Steve Rogers puts his hand on the Tesseract, and he wishes for the Winter Soldier to remember. The Winter Soldier looks over his shoulder for a moment, makes eye-contact, but still leaps out the skyscraper window onto the back of a super-light glidercraft to make his getaway.
Six weeks later, teenagers looking for a place to drink find a mostly rotted pile of human remains on a shuttered Army base. The state forensic unit determines male, white, mid-thirties. It turns out there is a cache of weapons mixed in with the remains. He could have shot himself using one of the guns, and it’s possible that decomposition has hidden signs of a struggle or force, but from everything they can tell, it was a long, slow death — self-strangulation by hanging from military-grade nylon climbing fiber looped through a catch on the flagpole.
Steve Rogers puts his hand on the Tesseract, and he wishes for the Winter Soldier to remember. The Winter Soldier looks over his shoulder for a moment, makes eye-contact, and it’s hard to tell with the domino mask, with the adrenaline, but Steve swears the man smiles and says, in accented English, “What makes you think I don’t know already?”
Then, the Winter Soldier jums out the window onto the back of a super-light glider. Steve gets to the window in time to see it swoop away for the horizon, but SHIELD catches up with him three months later, after a botched job in Jakarta where he is sold out by his own employers. Sitting in an interrogation room, hands chained to the table and feet chained to the floor, his face looks bare without the mask. There are scars; there is a metal left arm, and when asked by a skilled, trained interrogator while Steve stands behind mirrored, bulletproof glass, the Winter Soldier shrugs. He says he went to a black-market freelance telepath about a decade ago. It was bothering him to have a hole in his memory, and it cost a lot of money, so he made sure it worked. He remembered.
He just didn’t care.
Without bothering to look at Steve through the mirrored glass, the Winter Soldier goes on: the past is past. The dead are dead. He is a pragmatist, concerned with the future. What can SHIELD give him?
Steve Rogers puts his hand on the Tesseract, and he wishes for the Winter Soldier to remember.
It has the effect that he wants. The Winter Soldier comes to a skidding stop about twenty feet away. He crumples; he goes down on his knees, and he makes long, terrified noises of fear. Steve hesitates, but sees the Winter Soldier yank his mask off and throw it on the floor. There are real tears. There appears to be real anger. Steve steps close, then a little closer; the sight of his old, best, childhood friend on his knees, weeping, feels like a knife in the heart.
But it isn’t a knife in the heart: instead, it’s a thin, flexible metal blade driven between the C-3 and C-4 vertebrae in order to catch the cervical spinal nerve. The knife is expertly inserted, and once in, the Winter Soldier gives it a twist, so that the micro-hooked edges catch. Cutting the spinal nerve between the C-3 and C-4 removes the body’s ability to control breathing; if Steve lives long enough for medical help to reach him, removal will cause even more damage.
Then, the Winter Soldier bends low, so that his mouth is against Steve’s ear.
“You let me fall.”
Steve makes an uncontrolled gurgling noise. He tries to move his hands, but doesn’t have control of any part of his body below, say, his jaw, and the Winter Soldier takes the Tesseract from Steve’s loosening hand, then straightens gracefully, runs to the end of the hall, and swan-dives through the window onto a remote-controlled glider.
Steve Rogers puts his hand on the Tesseract, and he wishes for the Winter Soldier to remember. It has the effect that he wants. The Winter Soldier comes to a skidding stop and starts to weep. Steve steps close, then a little closer; the sight of his old, best, childhood friend on his knees, weeping, hurts like a knife in the heart. Steve kneels down on the floor, too: SHIELD agents come crashing into the hallway. Bucky is shaking and crying too hard to even look up and see the guns they’ve pulled on him, and Steve has to keep them from shooting.
One morning, six months later, Steve wakes on the Helicarrer. The space in bed next to him is cool, as if —
Steve opens his eyes, but finds that after that, he can’t move. Bucky comes into view from the edge of Steve’s vision; there are blue, lit-up dots in each of Bucky’s ears.
“You kept me in the Commandos,” Bucky says, quietly. “I wanted to go home.”
Steve struggles. He tries to sit up in bed, but finds he can’t. He tries to raise his right arm, but finds he can’t even control his fingers. Bucky leans close enough so that Steve can feel breath on his ears, hear the high-pitched sound of the neural plugs that keep Bucky from being affected by the paralysis field in effect over the cabin.
“In the past seventy years, how many times have I had to lick come off my mouth and pretend I liked it?” Bucky says. He straightens, and his eyes are full of contempt. “You should have remembered I never wanted that before.”
Steve swallows convulsively, which is the most movement he can manage: he can see there is a detonation trigger in Bucky’s left hand, and Bucky, after seeing Steve’s eyes move there, explains that there are shaped, remote-triggered explosive charges in every vital system and every backup system on the Helicarrier.
“That shouldn’t have — ” Steve is on his knees, leaning against his shield. He breathes out, closes his eyes, and opens them again. ”I wished on the Tesseract for him to remember.”
Natasha is standing. She looks at him. ”Do you mean the Winter Soldier?”
Steve nods. “Yes.”
The end of the hallway is covered in broken glass; the light glider came and went.
“That wasn’t him,” Natasha says, and she almost sounds like she pities Steve. ”You killed the Winter Soldier three floors below.”
“I’m sorr — ”
“There isn’t anything to apologize for.”
The man sitting on the couch looks tired. Outside, it’s Minneapolis at the end of a long, golden summer day: a kid rides her bicycle down the sidewalk with her parents following a few feet back, chatting. There is the sound of a lawnmower, and sitting in front of Steve is a tea tray with what he understands to be the traditional Russian manner. Honey, jam, lemon, cake and three kinds of cookies.
“I’m glad you came, so that we could talk. After you leave today, though, it would be a good idea for you never to come here again. I’m done with that part of my life.”
Bucky stands, and Steve does too. Bucky holds out his hand, and Steve steps forward to shake it, but when he looks behind Bucky’s shoulder to see Natasha sitting on the back step behind the kitchen, legs stretched out in the sun. The newspaper put out by the local Russian immigrant community is folded next to her; she has her face tilted back to enjoy the warm sun. She is comfortable, content; she took a leave of absence from the Avengers for anything short of a planetary disaster, and Steve sees, lying on the floor underneath the coffee table, dog-eared, the book on modernist dance theory Natasha had been reading on the Helicarrier between missions.
Steve comes into the room at a dead run and almost slides past the doorway to Bucky’s quarters on the Helicarrier. It’s keyed to his palmprint, so he can open it; after a moment where it stays stubbornly shut, it opens with the chime that indicates it was locked, but is being opened from the inside. Once it’s open, Steve sees —
“What happened?” he says, throat tight.
Natasha looks up. There is a spray of blood across her face, and more soaking her right arm, almost up to the elbow.
“Did he try to — ”
Natasha smiles in that way she does, where there are almost dimples and it’s almost a smile, but not quite.
“This is old business, Steve. Do you know what he did to trainees in the Red Room?”
Steve says, quietly, “We never talked about it.”
“For a good reason. He owed me,” Natasha says, and she considers him for a long, long moment. ”Are you going to try to keep me from leaving?”
Steve looks from the mess of blood and — other things back to Natasha, and when he doesn’t move, just breathes hard, she pulls the knife from Bucky’s throat and slips a clean one from the inside of her wrist. She is wearing her black tactical suit, and she is smiling in that almost-but-not-quite way that Steve used to think was something individual to Natasha, but over the past six months, he has seen it enough on Bucky’s face to learn otherwise.
Distantly, an alarm is sounding. Steve looks from the body back to Natasha and wonders if he can get use the tray on Bucky’s desk as a shield — it still has a half-eaten meal on it. Natasha sees him glance over at it, and still smiling like the man who broke her to obedience when she was thirteen, Natasha settles into a fighting crouch.