James – he much preferred James these days, Bucky was… not who he was anymore – sat in the antechamber outside the ICC court and tried not to fidget. His lawyer, a woman by the name of Gertrude Hildebrande, was sitting next to him, reading over something on her tablet, and he tried to let her calm demeanour settle his own nerves, though it wasn’t having as much of an effect as he would have hoped. His lawyer, he knew, wasn’t overly concerned about this hearing and much of James’ situation had been hashed out over the last year as he’d been undergoing treatment at Kamar-Taj.
Gertie, as his lawyer preferred to be known (a nickname that never failed to make James smile – he’d known a Gertie back in the day, a feisty, fiery old woman who had been the one person in their neighbourhood who hadn’t been afraid to smack Stevie over the knuckles when he deserved it), had already fought the good fight in his name and almost all of his actions as the Winter Soldier had been cleared. A combination of FRIDAY and Betty Ross had dug into the SHIELD data dump and unearthed a large number of files about the Winter Soldier program which had gone a long way to clearing his name. His psychiatrist had contributed the rest.
James wasn’t sure how comfortable he was with that. He still felt tremendously guilty about what he’d done as the Winter Soldier. After months of therapy, he’d come to accept that Stevie actually had it half right – it hadn’t been Bucky Barnes who had killed those people. That was true enough. If James had been in control, they wouldn’t have died. And therein lay the point that had taken him a long time to accept. He hadn’t been in control. The Winter Soldier had.
And that had been a nasty surprise for everyone involved. The Winter Soldier wasn’t just a fancy name for the way they’d broken him down or for some form of conditioning. The Winter Soldier was an actual second persona existing within his mind, one created by a combination of the severe trauma and the serum he’d been given. That had been a breakthrough with some wide ranging effects. Not only did it benefit his own therapy but it had aided in Stevie’s therapy and had given Dr Banner some apparently much-needed peace of mind.
As far as anyone could tell, a side effect of the serum was the potential for the creation of a secondary persona if some form of outside pressure was involved. In James, that secondary persona had been created in response to the trauma of the torture he’d experienced. HYDRA had wanted the Winter Soldier so the serum, in conjunction with his own mind, had created just that to protect him. His situation was most closely mirrored by Dr Banner’s circumstances, he just didn’t get all big and green, probably because they hadn’t used any radiation as a stressor. His had been the torture and the chair.
They had yet to determine whether Stevie had developed a secondary persona with the combination of the serum and the vita rays, though there was some indication in the information about the Winter Core that had been killed by Zemo in Siberia that if the secondary persona was compatible with the primary persona, they could assimilate. James was pretty sure that’s what had happened with Stevie. The secondary persona was everything Stevie had ever wanted to be and he’d assimilated it without even realising what was happening.
James and the Winter Soldier had never assimilated because they were too different. Not that James wasn’t grateful in a way for Winter’s presence. From what had been dug up, if Winter hadn’t been created, HYDRA had planned some more ‘robust’ procedures that probably would have destroyed his mind forever. But Winter was a stone cold assassin and soldier while James… well, James had never really wanted to even be a soldier in the first place. It had been the right thing to do at the time and James had accepted that but as good a sniper as he’d been, he had never intended to stay in the Army beyond the war. He’d have been happy to go home and just be an ordinary person.
So a major part of his therapy had been getting to know the Winter Soldier. He’d actually gotten to know Dr Banner pretty well over that time because of that and Bruce had given him a lot of good advice, much of which was said with the very rueful air of a man who’d learned these things the hard way.
Winter, as his secondary persona now preferred to be called, had been difficult to deal with at first, both for James and for his shrink, Henrietta. He’d been cold and callous, more Asset than person. James had been first alarmed, then he’d started to get scared of both Winter and himself and had become increasingly unwilling to cede control to the Winter Soldier in case something terrible happened. Finally Bruce had come to him with an odd expression on his face and a suggestion that had been quite startling – let the Hulk talk to the Winter Soldier.
Henrietta had been the first to recover and she’d slowly nodded and agreed with the idea as long as she could be present to mediate if necessary. James had taken some convincing and in the end, it had only been the thought that if anyone could stop the Soldier, it was the Hulk, that had made him agree. And even then, he had only said yes after he’d been assured that Betty would be just outside the door and she could calm the Hulk if anything went haywire on his end. She’d also rather impishly informed him that as a general’s daughter, she was actually an excellent shot and she was quite happy to tranquilise him if the Winter Soldier was the one causing the problem.
James had very firmly not paid any attention to the meeting but when the Winter Soldier had handed control back to him, he’d emerged to find Henrietta looking very pleased. From what she’d said, Winter had actually listened to the Hulk and for his part, the Hulk had had some very sage advice. It was hard to tell who was more nonplussed with that piece of news – himself or Bruce. But the end result had been a Winter Soldier who was more willing to unclench a bit and slowly, over the course of several months, James and Winter had come to something of an understanding.
“Sergeant Barnes? Ms Hildebrand? We’re ready for you.”
James was jolted out of his thoughts and he hunched in on himself for a moment before his lawyer gave him a nudge and a small, encouraging smile.
“You’ll be fine, James,” she said quietly as the clerk lead them into the ICC courtroom.
James grimaced and managed a small nod as he looked around. He was surprised to find that the room didn’t look anything like he’d expected. Rather than the stereotypical courtroom that everyone knew, this was… just a room. There was a long table at one end where five men and women sat with sober but calm expressions and there was a smaller table facing them, which was clearly for James and his lawyer. They sat down and the white-haired man in the sitting in the middle of the group of judges smiled at him.
“Good morning, Sergeant Barnes, Ms Hildebrand. Thank you for coming. My name is Michel Dorn.” He then proceed to introduce the rest of the people at the table before clasping his hands together in front of him. “Now, has Ms Hildebrand told you about the decisions that have been made regarding your actions while under HYDRA’s control?”
James nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Do you have any questions about them?”
James hesitated and looked over at his lawyer. She nodded encouragingly and James turned back to the ICC people. “I… I don’t want to sound ungrateful but… I don’t understand.”
“Why you were exonerated?” Michel asked and when James nodded, he continued. “Firstly, I’d like to assure you that it was not a decision that was arrived at lightly. We gave full consideration to all the facts, both about the missions themselves and the information that was obtained from the SHIELD and HYDRA files and from your psychiatrists. Ultimately, the decision was made because you, Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, were not responsible for those crimes. Your body was, it is true, but you, personally, were not.” Dorn looked faintly amused. “And the Winter Soldier could not be charged for the crimes, which we all agreed he did commit, because at the time at which he committed them, he was not what the court would consider to be mentally competent. That is, he was not capable of making the decision about whether or not he would kill someone on his own. His will was not his own.”
Dorn looked sympathetic. “With neither of you having the free will to decide not to take the actions that HYDRA demanded of you, it was the decision of the court that holding you responsible would be entirely unfair. Both you and the Winter Soldier were tools used by HYDRA and thus the fault for those crimes ultimately lies with HYDRA.”
James nodded and let out a shuddering breath. He still wasn’t entirely convinced but hearing the words from an entirely unbiased and independent person – and seeing the rest of the judges all nodding in agreement – did go a long way to making the words actually sink in.
“Today we are here to examine the events of Bucharest, Berlin, Leipzig/Halle and Siberia,” Dorn said when James was silent. “We have had reports from various officials and groups involved in those events and we have also had reports from your psychiatrists and the Masters of the Mystic Arts regarding your mental state at the time.” He paused and looked down at the papers in front of him. “Dr Stark has indicated that he has no intention of pressing charges against you regarding the events in Siberia, however we would still like to hear your testimony as it will add to the pool of knowledge we are building.”
Now Dorn turned to James’s lawyer. “Ms Hildebrand, I trust you have informed your clients about their rights, including their right to say nothing at all.”
“I have,” Gertie said with a firm nod. “Sergeant Barnes has indicated to me that he wishes to testify but he asks that you are patient with him. The trauma he has experienced often makes it difficult for him to access memories and to articulate what he wishes to say, especially when it is about those traumatic events. The Winter Soldier has also indicated his willingness to testify and I believe you have received the paperwork regarding how to handle that?”
“We have,” Dorn said. “We believe it will be best to hear Sergeant Barnes’ testimony first and then the Winter Soldier. We can then allow a recess of perhaps a day or two to allow Sergeant Barnes to recover if we need to speak to him again.”
Gertie leaned in to him. “Is that suitable for you, James?”
James nodded. “Yes, I think so.”
“That will be fine,” Gertie said to Dorn. She then smiled wryly. “We’ll let you know if that changes.”
Dorn chuckled and there was a general shuffling of paper at the longer table then Dorn straightened a little. James tensed a little but he had to admit that he had expected things to be far worse. He’d expected an audience or the media or to be interrogated but this was… almost pleasant, if such a word was possible to be used under the circumstances. Still, he was aware that this was not going to much fun at all.
“Sergeant Barnes,” Dorn began. “You had been living in Bucharest for approximately nine months prior to the arrival of Steven Rogers at your apartment, is that correct?”
James nodded then remembered that Gertie had told him he needed to verbalise his answers for the official record. “Yes, sir.”
“What had you been doing?”
James shrugged. “Just… living really. Trying to… get my mind back in some sort of order. Living in Bucharest… HYDRA didn’t have a base there so it was as safe as possible. When I was running, moving, I was just… too tense, too paranoid and I… couldn’t think. But in Bucharest… I had a… there was a shop. I did odd jobs there. The owner didn’t ask questions and paid in cash. Just stopping… I didn’t have to look over my shoulder and it was… peaceful. I could think and try and remember things.”
He felt like he’d just rambled on and not answered the question but none of the judges looked annoyed and a couple of them were nodding with understanding.
“So you felt more clear-minded?”
“Not really,” James said. “But more like… I would in the future. I didn’t really remember who Bucky Barnes was but after a while in Bucharest, I started to remember.”
“You didn’t go and find Mr Rogers?”
James shook his head. “Stevie… I had only the vaguest memories of him. It was more that he seemed familiar, like I should know him well, rather than actually knowing who he was. I went… when I was still in the US… to the museum to look at the display and… I saw… myself in the pictures there and I didn’t recognise me.” He grimaced, trying to find the words he needed to explain. “Stevie… he expected me to remember him, to remember me. I knew that even from the short time I was aware back in DC. I didn’t know who Bucky Barnes was. I sure as hell couldn’t be the man he wanted me to be.”
“So you were surprised when he appeared at your door?”
“Yes,” James said with a nod. “I was…” He frowned as he thought back to that day. “I was frightened actually. I didn’t know how he’d found me and I was worried that if he’d found me then how easy would it be for HYDRA to find me again.”
“So would you describe yourself as panicked?” Dorn asked.
James considered that question then nodded. “Yes, a little. Worried and wanting to know how he found me so I could assess how much danger I was in.”
“And then what happened?”
“Stevie started talking about a bombing in Vienna and how people were coming to kill me and…” James frowned. “I got confused. I was so worried about HYDRA finding me that I thought he was talking about HYDRA.”
Dorn cocked his head. “You thought that the bombing in Vienna was done by HYDRA?”
“Yes… no.” James grimaced. “No, I was confused about that. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about and what the bombing had to do with people coming to kill me because I thought he was talking about two separate things. HYDRA wasn’t above bombing people but they usually tried to be less obvious. Bombings draw attention and it’s hard to hide the remains of a bomb. And the remains of a bomb can be too much of a signature.”
“So you knew nothing about the bombing in Vienna?”
“No,” James replied. “There was a TV in the apartment but I didn’t watch it much and I’d just been out at the market getting some food. I didn’t know about the bombing or that I was suspected of doing it.”
“So you had actually been seen earlier in the day?” Dorn asked.
James nodded. “Yes. I’d done some work at the shop first thing in the morning and then I was at the market. Plenty of people saw me.”
Dorn made a few notes on a tablet then turned back to James. “What happened after Mr Rogers started talking about the Vienna bombing?”
“The… police arrived,” James said, shuddering a little. “They came in pretty hot and I… I panicked. Stevie was acting like they were the enemy and I…”
“Thought they were HYDRA?” Dorn asked when James didn’t continue.
“I… don’t know,” James replied. “I think there was an element of that. But mostly I was just… confused and the Winter Soldier was hammering at me and there was a lot of shouting and Stevie started attacking them.” He scrubbed his face with his hand. “I think I… Henrietta described it as fight or flight.”
Dorn nodded. “Was there anything else that affected your reaction?”
James thought about that then shook his head. “It was just… confusing and I panicked.” He grimaced. “Their uniforms were black.”
“That was an issue?”
“HYDRA strike teams wore black uniforms,” James said bleakly.
“Understood,” Dorn replied with some delicacy as almost all of the other judges winced.
The questions continued, always calm and even gentle at times, with some artfully elongated pauses where the judges would confer with each other that seemed to occur right when James was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. James might have been impressed and even a little intimidated at Dorn’s skill as an interrogator if he wasn’t clinging to his composure with everything he had. When it finally came time to hand over the reins to Winter, he was almost relieved to fade into the background, though he did linger to pay attention to what was happening.
“Now,” Dorn said, shuffling his papers. “You prefer to be referred to as Winter, am I correct?”
“Yes,” Winter said with a curt nod.
“Forgive me if we repeat things that you have already heard but the information we were given indicated that you – and in turn Sergeant Barnes – do not always… pay attention, as it were, when the other is in charge,” Dorn said. “I want to be certain you hear everything directly from us.”
Winter looked a bit startled for a brief moment then his normal blank expression took over again. “I usually pay attention if I might be needed. Bucky’s the same.”
There was a variety of intrigued looks when Winter said Bucky instead of James but none of them pursued it. Instead, Dorn nodded. “That does make sense. Now, you have, of course, been cleared of responsibility for your actions while under HYDRA control.”
“But I did it.”
“Could you have chosen not to?” Dorn asked pointedly.
Winter grimaced. “No.”
“And that is why you have been cleared of responsibility on the grounds of not being mentally competent. Mental competency requires you to have full, conscious and knowledgeable control over your actions.”
Winter frowned at that. “I guess.”
Dorn looked amused. “I’ve never met someone so reluctant to be exonerated.”
Winter shrugged. “I did it. All of it. I was controlled and leashed but I still did it.”
One of the other judges leaned forward, a raised eyebrow indicating her interest. “Do you regret it?”
Winter looked at her then shrugged and frowned. “Yes. And no. Like Bucky, I don’t really want to kill people. I didn’t want to kill those people. The ones HYDRA made me kill. But trying to fight the control just made things worse and didn’t actually work anyway. The control was too tight. So I stopped fighting it, did what they wanted, protected Bucky and just tried to survive. I’m not going to apologise for wanting both of us to survive or for protecting Bucky. That’s what I was made for, after all.”
The judge considered that then nodded and snorted. “An honest answer.”
Winter shrugged. “That’s what I do.”
Dorn cocked his head curiously. “You said you were made to protect Bucky.”
Winter nodded. “Yes. Bucky’s mind was being destroyed by what HYDRA were doing. That’s when the serum kicked in and created me. But I wasn’t created to kill. I was created to protect Bucky. I did that by being obedient. By complying.”
“You knew this at the time?”
“About the serum?” When Dorn nodded, Winter shook his head. “No. I just knew I was there to protect Bucky. He wouldn’t stop fighting them and it was going to break him apart.” He snorted. “I suppose it did anyway. But I knew fighting them wouldn’t work. So I protected Bucky by complying and accepting the conditioning. It was the only way to save us both.”
“The parallels to Dr Banner and Hulk are remarkable,” the female judge from before said with something close to wonder.
Winter nodded. “We’ve talked about that.”
“So the conditioning and the control words,” the female judge asked. “How do they differ?”
“The conditioning was just…” He frowned and looked over at Gertie for help.
“Standard conditioning behaviour from everything we’ve been able to find,” Gertie said. “The sort of things cults and extremist groups use with great success. Punish outgroup behaviour and thinking, reward ingroup behaviour and thinking until it becomes ingrained. Only HYDRA punishment was severe torture techniques. That was why two of the psychiatric experts we called in are deeply involved in what’s commonly referred to as cult deprogramming.”
“And the control words?”
Gertie’s expression became sour and forbidding. “The psychiatrists are still arguing about what exactly to call it or whether they need to come up with an entirely new definition but in absolute laymen’s terms, it could be considered a kind of deep Pavlovian conditioning. It’s more complicated and complex than that but that’s what it is at its heart. The words are the bell and the obedience, the compliance, is the…” She paused and the past word was said with deep disdain. “Reward.”
“They used the chair for that bit,” Winter said bluntly.
The judges all reeled backwards with varying expressions of sick horror and disgust so Winter was pretty confident they’d all read the information packet they’d been given about the chair and its purpose.
“And your ability to break free of the control in Washington DC?” Dorn asked.
“That was Bucky,” Winter said. “He usually hid when they used the chair. He hated it. That’s what they used to create me and he’d experienced it a lot before then.” He paused and grimaced. “They’d stopped using it so frequently after 1991. Before that Bucky used to watch more, used to fight me for control.” He snorted. “I kept telling him to stop. That if they knew he was there, they’d only come after us both but he was stubborn. And stupid.”
“But after 1991?” Dorn prompted. “I presume it had something to do with the Starks’ deaths.”
Winter nodded. “Yes. He hated that. He was upset and didn’t know how we’d come back from that if we ever got free. He retreated after that. Since he wasn’t fighting for control and I was complying, they didn’t punish us as much.” He paused and looked away for a moment. “The punishment… the chair… it made all of… us… go away. Bucky and me. Me me. Not the Asset me.” He scowled. “I don’t know how to explain.”
“Dr Henrietta Marcus, James and Winter’s primary psychiatrist, describes it as Winter having started out as the Asset, as Soldat,” Gertie said, when Winter couldn’t find the words. “And having developed his own personality afterwards. In much the same way that Hulk was born out of fear and violence and at first that’s all he was and then, as time passed, became his own person, so too did Winter.”
The judges all nodded their understanding then Dorn said, “And Washington DC?”
“Because they hadn’t used the chair on us as much, Bucky had started to come back,” Winter replied. “In Washington DC, he saw Rogers but our memories were… hard to get to back then and while he knew that he knew Rogers, that Rogers was important to him somehow, he couldn’t remember why.”
“What did you think of Rogers?”
Winter shrugged. “He was the target. He fought hard. He obviously had the serum but he seemed to be himself only.”
“You had no opinion on him otherwise?” Dorn asked.
Winter shook his head. “Bucky’s the one that knows him, not me. HYDRA hated him so I knew he was the enemy so when Bucky started pushing forward, I… didn’t object that much. I kept control until it was all over but I did what Bucky wanted by saving Rogers from the river. Then we left. I told Bucky we needed to because we didn’t remember anything and HYDRA would be after us. Not that he knew it was me saying that at the time since he didn’t know about me. He just thought it was something he’d thought of. Anyway, we couldn’t know who to trust, not even Rogers.”
Dorn cocked his head again. “You don’t like Rogers?”
“No,” Winter said firmly. “But Bucky does, even if the man’s gone nuts.”
The woman judge leaned forward again, her expression curious. “From what you’ve just said… you always knew that you and Bucky were separate but he didn’t?”
Winter nodded. “That’s right. Bucky wasn’t even aware I existed until we started treatment at Kamar-Taj.”
Winter paused and looked thoughtful. He went still for a moment then rolled his eyes. “Better if Bucky explains.”
There was no obvious indication that Winter had slid back into the background and James was now in control but they could still tell. Something about Barnes just seemed to soften in a way that defied explanation.
James licked his lips and swallowed hard. He didn’t much like talking about this but it seemed important that the judges understood.
“I… when Winter was created, I was… not in good shape,” he admitted. “I’d been… I hardly knew which way was up and Winter, when he speaks, sound just like me so I…”
“Thought it was your own thoughts?” the woman suggested.
James nodded. “I don’t think I was ever really in a position to work out what was happening.” He rather miserably scrubbed his face with his hand. “What they did…”
Dorn now held up one hand. “I don’t think we need to revisit that, Sergeant Barnes,” he said kindly. He gave James a steady look. “I think we’ll adjourn for the day. You look like we’ve dragged you backwards for six miles across some very rough ground. Which I suppose, in many ways, we have.”
James nodded and gave the man a grateful look. Gertie patted his arm before she asked, “Will you need us back tomorrow?”
Dorn look at his fellow judges and they seemed to have an unspoken conversation. “Let’s play that by ear, shall we?” he said. “Stay at the hotel. If we need you, we’ll contact you. We may need to speak some more to Winter.”
Gertie nodded and she ushered James out of the room. He was happy to just let her take the lead and let himself drift. He didn’t really pull himself together until he heard Gertie made a startled noise and he looked up see Tony Stark leaning against the wall next to his hotel room door.