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Shadow Dance

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It starts off small. S.H.I.E.L.D calls him in early, and in a rush, he forgets to make the bed and grab the grocery list. He comes home after midnight to find the corners of his queen size tucked in and food in the fridge. He blinks, makes a note, and falls dead asleep on starched sheets.

He sees shadows in the form of demons, and occasionally, in the form of a person. Tony tells him he has a stalker fan with keys to his Brooklyn apartment, doing the laundry, making the bed, and sometimes leaving out food on nights when Steve collapses on the couch after a long day of soldiering. Yet, as funny it seems at the moment, the younger Stark still has Clint install cameras outside of the brownstone to keep track of the mysterious housemaid.

He finds his old sketchbook, wracked with scars and brittle at the seams, lying at the foot of his bed a couple of weeks later.

The others are afraid now, but not as much as Steve. The sketchbook became government property after his supposed death, and it was supposed to be presented in a World War II heroes exhibit in the Belgravia district of London in two days. He could have politely asked for it to be returned, but it had been in the possession of the world government longer than he’d been alive, so in the end, he’d decided against it. Now it was in his hands, worn from years of doodling and impromptu portraits, without a note of contact to whom he could thank.

"Maybe it’s a fake," Bruce says.

"Negative," JARVIS replies. “A theft was reported last night, as well the assassination of a Swedish nobleman." 

*~*~*

Two months later, there’s a fight with Kree agents in the Center Square district of Albany, outdoor chairs and tables of restaurants being used freely as arsenal. Steve’s hit six times out of the seventy-five he’s been swung at, and he’s hoping to hold out to a ten minimum this time around. It’s a mental note, really, something he keeps between himself and his mirror. He’s at his hundreth swing when he’s hit a ninth time. He makes a silent prayer and goes for a killing blow. He succeeds but misses the Kree that lunges for his exposed calves. Something slices through the air. The Kree falls at his feet and the battle’s over. He counts nine hits out of one hundred swings. He would have hit ten if it wasn’t for dumb luck.

Except it’s not, and now Fury is concerned.

"Stalker fans are dangerous,” the director enunciates, “but not as dangerous as Stark’s toys. The farthest they get is just outside their target’s door, and if they do make it inside, they’re removed quicker than they can figure out who it is that’s hauling their asses out."

“Except this person’s gone as far as aiding Cap in battle,” Clint sighs, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“Someone threw something to take out that Kree before it took out Captain Rogers,” Natasha says softly. “And it wasn’t me.”

“Could have been flying shrapnel,” an agent notes.

“Cap and the cameras would have seen it,” Tony refutes easily.

“So a mostly invisible piece of something comes from somewhere and hits the Kree before Cap can turn around,” Bruce finishes.

Fury nods. “We’ve got a long-range stalker.”

Hill shakes her head. “But what prompted him to hit that particular Kree. The fight was thoroughly recorded from twenty-one different angles, and no other instance of a Kree going down mysteriously was recorded in the tape repertoire.”

Steve doesn’t have the heart to tell them that the dead Kree would have had the honor of planting the tenth hit on him if the mystery fan hadn’t intervened.

*~*~*

The shadows get closer, and sometimes, Steve thinks he sees a scarf slowly lilting in the wind. Other times, it’s the outline of a hat that catches his attention. He comes home one evening, six weeks after the Kree dilemma, and finds that his bed is unmade and that there’s no cooked food, even though he’s been gone three days. It’s over, he thinks, and there’s more disappointment than relief present when he goes to bed that night.

Two Vegas businesswomen and a torched sex ring compound end up on the six o’clock news a few days later. The rescued men and women are foreigners without a pinch of knowledge regarding their whereabouts. Except, the police weren’t the ones who headed the raid, and the two businesswomen women are assassinated right outside the Clark County Detention Center before the police can get any information out of them.

Four months go by, and Steve comes home to untucked corners and empty fridges. Four months is four months too long, and he asks for a vacation leave, and gets three weeks, paid.

He spends the first week sleeping, eating, and drawing. He draws, and inks, and frames so much that he sets up talks with Pepper to auction a few of them off for veterans’ charities.

The second week, he finds his first edition Captain America comics underneath his bed, comics he hasn’t touched since 1943. That’s when Steve stops being scared and starts going insane.

He tells Natasha about the shadows, the shadows that aren’t his or the waitress’s, or even the children he passes by when he goes to work, to the grocery store, to the theater. They’re shadows he can’t decipher properly, shadows that look hats, scarves, a man in a long coat, or maybe a woman in a long coat, with a scarf and hat attached. Natasha tells she’ll stay with him the rest of the leave if he wants. He nods gratefully, and the next morning, Clint and Natasha have set up a mini-fort in his living room, and he’s glad he can be crazy with company.

But not even they can explain the line of Howling Commandos photographs that are tucked neatly into his drawer. A drawer, Steve recalls clearly, that’s only supposed to house his personal papers.

“These were destroyed in the war,” Steve murmurs, hands shaking.

“Scorch marks,” Clint muses.

“And gasoline,” Natasha sniffs. “Faint, but present. I’d say right around the time you were active in the war. So-”

“Original,” Steve cuts in without meaning to. He can feel his chest tightening. “They were supposed to be destroyed when our encampment was attacked in the Bavarian Alps. I thought-”

Steve doesn’t think. He passes out with a photo of him and James Barnes clutched in one hand.

*~*~*

“The biggest drug runner in the northwest gets privately offed while the Avengers take down his hired alien bodyguards.” Tony scoffs and shoves more Munchkins into his mouth.

“The Skrulls are a formidable and intelligent foe,” Thor booms. “But not so easily persuaded by other races. The situation is most disconcerting.”

“What’s more disconcerting is that the guy we needed to question was taken out before we could get to him.” Clint furrows his eyebrows and looks through the security footage of the room the Washington businessman was hiding in at at the time of his demise. “The bullet went through ten walls of reinforced steel and a nice coating of adimantium and still hit him square in the forehead.”

“Embarrassed?” Tony perks.

“It’s gotta be him.”

Bruce’s words turn heads and add another Munchkin to Tony’s mouth.

“Do proceed, husband dearest,” the billionaire quirks.

“The same guy who killed the Kree,” Bruce insists. “And the one who carried out the hits in Vegas.”

“And also the man who’s responsible for the death of the Swedish politician,” JARVIS adds promptly.

“A long range hitman who also happens to be Capsicle’s favorite fan? This seriously can’t get any better,” Tony claps, Munchkins forgotten and suddenly in deep conversation with his AI.

“A hitman with a soft spot for the Captain,” Hill notes. “Improbable.”

“But it makes sense.” Bruce pushes his glasses towards his eyes. “The portraits get stolen around the same time the nobleman gets taken out. The comics show up after Vegas-”

“-what about Vegas?” Steve interrupts.

“Only that the black market has more than sixty percent of world war memorabilia in its possession, and that Vegas, along with Shanghai and Buenos Aires, have some of the most lucrative and flamboyant auctions,” Tony quips.

“He purchased Cap’s original comics at the auction, and then killed the women,” Clint finishes.

“The opposite, Agent Barton,” JARVIS enunciates. “The businesswomen were killed first, the comics purchased the evening after. That particular auction had both the Captain’s comics and two of the Commandos photos up for bid.”

“And the others were taken from a minor meth dealer in Spokane, who was later found shot to death in his apartment,” Tony adds, delighted while the others were perturbed. “Seriously, Cap, he sounds like husband material. All we have to do is request that he leave the head honchos alive for interrogation, and then he can go to town with the rest. Perfect idea, to be honest.”

Fury shakes his head. “He killed a Swedish nobleman.”

“Who happened to be running a human trafficking ring out of his office,” Tony adds.

“It’s unauthorized murder,” Hill insists.

“Unauthorized,” Natasha repeats, “and therefore punishable.” She doesn’t sound judgmental, only disappointed.

“And none of Tony’s cameras have caught him.” Clint flicks a coin in the air. “And Nat and I haven’t seen him once, and neither have our cameras.”

“This man is reminiscent of the spirits of the dead,” Thor hisses distastefully. “Although I do respect his choice in prey, I do not agree with his continual effort in tormenting dear Steven.” One fist hits the table, and it breaks before JARVIS can say “sir.” Thor seethes, and everyone, even Fury, sits just a bit straighter in their seats. “Our leader is being hunted, and we have been sitting idly, fighting things that can be easily handled by other warriors. I say nay to all other requests until we’ve found this man. It is understandable if he continues his line of work, but I will not sit by as he continues to torture my friend!”

“I’m not being tortured,” Steve says.

“Lying doesn’t help, Captain Rogers,” Natasha murmurs.

“Tell them how much sleep you got the night you found those photographs, Cap,” Clint deadpans.

Steve looks down and sees a broken table and papers littered on the floor. A pregnant pause settles upon the room.

“Find this son of a bitch,” Fury breaks the silence.

“Permission to authorize his capture and incarceration by the Avengers?” Tony perks.

Steve wants to tell them ‘he’ could be a ‘she.’ The shadows are confusng.

Fury grits his teeth, but lets his shoulders lax at the sight of a glaring Thor and an equally icy Romanova.

“I need some jurisdiction,” he says.

“None granted,” Tony shrugs. “This one’s ours, Fury. You either let us do our business and get birdseed every couple of days, or risk losing us for a few weeks with no information regarding our whereabouts.”

“We’ll keep tabs,” Bruce promises.

“And we’re taking Legolas and Spiderlady with us.”

“They’re still S.H.I.E.L.D agents,” Hill insists.

“And they’re also Avengers,” Tony smiles.

“Lady Romanova and the Man with the Eyes of a Hawk have chosen us,” Thor finishes. “They will come.”

Only JARVIS notices the blood that drips from the Captain’s clenched fists as the others close the deal with Fury.

*~*~*

This time, the leave is eight weeks, paid, and authorized to study the movements of the mystery hitman.

“Two corporate assassinations,” Bruce notes. “Within two days. One in Texas, the other in Argentina.”

“Drug runners?” Clint asks.

“Hostile overlords,” Tony corrects. “Were planning on taking over three, small agribusiness companies in Russia.”

“Lucrative lands of not-so-lucrative owners,” Bruce explains.

“And so a smarty-pants of the three stooges manages to hire an international assassin to take out the big baddies.” Tony whoops while typing into his holograms and requesting more footage of the death settings of the murdered businessmen.

“Steve?” Natasha asks. “Why don’t you take a break?”

It’s not a request, and that’s how Steve’s eight week work leave turns into an eight week vacation.

They don’t let him touch anything on the mornings he insists on coming into the Avengers tower. On the days he sleeps in, he senses someone from the team slip in food, sometimes sharpened pencils and new charcoal, and occasionally tickets to the theater. He spends two weeks divided between vigorously drawing and vigorously exercising. It gets so bad one day that he ends up breaking a canvas in the morning, and breaking down in tears in an empty gym later in the evening. Thor carries his weakened body back home, with Natasha following closely.

They don’t know if it’s a disease or a psychosomatic response. All they do know is that he’s feverish, cries often, and can’t stop mumbling names of men and women that have been dead for more that thirty or forty years. One, in particular, has been dead for more than seventy.

Clint and Bruce take the first few days, tracking movements (“three assassinations, all Somalian piratelords”) and feeding him chicken soup and reading him literary classics. Steve and Thor take the next shift, and he’s feeling a little better, so Thor recites tales of his childhood with his brothers and his friends while he quietly sketches them in a notebook. Not the notebook the hitman found, no, because Steve hasn’t touched that since he first found it.

Tony tracks movements, but he also sets out his personal spies to track the hitman up close. It’s on Natasha and Dummy’s shift that they finally get a name, a place of origin, and a photo of the Steve’s honey bunny, as Tony eloquently puts.

“The Winter Soldier,” Natasha says. She doesn’t move a muscle.

Steve tiredly pushes his pencils away. “You know him?”

She purses her lips. “Of him,” she tries hesitantly. “He was…” Steve senses the gears working in her head. “… the best,” she finishes awkwardly.

“The best of the Red Room,” Tony booms as he and the others burst through the front door. “He’s a goddamn Russian assassin, and he’s been off the comrade table since ‘91!”

“Freelance,” Clint adds.

“And he’s your biggest fan,” Tony grins.

They give him a photo, and Natasha is barking orders on how to set the trap while Tony gleefully pats Bruce on the shoulder for a job well done. Nobody notices Steve’s fingers flitting over the grainy photo of the killer. He sees a mask, dark and prominent, covering eveything but twin eyes whose color he can’t decipher.

“But he has a scarf,” he murmurs to himself. “And a hat.”

“That photo was taken twenty years ago.” Clint takes Natasha’s seat.

“Now he wears a hat and a scarf,” he puts bluntly.

“Heads up,” Tony shouts. “Steve’s hubbie just got another one.”

He doesn’t even think to take note of the jibe. “Who?”

“Zola.”

He jumps. “Zola’s alive!?”

“No, but his grandaughter… was.” Natasha grimly hands Steve a copy of the report. “Arnim Zola’s twenty-four year old granddaughter, upcoming German linguist, assassinated in broad daylight while coming out of the building housing her speech pathology labs.”

“Social scientist with a taste for torturing the pretty ladies,” Tony breathes. “Dead as a knocker, by the one and only-”

“-Winter Soldier,” Steve says. “The one with the hat and the scarf.”

*~*~*

The third week, there’s a problem not even the public can ignore. There’s a horde of Doombots attacking civilians left and right in downtown Manhattan, and Steve needs the outlet, even if only for a few hours. They fight, they win, and Thor promises a feast when they return to Steve’s apartment, the Asgardian’s new favorite place, even if Steve’s fridge is near empty. When no one’s looking, one of the fallen bots self-destruct, and Steve finds the team scattered, and thankfully, not in pieces.

There’s shrapnel protruding from his torso and there are dots in his visions, shadows that look a lot more welcoming than the ones that have been following him for almost a half a year, if not more. There’s just one more Doombot left, one that looks specially constructed to defeat Captain America, and Steve feels like it’s finally time to go under, and this time for good.

But there’s an object sluicing the air, piercing the alloyed chest of the bot, and setting the thing alight. It’s not an arrow. It’s probably not even a knife.

He feels hands on his body, instruments being inserted into the thick expanse of his skin, and as he lies on the rubble, he spots a soldier in the distance. There’s a hat, a scarf fluttering in the wind, the remnants of a mask bathed in shadows and a faint, metallic tint bouncing off the fingers that pulled the trigger. The gun is long, sharp, and even with blurred vision and dancing shadows, he can sense the eyes of the Winter Soldier boring into his. Then he disappears, and Steve’s vision goes dark.

When he awakes, there’s only Natasha, prim and poised with her revolver.

“He left these,” she says, placing a small packet on his chest. “I found them next to the sniped bot. He sent it sealed with the bullet at almost four thousand feet per second from his rifle. It survived the bot’s explosion, and then my interrogation.

“What are they?” His voice cracks. She doesn’t answer. Instead, she leaves the room, and closes the door behind her.

He lets calloused fingers thumb over the brown packaging. One flick and the flap opens to reveal a par of dog tags.

They’re his, and they were supposed to be lost in the Arctic.

*~*~*

The Winter Soldier lights a cigarette. It’s a posh cigarette, not the type found in the local grocery mart, but the stuff he’d purchased in Bulgaria. It’s long, and thin, but the tabacco is amazing. So amazing that it almost makes him forget what he’s about to do, and who he’s about to do it for.

There’s a glock in his other hand, and it’s small and pretty, and it’ll blow his brain to bits before he can tell anyone how much he regrets ever being born.

But then again, maybe he doesn’t regret it that much, because for a small portion of his miserable existence, Steve was there.

*~*~*

“They were in the Arctic,” Tony mutters. “But he found them. He found them, JARVIS!”

Bruce hums. “It explains the halt in house visits and increase in globe work.”

“He was literally shuffling through ice to find these. The dedication!” Tony grabs Clint and gives him an impromptu, lengthy hug.

“And he’s disappeared,” Natasha murmurs. “No activity since the dogtag dropoff.”

“Perhaps the Soldier of Winter is finished with expressing his love for Steven,” Thor thinks out loud.

“I doubt it,” Clint muses, throwing Tony off him. “He’ll probably be back later with something bigger.”

“The devotion is uncanny,” Natasha says placidly. “It’s almost as if he’s apologizing.”

“With comics and dogtags?” Tony questions.

“With the past,” she corrects. “To apologize for the present, perhaps the future, with the past. He’s telling Steve he’s sorry.”

Tony gasps. “Look at you, getting poetic with the facts!”

*~*~*

Eight weeks turn into eight months, and there hasn’t been activity of the soldier since the Doombots and the dogtags. Natasha sets seven traps, all capturing either a corporate knockoff, or an arms dealer on the run for over a decade. There is no Winter Soldier, so the traps eventually stop.

The Avengers return to S.H.I.E.L.D before the eight weeks even run out, and return to the usual business. Steve gets three costume changes within a span of four months, but not as bad as Clint’s twelve in eight weeks. The archer and the spy begin to properly divide their missions according to S.H.I.E.l.D grunt work and Avengers meetings in Tony’s Malibu mansion. Bruce and Tony reveal they’re in the process of adopting a seventeen year old genius who also happened to be Brooklyn’s Man of Spider, as Thor proclaims. The adoption is hardly an adoption, and more of a grooming process for a future heir for Stark Industries. Steve sits in on these meetings discussing the young man’s future, and it’s nice, for once, to see old men be old men by attempting to decide on which university for better for their kid. Thor’s visits become longer, and soon, he has a permanent spot on Steve’s couch on the weeks he’s in completing missions for S.H.I.E.L.D.

Eight weeks turn into eight months, and Steve comes home to an unmade bed and an empty fridge on the days S.H.I.E.L.D calls him in earlier than the crack of dawn. He goes hungry on days he’s too tired to move, and he loses weight until Natasha catches on, and then he’s back to making foods that will last long in the fridge so he can reheat them when he gets home late. He eats, he sleeps, he fights, he draws. He finally gets around to touching the old sketchbook with the brittle papers and the old drawings. He closes his eyes and feels them, vividly recalling the times of their creation. He opens his eyes, thumbs over the scorched photos of the Commandos, and comes to the one where Bucky’s smiling back at him.

The comic sits in front of him, his old notes and doodles still evident on the pages, despite almost a hundred years in circulation. The dogtags are around his neck, the symbol of his bravery, a gift from a masked man he’s never going to see, and Steve wonders if it was all just a joke. He doesn’t know why he thinks to line up the relics of his past on the kitchen table, but he does, except for the tags he refuses to take off. He lines them up and he looks at them, and touches them, and tries to understand.

Natasha told him the man had been sorry. But for what?

Thor tells him it’s a ghost, because only they could be in the wind for this long. But whose?

Night falls, and the relics return to a special box he stows beneath the bed. He climbs underneath the covers, already cocooned in a snug sweater and socks, but still craves for more heat. The winter chill is here, and Steve fears the cold. He fears the snow that falls plentifully outside. He fears the ice.

He should have known an open window was the answer.

A warm hand cards through his hair, and he’s wide awake. Another quilt comes up to his shoulders while he faces his bedroom door. He hums, this man, a tune Steve isn’t familiar with, but it’s nice. This man, who Steve’s never met before, cards his hand through Steve’s hair, and all he wants to do is sleep.

Thor is in the living room, snoring on the couch, occasionally mumbling sweet nothings about the good doctor Jane who’d stolen his heart.

There’s a stranger in his bed, massaging his scalp and humming him songs he’d never heard before. He knows he can shove him off. He knows he can tell him to stop and leave. He knows he can at least turn to see who he is, though he doubts the man is unmasked. He knows he can make one sound, and Thor’s instincts will kick in and he’ll have a partner to help him stave off the hitman that took to climbing through his window.

Except Steve cries. They’re silent tears. They’re the worst because it’s not nearly as bad as the fact that he knows that the Winter Soldier is someone he used to know.

~*~*~

“So you let an international assassin sing you a lullaby and put you to sleep?”

“While Thor was right outside the door?”

The first is Clint, the second Bruce. Tony sits in the back, laughing.

“Well, at least he’s alive,” the younger Stark coughs, attempting to stifle his giggles. “Dry periods over a month are usually considered as death certifications in the underworld. I’m surprised he managed to pull through eight without putting a bullet in his brain.”

~*~*~

“Permanent disfigurement,” whispers Natasha. They’re sitting across from each other in a coffee shop outside a movie theater in Jersey, waiting for Darcy, Jane, and Thor to finish their movie. It’s October 2013, almost November, and no one’s come through his window in months.

“Permanent what?” It’s not as if he’s dumb; he knows very well what disfigurement refers to. What perturbs him is the fact that he personally goes through the weekly medical examinations of his team to make sure no one’s hiding that one dull headache (Clint) or that evening limp (Tony) without him being fully aware with extra precautions set up when strategizing for battle. Everyone’s fit as a fiddle, for now. Unless Tony blew up the tower while they were having coffee and watching movies in the state over, Steve really didn’t have a clue what Natasha was talking about.

So he blinks.

“The Winter Soldier,” she says softly.

Oh, he thinks. The man who sneaked into his room and intruded upon his private space. That Winter Soldier.

“What happened to him?” He asks this politely because it’s been a while since he last visited. Steve knows he won’t anymore. Everyone gets over their schoolboy crush. Everyone moves on with life.

“I began to personally tail him after you told us about his night visit.” She thumbs the kunai hidden beneath the sleeve of her jacket. “I checked all the cameras. Had some old contacts look through them. They were tampered with.”

Steve gulps. Suddenly, the chill in the air’s gotten a little heavier.

She cocks her head to the side, thoughtfully. “We were able to recover bits and pieces. You were right. A hat and a scarf, and that mask that covered everything but the area around his eyes. All we really knew at that point was that he was a Causasion male, probably mid-thirties by the screen analysis. He covered the cameras as soon as he came through the window.”

“But that’s only half the story,” he sighs. “Who is he, Nat?”

She shifts her gaze to the window behind him. “I cross-referenced.” Her voice is warm. He doesn’t know what’s so warm about digging up dirt about an international hitman. “We found some files.”

“And?”

“And he got his hand on the Tesseract.”

Steve’s eyes widen. “We saw it g-”

“-before,” she interrupts. “Before Loki could properly put it to use.” She turns her gaze back to him, harder than steel. “He infiltrated Loki’s labs before he got caught. He tailed Loki, and got to him before we did.”

“And you got this off a former client?” Steve deduces.

She quirks her lips. It’s faint, and would have been invisible if the person sitting in front of her wasn’t Steve. “This Winter Soldier- he’s been freelancing since 1991, and at first, it looked uncanny for him to walk away from the Tesseract contract. He was supposed to infiltrate Loki’s bases, steal the object, and then hand it over to his contractor. Instead, he decided not to call into his contractor’s headquarters one evening, and disappeared right through the alien invasion and then some. Then, murders sprung up, murders of actual bad guys. The contractor of the Tesseract project wanted him dead, but the Winter Soldier’s been in commission since 1946, and the Dane was dead before he could comprehend what exactly took out his brains. His wife was glad to hand over her late husband’s zipped files.”

Only Natasha could hold his gaze for this long. “He’s been killing since 1946, Steve, so this guy’s almost as old as you, if not older. Except he wasn’t frozen. We’ve read through his files. The Winter Soldier’s had this face, this body, and a metal arm since 1946. I thought maybe they were wrong, but then I remembered the Red Room and what it had done to mere animals for the pursuit of power. Bestowing near immortality on a man wasn’t so unbelievable after I stared at myself in the mirror for a few hours.”

Steve takes a sharp breath. “You were both experimented on.”

“You had a choice,” she notes, no judgment passed. “But we didn’t, and neither did any other operative. But the fact of the matter is that he’s survived this long while working freelance. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, all Red Room operatives dispersed. I was thirteen when they fell, and I too escaped. I became a murderer-for-hire, like the rest of my brothers and sisters. But today, most Red Room operatives are either dead, hiding, or in top, governmental facilities as hired help or forced guests. The Winter Soldier is the only one of us that was actively working, up until eight months ago.”

Natasha takes a deep breath. “And out of the jobs we’ve tied him to after the Tesseract, only two of them were hired jobs. The Russian takeover issue and the Swedish human trafficker were clientele targets. The rest were solo missions with no pay. He chose to hunt the illegal brothels and the drug runners.”

“Unauthorized murder,” he repeats her former words.

“Unauthorized murder,” she agrees. “And up until eight months ago, everything was going as planned. Except when the Doombots attacked, Steve, something inside the Soldier snapped. You were out for days.”

“Thor told me it was three. I counted three.” He’s hardly breathing now. It’s someone that he used to know. He can feel it. That touch was familiar.

“On the night you came out of surgery, hours later there was an admittance into an emergency room in Washington Heights. A man had put a gun in his mouth. He was going to pull the trigger when there was a gunshot that didn’t belong to him. It startled him enough that the glock that was once pointing at the roof of his mouth geared towards the inside of his cheek. Half his face was blown off. The girl shot eight stories below was taken to another emergency medical center. There’s no record of this man having a name, an address, or even a wallet. But he did have a photo. It was scanned by one of the elderly nurses to put in the paper after he slipped into a coma. He was out for a month before he came to and disappeared with his clothes and the original photograph. He destroyed all the publications carrying the picture, but the damage was done.”

Steve breathes, finally. “You found it.”

“My contacts did,” she admits. “A fanzine picked it up for a one-time article debunking its authenticity, and bad-mouthing the nurse who put it in the papers.”

“Its authenticity?”

She puts her hand in her jacket pocket and produces a folded magazine clipping. She slides it slowly across the table, stopping right in front of his still fingers.

He picks up the clipping. “May I?”

She nods. He unfolds.

There’s a picture of someone’s arm around his frail shoulder, back when he was fifteen and itching for a fight. It’s Bucky.

~*~*~

“Anything else, soldier?”

Efim Yankov, his unlit cigarette hanging from the unmarred portion of his face, grunts genially. The waiter nods and shuffles away. Efim glares at his newspaper.

‘CAPTAIN AMERICA AND CO., MEDDLESOME MANIACS OR GOVERNMENT’S APOLOGY FOR THE ALIEN INVASION LAST SUMMER?’

The Daily Bugle is an amusing paper, he admits. He flips through the pages and reads Urich’s article, before scanning through Spider-Man’s self-portraits (he’s still a bit disturbed that no one’s figured it out yet). He always saves Steve’s articles for last. Always. He finally turns to the front, reads through the introduction, before the flipping the page to the rest of the article. He’d smile if he didn’t look like he was permanently frowning.

“It’s almost Christmas,” he hears Danvers say excitedly to Carpenter. Efim does a mental check and remembers it’s December 19, and he’d probably have to find a different eatery for the days the diner would be closed for Christmas and New Year. His deep frown can’t possibly get any deeper, but it must have when the woman next to him makes a sound.

“Relax, soldier,” Drew laughs. Drew is a pretty woman of thirty-one to Efim’s Red Room-certified thirty-six. In the sixty-seven years since he’d been stuck with needles, he’s only aged twelve.

Efim grunts. Jessica Drew laughs.

“Diner stays open through the holidays, Yankov,” Danvers shakes her head. “Though you could try and get out this time.”

“Just because it’s a vet diner doesn’t mean you have to brood through the holidays like the octogenarians,” Carpenter chastises. Carol Danvers and Julia ‘Jules’ Carpenter are ex-Marines who work in a law firm three blocks down, under the jurisdiction of Murdock, the fearless Daredevil who speaks good Russian. Drew is a pilot from the Afghan war and writes blog posts whenever she’s not hitting physical therapy for her bad leg. She also likes science. Efim didn’t take kindly to her at first.

“He’s being Russian again,” Drew perks. She stuffs a bit of her Danish into her mouth. “You should join us for Christmas.”

Efim doesn’t do Christmas. He doesn’t even do his own birthday. He only does Steve’s birthday, and he spent that special day of the year stalking him from west 33rd to Coney Island, back to 33rd, and then to his small apartment in Brooklyn that was frequently visited by the blond behemoth of an alien. Efim dislikes that one more than his institutionalized younger brother.

“No,” he grunts. That’s as much as they’re going to get out of him today. Drew shrugs and turns back to her coffee and pastry.

They’re gone before he gets to page forty, and he keeps going. He doesn’t leave until the diner is empty of morning veterans and the newspaper folded and placed in the recycling bin. He slips the twenty under his coffee cup before taking his leave.

Steve’s on the corner, talking to Drew who should have been in therapy by now because he’d sensed the bad twitch before she’d even limped through the diner door. That was half an hour ago. He curses underneath his breath and turns the opposite way.

He’s hidden in a crowd that doesn’t care that half is face is riddled with scars so extensive that doctors had first assumed he’d never talk again. He showed them, of course, what with all the powerful drugs running through his body, but even with normal speech patterns and a sewer for a vocabulary, he looked like a villain out of a Superman comic. He supposed he was. He was the Winter Soldier after all, even if all he did these past few months was take up identities of other hitmen and go on glorious killing sprees that resulted in deaths of corrupt sultans, drug runners stationed in the east, and mad scientists that masqueraded as brittle prostitutes. That particular mission was interesting, Efim recalls. Then he remembers ‘Efim Yankov’ is a name he picked up while purchasing cigarettes in Bulgaria, so maybe James Buchanan Barnes is more fit for recollection.

“You’re fast,” he hears Steve say. “I almost lost you there for a second time.”

Something twists inside, and it’s definitely not the gun he has hidden underneath layers of cotton and kevlar. He thinks about speaking Russian, to throw the man off, and then maybe jump in front of a moving truck.

“Look at me, Buck. Please.”

It’s that ‘please’ that gets to him. He can never say no to him, except maybe for that one time where the taller man had insisted he run for his life before the whole facility collapsed and killed them both.

People shout for them to move. The Winter Soldier ducks into a bar that’s supposed to be closed, but the assassin is more than skilled in opening up padlocks. He merely tears it right off its metal bars. Steve follows closely behind him, perhaps a little to close for comfort.

There’s barely any light sneaking through the heavy draperies, but still he turns to the taller man and stands in all his hideous glory. The metal arm is covered by a long sleeved cotton shirt and the hand by a brown, leather glove. His face, hair, and right hand are the only things exposed, as his legs are covered in brown slacks and his feet in boots that have seen better days.

“It’s really you,” Steve whispers, a sudden awe in his voice. Except it’s really not, and he has the urge to roll his eyes. James Buchanan Barnes is dead. The Winter Soldier remains. And Efim Yankov could really use a cigarette and some Scotch right about now.

“Was it the Widow?” He asks instead. Damn him and his insecurities, but the former junior agent of the Red Room was as efficient as they came. Of course she had to be the one who’d figured him out in the end.

Steve blushes. He doesn’t know how he can see that in such scarce light, but Steve’s blushing. Steve’s blushing and it’s too early in the day for this.

“Agent Romanova sends her regards,” the blonde says solemnly. “And so does Hawkeye.”

Of course the doe-eyed couple found him out. He’d unintentionally worked with the Hawk before, on a mission in Argentina where he was posing as a civilian dancer in a nightclub the evening a hit was placed on a mob boss hoping to smuggle forty truckloads of cocaine into Texas.

“Can we pretend this never happened?” He tries. He’d rather spent the rest of his days killing and staring at Steve from far off building windows with a pair of binoculars than have an active conversation with him. It’s a bit disconcerting, and he’s getting old.

“We need to talk,” the captain says firmly. “You have no idea how many people I’ve had to patriotically threaten for this to go through. And it’s not fair for me, Buck, and you know that.”

There’s that name again. “It’s Efim Yankov now,” he sniffs haughtily.

“You picked that up in Bulgaria from a Russian peddler,” Steve deadpans.

This definitely isn’t going as planned. “You sure about this, pal?”

There’s a warmth in Steve’s eyes that he knows is just about as soft and sweet as melted sugar and cinnamon shavings on hot cocoa.

He doesn’t have the heart to tell him that, that sweetness will eventually become rage.

~*~*~

Except it doesn’t, and Bucky (he likes his old name again) escapes S.H.I.E.L.D custody before the week runs out. It wasn’t Steve’s fault, really. He took Bucky in, made him eat, made him tell stories of his escapades, about how the Tesseract gave him back his lost memories and filled in gaps that were present for almost sixty odd years. He also let it slip that he was still a trained killer and that he didn’t intend to stop any time soon, and oddly, almost terribly, Steve didn’t care.

“… we go underground, disguise ourselves, take new identities, live the rest of our natural lives outside of history books. We’ll become hobos if we have to; I don’t care. Small price.”

Bucky was strapped to a chair and being hand-fed chicken nuggets by the super soldier during the sermon.

Fury and his men pummeled through the door about two days later. In that period, Bucky had spilled most of his beans, and Steve was still trying to get used to a television set, and they pretty much slept side by side like they did as Commandos, even if Bucky had limited mobility because of handcuffed hands and feet.

He got locked up at the headquarters and Steve was on the verge of being court martialed by the World Security Council. He doubted Fury would let it get that far, however.

In his two days in the facility, he managed to steal enough information to keep his hitman business going for at least another ten years, maybe twenty if he found another stable, provocative gig in between. He escaped with a bang, because he really did like a good show, since he was Bucky Barnes and not Efim Yankov, the thirty-six year old alcoholic with a metal arm.

He also made the first, and perhaps last, move of his love life. He kissed Steve full on the mouth and then escaped through a hatch right beneath him. A limping Maria Hill and twelve other junior agents witnessed the travesty of Captain America’s stolen innocence.

And three weeks later, with New Year out of the way, Bucky sits at the mouth of a cave with a view of the Altai mountains. He’s off to Mongolia in a few days anyway, what with a trafficker and a businessman to off in the same night, courtesy of a Spanish client he met while having churros at a diner in Pamplona.

Steve’s in his uniform this time, and Bucky’s sure that at least this time, his death is certified. There aren’t that many people living at the bottom of the mountain, and he knows he deserves it.

Instead, Steve says “Offer’s still up.”

“You’re still stubborn as ever, punk.” Really, now Bucky’s just deadpanning his way through life.

“And you’re still a jerk with both homicidal and suicidal tendencies,” Steve presses. “But I can live with that.”

“I’m a killer,” he says.

“And unauthorized killer,” Steve corrects, “but Natasha says she can fix that.”

“And if she can’t?”

“Then we live in an obscure corner of Sao Paulo for the rest of our lives,” he says wistfully. “Or in the subways, your choice.”

“And if I don’t want that? What then?”

Bucky always asked what would happen if Steve had to choose between his duty and his wellbeing. Steve always chose his duty.

Bucky never thought to ask about who would win between the best friend and the duty.

“You,” Steve says.

Bucky blinks, because it’s not the most obvious conclusion he’s come to. Or the smartest.

But he guesses he can live with being the dumb one.

~*~*~

“Cap’s been spotted in Mumbai. Bruce! Bruce, get in here!”

Bruce runs while Tony punches numbers into his phone. Natasha twirls her revolver in her hand while Clint flips through the channels.

“Does no one care that the world’s first superhero is currently macking lips with the world’s most wanted assassin?” Tony is appalled, but amused at the same time.

“They’re gonna kill him if he doesn’t come back,” Bruce says morosely.

“I doubt that, Dr. Banner.” Natasha takes a sip of her drink. They give her confused looks.

“They’re having peace talks,” Clint says boredly. “Something about needing a leader for the Avengers and an extra assassin for international crimes.”

“So the guy with half a face is stealing your jobs,” Tony deadpans.

Natasha shrugs. “Clint wants a house in suburbia. I could use a prolonged vacation.”

Clint preens while Bruce phones Peter to tell him that they definitely can’t make it to dinner at May’s tonight.

~*~*~

Thor finds them before everyone else, and that’s because Thor is angry. Steve was taking a nap on Bucky’s chest when the door to their small shack was torn off its hinges. Along with the thatched roof. And Steve only has his boxers on, while Bucky’s dressed head to toe in cotton in hundred degree weather.

“You give up this pointless running! You come home!”

Steve can’t stop thinking that he’s heard this line before while pulling on pants and a shirt. Bucky just grimaces.

~*~*~

Steve’s supposed to serve ten years in prison (see, ten years of unpaid Avengers activities), get his privileges revoked, and pay a multitude of fines to the World Security Council out of his seventy-years worth of accrued pension. Bucky’s supposed to get the death penalty.

Instead, Tony has Pepper set up the biggest press-monger of the century in just days, having advocates come in from every corner of the world to help stave off the worst of the punishments for their beloved Captain and his unattractive boyfriend. It works because Barnes gets to disappear again, but instead of having to go find him, Bucky comes through Steve’s window late one night, and they make the loudest love noises that have Thor clapping Bucky’s shoulder the next morning. Steve doesn’t walk for days after that, and Bucky hardly leaves the apartment.

Carol, Jessica, and Jules give him wet kisses on both his cheeks when he returns for breakfast at the diner. It’s a long ways from Brooklyn, but he wants to come back every day because that’s his corner of the world.

And no one’s trying to actively kill him, though he can name a few people who are planning ahead.

‘Welcome back, soldier,” Danvers teases. Bucky grunts.

~*~*~

“You fished through the Arctic for my dogtags,” Steve sighs blissfully. “Such a sap.”

“’s not my fault you lost ‘em,” Bucky slurs. He’s half naked and half asleep on the couch while Steve sketches him.

“But you found them, and thank you for that,” he says sincerely.

The man nods weakly and drifts off, drool pooling on the fabric next to his mouth. Steve chuckles.

“Punk,” the older man slurs one last time before the snoring begins.

“Jerk,” he whispers softly, making sure to shade in the stubble as perfectly as possible.

~*~*~