Steve has been trained in the bored professional look by the best. He’s practiced it, refined it, perfected it. He thanks god (or maybe Romanov) that he can fall back on that muscle memory. Because he’s on a floor of this building higher up than he's ever been before, sitting in an office that looks like it's made of money. There are bookshelves lining the walls filled with dark, leather-bound books and a large window along the back wall, showcasing the city skyline. Steve is sinking into the leather chair with its arms that come up to his shoulders and studiously not wiping the sweat off his hands.
Agent Malik Harris sits in a matching leather chair next to him, looking smug, if a little twitchy around the eyes. Steve's pretty sure he's never been up here either.
The T.V. screen sitting on the desk is turned to face them, and Alexander Pierce, self-assured and cool, hands clasped together at a desk in an undisclosed location, stares out at them. Steve's worked in this building for 2 years and this is the first time he's so much as heard mention of Alexander Pierce. But Harris' deferent attitude tells him everything he needs to know about the chain of command here, and the classification of wherever he's being transferred.
“Agent Harris has been impressed by your dedication and intelligence,” Pierce says. “He tells me you've been doing good work, furthering our cause.”
Pierce frowns, then leans forward fractionally. Steve feels like a mouse about to be swept up in the talons of an eagle. Or maybe a hawk.
“Why did you join Hydra?”
Steve wets his lips. Finally, someone fucking asks. He's practiced this.
“I believe in peace, and I believe this organization is the only one capable—you, sir, are the only one capable—of making the tough decisions that need to be made before peace can become a reality.”
Pierce smiles briefly. It could be fatherly, encouraging, if not for the coldness in his eyes. “We could use men like you on some central operations.”
“I’m happy to be of use wherever I’m needed.”
Nothing else of much importance has been going on in this building, aside from maybe the drone surveillance Steve’s been doing, but it makes sense now. The security, the banks of elevators that never seem to get used.
Steve stands next to Sanford in the observatory, horrified, and trying not to look it. He focuses on his reflection in the glass and schools away the pinch between his eyebrows before refocusing on the procedure below.
They knew the Hydra cancer growing under their noses ran deep— international espionage, double— triple agents, deals and trades under the table— but they couldn’t have dreamed this.
Steve was even given the file yesterday, but it still hits him like a punch to the chest.
It’s the Winter Soldier.
In the room below, a dark-haired man is strapped to a chair. Selfishly, Steve wishes he hadn’t fought so hard for this assignment, and let Fury send Rodriguez instead.
“We try not to leave him out on missions for longer than a week at a time,” Sanford says. “If he’s not wiped for longer than that, he starts getting sloppy, confused.” He stuffs his hands into the pockets of his white coat and rocks back on his heels. “They’ve been keeping him out of cryostasis more and more, which I’m not entirely sure is a good idea. It’s like recording over a tape, if you even know what I mean,” he shoots a wry smile at Steve, “or photocopying a photocopy. Eventually it just gets worn out. I think they should put him in cryo and give him a good rest, but,” he shrugs his disapproval. “He just came off a mission and they’re sending him right back out again. Must have some big plans in the works.”
Steve nods; professional, courteous with just the right touch of boredom.
“Alright, ready to go in?”
Not at all.
Sanford sits at the computer bay and logs in, narrating the process to Steve, whose eyes keep sliding over to the man. He’s barefoot, wearing black utility pants and no shirt. His left arm and shoulder is metal, and where it’s attached to his torso, the skin is mottled and pink, like a burn. His hair is wet, freshly washed, and the skin on his flesh hand is dry and cracked, like he’s been living in dry desert air. Faint scars slash and cross along his ribs and chest, pale and raised.
Jameson is standing next to the chair, where the man’s metal arm is strapped down. A panel has been removed, and he’s fiddling with something inside using two long tweezers. Steve’s breath comes quicker as nausea makes a cold sweat prickle between his shoulder blades.
Behind the chair is a gurney and several white cabinets. There’s a woman in a lab coat who Steve’s never met before, preparing a syringe on a metal tray.
Sanford rolls a metal cart over to the other side of the Soldier and sticks white circular stickers attached to electrodes over his temples, heart and ribs. There’s a halo attached to the chair and Sanford pulls it down over the crown of the Soldier’s head. The Soldier blinks up toward the observatory; awake, but seemingly unaware. When Sanford holds the black bite guard up to his mouth, he opens it automatically.
The woman rolls on her office chair around the Soldier and up to Steve.
“Ready when you are, Dr. Sanford. Hey, I’m Tina Vantchev.” She holds her hand out, wearing a purple latex glove, then retracts it with a chuckle and an apologetic wave.
“Steve’s my replacement. He’s been in surveillance, haven’t you?” Sanford says, plopping down into the worn black chair in front of the control panel.
“Yeah, um, for about two years.”
“Well, quite the promotion,” Tina says, then kicks away and rolls over to the man’s flesh arm.
“Ok, this monitor shows the EKG,” Sanford says, but Steve is still standing between the computer bay and the Chair. The Soldier’s eyes flick to him and Steve flinches viscerally. His eyes are pale blue, almost grey, and so very cold. They skitter away to the left of Steve’s head, then jump back. A knot wells in Steve’s throat, equal parts horror, sadness and fury.
“and this one shows th—Солдат!” Steve jumps about a foot in the air and the Soldier’s eyes drop sharply to the floor. Sanford grabs Steve’s arm and yanks at it. He stumbles with the force of it, over toward the control panel. “Steve, I told you. No eye contact,” he says, hushed, glancing furtively at the Soldier. “It’s part of his conditioning. No eye contact, no touching, ok?” Sanford says forcefully, then clears his throat and shifts in his chair.
“Now, this one is brain activity. If it goes above this level, cut immediately, but it usually falls around here. Then when it levels off, you’re good,” Sanford says, pointing at the graph on the screen. “Save the readout info with the date when you’re done.”
“Ok, all good,” Jameson says, closing the plate on the metal arm. It clicks and whirs as the plates recalibrate and settle.
“Ready, Tina,” Sanford says. Tina injects her syringe into the Soldier’s vein.
“Clear,” she says when she rolls away.
“Clear. Three, two, one,” Sanford flicks a switch and turns a dial. Electricity fills the room, crackling and raising the hairs on Steve’s arms. Or maybe that’s just because of the sound of the Soldier’s grunts and choked-off screams. His fingers dig into the black arm of the chair, the veins standing out in his neck and forehead.
Steve had given up his entire life for two years to go undercover working for one of the most lethal organizations in history. This mission will upend the intelligence community and expose wrongdoing all the way up to the White House. But for one wild moment, Steve contemplates ending it right here. Sanford would be easy to incapacitate, the man’s pushing 70. Jameson has a pistol in a holster under his left arm but Dr. Vantchev could be overpowered, use the Crimson Trace on her thigh to kill Jameson; cut the power to this monstrosity and save this man, who’s being tortured right in front of him under the guise of a professional workplace.
Instead, Steve focuses on the spikes on the graph, and when it evens out, Sanford turns the dial back to zero and flips the metal safety switch.
“It’s easy from here,” Sanford says. He moves to the chair and pulls the halo up, peels the electrodes off the Soldier, whose chest is heaving, and eyes are closed. Sanford unstraps the belt bindings from his arms and legs and flips the switch on the chair to tilt it upward. The man stands and steps off obediently, swaying slightly, eyes fixed forward.
Steve walks side by side with Sanford through the door opposite the one they entered through, with the Soldier trailing behind, Jameson and Tina bringing up the rear. Prickles run down Steve’s spine, and he fights the urge to turn around, get behind the threat.
They pause at the first door on the left. It’s white, with a keypad lock and a square glass window that’s frosting around the edges.
“Here’s the cryo room. When he comes back, you’ll put him in here afterward. I’ll go over this with you tomorrow. But right now, he’s going out, so you hand him off to Rumlow in briefing.” Steve lifts up on his toes to see the cryostasis chamber inside, a big metal tank with a small window glowing blue.
At the end of the hall is a locker room. Steve can see an armory to the left, a gym straight ahead and a long table to the right that holds an array of guns and tac gear. Agent Rumlow stands there, arms crossed, looking impatient.
“Finally,” he mutters, reaching forward with one hand. Sanford moves to the side to let Rumlow take the Soldier by the arm and shove him toward the table. He starts pulling on the gear; jacket, vest, strapping knives to his thighs. As Steve follows Sanford back out the way they came, he hears Rumlow beginning his brief.
“Two targets, one male—“
“There are a couple deactivation phrases you should know,” Sanford says as they head back toward the procedure room. Jameson and Tina are up ahead, talking between themselves. Jameson bumps her with his shoulder and she laughs. “In case he ever gets a little wonky. Отставить is a good one, it should make him stop whatever he’s doing. Or call him Солдат, like I did, but you have to be sharp about it. A lot of it is tone.”
Like training a dog. Steve crushes his jaw.
He takes his lunch with Sanford in the cafeteria, talking about his retirement, because Steve’s already had the confidentiality meeting and knows that speaking about his new project anywhere outside procedural rooms is strictly prohibited.
The Winter Soldier file belongs to Steve now, at his desk only, never to leave office grounds. But there’s not much in it that doesn’t pertain to maintenance of the Soldier. There's control panel key sequences, average body and brain measurements for reference, some history of the construction of the arm. Nothing about who he was before, not even a name. Like he just sprung into existence for Hydra purposes. Rumors in the intelligence community whispered he was American. A special ops turncoat they recruited. Steve finds it hard to believe anyone would have volunteered for this kind of torture, but maybe he didn’t know what he was getting himself into.
After he orders in dinner that night, and the sun has set, he walks to the station and takes the train across town. He finds a phone booth outside a sleepy bodega and calls a number long since committed to memory. It rings six times, then the line clicks open.
“What kinda service you runnin’ here?” Steve says, and hears another click.
“Why are you calling me?” Fury sounds annoyed and maybe a little tired, but that’s par for the course.
“They have the Winter Soldier.”
There’s a pause. Steve leans his shoulder against the glass of the booth, suddenly very tired.
“That’s a myth.”
“I just spent my day learning about how to keep him. I’m tellin’ you, he’s fucking real.”
“Call in when you have more. Something concrete that we can take to the DA.”
“Yessir,” he says, and the line goes dead. Steve buys a carton of orange juice and a travel size bottle of Eucerin from the bodega and goes back to his apartment, but doesn't sleep for a long time.
Солдат = Soldat/Soldier
Отставить = Ustapat/Stand down
Update: Big thanks to tumblr user northernstardust for help with my very poor Russian translations throughout
Chapter 3: 32557038
“For he’s a jolly good fellow, which nobody can deny!”
Sanford waves demurely at his coworkers.
“Thanks everyone, thank you. It’s been wonderful working with you all. I’ve had a fulfilling career, doing important work that I believe in,” he clears his throat of emotion, “We’ll leave it at that. Hail Hydra!”
“Hail Hydra,” Steve choruses with the rest of them, Dixie cup of punch in one hand, paper plate of cake in the other. He winds through the lunchroom toward his target, keeping his head down. He knows the names of thirty or so, but has only spoken to maybe a dozen of them in the last two years he’s worked among them. He’s been toeing the line between being forgettable and getting in with the right circle, and it’s gotten him good results.
“Hey, Jenny,” he says to the greying woman standing by the refrigerator.
“Who’s retiring next? This is pretty great.”
“Eh, they usually order from Martino’s, I don’t know what this garbage is,” she says, gesturing to his cake.
“Sugar is sugar. It all gives me a headache.”
Jenny hums. “So you’re filling the old man’s shoes, huh?”
He takes a bite of his cake. It really is garbage; cardboardy and dry, the frosting grainy and too sweet.
“Strictly classified,” he winks, “Need-to-know only.”
“Oh you’re Mr. Mysterious all of a sudden. You should ask Maggie out now, she’d probably change her tune.”
“Pf, I’m aiming my sights higher, now, Ms. Callahan,” he drops his voice comically low. She laughs.
“Hey, can I come look in the archives later? I wanna find Sanford’s first badge picture, make a couple hundred photocopies.”
Jenny laughs again. “You evil genius. Of course, I’m there until four.”
The archives take up the entirety of level B8, they made no secret of that, it’s displayed in white letters on the lobby floor map. If the Winter Soldier myths are correct, the files might begin between 1943 and 1950. If they're even at this location, and that's a big if.
Steve jogs off the elevator up to the glass window Jenny’s sitting behind.
She looks up, smiling. “There you are. Sorry, Steve, I’m leaving in 20 minutes.”
“I know, I got held up. Can I still come look? I bet I could find it quick. You can leave if you have to, the door will lock automatically behind me, won’t it?”
“I can’t leave you in there,” she scoffs.
“Jenny, tomorrow is Bill’s last day. I gotta get it now so I can plaster his handsome ‘70s stache all over the lunchroom. Please?”
She rolls her eyes. “Fine. Just make sure you turn off all the lights.”
“Will do,” he says, as she buzzes him in. Through the doorway, she hands him a keychain with six keys on it.
“It’s probably in that second room to the left,” she says. “I expect those back tomorrow morning with a chocolate cream donut.”
“Yes ma’am. Have a good night.”
He uses one key to unlock the door to the second room to the left, then waits 15 minutes until he sees Jenny pack up her purse and leave. He locks the room as he leaves and assesses the other five doors down the hall.
He tries three keys before he finds the one that fits the last door. It smells musty inside, so he starts there. There are 20 rows of green and black filing cabinets, each six bins tall.
Most of the important documents from the last 80 years of Hydra history are down here. You can’t hack a piece of paper, or load it onto a USB stick, and the self-destruct protocols are foolproof.
Some cabinet drawers are labeled intuitively. Project Neptun, Operation Silber, HR 1960-1965. He’s sneezed a dozen times and his neck is starting to get sore when a drawer labeled Зима catches his eye.
He pulls out one manila folder, the edges brittle with dust and age. Inside is a history of torture and abuse akin to concentration camps of WWII.
Project Winter Soldier
Captured in combat, transferred to Dr. Zola at Azzanno Base for testing.
- Subject Dugan, Timothy, Corporal. Aged 29 years. Two rounds of injections, died of internal injuries 12/10/1943.
- Subject Jones, Gabriel, Private. Aged 26 years. Two rounds of injections, died of heart failure 1/2/1944.
- Subject Barnes, James, Sergeant. Aged 25 years. Shows compatibility with serum. Muscle growth, enhanced healing and strength. Recommend extended experimentation.
- Cease capture of additional subjects.
The grainy black and white photo shows him on a table, left arm gone just above the elbow, two doctors in white masks and coats hovering over him, but his face is clear.
He was American, but he wasn’t a Hydra agent. He didn’t volunteer for this. He was a POW.
Steve takes pictures of the documents, uploads them to his cloud and deletes them from his phone, then returns the file. He snags Sanford’s HR file on his way out, right where he knew it would be, and makes good on his promise.
Steve is on call for the next two days in anticipation of the Soldier’s return. He goes to the Starbucks on the corner and does a search on James Barnes. Steve almost doesn’t recognize him in the picture, dressed in his army greens, smiling. But the shape of his mouth and eyes is the same.
Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, MIA 1943, presumed dead. Aside from that announcement in the newspaper, there’s one article from the ‘70s profiling him and several other Brooklyn soldiers.
'“Bucky was a good boy,” James’ youngest sister, Rebecca Clark said. “Kind and generous. Charming.” She laughs through her tears, looking down at the framed picture of her big brother in her hands. “Everybody loved him.”'
Later that evening Steve is heating up a frozen dinner in the microwave with the T.V. turned on to a news station. The headline is small, but somehow it catches his eye.
Four High Ranking Bulgarian Government Officials Killed in Freak Accident
They drove in separate cars to avoid this kind of disaster, and there hasn't been a rock slide on that cliff face since the '20s, when they installed the metal net. There's not much more information than that. But Steve knows more about it than he wants to already.
Steve waits in the procedure room after getting the call to report to B12 the next day, fingers tapping against his thigh quickly and without rhythm.
The swinging doors push open and Tina walks in, Bucky walking stiffly behind her. Jameson follows, absently swiping at the iPhone in his hand. Steve hates him.
Bucky’s hair is wet, his bare chest shining with water droplets from the tips of his long hair, and there’s a piece of gauze taped to his left side. Steve sees him differently now. He's sure this perspective shift is going to cause him trouble, but he doesn't see him as the Soldier anymore, a weapon, unstable and to be feared. He sees him for what he really is: a man, a victim.
“Hey, Steve,” Tina says, steering Bucky to the chair. He settles into it without encouragement. Steve keeps his eyes on Bucky’s face as he buckles the straps around his wrist and ankles, leaving the left free for Jameson to evaluate. Bucky doesn’t look at him.
“So how did that date go, Yeni?” Tina asks, continuing their conversation from the med room. Jameson tucks his phone in his pocket and starts testing the mobility on the metal arm, moving the joints of his fingers and wrist.
“Great, actually. She's a gymnast.”
“Hm. No kidding?”
Jameson and Tina flirt aggressively while Steve rolls his metal cart up next to the chair. He places the white electrodes slightly off mark. Steve isn’t a doctor of any sort, but these people aren’t exactly the best brain surgeons in the world, either. It might skew the effectiveness of the wipe, and Steve hopes the placement won’t hurt Bucky any worse than before. He can blame his newness to the project if it ever comes back around to him.
It’s dangerous to tamper with a man’s brain this way. After 75 years of torture, not completely wiping him could result in any manner of rash behavior, including and not limited to killing those with a hand in his torture. Steve now being one of them. But sabotage was part of his mission plan, so Steve places the electrode slightly lower on his temple.
When Steve looks up at his face, Bucky’s eyes are on him, so he holds his gaze. If eye contact is a thing he hasn’t gotten much of in the last 75 years, if it’s something that makes him feel connected to another human, it’s literally the very least Steve can do. Steve tries for a smile, or at least to send him something assuring, but finds that he can’t, given the circumstances.
“Uh-uh, motherfucker,” Jameson says from behind, and Bucky jerks back against the chair as the thrum of electricity pulses around him, his jaw and eyes clenched tight.
Steve spins and pushes Jameson away from the controls, where his hand is on the dial. Steve cranks the dial down and slams the safety switch. Jameson looks shocked, and a little affronted.
“Don’t you ever fucking touch that again.”
“He looked right at you.”
“I don’t care.”
“Dr. Sanford said—“
“I. Don’t care.” He’s able to keep himself from decking Jameson, but unable to stop his words or his vicious tone. “This is my panel now. And if you ever touch that fucking dial again, I will break your two favorite fingers. Do you understand me?”
Jameson is glaring, a hateful scowl twisting his mouth.
“Yes, alright, Jesus.”
Bucky fixes his eyes up toward the ceiling, opens his mouth when Steve offers the bite guard. Steve pulls the halo over his head.
“Clear,” says Tina.
“Clear,” mutters Jameson.
“Clear. Three, two, one.” Steve watches Bucky’s face carefully as he administers the electric current, watching for signs of excess distress. He seems to be in no more pain than last time, and Steve can be grateful that his sabotage isn’t harming him any more than his usual punishment. The readout of brain activity levels out a lot quicker than normal, hopefully due to the botched sensor placement, and Steve kills the switch.
He removes the electrodes and tilts the chair up. Bucky steps off, swaying slightly. He follows Steve automatically when he moves through the swinging doors to the cryo room. He swipes his card and the door lock clicks open when the keypad turns green. Steve pushes it open, inhaling sharply with the temperature drop, the warring scents of antiseptic and ice. Tina follows behind and stands by the door, arms crossed over her chest.
Bucky stands in the middle of the freezing room, barefoot and shirtless. Steve punches a key sequence on the side of the tank and his breath is stolen again when the door pops outward and slides to the left. Bucky steps inside and leans back against the chamber.
Another key sequence and the door slides shut. The lights above the keypad blink from red to yellow to green. Tina is already halfway out the door.
“See you next time,” she says over her shoulder. Steve doesn’t bother to answer.
As the gases hiss and the tank crackles with the freezing temperatures, Steve steps closer to watch through the small window. His heart is hammering behind his chest with the wrongness of it, the wrongness that he’s a part of, the pain that he’s inflicting.
But then Bucky looks straight at him—through him, to his soul. He looks as serene as Steve’s ever seen him; not just blank, but peaceful. Still locked on Steve, Bucky’s eyes go unfocused before they slide closed in sleep.
Chapter 4: Transatlanticism
Солдат = Soldat/Soldier
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sixteen days later, Steve gets a text message at 1:15 p.m. Soldier to Briefing by 1600. It auto-deletes 30 seconds later.
He scans his badge six times on his way to level B12.
He’s supposed to wait for Tina or Jameson. Two people attend the Soldier at all times, but he’s still in the sweet spot where he can blame being new and people will only think him incompetent, not a traitor.
He goes first to the window of the tank, to look in at Bucky’s face. He’s asleep, his skin slightly blue, and Steve punches the code on the keypad so hard he jams a finger.
He should’ve gotten towels first, but there’s a sudden sense of urgency pushing on his chest: get him out get him out get him out.
The lights flash down from green to yellow to red and the tank hisses and creaks as it warms incrementally. Steve leaps to the lockers against the wall, where there are large towels stashed in a stack. He runs the water in the curtainless shower in the corner as hot as it will go, and wets two towels. Steve has a heap of towels and an emergency blanket by his feet when Bucky blinks slowly. He falls against the door of the tank and staggers out.
Steve reaches out to steady him and yanks his hands away with a hiss. His skin is cold, but the metal arm is freezing.
“Jesus H. motherfucking Christ,” Steve mutters as he wraps a towel around Bucky’s shoulders. Able to grab onto his shoulders, Steve turns him and pushes down, wanting him to sit in the chair he’d rolled over. But Bucky doesn’t sit; he just sways on his feet, blinking at the wall.
“Bucky, sit down,” Steve says gently. When he gets no response, he says sharply, “Солдат, sit,” and is obeyed.
Steve presses one of the wet, hot towels to the juncture of the metal arm and Bucky groans. Steve pulls it away.
“Does that hurt?” Going too hot too fast can be as painful as being frozen alive. But Bucky shakes his head, so Steve replaces it. Bucky groans quieter, but his head drops forward a little and his eyes roll shut. When that towel goes cold, Steve grabs the other one he’d heated. He presses it to Bucky’s hands, both of them, then all along his arms.
“I’m Steve, by the way. Steve Rogers. I’d say pleased to meet you, but under the circumstances, I’m not sure it would be entirely true.”
Steve places his hand on Bucky’s flesh shoulder to test the temperature of his skin and Bucky sucks in a breath with two hitches in it at the same time the door lock beeps.
“Shit. Stand up.” Bucky snaps up so fast Steve stumbles back a little, then he kicks the rolling chair away just as Tina enters. She gasps when she sees the Soldier awake.
“Steve,” she hisses, “you’re supposed to wait for me.”
Steve shrugs, though his heart is pounding. “’S’fine. He’s all groggy anyway, not much he could do to me now.”
“Wait for me next time,” she chides, then directs Bucky to the chair in the corner by the white cabinets.
Steve cleans up the towels while Tina mixes up a protein shake and sets it in front of Bucky. She turns away to clean up, but Bucky is still a bit dazed and hasn’t touched the cup, so she snaps, “Солдат, drink.”
He obeys mechanically and Steve has to look away. Tina does a quick once-over and when his baseline temperature has returned to normal, they walk him down the hall to the briefing room, where Agent Rumlow is waiting with another man, talking animatedly. They break off when Steve enters with Bucky trailing behind. Rumlow smirks.
“Ain’t this precious? At least Sanford was a big dude, even if he was old. This guy could snap you like a twig with two fingers.”
“Could probably do the same to all of us,” Steve says mildly.
Rumlow fixes Steve with a cold look, but says lightly, “Cute and sassy. Is it my birthday? Come on, Soldier, suit up.”
Steve turns his shoulders so Bucky can move past him, to the table where his things are laid out, and Rumlow leers at Steve as he leaves.
“God I hate that guy,” Tina says as they head toward the elevators together.
“Do they tell us how long his missions are supposed to last?”
“No, but it’s always been between two and six days or so. We just gotta stay on call.”
More waiting. Steve’s just about sick of waiting.
Steve sighs in frustration in the dark. He fumbles for his glasses and squints at the nightstand, then sighs again. 2:35 a.m. He rolls out of bed and makes himself a cup of tea, maybe that’ll help.
Sitting at the formica table, with the sound of sirens in the distance, his sketchbook glares at him from the coffee table.
He manages to drink half his tea before he gives up and snatches the leather bound book and finds a pencil on the end table. There’ll be no more sleeping tonight.
He starts with the eyes. Normally he’d block out the shape of the face first, but right now he just needs to get those eyes out of his head.
By 5:22, he has four pages. The first a smattering of features, the second and third different angles of the peaceful expression he wore in the chamber, the fourth his eyes closed, jaw tight. Even though he's exhausted in several ways by that point, Steve can’t stand leaving it like that, so the fifth is of Bucky Barnes, young and handsome, smiling in his U.S. Army uniform.
Steve tears them out of the notebook and holds a lighter under the corner of each one separately. He looks at the last one a moment longer before turning it into ash over the kitchen sink.
He’d hoped getting it down on paper would be cathartic, allow him some calm, as drawing usually does, but as the eyes disappear under the flames, all Steve feels is anger.
Chapter 5: The Devil is All Around
It’s—blessedly—a two day mission. Steve is still on surveillance when he’s not tending to the Soldier, and watching drones fly over nondescript cities and villages is suddenly torturous.
Steve all but runs to B12 when he gets the call. Rumlow is still breaking down his gear, throwing his locker door shut when Steve makes it there. Bucky’s down to his compression tank, canvas pants and boots, standing in front of the table where he’d placed his knives, guns and gear— all streaked with blood— in neat lines. The black shirt is torn and wet on the right side, showing flashes of red skin.
Rumlow glares at Steve, who does his best to slow his breathing from his brisk jog down the hall.
“Your pet’s got a glitch.”
Steve tears his eyes away from Bucky to look at Rumlow, whose face is twisted with fury.
“What kind of glitch?”
“He hit me.”
“You sure you didn’t deserve it?”
Rumlow takes three steps toward Steve, brushing past Bucky. Bucky twitches, almost like he wants to step forward, but he hasn’t been given permission and he aborts the move so quickly Steve’s not sure he even saw it. Besides, Rumlow’s getting in his face and it’s pissing him off.
“I thought your sass was cute before; now it’s just annoying. Fix that thing or I’ll have you demoted to archives.”
That wouldn’t be a bad thing, considering his purposes, but he’d never sabotage his current position. Even if Rumlow had that kind of authority, Steve wouldn’t leave Bucky solely in the hands of these people again.
Steve remains quiet, jaw set.
“I think he’s still got a bullet in him.” Rumlow turns back to his locker, so Steve gestures Bucky to the door. As soon as they’re in the hall, Steve wraps his hand around Bucky’s right elbow gently.
“What a fucking asshole, huh?” Steve leads him to the cryo room. He sets him down in the chair by the white cabinets, where Steve assumes Tina keeps her medical equipment.
“I’m kind of glad you hit him. Except, maybe don’t do it again. I’m willing to bet he hit you back. Or tried to, anyway.”
Steve finds latex gloves and scissors in a drawer and cuts Bucky's shirt away. He peels it off, wincing sympathetically when the dried blood catches, though Bucky makes no move.
There’s really not much more he can do, and Tina’s going to be pissed anyway, so he throws the latex gloves in the garbage.
“I wish I could do more for you, but we really do gotta wait for her this time.”
He stands to Bucky’s right and places a hand tentatively on his shoulder, skin to skin, and watches the door for Tina's arrival. If everyone around him had been warned not to touch him unless strictly necessary, Steve thinks he’d be pretty glad for a kind touch.
He feels the muscle move under his hand, like maybe Bucky’s turned his head, but the door lock beeps and Steve leaps away to affect a casual pose. He smiles winningly at Tina when she comes in, already wearing a scolding expression.
“C’mon, I’m just making your job easier here. He’s got a bullet in his gut, what’s he gonna do?”
Tina shakes her head, but she’s smiling lightly. “You’d be surprised.”
She pulls a morgue-like metal slab out from a cupboard and Bucky slides onto it so she can assess the bullet wound. She grabs a pair of tongs from a drawer and starts fishing around in his gut for the slug without ceremony.
“How was your weekend, Steve?” she asks through her paper mask. Steve is startled by her apathy.
“Just fine. Didn’t do much. You?”
Steve watches the muscles in Bucky’s abdomen jump when Tina moves her tongs around inside his body, but he's quiet and still, staring blankly up at the ceiling.
Tina threads a needle and loops a few stitches through his skin with the same amount of regard for his pain as they’ve all shown in the past.
“Alright,” she says, swiping an antiseptic pad over the raw stitches then turning to toss it in the trash. “We might have to wait a few minutes before we can wipe him, if it’s not closed up by the time he gets to the chair.”
Tina moves Bucky to the shower stall at the back of the room and turns on the spray. She’s preparing something at the cupboard and Steve moves closer to see it’s an enema bag.
“Aw Tina, let me do that,” he says. She doesn’t even argue.
“You sure you don’t mind?”
“You shouldn’t have to do this. Go ahead and wait down the hall,” Steve suggests. It’s clear she wants to obey, but she hesitates. “I’ve got a gun, he’s low on blood, it’s fine.”
She shoots him a grateful smile. “Thanks,” she says, and leaves Steve and Bucky alone in the room.
Bucky’s still standing under the shower spray, the water plastering his hair to his face, over his eyes. Steve sticks his hand in the water and finds it tepid. He keeps his hand under the spray as he adjusts the temperature to a pleasant warm/hot.
“Is this ok?”
Bucky nods and Steve feels a disconcerting thrill at just that much of a reaction, evidence that Bucky really can hear him. There’s a bar of soap on the shelf and Steve hands it to Bucky and mimes lathering on his arms and hair. Bucky copies the move. Steve makes a mental note to buy a bottle of shampoo small enough to smuggle in his pocket.
When Bucky’s washed and rinsed the blood and dirt from his mission away, Steve turns off the water and hands him a towel. He dries his hair and body mechanically and holds the towel in his hands until Steve gingerly takes it away and tosses it in the hamper next to the cabinets.
Enemas are never fun for anyone, but Steve tries to make it at least not painful. There’s a bottle of lube in the cabinet, too. Unopened. Steve’s not sure if he’s glad about that or not.
“Just…try to relax,” Steve says. Bucky says nothing.
There’s three compression shirts and two pairs of black canvas pants in a locker, but no underwear. Jesus, these people really don’t care about comfort at all. Steve adds this to his mental list, though it might prove too risky.
He can’t linger too long, not when Tina and Jameson are waiting for him in the other room. He wants to talk, or try to explain himself, but instead he just wraps his hand around Bucky's right elbow to gently lead him out toward more torture. Bucky takes a sharp breath in when Steve touches him. Steve looks up at his face, but Bucky's looking at the floor, so he ushers him back to the procedure room. Every step twists his gut tighter and tighter. The sight of the chair makes his heart drop; he can’t imagine what it does to Bucky.
Jameson tells Tina about his failed second date with his roommate’s girlfriend’s friend and ignores Steve completely, as has become the norm.
Steve fudges the sensors again, fractionally more than last time, and watches the second hand on his watch instead of the activity readouts on the computer, killing the electricity slightly quicker than before.
When it's finished, they move to the cryo/med room in a procession, Steve, Bucky, Tina. When Steve has opened the tank door, he says to Tina, “Go flirt some more. I’m just gonna push a button and put him to sleep.”
She laughs, “You don’t even need us, do you?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” he teases. She smiles at him again.
“Alright,” she says, “See you later.”
Steve makes a show of double-checking the instructions on the tank until the door clicks locked behind Tina. Bucky’s standing in the middle of the room, shirtless and barefoot, staring into the middle distance. There’s a security camera above the door, so Steve moves around behind Bucky, to put his back to it.
“James,” Steve says gently. Bucky doesn’t move. “Bucky?” Nothing. Steve sighs.
“Солдат,” he snaps. Bucky turns to face him, gaze up and to the left of Steve’s head. Steve takes a steadying breath. “Jesus what am I doing?” he mutters to himself as he reaches into his pocket for the small bottle of lotion he’s been carrying around since he was assigned to this project. He pours some in his hand and rubs them together before taking Bucky’s right hand in his and working the lotion into the dry, cracked skin. Steve’s not sure what he’s trying to do here, if there’s a mission imperative or a human one, or both, or if it even matters.
“You’d think the serum would take care of dry skin, right?” he says with a feeble chuckle, mostly to himself, because he’s not sure Bucky can even hear him anymore, after what they just did to him. “If you’re gonna be sleeping for a while, might as well be comfortable.” He smoothes the lotion up his wrist and forearm, because his shaking hands had poured too much. When he looks up, Bucky’s looking at him again, but his eyes jump immediately away.
“It’s ok,” Steve says. “You can look at me.” Bucky’s blue-grey eyes drift back to Steve's, jumping between them and flitting all across his face.
“There’ll be an end to this,” he says tentatively. Bucky’s eyes widen briefly but otherwise he shows no reaction. “To the tank. The chair.”
Maybe Steve wasn’t made for this. He’d fought so hard to get here, stubborn and reckless, determined to prove himself when everyone underestimated him. He feels a sinking sadness like a hand squeezing around his heart.
“I gotta put you to sleep now,” Steve is whispering, but he’s not sure why. “I’m sorry,” he offers. It’s weak and inadequate, and he wishes he hadn’t even said it, but something flickers in Bucky’s expression, so quickly Steve couldn’t say if it was recognition or hatred.
Steve opens the cryo tank and Bucky places himself inside. Steve’s hand hovers over the keypad. Will he ever get this opportunity again? They’re alone, no one coming to fetch them, no one expecting them anywhere. They could talk, at the very least. There’s no way they could escape on the fly without prior planning, if Bucky would even go with him.
It’s too soon. Steve knows it, but it’s still a struggle to enter the key sequence and watch the door slide shut. Steve stands in front of the tank and Bucky looks him straight in the eye again. The sadness is still there in his heart, but it suddenly hardens as anger engulfs it.
He’s going to make these people pay, not only for the atrocities they’ve been committing for decades, but for this horror. For erasing an innocent man, carving out his memories until he became a shell, empty but for what they wanted him to be.
Steve presses his palm against the glass, offering whatever small measure of—what? comfort? solidarity? —that one complicit in his torture can. As frost crackles around the window and his skin turns steadily bluer, Bucky reaches his hand up, where it freezes, metal fingertips resting against the glass under Steve’s palm.
Солдат = Soldat/Soldier
Something about being a regular at a chain shop makes Steve’s soul die a little. At the diner in Brooklyn it was nice when Roselyn called out from behind the counter when he walked in, “Usual, Steve?”
But Roselyn’s 50 years old with curly white-blue hair and the twenty-somethings at Starbucks don’t have quite the same charm.
So it’s with some amount of distaste that Steve smiles at Rick when he’s handed his black coffee, two creams, no sugar, and settles down at a booth in the corner with his laptop and a book, like he does every Saturday afternoon.
He’s had a lot of time to practice being by himself these past two years. He put in the minimum required social time with his coworkers, that fine line between too buddy-buddy and weird loner. He’s certainly not about to make a connection with anyone who works for an organization that would brainwash and use a POW as an assassin, no matter how lonely he may or may not be. And he’s been a bit too distracted to try finding meaningful social interaction outside of work grounds during this mission. He simply put his life on hold for a while. So despite the overpowering number of beanies and thick-framed glasses, he doesn’t actually mind these Saturdays, amongst the bustle of everyday people who have probably never seen a man being tortured before.
It’s been eight months since last contact, and he’s maybe gotten a tiny bit complacent, because he doesn’t spot Natasha until she’s ordering her coffee. Even with the short blonde hair and baggy sweatshirt, she’s beautiful enough and he’s familiar enough with her to recognize her instantly.
She comes straight to him and plops down with none of her usual grace.
“You’re late,” he says.
“Oh, please.” She takes a sip of her frothy drink. “How ya been?”
“Been worse.” He takes a deep breath. “Been better.”
“Well, you won’t be alone for too much longer,” she sounds sympathetic, but Steve can read between the lines.
He frowns. “Don’t rush into anything. I’m making new friends.”
“What, like that Army guy? Steve,” her tone is playful, but her eyes are hard. Steve lowers his voice.
“If you come visit me while he’s awake, none of us will be able to stop him. We’re going to need him on our side.”
“And you think you can do that?”
“I don’t know," he shrugs. "But I need time to try.”
She sips her drink with skepticism.
“It’s good to see you,” he says with a wry smile, because it really is. She smiles.
“You too. We miss you and your prickly attitude.”
“I am not prickly,” he says crossly, then grins.
“Be careful, huh?” she says as she stands.
“I will if you will.”
She bends to drop a kiss on his temple, and he watches her back until she’s out of sight.
Tina passes him in the hall, not even bothering with pretense anymore.
“You good?” she asks, as he swipes his badge at the cryo room door.
“Yep,” Steve says. Tina goes down the hall and leans her shoulders against the wall by the door to the briefing/locker room. She takes out her phone and starts tapping at it.
Steve punches the key sequence to defrost the chamber and bustles about the room, readying warm towels and a protein shake from the cupboard. When Bucky blinks awake, Steve is standing at the door of the chamber and tucks up under his arm when he staggers out. He helps Bucky to the chair and sets him down, then wraps a warm towel around his shoulders.
His temperature will return to baseline in about twenty minutes, then he's off to Rumlow for his next mission. While they wait, Steve places a hand gently on Bucky’s shoulder, the flesh one, to offer a human connection, some small manner of solidarity. He tells himself it's for Bucky's benefit, but honestly, it eases some of the horror from the knot that's taken up permanent residence between his shoulder blades.
Bucky’s still shivering pretty hard, so it’s hard to tell at first if the movement is involuntary, but he lowers his head, his hair hanging around his face like a curtain, or a shield. Then he leans forward slowly, until the crown of his head touches Steve’s stomach.
It feels like a punch to the gut. Steve does the only thing he knows how to do; he hesitantly places his other hand on Bucky’s hair, and strokes gently. Bucky sags against him like a puppet whose strings have been cut, tension leaving his shoulders and arms. He presses his face into Steve's shirt and stays there, intermittent shivers rolling through him and into Steve.
Steve swallows hard against the wrongness stinging his eyes and the back of his throat. That Bucky is so desperate for scraps of kindness that he would seek it from his handler, from Steve, who's been torturing him.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” Steve vows in a low voice. He still can’t say too much; still not sure if Bucky would snap his neck if he admitted to being a traitor to Hydra. Somehow he doesn’t think so, but his instincts have been wrong before.
Steve hates to do it, but he eases Bucky back gently so he can step away to grab him the protein shake. Bucky takes it from his hand and drinks it without prompting, then hands the empty cup back. Steve sets it on the counter and when he turns back, Bucky’s looking up at him unapologetically. He no longer flinches when Steve makes eye contact, and Steve will count that as progress. He hopes, with a desperation that surprises him, that Bucky remembers him through each wipe, knows that Steve is on his side, despite everything.
Steve gets Bucky a compression shirt and different pants and lowers his eyes while Bucky changes. When he’s dressed, Bucky takes a step toward him. He never moves without prompting, or permission, and Steve’s heart thuds against his chest, equal parts fear and excitement—Bucky’s becoming more and more lucid it seems, more human with each wipe Steve botches. Steve wonders, certainly not for the first time, what Bucky's thinking, what he's feeling, how he feels about him, what he would say if they were free to speak plainly to each other.
Bucky just stands in front of Steve, looking at him, waiting. So Steve steps closer and wraps his hand around Bucky's flesh wrist; he's warm now, warmer than Steve is, even. Bucky's blue-grey eyes flutter closed briefly with a small sigh before opening again to find Steve's. Steve has the overwhelming urge to gather up the century's most feared assassin in his arms.
Instead, he just says, "I'm going to get you out of here, Bucky. I promise."
The very next morning, Steve gets a call to his cell phone. He doesn’t have any friends who’d call him, so he knows it’s a call to report, that the Soldier has returned.
He answers it, anticipation and fear cutting in equal measure. If the SHIELD raid comes when Bucky’s in cryo, Steve will have a hard time convincing Fury to defrost him and let him lead a normal life. If the raid comes when Bucky’s out of cryo, their problems multiply exponentially. He could disappear in the wind. He could fight to protect his captors; the only life he knows anymore. He could just kill everyone in sight, who knows? They’ve been punching holes in his brain for the last 75 years.
But when Steve reaches the elevators used exclusively for Levels B11 and 12, there are two armed security guards blocking the way.
“Rogers, come with us,” one of the guards says.
This isn’t looking good.
They escort him down the hall to a bank of public elevators, and one of them hits the button for level 53. He’s only ever been to level 53 once before, when he was being transferred to this project. When he met Alexander Pierce.
His hands start to twitch. There’s no way he could overpower these two beefy guards with their semi-automatics and ankle pistols. There’s too much security in this building for Steve to slip through a doorway and make his way down the stairwells to the garage. He has to see this through. Hey, maybe it’s another promotion, for the stellar work he’s been doing.
When the elevator door pings open, Tina's standing there waiting idly, wearing her white lab coat. She looks up, her eyes widen, then drop to the floor. As the guards escort Steve off the elevator car, she turns around and hurries toward the stairwell door instead, head hung to hide behind her dark hair.
Steve is startled to find Alexander Pierce in the flesh sitting behind his desk, talking on the landline, wearing a crisp blue suit and looking utterly unaffected. Yeni Jameson is sitting in one of those oversized leather chairs, a smug smile on his lips, though his eyes are darting around nervously. Pierce holds up one finger as he finishes his conversation, then gestures for Steve to sit. One of the security guards moves to stand at the back of the room, and the other leaves, presumably to stand guard outside.
“Agent Rogers, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person. I have some questions for you," Pierce says.
Steve wants to jump out the window and gouge this motherfucker’s eyes out with equal fervor.
“Oh?” he says instead.
Pierce jumps right in. “How does an Agent go from being one of the most well-regarded and competent workers in his division, to consistently damaging our most valued asset?”
“Damaging?” Steve says, on the verge of a snarky laugh. You wanna talk about damaging?
“You’ve been forging the Soldier's brain activity readouts. Sabotage, I think, is an apt word. Here’s another question for you: would you like to die protecting S.H.I.E.L.D. or are you going to take advantage of the opportunity presented here?”
“What opportunity is that?” Steve says, to stall. He won’t bother denying S.H.I.E.L.D. ties, it would just be a waste of everyone’s time. He does, however, already know what opportunity Pierce will offer him— triple agent— but he needs a few moments to formulate a plan.
The phone on the desk rings, startling them all, even Pierce, who snatches it off the hook and barks, “What.”
The feminine voice is hushed, breathless, but Steve has StarkTech enhancing his hearing aid and can make out her shaky warning, “The building’s surrounded; they're coming in. It's S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Steve is distracted from anything else she might say, because Pierce's office door is knocked clear off its hinges and lands with a dull thud on the carpet. Almost before Steve can even turn his head, there’s a rapid pow pow pow, and then he and the Winter Soldier are the only two people alive in the room.
The Soldier advances and snags Steve’s wrist, towing him out of the room as if he were a ragdoll. Steve manages to keep his feet under him and stumbles after the Soldier, despite the clanging sense of self-preservation telling him to fight or flee.
“Bucky,” he gasps. The office floor is silent, the clatter of keystrokes and quiet conversations silenced by a single bullet to each head. Some lie on the floor, in failed attempts to flee. Most still sit at their computers, slumped over their keyboards.
“Bucky, it’s ok,” Steve tries again. The Soldier doesn’t look back, just drags Steve toward the stairwell.
Steve’s never seen him in his full tac-suit before. The black leather vest has only one sleeve, to show off the metal arm to full devastating effect, so that anyone who sees him knows what’s coming. His black pants and boots are strapped with innumerable guns and knives, and he moves with the force and confidence of a tank. It’s terrifying, especially given the up-close circumstances.
Steve doesn’t really think Bucky will kill him; if he wanted him dead, he’d be dead. Although maybe he has different plans for the handler who’s been torturing him for the last few months.
“My people are coming,” Steve says breathlessly, “They’ll shut this place down, they’ll help you.” But Bucky seems unable to hear.
As they burst into the stairwell, there’s movement from below, the thud of boots on steps. Bucky leans over the rail and sprays bullets downward. The thuds cease. Steve stumbles down the steps, his wrist still trapped in Bucky’s metal hand. His shoe slips in the pool of blood on the landing, and he trips over one of the security guards’ legs. Bucky lets go of his wrist to catch his arm and tugs him to the parking garage.
He punches out the window of a blue sedan and yanks on some wires under the wheel until it starts up. Then he turns to Steve. His eyes are rimmed in thick black paint, but there’s such life there that Steve hasn’t seen before.
“Get in,” he says. The sound of his voice surprises Steve, rough and low; it’s the first time he’s ever heard him speak. Steve hurries around the car and gets in the passenger side. As they’re squealing down the ramp, Bucky shoves something at him. Steve flinches a little, but takes the pistol, proffered butt-end first.
The car leaps out onto the street and into the sunlight; the glare is blinding and Bucky turns the wheel sharply, throwing Steve against the door. Through his open window, Bucky is firing, but the returning bullets stop after a moment, once they see he’s taken a hostage. There are police cars and SWAT vans lining the street, agents in black vests with S.H.I.E.L.D. printed across them.
Two police cars give chase and when Bucky turns in his seat to shoot out the window, Steve grabs his right arm.
Bucky shoves the gun in the center console instead, and uses both hands for evasive maneuvers. Steve manages to finally click his seat belt in, after whacking his head on the window hard enough to make his vision blurry.
He braces his hands on the dashboard, watching in the side mirror as the flashing lights fall further and further behind, until they disappear altogether.
Bucky stops the car twenty miles away in a bad neighborhood and hot wires another. He doesn’t say anything, but Steve slides in the passenger side and buckles in without prompting. Once they start driving, Bucky holds a hand out toward Steve, palm up, “Phone.”
Steve fishes it out of his pocket and sets it in Bucky’s gloved hand. Bucky tosses it out his open window and keeps his eyes on the road.
He drives leisurely out of the city, winding Northeast on back roads. Steve sits stock still, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye. The sun is dipping against the horizon when they pull into a gravel driveway off a rural road. The two story whiteboard house looks run down, deserted.
Bucky drives around back and parks next to the detached garage. Steve follows him up the back steps. There’s a high-tech security keypad on the door, and Bucky punches in a six digit code. He enters first, holding the door open for Steve to follow.
Steve loiters in the kitchen while Bucky creeps through the house and up the stairs, doing a perimeter check. The fridge is empty, but the cupboards are stocked with cans and boxes.
Steve wanders out to the living room. The shades are all drawn and there’s a thick layer of dust over the end tables and the framed pictures on the mantel.
When Bucky finishes checking the upstairs, he comes back down, and stops at the foot of the stairs.
Steve licks his lips and asks, “Do you know me?”
“Steve,” Bucky says, “Steve Rogers. I’d say nice to meet you but under the circumstances I’m not sure it’d be entirely true,” he quotes Steve’s introduction back to him, and then flashes a grin that nearly knocks Steve over. His teeth are a little crooked and it’s so human, so ordinary.
“Why didn’t you kill me?”
The smile leaves his face and he looks almost the Winter Soldier again, eyes curiously blank.
“Mission parameters: protect the handler.”
Steve winces, “Bucky, I’m…I’m not your handler. Not really.”
Bucky’s brow furrows. His eyes dart around, glancing off Steve and back again. Confused. Way to fucking go, Rogers.
“Who gave you this mission?” Steve asks. Hydra just found out he’s a traitor, they wouldn’t have programmed him with a protection detail. Steve has an inkling, but he wants to make sure Bucky knows it, too.
Bucky nods, as if confirming something with himself as he says, “Me. I decide now.”
Then Bucky moves toward him, and while Steve’s 95% certain he’s not going to kill him, a bit of wariness lingers. Rightly so, he thinks, because Bucky doesn’t stop a proper distance away. He steps in close, and when Steve takes an involuntary step back, his calves hit the edge of the couch and he falls back onto it.
Bucky kneels on the floor in front of him. Steve’s surprised he doesn’t break a rib with how hard his heart starts to pound.
“Mission success,” Bucky says, his head ducked.
“Yeah,” Steve chuffs. “But my—“
Bucky looks up and it abruptly cuts off anything Steve might have been trying to explain about the S.H.I.E.L.D. raid, that Steve wasn’t in any danger from them to begin with, because this is decidedly not the Winter Soldier anymore. He’s still dangerous, yes, but his eyes are clear and earnest. This is Bucky Barnes, through and through, guarded and a little confused, but also pleading.
Steve realizes with a jolt what he wants. He wants his reward. The one positive thing Steve's been giving him all along: connection. Touch.
Oh god. Steve thought he was helping him, offering human contact, but what damage has he done? Trading one master for another. He feels a little sick to his stomach, then furious again at those responsible, then a little bit of satisfaction knowing most of them are either dead or in jail.
“Bucky,” Steve says apologetically, about to refuse him. But how can he refuse him such an innocent pleasure when he’s had so little of it in the last seven decades? So he says quietly, “Come here.”
Bucky shifts up to sit on the couch a scant inch away, angled toward him. Steve puts his hand over Bucky’s, where it rests on his thigh. Bucky’s chin drops to his chest, hair curtaining his face. He hunches down, dipping his head in close, so Steve puts his other hand on the side of Bucky’s neck.
If Bucky will let Steve bring him in, Steve will fight tooth and nail for his absolute freedom, but he knows it’s a long shot. Maybe he should just let him go, disappear into the wind to carve out his own life. Maybe he’d be better off on his own, instead of having two-thirds of the world’s governments gunning for him.
Bucky leans forward further, pressing his forehead gingerly into Steve’s neck, and Steve’s brain short circuits. There’s a line somewhere behind him, he’s crossed it ages ago, so long gone it’s nothing but a distant memory. Steve slowly wraps his arm around Bucky’s shoulders, and Bucky melts against him. The buckles of his leather jacket aren’t terribly comfortable to cuddle with, but Steve hangs onto them with all he’s got, anyway. Bucky doesn’t touch him, doesn’t hold on in return, just leans in and lets himself be held. Steve stares at the unused fireplace, wondering how the hell this happened to him.
Bucky relaxes, as if in sleep, but Steve knows better. The parts of him that are still the Soldier, that might always be the Soldier, would never let his guard down that way.
But Steve, after the most taxing day of his life, falls asleep there on the couch, with history’s most lethal and feared assassin curled up in his lap like an affectionate house cat.
Chapter 8: Lay Low
Thank you guys for all your supportive comments! I obsess over them probably a little too much
When Steve wakes up, he’s stretched out alone on the couch. He cautiously makes his way into the kitchen, where he can hear a keyboard clacking. Bucky is sitting at a kitchen chair, wearing his black lycra undershirt and pants. He has one bare foot tucked up on the seat of the chair, and is resting his chin on his knee, looking over the laptop he acquired somehow and the papers spread out in front of him. His metal arm is almost out of sight, there’s a full bowl of steaming oatmeal next to him and the scene is so commonplace that Steve can only stare. How deceiving appearances can be.
“You’re not Hydra,” Bucky says.
Steve jumps at the sound of his voice, still a bit of a surprise after all the time he spent wordless. “No, I never was. I was sent to take Hydra apart. I’m with S.H.I.E.L.D. If you come in with me, they can help you.”
“Help me,” Bucky sneers. “The only help I’m gonna get is a lethal injection for everything I’ve done.”
Steve blinks again, knocked even further off kilter by the cohesiveness of Bucky's thoughts today after the fractured mess of yesterday, then argues, “Bucky, that wasn’t you.”
Maybe the botched wipes allowed Bucky's mind to heal more than he let on before they escaped. Maybe the dam they built around his psyche was already crumbling, because his eyes, when he finally looks up at Steve, are cold and deep and lucid, but with a certain wildness, an unpredictability, though maybe that's just Steve's imagination coloring his judgement.
“Except that it was.” Bucky says. “It was my hands.”
“But not your mind. I won’t let them put you away.”
Bucky smirks and looks Steve over pointedly from head to toe. “You’re scrappy, I’ll give you that, but I don’t think you have that kinda power.”
He's absolutely right. Steve sighs. “So what are you going to do?”
Bucky looks back at the work in front of him. “You really want to take Hydra apart? Your shield took out the main head and the ants are scattering. But they'll regroup eventually. Find new leaders. Unless we wipe them all out, destroy their resources.”
Bucky shakes his head, "Not fast enough. They don't know how Hydra really works. They'll disappear into the woodwork, squirrel their supplies away. It has to be done now."
Steve approaches slowly and peers over Bucky’s shoulder at the map of the world spread out on the table, fifty red and black dots dispersed across it, centralized in Europe. Can he really let Bucky kill all these people? Can he let this man take his revenge?
Steve sits in the kitchen chair next to Bucky and reaches toward the laptop. He glances at Bucky for permission, and gets a nod. He logs in to his shared cloud— access is still granted, thank god, probably won't be for much longer— and finds some of the documents he’d uploaded over the course of the last year. Maps, expense reports, travel logs. He pushes the laptop back toward Bucky.
“Maybe this will help. A list of most frequent travel by higher ups. There are probably other bases in these cities.”
Bucky pulls the computer closer, scrolling and clicking, brow drawing down, then looks back up.
“We have to hurry. I need documents from another safehouse back in the city, but with the main hive down, we might still have time to get on a plane before we’re blacklisted.”
Bucky’s looking at him warily, waiting to be refuted. Steve should go in, report, take part in the inquisition. But honestly, this idea has appeal. If Bucky’s right, if Hydra cells are more resilient than they thought and taking out the main head isn’t enough, Steve could be on the front lines. With Bucky.
Mission mind pipes up: For how long? And what about afterward? There's no way that doesn't end in losing his job, possibly also obstruction of justice charges.
But Steve has been playing the long game for so long now, has seen so much evil. He wants to act, to set things right. He’s tired of thinking six steps ahead. He wants to be here, now.
So Steve nods. The corner of Bucky’s mouth twitches, like the hint of a smile.
“Let’s go,” Bucky says, standing.
“Oh, now? Can I…eat breakfast first?”
Bucky nods down at the still-steaming bowl of oatmeal, then leaves the room. Steve wolfs down the oatmeal and uses the bathroom. There’s an unopened toothbrush and toothpaste in the drawer and he uses them. These Hydra safehouses aren’t half bad.
“S.H.I.E.L.D. will be coming after me,” Steve says when he comes out of the bathroom and finds Bucky at the door, wearing an olive green jacket and baseball cap with blue jeans. “They probably think you kidnapped me.”
“I did,” Bucky says, holding the door and gesturing abruptly for Steve to get a move on.
“Let me call them,” Steve says as he heads out toward the car. “Let them know I’m ok and not in any danger.”
“But you are,” Bucky says with a wry look over the hood of the car, then ducks inside. Steve blinks, a bit dumbfounded at the array of expressions Bucky possesses, then hops in the passenger seat.
“Yeah but not from you,” Steve says with certainty. He watches Bucky’s face carefully for reaction, but there isn’t one. Good.
Bucky is quiet as he backs out of the driveway. Once they’re on the blacktop, he says, “We’ll stop at a payphone.”
Before they get out of the small town, Bucky stops at a gas station and gets out. He stands at the door of the phone booth while Steve dials the S.H.I.E.L.D. secure line.
“What kind of service you runnin’ here?”
Fury clicks on already yelling, “Where the fuck are you?”
“I’m ok, thank you for asking. I’m with James Barnes, of my own accord and we’ll come in when we’re ready, after we do a few things.”
“Give me a—“
Bucky takes the receiver gently from Steve’s hand and hangs it up.
“That’s enough,” he says quietly, and returns to the car. Steve follows.
Bucky drives them to Harlem and leaves the keys in the car. They walk six blocks to an apartment building that’s been staged to look like it’s been trashed by junkies. Bucky goes into the back while Steve loiters in the living room.
Now that the plan is in motion, he’s starting to have second thoughts about it. Bucky needs help, and not the kind Steve can give him— hand-holding and support. He needs medical attention, probably, and boatloads of therapy.
Maybe he’s lost in thought, or maybe he’s letting his guard down, knowing Bucky is in the other room and can (and probably would) protect him from almost anything, but the floorboard creaking behind him is his very first hint that someone’s crept in through the front door.
Steve picks up a porcelain ashtray from the end table and spins around, swinging it in an arc. Rumlow ducks to avoid getting brained in the overly-large melon. He’s crept close enough that he can lunge forward and catch Steve’s wrist, spinning him back around. He yanks the crude weapon out of Steve's hand and gets his beefy bicep around Steve's throat. Steve gets a good stiff elbow into the asshole’s ribs before he squeezes and lifts. Steve clutches at his forearm, scrabbling on his tiptoes.
“So he took off with you, huh?” Rumlow says in his ear, “Trained your pet well. Where is he?”
He lowers Steve back down to the ground and loosens his grip a little so he can respond.
“Where’s who?” Steve rasps, because fuck this guy.
If he could put some distance between them, Steve could punch him in the dick and disarm him. Maybe shoot off a ball or two; that would make his day.
Rumlow spins him and throws his back against the wall. He gets his hand around his throat, crowding in close, and Steve feels the cold press of a gun at his temple.
“Don’t be cute,” Rumlow growls, “Where’s the Soldier?”
Steve sees movement from his peripheral, but he doesn’t dare make a move, wouldn’t risk giving away Bucky’s element of surprise.
Steve says, “The Soldier’s not here anymore.”
One shot rings out, a muffled snipe, and Rumlow drops like a bag of bricks, one neat hole in his temple. His arm drags across Steve as he falls, nearly taking him down too, but he staggers and keeps his feet. Steve stares down at him for a moment in shock.
“C’mon,” Bucky says, tucking the gun into the black backpack he’d retrieved from the other room and slinging it over his shoulders. Steve blinks at him. It would be casual for him, after all the killing he’s been made to do, but it's a little less familiar to Steve.
“What about him?” Steve asks, breathless from the scuffle, the adrenaline surging through his blood.
Bucky steps over the body, heading for the door without so much as a backward glance.
Chapter 9: Heaven Go Easy On Me
early update since I'm going on vaca in a few days and may not be able to work on this for a few weeks. Of course I say that, then I won't be able to stop obsessing over it anyway so we shall see
Btw: This wasn't going to be a slow burn. But then I started writing it. And it was.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Bucky boosts another car and they drive most of the afternoon, stopping at drive throughs and eating on the road. Bucky throws the hamburger bun out the window and eats the patty and a vanilla milkshake.
Steve racks his brain for something to say, but talking about the weather seems a little blasé for the situation, so he mostly stays quiet. Bucky keeps his eyes on the road and his hands on the wheel, going just over the speed limit, using the blinker and generally obeying all traffic laws.
When the sun sets, they’re coming up on Pittsburgh, and Bucky winds them through back streets and pulls up to a nondescript apartment building. There’s a car with a boot on the wheel outside, and several homeless men shuffling on the corners.
Steve follows Bucky inside, where he sets his backpack carefully next to the mattress on the floor, which seems to be the only surface in the apartment. Everything else is completely bare, and more than a little dingy. Bucky fishes a gun from the backpack and tucks it under the edge of the mattress.
“There should be some canned stuff in the cupboards,” Bucky says with a sweep of his hand toward the kitchen. The hookup where the fridge should be is empty, and one of the exposed fluorescent tubes is flickering; the other’s burnt out completely.
“I’m fine,” Steve mutters, then looks back at Bucky. Honestly, he’s exhausted, despite not doing much that day other than drive a lot and kill a man, and he's completely unsure about this entire endeavor. A good sleep would probably help, but that’s not going to come easy, either.
Bucky sits down heavily on the mattress; Steve can tell he’s exhausted too, and that’s something the Winter Soldier would never have shown.
Bucky lowers his head. “Mission success,” he says quietly.
It hurts in a way he’s not familiar with, and Steve’s pretty sure it’s wrong on a number of levels, but he sits next to Bucky anyway.
“Yeah,” he says, laying his hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “Mission success.”
Bucky shudders, then turns his body toward Steve. He wraps his metal arm around him, pulling Steve down onto the mattress with him. A spike of panic lances through him- how easily he could be overpowered; it hadn't really occurred to him to worry about it until now- but Bucky just lays his head on Steve’s shoulder, metal arm draped across Steve's stomach. Steve hesitates briefly; this is a whole other line they're crossing, he thinks. But after a moment, Steve curls around him, one ankle crossed over Bucky’s legs. He doesn’t want him to feel trapped, if a 120 pound shrimp like him even could, but he wants to make him feel... safe, if he can.
The lines of his body are sharp and hard, but in a different way than Steve's. Steve is skin and bone, but Bucky is solid muscle, shoulders to arms, abs to thighs. Steve feels dwarfed, enveloped so completely by the mass of him. But it makes Steve feel strong, in a way he never did before. He knows he can take care of himself, and has on many occasions, but this? To have someone as powerful as Bucky seek comfort in him; it makes him feel powerful too.
His one arm is pillowing Bucky’s head, but with the other he reaches up to touch Bucky’s hair. He strokes his head gently, experimentally, and feels Bucky sigh. Steve always liked it when his mom did this for him, so he combs his fingers through Bucky's hair. He works out the tangles with light strokes until the tension seems to seep out of Bucky's body. He hasn’t moved a muscle in the last twenty minutes, and Steve thinks he may have even fallen asleep.
The repetitive petting motion is actually pretty soothing for Steve too, and he drifts asleep peacefully, cocooned here in a little bubble of false-safety, protected from the fallout of the last 48 hours and the danger that awaits them in the morning.
He wakes instantly, unsure of what startled him. The room is dim, it's still the middle of the night, but the streetlamps cast a yellow glow through the sheets that are tacked up over the windows.
Bucky’s not next to him anymore, and it takes him a moment to find the figure standing stock still in the middle of the room, facing the door. Steve doesn’t dare move yet; he has a bad feeling that startling him would not end well.
“Bucky?” he says softly. Bucky doesn’t seem to hear him, so Steve eases slowly, quietly off the mattress. He gives Bucky a wide berth and moves around in front of him. Bucky’s staring into the middle distance, but after a moment, he blinks around, confused.
“Buck,” Steve says. Bucky’s eyes snap to him, dark and cold, and suddenly he has a gun in his hand, trained to Steve’s head.
“Солдат,Отставить!” Steve barks breathlessly, and Bucky lowers the gun immediately.
“Хайль Гидра! Готов подчиниться,” he says in a dead monotone. Then he shakes his head like a dog shaking off water and stumbles backward. When his back hits the wall, the gun falls from his hand and he slides down to the floor, knees drawn in to his chest, breathing raggedly. Steve takes one step toward him but Bucky holds his hands out, “Нет! No! Stay away!”
“Bucky,” Steve says, inching closer.
“Don’t,” Bucky says brokenly, “please.” With his hands still outstretched to keep Steve at bay, he lowers his forehead onto his knees and starts to cry.
A nuclear fucking bomb couldn't keep Steve away. He kneels in front of Bucky and takes his flesh hand, holds it against his chest.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky cries. Steve tries shushing him, but the words are spilling out, “Please, I’m sorry. You won’t hurt me, please. You won’t hurt me.” Steve’s not sure if it’s a plea or a reminder to himself, but he feels the need to confirm it.
“I’ll never hurt you Bucky. Never.”
He wraps his other hand around the back of Bucky’s neck and pulls gently. Bucky lowers his knees and leans on Steve instead.
Steve holds him tightly, petting his hair again for a moment. He gently urges Bucky to return to the mattress so they can curl up together comfortably again, but he refuses. So Steve stays there with him. He winds up falling asleep sitting up, leaning his back into the corner while Bucky slips down and pillows his head in Steve’s lap. He hugs Steve’s thighs and curls into himself, shivering and shaking.
When Steve wakes up in the morning, Bucky is gone. He stands up slowly with pops, snaps and creaks, rolling his neck around to work out the kinks of sleeping sitting up on the floor.
There aren’t any toothbrushes in this place, but he rinses his mouth out and uses the bathroom.
He’s peeking out of the sheet-curtain at the deserted street below when he hears a key in the door. He spins around just as Bucky enters with two tin-foil-wrapped, burrito-shaped objects in the crook of his elbow and a tray with two large coffees in his hand.
“Get away from the window,” he says mildly. Steve complies.
They're quiet as they sit on adjacent edges of the mattress to eat. When they’re finished, Bucky says, “If you want to leave, I won’t stop you.”
Steve shakes his head. Bucky nods. And that's that.
“I’m sorry. For giving you orders,” Steve says haltingly, and Bucky looks up at him sharply.
“I could have killed you. Don’t apologize to me.”
Steve nods, “Ok. But I am still sorry. Just in a general, blanket sense.”
Bucky arches a brow. “Yeah well, I’m sorry too. Both in the blanket sense and the specific I-literally-almost-killed-you sense.”
“Apology accepted,” Steve says wryly.
“Ok then.” Bucky’s smile is tentative and rueful, but it’s beautiful all the same. “We have a flight at midnight,” Bucky says, taking two passports out of his jacket pocket. He hands one to Steve.
The name reads Francis Albert. It has his Hydra badge photo on it.
“Francis Albert?” Steve asks.
“Ole blue eyes,” Bucky says with a smile, a real one this time. Steve is suddenly transported to 1942, when Bucky Barnes must have been charming all the ladies with that grin. But it’s gone in a moment. The smile fades quickly, as if Bucky remembered he doesn’t smile anymore.
Steve sits on the mattress, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle, while Bucky stands by the window, keeping watch. It’s a long day to wait. They won’t leave for their flight to Germany until the last second, to avoid loitering in the airport.
Bucky moves from window to window, going out to check the building perimeter intermittently. He keeps tabs on Steve's movements too. When he gets up to use the bathroom, or wanders around the apartment to stretch his legs, Bucky's eyes follow him.
Steve's sitting on the mattress again that afternoon when he finally works up the courage to ask, “How much do you remember?” If he’s going to be gallivanting all over Europe with this man, he needs to know his state of being.
Bucky doesn’t turn from the window as he answers. “Not much. I remember my name, my sister. I was born in New York, a long time ago. I saw the Depression, fought in a war. Fought in a lot of wars,” he says quietly. Steve feels that familiar anger again; it's a Bucky-specific kind of anger that makes his blood boil at the injustice of what's been done to him. Then he remembers Alexander Pierce is dead and it placates him a bit.
“I remember the tank, the chair.” Bucky shrugs diffidently, “That's all I knew. Kill, chair, tank. Until you.”
Steve swallows hard, watching the side of Bucky’s face. Bucky just keeps looking out the window, though his eyes are far away.
“I knew after the first wipe something was different. And it was you.” He finally turns to Steve, and seeing the look on Bucky’s face makes all the breath leaves Steve’s lungs.
Because it’s… desire.
Bucky sits on the edge of the mattress.
“Steve,” he says, tongue darting out to wet his lips in what might be a nervous gesture. He slowly reaches up with his right hand to touch Steve’s face, just his fingertips along his cheekbone, drawing down to his jaw, making Steve’s breath come faster. “Will you…“
He struggles with completing the question. The Winter Soldier was hardly allowed to speak, let alone make requests. But Steve knows what he wants; his eyes are trained on Steve's lips. So Steve leans forward, drawn involuntarily toward those lips, red and plump and so perfect that of course he noticed them. His brain is screaming at him to stop, his stomach is swooping, but still his body moves, leaning in and brushing their mouths together. But the second their lips touch, Bucky leaps up, head tipped, listening.
“We have to go,” Bucky says, reaching down and hauling Steve up by the arms. As he’s slinging his backpack on, Steve yanks back the sheet covering the window and sees a SWAT van spilling S.H.I.E.L.D. agents into the street. Of course Fury would know where to look; if they have access to all of Hydra’s files now, they’d know the safe house locations.
“Bucky, wait!” Steve calls. Bucky instantly stops in his tracks. He turns and looks at Steve with betrayal and regret writ across his face and it robs Steve of any more words. Bucky stands there, stock-still and staring at Steve as the door is kicked in and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents swarm into the room. Steve flinches with the sudden noise, but otherwise he keeps his eyes on Bucky’s. He wills him to understand; they can’t run from this. Not without more damage than Steve’s prepared to inflict on his own people.
Steve’s eyes flit to the men closest to them, who have semi-automatics pointed at Bucky.
“Put your fucking guns down,” he spits. No one moves. A voice near the door that Steve would recognize in his sleep as Natasha Romanov says “Stand down.” The agents lower the barrels of their guns fractionally.
“You too,” Steve says quietly to Bucky, who’s gripping a pistol tightly in his left hand. Bucky doesn’t move, lips set in a hard line, then suddenly he flips the gun around and holds the handle out to Steve. He looks Bucky in the eye as he slowly draws it from his metal hand.
Bucky puts his hands at the back of his head automatically as an agent takes his backpack and pats him down for weapons, relieving him of two knives and another pistol.
When they pull his hands behind his back and cuff him, Bucky grimaces and clenches his jaw tight. Steve twitches with the urge to soothe him. He finally looks away from Steve, as an Agent guides him from the room. Steve trails after, but is stopped by Natasha at the door. She’s wearing a Kevlar vest over a black shirt with her red hair pulled back.
“Well this was a shit show,” she says glibly. “I hope you know what you’re going to say to the Director.”
“Yeah,” Steve mutters, eyes following Bucky’s back down the hall. “I know what I’m gonna say.”
Солдат! Отставить! = Soldat! Ustapat!/Soldier! Stand down!
Хайль Гидра! Готов подчиниться = Hail Hydra, ready to comply.
Нет! = No!
Update: Another big thanks to tumblr user northernstardust for the Russian translations! <3
Chapter 10: Skin and Bones
"I built the fence, I hung the sign
Blood red letters saying 'Keep in mind
Where I been so don't come in'
But how long can you live in shame
And drop a life long curse on your own last name
The trouble is, I'm used to it"
“Holy fuck,” Benjamin says. Allie glances away from the bank of monitors toward her Junior Agent. He was assigned to her two months ago, to her utter surprise. It was weird for a few days, until she remembered she’d been doing this work for four years and has the knowledge, if not the social skills, to train a young mind. It beats hanging out in the surveillance office by herself all day, even if Benjamin brings tuna for lunch twice a week.
Benjamin’s eyes are glued to a screen in front of him and he says with awe, “It’s Rogers.”
Allie stands up so fast her chair rolls back and clangs against the back wall of the small office. She hovers over Ben’s shoulder to squint at Camera 1, the side door, where Agent Rogers is being escorted in by Agent Romanov. They’re about the same height, which surprises Allie. She’s never met the guy; she was still a paper-pushing grunt by the time he went undercover. But to hear the stories about him, she thought he’d be 6’3” and built like a brick shithouse.
She might think him frail, with his thin frame and pointed chin, except for how pissed he looks on her screen, scowling hard with his narrow shoulders drawn up.
Ten agents trail behind Rogers and Romanov, two of them flanking a prisoner. His hands are bound behind his back, but they’ve all been briefed on Hydra, the raid and the fallout; they know who it is.
“It’s the Winter Soldier,” Benjamin whispers. “Holy fuck.”
“Stop saying that,” Allie murmurs, then glances over at Camera 2 as they come within range of its scope. The back view of the procession shows the Soldier’s metal hand in the silly cuffs he could probably break with a twist of his wrist, but is choosing not to.
“I didn’t actually think he was a real person,” Benjamin says with wild disbelief.
Their eyes follow the procession to Camera 3 above the elevators, where Romanov and Rogers stop, but the remaining ten agents continue down the hall with the Soldier. Rogers takes a step as if to follow, but stops and watches them as they walk away. Romanov has to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention and ushers him into the elevator with her.
The chaotic first rounds of arrests are over and the news stories are just breaking. There’s no mention of Steve’s name, of course, or of the world’s deadliest assassin being apprehended, which actually does not bode well for Bucky. If he’s kept a secret, S.H.I.E.L.D. can do whatever they want with him. The thought makes him twitchy.
Steve is in meetings for the next four days. Everyone wants to shake his hand; Directors of every branch of government, Generals, the President himself. He’d be in loads of trouble for his brief off-the-reservation stint if he weren’t 85% personally responsible for the largest inter-governmental raid in history. Fury’s cold glare has made that particularly clear.
Steve hasn’t had a meeting alone with Fury yet, only debriefs that contained more people than he was comfortable sharing details with, and every moment that passes multiplies his anger. He wants to know where Bucky is; he wants to see him, and he knows Fury is not going to let him.
Fury’s calendar is all booked up, so Steve loiters outside his office, and when three men in shiny military uniforms exit, he slips past them.
“Rogers!” one of them calls, a smile in his voice and a congratulations on the tip of his tongue, but Steve ignores both him and the receptionists’ protests as he darts inside Fury’s large office.
“Rogers,” Fury says, looking up from his desk. “Why am I not surprised?”
Steve stands in front of the desk, so close his thighs touch the wood and Fury has to look up at him. “Where is James Barnes?”
“He’s being detained until the attorneys can sort out this shit mess.”
“In a secure location.”
Steve’s not proud of the shouting match that ensues, but after twenty minutes, it gets him the desired results.
An agent escorts him down a maze of elevators and stairwells in that very building, in downtown D.C., underneath a hive of offices. There’s a row of plexiglass-plated cells, five on each side of the hall, all empty, but for one in the middle.
Bucky’s wearing white scrubs, sitting on a single bed in the corner with his back to the far wall. He looks up when they approach. His long hair is washed and tidy, and his eyes are bright and clear.
“Heya, Stevie,” he says with a half smile. Steve has to lean his shoulder against the glass, weak with relief as the guard punches the code in the keypad and the door lock clicks open.
“What,” Bucky says, “You miss me?”
Steve gathers his wits up off the floor and manages to say, “Yeah like a hole in the head.” He steps into Bucky’s cell and the guard locks the door behind him. “Whatcha been up to?”
“Oh, you know,” Bucky shrugs, “a little of this, a little of that.”
The difference is astounding. He was shifty before, on edge, always on guard for either an order or a punishment, always ready to run. He seems so much calmer, now that his captivity doesn't include torture. He seems so much more himself. Even though Steve didn’t know him as anything other than the Winter Soldier, the way he grins crookedly and his sense of humor just seems so Bucky.
It could be easy to forget the torture he was made to suffer, with the casual way he talks and deadpans jokes. But Steve remembers; Steve knows. So he sees the darkness that simmers there; the anger. But it’s a good sign, he thinks. Bucky’s aware enough, himself enough to be angry instead of mindlessly obedient. Even if that anger’s directed at Steve, he’s still glad to see it.
Bucky hasn’t moved since Steve arrived; he’s still sitting on his single bed with his back leant against the far wall. There’s nothing else in the cell, so Steve sits at the foot of the bed and after a while, leans his back against the wall too.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Steve says after a while. He’s referring to getting them both captured by S.H.I.E.L.D., but there’s microphones in the cell and he won’t say it out loud. He just hopes Bucky understands.
“Me neither,” Bucky says with a sarcastic half grin. Steve opens his mouth to apologize for…everything, but he can’t quite come up with the words. “Aw, Stevie, knock it off,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes, “I know.” He drops the casual smile suddenly, and looks at Steve the way he always did before. Like he can see right down to his very soul. “I know.”
Steve wants to stay, but it’s dinnertime and the guards have started shuffling their feet irritably. He wants to offer some reassurance that Bucky won’t be stuck down here forever, but he also doesn’t want to lie to him. Steve has no idea what they’re going to do to him.
“I’ll see ya soon,” he says at the door.
“Can’t wait,” Bucky replies with a cocky grin that makes Steve linger in the doorway, before giving one final wave.
Fury’s already gone for the night, or maybe he’s just hiding from Steve, so Steve goes home. He’d given up his apartment when he went undercover, and they’ve set him up with a place a few miles from HQ. It’s a square box with a roof and beige walls; a place to lay his head and hang up his few shirts and pants in the closet.
He doesn’t bother trying to sleep in the bed; hasn’t for the last week. He sleeps on the couch with a throw blanket, a guest in the place that has his name on the lease.
Steve is waiting by the poor agitated receptionists’ desk when Fury comes in the next morning. Fury glances at him, but doesn't say anything, so Steve trails the Director into his office and shuts the door behind them.
“What’s gonna happen to him?”
Fury boots up his computer and sets his briefcase on his desk as he says, “Nothing. He’s been granted a full pardon.”
Steve cocks his head. This is unexpected to say the least, and frankly rather ominous. “From who?”
“The Commander in Chief.”
It takes Steve a moment to parse this out.
“You want to use him,” he accuses.
Fury sinks down into his chair, locking his fingers together on top of his desk. “He’s expressed interest in working for us.”
“Oh yeah? Did he ask you for orders? That’s what they made him, but that’s not who he is. He’s been a POW for 70 years, he needs a therapist and a fucking golden retriever not more missions.”
“We’ve appointed him a therapist already. We’ll take the dog into consideration,” Fury says archly. “There will be reviews. If we determine he’s of sound mind, with no Hydra loyalties or trigger phrases to trip him, he’ll have the option of joining a strike team.”
“What’s his other option?” Steve bites out harshly.
“You have more options now too, Rogers,” Fury says instead of answering the question. “Banner is synthesizing a serum formula based on samples of Barnes’ blood. We have approval for human testing once it’s finished. Your name came up.”
Steve knows he’s got a golden ticket for a few more weeks at least, so he spits, “Go fuck yourself,” and doesn’t bother shutting the door behind him as he leaves.
But the offer rattles around in his head at night, as he lies on his couch and watches the headlights cut across the living room wall.
All the doors that were closed to him when he was growing up would be open. The possibilities are endless; he’d have no limitations. He’d be able to go on combat missions. Without the asthma, the color blindness, the hearing impairment, and the laundry list of other ailments, there’s nothing he wouldn’t be able to do.
And if Bucky wants to join a strike team, Steve could be right there beside him.
Chapter 11: Burn 'til the Morning
so a few weeks ago i fucked with my settings and then forgot that i did it. so I wasn't getting notifications for comments on the last chapter and thought you all had abandoned me. it was a v sad couple days until I realized I'm an idiot.
anyway thank you all for sticking with me on this one! <3
Steve’s at the S.H.I.E.L.D. building every day for the next week, even though he’s technically been given an extended vacation.
Bucky grins when he sees Steve come down the hall. Steve’s been bringing books for him, since he doesn’t have any of his own possessions, and it’s one of the few outside items S.H.I.E.L.D. will allow. More often than not, Bucky has a book in his hand when Steve comes to visit. He’ll finish a book in a day, he doesn’t have much else to do, and he requests certain genres more than others; he likes fantasy and, surprisingly, romance. Steve had brought him a harlequin as a joke, but Bucky loved it.
“More of the ones with the naked fellas on the cover,” he’d said with a wolfish grin, and laughed at Steve’s wide eyes.
The other day he was doing pushups on the floor, shirtless, when Steve approached. He jumped up and pulled his white scrub shirt back on, shooting Steve a grin. Steve's sure he blushed all the way to his toes. He’s seen Bucky completely naked before, but it feels different, more personal now that Bucky has some modicum of autonomy again.
S.H.I.E.L.D.'s appointed therapist visits Bucky every day. Steve asks about the visits over a game of cards, as casually as he can considering he's invested up to his eyebrows in Bucky Barnes.
“It’ll take a team of therapists twenty years to sort out the bullshit that’s going on up here,” Bucky says and taps his temple, “but it’s going just fine. Though I’d rather have you here.”
He probably doesn’t mean for his teasing to sound so…flirty. Or maybe he does, given that he’d asked for a kiss before S.H.I.E.L.D. stormed their hideaway. (And Steve had all but given it to him.) Either way, Steve blushes. He knows Bucky can tell, because he grins wider; pleased with his reaction.
Bucky remembers more and more every day; his neural pathways reconnecting after being bashed to pieces. He tells Steve about the new memories he rediscovers, it helps them stick in his memory to recount it out loud.
“I remember going to the dance halls in the thirties,” he says.
“Yeah. The thirties were a good time: jazz, no war. I mean, there was the Depression, but there was jazz. I can do the Lindy,” he says, eyebrows jumping.
“Of course you can. You look like you can Lindy.”
“I can show you,” he says, grinning. Steve laughs, and it makes Bucky grin wider.
“There’s no music.”
“We don’t need music,” he purrs, smooth as anything.
Steve shakes his head, “I’m a hopeless dancer.”
“I’ll get you to dance one of these days,” Bucky promises. Steve might be looking forward it.
Steve brings a deck of cards and they play and bullshit. He won’t stay more than a couple hours at a time, even though he doesn’t have anything else to do with his life these days. He knows this is all a bit odd anyway, and he doesn't want to invite suspicion. If Fury has any reason to believe Steve's objectivity is compromised, he'll get reassigned for sure.
“Do you really want to work for S.H.I.E.L.D.?” Steve asks over a hand of cards.
Bucky shrugs, “You said they’d help me.”
“I didn’t mean with a paycheck. I meant more in…stopping the torture.”
Bucky grins wryly. He likes it when Steve doesn’t pussyfoot around what happened to him. Then he shrugs again. “I don’t actually need a paycheck anyway. I got 70 years of back pay comin’ to me. But I got red in my ledger. I’d like to wipe it out. And if you work for them, that’s good enough for me.”
Sometimes he has bad days, when his rapid recovery snaps back like a rubber band. He defers to Steve like a superior, standing at attention awaiting orders and staring past Steve's head at the far wall.
Steve tries to gently remind him he doesn't take orders from anyone anymore, but Bucky doesn't respond. So Steve sits with him. He's not sure he can hear him, but he talks anyway. Talks about nothing, about everything. He rants about political bullshit and social inequality, the prejudice his mother faced as a second generation citizen, the loneliness of growing up as a sickly, only child. About ten minutes later he glances at Bucky to find him watching intently, eyes wide with wonder and awe. Steve startles.
Bucky blinks away the emotion from his eyes. "Hi. Sorry I...wasn't here."
Steve shrugs, "S'ok. Gave me a chance to practice my evil monologue."
Bucky doesn't laugh at his joke. Instead he sinks down onto his cot, seemingly exhausted, and looks up pleadingly with those big blue eyes, "Steve, I've been so good."
It hits him like a punch to the chest. Steve knows him well enough by now to know what he wants. As far as Steve knows, being cuffed and brought in was the last time Bucky had human contact, and their almost-kiss just prior to that. Steve sits next to him, as close as he can without being inappropriate. He's still a few too many inches away. If Fury has any reason to believe Steve's objectivity is compromised, he'll never be able to see him again.
Steve throws a glance up at the ceiling and says apologetically, “Eyes." Bucky nods quickly, shoulders bowed.
Steve wants to, though. He wants to help him, in any way he can. Give him anything he asks for, because Bucky has the freedom to ask now.
More disturbingly, Steve wants to touch him again for no other reason than to touch him. He wants to feel Bucky melt into him, he wants those hands that could kill him in an instant to slide gently against his back. He wants Bucky, wary of the whole world except for Steve, to sigh against his neck.
The best he can do is a clap on the shoulder when he says goodbye, a lingering touch, a regretful smile.
Benjamin’s chattering about some T.V. show, but Allie’s eyes are glued to her screen. It seems almost...intimate, when they're together, and it feels a little bit like invading their privacy, but she reminds herself that this is actually her job.
She’s standing behind her chair, rocking side to side on her feet, her thumb between her teeth. She’s given up trying to be casual about it. It’s better than any T.V. show about zombies that Ben is weirdly into.
“Will you stop shipping real people, it’s creepy,” Ben says, when he realizes she isn't listening to him.
“First of all, how do you even know what shipping is?” she snarks, not looking away from the screen, “Secondly, don't tell me what to do. Thirdly and finally, I’m not shipping anybody, I’m just looking at the facts and drawing a reasonable conclusion.”
“It’s not—they’re not facts, Allie, you’re putting your own interpretation on looks between two dudes which frankly I find strange that you’re spending your time doing.”
Allie regrets letting him in on her theory, but there's not much else to do in surveillance but talk to your partner.
“Well it’s a good goddamn thing I don’t give a shit what you think, isn’t it? Also, when they get married, you’re going to owe me fifty bucks.”
Ben scoffs. “I didn’t make that bet.”
“I just made it for you.”
“That’s not how—you can’t do that.”
“Well I just did, so. I don’t know what to tell you.” She sits back down in her chair and waves behind her, “I’m tuning you out.”
She doesn’t care if Ben thinks she’s being weird, it's enthralling. It's like a romantic soap opera, but real.
It's Agent Rogers visiting Barnes again.
Barnes is different when Rogers is around. When he was first brought in and the doctors came to look at him, he shrank back, then lashed out. He had to be restrained and sedated in order for them to do a simple physical. But with Rogers, he scoots in close, nudges him with his elbow playfully and once he even reached forward and brushed his blonde hair out of his eyes.
After the first time Rogers visited him, once he’d left through the door at the end of the hall, Barnes tore his bedframe from the wall. He thrashed and punched and kicked; he was wild. But it was over quickly. He collapsed in the corner, forehead pressed against the wall, shoulders shaking. By the time the guards got into the room, they hovered behind, unsure what to do. Allie had watched intently, hand pressed over her mouth, and has examined his reactions with interest ever since.
He hasn’t melted down since then, but he seems agitated just before Rogers arrives, and for an hour or so after he leaves. But while Rogers is there, he’s open and casual and almost…happy.
A few days ago, Rogers brought a deck of cards to play. Barnes threw his head back and laughed at him and Allie nearly aspirated her horchata. They played gin rummy for about an hour and when Barnes won, he refused to give Rogers a rematch. Instead they sat and talked for another hour.
Barnes likes to sit angled toward Rogers, one foot on the floor, the other knee bent and up on the bed. He leans toward him sometimes, like maybe he wants to reach out and touch him, but his hands fold together in his lap instead.
Today, Rogers has brought a deck of cards again. But Barnes is having an off day, like he sometimes does, jumpy and uneasy.
When Rogers makes to leave, he turns back to Barnes and claps him on the shoulder. It would be casual, but for the way his hand rests on Barnes' shoulder for a moment too long. And also the fact that no one has been able to touch him without a fight for the last two weeks. When Rogers leaves, Barnes sits on his bed and draws his knees up to his chest. He leans his head against the wall and cradles his flesh arm against his stomach, metal hand resting on his shoulder where Rogers had touched him.
Allie's shift doesn't end until 4 a.m. so she settles in for a long, boring night. But around 1:30, all hell breaks loose.
She’s scanning the twenty screens on her side of the room when she sees movement from the cell block. Her eyes immediately zero in on it. Barnes is thrashing wildly in his bed, then he bolts upright. Allie turns to grab her walkie to radio the guards down there, but by the time she turns back to the screen, one of them is already in the cell, unconscious on the floor.
Barnes incapacitates the other guard at the door and moves out into the hall with movements jerky and frantic. Allie reaches for the intercom button but then remembers it’s the middle of the night and the building is nearly deserted.
“Get the directory!” she yells, snapping her fingers in Benjamin’s direction without looking away from the monitors. Then she fumbles on the control panel for the lockdown switch and flips it, never once looking away from Barnes' figure.
“What? Why?” Ben exclaims.
“Get Rogers’ number! Call Rogers in!”
Steve is at HQ in four minutes. He doesn’t have shoes on, just the wool socks he wears to sleep because of his poor circulation. He’s still in his pajama pants and old T-shirt, but he couldn’t care any less. The door doesn’t open when he swipes his badge-- they’ve put the building on lockdown already-- but then there’s a click and he throws the door open.
“Agent Rogers to east stairwell, lower level C,” a woman’s voice says through the intercom as he runs through the lobby. There are pulsing red lights flashing in the hallway and the building is all but deserted. He heads toward the east stairwell, and sees a security guard sprinting in the same direction.
The guard gets there before him. In the stairwell, the sounds of a scuffle are easy to hear, reverberating off the enclosed space. Steve peeks down as he descends, already huffing and puffing and of course he didn’t grab his inhaler in his rush out the door. He sees limbs swinging over the railings six or seven floors below; the flash of metal. When he reaches the landing, Bucky’s landing a punch that knocks the security officer down. There are three other bodies lying prone at his feet; still breathing, if Steve can be trusted to judge correctly at this point.
Bucky advances on him instantly, swinging a right hook. Steve’s able to pull up his arms to block it, and that’s how he knows Bucky isn’t out to hurt anyone. He keeps advancing, throwing punches toward his head, then one toward his stomach. Steve dodges that one and grabs Bucky’s head in both hands and pulls him down as he draws his knee up. Bucky staggers against the railing.
“Bucky! It’s me, it’s Steve!” he pants, but Bucky just rattles his head and starts in on him again. His eyes are dark and dangerous, but it’s not the Winter Soldier. He’s frantic and desperate; he’s scared. Steve makes the concerted effort and wills his hands not to shield himself as Bucky reaches for him. He won’t win in a fight, no matter how passive Bucky’s being about it, so he tries another tactic. Bucky’s metal hand comes around Steve’s throat and he pushes him back against the wall.
Steve puts his hands on Bucky’s ribs, not to push him away, but to draw him closer. This gives Bucky pause. He looks at Steve then, really looks into his eyes. He blinks, his eyes widen and he yanks his hand from Steve’s throat.
He looks wild, like a frightened animal before his brow creases with anguish. He’s still for a fraction of a second, then plasters against Steve. He tucks his face into Steve’s neck and says brokenly just behind his ear, “Stevie.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, arms going around his back, clutching at his shirt, “It’s me.” Bucky sags against him, holding him around his shoulders tightly. “There you go,” Steve murmurs, “That’s it. It’s ok. It’s me. You’re safe.”
“Steve, Steve, Steve,” Bucky mutters breathlessly against his neck, then he drags his mouth from Steve’s neck up to his jaw. Steve’s eyes roll shut, but then the door a floor above them bangs open, and five sets of boots thud down the steps. But Bucky doesn’t let go.
Over Bucky’s shoulder, he can see the confusion from the reinforcements. Steve flaps his hand at them madly and they straighten out of their fighting stances, lower their guns.
“C’mon Bucky, let’s get you back to bed,” Steve says gently, and manages to shuffle Bucky through the door and into the hall. He’s still half curled around Steve, tucked as well as he can manage into his neck as Steve ushers him back into his cell. One guard is helping another to his feet and they glare at the pair of them. Steve glares back. “Out,” he mouths.
Bucky sits heavily on his bed and still doesn't let go of Steve’s shirt, so Steve sits next to his head. Bucky lays his head on Steve’s lap and wraps his arms around his thighs, effectively hiding his face under his arm. He’s trembling, and though he’s quiet, Steve can feel the tears soaking into his flannel pants. Steve’s heart is broken, but he manages to run his hand along Bucky’s head and shoulder in a soothing repetition, murmuring reassurances; “I’ve got you. You’re safe. Go to sleep, Buck.”
Ten minutes later, heavy footsteps stop outside the cell door. The flashing red lights have cut out, but all the fluorescents are shining brightly. Steve had closed his eyes against them, exhausted now that the adrenaline has gone, and he opens them again to squint at Fury, standing there in his usual black shirt and pants ensemble, like he just rolls out of bed like that.
They have a staring contest for a minute, and Steve caves. He slowly, quietly, gently slips out of Bucky’s embrace and follows Fury out into the hall.
“What the fuck was that?” Fury asks levelly. He might be referring to Steve choosing not to defend himself, or the fact that Bucky nuzzled his face like a snuggly house cat, but either way:
“It worked, didn’t it?”
“You know I can’t let you see him again.”
“It’s not…there was never… he just needed to know I’m not a threat.”
“I’m the only friend he’s got," Steve blurts desperately, "Don’t take that away from him.”
Fury narrows his eyes, considering for a moment, then warns, “If this blows up in my face, I’m throwing you under the bus.”
It might have cowed him before, back when he measured himself by his career. But now all he feels is relief as he grits his teeth and says, “By all means.”
Steve manages another hour of unrestful sleep at his apartment before he goes back to see Bucky. The guards have all changed, but word has been passed down, and everyone in the lower levels seems uneasy.
Bucky grins at him when he comes in.
“What, no book today? I finished The Duke’s Enchantress yesterday,” he says with a crooked grin.
“Sorry,” Steve says, “I had kind of a late night last night.” Bucky wets his lower lip, the suave charm faltering, so Steve asks, “What happened?”
Bucky shrugs, “I don’t know.” He looks down at his hands in his lap and idly twists his fingers, flesh and metal entwining. “I can’t trust my own mind; what’s real, what’s not.” He looks up, his brow pinched. “Except for you. Steve, I need— Please—“
Steve doesn’t hesitate. He won’t refuse him this. Can’t. Doesn’t want to refuse him. He sits close to him on his bed and wraps his arms around Bucky’s shoulders. Bucky drops his head into Steve’s neck and starts to tremble.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky whispers, the words ghosting across Steve's skin like a prayer.
Steve’s not sure what he's sorry for, but no matter what it is, “You don’t need to apologize, Bucky. I’m the one who owes you an apology.” He didn’t want to bring him in; Steve would have run away with him if S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn’t caught them, but the guilt is still there. “The whole goddamn world should apologize to you. I’m sorry, Bucky. So sorry. For everything.”
Bucky just clutches at him desperately, squeezing him tightly. It feels good, to touch him again, even as Steve’s heart is breaking, because he knows it tips his hand. This is pretty far outside the bounds of protocol, despite the fact that Bucky’s been cleared of charges, he’s still a ward of S.H.I.E.L.D. But it feels right, to have him in his arms, to be his strength, his comfort.
Steve rubs his hands over Bucky’s back and shoulders for a long time, feeling the trembling muscles relax and his breathing deepen. He sags heavier against Steve, nearly asleep. The desire to curl up in the tiny bed with him and sleep for two days is alarmingly strong. He’s just so tired. But he still retains some sense, so he murmurs, “Lay down Buck, I’ll be back later.”
Bucky nods mutely and slides down, curling up on his side facing Steve, eyes closed. Steve sits at the edge of the bed for a moment, unable to leave just yet. He wants something else, something more before he goes. So he hesitantly sets his hand on Bucky’s head, one last brief touch before he turns away.
“What are you doing?” Benjamin asks when Allie gasps and starts jabbing furiously at the Mac that's plugged into the surveillance system.
“Never you fucking mind,” she grits from between her teeth. The uncharacteristic gruffness will attract more curiosity than the intended effect of making him butt the fuck out, but she’s unable to think it through in this moment. She only has a matter of seconds to intercept the video feed, and she’s never done this before so it takes a few precious seconds of fumbling.
When it’s done, she turns to Barnes’ cell and curses under her breath. Benjamin is still staring at her intently and she resolutely ignores him until he gives up trying to get her to spill.
The adrenaline in her blood has ebbed somewhat when, two hours later, Benjamin jerks in his chair.
“Sir!” Benjamin yelps, startling Allie. She turns to see Director Fury standing in the doorway.
“Agent Marone. There was a flicker in the tape from this morning,” Fury says to her. “A few minutes of missing time on a certain camera.”
She nods, glad she’s sitting because her knees are rubbery already. She’s never met the Director in person and goddamn the guy’s scary as fuck. Seriously, who wears all black like that?
“Yeah, I noticed that too,” she says, supremely proud of the steadiness of her voice, “Sometimes the video feed cuts out. Not often, but these cameras don’t last forever. I’ve put in a work order for it, sir.”
He looks at her hard for a moment and she almost quails, confesses every sin she’s ever committed. Finally, he says, “Put a rush on it.”
“Yes, sir,” she says, a bit breathlessly, and watches the Director leave.
She had to rush, and break a dozen protocols in a discharge-worthy act, to wipe the footage before it uploaded to the Director’s shared folder. Plus it meant she had to miss their goodbye, but it was worth it. That moment needed to be protected. And if Allie could see how compromised Rogers is, Fury would definitely be able to see it. But Barnes needs him, and if Fury banned him from visiting, they’d have an epic disaster on their hands.
She lets out a breath when the Director leaves.
“What the fuck?” Ben asks, more curious than ever. She just shakes her head, and something in her face makes him drop the subject.
“I don’t know why Rogers spends so much time visiting that psychopath,” Ben says out of the blue a week later, while they’re both eating lunch in their swivel chairs.
Rogers still visits Barnes every day, not always at the same time, but pretty close to. Barnes reads a lot of books, does pushups and sit-ups in the small open space that makes up his living quarters, and visits with Rogers. His laugh was slow to come back after the incident, but it’s reappeared and with more frequency. He’s doing so well.
Her fork stops at her lips. A piece of spinach falls off and lands with a splat in the Tupperware. “What did you say?”
“I don’t know why—“
“Yeah I heard you,” she puts her lunch down on the console carefully so she can gesture emphatically when she says, “I was giving you a chance to rephrase. He’s not a psychopath, he was brainwashed.”
“He’s been working for Hydra for—“
“Yeah, because he was tortured and brainwashed.”
Ben opens his mouth but Allie holds up her hand. “Imagine for a moment, if you will, Benjamin. You’re a soldier in World War II, fighting for democracy and freedom across the ocean, your friends dying around you. Your unit is captured, and you’re strapped to a table and tortured. Day in. Day out. Beaten, experimented on, cut apart, never knowing when it’s going to stop, if it’s ever going to stop. Imagine the lines of reality blurring until you don’t know what’s real anymore, only what you’re told. And if you do what you’re told, the pain will stop. What would you do? Imagine that, for a moment.”
Benjamin is squinting at her, half horrified, half skeptical, “How do you know all this?”
Allie purses her lips, hesitant. Much of the Hydra archive has been kept confidential, even among S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, except for those with the highest of clearance. Everyone knows he's an American who served in WWII but nobody- at least nobody Allie knows- could understand why he'd been granted a full pardon, considering he's been credited with a dozen high profile kills in the last decade. But Allie got the scoop not long after Barnes was brought in. She didn't want to add to the water-cooler gossip surrounding him, but when it comes down to defending him, Allie finds there's not a whole lot she wouldn't do.
“When they first brought them in," she confesses, "Jessie heard Rogers screaming at the Director about it in his office.”
The junior receptionist was too scared to talk about it with anyone else, but Allie gets her coffee in the mornings, because when Vera retires, Jessie will fill her shoes as the Director’s main secretary. Plus she’s a cute brunette with a shy smile and pretty green eyes. Double win.
Anyway. Legit screaming, Jessie had said. Pint-sized 5’4” Rogers legit screaming at that scary fucker who dresses in black leather. After meeting the Director in person, the literal shit-ton of respect Allie already had for Agent Rogers has doubled.
"Well," Ben says, turning back to the screens, "if there's anyone who could scream at the Director and not die on the spot from death-glare, it's Rogers."
Allie beams at him proudly. Ben doesn't notice.
Chapter 13: The River Runs Dry
Jeez how am I already at 13 chapters? How are you all putting up with me and this slow burn??
“S.H.I.E.L.D. duplicated the serum Hydra gave you,” Steve says without preamble, staring at the cards in his hand. A week has passed since Bucky’s late-night escapade and his progress seems to be continuing gradually rather than exponentially, and it makes Steve optimistic that it can be sustained consistently.
Steve can feel Bucky’s eyes on him, but he remains silent, so Steve goes on, “They wanna give it to me.”
Bucky puts his cards down carefully on his bed, but is still silent.
“I’m gonna take it,” Steve says finally. He hadn’t decided, not really, until that moment, saying it out loud to Bucky. “It’ll cure my asthma, scoliosis, partial deafness. Make me stronger—“
“You really want that?” Bucky bites, “To be like me?”
Steve finally looks up. Bucky’s glowering at him, and the force of it is unnerving.
“They won’t do to me what Hydra did to you.”
“But they’ll own you,” Bucky says with certainty. He leans back against the wall and crosses his arms over his chest. “You wanna be big and strong Stevie, go right ahead. You don’t need my permission.”
“You’re right,” Steve says coldly. “I don’t.” And he puts his cards down and leaves.
He goes up to Fury’s office, feeling a sudden burning urgency when all he felt about it before was uncertainty. He’ll show him, he’ll do whatever the hell he damn well pleases. He wants this. No one’s going to own him.
Fury’s receptionist lets him storm past without bothering to even try and stop him. Poor Vera. He'd feel ashamed of his bad behavior recently if he weren't so hurt and angry.
“Rogers,” Fury greets flatly, “Have a seat.” Steve ignores him and remains standing.
“I’ll be your experiment,” he says darkly.
Fury regards him evenly for a moment. It says something to Steve, that he considers him. Like maybe he's concerned about Steve's motives. But not so concerned that he won't accept.
“I’ll let Dr. Banner know. He’ll be ready for you tomorrow morning.”
So soon? A little bit of his bravado deflates, but he’s in it now. He’s committed.
Steve can’t sleep that night for worrying. Is he doing the right thing? For the right reasons? What will Bucky think of him after?
Steve certainly didn't have to even tell him he was getting the serum at all. He didn't need his permission, but he wanted him to understand.
It's hard for Steve to imagine what he’ll look like with an extra 100 lbs on him. Will Bucky recognize him? Will he deride him for voluntarily putting himself through some of the horror that Bucky went through? But it'll be different with S.H.I.E.L.D. He'll be doing good work, and he'll be healthy for the first time in his life. Bucky will have to understand that. Steve will make him.
Five minutes after the guards change at 8 a.m. Barnes makes his move. It’s so seamless Allie almost misses it. It’s calculated; smooth yet ruthless. This isn’t the choppy, sloppy panic when he freaked out a few weeks ago and tried to get out; this is an escape. This is a plan.
When the guard slides a tray of food through the slot in the door, Barnes punches right through the plexiglass, grabs his arm and knocks him against the door. Just like that. They’d thought they were containing him, but he was there only as long as he wanted to be.
“Ah!” Allie exclaims, and reaches for the intercom microphone as she watches the escape plan unfold.
Barnes punches himself a hole large enough to slide through, blocks the tranquilizer darts with his metal arm, incapacitates the other guard and relieves them of their weapons.
“Agent Rogers to Level C immediately, Agent Rogers, Level C ASAP!” Allie shouts breathlessly in every room throughout the building.
“What!” Ben shouts from her left. “Rogers is in med, doing some procedure!”
“What!” Allie shouts back.
“He’s in med! I watched him go in!”
“Fuck!” She slams the intercom button again, “All Agents to Level C. All Agents, Level C.” Then she scrambles out of her chair.
“Where are you going?” Ben yells.
“Stay and watch him. Call agents’ headsets with location!” she yells over her shoulder as she runs out the door.
But by the time she gets there, holding the gun she’s worn on her hip for four years and never unholstered while on duty, she finds four agents in varying states of consciousness, but Barnes is long gone.
A stream of agents file past her, guns drawn, and she points toward the door at the end of the hall, but she knows it’s futile. Ben is live-streaming Barnes’ movements through the building to all their earpieces; up to Level B stairwell, up to B1, like a ghost, leaving agents downed but not harmed until finally, “He’s out through the garage. I—I lost him. I lost him. He’s gone.”
Steve reports to the med bay bright and early. There’s a metal coffin-shaped box where the gurney should be and he can’t help but think it fairly ominous.
“Good morning, Agent Rogers,” Dr. Banner says mildly from the other side of the room.
There are three other lab techs bustling about quietly, and up in the observatory, Fury is standing with a handful of men in military uniforms. Steve swallows hard. It’s fine, it’ll be ok, this is the right thing.
He changes into a pair of scrub pants that he has to fold up at the cuff and steps, barefoot, into the chamber. Dr. Banner leans over him.
“This injection is the serum, which will start to work on your muscle tissue and cells immediately. The rays emitted from the chamber will amplify it into your skeletal structure.”
He injects the serum into his elbow; Steve winces, he can’t help it, he’s a little amped up already.
“Okay, we’re going to—“
A blaring siren interrupts the doctor. Red lights start to flash from the ceiling and a woman’s voice shouts over the whirring noise, “Agent Rogers to Level C immediately, Agent Rogers, Level C ASAP!”
Steve launches out of the chamber, ignoring the Doctor's shouts behind him. He snags his shirt from the hook by the door and his shoes from the floor and runs. His vision goes blurry in the hall and he has to stop and shake his head, but it clears quickly. He throws on his shirt and shoes and sprints to the stairwell. He feels…odd. There’s no squeezing in his lungs when he breathes. He never could walk up three stairs at a time without his heart palpitating, but now his heart is beating steadily behind his ribs.
He makes it to Level C in record time, but Bucky isn’t there. There are agents just shuffling to their feet after being knocked down and a woman with curly blonde hair and thick-frame glasses standing in the middle of the cell block, looking shell-shocked.
Steve bends to one of the unconscious agents, checks his pulse just to be sure, then grabs his pistol and badge and starts toward the far door, but the woman steps in front of him, hands held out.
“Rogers, wait,” she says.
“I have to go after him.”
“Wait for the Director to send you.”
“Who are you?” he snaps. Every second she stalls him is another second Bucky has on him.
“Marone, surveillance,” she snaps back impatiently, “You’re the best chance we have at getting him back, Fury knows that. But if you run after him now, the Director will never let you see him again.”
Steve clenches his teeth. She’s right. She’s goddamn right. If he loses his cool and goes AWOL, he'll be suspended or worse, then he’ll be no good to Bucky at all.
Steve turns with a growl and slams his hand against the wall. There’s a surprising crunch and he steps back to see a fist-sized dent in the concrete. He looks down at his hand, works it open and closed; no blood, nothing fractured, hardly a throb of pain.
He turns and looks at Marone, as if she might be able to explain, or confirm that she just saw that happen too, but she’s just looking at him with wide eyes.
The door Steve had come through swings open and Fury strides in. The siren is still sounding, so they have to shout to each other to be heard.
“Rogers, back to med.”
“But he—“ Steve starts, gesturing down the hall.
“Back to med. And you,” he says to Marone, who visibly withers. “Good work. Back to surveillance.”
“Sir,” she says, and all but runs to the door.
“There’s a strike team out now,” Fury says, and the sirens cut out mid-sentence, so he’s shouting in the reverberating quiet. He sighs. “And once Banner takes a look at you, you and Romanoff are going out, too.”
“Sir,” Steve nods, and the Director walks with him back to the med bay.
Dr. Banner only has one lab tech remaining, and she’s skittering around nervously. Banner himself seems to be doing some deep-breathing exercises even as he works, and it’s actually calming to Steve, too. He gives Steve a once-over, asks him to squeeze his hand, pull on his arm. He’d gone into the lab with his glasses, and had forgotten to put them back on once the alarm sounded, but he realizes now that he can see everything sharply even without them.
“The serum did its job beautifully,” Banner says. “He’s the picture of health. Strength seems to have increased, but I’ll need more time to do more extensive—”
“And the radiation therapy?”
“The time-frame has passed for that,” he says to Fury calmly.
Fury seethes a sigh. For some reason, it’s immensely gratifying to Steve.
“Romanoff’s waiting for you in the garage,” he says to Steve. “Go get Barnes.”
Steve doesn’t need to be told twice.
Romanoff is leaning against a white van, hands in the pockets of her blue jeans. She’s wearing a tan leather jacket and matching boots, her short red hair curling around her ears.
“Ready?” she asks. Steve just scowls at her darkly. It makes her grin. She hops in the driver’s seat and Steve gets in the passenger side.
“Clothes for you in the back,” she says as she pulls out of the garage.
He changes, and takes stock of what she’s packed for them: guns, lots of guns, tracking devices, varying tech, snowshoes for some godforsaken reason, and two big black duffel bags that feel like they’re full of clothes.
They stop at three Hydra safehouses on their way out of the city, but he doesn’t appear to have been to any of them. S.H.I.E.L.D. already cleaned them out, anyway.
They drive inland, then South. If he wants to get out of the country and head for the Hydra bases spread across Europe that he’d wanted to take down before S.H.I.E.L.D. brought him in, Mexico is his best shot at getting a flight.
He and Romanoff don’t talk much, but it’s nice in a way, to be on a mission with her again. Despite the clanging in his head that hasn’t shut off since Bucky left, it’s comfortable to sit on her right while she drives.
It seems he doesn’t need as much sleep anymore, so he takes over the bulk of the driving.
“So, Steve 2.0, huh?” Nat says when she climbs back into the passenger seat after a night sleeping in the back while Steve drives.
“New and improved.”
“We can rebuild him,” Natasha jokes in a low dramatic voice, “We have the technology.”
“I’m not actually bionic,” Steve says ostentatiously, “I’m a supersoldier, thank you very much.”
“What can you do?” she says as she reaches forward and grabs at his bicep. He shakes her off, but can’t help his grin. He gained a few inches of circumference in his biceps and thighs, but his collarbones and ribs still jut sharply. He prefers it this way, honestly. Let everyone underestimate him, until he takes them down.
“Anything you can, but better,” he fires back.
“Yeah? Faster, stronger, and all that?”
“No asthma, no hearing aids, no glasses.” It's still a bit strange, to not have to reach for his inhaler, to be able to run, to have no back pain. To be able to do all the things healthy people take for granted, and then some.
“Nice,” she says sincerely. Her phone chimes from her jacket pocket. She hums at it for a moment, then says, “Warehouse exploded in Texas.”
“Property owned by a subsidiary of Hydra.”
“Texas,” Steve seethes, and reaches forward to adjust his navigation.
The warehouse is a smoldering pile of rubble by the time they get there.
As is the next. And the next.
He’s working his way South, like they anticipated, but it’s impossible to predict his next hit. Even working with the strike team that’s deployed, they can’t cover all the Hydra offshoot properties within feasible range.
Steve and Natasha are casing an office building at dusk when they hear shots ringing inside. Natasha signals left and shoos him right, and they circle the ground floor. It’s eerily still, but even without his hearing aids, Steve can hear the quietest of calculated footsteps creeping up ahead. Steve vaults forward, around the corner, through the door to the alley behind. He sees a flash in the darkness; metal glinting in the waning light.
“Bucky!” he shouts and gives chase, but Bucky doesn’t stop. Steve chases the glimpse of brown hair flying around brick corners, a black boot disappearing around the next corner, until he loses him completely.
He runs for another hour, winding through the alleyways until Natasha tracks him down, ten miles from the office building, which is now blazing with flames. Steve can see the plume of smoke rising up in the crisp night.
“Stop,” Natasha commands, when Steve starts peering around the dark streets again. “We lost him.”
Natasha brought the van, and she drives them to the nearest dingy motel, like they’ve been doing for the past few nights, but Steve feels a sense of urgency.
“I’ll drive, you sleep in back,” he says with a tone of authority, but it doesn’t fly with Natasha.
“We both need to sleep.”
But when they bring their duffels into the room, Steve doesn’t sleep. Natasha doesn’t either. She spreads out a printout of the Hydra property map on the table, with her laptop set on the corner.
Steve sits on the edge of one of the double beds and stares at the wall.
He was right there. Steve saw him, with his eyes, and he slipped away. He knows Bucky heard him call out for him. Bucky knows he’s chasing him, but he didn’t stop. Doesn’t want to be stopped. God, Steve just wants to talk to him. He wants to…to make him laugh again. To touch him again. But he might not ever get the chance. The possibility hits home. For the rest of his life, he might not ever see Bucky again.
Steve drops his head into his hands.
He was right there.
When he looks up, Natasha’s watching him closely.
“I’m compromised,” he blurts.
Natasha just looks back down at her maps.
“Did you hear what I said?” he says sharply.
“No,” she looks up at him, “Because you didn’t say anything.”
Steve shakes his head. “Nat. I’m losin’ it.”
“Listen,” she leans forward slightly, “I know some of what he’s going through. When I came in, Barton was the only real thing to me.”
This jolts him enough to make him stop and consider her words. He forgets sometimes where Natasha comes from. But if anyone would have insight into Bucky's mind, it would be her.
“It’s weird and co-dependent and it’s gonna have to stop at some point, but right now? He’s taking his revenge. And when he’s done?”
When he’s done, what will he have?
“I can’t turn him over to be used again,” Steve says.
Natasha huffs impatiently. “You just spent the last two years working for an organization that would force a man to work for them, so I can understand your confusion. But no one’s gonna force Bucky to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Fury’s been calling dog shelters for fuck’s sake.”
Steve laughs. He can’t help it. He’s so tired and frustrated and confused and it all comes rushing out in giddy, slightly hysterical bubbling laughter. When he wipes the tears from his eyes, he can see Natasha smiling softly down at her maps, and it comforts him enough to slide into bed and catch a few short hours of sleep before the next day rises on their search.
Chapter 15: Take Your Greedy Hands (Lay Them on Me)
thank you all for your kind comments. :) i love hearing all your thoughts <3
They don’t hear anything for almost a week. Steve is vibrating with restless energy. He and Natasha have crossed the border into Mexico and are driving around checking properties owned by obscure Hydra subsidiaries and generally twiddling their thumbs.
Then buildings start blowing up in Europe. It doesn’t catch the attention of the mainstream media, since they don’t appear to be linked. One is a fire, the other is a gas leak, another is destroyed the collapse of the building next door. He’s smart about it, covering his tracks, and it gives Steve hope that this isn’t endgame for him. He’s thinking ahead to the future.
Natasha calls for a quinjet and they wait at a Mexican airport for four hours. When it arrives, Steve waits another ten hours to land, sleeping intermittently. Then it’s another two days before they get on Bucky’s trail again.
They make their way to Romania, to a truly creepy abandoned factory. The guards at the doors are already dead, another two drifter guards dead. There’s a cache of weaponry hidden in underground vaults. Everything is metal grating and wide open spaces; rows and rows of shelves with bullets, guns, grenades, traps of all kinds, and even boxes of currency from a dozen different countries.
Natasha’s on the lower deck, searching through the vast maze of rooms when Steve hears the scrape of metal on metal somewhere up ahead. It’s hard to judge direction and distance when everything is reverberating, but he’s got enhanced hearing now. He creeps forward, and in a row between two shelving units he sees the flash of silver and black, and Bucky’s running again.
“Bucky, wait!” Steve shouts, running after him. He can hear Natasha’s footsteps clanging on the deck below, but she won’t be able to reach them in time to be of any help. On their way out the door, instead of following Bucky out the doorway, Steve jumps through a window onto the scaffolding that’s set up outside the door and swings off, landing enough onto Bucky’s legs to effectively trip him. They roll in the dirt and stop a few feet away. Steve scrambles to get a handful of pants, shirt, hair, anything. When they’re both on their feet again, Steve’s got a hold of a strap on Bucky’s vest.
The first thing Steve’s brain registers is that he looks good. Clean, shaved, the slightly gaunt sharpness of his cheekbones has filled out a bit.
“Either help me or get out of my way,” Bucky growls.
“Would you just listen to me!”
Bucky knocks Steve’s hand from his chest and turns away. But Steve grabs him again and pulls with all his new strength. Bucky isn’t really expecting that, and he lurches toward Steve, off balance. Steve lets go of his vest to grab his face, and pulls him into a kiss.
It's pretty messy, teeth clacking and noses bumping, but it gets his attention. Steve kisses him desperately, with all the feeling, the longing, the want that’s been gathering up inside of him. Bucky makes some sort of a low noise and kisses him back, his hands on Steve’s hips pulling their bodies together. Steve forgets everything he ever knew.
A cracking explosion sounds behind them and Steve reflexively ducks, hands coming up to his head. The place is going up in flames; Natasha’s out, he can see her running from around the west side. By the time Steve turns back to Bucky, he’s already halfway down the drive.
“Goddammit,” Steve growls, and sprints after him. He makes up some of the distance instantly, like Bucky’s not really running away, just giving him something to chase. Steve can hear his voice drifting back to him— laughing.
“Oh you asshole,” Steve mutters, and Bucky laughs harder.
They’re not far from the city, and they run for several miles through back alleys and bad parts, Bucky always just out of reach. Steve gets within a hair’s breadth at one point, and when he lunges for Bucky’s shoulder, Bucky turns and dances away, grinning.
Steve follows him up four flights of stairs in a rickety building with junkies and prostitutes loitering outside and in the halls. He lunges for him at the door, but Bucky unlocks it and slips inside. Steve slips through just as Bucky’s closing the door, and then Bucky’s looming in his space, the metal hand on the doorframe next to Steve’s ear.
“Kiss me again,” Bucky says.
He shouldn’t that’s for damn sure. Steve is breathing hard, but it’s easy to control—more his brain making him think he needs to heave than his body actually needing the oxygen.
“Bucky—“ He’s not sure what he’s going to say, but Bucky doesn’t give him the chance anyway.
“I wanted you before, you know. As soon as I remembered how to want again, I wanted you," he says.
Steve licks his lips and Bucky’s eyes track the movement. When he’s silent a second too long, Bucky smiles a lopsided smile that makes Steve’s heart, with all its new strength, thud like a jackhammer.
“C’mon Rogers," he says quietly, his right hand softly coming to rest on Steve's side, just above his hip; the first touch he's taken for himself, "Mission success. What'll you give me for it?”
It's not much of a decision, more of an inevitability. Steve tips his chin up and lifts up onto his tiptoes to take Bucky’s lips. Bucky’s metal hand slides down the back of Steve’s head to his neck, holding him close, the other on his hip, drawing him even closer.
Steve pulls at Bucky’s jacket, licks into his mouth and revels in the growl that sounds deep in Bucky’s chest.
He could kiss Bucky for hours. He’s wanted to for so long, much longer than he would ever admit. But Natasha should have been here 30 seconds ago, since she has the van and he has a tracker in his shoe, so he pulls back to blurt, “Please come back with me. I won’t try to force you. But I’m asking you.”
Bucky smiles. Not a smirk or a grin, but an indulgent smile; tender. “Stevie, I’ll follow you anywhere.”
Nat’s footsteps sound on the landing, which is how Steve knows she wants them to hear her. A pinch forms between Bucky’s eyebrows, but he makes no move to run. Nat doesn’t come in, she just snaps her fingers twice from outside the door, a gentle chop chop, Rogers.
Bucky nods his acquiescence and follows Steve out the door. Nat’s parked the van out front, and Steve opens the back for him. Before he can climb inside, Natasha grabs a pair of electric cuffs from the van and fastens them around Bucky’s wrists. Bucky watches her do this with disinterest.
The inside of the van is lined with guns and a veritable cornucopia of items he could use to escape, so Steve sits on the floor in the back with him. He doesn't believe Bucky will try to run again, but he'll be damned if he's letting him out of his sight again quite so soon.
When Nat climbs in front to drive, she closes the curtain between the cab and the back that they’d hung to protect their cache from looky-loos. It’s another protocol breach, another detail they'll have to exclude from their report, and he's intensely grateful for it.
When he glances back at Bucky, he’s looking at him hungrily, greedily, and it makes Steve's breath catch.
“Why did you run, Buck?”
Bucky shrugs, “You were the only person looking out for me. And you wanted to become a weapon. Looks like you did," he gestures with his cuffed hands toward Steve. "What reason did I have to stay if you were gone?" He smiles, and says with a bit of wonder, "But you’re still you." Then his eyes turn down, a little uncertainly, and he says haltingly, “No matter what happens next, Steve, I want you to know—“
Steve leans forward quickly into a kiss to silence him. He won’t let him say goodbye. Bucky just complicated the situation exponentially by running, but no matter what, Steve is not going to let him go again, not now that he's gotten a taste of him.
When Steve leans back, Bucky smiles, but it's got a sad tilt to it.
They drive to the nearest airport, where a S.H.I.E.L.D. jet has been called for them. Steve walks close, a hand on Bucky’s elbow. It’s completely acceptable when escorting a prisoner, if that’s even what Bucky is, and Steve is glad for the excuse to touch him.
The jet shoots them across the Atlantic and an armored car takes them back to HQ. Once they're inside the doors, Nat peels off for a debriefing with the Director, where Steve will be expected shortly as well. But he’ll stay with Bucky as long as he can. They’re escorted by four guards in front and four in back, and Steve remembers the last time he walked Bucky through this building, only a few short months ago.
When they reach Bucky’s cell, now reinforced with steel wires running through the plexiglass that are probably electrified, Steve squeezes his arm.
“See you soon, Buck.”
Bucky smiles sadly again, eyes tracing over Steve’s features like he’s never going to see him again. “Sure thing, Stevie.”
Steve’s hackles are raised by the time he gets to the Director’s office. Natasha is there, casually sitting in one of the chairs. Steve can tell it’s not affected, and it relaxes him a bit.
They give their report, by wordless agreement leaving out his inappropriate fraternizing, and Steve hangs back after Natasha leaves. Bucky's explosion-spree has brought more S.H.I.E.L.D. attention and firepower to crushing the remaining Hydra offshoots. But Fury has promised to keep Bucky out of it, should he decide to join S.H.I.E.L.D. of his own free will.
Once the door closes behind Natasha, Steve says firmly, “You go back on your word, you threaten him or force him into anything, I quit." He won't be part of it if Fury decides Bucky's too good of an asset to let go. And they don't own him, serum or not. Never will.
Fury is quiet for a long time. He leans back in his chair, a hint of anger glinting in his eye and the tightness around his mouth. Finally, he says, “I don’t know what kind of man you think I am, but the Council has already come to an arrangement regarding Barnes.”
Steve squints. “What kind of arrangement?”
“He’ll be released from this location for 9 months of house arrest at a S.H.I.E.L.D. safe house to be determined."
It's as good of a deal as Steve could imagine, and he's shocked into silence for several long moments. Fury looks a little pleased by that, but Steve can't find it in him to be annoyed.
"Once he's placed, he can make a list of people he wishes to know his location. I'm assuming you'll be on it."
"T-Thank you. Sir," Steve says, still a bit flabbergasted. Fury nods, and the meeting is over.
Steve's a tiny bit of a pessimist and will reserve being full-blown happy until Bucky is living on his own, picket fence and 2.5 golden retrievers running around the freshly-mowed lawn, but this is a really good start.
On his way out of the building, he swings by the surveillance office—after stopping to inquire as to where exactly that is. He doesn't have the clearance to enter, so he knocks and waits. A young man opens the door, and his eyes widen when he realizes who Steve is.
"Is Agent Marone in?" Steve asks.
"No, she's—" the young Agent starts to say, when he hears her voice coming down the hall, talking with another woman. She comes around the corner with Fury’s junior receptionist, a pretty brunette woman, smiling as they chat.
“Hey Marone," Steve says. She looks at him with surprise on her face. "I owe you one.” If she hadn't stopped him from following his heart, Bucky might still be gone.
Her surprise wears off quickly and she flashes him a smile. “You’re damn right.”
Her companion looks wide-eyed between the two of them as Steve nods goodbye and heads home to rest.
For not needing much sleep, he finds himself exhausted, now that Bucky is back safe and with release imminent. Even if it is to house arrest, he won't be under lock and key anymore. Maybe their every move and word won't be monitored. If they can get five minutes of privacy, Steve can dream up all sorts of things for them to do.
Chapter 16: The Heroes That I Found
here it is, what you've been waiting a gazillion chapters for
/the heroes that I found aren't
/the ones that wear the crowns
/the real ones often are
/the quiet ones
It’s almost a month before Steve sees Bucky again. He gets anxious and snappish by the end and everyone in the building lowers their eyes when he stalks by. He wants a solid 20 hours of Bucky Barnes and no distractions, but what he needs is a dose of patience. That never was his strong suit.
He goes to see Fury every morning, just in case Bucky’s been placed and settled and he hasn't been informed yet. Fury tells him, “You will be the very first to know,” but Steve keeps checking in anyway.
His placement and processing takes a full week, and it takes Steve another two to get away; he’s a hot commodity for missions now, and Nat is building a strike team for him to lead. It's a surreal time in his life.
When he's finally informed of Bucky's whereabouts, Steve rents a car and inputs the address in his phone. Bucky's been placed in a safe house only a few hours north; close by, just in case anything should go wrong. He shaves 15 minutes off his ETA; it’s a minor miracle he isn’t stopped on the highway.
The houses get fewer and further between until Steve turns down a two-track dirt road and the GPS loses his location. The farmhouse—the only house on the road—is white with a covered front porch. It looks so much like the Hydra safe house Bucky took him to that first day when shit went down that Steve experiences a vivid and mildly uncomfortable flashback.
He parks in the drive and climbs the steps, opens the screen door with a creak and knocks on the door. There's one camera mounted at the edge of the porch, but Steve has been informed it's the only surveillance device on the property.
“Come in,” Bucky calls from somewhere inside. Steve stands in the kitchen for a moment, while Bucky’s footfalls cross the second floor and slip quietly down the steps. The kitchen is tidy and bare; they haven’t tried to make it look lived-in, and it feels right. A blank slate.
“There you are,” Bucky says mildly from the doorway. He looks good, no surprise there. His hair is pulled back at the nape of his neck, wearing jeans and a grey T-shirt.
“Nice place you got here,” Steve says. It feels strange, being alone with him again, truly alone. What can he say now, after all that has happened?
“Always was a city boy, but there’s somethin’ about it,” Bucky says thoughtfully, looking around his kitchen.
“Well,” Steve starts, then stalls out. The words are surprisingly difficult to say. He shrugs at the kitchen. This is all he wanted for Bucky; a place to heal; safety. “Mission success.”
The muscles in Bucky’s jaw jump, and he crosses the kitchen in two steps. Steve tips his lips up, tingling in anticipation before Bucky even reaches him. Bucky kisses him with his whole body, curling around him and pressing him back against the door. Steve moans into his mouth, he can’t help it, but he can’t be embarrassed about it either, because Bucky’s tongue is swiping across his, teeth scraping and Steve is about to jump out of his skin. Or his clothes, at least.
"I was so afraid I'd hurt you before," Bucky says, breathless, gently running his metal fingertips over Steve's jawline.
"You can't hurt me now," Steve replies, just as breathless.
“Let’s go upstairs,” Bucky murmurs against his lips, and Steve has only the wherewithal to nod.
Bucky pulls him by the hand. They get as far as the living room when Bucky has to stop and turn and kiss him again, hands slipping under his shirt and over the notches of his spine. Steve hasn’t been able to figure out why someone like Bucky—strong, smart, handsome—would want with a spiteful, skinny hardass like Steve, but the fact that they can’t go two steps toward the stairs without a kiss makes him smile against Bucky’s mouth. Steve feels a matching smile curve Bucky’s lips.
When they get to the stairs, Bucky turns and sprints up them. Steve takes it as the challenge it is and sprints up behind him, tripping over his legs and bumping against the wall, laughing—who knew this could be so much fun?—they slip and trip and kiss down the hall to the first bedroom on the right, where Bucky pulls them inside to sprawl on the large mattress.
Bucky takes a passive pose immediately, on his back, letting Steve climb on top of him. His hands, though, still push and pull, tugging Steve's shirt up over his head and his pants down his hips.
Steve pulls Bucky up to shuck him of his clothes too, and when they’re both naked, Bucky closes his eyes for a moment, jaw tense. Steve, straddling his hips with their hard cocks between them, waits.
He takes the moment to look at his lover. Skin, tan and taut over sculpted muscle, ropey scars criss-crossing, metal against flesh, that charming dimple in his chin. He’s so beautiful it almost hurts to look at him. And Steve loves him so much it’s a bit frightening.
A lump rises in his throat, to his horror. But Bucky’s eyes are still closed, so he blinks the tears away.
“It’s just,” Bucky says, voice a little hoarse, as he opens his eyes, “it’s been a long time since someone touched me like this.” Of all the emotion Steve has seen Bucky show—anger, obedience, relief, happiness—vulnerability is a new one. He all but melts.
“Don’t worry,” Steve says in a hush, “I’ll take care of you.”
Bucky puts his hands above his head in a gesture of trust that robs Steve of breath. Bucky smiles that tender smile and murmurs back, “You always have.”
Simply referencing Bucky’s time as the Soldier makes Steve’s heart hurt, especially with relation to himself. His face falls, and Bucky tsks.
“Oh, Stevie.” He brings his hands back down to stroke soothing lines along Steve’s thighs. “We’re here, now. We made it. Besides, I like it when you take care of me.” He grins, bites down on his lower lip because he’s an asshole and he seems to have figured out pretty quick how to get Steve’s motor going. “Now am I yours or what?”
“Yeah,” Steve purrs, going down onto his elbows so he can ghost his lips across Bucky’s cheek to his ear, “You’re mine. All mine. This is all mine.” He rolls his hips down, sliding Bucky’s cock along the cleft of his ass. Bucky moans into his ear, so Steve does it again.
He slides down Bucky’s body to get his mouth on that cock, and Bucky softly curses some very creative combinations Steve’s never heard before, mixing ‘30s and modern slang.
As he bobs slowly along Bucky’s shaft, teasing the head with his tongue, he reaches back behind himself to get himself ready to take it, using the small bottle of lube he’d been a little optimistic in shoving in his pants pocket before he left his apartment.
“Steve, Steve,” Bucky says, pulling at his arms, so Steve crawls back up into a desperate kiss. “Please,” Bucky whispers, as if he even has to ask. Steve’s probably not quite ready, but he positions himself anyway, eager as he is.
“Wait,” Bucky says suddenly, “You’re not ready.” He finds the bottle of lube in the sheets, right where Steve had thought he so discreetly placed it, and sinks two fingers inside of him without preamble. Steve moans, forehead thumping down onto Bucky’s collarbone. Steve pushes back onto Bucky’s hand, lost in a constellation of sensation, until a third finger is added and a sheen of sweat starts prickling down his back.
He whispers in Bucky’s ear that he’s ready, he wants it, so Bucky eases his fingers out and Steve sinks himself onto his cock. He sits there for a moment, reveling in the tight stretch, the feeling of fullness, of Bucky’s lips and tongue under his. Then he starts to move.
He could never have done this before the serum, not for any length of time. His heart and lungs wouldn’t support it. But he revels in it, this new strength, being able to take control. It seems to be what Bucky needs, too.
He lifts up slowly and rolls his hips back down until Bucky’s breath starts to get ragged. Then he leans back to support his hands on Bucky’s thighs and hit that spot just right. It sneaks up on him, the pleasure hitting him from his groin and rolling through his whole body, spurting streaks of cum onto Bucky’s chest. Bucky’s fingertips dig into his thighs, watching Steve with open mouth as he comes inside of him.
Steve rides him gently through it, then leans back down to kiss him lazily for a few minutes. When he makes to slide off him, Bucky’s grip tightens. His eyes are closed peacefully as he murmurs, “Mm, don’t go.”
“I’ll be right back,” Steve whispers. He cleans himself up in the bathroom and comes back with a warm cloth to clean Bucky’s chest. Then they curl up together with the sheets floating around them, and fall into a sated, restful sleep.
Steve’s phone dinging wakes him. It’s Fury, he just fucking knows it. Steve is on his back, the warm weight of Bucky’s head cradled on his shoulder, a strong arm thrown over his stomach. Steve breathes deeply of him, his hair, the pillow, the sheets, the smell of the room in the humid early morning summer, the smell of them together.
He slips out of the bed to Bucky’s sleepy grumbles, and helps himself to a shower. When he comes back out, shirtless, pants on but unbuttoned, scrubbing a towel through his hair, he has to stop in the middle of the room to just look. Bucky’s rolled onto his stomach, the sheet edging low across his ass, revealing a truly tempting expanse of skin along the curve of his back. His face is stuffed in the crook of his elbow, just his eyes peeking over his arm, blinking at Steve.
“I have to go to work,” Steve says mildly, a bit dazed.
Bucky nods silently, but Steve can see the smile in his eyes. Steve puts one knee on the bed and leans down to kiss his shoulder.
“I really have to go to work,” he says again. Bucky rolls onto his back, showing Steve the smile he knew was there.
“Okay,” Bucky says.
Steve has to kiss him. He just has to. Bucky’s hands slide down his back, pushing his pants back off his hips. Steve groans, both in anticipation of pleasure to come and annoyance because he’s going to be so late, but that’s not about to stop him from getting on Bucky’s cock again and wringing those addictive moans from him, that hazy lustful look of worship Bucky pins him with, the one that Steve thinks about for the next three days, and rushes back for after the mission with his very own team that he'd thought would be the very pinnacle of happiness, before he knew any better.
Chapter 17: Orange Sky
Marone has called in her favor. She doesn’t want a cover or a transfer or to climb the corporate ladder. She just wants to shake James Barnes’ hand. She speaks about him as if she knows him already, and Steve gets the feeling she’s done more for the both of them than she’s letting on.
Bucky’s standing awkwardly at the door of the kitchen, which is understandable. He and Natasha have been his only visitors in the last month, the latter of which comprises a strangely cold, aggressive friendship that consists mostly of them drinking coffee in silence while side-eyeing each other. But it seems to work for them, because she keeps coming back, and he keeps letting her.
Steve cleared Marone’s visit with Bucky first, of course. Told him that she’s been their eyes in the sky. He’s glad to meet her, just a little unsure about new people in the home that has become the only sanctuary he’s known in the last 75 years.
The reminder of the things Bucky’s been made to suffer stabs through Steve sometimes, but instead of pain, now all he feels is pride that he’s come out the other side of it still so full of love and humor.
“Bucky, this is Allie, the S.H.I.E.L.D. surveillance analyst I told you about,” Steve says.
Marone is standing awkwardly by the kitchen table, trying not to wring her hands. She’s in jeans and a T-shirt rather than the S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform he’s always seen her wear, and it makes her look younger. She waits for Bucky to move, and after a moment he smiles softly and sticks his hand out as he approaches.
“Bucky Barnes, ma’am. Pleased to meet you.”
Marone smiles, relief easing the pinch between her eyebrows.
“Allie Marone. Pleasure’s mine," she says sincerely.
Bucky suddenly flashes her his most charming grin. “Steve says you’re a keeper.”
"Easy," Steve teases quietly from behind her. Bucky rolls his eyes from Allie to Steve.
"Oh please, Stevie. As if I have eyes for anyone but you."
Steve blushes and lowers his eyes, which is pretty stupid, considering that they're practically living together, but he's generally pretty stupid when it comes to Bucky.
"I watched you a lot," Allie blurts, then her eyes widen and she flushes. "I mean, professionally. I watched you professionally." Then she sighs and shakes her head, evidently giving up on not embarrassing herself.
Bucky smiles, eyes twinkling in a way Steve knows all too well. "Relax, Marone. We don't have to talk about your huge crush on me if you don't want to."
She shoots him a withering look and, not missing a beat, quips, “Get over yourself, Barnes. I’m gay.”
Bucky barks a laugh, then hooks one arm around her neck and pulls her under his shoulder and into the living room, leaning down to say conspiratorially, “What a coincidence. So am I.”
She’s added to Bucky’s list of approved visitors, and Steve asks her to check in on him at the house when Steve goes on longer missions, not that he needed to. Bucky's already asked her to come back as often as she can.
Allie’s there drinking lemonade on the front porch with Bucky when Steve gets home early from a mission. Bucky pours him a glass and tucks up into him on the porch swing. Steve holds his cold glass in one hand, the other hand resting on Bucky's thigh, and thinks this is the most peaceful moment of his life.
This was always supposed to be a sanctuary for Bucky, in Steve's mind at least, but it's been that for him, too. It's the closest thing to a real home he's known since his mom passed. Which he knows has less to do with the place and more to do with the people in it.
Bucky's been leaving scraps out for a stray cat that's been sniffing around, and now there's three of them in a variety of colors, twisting around the porch columns and getting under everyone's feet. They won't let anyone pet them yet, and they scatter when someone gets too close, but Bucky's named them all anyway.
“I need to get some non-government friends,” Bucky complains at Natasha when she shows up an hour later with a box of donuts.
“I brought you pastries, Barnes, do you want to rescind that?”
“Ok, you can stay. But I might have to trade Steve in for somebody with a normal job. Like a librarian.”
Watching Marone try to talk to Natasha— The Black Widow for fuck's sake Steve you couldn't have warned me?!— without blowing a gasket is pretty hilarious, but it wears off quickly when it becomes apparent, after the next three or four times the ladies cross paths at the house, that they're all fixtures in each other's lives now.
It feels like an oasis; time stands still for them to wring every last drop of enjoyment out of these moments, after so long suffering. Like last night, when Natasha spiked their lemonade with vodka and started ribbing Bucky in Russian until all four of them somehow piled in the porch swing and the chain broke, sending them sprawling across the porch, laughing maniacally and scaring the cats away.
Bucky’s in the bedroom reading under the open window when hears the crunch of cheap tires on gravel and a sedan's door slam. The sound of his salvation coming down the drive. He smiles.
Steve was dealt a shitty hand as a kid. Bucky remembers everything Steve told him about it, even when he was going in and out of cryo and Steve would blabber just to fill the silence; he remembers. He was sick, with heart and lung conditions and the doctors had him on a handful of pills and injections every day just to keep him alive. And now he's the head of the most notorious S.H.I.E.L.D. strike team in history. They call him Captain America, if Romanoff is to be believed, for his sense of justice and sacrifice. He's living his dream. But as much as Bucky knows Steve loves being out there saving the world, he still rushes back here to Bucky after every mission. Nearly kicks in the screen door in his haste to get Bucky to the bedroom.
Bucky remembers more and more of the life he used to lead. The one before Hydra, when he was a lovable run-about paying his dues to provide for his family and dancing with all the girls at night. And still, he thinks this is the best time of his life; metal arm, night terrors and all. It's been hard earned, so much of a long-shot that the odds don't even register, and made all the sweeter for it.
Enjoying time still seems a bit strange; something forbidden. Sometimes when he’s sitting down to read, or drawing himself a bath, he gets a correction pending warning in his synapses, but it’s getting easier to ignore. Especially with everyone pampering him like this. They called it ‘house arrest’ but it’s like one of those white-collar prisons with a spa and Internet access.
They all seem strangely invested in getting him a dog for some reason. Bucky’s perfectly happy taking care of his own needs for a while, but he's been considering it. It might be nice, since the cats are just about as skittish as he is, to have a companion to cuddle when Steve’s gone on missions.
This calm won’t last; this quiet is only an eye, Bucky knows that. Fury’s a smart man, he’s just saving his chips.
Still, Bucky brought the tiller from the barn back to life and planted out a small garden last week; nothing much, just some beets and carrots. He might not be around to harvest in the fall, but Steve had kissed him breathless when he proudly showed him the little green sprouts he’d so gently tended, and that in itself had made the day of hard work in the sun worth it.
When they call him in, it’ll be ok. Steve works for them, so Bucky trusts that he’ll be doing good. And he’ll have Steve watching out for him, like always. Maybe Fury will say the world needs his help now, after all the wrong he did to it. Maybe he’ll say Steve needs him. Either way, Bucky will go when he’s called. But he’ll enjoy the shit out of this respite first.
Steve’s boots crunch across the gravel and up the porch. The front door creaks on its hinges and Steve calls out, “Honey, I’m home,” because he thinks he’s funny. Bucky smiles despite himself and tucks his bookmark into his book, then goes downstairs to kiss his man.
<3 Thank you all again for reading!