing directly in front of him.

“That’s the last time I’m pulling you out of a river this week.”

Barnes hears the male voice but barely listens.

With his left hand, he draws his sidearm again. He puts his finger on the trigger and lets his arm hang at his side.

One of them is going to die here. It won’t be the guy wearing a metal suit.

Chapter Text

The thing about running from HYDRA is that it's not really that easy. Without a doubt, they have people on the roof, on the ground, and in place at every possible egress point. There isn't an easy or careless way out of this.

But there is a way.

Inside one of the building's six elevators, Barnes drops a standard-issue static charge to kill the surveillance camera. Then, he pries open the inner doors with his hands. Instantly, the car lurches to a stop; the moment it does, he trips the outer's door safety latch and forces the doors open.

He's inordinately relieved to see (1) the car is between floors and (2) there is enough room between the car and the shaft for him to slide through and climb atop the car.

Once on top, he spots the car's maintenance control panel and flicks the switches for "close" and "run." The car lurches back into service, gliding upward. Meanwhile, he steps off it and onto a metal access ladder.

His left thigh muscles tremble already. That's nice.

A rung at a time, Barnes silently climbs downward, careful but quick. HYDRA's operatives will check the shafts, once they realize surveillance shows him going in but never coming out. The advantage is that they'll think he went for the roof.

Faded numbers mark the floors as he passes by them – 8, 7, 6. The elevator car slithers by him, centimeters from his body as it travels up and down. All he can do is ignore it – and the bubbling memory of a mission to assassinate a pro-democracy advocate in Soviet Russia long, long ago.

Hand over hand, step after step, he clears every floor down to the basement in under three long minutes.

On the first level of the basement, he drops into the elevator pit, pries open the access doors, and crawls up onto a dirty concrete floor. Left leg burning, the severed muscles hopping, he uses his right leg to push himself clear of the elevator shaft.

He hops to his feet, a steadying hand placed against the concrete wall. Only a bit longer.

His options are to find the service elevator to access the rest of the basement, or chance the stairwell. He decides on the stairwell, at the other end of the floor, because all of the elevators will be closely monitored.

On the way there, he passes a maintenance room – and he wonders.

Barnes forces open the locked door and slips into the small, dark room. His eyes adjust and can't believe the pile of fresh, plastic-wrapped Aramark uniforms they see. Every once in a while, the stars align and shit works out.

A disguise won't help him if he runs into HYDRA soldiers, but it'll sure as hell get him by cameras. Until HYDRA decides to kill everyone they see.

A sick chill twines around him. He can't afford that, not right now.

From the go bag, Barnes grabs credit cards, cash, and ID, shoving it all deep into his pant pockets. He makes sure to take the holstered sidearm from the bag, and he secures it to the back of his waistband.

He sifts through the pile of clothes until he finds an extra-large set. He pulls on a scratchy, stiff navy blue, button down shirt and a baggy pair of matching pants over his own clothes. He puts on a blue cap, grabs a dirty mop, and walks casually out of the maintenance room.

He forces his left leg to move without a limp. It's agony, like muscles are tearing, but he doesn't care, so long as it gets him out of here unnoticed.

The stairwell is empty, gray, and cold. He takes the steps all the way to the bottom, down three flights. Long before reaching the bottom, his right hand aches from gripping the rail so tightly and supporting so much of his weight.

Barnes left-shoulders his way through a locked door marked K4. He enters an expansive, dank area with colorful, thick pipes extending floor to ceiling. Steam blasts and hisses, mixing with the sound of rushing water and the echo of voices.

Barnes walks along the edge of the room, identifying the owners of the voices: workers, not soldiers. He ignores them and hopes that they ignore him.

He turns a corner and spots water storage tanks: two behemoth, blue cylinders that each stretch two stories high. They share a common 45" red intake pipe that branches out into the back of each tank. That pipe is directly connected to the Spree.

Water from the Spree gets pumped into the tanks and used to cool not only this building but four others in the plaza. Simply: it's a way out. Like the schematics said. He'd pulled them when this assignment first began in June 2017, just in case a rule he follows without fail.

He has no expectation that HYDRA knows about this egress point. Eight minutes into this mess, and it doesn't seem like they've figured anything out.

He's about to give them a Big Fucking Hint.

As he walks, he purposefully passes a bright red box attached to the wall. In the middle of that bright red box, surrounded by words like "Scheibe einschlagen" and "Knopf tief drücken," a black button waits to be pressed.

He presses it deeply and doesn't stop walking.

Click-click-click: fire doors release their auto-locks and close.

Bright, pulsing lights flash.

A high-pitched, very annoying fire alarm pierces the cavernous room.

Workers groan and moan and debate if they should leave or not.

He doesn't do it to save himself, or to create a diversion to help his escape. If anything, it puts him at extreme risk: HYDRA will know it's not a fire, and HYDRA will source it right back to this location.

He does it so that HYDRA can't quietly kill everyone in this building. He does it so that authorities will come.

If SHIELD hadn't disconnected the fire alarm in the safe house, it wouldn't have been necessary.

That already-ticking clock has sped up, and his time is running.

Barnes searches for and spots a thin red ladder that leads to a red maintenance catwalk. Before the annoyed, semi-evacuating workers get curious about him, Barnes walks to the ladder, leans his decoy mop against the wall, and climbs up, steady as he goes.

His right shoulder aches with every reach, but Stark had done an amazing job on his left arm. It's quiet and smooth, the plates operating in sync, the movements easy—better than it's been since Rumlow's EMG over a year ago.

Barnes swings onto the catwalk and advances toward the tank closest to the workers. He hops the rail and leaps onto the tank, headed straight for a round access hatch.

Right on time, the workers spot him. Loud, upset voices cut through the blasting alarm. He hears "Hey!" "halt!" and "anhalten!" Amusingly, he also hears "bist du dumm" – "are you stupid?" – and he thinks to mutter "I hope not" in German.

With his left arm, Barnes rips the hatch open, revealing a man-sized hole and sloshing, dark water. He lets the hatch go and ignores it as it scraaaaaapes down the tank and then claaaaangs against the floor. The workers cuss up a storm and yell about shutting down the intake system, fire alarm be damned.

Perfect.

A calm breath inhaled, Barnes drops feet first through the opening and plunges into pitch black, ice cold water. Immediately, the twisting water removes from him control of his own body, powerfully pushing him forward and down.

The maintenance jacket tears away from his body. It crosses his mind that he's jumped into a giant fucking washing machine.

In his mind's eye, he can see exactly where he is in the tank. He knows his speed and direction, and he knows the building schematics compared to what he'd seen before jumping in. There are times he wishes he could power off this part of his brain; now is one of the times when he appreciates the HYDRA in him.

Barnes reaches out with his left hand and catches the edge of the horizontal intake pipe. His fingers dig into the metal, fighting against the fervent rushing of the Spree's water. Immediately, he whips his feet around, kicks through a metal baffle, wedges his body inside the pipe, and waits for the workers to turn off the pump.

It only takes about fifteen seconds for that to happen. When it does, the pipe no longer suctions new water from the river, and that makes his escape as simple as possible.

He swims briskly, as fast as he can. The City will order the tanks to be emptied, and, when his body isn't found, they'll search the pipe. HYDRA will immediately know it was him, and they'll know to search the Spree.

He needs to get the hell out of here before that happens.

It takes a good seven minutes for him to come out the other side, depositing himself out of the intake pipe and into the dark, murky depths of the Spree.

His oxygen level is more than good, and he intends to use the time he has to swim far, far away from this part of Berlin.

Above, he already hears the hollow, booming whapping of a helicopter and the roar of a small boat engine. He knows who it is. One of these days, he's going to find someone decently in charge and ask why they still want him so badly.

He kicks off the pipe, butterfly kicks to gain speed, and launches into a swift breaststroke, parallel to the river bottom, headed northeast toward Berlin Hauptbahnhof. It's a two-kilometer swim, give or take.

He doesn't think about what could happen, like a hand grabbing his foot, or an underwater team surrounding him, or an EMP rendering him helpless. He focuses on swimming and on distance, keeping time in his head.

That focus precludes him from noticing a large, dark shadow pass overhead.

It's still daylight, and there's only so much HYDRA can do with the eyes of Berlin watching. After what they tried with the attack the other day, bringing a helicopter out is more than pushing their luck.

Maybe that's why nothing happens.

He swims away, free and clear.

A little over thirty minutes later, a little less than four kilometers swam, he pulls himself out of the water at a tourist boat dock, dripping wet and frozen. The good thing about it being early in the morning—barely daylight, even—coupled with the unseasonably cold weather is that pedestrians are few and limited. Less eyes on the weird, wet guy.

Barnes pats his pockets and feels the cash, ID, and credit cards there. That'll be good for later. For now, he can't risk being caught on a store's camera, nor can he risk people talking. And, in this part of Berlin, they would talk.

He walks north on Marschallbrücke and crosses the Spree via a sidewalk that boasts an upraised, rusting blue water pipe along its side. It's only one of the many ways that life has a habit of making fun of him.

The pipes end, replaced by graffitied walls, until the street narrows into a neighborhood of tall white buildings and small cars lining either side of the roadway. He passes a BB Bank and a Papa's Tapas, old residential blending with new commercial.

A little further down, Barnes cuts hard right and trots down a 24-hour APCOA parking garage ramp. He walks down a level and then zeroes in on a nice-looking row of vehicles.

There's nothing secretly stashed away here. There's nothing special he knows about it, except that it exists. He's only here to be a horrible person.

Barnes walks casually but purposefully, as if he belongs here, deftly avoiding cameras while glancing into car windows. He doesn't need money or transportation: he needs dry clothes, so he can reasonably walk into Berlin Central Station, buy a ticket, and get out of Berlin without drawing attention to himself.

The first row is a complete bust. He walks down another level and checks out another row of cars.

In the backseat of a small black VW, he finds a decent black wool jacket. Barnes opens the unlocked door and takes it, leaving enough Euros to count.

On the ramp to the next level, he sheds the baggy maintenance pants and shoulders on the jacket. Although his original t-shirt is still wet, the dry piece of clothing makes all the difference in the world, though it's a little tight in the shoulders.

He checks out another row of cars and finds a blue winter hat as well as a pair of black sunglasses. He takes both items and calls it quits. His pants are dark enough to not catch many eyes.

Barnes leaves the garage and walks the kilometer to the gleaming-window Berlin Central Station. Inside, he passes an inexplicable Paddington Bear pagoda and dozens of closed stores as he rushes to buy a ticket, too many cameras to dodge.

The only luck of the day is that the next train to anywhere pulls into the station with three minutes to spare.

Near the edge of the platform, he merges with a crowd of tired American tourists. Clad in blue jeans, baggy logo t-shirts, white Nike tennis shoes, and fanny packs, he pegs them as rural, which is absolutely fucking perfect: they don't know not to plow ahead onto the train, before the people getting off have a chance to disembark. It's the perfect kind of chaos, and he joins them in it.

As he walks down the aisle, he forces his left leg to move without a limp. When he comes to the threshold for the first-class cabins, he smoothly extends his hologrammed left hand, paper ticket out, with a "grüß dich" offered to the ticket collector.

The whole point: if people come asking if anyone saw someone, no one will remember the dark haired, dark clothed thirty-something who had no distinguishing features to speak of. No one will think twice about him, and no one will ever pick him out of the crowd.

He has Stark to thank for making absolutely sure that happens. His old left-hand glove hadn't been noticeable, but there had been a handful of people who had stared. It only takes one loud mouth.

Ticket scanned, he makes his way to his cabin. Inside, he closes the door and its window curtain, then promptly lays down on the floor.

He holds the ticket above his face and squints at its tiny text.

He's on a train to Prague.

That's not even terrible. It's only a five-hour drive to Kraków from there.

"Thank fucking god."

The train jerks forward, then begins its long, smooth journey toward the Czech Republic. As its speed gains, Barnes' worry about a sudden HYDRA attack lessens.

Still on the floor, Barnes kicks his soggy shoes off, then removes his disgusting socks, and rips off the sweaty, polyester hat.

It doesn't feel like very long ago that he was damp, cold, hungry, and exhausted on a similar train. It might have only been something like – two days ago. Two.

He sits up, presses his back against the seat, and uses the front of the cushion as a pillow for his neck. The relief it provides the aching, burning muscles is indescribable. He bends his right arm back and finds the complimentary thin, fleece blanket; unwrapped from the plastic, he throws it over his legs.

It's not great. It's not where he wants to be. It's not helping anyone, let alone finding the only people in this world who matter. It's also not HYDRA.

Torn between eating and sleeping, Barnes' eyes decide for him. He falls asleep on the floor, the tips of buildings and tops of trees blurring by, while the first rays of morning sun dull into winter's overcast sky.

He dreams of Steve sinking into the inky depths of the Potomac, of ripping tulips out of the water, of grabbing onto Steve's shoulder but both of them descending into the limitless cold, even as his fingers gouge desperate holes in Steve's –

Footsteps clompclomp down the aisle, more slowly than a normal person would walk.

Barnes snaps his eyes open, hand moving toward his sidearm. All said, he thinks he's going to need to surgically extract it from his back, since it seems like it's melded straight to his fucking skin.

He stands up, every part of his body stiff and unhappy, especially when he bends over to grab his shoes.

Clomp, clomp. A shadow stops outside his door, perceptible in the tiny gap between the floor and the bottom of the door.

No one knocks. It's not service.

Maybe he overreacts. Maybe not.

Shoes be damned, Barnes punches the cabin's window with his left hand. The safety glass caves outward; after another swift punch, it shoots out of its metal frame at 120 kp/h.

Wasting no time, he takes a good breath, ensures his sidearm is secure, and slides through the window frame, keeping his body as close to the train car as possible.

The wind whips his hair, billows under the wool jacket, and ripples the skin of his face. The jacket thing is annoying; he maneuvers his body so that the wind sucks it off of him, then pulls himself onto the top of the train.

Ahead, he can see the village of Muldenstein. In a few seconds, the tracks will cross the Mulde River; it's only about a twenty-foot drop off the elevated train tracks and into the frozen river.

Of everything, it's one of his most vivid, gnawing memories, but fear has no place here.

Inside the cabin, he hears the door lurch open, a footstep, a heavy breath, and an unfamiliar male voice lament, "You've got to be kidding me."

Definitely not overreacting.

With the Mulde in sight, he silently rolls off the train's roof.

He falls.

The train rattles away along its icy tracks.

The roof of his mouth tingles. His chest tightens. The memory of his left arm explodes, and nerve endings decades gone find a way to twist and tear at long-dormant pain receptors.

Every day of training—of muscle memory, of fabricated instincts, of focus—drains away. He forgets to open his eyes, forgets to straighten his body, forgets to pin his arms to his side, forgets to time his breath intake to allot for maximum underwater readiness.

He hits the river back-first and crashes through a layer of ice. The stress fractures that ripple across the river's frozen crest sound like cables snapping, like it had decades before. He sinks and sinks, colder and colder, darker and darker, like he had decades before.

Maybe today is decades that haven't really passed. Maybe he's drowning, and this has all, all of it, been something terrible but false.

HYDRA, his brain tries to say. HYDRA is here.

Swim.

Focus.

Go.

His body bumps into the rocky bottom of the river. Instinctually, he somersaults onto his stomach, grabs one of the rocks, and holds position.

Eyes closed, it's almost peaceful down here, despite his panic-wracked body begging for air. It's almost as if the world above has stopped existing. It's bone-chilling cold, darkest of dark, but quiet.

It's the first place they'll look for him, too.

Swim. Go.

Right.

Barnes opens his eyes to a pair of glowing, red eyes centimeters away.

He sucks in a breath, forgetting – how in the fuck – son of a bitch –

Icy water slithers into his chest. It burns.

A thick, larger-than-life hand reaches for him, and Barnes doesn't think. He reacts with a left-hook aimed at the glowing eyes, and he feels it connect by way of the splintering pain that rebounds through the left side of his chest.

The hand goes away, and Barnes kicks upward, his body forcing out coughs and hemorrhaging oxygen.

Even though HYDRA's right on top of him, geared with some more horrible new technology, his biggest thought is that he's going to drown twice in two days. They'd love that; it'd make it real easy for them.

He kicks and kicks, having no plan beyond breaking the surface, having no thought beyond going to drown, until that huge hand wraps around his left wrist and pins his arm behind his back.

Stronger.

Barnes punches with his right hand, connects with solid metal, and might've broken bone to accomplish nothing.

White, rushing noise fills his ears. His vision grays. He can't breathe, and HYDRA has him.

He can't breathe, and HYDRA –

With his injured right hand, Barnes draws his sidearm, flicks the safety off, and pushes the barrel against his chest. Finger on the trigger, he's a split second too slow: another huge, metal hand knocks his off-trajectory, the fired bullet cutting harmlessly through the water instead of through his heart.

The hand painfully grips and twists his right wrist, either to stop another attempt or to make him drop the gun, maybe both. Either way: unlikely. He's broken that wrist himself at least two times before, and the only way he's losing the sidearm is if this fucker rips his hand off.

They'd fucking like that, wouldn't they.

His right hand doesn't get ripped off. His right arm, though, sidearm and all, is forcibly twisted behind his back, next to his left arm.

That's a mistake.

Sunlight streams through the water. The surface is close.

Using both of his arms, Barnes presses his body against the person holding him—it feels like all metal—and flips himself over the helmeted head. Although a risk, the surprise pays off: the person releases his arms, and Barnes launches off the solid body with both of his feet.

One second, two seconds, three seconds – he holsters his sidearm, breaks through the surface, and launches into a freestyle stroke. The river bank is only ten meters to the south, before it gives way into a thick forest. That's the goal.

He doesn't hear the whipping of helicopter blades or the hum of Quinjet engines. He doesn't hear voices, or clacks of weapons, or rustles of clothing. He hears his own ragged, vapid breaths, the splashing of water, and the din of traffic a half a klick away.

When his knees hit silt, he trudges to the muddy bank, his bare feet sinking into the half-frozen ground. Seconds pull away, sluggish and slow, like him. He focuses on the tree line, one step at a time, and holds back a fit of coughs his body compulsively tries to spit out.

His hand aches. His thigh and neck burn. His right arm is numb. His lungs feel stripped raw. He wants to collapse and sleep for days.

More than anything, he wants Natasha or Sam. He needs a friend to say we've got thisyou're not alone.

Barnes steps into the forest, looks ahead about ten meters, and knows he's going to die.

It's a cloudy morning: still overcast, still dimly dark, without much sunlight. He doesn't need that sunlight to see the shadowed, dominating metal-suited figure with glowing red eyes, standing directly in front of him.

"That's the last time I'm pulling you out of a river this week."

Barnes hears the male voice but barely listens.

With his left hand, he draws his sidearm again. He puts his finger on the trigger and lets his arm hang at his side.

One of them is going to die here. It won't be the guy wearing a metal suit.

Huge, metal hands extend out. "C'mon, don't do that. Put that away."

Still no helicopters or jets, still no other ground team. Still –

"Okay. Look. I'm going to trust you to not use that. Okay?"

Before Barnes can choose to not say anything, the armor peels away, plate by plate, piece by piece, until it has impossibly folded into a black-and-silver bracelet around the man's right wrist.

Without the helmet, the person looks vaguely familiar in a way that Barnes can't place. Male, tall, lanky thin, older than mid-40's. He knows the person but doesn't know how he does.

"I'm not HYDRA, Barnes. I'm U.S. military. I'm on your side," the man says, sickeningly patient. "Put the weapon down."

Barnes can't get a read on this guy or on this situation. What he knows is that every situation for the past however many days has come equipped with trap doors, and he's sick and fucking tired of falling through them.

Something important snaps inside of him. It might be the wall that he's carefully built for four years. It's the one that separates the person he wants to be from the person he's been. With that wall gone, Barnes looks to his instincts for instructions, but they're silent.

Barnes aims his sidearm at the man's chest. It's not for show. He will.

The man's hands instantly raise up, fear clear in his body language. "Really? That's where you're gonna go with this?"

Barnes lets his anger show. "I don't know you."

"Yes, you—"

"Fucking prove it."

Barnes doesn't know if he cares to hear an answer. If this guy is HYDRA, if they know he's here, he can't, he can't today. He's far, far better off killing this guy and getting the hell out of here.

The guy huffs out a sigh and drops his hands about a half a foot. "You know, you're worse than Tony. It'd be great if you'd let me talk."

"Tony" is the clue that puts the puzzle together. He does know this person.

James Rhodes. War Machine. Stark's Steve. Barnes knows from the SHIELD data dump and a couple of scant news clips over the years.

After Somehow-Not-Steve and HYDRA-Eicher, he needs proof. The gun stays where it is, but he takes his finger off the trigger.

"My name is Colonel James Rhodes. They all call me Rhodey. I'm sorry I jumped yo—"

Barnes elevates his aim from Rhodes' chest to his head, to prove a point and maybe just to fuck with the guy. He still takes nothing from the fear he sees. "Do better."

Rhodes perceptibly struggles, but he doesn't beg, make ultimatums, or try for excuses. A part of Barnes says this is enough, but that's the stupid part, the Bucky part, and it's not times like these that he cares much about that voice.

Finally, Rhodes says, "You like the New England Patriots because Sam hates them."

Two weeks at Stark Tower had mostly included Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football, and all-day Sunday football with Sam. Barnes doesn't give a fuck about football, unless it involves pissing Sam off.

HYDRA's never touched that part of him.

Barnes lowers the sidearm, pushes the safety, and lets his knees buckle. His ass lands on a thick log, and he takes a quick moment to rest his eyes. He yearns to stuff a pillow under his neck and stretch his shoulder out.

A couple of other things catch up to him again: his right hand is on fire, his lungs feel like they've been scraped with coarse sandpaper, and the back of his neck is excruciating.

"What, that easy? After all that?"

"I'm sorry," Barnes offers. To his own ears, his voice sounds as exhausted and broken as his body feels.

Rhodes' expression schools, until there's nothing left to read except "career military." "The safe house had cameras. We saw everything. I was there in under five minutes."

A better HYDRA—his HYDRA—would have killed the feed and made sure nothing was on camera. Fucking ever. So, either this HYDRA is still a bit lacking, or today had been about sending SHIELD a message. He'd bet on the latter.

"I held them off of you at the river. I was there."

That explains the easy swim. He might owe this guy his life.

Barnes closes his eyes again. After a few seconds, the relief of rest slips over him like a nice, cool blanket. He might fall asleep right here, sitting up.

He hears Rhodes sigh, then crunch across the forest floor. Barnes feels him sit down on his left.

"Where were you going?"

Barnes ignores that question for now. "You know Eicher's dead, right?"

Tension stresses Rhodes' body before he articulates a single word. "Berlin police found her body in one of the hospital's maintenance rooms. Bullet in the head. We sent a HYDRA operative right to you."

As murders tend to go, at least not a horrible one, but now another person killed for him.

"No kidding," Barnes replies, purposefully emotionless. "And Kraków."

"Via Prague? You do better."

Barnes sighs, heavy and hard, because he's tired and this is obvious. "I took the first fucking train. Cameras."

His throat is raw, enough so that he's finished with talking for the day. He doesn't know what Rhodes' mission or plan is, and he doesn't know that he particularly cares. For now, he'd be happy being left alone to grab a few hours—just a few hours—of rest, before taking a crack at Kraków.

Ha.

Barnes hears Rhodes stand up. That means he's leaving. Good.

"Alright then. There's a safe house in Leipzig."

Barnes opens his eyes, not sure why he's surprised. Without argument, he takes Rhodes' outstretched hand, almost glad to have someone say we've got this and you're not 

"You smell like a fish."

Nevermind.

***

It's a fast, twenty-minute flight to Leipzig. No big deal.

"JARVIS, sound." That command means Barnes won't be able to hear what Rhodes says next. "Vitals?"

In the space of about fifteen minutes, Rhodes' internal image of Barnes has shifted from "unconquerable and threatening" to "vulnerable and terrified." The only plan moving forward is to get the team back on-grid – and then Barnes to New York, before he finally manages to kill himself for real.

Barnes' vitals pop up in Rhodes' HUD. Everything is high for a regular human but probably fairly normal for Barnes.

"New injuries?"

"Fractured third and fourth right metacarpal."

A boxer's fracture, from trying to punch through the suit. "He didn't shoot himself?"

"No new gunshot wounds detected."

That's one bit of good news, at least. "Sound, JARVIS. Barnes."

No answer.

Rhodes tries again. "Hey. Barnes."

Again, no answer.

"I believe he is sleeping, Colonel," JARVIS says.

"How in the fuck."

Overall, Rhodes feels like he should have a particularly painful form of whiplash. In less than an hour, their entire relationship has spanned from jumping off of a train, to a suicide attempt, to aiming a handgun to kill, to this weird level of absolute trust.

Nobody had warned him about this. All he'd gotten from Natasha is "he's coming around"; from Sam, "yeah, he's cool."

What had been cool about this? Why hadn't they said, "He's really fucking touchy, so go in by backing off"?

The rest of the flight is quick and boring, as standard as standard comes. Rhodes sets down at the edge of a forest, near a meadow off the expressway in northern Leipzig.

He's pleasantly surprised when Barnes lands on his feet, instead of on his back as Rhodes had planned. The descent probably woke him.

Rhodes de-suits and breathes in cool air. Nothing about their surroundings sets off any of the proverbial alarm bells. A mall-like strip of buildings takes up a large swath of developed area across the expressway; to their south, a quaint, well-kept neighborhood of red-roofed houses reposed in the morning quietude.

The light scrabbling of small rodents darting across crunchy foliage and the hooting of sleepy owls blend with the village ambiance: the tires of cars whooshing across asphalt, the hum of streetlights, and the creak-creak-creaking of shaky furnaces.

"Where is it?" Barnes asks. By the sounds of it, he's in the middle of field stripping and tossing his sidearm.

Rhodes jerks his head toward the east. "About a half mile. Can you make it?"

Rhodes doesn't see Barnes' dirty look so much as he feels it.

"I'm used to Tony, okay?" Rhodes doesn't wait to see if that mollified the guy. "C'mon."

Shoulder-to-shoulder, they walk through the frosted-grass meadow and onto a narrow, paved street lined by small houses. Significantly underdressed for the weather, Rhodes wraps his arms around his chest.

He glances over at Barnes, whose hair is sticking up in icy chunks. "It's fucking cold," Rhodes comments.

Barnes blows out a long, thick puff of icy breath. Rhodes takes it as agreement.

Fifteen minutes later, they come upon a small, one-story white house with a sharply-angled red roof. Barnes trailing behind, Rhodes trots up a short set of three steps and grips the front door's stainless steel handle.

Hill had promised him two things: the handle would have a built-in fingerprint reader, and SHIELD would remotely activate the house's electricity.

It's not that he doubts her. Things tend to go wrong, these days.

Rhodes turns the handle and pushes open the door. He steps inside, swipes his hand across the right-hand wall, and flips the light switch. After a half-second delay, a bright ceiling light illuminates a short hallway that opens to a small living room.

As far as safe houses go, it's one of the better he's seen. The walls are painted-white plaster – yellowed and blank, but smooth and solid. The floors are parquet, blonde wood. It smells old – dusty, unused, vacant – but not bad.

The front door clicks shut. Rhodes turns and sees a person about two seconds from dropping but way too stubborn to admit it. Also, in the bright light, Rhodes finally notices that he's not wearing shoes.

"Well," Rhodes says, "this is i—"

One of the bulbs pops! and goes dark.

Neither of them startle. Barnes keeps a look of someone who's a million miles away. It's almost funny, not that Rhodes lets on.

Instead, Rhodes walks into the living space and switches on another set of lights. A faded velvet green sofa sits in the middle of the room. It's flanked by two greenish-brown, leather club chairs. Heavy, dust-covered, mustard yellow drapes dwarf a set of long rectangular windows. Overall, the entire room has a nasty case of Saturday Night Fever.

Through an arched doorway, a shoebox kitchen is stuffed with cases of water and MREs. A closed, brown particle wood door near the corner of the living room probably leads to a bathroom; Rhodes hopes to God it works, but he doubts it does. Hill hadn't said anything about running water.

Rhodes nods to himself: they can make this work. "Let me see your—"

Click!

Rhodes turns toward the empty hallway. He's pretty sure Barnes just sequestered himself in the only bedroom, without a "see ya" or a "thank you" or a "fuck you" between them.

Or so Rhodes thinks, until two minutes later, when Barnes honest to God yells, his voice going from crackly to high pitched and then back to crackly, "There's no fucking water?!"

Rhodes bites back a laugh and then can only watch, speechless, as Barnes tears out of the bedroom and straight through the front door. He throws behind a "I'm finding a fucking hotel."

Seriously. Why had no one warned him?

Rhodes flips off the lights and chases after Barnes. He'd seen a hotel sign on the flight in, and, if they're gonna do this, well. He might as well make it easy.

***

At the hotel's check-in desk, a fake passport and SHIELD-issued credit card on the counter, Barnes doesn't let it drop. "Seriously, no fucking water?"

Rhodes nods placatingly and searches on Google Images for something. When he finds it, he asks, "Do you know what Super Mario is?"

Barnes shakes his head "no."

Even better.

Rhodes tilts the phone Barnes' way, showing him a .GIF of Mario going down several different green pipes. "Surveillance footage of you today. It's real. Don't mind the mustache."

Barnes glowers at Rhodes, then turns to the clerk. "Is it too late to get separate rooms?"

Caught off guard, open mouthed and reluctant to say "yes," the clerk looks to Rhodes, then to Barnes, and then back to Rhodes. "I am sorry; only one room is…"

"He's kidding."

"No, I'm not."

In the room, before Barnes moves to devour the shower, Rhodes tosses him the hotel's breakfast restaurant menu and tells him to write down what he wants.

"I'll order it."

Barnes writes down half the menu. "Thanks."

Barnes and his still-damp clothes disappear into the bathroom, and Rhodes decides to do the guy a favor. Some of the stores he'd seen coming in might be open.

On his way to one of them, he puts in a to-go order for both at them at the hotel's restaurant.

It's a short, five-minute walk from the hotel to the shopping center. Rhodes goes into the first familiar clothing store he sees—a TK Maxx, of all places—and spends about forty minutes estimating Barnes' size and picking up a single set of basics in blacks and grays, including shoes.

On his way to the registers, he passes the hair section and recalls how much shit Sam talked about Barnes' love for hair products. He grabs a bottle of gel.

Thing is: he'd do the same for anyone. The other thing is: compared to some of the shit he's done for Tony, before and after Iron Man, this is one of the easiest days of his life.

Speaking of. Rhodes checks his watch. It's not even 1000 yet. Tony and Sam's check-in isn't until 1300. By any grace of God, that check-in will come on time and include only good news. They need good news today.

Rhodes walks back to the hotel, picks up the food in four cardboard to-go boxes, and heads up to their room.

The bathroom door is still shut, and the water is surprisingly still running. Military lifers don't usually hoard showers.

Rhodes raps on the door. "You alive?"

"Think so."

"I've got the food here."

The water shuts off. Rhodes cracks the door open and slides the fabric bag of clothes and hair gel through.

"Wha—" Rustling. "Thank you."

For the first time all morning, Barnes sounds like he means something. A hot shower, clean clothes, and the promise of warm food can make a big difference.

Barnes comes out in jeans, gray socks, a black v-neck, and a gray wool-fleece zip-up; the clothes mostly fit and are damn sight better than the frazzled clothes he's been wearing. His hair has been gelled enough to give it shape. He looks appreciably healthier and, most importantly, low-key and calm.

Barnes looks Rhodes straight, eye contact established. "Thank you. Really."

Again with sounding like he means it.

Rhodes gestures toward Barnes' three boxes of food and takes his own from the stack. "Eat and get some sleep. Check-in's at 1300."

He doesn't have to make the offer twice.

With the TV set to a German talk show, Rhodes sits on his bed, and Barnes sits on the floor with a pillow between his neck and the foot of his bed, both of them eating in relative, comfortable silence.

"You have to admit," Barnes comments, "this is way better than the safe house."

Rhodes can't honestly argue that. "Expensive."

"That's what Sharon says."

Barnes can't see Rhodes' smirk, a quick warning before Rhodes happily goes there. "Rumor has it that she was mean to you."

Barnes' soft, muttered "god damn it" comes through loud and clear.

***

1300 comes and goes.

Rhodes paces back and forth across the room, from the brown-draped window, past the black faux leather club chairs, then past the two twin beds, until he finally settles in a gray suede chair, eyes staring blankly into the television screen.

Barnes is passed out on top of the covers, dead to the world as far as Rhodes can tell. He thinks Barnes is going to be out like that for a long while.

At 1400, Hill calls. Rhodes answers it in the bathroom, door closed. Barnes' old clothes are crumpled in the corner, a white towel thrown on top of them.

"Iron Man and Falcon aren't responding. Still no word from Black Widow's team. Tell me you have Barnes."

"Affirmative. He's here and safe."

"Stark stashed a Quinjet in Hangar 4 at Leipzig. I already filed a flight plan for you – tomorrow at 05 was the earliest aviation authority would allow. Return to base and bring Barnes."

The call ends quickly. Rhodes pockets his phone, leaves the bathroom, and takes a seat on his bed. On his right, Barnes is still sound asleep.

Rhodes figures he'd better enjoy the peace while it lasts. From everything he's heard over the years, and from everything he's seen over the past few hours, it's a guarantee that Barnes is going to flip.

The only luck of the day is that Barnes sleeps and sleeps hard, until 0400 the next morning, when Rhodes nudges him awake and tells him the orders.

Barnes doesn't quite flip – at least, not with the reckless anger that Rhodes had expected.

"They don't have that time," Barnes argues, the intensity of the statement belied by the false calm of his voice. "We go today."

"Oh, no. You're in no shape," Rhodes argues back. "We go to New York and figure it out from there. Orders."

Barnes laughs something wretched and turns toward the door. "I don't give a fuck about orders."

Rhodes catches Barnes' upper right arm and pulls him back. Barnes turns, expression inscrutable; his eyes sharply move from his arm to Rhodes' face. Briefly, Rhodes thinks of the story from a couple years ago – the one about Steve trying the same thing and getting a knife in the face for it. He drops Barnes' arm.

"That's not how it works, and you know it. You know it." Rhodes intends to seal the deal. "You're SHIELD now, Agent. We go to New York."

For all that Barnes is chronologically over 100 years old, he's still every bit an impulsive, exhausting 28-year-old. "Then fire me."

Barnes opens the door and limps into the hall, a tad reminiscent of an insect uselessly throwing itself at a bright light. The guy doesn't know when to stop, and Rhodes has every confidence that he won't. He'll drag himself to Poland and get himself killed or worse.

Rhodes throws the proverbial hail Mary. "They're the only people you have. You think I don't get that?"

Barnes spins back around, left hand slamming the door open, that expected fervor in his eyes. "sent them there. I'm not running away to Stark Tower."

It's probably not a good time to mention headquarters isn't Stark Tower anymore. Or that Barnes can barely walk, let alone run. Too pedantic, too Tony.

"What's your plan?" Rhodes spreads his hands, offering a solution. "Tell me a plan."

Hesitantly, with suspicion written all over his face, Barnes steps back inside and lets the door close behind him.

"I lost four days out there, and it felt like minutes. I'm not confident there's a problem yet." An interesting take on the situation. "We take the jet to Dabrowa Valley. We boost satcomm instruments to establish contact, while monitoring HYDRA's frequencies."

"Recon and support," Rhodes simplifies. "That's it?"

"Probably."

At least he's almost honest.

"I'll make a phone call. Hold tight."

By the sounds of it, Hill is barely happy with the request, let alone the plan itself. "We've already lost contact with five of the team. You're the only two left."

"Maria, we're going to have go at some point," Rhodes levels. "All we're proposing is recon."

He hears her sigh, loud and heavy, and imagines that she's rubbing her eyes out of frustration. "Is he mobile?"

Rhodes glances at Barnes, who's sprawled back-flat on the bed. He's conscious, at least. "Yeah, he's mobile."

"Enough to survive and/or escape enemy engagement?" Hill's tone tells him that she's not buying what he's selling.

Barnes lifts his head up and gives the phone a shitty look.

Rhodes ignores the look and provides his assessment, only about half of it bullshit. The attempted suicide gnaws in the back of his mind. "He was okay on his own yesterday. He's decent."

"I'm great," Barnes corrects.

"Six hours, Colonel, and then you get yourself and Barnes to New York."

"Understood." The call ends. "Happy?"

Barnes rolls off the bed and drops less than smoothly onto his feet. He doesn't even realize he's wrecked, Rhodes thinks.

"Where are you going?" Rhodes asks, almost afraid of the answer.

"There's a breakfast buffet downstairs. Starts at 05. Coming?"

Seriously, no one warned him.

***

At 0634, Barnes sets Quinjet Two down in a miniscule clearing deep inside the forested, hilly terrain of Dabrowa Valley. On its skids, the jet tilts a few degrees to its port. The landing system flashes green – stable enough to stay. It's a good landing.

He doesn't miss that Rhodes sets his watch for 1230. Just in case he had, Rhodes reminds, "Six hours, and then we're out."

"Got it."

Barnes powers down the jet to critical systems only, a precautionary measure to minimize the risk of being detected by HYDRA. He unstraps from his seat, walks around Rhodes to the middle of the jet, and pulls the communication relay module from the bulkhead.

He hears Rhodes page for Stark and then for Natasha – once, twice, three times each. Then Steve, then Sam, then Sharon.

Boosting the power is a simple matter of rearranging wires, dropping the RF to ultra-low, and expanding the propagation of their signal beyond line-of-sight. He goes back to the cockpit, sits down, and oversamples the comm channels. It'll pick up everything and let him sort through frequencies of interest.

In the seat next to him, Rhodes comments, "You know your way around these jets."

"Yep." Barnes is unwilling to explain anything about how he does.

He pops in a Bluetooth earbud and starts sifting through the RFs. The persistent restlessness that's been chewing at him since yesterday dissipates.

"JARVIS, what is Tony's location?"

"I am unable to complete scans within the subterranean complex. The complex is shielded with an unknown composite. Additionally, I do not detect Mr. Stark within a 100-mile vicinity of this area. However, a system failure involving primary, secondary, and tertiary servers and mainframes occurred at 0716 on 3 January."

Even Barnes thinks that's weird – all of it. Between the suit and Stark's phone, there should be something traceable, especially by JARVIS. He doesn't know what the system failure thing means, but – what he's picked up on over the last year is that Stark's tech is pretty infallible.

He glances at Rhodes and sees a concerned friend.

Barnes offers, "I made it out of here on my own. There's five of them."

Life can go sideways in an instant, but he believes in Natasha like no one else. She'll get it done.

"And then they threw a car at you. Remember?"

Barnes shakes his head as he props his right foot against the console. "No."

Only about a day in, and Rhodes is already rolling his eyes.

"JARVIS, full spectrum analysis for radiation and any form of abnormal energy. Should've brought Banner."

Barnes tunes out Rhodes and focuses on the RF channels.

A lot of inconsequential chatter comes out of Kraków, including ZS RP communications. He listens long enough to rule out HYDRA, then filters right past them, no interest at all in Polish military operations.

A few choppy amateur hobbyists break through, their voices static-filled. Barnes listens to ensure they're truly civilian; once convinced, he flips past them, as well.

Standard Slovak Land Forces and Slovak Air Force transmissions come through loud and clear. He remembers something similar to this sometime in the late 80's, during the Autumn of Nations. The jet had been older, the communications equipment less sophisticated, and the mission far less altruistic.

His face burns with the memory. The mission's failure to accomplish HYDRA's long-term goals is a bare comfort. Beyond the death count, and the limitless impact on the world, he'd betrayed his family – and his mom, who, up until the day he deployed, hunted through New York's newspapers for news about the Antonescu regime. Her family had still been there, pulled from brutal fascism to a brutal Communism he'd worked to safeguard.

SHIELD is a way to be better.

"What's wrong?"

Barnes shakes his head. "Nothing."

"You sure?"

He's not annoyed. Rhodes is too decent a person. "Yeah."

All of a sudden, Russian fills his ear.

Barnes drops his right leg, presses his left hand against his left ear, and gets serious. He closes his eyes and listens.

It sounds like a couple of sentries calling in checkpoints. Makes sense: they're on a super ultra-low frequency, likely using groundwave communication, with multiple installations across an impressive expanse of southern Poland's mountains.

Minutes of boring, routine chatter chip away at his initial excitement. The biggest takeaway is that he might've gotten real fucking lucky a few days ago – or they've exponentially tightened their security around here.

"It's HYDRA radio chatter," Barnes tells Rhodes. "Standard. Doesn't sound like they know we're here."

He glimpses his watch—under an hour in—and keeps listening. If HYDRA has any of the team, he'll hear about it, no question.

One of the guards has a cold and coughs, thick and coarse, into the radio, in the middle of checking in. It's loud and painful; even Barnes flinches, hand uselessly guarding his ear.

"Fuck your mother, Alekhin! Not in the god damn radio!"

Only in Russian.

"Yeah, yeah, sorry," Alekhin says.

"Gamma radiation burst detected," JARVIS announces. "It is partially consistent with known properties of the Tesseract. A similar signal was detected at 0715 on 3 January."

A holographic map expands across the jet's windshield. It shows their location in green and the location of the radiation burst in orange, five kilometers southwest – inside the Tatra Mountains, fifty-five klicks south of Kraków.

Barnes studies it, recognizing the area. "JARVIS, zoom out."

After JARVIS complies, Barnes taps three new waypoints on it: Kozerska, the subterranean structure, and the base under Lake Kręta.

The gamma burst came from the subterranean structure. Location Y. Where all of them had gone and disappeared.

He can't say his stomach doesn't drop, or that chills don't run up through his neck, or that his palm doesn't break out with sweat. The last time he'd gone there, he hadn't been afraid of anything. His brain hadn't caught up to being human yet.

"What's that?" Rhodes asks.

"The subterranean base I found in February 2015. They were doing human experimentation there." Barnes points at different locations on the map, narrating for Rhodes as he goes. "The bottom subfloor leads to an underground tunnel system and unused railway. Right around here, a tunnel goes to Kozerska here." He points at the third waypoint. "This is a base I found a couple days ago. No idea what's there, but it's active."

"You might get mad."

Dubious, Barnes regards Rhodes. He leans further back into the seat. "Yeah?"

"SHIELD didn't have the resources to shut it down back then. It's been on the list since you found it."

Almost three years.

He's not mad about that. Sam had told him in Brazil: SHIELD's scraping by, there but for the grace of Tony Stark. At the beginning of 2015, it probably hadn't been any better.

Automatically, Barnes replies, "Not a big deal." Except, at this point, it kind of is. "You know what I mean."

"Oh, but no water for a shower, and the world's ending?"

"Priorities."

Rhodes laughs, before asking JARVIS to pull active satellite imagery of the subterranean base.

After a few seconds, the holographic map transitions to a sharp, high definition image of a grassy meadow encased by a wall of conifers. If Barnes squints, he can make out a new steel doorway carved into a grassy hill. Otherwise, it looks exactly as it had in 2015.

"I really never wanted to go back there."

Rhodes catches his eyes, all the smiles and laughs gone. "You're not. We're not. Intel only."

"Got it."

Truth be told, the walk across the Leipzig tarmac to reach Stark's hangar hadn't felt so good. The problem is that SHIELD has no one else to send here, and the thought of leaving them behind barely coalesces in his head. Does not compute.

The Russian chatter keeps up in his ear. He listens for another fifty or so minutes, bemused when they check in with each other again, in the same order, with the same people. At least they're consistent; that'll make it easier to find and kill them.

Alekhin, with his cold and his cough, does it again: another thick, coarse cough barked into the radio, right in the middle of his check-in. Once and again, it's loud and painful. Barnes flinches, more pissed off this time, teeth gritted.

"Fuck your mother, Alekhin! Not in the god damn radio!"

"Yeah, yeah, sorry."

"Another gamma radiation burst detected," JARVIS announces. "It remains partially consistent with known properties of the Tesseract. Analysis indicates its signature is identical to the first."

The map with Barnes' three waypoints pops up, an orange marker in the same place as last time. He stares at it, thoughts tumbling.

Walking through Berlin and ending up in Poland. The portal at the Spree. They can bend space, using whatever they have of the Tesseract.

The same comm chatter, book-ended by the same gamma burst. Losing four days. They're messing with time.

Barnes feels his face go slack even as his mouth opens. Dry, hot breath sputters from the back of his throat as he tries and fails to formulate words.

"All right, we have plenty of data for Banner," Rhodes says, tone clear: this is an order, not a discussion. "We're wasting time we could be using in New York. Let's go."

"No" is the worst way to respond, but it's all that his brain plops out of his mouth.

"Barnes, orders are— What the hell are you doing?"

He's already pulled up the recording from the first loop. He scales it back to find the time stamp: 0841. The soldier coughs, gets reamed, and then the gamma burst emits from the base. He pulls up the recording from a few minutes ago and notes the timestamp: 0937.

Fifty-five minutes between.

"Wait, their comms are looped? They're playing us?"

Barnes shakes his head, damn near frantically. "No. I need to go out there."

"The hell you do."

Whatever. He doesn't care. "Fine, you go. JARVIS, can you pinpoint the location of any of these soldiers?"

"Certainly."

Impressively fast, the locations of all the soldiers appear as red dots on the holographic map. Errantly, Barnes is thankful he never went up against Stark's tech, back in the HYDRA days. Its accuracy and capabilities are a little intimidating.

Barnes looks to Rhodes. "Pick one. And watch. Fifty-five minutes."

Rhodes' face screws up into a blend of confusion, refusal, and apprehension. "You've been through a lot—"

"I think it's a time loop."

"—and you're insane."

"Still a time loop."

Rhodes doesn't laugh at what Barnes thought was a pretty clever retort. That's fine.

"I heard I'm dead," Barnes says, intending to use that as bait. "That's not weird."

Rhodes closes his eyes and hangs his head but makes no move toward his armor or the jet's door. "We're aborting. Banner can figure this out."

Not good enough.

"Fifty-five minutes. That's all I'm asking. Less than an hour. We'll still be on schedule."

With a long-suffering sigh, Rhodes surprisingly acquiesces. "You owe me."

Barnes shrugs. "Fine."

"It's only so I can prove you wrong. Or certifiably insane."

"Shouldn't be hard," Barnes replies, half-taunt, half-lament.

***

Before the dim orange sun begins to peek over the eastern horizon, and before the full moon behind them begins to set, Tony and Sam land two hundred meters from the entrance to the subterranean base. Surrounded by tall, dense, green conifers, no one has a chance of seeing them. And, if they do, Tony has weapons for that.

Likewise: Tony and Sam have no chance of seeing anyone from here. For miles, it's pine trees. Lots and lots of pine trees.

"Man, I really hate this place," Sam complains. "You have no idea what we're getting into."

That's true. With an ounce of luck, they can pinpoint and grab Romanoff's team without too much fuss and muss, then get the hell out of here. Maybe drop a few accidental bombs and then send an apologetic fruit basket to Polish authorities.

"JARVIS, do you have their location?" Tony asks.

JARVIS is quick to respond. "I am unable to complete scans within the subterranean complex. The complex is shielded with an unknown composite. Additionally, I do not detect Agents Romanoff and Carter or Captain Rogers within a 100-mile vicinity of this area."

Well. That settles that: they're inside HYDRA's funhouse.

"Great," Sam huffs as he rolls his shoulders. "Thirteen stories of anything."

They'll be completely blind inside. And completely cut-off from comm access, Tony suspects, given that shielding.

"Blackbird, Iron Man," Tony says, using Barnes' stupid codename to maybe confuse any HYDRA eavesdroppers.

No response.

Sam glances at Tony. Behind Tony's helmet, Sam can't see his tired eye roll.

"Blackbird, Iron Man. Yoo-hoo. Anyone home?"

Not a thing.

Either their comms have already been jammed, or Earth's Laziest Hero is asleep, or Eicher's got his ass pinned to her medical wall. Tony would bet his life's fortune on one of the latter two. Genuinely perfect.

"He had one job," Tony clucks. "Remind me to fire him tomorrow."

Unfortunately, Sam doesn't have a helmet to hide his eye rolling. Should've kept his goggles on. "I'm just glad you called Eicher."

All things being said: like they'd ever figured they'd actually have him help.

"All righty. Let's get this done."

Sam's goggles come down, and, together, they fly to the base's hidden entrance –

- and, when they get there, the dark sunrising eastern sky switches around, to a dark sunsetting western sky. Dawn turns to dusk in a second flat, the setting, bright full moon entirely gone, not yet risen.

"Gamma radiation burst detected," JARVIS announces. "It is partially consistent with known properties of the Tesseract."

Tony barely notices the waypoint load into his HUD: far, far below the earth, off to the west a little. The rotating 3-D hologram puts it at the eleventh or twelfth subfloor. Sam should be seeing the same thing in his upgraded eyewear.

Bing-fucking-o.

Sam sticks a practiced landing, nano-wings retracting into an amazing little nano-bracelet but that's so not the point right now, and gapes at the switch from sunrise to sunset. "We lost time, like B did."

A story that had damn near encouraged Tony to look up mental hospitals near the base—you know, keep Barnes close to Steve and hopefully everybody mostly happy.

"JARVIS," Tony says, "what's the current day and time?"

Should be a bit past 7:15 am on January 3, 2018. The New Year's off to a hell of a start.

"I am unable to determine the current day and time. Access to primary, secondary, and tertiary servers and mainframes has been lost, and I am unable to re-establish connection. I estimate I will lose connection to you in five minutes and thirty-two seconds."

Tony kicks away a burst of surprised panic, one that tells him that's impossible. It can't be impossible if it's happening. Worse than whatever's happening to JARVIS: without JARVIS, Tony has no suit.

"JARVIS, download locally."

A little something he'd built into his suit after New York in 2012.

"Downloading locally."

That solves that, but: nearly losing JARVIS means they've experienced a complete disconnect from multiple satellites and ground stations. They've lost connection to the rest of the world.

Losing that connection explains why Romanoff, Carter, and Steve haven't used JARVIS to communicate, send a distress call, order pizza – anything.

Sunrise turning to sunset in a second flat. The moon disappearing. Losing connection to the world.

Tony thinks that mental hospital's going to need to make room for him.

"It's a temporal causality distortion," Tony announces, about one second afterhe comes to the conclusion. "JARVIS—fuck. Nevermind. You can't do it."

Sam draws in a breath, jaw slack. "A fucking whatWhat?"

Skipping ahead a day or two or four wouldn't compromise JARVIS. Being stuck in a different time than the rest of the world would.

"I think," Tony amends.

Sam shakes his head, even as his goggle-covered eyes dart around the landscape, searching for threats. "That's crazy."

"Like you even know what it is," Tony snaps, more distracted-annoyed than angry-annoyed. "What does your degree in Social Work think again?"

"That you're an asshole."

Tony stops, turns to Sam, blinks. Sam can't see that. "I'm blinking at you," Tony informs.

Less than intimidated, Sam stares back, eyes still obscured behind his goggles. "That's nice."

"Looks like I'm firing two people tomorrow. Oh, goodie." Tony thinks for a second. "Whenever tomorrow is. Lucky you."

All banter aside, they have two options: try to get out of here, leave Romanoff, et al. behind, and regroup with Banner or power ahead and try to end this now.

Sam answers that unasked strategy question. "The halls are too narrow to fly through. Even for me."

That's good information to have, though Tony doesn't have Sam's wing-span problem. He can fly.

"We'll see about that," Tony counters. "Try to keep up. Floor Eleven."

He knows he's being an ass. But, if he's right about what they've stumbled into—either a big HYDRA mistake or a big HYDRA trap—their clock is ticking them down into a relatively shitty eventuality.

Weapons locked and loaded, Tony fires his repulsors and blasts through the doorway, a "you've gotta be kidding me" echoing behind him from Sam.

***

Fifty-six minutes later, Rhodes flies back to the jet, sheds his suit, and eats his words. "It's a time loop. I'm calling Banner."

The cam feed that Rhodes shows the person named Bruce Banner is a single step removed from insanity.

From Rhodes' vantage point, the morning daylight cut sharply into dusk, the bright orange sun setting in the distance. The sentry station a couple hundred meters away was staffed by only two soldiers, one who stayed relatively put, and another who trudged a 100-meter path, back and forth, over and over again. The sun dipped lower, past the horizon, dusk turning into night.

Until the video's timestamp hit fifty-five minutes, and the video's image skipped. The trudging soldier vanished, reappearing 150 meters east. Night turned to dusk, the bright orange sun setting in the distance.

"This is real?" Banner asks. His face is smashed into a tiny rectangle on the top left-hand corner of the holographic screen; as such, it's hard to read his expression. "I mean, not a glitch in the recording software?"

"Saw it with my own two eyes," Rhodes responds. "It happens every fifty-five minutes and coincides with an increase in gamma radiation from Location Y."

Of course, Location Y is the subterranean base. On the holographic screen, it lights up with an orange waypoint.

"HYDRA had the Tesseract for as long as SHIELD did." Banner says it casually, but Barnes notices Rhodes tense. Still a sore point. "Looks like they managed to borrow part of it before 2012. I don't know that would explain a time loop, though."

Curtly, Rhodes asks, "What are they doing with it?"

"I don't know any more than they apparently do. That can't be on purpose." Banner sighs and tilts his head back and forth. "Remember Selvig? He was doing research on this stuff, before Loki happened. He thought there were space-time applications, but – not this."

Barnes doesn't care about the guy named Selvig, or if HYDRA meant to do this or not. "But it's why the others haven't re-established contact. They're stuck."

"Fair bet," Banner says.

"We go in, shut it down, and get them out?" Rhodes suggests.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. That's a bad idea," Banner says, something like concern on his face. "Look, if they're caught in this thing, then the minute you step into the loop radius, you will be too."

"Loop radius?" Rhodes asks.

"Yeah, you can see it on your video, where day cut into night. JARVIS, mark where those soldiers were. Are. Whatever." After JARVIS does that, Banner zooms in on the map and plots a red circle, Location Y as the epicenter and the location of Rhodes' soldiers as the outer boundary. "There it is, more or less. Go past that line, and you'll be looped in. Don't do that."

Barnes follows the line of thinking. "We'll never know the difference."

"Exactly. Our people probably don't."

His chest constricts as he imagines the implications. Fuck doing the same thing over again – it's the memory part that rattles him. If he digs deep enough, he can already tell Rhodes what it's like to have the same thing happen over and over and not know.

Hands clasped behind his head, Rhodes spins in a full circle, sighing as he goes. "Okay. Can you get out once you're in?"

Banner makes an ambivalent face, the biggest "yeah, maybe" Barnes has ever seen. "I can't tell you that, not based on this telemetry."

Barnes regards Rhodes. "You think you can fly out just before fifty-five and then fly back in after? Is that your thinking?"

"I don't know." Rhodes sighs again. "Bruce – what do you think?"

"I think I'm glad I'm not in your shoes. Or big metal boots."

Rhodes sours, not a smile in sight at Banner's bad joke. It's the first time yet that Rhodes hasn't seemed completely in control. No blame: Rhodes' plan won't work.

"I've been in this building. The ceilings are low, and the hallways are narrow. You won't be able to fly."

Arms tight across his chest, Rhodes takes a big, deep breath. "How do we turn it off, Bruce?"

Banner's expression doesn't portend great things. His hands raise up into an exaggerated shrug. "I'm four thousand miles away. I have no idea what they've built. Find an off switch."

"Really."

"Sorry."

Hill takes over the call. It's been a long while since Barnes has seen her. "I would tell you to come in," she says, then looks directly at Barnes, "but I doubt you would listen."

Since she's talking directly at him, Barnes has no problem saying, "Coming in would change nothing on our end and potentially everything on this end. We have a clear shot."

Take it.

"Colonel?"

Surprisingly, Rhodes has a ready answer. "Agreed."

"So be it."

Long minutes after the call ends, Rhodes leans onto the cockpit's console, palms flat against it. "You stay. I'm going in."

Very expected.

"The advantage you bring is completely wasted inside that building." Barnes plows forward, heading off Rhodes' mounting interruption. "I'm built for this."

Rhodes stands up straight and turns. "Built."

"Yeah. This is what I do."

"With a broken neck and a busted leg."

Barnes doesn't stand up straighter, or lock his jaw, or react to that in any way. "They're the only people I have. If I wasn't good for it, I wouldn't do it. This is what I do."

Rhodes knows he's right – Barnes can see it in the set of his eyes, in the small decrease of tension in his shoulders, and the slowing of his heartrate. "What are you proposing?"

Done deal.

***

The tips of Sam's wings scrape gouges into the brightly lit, concrete walls. It's a dumb fucking idea to fly in here, but – here they are.

Tony's nonexistent plan of "attack" isn't going to work so well – but it reminds Sam of Steve, in the best way.

But also: attack what?

So far, at least on floor one, there aren't people in here. In fact, the only two signs that HYDRA is actually here are the lights being on and the radiation signal JARVIS had picked up.

Ahead, Tony winds down the corridor, the heat from his repulsors pitting the walls. He blasts open the closed door to the stairwell and roars through, his suit scraping and sparking against the interior of the building.

Without one idea about what they're going to find on Subfloor Eleven, Sam follows.

It's exactly as Sam remembers it from 2015, only three short years ago. Thinking of that day—of finding a naked, starved, beaten, and mutilated dead body and then a laboratory steeped in the stench of old death—swells an unmistakable sense of nausea in his gut.

He can't afford that feeling today.

Steve, Natasha, and Sharon can't afford it, either.

Find them, get them, grab Barnes, go home, and never come back here: that's the plan. Sift through the nightmares later.

Sam shoots into the stairwell and retracts his wings. The upgraded set made with Stark-patented nano technology is, admittedly, amazing: the wings fully retract within 1.2 seconds, and they can fully extend in as little as 0.8 seconds.

So, while Tony bounces, scrapes, and sparks off the walls as he spirals around each flight of L-shaped stairs, Sam one-ups Tony's stupid ass: hops over the scratched-metal rail and drops himself down the long, deep gap created by each descending level of stairs.

He falls.

It's only a little scary: thirteen floors down, into drop dead darkness.

Pushing himself beyond his nerves and pounding, distracting fear, Sam concentrates on counting: one.

Two.

Three.

Four.

Deploy.

Sam re-extends his wings and engages his thrusters, rising up as the soles of his boots whisper across the old concrete of the thirteenth floor. A little close for comfort.

His wingspan is way too wide for this narrow space, and it's not a problem when Sam grabs ahold of a handrail and kicks himself back onto the happy, solid ground of a stair tread.

He keeps his wings out but folds them back, behind him. Sometimes, in the right situation, they come in handy: to block bullets, to do some nice moves, to attack.

"No one's impressed," Tony gripes over their comm.

Despite it all, Sam smirks. "It's all right, Iron Man. We can't all be this cool. Waiting."

Waiting between subfloors Ten and Eleven, it looks like. One of the exact places he'd never, ever wanted to be again, in his entire, entire life.

Sam draws two automatic weapons, checks them for serviceability, and steels himself for an oncoming fight.

An oncoming fight that, apparently, Steve, and Natasha, and Sharon had lost. Doesn't exactly bode well.

It takes Tony more than a few seconds to clomp-clomp-clomp down the stairs, leaving mini-moon craters as he goes. Flying hadn't worked out so well for him, it seems.

"I'm a terrible houseguest, what can I say," Tony quips behind an expressionless, angry-looking mask. "Let's do this."

"What's the rush – got a hot date with Pepper?"

Tony looks at him – at least, Sam thinks he does. "As a matter of fact. Ever been to Henry's End? It's some place in Brooklyn – which, ugh, yeah. Pepper won't stop talking about it."

As a matter of fact. "Yeah, actually it's pretty good. Steve really liked it."

"Oh. We'll go somewhere else, then."

Of course.

With Tony's date night somewhat planned, they skulk down the half-flight of stairs – and Tony wastes no time at all blasting down the door marked "11."

A sea of bullets instantly plink-plink-plink-plink against Tony's suit.

Sam wraps his bulletproof wings around himself, tapping two wrist gauntlets together to activate his cool, still-new toy: a tiny arsenal of mini-missiles.

As Tony shoots forward into the room, those bullets plink-plink-plink against Sam's impenetrable wings, until, like a bag of popcorn left in the microwave a hot second too long, the barrage becomes more of a plink….plink….plink?

Sam takes advantage of the lull and zooms up toward the tall ceiling, spiraling as he goes to avoid the last dregs of those bullets. He flips around and waits for the enemy tracking system in his goggles to register: four red-marked targets, with a square tracking peg locking onto each of them.

Green light go.

Sam fires four of his little missiles and doesn't wait around to see if the targets die by them. They will.

Six other black-clad, helmeted HYDRA soldiers are already limp and lifeless on the new, dark gray floor.

Like: who's still signing up to be part of this shit?

Tony drops to the ground, while Sam hovers, taking in an expansive room that must have been stolen from the set of a cool James Bond movie.

The first part of the room, where they'd entered, expands high, up to at least the tenth floor. Right above Sam's head, new light fixtures silently strew clear, dazzling fluorescent light across an expanse of laboratory space.

The walls are smooth, fresh concrete, not a crumble or a pit or a pockmark in sight.

The floors are as shiny, as smooth - and look like poured gray epoxy. Not old. Not 1930's. It's new. Smells new.

The back 150-feet of the room has been hollowed straight down to Subfloor Twelve and sheathed in stainless steel walls. In front of Tony, a glass observation window stretches from wall-to-wall. Against that window, a row of new tables, new computers, new screens, new equipment, new controls, and new chairs sit ready – and blood-splattered from the new mess he and Tony had made.

It's a control room.

For what, though?

And where –

Tony shoots a repulsor beam at the glass and doesn't wait for it shatter to the ground, before he soars through to the other side.

"They're down here," Tony announces.

Relief trickles through Sam: they're here.

Sam follows through, figuring "they're down here" means "they're in cages," or "they're tied up," or "they're unconscious."

Sam stops next to Tony, both of them hovering well, well above the floor.

No question: it's a tempura casualty whatever Tony had called it.

A story below them, a…machine about eight feet tall and six feet wide sits on a black metal base. That base supports a double-helix made of thin black granite. That double-helix ferociously spins, while yellow-orange light arcs across, around, and about the granite – sizzling at the tip.

Steve's shield waits for him, deeply embedded in the metal of the machine's base.

Most importantly: Steve, Natasha, and Sharon are down there. But they're frozen, like statues, each of them unmoving and completely, totally still, caught in various actions.

Steve: in perfect shield-throwing form, feet planted, right elbow cocked back, left hand extended out. He had just thrown the shield, when…whatever happened.

Natasha: handgun aimed at a soldier, a bullet fired – and even that bullet waits, time standing still.

Sharon: another soldier with his arms around her from the back, while she uses that soldier as a springboard to kick the fuck out of another guy. That guy's blood-tinged spit hangs suspended in the air, his helmet mid-crack, body twisted as it started a hard drop to the ground.

And, behind the back of the machine, nearly unnoticed by Sam: a white-coat scientist with long, white hair and black-rimmed glasses, ducking near a corner, arms bending over her head.

"Look up," Tony instructs. "And don't go near that thing. It's giving off major gravitational waves; it's why they're stuck."

Sam obliges and sees that a narrow portion of all the floors above them have been excavated into a thin silo. As far as he can see, stainless steel coats the walls, all the way, up, up, up, into 200 hundred or so feet of deep darkness.

HYDRA's been busy.

"This thing is going to go, and we're gonna go with it," Tony says, a tinge of panic in his voice. "I guarantee you: we'll end up back out there, and we'll never know the difference. They're fucking with shit they have no business fucking with."

Sam puts his attention back on the double-helix and its arcing yellow-orange light. Maybe it's because Tony has him spooked, or maybe because he's really seeing a difference, but the light seems brighter, stronger, quicker, as if it's gaining power and gearing up to do something.

"Sir, gamma radiation levels are increasing," JARVIS cuts in.

The machine is going to do whatever it does, and –

"Do you know how to turn this off?" Sam asks, his own voice now more than tinged with contagious panic.

Sam looks to Tony, forgetting that all he can see is Iron Man's stoic façade. Whatever Tony is thinking, feeling – Sam doesn't know, and that freaks him out.

"Sir, levels are crit—"

"I got it!" Tony snaps.

The yellow-orange light turns to thick bands of same colored energy, twirling, and whirling, arcing and sizzling up to the tip of the helix. The broken glass on the ledge next to Sam's shoulder rattles, while all that stainless steel begins to sing with the rumble of bubbling, invisible energy.

A missile launcher pops out of Tony's right shoulder, as his repulsors begin to burn. "I'm gonna kill it. Grab Carter. I've got Romanoff. Cap'll be fine."

Ironically, Sam doesn't have the time to say "are you out of your fucking mind?!" He doesn't have time to second guess. And they – they don't have the time to think this through.

Tony blasts downward, and Sam follows, eyes only on Sharon, wings ready and primed to wrap around them both.

Sam hears a pop! and then the hissing, angry tail of a missile zooming toward its target: that black base, with hopefully all the brains and power of the machine.

The roar of an explosion fills his ears, a second before he smacks into Sharon, yanks her out of the soldier's grip, folds his wings around them, and –

***

Six hundred meters from the building entrance, Rhodes drops Barnes onto the ground and lands. Deeply and densely surrounded by conifers, they're all but invisible and a hair outside the loop radius.

Fully suited, Rhodes comes up on Barnes' left shoulder, War Machine metal scraping against gleaming silver HYDRA metal.

The gamma source is thirteen floors down, all the way at the bottom. The shielding means comms won't work inside. Rhodes will be as blind out here as Barnes will be in there.

"I'll be out here. If you can't hear me on comms, come back here."

That's good advice. Seriously.

Barnes looks down at his watch, fingers poised to set the stopwatch. "I'll be in there."

Four seconds later, Rhodes announces the gamma burst.

Barnes runs.

He knows exactly when he crosses into the loop – it turns from a bright, blue, late morning sky to a gray, starless dusk. At once, it's both incredible and incredibly creepy.

The beauty of adrenaline is in how it masks so much sin. His neck doesn't ache. His thigh doesn't burn. His shoulder isn't stiff. He's not tired. He's nowhere near full capacity but he's close damned enough.

"Blackbird, War Machine. This is your third loop. Comms cut as you enter the complex. First loop, you ran straight through the stairwell on floor One. Second loop, you got off on Four."

Great.

"Acknowledged." Barnes picks a floor out of thin air. "I'm going to Six."

Confident that Rhodes has his back, Barnes tears into the open meadow, plows through the base's hidden metal door, and sprints into a brightly lit hallway.

With the lights on, the base is nearly completely different. Still old and dank, with the distinctive smell of moisture-ridden concrete reminiscent of spiders and insects. Water still drip, drip, drips from somewhere inside the walls.

Three years ago, he'd been inside this building, a different person who thought he didn't care about Steve. A different person who only knew Sam from a flipping, crunching vehicle and a relentless, violent attack on the blacktop of a helicarrier. A different person who didn't know to remember Natasha.

They make this world a place worth keeping. He's going to bring them home.

The hallway is empty, and he sprints through it to a stairwell. He takes the steps two at a time, each footfall loudly clanging.

He doesn't know if he gets killed somewhere along here, or if he can't turn the fucking whatever off in time. Knowing that he's failed twice already isn't helpful.

Each steel door is numbered with its floor. He passes "2" and "3" and shoots straight past "5."

He pulls open the door for Six, glimpses a wall of yellow-orange light, feels minty cold, and –

The beauty of adrenaline is in how it masks so much sin. His neck doesn't ache. His thigh doesn't burn. His shoulder isn't stiff. He's not tired. He's nowhere near full capacity but he's close damned enough.

"Blackbird, War Machine. This is your sixth loop. Comms cut as you enter the complex. First loop, you ran straight through the stairwell. Second loop, you got off on Four. Third loop, you got off on Six. Fourth loop, you got off on Two. Fifth loop, I have no idea what you did."

Barnes stops dead cold. "Six?"

"Affirmative – Floor Six. What are you doing?"

He's not doing a sixth god damn loop. He can count on one full metal hand how many missions he failed for HYDRA, and that's if each helicarrier counts as one time each. Six failures don't fucking happen.

Going in from the top down isn't possible.

Barnes sprints back to Rhodes' position, pleasantly surprised when he's able to cross the loop radius without issue. He wonders if he'll be able to stay out here, or if he'll end back in the meadow in fifty minutes.

"Drop me off at the town."

Rhodes' electronic eyes glow red. His metal-masked face is etched into a permanent frown. It's creepy. "The HYDRA town? Kozerska?"

"The building's only thirteen stories. Kozerska has a tunnel that goes straight to Thirteen. This is the last loop; let's go."

Rhodes' huge metal head shakes, but his huge metal hands grab onto Barnes, and they fly the short distance to the town.

A safe distance out, in the forest beyond the meadow, a forest Barnes never wants to see again in his life, Rhodes drops Barnes onto the ground and then blasts into the sky, weapons out and aimed.

Barnes runs, confident that Rhodes has his back. The white brick buildings and mossy cracked roads beyond him, he tears into the open meadow, thirteen seconds until he sails past the rotted wooden railcars.

He wants SHIELD to drop a bomb or two on this whole place, once all of this is over. Who cares what the Polish military thinks.

"Snipers on the rooftops. Keep going. I've got them."

Barnes doesn't bother answering. He's not stopping for a gun fight, knife fight, or a fist fight, and he's not slowing down to second guess Rhodes' ability to make this happen.

He hits the mossy pavement and darts right around a building, and then left around another.

Gunfire pelts against the old bricks. Retaliatory explosions shake the ground, screams echoing.

Footstep after footstep, he runs the streets like he's run them before. He's beyond adrenaline. Beyond fear. He's nothing but a pounding heart, livewire muscles, too-loud breaths, and precise focus.

A group of soldiers dart in front of him, fifty meters out, weapons aimed and ready – and they disappear in a cloud of smoke, debris, and red mist.

He doesn't look at them.

He rounds another building, and another, and another, until the tunnel's wrought-iron gate comes into sight.

He doesn't slow down.

He doesn't sto—

His body flings forward, instantly cold, instantly numb. Face down, he slides across the cracked concrete and moss. Behind him, he hears a long, drawn-out thud, and, in his ear, he hears a long, drawn-out shout – Barnes!

His body jerks out choked breaths.

Barnes!

He can smell the old stone, decades within it. The chlorophyll of the moss, like the cosmodrome. Blood, always blood.

Barnes!

It's quiet. No cicadas. No crickets. No frogs.

Barnes!

He moves his left arm and makes it push his body over, so he can see the dipped low sun and the dark blue, starless sky.

"That one's Orion, Buck. Do you see it?"

His vision fades to splotches of gray and swaths of black, and, within it, he does. He sees Orion in the sky.

Seven. He'll get it on seven.

Barnes runs, confident that Rhodes has his back. The white brick buildings and mossy cracked roads beyond him, he tears into the open meadow and past the rotted wooden railcars. He wants SHIELD to drop a bomb or two on this whole place, once all of this is over.

"Snipers on the rooftops. Keep going. I've got them. Watch out for the tunnel – it's heavily covered."

Barnes doesn't bother answering. He's not stopping for a gun fight, knife fight, or a fist fight, and he's not slowing down to second guess Rhodes' ability to make this happen.

He hits the mossy pavement and darts right around a building, and then left around another. Gunfire pelts the bricks, and explosions shake the ground, screams echoing.

He's beyond adrenaline. Beyond fear. He's nothing but a pounding heart, livewire muscles, too-loud breaths, and precise focus.

Footstep after footstep, he runs the streets like he's run them before. A group of soldiers dart in front of him, fifty meters out, weapons aimed and ready – and they disappear in a cloud of smoke, debris, and red mist.

He doesn't look at them.

He rounds another building, and another, and another, until the tunnel's wrought-iron gate comes into sight. He doesn't slow down. He doesn't stop.

A building fucking explodes behind him, pelting him with metal and rock, the ground rumbling under his feet. He inhales a cloud of dust, lungs rebelling with aborted coughs he doesn't dare have time to expel.

Twenty meters.

He runs, step after step after step.

Bullets pop-pop-pop behind him, beside him, in front of him, all around him.

Thud-thud-thud-thud echoes behind him, beside him, all around him – soldiers dropping, one by one.

"Keep going."

Step.

Step.

Step.

Step.

Barnes crashes through the gate at top speed and, still, does not stop. He pulls out his lighted, scoped CZ-75, flips on the light, and darts through the pedestrian tunnel. The light uselessly bobs – but it, at least, shows one thing: no one in front of him.

"Thirty-three minutes, Blackbird. You've got this."

He runs faster, counting down a clock in his head, sparing every second. This is the loop. Has to be – before Rhodes runs out of ammunition, before he never has a chance of making it through the town.

Barnes clears the tunnel, bolts across the expansive mezzanine, and bounds down several flights of a steep, decayed staircase. The treads dissolve under every careless step.

It's darker without the light from the deteriorating ceiling, and he's only following his bobbing light, a memorized fifty-year-old map, and the grace of his augmented eyesight.

He catches the curve a moment before he hits it, rounding it by the crumbling edge. He hits the east platform and is overtaken by an inconvenient gut punch.

Three years ago, standing right here, he saved his first life in seven decades: Sam's, with Steve's shield on his arm.

It means nothing for today, but it means something.

Barnes pushes through an unmarked gray door and stops two steps onto the mezzanine of the thirteenth subfloor.

He stretches his eyes upward.

"War Machine, time?"

Static.

Super.

The ceiling is a jagged, crumbled hole, allowing him to see straight up to what looks like Eleven and Twelve.

Dust, chunks of concrete, and bits of flooring hang suspended between floors.

Fully-armored, Stark body-hugs Natasha, his arms and legs wrapped around her. She has a sidearm in her hand, honed anger on her face. They don't move, and they don't fall: both of them are suspended mid-air, mid-fall, mid-crash.

Likewise, Sam's arms and wings are wrapped around someone with blonde hair, and that could only be Sharon. Like Stark and Natasha, they don't move, and they don't fall: both of them stuck mid-fall.

Steve's hair is singed, civilian clothes burnt, facial skin lightly blistered. There's no floor under his feet, but he's caught at the end of a form-perfect throw of his shield. Why no pie, Steve.

They are each frozen inside a moment in time. Hopefully alive.

A couple of HYDRA soldiers float, unmoving and mostly dead. That's just…weird. He thinks about shooting them, in case they're not dead. He doesn't waste the time.

A large black machine has crashed onto the mezzanine, puckering and cracking the old subway tile. Off-kilter, it leans extremely to the right.

A black base houses a core made of some sort of thin, black granite, twisted into the shape of a double-helix. It rapidly, ferociously, silently spins. The base itself is mangled and burnt, but apparently, not badly enough to count.

None of that's a big deal.

In a two-meter radius around the entire machine, a brilliant, yellow-orange light pulses from light yellow to dark yellow to darker orange. The light changes its hue every two seconds, pulsing light, pulsing dark, pulsing darker, and then back to light again.

That light extends well beyond the twirling tip of the double-helix, up through the ceiling, into the other floors. Because of the machine's extreme tilt, it's almost like that light is aimed at only the left side of the complex: it doesn't touch the team, but it has swollen into the stairwell up to the rest of the complex.

An instinct tells him it would be a mistake to touch that light, and he wonders if five wipes in the other loops meant that he had.

The space directly above him, where the team's literally hanging out, is free and clear of the light, of the machine, of anything – so why…

Why are they all stuck?

"What the hell." Well. "How the hell."

Find the off switch. Banner's fantastic advice.

He estimates he only has twenty-five minutes left; he glances at his watch but finds it's all zeroes. Twenty-five minutes goes fast, when you have no fucking idea what you're doing.

Barnes stays put, careful to keep away from the pulsing yellow-orange light, careful to avoid whatever invisible shit is keeping everyone else frozen, and visually scans for Banner's off switch.

The double-helix itself has nothing on it, and neither does the black base. An off-switch wouldn't have been built on the machine itself; they'd never be able to get to –

A long, single tendril of yellow-orange light curls toward him. He sees it out of the corner of his peripheral and hops sideways.

The tendril reaches: gentle somehow. Desperate somehow. Inexplicably, he thinks of Shakespeare Garden –

The black luminaire.

The leaning, red tulips.

The cobblestone path.

The brass drinking fountain.

Sunlight filtering through cherry blossoms.

That tendril is inches from his face, reaching, stretching, lurking.

He takes another step back and has to fucking end this.

The tendril follows him, branching into multiple, wispy strands.

He looks to the stairwell: it's consumed by the light. Going up means being frozen. Going back the way he'd come means leaving them behind and looping again.

It's at that moment he realizes: life doesn't always work out. Sometimes, there isn't a solution. Isn't an answer. Isn't a fix. Sometimes, everyone dies, and no one goes home.

There's no "off switch."

There's no way out of this.

In twenty minutes, he's going to forget it all happened and come do this again.

A deafening, metallic CLUNK-CLANK rings through the mezzanine, loud enough that it shakes the dust and gravel at his feet. Chunks of floor and ceiling crash down, some shattering on impact, others creating crushed indentations.

The double-helix slows its spinning, while the yellow-orange light flickers, flickers, flickers, incrementally down, down, down. The tendril retreats, then disappears.

What the fuck…

He hadn't done anything. He'd given up.

How the hell.

More concrete chunks and debris collapse from above, many of them violently striking and bouncing off the machine on their path downward. A block crashes a half a meter from his feet.

A handful of HYDRA soldiers rain to the floor: thud, thud, thud.

Barnes retreats a few steps, only to avoid the debris path, but his eyes lock on the scene unfolding above him.

Sam's wings extend, Sharon wrapped securely in his arms, and he shoots up to what looks like a ledge or a room. What he yells down to the others is unexpected: "There's somebody up here!"

That somebody had to have been the one to turn it off. Why?

Steve craters to the ground, narrowly missing the machine, and immediately launches toward the stairwell.

Even before Sam yelled, Stark's already flying upward, an alive and moving Natasha unhappy to be carried. Thing is: there's no floor. It's go up or go down.

"Freeze!" Sharon orders. "Stop moving!"

Freeze. Funny.

In the middle of it all, Barnes walks the short distance to the stairwell and plops onto the second tread. His left leg screams agony with the motion, while the rest of him – feels tired, empty, out of gas.

He'd only come to the stairs, so he could prop his neck on one of the steps. When he does it, it feels good.

Adrenaline pulses away like that light, the last handful of exhausting, nerve-wracking days piling up within seconds. He could sleep right here, and so he stretches back, neck supported by broken concrete, and closes his eyes.

"What part of 'knock it the fuck off' did you not understand? Hands off the computer." Sounds like Stark.

Barnes hits his comm. "War Machine, it's off. They're all here."

He expects a return of static but is pleasantly surprised when he hears Rhodes' voice, loud and clear. "Copy. T-minus ten minutes until the potential loop. I'm holding back to confirm and will rendezvous in fifteen."

The machine had blocked communication.

"Is that—" Steve.

Fuck it; he's done. No question, he really could fall asleep right here, in this shitty HYDRA base while the Avengers avenge.

"Rhodey? That you?" Stark.

"Bucky?!" None other than Steve.

"We're not asking again. Step off." Natasha.

He listens to their each of their voices. They're all here and alive. All of them. No matter who's up there, or why that person had turned off the machine - talk about a good day.

Thud!

Steve suddenly puts his hands on his neck, checking for a pulse, and Barnes bats him away. "I'm not dead. I'm sleeping."

Ziiiip.

His vest. Steve unzipped Barnes' vest.

"Christ, Buck. Didja—"

Barnes yelps. Unexpected, severe pain cuts through his abdomen and mid-back. Reflexively, he pushes Steve's hands away, eyes snapping open. Steve's dripping, blood-caked hands go straight back to Barnes' stomach, applying unpleasant pressure.

Oh.

"Stop, idiot," Steve chides, "or you're gonna be."

Barnes tilts his head back. "You're an idiot, idiot."

Steve laughs, and that's something worth looking at. Steve's face is dirty and somewhat burnt, hair dusted a little gray with soot and singe, but his smile is real, and Barnes will be damned if it doesn't set the world straight. Steve's not – not that person in Berlin.

Berlin.

The thought of Steve being that, like that, gives Barnes all the energy he needs. "I want up. Help me up."

Steve damn near picks him up, but he at least sets him on his feet, hands steady around his body. He feels tearing, enough that he catches a gasp in the back of his throat, but he doesn't care. He really doesn't.

The only thing that matters is wrapping Steve in a bear hug, tight enough that his hands make easy fists of Steve's tactical vest. "You okay?" he asks.

Steve hugs him back, strong and square. "Never better. You—you're—"

"Real fucking swell."

Steve laughs again and tightens his arms. The sound of Steve's voice and the thrumming of his heart –

Sam's voice booms "Hey, no, don't move, don't move!" at the same time a hand gun fires—BANG! —and a blinding blue glow swells from the bottom of the machine. It damn near touches Steve's feet.

Barnes spins Steve around and uses his left arm to launch him into the stairwell. Once and again, his left leg gives out, his core weak enough that he can't regain his balance.

He falls backward, as a red and gold blur shoots past – and the pulse explodes into a blinding, consuming flash of blue.

***

The Avengers will return in Chapter 8: The Only Certain Future.

/***/

Steve drives the entire two hours to Leipzig, Tony asleep for half the drive.  He follows the signs on Highway 9 for Flughafen Leipzig/Halle.

On Highway 14, the speedometer needle hovers just right of 90 when he sees that the road ahead is inaccessible.  The overpass is gone, collapsed into a charred heap of concrete rubble and –

Steve nearly veers off the road, tires skidding, and this time not because Tony littered.

Tony startles awake. “What, hey...  What?”

Steve pulls over, hands white-knuckled around the steering wheel.  The car hasn’t even stopped moving when Tony stumbles out, sunglasses in his hand.

Steve’s seatbelt snaps back into its housing.  He steps out of the car, leaving the door open, and braces his arms on the car’s roof. He forces himself to look.

The terminal is a burnt husk, the amputated blue tail of a Lufthansa jet next to the skeletal baggage claim. Two of the parking lots are filled bumper to bumper with blackened shells of cars.  Yellow plane wreckage—wings, an engine, seats, luggage—joins the debris. 

The road ahead of them is no different: blackened, burnt, charred. Plane seats, luggage, and the broken shell of a Transcontinental United fuselage scatter through an adjacent field of dirt.

If Leipzig is like this, the rest of the world is like this.  The Tower may not even be standing.

“Tell me this isn’t our world, Tony.”

Chapter Text

Creak, creak, creak, creak.

Steve doesn't bother being quiet. He jogs up the wooden steps to the fifth floor landing and heads left, to the corner unit.

The handle isn't broken. The name plate reads O'Neil, J.

Resigned, Steve forces the door open and steps into a somewhat familiar apartment. The countertops are bare except for mummified fruit and root vegetables. The coffee table is the same – but new, smooth, and shiny. No tower of books. No TV. No Pepsi cans. No musk of hair cream, gun solvent, coffee, and tobacco.

Steve walks through the living room to a closed white door. He opens it, goes inside, and finds a closet of dark-colored women's clothes, a twin bed covered by a purple comforter, and a Manchester United poster pinned to the wall.

Vanquished, Steve heads back into the hallway, the door left open behind him. No one exists to worry about it.

Creak, creak, creak, creak. All the way down, steps taken two at a time, Steve pounds through the building's front door. It flies off its hinges and skitters onto the brick road, glass shattering and wood splintering.

Less than bothered, Tony sips a Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino, winces, and tosses the full glass bottle behind their red Mercedes. "How do they manage to sell this to actual people?"

Steve's in no mood for Tony's shit. "Can you not."

Tony crosses his arms, inscrutable behind his expensive, tinted sunglasses. "Let me guess."

Bucky never lived here. Worse, he didn't come here, and, even more, he's not here now.

Tony tilts his head and sighs, the way he does when he thinks he's found everyone's perfect solution. "Word on the street is that he really likes nice hotels. Which, unfortunately, limits us to, oh, about—" Tony waggles his head back and forth, apparently counting. "—twenty, thirty."

On top of the four hospitals they'd searched in southern Kraków.

"If he even came to Berlin," Tony adds.

Maybe Tony thinks he's being helpful. Maybe he thinks Steve doesn't understand that there is an entire world that Bucky knows inside and out. Maybe he thinks Steve doesn't get that Bucky could be anywhere.

If.

Steve looks down at his charred gray shirt, still stained with Bucky's blood. Both sides of his arms are still swathed with it – both sides, because it'd been a through-and-through bullet, back to stomach – and the only sign that Bucky ended up in this empty world is a trail of old blood and gouged concrete worming through a stairwell in Poland.

"The GSW was bad," Steve says.

Tony pushes his sunglasses up into his hair, revealing tired, shadowed eyes. "You really think that guy decided to curl up somewhere and die? Him?"

That helps. It does sound ridiculous.

"Look," Tony starts.

Steve doesn't intend to let him end. "I'm not leaving without him."

"Never said we were. I'm ready to drop. You are too. I know a good hotel."

The sun is waning, and, with it, Steve's resolve.

Steve climbs into the passenger side of the Mercedes; Tony, in the driver's seat.

"If anyone can take care of themselves, it's him. So. We'll find him, and we'll find a way home. Got it, Cap?"

"Got it."

Tony drives on the wrong side of the road, speedometer tipping past 100 km/h through mostly empty streets. Only a few cars are on the road, most of them wrecked into street hazards, some of them parked along curbs. Bicycles parked on sidewalks and toppled inside road lanes rust and flake their sheen.

Out the window, thick green vines crawl up buildings, filling in bare spots where façades have peeled away; rashes of grasses and weeds bristle through cracked asphalt roads; and Steve swears he sees two wolves tear down an alley.

Whatever happened, it wasn't bombs, and it wasn't a virus. They've driven from Kraków to Berlin, the only vehicle roaring up E40, past enough cities to comprehend that the world is empty.

Not destroyed or sick or hiding.

By his feet, the last edition of Berliner Zeitung is dated 4 November 2016. The stories are mundane and routine, without warning that the end of the world was on its way.

Tony parks on the sidewalk, stopping the nose of the car an inch from the hotel building. Steve gets out and walks over two broken sliding doors, both likely blown straight out of their frames during a storm. Glass crunches underfoot.

For now, the cavernous hotel lobby is brightly lit by the natural light that spills through ornate, splintered windows. With the doors being open for so long, though, Steve worries about what might be living here.

Dressed in flimsy suit pants, a thin sweater, and sneakers, Tony crunches to the check-in desk and leans against it, fingers tapping his watch, a bag of pistachios in his free hand.

Steve can only watch him, disbelieving even though he knows he shouldn't be. "Really."

Tony shrugs and crunches a nut. "I'm telling you – the service here used to be so much better."

"You said you were tired."

"Okay. Sure. Would you like the Royal Bebel or the Humboldt Suite?"

Steve crosses his arms and bites back an angry comment. He wants time to decompress and roll in his own thoughts, and he has less and less energy to keep up with Tony. "Do you want bats or wild life? We stay low."

"Are you saying you wish I had my suit?"

The suit that's a worthless pile of junk in the car's trunk. Once it came off, it wouldn't go back on. No sat-linked JARVIS, no suit assembly, apparently.

"Now that you mention it," Steve replies and means it.

The first available set of rooms is on the fourth story, above three mezzanines of restaurants, stores, conference rooms, lounges, and ball rooms. Oh, yeah: and thick weaves of spider webs, two bat nests, a beehive, and who knows what else.

It occurs to Steve that they could've driven out of the city and stayed anywhere else but here. Too late now.

Tony behind him and strangely quiet, Steve kicks open a door, clears it for threats and confirms its window is intact, then walks back out. "All yours. I'll be next door."

"What – Hey. No!"

"I'm not sleeping with you, Tony. See you in the morning."

Next door, Steve happens into a substantially larger room, with two sets of solid windows, a bigger bed, and balcony access. Eyes fully adjusted to the moonlit dark, he closes the bathroom door as a precaution and looks through the darkness, seeing nothing alarming except for a brown spider tip-toeing up a peeling wall.

He bypasses the bed and opens the double-pane, French door onto the balcony. Outside, once upon a time, it must have been an incredible view of Opernplatz Square and the emerald dome of St. Hedwig's Cathedral. Not so much anymore.

Steve sits down in an orange, flaking metal chair and settles his elbows on his knees. Eyes stretched to the dark sky, he traces the constellations.

"That one's Orion, Buck," he says out loud. "I hope you see it."

***

Thirteen stories up, with landings between each floor. Each flight of stairs between floors has fourteen steps, all of them bathed in complete and total unlit darkness.

One-hundred and eighty-two steps. That's it. That's nothing.

Barnes doesn't bother stopping to evaluate, dread, or reconsider. He needs to get out of here before HYDRA comes.

Left hand gripped around the gray hand rail, his CZ waiting ready in his right hand, he lifts his left leg, puts his foot down on the step, and pushes the weight of his body up. It's more than excruciating; it feels like his thigh and abdomen and back have been doused in gasoline and set on fire from the inside out.

His knee buckles, and he catches himself with his left hand. He pulls the hand rail out of the wall, bolts bouncing down the metal steps, as he falls flat onto his back. He stares up at a dark ceiling that, a few minutes ago, had been a giant fucking hole.

The Winter Soldier, ladies and gentlemen.

He still is.

He is.

He flips onto his stomach and pushes himself up, the fingers of his left hand gouging into the concrete. Hopping onto his right leg, hand braced against the wall for support, he dares put an ounce of weight on his left.

The gasoline pours, and the fire roars. The pain is nothing. It can't be anything.

The rectus femoris is a hell of a name for a thigh muscle, but it's the one that had been shredded by HYDRA's hollow point. It'd been doing okay until the last dozen hours, and, particularly, until now. The partly healed muscle twitches, spasms, and seizes, carrying with it a tight, burning feeling that travels down to his knee.

All of the strength disintegrates, and it's not a matter of I won't or I will or I'm getting through this.

He's left standing on his right leg, human fingers scratching into the wall, stranded under thirteen stories of a HYDRA stronghold, dripping blood from a fresh gunshot wound. Undoubtedly, he'd picked that up during his little jog through Kozerska.

Barnes looks up the impossible first flight of steps, enhanced vision only somewhat cutting through the darkness.

One-hundred and eighty-two.

He shuffles the plates on his arm and rolls his right shoulder. The shoulder is stiff and achy, but it'll make it.

He'll make it.

CZ-75 tucked into his right thigh holster, he doesn't crawl up the stairs, or drag himself up the stairs. He moves strategically up the stairs, backwards like a crab, his left arm the only part of himself he can rely on.

In under one minute, his right arm trembling, he makes it to Twelve, backs himself into the landing's corner, and draws and aims his CZ-75, its light still shining strong.

In the darkness, there is nothing. His face burns, and, although he tells himself it's because of blood loss and pain, the reality is that it's a shade of panic.

Only one certain future exists here. Any minute, HYDRA will storm the stairs and try to take him alive. That last part won't happen. He won't let –

A thought suffocates him. With it, he nearly hyperventilates: dizzy, overwhelmed, gut wringing, brain churning through the implications. He blames the blood loss again.

"Three months ago, you killed yourself inside a HYDRA base in the Tabernas Desert."

Do they grab him here and use that machine to… And then Steve. Somehow, they get Steve, too.

He's only wasting precious time, and, by sitting still, he's only ensuring that it happens.

He pushes himself to the base of the next flight of stairs, right leg and arms doing all the work. He doesn't overlook the cold, wet, growing stain on his left pant leg, but there's nothing he can do about it right now.

Up Twelve, Eleven, and Ten, he backs himself into the corner of Nine's landing, quiets his too-loud breathing, and listens.

Dripping water is the only sound he hears, beyond the wild thumping of his heart. No voices. No footsteps. No inhuman banging like in '15. If he would've told himself back then that he'd be here now, he probably would've shot himself.

Up Nine, Eight, and Seven, HYDRA still doesn't come. Barnes lowers his CZ and its light into his lap. The darkness spins, a child's top whirling around the surface of a table, nearing its edge, closer, closer, until plop.

Heart palpitating, breathing rapid, he opens his eyes. He can hardly discern the outline of the steps for Six. On the floor next to him, the light on his CZ is completely dead. He thinks he passed out.

He crawls toward Six, left hand burrowing into the metal – clang, clang, clang, clang – step after step after step.

He won't die in here. Anywhere but here.

Five then Four and he stops counting.

He stops stopping.

Although the steps are endless, time stretches with them. He doesn't know if it's been minutes or hours or days, and he doesn't care. The world exists in a litany of step, clang, step, clang, step, clang.

Step, clang.

Step, clang.

Step, clang.

Clang.

He collapses onto his back and pushes himself a few meters across the floor with his right leg. He peers upward and barely makes out a "1" painted on the closed door.

No more steps.

Still no HYDRA.

With his left arm, he reaches up and pries his fingers between the door and its frame, opening it. His arm still extended, he claws his fingers into the concrete floor and pulls his body through the opening.

Like he remembers, the hallway is utterly dark. Drips of water plink echoes down the damp walls, while stagnant vapor hangs in the cool air. It reeks of mildew – and fresh air, gusting through the broken doorway carved into the grassy hill.

Why is it broken? It hadn't been.

He doesn't move strategically through the hallway. He crawls, his left leg all but a dead weight, his dignity waiting for him at that door. His left palm crunches against dead leaves and broken layers of concrete, while his right palm collects bits of gravel and concrete shards.

He follows the air, feeling it grow colder, smelling it become fresher, hearing it become louder, seeing the outline of the door frame, tasting the pine of the conifer valley, hand over hand, again and again, and –

He makes it. He fucking makes it.

Outside of the base, he collapses onto the long, crunchy grass of the meadow, back flat on the ground. Above, the sky is dark black and filled with a thousand pinpricks of stars.

On habit alone, he picks one constellation out of hundreds, never happier than now to see Orion shining in the night sky. He laughs too hard for his body to handle.

The laugh transforms into wracking coughs, his body instinctively curling to protect itself, but he keeps on laughing – panic breaking, dread evaporating, and euphoria engulfing him.

He might yet die, but HYDRA isn't in the base. They aren't out here. They aren't anywhere.

After too long, he finally thinks to wonder, Why?

He rolls onto his back again and blearily peers up at the inky, star-strewn sky.

This valley is surrounded by cities, like Kraków and Myslenice, that emit too much light for the stars to ever be this bright.

No jet contrails.

No sounds, all the world's permeating white noise gone, like when he was a tiny kid in the 1910's on a farm in Plainfield.

No Avengers, no SHIELD, no team. A year ago, he would've been confident that they'd left him behind. No question, he knows that they wouldn't have. Not Steve, Natasha, or Sam.

He flops his right hand to his ear comm and taps it. "JARVIS?"

Nothing.

"Rhodes?"

Nothing.

"Sam?"

Nothing.

"HYDRA? It's me. Seventeen."

Not even them.

He thinks he's alone here. There doesn't seem to be anyone around.

He laughs again, a short little burst, not regretting a god damn thing.

As bright as he's ever seen, Orion shines from hundreds of thousands of miles away, reminding him that he's a speck, a blink in colossal time.

"I see it, Steve," he says to no one.

***

At the bank of the Spree, Steve drenches his dirty t-shirt in the frigid water, and then scrubs his arms and face. It's cold and unsatisfying, but it gets the job done.

Once, long ago and not so long ago, in March 1944, he and Bucky had pulled over in Mannheim and done the same thing in the Neckar. Gunpowder, dust, grime, and even some blood from the Frankfurt air raid sieved off their skin.

"No water bill," Bucky had said, not looking as tired or as cold as he should have. Dipped in the cold water, his hands glowed a healthy pink. Hindsight being what it is, Steve should have known then about Bucky's serum. "It's an idea."

Steve had laughed. "I'll give you ten bucks, if you do this in the East River. Manhattan side."

With a wide grin, Bucky had warned, "That's alotta money. Promises, Rogers."

"Yeah, well, you can buy yourself something real nice."

Steve drops his shirt in the water and watches it float downstream. The world's a big place, but it always, always goes back to the City.

Stark Tower. Common ground.

Excitement rippling under his skin, Steve dresses in new clothes from a store around the block and runs up a barren street. The Mercedes sticks out like a bright red sore thumb, and so does Tony, in his new designer clothes from some place called Trueffelschwein.

"How do we get to New York?" Steve asks.

Tony leans against the car, arms crossed, and peers at Steve from over the rim of another new pair of sunglasses. "Thought we weren't leaving him."

"We're not," Steve answers with an authority he hasn't felt in over a year. "He would go to the Tower."

Tony bites his cheek, just like Natasha, and then clicks his tongue. "Yep. Good idea. I've got a jet stashed in Leipzig. Wanna drive?"

Steve drives, while Tony munches through a box of granola bars, grinds a cup of legitimately gourmet coffee beans, and cold presses his own coffee. He tosses the trash out the window.

In the rearview, Steve watches two wrapper-stuffed plastic bottles bounce along the road.

"Really? It's still littering."

"Unbunch your panties, Captain Planet. There's no one left to care."

Steve hadn't meant it entirely seriously. Tony's response, though…

"I do," Steve says.

"I don't."

Even as a scrawny kid, he wouldn't have been able to resist the outright challenge. That hadn't gotten any better with the serum, and it sure as hell hasn't gotten any better in the last six years.

Steve slams on the brakes, burning rubber as the car skids to a stop.

Tony brings a white-sneakered foot up to the dash, to stop himself from lurching forward. He sips his nice-smelling coffee, eyes forward, and checks his buffed, billion-dollar nails.

Steve shifts the car into reverse, pops an arm behind the seat, twists his body around, and drives to behind where the bottles fitfully dart across the asphalt. He puts the car into park.

"Go get'em."

Tony slides his seat all the way back and props his feet on the dashboard, ankles crossed. "How 'bout no."

Steve cuts the engine. "I can do this all day."

"Want some coffee for your wait? I made enough."

"Your shoes are stupid."

"And you're the worst driver I've ever had. No tip for you."

***

Five kilometers northeast sounds better as three miles northeast. So: three miles. It's hardly anything.

A few hours ago, he landed Quinjet Two in a clearing that far from the base. It has communication equipment, medical supplies, and, best of all, flight capabilities.

The density of the forest is his advantage. He uses the trees as makeshift crutches, unsteadily hopping from trunk to trunk, letting his left arm carry the burden.

His vision isn't as clear as it typically is and doesn't cut through the night like he needs. Compared to the times he's walked into a dim room without realizing the lights were off, he feels blind.

Wet snowflakes splash against his face. Two owls hoot. Bats squeak. Nocturnals scamper across the stiff, frozen foliage. Howls echo in the distance. Those sounds put him at ease.

After a time, he recognizes the dips in the terrain – the soft hills, the scraggly trees, and, particularly, the soft brown, thick, pocked trunk of an ancient giant. The jet's close.

He doesn't let the lure of the jet affect his pace. He keeps it steady and slow, not out of carefulness but out of ability, or lack thereof. It's bad.

Barnes squints and sees a break in the trees. The clearing. It's only a hundred meters ahead.

He hops and hops, counting down the meters in his head—skipping numbers and losing track, but what the hell, no one knows but him—and stops at the edge of the tree line, his hand wrapped around a trunk.

Through the dark, he squints and peers, blinking and disbelieving.

All he sees are trees and grass.

No jet.

His eyes water, because of pain and blood loss. Not because they might have left him. Not because he's wasted three miles going deep into the middle of nowhere. Not because he's dozens of kilometers from any sort of civilization. Not because he could die here.

Barnes pushes his back against a tree trunk and forces himself to sit up instead of lie down. Boneless, he wraps his arms around himself and lets his eyes sink into restful darkness.

No jet. Now what.

Kasinka Mala might be close. Tenczyn, maybe. Somewhere with a car to steal. Michašta is out of reach, too far in the wrong direction. Rabka is closest – and big enough to have a decent hospital.

Yeah. That's what he'll do. He'll go to Kasinka Mala, get himself a car, and drive to Rabka.

He opens his eyes, confused for a moment, before realizing that he must have fallen asleep.

In the bright daylight, four inches of pristine white snow coat the ground, dust the thickets of green conifers, and bury his hands and legs. A curtain of that fresh snow blows almost entirely sideways, carried by gusts of frigid wind.

His t-shirt sticks to his skin, soaked in sweat and frozen stiff with blood.

This reminds him of another time – a month after Insight, unknowingly struggling through withdrawal from decades of HYDRA's sedatives and narcotics, dry heaving in a Siberian blizzard. He'd hallucinated Steve, long buried memories bubbling to the surface. "Take care of yourself. You know how."

It was good advice then. It's better advice today.

He bends his left leg, surprised by the decline in intensity of the pain. Through his pants, he touches the bullet wound, then presses, finding a round depression and a sharp shot of pain. He might be able to walk on it long enough to get to a vehicle.

Barnes pulls up his t-shirt and examines the bullet wound in the right side of his abdomen. It'd been a Soviet rifled hollow point, designed to take down super soldiers, the only kind of bullets he's seen from HYDRA in years. Red blood slowly oozes through a dam of natural clots, his body aggressively trying to heal the damage.

The snow might be helping. He'll take it.

Barnes struggles to his feet, hand propped against the tree, and eases weight onto his left leg. For now, it holds.

He heads south and prepares himself for a long, slow, exhausting trek through hilly forest. Like before, he moves from tree to tree, this time as a precaution rather than as a support.

He doesn't let himself think about the missing jet, or the too-quiet comms, or the empty base and the emptier sky. Answers are waiting in Rabka, and he'll wait until then to discover them.

It's all he has in him to focus on pushing one foot in front of the other, through centimeters of snow and winter foliage.

After an interminable set of punishing hours, his dragging footsteps don't scrape through snow, leaves, and brush but across the pavement of a narrow roadway. He brushes away a swath of snow to find pitted, ailing asphalt.

Roads lead to buildings, to people, and to transportation. He knows he should be excited or relieved—something like that—but exhaustion has frayed him numb.

He slowly heads west. As far as he can see, it's unbothered, clean snow. No one has been through here.

Airliners haven't passed overhead.

HYDRA hasn't ambushed him.

SHIELD hasn't found him.

His comm hasn't crackled.

No matter how many times he rearranges the facts in his head, he can't kick the certain feeling that something is very wrong.

He pushes the senseless thoughts, worry, and contemplation away. They're not helpful.

The road leads to a triangular, wood cabin, with a white SUV parked along its western side. The sign out front translates to "hostel." Refuge and transportation, exactly the two things he had been looking for.

Still that numbness. Still no relief.

Barnes skips the SUV and hauls himself up eight snow-covered steps, across a snowy deck, and up to a blond-wood door. Expecting it to be locked, he turns the handle and finds easy access to the foyer.

The floor is brown, square stone tile. The walls and ceiling are real wood, wallpapered by plaques, antlers, maps, and photos. Three hand-made, glossy-wood picnic tables; a cluttered, decorative fireplace; and an ice cream cooler fill out the room.

A part of him readies to explain that he doesn't have any money. Another part of him knows that no one is going to be here.

"Hello?"

He shouldn't have bothered. His voice is gone.

No one comes, anyway.

Eyes drawn to a stain near the ice cream cooler, he limps to it. His shoes stick to the floor, peeling from the tile like stickers on plastic. Inside, he finds thick globs of moldy wrappers.

Eyes swimming over the room, he notices the tufts of dust that coat the tabletops, the antlers, the photo frames, the mantel.

To his right, he pushes through a dulled yellow door, into a room that serves as an office and a concession area. Deftly organized bottles of sodas and bags of processed food sit on brown shelves. He picks up a soda bottle; the expiration date is July 2017.

On the desk, a neatly folded, unwrinkled newspaper is dated 4 November 2016, while unopened mail is postmarked for late October and early November 2016. He picks up the black handset of a wall-mounted phone: no dial tone.

Barnes rubs his right hand over his face, hard on his eyes, and decides to find the beds.

Back in the foyer, he sees a steep, narrow ladder leading to a second story.

Fucking Christ.

He really doesn't want to climb that – but not as much as he really doesn't want to sleep on the cold floor.

He trades agony for a sliver of a room that is no more than two meters across. Its twin bed boasts a paper-thin mattress, two deflated pillows, and a hot pink wool blanket. Boots and socks off, tactical vest on the floor, pants unbuttoned, and his CZ-75 under a pillow, he thinks it's nothing less than absolutely fucking perfect.

***

Steve drives the entire two hours to Leipzig, Tony asleep for half the drive. He follows the signs on Highway 9 then Highway 14 for Flughafen Leipzig/Halle.

On Highway 14, the speedometer needle hovers just right of 90 when he sees that the road ahead is inaccessible. The overpass is gone, collapsed into a charred heap of concrete rubble and –

Steve nearly veers off the road, tires skidding, and this time not because Tony littered.

Tony startles awake. "What, hey... What?"

Steve pulls over, hands white-knuckled around the steering wheel. The car hasn't even stopped moving when Tony stumbles out, sunglasses in his hand.

Steve's seatbelt snaps back into its housing. He steps out of the car, leaving the door open, and braces his arms on the car's roof. He forces himself to look.

The terminal is a burnt husk, the amputated blue tail of a Lufthansa jet next to the skeletal baggage claim. Two of the parking lots are filled bumper to bumper with blackened shells of cars. Yellow plane wreckage—wings, an engine, seats, luggage—joins the debris.

The road ahead of them is no different: blackened, burnt, charred. Plane seats, luggage, and the broken shell of a Transcontinental United fuselage scatter through an adjacent field of dirt.

If Leipzig is like this, the rest of the world is like this. The Tower may not even be standing.

"Tell me this isn't our world, Tony."

Tony puts his sunglasses back on, hiding behind them. "They all came down at once. No emergency vehicles. Whatever happened—it was fast, okay. No one was on those planes." He waves a hand at the airport. "Clearly."

Not an answer. "Is this our world?"

"I know as much as you," Tony snaps. It's an honest, fair answer, and it's fucking infuriating. "We get to the City, we get to the Tower, I can see what I can find out. Hopefully, Macy's Day Parade decides to show up."

Macy's. Red star. Clever.

"JFK, Newark, LaGuardia," Steve says curtly. Any plane landing or taking off would've gone straight down or into buildings; those at cruise are probably mostly in the oceans. "What do you think it's going to look like?"

Tony inhales, deep and slow, and frowns. "Flooded. Let's see if the hangar's still here." As he gets back into the car, he spins an index finger and lobs a weak zinger. "Might wanna make a detour."

Might.

***

According to Barnes' watch, he's slept for fifty-two hours. Groggy and bleary, he rolls off the bed, hits his head on the slanted ceiling, and wanders through a few short hallways until he finds showers.

The cold faucets twist uselessly. Like in Hamningberg last year, orange stains streak down the creamy porcelain.

He groans out loud. "Motherfucker."

He goes back to the room he'd slept in and sits down on the bed, head cradled in his hands. He listens for sounds of people – breathing, talking, walking, hearts beating – and only hears the pounding of blood in his head and the roiling of his empty, hollow stomach.

Food.

Barnes pulls on his boots and gross shirt, tucks his sidearm into the back of his loose waistband, and damn near falls down the stairs to the ground level.

He tears through a dozen or so bags of expired junk snack food, and even more weather-cold bottles of soda and water. It does little to settle his stomach.

Speaking of. He pulls up his dirty, stained t-shirt and finds a pocked knot of red, scarred skin. Though still sore and tender, he pushes on it, wondering where the bullet ended up – and notices an unfamiliar pulling sensation in his back.

With his right hand, he reaches around and finds a similar spot of raised, tender skin, way, way too close to his spine. His fingers come away specked with dried blood.

A through-and-through with a relatively straight path. He's lucky not to be dead or paralyzed, and he knows it.

He doesn't check his leg. Although it's still painful, it easily carries his weight. All things considered, he's in good shape.

Outside, the day is quiet, clear, and bright, with a deep blue, unmarred sky overhead. The snow has settled into thirteen centimeters of packed, sparkling, undisturbed whiteness.

He pushes his comm into his ear and taps it, uselessly radioing his codename to anyone listening.

A fine bead of panic trickles through him, from the back of his neck, down his arm, all the way to his gut. Fifty hours ago, it'd felt unreal, like it was him that was the problem, rather than the rest of the world.

It's not him.

Barnes yanks open the rusted driver's side door of the SUV and finds the key stashed in the visor. He churns the engine, over and over and over again, whispering "c'mon, c'mon" – until it turns, exhaust spitting out a bang!, the entire body shuddering.

The engine settles into a rickety idle. He shifts into gear and drives east, intending to get all the distance he can before it breaks down.

The narrow road is entirely covered in snow and nearly indistinguishable from the shoulder but for the sheath of thick trees that line either side. He doesn't take it slow, not at all: he plows straight through every drift and curve at about 96 km/h.

After a time, the forested mountain eases into a rural residential area with gated driveways, triangular once-were white houses, and even a school with a sun-bleached playground on the left. As he goes, the houses become larger (and weather damaged), the gates more ornate (and rusted), and the houses more colorful (and sun-faded). No people.

Around the next curve, a sea of red-roofed, snow-tipped houses come into view. None of them show the slightest heat loss or even ice dams hanging from the gutters. It's a good 4 degrees Celsius—not terribly cold—but… Cold enough to be running the heat.

A little further down, the road widens, telephone poles on one side and a cemetery on the other. With houses, apartments, and stores on both sides of the road, it's obvious that he's made it into a town.

Streets aren't plowed.

Parked vehicles haven't been brushed or scraped.

No one's driving – no cars, no tire tracks.

No people out walking.

He stops at a snow-dusted, faded-red stop sign. It intersects a highway; on the corners, a Sklep pizzeria and a grocery store, both buildings a little worse for wear.

Barnes turns south and drives thirty kilometers to Rabka, not passing one car and not seeing one person. He follows signs to the train station and doesn't even know why the hell he bothers.

He parks in the middle of the street, by the unplowed rail crossing, and sloshes up to the station.

The bright green paint on its long porch rail peels, spots flecked away by the elements. A once-was white and black clock lies on the ground; half-buried in snow, its face is yellowed and shattered. Way above on the facade of the entrance, the name of the station and the town—Rabka Zdrój—is missing five letters. The building's half-moon, grand window is a spiderweb of shadowed, shattered glass.

He forces his way in through a locked front door, steps in to the station's lobby, and finds dim darkness.

It's 0830 at a small station where most of the trains run by 1200, and he finds not a single soul.

Either the world ended, or he did.

No cars in the streets. No cars in the parking lots. Locked train station doors. No bodies. No burned down buildings, because stoves or curling irons had been left on while cigarettes burned. No graffiti; there's always graffiti.

Whatever happened, it happened late – probably 0230, 0300. It happened fast, too, and to everyone.

Near the shuttered ticket counter, a newspaper rack catches his eye. Filled with gray copies of Gazeta Krakówska, he expects to find a date of 3 January 2018 or 4 January 2018.

It reads 4 November 2016, less than a month after Death Valley.

Although he can't begin to guess the implications, he knows where to look for answers. It's not Europe.

He knows of a small international airport in Rzeszów with hangars for private planes. If he's lucky, there'll be a small jet and enough useable fuel to fly to SHIELD's forward operating base in Ciocăneşti – the one with an underground Quinjet hangar.

Then on to New York.

***

In civilian clothing—like black wool trousers, a gray cashmere t-shirt, and expensive white sneakers—Tony looks out of place at the controls of the Quinjet from Leipzig. Meanwhile, Iron Man lays in a crumpled pile in the cargo hold.

The dark, white-tipped waves of the Atlantic Ocean raging below, Steve wonders aloud, "Did you know?"

About them being okay in Berlin.

For once, Tony doesn't play it off, or come up with a too-quick retort. Tony even looks away from the windshield to meet Steve's eyes, when he says, "No. If I had, you would've. Good enough?"

Steve accepts that with a nod: good enough.

That leaves Maria and Eicher—both of them knew, for absolute sure—and Rhodes. He'd like to think Rhodey hadn't known, but he knows better. "And Rhodey?"

From the quick crunch of Tony's brow, the averted gaze, and the newfound interest in the cockpit controls, it seems Tony just realized: yep. Rhodey knew.

Tony sighs out a "well, fuck."

It could be that Rhodes, Maria, Eicher, and everyone else are all dead and none of it matters. It could be that this isn't their world—but he and Tony never see their world again. It could be a lot of different things, and maybe that's why he's not angry, not right now. If home exists, and if he ever sees that home again, only then – and then

Then.

He'll never forgive them for the past three months.

A piece of Steve's armrest crumbles in his right hand. Less than bothered, he drops the splintered plastic to the metal floor and ignores Tony's eyes combing over him.

"That one piece you just broke costs $5,010.32."

Steve looks up to the ceiling, thinks one-two-three, and hooks onto a piece of his old self. "It does not."

"Expect a bill."

Steve doesn't have a quick-enough reply. He lets it go, hoping that Tony does, too.

Tony does, and Steve thinks thank you at him.

Below, waves crest and fold, until the jet passes through a thick, opaque layer of gray clouds. Droplets of water smear across the windshield. Radar stays clear; comms stay silent. A confused alarm squawks, until Tony switches it off.

They have hours to go, until they reach the eastern seaboard of the United States and discover what's left of home.

The urgency of arriving in this catastrophic crisis has dulled into a new normal. With it, time to think turns to time to form piles of questions.

Such as: "How did you, Sam, Bucky, and Rhodes get to the base so fast?"

Steve can't figure out how they did. Especially Bucky.

Tony returns to form, tried and true. "You call twenty-six hours 'fast'? Remind me to never order pizza from you."

Steve's proud of himself for holding back an eye roll and a sigh and a crummy comment. Progress. "Seriously, Tony."

A strong crosswind rattles the jet, its airframe creaking. Despite that, Tony dares to spare Steve a lingering glance – one that Steve quickly interprets as uh, not fucking with you.

"We were only there for—an hour, hour and a half," Steve protests. Maybe he's underestimating – but not by twenty-five hours.

"Well, your boyfriend was in the hospital until about two in the afternoon, the day you guys left for there. Wilson and I left Berlin at 5 the next morning. You tell me."

Steve ignores the "boyfriend" comment, instead of reacting and ensuring that Tony knows it somewhat rankles. More importantly, Steve latches onto something that Tony's either missed or isn't saying: "You didn't come with Bucky and Rhodes?"

Tony's eyes don't roll at Steve, but they do roll from the hull, up to the ceiling, down the other hull, then down to Tony's lap – chasing unvoiced thoughts.

Steve figures it took Tony and Sam two, maybe three hours to fly to and find the base. Tony can push his suit to all sorts of Machs; Sam's limited. Bucky and Rhodes would've had the same limitation, plus Bucky being completely down-and-out from that fight in Berlin.

So. Given that. "How long were you in the building?" Steve asks.

Tony's eyebrows quirk up. "Fifty minutes, tops. But someone decided to lodge his shield into what had to have been an active temporal anomaly thingy, which most likely damaged that thingy's shielding and let loose a whole caboodle of gravitational waves that fucked over a couple of us. So. To answer your question: who knows?"

Steve only followed part of that. Something something about throwing his shield at that machine. Somebody else must have tried to blow it up, given the lack of a floor, char on his discarded shirt, and healed singes on his face; Steve doesn't nail Tony with that.

Otherwise, while Tony says he doesn't know how long, Steve doesn't have to connect the dots for Tony. Bucky being there means Tony and Sam had been there for a while. Bucky being there means that Steve—and Natasha and Sharon—had been there far longer.

HYDRA's got another terrifying project in the works. They can mess with time, they can mess with versions of their people, and now they can mess with entire worlds.

A vacant, dim feeling calms his nerves, soothes his muscles, and stitches little weights to his eyes. It's what SNAFU feels like, in the flesh, exactly as it had during the War.

"I should've stayed in art school," Steve mentions, only somewhat meaning it.

Tony doesn't forego the opportunity: "And you'd be the happiest little tree you could be."

Bob Ross: Let's build a happy little cloud. Let's build some happy little trees. Fall like a little waterfall.

"I get that reference."

***

A year ago, Ciocăneşti had been the second place in time that Fury waited him out and surprised the everliving fuck out of him. All things said, he'd been incredibly naïve to have ever let himself hope for a third.

The power off, the rows of fluorescent lights inside the terminal are dark. The brown leather chairs are worse for wear than the last time he'd seen them, their cracks now more like crevices. The scratched, dented brown wood desk still hosts a black phone, old monitor, silver ding bell, and an inel pentru serviciu sign.

Barnes walks around the desk and pushes open the brown door. The scuffed, golden door knob clatters to the floor.

Inside a small room, Barnes digs the fingers of his left hand into a miniscule gap between two shit green walls, then pulls. The wall scrapes along a hidden motorized track, sliding into a pocket door compartment. He opens it enough to give his body room to slip through into a dark black stairwell.

Barnes flips on his flashlight and starts down the steps, right hand brushing the top of a handrail. The hangar is at the bottom, fifty or so steps down. As far as he had seen in 2016, it only houses two jets, and he'd taken one of them to a regional airport outside the City in October of that year.

Each step spikes a dull, achy pain through his left leg, and he foolishly hopes that at least one jet is down here – and that it's still operational and fueled. He doesn't want to climb back up.

As he descends, the air perceptibly dries and cools. Though the stairwell and the hangar are encased in clean metal and new concrete, the smell of earthy moisture is still permeating. He hates it.

At the bottom, Barnes shines his light through the cavernous expanse of the hangar. It's empty, except for one, gleaming black jet.

He doesn't let himself feel relief. A lot still needs to go right.

He limps across the hangar and ducks under the jet's belly. The fuel line and electrical couplings are attached, and he checks to ensure they're tight. Although they are, he sees a worrying amount of corrosion, especially around the fuel coupling.

He won't know until he gets inside. Barnes walks to the back of the jet, launches himself up to the jet's roof, and yanks open the access hatch.

He drops down into a perfectly intact jet. The jumpseats are clean, the nets empty. For his peace of mind, he checks and finds that the weapon racks are full.

In the cockpit, he sits in the pilot's seat and powers on the flight management system. Buttons light up, gauges reset themselves, and a beautiful hum purrs from the underbelly. The fuel gauge indicates "full." The electrical panel flashes and then holds green.

This might work.

Barnes goes for broke and powers up the engines. He hears them smoothly whir, two wonderful Rolls-Royce marvels of engineering, while year-old fuel still has enough potency to create electrical spark and combustion.

It can fly.

A lot still has to go right. For one, the base's hydraulic lift and hangar door have to work. The upside is that their controls are wired into the jet through the electrical coupling in the underbelly – designed to ensure the jet can still fly if the base is compromised.

The downside is that it all still relies on the base's equipment—like the hangar access door—to be operational.

Breath held, Barnes presses a quick combination of buttons on the flight panel – and can't help a wide smile when dim light, dirt, and even some snow spills into the hangar. He leans forward and peers up through the windshield.

The hangar door above is wide open.

Next, and this part isn't so important, he sends a command for the jet's pad to raise.

Error.

He tries again and receives another error.

Good thing Quinjets are built for vertical take-off.

From the cockpit, Barnes disengages the fuel line and electrical coupling, then overrides the magnetic skid-lock. Fully separated from the base, Barnes takes off vertically, knowing that one small mistake could send the jet careening into a wall and crashing back into the hangar.

He keeps it steady and uses the jet's roof camera to line up with the hangar door. It only takes a few seconds to slip through like a glove, while the instruments flash red and a female voice warns "terrain, terrain."

The jet ascends into clear, gray skies, the setting sun burning along the horizon. This time, he lets himself enjoy the relief. Head tilted back, he takes a deep, clarifying breath and lets it back out, recalibrating himself.

That's it.

Eyes back on the flight controls, Barnes focuses on getting to the City.

At Mach 3, it should be a paltry two-hour flight. Barnes has had easier ones. While he remembers what it was like before flight management became automated, this five-year-old Quinjet doesn't.

Every five or so minutes, the jet cycles through its bearing measurement systems, uselessly attempting to link into something, anything transmitting from the ground. A VOR. A reverse RDF antenna. An NDB. A DME. But the Earth is silent, without the barest whisper back.

With the bearing measurement systems so quiet, it's no surprise that navaids and satellites, like ACARS and GPS, aren't operational. The GNSS is down, which, while not catastrophic, means the flight computer's INS velocity calculations are increasingly incorrect. Worse, none of the RNAV systems are operational.

Red error messages persistently flash on the flight control panel, while audible alarms sound every ten minutes. They're annoying more than anything else.

He's not flying blind, but, midway over the Atlantic with nothing but ocean for visual guidance, he's likely not flying to New York. He's okay settling for close.

Radar does work, although it happens to show abso-fucking-lutely nothing in the air. The U.S. alone averages 5,000 commercial flights in the air at any given moment – that's not counting military or private flights.

To burn time, despite everything he's seen over nearly three days, despite absolutely no sign of active ground communication systems, Barnes clicks through mute radio frequency after frequency.

He hasn't thought about what he'll do, if the entire world is as empty as Poland and Romania. Or what he'll do, if he can't find a way back.

He thinks of the last few moments on the mezzanine, with Steve and the pulsing light. He remembers pushing Steve into the stairwell, his one and only thought being to get Steve away from it. He remembers a red-and-gold blur—Stark—at the same time the light swelled. Then, immediately after, waking up alone, the machine nowhere to be found, no one anywhere to be found.

He focuses on the last few seconds: the blur, the swelling light, Steve meters away. He wonders if – and no. It wouldn't have gotten that far. It wouldn't have gotten to Steve.

But. The more he considers what he knows—the other Steve, the other him—and what he's seen here, the more he wonders if this is his world at all. Maybe they're all in the real world, trying to figure this out as much as he is.

That's a dull hope. He knows better than to have it.

At first a dark shadow, the United States mainland comes into view. Seconds later, the shadow becomes tiny, cloud-covered islands, a precursor to the effervescent blue coast of the eastern seaboard.

He's gone back in time in just two hours: while sunset at 1700 in Romania, it's 1000 or so on the East Coast. Unlike Europe, the roads here aren't empty, but they're entirely as stagnant.

Barnes decreases speed, lowers altitude from 35,000 to 13,000 feet, and alters course northerly. He suspects he drifted south and ended up near the Carolinas.

Hugging the coast, Barnes glances at the land but can't stand to look at vehicle-jammed roads, weather-uprooted highways, burned and disaster-destroyed houses, unkept beaches eroded by waves and time, and overgrown vegetation.

A year has taken its toll.

He steels himself for what the City will be like.

He can't breathe when he sees it.

Whatever happened occurred globally. In Eastern Europe, likely around 0300. On the East Coast of the United States, likely around 2100, when people were awake, traffic swarmed the streets, trains ran nonstop, and planes took off and prepared to land.

Vehicles wrecked. Trains derailed. Subway cars crashed onto streets. Buses overturned. Main thoroughfares flooded.

A year later, without human interference, streets have become rivers, and those still dry are quickly on their way to becoming grassy, weed-infested meadows.

From Brooklyn to Manhattan to Queens to the Bronx, some buildings are piles of gray rubble and others gutted, burnt remnants. Not all of them, but enough of them. The hundreds still standing speak of the passage of unattended time, with empty, vine-ridden window frames, facades stripped away to reveal faded Tyvec, and the rapid swell of nature overtaking hundreds of years of mankind's work.

The ever-bustling, never-stop-moving City that never sleeps stands vacant.

Empty.

Still.

Alone.

***

"Well, at least the Tower's still here."

Steve glances at Tony, too tired to parse grief from amusement. He chooses not to reply, no idea what he'd say.

As Tony approaches the Tower's main entrance, Steve stays put, thinking this is my City, this is home.

The City's silence boors under his skin, ripping through him from the inside out. This—all of this, whatever this is—hadn't seemed all the way real until now.

"Door's broken. Someone's been here," Tony announces. "Wonder who."

Steve looks Tony's way. He's right: one of the doors is completely off its hinges, but, more importantly, it's intentionally leaned against the doorframe, ajar enough for it to not fall over. Steve knows better than to let his hopes up.

Inside, without a single command from Tony, the lobby lights already illuminate the vaulted ceiling, unattended reception desk, granite hallways, and elevator bank.

"Behold: the infinite glory of my arc reactor tech. Power. Self-sustaining."

Any other day, Steve would roll his eyes and avoid inflating Tony's head any bigger. But it's electricity. "This is incredible, Tony."

"Made it in a cave." Tony shuffles to the elevator bank and taps an "up" arrow. The button even lights up, and the elevator car even calls. "He's here. You know that, right?"

"Someone is," Steve replies, again with that whole "not hoping" thing.

The car comes, and the doors open. Together, they step in, and Tony presses the button for Floor 93.

That's not any lab, cafeteria, or floor Steve knows. "What's on 93?"

"A creature of habit. You just wait and see."

Floor 93 is towers of books by the TV and empty Pepsi cans scattered on the floor. A musk of hair cream, coffee, and tobacco hanging in the air. Bags of potato chips and Doritos, jars of Nutella and peanut butter, and cans of soup cluttering the counter.

Steve looks to Tony, an unspoken "are you seeing this?" between them. They share something like a smile.

"Don't say—"

"Told you so," Tony interrupts.

"—it. Bucky!"

Almost immediately, Steve knows that Bucky isn't in the suite. Except for the languid purr of the building's mechanicals, this floor is noiseless.

"He's not in here."

"Could be anywhere in the building. Hey, JAR—" Tony cuts himself off with a frustrated sigh. "Stay here. I can do a building-wide announcement from 98."

Tony leaves, and Steve goes into the kitchen. A bag of plain, ruffle potato chips is clipped shut. Steve opens it and tastes one of the relatively fresh chips. The bag hasn't been open for long, which probably means that Bucky has been here in the last day or so.

Steve ventures back into the living room and notes five stacks of books on the floor. It's a lot for a few days. He reaches down and picks up one of a handful of soda cans; the dark liquid on the lip is coagulated but not completely dry.

Near the TV, dozens of DVD cases and discs litter the floor. Armageddon, National Treasure, Independence Day, The Kid with a Bike, Star Trek, all the Harry Potter movies, Stargate Atlantis, and ER round out the eclectic pile. Again, it seems like a lot for a few days.

Steve wonders if it's only been a few days for Bucky. If maybe, somehow, it's been longer.

"Attention, attention: will all homeless grifters living in my building make their way to Floor 93. Please, all homeless grifters, go to Floor 93. Your boyfriend's there waiting. And you owe me a new door."

Steve sighs. Of all the people to be stranded with at the end of the world, Tony might not have been his top choice. "Real nice, Tony."

While waiting, Steve proceeds into the bedroom. Although the bed is made, the white comforter and rows of pillows are rumpled and lived in. A pile of expensive, obnoxious clothing tags—Prada, Burberry, Versace, Steve notes with raised eyebrows—and a holstered handgun occupy the top of a dresser, while a black tac vest hangs off the back of a chair.

Steve examines the vest and finds exactly what he'd morbidly hoped: swaths of blood and two bullet holes. On the chair's seat, a standard-issue black comm piece has been carefully wrapped around two combat knives, as if they belong to someone who knows he's not going to need them anytime soon.

More than convinced, Steve knows Bucky has been here and recently. He turns back toward the living room and gazes toward the closed elevator doors.

Bucky would've been here already.

He's not here now.

Ding.

Steve catches his breath. More guilty than he should be, he darts out of the bedroom and skids to a stop at the sofa, placing one casual hand on its top and the other real smoothly on his hip.

It doesn't matter if the world is empty. It doesn't matter that this might be home or might not be home. None of that matters, not when Bucky is here, alive, himself, and heal—

Tony steps out of the elevator car, alone. "Well? Is he here?"

Steve's hand slides off his hip and hangs limp at his side.

"No," Tony answers himself.

Steve turns and looks out the floor-to-ceiling window that spans the once-was glistening, polished skyline of eastern Manhattan. Past the East River, beyond the sea of Brooklyn's stout, brick buildings, Steve looks all the way to a black-and-white moment in time when a handful of boys were still the people they were always supposed to be.

"I think I know where," Steve says. "I'll be back."

Nonplussed, Tony can't resist himself. "When you find him, make sure you let him know that he owes me a door. Not kidding."

"I'll add it to the list."

***

Along the long, planked dock at Sheepshead Bay, cornflower blue handrails flake and peel, grinding down to bare, blackened wood. Embellished, curved light poles rust, their lightbulbs already cracked and broken.

A lot is missing. Voices. Horns. People. Boats. A handful of brothers and a person as close to a father as Steve had ever known.

Not the birds, though. Flocks of gulls circle the water, diving and squawking, while the rest hop further and further down the dock, until they launch into flight over the calm water of the Hudson.

The calls of the gulls join the hollow echoes of his footsteps and the faint slapping of water against the dock. The world stretches as far as those three sounds.

Steve looks across the expanse of the Bay, all the way to Coney Island and Manhattan Beach, then down across to Plumb Beach, past collapsed boat slips, capsized mini-yachts, shattered store fronts, and battered vacation homes.

Nobody.

No fishing pole. No cigarette smoke swirling in the air. No sign that anyone has been here since…since whatever happened.

No Bucky.

It was a long shot, Steve tells himself. This whole thing is a long shot.

Finding Bucky.

Finding home.

Stopping HYDRA.

All he has to go on is a potato chip and a fucking soda can.

With nary a glance backward, Steve leaves Sheepshead and tears down the streets. At first a brisk walk, he launches into a dead-heat sprint down Ocean Avenue, counting down the avenues in reverse alphabetical, from Z to R in a handful of minutes.

Past Quentin, across Kings Highway, then back to the avenue alphabet and past Brooklyn College.

The alphabet ends, turning into streets named Farragut, Foster, Newkirk, Ditmas.

Steve has no idea where he's going or why he's going but he goes and goes, dodging downed trees, pieces of roofs, errant vehicles, collapsed asphalt, and flooded dips in the street.

Church leads to Caton to Crooke and Woodruff and Parkside and then –

Steve jogs to a halt next to a McDonald's and a laundromat.

Up ahead, Prospect Park's budding branches build a canopy over cracked concrete paths, while the rippling water of the lake glitters under the mellow sun.

He hasn't been here for years. Decades.

The barest hint of smoky menthol carries on the slight breeze.

Steve's stomach flips.

He trots toward the smoke, heart racing faster and thumping harder, his brain circling an impossible possibility that it's not him it can't be what if it is what if it's not. Adrenaline and hope and anticipation go straight to his legs, and they propel him further and faster.

He beats along a concrete path, surrounded by bud-tipped branches, following a too-familiar waterline, with thoughts of pigskin football and beehives swirling through his mind. This Park, this shitty, dangerous Park, was a backbone of their childhood.

The smell of smoke thickens into something undeniable, as Steve hears the unmistakable sound of plastic fishing line running over the gears of a reel.

Plop!

Through a thicket of trees, Steve crunches over hard ground, and goes no further.

Cigarette dangling from his lips, a fishing pole in his hands, Bucky's shoulders tense. He jerks his head Steve's way, face crumpling into naked astonishment.

The cigarette drops to the ground a second before the fishing pole.

Steve blinks and then blinks again, not trusting his eyes. It can't be. Can't be.

Bucky runs toward Steve and doesn't slow down the closer he gets. He hits Steve at damn near full speed, arms wrapping around him in a tight, inescapable hug. His fingers scrape against the skin of Steve's back as they bunch the fabric of his shirt.

"You – Christ" is all Bucky has to say, nothing cool and nothing calm.

Steve catches up to the moment: it's Bucky.

Steve reciprocates the hug, equally as intense, and revels in the relief that Bucky is right here. Words catch in his throat.

"What the hell took you so long?"

Steve would think Bucky was kidding, if not for the flare of desperation in his tone.

"It's only been three days," Steve tries, even though he knows that he knows – it's somehow been longer. A couple weeks, maybe.

Bucky draws back, his hands still clutching Steve's arms. The look on his face is intense disbelief, while his eyes search Steve for an answer to a clearly articulated question of are you fucking with me?

Steve answers with an affirmative tilt of his head. Maybe it's –

"Try three months."

Three months hits as good as a wrecking ball, Hannah Louisiana and all. Unable to wrap his head around the number, he doesn't believe it.

Except: the inside of Bucky's right wrist is scarred white, the radial artery healed. Likewise, the incision scar on his neck blends in with his skin, almost invisible; three days ago, it had been an angry red line punctuated by black sutures. His voice is strong and smooth rather than crackly and broken.

Without asking for permission, Steve pulls up Bucky's dark green t-shirt and sees a jagged pearl scar on his abdomen, the skin around it healthy.

All Steve can scrape out is, "By yourself."

Bucky bats Steve's hand away, a half-smile pulling at his lips. "You done?"

Steve makes eye contact. "By yourself."

"And you?" Bucky asks.

"Tony's here. So far, only us." Steve thinks to ask, to wonder – three months is a hell of a lot more data than three days. "Have you seen anyone else?"

Against all odds, Bucky nods, and Steve's hopes soar high – until Bucky explains.

"Two months ago, I saw a Russian military jet headed north. I was in Kazakhstan. I couldn't find where it went. I stayed for two weeks and never saw anything else."

Back at the Tower, it's almost verbatim what Bucky tells Tony.

"And you have no idea where it was going?" Tony asks, body language clearly relaying that Tony doesn't buy it.

Steve tenses, his stress level incrementally rising. He can't mediate them. If it comes down to choosing one or the other, there's no question, no doubt, no choice.

"Nope," Bucky lies.

Steve lets it go – for now. Whatever reason Bucky has for lying about it, Steve trusts it's a good one – and calling him out on it here will only stoke the tension.

"Okay. Sure. That all?" Tony says.

Bucky nods. "That's it. No one and nothing else. But they're here somewhere."

"It's a place to start scanning, at least," Steve offers. "Better than nothing."

Tony scoffs. "Scanning with what? If I get satellites back online, maybe."

Abruptly, Bucky asks, "Why are you here?"

Steve looks to Tony, and Tony looks to Steve, both of them dumbstruck.

As always, Tony recovers quickly, or at least thinks he does. "Forty-two."

Bucky looks to Steve, and Steve looks to Bucky, and, for the record, that leaves Steve as the only one completely and totally confused by the entire exchange.

Bucky briefly closes his eyes and shakes his head, less frustrated than inexplicably impatient. "Is this a SAR, or a we're-all-screwed-together type of thing?"

"Oh!" Tony snaps his fingers and claps his hands. "I get it. The second one."

Thinking back, the last thing Steve remembers clearly seeing was Bucky's left arm launch him into the stairwell, then Bucky not quite falling, not quite stumbling into the blue light. Less than a second later, Tony blasted around the machine, his suit scraping the door frame, hands hitting Steve's chest a blink after the light swelled over him.

Two, three seconds apart, at the most. Steve doesn't know how that translates into three months, but he understands why Bucky thought they were here to take him home.

"We got hit right after you, Buck," Steve gently explains, at nearly the same time Tony snarks, "Not that we wouldn't have tried to rescue you."

Disappointment flares on Bucky's face, then vanishes into a pretense of neutrality and sarcasm. "Yeah, I'm sure. So…"

Bucky searches the air with his eyes, gears spinning. It's almost as if Steve can read his mind: what the hell happened?

Steve answers the unasked question. "We don't know."

Steve doesn't expect Bucky's quaking deep breath – because he knows it means that he's gearing up to say something he doesn't want to say.

"I might."

Alarmed by how Tony will react to that, Steve moves between the two, so not wanting to do this today.

The two gawk at him.

"Cap." Tony waits until Steve gives him his attention. "Relax. I know he's de-hydrated. B, shoot."

"Oh, my god," Bucky sighs. "I can't believe you said that."

It's the biggest mistake, or so says the Cheshire cat grin living on Tony's face – because now he knows that it rankles. It's Tony's special brand of acidic cordiality, energy not often expended on just anybody.

They're okay with each other, Steve realizes. Okay enough, at least.

Tony spins his hand, saying to move it along. "Do tell."

"The date – it's too coincidental," Bucky says, referring to November 4, 2016. "So, I went to Death Valley."

That's not the gut punch.

"And I found Sam's body."

***

Displayed on a high-definition, holographic screen, a digital video shows a decomposed, combat-clothed body sprawled back-flat on a pitted floor. Surrounded by old blood splatter, the camera focuses on a set of dog tags: Wilson, Samuel T.

He'd recorded this months ago, and his stomach twists the same way now as it had then. People die, no one's guaranteed, the world isn't nice, shit doesn't always work out – everything he knows.

He'd taken Sam's body as close to home as Barnes could find and buried it. Before he'd lost that jet in Mexico, if he'd stood still inside of it, closed his eyes and breathed, he could still smell the inescapable stench of death.

"That's the room," Steve states.

Barnes looks his way and doesn't miss that Steve has taken several steps away from the screen. If someone showed him video of the cosmodrome, Barnes wouldn't be as nice about it.

"Yeah." Barnes stops the video before it shows a massive blood stain. "Before I left last year, I read the AAR. HYDRA stormed the room, Sam and Natasha killed them, then Sam left with me. Natasha stayed with Steve, until Hill's team came."

Impatiently, Stark nods through the narrative. "Spot on. What's your point?"

With anyone else, anyone, Barnes would snap, "It's pretty fucking obvious." He bites his tongue long enough for Steve to say it for him.

"Really, Tony?" Steve challenges. "It's pretty damned obvious."

Meaning: Sam never left that room. Sam died there. The other Steve and the other version of Barnes himself: they'd come from that moment in that room, their future irrevocably changed.

"Okay. Let me get this straight. HYDRA magically went back in time to 2016 to grab you two, then magically ended the entire world, all without magically affecting our world. Why not any time before 2011 – they already had you dead to rights," Tony points to Barnes, "and could've grabbed you from the Arctic." Stark points to Steve.

It's not that Stark isn't worldly, hasn't been affected by HYDRA, or hasn't witnessed horrendous things. It's that he hasn't lived inside of that world to know what it is they do.

With a worrying level of apathy, Steve replies, "They put a lot of effort into Death Valley. Why bother doing it again?"

"Why bother doing it," Tony snappishly argues. "Find a new theory. Yours sucks."

Barnes barely hears him.

Hearing Steve admit that feels like the last morning in Brazil. Barnes hangs his head and tries to kick the broiling anger and guilt, but he's stuck on wondering how many people HYDRA murdered to break Steve. How many Steve killed, to get to the point where Steve barely hesitated to kill him.

And he wonders what HYDRA had done to the other Steve, to make seven dead civilians in Berlin a possibility. Such a dumb question: Barnes knows first-hand.

"Barnes. You still here?"

Barnes glances at Stark, buries his wonder, and steamrolls. "Death Valley was about Steve and maybe Natasha. I don't think it was about me."

He doesn't dare tell them HYDRA classified him as end-of-life. That HYDRA only bothered to try to bring him back to life in that hospital in 2016 for one reason – and it wasn't so they could recreate the dream of their Winter Soldier.

Steve makes an unintelligible noise and quickly turns away, arms wrapped so tightly around his chest that Barnes can see skin through Steve's too-tight shirt.

Stark steps forward, arms crossed as tightly. "Are you saying – there's a Romanoff running around who thinks she works for HYDRA?"

KGB, more likely, but whatever. Same difference. "It's a possibility."

Skepticism washes over Stark's face. "Same argument applies."

Steve doesn't turn back around, and, though his voice is still apathetic, Barnes hears a near-imperceptible shakiness. "They'd know everything about post-Insight SHIELD. It explains things."

Barnes doesn't exactly know what Steve is referring to—probably that whole brainwashing their agents and crashing their missions thing—and mostly doesn't care. On his end, he's had a lot of time to do nothing except mull over the facts and re-run 2016 through his head. It explains a couple things from then, too. Not everything, but some things.

Stark walks to a half-circle bank of monitors, towers, and racks, arms still crossed, body tense. Likewise, Steve is seemingly done talking, pulled away into his own world. They both need time to process through this and find their own conclusions.

Fine.

"Okay," Barnes says, "I'll be around."

He's at the door's threshold, when Stark announces, "I think you're fucking loop-de-do crazy about that. But. Fury's been missing since July '17. Not even Hill could make contact."

Barnes grips the doorframe with his right hand. All the air knocks out of his lungs. Fury's dead.

"Are you for fucking real?" Steve hisses.

Fury had been less than altruistic, more than involved in the worst shades of the world, and it's senseless to grieve an inevitable outcome. Everything he knows.

With a phone in Iaşi, a pardon letter in a bank box in Zurich, and a chance where none should have existed, Fury had given him back the world. He owes Fury his life.

Owed.

"Back o—"

Barnes looks over his shoulder.

Steve has Tony by the throat, pinned against a wall of flat screens. Tony's feet hover inches off the ground.

His face bright red, Tony kicks Steve between the legs two, three times – nothing. He palm-strikes and then punches his jaw – nothing. Without a suit, Tony is impotent against Steve.

Barnes doesn't go for something smooth, or something calculated. He doesn't take Steve out with a brutal kick to the knee, or knock him out with a left-handed punch. He plows into him with a strong shoulder and pushes him face-first into a wall of screens.

He expects Steve to spin around, and he steps into the right hook he knows Steve is going to throw – to snap him out of it.

His vision dims into black blots and glints of gold flashes. He blinks until Steve's devastated, appalled face comes into somewhat of a focus.

"Are you done?" Barnes asks.

"I—" Steve shakes his head, and every part of him screams I don't know what just happened. A lot like Brazil.

"I know," Barnes says.

He knows what it's like to pack away a good, clean year and then have all of HYDRA's shit roar back.

In his peripheral, a blur that looks like Tony steps away, hand around his throat, and an echo that sounds like him says, "Get him out of here."

Right.

***

Bucky's right hand around Steve's upper left arm, he leads Steve into the elevator and presses a button. Steve doesn't look to see which floor. Bucky's hand drops, leaving a cold spot on Steve's arm.

Steve dares a glance over and sees Bucky casually leaning in the corner, apparently nonthreatened. He's got that hand wrapped around his forehead, fingers massaging his temples, while his jaw makes a clenched square.

He's pissed, Steve thinks. He swallows a dry lump. "Where are we going?"

"Downstairs."

"I want to go to my room," Steve says.

"What, are you twelve?"

The elevator stops on 81. The gym.

Bucky steps out first, hand intentionally placed on the doors. "C'mon. Blow off some steam."

Steve looks past Bucky and sees the full-floor gym, complete with punching bags and boxing gear. Sometime in 2017, he'd eviscerated every bag in here. If Tony had ever ordered replacements, Steve never bothered to find out.

The elevator's door alarm blares. Bucky raises his eyebrows, at once defiant and expectant.

Steve swears under his breath and gets out. "Happy?"

"Thrilled."

It occurs to him that he hasn't seen Bucky for eight months, and, for three of those, believed him dead. For the last three, unending days, he hadn't known if Bucky was alive, dead, something else, or something worse.

It's only been three hours since Prospect Park. And this is how he's decided to play it – beyond trying to choke Tony during another uncontrollable black out.

Red, ashamed heat burns his cheeks.

Bucky slips a pair of reinforced black punching pads over his hands. "C'mon. Burn it off."

Rather than argue about it, Steve toes off his sneakers and advances with a soft jab. Bucky easily bats it away – but gets thrown visibly off-balance. They all have their moments, Steve thinks.

Steve punches again, purposeful, harder, and connects with the left pad. Although his elbow screams, it doesn't hurt his knuckles the way he'd thought it would.

He picks up speed, easing into a rhythm, syncing steps and movements with Bucky. Stress, worry, and anger weep away, overtaken by focus and cadence. Time dissolves.

Ever the trainer, Bucky throws in notes like, "Straighten your back," "follow-through better," and "step deeper into it." Steve's never second-guessed the guidance and doesn't intend to start today – but he also doesn't intend to tell Bucky that he can't step deeper with his left knee, not without it buckling.

"You gonna ask about Brazil?" Bucky asks.

All of the questions Steve had about Brazil flew by the wayside in October. He can't say they've become a priority since.

Without letting up, the nerves in his right elbow shooting livewires of pain through his wrist and fingers, Steve cocks his head and frowns. "Should've done this in Brazil."

"We're good?"

Steve flicks his eyes up for a moment. "Always."

They go until Steve splits the right pad into flat foam. He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand and finds a build-up of sweat. None of this changes what happened upstairs, but, as he exhales a strong, hot breath, he feels grounded enough to face it.

Bucky tosses the pads aside, while Steve cools down with a few jabs at the ceiling-hung punching bag.

Bucky walks up behind the bag and holds it. Up close and standing relatively still, Steve notices that his pupils have grown wide enough to eclipse the blue of his eyes.

Steve aborts a punch. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Keep going."

Steve believes him and does. His right hand turns tingly numb – nerve damage from 2016.

"What happened up there? Why that?" Bucky asks.

It's a fair enough question, and Steve has a fair enough answer. "Insight happened because of SHIELD's secrets. You happened because of those secrets." Bucky doesn't flinch, and Steve goes on. "If we can't trust each other, then what's the point?"

Bucky makes a wry face. "It's an espionage organization."

Very intentionally, Steve punches the bag hard, ridiculously satisfied when Bucky takes a steadying, off-balance step backwards. "It's the Avengers - something better."

"Okay," Bucky says, perfectly conveying that he thinks Steve is being overly idealistic. Naïve. Gullible.

For many long minutes, Steve only punches, baking his thoughts into each fist and fixating on a routine Bucky taught him in 1942.

He ignores the warning twinge in his knee—it's going to give—but can't ignore the weakness in his right arm. Awkwardly, he punches more with his left, losing his rhythm. But he won't stop: he won't give HYDRA this victory.

Bucky's voice breaks his concentration. "The world doesn't always bend, Steve. Change what you can and leave the rest alone."

"Can't do that."

"Okay, well, your alternative can't be choking people. You're gonna kill somebody."

Steve stops punching, in lieu of pounding the bag and potentially Bucky into dust. "You think I don't know that?"

"I think you haven't accepted that. I've only been saying it since you were, what, fourteen?"

Steve chuffs out a laugh. Only Bucky can wind him down that quickly. "How does that math work out?"

"Fuck if I know."

Steve takes another couple swipes at the bag and wonders. "You really think they have another Natasha?"

Bucky shrugs – not because he's not sure, but because he's not sure of how Steve willreceive it. "I couldn't find a body. Everything she is for SHIELD, she was better at it for them. You two together on their side is a sweet deal."

Steve almost doesn't catch the omission. He does, though, and he weighs it against what Bucky said earlier. It doesn't make sense.

"Buck. They were after you in 2016. It was all about you."

Like he'd said in Brazil: Steve doesn't know the ins-and-outs of what Bucky, Natasha, and Sam experienced while searching for him. But he knows what HYDRA had done in Death Valley. It had all been about Bucky.

Bucky's brow knots and his head shakes with uncertainty, doubt, and a fleck of confusion. "That—Sure. I'm probably wrong. I hope I am."

There's something huge that Bucky isn't saying. Steve tests a hunch, unsure how to say it. "Because of the Red Room."

Stunned. Appalled. Shocked. Outraged. All good words to describe the burgeoning look on Bucky's face.

"She told you?" No sooner does Bucky ask that than does it all turn to some strange medley of irate curiosity. "Or did HYDRA."

Steve has faced down scarier things than Bucky gearing up for an angry tear. All said, Bucky's always been real shit at staying upset.

Before he answers, Steve takes another couple of energy-sapping whacks at the bag - undercut, right hook, left hook, punch… Steve takes a long step to avoid face-planting, as the bag sails across the room, hits the wall, and deflates into a pile of sand.

The silver plates on Bucky's bare left arm shift down, clicking and whirring as they go. He'd turned the hologram off, as if wrecking the bag hadn't been enough of a point to make.

Ice cold, Bucky demands, "Who told you."

Steve glances at the bag, then back to Bucky. "Looks like we're both fucking crazy today."

"Steve."

Arms crossed, Steve stares into Bucky's eyes – pupils black, ringed by a thin line of blue.

Like Steve thought before: Bucky's pretty shit at being angry. All he sees is fear of the thought that HYDRA is out there, spilling every gruesome secret to anyone they can get their hands on.

He's right to fear that. Steve learned more in Death Valley than he'll ever tell – but not about the Red Room, whatever it was.

"Nat did." Fear flips to betrayal; Steve heads off another outburst. "You were dead."

Bucky spits out a derisive laugh. "Good to know."

"She…" It pisses Steve off that he has to explain this, but he does explain it. "We thought Sharon handed you over. Nat blamed herself. And I – regretted how Brazil went."

"So you commiserated over that?" So much disgust and loathing fills that small, insignificant word. It punches as hard as any fist. "None of that makes me fair game. And you don't have to know everything. Draw yourself a fucking boundary."

Despite the furor, a thought crosses Steve's mind: Bucky sounds exactly, to the tee, like his old self, when they could rail at each other all day and never miss a single beat of their friendship. There are no egg shells, no doubt, no pulled punches.

"Why does it bother you so much?"

Bucky hesitates, all of those gears spinning again. Plain as day, Steve witnesses the moment he figures something out, tension easing, anger soothing.

"I guess it shouldn't," he answers and, after all that, sounds hollow and distant. The hologram crackles over his arm, flashing on and off at least twice before staying on. "I'm going upstairs."

Plain as day, Steve realizes: he has a concussion from the half-assed punch upstairs.

Steve follows Bucky to the elevator, watches him jab at the button for "93" and miss, then jab at it again. It lights up, and he leans in the corner again, hand over his eyes.

"Is the light bothering you?" Steve asks.

"It's fine."

Bucky says that, but, on 93, the first thing Bucky does is turn off the lights. Steve trails behind him past the sofas, books, DVDs, and Pepsi cans, straight to the second bedroom.

Bucky falls onto the bed, right on top of the covers. He keeps his hand on his head, eyebrows knotted together.

It'd only been one punch.

With a sickening burst of dread, Steve realizes something else. "Is this why you think it wasn't about you? They knew?"

Through splayed fingers, Bucky peers at Steve with half-lidded eyes. "No."

Steve doesn't know if he should believe that or not.

Steve folds half of the bedcovers over Bucky, then lays down on the coverless side, the edges of their bodies touching.

Already half-asleep, Bucky murmurs, "We're too old for this. People are gonna talk."

Steve scoots in closer. He knows it's still okay, when Bucky flops his right arm onto Steve's stomach. "Too late for that. Tony already calls you my boyfriend."

"Oh, good, I can call you 'Dot,'" Bucky replies, voice fading with the lure of sleep. "Can you pet my hair?"

"Buck," Steve warns, if only because neither of them—but particularly Steve—will ever live "Dot" down. "I swear to God."

A soft snore is Bucky's answer.

In this dark room, with Bucky right now safe next to him, Steve can almost forget that they're stranded at the end of the world. That he's still a time bomb, their Fury is likely dead, a version of Natasha could be HYDRA, a version of Steve himself is definitely HYDRA, Tony might be hurt, and Bucky might be sick beyond the repair of his serum.

Almost is a far cry.

***

The next evening, Steve finds Bucky sitting alone in the Tower's cafeteria. A faint tangy smell of aluminum hangs in the air, overshadowed by the stronger smell of cooked potato, carrot, corn, beef, and, oddly enough, popcorn and coffee.

It's some sort of long-gone-cold stew in a white porcelain bowl, along with an empty, butter-coated bag of Orville Redenbacher.

Bucky glances up from a book, his nose damn near buried in a disposable Starbucks coffee cup. "Hey." He makes a face, introspective and confused, while he chews on the cup's uncovered lid. "Did I kill a bag yesterday?"

Steve slides into the booth across from Bucky. "Just a little. You slept for a whole day."

And recently woke up, by the looks of his messy dry hair, past-five o'clock shadow, and wrinkled gray jacket. Stark Tower may run just fine off the electrical grid, but it still relies on the City for water service, of which there is none.

"What's a day?" Bucky reflects. "How's Stark?"

Steve could use his own coffee cup to chew. He lets his silence answer the question.

He watches Bucky's eyebrows raise, an "oh" half-formed on his lips. "Well, what's a day?"

A longer time than it should be. That's Steve's festering problem, not Bucky's. "How are you?"

A dark blue bruise has come and gone, now a faint green tint along his cheekbone. "Tired of canned food. A hot shower would be fucking amazing. There's hot springs in Oregon, by the way, so long as the jet fuel holds out."

Steve almost laughs: only, only God damn Bucky.

"They're nice," Bucky says. "Might help your arm and knee."

Bucky never missed a damn thing. That hasn't changed.

Steve makes an ambivalent sound, which, all said, should probably be more enthusiastic: he's sick and tired of cold baths in gritty rivers. And Tony – hasn't attempted that. They both probably smell.

Bucky continues. "Fresh fruit in Mexico. I don't like Florida, but the alligators there seem pretty happy. Little fuckers."

Steve waits for Bucky to get to some sort of point, or even some sort of coherency of ideas, but doesn't care if he does or not. Maybe he wants to tell Bucky to just keep talking.

Something like five days ago, Bucky was dead. Today, he's chewing on a coffee cup and babbling about anything. It's damn near perfect.

"I ran out of jet fuel near Comondú in Mexico – all mountains, cold desert. It was actually kinda nice."

The bronze tinge of his face and right arm tell part of that story. The weary stress lines on his face have faded into a relaxed ease, and he looks a content 30, 31 years old.

"Jet's still there. I drove back here. That was kind of a nightmare, but. I climbed a couple mountains in the Sierra de la Giganta range. Talk about a view."

He's happy here, Steve realizes – with some relief but mostly trepidation. He's happy here.

Bucky's eyebrows pop up. "What? I was fine. I can do everything you can do, only better."

Most any other time, those would be fighting words, a challenge Bucky knows Steve would have trouble ignoring – but he's happy here.

Steve bolts out onto a shaky limb. "Are you coming home?"

"You're being awfully optimistic," Bucky replies. "About going home."

Completely unsatisfied with that answer, Steve says, "Tony's here, when he doesn't want to be. He'll make a way back. Are you coming home?"

"Again with that optimism," Bucky retorts. "It's been three months, and you're only here by accident."

That's fair – fair enough that it may spook Steve. He has all the faith in Tony, but. But.

Steve sits back and kicks his legs out, ankles crossed, thinking of a way to get Bucky to God damn answer the question. "What were you going to do?"

Brows lifted, Bucky prompts, "If..."

"No one came."

So much like Natasha, he bites the inside corner of his cheek. "I didn't think it was a possibility. But now? Doesn't look so good."

More than trust, more than faith, he's saying that he never doubted them. After everything—everything —Bucky thought someone would come.

He's coming home, Steve realizes, not needing Bucky to say those exact words. Not an idealistic want, it's surefire knowledge, something he feels in how the world jolts onto its axis, finally.

Except for that head injury thing. Steve draws in a breath, ready to go there –

Bucky slides out of the seat. "Go talk to Stark. I'm gonna wash up."

Steve lets him go, disappointed, relieved, and anxious, all at once.

But also: tired of running from this.

Steve goes to the elevator and pushes the button for the only floor he knows Tony to be on. Optimism aside, Tony doesn't want to be here, and, so, the only thing he's doing is working on getting home.

He knows Tony, a friend, that well.

Ding.

"Floor 98," a pleasant female voice declares.

Steve's stomach knots.

The doors roll open.

Steve puts his hand on the frame and tries to summon some modicum of courage. How silly, when he runs into battle fields without batting an eyelash.

"Yeah, so," Tony starts in. "You have to get off the elevator. It's been, what, six years? You should know this by now."

Steve looks at the ceiling and lets out a long, slow breath. Hands stuffed in pockets, he walks to a few feet from where Tony works between a cluster of computers and monitors.

The green and purple bruising around his neck is obvious and the speckled, red blood blisters easy to see. It's all shaped like fingers.

"Took you long enough."

"Ton—"

"No." Tony rolls back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head, and looks Steve squarely. "We get back, you get help. That's it."

That hadn't worked out very well the first time. Or the last three times, with counselors he'd shredded and tore at until they'd quit.

As if he'd said that aloud, Tony counters. "I hired some woman Wilson recommended. They went to school together or something, way before '14, way before HYDRA knew him. That good enough?"

It has to be. "Yeah."

Tony doesn't blink, doesn't move, but his eyes search Steve, scouring for the cracks, for the lie. Something he finds must be satisfying, because he drops his hands, spins in his chair, and pulls up a bright, glowing map with a grand swipe of his hand.

"Good. I have some questions. Go get your boyfriend."

***

At the Manhattan bank of the East River, Bucky stands part-pale/part-tan and naked with a fluffy green towel in his hand.

Steve pretends not to look at Bucky's body, but he does, and he thinks of his own words: what they've done to him. Steve drops his eyes, understanding first-hand how unfair it is to see only the HYDRA. They're both more than that.

Steve reaches into his pants pocket, where he still has his wallet. He pulls out a crisp ten dollar bill. In 1944, it would've been worth a lot more, but all things being considered, it'll do.

After Bucky dries off and dresses in new black and gray clothes, tags thrown on the ground, Steve flips the folded bill at him.

Confused, Bucky catches it. "Wh—" The word doesn't get past his lips before Bucky lets out a real laugh. "You remember that. Jesus."

Steve's surprised that Bucky does, to be honest about it. "I figure you can buy yourself something nice."

Bucky holds up the bill between two fingers. "This won't even cover cigarettes."

"That's a bad habit, you know."

"Yeah, I'm real sure it's gonna kill me."

"Probably not," Steve says, intentionally killing the back-and-forth. He turns toward the Tower and nods his head towards it. "Tony's good. He wants to—"

Bucky catches his arm – not aggressive, not panicked. "Hey. Listen."

Steve faces him and waits for Bucky to continue, expecting something life-changing or profound, but he doesn't say a thing. Perplexed, Steve glances back over his shoulder, checks his surroundings, waiting for whatever it is that Bucky is hearing.

"You dumbass. Listen."

The world is absolutely silent, except for the whistle of the wind, the rippling of the river, the trilling of birds swooping in the rays of the early evening sun, the whishing of the grassy weeds, the rustle of withered leaves. Bucky's heart pulses, blood flowing, air rushing through his lungs. Deep inside his arm, a barely-there electronic vibration whispers a faint hum.

Steve can hear it all, while a long-settled disquiet dissolves into peacefulness.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"

Three months shows.

***

In Tony's lab, Barnes leans against the wall near the elevator doors, not out of fear but laziness. Steve chooses to pace, while Tony barely looks up from his screens.

"We left you in Berlin, barely able to walk. How long were Wilson and I gone?"

He knows the answer for both Tony and Steve, down to the hours. Even for himself, he knows he'd been caught in the loop for six hours that his brain, body, wristwatch, and environment said was only forty minutes.

"Thirty-three hours," Barnes says to Tony, then sharply looks to Steve. "Almost three days."

Nose pinched between two fingers, Tony spins his hand, rich guy talk for "keep it coming."

Meanwhile, Steve keeps his pacing and blinks, wholly unsurprised by the numbers. That's good: Steve and Tony had talked about it, and, best of all, known about it.

Barnes isn't exactly sure what else Tony wants, until he remembers something maybe important. "Banner mentioned something about Selvig's research - that it looked like something Selvig was working on for SHIELD before 2012."

Tony latches onto that. "That would explain the portal by the Spree, and it might explain us being here, but not the time hopping." His head shakes, eyes searching thin air, a string of seconds before he tilts his head back and forth and makes a face. "Okay, maybe."

Both Steve and Barnes lean a bit forward, waiting for Tony to fill them in.

"Spacetime. General relativity. Depends on what they're doing and how they're doing it. Anywho, doesn't matter," Tony says, all in the space of about two seconds. Verbal whiplash is real. "You've been here three months. What else you got?"

"Tony, leave him alone."

Barnes throws a glare at Steve, then completely ignores him. "I went to the base under Lake Kręta. It's not there. No spillway, no dam, no pylon. Just a lake."

"You had video," Steve argues. "You were there."

Barnes nods and speaks directly to Steve. "I know. Then I went to the Tabernas base. It's filled-in concrete, just like it was in 2016, when I went there looking for you."

That example has a lot of power behind it. From what he understands, it has a lot of history, too.

"We were there three months ago," Steve keeps arguing, but his tone is more upset than dismissive.

First: six months ago.

Second: Barnes pushes off the wall and casually puts himself between Steve and Tony. He doesn't care if either of them realize it. Tony does, by the way his eyes follow Barnes.

If Steve catches on, he doesn't mention it. He keeps on going: "It was operational. I saw that video, too. I saw... what happened to you."

Uncomfortable with that, Barnes glances at Tony, whose eyes are hard, expression severe, gears grinding.

Tony's already putting it all together, amazingly quick, and he gets there even faster than Barnes expected. "This is a worldwide staging area. They build it here and pop it into our world with their Tesseract tech."

"And it pulls whatever was on our side here," Barnes adds.

It doesn't explain what happened to him in Berlin: he doesn't think he'd switched worlds and, so maybe, HYDRA knows how to control that part. He'll leave that for Tony and, with all the luck in the world, Banner to figure out.

Tony raises his eyebrows and blows out a breath. "Hell of a way to rebuild."

Barnes doesn't agree with the dismissive disdain he hears. He thinks Tony hasn't caught all the way up.

Steve has. "Work it in reverse, Tony. Maybe they grab your building. Maybe they grab headquarters. Maybe they grab whatever they want, whoever they want, whenever they want, and dump it here. Maybe they—" Steve waves his hand at the windows, gesturing toward the City. "—do this to our world."

Whatever it is that HYDRA has done to this world. However it is that they made it.

As Steve speaks, Barnes watches Tony's face fall, crumpling under the realization of how much damage HYDRA could inflict with this technology. It's not a game changer: it's a world ender.

With all the maturity of his years, Barnes thinks but doesn't say, Welcome to my world. The three month vacation has been nice, sure, but more so a rollercoaster of restless uselessness: knowing what HYDRA is working toward, knowing every passing day is a step closer, and knowing exactly where to go to maybe, just maybe, stop it or get home.

"Do you know where they're going to hit next?" Tony asks/demands. "We can hop a ride."

A lie sits on Barnes' tongue. He could easily say "if I knew that, I wouldn't've been here this long." He could make Tony work to find an answer he might have right now, this minute, today. He can't do that to them.

"Look north of Siberia," he grinds out, "near the Barents Sea."

With a nice and slow nod, Tony rolls back in his chair and spins toward a cluster of screens. "This'll be a while. Go have fun – but bring him back by 10 pm. Curfew, kids."

***

On the ground floor, Barnes and Steve walk out of the building into the dead of night. Behind them, Stark Tower looms as a dark shadow, every window from ground to sky artificially blacked-out. Smart.

Down Church Street, they walk straight down the road, weaving between vehicles, stepping around wide potholes, and crunching through green plants that have taken full advantage of the unattended roadway.

In the cloudy black night, the half-moon and a hundred, hundred stars give the only light, enough to dimly glint off storefront windows and, ahead, the reaching, glass skyscrapers.

On their left, the peeling green barrister for the Chambers Street subway station waits for a stampede of people. It hasn't seen the sign for the Millennium Hilton that crashed through the glass valet canopy, or the lonely flag poles standing watch outside the Westfield World Trade Center mall.

The subway stations are what get him the most. Back home, he can't think of the last time he'd seen a subway without at least one person. In all the places he's gone since ending up here, he likes the remote, quiet ones the best: there, he could pretend.

Here… It's empty, alone, cold. But quiet and peaceful.

He cuts down Fulton. On their right, rusting bikes for sharing with no one; on their left, the overgrown St. Paul's Churchyard. Ahead, a three-car pileup inhabits the Fulton Center's glass lobby. They walk past it into a maze of orange and white construction barriers and partly-collapsed scaffolding.

"I don't know how you did this for three months."

About a month ago, wandering down a street much like this one, he realized: he wasn't looking for faces. He wasn't expecting a handler or a victim to cross his path. He wasn't noticing every single vehicle, let alone classifying every single vehicle into a threat level. He wasn't listening for voices or words or phrases, and he wasn't bracing himself for hidden snipers shooting drug capsules.

HYDRA's out there somewhere, but here, in the streets of his beat-up city, he doesn't worry about that.

He could stay here and die here and be at peace with that – the coward's way. Or, he could maybe, somehow, go home and face it all again – the right way.

Barnes doesn't reveal any of that to Steve. In fact, he doesn't say anything.

They turn onto William Street, as if both of them know exactly where the other is going, and as if it would be anything but the same place. Past Rosella's Pizza and a Downtown Pharmacy, the Mega Millions and Powerball signs blank, and then past a once-was cute plaza but now lacking the perfect manicure of its decorative plants, they both turn left onto Beekman. On the corner, a USPS truck's back door is half-open, and its cardboard packages are mostly decomposed.

"Where else have you gone?" Steve asks.

Back to Death Valley, where nothing had changed except the brutal course of history.

Back to Müggelheimer Damm, a four-kilometer jaunt through a normal forest that deposited him at the southern, tree-lined bank of the Dahme. The installation he'd originally gone looking for was an easy, quick find: three stout concrete walls full of mud and old graffiti, and an impassable, crumbled stairway leading to someplace beneath his feet.

Back to Verlauben, this time without an insane plan to blow it up and burn with HYDRA. Its floors were empty, ransacked, searched, and confiscated - all the work of Fury in 2015.

Back through the Tatra Mountains, as he'd already told them, back again to a place he genuinely, truly, oh please god never wants to see again. The spillway to the lake and its base didn't exist there.

Back to the hot flats of Kazakhstan, to the barren remnants of a Soviet airstrip, munitions factory, and barracks. Like home, nothing was left there, either, until an Il-76MD cargo jet designed for the blistering cold of Siberia soared overhead.

Immediately, he'd known. Immediately, his feet were glued to the ground, the thought of running to his Quinjet and pursuing it never, ever crossing his mind. Going back there wasn't an option.

He really had stayed for two weeks, watching the skies for more, for something to tell him he was wrong, while his gut burned with instinctual knowledge. The jet could've been going to a hundred or more places, but, really, only one.

"You stayed busy," Steve comments. "Chasing that plane?"

So. Steve caught the lie.

"Protecting something?" Steve prods.

It's funny, the way trust and friendship can bottom out. It's funnier, the way he'll always be a shade of HYDRA, even to Steve.

It's fair.

Onto Park Row, a Starbucks on the corner, then to Spruce, a pale of heavy garbage still on the sidewalk, then to the on-ramp.

"Buck."

Barnes turns around and walks backward for a moment. In the near distance, he can make out the skyline – smudged silhouettes of the best City the world once had to offer. He'd grown up watching a lot of those buildings rise, in awe.

"Bucky."

The road to the first bridge tower seems endless. Flanked on both sides by relatively mundane office buildings, it's boring too. Impatient, he walks faster, aiming to cross under the steel girders and suspension wires, to smell the water of the river, to see the shadowed outline of the lamplights dotting the promenade.

"Damn it. Are you going to talk?"

Step after step after step, they finally get there, the river sparkling in the moonlight. The tower looms a little bit ahead, and he has to stop himself from running to get to it.

"Bucky, I swear to God."

The river smells like fish and fresh air, without the familiar taint of gasoline, diesel, or exhaust. He fills his lungs with it, then ruins it all with a fresh lit cigarette to calm his nerves. Nicotine doesn't do shit for his body, but the memory of it does.

Under the watchful gaze of the Brooklyn Bridge's tower, Barnes hops onto a steel girder, walks confidently across it, steps over the suspension wires, and stands on the edge of the bridge. The dark, deep water of the East River churns below him.

"If you fall in, you can forget—" Steve sighs away his thought. That's telling. "Fine."

Steve follows Barnes' path and joins him on the wrong side of the bridge. It's probably not a great time to tell Steve that, about a month ago, he'd scaled one of the bridge's tower, all the long way to the tippy top. It'd been a hell of a sunset.

"Bucky. The plane."

Before the universe changed its mind about what to do with him, he'd hung onto the idea of making it back: home. Brooklyn. Here. The place that plane went had stolen it all away.

Barnes blows out a cloud of smoke and drops his smoking hand. "I can't go back there."

With a blink, all the muscles in Steve's face relax, and his eyes widen enough to tell Barnes that he somehow picked up a context Barnes hadn't meant to communicate. "The cosmodrome."

He doesn't know if he's angry about how Steve possibly knows about that place, or resigned that Steve pretty much knows everything; so, he lets it go.

"I don't know for sure. And I don't want to know. I'll stay here; I don't care."

Steve sucks in a breath and lets it back out. "Tony can't suit up without JARVIS."

A pang of claustrophobia squeezes around him, and all he wants to do is scream don't put that on me! "If I wasn't here? What would you have done, then?"

Showing an ounce of his own anger, Steve pointedly replies, "You are here. We're here. He can barely aim a gun."

Barnes doesn't have a decent answer for that. He has a shitty one, and he doesn't say it.

"Look," Steve relents, "you don't even know if that's where HYDRA is."

In the dark, Steve probably can't see the quick pop of his eyebrows, or his petulant eye roll. Barnes flicks the butt of his cigarette into the river, orange embers fading long before it hits the water.

It's mostly true: Barnes doesn't know for absolute certain. Logic told him that Stark Tower would've been on HYDRA's hit list, and, so, he'd parked the jet in Jersey and surveilled the Tower for three weeks. Logic told him a lot of things about this world, and not much of it had held true. His instincts, though, tell him: HYDRA's on that island in the Barents.

Part placating, part opportunistic, Steve offers, "C'mon. I'll bet you my ten dollars back that they're not going to be there. SHIELD knows about it. They'd be stupid to try anything there."

Barnes leans back against the suspension wires and stretches his eyes up the side of the stone tower. Like the river, it has a scent, too: like wet gravel on a cold day, like breathing in the particles of a hundred years of time, decades living within the old stone.

"I went back to our old place," he mentions. "That guy you talked about really fucked it up."

He sees Steve's smile, teeth white. "I don't get how the future ended up with that but not flying cars."

Barnes almost goes down a bad path with that—something about Howard maybe getting to those, if someone hadn't murdered him.

Barnes shakes it off. "I don't know. Coffee makers are nice. Refrigerators've come a long way. The EU's nice. Podcasts. Cell phones."

A mist of rain blows up from the river. Thunder cries in the distance. That's that.

Wearing an amused grin, Steve looks at him. "Let's blouse. They say Brooklyn at night is pretty dangerous."

As Barnes hops over the wires and onto the asphalt road, he tells Steve that no one ever, ever said "let's blouse."

"Tell it to Sweeney," Steve replies.

Try as he might to pull old American slang out of thin air, he can mostly think of strange Russian slang. From a fuzzy memory—he must've only been eight or nine, and he'd said it to Becca, then got his ass beat—he remembers only one. Even better, it works for the situation. "Close your head, Cap."

Steve laughs and throws an arm around Barnes' neck, like Bucky used to do to Steve. He doesn't mind it. For the past month, give or take, he's felt closer to Bucky than ever. It feels right.

"I missed you," Steve says. "Come home."

There's no "we'll see" or "it depends" or "maybe" with Steve. It's all or nothing, and, if it's nothing, you'd better have an exit plan ready to go real fucking quick. Barnes splits down the middle and hides behind: "You and Sharon, huh?"

Steve's arm falls to the side, and his energy perceptibly shifts. "Not really. She won't— Forget about it."

Yeah. Barnes gets it. "You forgiven yourself yet?"

For a long moment, the only sounds are their footsteps against the roadway and an errant howl from some sort of urban animal.

"No," Steve admits. "I know you haven't."

"And I ran away," Barnes says, a moment before he thinks twice about it. "Give her time and space. Be there when she needs you to be. At some point, she will."

"I know. I just— I forgive her. Not that there's anything to forgive."

"And I forgive you. Not that there's anything to forgive," Barnes points out, knowing that Steve will connect the dots.

Steve nods and nods, hands hidden in the pockets of his—

"Are you wearing my jacket?" Barnes asks. He is. It's the gray cashmere/wool one from some place on 5th Avenue.

"You stole it."

Not the point. Barnes warns, "Don't rip it with your massive fucking shoulders."

"Whatever."

"I mean it. I don't remember where I got it."

The moonlight hits Steve right as Steve rolls his eyes. Jerkbag.

For a while, they walk in easy silence, their steps not fast but not slow. A stroll, almost.

After some of that while, Steve asks, "Did you and Sharon talk a lot?"

"We did not talk. At all."

"Heard she was mean."

Stark's big mouth strikes again.

"She's going through a rough time," Barnes clarifies. "Think me in Kraków in '15."

"No, I know," Steve quickly says. "Before…" Steve waves a hand. "…all that happened, she wanted you with SHIELD. She's the reason I left you alone, instead of flying back to Europe. She said – SHIELD had to be something worth coming to, before you would do it."

Perplexed, Barnes works to absorb that and put it in context of the eight months in Berlin. It doesn't really add up. Then again, he hadn't known her before – that person was already gone by the time he'd met her.

"She'll make it back." Never one for platitudes, he doesn't say things he doesn't believe. Not about this.

Steve looks at him. "We haven't."

"No?" Barnes doesn't agree.

Stark Tower looms in front of them, the windows still dark. Barnes looks up, catches his breath, and doesn't hesitate to grab Steve's arm and pull him toward the door.

"C'mon. You've gotta see this."

In the elevator, Steve presses him. "What is it?"

"You'll see."

"Bucky, just tell me."

"You'll see."

The car stops and the doors open in the expansive Quinjet hangar. Confident that Steve will trail behind, Barnes gets out first and opens the door for Quinjet 3's landing pad.

Outside, the dense gray clouds have cleared. Manhattan sits below them, as dark as it had been when it'd towered above them tonight. In the sky, hundreds and hundreds of stars shine clearly and brightly, while the vibrant purple seam of the Milky Way rips past the horizon.

Slowly, Steve steps out onto the landing pad, eyes up, mouth open. Barnes thinks to hold his arm out, just in case Steve forgets about the ledge. Thankfully, Steve trades walking for spinning in a full circle, eyes swarming over each inch of the night sky.

Barnes sits near the middle of the pad, bends his right arm under his head, and lies down. He's seen them this bright before, mostly during the last few months. He knew Steve would love it.

After a while, Steve joins him, close enough that they share body heat. Steve points at the most familiar constellation of all. "There's Orion. I've never seen it like this."

These stars don't bring bad memories, not when they're like this. Barnes doesn't think the City has ever been this beautiful. "It doesn't get old, that's for sure."

Easy quietness settles between them. The rooftop is nicer, the skyline encircling them is higher, and the stars are brighter, but they could be kids again, doing this same thing at another point in time.

He thinks of the meadow with its fireflies, and he thinks of how life bled from his body while he remembered Steve's hair and voice, pointing at the same constellation that still shines, high, high above. Even then, with everything good stripped, he'd known to miss this.

Steve was wrong earlier, about them not making it back. They may not be whole, or the same people they used to be, but they made it here, close enough to count. The person who walked away from the wreckage of the helicarriers, who left Steve's bleeding body on the muddy shore of the Potomac, would never have imagined today.

With that crushing weight on his mind, Barnes tells Steve, "We made it back." Barnes turns his head and looks Steve in the eyes. "We did."

Steve suddenly sits up, the palms of his hands pressing into his eyes. "It never stopped. He never stopped. It's all I can think about some days."

Barnes gets that. Remembers that. Can still feel that. Steve's not alone in this.

He sits up, too. "In the early days, every time I woke up and was still there, I realized that it wasn't going to stop. But, for a piece of a second, it all could've just been a nightmare."

"Oh, so they let you sleep," Steve jokes, somehow simultaneously light and morbid. His hands drop to his lap, eyes rubbed red and bloodshot. "I knew what they did to you and knew they were doing it to me. That it was gonna work."

Barnes carries it: a list of the horrible things, transitory words passed between family. "I knew why I was there, from the start. Didn't have to ask 'why.'"

"I thought it was you. You're nothing like him." A hard grimace. "I didn't know the difference, and I'm sorry."

Barnes ignores the apology. "They said I was self-destructive, but it was the only control I had, and I god damn took it."

Steve's eyes go to the smooth patch of white skin on Barnes' first knuckle. It's where he'd bitten to the bone, spit the white flap of his skin onto the floor, and found HYDRA's response to be chaining his hand to his thigh. He's got scars there, too. Fuck'em.

"I dreamed of coming home and hated every minute of it once I got there." Steve laughs, dry, breathy, and mirthless. "Doesn't make much sense."

It makes all the sense. "After the helicarrier – not being with HYDRA was horrible. I went back. I didn't know anything else."

Steve's eyes meet the painted ground, a familiar frown on his face. He scratches at the skin on his thumb. Not everything's changed.

"We can stop now," Steve says, voice soft.

Barnes can do Steve one better.

"There's a park in Lausanne. It's beautiful in the summer: nothing but flowers and blue water. I went back in January '15, after it'd snowed. The flowers were gone. The water was frozen. The trees were covered. I watched a dog roll in the snow, lick the ice, slide on the sidewalk. It was nice."

Steve huffs out a smile. "After Loki, I rode my motorcycle across the country. They say there's nothing in Nebraska, but I came up on this bright green field, stretched for miles. A sky bluer than you've ever seen. A pack of deer in the middle."

Barnes can't help himself. "Of the sky?"

Steve smiles again, toothy, holding back a laugh. "Fucking jerk."

"It sounds nice."

Steve's left eyebrow shoots up. "That is where I was going with it."

This is nice. He doesn't want it to stop. "Coffee in the morning. Gevalia."

Steve's face scrunches up. "I think our entire life ruined coffee. Remember the tin cups?"

"I told you: coffee makers."

Steve laughs for real, finally. Barnes smiles.

Barnes has a whole list of good things. "The sound of your laugh," he doesn't say. "Talking to you," he doesn't say. "Having this," he doesn't say. "Taking your face off my wall," he doesn't say.

"Springtime flowers on windowsills," Steve says. "I think I missed that this year."

Barnes scoffs, "You kill houseplants."

"I'm getting better!" Steve's face drops. "Except for the hyacinths. Those died."

Once, Bucky came home from work and found a dead-enough some-kind-of-plant hidden in the cupboard, and all Steve could say for himself was, "Wow. Wonder if that's been there since the last tenants?" That one's a good memory.

"The ocean on a cold day," Barnes adds to the list. "Nothing better."

"Meridian Hill Park in DC. Huge, quiet. You'd like it. With a book, you might love it." A pause, with a look on Steve's face that screams I have more to say, but…

Barnes is done with the bad shit. So: "Pizza. I really, really miss pizza."

"First thing we do when we get back?" Steve offers, an echo from another time.

Dread rolls over him, tight and barbed. He knows what it's going to take to have even a slim chance of getting back. He knows where they need to go. Nowhere would be easy, but that god damn place is impossible.

Barnes lies back down, using the stars to remind himself that he's a speck, and all of this, every bit of it, is a blink in colossal time.

"Second thing," Barnes compromises. "But you're buying. I really want a shower."

He can't see Steve's smile, but he knows it's there. "You've got yourself a—Shit!"

In ridiculous unison, they both shield their eyes with their hands, both of them blinded by a sudden onslaught of bright, artificial light.

"Damn it, Tony!" Steve shouts.

Rising exhaust fumes pierce the air, while a cacophony of car horns drown away the murmur of a hundred different voices. Barnes rolls over and crawls to the edge of the landing pad, squinting down, down, down through his fingers.

Streams of people hustle on the sidewalk. Bumper-to-bumper, cars and taxis start-and-stop down Park Avenue. All around them, high-rise buildings shine from top to bottom, antennas flashing red warning lights.

The brightness seers his eyes.

"What—" Steve doesn't finish his sentence. "We're home."

Head spinning around we're home, he almost forgets that this means no cosmodrome. No trying to make a way home out of chaos, death, and half-assed luck.

"JARVIS?" Steve wonders out loud.

"Welcome back, Captain Rogers and Agent Barnes. Please exit the building. A car is waiting across the street."

Barnes rolls onto his back and looks up to the dim, light-polluted sky. Satellites roll past, brighter than the stars. Two commercial jets blink their yellow wing lights.

Once Steve and Tony had come, three months gone with no sign from SHIELD, he'd assumed: there wasn't a way back from the other end.

Someone—Banner, probably—had done it.

It means…

Natasha and Sam. Warm, fresh food. Hot, clean water. All the good things.

Nothing's this easy.

Steve grabs Barnes' left arm and pulls him not only to his feet but into an inescapable celebratory half-hug, half-pounding-back-slap.

Barnes lets Steve hang onto it for a few moments. "Let's go."

In the elevator, Steve damn near bounces out of skin: arms tight across his chest; smile turned to a tense, thin line; eyes daring the floor numbers to go any slower, all the way down to street-level. The doors can't open fast enough for him: Steve bounds out, toward a waiting crew of familiar faces.

Tony's already in the lobby, standing next to Rhodes, Sam, and Natasha. When Tony sees them, he pops his eyebrows, hands spread wide. "Surprise. Banner figured it out. The Tower was a good call.

Barnes feels like he should be more excited – but, really, he's only cautiously relieved. Nothing is this easy.

He takes a step off the elevator, only enough for the doors to avoid closing on him.

Steve clasps hands with a smiling, happy Sam.

"Missed you, man. Welcome back." Sam sounds like Sam.

Barnes tunes them out, eyes on Natasha and hers on him. He doesn't move forward: he sizes it all up, considers probabilities and possibilities, and wonders if three months can really end this simply.

Natasha saunters toward him, completely inscrutable. His stomach knots: the last thing he said to her was "fuck off," almost a year ago now, all because he had catastrophically misread a situation and not known how to go back and fix it.

She stops in front of him and tilts her head to the side. With a single finger, she tugs the collar of his shirt down and inspects the front side of his neck. Her eyes flick up. "You need a better haircut."

He's supposed to smile at the humor. He doesn't.

"What did I write?" he asks, although he knows it's her.

"Home and love. It's still a funny way of showing it. You okay?"

The answer to that isn't important. "I'm sorry."

She gives him a nod. "I know. We can talk later. The boy you saved in Berlin?"

The boy in the car, his parents dead. Barnes forgot about him.

"He lived," Natasha says. "Doing okay, even."

A life saved.

Tony's voice carries to them. "Captain Planet made me pick up trash on the side of the road."

"You threw it out the window."

As Tony, Rhodes, Steve, and Sam keep the catch-up banter going, Barnes replies to Natasha with a simple, "Good."

A smile pulls at Natasha's lips. "You plan on sticking around?"

Given what HYDRA's up to, Barnes doesn't think he has much of a choice. He'd be stupid to take off, even more stupid to throw it all away. Doesn't mean he wouldn't.

"Four days?!" Rhodes laughs nervously. "It's been over three months!"

"It's April 23, guys," Sam chimes in, intentionally loud enough to pull Natasha and Barnes into the discussion. 

Sam's date is about a week ahead of the calendar Barnes has been keeping in his head. He hadn't told Steve that he'd spent the four-year anniversary of Insight in DC; he may or may not have floated in the cold Potomac, staring up into empty air that had once endured three exploding helicarriers.

Four years seems both like an eternity and like nothing at all.

Natasha stops waiting for an answer. "Follow us for a car to headquarters. Or – there's the City, disappear. Either way, Banner's sending this building back in an hour. Choose fast."

She leaves him at the elevator bank.

"Tell me you—"

Rhodes finishes Tony's sentence. "Ordered pizza? It's already on the way to base."

"I fucking love you. Absolutely. Fucking. Love you."

Bit by bit, Barnes measures the real, unavoidable, terrifying idea of this – these people, their world, their home.

Steve pops over, all that relieved excitement tempered into worried, reticent doubt. "Buck – come home."

An old-sounding voice in his head demands that he accepts that offer. And he does. "I'm not eating cold pizza. Let's go."

Relief and stupid happiness floods Steve's face.

***

The Avengers will return in Chapter 9: The Blackbird Singing.

/***/

In the hallway, the eerie, irritating silence of the stunned Cafeteria following them, Barnes says, “I don’t know.”

The last dregs of burning adrenaline thumping through his veins, Tony doesn’t know if he believes that, but he’s fearless enough, at least right now, to challenge, “Would you say it if you did?”

The glimpse into Barnes’ open book flips shut, everything reset back into his typical look-at-me-I’m-not-batshit-crazy-or-am-I veneer. “Yeah.”

Tony doesn’t believe that.

The elevator doors open. Two techs step out, eyes widening when they see the two of them—vomit, blood, dirt, everything in between, good to go. Alone, Tony and Barnes step inside, nothing between them but that horrible room.

And that lie.

“You can’t change where you’ve been,” Tony says, eye to eye, face to face, barely any space serving as an imaginary intermediary. “But you can sure as hell use it to change the narrative now. What do you think that was?”

Barnes’ tune stays the same: neutral, cool, controlled, honed. “Who.”

Adrenaline waning into a headache right smack dab between his eyes, Tony wails, “What?”

“Who hates us that much. That’s what it was.”

“You tell me,” Tony snaps – maybe unfairly, maybe not. No one here knows HYDRA better than Barnes – or so Tony tells himself, until he remembers that HYDRA and SHIELD had been the same shebang from day fucking one, and Christ. It could be anyone.

“I don’t know.”

“What the fuck ever,” Tony sighs, done with that answer, done with this day, done with this entire fucking period of time where they have no idea what the fuck is going on or why.

The elevator stops on Three.

Tony chances a real glance at Barnes and notices the bruised, bleeding gash on the right side of his forehead – from Steve’s shield.

“Go get your head checked out. And wash your fucking hands.”

“Sure” Tony hears as he stalks to Ops, when he’d rather be anywhere, anywhere, anywhere else but here.

Chapter Text

On Wednesday, Barnes looks up into an optic scanner, hears a gentle click, and pushes open an oak-covered steel security door marked "7D." Inside, Barnes drops his black bag, while his heart patters on the advice of tense nerves, overwhelming emotions, and a rationally irrational distrust.

"JARVIS?" Barnes tries.

Obligingly, JARVIS' patient voice sinks down from invisible speakers. "Yes, Agent Barnes?"

Right. Of course. Who needs old fashioned bugs when you have a JARVIS.

"Just checking."

Then he checks himself: nothing about this is a big deal. This place is owned by an organization he's been working with for years; the only people he trusts live here; and the space itself is equivalent to a nice hotel room.

And it is nice.

The entranceway immediately opens to a spacious living room, furnished with a small gray sectional, flat screen, and coffee table. A new cell phone to replace his shattered one waits on the table; it's ready to imprint, he's sure. A smartwatch box sits next to it; he's seen those advertised on TV.

On his right, he pops open a white door and finds a big, white-tiled bathroom that has Tony's design taste written all over it. The tub is sized to fit Steve, and the shower inexplicably has six showerheads.

On his left, a small dining table sits close to another white door, which he's heard leads to a shared kitchen meant for four. This cluster of apartments only houses him and Sharon, which promises to be interesting.

At the outside wall of the living room, tall windows stretch from floor to ceiling. Natural sunlight spills in through open wood-slat blinds, casting bright panes of warm sunshine across the dark hardwood-esque tile floors. The view of open grass and a forest beyond reminds him of his old place, abandoned only about a hundred kilometers from here.

Bag left on the floor, Barnes latches the entrance door, drops his tablet with all of the last day's briefing notes on the dining room table, and enters the bedroom. It shares the outer wall with the living room and features the same windows. Strategically, those windows are awful, but he can't bring himself to mind much. The view is incredible.

A white comforter covers a bed bigger than he's ever seen. Against his palm, the comforter is tightly woven cotton, cool to the touch, and stuffed to the seams with filling.

A stack of five cardboard boxes in the corner catches his eye. He takes a moment to think: he'd emptied out his old place before Brazil, and he hadn't kept very much in Berlin – certainly not five boxes worth of anything.

He goes to them and untucks the flaps on the top box. It's filled with books from the alternate Stark Tower. The second box is DVDs and non-perishable food, again from Stark Tower. The food could've stayed.

The third box has books, his beat-up laptop, and odds and ends like cigarettes from Berlin. The fourth is his clothes – including all the stolen ones from the alternate world, which makes him irrationally happy. They're nice clothes. The fifth box is…

Pepsi cans. Nothing but empty Pepsi cans, with a note scrawled on one of the box flaps: "Not carpet. -N"

Natasha. The thought of her coils a lump in his stomach; they haven't talked yet, but he's pretty sure he's ruined them.

He strips to his underwear, meaning to take that hot shower he's been thinking about for weeks, but collapses onto the bed first, just because. Under the comforter, the sheets are heavy white cotton, warm and soft. The mattress is firm – heaven for his gnarled spine. His head sinks into a stack of pillows, and he pulls the comforter up to his neck.

He calms down a notch.

He closes his eyes and relaxes into the space, fully intending to get up and run that shower. He listens to the sounds of the building, acclimating himself to the new environment. The HVAC runs quietly, a slight hum announcing the provision of heat. A heavy door slams down the hall.

Outside, dozens of finches chirp and chitter, enjoying the blue sky day. Geese honk overhead. Shears of roaring spring wind blow against the windows, but they hold fast without a single creak.

He calms another notch.

This is it. This is real. They made it back, as easy as anything's ever been in life.

He calms another notch. Three months of heavy, stressful tension bleed away, not something he'd realized he'd carried until it lifts. In its place, exhaustion settles, and that shower doesn't sound as nice as laying right here.

In his mind's eye, he pictures the seventh floor and the four clusters of sixteen apartments. Sam and Steve in the upper left quadrant; Natasha in the upper right; Banner, Tony, and Rhodes in the lower left, although it's only Banner at any given time; and then himself and Sharon in the lower right, with Hill downstairs in her own suite.

Stairs and elevator banks on both ends of the hallway; roof access five floors above; and the closest armory a floor above.

He dozes asleep before he gets through the floorplan.

***

Sam taps his stylus against the glass-top conference table and handwrites a flurry of notes onto a legal pad. He punctuates a sentence with a period and pointedly looks to Natasha.

Natasha catches it and shifts in her seat. "To confirm, the recommendation is reconnaissance only?"

Maria nods to Steve.

"Intelligence from 2016 indicated a type of Faraday cage encompasses the entirety of the island, with a range of at least 70 kilometers. The recommended plan of action is for three passes at no less than a 100-kilometer radius around the island, with an altitude of no less than 15,000 feet. Collect telemetry and videography and get out. We're collecting live aerials of the island here."

Sam is plenty comfortable announcing, "You know, I never really wanted to go back anywhere near there."

A blown-up boat. HYDRA on speed, with brutal fights he'd barely won, and friends he'd only found through blind, dumb luck. A night of meltdowns and near-misses.

Grimacing, Steve replies, "That's what Bucky said."

Sam's glad they're on record; it keeps Steve from digging for info about that. Neither he nor Barnes ever turned in a report for the cosmodrome catastrophe. Natasha had, and Sam'd had read it. All the dirt had been scrubbed from the truth.

No one but Natasha and Barnes know that Sam tried to kill himself there. Likewise, no one but Sam and Natasha know that Barnes tried to tear off his own arm—the good one, even—before completely and totally melting down. Most importantly, no one but those there that day know specifically what the cosmodrome means to Barnes – they only know that he'd been there before, like dozens of other bases.

"My recommendation is for Berlin Team to be removed as secondary for this mission," Natasha says, factual and even. "That includes both Carter and Barnes."

Hill's forehead creases, more of a twitch than a piece of communication.

Sam jumps in with both feet, trying to cover without flat-out misrepresenting facts. "Given that he recently spent three months by himself in a post-apocalyptic world," Sam begins, then thinks to hope that Barnes doesn't kick him off a building for the next part, "my recommendation would be for him to have a psychological evaluation before he's on secondary for anything."

It's undeniably true, and that's the best part: it's not about the cosmodrome, it's about being trapped in HYDRA's sandbox.

On the other hand: Barnes barely went to Medical for a very-belated check-up of all those nasty injuries from Berlin, so. Getting him to therapy's going to be real fun.

Steve buys Sam's explanation, hook, line, and sinker. "We did spend how many months thinking he…" His lip twitches, and he loses eye contact with them.

Natasha sits up straight, at the same time Maria's shoulders tense and jaw locks. Sam watches her imperceptibly shake her head, a clear "don't" spoken without words.

Sam's stylus drops from his fingers. It rolls across the table and falls to the ground. With the realization of what yet hasn't been said, his body feels boneless, incinerated by the deception.

Maria had known. Natasha had known.

Sam hadn't.

"Off-record," Natasha orders.

They're going to lose Steve. Or Steve is going to lose it.

Holy shit.

Maria's eyes widen.

"Maria," Natasha prompts.

Maria doesn't respond.

Steve makes eye contact again, pointedly, at Maria. His expression is – hate. "I know you knew. And Rhodes."

To her credit, Maria doesn't flinch. She meets his eyes, ice cold. "I did."

Steve stares, and Sam can feel—can feel—the angry, uncontrollable tension oozing out of Steve's body. It's familiar.

Sam feels a fraction of it himself. "We're supposed to be better than this, right?" Sam asks.

It's the best thought he can put together, the best voice he can add to the mix, because he'd thought and felt the same thing: he's dead. He'd spent days agonizing over the last morning in Brazil, wondering if he could've changed it all by accepting a simple apology.

He'd spent even more days, long after Italy, talking Steve down from taking off and picking HYDRA apart, until he found some modicum of empty revenge.

Even in all the last handful of empty months, Sam hadn't put it together: that someone would've had to have known, since Sharon and Barnes were still running missions in Berlin.

Maria smiles, like a kindergarten teacher might smile at a challenging child. "We're an espionage organization. It would have compromised them."

"Oh, and you care," Steve snaps.

Blankness wipes out Maria's expression.

Once, a long time a short while ago, Barnes sat with Sam on a sofa inside Stark Tower and commented, "So, Hill gets really blank when she's thrown off." Sam had replied—anxious because having Barnes in the Tower was still surreal and his first thought might've been don't say a roof—"Dude. What did you do?"

"Yes," she answers.

"Okay," Sam says quickly, before Steve can dig in further, and before Steve works himself up into something like smash. "What matters is that we figure out this shit with HYDRA."

"How long?" Steve demands to know, steamrolling right over Sam. "How long did you know?"

Maria looks to Natasha, then gestures at her to answer.

Natasha shakes her head "no." Before Steve turns his anger to her, she defends herself. "I didn't know until Eicher told me in Berlin. Unfortunately, I'm unable to comment on the breadth of your knowledge. Maria."

Gloves thrown.

Between the lines, if Eicher had known, then it's clear that Maria had known since the autopsy – which clearly would have shown different surgical scars and probably a few extra bullets. Now that Sam's thinking about it.

She'd let Steve twist in the wind, his entire world bottomed out and burned to ash. She'd let Natasha think that she handed Barnes right to HYDRA. All of it, for three long, grueling months.

Steve pushes his chair back and rockets to his feet. With only his hands clutching the edge of the table, the whole damn thing shatters into a hundred thousand pieces.

Papers flit to the ground.

Sam is the only one who flinches. Maria could be a statue. Natasha calmly brushes glass off her legs.

Steve looms, ever imposing, a hair from exploding. "This isn't over," he warns, tone as cutting as if he was spitting shards of glass.

Apparently done, Steve walks straight through the pile of table, calmly opens the conference room door, and leaves.

Sam shoots Maria a silent look and then goes after Steve. Before he's out of earshot, he hears Maria actually say, "Do you still feel that was necessary?"

And doesn't hear a reply from Natasha.

In those few seconds, Steve has already made it to the far stairwell, and he's already stomping up the steps.

Sam storms in after him, taking the granite steps two at a time to try to catch up. "Steve!"

Steve stops for about two seconds flat. "Did you know?"

Sam responds to Steve's heaving back. "No."

"Then stay out of it," Steve snaps, before taking back off into rapid, heavy stomps – that may or may not leave cracks in the granite.

The door for Floor Seven whips open and slams! closed. Sam bolts after him, darting up the last set of steps as fast as his legs will go. He pulls open the door, runs into Seven's hallway, and skids to a quick stop.

Natasha is sauntering down the hallway, making good, easy speed to intercepting Steve's chaotic tear. She stops outside the door to Barnes' room, blocking Steve from knocking on it.

"No," she says, "you leave him out of this."

Steve leans in to Natasha's space, a giant compared to her short stature. She doesn't budge an inch. "I don't need your permission to talk to him."

"Don't put this on him."

Sam dares to move closer and closer, stopping behind Steve but out of reach of his arm span. He doesn't plan on getting whacked into a wall today.

"Get out of the way," Steve demands.

Breath held, Sam waits for the worst, while his brain rumbles through who's on base to stop Steve besides Natasha. Rhodes is in DC, and Stark is in Manhattan. Banner would tear the place apart. Barnes is absolute shit at stopping Steve from doing anything.

Natasha speaks firmly and calmly. "I wanted you to know – for you. Not for him, and not for Sharon. SHIE—"

Steve's voice rises. "I knew. In Berlin."

"—SHIELD isn't what it needs to be. Think about it, Rogers. He leaves, he dies. You leave, you probably die. Not to mention what happens to the world."

It's not only sound logic but brutal honesty.

Steve takes a step back, then turns his ear toward the door. "He's not in there anyway. Plan your own damn mission."

Sam lets Steve brush by him, headed for the stairs rather than his room. "Where are you going?"

"For a God damn walk," Steve snaps, anger dangling from every sharply pronounced syllable. He bangs into the stairwell, leaving a hefty hand print in the reinforced steel.

Natasha leans—not sags, she's way too collected for that—against the wall and regards Sam with a calm gaze.

Whether or not she's asking him an unstated question, Sam voices his opinion. "You did the right thing."

Inside, sitting together at an island in their shared kitchen, Barnes and Sharon pick from a bag of microwave popcorn, while every word from the hallway sinks through the wall with crystal clarity.

Sharon doesn't look up from her tablet, but she comments, "I miss Berlin."

Likewise, Barnes flips the page of a hardcover Michael Crichton book. "You're telling me."

***

On Thursday morning, Maria catches up with Barnes near the cafeteria, where he hears and is panicked by the drone of dozens of voices. It's peak breakfast time, and it's packed in there. He's not planning on going in, despite the demands of his stomach.

"Are you settling in?"

It's technically Day Two. He doesn't know why he's here, beyond the assignment coming as an order and it being too dangerous to be anywhere else. He might rather be anywhere else, but he hasn't decided that for sure, not yet.

"Sure," he replies.

Thankfully, Maria doesn't question the response. "Remember those conditions I mentioned in Fall of 2016? I want you to meet Dr. Naceri today. She's our clinical psychologist. What you do here depends on her. No pressure."

Maria beckons him to follow her, and he does—toward the far stairwell—thinking things like perfect and great.

"How long would it take you to write a report - on everything you know about HYDRA?"

Barnes finishes a step and stops, mostly because he doesn't think he can walk, talk, think, process, and strategize all that at the same time. He buys time. "That a condition?"

Maria faces him, arms crossed, expression neutral. "It is. Remember that you have immunity, thanks to Nick."

He doesn't care about HYDRA's secrets. He cares about his own. He cares about diving deep enough back into that world to give her what she wants. On the other end of it, he's smart enough to realize that the request might not be coming from her – but whoever SHIELD has to report to in the hierarchy of government.

His silence trips her up enough to keep her talking. He didn't mean it to. "He cashed in a number of favors for those pardon papers – at a very vulnerable time. He had an idea that you'd be worth the investment."

Like Natasha.

"I wasn't going to say 'no.' When do you need it by?"

Relieved surprise flickers in her expression for a millisecond. "Send me what you have the first Friday of every month. We'll go from there." She jerks her head toward the stairwell. "You have an appointment."

He walks with her again, his thoughts circling around the report, wondering if he should be worried. He doesn't know her well enough to ask – he'll have to ask Natasha, instead, and that's another fucking problem.

"Captain Rogers is upset about a decision made last year. It indirectly affected you. Has he mentioned it?"

That explains the dramatics from yesterday evening. Barnes doesn't know what that's about and probably doesn't want to know. But: a choice between Steve and SHIELD is null, so. "No, I don't know. And I don't care to."

Given the quick pop of her eyebrows and tiny sigh, she'd known that was coming. "Look, I'm concerned that—"

Her gait slows, while her focused gaze turns into a distant stare. At the same time, her head tilts, while her hand reaches to her ever-present earbud. "Yeah. Give me a second."

With a look to Barnes, she gestures with her chin toward the wall. "Stay here. I have to take this."

Because he's a lost dog or something equally liable to run off at any given moment. But sure: arms crossed, he leans against the wall, waits, and mulls.

Up the hall, he notices a room with an open door, with what sounds like two people inside – a woman and a man, sparring.

The woman hits the man too hard, and the man complains that she's too high-strung. Both complain about a lack of understanding of yesterday's training session. The man gives up, has somewhere to be, and walks out of the room, barely a bead of sweat on his face. He doesn't even look twice at Barnes.

Painful. Absolutely painful.

It's been at least five minutes, and Maria hasn't come back yet.

He hears the woman sigh, and then the sound of her feet against a mat, her breaths hard.

Son of a bitch.

He steps inside the room and finds that it's a training room covered in floor mats. Only one person is inside: a young woman with sweat-drenched, dark brown hair.

"What's your name?" he asks.

She turns to regard him, confusion sketched on her face. She doesn't recognize him. "Agent Alievi."

"Barnes." His ID and a few people here put "Agent" first. He hates it. "What're your goals?"

During the War, he'd actually enjoyed training soldiers. Phillips sent him off to do what he did best, and no one bothered him. No one told him to be brutal, to show no mercy.

She shrugs, uncertain. "I need to pass advanced combat training. It's not going so well."

She's not ex-military, and he hadn't thought so. She doesn't carry herself—even standing still—like someone comfortable with her own body.

"What's your background?" he asks.

"I have a B.A. in International Relations. I used to be a Targeting Analyst. I want to be in the field."

There's something more there. Even he knows that SHIELD—old SHIELD, new SHIELD, whatever this SHIELD is turning out to be—isn't at the top of anyone's list. It's a disrespected ghost of an agency, carried by Tony and the Avengers. She could go work for the CIA or NSA and be just as happy and twice as successful.

Whatever.

He takes off his shoes and pull-over sweater, hologram always on, ID badge hanging from his belt, then walks toward her.

She looks at his socked feet and make a face. Sparring in socks, jeans, and an expensive-but-stolen t-shirt might be a little weird, but it gives her at least one advantage.

"Who are you again?" she asks.

"Come at me" is his answer.

She hesitates, then falls into a tight, tense defensive position. Her feet are too close together; her shoulders bunch up by her neck; her chest is tight and still; and she radiates nerves and fear.

Like Steve, all of those years and years ago.

He falls into his own sparring position: loose, relaxed, with total control of his body. He trusts himself: that his body and mind know how to work together, the one thing HYDRA let him have back, after a while.

"Relax," he instructs. "It sounds counterintuitive. How do you relax, when someone bigger and better than you is coming at you? But stay calm and breathe."

She doesn't.

"Breathe. Deep breath."

Self-conscious and showing it, she takes a quick, deep breath. He goes at her with a slow punch, and she blocks it with a side block.

"Deep breath. Every block, breathe."

He doesn't strike again, until she takes that deep breath. He goes at her again with another slow punch, like he's training a child. She blocks and breathes, blocks and breathes, blocks and breathes.

Her shoulders drop, and that nervous look on her face transforms into raw, mindful focus. He picks up speed and varies his attacks—still keeping them weak and, for him, incredibly slow; relies far, far less on his left arm than he ever usually does—but she does good, blocking and breathing, finding her rhythm and a synergy.

She can do this.

"Barnes."

He takes a step back, signaling that he's out of the fight, and looks over his shoulder. Maria waits in the doorway, inscrutable until her eyes narrow a fraction.

He puts his shoes back on, grabs his sweater, throws a "good luck" back at Alievi, and walks toward Maria.

"Wait!" Alievi exclaims. "Do you have time tomorrow? To keep training?"

"Nope," he answers without stopping.

Maria catches his arm. "Naceri cancelled. Looks like you have time to keep training today. Check your email later. And get me your first report by next Friday."

With that, Maria takes off – and Barnes doesn't know what the hell to make of this, that, or any of it. Whiplashed, he turns back around.

Alievi, all of maybe twenty-one-years old without an ounce of world experience, rocks on her heels and smiles. "Ready?"

He's pretty sure he's secured himself at least one job.

And that's… Okay. It's okay.

***

Late that night, sitting in an uncomfortable wood lounge chair from some big-box store, Barnes drags on his fourth cigarette. Crumpled in his left hand, the pack is nearly empty.

Behind and to his right, the access door scrapes open and slams closed. The footsteps thumping over the blacktop sound like Steve.

Barnes announces himself. "Hill was fishing about you today."

Steve drops down in the chair next to him. "I bet she was. How was Naceri?"

With a shake of his head and a shrug, Barnes explains, "Don't know. Never met her. I ended up training a bunch of kids Hill sent my way."

"Huh. They're not too good."

That's about as much as a challenge as the email Hill had sent him. Per that email: "They're mine now. They'll be good."

Steve turns a slow, appraising look onto him. "She didn't waste any time at all, did she."

The bitterness is new. It's not anything good. "Okay. What'd she do?"

"Let us think that you were dead and Sharon was HYDRA for three months. She knew you were both fine in Berlin."

Barnes takes that in, remembers Sam's diatribe last May about Steve insisting "you're dead and Sharon's HYDRA," and blows out a puff of air. He doesn't have a way to salve the situation.

Steve nods and laughs. "She says it was to protect you both. It's bullshit. Three months, Buck. Months."

He gets it. He does. But: their in-fighting here is only a benefit to HYDRA. "Be pissed later. Focus on HYDRA."

As good as a slap in the face, Steve stares at Barnes, disgusted. "It's not always about them."

If Steve wants slapped, Barnes can oblige. "He put a fucking bullet in his head, Steve. Does that tell you something?"

The only upside of any of this is that he knows now: the next time they get their hands on him—when, not if—he'll have enough of himself left to end it. A cold comfort is comfort enough.

Steve has nothing to say to that, but he's pissed enough to launch to his feet, accidentally topple the chair, and slap a handful of paper against Barnes' chest. "Happy fucking birthday."

Barnes catches the papers as Steve huffs away. "It's April. You missed it."

The door slams hard enough that it's probably broken. Another handprint in the metal, maybe, like the one on Seven.

Barnes looks at the papers and finds that they're greeting cards. He looks at one, then another, then another, glimpsing enough of each of the six to realize what Steve has done.

Cards clutched in his hand, Barnes chases after Steve, his socked feet thudding across the blacktop, shoes left behind.

***

BANG! BANG! BANG!

"Steve! Open the door. Steve!"

After the third set of ferocious knocking and name-shouting, Steve asks JARVIS to open the door. Elbows set on his knees, Steve waits on the sofa, not angry, not really.

Bucky doesn't keep him waiting very long.

Cards in his right hand, Bucky stands to the side of the sofa, and all he can say is, "What… What? When?"

"Every year," Steve answers. "Up until 2015, I never thought you'd see them. They were more for me than you. It was a nice world to get lost in for a couple hours."

Steve's eyes sting—that's all, only a dry sting—but he doesn't much care. "I don't want to waste this."

Natasha and Bucky are right: he has to focus on what's important, to hold onto this chance.

Lit by the TV screen, the volume muted, Bucky takes a shaky breath and slowly combs through each card.

"You don't want the one from last year," Steve explains. "The one from '45 is actually from '45."

That'd been an awful, awful day. In March of 1945, Bucky assumed dead for less than two weeks, Steve had drawn all of them from 1940: Bucky, Steve, Anna, Becca. For a few hours, he could pretend they were all still there together. In hindsight, Steve hates that card the most: instead of looking and doing, he'd been drawing and dreaming.

March 2012: Times Square, a ninety-something year old Bucky with him, hands on his shoulders. It was the first and last time he could bring himself to draw Bucky like that – a person he didn't know, a person who never was and would never be.

March 2013: New York, Bucky fighting alongside Steve and Thor, because, back then, if Bucky had been there, it's what he would've been doing, like Natasha and Clint – perfectly human, perfectly capable.

March 2014: the Triskelion, in a God damned meeting of all things, with SHIELD. Telling, of what life was mostly like back then—less than a month before their worlds crashed into each other.

March 2015: Kozerska outside Kraków, in the railyard, hugging instead of fighting.

March 2016: DC, Bucky knocking on his door. Coming home.

March 2017: never to be spoken of, ripped to shreds, because it was Bucky lying sightless and dead in HYDRA's desert base. He'd tried another one and come up with Bucky lying in a hospital bed, his right hand drawn like a half-dead, curled up spider. Both of them: horrible, destroyed.

March 2018: drawn yesterday. All of them together, sitting in the new cafeteria: Bucky, Steve, Sam, Sharon, Natasha, Tony, and Bruce. No Maria, no Rhodes. It was almost real life, close enough to count.

"Jesus Christ," Bucky breathes. He has the 2016 card on top. "I almost did this. I don't know if I ever would've, if not for…"

If not for what HYDRA did in Death Valley. If not for Europe, which Steve has heard about and heard about. Funny thing is: Steve would spend a lifetime back in that place, if it meant Bucky could have this life.

He thinks about what he needs to do to make sure Bucky keeps it. "It's done. We're here. Happy birthday last month."

Bucky nods, over and over again, eyes redder and redder, and goes in for a somewhat unexpected hug. Bucky'd always been a hugger, and Steve'd thought that had changed. Apparently not.

Steve stands up and more than returns it, clutching so tightly that Bucky's spine cracks – followed by a definite, half-laughed "oh, shit, stop."

Steve smiles, and then all-out laughs when Bucky squashes him back.

If those cards represent anything more than his dreams, it's years of wasted time, ugly regrets, and fatal missteps.

They're here, in the same, purposeful place, for the first time in lifetimes.

Steve makes a choice.

***

On Friday morning, the door to Ops clicks open with a glance of Steve's eyes. A tablet and stack of papers in his hand, Steve steps inside to Maria's cool surprise.

A new, natural wood conference table spans the length of the room, all of the shattered glass swept away. At that table, Maria leans back in her chair, while an analyst Steve doesn't recognize focuses on her laptop.

Steve glances up at the large monitors. Natasha and Sam are 38,000 feet above the tip of Greenland, quickly approaching the Norwegian Sea, then onto the Barents Sea toward the other world's cosmodrome. It's only by the grace of the technological wonders Bruce can cook up that they have radar tracking on them.

"What do you need, Captain?" Maria asks, but it's more of a dismissal than a question.

Steve invites himself to have a seat, props open his tablet, and sets his papers on the table. "I have a job to do," he states, leaving no room to interpret it as a question or request for permission.

"Agent Morlev, take a break."

In a snap, Morlev has gathered her materials and disappeared out the door, thankfully leaving only Steve and Maria to settle the strife.

Maria unmutes then mutes the comm channel, ensuring that Natasha and Sam won't inadvertently hear them.

"As Director of SHIELD, I don't owe you an explanation," Maria says, infuriatingly even and calm. "As a friend, we had been infiltrated a number of times. Sharon. Your therapist. A group of analysts, while you were in Brazil. Nick can't be reached. Missions have been compromised. I did what I thought was right, to protect them and us. I stand by it."

Steve understands that one way. "You thought it was me. That's why you sent us to Brazil."

Maria doesn't even blink. "I couldn't rule you out, until January."

"And now?" Steve questions, more forceful than intended. If she thinks he's mad about that, she's wrong. He gets it.

"HYDRA had two people, at the least, who know how we work. If our Barnes is right and they have a Romanoff counterpart, then… We're reviewing security policies and data since last March, including at the Tower."

In the other world, he'd thought Bucky was a touch off-base about Natasha – not wrong, but having jumped to a strong conclusion without a lot of evidence. After three months alone, without anyone to talk to, that's about as good as it gets.

"You think they do?"

Maria shrugs. "I don't know. Genuinely."

With growing trepidation, Steve absorbs the possibility and all of its implications. Intelligence. Base layout and capabilities. Sabotage. Knowing full well how good Natasha is at her job, Steve has no doubt: if HYDRA has a version of her, they're well and truly fucked.

"Steve - I regret putting you through that."

But not enough to do it any differently, given the chance.

On the screen, Natasha and Sam round the top of Scandinavia, only an hour from their surveillance waypoint.

Steve meets Maria's eyes and nods acceptance of that apology. Not forgiveness. Not forgetfulness. Only acceptance. He has to give her that, to give the team what it needs to stay together, keep Bucky here, and shut HYDRA down.

"We have a job to do," he says.

And leaves it all at that.

***

Sitting in a gray-fabric, very comfortable chair, Barnes aimlessly swipes through his phone, scrolling through app screen after app screen.

Dr. Shirin Naceri tap-taps a stack of Barnes' completed assessment protocols on the edge of her desk, slips them into a file folder, and slides it to the other side.

Barnes palms his phone. "How fired am I?"

"I won't know the results, until I have a chance to interpret them. I'll share those results with you, when I have them." Across from him, Dr. Naceri leans forward. "These are only one or two data points, and they're without context. I'm going to actually have to talk to you. I don't think you'll end up fired."

Like a lot of times before, he wants to pull up his hood, shove his hands in his pockets, and slump down in his chair. Funny, though: last night, he'd basically told Steve to get over himself and focus on the mission. He might have to do that, too.

"The referral to me is primarily based on you being alone for three months in an empty world," Dr. Naceri says, the pace of her words and the tone behind them clearly stating that everything else about him is fair game, referral be damned. "How was the other New York?"

He looks behind the top of her dark-haired head at a runny, watercolor painting of a brain. "I didn't mind it." Knowing that sounds pretty bad, he tacks on, "I missed people, and things. More than I knew."

Yeah, that's convincing.

"But…" she prompts.

"It was a nice break."

She doesn't reply. Sam does the same thing: lets silence do the asking. Barnes knows it, recognizes it, and chooses between fighting this or getting through this.

His palms sweat. The top of his right hand prickles; he ignores the compulsive urge to rub it, and then another urge to guard it. Nothing is there; it's in his head.

"It was a break from worrying about HYDRA, or being recognized, or getting jumped. I didn't worry about not getting back; I knew someone would come."

That's all there is to say.

"That sounds very reasonable and normal." Her eyes flick to a wall clock. "We have about ten minutes left. I'd like to switch gears, if that's okay with you."

What's he going to say? "No"? He would get fired.

Without verbal opposition from him, Naceri moves forward. "Colonel Rhodes told me you tried to commit suicide in Germany. Agent Wilson mentioned you unintentionally self-harm."

Oh. He's getting fired.

His only response is this: "Yep."

Her eyebrow spikes up, and she moves her head as if she's telling him to say more.

What he wants to say is I don't know you, and fuck off. He can't yell at Steve to suck it up and then implode here; he'd look stupid doing that.

"I broke my arm in Brazil; I don't know why. It hasn't happened since." He stops and considers. "I think it was because of Steve. But we were fine together in the other New York. So, I don't know."

When he says "I don't know," she doesn't give him a hard look, or threaten him to figure it out, or reach for a vial filled with a nerve agent. She meets his eyes—hers kind and compassionate—and nods.

He wouldn't say that he trusts her – not this fast, likely not ever, but there's something about her that makes this not entirely impossible.

Barnes puts his eyes on the watercolor brain. "And with Rhodes – I thought he was HYDRA. I'll kill myself before I go back there. You have one downstairs who did. Deal with it."

Fire me.

More nodding, and some quick writing. Then, she asks, "What's this like for you right now?"

He keeps his eyes on the brain and makes another choice, this one between truths and lies. "I don't like it. You're fine. It's…this. It's this."

Her brows crease. "It's what? The office? The questions? The building?"

Finally, he meets her eyes and holds the contact. "The questions. What do you know about me?"

Without looking at a paper or a tablet, she rattles off the basic timeline of his life. "102 years old. Born in Indiana, raised in Brooklyn. Oldest of four – one sister, two brothers. Married at 19, widower by 23. Enlisted at 26, deployed and prisoner of war at 27, presumed dead a few weeks before 29. Prisoner of war until age 98. SHIELD since. Would you like to add or correct anything?"

That's all you know? sits on his tongue, but, like so many other times, the weight of 28 to 98 crushes him. He lived it, remembers it; it's not that he can't believe it happened, not at all.

He can't believe he's sitting in the most beautiful military installation he's ever seen, wearing whatever he wants, safe with an identity, empowered with choices, and supported by a mismatched group of people like—"family" isn't the right word, but it's something damned close to it.

Dr. Naceri gives him time to think through all of that, her bright brown eyes back on that clock, then back to him. She doesn't demand an answer. "That's not time, but it's okay to end early, if you would like."

"That's it?"

Her head bobs side to side, preparing him for a big, fat no. "The referral was to evaluate your experiences in the alternate world. I don't think that bothered you too much. And we both know there's more. You tell me our next step."

He looks out the window at the sunny, blue sky day. There's a lot of those here. The thick trove of springtime treetops with their newly sprouted leaves bend in the wind. He sees a manmade path disappear through the treeline, and he wonders what's out there.

A Quinjet soars in the distance, readying to land. Barnes sees the edge of its landing pad rise from below the ground, red guidance lights flashing.

Today, Natasha and Sam are in the other world, entirely on their own, too close to the cosmodrome. He can't imagine not being here, not knowing where they are or what they're doing, not being ready to go after them, if needed, even if it's to that awful place.

Tomorrow, with Naceri's permission, he's on schedule with Sharon, an easy jaunt to the vegetated mountains of Uhlzbazistan. The intel is minimal, but Banner had picked up on an unnatural gamma signature there last week, before they'd gotten back from the other world. Maybe it's something, maybe it's probably nothing, but it's something to do.

The day after that, he's got twelve recruits expecting him to teach them how to not die.

Steve's downstairs in Ops, hopefully making nice-enough with Maria. A text from him is sitting half-read on his phone: Dinner tonight? Barnes thinks of leaving, of shutting off that line of communication again, and it wrenches his gut: no.

Another text, this one from Banner, came through while Naceri looked through his assessments: Come up to 12? I have questions you probably can't answer but I thought I'd give it a try.

For now, he wants this place. He knows what he needs to do to keep it. "We should meet."

She nods agreement. "Twice a week. Your pace. See you on Monday, same time. Enjoy your mission."

"'Kay," he replies.

He doesn't give himself time to rethink that. He goes straight to Twelve and prepares to be preoccupied with whatever Banner wants from him.

"Oh, hey, yeah, I'm glad you came." Banner extends a hand out in greeting, and they shake. Smiling awkwardly, Banner looks him over and comments, "I've never actually seen you in person before. You're shorter than I thought."

"You're less green," Barnes replies, not at all sensitive about his height but also thinking that he's barely two inches shorter than Steve. "While we're comparing."

"Oh? I've never heard that before. Ever." All sarcasm.

With a quick push of his glasses, Banner waves Barnes forward and walks toward a walled-off area labeled "Laboratory 3: Authorized Personnel Only."

Banner looks into the optic scanner; the door opens with a loud buzz. Inside, the laboratory is too-bright white and outfitted with what must be a prerequisite number of stainless steel tables, server racks, computers, and screens. It looks a lot like the newer HYDRA installations.

Ignoring that, Barnes zeroes in on an item secured with three robotic arms in the middle of the room: a sparkling, black granite obtuse triangle, measuring at least three meters tall and four meters wide at its base.

"You have a pylon," Barnes observes aloud. "Where from?"

"Multiple ones, actually. This one's from that base you found under Lake Kręta. It was barracks and this. The other one is at a different location near here; we took it from outside of Kozerska, by that pond you found. SHIELD had some, too, from Selvig's work. Basically, they make the helices work."

Barnes churns "helices" around in his head for a bit, before figuring out that Banner's referring to the double-helix device from the bottom of the mezzanine.

"These are how you brought us back?"

Banner nods. "Took a while to figure out the mechanism, appropriate spacing, and why HYDRA's create temporal distortions, but, yeah. When you have two of those and a helix, you have a swap meet."

Barnes has no idea what the hell a "swap meet" is, but he gets the gist of it. The bigger deal is that SHIELD knows how it works and what to look for. It's now a matter of finding them all and zeroing in on the source of the technology.

"Between Tony and Steve, the helix you saw is pretty much dead; we have it in the next lab. But SHIELD had some spares – they work better. Leave it to Selvig."

That all sounds great, and Barnes doesn't really care. "Is it how HYDRA wiped out the other world?"

With a simple shake of his head and lift of his shoulders, Banner doesn't need to say anything. "I found out a few days ago that they did that. Tony doesn't think it was an accident. Do you?"

A question he's been tossing around in his own head for three months. At the end of the day a few weeks ago, he decided on: "It's very Insight. So, half yes, half no."

"Can I tell you a secret?" Banner doesn't wait for an answer. "I don't think the loop the team stumbled into was an accident, either. If you two had run in the way the others did, they would've gotten every Avenger but me. Dumb luck doesn't get that stupid."

Which begs the question: how much of any of that, from Müggelheimer Damm on, had been accidental? Had they really tried to capture him that night, or had they herded him toward Lake Kręta and let him get back to Berlin to drop the lure for the Avengers?

Although it's not the first time he's gone down that rabbit hole, it might be the first time he's felt helpless about it. "I feel like a rat in a box."

He means it in an off-hand way, but – the analogy triggers the most productive thought he's had in months. During that entire time, he hadn't been able to figure out the motive for the attack in Potsdamer Platz.

"The look on your face is terrifying," Banner comments.

Cause a scene that big in downtown Berlin, and SHIELD will always, always react one certain way. Maybe HYDRA didn't care if their Steve killed him or captured him; they had an Eicher back-up ready to go. Maybe HYDRA only wanted the world's eyes on Berlin, and maybe HYDRA only wanted SHIELD's attention on a media nightmare.

"It was a diversion," Barnes realizes.

Banner's eyebrows push past his hairline, and he's about to say something snappy, when his face freezes. "The attack in Berlin."

Barnes nods, still cycling through it all in his head, making sure it actually fits. Nothing else has made this much sense. "The whole thing was a diversion."

Banner hurries out of Lab 3, back into the main laboratory. He slides into a rolling chair, kicks toward a bank of computer screens, and sails across the floor.

"JARVIS, aggregate all global news reports from January 2 and January 3, 2018, by category. Let me know when you're done."

"Beginning aggregation. Estimated time of completion is one hour and nineteen minutes."

As his fingers fly over a holographic keyboard, maps of continents pulling up across the top row of screens, Banner regards Barnes, "What kind of time do you have today?"

All the time.

***

Steve's watch ticks to 2021, when Natasha and Sam come into the deserted cafeteria. Hot service is nearly an hour over, and he watches them pick through what's left of the cold wraps, salads, and sandwiches.

Sam sits down first, left leg propped up on an empty chair. "I thought you said you and B were doing dinner?"

That had been the plan. "He never came."

Sam can't hide his apprehension fast enough. "How'd it go with Shirin?"

And that's a good question. "I don't know. I haven't heard from him since 09 this morning."

Steve has tried to text and call, without any response. He even managed to say four words to Sharon—"Have you seen Bucky?"—and he even managed to get one word back from her: "No."

Having overheard, Natasha doesn't even bother sitting down. "Did you ask JARVIS for a location?"

Steve weaves the blade of a butter knife through the tines of his fork. He shakes his head "no."

He's afraid to hear JARVIS say "unknown" or "he left this morning and isn't coming back." It's not even fear, at this point; it's wanting to avoid confirming what he knows for as long as possible.

"Man, he wouldn't have."

"No?" Steve challenges. "He has every other time. What makes this different?"

"JARVIS," Natasha speaks pointedly, "where is Agent Barnes currently located?"

Steve drops his utensils and presses his face into his palms.

"Agent Barnes is on Floor Twelve with Dr. Banner."

Sam clears his throat, loudly, two times. Steve's cheeks burn red hot; his neck even flushes.

"Since?" Natasha prompts.

"1142 this morning."

He was supposed to be with Naceri until 1130. He'd gone straight up to Twelve and stayed for—Steve does the quick math—nine hours and counting.

Steve's curiosity outweighs his embarrassment. He looks up. "Let's go visit."

Natasha tilts her head, obviously biting back a grin. "Let's."

The three of them take the elevator, and Steve takes the time to ask them not to tell Bucky what he'd thought. Reflected in the mirrored door, Sam snickers. Natasha winks.

On Twelve, they walk into the main lab – but only far enough to let the elevator doors close behind them. Natasha tenses, while Sam breathes "holy shit."

Whatever Bruce and Bucky have been doing, it's flat-out nuts.

Holographic screens fill the room from wall to wall, stacked in front of each other from the elevator bank straight back to the mini-labs. Dozens more screens stack from floor to seven feet in the air. It's – like an overloaded browser window.

"I have a 5.9 earthquake in the Atacama Desert. January 2. JARVIS, bank it." Bucky.

Dozens of screens flash and disappear.

"All right, I have forty-eight people from the same office building missing in Chișinău," Bruce says. "January 3. Bank it and all follow-up articles, JARVIS."

Dozens of screens vanish, while dozens more blip into the air.

"That has to be related."

"You'd think."

"Dr. Banner and Agent Barnes, I have downloaded articles of interest regarding the Atacama Desert earthquake on January 2. Additionally, you have visitors."

"Minimize." All of the screens disappear, as Bruce spins around in an office chair. "Hey. What's up?"

Back-flat on the floor, Bucky doesn't bother getting up. "How was the mission?"

Steve starts to say something but has nothing at all to say to this. He didn't know that Bruce and Bucky knew each other, and he has no idea what the hell they're doing with each other.

"Uneventful. Nothing there has changed since 2016," Natasha supplies. Her eyes stick on Bucky, who shrugs like the world is rolling off of his shoulders but can't bear for anyone to know. "Care to fill the rest of us in?"

Bruce taps on a few keys, drawing up a handful of holographic, two-way screens. "We think the whole thing in Berlin was a distraction from something bigger. Bigger like these."

Each screen contains an article or bare-bones news footage of odd events around the world, all of them dated either January 2 or January 3, the same day or so that Bucky came back from the dead (again).

An earthquake in the Atacama Desert – probably nothing.

Dozens of missing people from an office building in Chișinău, Moldova.

A cargo plane crash in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania.

A small town in the eastern mountains of Washington, population 142, mysteriously and inexplicably gone after a storm – no debris.

All of it overlooked for a heap of news stories about the attack in Berlin.

Natasha crosses her arms and tears her attention from the screens to Bruce. "How did you find these?"

"We read," Bucky replies.

Sam asks for all of them, "Read what?"

Bucky throws an arm over his eyes. "Everything."

"For about nine hours, yeah," Bruce agrees. "We read everything."

Excitement grips Steve. It's only been a handful of days since they returned from the alternate world, and this is good intelligence. "Write it up and give it to Maria. We'll plan the missions."

As quick as can be, Bruce exclaims, "Not me!"

It only takes Bucky a few beats to catch on to the game he's lost. "God damn it."

***

On Saturday, Sharon sets Quinjet Six down in a near-impossible spot in the vegetated mountains of Uhlzbazistan. As she powers down the jet, Barnes activates the scanning instruments and settles in for at least an hour of doing nothing but waiting for analytics.

Next to him, Sharon isn't someone he would call a friend, or even someone he's comfortable with. Together, they're an unfortunate situation.

Twenty minutes into the scans, after an equally long stretch of painful silence, Sharon confirms that.

"I'm just waiting," she says, tone tinged with bitterness.

Barnes spares a quick glance her way. As always, she's focused on one of her scans, superficially unreadable. "For?"

"You to tell me I should talk to him."

Oh. This is about them, the couple Sharon and Steve used to be. Although he knows how much it would mean to Steve for them to have a real conversation, he also understands what it means for Sharon.

"Keep waiting," Barnes replies.

"Yeah, right," she scoffs. "Like he hasn't asked you to."

Steve hasn't, but he will, without a doubt. He'll tell Steve the same thing. "You're my field partner, not Steve's ex-girlfriend."

Eyes firmly ahead, he doesn't bother trying to see her reaction. This is the most they've said to each other in twelve months, since day one, even while sharing popcorn in their kitchen, and it's about this.

Sharon exhales, without anything to say about that. Good.

A handful more minutes pass through their awkward silence, while Barnes lets an uneasy thought gnaw at the back of his mind: this isn't going to work. He'd be better with Sam, someone he knows and trusts, while Sharon might be better with Natasha, someone who can be perfectly neutral.

He's still not about to ask for that - and definitely not only after a couple days and one half of a mission. This needs to work.

Bucky could've made it work. Drawing on those memories, Barnes makes an offer that he almost genuinely means. "If you ever wanted to talk – I figure that's why they put us together in the first place."

Another set of long, even more awkward and even more silent minutes pass, the inside of the jet as quiet as its outside. The mission clock says that they still owe another 35 minutes of scans, before they hit the ground to explore the immediate area.

Fucking Christ. He can't do –

"The helicarrier?" Sharon asks. Half a question, it's a test of the mettle of what he's offered. She's calling him out.

He can tell her that's going too far, asking for too much, and let whatever this had ever been end. Or, he can show her the wound and hope she realizes that hers is much, much smaller.

He doesn't take too long to answer - only a couple seconds have passed - and she jumps the gun. "I guess not," she admonishes.

He won't let her off that easily. "I nearly killed him. I wanted to."

Even now, four years later, after everything since, he can barely scrape air through this throat to admit it. The plastic under his right hand creaks, his knuckles clenched white.

"I dream about it at least once a week. I kill him, or I can't find him in the water, and it's me - like, me. I wake up thinking how close it was to being real." He takes a breath and blows it back out. "Death Valley makes it easier to look at him. He got me worse. How selfish is that?"

In his peripheral, he sees that he has her undivided, stunned attention. He stares out the windshield at a funny looking tree - and realizes he's not done.

"Before that, though?" He shakes his head. "I couldn't look at him, talk to him, be anywhere near him. I just—it fucking buries you. Still does." That's all. He still can't look at her. "Your turn."

After a bit, she says, "I saw you."

"Saw me what?"

"Hide on the roof, across from the apartment in DC," Sharon replies, nothing easy about her tone. "I never told him. I told Fury but not him."

Barnes has nothing to say about that hazy, tumultuous time he'd very much like to forget. Though not smooth, life has been immeasurably better since SHIELD opened into something worthwhile.

"I know how much it hurt him – what you did in Poland. How much he wanted to go back and find you." Her voice isn't weak but also not strong, and what she's saying is about him but also not about him at all. "I know he's hurting. I can't."

His response is painfully simple. "I know."

The mission is a complete bust, except for those five minutes of raw understanding.

***

On Saturday evening, soon after James and Sharon debrief their mission, Natasha finds James sitting alone on the rooftop, the glow of his tablet giving him away.

Before she sits, she asks, "Did you eat dinner?"

"Yeah," he says.

Too bad. It would have been nice to eat together.

"Hill wants me to tell her everything I know about HYDRA," James tells her. "Should I be worried?"

As Natasha settles into the chair, she allows herself a grin. "No. Nick asked me for the same. I sang like a canary. They're a little late with you."

"Okay then."

He doesn't sound like he trusts it. He may never – and that's part of the problem.

Natasha slips a glimpse of his screen: photographs of the cosmodrome taken during the mission yesterday, along with up-to-date satellite aerials of the cosmodrome in their world.

"I was there," Natasha states. "Nothing's changed."

He swipes to the next photograph - an up-close image of one of the shorter brick buildings, the one with the jagged, charred hole created by Sam a year and a half ago. Drifted, undisturbed white snow perches at its edge.

"Yeah, well."

Said like someone who doesn't trust her intelligence.

Nearly a year has passed since Copenhagen, a longer stretch of time than the five months they had spent together. That time and that idea—of them—had only ever been a fool's idea, not something meant to be chased.

Okay.

Hands braced on the arms of the chair, she moves to get up. His hand lands on hers, hesitant, gentle, and warm - enough to stop her.

"I was a jerk."

Her arms relax, and, while willing to stay seated, she isn't shy about looking him square. She finds remorse and a great deal of fear. The idea of them is up to her: to end it or chase it.

"It's 'dick,'" she says, intentional back to a grueling night that had reached from Annecy to Zurich, along a long, quiet highway. "You're a dick."

He squeezes her arm. Though he hesitates, he plays. "Okay, Muffin."

"You're a fucking dick."

James still has a wonderful, comfortable laugh, and hearing it is still like hearing an old, forgotten song. All at once, once and again, she feels tоска – in her stomach, in the back of her mind, in her chest: for time lost, for angry words said, for everything they could have been and done for eleven months, for it all.

His smile and laugh fade. "I'm sorry. I—made a really bad call. I thought…" He shakes his head. "I regretted it. I didn't know how to fix it."

On a cold, snowy day in January 2017, he'd doubted her enough to think she had a SHIELD strike team waiting to pounce and bring him in. She had known then: his ability to trust hadn't caught up with his ability to love, even after everything that had happened that autumn.

It's not about that.

"Are you here?" She lifts an eyebrow. "Really here?"

Genuinely, honestly, he regretfully answers, "Today. Tomorrow. And then I don't know."

Fair enough.

She owes him equal fairness, and she gives it. "I won't chase you around the world, James. This is home. Stay until it's easy. When you do that, we'll talk."

She stands up, his hand slipping away from her arm, and, when she walks away, he doesn't come after her.

***

Sunday is a slow, rainy day, filled with training classes and briefings.

In the morning, he has all twelve of the trainees show him what they know. They know enough to get killed, all of them at different stages of skill. Only one of them—Herron, the one from the training room with Alievi earlier in the week—probably won't make it, if Barnes had to guess now.

He spends the morning waiting for one of them to realize who and what he is and to say "why the hell should we listen to you? Go back to HYDRA." That doesn't happen. They listen, and they try hard.

His plan is to spend a couple more days together as one group, then split them up into at least two classes, something like Basic and Advanced. He has no idea what to do with the sit-down classroom, or the 1,000-page mandatory textbook, but he figures – he'll figure it out.

On top of that, Maria wants written lesson plans a month ahead, something no one has ever asked from him. The sick fucker in him is tempted to include a few days on how to perfect "hail HYDRA" and maybe a few lessons on "how to almost murder your best friend." That's the kind of shit she's looking for.

The rational part of him thinks she's right, and, worse, would be stupid not to. The part of him that existed before HYDRA is pissed – trust me, he screams, even knowing that the right dollop of drugs and the right mix of words are all it takes to make him HYDRA's puppet, exactly like Rumlow had said.

He tries not to take that anger to the briefing.

The briefing brings an entire group of people together: Banner, Tony, Rhodes, Barnes, Sharon, Sam, Natasha, Steve, and Maria, in that order around the table. In that company, he can't afford anger.

Figuring it's what she wants, Barnes intentionally sits away from Natasha. That leaves him at the other side the table between Sharon and Rhodes, with Steve and Sam across the table with Natasha. That's okay: he likes Rhodes, and Sharon's his field partner.

On a piece of scrap paper, Rhodes draws a set of crude pipes and angles the paper toward Barnes, tapping the tip of his pen on it. Very funny.

Conspiratorially, Tony leans forward and whispers, "Are you two paying attention? She'll take away your gold stars, if you're not."

"Are you three listening?" Maria asks.

All eyes turn to them, while Steve barely bites back a laugh. A stupid, restrained smile twists his face.

Perfectly serious and professional, Rhodes replies, "We are."

Barnes stares directly at Steve and pops up his eyebrows; Steve's smile twitches. Barnes winks at him, prompting Steve to laugh out loud with just two short laughs, hands up in a failed attempt to hide.

He's still got it. That anger's a little easier to ignore.

Sam leans over and whispers "really, man?" at Steve, but that only makes Steve laugh a little bit louder.

Natasha rolls her eyes, her sour mood having none of it.

"Uh, we're paying attention, but I don't think they are," Tony literally points out, index finger gesturing at Steve's end of the table. "By the way, Cap, burning minds would like to know: when are you going back to art school? My good group is trying to concentrate over here."

"I'm not in your group, Tony," Rhodes argues.

Straight-faced, Tony retorts, "We are the group."

While Steve apologizes through laughs, and while Maria chastises the entire room—something about HYDRA being terrifying but now with portals and time machines—Barnes stares at Steve, but this time not to get him to crack.

Art school.

Ding! A notification on the bottom of his screen pops up: you have a message from Sharon Carter.

He slowly glances at her, more out of the corner of his eye, worried that she's fed up with the antics. Her focus remains dutifully on Maria.

With a bit-back, silent sigh, Barnes taps open the message. "He went to art school after Poland. It was that or go back after you."

He taps back, "Did he finish?"

Sharon looks his way and discreetly shakes her head "no."

Of course not: 2016 happened.

Barnes gives his attention back to Maria, as she hands out paper mission files.

"Carter and Barnes, you have northeastern Washington. Romanoff and Wilson, you have Chișinău. Stark and Rhodes, you take the Carpathian Mountains. All missions are reconnaissance only; do not engage."

Barnes flips through the mission file, quickly noting entry is by rental car from a regional airport—airline tickets dated for tonight—and then from a hiking trail near Sullivan Lake. He surmises that he and Sharon are supposed to be hapless hikers who happen into the vanished town by way of a six-kilometer trek through a forested drainage.

The aerials of the expansive, green-covered Selkirk Mountains incinerate any doubt he might have had about this mission: it's as good a spot as any for HYDRA to dick around in.

Barnes happens a glance at Steve, whose fingers drum against the table, all the previous humor evaporated by the heat flushing his cheeks.

"Dr. Banner, you're up."

From his seat, Banner pinches at his tablet and makes a throwing motion at the holographic screen at the front of the room. Barnes quashes his impulse to keep reading his mission file, so he shuts it and pushes it away from himself.

Tony snickers.

Whatever.

On the screen, diagrams of a helix and two pylons slowly rotate. "These aren't time machines," Banner explains. "They're a sort of spatial distortion device using Tesseract technology…"

"…that Erik Selvig was developing back in 2012," Tony finishes, eyes on Steve. "Remember that room of tech you found on a helicarrier? The one that bunched up all your star-spangled panties?"

Steve rolls his eyes but obviously knows what Tony is referring to. "Is there a point here?"

"Just that we lost progress on the project when Selvig went nuts after New York, and then we lost about half of what we had right before Insight." Like a nightmare, Tony looks to Barnes. "You know anything about that?"

It's Barnes' turn to flush; thank god his skin doesn't show it. "No," he answers, sure and honest. Maybe Maria will want something in writing about that, too.

Tony doesn't twist the proverbial knife. "Wish you did."

Banner picks up the discussion. "What SHIELD had was nothing to do with temporal distortions; it was all spatial, all Tesseract – an attempt at teleportation tech, basically. Long story short, HYDRA has reverse engineered the helices and the pylons, created more of them, and expanded SHIELD's research with something completely foreign to us."

"Meaning what?" Natasha asks, the first thing she's said the entire time.

"Meaning we don't know how or where they got their temporal technology," Bruce answers, almost apologetically. His tone brightens, though. "But they're not actually that good with what they have; they're still figuring it out, which is good for us. The Tesseract teleportation stuff shouldn't cause anyone to lose time, but it has for them. We've fixed that on our end with the two operational helices we have – ones Selvig developed."

The screen changes to an aerial overview of their base, including the eastern forest, what appears to be a large pond, and an expanse of grassy meadow and dense trees spanning north, south, and west. Banner taps his screen, introducing a perimeter line on the aerial.

"We piggybacked on our own research and have been protecting the entire grounds from the spatial distortions since February. HYDRA can't swap us into the other world, and they can't swap themselves into our base. We're looking at implementing limited protection for the temporal distortions by the end of the week."

That's real good. Smart. Necessary.

Tony speaks up again. "Until we figure out the temporal tech, we have been and are sitting ducks."

"They could loop us?" Sam questions.

Banner nods, almost apologetically. "We'd pick up the radiation burst, so we'd know it, at least."

The fact that HYDRA hasn't done that yet means one of two things: HYDRA doesn't know where the base is, which isn't likely; or, shutting the Avengers down is no longer part of the plan. So: either the loop in Poland was never their plan – or HYDRA cleared a significant hurdle, one that makes SHIELD a menial threat. The latter is what he decides, all to himself.

"Okay," Maria redirects, apparently wanting to avoid going down that rabbit hole. "We also have an update on mission SOP."

Banner updates his screen with a set of coordinates that tracks to Germany. "We can move in and out of the other world here, like Natasha and Sam did yesterday. If you end up in the alternate world and can't make it back to our coordinates, go here. We'll know to look for you there."

Tony holds up his phone, screen facing out. It's set to Stark Maps. "What Bruce is trying to say is: I bought this farm house in Frankfurt, Germany. If you're missing, we can't miss you. Also: you can say 'hi' to JARVIS there now."

Also smart.

But.

Barnes has the sinking sense that they're too late, that HYDRA is closer to achieving victory than SHIELD is to catching up.

One of these missions needs to hit the payload.

***

On Monday, the last day of April, at a bit past 0600, Sharon mutters, "I'm going to kill Steve."

"He'll be happy that you're thinking of him," Barnes replies, then quickly picks up speed before she can hit, kick, or throw something at him.

A pinecone sails past his head.

If he's learned anything in the last couple of days, it's that Sharon is an easy sell, the last ten months notwithstanding.

In all fairness, the mission plan is fucking arduous on paper and about eleven billion times worse in real life. He won't admit it to Sharon, and he sure as hell won't admit to anyone back at base, either, because he'll never live it down.

The two-kilometer hike from the lake hadn't been bad. It's the easterly drainage Steve had picked out on some fucking misguided whim. In the summer, it would be dry and manageable; since it's spring, recent rain has ensured that the path is pure, slippery mud, made all the better by the gradual increase in elevation. Per the topo maps, it goes from a nice 3,200 up to 4,400, before the town they're hunting for levels out at a pleasant 4,900 feet.

Also: they're dressed like the two dumbest civilian tourists imaginable, with thin t-shirts, khaki pants, and running shoes. He's already got more mud in his shoes than sock.

On the upside, it's truly beautiful here, with an upward-sloped wall of tall, green conifers on either side of them. The temperature idles at mildly cool with a light but stiff breeze, just about right for late spring, and just about perfect. Above, the sky's color is a deeper blue than he's seen in a long, long while. And it's quiet here – relaxingly, wonderfully quiet.

He'll take it, even with the dragging, sucking sludge attacking his feet.

"Only about ten more kilometers," he mentions, intending to be optimistic. The GPS app on his watch more accurately reports 9.6 kilometers.

He lets a pinecone bounce off his right shoulder. Good thing Sharon can't see his smirk.

***

On a concrete bench in Parcul Dendrariu in Chișinău, sipping steaming hot late afternoon coffee from a café named Chicago, Natasha and Sam casually watch the stout, two-story office building that had been at the center of a few news articles in January.

"Just saying – this is boring," Sam comments. "It's been months. They're not gonna be here."

A young woman walks her large dog down a manicured, concrete path. Birds sing. A variety of grebes honk as they fly overhead, preparing to land in the park's pond. The sidewalks fill with commuters on their way from work, but none enter or leave their target building, which sits still, quiet, and ignored.

It's nice – and, yes, boring.

Natasha keeps her agreement to herself. She'd seen the other mission.

Behind her coffee cup, she smirks.

***

The mud sucks Sharon's left shoe clean off her foot. Her other foot might be stuck. With wide, angry eyes, she glowers at Barnes. "I'm killing him."

Trying to be empathic and conciliatory, Barnes nods. He doesn't tell her that the muddy, haggard, disordered mess they've both become will only serve to make their cover that much more realistic. She'll probably kill him, if he says that.

"It'll take a lot. Keep that in mind."

As she sticks her hand deep into the mud and searches for her shoe, she asks, "Oh? What would you recommend?"

"He's apparently immune to bullets, is really good at dodging knives, and doesn't drown well, so."

With a ferocious pull, Sharon jerks her mud-slimed shoe out of the ground. "Poison it is, then."

"Seriously – he'll be happy you're thinking of him." Barnes shrugs and dismissively waves his hand. "You can't win. Give up."

Sharon scoops mud out of the shoe and pulls it back onto her foot. She swipes a piece of hair out of her eyes and leaves a wide swath of dirt on her forehead. "I'll win."

Right.

They press forward, already forty minutes behind schedule. His watch tells him they still have 8.1 kilometers until the target site; although he doesn't fail, he's struggling to see a sure way forward.

Going back and finding a different way through isn't an option; it would take too long to rework their planned point of ingress, and it would risk drawing unwanted attention. Going up the slopes is also nowhere near an option: it would be tantamount to climbing a steep mountain, without enough climbing gear to support them both. Forward is it.

To fill empty time, Barnes asks a question that's been gnawing at him. "Why didn't you tell him when you saw me? On the roof?"

A shit-eating half-smirk crosses Sharon's face, a side of her he's never seen. "Because Sam's the only one dumb enough to get in the middle of you two. Also, Steve probably would've put lost puppy posters up on all the street corners, and it sounded exhausting."

He doesn't know how much of that is bluster versus honesty, but, all in all, he realizes that Sharon is a fucking dick.

He might be okay with her, an odd feeling after ten months of dread and ambivalence, at best. Maybe being back with SHIELD proper, rather than managing foo-foo missions in Europe, is making a difference for her, too.

"I never liked your grandma or aunt or whoever. Peggy."

"Great aunt," Sharon corrects. "She regretted that."

He's not surprised by that: he regrets it, too. In another life, if they'd all made it back, it could have been different. Hell, it could have been different back then, during the time they'd once all had.

"She'd be happy that you're here, and how good you are with him." Him being Steve. "The way he laughed during the briefing – I've never seen that."

It's a little much, with a long way to go until he can decompress in a private space, and his only possible response is to deflect. "Because he knew where he was sending us. You're still poisoning him, right?"

Sharon smiles, though in a way that tells him that she can see straight through him. "I regret Berlin. I didn't realize you thought that."

The sort-of apology is nice but unnecessary. "No, I get it. Don't worry about it."

Her expression shifts. "I think…knowing you were so close would have made things worse. So, I didn't tell him. I figured you'd make that move, when you could stay."

Truth was: he wouldn't have made that move. HYDRA fucked up, forced his hand, and made all of this possible. He doesn't know her well enough to tell her that, or to even come up with any sort of answer.

His watch tells him they have 6.7 kilometers left, with hours and hours to go.

***

By 1730 Moldovan time, the hectic evening commute is long over. The sidewalks, while still somewhat busy, are nowhere near their former bustle. Their building remains undisturbed.

Soon, they'll need to move and separate. Steve identified a number of different look-out points; Natasha sorts through them in her head, applying paper ideas to what will work best in real-life.

"It's been a long time," Sam remarks. His thumb scratches at the empty paper coffee cup. "You think anything is going to happen in there?"

Not really.

She also can't think around why HYDRA would care to disappear thirty call center clerks employed by a company that, ostensibly, provides switchboard services for a number of various businesses, from clothing retailers to home improvement contractors. SHIELD's analysts had determined those businesses were real, not fronts.

Coincidences aren't real. Something happened in that building, and she thinks they won't know more unless they go inside.

"Wait and see," Natasha replies, not unkind so much as taking an opportunity to train him in the art of not being Steve. "It's early still. Patience is valuable."

Sam nods understanding of that. "Is that your strategy with B?"

Natasha launches a warning look at Sam. That isn't an acceptable topic of conversation, not anymore.

He pretends to not see it. "Just saying – he almost sat by Tony to avoid you. That says a lot."

She'd noticed and foolishly learned that the let's be friends option doesn't exist. "Leave it."

Sam bends forward, elbows on knees, cup squashed between his hands. His dark sunglasses reflect the glimmering windows of the myriad of buildings across from them. "I get there's a line between getting walked on and respecting yourself. We just all waste so much damn time."

In their building, a curtain partially obscuring the fourth window on the second floor moves. Natasha plays it off as if she'd never seen it.

The mission is over; they've been made; and the point of still sitting here is to pretend that they don't know that, to limit escalation.

She keeps Sam talking. "Not until he commits to staying."

"You think he will?"

Her mind more concerned with building the safest exfiltration strategy, she distractedly replies, "First sign of trouble, he's gone."

"And then we fin—"

A wall of blistering heat roars into them, filled with shards of glass, splinters of wood, and bits of rock. For a piece of a second, an ear-piercing, rumbling BOOM devours the sounds of the city.

The ensuing silence latches onto the seconds and stretches them into hours.

Somehow on the ground, her face pressed into the rough concrete path, Natasha's ears ring. Bright yellow splotches dot her vision; she blinks and blinks, trying to assess the situation, but those splotches grow larger.

"Sam," she tries to say but can't hear herself. She tries again, but only sucks in gritty, toxic, burning smoke. As she coughs, she spits out his name, again and again – Sam, Sam, Sam.

Natasha pushes herself up to her knees, raw elbows scraping against the coarse concrete. Through troves of black smoke and gray soot, she makes out the burning, destroyed skeleton of the office building and a hollow sinkhole where the street had been. Other buildings burn, while ash-covered people run, ghoulish mouths open with no sound coming out.

They have to go. Now. They have to go—

Sharp wind whips through her hair, bites at the skin of her face, and steals her breath. Ten fingers dig deep into the soft skin under her armpits. Thick wet droplets splash against her arms and neck.

The ground pulls away, further and further, and it's only then that Natasha realizes Sam has deployed his wingpack.

The flight is choppy and restrained, rather than his usual smooth cuts through the air. His fingers are loose and shaky, almost as if he could drop her at any moment.

More of those droplets rain against her skin; she catches the faintest whiff of metallic, of blood, and she realizes.

Sam's hurt.

Immediately, Natasha reaches up and takes ahold of Sam's arms with both of her hands. She spares a glance down at the city, so far below; already, the black smoke billows miles away, and the cacophony of red and blue police lights bleed into a dotted bokeh pool.

They drop ten feet at once, before Sam jerks them back higher.

"Take us down!" Natasha yells, her voice deaf to her own ears. "Sam!"

It's not that Sam complies. It's that Sam passes out: his hands slack around her arms, and his new wings retracting back into the bracelet. The emergency chute goes with them.

"Sam!"

Together, they tumble, bounce, and roll through the rough air. Her nails dig into his arms, keratin splitting and breaking.

Natasha holds on tighter, pulls Sam toward her body, kicks her legs up, and wraps them around his ankles. She snakes her left arm around his chest and flips them around, so that she can see the ground rush at them.

With her right hand, her fingers furiously crawl down his left arm, until they make contact with the metal bracelet. She knows it's useless: it's set to only recognize Sam's biometrics – and only if he's conscious.

They're seconds from hitting the patchwork of farmland ground.

"Sam! Sam, wake up!"

Sam isn't going to wake up. Bright red blood spurts from his neck, where a large shard of red-streaked glass juts from near his jugular. Skin ashen, eyelids unmoving, he might be dead.

She's not going to be fa—

Natasha's skin tingles. Goosebumps prickle along her spine, her arms. Her ears crackle-crackle-pop.

Time grinds to a near-halt, as the lush green ground creeps closer, as her eyes notice each individual blade of grass and each speck of insect crawling along the shiny grooves of those blades, and as those blades irritatingly tickle against the bare skin of her face.

Sam's body and her body thud into the grass, only as painful as the breath being knocked out of her lungs.

It's not what she expected death to feel like.

Boom-boom. The ground trembles all the way into her chest. The world spins once, then tilts off-kilter – and it's her. It's her, not the world.

Something hard and unforgiving pushes her away, down to the ground, and, when she looks to see what, she sees Tony's helmetless face, his mouth forming words that she can't hear. Gray specks and splotches float into her vision; children's bubbles, primed to be popped.

"Help Sam," she thinks she says.

Tony's eyes move to Sam, an instant before the Iron Man armor melts away and his hands press uselessly against the spurting blood.

The grass tickles her hand, then her face, and the specks of insects have something new to explore, while she dissolves into the dark patchwork ground.

***

Two kilometers out, the drainage widens into a rocky, boulder-ridden dry river bed, enclosed on either side by embankments of tall conifers and vibrant springtime verdure. The sludging muck hardens into welcoming, firm silt, while unobscured bright sunlight warms the skin of his face and arm.

Far ahead, Barnes spies an imposing twenty-five-foot dry waterfall, something Sharon can't yet see. When she does, poison might not be revenge enough.

He doesn't bother pulling out his topo map to verify their location. Dry waterfalls happen in the mountains, and, sometimes, there's no reasonable way to predict backcountry terrain. This is one of those times.

Sharon sees it, stops, and tilts her head up to take in the full, magnificent breadth of the near-vertical wall of rock standing in their path. He studies her mud-streaked face, still learning her, and sees exactly what Steve must have seen: insane delight at the prospect of a tremendous, risky challenge.

Even so.

It's not often that he enjoys the abilities afforded by his serum; something like this, on his own, would be and has been one of those rare times. No matter Sharon's disposition, the hiccup is her: there's no way in hell he's risking her getting hurt, let alone him surviving something she doesn't.

He considers the safest way to scale the wall, already outlining the easiest path up with the thickest footholds and widest resting spots. It's not terrible - just steep. She can climb first, while he belays from the bottom.

Meanwhile, Sharon approaches it, covering fifty meters in a handful of seconds. Barnes trails behind her, an inexplicable pit of nervousness tumbling in his stomach. He knows his instincts well enough to understand that he's not sensing anything amiss; it's selfish worry about her.

From below, he watches her climb it, sure hand over sure hand without one misstep. She mostly follows the same invisible path he'd outlined in his head. She knows what she's doing, no question – a lot like her great aunt.

Sharon swings her legs up over the top of the wall and rolls into a standing position. Still at the bottom, Barnes watches her assess her new surroundings for threats, apparently finding none.

Although they're still two kilometers away from the missing village, anyone watching the area will have undoubtedly noticed them by now. Their cover as hapless hikers might well be blown.

Sharon calls down to him. "Are you coming?"

He decides against trying to rehabilitate that image. He easily scales the damn wall and joins Sharon at the top.

They stand in a dry riverbed made of hard silt, compacted gravel, and large gray boulders. Bright green grass and weeds grow freely around them, before giving way into a dense, dark thicket of branch-laden, tall conifers and thick foliage.

Threat assessment: impossible. They're going to be walking into that blind.

Barnes rolls his shoulders, something of a nervous tic leftover from the old days. He scans the trees and shrubs to pick out camouflaged humans, but not even his augmented vision can do a good enough job to assure him no one is in there.

Two kilometers to go; their only way out of here is by going forward.

"'Kay. Let's go."

Side by side, they advance into the cool coniferous forest, daylight sinking into dim darkness. Soft needles and decayed pine cones crunch under their every step, while the sharp scent of citrus-pine saturates the fresh air.

Far, far above, an osprey sounds a battle call. A passenger jet soars, engines cutting a white, puffy vapor line through the blue sky. All around them, insects chitter. Chipmunks scamper. Birds sing.

Nerves mangle his gut. "This reminds me of Siberia."

The tall pines. The citrus smell. The cool air and the natural sounds. It's close enough to once-was home. He doesn't know why he mentions it to her, other than it's on his mind and saying it calms those nerves.

"Is that good?" she wonders, uneasy.

"Not really. I'd rather be—" Home almost passes through his lips. "—back at base."

Sharon studies him for a few obvious seconds, before letting those few sentences fade to unspoken questions and more awkward silence. He happily takes it, as an odd, sour bitterness eats away at his mood.

After a short while, the forest thins, as the tall trees transition to short, splintered stumps and then into a flat expanse of developed, packed brown dirt.

The town.

Sharon steps up beside Barnes.

Exactly as the news articles had reported, nothing is left. No debris. No trash. No pieces of buildings. No building foundations. No basements or crawl spaces. No plumbing. No roads. Not even the barest outlines of where buildings might have once stood.

Barnes scans the northerly tree line for snipers but picks out nothing except a flock of birds, a couple of squirrels, and some foraging deer. Realistically, if HYDRA was lingering out there, they'd be dead or worse already.

Sharon sums it up. "Well."

The aerials had shown a couple dozen buildings made of blocks, brick, and wood. Although clearly dilapidated, those buildings hadn't been disposable tents or blow-away shacks. A storm would have left something. A mudslide would have left mud.

This is something else.

They need to seriously start looking at the other world. He doesn't say it aloud, in case there are HYDRA ears here. Maybe he'll mention it to Steve. Or maybe he'll keep it to himself, until someone asks what he thinks, or until he figures out what place he has with them.

"You take southwest, I'll take northeast, then meet in the middle," Sharon says.

Although it's a waste of time, he does it without commenting. Eyes trailing along the ground, he looks for grates, oddly placed rocks—like the one in Italy that had led to a badly-laid trap—and anything besides dirt. He looks for carvings on tree trunks; maybe a hammer and sickle, or an octopus.

It's all and only dirt.

Sharon finishes her sweep, equally empty handed. She drops her pack and pulls out a small, folded antenna and a laptop. She tosses him the antenna.

Barnes catches it and sets it up near the middle of the town's perimeter, while Sharon opens the laptop and the scanning software. He retreats back toward the tree line, gets out his own laptop, and opens the system for ground-penetrating radar.

The state-of-the-art antenna—some brainchild of Tony and Bruce—emanates two blue holographic wings, one doing what Sharon wants and the other doing what Barnes wants, neither interfering with the other. Admittedly, it's impressive – and nice.

At the other end of the perimeter, Sharon focuses her attention on her screen. Barnes looks over her head at the surrounding trees and deeper into the forest, again and again searching for threats. Although his instincts aren't tripping, he doesn't trust this, not at all.

An hour and thirty-six minutes of quiet, boring scanning pass with nothing more exciting than a bald eagle swooping through the clearing. It's enough to convince him that they're alone out here.

Initial scans reveal absolutely nothing: no residual radiation, no errant electrical activity, nothing below the packed dirt. What a waste of time, Barnes thinks.

With the scans stored on their computers and ready to be handed over to their analysts for deeper review, they pack up and head out on their Steve-approved egress path, opposite the way they'd come in.

The hard silt gradually churns and slops back into wet, caking mud. No jokes and threats this time. Physically, Sharon is waning, energy bleeding dry. Emotionally, he's right there with her.

Barnes checks the time: already 1345. It's a twenty-five kilometer hike down the mountain to a rental safe house; then, a short drive to a small regional airport with a Cessna and a flight plan to Pennsylvania logged for tonight at 1700.

They'll be lucky to make it to the house before dark; they were supposed to have been there by 1500. There's no chance of that, or of keeping with that flight plan.

A pang of panic trickles through his gut. He knows better, but the knowledge of safety doesn't chase away the ingrained fear.

"You okay?" Sharon asks, eerily in tune to the stupid shit in his head.

Perfectly, superficially neutral, he replies, "We're late."

"I checked in before we left the town. We're good."

"Good."

She doesn't push, and he doesn't give, both of them ready for this mission to be over, with a long, long way to go before then.

***

Natasha unsnaps the oxygen mask from her face and drops it to the floor.

Coarse sandpaper scrapes her lungs raw. Shrill bells attack her ears. Gray spots prickle in her visual field; those, at least, are getting better, enough for her to see the hospital room.

Impossibly, it's one of the rooms back at base. She doesn't remember making it back, or anything after thudding against the grassy Moldovan ground. Tucked under blankets, head propped on a mound of pillows, she lays still and rewinds those memories, landing on one in particular.

Sam. Injured. Glass in his neck. Spurting blood.

Natasha tenses. A moment later, the palm of a hand presses against her shoulder. She flicks her eyes up to the owner of that hand.

Steve.

"Sam?" The vibration inside her throat tells her that she had managed to vocalize that one word.

Steve puts his face inches in front of hers. "He's alive. In surgery. Can you hear me?"

Lip reading was one of the core skills taught by the KGB. "No. Tinnitus."

Steve nods, understanding clear in his expression. "Cho said that's temporary. Can you see?"

"Yeah. What happened?"

"Rhodes and Tony were next door in Romania, remember? We had you out in minutes. Law enforcement says it was a natural gas explosion."

The way Steve's face says it tells her that he's not buying it. Only an idiot would.

"I saw movement in the window before it happened." A quick, panic-inducing thought crosses her mind. "Sharon and James?"

Steve's hand presses against her shoulder again. "Flying back right now. They're fine. Sam will be fine. Get some rest?"

A terrible liar since the day she met him, Natasha searches Steve's eyes and face for his usual tells, finding none of them. He's telling her the truth. That's the only reason why she closes her eyes, not intending to sleep but finding a relief she hadn't realized she'd craved.

Restful sleep comes for her, and she lets it take her.

Minutes or maybe hours later, James sprawls in a Starkesque blue-fabric chair, a laptop balanced in his lap, all ten fingers furiously tap-tap-tapping across the keyboard.

Face smushed into a pillow, Natasha doesn't move, but she blinks, her vision clear. She wonders why his hair is messy with dry sweat and dirt, why his face is streaked with gray-brown marks, and why the shoes next to his feet are caked in dried, gravel-laden muck.

Washington, she remembers. She remembers wondering if James realized what he and Sharon were going to be walking into, given that he wasn't as familiar with the United States as he was with the old Soviet Union and Europe. If Sharon had known, she hadn't said anything, at least not to anyone but him.

"Hey," she says, her voice reaching through the dull buzzing in her ears.

Immediately, his fingers stop typing. As his eyes move up to her, the lid of the laptop closes. "Hey. How's your hearing?"

"Mostly there. Sam?"

James points beyond her. As she pushes herself into a sitting position, readying to look that way, she hears Sam's voice.

"I'm absolutely amazing."

"He's high," James corrects.

Natasha twists to see Sam. In a hospital bed, he's flat on his back, eyes closed, a white bandage around his neck, with his right hand wobbling in the air. Stitched, Tegaderm-covered lacerations litter his face and arms. He tries and tries to raise his middle finger toward James but apparently lacks that kind of motor control today.

"He's fucking high," James corrects again.

"No one asked you," Sam slurs, voice turning sleepy soft. "Go fucking back to Berlin."

James takes that with an eye roll. "How are you?" he asks her.

Natasha turns her attention from Sam to James, then considers the answer to that question. Her eyesight is close to 100%; her hearing is serviceable, still with that faint buzzing; but her lungs ache, hopefully only from inhaling smoke.

"Good" is her answer. "How was yours?"

"Waste of time. Nothing was there."

"Mud," she comments, infusing levity into her tone and a small smile into her expression. "A shower wouldn't kill you."

It's meant to be a teasing joke. Obviously, he'd made a beeline here after getting back from the mission. Any other day, he'd probably still be in the shower.

He doesn't return the smile, demeanor entirely serious. "I wanted to make sur—"

"Aaaaaaawkwaaaaaaaard," Sam sings into his pillow. Given the role he serves on the Avengers as Falcon, he actually makes a terrible wingman. "I could be high."

Not even that manages to crack a grin. Rather, James looks at her and tries to hide his cold realization that she and Sam had talked about that. "Looks like you're both fine. So. Yeah."

Timing no less than merciful, James' smartwatch chirps. His quick glance turns into full attention, eyebrows dropping into a wrinkled knot. "Gotta go."

He does that, as Natasha glares at a suddenly sleeping, snoring Sam.

***

Bucky walks into the hangar bay with a minute to spare, his hair damp but all the mud washed away. Steve waits by Quinjet Six, its ramp down and ready. Eight's ready to go—with Tony and Sharon on board.

"It's me and you," Steve says, dreading the inevitable question of "why?" One answer is a neutral "Rhodes is dealing with the Moldovan government" and the other is a humiliating "Tony doesn't trust me" – citing the incident in the other world from only a few days ago.

Bucky doesn't miss a beat. "About fucking time. Let's go."

Even when Steve had been flat-out, upside-down wrong, Bucky had stood by him, a stalwart. Now isn't any different. An ounce of weight lifts from Steve's shoulders.

Bucky settles in the cockpit and starts rapid preflight checks, all without knowing much more than a general destination of "Tabernas in the other world." Steve slides into the co-pilot's seat and cues up his tablet, readying to fill in the two-hour flight with a flash briefing.

As he works, Bucky asks, "Tabernas?"

"Two hours ago, HYDRA shifted it to the other world and took six of our people with it."

"Quinjet Six, Control, radio check." Off-radio, Bucky says, "You said they blew it up."

"Control, Quinjet Six, I read you five."

Steve straps in and would so much rather not think back to October, when Tabernas exploded and took the world with it. "You did."

"Quinjet Six, request pushback." Bucky disregards the who's who of base destruction, neatly sidestepping that it's almost always him doing it. "If it's blown up, why do they want it? And why not us first – they could loop us."

Bucky's not asking for an answer – he's voicing a concern. Coming from him, it's a big one.

"Quinjet Six, pushback approved. Standby."

Following a gentle lurch, the Quinjet begins to rise, securely skidlocked on its pad.

"We're gonna find out," Steve offers, then shrugs when Bucky shoots him a skeptical look.

The look turns into a scoff, more bitter than amused. "Great plan. Hope there's more mud."

That's a dig at the mission planning – no pun intended. It's not like him.

Steve takes into account the last few months and the last five days; in particular, the last few dozen hours that included a pointless mission with an exhausting, useless cover, injured friends, and now an emergency op without any preparation. However tiring it sounds, Bucky looks at least twice that.

"I can fly, if you need a nap in your old age," Steve says.

Straight face honed, Steve pops an expectant look Bucky's way, in time to catch a stone-cold glare. Steve keeps that face as straight as can be.

Daylight streams through the cockpit's window. The jet gently lurches to a stop, the pad locked into place at ground level. To their left, Eight lifts into the air, engines roaring blistering heat as the jet hovers in place.

Without looking away from Steve, Bucky says, "Quinjet Six, request startup. I know where you live, Rogers."

"Quinjet Six, startup approved. Cleared for liftoff at three meters, Quinjet Six."

The exchange is worth a smile, and Steve finally gives it one. Bucky breathes out a laugh, even as he looks back toward the cockpit controls. Their engines churn to life, a couple moments before Bucky makes Six mirror Eight's position.

"Quinjet Eight, Quinjet Six, prepare for spatial shift in ten, nine, eight"

Steve eases back into his seat and waits through the countdown. At the "one," a familiar blue light pulses over them, and, in that instant, the base and the hangar bay's pads vanish. The instrument panel slides into alarms and errors, all of the world's infrastructure gone.

Eight pushes up and off. Bucky waits a solid five seconds before following suit.

Mission go.

***

Before a self-detonation explosive device buckled walls, warped steel, and imploded earth, the Tabernas base was the epitome of new, bright, and shiny. Freshly poured, bright gray concrete walls. Smooth, burnished stainless steel elevator doors. Glossy epoxy floors. Rooms outfitted with new, modern equipment. Lights that shone as brilliantly as the sun on a cool, fresh morning.

That's…not quite this base.

This base is 1920's old. Rounded, crescent walls made of dark, yellowed subway tiles. Stout doorways built for shorter statures. Dull colored pipes and metal beams lining the low, cobwebbed ceiling. Dusty iron light cages protecting flickering, aged CFL bulbs. Elevators guarded by thick wooden doors and thicker metal gates.

Halfway down the first dark hallway of the first floor, a fully-suited Tony makes the connection. "Uh…"

Next to him, Steve's face drains color.

Barnes' hand wraps around the back of Steve's arm. He tugs and steps back, toward the base entrance, but Steve's feet stay planted and rooted.

"They're fucking with us. Right?" Tony says it to Barnes: a sincere question.

Barnes seems to usually get real uncomfortable with those kind of questions. He doesn't this time. Stone cold, still trying to coax Steve backward, he replies, "Your people are dead."

And this is a trap.

It's all lost on Sharon. "What am I missing?"

Steve's jaw tenses until it tightens into a compact superhero square; eyes, wide and staring. His fists stiffen into clenched-white balls of knuckles.

Barnes ignores Sharon. Done being gentle, he yanks Steve hard; he even gets a few feet out of it. "We're leaving."

The look Sharon shoots Barnes would be enough to kill a regular person. "Why."

As Tony calculates the precise moment he needs to push aside Barnes, grab Steve, and get him the fuck out of here before an Olympic-level flip out occurs, Tony distractedly explains, "It's the Death Valley base. Cap?"

Sharon's irritation hardens into bold resolve.

"Steve, we've gotta get going," Barnes says. "Now."

He's not wrong, not at all, but something about it flips a bad switch. A bad enough one that the edge of Steve's shield belts Barnes in the forehead – sudden enough that Barnes doesn't guard against it, and hard enough that Barnes goes down to the pitted floor.

God damn it.

Repulsors fired, Tony surges forward. He wraps his metal-armored arms around Steve from behind.

Steve ferociously tries to break Tony's hold, but, yeah, no, good luck with that. "He's HYDRA! What are you— He's… He's HYDRA."

Tony hopes more than hope can give that this is PTSD, and not something worse, like Steve being poisoned again, or a re-emergence of the fuck-a-doo HYDRA'd baked into Steve's head.

On the floor, Barnes rolls onto his back. Blood trickles down his face. His eyes skim past Steve, hop past Tony, and inexplicably land on some remote point behind Tony's head.

Barnes draws his sidearm.

not a great idea.

Before Tony can force Steve toward the entrance and out of here, a burst of absolute panic lends Steve some of that aforementioned luck.

Steve thrusts them backward into the tiled wall. In theory, Tony hits hard, even sinking into the near century-old tile by inches. The Iron Man armor absorbs every smidgen of the impact, leaving Tony to bear only fearful irritation with Steve.

Steve, who bashes the back of his head into Tony's helmet.

Steve, who strains his muscles to their breaking points, attempting to burst out of Tony's grasp.

Steve, who –

BANG!

Tony puts his attention on the trajectory of that bullet. Fired from Barnes' sidearm, it precisely shatters the glass lens of a near-invisible surveillance camera. The red "recording" dot light fades to black.

"They're recording us?" Sharon asks – the question more to do with "why" and "what does that mean" than a factual confirmation that, yes, that had been an active camera.

Entrapped in his distraction, Tony forgets about Steve long enough for Steve to break Tony's grip with a wildly aggressive jerk of each of his arms.

Steve slips straight down, twists around, roars back up, and plows the edge of his shield directly into Tony's arc reactor.

Crack.

As orange sparks fly and sizzling electricity arcs, Tony wastes time by exclaiming, "Son of a bitch! JARVIS, regulate it down!" and angrily thinking about how Hill's not going to have such a great day once they make it out of here, starting with an adult-sounding I fucking told you so! He's not god damned ready. He's not.

His suit hemorrhages power, critical systems shutting down to avert a catastrophic build-up of unmanageable power that could be, might be enough to destroy this facility.

Flight goes.

Then weapons.

All non-critical components of his HUD display blink away.

If he loses hydraulics, he loses the suit, and he becomes a liability, like in the other world.

As soon as he thinks it, hydraulics go. Tony's stomach flips and crashes, even as he deactivates the entire suit.

Eyes closed in frustration, he feels the suit collapse itself into a bracelet, until he's left standing inside an enemy base, alongside a whacked-out Captain America, with nothing more to him than a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, black Gucci trousers, Burberry sneakers, and an admittedly amazing pair of Saint Laurent sunglasses on his head. If HYDRA was smart, his extraordinary wardrobe would terrify them.

Steve backs toward the wrong end of the hallway—toward an old elevator shaft and a stairwell that burrow into the nadir of a HYDRA funhouse. In the dim darkness, that's pretty much all Tony can see.

Tony flicks his amazing sunglasses down over his eyes. "JARVIS, whatdya got?"

A limited HUD flashes to life in front of him. It illuminates the hallway and precisely pinpoints the far stairwell, the elevator shaft, and three other doors. Bright orange outlines Steve's thick stature.

Between Tony and Steve, Sharon is outlined in bright green.

And then Barnes, outlined in yellow, and somehow, somehow, oh so creepily somehow waiting by the elevator shaft. Moments ago, he'd been behind Tony, near the entrance.

In order to fuck himself by running into the depths of the nightmare base, Steve has to go through Barnes. It's almost sort of brilliant.

Nearly parallel with the elevator, Steve turns away from Tony and Sharon – and finds himself maybe five feet from Barnes. Steve tenses, shield raising.

Barnes underhands his sidearm to the floor, intentionally sliding it past Steve and toward Sharon. His hands raise up, palms open, voice silent.

Tony doesn't think that's going to matter much: Steve's not thinking good guy or bad guy. He's thinking: this is how it was then. Well, that is, if he's thinking and not completely blacked out – and, Christ, that's the best case scenario?!

"Steve," Sharon speaks, beginning and ending with only his name. "We're leaving. We have flowers to plant. Remember?"

The sun's getting real low… Tony stops himself from poking the situation.

In his glasses, JARVIS pops in a red triangular waypoint with an exclamation point next to it. A blip of text appears next: "gamma radiation detected." Without asking, JARVIS overlays a 3D rendering of the base into Tony's HUD: the red waypoint is four floors down on the west side of the base.

A helix, or something like it. They might need to go turn that off – or steal it. And fast.

Tony puts his attention back on Steve. Fearless, Sharon's walked straight up to him and harmlessly gotten her hand around his arm.

"Let's go home, Steve," she says.

Steve walks with her, shield hanging limp at his side, sweat shining on his face. It's all Tony needs to see to know: it's PTSD, a flashback, and he's coming down from it. And that's somehow a relief.

"Get him home," Tony instructs. "We'll be a little while. Be careful out there."

Sharon shoots him a questioning glance but keeps walking. Steve breathes heavily, face haggard, but says nothing as he goes with her. Together, they disappear through the base entrance.

Barnes waits by the elevator, picture perfect still, more than a little nervous. Tony walks to him, more than a little nervous himself, and picks up Barnes' handgun on his way there.

Tony taps his sunglasses. "JARVIS picked up a radiation signal from four floors below. We could be looped again."

Although Barnes shakes his head, he doesn't speak, gaze focused past Tony on the base entrance.

"You can talk. I've heard you."

That should have earned an eye roll, and would have with anyone else. From Barnes, all Tony gets is a very quiet, "He can still hear us. My voice can set him off."

Oh.

Half a minute later, jet engines roar, then grow more and more quiet as Sharon flies toward the transit site in Frankfurt.

"It's a trap," Barnes says, voice no longer trying to hide from Steve. "And your armor's broken. If your plan's to die, it's a good one. We need to leave."

Delight ripples through Tony. Wilting wallflowers aren't fun; Barnes, sometimes, can be. "We came for our people, not to run away. And. Whatever's down there, it needs shut off. We're going."

Barnes crosses his arms and shifts to stand square. As in: he's not moving. "Steve says you can barely shoot a gun."

Fucker.

"Steve's wrong," Tony replies. Shamelessly, he adds, "My aim, however, is…questionable. So, if I shoot you, you'll know why."

"Yeah, I'm sure that's why." Barnes capitulates by heading toward the far stairwell. "What brand are your shoes?"

A nervous pit bubbling in his gut, Tony follows, Barnes' sidearm in his slick, sweaty hand. "A nice one. Why?"

"It'd be terrible if you died in them."

Because it's a trap. Fabulous.

"You stay here, and I'll go," Barnes offers.

"No way. Romanoff will kill me."

That catches Barnes' undivided attention. Tony smirks.

In the stairwell, Tony stays close behind Barnes. The soles of his shoes may or may not squeak with every step atop the old concrete. For the entire four floors of stairs.

And then all the way down the hallway.

As he slides his back against the wall, sidearm held low with both hands, knees bent, almost exactly like Rhodey taught him.

Barnes walks straight down the middle, his spare sidearm held loose at his side. What a newb.

Halfway down, Tony stops and clears his throat to catch Barnes' attention. With something long-suffering about his body language, Barnes trudges into a slow turn.

Tony points at his own eyes with two fingers, then at the next door down on the left.

"Are you saying it's behind that door?" Barnes asks.

"Protocol!" Tony whisper-screeches.

"Stay," Barnes directs, still yet with another held-back eye roll.

"Uh, not a dog."

"Stay."

Tony stays for approximately 2.4 seconds, before following Barnes into the room, squeaky shoes and all.

He immediately wishes he hadn't.

It's bright and lit. Large. A higher ceiling than the rest of the base. Yellowed tiles for walls. Cracked concrete for a floor. Two thick chains dangling from the ceiling – something like shredded skin and coagulated blood hanging inside their thick ringlets. Stainless steel lab tables along the back wall, along with a few desks.

That's all okay. It's the rest that's…

Their people are dead, and they're in this room.

Two of them splayed open and pinned to the walls with knives, blood drained onto the eroded floor.

Two in scattered pieces.

Two in separated, charred cages – smoldering, melted.

Tony stops inside the doorway, breakfast and lunch surging into his throat. He cups his mouth with a hand, shuts his eyes, and breathes –

Breathes in old blood, new blood, burnt skin, burnt hair, all the insides and outsides of people.

In the hallway, on hands and knees, Tony vomits. His chest violently spasms; his stomach follows suit. Cold sweat shakes his entire body from the inside out. He stares at the black CZ-75, at the crisscross pattern on the handgrip, and spills himself hollow.

Once his stomach promises there's nothing left to throw up, he drops to his ass and props his arms on his knees. He wipes his mouth on his shirt and can't wait to incinerate these clothes. He can't wait to leave this base.

After too long of a time, he forces himself to his feet, wraps his hand around his nose and mouth, and rounds the corner back into the room.

Barnes scans an old blood stain – or the lump of a shattered bone in the center of it. By all accounts, he's less than bothered by any of this.

Horrified, Tony understands: this is his unchosen world. Home.

Queasy, exhausted, disgusted, Tony speaks quickly. "Who's is it?"

Barnes raises his eyes. "I have all six identified and documented. This is mine – about a year old."

That math doesn't work, and Barnes knows it. He doesn't say it, though, which is good. Tony doesn't have answers for him; a body back home only provides more questions.

"A couple others are Steve's – a little older."

Against his will, Tony's eyes flick to those chains, and he kno