He wakes strapped to a chair, body tilted strangely from the arm they’ve stuck to him, from the weight of it pulling him.
The doctor glances up from his notes, smiles something cold and sharp. “Good morning.” He says, and the man in the chair pulls at the restraints, tries to find give. The doctor continues smiling. “Careful,” he admonishes, almost amusedly. “Fuss too much and we won’t have any alternative.”
A safety clicks and pressure hits the back of his head – the cold steel of a gun, a one-way ticket, an end. The doctor says it like it’s a threat, like whatever lives on the other side of this world is somehow worse than how it feels when he’s waking.
He wants to pull until the restraints break, wants to lunge across the few feet of space and wrap his hand around the doctor’s throat and crush until his eyes roll back. Wants to reach around, point that gun to his forehead, pull the trigger. Wants to let the world fall away, fade into nothingness.
The doctor cocks his head, and the man in the chair realizes he’s pushing back against the gun. A hand grips the back of his neck, pushes his head forward. Suddenly the doctor is not smiling anymore. There’s a red book in his hands. Russian words curling at the edges of his mouth.
Sixteen words, sinking and quiet as the world fades to grey, to little more than a distant dream. Sixteen words, and then: “Soldier?”
A voice he doesn’t recognize but knows too well spills from his lips. “Ready to comply.”
“Captain Rogers?” The man gasps, crowded against the side of his car, his wife calling his name desperately. “Steve?”
The Soldier twists once, hears the crack. Puts a hand over the woman’s mouth until she quiets, until she stills. Shoots out the video camera. Retrieves the objectives. Thinks, he knew me as the machine clamps over his head and the world goes quiet.
Crouched on a roof, he watches the target (Fury Nicholas J, SHIELD Director) as he lowers himself into a chair, wincing, bleeding, bruised. The Soldier knows he should be dead, but no matter – he will be soon. HYDRA doesn’t leave loose ends.
Another man – this one with thick dark hair and grey eyes and a tired weight in his bones – slides open a window, steps through. He flicks on a light, flinches, and then the room is plunged into darkness once more. The Soldier doesn’t know this man’s name, knows only where his gaze is and where the Soldier must shoot to make sure he hits the target.
When he pulls the trigger, his hands don’t shake.
Fury Nicholas J falls like a tin soldier, pushed to the ground, and the Asset stands, gathers the rifle, and takes off.
The man gives chase, stumbling through walls and doors as the Soldier leaps over buildings and walls and roofs. It feels like some sort of game, like something children would play. The Soldier gets the strangest urge to laugh as he sprints across the roof, can’t even imagine what his own laugh would sound like, how it would taste coming out of his mouth.
Something slices through the air, quick and sharp as a blade, and he turns to catch the shield, skidding to a stop. It’s gaudy, all red white and blue, but the Soldier isn’t looking at the shield. He’s watching the man – the man, who jerks back and drops his jaw, surprised, grey eyes widening. The Soldier can’t quite bite down the smile that pushes up, but it’s hidden by his mask.
He throws the shield back, hard enough to send the man sliding back a few feet, but by then the Soldier is gone.
Gone, and trying to ignore how the shield felt familiar in his grip, like holding a piece of him that he’d forgotten about.
“You know your job.” Rumlow says, one cold hand gripping the Soldier’s jaw tight enough to bruise. “You know what you have to do.” The Soldier nods, gritting his teeth against the tightening fingers. They were lenient, the first time, when he failed to kill Fury. Another screw-up and they won’t be as kind.
Rumlow releases, steps back, and Pierce comes into focus. The Soldier has cycled through handlers, has been with HYDRA since the rise and will be there till the fall, but Pierce is the coldest, the nastiest, the cruelest.
Pierce kneels, grips the wrist of the Soldier’s right arm in his hand. “Any fuck ups,” he says quietly. “Will be treated as unforgivable, you understand.”
The Soldier swallows, tries to ignore the way his body trembles. “Da.” He murmurs, and Pierce nods and stands, releases the Soldier’s wrist and backs away.
Two targets – Sitwell and a woman with fiery red hair and bright green eyes. “If anyone gets in the way, take ‘em out.” Rumlow commands, and pushes a gun into the Soldier’s waiting and steady arms.
(There is a story, somewhere – the man who fell lived instead, in another’s place, carried the shield and vengeance on the tip of his tongue and let a plane crash into the ocean. He froze, seventy years in the ice, woke up to a cold and unforgiving and unfamiliar world.
There is a story, somewhere, of how it was supposed to go. How it should have been James who fell from that train, how it was supposed to be James that was turned into a weapon but oh how overjoyed the scientists must have been, how they must have laughed, when they discovered that Captain America would be their own personal lapdog. An international icon, fallen to his death in 1945, to spend the rest of his life as a personal pet and assassin to the same people that he died fighting against.
There is a story, somewhere. One the Soldier doesn’t know, has never known. Knows only that his life started on a laboratory table, a cryo chamber, a bunker in Siberia.
That is his story, and oh what a tragedy it is.)
Sitwell goes down easily, crushed under a passing 18-wheeler, and the Falcon’s car flips in the air once, twice, three times. The Soldier gets thrown from the hood, tumbles along concrete, sinks metal fingers into asphalt until he grinds to a halt. The goons that HYDRA sent begin firing, shooting round after round at the three survivors – the Captain, the Falcon, the Spider.
He wants the girl; that is his objective. The other two are merely collateral.
The Spider disappears over the highway, and the Captain throws his shield and knocks out one of the Soldier’s men. The Soldier snaps up the shield and throws it back, hard enough that it sends him tumbling after the Spider to the street below.
“заботиться о них, я буду обращаться с женщиной.” He snaps, taking a gun, swinging over the edge, striking down onto unforgiving pavement. The Spider is gone, slipping through the crowds, tangling him into her web – he watches her, the way her body moves, and can’t help but think there’s something familiar there, quietly so.
(What is your name? The little girl asks, all shocking green eyes and twisted red hair. She’s young, but she’s powerful; small but deadly. She will bear the moniker well.
I don’t have one, the Soldier replies, pushing at her shoulders to straighten her posture.
She blinks at him, curious. But everyone has a name, so you must have one too.
The Soldier stares at her, at this child to be trained as a killer. You can call me Steven, he finds himself saying, and her smile is something much too bright for the darkness of this place.)
Gunshots ricochet but none make the target, either because she is too fast or he is pulling them without realizing. People scream, scurry out of the way, desperately scared as the Spider shoves them aside, snaps for them to move! But they are not the objective – the Soldier doesn’t care to hurt them.
She takes a left down a street, and the Soldier takes aim and fires – this one doesn’t miss, instead pierces her left shoulder. A sharp gasp escapes her and she stumbles, knees buckling as pain tears through her, cowering behind a car. In one fluid motion, the Soldier steps up onto the hood of a forgotten vehicle, gun raised, ready to complete the mission. The Spider must hear him, because she whips around, gaze betraying something the Soldier doesn’t recognize.
There are footsteps, and then the Captain leaps up – the Soldier reacts before he can think, swinging the metal arm at the same time the Captain lifts his shield. The impact of shield and arm reverberates through him, but he doesn’t pause. He knocks the shield away and kicks the Captain in the chest, sending him flying backwards. The Soldier takes aim, pulls the trigger, but the bullets bounce off the shield and fall, dejected, onto the road.
In one fluid movement, the Soldier rolls off the car and drops the first rifle, snapping up a second and firing as the Captain sprints around the car. Glass shatters, but no bullets hit the Captain or his shield. He empties the clip and moves to switch them out, but the Captain lunges over the car and kicks the gun from his hand. It hits the pavement, and the Soldier pulls out a handgun, fires four shots and feels something hard connect with his cheek, enough to send his head snapping sideways.
Something slices through the air, and he barely manages to catch the shield when the Captain swings, metal fingers crunching around it. He strikes out, feels flesh connect to flesh, but the Captain doesn’t falter. With both hands, the Soldier grips the shield and rips it upward, forcing the Captain to flip with it instead of breaking his arm. It comes off his arm, and the Soldier grips it tight, finds that his body recognizes the weight of it.
Faded memory, from the first night, or maybe something a little more.
Surprise flashes across the Captain’s face, but he keeps swinging, and the Soldier blocks every move, lands one of his one with the metal arm that sends the Captain tumbling backwards, hitting the ground as the Soldier looms above him, shield held in front of his chest as the Captain meets his gaze and leaps to his feet.
With deadly accuracy, the Soldier throws the shield, and though the Captain dodges, it jams itself into the siding of a minivan. The Captain barely spares it a glance as he lunges at the Soldier, blocking every cut and move the Soldier makes.
The pocketknife slices through the air, the Soldier tossing it from hand to hand as every move gets cut off, stopped short before he can make contact. In some distant part of his brain, he’s fascinated by the fact that the Captain can block the metal arm, that there’s no sound of bones crunching or even a sign of faltering as they play this deadly game, the Soldier advancing and the Captain stepping back.
The Captain lands a hit, right to his temple, and then propels himself upwards and kicks him across the jaw – the Soldier flies backwards and into a car, hard enough to dent it, and then the Captain slams knees into his chest and sends glass scattering around them as the Soldier breaks the window.
The metal arm comes up and closes tight around the Captain’s throat – a heartbeat thrums under the fingers, and he pushes down, feels blood rush to the area and watches the Captain’s eyes get wider as air is taken from him. The Soldier drags him closer, lifts him off his feet, and then throws him away, hard enough that the Captain hits the concrete and stills, like the air has been punched from his lungs.
The Soldier has no weapons except the metal arm, and the Captain sees the thing coming and rolls away right as it makes contact with the ground where his head was. The Captain twists to his feet, arms in front of his face as the Soldier strikes out, hits upper arm and stomach and chest, but nothing seems to stop him. The Soldier rocks back, for a breadth of a second, but it gives the Captain enough time to kick out, hitting him in the chest and sending him backwards. It gives the Captain long enough to pry his shield from the minivan, and then the Soldier is on him once more.
There’s something different to the fight now, something a little sharper, a little clearer – the Soldier remembers this man, remembers this shield from the night on the rooftop. But he remembers how he fights, too. Remembers, distantly, how this Captain swings his fists and moves his body. The Soldier knows his weak spots.
The Soldier gets the metal arm around his neck, chest to back, and presses tight. The Captain scrabbles for purchase, trying to pry it off, and then he drives his elbow back and into the Soldier’s stomach. It’s not a hard hit, but it still winds the Soldier, forces him to loosen his hold, and the Captain jumps on the hesitation. A strong hand comes up and grabs at the Soldier’s jaw, fingers curling tight, and the Captain manages to spin around and kick him backwards, hard enough that he scrapes along the pavement and into another car.
It’s vague, when he struggles to his feet, but he notices that the mask has fallen off.
He turns, tasting air without his mask, and notices that the Captain has gone still, arm holding the shield dropped to his side. “Steve?” He says, disbelief coloring his tone.
“Who the hell is Steve?” The Soldier snarls, and the Captain flinches, face twisting and shield hitting the concrete as he stumbles forward.
“Stevie-,” He gasps, one hand outstretched as if to touch him, and the world goes fuzzy, gets loud inside the Soldier’s head and then goes abruptly quiet as he and the Captain watch each other, and the Soldier suddenly thinks James. It feels like memory, like something bitter in his mouth, but he thinks James and knows the voice that speaks isn’t the cold and sharp one that he’s grown used to, the one that’s always there. It’s different, accented strangely.
It’s enough to send breath stuttering through his lungs, something cold clamping over his throat as the name plays in his mind, but then movement flashes in his peripheral and it’s the Spider, weak and small but holding a weapon and when she pulls the trigger, the Soldier turns and disappears before he can get blown apart.
The containment facility is under a bank, and the Soldier is shoved into the chair, told to hold his arm out while the scientists look it over. Rumlow and Rollins and the rest of the men loom in the doorways, all armed. The Soldier counts them – seven in total, plus the two scientists and at least three beyond the iron-bar doors. Ten guns, total, plus other invisible weapons.
The Soldier wouldn’t stand a chance.
Something sputters to life as the scientist hovers over his arm, and memory flashes, cold as ice and sharp as a blade – he remembers the fall, the ice and the cold. He remembers the doctor leaning over him; head tilted curiously, eyes bright. Remembers the doctor saying, good of you to join us, Captain Rogers. Remembers the saw – they had kept him awake when they took the arm, when they grafted the metal to burnt skin. Remembers waking up strapped to a table, slipping under ice, pulling triggers and disappearing into cold and wind-bitten nights. Remembers pain, sharp and cacophonic.
Remembers a voice calling him Stevie.
He lunges before he’s aware that he’s even moving, and the scientist who was fixing the arm flies off his chair and into the opposite wall. Seven guns turn to him, all safeties off and all fully loaded. They’ll put him down, put a bullet in his brain as quickly as they will anything else. They’ll turn him into little more than a rabid dog.
A voice titters outside – sir, he-he’s unstable – and then Pierce steps in, gaze detachedly curious as he moves closer, but his eyes are sharp. “Mission report,” he says, and the Soldier thinks Stevie-Stevie he called me Stevie. Pierce’s eyes narrow, and he repeats, “mission report, Soldier."
The Soldier says nothing, and when Pierce strikes out, palm firm and stinging across his cheek, it’s hard enough to taste blood.
“The man on the bridge,” the Soldier starts, tongue tripping over the words. English feels strange in his mouth, curls oddly against the back of his teeth. “Who was he?”
Pierce hesitates, long enough for the Soldier to know that whatever he’s about to say is going to be a lie. “You met him earlier on a different assignment,” he finally answers and – and yes, maybe he did, but the Soldier knew the way he fought, the way his body moved. Knew him better than he knows himself.
“But I knew him.” He whispers, thinks Stevie-Stevie who’s Stevie? The Soldier shakes his head, breathes in, feels it catch in his throat. “I knew him.” He repeats, and there’s no ignoring the flash in Alexander Pierce’s eyes, like this is a conversation he would rather not be having.
The Soldier understands – after all, he’s not supposed to ask questions.
Pierce clicks his tongue twice, takes up the chair that the scientist the Soldier threw into a wall had been sitting in. “Your work has shaped the century,” he starts, obviously choosing his words very carefully. “Man or not, your alliance is with HYDRA. It always has been. HYDRA created you, raised you, nurtured and cared for you, and a price must be paid for our kindness.”
This has not been kindness, the Soldier thinks. You have never shown me kindness.
Rumlow steps up, murmurs something, and Pierce leans back in his chair and nods. “I agree,” he says quietly, and then he stands and motions the scientist over. “Wipe him and start again – no more malfunctions, or it’ll be more than just Project Insight on the chopping block.” And then he takes his leave
Something shivers down the Soldier’s spine, something crushing and scared. Familiar restraints clamp onto his arms, dig into well-worn bruises on his temples. The chair rocks back as a mouth guard is forced past his teeth, as electricity crackles. He grits his teeth, closes his fists.
The last thought he thinks is he called me Steve and I won’t let you take that from me before pain takes over and the world goes blissfully blank.
(Somewhere, Bucky sits at a table in an underground SHIELD base with his head in his hands. “I should have looked for him,” he whispers into his palms, tears choking at the edge of his voice. “I – I should have done better, I should have gone back.”
Natasha grits her teeth as the doctor digs around in her wound. “You couldn’t have known,” she grounds out, and her knuckles have gone white around the lip of the table. “You couldn’t have known what they’d turn him into.”
“I was supposed to protect him.” He says, hating the way his voice trembles and cracks. “It should have been me.” The look Natasha gives him is sharp, horrifically cold, but he can’t bring himself to regret what he’s said. It’s true, it’s always been true – from the very beginning, he knew he had to protect Steve.
He remembers the way Steve’s gaze had flickered, darkened with jealousy, when he saw Bucky in his dress greens for the first time. Bucky had wanted to drop to his knees, whisper prayers into Steve’s stomach. Had wanted to say please don’t cry when I go, know you’re a better man than I am, know you’re a hero and you’re meant for better things than this and you’re supposed to live.
He remembers waking up on the table, rasping out three-two-five-five-seven, blinking the frostiness from his gaze to see a Steve he didn’t recognize looming over him, calling his name, begging him to wake up. He remembers thinking no-no-no you’re not supposed to be here you’re supposed to be in Brooklyn please don’t make me lose you.
“I don’t think there’s anything left of him to save.” Sam says, hesitant, and Bucky breathes out a quiet sigh, scrubs a hand across his face.
“I have to bring him home,” he murmurs. “Sam, I have to. I – I have to know if he’s still in there.” Sam watches his face closely, and then nods.
It should have been Bucky, this he knows, and the irony tastes like blood in his mouth.)
The Captain swings onto the catwalk, and he’s wearing an old-fashioned blue coat and brown pants, and he’s carrying the shield.
“Steve,” he says, and the Soldier feels no recognition rush through him, no distant and clashing memory. “Steve, people are gonna die – good people. I can’t let that happen.” The Soldier is silent – he’s heard enough begging, enough desperation. He knows to ignore it. The Captain’s face cracks, and he takes a step forward. “Steve, please don’t make me do this.”
The Soldier says nothing, doesn’t know who this man is talking to – he doesn’t have a name, HYDRA never gave him one, never deemed him important enough to have a name. But the way the Captain says Steve tugs at something in the Soldier’s chest, something cold and quiet and long forgotten, deeply buried.
The Captain takes another step forward, and the Soldier pulls out a gun and fires.
It’s dirty and desperate, this fight, and the Captain doesn’t hold back. He swings that shield and hits hard, hard enough that the Soldier feels bruises purpling along his skin. The Captain is fighting hard to get that final chip in, and he knows the patterns of the Soldier’s fighting too well. For every step the Soldier makes, the Captain meets him halfway.
The Captain lunges for the data bank, and the Soldier sweeps his legs out, hard enough that he hits the ground face first and sends the chip skittering over the edge of the platform. The Soldier leaps down to follow it, has a hand closed over it, when an arm closes over his throat and he’s wrenched backwards, fist still closed over the chip. Together, they hit the floor, the Soldier trapped between the Captain’s legs.
“Drop it.” The Captain hisses, one leg coming up to hook around the Soldier’s arm. He presses down, hard enough that the Soldier fears his arm will snap in half. Agony ricochets through him when the Captain’s pressure becomes too much and his arm dislocates. And then, darkness starts closing in as the Captain grips tight and the Soldier finds himself unable to breathe. “Dammit, Steve, drop it.” The Captain gasps, and if the Soldier didn’t know any better, he’d say the Captain sounded on the verge of tears.
The world drops out for a moment, and when he comes to, the Captain is climbing onto the platform, clutching the chip, ready to dismantle everything that HYDRA has built.
Your work has shaped the century, Pierce’s voice whispers, and the Soldier clambers to his feet, pulls out a gun.
Another memory, this one more distant, slips in – a beautiful woman he doesn’t know, a little girl with tumbling red curls, a red white and blue suit and a shield that looks like the one the Captain carries. The Soldier feels his chest constrict, watches the memories fade into nothingness, and then he aims and fires.
This shot doesn’t miss.
The Captain falters as the bullet pierces his abdomen, and his hand slips a fraction of an inch. For a heartbeat, the Soldier thinks he’s done it, he’s stopped this man’s destruction of everything he’s done.
“Charlie lock,” the Captain whispers, and the world shakes apart under their feet.
The carriers are firing at one another, and something groans and bends. The Soldier glances up as the scaffolding above him explodes and falls on top of him, trapping him. For the first time, he howls in pain as his legs shriek with the weight of the scaffolding. He pushes, desperate to get the weight off of him. He knows, distantly, that HYDRA will let him die with this carrier, will let him burn to death.
In his periphery, he sees movement. The Captain is clambering down from the platform, the blue coat stained a muddy brown from his blood. The Soldier renews his efforts, ignoring the aching in his shoulder. He can’t accept help from the Captain, he just can’t.
He’s wounded, but the Captain reaches down and hooks hands under the scaffolding and lifts, gritting his teeth as he does. The Soldier rolls out and to his feet, rocking backwards, hands up.
“I won’t fight you, Stevie.” The Captain says. Stevie. That nickname from the first day they met. He says it so softly, so gently, with such love in his voice. The Soldier doesn’t remember any other time when someone has spoken to him like that. “You gotta come back to me, Steve. You just-,” he stumbles when the helicarrier jolts, and when he looks up, there are tears sparkling on his eyelashes. “I can’t lose you again.” He finally murmurs.
“I don’t know you!” The Soldier shouts, fear wrapping tendrils around his throat. Again, the Captain said, like he had already lost the Soldier before this, before that day on the bridge.
The Captain stumbles again, clutches his shield a little tighter. He’s bleeding from the mouth, hands covering the gaping wound in his abdomen. It had been an easy shot, calculated and quick, and one the Soldier messed up. He’ll pay for it later. The Captain grits his teeth. “Yes, you do.” He grounds out, like every word cuts his mouth on barbwire. “Your name is Steven Grant Rogers, and you were born in 1917. Your mom’s name was Sarah. This,” and he shakes that shield, snapping his teeth in pain. “This used to belong to you.”
Another voice, distant, disembodied, a forgotten memory pushing forward. Talking through agony, through a mouthful of blood and over a woman’s terrified sobs. Another voice called the Soldier Steve.
“You’re my friend,” The Captain whispers, so quiet it nearly gets lost in the shrieks of the helicarrier. The Soldier lunges, wraps a hand around his throat, takes him down so they land on the scaffolding.
“You’re my mission.” The Soldier snarls, fists flying, swinging so hard that the Captain’s head snaps back against the scaffolding. The Soldier doesn’t stop, relentless and angry and so fucking scared.
The metal fist connects with the Captain’s nose, and it cracks and splinters blood across the Soldier’s face. “Then finish it,” the Captain gasps, and he looks barely human. “’Cause I’m with you till the end of the line.”
The Soldier pulls back – one punch should finish it, should end all of this, should complete the mission – and it’s like the world stills itself.
Memory flashes, so vibrant and colorful that it feels real, real enough to touch. A young man, blond and small and skinny. A taller man, this one with the Captain’s steel grey eyes and dirty dark hair.
I can get by on my own, the blond man says, gaze downcast to his shoes.
The Captain – BuckyBuckyBuckyBucky – reaches out, clasps a hand to his shoulder. That’s the thing, you don’t have to, he says, smirking. I’m with you till the end of the line, pal.
Memory flashes – a little apartment, pillow forts and two little graves side-by-side. A woman, with slicked red lips and dark brown curls and you were meant for more than this, you know. War – flashes of light and rowdy drunken soldiers and laughter, he remembers laughter. He remembers ice and the fall and the shield in his hands and the uniform against his skin. Remembers Howard and Peggy and the Howling Commandos. Remembers a voice shouting let’s hear it for Captain America! He remembers all of it.
My name is Steven Grant Rogers, he thinks, and it’s not the Asset’s cold and chilling voice – it’s the voice he hears, sometimes, right after he’s been brought of cryo. My name is Steve Rogers, the voice repeats, and he recognizes it now, recognizes the curl to the words.
The helicarrier bows around them, groaning with the weight, and the scaffolding gives way. It takes James Buchanan Barnes with it.
My name is Steve Rogers, he thinks one last time, and then he lets go.
When he drags Bucky onto the riverbank, drops him onto the grass and stares down at a face that he used to know, in some vague and distant part of his memory, he knows there are two choices – he can run and wait for HYDRA to find him, because they will, they always will; or he can sit and he can wait and remember how it feels to be human, to be known, to be loved.
Bucky wakes up and Steve whispers, “I remember you.”