'We have a code white,' says Fury without so much as an introduction.
Steve glances at the rest of the team, to see if he's the only one drawing a blank; he isn't. Tony rolls his eyes and mutters, 'Oh, code white, sure,' while Bruce and Thor just smile politely in obvious bemusement. Clint and Natasha, on the other hand, sit a little straighter.
'Christ,' says Clint, somewhere between excitement and unease, 'are we sure it's really him? His last hit was, what, ten years ago?'
Fury doesn't dignify that with a response. Instead he gives Clint a look, one that very clearly says, I hope you're not questioning my omnipotence. Clint slides down in his chair.
'Do we know who his target is?' asks Natasha.
Fury turns his gaze to Tony. Everyone moves their chairs away from him a little, like he's contagious.
'I didn't do anything,' Tony says automatically, raising his hands. 'I'm innocent. Well. Ish? Look, see, that rumour of a sex tape starring me and the Olsen twins is a bold-faced lie concocted by the sick, sick mind of Perez —'
'Shut up, Stark,' says Fury, but it doesn't have the usual bite. 'The rest of you, pay attention. Four hours ago one of our deep cover agents in Russia sent word that an assassin has been activated with the objective of eliminating Tony Stark and taking possession of the arc reactor technology. Since then we have confirmed that our agent has been dispatched, which means they know we know. Now, unless you get your asses in gear, I have no doubt that Mr Stark here will be dead within the week.'
'Hey, come on,' says Tony. 'This may shock you, but I do have some experience with people trying to kill me.'
'We have very little information about the assassin,' Fury goes on, ignoring him. 'We have, to be honest, more hearsay and urban legends than facts. He operates under the codename Winter Soldier. Here's the few things we do know…'
Field report: 11/08/2013
Operative name: N. Romanoff
…position was compromised. Codename WS, after a covert pursuit by security staff coordinated by agent Barton, evaded capture. Possible encounter with CPT Rogers; CPT Rogers unable to confirm due to lack of prev. visual contact. Suggested security protocol ZZ-43D and confinement of the target to HQ.
The party is a deafening roar of laughter and tinkling martini glasses and beautiful dames in low-cut dresses, and Steve can't help but think the assassin couldn't ask for a better chance. Tony doesn't even look appropriately concerned, dragging Ms Potts around and probably offending three quarters of the people he talks to. Though maybe it's better this way; they don't want to spook the Winter Soldier. And if Steve feels a little uneasy about using Tony so openly as bait, well, it's not his call this time.
He looks at the enormous chandeliers hanging from the ridiculously high ceiling, sighs, fiddles with his bowtie, and tries to look like loitering around the bar is a completely, absolutely dignified way to spend an evening. His bespoke tuxedo is uncomfortable, lacks anything approaching usefulness, and the money wasted on it could probably feed an orphanage for weeks.
It wouldn't be so bad if he could finagle one of the others to keep him company, but it was a lot more efficient to let them bring whoever they wanted and keep their surveillance subtle. Well, Thor wouldn't know subtle if it hit him in the face with an iceberg and at his side Jane is already a little tipsy, but Steve knows they're trying.
'Widow to all,' comes Natasha's voice in his ear. 'I have visual on the target on my six, dancing with — Pepper, is that Kat Farrell?'
From his suddenly really crappy position at the bar Steve tries to locate Natasha, which is not easy since she's kind of tiny. It helps that he's one of the tallest guys around, and finally he catches the top of her head. Except, of course, half of the people at Natasha's six are dark-haired men dancing with someone.
'Where? Oh, yeah, yes, that's Kat Farrell.' Ms Potts pauses, then adds, somewhat alarmed: 'Is she safe? Shouldn't you be rescuing her? She's a lovely person, you have to save her.'
'She's safe,' Natasha says, 'it's crowded and he's just doing recon. Cap, we should take position.'
'All right,' Steve says, trying not to sound the way he feels, which is useless. 'Avengers, cover the exits. Thor, garden doors; Hawkeye, stairs; Bruce, east wing; Widow, north. I'll cover the west foyer.'
He's on the move before he's even done talking, weaving between guests. And it's good, to finally have something resembling more of a purpose than wasting time around the bar and hoping the assassin doesn't outsmart them all. The foyer is a difficult area to secure: there is a number of curtained alcoves and doors to smaller reception halls and conference rooms. Steve takes his position behind the entrance, far away enough that he won't draw unwanted attention.
'This would be a lot easier if you weren't the only one who knows what the killer looks like, Natasha,' says Bruce.
'Also, how can you see him if he's on your six?' asks Tony.
'Please shut up,' Natasha says. 'Barton, give me a line to the SHIELD detail — this is Romanoff to all units, target is a five feet nine white male, appears to be in his late twenties, brown hair, black tuxedo, leather gloves. Be advised, target has superhuman enhancements and a bionic left arm.'
Minutes pass in a tense silence. The sounds of people dancing and exchanging mindless small talk fall away to the hum of adrenaline in Steve's ears. He scrutinises every man passing the doorway: most of them are white, about one in four is five feet nine, more than half have dark hair, all of them wear tuxedoes that probably cost a lot more than Steve's bike.
Then: 'Code red, code red,' Natasha says, a little breathless, 'he spotted me. He's making his way to the west foyer. Don't spook him, he might get violent.'
Steve can see at least four SHIELD agents detach themselves from where they've been propping up walls on the other end of the room, playing security guards. They make their way over to him, slowly, and it seems it's going to be Steve and the small SHIELD detail neutralising the Winter Soldier. Steve steels himself, doesn't stop to think about how much he misses the shield, and then the crowd next to the entrance parts and —
Steve can't breathe, because —
A man who looks and moves just like Bucky, exactly like him, is walking towards him and sees Steve, who has a split second to think gloved hands before the man smiles in a breathtakingly, achingly, impossibly familiar way and says in Bucky's voice, 'There you are, I looked everywhere for you,' and pushes Steve against the door to one of the reception halls and kisses him.
It's chaste and dry, nothing more than the press of lips and warmth, and Steve's knees threaten to give out. After a moment — a long moment of Steve staying absolutely still, every neuron in his brain short-circuiting, every muscle freezing, every thought halting — after a moment the SHIELD detail rush past them, and they must think Steve is already ahead. They don't even notice the couple kissing off to the side.
Steve can't even begin to focus on that. Because Bucky is kissing him, or maybe the WInter Soldier is kissing him, and Steve is sure one day it will be a hilarious anecdote about mistaken identities, but right now the only thing he can think about is that he remembers Bucky, he does, but not perfectly, he's never been best at drawing from memory. And they never did this, of course not, how could they, but if Steve ever imagined — if he ever thought about — if, it would feel like this.
And then it's over.
The Winter Soldier steps back, though it still leaves him only inches away. He's smirking, a familiar smirk that makes something small and desperately important flatline in Steve's brain, a smirk Bucky would give dames after doing exactly what he did just now, and his pupils are a little blown, but this isn't Bucky.
They consider one another for a moment, the Winter Soldier's eyes dark with something that makes heat pool at the pit of Steve's stomach, and he should — he has to — he wants — before he knows what he's doing, or which part of him is even behind the wheel, he grabs the Winter Soldier by the back of the neck and pulls him in. This kiss is different, and Steve realises the first one was all fake, but this is the real deal.
It's hot and urgent, the slide of tongue that makes Steve grab the Winter Soldier by the ass and haul him closer. At his side there's a soft click, and he's pushed into the conference hall, pushed again until his back hits the other side of the door and they don't even stop kissing. If they did, Steve would probably think about how completely unprofessional, and dangerous, and stupid, and also certifiably insane this is. He should be court-martialed, he should be shot, and he'll worry about that, absolutely, he'll worry so much, just as soon as the Winter Soldier stops biting his lower lip and sucking on his tongue.
Steve doesn't hear the moment when the Winter Soldier slides off his gloves, or the moment when he disables Steve's comm, but then there's hands in his hair, one warm and one cold. It shouldn't make Steve moan, but it does, a soft noise at the back of his throat that never makes it out of his mouth before the Winter Soldier swallows it.
There's a sudden void, a brush of cold air, and Steve's body follows before the WInter Soldier stops him with a hand flat on his chest and Steve blinks.
'Do I know you from somewhere?' the Winter Soldier asks, expression between a smirk and a frown.
'Yes,' Steve whispers. 'You know me, you know my name.'
The Winter Soldier's brows knit, and he cocks his head. 'I don't think so.' But he does step closer to look into Steve's face, at his mouth, and his frown deepens. 'But you know who I am.'
'I — yeah.'
He laughs, a small harsh sound. 'And you're not running?'
Steve shakes his head. 'Not in my nature.' It makes the Winter Soldier laugh again, his breath ghosting over Steve's cheek. He leans in, presses a soft kiss to the corner of Steve's mouth. Steve closes his eyes so he doesn't have to watch for a spark of recognition in Bucky's eyes that won't come, to see his expression shift into something just this side of alien.
When he opens his eyes again, the Winter Soldier is gone. A window on the other end of the reception hall is open, the curtain billowing in the wind, and when Steve switches on his comm again it's to Clint's voice saying, '— lost him.'
Field report: 11/30/2013
Operative name: Tony Stark, CONSULTANT
…the upper deck monitoring has been disabled before the poker game started. Jarvis is unable to pinpoint the exact moment. Lack of sophistication in the facial recognition software will be looked into.
So, Steve decides, this is what insanity must feel like. He should sign himself up for a therapy session with SHIELD head shrinkers, he knows. He should recuse himself from the mission, he knows. He should tell Fury that the world's most lethal assassin just happens to be Steve's dead best friend.
Except he's pretty sure shrinks would tell him he's projecting his grief and things onto the first person who carries a passing resemblance to Bucky, the team would want answers, and Fury wouldn't afford the Winter Soldier any leniency just because in another lifetime he might have been Bucky Barnes.
Steve knows it's him, just like he knew he had to go to the factory camp in Austria, just like he knew they should have looked for Bucky's body in the frozen river. Natasha debriefed them about Department X's mental conditioning, about putting the Winter Soldier on ice between missions. All it tells Steve is that it's up to him to save Bucky, now, and if he has to keep the team and Fury in the dark about it — well, it's not like it would be the first time he went against every order he'd been given to do what he knew was right.
He can almost convince himself he's ready when the Winter Soldier is spotted boarding a Stark Industries cruise ship in the Caribbean. Steve has never been on a cruise ship in his entire life, but Bruce tells him there's a first time for everything, and he should stop twitching and look like he belongs, otherwise people will get suspicious.
Which is how the team ends up by the pool, or inside it in Steve's case, doing a pretty good job of blending in. Clint and Natasha apparently had special SHIELD training in sunbathing with multicoloured cocktails in hand. Maybe Steve shouldn't be so surprised. Tony is sitting between Thor and Bruce, for all intents and purposes dead to the world except to fan himself with a palm leaf Steve kind of really hopes is plastic or something. Bruce is engrossed in what looks like a science journal that has already left a rectangle of white skin in the middle of his chest, the rest getting redder and redder by the minute. Thor is attracting way too much attention for a covert mission, but refuses to put on a shirt. At least he agreed to swimming trunks.
Steve finishes his last lap around the pool. He was hoping a swim would help with the tension in his shoulders, or the ominous feeling in his gut, but no dice. It's ridiculous, but he can't help thinking his head might be in the sights of a sniper rifle right this second, and the hair at the back of his neck stands on end. He walks out of the water, brushes his hair out of his eyes.
There's a moment of intent staring from the Avengers; Tony is pointing his phone in Steve's direction. Bruce slowly puts down the journal.
'What?' Steve demands, confused. 'What did I do?'
'Nothing,' says Tony, 'now stop talking, I'm making YouTube history.'
Natasha snorts. 'They're just jealous,' she says, eyebrows raised and expression perfectly blank.
'You guys are so weird sometimes,' Steve mutters, trying to cover himself with a towel in a way that isn't awkward or dainty.
The evening finds them at the poker table. Well, it finds Tony at the poker table; the team are covering the rest of the room and keeping their eyes open. The cocktail party is in full swing, a jazz band filling the empty spaces with soft background noise. It's tuxedo night again, and Steve runs his finger under his collar only about every five minutes. It's lucky he's not here in any official capacity and Ms Potts' advice of hunch your shoulders, wear your hair a little different, it's all the disguise you need seems to be working wonders; no one pays attention to him. If people knew he was Captain America, it would be so much worse. As it is, he's nursing his fourth vodka martini and tries to look broody and vaguely hostile. The bartender gives him sympathetic smiles with each refill, and finally says:
'Look, it'll be fine. Was it money or women?'
Steve squints up at him.
'I'm guessing either you lost a ridiculous amount at the table,' the bartender explains with a wave in the direction of the poker game, 'or you've been jilted for a richer guy.'
'Neither,' Steve says. The bartender blinks in surprise. 'But, um. Thanks? Keep 'em coming, I guess,' he finishes, and if he sounds pathetic even to his own ears, a bartender is supposed to be sort of like a priest, right? Or an agony aunt. Or something. Steve really wishes he could get drunk.
Around vodka martini number fourteen, the bartender is starting to look a little alarmed, but Steve doesn't have time to reassure him because just then Clint says through the comm, 'Hawkeye to all, target has entered the room through the northwest exit. Tuxedo and gloves. Definitely packing.'
'Roger that,' Steve says, turning away from the bar and scanning the crowd. 'Alpha team, take position, no one stays farther than ten feet from Iron Man.'
He spots the Winter Soldier at the same time the Winter Soldier spots Natasha. If Steve had any doubt about his identity before, it's gone now: he recognises the way the Winter Soldier moves, the confident stride he'd seen so many times, at USO dances in London and before. The Winter Soldier doesn't waver, even though Steve can see his eyes locking with Natasha's; for all intents and purposes he's just another patron making his way to the poker table. From this distance it's impossible to tell if he's armed, but Steve trusts Clint's judgement. The Winter Soldier grabs a glass of whisky off a tray.
'I can take him out,' Clint says. 'Do I take the shot?'
'That's a negative,' Steve barks, 'negative, too many civilians around. Widow, stay in position. I'll take him.'
It's a short way from the bar to the poker game, and Steve is halfway there when the damn few inches he has over almost everyone in the room draw the Winter Soldier's attention. His expression changes from cool blankness into something more, something meaningful and borderline indecent, a smirk tugging at his lips. Steve fails to contain his blush and prays to god Natasha and Clint don't notice.
And then things happen all at once. The Winter Soldier throws his glass away and reaches under the jacket of his tuxedo, fingers closing on the grip of a gun, and he's aiming in less than a second flat. Natasha throws herself bodily across the poker table, unbelievably fast, and tackles Tony to the floor. People start screaming. There's the loud crack when the Winter Soldier fires, barely missing Natasha's shoulder, and Steve doesn't wait to look for the bullet lodged in the wall behind them, just breaks into a run — but so does the Winter Soldier, gun still in hand.
At the back of his mind he can only hope that Clint doesn't decide to disobey orders and shoot anyway, but then the Winter Soldier stumbles into the hallway and he's out of range. Steve pushes his way past shouting patrons and he's out of the room in five strides, following the flash of black around the corner.
There are people here, too, but less than at the party, and Steve damns his uncomfortable tuxedo to hell; he'd be faster in his uniform. But then he has visual of the Winter Soldier's back, and they're both fast, but Steve knows he's faster. At the end of the hallway the Winter Soldier takes a left into one of the other rooms. Steve knows the ship's layout by heart, memorised every possible exit route, but clearly he's not the only one. There's only about fifteen feet between them when Steve shoulders his way past the door into what looks like a private dinner, a long, long table filling the entire room. The Winter Soldier takes the shortest way across and jumps on the table, Steve at his heels. They knock over half the glasses and bottles and somehow Steve doesn't step on a roast chicken.
'Sorry,' he gasps at the outraged shouts all around them, 'So sorry, ma'am, watch out, sorry!'
He jumps over a huge golden menorah, and oh god, did he just ruin someone's Hanukkah celebration, Fury is going to kill him, but then the Winter Soldier jumps off the edge of the table and out of the room, slams the door behind him. It's too late to stop, so Steve crashes into it and bless his two-hundred something pounds of mass and sheer momentum, because the door doesn't stand a chance. He hits the ground running, but the Winter Soldier already put another ten feet between them.
They hit a stairway to the upper decks. There's a floor between them, and Steve has to wonder why the Winter Soldier doesn't try to just shoot him, the gun is still in his hand — and he's not hopeful, he's not.
With a bang of the fire door, they come out on one of the open verandas, above the promenade deck. It's empty, lit only from below. The Winter Soldier stops running and turns, the gun pointed square at Steve's chest. He's not winded, but there's a hint of colour in his cheeks.
'You again. Captain America, right?' His voice is flat, but even in the low light Steve thinks he can see a flash of — something in his eyes. Curiosity, confusion.
'You know me,' he says, pleading, and the Winter Soldier frowns. 'Bucky, you have to remember me.'
'Don't know anyone by that name,' says the Winter Soldier. He checks his watch, gun unwavering in his hand. 'Your friends will be here in less than a minute. I should just kill you.'
At that, the Winter Soldier smirks. 'You sound so sure.'
'Because I know you,' says Steve, with more conviction than he actually has. He slowly raises his hands, and risks a step forward, then another. 'Because whatever they did to you, I know you're in there somewhere. You don't have to be a weapon. Come with me. Let me help you, Bucky.'
For a second Steve thinks maybe Bucky remembers something, but then he realises he's been walking towards him this whole time. He stops. The Winter Soldier's gun is inches from his heart, but Steve doesn't care, and then the Winter Soldier takes a step closer. He shifts the gun so the muzzle is pressed under Steve's chin, and the challenge in his eyes is all Bucky. He's close enough that Steve can hear his breath, and when he slides his mouth up Steve's jaw something like a series of fireworks goes off behind Steve's eyes.
'Tell me why you care,' the Winter Soldier whispers.
Steve swallows. 'We look out for each other,' he says, just as quiet, voice hoarse. 'Always have. You saved my life, so many times. I followed you to war, and you followed me — you followed me till the end. We're best friends.'
'Sorry, pal,' the Winter Soldier says, a ghost of his breath in Steve's ear. 'I don't have friends.' He steps back. Steve didn't even notice the gun was gone, but now the Winter Soldier's hands are empty. His expression is blank, eyes flat and cold. 'Emotional attachment is detrimental to the efficacy and overall success of the mission.'
Steve can't help it, he's reaching out before he can stop himself. The Winter Soldier holstered his gun. That should mean something, it has to mean something. But his expression doesn't change, and as Steve can hear a crash and people running downstairs, the Winter Soldier turns on his heel, takes the distance to the edge of the deck at a run, and jumps over the railing. By the time the rest of the team make it to where Steve is looking over the open sea, the Winter Soldier is long gone.
Field report: 12/12/2013
Operative name: THOR, SON OF ODIN THE ALLFATHER
…THE MAGNIFICENCE OF THE WARRIOR SKILL OF NATASHA ROMANOFF. I HAVE OFFERED TO AID HER IN BATTLE, HOWEVER CAPTAIN STEVE ROGERS COMMANDED: "THOR STAY IN THE GOD DAMN CAR WE CAN'T BREAK TIMES SQUARE AGAIN" AND I HAVE OBEYED FOR HE IS A WISE LEADER.
Back home, before he woke up, he'd never let himself consciously think about wanting Bucky, irrationally terrified that it would show writ large across his forehead, but the Winter Soldier isn't Bucky. He's none of the things that made Bucky the man Steve followed to war, but he's still familiar enough around the edges that Steve can't not want him, and maybe it's easier like this, when there's no shared history between them, no memories, no friendship Steve couldn't ever risk losing. No dames, and no Peggy, who was the first woman to draw Steve's eyes away from Bucky.
It's always been like moths and flame with the two of them, even back when they were just two hungry kids with bony knees and more bravado than brains.
With the Winter Soldier, everything they ever were to one another is brought down to its base components and twisted into something new, and sharp, and really kind of terrifying. Because Steve doesn't even kid himself: it's treason. It's treason and it puts innocent people in danger.
And if he had to, Steve would do it all again.
The SHIELD humvee is breezing through late night traffic, Stark Tower looming in the distance. Steve tunes out the conversation around him, too tired to really pay attention to anything but the monotonous thrum of the engine. Even if he wanted to pitch in, the team is trying to teach Thor about something called a play station, which isn't exactly Steve's area of expertise. It sounds vaguely dirty, too, which means he probably doesn't want to be listening to Clint's explanation about the call of duty, whatever that is in the context of play stations.
But eventually someone's got to say, 'Hey, Cap, you alive in there?' because they worry, sometimes, that Steve might get overwhelmed when he doesn't hear someone say 'swell' for too long.
'Just tired, Bruce,' he says, smiling lopsidedly. He drops his head against the car window. The battle to keep his eyes open is a losing one. 'Don't worry.'
'Those goddamn Kree freaks,' says Clint. 'You know I hate aliens at the best of times, no offence, Thor, but those bastards deserve a special place in hell.'
'No offence taken,' Thor says. 'I have to confess a similar sentiment as regards our Kree neighbours.'
Tony hums in agreement. 'It's like someone showed them 300 and they not so much took it seriously as built an entire civilisation around it.'
'Cool guns, though,' Clint points out.
'Yes, agent Barton,' says Bruce, rolling his eyes, 'the guns were cool. Any day now you should feel free to grow up.'
'Hey, I'm grown up,' Clint says. 'Tasha, tell them.'
'Agent Barton is grown up and very manly,' Natasha says dutifully, never lifting her eyes from the report she's filling out. 'Any rumours about the Captain America underwear are unsubstantiated, outrageous lies.'
'What,' says Steve, opening his eyes to stare at the team in slightly baffled horror.
'It's just one pair of boxers,' Clint mutters. 'I got them from my sister, it's not my fault the Hawkeye ones were all sold out.'
'I have Captain America boxers too,' says Bruce, frowning. 'There's nothing wrong with Captain America boxers. Captain America boxers make great presents.'
'Please stop,' Steve says, because if someone repeats the words Captain America boxers one more time he might have to stab himself in both ears.
'Your modesty in this matter confuses me, Steve Rogers,' Thor proclaims. 'Is it not a great honour for your crest to adorn and protect the intimate areas of your comrades' warrior bodies?'
'Oh my god,' says Steve, ears burning. 'I can't be listening to this.'
'That's nothing,' says Tony, but they never do find out what can be worse than Captain America underwear, because right then there's a heavy bang from above, like something just landed on top of the humvee, and Steve only has enough time to tackle Bruce and Clint to the floor when a long hunting knife cuts through the roof like it's butter.
The humvee veers to the side, the agent behind the wheel trying to keep control of the vehicle and slide down in her seat at the same time. The team is trying to stay low, and Thor pounces on Tony and keeps him on the ground with the weight of his body, ignoring him wheezing, 'Can't…breathe…'
Steve doesn't pay any attention to all that. He knows what's happening. He's still in uniform, too, and without ceremony he smashes the passenger side window with the shield, but before he can get out on the roof someone holds him by the right leg.
'Cap, no!' It's Natasha, trying to drag him back into the car. 'I got this, you stay with them.' And she practically climbs over him and out the window.
'Don't kill him!' Steve shouts after her, then quickly adds, 'We, uh, we need him alive.' Which helps only a little, but he's hoping the chaos inside and outside the humvee will mask his terrible flush. When he looks back, he sees a sleek black motorbike veer to the right and crash into a window display, and thank god it doesn't hit any civilians. There's a series of crashes above, and as the team watches three fist-shaped dents appear in the roof.
Then it goes quiet. Steve sees a flash in his peripheral vision, and turns just as Natasha is thrown onto the hood of the car behind them. The Winter Soldier follows, and it shouldn't be possible to have this kind of fight on top of a running car, but if anyone could manage it, it'd have to be Natasha and him. They trade blows almost too fast for Steve to see, though it's clear the bionic arm and enhancements give the Winter Soldier an advantage: Natasha is fighting defensively, keeping him occupied. He lands a strike, the flat of his left palm against Natasha's sternum, and it sends her flying into the windshield of another car. But she's not out, and the Winter Soldier must know it. Instead of leaving her behind, he follows again.
Everywhere around them there's blaring of car horns, Times Square turning into uncontrollable chaos, and in the middle of it the Winter Soldier and Natasha fight like gravity is optional for them.
'Fuck me,' says Clint, 'that's hot.'
The Winter Soldier draws two guns and the move is immediately countered by Natasha, but they keep knocking off each other's aim. Steve starts to worry, but he can't see the guns being actually fired, because of course Natasha is mindful of all the people around them, and the Winter Soldier has to conserve bullets instead of wasting them in a mindless shootout.
'Wait, no,' Clint corrects himself. 'That is hot.'
Privately, Steve sort of agrees. Natasha and the Winter Soldier are amazing to watch, in the same way that a typhoon or a cyclone has to be amazing to watch, and devastating in all the senses of the word.
'Interesting. I have not noticed a change in temperature,' says Thor. 'It worries me that Natasha Romanoff is fighting defensively. Shall I lend my mighty hammer in the service of defeating the villainous Soldier of Winter?'
'Thor, stay in the goddamn car,' Steve snaps. 'We can't break Times Square again. Natasha is fine.' He taps his comm link. 'Widow?'
Behind them, it looks she exchanged her guns for garrote wire, and uses it to parry the Winter Soldier's attacks.
'Leave,' she says, hard and breathless. 'Get Stark to safety.'
It's the last thing Steve wants to do; it feels like running away and his teammate is in danger out there. But SHIELD orders are to protect Tony's technology at all reasonable cost, so Steve turns to the agent driving the humvee and orders her to get them away and call in a tactical team to help Natasha. He has no doubt Natasha is capable of taking care of herself. So is the Winter Soldier, not that Steve is worried about that, except he really, really is.
When Natasha gets to Stark Tower an hour later, banged up but alive and with her hands empty, Steve breathes a sigh of relief. She doesn't tell them what happened, and after Clint is done helping her tape her cracked ribs she barks at everyone to leave, because she needs a fucking drink.
Field report: 12/21/2013
Operative name: M. Hill
…and immediate dismissal of agent Hartman. Damages estimated at $142300. Suggested expansion of area for infrared surveillance and capability for contained release of incapacitating agent. Missing ordnance includes…
'We got him.'
For a moment Fury doesn't say anything else, letting that sink in. The table goes very quiet, but Steve is pretty sure he's the only one speechless with sudden, overwhelming panic.
'So that way easy,' says Tony, finally, after it becomes apparent that Fury is waiting for some kind of response.
'Was it?' Fury gives Tony a look of pure skepticism. 'We have five agents in critical condition, six more hospitalised with minor injuries, and the mayor is threatening to sue us for all the property damage.'
'Okay, so it wasn't easy,' Tony amends. 'Still. Thanks? I guess? For saving my life and all that jazz, and I'm still kind of offended you wouldn't let me take the guy out myself.'
'We can't risk any part of the arc reactor technology ending up in the wrong hands,' Fury says, for about the hundredth time. 'Anyway. Agent Romanoff, we're gonna need you to come in. He's in interrogation now, but I'll be surprised if he cracks under anything we throw at him. But you're both KGB graduates, I'm sure you'll do a better job convincing him to cooperate.'
Natasha doesn't bat an eye when she says, 'Sir, the Red Room interrogation techniques are against the WSC treaty against torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners.'
'Then I'm glad we understand each other,' says Fury. 'I expect you at HQ in thirty minutes.'
At least he's not dead, Steve thinks dejectedly. He convinces Fury that the team can help keep the SHIELD HQ secure in case the Winter Soldier breaks free. It's not lying, not exactly, and if he can barely look Fury in the eye when the Director says, 'Good thinking, Cap,' that's between him and his conscience. So are the painkillers and anesthetics he takes from the first aid kit.
Of course, by the time they make it to HQ the entire building is filled with the deafening blare of alarm sirens, because the Winter Soldier is armed, dangerous and on the loose. Steve thanks his lucky stars for small favours; it looks like fate is determined to give the Winter Soldier all the chances it can, but then again, maybe he's just very good and fate has nothing to do with it.
'He talked the agent standing guard into freeing his feet,' agent Hill tells them, pulling up security footage of the Winter Soldier cuffed to a chair, hands bound at his back. Even without sound Steve can tell he's putting a lot of charm into whatever he's saying, and he doesn't blush at the dirty edge to his smirk, he doesn't, but only because he's seen Bucky use it to woo ladies into a lot more than giving him a dance. On the screen, they watch the agent bend down to uncuff the Winter Soldier's legs, and in a flash he's got his thighs wrapped around her neck, throwing her to the ground.
It has to be a signature move for Department X and Red Room operatives.
It takes the Winter Soldier very little time to take the agent's weapons. The video switches to a view from outside the interrogation room, and the Winter Soldier disarming the agents at the door, arms still bound.
'Wow,' says Bruce when the Winter Soldier slams his right arm into the wall, moves his cuffed hands to the front, then sets his shoulder joint again. Even in the black-and-white footage Steve can see that his face doesn't betray any pain. He aims his stolen gun at the camera and fires; the footage turns to static.
'Three minutes later he disabled CCTV surveillance,' agent Hill says, sounding a little impressed despite herself. 'As far as we can tell he's still inside the building. We're in lockdown. There are tactical response teams guarding the armoury and the mainframe, and we dispatched a detail to Stark Tower to keep an eye on Mr Stark.' She sweeps the Avengers with a hard look. 'You have no idea how difficult it is to admit, but this man is just too good. If there's a prison that could hold him, this isn't it. We could really use your help.'
Steve nods. 'We'll do what we can. Hawkeye, I want you on the roof. Keep an eye on the front exits. Widow, take the top floors; just one team may not be enough to defend the mainframe, if that's what he's after, so coordinate with them. Thor, Bruce — the armoury. There's some Stark tech in there we can't risk losing. I'll cover the ground floor.'
No one argues. Why would they? Steve has never been anything but professional, and if not professional, then determined to do the right thing. He is now, too, though the right thing the Avengers and SHIELD have in mind might not be exactly the right thing Steve is after. The orders he gives are tailored to give the Winter Soldier an advantage, or at least a running start towards safety: no matter how good he is, there's only so much bullet-dodging a mildly enhanced human can do, which means Clint should be as far away as possible. If Natasha is busy with more than one floor, it will take her time to patrol and check in with the SHIELD team; Steve estimates he'd have about seven minutes before she could make it down to the basement. Thor and Bruce are volatile, and neither has the military training that would make all the difference in this scenario. Sticking them in front of the armoury is the safest route Steve can think of, and there's enough valuable technology in there that no one would question his choice; and if the Winter Soldier thinks anything like Bucky — or Steve, for that matter — he should've covered the armoury already, and picked only what he needed to get out.
Steve knows he's right when he hits the basement level. The staff around these parts is skeletal at the best of times, since the only place down here are locker rooms and the gym, and Steve passes three, four, six SHIELD agents crumpled on the floor, unconscious. He checks their vitals; they're alive, just knocked out. He doesn't know if he should be grateful to the Winter Soldier. It has to count for something.
He stops by the locker rooms, and gives a small thanks that the Winter Soldier took out the surveillance in the building. It's the first thing Steve would've done, too, and now he can take a hooded sweatshirt out of his locker without anyone knowing.
The Winter Soldier is holed up in the gym. Steve pulls back his cowl and enters with his hands raised above his head, the sweatshirt thrown over his shoulder, and finds himself at the business end of an assault rifle. It looks like an M4. He doesn't look down to check for a red laser pointer hitting him square in the heart, and tells himself it's ridiculous to feel it. The Winter Soldier is crouched on the other side of the room, one knee on the floor and the other supporting his grip on the rifle.
His hands are still cuffed and he looks terrible, though still better than after Steve found him strapped to the table in the factory camp. It wasn't immediately apparent in the video footage, but now Steve can see his hair is wet, and thinks — god, he's lucky Natasha never got around to interrogating him.
When the Winter Soldier sees Steve approaching he raises an eyebrow, but the rifle in his hands stays perfectly level.
'We need to stop meeting like this,' he says.
'You need to stop trying to kill my friends,' Steve shoots back, and counts it as a win when the Winter Soldier allows a half smile in reply. 'Are you all right?'
'Had worse in training.' And Steve isn't going to think about that, because his heart is already close enough to breaking.
'Here,' he says instead, putting a small box on the floor and sliding it over. 'It's lidocaine. It's gonna help with the pain, your shoulder's gotta be killing you.'
The Winter Soldier considers him with a puzzled expression, then shrugs, slings the M4 over his shoulder and picks up the drugs, pocketing them somewhere in his belt.
'There's a secret exit thataway —' Steve jerks his chin in the general direction '— the passcode is 723672.'
The Winter Soldier shakes his head, still bemused, and stands up to make his way towards Steve.
'Give me your hands.' Steve's voice doesn't crack, but he hates the way it raises at the end of the sentence, turning it into a question. Still, the Winter Soldier obeys. The cuffs are reinforced enough to hold the bionic arm, and trying to get them off could do serious damage to the other hand. Steve wraps his fingers around the Winter Soldier's wrists, fingers closing around metal, flesh and more metal. 'I'm sorry if this hurts,' he says, and pulls. The chain breaks.
'Take this,' Steve adds, handing over the sweatshirt.
The Winter Soldier accepts it and throws away the rifle. He picks two guns instead, holstering them at his lower back. The sweatshirt is too big when he pulls it on, but enough to make him pass for a late evening jogger. The sleeves hide the split handcuffs.
'Aren't you committing treason right now?' the Winter Soldier asks.
'You have another five minutes before they fix the CCTV,' says Steve, looking away. 'They'll be focussed on Times Square, so you'll make it if you stick to back alleys. There's a sniper, so keep off the rooftops.'
The touch on his cheek makes him jerk in surprise, half from the cold of the Winter Soldier's left hand, half because it came at all. He didn't realise how close they were standing, and now it's too late. Searching for something familiar in the Winter Soldier's eyes is like instinct by now, like picking at a cut that won't heal, and hurts about as much.
'Why are you doing this?' the Winter Soldier asks, low.
'I got no goddamn idea,' Steve lies, and leans in to kiss him.
It's been thirty-nine days since the charity ball, twenty-two since the cruise ship, but the Winter Soldier kisses him back with the kind of heat reminiscent of someone starved for years. The cotton of his sweatshirt rustles softly against Steve's uniform, and he smells like antiseptic and sweat. The press of his body, the fingers gripping the back of Steve's neck and the way he licks Steve's mouth open are all fierce and demanding. Steve gives as good as he gets, holding the Winter Soldier's face in both hands hard enough to leave bruises, and sucks on his tongue with single-minded desperation.
When they break apart, Steve lets out a needy, pained moan. He doesn't want it to end, not yet. The Winter Soldier tugs at his hair, runs his tongue up the exposed line of Steve's throat, pulls him down for another kiss. This one is lingering, just a dry press of lips that could be innocent if it weren't still so hungry. Finally the Winter Soldier disentangles himself from Steve. He's flushed.
'Hold on,' Steve says, and doesn't recognise the sound of his own voice. He reaches under his uniform, fingers closing around the chain of his dog tags. He pulls them off.
'No,' the Winter Soldier says, for the first time since Steve met him sounding surprised. Surprised, and a little apprehensive.
'Take 'em.' Steve grabs the Winter Soldier's right hand and pushes the dog tags into it. The chain slides between his open fingers, so Steve picks it up again and closes the Winter Soldier's fingers around it. 'Just take them.'
The Winter Soldier shakes his head again, but wraps the chain around his wrist until it's secure. When he lowers his hands, the tags make a small clinking noise. They're visible from under the too-long sleeves of the sweatshirt, resting against the inside of his palm.
'Knock me out,' Steve says. 'I'll tell them you took me by surprise.'
And that's exactly what he does, when a SHIELD tactical team finds him flat on his back in the gym. The concussion is so severe that he needs help getting up. With something akin to very dark humour, Steve decides it must mean the Winter Soldier cares.
Field report: 12/28/2013
Operative name: Dr B. Banner, PhD, PhD
…which is why the fire alarm went unnoticed for so long. The fact that Captain Rogers did not activate the emergency beacon suggested that he may be incapacitated, and myself and Thor made the decision to break protocol. Agents Romanoff and Barton were reluctant, but followed to assure our safety.
The hotel room is not so much a room as a small mansion. It's terrible. The furnishings are so expensive Steve doesn't want to touch anything; even with the magical credit card SHIELD gave him, he's not sure he could pay for anything he broke by accident, and the appliances look kind of fragile. There's a lot of glass.
It's the kind of room Tony Stark would stay in — and does, officially, during his time in Shanghai. Earlier this evening he was even seen coming up the elevator to the penthouse suite, and Steve has no idea how SHIELD managed to confuse the surveillance, but here they are. He doesn't know where Tony is actually spending the night either; Ms Potts has been last seen in Malibu, and the word on the Avengers is that they're vacationing in Hawaii. In reality Ms Potts is safe at HQ in New York, and the Avengers are stationed five floors down along at least twenty SHIELD agents in full gear.
The room is wired so that when Steve sets off the alarm, steel curtains will fall over the windows and the room itself will gas its occupants with high-potency incapacitating agent. In mock scenarios they had tried at HQ, it knocked Steve out for half an hour but didn't kill non-enhanced humans; it should give the team downstairs enough time to make sure the Winter Soldier is contained. Never let it be said that SHIELD doesn't learn from their mistakes. Steve guesses at least ten people were fired after the time the Winter Soldier escaped from their custody, and refuses to feel guilty.
Around ten it starts raining, like white noise at the edges of Steve's consciousness, limiting the comms' performance. His last check-in until two is at half ten, and through the crackle of static Bruce tells him to get some rest. Steve elects to ignore the advice, and instead loosens his tie, breaks into the small bar to fix himself a vodka martini, and sits cross-legged in front of the ridiculously big television set to watch Casablanca.
He has a perfect view of the enormous windows and the Shanghai skyline at night, and still the Winter Soldier takes him by surprise. The balcony is dark until there's a flash of lighting, the slow roll of thunder, and in a split second of stark black and white contrast Steve can see the outline of a dark figure. The Winter Soldier lets himself in, shadow obscuring his face. If he were inclined to follow protocol, Steve would push the correct sequence on the television remote, and Avengers and SHIELD agents would be swarming the whole floor in less than a minute.
He raises his martini glass in a greeting, smiling crookedly. When the Winter Soldier walks into the circle of light, his expression is a little pinched, but mostly resigned.
'Why don't you just let me kill Stark?' he asks, shaking the rain out of his hair. 'I promise I'll make it quick.'
'I can't let you do that,' Steve says.
The Winter Soldier laughs, more an exhale of breath than any real noise. 'Thought so. Thanks for the painkillers, by the way, I wouldn't have made it out of Manhattan without 'em.' When Steve stands up, the Winter Soldier gives him a frank once-over. 'I think I like you better without the spangly getup,' he says, raising an eyebrow.
Steve feels heat running up his neck. 'You always did.'
It's the wrong thing to say. It makes something shut down in the Winter Soldier's face — no, that's not right. It's that all traces of Bucky disappear, the smirk and the easy grace, and all that's left is the Winter Soldier: the cold set of his mouth, the dead eyes.
He has never attacked Steve before, but Steve knows better than to take it as granted or stop seeing the potential for violence in his every move. He might be desperate, but he's not blind; and he'd have to be, to ignore the danger lurking just below the amiable exterior the Winter Soldier presented to him.
So when the Winter Soldier reaches for a gun and fires, straight into Steve's centre of mass, Steve just dodges right, falling on the coffee table, glass breaking all around him. He's up and running, bullets trailing just behind him, and there goes the television set and the stereo; Steve jumps over the couch. It'd be easier if he had the shield, but there's a sub hidden under the couch, so he grabs it, waits for the Winter Soldier to pause to reload and lays suppressive fire, forcing the Winter Soldier to dive behind the kitchen counter. Stainless steel; good choice. Any noise made by the shattering glasses and appliances is drowned out by the fire.
The room is soundproof. Steve checked the specs himself, and tried making a hell of a noise earlier; the team downstairs never knew.
He fires off another few rounds, not looking, before he gets up on his knees to survey the scene. There are small electrical discharges from the television, the couch and kitchenette wall are riddled with bullets, and the coffee table — well, he's pretty sure there's still pieces of it on his suit. Steve shrugs it off. He took off the kevlar vest SHIELD gave him earlier, and now he feels a little naked in the white dress shirt.
'Didn't think you were so hot about guns,' the Winter Soldier calls.
'All's fair,' Steve replies.
The Winter Soldier jumps over the counter, and before Steve can get him in his sights — but he wouldn't shoot like that, not if it could do real harm — he kicks the sub from Steve's hands. Steve grabs him and throws him, and the kitchen table breaks into splinters under their combined weight and the Winter Soldier gasps, but then Steve has to dodge a strike from the bionic arm and it gives the Winter Soldier enough time to roll to his feet and push Steve into a chair. It gives, and Steve stumbles into an ornate mirror, glass flying everywhere.
There's a soft crackle of electricity, a flash, and the television catches fire. Steve doesn't, actually, care.
It's ugly, nothing of the practiced grace of the Winter Soldier's fight with Natasha; just brawling for life and limb, punctuated by pained noises. Steve throws the Winter Soldier again, but it only gives him a chance to get his hands on improvised weapons, and he smashes a porcelain vase against Steve's head. Steve goes down with a grunt, grabs a stray piece of a table. It doesn't stop the Winter Soldier's kick, but it makes the difference between a bruise and a broken collarbone. It also traps the Winter Soldier's foot long enough that Steve can catch him and throw him, aim a punch, but the Winter Soldier rolls away and the floorboards crack under Steve's fist.
The Winter Soldier uses this opening, cuffing Steve in the back of the neck. Steve sees stars. He's halfway up when the Winter Soldier grabs him by the back of his shirt and pushes him into a dresser, Steve sliding along the top, knocking over bottles and a phone, but when the Winter Soldier comes down with a knee to his stomach Steve moves with it and gets a fistful of the Winter Soldier's shirt and slams him into the wall. The plaster cracks, and there's a tall glass cupboard next to them, so Steve pulls the Winter Soldier up and slams him into it, too, eliciting a low groan, and then he's too slow to avoid a door to the face.
He stumbles away, trying to shake the black spots out of his eyes. The Winter Soldier watches him, breathing hard.
'Had enough, tough guy?'
And it's funny, absolutely hilarious, that Bucky of all people should ask if Steve wants to walk away from a fight, so Steve starts laughing. It's hoarse and choked — he's breathing hard, too — and it lasts until Steve remembers that the Winter Soldier isn't Bucky.
'Not even close,' he gasps, and there's blood in his mouth, but he grins anyway. 'Why, you got somewhere else to be?'
The Winter Soldier barks out a laugh. His eyes dart to the left — the kitchen counter, and oh, the knives. They break into a run at the exact same moment, but Steve is faster. He takes the first sharp thing off the counter and throws it; the cleaver lodges itself in the opposite wall. The Winter Soldier takes him by the waist, and Steve lets out a pained moan when he hits the edge of the counter; he grasps blindly until his fingers close on something hard. The chopping board breaks on the Winter Soldier's back and he goes down with a choked-back sob. Steve kicks him in the stomach, and by reflex the Winter Soldier rolls away, farther from the counter.
A mildly hysterical part of Steve wonders if he should offer the Winter Soldier a hand up. He does take a few steps closer, which in retrospect is a stupid move. The Winter Soldier twists, fast, and kicks Steve in the stomach with both feet. Steve doesn't stumble back but can't help doubling over, low enough that the Winter Soldier can clamp his thighs around Steve's neck. Steve doesn't black out when he hits the ground, but it's a close thing. There's another vase lying right there, though, toppled over but miraculously intact; he whacks the Winter Soldier over the head with it, and pushes him off, and crawls away to catch his breath.
That's when the fire sprinklers kick in. Steve can feel water soaking his shirt, flattening his hair against his forehead. It's cold enough to give him the push he needs to get a grip on himself.
They both get to their feet, but Steve is faster. He grabs the Winter Soldier and slams him into the wall, again, one of the few places left without dents or cracks — not any more. This time, though, the Winter Soldier wraps his legs around Steve's hips, ankles crossed against his lower back, and when Steve throws them both to the floor he holds on, letting out a hoarse moan, head thrown back and eyes screwed shut in pain.
It's not pain. It's —
There's a hand gripping Steve's hair, and he doesn't need to be told, he knows how this should go. He brings their mouths together in a bruising kiss, tears stinging in the corners of his eyes when a cut in his lip reopens, when the Winter Soldier yanks at his hair. It's almost too painful, and it's not painful enough. Steve grinds his hips down and swallows the sound the Winter Soldier makes, tastes blood on his tongue. He doesn't know if it's his. Finally the Winter Soldier pulls his hair so hard Steve has to raise his head, and they just look at each other, eyes wide, fighting for air.
Water is running down Steve's face, dripping from the tip of his nose. He sees the table knife next to the Winter Soldier's head and doesn't look away fast enough; the Winter Soldier's eyes follow, and they both tense. Steve aims a punch, a pretty stupid diversion, and the Winter Soldier catches his fist with his left hand, hard enough that Steve can feel the grind of bones and gasps. But he doesn't break Steve's hand. He lets go, and the pain is enough of a distraction that Steve lets him rolls them over until the Winter Soldier can straddle his waist. His hair is wet, the cotton of his shirt grey where it clings to his body. He has a bloody nose and there's a series of small scratches running along the entire right side of his face. Glass, Steve thinks.
The Winter Soldier wraps his left hand around Steve's throat and pulls out a gun from somewhere. Point blank range aimed straight at Steve's head; it would take a lot more than a creative application of a porcelain vase to dodge this one.
The Winter Soldier uncocks the safety on the gun.
Steve holds his breath.
The Winter Soldier hesitates.
He makes a low, angry, livid sound at the back of his throat and bends down to kiss Steve, harsh and graceless. Steve can still feel the muzzle of the gun pressed under his chin. It moves a little when he opens his mouth, digs in deeper, but Steve doesn't care because he can taste blood on his tongue again. He moans in protest when the Winter Soldier lifts his head, moans in something else entirely when the Winter Soldier lets go of Steve's throat to reach down, palm Steve's erection through his dress pants and press down, hard.
'There's something about you,' the Winter Soldier says, barely audible over the sound of water pouring over them. 'I wish —' he cuts himself off with a growl, and before Steve can gather his wits and start making sense of what's going on the Winter Soldier slides down his body, undoes his pants one-handed and without ceremony takes Steve's dick into his mouth.
'Oh god,' Steve manages, and can't stop his hips from coming off the floor. The Winter Soldier grips his left hip, hard enough to bruise, and holds him still. Steve wants to see, but when he tries to move his head the muzzle of the gun digs into his chin. It makes him moan, but maybe it's just that the Winter Soldier is very, very good, and the muffled hum he lets out means he's gotta be showing off.
Steve can't catch his breath, each time he tries he needs to swallow or moan or swear in broken, pained gasps. Of course the Winter Soldier wouldn't show him mercy: he's fast and efficient and it feels like he's proving something to himself, to Steve. Half-consciously Steve reaches down with one hand, but with his eyes closed he doesn't touch the Winter Soldier's face, just gets a handful of his wet hair, and that makes the Winter Soldier push back and moan. The sound reverberates through Steve, and he tightens his fingers, tries not to pull and only mostly fails.
It shouldn't — god, it shouldn't feel so good, not with the myriad of bruises blooming across Steve's body, not when biting his split lip sends sharp sparks of pain down his spine. But it does, against all reason, and Steve can only lie there and take it, come undone, one ragged moan at a time. He forces himself to stop pulling at the Winter Soldier's hair, strokes the back of his neck with his fingers, until they catch on something —
Steve bites his tongue on a name that doesn't have a place here, instead wrapping the chain of his dog tags around his fingers, and he wants to tell the Winter Soldier to stop, that he's close, but when he opens his mouth he only gets out, 'I —,' when the Winter Soldier swallows him down and Steve sees white, shoves his hand into the Winter Soldier's hair, metal chain catching around his ear, and it's so good and it hurts and he can't, he can't —
When Steve comes down, when he can feel his toes again, it's to realise that the Winter Soldier is resting his forehead against Steve's hip, gasping. He's still holding the gun, though the aim is off, and Steve can see his left arm moving rhythmically as he brings himself off. Steve closes his eyes, feeling himself blush. And even with his eyes shut the noises the Winter Soldier makes are enough that Steve wishes he was the one drawing them out; the Winter Soldier sounds like it's killing him, and then he stops and breathes through his nose, and Steve strokes his face, waiting until the Winter Soldier unwinds a little, before pulling him by the dog tags, hauling him in. The Winter Soldier does up his zipper, then Steve's, with his left hand.
Steve never tasted himself in another person's mouth, and it makes him moan, now. He feels the Winter Soldier smile in response, the curve of his mouth so achingly familiar. Steve makes himself let go of the dog tags, curl his fingers around the back of the Winter Soldier's neck instead. The chain falls between them with a soft clink, or maybe Steve's just imagining it: around them, the sprinklers and the last remains of the fire are plenty loud.
And that's when the door flies off its hinges and the Avengers crash into the room.
'Raise your hands above your oh my god,' comes in Clint's voice. Steve can't see his face but he can imagine.
And just like that the Winter Soldier is up and running, incredibly fast, leaving Steve cold and hollow and reaching out after empty air. He jumps through the same window he came in through earlier, and that's it, it's only Steve sitting on the floor alone, surrounded by the smouldering ruins of the penthouse.
'So, Cap,' says Bruce, in a deceptively mild tone, 'did you drop trou before or after you set fire to the room?'
Steve turns to face his teammates, all of whom look less than impressed and, in Clint and Thor's case, a little shell-shocked. A part of him actually sort of wants to die, or at least pass out. It shouldn't be impossible, with how hard he's blushing. He moves to stand, suddenly bone-weary and hurting in more places than he can count, but Natasha stops him with a sharp, 'Stay where you are, Captain Rogers.'
Natasha draws her gun and points it straight at Steve's head. 'Barton, call it in.'
'What the hell am I supposed to say?' Clint demands, voice a little shrill. 'I am not using the words Captain America and sex in the same sentence, that's just wrong.'
'Fine,' Natasha huffs. She taps her earpiece. 'This is agent Romanoff, code thirty four.' There's a pause, then: 'Director Fury, we have a situation concerning the Winter Soldier and Captain Rogers. No, sir. No, sir. Well, I think fraternisation with the enemy about covers it. What kind? The naked kind. No, sir. Absolutely serious. Yes, sir. We're on our way.'
'For what it's worth,' Steve says weakly, 'I really can explain.'
'You should come quietly,' says Natasha. 'I will tranq you if I have to.'
It's the worst debriefing of Steve's life, and it doesn't help that the Avengers' disapproving glares are drilling holes in his back. That's not the worst thing, though.
The worst thing is when Fury says, flatly, 'So what you're trying to tell me is that Sergeant James Barnes, Captain America's second in command and decorated war hero, but more importantly missing in action and presumed dead for the past seventy years — you're telling me he somehow managed to survive a thousand-feet fall into freezing water, defected, and became the world's most notorious assassin,' and he sounds so unimpressed and incredulous that Steve thinks maybe he's been wrong all this time, maybe he's been lonely and desperate and grieving and instead of dealing with it like a civilised human being he started committing random acts of treason for the first person who looked a little like his dead best friend.
'And what's more,' Fury goes on, staring Steve down, 'you're trying to tell me that based upon this assumption, unsubstantiated with any sort of facts or evidence or Earth logic, you decided the best course of action would be to let the world's most notorious assassin evade capture, aid him in escaping from SHIELD custody, and engage in property damage amounting to forty thousand dollars during your secret gay tryst.' Fury makes a face. 'I can't believe I just said tryst.'
'When you put it like that,' Steve admits, hanging his head like a kicked dog, 'it does sound kind of, you know.'
'I should probably be glad you didn't elope. Agent Hill, pull up the footage.'
Steve jerks in horror, because does Fury mean footage of them, and why didn't he think there could be cameras in the suite, but no. The screen before them cuts from the SHIELD logo to a newsreel, a newsreel from the war with the Commandos cooling their heels after — Steve thinks it was after they raided Konopiště, and there, laughing and handsome and still alive is Bucky. Steve remembers that day, remembers that moment: Dum-Dum was hungover after he wasted all his card winnings on cheap booze, Gabe stole his cigars and was smoking one with a look of absolute bliss on his face, Jacques was waving the smoke out of his eyes and demanding a cigar of his own, Jim and Falsworth got into a friendly fight about the proper way to sing It's a Long Way To Tipperary, and Bucky was cleaning his rifle on the hood of their jeep, cigarette dangling from his mouth, lecturing Dum-Dum about how to order good vodka.
'This is the last remaining footage of Sergeant Barnes after the fire in SSR archives in '73,' Fury explains. 'To the best of your knowledge, Cap, is this man the Winter Soldier?'
'Yes,' Steve says immediately. 'Except for the metal arm. And the brainwashing.'
'Agent Romanoff,' Fury goes on, 'To the best of your knowledge, is this man the Winter Soldier?'
'The Winter Soldier is left-handed,' Natasha says. 'His centre of gravity is lower, though it might be because of the reinforcements in his spine and collarbone. His body language is less expressive, but mental conditioning could account for that. I can't be positive, but yes, it looks like him.'
Fury nods. 'Well, aside from the forty thousand in damages, this is the best news we've had in two months.' Steve's face must say it all, because Fury levels him with a pissed-off look. 'We might not have a lot of intel about the Winter Soldier, Cap, but we know everything about Sergeant James Barnes. Agent Romanoff, I hope your contacts in Russia are up to date; I need you to run an errand. And Cap, keep up the kicked puppy look, we're gonna need it. Do any of you know anything about trigger phrases?'
Field report: 01/04/2014
Operative name: CPT S. Rogers
[ CLASSIFIED INFORMATION ]
It's a dark and stormy night, and Steve faces the Winter Soldier armed with nothing but hope.
The setup is this: downstairs, in the Stark Tower penthouse, there's a party high-profile enough the Winter Soldier couldn't miss it if he tried. It's why Steve is in that awful tuxedo, awkward and a little uncomfortable still. He'll take a drab uniform over this kind of fancy wasteful crap any day. So that's the party. Once SHIELD knew who the Winter Soldier was, or had been, they could wire the entire building to send an alarm when someone matching Bucky Barnes' biometric signature entered it, and there is a tactical response team stationed every two floors.
The Winter Soldier picks the rooftop. When the alarm goes off, Fury just nods at Steve and tells him to remember the plan and keep his cards close to his chest.
So Steve comes out on the rooftop and faces the Winter Soldier, unarmed. He knows the Avengers are close-by, and so are the SHIELD agents, but he doesn't know where exactly; it had been decided the less Steve knew about the parts of the plan that didn't involve him, the better. It'd stung, but Steve knows it's right.
The entire rooftop is under surveillance, every word said and every move made recorded and stored to be analysed later. It's what Steve thinks about when the Winter Soldier uncurls from his crouch, straightens his suit, his tie, and crosses the distance between them. It looks like he wants to reach out, but he fists his hands at his sides instead. The team is watching this, and Director Fury is watching this, and it's up to Steve to save Bucky, now.
The Winter Soldier doesn't go for his gun. Steve can see exhaustion in the sharp angles of his face. His eyes are cold, but not unfeeling.
'What is it?' Steve asks. 'What's wrong?'
The Winter Soldier shrugs with his left shoulder. 'I failed to complete the mission in a timely manner. An order's been given. My employers think I'm compromised.'
A kill order, then. Steve can feel his pulse quicken. 'Are you? Compromised?'
The Winter Soldier watches him, steady and quiet and so familiar it hurts. 'I don't know,' he says, which maybe isn't what Steve wants to hear, but sounds honest. 'I won't go after your friends again, but Department X doesn't give up so easy. They'll send someone else.'
'They won't be as good as you,' Steve says.
It makes the Winter Soldier crack a small, lopsided smile. 'No, they won't.' He watches Steve for a moment, like he's trying to solve an impossible equation, then hangs his head again and takes a step back. 'I wish I could remember you,' he admits, quiet like he's wrenching the words out of his throat by force. 'Don't matter. I promise you won't see me again.'
Steve grabs his arm before he can stop himself, as if the Winter Soldier announced he'd jump off the roof right this second. 'Wait, no. Wait. I'll help you. Just — surrender to SHIELD, they know who you are. Let me help.'
'Why?' And there's so much naked, disbelieving confusion in this one word, like the Winter Soldier just doesn't get why Steve thinks he's worth the effort. Steve's hand on his bicep tightens.
'I'm not losing you,' he says. 'Not again, not this time.'
The Winter Soldier looks down, stares at his feet with a lot of intent, but it's dull, inert. Steve is used to him running hot and cold, his sharp smirk and sharper eyes; Bucky had never been so defeated, so subdued, and neither has the Winter Soldier. He doesn't have anywhere else to go, Steve realises with a painful twist in his gut. His superiors turned on him, and the only place he can go to is the enemy.
'I have a dream,' the Winter Soldier says, soft against the wind and cold January air. 'Sometimes. Never told my handlers, never told a soul. In the dream I think I have a name, but it's always gone when I wake up. There's a tightrope or something, and below there's just this sea of fire, everywhere. I never make it across.' He looks up at Steve. 'I think it might've really happened. Did it happen?'
'Yeah,' Steve says, then has to clear his throat. 'Yeah, in Austria. 1943. I was there with you, and — and you made it across.'
The Winter Soldier's shoulders slump, tension draining away from his body, and Steve thinks he might pass out — when was the last time he slept? Can you ever sleep again, once Department X is after you? — but he just closes his eyes and opens them again. Steve keeps holding on to his arm, the right one. It's the longest he's ever touched the Winter Soldier without either of them bleeding profusely.
Then the Winter Soldier asks, in a voice that is raw, aching, split open: 'Who am I?'
And instead of answering Steve wraps his arms around him and holds on for dear life, his or Bucky's, he doesn't know. The Winter Soldier lets him, but doesn't reciprocate. He just stands there and takes it, and it occurs to Steve that maybe he doesn't even know what to do with it, doesn't know how to hug back.
Steve can smell rain in the Winter Soldier's hair. He says: 'Red blood reigns in the winter's pale.'
The Winter Soldier shifts against him, makes an inquisitive sound. Steve ignores him, and says again, this time in Russian practiced for hours to make sure he'd get it perfectly right: 'Алой крови власть над зимой студеной.'
It works: the Winter Soldier goes down, like a wind-up toy or a candle being blown out, shuts down and crumples against Steve's chest. The steadfast tin soldier, and Steve thinks he might be the paper dancer in that story; good, if they melt at least they can melt together. The Winter Soldier is over two hundred pounds of dead weight in Steve's arms, and so Steve goes down on one knee to keep him supported.
The roof is crawling with SHIELD agents in less than a minute, and the Avengers approach from a safe distance. Everyone seems to have a gun, all aimed at him and the Winter Soldier. Steve's really getting kind of sick of it.
'Do not fire,' he snaps, loud, hoping his voice conveys the implicit or else. 'The Winter Soldier is down. I say again, the Winter Soldier is down.'
The recovery room is sterile, but open and sunny. Street noises filtering in from outside are real, nothing of the elaborate masquerade SHIELD treated Steve to when he woke up. There's even a curtain in the window, rippling with every breath of wind, and Times Square below is a constant background of sirens, car horns, people.
Steve closes the door after himself. Bucky gives him a lopsided smile.
'How are they treating you?'
'Like I'm made of glass,' Bucky says, rolling his eyes.
With all the brain-cutting, Steve can't blame the doctors. He considers the chair next to Bucky's bed, usually occupied by Natasha, and chooses instead to hop on the mattress opposite Bucky. Their legs tangle in a graceless mess, and Bucky shoots him a mocking scowl. Steve shrugs and makes himself comfortable, but obediently tries to take up less than two-thirds of the narrow hospital bed.
'So this isn't awkward,' Bucky says, cocking his head to the side. Steve knows it'll take him some time to reconcile the way Bucky and the Winter Soldier are the same man now, the way his body language is halfway between the two.
'I don't know,' he says. 'Is it?'
'I was thinking,' Bucky explains. 'Remembering. Whatever. There's a lot of stuff in my head and I'm not sure which is real and which is some kind of brainwashing residue, so. Tell me something.'
'If I can.'
Bucky swallows, squints at Steve. 'Did I really blow you while holding a gun to your head?'
'Um,' Steve says, colouring.
It makes Bucky bark out a laugh, quick and a little choked like it's been surprised out of him. These days, it's the only way he laughs, and it's different from both before and after, something new and specific to who Bucky is or at least is shaping up to be in the now. And Steve likes it, likes how real the sound is.
'You should be flattered,' Bucky says, rubbing his face with his hands. 'I'm pretty sure you were my first, you know, since around 1969.'
'I am. Flattered. Really flattered.' Yeah, Steve is pretty terrible at these things. His tongue is tied into knots, but he's hoping he can get out what he's trying to say without actually killing himself or something. 'So flattered I was wondering if you'd like me to return the favour, maybe?' And oh, that's just the least smooth line in the history of many things, and Bucky's raised eyebrow tells Steve he's laughing at him on the inside.
'You mean point a gun at my head?' Bucky asks, all wide-eyed innocence. If he weren't convalescing, Steve would cuff him upside the head. As it is, he just shoves at Bucky's shoulder with his foot.
'Don't be an asshole,' he says. 'You know what I mean.'
Bucky makes a noise like he's thinking hard about it, like it's some terrible chore Steve's trying to talk him into. 'I don't know,' he says finally, and the downturned corners of his mouth mean he's fighting hard to keep his laughing-on-the-inside inside. 'Are you trying to seduce me from the dark side, Captain Rogers?'
'I believe I already have, Sergeant Barnes,' Steve says loftily.
'It's the vodka martinis.' Bucky shakes his head. 'When did you grow a style?'
Steve shoves him again. Bucky feints to the left, and the plain black t-shirt rides down a little around his collarbone, revealing a thin ball chain. The SHIELD scientists were somewhat alarmed to discover that upon his capture the Winter Soldier was wearing Captain Rogers' dog tags, and Steve knows by now HQ is aflutter with gossip, one rumour more sordid than the next; it seems the hotel penthouse situation is quickly entering urban legend territory.
Steve cares very little. He's sitting on Bucky's narrow hospital bed and they can still laugh at each other, and it's the easiest thing in the world to shift around until he can straddle Bucky's thighs and kiss him. It isn't the Winter Soldier or the Bucky he'd known in the past who kisses him back, not quite. It's someone better than the sum of his parts.
And whatever the future has in store for them, Steve won't let Bucky ever forget his name again.
Four months later.
'…ah, but Captain, we are much alike, you and I. You kill for the world you believe in; I kill for a world I shall make better. You think your faith justifies the monstrous acts of violence you commit, that your carnage and bloodshed is righteous. Tell me, does that make it easier for you to sleep at night? When you tell yourself this American dream of yours really could wipe away all the blood on your hands?'
Steve waits a beat, to make sure Baron von Strucker actually waits for him to say something; it's hard to tell, sometimes, when villains start monologuing once they've got you hanging over a shark pit. When von Strucker raises his eyebrows expectantly, Steve shrugs as much as he can while restrained. And seriously, the chains are a little much, just like the whole evil-dungeon-of-torture-under-a-Montenegro-castle. Steve feels like he's in the middle of a pulp novel.
'Not really, no,' he says. 'But hey, I'm just a soldier. Maybe you should save the philosophical debates for someone who cares.'
'Fake bravado, how droll!' Von Strucker laughs and presses the big red button on his console. The chains give a few inches. The sharks below are getting interested in the proceedings, surfacing from time to time to snap their enormous jaws at Steve's feet. It would be scary, if it wasn't so ridiculous. Steve wonders if his teammates' solo adventures are as improbable as his own, or if he's just lucky like that.
'I applaud your fearlessness in the face of impending death, Captain,' says von Strucker. 'You are defeated and helpless, yet valiant to the last. But before I kill you…' and oh, yeah, there they go again.
Steve tunes out the evil gloating and focuses on his surroundings instead. It's gonna be difficult to get out of this one; cuffs he could break easy, but the whole chained up thing works pretty well, theatrical and inefficient though it may be. Even if he avoids getting mauled by sharks, there's the gaggle of Rottweilers guarding all exits. Well, that's not so bad; dogs won't shoot at him, at least. He should still have a few hours before the poker game starts — the actual mission objective, as opposed to casual HYDRA hunting — but the sooner he gets free the better. For one, he needs to change into something more presentable than his ruined tuxedo. Hopefully SHIELD won't mind the extra expense.
Von Strucker is laying down the intricacies of his evil plan — pretty standard take over the world stuff; it's getting kind of boring — when Steve sees it: a flash up high, just the quickest glint off the scope of a sniper rifle. He winks in the general direction.
'And as we approach the moment of your death,' von Strucker is saying, 'tell me, Captain. What does it feel to know you have lost? That the world will kneel before HYDRA at last, after all you have done to stop me? How does it feel to die at the hands of someone not so different from you?'
'Don't worry, we're plenty different,' says Steve. 'I don't know about losing, either. You could say I got friends in high places.'
'Indeed.' Von Strucker fiddles with his monocle, peering up at Steve with interest. 'Gods and monsters, yes, but the Avengers will not come for you. Surely you must know this, Captain. I could never hope to defeat your team, but you alone — you are not even a challenge. Perhaps if you had a partner.'
'Oh, but I do.' Steve waits for that to sink in, for the slight frown creasing von Strucker's brow. And there it is, the first flicker of doubt. Steve starts grinning. 'Haven't you heard? Captain America doesn't work alone.'
Before von Strucker can react, there's a soft thwip and he crumples to the floor, tranquiliser dart sticking out of the back of his neck. Soon the dogs follow, and Bucky slides down on a zip line. It doesn't take long, then: close the shark pool, get out of the stupid chains, disable the evil console supposed to launch about fifteen 40s-era warheads at strategic points in Europe and the Middle East. Well, it doesn't really matter now. It's a short call to alert SHIELD about the surprise arsenal; after securing it, they'll probably sell it to a museum somewhere.
'What took you so long?' Steve asks, dusting himself off. 'I thought he was gonna talk me to death.'
Bucky just flips him off and raises his eyebrows at Steve's dishevelled state. 'You're a mess, Rogers. The point of not being mauled by sharks is that you don't have to look like you've been mauled by sharks.'
'It's roguishly handsome and you love it,' Steve tells him.
When he wants to be, Bucky can be very fast. Now he hauls Steve in by the tie and they're kissing, right in the middle of a villainous underground lair; Steve should probably care more that this violates protocol in a major, major way, but can't, not with Bucky so close. It's not fair that his lizard brain is already conditioned to roll over and beg at the sight of Bucky in a tuxedo. Steve doesn't care about that injustice either.
'Dope,' Bucky says, pressing a smile to the corner of Steve's mouth. 'And to think I take you to the nicest places.'
'This is your idea of nice? Let's get out of here, and I'll show you nice.'
Laughing, Bucky pushes Steve away. 'You're on. Wait till you see the car Fury gave me for this op.' If past experience is anything to go by, it's Italian, sleek, very fast and with Bucky behind the wheel? A hell of a ride. They grin at each other for a moment, young and reckless and really neither of those things, until there's a muffled groan from somewhere to the left.
Bucky sighs. Without another word, he walks over to von Strucker and kicks him over to his back.
'Who — who are you…?' von Strucker wheezes, fighting a losing battle to stay conscious.
Bucky smirks down at him. 'Just a soldier. The Winter Soldier.'