He has failed missions before. He knows it the way he knows he's the Winter Soldier, the way he knows how to disassemble a sniper's rifle, the way he knows the most efficient method of killing a man with his bare hands: the knowledge is simply there, with no context, no sense memory. But he still knows it: he has failed missions before, and he has failed this one spectacularly.
He doesn't know what brought him to the museum, but now he stares at his own image printed onto glass. He knows his own face the same way he knows everything else he knows: he sees it and recognizes it with no memories of having seen it before. The text breeds no such familiarity. He might as well be reading about a stranger.
There is a choice now. HYDRA's head has been cut off and two more will rise in its place. They will make contact; he will be recalled; he will be given a mission or deactivated until there is another mission. For him, there is no difference between the two. He has failed missions before, and he was still recalled. HYDRA will find him, and the certainty of that knowledge is as close to comfort as he can remember feeling.
He was once James Buchanan Barnes. He once stood at Captain America's side. It makes no difference. The seizing in his stomach that arises when he sees the Captain's face is no more than a physical reaction that, like any, can be controlled. It won't matter when he returns to HYDRA, anyway.
The procedure for going to ground is clear but, in these circumstances, irrelevant. There are HYDRA safehouses and caches all through the city (there are HYDRA safehouses and caches all through every city), but they may well be compromised. There are investigations into SHIELD, he knows - he's seen it on newspapers, newsfeeds scrolling on the sides of buildings, the screens set up in TV stores. Any attempt to make contact with HYDRA may very well be handing himself over to what's left of SHIELD.
He needs somewhere safe. More than that, he needs medical attention - his arm has been broken in two places, and he can only keep it stable for so long.
His new mission, then: survive long enough for HYDRA to find him.
There is one person who has proven to be willing to do absolutely anything to keep him alive.
He tugs the baseball cap lower with a gloved hand and slouches his shoulders forward, forces the motion of his legs up into his hips, and walks to the mural of Captain America with the same gait as everyone else in the Smithsonian. His stomach clenches. He keeps looking, and gradually the muscles relax. He goes to each exhibit, memorizing the names and staring at the faces until he's immune to them.
He leaves the Smithsonian. No one makes eye contact. No one follows him.
He goes to Captain America's apartment.
Strips of crime scene tape, ripped on one end, dangle from one side of the door frame. The door is almost closed, but the latch hasn't caught and it pushes open easily and with only the small noise of a creak. The Captain would hear it, but nobody comes to the door.
He enters and swiftly cases the apartment. It's empty after all. The bed is made with military corners and one drawer of the dresser is out by half an inch, insufficiently closed. The toothbrush is gone, but the toothpaste and razor are not. Most of the clothes are still there. The Captain hasn't returned, then, but someone else came for scant necessities.
The Captain will have to return if he wants his toothpaste.
There is bread, ham, and cheese in the refrigerator. He makes himself a sandwich with his left arm. The right is held to his chest in a makeshift sling. Appearing more physically vulnerable may ingratiate him with the Captain, although he doubts it will be necessary. The Captain has already proven that he'll see what he wants to see.
He's played the American before. It opened doors in West Berlin, Dallas, his first and last mission to New York. He can play it for the Captain, be the Bucky to his Captain America. It was what made him so valuable, when there were two Berlins; how naturally it came.
Once he's eaten, he wanders through the apartment, absently checking the spines of books and noting the titles of records. He pauses only once, his eye caught by one particular book, the spine cracked and bent by multiple readings. He places one metal finger at the top of it and tilts it out of alignment with the other books so he can read the title: The Hobbit.
He stares at it, then carefully levers it back to its previous position. Irrelevant, he reminds himself.
From the window, he can see the smoke still lingering above what used to be the Triskelion, a dark mass against a darkening sky. Washington has always had a low horizon: advantageous for rooftop recons and escapes, less so for evading pursuit on rooftop recons and escapes. For all of HYDRA's operations in this area, he's never preferred to work here. It's a town full of suspicions and law enforcement, with unpredictable traffic and easy chokepoints in and out. Any remaining operatives will be on high alert. The longer he stays, the less likely someone will make contact.
The door to the apartment creaks. He doesn't turn around. The footfalls are too quiet and measured to be anyone other than the Captain, aiming for stealth. They approach the bedroom, and then abruptly stop.
"Bucky?" says the Captain after a long moment.
He turns from the window slowly. The murals and displays at the Smithsonian can hardly compare to Captain America in the flesh. The Captain in the Smithsonian was focused, a soldier in leather armor and a compass in hand. The Captain before him still wears leather, but the casual jacket bears no resemblance to the lurid cliché of the red-white-and-blue, and his weight is shifted not to his front foot as though to attack, but to his back foot in – surprise? Fear? The reason for the Captain's posture makes little difference, strategically.
"I – " he says to the Captain, and his voice briefly fails. "I didn't know where else to go," he says, once he's regained it.
The Captain nods slowly, and gently raises one hand to hold out in front of him, as though the gesture will keep him from moving. Each motion, every word, is careful and slow. "Are you gonna stay?"
He lets out a small, bitter laugh at that. "I don't know where else to go." He finally finds the American persona inside him, and manages to add, "Except prison."
The Captain shakes his head. "Not gonna happen, Buck, I promise."
He can feel his face twitch at the name, outside of his control, and the Captain brings up his other hand to hold out, beseeching.
"I don't – do you want me to call you…something else?" says the Captain, even though saying it visibly causes him pain.
He jerks his head in dissent. "I just don't – I don't remember. I don't remember anything." Half of his mouth tugs upward, not happily. "The Smithsonian had a lot more on you."
"I keep telling them to change the exhibits," says the Captain automatically, his hands drifting down. "You went to the Smithsonian – did you go to a hospital? For the…"
He lifts his head so that the Captain can see that most of the cuts and bruises on his face are gone. "Guess you're not the only one who heals quick."
The Captain's eyes, though, are on his arm. "Can I…?"
Something in him seizes up at the prospect of being touched, of being touched by the Captain; something in him is certain he'll break. He nods anyway, and the Captain comes closer, carefully drawing the arm out of the sling and supporting it at both the elbow and the wrist. He can still see the way the Captain's eyes dart over him, checking for weapons, and the way the Captain's feet are planted for a fight. Not entirely trusting, yet.
The Captain grimaces. "You're gonna need a cast, or at least a splint until we can find somewhere…"
"I'm pretty sure I'm wanted in DC," he says. "And Virginia. Maybe not Maryland."
The Captain's jaw sets. "We'll think of something. Come on."
He lets the Captain lead him into the kitchen, where the Captain splints his arm with a wooden spoon on one side, a spatula on the other, and duct tape, carefully laying down a first layer of tape with the adhesive up so that it doesn't stick to the hair on his arm. That level of care seems entirely unnecessary.
"I'll call…a couple of people," the Captain says as he works. "I have some favors I can call in, SHIELD or no SHIELD. You're safe, Bucky, I promise you, you're safe."
He forces a nod. The Captain is very close, and his fingers against his skin are gentle and brisk – practiced. Once the splint is complete, the Captain just lays his hand against his elbow, applying only the slightest pressure, as though testing the surface to see if it's solid.
When he looks up, the Captain is staring at him, his lips parted as though he can't quite find the supply of words – or as though there are too many, choking each other instead of escaping.
"Thank you," the Captain says eventually, "for coming here. When I woke up and you were gone I thought – I thought you'd be in the wind, so thank you for being here."
He says nothing.
"I'm not gonna guess what you want," the Captain says, "and I don't – maybe you don't know, but whatever it is, whatever you need, you got it."
He can't tell if there's an answer that the Captain's looking for, not when the Captain's watching him so earnestly with those wide, bare eyes. "I don't know - " he begins, and no answer supplies itself.
"Okay," says the Captain after a second. "Okay, I'll find us somewhere where you can figure it out. How's that?"
He nods, and the Captain maneuvers his arm back into the sling. "I'll make some calls, then. Just don't - don't go anywhere. Please."
"I won't," he replies.
Black Widow and Wilson are already in the limousine when it arrives, double-parking in the narrow street with the emergency flashers on. Black Widow steps out to take the Captain's duffel bag.
"You must be tired after your long and exhausting search," she says to the Captain. "We should've sent you after bin Laden. He'd've showed up in your kitchen inside of a week."
Her eyes linger on him only briefly, although she addresses her comments to the Captain. He can see her clothes catch ever-so-slightly on at least two handguns and a boot knife, and if those are the ones he can see, he has no doubt that there are more.
"I thought you said inconspicuous," says the Captain.
"For Stark, this is inconspicuous," Black Widow says. "See any red and gold?"
The Captain sighs. "C'mon, Buck."
He follows the Captain into the limousine, where Wilson is waiting.
"Hey, man," Wilson says. "I don't think we've been formally introduced. Sam Wilson."
He stares at Wilson for a long moment, and then, aware of the Captain sitting next to him, lets the American out again. "Bucky Barnes, apparently. Sorry I tried to kill you."
Wilson shrugs, his gaze so level that it must be practiced. "Happens."
The limousine shakes as Black Widow closes the trunk, and a few seconds later she slips into the car, sitting next to Wilson, and slams the door behind her. The limousine begins to move.
"Where are we going, exactly?" Wilson asks.
"Dulles," Black Widow says. "More privacy than National, and easier to get to with half the roads on the Potomac blocked off. Stark's plane will meet us there to take us to New York."
"Stark," Wilson repeats. "As in Tony Stark."
"You should act that impressed when you meet him. He'll really appreciate it," Black Widow says.
He glances over at the Captain, and notices that he's hunched over slightly. The Captain sees him looking and straightens.
"And he's ready for us up there?" the Captain says to Black Widow.
"He will be by the time we get there. We'll take a helicopter from LaGuardia and bypass any press at the base of the Tower, and he said he's got apartments all set up and waiting for us."
"He just happens to have apartments for you?" Wilson says, and Black Widow smirks.
"I have it from a very trustworthy source that he redesigned the entire Tower for us, after the Battle of New York. Pepper said it's his emotionally stunted way of inviting us over for a playdate."
"Well, it's very kind of him," the Captain says firmly.
The rest of the drive to the airport is silent. Although he knows he isn't a prisoner, the setup does little to ease the feeling that he is at least being handled; Black Widow and Wilson stay awake the entire drive, Wilson staring out the tinted window and Widow not even bothering to hide that she's watching him. The Captain's eyes are closed, and his head lolls forward with each pothole the limousine drives over, but he isn't asleep. His breathing is artificially deep and even, the muscles in his crossed arms tensed.
It's dark by the time they arrive at a private hangar at Dulles Airport. Black Widow tries to take the Captain's bag, but he slings it over his shoulder with a defiant raise of his eyebrows, and she rolls her eyes. Wilson has a bag of his own, but Black Widow does not.
The pilot of the plane is blonde and clearly military, from the stance to the set of her jaw, terrible at being undercover and not bothering to hide it. She watches him with obvious suspicion, although she gives the Captain a terse nod; someone's clearly briefed her. Her name tag reads "Maj. Danvers" next to its Stark Industries logo.
The plane ride is shorter than the car ride had been, and when he glances over, the Captain is dozing again, or at least resting. Likely a holdover from the war, or from the operations since. His arms are crossed, but not tightly enough to lock. Instead his forearms sag over his abdomen, pulling his shoulders forward slightly. The stance is protective, and not unexpected, given his recent gunshot wounds.
The Captain has said nothing about the Helicarrier. He hasn't drawn a weapon, hasn't contacted the authorities, hasn't been anything less than helpful, and his trust is likely assured at this point. Black Widow and Wilson will likely be harder to convince; Stark even more difficult.
His eyes keep returning to the Captain's arms over his stomach. It's been four days since the Helicarrier - he must be healed by now, although it's possible that the other injuries are making it take longer. He wonders if the Captain's still in pain, although this is the only indication he's seen so far.
He closes his own eyes, although he needs very little sleep in general. He's been the American before, but never for such a sustained period of time and never to such an innately suspicious audience. He'll have to watch himself and be cautious. This is not a typical mission - there will be no reinforcements, no armaments and weapons provided to him, no extraction team until HYDRA can make contact. And the Captain is satisfied with him now, but even after only this short time, he can tell that the Captain doesn't want the fraying edges of the American - he wants Barnes, whole and undamaged.
He'll have to be Barnes, then. Once his handlers make contact, what he called himself for some number of weeks for a mission won't matter anyway. Until then, he can be the American, and the American can be Barnes.
The plane lands, and the pilot gives him a narrow-eyed look as he deplanes. Wilson follows him off, and Barnes can hear him whisper to her, "Thought that was you, Cheeseburger."
The pilot laughs quietly and says, "It's Major Cheeseburger, Wilson. Gimme a call sometime while you're here in the city."
Not just military, then - Air Force.
There's a helicopter waiting, as promised, and it takes them to Stark Tower, a massive structure that glitters in the city night lights. A giant "A" logo illuminates the side of the building.
"Any idea what's up with the 'A'?" the Captain mutters to Black Widow as they walk from the helipad to the entrance to the building itself.
"I'll let him tell you," Black Widow says. "I don't want to spoil the surprise, but - remember what I said about the playdates?"
The Captain blows out a breath.
The penthouse of the Tower is a strange combination of wood inlays, towering dark stone, and sunken fire pits, making it look almost like a cave. Stark himself greets them just at the door, holding his arms out to encompass the Tower.
"Mi tower es su tower," he says. "Cap, good to see you again, looking nice and sprightly. Agent Romanoff, you're...here. You, I don't know, but I saw you in action on CNN and I have some ideas for your jetpack. And...you." Stark looks Barnes over from head to toe, his eyes slightly too narrowed to be only assessing. "Cap's vouching for you, and that's good enough for me."
Barnes can hear the unspoken 'for now' at the end of that sentence.
"So, a couple of changes since the last time you were here, including a lack of Loki-shaped holes in the floor. Everything's still under construction - we're working on getting it wired up to the building's smart infrastructure and getting some more intelligent assistance around here, but that's going to take a while since all of the sensors are hand-made. Bruce's lab is on the ninety-second floor - that's where we're going next, to get that arm taken care of - then Cap, you've got the ninety-fourth and your guest has the ninety-third, Agent Romanoff has the ninety-fifth, and Wilson, you've got the ninety-sixth."
"You said Doctor Banner's lab was on the ninety-second floor. Is that where he's been staying, too?" Black Widow asks.
"He's been staying on the ninety-third, but he's crashing in his lab for tonight and heading out to cure West Nile or something tomorrow." Stark glances at Barnes. "He figured he might want to get clear for a while. You know."
The Captain frowns, looking between Stark and Barnes, but doesn't say anything.
"Anyway, Wilson, Agent Romanoff - "
"I'm not an agent of anything anymore," Black Widow says, with a small, perfunctory smile.
"Right. Congratulations on that, by the way, and thanks for the heads-up before that unflattering and frankly hurtful psychological evaluation you did of me hit Reddit."
"Was it wrong?"
"I said 'unflattering,' not 'inaccurate.' The point is, Romanoff, that you and Wilson should feel free to head to your floors whenever you want. Bruce is just itching for an excuse to try this new way of 3D printing casts he heard about, so it might take a while."
It does take a while. The lab is bright, despite the hour, and filled with chemistry equipment and centrifuges.
"Doc! Got a patient for ya," says Stark as they step out of the elevator.
Banner turns away from a machine that looks like the edges of a large cube, then removes a pair of glasses from the end of his nose and tucks them into a pants pocket. "I keep telling you, I'm not that kind of doctor," he says, his voice laced with resignation.
"Unless you're in the third-world, is that it?" Stark says, and gestures towards Barnes. "Anyway. Go."
"Doctor Banner," the Captain says, stepping forward, "I appreciate anything you can do - we can't exactly go to a hospital. I don't know how much Stark told you…"
Banner smiles briefly. "Enough. I also do watch the news sometimes." He looks past the Captain to Barnes, and motions to an examination chair in the middle of the lab. "If you could take a seat…?"
"Cap…?" Stark jerks his head, and the Captain joins him in a corner for what promises to be an interesting, if hushed, conversation.
Barnes takes his seat, and it's - it's familiar and unsettling all at once. He's been in chairs like this a hundred times before in a hundred different cities, but it's bright and quiet where he's used to shadows and murmurs; Banner's fingers on his arm are gentle but brisk where he's used to being moved like an object; he keeps bracing himself for the mouthguard, for the electricity to course through his body until even the emptiness of the wipe, of the cryofreeze is better -
"I hope you don't mind that I'm admiring your other arm," Banner says, and Barnes blinks his attention back to him, forcing air through his nose. "Do you have sensation in it?"
Barnes jerks a nod.
"A prosthetic like that could change the world. Probably too expensive for wide application, though. It always comes down to the money." Banner looks up from the metal arm to meet Barnes's eyes. "Tell me if it hurts."
Barnes frowns. "Why?"
Banner's fingers still against the injured arm. "Because," he says, very calmly, "then I'll stop doing that and start doing something that doesn't."
Barnes doesn't have a response for that, so he says nothing.
The conversation in the corner is becoming heated. As Banner scans his arm with some kind of wand, Barnes closes his eyes to better listen.
"I'm not saying you can't stay, I'm just playing devil's advocate. Didn't they have devil's advocates back in the Dark Ages?"
"Well, that's a little bit before my time, so I wouldn't know. But remind me to tell you about the invention of the wheel sometime."
"Very funny. Look, I'm just saying that as long as he's here it's not a matter of you watching your back, it's a matter of you watching all of our backs – "
"If you're uncomfortable with him being here, we'll go. It's not that complicated, Stark."
Stark laughs. "I'm sorry, what about this isn't complicated? And you're not going anywhere. This is just dangerous and I wanted you to know that it's dangerous and now you do, so we're fine."
"Is that why Dr. Banner's leaving?"
"Dr. Banner's leaving because, one, keeping him in a tower with a brainwashed ex-assassin with a metal arm just seems like a bad idea on every possible level, and, two, it opens up the floor with all the Hulkbuster protections in case we have to contain him." There's a brief pause. "Okay, guess Romanoff didn't mention that part."
"Natasha knew about this?"
"I get that he's your friend, but - "
"He saved my life!"
"After trying to kill you - rather spectacularly, I might add!"
"That was different. He's different now. He even came to my apartment - "
"Yeah, and what's that saying about your friends and your enemies and keeping them closer?"
"Is that why you're letting us stay here?"
"I'm letting you stay here because for a while we were a team. I'm trying to have your back, because that's what teammates do."
"And I'm just trying to have his."
"Awesome, then we agree. Nobody's going anywhere."
"Funny how the sound carries in this lab," says Banner quietly, "given how much noisy equipment is in it."
Barnes opens his eyes. The wand is gone, and Banner's holding what looks like a webbed shell the shape of a cast, if someone had made it more hole than substance.
"Hadn't noticed," Barnes lies. "That it?"
"Yup. Hold out your arm?"
Barnes holds out the arm, and Banner secures the cast over it, then sits back and brushes his hands off.
"Not bad," Banner says appreciatively. "Not as impressive as the other one, obviously, but not bad." He raises his voice. "Thank you for being easily one of the best patients I've had in quite a while." He says this last part with his voice even louder, and with a pointed look at Stark, who looks away from the Captain.
"You don't have to lie to make him feel better, Bruce, it's fine that I'm your favorite. All done?"
Both he and the Captain come back towards the chair, and Barnes sits up in it. Even that action feels strange - he can't wear a shirt for his procedures, and usually by the end he's covered in sweat. Having a dry shirt against his back instead of peeling himself off plastic is an unfamiliar sensation.
"Thanks, Dr. Banner," says the Captain. Barnes goes to stand next to him.
"'Bruce' is really fine," says Banner, and his eyes flick towards Barnes. "For both of you. Tony, could you help me with some of this equipment?"
"Only one last night to be science bros and you want to spend it packing up equipment?" Stark rolls his eyes but turns back to Barnes and the Captain. "The elevators will take you to your floors. Be nice to JARVIS, he's feeling self-conscious because he's not wired into the whole building yet."
The Captain's brows tug together in momentary confusion, but he claps a hand on Barnes's shoulder and nods. "Right. Good night, then." Then he guides Barnes back to the elevator.
"Ninety-third floor," the Captain says.
"Right away, sir," says a polite, British voice back.
The elevator doors slide shut, the polished surface reflecting the Captain's befuddled face.
"JARVIS?" the Captain says after a moment.
Based on the look on the Captain's face, this doesn't clarify much.
A few seconds later, the acceleration and deceleration so slow as to be almost imperceptible, the doors open again, and the Captain leads Barnes out into the apartment. There's a living room with a small kitchen area, and a hallway just off of it with a bathroom at the end. There are clothes folded neatly on the arm of one of the couches - a pair of plain sweatpants and a Stark Industries t-shirt.
"Are you - " says the Captain, and as Barnes turns to him, he ducks his head, shaking it slightly. "Loaded question, but - are you okay?"
"Fine," says Barnes.
"Okay," says the Captain. "You're just being pretty quiet."
Barnes hesitates, unsure of the response the Captain's hoping for, and then says, "Long week."
The Captain lets out a sigh at that, looking Barnes up and down like a man at sea looking for land. "Yeah," he says. "Long week." His mouth stays open for a moment, as though there's something else he wants to say - as though there are a hundred things he wants to say - but he keeps watching Barnes's face and closes it again.
Then he clears his throat and looks away. "Stark said there's a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap and everything, food in the cabinets - when's the last time you ate?"
"I had a sandwich at your apartment," says Barnes, and then isn't sure why he adds, "You're out of mayo."
The lines at the corners of the Captain's eyes and around his mouth relax, and although his mouth doesn't move, there's something of a smile around his eyes. "I'll have to pick some up the next time I'm back in DC," he says, and looks Barnes over again. "Is there - is there anything you need?"
Barnes tries not to be thrown by the question - he's used to being a weapon, disassembled and cleaned and maintained between uses, not asked to catalog its own needs. Still, he has shelter, food, water. "No," he says.
"Okay," says the Captain. "Okay. I'll just be right upstairs if you need anything, unless - do you want me to stay?"
It hadn't occurred to Barnes that the Captain would leave - that he would be alone. He doesn't think he's ever being alone on a mission, without the tether of at least an earpiece or visual surveillance - even the days between the Helicarrier and the Smithsonian feel unreal and distant. The Winter Soldier has only ever been as valuable as he is able to take orders. "I'm fine," he repeats.
The Captain nods. "I guess it's goodnight, then."
There's something about the way the Captain says it that makes Barnes think he misjudged. "Did you want to stay?"
The Captain shakes his head too quickly. "Only if you wanted company. Sleep well."
Barnes watches him leave. He doesn't make eye contact his whole way back to the elevator.
There's a toothbrush and toothpaste in the bathroom, as promised. The door to the bathroom is at the end of a small hallway, the bedroom right off of it next to an emergency exit. There is no sign of Banner in any of the rooms that Barnes can see.
Barnes considers the possibility of bugs or surveillance. It seems likely, even though Stark had made a point of saying that the JARVIS system wasn't wired into the whole building yet. That made it seem even more likely, for that matter. If Barnes looks for any kind of surveillance, though, it will raise suspicions, or at least cement the ones that clearly already exist.
Surveillance makes little difference. When HYDRA comes for him, everyone will know, surveillance or no. Better not to risk it.
He finds himself somewhat at a loss with the bed. He's slept on beds for missions, alone and with targets and covers, but missions have extraction plans and he doesn't know how long he's going to be here. His foreseeable future involves sleeping in this bed, with its disgustingly soft white sheets and its solidly blue comforter and he has no assigned mission, no given purpose, no extraction. It dizzies him.
He has no way of knowing which HYDRA bases are still operational. No way of knowing when HYDRA will come for him and no way of reliably finding them on his own. He could abandon the mission entirely and just stay here with the Captain and - and -
His stomach contracts, and he sits himself on the foot of the bed before he falls down. There's a feeling with no associated memory, the same that came over him at the Smithsonian and on the Helicarrier, huge and insurmountable and I knew him -
Rationality breaks over him like the memory of pain, and he slows his breathing so that he doesn't hyperventilate. HYDRA will come for him, and when they do, he will have valuable intel on the Captain and the rest of the Avengers, and then he can complete the mission he was meant for. He has shaped this century. He's not done yet.
He sheds his stolen clothes with exact motions and he pulls on what Stark gave him. The sheets are cool when he slides into them, and he closes his eyes. He doesn't need much sleep on missions, perhaps because of the time he spends in cryofreeze, but there may still be cameras and he may as well doze for what rest he can.
He opens his eyes half an hour later. There is a rustling of clothes in the hallway leading to the bedroom and quiet footfalls, then a soft friction noise, like clothing sliding against a wall. Then a heavy, exhausted sigh - the Captain. No doubt Stark gave him access to this floor to keep an eye on Barnes. That lowers the chances of surveillance, then.
The Captain breathes quietly enough that Barnes can't hear him, but the rustle of clothing and the gentle thumps against the wall when he moves continue intermittently throughout the night. The pink, watery sunlight of dawn is just touching the ceiling of the bedroom when Barnes hears him move again, footsteps wandering away from the bedroom. Shortly after that, the sharp salt smell of bacon fills the apartment, and Barnes heads for the kitchen.
"Sorry," the Captain says unrepentantly, standing at the stove of Barnes's kitchen. There's a skillet filled with scrambled eggs next to the pan of bacon. "The kitchen on my floor only had kale and something called quinoa. You hungry?"
He should be, by now. "I could eat," he allows, and the Captain begins ladling eggs and bacon onto a plate.
"Sleep okay?" the Captain asks.
Barnes replies without thinking, the American's response rolling off his tongue. "Did you?"
The Captain inclines his head in concession. "I don't get that much these days. Courtesy of the serum, I guess."
The American wants to ask if that's also courtesy of multiple gunshot wounds, but Barnes bites that response back. The American wasn't the one holding the gun, but Barnes was. He's not ready to test the Captain quite that much yet.
"Sam and I are going to go out and get some things, unless you want to keep wearing Stark's t-shirts," the Captain continues, filling up his own plate of food. "I wasn't sure if - do you want to come?"
It takes Barnes a second to grasp what's expected of him - he's used to concrete orders, not options. "No," he says finally, and the Captain looks relieved.
"Well, we'll find you some clothes that don't make you look like you're property of Stark Industries," the Captain says. "They sell shoes with little lights in the heels these days, you know."
Barnes pauses with a forkful of eggs halfway to his mouth. "Lights?"
"Yeah. You step on them and they light up."
The American slips out again, saving Barnes from having to think of a response. "Why in God's name would you want lights in your shoes?"
The Captain looks at him and grins. "Welcome to the future, Buck."
The doors to the elevator ding, and Stark comes out, holding a pitcher of something green and thick.
"Good morning, children. Cap, something wrong with the food in your kitchen?"
The Captain gives an exaggerated frown. "That was food?"
"You're hilarious." Stark continues into the kitchen, opens one of the cabinets, and pulls out a glass. "Smoothie, anyone?"
"Something wrong with the glasses in your kitchen?" the Captain says.
"Sacrificed in the name of acoustics testing. Well, Bruce and I saw something on Mythbusters and wanted to try it. Smoothie?"
"What's in it?" the Captain asks, glancing over at Barnes dubiously.
"I'm fairly sure that counts as cruel and unusual punishment, Stark," says the Captain, but there's amusement in it.
"Hey, these smoothies are high in fiber, moderately okay at filtering heavy metals out of the blood, and surprisingly addictive even past the end of their functional use."
"Do you always aim for heavy-metal filtering in your cooking? Because that would explain a lot."
"I'm a perfectly fine cook!" Stark says indignantly. "I made an omelet one time. Besides, back in your day, didn't soldiers usually eat cans of beans cooked directly over the fire, or whatever? Because that would explain a lot about your cooking skills."
"I'll have you know that my War Cake won the blue ribbon at the Fourth of July block party three years in a row," Rogers says. "And with my mother's recipe, no less."
Barnes thinks it absently, like an argument so well-worn it's more of a comfort than a disagreement: My mother's recipe. And he remembers that Steve had first had it at his house and liked it so much that he'd gotten the recipe for his mother, and then forgotten that it hadn't been hers in the first place.
But that's all he remembers - it doesn't even feel like a memory but like something he'd heard someone say one time that had happened to stay with him, or something he'd learned in school, a fact devoid of context or color, but it's his mother. He knows she had a cake recipe but he doesn't know her name, her face, anything else about her -
"Bucky?" says the Captain, his voice laden with concern, and Barnes looks up. The Captain is staring at his hand, and when Barnes follows his gaze, he sees that his metal hand has bent the fork into a U-shape.
"I'm fine," Barnes says, dropping the fork and stepping away from the counter. "I'm fine, I just - I just need - "
He retreats to the bathroom, ignoring the Captain's repetitions of his name, and stumbles to sit against one of the tile walls, breathing heavily. A War Cake recipe. That's all he has of his mother, and he has nothing of his father, or his siblings - did he even have any? The Smithsonian said he did, didn't it, but it didn't list any names, just the dates of his birth and death as though he popped into existence and then out of it without affecting anything before or after.
It hits him then: he really is James Buchanan Barnes. The Smithsonian said nothing about War Cake, and it's something that even the Captain doesn't remember. There's no other place it could have come from except his memories.
He's been in Steve Rogers's company for less than twenty-four hours and he's already losing sight of his mission.
HYDRA is coming for him, he reminds himself. He's only here until HYDRA can recover him.
The sound of footsteps draws closer to the bathroom, and then a knock on the door. "Bucky?" Rogers's voice comes in, gentle. "You in there?"
Barnes pulls himself to his feet using the corner of the bathroom counter, and catches sight of himself in the mirror. "Yeah," he says, quietly. "Yeah, I think I am."
He opens the door, and Rogers is standing there, radiating concern.
"Sam can go by himself," Rogers says immediately. "I can stay - "
Barnes shakes his head. "I could really use some clothes," he says. "The dresser in the bedroom is full of 'I Heart Iron Man' t-shirts."
Rogers closes his eyes and shakes his head. "Of course it is." He hesitates again. "You sure you're going to be okay?"
"Fine," Barnes says.
"Okay," says Rogers, looking Barnes up and down again.
The American provides Barnes with a brittle laugh, and says, "Never, ever play poker. You'd lose the clothes off your back with that face."
Rogers opens his mouth and then shuts it again. "I probably would," he says with such restraint that Barnes is suddenly certain that, at one point, he had. "Do you need anything before we head out?"
Barnes shakes his head. "Nah. Or - "
Rogers raises an eyebrow, and Barnes makes himself finish the thought, unsure of what he'll say until he says it.
"Can I see my file?"
"I can probably track down a copy of your old Army file," says Rogers, relaxing. "If you want to ask me any questions - "
"No, I don't - " says Barnes, and stops himself before he can say I don't want to know. "The HYDRA file."
Rogers looks down, and Barnes can see the muscles in his jaw tighten. "Bucky, are you sure you want to look at that? It's not…you don't have to be what they made you."
It's suddenly difficult to speak. Barnes, irrationally, wants to tell him and I can't be who you're trying to make me. Instead he says, "I have to know what they did, Cap."
The use of the nickname is calculated and not particularly subtle, but it has the intended effect: Rogers closes his eyes and swallows heavily, nodding.
"I'll get you your files," he says, and looks up again. "You should take a shower," he adds, the lightness to his tone obviously forced. "You smell terrible."
Barnes gives a small smile to acknowledge the joke, and says, "Yeah, okay."
Rogers's arm twitches, as though he's going to put a hand on Barnes's shoulder, but instead he just flexes his hand at his side and clears his throat. "Towels are on the rack."
Barnes nods, and Rogers gives him one last look over his shoulder before heading back down the hallway.
Barnes does actually take a shower, scrubbing what's left of the Potomac from his skin. He finds himself running his fingers over the joint between his torso and his arm more frequently than is necessary to clean it, and has the fleeting thought that there's more of him in the metal than there is contained in his own flesh.
When he gets out of the shower, he considers putting back on the clothes that he'd just taken off, but now that he's clean he can smell exactly why Rogers suggested he shower. Instead he wraps a towel around his waist for the trip to his bedroom, and reluctantly pulls on an 'I Heart Iron Man' t-shirt and a pair of MIT sweatpants.
There are two files sitting on the kitchen island when we emerges from the bedroom. The one on top is labelled "Sgt. Barnes, James Buchanan. 32557." He looks at it for a long time, his wet hair seeping water onto his shoulders and into his eyes, then pushes it aside. The file underneath it is labelled in Russian. That one he takes, sitting on the couch and spreading the contents out on the coffee table. This centers him more than anything has since the Helicarrier, seeing the only familiar things in his life spread out and dissected in clinical and technological terms; no memories, no feelings, just clean and cold reports.
Then he begins to read.
The individual mission reports go in a pile in one corner of the coffee table, unexamined. He has no interest in them. There are so many. He has no interest in them.
The notes on his arm, on the cryogenic process, on the memory alteration and the implantation procedures - those he reads. That's where the Winter Soldier lives; not in the killing, but in the quiet, cool moments between, with clean hands and peaceful sleep.
This is why he can't stay. Rogers may want to build him into Bucky Barnes, but he has already been built, and there is no unmaking the Winter Soldier; for him, the unmaking is the making.
Being the Winter Soldier will mean killing Rogers. Barnes imagines it, all the different ways it could play out. Cut the brake line on his motorcycle; let him drive himself to his death. There are HYDRA weapons caches throughout the city. No doubt Barnes could find a gun and shoot him. Stab him. Break his neck. Slip into the hallway while he's sleeping; cut his throat. Enter the bathroom while he's in the shower and defenseless; cut his throat. Ask him to pass a knife; cut his throat. Ask him "Do you trust me?"; cut his throat.
Logistically, the killing should be the easiest part of the mission. Rogers made that clear on the Helicarrier. But even the ease makes Barnes uneasy, as if something in him is dismayed by how readily Rogers was willing to sacrifice himself.
He abandons the file and walks back to the island, where his Army file is, but he sees Rogers's plate sitting on the counter, untouched. He must have been too distracted by Barnes to eat any of it. The eggs are no doubt rubbery and the grease on the bacon has congealed by now, but some habit tells Barnes not to waste the food and to make sure that Rogers has something to eat other than quinoa, whatever that is. He picks up the plate and takes it to the elevator.
"Ninety-fourth floor," he says.
"Access is restricted," the elevator replies.
After a second, Barnes says, "Restricted for everyone, or just me?"
"James Buchanan Barnes is only allowed access to the ninety-third floor," the elevator says blandly.
Barnes's mouth curls upward into what could optimistically be called a smile. "Right." He walks back into the kitchen and puts the plate down, and keeps walking to the door next to the bedroom, which has an emergency exit sign above it. The door has a handle, not a knob or pressure-sensitive bar, and he sees no signs of it being wired into the fire alarm or any other kind of monitoring system. He turns the handle and opens it, and sure enough, no alarms sound. He reaches around to try the handle from the other side: locked.
So he can only escape if he has no intention of returning or every intention of getting caught. That's good to know.
He goes back to the living room, and within two minutes the elevator dings again.
"So I heard from my elevator that you were trying to go to Cap's floor," Stark says, sauntering into the room. "Any particular reason?"
Barnes finishes straightening the pages of his HYDRA file and closes them into the folder. "He left his breakfast," he says to Stark. "Thought he might want it. Any reason I'm not allowed up there?"
"Three," says Stark. "That's one for each of the bullets the doctors dug out of him, if you're counting along at home."
"I only got him twice," Barnes says.
"I threw in one extra for the bloody pulp you beat his face to."
"You know I saved his life, right? Or does pulling him out of the Potomac not count for much?"
"He was only in the Potomac because, as I mentioned, you shot him and beat him up."
Barnes bares his teeth in a wolf's smile. "Nobody's perfect."
Stark's eyes are empty of amusement; he looks like he'd like to do some beating of his own. Instead, he jerks his chin towards the file. "That about you?"
Barnes gestures to it, a warm and unfamiliar flare in his gut. It occurs to him that he doesn't like Stark - that something about Stark pushes right to his hard edges, snaps the American back at him without Barnes even thinking about it. "Help yourself. Hope you speak Russian."
"HYDRA's files didn't have a whole lot on you," Stark says, strolling forward. His tone is even and conversational, but he strikes Barnes as the kind of killer who's all banter until the knife strikes home - or repulsor, as the case may be. "Linked you to a couple of missions in particular, but it doesn't add up. They must not've documented all of them."
Barnes narrows his eyes at Stark. "Looking for anything in particular?" he asks.
"Yeah, actually. You didn't happen to murder my parents, did you?"
Barnes puts his fingers on the folder and lets them tap against the surface. This is a bad idea. He should play the cowed, damaged childhood friend. He can't stop himself. "You know," he says, "I don't even remember. I killed so many people, it gets hard to keep track."
Stark walks forward until he's standing right above Barnes, who cranes his neck to look placidly up at him. "You're not nearly as good a liar as you think you are, you know," Stark says.
Barnes stands up slowly, letting himself unfold from his sitting position until he's looking Stark in the eye. There are only inches between them.
"Yeah? What am I lying about, then?" Barnes says.
"You're just trying to pick a fight," Stark says. "I don't know if you want to test that arm of yours against the armor, of if you want to drive a wedge between Rogers and the rest of us, or, hell, if you just really want to beat me up, too. Or maybe you think you deserve it - that it's some kind of penance. Well, we've all killed people here. Maybe our reasons were good. Maybe we didn't mean to. Maybe we regret it. I'm not here for your pity party, Barnes, so either do something about it or shut up."
He turns to leave, and then turns back abruptly.
"One last thing - I'll just tell you something that might save both of us a lot of trouble," Stark says. "Everyone who's tried to kill me has regretted it. Everyone who's tried to hurt the people I care about has regretted it. And I'm pretty sure that if my girlfriend really tried, she could set you on fire with her brain." His smile is close-lipped and tight. "Just something to think about. And wash your goddamn hair."
This time when he turns away he makes it all the way to the elevator, and then he's gone.
Barnes is left standing by the couch. After a while, he returns to the file, sifting through it until he finds the page he's looking for: "Codename: Winter Soldier failed to appear at his extraction point."
"His movements in New York are unknown to us, but for two weeks he was completely off the grid." "Yet even after subsequent mental conditioning, Codename Winter Soldier has no answers for his conduct, or any memory of his time out of our control. While troubling, the incident appears to be an aberration, requiring nothing more than closer watch. It is further recommended that in future he be excluded from missions on American soil."
'No answers for his conduct.' Not as much of an aberration as they thought, then.
Rogers and Wilson return with clothes, as promised. It's nothing exciting, just jeans and solid color t-shirts in navy and olive green, and, with a relief that he didn't even expect to feel, several packs of boxers. Barnes strips off the Iron Man shirt and the sweatpants, and the new clothes feel even stranger. The denim is rough against his legs, although Rogers and Wilson got the right size and the boxers are definitely a welcome change.
He stays in his bedroom, though, and carefully eases the door open until he can hear the voices from the living room.
"I know, Sam, but come on - you of all people have to understand why I can't just abandon him?"
"And I'm not saying you should. I'm just saying that part of coming back from this is knowing that you're gonna end up in a different place than where you started. If you keep trying to make him into what he was before, neither of you is gonna end up happy."
"I'm not trying to make him anything, other than comfortable and not brainwashed - I don't think that's too much to ask for."
"You sure about that, Steve?"
A momentary pause. "You know, that first mission, when Zola had Bucky - the charges blew while we were still trying to get out. There were these catwalks and Bucky was on one side and I was on the other. He had a clear path to the exit, and I didn't. I told him to go and he said - he said not without me." Another pause. "He laid down his life for me. I got no right to do any less than he did."
"Yeah, you do," says Wilson immediately, but gently. "You got every right. The second you start thinking that you owe him something is the second you aim your nose straight at the ground. You gotta take care of you, the same as he's gotta take care of him."
"But that's all he ever did for me, and now that I'm all he's got, I'm supposed to walk away?"
"I didn't say that. But Steve, you're not all he's got. He's got him. And until he figures out exactly what that means, you're just gonna be Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill."
Barnes hears a low, tired chuckle from Rogers. "Is that what they teach you guys in the Air Force?"
Wilson laughs back. "Nah, it's what they taught me in college, man. But I guess you went to art school, so you wouldn't know."
"Did you look me up?"
"Look you up? Steve, I wrote a report on you in third grade. I got an action figure of you for Christmas when I was seven. I got an essay question on you for the History Regents exam."
"Well, now I really feel old."
Wilson is just saying, "Good. You are," as Barnes eases the door closed again and has to sit at the foot of his bed until he has himself under control.
Barnes takes to keeping the news on in the background. There are several highly public ways that HYDRA could signal an attempt to make contact that could easily make the news, but part of it is also blatant curiosity. There's footage of D.C., of course, from different angles and traffic cameras and sometimes even he's there. There's no footage of the Helicarrier, or at least not of what happened inside, but that just means that the footage that there is is all of ops that he doesn't remember. The timestamps say that they were within days of the Helicarrier, but the pixellated figure on the screen feels no more like himself than the pictures in his file do.
It would disorient him if he let it.
Having it on screen does mean that when the genetically-modified dinosaurs attack Central Park, he hears about it fairly quickly, even before the elevator to his floor dings and Wilson comes out.
"They're not making you suit up and get out there?" Barnes asks, gesturing to the screen, and Wilson smiles at him.
"Nah, I'm benched, just the same as you. Apparently Stark's grand plans for my wings don't involve a functioning prototype for another month at least. 'Sides, Steve thought you could use some company."
Barnes is used to supervision. He's less used to supervision in a comfortable living room, but he moves over on the couch to make room.
Wilson sits next to him. "How've you been doing?"
That, Barnes thinks, is the most useless question ever invented. "Fine," he says. The red flash of the Iron Man armor appears on the helicopter footage of Central Park, and Barnes doesn't have to listen to the TV to hear the rumble of thunder. Central Park isn't that far from the Tower.
"I don't know if Steve mentioned, but I work for the VA," Wilson continues. "If you ever want to talk to someone, I know a couple people."
Barnes drags his attention away from the TV long enough to look sideways at Wilson. "You know any therapists with expertise in brainwashed assassins?" he says.
Wilson inclines his head in concession. "You got me there, but I know some support groups for vets with TBIs - traumatic brain injuries. Figure it's pretty close to your situation."
Barnes looks back at the TV. "Rogers put you up to this?"
"Actually, no," says Wilson. "Like I said, it's my job - trying to get reluctant superheroes to accept the talking cure."
"Are you suggesting that Captain America needs therapy?"
"I'm suggesting that Captain America has a nasty habit of going on missions that turn out to be suicide missions," Wilson says. "And that ain't even from anything he told me. He told Hill to fire on the Helicarriers without even trying to get out, and I've looked at his record. The mission where he brought down the plane was within days of the train job." Wilson shakes his head. "I've seen it. Hell, I've been there. That's why I figure maybe if I got to the other side, I can help other people do it, too."
Barnes keeps watching the TV. No sign of Rogers yet. "You think I need therapy?" he says.
Wilson stays quiet for a long moment, and Barnes glances at him. He's leaning his chin against his interlaced fingers. "I think," he says, "a lot of people worked real hard to make sure there was no 'you' left. If it were me, I don't think I'd be able to just walk away from that. I can't even imagine what it's like."
Barnes looks back at the TV. "I don't remember it being that bad."
"Thought you didn't remember anything."
Barnes can see Rogers on the screen, now, a blurred red, white, and blue figure punching a raptor. He can see the teeth even in the blurred helicopter footage.
"'Course, if you ask me, all of the Avengers could use some serious therapy. Especially Stark. Dude goes on one op with a team, renames his Tower, starts throwing money at them, and makes them each custom floors so they can have superhero sleepovers? Try telling me that's well-adjusted."
Barnes stands up, and Wilson stands up with him.
"Everything okay?" Wilson says.
Barnes isn't sure why he stood up. He raises his eyebrows anyway, and the American comes out in full force. "Am I allowed to use the bathroom, or do I need company for that, too?"
"I'm not your babysitter," Wilson says. "And no offense, but even if you did need help, that's so far above and beyond the call of duty that it's in the stratosphere."
"None taken," Barnes says, and walks towards the bathroom until he's at the door to the stairwell. He goes through it casually, relying on Wilson not being able to hear the difference in the doors - the hallway blocks that line of sight anyway.
Going down ninety-two flights of stairs isn't the hardest thing that he's ever had to do for a mission, and he makes it to the ground breathing only a little hard. There's a HYDRA weapons cache about three-quarters of the way to Central Park, and then it's easy to find a vantage point with his rifle.
If Rogers dies, Stark will no doubt revoke Barnes's protection - possibly even hand him over to the authorities. If Rogers dies, Barnes will have no one. The mission needs Rogers, and that's why Barnes is doing this. If Rogers dies -
Rogers is right in the thick of it, and Barnes tracks him through his scope, measuring out his breaths and heartbeats with his finger resting on the trigger. Rogers is doing a decent job at staying alive, given that he only has a fancy metal disc to work with, but eventually one theropod gets its teeth into his uniform sleeve while another one's coming up behind him -
Breath. Beat. Barnes squeezes the trigger.
The theropod behind Rogers drops. Rogers gets his shield, or rather the new one that Stark made him, under the jaw of the theropod on his arm, and it drops too.
Then he looks around. Barnes isn't so well-situated or so far away that Rogers won't be able to see him. He draws back from his scope and takes his finger off the trigger. The salute he gives Rogers is so haphazard that it can't be regulation for anything, but Rogers nods back.
And then there's another dinosaur, and they both get back to work.
"I thought Steve told you to keep an eye on him," Stark says once everyone's back at the Tower. Thor and Barton have left to wherever it is they go, although Thor had clapped a heavy hand on Barnes's shoulder and proclaimed, "If you are the brother-in-arms of the Captain, then you are mine as well!" That left Stark, Romanoff, and Rogers - and, of course, Wilson, who had never left.
Wilson shrugs. "You were the one who put the stairwell right next to the bathroom. Maybe you should've thought of that."
"Yeah, how stupid am I, not planning for the Winter Soldier," Stark says.
"Well, as the one who's not dead because of Bucky's sharpshooting, I'm kind of okay with it," says Rogers loudly.
Stark throws his arms up in frustration. "Unbelievable!" He points at Barnes. "And for the love of god, wash your hair!"
Barnes watches Rogers watch Stark leave with clear disbelief.
"Should I be worried that the elevator's gonna start hating me?" Wilson says.
"Stark talks a big game. Just ignore him," Romanoff says, although she adds to Barnes, "Not about the hair though. He's got a point."
Rogers sighs, letting his head fall forward before lifting it again. "Natasha, I thought you were leaving town."
Barnes blinks. This is the first he's heard of it.
"I am. I'm just on my way out," Romanoff says. "I wanted to catch you before I left, and I had a couple of things to take care of. Like Clint's new dog."
"Hawkeye got a dog?"
Romanoff rolls her eyes. "No matter what he tells you, its name is not Pizza Dog. That's one poor life choice I refuse to let him make."
"Hey man," says Wilson, pointing at Rogers's uniform, "you got some dinosaur blood on you. And dinosaur guts. Just generally dinosaur everything, by the looks of it."
Rogers looks down, and makes a soft "ah" sound of displeasure. "Stark's a genius - he can probably get dinosaur out of the carpets…"
Barnes looks down at himself. He has less dinosaur on him than Rogers, but still more than he usually does. He looks back up, and Wilson catches his eye.
"I'm still not following you into the bathroom, no matter what Stark says," Wilson says. "C'mon, I'll catch the elevator with you two. I bet I can catch the end of the Nats game."
"I didn't realize the Nationals actually had fans," Romanoff says, following Wilson to the elevator.
"Not happy ones," says Wilson.
"Bucky - " says Rogers, and nods once at him. "Thanks."
Barnes manages a listless shrug of one shoulder. "Thank Banner. If I'd had an actual cast, I wouldn't have been able to shoot."
"I can thank you both," says Rogers. "It's this new thing called 'multitasking.' You might want to look it up."
Barnes has always been good at multitasking, but it's usually meant eliminating multiple targets with extreme prejudice, which is the opposite of what he did today. Assuming Rogers is still the target. "Right after I get the dinosaur out of my hair," Barnes says.
Rogers nods at him again, then joins Romanoff and Wilson in the elevator, leaving Barnes alone.
Barnes waits a few minutes to make sure they're gone, then once again goes to the door the stairwell. He props it open with an 'I Heart Iron Man' t-shirt stolen from the bedroom, and goes up a flight to the door to Rogers's apartment. He can't open it, but by putting his ear to the gap between door and frame, he can hear the conversation fairly clearly.
"So. Going looking for yourself?"
"Not quite. I've got a thing or two to take care of first, like tracking down a man who's supposed to be dead and yelling at him."
"No. Have you really not read any of the SHIELD files we went through all that trouble to put on the internet, Steve?"
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"I don't want to ruin the surprise. Just read them, all right?"
"Is that what you wanted to tell me?"
"No." Romanoff speaks slowly, as though measuring each word before releasing it. "I know that you're worried about Barnes, because Sam's worried about you."
"Look, Sam's just - "
"Let me finish, Steve. How can you be so certain that there's anything left of the man you knew?"
There's a brief silence as Rogers contemplates. "You know," he says finally, "SHIELD wanted to assign me up here, in New York. I told them no, that I wanted to be in DC. You know why? Because that's where Peggy's nursing home is. I visited her every chance I could, every day that I wasn't out on assignment. Some days she remembers our talks. Some days she remembers that last mission. And sometimes she doesn't recognize me at all. One day I'm going to walk in there and it's going to be the last time I don't have to introduce myself, and I'm still going to go. It's not about me. It's about Peggy knowing that there'll always be someone coming to visit her, even if she only knows it when I'm there." Another pause. "Maybe you think I'm being selfish, but if Bucky knows that there's someone looking out for him, who's got his back – hell, who sees him as a person…that's the important thing. That he's not in this alone."
"I read your report on the incident on that train," Romanoff says. "I guess the world can, now, too. The phrasing was very…"
"I was going to say 'self-flagellating.' It's obvious that you blamed yourself. And then you wake up and find out that all this time he's been alive…"
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that right now, you're vulnerable, and you're keeping him close enough to see that. If the man you knew isn't coming back, then maybe keep in mind that the man he is now tried to kill you."
"Natasha – "
"No, let me finish. Winter Soldier isn't the only project like this." She takes a deep breath. "Have you ever heard of the Red Room?"
"Can't say I have."
"It's the same basic principle. Take operatives, wipe their memories, implant them with new ones and the skills they need to do the job, and then you have operatives that don't even know they're operatives. I've been on the other side of that, Steve. I trained in the Red Room. When I said I needed to find myself, it wasn't a metaphor – I have to track down my name, my parents' names, and any other information that I can find about my life before I was recruited, because I just don't know it. I've gone toe-to-toe with other Red Room operatives, and they wouldn't have hesitated to kill me, even if they knew me. Even if we'd been friends."
Rogers's voice is hoarse when he finally responds. "I didn't know that."
"You and Clint are probably about the only ones who do. It's not in my SHIELD file – the Red Room was separate operation tied to the KGB. Just – watch your back. Please."
The rush of a sigh. "Yeah. Okay."
Barnes eases his way down to his own floor again. The Red Room sounds familiar, in the same way that so many other mission briefings sound familiar, the way his file seemed familiar to him. And it's strange, now that he thinks about it, that the Russians had so much information on a HYDRA operative like him - not the Russian arm of HYDRA, but the Russians themselves.
He's in the shower when he realizes what, precisely, has him so ill at ease about what Romanoff said, and it's that she should have been seven years old when the Soviet Union fell - taking the KGB with it. It's possible that Romanoff started young and worked until the end, but she didn't speak like someone who was an operative for just a year or two.
This, he realizes, is precisely the kind of intel that HYDRA will want for him. It's what he's here for, after all.
He keeps telling himself that as he washes the grime and blood off his hands.
The next day, there are five different bottles of shampoo in his shower even though there had only been one the day before. He briefly considers that it may be a clandestine signal of some kind from HYDRA, before determining that it's likely Stark's idea of a friendly suggestion.
Barnes has an informal list of ways he could kill Rogers; there are fewer that he could use to kill Black Widow (especially now that she's left); he hasn't bothered to think about the ways that he could kill Falcon; and the ways that he could kill Iron Man are the most satisfying.
Those ideas have become strangely unappealing. But he keeps the extra pistols that he picked up with his sniper rifle just in case.
He wonders, once, if it isn't too easy now to play the American. He falls into it the same way he breathes, reflexively and without conscious thought. But it keeps Rogers on his side, and that furthers the mission, which is the important thing. He's in control. The Winter Soldier is always in control.
Rogers continues sleeping outside Barnes's room. Barnes says nothing about it, and Rogers says nothing on the morning that Barnes wakes up repeating the same thing, over and over again: "James Barnes. Sergeant. 32557."
Instead, he leaves before Barnes is even out of bed and returns shortly after Barnes has moved to the kitchen, a book in hand.
"You know, I'm almost jealous," Rogers says, looking at the book. "You get to read this like it's the first time." He hands it over, stepping closer to Barnes than he has to.
It's The Hobbit. The edges are yellowing and frayed, well-worn and lovingly thumbed.
Barnes looks up at Rogers. "What's this for?"
"Reading," says Rogers immediately. "Most books are."
"You're hilarious," Barnes says, letting the words drawl out, and Rogers raises his eyebrows, like he's pleased at having scored off Barnes.
"Well, you don't remember reading it, right?" Rogers says. "So you might like it if you read it again."
Barnes opens it and sees an inscription on the title page. "Steve - See, sometimes the little guy can save the day! Happy birthday. - Bucky."
"They made movies of them too, apparently. Or they're making the movies now. We can watch them, if you want."
Barnes stares at the inscription. There is significance here, he can feel it, but the specifics elude him. "Why now?" he says eventually.
Rogers crosses his arms across his chest. "Well," he says slowly. "Summer of '39, I got scarlet fever in June and rheumatic fever in July. Couldn't get out of bed for weeks. The doctors thought - well, it wasn't the first time the doctors didn't think I'd make it, and it ended up not being the last, either. But mainly I was bored out of my skull, staring at those same four walls day in and day out, so you got me the book. When I was too sick to hold it, you'd - you read it to me." Rogers stares straight through the book in Barnes's hands, his brow bent in a slight frown of concentration, as though if he tries to grasp the memory too hard it will disappear entirely. Then he looks up and clears his throat. "So now that you don't remember reading it, I thought you might like to read it again."
After a moment, Barnes says, "I'm not reading it to you."
Rogers laughs, and the tension in his shoulders eases. "And I'm not reading it to you, jerk."
But there's something about this that Barnes can't quite put his finger on. He can feel Rogers pushing him into the role that he so desperately wants Barnes to play, whether Rogers realizes it or not, and Rogers is standing so close to him, and Barnes thinks about long Brooklyn summer days spent together in an apartment and something begins to make a bit more sense.
So he tests it.
Barnes leans forward and puts his lips to Rogers's. Rogers doesn't move, doesn't pull back and doesn't lean forward, but after a moment his eyes slide closed and his lips, hesitantly and breakingly slow, open against Barnes's. There's an angle to his brows that isn't quite a frown, but it's close, like he's in pain. Barnes tilts his chin up, but instead of following the motion, Rogers lets their lips part.
"Please," he says quietly, "don't ask me for this."
Barnes stares at him, his breathing hard but even. Rogers's eyes are still closed, that not-frown still there, and he looks - he looks like a grieving man.
"You loved him," Barnes says, hollow.
Rogers lets his eyes open, looking down. "I still do. So please, don't ask me for this. Not until both of us are sure who's asking."
This is it, Barnes realizes. This could break Rogers apart entirely. All it would take is one word, one more try and Rogers would be -
"Okay," Barnes says, because he doesn't know why he does, but he does. He licks the last traces of warmth off his lips, and leans back, away from Rogers. "Movies, you said?"
Rogers clears his throat, still looking down. "I - maybe another time. If you're still up for it."
"Guess I am," says Barnes, and starts to comprehend just how deep he's already into this.
He's in bed that night, waiting for Steve's footsteps outside his room, when he realizes that there's no way he can complete the mission if it means killing Steve.
The thought opens up a yawning chasm beneath him: what the hell is his mission, then?
"Didn't hear you last night," Barnes says the next morning, when Steve comes down for their habitual bacon - Stark obsessively replaces all the food in Steve's kitchen with the ingredients for his chlorophyll smoothie now.
"Figured you might want a quiet night," Steve says, opening the refrigerator. His voice is too level, too smooth to not be practiced. "That okay?"
Barnes makes himself let out a huff of a laugh. "I was getting nervous for you, sitting out by my bedroom like a dame waiting for someone to ask her to dance."
Steve comes out of the refrigerator with a carton of milk, and takes down two glasses from the cabinet. "You know, Tony's convinced that you're faking it for me," says Steve, pouring out a full glass. Stark has become Tony; that may be significant.
"Does he," Barnes says, in the flat tone that so many are willing to accept as skepticism.
"Yep," says Steve, and crosses over to where Barnes sits at the kitchen counter and places the glass of milk in front of him. "According to him, every time I come into the room it's all sarcasm and New York mumble, and once I'm gone it's…well, I won't repeat the phrase he used – "
"Homicidal maniac?" Barnes suggests. "You're not the first person he mentioned this theory to."
"Well, he said 'half-rate Bond villain henchman' to me, and then explained it for about twenty minutes before realizing he was late for a board meeting." Steve's smile is small and fond and exasperated at the same time. That may be significant as well. The smile disappears again as Steve makes eye contact. "The point is, he thinks you're telling me what you think I want to hear."
Barnes brings his eyebrows closer together in a small frown. "And what does Stark think I think you want to hear?"
"The good ol' boy from Brooklyn, obviously."
"And what do you really want to hear?" he asks, because he's curious.
Steve's gaze is level and clear as he says, "I want to hear something that's not about me."
He wonders if this is a test – if Steve's trust is as absolute as he thought. Steve isn't the only one who can find what lines can't be crossed.
"How far did I fall?"
Steve's head pulls back, ever-so-slightly, as though Barnes punched him instead of asking a question. Then his shoulders steel and his eyes narrow with determination. "Intel said the drops in that area were five hundred meters at least. I tried to talk myself into a rescue mission, but – we didn't know what Zola'd done to you. We thought nobody could survive that."
The words come out without any conscious decision. "You would've."
He can see the effort Steve is putting into maintaining eye contact. "I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about it. But I thought I'd be jumping after a corpse, and there was a bigger mission." Steve finally looks away, just to the side of him, contemplative. "Almost did it anyway. Sometimes I wished I did it anyway."
And Barnes– he knows that feeling. Watching the small white star grow smaller, crashing steel and shattering glass all around him, and that's what he did. He did it anyway, falling after Steve and dragging him to the bank of the river. He couldn't put a name to it, he still can't, but deeper than the mission and deeper than thought, than rationality – it was there, and he did it anyway.
It comes out quieter than he meant. "Why didn't you?"
Steve looks down now, at the glass of milk abandoned in his hand, and half of his mouth curves in an expression that is not so much a smile as a twist of regret. "Train was going too damn fast. By the time I started thinking again, it'd gone so far - I didn't think I'd be able to find you. And if I jumped off a train and got myself frozen just trying to find your body – well. I'd've gotten off easy if you called me stupid."
Barnes picks up his own glass and swallows the milk past the painful tightness in his throat, like a vice, like the bone and muscle of Steve's arm clamped across his neck. He puts the empty glass back on the counter and slides off the chair.
The words come so naturally, more than any he's released so far. "Nah," he says. "All the stupid fell with me."
He goes back to his bedroom. Steve doesn't follow him.
The attack comes with so little warning that even Barnes doesn't anticipate it. He's sitting with Steve in the living room of their floor one night while Wilson's off having dinner with Major Danvers, working their way up the IMDb Top 250 movies list that Barton edited for them. (This mostly consisted of crossing out movies and listing the reason why next to it - most of the reasons were "Nazis," although a movie called "Inception" just said "Overrated, don't listen to what Nat says, she'll give anything with Joseph Gordon-Levitt ten stars." Next to that, in another handwriting, "Shut up and go back to watching Dog Cops, Barton.")
The muffled explosion from the higher floors of the Tower takes them both by surprise, and Barnes watches Steve reach towards where he probably kept his shield before it took up residence at the bottom of the Potomac.
"That can't be good," Steve mutters, and goes to the window, looking up. Barnes stays on the couch. He knows what this is. There aren't a lot of things it could be, and he knows what this is, probably because of his stunt with the dinosaurs, but maybe if he doesn't look he won't have to -
"HYDRA," says Steve quietly, his voice grim.
So much for that.
"Do you still have that rifle?" Steve asks, and it strikes Barnes like a blow: Steve really doesn't understand what's about to happen.
"Yeah," he says dully. "Yeah, I've still got it."
Steve glances at him, frowning, but whatever he sees makes him look longer. "You can stay here. You don't have to - "
"I can't run forever," he says, and gets up and goes to his bedroom.
The pistols are in the dresser, neatly rolled in a Stark Industries t-shirt. They've been modified somehow, which isn't strange for HYDRA weapons. He's never seen this modification. There's an equal chance that that makes them more or less deadly.
He takes one and comes back to the living room, where Steve is checking the heft of his new shield and, judging by the look on his face, finding it wanting. He looks up immediately when Barnes turns the corner into the living room, and says, "Buck, if you want to sit this - "
And then he stops, because Barnes has aimed the pistol at his head.
"Get down on your knees," Barnes says, his voice more level than even he would've expected, "and put your hands on the back of your head."
Steve isn't even looking at the gun - just at Barnes. "Bucky," he says, voice rough, "don't do this. Please, God, Buck, don't - "
Barnes takes a step forward and repeats, "Get down on your knees and put your hands on the back of your head."
"You don't have to go back with them," Steve says, and he lets the shield fall to the floor with a clang muffled by the carpet. "You know what they'll do to you."
Barnes swallows. "I know," he says. "I'll never be the person you remember. But they can make me the Winter Soldier again."
"And that's better?" Steve demands.
A laugh, more than halfway hysterical, escapes Barnes. "Anything's better than this," he says, and feels it bubbling up in him again, the furious, aimless rage from the Helicarrier at being helpless against the effect Steve had on him, at being torn in half by the mission and by this indescribable and unexplainable thing in him -
He shoves the pistol against the soft underside of his own jaw. "Get down on the ground," he says, "and put your hands behind your head."
Steve's eyes widen. "Bucky - "
Barnes shakes the pistol for emphasis. "Now."
Steve drops to his knees and his hands go to the back of his head.
It's only a few minutes before a minor explosion shakes the floor, and seven HYDRA agents come through the hole where the emergency door to the stairwell had been, guns first.
"Winter Soldier," says the one at the front. "We've been looking for you. Status report."
"Captain America's been apprehended," Barnes says immediately. "He may prove to be a valuable source of intelligence."
The HYDRA agent looks from Barnes to Steve and back, but keeps her gun aimed at Steve. "What?"
"Captain America may prove to be a valuable asset to HYDRA," Barnes says, glancing briefly away from Steve to look at her. "If we take him in - "
"Your mission was to kill him, or, failing that, stop him," says the agent. "You've done neither. Rectify that immediately, Winter Soldier."
Barnes's finger goes to the trigger at the order, out of sheer habit, but he doesn't squeeze it. "He's valuable," he repeats, the edge of desperation in his voice obvious even to him. "I can make him cooperate if you just - "
"He is your mission!" the agent snaps.
But mission can't even touch what Steve is, not to Bucky, not anymore.
"Stand down," the agent says, and her aim shifts from Steve to Bucky. "Stand down and submit yourself for containment immediately."
"Not without him," Bucky says.
The agent raises her hand only a fraction before Bucky shoots her.
He's put himself between the rest of the agents and Steve before she's even hit the ground, and takes down three more before the searing line of pain of a graze makes him drop the pistol. He surges forward and grabs another agent by the neck with his metal hand, using him to block the fire from the two remaining until they fall, too, struck down from behind Bucky. Bucky drops the agent he'd been using as a shield, and he doesn't get up.
Bucky turns, and sees Steve with the pistol he dropped. The pistol isn't aimed, but Steve isn't relaxed, either.
"You gonna try that again?" Steve says, his voice level.
Bucky glances behind him at the pile of HYDRA agents. "Think I might've burned that bridge," he says, and for the first time, it doesn't feel like the American saying it - just him.
Steve nods and stands up. He puts one foot underneath one of the agents and flips them over - there's a strange blue pattern of not-quite-bruising over and emerging from their open eyes, and when Steve leans down to check for a pulse, he inclines his head, impressed.
"I'm not sure what this thing is, but it doesn't seem to be lethal," he says. "Don't know about the blue stuff, but Tony'll be glad that we didn't actually shoot up Doctor Banner's living room."
Bucky looks behind them, towards the windows. "Well, we weren't using bullets…"
Steve follows his gaze, and winces at the cracked and spiderwebbed glass. "Never mind."
More gunshots echo from above them.
"Even the smallest HYDRA strike team for an op like this is more than seven agents," Bucky says, looking at the ceiling. "Stark might be having a really bad day right now."
"Right," says Steve, and holds up the pistol, butt-first. "If I give this to you," he says seriously, "am I going to regret it?"
Of all the things Bucky's done that he can remember, he regrets this the least. That's probably a step in the right direction. "Probably," he says to Steve, "as much as you'd regret ambushing HYDRA under the best of circumstances. But," he says, "I'm with you."
Steve nods slowly, and hands over the pistol. "Guess it's just like the good old days, then. You and me against HYDRA - "
" - me with my metal arm, you with your knockoff shield - "
" - you with your stupid beard," Steve adds.
"What's wrong with my beard?" Bucky says.
"Well, the word 'mangy' comes to mind, but we can deal with that later," says Steve, and when he leads the way, Bucky follows.
Apparently the pistols, whatever they are, leave a stubborn blue stain on whatever they touch. Stark is less than amused, even though Steve and Bucky basically rescued him.
"I was doing just fine!" Stark says. "And Pepper's going to be here any minute, and then they'd really regret it."
"Honestly, the way you talk about her, you'd think she breathes fire," Bucky mutters, loud enough for Stark to hear.
"You know, it's funny you should say that," says Stark.
They never do meet Pepper; Steve says that they should get going first thing in the morning, and as Stark looks at the piles of unconscious agents, he doesn't disagree.
"Now that HYDRA's got an idea where Bucky is, they're not going to stop," says Steve ruefully. "We'll leave a trail, draw them away."
"At least until the next alien invasion," says Stark. "Or dinosaur invasion, as the case may be."
"Well, I'm sure you're tracking my cell phone, so you'll know where to find us - whether we like it or not," says Steve easily. "I'd better call Sam and let him know." He glances at Bucky, then at Stark, then at Bucky again. "Do you - "
"We're perfectly capable of having a mature conversation like the adults we are, Rogers," Stark drawls. "Or, well, I know I am."
Bucky presses his lips together in a resigned smile and lifts up the modified pistol. "I promise not to shoot him with one of these until you get back."
Steve hesitates, his phone halfway out of his pocket.
"That was a joke," Bucky says.
"Oh," says Steve. "Right," but he still looks a little worried as he takes out his phone, and casts glances back over his shoulder as he walks away for some quiet.
"That'd be a lot more funny if you weren't a former assassin," Stark tells Bucky. "As it is, it's tactless at best."
"Right, because you're so attached to tact," Bucky says. "Look, Stark, I just wanted to say - "
"I stand by what I said earlier," Stark interrupts, glancing over at Steve. "People who hurt my friends tend to regret it. Keep that in mind while the two of you are on the road."
"Okay," says Bucky, "fine, I will, but I was going to say - I'm sorry I couldn't tell you more about your parents."
Stark goes stock-still.
"Everything's just all…" Bucky makes a motion by his head, unfurling his fingers like an explosion. "Gone. If anything comes back, I'll tell you."
Stark looks away, and Bucky ignores the way his eyes are bright. "You know," says Stark, "it's actually almost a relief. For the longest time I thought the accident was caused by my dad's drinking. Then I thought it was his business partner, and that they'd both been killed for money. But now? Knowing that HYDRA killed them because they were too...too good?" Stark takes a deep breath and lets it out, not quite a sigh. "It shouldn't change anything. Weirdly, it does." He looks back at Bucky. "So don't tell me anything. I'm good as is."
They stand in silence for a moment, and then Bucky says, "I still think you're an asshole."
"There is literally a club," Stark replies. "Google it. Not even kidding. Rhodey got me one of their t-shirts for Christmas last year."
Steve comes back, tucking his phone into his pocket. "We should get some sleep," he says, oblivious. "We need to get an early start tomorrow if we don't want to deal with traffic."
"HYDRA agents? Sure. New York City traffic? God forbid." Stark holds out a hand to Steve, who shakes it. "You're always welcome. HYDRA agents less so, obviously, so maybe try to take care of that before you come back." Then he holds his hand out to Bucky, who takes it after a moment. "Good luck with the whole homicidal psychopathy thing," he says.
Bucky looks at Steve, then back at Stark. "Thanks," he says.
After everything, Bucky's not sure what to expect that night, but sure enough, he hears the quiet footfalls. This time, though, Bucky gets out of bed and goes to the hallway.
Steve is sitting against the wall closest to the bedroom, and he watches Bucky slide himself down the opposite wall.
"Bed too soft?" Steve asks.
Bucky half-smiles. "Think I got used to sleeping standing up. And also frozen."
Steve looks down, nodding. Then he asks, "Do you want to talk about it?"
The thought of ripping out everything going through him and handing it over for Steve to see is just - not yet. Not now. But maybe one day.
That still doesn't solve the problem of the beds, but then, no matter what they are now, they both started as soldiers. Maybe, whether they realize it or not, they'll always prefer bedrolls to actual beds. Unfortunately, Stark Tower doesn't seem like the kind of place to have bedrolls, but it does have...
"Nah. Got a better idea". He stands up again, then offers his metal hand to Steve, who takes it. "Could - " Bucky says, before habit stops him. It's a useless habit now, though, so he lets himself ask, "Could I pull you up before I had the arm?"
Steve allows himself to be levered up. "Before the serum, definitely. After, not so much."
Bucky leads them into the living area, and begins pulling the cushions from the couch and scattering them on the floor.
"Figure this might work," he says. "Better than the ground, anyway, but not as soft as a bed."
He glances at Steve and stops, a cushion still hanging from one hand - Steve's eyes are strangely bright.
"Do you remember doing this in your apartment, when we were kids?" Steve asks quietly.
After a second, Bucky clears his throat. "I'll remember it this time," he says, and Steve nods.
A few trips to the bedroom for pillows and blankets later and they've built themselves a fairly respectable pad of cushions on the floor. Steve settles himself in first, while Bucky turns off the lamp and picks his way through the darkness back to the space for him next to Steve. As he lays down, the ceiling almost looks like a tent, and he can feel the heat coming off Steve as he covers himself with the blanket. It's familiar, even if there's no memory attached to the familiarity, and he doesn't fight it, and doesn't let himself count the inches between him and Steve. He's close enough for now.
"You know," says Steve, his voice coming out of the darkness, "I think this is the most comfortable I've been in seventy years."
Bucky says, "This is the first time I even remember being comfortable."
"Well, you better get used to it," says Steve, his voice halfway to a sleepy mumble. "Think we're about to sleep on a lot of floors."
"I'm really fine with that," Bucky replies, his own voice losing steam, too. He closes his eyes, and in the moments before he falls asleep, he can smell a summer Brooklyn evening, filtered through the victory garden in his mother's window box; he can taste over-boiled coffee mixed with woodsmoke and the tin kettle they boiled it in over the campfire; and over it all he can hear Steve's breathing, the steady in-and-out like a metronome, like a marching drum, like a heartbeat.