When there were no more heads to cut off of the monster that was Hydra, the Winter Soldier no longer had a purpose in life.
Once, the Soldier didn’t need a purpose. The Soldier existed to serve. It existed to serve Hydra, Hydra existed to serve the world, and the world existed to be served. The Soldier didn’t need any reason to serve beyond its handlers ordering it to. The Soldier didn’t need to know kindness, the Soldier didn’t need to know gentleness, the Soldier only needed to obey and it could tolerate any pain or suffering or depression that its handlers saw fit to put the Soldier through.
Then, by some careless mistake, the Soldier remembered that it had had a name once.
After a mission, the Soldier was sent straight into stasis without its memory being wiped. In stasis, the Soldier had dreamed. It had seen a sunlit street, cracked pavement and a weed pushing through those cracks. There, in that dream, the Soldier had seen three young girls. They’d played hopscotch and Ring Around the Rosies and the Soldier had been invited to play with them. The girls had laughed and smiled without fear and called the Soldier Bucky.
The next time the Soldier had been removed from stasis, it killed its handlers.
The Soldier killed every Hydra operative and agent in that facility and when it was done there, it moved on to the next one. As the Soldier moved from Hydra facility to facility, it had remembered more. The weed it had seen was a dandelion. It had once made wishes on dandelions with the three girls it had seen. The three girls playing hopscotch had belonged to the Soldier. They were the Soldier’s responsibility. The Soldier had been told to protect them and the Soldier made its first discovery from that. The Soldier was not only a tool of war. The Soldier had once had little sisters and the Soldier’s duty had once been to look after children instead of killing them.
By the time the Soldier cleared Russia of the infection of Hydra, the Soldier understood that it was not a weapon. The Soldier was a man, an Alpha. The Soldier could not bring himself to take the name that his sisters had once laughed and sang so happily, but Bucky had not been his only name. His mother, for the Soldier had once had a mother as well, had called him James. Leaving Russia, the Soldier felt comfortable calling himself that.
James. It could be a James.
The Soldier uprooted every Hydra facility and agent he could find. He killed them all. He spared innocent spouses and their children. The Soldier found places where he had killed for Hydra and he left daisies on the graves of those he’d executed. The Soldier made a plan at last. The Soldier would rid the world of Hydra and then he would rid the world of himself.
Destroying the final Hydra base came faster than the Soldier had anticipated. And when it was gone, the Soldier was left standing in the rubble with one last bullet in his gun. The sky rained ash and the Soldier stood in the rubble, looking at a speck of bright yellow in all the blood and dust.
The Soldier completed its last mission and finally, it found hesitance. The Soldier stood with one last bullet and a gun held in his hands and it didn’t know what he wanted to do. The Soldier remembered flashes of his childhood. The Soldier remembered better flashes of its servitude to an evil powerhouse. The Soldier found he/it was unsure at last.
But the Soldier’s uncertainty did not matter in the end, for while the Soldier stood staring at a dandelion in the rubble of the last vessel of Hydra, a new powerhouse swooped down on him for his long list of crimes.
“Surrender!” the Soldier was told.
In a split second, the Soldier considered killing these people as well. But they were not Hydra. He recognized their insignia; this was SHIELD, and SHIELD was an enemy of Hydra.
Enemy of his enemy. The Soldier flicked the drum from his revolver and removed his last bullet. Then he lay the gun on the ground and raised his hands above his head as he went to his knees in the ash. The Soldier put the unspent bullet in his mouth as SHIELD agents rushed him. The Soldier did not resist being put in restraints. The Soldier did not resist the needle plunging into his neck. The Soldier tucked his last bullet between his cheek and his gums and did not resist the drugs rendering him unconscious.
The Soldier slept. It had no purpose in life, but perhaps, when he woke, James could find one.
Steve raises their hand against the sunlight to shield their eyes and gives the front window a long, evaluating look. The explosion of colors and patterns stands out against the clear glass and the sunlight makes everything pop. The round, shield-like logo of his brand sits in the center of the design, an actual shield over dozens of different art pieces, showcasing as much of Steve’s skill as possible. Steve had spent nearly a week carefully etching the design into the window and another four days to color everything in, and that didn’t even count the time and effort they put into creating the design in the first place. In bold, silver letters over the center of their logo is the name of their shop, Lady Liberty Tattoos & Piercings.
Steve had wanted to paint the front window of their shop for as long as they’d had the lease, but only in the past year or so did it actually become financially possible. It had taken a while past that to get everything in order, to find the time to close the shop for long enough that they could do it, since they’d insisted on painting it himself. Now it’s finally finished. The window looks fantastic.
“Does it look like a professional did it?” Steve asks Darcy.
“Sweetie,” Darcy says flatly, “you are a professional.”
Steve shoots her an unappreciative look. “I’m not a professional window painter,” they snap. “Does the window look like a professional window artist painted it?”
Darcy gives a long and heavy sigh. “It looks like a professional artist did it,” she says. “I really don’t think anyone would be able to tell that the artist wasn’t used to painting windows.”
Steve elbows her. Darcy snorts and throws her arm over their shoulders in return.
“It looks great, Stevie!” she insists. “Quit second guessing yourself and let’s go get drinks to celebrate!”
“Tomorrow’s a work day,” Steve counters.
“Then we stay in and get pizza to celebrate,” Darcy sighs. “You’re such an introvert, Steve.”
“I’m being practical!” Steve says, taking out their keys and leading Darcy back towards the front door of the shop.
“You’re an introvert,” Darcy says. “Plain and simple. The shop doesn’t open until ten tomorrow.”
“But I have to be up before that,” Steve points out.
Darcy gives them a look. “Yes,” she says dryly, “because your commute to work is so awful.”
Steve flushes. They live in the apartment above the shop.
“Shuddup,” they grumble, unlocking the front door and letting Darcy back inside.
“Lucky for you, Mama loves pizza,” Darcy announces. “You wanna invite anybody else? Maybe Sam?”
“Nah,” Steve says. They turn and shut the door behind them, locking it again. “Sam and me broke up.”
“What!” Darcy gasps.
Steve faces her and shrugs. “It wasn’t working out,” they say. “We have too different needs.”
“But you guys were so cute,” Darcy whines, deflating. “He was all big and handsome and you’re so tiny! The height difference was adorable!”
“I’m aware,” Steve laughs. “We wanted different things. Plain and simple.”
Darcy pouts. Steve chuckles and slings an arm around her shoulders.
“Do you need to drink away your regret over my breakup?” they ask. “I’ve got beer.”
“Please,” Darcy sighs. “I loved Sam, Steve!”
Steve rolls their eyes. “We’re still friends, Darce,” they remind her.
“Oh, sure,” Darcy answers, rolling her eyes. “Like that ever actually works out.”
“Sam and I are actual adults,” Steve says. “We were friends before we started dating and we’re still friends now because we used communication to discuss our needs and wants fully instead of sending a one-off text and then moving across the country.”
“This pity party is for your dead relationship, not mine!” Darcy counters.
Steve laughs. They hug Darcy’s shoulders and walks her through the dim shop towards the back and the stairs leading up to his apartment.
“I thought you guys were working out so well,” Darcy sighs. “What happened?”
Steve shrugs. “The usual thing,” they admit.
Darcy pouts. “I hate it when that happens,” she grumbles. “You need to call Peggy?”
“I already called her,” Steve says. “Go sit on the couch and find something to watch, I’ll order the pizza.”
“When’s Peggy coming, then?” Darcy asks as they split, her into the living room and him into the kitchen.
Steve opens the takeout drawer and starts digging around for the menu to their favorite pizza place while in the living room, Darcy sprawls onto the sofa and switches on the TV.
“She doesn’t need to come every time I break up with someone,” Steve points out.
“Yeah, but she does,” Darcy insists. “So, when is she coming?”
“She’s visiting for Christmas,” Steve says with a shrug.
“You know as well as I do that you need a day off and plenty of you time,” Darcy retorts. “And Christmas is way too far away.”
Steve shrugs again. “Peggy’s busy,” they say, pushing their glasses up their nose. “She’s swamped at work ‘cause her squad just brought in this high profile international assassin and it’s looking like he might be some sort’a immortal World War Two prisoner of war who’s been brainwashed into a killing machine.”
Darcy snorts. “That’s a new one,” she laughs. “Next she’s gonna tell us she’s processing immigration papers from Martians.”
Steve can’t help but laugh, too, finally finding the takeout menu they're looking for and shutting the drawer with their hip.
“She actually used that one on me a few weeks ago,” they say, heading to the living room to join Darcy. “But this brainwashed assassin thing’s a new low.”
“When’s she gonna come out with it and just tell us she works for the telephone company or something?” Darcy muses aloud. “Instead of feeding us outlandish lie after lie about working for some super secret spy organization?”
“Who knows?” Steve says.
They pause for a second, looking at the menu. While Darcy thinks Peggy never tells the truth of her job, they know she does actually work for a super-secret spy organization. This story of a brainwashed assassin might sound too ridiculous to be true, but who knows?
Sometimes Steve wishes they could experience some of the adventures Peggy had. Then again, dealing with brainwashed super assassins was probably more nerve-wracking than anything else.
“You want Meat Lovers’ or Hawaiian?” Steve asks.
“Meat Lovers!” Darcy says happily. “With extra cheese.”
Steve nods as they take out their phone and dials. “You got it, sweetheart.”
“I’m not comfortable with this,” Peggy says quietly to Director Fury.
“No one is,” Fury remarks. “But Agent Romanoff is the least likely to appear as a threat to him.”
“We should keep him under observation longer,” Peggy insists under her breath.
“I want to know why he turned on Hydra so suddenly,” Fury answers calmly. “He hasn’t shown any signs of hostility since we apprehended him; he surrendered peacefully.”
“It could be a false front,” Peggy argues. “He could be trying to lure us into a false sense of security.”
Fury steps closer to the one-way window in front of them without replying again. Peggy nears as well, watching the hunched form of the Winter Soldier remain slumped over his own lap as the door to his cell opens and Agent Romanoff enters.
“Privet, Soldat,” Agent Romanoff greets the Soldier in Russian.
Her voice comes across the speakers into observation clearly, though altered slightly by the electronic travel. Peggy and Director Fury wait with Romanoff for the Soldier to respond.
He does not.
Agent Romanoff steps sideways across the room, her steps slow and careful. Her hands are folded behind her back, her posture is at ease. The Soldier remains on his cot in the center of the white cell, his legs crossed in front of him and his elbows resting on his knees. His long hair is swung forward to obscure his face, not that it would have done any benefit for it to be out of the way. The Soldier wears a mask that no one has yet been brave enough to remove from him.
The Soldier doesn’t seem to mind it staying in place, anyway.
“ My name is Natalia ,” Romanoff continues to speak in Russian. “ I was a child of the Red Room. ”
The Soldier still does not look up or speak. He doesn’t even move. Peggy finds that a bit of a surprise. From what they know of the Winter Soldier, he had been loaned to the Red Room, a sub-faction of the KGB, on multiple occasions. Agent Romanoff’s testimony alone determined that the Winter Soldier had been used to train child soldiers for the Soviet Union.
But the Soldier does not react to Agent Romanoff. It isn’t even clear if he can understand her.
“Soldier?” Agent Romanoff tries in English now. “Do you understand? Vy ponimayete?”
The Soldier does not respond. Peggy glances towards Director Fury, but Fury is simply frowning at the window. Peggy turns her gaze back on Agent Romanoff and the Soldier, and the Soldier does not move.
Agent Romanoff moves cautiously towards the cot. She sets a hand on the edge of it, then a knee, then she sits down in front of the Soldier. The Soldier doesn’t seem to notice her. Peggy shifts nervously on her feet. Romanoff lifts both hands towards the Soldier’s face.
Peggy jolts and Director Fury grabs her wrist. “Don’t,” he says. “Let’s see what happens.”
Peggy bites the inside of her cheek. Agent Romanoff touches the Soldier’s mask. The Soldier never moves. Romanoff, slowly, carefully, slips the mask from his face.
She sets it down on the cot between him and her. Peggy bites harder on the inside of her cheek. Romanoff reaches forward again and brushes the Soldier’s hair out of his face. Peggy is startled to see the Soldier’s face. It is lined and worn-looking. It is suddenly very plain that the Winter Soldier is no more than she or Fury or Agent Romanoff are. He’s just a man.
“My name is Natalia,” Romanoff says in English. “What’s yours?”
The Soldier’s eyes blinks. He doesn’t even look Russian.
“My name was James,” the Soldier says in a rough voice.