It was supposed to be a routine assassination. His handlers had told him that Howard Stark would be alone in his laboratory long into the night at the California headquarters of Stark Enterprises. He’d been able to slip inside the perimeter easily enough. The Winter Soldier had been posing as a delivery driver for more than a month and Stark wasn’t the type to let something as simple as it being one in the morning stop him from getting his delivery of transistors.
Feigning a yawn and a grumble of irritation, the supposedly sleepy driver was waved through the gates after only a perfunctory check of his truck. The fact that he could blend in seamlessly with American life was what made the Winter Soldier invaluable. His mannerisms, his lack of accent, and his mastery of colloquial English meant that he didn’t stand out among Americans. He was one of them. Not that the Winter Soldier had any memory of this fact; it was something his handlers had taken painstaking care not to reveal to their operative.
Once he reached the loading docks, the brunette man put the truck in park and hopped down from the cab to meet the security guard unloading the bay doors.
“A little late for a delivery isn’t it?”
“I don’t think Mr. Stark cares about what time it is.” The Winter Soldier’s mouth curved up into a friendly, charming sort of smile.
“Ain’t that the truth? You need some help unloading?”
“Sure. Many hands make light work, as my dear mama used to say.” With his cybernetic limb hidden within a pair of work gloves, the Soviet operative unlocked the doors of the truck and hopped up inside the back. He held out his flesh and blood hand to help the security guard climb inside and once the other man had gained his feet, he looked at the nearly empty contents of the truck with a confused look.
“This hardly seems like enough to warrant a delivery all the way out here, pal.”
And with that, he sprang into action and caught the man from behind. With a sharp twist of his metal arm, he snapped the guard’s neck and let his dead body fall to the ground. After stashing the body behind the few boxes inside the truck, the assassin picked up a box of parts and exited the vehicle. He pulled the doors down and made his way inside the building. At this time of night there was no one in the halls and thanks to the schematics he’d been fed, he knew exactly where to go.
Ostensibly, the box was his delivery and mission so the Winter Soldier was careful to project an air of boredom and sleepiness. As he reached the R&D division he spotted his target through the plate glass windows of the lab and silently let himself inside. The room was a perfect example of American extravagance and bloat.
Somewhere deeply buried beneath the Winter Soldier programming, Bucky Barnes stirred inside the assassin’s mind. He’d been suppressed and buried for so long that there was very little trace of the man he’d once been. Between the amnesia and amount of cognitive reprogramming he’d been subjected to, the Winter Soldier was firmly in control.
But there was a flash recognition and the ghost of something that might even count as a memory when he saw the letters Howard Stark emblazoned on the door.
From inside the box, the Winter Soldier withdrew a gun and started to level it towards the back of Howard Stark’s head. That was when the engineer turned and fired. The Winter Soldier lost all control of his body as electricity coursed through him.
The Russian operative dropped like a stone, his cybernetic arm flopping on the ground like a fish out of water. Dimly, he was aware of Stark’s face swimming in and out of view as the man leaned over him.
“Easy, Sergeant. Sorry about the shock but I couldn’t go and let you shoot me, now could I? I have you, Bucky.”
“Who the hell is Bucky?” were the Winter Soldier’s lasts thoughts before the darkness descended and he slipped into unconsciousness.
When he woke back up with a killer headache and wondering just what the hell happened to him, Bucky Barnes automatically chalked up how poor he was feeling to a really wild night. The room he was in was unlike any he’d ever stayed in before. Full of gleaming metal lines and fancy looking equipment, it looked almost like a hospital.
Bucky realized something was gravely wrong when he tried to sit up only to find that he was secured to the bed in multiple places. Fear sank like a lead ball into the pit of his stomach. He immediately started to have flashbacks to another time when he’d been strapped down to the table at the HYDRA base and began to feel sick to his stomach.
“Easy, Barnes, you’re alright. You’re safe.” The somewhat familiar figure of Howard Stark stepped into the room. The man looked older and leaner than the last time Bucky had seen him. There were lines framing the man’s eyes and gray hairs starting to touch his temples. This confused James somewhat and he just stared at Howard silently for a moment.
“Stark? Is that you? What happened to you?”
A strange, unnamable emotion flickered across the genius engineer’s face. “Look, we don’t have a lot of time, Buck. So I need you to stop and just listen to me, alright? Can you do that for me, pal?”
“Where am I? Is Steve here?” A strange note could be heard in the man’s voice.
Howard’s expression closed off enigmatically. Cool, calloused fingers touched Bucky’s arm but to his own confused consternation, he didn’t feel it or the pressure of the other man’s hand. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t feel a whole hell of a lot from his arm save for a strange sensation of…wrongness. The engineer could see the gathering uncertainly on Bucky’s face and pressed on gamely. “Just shut up and listen, alright?” The words were callous but it was the figurative slap to the face Bucky needed to stop his rising panic.
“You went missing in the Alps, remember? After you fell from the train? Some Communist scientists obviously found you and somehow they’ve managed to convince you that you were someone else, Barnes. That was almost thirty years ago. Since then, as far as any of us have been able to tell, you’ve been operating under the codename of Winter Soldier.”
Howard’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, his thin face set into grim lines. “I know this is hard to swallow, pal. But it’s the truth; I just wish I was lying to you. Don’t ask me how you’ve managed to stay looking as fresh as the day you went missing but you don’t look a year older than the last time I saw you. And I’m sorry to say, you’ve been doing some pretty awful things, Buck.”
“That’s impossible, I don’t remember any of that. You’ve got to be mistaken, Howard.” The denial in the man’s voice was unmistakable. Bucky’s gaze was both accusing and beseeching when it landed on the older man as though silently begging him to admit this was just some poorly thought out prank.
Grimly, Howard peeled back the sleeve of Bucky’s shirt and revealed the shining metal of his cybernetic arm. “Like I said, I wish I was lying to you. We’ve got video surveillance if you still don’t believe me. The moment the CIA brought these to my attention I recognized you.”
“Where’s Steve, Howard? I want to see him, he’s gotta know I’m not dead or something, right?” Something was niggling at the back of Bucky’s mind. Why wasn’t Steve here? Surely he would have come to see him of all people coming back from the freaking dead, right?
Howard Stark wasn’t given to flamboyant displays of emotion these days. His life had hardened him and tempered his once youthful idealistic enthusiasm to something far more focused and cold.
“Steve went missing just days after you went over that train, Bucky. He crashed Schmidt’s plane carrying some of those experimental energy weapons of his into the Arctic Ocean,” the dark haired man said with more sympathy than one would expect. His hand came to rest on Bucky’s shoulder. “He’s gone, I’ve tried to find him for decades but there’s no trace of him. I’m sorry. Really.”
Though his own son would find it hard to imagine his father capable of empathy, there was definitely sympathy in the older man’s dark eyes. He and Bucky had both known and admired Steve. Howard felt the man who he’d considered a friend’s loss keenly but he couldn’t even imagine the hell Bucky was going through. It seemed he was just the bearer of ill tidings; Barnes’s own personal destroyer of worlds and hope.
Because he could see the hope literally die in the other man’s eyes.
And he was just enough of a bastard to take advantage of the other man’s pain and grief. “I know this is a lot to process but we don’t have a lot of time, Bucky. Your handlers are bound to notice you failed pretty quickly and then they’ll be expecting you to show up at your extraction point. We know the Soviets are using some kind of cognitive therapy on you, some kind of brainwashing. But I think we might be able to circumvent that brainwashing to a certain extent.”
Bucky didn’t look like he was really processing anything Howard was saying. His face had gone slack and gray with horror. Grimacing, the older man caught the brunette by the shoulders and shook him as much as he could with the other strapped down to the table. “Look at me, Barnes. Don’t you want to get back at the bastards who did this to you?”
No, all Bucky wanted to do was die. A life without Steve Rogers in it wasn’t a life worth living. But he knew that to be a petty and childish sentiment and one Steve would never approve of.
“What do you want from me, Stark?” James finally said voice wooden and flat.
“We want to send you back to the Soviets with a key in your programming, a means for you to surreptitiously gather intel on the Commies and get that information back to us. You’re the perfect candidate for infiltration because they’ll never suspect you as being a double agent. They’ll never know and we’ll finally get a leg up on the sons of bitches.”
When last Bucky had been in the world, the Communists had been their allies. Sure, they’d been a bunch of prickly bastards but they’d been allies all the same. So to hear that they were the United States enemies now just filled James with exhaustion. Did that mean everything they’d sacrificed in the forties was for naught?
When Bucky’s pale blue eyes trained on Stark, he might as well have been the Winter Soldier again for all the life he could see on the other’s face. “Fine, do what you have to.” There was nothing left for him here. He was just a walking ghost of who he’d once been and without Steve in his life, Bucky would rather be buried deep somewhere where the sharp pain squeezing his heart couldn’t reach him. Better to be coated in ice and winter than feel this agony any longer than he had to. It beat putting a bullet through his head right? At least this way, he might actually be of some use to his country.
Steve probably would have approved.
“I don’t want to remember anything, Stark. Bury me so deep I’ll never wake up again then do whatever you want to with me.”
Howard sighed heavily and nodded. As he gestured to the right for the doctors who’d been hovering near the edge of Bucky’s field of vision to come forward, Howard lightly rested his hand against Bucky’s forehead almost in a benediction. “You got it, Barnes. Thank you for your sacrifice.”
A mask was placed over Bucky’s mouth and nose, preventing him from getting out the bitter words that he wasn’t doing this for a sacrifice or out of some sense of fealty to America. The anesthesia kicked in shortly after that and Bucky was only dimly aware of the doctor’s droning voice telling him to count back from a hundred.
James Buchannan Barnes closed his eyes and surrendered to the darkness.
The Winter Soldier opened his eyes.
He was surrounded by the familiar sounds of people speaking softly in Russian. Sitting up from the hospital bed, he drew himself to attention as soon as his feet could hold his weight.
“So, you are awake.” Karpov, he knew that voice anywhere.
“Yes, Comrade Karpov.”
“You lead us on a chase, Winter Soldier. Were you thinking about defecting to America?”
“Comrade?” Though the assassin’s face revealed nothing, there was a definite note of questioning in the Winter Soldier’s voice.
“So you were not trying to defect then?”
“Of course not, Comrade Karpov. I am as ever, loyal to Mother Russia.”
A cold mockery of what could have passed for a smile curved the old man’s mouth upwards. It filled the Winter Soldier with a fresh layer of ice and coldness.
And somewhere deep within the former American hero, Bucky slept on unnoticed and hidden from even the most probing of questions.
It would be almost six months before Bucky managed to make his first secret report and over the years, they were sporadic at best as he was taken in and out of cryostasis and one day, long after the Iron Curtain fell, the reports stopped all together.
Howard Stark was long dead by then; having perished in an auto accident along with his wife. The project known only as Project Winter was shelved away along with all of the other Cold War plans and was forgotten for almost twenty years before a low level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent stumbled upon the stasis capsule containing the Winter Soldier’s frozen body.
It would be another nine months before they figured out just what they had on their hands.
But S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t exactly known about being forthcoming about the aces they held in their hole and kept quiet about it even as the Project Winter files were ‘liberated’ from a storage room in Langley.
In two thousand and eleven, when the man known as Steve Rogers was rediscovered in the Arctic Circle and miraculously brought back to life. Project Winter was sealed for eyes only on Director Fury’s level alone. After a madman nearly destroyed the world out of his own petty need to strike out like a child, it was Tony Stark who would discover all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dirty little secrets including his own father’s fingerprints all over Project Winter.
It took Tony less than a day to realize just what his father had been working on and what Fury had been hiding.
Shortly after that, James Buchannan Barnes opened his eyes once again.
And the first thing he saw was Steve Rogers seated in a chair next to his bedside.
Disbelievingly, he stared at Steve in confusion and blinked rapidly as though to dispel the illusion from before his eyes. But Steve was still there looking as wholesome and as serious as he always did.
Relief was plain to see on Steve’s face as he climbed out of his chair and reached out to brush tangled strands of brown hair back from Bucky’s forehead tenderly. “Hey, you’re awake.” The taller man managed a wan smile.
“Steve? How? They told me you were dead.”
“They told me the same thing about you so obviously the rumors of both of our deaths are wildly exaggerated.” Steve was trying to go for humor but he was obviously too emotionally invested to manage much more than a wondrous smile. “We’re both going to be okay from here, I promise.”
Bucky tried to sit up and reach out for his friend’s hand only to find he was once more strapped down to yet another bed. Hurt confusion flickered across the dark haired man’s face briefly. “Right….the Winter Solider. What? Are they afraid I’m going to snap and go on a rampage?” Bitterness tinged the man’s voice
Steve’s expression turned grim and upset. “They wanted to be cautious. I told them it was a load of malarkey.” The super solider’s jaw set into a stubborn line as he moved to unfasten the bindings tying Bucky down to the bed.
“Steve, wait. They might be right. I don’t want to take the risk.” The risk of attacking his best friend because some hidden trigger in his brain told him to execute Captain America.”
“The Winter Soldier is gone, Buck.” Steve brushed his concerns off with a shake of his head and after undoing the three lines of bindings holding Bucky’s cybernetic arm down, he moved over to the other side of the bed so he could work on the other.
“Howard….he left notes in the file on how to unravel the programming and Natasha has been a lot of help as well since she’s gone through the same kind of brainwashing you had.” He managed to grit the words out despite the fact it left him feeling raw and gutted. “Bucky….I’m so sorry, I had no idea.”
“You were gone, Steve. Dead as far as everyone was concerned. You couldn’t have known, Steve.” James wanted to nip Steve’s predictable habit of trying to take the blame for things he had no control over in the bud right now. Once he was able to sit up, James wasted no time in wrapping his arms around Steve’s neck and pulled him down into an awkward half-seated hug.
Steve’s knee ended up half-propped on the bed as he wrapped his arms around Bucky tightly. A gusty sigh escaped the blond and he half turned his face so his cheeks were tickled by the soft strands of dark hair curling at the base of Bucky’s skull. The other man had a faint chemical smell clinging to the other man that was no doubt thanks to the chemicals he’d been submerged in during cryostasis.
But beneath that chemical smell, he still smelled achingly familiar and the same. It spoke to some primal part of Steve’s brain and had a wave of nostalgia and affection washing through him. “I missed you so much. Jesus, Bucky,” Emotion choked Steve’s voice and Bucky nodded jerkily.
God help them, if they started weeping like a couple of dames, James was going to kick both their asses. “Me too, punk. Let’s avoid the whole near death experiences for a while, alright? I think we’ve both had our fill.”
That garnered a weak chuckle from the super soldier and he slowly pulled away from his best friend. “You need to get some rest. It’s still the middle of the night here in New York.”
Bucky wanted to point out he’d slept for the better part of seventy years and the last thing he wanted was to sleep. But the truth was, his lids were feeling heavy and his eyes burned with exhaustion. So James let Steve help guide him back down onto the bed.
“You’ll be here when I wake up?” was the last bleary question he managed as the familiar warmth of Steve’s hand wrapping around his reached his sleep-hazed brain.
“I’ll be here, I promise.”
Comforted by those words and the presence of his hand close by, Bucky let the exhaustion win out over him and let his eyes slip closed once more.