Last Mission

by Tenshi

Put your lies in a box
How have they worked for you?
Did they win you back
The things that you lost?
Put your shame in a box
How could you be so wrong?
You sit there broken
And the world moves on
- Gary Numan - The Fall

"Were we lovers?"

Steve, to his credit, did not drop the frying pan on his foot. Bucky was standing between the kitchen and the hallway, sloped up against the doorjamb in that familiar way of his. Steve had seen him that way countless times: in army barracks ankle-deep in mud and misery, in ancient cathedrals where the parishioners had buried the stained glass windows to keep them safe, in bombed-out buildings where sometimes the door frame was all that was left standing. Every time it brought back Steve's childhood home, with the water-stained wallpaper and that horrible lamp with the pom-pom trim, and Bucky wedged in the doorway with a smile on his face and mischief in his eyes.

But this time, the Bucky in the doorway was blurry-eyed and unsteady, a man ransacked by endless battles between opposing forces. Never before had Bucky's pose held the taut, defensive lines of one too-often invaded.

"Before," Bucky clarified, as though he could have been talking about any number of other times. Really, there were no other times. There was Before, which in Bucky's mind was a shattered landscape of shifting memories, and After, which started a week ago with the Winter Soldier turning up on Steve's proverbial doorstep and ended now, with Bucky in Steve's actual kitchen, asking if they'd slept together.

"No," Steve said, to the frying pan.

Most of the time, when Bucky's halting memories prompted him to ask a question, he accepted Steve's answer with a nod and little more. This time, he frowned. "I thought--"

Steve cracked an egg on the side of the pan with a brisk, businesslike gesture. "It wasn't the sort of thing we would have talked about back then."

There was a telling pause as Bucky stood there motionless, calculating. "Or now, I guess," he said. "Since that's the first time you've lied to me."

Steve didn't crack the second egg so much as he crushed it, bits of shell and white dribbling out of his hand and onto the stove. He sighed, reaching for the paper towels. "I'm not lying to you. You just don't remember--"

"I remember enough to know you're hiding something."

"Only something you didn't even remember before you died--" Steve bit back the rest of what he was going to say, and tried to get all the bits of shell out of the pan.

Bucky didn't make a sound, and Steve didn't hear him coming. He was just suddenly at Steve's elbow as though he materialized there, and his brows were lowered, his voice dangerous. "Didn't. Remember. What."

The splatter of egg had long since been wiped away, but Steve kept rubbing the paper towel between the stove burners, his shoulders bowed as though in defeat. "Some things are better off not being remembered, Buck," he said softly. "That's one of them."

Bucky's face clouded up with the speed of a summer storm, but he didn't have a chance to let it loose. There was a knock from the side door, sharp and businesslike, just as the knob turned. Bucky's arm moved too fast to follow, and with a hiss of torn air something crunched into the wall at high velocity. In the aftermath Sam Wilson stood in the kitchen doorway, eyes wide on the butterknife embedded three inches deep in the door frame, still vibrating.

"I knocked this time!" he insisted. "I totally knocked!"

"Knock better next time." Bucky strode across the kitchen and wrenched the knife out of the wall. There were several other adjacent notches, from other thrown utensils. Bucky was, as Steve put it, still a little jumpy. (Sam, on the other hand, would have called him plain old homicidal.) "Did you get everything?"

"Yeah, yeah." Sam sidled into the kitchen, still wary. He had an overstuffed rucksack slung over one shoulder. "Though getting this kinda shit ain't easy for a normal guy like me, you know."

"A normal guy like you, with a flying jetpack and us for friends?" Steve cocked an eyebrow at Sam and then went back to making fried egg sandwiches, glad for a reprieve from Bucky's interrogation. He wasn't ready to go down that road just yet.

"A broken flying jetpack," Sam reminded them, with a pointed look at Bucky, who was ignoring him and investigating the contents of the bag. "Not good for much unless I want to fly in circles straight down into the pavement."

"Might be useful on this mission," Bucky said, unfolding the map of the DC metro. The track paths writhed messily across the streetscape, accurate paths instead of little dots in bold colored bands like the usual simplified chart. Bucky made a little grunt of approval, and went back to the bag. "This phone you brought needs a charger."

"I've got one I think'll work," Steve said, plunking a plate for Bucky down on the table and heading for the bedroom. A moment later they could hear him opening and closing drawers. Bucky spread the map out on the kitchen table, doused the sandwich in black pepper, and chewed silently as he pored over the track and tunnel exchanges. Sam might as well have been invisible.

Sam stuck a hand in his jeans pocket and fidgeted with the coil of shot-bead chain inside. He opened his mouth, shut it again. He couldn't quite bring himself to call the man Bucky, but calling him You wasn't the opening he wanted.

"Hey," he said, and pulled the rattling necklace out of his pocket. "...Sarge."

Bucky looked up at him, and somehow, behind the guarded expression and the ragged ponytail, Sam could see a shadow of the man laughing in the silent films at the Smithsonian. There was a flicker of it sometimes, when Bucky was talking to Steve, but Sam had never gotten the full force of it. It made his throat close up with some unspoken emotion. If it was Riley there, coming back to me this way, he thought, I wouldn't do a damn thing different than Steve.

"I got these made for you," Sam continued, and tossed the dogtags to Bucky. Bucky's arm flashed as he snatched them out of the air, his small frown turning into recognition, and then to something else, as he looked down at his name and serial number glinting back at him. Sam cleared his throat, and waved his hand around a little. "Lotta my guys, you know, down at the VA-- that's their most precious possession. Keeps 'em grounded sometimes in the middle of the night, when they wake up and can't remember who they are and what the hell they're doing. I thought you might... you know. You don't have to wear 'em or anything--"

"Thanks, Sam." Bucky's metal fingers closed around the dogtags, and when he looked up at Sam it was as though he'd finally decided Sam wasn't an enemy. It was certainly the first time that he'd used his name.

"Sure." Sam swallowed, and wondered if he was pushing his luck. "I had to look up your number, and it kinda surprised me." Bucky's body tensed in something like warning, but Sam pressed on. "...Steve doesn't know you were drafted, does he."

Bucky looked at Sam, and then past him, as though 1941 was somewhere just over Sam's left shoulder. "I was going to tell him," Bucky said. "After the war was over."

"War's been over a long time, Sarge."

Slowly, deliberately, Bucky pulled the shot-bead chain over his head, and the dogtags clinked against his breastbone. "No," he said. "It's just getting started."

"Found it," Steve said, coming back into the kitchen and tossing a phone charger onto Bucky's map. If he had heard any of their conversation, he pretended otherwise. But Sam didn't think he imagined the look Steve gave the dogtags resting on the front of Bucky's black tank top. He exchanged a glance with Sam, who shrugged, but Steve didn't ask about the new tags. "You want a sandwich, Sam? Egg and tomato?"

"I'm cool, thanks." Truth be told, Sam was feeling a little too jittery for sandwiches. Bucky had Steve's capacity to eat whatever, whenever, and Sam figured that was natural for two guys who grew up in an era of stuffed pigeon and powdered milk, but he could never eat when he was keyed up. "So what exactly is it we're about to do?"

"We're about to break into this bank vault," Bucky said, circling a section of map and licking a bit of runaway tomato juice off his wrist at the same time.

"A bank vault? Please tell me I'm not the only one who thinks that's a really bad idea." Sam looked to Steve for some backup, but Captain America looked pretty serene about the prospect of something so illegal.

"The lower vault's a front," Steve explained, passing a napkin to Bucky, who ignored it. "It was being used by Hydra as a base for the Winter Soldier and his control team... their asset."

Bucky shuddered, just enough to make his dogtags clink, and stared harder at the metro map. Sam had the courtesy not to comment, knowing all too well that damage was just damage and sometimes the best thing to do was admit that and move on.

"What are we looking for there?"

Bucky sat back in his chair and flexed his metal arm. The plates shifted soundlessly over his circuits, and his smile was grim. "The last seventy years of my life."

Just walking onto the metro, loaded down with weaponry and explosives, was out of the question. D.C. was a city poised for terrorist attack from any quarter, and Steve, especially, was not keen on the idea of being mistaken for the kind of forces they were out to eliminate. Instead they took a back way in, down a culvert and into a service tunnel. One of Sam's vets worked for the metro, and had provided him with both the map and a wealth of information. It did not prove much of a challenge for Captain America, and for the Winter Soldier, he might as well have been walking down to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes.

Though Steve didn't think Bucky smoked anymore. Decades of Hydra brainwashing seemed to have taken care of that habit.

He followed Bucky down a narrow passage ledge, Sam cautiously taking up the rear. Through gaps in the tunnel, they could see the metro trains rush by like great burrowing monsters, their electric wheels screeching as they went, lights bursting in thunderbolt-flickers. Dressed in stealth-black as they crept along the walkways, the three soldiers were indistinguishable from the soot-streaked walls.

Steve wondered if Bucky was uncomfortable around trains, if he even remembered his fall well enough to have a fear of them. From his silent, unhurried stride, it seemed impossible that Bucky would be afraid of anything. He had not asked about the past--in any part--since the confrontation in the kitchen. Steve didn't know if it was real or imagined, the slight edge of mistrust that had tainted their interactions since. Literally speaking, Bucky couldn't help but give people the cold shoulder, but Steve thought it had been a little colder than usual the past couple of days.

Bucky cut off Steve's ruminations with a curt gesture, and they dropped down to cross the tracks, jumping the live rail and swinging up an iron ladder into the city's drainage system. Steve remembered nights in the Paris underground, his team packed in low tunnels with the grinning dead of ages past, when the musty age of the air overwhelmed the omnipresent war-smells of sweat and smoke and cosmoline. Bucky had been there, too. Quieter, because the war had been going on for longer, cleaning the sights on his rifle and meditating on the number of dead men's faces he'd seen through it.

"Here," Bucky said, and the catacombs around them became things of modern invention, bland cement and industrial graffiti. "The back wall of the vault is just on the other side, here."

Sam eyed the concrete wall uneasily. "When we take this out, it's not going to bring the whole metro down on us, is it? I don't want to die squashed under Dupont Circle."

"Would Georgetown be better?" Steve asked, while Bucky rummaged around in his backpack. "I think we're technically closer to it by now."

"Wouldn't fall very far, since there's no metro under Georgetown," Sam answered, and narrowed his eyes. "Folks here didn't want undesirables to be able to hitch a train to their part of town. Though they said it was something about the historical street structure."

"Or the fact that there used to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. research facility already under it somewhere," Steve gave Sam a grin. "Unofficially, of course. I guess the scientists wanted easy access to La Madeleine or something--"

"Got it," Bucky said, placing a deceptively small smear of explosive putty in one crack. "Back up."

"Aw, dammit," Sam said, as they scooted back a few paces, and Steve held up his shield. "I hate explosives. I can't even open a damn can of biscuits without getting worked up."

Steve glanced at him over his shoulder. "Don't like loud noises?"

"Don't like not knowing when--" There was a dull thud of concussion, and Sam made a face. "--that's going to happen."

"Wasn't much of an explosion," Steve said, as Bucky's flashlight beam cut through the dust and smoke, and illuminated a blackened crack of cement.

"You do want Georgetown to land on your head?" Bucky said, his metal fingers shining as they flicked out little chunks of rubble, revealing a jagged gap less than a foot wide.

It was Steve's turn to grimace. "No, but that's hole's awfully small for us to--"

Without breaking eye contact with Steve, Bucky curled his artificial hand into a fist and thrust it into the wall. There was a whine of straining electronics, and spiderweb cracks around his wrist expanded into thick crevices a second before a whole section of wall crumpled inwards, leaving an opening big enough to slide through. "Structural flaws," Bucky said, dusting off his arm. "Most pre-poured concrete walls will have them."

"Did you know that?" Sam asked Steve, in an undertone.

"Yeah, I knew that," Steve answered, equally low, and too fast.

"I totally knew that too," Sam agreed, just as quickly.

Bucky paused just long enough to give them a dubious rise of the eyebrow before easing through the opening and into the darkness beyond. Steve followed, shield-first, and Sam was hard on his heels. From far away beyond the gap came the sound of a train, but the air around them had a cold, metallic stillness, like a tomb.

"No heat signatures." Bucky's voice came from somewhere close by, and Steve heard his armor creak. "Minimal electrical interference. Looks clean."

"Find us a light, Sam."

"Try by the door," Bucky suggested. "To your left and forward."

Sam's flashlight beam bounced around the room, on thick sinews of electrical cables, on the glittering, square doors of numerous deposit-boxes.

"Got it," Sam said, and there was the thud of a breaker activating, and the room revealed itself in a splutter of fluorescent light. It was clear they were the first people there in some while. The facilities in the room had been set up in haste, with the intent, no doubt, that they would be just as quickly disassembled. Nothing excessive was in evidence; the equipment was streamlined for one very specific purpose. There were computer monitors on spindly telescoping arms, and a tray of tools, their delicate prongs and gauges conveying purposes both arcane and sinister. But in the center of the room was the most telling artifact: a black padded chair bolted firmly to the floor, with restraint bands gaping open like mocking mouths. Mounted to the back of it was a black carapace of electronics rimmed with lights, hinged to descend over the person in the chair.

Standing two yards away from it, Bucky had gone very still.

Steve's eyes went from Bucky's empty face, to his curled fists, to the teeth-marks in the mouth guard tossed among the tools, and he thought he might vomit. "Buck," he said, reaching out a hand that he didn't quite put on Bucky's shoulder. He wanted to say something else, some consolation or promise, but all the words shriveled on his tongue. There was nothing he could say. And he could not pull Bucky from that suffocating room, wrap him up in his arms, and cover his eyes. He could not burn the whole building--and every other building from there to Moscow--down to slag and forget it. No matter how much he might want to, he couldn't, and it wouldn't change a thing if he could. That black chair was part of Bucky now, an indelible pain, the one memory his masters had let him keep.

Bucky took one slow breath, and in a little motion, brought his shoulder up to meet the palm of Steve's hand. "It's okay," he said, and then, "I'm okay," though it wasn't and he wasn't. "Let's clear this place out."

"Tell me what you want," Steve said.

Bucky straightened, an almost imperceptible tightening of his spine, and looked at something other than the chair. "These terminals," he said, "though probably everything would be on a usb drive, not here."

"Worth a shot, though," Sam said, and began unhooking cables from the back of the chair.

Bucky was moving across the room, but there was very little else to be found. "Anything that looks like it's got data on me or Hydra, I want it."

"You got it," Steve said, but Bucky caught him by the sleeve before he could turn away to help Sam.



Bucky's pause was slight, but it was enough to tell Steve that he'd thought of several things to say, and decided not to say them. "...I'll want the tools for my arm, too. And there's some backup parts in that cart over there. It's not like I can get a regular service anymore." His eyes got the better of him, darting over to the looming shape of the chair, and the set of his mouth became an uncrossable line.

Steve couldn't give an answer for anything Bucky wasn't going to say; he nodded once and went to do as he'd been asked. It was, he thought, all he could really do.


"I'm surprised Hydra hadn't been back to clean all that out already," Sam said, once they were all back out into the tunnels, their knapsacks full of any hardware they could strip. Bucky had lingered a few minutes after Steve and Sam were back in the tunnel, making--Steve supposed--whatever peace with his former life he could manage to make. Once he was finished he'd set off down the tunnels at a brisk pace, eager to get back and examine their findings, or eager to leave the place behind, Steve wasn't sure.

"Most of Hydra's local operatives were on the helicarriers," Steve explained, trying to read some portent in the mute set of Bucky's shoulders in front of him. "I guess there was nobody here to do the cleanup, or--"

"Wrong," Bucky said, coming to a halt so suddenly that Steve almost ran into him, and Sam's shoes squeaked on the tight walkway as he tried to avoid getting a face-full of Steve's shield. "There was one Hydra operative still in play, and it was his job to make sure to eliminate all traces of the Winter Soldier's presence."

"Well, why didn't he finish the job?" Steve asked, and then his voice trailed off. Bucky was holding up a slim little transmitter, his thumb hovering over the single red button. He glanced back at Steve, and his smile was unmistakable as his thumb came down. A thunderous boom shook the tunnel all around them as the bank vault exploded, taking with it the black chair, the brainwashing machine, and all the walls that had absorbed Bucky's screams.

"He just did," Bucky said, and shifted the weight of the pack on his shoulder. "My last mission for Hydra." And then he was off again, with his dangerous, unrushed stride, and his head held higher than Steve had seen it since before the war. "Pick it up, you two," he said, from the darkness ahead, as Steve and Sam took a moment to follow. "I don't think Georgetown will collapse on us, but it might."

"You probably already know this, Steve," Sam said, with a glance over his shoulder, "But your friend's batshit crazy."

"Yeah," Steve said, smiling as he hurried after Bucky, "I know."


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