It hadn’t occurred to Steve how fortunate the Howlies had been at avoiding casualties until he found Bucky pinned down by gunmen on Zola’s train. In their years of raiding Hydra bases, he had admittedly gotten confident – perhaps overly so. But it had been so easy, to bask in the glow of one victory after another, to develop increasingly more risky and complicated missions for their unit to inevitably succeed in, as their victories continued to mount. Seeing his best friend through the small window, pale-faced and wide-eyed and apparently out of ammunition, was a horrifying jolt of how stupid Steve had been, how much better a soldier his sergeant was than him.
Multiple times, Steve had brushed off Bucky’s muttered complaints that he’d get them all killed, blamed it on the stress that kept piling up on their sniper and the booze that he’d been doing his best to ignore, poured Bucky into his bunk and tucked him in and joined him in pointedly ignoring it all the next morning. As he considered their situation, it occurred to Steve for the first time that he might have been right – that they might both be snuffed out here, on their most important mission of them all. A surge of adrenaline pumped through him at the thought, and he readied his side-arm and shield before pounding on the locking mechanism to open the door between the compartments, catching Bucky’s eye and tossing him the gun before charging into the compartment. He’d be damned before he let them fail.
His pulse was still thundering in his ears after the final gunman went down, so much so that he barely registered Bucky’s shaky, and ironically familiar, insistence that he’d had everything under control. “I know you did,” Steve responded with a tight smile, checking his friend over and preparing to offer… something before they continued on through the train. As he took a breath to continue, he heard the ominous whir of the damned Hydra beams powering up, and looked to the door just in time to see the soldier he thought he had incapacitated filling the space, the blue glow of his weapon pulsing in warning. “Get down!” he shouted, pulling Bucky behind him as the entire compartment seemed to erupt with blue light.
The shield took the brunt of the impact, thankfully, although the force of it knocked it from his hands and threw Steve into the wall of the compartment. He was able to regain his bearings immediately, only to watch in horror as Bucky, the idiot, snatched up the shield himself and tried to face the soldier with his side arm. There wasn’t even time for Steve to react – one moment he was watching Bucky fire worthless shots at the Hydra armor, shield flopping uselessly on his forearm, the next he was blasted out the opening that Steve had barely realized was there.
Watching Bucky go flying sent Steve into immediate action: he snatched up the shield, flinging it at the Hydra goon with all of his might and smashing him in the neck plate with enough force to be certain that he was down for good, then rushed to the hole that had been ripped in the side of the train, tearing his helmet off as he screamed Bucky’s name. Thankfully, somehow, he found him still there, gripping on a teetering handrail for dear life as the frosty air of the Alps whipped past them.
“Hang on!” Steve shouted over the continued noise of the train, shimmying out onto another piece of railing, still too far from Bucky’s outstretched hand to do a damned bit of good. He inched as far as he could along the railing, stretching as much as possible as he shouted, “Grab my hand!” But it was obvious that there was still too much distance between them – Bucky’s hand flailed towards him but still missed by inches.
A horrifying creak pierced through even the sound of the train and the wind, and Steve realized that Bucky’s railing was coming loose. He let go himself, flinging his body thoughtlessly in the direction of his best friend in the world – his right hand barely managing to gain purchase on the molding of the torn-out wall, and his left hand closing desperately around Bucky’s wrist. Steve’s fingers squeezed so hard that he felt the metal of the train compressing beneath them, clinging desperately against the force of the wind and the weight of two grown men.
Bucky’s left hand flailed for a moment, before gripping Steve’s forearm like a vice, his eyes wide and panicked as they both clung to each other. “Can you climb?!” Steve asked, uncertain of how long he would be able to support the both of them and unable to look away from Bucky’s face to see how close they were to escaping the pass. After a few more terrifying moments which stretched for far too long, Bucky nodded tightly, before pulling himself up against Steve’s grasp, first grabbing hold of his elbow, then his shoulders, and finally managing to hoist himself back to the undamaged railing. Steve followed suit, climbing the scaffolding of the wall until he was able to reach the railing as well, then shimmying his way back to the opening of the train.
Before Steve could travel the final foot himself, Bucky’s arm reached out of the train again, grabbing him with a strength that Steve was still too panicked to question and hauling him back inside of the damaged compartment. The momentum of the motion knocked them both to the floor, where they clung to each other in silence, barely noticing the continued howl of the wind outside of the train over the ragged sound of their panting breaths. Steve had no idea how long they remained there before Bucky pulled himself away, still grasping Steve’s shoulders tightly enough to be uncomfortable. Bucky’s pale blue eyes were as wide as Steve had ever seen them, his face still grey with fear, his hair windblown and disheveled, and yet Steve couldn’t help himself from thinking that in that moment… he was the most beautiful thing he’d ever laid eyes on.
Time dragged on, Bucky staring at him with an intensity that made Steve’s guts begin to twist in anticipation of what might come next, before Bucky drew a deep, ragged breath and pushed himself to his feet. “We need to move forward,” he croaked, moving to the body of the Hydra soldier he had shot and stealing the dead man’s rifle, “check on Gabe’s progress.”
Steve simply nodded in silence, standing on his own shaking legs and grabbing his shield with numb fingers. They moved through the next two compartments together, Steve doing his best to push the horror of the past few minutes out of his mind to focus on the mission. Bucky stalked ahead purposefully, seemingly recovered from the entire ordeal, before pausing at the door of the engine room, his grip on his weapon tight enough that Steve could see his knuckles go white.
“I’ll stand watch,” he said tightly, turning his back on the door and nodding to Steve, “make sure they don’t have any more security coming up from the rear… you go in and wrap this up.” Steve opened his mouth to argue, completely reluctant to let Bucky out of his sight, even for a moment, but Bucky turned to him, his eyes now dark and wild. “I can’t go in there, Steve… I know we need his intel, but if I see that little rat bastard, I’m gonna to fuckin' kill him on sight.”
It hadn’t even occurred to Steve until that moment that it had been Zola who had experimented on Bucky while he’d been a POW… all the more reason that he never should have brought his friend on the damned train in the first place. He swallowed down the bile that rose in his throat at the thought, reaching out and squeezing Bucky’s shoulder as he nodded – Steve would respect his wishes, would carry out the mission… but he needed the physical reminder that his best friend… his whole damned world, if he was being honest… was still here. “Bang the door if you need me,” he finally heard himself say, giving the blue coat one final squeeze before turning the release handle on the door and letting himself into the engine room.
Gabe stood at the control panel of the train, depressing a lever as he smiled over the bound bodies of both Zola and the Hydra conductor. “What the hell took you so long, Cap?” He asked jovially, a proud smile breaking out on his face as the tinny voices of the other Commandoes whooped in victory on the other end of his radio.
Steve instinctively glanced over his shoulder, again reassuring himself that everything had turned out as he caught sight of Bucky’s dark brown hair on the other side of the window.
It hadn’t occurred to him how fortunate they had been to make it this far in the war and not lose a man.
In that moment, Steve swore to himself that he wouldn’t take it for granted again – and that he’d die long before he put Bucky at such a risk again.