Chapter 1: Prologue
Hell wasn't a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley's opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.
-Good Omens, Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Everyone knows the story of the war in Heaven. That it began with pride. That Lucifer, best beloved of God's best beloved, resented the newly created human souls. Was angry that they would supplant the Angelic Host in God's favour. That he disregarded Michael's warnings and, in his pride and anger, sought to seduce others to his side.
The Seraphim and Cherubim, the Thrones and Dominions: Lucifer's golden tongue wooed them as he raised his will against God's. He was the Light Bearer, the Morningstar, the best and wisest and most favoured of them all. When he spoke, words flowed like manna from his lips. He enticed them: the High and the Low, the Powers arrayed by God's Right Hand and the mere Angels, who had barely the will to raise against him.
Steven, who was the least of the lesser Angels, listened as Lucifer spoke. As Lucifer whispered in his ear that this would prevent a greater wrong. That the humans should not be set above the Angelic Host in the favour of God. That humans would be mortal and weak and helpless and it would ask too much of them, to be placed so high. That it would be cruel to make them shoulder such a burden. Steven, who had a deep well of righteous anger, believed him. Steven—who trusted too far, who loved too much—believed, too, that the faith of all the Hosts of Heaven could never break.
But the Angelic ranks arrayed, one against the other, bright and shining and terrible. The Hosts of Heaven fought and the firmament of the universe trembled and cracked. The rebellion faltered and broke and Michael cast Lucifer down.
There were whispers that this too was part of God's ineffable plan, that Lucifer had served God's will even in this great unthinkable act. It was little comfort to those who lost for all eternity the warmth of God's grace.
In the end, there were some who chose to leap, defiant and wild with their rebellion. Some fell, heedless of what would become of them. And some were flung, despairing at the magnitude of their loss.
Steven was flung from Heaven, the Seraphim implacable in their majesty and unforgiving power as they cast him out. They tore the wings from his back and threw him down into Hell, his light transformed to darkness.
Hell was a place of nothing. Endless, empty, and cold, ruled over by Lucifer, inhabited only by the fallen angels. Demons. They were demons now, Steven reminded himself. Still with their ranks and Steven was still the least of the lesser.
He refused to think of himself as a demon, clung to the memory of being an angel. He wasn't alone. Most embraced their new identity—some with glee, some with resignation—but some, like Steven, refused. A fallen angel was still an angel, they told themselves.
Their numbers dwindled as Hell began to fill with human souls.
Hell was no longer empty and cold, stretching into the endless distance. It was twisting itself into strange and malevolent shapes, echoes of human imagination.
Such was the nature of Lucifer's Hell.
It was a place of punishment, but every human was the architect of their own eternity. Every human knew, in the secret place in their heart, what they deserved. That was exactly what they received.
Steven hated it. Hated the screams and the blood and the fire. Hated the pain. Hated the torture. He was the least of the lesser and rarely came to anyone's attention, but rarely wasn't never. He was forced to take his turn. Steven broke humans on the wheel, flayed the skin from their bodies, tortured and burned and crushed. Through it all he heard the litany of their sins, even when their lips and tongues and jaws had been torn from their bodies.
It became harder to hold to the belief he was not a demon; that he was a fallen angel, even if he was soaked in blood. Doing so began to seem pointless. The few others who'd hung onto the distinction gave up and embraced their new identity.
As the earth's population grew, so did Hell's, filling up with ever more human souls.
Demons were not precisely a secret on the earth. Some humans knew they existed and had learned to use them as tools, as weapons, summoning them away and out of Hell. Binding them to serve, binding them to obey, binding them into physical bodies—on earth, demons, like the angels they had been, were creatures of spirit, only human magic allowing their physical bodies to manifest.
But humans always made mistakes, went the rumours, especially if they didn't know your name, and then you would be free. Surely Lucifer's eyes couldn't be everywhere. There were some demons who never returned. You could be free and out of Hell.
Out of Hell.
The next time a human summons slipped like a whisper through the gates of Hell, Steven answered it. He needed out, he needed to get away, before he lost himself entirely.
HYDRA Weapons Facility - Kreischberg, Austria - June 1943
The circle binding him was solidly and expertly drawn, with no flaws, no weak spots. Steven manifested exactly in its centre. There was no smoke, no flaring lights. It was entirely undramatic and unimpressive, just like the body in which his spirit was housed.
It was practically indistinguishable from a human's.
Short, his spine was curved, giving him a mildly hunched appearance. His face was sharp and thin, his fingers slightly too long, a short shock of yellow hair fell over dull blue eyes. Before the Fall, before the Seraphim, he would have been tall and golden and shining, but they'd left only darkness behind and his body reflected that darkness.
He was clothed in cotton pants and a button up shirt, leather shoes, similar to the three men watching him. Two were tall, one short and plump with round glasses and eyes like holes in the world that made Steven wonder if he really had escaped from Hell.
These were the first living humans he'd ever seen. He waited to feel...something. Anything. Some kind of reaction to whole and unharmed human beings, instead of damned souls bound for torture. He felt nothing.
He couldn't stop staring at the short man's eyes. They were wrong. If he chose, Steven could look at him and see the sin on his soul, but he didn't need to. He knew what he'd find.
Disdain rolled off the man in waves. "This, Herr Koch, is what you value more than the human mind." The short man's voice was dripping with contempt as he gestured at Steven, crouched in the centre of the circle. "You take shortcuts with magic and demons and neglect the power of intellect."
"This is nothing to do with you, Zola," Koch replied, lip lifting in a sneer. "Go back to your science experiments."
"Are you afraid I'll stay and see you fail?" Zola asked.
"We're not afraid of anything to do with you. We're following our orders. I suggest you do the same."
Zola turned and gave them a thin lipped smile that didn't touch the winter in his eyes. "Science will change the world while you play with your books and sigils," he said. "My designs will create wonders you can only dream of."
"Then why didn't Schmidt give this job to you?" the other man asked. "Why isn't one of your machines stopping the Americans from using the serum?"
When Zola didn't answer, both men turned away dismissively, focussing on Steven. Steven listened as Koch spoke to him; he didn't have a choice. Koch had summoned, he'd answered, and Koch had bound him. He listened, but he didn't take his eyes off Zola.
Go to a man named Abraham Erskine, Koch said. Possess him, sabotage his project, kill him so it looks like he committed suicide. Steven quailed at what he was being told to do, but he had no choice. He'd answered the summons. He'd made his choice, decided being out of Hell was worth the cost and now it was time to pay it.
They opened the circle and, as he stepped out, his body dissolved into spirit. He wasn't free. There was a leash of power binding him to Koch; he could see it like a long black cord winding between them. He tugged at it experimentally, but it was strong. Even without his name, Koch could still bind him beyond his ability to break it.
Koch's orders were like a burning brand in his chest. "Go," he commanded and Steven went.
Camp Lehigh, New Jersey - June 1943
Dr Abraham Erskine. It took time to get to him, but he wasn't hard to find. Once found, Steven followed him, and the more Steven stayed by his side the worse he felt about what he had to do. Dr Erskine was a good man.
Steven listened as Dr Erskine and a woman named Peggy Carter argued with a Colonel Phillips that Gilmore Hodge should not be chosen for Project Rebirth, the project he was here to sabotage. They lost. He listened as Dr Erskine met with a man named Howard Stark and they went through, step by step, what would happen on the day of the project.
He didn't want to do this. He didn't want to hurt Dr Erskine. He didn't want to hurt anyone. He didn't have a choice. The night before Gilmore Hodge was scheduled to receive the serum and become the first in a new breed of super soldiers, Steven slipped inside Dr Erskine's mind. Carefully, delicately, so the man didn't notice he was there. Then he took over. Dr Erskine fought. He slammed against the edges of Steven's control, battered himself against the walls Steven caged him in. It was fruitless; he couldn't throw Steven out.
As Steven tampered with the serum, no one thinking twice about the conscientious Dr Erskine making one more check that everything was ready for tomorrow, Dr Erskine's mind was screaming. Steven tried to block it out.
It was simple to walk the body through the next day's events. Or rather, to allow the body to walk itself. That was the key, he realised. The body knew how to move, how to stand. All he had to do was give it enough freedom while keeping a tight hold on Dr Erskine's mind and he was beyond suspicion. Colonel Phillips and Dr Erskine's relationship was strained over the selection of Hodge, Dr Erskine and Hodge had no relationship to speak of, and Steven had listened in on enough of Dr Erskine and Howard Stark's conversations to carry them through.
The only concern was Agent Peggy Carter, who gave Dr Erskine an assessing look when she arrived. He knew there should be no physical sign that Dr Erskine was possessed, Steven had controlled it, but he wanted her to denounce him, to accuse him; to say stop, something's wrong, but the nature of being bound was such that you couldn't sabotage yourself.
Dr Erskine was a constant stream of noise in his mind, alternating between pleading with Steven not to do this, ranting at him in anger, and impassioned reasoned argument. Steven didn't respond to any of it.
It became much easier to block him out when the man in the tube began screaming. People in the room made noises about stopping, but Steven in Dr Erskine's body said, "No, this is expected, it must continue," as Dr Erskine begged him to bring it to an end. Howard Stark questioned it but Steven gestured at him emphatically and he continued.
The screaming eventually ceased. They opened the tube and Gilmore Hodge, or what was left of him, fell out. For the second time on earth, Steven wondered if he'd actually left Hell. At least Hodge was dead. He couldn't feel what the sabotaged serum had done to his body.
Dr Erskine had gone still and silent in his mind; Steven thought he'd have been weeping if he could. Everything was a blur after that. Shouting and accusations and denials and counter-accusations and the important men threatening to take away the money.
Steven kept Dr Erskine very quiet. Agent Carter was looking at him suspiciously. Steven tried to give her a reassuring smile. Judging by her eyes, her face, her body, it only sharpened her suspicion.
Dr Erskine was driven back to Camp Lehigh, escorted back to his offices. The men escorting him were solicitous of a tired and devastated old man, not suspicious, and Steven used Dr Erskine's body to acquire a gun.
"I wondered what was going to happen to me," Dr Erskine said when the doors were shut and they were alone in the office.
Steven sat his body down in a chair. It didn't take him long to work out how to use the gun and he pressed the muzzle against the body's temple.
"Do I at least get to know what you are?"
It took Steven a long time to answer, the cold, sharp metal of the gun digging into delicate skin. "I guess I'm a demon." There was nothing left of him he could call an angel, even a fallen one.
"I guess that means I'm going to Hell." It was exhausted, weary and hopeless. It hurt. Steven hurt for him. He lowered the gun so it was pointing at the floor and closed the body's eyes, turning his attention inward, looking at Dr Erskine, at that part of him that was eternal.
"No." His voice was soft. "No, you're not going to Hell." It was a poor excuse for comfort after everything he'd done. He once more placed the gun against the body's temple. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry. I don't have a choice."
"I can't forgive you."
"No." Steven gave a low, humourless laugh. "We don't get to have that." He paused. "I'll make sure it doesn't hurt," he promised. He'd have to stay, even through the body's death, but it seemed simple enough: wrap himself around Dr Erskine's mind, shield him from what was happening so there'd be no pain, and pull the—
The door exploded open and something slammed into Steven, shoving him out of Dr Erskine's body like he'd been hit by a tank. He manifested briefly, sprawled on the floor. Looking up, he could see Agent Carter standing in the doorway, see a glittering chain with a round amulet hanging around Dr Erskine's neck, the gun on the floor where it had fallen from his slack fingers.
She'd thrown it and driven him out.
Desperate gratitude burned through him like a fire. "Back to Hell with you," she told him, matter of fact, like she dealt with demons every day. Steven met her eyes briefly and then his leash tugged at him. He dissolved into spirit and was dragged back to the ones who'd summoned him.
Camp Lehigh, New Jersey - July 1943
"I'm sorry, I'm still having trouble with the idea that demons are real."
"Well, I suggest you get used to it," Peggy said. "Because it appears that HYDRA has no such trouble."
Colonel Phillips waved a hand at her. "All right, all right. So I just have to wear this," he swung the chain hanging on his finger back and forth, making the round amulet glint in the light, "and that, what, tells them to go away?"
"Not quite. It will shield you from," Peggy counted off on her fingers, "possession, interference, or anything else their summoners might come up with. MI6 has been using them since it was founded. They've proven extremely effective." When he looked sceptical, she added, "Semper Occultus? It's not a coincidence."
"Should I ask how you know all this?"
Peggy's smile was small, her eyes distant, briefly lost in a memory. "My Aunt was British Intelligence. I'll let you guess what her specialty was."
"Noted." Colonel Phillips sighed and then put the chain around his neck. "Just when I thought life couldn't get any stranger."
The Battle of Azzano, Italy - October 1943
Sergeant James Barnes, 107th Infantry Regiment, bared his teeth—half desperate grin, half threat. He knew his men were looking to him and if he broke, they'd break. So it was real simple. He wouldn't break.
He heard muttered prayers, curses, outright threats, all aimed right up at God. Never an atheist in a foxhole, especially not one as desperate as this. There was a roar of approaching tanks, getting closer. Sergeant Barnes knew they weren't theirs. Didn't really sound like the German's, either.
Blue fire exploded out of the night, wiping the Germans off the face of the earth. Cheers erupted around him, whoops of glee, but they were cut short when that same blue fire was turned on them.
It was too much. Some men broke, bolting for safety. Too many died. The rest had no choice but to surrender, including Sergeant James Barnes.
Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is not your friend. Sometimes they're just another enemy.
The Battle of Azzano ended fast once HYDRA was involved.
HYDRA Weapons Facility - Kreischberg, Austria - November 1943
"Their last mission failed," Zola said. "Clearly, demons are a waste of our resources."
"We didn't fail." Koch's voice was very patient. "The Americans abandoned their program because it failed so spectacularly. We achieved exactly what you wished us to achieve. Zola is the one wasting resources. He's taking prisoners for his experiments that you need to work on the Valkyries."
"Dr Erskine is still alive," Zola said.
"And is completely discredited."
Johann Schmidt was facing the windows, his hands behind his back. Dr Zola stood at one side of the room, the two demon summoners on the other. Steven stood behind them, thin and hunched and still, the binding Koch held keeping him tightly in check.
"Enough." Schmidt said without turning. "Dr Zola, you may continue with your current subject. But only him. The rest of the prisoners are to work faster and harder. Herr Weber, Herr Koch, your demon may once more prove useful. You may keep it."
It was a clear dismissal. They left the room, Koch and Zola exchanging vicious glares.
The room was dark and cold and he was strapped to the table. He couldn’t move. He'd given up trying; there was nothing he could do to budge the straps.
"Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, 32557038." It was a harsh, broken whisper dragged out of a throat scraped raw.
Shallow breath. In and out. Anything deeper hurt too much.
"Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, 32557038."
Shallow breath. In and out. Repeat.
It was all he was going to say. Problem was, now he'd started saying it he wasn't sure he could stop.
Except to scream. He couldn't seem to stop the screams. He'd been determined not to start, not to give Zola the satisfaction, but they escaped, no matter how stubbornly he clenched his teeth.
He knew no one was coming for him. He knew he wasn't gonna walk out of here alive.
They hadn't even wanted him. He'd been standing in the corner, trying to keep morale up. A challenge: come up with different, increasingly improbable ways to kill the bastards that were holding them, his last smoke a reward for the most creative. Bucky wasn't sure who they'd been going for when the guards had shoved their way into the cell. He hadn't hesitated before he shoved himself forward, getting right up into that black-helmeted bastard's face, daring him, fucking daring him, to take him instead.
Tense long seconds had passed and then the guard had smirked like the evil prick he was and grabbed him, hard and vicious. Bucky had grinned back, teeth bared, spitting in the eye of death and danger just like always.
Bucky didn't regret it for one goddamned second. There weren't many left of the 107th, but they were his men and he was their Sergeant and he'd look after them, right up to the gates of fucking Hell.
Bucky kind of thought he might be there now. Kind of thought this evil little bastard Zola might be some kind of devil. The stuff he was doing sure as shit wasn't natural.
Zola was back. Bucky kept his eyes on the ceiling, didn't acknowledge his return. Repeated his mantra of name, rank, and serial number.
"We are going to do great things together, you and I. We're going to show them what the power of the human mind can achieve."
Name, rank, and serial number. Shallow breath. In and out.
Zola was doing something. Bucky could hear equipment, feel it clamping down on his body. "HYDRA has need of you." There was a pinch and the sharp burn of a needle in his left wrist.
Name, rank, and serial number. Shallow breath. In and out.
The hum of electricity filled the air. "This may hurt, but it's only the beginning."
Name, rank, and serial number. Shallow breath. In and out.
Allied Base Camp, Europe - December 1943
The 107th Infantry Regiment was almost back to full strength, the men who'd returned from the battle at Azzano bolstered with new recruits, men from other units, and men from the Strategic Science Reserve. Their specific focus: HYDRA. The problem was, HYDRA was impossible to take prisoner. Suicide capsules were standard issue and no one was fast enough to stop them. Intelligence was scarce on the ground. It was a lament Colonel Phillips had voiced to Agent Carter many times.
"Colonel Phillips," she said on this particular day, eyes on the file she was flipping through. "There's one kind of HYDRA agent who's not going to suicide rather than be captured."
"And who might that be."
"The demon summoners." She glanced up at him, gauging his reaction.
He didn't reply, simply raised an eyebrow, inviting her to continue.
"They know when they die they're going straight to Hell. And they're going to have some very...eager company waiting for them. As I'm sure you can imagine, demons don't serve out of the goodness of their hearts." Colonel Phillips gave a snort of laugher. "They're essentially slaves, not that anyone should spare them a moment of pity. I suspect an eternity of torment they know is waiting is going to override even loyalty to HYDRA."
Scratching his chin thoughtfully, he considered it. "So if we find these particular HYDRA people, we stand a chance of actually getting some intelligence?"
Peggy nodded once, sharply.
"How do you suggest we do that?"
"If only you had access to someone who was an expert in the subject who could assist you." Peggy looked at him levelly but there was fire burning in her eyes.
After a long moment of silence, neither looking away from the other, Colonel Phillips cast his gaze heavenward. "I take your point. Consider yourself on active duty." He sighed. "They're going to hate this."
They did, but no one could deny that she was right. Together, Agent Peggy Carter and a specialist division of the rebuilt 107th cut a swath through HYDRA. Agent Carter had an uncanny sense for where HYDRA would be found, a whipcord iron will—and a terrifying right hook—that silenced anyone who questioned her right to be there, and a gift for knowing the exact person with the exact skills needed for whatever situation they found themselves in. She rapidly came to be an essential part of their operations.
They were proud of her. They needed her. They knew she'd never let them down.
HYDRA Weapons Facility, Kreischberg, Austria and Allied Base Camp, Europe - June 1944
"Schmidt wants this Agent Carter woman dealt with. She's causing him too many difficulties." Weber stopped outside Steven's binding circle.
Koch nodded and turned to Steve. "Go. Possess Agent Peggy Carter and kill her. Make it look like a suicide. Something messy, something bloody. Something slow."
Steven didn't protest, even though everything in him was screaming No. If they knew he objected...there were worse things they could make him do to her before she died. He bowed his head and when they opened the circle, he left his physical body behind and found her.
She was sitting alone in a tent, deeply engrossed in a file. There were men everywhere, tents everywhere, but his attention was on Peggy Carter. She looked the same as when he'd seen her last, saving him from having to kill a good man.
Only this time she was wreathed in protections. She was glowing with them. Relief flowed through him. Maybe a more powerful demon could break them, but he was the least of the lesser and he'd never been more grateful for that.
Protections or not, the command to possess her, to kill her, was driving him like a whip across his back. This was going to hurt. Somehow, he didn't mind; it was far better than the alternative. Steven was oddly content as he hovered in the air above her and then, having no choice, flung himself against her shields.
It didn't just hurt. It was agony. Her protections lashed out against him, smashed him backwards, stunning him and slamming him into the ground like a fist of steel. He writhed in pain, felt like he was gasping for air, as if even without a physical body he might drown.
Calmly, she looked up from the file she was reading, surveying the tent. "Do feel free to stick around and try again," she said, one corner of her mouth curving up in a challenging smile. There was no fear, not even the barest hint of concern.
Half stunned, Steven was filled with something a little like admiration and a little like awe. He wondered what was going to happen when he tried again, if he'd have to keep trying until her protections destroyed him. Until they—
His scrambled thoughts stuttered to a halt as he realised nothing was driving him to try again. As he realised it was gone. The binding, never as strong as it could have been since Koch didn't know his name, was gone. The backlash of her protections had shattered it.
He was free. She had, all unwitting, set him free.
He stared at her as she read the file, wondering what to do now.
She'd said he could stick around. It seemed as good a plan as any.
Steven stayed with her as she and the 107th tracked HYDRA across Europe. It didn't take him long to figure out who they were looking for: Koch and Weber, the men who'd summoned him up and bound him. If her people hadn't been protected against possession, Steven would have been tempted to take one over long enough to help. But they were and he couldn't and so he simply followed.
It was terrifying, sometimes. Peggy Carter had no fear and her people followed where she led with an awed wonder, a fierce loyalty, and a deeply hidden love.
They found Koch, dug him out of the hole in which he'd gone to ground when Steven hadn't returned, when he'd failed to kill Peggy Carter. Koch was afraid to die and his suicide capsule remained unused. It didn't take long for him to start talking, and his hatred of Zola played almost as large a part as his fear of death and what came after.
It was Koch's information that led them to HYDRA's Headquarters, led to Colonel Phillips and Agent Carter speeding after the Valkyrie while the 107th roared into battle against HYDRA, led to Agent Carter climbing up the wheel well of the airplane while Colonel Phillips looked on in what Steven knew was well-concealed terror. But there was no choice, there was no one else, and Steven knew she'd never give up without a fight.
Cat-quiet and cat-steady, Peggy crept through the plane, never knowing Steven was at her shoulder. She froze when she saw the first bomb, painted with the name Chicago, then the next and the next, each painted with the name of an American city. A noise made her melt back into the shadows and as the HYDRA soldiers filed past her she stepped out and calmly shot them, one bullet each, and they fell dead at her feet. Just as calmly, she reloaded and continued to make her way forward.
She paused when she reached the closed door. Steven slipped through, saw the man who had been Schmidt, who now looked like he truly belonged in Hell, adjust the plane's controls and take cover behind a pillar.
He had no way to warn her.
Peggy went through the door and hugged the wall, spotted Schmidt and his bright red skull hiding in in the shadows, and shot at him. He dodged at the last minute and her bullet only grazed his arm. It was enough to disrupt his aim, blue fire from his rifle splashing against the door, melting it to slag as Peggy dashed towards the plane's controls. Schmidt fired again as Peggy hit the ground, sliding forward on her stomach, and the plane's window shattered.
Cold wind whistled in, a screaming counterpoint to the silence of their fight.
Peggy rolled to her feet and fired at Schmidt, once, twice, as he ran towards her, a third time, hitting him each time, but he seemed to shrug them off even as streams of blood trickled from his body. She dodged too late and he grappled with her, bodily picked her up, his strength overwhelming her training and speed, and heaved her across the room. She rolled as she hit a pillar, but she still hit hard. Steven heard the sound of bones cracking.
As Steven watched, hovering helpless above her, Schmidt turned to the plane's controls. It gave her time to struggle to her feet.
Schmidt turned and raised his gun, but Peggy's was already aimed, not at him but at the anomalous metal structure bolted to the floor directly behind the pilot's chair. Schmidt had time to bark out, "NO," in an almost panicked voice as she fired and it exploded in blue light. An unearthly glowing cube tumbled to the ground. "What have you done?" he demanded as he scooped up the cube.
The world went mad. It split itself open and Steven thought, for one brief moment, they were being pulled down into Hell.
Peggy stood, leaning on the metal pillar for support, breaths shallow and careful, as Schmidt dissolved into nothing and the world snapped back into here and now.
She was limping, one hand against her ribs, as she made her way to the pilot's chair and she eased herself into it with a hiss of pain. After a brief look at the readouts on the control panel, she reached for the radio. "Agent Carter to Colonel Phillips. Do you read me?"
"Carter, this is Colonel Phillips." The relief in his voice was palpable. "What's the situation?"
"Schmidt's dead. The situation is mostly under control."
There was a muted cheer in the background that Colonel Phillips quickly hushed. "Give us your coordinates and we'll get you a landing site, we'll get Stark over here to talk you down."
Peggy paused before she replied, "That's the part of the situation that's not under control."
"The plane's locked onto New York and it's moving extremely fast. There's no way to stop it and there's no way to slow it down."
She interrupted him. "You know what it's carrying. The only way to stop it is to put it down, right here and right now. Into the water."
When he spoke again his voice was hard and firm and absolute. "Agent Carter, I order you not to do that."
"Colonel Phillips." Peggy's voice was cool and crisp and just as absolute. "There's no other way." Silence was the only response. A long, heavy silence, undercut with the static of an open line. "Colonel Phillips." Her voice gentled. "Chester."
"Understood, Carter." Colonel Phillips had aged in the time it took him to reply. "Agent Carter...Peggy. I—"
She cut him off. "There's no time for that. Just swear that you'll finish our work. That you won't let it die. That's all I need."
"You've got it, Carter." His voice had cracked on the first syllable but he brought it under control. "You've got it."
"Thank you." She reached out and, with one finger that trembled only slightly, turned off the radio.
If she hadn't had her protections, her barriers against possession, Steven might have been able to save her. The demon-possessed were strong and resistant to damage, if the demon wanted them to be.
He might have been able to save her.
Peggy breathed deeply, then winced and shook her head, smiling a little. Perfectly serene, she pointed the plane's nose towards the waves. Steven watched her eyes. They were clear and wide, never looking away from the water rushing ever closer.
He would have tried.
Peggy Carter would never know he was there, but he could at least make sure she didn't die alone. He could stand witness to these last moments of her boundless courage, of her perfect grace.
Steven knew the moment her body gave up, the second her heart stopped, her breath ceased. It didn't take long. Mortal bodies were so fragile.
The part of her that was eternal was blinding golden light, so bright it was an agony, but he didn't turn away.
She saw him.
He was a demon. Steven knew what she would see. Before the Fall he too had been golden and shining, not dark and twisted as he was now.
She saw him.
There was judgement and curiosity in her eyes, but no fear. This woman knew no creature from the pit of Hell was coming for her.
"You said I could stick around," he told her. After a moment, amusement suffused the air around them and he could feel its warmth like a gift. "And I didn't want you to die alone," he added in a whisper, not knowing if she would understand.
Her eyes pinned him in place as the seconds ticked past and then she smiled, gloriously radiant, and was gone.
Chapter 2: Something in the Silence
Warnings for bodily disassociation and violence.
Orsha, Belarus - April 2005
For Steven, the passage of time was vague and spotty. He had no physical form, he had nowhere to go and Hell didn't seem to care that he was gone. He drifted around the world, aimless and wandering, watching it change.
From time to time, he saw other demons but took care they didn't see him. Once he thought he sensed an Archangel. He fled, went to ground, hiding until there was no trace of an angelic presence. Steven wasn't certain how any of the Heavenly Host would react to an unbound demon, but he suspected they'd either banish him back to Hell or destroy him completely.
He was in Belarus when he was caught by a summoning. It came from nowhere and snatched him up. Clawed at him, stinking of fear. He fought it, almost to a standstill, but it dragged him across the landscape. He didn't care that he could feel desperation vibrating through it. He would not be bound again.
The summoner was on his knees in front of a crude circle smeared in his own blood. One-sided battle raged. Dead people were scattered around the field. Only one man fought against the summoner's guards: he was tall, broad, and black-clad. Masked and muzzled. His left arm glittered strangely in the light. It was metal and, as Steven watched, it crushed a man's head.
The summoner jerked his fist and Steven was dragged closer to the circle.
Another of the summoner's guards died. The summoner was obviously the man's target, Steven his last ditch attempt to save his life.
Steven saw exactly one chance to save himself.
Drawing on all his strength he slammed against the pull of the summons, threw himself at the man with the metal arm, and possessed him, sliding inside his mind. The summoning cut off abruptly.
He was safe from the summons but Steven was not safe.
The man’s mind was a nightmare, a twisted maze of fire and knives and shattered glass. Steven huddled, stunned and lost, in the middle of it, watching through the man's eyes while he killed the remaining guards and shot the summoner neatly through the forehead. The machine-like precision was doubly terrifying from inside the chaotic horror of his mind.
Steven didn't understand and he didn't know how to find his way out.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed but the man was running through the woods, each step identical to the one before it, until he was met by other men. Men who called him Soldier. Who loaded him into a van with less care than one would give to an animal.
Then there were concrete walls and hands stripping the body and a hose that washed it clean of blood and a man who ordered it to dress. Steven was still stunned, still shocky and confused, but he was starting to come back to himself. Was starting to wonder who was in control of this body because there didn't seem to be anyone else in here.
The men told it to sit in a hard chair and it sat. They shoved a needle in the vein of the right arm and hooked up a bag and a tube and left it. Steven looked inside the mind, carefully stretched himself and found...something.
"Hello?" he called, reaching out. What came back wasn't words so much as a hesitant, tentative feeling. Something fragile. Steven was afraid he'd break it if he didn't tread carefully. "I won't hurt you."
That got a response: disbelief, tainted by fear.
"I won't. Can you come out? Can you talk to me?"
"I don't know." It was quiet, so quiet, as if it was coming from incredibly far away.
"Who are you?" Steven asked.
"I don't know."
Before he could say anything else, the men were back. They roughly pulled the needle out and urged the body up and told it to get in the chair. It walked to the chair, a black, tilted monstrosity, surrounded by barbaric looking equipment. The presence started to panic. The body started to panic. As the body sat in the chair its heart began to pound.
The presence was suddenly there, pulling at him. It felt like weak hands, grasping, trying to tug him closer.
"Hurts. This, it hurts. You have to hide. It'll hurt you." The presence, this tiny shredded remnant of a person that was almost pure fear, was trying to push Steven down, trying to cover him with what little remained of itself.
It was trying to protect him from whatever had it so terrified.
Steven felt his heart break.
They were fastening things over the body's head, shoving something in the body's mouth. Steven was reaching out to the presence, trying to touch it, to work out what it was afraid of, when electricity coursed through the body.
The presence was screaming, the body was screaming, overwhelmed by agony. All Steven could do was hunker down and ride it out.
He should have left. He should have fled and never looked back. Something was very wrong here. There was nothing but pain and fear in this mind, a twisted miniature of the Hell he'd traded so much to escape.
He didn't. He stayed. He tried to reach out for the presence, which was becoming less substantial as the pain went on and on, tried to gather it close, to protect it as it had tried to protect him.
Finally, the pain stopped. They led the body to a small cold room with plain white walls and a single hard bed with a plain blanket. They told it to lay down and cover itself and it obeyed. They locked the door and left it.
Steven tried to find the presence, who he knew must be the person this body belonged to. Called out for it, gentle and quiet. Went looking and finally found it, finally found him, deep inside his mind. He was shivering and huddled in on himself. "Thank you for trying to protect me." There was no reaction. "It was brave." Steven had no idea how to comfort him. When he tentatively tried to reach out he huddled in tighter on himself. Steven pulled back. "I'll just stay here with you."
They were deep, so deep in the man's mind. It was dark down here, with none of the nightmare landscape of the surface. Steven wondered if this was his safe space, a hole he'd carved out where he could retreat from what was happening to him. And now he'd invaded it, Steven thought with a touch of guilt.
He should leave this man's mind. None of this was his problem. He was a demon; it wasn't his responsibility to deal with broken humans or the people who'd made them that way.
But he kept seeing Peggy's eyes as she'd pointed the plane at the water. He kept seeing her eyes as she'd smiled at him before she'd gone on to eternity.
This tattered, terrified, shredded remnant of a person had tried to protect him.
Steven looked inside himself and recognised that he wasn't going anywhere.
Outside the body, night passed; inside the body, the man slowly, slowly uncurled. "Hello," Steven ventured.
"Are you really here?"
"I was looking for somewhere safe?"
The man started to laugh, it was a desperate, painful kind of laughter, but it was still laughter. It was enough to make the body start laughing as well and he curled over on his side, arms wrapped around his stomach. Steven had to admit that it was justified. "I know."
"Who are you?"
Steven couldn't tell him his name. With his name, he could be bound, bound forever, beyond the ability to break. "I'm a friend."
The man didn't seem to know what to do with that and then there were people coming to take him out. They fed him and he ate. They loaded him in a truck, and drove through the day and the night. The man didn't speak while the eyes of the others were on him.
When they arrived, the men took the body off the truck, gave him equipment and weapons and clothes and he put them on. They told him to sit and he did. They recited ten words in Russian but Steven understood them—demons, like angels, had the gift of tongues—but they made no sense, were seemingly random. The man panicked inside his mind and the body panicked inside its skin as the words flayed the man like a lash.
After the tenth word, someone else was in control of the body.
"Good morning, Soldier," said the man who'd spoken the words and the new person responded, "Ready to comply."
The man watched from inside his mind and Steven watched the man. "What's happening?"
"The killing." It was all he'd say. Despair and pain and fear were flooding out of him and he was fracturing into pieces. Steven crowded as close to him as he could, trying to hold him together. The one who'd spoken the words was giving the Soldier a mission.
Steven and the man watched as the Soldier, smooth and precise and emotionless, went out into the world and killed five people for being traitors to HYDRA. The man stayed huddled in on himself, but he never looked away. He allowed Steven to remain close and Steven allowed himself to believe that he'd helped.
HYDRA again. He was even more determined to stay.
This time, they didn't put the body in the chair. They hosed it down and gave it the IV and fed it and put it in a room.
"You couldn’t find anywhere better to go?"
Steven was surprised the man was talking to him. "It's not so bad in here," he lied.
"It's bad in here."
"You don't mind?" Steven asked.
There was a long silence. "No. No, it's good not to be alone."
Steven cautiously reached out to the man, to gather him close. Like a half-tamed beast, he warily held himself still as Steven folded himself around the edges of his mind.
The next day, they sent the Soldier on another mission.
Three people this time, and again Steven tried to hold the man together as he watched the Soldier use his body to kill. Once again, there was no chair. Once again, they hosed the body down, gave it the IV, fed it, put it in the room.
This time, Steven heard them talking. They'd been sent by someone named Pierce to clean house, had been entrusted with the Soldier to clear out a group of traitors to HYDRA, people who'd been planning to break away and form a splinter group.
It was the eighth night of this routine when Steven said, "You seem stronger," and the man said, "Must be your charming personality, pal," and they both stopped, shocked, because the man had never sounded like that before. He never sounded like that again, didn't seem to remember, but Steven did.
It was the eleventh night when the man said, "I remember I had a sister."
It was the fourteenth night, and the Soldier had killed twenty-six people, traitors to HYDRA all, when the man said, "I remember I was in the army." It was the fifteenth night when he remembered the chair wiped away his memories. They weren't wiping him between each mission as they hunted down the splinter-cell; Steven didn't think the chair was even here. It was letting his memories return.
Steven was able to help. The man's mind was fractured in so many places, a shattered, broken mess, but Steven could shore up some of the cracks.
His memory was trickling back.
It was the sixteenth night when they didn't lead him to the room. When they loaded him on the truck and drove through the night and the day and then led him to the chair. The body was shaking. The man's mind was white terror, filled with a hopeless, helpless litany of all the memories he'd reclaimed in an endless stream of noise. Steven was filled with a furious anger.
They pushed the body into the chair, fastened the equipment to it, shoved the guard into its mouth. There was no time to seek permission, and Steven was sorry, but this was more important. Gently, he wrapped the man up, shoved him as deep as he could into his own mind, and took control of the body. Electricity coursed through him and he convulsed, the agony almost unbearable, but he endured. There was no choice.
When it was over, he was dazed. They led him to the room and told him to lie down and he did. When he'd pulled the blanket over the man's body he carefully gave control back to the man.
The man who was suddenly suspicious of him. "You took my body."
"That's what they do."
It was like falling, a swoop of guilt and regret. "I know. I'm sorry. It was the only way to keep you from losing your memories again."
He could feel the man weighing that up, feel him acknowledging it. "Don't, please don't do it again."
"No, I won't. Not unless you say it's okay."
Steven could feel acceptance. Even more surprising, he could tell the man believed him. It was staggering. "I remember my name," he said. It was quiet, hesitant, but there was a certainty, a strength, the man hadn't had before. "My name is Bucky."
Steven made a choice, cast his future to the winds. "My name is Steven."
"That's right. Bucky, you can't tell anyone my name. Okay?"
He was quiet. Then,"I won't. Thank you for saving my memories. But you shouldn't let yourself get hurt. I'm used to it. You—"
"No." Steven cut him off. "You're never getting wiped again."
"No. I can take it. It won't hurt me, not permanently. You have to keep getting your memories back. I'm sorry I took your body without your permission, but there wasn't time. I swear I'll never do it again. I swear. But you can't get wiped again. You have to let me take over for the chair."
He could feel Bucky's grudging agreement, felt it give way to confusion. "How can you do it? How are you in my head?"
"Bucky, do you think we can save that question? Because if you ask me again I'm going to answer you. And if I answer you, you're going to make me leave. And I really can't live with that."
"Okay." It was an incredible act of trust and Steven thought something was going to crack inside his heart.
"I'm going to find a way to get you out of here."
Bucky didn't reply, but Steven could feel him turn away, not prepared to believe that.
The Soldier was sent out five more times. Bucky continued to recover his memories but they were pale and splintered, drawn from all over his history. Even Steven couldn’t make sense of them. He tried to convince Bucky not to watch when the Soldier killed, but he refused to look away. Steven had to be content with folding himself around Bucky and holding him together. It helped. He kept growing stronger.
He was put into the chair once more, when the last of the would-be splinter cell was eliminated. Steven took over, took the pain and kept Bucky far, far away from what it was doing to his body.
Before Steven could find a way to get Bucky out, they were done with their Asset.
He wasn't a person, he wasn't even an animal. He was their Winter Soldier: a tool, a weapon, a piece of equipment, to be cleaned and stored away until he was once more needed.
They were putting him into cryofreeze. It wasn't something Bucky had warned Steven could happen. His mind was spiralling into a loop, into despair, the fear of cryofreeze knocking all his newly gained strength away.
Steven could feel it all, a counterpoint to Bucky's words: "It hurts, Steve. It hurts. They put me in awake." Anger, rage, was bubbling up in Steven. "I'm sorry."
"No, Bucky. I'm not mad at you." They were walking him towards the freezer. Steven could feel Bucky's heart racing, spikes of adrenaline slamming through his body. "Bucky, let me take over. Please."
Bucky wordlessly agreed. Carefully, so the men who were closing the door, who were locking it, wouldn't notice, he took control. Bucky's fear started to ebb. "It can't hurt you." Steven reached out for Bucky, to pull him farther in, to be sure nothing that touched his body would touch him and Bucky burrowed closer as the cryofreeze hit.
He understood why Bucky was afraid of this. The pain was intense. This was torture.
Bucky's body fell into a sleep deeper than sleep. It was shut down completely. Frozen. It didn't hurt anymore, was just a heavy weight at the edge of Steven's awareness.
Steven stayed awake and so did Bucky, tucked away deep in the recesses of his own mind, completely shielded by Steven.
"I'm still awake," Bucky said, sounding confused.
"That's because I've got your body."
There was a long pause. "I think I would've said something about that once. About you having my body."
Amusement flowed through Steven and washed over Bucky. Steven felt the last of his fear disappear. "We can work on that."
Steven stayed awake. He urged Bucky to sleep most of the time, afraid of what being awake for so long in a cryofrozen body could do to him. Bucky was painfully willing to do what Steven asked, painfully willing to surrender his mind into Steven's keeping.
Sometimes, when he was awake, Bucky asked questions Steven didn't have answers to.
"Are you trapped in here?"
"Why don't you leave?"
"I don't know."
"You should go."
"That's not going to happen."
"I don't know, Bucky. I just know I'm not leaving you."
Bucky settled down, started to drift. He'd be asleep soon. "That's pretty strange."
"As long as you know." It was tinged with humour, with the razor-thin edge of personality that was bleeding into him the longer Steven was present. The hint of who he'd been, that they'd both seen a flash of that night in the cold white room, even if only Steven remembered.
Sometimes when Bucky woke, he had new memories.
"Sergeant James Barnes."
"That's who I was. I was, my unit, we were captured. They took me and made me into this. I remember. Some of it."
"Where does Bucky come from?"
"Not sure, but I know it's right."
"Do you remember anything else?"
"No. But I'd like to know what they did to me."
When Bucky slept again, Steven gave in to the anger, the rage, Bucky's words had woken. He'd known, of course he'd known, that Bucky had been made into this. No one was born with a mind like broken glass and a metal arm like a weapon. But hearing it from Bucky was different. That he'd been stolen, broken, tortured.
He was an innocent and he'd had torments from Hell visited on him.
Time passed. Steven had only the vaguest awareness of what was happening outside and no noise penetrated the freezer's insulation. The freezer was moved. He didn't know where they were going.
Sometimes when Bucky woke, he was lost.
"I'm here, Bucky."
"What do you mean?"
"Are you real?"
"I don't think you can be. No one's ever coming for me. I always knew no one was coming for me. Knew it from the very start. So you can't be real. Cause that'd mean someone came for me. And I know that's not right."
Steven had long ago abandoned even the delusion that he was a fallen angel. He was a demon. He knew that. But he remembered what it was to feel a righteous wrath and the burnt remnants of that were curling through him now.
Bucky flinched, pulling away, and he locked it down, somewhere Bucky wouldn't feel it. Steven didn't want it to touch him.
"I'm real, Bucky. I promise." From somewhere, he found calmness, found warmth, and wreathed Bucky in it, in layers of protection and safety. "You're not alone and I'll always come for you." Gradually, Bucky's disbelief eased and he turned towards Steven like a flower towards the sun.
"I'm real." The rage was still there, a living, breathing monstrous thing, deep inside him, and Steven found he was glad of it.
The longer Steven stayed in Bucky's mind the more it started to, not heal, precisely, but become more solid, Steven slipping in to shore up the broken spaces, the cracks, the missing pieces.
"How long have we been in here?" Bucky asked. He'd been asleep for months.
Steven hesitated before answering. "Two years."
"Steve. You can't, you've been awake all that time."
Steven didn't answer.
"You should sleep."
"I don't need to."
"I still can't ask what you are?"
"It would be better if you didn't."
"It must be something if you think I'd want you to leave. You're the best thing that ever happened to me. You're a miracle." Steven flinched. "I'm not asking, okay?"
Steven had a plan. Once Bucky was removed from cryofreeze, Steven was taking him out of here. No one would expect it. He would use Bucky's body, use his skills. Bucky wasn't sure, wasn't sure he believed escape was possible. Wasn't sure, even with Steven's promise, that it could be real. Even with his fear of what would happen if it failed, he was willing to allow Steven to try. His faith, his trust, in the face of everything he'd been through, made Steven want to weep. And pushed his rage ever higher.
Bucky's body knew how to fight, the Soldier's knowledge was there, in Bucky's mind, for him to use. Demon-possessed, Bucky's body would be even stronger and faster. Steven would shield Bucky's mind and get them out. His rage was straining at the leash, eager for the chance.
The Soldier was a prized asset. They wouldn't easily let him go, but Bucky had all the skills of the Soldier and he knew how to hide, how to survive. Once, a long time ago, he'd gone rogue; escaped after a mission, driven by something he wasn't sure he could recall. Bucky remembered that. He remembered what happened after. They'd started the constant wipes. Making sure no memories could resurface.
A spike of rage slipped free. Steven shoved it back down.
Eventually, their chance came. The cryofreezer started to warm. Steven woke Bucky and they waited, Steven still in control of Bucky's body. The thawing process was agonising, waking a vicious anger in Steven. Everything they did to Bucky seemed designed to hurt him, to torture him. He was a thing to them, not worthy of even the basest consideration.
His anger rose higher, Bucky safely tucked away. His control slipped a little bit more and his rage ticked closer to the surface.
They pulled Bucky's body from the freezer and treated it until it was warm and pliant. They cleaned it and dressed it, fed it with an IV drip and equipped it. Steven watched from under Bucky's hooded eyelids as Bucky lay quiet and disbelieving, not quite daring to hope but still so trusting, in the back of his mind.
One of the men pulled the IV from Bucky's arm and turned his back.
Steven unlocked the rage, slipped it from its leash, and it roared up to consume him.
Guns were complex. Knives were simple.
Angels had been instruments of God's vengeance. No longer an angel, Steven was still an instrument of vengeance.
The skills in Bucky's body, in Bucky's mind, his own strength and speed, and he tore through them. Left them dead and dying behind him. Bucky's eyes were red, inhuman and wrong, proof they faced not their Soldier but a demon, and they fell before him.
He slaughtered everyone in his path. Nothing moved in the broken bloody depths of the HYDRA base when he pushed his way out into the cool night air.
Bucky's body was covered in blood.
Bucky was quiet in the back of his mind.
Steven was breathing heavily. The rage drained out of him as he looked down at Bucky's hands. It was like being back in Hell. He wanted to drop the knives but he didn't. Bucky might need them. He crouched down and cleaned them on the grass. Sheathed them. Then simply stood in the darkness.
"Steve?" Bucky was tentative.
"I don't want to give it back like this."
"What do you want to do?"
"Wash it." Steven turned his head. He could hear water. "There's a river that way." He pointed.
"Whatever you need."
It didn't take Steven long to reach the river and he washed the blood off Bucky's hands and face, off Bucky's skin, tried to scrub the blood from the grooves on Bucky's metal arm, then off his clothes as best he could. It was cold and he shivered. He had taken Bucky's body and used it to kill. It had seemed so clear, so simple, in the red wash of rage. In the cold and the dark, his rage gone, he felt empty. He wasn't sorry they were dead; he was sorry he'd used Bucky to kill them.
"It's yours now," he said quietly and went to pull back, to hand control to Bucky, but Bucky stayed crouched in the back of his mind. "Bucky?"
"I don't know if I can. I don't know." There was a tremor in his voice. Not quite fear, not quite doubt, only a fragile overlay of hope keeping them at bay. "What if they take it back?"
A single clear flame of the rage he'd thought gone flared through him. "No one is ever going to take your body from you again. Not them, not me. No one."
Bucky's voice was suddenly stronger, laced with anger. "You didn't take it from me. I gave it to you. To save me." He trailed off into silence. "You saved me."
Steven felt him push forward. He bowed Bucky's head and retreated as Bucky stepped into his body. He stumbled slightly then caught his balance. "Steve. Steven."
"You did it." Bucky tipped his head back to look up at the sky. "You got me out."
"I guess I did."
Bucky was reaching for him the way he'd reached for Bucky so many times, trying to gather him in close, and he went with a soundless sigh. Let Bucky wrap him in the edges of his mind. "You're welcome."
Chapter 3: What Seems to Be
They had to go back into the base. It made Bucky shiver to think of going back in when he was finally free, but he could feel Steve, a solid reassuring presence in his mind, and that made it bearable. He wasn't sure how he could feel him, how he could feel Steve reaching out for him, but he could. "We need supplies, money, whatever we can find." He waited. "Steve?"
"Yes. All right."
Bucky could feel his reluctance, but he didn't know if it was for Steve's sake or for his. "We need to. I don't even know where we are."
"I know, Bucky. It's going to be fine."
This was crazy. He was standing free—free, he was free, he'd never be free, Steve had set him free, maybe this wasn't real, maybe none of it was real—in a darkened field under a half-moon talking to the person living in his mind. The person who had worn Bucky's body like a coat and used his skills to carve his way through an entire HYDRA base. The person who’d set him free. "You going to be okay?"
"Yes. Will you?"
The base was completely silent. Steve had killed everyone as he'd made his way out in Bucky's body. It was a lowly-populated base, but that was a lot of dead men. Bucky waited to feel something. Happiness they were dead. The horror he'd felt when the Soldier used his body to kill. All he felt was a weary, dragging relief that they'd be able to take what they needed. That they wouldn't have to run with only the Soldier's equipment. He couldn't feel anything at being free; it was too big, too much.
Steve was utterly silent in his mind. So silent Bucky suddenly panicked that he was gone.
He couldn’t do this alone. He knew he couldn’t. Steve was the only reason he was here at all, the only reason he was free. He could feel himself slipping. His hand started to shake, adrenaline slamming into him. His knees started to buckle. His thoughts darted away like rabbits in front of a hawk, crazed and wild.
"I'm here. I'm not leaving. I'm here." Steve folded around him like an embrace, wrapping around the rough, jagged edges of his mind. "Shh, Bucky. You're okay."
It sent warmth flooding through him. Relief. Fading tension. "Fuck," he muttered. He rubbed at his face. Felt himself settle as his heart slowed, as the adrenaline stopped pumping. As his thoughts once more marched in straight lines.
Steve didn't respond in words, just sent wordless reassurance. It was enough. Bucky systematically worked his way through the base. Turned out, they were in Latvia, near the Russian border but nothing else. Whatever they were doing here, whoever they'd brought their Asset here to kill—and he wasn't their Asset, not anymore, never again—they hadn't wanted to be found.
He found clothes to replace the Soldier's uniform, took the time to shower—had to stand listening to Steve's gentle urging before he could go in, because they hosed him clean, tepid water and high pressure, not hot gentle water on his skin—and scrub off the remaining blood; it was caked in the grooves of his metal arm and red-tinged water swirled down the drain. He filled a bag with anything useful, took account codes for untraceable bank accounts, found a stack of cash, all things he'd need to stay safe, stay free.
He pulled a cap low over his face, a jacket on that would cover his metal arm, a glove over his hand. Steve was a constant presence in the back of his head, keeping him focused, keeping him on task.
In among the weapons, Bucky found a cache of C4, detonators, timers. "We need to destroy the base. They might think I'm dead."
"Whatever you think is best."
Bucky stopped in the middle of the weapons locker. "My mind is broken into so many pieces the only thing keeping me going forward is you and you want to do whatever I think is best?"
They were miles away when the base exploded, obliterating both it and every trace of how many bodies had been inside when it blew.
Bucky had access to all of the Soldier's skills, which went far beyond killing. He spoke multiple languages fluently, could get by in several others; what Bucky couldn’t speak, Steve could handle.
Bucky drained one of the accounts dry; it didn't make him rich, but it was enough to give him a stake. He needed somewhere safe to go, somewhere HYDRA didn't operate. With Steve's help, Bucky cast back through his memories and they settled on Romania. The Soldier had been deployed only once in Romania and that had been in 1957.
Travelling was a challenge. Not the actual travelling, not crossing borders. Turned out, there were pockets of memory from the Soldier that told him where to acquire false papers, new identities. That was the easy part. The challenge came the first time Bucky tried to go where there were too many people.
He froze. Panicked. They were all staring at him. They were all coming for him. His mind closed in on itself and everything went dark. His vision was tunnelling. He had to run. He had to fight. His back slammed against the nearest wall, breath coming fast and heavy and then Steve was there.
"Let me," he said and Bucky retreated back into his mind while Steve stepped forward into his body. Straightened, smiled politely at the few people rude enough to stare. Stood casually until they wandered away. Leaned against the wall and pretended to look at the train timetable in his hands. "You're okay, Bucky. You're okay."
Bucky wasn't okay. He was hiding as far deep as he could go and he flinched away as Steve reached for him. Steve paused, surprised. "Bucky?"
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have. That was, they weren't even looking at me. That was stupid."
"You were scared. It's okay to be scared. It's not stupid." Steve reached out for him again and this time Bucky went, let Steve fold himself around him. Let himself feel safe, protected. "It doesn't matter if you can't do something. We're partners, right? This is how it's supposed to work. You do what I can't and I do what you can't."
"Is that what we are?"
There was a long silence. Bucky was aware of his hands fiddling with the train timetable as Steve fidgeted. "I don't know what we are. But I guess that's as good a name as any."
Bucky settled himself further inside the barrier of Steve's mind, felt Steve automatically wrap him tighter, raise it higher, protecting him from the outside world. He weighed it up, thought about it, and made a decision. "Steve? If you ever need to take over. You don't need to ask. I trust you."
He was surprised his body didn't stagger under the weight of Steve's shock. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. Partners, right? If you need to, if you think I need you to, do it."
Steve, with Bucky guiding him, found an apartment in Bucharest. It was easier for Bucky if Steve dealt with people. It was tiny, literally a single room with a mattress on the floor, a counter with a sink for a kitchen, and a communal bathroom. But no one asked any questions beyond 'can you give me money right now in cash?' so it would serve their purposes.
Bucky carefully, cautiously settled into a routine. He bought a notebook, started to write down what he’d remembered while he was still with HYDRA, Steve prompting him when he couldn't quite recall something.
He started to eat regularly, Steve prompting him when he forgot to eat or forgot to buy food. As each day passed and he woke up to daylight, went to sleep in darkness, and no one came for him, no one took his body away and sent it out to kill, no one put him in a chair and stole everything he was starting to remember, it was easier to believe he was really free.
Easier wasn't the same as easy, but Steve was a constant presence, a constant reassurance.
Steve would sometimes take his body, but it wasn't like HYDRA. He wasn't taking it away. Sometimes, Bucky would be overwhelmed. His heart would beat too fast. His muscles would go rigid, so tense he thought his bones would break. The joint of his left shoulder would threaten to rip itself apart with the force of his metal arm realigning itself to fight. He would be so lost in the past he couldn't ask and Steve would step in. Bucky would find himself looking out through his own eyes as Steve took charge of his body. It didn’t fill him with horror. It wasn't terrifying. It was a relief. He knew Steve would take care of him, for as long as Bucky needed, and he could let go.
It got him through those first few weeks, when he expected HYDRA to come through the door and take him back. When he kept expecting to wake up and find his freedom was all a terrible dream.
As time passed, it got easier. Every time he cooked a meal and ate it sitting cross-legged on the mattress or woke up to the dawn light and decided to go back to sleep—all of these things helped him believe it was real.
He was really free.
As Bucky ate and slept and developed a routine, a routine that he could, if he wanted to, decide not to follow, more and more memories began to return. Memories from before HYDRA. Too many from his time with HYDRA. Never in any order and some were utterly nonsensical, but they were his.
Even the ones he didn't want.
Some nights, there were terrible dreams. Some were memories, nightmarish in their reality. Some were pure invention, Bucky's mind a maestro of orchestrating horror.
But then, it had so much inspiration to draw on.
Some Steven could shoo away, like recalcitrant sheep. Those were easy to deal with. Others were vicious, wolves in sheep's clothing, determined to tear at Bucky's mind. Steven could stand against them, but they'd sometimes slip past him to worry at Bucky, to snap at him, to bite and tear. When they came, it was better to wake him before they sunk their teeth in.
"Bucky." Steven gently eased Bucky towards waking, standing firm against the nightmare. There was a discontented mumbling, distinctly grumpy. Even with the nightmare pushing harder, he couldn't help but smile.
There. He was starting to wake up.
Wordless, Steven sent peace, so when Bucky opened his eyes in the darkness he'd know there was nothing wrong. Nothing to be wary of, nothing to defend against.
Bucky's eyes opened. He blinked. Rubbed his forehead, his eyes. "Steve?"
"Nightmare. One I couldn't stop."
"Do I want to know?"
"It wasn't a memory, so no. You don't."
He nodded, trusting him to make the call. He let out a long breath and rolled to his feet. Neither of them needed a light in the apartment. Even if Bucky's night vision hadn't been so good, they knew where everything was. Bucky pulled on a long-sleeved shirt, pulled a glove over his metal hand and left the apartment, heading down the hallway to the communal bathroom.
The light was dull, a dirty yellow, the best the single hanging bulb could provide. Steven watched him as he splashed water on his face, ran his wet right hand through his hair, slicking it back. Bucky met his own eyes in the cracked mirror. "I always think I'm going to be able to see you when I look in a mirror, like you're going to be looking out of my eyes, and I never do."
"No, you can't see me," he said. "I can see you, though."
"See, I should probably find that worrying and I don't." He shook his head, laughing under his breath. "Might be something wrong with me."
Steven wasn't sure how to respond, so he just slipped closer to Bucky, wrapped himself tighter around his mind, sending out little waves of warmth. Bucky relaxed. Splashed more water on his face and dried it on his shirt. "Thanks."
When he left the bathroom, he almost ran over the old lady waiting outside. She was five foot nothing and staring hard at him.
"Talking to yourself is a bad sign."
Bucky blinked at her. "I wasn't."
"I heard you. My husband, God rest his soul," she said and Steven flinched, "he heard the voices when he came home from the war. Heard them all the time, talking to him, and he talked back." She gave him a long, dark look. "He had eyes like yours."
"I really wasn't. Talking to myself. Just," he paused, went on, "working something out."
"Eyes like yours. Until he walked off the top of the building. Don't talk back to the voices." She patted his right arm then pushed past him into the bathroom. Bucky stared after her.
He didn't reply.
"Are you okay?"
"Her husband heard voices."
"Sorry. I'm okay." Bucky was silent as he made his way back to the apartment and lay down to sleep.
There was an internet café, stinking of old cigarettes, the computers so ancient they practically had to be hand cranked, but they worked. Eventually.
Bucky couldn't stop thinking about what the old woman had said. So he looked up whether people could hear voices, could make up whole new people in their head. Turned out, they could. If things were bad enough, traumatic enough, the mind could split itself up.
The more Bucky read about it, the more he questioned what he'd thought was real. What was more likely? That there actually was another person in here with him, or that Bucky, in his madness and terror and pain, had invented Steve? That he had created a protector?
There'd already been two people living in his body: Bucky and the Soldier. It wasn't a stretch to imagine he'd created a third. The difference was, the Soldier took everything away; Steve gave everything back. Steve protected him and cared for him and kept him safe. He'd thought you couldn’t dream in cryofreeze, but it must be possible.
It was the only thing that made sense.
What could even be living in here with him? When he really thought about it, logically, it wasn't possible. People couldn't just move into someone else's mind.
Steve had protected him. Had kept him safe. Had set him free. Bucky thought maybe he might love him for it. But even he, with his fractured mind, knew it couldn’t be good to keep talking to what might be a hallucination.
It hurt. It hurt so much, like someone was clawing through his chest and into his heart, to even think about it, but maybe it was time to stop responding to Steve.
To stop talking to him.
"Bucky?" Steven wasn't expecting him to answer and he didn't. Steven had been nervous after the old woman had said those things to Bucky. He'd been worried when he'd seen what Bucky was reading.
Letting Bucky believe he wasn't real…maybe he should just let him think that. No one should spend their life possessed by a demon. Steven could dress it up in all the fancy words he wanted, could tell Bucky they were partners, but that's what this was.
He was possessing Bucky.
Possessing Bucky hadn’t needed justifying when they were with HYDRA; leaving him would have been monstrous. Now that Bucky was free it was far, far harder to pretend he was doing something right, even though Bucky still needed him.
Steven was still holding his mind together, was still filling in the broken places, the fractured spots. Was guarding Bucky's sleep and soothing the nightmares before they could start. He could see those nightmares. If they sunk their teeth into Bucky they were going to hurt; they'd shake his mind like a rag doll and tear those cracks wide open. HYDRA's triggers were still there, those ten words that would steal Bucky's body from under him.
All of that was true.
Was absolutely true.
But he couldn't fool himself. He wasn't good. He was selfish. He was a demon. Even if it none of that had been true he'd still be here, burrowed inside Bucky's mind as long as Bucky would let him. Not because Bucky needed him, but because he needed Bucky. He couldn't bear the thought of leaving him. Of being without him.
"Bucky, I can prove I'm real."
Bucky twitched. The pen scratched across the page.
"Please? If you don't believe in me after this, I'll never try and talk to you again. I swear. I give you my word." He was begging. He knew and he didn't care. "Please, just give me one chance."
"Steve." He stopped, took a deep breath. "You can't be real. I think I have to let you go."
"Bucky. I'm asking for one chance. Just one." He paused. "What if you're wrong? What if you're wrong and I'm real and you spend the rest of your life wondering what would have happened if you’d just given me this one chance?"
Steven felt Bucky's jaw clench, felt his fingers tighten around the pen hard enough he was surprised it didn't crack open and bleed ink across the page. "Show me." It was quiet and laced with hope.
"Can you get the phone?" It was a cheap phone and Bucky kept the signal off at all times, but even cheap phones came with a camera and a screen, and they were what Steven needed.
Bucky stood and pulled the phone out of the drawer. Stood in front of the kitchen sink holding it.
"I need to, can I have your body?"
When Bucky nodded, Steven eased into it, feeling the rough plastic of the phone against Bucky's fingers. "I’m not sure how to use this."
There was the tiniest hint of amusement as Bucky asked, "What do you want to do?"
"Take a picture."
Bucky explained and Steven activated the camera. Before he took a photo he stood tall and loosed the control that kept the signs of demonic possession from showing, let Bucky's eyes turn blood red. They were unnatural, disturbing, with a deep, burning glow; like nothing human, like nothing that would be found on earth.
He took a picture and gave Bucky back his body.
Bucky glanced at the phone, then stared at it. Staggered a little and leaned against the counter. "I didn't make you up."
"I'm real. I always was."
"Steve." Bucky was staring at the photo. "I have to ask now." Steven was suddenly afraid. Deeply afraid. It reverberated through Bucky's mind; he knew Bucky could feel it. "Steve?"
"What are you?"
"I'm a demon."
"Like a demon from Hell? That kind of demon?"
"Exactly like that."
"I don't understand."
"I came from Hell, Bucky. I'm a demon. What I'm doing right now? I'm possessing you. That's how I can be in here with you."
After a long pause, Bucky asked, "Are you going to hurt me?"
"Never, Bucky. I would never hurt you. You're..." He trailed off. He didn't know how to finish, he didn't know what the words were. "I will never hurt you. All I want to do is make sure you're safe. That you're protected. That's all."
Bucky was silent. It was hard to hide things from each other, but they could, if they made the effort, and Steven couldn't feel anything. Bucky was opaque.
So Steven waited. Waited to see how he would react. Waited for hatred or fear or loathing. Waited for, he wasn't sure what. When it came, when the wall lowered, he didn't expect the sharp spike of affection. Didn't expect Bucky to say in a voice warm like sunshine, amusement quivering just under the surface, "Sunday school's a long time ago, and I don't know if I remember it right, but if you're a demon I think you're pretty bad at your job."
It dragged a silent laugh out of him, one tinged with desperation and relief. Bucky reached out for him, pulled him in and wrapped him up tight. Steven heard him whispering nonsense words of comfort and burrowed into him, amazed that Bucky would still let him. Bucky must have picked up on the last thought, because he sighed. "You idiot, of course I'd let you. I don't care if you're a demon. I'm just so damn glad you're real."
"I think you should care."
"I don't care what you think." He deliberately deleted the photo from the phone and put it back in the drawer. "You could tell me you were the devil himself and I'd say the same thing."
Steven recoiled sharply, a wash of fear shivering through him, and he felt Bucky's surprise. "Don't even joke about that. Just, don't."
"Easy, Steve. I won't. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Bucky. It's not…" Steven shivered again and pushed it away. Deliberately changed the subject. "Now that you know what I am, do you still want me in here?"
Instead of answering, Bucky let loose a rolling surge of emotion: affection and gratitude and need. It almost flattened him. "Do you have to ask?"
"I had to. I had to know."
"I want you to stay."
"Good, because I don't want to go anywhere."
"Why did you...possess me in the first place?"
"I was caught in a summoning. It was possess you or be bound. It was," he hesitated, "it was someone HYDRA sent the Soldier after. He was summoning a demon to try and save his life. He caught me and you were my only chance to get away. And then I couldn't leave you."
"Wouldn't. The first thing you tried to do was protect me."
"Demon, huh. Are you sure about that?"
Steven went quiet. Went still. Bucky mirrored his stillness, waiting patiently. "I'm sure."
"You’re a pretty terrible demon," Bucky said. "But I'm so grateful you're real."
Chapter 4: There's You in Everything I Do
Warning for one brief allusion to rape, but only in regard to reassurance that it didn't occur.
Bucky was sitting cross-legged on the mattress, notebook open on his lap. A pen was loose in the fingers of his right hand. A vague and tattered memory stuttered through his mind. He was small, young, running down a city street at twilight. There was a pack of other boys. They were chasing after a ball made from rags.
The memory jumped, chaotic and out of order.
Steve was helping him piece it together, put it right, turning it from stilted, jumbled images into a smooth progression of moment to moment. Bucky wrote it down, pen scratching across the page. He knew he didn't need to get everything down onto paper; Steve remembered. Steve wouldn't forget. But it helped. Helped him to lock it down.
He closed the notebook, pen trapped between the pages. Tipped his head back to rest against the wall. He was breathing hard, heart racing. It always happened when he found a new memory, like he'd had to run it to ground, pin it down.
He knew what Steve was asking. He replied, "Yeah," and Steve was sliding forward and Bucky stepped back and was a passenger in his own body. It should have been everything he was afraid of. Why it was comforting, why it made him feel safe, he still had no idea. But it did. He knew Steve would never let anything happen to him, knew Steve would hand his body back the second Bucky wanted it. For now, he could curl up in the warmth of Steve's mind, knowing, for as long as he stayed here, he didn't have to worry about anything.
Already he could feel his heart slowing, feel his whole body relaxing, like once it got Bucky out of there it could calm the hell down. It made him laugh silently. He felt Steve wondering, and said, "I think my body likes you more than it likes me."
The sound of Steve laughing in his body was strange, but it made him smile. Or whatever it was he was doing when he was just a mind. He tried not to think about it too much. "I'm about to make it tea, so that's not going to last."
If he'd been in control of his body, he'd have been making a face. "Tea?" He knew his distaste was coming through clearly.
Steve sounded amused when he replied, "Not just any tea. Chamomile. The one you hate."
"Okay, give my body back. That stuff tastes like dirt," Bucky demanded, but he wasn't serious and he knew Steve could feel it. He was too calm, too warm, too safe.
"Not yet," Steve said firmly. "Tea first." Bucky watched through his eyes as Steve made tea. The way he moved in Bucky's body could be so different from the way Bucky did, with the occasional flash of a gesture that was pure Bucky. It was fascinating to watch, seemed to depend on how much attention Steve was paying to what he was doing. When he was finished, and a steaming mug was sitting on the counter, Steve's attention turned completely inwards. And then he sighed. "Do you want me to drink it?"
Bucky settled in deeper, making himself even more comfortable. "You made it, seems the least you can do is throw yourself on that grenade for me."
"I feel like you're taking unfair advantage." He was smiling as he said it.
"You're the one who wants me to drink tea that tastes like dirt."
Steve sighed again and Bucky exuded smugness as he gave in. Steve settled Bucky on the mattress once more, crossing Bucky's legs neatly in front of him as he wrapped his hands around the mug. The warmth of the tea, the long slow breaths Steve was taking, the peace he seemed to pull in with each inhale, and Bucky was slipping back into his body.
His hands were wrapped around the empty mug, still slightly warm from the tea. The acrid taste on his tongue was only slightly unpleasant. Steve was a warm presence at the edge of his awareness and he was as calm and relaxed as he'd been before he'd taken back his body. He set the mug on the floor and curled down onto the mattress. Almost against his will, his eyes slipped shut.
The last thing he was aware of was Steve saying softly and slightly smugly, "The tea works."
He wanted to reply It still tastes like dirt and It's not the tea but he was asleep before he could form the words.
"Steve, can you leave me? I mean, get out of my head? Out of my body?"
"Bucky...I—" Steve stopped, silent and somehow hollow in Bucky's mind.
Bucky looked up, attention focusing inwards. "What? No, that's not what I meant." He gathered him in, sending out little trails of warmth. "What I wouldn't give to just be able to touch you," he muttered. "I meant can you, not that I want you to."
"Oh." Steve relaxed, the hollow feeling fading. "Yes, I can."
"If you do, will I be able to touch you?"
"No, I can't manifest a physical body. You won't even be able to see me."
"Is it hard? Will it hurt you?" He ran a hand through his hair, leaving it messy and rumpled, one long strand hanging over his eyes.
"It won't hurt. I can do it if that's what you want."
"It's not what I want, but I feel like I should know what it's like. In case something ever happens to you. So I'd know if you were gone."
"Bucky." Steve sounded serious. "You'd know."
Steve sighed silently. "For you." And then he was gone.
It drove Bucky to his knees. He was completely alone. It was so cold. His hands scraped across the floor, metal fingers gouging grooves in the wood. His thoughts were sliding away, cracks appearing in what he'd thought was solid. Why did I do this? Why, why did he, where was Steve, he needed—
Steve was back, settling under Bucky's skin, settling into Bucky's skin. Bucky gladly gave up control, retreated back into Steve's mind, curled up where it was warm and safe and dark. Almost wanted to laugh that this was what made him feel safest, giving up control of his body when for sixty years it had been stolen from him.
"Bucky. Bucky, I'm sorry."
It took him a minute, took him time to get his thoughts back under control. Time he just leaned against the solid, reassuring presence that was Steve. "No. No, I asked you. I wanted to know what it felt like."
Steve was shaking his head, was running Bucky's hands through his hair. "I shouldn't have just gone like that," he said, sounding distraught. "I should have warned you."
"So we're both stupid."
After a long, careful silence that made Bucky's heart sink, Steve said, "I think maybe we are."
"I think you need to get used to being without me."
Bucky didn't panic, but it was close. "No, Steve. You can't leave."
"I'm not going to leave you, Bucky. I'll never leave you. But I think you need to get used to it. So it doesn't throw you like that. I think it's important."
Bucky was silent. Steve pushed his hands through Bucky's hair again, trying to get it under control, tucking the errant strand behind Bucky's ear. It kept escaping. "You think we should practice," Bucky finally said.
"I don't want to leave you anymore than you want me to leave, not for a minute, not even for a second, but I don't like the idea of something being able to make you that vulnerable." Little sparks of warmth flickered through Steve's mind and settled on Bucky.
"All right," he finally said, while everything in him was rebelling against the idea. "We'll practice. But not today."
"And not, not for very long."
"No." Steve shoved Bucky's hair back behind his ear. It promptly slipped forward again.
"Steve, just let," Bucky slipped into his body as Steve faded back, "me do that. It's not that hard."
"If you'd cut your hair, I wouldn't have to worry about it," he said, not serious and not sounding it.
"I'm not cutting it." Bucky pulled a hair tie from his pocket and twisted his hair into a knot. "If I have to learn to be without you, you can learn to deal with my hair."
They practiced. Bucky hated it. He hated being without Steve.
It was a hollow, empty, aching feeling. Even knowing he wasn't gone, that he was right next to him, didn't make it any better. It wasn't like Bucky could see him, or hear him, or feel him.
Steve was right, though. Being without him had brought Bucky to his knees. That wasn't good. It wasn't okay. Anything that could make him that helpless…he had to learn.
So he did.
They practiced. Bucky built up a tolerance. Slowly, a little bit at a time. And when Steve left, he could cope. They both agreed it was important that he knew he would be fine, that he was strong enough to keep going.
And they both agreed, once he'd built up a tolerance, once he could keep on going even when Steve slipped out of his mind with no warning, that they were done.
Bucky knew by normal standards it was all kinds of fucked up that he was being possessed by a demon and was desperate not to lose him. But it would be even more fucked up to think any kind of normal standards could ever apply to him.
If they'd known what was waiting for them out in the market, they would have stayed home.
Steve was adamant about Bucky eating regularly. What he'd been fed under HYDRA's control was nutritionally perfect but only a sadist would have considered it food. They were down to stale bread and cheese that was ready to stage a coup and claim the fridge as its own, which meant Steve's gentle insistence that yes, Bucky, they were going shopping and yes, Bucky, that meant people.
Bucky still wasn’t fond of crowds, didn't trust them—there were too many variables, too many people to watch, too many directions from which enemies could come—but he could deal with them, in part because he knew if he ever found that he couldn't, Steve was there to step in. It wasn't until they reached the edge of the market proper they realised there was more going on today than competition for the freshest fruit and endless haranguing over the price of lamb.
There were people in traditional costumes, people dancing and singing and laughing. The usual market stalls were still there but their numbers had grown, and they were full to overflowing with double and even triple their usual fare.
There were horses, some ridden, some pulling wagons. A cheese-maker had a pen of goats that were eyeing Bucky balefully from slotted pupils and Bucky stopped on the far edge of the crowd.
"This isn't normal," Bucky muttered under his breath, returning a goat's glare with one of his own. It sneered at him as only a goat could and Bucky looked away.
"Some sort of festival, I guess. Unless we've gone back in time."
"I'm talking to the demon in my head. Anything's possible."
Steve sent a warm burst of amusement in response.
"And you're still going to make me buy food, aren't you?"
"What do you think?"
"For someone who doesn’t have a body, you sure can be a pain in my ass." Bucky took a deep breath and began making his way towards the fruit seller. He could move through a crowd like oil, people drifting out of his way without realising they were doing it.
A sudden commotion brought him to a wary halt. People were pushing sideways, hurrying out of the way of a clattering, thumping noise. He looked up to see a large horse, a wagon behind it, bearing down on him. The driver was pulling ineffectually at the reins, ignored by the horse. It wasn't moving particularly fast but it had big clumsy feet and a big clumsy body and people were shoving to get out of the way. As he watched someone fell under the crowd's feet. His eyes narrowed.
Twisting sideways, Bucky planted his feet, reached up with his gloved metal hand, grabbed the bridle right next to the horse's mouth, and hauled its head down. "Stop."
The surprised horse slid to a stop, pivoting around its head which it suddenly found unable to move. The horse looked at Bucky. Bucky looked at the horse. The horse looked away, embarrassed. Bucky's metal arm glinted in the sun where his sleeve had tangled in the horse's reins.
Bucky turned the full force of his glare on the driver. It may not have impressed the goat, but the driver, like his horse, was suddenly interested in something very far away from where Bucky was standing. "Get out and walk if you can't control it." Bucky's voice was like steel and a few people in the crowd, who were apparently happy to enjoy any show in the middle of a festival, added approving nods, others called their agreement.
"Yes, sir," the driver replied, climbing out of his wagon to take the horse. They both looked shamefaced as they walked out of the middle of the market. Bucky watched them go, listening to Steve's silent laughter. The crowd dispersed, continuing on their way.
"'Yes, sir'. I'm surprised the horse didn't try and salute."
"They could have hurt someone."
"I know. That was a good thing you did." Bucky wanted to close his eyes and bask in the rush of approving warmth that flowed out of Steve. "But still. 'Yes, sir'."
He was having trouble keeping a smile off his face. He resettled his jacket, brushed his cap lower over his eyes, and continued on his way. "Shut up."
It was late, but Bucky wasn't sleeping. Some nights, even with all Steve could do, Bucky simply couldn't sleep. Nightmares waited that wouldn't be fended off. Memory fragments with no context slipped in through the cracks and ricocheted in his mind. And Bucky wouldn't sleep.
Instead, he'd read to Steve. It was peaceful and Steve would sometimes drift into an almost meditative doze.
There was a sound outside in the hallway. A small sound, a scrape. Nothing loud. Significant only in that it didn't belong. It was enough to shock them both to alertness. Bucky leapt to his feet in one smooth movement, head cocked, listening. Steve remained silent, not wanting to distract him, but he listened through Bucky's ears, watched through his eyes.
Nothing. The night was silent, only the ordinary noises of the city rolling through the dark.
The door imploded, smashed in by booted feet as three men crashed into the apartment. All in black, no insignia. They went for Bucky as a unit, smooth and skilled, no hesitation. Obviously trained, obviously deadly, well armed and armoured.
It was laughable they thought they could take him. Laughable they thought they could fight the man who'd been the Winter Soldier and win.
Snake quick, Bucky put one into the ground; faster than thought he sent the second flying to smash into the sink, spun to the third who, almost as quick, leapt back and barked out, "Дамокл."
Bucky froze. Every muscle locked in place. His face went slack. His voice when he spoke was cold and flat. The Soldier’s voice. "Da."
Steve didn't hesitate. He took control of Bucky's body and lashed out with Bucky's skills, kicking the man through the window. He smashed through the glass and fell, his face as he disappeared a picture of desperate shock.
Bucky was gone, a blank spot in his mind, and Steve wanted to panic but there wasn't time. He could hear booted feet running up the interior stairs. They'd planned for this, practiced, although never with the idea that Steve would be alone. He scooped up the emergency backpack from its hiding place, slipped it over Bucky's shoulders. Hesitated, then grabbed a handful of Bucky's notebooks and bolted out the back door.
He was far faster than them, far faster than even Bucky would have been in his own body. He used Bucky's skills, Bucky's training. Run. Evade.
The few times he was seen, at this hour of the night it was by people who carefully didn't see the man hurtling past them and would expect him to extend them the same courtesy. He kept going until he was certain no one was pursuing him, no one knew where he'd taken Bucky. Bucky who was still absent and silent.
Steve stopped and got his bearings. He was outside the city limits, the surroundings distinctly rural. The closest shelter a ruined church. He wanted to laugh. Or cry. Carefully, cautiously, he approached, but as he got closer he was confident it had been de-sanctified. Even in Bucky's body if it had still been holy ground it would have burned him, burned Bucky.
He crept inside and took refuge against the most intact of the stone walls, setting the backpack beside him and Bucky's notebooks in his lap and tipped Bucky's head back to rest against the wall. It put the remnants of the stained glass window in his line of sight, the fractured face of an unknown saint visible in the pale moonlight. "I know you won't help me," Steve said to it. "But he didn't do anything wrong. You could help him." Steve waited for lightning to strike him down, for the remains of the church to collapse and bury him for his temerity, for God Himself to send an Archangel to smite him.
Nothing happened. He closed Bucky's eyes and dived deep into his mind, searching. The sun was painting the sky a dull grey when Steve finally felt him stir. "Bucky?"
Steve grabbed for him, smothered the presence that was Bucky in everything he had, clinging to him. Felt Bucky's surprise as he was suddenly overwhelmed by waves of Steve's relief.
"Hey. Hey, I'm okay. Where are we? What happened?"
"How much do you remember?"
"Uh, I was reading to you and heard a noise? You're in charge and we're...I have no idea where we are, so I'm guessing something went wrong."
"You could say that." Steve ran his hands through Bucky's hair, tried to tuck it back behind Bucky's ears.
"How are you still so bad at that?" Bucky pushed and Steve fell back and Bucky was once more in control, expertly gathering his hair in a ponytail and securing it with an elastic he pulled out of his pocket. "There. Tell me what happened."
"HYDRA. It had to be HYDRA. They smashed through the door. You, they didn't stand a chance against you, but one of them said a word. Your body froze and you said yes. In Russian."
Bucky went still. "What was the word?"
Steve hesitated, unsure if he could say it safely, then, "Damocles. They said it in Russian."
"I don't know that one. I don't, I thought I knew them all. Steve..."
"You were gone, Bucky. I couldn’t find you. There were more coming up the stairs. I got your emergency backpack. I ran, I kept running until I knew they weren't following. I followed the plan."
"Not exactly." He picked up one of the notebooks. Ran his fingers down its spine.
"No, not exactly. I couldn't just leave them all behind."
Softly, Bucky said, "Thank you," and closed his hand around the notebook.
Steve's reply was a wordless wave of affection.
If HYDRA had believed their Asset lost in the explosion they were now thoroughly disavowed of that notion.
They left Romania. Bucky used all of his skills to evade detection. Steve watched while Bucky slept and they made their careful, cautious way to Georgia. The Winter Soldier hadn't been deployed there since 1989.
Bucky was tense, wary. The knowledge that there was a trigger word buried in his brain he hadn't known about had shaken him. Steve was in control as often as Bucky. Not just to protect Bucky. Steve in Bucky's body could move differently, stand differently. With his metal arm covered, with his face hidden, he was practically a different person. If HYDRA was looking for their Asset, Bucky reasoned, they'd send people who knew the Asset, how he moved. With luck, their eyes would pass over Steve in Bucky's body.
It was good tactics, good sense.
Whatever the reason, whether it was that or Bucky's skills, his brilliance, his sixth sense for border patrols and guard locations, they made it safely to Tbilisi.
They found a safe house of a kind, a half-finished apartment building, the developer a victim of one or another of the financial crises inevitable in a country writhing in the growing pains of significant economic reform. They staked a claim on the top floor. Decided it was safe enough, at least for the moment.
The apartment was naked, unfinished, bare plaster walls and poorly fitted windows that let wind slip in along the sides. A sleeping bag was unrolled on the carpet, which had been laid haphazardly and never fastened to the floor. Bucky sat cross-legged on the sleeping bag, head bowed, forehead resting in his metal hand.
"They know I'm not dead."
"They'll be coming for me again."
Steve didn't reply. He knew Bucky didn't need him to.
"Those words in my head. I've got to get them out." He drew in a shaky breath. "As long as they're in there, all they have to do is say the words and people are going to die."
"No. Not as long as you've got me. They can't take you if I'm here."
Bucky went on as if Steve hadn't spoken, as if he was somewhere far away, where Steve couldn’t reach. "I can't let them use me to kill. Not again. I killed too many people."
"That wasn't you, Bucky. You know it wasn't you. None of that was your fault."
"Fault doesn't matter. It was still me. Still my body doing it."
Steve remembered trying to make Bucky turn away while the Soldier killed. Remembered Bucky refusing, remembered him watching. "Is that why you wouldn't look away?"
"That's why." He was silent. Steve stood by him, not touching, just there if Bucky needed him. "They used me. If they take me back, if I let them take me back, they can do it again."
"I won't let that happen. I’m not going to leave you."
"And what if you have to?" He lifted his head, gaze turned inwards. "I know you mean what you're saying. I can feel it. But can you guarantee you'll never have to go?"
Steve stopped. He wanted to. He wanted to, more than anything he'd ever wanted in his entire existence. But he'd escaped from Hell. Someday, they might notice he was gone. Might come to drag him back. And then Bucky would be alone. His heart ached at the thought. "...no. No, I guess I can't. I'm sorry. I'd never leave you by choice, Bucky. Never."
"I know you wouldn't." They reached for each other at the same time, Bucky's eyes fluttering closed as Steve wrapped him tight, a barrier between Bucky's mind and the outside world as he tried to protect him, knowing he couldn’t but still needing to try. Bucky suddenly went still under his touch. "Steve. Could you get them out?"
"I don't know."
He carefully eased deeper into Bucky's mind, deeper than he'd ever gone. He could see them, the triggers HYDRA had planted. He could see the ones that activated the Soldier, could see the one that had stolen Bucky away that night in Bucharest. They were twisted through the depths of Bucky's mind like poisonous weeds, roots going deeper than he even he could follow.
"I can see them."
"Get them out."
"It's not that simple."
Bucky made a noise, a low growl of frustration, and Steve automatically tried to soothe him. Tried to project warmth. It was only partially successful, because Steve knew Bucky could feel his reluctance along with it. "I know it might not work," Bucky said. "But I need you to try."
He wanted to say no. But he couldn't. Bucky needed him to do this. "All right. All right, I'll try."
Bucky was sitting against the wall of the half-finished apartment, eyes closed, regulating his breathing. Steve needed him to stay calm. Needed one of them to stay calm. Steve had agreed to try but Bucky could tell he was afraid of hurting him.
It had been hours. He knew something was happening. Not because it was hurting him. Because he could feel the strain in Steve. For the first time, Steve felt thin, felt distant. As if the effort of trying to neutralise the tripwires in Bucky's brain at the same time he kept it from touching Bucky was too much for him. As if it was starting to hurt Steve.
"Steve." There was no response. It didn't feel like Steve was ignoring him. It felt like he was so deep, so focused, he couldn't hear Bucky at all. "Steve." He opened his eyes. "Steve, stop." Bucky pushed to his feet, turned to brace his hands on the wall, to rest his forehead against the cool plaster. "Stop. It's not working." He felt's Steve's attention finally focus on him.
"It has to. You need it to." Steve pushed down deeper, chasing after the triggers, and Bucky winced when Steve winced. He knew Steve was hurting.
"Steve." He said it softly. Steve stopped. Bucky could almost picture him, a half-formed shadow, tense and angry. "It's all right. You can stop." Bucky reached for him and Steve pulled away, avoided him.
"It's not all right." He was angry, a biting, helpless anger rolling off him in waves. "Do you know why people are afraid of demons? Why people bind us to use as weapons? Because once we possess someone there's almost nothing we can't do to them. I'm possessing you, Bucky." Steve's voice was low, harsh. "Your body, your mind? They're mine if I want them. Do you know what I could do to you? I could kill you. I could make you kill yourself. I could dig right down into your soul. I could tear your mind to shreds. I could do anything to you, and there's nothing, nothing, you could do to stop me."
Of all the things Bucky knew in the world, he knew Steve wouldn't hurt him. Steve's words didn't scare him; they just made him hurt for Steve. Bucky could feel the desperation behind them.
"All these vile things I can do and I can't—" Steve's frustration was crashing against Bucky. "I love you so much and I can't even do this one thing you need me to do."
Bucky froze. "Steve?"
Steve went very still. Bucky could feel him pulling back in on himself.
"You love me?"
He didn't answer for so long, Bucky thought he wasn't going to. When he spoke, all his frustration, his anger, was gone. He was quiet, seemed oddly resigned, as he said, "I shouldn't. I know I shouldn't. But I can't quite seem to stop."
It shook Bucky. He was stumbling on the edge of a deep chasm, not knowing if he was going to fall. Couldn't help the disbelief. The moment of wondering that anyone could love him, after everything he'd done. He knew Steve felt it. Could feel him examining it, like someone running their fingers through sand, searching for something lost.
For two beats of Bucky's heart neither of them stirred.
Then Steve's love washed through him like a wave, warm and golden. He staggered at the strength of it, dropped to one knee, bracing himself with one hand. It was a glowing, living thing, flowing into every part of him, burning out dark shadows. He gasped once, eyes wide. Steve was a silent presence, supporting him, and Bucky leaned into him as he felt something inside him snap apart and reform into something new.
"You love me," Bucky said when he could speak again, voice laced with wonder, and he dropped to sit on the floor.
"I love you."
"Why did you say you shouldn't?"
Bucky shook his head. "You keep saying that like it should mean something. It doesn't mean anything. All you've ever done is protect me and keep me safe and stay with me and—" He stopped. "Maybe I should have figured it out on my own." Steve was briefly amused and it flowed around him like water. "I love you, too, you know. I'm not sure I realised it until just this minute, but what you just showed me, that's how I feel." Steve's surprised happiness was enough to make him close his eyes, to try and hold onto it. "I don't think should matters much."
"Maybe you're right."
"You know I'm right."
Steve paused, and then, joyfully, firmly, said, "I love you."
"I love you, too," Bucky said, and smiled. "Even if sometimes you're kind of obsessed with the demon thing."
Steve's laughter blew through Bucky like clean spring air.
It took some time for Bucky to refocus on the task at hand, the swirl of emotions, golden and warm, a distraction even from the triggers in his brain. Eventually, the real world eased its way back.
"There's one thing we didn't try." Bucky's voice was cautious and it immediately put Steve on alert.
Before he could voice his idea, Steve said, "No. Bucky, no."
"It might work. You don't know it won't. Maybe the reason you can't get them out is you didn't get to see how they worked."
"I saw how they worked. I saw them call the Soldier up plenty of times. I saw what it did to you."
"Steve." Bucky's voice was gentle. "Were you watching how it worked or were you watching me?"
Steve was silent before he admitted, "Watching you."
Bucky nodded to himself. "So maybe seeing how it works could help."
"I don't want to do this."
"If you really don't want to do it, we won't."
Bucky waited. Steve was twisting in on himself. Thinking. Bucky thought it was the equivalent of pacing when you didn't have a body and you were living in someone else's mind. "How do we know it would even work? I'd have to say the words from in here."
"We don't. All we can do is try."
"I hate this."
"I hate it too."
"It might not be safe."
"I trust you. If it works, you can take over until he's gone."
"You don't have to do it. I'm not going to ask you to do something you don't want to do."
"I'll do it, Bucky. If you're sure it's what you want."
"I'm not sure about want. But I'm sure it's worth trying."
For all Bucky's words, Steve could tell he was afraid. The Winter Soldier had stolen his body for so many years and used it to kill.
Steve hoped this wouldn't work. He was afraid it would.
He watched the space in Bucky's mind where HYDRA's triggers were planted. Before he began saying the words, he walled Bucky off, behind layers of protection, as high and as strong as he could build them.
With the feeling that he was betraying Bucky, he began to speak the words, his Russian perfect. Each word dropped into Bucky's mind like a hammer on an anvil.
He could see it was working. Each word reverberated down into the roots of the triggers, where he hadn't been able to go, then back up, spreading through Bucky's mind. It was like watching a monster slouch closer, every word another lumbering, echoing footstep, and with the tenth word it arrived.
Bucky's body spoke, saying it was ready to comply. It wasn't Bucky, it didn't sound like Bucky, its voice, its accent, entirely different. Steve shuddered as he stepped forward and snatched control of Bucky's body.
The Soldier wasn't gone, though. Steve could feel him. Another presence in Bucky's mind. Waiting. Waiting for a mission. Waiting to be told what to do. Entirely compliant. Dangerous. Violent. But without a will of his own. Whether it would always have happened if Steve had taken Bucky's body with the Soldier active but empty, or if it was something caused by bringing him forth directly from within Bucky's mind, Steve didn't know.
"Steve." Bucky was safely behind the wall Steve had built. "Did that help?"
"No, but," he paused, considered the Soldier, who was waiting. Just waiting. "He's in here with us."
Bucky didn't reply, just pushed a little and Steve lowered the barrier. Together, they could feel the Soldier. His emptiness. His lack of will.
"What do you want?" Steve asked him. He didn't seem to understand. Was confused. "You need a mission?"
The Soldier was still confused. Taking pity, Steve told him to answer the question and he repeated, "Ready to comply."
Steve wordlessly reached for Bucky and then told the Soldier, "Your mission is to sleep."
Obedient, unquestioning, he complied and minutes later, disappeared from Bucky's mind. "I'm guessing he didn't take them with him."
"Didn't think so." Bucky shivered. "Steve."
"I never thought I'd feel sorry for him."
"Neither did I."
They moved again. Bucky didn't want them getting too comfortable anywhere, didn't want them staying too long. It was harder to hit a moving target. They switched up who had control of Bucky's body, hoping to throw any watchers with the different way it moved.
They fell in just behind, not quite with, a large pack of college students, traveling across Europe by train. They were loud and obnoxious, if generally well-meaning, and they made the perfect cover. Bucky styled his hair, got some new clothes and a pair of black framed glasses, and people were quick to assume they were part of the group. It was a gift that took them across three countries and they were both relatively happy for the chance encounter.
Apart from it requiring them to spend time in close proximity to a pack of often drunk, often obnoxious, no sense of appropriate boundaries college students.
The train rattled through the night. Bucky was curled up on the bunk in the single sleeper. Anyone who glanced in would think he was alone. And asleep. They'd be wrong on both counts. His body was deeply relaxed, his eyes closed. Bucky's mind was wrapped in Steve's, safe and warm, love flowing between them. Soon, Steve would slip forward and take over his body and Bucky would drift even deeper into Steve's mind. For now, Bucky was still aware enough to have a conversation.
"You don't mind that I can't touch you?"
Bucky considered Steve's words and what he could pick up directly from Steve, emotions slipping between them with ease when they were this close. "Steve, are you talking about sex?"
There was a pause while Steve considered the question, then he said, "I guess I am, sort of."
Bucky cracked one eye open and cast a sardonic look at the ceiling, placing the blame for this conversation completely on their travelling companions. "In all the time we've been together, have I ever shown any interest? Ever taken matters into my own hands?"
"That's your answer, then."
"It's not just sex. People need to be touched."
"Do I wish I could touch you? You could touch me? Yeah, it would be nice. But this is good." Warmth slipped between them and Bucky closed his eyes again. "As for sex...I think after everything that was done to me, it just went away." The spike of fury from Steve took him by surprise. "Steve, no. Nothing like that. I was a thing to them. A tool, a weapon." He could still feel Steve's anger like a living thing and spoke directly to that. Blunt. "You don't fuck your gun. Everything else, though. I guess it took its toll." Bucky shrugged. "I don't seem to miss it."
"I worry about you."
"You always worry about me. Steve, I get to feel how much you love me. I can literally give you my body when things get too much and you'll take care of it for me, take care of me. No one else can say that. I love you. Stop worrying."
Steve was silent, mulling that over. When he spoke, his voice was lighter, and he wrapped Bucky tighter in the warmth of his mind. "You're about to call me an idiot, aren't you?"
Bucky smiled slowly. "I'm thinking about it."
They washed up in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It was similar to Bucharest. A corner apartment, not the top floor this time, but a ‘no questions asked if you give me cash’ deal, acceptable to all concerned.
Bucky never knew what gave him away, but HYDRA came storming into the apartment in the middle of the night. Bucky was asleep. That didn't help them, because Steve was awake. Steve was always awake, keeping watch, and he had Bucky's body up and moving while Bucky was still asleep. He couldn't do with Bucky's body what Bucky could, but he was a demon in Bucky's incredibly well-trained body, so it was still far more than any normal person, even an expertly trained one, could manage.
He had two of them down when Bucky surged forward to take over and they switched places so smoothly there wasn't even a stutter as Bucky slammed three more into the ground. They'd sent more men, many more, than in Bucharest, which at least showed a better grasp of planning.
A blond-haired man with a pale ghost of a scar bisecting his left cheek stood in the doorway as four more men rushed Bucky. Bucky fought them absentmindedly as he watched the man in the doorway. As Steve watched, his attention drawn by Bucky's, the man in the doorway opened his mouth to speak. Bucky's eyes narrowed and he threw one of the men he was fighting at him, knocking him to the floor. He followed with the other two, then the last, and then there was no one left to fight.
"You knew him," Steve said as they made their way through the city, avoiding people, avoiding cameras. "You got a memory back when you saw him."
"He was one of my handlers. For a long time." Bucky shook his head, rubbed his temple. The memory had stung, a swarm of bees let loose in his brain. Steve stepped in, started to piece it together as Bucky moved through the city. "There's a HYDRA safe house in the city. I was there for," he waited as Steve flicked through the memory, gently chivvying it into order, "five months. I'd forgotten." Steve was quiet, thinking. "What is it?
"You were a tool to them." As always, it came with a hum of anger. "Do you think they'd have files on you?"
"You think they might have something on what they did to my head."
"I don't know. Maybe."
"Steve, they had me for a long time, over sixty years. They put those words in my head at the beginning. There's not going to be anything about them in a safe house."
"No, I guess not."
"But they might have it somewhere else." Bucky felt the idea whipping through him like a hot wind. "I remember a lot of places I was held. And what I can't remember, we can find out."
"I need to know what they did to me. I need to know what they put in my head. I need to know how to get it out. And maybe the only way to find that out is by going in and taking it."
"We need to know what they did to you. We need to know how to get it out. You are never alone. I'm with you, Bucky. Wherever this leads, I'm with you."
"I don't know what I did to deserve you."
"That's not how it works."
"How would you know?" Bucky's tone was light, teasing, even as he surveyed their surroundings carefully. "You're a demon."
Steve was startled into silent laughter. "And you're a jerk."
"But you love me anyway."
"I really do."
Chapter 5: Fighting Like You Want to Win
The HYDRA safe house in Ljubljana yielded up weapons, supplies, and money. There was something very satisfying about using HYDRA resources against HYDRA.
They began a careful, precise campaign, beginning with places the Winter Soldier had been held. It settled something in Bucky—not waiting for Hydra to find him, but taking the fight to them. He wasn't trying to wipe them out, though a small, distant part of him whispered that he should kill them all, that they all deserved to die. But he wanted information; freedom was more important than vengeance and he'd never be free as long as he had their words in his head.
It was get in, get out as fast as possible, a plan of attack not conducive to murderous rampage. And most of him was so tired of killing.
A time or two, they'd encounter one of Bucky's former handlers; it was almost funny, black humour dripping with horror. They were so sure they could control him, so confident they could stop him with a single word. Sometimes they succeeded for as long as two seconds.
Sometimes even three.
Bucky wasn't always fast enough to stop them from speaking. But if Bucky disappeared, stolen away and replaced with a compliant shell, Steve would step in, fuelled by rage, and tear them apart.
More than once, they had to pause when their path led them into the middle of someone else's operation. Bucky would pull back, pull away. HYDRA was one thing. It had as much invested in staying unseen, unknown as Bucky did. But the murky depths of international intelligence were deep waters to swim in, and even though Bucky knew the legacy of the Winter Soldier was as much ghost story as it was anything believed to be true, it was safer to slip away and wait it out.
Something had definitely stirred the water; brought multiple players to the table. Bucky wondered how much of it was their fault, if his actions had upset some balance he hadn't known existed, had sent ripples out like a rock tossed in a pond.
Even if it was because of what they were doing, he wasn't going to stop.
Written records on the Winter Soldier were few and far between. In Pardubice they struck a piece of luck with a person, an old man, old for a HYDRA operative where pensions weren't a primary concern, who decided he didn't want to die. Who could point Bucky towards somewhere he might find what he was looking for.
The man's information led them to Kreischberg in Austria. It led them to a place which had been a HYDRA factory during the Second World War. It was now a carefully preserved museum, a memorial to the hundreds of prisoners who had died there during the war.
"Bucky, I know this place."
Bucky, hat pulled low over his eyes, long jacket and gloves covering his metal arm, paused as he handed his ticket to the girl. "What do you mean, you know this place?"
"I've been here. I—" He stopped. Went still and quiet.
"Just give me a minute. I need a minute."
Worried, but willing to give Steve whatever he needed, Bucky joined the tour. He listened with half an ear as the tour guide led them through the factory, explaining that it was almost exactly as it had been when it had been taken by the Allies, that everything had been preserved, almost untouched. That it was where the Valkyries, HYDRA's most famous attempt at victory, had been constructed.
He wasn't really paying attention, was eyeing the place and the people and worrying about Steve. Steve who flinched and retreated further when the tour guide explained that HYDRA's attempt had been foiled by a famous American, Agent Peggy Carter of the SSR. "Steve?" He reached out for him and Steve shied away.
Bucky made sure no one was watching and peeled off from the tour, ducking through a door marked Staff Only. "Steve," his voice was low and soft. He kept moving, found a room with a lock on the door, went inside, saw stacks of chairs, folded tables leaning against the walls, pulled the door shut behind him and flipped the lock. "What's wrong?"
"I was there when she died."
"When who died?" Steve didn't answer and Bucky went back through what the tour guide had said. "When Peggy Carter died?" He blinked in surprise. "I'm going to need you to explain that one."
"This was where I was summoned up out of Hell."
Bucky fumbled for a chair and sat down. "Okay."
"They sent me after Peggy, to kill her."
"Right. Guessing that didn't work?"
"No. She was, her protections were so strong it snapped the binding. I," Bucky felt him struggling for words, for how to explain, "stayed with her."
"Could she see you?"
"No, she didn't know I was there. If she'd known, she'd have sent me straight back to Hell. I just didn't know what else to do. So I was with her when she died. I couldn't save her. All I could do was be there and she didn't even know she wasn't alone."
"Ah, Steve." Bucky reached out for him again and this time Steve came, let Bucky wrap him up tight, let Bucky soothe him. "I'm sorry."
"I'm, it's fine. I'm all right. Really. I didn't know this was where we were going. I never knew what it was called. It was a shock."
"I bet. Are you going to be okay?"
"Yes. It was a lot of years ago."
"Doesn't mean it doesn't hurt." They sat in silence, Steve nestled against Bucky, warm and safe. After a time, Bucky said, "I think we come back tonight, see what we can find. The tour guide said this place was mostly undisturbed. Means there could still be files here. What do you think?"
"I think it sounds like a plan."
Bucky was careful when he disabled the security system. He didn't want to damage anything. This was a war memorial and he wasn't a monster.
The easiest way in was through the factory floor. Once inside, he made his way openly across the yawning space. There was no point in sneaking; stealthy movements attracted attention and his night vision was good enough he didn't need a light. According to the map on the wall, there were old offices, preserved with their contents in place, further over and one floor up, on the other side of the cells where the prisoners had been held. They were most likely to have files, so they were their first port of call.
The scent of gently rusting iron told him he was nearing the cells, which meant it would only be a hundred feet or so until...
He stopped. Shook his head.
"Bucky?" Steve asked.
"It's fine." He kept walking until he reached the cells. The scent of iron was stronger here.
His vision blurred.
"Hey, Sarge, can you believe these assholes? I mean, what are they even supposed to be?"
"Can't tell you, apart from begging for a punch in the mouth."
There was a roar of laughter.
His eyes refocused, staring at the plaque neatly affixed to the wall. In Memory Of it read. Steve was asking, "Are you all right?"
"What? I'm fine." He made it a few more steps before his vision blurred again, the smell of iron strong in his nose.
"Tell you what!" Bucky pulled his last cigarette out of a pocket. "I've got one last smoke here. Whoever comes up with the most creative way of knocking off one of our lovely hosts gets it. Extra points for style, and hell, I don't know, duration. Come on, boys, let's hear it!"
The guards pushed into the cell. They were smug and nasty, grinning in that pleased way they had when they came for someone who'd never be coming back. Bucky didn't even think before he was putting himself right in their faces.
No one was taking any of his men. No one. They were his. If they wanted someone, they could take him. They weren't getting anyone past him.
This fucker looked like he was thinking of trying. Bucky showed his teeth, hell in his eyes, and fucking dared him.
The guard was smirking when he grabbed him and Bucky grinned back, feral and wild. Kept on grinning as he met the eyes of his men, because he'd be damned if he'd leave them worried. Lifted his head and walked when they tried to drag him. Kept walking, kept grinning, teeth bared, when they strapped him to the table. When Zola came. When the pain came. When...
He came back to here and now with a gasp, dragging ragged breaths into his lungs, heart slamming against his chest. His hands were wrapped around the bars, grip so tight his metal hand had dented them. He shoved his forehead against the bars.
A warm touch, gentle and soft, inside his mind. A voice. So light. "You're okay." He knew it. He knew it like it was part of his soul. It wasn't a sound this time, just a trickle of love. He snatched at it like a drowning man and it grew stronger. Steve. "Bucky." His name was Bucky. "I'm here. You're here. You're safe."
Bucky was silent, but his hands eased away from the bars, fell to his sides. His breathing started to slow. His heart joined in. After several minutes he turned to set his back against the bars, gazing up at the ceiling. "Did I do this to myself?"
"Bucky." Steve's voice was firm. "No, you didn't. You saved your people from having it done to them." There was something like awe in Steve's voice and so much love, Bucky thought he might drown in it. "You protected them. That's what you do. It's who you are."
A small smile darted across Bucky's face, there and gone. Steve felt it and pulled him in closer.
"Nothing can ever take that away from you."
Bucky rubbed his face with his right hand. "Hey, Steve?"
"I know where Bucky comes from."
"James Buchanan Barnes. Buchanan. Bucky. I was Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, 107th Infantry Regiment." Steve's wordless approval made him stand straighter. "And I know the name of the person who did this to me."
"Zola." Steve's recoil, his absolute flare of hatred, sent Bucky reeling a few steps sideways. He felt Steve try to lock it down and only just succeed.
"I saw him a few times. He was evil. Absolutely evil. He did this to you?"
There was something in Steve's voice Bucky had never heard before. Something low and dark. Something that, in anyone but Steve, would have been enough to make him wary. "It can never make up for what he did to you, but I can promise you, Bucky. He'll burn in Hell."
Bucky pulled in a shaky breath. "Couldn't happen to a more deserving guy."
They didn't find any files. There was no information about the Winter Soldier or the triggers in Bucky's mind. Neither of them could bring themselves to care all that much.
When they left the museum, Steve had control of Bucky's body, Bucky curled in the back of his mind. It was pure exhaustion, more than anything, and he settled in, turning his new memory around and around with a sense of awe.
They kept looking, carefully selecting their targets.
Like a violent, demented scavenger hunt, they kept chasing the clues from HYDRA base to forgotten abandoned stronghold. Finally, in Poland, not far from the German border, they thought they'd found where what they were looking for should be located. More interested in getting the information than in anything else, Bucky cleared the first floor of the base, which spread out for several floors underground, and locked down the rest.
There were reinforcements coming from Stargard, so they were moving fast.
"Bucky." Steve was watching through Bucky's eyes. "We have a problem."
Bucky looked at the bank of monitors Steve was watching. The top left showed a room with a man in it. No, it wasn't a room. It was a cell. Which meant he was a prisoner. Bucky took in the picture presented by the monitors and realised he was a prisoner who was about to die if the HYDRA personnel on their way to the cell were anything to judge by. "Shit."
Steve was silent but Bucky could feel his worry. Bucky watched the monitors for a second, the audio clearly transmitting the prisoner's incoherent muttering and the sound of booted feet moving down the hall towards the cell. Then he sighed. "I know." He was up and moving, Steve's warm approval washing through him. "I wonder about you sometimes," he muttered.
"We can't let him die."
"Oh, I know, but I'm not sure that's how a demon's supposed to think."
"You're the one who said it didn't matter." Despite the situation, Steve sounded amused.
"Should have known that would come back to bite me." The barricaded door was flung open and Bucky systematically began working his way through the HYDRA operatives in his way. They weren't prepared for him so it was laughably fast. They were both aware of the reinforcements en route, though, reinforcements who knew the Winter Soldier was waiting for them. They didn't have time to waste.
Bucky smashed the cell door open with his metal arm and stood in the doorway. The man in the cell had messy brown hair and was wearing a skin tight black uniform with the insignias torn off. There was a long slash over his ribs, torn skin and blood visible through the rent in the cloth, and his face was bruised and bloody.
He was weaving on his feet as he stared at Bucky, at his metal arm, pupils unnaturally huge. "Okay, this looks bad."
Bucky took a step towards him, he took a step back, staggered and almost fell. Bucky lunged forward, Steve saying, "No wait!" too late as he got both hands under his elbows, and promptly snatched them back. He'd been burned. His right hand was blistered, his left glowing red. Steve was a shocked presence in the back of his mind. "What the hell?"
"Demon! You're a demon. Got a demon in you. Won't do you any good." He patted his chest. "I'm protected."
"Bucky, he's right. He's got shields against demons. Strong ones. I can't tell where they're coming from. They're all over him."
"Didn't know the Winter Soldier was a demon but it explains a lot."
"I think he's drugged."
"To the eyeballs," the man agreed.
"He's not going to be able to walk on his own. If you touch him with me in here, you're going to burn." He stopped. "I'm going to have to leave if we're taking him out of here."
"We're not leaving him here."
"You're not?" the man asked. "You're the Winter Soldier. Metal arm's a dead giveaway. Ghost assassin. Deadly. Everyone thinks you're a rumour but my partner knows about you. Not about you being a demon. Don't think she'll be surprised. Nothing ever surprises her. It gets kind of annoying." He paused, seeming perplexed. "Shouldn't you be trying to kill me now?"
They both ignored him. "Good. But that means we're going to have to be fast. If someone has your words..."
"Go. Stay close. If the worst happens, come back. I can take some damage." Bucky shivered as Steve left. He looked at the man. "You got a name?"
"Not one I'm telling you."
"That's real helpful. Thanks." Bucky grabbed him by the shirt and forcefully pulled his arm over his shoulder. The man tried to fight but he was so heavily drugged it was about as effective as being pawed at by a kitten.
"Hey, you're not burning anymore."
"Come on." Bucky manhandled him out the door and was frankly grateful when he passed out three strides down the hallway. Mindful of the injury over his ribs, he tossed him over his shoulder in a fireman's carry and got the hell out just ahead of the reinforcements, sliding away into the darkness.
The safe house he'd set up before going in wasn't too far over the border. Far enough Bucky was sick of being alone in his head by the time he got there.
Once inside, he set the man down on the bed and backed away to the other side of the room, looking expectantly at the open air. When Steve settled back into his mind he breathed a sigh of relief. Together, they turned to look at their guest.
"I think you're going to have to strip him," Steve finally said. "I can't tell where they're coming from. We need to look at the injury on his ribs, make sure he's not hurt anywhere else." Bucky shifted uncomfortably. "Bucky?"
Bucky's mind was filled with information on how to treat all sorts of injuries, in great and specific detail. Because sometimes the Soldier's missions had been to hurt people, then keep them alive to hurt them some more. "I'm not really- It reminds me of." He stopped. He didn't want to touch him, didn't want to treat him.
"I can do it, Bucky. It's fine. I just need you to get his uniform off." Steve paused. "That sounds not great."
"I know what you mean. Thanks."
Steve slipped away again, long enough for Bucky to undress their guest. Thankfully he was wearing underwear. Some things he didn't need to see. Bucky tossed a blanket over his legs, pulling it up over his hips, and piled his uniform in the far corner of the room. When Steve returned, he said, "I think they're woven through his entire uniform. Someone wasn't taking any chances."
"Does that mean there's someone out there that knows about demons, believes in them enough they're part of the standard kit? Here's your gun, your badge, your demon shields?"
“Maybe? They're strong shields.”
There was a sudden burst of recognition, of memory, from Bucky. "I know who he is."
"SHIELD. He's Hawkeye. He's a SHIELD agent."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. I've never, HYDRA never sent the Soldier against him, but they've taken out SHIELD people before. People SHIELD was protecting. There were briefings on their high-ranked agents. That's Hawkeye."
Bucky pulled away and Steve stepped forward to take over. He cleaned and patched up the injury on his ribs and checked him for other injuries. Apart from some major bruising, there was nothing he could do anything about. His pupils were still incredibly huge, but his breathing was clear, so whatever he'd been given, there was nothing they could do but wait for it to run its course.
Steve pulled the blankets over him and stood looking down at him. "I feel like we just adopted a puppy."
"A rabid one, maybe. Who's not going to be happy when he wakes up."
"He knew who you were."
"Not surprising. SHIELD must know about the Winter Soldier."
"He was expecting you to kill him."
"I noticed that."
"This will be fun."
Steve settled in to watch, a gun resting on the table beside him.
Bucky was asleep. Steve thought Hawkeye was actually asleep, finally, instead of unconscious under the influence of whatever drug HYDRA had pumped him full of.
It was oddly peaceful. He knew it wasn't going to last.
He was right.
Hawkeye woke up.
Steve watched him, expression carefully neutral. He was very different when he wasn't drugged to the eyeballs. His eyes flicked around the room, over Bucky's body, to the gun on the table, over himself, registering the fact that he wasn't wearing much of anything. He was under three blankets, everything they had, so his modesty was well and truly preserved.
Steve gently nudged Bucky, urging him to wake up. To Hawkeye, he asked, "How are you feeling?"
Those eyes snapped back to him. "Confused."
Steve nodded. "About?"
"Being alive, mostly."
"What do you remember?"
Bucky was awake, watching and listening.
Hawkeye didn't answer. He was studying Bucky's body, eyes flicking from the arm back to his eyes, up and down. "You're not the one who got me out."
Steve sat back, surprised. "Bucky?"
"I've got no idea."
"I'm guessing you're the demon." His eyes were shuttered. Steve could see him measuring the distance to the gun, to his uniform in the corner. "I'm guessing you're the reason I'm naked."
"You're not naked," Steve protested, but Hawkeye was moving and he'd gone for the uniform. He was fast, but Steve in Bucky's body was faster. Hawkeye had obviously expected sheer force of will to carry him where his body couldn’t, but he'd overestimated. Steve had expected to be stopping him, but instead found himself supporting him, taking his weight as Hawkeye's body refused to hold him up. His legs buckled and Steve wrapped Bucky's arm around his waist and braced him. Hawkeye was pulling away from him and Steve could see the beginnings of fear in his eyes, buried so deep he wasn't sure anyone else would have known it was there. "Whatever you think is going to happen, you're wrong," Steve told him. "Bucky? I need you."
Bucky was suddenly there and Steve settled back, shaken at seeing that fear. Hawkeye blinked as Bucky half-carried him back to sit on the bed, his legs simply refusing to hold him up.
"Can you give him his uniform? He's afraid of me."
Making a face, Bucky grabbed the uniform with his metal hand, which started to glow red almost immediately, making Bucky hiss in pain and Steve flinch, and tossed it to Hawkeye. "There. Happy?"
"Uh, yes?" He was looking down at the uniform on his lap. "Why did you give me this?"
"Because you were freaking out?"
"You don't want to take my body for your demon?"
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Bucky glared at him. "One, we saved your ass. Two, my demon patched your ass up. Three, he's been guarding you and just kept you from falling on your face and asked me to give you your uniform. And you think he wants your body."
"No. The only body you want is mine. Why he thinks you'd want his is beyond me."
Hawkeye was staring at him, wearing an expression of deep confusion. "You're not talking to me are you?" Bucky shook his head and raised one expectant eyebrow. "Sorry? But he's a demon, so."
"So I have no idea what's happening here. Why is the Winter Soldier yelling at me for being mean to a demon? I think I must still be drugged. If the elephants come back we'll know for sure."
"You're not still drugged." Bucky dropped to sit in the chair and made the gun on the table disappear. His eyes fell on the gash across Hawkeye's ribs. It was torn open and bleeding again. "He's going to want to fix that up."
"Your demon. Is going to want to fix me."
"Yeah. You'll need to put down your pants, though. I'm not letting you hurt him."
"Not letting me hurt him...nope. This is too weird." Hawkeye shook his head. "I'm still drugged."
"Look, just put down your uniform and my demon will patch you up. Again," he added pointedly. "Then you can go back to cuddling your clothes to your heart's content."
After a long tense moment, neither of them breaking eye contact, Hawkeye said, "Fine." He set his uniform down on the floor, pulled the blankets over his lap, then stared defiantly at Bucky.
"Thanks," Steve said as he took control. Hawkeye started and then his eyes narrowed.
"I don't trust him."
"It's all right," Steve said soothingly. "We can't just let him bleed."
"You can't just let me...Are you sure you're a demon?"
Steve gave him a tight smile. "Lie down, please," he said, and turned away long enough to grab their first aid supplies. When he turned back, Hawkeye had done as asked, but every muscle was tense and his skin quivered, like it was taking all his will power not to pull away from Steve's touch. Steve kept his touch light and impersonal, pressed a gauze pad over the wound to stop the bleeding, then cleaned it and bandaged it. "It needs stitches, but that's not really practical."
He looked up to meet Hawkeye's gaze. It was strangely intent. "Thanks."
Steve backed away, giving him some space. "You can put your uniform back on. I'm not going to try and possess you, but it'll make you feel better."
"You all right?"
"I'm fine. People should be afraid of demons. It's smart."
"Doesn't mean they should be afraid of you."
Hawkeye finished pulling on his uniform, ran a hand through his hair, making it stand straight up in parts. "What happens now?"
"Once it's safe, we'll make sure you get somewhere you can contact your people," Steve said, then paused and carefully added, "Or you can leave now, you're not a prisoner, but it would be better to wait. It's not going to be safe yet and," he waved a hand in Hawkeye's general direction, "you're not exactly one hundred percent."
Hawkeye stared at him in disbelief. "You're sure I'm not drugged."
"You're sure he's the Winter Soldier and you're a demon?"
Steve hesitated, then said, "I'm a demon, but he's not the Winter Soldier."
"Steve, what are you doing?"
Bucky didn't reply.
"Tell me if you don't want me to say this."
"Do what you need to do, Steve. But it's not going to make a difference."
Hawkeye was watching him. "You're talking to him. The Winter Soldier."
"He's not the Winter Soldier."
"I think the metal arm is kind of a giveaway that he is."
"Would the Winter Soldier have given a damn if you lived or died?"
"Probably not," he conceded. "But, metal arm."
"He's not the Winter Soldier. His body was." Steve held Bucky's hands out in front of him, curled Bucky's metal fingers closed. "He was taken and brainwashed and forced to kill people. That's how I found him. I got him out. He may have the metal arm but he's not the Winter Soldier. He's just a man."
"You're a demon. You honestly expect me to believe you decided to, what, rescue him? Out of the goodness of your heart?" Everything about him was screaming disbelief.
"That's how bad it was. I'm a demon." Steve's smile was sad. "And even I couldn’t stomach what they'd done to him."
"This is way too complicated for me. Demon theory is not my job. My job is to shoot things. I'm good at my job. I never miss."
Steve sighed and gave up. "Don't worry about it."
After a few minutes, Hawkeye said, "If any of that is true?" He looked up at the ceiling, cleared his throat awkwardly, scratched the back of his neck, and then carefully didn't make eye contact. "That was, you know, a good thing you did."
Neither of them really seemed to know what to say after that, and the small room was filled with awkward silence.
They got rid of Hawkeye. They went back into the HYDRA base. They half-expected it to be abandoned. It wasn't. They half-expected it to be a trap. It didn’t seem to be.
The arrogance of HYDRA was sometimes entirely reliable.
This time, they found what they were looking for. They also found out how Hawkeye had been successfully ambushed, drugged, and captured.
"We have to tell him."
"You know we do."
Bucky rubbed his forehead. "Shit. Yes, fine. I know."
Steve found Hawkeye in Prenzlau, followed him until he was alone and Bucky could approach him. Trying to sneak up on him proved to be a mistake. Bucky froze with an arrow inches from his throat. He could have snatched it away. He was sure he was fast enough. But they were there for a reason. "Were you working with someone named Rickard?"
Hawkeye didn't answer, the arrow didn't move. Steve, watching carefully through Bucky's eyes, said, "I think so."
"He sold you out." Hawkeye's fingers tightened on the bow. Bucky stayed calm. "He's a traitor. Believe me or not, but watch your back. We're not going to be around to save your ass a second time." Hawkeye stared at Bucky for a long time and then lowered the bow. "If it's worth anything, I'm sorry."
Bucky slipped away into the night, Hawkeye staring after them.
Their destination was Siberia. Specifically, Oymyakon, one of the coldest permanent settlements on earth. It was the closest place to the Winter Soldier project, at least according to HYDRA's files. "Think they were going for irony?"
"I think they might have been."
They'd been travelling for days, the final leg of the journey in an ATV. The endless blinding white was hypnotic. They were switching off regularly, Steve making Bucky rest as much as possible, neither sure what they would find at the end of this journey.
What they found was concrete and steel, standing like an ancient guardian at the edge of a sheer cliff. It was uninhabited, abandoned. Bucky had to smash through the ice, smash through the electronic locks, to get the doors open. The elevator still worked, a tribute to Russian engineering, and it carried Bucky down into the depths of the earth. Every step into the dark and Bucky grew tenser. Steve was reaching out for him, supporting him, lending his strength. Bucky reached back, the two locked together as they moved further in.
It was a place forgotten, haunted by the dead. Haunted by a black chair, hungry and eager to steal Bucky's mind at the knifepoint of agony.
Haunted by the corpses of Bucky's fellow Soldiers.
Golden tubes lined the room, bodies floating inside. Bucky staggered to a halt as he was hit with a flood of memories cascading down on him.
Those same bodies. Alive. Alert. Compliant. Unstable. Fighting, attacking the handlers. Blood and brains on the floor as Bucky, as the Soldier, got one man out alive.
Bucky's whole body shuddered, teeth clenched hard enough his jaw was aching. He came out of it, sweating and gasping for breath. "At least we know it's the right place."
Steve pulled him close and Bucky leaned into him, let Steve wrap him tight. "Let's hope we can find what we need."
They found lights which still worked. They found the offices, the labs. They found files for the Winter Soldiers, for all the bodies floating so peacefully in their golden tanks.
They found Bucky's files, most of them Zola's original work. They solved some mysteries. Why Bucky was so fast. So strong. Why he healed so quickly. His enhanced senses. Neither of them understood the science, but Zola had pumped him full of something. Something that had changed his body.
Bucky had been the template for the new Soldiers. There were hand-written notes scrawled in frustration across some of his files, complaining that the new breed lacked something present in him, something they couldn't seem to duplicate. "Original and still best, huh, Steve?"
"I can't believe you said that."
"Laughing beats the alternative."
Finally, buried at the bottom of a filing cabinet, they found what they were looking for. Bucky's triggers. How they'd been programmed. It was, at its heart, deceptively simple, but Steve understood why he hadn't been able to dig them out. Each word was rooted in a memory. Even if the memory was forgotten, it still existed; as long as the memory existed, the control existed. The only way to erase the control was to erase the memory, and it was impossible to erase a memory, to cut it completely from someone's mind. You could only make someone forget.
Unless you were a demon.
They wanted to destroy the facility, but they didn't have the means. They settled for turning every piece of paper they didn't need into a roaring bonfire, every computer into twisted scrap metal.
Bucky destroyed the chair on the way out, an explosion of violence that left him gasping for breath. He left and didn't look back.
They didn't talk about it. About the triggers. About what it would take to remove them. Instead, they retraced their steps out of Siberia.
"Somewhere warm, Steve. I want to go somewhere warm."
"Whatever you want, Bucky. We'll go anywhere you want."
They made their way to Moscow. It wasn't warm. It was, however, full of people, a population into which Bucky could disappear. He took a room in what looked like a sufficiently disreputable motel, one that was probably as used to renting by the hour as by the night, but when Bucky waved cash at the man behind the plexiglass, he didn't seem to care.
Surprisingly, the room was clean. The bathroom was clean. The shower was clean. Bucky stripped down to take advantage of that fact, the water turned as hot as he could stand it. Three minutes in, he slumped against the wall, eyes closed. Steve stepped forward and took over, the hot water beating down over Bucky's body.
Bucky retreated into the back of Steve's mind, curled up tight. Steve didn't ask any questions, just drew a layer of warmth over him like a blanket and finished the shower. He smiled a little as he dried Bucky's hair and twisted it into a knot at the back of Bucky's neck to keep it out of the way. He felt an answering breath of amusement from Bucky but it faded.
The files they'd taken were waiting in Bucky's pack. Steve walked over and pulled them out, set them on the bed and sat down.
He laid Bucky's hand on the front of a file. Waited. "I guess we can't keep putting it off," Bucky said. He nudged Steve gently and Steve surrendered control. Bucky opened the file.
"You asked me if I could get them out," Steve said. "I couldn’t before. I think I can now."
"How?" he asked, but Steve could tell he already knew the answer.
"By taking the memories the words are rooted in."
"How do you know it'll work?"
"I don't, not for sure. But if we're reading this right, those memories are why the triggers work."
Bucky opened the file and began to read, all of it, every word, like he hadn't before, eyes flicking over the pages, handwritten annotations over typed clinical notes. His nostrils flared as he read, read about what they'd done to make him into a thing. Into a tool. Into a weapon. Into their Asset, their Winter Soldier. Their killer.
Steve breathed reassurance over him as Bucky read through detailed notes of brainwashing, of the torture, physical and mental, they'd used to condition him to the trigger words. Of the memories they'd twisted into something to control him.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply while Steve pushed in between him and what he was reading, forcing distance, as if it was a long way away and couldn't touch him. It couldn't last, was only temporary, but Steve could feel it helping. Bucky opened his eyes. He closed the file. "If you erase those memories, am I going to be the same person?"
"You're still going to be Bucky." Steeling himself, Steve added, "If I take them." He stopped. Went on. "When I take them, you'll still be you."
Bucky didn't say anything,
"You never stopped protecting people. You protected me when you didn't know who I was. When you didn't know who you were. Everything HYDRA did to you and the first thing you ever did was try and protect me. Do you know why?" He paused. "Because you are James Buchanan Barnes. And even when I take these memories you are still going to be James Buchanan Barnes. Nothing will ever change that."
A tear slipped down Bucky's face. He angrily wiped it away.
"I'll keep your memories, Bucky. I'll remember them for you. I will never forget them." He waited and still Bucky didn't speak. "The memories will be gone." Steve tentatively extended a touch of warmth. Felt Bucky grab onto it with a kind of desperation. "Not the man who made them. Not the man they made."
Bucky drew in a long, ragged breath. Another. "I guess there's not really any choice. And I guess if you're going to keep them they won't really be gone."
Bucky wanted to do it immediately. Steve wasn't willing to start until he'd had a chance to look at what he was dealing with. He spent a lot of time in Bucky's memories.
He knew what he was looking for. It was spelled out in the files. In cold, calculating black and white: Bucky's memories, his life, moments of bravery and devotion and love, reduced to a clinical analysis of the best way to manipulate his mind.
Steve deliberately set his fury to one side, an act of will he knew he'd pay for later.
It took a week, a week of gently teasing them out of where they were buried, a week in which Bucky remembered, remembered his life: the first time he'd held his sister, his parents' pride the third time he'd won the boxing championship, running wild in a carefree childhood, never knowing what his future would hold. When he managed to joke that the boxing championships explained why he was so good at punching things, Steve had never been so proud or so desperately sad.
It was hard. It was hard on both of them. They got through it together. Finally, Steve was ready.
He put Bucky to sleep, tucked him safely away in one corner of his mind, and went deep.
One by one, Steve immersed himself in each memory, in the feel of it, in the taste and sound and smell of it. Felt, as much as he was able, what Bucky had felt.
So he could remember them for Bucky. So they would never truly be gone.
Eleven memories for eleven words: ten for the Soldier and one for the dangling threat of control. Once he was sure he had each memory he sliced it from Bucky's mind as if it had never existed.
He saved the cruellest for last.
Bucky's sacrifice. Sacrificing himself for his men, because he was their Sergeant and that meant protecting them, no matter what, and Steve had to take it, take the knowledge that he'd saved them. That he'd protected them. That the horror of sixty years of the Winter Soldier had its roots in something noble. Something brave. Steve believed, he knew, that even if Bucky had known, that night in the cells, what his sacrifice would come to, he would have made the same choice. Because he was James Buchanan Barnes and that's what he did.
Steve stared at the memory for a long time, replaying it over and over, until he had it so strongly he knew he could never lose it, and then he cut it free.
The trigger words snapped loose, recoiled, withered to ash and dust. Each word needed its memory to function and its memory was gone. They faded to nothing, not even a ghost remaining.
When it was done, he simply stopped, a clock with its gears run down.
Eventually, he stirred. Making sure Bucky was still asleep, he stepped into Bucky's body. There was one last thing to do.
Bucky's notebooks were sitting on the desk, each page carefully marked. Delicately, he cut those pages loose. Set them in the ashtray, pulled out a lighter, and touched the flame to the edge.
He stood over them, watching Bucky's memories turn to ash.
The fury he'd been holding back slipped free. Bucky's body reacted, skin shivering, muscles tightening. The plates on his metal arm shifted, aligning themselves to fight. He wanted to tear the room apart. He didn't. He forced himself to be still, taking one deep breath after another, pulling in air through Bucky's mouth, into his lungs, feeling Bucky's heart beat in his chest.
He'd stolen Bucky's memories. For a good reason. He'd done it with Bucky's consent. But he'd still taken them and he could never give them back.
Steve stood silent and unmoving in Bucky's body, stood for a long time, until he could take a deep breath and feel Bucky's heart slow. Could make himself be calm again.
What mattered was Bucky's freedom. His happiness. What mattered was Bucky.
He was the only thing that mattered.
Steve gently nudged him and felt him stir. "Can you wake up?"
"Steve?" He went from sleeping to instantly awake. "Did it work?"
"Yes. I think so, anyway. We won't know until we test it, but yes. I think it worked."
Bucky cautious happiness, even tinged with the knowledge that his memories were gone, was like a balm. It washed away the last traces of Steve's fury, his sorrow. He let out a long sigh. "Are you okay?"
Bucky's attention was focused on him, razor sharp. "No you're not."
He rubbed Bucky's forehead. He should have known he couldn’t hide it from him. "It was harder than I thought it would be."
He could feel Bucky reaching out for him, examining him. "Steve. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. You're the one who had to give up your memories."
"But you're the one who had to take them."
"It really is okay, Bucky. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you." Bucky didn't reply in words. Steve felt a wave of love that pulled him in and flowed over him, washing everything away. "I love you, too," he said softly.
He could feel Bucky smiling. "Should we test it?"
"May as well."
They switched places and Bucky braced himself, not quite daring to hope, while Steve, watching the space where the triggers had been, recited the words.
They were only words. Eleven meaningless random words. Bucky's joy was blinding. "You did it, Steve."
Bucky was free. For the first time since Steve had found him in that field in Belarus, he was truly free. Steve's joy was a bright as Bucky's. "I guess I did."
The Latin of the title means to perpetual memory and is used to wish for someone to be remembered long after death, to be remembered forever. It seemed to fit.
Chapter 7: All You Who Enter Here
Keep moving. It was harder to hit a moving target. But they were both exhausted.
They'd been in the outwardly disreputable, but actually not too bad once you were inside, hotel for almost ten days. No one so much as batted an eyelid at Bucky. He kept his arm covered, kept his hat low, and went unnoticed.
It was that kind of neighbourhood, where no one noticed anything. A definite advantage for people trying to stay under the radar.
The man behind the plexiglass nodded at Bucky as he came through the front door, same as he always did, and Bucky made his way up the stairs. A white plastic bag was swinging loosely from his right hand.
"I can't believe you made me buy dirt tea," Bucky muttered under his breath.
"Technically, I can't make you do anything," Steve pointed out.
"Fine, I could," there was a definite sensation of Steve rolling his eyes, "but I wouldn't."
"Yet here I am, with tea that tastes like dirt."
"It's good for you. It helps you sleep."
"Isn't that what I have you for?" Bucky was grinning as he unlocked the door to their room.
"Oh, is that what you have me for?"
A dozen tranquiliser darts ripped into Bucky, sending him falling back a step. He lunged forward, grappling with the closest person, but he was already staggering. Steve pushed forward, taking control, but there was nothing he could do. Bucky's body was dropping to one knee, eyes rolling back in his head.
More tranquiliser darts hit as a man in a black robe with a white collar stepped forward, clenching his fist, and a rope of magic tightened around Steve like a noose, locking him inside Bucky's body.
"Bucky." Steve grabbed for him, pulling him away and against him, so he wouldn't go down with his body. There was nothing else he could do. Bucky's body collapsed, breathing in panting gasps, and then it was gone. Unconscious.
"It's HYDRA. It has to be."
"They know I'm in here. They've got a priest. He knows demons. I'm locked in with you."
They hauled Bucky's body up and dragged him out. The man behind the plexiglass watched, impassive. A stack of bills was dropped in front of him as they went past. Bucky's body was tossed in the back of a van and nobody in the neighbourhood noticed a thing.
Bucky's body was a dead weight, eyes open and staring, lying on the floor of the van. Steve looked out through his eyes and they were blood red.
The priest settled next to Bucky's body. "I'm going to assume you can hear me. I have to thank you for holding still for so long. They were starting to get impatient when I couldn't find you."
The red grew brighter, angrier.
"You made a couple of stupid mistakes. Staying in one place for so long was the second one. Not that I'm criticising. HYDRA is paying me an obscene amount of money to get their Asset back. They couldn't figure out why their controls weren't working until they found out he was possessed by a demon. That prisoner was your first stupid mistake, but I guess you were keeping your options open." He studied Bucky's body. "I can't fault you on your taste with this one, though. Strong body, already obedient, used to being controlled. I'd make the same choice if I was a demon looking for someone to possess."
Bucky's eyes were incandescent. "Touched a nerve I see. Never mind. Father Schueler at your service. Freelance, I should clarify; no longer associated with the Church. They can get a bit touchy about that. I'm going to exorcise you straight back to the pit of Hell and hand this boy back to his rightful owners."
Steve reached out through the layers of fog, made a herculean effort, and found he could exercise enough control to make Bucky's body speak. "You're a servant of God." It burned to say His name, but he was beyond caring, was willing to take the pain if it might make a difference for Bucky. "How can you do this to him?"
Schueler's eyes went cold. "You used to be an angel. If we're going to go down that path, you've fallen a lot farther than I have." The red in Bucky's eyes dulled. Schueler smiled, satisfied.
Steve gave up. Turned his entire attention to Bucky, who asked, "What's going to happen?"
"He's going to exorcise me. It's going to send me back to Hell. I don't know how to stop it."
"Will you be able to get out again?"
Bucky's desperation crashed over him. "You're going to be okay, Bucky. The triggers are gone. They can't control you. When they try, just pretend. Pretend it worked. Then run."
"You'll be gone."
"I know. I'm sorry. I love you. I'll still love you. Forever. It doesn't matter where I am. And you'll be okay. I know you will."
"I don't know how to do this without you."
"Yes you do. You're going to be fine without me."
"I love you. You know, right? You know how much I love you."
I know, Bucky. I know."
"You saved me. You set me free. You gave me everything. Never forget that, Steve. Because I never will."
There was nothing he could say. He pulled Bucky as close as he could, so there was nothing between them, no barriers, no walls, and let his love flow over him. It swirled between them, echoing, picking up strength. This was their last chance. There was nothing either of them could do to stop what was about to happen. All they could do was make their last moments count.
The van rolled to a stop and hands grabbed Bucky's body, shoved it over and Steve felt the sting as a needle jabbed above Bucky's hip. More sedative, to keep Bucky's body under. Then it was being picked up, carried into a cavernous building. An empty warehouse, high ceilings with banks of dusty windows stretching along every wall. In the centre, complicated diagrams were painted on the floor, surrounding a thick red circle, open on one side.
Standing to the left of the diagrams was a tall man in an expensive suit, cold eyes watching as Bucky's body was dropped without ceremony into the middle of the circle. The HYDRA operatives gave him a wide berth, looking nervously at each other as they took up positions on the opposite side of the warehouse.
"Secretary Pierce." Schueler stopped in front of the break in the circle and didn't quite make eye contact with the man in the suit.
"Father Schueler. I presume this won't take long? I've wasted enough time while you failed to locate the Asset. I don't expect you to waste anymore. There's work for him to do."
"It won't take any time at all." Schuler bent to close the circle, clenched his fist once and the spell binding Steve into Bucky's body fell away.
Steve didn't care. He wasn't leaving Bucky.
Schueler began chanting, watched disdainfully by Secretary Pierce, who was tapping one impatient finger against his thigh.
Steve could feel the pull. He clung tighter to Bucky, felt Bucky clinging to him. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
It was harder now, the pull. He couldn’t resist. He let go of Bucky, stopped fighting, and let it take him. It ripped him free of Bucky's body, dragged him along like a dog on a leash.
He slammed to a sudden stop and opened his eyes, expecting to see Hell.
Instead, he saw Bucky.
He was standing inside the circle. Looking down at Bucky. He held out his hands. They were large and strong. He had manifested in a body, a strange body. It was tall, big, rippling with muscles, was dressed almost identically to Bucky. He looked around in confusion.
Schueler was gaping at him. Pierce's eyes were cold, dangerous. "Explain," he said in a voice like ice.
Bucky thrashed once at the sound. His eyes caught Steve's, but there was no recognition, only disorientation and the beginnings of panic. Steve crouched in front of him; reached to touch him and hesitated. Bucky's eyes barely tracked the movement of Steve's hand, hanging in the air above his shoulder.
"Something must have gone wrong," Schueler muttered. "It's fine. He's out of your Asset. We just have to send him to Hell. He's still bound in the circle." Schueler chanted again. Steve felt the pull of the spell, felt it tugging at him; felt it bounce, rebound, and fizzle out. "Damn it.”
“If you can’t do it, we’ll just kill him.” Pierce gestured at one of the operatives, who obediently pulled a gun, aiming it at Steve. Steve whirled, moving away from Bucky, as far from him as he could get in the confines of the circle.
Schueler snapped, “No. You’ll break the circle. If you want him destroyed, I can make it happen, it’s just going to be a lot more complicated. But that should have sent him straight to Hell. I don't understand why it didn't work."
A voice rang out, unnatural harmonics slicing through the air. "Because Hell doesn't want him."
Blood trickled from Schueler's ears, from the corners of his eyes.
Steve went cold with dread.
A pulse of power swept through the warehouse. Steve had a second's warning to throw himself over Bucky before the windows imploded. Flying razors of glass slammed into every person standing, as if driven by an unseen hand, turning them into glittering corpses, sprawled across the concrete floor like so much bloody meat.
None of it touched Steve.
Bucky was safe, tucked under his trembling body. Steve wasn't sure Bucky knew who he was, but he wrapped his hands tight around his shoulders, thumbs digging hard, too hard, into his collarbone. "Whatever happens, stay down. Don't move. Don't even breathe. Don't do anything. Promise me."
"Steve?" he slurred.
"It's me. Swear." He shook him a little. "Bucky, swear to me."
His eyes were unfocussed, confused. "Promise."
Steve pulled himself to his feet. The circle was gone. The diagrams gone. The warehouse floor littered with the dead.
He still had a body.
The figure standing silhouetted at the end of the warehouse was waiting.
It took all of his courage to make his feet work, to put one in front of the other. When he was close he fell to his knees, bowed his head. He was still the least of the lesser and this was Lucifer. The Morningstar. The Bright One. Ruler of Hell. Tall and beautiful with an inferno in his eyes.
He tried to speak but his throat was too dry to form words.
"Steven. So afraid?"
Steve shivered, eyes cast down. Lucifer crouched in front of him. Reached out with one perfect finger and lifted Steve's chin. Steve kept his eyes on the floor. "What do you think is going to happen now?"
Steve swallowed. "I don't know."
"Do you think I'm going to punish you for escaping from Hell?" He cocked his head, curled his finger against Steve's skin. "For being gone for so long?"
"Yes." It was barely audible.
"I've always known where you were. I could have come for you at any time."
Briefly, Steve's eyes slipped sideways, meeting Lucifer's, then stole away again, back on the floor. He could feel his pulse beating against Lucifer's finger.
He didn't see Lucifer smile, sharp and strange, with too many teeth. "Steven. My least of the lesser. Hell doesn't want you anymore."
"I don't understand," he whispered.
"You stink of redemption."
"You've doomed yourself. Heaven will never take you back. Hell doesn't want you." The finger under Steve's jaw curled again, slid across his neck to press lightly against his jugular. "You could earn your way back into Hell, but I doubt you'd enjoy what that would involve."
Steve flinched again and twitched his head sideways.
"You're stuck here in your own personal limbo." Lucifer stood, the finger under Steve's chin urging him to rise. He curled his hand around Steve's jaw, fingers stroking his skin, then gently kissed his forehead, lips burning cold, while Steve's mind churned with confusion. The cold swirled over him, making every hair stand on end, sinking into his skin. "You can keep your body."
He let go and stepped back, glancing at the glass-studded corpses. “Never forget, whatever you become, my eyes are always on you.” His gaze brushed over Bucky, who was still and quiet where Steve had left him, before returning to Steve. "You know one path to earning your way back."
Steve, eyes wide, hunched his shoulders. Lucifer, after a brief moment, turned, took two steps into the distance, and faded away.
He let out a shuddering breath, then another. Looked down at his hands. Might have stood like that forever if Bucky hadn't called, "Steve?" in a hesitant, confused voice.
He whirled around. Bucky was standing, swaying slightly. Staring. There were dead people scattered behind him, but Steve only had eyes for Bucky. He approached him cautiously, stopped a few feet away and held out his hand. Bucky's eyes flicked down to Steve's hand then up to his face. He licked his lips. Then he carefully closed the distance between them. Stopped a hands-breadth away. "Is it you?"
"It's me. It's really me."
"You sound the same as you do in my head."
Steve opened his mouth to reply and didn't get the chance. Bucky flung himself forward, arms wrapping around Steve as tight as they could go, and Steve threw his arms around Bucky, pulling him closer. Holding on tight. He buried his face in Bucky's hair, breathing in deep.
"How, Steve. How?" Bucky's metal fingers were curled around his neck, cool and real and strong, and Steve was happy for them to stay there forever. "How are you here?"
"I don't even know where to start."
"Never mind. I don't care. Am I going to lose you?" He pulled back, far enough to see Steve's face, lifted his right hand and pressed his fingers to Steve's cheek, to his forehead, touched his nose, his ear, brushed them gently under his eyes.
"No. You're not going to lose me." He lifted a hand to catch Bucky's and press it against his cheek. "We need to leave. I'm pretty sure anyone around here who was a danger to us is dead, but we need to leave."
Bucky clutched the front of Steve's shirt with his metal hand. "I don't want to let you go. What if you disappear?"
"I won't. I promise." He threaded his fingers through Bucky's, held their joined hands against his chest. "I love you. I won't disappear." He pressed his forehead against Bucky's and briefly closed his eyes. "We have to go."
With a deep sigh of discontent, Bucky moved enough that they could walk, but he plastered himself against Steve's side. His steps were wobbly and Steve pulled Bucky's arm over his shoulder after a few paces, taking his weight.
There were more dead people outside, these without a mark on them, blood trickling from their eyes and ears. Steve shuddered slightly. It didn't stop him from propping Bucky against the wall and going through their pockets. They were going to need money and it was HYDRA's fault they had none. Bucky stared at him intently, as if Steve might disappear if he took his eyes off him, even for a second.
They took the van. Steve drove and it was a lot harder in a body that didn't know how, but he managed. They abandoned it unlocked where it was sure to be stolen and stripped within minutes and found another hotel, in an only slightly less seedy part of the city than the one they'd been snatched from. It was two steps up from rent by the hour, the woman behind the counter happy to give Steve a room in exchange for his pile of cash, Bucky hiding out of sight.
When he smiled at her, she gave him a discount.
"It's because you're beautiful," Bucky told him, sitting down on the bed with a sigh. Steve sat next to him, put an arm around him, pulled him closer, and Bucky slumped across his lap, curling into him like a cat.
"Pretty sure that's not it."
"Idiot." Bucky reached up to touch his face. "So beautiful."
Steve laughed at him softly, weirdly giddy. It was all too much to take in, too much to process. "You need to sleep off the rest of what they gave you."
"Probably, but it's still true." He let Steve move him and set him on the bed; looked up at him, eyes full of wonder, as Steve pulled off his shoes and pulled back the covers and got him settled. “Are we safe?”
Remembering the dead they’d left behind, knowing no one knew who he was or what he looked like, Steve replied, “I think we’re safe, at least for now.” Bucky accepted it, blinking slowly, but when Steve tried to stand he wrapped his metal fingers around Steve's wrist in an unbreakable grip. "Where are you going?"
"To let you sleep?"
"No. I just got you. After all this time, I've got you. You're not going anywhere. Get down here."
Steve was happy to obey. He lay down next to Bucky, who turned over and wriggled backwards until his body was flush against Steve's. Steve wrapped one arm around him, tucked the other above his head, so he could run his fingers through his hair, and held him as close as he could.
"I almost lost you." It was quiet, so quiet Steve almost didn't hear him.
"But you didn't."
"It was too close."
"I know." He rubbed his cheek against Bucky's hair. "Go to sleep, Bucky. Just for now. I'll still be here when you wake up. I promise." With a grumble of protest, Bucky closed his eyes, sliding his fingers through Steve's where they rested against his stomach.
It was strange, to have to wait for Bucky to fall asleep, to not be able to reach in and soothe him there. Eventually, Steve felt him relax, go limp against him.
Steve studied him. He'd seen Bucky from outside before, when he'd left him, but he'd never felt the solid weight of his body, never felt his warmth, or the rise and fall of his chest. He ran his fingers through Bucky's hair, watching the way the strands fell against his skin. Against his skin, not Bucky's. It felt completely different.
He'd been terrified when the Morningstar had appeared. Terrified of what would happen to him. Terrified of what would happen to Bucky. But this. This was a gift. He'd been given a gift.
Gently, so he wouldn’t wake him, he let his fingers trace the line of Bucky's neck, then rested his palm over the beat of his pulse. The thrum was soothing, proof that Bucky was here, was alive, was well, was calm; even if Steve couldn't feel Bucky's mind, he could still know.
He had no idea how much time passed. He only became aware that Bucky had woken when a hand ghosted across his face. He started, eyes wide. Bucky smiled at his reaction, curved his fingers to cup his cheek. "I didn't know you were awake."
Bucky lifted his eyebrows in question.
"I always know when you're awake."
"You're not in my head anymore, so I guess you're going to have to get used to not knowing some things." Bucky brushed his thumb against Steve's skin, eyes travelling over his face. "Is it permanent?"
Steve remembered the feel of lips against his forehead, of cold sinking into his skin, and nodded. "Is that okay?"
The hand against his cheek slipped around to the back of his neck and Bucky kissed him, lightly, pulling back to judge his reaction. Steve blinked. Blinked again. Said, "Do that again?" and Bucky obliged, gentle and soft, Steve following his lead, then gradually pulled back.
"It's okay. It's going to take some serious adjusting, you're going to have to explain how it's even possible, but it's definitely okay."
Looking a bit muddled, Steve drew in a breath. Let it out. "In the warehouse, how much did you hear?"
"Nothing I could make sense of. Whatever they pumped me full of, I wasn't tracking. I know there was someone else there. I know you told me not to move, but everything else…" He fixed Steve with an intent look. "Who was that?"
Steve shivered. “Please don’t ask me. Because I can’t tell you. I can't.” He watched Bucky's eyes, watched him process that, not just the words, but everything Steve wasn't saying. Could see the moment Bucky decided to accept it.
“All right, Steve.” Bucky's hand was around the back of his neck, fingers strong, stroking gently, tangling in his short hair. “I won’t ask. Can you explain how you're in here," he tapped his fingers against Steve's neck, "and not in my head?”
"I can explain." He stopped. "No. I can tell you what happened. I'm not sure I can explain. It doesn't make sense."
Bucky tilted his head, studying him. Then pulled away. "Come on. Up." He slipped off the bed and stood, tugging Steve to his feet. "You're a little bit taller than me, you know?" His eyes narrowed. "And I think you're bigger. That seems unfair."
Steve laughed and it was strained. "I shouldn't look like this."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm a demon. We're supposed to look like demons. Not like, like this."
Bucky frowned at him then wrapped his metal hand around Steve's wrist and walked into the bathroom, pulling Steve after him. He pushed him around until he was standing in front of the mirror and Bucky was standing behind him, arms loose around his hips. "Have you even seen yourself yet?"
"There hasn't really been time." Steve's gaze stayed off to the side.
"And there were no mirrors in the van," Bucky said dryly. "This was a lot easier when I could feel what was wrong. I'm going to need you to tell me what's going on with you."
Steve sighed and leaned back into him. "Our bodies, when we manifest, we don't look like this." Bucky rested his chin on Steve's shoulder. "They look like what we are. I should, I used to be, short, twisted. Thin. That's what demons look like, like what we are inside."
Bucky started to laugh. Buried his face in Steve's shoulder and tried to stop when Steve gave him a hurt look. "Steve." He brought his metal hand up to catch Steve's chin, gently turned his head so he was facing the mirror. "If you're supposed to look like what you are inside, this is exactly what you should look like. You're beautiful. I'm not talking about this." He ran his right hand up Steve's chest, his neck, through his hair, making it stick up in all directions before he smoothed it back down. "I'm talking about you. We've been sharing a body, you've been living in my mind. I know you. This—" He gave Steve's chin a little shake. "Come on, look at yourself." Steve reluctantly looked in the mirror. "—is you." When his eyes drifted sideways to meet Bucky's, Bucky said, "Listen to me. When it comes to you? I know what I'm talking about." Bucky wrapped both arms around Steve, hugged him tight. "Everything about you is beautiful."
"I think you might be biased," he said, but he was smiling, blue eyes bright as he watched Bucky in the mirror.
Bucky shrugged. "Maybe. But I'm right. You should be used to that by now."
"Guess I should." He turned in the circle of Bucky's arm and leaned back against the sink, his arms going around Bucky to pull him close. "What now?"
Bucky rested his forehead against Steve's shoulder, thinking. "We can't stay here for much longer. We're going to get our stuff from that asshole who sold us out, have a little word with him." His smile was feral. "But first, you're going to explain this to me." He pressed one hand over Steve's heart, looked up into his eyes.
Steve tried to put his thoughts in order and was catapulted back to the warehouse, to the words ringing in his ears.
Hell doesn't want you anymore.
You stink of redemption.
You could earn your way back.
Bucky was gone and all he could see was the Morningstar, the inferno in his eyes, all he could feel was that sinking sense of dread.
He was pulled free by Bucky's lips on his, by the warmth of them, Bucky's fingers curved around the back of his head, pulling him down, pulling him close to kiss him. It was automatic to return the kiss, the shocks of electric warmth it sent through him grounding him firmly in here and now and with Bucky.
Bucky’s eyes were sharp when he pulled back, watching him, but his mouth was curved at the corner. "Where did you go?"
He shook his head. Bucky once again wrapped his metal fingers tightly around Steve's wrist and gently pulled him out of the bathroom. Despite the churning in his brain, it made him smile. “Are you going to make a habit of this?”
Bucky glanced over his shoulder. “Yes.”
“So I don’t lose you. Now that you’re not in my head you could get away.”
“You know I don’t want to get away. Right?”
Bucky shrugged, gave him a flashing, fleeting smile. “Why take chances.” He stopped at the bed, let go of Steve long enough to settle himself against the headboard, legs spread, then patted the space between them. “Sit.” Steve sat, Bucky guiding him so he was tucked under his chin, back against Bucky’s chest, and then Bucky wrapped his arms and legs around him.
It was warm and he was completely surrounded by Bucky, his heart beating against Steve’s back. “Oh,” he said softly.
“It’s as close as I can get,” Bucky murmured in his ear. “Now can you tell me?”
"I don't." He stopped. "Hell doesn't want me anymore."
"What does that mean?"
"The exorcism worked. It pulled me out of you. But it couldn't send me back to Hell like it was supposed to, so I ended up manifesting in the circle. He couldn't send me to Hell. His spell just…bounced."
"Is that something that can happen?"
"No. Not that I've ever heard of. Demons belong in Hell. It's where we come from, where we—" He twisted, so his ear was pressed over Bucky's heart, listened to its even rhythm, a counterpoint to his own that was beating too fast.
"Where you what?" he asked quietly.
He closed his eyes. "Where we Fell." He burrowed closer to Bucky, wishing for one moment that he was still in his mind, that he could curl up there where it was warm and safe. But Bucky held him tighter, ran his hands over his arms, down his back, through his hair, wrapped the fingers of his metal hand around the back of his neck, slipped his right hand under Steve's shirt to press his palm against the skin of his back. And suddenly this was better. Suddenly, his mind was clear. "The one you can't ask about, in the warehouse. The one I can't...He did something." Steve rubbed his forehead. "So I could keep my body. So I wouldn't be trapped on earth as a spirit forever, since Hell doesn't want me."
"I wish I had a way to say thanks."
Steve swallowed a choked, horrified laugh. "No, Bucky. You don't."
He could feel Bucky taking that in, accepting it, while he absently ran his hand up and down Steve's spine. "Steve? Why doesn't Hell want you?"
"Redemption," he said. "I'm...tainted by redemption."
Bucky blew out a long breath. Steve knew Bucky was watching him, was wanting to ask what that meant and Steve hoped he wouldn't, because he didn't know. Instead, he kissed the top of Steve's head. "Their loss, because I sure as shit want you and I'm not giving you up."
It made him smile, made the confusion and the uncertainty and the sheer unknown of whatever this was flow away. "Except I don't think demons get redemption. That's not how it works."
One finger under his chin, Bucky lifted Steve's head until he could meet his eyes. "How sure are you that you're even still a demon?" Steve opened his mouth. Closed it. Remembered Whatever you become my eyes are always on you and started to laugh, quietly and with the tiniest touch of hysteria, but laughter all the same. Bucky rested his forehead against Steve's. "That's what I thought."
They stayed for another few hours, long enough for Steve to throw off the last lingering shreds of reaction. They couldn't seem to separate for more than a few minutes, as if neither could quite believe Steve really had a body, that he was really there, that he could touch Bucky and Bucky could touch him.
Eventually, they had to leave.
Steve walked into the hotel from which HYDRA had grabbed them, smiling at the man behind the plexiglass, who was utterly charmed, charmed enough he actually left his plexiglass cage to help Steve, confused, perplexed Steve, with his map.
Bucky was impressed even as he slipped inside and locked the front doors.
They retrieved everything they'd left behind and the man was happy, thrilled, to offer something extra in the way of compensation for their trouble: everything he'd been paid by HYDRA. Please, take it, he insisted.
Bucky accepted. It would have been rude not to.
Later that night, in a different hotel, Bucky came up out of sleep with a strangled gasp. Steve was instantly awake and reaching for him, pulling him close. Bucky went willingly, locking his metal fingers around Steve's wrist and hanging on. When the dream finally let go, when he was completely awake, he asked, "Steve, in the warehouse, was there a man there named Pierce?"
"Yes. I think he's the one who hired the priest."
"I thought I heard his voice." Bucky's voice was small, a little lost. He hadn't sounded like that in a long time. Steve smoothed one hand slowly down his spine, trying to soothe him. "But then I thought I must have imagined it."
"He's very dead. Along with everyone else."
"Are you sure?"
"Bucky, everyone in that warehouse but us was shredded by flying glass." Steve's voice was firm, a promise. He felt Bucky's grip on his wrist ease a little. "He's dead. They're all dead."
Bucky stared unseeing into the dark.
"Who was he?" he finally asked, gently, not wanting to push.
"He," Bucky paused, obviously searching for words, and when he found them his voice was stronger, but flat, the emotion leeched out of it, "owned the Soldier. He was HYDRA's but Pierce was the one who was in charge of him. He decided what happened to him. Where he was sent. Who he killed."
Anger crawled up Steve's spine, hot and vicious, but it brought a memory with it. "When I first found you. He's the one who sent you there. They talked where I could hear them. They said Pierce sent you to them, loaned you to them, to clean house."
Bucky was silent. Steve shifted until he could wrap him completely in his arms, tuck his head under his chin. Gradually, he felt some of the tension start to bleed out of him.
"Steve, if he's really dead." Bucky turned his head to look up at him. "He was so controlling. So—" Bucky shook his head. "He decided everything. It might be a long time before anyone else comes after me."
They were on a train out of Moscow. It was crowded, filled with people who were entirely wrapped in their own lives. Bucky was leaning against the window, the shade pulled down, Steve a solid, immovable barrier between him and everyone else.
The train pushed on through the night, crossing borders, the carriage filled with the sounds of sleeping humanity.
"I think we should get out of Europe," Bucky said in a low voice. He was pressed against Steve's side, shoulder to hip to thigh, not even an inch of space between them, warmth radiating between their bodies the way it had once radiated between their minds.
There was no one else awake. Steve turned his head and pressed his lips to Bucky's temple. "Where do you want to go?" he asked against his skin.
"I have an idea about that."
They arranged multiple new identities, their purveyor of choice an overly jovial American with an impeccable reputation who went only by the name of Skunk. Like so many people, she was completely charmed by Steve's smile and was happy to give them whatever they wanted.
For a price.
"What names do you want?"
"Barnes." Bucky glanced at Steve, the corner of his mouth curving up. "James Barnes."
Steve's face lit up, eyes a blue brighter than the sky. Skunk had to repeat the question three more times before Steve responded. "Whatever you think's best," Steve said, smile kind and slightly apologetic when he finally tore his gaze away from Bucky.
Skunk's face rippled through a series of contortions and then smoothed out into absolute blankness. "Okay then."
When she was finished they each had several sets of new identities, three disposable and one intended to stand up to even detailed scrutiny: James Barnes and Steve Rogers.
"Rogers?" Steve looked questioningly at Skunk and then at Bucky.
Skunk shook each of their hands in turn. "Mr Barnes," she nodded, "Mr Rogers," her mouth twitched, "pleasure doing business with you."
She closed the door firmly behind them and they could hear peals of laughter ring out.
"It's not just me, is it? She was pretty strange."
"Not just you, Steve. Not just you."
They burned one set of identities booking passage on a cargo freighter to the east coast of the US. The trip would take at least nineteen days.
The freighter had space for four passengers, but it was only the two of them this trip. The crew were friendly enough, but had no interest in interacting with their passengers, expected them to entertain themselves and keep out of the way. Left to their own devices, there was nothing to do but walk the decks, stare at the ocean, and relax. For once, they were somewhere they knew no one could find them.
They were somewhere safe.
It made it all the more shocking when Steve abruptly woke in the middle of the night, biting back a strangled scream. Bucky felt it, Steve curled around him, and he sat up. "Steve?" Steve's eyes were wide and horrified in the dark and he stared up at Bucky, unseeing.
Suddenly, Steve grabbed for him, pulling him tightly against his body, Bucky's back against his chest. It wasn't gentle, it was desperate, and Bucky felt his ribs creaking. "Hey, it's okay." He stroked the arms around him. "Steve?" A shuddering breath was his only response, but it made him think Steve was at least awake. "Nightmare?"
"Yes." It was barely above a whisper and Steve buried his face in Bucky's hair. Bucky let out a long breath. The only nightmares Steve had ever had were Bucky's.
"Do you think you can let go of me?" It wasn't that he objected to being held, it wasn't that Steve was hurting him, because he wasn't, it was just that it would be a lot easier to comfort him if he could reach more than his arms.
He felt Steve's arms flex, his fingers twitch, as if he was trying. Trying and failing. "No."
"Okay, that's okay." Bucky understood desperation. He started talking, low, soothing words of comfort, telling Steve he was here, he was safe, running his right hand down Steve's arms where they were clamped around him. Gradually, Steve's grip started to ease.
Bucky wormed his right hand under Steve's and felt his fingers let go. Coaxed his hand gently upwards and laid it across the pulse point in his throat. He didn't really understand it, but he knew it did something to Steve, relaxed him, to feel it. And it worked now. He could feel the tension draining out of him. "Can you tell me?"
"They sent you to Hell." Steve pressed his face against Bucky's neck, breathed in. "When they pulled me out of you, when they couldn't send me back. It sent you instead. You were in Hell instead of me. I could see you but I couldn't get you out."
Bucky hadn’t been sure what to expect, but he should have known. Should have known if Steve was going to have a nightmare it would be about something happening to Bucky. Bucky turned over so he was facing him, reached out to slide his hands up Steve's ribs, his chest, pausing over his heart. "It was just a dream. I'm right here."
"It was so real. The screams, the smells. Bucky—" He shivered.
"But it wasn't." Bucky kept moving his hands up, cupped Steve's face, kissed his mouth, his forehead. "It wasn't real." Steve's arms were looped around him and Bucky could feel his muscles letting go of the pained tension they'd been holding. He carded his fingers through Steve's hair, felt him ease a little bit more. Pulled his head down so it was resting on his shoulder.
"I really don't like nightmares," he finally said.
"They're not fun." Bucky lifted his head enough to kiss him again, just a light brush against his lips. "Think you can go back to sleep?"
Steve snorted softly. "I doubt it."
Bucky spent several minutes running his fingers through Steve's hair, curling the short strands around his fingertips then smoothing it flat. "What if I stay awake and keep watch?"
"I'm supposed to do that for you," he replied quietly, rubbing his cheek on Bucky's shoulder.
"When you were in here and it was never supposed to," Bucky said. "Now it can be my turn. You sleep. I'll keep watch, wake you up if it comes back. Just like you used to do for me." Steve didn't reply. "Come on, don't make me get you some of that disgusting tea."
He felt Steve smile. "Well if you're going to resort to threats." Steve curled closer to him, shifting around until he was more comfortable, head pillowed on Bucky's chest. Bucky titled his head slightly so he could watch him, a silhouette in the darkness whose breathing gradually slowed. Bucky could tell he was right on the ragged edge of sleep when he said, "I love you. You know I love you."
Bucky smiled and shook his head, resisting the impulse to call him an idiot. "Of course I do. I love you, too."
They jumped ship a port before they were scheduled to, abandoning the identities they'd travelled under. They bought a pick-up truck with cash, no questions asked, and started driving west, no particular destination in mind, sticking to the back roads.
A hundred miles out of Wise, Virginia the engine started complaining, making a grumbling noise that warned them it wasn't happy about something. Fifty miles out, it ramped up its complaints, like a dog that wasn't quite ready to bite, but its growl let you know that if something wasn't done soon, there was going to be snapping teeth and blood on the ground.
A beat up road sign, shiny dings showing it had been used for target practice more than once, promised a mechanic. One that specialised in big rigs, but Bucky figured a truck was a truck and cash waved under someone's nose would get their little one looked at.
They pulled into a long, dusty driveway, following a tall fence holding back a sea of ancient rusty vehicles, a mix of trucks and cars, some so old they were unidentifiable. As they neared the buildings the unmistakable sound of fighting, the slap of skin on skin and the crack of knuckles on bone, shouts and muffled grunts, was audible, Bucky's sensitive hearing picking it up even over the sound of the truck. When the fight came into view, five men against one, Steve was out of the car before he'd pulled to a stop, faster than thought tossing one of the men, whose foot had been pulled back for a kick in the ribs, clear across the yard.
Bucky followed, then stopped: Steve had it under control, standing over the man on the ground, easily keeping the four men at bay. The one he'd tossed rolled to his feet and disappeared around the corner of the huge building. Bucky studied Steve: fast, yes, strong, yes, but no technique, the easy way he'd fought in Bucky's body no longer present now that he was in a body of his own. Not that it mattered against these clowns. Bucky had to give them credit: they kept getting back up. Of course, that might have more to do with Steve's obvious desire not to actually hurt them than any innate qualities on their part.
The man who'd disappeared came back with a rifle in his hands. Bucky's eyes narrowed and he closed the distance between them and absently took it away, most of his attention still on Steve as Bucky slammed the man down, planted a foot on the back of his neck, and ground him into the dirt.
"Nice gun," he said and then fired it once into the air. Everyone froze, Steve hovering protectively. "Anyone who wants to live to see tomorrow, leave. Now. That okay with you?" he asked the man who was staring at him from behind Steve. When he nodded, Bucky, with a last hard shove of his boot, stepped off the man he'd been pinning to the ground and gestured with the rifle. "Now," he repeated, voice like steel.
They left, stopping only long enough to haul their buddy to his feet. Bucky rested the rifle over his shoulder as he watched them go. When he could no longer hear the sound of engines, he sighed and turned to look at Steve, who was helping the man to his feet, supporting him to sit on a nearby pile of timbers.
"Have you got a first aid kit?" Steve asked.
The man was short and stocky, brown hair liberally shot through with silvered grey, and he looked bemused under his bloody face and swollen eye. "Yeah, in the workshop," he said and told Steve where to find it. Bucky put him in his late fifties, tanned face craggy and lined around the mouth and eyes.
He stowed the rifle in the cab of their truck and asked, "Have you got a name?"
"Max," he replied. "Thanks for," he gestured with one hand and then winced.
Bucky shrugged as Steve returned with the first aid kit. "His name's Max," Bucky said.
"Hi," Steve said, studying Max's face for a moment before fetching a bottle of water from their truck. He returned to crouch in front of Max. "This might sting a little," he warned and began cleaning the blood off Max's face. "It's not as bad as it looked. Most of this was from the cut on your forehead."
"Scalp wounds bleed like a bitch," Max muttered.
Steve nodded and started patching him up, fingers gentle but sure. Bucky watched him. He knew that Steve knew how to do this because Bucky knew how to do this, that Steve had brought it with him. The last time he'd seen Steve using it Steve had been using his body, his hands, to patch up Hawkeye. He was glad Steve remembered, because Bucky still didn't want to touch anyone like that.
"Any particular reason those guys were using you as their personal punching bag?" Bucky asked.
"Leo owes ten grand on his rig and doesn't want to pay. I'm not giving it back until he pays at least some of what he owes me or works out a plan for paying me. He decided it would be easier just to come and take it, wasn't happy when I objected. With his reputation, I never should have agreed to do any work for him, but there's not many people still working on the old rigs. Everything's all computers these days." He poked his ribs and winced. "Guess I learned my lesson."
"Can I?" Steve asked, gesturing at Max's ribs.
After a long considering look at Steve, and another long considering look at Bucky, he nodded. Steve lifted his shirt and very gently felt his ribs. "I don't think they're broken, just bruised."
"Good to know." There was silence after that as Steve packed up the first aid kit, broken when Max asked, "You boys make a habit of riding to the rescue?"
"We were actually riding to the rescue of our truck." Bucky gestured in its direction. "I know it's not what you usually work on but we saw your sign, thought you might be able take a look."
"Seeing as you saved me from a beating, maybe worse, I'll see what I can do." He pulled himself to his feet, ignoring Steve's watchful hovering. "Bring her into Bay Two."
"Are you sure?" Steve asked. "It can wait if you're not—"
"Son, I've had worse than this in my time. If you hadn't shown up when you did, it'd be a different story, but you did and it's not. Now bring your pick-up inside and let me see what's wrong with her."
Bucky did as he was told while Steve followed Max into the cavernous bay. Their truck was dwarfed by the space, the huge building big enough to fit at least three big rigs side by side. There was only one parked inside, a shining silver bulldog watching them all balefully from its perch on the hood.
Under Max's instructions, Bucky popped the hood and then worked through the engine while he looked on. Steve slid into the driver's seat to turn the engine over and Max nodded thoughtfully, pronounced her sick but not fatally so, just needing a new timing chain.
"Not something I have, obviously, but I can get you one." He studied them, green eyes intent. Bucky had the urge to move in front of Steve, to block him from that gaze, and gave in to it; he felt like Max was seeing too much, even with one eye swollen. "You boys have somewhere you need to be?"
Steve's hand dropped onto Bucky's shoulder, squeezing gently. "What if we don't?" he asked.
"Might be I could use some help around here. If you're interested." He paused. "Cash in hand, no questions asked." He scratched the back of his neck. "I've even got a place out the back you can use. It's nothing fancy, but it's a roof if you want one."
Bucky's eyes narrowed, suspicious and not caring if it showed. "We don't know anything about trucks, so I don't know why you'd want our help."
"You've got good hands and a good eye," Max told him. "And you look like you can lift heavy things. I don't need skill. Skill I have. I can teach you what I need you to know."
"And how do you know we won't finish what those guys started?" Bucky's smile was sharp, edging towards vicious. "Won't murder you in your sleep?"
"Bucky." Steve's voice was soft, a gentle touch in his ear, and his hand was warm on the back of his neck.
"After your boy there spent all that effort patching me up?" He looked at the ground, obviously mulling it over, then met Bucky's eyes. "I know what half way down a hundred miles of hard road looks like. I've seen it before. All I'm saying is, offer's on the table."
"Give us a minute?" Steve drew Bucky away. When they were out of earshot, out of eyeshot, he pulled Bucky close, one hand curled around the back of Bucky's head to pull his forehead down to rest on his shoulder. "Hey."
Bucky sighed, turned his head to breathe against Steve's skin. "Hey."
"'How do you know we won't murder you in your sleep'?"
He smiled against Steve's neck. "Well, how does he?"
Steve snorted and tangled his fingers in Bucky's hair. "What do you want to do?"
"I don't know."
Steve nodded. "What if we stay? At least until our truck's fixed."
Bucky didn't say anything.
"Besides, if HYDRA's traps have gotten this elaborate we're pretty much doomed, so we may as well."
It startled a laugh out of Bucky and he lifted his head to find Steve smiling at him, blue eyes bright. "Idiot," he said fondly and kissed him once, hard. "All right. We'll stay. At least until then."
The cabin out the back was extremely out the back, at least two miles from the truck bays, hidden away behind the stretch of junkyard and half way into the woods. There wasn't much to it: one bedroom with a double bed, one room that served as kitchen, and a bathroom you had to go onto the porch to reach.
It suited them just fine.
They stayed until the truck was fixed. They kept staying. Max was as good as his word, cash in hand and never a question. Bucky kept his metal arm covered, his metal hand covered.
Max never asked.
Leo turned up with a cashier's cheque for ten thousand dollars and reclaimed his rig. Bucky stood behind Max the entire time, arms folded, eyes cold, Steve a silent presence in the background. Between them, Leo was reduced to a quivering mass of humbled, apologetic terror.
Max was deeply amused.
Bucky learned he had a talent for engines. Steve, much to his dismay, learned he had a talent for paperwork, his gift of tongues apparently extending even to the arcane provisions of the Tax Code.
They were lying on the grass outside the tiny cabin, Bucky's head resting on Steve's thigh. It was warm, the sky a perfect blue, the occasional cloud casting a long shadow. He was half asleep, eyes drifting shut, while Steve ran his fingers gently through his hair. Every muscle was relaxed and he felt as if someone had snuck in and left noodles where his bones should be.
"I have to teach you to fight like me again," he muttered. It had been bugging him for weeks. "You don't know how to now that you're not in here anymore." He hadn't expected the fingers in his hair to freeze, to feel them clench, catching and tugging uncomfortably. He opened his eyes and found Steve staring down at him, face expressionless. "What?"
Bucky rolled to his knees, looking at Steve in confusion. "What do you mean, no?"
"I mean no." Steve got to his feet. "I don't want you to teach me."
"You could do what I can do while you were in here, but your body doesn't know how. And I don't think there's anyone else to teach you," he added with a teasing smile that faded as Steve didn't answer. Bucky stood up, studying him. His face, usually so easy for Bucky to read, wasn't giving anything away. Bucky suddenly missed having Steve in his mind, where he would have just known what was wrong. "Steve?"
"I'm still a demon. I'm still strong and fast, stronger and faster than you. I'll be fine."
Bucky's eyes narrowed. "Really." A hotel room in Moscow was the last time Steve had called himself a demon. He had no idea what was going through his head, but he was sure it was nothing good. "All right. If you can get me down, right here, right now, I won't ask again." His heart hurt when Steve agreed, because Bucky could see something in his eyes, something painful.
Steve was right, as far as it went. He had a demon's strength and speed. He was fast. He was strong. Faster and stronger than Bucky, if not by much. But faster and stronger could only get you so far and Bucky was lethal.
Bucky put him into the ground. Gently, carefully, but it was an outcome that was never in question.
He had Steve face down in the grass, was straddling his hips. Had Steve's arms locked behind his back, metal arm firm against his neck. Steve twisted, trying to throw him off. Bucky shifted his weight and pinned him more securely. "Don't move," he got out through gritted teeth. "I don't want to hurt you. Steve. Stop. Please." He felt the breath shudder out of him, felt him go still, every muscle corded steel. He shifted his grip, loosened it, afraid he was going to dislocate Steve's shoulder. "Tell me what the problem is."
There was a long, tense silence before Steve said, in a voice so flat Bucky knew it was hiding something huge. "Hell doesn't want me."
It threw Bucky. "I know that. I know. What does that have to do with this?"
"It doesn't want me the way I am now. There's something I didn't tell you." Bucky felt him swallow. "I can earn my way back into Hell."
"I'm guessing you don't mean by rescuing kittens and helping old ladies across the street."
Steve's laugh was strangled, painful. "No. Killing you would be one way to do it, but there's plenty of others."
Bucky let him go. Steve went limp under him, cheek resting against the grass. Bucky leaned forward until his forehead was resting against the crown of Steve's head, flattened his palms against his back.
"I don't want to be a killer, Bucky. I can't."
Bucky closed his eyes briefly. Pressed a kiss against Steve's hair. Ran his hands up Steve's back to grip his shoulders, urging him to turn over while he went briefly up on his knees to let him. Steve's eyes were dark and bruised, uncertain as he looked up at Bucky.
"It's not about being a killer. The Soldier was a killer. HYDRA are killers." Bucky pressed his right hand against Steve's cheek, thumb brushing back and forth against his skin, trying to find the words that would make this better. "It's about being a…protector. About protecting each other. It's about protecting ourselves so we can keep each other safe. Same as we used to when you were in here." He tapped his temple with one metal finger. Steve rested his hands on Bucky's thighs and his eyes were a little less bruised. "If I go down, I don't want my last thought to be that you're next. I want it to be that you're going to have a chance."
"Bucky." Steve's hands tightened, hard enough to hurt.
"I'm not going to lose you because you wouldn't let me teach you. And I'm not going to lose you because I let you earn your way back into Hell." He wrapped his metal fingers tightly around Steve's wrist. "You trust me." It wasn't a question, because it would never be a question. Bucky knew that.
"Then trust me with this. I would never make you a killer."
He watched the darkness fade out of Steve's eyes, watched them brighten until they were as blue as the sky above them. "All right. Teach me."
He wasn't teaching Steve anything new. It was more like reminding him of something his body had forgotten. He remembered what he'd known in Bucky's mind, in Bucky's body. He'd used it, he'd fought with it.
Max didn't care if they used his junkyard for target practice. Steve was an excellent shot, Bucky's skill, his training, evident in the line of Steve's body, in the way he held a gun, the way he moved with it, even the way he reloaded. At the start, Steve had to think about everything, every step, every movement, but he knew how to do almost everything Bucky could do.
He'd learned it directly from the source.
Bucky kept his promise. Steve's mind might know almost everything Bucky knew, but there were some things Bucky left alone. Because some things only a killer would ever need. And he'd promised Steve not to make him a killer.
The junkyard wasn't just good for target practice. It was good for all sorts of practice. The first time Steve successfully ambushed him, pinned him to the ground and kept him there, Bucky wasn't sure which of them was more surprised.
Of course, Steve started laughing too hard at the expression on his face, which gave Bucky a chance to turn the tables, but Steve eeled away from him, disappeared into the rusted cars. They spent the next two hours chasing each other through the junkyard like extremely dangerous children, neither one quite getting the upper hand.
Faster than he'd thought possible, Bucky was satisfied. He had no intention of stopping, would keep pushing Steve to be better, but he knew he could stop worrying. Knew Steve could watch his back. Knew even if he went down Steve would have a chance to make it out safely.
He ignored the voice in the back of his head that said if he went down, Steve wouldn't even try.
Norton looked much the same as any other small town. What set it apart from others in the area was its railway station, which was their destination. Parts for big rigs generally weren't small and they generally weren't light, which made shipping them by anything other than ground prohibitively expensive.
Listening to Max grumble endlessly about the betrayal of shipping a part for a big rig by train had possessed a certain entertainment value. Entertainment value that had worn off after the first few hours.
Grateful as they were for the place Max had offered them, there was only so much of that they could take. When Steve saw that look in Bucky's eyes that said he was wondering exactly how far he could throw Max, he'd suggested they go and pick the part up themselves. Which was why they were now trying to find somewhere to park, so they could go to the railway station to fill out the paperwork necessary to be allowed into the railway's cargo yard to load the part into the truck.
"Looks like the entire population decided to head downtown for the day."
"Can you call it downtown when it's only four streets long?" Bucky asked.
Steve shrugged and snagged a parking space behind a vacating SUV.
The walk to the station was taking them through ever more people. Steve had been kidding when he'd suggested the entire population had turned out for the day, but it was seeming less funny by the minute. There was some sort of brightly lit attraction visible in the distance that was obviously their destination, but Steve had no interest in discovering what it was. His only interest at the moment was Bucky.
"There's too many people." Bucky's shoulders were hunched, his chin practically in his chest. He still had issues in crowds sometimes. Not always, and not as bad as he used to, not like before, but before Steve could have done something about it. Could have stepped in, could have been a wall in Bucky's mind between him and the outside world. He couldn't do that anymore. Frustrated, he glanced over at Bucky. There were lines of tension in his face and his eyes were darting, trying to take in every possible angle from which someone could come at them.
Making a decision, Steve pulled him away from the crowd and into the cobbled laneway between two buildings. There was no one around. Steve pulled him farther down, where they'd be out of sight. Bucky didn't object, followed him willingly. With a little breath, Steve wrapped his hands around Bucky's shoulders and gently pressed him up against the brick wall of the building. Bucky's eyes went wide. "Steve?"
"Let me," he said gently, catching Bucky's hands and bringing them up so his palms were flat against Steve's chest, before pressing his forearms against the brick on either side of Bucky's head, his wrists brushing Bucky's hair. He pressed his whole body against Bucky's, so there was no space between them, making a cocoon of warmth, all of Steve covering all of Bucky. It was as close as he could get with his body to what he would have done with his mind.
After a few minutes, Bucky relaxed, went boneless, like he would have slipped down the wall to puddle on the ground if Steve hadn't been holding him up. As he watched, a small smile appeared on Bucky's face. "Did it work?" Steve asked.
"It worked." Bucky pressed closer and Steve let one hand slip down to flatten his palm over the pulse point in his throat, letting it tell him Bucky was safe, was alive, was calming.
They stood together, Steve letting the feel of Bucky's pulse travel through him as it continued to slow. Bucky rubbed his cheek against Steve's shoulder and his breath whispered against the skin of Steve's neck. He shivered, not really aware of their surroundings anymore, only aware of the hundreds of points of contact where he was touching Bucky.
It was always so easy to lose himself in that feeling.
He smoothed his hand up Bucky's neck, watching the tiny indentation his fingers made on his skin, followed the line of his jaw, brushed his thumb across Bucky's mouth, his cheek. Touching him was a gift. It was always a gift. He would never get used to it, never wanted to.
Bucky's hands were still resting against his chest, so he reached for his right one, lifted it, held it between both of his, kissed each fingertip, then settled it back over his heart. Bucky made a soft, pleased noise, and Steve brushed his hair back, tucking it behind his ear, then traced a line from his temple to his chin. Leaning forward, he kissed Bucky's cheek, his temple, brought his other hand up to rest his fingers in the hollow of Bucky's throat.
Gloved metal fingers gently wrapped around his wrist. He blinked, lifted his head.
Bucky's smile had changed, was indulgent as he watched Steve. He felt his ears go pink and Bucky's smile got wider. "Sorry," he muttered.
Steve went to step back and found he couldn't, Bucky's grip on his wrist and the arm suddenly tight around his waist holding him in place. "Bucky?"
The arm around his waist shifted and Bucky's hand was curled around the back of his neck, urging him closer and his lips were on Steve's, kissing him, warm and gentle. Steve made a tiny, surprised noise and felt Bucky smile. Felt Bucky's hand tighten around his neck and he was pressing closer, wanting more, and Bucky obliged, and it was firmer, deeper, and Steve was lost again, bringing his hand up to cup Bucky's cheek as the world disappeared.
It came back slowly as Bucky gradually pulled away, his thumb rubbing over the vein in Steve's wrist. Steve felt as if someone had lifted the top of his head and poured in molten sunshine. His smile was blinding. "I guess we'd better get that part."
"Yeah." Bucky's eyes were dancing and he relaxed his grip on Steve's wrist, let his fingers thread through Steve's. "You'd better stay close, though. I could relapse."
The problem with older rigs, much as Max loved working on them, loved the stories etched in their metal bodies, was that sometimes they weren't as strong as they should be. Sometimes, you couldn't tell by looking. Sometimes, you only found out too late to do anything about it.
Max knew she didn't mean to hurt him, knew she would have held herself up if she could, but her locking bolts were just too old, her cab just too heavy. When the bolts sheared, Max only had time to realise it was happening, to forgive her, but no time to save himself.
He was dead. He knew it. He closed his eyes, not wanting to see the mess he was going to make of her.
There was an unholy screech of metal against metal and his eyes snapped open to see a flash of silver bracing the cab above his head and there were strong hands hauling him out and he wasn't dead.
The cab crashed down right where it should have cut Max clean in half and he stared.
Bucky was standing in front of the rig, his sleeve torn completely out of his shirt. His entire left arm was made of gleaming silver plates that were realigning themselves even as Max watched. And Steve, who must have lifted him right out of the rig, who he'd always thought of as the gentler of the two, was standing protectively in front of Bucky, a look in his eyes that chilled Max to the bone.
He'd seen things in his time. He'd been to war and left most of his soul behind. He'd run and run until he knew if he didn't stop he'd run forever. He'd killed and he'd stared death in the eyes, both begging to die and spitting in his face, but he'd never known anything like the two men standing in front of him. Wasn't sure there was anyone else in the world like them.
He should probably be afraid.
"Easy, son," he said instead, even as some instinct deep inside him whispered that however old they were, what they'd lived had made them ancient. "Easy."
Neither of them reacted, except that Steve crowded closer to Bucky, so they were touching, and it made him feel better because they were never more peaceful than when they were touching.
"If you're thinking your arm is going to be some kind of problem, it's not. It just saved my life." He tried a smile. "That makes it my favourite thing in here."
Still no reaction.
"Boys," even though he knew they weren't boys, "what's it going to be? The way I see it you've got two choices. Three, depending on how far you want to take it. You can run because I found out about Bucky's arm, that you've been hiding since you got here. Or you can take a leap of faith and trust that I'll keep your secret."
Steve turned his head to look at Bucky and he knew they were having an entire conversation without words. He'd seen them do it before. Bucky's metal fingers wrapped around Steve's wrist as Bucky asked, "What's the third choice?"
"Kill me before you run, so you know I won't tell anyone."
Bucky didn't react but the naked shock that flowed across Steve's face was reassuring. Not afraid didn't mean he was unaware of exactly how dangerous they were.
"We wouldn't do that."
He believed Steve. He wasn't sure Bucky would offer quite the same whole-hearted assurance. But as he watched, Bucky drew in a breath, let it out in a long sigh. "Fuck. Fine, we've trusted you this far." He dropped his forehead onto Steve's shoulder, something resigned in the line of his body, and Steve ran his fingers through Bucky's hair with the hand not locked in an unbreakable metal grip. The look he flashed Max was a warning. Max nodded back, a promise of sorts.
He didn't regret offering them a place here. He did wonder where that decision might lead him.
Not every part for a big rig was huge. Some were small enough to be couriered. Of course, none of the couriers were willing to drive all the way out to Max's, which was why Steve and Bucky were currently pulling into Wise.
This would not turn out to be the best decision they'd ever made.
Their first inkling of trouble was the sound of ranting. A woman wearing a University of Virginia (Wise Campus) Paleontology Department sweatshirt was pacing wildly atop a nearby building. She had a microphone, an amplifier, and a wall of ten people behind her: five women and five men, of varying ages, heights, weights and races, but all in identical sweatshirts, with identically folded arms and wearing identical scowls. A small crowd was gathered below. And she was ranting.
About feathered dinosaurs.
The crowd occasionally offered up their opinion, most disagreeing with her assertions that dinosaurs were, in fact, covered in feathers. Every time someone did so, it set her off again, until she was practically frothing. "Not scales! FEATHERS! Feathers are NOT just a bird thing. They were a dinosaur thing!"
"Feathers are stupid!" someone yelled back at her. "Who the hell's going to be scared of a giant turkey? Scales were good enough when I was a kid and they're good enough now!"
That was apparently the last straw. The woman practically hissed, "I am sick to death of every asshole who thinks their precious emotions are more important than SCIENCE. Sick to fucking death of it." Her grin had far too many teeth. "So I think it's time to prove a point. People think dinosaurs with feathers aren't scary?" She gestured at one of the women standing behind her who immediately pulled out a cell phone, dialled a number, and started talking.
The second inkling of trouble came a few minutes later when the ground started to shake.
There were creatures coming into view. Dinosaurs. Covered in feathers. They weren't wearing signs proclaiming them as such, but it would be a strange coincidence if they weren't, in fact, feathered dinosaurs, especially given the pure glee—expressed in the universal language of high-fives, fist pumps, and cheers—which had engulfed the rooftop.
"Am I ruining your childhoods now, assholes?!" the woman on the roof screamed. "Still think they're not scary?!"
They were strangely beautiful, their plumage bright and vibrant, the tiny ones all in shades of blues and purples. Tiny was relative, and they ranged in size from a large dog to a small horse. Tiny, because they were darting among the legs of larger ones. There were four of middling height, only ten feet tall, their feathers in varying shades of olive green and brilliant red, all with speckled golden breasts. The two tallest, heads level with the two story buildings they were scuffling past, had the colouring of bald eagles, as if whoever had designed them had been feeling particularly patriotic.
For all their size differences, they were shaped the same, vaguely like komodo dragons someone had stretched out and dragged upright, twisting and pulling to make them walk on their hind legs. Their pointed heads had the sharp teeth and forward facing eyes of a predator, but they seemed strangely malformed, as if too many disparate parts had been shoved together without proper care. While they were walking upright, they'd regularly fall forward and shuffle on all fours, scrabbling for balance. The overall impression was of badly assembled Ikea furniture.
Their plumage, however, was perfect, rippling gloriously with every awkward step.
People started to flee.
"They had feathers! It's science! It's history!" The rooftop representatives of the Paleontology Department were giving each other fist-bumps. "If you don't like it you can kiss their feathery asses!"
"I think she has some serious problems," Bucky ventured as he and Steve ran for the truck. They were both armed, but there were a lot more weapons in the truck.
"I think you're right." Steve glanced over his shoulder at the slowly approaching creatures. One slipped and fell, making the street shake, and had to claw its way back to its feet. "I think we might have a bigger one."
"I don't suppose we can just get in the truck and go?" Bucky asked wistfully. He wasn't serious, but Steve gave him a look of deep reproach as he wrenched the door open. "I didn't think so."
"You're the one who said it was about protecting."
"You've got to stop using things I say against me."
"You're the one who's always telling me you're right."
"And you're doing it again! What have we got?"
"Not enough to take down giant lizard bird things."
"They're feathered dinosaurs, Steve. I think that's pretty important to her."
They loaded up with everything they had, which frankly wasn't enough for Bucky's peace of mind, the rifle he'd taken from Leo in his right hand, and went to meet the impending feathered doom. People streamed past them, running for safety, and the girl on the roof laughed. "Feathered dinosaurs are badasses. We told them! We told all of them!"
Bucky's eyes narrowed and he ran for an abandoned coffee cart, leapt on top of it. The angle was bad, the eyes of the biggest too high on their heads, but the medium ones…it took three shots through the eye of the closest before it dropped, sprawling in the street, another three shots to drop a second and then they were too close, the angles wrong, and he emptied the rifle into the nearest large one.
It didn't even dent its hide. It did, however, attract its attention. With a deep pang of sadness, Bucky abandoned the rifle he had no reloads for and leapt to the ground.
The Tinies swarmed forward under the feet of the large one, which Bucky christened Biggie, who seemed to have taken Bucky's attempt to kill it personally. Steve was already starting to drop the Tinies, their hides thin under the feathers. The others had halted, staring in apparent fascination at their reflections in a mirrored office building, and Bucky spared a moment to wonder exactly how much bird had gone into making them.
Biggie's neck didn't seem to work right, its shoulders almost backwards, and it couldn't quite reach them as its clawed feet scrabbled for purchase, couldn't seem to see them if they stayed right in front of its chest, a victim of its own poor design. Staying put wasn't as easy as it sounded when they were being mobbed by the Tinies, who didn't seem to suffer from the design flaws of their larger cousins.
"Can you deal with them?" Steve suddenly asked as Bucky threw one twenty feet away and put a bullet through it.
"I have an idea." And he was off, running along the side of the building they were fighting next to.
Four Tinies gave chase and Bucky picked them off, one by one, yelling, "Don't do anything stupid!" before Steve was out of earshot. He saw him again, minutes later, running flat out across the top of the building, not slowing as he approached the edge. "Steve, you stupid reckless idiot, don't do it," Bucky muttered, metal hand gripping a Tiny's neck as it desperately tried to bite his face off. As he watched, Steve hit the edge and launched himself into the air.
Time seemed to slow. The sky was brilliant blue, the fiery golden sun outlining Steve's body in a perfect glowing halo as he seemed to hover in mid-air. For that one brief second, Bucky forgot everything else, because he was beautiful.
Time sped up, Steve slammed onto Biggie's neck, slipping and sliding and grabbing at the feathers to keep from falling, and he was once again a, "Reckless idiot!" Bucky fired straight up into Biggie's chin as it twisted its head, trying to shake Steve off, pulling its attention back. "You stupid," he growled under his breath and used the snapping, feathery dinosaur he was holding as a club, the assembled Tinies backing away in apparent terror. Bucky went after them.
Steve swarmed up Biggie's neck, using its feathers for handholds, and onto its head, shoved his gun into its eye and pulled the trigger, kept firing until it staggered and keened loudly, a high-pitched desperate wail, then slowly toppled over. Steve rode it down and leapt off at the last minute. He staggered, fell, rolled to his feet, and ran to where Bucky was standing in a ring of dinosaur corpses. Bucky punched him on the arm, hard. "Reckless. Idiot."
Steve grinned at him. "But it worked."
Bucky's eyes narrowed.
Unrepentant, Steve just kept grinning. It faltered when the other large dinosaur and the two medium ones started to scramble in their direction, apparently drawn by the death wail. "Well, at least we have their attention?"
"That's just what I wanted," Bucky groused. "Come on." He shoved at Steve's shoulder and they started to run, heading away from the centre of town. Leading them away from the highest concentration of people had to take priority over finding ways to kill them. The dinosaurs followed, feathers waving majestically. Bucky wasn't sure how many of the Tinies Ms Obsessed With Feathers and her people had released but semi-regularly they'd lunge after them, far faster than their larger counterparts, and need to be taken care of. They were soon out of ammunition and Bucky was reduced to wringing their necks with his metal arm.
He wasn't sure what they were going to do when they hit the town limit, or even if they could keep running that long.
Matters were taken out of their hands.
A rocket zipped out of the sky and knocked the remaining large dinosaur off its feet. Bucky whirled and saw a black jet hovering in the air. He grabbed Steve and forcibly hauled him down the nearest side street. He could hear more rockets behind them and the meaty thud of exploding dinosaur.
"Keep going," he replied grimly. "It's not dinosaurs we have to worry about now." One of the Tinies lunged out of nowhere, feathers ruffling, and Bucky punched it with his metal hand, pulled it closer, and snapped its neck. "It's mostly not dinosaurs we have to worry about. That's going to be some government agency, who knows which one, but I know it's not anyone we want to run into."
He saw understanding pass over Steve's face.
They kept moving, working their way through town, sticking to the back streets, taking out the Tinies as they found them, rescuing the occasional bystander and sending them to safety. Bucky was starting to feel cautiously optimistic. If they could get back to the truck, get back to Max's, get the hell out, they'd probably be okay.
They rounded a corner straight into an arrow. It was still in the bow, so it could have been worse. "I guess we know who the rockets belong to," Bucky said flatly.
"The worst part," Hawkeye said to Steve, his arrow pointed unwaveringly at Bucky. "Is that I believed you. I know better and I still believed you. Yet here you are in some other poor bastard you've stolen."
Bucky made a low, dangerous noise and Steve reached out to press a hand to his chest. "He didn't steal anyone."
"The thing I can't figure out," he went on, ignoring Bucky. "Is what you got out of today."
"We didn't do this," Steve replied. "It was some group obsessed with dinosaurs having feathers, wanted everyone to know that they were badass."
"No, I mean I don't know what you get out of taking on the feathered dinosaurs." He paused. "And they are badass."
Steve and Bucky exchanged a glance. "People were going to die if we didn't," Steve said.
"You're a demon," Hawkeye replied, as if Steve might somehow have forgotten this fact and need to be reminded of it.
"How did you know it was me?" Steve asked.
"Good eyesight, especially from a distance. You move the same. Plus," he lifted one shoulder, "you just confirmed it."
"I guess your people are on their way?" Bucky asked.
Hawkeye looked momentarily uncomfortable.
"They're not on their way."
"Guy in charge is a jackass. I'm waiting for my boss to call you in."
As if on cue, another black jet flew in low overhead. For one heartbeat, another, no one moved. Bucky watched Hawkeye's fingers where they curled around the bow, around the bowstring. He saw the second he decided to release and snatched the arrow out of the air with his metal hand, then Bucky was on him.
The fight was vicious, Hawkeye lethally trained with no compunctions about fighting dirty, and his bow was a weapon even at close quarters, but Bucky and Steve were faster and stronger. Even hampered as they were by the fact that they were trying not to hurt him, there were two of them and they moved like they shared a single mind. When Steve touched his uniform and didn't burn, Hawkeye froze, eyes wide with shock. So did Steve. They stared at each other, unmoving. Only for a split-second, but it was enough to give Bucky the advantage.
The pained look on his face when they cut his bowstring and used it to bind his hands was almost heart-breaking. A quick pat down to relieve him of weapons found a spare bowstring and they used it to bind his feet.
"Is this where you kill me?" he asked, but it sounded almost perfunctory and his eyes kept returning to Steve.
Bucky rolled his eyes. "Again, what the fuck is wrong with you? Why do you always think we're going to kill you, or he's going to possess you?"
"Uh, assassin," he nodded his head at Bucky, "demon," he nodded his head at Steve, "logic?"
"And experience should be telling you we're a lot more likely to save your ass," Bucky huffed. "We are going to throw you in that dumpster, though." Hawkeye looked resigned.
They tossed him in the dumpster. Gently. As they were about to close the lid, he called, "Hey. Hey, demon."
Steve paused and looked at him. "Yes?"
"Why didn't you burn? When you touched me, why didn't my protections burn you? I know it's you in there."
"We don't have time for this," Bucky hissed.
"I don't know. But this is my body, free and clear. I'm not possessing anyone. I didn't steal it. I'm not bound. This is just me."
Steve smiled. "I know," he said and closed the lid. They put a nearby motorcycle on top of the dumpster, so when he inevitably got loose it wouldn't be easy for him to get free, and ran for their truck.
Max looked up as the pick-up roared up the driveway, a cloud of dust in its wake. Steve jumped out before it came to a complete stop and Bucky pulled away, heading towards their cabin.
One look at Steve's face and Max knew something was wrong.
"We have to go."
Max nodded. He'd known this day was going to come eventually. "Come with me." He was gratified that Steve followed him. His safe was in the office and he spun the wheel, opened it, counted out a pile of cash, tucked it into an envelope and handed it to Steve.
"I can't take that."
"Yes you can. It's nothing but what I owe you and Bucky both. You've done good work for me. Now take it. You're going to need it."
Steve's expression would have done a mule proud and he took two steps backwards. "You've been paying us."
Max scowled. "Didn't anyone ever tell you it's not polite to argue with your elders?"
It was the first time Max had ever heard Steve laugh. It was golden. There was no other way to describe it. It seemed to fill the dull grey office with light. Max didn't really understand why what he'd said was so funny, but he was completely caught in the sound. Eventually, Steve stopped. "All right. We'll take it."
"Good." Max handed over the envelope. "And there's one more thing. Harold Wright in Gunnison, Colorado. I don't know where you're going and if anyone ever asks I've never heard of either of you, but if you want somewhere to go, if you want somewhere you can stop, talk to Harold."
Steve's eyes were filled with questions he didn't ask.
Max answered the only one that mattered. "That's where I stopped running."
The honk of a horn pulled then both back out to the driveway. Bucky was behind the wheel, the pick-up idling. Steve shook Max's hand. "Thanks for everything." Max watched as Steve hopped into the pick-up.
After a second, Bucky got out. He walked over to Max, studying him. Max unaccountably found himself standing up straighter, which made the corner of Bucky's mouth tick-up. "Thank you," he said and reached out to place his right hand on Max's shoulder, squeezing gently.
All Max could do was nod. Bucky nodded back, let him go, and then they were gone.
Max was going to have call someone about having the driveway regraded. It was kicking up too much dust, getting in his eyes and making them water.
With sincere apologies to the University of Virginia's Wise campus, which doesn't even have a Paleontology department. I'm sure if it did its dinosaurs would be extremely well designed.
Chapter 9: Someday We'll Be Home
They'd been travelling for days, sleeping in the cab of the truck, sticking to the back roads, the old routes, not thinking about anything but away, not having any room yet to think about to. After a week, they cautiously decided to try a hotel. It was in the middle of nowhere, old and tacky and looking as if it had never realised the seventies had ended, but it would be easy to escape from if it turned out there was some sort of nation-wide alert out for them.
All the woman behind the desk had done was tell them not to steal the towels, hand over the room key, and go back to reading her book. If there was some sort of alert, it hadn't reached this particular backwater.
Steve was pretty sure they used the hotel's entire supply of hot water. Rest stops and creeks left a lot to be desired and they took advantage of having access to a proper shower. And an actual bed, where they could both lie down, instead of one stretched out as best he could on the bench seat of the truck, using the other as a pillow as he tried to rest sitting up.
Bucky was sprawled face down on the bed and Steve was straddling his hips. He was slowly working his way down the muscles on the left side of Bucky's back, of his neck, where the metal joined flesh. He knew which ones would be hurting after days of being cramped in the truck, knew exactly where to push hard, using all of his strength to bear down and work out the knots, and where to very gently, very lightly, ease the tension out. He knew which scars had to be avoided, even the slightest touch making them ache, and which had almost no feeling at all.
He remembered from when he could feel them all from the inside.
Bucky was going limp under his touch, the tension and the pain letting him go. When he was completely pliant, Steve asked, "How do you feel about Colorado?"
Bucky's voice was muffled. "I don't know. Why?"
Steve smoothed his hands slowly down Bucky's back. Did it again. "It might be worth checking out."
He didn't reply right away. Steve kept running his hands down Bucky's back, slowly, gently, until Bucky turned his head enough to see Steve. "Explain?"
"Max said there's a guy in Colorado we could talk to."
Bucky looked torn. "How does Max know him?"
Steve was quiet, watching his hands as they moved across Bucky's skin, before he replied, "He said it's where he stopped running."
Bucky breathed out, looked down at the bed, looked back at Steve. "What do you think?"
"I think it can't hurt."
Harold Wright was older than they'd expected, at least seventy, but he moved like he was made of ancient oak and steel cables. His hair was completely white, his face a mass of wrinkles, but he stood tall and straight, his skin the colour of mahogany, nearly six foot of whipcord strength.
He was easy to find: there was only one garage in town and it shared his name.
Steve did recon, stopping in to buy replacement wiper blades for the truck, striking up a brief conversation about the weather. Harold Wright showed no inclination to be charmed by Steve's smile. He was one of its first failures.
They watched for a few days, parking the truck out of easy sight of the garage where Bucky, with his superior eyesight, could just see it, moving it regularly to different locations. No one noticed them, or so they thought. On the third day there was a knock on the driver's side window. Harold Wright was standing outside. When Bucky rolled the window down he passed in a thermos of coffee, told them when they were ready to talk to come into the office.
Harold hadn't known what they were doing there, but he was prepared to hear them out. When they mentioned Max, Harold had nodded thoughtfully. Mentioned a couple of places they could stay, a couple of things they might want to think about it.
When Bucky showed him what he could do with an engine, Harold offered him a job.
"What do you want to do?" Steve asked.
"I want to stop running. For as long as we can."
Steve kissed Bucky's temple. "Me too."
"Whatever you want to do, Bucky. You know I'm with you."
"Whatever we want to do." Bucky wrapped his metal fingers around Steve's wrist and Steve smiled against his hair. "We're in this together."
"Then say yes."
Weeks went past and they waited. Waited for it all to come crashing down. Waited for someone to come crashing in to try and take them. Both were confident they wouldn't succeed: they didn't go anywhere unarmed and were always alert, Harold tolerant of Steve's presence at the garage, especially when Steve was willing to look after his paperwork.
A month in, Harold handed Bucky a folded piece of paper with a name and a phone number and told him maybe it was time for them to think about somewhere besides the cheap motel.
The name and number belonged to a woman who owned a house: too small, too old, too isolated to be of interest to much of anyone. It butted up against the national forest so if they had to run they could melt into the forest and disappear.
They moved out of the motel.
The house may have been small and it may have been old, but it was solid, built to last. The walls were cream and the floors were wood, smooth with years of use. The first floor was open, the kitchen running into the living room, an old oak dining table splitting the space. A big bellied woodstove and a huge overstuffed couch, big enough to hold both of them, filled the living room. The entire second floor was the bedroom, part of it split off for the bathroom which held a claw-footed bathtub with a rigged-up shower. In the morning, the windows filled the entire house with light. Everything about the house was warm. Was soft. Was gentle.
Neither of them really knew what to make of it, but they gradually got used to it.
They gradually relaxed.
They gradually started to believe no one was coming for them.
Bucky looked up from washing the dishes. "What?"
"I'm pretty sure this girl meant to offer dog grooming services but she must have used one of those automatic translators and let’s just say she's offering something very different."
"What's she offering?" He turned around to look at Steve, who was sitting at the desk they'd fit along one wall of the living room.
Steve looked back at him and raised both his eyebrows.
"Oh. OH." Bucky started to laugh. "Shit, okay, that's funny."
"Bucky! The poor kid. I'm going to send her the right translation. She obviously has no idea." He was already typing out an email. His gift of tongues was still intact, whatever else had changed. He wasn't really paying attention, didn't notice Bucky walking up behind him.
"You're like a knight in shining armour sometimes, you know?" He leaned down, wrapped his arms around Steve.
"I think I'm kind of the opposite of that."
"A knight in tarnished armour?" Bucky suggested. Steve's mouth quirked up in spite of himself as he finished the email and sent it off. He glanced at Bucky who was hanging over his shoulder, looking unexpectedly serious. "You are, though. You're always helping people."
"Really." Bucky leaned over further and kissed the tip of his nose. "You know I'm right."
"Yes, Bucky," he said, rolling his eyes.
"Smart ass." He gripped Steve's chin in his hand, lifted it, and kissed him properly, warm and deep, and when he pulled back Steve's eyes were half closed and he was smiling dopily. "Don't argue with me," he said and went back to the dishes.
The next day Steve had a grateful and very embarrassed email from the girl and a query as to how much he'd charge to do some regular translation work. He came up with some numbers, sent them back and didn't think any more about it. Until he got three more queries from different people and then six more and then five more after that.
When he showed them to Bucky, he started laughing because only Steve, he said, could stop someone from becoming an inadvertent dog pimp and wind up finding a job.
Gunnison was an interesting town with an interesting mix of people: college students, people from the ski lodges, normal people living their lives, farmers from the outlying areas, and of course everyone who came in to get their vehicles looked after at Harold Wright's garage.
It didn't usually involve people screaming in a panic, but there was a first time for everything.
"Watch out!" Steve looked up warily, shifting automatically into a fighting stance, scanning the street for danger. When all he saw was a goat, barrelling down the street, he relaxed. Because it was a goat. Obviously an escaped goat, but still just a goat.
"Hey," he called to it, because he didn't really know how you talked to a goat. "Should you really be on the street? You could get hurt."
The goat changed directions and started running towards Steve, not slowing down.
"Shit, son. RUN." It was the same voice from before. "RUN.'
Steve's eyes narrowed, because it was a goat. He crouched down and held out his hand like he would for a dog. The goat slid to a stop a foot in front of him and gave him the most intelligent look he'd ever seen in an animal. "Hi?"
There were a few seconds where he had a definite feeling of being weighed and measured and then he was sitting on his ass in the street and he had a lap full of goat. It was incredibly uncomfortable. The goat had its head on his shoulder and was folding its awkwardly long legs and dropping its full weight down on him. "Good goat," he said and started scratching its head between the curving horns. The goat leaned against his chest and sighed.
Steve was aware of people starting to walk towards him. It was sort of embarrassing but the goat seemed pretty comfortable so he didn't really want to disturb it. He figured whoever owned it would be along any minute to collect it and he could deal with a little embarrassment until then. He looked up to a ring of people staring down at him. Their faces ranged from awed to horrified. "Uh, does anyone know who owns this goat?"
A man Steve thought was probably a farmer nodded his head thoughtfully a few times. "I think you do."
Steve looked down at the goat. The goat looked up at him, slotted eyes framed by ridiculously long eyelashes. "Excuse me?"
"That goat hates everyone in the world. Everyone. I once saw him break a man's arm."
"Yeah, but that was Jared and Jared's an asshole," one of the bystanders pointed out.
"Possibly a deserving man, but still a man with a broken arm. He's a terror, a devil. There's not one person on this whole planet he likes." The goat started nibbling affectionately on Steve's shirt. "Except apparently you. So either I take him to the slaughterhouse where he's going to end up as dog food or you're now the proud owner of a goat."
If Bucky had come back from the bakery even ten minutes sooner, their lives might have been very different. He wouldn't have found Steve sitting on the curb holding a piece of orange baling twine with a goat attached to one end. Not just any goat, either. A big, black, floppy-eared, curly-horned, evil looking goat that took one look at him and lunged, head down. Steve leapt to his feet and threw his arms around the goat. "No, that's Bucky. Don't attack him."
It stopped, but pawed its hoof and gave Bucky an evil glare. Bucky wasn't impressed. He'd been glared at by Romanian goats. "What."
Steve gave him a weak smile. "How do you feel about goats?"
"As a meal?"
"No!" He put a protective hand on the goat's head and Bucky knew they were doomed.
"What did you do?"
"You boys have got yourself a pet," a farmer called out from across the road. Bucky was going to assume he was the source of the goat. "He likes your friend when he doesn't like anyone so he agreed to take him home."
Bucky gave him a glare a Romanian goat would have been proud of and the farmer just laughed. "What's his name?" Bucky asked.
"Lucifer," he replied with a grin and drove off.
Steve went so pale Bucky thought he was going to faint. "We can't call him that. Bucky, we really can't."
"Lucy," Bucky suggested.
"Lucy, okay. That's better."
Which was how they wound up with a goat who hated everyone in the world except Steve. Steve, he adored. Bucky actually found it damned cute, watching the long-eared bastard trot placidly after Steve as if he wasn't evil incarnate, although he'd throw himself off the nearest cliff before he'd admit it.
They'd both had shitty nights, Bucky's first nightmare in months deciding to pay a visit, and now they were fighting. Bucky didn't even know what they were fighting about. Steve had insisted on staying awake to watch over him afterwards, even though Bucky had told him not to. Sometimes he just wouldn't listen. Would stubbornly insist on doing what he thought was right, no matter what Bucky said. So they were both tired. Both irritated. It had just spilled over. Bucky thought maybe it was something to do with the kitchen. Maybe something to do with the groceries. Something completely unimportant, something no one would ever give a shit about.
Yet here they were, yelling at each other. Standing in the living room and biting at each other with words.
He didn't even know what they were fighting about. All he knew was that he was mad as hell and he wanted to make sure Steve knew just how damned mad he was. Judging by the way Steve was glaring back at him, he was pretty sure Steve knew, pretty sure Steve was just as mad.
He didn't even know what they were fighting about, but he was yelling at Steve. Telling him Why don't you go hang out with your damned goat? At least I know you like him. Steve's eyes got even narrower and his mouth tightened, then he was storming out the door and slamming it behind him, leaving Bucky standing alone in the middle of their living room.
They'd never had a fight before.
Bucky just kept standing there, the satisfaction of seeing Steve leave, the sense that he'd won, draining out of him along with the anger. Leaving him hollow. Empty. Afraid. He knew it was stupid. It was just a dumb fight. Steve would come back, but logic had left the building along with Steve and he was afraid.
He was still standing there when Steve slipped back in through the front door half an hour later and leaned against it. "Hi."
Something that could have passed for a tired smile slipped across Bucky's face. "Not really."
"Can I come over there?"
Steve walked over to stand in front of him. Bucky desperately wanted to wrap himself around Steve, but he felt like he couldn't, like he wasn't allowed, like he'd yelled at Steve and that meant he couldn't touch him, couldn't— Steve reached out and hauled him close, interrupting the spiral of his thoughts and Bucky's fear ran away like water under the strength of his arms, the warmth of him. He sighed, pressed closer, his arms tight around Steve. "The stupid thing is I don't even know what we were fighting about."
"The stupider thing? Neither do I."
Bucky started to laugh into Steve's shoulder. "We're both idiots."
"Sometimes we really are." Steve loosened his hold a little so he could kiss him. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
They stood together, Bucky with his forehead pressed into Steve's shoulder, until Steve said, "I have an idea. Want to hear it?"
Bucky pulled back so he could see Steve's face. "What?"
"Repeating the same thing isn't an explanation, Steve."
Steve smiled and kissed him again. "Fight safe words. If we're having a fight and it's too much, we can safe word out. And we stop fighting."
"I don't think it works like that."
Bucky didn't actually have an answer to that. Not able to shake the feeling that it was kind of dumb, he came up with a safe word, mostly to make Steve happy. He thought it was dumb, because right then and there he was sure they wouldn't have another fight, and he thought it was dumb because, even if they did have another fight, who was going to stop in the middle of it because one of them said a word?
But of course they had another fight. They had a bunch of them, most of them stupid, blowing over like pale clouds on a windy day, leaving them laughing at each other's stupidity more often than not. It was a gift, being able to laugh at each other.
The first time Bucky used his he didn't really expect it to work. Steve was angry, his eyes stormy blue, his jaw set. When Bucky said it, it was almost a whisper, because he'd been putting on a good front up to that point, but he wasn't at his strongest right then. So he said his safe word and waited, not expecting it to work.
He should have known better.
Steve had taken a deep breath, rolled his shoulders, and then reached out for him. Pulled him close and held him.
Sometimes they kept on fighting afterwards, when whoever had used theirs was feeling better. Most of the time they didn't, whatever had gotten them riled up having worked its way out of their systems by then.
It was a good system. It worked for them.
Steve never stopped being just a little bit smug about the fact that he'd thought of it.
Their life wasn't perfect. It would never be perfect because they could never be perfect. They were both flawed, would always be flawed, but they fit, their jagged pieces slotting together to create something greater than the sum of their parts.
Bucky had been smashed apart again and again. Steve had put him back together from inside his mind as best he could but Bucky would never be entirely whole. He would always have pieces that were missing, pieces that didn't fit. There would always be days when he wasn't strong, when his mind was too small for his body, when noises were too loud, when people were too much, when he couldn't find the will that had carried him through so much of everything they'd been through.
But he was never alone. It made even the worst days bearable, because he was never alone. Steve was always there, would always be there. Bucky knew Hell existed, and he knew Heaven existed, but the only thing in which he truly had faith was Steve.
Steve didn't even know what he was. Demon? Fallen angel? Something else entirely? He found he didn't much care. He was Bucky's and that was enough for him. As long as he was Bucky's he knew what he was and where he belonged.
They never stopped being able to run. They both had emergency packs and there was a cache, deep in the forest, with weapons and supplies and money and copies of Bucky's notebooks, sealed in shrink wrap.
Somewhere along the line, being able to stopped being ready to. Stopped being ready to drop everything and bolt at a moment's notice.
Somewhere along the line, this place had begun to feel like home.
The jeep meandered slowly up the driveway, as if the person driving it was being careful not to startle them. That, more than anything, put them on high alert. By the time it reached the house they were both standing on the porch, Steve slightly in front of Bucky to hide the gun Bucky was holding, Bucky wearing long sleeves and a glove to hide his metal arm.
When Hawkeye stepped out, dressed in civilian clothes, the gun was up and pointing at him in seconds. Hawkeye lifted his hands in the air. "I come in peace. I didn't even bring my bow," he said, then paused and added, "I'm not carrying it, anyway."
"What do you want?" Bucky asked, the gun unwavering.
"I'm actually here to give you some advance warning so you don't do anything dramatic. Like pull a gun on an unarmed man."
Bucky snorted and Hawkeye looked at him. "I doubt you're unarmed."
"Well, no," he admitted. "In a few minutes my boss and his boss are going to show up to talk to you. And it would be great if you could maybe not pull any guns on them, maybe hear them out. I mean, it would be great if you could also stop pointing that gun at me, but I'm not holding out for miracles."
Steve and Bucky exchanged a glance. "What do you want?" Bucky repeated.
"Like I said, advance warning. Nothing dramatic. Stop pointing the gun at me?" he added hopefully. Bucky sighed and lowered it so it was pointing at the ground. "Huh, I didn't think that would work. So, my boss has actually known where you were for a while now." Steve looked alarmed. "But he hasn't done anything. Now his boss wants to talk to you. I didn't want you to get blindsided."
"I thought you hated us. Demon," Steve pointed at himself, "assassin," he pointed at Bucky, "remember?"
He scratched the back of his neck. "I might feel a bit bad about that. Especially after you did help me out a couple of times." A complicated expression, one Steve didn't understand, passed over his face, ending in a fond smile. "Someone told me I might have some red in my ledger."
"Yeah." He cautiously approached the porch and walked up two steps to offer his hand to Steve. "Clint Barton. Nice to meet you."
Steve stared at it, then met Clint's eyes. "Are you sure you want to do that?" he asked gently.
"Pretty sure, yeah." Slowly, giving Clint plenty of time to change his mind, Steve shook his hand. Clint didn't pull away and his handshake was firm. "I thought that would be scarier."
"Just don't make a habit of it with any other demons, okay?"
"That's not going to be a problem." He looked at Bucky, who scowled and kept scowling until Steve looked at him, too, then he sighed.
"For fuck's sake. Fine." He switched the gun to his left hand, held out his right impatiently, and when Clint shook it said, "Bucky."
A black car pulled into the driveway and they all turned to look at it. After a pleading look from Clint, Bucky made the gun disappear.
A balding, incredibly average looking man in a very well-tailored suit got out of the driver's side and his eyes landed on Clint. "Barton." It was bland, revealing only the tiniest hint of exasperation. "Is there a reason you're here?"
Clint winced. "Sir, you didn't order me not to show up."
The man in the suit said, "We'll be talking about this later."
A tall man with dark skin that seemed to eat the sunlight stepped out of the car, his long black coat swirling around him. He had an eye-patch over one eye and he surveyed the area around him like a newly arrived conqueror.
It instantly put Steve on edge and he could hear the quiet whine of Bucky's arm plates rearranging themselves. The noise attracted the man's attention.
Wordlessly, Steve and Bucky conferred and left the porch. Neither of them wanted him that close to their house and they could tell this wasn't someone who'd give them the advantage of high ground.
Their decision seemed to amuse him, visible only in the miniscule twitch of his lips. He studied them blatantly, making no attempt to hide what he was doing, his eyes lingering longest on Bucky's left arm, as if he could see the metal even through Bucky's shirt, through his glove.
When he finally spoke, he said, "Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD. Agent Barton here has spoken well of both of you. Despite that, I'm here to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative."
They declined the invitation.
If the straits were ever dire enough, they told Fury, end of the world dire, he could call on them and they'd help. Otherwise, they simply wanted to live their lives in the peace they'd been searching for, that they'd fought so hard for, and had finally found.
Fury seemed to accept it. Said he accepted it. Told them only four people in SHIELD knew they existed: the three of them here today and Barton's partner. Promised it'd stay that way, that they'd be left alone, that there was no need to run.
Clint muttered in Steve's ear as they were leaving that Fury always played his cards close to his chest, that he'd never give up a secret like this. That they really were safe.
Weeks passed while they held themselves on a knife's edge.
No one came for them.
Gradually, they relaxed.
Well, Steve relaxed. As long as Lucy was alive and kicking, butting, biting and generally attempting to bruise whatever parts of Bucky's person he could get hooves, horns or teeth on, Bucky could never completely relax.
"You know, we could probably sell him for dog food. There must be at least ten pounds of meat on him."
"Bucky, no." Steve's disappointed face wasn't something he could resist and Bucky sighed and pulled him down for a long kiss, threading his right hand into Steve's hair, pressing his metal palm against the small of his back. The sun was bright above them, shining in a perfect blue sky, and he smiled against Steve's mouth as Steve pressed closer, winding his arms tightly around Bucky.
They'd come so far. When Steve had taken refuge in Bucky's mind he'd been trying to save himself. Instead, he'd saved Bucky when he'd had no reason to. When he should have taken one look at the horror in his mind and fled.
Some days, Bucky still couldn't believe they were here.
People said it was impossible to know the future, but Bucky knew they were wrong. He could see the future. Maybe they'd stay here forever. Maybe someday they'd have to run. Maybe someday Fury would call, say the straits were so dire the world needed them to fight. Bucky knew they'd both answer that call, without hesitation.
Even with all that uncertainty, all those things he couldn’t know, he still knew what the future held: it held them. Whatever it took, whatever they had to do, whatever the odds, they'd be together until the end.
Thank you so much for reading. This originally began, like so many things do, as something that was supposed to be short and not serious and it took on a life of its own.
I spent a bit of time working out what some of the broader ramifications of this AU might be. They're rambly, but you can read them on my Dreamwidth if you're interested.