There was the sharp crack of rifle fire from behind a tree, and Peggy nodded to herself in satisfaction; it had to be Barnes. Good, she wasn’t totally separated from the others. She waited until he fired again, and someone screamed distantly as the bullet found its mark; she used that hushed moment to fall back, darting from her flimsy cover behind a bush to a more solid cover behind a tree trunk. From this angle she could see Barnes, and he her, and if she’d been wrong it would be the end, but he recognized her and put the rifle up instead of shooting her dead before she could settle breathlessly into position.
"They're herding us," Barnes whispered hoarsely, mouth set in a grim line when Carter spared him a sidelong glance. "Trying to separate us from the others."
"Well," Carter muttered, "it's not like we have much choice." He aimed the rifle, and she took advantage of the instant after he fired to move closer to him.
They'd had to take shelter on the far side of a hill, and she could hear someone trying to move stealthily in the undergrowth, trying to flank them. "Can't get a bead on him," Barnes breathed, pressing his shoulder up against hers as he tried to sight his rifle. He rolled his lips into his mouth a moment, squinting, and breathed out; he was close enough that she could smell cigarettes and woodsmoke and gun oil and cordite and the sharp earthy scent of a man in need of a bath and a change of clothes.
"Could fire again to scare him," Carter said.
"And if he's good, it'd give away our precise location," Barnes answered.
"How good do you expect he is?" she asked.
"Good enough to a’ carved us out pretty neatly," Barnes said. "That don't happen on accident." He and Steve had the same accent some of the time, but Steve made his speech habitually a lot more neutral. Barnes paradoxically seemed in the habit of deepening his accent, she suspected out of a sense of contrariness; he switched it off sometimes when he was busy or distracted or talking to someone for whom English wasn’t a first language. He certainly had complete control over it. How deep it was seemed to be related to how annoyed he was.
"He's getting closer," Peggy murmured after a moment, finger resting on the trigger guard of her pistol. She was only carrying a sidearm. "I think he knows our position."
"If he knew our precise position he'd alreadya’ shot us," Barnes said.
"Unless he's trying to capture us alive," Peggy answered a little testily. "Hence all the carving-out and whatnot."
"Point," Barnes said, not taking his eyes off the undergrowth. He squinted. "If I break cover he'll have to break cover to shoot me. If he's trying to catch us he won't kill me."
Peggy grabbed Barnes's arm as he lowered his rifle. "Don't be ridiculous," she said. "You can't run with that bloody great rifle. And you're a better shot than me."
"I," Barnes said, then turned and looked at her. He set his mouth. "Fine. But if you get yourself killed Steve'll murder me."
"I'd never be so foolish but you know, he'd do nothing of the sort even if I were,” Peggy said, checking her bootlaces. She went up to a crouch and crept silently along the ridge for a few yards before pausing, scoping out her destination.
"You ain't had a real Steve Rogers guilt trip," Barnes muttered, nearly-inaudible at this distance. “You dunno what he’s capable of.” She didn't let herself be distracted enough to respond to him.
Instead she sprang from a crouch and crashed along the leeward side of the ravine, knowing the guy wouldn’t be able to get a good bead on her from this angle. She scrambled wildly, throwing herself over brambles and counting on her momentum to carry her through, scrabbling at the embankment and clutching frantically at saplings to keep herself on-course.
A shot rang out. She could tell it was a pistol shot from the blunt sound of the blast. The hum of the bullet passing overhead confirmed it; their hunter was shooting at her. Not so much with the capturing alive, then. But that was what they’d wanted him to do, and in a moment, the sharper crack of Barnes’s rifle answered it.
Peggy went still, flattening herself behind a more substantial tree, then slowly, quietly crept up the embankment. The forest was silent, a tense waiting pause after the shock of the gunshots. After a moment someone moved stealthily, leaves rustling— could be Barnes, he was a city boy, but could have been the hunter, she’d been able to hear him before.
She stayed perfectly still, even suspending her breath to hear better, though the mad scramble had left her a little winded and it was difficult. A muttered curse told her the person on the move was Barnes, and it was followed up with, “If he even fuckin’ shot you, Carter—“ and another muttered curse.
Peggy sighed to herself, and moved as quietly as she could towards Barnes. She overshot him in the rough terrain and had to double back a bit, but she wasn’t going to be an ass and call out to him. Finally she was close enough to hiss, “Did you get him?”
“Yeah,” Barnes answered, and to her slight disappointment he didn’t seem startled. “Saw’m fall through the scope.” He must have heard her coming at the last minute.
“Did you go check?” she murmured crossly.
“Not yet,” he answered, “figured I’d better make sure you weren’t dead first.” He jerked his head; city boy though he was, he did have a decent sense of direction even in this thick stuff. “Got him in the chest, center mass, y’know, thought it might be a good idea to let him bleed a couple minutes before I go poppin’ my head in to check on him.”
“No headshot, hm?” Peggy asked, teasing.
“Headshots are for showin’ off,” Barnes answered. “No audience but you, and I know you’re harder to impress’n that.”
“That I am,” Peggy said, and shut up, because he’d reminded her this wasn’t time for fooling about. And this hunter had quite determinedly cut them out and herded them quite a distance away from the other Commandos, so it stood to reason he wasn’t just some bored German. No, he’d wanted them specifically. Peggy figured, given her disreputable knit cap and nondescript outfit, that it wasn’t because she was a woman; she wasn’t disguised, but she knew at a distance she might as well be. It was much more likely Barnes the man was after; he was dressed more distinctively.
Snipers were pretty hated, and Barnes was fairly renowned as one. Stood to reason there might be a bounty on him, of some sort.
In her peripheral vision, Barnes made a gesture, indicating that the enemy had fallen in this particular copse. Barnes had slung his rifle over his shoulder and was holding a hunting knife, head tilted in that distinctive way that indicated he was stalking something. It was unnerving, how quickly he could take on that predatory aspect and shed it again to take up the ghost of the swagger that must have animated him for his first twenty-some years of life.
Peggy readied her pistol and watched Barnes attentively. He set his shoulder against a tree, collected himself, and craned his neck. He made a face, that she interpreted as meaning he couldn’t see the man from here.
She raised an eyebrow, and he shook his head. “Think he moved,” he breathed, near-silent.
“Not good,” she answered similarly.
He nodded wearily, mouth pulling tight, then jerked his chin at her, indicating that she should go around. “You’re quieter,” he mouthed.
She grinned a little smugly at him, before bringing her focus to bear and creeping obliquely around the little ridge concealing the man’s putative last resting place. Barnes was right, she could hear him moving, though she thought he was a little louder than he had to be. Ah. Drawing attention so if their target was in any condition to hear, he’d only notice Barnes.
Peggy took up a position where she could surge up over the top of the ridge, and caught Barnes’s eye. He winked, then ducked out of sight, and she heard him moving farther along. After a moment, he stopped, and she figured that was as good a signal as any, and leapt up to the crest of the hill, finger on the trigger, ready to go.
“No,” Barnes yelled, and crashed through a bramble bush just in time to throw his knife into the neck of the heretofore unsuspected second man, who had been lying in wait for Peggy. The second man yelled in pain, and Peggy shot him dead. Another shot rang out immediately afterward— the wounded man, on the ground below the second man— and Barnes moved violently backward. Peggy shot the wounded man, who made a horrible noise and died almost immediately— he hadn’t been very alive, after all, but it didn’t take much to pull a trigger.
She retrieved Barnes’s knife from the one, and made sure the other was dead, and then turned to see where Barnes had got to. “Sergeant?” she said finally, finding that he hadn’t scrambled to any logical place.
“Fuck,” Barnes answered, from considerably farther down the slope than she’d expected even if he’d tripped. Something in his voice made her pause.
“Barnes,” she said, “are you injured?”
“Yup,” he said bleakly.
She sighed, and set about picking her way down the hill. The dead men could be examined later. “How bad is it?”
He was lying sprawled, feet up the slope and head down the slope, which was bound to be uncomfortable. “Not good,” he said, and made no attempt to get up.
“Did you break a leg?” she asked. It figured he’d fallen down one of the less-accessible side cuts.
“Nope,” he said, and one of his feet moved feebly. There was something so sweet and vulnerable, Peggy had always rather thought, about the American boys and their big feet in their blocky boots. Steve’s feet were truly massive; Bucky’s, though smaller, were still pretty big.
She reached the level of his feet and looked down at him and saw the blood and said, “Fuck.”
“You sure got that right, sister,” Barnes said.
He’d been gut-shot, which Peggy had seen enough of to know was basically never good. He was losing a lot of blood; the bullet had missed most of the soft organs, hadn’t hit the liver or the kidneys or he’d be dead already, but as it was it was bad enough.
It took everything both of them had but she managed to haul him up to a more level spot, and from there into a hollow where a tree root had formed a little nook, a little sheltered from the elements. Barnes had bitten his lips bloody trying not to scream, and they were both covered in his blood. Peggy collapsed next to him, legs trembling; he wasn’t big like Steve, but he wasn’t small either— a solid twelve or thirteen stone, at least, nearly six foot, those big American feet punctuating a respectably matching frame— and the terrain was unforgiving.
She had nothing, no first-aid kit, no bandages, not even a spare shirt. Their packs were back with the group. Barnes was stark white already, lips pale, breathing shallow.
“I’ll go for help,” Peggy said, collecting herself. “Take my coat, stay warm here. You know how quickly I can move.”
“No,” Barnes said sharply, and caught her wrist as she moved to take her coat off. “No, d— don’t.”
“If you stay warm and still,” Peggy said, but Barnes was shaking his head, face blank as if with terror.
“Don’t go,” he said. “Don’t— don’t leave me here.”
She looked at him for a long moment, and set her mouth. “I can’t carry you out,” she said. “I could barely get you this far. I’m not strong enough.” She couldn’t keep the bitterness from her voice. It was perhaps the first time she’d had to say that. She’d always found a way, before, but this was beyond her.
“Not that,” he said. “Hell, if our— places were reversed, I couldn’t— get you out— you gotta know that. This ain’t — good ground for this—ss-sorta thing.”
“Then I have to leave you if I’m going to get help,” Peggy said.
Barnes stared at her for a long moment. She’d never considered before, a detached part of her noticed, how many different types of blue eyes there were. Steve’s were so brilliant, with their darker rings around the edges of the irises. But Barnes’s were paler, clearer, changeable like the sky. Right now his pupils were dilated with pain and his irises had clouded to an almost steely grey.
“We both know you won’t get— back in time,” Barnes said. “There’s— no way. You’re fast but I’m bleedin’ out.”
“Barnes,” she said, but it was weak. She was covered in his blood. It was true; the bleeding had slowed, but not enough. Not enough. If he were on a surgeon’s table now, or even in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing— or, hell, had anything at all to work with, God, even a bandage or something, but Peggy had nothing, no first aid kit, no dressings, no morphine, and she knew Barnes didn’t carry much of anything either.
“Just,” he said, and his face creased, not with pain but with hesitance. “I got— I just— don’t, I don’t,” and he stopped to breathe, composing himself with an effort.
“Barnes,” she said again, and looked up at the hillside. Even if she could drag him to better shelter— but this was it, this would have to do. Moving him more would do more harm than good.
He caught his breath and grimaced; his skin had gone pale and sweaty, cold. “It’s all right,” he said, terribly calm, and looked up at her with a disturbing serenity. “If you— maybe it’s better. Don’t leave your coat or nothin’, though. It won’t matter.”
“I’m not going to leave you here to die,” Peggy said, racking her brains furiously. There had to be something she could do. But she had no radio, no supplies, nothing. A canteen, a few odds and ends in her pockets, paper and a pencil, a lipstick, a powder compact, spare clips for the pistol, twelve feet of rope whipstitched in the seams of her coat, a few knives and a set of lockpicks, a comb, two small handkerchiefs… ha, two clean menstrual pads, tucked into a pocket in the coat’s lining with a spare belt to hold them, because you just never knew.
She shed her coat and sweater, and took off her shirt and undershirt. “What,” Barnes said blankly, blinking at her, “no, don’t—“
She wriggled back into her sweater and coat, because her hands would go numb if she stayed there in just her brassiere. “I am going to save you,” she said, “because if you think Steve would be angry if I died, that’s nothing to how uncontrollable he’ll be if anything happens to you.”
Barnes was staring at her, and she had a fraction of a second where she was glad he wasn’t being awkward about her relative state of undress— he wasn’t either looking at or averting his eyes from her bra, hadn’t at any point. “What,” he said again.
She peeled his hands away from where they were pressed against his midsection, unfastened his coat, and pulled one of the knives from his belt to cut the ragged bits of his shirt out of the way. He was shaped differently from Steve, built solid but narrow, and he had no spare flesh at all. Not that there would be anywhere a bullet could have gone that wouldn’t damage something crucial, even if he’d been huge.
“It won’t do any good,” he said.
“No exit wound,” she mused, feeling around under his back. Good, because there was less torn flesh to handle; bad, because it meant he’d absorbed all the bullet’s force and likely would have more internal damage. But perhaps it just hadn’t been that powerful a pistol, which would be nice. Not that it would truly matter. He wasn’t wrong; he was a dead man, out here alone.
“Ain’t like it matters,” he said.
“You really shouldn’t speak,” she told him, thinning her lips. Innermost layer, well— she knew the menstrual pads were the cleanest thing, washed in harsh soap and dried in the sun, less likely to harbor contamination than the shirt she’d been wearing two days or the handkerchiefs she’d blown her nose on, so she folded the first one neatly and pressed it into the wound. He went even whiter and silent, hand tangling convulsively in the open front of his coat.
“It’s all right, Barnes,” she murmured; comfort had never been her strong suit.
“No,” he managed finally, “it fuckin’ ain’t,” and bit off the rest as she pressed her hand against the wound and waited, silently, to see how long it took blood to soak through.
She glanced up at him after a moment, and he was watching her. “Good thing I carry wound dressings,” she said, suddenly a little self-conscious about what she was using. They weren’t new, she used them every month and they were made of rags and no longer exactly white. But most unmarried men hadn’t the foggiest idea what they were.
Barnes snorted. “I got three sisters and a ma,” he said, “I know fine well what those are, and I hope I ain’t puttin’ ya out.”
She bit back a laugh. “I don’t believe very many men would have that reaction,” she said.
“Well,” he said, “I— fuck,” and shut up, because she’d folded the second one and pressed it over the first, and layered her undershirt over that, and since he was so unbothered, she used the cloth belt and strips of her shirt to fasten it all into place.
“It’s a start,” she said, sitting back on her heels and wiping her bloody hands on the thighs of her trousers.
He looked up at her, expression gone a little vague. “Sure,” he said. “Go on, then. Go for help. I’ll be fine here.”
“I won’t leave you to die,” she said. “They’ll come for us. You know Steve won’t give up.”
“Go meet ‘im,” Barnes said. “It’ll be faster.” His lips were blue, she noticed with dismay.
“I don’t think so,” she said, and took his hands in hers, chafing them to warm them.
“Don’t be stupid,” he said, letting his eyes drift closed. He was freezing, freezing cold. She needed to do more. Couldn’t risk a fire, but had to warm him.
“I’m not being stupid,” she said, a little crossly as she worked it out in her mind. The two they’d killed, at least one of them had had a pack. She blew on his hands, then folded them into the front of his coat and stood, looking down at him for a moment. He blinked his eyes back open, and saw her feet, so he looked up at her.
“Go on, then,” he said. “Be sensible, now.”
“I am always sensible,” she said. “Stay put, now.”
He snorted. “I’ll try to restrain myself,” he said. She stepped off, scrambling a little ways up the hill toward the clearing where they’d left the corpses.
She paused after a moment, and looked back, and Barnes had rolled himself onto his side and was curled tightly, shoulders pulled up. He looked almost small, and God, there was blood everywhere.
Pistol held at the ready, she approached the clearing, but the two men really were dead. Both had blanket rolls and packs, but one had been shot such that his blanket roll was torn up and full of blood. It would do, for a ground cloth. The other’s was blessedly intact, so she took both, and both packs, and hauled them back down the hill.
She approached silently by habit, and so she saw that Barnes had tipped his head back and was looking up at the sky, tears rolling down his face. He really did think she’d left him to die alone.
It was the work of half a moment to find a stick to break, not too loudly, and then she scuffed her coat sleeve against a trunk, and by the time she came back down he’d wiped his face mostly clean.
It was a good sign he was still together enough to bother. “To the victor, the spoils,” she said lightly, leaning in over him to shove dead boughs into the hollow in the lee of the gully’s slope. She spread the bloody, torn blanket over it, and rolled him onto it.
“Jesus,” he whimpered. She crawled in after him, curling herself around his back, and spread the second blanket over both of them.
“If you keep warm and still,” she said, “I might be able to keep you alive until Steve gets here.”
“You’re a peach,” he said fuzzily, but she felt some of the tension go out of his shoulders.
At first Barnes was just quiet, but as time dragged on it was clear the pain was getting to him. He shoved a fold of his jacked between his teeth and fought to keep silent, but she could feel him intermittently trembling.
He stayed cold for a long time, but finally his body temperature rose enough that he didn’t feel like a corpse in her arms, and she tucked the blanket in around him, dropped her coat on him for good measure, and went out in just her sweater to search the dead men’s packs.
She found spare clothing immediately, and pulled it on so she wouldn’t freeze. The next important thing she found was a medical kit, but when she opened it, most of the things in it did not look familiar. She puzzled out the labels on them, which were all in German, but none of the words meant anything to her. They weren’t the names of medicines she knew. Her German was excellent, but this was gibberish.
There was a typewritten letter tucked into the medical kit as well, with what looked like a set of instructions. She blinked at it for a moment, then set it aside to puzzle through later, but not before her eye lit on enough of the words to suss out that they were instructions for… bringing in… the subject?
No doubt about it, she realized; these men had been sent to capture someone in particular. Most likely Steve, she’d assume, but then, why had they come after Barnes and her? They were both clearly not the right person.
“I can’t find any morphine,” she said, coming to sit next to Barnes. He turned his head a little, and rolled his eyes still further to look at her. “I found their medical kits, they’re better-equipped than we were, but no morphine.”
“Wouldn’t do any good,” Barnes said, looking her over briefly before letting his head drop back to its original position. “Stuff just makes me sick.”
That would’ve been good to know, but Peggy supposed it didn’t matter. “Has the bleeding slowed?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “or I’d be dead already.”
“We should put a hat on you,” she said, and held out the knit cap she’d taken off one of the corpses. “You lose a lot of heat through your head.” It always bothered her that Barnes never wore a hat, regardless of how bitter it was. He owned a hat, a brimmed cap, that he left wedged in his pack most of the time; she had a vague notion he used it if the sun was inclement during sniper activities. She’d seen him grudgingly don it in a driving rain once, and that was about it.
“Nope,” Barnes said. “No thanks.”
He never wore a scarf either. “Seriously,” Peggy said, “you’ll take the blanket and the coat but not the hat. Do you have some sort of personal vendetta against proper winter attire?”
“Nope,” Barnes said. “No thanks.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Peggy said, annoyed. She liked that Barnes was pragmatic and didn’t make a fuss over her being a woman, didn’t insist on going first into places of danger and such, didn’t make a fuss if she had to take her shirt off, and not being at all fazed by the menstrual pads was an even higher level of the same thing, but he didn’t even seem to care that she’d given him her shirt and her coat to keep him warm and that was something else entirely.
She crawled back into the little overhang, tucking herself up against his back, and put the hat into his hand. “Put the fucking hat on,” she said.
“Nope,” Barnes said.
She sighed, let her head come to rest against the back of his shoulder. “Can I ask why,” she said.
“Rather you didn’t,” Barnes said. His tone really wasn’t flippant, and she considered that for a moment.
“Give me your hand,” she said, and after a moment he slipped one of his hands into her outstretched one. She held it a moment; her own hands were cold, and his were about the same. So he was warmer than he had been. She let go. “All right,” she said. “Fine. Be a brat and don’t wear a hat. Didn’t your mother teach you any sense?”
“Leave my mother outta this,” Barnes said, but there was no real rancor in it; he sounded more sad than anything.
“You’ll see her again,” Peggy said.
“That ain’t what I’m worried about,” Barnes muttered.
She let silence spin out a moment, trying to think of a way to ask the formless question spinning around the front of her mind. “Barnes,” she said finally.
“Thought you said I shouldn’t speak,” he said.
“I was just trying to get you to hold still when I said that,” she said. “I have a question now, though, and I do need you to answer it, to the best of your ability.”
“Great,” he said.
“When you were held captive,” she said. He hadn’t wanted to talk then, the debriefing he’d given had been grudging and minimal, but there had been needle marks in his arms, and she knew he’d been drugged extensively by the Germans; he’d admitted as much, but had gone into no further detail.
“No,” he said, “I ain’t talkin’ about that.”
“The men we killed just now,” she said, “they had papers with them, instructions. I couldn’t really understand but I just need to know. Was anything done to you that would make them want to recapture you for further study?”
Barnes was silent, but she could feel how tense his shoulders had gone. “I don’t know what they’d want,” he said finally.
“You’re the only one who survived solitary confinement in that entire group,” Peggy pressed on, ruthlessly. “What did they do to you?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He was trembling minutely.
“Whatever it was,” she said, “it could well be you they were after, just now.”
He didn’t answer for a long enough time that she was about to repeat the question more insistently, but finally his shoulders hunched in even tighter, and he said quietly, “Could be.”
She hadn’t expected to win this, and so didn’t know what to do with the information. So she lay silent a moment, turning that over in her head. Barnes was curled tightly, radiating despair, and finally she raised her hand to rub at his arm as soothingly as she could manage. “Have they tried before?” she asked.
“Don’t know,” he said miserably, and it was almost certainly a yes. “If they have it ain’t been obvious.” Meaning, they didn’t succeed, so it could be ignored.
Some of the gibberish, she thought, might make sense. “They were testing super-soldier serums on you, weren’t they,” she said.
Barnes didn’t answer. She didn’t need him to, though. She thought back, for a moment, to the way Steve had screamed in that awful machine. She remembered the healing marks on Barnes’s arms, that were clearly shackle galls where he’d been tied down, where he’d struggled.
“I’m sorry, Barnes,” she said quietly.
“For what?” He turned his head slightly.
“That that happened to you,” she said. “It must have been awful, and I’m not trying to make it worse by asking questions, I’m just trying to figure out who specifically is trying to kill us just now, and why.”
“Fair,” Barnes said.
“I won’t ask any more,” she said. But she was glad, now, she’d bothered to try to save him. If those experiments had been at all successful, it might not have been a futile effort.
After a long while, Barnes said, “Thanks,” and covered her hand with his.
“They’ll find us soon. Steve won’t have given up,” she ventured after a little while. “I’ll go up in a bit and see if they’ve come by looking for us.”
“There’d be a Jeep,” Barnes said indistinctly.
He was probably right; a search party would probably have managed to scrounge up a vehicle of some sort. They were a fair distance off any roads, though. She reconsidered her earlier decision not to build a fire. “What are the odds, do you suppose, that a fire would attract the wrong side?”
“Depends on who sent those two guys,” Barnes said.
“Mm.” Peggy considered it. “But if Steve’s looking for us, and can’t find us—“
“Depends how you like your odds,” Barnes said.
“I think I’ll risk the fire,” Peggy said.
Building it took her some time and effort, and she didn’t think to check on Barnes until he made an odd noise. She frowned over her shoulder at him, fed a few bigger pieces of wood into the fire, and then turned to put her hand on his arm.
“No,” Barnes hissed tightly, “please no,” and she leaned cautiously over to determine that he was staring unseeing at the dirt bank in front of him. Frowning, she touched his forehead, and he jerked away, but not before she noted that he was burning up with fever.
“Barnes,” she said.
He hissed through his teeth, panting for breath, doubled up around the wound in his gut. “It burns,” he panted.
“Oh god,” Peggy said. She’d thought he was safe, that the wound hadn’t compromised his stomach, but she knew all too well how a serious abdominal wound could expose delicate internal organs to wayward stomach acid. “I thought we were past the danger.”
“Fuck,” he gasped. “Not— not like that— it’s— ahh, fuck.”
“What is it?” she asked, frustrated and concerned.
Abruptly he shoved himself upright, shuddering. “Please,” he said in German, ragged and desperate, “please no, not this, not this!”
“Barnes,” she said.
“I’m not telling you anything,” he said, still in German, “because I don’t know anything! Why are you doing this when you don’t even ask me any questions!”
His German was better than he’d ever let on in her hearing; he’d always had a terrible, careless and clumsy accent, but it was clearly entirely deliberate if this was anything to go by. “Barnes,” she said again, grabbing him by the shoulders before he could fall and damage himself, “Barnes, it’s all right.”
He stared at her blankly for a moment, panting for breath and shuddering, and in a moment she saw his eyes actually register her. “Carter,” he said, quieter. He blinked, and registered their surroundings.
“Does it still burn?” she asked. “Do I need to try to flush the wound out?”
He swallowed hard, visibly trying to collect himself; his hands came up and wrapped around her arms, but he wasn’t trying to free himself from her. “No, it,” he said, and faltered, shivering. After a moment he continued, quietly, “It’s past the worst.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, baffled. She put her hand to his forehead again, and it was a little warm, but much less-so than the burning of a few moments ago. “Barnes, what—“
It struck her suddenly that she had no idea what it looked or felt like for Steve to heal an injury. She just knew that he could. If they’d experimented on Barnes…
He was watching her, and made a wry face; she’d clearly let something of her thoughts show in her expression. “You figured somethin’ out,” he said quietly.
“I don’t know if I did,” she said. “But— you don’t know what they did to you, at all?”
He shook his head. “I know I watched other men die from it,” he said. “Or turn— bad. Then die.” He was still sitting up under his own power, and he looked shaky, but his color was improved— his hair was all stuck to his face with sweat but he wasn’t white and shocky-looking anymore. “And that— the man, with the red skull-thing for a face, when we were leaving the factory— he’s the second-best result after— after Steve.”
Peggy stared at him. “Well,” she said after a moment. She wondered what his injury looked like now. He was breathing better. It was— it was eerie. “I suppose I understand your concern, Barnes, but—“
“My skin is still on my face,” Barnes said, a little bitterly, “but— I don’t know how to tell what it did— inside.”
He still had his hand wrapped around her one arm, the one still on his shoulder. She pulled away, then sat next to him, pressing her hip to his, winding her arm around his back. “Does Steve know,” she asked quietly.
He shook his head, looking down at his lap. “I was,” he said, and faltered. “Tryin’ not to think about it. Like if I don’t… admit it… it’s not real. But— I should be dead.”
“Is this the first time you’ve been injured seriously?” she asked.
He glanced over at her, then away. “First time I couldn’t convince myself it was just that I’d overestimated the damage,” he said. “I think I broke my ankle last month.”
“You sprained it,” Peggy said.
He shook his head. “Felt it crack,” he said. “And it was— I mean, it was real bad. And I kinda wrapped it real tight, and told Dugan it wasn’t that bad, and he got me back to camp and I… walked it off in a couple of days. But it was— it was real bad, it wasn’t even— wasn’t even facing right, at first.”
“Oh,” Peggy said. Yes, that was pretty hard to mistake.
“I thought I was just, y’know— it hurt, I wasn’t thinking straight, it looked worse than it was— I kinda see things that aren’t really… real sometimes.” He was looking down and away again. “And I just— and it was burning, something awful, when I was in the back of the Jeep, but it was so loud and nobody’d be able to hear me anyway, so I just rode it out, and then— then I could put weight on it.”
“I’ll look into this, Barnes,” Peggy said, “but I’ll keep your name out of it, all right? I’ll say I overheard something, or caught a glimpse of a document I couldn’t get a copy of, and I’ll find out.”
He looked full into her face, and his expression was guarded, but there was clearly hope in it. “Yeah?”
“If I tell on you they’d disappear you for study,” Peggy said. “Maybe you and Steve— they haven’t taken him, so far, because he’s too visible now, but if they had a set, an original and a copy— Barnes, I want you where you are. I won’t breathe a word attached to your name.”
“They’d go after my sisters,” Barnes said urgently. “If they wanted to see what it changed in me? I got full-blood siblings, Carter, they’d want to compare— they’d make ‘em lab rats, you know they don’t care about— it’s only because Steve ain’t got no blood relatives they ain’t gone after them, you know he overheard ‘em say that.”
“Oh my,” Peggy said, and she instantly knew it was true. “Oh— Barnes. Of course.”
“So I mean,” he said, “I mean even— even if somethin’ happens to me, Carter— even if I die, or if I go— bad, y’know? They’d still— my sisters. You know?”
“I’ll take it to my grave, Barnes,” Peggy said. “To my grave.”
He held her gaze for a long moment, and she could see it now, the magnetism Steve always wistfully talked about in the Bucky of yore. Barnes kept it under wraps, but he had a heavy weight of personality he could bring to bear on his own, that was for certain.
Peggy wouldn’t underestimate him again.
“Okay,” he said. He held out his right hand. “Shake on it. You don’t tell nobody, I’ll tell you all I know.”
“Yes,” she said, and shook.
“Don’t even tell Steve,” he added, still holding her hand. “Not a word.”
She hesitated, but he was dead serious. “All right,” she said, and he let go.
“I hear a Jeep,” he said. Peggy’s hearing was good, but from his expression he’d heard it a few moments ago and had been wrapping up the conversation first. Well, Steve’s hearing was eerie. Another data point. “What’s our cover story?”
“One of them stabbed you,” she said, “and it looked worse than it was.”
Barnes nodded. “You’re a good egg, Carter,” he said.