Steve and Bucky were sitting in Steve's living room, both of them with full bellies. Steve was on one end of the couch, debating whether or not he should suggest they go outside. Bucky still preferred staying indoors, and he looked perfectly content where he was—sitting on the other end of the couch, paging through one of Steve's old sketchbooks.
It was cold, but nice out, and they could go take a walk around Fort Greene Park. Not too many people went there this time of year, and they both preferred less crowded areas. That was one of the reasons Steve had politely declined Tony's offer of a private floor in the Avengers Tower and had instead gotten himself a not nearly as spacious, but nice and quiet two bedroom in Brooklyn. It was four blocks away from their old apartment, which was nice on some days and problematic on others. Plenty had changed, but some of the buildings were still the same, and between Bucky and himself they'd had plenty of afternoons where a memory would overwhelm them, regardless of it was good or bad.
But they were healing, slowly but surely. Bucky wasn't as closed off as he'd been the first few weeks after he'd shown up on Steve's doorstep, duffel-bag in hand, but he wasn't completely whole all of the time either. Bits of him were still scattered through time, and on some nights, sitting on the couch with Steve seemed like the best way for the pieces to drift back together.
It took a few seconds for the buzzing in Steve's pocket to draw his attention. He fumbled for his phone. Natasha was calling. Steve picked up, keeping his voice low as he stood and walked to the kitchen counter. "Hi, Nat."
Bucky turned his head, curious. Not easy to hide anything from a fellow supersoldier, especially in an apartment the size of theirs.
"Rogers. Get your ass over here." There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Bring Barnes."
Steve parked down the road from the old, abandoned factory. He had no idea what to expect. Nat still operated on a need-to-know basis. Sometimes it made sense. Usually it made sense. S.H.I.E.L.D. had dispersed, and in theory, so had Hydra, but neither was entirely true. They both still existed, and they both still had those loyal to their causes. Natasha had found hers in seeking out whatever little nests of Hydra activity still existed and disassembling them however she could. Sometimes through sabotage and sometimes in ways that Steve tried not to think about.
Bucky and Steve shared her hobby. It was a difficult balance, trying to rekindle Bucky's humanity, which was slowly growing back, and tempering his own need for vengeance on the people that had ruined him so thoroughly. Steve didn't feel any regret when they took down another Hydra cell, nothing but grim satisfaction, and he was sure Bucky felt the same way, even if he never put it to words.
They climbed out of Steve's car and moved to the building in silence. Steve looked up the side of the building at the tall walls, the small broken panes of glass. They main door was padlocked, not that that would keep him out, but with Natasha it was usually better to default to stealth unless told otherwise. So they walked around the corner until they found a smaller side door. Steve pushed it open and stepped inside, Bucky close on his heels.
The factory had high ceilings, long, rust-crusted steel columns with large plastic tarps strung up tightly between them. Quarantine tents. Steve shivered at the flashes of memories those sheets of plastic brought with them. Hydra's experiments were as twisted as one would expect, but he'd rarely came across the same kind twice. He fought back his fear and pushed back one of the flaps, as Bucky did the same with another. Most of the makeshift rooms were empty of all but cots and equipment.
It didn't take them long to find Natasha. Steve heard her talking softly as they reached the middle of the floor. He glanced over his shoulder at Bucky, who nodded, and followed him between two rows of tents until they saw her standing in front of a small door in the rear wall.
"It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you," she was saying. Not a common technique of hers, but maybe she'd met someone she felt the need to question first, or maybe she'd found an innocent alive.
Steve slowed his step, and Bucky did the same, silent as a shadow behind him. They moved quickly down the hall, to Natasha, who was just outside the door, hands on her hips—no weapons raised—captive subdued, or yeah—an innocent.
An inhuman growl sounded from deep inside the room.
Natasha turned her head slightly towards Steve and Bucky, without taking her eyes off her target. "What took you so long?" she asked under her breath, tone deceptively pleasant.
"Came as fast as we could," Steve said, voice equally subdued. Bucky passed him, came to a stop right by Natasha, mouth opening slightly when he saw what waited in the room.
Steve's heart sped up. Not much could surprise Bucky, so whatever it was had to be pretty bad. He pushed forward, stepped up next to Natasha and peered inside the dark room.
The stench of decay and animal waste overwhelmed his nostrils even before his eyes took in all the details. There were empty cages—dozens of them—in varying sizes and states of disarray. And in the back right corner of the room, only slightly lighter than the darkness was a big, round, quivering mound of fur with claws and two black eyes, glittering as they caught the dim sunlight from the main room.
"What is it?" Steve asked. Pictures of the files he'd seen on Stark's computers flashed through his mind: man-beasts—part animal, with strength beyond anything even he could hope to stand up to.
Bucky tensed beside him.
Steve turned the corner and had to push against Bucky's shoulder until he could see more of the room. The animal made another sound—a low, frightened growl. One more step and Steve's eyes had adjusted enough to see what he was looking at: a young bear. "Oh." He crouched down lower. "Hey, little guy."
The bear opened its mouth and roared, backing up until it's rear-end bumped against the wall.
"What is this?" Steve whispered to Natasha.
"Pretty sure it's a black bear."
"No, I mean —" Steve huffed through his teeth. "Why is it here inside a factory? What was Hydra doing with--"
"Same thing they do to everyone else," Bucky said as he took a step forward. "Ever hear of Ursa Major?"
Natasha nodded in acknowledgement. She'd heard of Mikail Ursus--half man, half bear. And if the files she'd come across were telling the truth, then the Winter Soldier had known him too.
The bear growled again, louder, and pushed himself further back, until he was wedged tightly into the corner. It's legs were shaking. It was terrified.
Bucky stopped several feet away from the corner, eyes locked on the animal.
"I have a tranq gun," Natasha said.
"Yet you haven't used it," Steve took a step forward, to follow Bucky, but Natasha stuck out her arm holding him back.
"Didn't seem fair," Natasha said, "which isn't always a factor in my decisions, granted."
The bear growled again, less intimidating with every piteous sound. Bucky took another step forward and then sat down, crossing his legs. The bear made another, far more half--hearted growl that ended in a questioning grunt.
"What is he doing?" Steve whispered at Natasha.
"Just watch, Rogers." Natasha shrugged. "Maybe he came across bears more than once back in the day."
"Back in the day? What...do people keep them as house pets over in Siberia?"
Steve and Natasha watched—Steve concerned, Natasha vaguely intrigued, as Bucky lay down on his side, like he was settling in for a nap.
The bear lowered his snout. With another snuffling sound, he took a hesitant step forwards, then another and another until he was standing right next to Bucky.
"What's that?" Tony asked. He hadn't fully entered the room, still standing between the elevator doors, eyebrows crooked with disbelief.
"Ursus americanus hamiltoni", Jarvis announced, "A Newfoundland black bear. Male. Approximately one year old. "
”Yes, I can see that." Tony's eyes darted from the bear to Bucky, over to Steve, back to the bear and then over to Natasha and Clint. "But why is it here?"
"Didn't have anywhere else to bring it," Natasha said. They were on Steve's floor of the tower. Pristine—since it had been unoccupied for months—except for the four of them, their supplies, the two bags of groceries Clint had brought over (mostly snacks and things a bear could eat, maybe), and the bear, who was laying on the floor, head in Bucky's lap.
Tony ran his fingers through his hair as he stepped into the room. "What about animal control, or the zoo--"
"No," Bucky said, voice low and even, so as not to disturb the bear. It also made Tony wish he was wearing his suit.
"Central Park?" Clint asked.
"Central Park?" Steve repeated.
"What? There's all kinds of stuff—uh, I mean all kinds of nice places for a bear to live there. Pretty sure there's at least two inter-dimensional portals, too" Clint shrugged sheepishly as Bucky and Steve leveled matching glares at him. "Maybe one of them goes to Beartopia. I don't know. Forget I said anything. So where'd you find it?"
"Hydra testing facility," Natasha said from her spot by the kitchen counter. She reached her hand into the box of Crackerjack. The rustling of the plastic bag made the bear's ears twitch. "They cleared out most of the place, but abandoned the room full of animals in the back."
"A Hydra bear," Clint said, grabbing the box from Natasha.
"A captive," Bucky said. "The only survivor."
"So…" Tony walked further into the room. "Did anybody check for modifications, or I don't know, trackers?"
"Yes," Steve said. "There was a tracker, we short-circuited it."
"He flattened it," Natasha said, pointing at Bucky, "with his fingers. We should probably still take it out though."
"Honestly though," Steve gestured at the room around him. "You think Hydra doesn't know about this place? Tower's kinda hard to miss."
Tony scoffed. Then, scratching at his goatee, asked, "If we're not calling animal control, and we don't want to bring him to a zoo, what's the plan exactly? Can't really take him out for walks in the city." His face paled. "What happens when he has to go walkies?"
"We brought him to the garden before," Natasha said.
Tony glared at her.
"What? The bots took care of it."
"Those bots aren't designed for…bear poop disposal!"
"Didn't seem to have any trouble with it."
Tony rubbed his hand across his mouth. "He can't stay here."
Bucky gave him a look that made Tony's blood pressure rise enough for Jarvis to sound an alert. "No cages."
"Okay, no more cages." Tony held up his hands.
"Nowhere Hydra can get to him." Bucky stood slowly, to the dismay of the bear, and took a step towards Tony. "Nowhere hunters can get to him."
"No cages, and somewhere far enough off the map that Hydra and gun-happy trophy seekers won't ever find him."
"Sounds…not easy," Clint said. Natasha nodded, crunching on popcorn and nuts.
"Nature reserve maybe," Tony said, glancing up at one of Jarvis's many, hidden eyes. "Do I have one of those?"
"Two, sir. One in Alaska, the other in Maine.
"Can we cloak it? Set up a perimeter to keep others out?" Steve asked. He glanced over at Bucky.
"It would be inadvisable to attempt that with either reserve, sir. Three hundred square miles in one, two-hundred square miles in the other. Both well beyond the scale of our current cloaking capabilities," Jarvis said.
"But, a smaller section could work," Tony said thoughtfully. "Theoretically, anyway. How much land does an average black bear need?"
"A lot, actually," Steve said. "Cloaking won't work, and a perimeter that size…"
"You're going about this the wrong way," Natasha said. "You don't need to make the land disappear, you need to make him disappear," she pointed at the bear. "Make it impossible for them to tell him apart from the others."
Bucky watched her for a few seconds and then nodded. "I found the most obvious tracker, but there's likely others. Not to mention…" He took a deep breath. "We don't know what else they did to him. They left him behind, so they weren't finished, but that doesn't mean they didn't get started."
"Ah. So that's why he's here," Tony said.
"Got somebody that can take a look at him?" Steve asked.
Bruce folded his arms across his chest. "Honestly, not what I was expecting."
"He's cute, right?" Natasha said, resting her chin on Bruce's shoulder.
"Very cute," Bruce threw Natasha a smile. "No, I meant, nobody mentioned the bear part. You do know I'm not even a people doctor, right?"
"People, particle physics, totally all related," Tony said. "There wouldn't be any people without particles."
The bear sat back on its haunches and looked up at Bruce as he got closer.
"You have a floor of doctors, at least eight of which have backgrounds with mammalian biology," Bruce said.
"Yes, but you have a better bedside manner," Natasha said.
"Also you're bear-proof," Tony added. "Or you know, bear-resistant."
Bruce shrugged in agreement. They had a point. "How old is he?"
"No more than one year, according to Jarvis," Bucky said, stroking the back of the bear's head.
"That size at one? Thought black bears were smaller."
"Some of them run bigger."
"And Hydra had this one," Natasha said.
"Any incisions?" Bruce crouched down slowly, looking the bear in the eyes. It sniffed the air, but didn't seem particularly alarmed.
"No, but that doesn't mean a thing," Natasha said, "We don't know how long they had him."
"The fur's shorter in two spots." Bucky pointed at the bear's head. "Behind his ear, and by the base of the skull,"
Bruce swallowed. "Well then I think we know where to start. Will he be okay with a multi-spectrum full-body scan?"
Bucky frowned. "He's gonna have to be.
"Seriously?" Steve said, sounding only half as amused as he looked.
"Seemed appropriate," Tony said, holding the stuffed animal out at Bucky.
Bucky took the bear and turned it over. It was wearing a blue double breasted jacket and domino mask. "What is this?"
"It's you," Tony said. "Or uh...old-school you, in teddy bear form."
"They're really popular with the kids," Natasha said.
"Thank you...?" Bucky said, sounding thoroughly confused.
"It's not for you, it's for Paddington," Tony said. "To help him stay calm and stuff."
Bucky arched an eyebrow. "His name's not Paddington."
"Okay, can you get not-Paddington up onto the scan-bed there?" Tony asked. He set the teddy bear down on the scan-bed, then moved to the monitors in the back of the room.
Bucky moved over to the scan-bed and patted the surface twice. The bear gave him a dubious look and sniffed at the floor of the lab. He looked up, nose wrinkling at the harsh scent of disinfectants.
"What is the patient's name?" Bruce asked, snapping his surgical gloves into place. The bear eyed his blue hands and made a gruff sound, looking back up to Bucky.
"Not sure." Bucky frowned. "He should have a name."
"We have to keep him still," Bruce said. "Our best bet would be sedation."
Bucky's nostrils flared, but he kept his mouth shut.
"His size, I think I've got just the thing," Tony said, grabbing a syringe from a panel in the back wall. He handed it to Bruce. "Remember, no threatening movements. Try not to smell like food."
Bruce glared at him.
"It's okay," Bucky said, reaching down to scratch the bear's ears. "Bruce is a good doctor."
"Many would argue that point with you," Bruce said. He walked over to the bear and crouched down until they were at eye level. "But I can promise this isn't going to hurt." He glanced at the syringe. "Well this'll hurt, a tiny bit, but after that, we're just taking some pictures."
"Yup," Tony fiddled with some levers near the monitors. "This is better than an X-Ray, MRI and CAT-scan combined, with no radiation and a lot less noise."
The bear looked at the scan-bed, back at Bucky, and then jumped up. He turned around gingerly until his head was facing out and laid down, muzzle resting on the teddy bear's belly.
The scan revealed two more trackers, a half-dozen expandable metal plates, and four small bladders of liquid, stitched to his insides, near vital organs.
The metal plates couldn't be removed. They'd been grafted onto the bear's bones, at key points, designed to meld with the bone tissue and grow as the bear did. The most extensive work had been done on its jaw and legs.
"At least we know what to call him now," Tony said.
"We do?" Steve asked.
Tony grinned. "Iorek."
Bruce cracked a smile. Bucky and Steve stared at him blankly.
"Pullman…Golden Compass…armored bear." Tony said. "No?" He shrugged his shoulders. "Good book. Good name."
"I like it," Bucky said.
Bruce pointed at the table, where they'd lined up the trackers and bags of liquid they'd removed, one next to the other. "Want to see?"
Steve took over stroking the bear's snout so Bucky could step away and take a look at what they'd extracted.
Tony held a mallet out to Bucky and nodded down at the trackers. Bucky picked them both up in his left hand and crushed them.
"The design of these liquid implants is simple, but pretty ingenious," Bruce said pointing. "The material's made of nano-webbing. Non porous, nearly impossible to break. Somewhere, there's a remote control that can trigger them to contract, releasing the liquid into the bloodstream."
"Not anymore," Bucky said, grimly satisfied. "What's in them?"
Bruce's expression darkened. "Nothing good."
"Shocker," Tony said as he poked at one of the bags experimentally.
"This first one's…well for all intents and purposes, it's a rage inducer—catecholamines, adrenaline, noradrenaline. This was right next to his heart. My guess is they wanted to be able to send him into berserker mode." Bruce moved his finger to the second pouch. "This one, on the other hand, is the exact opposite-- dopamine, massive amounts of melatonin, hydrocodone, oxycodone—"
"For when they need to knock him out quick," Tony finished. "But the last two stumped us for a bit."
"At first we thought it was something like a cyanide capsule," Bruce said quietly.
Bucky nodded sharply. "Hydra doesn't want their test subjects falling into the hands of their enemies."
"Exactly, but this is…something else." Bruce frowned again.
"These last two were near each other, right-side, behind the axillary lymph nodes." Tony pushed the two bags apart carefully. "They were meant to be set off within seconds of one another. The first acts similarly to the first—sends him into berserker mode, but the second…" He shook his head. "You ever watch the footage of Extremis?"
Steve repressed a shudder. "Yeah."
"So imagine that, only with way more exploding."
"They turned him into a bomb?" Bucky said, voice still low, but seething.
"Destroy whoever they sent him after him, and get rid of all the evidence," Bruce said. "Horrible, effective, and very Hydra."
Bucky watched Steve, stroking Iorek, who was starting to wake up, eyes blinking weakly.
"Good thing we looked inside when we did," Tony said.
"Run me through that," Bucky said. His legs twinged with the memory of months earlier when he'd gotten a hold of some of Hydra's blueprints—one of them was of him. Too afraid of being captured again, he'd scrounged together scalpels, clamps, disinfectant and boxes full of gauze, and cut into himself until he'd removed all but one of the implants in the schematic. He hadn't trusted himself to poke around so close to his brain.
Bruce's face fell.
"Buck…you sure?" Steve asked, putting a hand on Bucky's back. Scanners— especially full-body enclosing ones like this were something Bucky had avoided at all costs. It was one of the reasons he'd refused to come to the tower for so long. Steve swallowed, remembering the healing scars he'd seen that first night Bucky had come to him. He'd asked Steve to take out the one in his skull, and Steve had refused, telling him to go to Stark.
"You know I didn't get them all." Bucky looked down. "If there's anything like that still in me…and you know there is—" He looked back up at Steve. "Then I'm endangering everyone just by being near them." He cocked his head to the side. "More than by just being me, I mean"
Steve hated the idea. But the look on Bucky's face said his mind was made up.
They found something—sixteen somethings that Bruce and Tony determined removable and potentially dangerous. There were far more internal modifications that couldn't be removed.Extending inwards from his metal arm were sections where whole parts of Bucky's skeleton and spine had been replaced with an alloy not-quite-metal and not-quite-bone.
Steve stayed by Bucky's side the entire time they operated, holding his hand despite Bucky's protests. He'd refused to be sedated, and Bruce hadn't pushed the point though he'd insisted on anaesthetic. The problem, of course, was that Bucky's body metabolized the chemicals faster than they could safely administer them. Bucky didn't wince once, but he squeezed Steve's hand tightly enough that it would have crushed an ordinary man's bones.
The whole process took nearly four hours, and after everything had been removed, Bruce and Tony left, to go get some badly needed rest, leaving Steve and Bucky alone in the lab. Iorek was in the next room over, with Natasha, who waved at them through the window in between the two rooms.
Bucky watched the bear, and thanks to the speakers, could hear him mewl plaintively. "He's right. These rooms suck. Can we go lay around in your room instead? At least you have a T.V."
"I'm not supposed to move you— either of you," Steve said, even though he secretly agreed.
"Oh come on," Bucky pushed himself to sitting and pointed at the three incisions on his chest. They were all nearly completely closed. "If you don't help me, I'll just walk to the elevator myself."
Iorek roared weakly from the next room.
"He agrees with you," Natasha said. "Also, um…" She gestured down at the bear. "Not sure if you two can see this from here, but this little guy's healing pretty fast too."
Bucky sat up all the way. "How fast?
Hours later, the elevator dinged and the small monitor showed Bruce standing inside.
"Come in," Steve said, standing. Bucky stayed where he was on the couch, fingers still scratching at Iorek's head, carefully massaging the now only faintly pink incision spot behind the right ear.
"How are my patients"? Bruce said, stepping into the room.
Bucky didn't answer for a bit, so Steve felt compelled to. "The incisions are healed, almost completely, but I think it's the other stuff you found inside that's gonna take longer to get over."
"Ain't that always the way," Bruce said, with a half-smirk. He crossed the room and sat on the floor, across from the couch, looking up at Bucky and the bear. They both looked exhausted but peaceful, and that was the best he could have hoped for, given the circumstances. He smiled at them and got a low growl in response. Though it hadn't come from the bear.
"I'm hungry," Bucky said, folding his hands over his stomach.
Steve cracked a smile from the kitchen. "Pizza?"
"Mushroom," Bucky said.
"Can you get two of those?" Bruce asked.
"Two?" Steve barked a laugh. "You must be joking."
Twenty minutes later, Tony came up in the elevator, entered the room and found eight empty pizza boxes, three very full grown men and a snoring bear with tomato sauce stains on his snout. Luckily there were still three slices of pepperoni left in the ninth box, so he helped himself to a slice.
Nudging against Steve's knee as he passed he said, "Pizza party and you didn't invite me? Not cool, man."
"That's fine, I mean next time I have a party I'll just send out invites labeled 'Absolutely everybody except Steve Rogers—'"
"Wasn't really a party," Bucky said, stifling a yawn. "More like post-surgery munchies."
Tony cracked a smile. "Normal people have to wait for like at least a day before eating solids after invasive surgery."
"We're not most people," Bucky smirked. "And we wanted pizza."
"Hey I'm not gonna argue." He looked down at the bear. "Bears like pizza?"
"Everybody likes pizza," Bruce said, yawning.
"I uh...disposed of all the...time-release capsules we found," Tony said, throwing a glance at Bucky.
"Thank you," Bucky said, nodding at him.
"So..." Tony plopped down into the recliner across from the couch. "I know you're healed up already, but what about the fuzzball?"
"No signs of the incisions left," Bucky said, "Except for the fur you shaved off."
"He got the same stuff you two did, then," Tony said.
"Seems likely," Steve said, "the serum doesn't extend to hair."
"Good to know," Tony pulled on the recliner's lever and put his feet up. "Guess I'll stop running tests on all those hair strand samples I had Jarvis collect from this room."
"You what?" Steve asked, sitting ramrod straight.
"Joking!" Tony held up his hands.
Iorek, now wide awake, blinked at Tony, then stood, hopped off the couch and trotted over to the windowed wall. He started walking the length of the room, back and forth. Pacing.
Bucky watched him for a few minutes, then got up and took a seat, cross-legged by the window. Iorek came and sat next to him, pressing his snout against the glass.
"Does he need to uh...go use the park?" Tony asked, peering over his shoulder. "We could get a really big litter-box or something, maybe?"
"We should leave tomorrow," Bucky said.
"Tomorrow? He can stay longer, if you want to wait some more, I mean--" Tony started.
"No. It's time." Bucky stood and walked back to the couch. "For him, this is just another cage."
Steve watched the tree-line for any sign of movement. Bucky and Iorek had disappeared into the reserve over a week ago. He'd wanted to come along, would've demanded it, and Bucky would've let him. Except for Bucky's words on the flight over: "He has to learn to trust himself again." Steve knew Bucky hadn't been talking about the bear.
So Steve had spent the last week trying his best to not obsessively hover by Stark's satellite monitoring array, watching the long stretch of forest for any sign of combat or disarray. Bucky may have insisted on being Iorek's only escort, but he hadn't gone unarmed, and for that, Steve was grateful.
But it wasn't until he saw Bucky step out from between the trees that Steve's heart really began to relax back into its natural rhythm.
Bucky's gait was calm, and he didn't show any signs of injury. And yet, Steve a had to fight back the urge to leap out of the stealth-copter Tony had loaned him and run those last few feet. He took a deep breath, hissed the air out through his teeth and waited.
"This helicopter isn't silent at all," Bucky said, climbing inside. "I heard you coming miles away."
"Wasn't really going for stealth, to be honest," Steve said.
Bucky settled into the copilot seat and strapped himself in.
"How is he?" Steve asked, as he powered on the copter.
"Stronger than your average bear," Steve said.
The helicopter took to the air. Steve flew over the reserve, giving Bucky one last look.
After a few minutes of silence, Bucky looked at Steve and smiled, wider than he had in months. "And he's free."