"Bucky is alive." That was what the other man had said, the other version of him, who wielded the Shield the way he could and who carried a compass exactly like his, down to the photo inside it. Of course, it was possible that Loki had copied the compass to, but something about that seemed unlikely. It wasn't like Loki would have watched that one propaganda film that included a shot of it, to know that it was significant.
He'd said he wasn't Loki. It was also possible that he'd been lying about that. Loki wasn't exactly a paragon of honesty. But Thor thought that Loki would have used the tesseract to blast himself somewhere else in space. He didn't think Loki would have just transported himself a few floors away, which meant there was a good chance that the man had been telling the truth about that.
So if he wasn't Loki, what did that leave? Either someone else had the ability to mimic Steve so precisely, down to the objects he carried on him, or he was Steve. Somehow.
If that second option was possible, through some weird trick of science here in the future, then what did the message mean. It could have been a ploy to win the fight, but if the man was in some way Steve, there was no way he would lie about something like that.
Steve sat in a small waiting area in SHIELD's New York office, while Fury debriefed Clint. He would be next. Fury wanted to get independent stories from each of them because apparently there were inconsistencies in the accounts. Inconsistencies like people being in two places at the same time? While he waited, Steve sketched idly on a notebook he'd swiped from one of the nearby desks. It felt like a lifetime since he'd sketched Bucky's face, but he didn't even have to think about the lines of his jaw, the curve of his cheek, the brightness in his eyes.
Steve looked up from his drawing to see Rumlow. He'd only met the man a couple of times, and once had been to hand over the staff which had been stolen by the other version of him. He nodded a greeting anyway, trying to be polite.
"You here to see Fury?" Rumlow asked.
"Yeah. He wants to talk to all of us about how the scepter managed to go missing."
Rumlow walked closer, talking quietly but with so casual a tone that it felt not casual at all. "He talked to my team yesterday about what happened, but he would have no reason to suspect you. I mean, you're Captain America." He grinned at that, a little too brightly. "Don't worry, we told him you handed over the scepter like you were told and went to do your perimeter sweeps."
That was exactly what had happened, so it was strange that Rumlow was repeating it. He shouldn't have said anything about what he'd told Fury anyway. These were meant to be independent accounts, so exchanging stories before he went in felt like something clandestine.
The wheels in Steve's mind were turning. He'd seen the other version of him with the scepter inside the Tower. Rumlow and the rest of the STRIKE team were supposed to have taken it out of there. What if they hadn't? What if Rumlow was telling him this now because he'd seen the other Captain America. What if Rumlow and the STRIKE team had handed it to him for some reason, and now Rumlow thought he was helping cover his ass?
"Exactly," Steve said. "I was doing perimeter sweeps and I'm sure you did your duty to SHIELD and delivered the scepter into secure storage."
Steve knew he was lying. Rumlow knew he knew he was lying. But Steve couldn't demand clear answers here, especially because a woman in SHIELD uniform walked past them, coming within a few metres of them. Rumlow glanced at her before resuming his all-too-casual pose. Steve idly drew another line on his sketch of Bucky.
"I didn't know you were an artist," Rumlow commented.
"Just passing the time while I wait."
Rumlow moved closer to look at the page. A part of Steve wanted to shield the drawing from a near-stranger's eyes, but he figured that would look suspicious, so he let Rumlow see. He noticed the sudden tension in Rumlow's posture, the way his eyes moved sharply between the sketch and Steve's face. This drawing meant something to him.
Steve wanted to grab Rumlow, shove him into the nearest wall and start interrogating him for answers. He wanted to demand to know what Rumlow knew.
But this wasn't the place.
"You know," Steve said, "we should get to know each other if we're going to be working together. Hang out outside of work sometime. I'm sure there's lots of things we could talk about. Maybe even some mutual acquaintances we might discover."
He'd been told multiple times that subtlety wasn't his strong suit. He suspected he was being about as subtle as a brick to the face here, but Rumlow seemed to understand what he was driving at.
"Sure. Let's meet up when you're done with the Fury meeting, grab a beer. I've got some friends who would love to meet you."
Fury seemed more angry than surprised when Steve told him about the guy who looked exactly like him. He accepted Steve's story with no more suspicion than he usually demonstrated on any given interaction. He said he needed to talk to an old friend and let Steve leave. Steve didn't mention his strange conversation with Rumlow. He didn't want to say anything about that until he knew more about what was going on. He needed to know what Rumlow knew about Bucky.
When they left the SHIELD office, Rumlow suggested they walk. He said he knew a good bar, a little hole-in-the-wall place that had reopened as soon as the aliens had stopped shooting, where they could chat. On the way, Rumlow talked about baseball. It was so absurd to talk about something so mundane when they were having to divert around piles of rubble and clean-up crews packing away bits of alien tech. The only explanation was that Rumlow was trying to keep the conversation mundane deliberately, so Steve went along with it.
They reached the bar, a dingy little place with all the atmosphere of the moon and a musty odour. There were only a couple of customers but that didn't seem to bother the barman, who was pointedly not looking at them. Rumlow led the way to a door in the back. It looked like it would lead to a supply closet or something innoccuous.
It did lead to a supply closet, and Steve wondered if Rumlow had got entirely the wrong impression from his failed attempt at subtlety. But then Rumlow pressed a sequence of buttons on what looked like a thermostat and a section of shelving slid away to reveal stairs going downwards.
"Pretty good cover," Steve said.
Rumlow waved him inside and the shelves slid into place behind them. At the bottom, Steve found himself with about six guns in his face because the people in the secret lair under the bar were clearly not happy to see him.
"Relax," Rumlow said. "He's one of us."
"He's Captain Fucking America," one of the gun-holders said.
"He gave the code. He knows the secretary."
Steve had no clue what code Rumlow was on about, or what secretary, but he had noticed the symbol on one of the computer screens behind the gun-holders. That same symbol was printed on a pile of files nearby. He could guess why people using that symbol so blatantly wouldn't be happy about Captain America walking into their midst, and if he didn't say something soon then he was going to end up shot and be no closer to figuring out what the hell the other him had meant about Bucky.
He took a gamble and said two words that he'd never thought would ever cross his lips. "Hail Hydra."
The gun-holders wavered. They looked nervously at each other. They didn't actually lower their guns, but they looked a little less definite about the way they were aiming them.
"He wants to know about the asset," Rumlow said.
"You told him about the asset?" That was the same guy who'd challenged them before, only now he looked like he might shoot Rumlow.
"I didn't have to. He already knew about him. Could draw a perfect portrait to let me know who he was asking about."
Rumlow thought that the picture of Bucky had been a secret message? But what the hell did he mean by asset? Steve was starting to consider the possibility of just punching these guys, taking their guns, and figuring out what was going on from the files and computers about the place.
"Everyone knows Captain America fought Hydra," the same guy kept arguing.
"And everyone knows that Hydra were destroyed in the forties," Steve countered. Until about five minutes ago, he'd thought that.
It seemed he wasn't the only one getting frustrated by this, because Rumlow snapped, "Lower the fucking gun and let us in to see the asset." The armed men actually did it.
On their way to a back room Rumlow said, "I heard rumours that the asset was around since the forties, but I always figured those were just stories, especially since the earliest records we have on the cold storage units go back to the sixties." Steve made a vague noise to hopefully give the impression that Rumlow knew what the hell he was talking about.
Rumlow switched on the lights and Steve saw a metal cylinder, a small window on the front showing the man inside. The frost on the glass made his face hard to make out from across the room, but Steve knew. Even before he walked across to get a better look, he knew who he would see. This was what the other him had been trying to tell him. Bucky was inside this tube, frozen, his face pale as death.
"You need him woken up?" Rumlow asked.
"Yes." Steve answered before he had a chance to think about, because if he could be woken up, if his Bucky could be brought back to him, then of course he wanted that. He still didn't know what the hell was going on, or how these people could be Hydra, but Bucky was here in front of him and he wasn't going to rest until he was safe.
Rumlow summoned a woman in a laptop who typed commands into a computer.
"The process will take about twenty minutes, sir," the woman said. "Then we have to put him in the chair for processing."
She nodded to a chair in the middle of the room that had electronics and what might have been torture devices hooked up to it. Steve made another vague noise, because strangling the person who was currently waking Bucky up was probably a bad idea.
"How did you get him to follow orders before the Russians figured out the wipe procedure?" Rumlow asked.
Steve wasn't sure what sort of answer Rumlow expected, so he went with one that was basically honest. "He didn't always do what he was told. Sometimes he'd try to argue, but in the end, I'd give him a gun and point him at the enemy."
Rumlow acted like he'd made a joke. "Yeah. With a gun in his hand, he's scary as fuck. Wouldn't have wanted to deal with him before the chair though. We have to zap him into line enough as it is."
Steve managed not to punch Rumlow through a wall. He focused on watching the ice on the inside of the window melt because it was better for his self-control than seeing the absolute stillness of the face on the other side of that glass.
"Two minutes from thaw," the woman in the labcoat announced, and Rumlow left the room to bring in the men with guns.
"Is that necessary?" Steve asked.
"Maybe he's deteriorated since your day," Rumlow said, "but it's a good idea to have security on hand when he first wakes up. He can sometimes be a little... erratic."
"He'll be perfectly compliant once he's been processed," the scientist said.
The tube slid upwards. Bucky, dressed in black leather and still far too pale, staggered forward. As he stumbled, Steve rushed forward without thought, catching him before he hit the floor. Bucky blinked at him, a puzzled frown settling on his face.
"I know you," Bucky said.
"Yeah. You know me."
He lowered Bucky down to sit on the floor because he looked like he would just topple over if he left him and the only seat in the room was that awful chair.
The scientist started to say that she should put him in the chair. Steve grabbed the gun out of the hands of the man nearest to him, and shot the scientist between the eyes before anyone could react. Then he dove into the middle of the other men, partly because he wanted to reduce the usefulness of their guns by getting in a position where they were as likely to shoot each other as him, but mostly because he really, really wanted to punch them. A lot.
Two of them went down before they'd even really started to fight, but Rumlow was tougher, and the numbers meant that Steve had to put some effort in, dodging blows and landing punches with enough force to slow them down. When he kicked one guy through the chair, the shower of electric sparks and accompanying screams were thoroughly satisfying.
Soon it was down to just him and Rumlow, and Steve was not going to show any mercy. He kicked Rumlow's legs out from under him and then pinned him, punching him in the stomach, solar plexus, and face for good measure. He didn't particularly care if Rumlow was able to get up again after.
A gunshot rang out.
Steve was on his feet and dodging away before his ears had finished registering the noise, but it was Bucky who held the gun. Another armed man had entered the room while Steve was fighting Rumlow, and now that man was on the ground, a bullet hole perfectly placed between the eyes. Bucky must have picked up one of the weapons that had been dropped in the fight.
"When will you learn to watch your own back?" Bucky murmured, speech slightly slurred.
"Don't need to. That's what you're there for." It had been a long time since Steve had been able to finish that joke. He felt he could cry from the experience now, but they weren't out of the woods yet.
Bucky blinked at him. "I know you."
"You know me. I'm Steve."
Steve could help remembering another lab. He half-expected Bucky to comment that he'd thought he was smaller.
"It's going to be okay, Bucky."
"Who the hell is Bucky?"
"You are. You're Bucky. You're my friend. It'll be okay now. I'm going to get you out of here."
Except there were people upstairs and Bucky didn't look like he was in any position to walk. It wasn't like he could call an ambulance because Steve wasn't sure how the hell he would explain all these bodies. He needed help. He needed someone a hell of a lot better prepared than him for dealing with secret labs full of evil spies.
He pulled out his phone and found the number he'd put in there only a couple of days before.
"Hey, Natasha. I might need your help tidying up a mess."