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Will the Real Captain America Please Stand Up?

Chapter Text

Till the end of the line.

But it hadn’t worked out that way, had it? They’d thought—he’d thought that nothing could get in the way of that promise. Not Peggy (it was safer to be brothers anyways), not the war (Steve had done the impossible to follow Bucky there), not even HYDRA could keep them apart for long. He’d thought.

He was an idiot, Bucky decided.

Not that that was news, or anything.

He’d never be able to erase those images, though. He wasn’t sure he wanted to—his last glimpses of Steve. The blue light-gun going off, ripping half the wall from the train car and sending Stevie skidding in the same direction. The shield, rolling to a stop at Bucky’s feet; how it had ricocheted off the HYDRA agent’s chest and sent him flying when Bucky had snatched it up and thrown it instinctively, using an uncanny strength and accuracy he knew he hadn’t had before Zola.

Steve, clinging one-armed to the torn edge of a train-car wall that was practically flapping in the wind. The way his face had stood out against the blowing snow, grim and determined and terrified, as he reached to grasp Bucky’s hand.

The look in his eyes when the twisted metal gave out. Shock and horror and then an awful sort of acceptance, the kind that comes when you’ve been waiting for an end all your life and you’re mostly just surprised that it’s taken this long to show up.

Usually, at this point, Bucky would go out and try to drink a bar, because he knew what put that look on Stevie’s face—all the nights spent nursing fevers that maybe this time wouldn’t break, all the winters of hacking, rattling coughs—and it wasn’t goddamn fair, and he wished to God that he’d never had to see it.

(Turned out he could drink at least five seasoned alcoholics under the table before the world stopped making so much sense, which seemed like another thing he could thank Zola for.)

Unfortunately, right now Bucky didn’t have the option of out-drinking anyone, mainly because he was trying to crash a plane.

Peggy was yelling at him over the radio. “Barnes, wait, just—just let me get Howard on the line. He’ll know how to fix this, he has to.”

On the one hand, if anyone could figure out how to remotely disarm an enemy plane in a matter of minutes, it’d be Stark.

On the other hand, that was an awful lot of innocent lives to risk for a maybe.

“Peggy, listen,” he interrupted. “There aren’t a whole lot of options here. We both know what it comes down to, and this is my choice, alright?”

There was silence for a minute, which he used to bank the plane towards the Arctic. Then, “You’re a hero, Barnes. You know that, don’t you? Steve—Steve would be so proud.”

Bucky glanced over at the shield he’d been carrying when he got on the plane, now propped against the copilot’s chair. “Doesn’t look like I’ll be able to fill his shoes for too much longer. Sorry,” he said wryly. “Not that anyone could ever really fill those shoes. Wasn’t much that held a candle to Steve, the dumb punk.”

Peggy was quiet for longer this time. Bucky was starting to get ready for what he’d earlier optimistically called a “water landing” when she spoke again.

“We both loved him, didn’t we?”

Bucky stared down the white expanse that was only technically water and thought of Steve. Nothing to lose, now. “Yeah. Yeah, we did, Peg.” He sat back, away from the controls, and gave the sky his best cocky grin. “I’ll get to see him first, though. I’ll let him know you said hey—”

And then there was nothing but static and snow.

Chapter Text

“…and the crowd well knows, with one swing of his bat this fella’s capable of making it a brand new game again…”

Bucky’s eyes snapped open. “Steve?”

He looked around. The first thing he noticed was that he was alone, in a very nice hospital room. The second thing was that he and Steve had definitely been at the baseball game the radio was talking about, so either heaven involved a lot less harp-playing than he’d been led to believe, or something was very wrong.

A woman walked in, who might have been an angel but who looked a lot more like an ordinary nurse. “Morning,” she said cheerfully. “Or should I say afternoon?”

“Where am I?” Bucky asked suspiciously.

“You’re in a recovery room in New York City,” she informed him.

So. Definitely wrong, then.

“Swell,” he commented. The breeze from the windows felt real enough, so he sauntered over to the one behind the bed.

“Uh, Sergeant Barnes,” the nurse stuttered nervously.

“Just want a bit of fresh air,” he smiled as he put his hands on the sill and leaned out. Would you look at that. Well, on the plus side, the level floor that stretched between him and the screens of fake buildings would make climbing down the side of the hospital a lot easier.

He launched himself out the window and raced for the double doors on the other side of the weird prison-room that held the “hospital.” To his surprise, they burst open upon impact, revealing a wide hallway with one wall almost entirely of glass, overlooking what at a glance appeared to actually be New York. Maybe escaping wouldn’t be so hard, after all.

“All agents, code thirteen,” a voice boomed overhead.

Dang it.

Bucky skidded around the corner, shoving black-clad agents out of his way and barreling for a set of doors labelled “exit.” Again, they weren’t locked, and in the back of his mind he realized it was pretty weird that no one was shooting at him, even non-lethally. Not that he was complaining, of course, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Outside, he threaded between blaring vehicles down streets he only half-recognized. They belonged to New York, all right, only they didn’t—like he’d wound up in someone else’s dream, or the wrong New York. Finally he stumbled to a halt in what should’ve been Central Square, but… wasn’t.

“Where am I?” Bucky breathed as black cars (were they cars?) squealed to a halt behind him.

“At ease, soldier!” barked a voice which apparently belonged to a black pirate spymaster in a trenchcoat. Bucky was not put at ease.

“Look, I’m sorry about that little show back there, but we thought it best to break it to you slowly,” Popeye the Spymaster went on in an American accent. Not that that meant much, with spies.

“Break what, exactly?”

Popeye didn’t move. “You’ve been asleep, Barnes. For almost seventy years.”

Oh.

Was that all.

+ + +

There was more after that, about SHIELD and new wars and using his skills, but Bucky wasn’t really paying all that much attention. At one point he interrupted to ask about his siblings, only to be informed that Benjamin had died of heart disease in the seventies, Abigail had passed away a few months ago, and Rebecca was the only one to have had any children before she died, one of which was firmly estranged and the other living in Poland.

After that, there wasn’t too much he was interested in hearing.

He only tuned in when they started suggesting civilian identities. “If you like, you can leave the army entirely, try settling down for a while,” murmured a softspoken, balding man beside him. “You were a boxer before the war, weren’t you? Perhaps—”

“No,” Bucky said flatly. The briefing room he’d been guided to went quiet. All three agents—Popeye, the bland one, and a dark-haired woman whose blunt confidence reminded him much more of Peggy Carter than any of the girls he’d known growing up—looked at him with mild curiosity, and he sighed. “Look, let’s quit tiptoeing around and be straight for a minute. An ordinary fella wouldn’t have survived that plane crash, let alone the next seventy years without so much as a wrinkle. Am I right?”

“That’s correct,” said Popeye evenly.

“And I’d already been figuring that whatever Zola poked me with in that POW camp…” he swallowed quickly, trying not to remember. “Well, it didn’t exactly have zero effect.”

“You would’ve been right, Sergeant Barnes,” the bland one interjected. “We had to run some preliminary tests in order to determine the best treatment for your condition, and it looks as though you have enhanced muscle strength, healing, metabolism, and likely speed and reflexes as well, from an inferior version of the serum Captain America took—”

“But none of that means you couldn’t live a normal, comfortable civilian life,” the woman cut him off. Agent Hill, that was how she’d introduced herself. She looked him squarely in the face. “We could certainly use someone with your unique abilities, but unlike Captain Rogers, you didn’t volunteer for them. No one would blame you if you walked out of this building right now, and started a new life. The war you fought in is over, soldier. You’ve earned your shot at peace.”

Bucky snorted. For one thing, he doubted that no one would blame him. Popeye was certainly giving Hill the evil eye. For another, well… “Peace, nothing, Agent Hill. I made this choice seventy years ago. I’m in.”

Nothing to lose, was that what he’d thought on the plane as it went down? He’d been wrong, after all. Now he had nothing to lose, because he’d already lost it all. Now he just had nothing.

“When do I start?”

Chapter Text

Bucky was nursing a drink in the corner of his favourite seedy bar when Fury slid in across from him. “This your idea of a good time, Cap?” He eyed the peeling paint.

Bucky scowled. It was more the “Cap” part that bothered him than the insult; it was a sketchy joint, that was why he liked it. What he didn’t like was when people used Steve’s old nickname for him, but it couldn’t really be helped.

Steve’s shield had made it through the ice with him, and apparently the two-week period when Bucky’d taken over leading the Howling Commandos had made it into the history books as “Barnes becomes Captain America 2.0,” so SHIELD decided he might as well get a promotion when he joined their ranks. Now he was officially Captain America, though as a stealth agent he almost never wore the uniform. Still. Seventy years later, and he was still trying to fill those shoes, when everyone and their grandmother knew they only really fit Steve.

(Coulson had cited tactical advantages to the promotion, some of which had been fair points, but the more time Bucky spent with him, the more he suspected his handler was just a sap who was dying to work with one of “the Captain America”s. In the end, Bucky hadn’t had the heart to tell him there’d only ever been one.)

“Do you have a mission for me, Fury? Because if not…” Bucky hinted.

“As a matter of fact,” the director pulled out a file from somewhere inside his trenchcoat. Bucky raised an eyebrow. Usually, Coulson was the one to give him missions; over the past few months he’d been working closely with him, Natasha Romanoff, and Clint Barton, alternately or all together depending on the mission. People in the know were starting to call them the Murder Club, which Bucky felt was a little unfair. Coulson didn’t usually kill people.

“Something special this time?” he asked dryly.

“Eh—just saving the world,” Fury shrugged.

Bucky pulled the file closer and flipped it open. He glanced at the top sheet and blanched. Tesseract, it read in bold letters, and beside the text was a picture of—

“HYDRA’s secret weapon,” he breathed. “Holy crap.”

“Howard Stark fished that out of the ocean when he was looking for you,” Fury said, folding his hands. “He thought what we think—the tesseract could be the key to unlimited sustainable energy. That’s something the world sorely needs.”

Maybe. All Bucky remembered was the guns that ran off its power, blasting good men into so much dust.

One guess what most people would be doing, if they got their gloves on an “unlimited sustainable energy” source.

He took another swig from his mug. “Who took it?”

Fury paused. “He’s called Loki,” he admitted.

Bucky squinted. “Wasn’t that the name of a Greek god or something?”

“Norse, actually. He’s Thor’s brother.”

Bucky remembered now. It was before his time, but Coulson and Barton had both been there. “Bad guy, right?”

“It gets worse,” Fury continued gloomily. If he wasn’t before, Bucky was worrying now. It took a lot to change Fury’s inflection. “Loki has some kind of mind-control stick, don’t ask me, but he used it on some of our agents when he broke in to the base. Long story short? He’s got Barton.”

Crap.

Bucky slapped some money on the table and stood. “I’m guessing you have a plan? Explain on the way. Let’s go.”

+ + +

So apparently Fury’s plan involved not only Romanoff and Coulson, but also a narcissist with a metal suit, some genius guy who turned into a green monster, and Thor.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Thor was kind of just an unexpected, mostly unhelpful addition that everyone put up with after the initial fuss. They didn’t permanently misplace Loki, so no harm, no foul.

“Unlimited power,” Loki was saying to Fury on the video feed, as the rest of them watched from some kind of computery table. Bucky still didn’t really get this stuff. “And for what? A warm light for all mankind to share? And then to be reminded what real power is.”

“Yeah, well. Let me know if ‘real power’ wants a magazine, or something,” Fury replied, and the screen went dark.

Bucky sagged back in his chair. When people talked about words being poisonous, they really weren't exaggerating.

“He really grows on you, doesn’t he?” Banner commented after a moment.

“Yeah, like toe fungus,” Bucky muttered.

“Hey, don't pick on him too much. Guy’s brain is a bag full of cats,” said Banner, grinning a little. “You can smell crazy on him.”

Thor slammed a fist on the table, startling everyone except Romanoff. “Have care how you speak! Loki may be beyond reason, but he is of Asgard, and he is my brother.”

“He killed eighty people in two days,” Romanoff pointed out. This was why Bucky got along so well with her. She could shut down anyone without even having to stab them.

Thor cleared his throat. “He’s adopted.”

Then they got down to business and started preparing to fight aliens from outer space, because Bucky’s life wasn’t weird enough already.

Later on Bucky made his way to the lab where Stark and Banner were working, curious. He didn’t really think he’d understand any of what they were doing, but then, there weren’t any needles or white coats to trigger flashbacks, either, so it balanced out. He was a bit unsettled to see Stark jab Banner in the side as he walked in.

“Ow!” was all Banner said, though, squinting with the sort of resigned temper Bucky recognized from years of dealing with younger siblings.

“What’re you up to in here?” he asked, wandering over.

“Well, currently, we’re trying to figure out why Brucie here is tiptoeing around when clearly, he needs to strut,” Stark babbled. Bucky squinted. That wasn’t science, but it also didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. He looked at Banner, who shrugged.

“Also, trying to figure out what SHIELD is really doing with the tesseract,” Stark added casually.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Doesn’t it strike you as the least bit suspicious that Fury called us here now, and not before? It’s bugging him, too,” Stark gestured to Banner. “Isn’t it?”

Banner hemmed and hawed until he caught Bucky’s death stare. He fell silent, and began polishing his glasses nervously. “‘A warm light for all mankind,’” he quoted. “I think maybe that was a reference to Stark Tower. It was all over the news.”

“The Stark Tower?” Bucky asked, incredulous. “That big, ugly—”

Stark raised an eyebrow, and Bucky cleared his throat, flushing. “The new building in New York?”

“It’s powered by an arc reactor,” Banner went on. “Self-sustaining energy source. Right now, Stark is the biggest name in renewable power, so…”

“So why wouldn’t SHIELD bring me in at the start of the tesseract project? If they wanted clean energy, I could’ve had that for them months ago.” Stark walked around the table he’d been working at, pulling out some other, smaller device as he did so. “I should probably look into that once my decryption program finishes breaking in to all of SHIELD’s secure files,” he added, casually typing.

“You’re—”

“Yeah, in a few hours I’ll know every one of Fury’s dirty little secrets,” he grinned. Bucky couldn’t help it. He grinned back.

“And you’re confused about why they didn’t want you around,” he observed.

Stark shrugged. “What can I say? I’m curious, the answers are right there, sue me. Really. I can afford it.”

Bucky rolled the thought around a little longer, then gave in. “Let me know what you find out. I’m not too keen on letting the kind of weapons the tesseract can make slide under the radar.”

“Roger that,” Stark saluted mockingly. Bucky saluted back, and nodded to Banner before taking his leave.

If he was gonna have to fight all of SHIELD, he wanted a nap, first.

+ + +

Of course, once Stark got his evidence, things kinda went downhill. One moment they were confronting Fury, the next Stark was calling Bucky a laboratory experiment and Natasha had an arm twisted behind his back to prevent him from breaking Stark’s face. Which was good, because if he’d thrown the punch he could probably have snapped the scientist’s neck.

Then Banner was holding the sceptre, and someone was firing on the helicarrier, and the next few hours were spent trying to keep from crashing into the ocean. By the time they had a chance to think, Coulson had been shot, Banner and Thor had been thrown from the plane, Loki’d escaped, Barton was back, and the aliens were coming.

From there it was another whirlwind of activity which largely consisted of demolishing New York. Bucky may have taken a tiny amount of perverse pleasure in watching some of the buildings that had cropped up in his absence get taken down.

Finally, though, all was said and done and exploded, and Thor was taking Loki and the tesseract back to Asgard, which was a load off Bucky’s mind. He waved as they blurred upwards and vanished. “Good riddance!”

Banner was moving in with Stark, since the damage the tower took was apparently easily fixed when you had unlimited cash. Before they left Bucky pulled Stark aside.

“Look, in all the kerfuffle I never got the chance to apologize,” he started.

“Save it,” Stark cut him off. Seeing Bucky’s face, he backtracked quickly. “Not like that, not like that, I meant—dammit, I’m terrible at this. Okay, the sceptre was obviously influencing all of us. You remember the way we were all acting before the explosion, yeah? All of us. Even Bruce, and we all know he’s usually got an iron grip on his temper. I’m not holding anything you said or did against you. Although for the record, I feel pretty bad about calling you an experiment. That was, you know, not okay.”

Bucky blinked. “Thanks, Stark. That’s…actually real decent of you.”

Stark waved him off. “Just don’t go spreading it around. Also, call me Tony.”

After they left, Bucky glanced at Romanoff and Barton, a bit uncertain now that Coulson was gone. Romanoff jerked her head, though. “Come on, soldier.”

He smiled a little. Maybe he was finding his place in this century, after all.

“Oh, by the way,” Barton added. “Coulson sent me a coded message. Apparently he’s alive, and wants us to visit.”

Maybe even a family.

Chapter Text

Steve was screaming.

Occasionally, snippets of German filtered through the agony.

…Believe our fortune, they said. Captain America, what a prize…

…Not worth saving. Cut the whole arm off and replace it. I will give you the designs…

…My greatest achievement. This will change the face of the war…

The first time they allowed him to wake up without being strapped to an operating table, he was half-naked, with only a pair of shorts around his waist. He looked down at himself and took in the metal limb that had replaced his right arm (his drawing arm, would he ever sketch again?) and the black tattoo of an octopus that now covered his chest.

He threw up.

“On your feet, soldier!”

So began the training.

They tried for months to torture him into submission, until he didn’t remember what it was like not to feel constant pain, but he figured the serum gave him some edge of mental stamina because he never felt too tempted to stop spitting in their faces. Yeah, he was breaking, all right. He didn’t think he’d ever be the same again, didn’t think he’d ever sleep without screaming, but he wasn’t breaking in the direction they wanted him to. Eventually it got to feel like all that was left of him was his will.

That was when Zola came.

“Incompetent idiots!” he screamed. “One task, I entrust you with one task, and you cannot even do that!” And then he turned to Steve, chained and exhausted against the wall. “I suppose what they say is true, isn’t it, haustier? If you want something done right…”

+ + +

The tattoo on his chest kept fading, probably because of his advanced healing, no matter how many times they redid it. One night Zola, particularly frustrated at his lack of progress, went very quiet.

Steve had learned, above all, to fear the quiet.

“It wouldn’t matter so much if you weren’t Erskine’s little pet project,” he was muttering. “The other one, for instance, he was mine already. But this, this victory, it needs to be marked. It must be celebrated. My greatest achievement…”

The next morning the tattoo was replaced with something much more permanent, which also, incidentally, made Zola’s work much easier.

“You see, mein haustier, I’ve been wanting for weeks to try out my latest invention, but I hadn’t been able to think of a way to safely connect it to your brain. I was almost ready to scrap the design and come up with something less invasive, but this is much better, don’t you think?”

Steve, strapped down on a chair that was plugged into the new implants in his skull and torso, could only scream.

And then he couldn’t think anything at all.

+ + +

“…Still isn’t what we were hoping for…”

“…triggered by…”

“…too many wipes to be feasible…”

“Well, mein haustier, if we can’t make you our captain, we will still make you our slave.”

+ + +

The Soldier was rarely conscious. When it was, it remembered very little, except what it was told to. It understood German and Russian, and had a rudimentary grasp of a number of other languages (primarily European). English was forbidden, as was speaking, except to acknowledge a direct order.

Sometimes, it remembered other things. In the early days, the Soldier had dutifully reported such events. For example, when it recalled a pretty girl with brown eyes, it informed its masters, who had consequently produced the girl (he thought she looked a bit odd; her nose was too long, her hair too light, but they told him it was her) and explained that she was simply one of their agents. She then showed the Soldier its place.

It had been. Undesirable. The Soldier tried not to remember again.

(And if a blue-eyed boy with dark hair and a cocksure grin would sometimes call out something he didn’t understand but recognized, down in the core of his soul? If the word Stevie cropped up in his mind when the Soldier was asked its designation?

He erased them as quickly as he could. Barely a memory at all. So there was no need to report. No need for recalibration.)

Sometimes, if the Soldier was left out of cryosleep for too long, the memories came more insistently. The Soldier didn’t know what they were, exactly—its masters always made carefully sure to erase them—but they possessed the Soldier’s body so it could not hide them anymore. It would speak. It would resist.

Resistance meant punishment.

The Soldier did its best to avoid waking up.

Chapter Text

“Still vaguely suicidal, Barnes?”

Bucky shrugged Natasha off, laughing as he changed into his civvies. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

She raised a single perfect eyebrow. “Jumping out of a plane with no parachute?”

“I didn’t need one, did I? Would just have slowed me down.”

“Mm. Or saved you from an unpleasant end. We still don’t know just how durable the serum made you.”

“And how will we find out if we don’t test it?” Bucky returned. He gave her a winning smirk. She stared back, unimpressed.

He sighed and changed the subject. “I guess you still won’t tell me what information Fury was so keen on retrieving, huh?” Call him paranoid, but Bucky was not all that invested in letting SHIELD keep its secrets, after everything.

“Nope,” she enunciated. Oh well. He’d just have to get Tony to help him hack into the files. Ever since the Battle of New York their friendship had been going strong, fueled by a shared love of snark and mutual inferiority complexes, with an emphasis on the human inability to measure up to Steve. (Apparently Howard had been as terrible a father as Bucky would have expected him to be, if it’d crossed his mind that Howard would reproduce.)

God, he missed Steve.

“What about you?” Natasha asked, derailing his thoughts. “What’ve you been up to, lately? Tested any other serum-enhanced abilities?” She smirked suggestively.

“Nah,” Bucky hesitated for a moment. But if there was one good thing about sleeping through the past seventy years, it was that he probably wouldn’t get in too much trouble for finishing, “I met a pretty swell guy earlier today, though. Think I annoyed him into noticing me.”

“You sly dog,” Natasha deadpanned. “Wait, was that the guy you were with when I picked you up? If I’d known I would’ve left you behind.”

“Is that gossip I hear?” Clint’s voice floated through the window a second before the archer crashed into Bucky’s living room. “Are you two gossiping without me?” He slapped a hand over his heart. “I have never felt more betrayed.”

“I take it this means you’re both sleeping over again,” Bucky observed.

They both ignored him, which was unsurprising. Lately they’d all been sharing an apartment whenever they were in the same cities; even Coulson dropped in whenever he could get away from his new top-secret SHIELD team and their bus-plane. The whole thing struck Bucky as vaguely dysfunctional, but he’d be lying if he said it wasn’t also kinda comforting. And hey, Natasha was wrong about him being suicidal, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t take all the comfort he could get. It helped to remember that not everything he loved was on the other side of a gravestone.

Most things. But not everything.

“Bucky was just telling me about his potential new guy,” Natasha told Clint. “Tall, dark, handsome, and already annoyed with him.”

Clint clasped his hands. “The ideal man!” Then he flopped back on the couch. “I brought pizza, by the way,” he added, dropping a box on the table.

“Clint, you are a true hero. Never let anyone tell you otherwise,” Natasha said solemnly through a mouthful of cheese and tomato sauce.

Clint waved graciously. “So does this foil your plans to set Bucky up with Kristen from statistics?”

Bucky sat up, indignant. “Clint,” he began. “That's not how it works. It’s perfectly possible for someone to be attracted to both men and women, or people who are neither. In fact, more’n half of the LGB community aren’t monosexual, which means that about ten percent of the overall population—”

At this point he had to stop, because the other two were laughing too hard to hear him. “It’s not funny!” he said helplessly. “Bisexual erasure is a real problem!”

“Oh, Barnes,” Natasha finally said, wiping her eyes. “Thank you for that. No, I’m sorry.” She cleared her throat. “We weren’t laughing because we disagree. You make some very good points. It was just a bit unexpected, especially coming from a man who was until recently living in the 1940s—”

“Yeah, Buck, we’re not laughing at what you’re saying,” Clint interjected. “We were just laughing at you.”

Bucky stared incredulously, which only made Clint crack up again.

“Not to discount your points, which, as I said, are very true, but why is this such a sensitive topic for you, Barnes? Are you bisexual?” Natasha assumed a serious, personally-interested expression, which at least encouraged Clint to try to stop snorting.

Bucky was fairly sure she was asking more because she wanted to successfully set him up, and less out of true contrition, but he still gave in. “Nah. Just—Stevie was, I think. And I get tired of people forgetting about him.”

At that, they quieted. Well. For a moment.

“So I just realized Bucky’s never seen Star Wars, and you know it’s only a matter of time before someone spoils it.”

Natasha’s eyes widened incrementally. “Turn the TV on. Now.”

+ + +

Later in the week, Bucky convinced Natasha to drop him off at Stark Tower, claiming he wanted to take another look at the new stealth suit Tony was making him. “You know, one of these days you’re going to have to figure out the subway,” she reminded him as he got out.

“Thanks, Nat!” he called loudly, sprinting away. “You’re a real pal!”

If he could avoid twenty-first century transportation for the rest of his life, he would.

“You know, I always find it weird that you and the Red Scare are so chummy,” Tony commented when he walked in the common floor’s kitchen. Of course Tony knew who’d come with him.

“Why?”

“You know—the Russian? Communist? Is—am I not making sense?” Tony waved his hands in the air. “You’re a fossil, aren’t you supposed to be mortal enemies or whatever?”

“The Russians and the Americans were allies in WWII, Tony,” Bruce said as he walked in. “By the time tensions really started mounting, Bucky was in the ice.”

“Oh. My bad.”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Y’know, for a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, you can be pretty stupid, huh?”

Tony slumped dramatically, gazing at the ceiling. “Is anyone ever going to let that go? We agreed, it was the sceptre, none of us are accountable, moving on.”

Bucky shrugged. “I actually came to ask you for some help. Wanna do computer stuff?”

“This is why he’s allowed to be friends with me,” Tony told Bruce. “He comes in with his grumpy super-soldier face and then asks you to do ‘computer stuff.’ It’s like watching adorable cat videos, seriously.”

“What kind of stuff?” Bruce asked, ignoring Tony with the ease of long practice.

“SHIELD’s hiding something” (“What else is new,” Tony muttered) “and I was hoping you could find out what.”

“Could you be more specific?” Tony asked. “Because literally everything SHIELD does is unnecessarily secretive. I need to know where to start looking.”

Bucky shrugged. “Weapons? I dunno. Anything else is probably okay, though, right?”

“I would never underestimate SHIELD’s ability to misuse the innocuous,” Bruce muttered darkly, “but it is a place to start.”

“Yo, JARVIS, any new finds in SHIELD’s databases re: weapons, manufacture, top-secret, and plans to take over the world?”

After a moment, the pleasant, synthetic British voice filled the room. “I took the liberty of modifying your last query to include ‘world domination’ and ‘world protection,’ Sir, and I think you’ll be interested in what I found.”

“Uh oh,” Tony pronounced.

“Yeah, that sounds bad,” agreed Bruce.

JARVIS pulled up a large blue holoscreen in front of where they stood by the kitchen table. PROJECT INSIGHT, the page read in capital letters.

“Yup,” Bucky said after a minute of reading. “That ain’t great.”

+ + +

Bucky was kind of glad Clint and Natasha were off on separate missions that night. Natasha, at least, had some inkling of what Fury was up to, and he didn’t think it’d be smart for him to talk to her right now.

Bucky got why everyone wanted to be safe from the future. Of all people, he was intimately familiar with the way everything could change in an instant, and not for the better. Wanting to safeguard against world-ending disaster was just human nature—one of the better instincts people had, as instincts go.

But, for God's sake, what part of “kill them before they have the chance to want to kill you” made Fury think, Yep, that right there is a foolproof plan?

“We’ve gotta stop this,” he’d told Tony and Bruce.

“Already on it,” Tony had said, typing frantically at something on his arm.

Bruce had put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll take care of this end of things. I figure by the end of the evening Tony will have deleted every trace of Project Insight he can get his digital hands on, but why don’t you see if you can talk SHIELD down from trying to build it back up again?”

Yeah, that wasn’t likely, especially since Coulson was still officially marked down as “dead,” and basically impossible to get a hold of most days. Trying to change Fury’s mind was an exercise in futility. Of course, that didn’t mean Bucky wasn’t going to try. He’d spent most of his life begging Steve not to fling himself into every possible battle; he was used to starting arguments he knew he’d lose.

He’d been thinking more tomorrow morning than the next ten minutes, but Fury was sitting in his living room when he walked in. That worked too, he guessed.

“My wife kicked me out,” Fury told him, which was when Bucky noticed how stiffly he was sitting.

Fury wasn’t married, except maybe to his job.

“Yeah?” Bucky asked, casually flicking on the light and wincing at the bruises on Fury’s face. “She finally got tired of your ugly mug, huh?”

He picked up a pen and paper. WHAT HAPPENED?

“Eh, I figure she’ll take me back. Eventually,” Fury shot back, pulling the chain on the lamp next to him so it turned back off. He typed out on his phone, SHIELD COMPROMISED.

Very quietly, Bucky cursed. A lot. All the profanity he knew, actually.

“You always did expect too much of her,” he said when he was done. “Anyone else know?”

YOU AND ME, Fury typed. “Just my friends.”

Bucky wished he hadn’t used up all the words he could think of. Well, no harm in saying a few of them again.

He was about to write out another question—who could be trusted?—but before he got the chance a rapid-fire series of shots went straight through the far wall, hitting Fury in the chest.

Dammit, this was really not his day.

The front door burst open, but it was just Natasha. Bucky traded a very brief but very frantic glance with her before he grabbed Steve’s shield and bolted for the stairs.

He didn’t bother with individual steps, instead vaulting from flight to flight, so he made it up to the roof in time to see someone jump down from the next one over.

“Yeah, no, nice try, pal,” he muttered, and took a running leap.

The other person—it looked like a man—was moving almost as quickly as him, which was strange and a little upsetting. As soon as he got a clear line, Bucky threw the shield.

The man caught it. With a metal arm.

It’s funny, how time works. You can, apparently, blink and miss seventy years, but in that hair-thin fraction of time, Bucky saw the soldier in crystalline detail. He was dressed in black kevlar with lines of metal crawling up his scalp, but his bulletproof bodysuit left his arm and part of his chest exposed. Silver cords wound down either side of his throat to join a shining octopus that looked embedded in the soldier’s flesh. His face was covered by a heavy-duty muzzle, leaving only his eyes visible.

Despite everything, it was those eyes, more than anything else, that kept Bucky frozen in place. Because, see, the metal octopus labelled him HYDRA, but his eyes?

Those screamed “slave.”

Later, after Bucky’d had the wind knocked out of him by his own shield (well, Steve’s shield, anyway) and lost all sight of the soldier—after Fury was pronounced dead and Rumlow tried to kill him—he’d try to explain it to Natasha.

It was the kind of look you get when you’ve screamed and cried and no one has answered, and fought your hardest only to have your body betray you. The look of someone who wants to be anywhere but exactly where he is, and knows there’s nothing he can do to change it. The look Steve’d always fought to keep out of the eyes of anyone else (the look he’d gotten, some nights, when he was black and blue and already getting sick even though it was barely winter). The look of someone begging for help when he didn’t have the strength to breathe.

“I know that look,” Natasha would say, as she drove their stolen car to the top-secret base that would hopefully have some answers. “It doesn’t change anything.”

Maybe not. But Bucky couldn’t stop seeing it.

Chapter Text

Bucky rejoined Natasha at the hospital. Clint’s mission was set to last for another day or so, and Coulson was still out of reach, but Bucky’d at least called Tony and Bruce to come join them. They stood outside the glass window of the operating room.

“Tell me about the shooter,” Natasha said after a minute of silence. Her voice was very quiet and very, very neutral.

“Fast, as fast as me or faster,” Bucky started. “Strong, too. Looked a bit like one of Tony’s suits gone wrong—metal all over his head, chest and right arm. HYDRA insignia.”

If possible, Natasha went stiller. Tony was uncharacteristically mute as he watched the surgeons work, but Bruce asked softly, “Does that mean something to you, Agent Romanoff?”

Before she could answer, Agent Hill came up alongside them.

“Ballistics?” Nat enquired, in the same even voice.

“Three slugs, no rifling. Completely untraceable. Soviet-made.”

The sound of Fury flatlining cut off any further conversation.

“Don’t do this to me, Nick,” Natasha breathed, too quietly for anyone to pick up aside from Bucky, with his enhanced hearing. “Don’t do this to me.”

“Time of death, 1:03 a.m.”

+ + +

“Cap, they want you back at SHIELD,” Rumlow told him.

Bucky glanced at the other three. “Yeah, Rumlow, just a sec.”

“They want you now,” he repeated.

Bucky waved a hand. “Yeah. I got the picture.”

“Nope, that’s not gonna go well for you,” Tony said immediately when he turned back to them.

Bucky shrugged. “I’m aware. Meet back here in two hours, and if I don’t show, spring me?”

“I hate this plan,” Bruce muttered.

Well, Bucky reflected later, the joke was on Bruce, really. Beating HYDRA agents up in an elevator was kinda cathartic.

“Hoodies suit you,” Natasha told him when he found them in a room across from the vending machine. Bucky glanced down at the worn black sweatshirt he’d grabbed from a Goodwill bin and grinned back at her.

“Yeah, okay, but let’s blow this joint before Big Brother comes after their least favourite poster boy,” Tony interjected, shooing them out the door. “Nat, tell Cap about the flash drive.”

“You do know that I could kill you five different ways right here, with nobody noticing?” Natasha checked, rather than obeying.

“Not now that you’ve told these guys your plans, you can’t,” Tony pointed out.

“I wouldn’t tell,” Bucky piped in.

“Uh, the device Tony’s talking about is a USB stick Fury gave Agent Romanoff right before, well,” Bruce trailed off. Bucky appreciated the effort at peacekeeping, though. “Anyways, while you were busy being declared a public enemy—don’t look at me like that, Bucky, you’re all over the news—we tried to check out what was on it.”

“Unfortunately, it’s ridiculously well-encrypted. Seriously, nothing needs that much security,” Tony grumbled. “Which wouldn’t have been a problem, but we were on a time crunch, so the best I could get out of it before we had to run was the location of its origin source.” He looked intensely disappointed in himself, so Bucky patted his arm consolingly. Tony glared, and Bucky retracted his hand.

By this point they were in the parking lot, and Natasha jimmied open the doors of a very beat-up white van with the windows painted over. “Well, I suppose if we’re criminals evading justice, we might as well look the part,” Bruce observed.

“So where are we headed?” Bucky asked, buckling himself into the passenger seat.

Natasha started the car. “Wheaton, New Jersey.”

“Swell.”

Before pulling out, Natasha turned to look Tony and Bruce each in the eye. “You know, we really appreciate your help, but as of right now no one is looking for you. You’re probably fine to go home.”

Tony looked offended. “Are you saying you don’t want me around, Romanoff?”

“I’m saying, this doesn’t have to be your fight.”

“Also, if you come with us, you’ll probably have to wear hoodies,” Bucky added.

Tony wrinkled his nose. “We can work around that, right? Anyways, doesn’t matter. This is where the fun is. I’m sticking around. What about you, Brucie?”

Bruce shrugged, adjusting his glasses. “I think that about sums it up, yeah.” He smiled tentatively at Bucky. “What’d you and Steve always say? Till the end of the line.”

On the one hand, that was real sweet.

On the other, now Bucky was clutching the armrests as hard as he could to distract himself and keep from hitting Bruce. That would be very bad, because Bruce didn’t deserve it, and also he’d either break or Hulk out. Probably both.

“Natasha,” he said abruptly. “Do you know anything about the soldier from the roof? You never answered, earlier.”

Natasha, of course, just nodded. “Most of the intelligence community believes he doesn’t exist,” she began. “The ones that do call him the Winter Soldier.”

“Wait,” Bucky interrupted. “Clint mentioned him once, on a mission. I thought he was just a ghost story.”

Natasha twitched an eyebrow at him. “Five years ago I was escorting a nuclear engineer out of Iran. Somebody shot out my tires, we lost control, went straight over a cliff. I pulled us out. The Winter Soldier was there. I was covering my engineer so he shot him straight through me,” she tapped a spot on her right side, about level with her belly button. “Soviet slug, no rifling. Bye-bye, bikinis.”

Bucky said nothing, but Tony muttered, “Yeah, I bet you look terrible in them now.” Natasha smirked.

“So you think this Winter Soldier is targeting whatever’s waiting for us in Jersey?” Bruce asked.

Natasha shrugged, eyes on the road. “It’s hard to say. Going after him’s a dead end. I know, I’ve tried. Best we can do is figure out what Fury was trying to tell us, and stop it before it’s too late.”

+ + +

The address Tony uncovered turned out to be for an abandoned army base. Tony pulled out one of his smaller doodads. “Scanning for electromagnetic abnormalities,” he explained. Bucky nodded knowingly.

It was better, he found, not to ask.

“Huh. Looks like there’s something weird going on in that bunker,” Tony pointed.

“Yeah, I think I’m going to wait in the car,” decided Bruce promptly, edging away. “Confined army shelters don’t really, you know, sit well with the big guy.”

“Roger that, Banner. We’ll fill you in,” Natasha acknowledged tersely.

They descended into what turned out to be a very early outpost of SHIELD. One of the back rooms had a row of photographs along the wall. “Oh, hey, it’s Dad,” Tony muttered.

“Howard and Peggy,” Bucky said softly. They hung side by side in black and white. “Guess their work didn’t end with the war, either.”

Tony snorted. “Not hardly.”

Natasha was the one to discover the secret passage behind the bookcase, though Bucky had to help pull it open. Whatever the mechanism had been, it was either long rusted away or too much bother to find. Once they got it moving it slid away easily enough.

“Now, what kind of secrets need to be hidden in an already-secret office?”

Tony rubbed his hands together. “Presumably the same kind that need an embarrassing level of encryption on a simple flash drive. Let’s go!”

Natasha did something with her phone to figure out the code for the elevator—because it wasn’t enough that it was doubly hidden, it also needed a fancy four-digit electronic lock—and they slid smoothly down.

Bucky was really starting to get nervous.

The doors opened into a large, dark space. The three of them cautiously stepped forward, making it halfway across the room before some unseen trigger made the lights come on.

“Oh, I hate this,” Tony said.

They were surrounded by some kind of computer, but it was nothing like the ones Bucky had been introduced to when he woke up. Instead of holographic screens and disembodied voices, the room was full of whirring tapes and wall-to-wall cubes of electrical systems that stretched off into the shadowy distance.

Tony was actually twitching, Bucky saw. He nudged Natasha. “I think we broke him,” he whispered. She grinned a little.

“Ah! Something remotely decent! I mean, nobody uses USB ports anymore, but I’ll take what I can get,” Tony babbled, scurrying over to a black box that looked vaguely newer than the rest, lying on top of a table nearby.

“Well, here goes nothing,” Natasha said, and plugged the flash drive into it. “‘Shall we play a game?’”

For a moment, nothing much happened, except the hum of computers around them got a little louder. Then green streaks started flashing on the largest screen in front of them, forming the vague outline of a person wearing very round glasses.

“Barnes, James Buchanan.”

Bucky stumbled back.

“Born 1916. Romanoff, Natalia Alianovna. Born 1984.”

He knew that voice.

“Stark, Anthony Edward. Born 1970.”

He’d never forget that voice.

He’d thought the one good thing about leaving everything behind was that he was sure never to hear that voice again.

“Some kind of recording,” Natasha suggested.

“I am not a recording, Fraulein,” said the computer. “I may not be the man I was when Sergeant Barnes took me prisoner in 1945, but I am alive.”

“Bucky, do you know this guy?” Tony asked quietly.

“Zola,” he choked.

“Ah, so you do remember me. I remember you. Subject oh-seven-four. My first success.”

“You’re dead. You died a long time ago,” Bucky managed.

“Look around you,” the computer hissed gleefully. “I have never been more alive.”

“Oh, God,” Tony said, looking sick. “Not only are we surrounded by technology that should have been melted down generations ago, we’re also literally inside the brain of a psychotic sadist, which I’m gonna say actually did melt down sometime last century. Fantastic.”

“Ah, ah, ah, Herr Stark,” Zola chided. “Your father certainly thought my brain was worth preserving.”

“What is he talking about?” Bucky asked.

“Operation Paperclip,” Natasha explained quietly. “After WWII, SHIELD recruited enemy scientists with strategic value.” She winced and looked away. From her, that was as good as an apology, though this one wasn’t her fault.

“They thought I could help their cause,” Zola added smugly. “I also helped my own.”

“Yeah, right, like you’d ever have gotten the chance.” Tony sounded flippant, but his eyes were dark. “Come on, Zola. You talk big, but you were only ever SHIELD’s trained monkey, weren’t you?”

The screen flicked to darkness. “Accessing archive.”

What followed was pretty much just a HYDRA manifesto, although it was even more horrifying than Bucky had thought it’d be. Apparently, humans were too stupid to be trusted with their own power, but also too stupid to accept its loss.

“The war taught us much,” Zola explained. “Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly. SHIELD was founded after the war, and inside it the new HYDRA grew as well, a beautiful parasite.”

“What, and no one noticed?” Natasha drawled, folding her arms.

“HYDRA learned to turn its focus to more subtle acts,” Zola responded.

Apparently, he figured anonymous terrorism would be enough to slowly drive everyone off the tracks, fascists and democracies equally desperate to make the world safe again. “When history did not cooperate, history was changed. Accidents,” Howard’s face flashed on screen, labelled deceased, “will happen.”

Tony made a pained sound.

Bucky shook off his half-trance. “What’s on this drive?” he demanded.

“Project Insight requires… well, insight,” Zola preened. “So I wrote an algorithm.”

Crap. In all the upheavals Bucky had forgotten about SHIELD’s latest project. That was maybe a mistake.

“What kind of algorithm? What does it do?” Natasha prodded.

“The answer to your question is fascinating,” mused Zola. “Unfortunately, you shall be too dead to hear it.”

Metal walls slid over the door they’d come in through, too quickly for them to do anything.

“Guys,” Natasha said, staring at her phone. “We’ve got bogeys. Fired by SHIELD.”

“I am afraid I have been stalling,” sang Zola. Tony cursed and flipped open the briefcase he’d been carrying, which apparently contained his Iron Man suit. Bucky ran to Natasha, who was already ducking under one of the tables. “Admit it, Sergeant Barnes, it is better this way. After all, we are, both of us, out of time.”

Bucky flipped up the shield to cover him and Nat, just in time. The world shattered around them into shards of sound and light.

+ + +

Bucky came to in the back of the van. He slitted his eyes open just long enough to register this fact, and then groaned.

“You all right there, big guy?” Natasha’s voice filtered through.

He groaned again. “No.”

“Good,” she said. She sounded like she was grinning. Brat.

“Yes, yes, we’re all very lucky to be alive and un-Hulked-out and all that—”

“Really, that last part is just shy of miraculous—” Bruce interrupted.

“—But that does not mean I understand a single thing that just happened. This is a very unusual feeling for me, I hope you know, and I don’t think I like it, so could somebody please explain?” Tony finished.

“I’m still surprised any of you knew about Project Insight beforehand,” Natasha told him. “Do you ever consider keeping your nose out of SHIELD’s top-clearance files?”

“I’ll stop snooping when they do,” Tony replied absently.

Bucky sat up slowly, noting as he did so that Tony was driving along a mostly-deserted highway and that, going by the sun’s position, he hadn’t lost too much time.

“Armin Zola, lunatic scientist for HYDRA and, apparently, SHIELD, which are also pretty much the same thing when it comes down to it,” Bucky began mechanically. “Downloaded his consciousness onto a bunch of computers and orchestrated the rise of Project Insight.”

“Wait, what?” Bruce asked.

“I’ll explain later,” Natasha told him.

“Please tell me you deleted Insight from SHIELD’s files before we left,” Bucky begged.

Tony shook his head. “Sorry, Capsicle, I did my best but based on what I found, it looks like there are backup files on isolated servers I can’t access. I’d have to bring JARVIS to their physical location, and I don’t know where that is or how many there are. We’d be better off taking down Insight at the source.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky muttered. “Cut off one head, baloney.”

“Yes, great, this sounds like a foolproof plan,” Bruce interrupted, “but on another subject, does anyone have suggestions for where we should go? Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, it sounds kind of like everyone we know is trying to kill us.”

“Not everyone,” Bucky remembered suddenly. “Tony, head for Washington. I know a guy.”

+ + +

Sam Wilson turned out to be the best kind of good people. Bucky felt pretty bad for pushing in on him like this, especially since it meant that he’d be at risk, but then Sam let it slip that he was basically a superhero, too.

Well, he had robotic army wings that let him fly, which Bucky was pretty sure counted.

Sam also refused to be left out when they started going after HYDRA agents, which ended up being a huge help with Sitwell. Things got a little dicier, though, when the Winter Soldier showed up.

Natasha’d been shot, Tony and Bruce were already down under a mess of SHIELD agents, and Bucky was fighting the Soldier hand-to-hand with everything he had, because he knew bone-deep that if he gave an inch right now he’d lose his life. This wasn’t the aching captive he’d met on the roof. This was a ruthless killing machine.

Finally, finally he scored a real hit and sent the Soldier flying. His mask came off, and Bucky watched in what felt like slow-motion as he turned around.

Because yeah, he was paler, down one arm and clearly tortured to within an inch of his life, but that face was still—

“Stevie?”

For a long, liquid moment they stood suspended, staring at each other across the ruined street.

“Wer zum teufel ist Stevie?” the soldier rasped.

His eyes were empty.

Chapter Text

The Soldier always did its best to ignore what its body, its brain, did on a mission. It didn’t want to be awake.

Track. Shoot. Fight. Kill.

Eliminate obstacles. Minimum collateral. No evidence.

Identify target. Eliminate target.

The Soldier did what it was programmed to do.

(Had it had a will of its own, once? Or was that a dream?)

Then the target spoke.

“Stevie?”

A cocksure grin. A beautiful boy.

Stevie.

No, don’t wake up. Don’t remember.

The Soldier was the Asset. There was nothing before. Before was dangerous.

One week without getting in a fight, that’s all I’m asking, Steve.

The Soldier was—the Soldier—

Stevie? You in there, pal?

The Soldier fired, and missed.

Stevie?

The Soldier fled.

No. The Soldier reported for repairs. Its arm was damaged. Repairs were necessary.

As the Soldier reclined in the Chair, it tried to ignore the memories, but they wouldn’t stop seeping through the cracks. A train, falling upwards and away. A small man with round glasses, bent over him, grinning madly. A blue-eyed boy missing a tooth, shyly giving him a handful of dandelions.

Stevie.

The Soldier sat up, knocking the technician across the room. He stared at nothing, breathing hard.

“Soldier. Soldier, report,” said his master.

“The man on the bridge,” he breathed (in German, of course). The words escaped without his permission. He wanted to hide them, hoard them, but he needed to know. “I knew him. Who was he?”

“You met him earlier this week,” his master told him.

No.

“No, I knew him,” he insisted. “Who was he?”

His master sighed and walked away. “Wipe him.”

The Soldier leaned back in the Chair without protest as the technicians connected the wires, plugging them in to the hidden sockets that had been installed in the back of his neck, his temples, the edge of his collarbone.

The Soldier.

Or was he Stevie?

He jerked away, or tried to. Too late.

Steve screamed, and was not.

Chapter Text

“He’s alive,” Bucky was repeating numbly in the back of the SHIELD army van. “He’s alive. How is he alive?”

“Shut up, or in a second you won’t be,” growled one of the guards.

Then the other guard whipped out a taser and stunned the first one, which Bucky thought might've even surprised Natasha. The guard then turned out to be Agent Hill, and Fury wasn’t so dead after all, and they only had a few hours before Project Insight went up and everyone died, so Bucky didn’t really have a chance to process much.

But. Steve was alive.

“Too bad you lost your uniform,” Tony was musing as they sat and plotted around a table, located somewhere top-secret and underground. SHIELD really seemed to like that kind of thing, Bucky noted distractedly.

Tony snapped his fingers. “Oh, hey! You know where we can get another suit? That new exhibit at the Smithsonian. The real deal. What do you say, Cap?”

“Don’t call me that,” Bucky growled. He held himself very, very still.

“Barnes,” Natasha said quietly.

“No, Natasha!” He slammed his hands down on the table. “I’m not Cap! I was never—that was Steve! It’s all well and good to pretend to be him when he’s dead, but he’s—all this time—” he was shaking. “God, Natasha, what did they do to him?”

“I don’t know,” she answered evenly.

“Whatever it was, we’ll get him back, Buck,” Tony promised, even while Sam shook his head.

“I don’t know about that,” he countered. “Stark, you didn’t see him fight. He didn’t hesitate, didn’t pull any punches. He might not be the kind you save.”

The table groaned under Bucky’s hands. “Steve will always be the kind you save,” he gritted.

“Maybe so,” Fury cut in, scowling, “but right now our primary focus has to be saving the damn world. Captain Rogers is gonna have to wait, Barnes. Are you with me?”

Bucky shoved his chair back and stood up, running his hands through his hair. “Yeah,” he said finally, his back to the table. “Let’s do this.”

+ + +

The thing was, they didn’t just have to take down the three helicarriers of Project Insight. They also had to dismantle all of SHIELD, to keep HYDRA from rebuilding within it.

“Look, all I really need is to get to the servers and hack into SHIELD’s files from there,” Tony said. “That leaves Barnes and Flyboy over there to chase after the helicarriers until I can get my suit. Sound like a plan?”

It was the best they’d got. They fleshed it out a little more, of course. Natasha still had a bullet wound, so she was out for the count (“I’ll be fine,” she said dismissively; “Yeah, no, not a chance,” Bruce replied), and they didn’t want to risk the Hulk unless there was absolutely no other way, so the two of them would stay behind and hack into the Triskelion’s security cams, updating the others via comms Fury provided. Fury would guide Tony to SHIELD’s central intelligence hub, where Tony’d need at least twenty solid minutes working on-site at SHIELD’s mainframe in order to get any info. After that, Tony would put on the suit and come help the other two disable Project Insight, while Fury did damage control for whatever needed it most.

If nothing went wrong, they’d be saving the world today.

(Of course, Bucky knew better than to expect that nothing’d go wrong. Still, might as well be optimistic, with the fate of the planet at stake.)

Once they were well away from Fury’s secret lair, Tony did something on a screen that popped up above his wrist. A few minutes later there was a thump from the top of the van they were driving in. “Suit’s here,” he told Bucky.

“Stark, I told you—”

“Relax, Barnes, I got it loud and clear. This is your stealth suit,” he sighed, rolling down a window. A little drone crawled in and dropped some kind of black fabric in his lap.

“Dang, that thing is cute,” Sam blurted.

“You like it?” Tony asked. “Cool, I’ll make you one. Anyway, look, this getup isn’t a Captain America costume. Give me some credit, Barnes, I designed it so you could use it on top-secret missions. I just thought it’d be nicer for all of us if you put on something other than that god-awful hoodie you’ve been wearing.”

Bucky relaxed. “I like my hoodie,” he added after a moment.

“Yeah, well, we all have to make sacrifices for the greater good. Trust me, this is one of them.”

“…Thanks, Tony.”

“Yeah, yeah. Anytime.”

“Alright, let’s go over the plan one last time,” Fury started. Tony groaned loudly.

Ignoring him, Fury went on, “I know SHIELD security better than anyone, so, Stark, I’ll sneak you down to the server rooms, where you’ll—”

“Give the entire world access to every last shred of SHIELD info. Yup,” Tony drawled.

“Hill, you’ll take Helicarrier One, Wilson’s on Two, and Barnes, you take down number three, got that? No risks, no funny business, just get in, insert the microchip, and get out.”

“Geez, you sound like an overprotective parent,” Tony rolled his eyes. “‘No, mom, I won’t start a fight with the teacher, yes, I’ll make friends with the Osborne kid, and don’t worry, the butler already made my lunch,’ alright, we’re all ready to go.”

Fury stared at him. “You had a weird childhood, Stark.”

Tony shrugged. “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”

+ + +

Hill secured her helicarrier fairly quickly, even in the chaos that followed Tony’s impulsive PA announcement to all SHIELD personnel letting them know about, as he put it, “the ‘hey, your coworker might be HYDRA’ situation.” Bucky caught a glimpse of her parachuting out while he was still trying to fight his way through the last of his HYDRA agents.

Sam was only slightly less successful. “Helicarrier Two is secured,” he confirmed over the comms, breathing hard, “but I’m off the board now. I was on my way to help Bucky finish with number three, but the Soldier’s here, guys. He ripped one of my wings straight out of my suit, I’m lucky the safety chute deployed properly.”

“Copy that,” Natasha responded. After a moment, she went on, “I’ve got eyes on him now. He’s on board Helicarrier Three, closing in on your position, Barnes. You’re going to have to engage.”

“I’ll be along to help in ten minutes, fifteen max,” Tony added. “Just hang in there.”

Which was all well and good to say, but it didn’t help much when Bucky turned the corner and found himself face-to-face with his dead best friend.

For a tense moment, neither of them moved.

“Hey, there, Stevie,” Bucky muttered cautiously. He started sliding a foot forward, but stopped when Steve tensed. “Do you remember me?”

Steve wasn’t masked this time, but that didn’t make Bucky feel any less sick looking at him. All it meant was that he could clearly see the excruciating blankness of Steve’s face, the way his gaze didn’t flicker as he shifted into an offensive stance.

“Don’t—Steve, I’m begging you, don’t make me do this,” Bucky pleaded.

Steve launched forward.

Bucky fought back, hating himself as he did, but hundreds of thousands of lives hung in the balance and he couldn’t afford to lose. Finally, somehow, he managed to gain the upper hand long enough to stick the chip in its place and close the chamber.

Then Steve shot him in the back.

The force of the bullet flung him forward and he cracked his head against the floor, seeing stars. A stabbing pain radiated out from the point of impact, but after a moment Bucky realized he wasn’t leaking blood.

“Stark, is the suit you made me bulletproof?” he slurred, before Steve picked him up and flung him off the edge of the platform.

“You know, I’m a little concerned—no, frankly, I’m disappointed to hear you found out about that so quickly,” Tony answered as Bucky crashed into the reinforced glass floor below. “What was that? No, just, give me three more minutes, Barnes, then I’ll be there, I’m on my way.”

Bucky hoped Tony made it in time. With his metal suit, it was possible he stood a chance at beating Steve; Bucky doubted he himself had the strength to manage it, even if he tried.

Which he wouldn’t. The world was safe, and he was done fighting Steve.

“Barnes, you need to get out of there,” Hill said in his ear. “The helicarriers are going to self-destruct—”

Steve jumped down and landed beside him. Bucky struggled to stand.

“Stevie, come on, you know me,” he croaked.

Steve slammed his metal fist into the side of Bucky’s face, and he crumpled back down with an “oof.” Before he could land another hit, Bucky rolled out of the way and scrambled up, jumping (inhumanly far, thanks, Zola) to reach one of the lower platforms.

Instead of following, Steve started hurling throwing knives. Bucky ducked down behind the shield.

“You know me!” he repeated, more firmly. “Your name is Steven Grant Rogers. You were born the skinniest punk in Brooklyn, and I was always bailing you out of the fistfights you started.” He ran back towards the center pillar when Steve paused to pull out a different weapon, taking shelter behind it. “You always did want to fight for the little guy, even when you were the littlest one of 'em all. And so I was always fighting for you, covering your flank, except—”

A burst of blue electricity spurted from a pellet that dinged against his leg, although all Bucky felt was an intense tingling and a burst of pain in his ear as his comm shorted out. Apparently Stark’s suit was zap- as well as bulletproof. Keen.

“Except when I joined up in the War, and I couldn’t be,” he finished. Where was Steve? Bucky couldn’t see him.

“I’m so sorry, Stevie. I shoulda been there, should have stopped them from making you big, but I wasn’t and I didn’t and you followed me to the front lines and you fell—”

Pain exploded in Bucky’s temple and he was tumbling downwards, falling beside Steve, the way he should have all along—

He hit the glass floor and came back to himself with a jolt. Steve was still on the platform above, in this century, his metal fist smudged red (Bucky touched his head and found it bloody), pulling out another gun and aiming at Bucky’s skull.

Bucky rolled away as a burst of bullets sent cracks spiderwebbing through the already-weakened floor. “I should have known you were alive,” he called. “I shoulda known, Steve, I should never have given up on you, and I’m so goddamn sorry.”

Steve leapt down, stalking forward over the creaking glass as Bucky skittered away.

“Maybe it’s too late, now,” Bucky said softly. He stilled. “Maybe Sam’s right, and it’s been too long, and I can’t save you anymore.”

Steve still didn’t blink, didn’t falter as he brought his metal fist back and socked Bucky in the face. Once. Twice. Again.

Bucky gazed up through bleary eyes at Steve (or was it just the Soldier?) as he drew back for another swing. “But this time,” he rasped, “I’m with you. Till the end of the line.”

Then the floor gave out beneath them, and they were both falling.

Chapter Text

The Soldier’s mission was simple. Locate Subject 074 (current alias: Captain James Barnes) and eliminate him. Prevent 074’s mission from succeeding, by any means necessary.

The Soldier was not informed of 074’s mission. It was unnecessary information, and the Soldier had required recalibration mid-operation. Unnecessary information interfered with proper equipment functioning.

The Soldier located Subject 074 aboard an unfamiliar flying contraption. Mission parameters narrowed to elimination.

A man with metal wings engaged the Soldier, attempting to prevent it from reaching Subject 074. The Soldier removed one of the metal wings and threw the man off the edge of the flying contraption.

(Identified: the sound of a parachute unfurling. Something very weak and very small loosened in the Soldier at the recognition.)

Subject 074 was reluctant to engage the Soldier. He spoke in a language the Soldier did not comprehend, and after the first few minutes of exchanging blows, managed to escape long enough to do something at the central hub of the flying contraption.

After that, when the Soldier pursued him, Subject 074 only worked to escape. When cornered, Subject 074 provided no defense.

Words filtered through to the Soldier. They almost sounded familiar. Had it known what they meant, once?

Brooklyn.

Stevie.

Sorry.

The Soldier was beginning to wake up. The Soldier must not wake up.

The Soldier pressed its advantage on the floor of the flying contraption. It did not bother with its weapons any longer. Subject 074 must be silenced. The Soldier could not wake up.

“…Till the end of the line.”

The Soldier was awake.

Stevie. The Soldier remembered—

Then the floor gave out beneath them, and both the Soldier and 074 (Barnes) were falling.

Before anything could be done (Execute the mission – preserve the Asset – protect Barnes), another metal flying man appeared.

“Okay, Capsicle. Both of you, actually,” he said, snatching Barnes out of the air with one hand and the Soldier with the other. “Time’s up. You’ve had your fun, now you’re gonna come home and take your naps.”

English. The Soldier was not permitted to understand this language.

The Soldier understood it.

(Well. The Soldier understood the words, individually. It did not know what the metal flying man was actually trying to say. Perhaps this meant the Soldier was adequately following its orders?)

The Soldier hung limp and unresisting in the metal flying man’s grip. Mission parameters were unclear. The Soldier did not know what it should do.

They landed on the shore of a lake. On the other side, three flying contraptions were firing missiles at each other and sinking rapidly towards the ground. The Soldier was more preoccupied with the way Barnes remained unresponsive.

The metal flying man set the Soldier down and motioned at it. “Sit. Stay,” he ordered.

The Soldier obeyed, but watched carefully as the metal man (no longer flying) turned to Barnes.

“Come on, Buck, wakey wakey,” he muttered, tapping gently at Barnes’ bruised cheek. After a moment, Barnes groaned quietly. “There you go. Show me those baby blues, honey bear. Do you think it’s safe to say stuff like that in front of your robot boyfriend, or will he murder me right now?”

Barnes blinked his eyes open and moved his head, searching. “Steve? Is he here?”

“For the record, I think it’s pathetic that you knew exactly who I was talking about,” the metal man told him, but waved a hand in the Soldier’s direction.

Barnes turned towards it, wincing. His eyes went wide. “Steve,” he breathed.

“Denied,” said the Soldier reflexively.

Barnes looked odd. Similar to how he would look if the Soldier had successfully shot him in the stomach, but the Soldier had not deployed any new weapons. “What?”

“Designation denied. Steve is an invalid entry. Use of designation: Steve requires automatic recalibration,” explained the Soldier. Specific instances were not available for memory retrieval, but he knew it was true.

“Well, then, what is your designation?” asked the metal man, when Barnes closed his eyes as if in severe pain.

“Designation: Asset. Property of HYDRA. Codename: Winter Soldier,” responded the Soldier distractedly. He did not take his eyes off Barnes. If Barnes had undetected internal injuries, he required immediate medical intervention.

The Soldier was not permitted to initiate speech.

“Yeah, no, that’s not gonna cut it,” said the metal man. “Can I call you Locutus instead?”

“No,” Barnes growled, eyes still closed. The Soldier just stared.

“Oh, come on, Bucky, you don’t even get that reference!”

“Clint made me watch Star Trek with him until my brains were coming out my ears, Stark,” Barnes slitted his eyes open to glare. “You aren’t calling him Locutus.”

“Spoilsport.”

“When’s our getaway driver gonna show?” Barnes asked, presumably changing the subject.

The metal man shaded his eyes, looking upwards. “Should be arriving right about… now.”

The Soldier realized the sound of the helicopter that had been approaching for the last few minutes had obtained a steady pitch. He looked up to see it hovering overhead and gradually beginning to descend.

“Bucky, how’re your injuries? You up for a quick elevator ride?” asked the metal man.

“Sure,” Barnes told him. “What’s a little head trauma between friends?”

“Apparently not as big a deal to you as it really should be,” grumbled the metal man. He turned to the Soldier. “Wait here. Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”

“Hey—” Barnes began to protest, but the metal man had already scooped him up and taken flight.

The metal flying man was back in forty-two seconds, demonstrating an almost unsafe degree of haste. The Soldier disapproved. Barnes must be protected.

“You know, I was kind of hoping you’d run off while I was gone,” commented the metal flying man, folding his arms. “Save this whole song and dance for another day. Geez, do you ever blink?”

Desired response was unclear. The Soldier demonstrated blinking, just in case.

“Whatever. JARVIS, deploy tranquilizers.”

Something pricked the back of the Soldier’s neck. He whipped around, drawing a gun, and saw a small drone floating behind him. He didn’t have a chance to process more than that, though; his legs folded without his consent, and he caught a dizzying glimpse of sky before the world went dark.

+ + +

The Soldier awoke in a Chair, already restrained and stripped of his battle gear, which meant recalibration was imminent. He must have been recaptured by HYDRA, then. At least Barnes had safely escaped.

He knew better than to struggle against the cuffs. He merely opened his eyes and remained quiet. He was in a lab, which looked to be chiefly equipped for modification of his metal additions. He could see three HYDRA agents from where he was positioned, one woman and two men. One of the men held a bow and had a quiver of arrows slung across his back. The other held an electronic screwdriver.

“He’s awake,” said the woman, drawing the other two’s attention. She had very bright red hair. It drew the Soldier’s eyes to it. “Soldier,” she went on without pause. “Mission report.”

“Status: ongoing,” the Soldier answered dully. “Target escaped apprehension. Current whereabouts are unknown.”

“Repeat, in English,” the woman ordered. The Soldier drew back, as much as he could. He had answered in German, and had hoped to disguise the extent of his disobedience.

“That language is not permitted,” he tried.

“I will bear the punishment,” she told him. “Repeat your report.”

The Soldier obeyed. After he had done so, the agent with the bow responded anomalously.

“Is that all?” he asked. “You really don’t have anything else to say about the mission?”

The Soldier was being invited to continue speaking.

“Who is Stevie?” he asked desperately, before he could stop himself.

The agents did not respond immediately, but to his surprise, the woman eventually answered in a measured tone. “That’s you, Soldier.”

No. Invalid entry. The Soldier was not permitted any such designation.

(The Soldier wanted to be Stevie.)

Then she went on. “What else do you remember?”

Nein,” the Soldier gasped. “Nothing, nothing, I don’t—there are no memories, no need for recalibration, please—”

“Why did you stop trying to kill Barnes?” cut in the man with the screwdriver.

Barnes.

Not Subject 074.

A boy in a green uniform, smiling down at the Soldier—Don’t go getting in trouble while I’m gone, Stevie

“Barnes,” he breathed. “Bucky?”

The man with the screwdriver stepped towards him. The Soldier panicked, jerking against the restraints with all his strength. “Bucky!” he howled.

And Bucky came.

Faintly, the Soldier heard footsteps pounding down the hallway, growing rapidly louder until the door burst open and a black blur with a round shield threw itself into the lab, yelling, “Steve!”

Barnes was there. Barnes was there. Barnes had not safely escaped after all. This was disastrous. Especially since he dropped his shield as soon as he skidded to a halt.

“Let him go. Now,” Barnes hissed.

The man with the bow glanced at a button on the table in front of him, and Barnes leapt forward to press it. The restraints slid back into the Chair.

The Soldier bolted upright, curved an arm around Barnes’ (Bucky’s?) waist, threw him towards the corner nearest the door (most defensible position which also afforded the possibility of escape), snatched up the shield and a wrench from the nearest table, and fell into a crouch between Barnes and the agents.

For a moment, nobody moved.

“Soldier, explain,” the redhead finally said.

“Mission: terminate Subject 074, alias James Barnes. Mission origin is HYDRA. Any HYDRA personnel may terminate Barnes if the opportunity arises. Mission is. Mission is denied.” The Soldier gripped his wrench tighter. “I won’t let you hurt Bucky.”

“What the—we’re not—” the man with the screwdriver spluttered.

“There has been a misunderstanding, Soldier,” interrupted the redhead. “We are not HYDRA. Our intention in restraining you was to protect Barnes, not to hurt him or you. We’re Barnes’ friends.”

“We just wanted to make sure you weren’t gonna kill him as soon as our backs were turned,” added the man with the bow. “You know, because of how hard you were trying to make his face a pancake a couple hours ago.”

The Soldier faltered. This was true. He remembered attempting to complete the mission. Any allies of Barnes would have been wise to restrain him.

“Bucky?” he asked tentatively.

“Yeah, pal,” Barnes confirmed, putting a hand carefully on his flesh shoulder. “I’m pretty mad at them right now, don’t get me wrong, but they are my friends. They won’t hurt you.”

Not HYDRA, then. Barnes’ allies. The Soldier dropped the wrench and the shield and stood down. Then he hesitated. Protocol dictated he return to the Chair and submit to recalibration.

He took a step forward.

He did not want to forget.

“Hey,” Barnes said softly from behind him. “What’s wrong?”

“Failure to comply with pre-established protocols warrants both punishment and recalibration,” the Soldier started, holding himself stiffly. “Whatever punishment is selected by Barnes’ allies will be submitted to appropriately. But not—” he swallowed. “Please, Bucky. Don’t make me go back in the Chair. I don’t want to forget again.”

“Oh, Stevie,” Barnes breathed. The Soldier flinched, but at the same time, his flesh hand reached backwards towards Barnes. He didn’t quite know why until Barnes took it in one of his, lacing their fingers together.

It felt. The Soldier did not have the words to define how it felt. It was touch, but without pain. Irrationally, it calmed the Soldier.

Barnes’ allies were looking on with varying combinations of confusion and concern, but Barnes (Bucky?) did not appear to notice. “No one is ever going to put you in a chair again, alright? You’re never going to have to forget. Not this time.”

The Soldier frowned, craning his neck to look back at him. “Periodic recalibration is necessary to prevent equipment malfunction, even if no trigger necessitates premature reset,” he reminded Barnes.

Barnes looked blank. “Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he answered, wrinkling his brow. “In the meantime, why don’t we go somewhere a little less crowded?” He glared over the Soldier’s shoulder at his allies.

The Soldier just nodded and allowed Barnes to tug him out the lab door and down the hallways. Perhaps Barnes was planning to punish him immediately. Perhaps not; most often, his masters preferred to execute the punishment immediately before recalibration, to maximize effective reprogramming. Whatever the case, he would be content. For now, somehow, he was being permitted to waive recalibration. He could keep his memories. The Soldier did not understand his new circumstances in the slightest, but he was grateful.

For the first time in a very long time, the Soldier was truly awake.

Chapter Text

Bucky was furious.

He couldn’t believe Tony. The helicopter he’d dumped Bucky in had taken almost two hours to get to Stark Tower, and whatever Tony’d done to the controls had kept Bucky from speeding up or changing course. He just had to watch Tony sail off ahead, carrying the unconscious body of his best friend. And when he finally arrived he was greeted with the sound of Stevie screaming.

(God, the sound—)

He pushed his anger down for now, though, because Steve was there, trailing him down the hallway looking like a kicked dog. And Steve’s face when he talked about ‘recalibration’—Bucky hadn’t seen him that kind of scared since he’d caught Steve kissing Arthur Dailey when they were kids, and Steve had sworn he liked girls and he’d stick to them from now on and apologized over and over, before Bucky’d had the chance to tell him he was queer too.

Ordinary fear, now that he was familiar with, on Steve. He wasn’t actually a total idiot and they’d been fighting a war, after all. But that helplessness? That was different. Steve should never look that way. He should never have to.

So Bucky pretended not to be mad, because he wasn’t, not at Steve, and Steve needed to know Bucky wasn’t gonna hurt him.

Halfway down the hall, though, Steve buckled and wound up half-sitting, half-kneeling in the middle of the floor. Now it was Bucky’s turn to feel a wash of terror.

“What’s wrong, Ste—” he started, cutting himself off harshly. It didn’t matter, though, because before Steve could answer, JARVIS intervened.

“If I may, Captain Barnes, the Soldier is most likely experiencing the aftereffects of the sedative Sir devised.”

Steve was looking alarmed, sluggishly moving into a defensive posture while he scanned for the source of JARVIS’ voice. “Hey, pal, don’t worry, that’s just the building,” Bucky told him hurriedly. “He’s friendly. JARVIS keeps an eye on everything so nobody can pull a sneak attack on us here.”

Steve relaxed slightly, and then wobbled. Mentally, Bucky called Tony every colourful name he knew. “JARVIS, what’re those aftereffects, exactly?” he asked aloud, as calmly as he could.

“Sir’s formula was intended to render the Soldier unconscious for at least two hours, taking into account his unique physiology and metabolism. In fact, it took the Soldier one hour and fifty-two minutes to awaken. Extrapolating from the given data, Captain Soldier, it is anticipated that you will experience intense drowsiness for up to six more hours until the effects wear off fully. Most likely, the best solution is simply to ‘sleep it off.’”

Bucky sighed, then slung an arm around Steve’s bulk. “All right, you heard the building,” he told him. “Let’s just get to my room and you can have a nice, long nap, until you feel better. That sound ok?”

Steve gave a jerky nod, so Bucky manhandled him into the nearest elevator and hit the button. Current can of worms aside, he’d never been more thankful for Tony’s tendency to overdo things; each of the team members had their own floor in Stark Tower, “just in case,” so Bucky could just bring Steve straight to his. He worried for a moment that the cramped space of the elevator would bother Steve, but he seemed too out of it to notice much.

When they arrived at his apartment, Bucky started to usher Steve towards the bedroom before stopping, unsure. He waved awkwardly to indicate the whole space (a den with two couches, a kitchen, and a little hallway to the side with two doors to the bedroom and bathroom). “You can sleep wherever you want,” he told Steve. “The bedroom’s down that way, but if you’d feel more comfortable you can take the couch or the floor or whatever.” Was that the wrong thing to say? He didn’t want to pressure Steve into using the bed, in case that triggered some kind of trauma like the upright table-thing Tony’d strapped him into (and now he was mad again, great).

Steve just looked confused and kinda sleepy, though.

“Everything okay, St—” Bucky kicked himself. He didn’t want to set Steve off again by using his name, but he sure as hell wasn’t calling him “Soldier.” Lamely, he finished, “Something wrong?”

Steve looked at him tentatively, with the same feeble fear as before. “Where,” he started, then shook his head. “There is no visible cryogenic pod,” he answered instead. “Pod is a requirement for cryosleep.” He shrank a little.

Geez, in seventy years Stevie hadn’t properly slept at all? Bucky didn’t know exactly what a ‘cryogenic pod’ was, but it didn’t sound good. He took Steve’s non-metal hand gently.

“Nope, no special pods here,” he assured him. “Here, let me show you what I mean.”

He led Steve into his bedroom (out of all the fantasies he’d had over the years, none of them looked remotely like this) and released his hand, laying down on the far side of the bed. “Look, see? Just stretch out like this and you’ll fall asleep all on your own.”

Carefully, Steve copied him, mirroring his posture so he was flat on his back with his head turned towards Bucky. He looked faintly surprised and pleased, so Bucky called it a win. As soon as his head hit the pillow, his eyes started to droop.

“That’s perfect. Good job, Stevie,” he murmured, and then bit his tongue hard. Steve didn’t flinch this time, though. Instead, his mouth curved into a small smile.

“Thanks, Buck,” he mumbled, and then he was out like a light.

For a minute, Bucky just stared.

Steve definitely didn’t look much like the kid he’d grown up with, even ignoring the serum’s effects. He was only dressed in a light pair of black pants, and the exposed skin of his torso and left arm were covered in every kind of scar—from burns and stab wounds to surgical slices and track marks. Steve’d always been pale, too, but now he looked like he hadn’t seen the sun for more than a couple minutes of the last seven decades (which, maybe, was true). The metal parts were the worst, though.

His right arm was completely gone, replaced with a prosthetic that continued past the shoulder to merge seamlessly with the silver HYDRA insignia that engulfed most of his chest. The top two tentacles of the octopus curved up Steve’s neck, like a pair of snakes slithering over his shaved scalp all the way into his temples, and every piece of metal was surrounded by swollen, angry scar tissue.

Bucky felt sick, seeing it all. That Steve’d survived, let alone with any shred of his mind intact, was nothing shy of miraculous. And yet he was still in there, somewhere. He’d recognized Bucky. He’d begged not to forget.

Right. “JARVIS, you said he should sleep for just about six hours, yeah?”

“That’s correct, Captain Barnes. The sedative should also ensure his sleep remains deep and dreamless.”

That was a relief, at least. “If I’m not back by the time he starts waking up, let me know straight away, alright? Actually, no, just tell me if anything changes at all.”

“Understood, Captain. Also, Agent Romanoff has instructed me to tell you they have moved from the workshop to the common floor, if you desire to rejoin them. Dr. Banner has retired to his reinforced rooms, but should you require his aid, I will notify him as soon as possible.”

Bucky smiled grimly. “Thanks, JARVIS.” Carefully, he slid off the bed, folding his side of the blankets over so they covered Steve like a half-burrito. “Be back soon, Stevie,” he whispered.

First, though, he had some hell to raise.

+ + +

“What the goddamn hell were you thinking?” Bucky demanded, striding into the common floor living space.

“I don’t know about these two, but I was thinking we should maybe take a few precautions with the HYDRA assassin who’d already nearly killed you,” Tony snapped back without missing a beat.

“And when he was screaming my name, you all thought standing around watching was still the best course of action? I mean,” he took a breath, “thanks for telling me what button to press and all, Clint, but why the hell wouldn’t you just press it yourself?”

It was nice that Clint was finally back from his mission (just in time to have missed all the action, of course), but Bucky wasn’t an idiot, and Clint was a super-spy. He’d very obviously indicated what Bucky needed to do to release Steve.

“Like Tony said, murderous assassin,” Clint shrugged. “Tony, Nat and I were already the enemy by default, and you were apparently an ally in his mind, so when we heard you coming, I figured it would be best to let you do the actual saving. That way you’d have half-decent odds of being able to talk him down afterwards. Of course,” he added, grinning a bit, “I don’t think any of us were expecting him to throw down like a mama bear for you right off the bat. Honestly, that was pretty epic.”

“Hold up,” Tony interrupted. He had an odd glint in his eye that made Bucky uneasy. “You actually helped the Soldier escape, Barton? Why the hell does everyone seem to think that was a good idea? He is a highly trained death machine that belongs to HYDRA. Where is he now, by the way? Did you just drop him off at the nearest charging station so you could yell at us, Barnes?”

Bucky noted dimly that his hands were shaking. “He’s in my quarters, actually, being monitored by JARVIS while he sleeps off the effects of the tranquilizer you shot him up with, Stark,” he ground out. “And just in case you weren’t paying attention, that ‘death machine’ is my friend, not to mention a highly decorated war hero who’s been tortured and held prisoner for the last seventy years.”

“Yeah, no, see, I don’t buy that whole ‘tragic brainwashed Nazi’ act. I mean, don’t you think it’s a little convenient that he suddenly starts ‘remembering’ you as soon as you have a little backup to even the odds? God. Open your eyes, Barnes. He’s just playing on your emotions until he can get back the upper hand, if he’s even Steve Rogers at all and not some test-tube clone—”

Natasha was between them, somehow, holding up Bucky’s own shield against him, which was probably a good thing because he was hitting it pretty hard trying to get through to Tony.

With an effort, Bucky reined himself in. Well. Enough to stop hitting things, at least. “What is wrong with you, Tony,” he growled.

“I’m just saying, why should you be so special?” Tony was yelling now. “He’s already killed at least one of his old buddies without so much as batting an eye. I don’t care what they did to him, Bucky, you don’t just—” he stopped, and continued more quietly. “You don’t do that kind of thing unless you’ve really switched sides.”

Bucky felt cold, suddenly. “What are you talking about?”

Tony turned away, pulling a sharpie from his pocket and starting to doodle an equation right on the glass coffee table. “The Soldier killed my parents,” he said after a moment. He would’ve sounded perfectly matter-of-fact, too, if it wasn’t for the faint tremor of his voice. “I saw the footage while I was hacking into SHIELD. HYDRA—or SHIELD, both, whatever—they caught the whole thing on tape, and covered it up. The Soldier sent their car off the road. He beat my dad’s head in and strangled my mother, and he never hesitated, Barnes.”

Howard.

Steve had killed Howard. And his wife. Steve had killed Tony’s parents.

Seventy years ago, Bucky would’ve been laughing. Because—Steve would never. The idea made as much sense as a walrus doing the waltz.

“Did you look through the other files on the Winter Soldier?” Natasha asked, scrolling through her phone. She sounded dangerously neutral. Clint peered over her shoulder and blanched, resting a hand against her upper back.

“No,” Tony told her, a little defensive. “I rushed through most of the uploads, since I was trying to finish in time to save Bucky from his killer BFF. If he was even still alive, because maybe you’ll remember, Barnes, the last we heard from you, you were completely failing to get your pal to stop attacking, and then your comm shorted out and we all just had to assume the worst.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said helplessly.

“Before we jump to any conclusions,” Natasha interjected, “I think we should maybe look at the rest of the files. JARVIS, would you pull them up onscreen, in chronological order?”

A blue hologram appeared in the middle of the room, but for a moment it stayed blank. “Captain Barnes,” JARVIS said, sounding almost hesitant. “Some of these files are quite graphic. May I suggest you step out while they are displayed?”

Bucky glanced at the others. Natasha still looked blank, but Clint was frowning and Tony’s eyebrows were about to fly off his face.

It didn’t matter. “I’m staying,” he replied flatly.

JARVIS didn’t say anything, but sets of images began appearing in the blue screen. It seemed like they were just just hand- or typewritten notes that had been scanned into a computer database, accompanied by an occasional black-and-white photograph.

The very first entry was by Zola.

JARVIS translated for them from the German, reading aloud, “My good fortune is beyond belief. My fellow HYDRA operatives have discovered Captain America himself, abandoned by his comrades at the base of a cliffside in the Alps. He is damaged, but alive. I myself have been captured by the Americans, but thus far our spy network has allowed us to remain in contact. They are instructed to break Steven Rogers to our authority, using whatever means are necessary so that when I return, he will be compliant. Project: Captain HYDRA has begun.”

What followed were lists, written up by HYDRA lackeys, of all the ways Steve was tortured before Zola became part of Operation Paperclip. Waterboarding and electrocution were popular, but only the beginning. Steve’s right arm had been obliterated in the fall, so Zola sent instructions to replace it with the metal one he had now. He was strapped down for the surgery and given no anaesthetic. They tattooed an octopus across his chest, where now there was a metal implant, and redid it every other week to keep it sore and inflamed. They beat him, cut him, burned him, and Bucky was expecting it but it still tore a new hole somewhere inside, with every entry JARVIS read. Somehow, though, all of them ended the same way: “failure to comply.” Steve wasn’t breaking.

Then Zola came back.

Moments later, Bucky was running for the washroom.

As he heaved into the toilet, he closed his eyes, but the images just burned brighter. Steve, with needles sticking out of him, writhing away from a scalpel. Steve, flayed open like a slab of meat. Page after page of clinical notes detailing all the ways Zola had brutalized him. Bucky had thought he’d had it bad, when he’d been captured, but this—there weren’t words.

He laid his head against the cool porcelain seat when he was done. It was nasty, but he really didn’t care. He closed his eyes and realized his cheeks were drenched with tears. Of all the people for Zola to capture, it had to have been Stevie.

“It shoulda been me,” he whispered to himself.

“No, it really shouldn’t have,” Natasha said from behind him. He startled and turned around. He hadn’t bothered to lock the door, but he hadn’t heard her come in, either. “Bucky, no one deserves to have that happen to them,” she went on, folding her arms. “Not Steve, and not you. Wishing you could have taken his place won’t make any more of a difference than wishing it hadn’t happened at all, so stop.”

She crouched down on the floor of the bathroom so their eyes were level, waiting until he looked at her. “Look, I wanted to go through these files so we could get a better idea of how to help Steve recover,” she started.

“Help Steve—so you don’t agree with Tony? You still think it’s worth trying to save him?”

Natasha’s eyes flicked away. “I know what it’s like to have choice taken from you,” she said quietly. “Tony wants it to be simple, but the truth is, sometimes your enemy is the one that needs saving the most. But that doesn’t mean you should have to see this, Barnes. If you want, you can go sit with Steve in your apartment until he wakes up, and I’ll fill you in later on the important details.”

God, Bucky was grateful for the offer. He was pretty sure there was nothing he wanted less than to look at a single one of those files ever again. But—“No,” Bucky told her. “Natasha, I need to see them.”

He didn’t know why, exactly. Maybe it was a last-ditch effort to stick by Steve to the end of the line, even after he’d let him fall. Maybe some stupid part of him wanted to at least keep Steve from suffering alone. He had a sneaking suspicion that the whole thing boiled down to the self-destructive complex Natasha was always ragging on him about. Whatever it was, Nat seemed to get it, because she just looked at him for a moment longer before she rose abruptly and offered a hand to help him up.

He took it, and then spent a minute washing up at the sink before following her back out to the living room. He was still a sweaty, puffy mess, but he figured no one would care too much.

He slumped down into one of the chairs and nodded sharply. “JARVIS, keep it going,” he ordered.

“Wait,” Tony interjected. “I just realized—JARVIS, purge these files from the internet. Make sure there isn’t a single copy of anything pertaining to the Winter Soldier anywhere but on my personal server.” He looked away when Bucky glanced over at him, muttering, “Nobody else needs to have access to this.”

“Already done, Sir,” JARVIS responded.

And with that, they plunged back into Steve’s personal hell.

Bucky gritted his teeth and kept looking as Zola invented countless new ways to push Steve past any human breaking point. Sometimes there were videos; grainy, black-and-white footage that made Bucky regret not taking Natasha’s offer, but they also made it crystal clear just how little ground Steve was giving.

In his notes, Zola just wrote “failure to comply” after every session. The videos showed him asking Steve, over and over again, as he tortured him in endlessly creative ways, “What is your designation, soldier?” Every time, Steve answered, “Captain Steven Grant Rogers, US Army”—or at any rate he’d say as much as he could get out before Zola silenced him. Each video ended with Zola intoning, “Your designation is Asset. You are the property of HYDRA.” Sometimes, though, before the clip ended, you could hear Steve repeating his own name in a ragged whisper.

Steve still wasn’t breaking.

Bucky didn’t know if he was proud or furious. Either way, it didn’t matter. That was just Steve—he never could back down one bit from any stupid, unwinnable fight.

The last piece of footage ended differently. Zola was re-fastening Steve’s hands in the manacles embedded in the wall, repeating his now-familiar phrase, when Steve talked back.

“I’m not HYDRA’s property,” he said clearly, despite the blood running down his arms and the feverish splotches on his cheeks. “I’m not anyone’s property, and I’m never going to be your asset. You might as well kill me now, pal, because I’m. Not. Yours.”

“Whoa,” Clint breathed.

Yeah. That was Steve, all right.

Of course, as per usual with Steve’s bullheaded tactics, things backfired pretty spectacularly.

“Project: Captain HYDRA has reached an impasse,” JARVIS translated from the next set of notes. “The Asset consistently fails to submit to its overseers, and reprogramming efforts are proving to be ineffective. I need a way to ensure total cooperation, to claim the Super-Soldier for HYDRA once and for all. My new invention is waiting for a test subject, but I have yet to devise an interface that will allow it to be implemented on the Asset. This laxness must be immediately rectified.”

A series of diagrams came up, displaying what looked like the blueprints for some kind of electronic system. It didn’t make any sense to Bucky, but when he glanced over Tony was scanning them furiously, looking progressively sicker as they went on.

“If there’s a video of this, JARVIS, skip it,” Natasha whispered, almost quietly enough that Bucky didn’t pick it up even with his enhanced hearing. The screen flickered ever-so-slightly in response, but Bucky didn’t have it in him to protest. The images that followed were plenty.

A photograph of an unconscious Steve came onscreen, shirtless, the metal arm and now-faded HYDRA tattoo on full display. Below it, JARVIS translated Zola’s handwriting. “Thus far, the Asset has rejected all attempts at reform. I suspect Erskine’s formula is interfering with my efforts somehow. This is intolerable. I will not allow it. Admittedly, the procedure I am about to initiate is a dangerous one, and there is a high chance it will damage the Asset, even potentially beyond repair. However, I am confident that the prospective benefits outweigh the risks. If all goes well, Steven Rogers will soon be completely erased, and Captain HYDRA will at last be ours.”

The next photograph was of Steve, again unconscious and shirtless, but this time with the metal implants he had now. They looked shinier, and instead of old scar tissue they were surrounded by oozing, bloody flesh, but they were the same. There were notes beneath this one, too, but before JARVIS could read them out Tony interrupted.

“Stop,” he said, and Bucky looked at him, startled. “Just—I just need a moment. I’m sorry. It’s stupid, if anyone should—” he gestured at Bucky, who realized suddenly his cheeks were wet again. How long had he been crying? “—but I just…”

“You know, you don’t have to stay, either, Tony,” Natasha said gently. Clint’s arm was around her shoulder, now, but she still looked and sounded perfectly poised.

Tony just shook his head mutely. “No,” he bit out after a moment. “I’m good. JARVIS, play it.”

“The procedure was a complete success,” JARVIS read out promptly. “With the Asset’s accelerated rate of healing, we should be able to begin manual recalibration within the week. This is the dawn of a new age for HYDRA.”

Another video came up, showing Steve gagged and strapped into what looked vaguely like a dentist’s chair, but with more pointy metal bits. Wire leads ran between the new implants and various outcroppings on the chair, and Steve sat very still, wincing whenever one of them was jostled.

Zola walked into view, and Steve glared.

“Ach, mein haustier,” Zola chuckled, unfazed. “I would tell you to wipe that look off your face, but I am about to do it for you.” He sat down in front of a switchboard beside the chair, and paused. “Say goodbye, Captain America,” he murmured, and flicked a switch.

Steve’s back arced and he screamed through the gag. His eyes went wide, then squeezed shut. Zola pressed a couple more buttons on the board and Steve went mute, his mouth open wide and arms jerking sporadically against the restraints.

Bucky couldn’t look anymore. He put his head in his hands and tried to remember how to breathe.

Suddenly, ferociously, he found himself hating Erskine. If that stupid scientist hadn’t given Steve his serum, Zola would never have gotten his filthy hands on Stevie to begin with. Yeah, Bucky himself would’ve died in Zola’s hands, or worse, if Steve hadn’t saved him, but so what? Bucky didn’t even care that Steve would've caught his death of pneumonia within a couple years, without Bucky there to keep him going through the winter. It would still have been better. At least he would’ve been safe from—from this.

“Your designation is Asset. You are the property of HYDRA,” Zola said at last. Bucky looked up to see Steve glassy-eyed and still, lying back in the chair. “Soldier, what is your designation?”

Without moving, Steve answered slowly, “Designation: Asset. Property of HYDRA.”

Zola smiled, and Bucky sobbed.

Chapter Text

The rest of the files were mostly technical jargon about the most efficient settings for wiping Steve’s brain, how to ensure certain memories were preserved while others were erased, and how to avoid triggering “relapses.” Zola’s original plan seemed to be to use Steve as a HYDRA general, keeping chunks of his personality and just swapping his loyalties around, but he couldn’t get it to work. The mind-wiper never managed to erase anything permanently, and the more memories they let Steve keep, the quicker the other ones came back and the sooner he started fighting them.

Eventually Zola gave up, scrapping his “Captain HYDRA” idea and renaming it “Project: Winter Soldier.” After that, Steve turned into HYDRA’s personal assassin, who got frozen solid in a “cryopod” to keep him from aging between missions. The rest of the files were all on who Steve killed when, and how much recalibration he needed to be coerced into doing it.

Bucky left after the first half-dozen of those.

He tried waiting in the apartment for Steve to wake up, but he found he couldn’t stand sitting around (let alone staring at Steve, scarred up and deathly still, while the images of what Zola did were still playing behind Bucky’s eyes). It had only been about an hour and a half out of the six JARVIS had promised Steve’d sleep for, so he checked in with the building and made sure it’d phone his cell if anything changed, then went out for a run.

Halfway through the park closest to the tower, his phone buzzed.

Before it could ring twice, it was up against his ear. “What’s wrong? Is Steve okay?” he demanded.

There was a pause. “I was kinda thinking you would tell me that,” said the voice on the other end.

“Sam!” Bucky blinked. “Sorry, I thought you were someone else. What’s up? Uh—” he cringed. In all the hullabaloo, Sam had slipped his mind entirely. “Thanks again for all your help today. We couldn’t have done it without you,” he tried.

“Don’t sweat it, Barnes,” Sam huffed a laugh. “So what’s going on? Fury and Hill are both pretty pissed at Stark for flying off in one of their helicopters. They’ve been trying to get a hold of one of y’all for the last three hours.”

“Tony must’ve gotten JARVIS to block your calls, I guess.” Bucky found a nearby bench and sat down, bringing his free hand up to rub at his temple.

“JARVIS?” Sam interrupted.

“Yeah, that’s the building’s name,” explained Bucky distractedly. “We’re at Stark Tower. Sorry about the helicopter.”

“You don’t have to apologize to me,” Sam sounded amused. “I’m just calling to make sure you guys are all still alive. Fury and Hill finally let me head home half an hour ago, so fair warning, I’m pretty sure Fury’s gonna come looking in a helicopter of his own pretty soon.”

Bucky didn’t answer right away. “Hey,” Sam added, concern lacing his voice. “Are you okay, Barnes?”

“I—yeah,” Bucky started. “Yeah, don’t worry about me. Or Tony, or Bruce or Natasha. We’re all—we’re fine.”

“Uh-huh. But…?”

“Dammit, Sam, Steve,” Bucky burst out. Great, now he was crying again. In public.

(He’d read all about the new ideas on letting men have feelings other than ‘anger’ and ‘power,’ but he still kind of hated himself for showing everyone and their uncle how weak he was. Maybe he should punch something.

He didn’t want to punch something. He wanted Stevie.)

He covered his face with one hand. “He’s still in there, somehow, but it’d almost be better if he wasn’t. What they did to him, Sam… We looked through the files HYDRA had stored on SHIELD’s servers. It’s not—I don’t know how he survived. I don’t know how anyone could have survived that.”

Sam was quiet for a moment. “And… I’m sorry, Barnes, but you’re sure he did?”

“Yeah,” Bucky laughed hollowly. “He did.” He scrubbed at his face and leaned back, blinking up at the smoggy blue sky. “I didn’t save him,” he said suddenly. “I told him I’d be there till the end of the line, and I wasn’t. He risked everything to save me from Zola, Sam, and I never even tried to do the same for him.”

“Right,” said Sam skeptically. “And how, exactly, do you think that would’ve worked? ’Cause unless the history books are way off base, everyone was sure Rogers died when he fell from that train. And even if you thought he was still alive, or tried to go back for his body, who would’ve stopped Schmidt from nuking the States while you were looking for Steve, and then bombing wherever else he decided to go next? Barnes, you couldn’t have stopped Steve from falling. You couldn’t have known he was alive, and you couldn’t have gone back for him either way. Whatever happened to him, that wasn’t on you. That was all HYDRA.”

Bucky said nothing. Oddly enough, none of that made him feel any better.

Sam sighed. “Look, Barnes. We all want to feel like we have some kind of control over the crap that happens to us. The truth is, for the most part, we really don’t, and anyway, it doesn’t matter that much after the fact. There’s nothing you can change about the past. All you can do, if it really is still the Steve you remember, is try and help him heal.”

“Yeah,” Bucky muttered. “Yeah, I know.” He heaved a breath. “Sorry again for dusting out on you like that. I’ll let Tony know he needs to call Fury. Thank you,” he added, more sincerely. “You really didn’t have to do any of that stuff today, but I mean,” he shrugged, “thanks to you we probably saved the world. Sorry for dragging you into our mess.”

“Hey, if I can help save the world, I will happily get dragged into any kind of mess,” Sam answered lightly. “Listen, man, call me anytime, alright? If you need my help again, if you want to talk, whatever. My door’s always open.”

“Right,” Bucky shifted. “I’ll do that. Thanks.”

Sam sighed faintly, but didn’t push it. “I’ll see you, then.”

“Yeah, see ya,” Bucky hung up and stood, heading back to the tower instead of finishing his run. It was only making him antsier, anyways.

When Bucky finally got in the elevator, he realized he really wanted a drink. He’d gotten out of the habit lately, mostly because it cost a lot of money to buy as much alcohol as he needed if he wanted to feel it, but this seemed like a good time to make an exception.

He told himself he wasn’t stalling.

“JARVIS, can you bring me up to Tony’s private bar?” he requested.

JARVIS didn’t answer, but the elevator doors slid closed and they lurched smoothly upward. (It was still unnerving to Bucky, riding an elevator that started and stopped on its own, when all his life there’d been a girl in every cab running the lift with an expert touch and a trained, flawless smile. Sometimes he caught himself thinking there was an elevator operator in the corner after all, and she was just invisible in this new century. Maybe she was a ghost.)

Bucky stepped out when the elevator stopped, and just about turned right back around. Unfortunately, Tony noticed him at the same time, and waved Bucky over to where he was slumped on a barstool in the otherwise empty room. “Hey, Ca—Bucky,” he greeted tiredly. “Hang on, let me pour you a glass of the good stuff.”

Reluctantly, Bucky slouched over. He wasn’t all that eager to get chummy with Tony, after what he’d said. Still, Stark was quick to slide behind the counter and pour a glass full of something clear, sliding it over and coming back to sit.

“What is this? Vodka?” Bucky asked.

“Stronger. Bruce and I have been working on something. It should have at least a little more of an impact on you than the usual stuff, though with your hellish metabolism who’s to say for sure, but you’ll have to let me know if it’s any good.” Tony sipped at his own drink.

Bucky took a swig and coughed. Whatever the stuff was, it tasted like soap and burned like acid. “This is disgusting.”

Tony shrugged. “Give it a second, maybe it’ll win you over.”

Bucky eyed him skeptically, but took another sip.

For a moment, they sat in silence.

“I owe you an apology,” Tony said abruptly.

Bucky stared. Tony’s eyes were fixed on the table between them, and he was uncharacteristically still. “I… Look, Barnes, we both know this kind of thing doesn’t exactly come naturally to me, but I shouldn’t—I should never have said what I did about Rogers.” Tony started tracing the edge of his glass with a finger, looking distant. “I just, I thought I knew what torture meant. After Afghanistan. I thought, y’know, if they couldn’t break me enough to design one single weapon, how could anyone change enough to…” he waved a hand.

“It was stupid. I was stupid, inexcusably so. And to be clear, I’m not asking for your forgiveness here, because after what we just saw—” he shook his head, still avoiding Bucky’s eyes. “I don’t think I deserve it. I figured nothing he went through could’ve been, whatever, that bad, but even before Zola came—I would’ve broken. I know I would have, I would be doing whatever they told me to, and Rogers didn’t even crack. And what they ended up doing to him…” Tony rubbed his face, then suddenly tossed back the rest of his drink. “So,” he announced, setting it down and looking directly at Bucky. “To recap: I’m damn sorry, I wouldn’t blame you if you want nothing to do with me, and so help me, I am going to burn whatever’s left of HYDRA to the ground myself. Although you’re welcome to join in if you want.”

To buy himself a second, Bucky took another sip of what he was starting to suspect was actually rubbing alcohol. “You’re sorry,” he repeated, once he was done choking. “You don’t hate Steve for killing your parents?” That wasn’t the kind of thing you just got over.

Tony stood, leaning over the counter to grab another bottle of whiskey. He went to pour it into his glass, then paused and took a swig from the bottle instead. “I kind of want to hate him, but no. After seeing those files, I can’t. Especially because I got JARVIS to skip ahead to the entry on my parents, and—well, turns out it wasn’t as straightforward as the first video made it look. It actually took three tries to get him to… finish the job, because every time he saw Dad’s face, he wound up hesitating. They had to—it took a lot to make him do it.”

Bucky didn’t want to know what that meant.

“Anyway, my point is, I don’t hate Captain Rogers. I do really hate HYDRA. And now I’m done, and I’m gonna take my whiskey and let you drink in peace. Drink the whole bar, if you want. My treat,” Tony rambled. “Oh, and of course you’re welcome to stay in the tower, I’ll keep out of your way, or if you want to leave I can help set you two up comfortably somewhere, although it’s probably easiest to keep HYDRA from snatching Rogers if you stay here. But of course I’ll understand if you’d rather go. Are you thinking you want to stay in New York, or head to Washington, maybe?”

“Tony,” Bucky finally interrupted. He didn’t really know where to go from there, though, so instead he just grabbed the bottle of clear stuff that was still sitting on the counter and filled Tony’s glass with it.

A half-grin split across Tony’s face. “Oh, thank God. I mean, I take it this means we’re done having feelings?”

“Very,” Bucky affirmed, taking another gulp of rubbing alcohol.

Tony settled back and raised his glass in a toast. “Damn every last HYDRA bastard.”

Bucky clinked his cup against Tony’s. “Amen to that.”

They both drank at the same time. Tony promptly spat his all over the floor. “Nope, that’s gross. Not happening,” Tony spluttered.

“Aw, c’mon, Stark. It grows on you.”

“Bucky, I am 90% sure there was a mistake somewhere and this is actually paint remover. Give me yours, before your esophagus dissolves completely.”

Bucky clutched his glass closer, baring his teeth. “Make me.”

“Seriously? Geez, why are you so scary, you’re a hundred years old. Fine, drink it, see if I care. Hope you enjoy your ulcers, is all I’m saying.”

+ + +

A few hours later, Bucky was sitting next to Steve on the bed. He’d found book eight of the original Tom Swift series lying on the shelf in the living room, and was flipping through it restlessly while he waited for Steve to wake up.

Tony had headed upstairs, slightly tipsy, to “do science” with Bruce, who’d barely emerged from his Hulk-cave long enough to pat Bucky on the shoulder before Tony swept him away. Natasha and Clint, though, were playing some kind of dice game quietly in the living room, because nobody wanted to risk leaving Bucky alone with a disoriented Soldier. Bucky hated it, but he didn’t protest; they didn’t have a clue what Steve would remember when he woke, and Bucky was kinda glad to have backup just in case Steve tried to kill him again.

Speaking of which. Steve stirred beside him, and Bucky set his book aside, tensing.

“Hey, there. You awake?” he asked quietly.

Steve went from mostly-asleep to high alert in a flash, sitting bolt upright in the bed. His eyes were wide and darted around, visibly cataloging his surroundings, but his face was very blank. When he saw who was lying next to him, he stopped.

“Bucky?” he breathed.

Bucky sagged a bit in relief. “Yeah, pal,” he murmured back. “You remember me?”

Crap, that was the wrong thing to say. Steve shrank back, something behind his eyes shuttering. “Affirmative. Mission target is Subject zero-seven-four, alias James Barnes,” he recited, slipping into German. Bucky wasn't fluent, but he knew enough to understand what Steve was saying. “Mission: locate and eliminate the target.”

“Right,” Bucky managed. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to shake off the flashback that came on with ‘Subject 074.’ “You gonna eliminate me now, then?”

“No,” Steve blurted in English. That was enough to jolt Bucky back to the present, more or less, and he looked at Steve. Naked panic shone out of his face for half a second before the blank look returned, and Bucky could’ve kicked himself.

“Hey, hey, St—hey, pal,” he soothed, wanting to reach out but knowing it would only spook Steve more. “Don’t be scared, okay? You’re safe here, I swear. No matter what you say, what you remember, no one here’s going to—to punish you, or take your memories away. Alright? I won’t let that happen. Not ever again,” he vowed.

Steve stared at him, inscrutable. “Barnes is not your alias,” he said suddenly. “You aren’t the Subject. Your name is Bucky. Isn’t it?”

Bucky nodded, throat tight. When he could squeeze a word out, he clarified, “People call me Bucky. James Barnes is my name, though.”

Steve looked satisfied. “Then the mission cannot be carried out. Zero-seven-four has not been located. Only Bucky.”

A laugh burst out of Bucky before he could stop it. “Good to know not even HYDRA could beat that little punk out of you,” he muttered, aiming to be too quiet for Steve to hear. Of course, he remembered belatedly, he wasn’t the only super-soldier around anymore. “Sorry, never mind,” he hurried to add, but Steve seemed more bemused than upset.

“Natasha and Clint are outside,” Bucky changed the subject. “I dunno if you remember them, but they were with Tony when you first woke up. Do you remember that?” He had the sense that Steve wouldn’t tell him anything if he didn’t ask a direct question, and he really wasn’t sure if Steve would have any memory of what happened earlier. Tony’s sedatives probably wouldn’t have helped anything, even if Steve’s brain wasn’t already a soupy mess.

Steve nodded, though. “I was in the Chair.” There was a question in his voice, but Bucky wasn’t sure what answer he was looking for.

“Yeah,” he said anyway. “That won’t happen again, though, I swear, St—I promise you. And they weren’t trying to hurt you, they were just being… really stupid schmucks. Still, they’re my friends, and from now on they’re going to help me keep you safe. Does that sound okay?”

Honestly, it didn’t really sound all that okay to Bucky, but Steve didn’t hesitate. “Of course,” he tilted his head. He looked a bit confused, but that was all.

“Alright,” Bucky blew out a breath. “Alright, then. Do you want to go out and meet them properly?”

Steve stood up without another word, waiting for Bucky to follow suit and lead the way out. As Bucky reached for the door handle, though, he made a tiny abortive gesture that Bucky only caught because he was watching for it. He stepped back and turned to Steve. “What’s wrong, pal?” he asked softly.

“Will you—will they—” Steve hunched his shoulders, looking very small. “Is it time for recalibration now?”

“No!” Bucky exclaimed. “Crap, Steve—dammit, I mean—no, listen to me. That will never happen to you again, alright? Never. I won’t let anyone do that to you. From now on, whatever you remember, whatever you think, that’s yours. No more recalibration. No one’s gonna take that from you, I swear it.”

Steve blinked, processing that. After a minute, he looked back at Bucky. “Steve?”

His face had lost the robotic blankness from earlier. More than anything, he looked hopeful.

“Yeah,” Bucky started, watching him carefully. “If you want, I mean, you used to be called Steve. We can call you that again, or something else if you’d rather—”

“Yes,” Steve cut him off. He froze, but when Bucky just nodded at him to go on, he straightened a bit. “I… That’s who Stevie is, isn’t it? I am. The red-haired agent said so.” He squared his shoulders, the faintest hint of defiance sparking in his eyes.

God, Steve was unbreakable, wasn’t he?

Tentatively, Bucky reached out, and when Steve didn’t skitter away he put an arm around his little punk’s shoulders, patting a hand against the Soldier’s metal joints. “Yeah, Stevie. That’s you, all right.”

Steve held stiff for a moment longer before melting into him, and Bucky wrapped him in a proper hug, which he didn’t seem to remember how to return. Steve clutched at his shirt like a lifeline, though, and Bucky couldn’t care less that the metal hand was pinching his skin.

After seventy years, after a lifetime of too much space between their bodies, after being sure he’d lost Steve for good, after both of them had lost everything to the ice and the distance, they finally had each other back.

They wound up standing like that for a good, long time.

Chapter Text

Eventually, Bucky remembered to throw a t-shirt on Steve (his closets were mysteriously stocked with clothes in his size, but Tony’s style), and herded him out of the bedroom to introduce him to Clint and Natasha. Steve tensed up for a second when Bucky used his name in front of the other two, but relaxed again when no one else reacted. “Nice to meet you, Steve,” was all Natasha said, and Clint nodded before suggesting they grab something to eat.

They took the elevator down to the common floor’s kitchen—Bucky noticed Steve seemed a lot antsier in the tight space this time around, although it was hard to say whether that was thanks to Natasha and Clint’s presence or just because he wasn’t sedated anymore—and were promptly faced with a new problem.

“Steve, when was the last time you had solid food?” Natasha asked when Clint started pulling out ingredients. They all froze, Steve looking like a deer in the headlights. “I’m sorry,” Natasha twisted her mouth self-deprecatingly and rephrased, “Steve, do you remember if you’ve eaten solid food before?”

Slowly, Steve shook his head, still tense.

“JARVIS, can you call Bruce down to the kitchen, please?” Clint called casually. He swung himself up onto the refrigerator and dangled by his knees. “Bruce is a real smart guy,” he added, smirking at Steve, “so I figure we’d better ask him to help figure out what kind of food you’d like until you get used to Bucky’s cooking.”

Steve didn’t relax, but Bucky let out a breath. “Bruce is another friend,” he added, trying for a smile when Steve turned to look at him. “Him, I’d trust with my life, no question.”

Clint made a mock-offended face from behind Steve’s back, but didn’t say anything. God, Bucky was grateful these two were his friends. He knew without asking that both of them got why he was plugging for Bruce specially; after all, Bruce was the only one who hadn’t been there when Steve first woke up. He’d have an easier time earning Steve’s confidence than any of the others.

(Usually, Bucky figured, he’d be more cut up about his best friend not trusting Nat and Clint, but given the Chair incident—well. He might be glad to have them, but he was still pretty steamed.)

While they waited for Bruce to get downstairs, Clint chattered about the virtues of chocolate ice cream over vanilla. Bucky happened to like vanilla and he knew for a fact that Natasha would murder three men for a bucket of raspberry gelato, but no one said anything, mainly because Steve was looking a little less freaked out and more transfixed by the sight of a man hanging upside-down from a refrigerator while discussing ice cream flavours.

Clint could have that effect.

Finally the elevator doors slid open and Bruce tripped out. Tony was hot on his heels with a holoscreen in one hand and a coffee cup in the other.

“Hey, JARVIS told me you could use a little help,” Bruce said, tucking a stylus behind his ear. He waved a little at Steve. “Hi, there. You must be…?”

Steve went stiff and looked at Bucky helplessly.

“Bruce, this is Steve,” Bucky stepped in, making sure to speak slowly and watching Steve for any sign he wasn’t okay with being introduced. Steve turned wide eyes on the newcomers, but didn’t otherwise react, which Bucky optimistically decided was probably a good sign. “Steve, this is Bruce, and that’s Tony.” Tony raised the coffee mug in salute.

“It’s nice to meet you, Steve,” Bruce said politely. After another moment, Steve relaxed again.

“We think Steve hasn’t had solid food in quite a while,” Natasha interposed. “Bruce, do you have any ideas around what he should have for dinner?”

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “You guys know I’m not that kind—”

“Just,” Tony cut him off, “ah, give it your best guess, Jolly Green?”

Bruce sighed, but adjusted his glasses and gave Steve a smile. “Well,” he edged more fully into the kitchen, “Just at a glance I’d say you aren’t too malnourished, so you’ve probably been getting a steady supply of nutrients, right, Steve?”

Steve looked startled. “Affirmative,” he replied.

“Can you tell me how you were taking those in, if you weren’t eating solid foods?”

Steve shifted. “Prior to missions, nutrition shakes are typically administered, to ensure proper equipment functioning.”

“Right,” Bruce said slowly. He took off his glasses to rub at his eyes. “Right. Uh, well, in that case, I’d probably recommend sticking to a full liquid diet for about five or six days before you start eating heavier foods. Although, if your metabolism is anything like Bucky’s, it’ll be hard to get enough fuel just from liquids…”

Tony shoved his holoscreen in front of Bruce, who started tapping in some kind of data without missing a beat, muttering about calories. Bucky rubbed his hands together, drawing Steve’s attention.

“Clam chowder for supper, then, pal,” he decided, smiling at Steve. It still felt a little forced, but less than before. (God, he knew it was incredibly selfish, but just the fact that Steve was here—alive, breathing, looking back at him—it was a miracle. And even though it would’ve been better for Steve to have died falling from that train, Bucky was so damn glad he hadn’t.)

“Tomato base or cream?”

+ + +

They were halfway through dinner, everyone but Clint sitting at the table like civilized people, when a small holographic Stark Industries logo popped up above the kitchen counter. Clint squeaked and fell off the edge as it materialized next to him, which just served him right. A moment later, JARVIS’ voice filled the room.

“My apologies for interrupting, but I thought it prudent to inform you of Director Fury’s imminent arrival.”

Tony swore. “What? JARVIS, why didn’t you tell us about this sooner?”

“Because you instructed me to block all calls from SHIELD, and—if I may quote you, Sir—‘anyone even remotely connected to my latest world-saving disaster,’ and muted me when I notified you of Fury’s repeated calls and voicemails,” JARVIS responded primly.

“Dammit,” Tony muttered.

Natasha took charge. “Bruce, Steve, I think it’d be best if neither of you were here when Fury arrives. Bucky, you can stay if you like, but we’ll probably make a more effective case without you.”

She was right—it would be easier to convince Fury that Steve wasn’t dangerous if the people saying so weren’t his best friend from a hundred years ago. Either way, though, Bucky wasn’t about to let Steve go off alone again. Possibly ever.

“You’re both welcome to come upstairs with me, finish eating dinner there,” Bruce offered.

“What do you say, Steve?” Bucky turned to him, raising an eyebrow. “Want to go along with Bruce?”

Steve frowned. “You’re coming too?” he checked.

“You bet, pal.” Bucky started gathering up his soup stuff. Steve nodded and copied him. Once Bucky at least had grabbed everything he wanted to finish eating, they both followed Bruce to the elevator.

“Have fun, losers!” Bucky called as the doors slid shut. Clint pulled a face and made it halfway through shooting him the bird before they were gone.

The elevator ride was nice and short, but painfully silent, so Bucky pulled out his phone to text JARVIS and ask if he could get a subtitled version of the kitchen camera feed on his cell. He didn’t want Steve to hear any of it, but it’d be nice to keep an eye on things. Maybe he’d text Clint a good counterpoint or two. Just if they needed the help.

They stepped off the elevator into Bruce’s rooms.

“Tea, anyone?” Bruce offered after a moment. Bucky nodded vigorously. “I’ll, uh, just go put the kettle on then.”

Bucky set his dishes down on the coffee table in the middle of the sunlit living room. Tentatively, Steve followed suit, and Bucky shot him an encouraging grin. Then he flopped down in one of the two armchairs with a sigh.

“C’mon, pal, you can take a seat,” he gestured to Steve at the other chair. Steve perched on its edge, and for a minute they were quiet.

Finally, Bruce returned with three mugs dangling from one hand and a steaming teapot in the other. “It’s a peppermint-chamomile blend, one of my personal favourites,” he explained, setting the pot down on a coaster. “I can also grab sugar, cream, honey? Anyone have a preference?”

Bucky shrugged. “I’m good, thanks, Bruce. Steve, do you want tea?” Bucky glanced over.

Steve looked frozen, eyes darting between Bruce and the exits (one door, four exterior windows), and Bucky leaned forward immediately. “Hey. Hey, Stevie. Do you remember what I said earlier? Bruce is… he’s a safe person. He’d never hurt you. No matter what you say here, no one’s gonna do anything to you that you don’t want. Nobody. Okay?” He waited for Steve’s nod before letting himself relax a bit.

“Here, Steve, I’ll pour you a cup and you can decide if you want it,” Bruce interjected softly. He filled one of the mugs and took a sip from it before passing it over to Steve.

Eyeing him warily, Steve took a cautious taste and immediately recoiled in disgust. He stared down at the teacup, looking affronted.

Bruce gave Steve his little half-smile. “Not a fan?”

Steve jerked his head back up, tensing briefly before giving a quick, tiny head-shake.

“Yeah, it’s not everyone’s, uh, thing, I guess,” Bruce agreed. Bucky raised an eyebrow at him, which Bruce ignored. “Is there anything in particular you don’t like about it? Maybe I’ll have better luck picking a good one next time.”

Bucky tried for a reassuring nod when Steve shot him a panicked glance at that.

Steve took a deep breath, fixed his eyes on a point over Bruce’s left shoulder, and blurted out, “It’s too bitter, and it tastes like grass.”

Bruce covered his mouth with one hand, hiding a chuckle. “That’s… very well-said. Thank you for telling me, Steve. I guess that means you’d probably prefer it with a sweetener, and maybe no more chamomile. Not everyone likes the flavour,” he mused.

“When we were kids, you always liked it better with honey,” Bucky commented quietly. Steve stared at him, expression indecipherable.

“Do you want to come try a couple different blends?” Bruce offered, jerking a thumb in the kitchen’s direction. “I’ve got plenty of warm water left in the kettle, and honey in the cupboard if you want it.”

After a moment, Steve nodded and stood, following Bruce around the low wall into his tiny kitchen space. Bucky stayed where he was. He could see them fine from where he sat, and there wasn’t really room for three in there anyway. Instead, he poured himself a cup from the teapot on the table and glanced down at his phone display.

JARVIS had done as he’d asked, splitting the screen so he could watch from two different camera angles, which was real handy. He could see pretty much everyone’s faces clear as day. As he watched, the elevator doors slid open to let Fury, Hill and—surprisingly—Sam Wilson step out.

Fury’s mouth moved, and captions popped up at the bottom of the screen. “What the hell were you thinking, Stark?”

“What?” Tony gesticulated. “We did what we came for, burned HYDRA, mission accomplished, I figured we could head home.”

“You took my helicopter,” Fury growled.

“In my defense, I was planning to return that. Eventually.”

Fury rubbed his temples, and Hill stepped up to bat. “More importantly, you took the Winter Soldier. You said over the comms you ‘had him,’ and then you flew off. Do you still ‘have him’? Is he safely restrained? We’re gonna have to question him, if that’s possible.”

“Yeah, about that,” Tony rolled back on his heels. “See, I had the Soldier. I was carrying him back to the Tower and everything, but I guess on the way there he just,” Tony waved, “you know. Slipped. Bucky’s real torn up about it, Bruce is still trying to console him, it’s a real shame.”

Bucky stared at the subtitles, but the words didn’t change. Natasha and Clint, of course, didn’t even blink. What comes of being a super-spy. Sam’s eyebrows looked like they were trying to take flight, but he kept quiet too.

“He slipped,” Fury repeated slowly. “Just like that? A freak accident?”

“Wouldn’t be the first one of its kind, would it, Director Fury?” Tony shot back.

Hill pressed her lips together. “You saw the files.”

“Damn right, I saw the files. My father was his friend, isn’t that what the books say? All of Dad’s favourite bedtime-stories-slash-lectures were about his glory days with the great Captain America. And the Soldier murdered both of my parents in cold blood. So. You know what they say.” Tony shrugged. “Accidents happen.”

“It might not have been entirely his fault, Stark,” Fury said carefully. He looked a little stricken.

Tony stepped closer. “Oh, it might not, huh? Tell me, Fury,” he tilted his head, “would you be willing to risk the lives of, mm, pretty much everyone here, on the off chance that the Winter Soldier might not be in total control of his actions? You’d be fine with letting him wander around to his little cybernetic heart’s content?”

Fury stared at him. “No,” he answered finally. “But—”

“But nothing,” Tony cut him off. “It’s done. I took care of it. Problem solved, crisis averted, you’re welcome.”

“Stark…” Fury trailed off.

“Can you at least tell us where you left the body?” Hill interjected.

“Which piece?” Tony returned. “I dumped most of it in the Hudson, but…”

Bucky startled as Bruce and Steve walked back in the living room. He switched his phone off.

“So it looks like the winner for today is lemongrass tea with a splash of honey,” Bruce announced. Steve was cradling a mug with a faintly awestruck expression.

Bucky managed a smile. “Sounds great, Stevie.”

They sat in the sun and made stilted conversation for awhile, drinking tea and eating soup, until finally Bucky’s phone buzzed with a message from JARVIS telling them it was safe to come down.

Bucky could not wait to find out how this one ended up.

+ + +

“…might have bought it, but I wouldn’t count on it. Either way, Fury’s definitely going to be keeping Stark Tower under surveillance, so if we want to keep this up we’re going to have to take steps to work around that,” Natasha was saying when they walked back into the kitchen.

“I can adjust the window opacity on all private floors to make sure no one can see inside,” Tony chipped in.

“Hey!” Sam interrupted, spotting the newcomers. Fury and Hill were gone, but Bucky should’ve realized that Sam would stick around. Obviously, he wasn’t about to fly right back to DC without an explanation. “Long time no see, right? I gotta say though, some of you are looking pretty good for dead folks.” He cocked a brow as Tony cleared his throat.

“Come again?” Bruce blinked.

Tony cleared his throat. “So I may have wound up telling Fury I killed Steve,” he blurted.

Steve looked panicked.

“Not that I did, obviously! Or would. Or will,” Tony hurried to add, raising his hands placatingly. “It just seemed like the best way to convince him not to, you know. Freak out, call in the cavalry, yada yada.”

“And I’m still wondering why that would’ve been a bad thing,” Sam put in.

“Right, this guy,” Clint spoke up. “Bucky, apparently you called him in? He says you told him about Steve here, and as soon as you guys were done talking he phoned up Fury and talked him into flying straight to the Tower.”

“Hey, it didn’t take much,” Sam defended. “Fury was gonna come looking for his helicopter anyways. All I did was tell him where y’all put it.”

“Why did you come, though?” Bucky asked. “I figured you’d want to kick back at home for a while, after today.”

Sam shrugged. “I had a couple weeks of vacation time booked already from the VA, to fly out for my nephew’s college graduation. I figured I might as well take off a week early and make sure everything over here’s going okay. Like I said, Barnes, any chance I get to help out, I’m there.”

Bucky studied Sam for a minute.

He had to say, when he’d almost absentmindedly flirted with Hot Jogging Guy, he hadn’t expected anything to come of it, let alone the kind of friendship and bizarre loyalty Sam Wilson was apparently ready to hand out to any fugitive that showed up at his doorstep. “Thank you,” he responded eventually. He wasn’t saying it made sense to him, but he was grateful.

Not a lot in his life seemed to make sense, after all. Everything pretty much went to pieces after he crashed that plane. No, before that, even. Bucky’s life stopped making sense when Steve fell out of it. And now he was trapped in the future, building a life as a super-spy among gods and aliens, acting as a sometime-hero, sometime-outlaw, reluctant Captain America, and he weathered it all because what choice did he have? But now, as sudden and crazy as everything else, Steve was back.

Steve was back. He was brainwashed, broken, he’d probably never be the same, but he was here.

Bucky glanced at the others and was caught off-guard by a wave of affection. Natasha with her little smirk, Clint with his cocked brow, Tony’s fake boredom, Bruce’s dry comfort, even Sam’s concern—all of these oddballs had somehow become family. And he knew they weren’t alone, him and Steve, that everyone would be all in to help Steve recover as much as he possibly could.

More than anything else, though—even if they were alone after all, even if Steve and Bucky wound up running from the law and fighting for their lives—it didn’t matter. Steve was back, and Bucky would be damned before he lost him again.