Steve gets out of the hospital in two days, but just barely. “I’m fine,” he tells Sam, Nurse Eunjung and the phalanx of doctors assigned to make sure Captain America didn’t bleed out and die and get bad PR all over their nice clean hospital. “I have an advanced healing factor. It’s fine. See? I’m standing.”
“That is not standing,” Sam tells him.
“You’re bending the IV stand,” Nurse Eunjung adds pointedly. “Let go and sit down, they don’t grow on trees.”
“I’m completely fine,” Steve protests, wilting back against the bed and groping weakly for his shield. “I’m okay. Sam-”
“Yeah, yeah, you need to go, this is a time-sensitive operation, your boo needs you, uh huh. What we need- us here-” Sam gestures to himself and the medical staff, all of whom nod fervently- “Is for Captain America not to be a damn fool and rip his damn stitches basically twenty minutes after he got them. Lie down, Steve.”
“Get up, Steve,” Natasha says, pushing through the herd of doctors partly by means of an empty wheelchair but mainly by force of personality. She waves a sheaf of papers at him. “Paperwork’s filed. Doctors will sign it. We’re leaving.”
“What,” says Sam.
“Marry me,” says Steve.
“Wait a minute,” says one of the doctors.
“You can’t just do that,” Sam continues.
“He needs rest,” Nurse Eunjung finishes, even as she glares bitterly at the crooked IV stand. Steve, catching her eye, sheepishly reaches over to straighten it back out again.
“You’re not wrong. We’re going anyway,” Natasha says.
“Natasha,” Sam says.
Natasha sighs. “If we don’t sign him out then he’s just going to wait until you’re asleep and then climb out the window. Am I wrong, Steve?”
Steve looks tries not to look incredibly guilty, internally amazed that Natasha got his number so fast; the Captain America thing tends to take care of that, and up until recently it worked on her too. He doesn’t succeed.
“Jesus Christ, Steve,” Sam repeats.
Natasha wiggles the wheelchair with one hand while pressing the paperwork to one doctor’s chest with the other. “Come on, chop chop.”
Steve starts to get up, then falters. “Um.”
“What is it?” Sam asks warily.
Steve fidgets, just a little. Nurse Eunjung’s face transforms into a heretofore unseen combination of stern disapproval and incredulous glee. “You’ve still got the catheter in,” she says. “Don’t you.”
Sam stares. “Did you seriously just try to leave. With a catheter still attached.”
“No,” Steve says, his hands now very firmly gripping the hospital blanket around his waist. Natasha’s face looks suspiciously close to smiling. “Maybe.”
“Who let you into the Army,” Sam says, a little wildly. “Who did that. Who.”
“Not going to lie, I’m enjoying this,” Natasha says, “but because we’re on a time limit and I don’t have a video camera, I’m calling it. Sam, Steve, we’re going. Nurse, could you help us out, please?”
Nurse Eunjung sighs. “I’m taking out Captain America’s catheter,” she mutters to herself. “Jesus Christ. I could’ve been a dentist.”
Two hours later, Steve, still smarting from Nurse Eunjung’s tender ministrations, is wheeled directly to Sam’s guest bed, his shield in his lap, and unloaded onto the mattress. He wants to protest and get up and hopefully find some pants but the moment his head touches the pillow he more or less passes out for nineteen hours straight.
This is good, because he wakes up no longer seeing double and when he pulls up his scrubs his stitches are lying unraveled on his stomach, pushed out by angry red scar tissue that’s slowly but steadily fading to pink. It’s also bad, because that’s a whole nineteen more hours for Bucky to disappear further and if Bucky’s even half the wily sonuvabitch he was back in the forties then that’s a lot of disappearing.
Steve picks up his shield and leans it against the wall before going to look for signs of life. Sam is in the kitchen, making a smoothie; a glance at the clock tells Steve it’s nearly six. “Morning,” Steve says.
Sam jumps and swears a little. “God damn it, Rogers.” He looks Steve up and down. “Well, at least you look less like hammered shit.”
Steve holds up his handful of stitches. “Feel better, too.”
“Three days after three bullets and you’re just walking around fresh as a daisy.” Sam shakes his head, eyeing the stitches warily. “Natasha called. Says she has something for us, wants to meet after Fury’s funeral. You up to go out? Of course you are.”
Steve opens his mouth to agree, then winces at the frankly horrifying noise that comes from his gut. “I do need to eat first,” he admits sheepishly.
“Yeah, yeah, fifteen thousand calorie diet to keep your prima donna figure,” Sam grimaces, but they stop at some place called Eggspectations on the way, so Steve graciously forgives him.
The pancakes and sausage and eggs and bacon do momentarily take his mind off the soundtrack of he’s alive I gotta find him playing in Steve’s head, but then they get to the cemetery and Natasha rolls up with her folder of intel and mission-focus crashes back down around Steve’s ears again. Fury says his pitch and then ghosts away, and Steve’s left looking down at the file in his hands like it’s crawling with spiders instead of TOP SECRET stamps written in Russian.
“I’ll help,” Natasha says, on a secure line forty minutes later, “once I finish extracting Barton and running some errands.” Steve assumes that this is Natasha-speak for ‘rebuild my compromised network of professional safeguards and quietly murder a couple of people that really need murdering’. “But I’ve read the file,” she continues. “And I doubt you’ll get anything out of there that I didn’t. My current professional opinion? You won’t find him, Rogers. Not unless he wants to be found.”
“We’ll see,” Steve says after a moment, because that’s the least awful of all the other things he can say.
“We’ll see,” Natasha echoes. There’s a pause, a faint crackle on the line. He hears Natasha take a breath, and- something changes, there, although Steve can’t quite pinpoint exactly what. Natasha sighs. “Alright. Steve? Call Stark. He just finished peeling the reactor out of his chest and digging the rest of his Malibu mansion out of the surf but he’ll help-”
“Wait, what?” Steve asks.
“- and we’ll need his help. He’s got resources and he actually is a genius, although if you ever tell him I said that you will suddenly find your life to be very interesting.”
Steve rubs his face. “More interesting than it already is?”
“I’m a girl of many talents. And before you complain about how awkward and rude it would be to ask Stark for help, don’t, I know that doesn’t mean shit to you. Explain the situation to him, that’s all. If-” Natasha pauses, then takes another breath, “When we find him, whatever’s been done to him, he won’t recover from that alone. You won’t recover from that alone. Stark helping out is our best case scenario. And,” she adds, “ We can trust him with this. He was practically first on HYDRA’s kill list, after all.”
“Natasha,” Steve says, when his voice works properly again. “Thank you. Really. Thanks.”
“Call Stark,” she repeats, and hangs up.
Steve stares at his phone for a long time, unseeing, before going to open up that file and yank as hard as he can on that thread.
The Asset drags the—Steve. Captain America? Steve. The Asset drags him ashore. Low density vegetation, open bank—easy to see a red, white and blue body from a news or emergency services helicopter. Captain America. Steve? The Captain is breathing. Steve has trouble breathing. Captain America is immune to all disease and has an advanced healing factor. Steve has—
The Asset turns, resets his dislocated shoulder against a tree and staggers off. The choppers will be coming soon.
The Asset follows his compromised extraction protocols. He hides his tactical gear. He covers his arm. He takes steps to keep himself from being recognized. He—
—does not retreat to the designated safe house. He is heading there. He is going, his body is moving, he—
—passes right by it. He—is not— going back—to the vault—
The Asset does not retreat to the designated safe house.
The attic space of a plastics processing plant in Anacostia is stuffy, stinking, and impossible for even a highly athletic human to enter. It takes the Asset four minutes on a recently dislocated shoulder to get in. He sits in the dark, cramped space and focuses on returning his breathing to baseline.
The Anacostia plant is not a HYDRA safehouse. There are no handlers here. No technicians. The extraction was compromised and the mission—
-the mission changed, mutated inside of him, unlatched its claws and teeth from one part of his brain and sunk them into another. The Asset is no longer following the bloody rails laid down inside his mind. The Asset has deviated from protocol (wipe him). The Asset has disobeyed the protocol. The Asset has discovered new protocols.
The Asset has not complied with those, either.
There are no handlers here. No technicians.
The Asset is no longer an entity dependent on protocols. This has been proven empirically. Whatever that mission had done, it had chewed something loose inside, something fundamental. You’re my friend. I’m not going to fight you. ‘Til the end of the line.
The Asset’s arm ripples and his teeth grind together. He needs more information.
The Captain America exhibit is empty, after dark and in a city under emergency lockdown. A recorded voiceover echoes strangely off the cavernous walls; blue-grey shapes make flickering shadows as big, wall-mounted videos play. There are murals and photographs and mannequins. There are photographs. Birth certificates. So many words.
He stands a long time in the flickery, echoey rooms. The face that is not his face is on the wall. The Steve that is not his Steve is on the wall. His heart rate is up and his breathing is erratic. It feels like water is building up inside his lungs.
It isn’t much better outside, fourteen streets away and sliding through the dark, invisible. Like the mission, the museum knocked something loose. Something has been let off the leash. He is off the leash.
The thought is so big it’s like he can’t even think about it. It’s a pressure in his head, in his chest, crushing like terror and bright like adrenaline. Training kicks in: he is in enemy territory. He has to get off the street. He has to retreat, regroup, reassess.
The Asset, recognizing that the Anacostia attic is severely lacking in things like running water and WiFi, finds a half-renovated condo on the outskirts of Georgetown that promises privacy in its layers of dust. He secures the house as best he can, with limited resources and an open floor plan; he finishes barricading himself in the basement just as his flesh hand begins to shake in earnest.
This is not an unexpected turn of events. Standard mission-prep protocol is for a technician to depress six syringes’ worth of various chemicals into his bloodstream, with varying amounts more if he must return to base for resupply or maintenance. He knows without knowing that he has gone through withdrawal before. This is not his first compromised-extraction rodeo. Flashes of sand, the hammering of chopper blades, ringing in his ears. The taste of vomit and the occasional snatches of Farsi. Cold. Heat. Cold again.
He walks unsteadily to the bathroom, sitting down between the sink and the toilet with his knees up and the Glock in his hand. Like the Chair, he doesn’t need to remember the whole episode to know, bone-deep, that this is going to hurt.
Time begins to dilate. It has been two hours and thirteen minutes. It has been seven seconds. It has been seventy years. His breathing comes louder, quieter, louder again. The tremors move from his hands to his shoulders to his spine to his lungs.
The Glock stays in his metal hand. It doesn’t shake at all.
The Asset is well versed in hallucinations. He can recognize them; he knows when the world he’s stuck in is unreal. It’s not a great help. If anything, the shuddery, looping confusion of trying to reconcile two sets of sensory data makes it exponentially worse.
But he knows. He knows he’s hallucinating. It just doesn’t help.
The Asset opens his eyes, and he’s right above him: blue eyes, straight back, brand new uniform. Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes looks down at him: young, dead, immortal.
He crouches down over the Asset, his crisp uniform creasing. He is as handsome as they painted him, face pale and poreless, but the Asset has seen that look before, in the eyes of men about to cut him open.
The Glock is an unbearable weight in his hand, but the Asset raises it anyway. Barnes watches, coolly detached. “You can’t kill me,” Barnes tells him, almost pityingly. “I’m already dead.”
“You’re not real,” he tells Barnes, but it’s weak: his voice is thready, and his conviction too.
“Realer than you,” Barnes says blandly. He reaches out and his hands are as cold as the tile, pressing on either side of the Asset’s face, an icy headache crushing in from the outside. “You’re wearing my face,” he whispers. “Maybe I’ll take it back.”
And the Asset is burning, his insides whiting out with the heat of his rage, how dare he, and he lunges at Barnes, snapping like an animal. “You’re dead,” he chokes, grasping at nothing, collapsing on the tile, and Barnes is gone like he never existed.
Hallucinations. Loads of fun.
Time keeps on smearing. He hears screaming, German shouting, artillery fire; he sees black oil spill down his front, out of his mouth, then vanish in the next second. He curls up tight in the space between toilet and tub and shuts his eyes, hands over his ears, Glock pressed sideways to his temple.
When he unsticks his eyes again Barnes is back, naked this time, bruises at every point of restraint and site of injection. He’s lying on his side, mirroring the Asset, watching him with sleepy-eyed apathy. He looks like a corpse. The Asset wonders if he does, too.
Barnes picks at his left shoulder, peeling at it, absentmindedly drawing away strips of bloody flesh. “You’re not dead,” he says conversationally. “Dead hurts less. I’d know.” He nods at the Glock, now lying in the corner. “Want to try it? I know you have before.”
The Asset blinks at the Glock, his thoughts slow, and lets his eyes slide shut again. He can feel his fever shivering through him, burning. It’ll break soon.
“You’re thinking there’s no point telling me to go away,” Barnes says in his ear. “You’re thinking I’ll disappear anyway, when you’re detoxed. But I won’t. What’re you gonna do, cut your own face off?”
The whisper moves closer, like it’s coming from inside his head, coming from his own mouth. “You think you’re better than me, honey? That I broke, and you’re what survived? Sweetheart, I’m in you. I am you. And when you slip, I’ll take it all back. I’ll take what’s mine.”
The Asset rolls over and gets to the edge of the tub before vomiting. Not much comes up. He hasn’t eaten in thirty-seven hours and he doesn’t expect to be able to for about another twenty more.
He collapses against the tile, panting. Barnes is gone again. It‘s another interminable smear of time before he can push his head under the tap and turn the water on. He gulps half-heartedly at the stream, and some half-collapsed flicker of memory tells him that here, in the midst of serious withdrawal and no medical attention, staying hydrated is the best thing he can do.
Staying hydrated. The thought pings off something, some forgotten, rusted chord inside of him, and his shoulders shake and wheezing, creaking sounds creep out of his mouth. Staying hydrated. Ahahahahahaha.
“You crazy fuck,” Barnes murmurs, and this time he’s sitting on the edge of the tub, sporting two black eyes and the Asset’s arm. It’s new, the flesh around the shoulder red and inflamed as it tries to adjust to the foreign metal. Barnes’ head is shaved; the Asset knows without looking that there will be stitches all over the back of his skull, surgical incisions marching down his spine. They’d really wanted to figure out the arm.
“You poor bastard,” Barnes says, and this time he sounds almost fond. “I shouldn’t’ve said what I did. You don’t know up from down, honey, I got no call pickin’ on you like that. After all, you’re mine too, ain’t you? And I’m yours. Stuck in this mess together.”
Asset rolls over and puts his hands over his ears again. “I don’t want anything from you.”
“Sure you do,” Barnes says, amused. “If you’re me, then it all makes sense, don’t it? Captain America’s best friend, back from the dead, just fucked up by HYDRA a little. And he loves you. He’d die for you. Just like a story, ain’t it? All neat and nice and poetic, even.”
Asset bares his teeth again. “I’m not you.”
“You’re not anything else either.”
“I’m the- the-” the fist of HYDRA.
“But you aren’t,” Barnes says in his ear. “Not anymore.”