"Who the hell is Sergeant Barnes?"
Howard Stark stared up at Bucky Barnes with something between horror and awe. There was a small furrow in Barnes' brow as the man stared back, unsure, his raised metal fist still held ready but unmoving.
“Who the hell is Sergeant Barnes?” he asked again.
“You are,” Howard breathed.
He didn’t know it, but those were the words that saved him. Barnes let him go, looking startled, and stumbled back. “No,” he said simply, but the cold had disappeared from his eyes, leaving only confusion behind. He shook his head. “You are the mission. Sanction. Extraction.”
Howard could hear Maria whispering his name. It took everything in him not to turn to look, but he knew better than to take his eyes off Barnes. “No, you’re Sergeant Barnes,” he insisted. “You used to work with me. We had a couple missions together.”
Barnes looked back at him, tilting his head as he examined him. “You were much younger,” he said, his voice strangely wistful as he glanced down to carefully examine his own flesh and blood hand, “but I…I wasn’t. I was…you had a flying car.”
“Yeah,” Howard said, his voice tinged with relief. “Steve always did say you liked that. Asked me once to build you one after the war.”
That got more of a reaction than anything else he had said, and he was pretty sure Barnes didn’t care about the flying car. His eyes widened and he stumbled back another step, as though Howard were the one that might hurt him. “Steve,” he echoed.
“Howard?” Maria called again, her voice weak and fading.
Howard pursed his lips. “Sergeant Barnes, my wife needs help,” he said. “I need to get her help.”
“No witnesses,” Barnes told him.
Howard held out his hands carefully. “We’re friends, don’t you remember?” he asked. “And Steve would want you to help us. Do you…do you remember Steve?”
He did not remember Steve, but he did know that there was a Steve to remember. He backed away from the man who looked too old to be the man he could see in his hazy memories, and glanced back down the road. He knew this road, and he knew that few people would use it this late. Interference was unlikely.
His mission could still be completed.
“Sergeant Barnes,” Howard said again, drawing his attention. “Please.”
His targets had begged before. It was unpleasant but usually just caused him to kill them quicker and more efficiently so that it would stop—but none had ever said they knew him. None had given him a name.
Sergeant James Barnes, shipping out—.
“My name is James,” he said, but that didn’t sound right. That didn’t sound like his name.
“Yes,” Howard said hopefully. “Sergeant James Barnes, but your friends called you Bucky.”
“You said you were my friend,” Barnes accused him. “You call me Sergeant Barnes.”
“So I do,” Howard said wryly. “That’s because we worked together, it was protocol. But I can call you Bucky if you’d like.”
“No,” Barnes said. It didn’t sound right, coming from him. But he could hear another voice calling that name. “Don't."
“Okay, Sergeant,” Howard said. “But I need to get help for my wife, and I can't leave her here alone. There’s a town about a mile down the road, they’ve got a payphone. You could call for help. You dial 911 and tell them there’s been an accident. Could you do that?”
“Yes,” he said. It was a simple enough mission, but the trouble was that it was counter to his current mission. It would be worse than failure, this would be deliberate sabotage. “But that is not my mission.”
“My wife is going to die,” Howard said.
“That is my mission,” Barnes agreed.
“We’re sort of talking in circles now, pal,” Howard said gently. “I don’t think you really want to kill us.”
“Why would I want to kill you?” Barnes asked innocently, looking down at him with a small frown. “It is my mission.”
“Screw your mission,” Howard told him sharply. "Help me save my wife, and I’ll help save you. You won’t have to do anything you don’t want to ever again.”
He had tried escape before. He did not remember how or when, they had taken the memory. But he knew that he had. He could remember hiding from them, he could remember the words coming through the walls to snare him and send him back. Escape never worked.
But then he’d never had help.
“Okay," Barnes decided.
Howard sat back on his heels, exhausted, and stared at him with disbelief, as though he did not really expect that it would work. “You’ll go get help?”
“Yes,” Barnes agreed.
“Okay,” Howard said. “Okay, call for help, then I want you to get a motel room. Check in and wait for me. Can you do that?”
“They would require money,” Barnes said. “My mission did not require money.”
“I have money. I’m going to get my wallet, real slow, okay?” Howard asked, proceeding only when Barnes gave him a tight, sharp nod. He pulled out his wallet and tossed it over. Barnes caught it without ever taking his eyes from Howard.
“Sergeant, please,” Howard began, his breath catching as he faced off his would-be killer, “please, rent a room and wait for me. I need to take care of my wife, but I’ll come back for you. Will you do that?”
“Yes,” Barnes said.
Howard hesitated for a moment. “Can I trust you?”
“No,” Barnes answered simply.
“Right, of course not,” Howard sighed, but Barnes ignored him. He just turned and deftly straddled his motorcycle, before disappearing into the darkness of the road.
But less than ten minutes later there were sirens as help came, nevertheless.
* * * * *
He rented a room at the only motel in town. Then he sat on the bed and waited for them to come for him. He was under no illusions that Howard would not double-cross him, but he was so tired of fighting. He thought he might rather surrender to Howard—who may or may not have once been a friend—than to the men he had left behind.
So he sat and he waited, but there were no sirens, and there were no special forces coming to break down the door.
There was only Howard, politely knocking the next evening, entirely alone. He did not even have a gun. Barnes knew from the Hydra files that Howard Stark was exceptionally intelligent, but he certainly didn’t seem to be.
“We’ve got to get you out of here,” Howard told him. “We don’t have much time.”
“You came back,” he said, frowning back at him.
Howard seemed taken aback. “Of course,” he said. “I said I would. We can’t run you through official channels, I had to get my wife settled in the hospital first. But now we have to get you out of here. They think it was an accident, but your people are going to be looking for you. And me, once they realize I’m not dead.”
That was all true, but none of it required Howard to return for him. Howard would have to honestly care what happened to him in order to go to these lengths for him. It did not make sense. But then he supposed his own actions did not make sense, so maybe he shouldn’t judge. He was not supposed to care, either.
But he did.
“Is she going to be okay?” he asked hesitantly.
Howard’s expression softened, and he sighed and looked away. “Yeah, yeah, she’s fine, just some bruises, bit of a concussion, left her with a whole team of agents to protect her,” he said. He paused, studying Barnes carefully. "You really don’t want to hurt anyone, do you?”
“It was my—“ Barnes began.
“Right, your mission,” Howard interrupted wryly. “Look, we really do need to get out of here.”
Howard spun around then, turning to open the door to a cherry red convertible. It was not a good car to choose when maintaining a low profile, and he frowned as he moved to sit on the passenger’s side. It made a little more sense why this car was chosen when he saw the dials and buttons scattered across the dashboard like the interior of a plane.
It wasn’t actually a flying car, but he had read about the advances Stark had made with automobile defenses. He had contracts with the military. He reached out to touch one, and Howard caught his hand.
“Don’t,” he warned, “it’s dangerous.”
He stared at where Howard gripped his metal wrist until the other man became uncomfortable, and let him go. Then he returned his attention to the dials. “They are missile controls. You could take out a tank with this car.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it could, how do you—“ Howard started.
“Your work is closely watched,” he explained. “I overheard them talking. They were worried they were killing you too soon, that they may lose advancements in your field. But they have high hopes for your son.”
“What the hell do they know about my son?” Howard snapped, as he pulled out into the road.
“Anthony Edward Stark,” he recited. “Status: monitor and surveil. Recruitment considered.”
Howard muttered a curse, angrily tightening his grip on the wheel. “Well, he’s not going anywhere without a bodyguard ever again,” he decided.
Barnes turned to him with a frown. “You worry for him.”
“Of course I worry for him," he said. "He’s my son.”
“You should worry for yourself," Barnes told him. "I have failed in my mission. They will send more to take my place.”
“Don’t worry about that," Howard said dismissively, "I can take care of myself.”
“It took me less than two days to find a way to kill you and make it look like an accident,” Barnes told him. “I was alone. Next time, they’ll send an entire team. You should run.”
“And then what happens to you?” he asked.
“There’s nothing that can be done about me,” Barnes told him.
“Steve would come back from the dead just to kill me himself if I let them get their hands on you again,” Howard said. “No, I’m with you till the end.”
“Till the end,” Barnes echoed. Till the end of the line. He turned back to look at Howard. “Steve was our friend.” He was nothing like certain of it, but he watched for a reaction and could tell from Howard’s answering smile that his theory was correct.
“Yeah,” Howard said. “Best friend I ever had, ‘cept for Peggy. And you were the best friend he ever had. I used to be so jealous of you, if we’re being honest. You came into the picture and then it was like Steve didn’t have any time left for anyone else.”
Barnes could see flashes of something, a small feisty little blur with his hands raised for a fight. It would not focus. He turned back to watch the road, instead. “Where are you taking me?”
“Somewhere safe,” Howard said.
“There is no place safe for me,” Barnes told him.
“Your mission, it wasn’t just to kill us, was it?” Howard asked. “You said: sanction, extraction.”
“You had a case in the trunk of your car,” Barnes said. “I was to retrieve it.”
“How—“ Howard broke off with a muttered curse. “Well, I made the right call holding off on bringing in SHIELD. No way they knew about that without an inside man.”
“Men,” Barnes corrected.
“What?” Howard asked.
“Nearly 38% of SHIELD is comprised of Hydra sleeper agents,” Barnes explained calmly.
Howard slammed on the breaks, pulling off to the side of the road. He turned to stare at Barnes in shock. “What?” he demanded.
“38% of SHIELD—“ Barnes began.
“No, I heard you!” Howard snapped, before leaning forward and resting his forehead on the steering wheel. “How is that possible?”
“Arnim Zola, an allegedly defected Swiss scientist,” Barnes said, as though he were reading a written report. “He had connections, networks of agents that scattered after the war. He brought them in, but in a way that no one ever knew they were coming from him. Hydra learns quickly from their mistakes.”
“This is far bigger than I realized,” Howard said. “We’ve got to get you safe, and then I’ve got to get to Peggy.”
“Agent Carter,” Barnes said softly.
“Yeah, you remember her?” Howard asked hopefully.
“Agent Carter, high risk target,” he explained. “Not to engage, but terminate if contact is made.”
“Right,” Howard said, his lips pursing angrily. “Well, not that I needed the confirmation, but that just proves I can trust her, right?”
“She worries them,” Barnes admitted. “Very little worries them.”
“That’s Peggy for you,” Howard said, grinning wryly. “She’ll be thrilled to see you, you know.”
“That seems unlikely,” he replied.
“Yeah, well, it’s not the best of circumstances, that’s for sure,” Howard admitted. “But we’re going to get this sorted out, and then we’re going to make sure you get everything you need. It’s what Steve would have wanted.”
Howard didn’t say much more as they finished the drive to his holiday cabin. It was purchased under his name, so easy to track down—but no one knew about the secret lab built underneath the property. They could search the cabin itself all they liked, it wouldn’t get them anything he couldn’t afford for them to find.
He led Barnes to the hidden entrance to his lab, halfway through the copse of trees behind the house. The lid was caked with dirt and planted with living grass, masking it thoroughly. It was nearly impossible to see, if you didn’t already know where to look.
Barnes looked warily at the ladder leading into the lab, so against his better judgement Howard went first. He let out a breath when Barnes followed him down.
“I think I’ve got some spare clothes around here, if you want to get out of that armor,” Howard offered.
“I’m not wearing armor,” Barnes said. He looked warily around the lab. “That’s my arm.”
“That’s—“ Howard’s breath caught as he looked at the arm. “That’s impressive.”
“Yes,” Barnes agreed simply.
Howard paused for a moment, watching him. “What happened to you?” he asked gently.
“I think…I think I fell,” Barnes said, his brow furrowing as he concentrated. “A very long way down.”
“Yes, you fell from a train,” Howard told him. “But how did you survive?”
“I don’t know,” Barnes said. “I remember being at the bottom. The fall had ripped off most of my left arm. I was in the water. Then they came, and took me away.”
It was the last real memory he had, though there were a few vague memories both before and after. He could remember back when he was strapped to Zola’s table the first time around, and his panic when he was free and the doctors wanted to find out what had been done to him. He mostly seemed to remember the memories where he was terrified.
“No one could have survived that fall,” Howard told him, his tone almost strangely offended. “They didn’t search the ravine on my word on that.” He ran his eyes over Barnes, trying to puzzle him out. “I know that Zola experimented on you, but all your tests came back normal after you got rescued. It doesn’t seem possible.”
“They didn’t run any tests,” Barnes said. He remembered the doctor waiting for him at the other end of a tent, and he remembered turning right back around. It was such a weird, insignificant memory to have retained, but it was vivid to the point he could recall the fast pounding of his heart.
“Of course they did,” Howard said. “That was procedure. Steve dragged you to the medical tent himself, I remember. I was there.”
“I…I think remember that, too,” Barnes said. He did not remember being dragged there, but he remembered talking his way out again. “I told them they ran the tests.”
“You told them—what do you mean you told them they had?” he asked in surprise. “Someone would have noticed if no one checked you over.”
“I didn’t like the doctors. I didn’t trust them,” Barnes said. “But I think…I knew one of the nurses. She got me a note, when I asked.”
“Jesus,” Howard swore softly. Barnes may not remember the details, but Howard could figure the rest out from there. He’d charmed one of the nurses into getting him a note stating he had a clean bill of health. Barnes would have done anything to keep fighting by Steve’s side, even Howard had known that—someone should have checked. “We never knew Zola got that far with you. If we’d only known, we’d of looked—“
“Looked for what?” Barnes asked.
“Looked for you,” Howard explained.
“You wouldn’t have found me,” Barnes shrugged. “Am I staying here?”
“For a little while, yeah,” Howard said. “This is the safest place I've got on short notice, and I need to get Maria out of the country. Tony's already back at Oxford, but even that might not be far enough. Then I need to get in touch with Peggy somehow outside normal channels. If what you say about SHIELD is true—“
“It is,” Barnes said simply.
“Then I need to move fast,” Howard said. “It won’t be long until they realize you failed.”
“They already know,” he warned him. “I’m very efficient. I would have been done and back by last night."
“Shit,” Howard cursed. “Okay, I need to go. But there’s food here, a bed in the corner—“ Howard trailed off as Barnes just stared back at him, looking utterly confused. “For eating, and sleeping.”
“Oh,” Barnes said, glancing at the cans stacked up in the corner with barely disguised indifference. “Okay.”
Howard watched him uneasily, suddenly worried how capable he was at handling his own simplest needs. From the sound of it he hadn’t been let out for more than a few days at a time, and probably usually on a short leash.
He didn’t have time to walk him through everything, he’d have to risk it. Steve would have killed him for abandoning him, but—
“Or you could just put me in there,” Barnes offered.
Howard turned to find Barnes had stopped in front of the cryostasis unit he’d been attempting to reverse engineer—as well as improve.
“You want me to put you in Cryostasis? We picked that thing up in an abandoned Hydra base, it’s useless,” he said. “I saw their research on it, all the subjects they put in there died. I don’t know why we keep finding them around their bases when they don’t even work.”
“It’s because they work on me,” Barnes told him.
“Oh, of course! The serum must…well, no wonder they…” Howard trailed off, looking back at Barnes with a mix of curiosity and pity. “How often do they put you in there?”
“Any time I’m not on mission,” Barnes said.
“No wonder you still look so young. You barely look any older than my son,” Howard told him. “Or maybe that’s the serum, too. How long have you been awake?”
“Three days,” Barnes answered.
“When was your last mission?” Howard asked.
“I don’t know,” Barnes said.
“Well, what was your last mission?” he tried.
“I don’t know,” he repeated.
“How do you—“ Howard broke off. “Are they erasing your memories?”
“Yes,” Barnes said. “Every mission. They didn’t always.” Barnes ran his hand along the glass of stasis chamber. “I told you: they learn quickly from their mistakes.”
“You tried to escape,” Howard realized.
“The longer I’m awake, the more I remember,” he said. “The more I remember…the less hold they have on me.”
“Then why would you want me to put you back in there?” Howard asked.
“I’m a liability,” Barnes said easily. “They can control me. It is the best option.”
“You’ve already broken their control,” Howard said. “The fact that I’m alive is proof of that.”
“I’ve only bent it,” he said. “If they find me, I won’t still be on your side. I won’t have a choice.”
“They’ve got you programed,” Howard realized. “How?”
“Words,” Barnes said. “Ten of them. I can’t stop it.”
“I can’t believe I’m even considering it, but—“ Howard broke off, thinking it might be his only option. He had to get Maria and Tony somewhere safe, and he had to find a way to contact Peggy. She was the only one he could trust with this.
But Barnes didn’t seem to even know how to take care of himself: he didn’t know how to prepare the food, or probably even sleep. For a deadly assassin, he seemed strangely childlike. Too obedient. It was weirding Howard out.
He hadn’t known Bucky Barnes all that well, but he’d known him well enough to know obedient was one thing he was not. Dutiful and loyal, sure. Obedient? Not likely.
In stasis, Barnes would be safe until Howard could figure out how to help him, until he and Peggy could salvage whatever was left of SHIELD and figure out a way to go after the people that had taken Barnes in the first place. He had an experimental power source he’d been building in the back room that should be enough to power the Hydra chamber for a couple years at least, and he shouldn't have to be gone more than two months.
“It’s okay,” Barnes told him. "I don’t mind.”
“It isn’t horrible?” Howard asked.
“Yes, it’s horrible,” Barnes admitted. “But I can’t hurt anyone while I’m frozen, so I’ve come to prefer it over anywhere else.”
“I am going to help you, Sergeant Barnes,” Howard promised. “If it’s the last thing I do.”
As it turned out, it would be.
After he got the Hydra cryostasis chamber up and running and Barnes safely tucked away inside it, he rushed home to pack so he could go pick up Maria from the hospital.
A Hydra strike team was already waiting for him in the entranceway of his mansion. The leader held a gun to his beautiful wife’s head with one hand, and the briefcase with the serum samples in the other. Howard knew the moment he saw the case that this was the end; he had no real leverage.
Maria was still wearing her hospital gown, and looked like she’d been crying. They’d obviously ripped her right out of the hospital bed, but he had no idea how they could have gotten past the security he’d left to guard her.
Then it hit him: he’d used SHIELD security.
38% of SHIELD is comprised of Hydra sleeper agents.
He gave his wife a shaky smile, but Maria had been around this life long enough to know this was only ending one way. She knew it was goodbye.
At least Tony was already back at school. He wasn’t a target, Barnes had assured him. He’d be safe.
“Where is the Winter Soldier?” the Hydra leader asked him, his English stilted and heavily accented.
“I don’t—” Howard started.
The man didn’t hesitate. He lifted his gun, and fired.
Maria barely let out a sound, it was so quick. One moment she was standing there, held between two guards, and the next she was crumbling to the floor.
“No!” he cried, dropping forward and barely managing to catch himself on his hands beside her. Maria stared back at him, her eyes wide and surprised, a tiny bloody hole sitting right between them.
“Where is the Winter Soldier?” the leader asked again.
Howard looked up at him, his eyes burning with rage. “Somewhere you’ll never find him,” he snarled.
“Then he’ll come home to us,” the man decided, and then he shot Howard point blank through the forehead. “He always does.”
* * * * *
“Failsafe activated,” a voice said, “Resuscitation in progress. 87 percent.”
“Failsafe activated. Resuscitation in progress. 98 percent.”
“Failsafe complete. Resuscitation complete. 100 percent.”
Bucky came awake gasping. He reached out to grab the sides of the chamber, breathing heavily as he blinked up at the ceiling in confusion. The lid of the cyrostasis chamber was open, but he was alone. There were no guards to come grab him and pull him towards the chair.
There was no chair.
He was in Howard’s lab, he remembered. He sat up cautiously, but Howard was not here, either. The lights were at half power, flickering ever half-minute, and he was so cold. He pushed himself up and out, gracelessly falling to his hands and knees when he was unable to support his own weight.
There was a letter on the floor beside his hand, and he frowned as he slid it closer. His eyes were having trouble focusing, but if he concentrated hard enough he was able to make out the words:
Sergeant Barnes —
If you’re getting this, I’m probably dead. Then again, there’s also a slight a chance the power shorted out. Let’s hope for that. Either way, I set up a failsafe to wake you up if the power reserves get too low, but that shouldn’t happen, since I made that generator myself and it should last at least a good two years.
Which sadly brings us back to me getting myself killed before I could tell anyone I trust about you. In which case, it may not be safe for you to stay here. I left a backpack with some clothes and all the money I had on hand, it should at least be enough to get you somewhere safe.
Be careful. If I somehow managed to talk my way into heaven, Steve's already going to kick my ass for not helping you more. Don’t give him more reasons.
Find Peggy. She’ll help.
Barnes didn’t trust his luck that it was a power failure, and that meant help wasn’t coming to get him back on his feet. He pressed his eyes closed, steadily breathing out, hoping that at least Howard’s wife and son were still alright. He should have insisted Stark run faster; he never should have waited in that damn motel for him to come back in the first place. He may not have used his own hands this time, but he'd still managed to complete his mission after all—he was the reason Howard Stark was dead.
His breath hitched and he wondered for a moment why it was he cared. Howard may have been kinder to him than anyone had for as long as he could remember, but he didn't know him, not really. Not enough to be this upset.
But there was someone else, someone that would have been so disappointed in this failure. He could hear them like a phantom in the back of his mind, telling him he wasn’t allowed to give in like this. He had to get up and fight.
He just wasn't sure he could. He had never had to warm himself up on his own, and he wasn’t quite sure how to do it, but the voice wouldn't let up, and after a quick survey of the lab he saw what looked like a bathroom. He shakily pushed himself to his feet, falling to lean against the wall as he moved towards the door. The small bathroom had a toilet and a shower, so he pushed himself forward and leaned up against the tiles of the shower wall before turning the water on full blast.
It was freezing at first, but he hardly noticed he was already so cold. Gradually, it warmed until it was nearly scalding, and he let it wash over him until he could finally feel his fingers and toes again. Once he felt steadier, he unbuckled his vest and let it drop to the floor, before dragging off his pants and underwear. The clothes had been designed to withstand cryo and could be useful, but he wanted nothing more to do with them. He left them where they were.
He turned off the water and moved to the bathroom sink. There was a small mirror set on the wall, and a stranger stared back at him from it. He reached up to touch his face, frowning when the reflection did the same.
He looked wrong. He looked like the Winter Soldier, the Asset, the Weapon. Barnes knelt beside his wet clothes, pulling a knife from a sheaf on the pant leg, and then stood. He lifted a section of hair, and determindedly sawed it off. He kept doing it until his hair was closely cut along the bottom, with a few longer strands falling just above his eyes.
He looked in the mirror again, and this time the man looking back seemed almost familiar.
“Sergeant Barnes, I presume,” he said to his reflection.
He returned to the main lab and found the backpack Howard had mentioned in his letter. It held a pair of jeans, socks, boots and a t-shirt. The jeans were a tight fit, but the shirt was oversized and a little loose. There was also a winter coat and a pair of gloves that would keep his arm from catching any attention, and he shrugged them on. He grabbed some of the food Howard had seemed so concerned with, and stuffed it in the bag along with the money.
He didn’t waste any more time in the lab. He quickly climbed back to the surface, unsurprised to find that Howard’s car was gone. He took off on foot to find the main road out. The secluded cabin and secret lab weren’t near a town, and if he was remembering correctly it had taken over an hour to get there from the small town he had found the motel.
It only took him an hour and a half on foot to get back.
The town didn’t look at all like he remembered. He wasn’t sure how so much could have changed in only a couple years, but it was crowded now and had been built up. There were tall buildings just a couple blocks away that looked like they belonged in a city, casting shadows over all the streets, and there were so many people on the sidewalk he had to be careful to avoid getting touched.
The crowds did work in his favor, at least. No one noticed one more person walking with his head down in the street.
He slowed his pace as he neared a gas station, and stopped in front of a coin machine holding a stack of newspapers. He leaned down, frowning as he read the date across the top.
January 12, 2014
It hadn’t been two years.
It had been twenty-three.
“Shit,” Bucky whispered, his eyes widening as he looked at the date disbelievingly. He got a flash of memory, a flying car crashing to the ground, and it suddenly made a lot more sense. “Figures.”
He was remembering now that Stark always went a little too big. His experimental power source had apparently exceeded all expectations.
And now every friend he’d ever had, however tenuously he might recall them, was likely dead. Even if Peggy Carter was still alive, she’d be nearly a hundred years old.
There was no use in finding her now—he was on his own.