Steve wakes with a jolt to the sound of his phone going off. He's still not used to how tiny all the technology is, these days. Back in the forties, it seemed like everyone thought bigger was better, and from the films he's seen of later eras, that trajectory continued until sometime in the nineties, when suddenly everything seemed to get really small.
The phone is still ringing, and he fumbles with it for a moment before hitting the answer button. "Rogers."
The cool voice of one of Fury's many aides says, "Colonel Fury would like to see you in the briefing room ASAP."
"Be there in five."
He pulls a pair of khakis on over his boxers and yanks the nearest shirt over his head. He shoves his feet into his boots and heads downstairs. It's at moments like these that he doesn't mind having a room at the SHIELD facility. He's got an apartment in Brooklyn, but he doesn't spend a lot of time there. The neighborhood is too confusing in a familiar-but-strange way that unsettles him.
Fury and Coulson are waiting when he gets to the briefing room, along with Natasha, but, surprisingly, no one else.
"Where is everyone?"
"This is eyes-only," Fury says, holding up a fat manila file folder. "Hence the low tech."
Steve nods as if he understands and glances at Natasha.
"Even Tony Stark can't hack paper," she says with a shrug.
"I didn't realize we were keeping things from members of the team," Steve says, and as soon as the words are out of his mouth, he realizes how stupid they sound. Of course Fury is keeping things from the team. It's what the brass does. Fury gives him a look and he grunts, acknowledging the stupidity of his statement.
"We've had eyes out for this operative for years now. I don't think most of us believed he actually existed, but we've finally got proof." Fury opens the folder and spreads out some black and white surveillance photographs on the table in front of him.
Natasha makes a small, choked-off sound. From anyone else it would hardly have been noticeable, but from her, it might as well have been a gasp of shock. Natasha's always been inscrutable to Steve, a smooth, beautiful façade covering thoughts he could never get a read on. That she's showing even that much emotion makes alarms go off in Steve's head.
"The Winter Soldier," she whispers. Her hand twitches as if she wants to reach out and touch the pictures, and then curls into a fist at her side.
"He had a hand in your training, didn't he?" Coulson says. It's not a question.
"Yes." Her voice is back to its usual briskness. She doesn't elaborate, though Coulson seems to be expecting more.
"He's a legendary Russian assassin," Fury says when it's clear Natasha isn't going to say anything else. "Rumors about him started swirling in the fifties, but the last time he was seen was in the eighties, before perestroika. We have no evidence connecting him to these various kills." Fury lays another set of photographs on the table: crime scene shots of dead ambassadors and businessmen and what Steve assumes are spies of one sort or another. "But with improved facial recognition software, we've been able to place him entering or leaving various countries within the appropriate timeframe." Fury draws a third set of photos from the file, each with a blurry black and white image circled in red. The ones on top are much clearer, much less pixelated.
Steve blinks and leans in for a closer look. "Wait," he says.
Fury ignores him. "He was spotted in the international arrivals terminal at JFK yesterday evening at 6:15 pm local time. We had him under surveillance from the moment he got off the plane. Ninety minutes ago, he disabled the cameras in his hotel room, knocked out the agents keeping tabs on him outside, and disappeared."
"Wait," Steve says again. "He looks like--"
"Knocked out," Natasha says, as if Steve isn't speaking. "Not killed?"
Coulson nods. "Yes."
"You believe he's attempting to, for lack of a better word, defect?"
"It's one possibility," Fury says.
"There were rumors that he went off the reservation once before, back in the eighties, here in New York," Coulson adds. "Speculation was that was why they mothballed him." He glances at Steve. "Before that, we believe they kept him in a state of suspended animation and only let him out when they needed him."
"Wait just a second here." Steve slams his hand down on the table, causing the pile of photographs to slip and slide haphazardly. "Someone tell me why this Winter Soldier fella looks just like Bucky."
Coulson and Fury exchange glances.
Natasha bites her lip and reaches out to gather all the photos back into a neat stack. "There were rumors," she says softly, "but none of us really believed them."
"Rumors?" Steve asks sharply.
"That he had been Captain America's best friend before he'd been turned."
"Bucky would never--"
"No, of course not," she says, making an abrupt slicing gesture, as if to cut off all objections. "He'd been broken down and brainwashed long before I ever knew him. It was what the Red Room did. The Winter Soldier was their greatest success."
Steve curls his hands into fists, tamping down the urge to grab Fury or Coulson by their shirtfronts and shake them until they give him answers. "Where is he?"
"We're hoping one of you could tell us."
"I'll find him," Steve says.
Natasha's hand on his arm stops him from storming out. "I'll go with you."
He tosses an angry glance over his shoulder when he reaches the door. "When I get back, I expect you to explain why you kept this from me."
"I don't take orders from you, Captain," Fury says.
Steve lets the slamming door respond for him.
"It's a trap," Natasha says.
Even over comms, he can barely hear her over the roar of the engine. It's raining, big fat drops that smear his goggles and make the streetlights blur.
He shrugs. "I don't care."
"If we find him--"
Her arms tighten around him briefly. "When," she concedes, "you should let me make contact. It's possible I can make him believe I'm still a Russian agent undercover."
He bites back a curse and takes a deep breath. "You think that'll work?"
"He may remember me...fondly. If he remembers me at all."
Steve ignores the pang of jealousy that evokes. Because if Bucky remembers anyone, it should be him, not some redheaded dame he--Steve lets out a long, slow breath, releasing the old anger and the new. If what Natasha says is true, Bucky might not remember anything at all.
"Okay," he says. "We'll try it your way."
This time, when she squeezes him, he chooses to believe she means it as comfort.
Bucky's not at any of the rendezvous points Natasha says were commonly used when he was active, and the old safe houses she guides Steve to prove to be a bust.
The sky is starting to get light and the rain continues to fall and Steve wants to punch someone in frustration. He'd take a swing at Natasha if he could bring himself to a hit a girl who hadn't hit him first, and also, he's pretty sure she can take him.
"I suppose he could have left the city," Natasha says doubtfully. Her hair is escaping its ponytail in small, curly wisps; she pulls the band out and ties it up again, the color bright under the streetlights. "There's a deli in Brighton Beach that's a front for former KGB agents who've gone freelance."
"No," Steve says, swinging a leg over his bike and leaning on the handlebars. "I think we're going about this all wrong. Coulson said it was only here in New York that he'd gone off mission before. And you seemed surprised that he didn't kill the agents monitoring him."
"It's not the Winter Soldier's usual M.O. to leave witnesses." She pulls her helmet back on and climbs on the bike behind him.
"But what if he's not the Winter Soldier anymore?"
The ride to Brooklyn takes longer than Steve would like. Even though they're driving against the morning rush, the FDR is flooded, and there's a three-car pileup in the westbound tube of the Battery Tunnel, which means they spend precious time stuck behind rubberneckers.
He knows it's possible he's being an emotional idiot, too tangled up in the notion that Bucky could still be alive to see things rationally. He knows Natasha is probably right, and this is some kind of trap--especially if Bucky (and he can't stop thinking of him as Bucky) knows he and Natasha are both in New York.
None of that matters, though, because if it really is Bucky, that means Steve can save him.
Natasha cocks her hip, folds her arms across her chest and says, "This is your apartment building."
"Yes." He's given up being surprised when people on the team know things about him that they shouldn't. It feels like everybody knows everything about each other, in ways that Steve finds uncomfortable and awkward if he thinks about it too long. It's like the military grapevine has taken over the world, and he knows from firsthand experience that nobody gossips like soldiers. "We lived in this building until he shipped out. Howard Stark bought it, afterwards. I guess Tony owns it now."
She purses her lips. She looks like she wants to punch him, but she doesn't.
"You think I'm a sentimental old fool, but if he's--if he remembers himself and not all that brainwashing stuff, this is where he'd come." It sounds dumb when he says it out loud, but he doesn't care. If Bucky's not here, he could be anywhere. Of course, that means he's still alive, so it's not a total loss. Right now, Steve will take what he can get.
The rain has finally let up, more of an aggressive mist now than the driving torrent they'd ridden through most of the night. It softens Natasha's expression in ways she probably wouldn't appreciate. Steve's never had a problem staring at a pretty face, even when it's wearing a frown.
"He's not Bucky," she says eventually, when he doesn't blink or look away. "Not like this. You can't think of him that way."
"You don't know that."
"Steve," she says, not unkindly, "what will you do if he's not?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he says.
His apartment is empty, exactly the way he'd left it two days ago when he'd been called out to fight Dr. Doom. The refrigerator is covered in takeout menus and the kitchen table is littered with half-finished drawings. The microwave is still blinking "End" from when he'd heated up his instant oatmeal for breakfast.
"Hospital corners?" Natasha asks when they make sure the bedroom is clear.
He shrugs. Some habits are too ingrained to break. At least there are no dirty clothes on the floor.
He heads up the stairs to the roof.
"I thought we agreed that I would take point," she whispers.
"That was when we were looking for the Winter Soldier," he says and then shoulders the door open before she can respond.
Through the mist, Steve can make out a huddled figure sitting on the ledge. He can feel Natasha behind him, so tense she's practically vibrating, and he motions her to stay hidden while he moves out onto the roof.
"Hey," he says, softly, the way he'd talk to anyone sitting on the ledge of a roof. "Hey, Bucky."
The figure half-turns, and Steve gets the impression of a tangle of long wet hair and skin that hasn't seen in the sun in a long time. "Hey." The voice is low and hoarse, but familiar, a voice he'd know anywhere. A voice he never thought he'd hear again. "How'd you know it was me?"
Steve has to clear his throat before he can answer. His voice is thick and just a little shaky when he says, "You're the only one I know who doesn't have the sense to come in out of the rain." He takes a couple of steps closer and stops, not sure what to do next.
"You're looking a little soggy yourself," Bucky answers. He swings himself around and Steve can see he's got his hands shoved into the pockets of his navy blue pea coat and there are dark smudges under his eyes. "We lived here once, right?"
"Yeah," Steve says, sitting down next to him. "Yeah, Bucky, we did."
"That's what I thought." He takes a cigarette out and sticks it in the corner of his mouth. "It's a trap, y'know. They sent me here to kill you." He pulls a lighter out of the same pocket and flicks it open, but doesn't bother with lighting the cigarette.
Steve swallows hard. "I know."
Bucky holds his gaze for a long moment. "Yeah, I guess you do. There's a bomb in the basement." Steve jumps up, but Bucky says, "It's not armed. You can go check if you don't believe me."
He hears Natasha hurry back down the stairs and he waits, breath caught in his chest, heart pounding in fear. "Of course it's not," he says, striving to sound nonchalant. "You wouldn't still be sitting here if it were."
"What makes you say that?"
"Even you're not that stupid."
Bucky laughs then, a horrible sobbing sound that makes Steve's heart ache. "You'd think, right?"
Natasha's voice sounds over the comms then. "It's true. The bomb is not activated. I'm searching for others."
"There aren't any others," he says, sitting back down on the ledge. "Right, Buck?"
"Right." He still hasn't taken his hand out of his pocket, though, which is worrisome.
"Of course not," Natasha says, "but I'm going to complete the sweep anyway."
"I didn't believe it," Bucky says, as if he hasn't noticed Steve's conversation with Natasha.
"That it was really you. They told me--they gave me my orders, and I thought, too bad it's not the real thing. To kill Captain America--that would be a real challenge. But some poseur in a star-spangled sweat suit? Not so much."
"But it really is me," Steve says.
"Yeah," Bucky says. "I know that now." He takes his hand out of his pocket and uncurls a gloved fist to reveal a crumpled piece of paper.
Steve takes it from him and smoothes it out on his thigh. It's one of his half-finished drawings, this one of the IKEA ferry.
"The building is clear," Natasha says. The tension in Steve's shoulders eases. "I'm coming back up."
"I think you knew it before," Steve says. "You could have killed those agents, but you didn't."
Bucky shrugs. "I don't think it matters, one way or another, after everything I've done. But it seemed like what you'd have wanted me to do."
The door opens and Natasha appears. "Hello," she says. She seems more tentative than Steve has ever seen her, though he doesn't think anyone who hadn't worked closely with her would ever notice.
Bucky scrambles to his feet. "I'd heard there was a Black Widow in New York," he says, "but I didn't know it was you."
"Yes," she says. "It's me."
"I thought you were dead."
They stare at each other long enough to make Steve uncomfortable, and then Bucky holds out a hand. "James Buchanan Barnes."
Natasha takes it, smiling. "Hello, James. I'm Natalia Romanova. It's a pleasure to finally meet you." She looks at Steve. "A team is coming to retrieve the bomb." And, it goes without saying, to do another, more thorough search. "I will ride back to the city with them."
Steve stands and looks at Bucky. "You ready to come with me?"
Bucky's mouth curves in a familiar smirk Steve didn't think he'd ever see again. "Someone's gotta make sure you don't end up dead in a ditch."
Steve gives a laugh that's half-sob and pulls Bucky into a hug. He smells of wet wool and cigarette smoke, but Steve presses closer, gets his nose right into the crook of Bucky's neck and breathes him in. Bucky shivers in his arms and he'll probably blame the rain, but Steve thinks he's crying too.
They stumble down the stairs like kids who've had too much sugar, or maybe are trying to escape school on the first day of summer. Steve feels seventy years lighter and happier than he's been in just a little longer than that.
"I know they're going to arrest me when we get there," Bucky says as Steve hands him the helmet.
"I've got some pull with the brass," Steve answers. "I'll do my best to see that doesn't happen."
"I'm not saying they'd be wrong," Bucky says. "I deserve it for some of the things I've done."
Steve shakes his head. "That wasn't you."
"I--I remember it like it was. I--" Bucky looks down at his hands. "I'm not the same guy you knew, Steve."
"I think you are. How else did I know you'd be here?"
Steve laughs softly. "If that's what you need to tell yourself."
He puts his own helmet on, but Bucky's hand on his arm stops him from getting onto the motorcycle. "Listen, whatever happens, thank you."
"No. Let me say this. Thank you for--Thank you."
"Not quite. I have one condition." Bucky pushes a hand through the dark tangle of his hair and meets Steve's gaze squarely. "I need you to have one of SHIELD's pet telepaths check me out, make sure I don't have any hidden triggers in my head."
"I'm serious, Steve. I don't know why this time things were different, but I don't trust it. You shouldn't either." Steve opens his mouth to refute that but Bucky doesn't let him get a word in. "It was too easy. You and I both know that. So does Natalia. I wouldn't be surprised if she hasn't already put the word in Fury's ear."
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Steve says. "But I know you and I trust you, Bucky. Never doubt that."
"That's because you're an idiot."
Bucky smiles and climbs on the bike behind him.
Steve knows Bucky's not wrong--he's sure Fury and Coulson are already sending a helicopter for Professor Xavier, and that there will be people who want to see Bucky brought up on charges for what the Winter Soldier's done. But right now, he doesn't care. The clouds are starting to break and Steve's got Bucky at his back, right where he belongs.