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Captain America fic: Lock and Key (1/2)

December 27th, 2017 (07:14 am)
frustrated

feeling: frustrated

Title: Lock and Key

Disclaimer: Nope, not mine.

A/N: Another fic for kristen_mara. She deserves good things all throughout the year, and I hope that your Christmas was especially pleasant :) Fills my healers square for hc_bingo.

Summary: Sometimes the most important healing is what we do ourselves.



-o-

Some might say that Steve Rogers was a man who protected his country.

That wasn’t it, though. Not exactly. Not that Steve Rogers wasn’t a patriot, because surely he was, but Steve’s ultimate loyalty was never to a flag or a government. It was the vulnerable people of the world, the ones with no one else to protect them.

In his childhood, he’d taken up all the lost causes, and he’d stood up to bullies he knew and those he didn’t. He got his ass kicked more than once, determined to stand up for all the others who were just too scared.

It didn’t stop there. That was why he’d joined the army, after all. He didn’t like bullies, wherever they were. He went to stop the Nazis and probably saved the world instead.

When he’d been resurrected, that cause hadn’t changed. He’d fought alongside the Avengers, against aliens and robots and everything in between. As a superhero, he’d taken that role seriously to the point that only one thing could break him.

Because he was still fighting for a higher cause. His goal was to help those who were most vulnerable. And the most vulnerable among them was Bucky Barnes.

True, that would raise some eyebrows considering the colorful nature of Bucky’s past. After he’d fallen from the bridge, he’d been brainwashed and reprogrammed, and his time as the Winter Soldier had seen him brutalize countless victims.

Steve knew that of all the victims, however, Bucky had been brutalized the most.

So when Bucky chose cryo, Steve respected that choice. And while his friend slept, hoping for a cure to the madness in his brain, Steve pledged himself not to a cause, not to a war, but to the only person left who mattered.

Bucky would sleep.

And Steve would watch over him.

For as long as it took.

-o-

That was the definite nature of what Steve was doing in Wakanda. However, after a week of holding a quiet vigil over his comatose friend, Steve realized the limitations. It didn’t feel right to leave Bucky, sure. But it also didn’t feel right to stare at him, day after day, doing nothing.

After all, there was still a lot to do.

The Avengers were a mess. The Sokovia Accords were a fiasco in their own right, and what was left of the active team was bound and cloistered in ways Steve feared. No doubt Tony was reeling, from the truth about his parents to the breakdown of his most critical friendships. And there was the other half of the team, the ones who’d taken Steve’s side and ended up in prison for their troubles.

All of that while the dark forces in the world rumbled and gathered strength. Steve had been around too long to think that peace would last; if anything, it was just starting. Wakanda, in its safe bubble, seemed relatively safe, but Steve knew it was only a matter of time before the fight came to them.

And here was Steve.

Sitting there, holding vigil.

That made it sound like something: holding vigil. Really, Steve was becoming keenly aware that he was doing nothing.

“I don’t know what to do,” Steve admitted to T’Challa. As king, T’Challa certainly kept busy, but he made time to meet with Steve once a week for a few hours. This was friendly; this was precautionary, given that T’Challa had granted Steve and Bucky sanctuary.

T’Challa did not seem as bothered by this fact as Steve wanted him to be. “Then you should do something, my friend,” he said with a shrug.

Steve sighed, chewing at the inside of his lip. “But what?”

“We have plenty of room for you on our security forces,” T’Challa offered. Seeing the look of disappointment on Steve’s face, T’Challa continued. “There are also plenty of other advisory roles where you could benefit the people.”

Steve was already shaking his head. “I’m a man of action, not an advisor.”


“What about helping with humanitarian efforts?” T’Challa said.

“I can’t, though,” Steve said, emphatically. “I can’t leave Bucky, not like this.”

T’Challa considered this, fairly nonplussed. “Well, that is something of a dilemma, then,” he said. “To crave action and be resign to sitting idle.”

“Yes, exactly,” Steve said, somewhat relieved. “That’s why I don’t know what to do.”

“Ah, Steve,” T’Challa cajoled. “Surely it is not so hard to see?”

At that, Steve frowned. “See what?”

“That there is a ready solution to your problem,” he continued.

Steve shook his head. “What solution?”

“Your friend is ailing, yes?”

“Sure,” Steve said. “He doesn’t want to be in the world until he can make sure the programming is out of his head.”

“And will this cause advance itself if you sit idle?” T’Challa prompted.

Steve hesitated, finally starting to understand. “No….”

“Exactly,” T’Challa said, snapping his fingers as light twinkled in his dark eyes. “Now, yes, my scientists and doctors are searching for answers, and I know you have been most cooperative. But I have seen enough of the world to know that we are better not by our seclusion but by our ability to engage with others.”


Narrowing his eyes, Steve studied his new friend carefully. “What exactly are you saying?”

“Your friend needs healing,” T’Challa said, enunciating each word for clarity and strength. “So go find him the best healer you can.”

Steve stared at him, momentarily dumbfounded.

T’Challa was grinning. “And then once you heal your friend,” he said. “You can return to the other important tasks at hand.”

“Find a healer,” Steve repeated.

T’Challa inclined his head. “And heal your friend.”

-o-

T’Challa made it sound so simple.

And really, it was simple.

This was how Steve had always approached things He’d been the kid at boot camp to skip climbing the flagpole and root it out at the base instead. He’d always been able to see the simple answers that other people overlooked, but somehow he’d missed this one.

He’d been so busy worrying about Bucky never getting better that he’d forgotten to actually make Bucky better.

Simple.

“Don’t worry, Buck,” he pledged, stopping by the cryo chamber before bed that night. He always made at least three visits, one in the morning, afternoon and evening. Some were longer than others; some lasted all day long. But Steve wanted to head in early tonight because for the first time in weeks, he had something he wanted to get done in the morning. “I’m going to figure this out.”

Blocked by the panes of glass, Bucky showed no signs of hearing him. Still, suspended. Safe.

Steve smiled gently. “I’m going to fix this.”

-o-

The first place Steve looked was Wakanda. This was a practical choice, naturally, considering that was where Bucky was located. Steve hated the idea of leaving Bucky, even for a cause as noble as this -- and even when Bucky would never know the difference. That vulnerability made it worse, somehow.

Plus, Steve was still technically an international fugitive. He couldn’t exactly hop on a commercial flight these days.

During his stay in Wakanda so far, he’d made good friends among the doctors, scientists and security personnel. He’d even rubbed shoulders with some of T’Challa’s family. So when he asked if there was anyone else who might have some insight into issue of healing, he half expected T’Challa to laugh at him.

Instead, T’Challa inclined his head thoughtfully. “My father always made it a point to have the very best people in all fields at his palace. He said excellence was not always a measure of your own worth but in your estimation of the talent of others.”

Steve prepared himself to be let down even more, inherently bracing himself for bad news.

T’Challa smiled gently, however. “That said, not all the best minds choose to come to the palace,” he said. “There are certain faction among my people who look even more studiously to the past. They practice a type of healing that cannot be reproduced in a laboratory.”

At this, Steve perked up. “Healers?”

T’Challa nodded. “They practice ancient arts -- arts that go back as far as my people know. Wakanda is a modern nation, but many still believe that these ancient healers offer something my scientists never could.”

“And what’s that?” Steve asked, sitting forward a little more intently.

This time, T’Challa’s eyes gleamed. “Hope,” he said. “They give hope.”

It wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting.

It was, however, probably the answer he needed.

He sat back, nodding. “Well, I think Bucky could use some of that,” he said. “And I’m damn sure I could, too.”

-o-

With the idea of ancient healers, Steve had an image of old men in smoky huts, mixing herbs and boiling draughts. He was surprised, then, that T’Challa gave him the address of a woman who lived not far away in the city.

He had explored the city a decent amount by this time, but the address was still unknown to him. The streets took him to the outskirts, where the apartments were skinnier and the streets less maintained. Wakanda was a fine country, but apparently every city had a lesser side of the tracks.

All the same, Steve approached with his head high, and when he knocked, he squared his shoulders and took a deep breath.

The door opened. A tall woman, about ten years older than Steve, opened it. She had dark skin and a bushy head of hair. Her robes were simple, but she wore several ornate necklaces and her fingers were laden with rings and other baubles.

Her dark eyes assessed him faster than he assessed her. She chuckled. “Captain America.”

Steve lifted his eyebrows, taken aback by her foresight. “What?”

“What other reason is there for a white man to be knocking on my door?” she asked, her English clear but heavily accented.

Steve found himself blushing. “Sorry,” he said. “Do you know why I’m here?”

She scoffed at him. “I’m a healer; not a psychic,” she said. “If you’re looking for magic, you should look elsewhere.”

Shaking his head, Steve took a step forward before she could close the door. “No, that’s not -- I mean,” he started, failing to find his words. “I’m here about a friend of mine.”

Maybe it was his words; maybe it was his tone. Her expression softened, and her stance eased. “No miracles, you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Just your help.”

She eyed him one more time, skeptical. Finally, she stepped away from the door, gesturing for him to come inside. “Then maybe you’re in the right place after all.”


-o-

To say her furnishings were eclectic was not an understatement. In the palace, everything was orante and well coordinated. Here, the decor wasn’t quite haphazard, though it was hard to place a rhyme or reason to it. She had plenty of bookshelves, overflowing with more books than Steve had thought possible for a small, third-floor apartment.

“It’s your friend, the Winter Soldier,” she said, as she settled onto a floral cushion of her lopsided coach.

Steve gingerly sat in a chair across from her. “I thought you weren’t psychic.”

She looked vaguely amused. “I read the news,” she told him. “I know why you’re in this country. And everyone knows it’s because of him.”

Somehow embarrassed, Steve blushed as he cleared his throat. “If I tell you something, will it be confidence?” he asked. “You won’t tell anybody?”

“I’m not a doctor; there’s no confidentiality agreement,” she said. But she inclined her head. “But I am a woman of integrity. I will keep your secrets.”

He drew a breath, trying to find comfort in that answer. “He’s been brainwashed,” he said.

She nodded along. “That’s also international news.”

“There are triggers; words or images that set him off,” Steve explained. “When that happens, he can’t control himself.”

Her brow creased in a flicker of sympathy. “Hell of a thing, killing all those people and never knowing why.”

“Or how,” Steve said. “We don’t know the triggers, which makes it even harder to get rid of them.”

“Well, I’m sure you could find someone who knows the trigger words,” she said.

“But that won’t let me break their power,” he said. “Bucky can’t live a free life as long as he’s tied to those triggers.”

She considered this, more thoughtful than before. “His mind is locked,” she said.

“Those triggers are the key,” he confirmed.

“And you’d like the blow the whole lock off,” she said. She shrugged. “That’s a good plan.”

“But I don’t know how to do it,” Steve said. “I don’t even know if it’s possible.”

She chuckled at that. “And you think I do?”

Steve’s chest clenched. “King T’Challa said you were a healer, one of the best,” he said. “He thought you might be able to help.”

“Flattered as I am, I don’t want to give you false hope,” she said, more seriously than before.

Steve kept himself poised. “So you can’t help him?”

She sighed. “You look at this as a problem to be fixed; a disease to be healed,” she said. “With medicine and technology, we believe that there are simple solutions. Take this pill. Get this injection. But the mind is not so simple. It cannot be cured with quick fixes.”

Grinding his teeth together, Steve did what he could not to visibly clench his fingers.

She seemed to notice his discontent. “But know this: the mind is remarkable. Yes, the brain, too, and all its structure. But I am talking about the mind; the essence of a person. That part is hard to control -- there is no telling what hardship your friend endured to come to this state.”

That one hurt, almost literally. Steve almost winced. He still had trouble thinking of those years that Bucky had lost. Steve had spent his on ice; Bucky had spent his in nonstop torment.

“But the mind is harder still to break,” she continued with a tweak of her eyebrows. “And I do not know your friend, so I cannot say what his mental state is, but I know of his feats. I know that he’s fought his programming. I know that he chooses statis in order to avoid another relapse. And that, right there, is your hope.”

“What do you mean?” Steve asked, his throat tight.

This time, her look was even more sympathetic. “Your friend is not broken; that means he can be recovered and his life can be reclaimed for his own purposes,” she assured him.

“That’s good,” Steve said, feeling something warm surge in his chest. “But how.”

Her smile was patient. “His mind is locked,” she told him.

“And I want to get rid of the lock,” Steve insisted.

“But first you have to open it,” she told him.

Steve’s face screwed up. “What?”

“If you use a hand grenade to open a box, what happens?” she pressed.

Steve shook his head, confused. “It gets destroyed.”

“And you want to destroy your friend?” she asked.

Steve blinked, surprised. “Of course not.”

“Then you must examine the lock from inside out,” she said. “And that starts with finding the key.”

Steve regarded her critically. “And that’s your advice?”

She shrugged. “I’m sure that’s not the healing you were hoping for.”

“Not exactly,” Steve admitted.

“Sometimes the most important healing is what we do ourselves,” she told him. “Find the key, and you and your friend will both get what you want.”

-o-

It was more and less than Steve had been expected.

Sure, he’d hoped for some cure, but the healer had said it herself: quick fixes weren’t real fixes. That was what Steve had tried to explain to Tony, what he’d wanted him to understand about the Accords. There was room for oversight and checks and balances, but a hastily thrown together bill that no one had even read yet wasn’t the best way to do it.

If something like that was important, then how much more was Bucky’s mental stability and ultimate recovery?

To that end, the healer had made a certain amount of sense. She’d struck a nerve in Steve, the sense that he’d been sitting around waiting for something to happen, which wasn’t like him at all. No, Steve was not an idle man. He took action, even when action hardly seemed to make much sense.

In that regard, Steve knew what he had to do.

But sitting outside the cryo chamber, watching Bucky in suspended animation, Steve found it difficult. Wetting his lips, he glanced around self consciously. The workers were always discreet, and most of them were well accustomed to Steve’s presence, but sometimes there were things Steve wanted to say in private.

Things he could only say in private.

Taking a breath, he studied Bucky’s familiar features again. All the years that had passed, all the things they’d both been through, and Bucky still looked like another kid from Brooklyn here. It seemed like yesterday sometimes, going to the fair the night before Bucky left for war. He’d been foolish then, squandering his time on one last attempt to get into the Army. He’d gotten what he wanted, maybe, but he’d sacrificed the chance to say a proper goodbye to Bucky.

He didn’t want to do that this time.

If he was going to leave, he was going to do it right.

“I promised you I’d be here, watching over you,” he said softly, inching his way closer to the glass exterior. He could feel the cold radiating off it. “And I’m not going to go back on the promise, I’m not.”

His eyes skimmed over Bucky’s chest, the still and steady breathing. To the side, he could see the monitors with Bucky’s vitals, just as still and steady.

“But what I’m doing now, sitting here, holding vigil,” he began, finding himself faltering somehow. “That’s not really helping you, not in the way you need it.”

Bucky’s hair had fallen away from his forehead; in statis, Bucky’s skin had lost some of its luster. The tanned complexion had grown sallow, with hints of gray underneath. For all that Bucky was alive, Steve knew he was wasting away.

His heart thumped painfully in his own chest.

They both were wasting away.

“So I’m sorry -- I really am,” he said, blinking hard to keep the tears back. “But I have to go.”

As expected, there was no response from his friend. Even if Bucky were awake, he wouldn’t stop Steve. He had tried to talk sense into him all Steve’s life, but he’s respected Steve’s ability to make an informed choice.

That was the ability Steve had yet to relinquish.

The ability he wanted to recover for Bucky in return.

“I’m going to figure this out, I swear,” he pledged, lifting his eyes to Bucky’s face again. He was locked away for his own protection, for the world’s protection. Locked in plain sight, close enough to want but impenetrable all the same. If he’d had any doubts, this erased them now. Bucky needed that key.

They both did.

He took one last, resolved breath. “I’m going to figure this out.”

-o-

It wasn’t just that it was hard to get in there -- because, it was. A former Hydra site was no small thing, and this one had been involved in an incident perpetuated by an international terrorist. It had been checked and rechecked and then secured by SHIELD, which meant that security was now through the roof.

So yeah, that was hard.

But it was hard.

This was the place where Bucky’s sins had been delineated. This was the place where Tony had learned the truth about his parents. This was the place where Tony tried to kill Bucky, where Steve was forced to finally pick a side.

This was the place where Steve had laid down his shield.

And picked up something far more important to him.

Still.

It was hard.

As for the security, Steve still had a few tricks up his sleeve. For as high tech as Stark’s tech was, Steve knew well enough that there were always workarounds. That was how Tony operated, after all. He always had an exit.

Which meant there was always an entrance.

Although the site was designated for research now, only security was on the job during the weekend hours. Pair that with a valid SHIELD pass code, and Steve was in. He’d worried that maybe Tony would have changed things, but he’d suspected that Tony had other priorities.

Inside, it was everything Steve remembered. Not just from the fight with Tony, but from all his years of dismantling Hydra bases in the war and after the Chitauri incident. In some ways, he’d gotten desensitized to the depravity of it -- the notations about mass murder and torture hadn’t been anything new -- but he was looking at it with fresh eyes now.

He didn’t want to shut it down.

He wanted to use it.

Of course, that also made it harder. Clearly, SHIELD had made steady progress on the base, and much of it was catalogued and assessed. The computers onsite had an in depth cataloguing system, and when Steve failed to make heads or tails of it, he decided to do things the old fashioned way.

The file room was just as dusty and dank as might be expected, but Steve settled down, opening the first drawer to make himself at home.

Hours later, he’d skimmed over hundreds of files. He’d visually checked every codeword, looking for anything related to the Winter Soldier. He found some physical training regimens, and he’d even found a few mission briefs. He thought he’d been onto something when he unearthed the specs for Bucky’s arm, but that turned out to be more about the technical specifications.

Then, tucked away in the back of a cabinet, he found a folder with a red star on the front. Steve’s heart skipped a beat; a cold shiver ran down his spine. He knew that star; it’d been engraved into his memory ever since he first saw the Winter Soldier in New York.

With shaking fingers, he grabbed the file. Blinking rapidly, he had to clear his vision in order to read. Even then, his mind moved sluggishly behind his eyes, and he had to reread each word before he started to parse out the meaning.

This was it, he realized. There, sitting in a musty file room, this was it.

This file was what he’d been looking for.

Steve was finally holding the key.

Looking around anxiously, he considered the right course of action. He wouldn’t approve of stealing, most of the time.

But this place, of all places, reminded Steve where he’d drawn his own line.

Walking out, file in hand, he still knew which side he was on.

-o-

Even before Steve landed back in Wakanda, he knew that his good news wasn’t so good. The flight hadn’t been that long -- using T’Challa’s private service had been primarily to get him through security without any issues, but it’d also been faster -- but it’d given him enough time to go over the data.

Enough time to realize that he had the key.

The key not to unlock Bucky, but to activate him.

The programming was above Steve’s paygrade, but he could make out enough to put two and two together. It was all here, the strict drug cocktails and the precise hypnotic triggers to instill a deeply laced code into Bucky’s brain. There were details about the altered reality Bucky was subjected to, and the notes indicated that he’d been trained to become utterly dependent on his programmers, in some sick and extreme version of coerced Stockholme Syndrome.

It was definite proof of what had been done to Bucky. Proof, beyond all reasonable doubt, that none of this was Bucky’s fault.

What it was not, however, was a solution.

Hydra had wanted to brainwash people. They weren’t like Tony Stark; they didn’t leave easy outs. If one of their own was compromised, there was no contingency to fix them except a bullet in the back of the head.

Sure, maybe the scientists would be able to look through the process and figure out ways to undo it. But it could take months or years. Decades. Lifetimes.

Steve looked idly out the window, feeling disappointment swell in his stomach.

He wasn’t sure he had another lifetime in him.

In fact, he was pretty sure he didn’t.

-o-

This time, when he visited Bucky, he didn’t apologize.

Because Steve was sorry for a lot of things, but he was the sort of person who made up his mind. His natural resolve would bring about the rest.

Still, he owed Bucky something of an explanation.

“I was hoping it’d just be the one trip, Buck,” he said, shuffling his feet as he glanced around the room. It was lunch time at least, so the room was quieter than it normally was. He turned his eyes back to Bucky and smiled sadly. “But we both know that things don’t usually go the way we want them to.”

Of course they knew. Bucky hadn’t had quite as difficult of time growing up, but he’d fallen from a train and lost more than his life. They’d both set out to be heroes, in their own ways.

Some people might call it fate, but Steve wasn’t superstitious. He just knew that the world could be a dark, lonely place. That was why he had to cling all the more tightly to the things that mattered.

He stepped forward, lifting his fingers so they brushed against the shatter-proof, bullet grade glass.

“The scientists are pretty excited about what I was able to find, and now that we know the trigger words, we could probably safely avoid them most of time,” he said, but his optimism was inherently at fault. Steve didn’t even believe it himself anymore. “But I know you don’t want safety measures. You want to undo the lock.”

No matter how much they tried to make it look like Bucky was resting, Steve still bristled at the sight almost every time. This was Bucky’s choice, to go into stasis, but it was still a symbol of all that Bucky had lost. How far off track had they gone, the two of them, that Bucky would choose this for himself?

It wasn’t so hard to believe, though. Bucky would rather leave himself completely vulnerable than to leave anyone around him that way. Steve knew that Bucky had spent a year on the run, living under the radar to protect himself. Now, here he was, no defenses left at all. T’Challa’s security was beyond impressive, but if something got in here? If someone wanted to?

Bucky would be dead without knowing what hit him.

That wasn’t right.

That wasn’t okay.

Steve let out a long, slow, determined breath. “So, you know what, we’re done with keys,” he said with a resolute nod. He kept his gaze steady on Bucky’s recumbent figure, gathering the willpower he needed for the next leg of his journey. “It’s time to find a locksmith.”

-o-

It was strange, being in New York again.

That was of course because Steve had spent most of his life in New York. Growing up in Brooklyn, it had always been his backyard, and even as an Avenger, he’d had a place in Avenger’s tower courtesy of Tony.


Strange, then, was an understatement, given that Steve wasn’t an Avenger anymore.

Strange was also literal.

That was what he told himself with a grimace of irony as he knocked the door for Stephen Strange.

He was vaguely surprised when the man opened it himself. Steve had never met him before, but it wasn’t hard to recognize him.

What was even more surprising, however, was that Strange’s eyes widened, his face lighting up. “Captain America!”

Steve winced. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Strange held out an enthusiastic hand. “I watch the news.”

“Don’t believe everything you see,” Steve advised meekly, taking the hand with a cautious grip. He was aware now, more than he had been at the airport, of just how vulnerable he was. Strange hadn’t been a part of Civil War, but he’d signed the Accords all the same. Steve had no idea how a fight between the two of them would go down if Strange thought to arrest him, but he wasn’t keen on finding out.

To his relief, Strange grinned. “Trust me, I don’t,” he said, then he stepped back, gesturing inside. “Do you want to come in?”

Steve gave an anxious look around. “I think that would be best.”

-o-

Inside, Stephen’s room was immaculate if sparse. There was a sense of grandiose elegance about it, even though the room was almost purposefully devoid of anything too personal or unnecessary. There were hints of eastern flair, but it wasn’t on the nose as Steve had thought it might be.

In fact, nothing about Strange was exactly how he’d expected. He’d done his research, of course. He knew the kind of man Strange had been as a doctor, and he knew about the nature of his work ever since his so-called transformation. Reports were scant on what had actually happened to Strange, but Steve didn’t much care about the details.

He cared that Strange had been crippled but had healed himself through the power of his mind. Steve wasn’t looking for miracles, but a little mind control? That was the only thing Bucky could be saved with.

“Do you want something?” Strange called over his shoulder as he led them into a sitting around. “I mean, I don’t make anything, but I’ve got this assistant…”

Steve shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “I’m good.”

Arching an eyebrow, Strange gave him a skeptical look as he sat down on a well loved chair next to a bookcase full of thick, leather bound volumes “You sure?”

Steve made a diffident face, sitting himself on the couch. “Why not?”

Strange drew his brows together curiously. “Well, you’re on the most wanted list by our government,” he reminded him. “So I don’t think you’d return to New York just to go sight seeing.”

That should have been an obvious conclusion, but Steve wasn’t on his game this time around. He offered up an apologetic smile. “I might have come asking a favor.”

There was a clear line of thought going on behind Strange’s eyes, assessing and analytical. “What kind of favor?” he asked finally.

Steve sat forward, trying not to appear anxious. “It’s about my friend.”

“Bucky Barnes,” Strange assumed.

“Does everyone know that?” Steve asked, feeling heat rise unexpectedly in his cheeks.

“The gossip papers like that angle, is all,” Strange explained. “That Captain America would put his personal loyalty to his boyhood friend above all else. They make it seem almost romantic.”

The blush deepened.

“And I’ve already been briefed, you might say,” Strange added with a shrug. “Tony Stark apparently doesn’t want you to be arrested.”

The blush disappeared, and Steve blinked in shock. “Tony?”

“He made a personal visit and everything,” Strange said. “But back to Barnes.”

“Yes, Bucky,” Steve said, remembering himself. “Do you know how he’s the Winter Soldier?”

“Sure,” Strange said, sitting back and crossing one leg over another. His long fingers came thoughtfully to a point as he contemplated. “Mind control, right?”

“Yes,” Steve said, somewhat relieved that he didn’t have to explain the context too much. “We’ve been working on learning how the triggers work, but I feel like it’s just never going to work. It’s like we have to free Bucky’s mind another way.”

Strange continued to nod. “The mind is surprisingly powerful when you know how to use it the right way,” he affirmed.

“That’s why I came here,” Steve said. “Given your experience and all.”

At that, Strange cocked his head. “You know I’m not a practicing doctor anymore.”

“But that doesn’t mean you don’t know a thing or two about healing,” Steve said. “I know the stories, and I can see your hands right now. Medicine didn’t fix you.”

“No, not medicine,” Strange said. “Though medicine is what saved my life in the first place.”

“Bucky’s life is currently in a cryogenic chamber,” Steve said. “I want to give him it back.”

This time, Strange chewed his lip, dropping his fingers to drum them on the chair next to him. “You’re looking for a quick fix.”

Steve clenched his jaw for a moment defensively.

Strange held up an apologetic hand. “I know how that is, is all,” he said. “I spent years, nearly killed myself looking for a quick fix.”

“There’s nothing quick about those fixes, though,” Steve countered. “You said it yourself, years almost killing yourself. And Bucky’s been stuck in stasis for months.”

“I never realized how presumptuous I must have been,” Strange said, almost fascinated. “To come in, asking someone for a miracle.”

“Lucky for you, someone gave it to you,” Steve said, voice turning a bit cold.

“Did they?” Strange asked, obtuse and quizzical all at once.

Steve’s face hardened a little more. “We both know about your turnaround.”

“Yes, yes,” Strange agreed. “Destitute cripple who transformed into a superhero.”

“Exactly,” Steve said.

“All you see, though; all people understand -- is the physical side of it,” Strange said. He lifted his hand, wiggling his fingers.. “This isn’t what changed.” He inclined his head, tapping one finger to his temple. “This is what changed.”

“Which is why I’m here,” Steve said, emphatic now. He tapped his own head. “That’s where Bucky’s problem is.”

Strange considered this with all apparent sincerity. His brow creased in concern. “It worries me, however, that he’s not here.”

“Well, he’s in statis,” Steve said. “It was the only way to make sure he wasn’t triggered; he made that choice.”

“Which is what worries me,” Strange said. “The kind of healing you’re seeking -- he has to be an active part of it.”

Steve’s heart skipped a beat, his stomach churning. “He has to come out of statis.”

“And it’ll require him to come face to face with every fear, every nightmare, every regrets -- every trigger word,” Strange said. “I can tell you, it’s not easy, and it’s not for the faint of heart.”

“But will it work?” Steve asked bluntly.

Strange looked sobered at the question. “I can’t tell you it will or won’t,” he said. “Truth be told, I’m still relatively new to this myself. I’ve never tried to mentor anyone before.”

Something hard was forming in the pit of Steve’s stomach, and he could almost feel bile rising up his throat. “What are you saying, then?”

Strange sighed, looking almost regretful. “I’m not a doctor anymore, and I’m pretty sure no one would call me a healer,” he said. “I don’t mind sharing what I know but there’s no way to predict what will happen.”

Strange wasn’t been unkind, and Steve knew that. It didn’t make the answer any less frustrating, all things considered. “So you won’t help me?”

“I thought this was about helping him?” Strange asked.

Steve’s cheeks flushed again. “You know what I meant.”

Strange nodded. “Better than you do, I suspect.”

Sighing, Steve got to his feet. “So you’re not going to do it?”

“Wake him up, bring him here, I don’t mind,” Strange said. “But you’re looking for guarantees, and that’s the thing I can’t give you.”

“Fine,” Steve said, standing very still for a moment as he gathered his emotions once more. When he looked up, he managed a polite smile at Strange. “Thank you for your time. And your discretion.”

Strange got to his feet, more apologetic than ever in his expression. “If you want something proven, you need to go somewhere that tries to prove things,” he advised.

“Science?” Steve asked.

Strange shrugged. “I was a doctor once,” he said. “It’s not as mystical or impressive, maybe, but it can still work.”

“But where?” Steve asked. “I’ve looked at the Hydra files, and they say nothing about cures or fixes. So who would have that information?”

Strange wrinkled his nose just a little, looking almost bemused. “I think you know the answer better than I do.”

-o-

It wasn’t Strange’s fault, and Steve knew that, but that didn’t make going away empty handed any easier. Worse, being in such a familiar place, surrounding by so many things he used to love, he knew he couldn’t enjoy any of it.

Because Steve Rogers couldn’t even be here.

And Captain America didn’t even exist anymore.

He thought about going back to the airport to collect T’Challa’s crew, but he found himself hesitating. Down the block, he could look up between the buildings and see Avenger’s Tower on the skyline. The odds were that Tony wasn’t there anymore; he wasn’t sure any of the Avengers were.

But it wasn’t Avenger’s Tower that mattered. No, Steve knew that two blocks to the left, in a small, falsely marked office space there was a SHIELD field office. Mostly research, as he recalled. He’d spent a lot of time there himself, back when the transformation had been taken place.

He hesitated again, glancing down at the two paths. He thought about what Strange had said. Who would have information about combating Hydra?

His gaze settled on the large A, still emblazoned on the top proudly.

Steve did know the answer.

He knew it all too well.

-o-

Steve had sacrificed a lot to bring SHIELD down, taking HYDRA with it, but he wasn’t naive enough to think that his profound actions had actually halted all SHIELD activities. Steve didn’t just know Nick Fury too well; he knew the heart of the organization. True, it had been compromised, but this was the foundation that Peggy had spent her life developing. At its core, SHIELD wanted to do good.

And, more importantly, it was resilient. Nothing, not even Steve Rogers and Captain America himself, would ever take that down.

That said, he worried that he’d been gone too long. Sure, his passcodes had worked overseas, but would SHIELD be brazen enough to keep using its old safehouses and cover businesses? In New York, no less?

Settling down across the street from an old shop front, he half hoped it would be for naught. After all, he wanted to think that his work at the Triskellion had been worth something.

But, still sipping his first cup of coffee, he saw a figure enter the dim looking shop. He took a few more sips, waiting for the would-be customer to come back out. When such movement did not occur, Steve considered the possibility that it was an employee.

Then the second person came. This one was just as nondescript as the first, looking almost completely natural as she, too, entered inside the dingy exterior. Given that it was just after lunch, Steve again gave them the benefit of the doubt.

Five people later, Steve was pretty sure that his trepidation had been wasted. Because a shop that looked that run down would not have that many well dressed, well built people going inside. For all that SHIELD had given up when Steve had blown the lid off HYDRA, they had managed to retain more.

Bold gestures always seemed like good ideas at the time, but Steve was starting to realize that they had their practical limitations.

Then, to his surprise, he saw someone familiar. Her blonde hair glinted in the sunlight, and she smiled politely at a street vendor before crossing over to the lackluster shop front. She turned, looking almost casual, but she was clearly checking for a tail.

She was also clearly Sharon Carter.

Huh, Steve thought, ordering another cup of coffee.

That was one hell of a fortuitous coincidence.

-o-

It was tempting to go straight over and enter the shop himself. However, that would be too much of a risk. Someone like Stephen Strange was affiliated with SHIELD and other government entities, but he had enough of his own agenda that Steve could take the risk that he’d be impartial. Sneaking into a SHIELD controlled base was by no means for the faint of heart, but since he’d planned on no contact with anyone, it wasn’t that much of a chance.

Going into an active, undercover SHIELD facility in the heart of New York? There would be too many operatives, too many underlings, too many people who might not give Steve deference over the company line. And while Tony might have tipped most of the higher ups off to give Steve some leeway, he couldn’t have printed an official memo about such things.

No, Steve would have to wait.

Besides, this was a meeting that was personal.

He owed Sharon Carter a lot. She’d taken his side in the SHIELD throwdown, risking her life and her career. More than that, when he’d been on the run with Bucky, she’d crossed every line SHIELD had in place to offer him her help and support. He’d offered her a kiss, then.

Reflecting now on how it had all turned out, that kiss seemed woefully inadequate and extremely misplaced. It had seemed like the natural course of things, given their history, but a kiss was too much of a beginning when he’d intended it as a goodbye.

Yet, here he was. Trailing her while she headed home after what had to be a long, boring day in the office.

Winding through the streets, Steve realized that she had clearly moved. The time she’d spent living across from Steve had been part of her cover -- he knew that now -- but he hadn’t considered what that meant for her actual living quarters. It wasn’t much of a surprise to see that her new apartment was even less fancy than her last, and as she climbed the stairs to her second-floor flat, Steve loitered in the foyer, trying to look inconspicuous.

From the top of the stairs, Sharon called down. “Someone will call the cops if you loiter,” she said.

Surprised, Steve glanced up at her. “Someone?”

She smiled down, giving a short, one-shouldered shrug. “Someone else,” she clarified, nodding toward her door. “So why don’t you come inside?”

“You sure about that?” Steve asked with another surreptitious look around.

She actually rolled her eyes. “You followed me all the way here, and still you ask that?”

Steve blushed. “I had hoped you wouldn’t notice.”

“Uh huh,” she said, clearly not believing him. “Now, are you coming up?”

She didn’t have to ask twice.

For Bucky’s said, Steve took the stairs by twos.

-o-

Inside, Sharon shut the door. Moving across the room, she adroitly shut the curtains as well. “I didn’t expect to see you,” she said, almost as if it was an admission.

“Well, you already risked a lot for me,” Steve said, giving a small shrug as he made his way into her small living area, which was combined with an open kitchen. “I didn’t mean to end up here.”

Turning on a lamp, she gave him a smile. “And yet, here you are.”

Shuffling his feet, Steve found himself embarrassed. “I can go,” he said, gesturing to the door.

“If I’d wanted you to go, I would have ditched you on the way over,” she said. “Super soldier, you may be, but your stealth skills in stalking leave something to be desired.”

Steve chuckled, self conscious “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Again, you’re assuming I wanted to,” she said.

“I know I’m technically a fugitive,” he said, carefully assessing the situation. He trusted Sharon -- he did -- but it was still a risk, showing up uninvited in the home of an active SHIELD agent. It didn’t look like she’d triggered any alarms or made any attempt to contact anyone, but Steve couldn’t be entirely sure. “I’m sure your bosses would love an arrest.”

“So, what?” she said. “I let you stalk me all the way back to my apartment so I can make an arrest?”

“A public arrest would be bad PR,” Steve pointed out.

At that, she rolled her eyes. “And a really bad guess,” she said, flopping down on one of the chairs. She nodded to the other. “Are you going to sit down or just stand there?”

Steve found himself hesitating.

She gave him a discerning look. “I haven’t contacted anyone, and I don’t plan to,” she said. “More than that, the apartment itself is clean. I can’t guarantee you haven’t been tagged by a security monitoring system outside, but I check for bugs once a week.”

“If this is too much of a risk--”

“I can’t speak for you, but I can assure you it’s not too much of a risk for me,” she said. She shrugged. “At least, not one that I’m not willing to take. Now, please. Sit.”

She made another emphatic gesture to the chair. Steve hadn’t meant to end up here, and maybe it was too great a risk. But he trusted Sharon.

And he needed to find out answers for Bucky.

Smiling politely, he made his way around the chair and settled himself down. “Okay, then,” he said, rubbing his hands on his thighs. “Don’t mind if I do.”

-o-

It was a force of habit when it came to Sharon to make awkward chitchat. In truth, this was all the more their relationship had ever been. Steve trying to make nice while Sharon played a cover. It wasn’t quite fair to boil it down to that, but Steve still felt like the awkward, lonely neighbor, trying and failing to flirt with the pretty girl next door.

“So,” he said. “How’s work?”

It was a stupid, stupid question, but to her credit, she didn’t call him on it. “Weird, honestly,” she said. “Things were hard enough after the whole mess at the Triskellion, but now that the Accords are in place? It’s a mess of legalese. I’m pretty sure we’re breaking more laws now than before, trying to get around the terms of the Accords.”

“Well, some rules are made to be broken,” Steve said. “You have to do what’s right.”

She nodded in agreement. “We all knew it was inevitable -- I think even Stark knew to some degree,” she said. “But living in the aftermath. Like I said, it’s weird.”

Steve frowned. “How do you mean?”

“SHIELD was always more than an organization,” she explained. “It was family, but now everyone’s walking on eggshells, not sure what’s safe and what’s not.”

In commiseration, Steve sighed. “That’s what happens when too many government groups get involved.”

“Maybe,” she said with a small hedging. “But it’s also why it’s more important than ever for the good ones to stay. Someone has to stick around to be a driving force of good.”

She was conversational enough, but it still felt like an indictment to Steve. He brought his brow together, almost apologetic. “I wasn’t trying to shirk my duty when I laid down my shield,” he said seriously. “You have to know that.”

Her smile in return was gentle. “I do,” she said. “Which is why I’m willing to shirk mine now.”

He was still worried, but now he was more worried for her. “Are you sure you’re not going to get in trouble?”

She actually looked a little amused. “I learned a lot from my aunt about being a good person and doing the right thing,” she said. “And about how Steve Rogers is almost always worth it.”

That one made him blush. “That means you’ll help me?”

“To be fair, I don’t actually know what you want,” she told him.

“Right,” he said, getting serious again. He sat forward a little bit, resting his elbows on his knees. “It’s about Bucky.”

She did not look surprised. “That would have been my first guess,” she said. “Intel says he’s back in cryo, though. Is something wrong?”

“No, your intel is good,” Steve said. “Cryo was his choice.”

She nodded her head knowingly. “But not your choice.”

He sighed, shaking his head. “All that he’s been through -- he deserves better than that,” he said. “He deserves a real chance at a real life.”

“There’s no way any agency in the world would sit back and let Barnes be free with that programming still in his head,” she said. “Best case scenario, he lives a very monitored life.”

“I know,” Steve said. “Unless we can get rid of the programming.”

This time, Sharon looked critical. “Barnes has become something of a textbook case of what HYDRA is capable of,” she said. “Even with the limited data we’ve managed to collect from him, I know that SHIELD’s science and medical division is working hard to come up with possible defenses against brainwashing.”

Steve perked up considerably. “And what about cures?”

It was Sharon’s turn to hesitate. “I’m not part of sci-ops.”

“But you know more than that,” Steve said, somewhat emphatic now.

She chewed her lip.

“Sharon, please,” he said. “That’s why I’m here. I’m here for Bucky -- to fix him. SHIELD would have to appreciate one less security threat. I know they would.”

“I don’t doubt your intentions, Steve,” Sharon said. “But I told you, I’m not sci-ops, and there are plenty of rumors and lots of talk, but everything about Barnes file is classified at a high level. Much higher than my security clearance could ever access.”

Steve was perched eagerly on the edge of his seat now. “Anything you know,” he said, mostly pleading now. “Anything at all.”

“And I’m telling you that I know nothing,” she said flatly. “To get those files -- I’d have to do more than bend the rules. There’s no way I’d get away with it, even with the amount of leniency Stark has asked us to give you.”

Somewhat dejected, Steve slumped back in his seat. “I wouldn’t ask you to do that,” he said. “I know how much you’ve already done for me.”

There was a silence, punctuated by disappointment. Finally, Sharon sat forward a little bit, narrowing her gaze on him discerningly. “Look, I know how important this is to you.”

“You can’t risk that much for me,” Steve replied quickly.

“So don’t ask me,” Sharon said.

Steve stopped, feeling himself stiffen in anticipation.

She wet her lips, inching a little closer to him. “Ask someone with clearance,” she suggested. “Someone who’s already seen the file, read it -- memorized it.”

“But who?” Steve asked.

“Someone on the sci-ops team, maybe,” she said. She hesitated purposefully, sitting back and crossing one leg over the other. “Or someone with Director level clearance.”

Steve blinked, sitting back himself as he considered that. “Director?”

She shrugged. “I think you know one or two of those.”

One or two.

That was all Steve needed.

Getting to his feet, Steve extended his hand. “Thank you, Sharon.”

She got up, bypassing his hand and embracing him. “I’d ask you to stay for dinner, but I feel like you’ve got other plans.”

They parted, and Steve flushed a little. “Sharon. About us--”

She laughed at that, shaking her head. “We’ve always been pretense,” she told him. “And we’ll always be able to trust each other.”

“With anything,” he pledged.

She nodded knowingly. “But we both know what your priorities are.”

Steve smiled, grateful. “Thank you, Sharon.”

Her smile in return was warm but bittersweet. “Good luck, Steve,” she replied. “I think you and Barnes are going to need it.”

-o-

Steve went out the back way, sneaking through the alleys before winding his way back to the main street. He caught a cab, making his way to the airport. Within a few hours, they were in the air and Steve was going back to Wakanda.

Back to Bucky.

The flight gave him time to think about what Sharon had said. Planning to infiltrate a SHIELD held base took planning. Meeting up with intermediaries in SHIELD’s backyard took guts. But going to a SHIELD director?

How would he even arrange a meeting?

How could he even trust that he wouldn’t end up thrown in prison?

After all of this, Bucky could end up languishing away in a Wakandan cryo chamber while Steve failed on every promise he’d ever made.

The flight home was long and hard.

He’d left to find answers.

And as they touched down in Africa, all Steve had were more questions.

NEXT

Comments

Posted by: kristen_mara (kristen_mara)
Posted at: January 7th, 2018 08:28 pm (UTC)


I am so lucky to get TWO Stucky fics from you! Thank you!!

I like that Steve sets off to find a healer for Bucky and the various people he talks to on that search, and that everyone knows how much Bucky means to him, plus how Dr Strange realises how he himself must have come across when he went looking for his own miracle. It was good how you handled the reunion of Sharon and Steve and how they acknowledged the pretense and are on their way to being good friends instead.

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