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Like every time, he wakes with a deep breath.

Eyes open. First things first: survey the situation. The lights are too bright as always (the pain will go away in fivefourthreetwoone seconds). It’s warmer in the room than usual, perhaps by three degrees or so, but it’s not horribly uncomfortable, unlike the steadfast weight on his bare chest and hands that keep him bound to the chair. Restraints. You do not fight them anymore. There’s voices in the background: three men shuffling around in the next room, and another two men at his sides. The sound of their voices intermingles with the steady thrum of the heart monitor at his right, softly beeping and reaffirming his existence. All part of the routine, and he is nothing if not accustomed to it. As such, he does not blink or turn his head when he hears footsteps at his left side, knowing full well who the man is and what he wants.

Attention, Soldier.

He lifts his head, because he knows if he does not, they will yank on his hair to jerk it up. The two men examine him, and he doesn’t flinch at their prods or try to shy away from their scrutiny. He keeps put.

He’s good that way.

When they’re satisfied with what they see, they take onetwo steps back. His fingers unclench from their vicegrip hold on the chair arms. Today, he has passed their test and is spared a violent return to sleep.

He can still hear the crackling sound of electricity mingling with his screams. It takes all of his effort not to clench his fingers again.

“Your mission.”

Gaze automatically flits up to the shrewd man’s face, that single word acting as a trigger in his broken mind.

Mission.

Faces and vitals flash through his mind, and he’s usually so quick to pull up the correct bio, but today he’s slower to process all the data; he blames the warmer temperature in the room. He’s still staring at the short, balding scientist in front of him as he wades through his intel. Scientist’s nostrils flare, eyebrows furrow just a fraction. He’s growing impatient, and the Soldier feels a fraction of desperation. Mission mission mission what is the mission where is the information -

Metal fingers twitch.

Breathe.

“Mission,” he parrots, seeking a prompt, anything to help steer him on the right track. All he needs is a kickstart and he’ll be able to identify the information required of him, he knows it.

The scientist turns to the other man beside him (Aleksandar Kovač, 56, HYDRA, works closely with Pierce), who curls his lips in a disgusted sneer.

“He’s still broken. Put him back under.”

His jaw tightens at the easy dismissal and chosen punishment, but he remains in place, accepting his fate without a bat of an eye. In the past, he thinks he tried to defy the HYDRA men and scientists in their pristine suites and ugly smiles every time they so much as mentioned the use of electricity. There’s brief, fractured memories of him screaming in their faces that they can go to hell before they sedated him with a jab of a needle in his flesh arm. The details are foggy, though, so he cannot ascertain their accuracy.

Tongue swipes against his lips as he prepares for the mouthguard. The taste used to bother him. Now, he barely recognizes it.

This is the part where one of the scientists takes the mouthguard and another joins him to prepare the electric nodes. When neither happens, he risks a glance at the balding scientist standing at his side. There’s sweat prickling his brow as he wrings his gnarled hands together, a gesture the Soldier has seen him do whenever he’s going to deliver news that might be the death of him. He’s learned much about his handlers over the years, perhaps more than they realize, simply by observing them. All of their quirks, their little habits and pet peeves - he’s memorized them to the best of his ability (which is quite keen, if he is honest). It’s a trait they say makes him such a valuable assassin; he doesn’t tell them that it’s not just his victims he watches.

“We can’t, sir. The amount of time it would take for him to recalibrate after another dose would be too long. We cannot afford it.”

The Soldier says nothing, though he feels inclined to agree. Trying to put together simple thought processes is difficult enough right now, and he’s not sure how long he would be out of action if he must endure another round. But he’s silent, because it is not his choice. Nothing is anymore. Was it ever?

A flash of - something. Images? Memories? Brisk cold air and the sound of lieutenants calling strong, young men to arms on a gritty street. A skinny hand pointing out one of the stations crowded with eager men.

“Recruitment stations are setting up all over town. You’re gonna enlist, right?”

“Do I have a choice?”

He blinks the image away. It must be a glitch, as it serves no purpose to the here and now; he files the information as useless.

“Then what do you suggest we do?” Kovač all but spits, and Soldier watches him closely, noting the way his cheek start to flush with impatience. Kovač always expects matters to go his way the first time around, and he has no time or sympathy to spare when the Soldier hiccups. Gaze turns to the scientist, and Soldier wonders if this will be the last time he sees this particular man around these parts.

“Let him sit for a while, s-see if he can focus after he’s been awake for longer. Maybe send him on another mission to distract him?”

Mission. What’s your mission, Soldier? He closes his eyes, willing the right information to return to him, but no go. All search efforts fail to bring up results. Such a shame. Maybe Kovač is right. It’s better to shut him down now before his malfunctioning worsens.

He expects Kovač to ignore the suggestion with a blink of his eye or a quick pull-and-squeeze of his gun. When neither happens, Soldier tilts his head just a fraction. He can see the cogs whirring in Kovač’s mind, weighing the pros and cons of having the Soldier up and about in general, let alone working on another mission.

His lips have gone dry. He wets them again with another swipe of his tongue, just in case Kovač changes his mind and the mouthguard becomes necessary. HYDRA taught him to prepare for any and all situations, after all.

Kovač doesn’t. Instead, he turns a sharp look to the Soldier, and he meets Kovač’s gaze without fear, but also without challenge; there is no insubordination, only the expectation of receiving an order.

“You’ve got one hour to pull yourself together.”

And like that, Kovač turns and walks out with long strides. No one dares stop him. Soldier watches his retreating form, notes the way his hand shakes as he rifles in his pocket for a cigarette.

He thinks he smokes too, or once did. Sometimes his hand will jerk towards his pocket that way too.

“You’re not coming to bed stinking like smoke. Take a shower.”

“The dames at the bar sure seemed to like it - couldn’t keep their paws off me.”

“Do I look like one of the dames at the bar to you?”

“Well, if I squint…”

A pillow is thrown in his face, and his cheeks flush from laughing so hard and the way his heart beats twice as fast -

The sound of the door slamming breaks him from his stupor with a jerk. He can still taste smoke on his tongue as he tries to understand the images, so cloudy around the edges, like some kind of dream.

Not that he dreams anymore.

He does not know where to file this abnormal information. For now, he files it away as useless, but thinks he will come back to it at a later time; it’s too puzzling to ignore forever.

The scientist sighs, and Soldier does not know if it’s in relief that his death has been postponed for at least one hour, or if because he feels his death clock is set for 59 minutes and 22 seconds from now. He doesn’t ask. Instead, he watches the way the short little man scurries about like a rat, cleaning up supplies. Against his better judgement, Soldier tenses against his restraints and pulls; not a defiance, but a question.

The scientist does not even look up. “I can’t let you out.”

He relaxes, his head whacking against the headrest with more force than necessary. Maybe that will knock the loose screws in his head back into place. Wishful thinking.

Still, he’s jittered in a way that he hasn’t been in the longest time. He doesn’t like failure, and he really doesn’t like the way his mind feels like it’s full of molasses, slow to process and slower to heal.

“Why can’t I remember?” he asks, only to regret it as soon as the words leave his lips. His throat is raw from screaming, and he hates the way his voice croaks.

The scientist fiddles with one of the monitors, and the Soldier sees his fingers jerk. He straightens the best he can. The little rat knows more than he lets on.

“They gave you a stronger voltage than usual, so it’s taking you longer to recover,” he says, and his voice is too calm, too fake. He’s not as good a liar as the other HYDRA men.

“Why?” It’s not his place to ask questions. That would have earned him a slap from Kovač, but this little man does not dare strike him. Even caged tigers are dangerous.

“They wanted you to forget,” the scientist says, his voice soft in hopes of no one overhearing this.

“Forget what?” he presses, using a quieter tone too in hopes of it hurting less. It doesn’t.

At last, the scientist faces him with a slow, calculated turn of his head. The expression on his face is a mixture between pity and caution, like the Soldier is some endangered, wounded animal that has to be put down. The scientist’s lips twitch upwards in a quick motion, and he turns to leave.

The door closes, and Soldier is alone.

*
He tracks time by the sound of his heart on the EKG. After twenty six minutes of solitude, he’s becoming antsy, feeling an itch that needs to be scratched There’s no use in squirming or hollering for someone, though, so he keeps his eyes closed and tries to clear his mind. The blankness should be unnerving, but he welcomes the stillness of it all, brief as it may be. Only when he stays submerged in the calm silence for four minutes does he start to pick through his scrambled brain.

Finding a place to start is not so simple. His mind has become a jumbled mess, like shattered glass across a long hallway, and he must now assemble it together, piece by piece.

He starts with the basics, information he knows to be true. He is the Winter Soldier. He has been working for HYDRA for at least 70 years now. He is strapped down in this uncomfortable chair in one of the beige, boring rooms of one of their headquarters. Several agents wait in the other rooms for him to reboot and be fully functional for his next mission. They expect him to give a debriefing of his previous mission first, and then he will be given his next mission.

Exploring his stored information is a heady task, and he wishes he could rise from the damned chair and pace the room. Movement helps. Something about the flow of blood gives him an energy surge, which helps him think more clearly. Since that option is not on the table, he makes do the best he can. Faces and location details flash across his mind like snapshots, each one painting an image of shadows and murder. Mark Brewer, 1971, Geneva, Mogadishu, Lorraine Schwarz, 8:39 p.m. and a bullet wound to the temple - He remembers them well, each damned victim and each sordid, secretive case, but they’re not what he’s looking for today.

The sound of the door opening breaks his train of thought, and he cracks his eyes open in annoyance to see who has disturbed him 28 minutes early. It’s one of Kovač’s favored henchmen (Tomáš Černý, 42, HYDRA), his greasy black and grey hair curling in front of his face, concealing his expression from the Soldier’s steadfast gaze. Had it been someone of less importance, he might have closed his eyes and gone back to his sorting task. But this slimy punk doesn’t crawl out of the gutters unless there’s a good reason, and he wants to know what it is.

Černý all but swaggers over to the Soldier, taking a long drink of his rich, strong smelling coffee like he has all the time in the world. When he lowers the cup, droplets of coffee drip down to his messy black beard and he smiles, teeth stained yellow. While he knows better than to speak out against his masters (he knows the sting of their hands and other tools far too intimately), smart remarks curl on the tip of his tongue nonetheless. He doesn’t know why Černý brings that side out of him, makes the rebellious side of him, so little and small now, want to rear its ugly head.

Černý is close enough that he can smell the cigarettes and coffee clearly. The earthy smell of the coffee stirs his brain into action, and his brows furrow just a fraction as another alien scenario flickers across his tattered mind.

The stale smell of cheap coffee in a dinky, rundown apartment, wafting through the rooms. A voice complaining about the poor quality, and how it tastes more like piss and dirt than coffee.

“Enough to make any man upchuck on his shoes,” the voice says, and there’s the sound of a snort.

“Good thing your shoes are so dirty, then. No one at the docks will notice.”

A huff of laughter, and then the soft feeling of lips meeting, warm and tasting of cheap coffee and adoration. When they separate, sparkling blue eyes look at him like he’s the only thing that matters in this world.

Blue eyes, don’t you know those blue eyes from somewhere?

Brows furrow as he tilts his head at this new intel, so alike to the previous flashes he’s had today. Where have these strange tidbits been stored all of this time? What do they mean? He tries to trace it back to its source, seeking its origin and the reason he has it stored in the first place, but it remains hidden from him. Frustrated, he digs deeper, wading through the sea of faces and voices.

Blue eyes blond hair and shockhopejoy at seeing his face again in the middle of the street, a word spilling past those lips, and he’s not quite able to make it out but it feels so important-

Mission. Blue eyes.

He exhales harder than he intends to, and Černý’s eyes narrow upon him. But he doesn’t care, he really doesn’t, because something’s clicked into place, something that makes him feel a little less lost, and he suddenly needs to stalk around the room and do anything he can to chase this strange, enigmatic piece of himself.

Černý leans in, all steel grey eyes and yellow-teethed smile.

“You remember now, Soldier?”

He remembers many things.

Blue eyes and blond hair and you’re a punk, you know that? But you’re my punk, pal, don’t forget it -

Blue eyes and blond hair and that’s your mission, Soldier, kill him -

His tongue brushes his lips, and this time, it has nothing to do with a mouth guard and everything to do with chasing a phantom taste on his tongue.

“Yes,” he says, and his voice sounds distant, like a whisper down the hallway.

He just doesn't know what it is he’s remembering.

*

Černý leaves to report Soldier’s apparent breakthrough to Kovač, but Kovač does not return until a minute and thirteen seconds later than the deadline. Kovač must be feeling generous, though his sour expression when arriving seems to speak differently. Soldier sits up in his seat the best he can, his gaze imploring. He needs to be let out. Now.

Kovač stops in front of him, looking down at him through tired eyes, like a toy he’s grown bored of and is ready to store in the attic and forget about forever.

“Mission.”

Blue eyes, blond hair, and this time, the words form on his tongue with automatic precision.

“To kill the man and his two compatriots on the highway yesterday afternoon.”

“What man?”

He breaks eye contact with Kovač and racks his brain for a name.

Name name name what is his name that man with the sad, sad eyes watching you leave, and each step you took away from him did not feel right, why was that who is this man why is this man so elusive -

A soft shake of his head, and his shaggy hair spills in front of his face as he bows his head in defeat. He does not know the name, and that doesn’t just feel like failure, but a deep betrayal to something - someone - he should know.

Kovač snorts a huff of a breath that Soldier translates as disappointment, and he lifts his head in reluctant acceptance of whatever punishment must be doled out. When he hears no movement or order, he raises his gaze and peers up at Kovač’s stern face. For a moment, they stare at each other in silence, as if expecting the other to make the first move. Soldier never will. He’s not made for that kind of stuff, he doesn’t think.

“We’ve assigned you to another mission. More field work, but an easier target. Fulfill this mission, then you’re back to the first one. Are we clear?”

There’s no margin for error in Kovač’s tone. Soldier nods his affirmative. He will not fail this time.

Kovač briefs him on the mission, and he creates the mental file: Carlos Santiago, 63, ex-spy who leaked information, get him on a stealth shot through the window. Keeps the window open on summer evenings like these between 8:00 and 9:00 as he watches TV, the poor dumb bastard, an easy shot.

He’s brewing over this information when he hears the click of releasing clasps, and he drops his stiff arms onto his lap as Kovač releases the restraints on his chest. Soldier breathes deeply, enjoys the rise and fall of his chest with each inhale - as much as he can say he enjoys anything. He’s not hardwired for such luxuries. The moment is shattered when Kovač smacks his cheek far harder than necessary to gain his attention, which he hands over freely, eyes upwards and seeking an order.

“Get ready. It’s almost time.”

So soon? But he can hardly keep track of the time anymore, not when the majority of his unnaturally long life has been spent sleeping. Kovač leaves him without another word, and two agents worm their way past Kovač, one sidling to each of his sides, ready to escort him. He rises in one slow movement, ignoring the stiffness of his limbs, and steps forward, rightleftrightleft, keep moving, Soldier. The agents fall into step at his sides, allowing him to lead the way to the small room designated for his preparation.

It’s all another routine. He enters the room with the surly agents, who will say nothing as they shut the door behind them and stand guard. The poorly lit room consists only of a closet full of clothes and a dresser full of weapons and other miscellaneous items; he requires no more than this. First comes his armor, which he garbs himself in from his chest down in calculated order. Last comes his mask, snapped across his face snug and tight. There is no mirror in the room that allows him to see the finished product. The agents see no need for him to view himself, almost as if they fear what he might see. It matters not. His appearance means little to him, and if anything is out of place, the agents correct it for him. Like now, where one tosses him a small cannister, which he easily catches with his metal hand without even needing to turn. He rolls the jar across his palm, deconstructing its purpose. Small jar, night mission, Eye Black. Wordlessly, he opens the jar and dips one metal finger into the inky substance. The Eye Black feels cool against his skin as he swipes it on, having done this enough times to know exactly how much and where to put it. He wipes the residue on a smudged rag on the table and turns to face the agents for inspection. They give their nod of approval, which completes the routine and creates the smooth transition to the next one.

His weapons stock seems to change every time he wakes up. There’s always something new being invented, something more valuable and efficient than the last model. And when do you become just another outdated antique?

Pointless thought. Delete.

Each weapon tells a story: victim, time, place, reason for murder. He studies each one in turn, running through their histories and weighing their pros and cons. Selection made, he picks up a gun that has served him well for sniping. Weapon in hand, he turns back to the agents and nods. He’s ready.

The agents escort him from the room and through the maze of hallways. Walking outside is always harsh after he’s been wiped; he squints against the dying light of day. He’s loaded into the van like all of the other precious HYDRA cargo, clutching his gun like it will kill him to let go, and the van tears away from the facility.

The drive is quiet, as always. He’s huddled in the back with the two agents, who occasionally whisper to each other in French. Although he can understand the language well enough to get by, he tunes them out. Very few address them if they can avoid it. Pierce likes to talk to him, even though he almost never responds. Pierce has been busy as of late. He’s not sure if this is a positive or a negative. Pierce’s attention is poisoned honey. Soldier fears very few things, but if he was programmed with the capacity to fear more, he thinks those sticky sweet words would be near the top of the list.

The van slows to a stop at a red light, and one of the agents grumbles about losing time. Soldier does not fret. There is plenty of time to spare. An estimated thirty four minutes before the window is closed, you’ll be there in fourteen, maybe fifteen minutes now, barring another red light. At ease, Soldier.

The tinted windows prevent any nosy eyes from peering into the van, and while he can see out just fine, he rarely has interest in partaking in such an activity. It usually proves to be a pointless exercise, and considering the stakes at hand, he does not wish to provide himself with any sort of distraction. But now, as the van is stopped at a busy crosswalk, he feels the urge to turn his head just enough to see what’s outside. He doesn’t know why he wants to look. What is there to see? Buildings and people who are of no use to him. Nothing out there in that world for you, Soldier. Focus on the mission.

And maybe it’s an error in his logic, maybe it’s because this whole day has been a flurry of bizarre instances, but he ignores his code and turns to see.

The dying day has cleared the streets of most traffic and pedestrians, and the most who remain scatter across the sidewalk toward their destination of choice. A few sit at a bus stop, and it’s those who catch the Soldier’s eye. A grizzled old man reading a newspaper, deep lines of concentration and fatigue etched into his face. A mother trying to quiet down her two young sons who bicker at her sides. And beside them, a young man and woman cuddled together, the woman’s head resting on the man’s shoulder, a soft smile on her face as she nuzzles into his neck. Such a simple, tender little motion, and but it has him leaning his head onto the window, unable to look away. Why does it matter, why do you care? asks his coding.

And beneath the lines of his mechanized thoughts whispers a voice, because you cared once.

His fingers slacken on his gun. Heart races as his thoughts scramble to determine the validity of this claim. I don’t understand, find the source search search search -

Dipping deeper, he stumbles upon faded, flickering images.

A face buried in your own neck, hot breath panting against your skin as your body grinds against another’s, your hands (both flesh, how?) grip and claw at sweat-slick shoulders, and god he feels so good inside you, makes you feel so full as he gives you a thorough fucking that leaves you writhing and moaning and mindlessly demanding - begging - for more, c’mon, harder Steve -

Steve?

Run search on Steve find it find it

- you’re holding onto him for dear life as he hitches your legs higher, up onto his shoulders, and he fucks you deep and slow as he wraps a hand around your cock, and you’re coming and shaking because god it’s just so good, he’s so good so wonderful so perfect -

I don’t understand I don’t understand I don’t understand

- and when Steve comes, it’s your name on his lips -

idon’tunderstandidon’tunderstand

- Bucky -

Bucky.

“What’s wrong?”

The images disappear as he jolts, head whipping to the side to meet the wary gaze of the agents. Has he spoken out loud?

His hands tremble. Fingers clutch the gun tighter, but it does nothing to soothe him. Suddenly, he feels trapped, so trapped, and he wants nothing more than to barge out of the van, even as it speeds back down the road again, but he can’t, he can’t -

“Soldier!” one agent barks, and he looks at the man through wide eyes as his chest heaves and head spins.

“Your mission. Focus.

Focus. Focus on your mission, on Carlos, who lives on 8730 Pine Grove, Apartment 521, who must be killed because HYDRA deems it so.

Slow breath in, slow breath out. The intel runs a smooth course, and he no longer feels like his brain is going haywire.

Focus.

Fingers clench tight on the gun, and he turns away from the agents.

Focus.

*

The van stops a block away from the complex, and the agents send Soldier a look that’s none too trusting. They have seen him malfunction before, but Pierce or Kovač are never far away, ready to reset him. Neither agent feels comfortable or safe near him now.

He doesn’t feel comfortable with himself, either.

But he holds his gun and nods at their instructions, because he is still a good soldier and he can do this. They all but kick him out of the van, leaving him to dash down an alleyway for cover. It’s his fight now. He moves as quietly as possible, barely making a sound as he carefully pads through mucky puddles on his way to a fire escape to climb.

He’s never been in this alley before. He knows that, but he can’t shake a tingle of familiarity as he glances over his shoulder to ensure he’s not being followed.

“Again, Rogers? What’s this, the third time in a month?”

“Fourth, I think.”

“You got a death wish, pal? Because I gotta say, I rather prefer you alive and not bloody, if it’s all the same with you.”

“Yeah, Buck, I know.”

His stare lingers over his shoulder for two seconds, as if he’s expecting to see someone in the shadows, and then he’s on the move again.

Climbing the fire escape is no problem, and he’s able to creep and climb his way over the old abandoned building to the little Italian cafe next door - directly across from the targeted apartment complex. He slinks like a cat, all fluid movements across the roof, sticking close to the shadows as much as possible. As he nears the edge, he runs his status report. Left the car at 8:41, three minutes of travel, sixteen minutes remaining, apartment will be on your left side, visually, you know your orders, Soldier.

He crouches at the edge, peering across the way at the modest apartment complex. Counting five stories up, he locates the apartment in question with ease. The window is open, and there’s a soft glow from a television set illuminating the space. Never taking his eyes off the window, he lifts his gun.

Steady hands hold the gun in place as he uses the scope to zero in on the target, just barely able to make out his silhouette.

“I just hate bullies.”

He shoots.

He doesn’t miss.

He escapes, but a sudden, empty hollowness slows him down.

“Me too, Steve.”

*
He meets the van at the planned location, and he climbs in without a word. As soon as the door is closed behind him, the van speeds off and the agents slam him with questions. Did he succeed? How can he be sure? Did anyone see him? Did he leave any evidence?

He feels his lips move, but doesn’t hear himself speak.

The agents drop their questions, either satisfied with his weak answers or resigned that they will not get anything more out of him. He doesn’t care which it is. Bowing his head and closing his eyes, he pulls up the fading, crackling images from before, trying to make sense of them. It’s like watching a video with poor connection, all static and garbled voices. He feels like he should know these scenes, should know that man with the blue eyes and handsome smile, but he can’t place him. There’s no file in his system for this man, not that he can see, and how is that even possible? How can someone be so unfamiliar yet so significant

Only when he hears the engine turn off does he snap out of his trance-like state and open his eyes, and it takes more energy than it should to lift his head. Arrival. The agents say something to each other in French that he ignores as he obediently gets out of the van, slamming the door harder than necessary to see if it helps him regain focus. It doesn’t.

He doesn't wait for the agents like he's supposed to. Even when they call after him, he does not slow down, taking long, fast strides toward the shadowed building. Let them catch up to him. The heavy thudthudthud of their boots signals their chase as they call at him again. Halt, halt, halt.

He keeps walking.

Order overridden.

It sends a thrill down his spine.

The moment he yanks open the door to the facility, the guards swarm the entrance. A mass of men holding guns to him, demanding that he cease and desist. Cease and desist what? His gun is at his side. All of his knives (six) are tucked away in their respective sheaths. He poses no tangible threat. None of this is vocalized, however, as he drags his gaze over each agent in an uncomfortable stare-off.

"Enough."

Kovač appears from down the main hallway, and the sea of men instinctively part so he can stand face to face with the Soldier. He stares at Kovač but is unable to fully process at what he sees. Wake up, Soldier.

He can't. That should concern him.

"What happened?" Kovač demands, and though the coding in his brain fires at him to respond to his superior, he doesn't. A glitch, an error.

His right hand curls into a loose fist, just enough for his dull fingernails to dig into his palm and cause an ounce of pain.

Human error.

Kovač's must interpret the gesture as a sign of disobedience, as his jaw twitches and Soldier knows he's going to be hit, but he stands his ground and prepares for impact anyway. Kovač's hand raises just as the entrance door flies open again, the other two agents having finally caught up to him. Soldier wants to smile, but he hasn't smiled in a very long time and doesn't trust himself with such an expression.

"Kovač, sir," one grunts, and Kovač looks past Soldier's shoulder to the agent.

"Carlos is dead," Soldier pans at last, cutting off whatever blabber the agents behind him want to say.

His late debriefing does not earn him Kovač's attention, his gaze still lingering on the agents behind Soldier, seeking confirmation. He must receive it, because there's less fire in his eyes when he turns back to Soldier.

You're not Soldier. Stop calling yourself that.

He furrows his brow just a fraction at the thought - a mistake Kovač notices.

"Then what seems to be the problem?" Kovač says, and the whole room seems to drop several degrees from those frigid, calm words. Even the other agents shirk back a step.

There's many problems, he wants to say. I keep seeing faces that I don't know but I think I should know them, and I am Soldier but I think I'm someone more than that.

What comes out instead is a soft, vacant, "No problem." It tastes bitter. Liar.

Kovač eyes him with inherent distrust, and Soldier breaks eye contact, looking instead to the ground. He feels so small, so much more vulnerable than all of the times he’s been stripped in front of the agents to be punished or experimented on. The seconds of silence tick on, and he dares to sneak a glance back up to Kovač, who is looking at the two agents behind Soldier.

"Is this true?”

There’s the shifting of cloth behind him; the agents must be nervous. He flicks his gaze off to the side at a wall without fully seeing it. Let them squirm.

“Something happened to him on the drive,” one admits, voice wavering toward the end.

“What kind of something?” Kovač asks, his snarling voice an imposing demand.

They talk about him as if he does not stand in front of them. He closes his eyes, tired of seeing them in his peripheral vision. This treatment is nothing new, but it grows tiresome.

“He spaced out and kept mumbling to himself,” the other agent says, accented words strong. At least one of them has confidence.

Eyes open to slits, but he doesn’t bother looking back at Kovač. Instead, he succumbs to the foggy silence of his misfiring brain, waiting for his fate to be decided.

At last, Kovač says, “Get cleaned up.”

Without missing a beat, he pads past the sea of agents, who hesitantly shift to let him through, and toward one of the small washrooms. The weight of their stares follow him until he turns the corner, away from their prying gazes.

You can still follow orders, Soldier.

I’m not a soldier.

Then what are you?

He shuts his eyes tight for a second and nearly knocks against the wall, his body disoriented. It does nothing to silence the doubts in his mind. A flicker of desperation burns right through him, as he tries to squash it down as he opens his eyes again.

The washroom is not far, but he feels like he’s walking miles, each step robotic and landing with a heavy thump. Every movement, every lift and fall of his legs is mechanized, and it’s a wonder he’s moving at all when he feels so far away. His mind is torn in so many different pieces and directions that he ends up blanking out, unable to choose one single piece to focus on long enough. Directive: make it to the the washroom and clean yourself up. It’s a small thought, but it’s one of the few thoughts in his head with any clarity, so he clings to it for all it’s worth.

Metal hand fumbles the doorknob of the washroom, and he stumbles in. Gone is the grace of the assassin on the roof as his shaking hand flicks the light on, and the stinging light makes him bow his head. He grips on to the edge of the sink with his metal arm as he closes the door with the other, not trusting his body to support itself. His knees threaten to give, and as soon as the door is shut, he grabs onto the sink his flesh arm too.

Breathe breathe breathe you can do it Soldier -

You’re not Soldier, are you, are you, can you even remember -

- he called you Bucky, and what the hell kind of dumb name is Bucky anyway -

“Shut up,” he says, a weak, pitiful plea.

Only when his mind quiets does he risk lifting his head and looking into the mirror for the first time in a decade.

If he is someone else, if he is a Bucky instead of a Soldier, he doubts the Bucky from those fuzzy images in his head looked like this.

Black streaks all over his face, smeared past his eyes and further down his cheeks. There’s a cut on his bottom lip he does not remember receiving, probably from one of the times Kovač slapped him. The eyes that stare back at him are vacant. They’re the eyes of a dead man, of one of his many victims.

Heaving a deep breath, he reaches for a towel hanging by the sink and scrubs his face with it until it burns. Even when he knows he most likely has removed most of the gunk, he keeps rubbing his face harder and harder, and it takes him a moment to realize that the soft groans in the room are coming from his lips, mindless babble. When he can no longer bear the burning pain, he throws the dirty towel onto the ground and looks into the mirror again.

There’s smudges of black on his cheeks and nose, but he’s removed the majority of it, revealing pale, pasty skin up to his eyes. The skin beneath his eyes is ringed in black, which doesn’t make sense because he spends most of his life asleep, and that’s how they’re formed, right? Maybe that’s wrong. All he knows is he looks like he’s half-way toward death. Maybe that’s why the blue-eyed man stared at him so sadly in the street; maybe he recognized Bucky but didn’t at the same time.

It’s the first time he’s referred to himself as Bucky, and he’s not sure how it makes him feel. It doesn’t feel right, not when every ounce of his body screams Soldier. But his mind, once so sharp and mechanical, is splintering to reveal something much more fragile and real, and god, he’s scared. “Bucky” is a jagged puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit, even though he’s starting to think maybe it is supposed to go there after all.

Because he is Bucky, or was Bucky, according to the blue-eyed man (Steve), and the human beneath the machine wants to believe him.

The crushing of porcelain snaps him to reality, only to see part of the sink crushed beneath the death grip of his metal hand. He drops his hand to his side, staring at the sink without blinking.

“Bucky,” he says, trying the word against his tongue. “Bucky.”

“Bucky?” A weak voice wheezes.

“Yeah Steve, I’m here. Jesus, you’ve been out for three days, I thought -”

“You been here this whole time?”

“Yeah. I ain’t going anywhere.”

His arms are trembling, and his face is wet and he doesn’t understand why, just knows that something has gone terribly wrong. Where did I go, Steve, I never meant to go -

The bathroom door swings open and Kovač and three agents push their way through, and Bucky doesn’t listen to their calls of Soldier, because he’s not Soldier, is he -

Didn’t mean to leave you Steve -

Everyone is talking at once, and the loud, jumbled sounds make him further sink into himself, bowing down until his hair brushes the edge of the ruined sink. Someone grabs onto his right arm, and he lurches it back in one violent tug, and ah yes, there’s the familiar clickclick of guns being raised, but he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care, let them shoot and tear him to pieces because anything has got to be better than this terror.

“Soldier -”

And that’s it, something snaps in him as he whirls to spit at Kovač’s face, “I’m not Soldier!”

He surges forward, needing to get out of his confined space and run as far as he can, but the agents are faster than him, tackling him and forcing him to the ground. Blood fills his mouth as he lands on his face, and he fights for everything he’s worth, writhing like an animal caught in a hunter’s snare.

I’m sorry Steve I’m sorry I’m sorry

The needle plunges in his arm, and everything’s gone black.

*

Like every time, he wakes with a deep breath.

Eyes open. First things first: survey the situation. There’s a pounding in his head that makes him groan, and he turns his head in a failed attempt to hide from the lights in his face. Breathing hurts from the restraints on his chest, and they’re tighter than usual aren’t they?

When his vision focuses, he sees the weasel-eyed scientist at his side, scribbling something in a notebook. Weasel Eyes looks up, and there’s a flash of surprise on his face.

“You’re awake already. I didn’t think you’d stir for another twelve hours.”

Stepping closer, the scientist scrutinizes him like he’s a bomb about to blow.

“Do you remember your mission, Soldier?”

Mission.

The trigger word sparks more pain in his head as he scrambles to remember.

What does he remember?

Winter Soldier HYDRA agent Mogadishu Carlos -

Blue eyes and soft touches and that’s an error, but maybe it’s not, maybe it’s meant to be there -

Blood and gore and stale coffee kisses -

A man waiting for him at the end of the line, and he’s not sure whose end it is anymore -

“Yes,” he croaks, tasting old blood. “I remember.”