Actions

Work Header

A Reason To Keep Living

Chapter Text

Prologue: Bucky's Mom

Winifred Barnes was old. Very old. She had passed her hundredth birthday several years ago.

And yet, she kept on living.

She had outlived her husband and all of her children. Margret had died in 1955 in a horrific car crash. George, unable to move on from losing a second child, had followed her a few years later. Heart attack. Georgiana had left her nearly ten years ago, dying a gruesome death in some hospital, losing her battle against cancer after years of fighting. And lastly, Rebecca, just a year ago. She had died peacefully in her bed, surrounded by her family and loved ones.

And of course Bucky. Her beautiful boy. He had been the first to go. Dying far away from her in a foreign country, fighting in a war that no one had wanted, but that everyone had been willing to fight. To keep all of them save. To make the world a better place. She had been so proud of him. Still was. Even when she had been terrified for him. Even when she had lain awake at night, worrying and dreading the next day when some faceless uniform could come to her door and inform her of her baby's death. Like so many other mothers. Instead she had gotten a letter. From Steve. Blotched and tear-stained and barely readable, telling her how sorry he was, how Bucky had died a hero and how he was the best man Steve had ever known and how much he missed him. Winifred remembered it like it was yesterday. For hours she had sat in the kitchen, unable to move, the letter clutched in her hands. When George had come home and wrestled the letter from her, he had burst into tears. In thirty years of marriage she had never seen her husband cry. She had wanted to comfort him, hold him in her arms, but she couldn't. She had sat at the table, starring into the distance while George had fallen apart beside her. Two days later, while cleaning the living room, she had stumbled upon a picture of Bucky as a ten-year old boy. Smiling and laughing into the camera without a care in the world. That had been the moment where she had broken down. Screaming and crying she had fallen to the floor, tearing at her hair and scratching at her face. The unbearable pain of losing her precious baby boy consuming her body and soul. George had come running into the room. He hadn't said anything, just took her into his arms and let her scream for as long as she had needed it.

Seventy years later, she still wanted to scream. Sometimes she just wanted to scream until her last breath left her body. They said time healed all wounds. Well, certainly not for Winifred Barnes. Losing Bucky had just been the start of a long life full of loss and heart-break. Margret, George, Georgiana, Rebecca. That she had outlived George was painful, but something to expect. But no parent should bury their children. Let alone all four of them. She must have done something truly horrible in a past life to be punished like this. She was nearly a hundred-eleven years old. Why did her body refuse her the last rest she so desperately craved? The chance to be with her family again? But here she was, sitting in a nursing home on the outskirts of New York, old and frail, but still with all her wits about her and more or less independent. It was a nice home, too. Spacious, surrounded by trees and green hills. One of her grandchildren paid for it. She wasn't entirely sure which one, but it didn't matter really. She barely saw them anyway. They visited a couple of times over the year, sent her cards on her birthday and for Christmas. Otherwise she spent her days sitting in her armchair, looking out the window, remembering days gone by and waiting. Sometimes, she played games with the other residents, even liked to talk to some of them. But they hadn't much to talk about. Winifred was older than all of them, had done different things in her youth, had raised her family in another time. They didn't have shared life experience.

Occasionally, she would watch TV, but she didn't get much out of it. She had stopped trying to understand this new strange world full of wonders and superheros a long time ago. Living this long had made her cynical and a little bitter. What had the world to offer her? Nothing but heart-break and loss.

So when she came down the stairs into the common room one day and the TV in the corner flashed the news of Steve Rogers alias Captain America being found in the ice after seventy years, miraculously alive, Winifred scoffed. What nonsense! Steve had died, only a few months after her Bucky and hadn't she already been broken by the grief for her baby boy, she would have mourned his death nearly as much. At least, they were together now. That had been her thought when she had heard about Steve's fate. They had always been together and now even in death. She didn't believe for one second that Steve had come back and no one could convince her otherwise.

Chapter Text

Chapter 1: 21st Century

Steve sat in the room SHIELD had provided him. Obviously, they had made an effort to make it look like the forties, just like they had with the room he had woken up in. And like with the old room they had failed. Steve could tell immediately that it was fake. For starters, the white paint on the wall. It was too perfect, too white. Every room he had been in back then had been yellowed by the people who lived in it, by the smoke and grease from the city. It never would have been that kind of white. The furniture was fitting, he would give them that: bed, stool, table, rickety armchair. Not too much, not too fancy. Although, if Steve wanted to be a nit-picker – which he did very much at the moment – he would say that it was too well preserved. Like it was just bought from the store. And really, who could afford to buy new furniture back then? Rich people, that was who. But people like him? People who didn't know how to buy food the next day, to pay the rent the next month? Certainly not. They had sat on stools that had been repaired four times over and would be a fifth time if need be. Armchairs and sofas had been patched up so many times that no one could tell what the original color had been. And if they looked to run down … well, there was always some kind of blanket or quilt you could throw over it.

Of course, he knew they only had gone through so much effort to make him comfortable. Make him feel more at home. And he appreciated it. Sitting in a room full of modern and alien things would have made him feel more lost and alone than he already did now. Another part of him resented them. Resented all of it. Hated it really. He had crashed that plane into the ice to die. Not to wake up seventy years later in a future that felt more like a freak show. He had wanted to die. To be rid of all the pain, the killing, the loss and heart-break. To be with the one person he … No! He was not going there. Not now, maybe not ever. Steve knew that he had to keep it together. Otherwise he wouldn't be able to make it in this strange new world. What was it Fury had said? They still needed men like him. Soldiers. Well, that was the one thing he could be. A soldier. He had spent the last three years fighting, he could and would continue to do so. And he would start with getting acquainted with the 21st century. Treat it like a battle. Make a plan, develop a strategy and strike when the enemy least expected it. Or something like that. Steve wasn't entirely sure what he was doing (had he ever been?), but what else could he do? He had to look forward. Because looking back … hurt too much.

 

Steve should have known better. His grand plan of getting to know the future and burying his past, well, let's just say it didn't work out. Like not at all. He was so out of his depth that he was amazed he even made it down the stairs every morning. (After spending ten minutes in the elevator, trying to figure out which of the many buttons would bring him down to the ground floor, he decided the stairs were the better option.) Even simple things like walking through the streets were a nightmare. He had always liked that, back in his days, just walking through the streets, enjoying the company of the people around him, talking to his neighbors and laughing over some story Bucky told him. (A painful ache spread through his body when he thought of Bucky. Just thinking his name sent him into a downward spiral. Last night he had woken up from a dream filled with Bucky. Bucky falling, laughing, falling, sleeping beside him, falling, sitting in their shitty apartment at the table and falling, falling, falling. Steve had cried for hours, face pressed into his pillow to muffle his sobs.) Now, people rushed past him, everyone was in a hurry and didn't spare a glance to the people right next to them. An endless queue of cars jammed the streets, making it a dangerous adventure to even cross them. Flashy billboards battled for the attention of the pedestrians at every corner.

Yeah, walking down the street took effort. A lot. But Steve tried. He really tried. And that had to count for something, right? No one had said it was going to be easy. Steve was determined to make it through, regardless how hard it was gonna be. He would make it. All on his own. (Who was there to help him anyway?)

When Fury asked him a week later, “How are you settling in, Captain?”, Steve answered, “Getting there. Been reading a lot these last couple of days. Trying to catch up.”

Fury nodded. “I can image it's all still a little overwhelming for you.”

Steve was proud of himself that he didn't laugh in the director's face. That was an understatement!

“You could say that, sir,” he said instead.

“We would be happy to help you adjust, Captain,” Fury continued. “I know you said you don't need it, but I can assign a couple of agents to you, who would be at your disposal whenever you need them. At the top of my head, there are at least ten, who would jump at the opportunity to work with Captain America. Agent Coulson already said he would be very happy to take this job.”

Steve considered it for a moment. Imagined what it would be like to talk to someone about … well, everything. What had changed, what he missed, what frightened him, what he didn't understand. But he couldn't. Couldn't picture himself talking to some stranger, who didn't know what he had been through. Not really, anyway. Yes, people knew about Captain America and what he did during the war. He had seen the books, the comics, the clothing, everything. He found it a little disturbing, to be honest. Why were people so obviously obsessed with Captain America? The war was long over. The need for his existence had dissolved with the end of the war and the victory over the Germans. There was no reason why people should still have need for a war hero. But for some reason Steve couldn't understand for the life of him, they did. Worshiped him. Or to be more precise, the idea of him. What they thought Captain America stood for. But when it came to Steve Rogers, they had no idea. No one remembered Steve Rogers, the kid from Brooklyn. (To be fair, even back then the people had had no interest in Steve, only in Captain America.) But Steve Rogers was the one who had to learn to live in the 21st century, not Captain America. Captain America was the same he had always been: patriotic, loyal and good, fighting for his country, an icon, something the people could look up to. And Steve Rogers? Who was Steve Rogers now? That was what he needed to figure out. And he couldn't do that with an agent by his side who just saw Captain America and didn't know anything about Steve Rogers.

“Thank you, sir. But I can get by on my own.”

In the back of his mind Bucky's voice whispered: “The thing is, you don't have to.”

Oh god, how he wished that were true! But this time it wasn't. Because Bucky wasn't here to pick up the pieces like he had been when Steve's mother had died. When Steve had gotten into another fight. When he had been sick. Bucky had been there, even when he had nothing, he had Bucky. But not anymore. Now, for the first time in his life, he was completely on his own. And wasn't that the most terrifying thing in this whole goddamn situation? It took all his strength not to burst into tears right here in Fury's office.

“I better get going, sir. I have taken up enough of your time and there is this coffee place someone said I should try.”

“Enjoy the rest of your day, Captain. I will talk to you soon.”

They shook hands and Steve left.

 

Soon enough Steve developed a routine: He got up at six o'clock and went running for an hour. After a quick shower, he grabbed breakfast at the diner on the corner, where he read the newspaper. Step by step, he became up to date with today's politics. (One thing to cross off his list – leaving only seventy years of history and pop culture to catch up with.) After that he went to the local library, spending hours over the books and reading about the cold war (he wasn't surprised, really, even in the war there had been tension with Russia and without a common enemy, Steve found it hardly surprising that the two countries turned against each other), the assassination of President Kennedy (he looked like a nice guy and was apparently still loved to this day), the first moon landing. (Steve had a hard time believing that one; sure, today, why not? There were so many miraculously things in this century, he could easily imagine people going out into space, but in the sixties? Not very likely, he couldn't bring himself to believe that. Even with all the unbelievable things he had seen in the war and the fight against Hydra.) After a couple hours of reading, he ate lunch and spent the rest of the day in the gym. He needed the physical training as compensation to the overwhelming amount of information he gathered during the morning. He figured, it was best to stay away from technology for now. Sure, he read about it and that was confusing enough. Actually trying all that new stuff would be too much for his brain. And of course, he was still feeling the loss of his friends. For everyone else it might have been seventy years ago, for Steve it was only a few weeks since he had last seen them. (He deliberately didn't think about Bucky. He couldn't. Only at night when memories haunted him and dreams became too much, he let himself be consumed by his grief.)

So days turned into weeks, weeks into months and Steve became more and more accustomed to his new life. It wasn't home and he missed his friends (he missed Bucky! God, he missed him so much!), but he got used to it. As one did when there was no other choice.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Dreaming

Steve went up the old wooden stairs. The sun was setting, painting everything in a golden light. He felt tired, every step was a drag. The breath rattled in his asthmatic lungs, leaving him breathless. He wanted nothing more than to fall into his bed and sleep. After what felt like ages, he reached the door to their apartment. Somehow, he wasn't surprised that it was wide open. In fact, there wasn't even a door. He entered, the key still in his hand, and found himself standing in the middle of a clearing. The sun was high in the sky and birds were chirping in the trees. Everything was peaceful and quiet. Steve went on, feeling the grass under his feet – his shoes had disappeared, he noted. As he went further onto the clearing he saw a figure sitting in the distance, leaning back on his hands and bathing in the warm summer sun. As Steve approached, the figure turned around and waved.

Come on, Stevie. How much longer do you need? Get your skinny ass over here.”

Bucky! Bucky was here! Steve started running. He skidded to a halt in front of his friend.

Out of breath, he had to prop himself up on his knees.

Buck … what are you doing here?” he gasped.

What does it look like, punk? I'm enjoying the sun while waiting for your sorry ass to get here.”

Steve stared at him while Bucky leaned back again and turned his head to the sun, his eyes closed. He looked good. Carefree, happy, like he had before … before what? Something terrible had happened or was going to happen, Steve was sure of it. But for the life of him, he couldn't remember what. And did it really matter? They were here, together. That's what counted, right? And yet …

You done playing gold fish?” Bucky asked him after a while.

What?”

Staring with your mouth hanging open. Like a goldfish.”

Bucky opened his eyes. His beautiful blue eyes. He looked Steve up and down and whistled.

Wow, someone's been working out, huh?”

I … what?” Steve looked down at himself, confused. What was Bucky talking about? He was his usual skinny self as he always had been … Or not. Suddenly, he was tall and muscled and strong. How did this happen?

Really, Steve. Sit down already,” Bucky interrupted his thoughts. “You're making me all jittery, towering over me with this new body of yours.”

Steve obeyed, still marveling at the sudden change.

They sat silently together for a while, enjoying the silence and each others company.

After a while Steve turned to look at Bucky. A sudden ache in his chest compelled him to take everything of Bucky in as long as he had the chance. It didn't help. The feeling got worse.

I miss you.”

Bucky turned around to him. With a sad smile he said: “I miss you, too.”

He took Steve's hand and pressed a soft kiss to his knuckles. Steve wanted to cry.

It's hard, Buck. So hard without you.”

I know, baby. I'm sorry.” Bucky took his face into his hands and placed a soft kiss onto his lips.

We will be together again, I promise,” he whispered and leaned their foreheads together. Steve could stay like that forever.

After a while, clouds appeared in the blue sky and started blocking the sunlight.

I'm cold, Stevie,” Bucky whispered. “I want to come home.”

Steve pulled him into his arms, now the one to comfort his lover. “I know.”

He felt Bucky starting to shake. “It's so cold. And it hurts. They keep hurting me, Stevie.”

Hydra. Steve remembered. Hydra had taken Bucky (or would take him) and Steve had gone and saved him.

You're safe now. They can't hurt you anymore,” Steve murmured into Bucky's hair and softly rocked him in his arms when Bucky wouldn't stop shaking.

I don't remember. I don't remember anything,” Bucky continued, his voice hurt and small.

Steve didn't really know what he was talking about. “That's good, isn't it?” he said at last, coming to the conclusion Bucky was talking about his time with Hydra when they had captured him in Azzano.

But Bucky shook his head.

I want to remember. But I can't. I just can't.” He started sobbing.

Shh, I've got you. It's alright, I've got you.” Steve rubbed small circles into Bucky's back.

Gradually, Bucky's sobs subsided and he stopped shaking. Steve kept holding him in his arms.

My Ma used to do that. When I was sick. Telling me everything was going to be alright. And stroking my hair.”

Steve couldn't remember a single time Bucky had been sick, he was the one to get sick. Nevertheless, he just went with it.

Yeah?”

Bucky nodded against his shoulder.

You think she's okay?”

Yes,” Steve answered him, although he had no idea.

You will take care of her, right? While I'm gone, you will look after her, won't you?”

Of course, Bucky. I promise. She will be fine,” Steve said and pulled Bucky a little closer.

And then he added, because he had to, because he might never have the chance again:

I love you.”

I love you, too, Steve.”

 

Steve woke up with a start. Sitting bolt upright in his bed, his still sleep addled mind was filled with the images from his dream. With Bucky. Oh God! Tears streamed down his face and Steve pulled his knees close to his body, hugging them and crying his heart out.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: Faces From The Past

“And Jason just got a promotion. He is now junior assistant. I'm sure, one day he will run that place all on his own,” Robert said between two bites of cake.

Winifred sipped her tea and nodded once in a while, feigning interest in her grandson's chatter. He had come for his obligatory visit. Every three months he visited Winifred for two hours to look how she was doing and to see if the nursing home spent the money he gave them the way he wanted them to. And of course, to brag about his children. Jason was his pride and joy, living up to his expectations with his chosen career, his wife and, since four month ago, his new grandchild. (Winifred's third great-great-grandchild – really, it was getting ridiculous. She already had trouble to remember all the names of her great-grandchildren and now they were starting to have kids, too. She refused to learn their names.)

“Oh, Barbara sends her love by the way. She's so sorry she couldn't make it,” Robert continued, still oblivious to Winifred's lack of interest.

“That's quite alright, dear,” she said. It wouldn't do to say nothing at all, lest Robert started to think she was getting demented. “She's not ill, is she?”

“Oh no, she's fine. She just had this appointment she couldn't cancel.”

Winifred nodded, not believing one word he was saying. She knew that Barbara had never liked her and the feeling was mutual. Winifred couldn't stand the woman, who was in her opinion a haughty and phony person. Rebecca had thought so, too. Many an afternoon had she spent in Winifred's kitchen, bemoaning her son's choice.

That was all in the past now. Rebecca was no more and Winifred had to keep her thoughts on her grand-daughter-in-law (was that even a word?) to herself.

“Anyway, Grandma, I better get going. Traffic will be horrible if I wait any longer,” Robert said while standing up.

“Of course. Drive safe.”

He kissed her on the cheek.

“And call me if anything is amiss, you hear? We are paying good money for this home. Can't let them get away with neglecting their duties.”

“Don't worry, everything is fine,” Winifred countered. To be honest, she could have done with a less extravagant home, she had spent her whole life working and leading a simple life, but she wouldn't complain.

“See you next time.”

“Bye, Grandma.”

And he was gone. Winifred leaned back in her armchair and took another sip of her tea. She would have preferred coffee, but they wouldn't let her have any. Coffee wasn't good for her health and such nonsense. She had drunk coffee her whole life and it obviously hadn't effected her. She was hundred-eleven, what harm would a cup of coffee do her? But the fight for this wasn't worth the effort, so tea it was.

Winifred looked out the window. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, perfect weather for a walk around the park. While she contemplated to go up and get her coat or ask one of the nurses to get it for her, the head nurse, Mrs. Ainsley, approached her in the little alcove she was sitting in.

“Mrs. Barnes, I didn't want to disturb you while your grandson was here. You had a call earlier. Steve Rogers would like to visit you. Of course I told him I had to ask you first.”

Winifred frowned. Steve Rogers was dead, regardless what the news told her. So who was this impertinent imposter? And why on earth did he want to talk to her?

She scoffed. “I don't know who that is and I certainly don't want to meet him,” she informed Mrs. Ainsley. Expecting her to leave her alone now, Winifred turned away. When that was not the case she looked at the lingering nurse once more.

“Yes?”

Mrs. Ainsley clearly felt uncomfortable. “I'm sorry, Mrs. Barnes, of course, this is entirely your decision, but I think it would be beneficial if he visited. For the other residents, too. I mean, Captain America himself. That would raise the spirits a bit, you know?”

Winifred bristled at that. What did she care about getting the spirits up? She wanted nothing to do with this PR stunt of the return of Captain America. There was just no way that Steve was alive.

It was getting on her last nerve. How dare they use Steve's memory in that way? The more she thought about it, the more enraged she became. This imposter needed to be taught a lesson and if no one else would to do it, she would do it herself. (To prove once and for all that Steve couldn't be alive. If nothing else than for her traitorous heart that held a speck of hope that it could be miraculously true.)

“Fine. Tell him he can come tomorrow afternoon.”

Mrs. Ainsley seemed a bit stunned at her sudden change of mind, but she recovered quickly.

“Thank you, Mrs. Barnes. I really appreciate it, as will every one else.”

Winifred just nodded and proceeded to look out the window. The desire for a walk was gone.

 

Steve was nervous. He didn't know why. It wasn't like he had never met Winifred Barnes. He had known her his whole life, had spent many afternoons in her kitchen. His mother had been friends with her (inevitable with him and Bucky being practically inseparable). And yet, he broke into a cold sweat at the thought of meeting the old woman. And old she was. He had hardly believed that she was still alive. Initially, he had wanted to visit her grave and lay down some flowers. (After all, he had promised Bucky to look after her – dream or not, a promise was a promise.) So when he had looked up the Barnes family and found that there was no death date for Bucky's mother, he had thought it must have been a mistake. But a little more digging confirmed it: Winifred Barnes was still alive and apparently very fit for her age. (Other than Peggy who had something called Alzheimer and had forgotten Steve was back after twenty minutes into his visit. After he had left, he had locked himself into a cupboard and cried for fifteen minutes. He had been so happy when he had heard that Peggy was still alive. Finally, someone he could talk to, who saw Steve and knew who he really was. That happiness had been short lived.)

A call to the nursing home and one return call later, Steve was on his way to the suburbs of New York. He hoped there wouldn't be too much commotion upon his arrival. The nurse he had talked to had said something about how great it would be to have Captain America visit.

Steve had suppressed a sigh at that. He was coming as Steve Rogers, not Captain America. He really wished people would start to see the difference. Not any time soon, apparently. So he had only asked that there would be no press or anything there.

“Of course not, Captain. We have very high standards in our home and some of our more prominent residents value their privacy. There won't be any reporters present, I can promise you that,” the woman had assured him, although she had sounded disappointed. A visit from Captain America would have been good publicity for the home.

When Steve drove through the iron gates and saw the grand building in the distance, he wondered who paid for Winifred's stay here. Certainly not Winifred herself. She never would have made enough money. Steve guessed it was one of her grandchildren, which she had a great many of. (No one with the name Barnes though, Bucky had been the only boy of the four children.)

As soon as Steve turned off his bike and set his foot on the first step, the door opened and a woman in a white dress and red cardigan came out.

“Captain Rogers! It's so nice of you to come and visit us,” she said enthusiastically and shook his hand when he offered it.

“My pleasure, Miss …” Steve said, trying to hide how nervous he was behind a smile.

“Mrs. Ainsely. But let's go inside. Everyone is so excited to meet you.”

Steve followed her while wondering if this had been a good idea.

The inside of the building lived up to its exterior. Everything looked expensive and grand and a little over the top in Steve's opinion: marble floor, thick red carpets, plush armchairs, velvet curtains. It was hard to imagine Winifred Barnes living in such a place. The resolute and strong woman Steve remembered stood in stark contrast to this fancy rich people's home.

“Why don't you follow me into the common room, Captain?”

The common room fitted the entrance hall, the same grandeur and extravagance. Not that Steve had the time to take everything in. As soon as he entered the room, he was confronted with all kinds of people, who called his name and tried to get his attention by waving old pictures and comic books they wanted him to sign.

“Wow, what a reception,” Steve stammered. “It's … nice to meet you all.”

God, when had he become such a stammering mess? He had danced and performed in front of hundreds of people, fought in the war – he should be able to handle this little gathering of elderly people. But that was not the reason he had come for, right? He had come to see Bucky's mother, to see if she was doing alright and … and maybe talk to her about the past. About Bucky. (He was not sure he would be able to do that.)

While he made small talk (or tried to, at least) and gave autographs, he scanned the room. He didn't see her. She wasn't one of the people, who tried to get his attention. Not that Steve had expected her to be. Half an hour later, he decided he had done enough. Time for Captain America to step back and let Steve Rogers take over for once.

“It's been really great to meet all of you. Really, it's just that I …”

And all of a sudden, he saw her. She sat in a corner at the far end of the room, scrutinizing him, her face full of mistrust. She was so very old! Her brown hair had become white, her face wrinkled, her body bent forward, crooked from a hard life, her blue eyes watery and pale. Nevertheless, it was still undoubtedly her. The same proud and no nonsense look. The same frowning face. Steve vividly remembered countless times he and Bucky had gotten into trouble and she had scolded them in her kitchen, hands stemmed into her hips, a wooden spoon in one hand, a pot of stew cooking on the oven behind her. Steve had to swallow around the lump in his throat.

 

Winifred observed Steve very closely from the moment he entered the room. He certainly looked like him. Or him after he had been experimented on, anyway. She had never met him after his change, only saw the pictures of him in the newspaper. If it hadn't been for Bucky's letters in which he had described how Steve had changed and how incredible it was that he had become Captain America, she wouldn't have believed that this national icon was tiny Steve Rogers.

It took half an hour for him to free himself from the people surrounding him and coming over to her little corner.

“Mrs. Barnes, it's so nice to … I mean, I never thought … that is … that you're still …” he stammered. Despite herself Winifred smiled. That was so like Steve, how she remembered him. A bundle of nerves when talking to her, giant or not.

“That I'm still alive, you mean?”

Steve blushed.

“I'm sorry, that was very rude. I …” He looked down at his hands. Suddenly, he said horrified,

“I forgot the flowers!” His head snapped up to her, eyes wide with alarm. “I meant to bring you some. Yellow asters. I went to the shop yesterday, but they didn't have any. And I meant to go this morning …”

Winifred felt tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. He remembered her favorite flowers. Who else would know that? It was such a tiny little detail, easily forgotten over time. But he remembered. After all this time, he remembered and felt so ashamed that he hadn't brought any. And that look on his face was so familiar to her. She had seen it so many times: when he had forgotten to bring the cake Sarah had baked when Rebecca had been born and Steve hadn't thought to bring it over when he came to play with Bucky. Or when he had picked flowers for Georgiana's birthday and they had been crushed by some boys from school who always had made fun of him. It was impossible, but it was him. Steve was really and truly alive!

“Steve, it's alright. Come here!” She raised her arms and pulled him close.

“I can't believe it's really you,” she said as she held him close.

They stayed like that for a while. (And if a part of her pretended it was Bucky she held in her arms, well, no one would know.)

“I hope, it is okay that I came to visit,” Steve said when he sat down beside her. “I would have come sooner, if I had known you were … living here,” he ended a little awkwardly and smiled sheepishly at her.

“I'm glade you came, Steve,” she said and really meant it. With Steve here she felt less out of place, less like a relic gathering dust in a corner. Finally, she could talk to someone who had been there. Who knew what she was talking about when she spoke of Mrs. Monrose's apple pie, of the winter in 1931, of Mr. Garland's corner shop.

“But how are you alive?” she asked, because she had to. It was so strange. Here he was, not a day older than 27 while she had withered away and barely recognized herself in the mirror.

Steve shrugged. “I don't know. They say it's the serum. That it kept me alive while I was frozen.”

“Must have been quite a shock to suddenly wake up in 2011.”

He laughed. The same laugh she had heard so many times when they had sat in her kitchen and Bucky had told one of his stories. (It hurt to think about that, but for the first time in a long while she knew it was okay to still feel this way. Steve was the only person left on this planet who would understand. Who felt the same.)

“You have no idea. One minute I am in 1945 and flying a plane and next thing I know I am in New York which is filled with all this futuristic stuff.”

She froze at his words.

“Does that mean … it's only a few months for you since … since Bucky …” She couldn't say it. After all these years, she couldn't say it.

He didn't look her in the eyes.

“Yeah.” That was all he said.

Winifred took his hand and squeezed it, feeling the same sharp pain in her chest he did. It was a comfort to finally be able to share her grief after such a long time of shouldering it on her own. Just knowing he missed him as much as she did (maybe even more) was enough. But she had to ask. Had to know the answer to the one question that had tormented her for seventy years.

“He didn't suffer, did he? When he … when it happened? He wasn't in pain?”

Steve took a deep breath before he looked up to her. She could see in his eyes that he wanted to say: No, he didn't suffer. It was quick and painless. But something changed his mind. For when he opened his mouth, he said, “I don't think so, no. He fell and I guess it was quick when he … when he landed. But he screamed and he … was terrified. I could hear it in his voice. But in the end … it was quick, I guess.”

Winifred nodded, unable to say a word. It wasn't the answer she had wanted nor the one she had needed. It was the one she had expected. Her baby had been so scared to die and she hadn't been there to comfort him, to save him.

“I'm so sorry. I tried to save him, but I couldn't reach him in time.”

Tears were streaming down his face and he looked so broken and lost that Winifred pulled him into her arms again.

“It's okay, Steve. I don't blame you,” she whispered into his hair. “He certainly wouldn't blame you. It's not your fault.”

Steve sobbed into her shoulder and while she was crying herself, she wondered if this was the first time he let himself really feel his loss and share his grief with someone.

“He wouldn't want you to blame yourself. He loved you so much.”

Steve stiffened at her words.

Oh, surely he hadn't thought that she didn't know.

“It's alright, I know, Steve. I know what you meant to each other.”

He cried even harder when he heard her words. She stroked his hair and whispered reassuringly into his ears, pouring all the love she felt for her boy onto the man he had loved.

Oh yes, she had seen the way Bucky's face had lit up whenever he talked about Steve. How he seemed more relaxed and happy in his presence. No girl he had taken out to dance (and there had been a few) had ever managed to make his eyes shine bright like the sun. Of course, she had hoped she had been wrong, that she had imagined the way her son looked at his best friend. But deep down she had known. Had known that her Bucky had been hopelessly in love with his best friend. Just as Steve had been with him. Although, back then, she had never been sure if they had known it themselves. If they had understood their feelings for each other as the deep and true love that only came once in a lifetime. The way Steve was crying confirmed it to her. He knew what he had lost, knew what he was missing. The tears he spent were for his lost love, his broken heart and his lonely soul that didn't know how to go on without his other half. Without Bucky.

But Bucky was gone. And Winifred knew that she had to help Steve in every way she could. That she had to take care of him, so he wouldn't lose himself in this world that wasn't his anymore.

She owed her son that much.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Struggling

Steve walked through the city, watching the people around him, rushing to their various appointments. No one seemed to take the time to stop, all of them to busy to notice their surroundings. He shook his head. He couldn't understand the people these days. He tried, he really tried, but it was hard to even talk to someone when he didn't even understand half of what they were saying. All the tiny little references that everyone else didn't even notice and understood in a second left Steve pondering for hours. (Just the other day when he had finally plucked up the courage and went to a store to buy a radio. He had picked one that had looked the least technical and reminded him of the transmitters they had used during the war. The salesperson at the front desk had joked while he had counted the money Steve had given him, “You want to phone home with this one?” Steve had only stared at him blank faced and had left as fast as he could.)

And everyone seemed so open about everything! There were no topics you couldn't talk about on the street, no clothes too short to wear in public. Steve still blushed when he saw a woman in a skirt or pants so short they barely covered anything. At his time, a woman going out like that would have been arrested on the spot for public indecency. Or dragged back home by a guardian. If she had been allowed out of the house in the first place. That was another thing: women could suddenly live on their own, get any job they wanted, do anything men were able to do, make decisions over their own life. Which was great, really. Steve was all for equality and he was happy to see how things had changed for the better. But nevertheless, it took a little time to get used to.

The biggest revelation was the legalization of same sex relationships. Even marriage was possible for two men or two women. And adoption. Steve had nearly walked into ongoing traffic when he had seen two men kissing and holding hands in the middle of the streets. Only the quick reflexes of a middle-aged woman, who had grabbed him by the elbow, had saved him from imminent death.

He hadn't even thanked her, just had stood dumbfounded on the side walk, his mind spinning. He still didn't know how he got home that day. He only remembered lying on his bed, starring on the wall for hours and thinking about everything he could have now, if only … if only he had Bucky by his side.

He took a turn to the left, leaving the main street to walk down a less crowded alley, before he turned right. Even though it had been difficult (still was) and he struggled with, well, everything, he had come to like his walks through the city that had once been his home. Especially this street. It was lined with old brick buildings and quirky little shops which were frequented by all kinds of people. Steve liked to watch them (even if he didn't understand them), see their colorful diversity. Once, he had seen a man in a fez and a bow tie, muttering to himself and waving some kind of device with a green light. A couple of days later, he had glimpsed a man in a World War II coat rushing past him so fast that Steve could never be sure, but he had looked exactly like Captain Harkness, who Steve had met briefly in London in 1944.

He went past the McLaren's Pub, where he had met Agent Hill's twin sister when he had wanted to taste the brands of beers the 21st century had to offer. After starring at her and her quite frankly very strange group of friends for ten minutes, not believing this to be a place Agent Hill would frequent, she had come over to order another round of beer and had whispered from the corner of her mouth that she was not Maria Hill but her twin sister and that no one could know about her and her sister. For security reasons. Steve had only nodded and had left soon after.

At last, Steve reached his destination, the Pie Hole. He had found this little bakery the first time he had walked down the street, intrigued by the design of the canvas blind, which looked like a pie crust, and the homey interior seen through the windows. The couple, who ran the place and were just as sweet as the pastries they offered their customers, and the tiny blonde waitress, who had a beautiful singing voice, were just an extra bonus to the delicious pie. The pie was the main reason Steve came as often as he could. It just tasted heavenly and reminded him of the apple pie his mother used to bake. Or the cherry pie Winifred had baked for Bucky's birthday.

He sat down at his favorite table in the corner.

The waitress – Olive – came over immediately, coffee pot already in hand and poured him a cup while she asked, “What can I bring you today, sugar? Apple, cherry, blue berry?”

Steve smiled. He liked Olive. She was one of the few people he found it easy to talk to.

“Surprise me.”

She winked at him and went on to refill the cups of the two men sitting at the next table. Steve had never seen them before and in his limited experience with New Yorkers, they looked out of place for the city. Dressed in flannel shirts, jeans and boots, one of them was engrossed in something on his laptop while the other shoveled down a slice of pie.

“Really, Sam, you have to taste this pie! It's the best ever! Like, I don't care if the world is ending and all this people here are really werewolves, vampires and demons best,” he said while practically licking the vanilla cream and the apple filling from his fingers. (Not that Steve could blame him. And werewolves, vampires and demons – what the hell?)

“Yeah, later, Dean,” the other mumbled, fervently tipping on his key board.

Before Steve could listen to more of their conversation or marvel at Dean's strange phrasing (probably another references he didn't understand), Olive arrived with his slice of late summer cherry pie, at the same time as his phone rang, informing him about a received text message.

“Thanks,” he said and smiled while pulling out his phone.

“Any time, sugar.”

Steve started eating and reading the message from Fury. He wanted him to come to some top secret meeting with Howard's kid on Monday. Steve scrunched up his face. He had met Tony Stark only briefly a few weeks back and hadn't liked him very much. Judging from Stark's face the entire time, the feeling had been mutual. He stuffed the phone back into his pocket and concentrated on his pie. He would deal with this come Monday morning. Today he would enjoy the rest of his pie and go to the gym later. And tomorrow he would visit Winifred at her nursing home. He already looked forward to it, it was the highlight of his week. (A tiny voice in his head, sounding suspiciously like Bucky, told him how boring his life must be if visiting an old woman was his favorite past time – but Steve ignored it.) He visited her every Sunday. Every Sunday at three o'clock. They drank tea and ate cake and went for a walk, where they talked about anything and nothing. It was about the only time Steve felt like he could be completely himself without anyone expecting anything from him.

 

“So, how are you doing, Steve?” Winifred asked him as they were walking through the vast park of the nursing home. Steve hesitated for a split second before he answered, “Fine. I mean, everything is still so unbelievable and new. The technology alone! And I thought the SSR and Hydra had fancy stuff, but the things today … Unbelievable! But I'm doing okay. Even found out how the computer works they gave me. Lots of helpful stuff.” Steve smiled and thought he made a decent job of it, but Winifred just leveled him with a look he had seen so many times growing up. From her as well as his own mother. Must be some kind of universal 'I see right through your crap' stare all mothers around the world had mastered by the time their children started to tell the occasional white lie to get out of trouble.

When he didn't say anything, Winifred said with a stern voice, “Steven Grant Rogers, I have known you since you could walk. So tell me the truth, how are you doing, really?”

Despite himself, Steve had to smile. He should have known that he wouldn't get away with this. Not with her.

“I wasn't lying. Not entirely, anyway. It gets easier to adjust to all the … the changes. But …”

Here, he trailed off. Even if he got used to this new century, he felt out of place. The truth it all came down to was: He missed his old life. Before the war. Before he had become Captain America. Not necessarily being a skinny, sickly kid who no one – almost no one – took seriously and who was bed ridden more times than not, but his life in general. Where he knew his way around, knew how the world ticked and his place in it. Knew what to expect from his future. Even in the war, between all the killing, bloodshed and danger, when they had allowed themselves to think about the time afterwards, he had thought his life would go back to its normal pace. Sure, for a time he would have still played the role of Captain America, but the feelings of triumph and euphoria over a victory would have died down eventually. And then … then he would have resumed his life like it had been before. Only healthy. And strong. And with Bucky by his side. Together.

A memory of a warm night in Italy in 1944 came to the forefront of his mind.

Steve stood at the edge of the clearing, staring into the darkness, lost in his thoughts about the next day and their planed raid of a Hydra base not far from where they had made camp for the night.

He was so lost in his own head that he didn't hear Bucky approach until he put a hand onto his shoulder. Steve looked up, startled.

Steve, stop worrying and get some sleep,” Bucky said quietly.

But...”

No buts. Even supersoldiers need to rest. Now come on,” Bucky insisted and stirred him back to the remains of the campfire where they had rolled out their bedrolls. It was warm enough to sleep outside and they were only here for one night, so no one had bothered to set up a tent.

The others were all sleeping (except Falsworth who was keeping watch in the surrounding forest), engaged in a snoring contest. So far, Dum Dum was winning.

Not a chance getting much sleep with this lot around,” Steve told Bucky, but nevertheless settled beside him.

Bucky snorted. “Yeah. The way they are going, there won't be much of a forest left come morning.”

Steve smiled. “Like you are one to talk. Remember when Mrs. Kellerman next door complained about that infernal noise that kept her up at night?”

That earned him a thump in the ribs.

I keep telling you, that wasn't me. God knows what that woman was hearing. Rats probably.”

Whatever you want to believe, Buck,” Steve grinned. The cover of darkness gave him the confidence to creep closer and nestle himself comfortably on his lover. Bucky put his arm around him and pulled him closer to his chest.

They didn't talk for some time, enjoying each other’s company and this rare moment of intimacy.

After a while Steve asked, “You think, she’ll still be there when we come home? Mrs. Kellerman, I mean.”

Definitely. That woman is gonna outlive us all,” Bucky answered with a yawn. “But to be honest, I almost miss the old hag. I think she liked me, deep down.”

Steve couldn't help the snort that escaped him.

She hated you, Buck. Said you were a good for nothing scoundrel for getting me in trouble all the time.”

As if you need my help for getting in trouble,” Bucky retorted and Steve could practically hear the eye roll. “And if anything, you are getting me in trouble.”

Oh, yeah?” Steve pushed himself up on his elbows to look at Bucky. “And how do I do that, exactly?” he asked with feint innocence, his face inches from Bucky's.

Bucky licked his lips and his eyes sparkled, making Steve's heart skip a beat.

Oh, that list is endless. Don't even know where to start.”

Bucky's raspy voice and the way he stared at Steve's lips made Steve throw caution to the wind as he kissed his lover fiercely. Bucky groaned and pulled Steve on top of him, snaking his arms around Steve and digging his fingers into his muscular back.

When Steve tangled his hands in Bucky's hair and broke the kiss to attack the brunet's throat with his lips, Bucky gasped, “That. That is exactly the way you get me into trouble, Rogers.”

So you want me to stop?” Steve murmured, licking over a bruise he had left at Bucky's neck.

God no!”

Didn't think so.”

They continued to kiss, their bodies wrapped around each other, hands roaming over every reachable part until Steve finally rolled off Bucky. He might be reckless, using the darkness and the dead like sleep the Howlies were currently in to make some time with his lover, but he wasn't suicidal. They might get away with an extended make out session, but nothing more.

You know what?” Bucky said after a while, still a little breathless. “I hate this fucking war. And these bloody Nazis, who won't stop fighting. I hate the food and the dirt and sleeping on the goddamn forest floor!”

I know,” Steve answered. And after a few seconds, he added, “You could always … I mean, you really did enough...”

Bucky interrupted him with an angry hiss. “Don't you dare say it, Rogers! I'm not going home. Not without you! So stuff it and go to sleep.” To underline his words Bucky rolled to the side, turning his back to Steve.

The silence stretched on, only interrupted by the sounds of the forest and the animals who lived in it and who sounded so very different from their daytime counterparts. Steve knew that Bucky wasn't sleeping. He could still hear his angry breathing, far too loud to be mistaken for a restful slumber.

When he couldn't take it anymore, Steve moved close to Bucky, pressing himself against his back and putting an arm around him. Bucky huffed, but didn't pull away.

I'm sorry,” Steve murmured and planted a kiss an Bucky's jaw. “You know I want you here. Couldn't do anything without you.”

Damn right you couldn't. Would get yourself killed within a day, if I don't watch your sorry ass,” Bucky grumbled in response, but there was no heat in his voice and Steve knew that he wasn't angry anymore. Just frustrated with the situation in general. And who could blame him?

When we get home, when all this is over,” Steve said, “we will buy a house at a beach somewhere. With no one around. Just us, for miles and miles.”

Yeah?” Bucky turned a bit to look at Steve, a small smile on his face.

Yeah. And you can go swimming every day and I will draw you when you dry off in the sun. And I will make you breakfast every day. Bacon and eggs and pancakes and coffee and chocolate chip cookies.”

Bucky laughed. “Chocolate chip cookies? For breakfast?”

Yeah. Why not? We are war heroes. We can eat what we want for breakfast. And you like them.”

I do,” Bucky mumbled, nestling himself in Steve's arms and tucking his head under his chin. “What else?”

Steve kissed his forehead before he continued.

We will get a huge bed. Like the one we saw in the shop-window once. With a mattress so soft you could sink in it.”

He talked well into the night, spinning a tale of a peaceful life together they both knew they could never have.

A dog barking in the distance brought Steve back into the present.

He swallowed past the lump in his throat.

“I miss my home,” he finally admitted. “I miss the feeling of belonging anywhere. I don't fit in. I don't understand the people nowadays. They are always in a rush. No one talks to anyone anymore. Not really. And I miss being just Steve. Everyone ever sees Captain America. But I'm not him. Not entirely. I don't know what I want anymore. What is there in this world for me?”

Winifred had listened silently to him. When he ended, she squeezed his arm in sympathy.

“I wish I could tell you what to do, but I can't. I can only give you some advise. Try to find some people you can trust, who you like to spend time with. Do things you enjoy. Drawing. You were so good, Steve. I still have some of your pictures.”

He smiled at her.

“Really?”

“Of course! As if I would throw them away. They are so beautiful.”

They came to a park bench and sat down, Winifred needing to catch her breath. Steve sat beside her, the leaves dancing in the early autumn wind around them.

“I know it can't be easy to find a new purpose in life. Something to get up for in the morning. But you can still do a lot of good, Steve. Not only as Captain America, but as yourself, too. You're a kindhearted, loyal, brave and compassionate man.”

Steve blushed, unable to say anything.

“And for what it's worth,” Winifred continued, “you made an old woman very happy by coming back from the dead and taking care of her when she was weary of her life.”

She smiled at him and took his hand in hers. “You will find your way, Steve, I'm certain of it. You are to stubborn to let this defeat you.”

Steve had to laugh at that, thinking that Bucky would have said the exact same thing to him.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: Steve's Mom

Steve woke up slowly. Groggily, he rolled onto his side and blinked the sleep from his eyes. One look at the clock on his nightstand told him that it was 5:25 in the morning. Only five minutes left before his alarm would go off. Five minutes left before he had to go up and start his day. Go running, eat breakfast, take a shower, attend a meeting at SHIELD … Just like yesterday.

But today was different. Everything was different today. Today was October the 15th. The day his mother had died. And Steve missed her. So much.

Of course, his mom had died a long time ago. Long before he had even become Captain America. Her death was part of another life. (Steve didn't know what it said about himself that he could divide his life in three entirely different parts: sickly and skinny kid in Brooklyn with a low life expectancy, Super Soldier in the army and national icon and – what was he now? Man out of his time, struggling to find his place?) But even so he had dealt with his grief and had at long last accepted his mother's passing way back when, he still missed her. Would always miss her and especially today.

With an aching heart and a deep longing in his chest, he turned off his phone. He wanted to be left alone and remember his mother without anyone demanding or asking anything of him.

His alarm went off and Steve briefly considered staying in bed. But he knew that wouldn't do him any good, would only make it worse. With a sigh he rubbed his hands across his face and got up.

 

After a quick shower and a short breakfast Steve went down the stairs. He had tried to look as inconspicuously as he could while at the same time looking at his best. Pulling up the collar of his leather jacket against the strong autumn wind, he crossed the street and walked a couple of blocks before he entered a little flower shop at the corner of Center Boulevard and 49th Avenue. He had come here before to buy flowers for Winifred and had been back a couple of times after that. (He liked to have flowers in his apartment, so what? It was a small luxury he allowed himself to have.)

The woman at the counter – Donna – smiled at him.

“Back so soon? Don't tell me those daisies have already faded!”

Steve smiled back at her. He liked the middle-aged woman with the kind smiles she seemed to have for everyone and the wrinkles around her eyes from years of laughing. And she didn't care who her customers were.

“No, they are still fresh. Thank you.”

“Good. Can't have people think I sell them flowers of inferior quality. Now,” she clapped her hands together and came around the counter. “Which of these beauties catch your eye?”

Out of courtesy, Steve took a look around, although he already knew what he wanted.

Roses, lilies, sunflowers, gardenias and all kinds of flowers filled the tiny space around him. All of them looked beautiful in their own way. He could have spent hours looking at them, smelling them, feeling their soft petals under his fingers...

Maybe another time.

He turned back to Donna.

“I would like some forget-me-nots. If you have them, that is,” he added.

Donna raised her eyebrows, her smile never leaving her face.

“You sure have some peculiar taste, love. Most men, who come in here, buy roses. Not very creative, if you ask me. But then again, can't do anything wrong with a bouquet of fine roses. Almost everyone likes them, don't they?”

While she was talking Donna had gone to the back of her shop, her voice rising in volume the further she got away. (Steve wondered not for the first time how big the shop actually was. It looked so tiny from the street outside.)

“Here you go, love,” Donna said when she came back and pressed a pot full of forget-me-nots into his hands.

Steve let himself marvel at the beauty of the tiny flowers for a minute. His mother had loved them. Her face had lit up every time she had seen them. Be it in a shop window, in a park, or the hands of a stranger on the streets. She had smiled so wide and happy, Steve could have watched her for hours. For her birthday, he had always gotten her at least one forget-me-not. With her death he had brought them to her grave, on her birthday and the anniversary of her death. Every year until he had gone to war. Now that he was back he wanted to continue that tradition. (He felt a little guilty that he hadn't visited his mother before. He had to deal with so much, figure so much out for himself, he just hadn't found the time – or the strength – to go. But she would have understood that. At least, he hoped so.)

With the forget-me-nots securely wrapped in paper, Steve walked back outside and went on his way to the cemetery.

 

Cypress Hill Cemetery. Steve stood before the gate and stared up at the intricate stonework. The memory of a mild October day in 1936 came back to him.

Silently, Steve watched as the casket was lowered into the ground. He resisted the urge to throw himself on top of it, to cling onto his mother. What was he supposed to do without her? How did anyone live without their mother? He felt so lonely and empty, so lost in a world that had suddenly become so much more terrifying.

... and so we give Sarah Rogers into the hands of Our Lord. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the priest said as he threw a handful of sand into the open grave. The old priest from the church in their neighborhood was the only one who had come to the cemetery after the service in the church. Steve had barely listened to any of his words since they had arrived and only nodded numbly when Father Francis patted him on the shoulder and said in parting, “Be brave, my boy. She is in a better place now, where she will know no pain, only peace and love.”

Because she never had that when she was alive? There had been pain, yes, but also love. So much of it. Why did she have to go? It wasn't fair! He still needed her, would always need her. Bitterness and resentment filled him and he was so angry! With the priest, who couldn't find better words to console him in his grief. (Not that he had expected more than religious sermons.) With the neighbors, who had nothing to say to him beside how very tragic and unfair it was that his mother had died. (He already knew that, he didn't need them to tell him.) With the world in general for all the injustice. (If they hadn't been so poor, if his mother didn't have to work in a TB ward, if people would just share what they had instead of living in luxury while others starved … if, if, if …)

He was angry with Bucky for not coming to the cemetery with him. (Which was really not fair of him. He had wanted to be alone, had deliberately avoided his best friend and his parents after the service because of a desperate need to be alone with his mother one last time.) He was angry with himself. (Wasn't it really his fault that his mother was dead? If he hadn't been so sick all the time, if he had only been a little more healthy, she wouldn't have been forced to work so many hours.) And he was angry with his mother. (He was ashamed to even think it, but it was true. Part of him was so angry with her for leaving him, he could hardly breath.)

Nothing to it, son. Have ta except it. She's gone and ain't comin' back, but you have her with ya in your heart. Ain't no one who can take that away from ya.”

Steve jumped at the sudden voice. A weather-beaten man stood beside him, leaning on a shovel. The grave digger. Who would bury his mother, taking her from Steve once and for all …

It took a while for his words to sink in, but when they did, Steve felt all the anger drain from his body, leaving only grief and sadness. But also the feeling of his mother's love, the memory of her warm embrace, the sound of her laughter, the image of her smile.

Thank you,” he whispered quietly and turned around, not waiting to see how the earth took his mother into its arms. He had a sudden, desperate need for company and he knew Bucky would be waiting for him when he got home.

 

Steve could see Bucky long before he reached the building, where he had lived the last sixteen years with his mother and he now had to himself. At least, if the landlord let him stay.

Bucky was sitting on the stairs, still dressed in his best suit, which he had worn for the memorial service, and smoked a cigarette. A smile played across Steve's face. He may have lost his mother, but he still had Bucky. Would always have Bucky.

When Bucky saw him approaching, he flipped his cigarette into the curb and stood up. Hands in his pockets, he waited for Steve.

Hey,” he greeted him before looking Steve up and down with a frown. “Did you walk all the way here?”

Don't worry, Buck,” Steve tried to reassure his friend. “It's so warm today, I won't get sick. And I needed some air.”

If you say so,” Bucky said, not sounding convinced. But he dropped the subject and followed Steve up the stairs.

We looked for you after. My folks wanted to give you a ride to the cemetery.”

Steve felt guilty that he had just vanished without a word, even when he knew that Bucky didn't blame him. Was just worried about him.

I know, I'm sorry. I just … kind of wanted to be alone.”

There was maybe a second of silence before Bucky asked, “How was it?”

It was … the hardest thing he ever had to do. It took everything Steve had not to collapse right now. But what he said was, “It was okay. She is next to Dad.”

Because what else was there to say? In the end, it didn't matter. It was done. His mother was buried and he felt so alone. Of course, he knew that Bucky didn't believe him, knew that he saw right through Steve's facade.

I was gonna ask …” Bucky started.

He didn't need to finish, Steve knew what would come next. A warm feeling of gratitude and love spread through his chest, filling some of the void his mother had left. But even so, the words that came out of his mouth were, “I know what you're gonna say, Buck, I just …” … can't. He couldn't except the offer, couldn't become a burden to Bucky like he had become to his mother. Because what would he do when he lost Bucky, too? When Bucky eventually became fed up of dragging him along? When he wanted to have a life without the trouble of looking after his sickly childhood friend? (Steve knew in his heart that would never happen. That Bucky was never ever going to leave him or get tired of his company. But he wasn't thinking straight, doubt and insecurities and grief circled through his body like a disease.)

We can put the couch cushions on the floor like when we were kids. It'll be fun. All you gotta do is shine my shoes, maybe take out the trash.” Bucky Barnes was nothing if not persistent, especially when it came to Steve. Steve listened to his words while he searched for his keys. He wanted to say yes, so badly. But something still held him back.

Come on,” Bucky insisted and handed him the spare key they kept under a brick. (Not really the safest hiding place, but who would rob them anyway? There was nothing worth stealing in the tiny one bedroom apartment.)

Thank you, Buck, but I can get by on my own,” Steve said even if he didn't really want to. Where Bucky was persistent, Steve was stubborn.

But Bucky's next words smashed all of Steve's insane doubts.

The thing is, you don't have to.” He grabbed Steve's shoulder and locked him in place with his gaze, nothing but sincerity in his eyes.

I'm with you 'till the end of the line, pal.”

Steve had to swallow past the feelings that blocked his throat. He lowered his head, hiding his smile, before he looked up again and said, “I'll think about it.”

Bucky grinned. “That's all I ask. Punk.”

Jerk,” Steve mumbled in response and laughed at the playful shove his friend gave him while they entered the apartment together.

As soon as they were inside Steve's face fell and his heart clenched in pain. His mother was still so present in the room: Her apron hung in the corner, next to the stove, her pillow laid on the couch, where she had slept, leaving the only bed in the tiny bedroom to her son. Her scent lingered in the air. Steve stood stock still for a moment before the tears were streaming down his face and he choked back a sob. Suddenly, he felt a pair of strong arms wrap around him and he was pulled against a warm body.

It's okay, Stevie. I'm here,” Bucky whispered into his hair, holding him tightly in his arms. And Steve finally gave in to the urge to break down and cry.

Seventy years later Steve could still feel that embrace, the feeling of warmth and protection and love it had brought with it at a time he had needed it most in his life.

He wished more than anything that Bucky was now here with him, to reassure him of that feeling. Steve shook himself. He couldn't think about that now. He walked through the gate, taking in the unfamiliar surrounding. Much had changed in the last decades and he barely recognized anything. A man at the gatekeeper's house eyed him suspiciously. Steve ignored him. With his gaze on the ground, he went past him. Even if much had changed, he still knew how to get to his parents' graves.

On his way, he came across all kinds of headstones: old and weather-beaten, new and shiny, neglected and forgotten, well-cared for and remembered.

At last, he rounded a group of strong big oak trees that had been nothing more than little saplings when he had said goodbye to his mother the day before he had gone to basic training.

For a long time Steve just stood in front of the two graves in silence. They looked better than he had expected. The writing on the stones was still visible enough to read. At least, at his mother's. He only could read the name and the dates of his father because he knew what they said.

After a moment of indecision he placed the flowers between the two graves and sat down before them, facing the stone of his mother.

“Hi, Mom. Guess you didn't expect to see me again. It's a long story, really. But I'm okay now. Mostly. I mean, it's hard, but …”

He had to swallow.

“Sorry I didn't come sooner. I just …”

Steve didn't know what to say, so he fell silent.

He started again after a while. “You should see all the stuff they have nowadays. It's amazing. And all the diseases they can cure now! Really, Mom, if you could only see …”

Steve knew he was rambling, he stopped and stared at his hands

“I miss you,” he admitted quietly after the silence stretched on.

“And I'm lonely and scared and …” Did he dare say it out loud?

“I wish I had died in the ice.” There. He had said it. Really said it for the first time.

He only realized he was crying when he felt the tears falling down on his shaking hands.

“It's so hard!” He was sobbing now, but he didn't care. No one would hear or see him.

“And everything hurts, Mom. So much.”

I know, Stevie, I know it hurts now. But it will get better, I promise!”

When?” Steve asked, crying into his mother's dress and clinging onto her like she could vanish if he let go for one second.

Soon, sweetheart. Starting school, being in a new place where you know no one, is always hard, but you will find friends very soon and then it will be so much fun.”

Six-year old Steve shook his head vehemently. He didn't believe her. For once, she had to be wrong. The kids at school were so mean. They always picked on him and made fun of how skinny he was. For two weeks he had come home sniffling, barely holding back the tears. Today he broke: they had shoved him into a puddle of mud and he had hurt his knee. And they had taken his stuffed bear, his best friend, and now he was all alone in the world. Crying the whole time on his way home, he had flown into his mom's arms as soon as he had passed the threshold.

Sitting on the couch, his mom held him close to her body and rubbed small circles into his back.

It's going to be okay, sweetheart. I promise,” Sarah murmured and kissed his head. When Steve wouldn't stop crying, she rocked him back and forth in her arms and started to sing softly into his ear.

 

There's a long, long trail a-winding
Into the land of my dreams,
Where the nightingales are singing
And the white moon beams.
There's a long, long night of waiting
Until my dreams all come true;
Till the day when I'll be going down
That long, long trail with you.

All night long I hear you calling,
Calling sweet and low;
Seem to hear your footsteps falling,
Ev'ry where I go.
Tho' the road between us stretches
Many a weary mile,
I forget that you're not with me yet
When I think I see you smile.

There's a long, long trail a-winding
Into the land of my dreams,
Where the nightingales are singing
And the white moon beams.
There's a long, long night of waiting
Until my dreams all come true;
Till the day when I'll be going down
That long, long trail with you.

 

Hugging himself, tears drying on his face, Steve sat in the damp grass and listened to the memory of the song his mother had sung for him every time he had been sad or sick or as a lullaby.

He also thought about her words from that long ago day. That it would get better. That he would soon find friends. Funnily enough, the very next day he had met Bucky for the first time when the older boy had punched the kids in his class for making fun of him. They had been inseparable ever since and his mother had been proven right: It was always hard in the beginning, but it would eventually get better.

Somehow, Steve doubted that would be the case now …

 

In the following days Steve still felt down and more and more lonely. He talked to Winifred one or two times. (It helped. A bit.) He walked through the city, drove on the subway, sat in the café his mother had taken him to if the money had allowed it and drew the surrounding buildings. He went to the gym and after hours he let his frustration out on a couple of punching backs. Until one day Nick Fury sought him out to pull him in for some kind of secret initiative to safe the world.

Steve went with him. Because – what else was there for him?

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: Family and Fighting

Winifred took the last of the picture frames and cleared the glass before putting it back on the shelf. Most of the cleaning in her room was done by the staff, but Winifred wouldn't let anyone touch her prized possessions: the tableware her mother had given her when she had married George, the few pieces of jewelry she still owned, the candlesticks from her grandmother, the wooden box filled with bits and pieces of memories (George's pocket watch, Bucky's cigarette case, Margret's locket, Georgiana's lucky charm, Rebecca's collection of poems), and, of course, her pictures of her family, showing them in all the different stages of their lives. Winifred let out a deep sigh and turned away before she could dwell on them too long. She didn't feel strong enough for all the memories of her long life. Not today. Maybe when Steve visited the next time, they could go through some of her photo albums.

The phone on the small side table by the window rang and Winifred went over. Picking up the receiver, she sat down in her plush armchair.

“Hello?”

“Hi, it's me.”

“Steve! How nice of you to call,” Winifred said surprised. And then added worriedly, “Is everything alright?”

“Yes, everything is fine. I just called to let you know I can't make it on Sunday.” He sounded genuinely sorry that he would miss their weekly lunch date. Hastily he continued: “I really wouldn't miss it if I didn't have to, but there is this thing SHIELD needs me for.”

Winifred smiled to herself. She was touched by his consideration and his worry that she would be cross with him.

“Don't worry about it, it's quite alright. And how mysterious! You have to tell me all about it next time you come visit.”

Steve chuckled. “I will, promise.”

A beat of silence and Winifred grew worried again.

“You sure everything is alright, Steve?”

He sighed. She could practically see how he rubbed his face with his hand.

“Yeah. It's just …” He fell silent again and Winifred patiently waited for him to find the right words.

“There is this guy. He's … he's not really human. At least, I think he isn't. We don't really know what he wants, but he's dangerous. And he has this army from outta space and this … weapon, which works a lot like a Hydra weapon if you ask me. Which is never a good thing.” His voice got a strange undertone. Winifred could well imagine how this disturbed Steve and rose some uncomfortable memories for him.

“I'm not sure what to do really. Fury expects as all to work together, but I don't see how. We are all so different and I don't know any of them. I'm not sure I can handle this.”

His voice had grown softer at the end and Winifred had to strain her ears to understand him.

She wished she was face to face with him right now, but as that couldn't be helped, she said,

“Listen to me, Steve. You can and will handle this. I know you and you were never one to quit. You defied everyone who said you couldn't become a soldier and you found a way to do just that. You fought in the war, you saved people, and you did what was necessary to win. Just trust your instincts and focus on one problem at a time.”

Although she couldn't see his smile, she heard it in his voice when he said, “You always find the right thing to say to me. I don't know how you do it, honestly. Thank you.”

“Comes with being a mother and living as long as I have. Now go and get to know your teammates before you have to fight alongside them.”

“I should, shouldn't I?” He sighed. “I'll see what Dr. Banner has figured out about this weapon so far. Maybe I will even understand it if I ask him to explain it to me. He seems like a nice guy.”

“Good. And Steve? Take care of yourself!”

“I will.”

With that he hung up and Winifred was left alone to imagine what he was up to, wherever he was right now.

 

A few days later Winifred was sitting in front of her mirror and put the last of the hairpins into her hair when someone knocked on the door.

“Come in,” she called and turned around.

Mrs. Ainsley stuck her head through the doorway.

“Mrs. Barnes, your grand-daughter is here to pick you up.”

“Thank you, tell her I'll be down in a minute.”

She wasn't sure which of her grandchildren Mrs. Ainsley referred to. Robert didn't know who would get her when she had last talked to him. Only that someone would come and drive with her to their family reunion. (Since when they had family reunions, she didn't know. And in Manhattan, no less! She didn't like Manhattan, never had.)

Winifred took one last look in the mirror. Her hair was made up in a nice but simple hairstyle, combined with a very light make-up. She even wore the pearl earrings and silver necklace George had given her for their 40th wedding anniversary.

In the last couple of years she hadn't really bothered with such things. Not that she had been neglecting herself. No. She just hadn't really seen the point of it. Only recently she had made more of an effort. (If anyone asked, she would say, she just felt like it. But in reality, she had done it for Steve. Had tried to look more like her old self, the one he remembered, to make him feel more at home. To her own surprise she found that she liked it, too. Like she was getting some of her younger self back.)

Satisfied with what she saw, Winifred got up with the help of her new walking stick. She wasn't entirely sure how she should feel about that thing. There was no denying its use, but she felt older with it.

Never mind that now, she thought while getting her hat, there was enough time to think about the matter later on.

Before she put on her coat, she smoothed out the wrinkles in her blue dress and smiled. She liked that dress, always had. And she was a little proud of herself that it still fit.

Nodding to herself, she took her purse and locked the door behind her. After a short consideration, she went down the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Short walks and little exercise were good for her. At least, her doctors said so. And it was only one flight of stairs.

Her great-granddaughter Susanna was waiting for her in the lobby.

When she saw Winifred, she came over to her and gave her a short hug.

“Hi, Gran.”

“Hello, dear.”

“You look very nice. Got a new dress?”

Winifred grinned. “No, actually. I just felt like wearing it again.”

Susanna looked a bit confused, not getting what had been so funny about her question, but didn't ask any further. Just offered Winifred her arm to walk outside.

While they walked down the front steps Winifred said, “I'm glad you changed your hair back. That pink didn't suit you at all.”

Now it was Susanna's turn to laugh.

“Oh, Gran, that was years ago. I was in College, it was a phase.”

“Well, I'm still glad. Although I'm not so sure about that purple streaks.”

Susanna rolled her eyes and opened the door to the blue sedan parked in the drive way.

“I like them,” she said and Winifred could hear a hint of defiance in her voice. Obviously, she wasn't the first to criticize Susanna's hair and knowing Sophie – Georgiana's daughter and Susanna's mother – Winifred could make a pretty good guess at what had happened between the two.

And because she knew Susanna and Sophie were constantly at odds about, well, basically everything, not the least of which was Susanna's decision to quit College to become a Jazz singer in Chicago (Winifred had heard her sing one or two times. She was really good.), Winifred didn't want to upset her any further. So she got into the car and said, “As long as you're happy.”

Susanna seemed pleasantly surprised at her words.

“Thanks, Gran.”

She started the car and Winifred sighed. “So, do you know whose brilliant idea it was to have this little get-together in the middle of Manhattan?”

 

“Here we are, Gran,” Susanna said and stopped in front of a tall brownstone building.

“At least it looks nice from the outside,” Winifred said while she was getting out of the car. “Let's hope the inside is just as nice.”

Susanna wasn't really listening to her, Winifred noticed. Her great-granddaughter gave the keys to a valet while typing on her phone. Winifred sighed. What was it with people and their phones these days?

“Well, I don't know about you but I'm going in,” she said loudly and made her way over to the entrance, waving an eager hotel employee away who had rushed to her assistance.

Susanna came after her. “Sorry, Gran. I know you don't like cell phones.”

“It's not that I don't like them. I just think people give them too much of their attention.”

“I just had to check something real quick. My boyfriend was supposed to …” Susanna started explaining but was interrupted by a broad shouldered man.

“Sorry, I'm late, hon,” he said and kissed her on the cheek.

“No problem, we just got here.” Susanna turned to Winifred. “Gran, this is my boyfriend. Josh. Josh, that's my great-grandmother I told you about.”

Winifred watched as the young man before her straightened even more and extended his right hand to her. His hair was cut short and he had this look about him. She had seen it on George and her brothers when they had gotten back from the war.

“Joshua Harrison. It's an honor to meet you, ma'am,” he said with a hint of admiration and gratitude in his voice. It happened quite often when people found out whose mother she was. It was a bit unnerving. She was nothing special, just the mother of someone special. A hero who had died in service for his country. (And, oh, what wouldn't she give to change that? To have her son save and happy at home. Just one of many soldiers who had come back from the war and whose name meant nothing to the general public. She was proud of him, no doubt, but more than anything she wanted to have her son in her arms, not a commemorated war hero who people learned about in school.)

Nevertheless, she took Josh's hand. It wasn't his fault that she felt conflicted about Bucky's status in the public.

“Nice to meet you, too.”

“Josh is a lieutenant with the Marines,” Susanna informed her with no small amount of pride in her voice.

“Really? Well, thank you for your service, Lieutenant,” Winifred said and meant it.

They entered the building together and were immediately led to an elevator that would bring them up to their floor. Susanna told Josh excitedly about her last performance in a famous night club in Chicago. Winifred watched them closely. She knew that Susanna hadn't been interested in a long term relationship in the past. But the way she looked at Josh and how he looked back at her and beamed with pride when she described the reaction of the crowd gave Winifred the impression that these two had found each other.

The elevator dinged and the doors opened into a room already full with people, numerous tables and a large buffet with enormous amounts of food.

“Grandma!” Robert came over to them and gave her a hug. “I was wondering where you were.”

“Traffic was terrible,” Winifred said and kissed him on the cheek. “It looks very nice,” she added, gesturing to the room in general.

“Yes, doesn't it? Barbara knows the manager, so they put extra effort into the decorations. And we got a discount on the food.”

“Very convenient. Is everyone here, then?”

“Almost. Anna and Stanley are on their way and Jason is picking up Dana, David and Daisy from the airport.”

Winifred nodded and suppressed a smile. Dana was the oldest of Georgiana's three daughters. When she had married David in 1976 there had been the occasional joke about their names: the two D's, D&D, Didi were only some of them. And then three years later their daughter had been born. And what did they name her? Daisy. Of all the names they could have chosen, they settled for Daisy. Mostly, they were known as Triple D now. At least, their last name didn't start with a D.

“I didn't think Stanley would come.”

“He insisted. Said he was well enough for a little trip to New York and Anna didn't have the heart to deny him,” Robert explained, his eyes wandering over the room to check if everything was ready.

Anna was Rebecca's daughter and one year younger than Robert. Her husband Stanley sat in a wheelchair because of a bone disease and had been in and out of the hospital for the last three years.

Some waiter approached him and Robert said to Winifred, “Why don't you go and sit over there, Grandma? I'm sure, Barbara would love to keep you company.”

“I doubt that,” Winifred muttered under her breath while she went over to the arm chair in the corner.

In the next fifteen minutes Winifred observed the room and watched her family bustle around, greeting her and each other. Laughing and joking and casting glances at the buffet. She saw Beth, one of Anna's twin girls, sneak a muffin from the table. When she saw Winifred watching her she grinned and winked at her. Winifred smiled back. Beth always had had a mischievous streak about her.

A voice to her left startled her out of her observations, “Mind if I sit here, Gran?”

She turned around. Kyle stood beside her and waited patiently for her answer.

“Of course. Sit down.”

“Thanks.” He pulled the chair from the table and sat down with a heavy sigh.

“You know, I love all of them but family is always a little exhausting, don't you think?”

Winifred nodded in agreement.

“But that's what they are there for, aren't they? So they can annoy us and we can gossip about them and make fun of them and they can't be mad because they are family and doing the exact same thing.”

Kyle laughed out loud. “Very nicely put, Gran.” He reached for a bottle of water.

“Want some?”

Only now did Winifred realize how thirsty she was.

“Yes, thank you,” she said and took a gulp from her glass, almost choking on the ice cold water.

“How are you doing? Everything alright?” she asked Kyle when she had put down her glass and got her breath back.

“I get by,” he said, humble as ever and making Winifred snort.

“Don't pretend, Kyle. I read an article about you not only two weeks ago. They are loving you.”

Kyle smiled at his lap. “Seems like it.”

“Well, I'm very proud of you,” Winifred assured him and patted his hands. “Your paintings are beautiful. Truly. A friend of mine thought so, too, when we went to see them.” Steve and her had gone to an exhibition and Steve had been very taken in by Kyle's paintings, his themes and technique. Winifred didn't know much about art herself, but she had always liked Kyle's paintings and she trusted Steve's judgment.

“Is your mother here? I haven't seen her.” Just when she had asked, a brown haired woman in a yellow dress came over to them.

“There you are, pumpkin. I've been looking for you,” Maggie, Georgiana's youngest daughter and Kyle's mother, said and gave her son a hug and a kiss before turning to Winifred to greet her, too.

Maggie and Kyle always had a special bond. Only eighteen years and not married, it had been quite a scandal in their family when Maggie had gotten pregnant. The father had taken off as soon as he had heard about the pregnancy and they hadn't heard from him since. Winifred didn't think Kyle missed the father he had never known anyway. And Maggie certainly didn't after she had gotten over the initial heart-break. She and Kyle had always been enough for each other. Maggie had evolved from a timid girl into a resolute woman who had defended her son against anyone and anything. Even her own family when they had said she was too young to raise a child on her own.

At the time, Winifred had only once stated her opinion on the matter, siding with Maggie but ultimately feeling that the girl had had to fight her own battle. She had assured her of her support and also told her that it wouldn't be easy but that she could do it.

In the background, a band started to play some sort of music Winifred didn't recognize. Winifred contemplated taking a nap when she saw Robert getting up, coughing loudly to get everyone's attention. It took a few minutes before the room was silent.

“First of all, thank you for coming today. I know, everyone is busy and has things to do, so I think I speak for everyone when I say we appreciate that you all took some time off for the family. Or, at the very least, for the free food.”

Laughter filled the room.

 

Winifred sat in her comfy armchair and watched the people, her family, flutter around in this large room high up in a building with a breath taking view of New York's skyline.

The food had been cleared off the tables half an hour ago and now everyone was circling around the room, chatting with each other and getting updated on the latest events in their lives.

At the table to Winifred's left, Jason's wife Macy was chatting with Chloe, Beth's twin sister, and Sophie about being a mother and how time consuming it was. Winifred suppressed a snort. Macy had one child, her mother lived close by and was willing to babysit at any time, and she had enough money to pay for a nanny. Currently, little Jonas was sitting on his aunt's knees, happily playing with her hair.

“He is so cute,” Lacy said and tickled her nephew. (Winifred had never met the girl before, only heard about her a few times. She wasn't sure why she was at their family reunion. If she had to guess, she would say to look after Jonas.)

“I can't wait to have kids!”

Macy looked horrified at her sister.

“You're sixteen! You shouldn't even be thinking about that!”

Sophie nodded in agreement. “Your sister is right. You should finish your education first and get a job.”

And for some unfathomable reason Sophie turned to Winifred and said, “Don't you agree, Grandma?”

Winifred couldn't help the chuckle escaping her.

“Well, I don't know if you should talk to me of all people,” she said. “I got pregnant at 16. And I wasn't married then.”

Of course, George had married her as soon as she had told him. But he had been a decent man and had loved her very much. She could very easily have ended up alone with a baby and no money, shunned by society, if she had fallen in love with a less honorable man. To this day, she remembered how devastated and nervous she had been about telling George about her pregnancy.

Winifred sat on her bed in her tiny bedroom and cried into her pillow. This couldn't be happening. How could she be pregnant? She had only been with George that one time. That wasn't enough to get her pregnant, right? There were couples, who were married for years, and had no children. Like Mr. and Mrs. Jones from the grocery store. Or the butcher and his wife, the Petersens. Surely, Winifred wasn't expecting a child. Her body was just playing tricks on her. She tried to tell herself that. For weeks, she had tried to convince her brain to believe this. But in her heart, she knew. She knew there was a new life growing inside her. She could feel it. And with every passing day, that feeling grew stronger and stronger.

She had to tell George. And her parents.

But what if he didn't want her? If he went away and left her here?

Her Dad would be so mad and her mother so ashamed of her daughter.

A fresh wave of tears rolled down her face. Winifred hugged the pillow tighter to her chest, rocking back and forth. She was so scared, she didn't know what to do!

There was a short knock at her door before it opened and James stuck his head through.

Winnie, Ma said to come down to help with …”

Her older brother interrupted himself when he saw her puffy eyes.

Immediately, his face darkened and he closed the door behind him before sitting down beside her.

Tell me what happened! Who hurt you?”

No … no one,” she hiccuped.

Don't lie to me, Win. You have to tell me what …”

He interrupted himself and grabbed Winfred by the shoulders, forcing her to look at him. His eyes had darkened even more.

Was it George? Did he … do something to you?” he whispered, a dangerous edge to his voice.

NO!” Winifred shook her head. “He didn't do anything! I promise, Jimmy. Nothing happened. Nothing that I didn't want, too,” she added in a silent whisper. But James had heard her anyway. His eyes narrowed for a moment before they widened in comprehension.

Oh, Winnie, what did you do?” he asked and pulled her into his arms.

Winifred cried into his big strong shoulder.

I'm sorry. I didn't mean to … We were just … and then … and I didn't think …”

Shhh, it's okay. Everything's gonna be alright.”

They sat like that for a long time, Winifred crying her heart out and James holding her and whispering reassurances.

Winifred Rosemary Miller!” her mother screamed from downstairs. “If you're not down her in the next two minutes …”

Winifred winced and shot up from the bed.

I … I’ll be down in a minute, Ma,” Winifred yelled back while rubbing at her face with her sleeve.

Win, you have to tell them,” James said while he watched his sister bustle around the room.

I know, I know. I just …” She turned back to her brother, begging him with her eyes to understand. “I have to tell George first.” She sat down again and took his hand. “You won't give me away, right?”

James shook his head and pinched her arm, grinning.

Course not. But don't wait too long.”

 

It took Winifred a couple more days to find the courage but eventually she went into the stables were George was mucking out Bessy's and Cindy's box, their two Suffolk horses who were currently plowing the field down by the river with Winifred's father and brothers.

Winifred sat down on the bale of straw in front of the box and watched George while he worked. He hadn't seen her yet, concentrating on the task before him. His dark hair fell into his eyes every time he bent over the pitchfork and every time he brushed it away with the back of his hand, unknowingly leaving dark smudges all over his face. Winifred smiled, her heart beating faster in her chest. She loved him. Simple as that. And she was carrying his child under her heart.

At last, he noticed her.

With a beaming smile, he said, “Didn't see you come in. How long have you been sitting there?”

Not long. Few minutes, maybe.”

Winifred took a deep breath, her heart beating hard against her ribs for an entirely different reason than before. She had to tell him. Now! She opened her mouth and … no sound came out. She was so scared! What if he left? If he didn't love her like he said he did? If he didn't want a child and would just leave? He could. He wasn't from around here. Was just traveling around, staying were he found work. Five month ago, he had appeared on their farm, asking for work in exchange for board and lodging. Normally, her father didn't take on extra help. Winifred's three brothers were enough to manage the farm, but Jack had broken his leg just days before so her father had agreed. And because George was a good worker, an amiable young man and not asking for much he had stayed on even after Jack's leg had healed. In the following months, when Winifred had brought lunch out to the field, in the evening when the work was done, at Sundays after church, they had gotten to know each other better and better. Winifred had slowly but steadily fallen in love with him and to her delight and surprise, he returned her feelings. (She had no illusions about her looks. She was by no means ugly, but not very pretty either. Just average. Even if George vehemently disagreed.) And now she might lose him.

When she didn't say anything, George came over to her, his forehead creased in worried lines.

What's wrong, love?” he asked, crouched down in front of her and took her face into his hands.

She looked into his blue eyes, full of love and trust. (She didn't know it at the time, but their son would inherit those beautiful eyes.)

I … We … we are having a baby,” she finally whispered.

Surprise washed over his face and his mouth dropped open.

He sat back on his heels and stared at her with an expression on his face she couldn't read.

And then, after what felt like an eternity, he sprang to his feet. In the first horrible seconds she thought he would ran away. Instead, he lifted her up into his arms, spinning her around and laughing like a child.

That's wonderful! So wonderful, my beautiful moon-flower!”

Winifred laughed out loud. Relieve flooded through every fiber of her being.

George! I'm getting dizzy!”

Immediately, he sat her down and covered her face with kisses.

You have no idea how happy you make me. I love you so much, my moon-flower,” he said, his voice so full of joy that she could practically feel it radiating off him. His happiness was catching and for the first time Winifred felt all her worries fall away from her.

Suddenly, George dropped to his knees and stared up at her like she was the most beautiful and precious thing he had ever seen.

Will you marry me, Winifred? I know I don't have much to offer, but I promise I will devote every second of my life to your happiness. And the little one's, too, of course. I love you so much. Will you marry me?”

Winifred couldn't help the joyful laugh that escaped her. That he even had to ask!

Of course I will marry you, silly!” she said, her eyes filled with tears of joy.

Winifred smiled fondly at the memory. It still warmed her heart how happy George had been. Of course, there had still been some obstacles to overcome. Telling her parents, for example. Her Daddy had been so mad and had nearly shot George on the spot. He might have had if James and Matt hadn't stopped him. It had taken three hours of talking, screaming and crying and George's constant promises that he would marry Winifred as soon as possible. In the end, her father had grudgingly welcomed George into the family and they had married the next month.

“I had no idea, Gran,” Chloe interrupted the silence and surprised glances between the women at the table. Winifred hadn't noticed anything of that while she had been lost in her memories.

“So, you only married Grandpa because you were pregnant?” Sophie asked, a little devastated at this news. Winifred smiled and patted her hand. Sophie had adored her grandfather. And even if she had been only a little girl when George had died, she kept his memory close to her heart and had named her oldest son after George.

“Of course not, my dear. Your grandfather loved me very much and he was so happy about becoming a father. We may have had to marry in a rush, but he always intended to marry me.”

Sophie visibly relaxed, her view of the world restored once more.

 

Winifred stood up from her chair and went over to the window. She needed to stretch her legs for a moment. Looking outside, she watched the bustle down at the street. What a peculiar feeling to be so high up that everything shrank to the height of toys.

Her contemplations were interrupted by little hands that crashed against the glass beside her knees.

A tiny voice squealed in delight, “So high up! Like birds! And clouds! And planes! Look, Granny!”

Winifred smiled at the pure joy of the small boy beside her.

Before she could say something, Henry, Georgiana's grandson and Sophie's son, appeared beside her and scooped his son into his arms.

“Danny, don't run away from me like that, okay?” He glanced at Winifred. “Sorry, Gran.”

Winifred shook her head. “Don't be. It's nice to see so much happiness.”

Danny, who hadn't listened to a word of his father, was still enthralled by the outside world and babbled happily about everything he found interesting.

Henry smiled at her before he concentrated on his son and admired a helicopter that hurtled through the air a few feet over their heads.

A commotion at the other side of the room drew their attention away from the window.

“Cake!” Danny screamed excitedly when he saw the waiters carrying in trays filled with cake and biscuits.

He wiggled in his father's arms until he set him down and raced trough the room.

“Be careful!” Henry called after him before he sat down on a nearby chair with a sigh.

Winifred sat down beside him and patted his hand.

“You look tired, my boy.”

“Do I?” Henry laughed, then sighed again and rubbed a hand over his face.

“I guess I am. I love Danny with all my heart, really, but … it's just hard. Sometimes.”

Winifred could well imagine that. Danny was born with … what was it again? Winifred always forgot the right term. They hadn't had a word for it, back in her time. Not right in the head, that had been the common way to describe them.

Down syndrome! That's what it was called.

Danny had down syndrome. Henry and his wife, Jenna, had been shocked, as well as everyone else in the family. In the beginning, at least. After some time, when things had settled down a bit, everyone had grown to love this little bundle of sunshine. Especially Henry was very proud of his little boy. He and Jenna had bought a small house in New Jersey with a garden and surrounded by trees. Winifred had immediately liked it the first time she had visited.

The little family had adjusted to their situation and seemed to be happy.

Until two years ago when Jenna had suddenly decided she couldn't do this anymore and had left Henry and Danny. She lived in LA now, as far as Winifred knew, and Henry had full custody of Danny and no contact with his ex-wife.

“I mean, Mom and Dad help me a lot. And I'm on desk duty, so that makes everything easier, too.” Henry was a police officer and as soon as he knew he was becoming a father he had put in a transfer request.

“But in the end it's just me. And Danny has so much energy. Which is great, really. But it's hard to keep up with him at times, you know, and there are some people who are just …” He started to ramble and his voice had taken on a defensive note, so Winifred placed a hand on his arm.

“Henry, you don't have to explain yourself to me. Being a working single parent is always hard, even if your child doesn't have a disability. And don't listen to what other people say. You're doing great.”

Henry looked at her, then shook his head.

“You know, Gran, you never cease to amaze me. In your age, one would assume you're the most prejudiced, given the time you grew up in. But no. You're so understanding and open minded about Danny. Even right after he was born you just said how beautiful he is. And I guess, what I really want to say is: Thanks, Gran.”

Touched by his words, Winifred squeezed his hand.

“Thank you, my dear.”

They watched Danny crawling underneath the chairs and giggling when people startled upon his sudden appearance.

After a while Winifred said, “You know, your Grandpa George had a brother who was like Danny.”

“What?” Henry stared at her in surprise. “Really?”

“Yes. His name was Joe. Joey. He was two years older than George. I only met him a couple of times. He was such a sweet man, even if most people weren't very nice to him. It was a different time. Normally, when a child was born like that they were locked up in some hospital or at least kept at home and separated from society. Not Joey, though. He and George grew up with their grandfather and when Joey was older he helped their Granddad in his shop. He was a baker and Joey helped with the baking, swept and cleaned the shop and delivered packages and things.”

A picture of Jo ey Barnes appeared before her eyes: laughing and singing songs he had heard in the radio, covered in flour, and a round white cap on his head. George had loved his brother very much and had been devastated by his death in the mid-twenties. His Granddad, Buchanan Barnes, had died a few months later. Peacefully and in his sleep with the certain knowledge that the grandson, who had needed him the most, was waiting for him on the other side and that the other had a family of his own and wouldn't be left alone in the world when he was gone.

Danny came running back, hugged his father's legs and placed his head on his knees. Henry grinned and tickled his son, who started laughing and gasping for air.

Suddenly, there was a loud crackling sound from outside. Everyone turned around in confusion to look out the window. Winifred frowned when she saw the huge light beam coming from Stark Tower.

“What the hell is going on over there?” George voiced all their thoughts just as a hole ripped into the clear blue sky. Swarms of spaceships flew out from god knows where, filling the air with fire and explosions. Wreckage fell to the ground, hitting people, cars and buildings. Seconds after that, the spaceships were flying through the streets, shooting at everything that moved. Dust filled the air, making it impossible to see what exactly was happening. Between the crashes and explosions, screams could be heard of anyone who wasn't fast enough to take cover.

There was barely time to take all of this in before chaos erupted around Winifred.

Some were running to the elevator while others huddled into a corner. Someone shouted. A table was knocked over. Danny started crying beside her, confused and scared of the battle outside. Henry held him close to his body and whispered reassurances into his ear.

George ran over to them. He grabbed his brother by the arm and pulled him up.

“Come on, we need to get out of here. You too, Gran.”

“Yes, of course,” Winifred mumbled and got to her feet. She was still stunned at what was happening. If she hadn't talked to Steve and heard him talk about armies and aliens from space, she wouldn't have believed what was happening now right before her eyes. Leaning on her cane, she followed the two brothers to the other side of the room, away from the window.

Another loud explosion sent them all screaming to the ground. The aliens had jumped through the windows of the opposite building. The streets below were engulfed in flames, blue lasers and gunfire mowing down everything and everyone.

Winifred felt fear grip at her heart. Paralyzing, cold fear. Many times in the past years had she wanted to die, had wished for death to find her at last. But not like this, not now!

“Everyone, stay calm!” A loud voice boomed through the room, silencing them all.

Josh had climbed on a table to get their attention. His face was hard, his eyes focused and determined and his voice allowed no objection. This was a man who had seen combat, who had experienced violence and death, who knew what to do and who was used to leading. Winifred was eternally grateful to Susanna for bring her boyfriend to their family reunion.

“We need to get out!” Jason called angrily from the elevator. “Now!”

“Yes, but not in a panic and not out there,” Josh said and pointed to the window. Winifred couldn't help but agree with him. It was war out there. They had a better chance at survival by staying inside.

“We would be running straight into the line of fire,” Josh continued. “And taking the elevators is out of the question. The electricity fails and we are stuck in there. The stairs are just at the other end of the room. Get over there as fast as you can and stay as far away from the windows as possible!”

The last part of his words were nearly drowned out by the noise from outside. More and more aliens landed on the ground, lightning crackled through the air and for a blink Winifred thought she saw a blond guy in a red cape flew by. The next second a giant space monster, larger and scarier than anything she had ever seen, flew through the streets. They all ducked to the ground and under the tables, taking cover were they could find it. Winifred heard whimpering beside her and tucked Sophie under her arm.

“It's alright. Don't be afraid,” she whispered into her granddaughter's ear, not able to locate the source of calmness that came over her. Her family needed her. It wouldn't do to panic or collapse, she had to be strong. Like she always had been.

Susanna crawled over to them. “Are you alright?”

“We're fine,” Winifred answered for the both of them. “But not for long if we stay here.”

Together, they started to make their way along the walls. The door to the stairs seemed so far away.

Every now and then, Winifred glanced around, making sure everyone was still safe and on the move. She could see Jason with his little family, white faced and scared, hidden behind an overturned table. His siblings, Justin and Annabelle, were with him and Robert and Barbara only a few feet away from them. Beth and Chloe were with Maggie and Kyle and had nearly reached the door while George, his wife Paula and Henry with Danny in his arms were still by the elevator. Dana and David helped Anna with Stanley in his wheelchair while Daisy clutched a first-aid kit to her chest, her small face twisted in fear.

Josh was encouraging them all to hurry up while at the same time keeping an eye on the windows. As far as Winifred could see no one was near them. Good. They would make it all out of here alive. They had to!

More explosions, flashes of light and shock waves outside drew their attention and Winifred once again had to fight down her fear. It seemed like an eternity when everyone was gathering at the door. Just when David had wrenched it open and prevented it from falling shut with a piece of wood from one of the chairs a loud crash ripped through the air, much louder than the ones before. Glass splintered and a body landed hard on the ground. Screams and cries filled the room and Winifred thought this was the moment she was going to die. The moment she would see her lost loved ones again. And then she realized that it was by no means an alien that had crashed through the window to slaughter them all. Instead, a man clad in leather and with a bow in his hand lay groaning on the floor before he rolled into a crouch and onto his feet. Only then did he register the group of people in the corner.

A couple of seconds they blinked all in surprise at each other before the man yelled angrily, “What the hell are you still doing here? Didn't you see what's going on out there? Get out!”

Winifred huffed. “What does it look like we're doing, young man?” she snapped at him. She would have given him a piece of her mind if the situation had been different. Hopefully, she would get that chance later on and could teach him some manners about dealing with people in emotionally stressful situations. (And what on earth was the bow for? The old saying of bringing a knife to a gun fight came to her mind.)

Another explosion reminded them all of the danger they were still in. The rest of the windows blew into a million tiny pieces by the shock wave. The man came running over to them, covering his face with his arms against the spray of broken glass. (His bare arms were cut instead and Winifred wondered for a brief moment who had put together his uniform.)

Then there was no more time to wonder about anything for in just that moment an alien jumped in and started shooting. Screaming, they threw themselves forward and Winifred heard someone tumble down the stairs and the crack of a broken bone a few feet away from her. Josh threw a table into the air just in time so that the laser from the alien didn't hit Susanna. The table was pulverized in an instant.

“Go, go, go!” screamed the man with the bow and used that archaic weapon to ram it into the alien. Out of nowhere, he drew a knife and decapitated the hideous thing. That was the last Winifred saw before she stumbled out of the room and down the stairs, being held upright by Beth at her side.

 

Chapter Text

Family Tree


Names with * have some additional information below.

Buchanan Barnes 1847-1924

|

Jacob 1870-1904

oo

Margret 1875-1902

|

Joe (Joey) 1895-1924

George 1897-1960

Frank Miller 1872-1934

oo

Dorothy 1875-1950

|

Matt* 1894-1968

James* 1896-1921

Jack* 1898-1918

Winifred 1900

George oo Winifred

James Buchanan (Bucky)

1917

Margret

1920 -1955

Georgiana* 1923-2002

oo

Daniel 1920-1998

 

3 daughters

Rebecca* 1925-2010

oo

Harold 1921-2009

 

1 son, 1 daughter

 

 

Dana 1951 oo David 1947

Daisy 1979

 

Sophie 1954 oo Richard 1950

George* 1976 oo Paula

Henry* 1977

Danny

Susanna* 1980

 

Maggie 1955

Kyle* 1973

 

Robert 1954 oo Barbara 1956

Jason* 1978 oo Macy

Jonas

Annabelle* 1981 oo Mike

Kira

Justin* 1985

 

Anna 1955 oo Stanley 1953

Beth* 1980

Chloe* 1980

 

Biographies

 

Winifred and George stayed on her parents' farm for a couple of years before they moved to New York in 1922.

 

Winifred's brothers:

Matt:

took over the farm from their parents

had three children and several grand-children

died peacefully in his sleep

good relationship with his sister although they didn't see each other much in later years

James:

Winifred's favorite brother and the one she was closest to

badly injured in World War I

lived on his parents' farm after the war

traumatized by his war experiences and didn't really talk to anyone anymore but enjoyed spending time with Bucky

Jack:

died in the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918

 

Winifred's children:

Georgiana:

worked as a nurse, met her husband in 1946 in a hospital

Rebecca:

secretary for a newspaper, her husband worked for the Intelligence Service during the war

 

Winifred's great-grandchildren:

George:

paramedic in New York, met his wife, a doctor, at work

Henry:

divorced, full custody of his 5 year old son, police officer in New Jersey

Susanna:

Jazz/Soul singer in Chicago

 

Kyle:

famous artist, asexual, silent type, New York

 

Jason:

business company, Philadelphia

Annabelle:

lawyer

Justin:

studies at MIT

 

Beth:

photographer

Chloe:

elementary school teacher

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: New Beginnings

When asked later, Winifred couldn't say how they all had made it down from the top floor to the lobby. Her memories were hazy, at best. The worry for her family and the fear of being killed had taken its toll on her and she didn't remember making it down the stairs. Exhaustion catching up with her, she had sunk down in a chair as soon as she had heard someone's reassurances that they were all save now. She must have blacked out at some point, too, because the next thing she knew, the face of a paramedic hovered over her, shoving a bright light into her eyes,

“Ma'am, can you hear me? How are you feeling?”

Winifred blinked a few times and grumbled, “A lot better if you stopped blinding me with that thing.”

The man didn't seem fazed by her unfriendly tone but he put the light away.

“Can you tell me your name and were you are?”

“Of course I can. I'm old and exhausted, not demented.”

When he just looked at her unimpressed, she sighed and said,

“My name is Winifred Barnes and I'm in New York for my family reunion, which was interrupted rather dramatically by an alien attack. Given the circumstances, I think it's understandable if I'm a bit wobbly on my feet, don't you think? Now, I would really appreciated it if you could let me know what happened to the rest of my family.”

Before the paramedic had the time to answer her request, someone called out to her. Winifred searched the crowd outside of the ambulance for a familiar face.

A few feet away Beth elbowed her way through a group of people. She reached the ambulance slightly out of breath, climbing over various pieces of rubble.

“Gran, how are you? Are you alright?”

Winifred waved her hand dismissively.

“Yes, yes, I'm fine. What about you? And the others?”

Beth climbed in and sat beside her, still catching her breath.

“Everyone is fine. More or less. A few scraps and bruises. Uncle Robert busted his ankle and Jason has a huge cut on his forehead. It's bleeding pretty badly, but George is taking care of him.”

Winifred sighed in relief. Everyone was fine or would be. No one had died. She wouldn't have to bury one of her family members again. (If anyone was going to die next, it would be her!)

“If you're really feeling fine, then you can go,” the paramedic interrupted her thoughts. He turned to Beth. “But I want you to stay with her.”

“I will,” Beth promised. “Come on, Gran.”

She took Winifred's arm and helped her out onto the street.

Winifred thanked the paramedic and took a few tentative steps before walking with Beth to the other side of the street. There, she sat down on a piece of rubble with a sigh. She might be unhurt and physically fine, but the whole ordeal had still taken its toll on her and she was glad she could sit down without anyone fuzzing over her.

Beth still hovered near by, not leaving her side, following the order of the paramedic.

Winifred was grateful and touched by her great-granddaughter's worry. She really was. But above all else she wanted a few minutes to herself.

She coughed and said, “Beth, my dear, could you do me a favor and get me some water? My mouth feels like sandpaper.”

“Of course, Gran. Be right back.”

And off she went. Winifred followed her with her eyes until she couldn't see her anymore. Only then did she allow herself to slump down a bit. She felt all the events of the past hours weighing heavily on her. How close they all had come to dying, how close she had come to lose her whole family. Maybe she had fallen a bit out of touch with them over the last few years, feeling her age as a burden that had made her bitter and grumpy, but she still loved her family with all her heart. Including all their faults and short-comings. And the thought of losing anyone of them, being the surviving one again, left her with a cold sweat and a racing heart.

No! She couldn't, she wouldn't think like that! They had all survived. There was no need to fall into despair over something that hadn't happened.

Forcing her thoughts away from her dark musings, she focused instead on the city surrounding her. Buildings were still burning, the streets were blocked by rubble and overturned cars. People were covered in dust, paramedics and doctors were taking care of the injured, police officers and firemen helped the victims out of the damaged buildings.

“Here you go, Gran,” Beth said, handing her a bottle of water.

“Thank you.”

Winifred opened the bottle with some difficulties, glad that her hands weren't shaking, and took a few gulps before setting it down again. Sweeping some dust of her dress, she noticed with some regret that the frock had a hole burned into it.

“Well, it's just a piece of clothing, anyway,” she mumbled under her breath.

“Did you say something...” Beth started, but interrupted herself and grabbed Winifred's arm in shock. “Oh my god, is that Captain America?!”

Startled, Winifred looked over to where Beth was staring and sure enough, there was Steve in his distinctive stars and stripes uniform, his shield at his arm. He was talking to a couple of firemen, gesturing wildly to the building in front of him. Even from here she could see the confidence and purpose he exuded.

Before Winifred could make up her mind about calling him over, he had finished his conversation and made his way down the street, coming right their way.

Beth's grip on her arm tightened and she opened her mouth a couple of times with no sound coming out. Winifred remembered the crush Beth had had as a little girl on Steve. Or rather Captain America. Her whole room had been covered in pictures of him and she had been bouncing with excitement when she had learned that her Gran had known Captain America back in the day.

Winifred chuckled slightly at the memory of little Beth begging her for stories about him.

“Don't forget to breath, dear,” she said and patted her great-granddaughter's hand.

Steve was now only a couple of feet away and he still hadn't noticed her, too focused on the tasks at hand: helping the people who were hurt, bringing order to the chaos.

Maybe he would have walked passed them, if Beth hadn't jumped to her feet and started to ramble, “I can't believe it! I always wanted to meet you. I'm a huge fan! I mean … sorry … I didn't … you have other things to do … sorry … I just wanted to say thank you. For saving us today, I mean.”

Steve stopped short in his tracks and looked at her with a confused expression on his face.

A couple of seconds ticked by before he managed to say, “Thanks, I guess. I …”

Only then did he notice Winifred sitting beside Beth and his eyes widened in shock.

“Winifred! What are you doing here?” He dropped to his knees to get to her eye level, forgetting all about Beth.

“Oh god! You were here while the... the Chitauri...You are not hurt, are you?” His eyes searched frantically over her body, looking for any indication of an injury.

“Steve,” Winifred said with a soothing voice she had always used to calm down her children after a nightmare and took his hands into hers.

“I'm fine. Don't worry. Everything is fine. We had our family reunion when those things attacked. But none of us were seriously hurt. And I'm just a little exhausted.”

Steve nodded, the fear not entirely leaving his eyes just yet.

“I forgot that was today …” he mumbled. “Or I would have … I should have …”

Winifred smiled and squeezed his hands.

“Everything is fine, Steve. I'm sure you have more important things to do at the moment. Don't worry about me.”

Steve nodded once more before he got up on his feet again.

“I will come visit you as soon as I can. Tomorrow,” he promised.

She looked into his eyes, full of so many emotions, and smiled at him.

“I'm looking forward to it.”

She and Beth watched him walk over to a bus that was blocking the street and helping the people,who were stuck in it, out.

 

Steve busied himself with helping the people who needed it and pushed his emotions into the farthest corner of his mind. Functioning on autopilot, he helped a woman over to the paramedics, freed a boy and his father trapped between pieces of rubble, wrenched open the door of a car to get the couple in there out and rescued a cat from a burning dumpster.

He cradled the trembling animal to his chest and murmured softly into its ear, “It's okay. You're safe now. I promise. No one will harm you.”

And just like that everything came crushing down on him. He felt his legs go weak and he slid down against the dirty alley wall, the dumpster hiding him from view. He let go of the cat and pressed his hands into his eye sockets.

He started trembling and his breath caught in his throat, reminding him of a time long ago when his body had been frail and threatening to fail him every day.

He tried to calm himself down, to tell himself that everything was fine. But it didn't work. The pressure just kept building and building. He didn't know why it hit him so hard: the fighting, the explosions, the destruction, the dead bodies. It all brought up memories he had thought he had buried deep inside of him. But all of a sudden, they were dragged into daylight. And he couldn't take it. Couldn't take the memories of the war, of seeing good men die, of his friends being hurt in their fight against Hydra. The memory of Bucky's scream pierced through his brain and mixed with all the noise of the battle today. It was too much. It was all too much.

Tears filled his eyes and Steve started sobbing, his face buried in his hands. His lungs still refused to function properly, leaving him gasping for air.

Just breath, Stevie. Breath for me, okay? In and out. I'm here. It's okay.”

Bucky's voice whispered in his ear. Calming and soothing, a memory from a lifetime ago. And it still helped seventy years later. Steve felt his mind calm down, the pressure inside him subsiding. He took a few more deep breaths and leaned his head against the brick wall behind him. In and out. In and out. Just breathing for a couple more minutes and the last remains of the crushing pressure left his body.

There had been no time to take a step back and think during the battle itself and Steve allowed himself to do that now. Everything was fine. Well, not everything. People had died. But they had saved so many more and had defeated Loki and his Chitauri army. His mind wandered, landing on Winifred at last.

Seeing her sitting there among the chaos, ruffled and a little worth for wear but otherwise fine, had shocked him more than anything else he had seen today. He had thought her save in her home, far away from all the fighting when in reality she had been right in the middle of it. What would he have done if anything had happened to her? If she had died? He would never have forgiven himself. She had become so important to him. A grounding presence, the one constant he could count on. He couldn't lose her.

With a new conviction he got up from the ground. He hadn't been able to protect her today, but he would be damned if he let anything else happen to her. Not when he could do something about it.

He stepped out of the alley and nearly collided with Tony.

“Capsicle! There you are!” the billionaire said and clapped him on the back. “Been looking all over for you. We had a shawarma date, remember? The others are already there and if we don't hurry, Thor will probably eat the joint empty and I deserve something nice what with everything I have done. Chop-chop, Captain.”

With a shake of his head and half a smile Steve followed him down the street.

 

Winifred sat in the common room and watched the news. Her hands were clenched in fists of rage as she heard Senator Boynton talk.

“These so-called heroes have to be held responsible for the destruction made to the city. This was their fight. Where are they now?”

How dare he? The Avengers had saved them all! Without them, who knew how many more people would have perished. And blaming them for the destruction? Unbelievable! Those monsters had destroyed the city. How anyone could think otherwise was beyond her.

Before she could form words fitting to her outrage, a loud voice carried through the room, “This good-for-nothing piece of shit! Who does he think he his? He probably cowered behind his desk while they risked their lives for us!”

Surprised, Winifred turned around to see who felt as strongly as she did over this. She hadn't realized anyone beside her had even been paying attention to the TV playing in the corner.

Scanning the room, she spotted three men in the chairs by the window front. Winifred had seen them before, but hadn't actually talked to them. They were relatively new, arriving together just a few weeks back and although not unfriendly or unsocial toward the other residents, they kept mostly to themselves. As was her habit, Winifred hadn't taken any extra effort in getting to know them but now she was curious. Getting up with the help of her cane, which she had to rely on more and more since the ordeal with the aliens, she made her way over to them.

“Keep your voice down, Artie, or that old hag will tell you off again.”

“What do I care? I'm old and can say what I want.”

“Yeah, well, don't come crying to me when you don't get dessert. Again.”

Winifred smirked at the exchange between the three friends.

“I wouldn't worry too much about that,” she said while stepping closer. “Zelda never eats her's and is always glad to trade.”

Startled, they turned around to her.

“Sorry for eavesdropping,” Winifred apologized before they had the chance to say something, because her mother had raised her right. “I heard what you said about that sorry excuse of a senator and only came over to tell you how right you are.”

The one who had shouted – Artie – grinned at his friends.

“Would you look at that? See, Phil. We would never have met this lovely young lady today if I had kept my mouth shut.”

At that, Winifred laughed out loud. Young lady? Hardly. She would bet everything she owned that she surpassed them by several years. None of them looked older than eighty.

“I haven't been young for a very long time, but thank you for the compliment.”

Artie lifted an imaginary hat and took a bow.

“You're very welcome. But where are my manners? Please, sit.” He pulled a chair back and Winifred sat down with a grateful smile.

“My name is Arthur Jones and these two are my pain-in-the-ass friends Philip Smith”, he indicated to the one who had reprimanded him for shouting. Philip nodded at her with a grin.

“And Albert Gaines.” The third of the three smiled at her and leaned forward in his wheelchair to shake her hand.

“Pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Winifred said. “I'm Winifred. Winifred Barnes.”

She noticed the slight widening of their eyes and the quick glances they shot each other. There seemed to be a silent conversation going on and Winifred waited for them to make a decision who would ask the question she knew would come. Her money was on Arthur. He seemed to be the most direct and out going of the three. To her surprise it was Albert who spoke up first. And his words weren't what she had expected at all.

He sat up straighter in his chair and said with sincerity, “It's an honor to meet you, ma'am. My father was in the 107th with your son. He always spoke with the highest regard of Sergeant Barnes. From what I have heard, he was one of the bravest.”

Winifred was speechless for a moment at such heartfelt words.

“Thank you. That's … that's very kind of you,” she managed to say at last and reached over to pat his arm.

She didn't know what else to say and was glad when Arthur spoke up, “I don't know about you, but I could do with a drink. That asshole senator will not ruin my day.”

“You're not allowed to drink, remember?” Philip remarked but he already got to his feet.

“Will you join us, Mrs. Barnes?” he asked with a polite smile.

“Of course she will!” Arthur exclaimed. “We have to stand united, don't we? We old geezers. Against those assholes on TV who think they know what sacrifice and fighting means.”

“Really, Artie,” Albert said and shook his head. “Sometimes I wonder if the explosions and the heat in 'Nam didn't shook something lose in your head.”

Arthur laughed and slapped him on the shoulder while he pushed Albert's wheelchair.

Winifred's head was spinning a little as she walked with them over to the elevator, somehow included without agreeing to join them. But she didn't mind. These men were an odd trio. Nothing like the other residents. She was intrigued by them and wanted to get to know them better.

An hour later Winifred found herself sitting on a comfortable couch in Phil's room, giggling like a school girl with a glass of strong whiskey from Arthur's – or Artie as she now called him – secret stock in her right hand.

 

Steve walked through the park in search of Winifred. He spotted her sitting on a bench under a group of ash trees. Sunglasses and a big straw hat shaded her face from the light. Steve couldn't help the grin spreading across his face.

When he was within earshot, he asked innocently, “Rough night?”

Winifred pushed her glasses down her nose and glared at him across the rim.

“You may be a grown man, Steve Rogers, but you are never too old to be put over my knee.”

Still smiling, he sat down beside her. “I didn't say anything.”

“Good.”

After a beat of silence, he said, barely able to hide his amusement, “So, what happened? Because I met some guys inside, who told me where to find you. They didn't say anything specific but, really, they looked a lot like you do and if I didn't know any better I would say you had one too many last night.”

That earned him a smack over the head.

“Sorry, sorry. I won't say another word,” he laughed and rubbed his head. “But you have to admit, it's kind of hilarious that you of all people got completely wasted.”

Steve pictured Bucky in his head, finding his mother with a hangover after a night out on the town with three guys. He would have laughed himself silly!

“I mean, you lectured Bucky for two hours straight after the bet with Jim O’Donnell where he drank half a bottle of Gin in ten minutes.”

Winifred scoffed. “He was fifteen and vomited all over the rug,” she said, trying to sound mad, but Steve could hear the fondness in her voice.

“Yeah, you made him clean it up immediately and the whole kitchen, too. He never touched a drop of Gin after that. Got green in the face even thinking about it.”

Chuckling softly, Winifred patted his hand.

“If only he had extended that attitude to all other drinks, too. Wasn't the last time he got drunk that day, I'm sure.”

“True,” Steve agreed. “But the last time he let himself get caught by you. Although, I think Mr. Barnes did catch him a couple of times.”

“If he did, he didn't tell me about it. He always said that he and Bucky needed to be a united front against us girls and he let him get away with far too much, if you ask me.”

While she said it, Winifred got a wistful look on her face and Steve let her reminisce for a while, thinking of George Barnes himself and picturing him before his eyes: Not very tall but built like an ox from all the work on the Docks, a belly that had gotten bigger and bigger over the years, making Steve think of a big teddy bear whenever he had seen him, a deep baritone voice that could make you feel warm and loved or tremble in terror either way. The latter hadn't happened very often as George Barnes had been a very cheerful and even-tempered man. Bucky had adored him!

Winifred's sigh brought him back to the present.

“It was very hard when he died and I still miss him, but I'm glad he isn't here anymore. He couldn't have taken it. To bury all of his children, to see them die before his eyes with nothing he could do about it – it would have destroyed him. Losing Bucky and Margie was bad enough for him and all his heart could take.”

Silence fell between them again, only disrupted by the slight whisper of the wind and the distant singing of a bird. Steve wanted to say something, to offer her some comfort, but didn't know what, didn't know how. He knew loss, but not the kind Winifred had suffered in her life.

“Anyway,” Winifred said with another sigh and smiled at Steve. “Enough with the sad wallowing. Any news to tell? Government secrets to share?”
Steve couldn't help the laugh escaping him.

“No secrets, sorry. Maybe next time. For now, everyone is busy finding someone to blame for Manhattan. And with Loki on his way to an Asgardian Prison the Avengers are the next best thing.”

Winifred responded with an angry snort and beat her cane against the gravel path.

“Don't get me started! I saw the news yesterday. Unbelievable!”

Steve shrugged. There wasn't much he could say. Was he mad at the people for blaming them? Of course. Did he want to punch the senator in the face? Very much so. Was there anything he could do? Not really.

“The ones blaming the Avengers are a small group of people, who happen to be the loudest. We saved many lives that day and that's what counts. People will see that, eventually. And if not, what does it matter what people think, right? I know what I did, that's enough.” His voice didn't sound as sure as he would have liked and the sympathetic smile Winifred gave him, told him she was on to him. Thankfully, she didn't ask further about the insecurities Steve tried to bury deep within him. (Had he done enough? Could he have saved more? Were they to blame for what happened? If they had stopped Loki before he tore a hole into the sky …)

Before he could change the subject, Winifred said, “I heard Tony Stark is renaming his tower: Avengers Tower.”

“Yeah, he mentioned something like that,” Steve answered her while thinking back to Tony's ramblings about the topic during the shawarma date (Tony's words, not his). He had tuned out after some time, unable to follow any of Tony's science speak.

“Will take some time though. Not that I know anything about construction, but it looked pretty bad after the battle. At least, it will keep Tony occupied. If he is anything like Howard in that regard, he always needs a project to tinker around with.”

Winifred snorted. “Judging on what I remember from the newspapers about Howard Stark's … exploits and what I have read about his son in the last years, they are very much alike. When it comes to women and parties, anyway.”

On the surface, it sure looked that way: Howard had been notorious for his affairs and his parties and Tony seemed to be the same way. That being said, Steve felt there were some very fundamental differences between Howard and his son. (Not to mention the difficult relationship Tony apparently had had with his father. Steve had to admit, he was curious what exactly the problem between the two had been.)

“I didn't like him at first, but Tony is a good guy.”

Winifred looked at him before she asked softly, “Maybe even a friend?”

It took a while for Steve to answer her. Could he be friends with Tony? And the rest of them? They were all so very different from him and each one with their own baggage to carry.

At last, he said, “Maybe. I don't know. I have to get to know him and the others better first.”

“Well, you have plenty of time for that. Or don't they live in New York?”

“I don't know. Wouldn't matter anyway, because …” Steve stopped and stared at the ground. He didn't know how to tell her. Feeling Winifred's questioning stare on him, he took a deep breath before looking up again and said, “Fury asked me to move to DC. To work at SHIELD Headquarters. And I think, it'll be good for me if I go.”

“Oh.” Winifred looked a bit crestfallen, so Steve hurriedly added, “I will still be visiting you, of course. As much as I can. It's just that … maybe it's a chance for me to …”

“To make a fresh start,” Winifred smiled and took his hand. “Don't worry about me, Steve. I think, it's a great idea. It's high time for you to look forward and make a new life for you. I'm happy for you. Truly.”
A huge weight was lifted from Steve at her words. He hadn't really thought she would be mad or disappointed but had still feared her reaction.

“Thank you. And I will visit. I promise.”

“I'll hold you to it.”

 

A couple of days later, Steve arrived in Washington DC.

It took some time to get used to the city, but in the end his routine didn't really change: he worked for SHIELD, went on his runs, talked with Winifred over the phone.

He went back to New York several times to visit her, met up with the other Avengers, who gradually became his friends. Even Tony. It wasn't perfect and neither the life he had envisioned growing up nor the one he had wanted. It was what he got and he got used to it, even started to enjoy it.

After the shock of waking up in the future, trying to find his footing in a world so different from his own, he finally felt like he had found his place. He still had his moments of insecurity, times when he felt lost again, but all in all, life was good.

 

Pierce shook Fury's hand before he turned around and walked back into his office.

Closing the door firmly behind him, he went over to his desk and pressed the button on the intercom.

“Brenda? Get Sitwell on the line. ASAP.”

“Yes, sir,” came the voice of his secretary.

His phone rang a couple of minutes later.

Pierce picked up after the third ring and, not wasting any time with small talk, commanded, “Jasper, call the Gates and tell them to sent him over, status 1-6. I want him here at 1600.”

“Yes, sir, immediately,” came the rapid reply. “Anything else?”

Pierce hesitated for a moment before he made his decision and said, “Yes. Contact Agent Baker, concerning PI-M:2.23. Time to end it.”

“Yes, sir.”

The connection broke and Pierce leaned back in his chair, satisfied in the knowledge that he had everything under control.

 

Thousands of miles away, at the border of the Gates-of-Arctic national park in Alaska, near Anaktuvuk Pass, a young man huddled closer to the heater in the small laboratory.

When a second man, older than him and clearly his superior, entered, he said, “It's fucking freezing in here. I took this job to get out of the damn cold and now this.”

“You took this job, because there was no other option for you,” his colleague replied.

Just as he sat down beside him, a whirring sound and a ping from the computer in the corner made them look up.

“What now?” groaned the first man. “I swear, if I have to go out again to look for …”

“You will do as you are told,” snapped the second man as he walked over to the desk. His eyes scanned the message and he couldn't help the raise of his eyebrows.

He read it a second time before he said, “Go and get the engines started.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I say so. Now go.”

He watched the younger man go, then made his way to the storage hanger. He had no idea why the heads in Washington wanted him. Since he had started working here several years ago nothing like this had ever happened and now all of a sudden, they were to wake him and sent him all the way to the capital. Orders were orders and it really didn't make a difference to him if he had to watch over a frozen man in cryostasis or not. There were plenty of other things to do for him.

 

The first shreds of awareness flittered through his brain. Cold. So cold. His eyelashes were covered in frost and his breath felt like tiny shards of glass piercing his lungs.

Feeling came back to his limbs like waves washing up on the shores, coming and going until his frozen body gradually started to warm up. Bending his fingers hurt and sent sharp impulses of pain to his brain. He blinked the last remains of sleep away, the ice on his lashes melting away and rolling down his face like tears. He pressed his hands against the hard surface underneath him and pushed himself up. His body screamed in agony at the sudden command of movement to the muscles after years of frozen immobilization. His head spun at the change of position and for a moment black spots filled his vision, clashing with the vast whiteness – the nothing – that filled his mind and wouldn't go away, no matter what he did.

He took a few tentative steps forward before he stopped and waited for his orders.

The Winter Soldier had awoken.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: Memories in Battle

He silently moved to the edge of the building, the shadows embracing him and shielding him from view. The target was in the opposite building, out of his line of fire. For now. He wasn't in a hurry. He had time. And his target would move eventually. He watched as another man climbed through a window of the apartment and saw him round a corner inside. Didn't matter. He would take him out, too. If he had to. The minutes ticked by and he stood frozen to his spot. Not moving a muscle. Just stood and waited, a silent death, his gun ready to fire at his command.

A short flicker of light illuminated the newly arrived blond man before the room was cast into darkness again. The street lamps were the only light source that allowed him to see what was happening.

There. The target had moved. It wasn't a perfect angle. He could see him through the window, but the target wasn't close enough for him to take a direct shot. Didn't matter. Now that he could see him, he could take him out. He shifted slightly, took a small step forward, a hair's breadth away from the edge. His breath slowed down until he was barely breathing at all.

One. Two. Three.

He pulled the trigger.

Once, twice.

The bullets ripped through the brick wall with enough force to still hit his target. He lowered his gun. Mission accomplished.

He watched as the blond man pulled the target out of the way. Too late. He knew he had hit him. If he was still alive, he would be dead in the next couple of hours.

He turned around, intend to leave as quickly and quietly as he had come. That plan was thwarted by a loud crash and the blond man jumping from the window. He smashed through the windows of the floor below him and for a second the soldier was impressed before he started to run, the blond man taking chase.

He wasn't worried or scared, just not in the mood to fight him. His mission was to kill the target and come back. He had done that. Now he needed to get back. There would be consequences for any unnecessary delays. (Pain. So much pain. His own screams filling his ears until his head felt like splitting in two and his throat started bleeding.)

Jumping down, he landed on the next building and came to his feet with a roll. Not wasting any time, he sped down the roof, prepared to take the next jump when he heard his pursuer behind him. A grunt and something whirred trough the air. He spun around and caught the shield thrown at him with ease. He didn't even feel the impact in his metal arm.

The world seemed to slow down and they stared at each other for what felt like a lifetime. The blond man was clearly shocked and confused that he had caught his weapon. The soldier returned his puzzled look with a cold hard stare. For just a second he considered to take him out, so that he was finally rid of him. But he didn't. (Something inside him, something deep down and long forgotten, started to scream, scratching at the walls build up in his mind. Tried to claw its way into the light, to push away the emptiness that constantly filled his mind.) He looked at him for a moment longer before he threw the shield back and jumped off the roof, vanishing into the night.

 

Winifred looked at the cards in front of her. Not a great hand, but if she played it right she could still win. Admittedly, she wasn't the best player to begin with, but years of playing, first with her brothers, later with George on long evenings where the children had been sent to bed, gave her the upper hand more often than not. That and Albert was terrible at Poker and, according to Artie, couldn't bluff his way through a game if his life depended on it. Which was why she knew that her friend had an even worse hand than she did and wouldn't pose an obstacle on her way to victory. They didn't play for money. Where was the fun in that? No. At the moment, the jackpot consisted of a bottle of Whiskey, a cream pie, a pound of coffee and the right to choose the program on the TV in the common room for the upcoming month.

Artie on the other hand was an excellent poker player, but Winifred was determined not to lose to him. As was the majority of the other residents. Artie only watched base ball and re-run's of 'The Beverly Hillbillies' and 'Bonanza' and they already had had a full week of that when Artie had won the wheelchair race against Tommy Cooper from the first floor. Tommy was still sour about that as he sat in a wheelchair since he had lost his legs in a car accident 30 years ago while Artie had borrowed his form Albert. As a result, their poker tournament had gathered a lot of heat and fierce competition. Winifred knew that Gladys had cheated her way through the last round. She was a big fan of 'Days of our Lives' and watched the show with a passion that bordered on obsession.

The staff didn't know about any of this, of course. Since they had started with their home wide games a couple of months back, they all had gotten pretty good at hiding their activities from the nurses as they would put an immediate end to it.

While Winifred contemplated her next move, Phil came over to her with a slightly confused look on his face. He was recovering from a nasty flu and wasn’t participating in the tournament.

He bent down to her and spoke quietly into her ear: “I've got a message for you. Call this number and use the phone in the hall. And don't tell anyone.”

What? Winifred blinked in confusion.

Phil just shrugged and slipped her a piece of paper with a number written on it. Clearly, he had no clue what was going on either.

An uneasy feeling rose in her chest. Something was not right.

“I'm out,” she announced without a second thought and put her cards on the table, not hearing the reactions of the other players as she already made her way over to the entrance hall. The old dial phone there wasn't really used anymore. It was kept more for sentimental reasons as for anything else. Everyone had their own phones installed in their room and some even had cell phones, especially those with grandchildren.

She reached the phone and sat down in the rickety armchair beside it.

Nervously, she looked around. No one in sight.

Taking a deep breath, she picked up the receiver.

It ringed.

After the sixth ring, someone answered.

“Winifred?”

“Steve!” Winifred exclaimed and released the breath she hadn't realized she had been holding.

“What is it with all this secrecy? What's going on?”

And then she added worriedly, “Are you alright?”
“I'm fine. Don't worry about me.” He sounded tense. Something was definitely wrong.

“I can't explain right now. SHIELD's compromised and I have to lay low, so you might not hear from me for a while. I just wanted to make sure you were save.”

Winifred could hardly process what he was saying and answered on autopilot.

“I'm okay.”

“Good. Good.”

He sighed and she could picture him rubbing a hand across his face.

“Steve, are you … you're not in danger, are you?”

The beat of silence that followed told her everything she needed to know.

“Don't worry about me,” he repeated. “I'm with two friends at the moment. I trust them.”

Winifred nodded, forgetting that he couldn't see her. She heard muffled voices in the background and someone saying something about breakfast getting cold.

“I gotta go. I'll call again when I can. Be careful!”

And he was gone.

Bewildered and scared, Winifred sat in the hall and tried to make sense of this whole conversation.

 

“Tell me again what he said,” Artie asked while pouring her a glass of Whiskey and sliding it towards Winifred.

Winifred took the glass, but didn't drink.

“Nothing much, really. Just that he had to go underground for awhile, because he couldn't trust SHIELD anymore. And he called me to make sure I was save,” Winifred explained not for the first time this evening.

Together with Artie, Albert and Phil, she sat in Albert's living room. Phil had come looking for her after Steve's call, curious why he had Captain America calling him to get her on the phone. When he had found her sitting beside the telephone, white-faced and scared, he had gathered the other two and had whisked her away from all prying eyes.

“And that's everything?” Phil asked.

Winifred took a sip of her drink.

“He didn't say anything else. But he sounded … tense. And exhausted.” An exhaustion that went deeper than any physical strain could reach. What kind of mess had he gotten himself into?

“I think he was mostly worried about me. Though I don't know why.”

“Well, I don't blame him. The last time he was involved in a major fight, you almost got killed by aliens. Of course he's worried about your safety,” Artie said matter-of-factly and emptied his glass in one go. Phil surreptitiously pushed the bottle out of his reach.

Winifred frowned. “That's not true at all. And it doesn't explain why he is worried now. Steve is in Washington, at least I think he is, so how I can possibly be in danger here in New York I really would like to know.” She wanted to add that she wasn't some little old lady and that she could take care of herself, but the fact that she was turning 114 later this year kind of defeated the point of her argument.

“Way I see it, it doesn't hurt to keep your eyes open. If Captain America told me to be careful, I would barricade myself in my room with a shot gun at the ready until he told me to stand down,” Albert chipped in from the window, where he had scanned the drive way through the curtains for the most part of their conversation.

“I'll drink to that,” Artie nodded in agreement and took Phil's still full glass.

Phil rolled his eyes at his friends, but he didn't seem disinclined to their point of view.

“Don't you worry, Win. We've got your back,” Artie promised her with a solemn look in his eyes and raised his glass in salute. And then he added with a wide grin, “It's a Win-Win situation.”

Phil groaned. “Okay, you had enough for today,” he said and wrestled the glass out of Artie's hand while Winifred and Albert laughed at the terrible joke.

“Thank you, Artie. Now I can sleep peacefully,” Winifred chuckled and got up from her chair. “Goodnight, gentlemen.”

“Night.”

“Sleep well.”

“See you tomorrow.”

Winifred closed the door behind her and made her way down the corridor. Albert's rooms were the last of three apartments on this floor and she had to go through the entrance hall to get to the stairs and elevators. On her way, she kept thinking about Steve and the advice of her friends. She couldn't help but think that they were all overly cautious and protective. Why would anyone want to harm her? But she wasn't foolish enough to disregard their concerns, especially Steve's. She didn't want to worry him even more by being reckless. Not that there was any real chance of that. There wasn't much trouble she could get up to in her age. Nonetheless, to put everyone's minds at ease, she would stay vigilant.

While she was lost in her own head she reached the end of the hallway. There was light in the nurses' room. Nothing unusual, even at this late hour. Someone was always there in case of emergencies.

She would have gone past and up to her room, but as fate would have it at just this moment the moon outside broke through the clouds. With a smile on her face, Winifred stepped closer to the opposite window and looked at the trees and flowers. Everything was dipped in a pale silvery light, reminding her of days gone by where she had walked with George in the moonlight behind her parents’ house. He had picked one of the wild flowers growing there and put it in her hair. “My beautiful moon-flower,” he had whispered before pulling her close and kissing her softly. Oh, how she missed him. She had spent so many years without him, but at moments like these his absence hurt like a missing limb.

Raised voices from the nurses' room brought her back into the present.

“Just do as I tell you, alright? They want her taken care of, so we will take care of her.”

Mrs. Ainsley. Why was she still here? As the head nurse and manager of the home she usually left after dinner. Curiosity got the better of her and Winifred crept closer to the open door, staying just out of sight from the two people in the room.

“But why now? And why not wait until she kicks the bucket? She's old as dirt.”

Andrew, one of the nurses. Winifred didn't know him very well as he had only recently started working here.

“Look, I can't tell you more than I know. I got a phone call from higher up and they want her out of the way. They didn't tell me why and I don't care.” Mrs. Ainsley huffed. “Only thing I care about is finally leaving this hell hole. When I took this job, I thought I only had to stay a couple of years tops. But no. Ten years later, the old hag is still alive.”

Winifred couldn't believe what she was hearing. Mrs. Ainsley had always seemed so nice and caring.

“Fine. How do we do it?”

“We have to be clever about it. It has to look like she died of natural causes. Or else her family will kick up a fuss. And probably the media. Most of them might not even know that she's still alive, but we can't count on that. She's the mother of Sergeant James Barnes after all.”

Her ears started ringing and a shocked scream rose in her throat, which Winifred barely managed to muffle by pressing her hand over her mouth.

Steve was right. She was in danger! They wanted to kill her!

But why? What had she done that someone wanted her dead? And had obviously gone through the trouble of putting someone in her vicinity long beforehand? Why? Question after question raced through her head and she nearly missed the next part of the conversation.

“To bad she doesn't drive. Could've rigged the car to make it look like an accident.”

“Thank you, Andrew, if you have any more helpful ideas, let me know,” came Mrs. Ainsley's dry reply.

“I'm just saying. Easiest way to get rid of her. And it worked before, didn't it? I remember reading something about it in the files.”

“If you're talking about Margret Barnes, then yes. That car crash wasn't an accident. But that doesn't help us now.”

Winifred didn't hear anything after that. Her ears were ringing and she was shaking violently.

That car crash wasn't an accident. That car crash wasn't an accident.

Over and over again played the sentence in her head. It couldn't be! No, no, no! They had killed her beautiful baby girl! Winifred wanted to scream until the pain in her heart was gone. Tears were streaming down her face, making it impossible for her to see clearly. Sobbing silently, she backed away from the door. She stumbled down the corridor, her whole body was screaming at her to crumble to the ground. Her vision was blurry from the tears, she didn’t see where she was going. She just cried violently for the daughter she had lost so long ago until she felt her knees give out and blackness taking over.

 

Winifred woke up slowly. Her head felt heavy and it was hard for her to breath. Confused and disoriented, she took in her surroundings. She was lying in her bed. The curtains were drawn, leaving the room in a dim light.

Indistinct voices from her living room told her that she wasn’t alone.

“Hello?” she croaked out. Her voice sounded hoarse and her throat felt scratchy.

There was a slight commotion before the door opened and her friends spilled into the room.

Phil reached her first with Artie close behind and Albert coming in third.

“Winifred! We were so worried about you.”

He sat at her bedside and took her hand in his.

“What happened? Artie found you at the bottom of the stairs last night,” Albert said as he reached the bed.

Winifred frowned.

“I … I don’t know.”

The last thing she remembered was leaving Albert’s apartment. But then what?

Rubbing her forehead, she tried to think.

She had walked down the corridor and looked at the flowers outside. The memory of her and George she had thought of came back to her.

There had been voices. A conversation. In the nurses’ room between Mrs. Ainsley and Andrew.

What had they talked about?

And then it hit her. Oh god!

They had killed her baby. Her beautiful baby girl!

She sat bolt upright and pressed a hand to her mouth as everything she had heard last night came rushing back to her.

She needed to do something! Call the police. The FBI. Anyone.

Her friends jumped back in alarm at the sudden change in her demeanor.

“What is it?” Artie asked tentatively while taking a small step towards her.

Before she could answer him the door opened and Mrs. Ainsley stuck her head in.

“Mrs. Barnes, thank god. You’re awake. The doctor will be looking in on you shortly. I’ve called your …”

She didn’t get any further.

Seeing her face made Winifred snap and she started screaming at the top of her lungs. She grabbed the nearest thing from her nightstand – an empty pitcher of water – and hurled it across the room with a strength she didn’t know she possessed. The pitcher hit the door that Mrs. Ainsley closed just in time and shattered into a million tiny pieces of glass.

“You get out of here, you bitch!” she yelled. “Don’t come near me or my family ever again. I’ll make you pay for what you did. You’ll rot in prison for the rest of your life!”

Hurried footsteps from the other side of the door told her that Mrs. Ainsley had left. Probably to get the doctor to give her a sedative. Oh, Winifred would like to see him try.

Attempting to get out of bed, the other three stared at her in shock.

“What … what’s going on?” Artie, who was never shy for words, finally managed to get out.

She ignored him while she made her way over to her vanity.

“Where is that damn phone?” she mumbled to herself, searching frantically for the cell phone she had gotten for Christmas two years ago. It had to be somewhere in these drawers.

“They won’t get away with this! They can’t! I’ve got to …”

Phil appeared beside her and softly took her hand from the drawer she was about to slam shut.

His voice was gentle as he said, “Why don’t we all sit down and you can explain what happened to us?”

Winifred looked up at him. She could see the concern and worry in his eyes. Artie and Albert behind him mirrored his expression. She opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out. There was a big lump in her throat and tears started to fill her eyes.

“I can’t,” she finally managed to get out. “I have to … to do something. They … they killed her. My baby. They killed her.” Her voice faltered and she had to fight hard to keep the sobs at bay. Not knowing what else to do, she kept searching for her phone. Who she would call when she finally found it, she didn’t know. Her friends stared in shock and confusion as she turned her bedroom upside down. Moving from her vanity to her dresser, she opened the top drawer and froze.

There was a picture staring back at her. She couldn’t remember how it had gotten in here. But there it was. All four of her beautiful children laughing and waving at her. Back then, she didn’t know it would be the last time they would all be together.

Margie, hurry up, we’re only waiting for you,” George yelled from his spot behind the camera.

Five minutes, Pa. Can’t find my lipstick.”

She does know the picture’s gonna have no color, right?” Bucky asked and pulled out his cigarette case. A stern look from Winifred and he let it slide back into his pocket. He knew full well that she didn’t allow smoking in her house. He gave her a cheeky grin and leaned back in his chair.

Where did you get the camera, Pa? Looks expensive,” he said as he watched George fiddle with the lens of the complex device.

Old army buddy. He’s a photographer now down on Sixth.”

And he let you borrow it?” Georgiana chipped in. “Remember when you managed to set the radio on fire?”

Bucky and Rebecca laughed while George huffed in mock-offense.

Wasn’t my fault. Jimmy Clark sold me a faulty one.”

Of course he did. Just like the tea kettle burned a hole into it on its own. Or when we visited Uncle Matt and Aunt Susie and …”

Alright, alright, that’s enough. You lot need to show some respect to your old man.”

George tried to sound strict but failed miserably as he couldn’t keep a straight face.

I’m done, I’m done,” Margie announced while racing down the stairs.

Finally. The time it took you to put on a dress, we won the war. No need to take a picture now. Got into all that trouble for nothing.”

Margie stuck her tongue out at her brother.

Good. Wouldn’t want to be caught on camera with your ugly mug, anyway.”

I’ll have you know there are a lot of gals who happen to like my ugly mug.”

Rebecca coughed and Winifred could swear she heard her youngest daughter mumble, “Steve.”

Can we get on, please? Paul’s picking me up in an hour.”

Bucky rolled his eyes at Georgiana.

You’re still going out with that fat-head?”

For that, he got a slap over the head, messing up Bucky’s hair in the process.

Hey. Watch out.”

Yeah, do you know how long it took him to give it that ‘movie star touch’?” Rebecca quipped.

The other two snorted.

Aww, should have said something, Buck. As your sister, I would’ve gladly helped you to be more pretty,” Margie cooed and patted him on the head.

Bucky slapped her hand away and made a face at his three sisters.

Good thing I’m shipping out tomorrow. Won’t have to hear any more of your yackety-yack.”

Winifred felt her heart constrict at his words. She exchanged a look with George while their children kept squabbling. His face had gone a shade paler and worry shone in his eyes.

They both knew their son had been joking and didn’t mean anything by it, but they were reminded once more that there was a real chance they would never see their boy again. And it terrified them. George cleared his throat before any of the kids could notice their parents’ distress.

Enough already. You all look nice and we’re taking this picture now.”

All four of them stuck their tongue out or rolled their eyes at each other one more time before turning to face the camera. From one second to another, everything was forgotten and they were loving siblings again.

Bucky, dressed sharply in his new uniform and with that charming grin of his, had his arms around his sisters. Margie in her sweeping dark blue dress with the daringly low-cut and her red lips leaned into her brother’s embrace with a blinding smile. Georgiana on his other side, the yellow of her dress fitting perfectly with her sunburned skin, laughed happily into the camera. Rebecca, the youngest of the bunch and the only one of her sisters who hadn’t bought something new for the occasion, instead wearing the red dress with the embroidered collar that Bucky had gotten her for her 18th birthday, smiled brightly with all her teeth showing.

The picture didn’t show any of the brightness of that day. It was chipped and slightly yellowed from age. And yet, when Winifred looked at it she saw the bright colors of her daughters’ dresses before her eyes. Had the sound of her son’s voice in her ear. Heard her children’s laughter while they made fun of each other. Oh, how happy they had been that day. It was the last time they had been that happy. The last time they had been a family. Her heart ached and for a moment all of her energy left her. It would be so easy to just lie down and never get back up again. To let death finally claim her and reunite her with her family. But who would get justice for Margie if she wasn’t around to do it? Even if she told someone, they wouldn’t care about the death of a young woman who had died over fifty years ago. No. She had to be strong and find out what had happened. To find the ones responsible for her murder. She owed that to her daughter.

Closing her eyes, Winifred clutched the picture to her chest.

The weight of everything pressed down on her. The adrenaline rush of the last minutes left her and she felt exhaustion catching up with her. Before everything became too much again she made her way over to her bed and sat down heavily on the mattress.

Her friends hadn’t said anything in the last couple of minutes and had given her the space she had needed, only silently communicating with each other. Now, they cautiously came closer.

Artie even tried to crouch down in front of her, but his knees made a horrible clicking noise and Phil quickly pulled him back on his feet.

For some reason, Winifred found the whole situation endearingly funny and she started laughing.

She didn’t know how her life had suddenly become such a jumbled mess. From one second to another, everything was turned upside down. Old wounds she had thought healed long ago were ripped open again. Only a couple of years back, she wouldn’t have had the strength to deal with it all. But then Steve had come back and had given her joy in her life again. And somehow along the way she had picked up friends, too. These three men, who were so vastly different from each other, it was hard to believe they were friends at all. These men, who had known each other their whole lives and had been there for each other. Be it as soldiers or as husbands and fathers, they had each other’s back. Artie with his boasting nature and happy-go-lucky attitude, never short of a joke to lighten the mood. Phil with his calm and rational thinking, always the one to watch out that things wouldn’t get out of control. Albert, so gentle and kind and loyal to a fault. They were there for each other – one for all and all for one. The three musketeers. Winifred would always be grateful for the friendship she had built with them.

“I’m sorry,” she chuckled and wiped at her tear stained face. “It’s all a bit much.”

“It’s okay,” Artie said and sat down beside her. “I don’t really understand what’s going on, but we will sort it out.”

“Whatever you need,” Albert assured and leaned forward in his wheelchair to gave her arm a squeeze.

She smiled at all three of them.

“Thank you. I …”

She didn’t get to finish. The door flew open with a crash and startled them all. Mrs. Ainsley barged into the room, followed by two bulky, mean looking men Winifred had never seen before.

“Mrs. Barnes, I see you have recovered,” Mrs. Ainsley said with a voice that tried to sound caring, but failed because of the thunderous look on the nurse’s face. “However, I think it best if we get you to a hospital as soon as possible. Just to be safe.”

“No,” Winifred answered immediately. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“I’m afraid that is not your choice to make.” She waved at her henchmen. “These two will accompany you to the car.”

Fear gripped at Winifred’s heart. She was as good as dead, if she went. She knew that. But what could she do? She couldn’t fight against them. Not even in her youth would she have had been able to defend herself against two men twice her size.

“She’s not coming with you lot,” Artie said loudly as he stood up and positioned himself in front of Winifred. Phil joined him without hesitation.

“He’s right. She stays here.”

“What they said,” Albert stated with grim determination, rolling towards Artie’s other side.

A warm feeling filled Winifred’s chest. Her friends weren’t much more of an obstacle than she was, but that they were willing to stand up for her even if they had nothing to do with the situation and didn’t fully understand what was going on warmed her heart.

Mrs. Ainsley pinched the bridge of her nose.

“I don’t have time for this. Knock them down, if you have to. I don’t care. Just get her into the car,” she called over her shoulder as she left the room.

Artie raised his fists at the men.

“Come and get me, if you dare. Thugs like you, I’m eating for breakfast.”

She couldn’t see their faces, but Winifred knew Phil rolled his eyes at his friend’s antics. But he didn’t say anything, just gripped his walking stick tighter and raised it like a weapon.

The two goons started laughing.

“We don’ wanna hurt ya, jus’ step aside now and everythin’ will be fine.”

They didn’t move.

“Fine. Have it your way.”

Winifred didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t let her friends get hurt. She was about to interfere when a loud bang stopped her in her tracks.

For a frightening long second she thought one of the two men had pulled a gun at them. But then she realized that it was Albert who pointed an old Army revolver at their opponents. Gentle Albert who couldn’t hurt a fly.

Everyone, including his two best friends, stared at him in shock.

“You two need to leave now,” he said with a calm voice that stood in stark contrast to the deadly weapon he held with an iron grip in his hand. “Or the next shot won’t miss.”

Nobody moved.

The gun clicked.

“I don’t like repeating myself.”

The man on the left raised his hands placatingly. They clearly hadn’t expected a gun fight.

“Okay, okay, no need to get violent, old man, we’re leaving.”

They backed out of the room, not turning their backs until they were out of sight of the, in their eyes, crazy old men.

Silence filled the room.

Finally, Artie said, “Alby, my friend, I didn’t know you had it in you.” The wonder and astonishment was written all over his face.

Albert just grinned and secured his gun.

“I’m just glad it still worked. Been some time since the old girl last fired a shot.”

Artie laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Me too. Remind me to buy you a drink for saving our bacon.”

Winifred was about to say something, when Phil threw up his arms in exasperation.

“I can’t believe you two! We could have died!”

“And thanks to Albert, we didn’t,” Artie interrupted.

Phil ignored him.

“Where did you even get that thing? And more importantly, why do you carry it around with you?”

Albert cocked his head to the side as if he didn’t understand why Phil was so worked up.

“The Army, of course. Held on to it when we got back from Vietnam. And I don’t carry it around. Normally, it’s in my safe. But when Winifred,” he nodded in her direction, “said that Captain America warned her to be careful I just thought it was good to be prepared. Better safe than sorry.”

Phil shook his head, he mumbled something under his breath Winifred couldn’t make out.

She figured he was less upset about Albert having a gun or about Artie and Albert seeming so casual about the whole ordeal than rattled by the experience. She laid a comforting hand on his arm.

“Thank you. All of you. For what you did.”

Phil gave her a tired smile while Artie waved her gratitude away.

“Don’t worry about it. It was fun, really. Got the old heart pumping again.”

That caused Phil to throw him an annoyed look and he was about to say something, when Albert interrupted them.

“We shouldn’t stay here. They are gone for now, but surely they will come back. Whoever they are.”

That sobered them all up.

“But were can we go?” Winifred asked. She could call one of her grandchildren, but it would take time for them to get here. And even then it would be difficult to explain the whole thing.

Hello, darling, can you pick me up? Someone wants to kill me and threatened to kidnap me just now.’ somehow didn’t seem like the best start.

“Maybe I can help with that.”

They jerked around in shock, expecting another assailant, but no.

Strolling through the door like he just came around for tea, Winifred’s brain needed a moment to conjure up his name. Hawkeye. One of Steve’s friends.

 

When they were close enough the soldier took the jump and landed on the moving car in front of the jeep. The sound of his knees connecting with the roof was the only warning sign for the people inside. He didn't waste any time. With his metal arm he crashed the window and dragged the person sitting there out. Throwing him into the ongoing traffic, the only thing he registered was that he hadn't grabbed one of his two main targets. Moving on.

He pulled his handgun and fired it three times. He knew that he had missed as soon as he heard the sound of ripping fabric instead of tearing flesh and broken screams. Before he could pull the trigger a second time the car was pulled to a sudden stop and he was catapulted through the air. He landed hard on his shoulder, the bones in his body rattled from the impact. Twisting himself around, he broke his slide down the street with his left hand. (Pain flared up in his brain as his fingers dug into the asphalt, but he pushed the sensation away. Pain was bad. Pain was distracting.) Ignoring that he was in the middle of a busy road, he slowly got on his feet and stood still, staring at the vehicle in front of him. He could see his targets inside.

The blond man on the passenger seat stared at him in shock and the soldier recognized him as the one who had chased him earlier. The one with the shield. He saw the redhead raising her gun, but before she could fire it, the jeep with his associates crashed into them and she dropped her weapon. They kept coming towards him with full speed. He didn't move, unafraid and waiting. The second before they hit him, he jumped. Grabbing the top of the windshield, he flew through the air and landed on top of the car again. This time with his body sprawled out and flat on his stomach. Glass shattered and tires screeched. Losing not a single second, he got to his knees, reached down and ripped out the steering wheel like he was plucking a flower. He heard a distant cry and suddenly bullets pierced the metal under his feet. Before any of them could hit him he leaped through the air and landed on the hood of the jeep. His knees connected with the hard surface, sending waves of pain up his legs and spine.

He stayed on the jeep and watched as the other car got hit and thrown off course, hitting the concrete at the side of the road. In an almost elegant arc the car flew threw the air before crashing hard on the ground and rolling further down the street. In all this the soldier never let his targets out of his sight. Not even when they catapulted out of the car with the side door as a makeshift sled. (Something tingled in the back of his mind. He heard children laughing, felt coldness on his skin and a little girl screaming in delight. A hazy image of a snowy street and a wooden sled flashed before his eyes, gone before he could grasp or understand it.)

The jeep came to a stop and he got off. Not wasting a second, but not hurrying either, he took the grenade launcher one of the others handed to him. (He didn't know his name. Or any of the others. He never did. They provided extra firepower, there to make sure he finished his mission. Nothing more.)

With calm indifference he lifted the heavy gun, aimed and took the shot. The blond man pushed the woman out of harm's way and took cover behind his shield. Did he really think that would save him from being torn to shreds? To the soldier's surprise, it did. Instead of leaving nothing but a gory mess of blood and bones to be scratched off the asphalt, the impact sent the blond man flying, throwing him off the street and out of the soldier's sight. Were it anyone else, he would have dismissed him as dead. But he had a feeling that he wouldn't be. Not this guy. Something was off about him. Didn't quite sit right with the soldier. (The clawing desperation deep, deep inside of him that had started to make itself known since the first time he had seen the other man was back. It was like an itch he couldn't scratch. A scream he couldn't let out. A sound he couldn't hear. A sight he couldn't see. He pushed the disconcerting feeling away. He needed to focus on his mission. He had to!)

Bullets rained down left and right of him while he calmly walked down the street, scanning the area before him for the redheaded woman. Glass shattered and metal ripped apart while they closed in on her. There. She stood behind a silver mini van and fired her gun at them. The mini van and the wreckage of her own car separated the woman from the soldier. It didn't make any difference. He raised his weapon a second time and hit the car right were she had stood a second earlier. Before the flames erupted from the now unsalvageable van he saw her jump over the concrete step barrier in the middle of the street. Using the traffic on the other side as cover, she ran down the street, trying to escape. Just when she nearly vanished behind the next car, he took his shot. And missed. He had aimed for her, not the car. Dismayed by his miscalculation, he watched as the following explosion sent her and the car over the side of the bridge and down to the streets below. Fire and smoke rose into the sky, letting the soldier think for a second he had succeeded. But he couldn't take the chance. Had to make sure he killed them both and saw the dead bodies with his own eyes. Or the consequences would be excruciating. (He didn't know if his body or his mind would survive the punishment for failure. Not with the pain already raging through his bones and the feeling of desperation trying to tear his consciousness apart.)

This assignment turned out to be much more difficult than he had anticipated. Whoever his targets were, they were clearly no ordinary civilians. Not wasting any time, he switched the grenade launcher for a machine gun and waited for his targets to appear below him. His gaze wandered. Where were they? He needed to finish his mission and soon. Left and right, no one. Suddenly bullets flew towards him, hitting him in the face but missing all the same. Dropping down, he didn't feel any injuries, but his vision became blurry and unfocused. Not good. He reached his hand up and pulled the cracked goggles from his eyes. The sudden sun light hurt like a nail piercing through his brain. (It wasn't a foreign feeling. A pain that was familiar to him and yet seemed far away.)

For a few seconds, he just stared straight ahead, breathing, not giving any indication of his struggles to the outward world. He could have stayed like this, just sitting and breathing, the sun – although hurting him with her light – warming his skin and chasing the cold away. He could have stayed like this. Forever. If it were up to him. But it wasn't. It never was. He pushed himself up and let death rain down from his spot on the bridge. Not caring who or what he was hitting.

Shots were fired in response to his own almost immediately, forcing him to duck out of the way for a second. Firing at everything that moved, he emptied his gun and watched the woman run away. It was time to take a new course of action.

“Она у меня. Найди его,” he instructed his associates, his voice letting no room for argument, and jumped down the bridge to follow the redhead. The others would take care of the blond man. Or at least contain him, so that he could deal with him later.

The car he landed on couldn't hold his weight, crushing beneath him and sending glass everywhere. He walked on like nothing had happened, laser focused on his target and confident that he would find her. The police car that came speeding in his direction a few seconds later went up in flames. He hadn't even made a conscious decision to shoot. Not stopping on his way, he reloaded his gun and kept walking. The chaos around him should have been distracting. It wasn't. Not to him. The flames, the smoke, the cries and screams, the pain and blood. All of that was what his life consisted of. What he brought with him wherever he went. He could be a silent death which no one saw coming until it was too late or he could be an instrument of destruction that threw everything into chaos and left nothing but devastation in its wake.

A voice came from behind a car. He stopped. Listened intently. Waited.

“I make an LZ, twenty-three hundred block of Virginia Avenue. Rendezvous two minutes. Taking fire above and below expressway. Civilians threatened. Repeat, civilians threatened.”

He took one of his grenades out of his pockets, crouched down and rolled it under the car. The soldier raised his gun, waited for the explosion. In expectation of the woman to come out in front of him he failed to notice her in time as she jumped on his back and tried to strangle him with a wire. Only his reflexes saved him from any severe injuries as he brought up his hand just in time to prevent the wire from cutting his throat. They struggled for a short while, both trying to get the upper hand. In the end, he managed to throw her off. He picked up the gun she had kicked out of his hand earlier and was ready to end her when she threw something at him. A small device, not bigger than a coin.

Pain shot up his left arm. A pain so strong and incapacitating that his vision blacked out and his heart stopped for what felt like the blink of an eye and an eternity altogether. Electricity crackled through his body while his arm felt like it was being ripped off. Not again was his first thought. Which he didn't understand. Memories that raced through his mind so fast he couldn't grasp them exploded in his head. He wanted to scream, wanted to scratch and tear and rip until it all stopped.

(He wanted someone to save him. Needed him to save him although he knew he wouldn't, couldn't, come for him. But who was he? Why did he have this feeling? This aching longing? To be saved, to be held until all the pain was gone? No one was there. No one cared. No one had ever been there … Right?)

It took all his strength, physically and mentally, to rip the device off. His panting breath was silenced by his mask. He stared at his arm, tried to make sense of what had happened. Carefully moving his fingers, he forced himself to focus. To get back on the mission. His arm still felt sore and not quite right when he moved it in a circle to test its functionality. Something had been damaged, he could feel it. But there was no time to rest, the soldier marched on.

He saw her running away, screaming at the pedestrians with panic in her scratchy voice. The soldier was losing his patience. His whole body hurt, his arm was throbbing and the headache behind his eyes got worse and worse. He was sick of all of this. To get back into the ice. To feel or think nothing. That was what he wanted more than anything in this moment. But in order for this to happen, he had to finish his mission first.

For the uncountable number of times that day, he raised his gun and shot. Only this time his bullet found his target and hit the woman in her left shoulder. She almost fell to her knees, but managed to crawl to the side and vanish behind a parking car. He ran around so he could catch her off guard from the front. Ignoring the pain in his knees, the soldier jumped onto the hood of a silver sedan. His gun familiar in his hands, he was ready to end this once and for all. Just as he was about to pull the trigger, he saw the blond man running at him out of the corner of his eyes.

Rage and anger coiled around his insides. Why couldn't they just die? Just before the guy barreled into him, he raised his left arm to punch him, preferably with the effect of smashing his skull and be rid of him. But of course it wasn't that easy. The metal shield that had saved his opponent before came into play again. Arm and shield connected with a thud. The soldier reacted instantly, kicked the shield to the side and the other man in the chest, sending him flying to the ground. The impact of the kick caused the soldier to land hard on his back. His bones rattled in his body. Was that a cracking sound? That didn't stop him to fire a round of bullets at the guy. Rolling off the car, he switched weapons and kept firing. Surely, he had to hit him at some point, even with the shield constantly being in his way. His target surprised him once again by coming right at him and kicking the gun out of his hand. (Reckless. Dangerous. Selfless. He thought about the blond's fighting and didn't understand why a mix of fondness and exasperation rose in his chest.) The shield almost hit him in the head, which would have ended this fight pretty quickly, if the soldier hadn't managed to block it. They kept hitting and punching, no one with an advantage in strength or fighting skills.

At some point, the soldier managed to get a hold of the shield, letting him think for a second he had gotten the upper hand at last. He pushed the blond away, who used the few feet roll to get on his feet. They stared at each other, the soldier now with the shield in front of him, waiting for the other to charge at him again. When he did, the soldier threw the shield with full force. It missed and embedded itself in the back door of a van. The soldier didn't spare it a second glance and reached down his side pocket to pull out one of his knives. The punching and hitting started again, now with the extra danger of the soldier slicing the blond man up. A well aimed kick sent the soldier flying through the air and knocking the breath out of him. His opponent didn't give him time to recuperate. He ran at him and smashed his knee into his chest. Glass splintered behind him. The soldier had barely time to think of a plan. They grabbed and punched each other. He was thrown on his back again and hit the concrete hard. In the next second, he managed to get his metal hand around the other's throat. Why he didn't crush his windpipe then and there, he couldn't say. (Something screamed inside of him. Loud and deafening. Forcing him to throw the blond man away instead of killing him.)

He jumped down from the car, raised his hand and smashed it into the asphalt. (Had the other rolled out of the way? Had he missed on purpose? He couldn't say.) They were back on their feet in no time and once again grappling with each other. In a sort of deadly embrace, they hit a parked van together. The soldier still had his knife in his hand and this time he was sure he would have cut the throat of his enemy or at least his face. (Despite the feeling inside of him raising his head again and screaming at him. To stop. Not to hurt.) The screeching sound when the knife scratched across the metal of the van left his ears ringing. The blond man wrapped his arms around his middle to throw him through the air. (Why did this feel so, so familiar? Those arms around him. Causing not pain, but bringing comfort, promising safety. A sense of belonging.)

While the soldier was on the ground, his target pulled his shield out of the van. Using his newly acquired shield to block every of the soldier's punches. One time, he managed to hit him in the face only for the shield to be rammed between the plates of his arm in the next moment. (It hurt. Oh god, it hurt.) The pain caused the soldier to freeze. A slam of the shield into his mask and the blond man managed to grab his face, robbing the soldier of his sight. He couldn't see and everything was a blur when he was hurled through the air. His mask came loose and landed on the street with a clank. Using the momentum of the roll, the soldier came to stand on his feet, even if a bit unstable. He turned around, showing his face to an outsider for the first time in decades. Staring at his opponent with cold detachment, a sudden silence descended upon them. Something changed in the other's face. The fierce determination turned into shocked astonishment. He stared at him, panting slightly, his mouth parted. His eyes narrowed in confusion as he asked with apprehension, “Bucky?”

That name. It pierced through the soldier's mind, rattling around and knocking something loose.

Who was that blond man?! How was he the first one ever who seemed to recognize the soldier? Know his name? Was it his name? The soldier didn't know. Bucky. There came a familiarity with that name. Like it was someone he had known a long time ago. He couldn't remember ever feeling that confused and out of his depth.

Nothing of this made it to the outside, though. As always, his internal struggles were locked deep inside of him. He gave the only answer he could, his voice filled with slight annoyance.

“Who the hell is Bucky?”

He raised his gun, ready to shoot, ready to take the life of this man, who had caused him so much confusion and had woken a plethora of long forgotten feelings inside of him. Despite every fiber of his being screaming at him in protest, he would have fired his gun. But something hit him in the head, hard, and he went down. Relief of not having shot the other man battled with the anger of having failed his mission. He forced himself up, turned around with a crazy look in his eyes. Their eyes found each other again. The soldier hesitated for a second before he raised his gun a second time. (He couldn't do this. Why couldn't he do this?) A sudden explosion took the decision out of his hands. Fire and smoke engulfed the world around him. Sirens wailed in the distance. In a split second he made the desicion to leave. He couldn't win. Not when he was outnumbered, hurt and confused. When images and memories he didn't understand distracted him. When feelings he shouldn't have interfered with the mission. The soldier retreated. Despite knowing what it would cost him. What punishment awaited him when he returned. He vanished into the smoke and became once again the ghost he usually was.

 

Tony Stark looked up from his desk filled with cables and circuits.

“What's this, birdie? Found yourself a girlfriend? Have to admit, didn't peck you for having a taste for the elderly.”

Winifred was tempted to smack the man over the head, but she was too tired to do more than shoot him a glare that had generations of Barnes' family members tremble in fear.

Agent Barton beside her had no qualms to cause physical harm to his friend and threw some metallic tube lying in his reach at the billionaire's head. Naturally, he didn't miss and Stark cried out as the metal hit him square on the forehead.

“Alright, alright, no need to get violent,” Stark huffed, massaging his bruised head. “Geez, who knew you were so sensitive, Legolas.”

“I swear to god, Tony, one more word …” he growled as he helped Winifred to a chair in the corner.

“Thy wish be my command,” Stark said and bowed with a flourish.

Dear god, he was insufferable! No wonder Steve had had such a hard time to befriend him.

At that moment another man entered the lab. Winifred needed a few seconds to place him. The guy who turned into that big green thing. What was his name again? Something with B and an alliteration … Bruce Banner!

When he saw all the people gathered in the lab, he raised a questioning eyebrow.

“What's going on?”
“She's a friend of Steve’s, Winifred B...” Barton started but was interrupted by Stark, whose face had lit up like a Christmas tree.

“Oh, oh, oh! She's Capsicle's friend! Of course!” he cried out and clapped his hands together. “This makes so much sense! Here I was, thinking he was just this sad and lonely grandpa because he had no interest in anyone. Not even Pepper's nice friend what's-her-name-again. But of course he would go for someone his own age!” He turned to Winifred with a big grin on his face.

“Tell me how you met. I wanna know every shoddy detail.”

Winifred on her part had enough of this.

She looked him dead in the eye and said, “Well, the first time I saw him, he was maybe five years old. His mother carried him in her arms while she was standing in the line before me at the butcher's shop. But I properly met him half a year later when my son brought him home after school with a split lip and a torn up shirt.”

Stark’s expression was priceless, to say the least. His eyes were wide and his mouth slightly parted as he seemed to struggle finding words. Something he wasn't used to, Winifred guessed.

She wished she had a camera to take a picture for Steve. It would have made him laugh for certain.

Bruce Banner, too, was staring at her in wonder.

Only Barton snorted.

“If you had let me finished, I would have told you that she's the mother of Sergeant James Barnes,” he said and threw himself down in a nearby chair.

That statement got Stark out of his shock. Frowning, he said, “His mother? How can that be? She must be over a hundred by now.”

“113, thank you very much,” Winifred offered, still with her no-nonsense voice. “Although it is rather rude to talk about a lady's age. You could do with some manners, young man.”

To her surprise, Stark ducked his head and his cheeks flushed slightly pink.

Would you look at that? Seemed like Tony Stark did have a sense of shame about him.

He rallied quickly, though.

With a bright smile he said, “My apologies. You're right. I should respect my elders. Now,” he clapped his hands together again. “as delightful as this little get-together is, I'm curious to know why you're here. Not that I mind company, but you know,” he gestured around his lab, “things to do, inventions to build, bettering the world with my genius.”

Barton shrugged. “It’s all a bit of a mystery. Apparently, someone is trying to kill Mrs. Barnes.”

That earned him a disbelieving stare from both Stark and Banner.

“Who on Thor’s green earth would want to kill a little old lady? No offense,” Stark added in Winifred’s direction. She just waved it away. She was old, no argument there. Little, however, not so much. But she had far bigger things to worry about.

Banner came over to her and asked, “Are you alright?”

She smiled at his concern.

“For the moment, yes. Thank you,” she said before explaining, “I don’t really understand it myself. Steve called me and told me to be careful. I didn’t take him seriously, to be honest. But then I heard the manager of my home talking with one of the nurses about how to kill me without anyone noticing.” Her voice faltered momentarily as she thought about Margie. She couldn’t say it. Couldn’t tell them that they had killed her daughter. If she did, she would break down again. Just thinking her name took all the strength she got.

Pushing everything aside for the moment, she continued, “The next morning she sent two men to basically kidnap me. My friends managed to chase them away and Agent Barton here was kind enough to get us out of the house and brought us here for safety. That’s it, really.”

“And here I was, thinking life in a retirement home was boring,” Stark commented in wonder.

“How do you come into all of this?” Banner questioned Barton.

The agent hopped on top one of the work benches before he answered, “Steve asked me to keep an eye on her while he’s away. Or rather, Nat send me a text on his behalf. Just got there in time to see the stand off with the hired muscle.” He grinned in Winifred’s direction. “I would have taken care of them, but your friends beat me to the punch.”

Stark raised his eyebrows.

“Are you telling me I missed a death match between a couple of old people and two Rambo knock-offs? Definitely gonna check out some nursing homes in future. Sounds like they are a riot.”

Winifred couldn’t quite agree with that assessment, but decided not to pursue it. She had a feeling arguing with Tony Stark would be a rather tedious affair.

“What do you want to do now?” Banner asked, directing his question at Winifred.

“I would really like to talk to Steve. I have a feeling he knows a bit more about what is going on.” And it would ease her mind to hear his voice and know that he was safe. “Although I guess that’s not possible at the moment.”

“Au contraire, Madame. In my lab, everything is possible,” Stark informed joyfully. “Jarvis, locate the Capsicle’s current pied-à-terre, would you?“

Winifred frowned. Who was he talking to?

A disembodied voice startled her and she frantically looked around to find its source.

“Sir, there might be a slight complication. Some rather concerning news regarding Captain Rogers just surfaced.”

All four of them turned to the screen on the wall as it flickered to life.

The footage was shaky and clearly taken from some distance away. The events were visible enough, though. Two men were fighting, trying to kill each other. There was fire and screams. Winifred barely heard the reporter, who told the viewers how Captain America had apparently gone rogue.

A massive explosion was followed by a mass of black figures surrounding a blond man kneeling on the street.

“Oh dear god!” Winifred exclaimed in horror and pressed a hand to her mouth.

 

“Then wipe him and start over.”

The soldier heard the words and he knew what they meant. Knew that they would bring pain and this white fog that clouded his brain. He tried to school his face into an indifferent mask. But he couldn't. He was confused and scared. Who was that man? The man on the bridge. Why did he knew him? When he had never known anyone, had never recognized anyone before? Why him? Who was he?

You met him earlier this week on another assignment.”

Yes, but that wasn't it. Wasn't the reason the soldier had this gnawing feeling inside of him. He knew him. Fleeting thoughts flashed through his mind that couldn't come from fighting him or being chased by him. The echo of a laugh. The softness of his hair. The scratching of charcoal on paper. The scent of soap with a hint of cocoa. The first notes of a song. The feeling of his breath ghosting over his skin … Where did those snippets of memories come from? Who was he?

The soldier was so lost in his own head that he didn't pay attention to his surroundings. Acting on autopilot, he let himself be pushed back into the chair and bit on the offered mouth piece. Only when he heard the whirring of the machines around him, did he come back to reality. The chains closed around his arm and the face plates descended upon his head. Panic flooded his body and his breathing became faster and faster. No, no, no. Please, no. They were hurting him again. Please, don't let them hurt me. Help me, Ste... The electricity started to crackle through his body and the soldier screamed. Everything was burned out of his brain. Every image, every memory he had tried to grasp and get a hold of in the last few hours was ripped from him and torn to shreds.

 

Winifred sat in an armchair in one of Tony Stark’s numerous guest rooms and looked out to the city. Her mind was reeling. It wasn’t enough that she had to find out about Margie and people trying to kill her for whatever reason. No, on top of everything else, the one man she trusted to help her in this whole mess was accused of a number of ludicrous crimes and currently on the run. She didn’t know where he was or if he was alright. For a moment she considered calling her family, but she dismissed the notion in the next second. She didn’t want to put them in danger. Whoever wanted her dead was still out there and she couldn’t risk being attacked again with one of her loved ones close by. Oh, she was so tired and just wanted to sleep. But her agitated mind wouldn’t let her.

A knock on the door pulled her out of her head.

“Yes?”

A blond woman in a smart business outfit and high heels entered the room.

“Mrs. Barnes? My name is Pepper Potts. I’m the CEO of Stark Industries.”

“And Mr. Stark’s partner, if I’m not mistaken.”

Ms. Potts grinned. “Yes, that too. I just wanted to check on you and ask if you need anything.”

Winifred smiled at the kind woman. There was something about her that made Winifred like her instantly.

“I’m fine, thank you for asking. Although,” she hesitated for a moment, considering, “I could do with some company, if it isn’t too much trouble.”

Winifred felt bad for asking. Ms. Potts surely had other things to do. But the younger woman just gave her a blinding smile and sat down on the couch next to her.

“It’s no trouble at all. Tony told me about what you’ve been through. I can understand the need for company after such an experience, believe me.”

“Yes, it was all rather exciting. In my age, you don’t get into many life or death situations. Well, at least, not that kind.”

The two women laughed and sat in companionable silence.

“Tell me, Ms. Potts, do you get ever tired of this view?” Winifred asked after a while and indicated at the spectacular skyline in front of them.

“Please, call me Pepper. And no, not really. It’s truly breathtaking.”

“Indeed. When I think about the cramped little house we used to live in … well, times have changed.”

Pepper gave her arm a sympathetic squeeze, having picked up on Winifred’s wistful tone.

“I hope Steve is alright,” Winifred changed the subject, finally voicing one of her concerns out loud.

“He will be, I’m sure. Tony and Bruce are looking into it. And Clint has left to get more information, too. They will figure something out. Don’t worry too much about it.”

“It’s hard not to. He gets into trouble all the time. He just doesn’t know when to back down, even if it’s for his own good. It’s in his nature to try and help everyone. He was always like that. Hasn’t changed a bit in that regard.”

Winifred chuckled to herself and smiled at Pepper.

“I can’t count the number of times my Bucky dragged him home for me to patch up when his mother was working.”

“You must be the last person alive to remember Steve before he became Captain America.”

“Probably. I’ve gotten used to how he looks now and how the public treats and sees him, but it’s still strange sometimes. He was so small and fragile.”

With a deep sigh, Winifred leaned back in her chair.

“I know he is more than capable to defend himself now. Doesn’t mean he should have to. I just hope everything gets sorted soon and that the people behind all of this get arrested. Especially that monster that tried to kill him on that street.”

 

The soldier stood and waited as his mission walked down the bridge of the helicarrier. He couldn't see his face as it was obscured by his helmet, but the shield made him easily recognizable. A couple of feet in front of him the man in the blue uniform stopped. Stared at him. The soldier stared back, waiting. Ready to fight him. To kill him.

“People are gonna die, Buck.”

He seemed to wait for a reaction from the soldier. When there wasn’t coming one, he continued, “I can’t let that happen.”

The soldier just stared on, didn’t show any emotion or sign of recognition. Just waited.

As for the man in the blue uniform – he still seemed to wait for the soldier to give up. To surrender. His blue eyes were full of anguish as he pleaded with him.

“Please, don’t make me do this.”

Only a couple hours before, that pleading in the other man’s voice would have given the soldier pause. Would have caused the voice inside him to raise his head and scream for his attention, demanding to remember. Not now, though. The voice was still there, still bugging him. But it didn’t have any strength left. It was timid and weak. Instead of a lion’s roar, it now resembled the tiny meow of a little kitten, beaten and broken by every human it ever met. The soldier watched silently as the pleading in the man’s eyes turned into steely resolve.

They stared at each other for a second longer before the blond man threw his shield with full force. It bounced off his metal arm and right back into its owner’s hands. Without missing a beat the soldier pulled his gun out and started shooting. Predictably, all of his bullets ricocheted off the shield, flying in every direction. The blond man kept advancing, attacking and defending himself at the same time. But the soldier could tell his heart wasn’t in it. Not fully, not how it should have been as his movements were sloppy and gave the soldier the opportunity he needed.

The bullet only grazed his side, but it was still a hit. The other man surprised him with his resilience once again as he grunted in pain but kept fighting. (For some reason he didn’t understand, the voice inside him gained strength from this little detail.) The soldier didn’t know if it was his own moment of distraction or if the blond man found some hidden parts of energy. Either way, the shield connected with his head – hard – and threw him on his back. He lost the grip on his guns and they flew out of his reach. Panic flared in his chest at his vulnerable position on the ground. If their roles were reversed, the soldier would have taken this chance to end his opponent. But the man in his blue uniform was clearly a better man than him. He straightened and waited for the soldier to get back on his feet.

Anger took the place of panic. Why didn’t he use his advantage? Why was he fighting fair? Where did these stubbornness and good-will come from?

( “There are men laying down their lives. I got no right to do any less than them. That’s what you don’t understand. This isn’t about me.” What was this? The voice, that something, inside him got on his feet, started scratching again, screeching hoarsely, begging him … to do what?)

Filled with rage and anger, mostly directed at himself, the soldier got on his feet and pulled out one of his knives. Kicking, hitting and slashing, they danced around each other on the small space. One well placed dodge with the shield let the soldier lose his footing for a second. As he tried to get it back, he saw the other man turn his back to him and meddle with the controls of the carrier. He turned back around just in time to block his metal fist.

The soldier was fueled by his rage. He wanted to end this. As they were hitting and punching each other, the battle inside him he had thought was over after the chair (Don’t think about it!) was getting steam again. The close proximity to the blond man wasn’t helping either. It was confusing, to say the least. Although they were intend on inflicting pain and could kill each other at any moment, he wasn’t scared. Not that he ever worried about dying, but in this particular fight he knew that he wasn’t in any real danger. Not really. Not only had the blond man clearly stated at the beginning that he didn’t want this. No, the soldier could also feel it. Deep in his bones. The other would never hurt him, would never want to cause him pain. Not intentionally, anyway. (Despite the screaming and raging of that something inside him, it purred in contentment at this deeply ingrained feeling of safety.) That feeling clashed violently with the commands and instructions burned into his brain, causing the soldier to be more and more on edge.

While his internal battle went on, the fight in the real world didn’t stop. They came to a short impasse as he tried to stab the blond man, who held him off and drove his shield into his metal arm at the same time. A kick sent the soldier flying, allowing the other to turn back to the controls. He wasn’t letting his guard down, even with his back turned, so when the soldier came at him again, his fist only connected with the shield. They punched and hit each other, the soldier’s movements got frantic. With a roar he threw himself forward, causing them both to go over the railing and falling thirty feet down. Both without any kind of weapon, they threw punch after punch. The soldier felt his rage taking control as he aimed for vital spots on his opponent’s body. The blond man flew through the air and landed on his back. As he slid down the complex construction beams of the carrier, he grabbed the chip he had lost earlier and which seemed so important to him. The soldier didn’t know why and he didn’t care. He attacked again, causing the other man to drop the chip for a second time. For that, he got a fist to the face. His head flew back and black spots danced before his eyes as a kick sent him to fall further down.

It took him a moment to get his bearings back. (For a moment, he considered to just keep lying here and be done with it. Oh, how nice would that be, if he didn’t have to fight anymore?) When he heard the thumping of feet, he turned his head to see the other man running across the glass floor. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw the shield lying a couple of feet away. Reacting on instinct, he grabbed hold of it and threw it through the air. It hit his target in the back and sent him to the ground. The soldier picked up one of his guns that had landed just a few feet away from him and started shooting. The few seconds it took him to do so gave the blond man the opportunity to take cover behind his shield.

When his gun was empty, the other tried to knock him out with the shield. The soldier dodged it as it flew towards him. Seconds later, they were at each other’s throats again, hitting and punching. Deep satisfaction filled the soldier as he managed to drive his knife into the other man’s shoulder. (The following cry of pain caused a slight panic. Don’t hurt him! Don’t hurt him!) Despite the knife still being embedded in his body, the man in his blue uniform headbutted him before the soldier threw him against the steel beam behind them. The hits to his head and the effort of pushing the other man away left the soldier dizzy and he felt his knees give out under him. As he was sinking to the floor, he spotted the chip only a few feet away from him. The soldier had no use for it, didn’t even know what it was for. But he figured if his opponent was fighting tooth and nail for it, it must be important. If he destroyed it, he could finally end this fight.

As he was crawling towards it, he lost sight of the blond man. A mistake. The second he grabbed the chip, the other was on him. He dragged him up into the air, his hand closing around the soldier’s throat. A strangled hiss escaped him and for the first time in this fight the soldier felt a flicker of fear. The blond man threw him to the ground and pulled his right arm back with one hand while pushing at his face with the other. The soldier tried to free himself by throwing a punch with his metal arm. But the blond man wouldn’t budge.

“Drop it!” he demanded while increasing the pressure on his right shoulder.

A cracking sound ripped through the air and the soldier screamed as excruciating pain tore through his arm and body. (Hazy memories of a similar pain simmered through the fog in his head. Stemming from the left side of his body, not the right. The voice inside him howled in agony. At the pain, at the memories, and at losing that feeling of safety. – Why are you doing this? You’re not supposed to hurt me! You promised, you wouldn’t let anything happen to me. )

It was all a blurry mess. The soldier didn’t know what was happening. One moment, he was on his knees with the blond man behind him, and the next, he was on his back, the other man underneath him, their limbs entangled. They wrestled on the floor while they fought for dominance. At one point, the soldier managed to momentarily free himself from one of the arm’s wrapped around his neck only to have his own arm pushed to the ground by the blond man’s thigh. He was now entirely immobilized, all of the other man’s limbs wrapped tightly around him. Slowly, his vision faded out and unconsciousness took over.

(Before he was completely gone the raging battle inside him came to a temporary halt and he couldn’t help but think how familiar this all felt. Those strong arms wrapped around him. Their bodies pressed together. Clothes in the way of their wandering hands before finally getting rid of them. He remembered his cooling breath ghosting over his hot skin, teeth scraping at his neck while callused hands left their imprints on his thighs. He could practically feel his weight on top of him, hear his gasps and moans as their bodies moved together, soaring higher and higher until they brought each other over the edge. Soft kisses and confessions of love. He remembered all of this before his world turned black and something shattered into pieces inside him.)

Bucky sat on a toppled tree-trunk and watched silently as the others bustled around him. The clearing was full of wounded and sick soldiers. All of them had gone through hell and couldn’t quite believe they had made it out. Were on their way back to camp. Possibly on their way home if they were really lucky. Among all the worn out soldiers with their gray faces and torn scraps of clothing that were way too thin for the cold winter air was one man who stood out. He was tall and strong and made sure that everyone was as comfortable as possible. Not that there was much comfort to find here, but it was ten times better than being a prisoner.

Bucky couldn’t stop starring at him. It was so strange. To see him so strong and healthy. If he weren’t the same caring, selfless and stubborn punk Bucky remembered, he would never have believed that this giant mountain of muscles was actually the scrawny and sickly friend he had said goodbye to in Brooklyn.

He watched him as he walked around, looked after the men in the truck, who were too weak to walk on their own. It was like he had finally grown into his own body. The person that had always been under the surface, the person Bucky always knew his friend to be, but no one had ever seen. Because his small frame hadn’t fit his giant personality, his big heart, his caring and selfless being. That person finally fit his body, there for the world to see. A good man. A fighter. Loyal and kind. Standing up for others. With a sense of justice and decency that Bucky had never seen in anyone else.

As he watched him, Bucky felt...less. He felt dirty. All the blood he had spilled sticking to his skin. All the things they had done to him thrumming in his veins. All the bad that he had done and that he was stuck to him like tar. How could he ever measure up to someone like Captain America? How could he be worthy of his friendship (his love) when he was so damaged and broken himself? When he felt he would never be clean again, would always carry this dark shadow on his soul? Bucky couldn’t bear to look at him any longer. His heart beat painfully against his ribs and it was becoming harder and harder to breath. His hands started shaking uncontrollably, tears were burning in his eyes. He couldn’t break down! Not here. Not with all those people around him. Keeping his eyes firmly on the ground, his hands shoved under his thighs, he tried to keep it together. Oh, how he wished to be anywhere else but here! At home, in his bed, with the covers over his head. Protected from all evil. He thought of his Ma. How she had tugged him in every night as a little boy with a smile and a kiss. “Sleep tight, little chipmunk. I’ll watch over you while you sleep.” And his Pa. When he had said goodbye to him at the harbor. And who had hugged him like he never wanted to let him go.“Keep your head down and don’t be a hero. And always remember, I love you, son, and am proud of you.” His heart ached. He wanted his Ma and Pa. He wanted them to tell him that he was safe and that no one would hurt him. He wanted to go home!

His vision became blurry as the tears finally spilled over. Trying desperately to keep it together, he didn’t see him approach. A gentle hand landed on his shoulder. Bucky flinched anyway. Touch meant danger. Pain.

You okay, Buck?”

Yeah … ‘m fine,” he managed to choke out without looking up.

He didn’t seem to believe him. There were a few seconds of silence, in which Bucky felt the other’s gaze on him. He took his arm and said, “Come on.”

Bucky was too exhausted to resist. He followed him, away from the clearing. When they were far enough from any prying eyes, he put a hand on his cheek and gently forced him to look him in the eyes.

Talk to me.”

Bucky couldn’t take it anymore. Hot tears were streaming down his face as sobs wrecked his body.

He pulled him towards him and wrapped him in a tight hug.

It’s okay, Bucky. I’m here. It’s over. You’re safe now,” he whispered into his ear while Bucky cried into his torn leather jacket. “I won’t let anything happen to you again. I promise.”

The soldier woke up with his face pressed against the cold glass floor. He lay still for a couple of minutes, just breathing and thinking. That memory. Because that’s what it was, right? A memory. The first one in basically his whole existence. Nothing had ever been this clear and real before. He remembered the woody scent of the forest. The noise of the soldiers around him. The cold air raising goose bumps on his skin. He thought of the blond man in his blue uniform. The image in his memory and the person he was fighting in the present stood in jarring contrast to each other. And at the same time, they didn’t. The man in his memory had been strong and gentle and caring and the soldier had felt so safe and at home in his arms. That was were that feeling of safety had come from. Why he hadn’t been scared of the other man hurting him in their fight. He remembered the caring touch of his hands while he had cried in his arms. He could smell the leather of his jacket, the whiff of chocolate underneath the sweat on his skin. And he remembered his own feelings. Not just the devastating despair and fear, but the love he had felt for him in that moment.

And now? Now, he was fighting that very same man. Fighting him because he had been ordered to do so. And the blond man? Why did he fight? Why did he hurt him, broke his arm, when he had promised he wouldn’t let anything happen to him? Where had he been when the soldier had been tortured? Torn apart and put together again, only to be torn apart again? Where had he been all of those years? Why hadn’t he come to save him? From those people who did nothing but hurt and use him? The voice inside the soldier, who had screamed and begged him not to hurt the other man, was silent. Couldn’t give him an answer to his questions. Could do nothing to clear away the confusion the soldier felt at all those feelings and orders that were battling inside his mind.

When the soldier didn’t know what he was supposed to do, he became angry. So, so angry. At everyone and everything. How dare they? What did he ever do to deserve this? Why did they treat him like this? And why, why didn’t he do anything? He could tell him all day long that he didn’t want to do this. It didn’t change the fact that he was fighting him and hurting him. Like everyone else. Everyone was always hurting him. The soldier was sick of it. He wanted it to end. To feel no more pain.

When the soldier finally got up on his feet and spotted the man in his blue uniform on the beams above him, he saw red. He didn’t even register picking up the gun. Only the sounds of shooting told him that he had pulled the trigger. The blond man was hit mid-run, grunting in pain and going down. But not for long. He was up and climbing higher in a matter of seconds. The soldier shot a second time, but missed. He didn’t leave his opponent out of his eyes as he made it to the galley and the controls of the carrier. Just as he was about to insert the chip into the controls, he took his third shot. And this time, it was a direct hit. The other man went down. Even from his removed position, the soldier could see the blood blooming on his stomach. The soldier watched him as he ignored the nearly fatal wound and kept focusing on his task. From the looks of it, he succeeded in doing whatever he was supposed to do with that chip.

But the soldier didn’t care anymore. What was it to him, anyway?

As the soldier stood and watched the sky outside, he heard him shout to someone over the comms. He hadn’t realized before that the blond man had been in contact with someone the whole time they had been fighting. Explosions went of in the distance. He saw fire all around them. (That started to trigger another hazy memory. Of bullets and grenades hitting around him, specks of dirt flying through the air.) The ground under his feet started shaking as the carrier was hit over and over again. An unfamiliar fear crept up inside the soldier. He needed to get off this thing and fast. Another explosion knocked him off balance. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw the ceiling coming down. He tried to jump out of the way, tried to get away from the danger of falling metal and debris. But he was too slow. One of the big beams came down and trapped him underneath it. More than anything, more than any pain, the thing that he hated, that he feared the most, was the feeling of being trapped. That he couldn’t escape and was at the mercy of another. He tried desperately to get free while the terror in him grew stronger and stronger. When it became too much, he screamed. Screamed like he hadn’t in a very long time. It sounded hoarse and scratchy to his own ears. Like an animal backed into a corner. But he didn’t care. All the pain, suffering, and fear of a lifetime broke free. He needed to get out of here, if he didn’t want to lose his sanity completely.

Pushing at the beam again, he saw the blond man jump down and run towards him. (In another life, he would have been relieved. Would have known that he was going to be saved. But not now. The voice inside him screeched while his orders echoed in his ears. Everything was a jumbled mess that he couldn’t sort out.)

While he tried to get free, he watched him get closer, clearly struggling to move with the wounds the soldier had inflicted on him. This did nothing to clear his confusion. Why didn’t he just leave? The man may have cared about him at one point in their lives, but surely not anymore. He had broken his arm, after all. Had hurt him. Why was he doing this? Why was he saving the soldier? Wide-eyed the soldier watched him. With nearly superhuman strength the man in his blue uniform managed to lift the beam just enough for the soldier to crawl out. They were both panting from exhaustion as they tried to catch their breath. The soldier glanced towards the edge of the destroyed carrier, when the other man started to talk.

“You know me.”

The soldier felt his rage come back as the fear wore off.

Hitting the blond man with all the strength he got left, he yelled, “No, I don’t!”

I don’t know you! I don’t know you’re name. Or why you seem to care about me in one second and hurt me in the other. I don’t know who you are! I don’t know who I am!

The air filled with smoke and it became harder to breath.

They were standing a few feet apart, when he started talking again.

“Bucky. You’ve known me your whole life.”

Did he? The voice inside him screeched and managed to push through the noise in his head. It tried to convince him, told him to believe. But how could he? How could he believe anything? With only

vague images and one clear memory that confused him even more? How could he trust that man, however desperately he wanted to when he couldn’t even trust himself?

The rage took over and he lashed out, knocking the blond man to the ground.

Why didn’t he fight back? The soldier knew that he was more than capable of doing so, had proven it time and time again during their previous fight. He got on his feet, but didn’t attack.

“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes.”

Sergeant James Barnes, 32557... Sergeant James Barnes, 32557... Sergeant James Barnes, 32557…

“SHUT UP!”

He hit him, hard, and doubled over. The soldier could barely breath now. When he looked up again, his opponent had gotten rid of his helmet. His blond hear was sticking up in all directions, his face face dirty and beaten bloody, sweat glistened on his pale skin. His blue eyes were full of emotion.

(The sight tugged at his heart. Something bubbled up inside him, giving the voice a lift, and he almost gave in. Gave in to the urge to fall down on his knees and lay down the fight. Almost.)

“I’m not gonna fight you.”

He let his shield fall. The soldier felt his eyes widen a fraction.

He really wouldn’t fight him!

Was the only reason he had done so before to save other people's life? The soldier couldn’t understand what was happening. Or what he was supposed to do.

(A tiny little part of him, small but there nonetheless, whispered through the noise with sharp clarity: When you’re so hell-bent on saving people, why didn’t you save ME?)

“You’re my friend.”

Friend? What did that even mean? The soldier didn’t have friends!

And Bucky Barnes? He didn’t even know who that was. The soldier did the only thing he knew. The only thing he was good at. He fought. Throwing himself on the blond man with a roar, he pushed him to the ground and hissed, “You’re my mission.”

He started hitting him. Again and again and again.

Every punch to his face felt like a punch to his own heart, but he didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop.

“You’re. My. Mission.”

He pulled his hand back for one final blow to crush that face once and for all when the blond man said with a voice of someone not afraid of dying but at peace with his fate, “Then finish it.”

The soldier paused.

“’Cause I’m with you ‘till the end of the line.”

That sentence. It was like a piercing stab to his heart. It broke through the haze, the confusion, and the rage. He didn’t know how or why it held so much meaning, but its effect was instantaneous.

He wouldn’t kill him. Never. How could he? Whatever their relationship was, it was the only thing that mattered. Had ever mattered. He could do nothing but stare in horror at the man who waited to die from his hands. Had he done this? Hurt and nearly killed him? He stared at the blood and the strangely peaceful expression on his face. His heart hurt.

What had he done?

He felt a part of the soldier break away to be replaced by a shred of Bucky.

Lowering his fist, he was about to get up when a giant piece of metal fell down and crashed through the floor to their left. The construction of the carrier wasn’t built to withstand that kind of damage and the whole floor around them crumbled away. A last minute reflex caused him to hold on to the beams above him. He watched as the blond man fell away from him.

It was like watching something in reverse. This had happened before. Only then, he had been the one to fall away and the blond man had watched from above, unable to do anything.

But this was the difference. He wasn’t helpless. He could do something, even if his body and mind were broken and in pieces, he could do something.

As the blond man hit the surface of the water and vanished underneath it he had made his decision. Whatever came after this, he knew that he would never be able to live if he didn’t save him. Or tried to at least. So he let go.

He fell through the air for the second time in his life. The speed with which he was falling didn’t leave him time to think or prepare himself for the shock of the cold water. An eerie silence surrounded him. Like cotton pressing down on his ears. The water was muddy and he could barely see anything. Falling debris turned the already turbulent river into a death trap.

How was he supposed to find him in here?

Anyone else and the soldier wouldn’t have cared.

But not him. He couldn’t leave him here to die. He just couldn’t.

Some distance away from him, the soldier spotted the faintest traces of red coloring the water. Blood. Desperate to get out of here, he kicked his feet to get closer.

There he was. Not moving or giving any indication of life at all. The soldier watched as he was sinking away into the darkness.

No, no, no. He couldn’t let that happen.

Ignoring the pain of his broken shoulder, he swam down and managed to grab a fistful of the blue uniform. He held on to him, refusing to let go, even as his weight dragged him down and it became harder and harder to stay focused with no oxygen for such a long time. His limbs became heavy and he felt the water pressing down on him. His broken bones screamed in protest as he slowly made his way to the surface. It felt like forever until he finally broke through.

Taking in huge gulps of air, he needed a few seconds to get his bearings back.

Luckily, the shore wasn’t far away and it didn’t take long until he had solid ground under his feet. Still holding on tightly to his former mission, he dragged him onto the riverbank. While he did so he felt a certain calmness wash over him.

For a time, he just stood beside the blond man and watched him. Waited for him to wake up. Fearing that, maybe, it was too late. When he started to move slightly and coughed up a bit of water, he knew that he would be okay.

An all-encompassing relief filled him that he wasn’t responsible for the death of his oldest friend. He turned around and started to walk away, the sirens and voices in the distance telling him that help was near and someone would soon find the barely conscious man.

Right before he vanished between the trees and bushes, he looked back at the blond man in his blue uniform.

His voice was just a whisper in the wind when he said, “I’m sorry, Steve.”