“As of oh-nine-hundred GMT this morning, a kill order has been placed on the operative known as the Winter Soldier.” Fury places the file on the table, within easy reach of Steve, who ignores it.
“Why now, sir?” he asks, while Clint makes a grab for the file.
“Why are we choosing to eliminate the most effective assassin this decade has seen?” asks Fury. His tone is flat, as though he thinks Steve is an idiot for asking the question, or for questioning the order.
“He’s gone rogue,” says Hill. “Or, at least, he’s disappeared.”
“He’s gone so far off the reservation that his previous, ah, employers haven’t the first fucking clue where he is,” says Fury. “He’s armed. He’s dangerous. And his last known target is sitting in this room.” He looks at Steve again. “Cap, we’re gonna need you to come in. We can’t guarantee your safety in Brooklyn.”
“And you can in Stark Tow- the Avengers Mansion?” asks Steve.
“We’ve got JARVIS,” says Stark. He sounds insulted.
“And how’s his aim?”
“We’ve got Hawkeye for the actual shooting,” says Stark. Clint preens.
Steve goes home. He stops at the grocery store on his way and his purchases are unremarkable: milk, bread, cheese, eggs, flour, bacon, chips, orange juice, beer, gum, ice-cream and candy.
He doesn’t have a sweet tooth.
“I think we broke Cap.”
“But he’s unbreakable. He’s like the goddamned Titanic; he’s unsinkable.”
“Ah, Barton, did you actually watch the entire movie?”
“What? No, I got bored before the goddamned boat left the goddamned harbour.”
“Barton, you do know-”
“That the Titanic sank? Yes, fuck you, too. Stark. That’s my point.”
Cap goes to work. He arrives unscathed.
“You’re being reckless, Cap,” says Fury.
Cap’s lips form a moue that might be a pout on a lesser man. “I’m not going to let a threat keep me from living my life, Director Fury.” He could use the kid from Brooklyn line, or he could point to his shield, or to his callused fingers and scarred knuckles and say that if he cannot protect himself, he cannot protect America. He doesn’t and Fury thanks God for small mercies. He’s not had his morning coffee yet; he is in no way prepared for one of Steve Rogers’ justice-fueled, ideal-ridden speeches.
Fury is fond of Cap. He might not idolise him in the way that Coulson had but he values him. He values him so much that he wants to keep him alive but Cap insists that he is the best judge of his own safety.
Fury thinks that Cap has no idea what they are dealing with. In truth, Fury’s a little short on details himself. He knows that the Winter Soldier is a formidable enemy. He is a weapon and he is a master of subtlety, skilled in many forms of assassination. There is only so much that Agent Romanov can tell them about him, only that he is a man, or mostly so, and that he has the swagger of an American and the dead eyes of a hardened killer.
It takes one to know one, Fury supposes, and it is with a twinge of fear that he understands that Captain America is unlikely to recognise death, even when he is staring him in the face.
“So, Cap, we’re thinking about a movie night tonight.”
“Thanks, Tony, but I think I’m just going to head home. It’s been a long day.”
“We’ve definitely broken him.”
“Don’t sound so miserable, Stark.”
“What have you broken, Tony, oh god-”
“No! No! Nothing, Pep, I promise. I think- It’s just. Cap. He’s all different.”
“Different how? Tony, what have you done to Captain America?”
“I’ve done nothing, Pep, I swear-”
“That’s the problem though, isn’t it, Stark?” Clint’s laugh is dry and humourless as the penny drops. “The poor sap has spent so long trying to get us to bond as a team that he’s actually lost the will to even try anymore.”
“He turned down movie night, Pepper.”
There is silence.
“Movie night! It was his idea in the first place! And now he’s all - ‘oh, no. I’d rather go home and be stoic and lonely’ instead.”
“How do you know he’s lonely?”
“Please. He hangs around here making soulful eyes at everyone so they’ll talk to him.”
“To be fair, Stark, he’s not done that for a long time. Oh god - does Cap have a girlfriend?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Barton.”
“Does he have a boyfriend?”
“Yes, clearly that’s a less ridiculous prospect.”
Steve goes home. The television is on. He sometimes wonders if he’s losing his mind.
Metal fingers curl around his throat, followed by warm lips and a gust of air.
“We’re no closer to finding him,” says Fury. He’s clearly exasperated by the whole situation. “Assassins don’t just vanish.”
“I did,” says Natasha.
“But we know where you are. You came to us,” says Fury. It’s a reasonable observation but Hill rolls her eyes. “I don’t think we can expect the same of the Winter Soldier.”
“Maybe he’s dead,” says Clint. “Assassins get sick, right?”
“Not this one,” says Natasha. “He’s - special.”
“We need to widen the net,” says Fury.
“Or narrow it.” Banner drums his fingers on the table. “If he wants Cap-”
“We’re not using Captain America as goddamned bait,” says Fury.
“It’s the obvious solution,” says Stark. He always backs Bruce. They are always the smartest men in the room. “You go out into the middle of Central Park and look all helpless assassin-fodder, Cap, and we’ll take him down.”
“Tony,” says Steve. He pinches the bridge of his nose between forefinger and thumb.
“Just do your puppy-dog best. He’ll be Russian putty in your hands.”
“And do you want to explain to the World Security Council how Captain America’s brains ended up splattered all over the sidewalk-”
“If he hasn’t tried to kill me yet,” says Steve. “Can’t we just assume-”
“We can assume nothing,” says Natasha, sharply.
“We don’t even know what country he’s in,” says Steve.
“If you’re his target, Cap,” says Natasha. “Then he is close by.”
“They want you dead.”
The lips against his throat are soft. He swallows dryly, with an audible click.
“They want you dead because they think you want me dead.”
There is a soft, rich laugh. It makes him smile, despite himself. He buries the fingers of one hand in long hair.
“Bucky,” he sighs. “Yasha-”
“He’s in New York, Director Fury. There’s been a confirmed sighting in Queen’s. A little boy rang the emergency services because he saw a monster.”
“Go on, Sitwell.”
“The transcript from the call says, ‘he looked like a man, but with long black hair and a metal arm. There was a star on the arm and he picked up my shield and cracked it in two and I started to cry and he ran away’.”
“Yes, sir. The little boy - an Otis Farrell, aged seven - was playing with a plastic replica Captain America shield at the time.”
Steve walks home in the first snow flurries. His apartment is in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. He slips slightly on the ice and shoves his hands deeper into his pocket.
His shield is on his back.
He walks up the stairs to his apartment and the television is on.
He sometimes wonders if he’s losing his mind.
A pair of scissors is pushed into his hand and, soon, the kitchen floor is covered in dark hair.
He is led into the bedroom and he is kissed.
“Are you sure you don’t want to move into the Mansion?” asks Tony, one day. “It’s a miserable commute in this weather.”
“You’ve never commuted a day in your life,” says Natasha. She’s sitting at the edge of the couch. It’s been a long day, with fractious meetings and winter is coiling and curling around New York, like a shadow or like cold metal fingers.
“I like it,” says Steve. He does. The subway is fuggy and hot and other travelers think that he’s a madman, carrying around a shield on his back, like he think he’s Captain America, or something. It is not inappropriate, he thinks, when he pretends not to hear the sympathetic murmurs about that poor young man, who thinks he’s a hero.
“You do look tired, Cap,” says Natasha.
“I want to go home,” says Steve.
There is a Saturday night, at the end of November, and Steve has found a long blue coat for him to wear, with faintly military undertones, and they look like any young couple in love and only they know that there is a metal arm beneath the sturdy wool of the coat and the fine leather of the gloves that Steve bought.
They kiss at the top of their old street and smile at each other and Steve is mesmerised by clear blue-grey eyes that look like splinters of ice.
“I love you,” he whispers and he is rewarded with a smile.
“Let’s go home,” he says.
“He must be lonely,” the interns say. “A man with an ass like that should never be lonely.”
“I love you,” he sighs, burying his face against an expanse of smooth-and-scarred skin, stretched over the perfect arc of shoulders and spine. “Don’t - ”
“There have been eighteen alleged sightings this week alone, Director Fury. Three within the designated red zone and eleven within the designated black zone.”
“Someone tell Cap to stop fucking around and just leave that goddamned apartment already.”
“If he won’t?”
“Send Iron Man to bodily drag him in here. We can’t close the goddamned trap when the bait keeps slipping through our own goddamned fingers.”
“I thought we weren’t going to use Captain America as bait, sir.”
“Haven’t you heard what the interns say, Deputy Director Hill? ‘Fury lies’.”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, we have a situation. Assemble, goddamn scramble the jets, best foot forward, release the hounds-”
“What’s happened, Stark?”
“I’ve just seen the Winter Soldier go into Cap’s building.”
“‘s what I said, Fury.”
“Wait for backup-”
“Cap’s in there with a crazy man who wants him dead-”
“I said wait for backup, Stark-”
There’s an intense, high-pitched whine which gives way to all-too-familiar guitar chords.
“Why is it always goddamned AC/DC?”
Winter-cold metal fingers brush over his cheek.
“You’ve been outside,” Steve slurs, waking slowly. “Told you not to go without me. ‘s dangerous.” He rolls onto his back. “I know, I know, you’re dangerous, too.” He tilts his face up. “Kiss me.”
“Jesus, Stark, you pull that shit again and -”
“You need to hear this-”
“Is Cap okay?”
“He’s - well. He seems to be sleeping with the enemy, Nick.”
“He’s what now?”
“In bed. With the enemy. Making the two-backed beast? There is a lot of sex going on in that bedroom and I’m not willing to get in between that, you know what I’m saying?”
“I’m just going to wait in the kitchen. Maybe make myself a sandwich. Ooh, Gruyere -”
“Have you forgotten that there’s a shoot-on-sight order on the table here, Stark?”
“Fuck you, Fury. I’m not going to kill anyone when they’ve got their pants down. Jesus, Steve, would it hurt you to keep some goddamned mayo in the fridge? But, yeah, Fury. No can do. Cap seems kind of attached. Physically, I mean.”
“Why didn’t you tell us, Cap?”
Steve looks down at his bare feet. His cheeks are a dull pink. He’s sitting next to Bucky on the couch, and he’s wearing sweatpants, and there are red finger furrows down Bucky’s shoulders.
“I thought,” he says, almost inaudibly. “I thought I might be imagining it.”
Bucky looks distraught. His fingers tighten on Steve’s thigh.
“We’re going to have to bring you in, James,” says Fury. “Till we can confirm your identity.”
He has faith in Romanov. She’ll find whatever evidence is needed to prove that this man is James Barnes and, if such evidence doesn’t exist, she’ll find it anyway.
They bring him in. Steve trails unhappily after him, his feet dragging on the snow-covered ground.
They remove his arm so Stark can tinker with it and ensure it’s not harbouring any additional kill-switches or warheads or surveillance equipment.
“I can’t believe that Cap actually was blowing off movie night for a regular booty-call.”
“I know. You think you know a repressed relic of the nineteen-forties and he turns out to be harbouring a fugitive.”
“Harbouring? Is that what the kids are calling it?”
Bucky gets a new arm.
It’s dark blue, and over the deltoid region, there’s a new insignia, in the form of wings like those on Captain America’s cowl.
The World Security Council are not amused.
Fury says they would be if they could see the Winter Soldier making snow angels on the roof of the Avengers Mansion with Clint Barton.
They don’t find that funny, either, but Fury doesn’t really give a fuck. He pours himself a glass of Scotch and raises it to the framed photograph of Agent Coulson that hangs on his office wall.
“Bucky Barnes,” he says. “Guess we’ve got the full set now, Phil.” He drains the glass. “I wish you could see it.”
They walk home, their hands unerringly finding each other.
“You’re not crazy, Steve.”
“I know, Buck. I know.” He laughs at Bucky’s sceptical expression. “I know now. I never said I was smart.”
“You’re the smartest idiot I know. Say, that Dr Banner’s a bright one-”
“What’s the play now, sir?”
“Continue surveillance, Hill.”
“What’s your feeling?”
“We don’t deal with feelings, Maria.”
“Yes, but - ”
“My feeling is that Steve Rogers is in safe hands.”
“That’s uncharacteristically optimistic of you, sir.”
“Don’t spread it around, Hill. The kids say I don’t have a heart.”
“I won’t disabuse them of the notion, I assure you.”
“So, James, has Steve told you about the Dodgers?”
“You wanna test how hard this hand can hit, Barton?”
“I love you.”
“I know, pal. You don’t haveta keep saying it like I’m gonna disappear.”