When HYDRA sent the Winter Soldier to New York to take out a target, there was no black leather, no shining chrome. Everything that would mark him as the espionage world's bogeyman was hidden behind a rumpled and ordinary exterior.
He was a man, no, a guy, a youngish guy, making his way through the streets of New York, guitar case in hand, backpack over his shoulder. The only thing that marked him as different would take the eyes of another assassin, or someone with comparable skills, to see. There was no guitar in the case; instead there were guns. There were no jeans and soft shirts in the backpack, no dog-eared notebooks filled with scribbled lyrics; there were more weapons and ammunition. He was loaded with weapons. He was a weapon, but a weapon who walked in plain sight.
A weapon set loose to perform his appointed task and trusted to return. Although trusted might not be the right word.
One didn't trust a computer to undertake its programming. One didn't trust a train to travel down its tracks. One simply knew that, in the absence of malware or a rockslide, it would happen.
It wasn't trust that let HYDRA loose its soldier into the world; it was the supreme confidence of knowing you've rewired a human being so thoroughly that human may no longer be entirely the right word to describe him.
Pride goeth before a fall, however, and no one can account for every eventuality, particularly not ones brought forth by the god of mischief.
The Chitauri, for example. No one could have predicted holes being ripped in the sky and invaders from another dimension pouring in, hell bent on slaughter. No one, not even HYDRA in all their arrogance, could have predicted behemoths filling New York's skies.
The Winter Soldier's programming met something it was never designed to deal with and it broke. In the absence of the program that had run it for close to seventy years, the brain searched desperately for guidance, for something, anything, to tell it what to do, because if it stood there, frozen, it was going to die.
HYDRA's brainwashing met something it could never have predicted, malware in the code, a rockslide on the tracks, and their control broke.
Pieces of the man the Soldier used to be, the man who'd been a soldier when he fell, bubbled up through the depths to meet the threat.
When holes ripped open in the sky and the Chitauri poured down on New York City it wasn't just the Avengers who met them.
He had weapons, so he turned them on the creatures. There was no elegance, just brutal violence. His ammo didn't last long—he'd come loaded for assassination and found himself in a war—so he was quickly reduced to knives, his metal arm, using his guns as clubs.
Almost as terrifying to the people around him as the aliens.
At the time he hadn't known what had ended it, all he'd known was that it had ended. He kept prowling, kept roaming, people scattering out of his path like he was something to be afraid of.
Maybe they were right.
Probably they were right.
His mind was a cacophony of cascading memories and screaming conflict: run, report, stay, flee, fight.
Eventually they found him. They'd known him. She'd known him, anyway, and that was enough.
His right hand flexed around his knife and the plates in his metal arm shifted, whirring and resettling, ready to fight, ready for war.
He didn't fight. Not them, anyway. The only person he fought was himself and when they shocked him into unconsciousness the only thing he felt was grateful.
SHIELD emptied him out, sucked him so clean he was surprised he hadn't flipped inside out, organs displayed for everyone to see, heart and lungs and spleen flapping in the air.
He got it. He understood.
For the first however-long he didn't understand anything. It was a blur of confusion and anger and pain. He didn't know if HYDRA had been drugging him and this was coming down or if it was purely mental. SHIELD didn't volunteer and he didn't ask. Eventually it smoothed out.
Eventually he could think.
He was doing okay, considering. The nightmares didn't come every night, and when they came they didn't last all night.
The fact that SHIELD seemed to want to help him was beyond his capacity to understand.
He spent two long sleepless nights and days pacing back and forth in his rooms, trying to work it out. He had things they wanted to know. They hadn't even known HYDRA was still a threat. Hadn't known it still existed. Even his splintered mind, memories scattered across the decades with little rhyme nor reason, was a treasure-trove and they wanted every last scrap of intel.
He got that.
That didn't mean they had to help him. They had no reason to help him. He'd definitely killed more than a few of their people. Of all the things he could remember clearly, he could remember that.
He couldn't come up with an answer that made sense and there was no point asking: any answer couldn’t be trusted, no matter what it was.
He'd been awake for fifty hours when he decided: it didn't matter. It didn't matter why they were helping him. They were doing it and he could either let them and accept it, or he could spend his time asking questions without answers and drive himself crazy.
He lay down, closed his eyes, and was asleep in minutes. His nightmares were, by his standards, pretty tame.
No one was going to lock him up.
Based on everything he'd told them, based on all the evidence they'd been able to compile, they'd decided his official status had been a POW. Prisoner of War. Nothing he'd done had been his choice.
He couldn’t quite believe it was going to be that simple.
Turned out, he was right.
SHIELD never found out where the first leak came from. That was the problem with an organisation full of trained intelligence operatives: they knew how to cover their tracks. It was someone who thought they were a patriot, that much soon became obvious. Doing the only honourable thing in the face of gross injustice, when he, a terrorist, an assassin, a decades spanning serial-killer, was getting let off scot-free.
Getting coddled and wasn't that just typical of the liberal nanny state their once great nation had become.
That first headline, that first story, was permanently emblazoned on his memory, because part of him kind of agreed. Oh, not the bit about the once-great nation—they could take that bullshit and shove it right up their ass—but the coddling bit.
He was getting off scot-free.
And it wasn't that he thought he should be locked up. He understood that he'd had no choice, that he hadn't been a willing participant, when he'd picked up the gun, the knife, the wire, used his bare hands and killed. But the thing SHIELD's therapist didn't seem to get—the thing no one seemed to get—was that it didn't make as much difference as everyone seemed to think it should.
The media shitstorm lasted months. It raged back and forth between people who thought he was a stone-cold killer in need of killing and people who, thanks to some strategic counter-leaking by SHIELD, thought he was a victim. No one seemed to think there was a middle ground, but he was coming to learn that that was normal nowadays. Whatever people decided, whichever side they picked, everyone seemed to have an opinion and everyone knew. Everyone knew about him. About what he could do. About what he'd done.
It killed any desire he might have had to wander the streets. Even some people in SHIELD looked at him differently now. He got tired of looking at people and seeing fear.
"What do you want people to call you?"
He liked SHIELD's therapist, about as much as he liked anyone. He didn't dislike her, anyway. However much he'd come back, there was something missing. The part of him that liked people, that wanted to be around people, that knew how to connect with them, to connect with the world—it was missing.
"What do you mean?"
She gave him a piercing look. "We've talked around this before, but I think it's important that you at least think about a name."
He'd been avoiding it, letting people call him whatever they settled on. What he'd been called was in his records, and it was interesting to see who settled on Sergeant, who settled on James, who settled on Barnes. But he wasn't any of those people. He wasn't Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes and he was never going to be. She was right. He needed a name. One he chose himself.
"Bucky." When he'd been a kid, back before the war, back before everything, when the world had been new, it'd been his nickname. He remembered that. "I think, Bucky."
His world was new again. Maybe it'd help.
Bucky thought maybe it was a fancy way of saying we don't quite trust you to be part of our team, so we're keeping you close but not too close. And it wasn't like they'd asked him to fight. He'd presented himself to Romanoff, asked her when he'd be cleared for duty, because what else was he going to do?
She'd given him a long, thoughtful look and two days later he'd found himself sitting in a room with Captain America.
Not the original Captain America. Bucky remembered her, he'd served under her, he'd fallen under her command. His memory of that time was sketchy, but he'd read the files before he'd figured out that reading about himself was a quick trip to blinding headaches and a jumbled mind and panicked confusion and more trouble than it was worth. If something didn't want to come back on its own, he'd prefer to keep on not knowing.
He remembered the first Captain America, though. Technically, the second, but the first that mattered. Carter, who'd taken up the shield when the numbskull the Brass had picked had gotten himself blown up by some kind of super weapon. She'd apparently started a tradition, the shield passed down from Captain to Captain, each one chosen by the one before.
This was the first Captain America who could fly, though. Samuel Thomas Wilson, former Pararescueman, chosen by the last Captain America in highly classified circumstances. They talked a little, Bucky on edge the entire time, but he didn't ask anything too hard. And when it was over, Bucky was officially Avengers adjacent, back-up for when their core marksman wasn't available or they needed extra coverage, an extra gun.
Bucky didn't blame them for keeping him at a distance; he honestly preferred it that way. None of them were unkind, but they were the Avengers and he was Avengers adjacent. An auxiliary. He was okay with that.
He wasn't okay with living in the Tower. The idea of being trapped in that tower, under its eyes, under its control, because he knew, whatever anyone said, that it was basically Stark's second skin, made his skin crawl. Instead, they set him up with a heavily secured apartment on the very top floor of a very nice, very tall building with an exit onto the roof, which was big enough and strong enough to land a Quinjet.
They tended not to call him out for anything in high density population centres, not unless they really needed him, because, Avengers adjacent or not, civilians didn't tend to greet his appearance with anything approaching relief.
Mostly he scared the crap out of them.
The media shitstorm after the leaks and the leaks themselves had painted him a certain way. People saw the metal arm and, in a crisis situation, even if they'd fallen on the he's a victim side of the equation, they tended to react as if he was going to eat their soul.
Bucky hated seeing that fear, but there was nothing he could do to change it. All he could do was stay out of the public eye, keep out of any aftermath, and make sure he was back on the Quinjet before anyone started taking photos.