The Winter Soldier stood over the body of his target, but he hadn't been the one to deliver the fatal blow. He bent low over the corpse at his feet to examine the wounds and gather all the information he needed to take back to his handlers. This wasn't part of the mission. Adjustments had to be made. There were signs of a struggle, on the body as well as throughout the hotel room. The work was sloppy, that of an amateur at best, but the Soldier was more focused on his target's face than the mess.
The left side of it was peppered with staples, some partially torn out and leaving gruesome rips in the skin and others pushed so deep they left indentions. A photograph was stapled to the man's face, one that had been in the Soldier's file for the mission. He was double dealing arms, shaking hands with the leader of a group HYDRA didn't want him dealing with. The body was still warm, only minutes old by his estimation, so it was possible that the actual killer was still nearby.
The Winter Soldier rose to check the exits before spotting a needle that had rolled partially under an over-turned side table. He picked it up and ran the end over his tongue before dropping it again. Drugs, a hallucinogenic, not poison. If it had gotten into whoever had killed his target, it was possible they were still nearby. He swept the room once more quickly before heading out into the hall. Nothing seemed disturbed at first, but then the Soldier noticed a small smear of blood on one of the walls a few feet away and another one a few feet past that. He could see it in his mind's eye, the other operative injured and unsteady, doing his best to get away from the scene in the hotel room.
He followed the trail, the blood getting less frequent, but the path of choice becoming clearer. He found the enemy agent collapsed in the stairwell just one floor down, mumbling to himself and huddled in a corner. He was shivering badly and wide, honey colored eyes snapped up to stare at the Soldier with pupils blown-wide as he approached. The Soldier froze for a moment when he saw the other's face. He was young, no more than 16 at the most, and he looked almost familiar. The Winter Soldier crouched down beside him, hands reaching out to snap his neck, when the boy smiled at him.
"Wow, you're really hot. I guess if I'm gonna get dosed and die in a stairwell then this kinda makes up for it. I think Aunt Peggy might still be pretty pissed though."
The boy frowned suddenly as if in thought and his gaze drifted off to the side, eyes losing focus as they looked upon things that weren't really there. It would be easy to kill him, the Soldier knew, child's play, but he found that something held him back from doing so. Something in the boy's features. Perhaps it was the familiarity there, or the lack of fear. Very few people looked at the Soldier without any fear, even his own handlers.
"You killed the man upstairs."
The boy startled as if he'd forgotten the Soldier was there, head whipping around to look at him again. He leaned in closer, his breath ghosting across the exposed portion of the Soldier's face as the boy squinted at him like a particularly interesting puzzle.
"I was just here to gather information. He wasn't supposed to be back so soon." His shivering picked up again. "He was going to kill me."
The Winter Soldier shrugged and glanced over his shoulder. They had been in the stairwell for too long already. He needed to move before someone spotted them and the mission was compromised.
"He was my target."
"Oh." The boy didn't seem overly bothered by that idea, but his face was flushed and his eyes were taking on more and more of a glossed-over quality. "I don't feel so great. Did you know there are ducklings following you?"
The Winter Soldier frowned behind his mask.
"There are no ducklings. You've been given a shot of a high-powered hallucinogenic. Return to your handlers."
The Soldier paused, not quite sure why he'd added that last part, but then let it pass. It was not his place to question, just his place to do.
"My-? Right. Yes. In a van. Outside." He made grabby hands in the Soldier's direction but actually waited so the Soldier could initiate contact. "Help me up, Duck Commander."
It must have been because the boy phrased it as a command and his mission was already out of whack, but the Soldier did exactly as he was told. He slid his flesh arm around the boy's back and heaved him up to a standing position, taking most of his weight and placing the palm of his metal arm against the boy's chest to keep him from toppling over. The boy's gaze riveted on the limb instantly.
"Well, hello, beautiful. And where have you been all my life?"
The Soldier decided it was probably best to ignore him and instead focused on hauling him down the stairs. It was a good thing they were in America and all of the guests were lazy enough to stick to the elevators. They made it into the back alley without incident. The Soldier peered around the brick wall of the building to scan the street, quickly spotting the van that held the boy's handlers and pulling back.
"Go," he said. "The Soldier was never here."
The boy just grinned up at him.
"Soldier, huh? Well, I always did like a man in uniform. Come see me again, Soldier." He threw the assassin a sloppy salute as he stumbled a bit and made his way toward the van, calling, "That's an order!" over his shoulder and giggling madly. The Soldier waited until he was inside the van before turning away and returning to his own handlers.
It was almost a year and a half before the Soldier spotted the boy again and it wasn't even in person. His handlers liked watching the news during the long waiting periods during his missions, but it was never something the Soldier paid much attention to. He sat quietly to the side, cleaning his weapons as needed, and awaited his orders. He would only glance at the TV on occasion if there seemed to be something on that caught his handler's particular interest. At the moment it appeared to be a story about some orphaned kid who was finally old enough to take over his father's company. The Soldier still didn't pay much attention to it until they showed a picture of the kid in the corner of the screen.
Huge, honey-colored eyes gazed out at him from beneath messy brown hair and a smug grin sent a shot of something straight through his chest. The boy looked oddly familiar, he thought, and the shadow of something echoed through his mind. A mission. An order. The Winter Soldier was out of his chair and through the door before his handlers had even realized he'd moved. The TV had said the boy was in Washington, D.C., only a few states away from the Soldier's current position. It wouldn't take him long to get there.
He stole a battered old pick-up truck from a gas station next to the hotel and drove in the opposite direction of where he needed to go until he was a few towns over before ditching it and stealing another car. That, at least, would throw them off his scent. He wasn't entirely sure why he was so set on throwing off his handlers, but he knew they would interfere with the mission. Nothing could interfere with the mission. He drove straight through the night, siphoning gas from parked cars whenever he was getting low, and arrived in Washington, D.C. in the early hours of the morning.
The Soldier found a chop shop to leave the car at so it wouldn't be found abandoned and its location traced and then he headed into the city on foot. He was in the right city now, he just had to find the boy. He'd done more with less information before. By comparison, this was just easy. The news report had even told him which company to turn his attention toward, Stark Industries. It was a simple thing to find the right building and even simpler to slip past security and into the building. He made it up to the top floor without being opposed in the slightest and he was struck by the stray thought that the company really needed better security.
He found the boy in an office, 'Tony Stark' emblazoned on the door and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city on the opposite side. The boy had completely abandoned his desk for drawing something on blue paper that was stuck to a light table over to the side. He didn't even look up with the Soldier entered, just waved at the desk behind him vaguely.
"Whatever you've got, just leave it on the desk. I'll look at it once I'm done with this. Thanks, Pepper."
The Soldier glanced at the desk, at the piles of paperwork already on it and its general complete disarray, and marveled at the thought that the boy would even be able to find anything on it.
"I'm not Pepper."
The boy stiffened, turned his swivel chair around slowly to face him. There was no fear in his eyes, something that the Soldier was a bit surprised by, but there was certainly caution. He remained still as the boy slowly got to his feet.
"Who are you then? Why are you here?"
"The asset is here to complete the mission."
All of the wariness vanished from the boy's face, replaced by hard lines and determination. He stood and moved the couple steps it took him to stand next to his desk.
"So you're here to kill me, then. I suppose I should warn you, it won't be easy."
Then he was grabbing a fist full of papers and threw them in the air, a distraction as he took hold of the bulky phone-base and charged forward. He swung it hard, the plastic cracking and shattering over the Soldier's head. The Soldier reacted instinctively, grabbing the boy's arm and throwing him into a wall. He followed close behind him and pressed him up against the surface with his arm across the boy's throat, his body being used to keep the other in place. The boy's eyes were wide, a bit wild, as they darted around for something else to defend himself with.
"I'm not here to kill you," the Soldier bit out, oddly irritated by the assumption. "That is not the mission."
The boy's eyes were glued to the gleaming metal of the arm pressed to his throat.
"Oh," he said dumbly. "Kidnapping, then?"
The Winter Soldier shook his head, struggling to recall what exactly his orders had been.
"I just came…to see you."
The boy looked confused.
"For real? What the Hell kind of mission is that?" He paused, giving the Soldier a shrewd look. "Did that asshole Clemmings put you up to this?"
The Soldier shook his head again. He didn't know who Clemmings was, didn't know a lot of things. His head hurt.
"No, no. I-" He cut himself off, confused by the blankness in his mind. "I don't know."
The boy's brow furrowed.
"What do you mean you don't know? What don't you know?"
The Soldier backed away, his mind becoming more and more scattered.
"I don't know." He turned toward the door. He needed to return to the handlers. The asset was malfunctioning. "I have to go."
The boy caught his wrist, his flesh one, and the Soldier looked back at him.
"Will I see you again?"
"Let me guess, you don't know."
The Soldier remained silent. Honeyed eyes watching him with concern from above a small frown.
"Alright, so you deal in orders and missions, right?"
The Soldier nodded.
"Then come back and see me the next time you're in D.C. or if you're ever in trouble." The boy smirked. "Doctor's orders. PhD, not MD."
The Soldier wasn't sure he understood what that meant, but he did understand orders.
The Soldier didn't see him again for a while after that. He didn't even remember the boy in order to miss him. He'd been wiped as soon as the handlers had gotten him back to base and his programing had been refreshed. The handlers thought it was a glitch, as far as he was concerned, the Soldier didn't really care. Three years passed before the Soldier was in D.C. again and felt that strange pull in the back of his mind of a mission not yet fulfilled.
His target was already down and extraction wouldn't take place until the day after, so there was no reason for the Soldier not to follow the pull. He set off, his feet taking him to a building he'd never set eyes on before and carrying him right up to the roof. He still had his sniper rifle with him and he settled down by one of the walls, peering through the lense idly to watch what was happening in the building opposite. It seemed like the entire side of the building was made of glass. Something inside of him grumbled at the lack of safety.
In an office on the top floor, a young man was lounging in his desk chair, clearly pissing off the redheaded woman in a skirt-suit who stood waving a file of papers at him. He didn't seem too concerned, laughing as she slapped the file onto his over-flowing desk and left in a huff. The Soldier kept an eye on the man as he finally took the folder and stood while reading it, moving over to stand next to the window.
He wasn't that tall, but his suit was sharp and cut all clean lines. His facial hair seemed pretty distinctive, too, and it stirred a sense of familiarity in the back of the Soldier's mind. Had this man been involved in one of his previous missions? Had he seen him somewhere before? The Soldier couldn't remember. He decided to watch the man for a while, to see if he could figure it out.
The man drifted back and forth between his two desks, the one covered in paperwork and the one off to the side that lit up under his drawings. The Soldier liked seeing him draw. After a while, the man looked up as a knock came at the door. An older man with a shaved head and a trimmed beard entered, smiling jovially. The young man stood to greet him with a hug before they settled down to talk, the young man showing some of the things he had drawn to the other.
The Soldier didn't like the older man, didn't like the feeling of him. Every time the young man turned away, he got a predatory look on his face before smiling as soon at the young man turned back. It made a dark emotion curl in the pit of the Soldier's stomach. It made him want to cross over to the other building and pull the young man away, hide him and keep him safe. But that wasn't part of the mission. Was it?
Maybe it was. Maybe the mission, the one he couldn't quite remember, was about keeping the young man safe. That would explain his compulsion to do so. The Soldier didn't feel compulsions, after all. He had no wants, no desires. He was only the asset and the mission dictated everything. So his mission must be to keep the young man safe. But he was also waiting for extraction. He wasn't supposed to bring attention to himself. He would wait, the Soldier decided. If the older man made a threatening move, then the Soldier would act.
The older man never made a move, though, instead just finishing up their conversation and leaving the office. The Soldier felt some of the tension leave his frame as he continued to watch the young man work. By the time he was packing up his things, the Soldier had already made the decision to follow him home. It was a bit difficult, considering the Soldier had no transportation of his own, but he managed it.
The young man lived in a rather modest, two-story brick house, considering that he seemed to have a rather important job at a large company. He parked his sporty car at the curb and all but bounded through the white picket fence and up the brick path to let himself in the front door. The Soldier watched as he greeted an older, brunette woman with a hug and kisses on both cheeks before heading downstairs into the basement. The Soldier frowned. It would be hard to get in without alerting the woman to his presence. Not impossible, but hard.
He scouted around the side of the building, relieved to find that the yard sloped steadily downward and that there were windows set along the ground, long, thin ones that would be a tight fit for someone the Soldier's size. The mission took priority, though, and they offered a better way to get in unnoticed that going through the upper level. He punched out one of the windows with his metal arm and cleared away the shards of glass before levering himself through it and dropping down the seven or so feet into what appeared to be a workshop of some sort. The Soldier's feet had barely managed to hit the ground before a wrench was flying at his head.
"Stranger danger! Security breach!"
The Soldier ducked, letting the wrench hit the wall with a clang as he sped across the workshop to seize the young man by the face. His metal fingers squeezed tightly over the bones of his jaw to keep him quiet. The man blinked at him, then blinked again before all of the tension flew out of him. Slowly, the Soldier eased his grip until the young man could talk again.
"You know, you could have just knocked. Aunt Peggy's gonna kill me for breaking that window. I blow them all out at least once a month as it is. I mean, that's why she soundproofed the basement." He gave the Soldier an absolutely baffling conspiratorial look. "I think I could die down here and she wouldn't know until SI called to know why I'd missed a week's worth of meetings." His brow furrowed. "Wait, no. They probably wouldn't notice, either."
The Soldier stared at him.
"You are not afraid?"
The young man snorted, squirreling out of the assassin's grip and hopping up to sit on a work table.
"Why would I be afraid? You already said you weren't going to kill me." The Soldier didn't understand. He didn't remember saying that. "Oh! Do you want to meet DUM-E? I think he'll like you. He likes everybody, though, so I guess that's not saying much. I think he'll particularly like you. See? Much better. And Pepper says I'm terrible with people."
He scoffs as he shoos the Soldier to the side and beckons across the lab. The Soldier has one hand on his gun at the first sign of movement before quickly realizing it wasn't another person, but a robot. The mechanism whirred as it rolled forward, its single metallic arm reaching forward to look the Soldier up and down before beeping and holding its claw forward. The Soldier stared at it.
"He wants you to shake! He only just figured out how to do it a few days ago and he's still super excited. DUM-E, be nice. This is…" The young man trailed off, brows furrowing. "I just realized I don't know your name."
"The asset is only the asset."
The younger's nose wrinkled in distaste.
"What the Hell is that even supposed to mean? What's your name? Or do you want me to just call you 'the asset'," he said it in a horrible imitation of the Soldier's own deep voice, "all the time?"
Something inside of the Soldier rebelled at the thought, strangely enough. He'd never had a problem being called the asset before, even by himself. He hesitated for a moment before naming the only other title he could think of.
The younger man rolled his eyes and made a noise of exasperation as he hopped back off the table and held out his own hand to shake.
"Nice to meet you then, Winter. I'm Tony, not that you didn't already know that, what with me being your mission and all."
The Soldier actually hadn't known his name, but filed it away none the less. He gripped Tony's hand gingerly and was somewhat pleased by the way the young man beamed in response. Off to the side, DUM-E gave another series of beeps, drawing the man's attention away.
"Don't be a brat! You're just jealous the hot guy in my lab likes me better!" He stuck his tongue out at the robot before turning back to the Soldier. "So, it's been a while. What brings you to D.C. this time around? Bothering any more new CEO's in their offices?"
He winked at the Soldier, but his words made little sense. The Soldier decided to focus on the ones that did.
"Oooh, bad luck. I hope whatever business you had with him was taken care of before the accident. Wait. You know about the accident, right?"
The Soldier nodded. He'd been the one to cause the accident.
"The mission was completed."
"Ugh! Again with the missions!" He flopped inelegantly into a chair. "You're worse than a robot! And I would know!" He huffed again before leaning forward. "What is your mission with me, anyway? You figure it out this time?"
The Soldier paused, thinking back on his suspicions from earlier that day.
"I am to keep you safe."
Tony snorted in laughter.
"Well, you're gonna have your hands full with that one."
The next time they met, it was only eight months later, and it wasn't the Soldier saving Tony. He was in Greece and the target had managed to get off three shots from his pistol before the Soldier could smother him. All three bullets passed straight through the Soldier's abdomen, luckily, so he didn't have to worry about trying to dig them out. Unfortunately, he was bleeding out quicker than he was making new cells. He'd been collapsed in an alley for about twenty minutes by the time Tony found him.
"Jesus, Winter! Oh, man, this looks bad!"
The young businessman crouched beside the assassin and quickly shed his jacket to press it against the Soldier's wounds. His eyes were wide with panic a hint of fear, which kind of surprised the Soldier. Tony hadn't been afraid when they had met before. He raised a metal hand to cover the ones pressing on his stomach.
"You are afraid."
"No fucking duh, I'm afraid! You've got fucking bullet wounds in your stomach! Do you have any idea what the statistics say about your chances in this situation? I get that I'm just some mission to you, but my pool of important people is pretty small so you better not fucking die before I get a chance to find out if you're one of them!"
Oh. He wasn't afraid of the Soldier. He was afraid for the Soldier.
"I will be fine. What are you doing here?"
"I stuck a tracker on your uniform when you were in my lab. Wanted to keep up with you. What do you mean you'll be fine?! People bleeding this much out of their midsection aren't usually fine!"
Somehow, the fact that Tony had been tracking him didn't bother the Soldier as much as it probably should have.
"A full recovery can be made in one week with a day's bed rest and light activity."
Tony stared at him for a long, silent moment.
"Holy shit. You're a super, aren't you?"
"I don't know what that means."
A corner of Tony's mouth quirked upwards.
"Yeah. We've covered that. Supers are metahumans, people with special abilities or powers. No way are you going to heal that fast without some kind of powers."
The Soldier considered it.
"The asset has been enhanced."
Tony glowered at him.
"You know, every time you pull that 'asset' crap, I find it incredibly creepy." The Soldier didn't know what to say to that so he just stayed quiet. After a long moment, Tony sighed and slid an arm around his back. "Alright, forget it. Let's just get you back to my place, well, my uncle's, but it's not like Dum Dum is using it and I gave it to him in the first place, so whatever. You're fucking lucky I decided to take a vacation once I saw you come here. You are officially my guest for the next week till you're all healed up."
The Soldier shook his head vigorously, but couldn't quite bring himself to pull away.
"The handlers will be suspicious if the asse-I do not show up for extraction."
"Yeah, well 'the handlers' are going to have to extract my foot from their asses if they think you're getting away from me in the next week. You're staying."
Tony didn't say it was an order, but it sounded like an order. The Soldier supposed he could stay. As long as he avoided being seen then the handlers would never know where he was. For some reason, he really didn't like the thought of them running into Tony. He didn't like it at all.
They somehow made it through the streets of Greece without drawing too much attention, except for that one woman the Soldier was pretty sure they gave a heart attack to. It probably helped that it was the middle of the night. By the time they'd made it to where Tony was staying, a huge house with all the latest gadgets and five spare rooms, the Soldier was barely still on his feet. He didn't complain in the slightest when Tony slowly eased him out of his clothes to clean and dress his wounds before putting him in the bed. In truth, he barely even registered it when Tony crawled in after him. He did, however, notice it when they woke up tangled around each other. And when Tony kissed him goodbye at the end of the week. The Soldier definitely noticed that.
Five years passed. After the first wipe, the Soldier thought nothing of the empty feeling inside of him. He did not mention it to the technicians, did not even think it was odd. The Soldier simply assumed that was the way things were meant to be. He'd never known anything different, just as he'd never known anything different from the blankness in his head, the lack of a name or identity. He was simply the asset, nothing more.
He was in Serbia when the two handlers who'd been sent with him were killed. They were in a mid-sized town that covered up an extensive black market and the handlers had pissed off the wrong people. The Soldier hadn't been with them at the time, instead on the opposite side of town completing his mission. The higher ups probably wouldn't notice anything wrong for at least twelve hours but new handlers would be sent after that. The Soldier would wait for them in town.
He wandered the streets, not really paying attention to anything in particular. An old woman waved cheerfully at him from a bakery, but he didn't react to her. He wasn't used to being so exposed to people and it felt odd. A hoodie and gloves kept his arm hidden from view and it just felt unnatural not to be wearing his mask. He was trying to blend in, though, and both of those things would only draw attention to himself.
The Soldier turned down a side street, hoping to reach an area with less people. With the mission completed and nothing left but to wait for an indeterminable amount of time, he felt restless. A feeling inside of him was urging him toward something, but he had no idea what that thing might be. It was incredibly frustrating and was starting to make him more than just a little bit fidgety.
The Soldier's head jerked up in surprise, a stir in the back of his mind telling him that the call was meant for him. He turned slowly to spot a man who was probably in his late twenties, a bit on the shorter side in stature with wide, honey-brown eyes and a stunned expression. He seemed almost…familiar. The Soldier frowned at him in thought. That was surprisingly fast.
"Are you my new handler?"
The man frowned right back, eyes searching for something in the Soldier's face. He took a few tentative steps forward, one arm reaching out to gently brush the Soldier's metal one.
"Don't you remember me? It's Tony."
The Soldier's brows furrowed. The man's words stirred things up within him, things that he could not understand or explain. It felt weird. He didn't like it. He wanted it to stop.
"I have completed the mission, but the handlers were compromised. Are you my new handler?"
There was a long silence as the man continued to search his features. The Soldier just felt more and more jumpy the longer it went on. Why was this man not giving the Soldier any orders? He needed orders. It was only through orders that he knew what to do.
"No," the man finally said. "I'm not your new handler. I'm your mission. You're supposed to keep me safe, remember?"
The Soldier didn't remember, not really, but the mission felt right, familiar, and it was a blessing to have an objective again. His world realigned.
"We should get off the streets. It is not safe to stay in the open here."
The man scoffed.
"No kidding. It seems like everybody and their mother is double dealing something in this town. Let's go back to my place."
The Soldier followed him obediently, eyes now sweeping for threats and keeping himself close to the one he was supposed to protect. The Soldier always completed his missions. This one would be no different. They ended up in a rather quaint little inn, simplistic and small. It was not unlike the one where the Soldier had been staying with his handlers and he wasted little time in checking the room for bugs or traps of any kind. The man watched him closely from his perch on the bed.
"So your handlers are dead? What happens now?"
"New ones will be sent."
The man frowned.
"What if you didn't go with them? What if you stayed with me?" He paused for a moment before continuing, almost as if he felt like he had to justify it. "I mean, it'd be a lot easier to keep me safe if you were actually with me, right?"
He looked hopeful, but the Soldier shook his head.
"It would not be safe. The handlers cannot know of your existence."
The Soldier wasn't sure why that was the case, but he knew it was true. He had to keep Tony safe and the handlers were not safe.
"Would they hurt me?" he asked. "Like they've hurt you?"
The Soldier froze. Did the handlers hurt him? The technicians certainly did whenever they did maintenance on his arm. Tony didn't have an arm made of metal, though. They wouldn't hurt him, right? They wouldn't have a reason to…would they?
Tony was off the bed and approaching him instantly, clearly seeing his inner turmoil. Tan hands wrapped around the Soldier's biceps and squeezed reassuringly.
"You don't have to go back to them, Winter. I know people. The people I work with, work for, can keep you safe from them. They'll never be able to hurt you again."
The Soldier shook his head fervently. He couldn't even think like that. How could Tony say such things? The Soldier had to go back. He had to.
"The handlers must be obeyed. The asset's only purpose is to complete the mission."
"Bullshit!" the man half-yelled and half-growled. "You are your own person, Winter! If you don't want to obey them, you can make that choice!"
The Soldier was shaking, trembling in a way he had never experienced before.
"The asset-" he choked on the words. "The asset has no choices. The asset only has orders."
He ripped himself out of the man's grip, heading for the door. He couldn't be here, couldn't stay with all of these things being said. He was so confused. The man called after him desperately.
"Winter! I'm going to come for you! I won't let them do this to you again!"
The Soldier was already moving out of the room, picking up speed until he was running through the streets. He needed to find a place to lay low, a place to hide until the new handlers came for him. He needed to get himself under control.
HYDRA didn't wipe him when the new handlers got him back to base. They were able to figure out that the old handlers had died by their own idiocy quickly enough and the Soldier told them nothing of his interaction with Tony. As for as they knew, there was no error in the programming and it was only a couple months past his return that someone seemed to take up a vendetta against the organization.
Bases were being attacked, raided by an organization known as SHIELD, from what the Soldier understood. No one ever bothered to tell him what was going on, but it was clear that whoever was hunting them was single-minded in their focus and ruthlessly efficient. It started with the base nearest to Greece and spread from there. The handlers seemed to alternate between pissed off and actually frightened. The Soldier just continued with his missions and moved from base to base as four more were compromised and taken down. Two years after the attacks started, they finally managed to get their hands on the person who was apparently supplying SHIELD with the locations and information.
The Soldier wasn't sure why he was in the room, honestly. He wasn't usually a part of interrogations and it wasn't like he couldn't be left alone. His handlers left him to his own devices more often than not. He could function, they didn't need to babysit him. Perhaps they were simply excited, though, and wanted to add one more person to the list of those able to see such an enemy brought low. The Soldier felt sick to his stomach the moment they dragged Tony into the room.
His hair was matted with blood and he was bleeding profusely from his torso, despite being wrapped in bandages. The man was obviously out of it enough that he was barely conscious, not at all aware of his surroundings. He almost looked drugged and it stirred something inside of the Soldier, something about information and staples. The Soldier wanted to jump forward, to grab the man and run off with him, but he held himself back. He was not allowed to move against the handlers and it was obvious the handlers wanted Tony here and hurt. He didn't understand what he was supposed to do. Which mission was he supposed to follow?
The handlers dragged another prisoner forward, a doctor from the Middle East who had done some work on the Soldier's arm, and demanded that he save 'Stark's' life. The Soldier watched the procedure anxiously, paid close attention as the doctor pulled tiny metal pieces out of Tony's chest before imbedding a magnet beneath the skin and hooked it up to a car battery. It was the most terrifying thing he'd ever witnessed. The handlers weren't paying him any attention, luckily enough, but the doctor made eye contact several times during the operation. The Soldier wasn't sure how he felt about that.
It was nearly a week before the Soldier had an opportunity to sneak in to see Tony, before the guards lost interest enough not to be watching every second of every day. The doctor was there, in the same cell, which had been turned into something like a smithy, and they both looked up immediately when the door opened. The doctor stiffened at the sight of him, but Tony only seemed to relax. He abandoned the missile he was messing with and grabbed his car battery on his way to greet the new arrival. The Soldier gave in to the temptation that had been crawling through him since the man had shown up and pulled Tony into his arms, an unfamiliar gesture but one that felt right. Tony leaned into it so the Soldier figured it couldn't be too bad.
"You shouldn't be here," he said huskily.
"Yeah, well, it wasn't exactly part of the plan. I said I'd come for you though, didn't I?"
The Soldier didn't want to let him go, but the man was pulling away so he let him.
"Anyway, I'm glad you're here. I honestly was starting to think I was never going to find the right base. And now is especially good. You can totally help with the escape plan."
The doctor looked startled by their interaction and Tony's easy acceptance of the Soldier. He grabbed Tony by the elbow, something that made the Soldier distinctly displeased.
"Stark! How do you know we can trust this man? He works for HYDRA!"
Tony just shot a grin in the Soldier's direction.
"Hey, Winter, what's your mission?"
"You are to be kept safe, at all costs."
Tony turned his pointed look back on the doctor.
"See? Don't worry about it, Yinsen. Winter's awesome. HYDRA's just been wiping his memory and doing some sort of crazy brainwashing thing while experimenting on him."
He was glad to see the doctor looked just as confused as the Soldier felt.
Tony's gaze flickered to him.
"Well, you know, I figured there was something wrong pretty quick, but I didn't actually figure out what was wrong until the last time we met. Admittedly, I was maybe a little pissed off after Greece and not hearing from you for so long and that might have influenced me not figuring it out sooner. I'm told I can hold a grudge pretty well."
The Soldier didn't remember a mission in Greece.
"I met you in Serbia."
Tony shook his head as he settled back into his work on the missile.
"We've met before that. Multiple times, actually. First time we met was in D.C., actually, in my office at Stark Industries. As I said, they've been wiping your memory. For whatever reason, your mission to protect me keeps surviving. As for the experimentation thing, that's really just a guess. All I really know is that you look the same as you did when I was eighteen."
The Soldier still didn't really understand, but he decided to accept it none the less. There were plenty of missions he'd had to do that with anyway. Yinsen was looking at them like they'd lost their minds. Tony didn't seem to pay any attention, instead pulling the missile apart and setting aside very specific pieces of it.
"So, Winter, any chances they're going to wipe you again soon? I mean, if you remember Serbia then they haven't done it for over two years. That's a good sign, right?"
The Soldier thought about it, thought about the strategic advantages and what plots he knew about that were currently in the works.
"At current, you are the top priority. My missions, not as important."
"So we can hope for a lack of wiping in the near future then. Hopefully it holds long enough for me to get this finished and all three of us can get out of here. Do you think you could get us some schematics for the building layout?"
"I am required to know them by heart."
Yinsen was giving Tony an odd look.
"You are not building them weapons, are you?"
Tony's answering grin was brilliant.
The Soldier had never really understood how smart Tony was before the genius had been captured by HYDRA. Even if he'd connected his Tony with Tony Stark, he probably wouldn't have realized it. Now, though, he'd watched Tony build himself a brand new heart in a matter of days and plug it in to replace the car battery. The Soldier decided he rather liked the glow. It was a good way to measure that the man was still alive with barely a glance.
The Soldier visited the cell-come-workshop whenever he could, which was actually more frequent than he would have expected. The longer he went without a mission, the less his handlers paid attention to him and outside of a daily check-up Yinsen and Tony were pretty much left on their own to work. This was especially fortunate when Tony started to send him off to get extra materials for the suit he was building, materials he couldn't talk the guards into giving him without them getting suspicious. They already didn't like the fact that Tony had taken the time to build the arc reactor before getting started on their project. He'd spent a few hours being water boarded for that one.
The weeks slipped by and eventually Yinsen began to relax around the Soldier. They talked a bit, not much since they both seemed to lean toward the more tacit end of the spectrum, but a bit. Yinsen was better at helping Tony with his work, but there was still plenty that went over even his head, especially on the programming side of things. It was during these times, when Tony was hunched over a computer and oblivious to the world, that Yinsen and the Soldier sat off to the side and had their little conversations.
"This is not the first time I have met Stark, either, you know." The Soldier inclined his head in Yinsen's direction to indicate he was listening, but didn't take his eyes off of the genius at work. He liked watching the way Tony's hands flew across the keys. "It was a number of years ago. I think I was more impressed that he was able to give a lecture while that drunk than I was by the actual lecture. I doubt he remembers much of it."
"I only remember meeting him once."
Yinsen hummed fondly.
"And yet he clearly left quite the impression on you."
"He told me I was not a thing to be owned, that I was a person who could make my own choices."
"You would not think it to meet him in passing, but he is a very kind man, very caring. Have you followed his advice? Are you making your own choices now?"
There was a shrewdness in Yinsen's gaze, a question of the Soldier's motives. He was a smart man.
"I think I am."
"And what are you choosing?"
"Him." There was no doubt in the Soldier's voice. "I'm choosing him."
Tony had been at the HYDRA base for nearly three months when everything went to Hell. A guard, not one of his handlers, came to collect the Soldier from the gym and led him to the cell where Tony and Yinsen were being kept. He was drunk, the Soldier could smell the alcohol all over him, and babbled the entire way there about how great it was to have the Tony Stark at the mercy of HYDRA. Both Tony and Yinsen stood, with their hands above their heads, as the guard led the Soldier into the cell.
"Well, well, well, look at how far the mighty have fallen! It's nice to see you still groveling like you should."
The Soldier could see the way the words got Tony's hackles up, but the genius stayed silent. The guard didn't seem to like that too much, though, and rammed the butt of his rifle into Tony's stomach. It took every ounce of self-control the Soldier had not to jump in and intervene. He had to protect Tony, but if they could just get through this then they could make the escape plan work and Tony would be free. The Soldier wouldn't be able to help anyone if he got wiped again.
"You little piece of shit! You think you're better just because you make weapons? Because you're rich? Your money means nothing here! You mean nothing! It's about damn time you figured that out!" The guard turned his head just a bit to direct his next words at the Soldier. "Break his arm, the left one first. We'll see if he's so high and mighty then."
The Soldier froze, every muscle of lock-down. He'd been given an order, but that order went against his mission. There was no way he could follow it. He didn't want to follow it. This wasn't just standing by to keep his cover intact, this was actually hurting Tony himself. He couldn't hurt Tony. This man couldn't make him hurt Tony. But if he didn't, he'd be wiped again. In a near-panic, the Soldier looked at Tony, the only person in the world he actually trusted to tell him what to do. At the other man's nod, the Soldier broke the guard's neck.
"Oh, holy shit!" Tony's eyes were wide as he stared at the body crumpled on the floor. "I feel like I should clarify that was a 'Go ahead and break my arm, I can take it' nod and not a 'Go ahead and kill that guy' nod. Jesus! I think we need to work on communication!"
The Soldier scowled, stepping over the body to wrap Tony up in his arms just as he had that first day. He liked it, liked how it felt. He wanted to do it more often, to feel the way Tony slotted so well against his own body.
"I will not hurt you. It is not an option."
Tony nodded absently, visually collecting himself and kicking his brain into high gear.
"Okay, okay, new plan time. If they find out you killed him, they're definitely wiping you again and security is going to go up like a mother fucker." His eyes brightened with an idea. "Oh, my God! I'm brilliant! Mother fucker! Of course! Why didn't I think of that sooner? Does he have a phone on him?"
Yinsen checked and passed it over. Tony immediately started typing away.
"What are you thinking, Stark?"
"I'm thinking that you two need to get the Hell out of here while I create a distraction. Go to the coordinates in that message."
The Soldier scowled and crossed his arms as Yinsen took the phone back.
"I'm not leaving you."
Tony looked like the very embodiment of stubborn.
"Yes, you are. Look, they can't kill me if they want their weapons, but they can sure as Hell kill Yinsen. If they catch you here, they'll wipe you, which means you've gotta go, too, and neither of you is going to make it out without a distraction. Listen to me, Winter, I sent that text to my boss over at SHIELD. He'll be waiting for you at the coordinates. Get Yinsen there, get him to safety, and bring SHIELD back to get me, okay?" He seemed to melt a bit, and suddenly he looked desperate. "I can't lose you again. I promised you that I wouldn't let them do something like wipe you again and I plan to keep that promise. Please, Winter."
For a moment, the Soldier paused. Despite everything, that was the first time he'd ever heard Tony sound actually desperate. He was pretty sure that Tony could ask for anything in that tone of voice and the Soldier would happily kill himself just to make it happen.
"Do not dare get hurt while I am gone."
Tony smiled blindingly. He gently pulled away the Soldier's mask before kissing him fiercely, lips pressed hard enough together to feel the teeth on the other side. It was quick, not nearly as long as the Soldier would have liked, but there was a promise in it.
"I'll do my best," Tony said as he bent down to retrieve the guard's gun. "Now, go."
Tony's text had read, "How long am I supposed to wait for this rescue op of yours? Seriously, Nicky, this is just embarrassing. I'm sending back up to the following coordinates." Nicky, as it turned out, was Nicholas J. Fury and it took the Soldier less than a single conversation to understand why 'mother fucker' had made Tony think of him.
"I don't give a shit if you're Stark's version of backup or the God damned Pope! The two of you are being taken into SHIELD custody until we can figure out what the fuck is going on. We can handle Stark's retrieval without you."
The Soldier glared at him, metal hand flexing. He wasn't used to fighting back against authority figures, had never had the occasion to learn, but now he wished he had just a tiny bit of Tony's gift for sass and getting what he wanted. Yinsen lay his hand on the Soldier's shoulder.
"Sir, we understand your position on this matter, but I might caution you to reconsider. I'll go into custody, no problem, but my companion knows that base like nobody else. He can get you to it and he can get you in with minimal casualties. If you know Stark as well as I suspect you do then you'll understand why that is important."
"And does your companion have a name?"
The Soldier could have told him Winter, but he didn't want to. That name was Tony's. This man did not deserve it.
"No." he said instead, from behind his mask. "I have no name."
It said something about the type of people Fury was used to dealing with that he didn't question that.
The Soldier decided that Tony was, without a doubt, the most infuriating person he'd ever met-and that included all of the people he couldn't remember meeting. The idiot had apparently decided to stage his own escape while they were gone, so that the rescue team arrived to find a HYDRA base burned nearly to the ground and Tony stumbling around in the remains of his suit. There were burns on both of his arms and he was bleeding from his forehead, but overall he seemed unharmed. The Soldier refused to speak to him until they were back in medical and Tony was laying on one of the crisp, white beds.
"You said you wouldn't get hurt."
"I said I would try."
"And is this what you call trying? Blowing a building sky high?"
"Yeah, well, they pissed me off." Tony's sulk turned into something a bit darker, and the Soldier decided he didn't like that look on Tony's face. "Someone in my company sold me out, Winter. Do you know how many people outside of SHIELD agents know that I work for them? I can count the number on one hand and still have fingers free."
The Soldier growled. He'd assumed HYDRA had managed to get their hands on Tony through their own machinations. He knew well how deep their information gathering skills ran from what they'd been able to get him on various targets. He hadn't even thought that someone had betrayed Tony.
"What are their names?"
It was more of a demand than a question and Tony's hand shot out to grab hold of the Soldier's wrist.
"I trust them, Winter. They're the closest thing I have to family outside of Aunt Peggy and my uncles."
"I won't hurt them," the Soldier soothed. "Not unless they betrayed you. Where shall I find you when I have gathered the information?"
Tony seemed to find that acceptable, at least. He reached for a pen and paper on the bedside table.
"I'll be in D.C., restructuring the company. HYDRA had my weapons, weapons that were meant to help people. I can't risk that happening again. I'm pulling the plug on weapons. The future's in clean energy anyway. Here's the address of my mansion."
He passed the paper over, an address neatly printed at the top and a list of three names beneath it. Pepper Potts, James Rhodes, Obadiah Stane.
It was ridiculously easy to rule out Pepper as a suspect, the Soldier decided. He hadn't even bothered talking to the woman in question, just watched her for a couple days. She was powerful, efficient, ruthless in her own way, the Soldier supposed, but also impossibly soft. She was tender and caring in a way the Soldier had never seen before, but then again, he'd never really been in a situation that bred such feelings. Besides, he could tell by the way she greeted Tony on the airstrip that she genuinely cared for him, even as he watched the proceedings from atop a nearby roof. He felt a flash of jealousy, of possessiveness, but brushed it aside. There were more important things to worry about at the moment.
James Rhodes, as it turned out, was a Colonel in the Air Force and currently worked as a liaison for their weapons contracts. He was living on base, as many military men did, but that didn't keep the Soldier from tracking him down. There was no way to tell how he felt about Tony, not really, but there was also nothing to tie him to HYDRA, not even when the Soldier had broken into his room and gone through his computer. It didn't rule him out completely, but it did prompt the Soldier to move on to the final individual on Tony's short list.
The Soldier disliked Obadiah Stane from the moment he set eyes on him. He was an older man, with a bald head and a trimmed beard. His eyes were hard, though, and the Soldier knew that look well. This was far from the first time he had seen it. Predator, his mind supplied. He didn't even have to watch Stane for a full day before he implicated himself while yelling at a scientist. It lit the Soldier's veins on fire with rage. He wanted little more than to shoot the man dead right then and there, but he resisted. It was not his choice to make, he decided.
He continued to watch Stane as he went about his day at Stark Industries, fooling everyone he spoke to with the slickness of a used car salesman. When he finally left and headed home, Bucky followed. Stane lived in the penthouse of a high-rise complex, overlooking the city. It took barely any effort at all for the Soldier to get inside. He hovered around the various rooms, always staying just barely out of the businessman's sight. When Stane finally went to bed, the Soldier continued to watch him for another hour.
"If you wake up in the morning, it is because Tony Stark let you live," were his parting words before he headed to the address Tony had given him.
The mansion was large, with a pristinely kept lawn and huge windows. The garage was large enough to hold way more cars than any one person could ever need. With the building's sleek lines and modern design, though, the Soldier thought it suited the man who owned it. He entered through a second story window in the back and found Tony already climbing the stairs when the Soldier set out to look for him.
"Hey! JARVIS let me know that you had let yourself in. You could always just use the door, you know. It's not like I'd turn you away."
The Soldier was confused. He was sure no one had seen him enter.
"Just Another Rather Very Intelligent System. He's my AI that runs the place. JARV? You wanna say hi?"
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Winter. Sir has told me much about you. If there is ever anything you are in need of, I will do my best to provide it for you."
Tony beamed, even as the Soldier glanced around with wide eyes.
"JARVIS doesn't have a physical body, not like the two of us. He's in the walls and everything. C'mon, I was just working on some stuff in the lab. I can introduce you to the other bots." He paused for a moment. "Well, re-introduce you in the case of DUM-E. Does it count as a reintroduction if you don't remember?"
The Soldier shrugged and followed him down. After everything he'd seen in the cell at HYDRA, he was interested to find out what Tony could do in an environment of his choosing. The Soldier bet it would be pretty amazing.
"Nick's furious that you up and vanished, by the way," Tony snickered as they crossed a living room with a white couch and started down another staircase. "Apparently he can't believe you managed to get out past SHIELD security. I thought that vein in his forehead was gonna pop for sure! I got, like, a two hour lecture about how I needed to tell him where you were."
"Of course not! Despite what Fury may think, he's not the King of the Universe. He doesn't have the right to know what everyone's up to at every moment of the day. Besides," the inventor's voice dropped, sounding much more sincere, "I would never betray you like that."
The Soldier blinked, wanting nothing more in that moment that to drag Tony towards him and kiss him. He wasn't sure that was allowed, though, and didn't want to over-step his bounds. Better to stick to what he already knew he was allowed to do. He sent the man a small smile as Tony pushed open the glass door to his workshop. Immediately, three bots zoomed over, distracting the Soldier from the cars lining two walls and the equipment laid out all over the place.
One of the bots beeped excitedly and prodded at the Soldier's metal hand, making him jerk away slightly. The next beep was more inquisitive and a bit disappointed.
"Winter, meet the bots!" Tony beamed and spread his arms out to indicate his creations. "Sorry about DUM-E, he gets attached to people a little too easily." He turned to the bot. "Winter had some bad things done to him, buddy. He doesn't remember everything too well. You're gonna have to get him to warm up to you all over again, okay? So try not to be yourself." His eyes danced with humor as he sent the Soldier a wink. "These other two are BUTTERFINGERS and U. They're helper bots with learning AI's."
The Soldier held out his hands tentatively, almost like someone meeting a strange dog for the first time. The bots each reached out with their claws to investigate before beeping in approval. They seemed especially interested in his metal hand and arm and, even though it made his skin crawl just a bit, the Soldier stood still and let them poke and prod at it. When he glanced over to where Tony was standing off to the side, he caught the man looking on with an expression that pretty closely resembled that of a fiercely proud parent.
"They like you," he said softly, with the same tone he'd used earlier.
"They're…nice," the Soldier settled on. "I've never seen anything like them."
He could practically see the way Tony puffed up his chest.
"Yeah, well, try and keep the praise to a minimum, yeah? We can't have it going to their heads now, can we?" He turned away and headed toward the chair at his computer terminal. Blue screens of light flickered into life as he sat down. The Soldier gently extricated himself from the bots in order to follow. "Now, let's get down to business. I take it you've found something or you wouldn't have come back yet."
The Soldier immediately regretted not mincing his works when Tony's expression turned distinctly distraught. The man's jaw clenched as unclenched as though he were struggling to get out words and his eyes just looked pained.
His voice was pleading, begging the Soldier to tell him it wasn't true.
"I overheard him talking to a scientist about your escape with the suit and stealing the technology. He mentioned finding a better way to get rid of you this time. He is interested in the reactor as well."
"Oh." Tony seemed a bit shocked, not quite absorbing the information. "Did you…?"
"No. He will live or die by your word. If he tries to hurt you again, though, I will not hesitate to kill him."
"No, no. Don't kill him. We'll, uh, we'll find evidence of what happened and turn him in. SHIELD can help." Tony scowled. "Unless Aunt Peggy kills him. She might just do it when she finds out."
The Soldier nodded along, not quite following everything Tony said but content to go with it. He would have to remember with Peggy person. If she was dangerous, he would make sure she was not allowed to harm Tony.
"You plan to tell her?"
That drew a laugh out of the man, but it sounded more broken than anything else. The Soldier hated it.
"That was part of our deal. I could become a SHIELD agent, but there couldn't be any secrets between us. It's kinda funny, you know? I don't think she trusted the organization that she helped found."
The Soldier felt the urge to hug Tony again, but resisted. That was not his place. Instead, he guided the man over to where a couch was placed near a small kitchenette and sat down with him. One of the bots, he thought maybe BUTTERFINGERS, hovered nearby and made some concerned-sounding beeps. Like this, sitting so close together, the Soldier could feel the other man trembling slightly. Tentatively, not quite sure what he was doing but going on instinct, the Soldier raised his metal hand to curl around the back of Tony's neck. His thumb stroked soothingly against the skin there.
"You are safe now. I will not allow anyone to hurt you."
Suddenly, Tony's weight and warmth were pressed against this side, the other man leaning on him as if the inventor had lost the strength to hold himself up. The Soldier released his hold on the other's neck to slide his arm around the man's shoulders.
"I shouldn't trust you as much as I do," Tony practically mumbled. "I mean, ever since my parents died, I've grown up around spies and assassins. Aunt Peggy tried to keep me out of it at first but," he shrugged, "I was never exactly the kinda kid you could keep out of things. Point is, I've always known that you can't really trust people. That's what gets you killed. But I trust you." His voice sounded so stricken. "I trusted Obie like another father."
The Soldier wasn't sure what to say, what he could say. Despite his drive to keep Tony safe, the man had never seemed exactly helpless. He was strong and confident, even in that cell HYDRA kept him in. There was nothing the world could throw at him that he couldn't handle. Now, though, he seemed almost like a scared little kid, begging to be comforted and the Soldier had no idea how to do that.
"I trust you," he finally said. "Even when I did not know you, I felt that you were familiar and that I wanted to keep you safe."
Tony hummed a bit, but didn't say anything. They were quiet for a long time after that.
"I'm going to go see Aunt Peggy," Tony announced at around 11am the next morning. He shifted a bit uncertainly. "Would you, uh, would you like to go with me?"
The Soldier immediately grabbed his mask from off the man's desk and strapped it back on.
"I can follow behind."
That got the man to crack a grin. He still hadn't quite bounced back from the news of Obadiah's betrayal, but he was getting better. The Soldier was glad. He didn't like the devastation that had been all over Tony's face.
"Or, you know, you could just jump in the passenger seat. I'm just sayin'. You're going to have to meet her, either way."
The Soldier blinked in surprise. He'd been expecting to watch the affair from a covert position, keeping an eye on this woman for suspicious behavior and making sure she did not harm Tony. Accompanying Tony would blow his cover, certainly, but it would also put him in a better position to protect the man. He nodded once, sharply.
Tony looked like he'd won the lottery. Well, like a not-already-insanely-rich person would look if they won the lottery.
The house Tony parked in front of was two-stories tall and made of brick with all-white shutters. The lawn was well-kept and covered in flowers, surrounded by a white picket fence. It was very modest, near the outskirts of the city, and the Soldier decided he rather liked it. Tony glanced over his shoulder at him as the genius rang the doorbell.
"Now, remember, don't you dare break any windows this time around."
Before the Soldier even had a chance to question that statement, hurried footsteps could be heard from inside before the door was all but flung open. A woman with all-white, shoulder length hair and a floral dress stood in the entrance. She looked frail, but in the way that spoke of natural aging and not illness. Her eyes were fierce as she glared at the Soldier.
"Is this the man Director Fury called to tell me about?"
The Soldier was a bit surprised to note she had a British accent.
"Wow," Tony drawled, "not even a 'hello'. No, it's cool. I only just got home from being held captive for three months by the biggest enemy you ever faced and had a rather questionable surgery to implant a magnet in my chest. It's not like you've demanded I make daily visits so you can fuss over me and make sure I'm not still dying or called the Commandos to come back and keep an eye on me. Don't think I don't know about that. No, no. Let's just focus on my friend here. Sounds great. You know what else sounds great? Letting all the neighbors see you have a guy in skin-tight leather and a face mask on your front doorstep. C'mon, Aunt Pegs! At least let us come in first!"
She glared for a moment more before stepping aside and holding the door open a bit wider.
"You're uncles are in the kitchen, hun. Morita and Jacques got in last night and Dum Dum arrived this morning. Gabe and Falsworth won't be in till tomorrow at least." She shot Tony a stern look before turning back to glare at the Soldier again. "Don't think you'll get out of telling them about you're new 'friend' any more than you'll be getting out of telling me."
Tony flashed her a shit-eating grin.
"Why do you think I'm here and not holed up in my lab until you send Pepper to come drag me out?" He looped his arm through the Soldier's metal one and dragged him further into the house, toward the sound of several men chatting. "C'mon, dear, it's time to meet the family."
The kitchen fell silent as soon as they entered the room. The three men around the table eyed the Soldier like they were sizing him up to do battle. The Soldier couldn't say he felt all that different. Tony squeezed his arm a bit in what might have been intended as comfort. Peggy crossed the kitchen to take a seat at the table as well, crossing her arms and looking at Tony expectantly.
"Right." Tony actually looked nervous for the first time since they'd arrived. He turned to the Soldier first, pointing out each person as he introduced them. "This is Aunt Peggy, she's raised me since my parents died, and these are most of the Howling Commandos. Jim Morita," he pointed to an Asian man who was the only person without grey in their hair, "Jacques Dernier," a man who was clearly French, complete with twirled mustache, "and Dum Dum Dugan. They're my family. Guys, this is Winter."
The air in the room instantly changed. The man all but wrapped in muscles, Dum Dum, leaned forward across the table as if it would change his view.
"Wait. Winter as in the guy who's been showing up at random intervals since you were eighteen? The one who's blood you got all over my couch?"
"He worked for HYDRA?"
Tony released the Soldier's arm to hold his hands up placatingly in the face for his aunt's horrified expression.
"He was brainwashed and being held captive by HYDRA. I feel like that's a big difference."
The woman was on her feet all over again, striding toward them.
"And how do you know that brainwashing won't make him turn on you? This is HYDRA, Tony!"
She all but growled the organizations name, looking feral, and the Soldier acted immediately to the threat. He shoved Tony behind him and faced the woman down. His hand slid to the knife strapped to his thigh, but he didn't draw it. The woman looked surprised by his action and the Soldier could feel Tony's hands on his shoulders, using them as leverage to push himself up and peek over.
"That's how I know. Winter would never let anything happen to me. I'm safer with him than when I'm in the bowels of SHIELD! At least he wants to protect me, unlike Clint's stray KGB agent."
Peggy scowled, still eyeing the Soldier speculatively. That was okay, he thought, since he was eyeing her right back.
"Agent Romanov was a very special case. You know that."
"Yeah, and I'm pretty sure Winter is a special case, too!" Tony was getting mad, shoving his way back around the Soldier. "Besides, if we're going to talk about betrayal, we should focus on who's already betrayed me instead of whether or not Winter is going to in the future!"
The air in the kitchen changed all over again. Everyone was suddenly at attention and the Soldier shuffled a bit closer to Tony. Peggy looked as if she'd been slapped, but covered it up quickly.
"What are you talking about?"
"I was sold out, to HYDRA. That's how they knew where I'd be for the weapons demonstration, where to hit me and the fact that I worked for SHIELD."
Jacques swore colorfully in French and the Soldier was actually slightly surprised he could follow it. He'd never needed French for a mission, at least not one he could remember.
"Who?" Morita spoke for the first time, without showing a hint of an accent.
Tony's shoulder's hunched and he leaned into the Soldier, prompting the assassin to wrap an arm around his shoulders despite their company.
"Obie," he finally said. "It was Obie, and he's going to try again."
Peggy sent Tony's uncles, who the Soldier had learned weren't actually his uncles, home to stay with him. She'd dropped the issue of the Soldier, at least for the time being, but she wasn't about to trust him with Tony's safety. By the time they'd left, the Soldier had decided that he rather liked the woman. As soon as they'd gotten back to the mansion, the men following behind in another car that Tony had called, Tony had left them to JARVIS and headed down to his lab. The Soldier, of course, headed down right after him. He found Tony wrapping what looked like a metal exoskeleton around one arm.
"What are you doing?"
"The suit I made at HYDRA's base was just a prototype. Now I have access to all of my tools, my workshop, JARVIS." He had an almost manic gleam in his eye. "I can make it so much better."
"I thought you weren't making weapons anymore."
Tony adjusted something, turning his hand over to reveal a glow in the palm not unlike his arc reactor. He shifted a bit and aimed it across the room.
"I'm not. This is repulsor technology for flight stabilization, completely harmless."
The kickback from firing the thing threw Tony into a wall. He'd have to replace the desk that the repulsor actually hit. In all honesty, the Soldier was beginning to think his biggest obstacle to keeping Tony safe would be Tony himself. Still, when he saw the way Tony popped right back up to his feet with a huge grin plastered across his face, the Soldier couldn't bring himself to even consider trying to make the inventor stop. They were still in the lab four hours later when Morita came down.
"Obadiah is here." He didn't sound happy about it. "Dum Dum and Jacques are waiting with him upstairs. He brought pizza."
They had all agreed not to let Stane know that they were on to his plot. His aunt and uncles seemed to agree with Tony that it would be better to get evidence and turn him in rather than to just outright kill him. While the Soldier respected their choice, or at least Tony's, he'd have felt much more satisfied just putting a bullet in the man's head. He definitely didn't like the fact that Stane could apparently just walk right into Tony's house.
Tony headed upstairs with his uncle, leaving the Soldier to watch the proceedings via a video that JARVIS brought up for him. He'd rather be up there with Tony, but with the genius's floorplan there would be absolutely nowhere for him to hide. He couldn't risk being spotted by Obadiah. If he was in contact with HYDRA then it would be a simple thing for him to pass on word of the Soldier's location to them. They would come for him and that would put Tony in danger all over again. It was unacceptable.
"Hey, Obie," Tony said as he sauntered in. The Soldier had to be a bit impressed by his ability to fake it. "How was the meeting in New York?"
"It would have gone better if you were there. It was a Board of Directors meeting." Stane sent Tony a look that was probably supposed to express fond exasperation and the Soldier kind of wanted to rip out his throat for it. "They're claiming PTSD. They want to freeze you out."
The Soldier saw the way Tony's face froze for a fraction of a second.
"They can't do that! I have the controlling interest in the company!"
"The Board has rights, too, Tony. They're freaking out because of the stock drop."
"Forty points. We knew that was going to happen."
"Fifty-six." Stane gave Tony a disapproving look, but the Soldier was very approving of the way Dum Dum's hands twitched like he wanted to curl them into fists. "They just aren't sure that this new direction is for the good of the company, in its best interest."
"Yeah, well," Tony sounded a bit bitter, "I think we need to think about what good the company is doing. It's about more than just best interest, Obie. I know that now. I know a lot of things."
Stane sighed, standing up to clap Tony on both shoulders.
"They just need some reassurance is all. Why don't you show me the specs on the miniaturized arc reactor?"
Tony pulled away, heading back toward the stairs down to his workshop, back toward the Soldier.
"At least show me what you're working on!"
The Soldier didn't turn away from the screens until Tony was back at his side and Dum Dum had shown Stane out of the door.
Two more men showed up the next day, Gabe Jones and James Falsworth. Apparently they were the last of Tony's uncles and arrived with Peggy in the early afternoon. The Soldier still felt wary with so many people around, but it was a bit easier once he was able to see how they genuinely cared for Tony. Unlike Stane, who's every action was part of a performance, these people truly wanted what was best for the genius. The Soldier rarely talked around them, and never removed his mask, but he found that he didn't really mind their company. It certainly seemed to improve Tony's mood.
Tony and the Soldier spent most of their time down in Tony's lab, working on and testing the new suit. The Soldier watched for the most part, giving one of his small, rare smiles when DUM-E doused Tony with the fire extinguisher for the third time. When the bots weren't busy 'helping', he kept them busy with little games of fetch. He liked watching Tony work, liked being in his space. It was peaceful. Peggy or the Howling Commandos would come down at regular intervals, usually to drag Tony out to eat, but they were mostly left to their own devices. They spent nearly a week like that before Tony popped his question.
"So, uh, I was thinking. Can I take a look at your arm?" The Soldier was so surprised the ball he was throwing for U went wide and nearly took out the blender in the kitchenette. Tony immediately launched into rambling. "I mean, I know that the last time I asked, you said only the handlers could work with it but there aren't really any handlers to work on it now. And I'd never do anything to it without your permission! I was just thinking that some scans could maybe help with the design for my suit and I know you haven't exactly been in any major fights lately, but it would probably be better for me to know how it works before it gets damaged. Not that it's going to! I don't want to jinx it! It's just, better safe than sorry, right?"
His eyes were pleading and the Soldier reached out for him, something he was becoming more and more comfortable doing as time passed and Tony didn't seem to mind it. He wrapped he man up in his arms, taking the pause to think about the request. He didn't like it when people touched his metal arm, even the bots made him uncomfortable, but this was Tony. If there were anyone he could trust it was this man.
"If it is what you wish."
Tony looked like a kid in a candy shop, suddenly abuzz with energy and practically bouncing with his excitement. He grinned triumphantly as the Soldier released him, spinning away and listing things off to JARVIS with enthusiastic hand gestures. The Soldier eyed him for a moment, an image of a frail, blonde boy inexplicably floating to mind. He shook his head to clear it and ignored the headache that was just barely beginning to show up. He focused on Tony instead.
Tony's first flight out in the suit was rather nerve wracking for the Soldier. It was only supposed to be some light tests in the workshop now that the suit was fully assembled, but Tony couldn't just leave it there. As he said, "Sometimes you have to run before you can walk." The Soldier nearly ran to get Peggy when Tony took off out of the garage, just so there was someone of authority to yell at him when he got back, but he couldn't bring himself to step away from JARVIS's screens.
Tony's joy was evident as he swooped across the sky, hollering his approval to the open air. One of the screens showed an image of his face and the Soldier couldn't help but smile at the pure joy there. It almost made up for him giving the Soldier a heart attack. Almost.
Then, of course, Tony had decided he needed to break a few records and fly straight up into the sky. The Soldier, by that point, was caught up in the excitement of the moment, enjoying the sheer fact that Tony enjoyed it so much. His worry had passed once it became clear that Tony knew what he was doing with the suit and could weave through the city with ease. He didn't think anything of the fact that Tony would be flying so high. Tony was a brilliant engineer. Of course his suit would be able to break any record set before.
JARVIS was only able to give a brief, panicked warning about the ice forming on the exterior of the suit before they lost the connection with Tony. The Soldier felt, for a moment that felt like an eternity, that he had been the one covered in ice. The image of the skinny, blonde haired boy was back in his head, bony chest heaving as he struggled to breath. The Soldier had never felt so helpless. It was almost like being right back in the HYDRA base and watching Tony undergoing surgery except then he'd at least known that someone was trying to save his life.
Suddenly, the screens were back up, Tony's voice filtering through the set up as he exalted in his brush with death. The Soldier felt like his knees were going to give out under him. He squeezed his eyes shut, just listening to Tony's voice and the proof that he was alive and well, not plummeting to his death while the Soldier could do nothing to prevent it. He remained silent as the man finished his flight and returned to the mansion, setting down on the roof only to crash through every floor before landing on, and crushing, one of his cars.
Needless to say, Tony's aunt and uncles were storming down the stairs to the lab before he'd even managed to get his suit off. They immediately arrested his attention, Tony working hard to casually wave aside Peggy's rant about safety. He was setting down the helmet and brushing off a question about how many brain cells he actually had in that big head of his when he turned and finally spotted the Soldier. The ex-HYDRA assassin was trembling faintly, flesh hand gripping the edge of the desk he stood beside just to keep himself upright. His mask was still in place, but his goggles were off and the pain and fear were clear in his eyes. Tony had him wrapped up in his arms in less than a heartbeat, the Soldier holding him desperately in return.
"You were falling," he rasped as he buried his face in the crook between Tony's neck and his shoulder. "You would have died and there was nothing I could do. I would have lost you."
Tony's arms tightened around him.
"I'm sorry." The Soldier got the feeling this might have been the first time he'd ever apologized for doing something stupid. "I didn't mean to scare you. I'm here. I'm alright."
The Soldier didn't let him go for a long time, not until Tony's family had quietly slipped from the room and only then because Tony started to pull away. The genius slid his hands down the Soldier's arms to join their hands together.
"C'mon," he said with a small smile. "I think that's enough tinkering for one night. Let's go to bed. You're sleeping with me tonight."
The Soldier found it exceedingly comforting to be able to drift off with his nose in Tony's hair and his arms wrapped around the inventor's torso. This, he decided, was definitely something he wanted to do more often.
The Soldier was just about to follow Tony down to the workshop after a rowdy breakfast with his aunt and uncles when Peggy called him back. (The Soldier would eat later, in the safety and security of Tony's lab.)
"Winter? Would you mind staying behind a moment?" Tony looked panic-stricken for a slip second, but the older woman waved him off. "Go on, Tony-dear. This shouldn't take long."
Tony's eyes darted back and forth between them.
"You know JARVIS will tell me if you try to kill him, right?"
"Kill him?" Gabe laughed. "Kid, that should be the least of your worries."
The Soldier tensed, immediately on the lookout for potential threats, but Peggy just smiled at both him and Tony.
"You've got nothing to worry about, dear. We're just going to talk."
Tony grumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, "Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of," but turned to leave none the less. He paused just before he walked out and turned back to the Soldier. "I'll keep an eye on you via JARVIS, okay?"
The Soldier nodded sharply, not really sure how that was supposed to affect things but knowing it would make Tony feel better. He turned back to the room at large as soon as Tony left. Peggy was watching him over the rim of her tea mug with a small smile.
"You know, this is normally the part where I tell you about all the various ways I know how to kill a man with either this tea cup or my pinky if you so much as think about hurting Tony, but I'm starting to see that won't be necessary."
The Soldier wasn't sure what to say to that, wasn't even really sure where this was coming from, so he just remained silent. Morita, at least, seemed to pick up on his confusion.
"Look, we all care about Tony. He's practically our baby boy. No matter how many kinds of martial arts he learns or what weapon he's equipped with, we're always going to worry about him. We want him to be safe."
Jacques snorted before adding, with an extremely heavy accent, "Jou cannot even imajine how hard it vas for us to let him enter SHIELD."
Falsworth groaned at the thought.
"The point is," Peggy inserted to get them back on track, "that Tony is very important to us. We want to make sure that he is being well taken care of."
"What we want to know," Dum Dum leaned forward, "is whether or not you're up to the task. Tony's intense. He isn't an easy guy to get along with, even live with, though, admittedly, he is way better now than he was as a teenager. You've only seen him off and on every few years up until a few months ago. Do you really think you've got what it takes to stick it out for the long haul? In a year, five years, ten? Are you still gonna be here?"
The Soldier felt a flash of anger at the insinuation that he would leave, that he would give up his mission for any reason.
"Tony must be protected. He will be kept safe."
Peggy gave him a look that was almost pitying.
"Tony's a reckless, idiotic inventor who specializes in weapons and moonlights as a secret agent for the world's foremost intelligence agency. He's never going to be safe and he would hate being kept that way. It's what makes him Tony. He'll throw himself into any and every firefight he comes across if he thinks it's the right thing to do. We all saw your reaction last night. Not everyone is cut out to stand on the sidelines and watch."
"I don't plan to stand on the sidelines."
The Soldier turned on his heel and left the room.
Tony had just sent his new suit off to fabrication when something on the TV seemed to catch his attention. Some reporter woman was standing in front of a crowd and speaking to the camera.
"…Tonight's red hot red carpet is here at the Concert Hall, where Tony Stark's third annual benefit for the Firefighters' Family Fund has become the go-to charity gala on L.A.'s high-society calendar. But this great cause…"
The Soldier tuned it out again as he focused back on Tony. He was staring at the screen with a frown on his face, brow wrinkled just a bit.
"I don't remember receiving an invitation to that. JARV? Invitation?"
"I do not seem to have one on record, Sir."
He was silent for a long moment as he looked over the specs for the suit one last time.
"I like it. Fabricate it." He picked up his watch from the desk as he stood. "Don't wait up for me, hun."
The Soldier followed after him as he left the lab.
The medical mask felt weird on the Soldier's face. It covered everything, but it also felt so ridiculously light. The thin, elastic bands that held it in place seemed flimsy at best, but it was the only way he could come with Tony and still keep his face covered. The genius had absolutely refused to let him attend the gala with his usual ski mask in place.
"Look, you just can't show up in that. The cover of you being my new bodyguard or not, that'll make people think you're about to rob the place. You'll draw even more attention. Just make sure to fake a couple coughs here and there and it'll be fine."
The Soldier thought Tony might have a bit too much faith in his own plan. Still, he'd been thrust into a suit, had his hair pulled back, and wore white gloves to hide his metal hand. He'd felt like he was looking at a total stranger when he'd looked in the mirror. He also wasn't sure he wanted to think too hard on the fact that Tony had a suit in his size just lying around.
As soon as they arrived, the Soldier came to the conclusion that the people bothered him a lot more than the medical mask did. It wasn't just people, either. There were flashing lights and shouted questions and the Solider felt ready to choke the first person who brushed up against him. In stark contrast, Tony seemed to be entirely in his element. He greeted the other stars and executives on the red carpet, smiled for the cameras, and brushed off the questions of nosy reporters. The Soldier stayed at his elbow the entire time, his glare warning everyone to keep back.
Obadiah was talking to a reporter further along the carpet and Tony made a beeline for him. The Soldier wanted to drag him in the opposite direction. At least, outside of his usual leather and with no obvious ties to HYDRA, the chances of Stane figuring out who the Soldier really was were low. Tony clapped the older man on the shoulder as he came up beside him.
"Obie! Honestly, what's the world coming to that I have to crash my own party?"
He laughed, and it sounded fake to the Soldier's ears. It was awful. Stane chuckled right along with him, a malicious glint in his eye.
"What are you doing here, Tony? I wasn't expecting to see you."
"Just got a little stir crazy," the genius brushed him off, "a little bit of cabin fever."
Stane's eyes flickered over to the Soldier, looking him up and down.
"And who's your friend?"
"New bodyguard. Not important," Tony waved off. "I'll see you inside, yeah?"
"Sure, sure," Stane agreed, good naturedly. "Just don't cause too much of a scene. I think I've got the board right where I want them."
Tony scowled once he'd turned fully away, muttering a, "I bet you do," under his breath. The Soldier was amazed, once again, by his ability to act like nothing bothered him. They headed for the bar as soon as they were through the doors and into the event. Tony ordered a scotch on the rocks and turned to speak to the man next to him, an unassuming gentleman with a mind expression, as soon as the bartender placed the glass in front of him.
"Where's Happy? Fury knows I'll only accept Happy as my handler. If he's got a new mission, he can pick up a phone and call."
The man didn't seem offended by Tony's brusque tone.
"No mission, Mr. Stark. We just need to debrief your friend here and you haven't exactly been forthcoming about allowing us into your residence. Agent Carter has informed us that's where he's been staying."
Tony took a swig of his scotch.
"Not an agent anymore, remember? She's retired now. And he's not an agent either, so you can piss off, Coulson."
The man smiled blandly.
"You know that's not how things work, Mr. Stark."
"And you know that I don't pay much attention to the way things work when I don't agree with them, particularly not when those things deal with people who have saved my life. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've just spotted my PA and there's something I urgently need to discuss with her."
He set his scotch back down on the counter and swanned away, the Soldier glancing once more at this Coulson fellow before heading after him. He felt a bit like a toy on a string, being dragged along behind a child. Not that he regretted coming. He would rather this any day than leaving Tony to interact with Stane on his own.
"Pepper!" Tony greeted happily, pulling her away from the people she was talking to as she hurriedly made apologies.
She looked much different that she had when the Soldier had been watching her, her hair down and curled as it fell around her shoulders. Her dress was a gorgeous silk number with an open back that still managed to leave something to the imagination. It was far more tasteful than several of the other dresses the Soldier had seen so far.
"Tony!" she hissed. "You can't just yank me away like that! It's rude! What are you doing here, anyway?"
He grinned like he wasn't on the receiving end of a thorough berating.
"I need to talk to you. It's important."
Pepper looked entirely unamused, rolling her eyes even as she followed Tony out onto one of the stone balconies.
"Oh, now you need to talk to me. I see. And what's so urgent that you have to discuss it in the middle of a charity gala but not important enough for you to return any of my calls for the past week? If it weren't for your aunt, I'd have thought you were dead!"
Tony let out a noise that sounded half like a sigh and half like a dying animal.
"Does she just go around telling everyone what I'm doing? That's it. She's officially not allowed to stay over anymore. See how much she enjoys ratting me out then."
"Maybe there are just those of us who are worried about you, Tony, and she's trying to help. So, are you going to tell me what's going on or not? Maybe start with why you're being followed around by a guy in a medical mask?"
"Right. Introductions. I always manage to forget about those. Pepper, Winter. Winter, Pepper. You probably recognize her from all that stalking you did."
"Anyway, Winter's my new bodyguard. Sorta. That's the story we're giving the press anyway. You'll totally back me up, right?"
Pepper stared at him, wide eyed, for a long moment before her shoulders hunched.
"Of course, I will. You know I will. I suppose I should at least thank you for the heads up this time."
Tony beamed, clearly thinking he'd done a good job.
"Awesome. Now, I need you to do something for me."
"Like that's anything new."
Her words were harsh, but she spoke them fondly and the Soldier was once again reminded of why he hadn't suspected her of selling Tony out to the enemy.
"Obie's dirty," Tony cut straight to the point, not bothering to pause for Pepper's shocked expression. "I just don't know how dirty yet. At the very least, he sold me out and tried to get me killed. I need you to dig up as much as you can at SI."
She grabbed onto Tony's wrist and the Soldier had to fight down the reflex to pull her away. She was not a threat. She would not hurt Tony. She was only concerned.
"Are you in danger? Peggy mentioned your uncles were in town. Are they staying with you, too?"
"Relax," he calmed her with a smile. "Nothing's going to happen to me. Winter'll keep me safe."
Pepper cast a questioning look in the Soldier's direction.
"Is this the same Winter I accused of being your imaginary friend?"
Tony's smile broadened into a grin and the Soldier theorized he probably had similar gossiping habits as his aunt.
"The one and only. I told you he was real."
Pepper eyed the Soldier assessingly.
"Do you really have a metal arm?"
He glanced at Tony briefly before nodding. Tony pressed their shoulders briefly together.
"Pep, as much as I'd like to spend all night gloating about the fact that I was right and you were wrong, don't we have some things to focus on that are a little more important?"
"Right, you're right. Sorry. This is all just…a little overwhelming. Why do you need me to do it? Can't you come into the office and do it yourself? I mean, I'm happy to, of course, but wouldn't you be better for it?"
"I'd draw too much attention. Obie's been trying to get me to keep a low profile, no doubt so he can get his ducks in a row." The Soldier felt something stir in the back of his mind, a memory that he couldn't quite recall. He brushed it off. Now was not the time. "He'd be watching me like a hawk if I showed up at SI. You have all my access codes. You can get into any file on the servers."
"I'll see what I can dig up." She leaned in to press a quick kiss to his cheek. "Take care of yourself, okay? You know how much I hate job hunting."
Tony smiled softly, a hint of pain shining through his expression as he hugged her.
"You're great, Pep. Buy yourself something nice. On me."
Pepper's lips quirked upward.
"Well, I can always use new shoes. But you're gonna owe me a martini, too. Dry. With lots of olives. Like, at least three olives."
Tony snorted and gave her a mock bow.
"Your wish is my command."
Coulson was nowhere to be seen when they made it back to the bar. Tony placed an order for himself and Pepper before glancing in the Soldier's direction.
"I'm just going to go ahead and assume you don't want anything."
The Soldier shook his head. Even without counting the mask as a factor, he had no desire to drink. It would serve no function at present to improve his effectiveness.
"Wow, you almost had me fooled."
The voice came from behind the Soldier and he turned to glare darkly at the woman approaching them. She was a blonde in a red dress and she didn't look pleased. The Soldier immediately shifted his weight for an easier defense.
"Ah!" Tony spoke from behind him. "Uuuh, Karen!"
"Christine. Is this what you call accountability?"
She went to shove a handful of pictures into Tony's chest, but the Soldier intercepted them easily. He flicked through them momentarily before passing them over. They looked like they'd been taken somewhere in the Middle East, and there were a whole lot of Stark Industries weapons. Tony's face tightened at the sight of them.
"Where is this? When were these taken?"
The woman seemed taken aback by his intensity and the Solider felt a smug sense of satisfaction. She knew nothing about Tony. Let her realize how badly she had managed to misjudge him.
"In a small town in Afghanistan called Gulmira, yesterday. That guy?" She pointed at one of the photos that showed a tall, bulky guy with a beard. "He's been linked to a terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings that's been extremely active in the area for months."
Tony flicked through the pictures as though they might magically change.
"I didn't approve any shipments."
"Well your company did."
Tony was already turning away, heading for the door. The Soldier followed after him, noting as they went that the woman did as well. Tony made a beeline for Stane, who apparently was more interested in talking to various reporters than in actually attending the event. Tension crept up the Soldier's spine as Tony thrust the pictures at his business partner.
"What's going on, Obie? Is SI dirty? Are we dealing under the table?"
His voice was low, not letting the questions carry to any of the surrounding reporters, but Stane still wrapped one arm around the man's shoulders and drew him a bit further up the steps.
"Don't be naïve, Tony."
"This is not me being naïve. I was naïve before. Obie, if we're double dealing then I need to know."
The older man sighed and leaned close, lowering his voice even further. The Soldier was pretty certain he was the only one other than Tony who was able to pick up on the words that followed.
"Who do you think locked you out of the company? C'mon. Let's take a picture."
The fact that there were dozens of cameras and Tony had already asked him not to was the only reason the Soldier did not kill Obadiah Stane on the steps of the Concert Hall.
Tony seemed to be in a daze as he had the valet bring the car around. By the time they got back to the house, though, he was absolutely livid. He didn't even greet Peggy when she met them at the door.
"JARVIS," he barked as he ripped off his tie, his suit jacket following close behind, "get Barton on the phone."
Peggy sent the Soldier a questioning look, but he only shook his head in response. He didn't have any idea what Tony was planning, or even who this Barton person was.
"Stark? Why the hell are you calling me?"
Tony all but jogged down the stairs to the workshop as JARVIS filtered the call through the house's speakers. The man sounded like he'd just been woken up.
"I need a Quinjet and a pilot and I don't have a lot of time. Think you can help me out?"
There was a groan from the other end of the line and the sound of someone rolling across fabric. This Clint guy was probably in bed.
"Dude. I just got back from Cambodia yesterday. This is supposed to be my time off! And I know you, Stark. No way is this sanctioned if you're calling me yourself."
Tony's lips thinned.
"Yeah, well, you know those putty arrows that R&D keeps refusing to make for you?"
There was a long pause.
"When did you say you needed that Quinjet again? I'll need at least an hour."
Apparently Tony owned an airstrip not far outside of the city. The Soldier almost wished he could be more surprised than he was. The plane that met them there wasn't like any that the Soldier had seen before and he stared as it touched down in front the hanger where he and Tony stood, the man already suited up in red and gold armor with the faceplate popped open. The back opened and a man with sandy-blonde hair, just a bit taller than Tony, appeared in the entrance.
"Nice suit, Stark! Those gonna be SHIELD issue anytime soon?"
Tony grinned as they boarded.
"Not if I can help it."
"So selfish, Stark. Keeping all the best toys to yourself. It's enough to make a guy feel left out."
"If you boys are quite finished," a female voice spoke up from the cockpit, "I'd like to get this flight started sooner rather than later. We've only got so much time before Fury figures out we stole this thing."
"Tasha!" Tony grinned enthusiastically at the red-headed woman who was scowling over her shoulder at them. "I didn't know you were coming!"
She shrugged, her gaze moving on to fixate on the Soldier.
This didn't seem to bother Tony in the slightest as he stationed himself in the middle of the craft for weight distribution and gestured for the Soldier to take one of the seats along the wall.
"Oh, good. The more ex-assassins, the merrier!"
The woman's gaze stayed fixed on the Soldier as Clint slipped past her and into the pilot's chair, flicking a switch to close the door and initiating lift off.
"I had wondered about that. You know, I honestly wasn't expecting your mystery man to be the Winter Soldier."
Tony's eyes bugged and he did a double take.
Her eyebrow rose.
"You didn't know?"
Clint was glancing over his shoulder between the three of them, which the Soldier was pretty sure was not something he should be doing while flying.
"Nat, the Winter Soldier has been credited with kills over the last fifty years. This guy barely looks like he could be out of his twenties."
"Huh." Tony was looking at him thoughtfully. "I guess that's why you still look the same as you did when I was eighteen."
Gulmira was not a pretty sight. It was mountainous terrain, absolute heaven for someone who wanted to hide, but it was also pockmarked by the signs of war. Craters dotted the earth, towns lay half-destroyed and abandoned. Even from the screens within the quinjet, the destruction looked awful. Tony's jaw was clenched so hard his muscle was ticking.
"Find me these sons of bitches, Barton. This ends now."
"There's activity about two towns over," the archer replied, looking over some scans. "It won't take more than a few minutes to get there."
Tony turned away, stomping toward the hatch and pressing a button to open it.
"It'll take me less."
The Soldier grabbed his arm before he could fling himself out of the plane.
"I'm going with you."
Tony blinked at him.
"You can't exactly fly."
He held out his hand, the metal one.
"No, but I can hang on."
Tony seemed to deliberate for a moment before nodding jerkily and grabbing the Soldier's hand, turning with it so the Soldier's arm was actually wrapped around the suit's neck and shoulders.
"Hang on tight, then," he warned. "I'm going to need the hand repulsors to stabilize the flight."
The Soldier brought his other arm up to wrap around the suit as well, clasping each of his wrists and braced himself. The wind hit him like a wall as Tony launched himself out of the plane. Despite the heat, the Soldier felt suddenly cold and a shiver ran down his spine. He blinked his eyes and was suddenly somewhere completely different, somewhere he didn't recognize. His arms were above his head, hanging onto a zipline instead of clasped in front of him. Tony was nowhere in sight and instead of heading toward the desert sand, the Soldier was headed toward a train.
He blinked again and his vision snapped back to normal. What had that been? A malfunction in the program? It wasn't like he had a handler to report it to anymore, and it had been so long since he'd last been wiped. Had this happened before? Was it common? Would it get worse? The Soldier hated not knowing, and resolved to bring it up with Tony once they were both safely back in his lab. Now was not the time. Now they had other things to think about.
Tony set down in the middle of a tiny village, terrorists and civilians alike scattered all around. The Soldier leapt from his back during the decent and landed with a roll on a nearby rooftop. He swung his rifle around as he came to his feet and shot the three terrorists already occupying the roof in the head without pause. Then he took up a position overlooking the street so he could watch Tony's back. The suit fired off two repulsor rounds immediately, sending a couple terrorists through a wall before fluidly turning on a group now using several civilians as hostages.
They were shouting in a language that the Soldier couldn't recognize, but their meaning was clear. Tony slowly lowered his arms, taking in the moment with a long stretch of silence. Then a compartment on each shoulder opened and darts hit each of the terrorists between the eyes. The Soldier had to admit it was…stunning, to say the least. He wasn't exactly sure how to describe the emotion as Tony literally punched through a wall to throw the final terrorist, the one who had been in charge, at the feet of the villagers.
"He's all yours," the inventor said as he took off again, moving to hover in front of the Soldier. "Ready to go, Buttercup?"
The Soldier didn't even hesitate for a moment, pressing his body flush to the suit's back and wrapping his arms around it again. It was strange, he thought, though not necessarily in a bad way, that his fit so well against the frame of the suit just like Tony fit so well against his own frame. He liked it. Being carried around put a bit of strain on his shoulder where the metal arm was connected, but it wasn't anything his accelerated healing wouldn't be able to handle within a few hours.
They had the Quinjet in sight when an explosion knocked them out of the sky. The Soldier felt the skin of his flesh arm sear and was pretty sure something was broken. He barely had time to register the tank that had fired the projectile before they were crashing to the ground, the suit landing on top of him. Pain flared through his entire body. The Soldier could tell right off the bat that he had broken at least four ribs and one of his hips. His legs weren't in much better shape. He dimly noted the action as Tony destroyed the tank with a tiny missile before the genius was turned back to him, face plate lifted up and worry shining across his face.
"Winter! Winter, stay with me! Shit!" His hands hovered above the Soldier's prone body. "Barton, I need an evac!"
Tony kept talking, but the Soldier couldn't really hear him anymore as his eyes drifted up toward the sky. It was starting to get really cold, actually. How had he not noticed that before? His head lolled to the side and he realized he was lying in snow. Huh. No wonder it was cold. He wasn't in his usual leather, either, but some thick clothe that kind of itched. He noticed that a good bit of red was staining the snow around him. Was that blood? Had someone been hurt? Was it Tony?
What had been Tony's voice faded into someone else's, but the Soldier still couldn't understand what they were saying. It wasn't English, certainly, and it took him a moment to recognize the German. By that time, someone had grabbed hold of the fabric on one of his shoulders and was dragging him through the snow. His vision was fading in and out, but he could see the trail in the snow behind them. His head rolled to the side again and he realized for the first time that his arm was nothing more than a bloody stump. At least he knew where the red had come from.
The Soldier wasn't really conscious but he was sort of…floating. He was lying of something soft, which was nice. He'd never been afforded luxuries when he was with HYDRA yet it seemed like that was all Tony owned. Tony was great. The Soldier kind of wanted to hug him again. That was his own version of luxury, Tony hugs. They felt really good. The Soldier liked Tony hugs. He also really liked Tony's face, and his hands, and his voice. His voice was really nice, always warm. Except right now apparently, the Soldier noted as he became aware that Tony was speaking softly from somewhere nearby. He was probably only a couple of feet away.
"Good, then I need you to run an errand for me. I need you to go to Stark Industries and hack into the main frame. Here, this'll get you in. Bring me all of the recent shipping manifests."
There was a long silence and the Soldier began to think that perhaps Tony was on the phone.
"What are you going to do with them?"
Who was that? Oh, right, Pepper. The Soldier had met her. Stalked her, too. She liked Tony, cared about him. She was safe. She was allowed to be around him. The Soldier was glad his mask was still on, though, he really didn't feel comfortable around others without it. Except Tony, of course.
"Find the dirty ones. Clean up the mess."
"You're going back out in the suit," came Pepper's flat voice, and the Solder honestly couldn't tell if that was a question or a statement.
The Soldier wanted to open his eyes, to see what was going on, but his eyelids were just so heavy.
"Tony," Pepper's voice was cautious, "you know I would help you with anything, but I cannot help you if you're going to start all of this again."
"There is nothing but this!" Tony sounded angry, his voice rising just a bit. "There is no art opening, no galas, no signing anything! There is only the mission."
No, that wasn't right. Those words shouldn't come out of Tony's mouth. They shouldn't be in Tony's head. The Soldier had to stop it. The Soldier knew about missions, knew they would only hurt Tony, and Tony had to be kept safe.
"Then I quit."
Her voice was steel, unforgiving.
"What?" Tony's voice was soft again, confused and disbelieving. "I'm trying to do something good here, Pepper. I'm trying to make things right."
"And you're going to get yourself killed in the process! Look at Winter, Tony! Look at him! I won't be a part of this!"
"I am looking at him!" Tony thundered. "I have done little else since we got back from that damned desert! You think I don't know I'm the reason why he's hurt? Why he's lying in the fucking bed and doped up on horse tranquilizers because they were the only thing he responded to?" All of his anger had bled away, leaving a kind of desperation behind. "Obie isn't going to stop unless I stop him, Pepper, and the people he's selling these weapons to aren't going to stop either. I can't keep letting this happen, can't stand by while people get slaughtered by the weapons I made. And I know in my heart," a warm hand covered the Soldier's own where it lay on top of the covers, "that it's right."
"I'm sorry, Tony. I can't. I just can't." Strain coated every syllable. "I will do this one last thing for you, but that's it. After that, I'm gone."
As he listened to the sound of Pepper Potts walking away, the Soldier realized he'd been wrong. She wasn't safe. Not at all.
The Soldier awoke suddenly, the pain of his body jolting him to consciousness. Unlike the last time he'd been awake, there was no floating sensation. His mind felt groggy, but it was clear enough for him to recall what had happened. He must have passed out from his injuries and Tony had gotten him back to the mansion. An empty chair sat next to the bed, but no one occupied it.
"My apologies," came JARVIS's voice from above. "I'm afraid I've cut off your pain medication. There is a situation in the living room that requires your attention and, if I may, please hurry."
JARVIS had never asked the Soldier for anything before and the AI had been created by Tony. If he said there was something that he needed to do, the Soldier was inclined to believe him. He began the excruciating task of pulling himself out of the bed. His chest felt like it was on fire and every gasped breath caused the pain to flare up even more. He had to pause for a moment as he considered pushing himself to his feet.
"Where's Tony? And the others?"
The Soldier didn't really care about the others, but it would be strategic folly not to know where they were.
"Miss Carter and the Howling Commandos left just under an hour ago to assist Miss Potts. I have already alerted them but they won't make it back in time. Sir is currently in the living room with Obadiah Stane. The situation appears most sinister."
There were undertones of worry in the AI's voice, but the Soldier was no longer listening. Tony was alone. With Stane. The Soldier had to reach him, had to keep him safe. He nearly toppled over as he levered himself to his feet. Something was wrong with his hip, right along with every other inch of his body. It struck him that one of his legs might be broken. It didn't matter. He had to get to Tony.
He used the wall to support himself as he half-limped and half-shuffled down the hall. His chest ached, like he had a car sitting on top of it. The Soldier grit his teeth and pushed through, each step a monumental effort as he strove toward his goal. He'd barely made it down three steps of the stairs before his foot slipped and he went tumbling down the rest, landing sprawled across the floor at the bottom. The Soldier struggled to push himself back up, all the while staring at the scene before him in absolute horror.
Tony lay propped against the back of the couch, chalk white and unmoving. The arc reactor that should have been in his chest, keeping him alive, glowed from its place in Stane's hand. The older man was looking at the Soldier with raised eyebrows and surprised interest. He tucked the reactor away into a small, black case and pat Tony's head once as he stood to approach the prone assassin. Dammit, why wouldn't his body work?
"Well, this is unexpected," Obadiah said conversationally, stopping just out of arm's reach. The Soldier glared up at him hatefully. "A metal arm, huh? I guess that means you're little pet over here can only be one person, isn't that right, Tony?"
"Stay away from him," the Soldier growled.
Stane only chuckled and gave him a look like one might a tiny dog yapping at a mail man.
"So protective, not that it mattered in the end. Not for Tony…How did that happen, I wonder? Did Tony figure out how to reprogram you, too? HYDRA was rather upset that you managed to get away, you know. How much do you think they would pay to have you back?" He chuckled again, like he'd made some joke at a dinner party. "Or maybe I should keep you. I'm sure that arm of yours could really give my engineers some new ideas for the suits. And, of course, it never hurts to have a mindless assassin willing to do your bidding." He pulled out his phone and sent off a quick message. "Just a bit of brainwashing, maybe some electrical currents pulsed into your head. Don't worry, it'll be totally painless. For me at least."
Footsteps approached from the direction of the front door, two men in all black appearing in the Soldier's line of site. Stane gestured down at him dismissively as he stepped around the Soldier and headed for the door.
"Get him loaded in the car. Restrain him as needed."
The two men approached, rifles aimed, but the Soldier paid the guns no mind. Tony was still on the couch, still hadn't moved. His chest was moving jerkily and it didn't take someone with the Soldier's experience to realize that he was dying. What wasn't he moving? Someone needed to get to him!
His metal arm shot out to wrap a hand around one of the men's ankles, squeezing it until he felt the bones shatter. The man cried out loudly, driving the butt of his rifle into the side of the Soldier's head repeatedly. The other one was shouting something, pulling a needle out of his vest and jabbing it into the Soldier's leg. Whatever was in it didn't have any effect. The Soldier spat blood out of his mouth as he dragged the first man down, hand moving to grasp his neck instead. The Soldier would kill these men, wipe them out of existence, and then he would get to Tony. Tony had to be kept safe, had to be protected.
He registered the sound of gunshots and pain erupted through his abdomen. Black was clawing at the edges of his vision, but the Soldier refused to give into it. He snarled through blood-coated teeth and twisted his arm, breaking the man's neck. The other one was still there though, still a threat, and the Soldier turned onto his back to try and get a look at him. Something slammed into his stomach and the Soldier curled in on himself, unable to fight the pain. His eyes sought out Tony, still crumpled on the couch, and his arm reached out to the genius as everything faded to black.
The Soldier was rather tired of waking up in pain. It'd only happened once when he was with HYDRA and then it hadn't been nearly this severe. It felt like there wasn't a single piece of his body that wasn't just in absolutely horrific pain. His healing abilities could only do so much, so fast, after all, and he was pretty sure he had at least three bullet holes in his abdomen. His handlers would have been pitching an absolute fit if he'd ever turned up in such a state.
He shook his head to try and clear it when the scenery suddenly changed. He'd been in some kind of warehouse, maybe a lab, with his arms chained to a pole behind his back. He wasn't sure how he'd gotten from there to some cobblestoned alley so quickly. And then suddenly Tony was there, too, looking younger but only by a few years. He was rambling on about something or other, but the Soldier couldn't really focus on it.
Then he was back in the lab again, staring at Stane's back as the man did something on a control panel. A few guards lingered about, but they didn't seem to be participating in whatever it was Stane was up to. The Soldier immediately began trying to figure out how to kill each and every one of them. Unfortunately, they were staying pretty well out of range. They barely even glanced in his direction as he shifted around.
Dried blood caked the side of his face and head, matting his hair. Combining that with the blood covering his torso and he was sure he must look something hellish. Not as bad as Tony, though, he thought with a tightening sensation in his chest. Whatever Stane had done to him, he'd already looked like a corpse. If the Soldier hadn't been able to see his chest moving, he would have thought the man was dead. Had he managed to survive? Had someone gotten to Tony in time? Either way, the Soldier had failed in his mission.
The Soldier had always been efficient when carrying out his missions. He'd never hesitated or second-guessed himself, but he'd never been particularly violent before, never felt the drive to cause damage so strongly. He did now, though, with the memory of Tony collapsed on that couch in his mind. He wanted to rip their spines from their backs, wanted to hold Stane down and carve into him. And, if Tony were dead, which the Soldier admitted was more likely than not, then that was exactly what he was going to do. He settled down to glare at the man's back, biding his time as his body healed and he imagined all of the things he could do to the man. He'd learned quite a lot with HYDRA, after all.
He'd only been awake about twenty minutes when there was a small explosion from the front of the lab, followed by the sound of a door opening. Obadiah cursed and made a waving motion at his men before heading out of sight. The armed men faded into the background and the Soldier flexed his arms, testing the chains that held him. They didn't give.
"It looks like you were right," a voice floated over from the front of the lab, the Soldier knew it. It was the mild-looking man from the Gala, the one Tony had known. "He is building a suit."
"I thought it'd be bigger."
That was Pepper, the Soldier realized. What was she doing here? Hadn't she quit? She'd hurt Tony by doing it, just one more of the many people who'd hurt him lately. He could hear the click of her heels on the floor as she came closer and considered his options. Tony had been hurt by her, but he also cared about her. If she were to die or be hurt, it would only hurt him more…if he was still even alive. The Soldier had already failed enough.
"Get out!" It felt odd, raising his voice, but he had to make sure he got his message across. "He's hidden with six armed guards! You need to leave!"
The heels only picked up their pace and suddenly Pepper was coming into view, horror flooding her features as she caught sight of him and the Agent followed right behind her. Oh, right, the blood.
"Winter! Oh, my God!"
He was pretty sure she ruined that pencil skirt when he knelt in front of him and it irritated him more than it probably should. This was exactly the opposite of what he'd told her to do. At least Coulson seemed to be intelligent enough to have his gun out and at the ready. He eyed the Soldier for a long moment, lingering on his maskless face, before speaking into a com until.
"Check the room. We have confirmation of the target and at least six hostiles. Be advised that hostiles are armed." He moved closer, eyes still glancing around the room before leaning around the pole to get a look at the chains. "They've got you secured pretty well, Sergeant. I'm afraid this'll take a moment to get you out of."
The Soldier was confused. Sergeant? Why had Coulson called him that? He'd have to think more on it later, because an angry shout rose up from the other side of the lab, followed by the sounds of gunfire and things being smashed. The Soldier all but glared at Pepper, leaning forward as far as his chains would allow.
She shook her head fervently, eyes wide and terrified but still determined.
"I'm not leaving you! Tony would kill me!"
The Soldier had shouted it and the words shattered something inside of him. He'd been trying to convince himself that there was a way Tony had survived, but that wasn't really true. JARVIS had already said that Peggy and the Commandos wouldn't make it back in time. Pepper's hands flew up to cover her mouth.
She sounded just as devastated as the Soldier felt. He couldn't look at her.
"Stane took the arc reactor."
There was a clatter of chains against the floor as the pressure on the Soldier's arms was suddenly released. Coulson stepped back around, his expression as mild as ever.
"I wouldn't count him out just yet. Stark has a way of surviving impossible situations. Remind me to tell you about Budapest sometime. For now, I'm getting the both of you out of here."
The agent slipped an arm around the Soldier's shoulders, helping him to his feet and taking some of his weight as they made their way toward the door. They stepped over the body of one guard and two more were shot down by Coulson along their way, the other agents keeping Obadiah at bay. The Soldier could already tell they weren't going to last long. Stane was just toying with them.
They barely made it out of the building when a car whipped into the parking lot and skidded to a stop. Peggy climbed out of the driver's side and rushed toward them as Dum Dum followed close behind.
"The others have headed back to the mansion. What's going on? Where's Tony?" She stuttered to a halt in front of them, her eyed fixed on the Soldier's face even more intently than Coulson's had been. "Oh, my God! Is that-"
"Not now," Coulson cut her off. "We have agents inside that need help. Stane's created an armor to match Stark's and he's not being shy about using it."
Peggy visibly struggled to pull herself back into the moment, but nodded decisively, though her eyes kept flickering repeatedly back to the Soldier's face. It was really starting to make him uncomfortable.
"What do you need us to do?"
Coulson opened his mouth to reply but was cut off as the concrete of the parking lot bulged upward, cracking before giving way and allowing Stane to climb forth. This suit was huge, a bulky monstrosity that easily dwarfed Tony's. It was inelegant, though, and its movements weren't nearly as smooth or quick. It reminded the Soldier more of what Tony had made at the HYDRA base than his current suits. Had Stane somehow managed to get ahold of those schematics?
"Well, well, well," Stane boomed. "It looks like my night just keeps getting better and better! I didn't think I'd be able to get rid of so many of my irritations at once!"
His arms rose and the Soldier pushed himself forward, dragging both Peggy and Pepper to the ground with him as Dum Dum and Coulson dropped beside them. A spray of bullets flew overhead, shattering the glass plate windows and sending shards crashing down around them. The Soldier could make out Obadiah's laughter along with a familiar whirl that only got louder before there was the sound of metal crashing into metal and the gunfire was cut off.
The Soldier's head popped up like something in a carnival game as he struggled to get himself to his feet. His entire world was narrowed to the fight in front of him, to the red and gold suit now facing off against Obadiah's. There was a glowing blue circle of light in its chest.
"Did you know?"
Peggy looked furious, now that she had finished smothering Tony with hugs and kisses. She was pointing an accusing finger at the Soldier as she yelled at her adoptive son. The Soldier didn't really know what was going on, he was just glad to have Tony home and safe and to have his mask back on so people would stop staring at him every time they saw him. Tony, though, looked guilty enough at the accusation that he clearly knew something.
"Yeah, I, uh, I kinda figured it out. But I didn't know the whole time!" he defended. "I only figured it out while I was with HYDRA."
Yinsen shared a look with the Soldier from where he was tending to Tony's injuries. Apparently the genius had decided to make Yinsen his personal doctor.
"And you didn't think to tell me? I thought we agreed no secrets! And to hide something like this!"
"What difference would it have made? He doesn't remember anything!" He glanced toward the Soldier, apparently noting his confused expression. "Sorry. I guess you don't really get what's happening right now. Aunt Peggy knew you before you were the Winter Soldier. I figured out who you used to be and didn't tell her."
The Soldier blinked in surprise.
"I wasn't anyone before I was the Winter Soldier."
Peggy actually looked like she might cry, which unnerved him greatly. Tony just rolled his eyes.
"Alright, Jack Frost. We were all someone before we were chosen, and all that." He poked the Soldier's flesh arm. "You were James Buchanan Barnes, but everyone called you Bucky."
The Soldier frowned.
"Who the Hell is Bucky?"
"Are you kidding me? I can't read this!"
Rhodes kinda looked like he wanted to smack the genius upside the back of his head.
"Just stick to the cards."
Tony turned to Coulson instead, much to the Soldier's amusement.
"No, seriously. If I claim there was a bodyguard in that suit then everybody's going to assume it was Winter since he's the one that I took to that gala! It would get us literally nowhere!"
"As Colonel Rhodes suggested, just stick to the cards, Mr. Stark. This isn't my first rodeo."
The Soldier was pretty sure Tony was just waiting for the agent to turn his back before he stuck his tongue out at him. The ex-assassin was still recovering from his injuries and sat in a chair so he pulled on Tony's suit sleeve to get his attention. As soon as the inventor was down on his level, he smirked.
"So what are you planning to tell them?"
Tony glanced around to make sure the others were distracted before smirking right back and pressing a quick kiss to the Soldier's forehead.
"The truth," he murmured. "I am Iron Man."