The base was supposed to be deserted.
According to the notes he'd found, the place was just a glorified warehouse, poorly constructed and even more poorly secured. The soldier had planned to sneak in and resupply without a fuss, so it came as a surprise to find the interior well-lit and occupied. There were a bunch of HYDRA scientists holding a low-voiced but heated argument amidst rows upon rows of tiny desks. Several of the desks had been shoved together to make one big table, covered with markers and sheets of paper.
A small group of kids was gathered around the table.
There was something strange about these children. It took him a moment to figure it out, because he was busy assessing threats: the scientists were mostly unarmed and entirely untrained, but there was a single guard near the door – distracted, inattentive. He went down without a sound when the soldier clenched his metal hand around his throat from behind.
He turned to look back at the children.
They looked similar enough to be siblings. All of them were small, skinny, with blond hair and narrow faces. They looked… familiar, looked like... like… Steve Rogers, he thought, but that was absurd. Rogers – Captain America – had been 200 pounds of deadly muscle, nothing at all like these frail little kids.
His head spun dizzily. And then one of the scientists spotted him. The room turned into mayhem, kids and handlers fleeing, leaving behind one little blonde boy who was wheezing too hard to run.
The Winter Soldier stared, motionless. The boy looked back at him, scared and wheezing but too stubborn to cry – and suddenly the Winter Soldier knew what to do.
"Easy there," he said, kneeling down in front of the boy. "You got your medicine, kid?"
He reached out with one hand – slowly, carefully, don't startle him – and suddenly the boy grabbed his wrist and yanked, rammed his bony shoulder into the soldier's side, heaved. It was a Judo throw, all leverage and momentum; the kind that, if executed well, would allow a fifty pound boy to put a grown man on his back.
The boy executed it perfectly, but the main reason it worked was that the soldier wasn't expecting it at all. He hit the floor hard and lay stunned for a moment, the air knocked out of him. The boy scrambled on top of him, reached for the gun at his side –
There was a limit to how much the Winter Soldier could let himself be surprised, even by a nine year old boy. He closed the metal hand around the boy's wrist – gently, careful, don't hurt him, don't hurt him – and the boy went still, wide-eyed, terrified, his breath rasping loudly in the quiet.
"Codename Winter Soldier. Authorization 9054FT67," the soldier said, on a hunch, and the boy relaxed all at once, recognizing the code. His breathing was still getting worse, though, the exertion catching up with him. The soldier braced him, helped him into a half-remembered position – kneeling upright, hands on thighs, letting the stomach muscles help with the exhausting work of breathing. "Where's your medicine?" he asked again.
"Table," the boy croaked.
Asthma medication had changed a lot since… since… When would he have had cause to care about anyone's medical problems? The soldier shook his head, dazed. Thankfully the boy seemed to know what to do, sucking in big lungfuls of medicine with the air of a well-practiced ritual, and his breathing was already getting easier.
"What's your name?" the soldier asked quietly.
"Alex, sir. Alexandra 483047." The soldier blinked. Alexandra? But no, he could see it now: despite the shorn hair and the boyish clothes, Alex had a girl's fine-boned facial structure. She was looking at the soldier with wide eyes, a little awed. "Are you really the Winter Soldier?"
"Yes." The soldier said. He studied the girl, her watchful, alert body language, her graceful movements. "Hydra trained you."
"Yes, sir. They used to train us real hard, and Trainer said I was the best fighter of all of us!" Alex said. She looked down and her voice got small and quiet. "But then we didn't grow up big like they thought we would, and me and Adam have the asthma, and Mary had pneum– um – pneumonia again, so they said they were going to eliminate us. But Uncle Pierce said, we don't eliminate kids, and it would be a terrible waste, and we could still grow up to be loyal soldiers of Hydra!"
She ticked those last three points off on her fingers, clearly quoting, and Bucky got the impression the words have been carefully stored away and rehearsed, repeated so often their comfort had worn thin. The girl suddenly flinched, cowering away. "Are you here to eliminate me?"
"No," the soldier said. "I'm here to take you somewhere safe." He hesitated. "If there's anything you want to take, pack it now."
He had some vague idea of the things children valued – a blanket, maybe, a stuffed animal? – but what Alex brought back from her quick forage around the room was a sackful of medication and a gun. It was a Glock 19, too large for her small hands, but she was handling it with the certainty of experience. He watched her eject the magazine, check that it was fully loaded, slam it back in with the flat of her hand, and chamber a round; the whole thing took maybe five seconds altogether. Hydra had trained her well. With the gun she'd be a valuable asset in a fight, small and agile and unexpected. People didn't expect children to be a threat.
He wondered if she'd used the gun against a real opponent before. His stomach clenched and turned over, a queasy feeling he didn't quite know what to do with. She wasn't going to kill anyone on his watch, he decided.
"Give me that," he said, gently but firmly taking the gun from her reluctant hands.
"But I can help!"
"No. I know you could, but you won't. If there's a fight, you go and hide and leave the shooting to me. That's an order."
"Yes, sir," Alex said unhappily.
He let her lead the way to the exit through the maze of corridors, but halfway there, she paused, signaling in Hydra's familiar code: Wait. Silence. The soldier nodded, ducking back into the shadows. She tapped a panel on the wall. After a moment it slid open, revealing a narrow vent. There was another kid curled up in a corner of the small space. This one was a little older than Alex, ten or eleven at a guess, but small for his age, just like her. He had the same narrow shoulders and thin arms, the same face. One leg was stretched out stiffly in front of him.
"Oh no, Max, did you break your leg again?" Alex said.
The boy glared at her – and that expression, like everything about his face, was so naggingly familiar the soldier could hardly bear to look at it. He shifted his eyes down, looking at the boy's bony shoulders, his stubborn chin. That wasn't any better. His head spun; he swallowed hard against a surge of nausea.
"What did you go and lead him here for?" he heard Max say, through the rushing in his ears.
"No, it's okay! He's on our side. He's the Winter Soldier!" Alex said, with the air of someone unveiling a truly impressive surprise.
Max didn't look impressed. "How do you know?"
"He said! And he knows all the codes!" Alex said indignantly.
"Maybe he lied. Maybe he got the codes from somewhere," Max said.
"He's got a metal arm!"
"…okay," Max finally admitted, still sounding skeptical, but apparently unable to come up with any defense to that.
"Can you stand?" Alex asked anxiously. She helped Max crawl out of the narrow space and pulled him carefully to his feet. Max was gritting his teeth, sweat breaking out on his face. He didn't put any weight on his left leg, but it was clear even the careful movement hurt him.
"This is Max. He's my brother!" Alex said proudly, turning to the soldier. "He breaks his bones lots, 'cause they gave him a serum to make his bones stronger but they got worse instead."
"Alex, shut up!" Max said between gritted teeth. He was looking worriedly at the soldier.
Alex's face fell, her shoulders pulling up. She shifted her own body between Max and the soldier. "But he's real smart!" she added hurriedly. "He's the best at solving all the puzzles and he comes up with the best plans!" Now she looked worried, too.
"That's great," the soldier said after a moment, a little helpless. He ought to say something reassuring, he thought, but what was there to say? Max was still watching him, suspicion and hostility on his face, his body screaming defiance. The soldier could see the fear beneath it. He'd gotten very good at recognizing fear.
"You can't walk," the soldier said. Max hunched his shoulders, hugging his arms around himself. He mutely shook his head. The soldier looked away from the naked terror in his eyes. "I'm going to carry you," he said.
Max was stiff and distrustful when the soldier picked him up. He settled the boy on his right hip, where he could turn and shield him with his metal arm if anyone fired at them. Still, the boy was going to be a problem if he had to fight. Nothing he could do about that, though. Keeping these children safe was his mission now. Failing the mission wasn't an option.
As it turned out, Alex's little satchel of medicine contained Max's painkillers, too. "Did you know he'd be here?" the soldier asked.
"I thought probably. Mr. Smith, he's one of the handlers today, he always forgets to be careful with Max when he's scared, and then Max always breaks something. So I thought maybe he'd hide here if he couldn't run."
The soldier's metal hand was balling into a fist by his side, gears whining. It took more effort than it should have to unclench his fingers.
They didn't encounter any resistance on the way out. The base was empty. There hadn't been anyone here capable of putting up resistance to the Winter Soldier, he suspected. The project had obviously been abandoned, just another failed experiment discarded in some remote base. His fist was clenching again.
The soldier took the kids to the McDonald's drive-through. Nothing they sold tasted right to him, barely like food at all, but it was quick and kids were supposed to like it, weren't they?
"Fast food's not allowed!" Alex said, looking at him with wide eyes, clearly awed by this daring breach of the rules.
Max looked unimpressed. "It's a stupid rule anyway," he said defiantly. "They know we're not gonna get fat, and we eat healthy food all the time. They just don't like us doing normal kids stuff and it's mean and you know it!"
He glared at Alex, who glared back. "We're not normal kids! We're soldiers of Hydra and that's way better," she said. The soldier got the impression this was a well-worn argument.
"What do you want to eat?" he asked, which short-circuited the arguing effectively enough.
There were special meals for kids. They contained a toy, which seemed to be the main draw. Alex shyly gave hers to Max in silent apology; he clutched it for a moment, looking agonized, and then handed it back to her with obvious reluctance.
The soldier chose the most respectable-looking motel he could find on short notice. It hadn't mattered when it was just him, but he wasn't going to take the children to some place with dirty carpets and stained sheets.
"Let me see your leg," he told Max. Max looked at him with barely-hidden terror in his eyes, but finally he stretched his leg out, chin lifting stubbornly; knowing he was going to get hurt but too damn proud to beg. It made the soldier want to – to shake him, to fold him up in a hug and keep him safe, to yell until that stubborn punk saw some goddamn sense, too proud to keep himself safe and without the strength to fight back…. Nausea was rising up in his throat again. The soldier looked down, focused on getting Max's pants off without hurting him.
It was a clean break. The soldier's emergency kit contained a field splint. It would have to do. He'd take the boy to a doctor if he could, but they'd find him if he did. If Hydra didn't get there first, Rogers would find him for sure.
Rogers wouldn't kill him, but he wouldn't want the Winter Soldier. He'd take him to his allies, and they'd burn the Soldier out of his brain like Hydra had burned out Bucky Barnes. He'd be useless then, no help to anyone. He couldn't let himself be captured, not yet; he needed to find the rest of the children.
"My bones heal real fast," Max said anxiously. "In a couple days I can walk on it again, I promise."
"Does the rest of your body heal that quickly, too?" the soldier asked. He didn't mean anything by it, just a simple tactical assessment, but Max went pale and still.
"No, sir. The rest of me just heals like normal," he said.
"It's true, you don't have to try it out," Alex cut in hurriedly. "The doctors tried lots of times, but he heals just as slow as the rest of us."
The soldier took a deep breath. With a start he recognized the wild, formless feeling clawing in his chest as rage. He hadn't been angry at Hydra before, not even when he'd been killing them. They'd hurt him and they'd lied to him and they'd needed to be stopped, so he was stopping them. That had been all there was to it. Killing had been necessary, nothing more; suddenly, he felt a cold, burning satisfaction for every drop of their blood he'd spilled.
Max was shaking. The soldier took a deep breath, made his face blank and empty again, kept his hands gentle on the boy's leg until the splint was on firm and tight. "Comfortable?" he asked. Max nodded slowly.
There was a tub in the bathroom, the rim low enough that Max should be able to get in with the splint on. "Go get cleaned up, okay?" he told the kids. "You need to be quiet, though. I need to call someone, but he can't know you're here."
"Is he dangerous?" Alex asked, clearly wanting the answer to be yes.
Her wide-eyed, hopeful expression startled the soldier into a laugh. It hurt in his throat, low and grating; barely a human sound at all, and not one he could remember making for a long time. "Yes. Very," he said.
There was a post-it note in his pocket, crumpled and torn – unfolded, refolded, balled up and smoothed flat many times over. Steve, it said, and a cell phone number in a round, curly hand. Old-fashioned hand-writing. Subject probably between seventy and ninety years old. Steady hands despite the age, some detached part of him analyzed automatically, but of course that was wrong. He always had such girly handwriting, an entirely different part of him thought.
Steve – Rogers – the target had given him the note. He'd caught up with the soldier in a dead-end alley, managed to get the drop on him. He could have taken the soldier down from a safe distance with a gun or a tranq dart, but instead he'd squandered his advantage and come right up close, reached for the soldier's arm.
The soldier had driven his metal fist into Rogers' unprotected face. Rogers had stumbled back, dazed, and dropped the note he'd been holding in his hand. He'd left a wide opening the soldier could have used to get in another punch. Instead, he'd bent down, snatched the note off the floor, and flown.
He couldn't have said, now, why he hadn't taken the chance to hit Rogers again. He should've taken him down hard, should've made it clear what would happen if Rogers didn't stop following him.
He couldn't have said why he'd kept the number, either. He'd never planned to use it, after all. Calling Rogers would send the wrong message entirely, would only encourage him to keep pursuing the soldier. There was something about Rogers; he stirred up unwanted images, messed with the soldier's mind.
But none of that mattered now. He needed to find those kids, and Rogers was the only person in the world who might be willing to help him.
He dialed the number now, for the first time. It was answered instantly. "Hello?" Rogers – the target – Rogers said. The soldier squeezed his eyes shut. There was always too much noise in his head when he was talking to Rogers. It hurt. There was a tactical analysis running through the background of his thoughts, threat assessment; Rogers' allies had access to powerful technology. He didn't know how fast the call could be traced, but he needed to keep this short.
There were other thoughts, too, jostling for space in his mind. Rogers sounded anxious, hopeful. Worried. Stevie, always worrying too much. He could picture him, big shoulders hunched, clutching the phone too tightly. The soldier clenched his hand around the gun by his side, trying to focus. "I need intel," he said.
He'd asked the children where Hydra might have taken the others during the drive. Checkpoint Three, they'd both agreed, their designated fallback base. Neither of them had actually known where it was. He repeated the few clues Alex had been able to give him on the location. "I need to find this base. It's important."
"I'll see what I can do. Give me an hour," Rogers said. "Can I call you back at this number?"
"No," the soldier said curtly. "Send me an email."
"Bucky, wait –" Rogers said.
There was a thump and a splash from the bathroom, and then a scream from Max, one single sharp sound, quickly bitten off. Bucky whirled around. He could hear Alex frantically shushing Max.
"Bucky? Was that a kid? Is there a kid with you?"
Steve sounded strange, his voice tight. The soldier barely heard him, although part of him noted the tone of voice for later analysis.
He rattled off his email address. "Send me the data before those kids get hurt," he snapped, fumbling for the button that would end the call.
"Bucky–" he heard Steve saying. His voice was a pained whisper, as if he'd had the breath punched out of him; horrified. "Bucky, my God, don't –" The call finally cut off. The soldier crushed the phone in his metal hand, let it fall to the floor in a shower of broken parts.
He threw the bathroom door open. Both kids flinched. "Sorry, I'm sorry, sir, I'll be quiet!" Max said, cowering away in the tub. He'd been stubbornly defiant earlier, but the soldier had told them to be quiet, and Max had given their position away by making noise. The soldier didn't know what kind of training these kids had gone through, but that kind of slip-up wouldn't have been tolerated.
Max was breathing harshly, sweat standing on his forehead. "I slipped and banged my leg. Sorry, sir." It was clear, from his frantic tone of voice, that he didn't expect the soldier to be moved by the explanation. Pain was no excuse; pain was never an excuse.
The soldier realized that he was looming, standing in the doorway like this. With the lights of the motel room behind him, he'd be nothing but a large, threatening silhouette to the kids. He drew his shoulders in, crouched down. They needed to leave, and quickly, but things wouldn't go any faster if he spooked the children now.
"It's all right," he said roughly. "Let me see."
Max was lying in the bathtub with his broken leg awkwardly propped up on the rim. The improvised cast was dry and sound.
"It was my fault. I pushed him," Alex said bravely, shifting in the water to put herself between Max and the soldier. Behind her, Max made a protesting noise.
"It wasn't her fault at all!"
"It doesn't matter. No harm done," the soldier said, although he knew Rogers would be trying to track them now even as he spoke. Belatedly, it occurred to him that Rogers might've taken that last sentence wrong, might have taken it as a threat against these children here; Rogers didn't know about the children in Hydra's hands. Why had he mentioned them at all? For a single critical moment after Max's scream, he hadn't been thinking at all.
Max's breathing was already easing, the pinched look around his eyes loosening up. He didn't seem to have damaged the leg any worse.
"You two done getting clean?" the soldier asked. The kids nodded, but some mindless, automatic instinct had taken over his mouth, and he added "Washed up properly, too? Face, feet, butt?" Becky and Alice always got distracted in the tub, splashing around, flooding half the bathroom and forgetting to wash. Mom was gonna be mad if they – if… if they…
The soldier blinked and grabbed the sink with his metal hand. For a moment the room spun around him and then reoriented itself. The floor was dry. "Yes, sir," the children chorused, like the pair of well-trained soldiers they were.
"I'll help you out of there," the soldier told Max. He lifted him out of the water, careful of the broken leg. The boy weighed almost nothing. His sharp shoulder blades pressed against the soldiers arm. His skin was hot from the bath. Too hot, fever-hot… He tucked his face against Bucky's chest. "Don't gotta carry me, Buck," he said, stubborn little punk, like he wasn't gonna fall over and crack his fool head open if Bucky put him down now.
Bucky blinked away the image and the resulting moment of disorientation. He set Max down carefully on his good leg, waiting until he'd caught his balance before letting go and wrapping him in one of the motel's big, fluffy towels. He got the other towel down for Alex and tucked it around her bony shoulders. "Make sure you dry off properly," he said.
The children were exhausted, but he had to take them to a different motel before he could let them rest. By the time they'd fallen asleep, there was a new email from Rogers on his phone. The intel you asked for. We didn't have enough information to locate the base, but this might be a start, it said, and then, in a second paragraph, Bucky, whatever's going on, I can help. Please call me.
Bucky opened the attachment. Like Rogers had said, there weren't enough clues there to know for sure where the children might have been taken, although they'd figured out a few new leads, at least. Of course anything Rogers had sent him might well be a trap. He had no real reason to help the soldier, no reason to trust him.
The soldier checked the locks on the doors and windows and swept the room for bugs before he lay down. Even then he slept uneasily, one eye open. He hoped Rogers didn't have another way of tracking him; hoped Hydra didn't have a way of tracking the children.
Alex and Max were sharing the second bed. Max was out cold after the pain meds he'd taken, snoring a little in his sleep – I don't snore, Buck. – Like hell you don't, – but Alex kept shifting restlessly, occasionally making quiet distressed noises in her sleep. Finally she startled awake with a little cry. He could see her eyes shining wetly in the darkness. She had both hands pressed to her mouth, trying to stifle the sounds she was making, but he could still hear her breathing wetly.
"Status: Base secure. No enemy activity," the soldier said quietly. She looked at him with her wide blue eyes, and then she scrambled out from under the blankets and into his bed, curling tightly against his side. She threw an arm around him and buried her face in his chest.
"I miss the others," she whispered.
The soldier stared down at her helplessly. He'd gone to bed fully clothed, as he always did. The studs and straps of his armor were poking into her face. He shifted to try and get her lying a little more comfortably, palmed the knife on the hip that was facing her and put it on the bedside table with the rest of his arsenal. Finally he shifted the gun beneath his pillow further away from her. And then he slowly, hesitantly put his arm around her. She curled more tightly against him.
"Go to sleep," the soldier said, and eventually she did. The soldier lay very still. Alex was a warm, soft weight against his side. Her breath wheezed a little in her sleep. She'd need another dose from her inhaler when she woke up, but for now her chest was rising and falling in a slow, regular rhythm; the medicine could wait a little longer.