The Corrupt and the Pure • Chapters 31-34
Chapter 31: The Soldier
The flight to Philadelphia wasn’t going to take long, but when on the trail of a man who seemed to get spooked even by his own shadow, it was hardly feasible to expect him to just stay put until they reached him.
Tony was in the process of suiting up and had just pushed a communication device into his ear when J.A.R.V.I.S. contacted him:
“Sir, the target has gone indoors. I have lost visual.”
Tony glanced at Steve, checking his expression; clearly he was not yet aware of the situation because there was no change in his light scowl of concentration. “No cameras inside the building?” he guessed, keeping his voice low.
“I am looking for one, but the building seems to be vacant. However, my brief search suggests the property might be a former HYDRA base.”
“We’ll have to assume that is not a coincidence,” Tony decided and stood up, stepping over to the coffin-sized metal container that housed the armor.
Around him, the others perked up at the movement, but aside from watching him proceed, no one moved to get up.
Tony laid his palm against the cool steel enclosing his suit. The scanner instantly read his bio-signature and the cover peeled back, revealing Mark 45 in all its freshly-buffed glory.
“Still no sign of James Barnes outside the building. What would you like me to do, sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. questioned.
“Stand by,” Tony ordered, checking Steve’s face once again. By now he was certain he was the only one aware of the new development, with the possible exception of Bruce. On the one hand, they had their man indoors, more contained than he would have been out on the street. But, on the other hand, what was a good HYDRA base without a few underground exists in the case of emergencies?
There was no way Barnes could know he was being tracked, but the moment they began their approach, he might run for it. While finding him again might be easier now that they knew what continent he was on, Tony had no doubts Barnes could make it very hard for them to pinpoint his location again.
Plus there was the Commander to consider…
Tony rapped his fingertips against the armor’s chest, ever so lightly, but it registered the motion and moved forward as Tony stepped back, then opened up at the front.
“What’s up?” Rhodey asked, standing up. Clearly he thought suiting up at this point was premature and took Tony’s actions as a sign that something was going on. He wasn’t wrong, of course.
“Barnes is on the move, and seeing as the Quinjet can go only so fast, I was thinking of going on ahead and making sure he doesn’t slip away.”
That got a reaction from Steve, but it was hard to say how exactly he felt about it. “We’re not that far out.”
“I don’t want to risk losing him when we’re so close,” Tony responded as the suit closed around him.
“I should come with you,” Steve said, standing up.
“No offense, Cap, but you’ll slow me down,” Tony countered, popping open the faceplate. “I just want to ensure he’s still there when you arrive,” he reassured the man. “I’m not trying to –” He was cut off by Rhodey walking over to where War Machine was standing and getting in the armor. “What are you doing?” Tony asked.
“Coming with you,” Rhodey said simply. “I can keep up,” he added a bit sharply.
Steve nodded slowly, approving but not liking it. “We’ll be just a few minutes behind you.”
Tony responded with a tiny salute, snapped the faceplate shut and then turned towards the ramp at the back of the Quinjet, Rhodey following him. They made short work of leaving the aircraft, dropping out fast to let the ramp close behind them, then they switched on the thrusters and shot up and past the Quinjet, speeding southwards.
“Is there anything I should know?” Rhodey asked after a little bit. A tiny symbol on the HUD told Tony that their conversation was being kept between them, as if Rhodey thought Tony was hiding something from the rest of the team.
Again, he was not wrong…
“Barnes entered a building a while ago. J.A.R.V.I.S. can’t track him there, and the last thing we need is him taking a detour to the sewers and shaking us off,” Tony replied, knowing it would be pointless to keep Rhodey out of the loop.
“He doesn’t know we’re onto him, right?” Rhodey asked, a frown apparent in his voice.
“I don’t think so, but I’d rather not waste the time it would take to look for him again,” Tony replied. “We have other pressing matters to take care of.”
Rhodey made a sound of agreement and they both accelerated slightly. Tony could have flown faster, seeing as his armor was lighter and more powerful than War Machine’s latest model, but this close to their destination it was pointless; he would need to start decelerating almost immediately to enter the city’s airspace at a safe speed.
Once they neared their target, Tony took the lead and spiraled down between buildings, performing a perfect landing in the very same alley where they had first spotted Barnes. Rhodey copied him, a slight tremor traveling across the pavement upon his touchdown; Tony barely felt it through the suit, but the HUD registered it in front of his eyes as a micro-earthquake.
Together they set out towards the end of the alley and the building their runaway super-soldier had entered. It was impossible to tell whether he was still inside, and Tony scanned the building as best he could, trying to get a heads-up on whether anyone was around. When the results came back cold save for a few rodents by the outer wall, he told himself it meant nothing.
“Are we expecting trouble?” Rhodey asked through the comm.
“Don’t know,” Tony replied honestly.
“He’s gonna hear us coming a mile away,” Rhodey observed. “If we’re aiming for stealth, we should ditch the suits.” He didn’t sound like he was about to jump on that; there was no knowing how Barnes was going to react once they came face to face with him – not even where Steve was concerned. Last time the guy had tried – and almost succeeded – in killing Captain America, and just because it was possible he had pulled Rogers’ ass out of the Potomac didn’t mean he was going to come quietly.
Tony had already been beaten up by a man injected with a super-soldier serum this week, and he wasn’t about to voluntarily repeat the experience if he could avoid it.
So, the armor it was.
They walked to the building at the end of the alley, making more than enough noise to alert their runaway if he was even remotely paying attention. It couldn’t be helped, though.
“What is this place?” Rhodey mused once they got closer. “It’s like a bunker; reinforced walls, safety windows…”
“An old HYDRA base – or that’s what J.A.R.V.I.S. thinks,” Tony replied, as casually as he could. Still, he could see a slight shift in Rhodey’s stance, even with the suit.
“Could be a number of things,” Tony reminded him. “Information, for one. Cap said he didn’t remember a whole lot, so old HYDRA hidey-holes are probably a good place for him to start piecing things together.”
“Or to look for something really dangerous to protect himself with,” Rhodey muttered.
“He’s a super-soldier. Doesn’t get much more dangerous than that.” That was perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, because Tony could think of a lot of things that were more dangerous than a guy with superhuman strength and agility.
“I’ve seen the footage, Tony; this one likes his guns.”
Tony turned to look at him pointedly, not saying anything, and saw Rhodey roll his eyes over the HUD. There were reasons why War Machine could never be as sleek as Tony’s Iron Man armors; he liked his weaponry way too much, as well as the additional girth of the suit. Tony had managed to shave it down a bit over the years, but Rhodey was always insistent on what he wanted – especially after the mess with AIM.
They found a door a little to their left. It was locked, but that was solved with a concentrated blast of a repulsor that punched the lock straight to oblivion. Normally Tony might have kicked down the door and not bothered, but just in case Barnes hadn’t yet become spooked by their approach, there was no reason to risk it even further.
On the inside, the building appeared empty. There was still an odd piece of furniture here and there, but mostly the place had been stripped. Nothing pointed towards the previous owners – no HYDRA symbols painted on the walls – but as Tony scanned the space from the inside, he could easily confirm Rhodey’s findings that the building had been shielded from unfriendly eyes.
“J, can you access the floor plan?” Tony asked.
“Negative, sir; they seem to be missing,” the AI responded almost immediately.
“Not surprising if the earlier tenants were indeed HYDRA,” Tony huffed and kept moving, stepping carefully. The floor seemed more than sturdy enough to hold the suit, nor did he see any traps, but they were still on a mission to find Barnes and it wouldn’t do to make any sudden moves.
Especially when the man suddenly appeared in front of them in a doorway, eyes flashing as he looked from one armor to the other.
Tony halted, as did Rhodey, and they all just looked at each other for a moment, the seconds dragging out. It was unlikely there was no other exit from the building, but Barnes’ body language was nervous, as if they were standing between him and his intended escape.
“We’re friends,” Tony spoke up before Barnes could make a run for it. “Well, friends of a friend.”
Clearly Barnes didn’t think he had any friends because he looked even more apprehensive if possible.
“We’re here to help,” Rhodey offered.
The Winter Soldier licked his lips, still moving his eyes between the two of them. Tony saw his left arm shift – the metal one – but otherwise he didn’t seem to be armed. Beneath the baseball cap, his hair was tangled and dirty, and he needed a set of clean clothes.
Imagining that the suits of armor weren’t exactly adding to his comfort, Tony made a rash decision he knew he might come to regret very soon: he opened up the armor and stepped outside, raising his hands as Barnes jumped back slightly. “I’m not here to hurt you – but someone else is on his way, and I’m intending to take you to safety before that happens.”
Barnes’ eyes narrowed. He wasn’t much of a talker, obviously, but at this point it would have helped to get at least a tiny peep out of him.
“Do you know who I am?” Tony asked. It wasn’t an ego thing, but if Barnes couldn’t tell whether he was a good guy or a HYDRA member trying to pin him down, then they were in for a whole lot of trouble.
Rhodey shifted but didn’t actually take a step, and Tony willed him to be patient while he looked at Barnes, maintaining eye-contact even though he knew it might just antagonize the other more. But, as long as Barnes wasn’t looking away, Tony saw no reason to go for an extra soft approach.
“Stark,” Barnes finally muttered, voice rough. It didn’t sound like he had talked a lot lately.
Tony nodded slowly. “I don’t know if you remember who you are – recently or in the past. Don’t know whether you remember Steve Rogers, either. All I need you to do is to trust me and my team for a little bit: we’re here to help.”
Rhodey made a tiny noise of agreement, which came out a little scrambled through the sound system of the suit.
Barnes seemed to be thinking something over, still looking ready to bolt if he had the chance. Frankly, he had the advantage here, because following someone like him, in a suit, in an urban area, was bound to be a challenge.
“Who’s coming for me?” Barnes asked finally. “HYDRA?” His voice was blank, like he was cautious not to show emotion when it came to the people who had mutilated and brainwashed him.
“Kind of,” Tony admitted. “It’s complicated and somewhat confusing.”
Barnes nodded slowly, as if there was nothing overly complicated about it. Perhaps there wasn’t, in his head – not until he came face to face with the Commander. Tony could see how that would be a bad idea, especially if Barnes still missed his connection to Steve and their past together. Talk about getting off on the wrong foot…
“The Avengers are not your enemy,” Tony assured him, in case that was necessary. “At least, as long as you behave,” he added, which perhaps was a mistake, come to think of it.
Barnes just snorted at his comment. Perhaps he had heard that one before – and got burned. Maybe he felt like he was outnumbered and he had no choice but to come with them.
Whatever the reason, Tony was mildly shocked when Barnes stepped forward slowly, checked out the suits again, then Tony, and finally adjusted the cap on his head. “Are we going or what?” he asked, and Tony imagined that was some of the cockiness of the Bucky Barnes Steve used to hang out with. It didn’t match the general demeanor of the man before them, but Tony wasn’t going to let their good fortune pass; he turned slightly, motioning for Rhodey and his suit to lead the way out, and then took off after them, fully aware of how Barnes was trailing him every step of the way.
to be continued…
Chapter 32: The Rematch
New York City air space, NY
Watching without actually looking was an art form he had perfected. However, trapped in an aircraft and surrounded by seven people – most of whom seemed extremely interested in him – it was hard not to be caught.
Bucky was beginning to doubt whether going along with this had been wise.
Instinctively, his eyes searched for Tony Stark, who was standing beside his red-and-gold suit, talking to the pilot of the other one. Iron Man and War Machine… The time away from HYDRA had been stressful and filled with uncertainty, but Bucky hadn’t wasted it. He was no longer HYDRA’s asset. He’d had a life, once, and piecing the little morsels of information together had given him some idea of who he was.
He shifted his eyes and looked at Steve – Steven Grant Rogers, his best friend from the time before. Bucky was keenly aware he knew him, but despite that it was hard to relax and lower his guard. It always felt like Steve wanted something from him, and Bucky wasn’t sure what that was, exactly.
“Chill, Cap,” Tony mused from the other side of the cabin. “I think he’d appreciate a bit of space.”
Bucky’s eyes drifted to check Steve’s expression, which was somewhat dejected. Yes, it was painfully obvious he wanted something from Bucky.
Steve finally nodded and took a step back even though it didn’t really move him all that far away.
Bucky could feel Tony checking him out, as if to see whether he was thankful for the intervention. He met the man’s gaze but didn’t offer more by way of a reaction, refusing to give him the pleasure.
Stark men were full of themselves, as it were; they didn’t need anyone else to inflate their ego.
So far, Tony hadn’t been how he’d imagined. Bucky wasn’t sure why that was, or what exactly he had been expecting, but it felt like there wasn’t enough ego in the things Tony said and did. Was he holding back? Pretending to be something he wasn’t? He wasn’t that afraid of Bucky, nor should he, with his suit hovering at his side. Sure, Bucky could make more than a dent in it, but he knew Iron Man was a considerable opponent.
As long as he disabled the pilot before he got inside the suit of armor…
Bucky looked away, reminding himself that it might not become necessary. There had been no obvious hostilities against him, and Tony had said they were trying to protect him, whatever that meant.
Even so, it didn’t hurt to be prepared.
“How long before we reach the Tower?” Steve called out towards the cockpit.
“About five minutes; I’ll be starting the final approach soon,” the pilot called back towards them.
Steve nodded, then looked at Tony. “Any sign of the Commander?”
“None,” Tony replied. His body stiffened somewhat, and Steve’s stance was one of uneasy tension; Bucky knew that without thinking, and didn’t question it. The things he sensed about Steve Rogers hadn’t led him astray. They confused him, yes, and drove him to search his own past even when he might have preferred to leave it alone, but piece by piece he was getting it all back.
Even the things he hadn’t known he had been happy to forget.
His shoulder ached with pain that came and went, a phantom sensation of a limb long gone and replaced.
He must have moved because Tony’s eyes turned back towards him, unmistakably checking out the metal arm. Bucky knew interest when he saw it, and it made him somewhat uneasy. Just because he often disliked the arm didn’t mean he could survive without it, a crucial part of his defense.
“Who’s the Commander?” he asked, to take the attention away from the mechanical limb.
It definitely worked: Steve shifted and Tony sighed, looking away.
“That’s the guy who’s after you – and us, to an extent,” Tony explained, staring at a wall.
“He’s HYDRA?” Bucky guessed.
“Sort of,” Tony said, in the exact same tone as in the old HYDRA base where he and his friend had found Bucky.
“It’s complicated,” Bucky murmured.
“It is,” Steve agreed. “He’s not from this world – literally.”
Bucky blinked while he waited for someone to elaborate. Apparently, his lack of actual reaction surprised the others. So, he shrugged. “You work for HYDRA long enough – or against them – and you get used to stuff that isn’t normal,” he explained.
Steve nodded slowly. Back in the day, they had seen some stuff – stuff that Bucky didn’t always remember, but he was fairly certain they’d had their fair share of weird even before HYDRA took him.
“The Commander is from an alternate world, where HYDRA located Cap’s plane before S.H.I.E.L.D. did,” Tony explained. “From that point on, I think you can relate to his story, so I’ll save you the details of his downfall. Nowadays, they call him the Commander.”
Bucky frowned and sat straight. “The Commander is… Steve?”
Tony had explained it pretty plainly; what made Bucky hesitate was actually saying Steve’s name out loud, after all this time. It felt strange.
Obviously, Steve didn’t like that fact about their enemy, his face twisting with disgust and loathing. “We have very little in common,” he snapped, like it physically hurt him to even admit they may have been the same guy back in the day.
Come to think of it, picturing Steve Rogers as something HYDRA had twisted was almost impossible to imagine. Maybe the two of them weren’t made of the same stuff after all…
Or maybe Bucky had to be realistic and admit that with enough time, anything could happen.
He looked at Tony for a confirmation of some sort, and while Steve’s feelings were an open book, Tony was far more guarded. Wary. Once again, it didn’t fit Bucky’s mental image of the cocky superhero, and he wondered what it was about the Commander that put everyone so on edge.
The aircraft dipped slightly, probably arching in preparation to land. Bucky braced himself, feet square against the floor, and Tony reached out to steady himself on his armor’s shoulder. Steve merely shifted his stance, not reaching out for extra support. He looked relieved that they were finally reaching their destination, however.
Bucky decided he liked it better when Steve wasn’t on edge; it made it easier for Bucky to relax a bit, even though he couldn’t drop his guard in the situation he was in. It was tiring to be on full alert for long periods of time, though, so a bit of a respite was welcome.
They were still banking left when suddenly there was a loud bang against the hull of the aircraft. Tony jumped at the sound, turning towards it, and it was clear the sound was not part of the landing routine.
Bucky’s eyes slid across the wall where the sound had come, and he imagined he saw a slight dent in the metal, quite narrow and less than ten inches in length.
“No way,” the pilot began – then jerked the controls hard enough to make everyone lose their balance. Bucky’s metal arm dug into a nearby support beam on the wall, fingers digging into the metal, barely keeping himself on his seat.
Before anyone could ask what was going on, there was a resounding explosion, and the aircraft began to sink towards the ground. The wings must have been still attached to the rest of it because they didn’t plummet down wildly, but there was very little grace in their fall.
Bucky fought back the instinctive nausea as the aircraft tilted to the side and almost rolled over, but the pilot was still gripping the controls and managed to keep the belly facing down, albeit with difficulty.
As Bucky adjusted his grip and hung on, he spied the red-and-gold armor bracing itself on nearby fixtures with one hand, the other curled around Tony’s body, keeping him from plummeting across the ship’s interior like most of the other occupants of the aircraft.
“Thor!” Steve bellowed. “Get out there.”
The long-haired man in near-medieval attire nodded and fought to get upright, but just then there was another explosion and the aircraft tilted, sending him crashing down, his heavy hammer banging against the floor.
A section of the hull tore off with the second explosion, and suddenly someone was climbing inside the aircraft, despite their continued descent from the sky. The first thing Bucky’s eyes caught was the shield, identical to Steve’s albeit differently painted. He then checked the face, finding familiarity in it despite the massive scarring.
Tony’s armor perked up upon the man’s unexpected entrance, firing up its engines and letting go of its supporting hold on the wall. Tony let out a yelp, gravity and the falling aircraft making it impossible for the suit to fly – especially with its pilot still clinging to the outside. However, flying seemed to be secondary in the armor’s priorities because it raised its free hand, palm forward, and blasted the Commander. The aim was meant for his face, but the shot caught him in the shoulder instead.
“J, I need to get inside,” Tony yelled over the noise of the failing engines and the wind that was increasing within the interior of the aircraft.
The armor halted then shifted again, clearly trying to find some way to stabilize itself long enough to let Tony crawl inside.
The Commander, briefly knocked off his feet by the blast, dug into a pocket of his pants for something.
“No, you don’t!” Steve yelled and launched himself at the man, forgoing the use of his shield in order to get his hands on the Commander.
Over the noise, Bucky thought someone shouted something about bracing themselves – just before they finally hit the ground. The aircraft bounced up and then down again, sliding to a screeching and rather violent halt; sounds of bending metal and breaking glass chorused the final leg of their journey before they came to a full stop.
The Commander pushed himself up with a growl, a fist flying towards Steve’s face. At the last second Steve dodged, narrowly missing the full impact and merely getting his cheek grazed, his own hand already poised to return the favor.
Bucky moved away from the wall, keeping low. He didn’t know what the Commander wanted with him, but the longer he studied the two near-identical men fighting, the less thrilled he was about the prospect of facing him. Sure, he would make a stand if he had to, but the Commander was a formidable opponent.
Faint mechanical clicks preceded another blast of light, this time aimed at the Commander’s feet, unbalancing him and allowing Steve to land a solid punch. The Commander reeled back, still in the fight, but as Iron Man strode across the debris of the aircraft, now in full battle mode, he clearly took a second to consider his options.
“You are surrounded!” Thor bellowed, also getting to his feet, hammer in his hand.
“Perhaps,” the Commander noted, speaking up for the first time, and his voice brought back memories Bucky had of a different man. Not this twisted creature…
“Surrender,” Thor demanded, striding closer.
“Why don’t you show me what you’ve got, Asgardian?” the Commander challenged, raising his shield.
Thor shifted his hammer and it began to spark with growing static.
“Don’t!” Tony yelled and raised his hand. “You fire it up here and most of our team will end up electrocuted.”
Thor growled but relaxed his hold on his weapon somewhat, the electric lightshow fading back into the metal.
The Commander gave Tony a look. “You’re learning, yet unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices; he could have disabled me with a good blast, and you’re protected inside your armor.”
“I’ll find another way to take you down,” Tony replied.
The Commander smiled. “I’m sure.”
“Weren’t you boasting about how you were able to defeat Iron Man, the first time we met?” Steve snapped. Clearly, he didn’t like the other two interacting, and rather obviously began to make his way between them.
“Oh, I did,” the Commander replied. “But it was never a one-sided fight. Had it been, we never would have had time to… get to know each other.” There was something odd in the way he said it, Bucky decided. “He was an opponent worthy of every clash we had, and it could have always gone either way.”
“But I’m not him,” Tony noted.
“No, you’re not,” the Commander agreed. “That is why I’m confident I can best you in the end.”
Tony’s answering snort was audible even through the speakers of the suit.
“That’s not going to happen,” Steve stated. His body language suggested he was about to rush into another fist-fight with the Commander. Bucky didn’t remember him being this hostile; the Steve he remembered reacted to the situation and took care of it, but rarely instigated a fight if things could be resolved another way. Well, not counting the back-alley scuffles… When lives other than his own were at stake, Steve’s attitude changed. Right now, though, it felt like he was facing yet another bully on the streets of Brooklyn.
“Guys,” War Machine’s pilot called out. “We have men down.”
Steve didn’t seem to hear, but Tony did: “The team comes first, Cap,” he said.
“Since when?” Steve snapped, eyes never leaving the Commander.
“When did it stop being your priority?” Tony challenged.
“I’m taking him down,” Steve growled, taking a step towards the Commander. “I’m tired of the chase.”
The Commander didn’t say anything, merely adjusted his shield.
“While I would normally agree, Captain, I must put our fellow Avengers first,” Thor mused unhappily. “We will fight him another day.”
“Go help the others; I’ll handle him,” Steve went on mulishly.
“We just crashed down in the middle of the street,” Tony said sharply. “There’s no knowing how many people got injured as a result of the fall.” His armored head turned towards the Commander. “We’ll let him walk this time.”
“Yes, we will. This one is my call,” Tony snapped.
“You can’t just let him walk away!” Steve exclaimed, turning to face Tony.
“Watch me,” Tony growled back.
“What if I don’t walk away?” the Commander asked.
The suit whirred softly as Iron Man turned towards him. “The odds are against you, Commander. If we start to brawl on the street, I swear you’ll have the Hulk pounding your skull into the pavement in twenty seconds flat.” His words hung heavy in the air. “Next time, we fight to the end. No distractions,” he promised.
“And the winner takes all,” the Commander replied, sounding like he was in total agreement all of a sudden. Maybe the threat of the Hulk was enough to shake some sense into him.
“We’re not letting him walk,” Steve protested again and moved forward in an intended attack.
Bucky moved out of his spot, grabbing onto Steve before he could get within striking distance of the Commander.
The Commander started slightly, clearly not having noticed him earlier. Their eyes met, briefly, but then Tony stepped forward, cutting between them.
“Take it or leave it,” Tony said, voice almost too low to hear. “Either you go, or we’ll have at it right now, and I guarantee you’re not walking away from it.”
The Commander took a slow, precise step back. “Be careful with that one,” he said, nodding towards Bucky. “He killed you once.”
“It wasn’t him, and it wasn’t me,” Tony replied.
The Commander moved backwards out of the tear in the side of the aircraft, keeping an eye on them in case of a surprise attack. Once he was gone, there was a collective sigh of relief – save for Steve, who groaned in frustration.
“He didn’t seem so tough,” Bucky commented, to lighten the mood.
“He’ll be back,” Steve grunted, pulling against Bucky’s hold and then looking at him when he didn’t let go.
“At least it will spare us the time needed to go looking for him,” Tony commented, then moved towards the gaping hole in the wall. “I’ll start mapping out the destruction outside. Check on the others.” His voice was tight once again, as if there were excess tension in his body.
Bucky decided there was more to the Commander and his relationship with the Avengers than he had first guessed.
“I’m fine,” Steve murmured, and Bucky slowly let go of him, still keeping an eye on his movements in case he decided to bolt after the Commander. He didn’t, though, instead heading towards the front of the aircraft, and Bucky remained standing where he was.
“The Commander is a man of conviction and intense focus,” Thor mused. “That makes him a formidable opponent.”
Bucky nodded slowly.
“Next time,” Thor went on, swinging his hammer into the palm of his left hand with a meaty thud, “we will catch him.”
They could have caught him today, but it felt almost like Tony had preferred to let him go. Whether it was to protect innocent bystanders and injured teammates, or something completely different, Bucky didn’t know.
If it was the latter, he knew he would have to be on his guard, because it would spell trouble later on.
to be continued…
Chapter 33: The Resolution
New York metropolitan area
Steve stalked into the abandoned building he had selected as his shelter for the duration of his rest. He was still amped up from the attack on the Quinjet – a daring maneuver high in the air, just as the aircraft was aligning for a landing. A slight slip of concentration would have led to him falling to the pavement and instant death, despite the super-soldier serum.
He hadn’t missed, of course. He had downed the aircraft as planned, and gotten within touching distance of Tony, but the situation had played out a bit differently than he had expected.
His frustration peaked. To be so close to his goal, yet ultimately fail…
Had his resolve become weak?
Was he losing sight of his goal?
He growled and punched a wall, plaster falling off his knuckles as he drew his hand back. A mild pain radiated up his forearm, fading away before it could reach his elbow.
It was nothing compared to the pain he had felt when he stepped out of the shower and found Tony lying on the bed, dead, blood soaking into the sheets.
Frankly, he hadn’t felt pain in that moment. Up until that day, his emotions concerning Tony Stark hadn’t been entirely clear, but Bucky’s actions had sharpened the image to painful clarity. It was cruel that he had to lose the man he wanted before he even knew that the desire was coming from something other than a physical need and the thrill of passion.
When he seized the Tesseract, he had only one goal in mind. There was no question it was his iron will that had brought him here, and his failure to take hold of what he had come for…
He couldn’t afford to be soft again. Tony had always been smart, and getting off on the wrong foot had made them enemies again.
Steve either had to start it all from the beginning, or find a way to recapture Tony and prove to him that they belonged together. That Steve was the partner he had chosen in another life, and would again…
Their last encounter gave him hope: Tony had allowed him to leave without a fight. Sure, there had been threats concerning their next encounter, but clearly Steve’s intentions had been made clear and some of it was sinking in. Tony was beginning to hesitate, swayed from his belief that Steve’s experiences were a fantasy.
Perhaps he should have factored in the possibility that his alter ego had never shown interest in Tony; breaking Tony out of the belief that Steve Rogers could never be more than his friend and teammate should have been his first step, but patience was not one of his virtues. By now he had lost the chance for a gentle approach, so discarding subtlety in favor of convincing Tony was the only way to go.
Forcing him would have been ideal, but Steve knew that wouldn’t be real. Tony had to want it, eventually, or it would be a continuous fight between them. As thrilling as that was, it wasn’t what Steve ultimately desired.
Should he able to go back in time and reconsider the other Tony’s offer to ditch the mission and walk away from HYDRA… in hindsight, he would have done it.
They could have had it all…
He looked at the wall again, measuring it with his eyes, debating the wisdom of a few more punches.
Deciding against it, he walked further inside and then sank to the floor to get some resemblance of rest.
If it were up to him, he would get it all back. Who was going to stand in his way?
He closed his eyes and envisioned Tony’s lips against his unscarred cheek, whispering to him that he could do anything if he set his mind to it.
Tony had meant leaving HYDRA and reclaiming his old title of Captain America, of course, but Steve didn’t see why he couldn’t focus that strength on crushing the Avengers in this world if they chose to stand in his way.
to be continued…
Chapter 34: The Wait
Manhattan, New York City, NY
Part of their team was still working to clean up in the aftermath of the attack; Tony and Rhodes with their suits, as well as Thor. Steve had tried to be present, but he could admit to being distracted by Bucky hovering in the shadows, and eventually the team consensus was that he should get indoors with their guest.
Away from the smoking wreckage of the Quinjet, Steve felt no more at ease; he finally had Bucky at his side, but he felt at a loss as to how to handle it. At least Bucky didn’t seem hell bent on fighting him this time, instead sitting on the edge of the couch on the second level of the common area, eyes keeping watch on people who kept coming and going at first, then stopped coming at all as if realizing it was best to avoid the vast space for now.
Steve remained standing next to the couch, too restless to sit down just yet. He wished he knew what to say or do. Bucky was on his guard, which he wanted to lessen, but at the same time Steve didn’t want to accidentally make it worse and have him bolt.
He wondered what exactly Tony and Rhodes had said or done to convince Bucky to come with them. There had been no fight, excessive use of force, or threats as far as Steve knew, and it boggled his mind somewhat. He refused to admit he was a bit jealous of it being so easy for someone else to reel Bucky in; the results were what mattered.
Silence hung heavy between them. Steve tried out different openings in his head, but he could see all of them ending somewhere between a strained discomfort and a minor disaster.
It was Bucky, eventually, who spoke up first: “So, that was the Commander.” He didn’t look at Steve as he said it – looking away quite pointedly, in fact, and Steve worried about that until he realized Bucky was staring at Steve’s reflection on the metallic wall paneling.
“Yes,” Steve confirmed, snapping himself out of it and trying to make it look like he hadn’t noticed Bucky was watching him.
“He’s…” Bucky started, frowning. “He’s not like you, exactly.”
“He’s nothing like me,” Steve corrected, a bit more heatedly than he would have liked.
This time, Bucky shifted his head and looked directly at him. Steve was worried he was seeking to point out the Commander was Steve, no matter the superficial differences, and he knew he would have to let it go because they had been the same guy, once, a very long time ago.
“Tony has history with him,” Bucky said instead.
Steve’s brain jumped from defensive to outraged. “He does,” he replied with a nod. He could feel his facial muscles tightening at the reminder, shoulders tensing. His body still ached from the fall and the fight, yet he wished he had hit the Commander harder.
Bucky kept looking at him, clearly expecting a broader explanation, but when Steve didn’t offer one, he chose to go on: “He said I killed Tony.”
Steve let out a breath. “In his world, you did. That doesn’t mean anything here.”
“Is that why he was coming after me?”
Steve told himself not to be surprised; Bucky had always been quick on the uptake. Now more than ever, Bucky needed to be able to adapt, if he wanted to survive and keep away from those who were after him.
“That’s what we believe,” Steve verified. “He’s hell bent on making this world match his old one.”
Bucky looked thoughtful and turned his head to look out the window. They were high up above the street, but there were still wisps of smoke drifting up from the crashed Quinjet below. “Was Iron Man working for HYDRA in that other world?”
“But I was?”
“Yes.” Steve didn’t like saying it, as if it doomed Bucky somehow. They weren’t responsible for how the other universe had turned out. Of course, that didn’t mean Steve wouldn’t feel personally responsible for containing the Commander and stopping his rampage.
“I guess it really is complicated,” Bucky murmured then and looked at his hands – one flesh, the other metal.
Steve’s stomach clenched. “He’s mad. That’s all we need to know.”
Bucky snorted. “It’s all black and white with you, isn’t it?”
Steve wasn’t sure how to respond to that – hadn’t expected Bucky to be this familiar with him.
“It’s all shades of gray with Tony,” Bucky went on. “He let the Commander walk away.”
“He made a choice to put his people first.” In any other case, Steve might have done the same, but this was the Commander they were talking about.
“You didn’t want to let him go,” Bucky guessed.
Steve shook his head. “Not after what he’s done.”
Bucky looked at him again, waiting for clarification.
“The Commander kidnapped Tony a few days ago,” Steve told him, feeling like Bucky deserved to have things put into perspective. He was in this mess with them, and it was unfair to keep facts from him – especially with the Commander potentially targeting him as well. “He hurt Tony,” he went on, and the familiar tide of shame washed over him. As if he were responsible…
“He didn’t seem too badly hurt,” Bucky said.
“No,” Steve agreed. “He’s covering it up, mostly. And…” He bit his lip, then flinched slightly as he drew blood.
“Tell me,” Bucky said. “I need to know why you hate him so much if you want me to fight him with you.”
There was so much in that single sentence Steve would have been thankful for, if not for the shame and anger he continuously felt when he thought of what the Commander had done to Tony…
“When the Commander first appeared here,” he started, nodding towards the area on the lower floor that was still a bit of a mess from the sudden entrance and the following fight, “he proclaimed that he and Tony had been involved in his world. Then his Tony was killed, and the Commander sought to replace him. Realizing things were different here didn’t exactly deter him, and he managed to grab Tony.”
Bucky surveyed the destroyed area with renewed interest. “You fought him,” he guessed.
“I did, as well as one of Tony’s suits.”
Bucky made a small sound at the back of his throat. “Must have pissed you off to lose like that.”
“I failed to protect Tony,” Steve agreed, feeling the already familiar weight reacquaint itself within his chest. “We looked for him for a few days, then caught their trail and rescued him.”
“Something happened while the Commander had Tony with him,” Bucky guessed.
“Tony had no interest in what the Commander wanted,” Steve said, trying not to let his mind go too deep into the memories but it was hard – perhaps even more so in the aftermath of Tony’s odd confession after they got him back. Steve still had no idea how to deal with that. “The Commander wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” he finished, the pressure in his chest turning into ice. “He raped Tony, I’m sure of that. And still Tony let him walk away today.”
Bucky was silent, digesting the information. Steve let him, mostly because he could use a minute or two to sort through his own emotions in order to reach some kind of plateau.
“Do you want to kill him for what he did?” Bucky asked at length.
“Yes,” Steve replied, the answer escaping him almost reflexively.
“Really, Cap?” Tony’s voice cut through the room suddenly, and both men turned to look at him; how he had managed to enter without either of them noticing was shocking. Tony was scowling at Steve, then stepped out of the elevator that had brought him up to them. There was usually a soft ding involved when the elevator reached a new floor, but Steve suspected it either wasn’t working or had been disabled in order for Tony to reach them unnoticed.
“He’ll answer for his crimes,” Steve stated firmly, crossing his arms over his chest.
“I get that, and I agree – but talking about killing him so casually isn’t what you’re about,” Tony countered.
“Maybe you don’t know me that well,” Steve challenged him.
Tony stared him down, unrelenting, then glanced at Bucky. “Captain Loudmouth here shouldn’t have told you all that,” he said.
Bucky shrugged. “It clarifies things. I take it the rest of the team doesn’t know?”
“Some of them suspect, I’m sure,” Tony admitted. “It doesn’t change things much, though.”
Steve drew a sharp breath. “How can you say that?!”
Tony turned to look at him. “It may change things for me, but the rest of you aren’t part of it.”
There were so many ways Steve wanted to prove him wrong, but he wasn’t certain whether it was his place to comment. Tony had his own way of dealing with all this, and denial was probably a big part of it – as was belittling the things he had been forced to endure.
Bucky was watching the two of them intently, as if gaining more information each time one of them spoke up. Steve felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny, but Tony didn’t even seem to notice. It was strange, seeing as Bucky was Steve’s best friend and a complete stranger to Tony; their places should have been reversed. Maybe it was the shame and guilt weighing him down, with the knowledge that Bucky was now aware of where Steve’s failure to capture the Commander in the first place had led them.
“He isn’t you,” Tony said finally, repeating the words he had told Steve more than once. “He isn’t your responsibility any more than he is mine, or someone else’s. It isn’t your fault what he chose to do to me – or that I let it happen.”
Steve felt sick again. “What choice did you have?” he asked. “He would have just hurt you worse.”
“Maybe that would have been better than just taking it,” Tony shrugged, as if indifferent, but Steve knew they were scraping far deeper than the surface; Tony was letting him see the core of the dilemma – the issue that any one of them would have faced if put in his place.
“I’m glad you didn’t fight him more,” Steve finally said, voice dropping low. He wasn’t sure he wanted to say those words out loud – to accidentally imply he condoned what had happened.
A tiny smile flitted across Tony’s lips. “I’m all about self-preservation.”
Steve snorted, knowing how much that wasn’t true. Sure, he knew Tony to be selfish to a fault, but he had also seen him ready to throw his life away to save strangers. Tony was just as ready to lay down on the wire as Steve was. “You lived to fight another day – to take him down and make him pay.”
Tony’s expression morphed into a frown once more. “You seem awfully interested in giving him what you think he deserves.”
“And you’re not,” Bucky commented from the side. “Just an observation,” he added with raised hands when Tony twisted around to look at him.
“I’m not saying he should get away with the things he’s done,” Tony started, voice tight. “He’s rotten and capable of hurting people without his moral compass so much as twitching.”
“But?” Steve pressed. He wanted to know where Tony’s leniency towards his abuser came from so that he could predict it next time and possibly avoid it entirely.
Tony looked at him again, probably knowing Steve was the one he needed to convince; Bucky was simply observing, just as he had said. “For all the darkness and twisted morals, he used to be a good guy – and I think he was finding the light at the end of the tunnel again, before all this happened.”
Steve couldn’t believe it, but it explained Tony’s recent reaction. “You pity him,” he uttered with a moderate amount of disbelief coloring his words.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Tony backpedaled.
“You think you can make him good again,” Steve pressed.
“No!” Tony snapped. “I’m just trying to point out he might have the capacity to change before he’s put down like a rabid dog.”
Steve took a tiny step back, trying to control his emotions. “He raped you,” he said, the ugly word passing his lips like venom. “If he’s capable of doing that to someone he claims to care about, I don’t care what his other redeeming qualities are.”
Tony blinked and looked away, actively avoiding his stare for the first time since he came into the room. “He’s lost,” he murmured, almost too low to hear. “He lost the one thing that made him want to fight HYDRA.”
“You’re not him,” Steve said, his emotions sobering slightly. He reached out, carefully touching Tony’s arm, prepared for the other man to flinch away from him. He was surprised when that didn’t happen. Instead, the touch prompted Tony to look at him again, eyes wide and expression tortured with indecision. “Just as I’m not the Commander, you’re not the Tony Stark he knew. You’re not responsible for saving him from himself – especially not after what he did.”
“But if I could?” Tony questioned. “Shouldn’t I try to help him?”
“I don’t think he wants your help,” Steve responded. “He just wants you.”
Tony swallowed, clearly agreeing with that statement on some level; he must have seen proof of it while he was with the Commander.
Bucky was still looking at them, searching for hidden messages no doubt, and Steve wondered what he saw. Self-conscious all of a sudden, Steve allowed his hand to fall from Tony’s arm, and that seemed to snap the other man out of the moment as well.
“Get cleaned up and check on the injured,” Tony ordered. “We need to step up our game and finish this.” Then he walked back to the elevator and got in, not meeting Steve’s gaze again.
Steve looked at Bucky once the elevator had stopped at the floor where Tony’s armory was located. “Do you need something?” he asked. “Food, clothes, some shut-eye?”
Bucky gave him a wry smile and stood up. “All of the above, I think – but I’ll start with food.”
Steve nodded, agreeing. “Kitchen’s this way,” he motioned and led the way down the stairs.
to be continued…