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Versuchsobjekten

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i

Normally, the Commandos steered clear of these kinds of missions. Their focus was on HYDRA, after all, not your standard-issue Nazis. (Unofficially, blowing up munitions factories and rescuing physically fit POWs was better for morale than investigating the gruesome rumors about prison camps.) But they were already in Poland when word came in toward the end of January '45 that the Red Army had discovered a camp, mostly abandoned but with prisoners still inside, and Steve got this look in his eye that said he'd be going in there with or without SSR approval, so they headed for Oświęcim.

(Also unofficially, nobody wanted the Soviets to liberate the prison on their own. They were allies, but not Allies, not really, and couldn't be allowed to be the only heroes here. Hence the presence of the most heroic Allied squad they had.)

Now that they were there, though. Now that they'd seen that the rumors were, if anything, understating things. Now that Steve's protective anger had faded to horror and muted shock, now that the Commandos had to grit their teeth and keep their eyes forward or risk flashbacks to their time in Azzano... well. It was clear the Howling Commandos weren't going to be taking any more of these missions.

They weren't about to turn tail now that they were here, of course. The squad joined the 322nd's search for prisoners, calling out offers of aid in every language they knew as they walked deserted hall after deserted hall. Mostly they didn't find people; when they did, they usually wished they hadn't. No one in a prison was expected to be in great condition, but these people had been left behind because they were too sick or weak to walk. Some of them would not be leaving the camp, or even the room where they'd been found.

It was silently decided that some soldiers did not need to see this - could not see this, in point of fact, if they were to continue their service after. Of the Commandos, three were redirected: Steve Rogers, whose hands had begun to shake at the sight of the first bone-thin body; Bucky Barnes, whose jaw was so tight he had cracked a molar; and Gabe Jones, who had twice run off to be sick only to stumble across more horrors, stacks of hair and barrels of fillings. The three of them, along with a dozen shock-pale Soviet soldiers, were directed to the more obviously abandoned, half-destroyed buildings, to search for records, written evidence of the extent of the crimes committed here.

What they found in one such building was a secret set of rooms, pristine. The blast had left its outer doors scorched, but inside it was slightly dusty at most. There were chalkboards covered in equations and diagrams, medical tools, and most significantly, paper records. Steve started to page through them as the Soviets examined the strange equipment filling the first few side rooms.

"Not the kind of records we're looking for, I don't think," Steve concluded after skimming a few pages. "Not names, dates, actions. It's a record of something, though - Mensch... enversuche?"

"Menschenversuche?" Gabe said, correcting his pronunciation, and Bucky's legs fell out from under him.

Steve shoved the records into Gabe's hands and was at Bucky's side in an instant, a gentle hand on his back and a gentle whisper in his ear. "Buck, hey Bucky, come on. You with me? What's going on in that dumb head of yours?"

It took Bucky a minute to come back from the empty-eyed place he'd gone to. The first sign he was returning, helpless tremors that shook Steve too, took far longer than that to fade. "That's what they called it," he said, voice hoarse. "When they... when Zola was making his notes. Dictating. The work was Menschenversuche, and I was a Versuchsobjekt." He shuddered once, a full-body thing, and got to his feet. He stared down at Steve, who was slowly getting to his feet. "I don't care what's in here, how valuable it is to the war effort. We're burning it to the ground."

The fact that this was something the Nazis had already tried to do went unacknowledged. Steve left to acquire something flammable, and Bucky and Gabe went further into the lab. The Soviet soldiers had become distracted by the objects left behind - strangely bent pieces of metal, curious helmets with no visible seam or smithwork, a single silver coin - so they hadn't noticed the thing that quickly caught the Commandos' attention: the sound of a child quietly weeping.

When Steve returned with kerosene and the authority to order the troops to collect what they'd gathered and leave, he found Gabe speaking to an emaciated boy in hushed German, Bucky standing over them looking haunted.

"A kid?" Steve asked, horrified.

Bucky nodded, a short, jerky motion. "This whole thing was just about him. Trying to make him - I don't know what, the things he's saying aren't making sense. But whatever they were trying to make him do, when he couldn't do it the first time they killed his mother. Right in front of him." Steve blasphemed loudly. Bucky snorted. "My thoughts exactly. That kerosene for us?"

"You said to burn it down," Steve said, holding out the canister. Bucky took it, considering, then turned to watch Gabe and the kid. His eyes were dry - had been when they came in, as he was too dehydrated to form tears. The sobbing had just been from his misery, his inevitable death in isolation. Now that he wasn't going to die, though... there was a grit to him, a fire in his eyes that felt familiar to Bucky.

"Hey, kid," he said, dropping to one knee to meet the boy's eyes.

"Erik."

"Erik," Bucky acknowledged. He held out the kerosene. "You know what this stuff is?" He waited for Gabe to translate, watched as Erik took in the warning label with the outline of flame on it. The boy nodded, staring at it. "Want to put it to good use?" Erik frowned, glanced between Bucky and the bottle, then grinned suddenly, viciously. Bucky grinned just as viciously back.

"Buck," Steve protested.

"Tell me he doesn't need this, Steve. Try and tell me this doesn't need doing."

"No, it's just..." Bucky looked up, not fast enough to see the emotion Steve wiped off his face. "We're going to need more kerosene than that to get the whole place going."

Bucky cocked his head to the side and raised his eyebrows. "Then maybe you should get on requisitioning that, Cap." He handed the kerosene to Erik, who poured it over the contents of his room - his prison within the prison - with a focused precision. His grin grew wider and wider, until it was more bared teeth than a smile. As he poured, he started to pant for breath - at least, that was what Bucky thought he was doing, before he recognized the sound as breathless laughter from a boy who had forgotten how to laugh. It went the same in each room after, with the exception of the largest lab, where he picked up the silver coin and hid it away before dousing the room in kerosene.

Once everything was soaked, Bucky lit a match and handed it to Erik, who tossed it on his bedspread and stared until the flame caught and spread, at which point Steve dragged the both of them back to safety.

It was that moment that Erik would remember clearest, from the flurry of activity that made up his rescue and recuperation: staring up at Bucky Barnes, the grim lines of his face sharp in the light of Klaus Schmidt's work going up in flames, a dark satisfaction in his eyes that resonated deep in Erik's bones.

ii

Erik was not a fan of President Kennedy, but he wasn't not one, per se. He was a human, which was a strong point against him, and it was under his leadership that American forces had killed two of Erik's followers. But he was not malicious, did not support the Friends of Humanity. And it seemed that he might even be a supporter of mutant rights, which had been entirely unexpected.

It opened up possibilities - or it could, potentially. Erik needed to be sure.

Here, in Dallas, in one of the strongest mutant-hating states of the union, he would hear the man's speech, see if there was anything of value to him after all. If there was, he might consider a path he'd turned away from a year ago. If not... well. Plan A retained its merits, though whether to act against Kennedy immediately would remain to be seen.

It was as he considered these thoughts that he first noticed it.

He had come a long way since the childhood tantrums and post-pubescent rage that mimicked control of his powers. Anger still made it easier to manipulate his abilities on a larger scale, but his ability to sense metal and to manipulate smaller objects had become second nature. Metal called out to him, vibrated on frequencies that only he could hear, sang songs of strength and purity to him alone. He'd long since learned to recognize common metals and alloys by how they felt to him - silver, iron, aluminum, dozens more. And there were some he had felt the like of once, and never again - Captain America's shield, for example - that were too memorable, too astounding to forget.

But he had never felt something like this.

For half a moment, he thought it might actually be alive - but that was before he really focused on it, closing his eyes and concentrating hard enough to sense the discrete parts, to realize that this was not a living thing, but an incredibly well-designed imitation. A machine, functioning as smoothly as muscle, with what must be ten times the strength.

He followed his senses away from the crowds and up the side of a grassy hill, pausing when he recognized a more familiar combination of metals nearby, one the strange machine had distracted him from noticing. Copper, lead, traces of silver and antimony - bullets. A gun - a rifle, judging by the size.

As he considered whether to act, a shot was fired - from the other side of the street. He turned to check whether it had hit, and as he did a small piece of the machine behind him twitched, and a bullet flew over Erik's head. That shot definitely hit, as did a second shot from the first shooter. Everything after that was chaos.

When he was charged with the crime, arrested and tried, having seen Oswald and Ruby claim doubles and lost time, he knew who the first shooter was. He understood why she'd done it, could almost praise her for her choice in scapegoats. But the first bullet that had hit Kennedy, the one fired by the person with the metal arm - of that one he knew neither the identity of the shooter, nor their reason for shooting.

And that was one of few things that bothered him, as he sat in that cell.

iii

Some... oh, what was it, ten, fifteen years after Erik and Charles reluctantly reconciled in the name of preventing the future destruction of mutantkind, after another fallout of sorts and a second, more tentative reconciliation, this time in the name of the school, a man attempted to assassinate one of them while they were playing chess in Central Park.

Erik stopped the bullet easily - he was well practiced at it now, even though it required more effort. Nudging the trajectory had simply turned out too poorly too often to be worthwhile. Equally easily, Charles made the minds around them pause, and instructed the mind that fired that bullet to step forward.

"Oh my," Erik said as the boy approached. His lower face was masked, and the rest of him looked perhaps half their age, but the familiar song his arm sang told the truth of the matter. Admittedly, it didn't sing as sweetly as vibranium, or as boldly as adamantium, but it was in its way equally and entirely unmistakeable. He rotated his wrist, watched the flex and shift of mechanical muscle with something akin to awe. "What a curious present you've brought me, Charles."

Charles hummed, agreeable and distracted. "He is quite a curiosity, isn't he?" He gestured, a small quirk of his finger, and their would-be assassin stepped close enough to touch. Charles did so, reaching out to a person's mind through physical contact as he had not needed to do for some eleven years now.

"Charles?" Erik watched them warily. If Charles needed to put in this kind of effort to read the boy -

But no, Charles was waving off his concerns. "I thought he might be concealing his mind somehow, but it seems he is well and truly blank."

"Blank?" It hardly seemed possible for a man to be capable of walking, let alone firing a gun, with a truly empty mind.

"He has orders - to kill one of us - but no memory of who gave them to him, or who he works for, or... anything at all, really." Charles frowned, concentrating. "There are flickers of something, but without context I can't make anything of it."

"Brainwashing?"

"Perhaps, but it feels to me more like memory wiping. I didn't think anyone had the capability."

"Besides yourself and Miss Frost, you mean?"

"No, a telepath would leave a trace of their presence. This was done through other means."

Erik shivered. Humans mimicking abilities like Charles's with technology? Then something else Charles said hit him, and his blood ran cold. "Did you say his orders were to kill one of us?"

Charles nodded, still focused on the boy. "Yes, it seems the goal was to create further tension between mutants and humans. Presumably either by the Brotherhood declaring war on humanity at your death..."

"Or by sending me on a rampage at yours. Which of us was he aiming at?" Erik asked lightly, twisting the magnetic field he held the arm in. This man had killed a president sympathetic to mutant rights, had perhaps been involved in framing Erik for the job to incite the chaos that had filled the mutant rights movement since - all of which Erik could allow. But if he had tried to kill Charles, Erik would rip this arm out of its socket and watch him bleed.

"I'm not sure," Charles admitted after a minute of prodding. "He's had both of us in his crosshairs, but there's no sense of chronology to it. I don't know who he fired at."

Erik frowned, flexed his wrist. The bands of metal that made up the outer skin of the arm flipped upward, briefly teasing Erik with a flash of the inner workings before shutting with whisper-soft clicks and whirs. "Curious indeed," he said, strangely disappointed.

"Well then," Charles said, releasing the boy. He stepped back, falling into parade rest automatically - undeniably a soldier at one point if no longer. "The usual?"

"Wipe his memory of both this encounter and his orders, and send him on his way?" For any other assassin, Erik would be all too eager to watch Charles go to work, but with this one's mind as odd as it is... "Charles, are you certain that's wise?"

"Perhaps not, but what other choice would you suggest?"

For a moment, Erik entertained an entirely ridiculous suggestion: keep him. His arm was a marvel, and with time Charles could no doubt find the memories - or at least a personality - somewhere within this poor boy's mind. But his arm was a marvel, and whoever gave it to him would come looking for it, if not for the boy himself. There was really no need to invite more assassination attempts on their heads, when they already received more than their fair share.

Besides which, the boy was human. He was best left for humans to deal with.

"Oh, alright then," Erik sniffed, giving the arm one last, fond look. "Go ahead and wipe him."

an interlude

Were Erik not laid up with the flu, an indignity he would not be recovering from any time soon, he would have gone on the Blackbird with the rest of Charles's X-Men, and taken on the aliens invading Manhattan. As it was, he could barely lift a spoon, let alone stop one of those enormous... creatures? ships? Not for the first time, he wished he could be there, if just to feel what they were made of.

"Out of the question," Charles said firmly.

Erik sighed, and rolled his eyes. "It's only a passing fancy, Charles. I don't believe myself capable of leaving this bed at the moment, let alone the mansion." He just wished he could.

Charles sniffed, doubting Erik's honesty. "Just making sure," he said, turning up the volume on the television. The footage being offered was blurry, mostly from camera phones and security cameras since no professional cameramen dared stay close to the action, but even so it was clear there were only a handful of people offering a serious challenge to the aliens. One Erik recognized from that business in Harlem some years past that they'd had to order the children to stay away from, another was the so-called 'Iron' Man, somehow not yet dead of palladium poisoning. Three others were entirely strange to him, and the last...

"Would you look at that," Erik breathed. His cowl had come off at some point, revealing a face underneath as unmistakeable as that shield. "He hasn't aged a day."

"Who, Captain America?" Charles turned his attention on Erik, curious. "You sound as though you've met him."

"I have," Erik said simply. Charles watched him, refusing to ask but clearly expecting elaboration. It was an old, sore subject, but for Charles he could close his eyes and go back. "His squad, the Scowling Commanders or whatever they were called, were involved with the liberation of Auschwitz. Two of his men found me, trapped in Schmidt's - Shaw's - lab." Charles made a sympathetic sound and pressed his hand. A corner of Erik's mouth quirked up as he remembered. "One of them gave me a bottle of kerosene, to pour on anything and everything I wanted to destroy. The Captain went out and got another three bottles before I was satisfied, and then we watched it burn."

"How... nice," Charles lied, pulling back.

"It hardly gave me closure, but it was a start," Erik said. "For months after that, the focus was on my physical well-being, but that man knew I needed something more than food and clothing." If Charles said anything to this, Erik didn't hear him, lost in thought. On the television, the Captain threw his shield against a wall and it ricocheted between four aliens before landing back in his hand. Vibranium. Truly amazing. "What was his name..."

"Isn't it Steve Rogers?"

"Not him, the one who gave me the kerosene. I liked him, there was a bitterness to his anger that I understood." Not like the Captain's, righteous and just. He would have put Schmidt on trial, while his friend might have let Erik do as he pleased. "Something... something ridiculous, I'm sure it was."

A nickname, Erik thought it had been, but a terrible one - something barely suited to a cockeyed teen, let alone a grown man or a soldier. Yes, something absurd like... "Bucky!" Beside him, Charles went very still. "Bucky Barnes, that was it. He died not long before the Captain disappeared, I think. Only a month after they found me." A shame. Erik would have liked to thank him - or at the very least, to rid the world of whoever killed him, but the declassified records back in the fifties had been light on such details, and today S.H.I.E.L.D. would just as soon arrest him on years-old charges as answer his questions.

"I wonder," Charles said thoughtfully.

Erik turned his attention back to the television. He would not be so easily baited. Charles hummed, stroking at his jawline, and Erik would not be so easily baited. He would not. He - "Oh, alright," he huffed. "What do you wonder?"

"Well, it's only that - do you remember the man who tried to assassinate one of us?"

Erik gave Charles a look, eyebrow raised. "You'll have to be more specific than that, I'm afraid."

Charles rolled his eyes. "Oh, you know the one! That masked sniper, with the empty mind and the metal arm..."

Ah. "The second shooter," Erik said thoughtfully, recalling the eerily lifelike motions, the unique alloy. "Yes, I remember now. What about him?"

"The second - ?" Charles shook his head. "Never mind. I told you at the time that calling his mind "empty" wasn't much of an oversimplification, didn't I? He had his orders, a few disconnected fragments of memory, and that was it." Erik hummed absently. Charles had probably said something along those lines at the time, but all Erik remembered was being fascinated with the arm and afraid for Charles's life. "Yes, well, one such fragment was of a little blond stick of a man, punching him in the shoulder and calling him "Buck"."

On the television, Tony Stark grappled with... was that a nuclear missile? Clearly Erik hadn't been paying enough attention to these goings on. Man and missile flew up, up, and disappeared.

"Erik."

"Charles, I understand what you're saying. It's merely taking me some time to wrap my head around the concept." Captain America's closest friend assassinating a US president? Whoever wiped the poor man's mind had done a very thorough job of it - and not by choice, Erik thought, but out of necessity. He thought to question the unnatural youthfulness, but considering the equally youthful Captain on the television, now kneeling over an unconscious Iron Man, it seemed unnecessary.

Quietly, Charles turned off the television. "I'll tell the children to come back," he said, rolling out of the room. "At this point, they'll only get in the way of the cleanup effort."

Erik made an agreeable sound, still lost in thought. One thing he had learned, in his adolescent digging, was that Bucky Barnes had been a prisoner of war. Tortured, certainly; there had been rumors of experimentation, though who by or to what extent had never been clear. And somehow, within eighteen years of his assumed death, he had been made into a mindless assassin.

Were it any human but him, Erik would do nothing. Kill him, maybe, the next time they crossed paths - out of pity as much as self-preservation. Had Erik learned of this as little as ten years ago, he would have sought Bucky out and broken his neck with that metal hand to rid him of his farce of an existence. But now... Charles rolled back into the room, and Erik smiled. He'd come to appreciate the value of second chances.

That, and he'd always known the value of the ability to make choices for one's self.

"You're plotting something," Charles said, not quite disapproving.

"Yes, I suppose I am," Erik said, grin growing wider. "People have been asking where I am and what my plans are for years now, Charles. I think I should give them an answer."

iv

No one had quite believed it when Erik Lehnsherr, the mutant terrorist known by the codename 'Magneto', announced a press conference to explain where he'd vanished to after the Brotherhood of Mutants disbanded, and to tell the world of his new intentions. Some suspected a hoax, or a trap, but no news agency could risk being wrong and missing out on the story of - well, not the year, given the Battle of Manhattan, but it would certainly make headlines.

Some feared the worst when recording devices failed for the first thirty minutes of the conference. When communications recovered, and no one at the conference could recall anything that had been said during those thirty minutes - or, indeed, that those thirty minutes had even passed - cries of conspiracy and mutant manipulation emerged. Those cries might have even held up, upon investigation, but they were drowned out by the confusing, alarming content of the speech given.

"I apologize for the delay," Lehnsherr said, gravelly voice low and cold. "There was an... incident. One that has clarified things.

"I also apologize for the deception," he added in a lighter tone, "but I have no intention of taking questions today. Nor of explaining my whereabouts or past behavior. In fact, the only thing I will be doing today is declaring war." Alarm rose in the crowd; without raising his voice, he spoke over it. "Not on humanity, but on something far worse, living within you like a parasite.

"Oh yes," he said, staring into the cameras, "I know you're out there, hiding in plain sight. Make no mistake: I will not abide your presence, or your abhorrent actions, any longer. You've hand-delivered all I need to know to destroy you, and I will not make the mistakes others have made before me. When I cut off your head, I will be burning the stump; two more will not take its place."

With that, he rose off the ground and floated away, ignoring the clamor for clarification, for answers to the questions the press had prepared and to those they were just forming now.

Discussion ran rampant in the media for weeks afterward, reporters trying to guess at what he'd meant. Calmer, more accurate speculation went on in other circles; the intelligence community had understood his meaning immediately, but was failing to determine where HYDRA was hiding. At S.H.I.E.L.D., greater priority was given to investigating the delay and incident that had led Lehnsherr to make his declaration. People high up were very interested in learning what had been hand-delivered to Lehnsherr.

And through countless meetings reviewing what S.H.I.E.L.D. knew of HYDRA operations, Steve Rogers sat silent, a fist pressed to his mouth, staring out windows and wondering what he'd missed.

v

Erik walked into the Triskelion incognito, wearing a good suit, trilby tilted just so, and well aware that silent alarms had triggered by his entrance anyway - both the official S.H.I.E.L.D. ones and the well-disguised HYDRA ones. The crowd parted before him, not noticing their own behavior. It wasn't until the S.T.R.I.K.E. team moved against him that they really seemed aware of him - thank you for that, Charles, standing by in the distance. Charles mentally held the S.T.R.I.K.E. team off until he was able to convince the easily manipulated, weak-minded, and sensible to leave the building.

Once they were out of harm's way, though, all bets were off.

There was more than enough metal around for Erik to hold his own, even against a team equipped with non-metallic weapons prepared in anticipation of this fight. Erik stayed nonlethal - against his wishes, but Charles had insisted. As had their informant, who Erik was more willing to listen to on these matters. He wanted it known who the enemy truly was, and they couldn't be forced to admit their loyalties if they were dead. It was simple to knock out the team one by one, to keep the bullets fired by ignorant S.H.I.E.L.D. agents from getting closer than two feet. He could do it all day, and was just wondering if he would have to, to get Director Fury's attention, when -

"Oh, hello you beautiful thing," Erik cooed, reaching out to slow down the shield, pull it in to examine. "I hardly thought it possible, but you're more gorgeous than I remember." Raising his voice, he said, "You should have paid more attention during the briefing on me, Captain."

Captain Rogers jumped down a few stories, landing lightly on his feet. "I wasn't invited," he said with a grin. "I guess they figured if I couldn't use the shield, I wouldn't be any use against you."

"Is that what you think?" Erik wondered, spinning the shield in midair, admiring its purity in a way he couldn't appreciate as a child. "I rather suspect it was because of our shared history."

He frowned. "History?"

"Poland, January of 1945. You, a soldier not quite prepared for the horrors of war - at least, not these horrors. I," Erik said, spreading out his hands, "one such horror." He let his hands fall to his side, sending the shield back into the captain's hands.

He looked down at the shield for a moment, uncomprehending. Then, the memory coming back, his head shot up, eyes wide. "You're the boy from the lab. Erik."

"At your service."

Captain Rogers stared at his shield, at the bullets lying in circle around Erik, and his brow furrowed. "Is... was this..."

Had the man never been told about mutants? Well, they did tend to take care of their own problems, Erik supposed. "A natural talent," he assured the captain. "One that Schmidt was studying the limits of, just as other doctors at the camps studied traits that interested them."

He looked vaguely sick at the reminder. "He killed your mother."

An old hurt and a tired anger, but one Erik remembered well enough. "Yes. And twenty years later, I killed him." The captain blanched, but before he could say whatever he intended to, a cluster of people emerged from the upper floors.

"Mr. Lehnsherr!" boomed Fury, coat flying back as he marched down the stairs, two agents at his heel. One, a redheaded woman, Erik recognized from the Manhattan battle - good, she would be needed as a witness.

Erik nodded. "Director Fury. I was hoping to speak to you."

Fury stopped two feet from Erik, just outside the ring of bullets. "You couldn't just make an appointment?"

"I would, but your office refuses to take my calls," Erik said mildly.

"Can't imagine why," Fury deadpanned.

Erik tucked his hands behind his back. "You know why I'm here."

Fury crossed his arms. "I know the claims you made. What I don't have - and what I need, Mr. Lehnsherr - is proof."

"I have that," Erik said, thinking now, Charles. A few hundred feet away, a curious mechanical arm twitched, and made its approach.

Fury waited a moment. "Well?"

"A little patience, director." Erik watched the redhead, waiting for the moment when she saw him, when she made the connection. It didn't take long - he hadn't entered the building before her eyes widened and she drew a weapon. Non-metallic, unfortunately, but Erik raised a hand as if it weren't. "Now, now, Agent Romanov. Let's not be hasty."

"If I were being hasty, I would've already taken the shot." To Fury, she added, "Sir, that man is the Winter Soldier."

If Fury was surprised to learn that a ghost story of an assassin was entering his facility, he didn't show it. "That right, Mr. Lehnsherr?"

"That man is a member of the United States Armed Forces," Erik said, "presumed dead but in fact recovered, experimented on, and brainwashed by HYDRA into becoming the assassin known as the Winter Soldier." Something about this stunned Romanov, who didn't holster her weapon, but did lower it. "He nearly killed me two months ago, but a telepath of my acquaintance prevented him from taking the shot. In the process, he learned the Winter Soldier's true identity - and has since worked with a team of psychological professionals, mutant and human alike, to give that back to him." He kept his eyes on Captain Rogers now, as the Winter Soldier got close enough to really see.

Recognition dawned on him more slowly than it did Romanov, but eventually his eyes widened, his jaw dropped open, and that beautiful shield fell from his numb hands.

It took Fury ten seconds to use the look on the captain's face to cut down the possible identities of the man before him to one. He blinked twice, the closest thing to a show of shock Erik had ever seen from him, and looked the Winter Soldier up and down. "Bucky Barnes, I presume."

Bucky smiled, bringing the tired lines on his face into sharp relief. "That's me." At the sound of his voice, the captain made a choked sound and stepped forward. Bucky's smile wavered, but he held out a hand. "Hey, Steve. Sorry I - "

Captain Rogers ignored the hand and wrapped Bucky up in a desperate, clinging hug. "You don't have a damn thing to apologize for." Bucky's expression changed, but he buried his face in the captain's neck before Erik could see what it became.

Fury gave them a briefly fond look, then a dismissive one, and turned his attention on Erik. "While all of that is very touching, I find it hard to believe your sole purpose for coming here was to facilitate a decades-overdue reunion."

"Hardly. If reuniting Captain America with his long-lost friend was all I wanted to do, I would have tracked him down in his off hours through that shield. I'm rather sensitive to vibranium, you see." Erik could see Romanov mentally taking notes, and applauded her paranoia.

"Then why," Fury demanded, "are you here?"

Erik cleared his throat. Bucky sighed, but extracted himself from his hug. The captain stared at him with lost, disbelieving longing. "Because," Bucky said, "my former employer works on the top floor, and I'd like to be there to watch you take him down." Fury stared at him, and a grin spread across Bucky's face. "If you don't mind, director, sir."

"Alexander Pierce - "

"Is the head of HYDRA. He's personally given me three kill orders in the last ten years." Looking down at the unconscious agents on the floor, Bucky grimaced and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. "These guys are HYDRA too. There are others, but... I know faces better than names."

Fury looked over the S.T.R.I.K.E. team and ran a hand across his face. "Shit like this is why I have trust issues," he muttered. To Erik: "Xavier swears there's no kill switches or sleeper codes still in Barnes's head somewhere?"

Erik's eyebrows flew up. "Who said anything about - "

"We're not stupid, Lehnsherr," Fury said flatly. "Now, did he give the okay or not?"

All mental programming has been removed, echoed a voice in their heads. And his recall is as good as it ever was - which I am to understand means very good indeed. Erik frowned. Charles had been assisting from a distance for a reason, he thought pointedly. He received a chuckle in return, and rolled his eyes.

"Well, there's your proof," he huffed, rising to go. "This isn't HYDRA's only base of operations, and I have only so much time before they realize my source is legitimate and go into hiding."

"Hang on," Bucky said, stepping close. Erik let his feet touch the ground, and waited expectantly. It took Bucky a moment to find his words, but eventually: "I just wanted to say... thanks. You did a lot for me, more than I can ever repay."

"I could say the same to you, Sergeant," Erik said with a smile. "But debts benefit no one in our situations, so let's just say... from one Versuchsobjekt to another, that it was something that needed doing." He held out his left hand. Bucky, thin-lipped but smiling, took it, and Erik couldn't resist flexing the muscle one last time. Bucky flinched, then snorted, and Erik smiled.

He was going to miss that arm. And the man attached to it wasn't so bad, either. For a human.