He wakes slowly, as he always does, a hard table beneath his back and a bright light overhead. His vision clears. The feeling returns to his fingers and toes in sparks and pinpricks, and his fingers twitch, the right hand silently, the left with the clean tap of metal on metal.
He turns his head. There's a man in a black uniform standing beside the table and a woman in a white coat behind him. They're not the same people who woke him the last time, but he doesn't ask who they are or what they want. He doesn't ask how long it's been. They never answer.
He sits up and swings his legs down, lets them dangle over the side of the table.
The man in black is watching him with narrow eyes. "Are you sure he's up to it?" he asks.
The woman in white answers, "Of course. There's no reason to think he isn't."
"A mistake," she says. "They got greedy and careless. They didn't know how to handle the asset."
The man doesn't look convinced, but he nods. "Okay. We have a mission for you, soldier."
He drops down from the table and stands with his hands clasped behind his back, cold flesh over cold metal.
"Yes, sir," he says.
He doesn't miss the way the man in black steps back ever so slightly, the way the woman in white raises her clipboard like a shield.
He remembers the mistake. They tried to strike it from his mind, but he remembers anyway.
He remembers a man in the crosshairs of the scope and he remembers pulling the trigger with a smooth, gentle touch. He remembers the target's head snapping back, blood and brain matter splattering, and the crowd of bodyguards and family members swarming around him, all of them small and silent from a distance. He remembers dismantling the rifle, stowing it away, slinging the backpack over his shoulder and walking, not running, down the stairs of the quiet, Sunday-hushed office building.
When he got to the ground floor, ducked out a service entrance and made his way to street crowded with cars and pedestrians, he opened the phone to call it in.
"It's good," he said, the prearranged confirmation. Two streets away, sirens were wailing.
"Well done, soldier," said a voice over the phone. "Any problems?"
"No," he said.
"Then come in. You know the way."
"Yes, sir." But something made him pause. "Sir," he begins.
He broke his stride, stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, and a woman laden with colorful shopping bags bumped into him. She apologized and smiled and hurried away.
"Is there a problem, soldier?"
He closed his eyes and for a moment, he wasn't sure what he would see when he opened them. He had been awake for months, longer than he was used to, but the chill hadn't faded from his bones.
"No, sir," he said. "There's no problem."
He hung up and dropped the phone down a sewer grate. Two blocks later, he threw the backpack and rifle into a garbage can behind a pub. There was a car waiting for him at a rendezvous elsewhere in the city, with a passport and cash under the seat. But he turned a corner and walked in the opposite direction.
He made his way out of the city on buses and trains, and it was dark by the time he stepped onto an empty platform in a small village. The spires of a cathedral stood tall against a moonlit sky, high over the closed shops and pubs, and he walked away from the station and the village until the lights faded. He walked until he couldn't smell the city anymore, only the cool night forest and surrounding farms, then he followed a stone wall until it met another.
He jumped the wall--his metal hand clinked on the stone--and settled into the corner, on a tuft of thick grass. He drew his legs up to his chest and wrapped his arms around his knees and tried to pretend his hands weren't shaking. The stone was hard against his shoulders, the cold seeping through his shirt. Across the field, the house and barn were dark, geometric silhouettes surrounded by the delicate shapes of trees.
When he closed his eyes, he didn't sleep, but he did see a slow pulsing red light and a narrow bridge over a sea of fire, and he didn't know if it was a dream or a memory.
They found him, eventually.
They said, "You can't go anywhere we won't find you."
They said, "It was a mistake to try to get away."
They said, "You will forget this."
They tried. They crept into his mind with their cold fingers, tugged and plucked at the threads of thoughts, twisting them around until memories were indistinguishable from nightmares.
But he remembered, and as they strapped him to the table and the quiet hiss of cold wrapped around him, he thought: The mistake wasn't that he asked why, and it wasn't that he ran.
The mistake was letting them capture him alive.
"We have a mission for you, soldier," says the man in the black uniform.
They show him pictures, videos, files. They say supersoldier and unprecedented and well-protected and dangerous. They show him unsteady cell phone footage of a battle in New York: a man in red, white and blue, a round shield, metal monsters smashing through Manhattan, everything captured from dozens of angles, chaotic and trembling.
He's been under for seven years. Everybody has a camera on their phone now, and aliens from outer space have attacked New York. That's almost as exciting as when they woke him up just in time to watch the Mets beat the Red Sox in the '86 World Series.
There's a red-haired woman in the images too. They don't say anything about her, so he doesn't draw attention to her. He's not supposed to remember her. He never knew her name, not a real one, and he doesn't know who she's working for now.
The man in the black uniform points to a still image on the screen. "Go to New York and kill that man. Steve Rogers." His lips curl into a predatory smile. "Captain America."
On another screen, the man with the silver star on his chest is helping a family escape from a crushed car, holding his shield high while the children run for cover.
"Yes, sir," he says.
He doesn't ask why.
He doesn't ask, but the word is stuck in the back of his throat, a sharp, clawing thing that tightens with every breath.
He watches Rogers for three weeks before he takes his first shot.
He follows him from his apartment to the dull government building that's more well-guarded than anybody on the street would suspect, from that dull building to the midtown tower that's being rebuilt following the attack, from the tower back to his apartment.
It's not a home. He breaks in while Rogers is out one morning and he sees how empty the walls are, how echoing the rooms. There's a single bed in the bedroom, a single pillow on the bed, a single coffee cup in the kitchen. It's sad and empty and pathetic.
Rogers never takes the same route between his destinations. He seems to enjoy wandering through the city, up and down unremarkable streets, past landmarks and parks, through neighborhoods that have seen better days and worse. Sometimes he rides the subway for hours, making changes at random, no particular destination in mind.
Rogers doesn't wear his uniform, the bright one with the star on the chest, but people recognize him anyway. He smiles for all of them, poses for pictures and kisses babies, but his smile is strained around the edges, and his eyes are bleak when the cameras turn away. He carries groceries for old ladies, throws baseballs for starstruck boys, signs autographs for giggling young women. He gives money to buskers. He avoids reporters with skilled desperation.
One afternoon, he follows Rogers to the block of apartments sprawling where Ebbets Field used to be. The Dodgers are gone now, all the way across the country, and he just can't bring himself to root for a California team. He stops no more than twenty feet away while Rogers stands on a street corner, hands in his pockets, looking across a busy intersection at something only he can see.
It's the closest he's dared get to Rogers and for a moment, for the briefest moment, he sees the rounded nose of the building above the entrance, and he feels the trembling of the upper deck as the crowd surges to its feet, and he smells sweat and grass and smoke, and there are warm hands grabbing his arm in excitement, and a high boyish voice in his ear did you see that did you see that I can't believe it did you see that? and--
A horn blares. He snaps back to himself. The day is warm and sunny, but he's cold, so very cold, bone-deep shivers wracking his entire body. He lurches away, leaves Rogers standing by the road, stumbles until he doubles over. He hasn't eaten in two days and there's nothing in his gut to throw up, and the acid burns through his throat as his muscles clench and heave.
The people on the sidewalk move around him like a river around a stone, and he spits twice, straightens and wipes his mouth, escapes before anybody says a thing.
He takes the shot the next morning.
The streets below the broken tower provide dozens of places to hide. Many of the buildings are empty, so badly damaged after the attack that it's taking months to put these few blocks back together. The tower with its collar of scaffolding on the upper levels and the lone, bright A on its side is leading the way, coming back to life faster and better than the others, but it is still a broken beacon at the center of a battlefield.
He chooses the empty fifteenth floor of a hotel plastered with UNDER RENOVATION signs. He pieces together the rifle as the sun rises over Manhattan, and he sits at a broken window as morning traffic fills the streets.
Rogers arrives, and hours pass while he's inside. He waits, and watches through the scope, and waits. The day grows hot and sweat trickles down his neck.
When Rogers emerges from the building, he's not alone. Through the scope he watches Rogers walk away from the doors of the building, talking to his companion, pausing at the street corner. He watches while Rogers waits for the light to change.
Then it does, and Rogers steps into the street. The intersection is clear and the angle is perfect. He squeezes the trigger.
Not quite two hundred meters, east along 45th with the sun at his back, and he misses.
The bullet strikes the car behind Rogers and punches a neat hole in the windshield. Rogers snaps his head around to look, then he's rushing to the side of the car, helping the driver out, shouting silently in the evening sun.
But the man with him, the shorter one with his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, he's looking straight into the scope.
Some days, and some nights, Rogers finds a park bench or a cement stoop or a bus stop, and he sits with a sketchbook in hand, and he draws.
He never risks getting close enough to see what Rogers is drawing. But a week after his first failed attempt, he breaks into Rogers' apartment again and finds the sketchbook on the kitchen table, charcoal pencils lined up beside it, fingerprint smudges on the yellow cover.
He sits in Rogers' chair and with his left hand, his metal hand, he pages through the drawings. There are skinny little kids and stooped old men with bushy beards, bag ladies and Wall Street brokers, bus drivers and students, tourists with cameras around their necks, chefs leaving work in the earliest hours of the morning, garbage collectors hanging from their trucks, protesters with signs on pickets, construction workers rebuilding the city. They have all made it into Rogers' book in quick, confident strokes.
So too have his new companions, the ones they call the Avengers. It's a name spoken with awe by some and derision by others. He doesn't know if they chose it for themselves or had it thrust upon them.
The Black Widow catches his attention first. In Rogers' sketchbook, she is relaxed, curled up in an armchair, smiling in a way that suggests she knows he is drawing her but she has chosen not to care. She looks different now, older than when he knew her, but calmer, as though the years have worn away the most jagged edges of her shell and let more of her ballet grace show through.
The drawing is labeled Natasha in Rogers' surprisingly elegant handwriting.
On the next page is a drawing of the archer, the one they call Hawkeye, the same one who once stole three kills out from under him in Odessa. He hadn't known the man's face then, but the bodies were cold on the streets with arrows in their hearts before he had even realized there was somebody else in play. But the man is Clint in Rogers' sketchbook, and he's perched precariously on the edge of a balcony with no railing high above the city, legs hanging down, hands gripping the side as though he's unsure if he'll fall or fly when he lets go.
He wonders if Rogers knows he fights alongside assassins and murderers, or if these names in this place are just another deception, another layer of lies.
He turns the page again. Two men with messy hair and wild eyes--Tony and Bruce--bent over what looks like a very strange engine, or possibly a bomb. A man in uniform, his smile wry: Rhodey. A lovely woman (Pepper) alone in a board room with her heels kicked off and her eyes closed. A man in a suit and sunglasses--Phil--smiling distractedly at something a pretty young woman--Darcy--is saying. A stern woman in a black uniform, arms crossed over her chest: Agent Hill. Sam, a man soaring on beautiful and impossible wings. A large man and a small woman sitting at a tiny cafe table, their hands clasped by the flower vase. Jane and Thor. He knows the woman is a renowned physicist and the man is an alien from another world, but in that moment they are only two people in love, and they are laughing.
Every person is vivid on the page, living and breathing in Rogers' sure hands.
They say Captain America is a man out of time. The articles, the gossip, the radio, the talking heads on cable news, they say he's a relic from another age, an artifact of a different era. They say he's irrelevant. They say he wants to be a hero for a world that doesn't believe in heroes anymore, and wouldn't deserve them if it did. They say the uniform is outdated, the shield inappropriate, the enhanced powers unfair.
None of them talk about how Steve Rogers sits alone in the white kitchen of his small Brooklyn apartment, bare walls around him and plastic blinds on the windows, fingers smudged with charcoal as he sketches out the shape of his new life, finding his own place in a world that doesn't know what to do with him.
He slaps the sketchbook closed, scrapes the chair back, and he leaves. Rogers has nothing worth stealing, but he locks the door behind him.
He tries again two weeks later.
This time he hits Rogers' companion, Banner, the one with the rumpled clothes and graying hair, as they're stepping out of a restaurant. He knows as soon as the shot is off that he miscalculated, and he expects Rogers' reaction, the fear and dismay as his friend staggers to the side.
He doesn't expect the other man to transform into a monstrous green creature and take off on a rampage up the street, roaring and crushing cars as he goes.
That is, he thinks, is not what he expected.
He's seen the footage of the monster, and he's seen the man coming and going from Stark Tower, but as far as he can tell nobody has yet made the connection. He's beginning to suspect there's a lot his handlers haven't told him.
And for the first time he can remember, for the first time since he woke up in a dim room beneath a pulsing red light, it's making him angry.
The third time he doesn't hit anybody. The bullet strikes a brick wall six inches from Rogers' head.
Rogers flinches, but he doesn't duck. He turns in a slow circle, eyes scanning the streets around him, and for just a second it looks like he's staring into the scope, almost like he knows--
But he looks away.
He doesn't take the shot the fourth time. He sets up, he waits, he finds Rogers in the scope, but the wind is too strong and too unpredictable, twisting through the city streets with the first hint of autumn chill. The moment passes, and he dismantles his rifle, runs down the stairs to catch up with Rogers three blocks away.
He rounds a corner and stops abruptly, because Rogers has stopped too, halfway down the block. He's talking to a group of teenage boys, caught in a half-circle of sagging jeans and untrimmed hair, every one of them trying so hard not to show how excited they are.
He backs away before they can see him, ducks into a doorway to wait and presses his back against the sun-warmed brick. Rogers says something, and the boys laugh, their teenage ennui vanishing into childish delight.
He can hear the rise and fall of their voices, but nothing stands out until a door slams, shoes slap on pavement, and a woman shouts, "James! James! What have I told you--"
He's pushing away from the wall and stepping out of the doorway before he can stop himself, his body moving without his permission.
A woman--stooped, white-haired, leaning on a cane--is shuffling down the sidewalk and one of the teenage boys is starting to explain, but the woman holds up a hand and the boy falls silence.
The woman says, in a very different voice, "Steve?"
He can't see Rogers' face from where he's standing, only the line of his shoulders and the sun on his hair. He can't see what expression goes with the careful tone of Rogers' answer when he says, "I'm sorry, ma'am. Have we met?"
The woman ducks her head and for a moment she looks like a schoolgirl, blushing and awkward. "Oh, I don't expect you remember me. I was only with the tour for seven shows, but then--"
"Iris?" Rogers says. He sounds like somebody is standing on his windpipe. "Iris McIntosh--no, Monroe. Iris Monroe?"
The woman's face lights up. "Abernathy, now. I haven't been Iris Monroe in sixty years."
Then Rogers is laughing and sweeping the woman into an embrace. He lifts her off the ground and twirls her around, and her laughter is like church bells on a clear morning.
"Nana?" one of the boys says. "You know Captain America?"
Iris laughs. "I knew this young man when he was still tripping over us dancers and reading his lines off the back of that painted shield. But we always knew he had more important places to be than on stage with us."
"Nana?" the boy says, his voice rising to a squeak of disbelief. "You were a dancing girl?"
"I wasn't born old, James," Iris says. "Captain Rogers--"
"Steve, please," Rogers says. "And I never minded being on stage with the rest of you."
"You hated it," Iris says, but she's still laughing. "We all knew you hated it."
Rogers shrugs. "The job, maybe, but I didn't mind the company."
There's something wistful in his voice, a fragile thread drawn between the words. Iris hears it too, and her smile is warm and kind. "Steve, I know you've probably got places to be, but if you're not in a hurry, I'd like to offer you some lemonade. You've got seventy years of gossip to catch up on. Would you like to come in?"
"I would love to," Rogers says, so sincere it's painful to hear. He wishes he could see Rogers' face.
He watches from half a block away. He's forgotten to hide himself, but they aren't paying any attention to him. He could reach for his sidearm. He could take the shot right here. He wouldn't miss, at such close range, and not even Rogers' superhuman healing powers could survive a bullet to the head. He could take out the old woman, the gawping kids, leave a pile of bodies on the street. It would be no worse than what he's done before. Kinder, even. More merciful.
Rogers and the dancer go into a house midway down the block, and the teenage boys followed in a ragged line.
It isn't until after the door shuts that he feels his heart pounding so quickly it could be rattling his ribs. His breath is shallow, his skin damp with sweat and pricked with goosebumps. The sun is bright and the day is hot, but he starts to shiver, and once he starts he can't stop. He wraps his arm around his midsection--the metal arm, the heavy one--and he turns away.
That night, in his hidden room in the building across from Rogers' apartment, he waits for Rogers to return. The light comes on, Rogers' silhouette steps to the window to close the blinds, and the light goes off again.
He lies down on the wood floor and closes his eyes.
His metal arm throbs with phantom pain, sensations caught between the damaged nerves and the mechanical replacements, and he doesn't expect to sleep. But he does, and when he sleeps, he dreams.
He hasn't dreamed in years, but now he dreams of lying on his back with white and gray mountains reaching to a white and gray sky all around him. Gentle snow is falling on his face, each flake a cool, gentle spark, and his dream self is trying to speak.
But his jaw is frozen shut, and every sound he makes is like an icy lake just before the spring thaw, creaking and grinding on invisible fractures, water moving in dark whirls beneath the surface.
"Are you having trouble completing your mission, soldier?" The voice on the phone is cool with impatience.
"No, sir." He can't tell if it's the man in the black uniform or somebody else. Their faces blur together, the people who woke him up this time, and the time before, and all the times before that.
He's never wanted to know before, but he wants to now, and this new curiosity is an uncomfortable thing, sitting deep in his chest like the beginnings of fear.
"Then what's the problem?" the man on the phone asks.
"There's no problem, sir." He sitting on the floor with his back against the wall, a laptop open in front of him, an empty building quiet all around him. Rogers has started spending more and more time at Stark Tower lately, so he's found a place to hide nearby, tucked away in one of the damaged buildings with poor security.
"No? It's funny you should say that," the man says, in a tone that means it isn't funny at all. "Because I'm watching CNN and it says right here that the Avengers have been in Los Angeles all week. But you're still in New York."
He has the same news open on his computer. KILLER ROBOTS ON MUSCLE BEACH? There's a photograph of Iron Man and Captain America on a sidewalk at the edge of a beach, bikini-clad girls in roller-skates hanging on their arms. Stark is grinning, but he looks tired; Rogers is smiling, but his smile is strained.
"I have my orders, sir," he says. "My orders didn't say anything about killer robots."
The man makes a frustrated sound. "Those were your--you didn't have to take them so literally. You can follow the man out of New York! You can follow him to fucking Timbuktu if it means you can put a bullet in his brain."
"I'm sorry, sir. Do you have new orders?"
"You're sorry. Do you think this is funny?"
It's been so long since he's found anything funny, he doesn't recognize the feeling until the man puts a name to it. Once he does, it rumbles in his chest like a joke he's dying to tell, lively and quivering in the cage of his ribs.
"No, sir," he lies. "Not at all."
"You better not think this is funny," the man snaps. "This is not what we've been led to believe you are capable of, Winter Soldier." He spits out the words and snorts audibly over the line. "You have your mission. Stop fucking around."
But why? He doesn't ask, but he wants to. The words are there on his tongue, questions piling up and pressing against the back of his teeth. Why him? Why do you want him dead? Why do you want me to fire a bullet into his head and watch through the scope as it snaps back and his brains explode out the back of his skull? Why do you want to kill this man who fights when everybody else is cowering and signs autographs for little girls in costumes and shares memories with old ladies and smiles for the cameras even when he's exhausted? Why him?
He thinks the answer is right there in the question, if only he were smart enough to see it.
"Yes, sir," he says. "Understood. Timbuktu. Even if there are robots."
The man curses and hangs up.
He sets the phone aside. The glow from the computer screen is the only light in the room. He scrolls down to a video and watches Captain America punch killer robots in the face while sunbathers and surfers scream and run, and by the time the one minute and forty-two seconds are up he's given up on choking back the laughter. He laughs until he can't breathe, until he's lying on his side on the barren floor and tears blur his vision and his sides ache and he can't remember why he's laughing at all.
He was in Moscow when the American astronauts landed on the moon. He spent the night in the back room of a tiny shop in the Ukrainian Quarter, sharing cigarettes and vodka with three old men while the radio droned.
He knew their names but not what they had done, who they had angered, why they had to die. When they pointed their cigarettes at him and said, "Everything will be different when you are old like us," he only nodded and clenched his gloved metal hand into a fist, opened it again.
And he thought about another night, a fire escape in another city and the burn of whiskey in his throat, a voice on a different radio talking about invaders from Mars laying waste to New Jersey, and a voice close to his ear saying I know it's not real, but what if it were? What if there's something out there?
He didn't know why they had given that memory to him or what purpose it had served. But it was a comfort, the way a familiar movie in an old theater was a comfort, and he didn't fight it.
After the astronauts set down on the moon, after the first steps and the first speeches, after the three old men drank to the past and the future and the bottle was empty, he drew a gun from his jacket and shot them, one bullet each in the center of the forehead.
He turned off the radio and left the shop, and he walked through the streets as the city woke. He made it to the rendezvous on time, and they took him away, and they put him under.
Nine years that time, the longest they had yet risked, and when he woke again on a hard table in a bright room, a man in a white coat said, "We only kept you so long to be careful. You've made quite a name for yourself. The general was getting nervous."
They never told him who he was before he was a man with no name, making a name for himself.
But then again, he had never asked.
A week after the Avengers save Los Angeles from killer robots, he walks into a coffee shop and places an order.
He doesn't want the drink, but he wants the cashier to nod and scribble on the cup and say, "Your name?"
"James," he says. If he says it like a question, uncertain and hesitant, the woman behind the counter doesn't notice.
When she calls out, "Hazelnut latte for James," he steps forward and takes the cup, thanks her and leaves. He's out the door and at the nearest street corner before he realizes that his hand is shaking so much the foam sloshes and splatters his glove.
There is no fifth time.
James still follows Rogers through the city, but he doesn't take another shot. He knows they'll send somebody else soon. Somebody to finish the mission, and somebody to come after him. That is the one thing that has never changed. He sleeps, and he wakes, and decades pass, wars begin and wars end, nations rise and fall, borders change and cities grow, and the Winter Soldier is only valuable if he is useful.
Rogers rarely stays at his Brooklyn apartment anymore, but he returns one autumn night to collect some of his things: pencils and charcoals, sketchpads and notebooks, gathered in a pile and tucked into a backpack he hooks over one shoulder. When he comes back outside, he pauses at the curb, as though he's considering calling for a cab. But he chooses to walk instead.
His route is winding and slow, as though he's reluctant to cross the river and return to Stark Tower. The Avengers have been out of town for a few days, somewhere in Europe, or possibly North Africa; the news reports are muddled and they've gotten better at dodging the cameras when they leave New York. James wonders what happened that has Rogers wandering the streets alone late at night, in a way he hasn't done since midsummer.
James keeps his distance, but he's grown careless. If he's honest with himself, he's been growing careless for some time now: hesitating before ducking out of sight, waiting too long before turning his head away. Each time he expects a startled shout, an angry accusation, a chase.
Instead, what happens is that he turns a corner from one poorly-lit street to another, and there is a startled shout, and Rogers is helping an old woman to her feet in front of a closed storefront advertising CLEAN CARPET in fading window paint.
"There, there they are, that's them," the woman is saying, waving one hand down the street. At the other end of the block two figures are running away, young men, their shoes slapping noisily on the sidewalk.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Rogers asks.
"I'm fine," says the woman, doubling over and wheezing. "But they took my bags!"
Rogers hesitates a moment, one hand on the old woman's shoulder, then he says, "I'll be right back, ma'am."
He races after the boys and he doesn't look back, so he doesn't see the woman straighten her back as soon as he's gone, shake her head and roll her eyes and walk in the opposite direction. She only makes it a few steps before she spots James. Her eyes go wide and her mouth drops open, and there's as much guilt in her expression as there is fear.
"Where are they leading him?" James asks. He doesn't raise his voice.
The woman snaps her mouth shut, then reconsiders. She jerks her thumb over her shoulder and says, "It's none of my business. I don't even know--"
James doesn't wait to hear what it is the woman doesn't know. He takes off after Rogers and the young men, sprinting as fast as he can and tripping around the corner at the end of the block. Rogers is out of sight, but there's a noisy rumble as the garage door of a warehouse slams shut. He tugs it up but it's sturdier than a rolling door should be, and whatever they've got holding it closed is stronger than him. He runs to the side entrance. It's locked; James grabs the knob with his left hand and pulls. The metal frame bends and gives.
The door opens into a disused office, crowded with dusty furniture and stale with the old smell of coffee. Through a window in the wall, he can see the open expanse of the warehouse floor. There's only one light on, a weak yellow spot in the far corner.
Rogers is a long shadow walking toward the center of the room. He looks curiously vulnerable without his shield. He does have his phone out of his pocket and in one hand. James hopes that means he's calling for help.
The inner door separating the office from the warehouse is more solid than the outer, heavy metal with multiple locks. Whether the warehouse owners wanted to lock something very dangerous in or keep something very dangerous out, they weren't fooling around. James can barely budge the door in its frame. He backs away, considers the view through the window again.
Rogers takes another few steps, then stops abruptly and turns. James can't hear what Rogers hears, but he sees the looming shadow against the far wall of the warehouse at the same moment Rogers spots it. It's tall, ten or twelve feet, and its eyes glow fire-orange in the darkness.
It takes James a second, but he remembers the shaky footage of the sunlight beach, and he knows why the thing looks so familiar. Apparently the killer robots have given up on southern California and made for the East Coast.
Rogers drops his phone and tosses his backpack aside, but he doesn't back away. He's looking around, settling into a loose fighter's stance. But he's unarmed, and even as he's turning to face the robot on the far wall, another pair of eyes open against another wall, and another. There are three of them.
And they are fast.
One of the robots throws itself toward Rogers, flames shooting from its legs, thick black smoke spewing out behind it. Two of them are smaller, slower, but the third is different. James has never seen anything mechanical move like that third robot.
Rogers doesn't try to run, just ducks and rolls when the thing barrels into him, and then the other two are coming at him, too, and James--
James thinks, Where the fuck is his team?
And he thinks, Three against one is not fair.
And he thinks, Motherfucking killer robots.
And he punches his left fist into the window. The glass is thick and reinforced; it breaks but doesn't shatter, not until he lands another few blows. His mechanical arm is strong and sturdy, but he can still feel it, and punching through a picture window of bulletproof glass hurts.
But it's effective. He clears enough of a hole to scramble through just in time to see Rogers make a graceless sideways jump to avoid a jet of flame. James is already running toward him as Rogers whirls around, fists raised but already bloodied, and he's so busy dodging another roaring flame he's not watching the third one, the one behind him, and he doesn't see the way its chest cavity opens to reveal a fiery chamber containing what looks very much like a row of small missiles lined up like teeth.
Heat billows from the robot in waves and Rogers flinches away, and James is close enough now to shout, "Steve! Get down!"
Rogers ducks at once, doesn't even hesitate, and James throws himself over Rogers' back and onto the robot with that fiery mouth. He catches the metal shoulder with his right hand and it's so hot he can feel the skin crackling and smell his flesh burning. But he doesn't let go. He needs the leverage, needs to be able to wind back with his other arm, his better arm and punch into the narrow crack between the robot's body and its head. He reaches in and grabs, tearing at the cables and gears he finds inside.
The thing jerks, twitches, almost stumbles, but it recovers itself so he tries again. Rogers is shouting something behind him but he can't hear it, doesn't think it's important until he realizes that his mechanical hand is hurting as much as his flesh hand, and the pain is spreading up to his elbow, up through the joint between metal and bone. He tries to let go but he can't--his hand is melting into the robot's body. It shouldn't hurt that much, but his mechanical nerves are melting too, and he has never felt anything like it.
He's trying to wrest his shoulder away--break the bond between the arm and what's left his upper arm, even if it means breaking the bolts free from the bone--but he can't, he can't get free, and Rogers is shouting something that sounds almost like his name--Bucky!--but he doesn't have a name except in the safety of his own mind and there's no way Rogers can know that--
The robot explodes.
James is aware of fire engulfing his body, and he's flying backwards, and there's a wall and a drop, and he's pretty sure the building is falling down around them.
He dreams he's sitting alone in a theater while a black and white movie flickers on the screen. There's a train, and it's racing along the tracks, and there's no sound at all but he's standing on the roof of a swaying car and he can feel the vibration beneath his feet.
The dream fades and he tries to open his eyes.
White lights, muffled voices, and he thinks, Oh. They're putting him under again. He wonders how many years it will be this time.
When he wakes, there's no white light above him and the table beneath is soft, like a bed. His breath catches and his body tenses and he waits for the man in the black uniform and the woman in the white coat to lean over him. They never wake him without a reason.
But there is only a shadow at the edge of his vision, something soft and cautious in the dim room, and a voice is whispering, "Hey, Bucky, it's okay. You need to rest. You're okay."
The next time, he wakes up properly, and he stays awake long enough to know he's in a hospital bed in an unfamiliar room. There are machines beeping nearby and he's warm, almost uncomfortably hot. Nobody appears at his bedside until he tries to sit up.
There's a strap across his chest and a soft binding on his right wrist and he can move his legs but his feet are tied down and his left arm is--
It hurts like hell to lift his head but he has to look. His left arm is gone. There's a stump wrapped in white bandages just below the shoulder and no trace of metal at all.
The strap across his chest feels like it's tightening and the beeping sound quickens and he can't breathe. He struggles against the bonds holding him down, but he's exhausted almost immediately.
A woman appears at his side. She's dressed in blue, not white, and she's not holding a clipboard. She adjusts a valve on a tube snaking into his right arm--his only arm--and she says, "Sergeant Barnes, please try to calm down. I know you're confused, but you're hurt very badly, and you're only going to make it worse."
He opens his mouth but he can't make a sound except a dry rasp. The woman steps away, returns a second later with a plastic cup. She lets him sip a tiny amount of water, and he tries again.
"How long?" he asks.
"It's been three weeks," she says. "You've been in a medically-induced coma and--"
"What did you do to me?"
She looks confused for a moment. "What did we--what do you mean? Your injuries are severe, but you're healing quickly and we--"
"What did you do to me?"
He tries to pull his wrist free, kicks both feet even though the motions send shock waves of pain through his chest and limbs. The bed rattles and the woman backs away, her eyes wide. "We didn't do anything," she says. "We're trying to help." Then she turns and calls through the open doorway, "Can I get some help in here?"
That's when he remembers: Steve, the warehouse, the fire-breathing robots. He wants to ask if Rogers is okay, if his team showed up and helped him out, if they've all kicked his ass for falling for such a stupid ruse in the first place, but his entire body is burning with fresh pain and staying awake has never felt so exhausting.
The woman is saying, "I don't know what happened, Captain. I didn't do anything," and a shadow appears in the door. But he can't keep his eyes open long enough to see who she's talking to.
He gets a chance to ask about Rogers the next time he wakes up.
He recognizes Colonel Fury. He's never seen the man in person, not even through a rifle scope, but he's seen the files and read the intel. When Fury appears in the doorway, the woman in blue trailing behind him, he's not quite tired enough to ignore the spike of fear.
He lets the woman in blue--Dr. Peterson, she tells him, and she has warm hands and a gentle smile--adjust his bed so his head is raised a little, just enough so he's not flat on his back. There's still a strap over his chest, cuffs on his arm and both of his feet.
"Is Captain Rogers okay?" he asks.
Fury raises his eyebrow. "I'm not usually surprised, Sergeant Barnes, but I have to admit that's not what I expected you to ask."
It's that name again, the same one the doctor used. He turns it over in his mind. It feels sharp and uncomfortable, like a pebble in an old shoe.
"Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, 107th Infantry," Fury says. "That's who you used to be, isn't it? We all thought Cap had lost his mind at first, but we've had almost a month to check you out."
James feels physically ill at the thought of what they could have done to him while he slept. He swallows back his nausea and asks again, "Is he okay?"
"This is my problem, Sergeant Barnes," Fury says. "The reason that's not what I expected you to ask is because I'm pretty sure you've spent the last several months trying to assassinate Steve Rogers. And now you want to know if he's okay." He pauses, then adds, "And he wants us to know that you're not the enemy. He's been pretty adamant about that. Has he always been that goddamned stubborn, or did that come with the serum too?"
"Always been that way," James says. A sharp pain spikes at the back of his head--give them nothing is one rule that never changes, for any mission--but he only closes his eyes until it passes.
Fury is staring at him with one canny eye. "He's fine, by the way. Lucky for him you're such a bad shot."
"They'll send somebody else," James says.
"They already have." There's an amused glint in Fury's eye. "But we've let them know that's not a very good idea. I've never seen the team so eager to move on such a well-guarded base."
Fury gives him a narrow look. "Get some sleep, Sergeant. We'll tell you all about it when you're feeling better."
There is no window in his room, but James is learning to gauge the passage of time by the comings and goings of the doctors and nurses. He wants to ask Dr. Petersen and the others about Rogers, wants to find out if Fury was telling the truth. But they all watch him with a wariness that's half pity and half fear, and he can't bring himself to show that much weakness. He listens instead to their conversations and phone calls, straining to hear any mention of the man, thrilling every time somebody says Captain. It's not enough, but right now it's all he has.
By his guess, it's about a day and a half after Fury's visit when he opens his eyes and finds the Black Widow standing beside his bed.
She's dressed all in black and she has her hands clasped behind her back. She tilts her head slightly when she sees that he's awake.
"I thought you might want to see this," she says.
She moves one arm and James flinches. There's no way she doesn't see it, but she's only bringing a tablet computer out from behind her back. She unfastens the cuff around his wrist and hands the computer to him. The skin on his hand is healing, but it's still tender. The burns will leave scars.
He looks up at her, and she shrugs. "I could stop you even if you weren't injured," she says. "Right now you couldn't stand without falling on your face."
She taps the tablet and videos begin to play in four frames on the screen. It's security footage in dull gray tones, but he recognizes the location immediately. It isn't the base where they hid the original Red Room; they moved after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but he was under then and didn't know until he woke up in a different place, with different orders. But it is identical in all the ways that matter. There's the room with the cold table and the white lights, and there's the cryogenic chamber, and the briefing room with the wooden table in the center and the uncomfortable chairs around it.
And there are the Avengers, and with them a number of black-clad soldiers he assumes are SHIELD agents. Within moments, the base is overrun. The alien Thor smashes the cryogenic chamber with his hammer; it sparks and smokes and collapses in a heap.
All of the Avengers are there on the screen except one. They've even let the Hulk out to play. But Steve Rogers is nowhere to be seen.
James looks up at the Black Widow. "Captain Rogers?" he says.
Her lips twitch in a knowing smile. "He didn't come along. He had a reason to stay here in New York." Her smile is gone, her expression placid again. "Some of the officers escaped. We're looking for them."
"How did you find it?" He's never known where the base is located. They have always decided where to drop him off and pick him up, and he assumes they did the same for all their agents.
"Your phone and some persuasion of the unlucky man at the other end," she says. The look she gives him is sharp and knowing, and she isn't trying to hide it. "That was careless of you. Keeping the same phone."
"Yeah, you know, these new phones." His throat is dry again and his neck hurts, and after a few minutes of watching in silence he's certain that what he's feeling is relief. Relief, and a little vindictive satisfaction. "They keep changing them around. Easier to stick with one I could figure out. I remember you," James says, and there's that pain again. Give them nothing. He is so tired of hearing their voices in his head.
She nods, a tiny motion, and he knows that she understands what he means: I remember you, and I'm almost certain the memory is real.
"But I don't know your name," he lies. "Aren't you gonna introduce yourself?"
He knows her from the drawings in Rogers' sketchbook, but he won't admit he's seen those, not when he doesn't know if Rogers has shown them to anybody. What he saw in Rogers' drawing is even more true in person: she's older than she was before, and she seems less like a ticking bomb, more like a carefully banked fuse.
"Natasha Romanoff," she says. "Please to meet you, Sergeant Barnes."
"The pleasure's mine, I think. You work for SHIELD now?"
"My relationship with SHIELD is constantly evolving," she says flatly. "I work with Captain Rogers now. Do you remember how you got here?"
That requires a little bit of thought. "There were robots," he says finally. "With flamethrowers."
"That's more than the doctors thought you would remember," Romanoff says. "It was a rogue AI. We thought we'd cleaned it up in California, but it followed us."
"And set up the ambush?" he asks, skeptical.
Romanoff shrugs with one shoulder. "It wasn't a very sophisticated ambush. It shouldn't have worked, but Steve...." She makes a vague gesture with one hand. It's another thing that's changed, how she can make a careless motion now, at ease in her own skin when she's choosing her own actions. "Is Steve," she finishes.
"He always stops to help," James says. "He's always been like that. He could never--"
A dull pressure fills his head, aching and tight at the back of his skull, and a burning sensation spreads from his fingertips and up his arm--his left arm, the one that's gone, but that's never stopped it from hurting before. He stares down at the empty space at his left side and remembers watching the fingers melt.
"You remember him," Romanoff says.
He doesn't answer.
"James," she says. She reaches out and touches his jaw, turns his head to look him in the eye. "You do remember him."
Her fingers are cool on his face, and her touch is soft, not at all threatening, but he turns away. She drops her hand to her side.
"I know how hard it is to trust what's in your mind right now," she says. "But you were never like the rest of us. You were too old when they took you. You had too much to lose. They could never make you forget it all."
She's gone before he can ask her how she can be so certain when they both know there as many lies in her own mind as there are truths.
When James opens his eyes again--he thinks it's later the same day, but he has no way of knowing the time--he finds the man they call Hawkeye sitting by his bed. Barton. SHIELD assassin.
James is disappointed. Not because he thinks they've sent Barton to kill him; they could have done that a dozen times over already and he never would have known. He's disappointed because he can admit to himself, in a small dark corner of his mind, that every time he opens his eyes there's one man he wants to find sitting beside his bed.
Barton is slumped in one chair with his feet propped on the other, and he's tossing a small rubber ball from hand to hand. He catches it when he notices James watching and sits up, drops his feet to the floor and leans forward to rest his elbows on his knees.
"Here's what I can't figure out," Barton says.
He sits up again and reaches out, and for one absurd second, James thinks the man is going to shake his hand, but instead Barton opens the cuff on his wrist. They're not strapping him down across the chest anymore, but there are still soft shackles around his leg. He hasn't been able to quell the panic he feels anytime somebody comes into the room and he remembers that he's down to one arm and it's bound at his side.
"What I can't figure out," Barton says, "is how you--you were in the hotel, right?"
The first attempt. Rogers outside Stark Tower, crossing 45th in the late afternoon. James considers lying about it, but decides half a beat later that there's no point. He nods.
"Yeah, that's where I would have picked too. I couldn't find your hide--didn't think I would--but it made sense. Not the best angle, but there are a lot of rooms to pick from, broken windows, and the construction crews weren't cleared to work above the tenth floor, not since the giant metal space... thing took off the top three floors." Barton waves his hand through the air in what James assumes is an imitation of the massive aliens that had wrecked so much of the city. "But that's, what? Hundred, hundred and fifty meters tops? Fifteenth floor from a block away--that angle isn't too steep. And it was a calm day. Definitely not enough wind for funneling on the cross-street. No sun in your eyes."
"Pretty day," James says. He can't argue with anything Barton is saying. The conditions had been perfect, or as perfect as they could be for an assassination in midtown in broad daylight. "Can't beat New York in the summer."
"But you missed," Barton says. "You've made shots ten times longer. Twenty, and in far worse conditions, if that rumor about that thing in Lahore is true."
"I don't remember that," James says.
"That doesn't mean it's not true."
He can't argue with that either. "So?" he says. "I missed. Happens to all of us. Even you."
"That time, and the next. Bet you didn't see that one playing out like it did."
"I didn't have all the relevant information," James says.
"And you missed." Barton looks at him steadily. "And one more we know about. Any others?"
"We knew somebody had it in for Steve," Barton says. "We thought it was somebody incredibly incompetent. Usually when people are trying to kill us in earnest they at least manage a flesh wound. A flesh wound on the right person," he amends after a moment. "A bullet doesn't do much to the Hulk except piss him off."
"Bad luck," James says. He doesn't say, Why doesn't Rogers come in here to ask me about it himself?
Barton looks at him for a long time. "If you say so."
That night he dreams of fire, but it's a cold fire, the coldest thing he has ever felt. He's on his back in a box and there's ice on his limbs and he remembers. He had forgotten, for so long, the first time they put him under, how they locked the chamber closed without saying a word and let him believe it would be forever.
The dream shifts. He's shivering so badly his entire body aches with it, but there's a warm hand touching his forehead and the hissing of the chamber changes into a gentle ssh, ssh whisper.
He wants to see who's speaking so he opens his eyes. The room is dark, lit only by light from the hallway. It's not the cryogenic chamber in the laboratory. That's gone. He remembers the video Romanoff showed him. He's back in the hospital room, on his back with cuffs around his wrist and ankles, and Steve Rogers is sitting beside his bed.
It's not a dream. He has convinced himself he imagined it the first time, that fleeting moment of half-waking confusion when he felt Rogers beside his bed. It was a fancy, a delusion, the pathetic result of spending months watching a man who never watched back, telling himself he was looking for a good shot but really imagining what it would be like to be captured by Rogers' deft fingers in charcoal on paper.
But it isn't a dream now. James is never warm in his dreams.
Rogers is dressed in civilian clothes, his leather jacket draped over the back of the chair, and he looks tired. He's leaning to the side, resting his chin in his hand, but he's awake.
He says, "Natasha says the nightmares mean your mind is trying to remember."
James opens his mouth to reply but his throat is dry and he coughs instead. Rogers is on his feet in an instant; he pours water into a cup and holds it to James's lips. He helps James lift his head to drink, and part of James's mind thinks he should be scared to be so weak and so vulnerable. But he only wants to press into the touch, turn his face into that warm hand cupping the back of his neck.
James says, "I don't remember you."
"I know," Rogers says. He smiles sadly and takes the cup away. He removes his hand from James's neck a moment later, but the warmth of his touch lingers.
It's morning again, by his best guess, and Dr. Peterson wants to talk about treatment.
"You're healing amazingly fast, but you need to regain your strength," she says. She opens the padded cuffs on his wrist and ankles and she's acting like James is going to be around for a while, like there's no inevitable transfer to a prison cell in his near future. "We didn't know what to expect with you, but..." She trails off thoughtfully. "But we're learning," she finishes.
"That sounds reassuring, Doc. I always did like being a lab rat."
He likes the way she smiles distractedly at his weak joke, almost like she believes he's a man and not a thing.
There's a knock at the open door, and Dr. Peterson looks up. "Mr. Stark," she says, surprised. "Dr. Banner. It's good to see you."
Tony Stark comes into the room. "You don't mean that. She never means that," he says. "I don't think she likes me very much."
Peterson says, "You're not supposed to be here anymore. Colonel Fury said--"
Banner interrupts, "Can we talk to Sergeant Barnes for a minute?"
"I'll have to ask--"
"Just for a minute," Banner says. "Then we'll be out of your hair, I promise."
It's one the most bizarre things James can remember seeing. Banner is completely unassuming, almost apologetic about asking, but Peterson reacts like she's just been threatened. Guess that means she's one of them who knows the man is the same thing as the big green monster.
She looks away and says, "Of course. That's not a problem, I'll just--I'll be right back, Sergeant Barnes."
She leaves quickly. The soles of her shoes squeak on the floor.
Stark picks up the chart Peterson left on the bed and points it at Banner. "On second thought, I think it's you she doesn't like."
"No, I'm pretty sure it's you." Banner doesn't approach the bed. "You should be dead," he says to James.
"Not that first time I've heard that," James says. He swallows and wishes he were sitting up. He's about fifty percent sure they're not here to hurt him or threaten him. They would have sent the Black Widow for that. But that doesn't leave many other options.
"That explosion, and the fire," Banner says. He takes off his glasses and points with them, taking in the monitors and IV drops beside James's bed. "That should have killed you."
"That, and the part where you punched a giant flame-throwing robot in the face," Stark says. "Which, by the way, was my favorite part. We all thought Cap was making it up until I pulled the recording chip from one of the others." He steps closer to the bed and leans over to peer James's face, and James makes a conscious effort not to flinch away. "I would say you're the healthiest ninety-year-old I've ever seen, but that would be a lie. You might qualify for a close second, once you heal. Same juice?"
Stark tosses James's chart to Banner, who puts his glasses back on and flips it open. "Not exactly," he says, reading down the page, turning to another. "Steve says Schmidt and Zola were experimenting on the prisoners they captured, trying to replicate some form of the serum, but the formula was different from Erskine's."
"No one ever came back," James says. He doesn't know why he says it.
Stark stops pacing and Banner lowers the chart to look at him.
"You remember that?" Banner asks. "Do you remember what Schmidt did to you?"
The mechanical roar of machinery, the ripe stench of men in cages, the cold laboratory table at his back, and relief and confusion like he's never felt before, followed by fire. The memories are disconnected, disjointed. He doesn't know what they mean. Somebody was there. Rogers was there. Too tall and too strong to be real. He was going to die, but Rogers was there.
James shakes his head; the motion sends a sharp pain down his neck. "I don't remember anything. What do you want?"
"Nothing," Stark says. "No, that's a lie too. I want to do this." He straightens up and pulls something that looks like a phone from his pocket. He points a beam of red light at James's good arm. James starts to pull away, but Stark is already saying, "Okay, done." He taps the screen on the phone a few times. "You have a very nice arm, Bucky. Can I call you Bucky?"
"No," James says. "What are you doing?"
"You're right," Stark says. "That would be weird. We've only just met. But I feel like I know you already. Steve's told us all about all of you. The Howling Commandos. You. The lovely Agent Carter. And you. Dr. Erskine. And you. General Phillips. And some more about you."
The names rattle around like shell casings in James' mind, but there's one missing from the list. He focuses on that. It's easier to think about than the implications of what Steve Rogers has been saying to his friends.
"And your father," James says.
The wince that crosses Stark's face is slight but impossible to miss. "Howard Stark, a great man and a true patriot. I guess you knew him, right?"
James says carefully, "I don't remember."
Stark stops pacing the room and whirls around, fixes his laser-focused gaze on James's face.
"You do remember," he says. "And you didn't like him. You knew my father in person, during the war, and you didn't like him."
"I don't remember."
"Nobody believes that anymore, Barnes. Come on, tell me I'm right. It would make my week."
"He was always trying to put the moves on Steve's girl when Steve wasn't watching," James says, all in a rush, and this time the stab of pain in his head is fainter, easy to ignore.
Stark laughs like the sound is surprised out of him. "God, that sounds like him. All those stories he told me about Captain America, and he never once mentioned that Captain America's best friend thought he was an asshole. You are my new favorite person for telling me that. I'm going to make you the best cybernetic arm the world has ever seen."
"Tony," Banner says.
"Right." Stark tosses the phone into the air and catches it. "What am I doing? What I'm doing is measuring your arm so I can make you another one. The opposite one. Not one of the same, that wouldn't be very useful. What Bruce is doing is violating your right to doctor-patient privilege to satisfy his own curiosity, but really, what do you expect from--"
There's a loud clatter in the corridor and somebody says, "Hey, you can't--" The rest of the sentence is cut off by two sharp sounds. Gunshots.
James is out of bed before the man appears in the doorway, and when he does it only takes a few seconds. The man is pointing a gun--not at James, but at Banner. James doesn't recognize him, but he recognizes the way he moves, the way his eyes scan the room in half a second, the calculating look that means he has found his prize. He pulls the trigger, and James is on him.
The shot goes wide, hits a medical monitor with an electric pop and a shower of sparks. James snaps the man's neck before he can fire a second shot. The intruder falls to the floor.
The entire fight lasts about twenty seconds.
James' vision blurs and he's hit with a wave of dizziness. He sits on the edge of the bed and closes his eyes. When he opens them again, Banner and Stark are staring at him.
"They came for me," James says. He nods at Banner, but that only makes his dizziness worse. "You were the distraction."
It's what he would have done. Whether or not you need to get your target out alive, the Hulk provides a pretty good distraction.
"Shit," says Stark.
Outside the room there's shouting, and footsteps pounding, and radios crackling, and James decides to lie down while they clean everything up.
Dr. Peterson is unhurt. James feels sharply, stupidly relieved when she bustles into the room after SHIELD agents have dragged the body away. Her eyes are red but her hands are steady, and she smiles as she looks him over. Nearby people are arguing. Fury, Stark, a woman whose voice James doesn't recognize.
Rogers, too, but he isn't shouting, not like the others. His voice rises and falls in familiar rhythms. James hates that he can't hear the words.
"You're not well enough yet to be playing hero," Dr. Peterson scolds, and James chokes on a laugh. If she notices, she's kind enough not to say.
Her smile wilts. "Two people. Dr. Ketchum and Mandy, one of our nurses." Mandy, the young woman with bubblegum-pink hair and cold hands. She was scared of James, but she was never unkind. "Try to get some rest, okay? Nobody else will be getting in here."
She sounds oddly confident for a doctor whose ward has just been infiltrated and attacked, but James understands when she leaves the room and the alien takes her place. James has seen the news footage, the interviews, the press conferences. Hundreds of YouTube videos taken on cell phones around the world. He watched the news reports of the brief, baffling battle in London, as enthralled and alarmed as every other human on the planet. He has seen the alien Thor fight, inexhaustible and formidable, a force of nature fueled by magic. When Thor steps into the room, he fills the doorway, and it's hard to remember the smiling, smitten man at the sidewalk cafe in Steve Rogers' drawing.
James takes a breath. "You're my guard now, buddy?"
Thor inclines his head slightly. "I will see that no harm comes to you."
That is not exactly what James was asking, but it's better than the answer he was expecting. He could probably take out another Red Room assassin or three, if they showed up, but he's no match for this man. He decides to take Dr. Peterson's advice, at least for as long as the argument continues in the hallway outside.
But his eyes are only closed for a minute or so before he has to open them again. "What are you staring at?"
"I apologize," says Thor. But he doesn't look away. It's a careful, measured look, and it makes James want to sink down into his pillow. "Natasha says that your captors have altered your mind and made it so you remember only who they wanted you to be, and not who you were before you became their prisoner."
"Sounds about right," James says. "I'd never argue with a lady who can beat me in a fair fight. Why?"
Thor doesn't answer right away. He looks thoughtful for a moment, and he says, "When I was young, many centuries ago, my companions and I traveled to the realm of Nidavellir on a quest."
James blinks. "A quest."
"There was a monstrous beast ravaging the dwarven villages," Thor explains, as though that makes what he's saying any less ridiculous. "Every night it hunted. It sought men, women, and children for its prey, injuring some and killing many others, but none who survived could describe what manner of creature it was. The dwarves called to Asgard for help."
"Sure," says James, after a beat, because apparently he isn't hallucinating this. Thor, Norse god of thunder, alien from outer space, Avenger and temporary bodyguard, is having story time in his hospital room. "Good idea. That'd be my first thought too."
"We set out to hunt the beast down, but it proved to be a far more difficult task than we anticipated," Thor says. "We traveled through Nidavellir for many seasons, always arriving too late, after the creature had already attacked. There were many months where we saw nothing of the beast but the dead and wounded it left behind and its bloody prints upon the ground. In the second year of our hunt, in the darkest days of winter, two of us became separated from our questing party. My--" There is a hitch in Thor's smooth voice, so slight James might have imagined it. "My companion and I found ourselves alone in the mountains. We hunted for many days through the snow, until one day we came upon a village that had recently endured the monster's attack."
In the hallway, Fury is saying, "That is not acceptable, Captain," loud and annoyed, and when Rogers replies, he's not keeping quiet anymore. James doesn't let himself smile. Nobody ever expects Steve Rogers' temper.
But Thor continues as though he can't hear them. "Most of the villagers had survived, but many had perished, and many more had been injured. We sought the healer who cared for them, to see what we might learn what we could of the beast. He was of Asgard, but he had lived among the dwarves for a long time, and they held him in great esteem. He invited us to take shelter with him during a storm."
Now Stark is saying, "Like you've done such a great job of it so far?" and the woman whose voice James does not recognize snaps, "That's enough, Stark," and Fury says, "Don't even try me, Coulson, not today," and Stark says, "But I think today is the perfect day, Phil, don't stop now," and all their voices fall together in a racket of bickering and shouting, and James can't hear Steve Rogers anymore.
"We settled in at midday," says Thor. He is still looking at James. He speaks as though he is lost in a reverie, his voice calm and distant, but there is nothing but sharpness in his eyes. "There was naught to do through the storm but share stories, so we swapped tales of battle while the wind raged. The man had not heard of many of our most daring adventures, and he had tales of his own from his years in the mountains."
Another voice outside the room, not shouting, but everybody else quiets to hear him: "You can't blame us for not believing that you have his best interests at heart." Banner. He sounds angry, but not enraged. Not that.
"Late in the day," says Thor, "after we had grown tired of telling tales, the man asked us two peculiar questions. He was curious about our father Odin's two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who travel the realms while the Allfather rules from Asgard. He wanted to know if the king ever feared for them, sending his thoughts and his memories so far afield. And he asked us--"
"That is not your decision to make," Fury says, in the hallway. He sounds resigned now, the fight gone out of him, and Rogers replies, "With all due respect, sir, how do you intend to stop me?"
"And he asked us," Thor continues, "to consider a choice. He wanted to know if, some day in the future, after we had passed from the realm and into Valhalla, we would rather the world remember in its stories and tales the greatness we had achieved, or if we would prefer that it forget the evil we had wrought. We thought it a game, but the man insisted that we choose. He was very eager to have our answers, and he grew more and more restless as night grew near and still we joked and argued."
The argument in the corridor has ceased. James can't hear where Fury and the others have gone.
"Which did you choose?" he asks.
"I did not believe it a worthy question," Thor says. "I stated at once that I would be remembered for greatness."
"And your friend?" James asks, curious in spite of himself.
"He gave it a great deal more thought than I, and he said to our host, 'It matters not what I would choose, but I think you, my friend, would prefer forgetfulness. But it is not a choice any man can make for himself. Shall we grant you leave before sunset so that you might transform into your more vicious self in privacy?'" Thor's smile is melancholy. "My brother had puzzled it out, you see, while I had spent the afternoon telling tales and boasting. There was a monster in the mountains, but it was also a man, one who had been cursed to hunt as a beast at night and tend to his own prey during the day."
"But not that night," James says.
"No," says Thor. "We slew him."
His throat hurts when he asks, "How do they remember him?"
"I have not returned to those mountains since that winter," Thor says. "I do not know if they speak of him at all."
There is a soft knock at the door. Steve Rogers is there. James sits up and swings his legs over the side of the bed, slowly, so neither man takes it as a threat. He doesn't want to be lying down anymore.
"Captain," says Thor.
"Thanks, Thor," Rogers says. "Give us a minute, will you?"
"I will remain on guard," Thor says. He leaves the room and shuts the door behind him.
Steve Rogers looks tired and worn, as run-down as he ever did during the height of the war, when they were racing across Europe from one HYDRA base to another.
James winces at the pain behind his eyes, but it passes quickly.
Rogers notices anyway. "Are you in pain?" he asks.
James hurts all over, from his head to his toes, and most of all to the tips of his missing arm. "No."
Rogers narrows his eyes. "Would you tell me if you were?"
Distant voices echo in James' memory: Who was it? Did they hurt you? Boys, both of them. I'm fine, Bucky, leave off. It's nothing. And so very young. Tell me who did it and I'll knock their teeth out. James looks down at his one hand. Soon the memories won't hurt at all anymore. He wishes the Black Widow would return so he could ask her what to do with memories that don't hurt.
Rogers says, "We're getting you out of here tomorrow. We're taking you somewhere safe. That was—that was too close today. If he had succeeded..."
Rogers shakes his head. They were expecting somebody to come after the Winter Soldier, but maybe they weren't expecting somebody who was willing to risk a Hulk-in-a-hospital scale of collateral damage. Miscalculation on their part. They should have been prepared.
"But you'll be okay for tonight." Rogers nods toward the door. "You have a personal guard."
"You have interesting friends," James says.
Rogers grins. Everything else changed when they made him taller and bigger and stronger, every other part of his body, but that grin was always the same. "I keep thinking I'll get used to it but, nope, hasn't happened yet. Thor's a good guy."
"He doesn't know what I've done," James says, then immediately wonders why. His heart squeezes in his chest and his breath is short. He doesn't want to tell Rogers anything. He doesn't even think Rogers is interrogating him.
"Yes, he does," Rogers says. He hesitates, then sits on the bed beside James, not close enough to touch, but close enough that James can feel the warmth he radiates. "We all do. What SHIELD didn't have on file, Natasha helped us dig up. We know, Bucky. We know what they made you do. Did Thor say something to you?"
"No," James says.
He wants to swat the name away like a fly. The boy who was Bucky died in the snow, tossed from a mountain like a rag doll, with a mangled arm and frostbitten limbs. It was somebody else who woke again and again on that cold laboratory table. Rogers is looking at him, his expression concerned. He swallows.
"No," he says again. "He told me a story. About some time he and his brother went hunting."
Rogers' eyebrows go up in surprise. "He did?"
"Yeah," James says warily. "Why?"
"It's just—well, it's a long story. It's..." Rogers searches for the right word. "Complicated. I'll tell you later, when you're feeling better. It's a hell of a thing."
He says it easily, like he fully expects to be sitting down with James in a week or two and swapping stories about alien gods over drinks. His comfort is straightforward and simple, and it makes something that is part anger, part fear churn in James' gut.
"I tried to kill you," he says. "I followed you. I watched you through the rifle scope. I imagined a hundred times what your head would look like exploding with a bullet and I--"
Rogers shrugs. "And you missed."
"I tried again."
"And you missed again. You're a better shot than that."
"You shouldn't be here."
"There's nowhere else I should be," Rogers says. "I'm getting really tired of losing you, Bucky."
"That's not me. I don't remember you."
"Natasha says that they give most of their assassins false memories. False lives. They don't want you to know where you came from, so you'll only go where they want you to do." Rogers is hunched over tiredly on the edge of the bed, and there's tension in his shoulders, sadness around his eyes. "But she says she didn't know if that ever worked on you. It was designed for kids, she says. The little girls they took. It wouldn't work as well on a grown man. Did it? Did they give you a false life to remember?"
"They never gave me anything except orders," James says. "Nothing that stuck. Guess I wasn't pretty enough to be a ballerina."
"Oh, don't be like that. You're plenty pretty enough," Rogers says, smiling. But he grows serious again quickly. "You don't remember anything?"
It's a trick question, but Rogers means it sincerely. James closes his eyes so he doesn't have to look at that sad, earnest face any longer. He doesn't even realize until nearly a full minute has passed that it's not the first time he's done that: shut his eyes around these people, let down his guard, given them chance after chance to put an end to the Winter Soldier. But all they've done is sit by his bed and fix his injuries and call him by a name that feels like ice in his throat. Even the Black Widow had released his wrist from its cuff. She works with Captain Rogers now, she said. Leave it to Steve to wake up after seventy years on ice and collect this gang of madmen and assassins, gods and warriors, mismatched and ragged enough to make the Commandos look like clean-cut recruits first in line at Camp Lehigh.
"Martians," he says. "That's what I remember. Sitting on the roof and listening to the radio. Orson Welles was talking about Martians coming down to attack New Jersey." He breathes a soft laugh. "Seems like there would be a lot of other places Martians would want to attack first."
"Washington," Steve says.
"Lots of things would have gone differently if Martians had attacked Berlin that year," Steve says quietly. He shifts on the bed, closer. "That's what you said that night, remember? That was 1938. The war was getting started in Europe. It was all over the news, the meeting in Munich, and Churchill telling everyone that it wouldn't work, that we should be getting ready for a fight. They didn't give you that memory, Bucky. That was real. That happened. That was you and me on the roof of our place in Brooklyn, with that wireless radio you bought in '33. You said that maybe there was only bad news for us to hear, but you wanted to hear it anyway, if that's what the world had to offer, and if they ran out of bad news you'd listen to music instead."
It's such a small thing, one night out of ten thousand, but there's a spark of warmth in his chest where only cold has been for so long.
"It's stupid, isn't it?" Bucky says. He still can't bear to look. It will all wash away, the hospital bed and the warmth, the man beside him with the sad, sad eyes. He's been waking up into nightmares for too long. "That's the only thing they couldn't wipe away. Martians attacking New Jersey. Of all the dumb things to remember."
"It's okay," Steve says.
He moves again and his arm is around Bucky's shoulder, warm and strong, holding him up. It should feel wrong, dangerous, unsafe to have Steve on that side, the left side, his broken side, but it's better to have Steve there than a monstrous arm he never asked for.
"It's okay, Bucky," Steve says again. "All I've been doing since I woke up is remembering. I figure by now I'm good enough to do it for both us, for as long as you need me to. So that's what we're going to do."
Bucky opens his eyes. Steve is watching him uncertainly. He's waiting for something, for reassurance, for agreement, and the yearning in his expression is painful to see.
"I know better than to try to talk you out of a plan," Bucky says.
Steve smiles, wide and bright, and he squeezes Bucky's shoulder with his hand. "See? You are remembering."
Bucky leans into him, and for that moment, he lets himself believe it.