"Sgt Barnes! Can I speak to you for a moment?"
Bucky turns. "Hey Sitwell, what's up?" He walks toward Sitwell. Natasha would understand if he were a few minutes late, surely.
Steve checks his phone after yet another public event he was expected to speak at. Nothing from Bucky. That was slightly odd, since usually before he was done Bucky would send him a message, asking how things went or, if he was watching and noticed Steve mess up, teasing him for it, but then he remembers Bucky was supposed to be training with Natasha today and brushes it aside as Bucky losing track of time. He hops on his motorcycle and rides back to SHIELD HQ. He checks his phone again. Still nothing. Oh well. He'd just talk to Bucky in person. He heads down to the facility gym, and finds Natasha there on her own, looking rather put out, her hands on her hips.
"Barnes better be sick or dealing with some kind of emergency. I don't appreciate being stood up."
Steve's brow furrows. "I… what? I… thought he was with you."
Nastasha's annoyance turns to confusion. "He was supposed to be, but I haven't seen him… you mean you don't know where he is? I thought you two were joined at the hip."
"If he changed his plans he didn't tell me," Steve says, pulling out his phone. He calls Bucky, but it goes straight to voicemail. Steve starts to look concerned. "His phone must be off, went straight to voicemail.
"Maybe the lab kids called him in for something?" Natasha gathers her things.
"Maybe. If he's not there, I'm going to head back to the apartment and see if he just wasn't feeling well or something and fell asleep… usually he'd tell me but…"
Natasha nods and they head down to the labs. Fitz and Simmons are there, but no one else. They don't notice when Steve and Natasha come in, completely absorbed in something or other that Steve can't identify. They jolt slightly when Steve speaks.
"Hey, have either of you seen Bucky?" Steve looks between the two, starting to get worried.
The scientists look at each other, silently asking one another the same question, then back at Steve. "I mean, he's supposed to come in tomorrow-" Simmons starts.
"But we haven't seen him today." Fitz finishes.
"I see... thanks anyway… if you do see him, have him call me."
"Of course," says Fitz.
"We'll be sure to," assures Simmons. They look at each other, concerned. If the Captain didn't know where he was, who would?
Steve walks away, worried.
"Want me and Clint to find him?"
"Please? I'm going to run home, just in case he's there, but… this isn't like him."
"Keep me posted." She squeezes Steve's arm, and pulls out her phone as she walks away.
On the ride home it feels like he's hitting every possible stoplight. He keeps getting caught behind people going under the speed limit for no discernible reason. Finally, he reaches the apartment they share. And there's nothing. Steve checks both bedrooms and the bathroom, but there's no sign of Bucky having been there since this morning. He calls Natasha.
"Is he there?"
"No. Doesn't look like he's been here since we had breakfast." Steve is already walking back to his motorcycle.
"Clint and I are going through SHIELD security footage. Clint said he chatted with Bucky this morning, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary."
"I'm coming back. Tell me if you spot him."
Steve hangs up and grabs his helmet. The drive back to SHIELD is slower than the one home, as Steve can't resist doing what Bucky always used to. Looking down every alleyway, just in case. More than once Bucky had found Steve this way, usually beaten senseless or having an asthma attack. Maybe the reverse was true this time.
Natasha calls him back when Steve is most of the way back. Steve promptly pulls over, but doesn't turn off the motorcycle.
"Did you find him?" Steve asks immediately.
"Yeah, on the cameras, then... we lost him. You should come see what you make of it. Clint's already gone to check out where we lost sight of him."
"I'll be there soon." Steve hangs up speeds over to headquarters. He parks his bike and meets Natasha.
"What have you got?" Steve leans over her shoulder to look at the computer screen.
"Well we found him here," she hits play on the video. It's of Bucky, walking down the highway, looking for all the world like it's a normal day. He leaves the range of the camera and Natasha pulls up the next video with a click. Bucky makes it most of the way through this frame before he stops and turns, saying something, though they can't see what, and he walks that direction, going off camera. "There's a conference room there," she explains. "But all of the footage is corrupted. It's easy enough to do, really, for a building full of spies."
Steve frowns, stomach starting to churn as possibilities float through his head. "Which conference room?"
"Fifty-eight B. Clint's already down there combing it over. I'm going to stay here and see what else I can get from the security system."
"Tell me if you find anything." Steve heads directly for the conference room, not waiting for a response and not wasting a single moment.
SHIELD agents dodge out of the way as Steve walks with purpose, shield on his arm. He hears whispers of people asking each other what's going on, and why Captain America was on the warpath. He ignores them, continuing on his path. He reaches conference room 58B and finds Clint checking the windows.
"Found anything yet?"
"Only that the janitorial staff deserves a raise. There's no dust anywhere." Clint takes out his hearing aids and sets them on the table. "I'm about to use a sonic arrow, and it always causes feedback on my hearing aides. Not pleasant." He grabs a flat tipped arrow and sticks it to the wall. It emits a high pitched humming sound and Clint pulls out his phone. He frowns.
It takes Steve a moment to remember the signs, but he does. "What is it?" He says as he signs.
"There's an empty space that shouldn't be there…" Clint walks over to a blank wall, often used in place of a projector screen. He knocks on it, still looking at the scanner on his phone.
Steve can hear the hollowness in the wall when Clint knocks and starts looking for a seam. He finds one, but it's tight. Too tight to wedge his shield in. So he looks for an opening mechanism, or where a button might be hidden. He hops onto the table in the middle of the room and examines the projector. It was, strangely, completely dust free on top. Steve runs his hands along the seams of the plastic casing, then up the post it's attached to before finding what he's looking for, where it meets the ceiling. A small switch. He glances at Clint, who removes the sonic arrow and puts his hearing aids back in.
Steve flips the switch. The wall opens away from them to a tunnel. He pauses. "...I'm going in. Fill in Nat and Fury." He jumps down from the table, shield on his arm, hand going to the gun on his hip.
Clint frowns and takes a picture of the tunnel, sending it to Natasha with a brief explanation. "Like hell am I letting you go down a creepy tunnel alone."
Steve nods and takes point. The tunnel is mostly concrete, with the occasional metal support beam visible on the wall, and motion activated lights placed just far enough apart that it stays mostly dim. They follow it for a long while until they reach a sterile metal door. Steve holds and listens through it, then shakes his head, hearing nothing. He opens the door to find a significantly larger tunnel, running perpendicular to the previous one.
"Just big enough for a getaway car…" Clint starts looking around for tracks.
"I don't like this…" Steve looks both ways down the tunnel. It's curved, and he can't see the ends, but they had to exist.
"I don't like that there's something like this down here." Clint pulls out his sonic arrow.
"The amount of time and planning needed to set this up, to build these tunnels right under our noses…"
"It looks like a basic extraction. No sign of a struggle. Which means he knew whoever asked him into the conference room. Or at the very least, he had no reason to be suspicious." Clint flings it at the wall and it sticks. He removes his hearing aids and activates it, scanning for any hint or clue, but the scan can't reach the tunnel's end. Clint frowns and turns it off, putting the aids back in.
"He was inside the SHIELD facility. All they had to do was look like a SHIELD agent," Steve grumbles. He sees a phone on the ground. Bucky's phone. He runs a hand through his hair. "At either end of this tunnel, there's going to be some kind of opening for the getaway car. It might give us something, anything more to go on. I'll go this way, you go that way, call me if you find anything at all."
"You got it, Cap."
The pair take off in opposite directions. They do reach the surface after a while, but they find nothing. There are no tracks, nothing to even suggest which was the entrance and which was the exit. By the time they've returned to the middle of the tunnel, it's swarming with agents, including Natasha and Director Fury, all of them searching for anything. They look for fingerprints, cigarette butts, tire marks. There's nothing to be found. They hunt through the security footage and look for suspicious activity on traffic cameras. There's nothing to be found. They search the tunnels and the back alleys and the empty buildings not far off. And still, everything is the same. There's nothing to be found. It's as if Bucky Barnes had vanished without a trace.
Steve isn't just angry. He's furious. He's terrified. And with Bucky not standing where he should be, at Steve's side, he feels utterly and completely alone. Steve didn't have much left of his own. But so long as he had his best friend there, he was okay with that. Not knowing where Bucky was, or what was happening to him… No. He'd find him. Just like France, he'd find Bucky, and everything would be okay again.
Steve's eye twitches when he hears one of the senior agents order one of the newer ones to ask him to go home as the hour grows late and no new information is found. They always seemed to forget that more than just his size and strength were enhanced.
Natasha slides in to intercept. "Come on, Steve. The last thing we need is for you to yell at an intern who's just doing their job. Go home."
"I'm not going anywhere until we have something." He crosses his arms.
"And what if he comes home and can't call because we have his phone?" Natasha reasons.
Steve frowns. On one hand he knew she was mostly saying that in order to get him to go home. On the other hand, it was somewhat possible. Bucky was resourceful and strong willed. If he had the ability to escape he would. He looks down the tunnel.
"We have people on this. You're not an investigator, Steve. They'll call you if they need someone to go get him."
"...I want to know who the lead investigator is."
"Sitwell was supposed to be on vacation, but we called and he agreed to come back tomorrow to take the case."
After another moment, Steve sighs in defeat. "If they find anything, anything at all, I don't care what time it is, they call me. I want to be kept in the loop on this."
"You're on call. Want me to come home with you for a bit?"
"Not if you can help here."
"I'm more of an infiltrator than an investigator. Sorry Steve."
"Sure then, I guess," He motions for her to follow and starts walking back up the tunnel and to the garage.
"You guys haven't been getting any threats or anything recently, have you?" She asks as they walk.
"On occasion I'll get hate-mail mixed in with my fan mail, but nothing ever serious enough for us to feel threatened. That's just part of being in the public eye. I log them with SHIELD anyway just in case, but I've never felt a need to take it seriously before."
"Anything against Bucky in particular?"
Steve shakes his head. "People tend to forget him unless they're accusing us of being gay. Probably because I spend more time on TV and wear a flashy costume. He usually teases me about it after I do public events like this morning..."
Natasha nods, thinking.
The rest of the walk to Steve's bike is silent. He passes Natasha Bucky's helmet, then puts on his own. They ride to Steve and Bucky's shared apartment mostly on Steve's muscle memory.
His mind is on Bucky. He opens the door for Natasha.
"Don't be offended, but I'm sweeping your apartment." It isn't a question, as she immediately starts doing so.
Steve sits in a kitchen chair and rubs his face in his hands, elbows propped up on the table. He pulls out his phone and stares at it for a moment before calling Tony. JARVIS answers.
"Good evening, Captain Rogers, how may I be of service?"
"Bucky's been kidnapped. Get me Tony."
"Of course, Captain." JARVIS goes silent for a moment.
"I'm sorry, come again, Capsicle?" Tony asks, sounding slightly concerned.
"Bucky. He was kidnapped right out of the SHIELD building earlier this morning. I don't know anyone as good with tech as you please just… look into it? Help me find him?"
"I'll do my best. What happened? How do you know he was kidnapped?" There's a tapping sound in the background.
"He was inside of SHIELD, turned to walk into a conference room, and then there was interference with the cameras and no one's seen him since. That conference room had a tunnel out of it that SHIELD didn't know about." Steve's foot bounces on the floor.
"I'll look into it and get JARVIS running facial recognition software to see what we can find on traffic cameras and such. Don't worry, Cap. We'll get your boy back. If you hear anything new, call me."
"You do the same." The call ends, and Steve finds he can't sit still anymore. He starts to pace.
"Steve, did you eat before coming back to SHIELD?"
"I… no, I'd planned on getting lunch with Bucky."
"It's seven. You need to eat. You'll be useless on a rescue mission if you crash from that metabolism of yours."
"Right. You're right. I think… I should have a shepherds pie in the fridge. Want some?"
"Sure." She slips into Bucky's room, continuing her sweep.
Steve slides the shepherds pie into the oven and turns it on. "Beer, milk, orange juice, and water in the fridge. Help yourself." He grabs a beer and sits on the couch. His leg bounces.
Natasha eventually finishes her sweep and goes to the fridge to pour herself some orange juice before sitting down. "He's going to be okay."
"I hope you're right." He sips his beer, then checks the time. "I still remember breaking him out from behind enemy lines in France… he was strapped to a table…" Steve rubs his face.
"He survived that. And you'll have a lot more support than you did in the forties." She sits on the arm of the chair, facing the door.
"Then why do I feel like I have less control now than I did then?"
"Maybe because you don't have to do everything this time around. There's no rushing in yet. We have to find where he went first." She sips her juice.
"I don't like this… if they were going to ransom him, wouldn't they have called by now?"
"Not necessarily. They'll probably want to get what information they can from him first. And if he's giving them trouble they might wait until they have him completely secure." She starts texting one handed. "He doesn't actually know much detrimental information anyway, aside from where you live, and he'd give his other arm before he gave that up."
"How long do you think until they figure that out? Would they… keep him around... once they can't get more information?" Steve can't bring himself to say the words. He'd lost people before. But Bucky was different. Losing him was unthinkable. He stands and walks over to the oven, then pulls out the shepherds pie.
"Truthfully? I don't know. We don't know who our adversary is. But Bucky is strong willed. He's not going to willingly give up anything about you, and you're what he's most knowledgeable about. That buys us a little time to find him."
"There's not much info on me that isn't public knowledge outside of where I live, and if they can get into SHIELD HQ the way they did, they can find that easily." He sets out two plates.
"You'd be surprised at what's useful." Natasha shrugs.
"You're right, I probably would." Steve dishes out steaming shepherds pie onto either plate.
"He's smart, Steve. He'll keep himself alive. Plus… this time he knows you're coming for him."
"You're damn right I am," Steve says determined. Who ever took Bucky was going to have hell to pay.
"It helps, knowing someone's coming for you."
"I don't think whoever took him was fully aware of exactly what they were bringing on themselves."
Steve looks down. He couldn't afford to imagine the worst. Bucky was the best. He could survive anything. Steve had to believe that.
"Clint and I will be there beside you every step of the way." Natasha puts a hand on his arm.
Steve doesn't answer. He simply nods.
For two weeks, Steve stares at his phone, praying for it to ring, for a ransom call, or maybe if Bucky escaped and needed to be picked up.
There's nothing. SHIELD, against his wishes, has made this a murder investigation. He still never leaves his phone out of reach.
He waits for three months for a lead on who stole his best friend, for a lead on where he might be. The investigatory team is now just him, Sitwell, and two junior agents. He's started trying to investigate on his own. He doesn't run anymore. Sam's been calling. Steve doesn't always answer. They're worried, he knows. But he can't give up on Bucky. Bucky wouldn't have given up on him.
He used to call Tony weekly, to see if he'd found anything, before they had their argument.
"Steve, it's been three months. SHIELD has been calling this a murder case for a while now."
"Tony, he's still out there. If he weren't there'd be a body-"
"Not by this point there wouldn't be! Not a recognizable one! This isn't a schrodingers-Barnes situation, Rogers. You need to start dealing with-"
"If you won't help me find him, then fine. I'll do it myself. I practically am anyway."
Natasha doesn't always ask to come inside, but Steve always knows when she's been there. He went a few days without shaving once and found a new can of shaving cream on the dining room table. He'd passed out on the couch with pizza in one hand and files in the other. He'd woken up with the files stacked on the table and the pizza in the fridge. He knew it was Nat. Still, he never mentioned it.
Fury had tried a few times to get Steve to move into a different apartment, but Steve wouldn't have it. What if Bucky escaped and made his way back? If Steve moved, Bucky wouldn't know where to go.
In a way, Steve had moved as it was. The bed in his room had been shoved up against the wall to give Steve a place to spread out. Any time he made the conscious decision to sleep now, it was in Bucky's room. Even so that wasn't often. The wall was a collage of copied files and pictures taken from the cameras on the day Bucky was taken mixed in with drawings, dozens of them, with more being added all the time. He drew Bucky almost exclusively anymore. It kept him going. He needed to get that smile back. He needed to see those eyes again. To hear his voice. His laugh.
Seven months and two days have passed. Sam has tried talking him through the stages of grief. That wasn't necessary. He didn't need to grieve. He needed to keep looking. So he could bring Bucky home. There was so much they still had to do. He thought they'd have more time. Sam said he'd gotten stuck in stage two.
Steve is on the floor in what was his room. With the mattress leaning against the wall it was useless for that now. He'd fallen asleep working on another drawing for his wall covered in pins and papers and bits of tape. There's a knock on the door. He grabs his shield instinctively as he jolts awake. He sighs and looks down at his sketch. He can tell how tired he'd been when he started it. He still feels so drained. He sets it aside as there's a single knock on the door.
"It's me, Steve. Open up or I'll do it myself, and I don't feel like it today." It's Natasha. Steve rolls his eyes and stands, answering the door, rubbing his face.
"Morning, Nat. How can I help you?"
"It's afternoon, Steve. Can I come in?"
Steve looks at her face and his eyes narrow. Why is Natasha here? Why did she knock? "I… guess so…" He steps aside to let her in. "... if you had news about Bucky you'd've called first. What's going on?"
"You might want to sit down."
Steve steps back and closes the door. "... want something to drink?" He pointedly avoids looking at Natasha, going to the kitchen. He can't do this right now.
"No, Thank you, Steve. You need to listen."
He knows what she's come to say. And he doesn't want to hear it. "There's a pizza shop down the street. I'll… I'll run and get us something to eat-"
"Steve, SHIELD is dropping the investigation." She leans against the door, blocking Steve from escaping the conversation.
"I… I can make us something, I-I should-" He doesn't want to hear it. He doesn't want to listen. He can't take this right now. He'll never be able to take this.
"Steve, I need you to process what I'm saying."
Steve starts walking towards what was his room, and Natasha abandons the front door in favor of closing the distance between them and grabbing his hand. He stops, but still doesn't look at her.
"SHIELD has let the investigation go on longer than usual because of who it was, but we cannot afford the manpower any more. It's unlikely whoever had him still has him and it's even more unlikely that he's still alive. It's been too long, Steve. We are not going to find him-"
"You're wrong. He's out there. He's alive out there somewhere and he needs us. He needs me. And I won't give up on him." He pulls his hand from hers and tries to put distance between them.
"Do you need me to give you the statistics on the survival rates of abductees?"
"You don't understand. He's not some statistic. I know he's alive, I just need to find out where."
"It's been seven months." Natasha looks up at Steve and shakes her head sadly.
"He's still alive, Natasha, he has to be!"
"No, he doesn't," She says softly.
"They can't stop looking , I don't know if I can find him on my own!" Steve rakes his fingers through his hair, clinging desperately to his remaining shreds of hope.
"SHIELD considered this a murder investigation after the second week-"
"You know I never agreed with that."
"-On average, abductees not found within the first three days are found dead. After a week, the likelihood of survival drops to nearly nothing. After a two months, the chances of even finding remains are also nearly gone."
"I Would Know, Natasha!" Steve shouts.
"What are you talking about?"
"I… If he were… I would know. That's how it goes. Something bad happens to the person you-" he stumbles over his words, pacing desperately. "And you just know. So he isn't-... he's out there somewhere waiting for me to find him and bring him home."
"Oh Steve… No. You wouldn't have known."
"He's everything- I can't- D-don't make me give up on him, he's out there, and I need him-"
Natasha guides Steve to the couch.
"I'd know-" salt water tears slide down his face and fall.
"No matter how much you loved him, no matter how much he meant, there is nothing that would have told you if he died. You know that." Her voice is gentle. And that almost makes it worse.
"You don't know that. You can't. He can't be- … he has to be out there, you don't understand-"
"I know. And I am so sorry."
"He's gone, Steve. And by not letting him go, you're hurting yourself. I know it's hard. I know you miss him. I miss him too-"
"He's all I had left. He's been there from the start. He's the only person left who knew me before I was… this. He was with me when I was scrawny and sick and I could hardly breathe. He was with me in the war. He was with me when we went into the ice. He was with me when we transitioned into a whole new century. And he should be with me now, and I need him here. You might miss him. But you don't have any idea what not having him here means for me. He was my best friend, my balance, and I-" he chokes on his words.
Natasha pauses to let him finish if he wanted to. But she knew what he meant. "...I know you do." She wraps her arms around Steve.
Steve feels like his world is in pieces. He's crashing. Natasha was right there, talking to him, holding him, trying to console him, but he felt alone. He shakes, shrinking into himself. He barely registers Natasha shifting to hold him closer. They sit like this for a while. Eventually Steve stops crying. He stops shaking. He doesn't feel better. It didn't help anything. He's just… empty.
"... You were listed as his beneficiary," She tells him quietly.
"I know. Fury has told me this. Several times. As though there were anyone else he could have possibly put down... He's still listed as mine too." Steve's voice is rough and deep. "And regardless of what Fury says, I'm not moving."
"Steve… you can't stay here alone. It's not good for you. You'll drive yourself crazy."
"Don't care. I can stay here and I will."
Natasha sighs. With a man this stubborn, they'd need baby steps. Getting him to accept it at all was at least a start. "Can you at least promise me you'll stop trying to find him on your own?"
Steve closes his eyes. What else did he have to give? What even mattered at this point? "...Fine." He isn't sure if he's being honest. He's just… tired and hollow. He doesn't know what he's doing anymore. "He's been everything for so long… before I even realized how I… and I don't know what to do…"
"It's… it's going to feel like that for a while. And it won't stop hurting… but it'll hurt less eventually. You can't shut down on us though. You need to talk to people. I'm here. Clint's around. You have that friend at the VA you used to run with. We didn't abandon you. We're here if you need us. You might want to apologize to Tony after a bit…" Natasha rubs Steve's back, and waits for a response, but it doesn't come, so she continues. "If you need to take some time off work, everyone will understand. If you need to throw yourself into work a bit, everyone will understand."
"...I'd rather be useful."
"Okay. I'm working on a human trafficking case right now. Want me to call you in for the bust?" Missions often helped her feel better.
"I'll let you know when I find the main base. If it ends up being a branch, I'll end up losing them."
Steve nods, eyes still closed,
"...Want help putting your room back together?" She glances at the open bedroom door. She'd been in there before. She'd tried setting the bed back right before, but Steve had just moved it back.
"...Want me to get us food?"
"I'm not hungry." It wasn't the first time he'd said this in the last few months. He hears Natasha start to protest, then change her mind. "I just want… I want space. Please."
Natasha stands. "Okay. Clint will come check on you later. Make sure you still eat enough, okay?"
"Okay." Natasha stands. "Call us if you need anything. We're here for you." She waits for a response, but doesn't get one. She leaves, locking the door behind her.
Steve doesn't move for a long time, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. Then he goes back to the paper covered wall, and sits on the floor, looking down, as if avoiding its gaze. "I'm just… so tired, Buck… I'm sorry… I just… I wish you knew how much I loved you…" Steve looks up at the drawings. Drawings of Bucky smile lifelessly down at him. He tries to tell himself to take down the wall. He can't bring himself to do it. After a long while, he gets up, goes to bucky's room, and lays down. Nothing felt like Bucky any more. Nothing had in a long while. Nothing would again.