A knock on the door startled the three of them out of the slightly uncomfortable silence that had fallen after Bucky's denial of his own humanity. Steve and Darcy exchanged a glance, and then Darcy stood, crossing the room and opening the door.
Tony stood there, hands in his pockets, his face uncharacteristically still. “I understand we have a guest,” he said simply.
Darcy grimaced. “JARVIS told you,” she said, and he nodded. Of course JARVIS had told him, he didn't say. She shrugged, opening the door wider. It was Tony's tower, after all. “We were actually going to call you,” she continued. “We thought it would be better if we introduced people in small batches.”
“Yeah, big groups are not gonna be a thing for awhile,” Tony agreed, nodding. “So introduce me.”
Darcy turned, leading Tony farther into the living room. “Bucky,” she said, “this is Tony Stark. Tony, this is Bucky and Max.”
Max wagged his tail. Bucky looked up at Tony, blinked, and canted his head. “I...” He shook his head, turning to look at Steve in confusion. “Do I know him?”
Steve shook his head. “You knew his father, Howard,” he explained. “Howard ran the Strategic Scientific Reserve, which was the program that ran Project Rebirth.”
Bucky shook his head. “I don't remember that,” he said.
Steve shrugged. “Let me just put it this way: the apple didn't fall far from the tree.” He glanced up at Tony apologetically, knowing how Tony felt about his dad. “You really do look almost exactly like your old man,” he said.
“It's a thing,” Tony said shortly. He moved past Darcy and around the end of the couch and settled himself on the coffee table, studying Bucky. “You look like hell,” he said frankly.
Bucky shrugged, saying nothing. Tony studied him a little bit longer. “I need to ask you some questions,” he finally said. “And before Captain Uptight gets his panties all in a bunch, I want to make it clear that I'm not asking just to be an asshole. I'm asking because people live in this tower. Because Pepper lives in this tower. Because if our situations were reversed, and we were sitting upstairs in the penthouse with my friend, Steve would be asking the same questions because Darcy lives in this tower. Do you understand?”
Bucky nodded, even though the question wasn't really directed at him. Out of the corner of his eye, Tony saw Steve exchange a glance with Darcy and also nod. “Say what you need to say,” Darcy said softly.
“I know who you were and I know what you've done,” Tony said. “Possibly better than you do. We've actually compiled a pretty complete dossier on your activities since the mid-fifties. There's still pretty serious money down on whether or not you were responsible for JFK, so let me know if that one comes to you.” He smirked slightly. “The important thing is, there's been a pattern to your targets. They tended to be lynchpin targets - the kind whose deaths cause domino effects that change patterns in the world at large. Political figures, especially behind-the-scenes ones. Power players. Interestingly enough, mostly people we'd consider bad guys.”
Steve made a thoughtful noise. Darcy moved to his side, resting her hand on his shoulder. Bucky waited.
Tony leaned forward, staring into Bucky's face. “What is your function?”
“Target elimination,” said the Winter Soldier.
“What is your mission?”
“There is no current mission,” said the Winter Soldier.
“Do you have a target?”
“There is no current target,” said the Winter Soldier.
“What was your last mission?”
“Two targets, level six. Rogers, Steven G. Romanoff, Natasha A. Confirmation within ten hours.” The Winter Soldier paused. Bucky shook his head. “No. That's not right. That was before.” He looked down, his brow furrowing in confusion. “Two targets, level six. Rogers, Steven G. Romanoff, Natasha A. But...”
“But what?” Tony asked, and his voice was more gentle than Steve would have ever thought possible.
The Winter Soldier looked up at Tony. “The same target. It was the same target on a different mission. But that isn't possible.”
“Why isn't it possible?”
“Because my function is target elimination.”
“Oh,” Darcy said softly. “I think I see the problem.” She gave Bucky an apologetic look. “What's your success rate?”
“One hundred percent,” the Winter Soldier replied.
“Except for me,” Steve said softly. “Me and Natasha.”
Tony pinned the Winter Soldier's eyes with his own. “What are the parameters of your last mission?”
“The targets intend to interfere with Project Insight,” the Winter Soldier replied. “Eliminate the targets. Rogers is primary; Romanoff is secondary. The Project must launch.”
“Are you aware of the current status of the Project?”
“The Project did not launch,” the Winter Soldier replied immediately. “The mission failed.”
“What are your orders now?”
There was a long pause before Bucky said softly, “I don't know.”
“Why don't you know?”
“Standard post-mission protocol. Return to base for repairs. Mission report. Fuel. Wipe. Capsule.” He stopped, wrapping his arms around himself, and he shuddered hard. “C-Cold,” he said. “I don't want to go back into the cold again.”
A moment later, Darcy's warm hands were laying on his shoulders. “Nobody's going to make you go back into the cold,” she murmured into his ear. “We promised. Remember? Remember what Steve said?”
Bucky swallowed hard. “No more machines,” he managed, his voice a bare whisper. “No more cold. You promise.”
“That's right,” Darcy said, stroking his hair back from his forehead. “No more machines. No more cold.”
Bucky took a deep breath, shuddering again. But he relaxed, squared his shoulders, and looked up at Tony again. “Following the failure of the mission, I did not report for post-mission briefing.”
Tony nodded. “Are you still under orders to eliminate the two targets?”
The Winter Soldier shook his head. “The mission failed.”
“Do you have any secondary targets or standing orders?”
He shook his head again. “I don't...” He paused, and for the first time in the conversation he seemed to struggle with his words. “There are no standing orders. There is no standing.”
Tony's brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“That's not my function. My function is target elimination.”
“And that's it.”
“Well, what do you do when you're not eliminating targets?”
When he spoke again, the Soldier's tone was flat as he recited what was clearly a standard conversation. “Mission complete. Well done. Is there any damage? No, sir. Do you need fuel? No, sir. Sit down in the chair, we'll clean you up and put you away.”
Steve interrupted. “They kept him in cryo-stasis between missions,” he said softly.
Tony's mouth dropped open, and he stared from Steve to Bucky and back again in shock. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Steve stood, crossing the apartment into the little study, and came back a moment later with the folder Natasha had brought him. “Do you read Russian?”
Tony shook his head, flipping the folder open anyway.
“I don't either,” Steve admitted. “JARVIS has been helping me with the translations.”
Tony didn't need the text. The photograph clipped to the inside cover of the folder was enough for him. He stared in horror at Bucky's face inside the cryo capsule, eyes closed, features glazed with hoarfrost. He shut the folder again, feeling a little bit like he might throw up. “Jesus,” he said softly. He looked up at Bucky, and shivered slightly as Bucky's impassive gaze met his own. “Look, I'm sorry,” he said, his voice a little shaky. “I just need to know if you're going to kill us all in our beds or something.”
He didn't know what was in the folder that had upset Tony so, but he could guess. The front of the folder read “Case Number 17” in Russian, and someone had hand-written the words Codename: Winter Soldier on the folder's tab. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Winter Soldier was his codename.
Then Tony looked up at him with genuine sympathy in his eyes and said, “I just need to know if you're going to kill us all in our beds or something.”
He shook his head. “I have no orders.”
“No urges to, I dunno, ice pick somebody in the ear?”
“I have no orders,” he repeated, stressing the last word. He needed them - not just Tony but also Steve and Darcy - to understand what he was trying to say, but formulating his thoughts was difficult. It was easy, under Tony's rapid-fire questioning, to turn off the parts of him that wanted to think and feel and fight and scream and to just answer the questions. It was simple.
(mission report, now.)
But trying to articulate the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions inside him, thoughts and emotions he couldn't even remember having before six days ago? Might as well ask him to jump out the window and fly under his own power. Still, he tried. “Asset function: target elimination. Mission: failed. Secondary orders: none. Secondary targets: none.”
Mercifully, Steve spoke. “I think what he's trying to say is that he only kills if he's ordered to kill,” he said. “Is that right, Bucky?”
“Affirmative,” he said. “I have no orders.”
Tony nodded. “All right,” he said. He put the folder down on the coffee table and said, “I'm sorry. If that was... whatever. But I had to know.” He looked up at Steve. “You know I did.”
“I know,” Steve answered. He sounded tired, but not angry. “I know, Tony. Somebody has to do the hard thing. And you're right; I couldn't have done it.”
Tony turned back to him. “How's the arm?”
He looked down at it, frowned, and ran a basic diagnostic. Gears whirred and clicked. “Functioning within ordinary parameters.”
Tony nodded. “Hold it straight out for me?”
He obeyed, wary, ready to snatch it back if it seemed that Tony was going to do anything untoward. But Tony merely said, “JARVIS, give that a once-over, would you? Full-spectrum. Send the specs down to the workshop.”
“Certainly, sir,” the disembodied voice replied.
Tony grinned. “I'll make you a better one,” he said. “How'd you like to have a laser sight?”
“Tony,” Darcy said gently. “Get out.”
He watched Tony go, mildly bemused, his arm still held out from his body. Steve said, “JARVIS, have you finished scanning?”
“Yes, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS replied.
Steve said, “You can put your arm down, Bucky,” and watched with sad eyes as gears clicked and the arm dropped down.
Darcy leaned back against the door after she closed it. “One of these days, I'm going to strangle him while he sleeps,” she muttered.
He put the words together in his mind. “He was right to ask,” he said. When both Steve and Darcy looked up at him in surprise, he shrugged. He didn't feel like explaining. They knew, anyway; he could see it on their faces. So he sat there, petting Max.
He waited while Steve walked over to the door and shared a warm hug with Darcy, resting his forehead on her shoulder for a minute. But then he lifted his head and said, “There's someone coming.”
They both turned to look at him. “What do you mean?”
“I can hear it,” he said. “In the air.”
Steve's brow furrowed at him. “Do you mean HYDRA? Because - ”
He pointed. Both of their heads turned to see what he was pointing at. A moment later, the vent in the kitchen ceiling swung open, and the stockily-built blond man he'd seen before dropped down out of the vent. “Hey,” he said, flipping in midair and landing lightly on his feet. “Is this a bad time?”
Turned out, Bucky had meant it literally. Darcy sighed as Clint Barton tumbled out of the return-air vent. “Can you never travel like a normal person, ever?” she asked. “Does it always have to be the air vents? Because you know I'm going to start booby-trapping them.”
“You can take the boy outta the circus,” Clint replied, grinning. “Was that Stark I just heard you throwing out of here?”
“You know damn well it was,” Steve snapped. “How long have you been up there?”
Clint shrugged. “Not long.”
“Seventeen minutes,” Bucky said.
Clint raised an eyebrow. “How'd you know?”
“I could hear you,” Bucky said. “You smacked your elbow when you came around the last bend, and you breathe like a sniper.”
“I am a sniper,” Clint said. He crossed the room. “They call me Hawkeye.”
“Hawkeye,” Bucky recited, his eyes going curiously blank. “A.K.A. Clint Barton. SHIELD asset. Program candidate.”
All three of them recoiled at that. Clint stormed forward, his fists clenching. “What the fuck do you mean, program candidate?” he demanded.
Bucky cringed at his tone, scrambling backward, landing in the floor, and scooting back against the wall. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I don't know. Please. I'm sorry.”
“It's okay. It's okay.” Darcy was on her knees beside him immediately, gripping his face, forcing eye contact as Steve had done earlier in the kitchen. “Bucky. Look at me. Take a deep breath. Good. Now another. Good. Keep doing that. It's okay. He's not mad at you. Everything's okay.”
Bucky struggled to focus, and Darcy could see the panic clear in his eyes, but she kept speaking softly to him, encouraging him to breathe, and maintaining eye and skin contact to keep him grounded. After a moment, he was able to relax against the wall. Max, whining, snuggled up to his right side. He scratched at the dog's ears for a moment, and finally nodded at Darcy to let her know that he was calm. She released his face, but stayed beside him. “Bucky, can you tell us what you mean by 'program candidate'?”
He swallowed hard. “The program is successful,” he managed, his voice very low. His eyes darted to Steve and Clint, and then back to Darcy. “Recent upgrades in cryo-tech make expansion financially feasible.”
Darcy stroked his hair back, her fingers soothing against his scalp, and he leaned into her touch, his eyes desperate. “It's okay,” she murmured again. “So they were looking to expand the Winter Soldier program? To make more … assets … like you?”
He nodded. “Sniper skill set preferred. The project creates precision tools. Subject has proved susceptible to conditioning in the past.”
Clint felt like he might throw up. “Loki,” he muttered to Steve, the name like ashes in his mouth. “He's talking about Loki.”
“Yeah,” Steve replied, his hand clamping down warm and supportive on Clint's shoulder. There wasn't much else he could say.
Clint turned and looked at him, a low-grade horror in his eyes. “We can't let them,” he said softly. “We have to stop them.”
Steve said, “We will.” He steered Clint toward the couch. “Sit down for now.” He went into the kitchen and pulled ginger ales out of the refrigerator, returning and handing one to Clint. He opened a second one and offered it to Bucky. Darcy took it instead, her voice dropping down to a coaxing murmur as she explained what it was and encouraged him to drink it.
Steve seated himself on the sofa and took a deep breath. Clint glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, his gaze flicking between the two people in the floor and Steve. “Not what you were hoping for, I guess,” he murmured.
“When is anything?” Steve said, a little hollow. Then he shook his head, running a hand through his hair. “I just... I don't know what to do. He's Bucky, but... he's not Bucky.”
Clint sighed. “He's not ever gonna be that guy you knew,” he said. “Too much has happened. Hell, Steve, you're not the guy he knew, not any more. You've been apart for a long time and had experiences, and just living life from day to day changes you.”
“But he's so...” Steve looked over at them, watched Bucky take a tentative sip of the ginger ale. “Broken.”
“Aren't we all?” Clint asked. “Jesus, man. Remember what I was like right after Loki?”
Steve nodded. After the dust had settled, Clint had been in a bad way for a long time. He didn't sleep or eat much, ghosted around the tower, and spent a lot of time on ledges making people very nervous. Finally, though, he'd broken down and gone to a SHIELD therapist. Steve assumed he must have gotten one who wasn't HYDRA-affiliated, because he'd actually gotten better. But it had been a very rough time for him and for everyone who worried about him. “I remember,” he said finally.
“Well, Loki only had me for, what, a few days? HYDRA's had this poor son of a bitch since 1944.”
Steve nodded. He watched as Darcy finally convinced Bucky to come back and sit in a chair. “Well,” he said softly, “guess it's a good thing I'm in it for the long haul.”
Clint clapped his hand against Steve's shoulder. “Guess so. Guess it's a good thing you've got good backup.” Steve turned, intending to ask him what he meant, but Clint was shifting forward, moving to sit on the coffee table a little closer to Bucky, his hands open and empty, resting on his thighs. “Hey, man,” Clint said, his tone gentle and even. “Sorry I startled you. I ought to know better than that.”
Bucky stared at him, mistrust in his eyes, and said nothing.
“So,” Clint said, “I'm Clint. Which you know. And I'm a friend of Steve and Darcy's. And you're a friend of Steve and Darcy's. And hopefully you and I can be friends, too.”
Bucky was silent for a long moment, staring at the archer. Finally, just when Darcy was about to speak to break the horrible, tense silence, he opened his mouth. “My dog is called Max,” he said.
Clint smiled, and Darcy was struck suddenly by what a beautiful smile the archer had. He reached out, holding out his hand to the dog, who sniffed him briefly before offering a friendly lick. “Hi, Max,” Clint said, reaching out to scrub gently behind the dog's ears.
Steve met Darcy's eyes, and had to swallow hard to fight back tears.