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We leave them behind, And we find them again

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Camp Lehigh, 1970

As the MPs look around the hallway suspiciously, Steve knows he’s been tattled on. He ducks into a nearby office, relying on hope and the fogged glass to keep him hidden. But it’s as he registers the name on the door that his eyebrows shoot up. Director Margaret Carter.

He looks around the office now with new eyes, and when they land on the desk, he can’t help but approach it. There’s photos on it- one he recognizes well; it is him after all, only a foot shorter and about a hundred pounds lighter. But that isn’t all. He can’t help the smile on his face as he lifts the next frame. It’s Peggy alright, and she’s got her arms around two adorable kids, both between the ages of 5 and 10. They have her enormous and whip smart eyes, and the littlest one, a girl, is missing two front teeth. They are laughing at the person holding the camera, and Peggy is laughing at them, delight obvious in her radiant smile.

The next photo is of Peggy and a strikingly handsome man, his arms around her waist from behind. She’s in white, holding a bouquet of white roses, and both her and her husband are wearing the slightly waxen smiles reminiscent of all couples in photos on their wedding day. It was obviously taken not long after the war, as the rich sepia depicts Peggy just as beautiful as she was the last time Steve saw her in 1945. And tucked in the frame, right in the corner, is a loose Polaroid of the same man, this time holding a very new baby, and looking about as smitten as a man could be.

Steve is aware of the pang in his chest, but also the relief he feels. Because knowing she was happy…loved… got everything she deserved… that was what he wanted. He’d said goodbye to her in London at her funeral, but only now did he truly feel the weight of the life she had not only lived, but thrived in.

Nonetheless, he can’t help but look at the wedding photo again and mutter “You best be looking after her, you lucky son of a bitch.” He smirks and carefully rearranges the photos so they’re exactly as they were when he came in.

Steve goes back to the door and cracks it, looking up and down the hall. There are no MPs in sight, and with the Pim Particles safely in his pocket, he quickly slips out the door to the elevator to meet back up with Tony outside.

—–

 

Steve waits for Tony to say goodbye to Howard, angling himself carefully so if Howard looks over, he won’t see his face. These other people may not recognize him in the rough fatigues, but Howard Stark sure will.

As Howard’s car drives away, Tony approaches, briefcase swinging. His face is twisted slightly in a shell shocked, disbelieving smirk.

“Well, that was one of the most bizarre conversations of my life.” he says as he falls into step with Steve, navigating around the back of the barracks.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around these days.” Steve replies.

“There was a lot of strange things I imagined happening today, but hugging my father was not one of them.”

Steve can’t help but grin as they step into the narrow area between two buildings, and he’s about to reply when a door opens right near them. They both jump, and when Steve sees who it is, he feels as if cold water suddenly douses him from head to toe. He’d know that shuffling little frame anywhere.

It’s Arnim Zola.

He’s older, more bent and shriveled maybe, but it’s unmistakably him. He’s got a clipboard and he’s muttering to himself in German as he reads it, walking quickly towards what appears to be a smaller outbuilding set back from the main barracks.

Steve is following before he even knows what he’s doing, his legs carrying him forward, keeping to the shadow of the nearest wall.

“Rogers! Rogers!” He hears Tony, but Steve ignores him. He keeps pace with Zola, undetected over the sound of the nearby base and Zola’s distracted muttering. Tony groans in exasperation and runs after him, catching up just as Steve sees  Zola step into a door of the small building.

“Are you genuinely incapable of just leaving things alone?” Tony hisses.

That was Arnim Zola, the Nazi super scientist responsible for the algorithms behind Project Insight. You aren’t the least bit curious what he’s working on here?”

“No! Have you not heard of Operation Paperclip? There’s a lot of dark shit on those files that’ll keep you up nights, if that’s what you want so bad!”

Steve just looks back at the door, calculates, and then sprints to it, slipping through the heavy metal door before he can either second guess of heard Tony’s groan of frustration.

______

It’s very dark inside the building as Steve carefully closes the door silently behind him, the only light coming from an interior window a ways ahead of him. It’s dusty in here, full of odd desks and broken chairs, old office equipment that Steve recognizes from his youth, but is likely obsolete now. He hears voices in the adjacent room, and moves quickly to the wall with the window and shuffles along it until he can look in.

Of all the things he’d expected to see, this wasn’t it.

Standing in the dusty room, now reading from his clipboard in brusque German, is Zola. Behind him, an ancient electric fan squeaks and whirs as it blows the hot air around the small space.

And sitting rigid in a chair, dressed in fatigues like any other soldier, gloved hands rested on his knees like a doll, is Bucky.

Or rather; it was Bucky…or would be Bucky. Steve would know that blank, flat expression anywhere, and knows the man sitting in that chair is all Winter Soldier.

Steve’s heart is in his throat, his hands curling into fists.

Zola speaks again, this time clearly asking a question.

After a moment, the Winter Soldier (Bucky?) swallows and replies, his voice quiet, measured and, bizarrely, in unaffected German. It makes Steve even more furious to hear the strange syllables in Bucky’s familiar voice. Steve didn’t have anything against the language on it’s own, but it sure as shit wasn’t by choice that Bucky was fluent.

Steve jumps when a man he didn’t know was also in the room with Zola and Bucky appears, arms crossed.

“See? He’ll answer you, but I ask him anything, in English, French, goddamn Slovakian, and he just stares like a broken puppet.”

The man is American, in a more casual and dressed down version of the army issue clothing of the era, tall, broad, and inescapably handsome. His hair is strawberry blonde and swept to the side, and as he turns, Steve realizes he knows that man too.

He’d recognize Alexander Pierce at any age.

“Well, his original programming was in German, and then later Russian.” Zola is speaking now, his thick German accent dismissive and clipped, “The installation of other languages is more recent; you may have to try a few resets to get him back where you want him.”

Programming. Installation. Steve is shaking with fury, and so distracted, he jumps when he hears somebody hiss “Rogers!” only a few feet from him.

It’s Tony. Steve hadn’t even hear him come in he’d been so distracted.

Steve stares at him, his chest heaving. “Tony…” he says, for lack of anything else to say.

Tony is looking in the room, a strange look on his face. Then he looks at Steve.

“We gotta go, Rogers. You know how this works.”

“And you know what’s going to happen. What he’ll do. What they’ll make him do.”

“Yes. I do.” Tony says, eyes hard and boring right into Steve’s. “But do you really think you can just bust in there and have a barroom dust-up with a Nazi, the Winter Soldier and the goddamn future director of SHIELD?”

“Tony, he… I can’t just-”

“You think I don’t want to burst in there too? Do something so the man I hugged not five minutes ago doesn’t get murdered by him,” Tony jabs a finger in the direction of the seated figure, “in twenty years?”

Steve takes a shaky breath, and glances back through the window. Pierce and Zola are having a heated discussion, while Bucky sits with the eerie motionlessness of a machine with the power cut.

“This is the past, Rogers. We can’t change it. All we can do is move on. We do it for them, Steve.” Tony’s voice softens, and his eyes are kind but firm, “We gotta leave them behind. No matter how much we know, or how much it hurts.”

Steve can’t take his eyes off the seated figure. Can’t stop thinking about the terrible things that figure has been made to do. Will be made to do. The damage he will cause.

“I’ve forgiven him, by the way.” Tony says.

Steve’s head snaps around to Tony again, eyes growing wide.

Tony gives him his classic sardonic half smile, all tired pragmatism.

“You’d be amazed what five years of counting lost people does to someone. That, and holding your own child in your arms for the first time and realizing how fragile this stupid thing of ours called ‘life’ can be. Circular thinking can only get us so far.”

Steve lets out a breath he feels like he’s been holding for 5 years.

Tony, I-”

“No, don’t thank me yet. We’ve still got a whole universe to save, remember?”

 

——-

 

 

The lakeside, 2023

 

Bucky watches Steve step onto the platform, the white and grey time suit still so alien looking on Steve’s form. He stoops to pick up Mjolnir, and Bucky still feels a surge of fierce pride at that.

That little shit kicker from Brooklyn. He thinks, and smiles to himself.

“Five seconds.” Bruce says, “But Steve, you’ve got as long as you need. Good luck.”

Steve grins and glances over at Bucky and Sam, then throws them an awkward salute with the hammer.

“What a dumbass.” Sam says fondly, shaking his head and grinning, and Bucky can’t help but laugh.

“3…2…1.” Bruce presses the button, and Steve disappears.

They count to five, Bruce out loud and Bucky in his head, his heart in his throat.

There’s a surge of energy, and there he is again.

He’s dirtier, the suit scuffed and dusty, and his hands are now empty…

But it’s absolutely Steve.

“It worked?” Bruce says, a smile breaking across his huge face.

Steve presses another button and the time suit melts away, revealing the original incarnation of the modern Captain America uniform, it’s bright colours likewise dusty and worn.

“It did. Took some doing, though. That Grand Sorcerer…she’s one hell of a dame, eh?” Steve hops down off the platform.

Bruce massages his green temples. “Don’t remind me, please.”

“So? What now?” Sam says, grinning from ear to ear as Steve approaches them.

“You know, I have some ideas on that.” Steve glances at Bucky, who takes the signal for what it is. He turns and walks the short distance to the nearest tree, where Steve had thoughtfully leaned the shield. He picks it up, his vibranium hand making a resonant metallic noise when his fingers close on the edge.

As he returns with it, Steve is grinning and Sam is just watching, confused but still smiling gamely.

Bucky hands it to Steve, a smile twisting his lips.

Steve looks down at the disc in his hands, the red, silver and blue gleaming in the noon sun. He flips it around and few times, smiling to himself, and then looks up at Bucky, smile growing. Bucky grins back.

Steve turns to Sam, and carefully, reverently, holds out the shield.

Sam’s face changes slowly, realization dawning.

“Try it on.” Steve says, eyes bright.

Sam blinks rapidly, before taking the shield and carefully, hesitantly, sliding his forearm into the straps.

“It suits you. How’s it feel?” Bucky says, glancing between Steve’s beaming face and Sam’s bewildered one.

“Like it belongs to somebody else.” Sam says, eyes wide.

“It shouldn’t.” Steve replies, and puts his hand on one of Sam’s shoulders. “It’s yours.”

Bucky lifts a hand and places it on the other shoulder.

Sam looks between them and an amazed grin splits his face.

“Aw, hell.” he says.

The boys walk away through the forest, Steve in the middle. We hear the opening notes of ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Time.’ Credit’s roll.