Hold Me Closer, Kevin Bacon: On the Rocks
October 13, 2016
Tight. Close. Fire. Darkness.
Steve was burning. His bones and blood crackling and seizing, consuming him from the inside out. His skin was too small. Dry. Brittle. Crushing weight was pressing on him. His lungs wouldn’t work. Fear gripped him. A terror that went beyond anything he had ever felt before. He was dying. Suffocating. Burning. His nerve endings sparked and frayed. The fire went from hot to cold – beyond cold, cutting – but still raced through him. An icy conflagration that used all the oxygen, leaving him nothing. He forced his jaw open; the joints popped and cracked, but he felt no relief.
Then it was over. Air rushed in through his nose and mouth in a great gulp. It tasted like antiseptic, frost, and steel. It was the sweetest scent he had ever known. It had taken only a second or two, but the sensation was seared into his memory. Another glimpse of hell to add to his collection. His eyes popped open, but his vision was blurry.
Calm, Steve. The words whispered through his mind and then withdrew. Wanda. He sucked in another deep breath. It was coming back to him, where he was, what he had agreed to do. It had been his own stupid plan, after all.
Once the last trigger had been removed from Bucky’s mind, it was time to figure out how to make him whole. He wanted the arm Stark had designed, although Steve knew his friend still was not convinced he deserved it. The technology was lighter and more responsive that the original. It also lacked the Soviet star on the shoulder. Stark had helpfully provided several sketches for alternative logos. None of them were acceptable. Or even very funny. It was the opinion of T’Challa’s top medical team that the arm should be attached by the designer, or at the very least with someone intimately familiar with such work. Since Tony still hadn’t called Steve, they had to look for the next best alternative.
While Bucky had been on ice for so many months in Wakanda, Steve had plenty of opportunity to come up with contingencies. A little help from Natasha and Scott provided the solution. There was no one who knew Stark tech better than Tony, but the person who came in second was his biggest competitor. Luckily, Hank Pym was a close friend of Scott’s.
“Well, not close,” Scott had said over the phone, “so much as nearby. And not friend so much as mentor. Employer. Acquaintance? So I broke into his house once – okay, twice. And I’m kind of dating his daughter. Well, not dating. Seeing. Sometimes. Like when she’s free and I’m free and we’re both-”
Steve had gotten the idea. His most important question, could Hank Pym be trusted, had been laid to rest by Natasha. There had been nearly a month of meticulous planning to ensure that Pym would be ready to complete the procedure. That the arm would be ready for attachment. That Bucky’s body – his abused nervous system – would be able to integrate with the new tech. That five wanted fugitives would be able to enter a country where their faces were on lunch boxes and backpacks without drawing attention from authorities. That there would be a safe place for them to lay low during Bucky’s recovery. And then…
And then I just have to convince Tony the Accords were wrong. Apologize to Rhodey and try to make up for causing his paralysis. Reunite Vision and Wanda and repair the rift my actions caused between them. Help Bucky continue to reclaim his old memories, a life free. Figure out a way to get Clint back to his wife and kids and let Pepper know it wasn’t Tony’s fault and talk to that spider kid about responsibility and safety and denounce Secretary Ross and find Bruce and-
He blinked. A long, slow press of his eyelids to clear his vision and settle his thoughts before he had a spontaneous recurrence of asthma. The hard edge of panic and overwhelming responsibility was closer than he liked. When Steve opened them again, he had no trouble making out the concern on Wanda’s face or the bag of hamburgers in Sam’s hand. One thing at a time.
“I’m starving,” he murmured. His throat felt raw, but already the serum was healing up any damage from the cryostasis unit. He sat all the way up, taking in the low lighting and barren room. Natasha had scouted the location. It was an old County building, used for storage, with an abandoned morgue underneath. The tile walls and stainless steel counters and tables had been scrubbed until they gleamed and bleached until germs would shrivel up at just the scent. Steve didn’t think it smelled so great either, but the aroma of seared beef and hot fries distracted from it.
“Of course you are,” Sam rolled his eyes and reached into the bag, setting four double cheeseburgers on an array of napkins. “What did you do before 24-hour fast food?”
“Your metabolism will be working far above your normal rates for a time.” The doctor T’Challa had sent with them was taking readings on a tablet and moved to pick up a syringe. “You’ll need to consume approximately twice your normal calories to keep up with the cell repair needs.”
“No blood samples,” Steve ordered. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust T’Challa, but he had only given samples twice in his life. Once to Phillips, and those had been misused to create Hulk and Blonsky and who knew what else. The second time he had been asleep in Fury’s facility and couldn’t object. As far as he knew, all the genetic material they had collected had been destroyed or transferred to Bruce’s safekeeping, but he wasn’t willing to risk having anything else out there.
“You know that was cleaned before we arrived, yes?” Wanda was watching Sam carefully construct a protective layer of napkins between his fries and an autopsy table.
“I don’t eat where dead bodies have been, Wanda. I’m civilized like that.”
The doctor’s lips tightened and she dropped the syringe back to her tray. “It would be more sanitary if you did not eat in here. At all.” Steve gave her an apologetic smile, but didn’t refuse the food Sam offered.
He climbed out of the cryo unit and took a huge bite. Heaven. “How’s Buck?” He asked as soon as he had swallowed the first bite. He glanced quickly at the second cryo unit, still closed. “No problems getting through customs?”
“Oh!” Wanda turned huge eyes on him and her lower lip trembled. The dark wig she wore made her face even paler than usual, and her slightly baggy black slacks and sweater made her look thinner, almost emaciated. “If my parents had lived to see the sacrifice my brothers made in service to their country!” Her American accent was quite good; she had been practicing with Sam and had a faint trace of the South in there somewhere. “I just have to take them home, so they can be buried with our family.” Steve shifted uncomfortably. Wanda really was a good actress. Real tears were welling in her eyes. It reminded him too much of all the women that had been left behind when their brothers and husbands died in the war. Reminded him of the brother that Wanda had lost.
“It was no problem,” she continued in her normal voice. “There was a tiny hitch at our layover in the Philippines. They almost shipped you to Japan instead of Chile. But I cried all over a soldier at the airport and they halted outbound planes at our terminal until they found you.”
“Just cried?” Sam asked suspiciously. “No whammy?”
“He lost three brothers in action,” she responded with a guilty shrug, “he was sympathetic without any assistance.”
“I appreciate not being in Japan.” Steve balled up his first wrapper and grabbed a second burger. His stomach was so empty it might try to eat his kidneys if he didn’t fill it soon. He lifted his chin at Sam. “And you two?”
Sam grinned and threw an arm around the doctor. “Newlyweds. We make the cutest couple.” The doctor frowned, but Steve had to admit she was beautiful. Dark, silky looking skin and short, tight curls that emphasized elegant bone structure. “I’m thinking three or four kids, at least.”
She pushed off his arm. “Thankfully, it is over now.” She almost stomped away to the second cryo case in the room. Beautiful, but prickly. “Sergeant Barnes remains stable and all of the equipment is working perfectly. As you instructed, I have left him in stasis until you are fully recovered. Once you feel capable of subduing the Sergeant, although I doubt it will be necessary, I will initiate the thaw process for him.”
“Go ahead,” Steve nodded. He turned to the others. “How far out is Pym?”
Sam pressed a finger to his ear, activating his comm. “Clint? You got an ETA on the dream team?” He nodded a few times and snorted before conveying to Steve and Wanda, “They got a late start. Should get here about ten or eleven a.m.”
“No doubt Scott’s friends have delayed him. I cannot wait to hear what happened.” Wanda grinned. The doctor muttered to herself and fiddled with Bucky’s case. Steve tried not to look at it for too long. Both cryo chambers had been designed to look like coffins to better get through customs. Because of their reduced size, they had limited power – limited time they could keep a person frozen but still alive. That knowledge combined with the memories of a letter he had written to Bucky’s mother, an empty coffin she had buried decades ago, made it uncomfortable to see his friend confined and still as death. As if it was ever easy.
“We are on a schedule,” Steve reminded her gently. He hated to rebuke Wanda – something Sam swore she took advantage of. Steve couldn’t help himself, she reminded him a little of Rebecca Barnes and that was enough by itself to earn her a soft spot with him. She was also brave, clever, pretty, and emotionally wounded. The combination had him fighting himself sometimes to remember that he should treat her like any other member of the team. Peg would have told him off if he did any differently. Natasha would have smacked the back of his head.
“You mean the schedule that you generously padded?” Her smile grew wider, more devilish.
“She’s got you there, Cap.” Sam handed over the last burger and crumpled up the bag. “You still hungry?”
Steve could feel the four burgers already forcing carbs and protein into his system. It wasn’t close to enough. A drop in the bucket. He snagged a container of fries and shrugged. “I could eat.”
“So one more for you, and what, three for Barnes? He won’t eat as much, right?” Sam’s nonchalant tone did nothing for Steve. Steve knew that Sam knew that Steve was downplaying his hunger. And he knew Sam was using Steve’s protectiveness of Bucky to call him out.
It worked. He reluctantly admitted, “Another four for me. At least eight for Buck. And if you could find him some fruit – he hates oranges.” Sam snorted and relayed the order to Clint, who was the least recognizable of their group and the best trained in subterfuge. The archer would go on the food run and Sam would replace him as look out until he got back.
If it had been just Steve, he would have ignored the hunger pains and moved on rather than inconvenience anyone or upset the schedule. But if he was ready to chew on his own arm, he couldn’t imagine how hungry Bucky must be. Outside of the same size meals a regular person would eat, his oldest friend only ever consumed protein bars. And those he didn’t eat enough of. Steve could only guess, based on a few idle comments that Buck had made, how his needs had been dealt with by his handlers. If the super soldier could function on an empty stomach they wouldn’t have seen any problem in keeping him on the edge of starvation.
“It will be fine,” Wanda murmured as Sam left. Steve nodded, walking around the long room to stretch his legs and test his reflexes. The young woman followed him. If he never went back on ice, it would be too soon. Still, it was the safest way for him to cross borders – his face was too recognizable. And after the heavy news coverage of the bombing in Berlin, there was no beard and hat combination that was going to make Bucky incognito. Buck hadn’t flinched at the proposition of using cryo stasis for transport. If, after everything he had been through, his best friend could manage it, then Steve had no right to complain. He had been scared when he climbed into the frosty little coffin. When the lid had closed he had kept his face carefully neutral, knowing there was a camera inside to monitor him. He refused to let his friends see the terror that was clawing at him, urging him to press against his confinement and escape. The first hiss of cold air had been the worst. They only thing that kept him from completely losing control was that is was not wet. If there had been water, he did not doubt the flashbacks of the Arctic Ocean would have overwhelmed him. He had made it through, but he also made a promise to himself that neither he nor Bucky would ever have to be frozen again.
Clint returned with the food. Bucky woke and ate readily enough after Steve strongly suggested he should. The doctor fussed, and tried twice more to take blood and tissue samples. It wasn’t Steve’s firm denial that finally convinced her, or even Buck’s hard, dead stare. Wanda had stood close to the woman and whispered something low, and after that there were no more requests for genetic material.
It was after eleven in the morning when Hank Pym arrived. Clint alerted them, “Car approaching.” He whistled, “Sweet ride. One occupant. Looks like Pym.”
“Scott?” Wanda asked.
“Not with him.”
Steve met Pym inside the front door, at the top of the stairs. He extended his hand and the older man shook it without hesitation. Sam offered to carry the bulky case Pym brought, but the scientist refused assistance. “I am not here for my health, gentlemen. Let’s get to work.”
“What happened, sir? Lang was supposed to drive you here.” Steve wasn’t too worried, Scott always seemed to turn up, but he preferred when plans went, well, as planned.
“Reason and good taste happened,” Pym replied dryly. That was explanation enough to keep Steve satisfied while Pym began his cursory examination of the arm Sam had smuggled through customs in his luggage. Pym consulted with the Wakandan doctor while he worked. Nearly an hour later, Clint spoke again over the comms.
“Either Lang has arrived, or we are being invaded by the worst undercover crew I have ever seen.” He swore, but there was a smile in his voice, “This is like a lost Monty Python skit.”
“What’s a Monty Python?” Wanda asked. Steve didn’t know, so he left Sam to explain and stepped out of the room to meet Scott.
“-like a real fine alpaca. It’s one of those super rare breeds, and they brush them for the undercoat, yo. Cashmere ain’t got nothing on this, you got to check it out man. I mean-”
“Scott,” Steve said as neutrally as possible. The skinny man smiled brightly.
“Cap! Great to see you! How was your flight? Everything okay here? The place going to work out okay?”
“I got a cousin in Sawtelle who came over and cleaned it up real nice,” the man who could only be Luis interjected. Steve had spoken to him over the phone – never seen him before, but there was no mistaking his inability to shut up. “Just like that scary hot ninja said. She was all like, ‘I got a job for you’ and I was all, ‘Scotty, we gotta take this man, cause when a fine woman asks you for a favor, you do it. Even if she can’t cut you when you’re sleeping. And Ninja totally could cut you – you know what I’m talking about.” He pointed at another man, taller than Scott but just as thin. The man nodded and turned down his mouth in the most Russian expression Steve had ever seen. Which was telling, as he was close friends with two Russian assassins. “Ninja says this is a favor for The Man – and she don’t got to say what man, ‘cause you under the radar and shit, but I’m like, psht, I got this girl. ‘Cause I know how to play it cool, cause I got this friend up at Pelican Bay, see? And his stepdad has another kid from his second marriage to this weird ass woman from Los Alamos that joined the special forces, the kid, not the lady, like a Green Beret you know, and-”
“It’s fine,” Steve interrupted. “Thank you.”
“So is Natasha here?” Scott looked over Steve’s shoulder to peer into the morgue. It required a lot of jumping for the much shorter man. “I thought she was going to meet us here. Hey, is that the arm?” His eyes got wide, “Awesome.”
“Did you need something?” The low, smoky voice came from the shadows right behind Scott, and he jumped again, clutching his chest. Luis and the two other guys pressed back against the wall of the stairwell, as far away from the blonde in the UCLA sweatshirt as possible. Natasha looked like a college student, down to the ponytail and backpack. It was unnerving.
“Ninja woman,” Luis whistled appreciatively, but did not move closer. He was smarter than he sounded. “Lookin’ fine, as always. I’m not usually about blondes, but you are workin’ it. I dated a blonde once, but not like a for real blonde. She had her sister bleach her hair at home, but, you know, like with real bleach and she-”
“Hey there, Natasha. What’s, ah, what’s – how you doing?” Scott winced and then pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “I’m going to help out Hank.”
“You aren’t helpful,” Pym called out.
“I’m going to help out Wanda,” Scott corrected himself without missing a beat. Then he slid around Steve with the same grace that had made him such a good burglar. Natasha smirked.
“So, I was thinkin’ that maybe-”
Natasha cut off Luis easily. “Kurt, did you get that thing we talked about?” The Russian nodded seriously. “Dave?”
The third member of Scott’s group, an African American man who looked appropriately scared of Natasha, answered, “Just say the word, boss.”
At that one syllable, the three flew back up the stairs to the main entrance. Steve watched them go with a laugh threatening to escape. He wasn’t entirely sure if it was from humor or panicky fear that Natasha might be forming her own army of ex-convicts.
“I have somewhere to be,” she said. “You will come with me to carry things.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “Gee, since you asked so nicely. I’m kind of in the middle of something here, Nat. You remember, the surgery on my best friend?”
“Beat it, punk.” Bucky’s low voice was filled with gravel and a faint trace of teasing. That he had spoken at all in front of Pym and the Wakandan doctor was a huge improvement over where he had been in August. Buck nodded at Natasha, who returned the gesture with equal seriousness.
“Captain Rogers, I have a variety of tests and simulations to run. We will plan on beginning the procedure at three p.m.” Pym looked over a pair of narrow reading glasses, mild disapproval in his glance, “But I imagine I will be able to muddle through without your expertise.” Whether or not the man was teasing was difficult to tell.
Steve shared a look with Bucky, the same look he had given him ninety years prior when they were both covered in mud and bruises and Buck’s mother was waiting on the other side of an apartment door to give her son hell. It said, you want me to take this one for you? Buck returned that with his own familiar glance, what you gonna do, talk your way outta this? Agreement reached, but not particularly happy about it, Steve turned back to Natasha.
“Where are we going? I’m not exactly in disguise.”
“You’ll be fine. It’s a very discreet place.”
Steve followed obediently, but he remembered another trip, a long time ago, to a discreet place. He had gone to retrieve Bucky and found his best friend was the unlikely voice of reason in the center of a destroyed Italian speakeasy. Two Commandos were unconscious, another was sporting a black eye, and a bevy of armed ladies of the evening were alternately spitting curses at Bucky and using wickedly sharp knives to threaten a small company of trussed up Nazis. Most of the town had been blown up.
“Yeah,” Steve replied with a sigh, “I’m sure.”