A woman in Omsk, Russia, killed with a clean shot through the head.
A seemingly harmless church in the Austrian Alps, burned to the ground, a laboratory out of a nightmare just as torched and ransacked as the building above found below it.
An old man in a nursing home in London, his throat slit so deeply that it went straight back into the bone.
All places and victims could be traced back to Hydra and, more specifically, the Winter Soldier program.
For months, Sam and Steve had been following a trail made of blood, gore, and ruins back and forth across Europe. If Bucky had a pattern, it was one they couldn’t decipher. It seemed like he was on a randomized blaze of vengeance that had little rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes, they would get a text from an unknown number – from Natasha – and they would arrive to find another base destroyed, another Hydra operative executed, another place where Bucky no longer was.
But the worst were times like these, Steve thought. The times where they had nowhere to go, no leads, nothing to follow. Even back during his war, the waiting was always the most unbearable. It meant filling time investigating dead ends and abandoned Hydra hideouts, searching for something – for anything – that could maybe lead them just a little bit closer to Bucky.
“I don’t think anyone’s been here for thirty years,” said Sam, coughing at the stale air after Steve forced the door open.
“Watch out for any traps, then,” said Steve.
“Don’t worry,” said Sam. “I know the drill.”
They were outside of Lucerne, sticking their noses around a base that had been long left to dust and time. They walked down the hall together, Steve with his shield over his jacket sleeve and Sam with his gun drawn. Each of them had a flashlight. At the end, the corridor split into two directions. “I’ll go left,” said Steve.
“Uh-huh,” said Sam. “Watch yourself.”
“Right back at you,” said Steve, and they split up. Steve stepped lightly, the way the sound of his footsteps echoed and bounced off of the walls slamming into his already frayed nerves.
It had been nearly three months.
Three months, and they’d only seen the carefully planned out mayhem that fell in Bucky’s shadow, but not even a glimpse of the man himself.
At the end of the hall, there was another door. Cautiously and slow, he pushed it open, hinges shrieking from disuse. The room was mostly empty – to Steve’s right, there were three file cabinets, each with three drawers. He trailed the flashlight’s beam through the dark, the dust swirling around as he moved it. Then, he froze as the light landed on the chair.
It was the third one he had come across. It never got easier, finding them. If anything, it was another hit, another blow, another reminder that Bucky had been here. Bucky had suffered here. Bucky had been tortured and frightened here, and Steve had not been able to stop it.
Steve stared at the chair for a long time before moving over to the rows of file cabinets. The first three drawers he opened were empty, and so he moved to the next – this one. This one was stuffed full of yellowed and crinkling folders. He pulled one out at random and, tucking the flashlight beneath his chin, started to read.
“Find anything?” Steve asked.
“Empty cryo tank,” said Sam. Steve didn’t ask if it had claw marks on the inside, fossil scars of a metal hand trying to tear its way out, like the last one did. Sam glanced down at the files in Steve’s hand. “What are those?”
“Mission reports,” said Steve. He didn’t look up from the pages – they were written in French, and so he could puzzle out about half of it. He bit the inside of his cheek and flipped to the next one. “From Winter Soldier missions.”
Sam crossed his arms. “Uh-huh,” he said. “And when are they from, exactly?”
Steve flipped to the front. “1961,” he said, and leafed back to where he had been.
“Steve,” he said. “We’ve been over this. These aren’t going to help. They’re fifty years old. Anything you find in there is just going to tear you apart.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “There could be something.”
“Reading it, going over it like this,” said Sam. “It won’t change anything. It’s not helping anything.”
“I have to know,” said Steve. He closed the file shut, and it spit a puff of dust out into the air to mingle with the rest. He grabbed a stack out and shoved them at Sam. “Here, help me carry these.”
“No,” said Sam. “We made the rule for a reason, Steve. None of these leave the bunkers. You’ll never put them down, otherwise.”
“Then get comfortable,” said Steve. He dropped the stack back into the drawer before picking up the next file. “Because we’re going to be here for a while.”
Sam sighed. “You get twenty minutes,” he said. “Twenty minutes, and then I will drag you out if I have to.”
They were in Spain, outside of Valladolid, four months into the chase, when Clint showed up.
“I ran into Nat the other day. She mentioned you were looking for the Winter Soldier,” he said, after getting their attention. “Gotta hand it to you Cap, you don’t really do things half way. But I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop by, say hello. I mean, I can leave if you want. If this is some sort of solo quest thing, though, I’ll just head out again. Say the word and I’m gone.”
“To be honest with you, we really need all the help we can get,” said Steve, and smiled, though he had to force the expression onto his face. “It’s good to see you.”
“Yeah, you too,” said Clint. “Sorry it’s like this, though.”
“Is anyone going to introduce me?” Sam asked. “I mean, it’s fine, I’ll wait. Just curious.”
“Yeah, Steve, rude,” said Clint, smirking. He held out a hand. “Clint Barton. I’m an Avenger. I’m guessing you’re the Falcon I’ve heard so much about?”
“I am,” said Sam. “My wings were kind of clipped, though, so I’m grounded these days.”
“You should talk to Stark about that,” said Clint. “He’d fix you up in a second.”
“Stark? Like, Tony Stark?” Sam said, shaking Clint’s hand and laughing. “Right, I’ll just have my people call his and set that up. We’ll have brunch or something.”
Clint stared at him for a long moment. “I like you, you can stay,” he said, finally. “I can see why Cap brought you along.”
“Thanks, I guess,” said Sam.
The three of them all piled into the rental car Steve had gotten a hold of. As they drove, Barton draped over the back seat and playing some game on his phone, Steve looked over at Sam. “I can call him for you,” said Steve. “Stark, I mean. About new wings.”
Sam blinked at him. “What, really?” he said. “Just like that?”
“Sure,” said Steve. “I had been meaning to, anyway. You loved those wings.”
“Man,” said Sam, and shook his head. “Sometimes I forget you’re you, you know?”
“I wish I could,” said Steve. “Just, remind me. Later.”
“You got it,” said Sam.
When they got to the base, it was even worse than the church in Austria. There was nothing but blackened ash and the scorched remains of a building. As far as Steve could see, there were no bodies. He didn’t know if that was a relief or a horror. “Right,” he said. “Spread out. See what we can find.”
They dug through, and Steve found a lock box with some papers that were only half burned. As he was going through them, he listened into Clint and Sam’s conversation.
“Nat said it was brutal,” said Clint. He held his arms out like he was embracing the wreckage. “But this is brutal brutal.”
“It is,” said Sam.
“I mean,” said Clint. “She said it wasn’t pretty but – wow, look at it. One guy did this?”
“That’s the impression we’ve been operating under, yeah,” said Sam.
“And, uh,” said Clint. “How’s Cap been dealing with it all? Okay or…?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve watched them both sneak a glance at him before looking away. Steve kept his attention on the charred papers in his hands. They’d both clearly underestimated his heightened hearing. They weren’t the first, and they wouldn’t be the last. Sam sighed. “Honestly?” Sam asked. “Not great. He thinks he’s fooling me but I’m onto him.”
“Keep an eye on that,” said Clint.
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Sam. “I am.”
There was nothing to be found.
Clint went his way, Steve and Sam went theirs.
Poland was just as much a bust as Spain – nothing but ashy and broken building – and they found nothing in Bosnia but a replica of the base outside Lucerne.
The trail went completely cold.
“Steve, man, I’ll follow you down to Antarctica if I have to, you know that,” said Sam. They had spent the day sorting through another abandoned base. This one didn’t even have any files – as far as Steve could tell, Bucky had never been there, as the Winter Soldier or otherwise. “But we need a break. I need one, anyway. We need to go over all our info and see what we have. And if we’re going to do that, it might as well be somewhere we can put our feet up for a day or two.”
Sam looked like he was bracing for an argument, but Steve – Steve knew he was right. “You ever been to Paris?” he asked. “Paris is nice. I mean, it was seventy years ago, but I figure it’s the sort of place that holds up over time.”
Sam smiled wider than Steve had seen in a long time. “When do we leave?” he asked.
They had only been in Paris two days when the trail flared to life and came to them. Steve had went for an early morning run, Sam electing to sleep in and then get coffee at a café later on. So when Steve’s phone rang, he just figured it was Sam, finally awake.
“Hey, Sam,” said Steve. “What’s –”
“I’m chasing Bucky down Rue Saint-Jacques, towards Notre Dame,” Sam gasped out, “Steve, get here.”
Steve hung up and ran, pushing through tourists. He thought he might’ve even knocked one man over, but he didn’t turn around to check. But by the time he got near Notre Dame, his eyes narrowed in almost immediately on Sam, Sam who stuck out in the crowd on the bridge with the way his hands were propped on his knees and he was working on catching his breath.
“Where is he?” Steve asked. “Which way?”
Sam waved a hand towards the other side of the river. “He got in a crowd,” said Sam. “I lost him. I’m sorry, Steve, but he’s fast. He got away.”
Steve let out a gust of air through his nose, turning and looking around as if Bucky would suddenly just appear. He thought he’d maybe been here before, on this very bridge, while they were on leave in Paris during the war. It would have been a month or so after Zola’s camp. Dernier was showing them around, proudly boasting about his city. Now, Steve jerked himself back to the present, and turned back to Sam. “What happened?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Sam. “I was getting coffee and he just sort of – I looked up and he was sitting across the table from me. I tried to get him to talk, he ran, I chased, here we are.”
“This doesn’t make any sense,” said Steve. “Did he – did he say anything?”
“Yeah,” said Sam, and then just stopped, staring at Steve. “Look, Steve –”
“Tell me what he said,” said Steve, but again, Sam hesitated. Louder, with more emotion than he’d meant, Steve said, “Sam, tell me.”
“He said to stop following him,” said Sam. “Said he didn’t want to be found and for us to back off. Seemed pretty serious about it, too.”
Steve leaned against the wall for a second, closing his eyes. Across the river, someone laughed, over loud and bright, and the sound grated against his already frazzled nerves. He turned back to Sam. “That’s good though, right?” he asked.
“He came to us,” said Steve. “That’s a good thing.”
“Maybe?” Sam said. “But would you just –”
“You go east, I’ll head west,” said Steve. “Maybe we can find him. What was he wearing?”
Sam stared at Steve for a long, tense moment. “Green hoodie,” he finally said. “Black pants. Black baseball hat.”
“Right,” said Steve. “Split up, meet back at the hotel by four.”
Sam looked like he was going to say something, but instead he just said, “Four. Got it. Right.”
Steve glanced back only once as he moved west – Sam was still standing in the exact same spot on the bridge, unmoving, tourists milling around him to snap pictures of Notre Dame. Steve figured he was probably just taking a few minutes to catch his breath, and continued on his way, scanning the crowd for anyone in a green hoodie and a black baseball hat.
He never found him.
When Steve got back to the hotel for the rest of the evening, Sam didn’t say much except to answer direct questions and even then, his answers were short, clipped. Like his mind was a million miles away. “Alright,” said Steve. “You’ve been quiet all night. What is it?”
Sam didn’t say anything for a long while. “He said he wanted us to stop following him,” Sam said. “And we spent all afternoon trying to follow him.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “Because he’s confused. He’s trying to push us away. He’s probably remembering and starting to panic or –”
“You don’t know if any of that is true,” Sam said. He was quiet again, rubbing a hand over his head. He sighed. “Steve. There’s something I need to say, and I don’t think that you’re going to take it very well. But I can’t figure out any other way to say it.”
“Okay,” said Steve, slowly.
“We’re not making any headway,” said Sam. “It’s been months. All we’ve done is chase ghost stories and shadows. You’re running yourself into the ground.”
“What are you talking about?” Steve said. “You saw Bucky today. You saw him. He’s probably still in the city somewhere.”
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose, glancing away for a second. He looked back at Steve again. “Yeah. I saw him today,” said Sam. “And he doesn’t want you to find him. If we didn’t guess that before, he’s spelled it out for us now. Maybe…” Sam trailed off.
Steve crossed his arms. “Say it,” he said, and even he himself was a little startled at how cold the words sounded.
Sam squared his shoulders. “Maybe it’s time we give him what he wants,” said Sam. “Maybe it’s time for us to stop.”
He’d known what Sam was going to say – of course he had known. Still, the words hit him as hard as if Sam had reached out and slapped him across the face. Maybe they even hit a little bit harder than that. “No,” said Steve. “That’s not an option.”
“Look, I know he was your best friend. I know what they’ve put him through, and I know how this has to sound to you,” said Sam. He held his hands up, placating, and the gesture made Steve somehow even angrier. “But maybe we should consider giving him what he wants and –”
“Sam, Bucky’s counting on me. Whether he knows it or not, he is counting on me. And I’m not just going to turn my back on him like that, I won’t,” said Steve. The room was suddenly too small. He snagged his jacket off of the back of an armchair and said, “I’m going for some air.”
“Steve,” said Sam again, and stopped.
“Look, go home if you want. I never asked you to come along,” said Steve, suddenly exhausted. “I won’t ask you to stay either, or understand, or anything. I’m grateful for everything that you’ve done, and can’t thank you enough. I’ll call the next time I’m in the States.”
He walked out and kicked the door shut behind him.
Steve trailed around for hours in Paris that night, hands shoved deep in his pockets. The last time he was here, it was 1944 and he and the others were on leave. Peggy had even come to meet up with them, though she only had the time for a single drink. Besides, Dernier was having too good a time, dragging them all around the city. Even Bucky, so rare to smile, had laughed at his antics, and for a moment, one shining moment, everything had been alright.
The thing about Paris, Steve thought, trailing along the bank of the Seine, was that once the sun was down and the shadows stretched, it didn’t matter if it was 2014 or 1944, just after the Nazis pulled out. The clothes were different, but the people the same. Groups roving from bar to club, couples slinking off into the shadows, so enthralled with each other it was like everyone around them had ceased to exist, solitary figures pausing on a bridge to look out over the water. The city was the same, too. The buildings, the street lamps – it was, for a moment, like he was back in time.
“Paris, eh?” Dernier had said, throwing an arm out. “The best city in the world!”
Falsworth, lighting a cigarette, shook his head and muttered something, but Steve had only picked up the words French and absolutely hopeless.
“It’s not half bad,” Bucky had agreed, and then elbowed Steve in the ribs. “I mean, it’s no Brooklyn, but it’ll do.”
Missing them - all of them, Peggy and the Commandos and even Howard and, God, missing Bucky –came in waves, rising and falling, cresting and breaking, and tonight Steve was caught in a riptide, pulled out to sea. Tonight, Steve was drowning.
It was almost morning by the time Steve got back to the hotel. Sam was sitting on the bed, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, arms crossed over his chest, staring out the window. He glanced over when Steve shut the door.
“You’re still here,” Steve said.
“Well, yeah,” said Sam. “Even if I was planning on leaving – which, by the way, I’m not – do you really think I’d have been able to find a flight at this hour? We don’t all have access to super-secret spy jets, you know.”
“I guess not,” said Steve. He sat down on his bed, toed off his shoes, and mirrored Sam’s position. He sighed. “Look. I’m not going to apologize for what I said, but I am sorry for how it came out. You deserve better than that.”
“It’s alright,” said Sam. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t know what I expected would happen. I was out of line.”
“No, I was,” said Steve. He pushed his hair out of his face and looked up at the ceiling. “I guess I have trouble telling where the lines are, when it comes to Bucky.”
“You don’t say,” said Sam, and Steve was startled by the laugh that popped free. Sam grinned, and then said, serious, “Can I say something, though? And then I won’t bring it up again.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “Anything.”
“You need to start thinking about what your play is going to be if he doesn’t let you find him,” said Sam. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but you need to let yourself prepare for that as much as you’re preparing for finding him.”
Steve didn’t say anything. He heaved himself up to his feet and walked into the bathroom. “You should get some sleep,” he said. “We need to start moving again.”
They were in Florence when the pieces fell together and left Steve with a finished puzzle he didn’t really want to comprehend.
It was after a conversation with Tony about getting Sam set up with some new wings – Stark Industries had built the original prototypes – and Tony made an off handed comment about how if he saw Natasha, thank her for the paczki she’d sent from Warsaw. “They were actually fantastic, not often I actually am grateful, but here we are,” Tony had said.
Steve didn’t pay attention to the rest of the conversation. He spent three days with the sentence rolling around in his head – thank her for the paczki she’d sent from Warsaw – before he finally pulled himself together enough to do something about it.
“Natasha was in Poland,” said Steve.
Sam was quiet. “She could’ve been there for anything,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it had anything to do with Bucky.”
“No, I know,” he said. There was a roiling in the pit of his stomach , something that was slowly spreading out into his muscles and quietly spreading through him. He cleared his throat. “And Clint knew where to find us. In Spain. He said Natasha told him where to find us, that he ran into her. So she must have been there, too.”
Sam looked exhausted for a minute. “I need you to take a second and really listen to yourself,” he said.
“I know, I sound like a paranoid lunatic,” he said.
“Well,” said Sam, and laughed. “That’s a little stronger than I would have put it.”
Steve didn’t laugh, didn’t smile. “I need to know for sure,” he said. He pulled out his phone and fired off a text to Clint – I need to talk to Natasha. Have her call ASAP. When he looked up, Sam was watching him, something almost like pity in his face. “Don’t,” said Steve. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“I can’t help it,” said Sam. “I’m worried about you. You’ve been on edge, even more so than usual. Ever since Paris –”
“I’m fine,” said Steve. “It’s fine. Everything is fine.”
The next morning, after Steve showered and dressed, he walked out of the bathroom to find Natasha sitting at the hotel room’s wooden table, casual as if she’d been there the whole time. She and Sam were talking quietly, and fell silent as soon as Steve walked into the room. “Morning, Steve,” she said. “Heard you needed to talk to me about something.”
“Sam,” said Steve. “Could we get some privacy?”
“Sure,” said Sam, after hesitating and looking back and forth between the two of them. He backed away and snagged his jacket off of the back of the chair. “I’ll just go – look at art or something.”
“There’s a great place for coffee four blocks south,” said Natasha. She didn’t look away from Steve. “If you get sick of art.”
“Right, okay. I’ll be there, then,” said Sam. “Just – come find me when you two are finished here.”
The door latched behind him with a soft click, leaving Steve and Natasha staring at each other, the only sound in the room the ticking of the clock. Natasha crossed her arms. “You called me, Steve,” she finally said. “That usually means there’s something that you, the caller, wants to talk about. Is there or is this purely a social call?”
“There’s a reason,” said Steve. “Were you ever going to tell me you’ve been working with Bucky?”
She didn’t so much as bat an eye. “I guessed that’s what this was going to be,” she said. She didn’t even try to deny it which – which Steve had not expected. At all. “How’d you figure it out?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Steve said. “It should’ve come from you.”
She tilted her head, her mouth twisting in a wry smile. “Then it never would have come at all.”
There was something hot and sickening that had been festering under Steve’s skin ever since Paris, since Bucky approached Sam but not him, since he told Sam to go home and stormed out into the night. He was angry. He was so, so angry and Hydra wasn’t good enough a target anymore. Hydra was a faceless shadow, evaporating no matter what angle he hit from. Being angry with Hydra was shapeless, simmering – this was something different. This was Sam, telling him that maybe there was nothing to be done. This was Clint, exchanging tight-eyed glances with Sam when they thought that Steve wasn’t looking. This was Bucky, running and running and running – always running further away from Steve.
This was Natasha, sitting across from him and not letting a single thing slip on her carefully blank face.
“Do you know where he is now?” Steve asked, quiet, words shaking ever so slightly on their ends.
“It’s not that simple,” she said.
Steve turned around, scrubbing a hand over his face and taking a moment to try and remember how to breathe without ending each exhale with an actual roar. He thought he knew what it felt like, to be at the end of his rope. He’d been wrong. Here he was, sitting in a hotel room in Florence, Bucky so close Steve felt like he was just on the other side of a flimsy door, and Natasha was the only thing in his way.
“It’s not a hard question,” said Steve. Natasha shifted slightly in her chair, like she knew how close to the edge Steve was straying – like she was getting ready for a fight. “Yes or no, Natasha – do you know where he is, right now?”
Steve could feel her staring at his back. “Yes,” she finally said.
It took a moment for it to sink in, that Steve had been right, that Natasha – “You’re going to tell me where he is,” he said, turning to face her.
“No,” she said. “I’m not.”
Steve slammed a fist down on the table, the wood cracking. “Goddamn it, Natasha!” he snarled. Natasha didn’t even blink. It made the horrible rage flare up into something even worse. “You tell me or –”
“Or what?” she asked. “You going to beat it out of me, Cap? Going to hit me until I crack?”
“Don’t you dare,” Steve said. “Don’t you – how dare you –” he cut himself off, forcing himself to take gulping breaths, trying to get his hands to stop shaking.
“Stop that,” she said. “Let me have it, I can handle it. Come on, Steve.”
“What?” he said, thrown, off kilter in a a way that he hadn’t felt since – since – since the mask flew off the Winter Soldier’s face, since Bucky stared back at him, blank faced and without even a flicker of recognition.
“You’re killing yourself right now. You’re horrified and upset and there’s no one for you to fight,” she said. “So throw it at me. Shout about how terrible everything about this situation is. Let it out. I can take it.”
Steve stared at her for a long moment, and then he started shouting. She sat, unmoving and unflinching, while he screamed at her about how these days everyone was crashing down on him and trying to stop him, how his friends were the ones getting the most in the way and he didn’t understand why no one was getting it, why Sam and Natasha seemed to be trying to turn him back at every turn. How he didn’t understand why Bucky wouldn’t just let him help. Finally, the heart of it came flying out of his mouth. “I need to find him, Natasha, I have to fix this, I let him fall and I didn’t go after him and I have to find him and fix this! I need to,” Steve stopped, swallowed thickly, and said, “It’s my fault. It’s my fault and I have to – I have to…” he trailed off, the words finally drying up.
He sat heavily across the table from Natasha, and buried his face in his hands. He felt wrung out and empty, like the final confession had reached into his chest and yanked something vulnerable and ugly and let it out into the air for the world to see. He could still feel it, though, the purposeless anger. It was still there, just below the surface. But it was smaller now. Manageable. Steve took a shaky breath. Another. Another.
“Sorry,” he said, voice mangled from the deluge, muffled behind his hands.
“Are you done?” asked Natasha.
“Sorry,” Steve said again.
“Look at me,” she said. “Steve, hey, look at me.”
He dropped his hands and glanced at her. The blank slate of an expression was gone, and she was smiling sadly, a look in her eyes like she knew what Steve was feeling, even if Steve himself couldn’t quite wrap his head around it.
“First, none of this has anything to do with you,” she said. “Get your head out of your ass, Rogers. It isn’t like you and it isn’t flattering.”
“If that’s true,” said Steve, suddenly very, very tired straight down to his bones and marrow and somewhere even deeper. “If it isn’t me he’s trying to avoid, why won’t you tell me where he is?”
“Because he asked me not to,” she said. Steve leaned his forehead against the heels of his hands and stared down at the splintered table top. Natasha sighed. “I know it’s hard, but you don’t know what it’s like, to have someone reach into your head and pull you out. You don’t know what it’s like to try and pull yourself back together into a person again. This isn’t about you – it’s about him. The only reason he’s running away is because you keep chasing him.”
Steve didn’t say anything. She sighed.
“Let’s say that I tell you where he is,” she said. “What do you think happens next?”
“What do you mean?” Steve asked.
“I mean, what’s your move?” she asked. “He doesn’t want to be found, so you’re going to have to chase him. Let’s say you manage to catch him, after that, even though I’m not sure you’d be able to. So you catch him. He won’t want to go with you, so you’re going to have to fight him. Let’s say you win that, too. What’s next? Tie him up and force him back to the States?”
Steve stared at her, mouth moving as he tried to come up with a response and failed.
“Okay, but let’s say he gets away which is the more likely scenario,” Natasha said. She leaned forward, pressing her pointer finger down on the table with each new point. “So you go bursting in, he runs. I’m the only one who knows where he’s been holed up, so he knows I’m the one who told you. He stops trusting me, stops letting me in on his plans. He goes into dangerous situations alone with no one to watch his back. He’ll get hurt, eventually. Is that what you want to happen? Are either of these the road you want to go down?”
“No. No, of course not,” he said. He buried his face in his hands again. “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” she said.
“At least,” Steve said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms. He sounded weak and pleading to his own ears. “Can you at least tell me if he’s alright?”
“Do you want a pretty lie or the truth?” she asked. Steve just stared at her. She sighed again. “No. He’s not. But he’s better than he was, even if that’s not saying much. He’s trying.”
Steve nodded, not trusting his voice. “Does he remember anything?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think so. But to be honest with you, Steve, we don’t talk about much outside of planning the attacks on the bases.”
Again, Steve nodded. He stared down at his hands. “I’m glad he has someone,” he said. And it was true. It was somehow true even as it gutted him that Steve wasn’t that person. He looked up at Natasha. “But it doesn’t mean I’m not pissed as hell with you. Or that I’m going to just – just give up and go home.”
“I know,” she said. “Giving up isn’t in your nature. But maybe you should consider that going home doesn’t mean giving up. Maybe it just means giving him the space and time that he needs.”
“You sound like Sam,” he said.
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. She glanced away and back again. “I am sorry,” she said. “I wish I could tell you want you want to hear.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. He stood up walked to look out the window. “Yeah, me too.”
They stayed in quiet for a long time. Steve wasn’t sure how long. Natasha finally stood. “I’m going to go,” she said. “I’ll send Sam back. Take care of yourself, Steve.”
As soon as she was gone, Steve sank down to sit on his bed and stared blankly at the wall. He didn’t notice Sam coming back in until he pulled a chair over next to Steve and straddled it, arms hanging over the back and crossed at the wrists. “Natasha told me what just happened,” he said.
“I think she agrees with you,” Steve said. “Thinks we should just throw in the towel.”
“That’s not what I said and you know it,” said Sam. “I just said to prepare yourself for –”
“I know,” said Steve.
Neither of them said anything for a long time. Sam was the first one to break the quiet. “Okay,” he said. “What’s our next move, then?”
“We go to the base, like we planned,” said Steve. “I’m not giving up. I’m not.”
Sam let him break off on his own as soon as they burst in through the base. It was old, dusty, abandoned. Just like all the others.
And when Steve kicked in a door and found himself staring down one of the chairs, it was like everything around him stilled, tunneled, focused in on the single chair. Steve walked up to it, stood next to it. It had the same stink of old blood and stale fear hanging in the air around it. There was nothing to distinguish it from any of the others he and Sam had come across.
This time, though – this time was different.
Steve walked behind it, looking at the panels, at the headpieces. He reached up, and with a great wrench, he tore the panels loose, and then held them in his hands, feeling the smooth metal, looking at the places where the electricity would come out. He stared at it. He knew how it worked. He pictured it closing around Bucky’s face. He pictured the electricity starting to pour through and burning Bucky out of his own head. Steve didn’t even realize he had crushed the pieces until he was hurling them, nothing more than mangled bits of metal, as far away from him as he could.
He stumbled back a step, and his back hit the wall. He pressed his hand against his forehead, and suddenly couldn’t breathe. It was like when he was younger, smaller, when his lungs would lock and not work right. It was like sitting in the hotel room, staring at Natasha’s unblinking face as she told him she knew where Bucky was. Steve spun, and wrenched a rail from the wall. He curled his fingers around the rail, and then looked back at the chair, and started hitting. He hit it, and hit it, and let out a roar, kicking it and taking the rod to it again.
Steve smashed the rod down again. Again. Who the hell is Bucky? Again. Sending one of the restraints flying against the wall. Because he asked me not to. Smashing the cold, stiff seat. Again. You’re my mission. Again. A blow for every year, he thought, a hit for every year they kept Bucky locked away, every year they hurt him, every year – every hurt – for everything they ever –
“Steve! Steve, stop!”
He did, and threw the rod away. It speared into the wall and stayed there, the end vibrating. The room was silent except for Steve’s panting breaths as he looked down at the crater he’d made where the chair used to be. Sam was there, at his side but staying a distance away, watching Steve like he was worried Steve was going to start hitting something other than the chair, now that the chair was gone.
“Talk to me, Steve,” Sam said. “Where’s your head at right now?”
“We’re not going to find him, are we,” Steve said. It wasn’t a question and he knew the answer already, but he still needed to hear it.
Sam sighed, his mouth twisting into an unhappy sort of almost smile. “No,” he said. “No, we’re not.”
Steve nodded. He forced himself to relax his hands from the tight fists they were curled into. “What am I supposed to do?” he asked. His voice cracked.
“I don’t know,” said Sam. “But you’re not going to have to do it alone. Whatever the hell it is.”
“Okay,” Steve said. He sniffed, wiping at his prickling eyes with the back of his hand. He nodded again. “We’re going home now,” he said. “I think it’s time to go home.”
Sam stepped to the side. “Your call,” he said. “I’ll follow, whatever you decide.”
Steve let out a shuddering breath, and tried to tell himself that he wasn’t abandoning Bucky. It didn’t work. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. As they sped down the road and back towards Frankfurt, he stared in the side view mirror, like he always did. Like maybe this time he’d see Bucky waiting somewhere behind them. He thought he’d probably be doing that for the rest of his life, looking over his shoulder for someone who didn’t want to be found.
There was nothing but empty road.
Steve closed his eyes.
He and Sam didn’t talk for nearly two weeks. They texted, they sent one line emails – but after so long with only each other for company, they both needed the break. As a result, Steve found himself falling into old habits. Grocery shopping on his own. Running a different route than usual. Generally avoiding anywhere he could run into anyone he knew.
Sam, true to form, was the one to eventually come and find him. Steve opened the door to find Sam, a six pack of beer in one hand and a houseplant in the other.
“Hey, man,” said Sam.. “I, uh. I realized that I never got you a housewarming gift for the new place.”
“I know I’ve told you I can’t get drunk,” said Steve, leaning in the doorframe.
“What? These?” he asked, lifting up the beer as if he were surprised to find it there. “Oh, these are for me. This is for you.”
He held out the plant.
“It’s a jade plant,” said Sam. “You leave it in the sun and water it like, once a month. The perfect plant for the modern day spy.”
“It’s great,” said Steve, taking the pot. Sam walked in, making a beeline to the kitchen, sliding the six pack into the fridge. Steve trailed after him, and said, “I feel like I’m the one who should be giving you something. I was the asshole.”
“You’re grieving,” said Sam. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not grieving,” Steve said, but there was no real fight in the words. “But I am sorry.”
“Yeah, you are. And I forgive you,” said Sam. He looked around. “This place is nice. Big, too.”
Steve shrugged with one shoulder. “What can I say?” he asked. “I’m a big guy.”
Sam hummed, leaning back to look down towards where the bedrooms and bathroom was. “How many beds?” he asked.
“Two,” said Steve. Sam gave him that look again. It wasn’t pity, not really, but it was close enough that it hurt to see directed at him. “I figured I could turn one into an office or a trophy room or something. If he doesn’t – there are other things I can do with it.”
“That’s good. Having a plan is good,” said Sam. He leaned on his elbows on Steve’s counter. “So how’re you doing?” he asked. “Really.”
“Not great,” said Steve. “But I’m getting there.”
Sam smiled. “That’s good to hear,” he said. “Now. What movies do you have to watch? Because I have a few out in my car I could always grab.”
And Steve fell back into routine. Run with Sam. Volunteer work. Do some press. Run errands. Visit Peggy. All the while, he kept one eye looking over his shoulder, like maybe this time. Maybe today. But it never came of anything. One day, nearly two months after he and Sam returned from Europe, he got a text from an unknown number, with nothing but an address and a time.
He almost didn’t go. But Natasha, for all she had kept herself solidly between Steve and Bucky, deserved better than that. So he went, and found himself walking up to a coffee shop, Natasha perched outside at one of the tables. “Morning, stranger,” she said. “I ordered you a latte.”
“Thanks,” said Steve, and sat down next to her. “How long have you been in town?”
“Just got in last night,” she said.
They both sat and drank their coffee. Steve couldn’t find a way to talk to her without bringing up the last time they had been face-to-face. When he had screamed at her. “I never said thank you,” said Steve. “For what you did for me. Back in Florence.”
“You needed a target,” she said. “It was me or Sam.”
“Surprised Sam let you,” said Steve.
“We flipped for it,” said Natasha. She took a sip of her tea. “Besides, you two had been living in close quarters for long enough he probably would’ve started yelling back, and that wouldn’t have helped anything.”
“Probably,” said Steve. Natasha watched him closely.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Ask me.”
“Just,” said Steve, and pushed his hands through his hair. “Tell me if he’s safe.”
“The lives we live? None of us are ever safe. You know that,” she said, and slid her sunglasses on. “But I think, right now, he’s about as safe as he’s ever going to be. Trust me on that.”
Steve nodded, but couldn’t quite bring himself to actually say anything else.
“Go home, Steve,” she said, and stood up. As she walked to leave, she put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, and walked away.
Steve didn’t watch her go. He stayed at the coffee shop for another hour before leaving his money on the table, shoving his hands deep in his pockets, and slowly walking back to his house. The entire walk, he kept his eyes directed down by his feet, deliberately stepping around every crack and hole in the sidewalk. It wasn’t until he got back to the house that he stopped in his tracks.
The man was sitting on the stoop, elbows propped up on his knees, wearing long sleeves and a pair of gloves even in the heat of the day. His head was bowed, face covered by the hair hanging down at the baseball cap pulled low. But Steve didn’t need to be able to see his face to recognize him. Steve could see it in the slope of his shoulders, the way he was rubbing the back of his neck with one hand.
His feet were moving like someone else had taken control of them, like maybe he had been possessed, like there was a rope pulling him in closer and closer to where Bucky was sitting. Bucky, who didn’t even glance up as Steve approached, though he did go completely still. When Steve was maybe three feet away, he stopped, and all of the things he had planned on saying, all the carefully worded greetings fell straight out of his head, and what came out was a slightly breathless, “Hi.”
Bucky looked up to Steve’s knees and said, “Heya, Steve.”
“It’s,” Steve said, and his words stuck. He forced them out anyway. “It’s, uh. It’s been a while.”
“Yeah,” said Bucky. He cleared his throat and scratched at a scabbing cut on his cheek. When he spoke again, his voice was rough, quiet. “Is it alright if I stay here for a little?”
“Of course it is,” said Steve. He held out his hand, expecting Bucky to ignore it entirely. Instead, Bucky took it almost immediately. He let Steve pull him to his feet, and when he wavered slightly, what little color that was in his face draining away, he let Steve steady him with a hand on his back. Still, Steve dropped his hand as soon as Bucky seemed a little bit steadier, but Bucky reached out and grabbed onto Steve’s arm. Like he was worried Steve might bolt. Steve wanted to laugh at the thought.
“Listen,” Bucky said. “I’m not –I’m not okay.”
Something not unlike terror pooled in Steve’s stomach. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
Bucky seemed to think about it for a while. “No. Just – tired,” he said. He looked off to the right. “Some punk’s been chasing me for months.”
“Maybe if the jerk that punk’s been chasing had stopped running away, he wouldn’t be as tired,” said Steve. Bucky huffed, and for a moment Steve thought he was going to smile. It didn’t happen.
“I mean it,” said Bucky. He pushed his metal hand through his hair, still holding onto Steve’s arm even though he had long since stopped wobbling. “I’m not okay. I’m not. I’m not him. I’m – I’m fucked up, Steve. I am so fucked up.”
Steve did laugh then, quiet, but there was no happiness in the sound. “I guess that makes two of us then,” he said.
Bucky met his gaze for the first time since the Potomac. He didn’t say anything, just tightened his grip on Steve’s arm. He let out a breath. “Are you sure you’re okay with me staying –”
“I’m sure,” said Steve. He fished his keys out of his coat pocket and got the door open. He looked at Bucky then, and when he smiled he wondered if it looked as worn and run down as Steve felt. “Welcome home,” he said.