The file is slid slowly across the table, already opened to the first page. The man who has handed it to him – Pierce, the name echoes from the recesses of his mind – has a vaguely smug, self-satisfied little grin playing at his thin lips. It is as if he finds this particular assignment amusing or notably interesting. But there is a flicker of something else behind his sharp gaze; it reads as hesitance or reluctance, perhaps even fear.
The assignment seems to have Pierce torn between excitement and apprehension. The other man is studying him closely; he’s clearly being gauged for a possible reaction. Whoever the target is, his handler believes that there’s a possibility he’ll react poorly.
Maybe he has before, maybe he hasn’t. There’s never anything before this – this folder, this target, this mission. Just a blank space where even he innately knows memories are supposed to be.
He supposes he should be upset that he cannot remember his own history, that all he knows is what he’s been told, but he simply does not care.
Knowing and feeling are two entirely different matters and somehow he wakes up with that clear distinction in his head every time.
Reaching out with his metal hand, he presses two fingers to the pages and draws the entire package closer.
Pierce’s pattern of breathing changes, picking up ever so slightly.
He ignores that for now, filing it away, and reads the assignment with as much thoroughness as he can afford when Pierce is waiting for an immediate appraisal.
Steven Grant Rogers, otherwise known as Captain America. Recently in the public eye due to his involvement in the Battle of New York. Team leader of the Avengers Initiative. He skims the physical stats, the veritable laundry list of enhanced abilities, the known associates, weapons preferences, yet he keeps finding his gaze ticking back upward to the swank Park Avenue address listed under place of residence – for some reason that seems wrong – and the puzzling date of birth that places this new lethal threat at an inexplicable ninety-four years of age.
His fingers toy with the two photographs, attached by a weak paper clip to the information sheet in front of him. The first is a military ID photo taken in black and white, Rogers in his dress uniform staring sternly out from the frame. The focus is soft, the corners are curling, the whites of the paper yellowed and the darks going no deeper than brownish-gray.
He’s been awake and in the world for enough hours now to read the image as old. The man in the picture is young.
The second photograph is in lackluster color, a modern machine-printed SHIELD-issued ID that renders the details of the man’s uniform barely discernable save the white star against the dark navy material. Rogers’ hair is blond, his skin pale, but the color of his eyes is not readable. He only knows they are blue because he has read it in the stats. Nevertheless, Rogers looks nearly the same as he had in the previous snapshot.
The special abilities state advanced healing and a decreased aging process, but Steven Grant Rogers exceeds the expectations of those words. He stares at the two photographs, fingers gripping their edges tightly.
Steven Grant Rogers is beautiful.
He draws his hand back too quickly, he knows. This is what Pierce must have been waiting for. Something unwanted and unbidden. Something against orders.
It is not his job to wonder how they knew.
They think because he rarely speaks, he does not listen. They are wrong. He is always listening.
This is how he knows that sending him after Steven Grant Rogers is a decision that has cost Pierce some favor amongst the upper echelons of HYDRA.
Nevertheless he is sent. He goes. He follows. He watches.
The plan of attack is his to develop. The weaknesses in Captain America’s defenses are his to find. Killing the enhanced soldier will not be easily done; it’s not a simple matter of a bullet finding the right place at the right time. It’s going to take more than that, and this is something Pierce understands.
He understands it too.
His are specially developed skills. His talents are the only things he knows; he wakes with a self-assured sense that his body is a weapon. His mind is always working out the best angle for a kill.
It is all he thinks about until he starts thinking of him.
He shadows Steven Rogers through the city streets. While he begins by studying the way Rogers carries himself to detect any possible signs of injury, after four blocks his gaze is dropping from those broad shoulders down to the flexing muscles of the man’s ass as he moves.
He attempts to listen in on Rogers’ conversations, sifting for pertinent information, but he is distracted by the deep, warm tone of Rogers’ voice and the shape of his full, pink lips as they wrap around certain words.
He spends four days on Rogers’ tail before he’s pulled back in to Pierce. Four days is evidently longer than he usually needs to get a job done.
“Wipe him and start over.”
This part of the shipyard is empty this time of night and there are plenty of metal barrels suitable for disposal purposes. He won’t even have to drag the body far from where the Captain currently stands.
“I think this lead is a bust.”
He has hacked into their comms and the one who speaks is the one they call Iron Man. Iron Man is the only one deployed alongside the Captain at the moment, making this assassination job easier than originally planned.
“Too early to call, quit the chatter.” The Captain's voice is in his ear and it feels eerily familiar. Like the man’s warm breath should be tickling his skin, lips brushing his throat.
“Cap, someone is yanking our chain. Human traffickers? There ain’t nobody here but you and me and you know it.” The Captain lets out an exasperated sigh as Iron Man abandons his assigned position and joins him on the ground beside the shipping crate he’s been using for cover. He lands gracefully for a man encased in a heavy, clunky suit of armor.
“I can think of better ways to spend our alone time.”
The gauntleted hand Iron Man places on the Captain's hip is intimate but his tone is sly, joking. The Captain steps back, muttering something about how Pepper must think he’s downright hilarious.
His finger catches the trigger before he takes the time to aim at the proper target and the bullet goes wide, shattering concrete just to the Captain's left. The blast sends both men diving for cover.
“You were saying?” The Captain exclaims.
“Ok, playtime later.” Tony is clearly disappointed.
He is disappointed as well.
He never misses a shot.
That reason makes the most sense, even if he knows that’s not really why he feels devastated.
Nevertheless, he follows the blond man, the one whose name he has not been told, through the capital city streets with little difficulty. When they wind up back at the man’s apartment, he’s almost annoyed, because if he’d known the man was simply going to return home, he could have set up camp and waited and saved a lot of time and trouble.
An old song is playing on the stereo. It echoes across the alleyway and finds him on his rooftop. It distracts him momentarily from his mission, sending a jolt of something through his body that he doesn’t remember feeling before.
But then the light turns on, goes just as quickly off, giving him enough of a glimpse to know that Director Fury has made contact. His information was on the money; the blond man would lead him right to his mark.
He cocks his weapon and aims. Fires.
Yet he waits. He waits far too long after he shoots multiple rounds, watching to see whom he hit. It’s not to make sure his target is down.
He breathes a faint sigh of relief when he sees the blond man moving before he suddenly realizes he is moving toward him, and he needs to go.
They wind up close enough to one another that he can hear the man’s stunned gasp and heavy breathing when he stops the thrown shield cold, catching it solidly in one hand. He stares, getting a long good look at the other man, and it’s suddenly hard for him to breathe as well.
He hurls the shield back and runs.
He succeeded in his mission, yet somehow, he has failed.
Sad. Troubled. Confused.
He’s seen these weaknesses play out for others before and it never ends well, but the emotions come, ceaselessly, wave after wave after wave.
That face. That voice.
On the rooftop, he had been caught off guard by something, something strong enough to make him hesitate, make him consider, but he’d shrugged it off and re-focused his efforts.
He knew him.
The disbelieving question reverberates in his mind, over and over and over. The man on the bridge, the blond man with that defiant set to his chiseled jaw that seemed oh-so-familiar, the blond man with the red, white and blue shield and the punch that would dent metal…
He knew him. Somehow.
There are memories, memories that might be his own and might not. They don’t involve the man on the bridge, and somehow they do, as if remembering one thing will lead to the other.
His head hurts, like a thousand voices screaming in his ears, like his skull is breaking wide open. The lights are too bright and all he wants to do is close his eyes and concentrate, concentrate on the memory of that voice, saying that name.
His name? Does he have a name? Is that his name?
It can’t be. And yet…
Pierce arrives and pontificates about his larger purpose, but he can’t think of anything except the man on the bridge. He doesn’t care what Pierce wants him to do, he only wants to know why there is suddenly this gaping hole in the center of his chest, this insurmountable amount of longing and pain unlike anything he’s ever felt.
“But I knew him.”
Pierce looks at him coldly.
“Wipe him and start over.”
Watching the man fall, he’d found himself letting go of the ship, plummeting after him into the icy water of the river. The man was sinking, slipping into unconsciousness. Somewhere between the helicarrier and the water, he’d let go. Maybe even before that, when he lay there and let his face be pummeled by angry fists.
But it wasn’t the end of the line. Bucky – in that moment, he felt like the name, perhaps even like the man – grabbed onto Steve Rogers’ shoulder and held on tight. On the riverbank now, he stares down at the man that he has saved and he can only feel terror, dismay.
Is he James Buchanan Barnes? Is that his name, his identity, his past? If it’s true – he’d just saved Steve Rogers, why else would he do that? – then he needs to understand, needs to find out on his own how he came to be nothing but this shell, this empty nothing that only annihilates everything in his path.
He stumbles off, unsure of where he’s going but knowing he can’t stay.
It’s what he’s been trained to do and it’s the only way he can see his way through it.
There’s no hard copy file with a dossier. There’s no folder on a laptop with images and lists and other data. But he collects it just the same, keeps it stored in his mind. It’s the only thing that’s organized in the muddle. The rest of his thoughts and feelings are an amorphous mess, a tangled mass of sharp objects and dangling threads.
So he fixates on James Buchanan Barnes.
He learns everything he possibly can. Visits the exhibit at the Smithsonian, reads all the history books and the tell-all memoirs and the fan fiction. He accesses the SSR and SHIELD archives and the government databases and pores over Barnes’ active duty records, both before and after his involvement with Captain America and his Howling Commandos.
He visits forgotten corners of Brooklyn and far-flung places in Europe, re-tracing steps taken over seventy years prior.
James Barnes has no close living relatives. His sister, Rebecca, died of old age, yet she had been childless. His cousin, Robert, died in the Battle of the Bulge, while his other cousin, Thomas, met his fate on the sands of Omaha Beach. His first cousin once removed, two years old at the time of Robert’s death, had died of a drug overdose in San Francisco in 1963. There’s no way left to scientifically prove any genetic relationship with the Barnes’ line.
Looking in the mirror, it should feel irrefutable. He’s the spitting image of this “Bucky” Barnes, so much so that Steve Rogers believes it to be true. It’s not until he finds tattered medical records from his eighth year, haphazardly stored in the basement of his family doctor’s great granddaughter’s house, that he accepts his former identity.
There is a small, heart-shaped birthmark on his forearm. His left tibia had in fact been broken at a young age; this remodeling is evident in current x-rays. Evidently, this injury was from a fall down the front staircase of his apartment building.
There is a scar on the back of his neck, just below his hairline, from a pair of scissors. He can feel the raised flesh under the pads of his fingers. The doctor noted that his younger sister, at the age of four, had attempted to give him a haircut and stitches were the result.
The asset has no new scars, apart from the rather obvious loss of his left arm. He assumes he has been injured in years since. It seems rather unlikely that he hasn’t.
Any hurt he incurred from the encounter with Captain America on the SHIELD helicarrier has faded, despite the serious nature of some of the injuries. The only history written on this body is the history of James Buchanan Barnes, and this is enough to convince him that he had, at the very least, been this man once upon a time.
He isn’t now, and for this, he finds himself immeasurably angry.
That was his code name and the asset has become him again, visiting retribution upon anyone still alive who was involved in his making.
And if they were still alive, they would be alive no more.
His fury burns like fire, and every new revelation only fans the flames. He re-traces decades of murder and mayhem and seeks retribution.
Redemption cannot be his, but he knows enough to see he was the tool and not the hand. The hand must be slaughtered.
He kills ex-KGB officials in their beds. He hunts HYDRA down. He tears their men to pieces and burns what’s left of their facilities. One head, much less two, cannot grow if there is no body.
The only thing about leaving a trail is that a trail can be followed.
He considers this when he sees Steve Rogers across a crowded piazza in Venice, so close yet far enough away that he can certainly escape his view and continue on unnoticed. He’s with that other man, the man who had the wings, and they stand comfortably close to one another as they exchange words, as good friends do.
The Winter Soldier could have made these evil men vanish, bloodlessly and without fanfare. They could have been whispered away in the night with nary a trace, a mysterious disappearance never to be solved. He could have wiped HYDRA from the map swiftly and silently. Yet he had not. He had done all of this violently and explosively, knowing that he would not avoid attention.
The Winter Soldier is not ready to be caught.
But perhaps it is a small comfort to know that Steve Rogers is only two steps behind him, should he ever change his mind.
Steve Rogers stopped following him two days back, and now in a twist of fate he finds himself following Steve Rogers.
Their HYDRA target is one and the same, and while the Winter Soldier could deftly handle the situation with single-handed stealth, Captain America is with his team, with his Avengers.
And they take out Baron Von Strucker’s last stronghold as a team. Despite the fact that Steve and Sam Wilson have been roaming the globe in search of him for months, Captain America slides back into his position as team leader so easily each time they gather in pursuit of this scepter. They’ve become almost as adept at tracking HYDRA as the Winter Soldier is himself.
Though it seems Captain America and Thor have developed quite the working relationship, their battle styles perfectly complementary, it’s when Tony heckles Steve warmly that something inside the Winter Soldier rankles. He no longer feels pride in having hacked their complicated communication signal and he switches off the feed. He leaves them to their inevitable victory.
Steve Rogers now has five other people he answers to before his own desire to find James Barnes, five other people who rate a higher priority than his personal, private mission.
Five other people and the world, it seems. Within a matter of days the situation escalates into something near uncontrollable – an army of robots and an enhanced that sends everyone spiraling into their own private pain.
The Winter Soldier might have helped. He could have stepped in.
But he’s not accustomed to doing good and he’s not sure he knows how.
So he watches from afar as Steve and Tony fight with words at the farmhouse and fight with fists at the Tower. He watches as they fight together in Sokovia, and as they make up and part ways in the aftermath.
There’s something between them. Something that doesn’t exist between Steve and any of the others, not even Wilson or Romanoff. When Tony Stark is near, Steve burns brightly, burns fiercely. Whether it’s with joy or rage, he’s alight. He’s alive.
The entirely misplaced focus and the anger the Winter Soldier feels are not exactly his.
He had assumed that James Barnes was a good man, but maybe he’s been bad from the very start.
One by one, gaps start filling in.
Sometimes, they’re big pieces. The first time Bucky met Steve. He can practically smell the summer heat baking the trash in the alley as he heaves the small boy up from the ground. His delicate face is beaten bloody by the bullies Bucky had just scared away, and he’s actually shocked dumb by how beautifully blue the boy’s eyes still are as he glares up at him and declares he hadn’t needed the help.
The memory is so vivid that he wakes with his heart beating wildly in his chest, Steve’s name echoing in the empty room.
He remembers the first time they kiss, hot and sticky on a Fourth of July, Steve’s lips cold and tasting like cherry popsicles. He remembers when Steve’s mother dies, and when he tells Steve he’s been called up and Steve cries tears of rage and frustration at not being able to follow. He remembers fucking Steve on a lumpy bedroll in some drafty tent, smothering muffled I love yous with a hand over Steve’s mouth, so worried that someone will hear. He remembers thinking that he'll never get out of the war alive, but Steve will, and that he is okay with that.
There are little, incomplete pieces with barely any context to help sort them out. Flashes of Steve’s shy, crooked smile; a gash above his eyebrow; a tear rolling down his pale cheek; the feel of newly strong arms around Bucky’s waist, holding him up.
Nothing comes back that isn’t about Steve Rogers and it feels as much a burden as it does a blessing.
They are in an Italian restaurant, sitting so close to one another that it had unconsciously been a romantic date long before either of them realized it.
James Barnes watches through water-streaked glass as Steve kisses Tony back.
As Steve smiles. As Tony breathes a visible sigh of relief.
But I knew him.
His hands curl into fists at his sides. He shoves them into his pockets.
He was mine.
He wishes he could forget.
Yes, Steve has alerts established, pieces in place. He ostensibly looks into leads. He no longer hops onto a plane the second he hears rumors of the Winter Soldier. He sends Sam, or sends another operative, or sends no one at all.
Steve hasn’t really stopped, but his heart’s no longer in it. His heart is with Tony Stark.
Bucky is slowly being forgotten.
James starts getting sloppy, leaving breadcrumbs so obvious that they’re more like freshly baked loaves sitting on kitchen windowsills. He’s trying to lure Steve in.
He captures the attention of Natasha instead.
“You need to go to him.” Is what she says. All she says. She sits in the non-functional kitchen of his rundown squat and stares at him like she’s the one who is owed an explanation.
“He’s wiping me and starting over.”
Natasha shakes her head, then stands and walks to the door.
“You need to go to him.”
Tony kisses Steve asleep at night and he kisses Steve awake in the morning.
They fight like only two people in love can fight, and make up just the same.
They share a bed, they share a home, and they share a life.
James watches it all.
The nights when they comfortably lean into each other until they’re drowsy and nodding, Tony reading off his tablet while Steve holds a thick book, are nearly as bad as the evenings when Tony spreads Steve out on the mattress and fucks him until Steve forgets himself and takes the Lord’s name in vain, over and over.
The feed of Tony and Steve’s bedroom is live when Natasha slips soundlessly through the broken window, landing softly a few steps behind him.
He doesn’t bother turning it off. The image is black and white but it’s crisp, and the sound is clear. Steve is on his back, Tony thrusting deep inside of him. Steve is beautiful and if he’s honest, so is Tony, made gorgeous by virtue of how clearly and thoroughly he cares for the man laid bare underneath him. They’re so wrapped up in each other, he probably could have walked right into the room and neither of them would have noticed.
He’s hard, himself, just from watching, but he never does anything about it.
“To be honest, I'm slightly terrified that you’ve managed this for so long without FRIDAY noticing.” Natasha focuses on the screen, head tilting as if she’s curious. She makes a small, impressed noise as Tony presses Steve’s legs near over his head. “I almost can’t blame you for this, James.”
“That’s not my name.”
“What should I call you, then?”
He doesn’t reply.
“It could be different than this.”
“Doesn’t mean it should be.” He reaches out and hits a button on the laptop and the screen goes black, the sound cuts off. “He’s happy.”
“He'll never be happy when he's got one foot out the door after you. He and Tony are never going to work if you're still out here. So whether he's happy with you or happy with Tony, first step is you need to come back.”
Natasha doesn’t seem like she’s leaving anytime soon, so he does.
He can no longer access FRIDAY’s network after that.
He doesn’t know who this man is with the high-powered sniper rifle, sights focused intently on the center of Tony Stark’s forehead.
He doesn’t know who has been following Tony for days, whose finger has twitched on the trigger of his handgun or around the handle of his knife, ready to kill him just because Tony’s smiling at Steve over a cup of afternoon coffee at their favorite café or because Tony’s hand is on the small of Steve’s back as they sweep their way down a red carpet at a charity ball.
He doesn’t know who it is on the roof of the office building across from Avengers Tower. He doesn’t know who is laying flat on the cement, loaded gun propped on the ledge and ready to fire.
He doesn’t know whose sick, twisted thought it is to kill Tony when he’s underneath Steve in their bed. How he wants to kill Tony just as he comes, to see his eyes go from hazy with lust to glassy and dull, to see the life drain out of him just at the moment he thought he had it all.
To see red blood spill over their pristine white sheets.
Part of him wants to hear Steve scream when he realizes what’s happened. That while he’d been in the throes of passion, his lover had been killed right in front of him and there had been nothing he could do to stop it. That he hadn’t even seen it coming.
That part of him does not win.
He’s shaking as he packs up his rifle.
He’s Bucky Barnes, and Bucky Barnes would never cause Steve Rogers pain.
Steve pales, stopping in his tracks.
The street is busy with cars, the sidewalk crowded with people.
Bucky does not move. He waits until Steve finds his feet again and lets Steve walk to him.
Tony stays behind.
Steve reaches out to touch. Bucky carefully stays still, allowing him to do it.
“It’s you.” Steve doesn’t sound like he really believes it. Bucky relaxes into the gentle hand that comes to the side of his face.
“Wasn’t sure of that for awhile. Didn’t know me. But I knew you.”
“You're really here?”
Bucky answers this by stepping into Steve’s embrace. He looks over Steve’s shoulder at Tony, and doesn’t waver in meeting the other man’s cold stare.
Tony Stark does not leave Steve Rogers.
James Buchanan Barnes tears them apart.
He had killed Tony’s parents, and for Steve's sake, Tony attempts to offer a forgiveness he cannot actually deliver.
A committee is commissioned to investigate the Winter Soldier for crimes against the United States. The Hague wants him called up on war crimes. Steve fights for his friend, and Tony cannot.
It spirals from there.
The conversation quickly turns to the damage that the super powered can do, how out of human control they have become. He was a one-man reign of terror for seventy years. The Hulk destroys cities. Ultron nearly destroyed the world.
Superhumans cannot just be. They cannot just exist. They need oversight; they need to be controlled. They are not people. They are dangerous weapons.
Steve is on one side. Steve is on his side.
Tony is on the other.
James Buchanan Barnes faces his execution willingly, but Death is not the one he meets.
Tony Stark sits in his new chair as director of SHIELD. One look tells him there’s near nothing left of the man that Steve loved.
Tony nods to the armed men standing on either side of Bucky. They shove him down to sit.
His chair is not new. It is old. It is familiar.
“Wipe him and start over.”