There’s a gunshot and Steve hears someone behind him drop. He spins quickly, shield up, and then relaxes.
Steve knows it’s an illogical reaction to seeing the rogue assassin whose exploits SHIELD tells like ghost stories to new recruits, but there’s a pirate with a gun that might have killed Steve lying dead on the deck between them and the Winter Soldier’s eyes have always been surprisingly warm.
“Thanks,” Steve says.
The Winter Soldier nods. “Always, for you, дорогой.”
Natasha makes a choking noise from beside the railing where she’s just landed and Steve wonders again what exactly дорогой means. He’s asked Natasha before but when he told her it was something the Winter Soldier said to him, she’d looked at him like he was crazy and told him he must have mistaken the pronunciation.
“Want to help rescue some hostages?” Steve asks.
The Winter Soldier tilts his head. Steve takes that for a yes and sends him aft toward the engine room.
The mission is a success—the hostages clasp Steve’s arms and stare at him with grateful eyes as he herds them to the plane, leaving only a skeleton crew—but Steve feels strangely empty when the Winter Soldier never reappears.
Steve first met the Winter Soldier in Vienna. He and Natasha had just finished detonating an AIM safehouse when the Winter Solider came walking out of the smoke.
Natasha reacted in a split second, tackling Steve to the ground so hard he’d broken a rib and firing both her clips empty. The Winter Soldier had ducked and dove and not fired back.
He’d removed his cracked goggles as he came closer, looking at Natasha quizzically as if he didn’t understand why she’d shot at him. “Are you okay?” he asked Steve, voice slightly muffled by a mask. He extended a hand down to help Steve up and Steve had a visceral sense of déjà vu as he let himself be pulled to his feet and dusted off.
“Yes,” Steve said warily. “Who are--”
The Winter Soldier never got the chance to answer since Natasha’s thighs were tight around his throat and she was trying to seal the deal with her garrote wire.
“Jesus,” Steve said after the Winter Soldier threw Natasha off no less than four times before conceding and running off down an alleyway. He gave Steve a salute right before he disappeared and Steve returned it automatically. “Jesus, Natasha, who the hell was that?” he said, checking that her wrist wasn’t broken. She was breathing in harsh gasps and hadn’t taken her eyes of the spot where the Winter Soldier had vanished.
“Put your helmet back on,” she said. “Let’s get to the jet.”
“That was the Winter Solider,” Natasha said, once they were surrounded by the 16-inch titanium hull of the Quinjet. Steve heard the pilot curse.
“Who’s the Winter Solider?” he asked.
The Winter Soldier was a ghost, Natasha told him. Credited with over two dozen assassinations in the past fifty years, one of which sent a bullet straight through her abdomen. She showed him the scar tissue and Steve tried to reconcile it with are you okay, the firm clasp of a hand helping him up. “He disappeared off the grid right around when you were found in the ice,” Natasha said. “There was some concern that you were his next mission.”
Steve wanted to know who decided to keep him off the Need To Know list on that little gem of information. “Well,” he said, “He didn’t seem too interested in killing me today.”
“No,” Natasha said, looking at him oddly. “No, he didn’t.”
Steve saw the Winter Soldier again in Nuremberg, in Minsk and Krakow.
His bullets were always aimed at Steve’s enemies. “Take better care of yourself, дорогой,” he said.
There’s a stack of files on Steve’s kitchen table when he gets back from the Lumerian Star. He’s glad he sat down before he started reading them. HYDRA is alive and well, functioning inside SHIELD.
Steve remembers the agony of putting Schmidt’s plane down into the ice, how it felt when Zola’s train pulled in at Zurich, the end of the line, and Bucky wasn’t with him. Was it really all for nothing?
He leaves Fury and Natasha cryptic voicemails about needing their insight on a post-mission review and packs the files back up.
Steve has some idea of leaving the files with Sam for safekeeping in case the whole thing goes south. Somehow that transitions into leaving the files in Sam’s freezer and bringing him into the fold. "Man," Sam said, looking at a picture of the Red Skull as he shoved the folders behind a wall of Lean Cuisines, "You're gonna need all the help you can get."
When he gets back to his apartment with Sam in tow, Steve finds that Fury has brought a friend too.
“Neighbor,” Steve greets Kate.
She grimaces. “Sharon, actually. Carter.”
"Really?" Steve asks, startled. "Like--" Sharon nods. Steve looks for Peggy in her. There might be some resemblance in the jawline.
Sharon points a Glock 19 at him and Steve instinctively raises his shield. She fires twice. The window behind Steve shatters and the HYDRA agent on the fire escape gasps around a collapsed lung.
"Okay," Steve says.
There's another gunshot and the HYDRA agent stops moving entirely. Natasha swings gracefully though Steve's window. "You're not a nurse," she tells Sharon.
"No," Sharon agrees.
Natasha glances at Steve and shrugs. "Still an option." She looks Sam up and down. “And you are?”
"Sam Wilson. 58th Pararescue Squadron," Sam introduces. "Unfortunately, my wings are at Fort Meade. Behind three guarded gates and a 12-inch steel wall."
"We can fix that," Sharon says.
"Why do we need to?" Natasha asks warily.
"HYDRA's been working inside SHIELD." Fury tosses a silver flash drive at Steve. "Got that out of Archives after my own codes locked me out of the mainframe. You might be interested in where it came from."
Camp Lehigh is derelict in a way that makes Steve feel ancient. There's seventy years worth of rust on the gates and on the flag pole.
There's also a munitions bunker within 500 feet of the barracks.
Seeing Zola's face form on the computer screen when Steve plugs in the flash drive is almost as bad as hearing his voice explain exactly what HYDRA intends to do with Project Insight. Steve slams his shield into the screen to shatter the pixels. It doesn't seem fair that Zola is memorialized on miles of magnetic tape and all Bucky gets is 20 square meters at the Smithsonian and six feet of empty grave in Arlington.
It's adding insult to injury to be almost blown up by SHIELD. Steve spares a moment to be glad that Natasha stayed back to coordinate extracting Clint and other field agents from ongoing ops instead of coming with him as he winces and shoves at a chunk of concrete trapping his leg.
Steve hears the whirring of helicopter blades. White flashlight beams cut through the dark air and he casts wildly for his shield.
It appears right under his nose, extended by a metal hand. "Looking for this, дорогой?" the Winter Soldier asks, letting it go to help lift the concrete off Steve's leg.
"What are you doing here?" Steve asks, taking the offered hand up and then almost collapsing again. The Winter Soldier wraps Steve's arm around his shoulders, propping him up against his side.
A HYDRA agent crests a heap of rubble and relays their position though his radio before Steve can hit him in the throat with his shield. More agents come boiling over the debris, converging.
The Winter Soldier shoots an agent perfectly between the eyes and asks, “Are you dating Agent Carter?”
Steve has one of those world re-orientation moments before he realizes the Winter Soldier probably means Sharon and not Peggy. Either way, the answer is, “No.” Steve’s brow furrows. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” the Winter Soldier says and shoots two more HYDRA agents through the hearts.
“Are you goddamn kidding me?” Fury asks when Steve shows up to the rendezvous point in Fredericksberg with the Winter Soldier.
“No,” Steve says. Their anti-HYDRA taskforce consists of three SHIELD agents, Steve’s next-door neighbor and his jogging buddy. He doesn’t see how adding a legendary assassin can do anything but increase their odds. “You can put down your guns,” Steve tells Sharon and Hill. “He’s with me.”
Natasha slants a smile at them. “Пришел присмотреть за своим милым?”
The Winter Soldier looks unruffled. “Да,” he says.
“Wait,” Sam says. “Who’s this?”
“That’s the Winter Soldier,” Hill says. Her gun doesn’t waver.
Steve steps in front of it and the Winter Soldier pulls him back behind him. Natasha, who at some point stopped trying to break the Winter Soldier's neck and instead started finding his interactions with Steve the height of hilarity, laughs.
“Everyone sit the fuck down,” Fury orders, opening a briefcase with three blue microchips. “Here’s the plan.”
“Alpha lock,” the Winter Soldier says from the first helicarrier.
“Bravo!” Sam calls a minute later.
Steve slots the final guidance chip in on the third carrier. “Charlie lock. Everybody out.” This is of course when the HYDRA soldiers show up with a rocket launcher and Steve finds himself with a broken collarbone and a one-way trip to the bottom of the Potomac. The water isn’t half so cold as the Arctic. As he sinks, he can see the wavering orange lights of missiles bringing down the carriers.
Steve doesn’t expect to wake up this time either, but the last time anything in his life went to plan was probably sometime in the 1930s. He’s flat on his back on the river bank, boots still in the water, and Bucky is leaning over him, yelling, “Steve! Steve!”
Steve turns his head aside to cough up a lung’s worth of river water. “Bucky?” he says roughly, waiting for his eyes to clear and Bucky to fade away into Sam or the Winter Soldier.
“Christ, Stevie,” Bucky breathes, pushing his wet hair out of his eyes with a gleaming metal arm. There are imprints on his cheeks and across the bridge of his nose where a mask might have been.
Steve’s oxygen-deprived brain isn’t quite firing on all cylinders yet. His mind keeps trying to make the connection and then rejecting the output and circling back to retry. “Bucky?” he says again.
Bucky sighs and helps him sit up. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, it’s me, Steve. Fuck, I’m so sorry.”
Steve grabs him with his one working arm and pushes his face into the crook of Bucky’s neck “God,” Steve chokes out. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Bucky puts his hand behind Steve’s head to steady him. “I’m sorry,” he repeats. “It’s.. Look, I’m the Winter Soldier and the things I’ve done aren’t just a myth. It took me seventy years to break through the programming, Steve,” Bucky says quietly. “I killed a lot of people. And maybe they weren’t good people, but I know I didn’t ask and I didn’t know if you could forgive me for that.”
“Jerk,” Steve says. “I love you. We’ll figure it out.”
Bucky kisses him and Steve can see the flashes of the helicarriers exploding through the backs of his eyelids, like fireworks. “Okay, дорогой,” Bucky says.