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How do you solve a problem like Maria?

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Honestly, she had no idea why Nick Fury decided she was worthy enough to deal with as big of a problem as The Winter goddamn Soldier.  

Okay, not literally. She’s just on cover-up duty. When Maria Hill joined SHIELD three years ago she hadn’t quite expected… well, this.

Covering up political assassinations by unknown terrorist organisations. Piles and piles of paperwork to do every week. Hardly any real action.

She’d graduated the Academy at seventeen, a year early, with honours, and four fluent languages under her belt. She wanted to be a damn field agent. She wanted to be useful.

This wasn’t useful. This was a waste of time.

Even as she stares, with a very slight inkling of fear at the grainy image of a man with his face engulfed by a mask, she knew that The Winter Soldier was a ghost story. Nothing more.

 

Yet, it haunts her. The political ambassador he assassinated hadn’t exactly been… perfect, but he was doing more for his country than anybody before. He had been far from innocent, but he was making so many advancements, introducing laws that protected more and more people – and right before his next law passed, he was killed. The law did not pass. Everything he worked for fell apart.

All thanks to The Winter Soldier.

However he chooses his victims, it has to be done with grace, has to be chosen specifically for the largest impact. Has to be brutal. Controversial. A conspiracy.

As Maria read through his extremely thin file for probably the twentieth time, she wonders who he is. Or has been. He can’t possibly be the same person – he’d be… Well, he’d presumably be in his eighties.

But it was no coincidence that all of the men that The Winter Soldier had looked alike. Described as approximately six feet, late twenties, and an entirely metal left arm, there were simply no men on the planet that match that description. It's an elaborate setup. A ploy.

A ghost story.

And yet, there’s something about the whole thing that just bugs her.

She closes the folder, stacking all of the paperwork on top of it, and trekked to Fury’s office, placing it inside her slot. She nods at Alexander Pierce on her way back, already pushing The Winter Soldier out of her mind.

                                                                                                                                              

Her dreams don’t seem to get the memo.

They’re more like nightmares, though The Winter Soldier never does more than watch her, a gun in his hand though it is not pointed at her. It is always the same dream.

And he always seems to be waiting.

The dreams stop altogether when she finally goes out into the field later in 2003.

 

Then they come back after her senior partner, Phil Coulson, is shot.

It’s nothing major, just his left arm, and it has to be in a sling for a few weeks. But something about it brings Winter into her mind. It’s most likely the relation of the left arm – but even so, it seems random.

This time, Winter’s mask only covers the lower half of his face, but his eyes aren’t there – where they should be, there’s just sockets filled with a bland off-white.

She doesn’t remember those dreams, but they unintentionally change her view on The Winter Soldier. After all, she does call him ‘Winter’.

And Winter is definitely waiting.

 

She drops off a bouquet of flowers for Phil in his office, and notices with amusement how much he admires Captain America. There was merchandise, both rare and common, strewn about the office, images adorning the walls, bears behind his desk. It had been an integral part of his personality, as well as his inspiration to become a SHIELD agent. Without his Captain America and The Howling Commandoes comics, he’d probably be an accountant somewhere.

Curious, Maria reaches out for a coloured photograph of the Commandoes after it catches her eye. She holds the image in her hands as she traces the image with her fingertip. It was in colour, an extreme rarity for the age. The technology was only recently developed. It would have been expensive. Anything for the Commandos. Even some of the few shots of Captain Rogers that were in colour were painted.

Something about it is familiar. She doesn’t know why. Captain Rogers isn’t in the image, and he was the face of the American war, the only reason she would think this is familiar.

Phil comes in silently, and she doesn’t notice until he chuckles lowly.

“That picture is actually one of my favourites if you can believe it.”

She sets the photo down carefully as she gave him a questioning look. He laughs at her expression.

“I know what you’re thinking – Steve Rogers is my hero.” He walks over and picks up the picture, staring at it with an unreadable emotion. “But much like Steve Rogers, I’ve always had a soft spot for Bucky Barnes.”

Bucky Barnes.

Bucky Barnes.

She hasn’t heard anyone say that name since she was seventeen. She had to write an essay on her favourite Commando in eighth grade. She’d chosen Bucky Barnes.

In the Academy, she wrote an essay on Steve Rogers’s friendship with Bucky Barnes. She wrote about how without Bucky Barnes, Steve Rogers would never have become the American hero that saved the world. In other words, Bucky Barnes was the true hero in her mind.

 

In her dreams, Winter is black and white. His eyes are still colourless.

 

There’s another assassination.

It’s a seventeenth month gap. It’s too soon.

The shortest gap between assassinations had previously been seven years. Although there were many suspected assassinations that had not been proven to be Winter’s doing, even counting those it was a five year gap.

The mantle had obviously been passed down into new leadership.

Or more people need assassinating.

Probably both.

 

Nobody, in Maria’s opinion, was safe. Good nor evil nor neutral. The Winter Soldier doesn’t have a preference. Or maybe he does, Maria thinks.

Winter seems to have business. What that business is, she doesn’t know. Maybe he’s eliminating anyone in his way. That’s her theory, at least.

And for her theory to be proven correct?

There has to be another assassination within eighteen months.

 

It takes eleven.

 

“Whoever Winter is working for – or whoever they are working for – they’re gearing up for something.” she tells Fury, in 2003. She can tell he doesn’t believe her – after all, she’s practically new, and is still too young to be of that much importance within SHIELD. Her clearance level is only level four, and Coulson’s is level seven. The only reason she was ever given Winter’s paperwork in the first place was because everybody else was overworked to the point of exhaustion.

“Winter?” he enquires, no emotions in his voice. Maria swallows.

“It’s shorter than saying ‘The Winter Solider’.”

Fury hums. “So, you seem to think that just because there has been an increase in his activity, that shit is about to start going down?”

Well.

When Fury puts it like that.

“Your theory is being taken into consideration. Thank you, Agent Hill.”

She gives Alexander Pierce a solemn nod on her way out.

Pierce has seemed much more serious recently. Maybe something has happened. Maybe she should send flowers.

The thought is dismissed once she gets back to work.

 

Her nightmares taper off. Winter is always staring at her with hollow eyes now, and she is certain he is waiting. He is trying to tell her something. She just doesn’t know what it is.

 

A startlingly short nine months after the last one, in 2004, there is another assassination.

But this one is different.

It’s a woman, this time, and she was in her hotel room preceding a science convention. She was about to present her newest research. It could theoretically revolutionise the way the world works.

Her work is destroyed.

A bullet in her stomach, and a finality to the bullet in her brain.

A word, or part of it, scrawled clumsily in her own blood on the wall behind her bed.

BARNI

It must have been excruciating. The pictures give her chills.

CCTV footage shows Winter entering the room hours before she even checks in, mask covering only the bottom half of his face. He catches sight of the camera.

While staring directly into it, he shoots the lens.

She recognises those eyes – but not who owns them.

 

She is assigned to the case. Fury gives her a measured look, as if trying to decide whether or not it’s a good idea to place her on the case.

The act of doing so jumps her clearance up to level six.

He trusts her.

She’s not sure why.

 

The crime scene is brutal.

Her body has already been taken to the morgue, although she’s certain there’s nothing more that they can find.

Phil accompanies her on the case, both since he is familiar with the case, and because Fury asked him to.

When Maria gets up close to the bloodied note on the wall, ignoring the slightly rancid odour, she realises the ‘I’ was likely not an ‘I’ at all. At the very top, there is a small line, like she was going to continue the word, but was killed before she could finish it.

It certainly closed one door, but it opened a hundred more.

What was the next letter supposed to be? She narrows it down to several letters, but even so, she couldn’t figure out the word. There could be more letters after each possibility, and it was impossible to know for certain what the word is supposed to be when fully formed.

It didn’t stop her from trying.

 

She had been awake for well over forty-eight hours, caffeinated up to her eyeballs and starting to go a little bit crazy trying to figure it out.

When Phil walks in, his boots echo too loudly in her ears, and she cringes.

“You’re still working on that? Maria, you know you can’t solve that. It’s impossible, not to mention meaningless.”
“No,” she tells him emphatically. “She wrote it while she was in agonising pain. This is a message. A code. I’ve got to decipher it.”

Phil sighs. “Maria,” he begins, and she knows that tone.

Phil.” She insists. “Believe me. I’m on the verge of something. I’m so close.”

And the thing is, she’s so sure that she is. It’s just so very slightly out of her reach. It’s infuriating her.

“Okay.” He tells her amicably. He’s humouring her. “I understand.”

“Thank you,” she deflates. She suddenly notices that he’s carrying a package in his hand. “What’s that?”

Phil seems to brighten up, holding up the package for her to see. “This? They’re my new Captain America Trading Cards. They’re vintage. Mint. Bought them off a collector that was selling them for cheap – I got lucky.”

She smiles at him. “Open them up, let’s see them.”

He does that with all of the excitement of a seven year old at Christmas time.

He opens the small box carefully, and picks every card out individually with the tips of his fingers, avoiding tears or smudging. He and Maria both smile down at them.

They’re beautiful. It’s clear they were hand-painted, because there were few colour images in the forties, and Captain Rogers’s uniform is startlingly bright and patriotic. Their eyes are beautifully coloured too, the slight tinge of green in Steve’s, the brown of Falsworth’s, the mirth in Dum-Dum’s, the blue of-

The blue of Bucky Barnes.

The blue of Bucky Barnes’s eyes.

The colour matches Winter’s perfectly.

She freezes.

Phil doesn’t notice, continuing to admire the cards.

Maria is having something akin to a panic attack.

She stands clumsily, gripping the table tightly as her vision blacks out for just a second.

“Maria?!” Phil asks, panic in his voice. “Are you alright?”

“Fine,” she says, though her voice is too strained. “Maybe – I think – I think I should go home. I’m tired.”

“Yeah,” Phil agrees, though his eyes narrow to slits. “You deserve some rest, far more than most.”

He drives her home, still anxious at the lack of exhaustion she shows. He knows she’s hiding something.

 

She doesn’t sleep. She’s shaking far too much, even to type out her search into the mediocre search engine she uses.

JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES 1945

There are a lot of results. Many of which were written by scholars, some only mentioned the man in passing, preferring to gloss over him in favour of his close friend and brother-in-arms Steve Rogers.

She searches for images.

None of them are in colour which aggravates her to no end.

And then, with such a sudden start, she realises she had just left the office – where Phil kept his photo of the Commandos. She has to go back – go see it –

But she can’t. Phil wouldn’t expect to see her back at the office tonight. She has to wait.

But she’s also reasonably certain the scientist was trying to write ‘Barnes’.

 

Maria sleeps for around three hours, and she feels like she has slept seventy years.

 

 

When she gets in, Phil smiles and says a quick, ‘Good morning,’ to her. She ignores him, racing over to where Phil’s photo of the Commandos was stood. All this time – she hadn’t connected.

She grabs the picture, rushing back to her seat, and pulls the security footage up. Phil hasn’t followed her, so she deems it safe.

She freezes the image as Winter stares into the camera.

She compares the stances of the two men.

It’s difficult – while they’re both holding guns, they aren’t held the same – but she finds the same slightly arrogant set to their shoulders, the same cock to the hip in that subtle, strange way she’d never been bothered to notice before. The same hair colour.

But even though their eyes were the same colour, they weren’t the same eyes.

Winter looked cold, calculating, distant. Broken.

Bucky’s radiated warmth – wariness, yes, but friendly. Loving. His eyes were broken too.

Something had changed.

“Oh God,” she mutters, voice trembling and her arms shaking.

The theory – which was just that – was preposterous.

James Buchanan Barnes died sixty years ago. And even if he hadn’t – if he hadn’t, he would be his eighties.

The very idea that he might have survived a fall as high as that shook her to her very core. Captain Rogers himself couldn’t have survived that fall. Most likely.

She shoves the photograph into her dedicated Winter Soldier drawer, opting to keep it for good measure.

Her heart pounds like a jackhammer, making her eyes blur and her mouth dry and she knows she’s panicking. She can’t stop.

 

 

“Maria, it’s 2005. You’re in the Triskelion. You’re safe. Your name is Maria Hill, you’re twenty-two years old, and you’re safe…” came Phil’s voice, unusually clear and calm.

Maria blinks and her eyes swim into focus. “Phil? Oh God, did I have a panic attack? At work?

“Don’t be ridiculous, Maria,” he says plainly, crouching next to her desk. “It doesn’t matter you’re at work, you need more rest. Clearly all of this is taking its toll on you…” His eyes slid over the screen where Winter’s image was still staring out. “Maybe you should close the Winter Soldier case, huh?”

“I can’t,” she implores. “I’m in way too deep now. Besides, I said yesterday, I’m on the verge of something important…”

Maybe she already has found it. But she refuses to believe it. It’s absolutely, unequivocally, physically impossible for The Winter Soldier to be a dead man walking.

Yet it’s the only theory she has. It’s barely even plausible – but it makes sense.

“Maria, it’s unhealthy,” he argues, shaking her very slightly. “You’re not sleeping, you’re barely eating, whenever there’s an assassination you seem to take it personally. Please. Put it to rest, at least until there’s another one.”

“Okay,” she agrees, so quietly he barely hears her. They both know she’s lying, but it’s a comfort nonetheless. “I’ll let it go.”

 

There are no more assassinations for two years. She lets her theory lie dormant with the Soldier.

 

Her clearance, through her own hard work, has been raised up to level seven, a feat that was extremely rare – even Phil’s clearance had taken him fifteen years to receive. She’d managed in half the time.

It was mostly due to her extensive skills, and, to everyone’s shock, the declaration that Hawkeye and the Black Widow themselves endorse her.

Seriously. She may have fangirled just as much as Coulson would if he ever met Captain America in the flesh.

She’d run into them on a mission by accident – this mission was both the reason her clearance was increased, and also how she came to realise the world was a lot more dangerous than she thought.

Despite having entirely different missions, they had still interacted and offered to work alongside one another – and Phil, of course.

It went well. Then better. Then Brilliantly.

Then badly.

Their mission was top secret, with the highest level of confidentiality; only Phil, Maria, Clint, and Natasha were privy to any and all information – besides Alexander Pierce and Nick Fury. It was in Russia, which, in hindsight, meant she probably should have expected something to go awry. Most Russian Intel missions always had some way of going wrong.

AIM had been slowly crawling back onto the SHIELD radar, despite being for the most part inactive since the late nineties following the dismantling of the Red Room and its associates.

Fury suspected them of having specialised nuclear weapons, and who better to send than four of his best agents?

 

Admittedly, there are less AIM agents than they had expected, and Clint and Natasha terminate them quickly and efficiently in their respective methods.

Further investigation of the base found basement science lab, which unsurprisingly enough, did contain prototype nuclear weapons, not nearly enough to kill, but definitely enough to give some sort of radiation to whoever was nearest.

Along with all of that was a cluster of men in lab coats looking horrified at being discovered.

Before the deadly duo can launch into action however, Maria watches on in horror as one by one they fell to their knees, foaming at the mouth.

Cyanide.

One scientist is left standing.

Before he can snap his pill, Natasha shoves her hand into his mouth, ignoring the snap of his jaw as he bit her, and pulls the capsule out with surprising ease.

Then she knocks him out.

 

Extraction isn’t due for hours yet, and since everything to do with interrogation is classified, well, no one truly knows what they’re doing to him.

Maria almost feels sorry for him, but then she finds entire plans, folders, cabinets devoted to the mass production of nuclear weapons and their plans to drop them on the USA.

She digs deeper, gritting her jaw at the sound of the scientist’s bloodcurdling scream. Phil is right alongside her, face impassive in a way she knows means he’s unhappy.

She finds one folder on the Red Room and sets it aside for Natasha. This is her story to deal with. She won’t pry.

But something that does shake her to her very core is that there is a file on her.

Nothing within her SHIELD career other than when she began working there, but everything from the day she was born up until her graduation at seventeen was in that file. Maria drops it, hand over her mouth.

“Phil, oh my God.”

“Maria?” Phil says bending down to retrieve the file. “Is this – this is you.” He says and she can tell he’s working through a thousand different possibilities.

She carries on, ploughing through cabinet after cabinet until she finds that everybody with a classification of level five or higher is in these cabinets.

They know their identities.

Her world just got a whole lot scarier.

She pulls Clint out of the interrogation, leaving Natasha to her own devices. He gulps noisily when he hears the news, taking the Red Room file off of her hands as well as a classified file from the pile. When he flicks both of them open, he pales.

“These are accurate. Scarily accurate.” He looks up at her, something not unlike fear in his gaze. “There’s a mole in SHIELD. What else did you find?”

“Nothing yet. We haven’t explored the majority of the rooms under here – we don’t know what to expect.”

Clint nods slowly. He turns into the room and quickly yanks Natasha out by the arm. She brushes him off him a snide,

“I was in the middle of something.” But her tone is fond and dangerous, like she knows Clint wouldn’t have called her out if it wasn’t an emergency.

Sure enough, he hands her the file and she has a much more visceral reaction than her partner. Natasha seems to seethe, fury growing in her eyes as she turns to enter the room once again, but Clint grabs her arm and tugs her back.

“Clint, for fuck’s sake-”

“No,” he says gently. “You’re emotionally compromised right now. Let’s leave him to stew and we can investigate the rest of the base, okay?”

She nods, as do Maria and Phil. Natasha leads the way, anger clear in the way her steps are more pronounced and her stride is far shorter.

 

Maria isn’t quite sure what she is looking at, but she sees enough to know it’s not good.

The tube is incredibly strong, and a bile-inducing shade of yellow. She can’t tell what it is simply by looking or knocking; there would have to be either an expert or an analysis to determine the metal. The tube is probably a foot in diameter – not much room at all.

She has to wonder why, for such a heavily fortified tube, there was nothing inside it.

A keypad to its left makes her purse her lips, bending down to get a better look at it.

It's dusty, like it hasn’t been used in a decade, but she can make out some numbers clearer than others. Specifically, the numbers ‘1’, ‘4’, ‘5’, and ‘9’, are more faded than the others. The operating system didn’t seem to have the capacity to alert anybody if a certain amount of incorrect attempts was surpassed.

It’s a standard four digit passcode, and using those numbers, there were a possibility of twenty-four different codes. She sets to work.

It’s on her third attempt, to her surprise, that she gets the tube to unlock. The combination is ‘1 9 4 5.’

It seems significant somehow. She commits the code to memory as Phil, Clint and Natasha round the corner to investigate the hiss of the tube rising.

Immediately Natasha stops in her tracks, staring in horror at the room.

“Do you know what this is for?” Maria asks as she tries to fit in the tube. Natasha nods silently, while the others help Maria. Natasha makes no attempt to move.

Maria was right; the dimensions of the tube more closely resemble a cupboard, where she could barely extend her arms. She notices rather odd, vent-like gaps in the ceiling, although they don’t seem to be in any particular pattern, and even appearing on the floor.

What almost slips her notice, though, is a very small black object in the outside of the tube. It appears to be stuck in a gap, but when she picks it up it slides out with ease.

It takes a moment of twisting it and turning it, even stepping out to examine the object in the light, for her to suddenly, with a sharp clench in her chest, realise what the object is.

It’s a mask – one she’s seen before.

But no – not quite a mask, a mask implies that it is to conceal an identity. This – though, without a doubt, it does work as a mask – strikes her as more of a muzzle.

“Maria?” Phil asks, brows furrowed. She snaps her head to him, and steps over. Before he can protest, she places the mask over the lower half of his face. He remains perfectly still.

On Phil’s jaw, the mask sits right on top of the nose and curves below his mouth, yet also sits right in front of his neck – uncomfortably resting so that it digs into his Adam’s apple. It’s supposed to supress speaking.

Maria drops the mask.

Clint is having a hushed conversation with Natasha, but she can’t hear them.

“That – oh my God, Phil, do you know what that is?”

“No, Maria, is something wrong?”

“That chamber – what is it?” she asks fiercely, turning between the other three. Natasha squares her shoulders in a slightly intimidating way, but Maria is too wound up to back down.

“A Cryostasis chamber.” Natasha tells her factually.

“Elaborate.” Phil drawls, though his voice wavers. Natasha glares at him, but there is very little heat behind it. She seems vulnerable.

“A Cryostasis chamber is used to place somebody in suspended animation for long periods of time. They’re essentially frozen.”

Clint’s face is screwed up with disgust as he stares at the chamber. Maria gapes.

“Frozen? For how long?”

Natasha shrugs listlessly.

“For however long the handler wants.” Her tone is too familiar, and Phil asks before she can.

“You’ve been in one before, haven’t you?” he asks quietly. Though her jaw ticks, she nods once.

“Just once, when I was sixteen. The Red Room… They were fond of keeping their trainees in line. I was rebellious. One month in there and I never went back. It’s effective, but it’s torture. This used to be a Red Room facility, from the state of the chamber.” She adds at the end, tone almost too light. Maria sees right through it, her mind racing a thousand miles a minute.

“No,” she mutters. Natasha stares at her, an odd expression on her face.

“What?”

“No,” she says again. “This mask – this is the same mask The Winter Soldier wears. He was here.”

Immediately the vulnerability in Natasha’s face was gone.

“The Winter Soldier is a ghost story they tell to little assassins at night so that they don’t try to escape.” she tells them, her tone flat and her eyes sparkling with fury. “He is a ghost story and he isn’t real, Maria.”

“Nat-”

No, Clint! I’ve had enough of AIM’s shit all my life and I do not want to deal with all the lies they told us. ‘The Winter Soldier’ is a codename.” She spat at Maria. She didn’t flinch. “Everything that SHIELD has on him has proved time and time again that he cannot be the same person. If you’re suggesting they put him in Cryostasis – they’d have had to have developed the technology decades ago.”

But it fit.

If Winter was – was who she crazily theorised he was – then, oh, just, maybe, it fits. They would have had to have somehow mastered this technology decades ago, yes, but there were geniuses in that era.

It’s was so unlikely it bordered on impossible. But it wasn’t.

“Then what do you say about this?” Maria bends to pick up the mask, thrusting it out to Natasha. “I’ve studied every single picture on The Winter Soldier, every description, every assassination. I’m probably one of the leading experts on him. And this is his fucking mask.”

“Wannabes.” Natasha snarls, though she turns the mask over in her hand. “Copycats. A codename. Besides, it was probably put here to mislead you. Looks like it worked.”

Maria finally seems to grasp that explaining everything to Natasha won’t work; she’s heavily traumatised, she knows that much, and The Winter Soldier is too close to her time in the Red Room. Instead, she turns to Clint.

“I want to take a turn with the scientist. Give me ten minutes.”

 

“You have a Cryostasis chamber. Why?”

“Research.”

“Who have you used it on?”

“Research.”

“Any former Red Room associates?”

That gets a rise out of him. He looks her in the eyes, one cheek puffy and pink, and one eye black and swelling shut. He grins a bloody, toothless grin.

“You know the answer to this question.” He tells her gleefully. “You know exactly who was in there, don’t you?”

He was a talker. That made things easier; he was proud of everything AIM had worked for so far – he wanted to get that message out to as many people as possible before being sentenced within SHIELD.

Bastard.

“I do,” Maria inclines her head.

“No!” he laughs at her. “You don’t have any idea!”

He is mocking her.

“The Winter Soldier.”

Though his smile falters for a second, it picks up immediately.

“You don’t know his identity! You’ll never find him. He’s HYDRA’s fist.”

Maria’s whole body goes cold. Her heart thumps, misses a few beats, then her pulse speeds. She lets nothing show on her face.

“HYDRA?”

The scientist’s smile truly does falter, eyes widening almost comically as he goes slack-jawed.

“AIM.” He squeaks.

“No.” Maria says, tone perfectly schooled. “You said HYDRA.”

“I meant-”

Maria has had enough. She darts over to the scientist and flings him into the nearest wall, hand tight against his neck.

“HYDRA has been dead for sixty years. Captain America himself made sure of that.”

Through his spluttering, she makes out, “Cut – off, one – head and t-t-t-two more shall take – it’s – place-”

“HYDRA was a Nazi organisation that died with the war.” She relaxes her grip on his throat.

“The war was never won,” he coughs. “Merely postponed. Order shall pierce you through the heart. Insight will reveal the truth. The Soldier will strike all of our threats. The procedure has already started.” He laughs hysterically.

He foams at the mouth.

He had a backup pill.

He’s dead.

HYDRA isn’t.

 

She’s barely even listening to the argument going on while they’re on the jet back. Her eyes are glazed over and everything sounds dull to her own ears as each individual record of The Winter Soldier flashes in front of her eyes, a gruesome contrast to what you see before you die.

Perhaps she is dying. Perhaps this is how it happens.

Chasing a mythical assassin that could shoot her right out of the sky without a second thought.

Or perhaps she’s going insane. Maybe she already is.

But as she clutches the mask tightly in her hands, every piece of evidence on the Winter Soldier flickering in her head, she is ninety eight percent certain she’s perfectly lucid, but that just makes her feel worse.

As she finally tunes into the hushed but angry conversation the others are having, she is startled to find that they are arguing about whether to report everything to Fury. What shocks her even more, is that Clint and Natasha don’t want to report it.

“Like Fury wouldn’t have our asses if he found out HYDRA was actually still going.”

“Like he wouldn’t have our asses if we were withholding information!”

“Face it, Phil,” Clint reasons, tone measured. “That was probably that asshole’s idea of a dying, practical joke.”

“Clint, you know that’s bullshit.”

“He could be right.” Natasha agrees. “HYDRA was dismantled in 1945 thanks to Captain America.” Both Maria and Phil wince. It was a low blow for Natasha to bring Captain Rogers into the argument, since he was the Phil’s role model. Not to mention that Maria had been having extremely preposterous theories about his late friend. “He put that plane down and sacrificed himself for SHIELD, and so that HYDRA would be gone once and for all.”

“If HYDRA was back, he’d have died in vain. He finished the job.”

Except.

Except he died. Rogers didn’t know for certain that HYDRA was dismantled. Zola was still alive; he’d been a prominent member of HYDRA before their fall, and following a SHIELD programme in the forties, he was given free reign once again.

There could have been a thousand other HYDRA members hiding the shadows. They’d never have known.

HYDRA was still alive.

But why weren’t they more of a threat?

“Maybe they’ve mingled with AIM.” Maria tells them quietly, and they turn to stare at her. She can get them both to agree on this. “If they have, it makes sense as to why they haven’t been active all these years. They have, just under a different name. It explains their technology. The Red Room. The mask. All of it.”

There’s silence.

“She’s right.” Natasha and Clint say in unison. Phil nods.

“It does make sense.” He concedes.

“We tell Fury that AIM has a new division.” She instructs them, turning the mask over in her hands. “But just not that it’s HYDRA. Win-win.”

She isn’t looking at them so she doesn’t see the concerned look they all shoot her as she stares, enthralled at the mask.

“Okay,” they all agree, and Maria slumps unnoticeably in relief.

 

They don’t tell Fury, but it seems like already knows.

Pierce watches the four of them, eagle eyed, as they leave his office following the debriefing. He looks far older than he ever used to, and once again, Maria wonders if something’s wrong with him.

Order shall pierce you through the heart.

She isn’t sure why that sentence is suddenly brought to the forefront of her mind. But the scientist had put emphasis on ‘pierce’. Perhaps it was a joke to him.

 

Though she knows Phil would have her committed if he found out, Maria buys a huge pin board on the way home. It’s big enough to cover the entire wall in her bedroom.

She is slightly concerned for herself even as she continues to pin everything she has up onto the board.

A picture in the centre. The mask directly above it. A small picture of James Barnes pinned to the bottom left of the board, out of immediate notice.

On a piece of paper, she writes, ‘Cryostasis chamber,’ and pins that up with the mask. Connected to it, she writes, ‘CODE: 1 9 4 5’.

With a jolt, she realises that was the year he fell.

On another, she writes ‘HYDRA – 1939-1945?’

She picks out several pieces of information from his file – his description, notable assassinations – and pins those up too.

As she thinks that she’s finally finished, she remembers what Natasha had said about Winter. That he was a ghost story told to little assassins at night.

She writes ‘Red Room,’ up too.

She sets to work, trying to connect absolutely everything she has.

If HYDRA was still active, and he was working for them, it could explain the Cryo chamber. With the tesseract, they could have developed the technology far, far sooner than possible. Which explains how he is consistently described as being the same age, of the same build, with the same arm.

But…

She didn’t know for certain that it was Barnes.

And it couldn’t possibly be him.

Okay, the Cryo chamber explains the lack of ageing, but for him to even be put in there he’d have to be alive.

James Barnes died when he fell eight thousand feet in the Alps.

Not even Steve Rogers could have survived that. Or could he have?

The serum enhanced absolutely everything – his strength, durability, healing rate. Captain Rogers might have survived, as long as he had the serum.

James Barnes had no such advantage. But he had been experimented on by Zola.

In 1943, the majority of the 107th infantry had been taken hostage by HYDRA. It had been reported that when he was experimented on, no other man had walked away from the same torture. James Barnes had.

So, if Winter was Barnes… Maybe Zola’s experimentation helped him survive.

The more she digs, the more she feels sick.

She writes everything up, and pins it precariously on the board.

It’s very full.

 

There’s another assassination later that year, and she adds it to the board.

 

In 2008, Tony Stark is kidnapped.

SHIELD has a field day with that one, and she’s left with all of the paperwork.

Then Tony Stark comes back, wreaks havoc, declares he’s no longer manufacturing weapons, and also tells the world that he’s Iron Man.

Phil’s probably going to kill him.

 

Of all things for Fury to spend time on, he spends it perfecting ‘The Avengers Initiative’.

It’s highly classified.

Fury gives both her and Phil a copy for review and insight.

Bruce Banner is on the list. He’s approved; he hasn’t agreed. He’s a good choice.

Natasha is in it; approved and agreed. Fantastic ally.

Clint is on the list – as a master archer, he would be invaluable.

Tony Stark, to no one’s surprise, has not been approved. He’s volatile, self-obsessed, and ‘doesn’t play well with others.’

There is a list of rejects; Captain Rogers is on that file. He is, in SHIELD databases, listed as ‘MIA’ as opposed to ‘KIA’ since his body was never recovered. Oddly, James Barnes’s file receives the same treatment.

Spiderman is also rejected, due to his unknown identity.

The STRIKE Team, to her surprise, are rejected due to their clearance and Psych evals. She isn’t sure why that’s significant to her.

The Abomination is on there – but that was merely to satisfy the World Council. For a brief period of time they considered him a war hero.

There are some mutants, but that’s it. The list seems far too short.

 

In 2009, Natasha is almost killed.

The day starts off fairly normally; she has a debriefing with Fury following another successful mission, when a call suddenly interrupts them.

It’s a secure line, and it goes directly to Fury’s office. The number is only given to level seven operatives.

It’s an emergency.

Clint’s voice filters through the system, and God, he sounds wrecked.

“Fury – Fury are you reading me?”

“Yes, Barton, I read you,” Fury says, mildly annoyed that he was interrupted.

“Oh God – there’s been a – Natasha – she-”

“Slow down,” he says, suddenly far older than she’s ever seen him. “What happened? Natasha should be near Odessa.”

“She is – was – oh God, it’s bad, Fury, it’s so fucking bad. He was there – oh fuck, I can’t believe she isn’t dead, what do I…”

“From the beginning, Agent,” Fury tells Clint with a sidelong look at Maria. It’s a huge show of trust for him to let her hear this.

“Her – her assignment, the physicist. They were driving – and – oh God, The Winter Soldier.” Maria goes so cold she thinks her heart may have frozen altogether. Clint’s sobbing, desperate, and she’s so scared. “He shot at them and they – fuck, they went over the cliff, I saw them go over and God, I was so fucking scared. Natasha pulled him out the wreckage and when she saw him – she – she covered him with her own body so he wouldn’t get a clear shot and – and, fuck, Fury-” Clint’s breath heaves and stutters before he continued. “He shot her. Abdominal wound, through and through. It killed the physicist. She’s in critical condition – she’s injured from the crash as it is but oh God, Fury, what the hell do I do?”

“What’s your current status?”

“We’re in a SHIELD copter, on our way to base, but fuck, what if we don’t make it?”

“Who’s flying?”

“May.”

“You’ll make it.”

There’s a very low groan and a murmured, sluggish, “Clint?”

“Nat? Fuck, she’s awake, thank God. Nat, you’re gonna be okay, I promise, sweetheart.”

“The Winter Soldier –” she says quietly. “He’s gonna kill me, Clint, he’s-”

Fury mercifully cuts off the feed.

He looks at her with a perfectly neutral expression, and says to her in a very measured tone,

“This is your investigation. Everything we have on The Winter Soldier comes from you. He just tried to kill one of my agents. I want him found.”

 

Natasha is transferred to a closer hospital and she sits with her while she slips in and out of consciousness, Clint on her other side and Phil’s hand resting on his shoulder.

She groans when she finally wakes up properly, tightly gripping Clint’s hand as she sits up. Clint is careful to urge her back into the bed so as not to disturb the wound.

After a low conversation with Clint, she suddenly turns to Maria with a remorseful expression, of all things.

“You were right,” she admits quietly. “Clint, Phil, can Maria and I have a moment?”

“Of course,” they both assure her. Clint squeezes her hand one last time and heads out.

“The Winter Soldier is exceptionally trained. He was almost two miles away and took two perfect shots, one sent me over the cliff, and one put me in here.” Her voice is uncharacteristically weak and vulnerable. Maria wonders if she’s ever been in a situation like this before. “My – my assignment. Is he..?”

Maria shakes her head lightly. “No. I’m sorry, Natasha.”

Instead of getting upset, she merely nods, like she’d expected this.

“Before Clint got to me. He was there. He knelt over me, and his – his eyes were blue. His mask covered his nose and mouth but his eyes were blue. Blank. But somehow kind? Maybe that will mean something to you.” It does. James Barnes’s eyes were blue. “But as he knelt over me, I know I have never been more scared in my life. He… He didn’t kill me.” she says, and her tone is full of wonder. “He said to me, in Russian, ‘You are not my mission, Natalia.’”

“I don’t understand,” Maria murmurs, and Natasha turns, eyes filled with tears.

“He could have killed me. He had a choice, right there, right then, to tap a bullet in my skull and kill me. He didn’t.”

Her heart plummets and she doesn’t quite know why.

“I don’t think he’s evil, Maria, and I know you don’t either.” Natasha says, voice trembling. “You’re the only one I trust to – to find him. Whoever he is, he knew me, or on some level he did. But I don’t think he’s evil, he can’t be. He didn’t kill me. Assassins don’t care about casualties, and I was already injured. It would have been like putting a sick dog out of its misery and he didn’t do it.”

“I understand,” Maria tells her, a tear slipping down her cheek. Natasha’s cheeks are wet and pink.

“Find him. Whoever he is – I don’t think he wants this for himself.”

“I have a theory,” Maria blurts. Leaning forward. “It’s five thousand kinds of insane but I’ve been working on it for years. It makes sense.”

“Follow it, then.” Natasha instructs, voice already slipping away as she becomes tired once more. “Do it now. Take Phil and Clint, and please don’t argue with me, please just do it now.”

Natasha falls asleep once more and Maria is left alone and scared.

 

She asks Fury for permission, first.

 “I have a theory on the identity of the Winter Soldier.” Is the first thing she says, and maybe she shouldn’t have opened with that. He gives her this strange ‘are-you-fucking-insane’ look.

“Go on.”

“I… I need some equipment, and free reign to investigate it with Agents Coulson and Barton.”

He leans back in his chair. “What kind of equipment.”

“A Quinjet and an organic matter detector.”

“Quite a combination.”

“Yes sir.”

“Where do you plan on going?” he asks, and he’s sating his own curiosity there.

“The Alps, sir.”

Fury, for once, looks downright lost. “To figure out what?”

“I’ll let you know if I find it.” She challenges.

He stares at her for a very, very long moment.

He nods. “Granted. Now get out of my office.”

 

That’s how Clint, Phil and Maria find themselves standing next to an icy ravine in the dead of the Alps in winter.

“Maria,” Phil begins, a confused, knowing tone in his voice. “I know this place – this is where…”

“Yeah.” Maria nods, swallowing, huddling a little for warmth as she waves her detector.

Clint waves awkwardly at them. “Uh. I don’t know where we are. Or why. Please enlighten me.”

Maria and Phil share a look.

“This is where James Barnes fell from the train in 1945.” Phil says quietly. Clint blinks.

“Okay that’s the where. What’s the why?”

Maria gulps. “Just… Just carry on searching.”

“For what, Maria?” Clint asks, slightly pissed off. Maria is saved from answering by a loud, insistent beeping from Phil’s detector.

He goes as pale as the snow, even when cushioned by parkas.

Maria and Clint dart over, and, with her gloved hands, starts digging. Clint looks at her with disbelief before sighing and following suit. As does Phil.

It takes almost five minutes, and by that time there’s probably a meter deep hole, for them to find it.

She stops when she sees stark, navy blue contrasting with the pure white snow. Phil stares at it, looking green.

Clint picks it up.

“Fuck, it’s cold – frozen solid, shit, man.”

He holds it up as soon as it’s fully uncovered – but he throws it back down almost immediately.

“That’s –”

“An arm.” Maria whispers. Gingerly, she turns it so she can look at the fingers. “Oh my god,” she whimpers, and she’s about to throw up because that’s a left fucking arm.

Phil picks it up and is the first not to look at all queasy, even despite his apprehension. He looks at the colour, twisting it in order to see something they missed.

“This is Barnes’s – Barnes’s arm.” Phil confirms. Maria sits on her knees, clawing at her face in horror.

“You’re sure?”

“It has the Commandos insignia.” He tells them, and – fuck, he’s crying.

“Oh God,” Maria whispers, over and over, until Clint sharply asks,

“And what the fuck does that mean?” Maria swallows.

“If,” she begins shakily. “Barnes’s arm had been – been torn off in the fall, his body would be nearby. We’d have detected it, right?” Realisation dawns across Clint’s face.

“Okay, but… what does this mean?”

Phil looks up at her, and she realises she never told them why she wanted to search here in the first place.

“What’s the real reason we’re here, Maria?”

“Because for the past four years I have had this stupid as fuck theory that James Barnes survived this fall and – and became the Winter Soldier.”

There is total silence from the other two as they stare at her, then each other, then the arm.

“Holy shit, Maria!

“I know,” she says, and she’s on the brink of damn tears. “It’s fucking insane and far-fetched and so god damn impossible but it all makes fucking sense. I… When we get back to DC. I’ll show you. I have all the evidence. It works. This is the icing on the cake.”

The three are completely silent for so long, she wonders if they’ve lost the ability to speak.  Clint breaks the silence.

“What do we do with the arm?”

Maria laughs, but it’s fairly close to a sob.

 

“Maria… I think you might need a little help. The professional variety.” Clint suggests, though his tone holds no heat as he stares at the board.

There’s so much on there, all connected with pins and string, pictures to words to the mask to documents – but now they have a solid lead, they’re still missing something. Where he is, and how to find him.

“This is amazing,” Phil says, standing very close to the board, a hand hovering just centimetres away from the picture in the centre.

“You can touch,” Maria tells him. Only Phil, Clint, and Natasha are the ones she trusts to see this. Even Fury she would be wary with showing – he always seems disapproving.

Immediately, Phil’s hand snags the image, before tracing the string to a piece of paper that says, ‘Cryostasis Chamber’, and then to ‘CODE: 1 9 4 5’, until he’s traced around absolutely every piece of evidence on the board.

Clint is following Phil’s finger with dexterity, wonder, and confusion. Phil turns to her with so many emotions written plainly on his face Maria feels a hysterical sort of laughter bubble up in her chest.

She pushes it down.

“You… Maria, if all of this – if everything on here is true….”

“God knows you’d be SHIELD’s most decorated agent.” Clint finished for Phil, and the older man nods hopelessly, adding,

“And you might just save a national hero.”

Maria shakes her head, a hand over a large, blank space in the board.

“There’s something big. I’m missing something huge, and if I figure that out… I can find him. I just have to find that missing piece…”

“How did you come up with this anyway? To anyone who hasn’t seen this, it’s like a bullshit conspiracy theory. Also, you look like a serial killer.” Clint advises and she snorts.

“Actually, this is all Phil’s fault.” Phil jerks back, surprised.

“Me?”

“Remember that when that scientist was killed? And I was trying to figure out what ‘BARNI’ was?” she reminds him. A look of understanding crosses his features.

“The vintage cards.” He murmurs. Clint raises a brow.

“One, I have my shitty hearing aids in, and two, that didn’t make sense. Please enlighten me further.”

“I have this set of Captain America vintage cards.” Phil says, and Clint clearly tries not to laugh. Maria cuts in.

“Barnes’s picture in it matched perfectly to one I’d seen of The Winter Soldier. I stole Phil’s colour picture-”

“That was you?”

“-and compared it to Winter’s, and… it matched. ‘BARNI’ was ‘BARNES’, ‘cause after all, Barnes isn’t all that common a surname where she was killed. And then everything afterwards just flowed.”

Clint turns once more to the board and shakes his head, the smallest of smiles on his face.

“You are somethin’ else, Hill.”

 

“Did you find anything on him?” Natasha askes hopefully next time she visits. Maria swallows.

“Sort of.” Natasha raises an eyebrow.

“What do you mean, ‘Sort of’? Is going after him a dead end? I feared it would be, he’s such a highly trained assassin, I didn’t even believe he existed until Thursday…” she trailed off.

“We’ll find him,” Maria assures her, though she doesn’t quite know how. Natasha’s expression crumples.

“You can’t kill him.”

“What?”

“You can’t kill him.” Natasha repeats. Maria is taken aback.

“Why do you think that I would?”

“Because those will be your orders.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because those were Clint’s.” Maria sits stiffly, staring at her confusedly. Natasha laughs a little.

“From ’89 I was trained to become a global threat. It’s where ‘Black Widow’ comes from. The Red Room gave me that name. In 2003 Clint was sent to kill me. He made a different call.” Maria remains completely silent. This is well above her paygrade, and Natasha must really trust her a lot to be telling her this. “He brought me in, and Fury… well, he wasn’t exactly trusting, but he trusts me now. The Winter Soldier could be an extremely valuable asset to SHIELD. When you find him – promise me, right now, that you won’t kill him.” Natasha’s eyes are bloodshot and teary, but her voice does not waver. Perhaps she sees something in Winter that reminds her of herself.

Perhaps the lack of choice.

“I promise, Natasha.” Maria tells her. “But… Did Clint tell you anything about my theory?”

Natasha shakes her head, relaxed and at east now. “No. And you don’t have to either.”

“I will not kill him. If not for who he is, or could be, but for who he was.”

“You have a solid theory on his identity?” Natasha asks, and her tone holds… awe. The Black Widow is impressed by her.

“Yes.” She takes a deep breath, and this will be the first time she says this without being able to hide behind a lack of evidence. “I’m ninety eight percent certain that The Winter Soldier is James Buchanan Barnes.”

Natasha blinks slowly at her.

“I… I don’t know much about American History,” Natasha admits slowly. “But… didn’t he die in 1945?”

“That’s what we investigated,” Maria tells her, leaning forward. “We went to the Alps where he fell from the train but… we didn’t find his body. Just a fully frozen left arm.”

“The Winter Soldier’s left arm is metal,” Natasha whispers and she’s staring at the corner of the room. “He’d be in his eighties-”

“Cryostasis.”

Natasha seems to be incapable of saying anything more, until, “I haven’t seen all of the evidence. But what I do know tells me that that… is the most far-fetched but accurate theory I’ve ever heard.”

Maria laughs for a long time.

 

She has no idea how to find the Winter Soldier.

 

Maria is listening in on every piece of Natasha’s intel mission later that year, until she hears Natasha’s quick, sharp intake of breath that means she’s scared.

“Nat?” Phil barks into the mike.

Natasha doesn’t respond to Phil directly, and they have no visual contact so they don’t know who she’s talking to when she says,

“Do you remember me?” in Russian. The comms are sensitive enough that they pick up the deep, throaty, “No.” as he returns in kind.

Natasha!” Phil says again. She ignores him, and Maria’s brows furrow – everyone Natasha knows is within SHIELD, or has been taken down beforehand.

“You tried to kill me.” Natasha says in English.

Oh. Maria and Phil turn to one another with twin expressions of horror as they collectively realise that that is The Winter Soldier. Natasha has only been cleared for duty for two weeks, after a miraculous month long recovery; a Korean doctor had developed a machine to speed healing. It’s still rudimentary, but works well.

Phil’s fingers fly over the keyboard as he searches camera after camera in Natasha’s general area. He pulls up a live feed just as Winter begins to respond. Natasha has no weapons other than her bites and Taser, and she doesn’t even need those to take down an ordinary person. But Winter is armed with a handgun pointed directly at her forehead, his own face covered only with the muzzle, not the goggles. He is not a normal person.

“If I had tried to kill you,” Winter says to her, voice like water, like the language is strange in his mouth. “You would be dead.”

For words that are so incredibly immodest, Winter doesn’t sound even the slightest bit arrogant. Merely factual.

He lowers his gun.

“You were not my mission then. You are not my mission now.”

He turns and is gone from both the camera and Natasha’s sight within seconds.

Natasha, what the fuck?” Barton’s comm crackles and Natasha flinches slightly.

“He didn’t remember me. It’s been two months – how did he forget?”

Maria has already written a note.

Memory fluctuations (?)

The STRIKE Team are conveniently late, and Brock Rumlow is not a good liar, and he would most definitely lose at poker. He gapes openly at Natasha, even though there is nothing out of the ordinary about her. He snaps his mouth closed after Jack Rollins elbows him. They move on.

On another, she writes ‘STRIKE Team’.

 

There is only a small space left on the board now. She needs to figure it out.

 

There’s a bombing. It’s nothing to do with The Winter Soldier – she checks again, and again, and again.

It’s the city where the scientist was killed, and apparently, investigations revealed that there had been bombs placed there for years, using power it until finally there was enough power to detonate the bomb. It was ingenious, and if this ever got out, there would be a lot more terror attacks to look out for.

That means that there had been very slight amounts of electricity siphoned off, day by day, month by month, year by year, until… boom.

And that means that Maria has to look through every single electricity report for each building over the past ten years.

She really hates her job sometimes.

She also has to note down everything even slightly unusual – a little more power used that day? Yep, she’s writing that down.

She’s onto her last building while Phil works on the other pile when she finds… well, an anomaly.

Maria furrows her brows at the paper for a moment, as she takes in the unusual amount of electricity used on one particular day. She blinks and turns her computer on, pulling up the online reports to try and find out if there had been a clerical error or a mishap. She was totally prepared to march down to Accounts and yell at the technician, when she finds that the error is not in fact an error, but an actual reading.

She makes a low, confused humming noise in the back of her throat. Phil raises his head and lifts an eyebrow at her.

“Something wrong?”

“No…” Maria shakes her head and picks up the paper, taking a closer look at the information preceding and following that day. Perfectly normal readings. “One of the buildings has… an abnormal, to say the least, reading on the power usage. It’s not an error, either.”

Phil frowns and stands, glancing over her shoulder at the paper and comparing it with the online reports.

“You’re right. It would make sense if it was more recently.”

“Right, because it could have kick-started the detonation, but this…”

“This was six years ago.” Phil sounds completely and utterly baffled.

Something clicks in Maria’s head and it seems her fingers are faster than her thoughts as she pulls out the Winter Soldier file, fast as lightning.

“Maria, this has nothing to do with-” he sounds exasperated, but Maria cuts him off.

“The scientist case was six years ago.” She finds the right wallet and pulls it out.

June seventeenth – day of the murder.

June eighteenth, four minutes past three in the morning, the unusual burst of electricity is used.

Both Phil and Maria stare at the file for an abnormal amount of time.

Phil licks his lips. “Do you think…?”

“This is the connection.” Maria whispers, and her voice is trembling because this is it. She has a concrete theory on how she can find The Winter goddamn Soldier.

“We have to find more reports-” Phil sounds frantic as he rushes over to his computer. “I’ll get all reports from 1960-1985, you get the rest.” He says, already typing lightning fast into the records they legally obtained from the power company.

They’d fucked up at first, which had been a huge inconvenience to this case because they’d made everything available since they first began monitoring power. That included every state. They’d had to sift through state after state, city after city, just to find the one they needed and now – now it was a goddamn goldmine.

November 22nd, 1963. JFK. November 23rd, extremely high power usage. Shorted town’s electricity for thirteen minutes.

August 15th, 1975. August 16th.

January, 1982.

December, 1991.

1998.

2002.

2003.

2005.

2009.

New Mexico.

More than twenty assassinations. They all fit.

 

They’ve found him.

 

Phil and Maria stare at each other for a moment before they start laughing.

They laugh, and laugh, and laugh, until their stomachs hurt and they can’t breathe and they’re hysteric, because they’ve just found the untraceable assassin that doesn’t even exist.

They’ve fucking found him.

Maria gathers absolutely everything she has, a huge pile, Winter’s file on top and everything else underneath and begins to walk out of the office. She notices after a second that Phil does not follow.

“Coming?”

He shakes his head. “Everything we’ve just found out – that’s all you, Maria.” He sounds so proud that Maria’s eyes inadvertently water. “No one else ever could have made this connection – but you did. You’re special, Maria. You have to do this on your own. This was all you.”

She nods slowly. “Thank you. For everything.” Phil puts his hands up, a humorous smirk on his face.

“This was all you. I just jumped on the wagon near the end.”

The elevator doors shift closed far too slowly, and the ride up takes forever. It’s deserted, and DC twinkles with the lights of a thousand homes and it seems to her like the world is cheering her on.

She passes Pierce’s office without a thought before Maria suddenly stops at Fury’s door.

It’s seven at night, and Pierce is usually still working hard on Project Insight, an anti-terrorist manoeuvre that eliminates all – all threats.

Insight will reveal the truth.

The Soldier will strike our enemies.

Order shall pierce you.

 

Insight. Pierce. Strike.

HYDRA.

Pierce and the STRIKE team are HYDRA. That means Insight is too.

 

Instead of panicking like before, Maria just sighs and thinks, “If I don’t get a goddamn raise, or even a fucking day off, I’m quitting.”

 

She doesn’t even knock on Fury’s door. She barges straight in, marches over to his desk, ignoring the surprised look over his one eye, and drops all of the files straight onto his desk.

She leans down, pokes her finger at the pile and looks straight into Fury’s eye and says,

“I just found The Winter Soldier.”

He blinks. “He’s a ghost story.”

“I just found the ghost.”

“He-” She cuts him off with an angry yell.

“I have been working on the goddamn Winter Soldier case for seven years. I know his identity. I know who he works for and why, I know how they control him, and I know where to fucking find him.”

“You can’t possibly know his identity.” Even Fury sounds incredulous. He’s rarely surprised and Maria is so damn proud of herself as she smirks.

“Oh, I do. Remember the impromptu trip to the Alps?” He nods slowly, eye scrutinising her. “That confirmed what I already knew. This bombing, though unrelated to Winter, just made everything absolutely clear to me.”

“Why the Alps?” Fury asks, an indirect way of demanding his identity.

“James Barnes fell from the train into the Alps in 1945.” She states, matter of fact. Fury looks as if he’s waiting for her to elaborate, so she takes pity on him. “In 1943, the 107th Infantry was kidnapped by HYDRA. Some prisoners were experimented on. None survived except for Barnes. When he fell from the train two years later, he survived.”

“Captain Rogers himself-”

Could have survived the fall.” She argues. “We don’t know. He had the serum, and if Barnes got a knock-off...”

“Secure perimeter,” he speaks aloud to the room. Blinds are drawn, walls are opaque and the door is triple locked. “Tell me everything you know about him.” Fury demands.

She sits.

She tells him everything.

Bit by bit it all seems so ridiculous. So far-fetched, insane. Impossible.

Then she gets further into her reasoning. HYDRA. Cryostasis. It makes sense when it comes together.

Okay, she doesn’t know how Barnes is losing his memory, or if it’s connected to the increased power usage, but it’s a connection.

When she finishes, Fury is staring at her with an unreadable expression, mouth dropped very slightly open.

“Get out.”

Maria goes cold. “What?”

“You heard me. Go. And do not come back until you’ve got The Winter Soldier in tow.”

She deflates relieved. “I want my own team.”

“I’ll send STRIKE-”

“No!” Fury raises an eyebrow.

“I don’t trust them.” She doesn’t have enough evidence to lock them up. He wouldn’t believe her anyway.

“Who do you want to take?”

 

“Why the hell is Tony Stark here?”

“Why is there a bird yelling at me? And why is Natalie Rushman, my ex personal assistant here?”

Natasha kicks Iron Man’s shin. Surprisingly, she doesn’t flinch.

“It’s a good question,” Phil points out, as the jet begins to take off. “A more pressing question would be, ‘Why is he wearing the suit right now?’”

Maria rolls her eyes. “You’ve all been told about the Avengers Initiative. Well, consider this the test run, team.”

Iron Man mockingly salutes her.

She regrets everything already.

Tony puts up the mask for long enough to irritate the others on the entire flight. Maria’s fairly certain she’d put a whole clip in his suit just for the fun of it; judging by Natasha’s gritted teeth and Clint’s tensed muscles, they agree.

Phil, ever the diplomat, seems to be getting along perfectly fine with him, even ignoring the ‘Your-first-name-is-Agent’ jibes.

After an annoyingly long trip to New Mexico, Clint finally lands the plane just out of the ways of the town.

The power surge had been to a bank in the town, which meant it was probably an AIM – or HYDRA – base.

Maria clips extra magazines onto her person, as do Natasha and Phil. Clint counts his arrows and snapped out his bow. Tony Stark pulls his mask down.

“I don’t know why I’m here in particular,” Tony admits. “Although I am a celebrity, so of course I don’t mind being the face of your operation right here.

Natasha shoots at the suit.

“Okay,” Maria says loudly, before the situation can escalate. “Tony, you’ve been briefed on why we’re here.”

“Yeah, but I don’t know why you want this super dangerous assassin person that could literally kill all of us – my humble self included – with a flick of the wrist.” Maria swallows.

“He’s important. As soon as we get to the bank, shut it down. Get civilians out and get to the lower levels. That’s where we found the Cryo chamber before. Take out anyone and everyone in your way. If Winter comes at you, do not shoot.”

“He’s likely to be in Cryo though, right?” Clint asks genuinely curious. “They shouldn’t know we’re coming, right?”

Maria lets out a slow breath. “That’s the thing. I think we have a HYDRA mole in SHIELD.”  Phil, Natasha and Clint all shoot worried looks at one another, but Maria continues over them. “Obviously we don’t know that for sure. But assume if Winter is defending them, that it’s true. Just because he’s still on Cryo means it’s not true either.”

“Right. Sounds simple enough.” Tony says. “Especially the part where the Nazi organisation my Dad helped fight is, you know, not dead. Sounds fun.”

“I’ll fully brief you after the mission, Tony. For now, let’s go.”

 

 

The bank is closed. That means they don’t have to worry about civilians at least.

As soon as they get inside, they’re swarmed by either HYDRA or AIM. Maria honestly couldn’t care less about their name as she shoots them dead.

Iron Man’s beams get the heavy duty vault door open, which leads to a labyrinth of underground tunnels, which leads to more HYDRA/AIM agents.

Phil hacks into the first computer he gets his hands on, saving file after file on whatever HYDRA intel he can get his hands on.

Within twenty minutes, all threats are neutralised, and both Natasha and Clint ran out of ammo about five minutes ago. Even Tony seems impressed by how well they work, especially considering Natasha’s master combative skills, and Clint’s slightly above average ability to whack people over the head with extremely large objects.

“Looks like Happy got off easy!” Tony yells at Natasha when they finish, and Clint throws a lead pipe at his head for her. Maria doesn’t know what that means, and she couldn’t care less.

She searches every room slowly, looking for draughts under doors and even remotely hidden entrances.

Turns out she needn’t have bothered because Tony’s voice filters through her comm. “Found… Something. Yellow tube thing. There’s a keypad next to it. Do I smash it?”

“No!” she responds, hand on her ear. “Tell me your location.”

“Next to the big vending machine full of guns.”

Apparently less than an hour is too much time around Tony Stark because she knows exactly what that means. Next to the artillery room.

Natasha and Clint are standing, terrified just behind Tony, and she’s fairly certain that if she could see Tony’s face it would have the same expression. She hauls them all out of the way and peers into the tube.

A man stands in there, tinged blue even through the yellow, a mask encasing his face. It’s him.

His hair is long and he’s not wearing a shirt and his eyes are closed and he’s frozen and it’s him.

Her hands tremble more than they ever have in her life as she enters ‘1 9 4 5’ into the keypad.

It beeps.

The light turns green.

The tube lifts.

They are all met with an entirely frozen man standing perfectly upright.

There is no ice surrounding him, though there is frost on his mask and metal fingertips. He is simply frozen inside out.

“Oh my God.” Maria whispers, and the others all follow suit.

“He’s not awake…” Tony says, and he sounds too serious, distraught.

“Of course he’s not, he’s frozen.” Clint says but there’s no heat.

“Who is he?” Tony asks, and the suit whirs as his faceplate is pulled back.

“The Winter Soldier.”

“His identity – you know his identity – who is he?” Tony demands. Maria turns to face him and his eyes are searching as he looks at the parts of his face not obscured. “He looks familiar.”

“James Barnes.” Tony’s eyes snap to hers.

“He died.”

“He’s right there.”

Before the conversation can continue, Phil darts in through the cell bars, a USB drive in his hand. He looks frantic.

“What is it, Phil?” Natasha asks, ready to strike at a second’s notice.

“I found everything,” he gasps. His eyes roam The Winter Soldier. “I found out how to thaw him out. I found out about HYDRA. I found the SHIELD moles.”

Moles? Plural?” Clint asks, hands twitching for an arrow that isn’t there. Phil nods solemnly.

“But we can get to that later – right now we need to wake him up.”

 

Tony sheds the suit after he helps carry Winter to an almost infirmary, packed with all the equipment they need to thaw him out. He and Phil seem to be the only ones that understand what all of the equipment does, though Natasha stares at it all with a glazed, far off look in her eye. Clint’s hand in hers grounds her.

Tony passes Maria a thermal heat wand and instructs her to, well, to wave it around like an idiot until it starts to melt. The table below Winter heats up, warming him from below.

Phil is situated around Winter’s head, and focuses the wand over the mask. It takes a while, but soon it’s unfrozen enough to be detached from his face.

“Maria,” Phil murmurs, not touching the mask. “Do you want..?”

She nods silently, understanding. If she’s right about all of this, then she should be the one to literally unmask him, after all of the figurative unmasking she’s done over seven years.

All five of them hold their breaths as she curls her fingers around the mask and ever so gently pulls it away. It’s still freezing, though soaked in melted water.

It is him.

All this time she was right.

The face staring back at her is undoubtedly James Buchanan Barnes, the only Commando to die for America and the Captain.

Tears are running down her cheeks as she steps away, because she actually got it right.

All of it.

HYDRA. SHIELD moles, Barnes, the serum, fuck she’s right.

She laughs a little hysterically, stepping away and continuing to wave the thermal wand over his body.

They are silent for an hour, until Phil lets out a shocked, strangled gasp when Winter – Barnes’s eyes flicker open. They all stop exactly where they are for a few seconds. His eyes drift closed again.

 

When it happens again ten minutes later, it’s for a few minutes.

 

The next time he wakes up after that, he’s fully thawed.

His eyes open with less of a glaze to them, and, even lying down, his eyes snap to everyone else in the room, assessing threats.

He sits up very, very slowly.

“Mission parameters.” Barnes asks, though it is not a question or a demand. It is a reflex. He stares at nothing. Nobody says anything. “Mission parameters,” he repeats, and there is still no tone to his words.

“You don’t have a mission,” Maria says bravely. His eyes dart to hers and she is chilled by the complete emptiness in his eyes. His face, for the first time, shows emotion, and it is confusion.

“Mission parameters,” he repeats once more, insistent this time. Everyone in the room looks at a complete loss for words. Barnes must take pity on them. “Handler Pierce assigns targets. Mission parameters are to be negotiated.”

Everyone starts except for Phil. Handler Pierce? That is definitely not good. Maria squares her shoulders.

“Handler Pierce has been removed from duty. You do not have a mission.”

Barnes blinks ever so slowly.

“Name.” He demands, expression blank once again.

“Maria Hill,” she supplies, and she doesn’t know why he asked until,

“Handler Hill accepted.”

Everyone looks at one another in horror as Barnes gets to his feet, not even off balance after however long he’d just spent on ice.

“Mission parameters,” he repeats again, and Maria is at a total loss for words and says the first thing that comes to mind.

“Recover.”

He blinks. “Recover. Mission parameters insufficient.”

“James Buchanan Barnes.” Her voice trembles as she says it. He shows no sign of recognition, and says nothing more. “Recover and remember James Buchanan Barnes.”

“Parameters accepted. Orders?”

“Maria,” Phil whispers to her. “Just ask him to follow us to the jet – we can sort this out at headquarters, and while we’re on the jet we can talk about the moles.”

She nods shakily. “Follow us.”

Barnes nods once. Though he is shirtless and his pants are soggy, he follows all of them without complaint as they march, in silence, to the jet. Tony suits up again before they exit and trails behind Barnes to make sure there’s no funny business, but he just follows Maria like a duckling.

He stops after they pass a chair similar to that of a dentist’s. He sits in it, looking grim and sad, but accepting.

“Ready to comply,” he tells them in Russian, and sits back. They all stare in horror. None of them move. Barnes, after a moment, looks up at Maria questioningly. Hesitantly, he repeats himself.

“Okay,” she says unsteadily. “Then follow us.”

Barnes is on his feet again instantly, some sort of relief crossing his face for a second, and then it’s gone.

In the jet, she gently suggests that he sits. He takes it as an order, staring, unseeing at the wall opposite. It unnerves them all.

Clint sees some sort of sense and grabs some spare clothes from the emergency kit on the jet. He stays an arm’s length away as he holds the clothes out for Barnes. The Soldier looks to Maria first before taking the clothes, holding them in his hand.

He has to be coerced into changing into them, finally doing so after Maria once again suggests he change clothes. They all avert their eyes until he sits, still as a statue once more.

“This is some freaky shit.” Tony whispers. Natasha stares at Barnes in wonder. Clint puts the jet into the air before putting it on autopilot.

“So what’s the situation, Phil?” Clint asks, settling in the last spare seat opposite Barnes. Nobody – even Tony – wanted to sit within reach, whether it was out of horror or fear, Maria didn’t know. Perhaps both.

Phil takes a deep breath, and is silent for a moment after that. Clint and Natasha share concerned glances.

“SHIELD is HYDRA.” He says at last, voice weak. Maria is on her feet in a second, pacing worriedly.

“That’s not possible,” Natasha says neutrally. Phil just shakes his head.

“Almost forty five percent of SHIELD are HYDRA agents. Including Alexander Pierce, Brock Rumlow, Jack Rollins… Jasper Sitwell.”

Instead of another argument from Natasha or Clint, the very last person they’d ever expect to speak up does just that.

“Brock Rumlow; Handler Pierce’s secondary. Accepted alternative Handler. Mission parameters.”

The group all blink at Barnes. Tony speaks up, and Maria cringes for a second, but she’s surprised to find she trusts him enough not to fuck this up and get them all killed.

“Do you know the identities of people within HYDRA?”

“Affirmative.”

“Can you tell us?”

“Mission parameters exceeded.”

“New mission,” Maria says, and Barnes’s eyes snap to hers. “Aid SHIELD and recover identity.”

“Parameters accepted.”

“He’s like a goddamn robot,” Tony whispers, and for someone who often prefers artificial company over human, he sounds disgusted. They all agree with him.

“Jasper Sitwell file,” Phil says, tone curious.

“Jasper Sitwell; forty two, SHIELD liaison. Undercover HYDRA espionage agent. Gathered Intel on Lumerian Star; Insight.”

Phil looks like he’s going to be sick. He and Sitwell are – or were friends.

“Alexander Pierce file.”

“Handler Pierce; sixty four. Secretary of Defence; SHIELD. HYDRA leader. Mission reports delivered to Handler.”

Phil goes through every single HYDRA/SHIELD member that he remembers.

The group gradually becomes far too disgusted and ill to hear any more, and then Phil finishes, and Barnes is waiting for his next order.

To her surprise, Maria’s voice is oddly gentle when she asks,

“Do you know who you are?”

Barnes blinks at her slowly. “Unclear.”

“What is your identity?” she asks instead. He blinks at her once again.

“The Asset has no identity.”

“Everyone has an identity,” Natasha says, voice gentle though her eyes are red. This is personal to her.

“The Asset is not a person. The Asset is a weapon. Weapons do not have names.”

“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes,” Phil tells him. He has no reaction to the name.

“The Asset does not have a name.”

 

They land on the SHIELD helipad just outside of Fury’s office, conveniently located so that they don’t have to worry about anybody seeing The Winter Soldier – or rather James Barnes.

Fury stands inside his office, eyes tracking the group expertly as they walk across to the entrance.

Maria, as before, walks at the head of the group, with Barnes close on her heels and everybody else strewn around them, eyes carefully trained on Barnes.

“You know, I still didn’t quite believe you.” Is the first thing Fury says to her.

“I didn’t believe myself either. But he’s right there.”

Fury eyes up Barnes for a very long moment that may have stretched into an hour for all Maria knows. Barnes’s eyes are cool and cold; still devoid of emotion.

At last, Fury raises his right hand and offers it to Barnes in a handshake. “Sergeant Barnes. It’s good to have you back.”

Barnes doesn’t even so much as glance at his hand, never taking his eyes off of Fury’s face.

“Fury, Nicholas, J. Potential target.”

Fury’s eye widens and he glances at Maria. In lieu of explanation, she simply says to Barnes, slightly ashamed of herself,

“Alexander Pierce, file.”

Barnes immediately repeats what he’d said about Pierce on the jet. Then Rumlow. Then Rollins. Then Sitwell.

Fury, along with the rest of the team, has to take a seat.

“Are you telling me that HYDRA is inside SHIELD?” Fury asks, and he sounds fucking terrified.

“Yes sir.”

“I’ve got to – to call the World Security Council. Arrests need to be made now.”

“If you’d like, sir, we could arrest some of the known members now.”

“Yes. Do that now, while I sort out the inevitable shit storm.”

“What do we do about…?” Clint asks, ever the reasonable one. “We can’t bring him. He’s a wanted assassin. And dead.”

“We can’t leave him here.” Tony says. “Who knows what could happen?”

Maria could tell that they all felt bad for talking about Barnes like he wasn’t truly there, but they had no other choice.

“I’ll stay with him,” Maria says, surprising herself. Everyone turns to look at her – minus Barnes, of course. “I guess I’m his new handler anyway, right? According to him. We’ll rectify that as soon as – as soon as we figure out what to do after HYDRA…”

The others turn to one another, hesitating for a moment before nodding at her.

“Okay,” Natasha concedes. Phil walks over to Fury’s computer and plugs in a drive he must have lifted from AIM – HYDRA. He types away for a moment before projecting a file onto a large glass screen opposite his desk. They all walk closer, with the exception of Barnes.

Phil swipes and clicks at file after file on the screen before he steps back.

There are hundreds of names. Hundreds. Almost half of SHIELD are listed as moles and double agents, and they have almost no way of capturing all of these agents.

“I have an idea.” Tony says, so suddenly everyone startles. Barnes cocks his head very slightly. “We can’t get to them without them knowing we’ve made them, right? Well, I can get JARVIS to run a programme, get all of the non-evil agents’ numbers and discretely inform them of the situation.”

Maria shakes her head. “No. They won’t believe us, and it’ll take too long to explain.”

“Use a code.” Clint suggests. “Tell them to use a specific word or phrase, and if they get no reaction from another agent then they can take them down.”

“Are all of the HYDRA agents in the building today?” Fury asks. The system checks and by some miracle they all are. They’re spread out, everywhere, but they are on the property. “Put the building on lockdown. Nobody gets in, or out.”

Immediately, a metal blinder shutters over the windows and the room is lit only by the lights on the ceiling. Barnes’ eyes flash but he doesn’t react.

“Send a copy of all HYDRA agents’ identities to every single non-hostile in the building.” He orders. “Put out a kill or capture order. I’m getting on conference with the Council. Go join the action.”

The group all march out of Fury’s office, where Pierce pokes his head out of his office.

“Why has the building gone into lockdown?” he demands. All four of them pull out and raise their guns in record time and point them at his face. Pierce steps out of his office, eyes wide and confused, arms raised above his head. “What’s going on here?”

“You’re under arrest, Pierce.”

“On what grounds?”

“For conspiring with a terrorist organisation.”

The expression on his face can’t be described as anything other than I fucked up big time.

Barnes chose that moment to saunter out behind the group to stand next to Maria. She doesn’t feel at all nervous or scared – if anything, she feels rejuvenated. She has the Winter Soldier on her side. If possible, Pierce’s expression falls.

“Who is this?” he says, trying and failing to cover his own ass.

“He’s going to arrest you. Barnes, target.”

Dutifully, he steps forward, but none of them expect Pierce to defend himself. He tries to throw Barnes off of him, but before any of them can intervene, Barnes has Pierce rolling in the air and landing on his front with a knee on his back. They all blink slightly incredulously at Barnes. His expression hasn’t faltered, even as Pierce groans beneath him.

“Cuffs.” Barnes grunts, obviously trying to ask for them using as few words as possible. Phil hands him his own pair, ever the Boy Scout. As Barnes thrusts Pierce’s hands into them, Pierce grunts out,

Longing,” in Russian.

Natasha inhales sharply, and Barnes’ back goes ramrod straight and his eyes are suddenly unfocused and unseeing. He takes his knee from Pierce’s back and pulls him free from the cuffs.

“It’s a shame. You four are exceptional agents.” Pierce rubs his wrists while standing, a satisfied smirk on his face. “Of course, HYDRA would welcome you, should you chofose to accept the role.”

Never,” Phil spits, for all of them. Natasha looks like she’s running through something in her mind and for a second Maria almost panics, and then she says,

“Скрепка,”

Maria instantly recognises the Russian – it means ‘Paperclip’. It obviously means something to Natasha, Barnes, and Pierce. The fog clears from Barnes’s eyes and he instantly thrusts Pierce back against the wall, clicking the cuffs securely in place. Pierce looks absolutely livid.

“What a waste,” he snaps. “He’s the world’s most dangerous asset, and in SHIELD’s hands, he’ll go soft. Insight was supposed to shape the future, but it’s a wasted effort.”

“Shut up,” Clint snarks. Tony uses his gauntlet to punch him and render him unconscious and nobody says a damn thing in protest.

 

It takes four hours.

It’s a lot quicker than Maria expects.

All SHIELD agents manage to herd the HYDRA traitors, handcuffed, dead, or unconscious into separate rooms, with armed guards positioned outside the rooms waiting for instructions.

Fury calls them back into his office.

“The World Security council have called in the CIA and FBI. They’ll be here within the next five minutes. Are we certain that our agents have handled the moles?”

Maria nods her affirmative. She’d been on the line with Sharon Carter and she reassured them all that they have the situation under control, and the other agents have already established a system.

Fury removes the building lockdown.

Phil goes down to meet with the CIA and FBI, and the rest of them try to figure out what to do now.

“We’ve gotten all the agents, right? I mean, HYDRA probably has some non-SHIELD operatives, but we’ve got their files, so…” Clint argues.

“Yeah, we do, but we still don’t know what to do about…” Natasha reasons. They all try not to look at Barnes, but fail.

“She’s right,” Maria concedes. “He’s an assassin. He’s killed over two dozen people. Including…” She shoots a look to Tony. His jaw sets.

“Looking at the state this guy’s in, doesn’t look like he had much of a choice.” It sounds strained to everyone’s ears but they can’t hold that against him. His parents were killed by him. “I’m not going to hold that against him.”

“Barnes,” Maria speaks softly. For a few seconds, he doesn’t look at her, but he slowly seems to gather that she’s talking to him. “Do you remember anything?”

“Memories are wiped in order to improve mission efficiency.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” Clint says articulately. They all agree.

 “Nothing at all?” Maria presses. Barnes is silent this time.

“A blond man.”

Silence.

“Is that all?”

“Memories reduce asset productivity,” Barnes says, tone rather rushed, though his expression remained neutral.

“Do you know a man named Steve Rogers?” Maria asks, although she knows the answer already.

“Negative.” Barnes tells her. There is no flicker of recognition in his eyes.

 

By the time the Feds clear out, it’s just the makeshift Avengers left behind, plus Fury. It’s dark outside and for some reason, they’ve collectively decided to sit Barnes down and show photograph after photograph of his past.

Ones before the war were rare. Very rare. In fact, only two exist of Bucky Barnes before the war – and they were both with Steve. Barnes blinks slowly at them, no acknowledgement given.

“Wait,” Clint says suddenly, startling Maria out of her worried trance. Barnes does not flinch. “Does he even know what he looks like? Do you know what you look like?” he asks, aimed at Barnes. Upon realising he’s being spoken to, Barnes lifts his eyes to Clint’s.

“The Asset has no discernible identity.” He says. That’s enough of an answer.

Maria pulls her phone out of her pocket and hesitantly grabs Barnes’s attention, snapping a photo.

“Take a look at this and compare it to the man in the photograph,” she tells him gently. Despite leading countless missions with dozens of agents at a time, ordering them on specific duties, she can’t find it in herself to order Barnes to do anything.

He takes to phone promptly and looks between himself and… himself.

He’s silent for a very long time and Maria wonders for a moment if she ought to instruct him to speak.

“There is a remarkable similarity between the two.” His voice… wavers? Natasha bites her lip.

“They’re both you.” Tony says, and Maria doesn’t think he’s ever been quite so serious.

For once, Barnes looks confused. Struck. “Impossible,” he says.

“Why?”

Barnes falters with his mouth staring open. His left hand clutches the phone tight and for a moment Maria fears it will crack.

“There are no memories of this.” He settles on.

“How would you know?” Clint says, without malice. “Memories are wiped to increase efficiency. How do you know they didn’t wipe that too?”

Barnes drops the phone and the photograph.

He seems incapable of saying anything at all – and Maria realises this might be too much.

Brainwashed, definitely traumatised eighty year old assassin?

The most terrifying thing she’s ever dealt with.

 

They make his room as un-cell like as possible. It’s difficult.

The door is heavily fortified, there is one window made of bulletproof glass looking onto the beach of Malibu. Tony had arranged it for him, realising that to keep Barnes at the Triskelion was a bad idea – not only because of the lack of bedrooms, but because they had no idea what Barnes’s emotional status was like.

Non-HYDRA agents were given four weeks leave to come to terms with, well, the fact that Nazis had been a prevalent part of their organisation.

Fury had been publically criticised and had his resignation had been called for repeatedly. The World Security Council, to everyone’s surprise, backed up SHIELD following the revelation of Pierce’s involvement.

Tony had housed all of the makeshift Avengers plus Barnes, though he had kept his distance for the first week, coming to terms with the man’s involvement in the assassination of his parents.

Natasha seems fond of him – though Maria can’t quite tell for sure, as Natasha is a very hard woman to read.

Clint talks to him a lot, even though Barnes never responds unless Clint or Maria encourages him.

One memorable incident, however, had Natasha attempt to converse with Barnes in Russian, but he had balked at the word ‘homecoming’.

He had spat and thrashed, hissing ‘No’ over and over again, gripping his head tightly as everyone backed away as slow as they could manage.

Tony had been the one to mention the Red Ledger. He found it in one of the files SHIELD dropped – and it was in the possession of Vasily Karpov.

Without consulting anybody – ‘cause Tony Stark does whatever the fuck he wants, apparently, he disappears and then returns a day later in the suit, not a hair out of place and a grim look on his face.

He drops the red book with a soviet-style star on it on the table. It matches Barnes’s arm and he recoils, managing to get Maria’s gun out of its holster and shoot three times at the book.

Everyone darts away for cover, terrified, yes, terrified, that the world’s most notorious assassin would turn the gun on them.

But he doesn’t. He unloads the rest of the bullets with a blank expression and lays them on the table alongside the book.

For the first time ever, he speaks unprompted, directly to Tony in the Iron Man suit.

“Burn it.” His voice is steeled, hard, and a desperate plea. “Please.”

Tony slowly raises the gauntlet and Barnes doesn’t move, even when the table in front of him collapses and is set alight by the beam of his hand.

“What the fuck was that book?” Clint asks, only his eyes visible behind the obnoxiously orange armchair.

“A list of trigger words.” Tony responds, mask flying up. He makes his way over to the wall and instructs JARVIS to remove the suit. His eyes are red rimmed as he turns to Barnes. “We can’t use them against you now. No one can.”

“I could still kill you. At any point.” Barnes says, disjointed – and he’s speaking unprompted. “It would take. A single punch. And you wouldn’t wake up.”

“Do you want to?” Clint asks softly, the first to leave his cover.

Barnes looks so childlike and pained as the inside of his cheek is sucked into his mouth.

“No,” he says, a slight moan. “I don’t. Don’t want to kill.”

He’s getting used to speech still, but the message is fairly clear. Barnes didn’t want to kill for HYDRA.

He doesn’t want to kill at all.

He doesn’t say any more for the rest of the day. Nor does he relinquish ownership of the gun.

 

Barnes is much, much calmer from then on. Perhaps the knowledge that the red book was still out there weighed him down. Perhaps he truly was afraid of all of his previous handlers.

Maybe he believes he’s safe now.

 

It’s two and a half weeks after the red book is destroyed that Barnes, rather timidly for a man of his stature and deadliness, approaches Maria.

“I want. To find someone.” He says. Maria waits patiently for him to continue. “The – the blond man. I want to find him.”

The attention of everyone in the room snaps towards them, all knowing that Barnes is talking about Steve.

Maria’s going to have to be the one to tell him that he’s dead.

“His – his name is Steve.” Barnes says quietly, and his right hand fumbles with a piece of paper. “Steven Grant Rogers. He. I remember him. A lot.”

“Perhaps,” Maria starts. “You ought to sit down.”

Barnes looks at her, eyes full of a little more life than she’s ever seen before. “You know who he is?”

She nods. “Steve Rogers. Captain America.”

Barnes does not sit down. She does not tell him to again.

“A – Shield. He had. A round shield. There was snow. Ice. I want to find him.” He repeats.

“Do you remember your identity?” Maria asks, before she says anything else.

Barnes hesitates. “James? Bucky.” He says, with far more conviction. “The – Steve named me Bucky. A long time ago. I want to find him. And tell him that I’m alive.”

“Do you want me to tell you how you came to be captured by HYDRA?” she says, by way of explanation. Barnes sits and nods. “You and Steve Rogers were best friends.” She feels like she’s telling a story to a toddler. She avoids using specific years. This would only confuse Barnes. She has the rapt attention of every Avenger plus Barnes. “You went to fight in a war, and you were captured. Steve saved you and hundreds of other prisoners. You fought the war together. And then – you went on one mission on a train in the Alps.”

She can see Clint and Phil turn away, faces screwing up at the memory of Barnes’s torn, frozen, bloody left arm embedded in the snow. Barnes’s face does not change. Maria steels herself.

“An incident with a HYDRA agent resulted in a large hole across the side of a compartment. A second incident caused you to be thrown through it.”

Barnes swallows inaudibly, though his Adam’s apple bobs up and down.

Maria tries very hard not to let the story affect her. “According to reports, you had managed to grip onto a railing on the side of the train. When Cap – Steve attempted to rescue you… The railing broke. You plummeted to the bottom of the ravine.”

Barnes is silent for a long moment. “What happened. To Steve?”

Maria shifts uncomfortably, and shoots a glance to the others, helplessly.

“Two days later, he put a plane into the Arctic in order to save New York from a series of nuclear bombs.”

Barnes drags in a ragged, shocked breath. “He – the plane. Water. Ice. Drowned?”

“We don’t know,” she confesses. “We know he has to be dead. We haven’t found the plane.”

Barnes drops the piece of paper onto the floor and puts his hands up to his face instead.

Funny how SHIELD training never covered how to stop an assassin from crying.

“When?” he asks, voice low and hoarse, moments later. She knows that this is going to make everything worse.

“Sixty-five years ago.”

Barnes stands very suddenly and returns to his bedroom, and Maria catches his red-rimmed eyes.

 

All of the Avengers – minus Tony, of course – request extended leave from Fury. It’s immediately granted, on the grounds of ‘Integrating a former Prisoner of War back into civilian life’.

That’s the file answer. The official answer. Until they’ve figured out a cohesive story, they can’t release Barnes’s status to the public – there would be uproar.

It’s at times like this that Maria can’t understand how this man has been labelled by SHIELD as the most dangerous assassin in the world. He’s baking.

He likes to bake, and cook, too. From recipe books, online books, or even some strange concoction he thinks of on the spot – he just loves to cook. It’s fascinating to watch – especially when he doesn’t understand an instruction, and guesses how it’s supposed to go.

Maria finds it hilarious when Natasha slips a packet of hair ties on the counter as he’s baking.

He stares at them for a long moment, before taking one and attempting to tie it around his hair. It snaps in his hand. As do the second and the third. Clint takes pity on him, and moves towards him slowly, gently plucking one hair tie and gripping it in his hand as a wordless request. Barnes obediently turns his head to the side and stays stock still as Clint somehow gracefully puts the greasy hair into a bun.

Tony takes a picture. He looks like a doe in the headlights. It’s cute, Maria laughs, and sets it to her background.

Then she remembers that he’s been tortured for seventy years. He doesn’t know who he is. Everyone who did is dead, or as good as.

And then, immediately after that, she remembers the Commandos.

She smiles.

 

They eat Barnes’s pies, not only out of politeness, but also because they are delicious.

Phil mentions it first, as per Maria’s request.

“James,” as he likes to be addressed now. “We were wondering if you remembered anything else.”

Barnes clutches his fork a little tighter. The others do not look at him, merely going on eating as if they had not overheard the conversation.

“I – a group.” The Commandos. Good. “Weird names. Rowdy. Loud. Friends?” he says the word like a question, or even a prayer. “They knew him. This was sixty-five years ago. They are dead.” He punctuates his words with a sharp stab of the fork directly through a thick wall of pastry on the pie.

“The Howling Commandos.” Maria says quietly. Barnes looks at her, realisation on his features. He realises she knows who they are. “Timothy Dugan, James Falsworth, Jim Morita, Gabe Jones, Jacques Dernier, James Barnes and Steve Rogers.”

He nods slowly. “They. You know them? Of them?”  They all nod, giving up the pretences of not listening.

“My dad had all their phone numbers, you know.” Tony interjects. “Some of them are still alive. If you wanted.”

“Yes. No. No. Yes?” He seems so, so, so confused and they take pity on him by saying,

“You don’t have to make a decision now.”

Barnes blinks and nods. “Okay.” He falls silent once more.

 

He still wakes every night screaming. He kicks and thrashes and whines. He almost, very much by accident, chokes Tony to death. Had he not been wearing the suit, a hospital visit wouldn’t have done much good.

It’s after one such incident that Barnes very nervously approaches Tony. He, still wary of the assassin, checks for the bracelet around his hand that calls his suit to him. He knows he won’t need to use it, but it’s a safety net all the same. Barnes sets himself very carefully next to Maria on the couch, and one seat away from Tony on the armchair.

He says, very quietly, “I killed your parents.”

Tony winces. “I know.” Barnes blinks up at him.

“Why haven’t you killed me?” he asks, though the tone is so flat, it’s barely a question. They all stay out of the conversation, despite listening intently, as this is a conversation for Tony and Bucky.

“What?” Tony asks, horrified. “You’re not a rabid dog.”

“But I killed your parents.” He says, as if Tony’s being unreasonable. Barnes’s voice is level but his face is screwed up – he’s unhappy.

“Did you want to?” Tony asks him. Barnes swallows and looks into Tony’s eyes for a moment before shaking his head.

“Still did it,” he mumbles, and then they can’t stop him from saying quickly, harshly, “I burst a tyre while they drove and they hit a tree. Your father crawled out and I stopped him and he recognised me, he said my name and I – I – I slammed his head back into to the car and crushed his head – and I put him back into the car – and I strangled your mother to death – you should kill me – I’m a danger – there’s a video-” and his head is in his knees and his fingers grasp tightly onto the hair at his scalp and Tony looks like he’s going to be sick – but definitely not angry.

“You didn’t want to,” he whispers. None of them make any move towards Barnes – he still hates casual touches he doesn’t approve first. “They – they fucked with your brain, so you don’t remember things right, and you didn’t remember him. If you had, would you have killed him?”

Slowly, Barnes shakes his head, still in his knees.

“See?” Tony says with a watery, shaky smile. “My dad was an asshole, anyway. He – he may not have been the best father, but he was damn good to you and Steve.”

Steve,” Barnes whispers, and he almost sobs. “Steve would be so mad – he wouldn’t want – he liked Howard – and he liked Peggy – did I kill her too? I don’t –”

“James,” Maria finally steps in, unable to take this anymore. She hates the look on his face when his head snaps up to hers. Like he expects punishment. “None of this was your fault. If Steve were here, then he’d say the same thing.”

Barnes shakes his head slowly, his cheeks wet. “He – he was an idiot. Self-sacrificing-”

“But you loved him anyway, didn’t you?” Natasha asks softly, in Russian. Somehow, the language calms him.

“More than I should have,” he confesses in kind, and does not speak again except to mutter, “’m sorry,” over and over to Tony.

 

When Timothy Dugan, going on ninety eight years old now, receives a call from Howard’s kid, he’s definitely surprised. He practically helped raise that kid before he turned ten, and had gotten nary a phone call since. So, he says his ‘Hello’ in the form of cussing and swearing, to which Tony laughs, and Dugan laughs, and he is glad that before his time came, he’d reconnected with an old friend’s child.

Which is also when Tony makes a bit of an odd request.

I have this friend, actually. Who’s – haha, dying to meet you.”

Dugan frowns.  “It ain’t one of those – uh, what’cha’ma’call’ems, is it? The Make-A-Wish ‘uns?”

“No,” Tony snorts. “This one’s waited much longer than that. Years, if you can believe.”

“Well, I don’t see why not. But my grandkids are coming tonight, so it’d better be tomorrow.” He agrees so quickly because once upon a time he knew exactly how it had felt to want to meet a hero. He met his, both, in fact, and they both passed long, long before their time.

Already on the plane, my boy. I’ll be there by the morning.”

And so Dugan sits through his grandchildren, and their children’s visits, loving when he could rant and spew about the injustice of hospital care when he was perfectly capable, thank you very much, and waited and wondered who his mysterious guest could possibly be.

 

He is very, very much surprised.

“Anthony! How long’s it been – twenty years?”

“Something like that,” Tony waves away. “But this one’s waited longer. Triple that, in fact.”

That pulls Dugan up short. “My visitor – what, they’ve been waiting sixty years?” he chortles. He wishes he could smoke, but he kicked the habit before he kicked the bucket sooner.

“Yes,” Tony tells him levelly. “And I’m going to say this. He’s dangerous, but he won’t hurt you. If he tries, I’ll have him out before he can. Technically he’s still dead. No one can ever know he was here. But he wanted to see you.”

Dugan’s heart almost stops, but it’s very lucky it doesn’t as he’s so old it may never start again. He knows only two men who have been dead for sixty years. And only one of them could possibly have gotten out alive.

And the man who walks in is not that man. He’s also not the other one, either, that much is clear.

Dugan, very uncharacteristically, lets out a very loud cry at the sight of none other than James Buchanan Barnes, although it is clear the man is broken.

His hair is shaggy and greasy, coming down to his shoulders. His eyes are bloodshot and deep-set, framed by shadows that make him look like a raccoon. His lips are chapped and slightly bloody, and his hands are twisting together, gleaming – yes, one of them gleaming metal in the light.

He also doesn’t look a day over twenty-seven.

Bucky,” he breathes, and oh, it’s been so long since he’s said that name to someone who wasn’t after Steve Rogers first. “Oh my God,” He sits up. “Is – is that really you?”

Barnes shrugs listlessly, something that looks so out of place on a man who once made it so casual.

“I think so,” and his voice is soft yet grating, hoarse from disuse, and he wonders for the first time how James Buchanan Barnes survived a fall so high even Steve – could Steve have survived it? “It’s been. A really long time. Since I’ve seen you. You look old.” He half-smiles, and fucking hell, Dugan’s crying.

“We left you,” he chokes. “You survived that fall, didn’t you?”

Barnes looks almost guilty as he nods. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh no,” Dugan sobs. “You aren’t the one who should be sorry – how – oh my, all this time?”

Barnes tentatively takes a seat as he nods.

“How did you live all this time? You – you don’t look a day older.” He marvels. Barnes winces.

“They had me. Took me. And Zola did more experimentation.”

Zola? No, no, no, Peggy – she took care of all that nonsense! Zola worked for us,” he tried to argue, but the torture in Barnes’s eyes proved to him that he was telling the truth.

“Are you saying SHIELD had you all along?” he asks, almost not wanting the truth. Barnes bites his lip.

“Not – really. HYDRA had me.”

This was really starting to hurt his head. “HYDRA? No – your – your Steve took care of all of HYDRA.” He protested. “Got rid of the Red Skull. They followed suit.”

Barnes tapped his thighs with his metal hand, shaking his head. “They had me.” he insisted. “It – was torture, Dum-Dum,” he says the nickname so awkwardly, yet so comfortably that Dugan wanted nothing more than to return to that night in ’44 when they sung around the campfire and laughed as Barnes smacked Rogers over the back of the head for the fifth time. “They – they turned me into this.” He gestured to his metal arm. “A weapon. A monster.”

“No,” Dugan saysfiercely, and rubbed at his own eyes. “Captain Tiny-Ass would not have stood for that, and I ain’t gonna either!”

It had quite the opposite to the intended effect, as he turned his head away and tried to stop his chin from wobbling.

“But Steve’s dead, and so’s Morita, and Monty, and Gabe and there ain’t much longer before you’re gone too.”

Normally that would hurt, but by God it was true. He had a few years left at most and he expected the same from Frenchie.

“You still got Peggy,” he reminds him softly. “That dame’ll outlive us all, just you see.”

Barnes laughs, slow and wet, before stopping.

“Would she see me?”

“Might wanna clean up a little, first, kid.” Barnes laughs again.

“I…”

“Hmm?”

“I wanted to know if you could tell me things. About me. Steve. Please.”

Dugan frowns, eyebrows coming together. “Don’t you remember?”

Barnes shakes his head jerkily. “HYDRA messed with my head. My memories. Don’t remember some things.”

“In that case. ’43, first mission as the Commandos?”

Barnes settles back into the char, eyes wide as he listens for hours and hours, not moving to wipe away the tears on his face.

 

He settles next to Maria on the flight back, and to her surprise, curls up into her shoulder. Tony shoots her an incredulous look as it becomes clear that he fell asleep.

“Did – did the world’s most feared assassin just choose you for a cuddle buddy?

Startled and blinking rapidly, she nods slowly. “I think he did.”

He’s had a long day. He’s probably tired.

They go see Peggy Carter the next day.

 

“What are you hiding, dear?” Peggy says to Maria, as soon as their conversation passes the polite, courteous ‘Hello-how-are-you?’s. Maria startles a little.

“How did you-?” Peggy laughs, interrupting her.

“I was essentially the founder of SHIELD, dear. I practically invented all the secrets and the hiding.” Peggy purses her lips. “I may be old, and my memory may fail me occasionally, but it’ll be a few years yet before it takes a true toll on me. Until then, I won’t retire – not in my head, anyway.” She winks at Maria. “Now, what is it?”

“There’s someone who’s waited a very long time to meet you,” Maria admits, slightly in awe of Peggy. This woman was her idol.

Peggy hummed. “I highly doubt that. I’ve been taking visitors for years, why not before?”

“Because this one’s been dead for over sixty years.”

Peggy, for her old age, can move as quickly as any agent she’s ever seen, sitting up and blinking with a sharp clarity to her eyes that hadn’t quite been there before.

“You’ve found him? He – he’s alive?” Peggy demands, and it breaks Maria’s heart to know that she’ll break Peggy’s – to tell her that the man she thinks of is still dead.

“No, I’m sorry, Peggy.” Confusion crosses the older woman’s features.

“Then who-?” Her eyes trail over to the doorway, and falls silent. Her eyes widen and her jaw drops, and it’s almost comical, except it’s too sad for that.

“Agent Carter,” he mumbles. “Ma’am.”

Oh,” Peggy whines, and her eyes fill with tears as she covers her mouth with her hands. “Lord forgive us, I’m so, so sorry James, oh, no,”

Barnes looks lost as he wanders over and mutters to her,

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“We never looked!” she wails. “Steve was adamant that he – he couldn’t face seeing your – your body, and we all assumed – there was a river – oh, James I’m sorry.”

“You thought I was dead,” he says to her earnestly. “There was nothing you could have done anyway.”

“We left you for dead,” Her voice shakes. “I was too – too broken up in my grief to remember you, and I’ve regretted it every day since, oh James.”

Peggy’s arms, unfairly strong for a woman of her age, yank Barnes into a deep, bone-crushing hug as she sobs into his neck. He lets his flesh hand pat her on the back in what he hopes is comforting, shooting a naïve look to Maria.

It’s almost five minutes before Peggy lets go of him, rubbing at her eyes and staring disbelievingly at him, still keeping a very firm hold onto his hand.

“He couldn’t bear living without you, you know.”

Barnes twists sharply away, his mouth contorting almost painful as he screws his eyes shut. He shook his head resolutely.

“It’s true,” Peggy insists. “He lived two days without you and found he couldn’t live like that.”

“He had you,” Barnes whispers, gripping her hand tight though there was no malice.

“I was a candle, James. You were a flame.”

He shakes his head even harder. “He was an idiot – he would have learned to live without me – and now – now I – I have to.”

Peggy’s face crumples again. “I always knew you loved him as he loved you.”

No,” Barnes insists, shaking his head as the tears fell down his face. “I didn’t, no, I swear-”

“It’s alright now, James.” Peggy assures him, her own cheeks streaked with tears. “It’s been a long time. It’s okay for you to love him.”

I didn’t!” he maintains, and it’s far too loud, far too defensive. “I never deserved him – I never will, and it doesn’t even matter, Peggy, he’s gone.”

“He loved you too.” She whispers, thumb rubbing over the joint of his hand. “With all of his heart. When you fell, most of him went with you. He could never live without you.”

“He loved you,” Barnes tries to argue. “You – you were a knockout dame that liked him for him. He’d never have loved a coward, queer like me.”

“You’re anything but a coward. He could have loved me. But you got there first. And ‘queer’ is okay now. He loved you, and you loved him and that’s okay, James. None of us can go back. But I’m sure, wherever that idiot is right now? He’s watching. And he loves you still.”

 

Barnes does not look at Maria at all in the jet. Perhaps he’s worried about the conversation she witnessed and overheard. She takes it upon herself to sit opposite him on the jet and say,

“People don’t call it ‘queer’ anymore. It’s derogatory. They mostly prefer ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’. There’s a whole dictionary of words they like to use, but I don’t know them all.”

Barnes glances at her, from where he was curled up like a cat.

“I ain’t no – no fairy.

“I never said you were.” She says levelly. “All I’m saying is that it’s okay if you like both men and women.”

“I don’t.” he says sharply, turning to look out the window at the miles and miles of clouds. “’s always been Steve.”

“So you like women and Steve.” She says slowly. “That’s okay too.”

No.” Barnes sighs, frustrated. “I don’t think I liked anybody. Just Steve.”

“You don’t have to move on, you know.” Barnes looks up at her in surprise and she laughs. “Everyone says you do have to. But you don’t. If they’re the only person you were ever going to have or love… that’s your decision. You don’t have to let that go, no matter what anyone tells you.”

“I… I’m never going to date. Or. Find a nice dame.”

“Woman. Dame is sexist.”

“Woman.” He corrects. “Or man. I could hurt them. Don’t want to hurt anybody. Could never love them like Steve anyway.”

Jesus.

Phil’s going to piss himself.

 

Sure enough, Phil looks like every single childhood dream of his actually came true.

“You loved Steve?” he asks, with more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary. Barnes blinks at him.

“I – yeah. It was the first thing that came back, really.”

That’s so sweet.” Phil’s trying very hard to keep his screaming to a minimum. It works, thankfully, although Barnes does shoot him a weird look.

 

Barnes’s memory comes back piece by piece. He goes from Barnes to James, James to Jim, and Jim to Bucky. And he’s happy.

Over that year he still cries and screams and begs to be let go, he still shivers from ice that isn’t surrounding him, he still goes into murderous ‘Asset’ mode, as they call it. But they get less frequent. Less dangerous. JARVIS is always happy to redirect a sleepwalking, or murderous, Bucky by closing off the doors. He plays music through Bucky’s panic attacks.

And… they’re okay.

Bucky’s well into his recovery when Phil and Clint get simultaneous phone calls near the end of May. They stare in confusion at their phones before answering their separate conversations, somehow at the same time, with exactly the same words. Even Maria thinks it’s strange.

“Huh.” Clint says, staring at Phil.

“New Mexico?”

“New Mexico.” Clint agrees. “That’s… weird.”

“Hammer?”

“Yeah. What the fuck.”

“No idea.”

Bucky watches them go wordlessly, sharing a confused look with Maria and Natasha.

Tony had left several days earlier to begin construction on his new building in New York, Manhattan.

Phil and Clint pack up an emergency bag and leave, but not before Bucky stops them and babbles

“Be safe. Don’t get into fights you can’t win. If your nose hurts it might be broken. If-”

Maria turns to Natasha and says, “I didn’t know Bucky was a mother hen.”

Natasha raises an eyebrow. “He was looking out for Steve Rogers all his life. The way he talks about Rogers, sounds like he had to be.”

And then Clint and Phil are gone, leaving the three of them in a billionaire’s beach home.

Natasha runs wild.

Maria used to think it was the other way round, but now she knows with absolute certainty that Clint Barton is 98% of her impulse control.

Bucky encourages it, which is frankly more terrifying.

The Black Widow and The Winter Soldier in cahoots? Terrifying.

 

Even more so when she finds a rather disturbing collection of ants climbing the walls of one unfurnished room.

When she questions Bucky, he simply shrugs and laughs, eyes lighter than when they’d found him, and says, “Well, everyone’s got a gimmick, right? Someone’s gonna have ants.”

That, Maria thinks, is absolutely impossible.

(She files that away in case it becomes relevant. But really. Superheroes choose cool things to imitate. Spiders. Hawks. Cats. Ants are not cool.)

 

Natasha and Bucky are in the middle of a throwing contest when Maria rushes in and turns on the news, watching in horror as something happens in New Mexico.

“Puente Antiguo is currently under attack by something not yet identified – the overall census is that it is definitely not human, and is definitely dangerous. It has already attacked a number of SHIELD agents, none of which have presumably been successful in their attempts. Wait – what?”

A man on the screen is walking directly towards the thing holding an overly large hammer, lifting it and-

“What we’re seeing – I’m absolutely certain it’s not of earth – I have no explanation for this – but we need to cut back to the studio – it’s dangerous out here.”

The studio is darker than the previous screen and the three of them blink at the TV, then at each other in horror.

Clint,” Natasha whispers at the same time Maria says, “Phil,”

Bucky has a far off look in his eyes.

They know it well enough to stay far away from him, and let JARVIS guide him back to himself.

 

Clint and Phil arrive two days later, a little worse for wear but otherwise alive. The four of them, minus Bucky, exchange hugs and are glad that they are both alive.

“So, what happened?” Maria asks, as Bucky settles an immaculate plate of macarons piled high on the table. When she takes one and bites, it’s predictably perfect.

Phil and Clint share a knowing look. “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you,” Clint says darkly. Natasha and Maria snort.

“I’m the same clearance level as you all,” Natasha says. “I know exactly the same amount of secrets as you do.”

Phil and Clint share yet another look before glancing at Bucky, and shrugging.

“Aliens.”

“Nice.” Maria bites into another macaron. They’re delicious. “Tell the truth.”

“Oh no.” Phil says, entirely straight-faced. “We are telling the truth. It was 100% aliens.”

Bucky looks at them with a curious expression. “Were they blue?”

Clint blinks. “No? This one looked like a person. His name was Thor.”

Bucky hums. “God of thunder. Hammer? Mjolnir? Norse Mythology. Let me guess… brother named Loki?”

Phil nods slowly. “Yes, actually. What do you mean ‘were they blue’? Are you saying you know of blue aliens?”

Bucky blinks. “Yes. Kree. SHIELD has an entire is-” he cuts himself off, glancing between all of the others as they gape at him. “You… didn’t know?” he hedges. Maria shakes her head.

“No.”

“Terrestrialized Alien Host Integrative Tissue I.” Bucky tells them. “Top secret. Uh, Pierce knew about it.” He explains. “It contains dead Kree aliens. It’s experimental. But anyway. Your aliens. What about them?”

Phil swallows. “Well, Thor was alright. Mild mannered, strong, worthy of Mjolnir, so that’s that. I have a feeling he might be relevant soon enough.”

Maria frowns. “Why’s that?”

Clint smiles cryptically. “I don’t trust his brother. He’ll be back.”

Everyone digs into their macarons, and that’s the end of that conversation.

 

Three weeks after that, Nick Fury arrives at the house to talk to Maria.

“You want him to do what?” she asks him incredulously after he explains his plan. “He’s in recovery still. He could still go off the reservation, and you want him to be an Avenger?”

Fury raises his arms a little, placating her. “Do you trust him?” is all he asks in response. She nods.

“That’s not the point-”

“It is.” He tells her. “I trust your judgement. And your judgement is that you trust him.”

“So by extension, you trust him?” she asks dubiously. He nods.

“Yes. He can out-perform Natasha, and Natasha’s the best we’ve got. Besides, I have a feeling he has a lot of making up to do.”

“He doesn’t-” Maria tries to argue.

“I know, he doesn’t have anything to apologise for. But he doesn’t believe that. Not really. Ask him. I have a few… integration missions.”

“Okay,” she concedes slowly. “I’ll ask him. But it’s his decision.”

 

And predictably, Bucky agrees instantly.

“You should think about it,” Maria tries to reason. “You don’t have anything to prove.”

“Not to you.” He agrees. “But to myself I do.”

She can’t really argue with that. Especially because she’s once again annoyed the Fury pegged him right.

 

He’s out with Maria first. He takes orders perfectly, and it’s almost like he zones out of Bucky and into The Winter Soldier – without the blind obedience.

It’s… enthralling to watch him fight, to say the least.

He fights with, not grace, exactly, but it has a deadly, honed finesse that is clearly far more perfected and dangerous than any move Natasha uses. Every time Maria thinks he’s been hit, he simply feigns and darts around whoever he’s fighting, using their smugness at their supposed success to his own advantage.

He doesn’t kill – and it’s clear he’s holding back. He hasn’t trained in months, so how very much he’s holding back has nothing on what it would look like when he goes all out.

Secretly, Maria wants to see that.

Publicly, it’s far to terrifying to even suggest.

Is aim is just as good as Clint’s – if not, her traitorous mind suggests, better.

It’s like he can analyse a person’s movements before he even begins to walk, he can anticipate an opponent’s fighting pattern within seconds, using it against him.

He can anticipate her orders, and it’s oh so slightly scary.

Fury’s right though – he outfights Natasha, no mean feat. What Maria wouldn’t give to see them spar.

 

He returns to Malibu unscathed and a little lighter – as if he knows for certain he’s making amends.

His cooking that day is irrevocably delicious. Tony visits and deems it ‘five-star worthy’.

“Oh, by the way.” Tony says, while everybody is mid chew. “My building. The one in New York? It’s mostly done. You guys can move in whenever you feel like it. Another, eh, year or so for the touch-ups but it’s habitable. I’ve moved in already, and so has JARVIS.”

“A floor in a billionaire’s private tower?” Clint grins, mouth full of food. “Count me in on principle.

Natasha waves a hand. “Sure. Whatever. Why not, in between missions, it’d be nice to have luxurious downtime like this.”

Bucky shoots nervous glances to everyone on the room when Maria and Phil take longer to answer.

“Yeah, you too, Sargesicle.” Tony offers casually. Bucky lips his lips.

“I haven’t been to New York in thirty six years,” he says quietly. “I’d like to go again. But. I don’t need a whole floor-”

“Sure you do. Everybody deserves a floor. Who doesn’t?”

Bucky looks as if he wants to remind Tony of what he did to his parents, but thinks the better of it.

“Thank you,” Bucky says quietly. “I’d like that.”

He so rarely expresses that he’d like something, or that he wants something, that they all shoot him soft smiles.

He’s their weak spot, and they know all know it, though they can’t exactly pinpoint why.

 

His next mission is with Natasha. She comes back to the New York Stark tower with a slight limp. Bucky is clearly much worse off, but is hiding it exceptionally well. Maria doesn’t even notice until he’s almost entirely healed – two days after the mission.

“My serum,” Bucky explains to her, while Tony listens in with glee. “It’s like the one they gave… the one they gave Steve.”

“So, accelerated healing, super-strength, that kind of thing?”

“Yeah. Not as efficient though. His metabolism burned 4 times faster than average. Mine burns… three? Three and a half times faster maybe?”

Tony whistled appreciatively. “That’s still damn impressive. We’re gonna have to monitor your vitals one of this days. Test your endurance. How’s your pain tolerance?”

A dark look crosses Bucky’s eyes. “High. Very high.”

Maria hums. “Tony’s right though. We have to test your endurance – it’ll be fascinating to see. I imagine Steve’s charts wouldn’t have been far ahead of yours, so we have a real base of comparison.”

Bucky agrees.

 

His mission with Clint doesn’t go quite so stellar.

He comes back to the tower and immediately shuts off, slamming the door (figuratively – nobody’s on his floor) and tells JARVIS not to let anyone in at all.

Clint returns from the hospital two weeks later, nose broken and leg in a cast, but still the same Clint that went on the mission.

“He thinks that he should have stopped this,” Clint gestures to himself. “Even though his orders were on a completely different side of the building. There was nothing he could have done anyway – I took the assholes out with my gun before they could kill me, it’s all good.”

Bucky can’t look him in the eye for another week before Clint snaps, throwing a fry at him and hitting dead-centre in his forehead. Bucky looks up, already on the offense, before wilting when he sees Clint’s raised eyebrow.

“Yo. Soldat. Or whatever. Look at me.” Bucky complies guiltily. “I’m fine. I’m alive. Seriously, this is not the first time this shit has happened.” He gestures to the plaster on his nose and the cast on his leg. “Ask Nat. Every time this happens she either wants to kill me herself or shove me into a cocoon made of blankets.”

Bucky’s eyes glide over to Natasha, where she smirks and shrugs at him.

“He’s right. It wasn’t your fault.”

Bucky sighs. “I don’t like failing missions. You were – are – unacceptable collateral damage. I failed a mission once and he died. Those – those exceed mission parameters.”

And suddenly they aren’t talking about Clint anymore – were they ever?

Maria sees the – the grief in Bucky’s eyes and she suddenly understands it all.

He hasn’t been proving himself sane or stable. He’s proving himself fit. He’s trying to convince himself that if – if he’d just been a little stronger, held on just a little longer, he wouldn’t be here and Steve wouldn’t be dead, and they’d be together.

He’s proving to himself that even though he thinks he failed someone he loved, he won’t ever fail anyone again.

She knows the others have reached the same conclusion when their breaths all sync and their jaws open just the slightest bit.

None of them, for two highly trained spies and a super-genius, know what to say. Neither does Maria.

 

Bucky takes a particular shining to Pepper Potts. He finds her beautiful, no doubt, but he admires her intelligence too.

He constantly asks her questions, whenever she’s free, about how she runs Stark Industries, and how she balances the company’s finances so perfectly. Even when she explains that she delegates, he finds her no less fascinating. He asks her how she puts up with Tony so much and she laughs, and he is the first one to know that it is because she loves him.

He asks her about useless things too, and Maria thinks it’s because he hasn’t had a lot of time around women who couldn’t potentially attack him at any moment.

Pepper likes him a lot – and it’s only cemented when he brings her soufflés. She might just love him a little too for that.

 

 

November 16th, 2011

SHIELD EXCLUSIVE: “BUCKY BARNES IS ALIVE”

SHIELD Director Nick Fury dropped a huge bombshell on America, nay, the world, as he revealed some more information regarding last year’s HYDRA scandal (read more here)

“Over the past year, we’ve had what HYDRA called ‘the Asset’ recuperating and recovering his memories. It’s been a very trying year – or few decades, in fact. He of all people deserves peace. With his permission, I’m releasing this statement:

“Last year my top agent discovered the identity of a renowned, fearless assassin known as codename: Winter Soldier. Upon discovering his identity, she set out to recover him. In doing so, she unwittingly discovered the remnants of HYDRA built within SHIELD over the past six and a half decades. She also discovered that The Winter Soldier did not, in fact, have all that much to do with his victims.

“HYDRA had in fact been exploiting this man for years, subjecting him to horrible torture, brainwashing, and even memory wipe procedures, all in order to perfect the killing machine they wanted. They sent him to kill several individuals in order to maintain secrecy.

“As a collective, the United States Government have elected to acquit The Winter Soldier of all charges due to his treatment over several decades. He has since been kept under SHIELD custody, and we hope he will continue to recover at the pace he has been so far.”

I found this very, very surprising, although I could not say I disagree. Brainwashing and memory wiping alone are one thing, but together, over six decades? Whoever this man must be is very lucky to have the support of the US Government. He certainly has mine.

But who is this man? I decided that I was brave enough to ask Director Fury, and, with a very small smile on his face, he responded:

“Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, of the 107th Infantry, who allegedly died in 1945.”

I can say, with 100% honesty, I could not ask another question at all.

Fury left not long after this exchange, after shaking my hand and smiling rather knowingly.

I can also honestly say that it took me a half hour to move from my space in the coffee shop, simply because I was unable to process what I had just been told.

So, yes, folks. Here’s the news. Laugh. Cry. Scream. Call bullshit. Do what you like.

The facts are these:

James Buchanan Barnes survived the fall from the train in 1945, and was turned, unwillingly, into a weapon of HYDRA through manipulation, abuse, and brainwashing over decades. He has been recovered. He is recovering.

SHIELD brought one national hero, not to rest, but brought him home. No less than Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s right hand man, ever deserved.

 

“Okay, why did they mention Steve again?” Clint frowns, scrolling up the article. “Like. This has literally nothing to do with Steve.

“I’m still not over being called his top agent.” Maria says, eating a strawberry. Bucky sets down a tray of fresh, warm cupcakes.

“I’m glad not a lot of people hate me.” he says, still nervous. He’d been anxious as he opened the oven door, accidentally checking the cakes with his human hand instead of his metal. “But it won’t last. They’re going to ask questions.”

“It’ll be alright,” Natasha assures him. “Once they see your resting murder face, nobody’s going to ever mess with you.” She helps herself to a cupcake.

They all decide that really she’s right, especially when it comes to murder faces.

 

Peggy Carter is absolutely thrilled to get another visit from Bucky. They’ve visited her countless times, sometimes she forgets, sometimes she remembers every word, but every time she’s thrilled to see him.

They ask her how she’s doing, Bucky and Maria, and Peggy returns in kind. Then, ever perceptive, she turns to Bucky and frowns, reaching out for his hand as he obliges. She is the only person he has voluntarily touched more than a handful of times, excluding Maria.

“What’s wrong, dear?” Her thumb traces the joints of his hand. “You’re upset.”

He laughs without humour. “You’re too perceptive for such an old dame, Peg.”

She smacks him lightly with her other hand. “Don’t deflect. What’s wrong with an old man like you?”

Bucky turns his face away, and Maria knows that means he’s genuinely upset.

“I… nothing.”

“What did I just say?” Peggy scolds. Bucky breathes out shakily, and his foot taps the floor.

Maria wonders for a moment whether she should leave, but as if reading her mind, Peggy tells her,

“You should stay, dear. It’ll be less stressful for him.”

“I miss him, Peggy.” He chokes out, and the dam is broken and he cries, god, Maria doesn’t think she’s ever seen him cry, let alone like this. He drops his head onto her bed, and her other hand immediately comes up to stroke him lightly on the back of his head.

“I know, dear.” She coos in response, shooting a sad look to Maria. “It hurts a lot.”

“Does it stop?” he asks her, muffled by the bed sheet.

Peggy’s eyes well up as she shakes her head, even though he can’t see. “No, dear. Not ever. Whether it’s been two years or seventy – it never stops. You just move on.”

“I don’t want to.” Bucky wails, lifting his head to look at her desperately. “If – if he felt even a little like this after – after – the Alps – then I… I can’t blame him for killing himself.”

Maria is on the verge of tears herself as she reaches over and grabs Bucky’s left hand. He startles at the contact, though he squeezes appreciatively.

“Don’t think like that,” Maria tells him quietly. “He may have died because – because he couldn’t live without you, but he felt guilty. He thought he caused your death, and he couldn’t live with himself.”

Peggy nodded her agreement. “You don’t ever have to move on,” she says, echoing Maria’s own words of advice from a long time ago. “He meant everything to you – and you to him. I wish beyond measure that you two – that you’d had any time together at all.”

Bucky sobs again, shaking his head, his hair cascading around his shoulder in shiny waves.

“I love him,” he whispers. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop, and God, I don’t ever want to, but it hurts so fucking much. I’d – I’d give anything just to see him one more fucking time.”

And that – that strikes a chord with Maria.

She doesn’t know why, but that itch beneath her skin resurfaces. The same itch she got when she started to realise that there was more to The Winter Soldier than a ghost story. She knows it’s her instinct.

She trusts it.

 

Bucky excuses himself not long after that, but Peggy asks Maria to stay.

“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” Peggy asks her, eyes puffy, voice trembling almost as much as her hands as she sips her tea. “About James and Steve.”

Maria just nods. “It’s… sad.” She can’t put into words exactly how much all of this upsets her – and she hasn’t even lived it. But Peggy understands, as she sighs.

“Very. Ironic too, isn’t it?” That pulls Maria up short.

“What?” she asks the older woman. Peggy laughs a little sadly, putting her tea aside.

“Steve put that plane in the ocean because he couldn’t live with James dead. It’s horrible luck that James didn’t die at all – so Steve died for nothing. It’s such a tragedy. James fell and didn’t die for Steve, and Steve fell and died for Bucky. Backwards, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Maria sighs, eyes downturned. Bucky deserves a hell of a lot better than what he got. But that was the hand he was dealt. And that is the hand he has to live with.

“At least,” Peggy says, voice forcibly light. “They have one other thing in common.”

Maria furrows her brows. “Oh?”

“They’ve both spent the best part of the last seventy years in ice.”

It’s morbid, but Maria can’t help but let out a strangled laugh.

 

Bucky curls up next to her again on the flight home.

 

She sleeps on the guest floor of Stark Tower that night.

Or rather, she does for a time.

She awakes in the middle of the night, not to the feeling of being watched, nor to some nightmare, or even that she was slightly too cold or warm.

Instead, she awakes to the very unpleasant feeling that she was missing something.

This had been the case several times over the past seven years – while she was searching for the hidden identity of The Winter Soldier.

Her alarm tells her it’s four am exactly and she sighs, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.

She doesn’t exactly have time for this – she has a covert mission in four days, and she’s going to need every bit of rest she can get.

Instead, she sits up and thinks about nothing in particular. About Bucky’s stunning progress over the past year, about how he was a fairly friendly guy. She thought about her day, their visit to Peggy, Peggy’s offhand remark about –

“Oh God,” Maria whispers, and her mind is racing at a thousand miles per hour.

They’ve both spent the best part of the last seventy years in ice.

Fucking hell.

Bucky was kept in Cryofreeze – which was ice.

“JARVIS,” she says aloud, startling herself.

Yes, Agent Hill? How may I be of assistance?”

“What was the temperature of Bucky’s Cryostasis chamber?” she asks slowly.

Minus 30 degrees Celsius initially, Agent Hill. After this temperature was reached, an internal temperature of Sergeant Barnes’s body required a minimum of 15 degrees Celsius in order to awaken. Any temperature below this was satisfactory to keep Sergeant Barnes comatose.”

Maria is silent for far too long. JARVIS seems to detect her discomfort.

Is there any other way I can be of service, Agent Hill?”

She swallows and steels herself. “What’s the average temperature of the Arctic?”

“During the winter months, there is an approximate average of minus 34 degrees Celsius. The summer months reach an average of 3 to 12 degrees celsius.”

“JARVIS,” she says, voice slightly hysterical, a twinkle in her eyes. “Please get me every single file you have on Captain Rogers, the crash of the Valkyrie, and the subsequent search for his body.”

 

Phil finds her, half-drooling in her sleep over a desk stacked with papers, at almost ten am.

“Maria?” Phil asks. He shakes her awake. “Maria!”

“Steveilagijgaa.” She says articulately. Phil raises an eyebrow.

“The only comprehensible word in all of that was ‘Steve’.” He sighs, gesturing to the paperwork. “Were you up all night doing this? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you’re overworking yourself again. It’s probably not even due-”

Maria gets to her feet suddenly, staring in wonder at the paper on her desk.

“Um… Maria?” Phil asks. “You kind of scare me when you get weird like this.”

“I found him,” she whispers, tone frenetic. “Oh my God – Phil!”

“Found who? Maria, you’re scaring me.”

“Come over here,” She gestures for him to step closer. “Last night Peggy made a joke. It was a weird, morbid, dumb joke but I laughed, and something struck me as off about it – about her, and Bucky – and everything-”

“What was the joke?” Phil probes, entirely lost.

“Uhh,” Maria wracks her mind for the exact phrasing. “Something like… Bucky and Captain Rogers both spent the last seventy years on ice.” Maria waves a hand dismissively.

Phil snorts. “Morbid, definitely morbid.”

“But she’s right!” Maria tells him, frantic. “Captain Rogers has spent the last seventy years in the Arctic – surrounded by ice!”

“I don’t understand how that’s important at all, but alright.”

Maria groans, frustrated. She looks at Phil directly in the eyes, her own somewhat hard and defiant.

“The temperature of Cryofreeze for Bucky was minus 30 degrees Celsius.”

“Okay..?” Phil frowns.

“The average temperature of the Arctic? Minus 34.”

Phil looks as if he’s going to say something equally dismissive once again – and then his jaw snaps closed.

“Are you implying…?” he says, and he’s as white as a fucking sheet. Maria nods slowly, a chaotic smile crossing her face.

“I think Steve Rogers is still alive, Phil. And I’ve found him.”

 

Never let it be said that Maria Hill does not have a sense of humour.

As she had done with The Winter Soldier, she marches straight to Director Fury’s office in the Triskelion, thankfully devoid of HYDRA agents, and drops a huge pile of files on his desk.

Instead of looking annoyed, or surprised, or irritated, he simply looks expectant.

As if he’s saying, Shock me. I dare you. Come up with something I’ve never heard before.

So she does.

“I have reason to believe that Captain Steven Rogers is currently alive, but in Cryostasis.”

Sure enough, Fury stares at her for a very long moment. “How on earth did you come up with that crackshit idea?”

Maria smirks as she tells him about the temperature theory. She knows he’s not entirely convinced, so she tells him about the other part.

“When Howard Stark searched the Arctic Ocean for Captain Rogers, he recovered the Tesseract. Within 15 miles of the tesseract, the search was deemed a failure, due to no traces of wreckage. For a genius, Howard Stark was grieving too heavily to really think about his maths.

“Captain Rogers’s final conversation with Peggy revealed that Schmidt was dead, and if we assume the Tesseract’s fall from the plane has anything to do with that, then we know that the plane didn’t start to descend until at least two minutes later. The Valkyrie had an average speed of 400 miles per hour, or 6 miles per minute. In the approximate two minutes since Schmidt died before the plane dove down, he travelled around 12 miles.

“That’s what they didn’t account for. Not to mention that after putting the plane into a dive motion, it took over a minute for the transmission to cut out. That’s 6 miles – over 30,000 feet.”

“I don’t have a damn degree in maths, Maria.”

Maria huffed. “What I’m saying is that with a Pythagoras equation, I worked out that while he was diving, he travelled approximately eight miles, meaning I’ve been able to create an approximately 2 mile radius, within which I am one hundred percent certain lies Captain Rogers’s plane.”

She falls silent, watching Fury with calculating eyes. Was he going to believe her?

He sighs very loudly after a moment.

“You know Maria, I meant what I said about you being my top agent.” He says, and Maria blinks. That’s a sudden change in topic. “You discovered the identity of an elusive assassin and simultaneously brought a national hero and prisoner of war home. This is me giving you leeway to bring another one home to his friend.”

Maria sags with relief. “Yes sir. Of course. I’ll call it in now – there’s a Russian oil team nearby – I’ll get them to look out for it before we can send some men out there.”

She stands to leave, letting her paperwork stay on Fury’s desk. Before she closes the door, however, he calls out to her.

“Maria?”

“Yes sir?”

“If you’re right about this…” He looks at her considering for a moment before smiling approvingly. “We’ll have to discuss your promotion.”

 

The first thing she does after directing the Russians towards her radius is visit Bucky.

He opens his door, his hair a rat’s nest, dark circles making a home underneath his eyes.

“Maria?” he says voice hoarse. “What time is it?”

“Almost ten,” she responds, smile on her face. He’s earnt the right to lay in bed till noon, but perhaps not today.

“Ugh,” he groans, throwing open his bedroom door and leaving it, wandering over to his kitchen. Maria follows. “Something up?”

She swallows, a little nervous. “I… I guess so.” Bucky turns to her then, eyes sharp and alert while his left hands clamps into a fist.

“We in danger?”

“No!” she assures him. He relaxes the tiniest fraction. “I have something to tell you, and… well, you probably aren’t going to believe me – it’ll be a lot to take in.”

Bucky mulls over this, straight-faced for a moment, before putting down the bread slices he was holding. He sighs and sits on the armchair. Maria takes a seat on the couch. Bucky makes a ‘Go on’ gesture with his hands.

She gets straight to the point.

“I think I know where Steve crashed the plane.”

The look on his face is – is – indescribable. He looks so happy for just a second, and then he remembers that Steve is dead and his face screws up in horror. He shuts his eyes tightly, his hands clamping in his hair.

“You – you found him?” he whispers, guttural.

Maria licks her lips. “Not yet. I’ve narrowed down a 2 mile radius. We’ll find him.” She promises him. She has absolute confidence.

“I want to see him,” he says, and it’s clear he’s crying. “I don’t care what he looks like – if he’s a skeleton, if he’s missing two arms and a leg, if his head’s clean off his body – I don’t care. I said I’d give anything to see him one more time, and I don’t care if he’s dead.”

Maria breathes shakily, forcing down her own tears. Slowly, she admits, “I don’t believe that he’s dead.”

Bucky shoots up straight, staring at her in horror. “What?” His voice is cold.

“I don’t believe he’s dead,” she repeats.

“What do you mean by that?”

“The average temperature of the Arctic is 4 degrees colder than Cryofreeze. I think, that for the last seventy years, Steve Rogers has been in Cryostasis.”

“Take me to him,” is all Bucky replies with. He has his teeth bared threateningly, as if the answer ‘No,’ was ever even a possibility.

“Plane leaves in half an hour.”

 

Bucky brings a small bag of clothes with him, enough to keep him warm in the Arctic ice. What Maria doesn’t expect him to bring is a small notebook.

He curls up on the other side of the plane and opens his notebook, staring intensely at each page before flicking to the next.

“What are those?” Maria asks softly, wandering over to sit next to him.

“Pictures. Memories.” Bucky responds, voice thick. “I don’t have many pictures of him. But I have a lot of memories with him. I wrote them all down in here.”

“If he’s alive, we’ll wake him up.” She swears. “You can make new memories with him then.”

Bucky breathes shakily, looking up at her with wet eyes.

“I said I’d give anything to see him again. But. What if he doesn’t want to see me?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she scolds lightly. “You… You know he put that plane in the water because he couldn’t bear to live without you.”

“But he thinks I’m dead.”

“Okay,” she concedes. “That’s an issue. But we can get around that. If anything, I think he’ll just be happy to see you again one more time.”

“But the things I’ve done-”

“Are things he’ll either live with or leave.” She tells him firmly. “He loved – loves you too, you know. He won’t care about the things you’ve done while under HYDRA’s command. He will care that he probably thinks it’s his fault.”

Bucky bites his lips, gaze dropping to the book in his lap. “Thank you,” he murmurs. Maria smiles and pats him on the shoulder comfortingly.

 

Her phone rings when they’re half an hour away from landing.

“Agent Hill.”

“We’ve got something.” Her heart thuds in her chest. She gives nothing away.

“Carry on.”

“We’ve got wreckage – but not the technology to get in yet.”

“We’re bringing the technology with us. We’re a half hour out.”

“See you soon, ma’am.”

 

She tells the pilot to go faster.

 

It’s practically impossible to see in the unbearably low light of the Arctic – snow whirls around them in a blizzard, and she just barely makes out the figure of someone waving to them.

Ten minutes later, Bucky is clutching his notebook tightly as the whir of the laser cuts open a large circular panel in the wreckage. As soon as it falls, he runs.

Maria tries to stop him – to get him to put on a wire or something, but he’s already leapt down the hatch. She quickly gears up herself, connecting to a zip wire so she can safely travel down. She’s not a super-soldier, after all.

Bucky is frantic.

He wipes snow and ice from every surface he can see, and Maria joins him with a little more hesitancy.

“Where is he?” she hears Bucky mumble.

She’s about to reply when she wipes ice from something – and sees an emblazoned white star surrounded by blue and red. She inhales sharply.

“Bucky,” she calls. He’s next to her in a second. He rubs off all of the ice and – oh God – his shield, still eye-poppingly bright is covering the back of the pilot’s seat.

A huge, huge mound of snow and ice is lying right next to it.

Bucky has the same idea as her, and starts sifting and pawing at the snow. He’s crying and the tears are practically freezing on his face below the helmet they’ve made him wear. Maria does the same, and after a moment, she comes into contact with something harder than snow.

They brush all of the ice off together and – and he’s there.

Steve Rogers, looking exactly the same as any newsreel he was ever in, in all the propaganda posters minus the helmets – he looks the fucking same.

Jesus,” Bucky whimpers, whimpers. “Stevie, oh my God, Stevie.”

He reaches a hand to his frozen face and gently puts it on his cheek. His head falls onto the star on Steve’s frozen chest, the helmet blocking the way.

Wake up, please, let me see those pretty blues one more time, huh?” he cries.

Maria puts a shaky hand up the headset on her helmet.

“Get the doctors down here. We’ve found him.”

 

“That’s a fucking stupid idea!” Bucky yells at Fury. “He’ll see right fucking through that in seconds, just you fucking wait!”

“That’s what I’m counting on,” Fury replies easily. “If he’s as good as you and the world says he is, he shouldn’t have much trouble figuring out something’s wrong.”

“Send me in there,” he pleads. “I’ll help him-”

“With all due respect, Bucky,” Maria interrupts. “He thinks you’re dead. Sending his dead best friend in there after what he feels has been two days since you died? It’s not going to end well.”

“He’s not going to trust you,” he spits in response. “Especially if you try and fucking trick him.”

“You know exactly what Steve’s going to do, don’t you?” Fury asks suddenly, measured.

Bucky grits his teeth and nods. “You play that game and he’ll recognise it. Whoever walks into that room is a threat to him. He’ll do whatever he can to get out of that room, and out of the building. Keep your cars near Times Square.” Is all he gives away as he leaves Fury’s office, slamming the door behind him.

 

Steve Rogers awakes not only to the feeling that something is wrong, but that he’s failed. The crash was supposed to kill him. It didn’t. He very quickly resigns himself to his fate.

He focuses on the game that’s playing through an old radio as he sits up. He knows this one, he thinks, frowning. It was one he’d seen with –

A woman walks into the room, and she is all wrong. Her hair isn’t right, the tie isn’t appropriate, her overall attire reeks of wrongness.

“Where am I?” he asks, half expecting her to reply –

“You’re in a recovery room in New York City.” She’s lying – except she isn’t? She’s definitely telling half of the truth and that – that’s-

“Where am I really?”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand.” She smiles, slightly uncomfortable.

Despite not knowing if she’s the enemy or not, he still thinks it would be rude to criticise her clothing.

“The game. It’s from May 1941. I know ‘cause I was there.” He doesn’t think of the look in Bucky’s eyes when they ate hot dogs and cussed when the Yankees won overall. He gets purposefully to his feet. “Now I’m gonna ask you again. Where am I?”

“Captain Rogers –” she tries to say, placating, though her eyes are panicked.

“Who are you?” he demands, stepping closer. Two soldiers burst through the door and Steve reacts the only way he knows how to – by starting a fight.

He’s only slightly surprised when one of the soldiers he flings goes straight through the wall, but he jumps through the gap in the wall and darts out of the room.

All agents, code 13!” the woman’s voice calls over the intercom. The dozen agents in the hallway immediately stop and turn their eyes on him, beginning to move towards him. He runs fast, and before he knows it, he’s out of the building.

Everything’s wrong again – it’s too bright and loud, there’s more pollution, the cars are brightly coloured and fast and there are hundreds of them –

He runs with the cars again and he finds himself in Times Square – that’s where he is, it has to be. He recognises the streets but not the signs – the billboards are huge and moving, and there are cars surrounding him, all of them black, all of them reinforced. A black man with an eye patch steps out of one of the cars. A woman follows him, her hair black and short, and she has the smallest of smiles on her face.

“At ease soldier.” He pauses, looking to the woman next to him. She takes the hint and steps closer to him. Steve steps back.

“My name is Agent Maria Hill.”

“Agent Hill,” Steve nods. “Where am I?”

She hesitates. The black man steps in. “We thought it would be best to break it all to you slowly.”

“Break what?” he asks, eyes slipping between the two of them.

“You’ve been on ice – asleep, Cryostasis, for almost seventy years.” Hill tells him.

Steve sighs, because that’s all he can do, and turns. He stares at the boards with flashing videos and just barely hears the man ask,

“Are you going to be alright?”

“Yeah, I just-” he waves it away. “I had a date.”

He doesn’t expect to hear Agent Hill say, “You’ve got another one to get to. There’s someone else who’s been waiting years to see you, Captain.”

He turns, confused, opening his mouth to ask what she means when he sees a figure come out of the car and push past Hill and the other man.

He –

Is that –?

It has to be –

His hair is longer. Shaggier. He has dark circles under his eyes. He has stubble on his cheeks and his left arm is entirely metal. He looks bigger, healthier than he’s ever seen him but that’s him.

It’s

“Bucky?” he calls, half reaching out to the figure.

His face crumples and Bucky runs over, yelling, “Steve,” as he goes, and suddenly his arms are full and he’s squeezing as tight as he possible can, because this is Bucky, and he fell from the train two days and seventy years ago so how is he here

“You – you fell, Bucky-” Steve says, pulling his hands up to fist themselves in Bucky’s hair.

No,” Bucky moans, eyes just as red as his own. “Not now, Stevie, please, not now,”

Steve can only nod dumbly and pull Bucky back in for a long, hard, hug

(If they both cry, and sob, and hug tighter, the Agents don’t mention it.)

They don’t notice everyone ushering gawking pedestrians away. They’re glad for their privacy.

 

It warms Maria’s heart. It really, really does.

The two can’t let one another out of their sights, constantly insisting on having one hand fisted in the other’s shirt. Maria can’t exactly blame them.

“What happened?” Steve whispers to Bucky, his other hand dancing over the metal plates of his left hand. “I thought you were dead –”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky murmurs. “It’s a long story. Zola – the experiments – I survived the fall. HYDRA got me – they – they turned me into a weapon all this time, Steve.”

Steve lets out such a broken noise that Maria has to stop herself from crying.

It’s been a busy few years.

 

“We’re taking you both to a top secret location called ‘The Retreat’.” Fury tells them. He gives a pointed look to Bucky.

“Yes, I know you know where that is, but nobody else does.”

Bucky wouldn’t have said anything anyway, too wrapped up in the way Steve’s hair glints in the light.

Steve nods firmly. “Yes sir.”

“Bucky will help you acclimate yourself – and I’m sure you two have a lot to discuss.” Maria adds. Bucky shoots her a warning glance that would terrify most other people, but makes Maria laugh and Steve grin dopily.

 

“Maria?” Fury calls out after dropping the two super-soldiers off at the Retreat. They’re still on the jet, but alone. “I’d like to have a word with you.”

“Of course, sir.” Maria takes a seat opposite Fury and waits.

“I’d say it’s about time we discussed your promotion.”

Maria stares, wide-eyed. “I thought you were joking about that, sir.”

“Do I joke?”

“I can never tell. Especially with the eyepatch. What I’m trying to say, sir, is that I’m currently holding the top position within SHIELD. There is no promotion for me to take.”

“There’s one.” He says cryptically. “Never offered it to anyone before. Nobody’s ever proved their worth. You’ve more than proved yourself. As Deputy Director of SHIELD, you will be my direct successor should anything unfavourable ever happen to me.”

And…

Well.

She can’t exactly say no to that.

 

Nick Fury goes to The Retreat two weeks later, after the threat of an alien invasion becomes all too real, in order to recruit both soldiers.

He has the unfortunate luck of walking in on Steve Rogers pressing Bucky Barnes against the wall and kissing him with all his might.

At least, he thinks gratefully, they were fully clothed.

He also thinks that Maria Hill, for masterfully orchestrating not only the investigation into the identity of The Winter Soldier, but also his recovery, and then the subsequent discovery that Captain Rogers was alive, deserves yet another promotion.

 

Some believed that Maria Hill had to have lied or slept (or killed, if you ask the right person) her way to the top.

After it comes out that Captain Rogers was alive thanks to Maria’s investigation, they quickly shut up, and the respect in every room she enters is palpable.

She truly is the most underestimated woman in SHIELD.