Bucky Barnes had some sort of dog daemon with black and brown fur and ears that stuck straight up. There was a photograph of him in the exhibit with the rest of the members of Captain America's squad, all of them smiling at the camera. She was at the bottom with the other daemons, posed stiffly.
Barnes' face was familiar. It was his own face, the one he saw reflected back at him in windows and puddles and in cheap, cracked mirrors above bathroom sinks. Those were his features in faded black and white, slightly changed with youth but still recognizable.
But the dog in the pictures was as unfamiliar to him as any of the ones belonging to people milling about the museum. He didn't recognize her in the same way he recognized his own face and he didn't know her in the inexplicable, bone-deep way he knew the man he'd fought on the SHIELD vessel.
He browsed the exhibit for several more minutes, watching the effortless, blatant way the humans around him were trailed by their daemons, each one bright and vulnerable as they orbited their other half. Eventually, with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, he walked away.
The dog in the pictures was just a daemon. She wasn't his daemon.
The Winter Soldier didn't have a daemon.
There were things he knew how to do that he didn't remember learning. There were things he didn't know he could do until he tried and the steps came back to him, familiar and comfortable like the weight of a rifle against his shoulder or the shift of his muscles compensating when he swung his arm.
Slipping his handlers was one of those things.
He took clothes and money from one of the safe houses, then holed up with a phone he'd stolen from a coffee shop when the owner's back was turned. He read news articles until the phone powered down barely a couple hours later, then dropped it back where he'd found it and repeated the process with two more phones and a laptop.
No one recognized him. He'd tied back his hair, shaved his face, and put gloves on his hands. His clothes were baggy enough to conceal a small daemon and people were too busy talking about an information leak and the wreckage of the huge planes that were still being dredged from the water to take any notice of one more man watching the news.
He expected Hydra to find him by the third day, drawn by the tracker in his arm. It was in the flesh one. He hadn't bothered to cut it out it, this time, even though he already knew how long the knife would have to be and how long it'd take the flesh to heal if he did it.
They didn't come.
They didn't come on the tenth day and they didn't come on the twentieth day. By the thirtieth day, he'd already had to pick up more money from another safe house and could feel the familiarity fading from his daily routine as he checked his environment for Hydra agents and downloaded as many SHIELD files as he could over the free library wifi.
They'd never left him alone before.
The Avengers leak had sent Hydra scrambling. On the last mission, the only one he remembered in detail, none of his handlers had bothered to talk to him about why they'd deployed him, but some of the places and operations mentioned in the files had sounded familiar. Places he'd been before, some of which even thinking about made rage bubble up inexplicably in his mind.
He cut the tracker out of his flesh arm. It was embedded so deeply in the muscle that getting to it hurt like hell and left the bathroom floor looking like a crime scene. But even the drip of blood onto the tile as it soaked through the bandages seemed familiar. I did this before, he thought, and also, I won't let them catch me this time.
There was another tracker in his other arm. As long as it was there, Hydra would know exactly where he was. They'd always found him before.
He didn't know how to get it out, but he knew where to find people who did.
The first base didn't recognize him. Agents stared at him as he gave the codes to enter, trying to find his daemon, but no one tried to take a mission report or send him in for maintenance. It was probably better that way. He would have had to refuse, violently.
He'd been in this base before, or at least one with a similar floor plan, but he didn't know how long ago. He knew where the rooms were, the ones that were his, where he waited and deactivated and woke up in later, but they were dusty and unused. Eventually, he had to settle for setting the charges and destroying the building with the tracker still in his arm.
The next one didn't have a properly trained technician either, nor the one after that. He had to settle for working his anger out with explosives, blowing each facility into rubble before moving on to the next.
Other times, when his target turned out to be a bust and dissatisfaction clamored in the back of his thoughts demanding victory, any victory, he turned to secondary objectives. Those were easier.
Antonin Kuznetsov had, some time between the 1970s and now, changed his name to Anthony Campbell and moved to America where he lived alone in a small house on the edges of a small town.
It was the sort of town where people didn't lock their front doors, a fact he discovered when the knob gave way on his first, testing attempt. He had watched long enough to confirm Antonin was the only one in the house, but the target had gone to bed without lingering in front of any windows long enough to give him a good shot.
Part of him had wanted to use his hands anyways.
He made his way through Antonin's house, picking up photographs of a family and children before putting them back down. They were posed, professional photos in front of a plain background, daemons proudly and openly displayed in laps or on shoulders. Fox, slightly different-looking fox, bat, mouse.
There were dishes in the sink, a book left face-down on the arm of a couch, and a messy pile of unopened mail on the dining room table. An urn rested on the top shelf of a bookcase, next to more pictures of the woman who'd been in the other photos, laughing with and embracing the tall, spectacled man he had come here to kill.
Antonin had lived a life. A full life, with a wife who was now deceased and several smiling children who had undoubtedly grown to become smiling, happy adults.
His gut twisted uncomfortably when he opened the door to the bedroom.
Even though his earliest memories comprised of waking up to prep for the mission he had just abandoned, he knew Antonin in his gut. He knew Antonin's voice, and even just thinking about the man made him feel anxious and frightened for reasons he didn't actually understand. Just thinking about Antonin put part of him on alert, primed him to receive orders.
That was why Antonin Kuznetsov needed to die. There would be no fight, no challenge – only an execution and another name removed from the list he kept in his head.
Antonin didn't wake until the light turned on and a metal hand wrapped around his throat. He sputtered and struggled at first, then looked at him and froze, eyes flooding with recognition. His daemon, a snowy white fox that had leapt to her feet when her human woke, collapsed face down on the pillow she'd moments ago been sleeping on.
“No,” she whimpered, both to herself and her human. “No, please no. I knew those files were trouble, I knew this was going to happen. We should have left when we had the chance.”
“Do you remember me?” he asked in Russian. Antonin's face had grown lined with wrinkles over the years and he had lost the full head of hair he had once had. A cane lay propped against the night stand, where it could easily be grabbed from the bed. Antonin Kuznetsov was an old man now, long since retired from his days as director of Hydra's research branch. “I remember you.”
“Please,” Antonin said. “That was – a long time ago, decades ago. I'm retired now. I don't work for anyone anymore. Who sent you?”
“I sent myself,” he growled. He shook the man by the throat the way a dog would shake a squirrel caught between its jaws. His stomach clenched and a dull ache began inside his head. Going against his programming had consequences. This was why he should have taken care of it from a distance.
“Mercy!” Antonin cried, “Have mercy!”
“Longing,” the daemon said in Russian, raising her head abruptly from the blanket. “Rusted.”
Suddenly, he felt strange.
Antonin took a deep breath. He looked at his daemon, then looked back with new resolve. “Furnace,” he said.
Something very bad was about to happen.
Physically, it was not very hard to snap Antonin's neck. Using the metal hand, it was downright effortless. But the sound of the crack and the burst of the daemon exploding into Dust sent a sharp explosion of pain into his skull that had him falling to the floor and gasping for breath, forced to ride it out.
When the pain finally subsided, he rose to his feet.
This time, when he looked at Antonin Kuznetsov, he didn't feel anything at all.
The cage was so small he couldn't move, penning him in on all sides, pressing into his shoulders and against his back, forcing his head down.
Let me out, he said, and they dragged him out by the nape of his neck. Their daemons, mangy, mad-eyed coyotes and mongrels, jeered and snapped their jaws at him, breaking his skin and leaving rivulets of blood that flowed down his limbs and dripped a trail of blood on the floor as he was pulled.
No, he cried from the corner of the brightly lit operating room. He couldn't see their faces, just their lab coats and the brightness of their instruments, reflecting the light. No, don't.
“We have to remake you,” Zola said. “You're destined for greatness. And you can't have greatness without pain.”
The saw screamed, then roared, as it bit into his flesh.
When he finally found tracked down someone qualified to work on the arm, she found a tracking chip inside the metal arm right away, buried deep enough inside its circuits and wires that it was hidden from casual examinations.
She plucked it out carefully with tweezers and lifted it into the air. The small black device had no external markings but crushed easily enough when he closed his metal fingers around it. After several more hours of scans and examinations, she insisted there wasn't anything else.
“There can't be,” she said, voice trembling. He'd pinned her daemon, a smallish dark-furred feline, against the table with his gun. “Nothing shows up in the scans. These are the best scanners we have.”
“It's there,” he repeated. He knew it was there. He'd disconnected the arm to let her work on it. Several panels had been opened to reveal its workings. Rust-red flakes of dried blood dotted on the table, having fallen from between the arm's metal plates and around the seam of the panels. “There's a kill switch. It's been used on me before.”
He tasted the words as he said them. Yes. That sounded right. His handlers couldn't overpower him, so they had to have some other way of controlling him from a distance.
“Please,” the daemon said. Its chest heaved with its breaths and its tail lashed anxiously. “Let me go to her. I swear we won't run.”
The tech dragged her eyes from her daemon. “I promise, I'm not lying. It's not in there. Or if it is, it has to be way deeper, built into the firmware from the very beginning. It's not something separate that I can just take out.”
She wasn't lying. He motioned with the barrel of his gun and the daemon was up in a flash, running across the table to leap into the tech's arms. He was temporarily forgotten as they clung to each other and cried. Then, he made her do the scans again. She still couldn't find it.
There wasn't much else she could do that he couldn't. He knew enough to do basic maintenance on his own. He could keep his arm working indefinitely and perform small repairs, fixing anything that would happen during normal usage.
In the end, he killed her and left her body to burn with the others.
Hydra was already rebuilding. It was a matter of time before they noticed he was missing and sent someone to bring him back.
The only way out was to destroy Hydra.
Finally, his handlers caught up with him.
He woke disoriented and in transit, arms tied behind his back. A black hood covered his head.
The last thing he remembered was the shock of recognition of seeing one of his handlers as he turned a corner in the Hydra facility, frantically babbling into a phone attached to the wall. Well, that and the spray of blood against the wall when he shot her in the head.
Whoever had him was not transporting him correctly. Correct protocol involved more sedatives.
His arm made short work of the restraints, then the guards, then the side of the transport vehicle as he punched his way out. The air smelled like blood.
If he hadn't woken up, they would have put him in the chair. If they'd known how to store him, they would have put him in the chair. Hydra's uncoordinated chaos wouldn't last forever and the handler had turned him off. Remotely, with a phone.
This was a problem.
Bucky Barnes had been a strategist, but the Winter Soldier was not. He was a weapon. They'd taught him to kill, how to find his target without being seen, and how to return to his handlers for maintenance. But he needed resources, more than what was in the compromised safe houses whose locations he knew. He needed more than just himself.
There was the man he'd fought. The one who'd recognized him. Bucky Barnes had been Captain America's best friend and the Captain didn't seem to realize that Bucky Barnes was dead. His daemon, a small terrier, had just about exploded with excitement when the mask had fallen off and exposed his face. Captain America had refused to fight him and his daemon had cried out to him.
Captain America would help him.
He found the winged man first, in DC. Rogers' old apartment was vacant already and Sam Wilson had been identified in the news. It hadn't been hard at all to go from name to home address.
The small house was trivial to break into. While he was there, he found several bugs in the front hall and living room. He crushed them between the fingers of his metal hand and left their pieces on the nearest table.
He waited behind the door for several hours before it opened, then quickly grabbed the man by the throat in a crushing grip, ready to use him as a shield if necessary. It wasn't necessary; Sam Wilson was alone except for his daemon, a tiny brown bird that exploded from his shoulder and into the air.
It flitted back and forth in a panic but the man himself held very still save for the strangled noise he made when he tried to speak. Wilson's hands scrabbled uselessly against his metal arm. It would take more than human strength to overpower him.
“Stop! Let him go!” the daemon demanded in agitation. She darted around him, trying to find her counterpart. “What do you want?”
He kicked the door shut. “Captain America. I'm looking for him.”
The man's response was another strangled urk. He loosened his grip.
Wilson took a deep breath. The daemon landed on the coat rack, feathers puffed up. “We're not giving him up,” Wilson croaked.
He frowned. That wasn't what he had meant. “I wasn't going to hurt him,” he said. “I want to talk. I need his help.” He loosened his grip a little more. He wasn't worried about losing a one-on-one fight and it occurred to him that killing or maiming Captain America's friend wasn't going to make getting his assistance any easier.
This had apparently occurred to Wilson as well. “You want him to help you, so you break into my home and threaten me?”
Maybe he should have left a note. “Sorry.”
He let go and Wilson immediately burst from his grip to meet his daemon, who leaped into the air to fly into his chest, where he cupped his hands around her. He murmured soft reassurances to her. “Why do you need his help?” Wilson asked, stance full of suppressed tension.
None of his own files had been leaked into the harsh light of day. He'd searched. “I want to destroy Hydra,” he said simply. “All of it. Everything.” He gave a mental nod. That sounded right.
Wilson's fingers compulsively smoothed his daemon's feathers. She was still agitated, even if he looked calm. He nodded. He opened his hand and the bird fluttered into the air and landed on his shoulder. “Okay. Right. I'm going to call Steve. Stay here. Don't go anywhere.”
Wilson took his phone out and without looking away, backed out of sight but not out of hearing range, where he had a short but very terse conversation with Steve that involved a surprisingly little amount of swearing.
By the time Wilson returned, he had taken a seat in the living room. “Steve told you to make me stay until he got here,” he said and picked up a magazine from the coffee table. It was about motorcycles. “By any means necessary.”
Wilson stared at him. “You have super hearing,” he said. “You heard everything we said.”
“I don't mind waiting,” he said and opened the magazine.
Wilson eventually broke the silence. His bird groomed the feathers of a wing. “So, does the name Bucky Barnes mean anything to you?”
He shrugged. “Not to me. But I know what you're thinking. I've been to the museum. I've seen a mirror.”
There was something there. Steve Rogers had been important once. Rogers had glitched out his programming as easily as breathing. Who had Steve been, to Bucky Barnes? Was that who they'd made him from?
When Rogers arrived, Wilson opened the door for him. He turned his back, but the sparrow perched on his shoulder watched him the whole time. She hopped closer to Wilson's neck when he met her eyes.
He readied himself for anything but Rogers just walked up to him and clung to him, uncomfortably close. He endured it for several seconds before he was finally let go.
Rogers' face, originally cheerful, fell slightly. “Bucky,” he said, eyes wide like a kicked puppy. “It's Steve. I'm your friend. Don't you remember me?” His daemon, a white and brown terrier, ducked out from behind his legs. She looked intently at him, then at the floor around him.
“No,” Wilson said. “I don't think he does. He's just coming here looking for an alliance against Hydra. Right?”
Wilson was surprisingly perceptive for someone he'd only talked to for several minutes. “I'm not who you're hoping I am.”
“I don't believe that. I know you're still in there, Buck,” Rogers insisted. “Look, why don't you stay with me for a while, and we'll talk to some professionals, they have professionals for this sort of thing now, and --”
He narrowed his eyes. “I'm going to destroy Hydra. Will you help me or not?”
Rogers set his jaw. “Just hear me out,” he said. “I'll help you but I want to make sure you're okay, too. I want my friend back.”
“Your friend's gone,” he repeated bluntly. “He's gone and I'm what's came after. Don't kid yourself.”
“I don't believe that.”
“I can give you the locations of more Hydra bases, ones that weren't in the data that was leaked,” he said brusquely. The media had already gone through as much of the data as they'd been able to get their hands on, but whatever had managed to reach the general public had been incomplete. He figured Stark, or maybe whatever was left of SHIELD, had played a part in that. “I have access codes too, ones that were never recorded in the files. I'll give you those too.”
Rogers frowned but didn't try to stop him changing the subject of the conversation. But the daemon stared at him the rest of the night.
He returned several weeks later.
“Bucky!” Rogers exclaimed when he opened the door and then only a fraction more calmly, “Bucky. You came came back!” Even though his daemon jumped up and down in excitement, his smile was fixed and didn't reach his eyes. “I was starting to worry. You didn't say you were going to be gone for so long.”
“I was busy.” He raised the notebook in his hand. “I brought the information I said I would.” He'd spent the time raiding all of Hydra's nearest caches for their cash and weapons, moving them into new places, just in case.
In between shuffling his gear around, he'd still managed to fill the notebook with intel. He'd left the safe houses and caches out, but he knew about dozens of Hydra bases in varying levels of detail. Some, he only remembered what city they were in and a couple landmarks for finding the entrance, if that. For others, he had been able to put down exact locations, floor plans, a list of their access codes, and even a couple paragraphs about the last known security level of the base.
Those must have been the facilities he'd been based out of. He wanted to destroy those first.
He offered it to Rogers. “Here's what I remember,” he said. “I marked the high-value targets. Some of the intel might be stale so be careful.” He wasn't great with dates; a lot of it had all blurred together, in his mind, and he knew some of the intel could have been decades old.
“Oh! Um, thanks.” Rogers' eyes widened as he flipped through the notebook. “Wow,” he murmured. “Bucky, this is amazing. It'll be a real help.”
He looked at the daemon at his feet, unsure what to do about her. But she seemed willing enough to talk to him, so he said, “Hi.”
She brightened. “Do you remember us yet? The doctors said you might. Do you want to sit down? We didn't bother buying a lot of chairs but the couch is soft.”
He sat down. She was right. The couch was soft. She hopped onto the cushion next to him. “You're his daemon. We fought before.” He'd grabbed her in his metal hand and carried her out of the water, back when he didn't know who he'd been and Steve had just been a man he knew without knowing how.
It wasn't the answer she'd been hoping for. “I'm Adina,” she said. “We're best friends. We used to...” she trailed off, looking at his side for something that wasn't there. “What's the oldest thing you remember?”
Sometimes, he had nightmares about the time they cut his arm off. He was pretty sure a circle saw had been involved. He could still hear its high-pitched whir. He definitely remembered being strapped to a table and the feel of restraints on both his wrists. Everything else got kind of vague.
“I don't know. Being made.” He looked down at his metal hand, opening and closing the fingers. “Becoming who I am.”
“Can we ask now?” Adina asked Rogers. She nosed Rogers' arm. There was something familiar about her too, as if part of him knew what she looked like, and her place in front of Rogers' feet, leading the way for him.
Rogers bit his lower lip and looked at him somberly. “Bucky,” he began. “Where's Rossa?”
He frowned. He didn't know a Rossa. “Who's Rossa? Is he a scientist?”
“Larossa,” Adina said, voice rising in distress, “She's your daemon.”
“I don't have a daemon.” No daemon had come with him. No daemon had ever come with him. He worked alone.
Rogers gripped his arm tightly. “Of course you have a daemon. Everyone has a daemon. You don't have to tell us where she is if you don't trust us yet. It's okay. We just want to know she's okay and to let her know we miss her.”
“I'm not lying. I'm the Winter Soldier.” Daemons were a weakness, an easy target to pick off. They were leverage, frequently overlooked and rarely properly defended. Why would he have one? Why would they have ever let him have one?
“You're not the Winter Soldier. You're Bucky Barnes. You're my best friend and you were born in Brooklyn and your daemon's name is Larossa. She's a dog, like Adina, only she's an Alsatian. She settled when you were fifteen. You were so proud of that, because you settled first, you said --”
“I saw the pictures in the museum,” he interrupted. “But I didn't recognize her. She's not my daemon. I've never had a daemon.” He tapped the side of his head with his metal fingers and let a smile crack across his face. “Maybe when Hydra got rid of Bucky, they burned her out too.”
In exchange for the intel, they gave him the file Hydra had on him.
He met with Rogers and Wilson at Rogers' apartment, where they handed him both a flash drive and a thick folder of computer paper.
“I figured since you wrote your intel down by hand, you might prefer having your file on paper instead,” Rogers explained. “Sorry there's no color. Mrs. Liu's printer only does black and white.”
He flipped it open. It consisted of scans of physical pages that had been printed out again in black and white. “It's fine,” he muttered, already flipping through the thick stack of one-sided pages, skimming quickly.
“You asked your neighbor to print out a highly secret government file? Are you allowed to do that?” Wilson asked Rogers in a low voice that carried perfectly well.
“Well, I didn't want to go to the library,” Rogers explained defensively. Unlike Wilson, he didn't try to sound quiet. “And anyways, it's from Russia. It's not my government.”
It was his file. He recognized his face on the front and he could read the text, in Russian, as easily as he could English. The training was his training. The missions were his missions. And James Barnes was where he had come from. They had found him in the ice and they had crafted him into their perfect soldier.
He really was the man in the museum. He'd known that of course, but a small part of himself hadn't really believed it until now. There were other ways to look the same as someone else. But he wasn't a copy, or a machine, or even the guy's twin. He was the original. He'd had a daemon, once. He'd been a person, once.
Her picture was clipped to the first page right next to the small photo from his time in the army. The United States army. Her name was Larossa and she was just as Rogers had described. But the image meant nothing to him. He felt nothing when he looked at her, nothing but a vague curiosity.
She wasn't his daemon.
His hand clenched. The sheet crumpled. He'd been a person and they'd taken that away from him. They'd told him he was a soldier, but they'd said he was their soldier and he'd believed them. He'd thought he was one of them. He always thought he was one of them, until he recognized he was being handled, until the mission ended and he realized his support team was going to go home while he was going to report for maintenance without knowing what happened next.
He wondered how many of his handlers knew or if all his original trainers had been taken care of to keep things secret. Everyone left from back then, assuming they still lived, was an easy target. He would make then pay for what they'd done. They would pay for the cold and the pain and the lies. He'd kill their daemons as revenge for how they'd taken away his.
Rogers stared at him.
He glowered back.
At Rogers' feet, Adina butted her head pointedly against Rogers' leg. Rogers moved his left away. She bit his ankle. A faint blush rose on Rogers' cheeks even as he tried unsuccessfully to push her behind him with a foot. “You should stay with me,” he blurted. “I have a spare bedroom.”
Adina ducked around Rogers to press her head against his leg. Even through the thick fabric it felt odd, opening a widening chasm of alarm that had him twitching back after a couple seconds. From the surprised twitch of her ears and the quickly-aborted half-step to follow him, it was obvious she had done it before, with Bucky Barnes, and been used to a different reaction.
He glanced at Wilson. Wilson's expression was deliberately neutral.
He really couldn't hold Hydra off on his own if they activated his kill switch. Eventually they would narrow down where he was. Rogers, at least, would get in the way if Hydra came for him. Captain America was the only ally he had right now and he was a damn powerful ally.
“Fine,” he said, and because he knew what manners were even if he rarely chose to use them, he also added, “Thank you.”
He looked at his file to avoid seeing the way Adina leaped in jubilation at his response, performing her version of a victory dance. He'd barely skimmed the first chunk of pages but he didn't want to read further anymore. Not here. Not in front of others. He looked at Wilson. “I'm keeping this. I'll finish reading it later.”
“Sure,” Wilson said easily. His daemon had ducked out of sight. She was a lump in his shirt pocket. “It's your file. Take as much time as you want.”
He ducked out with the printed version of the file as soon as Rogers and Wilson got caught in a conversation together. Adina saw him as he left but all she did was tilt her head and give him a piercing stare, as if to say, but you're coming back this time, right?
He nodded at her. Her tail wagged, once.
The file mentioned his kill switch, though not in so many words and not in any detail. It turned up in incident reports and the names of handlers who showed up repeatedly in supervisory roles.
Asset ceased compliance and was disabled for reconditioning. Asset was disabled and subsequently retrieved. Asset attacked strike team and terminated seven members before being disabled. Asset is no longer to be sent on group missions.
It happened a handful of times.
Hydra had used the kill switch before they had the chair but only once after that, when they'd sent him to New York City and he had completed his mission but failed to return for retrieval. They'd turned him off and found him in Brooklyn, quietly tucked away in an abandoned building.
He understood why, now.
The spare room in Captain America's apartment was a far cry from properly secure. The walls were not as thick as he'd like and the bed creaked when he put all his weight on it. But it was a far sight better than where he'd been staying before.
The Captain himself was not what he'd thought.
He had expected a leader. A captain. Someone who made plans and led missions. A handler who could double as a field agent.
Instead, what he got was a big guy who acted like a little guy, who chewed through popular culture like it was his mission and tried and failed to act like he wasn't desperately hoping that if he treated him nicely enough, he'd magically turn back into the person Rogers remembered him as.
On his first day as Rogers' house guest, he had asked something, made some innocuous comment. Rogers had cringed a little like a dog that'd been kicked in the side and asked, “You know you can call me Steve, right? I'm your friend. I want – I'd like if you could call me Steve.”
He'd said it as if it mattered. Later, Adina snuck away from her human to paw at his door, sticking her nose to the gap at the bottom. He half-expected her to say something, but all she did was lie there until Steve raised his voice to call for her.
It was unusual for a daemon to even speak to a human not their own, but Adina paid a lot of attention to him.
She didn't ask about Bucky's daemon once he made it clear he wouldn't talk about it, but she still sat by him when he was in the living room and didn't seem to have any problem addressing him directly.
“I thought daemons weren't supposed to talk to other people,” he said. “Or touch them.” He looked pointedly at where she had wedged herself between his left side and the couch. She had partially draped herself over his arm.
“That's only for skin-to-skin contact,” she said breezily. “Anyways, I don't care.”
It was a reminder that part of him was a machine. There were sensors in it that passed on some sensation almost like touch, but he felt none of the overwhelming, discordant alarm he knew he'd feel if she had leaned against his other arm instead.
“Does Steve care?” Steve wasn't even in the living room. Steve was taking a phone call in his room, Captain America persona firmly on. He was negotiating the terms some sort of public appearance. Adina had trotted out of his room only a couple minutes after it had started, grumbling quietly to herself, and gone to sit with him instead.
“It's fine,” she said. “He doesn't mind.”
He remembered falling into the river.
No, that wasn't it. He remembered Steve falling into the river. He remembered Adina throwing herself off the helicarrier after him, paws outstretched and ears pressed back against her skull by the wind.
He remembered the wind rushing past him and tucking his limbs close to his body so that they landed at about the same time, so that when the water hit them, his fingers were already curled into the collar of Steve's uniform and kept the impact from breaking them apart.
He remembered the waterlogged, pathetic pile Steve and Adina made when he dropped them on dry land. He remembered having to put Adina on Steve's chest because she was too unconscious to go to him herself. He remembered a voice in his head thinking, it'd serve him right if he lost his stupid shield, right before he went back into the water and yanked it free from the pile of twisted metal it had gotten pinned under.
He knew why he'd done it, now. Old programming had surfaced when Hydra's programming had glitched. But he hadn't known it at the time. He'd just acted without consciously thinking about it and it had felt like a comfortable routine, a pattern his body knew by heart.
He'd blinked into himself only after he put the shield down, carefully propped against Steve's side so that it would shelter Adina but not squish her.
He remembered the unexpected feeling of satisfaction at the knowledge they would be safe.
“You can't spend all your time in your room trying to take down Hydra,” Steve said.
“I don't spend all my time in the room,” he said.
“I never see you leave.”
“I take the window.” He shrugged a shoulder.
Steve frowned. He ignored it. He hadn't even been going after Hydra directly. Ever since they had figured out they could still turn him off, he'd stuck to just handing over more intel as he remembered it and answering the clarifying questions Steve asked that had clearly been fed to him by a SHIELD representative.
He wanted to see Hydra burn. He wanted to be free of them and he wanted to destroy them so thoroughly that no one would ever think to control him again. He wanted to find everyone who had created him and watch them die in terror and then he wanted to piss on their corpses.
A small part of him also wanted, maybe, to eventually figure out who Bucky Barnes even was, to have earned Steve Rogers' undying loyalty. But every time he started to think about it, a part of him recoiled.
He didn't want to know what had happened to that young man with the easy smile and his daemon with the black and tan fur, not when he could see Steve's grief so clearly in the brittleness of his smile and Adina kept looking in the shadows for someone that wasn't there.
Steve reached out and fisted his fingers in Adina's fur. She nuzzled his fingers. “I know I should give you space, but I miss you, Buck. I know you try to treat me like a stranger, but my best friend is still in there, somewhere. The best friend who's stuck by me through everything, ever since we were kids.”
“Bucky's dead,” he said sharply. “Bucky's dead and he's not coming back. I'm the only thing that's left.”
“That's not what I meant and you know it,” Steve snapped. “I don't care that you've changed. I care that you're pretending we aren't still friends!”
The worst thing was that he knew exactly what Steve was talking about.
He knew Steve, when he wasn't distracted by how much he didn't know him. Some part of him knew Steve's habits, was familiar with the noises Steve made as he got up in the morning, the murmur of his voice as he talked to Adina. He recognized the sound of Steve's footsteps and the click of Adina's nails on the floor.
He knew when Steve was unhappy and he knew when Adina was mad because she wanted to do something stupid and Steve wouldn't let her. He could tell the difference between when Steve was upset and wanted to be left alone and when he wanted someone to talk to him. He knew that Steve was lonely and Adina even moreso, because when Bucky had died, at least there'd been something left behind. But the only thing left of Bucky's daemon was Dust.
He knew all these things but had no idea what to do about it now that he had no handlers. It was just intel that wasn't relevant to the objective.
“Focus on destroying Hydra,” he said. The threat of the kill switch dangled over him like a guillotine. There could be no peace until it was destroyed. “Everything else comes after.”
He had been a person, before. Perhaps, once there was no one left to use him, he could see how much remained.
The Black Widow came for him.
She walked up behind him while he was sitting on the roof of Steve's building. He had started going there when he woke up in the middle of the night covered in sweat and decided he didn't need to go back to sleep again.
He pretended not to notice her.
She sat down. “So,” she said.
They shared a common enemy now. And a common friend. To some people, that would make them allies. He watched her in his peripheral vision, illuminated by the glow of the moonlight, and didn't respond. He wondered what Steve had told her. He wondered how much she'd figured out on her own, what conclusions she'd drawn about who he was now based on his file and his record.
She broke the silence first. “Do you remember me?”
“I know who you are,” he answered.
“That's not what I asked,” she said.
He turned his head to look at her properly. The trick to his memory, he'd realized, was that it did better when he didn't think too hard about it. Mostly, it manifested as a lot of useful knowledge about Hydra and a lot of useless trivia about Steve. He recognized her. He recognized all of Steve's people.
But he recognized her differently. She had been KGB. He had been... something. In there, around that time. It was darkly funny that Steve wasn't the only one who remembered more about him than he did.
She hadn't come with a daemon but he knew she had one, tucked safely away somewhere no one would find him. Later, in safety, she would go to her daemon and become whole. She was like him, but she wasn't that much like him.
“I don't remember you,” he said finally. He looked away.
After several minutes of silence, she spoke again. “Steve says you think you don't have a daemon. He remembers --”
“I saw my file,” he interrupted. “I know there was a daemon.”
But people knew their daemons, could pick them effortlessly out of a group even when all the other daemons or animals looked exactly the same. Even Adina, who was most definitely not his, was more familiar to him than the dog that had been included in his file.
“The Winter Soldier never fought with a daemon,” Natalia said. “There are rumors about your arm --”
“No,” he said.
It was easy to understand why Steve wanted to be his friend. He reminded Steve of Bucky and Steve was nothing if not loyal. Even Adina seemed to have decided that if the daemon she'd known before was gone, she could be enough daemon for the both of them, though she stopped short of actually touching him.
What made less sense was why Sam Wilson wanted to be friends with him. Sam knew he was the Winter Soldier. He had to know what that meant. Their first meetings had been violent. And yet, here he was, cheerily sticking one and a half six-packs of beer into Steve's fridge as Steve pulled plates from a cabinet. There was takeout on the counter. He'd expected the takeout. He hadn't expected Sam and beer.
Sam looked up and gave him a smile that looked only slightly uncomfortable. “Hey,” he said and held out a bottle. “You want a beer? It's movie night.”
He looked at Steve. “You didn't say it was movie night.”
“I forgot,” Steve lied and handed him a plate.
He looked at Adina. She pretended she was too busy chatting with the sparrow on her shoulder to notice him. He looked at Sam, who waved the beer at him again with an inquiring look. Well, it wasn't like he had anything better to do.
He took the bottle and popped open the cap with a flick of his metal fingers. “Fine.”
This was clearly something Sam and Steve had done before – Sam made popcorn while Steve connected a laptop to the TV. Adina seemed perfectly happy to have Sam's bird riding on her and chirping in her ear. When he asked what they were watching, Steve showed him a list of movies he was working through.
“They're supposed to be classics,” Steve explained. “Stuff I missed while I was asleep. Have you seen them?”
He skimmed the list of titles that hadn't yet been crossed out. He knew what happened in some of them, but that was it. “No.”
Watching the movie with Sam and Steve felt almost like wearing a cover, but he wasn't sure what his cover was actually supposed to be. He was pretending to be a person instead of a machine, maybe.
It worked. Sam's wariness had faded away. Steve was happy and relaxed. The two daemons had settled into comfortable positions atop a small pile of throw pillows that had been tossed to the floor.
If he wanted to, he could kill them all before anyone had the time to react. Steve wouldn't fight back, so he could snap Steve's neck with the arm and then throw the knife in his sleeve to dispatch Sam right after that. To get out, he could grab his bag from his room, steal Steve's motorcycle, and be several states away by the time someone realized he had finally completed his mission. After that, even with the remaining Avengers looking for him, three days would be plenty of time for him to find an international flight and disappear.
He considered the plan for a moment, checking it for flaws, before concluding that it would almost definitely be successful. Then, he discarded it.
He didn't actually want to do any of that. Mostly, he wanted to watch the rest of the movie and he wanted more popcorn.
He bumped his elbow into Steve's ribs. “Can you make more popcorn? We're out.”
He told Steve about the kill switch.
All of his attempts at finding it himself had failed and the knowledge that Hydra still owned him felt like knives cutting just beneath his skin. He was no one's dog. He wasn't going to let anyone keep him ever again.
"I can talk to Tony," Steve said. "Tony Stark, he's Howard Stark's –"
"I know who Tony Stark is," he said flatly.
"Then you know why we need to call him. He can help."
Hydra's machines hadn't found anything. But there was something there, something inside him, and there was no other way to get it out. He had a time limit. Hydra would rebuild and come for him eventually, just as they'd retrieved him every other time before. He couldn't go after them directly, but he still wasn't going to wait quietly for that happen.
Even if that meant letting Tony Stark take a look at his arm.
"Fine," he said. "But I'll kill him if he tries to turn me off.”
The warning didn't dim Steve's stupid grin one bit.
Stark was afraid of him. He pretended he wasn't but for all his quick chatter, he stood just out of lunging distance and his daemon remained out of sight as a conspicuous lump in his clothes. Stark spent a lot of time looking as if he was trying to very discreetly find a third daemon in a room that had only two.
But something about this place felt off. And it wasn't just that he didn't like being in Hydra facilities, even the ones that had supposedly had all the Hydra parts taken out.
He wasn't quite sure why. Steve had walked the perimeter with him before they'd gone in, chatting happily the whole time. But he felt almost drawn inside, like there was a magnet tuned only for him. It was thoroughly confusing and had him on edge. Was it some sort of latent Hydra weapon? Or worse, a SHIELD one?
His hands twitched for a weapon but he only had the knives at his ankles and wrists and he didn't want to reveal them.
Adina pressed herself against the side of his leg. Stark's eyes flickered down to her, startled.
"Bucky," Steve said softly, laying a palm on his flesh arm. "Are you okay?"
He shook off the touch and carefully stepped to the side, putting several inches of space between himself and Adina without treading on her tail, which was deliberately underfoot as usual. "I'm fine.”
The SHIELD lab looked like more of a workshop than a medical lab.
There were scuff marks on the floor from where machinery had been recently moved and he could recognize the signs of projects that had been hastily hidden away. A space had been cleared out for him, containing monitors, a padded chair (it had holes for restraints to be fit through but they had been removed), and a handful of devices that had been set on a counter. Some of them them looked sharp. Most of them did not.
"There's a kill switch inside me," he said to Stark. "Hydra can turn me off remotely. I want it out."
Stark from him to Steve, then back again. "Yeah, Steve told me a bit about that. I'm gonna need to take some scans and these are the best scanners I've got access to." He motioned to the chair. "Sit."
He sat, then stretched his arm out on the armrest, forearm up. Steve hovered anxiously at his shoulder.
"Okay," Stark began. "In order from least invasive to most invasive, we can start with some scans." He poked a few buttons on one of the machines and the screen switched on, revealing a constant stream of dense text. He rapped his knuckles gently on the console. “Jarvis? Ready to do some scanning?”
Jarvis was the artificial intelligence Stark had created. It had no daemon, but could pilot the Iron Man suit and had been instrumental in the process of Stark becoming a thorn in Hydra's side.
"Vitals scanned," it said in its mechanical voice and one of the sleeping monitors woke, displaying a series of graphs. The screen next to it sprang to life with a three-dimensional model of the metal arm. He flexed his arm. The one on the screen flexed as well.
It was good tech. He hadn't seen anything like it when he'd been newly woken and he suspected that was because Stark was the only one who had it.
Stark was watching the screens too. "Yeah," he said. "So just keep moving the arm, make it do whatever you normally do with it. I want a full range of motion. The scanners should be able to get a good look at its insides, there's something about the metal that's kind of weird but I'm still getting –" He stopped abruptly when he realized one of the panels for the arm had just come open. “Or you can do that. That works too.”
"There was a tracker here," he said. He pointed vaguely at the spot where the first tech had found it. "Connected to something inside the arm. I had the tech check for the others but she missed them."
"That's a little more invasive than I had scheduled next," Stark commented but quickly added, "but no, it's good. I can get a lot more information this way. How much of it comes off?"
Most of the forearm did and he pulled off each of those panels, revealing the wiring underneath. There were small tools taped to the undersides of those panels, unused. He had basic cleaning and maintenance in his head, all the ways to keep parts moving smoothly, even the bare minimum needed to do a field repair, if the arm wasn't damaged to the point of uselessness.
"That's really cool," Stark breathed. He grabbed a smaller, hand-held device that looked almost like a flashlight and pointed it at the exposed wiring. "Now let's find that pesky kill switch."
Three hours later, Stark had not found any hint of kill switches. Steve was starting to get noticeably bored.
"What's taking so long?" he asked. "Steve said you were the best."
"I am the best," Stark retorted. He had gone through two other scanners, one of which he'd started actually poking inside the metal arm, and had called on Jarvis several times. A dozen feet away, his small monkey daemon had stopped trying to stay hidden and was now examining several blown-out holograms on a table. "You're sure there's a kill switch."
"It might not be in the arm," he offered.
"The arm and its setting are the only things with any sort of electronic signature whatsoever. And when Hydra turns it on, it –"
"Turns me off," he finished. It was not the first time they'd had this conversation. "But they can't always control when I turn back on. And I don't know what it looks like. They put me to sleep for installations."
"I don't have enough data," Stark complained. "And nothing's showing up. Hydra's tech isn't this good. I mean, the arm's a work of art. It's genius, and I'm sure it was probably decades ahead of its time back in the day, but it's nothing I can't do better with eight weeks and modern technology at my disposal. There's no way my current tech can miss something inside you powerful enough to knock you out. If they were actually that good, we'd all be heiling Hitler by now."
"So you're saying you can't find it," he said.
"If I can't find it, it's not there. I'm Tony Stark."
"I wasn't imagining being turned off."
"Well, whatever they're using, it's not something modern technology can pick up. But hey, I'll tell you what: I'm pretty sure if you let me clone the firmware on your arm, I can build you a new one. A better one." Stark mimed shooting invisible guns. "80% more firepower, some snazzy new features, 40% less weight. I mean, how old is this, twenty years?"
“Forty.” It'd been in his file.
Stark's eyebrows raised. “Not bad for forty years,” he said. “But it's still decades behind what I'm capable of with the latest technology.”
He looked at his arm, moved his fingers. He picked up a panel from the ones on the table and slotted it into place, in the missing spot closest to his wrist. It clicked in with a faint snapping sound. He reached for the next one. "Okay," he said. If Stark couldn't find where in the arm the kill switch was, he supposed replacing the whole thing made sense. "Can you make it throw fire?"
"Can I –" Stark looked at Steve, wearing a wide, disbelieving grin. "Can I? Buddy, I think you and I are going to be great –" He took a large step forward, half reaching-out, but stopped before he made contact. His smiled faltered, but only just. "Trust me," he said, "when I get done with you, you will be a walking arsenal."
"He already is," Steve muttered.
Stark took some more measurements – even more scans of his arm and some of the metal that had replaced his shoulder. He had drawn the line at brain scans. He didn't need more people trying to get inside his head. By the time Steve and Stark said their goodbyes, even Stark's daemon had started to look at him with more curiosity than wariness, though he still kept well out of range.
"I have to admit, old or not, I'm looking forward to seeing what I can make of Hydra's tech," Stark said as they left. "I'll bump it up on my list of projects and let you know when I have something."
Of Steve and his associates, Natalia was the one most interested in the notebooks of Hydra intel he had written. She showed up at the front door to Steve's apartment with a bottle of vodka whose label was in Russian and said, “Even if you can't get drunk, that doesn't mean you can't appreciate good alcohol.”
She was the only other person he'd seen who didn't walk with a daemon, so he let her in wordlessly and grabbed two of Steve's glasses from the cabinet for them to drink from.
She had a copy of his intel and wanted to destroy Hydra almost as badly as he did. They shared the same scars. He could see them in the pages of intel she'd marked, dog-eared pages that had info on training facilities and circles around the names of the men who'd brought them into being. Some of them were the same ones he would have marked, if he was planning ops.
He'd noted down as many important staff members as he could that had been associated with each facility. Some had had their names crossed out. She pointed to those. “Are they all dead?”
She nodded without surprise. “Did you kill them?”
He looked at the list. “I don't remember what decade this intel is from,” he said. “But I think so.”
Natalia flipped to another page. Tapped it. It was one of the facilities he'd drawn in detail. There was a chair there, one of the ones that had been used to wipe him. Trying to remember the floor plan had made him feel the phantom memory of icy fluid running into his veins. “This one's been cleared out already,” she said. “Years ago. SHIELD destroyed it.”
She flipped several pages before stopping. “Tell me more about this one. What was Hydra doing here?”
He didn't mind the interrogation. The Black Widow had connections in the intelligence community, even with SHIELD in shambles and her reputation under siege in the newspapers. Anything he told her increased the chances of someone going after Hydra. He answered all her questions willingly, going over defenses and procedures and all the names he did remember, the handlers, scientists, and supervisors who had led Hydra's wing of human experimentation.
She didn't write anything down but he knew she'd remember it.
“This is useful,” she said when she finally stopped asking him questions. “I'll get in touch with some people and get things started.”
“Were you planning on bringing Steve? Sometimes he can get squeamish.” The things she had asked about had been markedly different from the things Steve had asked about.
Her eyes twinkled when she grinned at him. “What Captain America doesn't know won't hurt him.”
Stark had the first prototype ready for him before the month was out.
They had to go back to the SHIELD facility to try it on. He had warmed to the idea of replacing his arm entirely, even if it was with tech made by Tony Stark. At least it wasn't Hydra and Stark did produce the best. Even Hydra had acknowledged that, swiping as much of Stark's tech from SHIELD as they could get away with.
Just like last time, the the techs took one look at him – either at his metal arm or the lack of daemon, and quickly made themselves scarce. The strange uneasiness he'd felt before was back.
No one else seemed to feel it. He'd even been desperate enough to ask Steve.
“I don't know,” Steve had answered. “It looks like all the SHIELD labs I've seen before. What seems off?” Even Adina, who had a tendency to side with him just so she could side against Steve, swiveled her ears skeptically.
That was the problem. He couldn't point anything out. Stark had done background checks on all the staff. And even if there were still remnants of Hydra lying around, Hydra facilities had never made him feel like this.
There was something here. This time, he wasn't going to leave until he found it.
“Can it throw fire?” he asked with interest when a widely-grinning Stark wheeled the early prototype of the new arm, sleek and gleaming, into the lab.
“Well, no,” Stark admitted cheerfully. “But I've got something better.” Stark's eyes darted over to Steve, who was standing off to the side. His smile widened. His small monkey daemon peeked out of a large pocket on the front of his shirt. When the daemon realized he had been spotted, he dropped quickly out of sight.
Stark tapped at the tablet in his hands and the shoulder part of the arm opened up with a mechanical whirl, revealing –
“You're giving him rockets?” Steve exclaimed.
“I can't believe this,” Adina declared immediately and loudly.
He made an interested noise and leaned in to get a better look. They looked like just the thing to come in handy in a pinch. “How do you aim them?”
Stark's self-satisfied grin faltered. “Well, normally Jarvis does all my precision aiming. But I'm not letting you have Jarvis, so I haven't really figured that part out yet. But if you hold your arm out like this,” he demonstrated, “it'll follow what you're pointing at in a straight line. Mostly.” He shrugged. “It's still a work in progress.”
He nodded. “Cool.”
Stark stared at him. “Cool?” He looked exaggeratedly at Steve. “Did you hear that? The Winter Soldier just called my arm 'cool'.”
“What else can it do?”
“Buddy, I am so glad you asked,” Stark said and helped him swap out his gear. Stark knew where the latches were nearly as well as he did, and the new one slotted almost perfectly against the metal that had replaced his shoulder. “I could replace the shoulder too,” Stark said. “If you wanted to get all the Hydra tech out.”
The shoulder wasn't meant to be removed. They'd – he knew it could be opened for maintenance, for wires that went into his spine, but the thought of someone touching it made his stomach lurch. It would need maintenance eventually, and he didn't know yet how he'd get it.
He flexed his new arm. It was lighter than his old arm despite being the same size. The easy way it moved, even when he wiggled his fingers, made it far outstrip the work of Hydra's best scientists. He rubbed his fingertips together. The sensors were more sensitive too.
“You put a kill switch in it,” he stated. It wasn't a question. Steve's eyebrows drew together in disapproval. He looked like he wanted to object.
Stark didn't even try to deny it. “Of course,” he admitted. “Just in case anything happens. But it doesn't hurt you or anything nasty like that. It just turns off, in case of mind-control, hacking, or... other stuff.”
Well, he couldn't blame him for being cautious.
“Okay,” he said before the interruption brewing on Steve's face had time to break past his manners. “Can you do it now?”
“Bucky, no -” Steve began.
He waved him off. “I want to know what it's like.”
Stark gave him a dubious look, then shrugged and pulled a tablet out of the same pocket on his shirt that his daemon was in and tapped a few buttons. “Sure.”
It happened all at once; his arm went dead while he was moving it, fingers locking in place as it fell to his side. Steve jumped. The arm had become a useless weight off his shoulder, but it didn't zap him or otherwise hurt. He took it off with his flesh arm.
It really was a lot lighter than his previous one.
Steve stared at his metal shoulder. Adina, who was sitting on a table behind him, covered her snout with her paw and rolled her eyes.
Stark looked at him steadily. “So?”
“How do you activate the rockets? Is it... also an app?” he asked dubiously.
Stark chortled in delight. “As funny as that would be,” he said, “no. No, that's just temporary while it's still in active development. Here, let me.” Stark tapped at his tablet again and motioned for him to put the arm back on. It was active again. “It has knives too. There's a compartment on the side.”
“Tony!” Steve said. “Seriously?”
“I could always use more knives,” he said. “How big is it?”
The thing about Steve was that Steve was desperately eager to trust him.
So when he tapped Steve on the shoulder while they were getting ready to leave the base, he said, “I'm going to the bathroom.” Then, when Steve started to follow him, he stopped and asked flatly, “Are you following me to the bathroom?”
Stark laughed. Steve blushed.
No one followed him.
It was that easy.
He had been focusing on the strange feeling ever since he'd gotten in range of it. It must have been some sort of Hydra transmitter, made to control him. Or a weapon designed to be used on him. The longer he stayed in range of it, the stronger it had felt.
Hydra had tried a lot of things to keep him under control. According to his file, eventually nothing but the chair and cryo had worked.
He followed the strange feeling quickly and purposefully through the halls until he reached a dead-end – a door that opened into a supply closet where he stopped, puzzled. He had been expecting something else. He had been sure there was something else.
He considered his options.
His fist went straight through the wall in one hit. Three more blows was enough to reveal the staircase on the other side. After that, it did not take long to find the room that was waiting for him.
Behind him, alarms sounded.
Inside the room was a lab. At the back of the lab was a large clear cell. It was Stark tech. He recognized it. He'd read files about it. Tony Stark had personally developed it to contain the Hulk.
There was a bear in the cell. It looked up when the door opened. Their eyes met.
The bear in the cell was a daemon.
And then, with the feeling of an arm snapping back into its socket, he realized, I know you.
And the bear – the daemon, his daemon, looked at him and paused for just the tiniest fraction of a second before throwing herself against the clear wall of her cell. Her paws slammed against the barrier again and again. Her muzzle was wide open as she raked long, yellowing fangs against the wall, adding fresh marks to the gouges already dug into it.
He couldn't hear anything past the roar of blood in his veins.
He'd been so stupid.
They'd had her all along.
He hadn't made any progress opening the cell by the time Steve got to him. He'd managed to destroy almost everything else, but it remained stubbornly impervious to everything he had thrown at it. Even punching it as hard as he could had only managed to set his teeth ringing with the force of the impact.
“You knew!” he shouted and the betrayal in his throat felt so thick that he was choking on it, gasping for breath through sheer, incandescent rage. “You knew she was here!”
“I didn't!” Steve shouted back. He ducked a thrown computer and several heavy devices that smashed satisfyingly against the back wall. Adina was stuck behind Steve, unable to maneuver with all the debris. “It wasn't like that!”
“Liar!” he roared again and inside him, in parts of him he didn't realize he had, she roared too, bellowing her rage and clawing uselessly at the thick, clear walls that separated them so completely that he could hear her in only the deepest parts of his chest. “You took her! You took her from me!”
“Just listen to me! I can explain!” Steve yelled.
“I won't!” he shouted. His arm whirred as he used it to tear a metal monitor stand, monitor still attached, from the counter. He flung it at Steve. Steve ducked. Steve lunged forwards again, arms held up to protect him. The twisted metal crashed into a chair and brought it down. All he could think was, I'm going to burn them all to the ground. “I won't be used again!”
He wiped the floor with Steve, who was holding back.
But when he knocked Steve down and Steve finally stayed down, groaning in pain, it didn't matter.
Sometime over the past several minutes, the air in the cell he'd been trying to open had grown so thick with white fog that the only thing he could see within it was a large, indistinct figure, moving slower and slower.
His knees buckled.
He woke up in a hospital room, completely alone except for her. He could feel her presence even before he turned his head to see her.
The bear could sense him too. She uncurled into a sitting position from her position in front of the door. The rage he had seen earlier, that he had expected, was gone. Her head lifted and she met his eyes. Her brown fur was dirty and matted. She yawned and he saw ragged, broken fangs in her mouth. Her pelt hung loosely over her frame, much too thin. Daemons weren't tangible the way humans were tangible. They were souls made up of Dust. They didn't get sick. They didn't get dirty.
She looked like a feral animal hunters had found in the woods. She looked wrong because there was something wrong with him. She looked sick because he was sick.
“They let you out,” he said.
“Do you know who I am?”
She nodded again. There was a ragged, ugly scar all along the length of her muzzle.
“Bucky Barnes' daemon was a dog.” The bear in front of him was clearly his daemon. Every fiber of his being knew it, knew her. But Bucky's daemon had been a dog. Steve and Adina remembered the dog.
“When they changed you, it changed me too,” she said. Despite her size and threatening appearance, her voice was so quiet that a real human probably wouldn't have heard her.
“They didn't kill you,” he said with dawning realization. “They took you.”
“No,” she said. “They took you. They took you away and made you forget. And then they locked me in a box.”
“Do you remember?”
His chest clenched. “How much?”
“All of it. Everything.”
“Even from before?” He didn't have memories from before. He had muscle memory, habits. He could read Steve like an open book and never walked into Adina even though she was always underfoot. He didn't remember what his old self's sister looked like, but he could tell from the sound of Steve's steps up a flight of stairs whether he was feeling happy or sad.
Her body thumped when she lay down on the tiled floor, falling below his range of view. It wasn't until he started to get up to follow her that he realized they hadn't even bothered to handcuff him to the bed. Nor had they taken his arm. There were just some tubes and sensors attached to him. He pulled them out. Machines began to beep.
One eye open, she watched him with interest as he got out of the bed. “I can remember,” she said. “When I try. That was Steve, in the room with you. He still has the shield. You used to call him Stevie.”
It hurt to move, but ignoring that was second nature. He dragged his weakened, bruised body step by haggard step until he was right in front of her. Just seeing her made him feel unbalanced, lost.
She wasn't Bucky Barnes' daemon. Bucky's daemon had died when he'd died, cold and alone on the operating room table.
She was what came after, when they'd taken what was rest and made him.
She was like him.
He sat heavily on the floor. It was cold. Her round, brown eyes glittered. He reached his hand to her, the weak one (the real one). It shook in the moonlight. Part of him had wanted, secretly and shamefully in a corner of his own heart, but he had never believed, not really, that he had a daemon. That he was –
She shifted to let him lie down beside her. A massive furred arm settled over his back. Her claws clacked lightly against the tile. He felt different. More like a person than he'd ever felt before, like the part of him that was supposed to feel feelings had finally settled back inside him.
He closed his eyes. “Do you remember Steve?”
Coarse fur rubbed against his head when she nodded.
“Can you tell me about him?”
He and Stark had no idea, Steve swore, about any of this.
Not only that the daemon in the cell had belonged to him, but that there had been a daemon in a basement below a SHIELD facility in the first place, or that this was where one of the Hulk-rated cells had been located.
“I checked the serial number after I hacked it open,” Stark said grimly. “It was an early prototype of the Hulk units designed to keep the Big Guy out of trouble. SHIELD told me it had been destroyed.”
“It wasn't,” he said flatly.
“It is now.” Stark said. “I made sure of that myself.”
He had never remembered having her, never would have thought to look for her. And now she was free. Now Hydra didn't have his kill switch. No one did. They were giving her back. She was here, in a corner with her head turned away, pretending she wasn't listening as Stark's daemon stayed safely on his person and Adina stared openly at her.
Adina had tried to talk to the daemon and been first ignored, then thrown against the wall by a single swipe of the bear's huge paw. She'd taken the hint after that.
“Sure,” he said. “Can I go now?”
He didn't expect them to let him go, but they did.
The daemon came with him.
She followed at his heels without saying anything. He left the room and she got up to go with him, casual as anything. She followed him to Steve's apartment and watched as he gathered a couple of his favorite guns into a duffel bag with his other gear and necessities. She sat on the other side of the door when he went to the bathroom.
He left the apartment, gear slung over his shoulder, and she fell into place behind him. People stared. But they stared differently. They looked at him, then they looked at her, and then their faces would settle. Yes, they seemed to say, this is normal. Humans swerved automatically out of the daemon's way and their daemons stared at her as they passed.
He didn't want to ask. He had never had a daemon before. Everything felt different now, sharper. If he asked why she was following him, she might ask herself that too. They were separated. She didn't need him and he had nothing she would want.
He didn't want her to leave.
When he rented a car, he picked the SUV fitted specially for large daemons. Before he drove it off the lot, he folded down the seats so she could sit up and lie down at will.
She finally spoke after they'd driven on the highway half an hour in the opposite direction from where Steve lived. “Where are we going?”
“What's in Virginia?”
“A lead on some old Hydra projects. A couple safe houses with more cash.”
“We have a backpack full of cash.”
He shrugged. He looked at her in the rear view mirror. She met his eyes, then looked away. The car wobbled when she sat down with a thump. She raised a paw to her mouth and gave it a nonchalant lick.
“Okay. Let's go to Virginia.”
He checked into the first motel half an hour past midnight. He'd left the doors unlocked but the daemon hadn't followed him into the tiny room that counted as the motel lobby. It was really for the best. There was no way she'd have fit.
“Are the room doors bigger?” he asked, nodding at the door he'd just come through. “I need them wider.”
The clerk's eyes widened. His daemon, a fat green frog in an open top terrarium, hopped behind a plastic toy castle. “Uh, yeah. They're rated for horses, but we have a couple handicapped rooms too that can hold pretty much anything, if you need to switch over to one of those.”
“Horse-sized should be good,” he said, and handed over some cash in exchange for a pair of plastic room keys.
The daemon was right where he'd left her, curled into a massive ball in the back of the specially-built SUV. She opened her eyes and lifted her head only when he had fully opened the doors.
“We're in room three,” he said. She followed him to room three, which had one queen bed, one bathroom, and one TV that only got six channels that weren't static.
He watched her warily out of the corner of his eye as she paced slowly around the room, sticking her snout under the bed and in the drawers and into the bathroom sink. He wasn't sure what to do. He was with his daemon, for the first time, his daemon that made him a person, and on the inside he was in a panicking free fall because he had no idea what to do.
Hydra hadn't trained him for this.
“You're not how I remember you,” she said. She sat down on her haunches. She was huge, just as large as real grizzlies got in the wild. She would be good in a fight. The myriad of scars on her made her look as if she had fought, but he had no idea if the scars were from her or just a reflection of himself. Maybe that was just how he was – ragged and broken.
“What was Bucky like?”
She tilted her head to the side and met his eyes. He looked away first. “Happier. Less angry.”
“I'm not angry,” he said.
“I am,” she answered and like a light switch had been turned on, her rage flared hot in his chest.
The daemon had been trapped in Hydra facilities just as long as he had but unlike him, she'd never been formally briefed on what had happened in the past decades. They hadn't talked to her.
“Sometimes I picked things up from what they were saying,” she explained. She was still in the backseat, but he had leaned the passenger-side seat as far back as it could go and now she could stick her head there to see through the windshield. “And I slept when you were in the ice,” she said.
He didn't have an answer for all of the things she asked him about. But he told her what he could. He briefed her on Hydra and Captain America and the new things the world held, seventy years into Bucky's future.
In return, she told him what she remembered from Larossa's memories and who Steve Rogers had been to them. “He's smaller than I remember,” she commented. “But so is everything else.”
Virginia turned out to not have anything special. The data had already been leaked by the Avengers and the best that could be said about the safe house was that it existed. He looted it for cash and weapons while the daemon batted a chair around with one of her huge paws and rummaged through broken-apart drawers.
“I want to do something else,” she said when they left. Between the two of them, they'd rendered its interior no longer livable. “Something new. I want to do more than just remember things.”
He knew what she meant, could feel what she meant, sorrow and fear and loneliness and yearning, the ghost of a memory that she wanted to make real again. So he opened his mouth, thought about Bucky, and said, “Do you want to watch a baseball game?”
They watched a baseball game.
Some number of months later, when James settled into the shitty motel bed and turned on the shitty motel TV to listen to the news while he looked over his latest pile of mostly-worthless Hydra documents, Ruskya turned to put her head on the bed and said calmly, “We should go back soon. Steve's probably worried.”
He rolled onto his side and looked at her. The patchy spots on her fur had filled in, covering up the jagged scars that littered her skin. Her fur shone with a healthy gloss. She had lost some of the lean hungriness in her frame.
In the mirror, when he put on a coat and pulled gloves over his hands, they looked like a person. They looked whole.
Carefully, he stroked his fingers down her snout. Her coarse fur tickled his palm. She closed her eyes.
“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”