DISCLAIMER: Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are the properties of Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Studios, and Marvel Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended.
RATING: T (for language, violence)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: A little tag to the movie. No slash, of course. This is a companion piece to "Scout's Honor", but you don't need to have read that to understand this story. Thanks for reading!
FOLLOW THE LEADER
Everything hurt. Steve tried to ignore it, but it was hard. He'd been shot four times, slashed and stabbed, and almost drowned. His chest was a mess of bruises that went deep into muscles and bones. He had a hell of a concussion. He'd had his fair share of injuries in the past, but this was by far the worst he'd ever been wounded. He'd spent two days in the ICU, one of those not breathing on his own, his life hanging by a thread. He'd been told he'd nearly died in the fight over the Potomac, that the Winter Soldier had almost killed him. He believed it.
That hurt worst of all.
He sighed as he slowly climbed the steps to his apartment. He hadn't been back since Fury had been shot there a week ago. Truth be told, he would have just left it. Sam was waiting for him down on the street outside in a rental car, Sam who was as good a man and as loyal a friend as he'd ever known. Sam had the folder Natasha had gotten for him, the folder he hadn't been able to make himself read. Sam had his shield and was gathering up supplies. Sam who was going to follow him, who was sticking with him even though this wasn't his fight. They were two soldiers with a mission they'd given themselves because all the order in the world had turned to chaos and everything was upside down and utterly perverted. He wasn't sure of much anymore, but he knew he needed to do this. And what did he need for that? Not much, really. Hope and some clothes and his shield. But considering he'd lost his sense of security, had his faith in SHIELD and everything he had spent the last two years fighting for ripped away from him… Considering he'd nearly lost his life, he didn't think he could just throw anything else away.
His sneakers thudded against the hard wood floors. He stood in front of his apartment door, hesitating and wary and so damn unsure of himself. He hadn't felt this worn, this beaten and run down and completely shaken, in a very long time. Even the missions he did for SHIELD, as draining and difficult as they were, never left him so battered. It wasn't just the physical pain. He felt scraped raw, his heart aching, his sense of self deeply damaged. He felt lost again, like he had when he'd woken to this new world filled with things he didn't understand and machines he couldn't work and people he didn't know. Slowly he'd been able find faith in others again, at least since he'd led the Avengers in saving the world. Joining SHIELD had given him a new purpose that wasn't so different from his old one. He'd like the familiarity of it, of military structure and fighting to keep peace and protect people. However, he'd always known the spy organization hadn't entirely been on the level. He'd always known not to trust them completely. He'd been assigned the missions that he was willing to take, those that involved saving innocent lives and knocking down evil men, but he wasn't stupid. He knew what Barton and Romanoff did. He knew SHIELD had blood on its hands and that it flourished in grays when to him everything was supposed to be black or white and good or evil. SHIELD manufactured these half-truths and partial lies to control and manipulate and shape the world as its leaders saw fit. He had willingly turned a blind eye to it, trusting that Fury and his people fundamentally wanted to help the world be better and safer, and that was cause for which he would always fight. And he fundamentally trusted that what Peggy had built couldn't be corrupt.
He couldn't have been more wrong. He hoped with every fiber of his being that she never came to learn everything for which she had worked had been consumed by HYDRA.
Steve took a deep breath, willing his mind away from all of that. He was still standing in front of his apartment and had been drifting for too long. Sam was waiting. He dug into his jeans for his keys, but before he could grab them, he felt something buzzing in his jacket pocket. He still wasn't used to this world filled with powerful and amazing technology, with computers that could fit into one's palm and call people thousands of miles away by tapping a screen. He fished out his cell phone, not the SHIELD-issued one via which he'd often received mission intel and directives. That one he'd destroyed.
No, this was a brand new StarkPhone that Tony had sent him a few weeks back. He hadn't seen Tony since SHIELD had debriefed him following the Mandarin incident. The sleek phone vibrated as he pulled it from his pocket. It was a text message. From Tony, of course, with an obnoxious picture of him smiling like a jackass glowing on the screen. Tony had programmed it before sending it, and Steve had no idea how to change any of the settings. "Saw you doing your thing on TV. Hell of a show." Steve sighed. He didn't mind Stark much; he was a good man, a much better man, than he made himself out to be. But he didn't think he had it in himself to be ribbed or teased or anything right then. He hurt too much. He just wanted to collect the remains of his old life (again) and get started on his new one.
He was about to stuff the phone back in his pocket, but it kept buzzing insistently. "Always knew SHIELD was bullshit. Way to put them out of their misery." Steve smiled slightly in spite of himself. He stared at the blue words neatly printed on the screen, his thumb poised over the slide to unlock it. But he didn't know what to say. Everything was still too close. Everything still hurt too much.
The door to his apartment suddenly swung open and a metal claw grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him inside. Steve yelped when his extremely tender wounds were brutally jostled. He was roughly yanked and thrown forward. His phone flew from his fingers as he collided with the coffee table, glass and wood and books flying everywhere as the furniture collapsed under his weight. Pain exploded in his chest, the air rushing from damaged lungs. He lay there in the wreckage, gasping, the world spinning violently overhead. Steve blinked the tears from his eyes. A blurry shadow towered over him. "Bucky," he groaned.
But the metal hand reached down, grabbing his neck and dragging him to his feet. Steve choked as those powerful fingers squeezed. His own hands grabbed the metal arm and pulled, desperate to free himself. He squeezed hard, as hard as he could, and the plating of the arm buckled and bent but didn't give way. Bucky's eyes were vicious and angry, and he slammed Steve back to the floor. Agony pounded over him as his head smacked backward, his arms dropping uselessly. For a seeming eternity, he lay dazed, unable to move, unable to breathe. And then he snapped back. Panic set his heart thundering in his throat and his mind racing. "I don't wanna fight you!" he cried, his voice rough and strangled. "I'm not going to fight you!"
Bucky didn't let up, laying over him, crushing him. His face was empty, hollow, the face of a machine built for murder. A monster built out of madness. The Winter Soldier.
Please don't make me do this.
Steve kicked vainly, pushing back on Bucky with all of his considerable strength, but he was already too hurt and weak to do much and Bucky was too powerful. He tried to keep himself still, but it was so damn difficult. The pain was excruciating, both where Bucky pressed on his wounded torso and in his throbbing heart. He was terrified with that metal arm strangling him and Bucky looming over him, insane and violent and beyond reason. Was this it? He'd tracked him down to come after him and murder him? To complete his mission? To finish the job? If it came down to it again, to some furious, fast, violent battle between the two of them for survival, Steve wasn't sure he could make himself win. Not if meant killing his friend. Any fight between them would continue until one of them was dead. He was frighteningly certain of that. "Please… don't do this!"
The fingers loosened ever so slightly. Those dark eyes, so familiar yet not, stared at him, unblinking. He saw the cracks. Something had changed. Something was there, underneath the steely exterior. "You know me," he snarled. "You said you know me."
"You're my friend," Steve gasped, digging his bruised and bloody fingers under the claw around his throat. "Bucky."
"Stop calling me that!" snapped Bucky, rage twisting his unshaven face violently. There was insanity beneath, peaking through those cracks. Insanity and violence and so much pain. The Winter Soldier only knew how to kill, how to hurt. That was the only way he could express what he felt. So he drove Steve into the floor harder, brutally choking him. Glass cut into Steve's back as he frantically squirmed. "You said you know me." Steve coughed and struggled against the blackness invading his vision. If he didn't fight back, he was going to die. "Why the hell is my face plastered all over some museum? Why is it right next to yours?" His eyes flashed like lightning. "Answer me! Who the hell are you?"
Steve could hardly get air into his chest to speak. "Steve," he rasped. The fingers squeezed tighter, obviously unsatisfied with the answer. "Steven Grant Rogers, born July 4th, 1918, Brooklyn, New York!"
"That's impossible," Bucky hissed. "You're a liar!"
"You're James Buchanan Barnes," Steve repeated, praying he could get through. What the hell had those bastards done to him? "Born March 10th, 1917, Brooklyn, New York."
The rage was terrifying. "Liar!" He slammed Steve's head into the floor again. Lights burst behind his eyes, and he was back there, on the helicarrier with Bucky beating him and screaming at him and killing him. Every ounce of self-preservation within him was demanding he get away, that he fight, but he couldn't. Not until he was more than a target. Than a mission. "Tell me the truth! Tell me!"
It all came pouring out. Everything they had been. Everything. Steve could barely speak, his lungs caught in an endless spasm for air, his mouth full of blood. But he did. "You lived one door down. We met when I was five and you were six. You took care of me, played with me because no one else would. We did everything together. We went to school together. We walked home together. You kept the bullies away and picked me up when they beat me down and cleaned me up whenever I… when they…"
Things became blurry. Tears and pain. "It's alright, kid. Hey. Come on. Don't cry. We don't need them. We don't need anyone except each other."
Steve stammered and choked. The words came faster and faster as the memories raced through his head. "We went and saw the Dodgers every summer. Didn't matter if they won or lost. We ate hot dogs and drank cold soda pop and stayed out way too late. We saved up every penny we had to do it, and it wasn't easy but you always made sure it got done."
"If you could be anything in the world, what would it be?"
"Steve, you should be an artist. You draw real good."
"Soldiers help people. My dad was a soldier."
"We rode the Cyclone and I threw up all over you, but you didn't care. I was sick all the time, but you didn't care. I was way more trouble than I was worth, but you never cared."
"You keep standing up to those guys and they're gonna do more than kick the crap out of you one day."
"I can't let them push everyone around, Buck. It's not right."
"Steve, you're… You're just not–"
"You think I can't take them? I can take care of myself!"
"I know you can. But the thing is you don't have to go it alone."
He swallowed a cry as Bucky purposefully dug his knee into the healing gunshot wound on his stomach. The pain was unbearable, and his own anger burned through him, demanding retaliation. But he didn't. Bucky was lost and lashing out, cruel and violent because he'd been made into a killer. Those bastards, HYDRA and Zola and Pierce, had done this to him. The real Bucky wouldn't hurt him. The real Bucky would never hurt him.
Steve didn't let the pain stop him. He never did. "You took me in when mom couldn't take care of me, when money was too tight. I slept on the couch cushions on the floor of your parents' place until you decided that wasn't good enough and let me sleep in your bed."
"Come on, Steve. The chill's not gonna help that cough."
"I won't take your bed. It's your bed."
"Shut up. We can share it."
The hand crushing his windpipe slackened ever so slightly. "You always gave me all the blankets when it was too cold and the better clothes even though mine were way too small for you and the nicer coats. You always had the dames falling over themselves to be with you, but you dropped them in a second if they wouldn't double date with me."
"What did you tell her about me?"
"Only the good stuff."
Bucky stared at him. The steel clamped around Steve's neck loosened further, and he could breathe a bit. Enough to not lose consciousness at least. Steve swallowed thickly, trying to calm his racing heart, trying not to hope. He blinked tears from his eyes. "I was always following you because you were everything I wanted to be. You stood up for me, believed in me when nobody else gave a damn. We went to war together. Remember, Bucky? We fought together. You fought at my side. Don't you remember?"
"You ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of death?"
"Hell, no. That little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb not to run away from a fight… I'm following him."
Suddenly Bucky let him go and scrambled away, skittering across the shattered things on the floor. His eyes were wide now, and he was pale and panting. The arm that Steve had fractured he held tightly to his chest, cradling it and looking ready to cry. He seemed small and battered and weak and very frightened. Coughing and throbbing with agony, Steve weakly curled onto his side. He sucked in breath after breath of air, trying to feed his starved body as he trembled. Miserably he struggled to get up. The place where he'd been shot in his abdomen flared, and he thought he felt blood against his skin. But he succeeded in sitting, fighting for every inch. He grasped the arm of his couch for support, watching Bucky through half-lidded eyes that wouldn't focus right. Bucky was shaking, too, and staring blankly at the floor. "I had him on the ropes," Bucky whispered.
Bucky's eyes focused sharply and suddenly, and then he was glaring at Steve with fiery hatred. "You let me fall. It was you."
Steve could hardly breathe again, but now it wasn't because of the pain in his chest or the trauma done to his body. "I – please. Please believe me. I tried so hard to save you."
The Winter Soldier was back again in a blink, baleful and unhinged. He rose smoothly to his feet. Glass crunched under his boots as he stalked over to Steve and kicked him cruelly right where he'd been shot. Steve couldn't keep quiet this time, and his ragged scream rent the air as he vainly tried to escape, wrapping his arms protectively around his vulnerable midsection and crawling away. "I don't care if I was your friend," Bucky snapped, driving his boot into Steve's hapless body. His face was calm and detached as Steve cried out again in agony. "I don't care!"
Steve caught his boot the next time it careened toward him and gave it a quick and sharp twist. Bucky hadn't been expecting the counter, yowling and falling roughly to the floor on his back. Steve was up then, summoning strength and energy he didn't knew he still had, throwing himself over Bucky and pinning him to the floor. He grabbed that metal arm and held it down and used all of his weight and size to keep the other man immobile. Bucky's eyes burned in murderous rage. "If you don't care, then why the hell did you pull me from the river?" Steve demanded.
"I don't know!"
"You saved my life."
"I won't make that mistake again!" He swung his broken arm upward then, surprising Steve and catching him across the face. Steve was knocked to the side, his teeth gnashing the soft flesh of his cheek, and the metal hand rapidly twisted and grabbed his arm about the wrist. In a swift blur of black, Bucky had his arm wrenched behind his back and him kneeling on floor.
Steve gritted his teeth. His apartment was distant and blurry, and shadows pressed heavily upon his throbbing head. He had to stay with it, stay conscious. Fighting the Winter Soldier when he'd been healthy with all his strength and vitality behind him had been hard enough. As wounded and defeated as he was, there was no way he'd survive, and they both knew it. He fought to keep calm, because unless he got through to his friend, unless he could reach him now… "If you don't care," he slurred, "then why are you here?"
"To finish you," Bucky hissed in his ear.
"It's over. There's no reason to kill me now!"
Bucky drove his knee into Steve's lower back, forcing him down. He had him completely at his mercy. And he had no mercy. At least, not now. "You don't know a damn thing about it!"
"Why don't you believe me? You were like my brother! I love you like my brother! Listen to me!"
Suddenly it all made sense. Steve's heart shuddered in his chest, grief and anger leaving him reeling. "That's why you came here. You want answers. You want answers and you know I have them."
"I don't want anything from you!"
"Why are you so scared of the truth? What did they do to you? Please talk to me…" He could feel the man behind him shaking, at war with himself, tortured and tormented and shattering. Bucky wanted to know. He had to know. Steve was sure of it. "I know you're scared. I'm scared, too. But we can get through this together. Just like we always have."
A choked sob abruptly blasted his ear and the hand around his wrist gripped tighter, grinding bones together. "Shut up!"
But Steve wouldn't shut up. He couldn't. Not now. Not when Bucky needed him more than ever before. "Let me help you. You don't have to do this. You don't have to go it alone. I promise. I promise you that I can help you."
The Winter Soldier shoved him down onto the floor. Steve winced, barely getting his hand in front of him fast enough to prevent his face from being smashed. He choked on his breath and looked up sharply. Bucky stared down at him, his face emotionless, his eyes dead. "Nobody can help me." Then that metal fist slammed into Steve's temple, and the world went black.
The kids in the neighborhood used to play follow the leader. They never let Steve play. It hurt how they excluded him. He could understand why they never wanted him for tag or hide and seek. He couldn't run very fast or very long, and when he did, his lungs would seize and his throat would close and his asthma would leave him struggling for every wheezing breath. He could understand baseball, too. He couldn't throw very far, and he was so small and short that it was hard for him to catch a ball thrown at any speed or swing a bat with any force. But all he had to do to play follow the leader was just copy someone else and keep up. He only had to mimic another kid until it was his turn to be the one everyone else followed. It was never his turn. They laughed at him when he tried to join, sneered and insulted and demeaned him until shameful tears filled his eyes and he walked back home, rejected and smarting with his tail tucked between his legs. But he kept coming back because his heart was much stronger than his body, and he wanted so desperately to play.
One day Bucky saw the other kids harassing him and hurting him, and he'd come down from the stoop of his apartment building, so tall and strong and impressive. He'd gotten right in their faces, these boys who were his playmates and friends, and told them to leave Steve alone. Kids were cruel, unbelievably so, and Bucky was immediately ridiculed for defending a pathetic weakling like Steve Rogers. Steve was their whipping boy, after all. Their social pariah. A stupid little stick that was too dumb to take "no" for an answer. Bucky stood proud in front of these bullies and dealt it back at them as harshly as they had at Steve. They were downright shocked. So was Steve. He was even more surprised when Bucky slung his arm over his thin shoulders and walked away and never looked back.
In his young mind, Bucky was a hero. He was valor and strength and confidence. He was everything Steve wanted to be. Bucky walked him home and saw the rundown state of his apartment and his mother who was so poor and sick herself. If he'd pitied Steve, he'd never shown it. Everybody else did, but Bucky acted like he and Steve were the same, equals, two boys who could run and play and do all the things that two boys normally did. They had no money, no hope for much beyond eating one day and maybe eating more the next, and no friends. But they had each other, and that was enough.
Steve finally got to play follow the leader. And he was following Bucky no matter where Bucky went. And then he got his turn. Captain America led his Howling Commandos, led his best friend, through the spray of bullets and the fires of destruction and the hell of war. And Bucky followed him.
He groaned, low and deep and alien to his own ears. Things floated through his mind, shreds of memories, lost and fleeting sensations from a lifetime ago. Climbing into Bucky's bed because it was so very cold and there was no heat even with newspapers burning in the stove. Bucky holding his small shivering body to his own, rubbing his arms to try and get some warmth back into them, hushing him through the worst of the hacking coughs that left him gasping for breath and suffering. The taste of beer, of popcorn, of summer sweat and cigar smoke that hung over the baseball stadium in an unmoving, humid plume. Bucky pulling him out of another alley after another fight, helping walk because his ribs hurt too much to stand straight, telling him yet again that he needed to be smarter. Bucky sitting with him all night while his mother lay dying, silently stalwart as Steve had comforted her through her final, strained moments. Bucky hugging him even as he refused to cry. Bucky dressed in a sergeant's uniform, proudly heading off to serve his nation in the greatest war in history, and Steve watching helplessly from the sidelines.
Bucky strapped to that table, tortured. Experimented on.
Bucky sighting down a sniper rifle with a sharp eye and a steady hand.
Bucky grabbing his arm and demanding that he get that wound checked out because it looked really bad and he was a goddamn idiot for carrying on the fight when he was bleeding like a stuck pig all over the place.
Bucky's horrified face, his fingers so close, but not close enough. Bucky falling, falling, down into a snowy grave.
It should have ended there, but it hadn't.
Bucky staring at him, watching him with coldness in his eyes, analyzing him, not recognizing him.
Bucky slamming his fist into his face over and over and over again. That was the end of the line. The taste of blood and sweat and fear and everything hurting because he was dying.
Something warm and wet tickled his belly. Steve moaned again, opening his eyes to find the ceiling spinning rapidly and nauseatingly overhead. Bile rose in the back of his throat, foul and burning and threatening to gag him, but he forced it back down and squeezed his eyes shut again to handle the vertigo. Shakily he pressed his hand to where he'd been shot. He pulled his fingers away and found them red.
"Damn it, Steve." A familiar voice cut through the haze of pain and shock, and he chanced opening his eyes again. Sam was looking down on him now. Thank God it was Sam. "I can't leave you alone for five minutes without you getting your ass handed to you."
Steve groaned in response, unable to manage any words, relief rushing through him. He closed his eyes and sagged down, too damn beaten and tired to do anything else. Sam knelt beside him, shaking his head at the sad sight of Captain America sprawled on the floor of his apartment surrounded by the wreckage of his coffee table. "What happened?"
The same damn thing had happened. Bucky had left him behind. Bucky was gone again. Gone.
Finally Steve managed enough strength to fully wake and prop himself up on his elbows. Sam immediately grabbed his arm and helped him right himself as gingerly as possible. Breathing heavily, he drew his legs closer to his chest despite the hurt cutting through his midsection and pressed his forehead tiredly to his knees. "He was here," he said between ragged gasps.
Sam looked worriedly at him. "Barnes?" Steve lifted his head slightly to meet his friend's gaze before nodding. Sam didn't look pleased, his eyes darting to the bloody bruises all over his face and the red, nasty-looking marks around his throat. "Why didn't he kill you?"
Steve didn't know what to say. He didn't know if there was an answer, at least one that provided any sort of solace or relief or resolution. "I don't think he can." He uselessly wiped the blood from the side of his mouth.
Sam looked extremely worried and even more doubtful. "You sure about that?"
Steve's lips twisted into a sad excuse for a rueful grin. "No. But I have to hope."
It was silent for a moment. The ridiculousness of that was hard to follow. Sam shook his head, not quite in disgust but not quite in acceptance either. "If he didn't want to kill you, what did he want?"
"I think… I think he's starting to remember." Steve probed the huge, tender welt on the side of his head and face, wincing. It hurt like a son of a bitch, but the skin wasn't broken and neither was his skull. That was probably a minor miracle. Or a sign that he really was right: Bucky couldn't make himself kill him. He preferred to think that, even if it was crazy.
Sam offered Steve his hand, concern and suspicion bright in his eyes. Steve reached up and took it, and together the two of them succeeded in getting him to his feet. Jabbing his teeth into his lower lip was all he could do to stifle the moan building in his throat. He wavered for a moment, dizzy and unsettled and feeling weak. Sam stayed right by his side, his arm comfortingly around Steve and holding him tight. "You still want to do this? I get the feeling wherever he's headed is seriously dark and deep and pretty damn twisted. They screwed him up bad. If you can't save him…" He looked sadly at Steve, afraid of the next time and every time after. "The day will come when he won't stop."
"You've been through enough. He's hurt you enough."
"I have to try," Steve softly said. He leaned into Sam's shoulder for a minute, infinitely glad for his support. "He's in there, somewhere. I gotta follow him. I gotta get him back."
Sam watched him, genuine care and compassion readily evident in his gaze. He frowned as Steve tried to collect himself, tried to pull his aching body and his battered heart back together. He could hardly stand. "This is crazy. Just stay here. I'll get some stuff for you, and then we are getting the hell of out Dodge."
Steve nodded, and Sam stood and ran deeper into his apartment. For a long moment, he was still, riding out the waves of hurt coming from all over, fighting not to fall even though his knees felt rubbery and wobbly beneath him and his head was throbbing with dizziness. Everything was aggravated, nerve endings teased and tortured until all they could do was send jolting pain up and down his body. He lifted his shirt and found the bandage around his stomach stained with fresh red, but the bleeding wasn't as bad as he'd feared. The other things from the last time, the deep bruises and cuts and lacerations, were all still there with some new angry red welts joining them.
Sighing, he dropped his shirt. One limping step didn't prove so hard. Neither was the one that followed. Wearily Steve surveyed the damage to his apartment. Broken furniture and crushed glass and bullet holes through his walls. Blood on his floor. He should have been more upset, but he felt numb. Numb to the pain but even more resolute.
He was still alive. Again. That had to mean something.
For better or for worse, Steve had ripped a hole in the Winter Soldier's heart. Now the assassin was bleeding inside, a slow bleed that was getting more and more serious with each memory that broke free from the brainwashing and the lies and the manipulation. Eventually he would bleed to death. Steve could only hope Bucky would survive that. He could only hope that he would, as well.
There was a tiny green light flashing under a broken piece of his coffee table and a couple of overturned books. Wincing, he limped to it and bent over, moving the mess aside. It was his phone, somehow intact. He picked it up.
Tony's message was still there, still waiting. Still unanswered.
Steve took a deep breath, staring long and hard at the words until he finally swiped his thumb across the screen. "Yeah," he typed. "I'm okay."