Dawn finds Steve in a place one might call the middle of nowhere. Maybe. If they were feeling particularly charitable. As the first dim, gray light crawls over the horizon, Steve is already creeping quietly through a forest thick with morning fog. It’s beautiful in a macabre sort of way, its colors all muted beneath a misty veneer. According to every available intel, there’s nothing for miles, and the landscape, sprawling despite the the trees doesn’t suggest anything to the contrary. Intel tends to say that about Hydra bases though, and if Hydra is here, so is Bucky.
It’s not Bucky that Steve stumbles across, but it is someone, and that’s all the confirmation Steve needs that he’s on the right track. The sound of a conversation reaches him, and though he doesn’t speak the language, the even, untroubled cadence suggests they have no idea he’s there. Taking advantage of their ignorance, Steve creeps forward until the fog is too thin to hide the handful of soldiers out here, dressed in black and unmistakably Hydra.
He’s faced far worse odds. The only real danger is that someone calls for backup before he takes them down. Dwelling won’t minimize the risk, and Steve doesn’t hesitate.
There’s nothing warlike about Steve, but he’s at home in these moments, the ones where his mind and body race against whatever stakes he’s up against. The world distills down to targets and landscape as Steve flings his shield against one of the enormous trees that make up the forest, catching two Hydra agents in the ricochet before they even know he’s there.
One by one, they fall, the sound muffled by years of dead leaves strewn across the forest floor. It’s only the last one that even gets as far as taking aim, leaving Steve cringing inwardly even as he shifts priorities, holding up the shield to block the shot. A bullet is no match for vibranium, but it’s not going to be quiet.
The shot Steve braces for never comes, and when he looks past the shield, it’s just in time to see his would-be assailant collapse in a lifeless heap on the forest floor. Bucky. Given the shot’s trajectory and that no further attack follows, Steve’s sure of that much. Sparing only enough of a glance to figure out which direction the shot came from, Steve hurries on his way, knowing Bucky will probably be gone before he can close the distance between them. Bucky’s done a good job for the last couple of years staying out of reach, and there’s no reason to think this will be any different.
Only, it is. There are fallen trees a ways ahead, eerie silhouettes in the mist. Steve runs the entire way, every step an eternity that widens the space between them. By the time he reaches the trees, his heart is in his throat, expecting to come up empty when he dares to look.
There’s Bucky though, a spectre shrouded in the morning mist, his dark clothes leaving him all but melting into the scenery.
Steve had thought two years would be time enough to come up with exactly the right thing to say. He’d rehearsed it in his head a thousand times by now, and it’s right on the tip of his tongue. Face to face, every word of it fails him, so Steve sticks to the immediate. “Thanks. For back there, I mean.”
“He was going to warn the rest of them.” It isn’t the reunion Steve had imagined. Not by a long shot. Steve might ache to hold Bucky, to kiss him senseless, but the urge is squelched out by Bucky’s matter of fact tone and the weary, hunted expression taking up residence on his face. It’s a wonder Bucky let him catch up long enough to be standing here at all. Whatever the reason, Bucky’s here though, looking very much like he’d prefer to be anywhere else.
The distance between them seems innocuous enough but Steve notices the deliberateness of it anyway. It’s near enough that Steve has no excuse to come closer, but still out of reach. Still far enough for Bucky to get a head start if he decides to flee. Grasping for something, Steve blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. “Do you know me?”
Bucky’s expression shutters entirely. Before Steve can course correct, Bucky rattles off an answer, too wooden to be anything other than rehearsed. “You’re on TV a lot. Papers too. I’ve read about you.”
“You don’t have to lie to me, Buck. I...” It’s true, but it’s not really the truth, judging by the way Bucky’s gaze keeps straying like he’s searching for an exit.
“Concordia. Olkhon Island. Okhotsk. It’s all you, isn’t it?” He’d hoped to steer back into less fraught territory, but mostly he just finds himself careening from one delicate subject to another.
The teasing an awkward conversation like this would have once netted Steve never comes. Bucky lets him change the subject at least, but it comes with a visibly sharper gaze and tension Steve doesn’t know how to ease. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t already know that.”
Bucky is straight to the point, pulling no punches, and that, at least, Steve knows what to do with. Catching the way Bucky’s eyes keep straying to his uniform, Steve sets the shield down. It’s as unarmed as he can ever hope to be, and if Bucky doesn’t exactly relax, the crease between his brows softens a little bit. Steve seizes on what opportunity he’s given and finds his footing. “Probably not, but I’m not here to stop you.”
Bucky puts a few more inches between them as he searches Steve’s expression. “What are you trying to do?”
“I hadn't got much past the finding you part,” Steve admits. If there’s anything left of the Bucky Steve knew, it’s not a practiced speech that will coax him out of his self imposed exile. Instead, Steve allows himself to be vulnerable, honest without reservation. “When they pulled me out of the ice, I woke up to pretty much everyone I ever knew being gone. It was lonely and it was confusing and not something I’d wish on anyone. I just… You don’t have to do this alone. You could come home.”
Bucky’s expression tightens around his eyes. Steve knows grief when he sees it, so he’s not particularly surprised when Bucky swallows visibly and shakes his head. “That isn’t my home.”
“It could be,” Steve cajoles, ignoring the sting of rejection lurking in the background. This isn’t about him. “It’s not like you’d be the only one on the team with baggage, and you’re definitely not the only one with an axe to grind where Hydra is concerned.”
“I can’t.” The cadence of Bucky’s voice is soft, nearly lost in the space between them, but there is no mistaking the answer for anything but final. Maybe Steve can convince him eventually, but it isn’t going to happen here. Steve’s already settled on a new tactic when Bucky finally meets his gaze. “Even if they want to help, you can’t slap an Avengers sticker on me and expect things not to get... complicated. I need to finish this and that’s not the place to do it.”
“I know.” Steve’s tactical brilliance has never done much to ease the vice grip Bucky has on his heart. This time he doesn’t try to maneuver around that. Steve simply meets Bucky where he is. “So count me in.”
“Not every fight has to be yours, Steve.” Bucky rocks back on his heels, his expression pinching with long suffering sort of exasperation decades in the making. Whatever Bucky does or doesn’t remember, it’s a subtle admission that he has some context, and the hope that stokes undercuts his whole argument. “You should go home.”
“I will,” Steve agrees, even though the words sit like acid in his chest. “After this is done. You can’t tell me the odds aren’t better with both of us.”
Bucky breathes out a resigned sigh. For a few seconds too long, he watches Steve, tension pulling at his features. He bristles, but the ‘no’ Steve expects never comes. “You sure you want to do that?”
“Now who’s asking questions they know the answer to?” Steve scoops up the shield from the ground and slings it onto his arm, surveying the building in the trees.
“This isn't an Avengers mission. It’s not exactly a good look for you if someone finds out who you’re working with.” There’s something beneath Bucky’s facade of practicality, but Steve can’t put his finger on it.
“What? Are you trying to tell me you’ve been avoiding me over a PR issue?” It’s not the argument Steve expects, and it’s all the more confusing because it’s tantalizingly close to an answer, but it tells him nothing about where they stand or what Bucky knows.
“I’m trying to tell you you’re not immune to consequences if this goes wrong.” During the war, the way Bucky’s brows were currently furrowing would have come with a lecture about Steve’s lack of self preservation. His current sentiment is close enough to leave Steve’s chest a little tight. “I don’t know that I’m the best horse for you to be gambling on.”
“Bucky. If I didn’t love you, if I didn’t know you, this would still be the right thing to do,” Steve insists, swallowing around what felt like rocks in his throat.
Bucky’s eyes go wide and startled, leaving Steve wishing very much that the fog were thick enough to melt into. He’s said more than he should have, entirely out of bounds if Bucky doesn’t remember them. There is no hiding though, so Steve obstinately stands by what he said, a little nauseous as he watches Bucky mull it over. He’s so certain Bucky is going to tell him to leave, but until then...
“You really don’t know when to quit, do you?” Bucky mutters, in lieu of anything concrete. It isn’t an agreement exactly, but given the fact that Bucky slings his gun across his back, it seems at the very least to be a reluctant concession.
“It’s never been my strong suit,” Steve ventures a smile as he falls into step beside Bucky, something ill and tense finally unwinding. “So, what’s the plan?”
Getting into the facility goes smoothly, in the sort of improbable way that makes Steve’s hair stand on end. It’s not that he thinks it’s a trap, exactly. It’s more that he has a terrible feeling that when things go sideways, they’re going to go really sideways. All the same, whatever exists of the Bucky Steve knew, they still work well together, silently taking down the guards between them and the entrance.
There aren’t enough of them. The guards, that is. Either they have no idea Bucky’s coming for them or they’re confident anything that happens now will be too late. The former is unlikely, and the latter leaves every corner they turn holding some new potential for disaster.
No disaster greets them, or much of anything else for that matter. The hallways are mostly empty, in fact, and what little decor exists strikes Steve as more of a standard military base than a Hydra hideout. He’d be suspicious about that, but he’s too busy being suspicious of the fact that they don’t run into any more Hydra agents between the entrance and Bucky’s intended destination.
“Here.” Bucky gestures at what turns out to be the crux of his plan, a storage facility so full of explosives that it leaves the entire base looking like a powder keg. Bucky doesn’t wait for a response before pulling a device from his pocket and slipping off to the side to set it where it won’t be easily seen. “It’s on a timer. How long do you think we’ll need.”
“Fifteen minutes maybe? Assuming we get back out with no trouble. I guess it depends.” Steve glances down the hall, but no one is coming. His mind is working furiously, testing theories about what Hydra might be up to, but he tries for levity. “Are we planning to blow up the entire forest?”
“If that’s what it takes.” Bucky doesn’t smile, but if it doesn’t lift the mood, Steve’s teasing does prompt more of an explanation. “You think what happened in D.C. was the worst thing they had up their sleeves? They’re not done, and if getting caught means they can’t finesse it, they’re not exactly afraid of brute force.”
“If you’re calling the Triskelion “finesse” I’m almost afraid to ask what them using brute force looks like.” It dawns on him then, what Bucky must mean. “Destabilize a place enough and it won’t matter that they’re Hydra. All that’ll count is their ability to assert control.”
“A place,” Bucky repeats flatly. He pauses long enough to tilt his head to the side, grey eyes peering sharply out at Steve. “I mean, you’re not wrong. I just don’t think they’re gonna stop there unless by ‘a place’ you mean the number of places you can blow up with these.”
It’s all the nudge Steve needs to piece their plan together. There’s nothing large enough to level a city, but they don’t need to. Not when they’re operating out of a country that’s already at odds with so much of the world. “Any idea what they’re targeting?”
“Oddly, they’ve stopped sharing their plans with me.” Bucky makes a face and turns his attention back to the device. “I’d tell you to ask them, but it seems like they’re all out to lunch.
Steve could have written it off the lack of Hydra agents as the new normal since their organization was exposed, but if Bucky is commenting on the emptiness of this place, that can’t be what’s happening. This place doesn’t even look like a Hydra base. That’s about the time Steve notices the overhead doors, positioned over a housing for some manner of weapon. They slide open, and the weapons in the housing are cut loose, soaring through the opening in the ceiling before even Steve has any hope of reaching them. They’re too late, Steve realizes in horror. He’s sacrificed again and again to stop Hydra, and he’s not letting them win here. Not like this. “Bucky. You have to turn that off.”
“I can’t just leave it.” Bucky’s already getting to work though, despite the protest. If there’s a moment where Bucky’s trusted him in all this, Steve’s grateful it’s now. They might be too late to prevent whatever Hydra is up to, but maybe they can undo it before it’s too late.
“We need time to shut down whatever they launched,” Steve calls over his shoulder. He’s already tearing down the hallway and only barely catches a smashing sound and the frustrated noise Bucky makes before taking off after Steve.
“Well, we’re going to have to find some other way to blow the place. I couldn’t remove it without breaking it, and I damned well wasn’t leaving it for them to find.”
Steve wants to look over to where Bucky has fallen into step beside him, but there’s no room to lose focus. “When did that become a concern?”
He doesn’t have to look to practically hear Bucky raising an eyebrow at him. “Mostly when we started with the running around and yelling. That’s not exactly sneaky.”
“Fair point,” Steve concedes as they hit the stairs. He’s in his element under pressure, reciting the plan in his head. Stop whatever Hydra launched. Blow up the base. Get the hell out of Dodge. Preferably in that order. It all sounds easy enough.
But, it all goes wrong from there. Even though Bucky knows the way to what serves as Hydra’s control room, between the distance and the guards, getting there costs time they don’t have to spare. Bucky is still in the hall outside, going toe-to-toe with the agents left behind when Steve busts through the door to find it… empty. The door on the other side of the room lets out towards the entrance, and he can hear someone running, but there’s no time to go after them now.
Steve may not be an expert where modern computers are concerned, but he’s no technologically impaired old man either. He’s certainly proficient enough to spot the two side by side terminals for what they are. Immediately, Steve zeroes in on the read out on of them shows. It’s counting down kilometers, proof that whatever Hydra launched is on its way to start a war.
He tries to find a way to disarm them, but nothing works. Given the kinds of weapons Hydra is so fond of, he isn’t exactly surprised by the lack of off switch, but Steve still scrambles in search of one anyway. The other controls are all intact, but largely useless. After all, he has no idea where the weapons are exactly, so putting them down could just mean trading one set of lives for another.
“How’s it coming in here?” Aside from the soft hum of electronics, only Bucky’s voice breaks the silence, so Steve assumes he’s taken care of the Hydra goons outside.
Steve almost tells Bucky that it’s terrible because there’s a countdown blinking its way towards some unknown horror. He almost points out that even if they stop this, they’re still out of luck on destroying this place before Hydra can do it again when the solution comes to him. There is one set of coordinates he can be certain won’t harm any civilians, and judging by where they were meant to land, the weapon can probably reach it before detonating. Somehow, having stared death in the face before doesn’t make it any easier this time. The realization shivers down his spine, coiling uncomfortably in the pit of his stomach. There’s no choice to make, except in the way of execution. He might die here, but Bucky doesn’t have to Steve knows the only way to keep Bucky out of the line of fire is to lie. The thing is, he’s never been good at that.
He can’t look or Bucky will know he’s lying. Steve’s sure of that much, so he keeps his eyes on the terminal and forces all the urgency he can into his voice to mask the half truth. “A couple of them ran out the other door, probably headed for the bunker. It’s dead east of here. I saw it on the way in. There’s a backup control, so I need you to stop them stop them while I stop this.”
For just a second, Steve’s sure Bucky’s on to him. He can feel the sharp, steady gaze pointed at his back. If Bucky catches the lie though, he hides it well. With a noise of assent, Bucky takes off out the other door, leaving Steve to hope he gets far enough away before catching on.
The impossibility of shutting down the weapons is all the more laughable in the face of how simple changing course is. Steve resets the coordinates, and just like that, the explosives are on their way back home. All that’s left to do is escape.
He almost makes it too. Steve runs the way he had sent Bucky, only to find the exit locked down, by the computer or by Hydra, he’s not really sure. The only blessing is that Bucky doesn’t look to be stuck behind it. There’s no time to find another way out, so he tries barreling through. The metal door dents under his shoulder, a little more every time. The whole thing whines under the force, crumpling inward like particularly sturdy aluminum foil. Eventually it tumbles forward, landing heavily with a loud clang and the crunching of tile.
It’s not enough. Steve is still inside when the explosives hit, tearing through the building like paper. It’s not that he’s never been caught in an explosion before, but this is entirely different. He’s sandwiched between what’s he’s brought back up above and an entire arsenal below.
The base is barely more than a sand castle in the force of the explosion. It tries to collapse from above while the bottom floor surges upward, forcing everything to fly outward from the middle. Steve’s carried right along with the rest of the wreckage, cradeled in concrete and metal shrapnel all the way down. There’s no bracing himself for impact. In the suddenness of it all, Steve barely has time to breathe.
“Oh god. Please don’t be dead.” With great effort, Steve cracks an eye open to see Bucky staring down at him, wide eyed and framed by a fire that has yet to peter out. Debris has left his hair looking faded and grey. There’s dirt and blood smeared across his cheeks, catching in the scruff that frames his jaw. He’s a complete mess, and the most beautiful thing Steve has ever seen.
“Not dead. Did we win?” Steve mumbles as he tries to piece back together how he’d ended up here, sprawled out in the wreckage. Speaking leaves him trying to breathe in more deeply, which he almost immediately discovers is a dreadful mistake. A lungful of smoke would have been miserable at the best of times, but coughing jars where he’d been run through, wrenching a low whimper from Steve before he can quite help it. Blindly, Steve reaches for where the damp, bloody fabric of his suit gives way to find what hat to be at least a foot of rebar sticking up from his torso. The ridged length of it lists off at an angle, promising a world of hurt. He’s not sorry for the choice he made, but even if he could be, it’s impossible to focus when his entire existence is distilled down to a single point of agony.
Pained and largely incoherent, it’s instinct more than a plan that drives him to try to straighten the rebar out enough to arch up and feel for the end of it underneath him. He can’t get enough leverage, and the useless attempt to brace himself on thin air only grinds metal against the wound its torn through him. Distantly, he’s aware at least that the bar doesn’t budge, leaving him to assume it’s thoroughly attached to the chunk of concrete he’s splayed out over.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as winning at- Hey, stop. Stop. You’re going to make it worse,” Before he can try anything else, Bucky stops him with one hand wrapped around Steve’s knuckles and the other lightly pressing his shoulder back towards the wreckage below. “Let me help you.”
“Right,” Steve agrees around shallow, rapid breaths. That makes sense, he thinks, as much as he can think about anything drifting like this. Pain and confusion roll in like fog, slow but relentless in their efforts to crowd out everything else. Bucky’s expression pinches as his gaze sweeps over Steve, and even agony addled, it’s impossible to miss. “What’s wrong?” “Even if I could cut it, I can't get to it.” It takes a second, but the ramifications hang heavy in the space between them once Steve’s mind catches up with the thread of conversation. He didn’t get through a war without learning a thing or two about what you were meant to do in the case of a grievous injury. The rebar had gone right through him, but it was also plugging the wound. Pulling something like that out would be nearly certain death for a normal person between the bleeding and the internal trauma, and while he’s hardly normal, this particular sort of damage has never been battle tested.
“You don’t just want to take the whole pile with you?” Steve jokes weakly, wheezing on the last word. It only nets him a flat look from Bucky, and everything is going sort of hazy, so he speaks up while he still can. “Do what you have to. I’ll be fine.”
“We have really got to revisit your definition of fine.”
Despite everything, the back and forth between them is comfortable, like an old, well loved blanket. Steve clings to that, promising himself they’ll figure things out when he wakes up. If he wakes up.
“Okay.” The word cuts through all the background noise, shaky and probably meant to soothe Bucky’s nerves as much as Steve’s. Blearily, Steve watches Bucky shed his jacket and one of his shirts, trying uselessly to make some sense of it. Bucky meets him halfway though, pressing the shirt into his hands. “You gotta put pressure on that as soon as I move you. I won’t have enough hands to do it.”
Even before he works out what Bucky’s getting at, Steve nods his head. Right. The rebar was plugging up what was already and awful wound, and moving him would only make it uglier. Moving is a monumental effort, but Steve curls his fingers in the still warm fabric of Bucky’s shirt. “Let’s get this over with.”
“I’m so sorry,” Bucky murmurs as he worms his hands between Steve and the rubble he’s stuck in. It would be comforting if every shift of his body didn’t make his eyes water. Out of it as he is, Steve can just make out Bucky’s teeth biting down on his bottom lip, his eyes squeezed shut.
Steve thinks he’s prepared for what was coming. He’s long since lost count of the injuries even his enhanced body can’t withstand. It’s just that those injuries don’t normally came from within. As painstakingly careful as Bucky is pulling him free, the ribbed edges of the rebar still catch and tear their way through him.
The minute or two it probably takes Bucky to free him stretch out into eons of gritted teeth, and the kind of pain that leaves him half convinced he’s going to throw up. It’s over after that, only over isn’t the right word at all, because Bucky is holding something against his back, and saying things that refuse to be words by the time they reach Steve’s ears. There’s blood already pooling, sticky and viscous on his skin. It’s warm against his fingertips as Bucky frantically guides him to press a balled up t-shirt against the source of it.
One single thread of clarity claws its way through the wreckage, a beacon in the murk of his fading consciousness. He really might die this time, he realizes. The world is saved though, and Bucky’s arms are around him, and if there has to be an end, this is the one he wants. Secure in that much, Steve is finally forced to surrender. The darkness claims him, and there is nothing.
There are just about three seconds of calm when Steve wakes up, mostly because that’s the time that passes before he tries to inhale. His lungs still burn with smoke and debris from the explosion. Worse than that, sucking in a breath jars Steve’s side, leaving him with a sharp pain like he’s been skewered all over again. The miserable little sound it pulls from him is anything but dignified, but Steve hurts too much to care.
“No no no, don’t move.” Steve lolls his head to the side to see Bucky peering over at him, expression pinched with worry. “Just go back to sleep.”
The room, what’s left of it, looks ready to cave in around them at any moment. The far wall is blown away entirely, leaving a pile of rubble to spill in on across the tile. The waning light outside does little to illuminate the contents of the room beyond the sagging ceiling tiles and a wall of… maybe cabinets.
If they are still in the ruins they helped create, there must be a reason. Steve means to ask, means to start working out a plan of action, but all that comes out is, “You’re still here.”
“Yeah.” Bucky shuffles slightly where he is sitting, and with his back to the light, Steve has a hard time making out his expression. “Still here.”
Steve lifts his head in an effort to survey the damage. He can’t see much beyond a mess of bandages around his bare torso, white except for the dark stain just barely leaking through the fabric. He’s terribly lucky he supposes, that Bucky is the resourceful sort, because he certainly hadn’t had anything resembling a first aid kit. Whatever other damage he’s sporting is hidden beneath a plain gray blanket Bucky had to have dug out from somewhere judging from the speckles of debris that still cling to the fabric. “How bad is it?”
“You or everything else?” It’s the kind of conversation they might have had during the war, and if he doesn’t look Bucky in the eye, Steve can almost imagine things are back to normal.
“Both? I assume there’s a reason we’re holed up in…” Steve pauses, gritting his teeth at the price he pays for trying to sit up too far.
“A Hydra lab?” Bucky cuts in. “And would you stop that? There's nothing to see anyway. It's the part that's still standing.”
True to Bucky's word, sitting up doesn’t show him anything new. Steve doesn't concede in so many words, but he eases himself back down to the makeshift bedding. “What? You have something against buildings that are still in one piece?”
Bucky's lips twitch upward, so briefly Steve almost misses it. “Depends. Did you have one stashed somewhere nearby? I was going to steal us a car, but you kind of dropped a building on them all.”
Steve huffs out the beginning of a laugh, though the bulk of it is cut off by what feels like a knife in his side. “I thought the point was for it to come down.”
“Yeah. After we were out of it.”
Steve smiles, even though he’s pretty sure it comes out looking more like a grimace. “I’m not the one who decided to march in there short handed. That was not a one person job.”
The deadpan look Bucky gives him is so heartbreakingly familiar, Steve just wants to wrap himself up in it and forget the last, oh, seventy years or so ever happened. “You definitely decided to march in there short handed. I didn’t even invite you.”
For a second, Steve thinks it’s a complaint, but the crease in Bucky’s brow reads more like concern than annoyance, and somewhere along the way he’s come a little closer. Every fiber of Steve’s being wants to argue, if only for the sake of arguing, but sharing space with Bucky is such a precious thing and it feels so fragile. “You’d have done it for me.”
Bucky doesn’t reply to that, leaving Steve to hope his silence isn’t a reply in its own right. The quiet they settle into is companionable anyway, and for the first time Steve looks, really looks at Bucky. Whatever the last couple of years have done are hidden underneath a layer of grime. The tanktop he’d been left with after sacrificing his shirt had probably been white before, but now it was a collage of the day they’d had, mapped out in blood smears and dirt. Dust and ash leave a grey sheen that dusts Bucky’s hair, but Steve is still thinking about running his fingers through it when Bucky interrupts him. “I probably woulda skipped the lying part. You wanna tell me about that?”
“I had to get you out of there,” Steve protests, thrown by the change of gear and even more so by the carefully measured cadence of Bucky’s voice, quashing down any hint of what emotion is driving him.
“By lying,” Bucky replies flatly. “Did you ever consider maybe telling me the truth?”
Steve searches Bucky’s face for answers, unsure if this is him angry that a near stranger threw a wrench in his mission or him angry that a loved one sort of blew himself up. Somehow, he doesn’t figure this particular moment is when Bucky is likely to own up to what he does or doesn’t remember. “Would it have worked?”
“To get rid of me? No! But I could have helped. We could have found another way.”
“Bucky. There was no other way, but-” Steve sucks in a breath, gritting his teeth against the way it stutters back out. Even breathing hurts too much for him to push back the way he means to. For a second, worry clouds over the sourness of Bucky’s expression, and he scoots closer, reaching to help Steve readjust.
Steve settles finally, taking a careful breath. It still aches, but it doesn’t tremble through his wounded side so badly. “-but we didn’t both have to be caught in it.”
“So you tricked me into leaving you behind,” Bucky mutters, bitterness creeping back in around the edges.
Instinctively, Steve reaches out, but whatever made Bucky come close has passed and he flinches under the press of Steve’s fingers to his forearm. Not wanting to add to Bucky’s discomfort, Steve withdraws. “You didn’t leave me behind. You found me.”
“Yeah. With a piece of metal through your side. Not to mention all the rest.” Bucky looks as ill equipped to hang on to his anger as Steve is to face it. His shoulders droop, and then the rest of him.
“I’m sorry I lied to you, but I can’t be sorry you got out of there okay. I just can’t.”
“How long do you think before someone gets around to looking for you? This isn’t exactly an ideal place to heal up.” Just like that, it’s over, though Steve mostly suspects it’s a matter of them both being too tired to carry on than anything.
“I guess I could call for a ride,” Steve concedes. It’s the reasonable thing to do, even if it means Bucky might disappear on him again. Instinctively, he reaches for his belt, but it’s just as absent from his waist as the rest of the uniform. Turning his head away from Bucky, he spots both in a ruined heap near his hip. The belt was in one piece at least, and near enough for him to wrap his fingers around the leather and pull it where he didn’t have to crane his neck. “Was that really necessary?”
“It was beyond repair way before I got to it,” Bucky protests mildly. There’s an even, careless quality to his voice that might have duped someone else. It was the tone Bucky had used, tangled up in the sheets with Steve, insisting being captured was no more than mildly inconvenient. It hadn’t fooled Steve then, and it certainly doesn’t now, but whatever they are is too precarious for him to press the matter.
For both their sakes, Steve turns his attention to going through his belt pouches without another word. It all appeared to be untouched, everything right where he’d left it. Everything, that is, except what he was looking for. The snap on the pocket he had tucked it into had come loose at some point, and all he finds is an empty leather compartment. “Have you seen my phone?”
“No. Should I have?” Bucky’s brows furrow in confusion. It would have been endearing under less dire circumstances, but now it only means there is another complication.
“It’s fine. I know the number. Do you mind if I use yours?” Steve gathers the energy to hold out his hand in Bucky’s general direction, but Bucky doesn’t move from the place where he’s been sitting on the floor, leaning against the remnants of a concrete wall.
“I don’t have one, Steve.” There it is again, a forced levity that squeezes like a vice around Steve’s heart. “Honestly, who am I gonna call?”
“You could have called me.” Steve sighs and lets his head fall back against the makeshift pillow, lolling to the side to look at Bucky.
Steve may as well have thrown a punch, the way Bucky looks back at him. It’s all the more distressing because Steve’s not quite sure why. In what light shines in, Steve can just barely see Bucky’s throat working as he swallows.
“I’m going to see if I can find your phone before it gets dark.” Without waiting for Steve to even acknowledge what he’d said, Bucky wis gone, out of the wreckage and around the corner beyond where Steve could see him. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and arguably the best plan at the moment. All the same, Steve can’t quite shake the feeling that Bucky is fleeing.
Steve doesn’t realize he’d fallen back asleep until he wakes to a quiet, shuffling sound. For just a second, Steve assumes the worst. The remnants of the lab are hardly secure, and who knows where Bucky’s gone. His shield is just within reach if he’s quick, but it hurts just thinking about having to use it in the shape he’s in.
Bracing himself for the possibility of having to sit up and grab the shield, Steve cracks his eyes open to narrow slits. It’s just enough to see the source of the commotion, and Steve breathes out a relieved sigh. It’s only Bucky (of course it’s Bucky), kneeling to retrieve a water bottle from a backpack he’d gotten… somewhere. Maybe it had always been there. Steve honestly doesn’t remember.
Bucky doesn’t seem to notice Steve at all. Bucky’s expression is less carefully shuttered without an audience, exhaustion pulling at his limbs and leaving dark smudges beneath his eyes.
Abruptly, Bucky pushes the water bottle into Steve’s hand, leaving Steve feeling just a bit guilty for not owning up to being awake in the first place. If Bucky noticed Steve staring though, he doesn’t say a word about it. “You should drink something.”
“Where did you get that?” Steve reaches out, fingertips just barely brushing Bucky’s over the surface of the bottle. His stomach squirms like it’s full of snakes because, even after the day they’ve had, Bucky flinches like his first instinct is still to flee.
“What? You think I’ve never had things go sideways before?” Bucky’s mouth twists up in a rueful smile. He doesn’t give Steve the chance to answer before holding out what looks to be a granola bar. “I hope you like blueberry.”
They pass the day like that, Steve dozing mostly, and finding Bucky shoving food and water at him when he wakes.
The first time Steve stays awake for any real length of time, it’s late afternoon and everything beyond their little alcove looks golden. Even Bucky looks softer in this light, a thread of thought Steve doesn’t dare follow. It only leads to heartache right now.
“Sorry for…” Steve lifts his hand, waving haphazardly at their surroundings.
Bucky doesn’t chide him for apologizing. He doesn’t even acknowledge it, really. For a moment, he watches Steve, but the only thing he says is, “I chose this.”
“You’re not obligated,” Steve tries again, because he knows this has thrown a wrench in Bucky’s plans, whatever those plans might be, and now that he’s pulled together enough to have any kind of conversation, it feels like the kind of thing he should address.
Bucky, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to share the sentiment. “No. I’m not.”
Before Steve can pursue the matter any further, Bucky presses a water bottle into his hand with a pointed look. Steve’s starting to think it’s as much to shut him up as anything, but as he says, he’s choosing to be there. It’s something.
Steve’s just getting used to the quiet when Bucky breaks it.
“You remember that time the truck got stuck in a snowbank on the way back from that one mission in Italy?” It’s the most conversational thing Bucky has said since Steve had found him, but the subject matter seems so far out of left field that it throws Steve off. He doesn’t know what Bucky remembers, but it’s proof enough at least that he remembers something.
“Yeah. I fished it out, but it just got stuck again.” Unsure if Bucky has a point in all this or is trying to verify a memory that’s come back to him is real, Steve ventures a small smile and tries to help him along. “We had to walk all the way back to camp in a blizzard.”
“I thought at the time, it was the worst thing. It’s easy to… I don’t know, inflate the importance of a moment when you’re in it, I guess.” Bucky is turned away from the blown out wall and the stars are too far away to give Steve much more than a silhouette, but he can make out the rise and fall of Bucky’s shoulders. “Thinking back later kinda puts things in perspective.”
All over again, Steve’s stomach drops. “I guess a lot worse happened, and this isn’t really ideal.”
“What? No. I mean yes, but that wasn’t what I was talking about.” Steve’s face is turned toward what moonlight filters into the wreckage, and he tries to school the sorrow from his features, but Bucky must see something in his expression. He shakes his head hard enough for Steve to see the outline of his hair swishing with the motion. “I was just saying at least it’s not snowing.”
“Oh.” Steve agrees, wondering if Bucky realizes how achingly familiar this particular brand of humor is. “Yeah. Stranded is fine, but snow would just be untenable.”
“We’re not stranded,” Bucky shoots back, finally shuffling to lie down between Steve and the knocked out wall that let out into the open air. There isn’t much space that isn’t caved in, and it leaves them the closest they’ve been since Steve woke up. It’s distracting, but not enough for Steve to miss the platitude Bucky’s protest boils down to, probably meant to keep him from feeling guilty that Bucky had stuck around. “We’re biding our time.”
“If you say so.”
“I do.” Bucky insists, the volume and sharpness of it emphatic enough to startle Steve into momentary silence. There’s was a quiet shuffle, and judging by the clarity of Bucky’s voice, he’s rolled over to face Steve, for all the good it does. “It’s fine.”
Steve knows better, of course. They’ve been here too long already. He should be coming up with a plan to get them out, not lying in a pile of rubble, wrapped up in bandages and blankets. Maybe Bucky knows Steve means to argue, because he doesn’t give Steve a chance to say much of anything on the matter.
“I woke up to… I guess you have some idea.”
Steve does cut in then, reaching out instinctively. Bucky’s closer than he realized, leaving Steve’s fingers to catch in the soft fabric of his shirt sleeve. “I’m sorry.”
“No.” There it is again, a single word as solid as a brick wall. “It’s not on you. Don’t apologize. Just listen to me.”
Steve is just distracted enough by the fact that Bucky hasn’t pulled out of his grip not to push back. Bucky’s flesh and blood arm is warm and solid through the fabric of his shirt, soothing just for being there. “I’m listening.”
“All I’m saying is that you know why I came here. Every time is a gamble, and today? I probably only came out the other side because of you.” Leave it to Bucky to cut right to the heart of things, unapologetically honest even though Steve can feel the way he tenses up while he says it. “You’re alive and I’m alive and things being complicated doesn’t change that.”
“I know. It’s just hard to be stuck laying here while I should be-”
“Taking the lead? Solving the problem? Was saving the world not enough for you?” Abruptly as Bucky interrupts, there’s nothing but warmth in the accusation. “Steve. You got blown up. Even you get to be human sometimes.”
“You say that like this is the first time I’ve gotten blown up.” Steve smiles in spite of himself, in spite of the way he itched to do something.
“Are you trying to tell me getting run through is a common occurrence? Because if you are, you’re a damned liar.” Steve can practically hear Bucky rolling his eyes, even if it’s hard to make out his expression.
“I didn’t say that.” Steve almost reaches out, but, remembering the way Bucky had flinched away the day before, he thinks better of it. Reluctantly, he steers towards more serious conversation. “How long can we stay here for? Honestly.”
“I’m not the one lying about things to protect people or whatever,” Bucky replies, but the bite Steve expects in the complaint is nowhere to be found. “I probably have enough butane left to start a fire at least one night if it gets too cold, and we’re not gonna starve or anything if we’re here a couple of days. Let me worry about it, okay?”
Steve’s first inclination is to argue. He worries. Of course he worries, but Bucky isn’t wrong. More than that, he’s clever and maybe he doesn’t treat strategy the way Steve does, but he’s come out the other side of a lot worse than an unplanned camping trip. “Okay.”
Steve tries to sleep after that. Really, he does, but without the distraction of Bucky’s company, his head is reeling, circling back again and again to their conversation. It amounts to Bucky’s first explicit admission that he’s recovered any memory of before.
For a little while, he watches Bucky, pale and pretty in the moonlight. His eyelashes fan out against his skin, and in slumber, the worried lines of his face smooth out. If he gets nothing else, Steve cherishes this particular moment, one he never thought he’d get again.
Steve means to be considerate of Bucky, who’s probably exhausted. He doesn’t say a word or reach out to touch, and he’s genuinely surprised when Bucky flicks one bleary eye open at him. “You’re thinking.”
“It’s not important,” Steve lies. Well, it’s not a lie, really. It’s not immediately important just because it’s keeping Steve up.
Bucky’s other eye opens, though his gaze is hazy and tired. “I didn’t ask if it was important. What is it?
Steve scrubs his palm over his face, debating coming up with something less dangerous to talk about. They’re right on the precipice though, and Steve knows he’ll kick himself if he leaves without answers. “How much do you remember?”
“I don’t know. Enough, I guess. I’ll think I’ve got it all sometimes, but then suddenly I’m remembering ridiculous, unimportant things like the crack in your living room ceiling that used to drop… plaster or whatever it was made of on us when people walked around upstairs or how hot the fire escape got when we’d try and sit on it in the middle of the summer.” Bucky replied, so softly that Steve only barely catches the words. “But somehow I don’t think that’s what you’re asking.”
“No,” Steve admits, sighing up at the ruined, half caved in ceiling. “I guess it isn’t.”
The moon hangs at just the right angle for Steve to catch the faint, tired smile tugging at the corners of Bucky’s mouth. “You should probably say what you mean, then.”
Right. Steve rarely finds himself tongue tied, but Bucky's staring at him in the near dark like the whole rest of the world has fallen away and Steve might as well be naked for how exposed it leaves him. It takes a couple of false starts, swallowing around what feels like a bowling ball caught in his throat before he dredges up the question from somewhere. By some measure, it's a question anyway, but mostly it sounds like a jumble of words that all insist on coming out at the same time. “I was asking about us.”
“Do I remember loving you?” Bucky purses his lips once he’s said it out loud, the question threatening to suffocate them both. There is horror and relief in Bucky’s refusal to Steve’s reluctance to broach the subject any quarter. As violently as his heart is hammering in his chest Steve thinks surely Bucky must hear it too. “It’s hard to miss something half your life is built on.”
It's a gut punch, though Bucky doesn’t so much as lay a finger on him. It puts every wary look, every flinch in a different context that Steve feels like he might choke on. There’s no way around the heartbreak of their circumstances, but all this time he’s wrapped himself up in the explanation that meant that heartbreak was something happening to them and not a chasm widening from within. He’s always thought Bucky not remembering was the worst of this, but this is miles beyond that. Bucky remembers them and still keeps running anyway.
The hope Steve’s been harboring that somehow this part was going to be easy frays hopelessly, and if Steve’s trying to put a brave face on it, there's nothing to hide the startled bitterness lacing his reply. “If this was you trying to get across that you were done, you could have just said.”
Bucky makes a strangled sort of sound, and Steve’s sure it should be satisfying. He wishes, just for a second, that he could be angry, because angry at least, is simple. Nothing about them has ever been simple though, so he can't really be surprised by how messy this is. All the pained, venomous things he wants to say scatter when they butt up against Bucky’s obvious distress. “I’m just saying, whatever else we are or aren’t, I’m your friend, Bucky. You could have come to me.”
“No. I really couldn’t.” What Steve can see of Bucky’s expression is strained in a way that doesn’t line up with someone who’s been running away at all. It’s lost almost immediately when he ducks his head back into the cover the shadows offer. Steve's so busy trying to make sense of it that he nearly jumps out of his skin when Bucky’s hand comes to rest on his arm, feather light and probably one wrong word away from disappearing. Steve leans helplessly into it before he can stop himself. “If I’d come to you, I don’t think I’d have been able to leave.”
If finding out Bucky’s been choosing, over and over, to let him go is a freight train of a revelation, this is no less overwhelming. They’ve never quite mastered just saying what they mean, but Steve knows ‘I love you’ when he hears it. The sentiment is a weapon more than a comfort, twisting brutally in the context it comes wrapped in, but Steve clings to it anyway. Bucky was always going to be the end of him, and it might as well be like this.
Carefully, Steve inches across his chest to rest his hand over the one Bucky still has splayed across his arm. Somehow, even though Steve’s only meeting Bucky where he is, it feels horribly brash. Steve half expects Bucky to jerk his hand away, to tell him to stop, something, and for a second it seems that something is going to happen. Bucky’s fingers twitch like he means to yank his hand away, but in the end they only curl his fingers in the fabric of the blanket, an anchor for both of them perhaps. There’s a faint hitch in Bucky’s breathing that makes Steve want to fold in around him, injuries and circumstances be damned. He settles instead for dragging his thumb across Bucky’s knuckles, quietly reverent as he murmurs in the space between them, “Would that have been so bad?”
Bucky closes his eyes in what looks like regret, but might be some other source of sorrow. Steve only wants peace for Bucky, but the fleeting thought that he’s projecting and he’s the only one feeling the loss of them this sharply still aches. Either way, they lie there in the silent ruins, tethered by no more than Bucky’s hand cradled under Steve’s. Bucky answers, hushed and oddly punctuated by his thumb moving to catch Steve’s, pinning it against the blanket. “The lives we live? We’re a liability to each other.”
Bucky’s protests are utterly incongruous with the tender, haphazard way he entwines their fingers. It’s a far cry from a few hours before when he didn’t even seem interested in touching Steve, like the dam is broken leaving this to flood through. If it’s all they get, Steve means to memorize every detail of it, but he presses his luck, hoping to sway Bucky. “There was a time you didn’t think like that.”
“Yeah. Hydra happened,” Bucky retorts, though there’s no real bite to it. His expression twists up in some private anguish, and only the bone deep desire to soothe it away mutes Steve’s sense of guilt aiming to take root. “I didn’t remember this. Not at first. It’s not exactly something they made note of on my plaque at the Smithsonian.”
“No, I guess it wouldn’t be,” Steve reluctantly concedes, hoping as he listens that an opening will present itself to convince Bucky to come home.
“I mean, I did eventually. Obviously. It’s just that everything else was coming back too. They use the things you love.” Bucky shakes his head, heedless of the debris that has to be digging into his cheek. “I tried to kill you. Twice. At least twice.”
“But you didn’t, Buck.” Cautiously, Steve tugs at Bucky’s wrist, breathing out a relieved sigh when Bucky lets himself be urged a little closer in spite of their conversation. They haven’t danced around each other like this since love was still a secret that Steve barely knew the word for, threatening to burn him from the inside out. Inch by precious inch, Steve slides his hand up Bucky’s wrist and forearm until he can’t reach any further without rolling onto his side, hoping the reason Bucky allows it isn’t just a product of distraction.
“No, and I’m grateful for that, but it’s not my point. They didn’t send me just because it was convenient. They sent me because it would hurt.” Bucky’s eyes finally flick to Steve’s hand and back to his face. Without words to mask it, his breathing comes in a shallow, faintly ragged cadence. “And if they have any reason to think there’s value in manipulating what holds us together, they’d do it again. There’s no avoiding all that. What I’m doing right now kind of invites attention, but I thought maybe they wouldn’t try to use you as leverage if they didn’t think I even remembered who you were.”
Impulse has never really served Steve well, but he caves to it immediately. He can’t listen to what Bucky is saying without every fiber of his being wanting to come in closer and crowd out the world of the world they’ve been marched through for all these years. Every movement is a searing pain ripping through his side, but Steve grits his teeth and refuses to acknowledge it as he rolls to face Bucky properly. This. Them. That’s the important thing. When everything else is dust and nightmares, this is worth every sacrifice.
His expression must give away how much moving still hurts because Bucky throws all caution by the wayside. In an instant, he’s wriggled closer, shifting his grip to ease the strain on Steve’s wounded side as he chides. “Jesus, Steve. It’s like you want to make this worse.”
Despite the complaint, Bucky stays, proximity leaving them nose to nose. He could fall asleep just like this, Steve thinks, ensconced in the arms of the one warm thing in this ruined place. He should. He knows he should let things be, but Steve has never met a problem his first instinct wasn’t to barrel through. “Are you saying you stayed away because you were afraid something might happen to me?”
“No,” Bucky whispers, clear in the silence that surrounds them. They’re so close that the word comes out in a warm puff of air against Steve’s lips. That seems like the end of it, but then Bucky speaks up again, “I was afraid of what I might do to keep from losing you again.”
Steve didn’t mean to fall back on habit, but Bucky so close and the rest of the world was so far away. He didn’t think, just moved until his lips brushed feather light over Bucky’s. It was as far as he got before Bucky’s hitching breath brought him crashing back to reality, unsure if it was hesitance or want. “Sorry. Sorry, I-”
Bucky cuts Steve of his apology off abruptly in a kiss that swallows down everything Steve means to say and the rest of him with it. The desperate crush of Bucky’s lips against his is utterly at odds with the tender way Bucky draws him in with one hand cradling his jaw, and the other holding him steady. It's all consuming, nearly suffocating, but for the first time in more years than he wants to think about, Steve feels like he can breathe.
This isn’t the reunion Steve would have fashioned for them, but it’s right all the same. How very like them, he thinks, to find their way back to each other among the rubble and ruins. If this is the reward for his exile to the future, he’ll pay the price a thousand times over.
It’s different from all the other times, when Steve’s fingers map out Bucky’s frame. He’s broader and sharper now, all boyish softness relegated to distant memory. The hard edge of his metal shoulder is new too, an unforgiving line under Steve’s palm through the fabric of his shirt.
That sound Bucky makes when Steve’s fingers slide through his hair isn’t different at all, though. It’s surrender in the shape of a quiet whimper, the kind Steve still hears sometimes in his dreams. Bucky’s hair is course with debris, and it’s hopelessly tangled, catching on Steve’s fingertips, but none of that matters when Bucky retreats just enough that Steve can feel the upward tug of his lips.
Steve doesn’t want to think about what comes next, not when Bucky’s been so meticulously keeping his distance. After might send them to opposite ends of the earth, so Steve basks for the moment in right now. Right now, Bucky’s tucked in close, and it doesn’t matter really, where one of them ends and the other begins. Right now, Bucky’s lips part in a lazy sort of invitation that shudders right down Steve’s spine.
Right now, there’s a steady, rhythmic crunch of heavy footsteps through the rubble outside. Steve thinks, for a second, he’s imagined it, but Bucky freezes in one second and is disentangling himself from Steve in the next.
“There’s no way that could be your friends, is there?” Bucky asks in a hushed whisper, as if things have ever once worked out that neatly for them. He must already know the answer, because he’s reaching for a gun he’d stashed in arm’s reach even before Steve shakes his head.
It’s one of the hardest things Steve has ever done, staying put while Bucky creeps towards the entrance to their little makeshift cave. The urge to leap into the fray at Bucky’s side is like spiders crawling under his skin despite his best efforts to convince himself there’s no need. Maybe it’s a wild animal, not that he truly believes that. Maybe it’s nothing at all.
Nothing at all wouldn’t have a weapon to fire, and there’s no mistaking the gunshot that cuts through the air for anything else. It’s followed by two more, one clinking dangerously off what must be Bucky’s metal arm.
Steve cannot remember ever standing by in his entire life, and he certainly doesn’t mean to start now. Bucky disappears beyond the wall, and though Steve can’t make out what is happening exactly, the gunfire is heavy and relentless, as if Hydra sent an army after them. Given what Bucky’s been playing at, Steve’s pretty sure they did. He waits as long as he can stand, but it doesn’t let up. Maybe it’s real, or maybe he imagines it, but Steve’s sure he picks up the clang of a bullet against metal and his heart nearly stops. The only nearby metal that’s left out there is Bucky’s arm. That’s all the impetus he needs to get involved to get involved. He won’t risk Bucky going down or ending up back in Hydra’s hands when he can still do something to stop it. They get through this together… or not at all.
Gritting his teeth, Steve rolls over to get the leverage he needs. It hurts. Everything hurts, but he gets his hands under himself somehow, and pushes. It’s not graceful. It’s barely even functional, but Steve lurches upright and to his feet with a pained hiss, wobbling as the blanket he’d been wrapped up in crumples at his feet.
Already, when Steve glances down, he can see the first drops of bright crimson leaking beyond the dried blood on his bandages. It’s a warning, probably, but it doesn’t stop him from taking a breath and scooping up his shield. He hadn’t moved around enough to realize or to see how badly his thigh was injured, but heaven does he feel it when he takes a step.
There’s blood there too, but Steve keeps on, stubbornly trudging out of the relative safety without even the suit to protect him.
There are worse sensations, probably, than the bone deep burn that rips through Steve’s torso when Steve winds up to throw the shield, but he has no idea what they are. Bucky’s cornered though, so Steve doesn’t hesitate. Clenching his jaw through the whole thing, he flings the shield at one of the agents. Together or not at all.
It flies true and comes back, and somehow, that has never felt so inconsequential. At his best, this would be a tough fight, and Steve is not at his best. Neither of them are, he suspects. The rubble is swarming with Hydra agents. In the dark, it’s hard to get an exact count, but he can hear them closing in..
Bucky’s an excellent shot, but only so long as he has ammo, and Steve knows they’re running out. Sure enough, fifteen feet away, he can hear the telltale click of Bucky’s gun on empty. Bucky is forced to go on the defensive, ducking out of the way of gunfire, sacrificing a throwing knife to the throat of someone whose shooting gets a little too close to Steve.
Steve knows Bucky won’t fall back and risk putting him in danger, but the longer Bucky makes himself a target, the worse their chances of getting through this. Steve hobbles back under cover in hopes that Bucky has another gun stowed away in his pack. There’s no gun. Just snacks, a lighter, and the bomb Bucky had never ended up using. Any hope of operating it remotely died in the explosion, but the detonator is still intact, a tiny box sticking up from the bomb’s surface.
It just might work, if they can set off the detonator, with a well placed gunshot or by triggering it manually. Steve considers getting far enough away to keep Bucky out of the blast radius and setting it off himself. If the last explosion didn’t kill him, this one certainly will, but at least Bucky will be safe.
The impulsive choice is to protect Bucky from the doom they’re facing down, whatever the cost. It’s also the wrong choice. They’re better when they trust each other. He knows that, even if it means he can’t keep Bucky ends up in harm’s way. They’re in this together, and at the end of the day, the only right choice is to be in this together.
Together it is. The faith he allows himself to lean on is well placed, as it turns out, with them both on the same page. Bucky spots Steve almost immediately as he forces himself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. More importantly, Bucky spots the bomb he’s holding.
Bucky deftly draws the firefight away from Steve, and in the dark that might be enough. Steve hopes so anyway, because it’s all they’ve got. Biting back the strangled noise trying to work its way free, Steve pushes through the pain, creeping along the edge of the wreckage.
Mostly, Bucky keeps the agents away from him, but mostly isn’t perfect. In such close quarters and with one hand cradling the bomb along with the scraps of his ruined uniform, Steve uses the shield as a bludgeon. It’s inelegant, but it gets the job done, allowing him to force his way through when he can’t avoid combat completely.
Bucky’s picked up another gun by the time Steve reaches his intended destination. That’s one problem sorted at least. The rest is up to him.
It’ll work. It has to work. This is what Steve tells himself as he puts more distance between himself and all the commotion. When they come after him, they’ll have to run right over where he’s placed the explosive.
Moment of truth, or whatever the word for it is. Even if he yells loud enough for them to hear, he’s hardly a target in the dark. So, Steve takes away the dark. He brings the lighter to the fabric, watching in dismay as it sputters, struggling to light. Maybe it was out of fuel after all. When he shakes the lighter, he can hear the faint slosh of butane in the nearly empty lighter, like the last match in a matchbook.
Holding his breath lest he put the fire out by accident, Steve flicks the lighter one last time. The flame springs weakly to life, and for a second, Steve fears it won’t even reach the fabric. It catches though, if only barely, and Steve grimaces as he waves it overhead.
He doesn’t really know what he yells to get their attention, but between the yelling and the fire, it works. Light glints off the shield, exactly the way Steve hoped it would. After all, there are few things Hydra is more interested in ending than Captain America.
There aren’t quite as many of them as he’d thought, but the numbers are still more than enough to overwhelm him. There are far too many variables he can’t control for, leaving Bucky’s window of opportunity painfully small. Every fiber of his being begs to collapse, but Steve takes refuge behind the shield against the gunfire suddenly directed his way. Sheer stubbornness keeps him upright. If he falls now, the rest of the plan crumbles too, and right now that plan is all they’ve got.
The Hydra goons close in on him, and in the moonlight, Steve can just make out Bucky picking them off one by one from behind. Bucky’s lost in the fray after that, and the agents bear down on Steve, forcing his focus entirely back on them.
He measures the space between himself and the enemy with his eyes. Twenty seconds probably, before they’re beyond the blast range. Fifteen. Ten. Steve squints, but he still can’t see if Bucky even has eyes on the bomb.
Five. It’s as far as Steve gets before Bucky takes the shot. Steve can’t see it, but he must have given the explosion that rips through the team that had been sent after them. It’s blinding, deafening, and even from a safe distance, the heat is oppressive, like it’s trying to blister his flesh. The overwhelming assault on his senses crowds out the grotesque aftermath the bomb promises, and as the the light fades, smoke billows through the wreckage in its place.
The gunfire has died down to a smattering, haphazard and difficult to pinpoint. It’s Bucky. It has to be Bucky. Praying that’s the case, Steve squints at the wreckage, struggling for any sign at all. Something moves in the smoke, stumbling towards him. “Bucky?”
The moment Steve sees their silhouette, he knows it’s not Bucky. They’re all wrong. More than that, their weapon is leveled right at him. Swallowing his fear that Bucky didn’t make it after all, Steve hoists his shield up to throw it, hissing through his teeth.
Before he can let it fly, there’s one last gunshot. It’s so loud, it takes a second to parse that it didn’t come from the Hydra agent’s gun. To be fair, the way the agent lurches, eyes going wide and lifeless gets the point across fairly well.
And then it’s over. The last one falls, leaving only the smoke and rubble and the eerie, not quite silence of the wilderness behind. Without the immediate threat of Hydra agents breathing down their neck, there’s no ignoring the seriousness of his aggravated injuries. Steve takes a step that ends in him sinking gracelessly down on one knee, only his grip on his shield keeping him upright.
Bucky materializes at Steve’s side with a hand carefully resting on his shoulder. Hissing sympathetically through his teeth, Bucky chides, “That was exactly the opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing. You do realize that, I hope?”
“What? You thought I’d just lie there and let you have all the fun?” Steve protests, taking comfort in their banter no matter how badly he hurts. This back and forth, despite the circumstances, feels very much like home.
“I had it under control.” Bucky makes a face when Steve tries to stand, but hooks an arm around him anyway. Being in this kind of shape is bad enough without the indignity of crawling back to his makeshift bed.
“I know, but somebody reminded me we don’t leave people behind,” Steve offers up a fond smile, albeit one watered down by the wreck he is currently. Bucky doesn’t steer them back to their previous refuge, though. Instead, he herds Steve out into the open air. “Where are we going?”
“The... van? They probably have a van or… five. They had to get here somehow, you know?” Bucky says it like he’s genuinely stunned Steve didn’t think of it first. “We can get back to town instead of sitting out here waiting for someone to figure out you’re missing and then puzzle out where you went.”
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to go into town without drawing unwanted attention. For both of us,” Steve points out as they shuffle back towards the van. Shuffle is maybe too optimistic a word, but whatever it is and however much Bucky is supporting his weight, Steve’s doing it on his own two feet which seems like an improvement. The van isn’t all that far, but it feels like they go on for miles under the circumstances before they reach the tail end of it. “Is that what you want?”
“Did you have some better idea about where to go get help?” Bucky swings one of the back doors open and shifts where they’re standing so that Steve can sink down to sit over the back bumper with a grateful sigh.
“We could bring help to us. One of those guys has to have a phone and I would think, if they’ve been working out here, they’ve figured out something to get a signal.” Steve looks up in time to see a familiar array of emotions drift across Bucky’s features. Bucky opens his mouth, probably to argue, but the words never come. Instead, he shuts it again, teeth audibly clicking together, and shakes his head.
“I’ll see what I can find,” he concedes, and Steve knows that tone too. It’s drawn out and put upon, the way it always is when he thinks Steve has a terrible idea, but he doesn’t have a better one.
It works, as much as any other idea anyway. Five minutes later finds them in possession of a phone and the Avengers in possession of his coordinates. He says nothing about having company, intentionally giving Bucky an out, even though it hurts.
Six minutes later Bucky is herding Steve properly into the van while he digs through supplies. It’s not much, but there are pillows and a sleeping bag that Bucky spreads out on the floor of the van, and after sleeping on rocks, this is practically heaven.
There are also medical supplies Bucky seizes upon, pointing out the blood leaking around the edges of the bandages wrapped around him. It’s nice, in a strange sort of way, to be looked after like this. Everything hurts. Everything, that is, except Bucky’s hands that sweep gently across his shoulders before deftly unraveling the bandages.
As ugly as they are from the outside, what they hide is far worse. Even half knitted back together, he’s undeniably a mess wincing as Bucky carefully gets to work.
In search of anything to distract him from his injuries, Steve’s thoughts drift. It’s only natural, he guesses, that they would drift right back to what landed them here.
"That wasn't some salvage team. They were ready for us." It’s more a thought spoken out loud as Steve grits his teeth and settles in the back of the van. Bucky goes stiff in the midst of wrapping up his wounded side again though, and for one shameful, terrible second Steve wonders if this is the other shoe dropping. “How did they know we were still here?”
The stoicism Bucky has held onto so far slips away with a huffed out breath. “I let one of them go.”
Bucky had always been a soft touch when it came down to it, and had a sense of mercy Steve loved him all the more for. This isn’t some kid soldier shaking in their boots though. It’s Hydra. “Why?”
“Because you were dying.” It isn’t quite a snarl, but there’s a brief moment where calm seems to elude him. Bucky shakes it off as abruptly as it wells up. “I could’ve made sure that didn’t happen or I could have gone after him, but there wasn’t time for both.”
“You know I would have healed,” Steve protests, though his heart isn’t really in it. He’d seen the bandages, after all.
“Not if you bled out first. You didn’t see what I saw. It was the only choice I could make.” Bucky offers up a brittle smile that threatens to crumble with the faintest breeze. “You want to tell me you’d have done something different?”
“No,” Steve agrees. There’s really no point in arguing when they already both know the truth of the matter. Oh sure. Sure, Bucky’s a soft touch, but for no one more than him. There’s no version of this situation where either of them would have made a call different from Bucky’s, and they both know it. Leaning on Bucky as he tucks away the loose end of the bandaging, Steve gives in, “No, you’re right.”
Charitably, Bucky doesn’t gloat over that. He hums in agreement, lingering for a moment with his hands warm and cool against Steve’s skin. Hoping he’s not stepping in something, Steve presses his luck, just a little. “Does that mean you’re rethinking this whole liability thing?”
“I feel like we must have spent the last twenty minutes very differently.” Bucky kicks aside the tactical gear in the way so that Steve can lie down. “What happened back there is exactly why that’s risky. I chose you and I’m not sorry for that. I will always choose you.”
“From where I’m sitting, that seems pretty lucky for the both of us.” Steve reaches out, still marveling, just a little bit, that Bucky doesn’t pull out of his grip when their hands meet. “I’m not real confident either one of us would have gotten out of there alone.”
Despite all his frowning - and he’s doing a lot of it - Bucky lets Steve pull him down to the floor of the van. He resists briefly, but it’s only to grab a sleeping bag that he unfurls over them both. “I don’t know what to do with that.”
“You could come home.” It’s out before Steve can help himself, bold and embarrassingly hopeful. Bucky might still say no, but everything feels different now, and Steve’s certain he’ll regret it the rest of his life if he doesn’t try.
The ‘no’ Steve’s bracing himself for never comes. Bucky tucks himself carefully around Steve, sighing into the crook of Steve’s neck. “I don’t know if I can after what I’ve done.”
“None of that was your fault.” Steve hates this particular set of injuries, not for the helpless feeling of it, but because he can’t easily roll over and curl his arms around Bucky the way he’d like to.
“I’m not sure anyone cares about fault.”
“So we’ll make them.” Steve’s rarely been anything resembling selfish, though maybe it is somewhat in this. Everything shifts though, and Steve realizes that trusting Bucky means here too. He backpedals ever so slightly, veering away from pushing Bucky in a particular direction, and trying to offer hope instead. “We can at least try. You shouldn’t be stuck out here on your own for choices you didn’t make.”
“That your way of apologizing for sticking me out here for choices I didn’t make?” In earlier conversation, the accusation would have put Steve on the defensive, but it’s fuzzy around the edges and warm in a way that suggests any bitterness Bucky was harboring has drained away.
“Yes?” Steve turns his head, leaning as far as he can manage kiss Bucky’s jaw. “I am sorry. Does it help if I promise never to do that again?”
“You’re a pretty shit liar,” Bucky teases, turning his head until Steve’s mouth brushes against his. “The odds of that working twice are pretty negligible.”
“Is that a yes?”
“I don’t know, Steve.” Bucky cocoons them both under the warm, thick sleeping bag. It didn’t make the van comfortable exactly, but it was still an improvement over rocks and a ratty blanket. Mindful of Steve’s injury, Bucky slings an arm low across his hips. “I really don’t know.”
The steady whir of propellers wakes Steve from such a deep sleep that for a second he’s sure they’re under attack again. His heart races as he tries to figure out how to get the tactical advantage if they’ve potentially got air artillery pointed at the van. That’s about the point at which he realizes he’s likely fretting over nothing.
“I think that’s your ride,” Bucky murmurs against Steve’s temple, and Steve isn’t sure for the life of him if Bucky is just sleepily talking to him or poking fun. It doesn’t matter much either way. Not when Bucky nuzzles against his jaw and snuggles closer, precisely the way Steve yearns to wake up every day for the rest of his life.
Steve wants to try to coax Bucky back with him one last time, but he fights the urge. There’s nothing new to say, and at the end of the day, it’s not is call to make. “You want me to distract them?”
It’s the most awful thing he’s ever said, ever word scratching against his throat like sandpaper. It’s also the right thing. However much it hurts, Steve forces himself to let go.
“I…” Bucky’s eyebrows shoot up, like he’s just registered what Steve said and it wasn’t the thing he was prepared to respond to.
“I love you,” Steve says, because goodbye sticks uselessly in his throat. He solaces himself with his fingers in Bucky’s hair, memorizing the slide of it between his fingers, dust and all. “Wherever you’re going next. Whatever you’re doing. I love you.”
“None of this would be easy,” Bucky blurts out, looking as startled by it as Steve is. “If I came with you.”
“I’m not asking for easy.” Steve struggles to tamp down the hope trying to take root. “It doesn’t matter that it’s easy. It just matters that it’s you.”
Somewhere beyond their makeshift haven, Tony is yelling Steve’s name. Reality is closing in around them, its vice grip tightening by the second, and he can feel the distressed tension of Bucky’s body pressed to his. Bucky’s going to run. Steve knows that, even if it breaks his heart.
But Bucky doesn’t, even though every fiber of his bring must want to. He leans into the cradle of Steve’s palm, tipping his head to kiss the flat of it. For a second, they’re frozen like that before the fingers of Bucky’s right hand slide tentatively between Steve’s. “Let’s go home.”