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The Hunt

Chapter Text

The Hunt

 

Prologue

“But if you tame me, my life will be filled with sunshine. I’ll know the sound of footsteps that will be different from all the rest. Other footsteps send me back underground. Yours will call me out of my burrow like music.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

 

It starts with a burn.

 

Breath in his lungs, and opening his eyes to see flaming wreckage crash into the water, pillars of smoke scorching the air.

 

Of turning his head with the very last of even his strength, and seeing a dark figure, slowly stumbling away, a gleam of wet silver where an arm should be, before his eyes close and unconsciousness overtakes him.

 

It starts with a howl.

 

Two weeks, a funeral and a folder spread open on his kitchen table later, pictures of experiments and torn flesh, bloodied tools, severed limbs, and a chair and a cryo-tank – a goddamned chair and a fucking cryo-tank – and a face once beloved and dear, frozen in a coffin of ice.

 

It starts with a cut.

 

Deeper than any blade he’s ever felt, more bitter than any poison, bloodier than anything his lungs used to cough up as he fought for life, for air, for just one more gasp, fever hot and putrid in his veins, as he hears the words “whoever he used to be, the guy he is now, I don’t think he’s the kind you save. He’s the kind you stop.

 

It starts with a burn, a howl and a cut.

 

But it ends with an oath, a promise, as Steve swears, to God, to the world and to himself, that he will find Bucky and bring him home.

 

And that is how it really all begins.

Chapter Text

The thing of it was, people had been underestimating Steven Rogers for the entirety of his life. Too little, too mouthy, the scrawny little gasping punk from Brooklyn who never knew when to just shut the hell up. All of his life, people had been underestimating him, except for his mother, her soft hands in his hair, smelling of lemon and violets, whispering softly in his ear ‘You are meant for bigger and better things A leanbh, I know it in my heart. I feel it. You’ll see.’ And Bucky, always, always Bucky, who was the first one to call him Captain America, bruised and exhausted and battle worn but with a clear voice and a proud smile, and actually mean it.  

 

After the serum and the vita-rays and a body that finally, finally matched the size of his heart, people still underestimated him. The troops, Colonel Phillips, and even Peggy Carter at first, (she had seen the seeds, seen past the frail body and pale skin to the truth underneath, and withheld her judgement, but it had been there, quiet and still, waiting for the potential to become truth) had all doubted at first, until battle after battle, impossible victory after impossible victory, with new found knowledge and skills learned through sweat, blood and death, they had been convinced that the title, that the shield, was something he deserved.

 

Even now, after waking up seventy years later into a world that didn’t fit, but still seemed to need him, people tended to underestimate him. It took two years, and a battle against super-powered space aliens, finding out that HYDRA was still around, had seeped its poison into almost every branch of the world’s governments and going after it as fast and as furiously as he once had, that he emerged as one of the leaders of the newly formed Avengers, that people again took him seriously, listened to his voice when he spoke out for justice and peace, and respected his mind as much as they respected his body. But still, even after all of that, they still teased and laughed at him, his new teammates sometimes most of all.

 

And it wasn’t that he was dumb, or slow on the uptake. But people just didn’t understand how difficult it could be to wake up and find everything around you changed. More often than not, it was when he was trying to decipher the cultural codes that he found himself stumbling and confused. When Maria called out over their coms “Have fun storming the castle!” or Bruce sent him a meme of a frowning cat (and was it a meem? A me me? He could never tell) or Sam started singing some annoying song as they prepared for battle, and Clint would call out “Thanks for the fucking earworm, you jackass!” was when Steve found himself struggling the most. Little signs, flickers, codes of this new world that he still didn’t fully understand.

 

But the technology, as fast and bright and ever changing as it was, that had been easy. People had forgotten that most of what he knew, he had learned on the field. Or that he had once stepped into the Valkyrie’s cockpit and figured out the controls in order to veer it off course and crash it into the Artic.

 

So he wasn’t dumb, and he wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t some technophobe, in spite of Tony’s constant teasing. But he liked to let them think that, let them underestimate him, to give himself time and privacy, and more room on the playing field.

 

Except now this wasn’t a game, or a joke, or another stupid cat picture from the internet. This was Bucky, and Steve was going to do everything in his power, put every prior project he had been planning on hold and use every asset at his disposal, to find him and bring him home.

 

After two weeks, two weeks of healing from wounds that would have killed anyone else, and a funeral that was not a funeral, and sobbing his heart out over the information and pictures in the file Natasha had given him – words like subject’s heart started beating again 4.2 minutes after removed from water and asset resisted attempts at reprogramming, electroshock therapy applied directly to cervical cortex and brachial plexus avulsion complete, first stage graft of biomechanical arm successful – Steve began his search. Small at first, canvasing the local area. With Sam and Natasha agreeing to help, he visited local VA centers, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. Using Sam’s contacts and Natasha’s charm, he went from place to place with a photo on his phone, asking “I’m looking for someone. He’s a friend of mine, and he’s been through a rough time of it lately. Have you seen him?” And always the answer was the same, with sad eyes and compassionate voices, “No, Captain America, I’m sorry. We haven’t. But I’ll keep an eye out, and we’ll definitely let you know if anyone who looks like him shows up.” They had even gone to a few morgues when a possible matching description on a John Doe came in (and Steve hated to admit how deep in his heart, he was grateful every time the sheet was pulled away to reveal a face he wasn’t looking for, that hadn’t been once more familiar to him than his own), while Natasha lowered her head respectfully and Sam said a quiet prayer for the lost soul who would never find their way home.

 

Endless days, busy days, chasing down any hint, any whisper that could point them in the right direction.

 

And at night, after another long drive back from another shelter, where still the answer was the same, from the privacy of his apartment, Steve searched on his own. He had always been a master tactician, had always been able to plan and calculate the most viable options and variables that would lead to success, and say fuck ‘em when every idea pointed to failure and find a way to just push through, but even a master tactician needed a starting point. And if he had that, if he could just get one hint or a single sign, he knew he could take it from there.

 

So at night, over a sandwich or a couple slices of reheated pizza, he would sit in front of his Stark tablet, and search through news feeds and the files JARVIS had compiled for him that day.

 

That had actually been one of the first steps he had taken, setting up search parameters and algorithms, reaching out to JARVIS and being surprised at the AI’s texted reply.

 

Of course Captain Rogers. Mr. Stark has made it clear that any member of the Avengers is to have full use of my resources. I will be more than happy to assist you. And then in response to his next question, You can be assured of my discretion, Captain Rogers. Unless I determine that your safety is at risk, any and all information I obtain will be for your eyes only.

 

That had been a relief. He didn’t know why he didn’t want Sam and Natasha to know about his own research. They were loyal, the both of them, steadfast and true, even if Sam thought that Steve was setting himself up for disappointment, and Natasha that he was chasing ghosts. But Sam went with him from shelter to shelter, as he expanded their search area from DC and out into Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware, and Natasha was Natasha. The Black Widow kept her own counsel, but she was his friend and his teammate, and she used all of the resources at her disposal to search out any clues, any scent that might lead them somewhere. But still, this was between him and Bucky, and something that he felt he needed to continue pursuing on his own.

 

So working with JARVIS, he set up his requests and his searches. Worldwide monitoring of video feeds for any images that would match Bucky’s, tracking suspected HYDRA strongholds for any mentions of the Asset or the Winter Solider, keeping an eye out for any reference to the names James Buchanan Barnes, Bucky Barnes, J.B. Barnes, etc., etc. ad infinitum, focusing on Europe, where after the failure of Project Insight and the debacle the helicarriers, he knew that HYDRA’s forces were strongest. Except for Brooklyn. He asked JARVIS to keep a tight focus on Brooklyn, because Steve was sure that if Bucky turned up anywhere, even after all of this time, it would be in Brooklyn.

 

But there was nothing.

 

One week, two, then three, and still nothing. Possibilities leading to nothing leading to dead ends. Steve thought he would go mad with it, with the nothingness, but he never wavered and he never lost focus, and kept searching. Routing out, finding and destroying every single HYDRA base that he could, working with the Avengers to keep the people of the world safe, and pouring over his own files and searches late into the night, looking for something, anything, that would give him a sign, a clue, a goddamned starting point.

 

But always, always, nothing.

 

Until one night, four weeks in, sitting with Sam in his apartment, watching a baseball game over pizza and beer, because “Goddamn it Steve, even you need to take a break!” he got a phone call from Natasha, and the words “We found where they were keeping him.”

 

***

 

She was waiting for him, Maria Hill a step behind her, when they got there, less than twenty minutes later, Sam refusing to be left behind. As he bolted out of the car and to one of the hidden entrances to the National Treasury building, the goddamned National Treasury building, she moved in front of him and blocked his path.

 

“Get out of the way, Natasha,” he growled, straightening his shoulders and preparing to push her aside if he had to. But Natasha was Natasha, and she had never been afraid of him or anyone really (just the Winter Soldier, he remembered, her voice a flat whisper that told him more than any inflection would have), and she stood firm and just as strong, waiting for him to stop and pay attention.

 

“Steven.” Her voice was calm, implacable, as she stood there meeting his glare. “You have to listen to me Steven. I’ve been down there already, and it’s not…It’s not pretty.”

 

“I’ve already seen the file Nat.” He swallowed against the lump in his throat, pushing down the howl that was there, that had been there, since he had first read the report. The door behind her was open, but the passageway beyond dark. “I know it’s going to be ugly.”

 

“Yeah, yeah it is Steven.” She looked up at him, and he could see in her eyes that there was something there that she really didn’t want him to know. “Maria and I found this place less than an hour ago, and we’re the only two that have been inside so far. And in a little while, this place is going to be crawling with the Feds and National Security, there’s nothing we can do about that. But I know you would have wanted to see it before anyone else.”

 

“Thank you Natasha. I appreciate that, you have no idea.”

 

She nodded at him then, a small tilt of her head that he knew was her way of conveying her acceptance. But the look in her eyes never changed, and behind her Maria was being very silent and still. “But here’s the thing Steven,” she went on, reaching out to place a very gentle hand on his arm. “We aren’t the first ones to have found this place. Not by a long shot. And I just wanted you to know, so you can be prepared.” She kept her gaze on his, her eyes searching, until he swallowed again and nodded.

 

“Okay,” he said. “Okay. I understand. Thank you.”

 

She stood there for another few seconds, studying, assessing, until she must have seen something that was acceptable, that met her own secret set of criteria, and then she nodded and said, “Don’t thank me just yet,” before stepping out of his way.

 

***

 

Down into the dark. One level, then two, and Steve’s heart started pounding with every floor they descended. He was vaguely aware of voices behind him, “These are some of the oldest levels in existence, and they were thought to be abandoned, but well,” Maria’s voice, and then “HYDRA,” Sam’s, before Steve noticed the smell. Faint at first, putrid and bittersweet, but once smelled, never forgotten. Death and decay and rotting corpses that got stronger and stronger the lower they went, until finally they were standing in front of a two feet thick concrete door, ripped off its hinges and tossed aside as if it had been nothing more than a torn page from a notebook. Natasha gave him another glance, one last squeeze to his shoulder, and then slowly stepped aside. Steve moved passed her, through the doorway, and into…

 

Bedlam. Chaos. Hell.

 

It was a large room, high ceilinged and brightly lit. It would have been the perfect base of operations for HYDRA, except everything that may have been was nothing more than rubble. What had once been computer bays and data storage towers were now nothing more than shards of plastic and glass, strewn over the floors. Chairs overturned, file cabinets tossed to their sides, monitors with their screens smashed.

 

And in the middle of it all, the bodies. Ten, twenty, maybe thirty of them, spread out, spread eagle, their limbs askew as if they had all just fallen from where they stood. Each and every one of them with their eyes wide open, and a single, solitary bullet hole in the middle of their foreheads. There were weapons in the hands of some of them, guns, tasers, three with cattle prods. But whatever they had reached for, whatever they had tried, it hadn’t been enough, and they now all lay there, in discarded piles on the floor, blood and brain matter their final crowning sacrifice to HYDRA.

 

All except for one.

 

He was average in every way. Average height, average weight, with thinning brown hair. He would have passed unnoticeable in life, but someone (Someone, Steve’s heart shrieked and laughed and howled, because he knew, he knew) had posed his death so that it would never be forgotten, even by the dead.

 

He was sitting on a chair, the only piece of furniture left standing in the room. There were metal braces around his forearms, and another band of metal wrapped around his chest, and that should have been enough to keep him in place. Except someone (someone) had jabbed two stiletto knives into his wrists, all the way down to the hilt, pinning them to the arms of the chair. And on his head, they had left the head brace, a crown of metal and wire that Steve recognized from Natasha’s file, with its prods pressing into his skull.

 

Steve could smell the blood and piss and shit, without even having to look in between the man’s sprawled legs. There was vomit, bile and even more blood dried on the man’s mouth and chin, curled into a rictus of what must have been absolute agony. But it was his eyes that were probably the worst thing in this cavern of horrors, this ultimate level from hell. They were wide open and terrified, their colour long gone, blown opaque and grey, streaked with blood from within. They stared out empty and blank, lost forever to a nothing, from beneath a final, single, solitary bullet wound in the center of his head.

 

As Steve stared and stared and stared, he could hear the others behind him. “Twenty five bodies in total, thirteen appear to be security from their tack vests and weaponry, twelve support staff,” Maria, and “All confirmed dead, single shot to the forehead from what appears to be the same caliber gun,” Natasha, and “Jesus fucking Christ!” followed by the sound of retching, Sam.

 

But all he could think, as he stood there amid the rampage of rubble and blood and bone, staring at that one corpse in the chair, from someplace furious, dark and deep, was, Good for you Bucky. Good for fucking you.

Chapter Text

If Steve thought anything would have changed after the discovery of the destroyed HYDRA base, he was quickly proven wrong. Even with a renewed sense of purpose and determination, and after conversations with Sam and Natasha where the words dangerous, destabilization and accelerating violent tendencies were tossed about, while Steve modified his search parameters to include notifying him immediately of occurrences of extreme violence or any patterns that might indicate the development of serial killer, there was nothing. He had hated doing it, requesting those changes, but he knew that Sam and Natasha could be right. But still, there was nothing.

 

Even the results from the vault, when they finally came through, proved fruitless. There was nothing in them that Steve hadn’t already figured out, and not a scrap of identifying DNA evidence. A confirmed HYDRA safe house, twenty five corpses, sixteen men and nine women, all easily traced back to HYDRA. All video and security coverage had been deliberately cut prior to entry, and everything else that may have been useful to any investigation had been destroyed beyond repair. All except for the chair, the only item that had been deliberately left out of the swath of destruction. Tony and JARVIS had been able to confirm from the debris that there had likely been more to the chair apparatus, as well as what looked like the remains of a cryo-tank. But other than that, there was nothing.

 

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

 

That didn’t stop Steve from looking. He modified the parameters of his search, tightening his focus even more on suspected HYDRA locations, and having JARVIS scan the world news for any random acts of violence that may not, in fact, have been so random. He looked and he searched and he followed up every hint that may have been a lead, no matter where in the world it may have occurred. An explosion in a warehouse that proved to be nothing more than a gas leak in Kentucky, a suspicious fire in a factory in Augsburg, a shooting in a nightclub in Mexico City. And all of the while, he kept travelling back to Brooklyn, to his old neighborhood, and visiting the homeless shelters and soup kitchens there, holding up his phone and asking if anyone had seen this man, has he been here? And always the answer was the same, another round of no, and I’m so sorry, and we’ll definitely let you know if we see him, Captain Rogers.

 

One month, two months, four months, six months later, and he still was no closer to finding any hint, a single clue, about where Bucky might have been. It made him want to scream and punch his fist through a wall (which he may have done once or twice), but it also increased his determination. Because if he hadn’t been able to find Bucky, and he didn’t care what Sam said, Steven knew him, knew him better than maybe even he knew himself, then he was certain that HYDRA hadn’t either. And if nothing else, that gave him hope.

 

So he kept looking, kept searching, kept modifying the algorithms with JARVIS, agreeing with any suggestions the AI offered, hoping for a break, one single, tiny goddamned break. During the day, he jogged with Sam, trained with his teammates or went out on whatever assignments required the Avenger’s unique set of skills. But every night, for hours over a reheated dinner, he poured over the daily data packet that JARVIS had prepared for him.

 

Until one night, six and a half months later, he was reading through the weekly compilation of articles that JARVIS had flagged as non-likely, but within established search parameters, when he came across a small headline, buried in the hundreds, that caught his eye.

 

Local Waitress Saved From Attack by Anonymous Good Samaritan

 

It was an article from the local paper in East Bethel, Minnesota, that recounted the story of Pamela Mallory, a young woman who had been working late one night. On her way home, she had been attacked by a group of four men. It would have been a lot worse, except Pamela had cried out, and before the second assailant could lay a hand on her, all four of them had been stopped, put to the ground and knocked out by the mysterious Good Samaritan. ‘It was the strangest thing,’ Pamela had been quoted as saying. ‘One minute I was screaming, and then the next thing I know, they’re all on the floor. And this man I’d never seen before is standing next to me, asking if I was all right. And then he just stood there and waited with me until the cops came. Once they did, I turned around to thank him, but he was gone, like a ghost.’ When asked for further details, all Pamela could say was that her rescuer had been tall, broad shouldered, with pale skin, chin length dark hair, and sharp blue eyes. ‘And I never even got his name. If he’s out there, I hope he’s reading this, because I just wanted to say thank you.

 

Steve was on a flight to the Saint Paul International Airport the next day.

 

***

 

East Bethel was a small city of just over 11,000 people near the eastern border or Minnesota, less than an hour’s drive from the airport. Thanks to JARVIS, Steve knew that Pamela worked at the Route 65 Pub & Grub, and that she would be on shift that evening. As he pulled his rental car into the parking lot, he took a look around, and wondered, while his heart fluttered with hope in his chest, what it was about this small town that had made Bucky come here. And he hoped that he wasn’t wrong, that the way something in his brain caught and refused to let him go meant that he was right about this, that the mysterious man in the article had been Bucky, and that finally, after months and months of searching, he was about to get a clue.

 

Pamela herself was a young, blonde woman, tiny with long hair she had pulled up into a bun at the top of her head. She deposited a glass of water and menu on his table with a competent efficiency, and was pulling her order pad from the folds of her apron, when Steve asked, “Pamela Mallory?”

 

“Yep, that’s me. Now would you like anything drink?” She still hadn’t looked up at him, too busy flipping over a page on her pad and clicking her pen, but when she finally looked up and saw who was sitting at one of the tables in her station, her eyes went wide and she froze. “Are you…Are you really…”

 

“Yes Ma’am,” Steve nodded his head and then held out his hand. “Steven Rogers. It’s nice to meet you.”

 

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, I have Captain America sitting at my table. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, why is Captain America sitting at my table? Is this a joke? Is somebody pranking me?” Her voice had gone high and squeaky, while her cheeks had flushed a bright red.

 

“No Ma’am, it’s not a joke. I really am Steve Rogers,” Steve smiled his most charming smile, while on the inside he felt the now long familiar ache at the way people reacted to his presence. “And the reason I’m here is because I want to talk to you about what happened the other night.”

 

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!”

 

***

 

Two hours later, once Steve had smiled for at least two dozen photos, signed more than 30 autographs, and eaten a cheeseburger deluxe with fries (“On the house, of course, Captain America!”) Pamela’s shift was over and she slid into his booth, this time with a cup of coffee for herself, and a plate of apple pie a la mode, which she slid in front of Steve.

 

“Sorry about before, it’s just, you know, you’re Captain America, and this is probably the most exciting thing that’s ever happened here in well, ever.” She had a chirpy voice, energetic and full, and from what little Steve had seen, she seemed to be quite friendly, if a bit overly excitable.

 

“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” Steve assured her as he placed a forkful of apple pie in his mouth. He hated the stuff, loathed it actually, but as nothing was more American than apple pie, and he was Captain America after all, every time he went somewhere to eat, someone was going to put a plate of it in front of him. And for all that he couldn’t stand it, Pamela was trying to be kind, and he really did need to talk to her. So overly sweet and mushy apple pie it was. “I’m actually kinda used to it.”

 

“I bet you are,” Pamela said, and looked up at him. “But you said you wanted to talk to me.”

 

Finally, Steve thought, lowering his fork and pushing his plate to the side. “I do. Like I said, I wanted to ask you about what happened to you the other night, if you don’t mind talking about it.”

 

“I don’t.” But Pamela was twisting her napkin in her fingers as she said it.

 

“Can you tell me what happened?” Steve tried to be as gentle as he could when he asked, patient as he watched while Pamela shrugged before taking a sip of her coffee.

 

“It was just a normal Tuesday night, you know. I was working the night shift, which I don’t usually do, but Ilene, Maggie’s little girl was sick, and Maggie asked if I could cover for her, and since I’m trying to save money for school, I told her I would. I was out in the parking lot, waiting for my brother to pick me up, because his car was in the shop and I had lent him mine, when these guys, who had been in the restaurant that night, but not at my station, piled out of their car, and just well, tried to grab me. I screamed and tried to get away, but by that time one of them had my wrist and was pulling me, and the other was reaching for my shirt, and they were saying these things, all of these horrible things about what they were going to do to me, and I was screaming and trying to get away, and then all of a sudden…” She paused then, her hands not quite shaking, but Steve could see them wanting to. She bit her lip, took a deep breath, and then another. And Steve could not help but be impressed by her then, by how brave she was, to tell him this, to still work this job that she needed, after experiencing what must have been one of the most terrifying nights of her life.

 

“And then all of a sudden?” Steve asked after another moment, trying to be kind, to be patient, but needing to know more.

 

“There was a crack, and a thud, and then it just stopped. They stopped.” Pamela took one more sip of her coffee and when she spoke again, there was a small smile on her face. “When I looked up, they were all on the floor, each and every one of them out cold. And there was a man I had never seen before, standing there, and asking me if I was all right. I hadn’t even heard him, or seen him, but all of a sudden he was just there.”

 

“Can you tell me about him? About this man?” Steve leaned forward in his seat, desperate, desperate, oh so desperate now.

 

“It was like I told Jennie from the Spectre. He was tall, almost as tall as you, but not quite. Long brown hair, broad shoulders, pale skin, blue eyes.” And here Pamela shrugged. “Nice looking, I guess. But he was quiet, really quiet, and he didn’t say anything to me after he asked if I was all right and then told me he would wait with me while I called the cops. I mean, maybe it should have been creepy, I guess. But he didn’t crowd me or anything, just did as he said he would, and kept an eye out while I called 911 and then my mom. And then when the cops finally did show up, I turned around to ask him his name and tell him thanks, and he was gone. Just like that. I didn’t even hear him move.”

 

“And that’s it?” Steve asked, wondering if there was more, if there was something, anything else, except for the hope slowly dying in his heart.

 

“And that’s it really,” Pamela said. “I mean, Officer Carl didn’t believe me when I said he’d been there, said the guys were just drunk and must have passed out on their own.” At this Pamela snorted. “But I’ve known Carl all my life, and trust me, he’s an asshole. I was there, and I know what happened. This guy just came out of nowhere and saved me.” Pamela wrapped her hands around her coffee cup and shrugged. “He was kind, when he didn’t have to be, and I didn’t even get a chance to thank him, you know.”

 

“Is there anything else you can tell me about him? Any detail at all, no matter how small? I know this is very difficult for you, but it really is important Pamela. Please.”

 

Pamela lifted her gaze from her mug, and met Steve’s straight on. Brave, he found himself thinking again, she’s brave and tougher than she probably gets any credit for. “Why do you want to know? Why do you keep asking about this guy?”

 

“I’m looking for a friend of mine,” Steve decided to be honest. “He’s been through a lot, and I’ve been trying to find him for a while now. Following any lead I can. And I read your story in the paper, and I thought I’d give it a shot. So anything you can tell me, anything at all, it might help, even if you don’t think it will.”

 

“Huh.” Pamela leaned back in the booth, and stared at Steve with a sudden keenness, a sharpness that he hadn’t seen in her before, as if she was weighing her choices and trying to make a decision, before she glanced away, and then after a few seconds nodded to herself.

 

“Well, it was the weirdest thing, and you can laugh, because I know you’re not going to believe me,” she finally said. “I mean most people don’t even believe that he was there, that I didn’t just make it up. But he was, I know he was.”

 

“I believe you Pamela.”

 

“But anyway, while we were waiting for the cops to show, I turned to make sure he was still there like he promised, and his sleeve, it must have gotten rolled up in the fight or something, because it caught the light, and when I looked, I could have sworn he had a metal arm.”

 

And for the first time in over 72 years, Steve felt like he couldn’t breathe.

Chapter Text

Steve spent another two hours with Pamela, asking her question after question about Bucky – ‘How did he look?’ ‘Tired and a bit dirty, like he was living rough, but not too bad.’ ’Did he look like he was eating enough?’ ‘He was a bit thin for his size, but not like he was starving.’ ‘Drugs?’ ‘Nah, like I said, he looked rough, but his eyes were clear, and he didn’t seem out of it.’ -  until there was nothing left she could tell him and she said that she had to leave or her mother would start to worry. As he was rising from the table, and going for his jacket, Pamela laid a light hand to his arm, and with a small but gentle smile, said “I hope you find your friend Captain. And if you do, can you tell him thank you for me?”

 

“I hope so too, Pamela,” was all Steve could say. “And when I do, I will.”

 

Steve then spent another two weeks in Minnesota, once again spreading out his search. Travelling to all the nearby local cities, and visiting the VA centers, homeless shelters and soup kitchens, copies of Bucky’s photo in his messenger bag, with the same I’m looking for a friend and have you seen this man? from the past six and a half months. And always the answer was the same, No, no we haven’t Captain Rogers, but we’ll keep an eye out and if we do we’ll let you know.

 

Steve wanted to howl again; he had been so close, so fucking close. But at least now he had confirmation that Bucky was still alive, had not been recaptured by HYDRA, and was doing if not that great, not too badly. That was a starting point, and a hope, and more than he’d had two weeks ago.

 

So he went back to his apartment in DC, where he modified his search parameters to focus more on the United States, and to include any random acts of kindness performed by anonymous Caucasian males who appeared to be in their late twenties. And then he waited.

 

One week. Two. Four. Six.

 

And during the seventh week, JARVIS pinged his phone, with an incoming article, with a high probability of matching his search requirements.

 

***

 

Clara Lowell had been driving home with her four year old son in the back of the car after a late night visit with her mother back to Elk City, when a deer had jumped out into the middle of the road. Clara had swerved to miss it, but it had been raining that night, the roads slick and wet, and she had ended up losing control of her car. The car had veered off the side of the road, flipping over and then sliding toward a nearby river. Frantic, desperate to save the life of her only child, she had struggled with the air bag to try to reach the clasp on her seatbelt, only to find that it had jammed with the impact. Panicked, screaming, she had tried to tear herself free, when suddenly, out of nowhere, the door on the passenger side of her car had been torn away with a shriek of metal, and an arm reached in, ripping her seatbelt open. She had been pulled, gasping, crying, calling for her son as she was carried out and placed on the riverbank. Less than thirty seconds later, her son was put into her arms, wailing, but mostly unharmed, his car seat having kept him safe. The stranger must have used her phone to call 911, because within ten minutes, the paramedics had been there, the bright flaring of their lights illuminating nothing but shadows, where only seconds before the man had been sitting by her side, carefully checking her over for wounds, while all she could do was sob, and murmur “Thank you, thank you, thank you” over and over and over again.

 

She had never gotten a name, being too shaken and distraught to even think of asking for one, Clara told Steve as they sat together over coffee in a Starbucks, but she was certain that her rescuer had been an angel sent to protect her and her son. A pale skinned, dark haired guardian angel, because only an angel would have had the strength to rip open her car door and pull both her and her son out, before disappearing into the night without a trace.

 

“What the hell are you doing Bucky?” Steve asked himself that night in his hotel room, staring at the map of the United States he had spread out across the small desk. He was travelling south and slightly west, but mostly south. “Where the hell are you going? What are you looking for?” But the map, just like Bucky and the last eight months of his life, didn’t give him any answers.

 

***

 

One week. Three weeks. Five.

 

And then another ping from JARVIS, with a high probability of a match, from just the day before.

 

***

 

Denver, Colorado was where Steve found himself next. It was a boy this time, Billy McAvoy, fifteen years old, and barely starting to cross the cusp into manhood. As he sat across from him at Billy’s mother’s kitchen table, Steve’s heart ached. Because Billy was small and slight, with golden blond hair and bright blue eyes. He got bullied at school all the time for it, something his mother Susan, a vet tech at a local animal clinic, was always battling with the school administration over. But she was a single mom, and didn’t make a lot of money, so her options were limited. But Billy was smart and artistic, with an interest in the performing arts. He had been walking home from school late two nights before, having stayed to participate in the theatre program. He had been less than two blocks away from his apartment, when the three bullies who had been making his life hell had jumped him, throwing him face first into a wall.

 

Billy had been lucky. He had gotten away from the encounter with a scraped cheek and a bloodied nose. The three older boys hadn’t been. One had a broken arm, the second a dislocated shoulder, and the third, who had been calling Billy a faggot and a queer and a fucking butt-bitch, a shattered jaw. All caused by a tall man with dark hair and blue eyes that had come out of nowhere at Billy’s first shout, and rushed to his defense.

 

“It was the strangest thing, Captain, sir,” Billy said, his eyes wide and excited. “One minute I thought I was gonna die, and then suddenly there’s all this screaming and shouting, and when I turned around, those fucking assholes were crying on the ground, and this guy was just standing there, looking at me, asking me if I was all right. It was fucking awesome!”

 

“Billy! Language!” His mother hissed.

 

“Well it was!” Billy went on undeterred, and Steve found he couldn’t stop himself from smiling. “And now Captain America is here in our kitchen. This is like the best fucking week ever!”

 

“Billy! That’s Captain America you’re talking to!”

 

“It’s okay Miss McAvoy. I can assure you, I’ve heard a lot worse.” Steve turned his attention back to Billy and asked, “And then what happened next, Billy?”

 

“Nothing really,” Billy said. “He helped me stand up, grabbed my bag from the floor, and then checked me over, like he wanted to make sure I was okay. Then he asked if he could walk me home. I said sure, and he walked me the last two blocks. I was getting my keys out of my pocket, and when I turned around to ask him if he wanted to come inside to meet my mom and tell her what happened, he was gone, and my bag was on the ground by my feet. I didn’t even hear him leave.”

 

“Just like that?” Steve asked, wanting to make sure.

 

“Yeah, just like that.” Billy shrugged. “Kinda weird, you know.”

 

“How did he seem, this man? Did he look okay to you?”

 

Billy opened his mouth, as if to respond, but then he seemed to catch himself, paused and shrugged, as if he needed a moment to think about Steve’s question.

 

“He was quiet, you know. He didn’t really say much. But kinda intense. Like there was a lot more going on inside of him than he was letting on. Really fucking intense.” From his side, Susan groaned.

 

“Okay Billy, one last question and then I’ll leave you guys alone,” Steve said, reaching into his jacket for his phone. “Was this the man the man who helped you two days ago?” He swiped it on, and then laid it on the table before slowly sliding it over in front of Billy. Billy took the phone into his hands, blinked once and then again, before he smiled.

 

“Yeah Captain Rogers, that’s him.” And then Billy was shoving the phone into his mother’s face with an even wider grin as he said, “Mom, Mom, look! This is him. This is the guy. Didn’t I tell you he was fucking hot?”

 

“Billy!”

                                                                                                                                        

***

 

Two hours, a home cooked dinner, lots of apologies from Susan McAvoy and none from Billy later, Steve was in his hotel room, once again staring down at his map. East Bethel, Elk City, and now Denver. North, then south, then north again. There were no major highways that connected all three cities, and even if there were, however Bucky was traveling, it seemed as if he was taking his time. Or making other stops, at other cities, where he was keeping to himself and not interfering on anyone else’s behalf.

 

“What the hell are you doing Buck?” Steve heard himself ask again, staring at the red marks he had made. “Where are you going?” He leaned back in his chair (small, too small, almost all of the furniture he now sat in was always too small) and sighed. He still didn’t have a pattern or any more information than he had when he had started his search. Was there a focal point or was Bucky just going to places at random? Did he even know? Or was he alone and lost, faceless and nameless, unseen because it was his choice, or because those around him chose to ignore him like they ignored so many others of the struggling and helpless? Did he remember who he was? Could he even remember who he was after everything HYDRA had done to him? Most importantly of all, what did Bucky want? There were questions and more questions, and Steve was frustrated by the lack of information. The only certainties he had was that Bucky was still in America, somewhere in the Midwest, and that he didn’t seem to be a danger to anyone at the moment. And the endless why of it, why? why? why? was driving him mad.

 

Closing his eyes, Steve took a long, slow, deep breath. In a little while, he would call Pepper, and ask her if there was anything they could do to help Billy and his mom. The kid was smart, and needed a hell of a lot more support than he was getting. And then tomorrow, in the morning, he would start his usual rounds of going to all of the centers, shelters and soup kitchens. But for now, for five goddamned minutes, he wanted to just sit and breathe. Breathe like he hadn’t in far too long, ever since that day on the bridge, and a flat glare staring back at him as its owner spoke the words, Who the hell is Bucky?

 

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, again and again, until he felt his pulse slow, and his mind calm.

 

It came to him then, maybe a heartbeat or an hour later. A soft tickling at the back of his mind, a memory from another decade, another century ago.

 

Of being small and cold. Winter in a frigid and draughty apartment that was never as warm as it needed to be. Blue fingertips, and icy air that cut and sliced at his lungs, causing him to gasp and wheeze as it rattled through his chest. Of warm arms, pulling him close, against a chest that was broad and strong, with a heartbeat steady enough for the both of them, while big hands patted gently at his back, trying to help clear the mucus.

 

And then a voice, warm and familiar and dear, whispering in his ear “Just a few more months Stevie. Just a few more months, and we’ll have enough money saved up so we can move to California. It’ll be warm there, and they say the air is nice and clean. It’ll be good for you, good for your lungs.”

 

Steve didn’t stop his snort, knowing it would cost him, make his chest constrict and tighten. But those hands never stopped their steady soothing patting, not too hard, but just hard enough to help knock loose more of his phlegm. “You’d hate it there,” he muttered when he could finally breathe.

 

“Hate it there? What’s there to hate? There’ll be palm trees and beautiful dames, ones who’ll be even smart enough to see what a catch you are.”

 

“Only after you’ve dated them all.”

 

“Yeah well, I did say they were smart.”

 

“Jerk.”

 

“Punk.” A pause then, and a squeeze as those arms tightened around him. “But it’ll be good for you Stevie. I can get a job working construction, and you can go to work drawing for that Disney fella, just like you always wanted. Your lungs’ll clear up, and we’ll hang out with all the fancy dames, go to the beach every day, and look at the ocean. Sea to shining fucking sea. Sound good to you Champ?”

 

“Yeah Bucky. It sounds great.”

 

Two weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. And two weeks after that, Bucky signed up to join the army.

 

They never did make it to California.

 

With a gasp, Steve opened his eyes and lifted his head. It was an old memory, long since forgotten to wars and HYDRA and almost a century of change. An old memory but one of the last ones he had of a time where there had been nothing but him and Bucky against the world, and a promise between two friends, because if there was anything that Bucky had wanted for Steve, it was for him to get better. A promise, one of the last ones between them, before everything came crashing down and went to shit.

 

Steve looked at the map again, following the route with his eyes. East Bethel…No, DC first, and then East Bethel, onto Elk City and now Denver. North then south then north again. But west. Always heading west, if in a roundabout way, a way someone would take if they wanted to make sure they weren’t being followed.

 

“Is that what you’re doing Bucky?” Steve asked the map. “Are you heading to the ocean?” Suddenly it didn’t matter, because there was a pattern, and a very likely goal. And now that he was aware of it, could see it, he could work out a way to change its shape.

Chapter Text

Steve spent another two weeks in Denver. It was a bigger city than any of the previous ones Bucky had spent some time in, and he wanted to make sure that he left no stone unturned as he continued his search. He spoke to both Sam and Tony, assuring both that he was all right, and checking in to make sure he wasn’t needed as Captain America. Then he started his usual routine of visiting all of the local places a lost soul may have visited when they needed a warm meal and a place to sleep.

 

There was a rhythm to it that after so many months he now knew as easily as the steps of a dance. An introductory phone call, mentioning Sam’s name as a reference, and then a visit, where he said the same things and handed out copies of the familiar photo, cleaned up and modified by JARVIS to give a better representation of what Bucky may have looked like now, given the descriptions he had been provided by Pamela, Clara and Billy. A man in his late twenties, with shoulder length brown hair, and bright eyes. Quiet and maybe a bit intense, but pale and hungry looking. The staff would take the copies, tell him that no, they hadn’t seen anyone matching that description, but they would definitely check with their regulars. And then they would ask, sometimes eagerly, sometimes shy and hesitant, if Steve would be willing to stop and spend some time talking to their residents, give them a smiling face and a kind word, letting them know that Captain America hadn’t forgotten them, even if the rest of the world had.

 

Steve would always agree.

 

There was a give and take to it, a careful but gentle structure Steve had learned from watching Sam. How to sit and listen, really listen to these men, women and children (and god, there were so many children in so many of these places), and offer encouragement and hope, while not dismissing their concerns or pain. Letting them know that their voices, no matter how ragged or torn, were being heard. So while he served meals, and sat with veterans, and lent his shoulder for women to cry on, he listened and nodded and heard. It was a privilege to hear all of their stories, and if after a visit, each place he had been to received an anonymous but very generous donation, well, Steve thought, there were other ways to serve your country without the use of a vibranium shield.

 

Steve spent two weeks in Denver, two exhausting and invigorating weeks, but with nothing to show for it in the end. He was in his hotel room, packing up his things for his outbound flight later that evening, and debating whether he should eat at the hotel café or have something delivered when his mobile rang with an incoming call from an unknown number.

 

“Hello?” he answered.

 

“Um, yes, hello? Is this Steve Rogers? Mr. Captain America?” The voice was female, shy and uncertain.

 

“Yes, it is.”

 

“Oh good,” the voice exhaled. “This is Sammy, from the Hands of Hope soup kitchen. You visited us a few days ago, asking about your friend?”

 

“Yes?” Every nerve in Steve’s body was suddenly alert, the hair on his arms standing on end.

 

“Yes, well, we showed your picture around, like you asked us to, and Bertie, one of our semi regulars, said he recognized him. He’s willing to wait, if you’d like to speak to him?”

 

“I’m on my way,” Steve said, already heading for the door, all thoughts of dinner long forgotten.

 

***

 

Bertie was an older man in his late sixties possibly, with ragged salt and pepper hair, a scraggly beard, yellowed fingernails and shadowed eyes. He had a stooped posture, hunched shoulders, and a hacking cough that echoed in Steve’s lungs every time he heard it. But he was sharp and very much aware of his surroundings as he sat and spoke to Steve. He had to be, Steve thought, to live the way he did and be able to survive.

 

“Yeah, I’ve seen him. That’s him,” he coughed as he looked at the picture Steve held out.

 

“When?” Steve didn’t recognize the sound of his own voice, the way it shook and shivered, rippling like water.

 

“’Bout two or so weeks ago. Showed up about a week before that. Started hanging out in the park with us,” Bertie rasped.

 

“Did he say anything? Anything at all about himself or where he was going?”

 

“Nah, he was real quiet. Unassuming for such a big fella. Thought he was goin’ to be trouble at first, for such a big guy. But he just wanted to be left alone.”

 

“When – when was the last time you saw him?” Steve’s entire body was trembling. A second sighting, in the same city. That meant Bucky had spent more than just a few days here. He had stopped, stayed. Was he’s getting tired? Sick? Could he even get sick after being injected with Zola’s serum?

 

“Like I said, maybe two, two and a half weeks ago. Haven’t seen him since.” Bertie looked up at him then, meeting Steve’s eyes directly for the first time during their discussion. And when he next spoke, his voice was shrewd. “Is he in trouble? Is that why you’re looking for him?”

 

“What? No, no, not at all,” Steve said. “He’s a really good friend of mine. My best friend really. He’s been through a rough time, and I’m just trying to find him, trying to get him some help.”

 

“Ah, that’s a shame, son.” Bertie’s rasp was kind, as was the hand he gently patted on top of Steve’s. “He’s a real nice guy, your friend. Quiet, like I said. But no trouble. Caught a real bad cough a few weeks ago, one of them bad ones, you know?”

 

“Yeah, yeah Mr. Bertie, I do.”

 

“Well your friend, he heard it, and he just started sitting with me, keeping an eye out, telling me to take it easy and that everything was going to be all right. Kept bringing me soup, and tea with lemon of all things, making me drink that shit. But I gotta say, it helped. And the last night I saw him, before he left, he gave me his coat.” Steve looked at the coat, that Bertie was patting so proudly. It was an old, worn, dark blue pea coat, ragged at the elbows and shoulders. But all of the buttons were there, and even though it was old, it looked like it was warm. And Steve suddenly wanted to lay his head on top of Bertie’s hand and sob, because if anything, that was so damned Bucky, and instead of howling, for the first time in months his heart wanted to curl up in on itself and weep. 

 

“Did he say anything else to you? Anything at all? A name?” Steve asked when he could finally speak.

 

“Nah,” Bertie said with a shake of his head. “He was real quiet, like I said. Didn’t talk much. Stubborn as a mule about that damned soup though. But to answer your last question, when I asked him his name, he told me to just call him Jimmie.”

 

Oh god, oh god, Steve’s thoughts raced. Jimmie. Bucky had never gone by Jimmie and it wasn’t James, which he had always hated, or Bucky, but it was something. A tie to his past, however tenuous, a hope that maybe, just maybe, James Buchanan Barnes was still in there somewhere, and trying to find his way free.

 

“Does that help you out any, son?” Bertie asked, and his voice was still kind, kinder than it had any right to be after the life this man must have led.

 

“Yeah, yeah it does,” Steve whispered, leaning back in his chair. “It does, more than you know. Thank you Bertie.”

 

Bertie stared at him for a few seconds more, before he shrugged his shoulders and lowered his head. “Good, that’s good then. I hope you find him then, cos he’s a real nice guy, your Jimmie. And he deserves better than what he’s been given.”

 

***

 

Steve’s hands were still shaking as he pulled into the parking lot of the Best Westin later that night. He had debated staying in Denver for a few more days, maybe scoping out the park where Bertie said Bucky had been camping out. But after a few more assurances from Bertie that he hadn’t seen him since that final night, when Bucky had given him his coat, his own goddamned coat off of his own back, and then the encounter with Billy, Steve was pretty certain that Bucky was already long gone. He seemed to have a sixth sense of when he had stayed in one place too long, or had caught more attention than he wanted, and left quickly after that. Steve was going to go back home and change the parameters of his searches once again, maybe asking for additional input from JARVIS, and wait. Just wait.

 

It was frustrating as hell, Steve thought as he turned the ignition off and palmed the keys, but it was something. He was confident that there would be another ping; whatever was going on in Bucky’s mind, it seemed as if he just couldn’t stop himself from getting involved when someone needed help. And eventually, Steve would be fast enough, and get there in time to stop Bucky before he left again.

 

Steve was wondering whether he could ask Tony for the on call use of one of his many personal jets as he stepped out of the car, pocketed his keys, and then froze.

 

There was something in the air that suddenly had all of the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. It wasn’t the lack of noise, and it wasn’t the dark. The parking lot was well lit, without any hidden, shadowed corners. And it wasn’t the quiet. He could make out the soft hum of the occasional car passing by, and with his enhanced hearing a few muffled conversations from the hotel lobby.

 

But there was something out there. A stillness, a pause, like the silence between two heartbeats. A deadly focus, like being caught within the crosshairs of a sniper’s scope, waiting, waiting, waiting, as patient as death, and just as inescapable.

 

And it was watching him.

 

Steve knew that feeling. Had felt the weight, the kiss of it on his skin over a hundred times years ago during the war, when more than once the bullet to the back of an enemy’s head had saved his life. It was an instinct, a surety, more certain than the next beat of his heart, that had followed him from the dirty alleyways of Brooklyn and into the forests of Europe, time and time again.

 

And Steven suddenly understood why there had been fear in Natasha’s voice when she had whispered the words the Winter Soldier.

 

Steve tightened his fingers around the keys in his pocket, and lowered his head, trying to take a careful look around. He didn’t know where the feeling was coming from, only that it was out there, that it was waiting. That it was watching.

 

“Bucky?” he said softly, trying to modulate his voice so that it was gentle, curious, and not afraid, not when he had never once been afraid of Bucky in his life before, in spite of the cold that was curling up his spine like an icy tongue. “Bucky? Is that you?”

 

A moment, a pause, and still that silence that wasn’t a silence, that pulled and tightened and stretched, stretched, stretched the moment until Steve was certain that it had to snap.

 

There was a burst of light, and then two peals of laughter, loud and bright, as the automatic door of the hotel lobby slid open and bunch of young women walked out, chatting easily amongst themselves, completely unaware of what they had just walked into. Steve turned his head sharply to keep them in his sights, watching as they made their way happily to their car, giggling about the upcoming hen night. They were oblivious to him, oblivious to their surroundings. As soon as they closed the doors, started their car and drove out of the lot, Steve looked around once again.

 

But the moment had passed. And whoever it was that had been watching him, they were now long gone. 

 

Chapter Text

Another week. Then two. Then four. But this time, Steve could be patient. It wasn’t that the waiting wasn’t any less agonizing. It was more that now Steve had a general idea of where to look, which direction to turn his focus.

 

And he knew, he knew, that Bucky had been there that night. Had seen. Had been watching him. Was aware that Steve was out there. Was probably just as aware that Steve was trying to find him. He had watched, but hadn’t struck. Observed, but hadn‘t acted. Would Bucky go deeper now, even further off the grid than he had already been living. Or would he change tactics, directions, start heading for someplace else.

 

Steve didn’t think so. Bucky had always been a stubborn son of a bitch, and if he was determined to do something there was nothing that would stop him. And Bucky had pulled him out of the Potomac that day, hadn’t completed his mission when it had been programmed into him to kill Captain America.

 

So Steve was pretty certain (he hoped) that Bucky knew he wasn’t a threat. He was also pretty certain that if Bucky had thought Steve was, he wouldn’t be sitting in his living room, unharmed, right now.

 

So he kept all of the background searches the same, but this time asked JARVIS to focus on any cities and towns, no matter how small, west of Denver, hoping Bucky would keep to the pattern, follow the course he had set for himself.

 

“If he keeps to what he’s been doing, it’s probably going to be somewhere north of Denver, yeah?”

 

Agreed, said the text upon his tablet.

 

“So let’s keep a look out. Eyes for any similar activity in the northwest.”

 

Confirm, Captain Rogers.

 

In the third week of July, Steve received another highlighted ping from the AI.

 

Unknown Man Carries Three Senior Citizens from Burning Building, Riverton, Wyoming.

 

Steve grabbed his bag by the door, which was now always ready, and caught the next flight out from BWI.

 

***

 

Riverton was a small city in central Wyoming not too far from the mountains. The air was cool and crisp in the early spring, and the people hard working but friendly. Mr. Levitz, Mr. Abraham and Mr. Sampson were in their seventies, and lived in an older building in a poorer part of the town, all the three of them could afford on their Social Security. Apparently their downstairs neighbor had fallen asleep while smoking, causing first her bedding, then the apartment and finally the building to catch on fire.

 

As Steve sat across from them at the rickety table in the kitchen of Mr. Sampson’s daughter’s apartment, they told him a story that was now long familiar to him.

 

Mr. Sampson recounted how he had been woken up by the sound of their smoke detectors going off, heavy black smoke filling the air. Struggling to breathe, coughing and gasping as he tried to find his way through the thick, opaque air, stumbling to the floor, and knowing, with a horrid certainty, that this was the end. How at just that instant, the door had  suddenly burst open, and as he thanked god that the fire department had finally arrived, even though he hadn’t heard the sounds of any sirens yet, a man scooped him up, (and it had to be a man, a woman just wouldn’t have been strong enough to do it that easily), and carried him down the stairs, carefully depositing the elderly man outside on the curb, before he turned around, without even gasping for breath, and repeated the process two more times. How afterwards, the man had knelt over him and asked, in a quiet but intense voice, if he was all right, with the sounds of sirens finally coming closer. Mr. Sampson had looked up into a pale face, with long brown hair and blue eyes, before bending over to cough out the blackened phlegm from his lungs, only to find that the man was now gone, just as suddenly as he appeared.

 

None of the three men had gotten a name, or a chance to say thank you, nor did they think that they had ever seen the man before. But he had come in out of nowhere and saved them, and even though all of their worldly possessions were lost, they were thankful to their nameless savior, for his strength and bravery, because they still had their lives.

 

When Steve showed them the picture on his phone, they couldn’t confirm that that had been their rescuer, although Mr. Sampson was pretty sure it may have been him. None of the fire fighters on shift that night had seen any strangers lingering around the scene, but Steve knew this had to be Bucky’s work.

 

There wasn’t much to Riverton, even though Steve spent the next three days there, doing his usual visits and trying to get a sense of where someone would nest if they were trying not to be found. But just like before, like all of the times before, he found nothing.

 

Until late the second afternoon, before he was scheduled to leave the next morning, he was cutting through a small park on the way back to his hotel, when the hair on the back of his neck stood up, and he felt it again, that silence between heartbeats, that careful study that he doubted anyone without any enhanced senses would have felt.

 

He was being watched.

 

Steve was prepared for it this time.

 

Instead of freezing like he had previously, he took a slow and very deliberate look around. But there was no one there. A few trees, a couple of benches and the surrounding buildings. He even did a quick scan of the nearby rooftops, but there was nothing anywhere that could have provided enough cover to hide a man of Bucky’s size.

 

But Steve knew someone was there.

 

“Hey Bucky,” he said quietly, as he slowly approached one of the nearby benches, carefully nestled between three trees to catch most of the late afternoon shade. He slid the backpack he had taken to carrying over his shoulder this trip off of his arms and slowly placed it on the bench, before sitting down. “It’s Steve, Bucky. Do you remember me?”

 

No answer. Just the softly chirping birds, and nearby traffic. And that silence, that was deeper than any silence, underneath it all.

 

“I just want to talk to you Bucky. Make sure that you’re all right,” he went on, keeping his voice soft, gentle, encouraging. “Why don’t you come on out, and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee, and we can talk, just like we used to. Just talk. That’s it.”

 

Nothing. But the feeling didn’t go away. Steve sighed.

 

“Please Buck? I’d really like to see you. It’s been so long, and I’ve been worried.”

 

Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. Thirty and still nothing. The shadows grew longer, shifting in the dying light as the lampposts started to shift on with a quiet buzzing. Steve sat, and waited and waited and waited, but nothing changed.

 

“Okay Bucky. Not this time I guess huh?” Steve sighed an hour and a half later. “I’m going to get going, let you get on with your day. But I’m leaving this here for you. It’s yours.” At this, Steve patted the backpack. Inside there were clothes, a couple of sandwiches and granola bars, and a few bottles of Gatorade, as well as three hundred dollars in twenties, tens and fives. “There are no bugs, or tracking devices.” Steve had thought about it, he really had. But he knew that if he did put anything on them, Bucky would find them. He had never been stupid, and if there was one thing that HYDRA did, it was to train their agents well. If Bucky discovered any sort of tracking device, Steve knew that there would never be another sign, that he would never hear from Bucky again. “My number’s in the pocket in the front. If you need anything, or just want to talk, to say hello, you can call me anytime. Anytime Buck, okay?”

 

With that, Steve slowly rose, keeping his movements smooth and even. He lifted the backpack from the bench, and then carefully placed it at the shadowed base of the nearest tree. He took one last, long, slow look around, before smiling a small smile, and walking the rest of the way back to his hotel.

 

***

 

When Steve went back to the park two hours later, the backpack was gone.

 

***

 

Any success Captain? JARVIS texted him when he got home the next day.

 

“I think so JARVIS,” he responded. “But we’ll have to wait and see. Keep running the same search parameters, but let’s keep an eye on the south this time.”

 

Of course Captain.

Chapter Text

Five weeks later, Steve was in Prescott, Arizona. Over nine hundred miles south and west of Riverton, at least Bucky was keeping to the same pattern.

 

The alert on Steve’s phone had been slightly different this time. Instead of a news article, it was a reference from a blog that been flagged by JARVIS. Written in Spanish by a Celia Anguino, the post went on to praise the kindness of strangers as it detailed the account of how Celia had been walking down the street, struggling to manage both her dog and seven year old son, when her phone had rung. Distracted for less than a second, her son Tomas had slipped from her grasp and bolted out into the busy street, into oncoming traffic. A truck had been barreling forward and Celia had screamed. In a flash, a man had come out of nowhere, moving faster than a blur, grabbing Tomas, and rolling with him to the other side of the street. Celia had been frantic, but the man, tall, with pale skin, long dark hair and bright blue eyes had slowly walked over to her, handing Tomas over, before reassuring her calmly in Spanish that it was all right, that her son wasn’t harmed, just scared, and everything was going to be okay. Clinging to her child, Celia had begged, pleaded with the man, to let her buy him a hot meal or even just a cup of coffee as a way to say thank you, but the man had merely shook his head, before he turned around, and just as quickly as he appeared vanished into the crowd. She had never gotten a name, but she swore on her blog that she would be forever thankful for the kind and quick thinking stranger who had saved the life of her son.

 

The blog post was from two days ago, and Steve hadn’t had a chance to check his search results due to being on an away mission with the Avengers. According to Celia, the incident had occurred three days before that, so Steve cursed as he grabbed his overnight bag and another backpack, and made his way back to BWI without any sleep. But still, he had to check, had to make sure, if only for his own sanity, and hope, pray, that he hadn’t been too late.

 

***

 

He needn’t have worried.

 

Celia quickly confirmed that Bucky was the man who saved her son when Steve showed her the picture. But aside from that, there wasn’t anything that she could tell him, except that she would pray for Steve to find his missing friend, and to ask that he thank him when he did find him.

 

Steve hadn’t expected anything else, but at least it was a confirmation that it had indeed been another Bucky sighting, and that he was still relatively okay. As he wandered the streets of Prescott, a pretty city in north central Arizona, located in the Bradshaw Mountains with gorgeous views and stunning landscapes, he wondered what it was about this place that had called Bucky there. It was a historic city, with a decidedly western feel. Bucky had been a fan of cowboy movies as a kid, but not to the point where Steve thought that would have been the attraction. Once again, there was no direct route, although several highways did make it accessible via car. Was Bucky driving himself? Hitchhiking? Going by bus? Steve had no idea how Bucky was travelling, although JARVIS had confirmed that there was no evidence, photographic or otherwise, that Bucky had visited any airports or Amtrak stations. It was another piece of the puzzle that kept itching at the back of Steve’s mind.

 

He followed his usual routine, visiting the shelters and soup kitchens, and wasn’t surprised when no one had anything to tell him. It had been five days, and while he had confirmation that Bucky had been there, he was pretty certain that he was long gone by now.

 

At least he was until late in the second night of his visit, when he parked and exited his rental car in the lot of a local Denny’s and froze.

 

There it was again. That feeling. A knowing from somewhere deep in his bones, when humans were just starting to understand the benefit of fire, of being watched by a predator. Steve hated that it was always his first reaction, that it took even him a few measured breaths, before he could relax and his mind remembered that this was Bucky, and Bucky (and he hoped it was Bucky and not the Winter Soldier) had never once hurt him, had done everything in his power and considerable skill-set to protect Steve. But it still took a moment, even if this was the third time he had felt it.

 

“Hey Buck,” he said, opening his car door and reaching for the blue and grey backpack from the passenger seat. The shopping center where the restaurant was located was full of shadows, most of the other stores already closed. But Steve was certain that wherever Bucky was watching him from, it wouldn’t be someplace obvious. He was too cunning, too well trained for that. “It’s been a while, and I’m sorry it took me so long to get here. But I’m glad you waited for me.” Steve shifted the backpack onto his left shoulder, closed the car door, and took a look around.

 

Nothing.

 

But he knew that was a lie.

 

“I’m about to go in and grab some dinner,” he continued. “Why don’t you join me Bucky? My treat. You don’t even have to say anything to me, if you don’t want to. I just…I’d just really like to see you, and know that you’re all right.” And again, there was no answer. “Please Bucky. Just one cup of coffee. That’s all I’m asking for…Please.”

 

One minute, two minutes, five, ten, and still the silence did not answer him.

 

“Okay Bucky, all right. Not this time either, huh?” Steve had to finally admit as he made his way to the entrance. “That’s okay though. I get it. But I got another backpack for you. The stuff inside, it’s all yours. I hope the last one helped. Again, it’s not bugged, I swear to you it’s not, and everything inside of it is yours.” The contents were mostly the same as the last one. More clothes, food and money. But this time there were a few extra items; a baseball cap from the Brooklyn Dodgers that Steve had been able to find online, a Stark phone in its original packaging, untouched except for his own number programmed into the contacts, and a sketchbook, filled with images from Steve’s own hand. Sketches of the Brooklyn that had been, capturing moments from the lives of two boys, one tall and dark haired, the other slight and blond, who together had always stood up to the world. “And if you need something, anything else, you have my number. Just let me know, okay?” Steve walked over to the small metal bench directly outside of the Denny’s awning and gently placed the bag on the ground by its base. If he was careful and lucky, he’d be able to have a clear line of sight to the bench from inside. He’d keep a sharp eye out, and come running if a shadow so much as shifted in the right direction. He straightened, looked around, and lifted his head, not caring who else may have been watching him. This was between him and Bucky, and only him and Bucky. Everyone else could go fuck themselves if they had anything to say about it.

 

One last look around, one last small smile, before Steve whispered “Please Bucky. Just come home,” before he stepped away from the bench and went inside.

 

***

 

Forty minutes and a greasy meal later, Steve stepped outside and made his way to the bench. He’d been lucky and had gotten a window seat, keeping the bench under watch while he ate his meal. But there must have been a moment, a fleeting glance, when Steve had looked at the menu or spoken to his waitress, and it must have been more than enough, because when he reached the bench, the backpack was gone.

 

“Dammit Buck,” Steve muttered as jiggled the keys to his rental car in his hand. “Why do you have to be so fucking stubborn.” He was about to fob the doors open when something from within caught his eye. Stepping closer, he peered through the window inside, to see the Stark phone, still in its packaging, lying unopened on the passenger seat. The windows were intact and the doors still locked. Steve knew that even if he swiped every surface in the car, there wouldn’t be a single fingerprint or trace. Still, the phone was there, waiting for him.

 

All right Bucky, he thought with a laugh. (What else could he do but laugh at this point. If he didn’t, he would start to sob, and he didn’t think he would be able to stop once he did.) Message received. Not this time.

 

Steve then got into his car, turned on the ignition, and started the long journey back home.

Chapter Text

“JARVIS, what am I looking at?” Steve asked.

 

The images you are currently viewing Captain, were captured by the security cameras of DJs Super Stop in Priest River, Idaho during a failed robbery last night. Three armed men entered the shop last night at 9:45 pm and threatened the cashier at gunpoint. The attempt failed when the man, who you now see on screen, intercepted them. He disarmed all three attackers in less than fifteen seconds before ascertaining that the cashier was unharmed and then left the premises.

 

“Is that…Is that a Dodger’s baseball cap?” Steve gasped, leaning in closer to his tablet to make sure that his eyes were not deceiving him, and he really was seeing a white baseball cap with a blue B on its crown, just like on the one he had left in Bucky’s backpack three weeks ago.

 

Correct sir, JARVIS went on. While the man was very careful to avoid all of the security cameras and at no point allowed for an image of his face to be captured, if you look closely at all of the images, which I have taken the liberty of cleaning up, you can see that he is a tall, Caucasian male, with long dark hair, who is indeed wearing a Brooklyn Dodger’s baseball cap.

 

“And is that…Is that…”

 

Confirm Captain Rogers. It also appears as if the man is carrying a blue and grey backpack, similar to the one you had prepared three weeks ago.

 

“Holy shit! Holy shit! It’s him JARVIS. It’s Bucky,” Steve said, moving in even closer to study the images on his screen.

 

I would agree, Captain. Which is why I pulled the images for your attention.

 

As Steve scrutinized the photos, once grainy but now much clearer after JARVIS had done whatever he had done to them, Steve found himself questioning why. Why now, when Bucky had clearly avoided having his image captured before. After almost a year since the helicarriers, why was this the first time that Bucky was letting his picture be taken, when he knew Steve was out there looking for him.

 

“JARVIS, do you think that maybe,” Steve paused and allowed the thought to stumble around his head, grow roots and start to take shape. “That maybe Bucky’s baiting me? Asking me to come out there?”

 

Perhaps, the AI responded. Or perhaps Sergeant Barnes is testing you.

 

“Huh.” Steve drummed his fingers on the table as he pondered JARVIS’ words. Was he right? Was this some sort of test? And if it was, what answers was Bucky looking for.

 

Either way, if you look at your phone, you’ll see that I have taken the liberty of booking you a seat on the next flight out of BWI to Spokane, Washington. It is the closest major airport, and a rental car will be waiting for you when you arrive. If you leave now, you should be able to make the flight, which leaves in two hours. There is already a car waiting for you outside to take you there.

 

“Thanks buddy,” Steve said as he rose and made his way over to his hall closet where his bag and another backpack were waiting.

 

You are very welcome, Captain Rogers, JARVIS replied as Steve checked his pockets for his keys and wallet. I wish you success in finding your friend.

 

***

 

Priest River was in the upper north of Idaho, about 75 miles south of the Canadian border. It was a smaller town than any of the ones Bucky had previously been through, and that caused Steve some concern. With such a small population, and having made his presence already known, its proximity to Canada made Steve wonder if this was Bucky’s last stop in America, before he disappeared into another country, where Steve would have to search harder and the travel times would be longer.

 

As Steve pulled into the parking lot of the Eagle’s Nest Motel, staring at the long grey building, with its pale pillars and a railing that was covered with - Are you fucking kidding me, Bucky? -  wooden bears, Steve was certain that Bucky wasn’t baiting or testing him, but fucking with him. Absolutely, and with unabashed glee, fucking with him.

 

After checking in, and smiling at the staff and taking over a dozen photos, once Steve had been assured that there were only two other rooms currently in use at the hotel, and none of them by a man matching Bucky’s description, Steve settled into his room. He stared out of his window past the three bear sculptures (there were three of them, three, right outside of his window) and into the glorious landscape beyond, mountains and forests and bright blue sky, while he drummed his fingers over his thigh.

 

“All right Bucky, I’m here. Just like you wanted,” he spoke into the air. “Now come find me.”

 

***

 

Priest River really was a lovely little town, with its beautiful mountainous views and lush woodland. The air was clean and fresh, and Steve knew it would have done wonders for his asthma when he had been younger, before the serum had changed everything about him. (Steve wondered if that was part of the reason why Bucky had chosen this place, some long buried memory niggling him about Steve’s lungs.) But in spite of all of that, there really wasn’t much for him to do. It had a population of less than two thousand, and most of the town’s activities involved hunting, fishing and wood-working. He had still walked the streets, spoken to everyone he could, but aside from the clerk at the convenience store, no one else had seen anyone who matched Bucky’s description. It felt like a frustrating dead end, and Steve wondered why Bucky had tried to lure him here, if not to reach out.

 

It was the third day of his stay, and Steve had decided to take a hike along one of the many local trails, hoping the change of scenery would jar something in his mind, when he felt it. The pause, the stillness underneath it all, the watching.

 

Steve stopped abruptly along the trail and took a long look around. Nothing had changed. The breeze was blowing, and the birds were still chirping, and as before, there was nothing in the air to indicate that someone else was there. But Steve knew.

 

 He took another look around, at the trees and the nearby bushes and grass, and he was suddenly struck by a memory of a conversation with Clint, where he had been going on and on about some movie – was it Halloween, Friday the 13th, where the unstoppable serial killer stalked his victims through a campsite, picking them off one by one - and realized how stupid he had been. There was no one out here, and he didn’t have his shield. Erskine’s serum had done wonderful things to his body, but even he doubted that it was strong enough to resist a shot to the head. Had Bucky lured him out here to kill him, to eliminate the only person that seemed to be aware of his existence, where hunting was a common pastime, and an accident could easily be blamed on an unwary hiker?

 

Swallowing hard, Steve lowered the back pack from his shoulders, and slowly moved to the side of the trail he had been following, putting his back up against a tree. He didn’t want to believe it, and he hated himself for thinking that of Bucky, but he was going to be cautious nevertheless. He scanned the nearby landscape, using his heightened vision to search for any disruption, no matter how small, but just as before, as there had always been, there was nothing.

 

“Bucky? Is that you?” he asked on an exhale, once his heartbeat finally started to slow. “Are you out there Bucky?”

 

Above him birds chirped and leaves rustled, but as usual there was no answer.

 

“I followed the lead you left Buck, and came all the way out here, just like you wanted.” Steve’s voice got stronger with every word he spoke, carrying out onto the breeze. “Won’t you come out and let me see you?” And just like that, just as his breath had started to get stronger, it left Steve all in a rush, and he felt weak, weaker than he had since his teen years, when even the air he tried to breathe seemed to hate him. “Please Bucky. Please. Just let me see you.” It was almost a sob. “I’m worried. And I miss you. And I just want you to come home. Please Bucky, please…Just let me see you.” Steve laid his hand over the chain he had started wearing around his neck and waited.

 

And waited.

 

And waited.

 

And waited.

 

But there was, as there had always been, since that day in the mountains, and an icy train ride, and watching his best friend falling to his death, nothing but a silence and a heart aching for its other half to make it whole.

 

“All right Bucky, all right.” It could have been an hour, a day, seventy years later before Steve finally spoke again. “Not this time I guess, huh? But here,” Steve carefully lowered the backpack, red and black this time, to the roots of the tree he had been standing against, and gave it a gentle pat. “This is for you. Same as last time. No phone this time, but I hope it’s helped. My number is still in the front pocket, and I hope you know you can call me if there’s anything you need…Please call me Buck. Please.”

 

Steve was just about to step away from the tree and make his way back to his motel, when there was a rustling and a chattering from nearby, before a chipmunk scurried in front of him and then disappeared in the underbrush on the other side of the path. Steve watched it for a second, and when he looked up, the feeling that had been haunting him for months now was gone.

 

***

 

As Steve slowly made his way back to the Eagle’s Nest Motel, he found himself questioning everything that he was doing. Bucky knew he was out there, was trailing him. Three times now, Steve knew Bucky had watched him. But he still refused to make contact, no matter what Steve did or said. Steve couldn’t help but think he was wasting his time. If Bucky wanted to reach out to him, why hadn’t he already? Steve didn’t know, and he was starting to question his sanity as he stepped onto the pathway outside of his hotel room and froze.

 

Because there, on that damned bear that was lying oh so casually across the railing, was a jauntily perched Brooklyn Dodgers’ baseball cap.

 

“Okay Bucky, all right,” Steve laughed as he picked the cap up and popped it on his head. “You win this round.”

Chapter Text

One month.

 

Two.

 

Steve had grown increasingly worried as the weeks passed into months and there were no further signs from Bucky. He and JARVIS had continued to search every possible lead, expandng the parameters to now include Canada in case Bucky had decided to head north like Steve had considered, but there was nothing. There was no increased HYDRA activity either, as far as he could tell, but Steve was now worried that Bucky had been recaptured and was as lost to him as he had ever been. He tried to keep his hopes up, tried to stay positive, but this had been the longest there had been without a sign since that first confirmed sighting in East Bethel. Was a damned baseball cap, that he kept on his bedpost, the only sign he was going to get? Had that been Bucky saying goodbye? Steve didn’t know, and it was the not knowing, more than anything else, that was driving him insane.

 

And then, on the ninth week since Priest River, JARVIS sent his phone another ping.

 

***

 

It was small this time, a long shot at best. But JARVIS had found a picture of three girls at the Greyhound depot in Prineville, Oregon posted to an Instagram account at the start of their vacation. In the background, only seen from behind, was a tall and broad shouldered figure, with shoulder length dark hair and a very familiar black and red backpack. JARVIS was able to extrapolate from the photo that the man could be a match for Bucky. The Instagram account belonged to one of the girls whose name was Becca, of all things.

 

Most incriminating of all, when JARVIS tried to patch into the security feeds of the depot, he found that there had been a glitch in the system, and three hours of that afternoon’s footage were missing.

 

Steve was running out the door before JARVIS even had a chance to text Best of luck Captain Rogers. I hope you find him this time.

 

***

 

Prineville, Oregon was a small city, with a population of less than ten thousand. There wasn’t anything all that remarkable about it, but as he mapped Bucky’s progress on his phone, he did note that it was indeed to the south and west of Priest River, by about four hundred miles or so.

 

When Steve got there later that day, his first stop was the Greyhound station, where he showed his photo and asked the staff if anyone had seen this man. No one had, and the security guard on duty seemed surprised to find the glitch in the system when he tried to review the video coverage with Steve. Bucky, if it had been Bucky, was no longer there, and even the girls were long gone on the next leg of their journey.

 

But Steve had come this far, and he wasn’t going to let that stop him.

 

He checked into his hotel, an Econo Lodge on the outskirts of the city, and proceeded to make his usual rounds. He was getting tired, so damned tired of this, but he had come this far, and he wasn’t going to give up now. Not when this was the first possibility he had in months. It just felt so pointless, so useless, this cat and mouse that was a dance of one step forward and two steps back. He wondered if he should finally just listen to Sam, and give it all up, let Bucky come to him if that was what he wanted. Let go of the ghost, as Natasha had suggested, her eyes shrewd but kind, and go back to focusing on his own life.

 

Steve didn’t think he even knew how to do that at this point. His life had always been a fight for something, an endless stream of battles, and Bucky was not something he was willing to cast aside as an unfortunate casualty. But he was tired, and he hated to admit it, but maybe even he did need to take a break. Just stop, and take a rest, before he reassessed the situation and accepted the possibility that this was a battle that he couldn’t win.

 

He was contemplating his options, two days after his arrival in Prineville, about to make the trudge from his car back to his hotel room, when suddenly, once again, for one last time, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing up.

 

He whipped his head up, turned around, and there, across the parking lot, no more than twenty feet away, was a lone figure. A tall man, with dark hair hanging from beneath an indistinct baseball cap, and piercing blue eyes that Steve could make out even from where he stood. Staring at him.

 

“Bucky?” he gasped, moving to take a step around the car. “Bucky, is that you?”

 

The man moved back, and he was fast, so fucking fast, that Steve barely even saw him move. Steve stopped mid-step, and held his hands up in what he hoped was a calming gesture. They stood there, staring at each other in the darkened parking lot, neither one willing to take their eyes off of the other.

 

As Steve looked, he could see that there was a coiled tightness in the man’s body, and a razor’s keenness in his gaze that made Steve think of a jaguar, one of the deadliest predators on the planet. His features were sharp, and his body lean beneath the faded jeans and dark grey hoodie he was wearing (one of the ones from the first backpack Steve had left for him). And he was definitely very aware of Steve as well as everything going on around him.

 

“Bucky, is that really you?”

 

The man continued to stare at him, his eyes narrowing, studying Steve as Steve held his breath and waited for him to say something, anything at all.

 

“You’ve been following me. Why?” His voice was low, dry and raspy. But it was Bucky’s voice, his inflections, and hearing it again, after all of this time made Steve want to weep. But the man kept watching him, waiting for an answer, and Steve was sure that there was a gun or a knife somewhere on him, and that if he didn’t like the answer, he wouldn’t hesitate to use either one.

 

“Yeah, yeah I have Bucky. I’ve been looking for you for a very long time now.”

 

“I’m not going back,” he said to Steve, taking another step back, but slower this time. “I won’t let you take me in.”

 

“No Bucky, no,” Steve said, keeping his hands in sight, trying to calm, to reassure. “That’s not why I’ve been looking for you.”

 

“Then why?”

 

“Because we’re friends. We’ve been friends all of our lives.” Steve softened his voice, and he knew his eyes were wide and pleading, but he couldn’t help himself as he faced this ghost who was no longer a ghost, this man who was looking at him as if they had never once known each other better than themselves. “Don’t you remember me Bucky?”

 

He was silent for a long moment, and still, that perfect, perfect still, except for a slight flicker in his eyes, before he tilted his head slightly in Steve’s direction.

 

“You’re Steve,” Bucky said. “Steven Grant Rogers.”

 

“Yeah Bucky, I am.” There was a tremble in Steve’s voice as he spoke the words, relief and hope and joy making his throat clench, when he hadn’t felt very much of that for most of the past year. “I’m Steve.”

 

“Why have you been following me?” Bucky asked again, not coming any closer, and if anything looking as if he was more poised to flee than strike.

 

“Because I want to help you Buck.” Steve lowered his hands and moved to take a step around the car. Bucky instantly jumped back, keeping the distance between them. “Woah, woah, woah,” Steve tried to reassure him. “Okay, okay, okay. I won’t come any closer unless you want me to. I promise Bucky.” Bucky stopped and shifted, but kept his weight on the balls of his feet, not trusting, not yet, but at least, Steve thought, willing to listen.

 

But Steve wanted to curse fate, curse god, because finally, after all his months and months searching, now that he was face to face with Bucky, staring at the man who had haunted his dreams and nightmares, he found that he could not think of a single damn thing to say.

 

“Look,” Steve said, after another moment of that unbearable silence. “I’m just going to reach into my car okay. I’m not going for a weapon, I promise you Bucky. I’ve got another backpack for you. It’s got food and money inside, just like the other ones. And it’s yours. Just like the other ones. No strings attached.” Bucky stared at him for another long, heavy second, before he slowly nodded his head, and took a single step back. But he didn’t turn, and he didn’t flee, merely watched as Steve opened the car door, reached inside, and pulled out the green and brown backpack, then carefully laid it on the hood of the car.

 

“Look,” Steve heard himself say again, as he watched Bucky watching him. “It’s been a long day, and it’s late, and I could use a good meal and a cup of coffee. I’m sure you could too. Why don’t you come inside with me and we can sit-“

 

“Why are you doing this?” Bucky cut him off, an edge to his voice that Steve couldn’t decipher.

 

“Because I want to help you Bucky,” Steve said. “Because I want you to come home.”

 

“I don’t have a home.” And oh, did Steve’s heart hurt to hear those words coming from that voice, whose sound had once been the most welcoming thing about the small tenement apartment they had shared.

 

“You do Bucky, you do. I promise you, you do.” Steve lifted his hands again, and once again reached with a very deliberate slowness for the ball chain he had taken to wearing around his neck. He lifted it up, so that the key that dangled from it could be seen in the light. Once he was sure Bucky had seen it, he carefully lowered it so that it lay, gleaming in the night, across the top of the backpack. “There’s a letter in there,” he nodded at it, “and when you read it, you’ll see, I have a house in Brooklyn. It’s an old place, nothing much, but it’s got good bones. And it’s safe and it’s private. You’ll be safe there, no one will come looking for you, I promise you. Just…please Bucky, please. Let me take you home.”

 

They continued to stare at each other, would have probably continued to stare at each other forever, Steve was certain, if there hadn’t been the sudden blaring of a truck horn from nearby. Steve jerked his head to track the noise, too many battles fought to ignore such a loud sound from so close by, and knew it was a mistake as soon as he did it.

 

When he turned back to look across the parking lot, Bucky was gone. But so was the backpack.

 

And so was the key.

 

***

 

Welcome back, Captain Rogers, JARVIS texted him as soon as he crossed the threshold of his apartment. I hope you had a successful trip.

 

“Thank you JARVIS,” Steve answered as he dropped his bag by the door and kicked off his shoes. “And I think it was.”

 

I’m glad to hear that Sir. Shall I continue our search? Are there any additional parameters you would like me to add?

 

“No JARVIS, not this time,” Steve said as he sat with a sigh on his couch. “In fact, I think it’s time to stop running all searches for now.”

 

Are you certain, Captain? Steve couldn’t help but want to laugh at the way letters on a screen could look so confused.

 

“I am JARVIS.” Steve ran his fingers over his hair, giving his scalp a good scratch.

 

May I inquire as to what you plan to do next?

 

At this, Steve smiled.

 

“I’m going to go back to a couple of projects I had going on before all of this started JARVIS. Pick up where I left off. I think it’s long past time that I went back home to Brooklyn.”

Chapter Text

Epilogue

 

It is a dark and quiet house at the end of a dark and quiet street. Shadowed in the night, but unassuming in every way. He makes no sound as he silently climbs the worn steps covered in cracked and peeling paint. But the door is heavy and new, and the lock plate cleaned and well maintained as he slides the key in and turns it without a sound. The door does not creak or groan as he slowly pushes it open, eyes watchful and ears carefully attuned for any sound as he steps inside.

 

But there is nothing, only the quiet beeping that the letter told him would be there, as he glances at the blinking security panel, flashing its request for the correct code.

 

32557038

 

He can change it later if he wants to, the letter said, but for now it is enough to silence the panel and darken its light.

 

He stops, cocks his head, and listens again, with every skill he has been taught and every sense that has been heightened. But there is nothing that tells him to beware. He will still check, still scan; he has not survived this long by being careless. But for now it is enough for him to trust closing and locking the door behind him, and taking a second step inside.

 

The room is empty and dark, filled with the scent of dust, but not neglect. This place has stood empty, but not abandoned, and it’s good, he thinks, good, because he was certain that it had once been filled with life, and smells and loud voices. But it is empty now, and has been for quite some time.

 

He does a quick scan of the floor, checking all of the rooms, before he returns to the entryway, and the stairway leading to the upper levels.

 

Carefully he climbs, making sure to skip the third and seventh steps, because they creak, and if Mrs. Moran heard you trying to sneak in late at night, wouldn’t that old harpy just give you what for, as he steps off onto the landing of the second floor.

 

Empty like the first, and a little dustier than the lower level. There is no furniture, only more empty rooms. But there are no people either, and that is all he needs to know at the moment.

 

But he doesn’t stop there. This is not the right floor, not the right place, and there is something that keeps calling to him, a pull in his marrow that tells him to go upstairs, upstairs, upstairs, to the third floor.

 

So he follows the pull and goes even higher, skipping the fifth step this time, until he makes it to the highest floor. There is another twitch, another yearning in his bones that has him bypassing all of the other rooms, after a quick glance inside to make sure they too are unoccupied, before he finds himself standing in front of the last door, at the end of the hallway.

 

He pauses to take a breath before he reaches out, opens the door, and slowly steps inside.

 

It is a large room, larger than any of the others, and something in his mind echoes, tells him that it’s wrong, it should be smaller, and more cramped, with a stove and sink on one side, and a metal tub in the corner that they covered with wood to use as a table. But if those things had ever been, they are now long gone.

 

It is not the only difference.

 

A small lamp has been left on. It sits on a bedside table, and warms the room with a soft glow. The room itself is open and clean. The floor is a pale, golden wood, recently varnished if the lingering scent in the air is anything to go by. And the walls have been painted a soft, buttery yellow, with white borders along the top and bottom. There are long curtains hanging from the windows, and resting in the corner is a large bed, big enough even for him, covered in pillows and a dark blue comforter that is soft beneath the fingers of his right hand as he walks by. There is a chest at its foot, cedar, he thinks from the smell, and when he lifts the lid to investigate the contents, he finds more blankets and linens, clean and with just a hint of vanilla.

 

On the opposite wall there is a closet, filled with coats and shoes that look to be all in his size when he investigates, new, but washed, and again so soft when he brushes his fingertips over them. Against the wall, next to the closet and directly across from the bed, there is a tall bureau, smelling of the same wood as the chest, well made and sturdy. Within its drawers, he finds more clothes, sweaters and shirts, jeans and pajamas, and again all of it so soft, so soothing to his fingers as he glides their tips over them.

 

On top of the bureau, there are two picture frames. One is a duplicate of the sepia toned photo he had seen during his visit to the Smithsonian of two men, standing shoulder to shoulder and smiling at each other. The other is a sketch, of a tall and dark haired teen, standing with his arm wrapped around a slender and frail looking blond of the same age, both with matching wolfish grins.

 

Between them is a folded piece of paper, carefully placed to make sure that it will be seen. And on its surface, neatly printed are the words, Welcome home Bucky.

 

That night, after he has removed his hoodie and left it on top of the cedar chest, and carefully laid his bags on the floor beside the bed, he crawls underneath the soft blue comforter and closes his eyes.

 

And for the first time in over 16 months, James “Bucky” Barnes falls into a deep and dreamless sleep.

 

FIN