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The Prisoner's Dilemma

Chapter Text

Bucky’s words appeared just as he hit puberty. He’d taken it with good-natured razzing, just like he’d endured the teasing when his voice broke mid-word and the red spots that appeared on his face. But it wasn’t so much that the words had appeared, but what they were.

The prisoner’s dilemma.

He caught his Ma looking at his wrist more often than once before a slightly disappointed look crossed her face. Buck could guess what she was thinking because he’d wondered the same thing – was he going to go to slammer someday? What would drive him to break the law? Whenever he got in trouble, she would point to his words and say, “I’m not raising a hellion for a son.”

After his Ma died, the orphanages did the same. His knuckles were rapped and his ears boxed more often than not. He figured they were trying to knock some sense into him, trying to make sure he didn’t become some delinquent.

When he met Steve, Bucky figured he’d be thrown in jail for fighting someday. But whenever the police broke up a fight, he and Steve always managed to slip away and nurse their bloody noses and knuckles without seeing the inside of a cell. He yelled at Steve for picking so many fights – he was gonna get himself killed one day when he took on a guy too big without Buck there to back him up. Steve yelled back saying that he could handle it by himself, that he wasn’t going to stop sticking up for the people that couldn’t, and if Buck didn’t like it then he could ignore it.

But he couldn’t leave his punk friend to fight by himself.

OOO

They were sitting in an art class. The studio was warmer than their apartment and Buck worried about Steve sitting in the cold too long, so he’d raided his savings and treated them both to a drawing class. While Steve was concentrating on the model in front of them, Buck was appreciating the dame’s curves. The wind would occasional buffet the windows and a cold draft would sneak in; he watched as goose bumps rose on her pins and she shivered.

“Start drawing or you’ll get us kicked out,” Steve hissed, glancing up from his rough outline to Bucky’s own blank page. Buck shrugged and tried to copy Steve’s outline; it was pretty obvious who was the artistic friend.

The calm of the studio was broken when they heard someone pounding up the stairs and the door to the studio was thrown open. A flustered man leaned in, sweat pouring down his face and said, “The Japs are bombing Pearl Harbor!”

Pearl Harbor.

The next day they were at War with Japan.

Steve got his first 4F from the Brooklyn recruitment office on Christmas Eve.

Buck worked with him to train, hoping that he seemed sincere when he told Steve that he believed that the military would take him one day. Secretly, he knew that they wouldn’t – he had too many medical problems – and he was relieved.

And then Buck got a letter saying he’d been drafted and was expected to report for basic training in a week.

OOO

There were times when he wondered if Steve wasn’t his soul mate. He’d known from the moment they’d met that they weren’t, but it didn’t stop him from thinking about it – he was the person Buck cared more about than anyone in the world.

The night he got home from boot camp, Bucky had snuck a bottle of whisky into their room at the boarding house and was in the process of getting rip roaring drunk.

“I think the whole system’s shit,” he grumbled, swiping a hand down his face; he was half hanging off of his bed and the bottle dangled from his fingers. “Yer just gonna walk up to someone an’ say the words, then BAM! Yer stuck with ‘em for the rest of yer life.”

“I donno,” Steve shrugged, his fingers subconsciously tracing the words. He was one of the few lucky enough to have a name – ‘Gentlemen, I am Agent Carter’. “I think it’s reassuring – there’s someone out there whose gonna take you for what you are.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes and grunted, “Anyone’d be stupid to pass you up, punk.” Steve pressed his lips together in a sad smile and tipped his head as he swirled his whiskey.

“The world’s full of stupid people, Buck.”

OOO

War wasn’t what Steve thought it was. It was cold and bloody and wet. It was being weary of making friends with some guy in your company because the next day you could be taking his dog tag and adding it to the pile for death notifications to be sent to his family.

War wasn’t a game. War wasn’t heroic. War was being so scared you pissed your pants and threw up the first time you were in a firefight and saw the brains splattered on the trench wall.

The letters from Steve kept him sane. He liked knowing that his brother was safe in New York, even if he wasn’t happy with it.

When his unit was captured, Bucky started to feel panic about his words. The sound of the cell opening caused his heart to start thumping in fear – not only because there was the chance of being picked for Zola’s lab but it also brought the chance of hearing those words. The thought of meeting his soul mate here, in these conditions, was enough to make him think about trying to sharpen his dog tags enough to slit his wrists.

“Him.”

His day came and Bucky tried not to think about the men who’d never come back after Zola picked them. As he was half dragged down the hall, he kept his ears open, straining to hear those words.

When he didn’t, Buck started to wonder if his soul mate would feel when he died.

OOO

His world was pain and heat and anger.

It was needles and questions, and Steve’s face swimming before his eyes.

“It’s me. It’s Steve.”

Steve.

OOO

“Could you have picked a bigger bunch of idiots?” Bucky asked as he and Steve walked away from the first strategy meeting with the Howling Commandos. His harsh words were tempered with a smile, but he felt worry gnawing at his gut.

“You’re already on the squad, so probably not,” Steve gave him that cocky, crooked smile.

“Jack ass,” Buck sighed. It was still strange having to reach higher to put his arm around Steve’s neck, but he managed.

OOO

“I had him on the ropes,” he said.

“I know you did,” Steve replied. He turned quickly at a high-pitched whining and grabbed Buck’s arm, pulling him behind to shield him. One of those HYDRA bullets hit his shield and sent Steve flying back into him, and Buck took the brunt of the hit against the rack of weapons. The shot ricochet and blew a hole in the side of the train. Steve was down, and he didn’t think before picking up the fallen shield.

He may not have been the best at a lot of things, but Bucky prided himself on his shot. But the damn armor the guy was wearing covered him from head to toe and made it impossible to find a weakness. The whining started again and the light shot out.

It slammed into the shield and, for a split second, Buck marveled at how strong Steve must have become to withstand a hit like that. He flew through the air and had the wind knocked out of him as he hit the corrugated metal. His fingers scrambled for a purchase as the wind rushed by, trying to pull him further out of the train. Heart in his throat, he managed to grab hold of a bar and swung to get a better grip. The train continued at its speed, the force nearly pulling him away.

“Bucky!” Steve yelled. His blue eyes were wide with panic as stepped out of the safety and onto the peeled away metal. Buck wanted to yell at him to get back inside but fear closed his throat. “Hang on!” he ordered.

He forced himself to move, to try and get closer. The metal gave – just a bit. “Grab my hand!” Steve ordered, reaching out as far as he could. Buck made himself move, and the handle gave under his weight. “NO!”

Falling. Bucky screamed.

Pain.

Darkness.

OOO

“Sergeant Barnes.”

He recognized the voice that haunted his nightmares.

Bucky gained and lost consciousness, seeing flashes of people and blood in the snow. He weakly tried to fight off his captors and realized that he couldn’t feel his left arm.

“The procedure has already started.”

Zola’s face. Zola’s voice.

“Let me die,” Bucky whispered.

“You are to be the new fist of HYDRA.”

James Buchanan Barnes died.

“Put him on ice.”

The Asset was born.

OOO

The Asset looked at the scars on his wrist and felt something tug at the back of his mind. The black words written there were mangled to the point of being unreadable; it looked as though someone had gotten as close to flaying the skin off as they could.

“The American will spend the rest of his life guarding me,” a gruff voice said. He didn’t look up, hadn’t been told that he could.

OOO

“Put him on ice. He has failed.”

Inside the tube, he traced that mangled skin until he was put back under.

OOO

“What were they?” Natalia asked, her small fingers – fingers he had broken many times during training – tracing the scars.

“Hm?” he grunted. His metal arm whirled as his fingers flexed on her hip.

“Your words. Do you remember what they were?”

“Nyet.”

“They took mine too,” she said, rolling onto her stomach and brushing aside her hair. His hand moved to trace the faded white lines on her shoulder before lifting himself up to replace his fingers with his lips.

“Who would want monsters like us?” he asked.

“Only other monsters,” she answered, wrapping her hand around the back of his neck and kissing him.

They were discovered a week later.

“Watch, Widow. Watch!” Petrovich gripped the back of her neck and shook her, forcing Natalia to look as he was strapped to the chair. He schooled his expression and forced himself not to stand and break the man’s arm.

She would suffer for his actions.

He allowed himself to be pushed down. His body trembled, remembering the pain from the previous times he’d been wiped.

The Asset screamed.

OOO

The Winter Soldier waited. He had been trained to be still for hours on end, waiting for his target to come into view. He spent the time examining the scars on his wrist and could just make out the words underneath.

The prisoner’s dilemma.

His handlers had pulled him from his previous mission and put him on this one. The job needed to be done quickly if he were to make it back in time to catch the Iranian. The targets were due to arrive any minute now; his finger curled around the rifle’s trigger. He’d chosen this vantage point for maximum efficiency – two kills and it would appear to be an accident. Their insider had already sabotaged the breaks and air bags.

The limo neared.

He lined up the shot. Squeezed the trigger.

It careened out of control before rolling, glass shattering as it neared the edge of the cliff.

The Asset slung the rifle across his back, eliminated any trace that he’d been there, and leapt down. The glass crunched under his boots as he neared the wreckage, and pitiful moans reached his ears.

“Maria,” the target gasped. “Oh god, Maria!”

The Asset crouched and peered into the car. The woman was dead already, her neck snapped, but the target was crawling towards her. He stilled as he saw the Asset. “Barnes?”

His eyes took in the target’s injuries; they weren’t severe enough to cause death. He stood.

“Barnes! Bucky, for God’s sake, do something! Help me!”

The Asset braced his hands against the car and pushed.

The target screamed as it rolled off the cliff.

OOO

“Bucky?” the man asked, lowering his shield.

The Asset turned towards him. “Who the hell is Bucky?” he asked, raising his gun.

OOO

“You know me,” the target said.

“No I don’t!” the Winter Soldier yelled as he threw a punch. He felt something in his memory shift – had felt it since seeing that damn uniform – but the mission came first.

“Bucky, you’ve know me your whole life,” the target insisted. Neurons fired, bringing up confusing images of the man smiling and clapping him on the shoulder.

The Asset had no memories. He had no past. He had no future.

He hit him, and the target lurched away as the helicarrier engine exploded.

“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes.”

Bucky. Call me Bucky.

“SHUT UP!” he batted him away. The target removed his helmet and stumbled to his feet.

“I’m not gonna fight you. You’re my friend.” He dropped his weapon, his shield.

The Asset looked at him, seeing the same man reach for him as he reached back. And then Pierce’s voice blocked it out, “I want a confirmed kill in 10 hours.”

He flew at him, catching him in the stomach and driving him to the ground. “You’re my mission.” The target didn’t fight back, didn’t try to stop him as he threw punch after punch. “You’re! My! Mission!” He wanted him to fight back, to make this easier, to give him a reason to continue.

“Then finish it,” he said, “cause I’m with you t-‘til the end of the line.”

Steve. It was his job to protect Steve.

It was his mission to kill him.

Glass shattered and he was falling.

“Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”

“How could I? You’re takin’ all the stupid with you.”

It was his job to protect him.

It was his mission to kill him.

He left him on the banks of the Potomac.

OOO

His name was James Buchanan Barnes. He went by Bucky.

He’d been born and raised in Brooklyn, New York before going to war.

He spent the next year traveling the world and burning HYDRA to the ground.

She found him in a café in Bucharest, two cups of coffee steaming on the table she sat at. He’d watched her from the rooftop for an hour before deciding she’d come alone.

“It was warm,” she said as he sat across from her.

“Natalia.”

“It’s Natasha now,” she said, her eyebrow twitching as her lips pursed into a smile. “I haven’t been Natalia for a long while.”

“Is he with you?”

“No, but he’s looking. You haven’t exactly been subtle,” she smirked again before something in her eyes shifted. Her voice has lost its sarcastic bite when she said, “He was surprised that I knew you.”

“You didn’t. Not…” he frowned and wrapped his flesh and bone hand around the cold coffee. “I’m not him, not anymore.”

“Barnes or the Winter Soldier?”

“Both.”

She nodded and sat up. He flinched and she noticed; slowly, telegraphing her movements, Natalia – Natasha – reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. “When you’re ready to come in from the cold, this is where you’ll find him.”

He reached out for it, the ratty sleeve pulling off of his wrist as he did so. Her eyes tracked the movement and her smile softened when she saw the scars. “If you stop running, you may find them.”

The Asset…Bucky….James scowled. He hated those scars and what they represented – another loss of free will, another predetermined choice that he had no say in. He could only hope that the person had died happy with someone else. Instead, he spat, “Who would want a monster?”

“You’d be surprised,” she said, her hand reaching up to touch the arrow charm on her necklace. “Even monsters find love.”

OOO

He waited in the shadows, hands thrust into the tattered pockets of his sweatshirt and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes.

Being in the crowd made him feel twitchy, so he slipped into an alleyway and leaned back against the wall. The smell of garbage filled his nose but he’d been in worse conditions.

It was two hours before he spotted him. The tar – Bucky flinched away from the thought. Steve. His name was Steve. He wasn’t a target.

Steve wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings, eyes on the ground in front of him, forcing people to dodge out of his way. It was a dangerous move – it would be too easy to sneak behind him and attack.

He saw the dark circles under his eyes and felt a twinge of guilt for the stress he’d put him through. “Punk,” he said as Steve passed the alley.

Steve stopped short, causing a man behind him to crash into him. “Watch where you’re going, asshole!” the man snapped.

It was a testament to how surprised he was that Steve didn’t even apologize. His blue eyes snapped over to meet his, and a cautious smile spread across his mouth. In two strides he joined him in the shadows, slowly pulling his hands from his pockets to show that he was unarmed.

The move wasn’t necessary – he could tell by his gait that he wasn’t carrying any weapons.

“You’re here…Bucky, you’re…”

“I had some things to handle.” Steve barked a bitter laugh.

“I know. You didn’t make it hard to track you. I nearly had you in Bolivia.”

“Lost ya though,” he said, the corner of his mouth twitching.

“Are you… do you…?” Steve motioned to his head.

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Everything?”

“Most of it. There’s still gaps.”

Steve nodded and put his hands on his hips, glancing back towards the street. After a moment, he turned back, a determined look on his face. “You wanna come up? I’ve got some beers in the fridge.”

OOO

The room had been on edge when Steve introduced him to the new team. Natalia had given him a self-satisfied smirk from where she sat next to a man who studied him in intently. The others seemed to realize he wasn’t comfortable with contact and did no more than nod as they were introduced.

Looking into the eyes of the man who had been made an orphan because of him had been the most difficult and tense moment. He wouldn’t have done anything had Stark chosen to lash out at him, but he hadn’t. The only quick movement he’d made was when the lithe redheaded woman standing close to him had taken a step closer. Stark had swept his arm out to keep her at a safe distance.

Steve had frowned at that, but he understood. He wasn’t to be trusted. His hands were stained with too much blood.

“Bucky’s – ”

“James,” he muttered, causing Steve to stop and look at him. “I’m not him anymore.” Steve’s eyes narrowed slightly before he nodded.

“He’s staying with me for a while.”

Back in the privacy of his rooms, Steve turned to him and said, “You’re always gonna be Bucky to me.”

OOO

He kept to himself for the most part, venturing into the common areas only when no one was likely to be there. Steve encouraged him to talk to Sam, who was some kind of head shrink, but he didn’t.

It was bad enough reliving his memories in dreams, he didn’t want to talk about them.

The days bled into weeks and Steve rarely left him alone. He spent a lot of time on the phone with a woman named Sharon.

“She’s Peggy’s grand-niece,” Steve said, his fingers straying to rub where his words were. The pain in his eyes was obvious; after he’d gone down, Peggy had though her soul mate had died and, after a long time, had moved on and lived a happy life with another man. Steve swore up and down that he was happy for her, but anyone who looked at him could see the regret he felt for the life with her that he’d lost. “She was undercover, assigned to look after me.”

“That didn’t cause any issues?” James asked, to which Steve shrugged.

“Not when I found out who she was,” he chuckled around the rim of his beer bottle before shrugging. “She’s a friend, that’s all.” His eyes drifted down to rest on James’ wrist.

“You know Buck…you could still find them. Natasha found Clint…”

James drained his beer before shaking his head. “I’m not looking for ‘em.”

OOO

The army of Stark Industries lawyers had compiled a case explaining why he wasn’t to be held accountable for his actions as the Winter Soldier.

James didn’t agree. He may not have known the reasoning behind the orders, but he’d been the one pulling the trigger.

It took over a year of specialists debating his mental capacity, his human rights, the validity of the now public SHIELD database, and the legality of extradition requests before an agreement was made.

James Buchanan Barnes wouldn’t be held accountable for the actions force upon him by the KGB and HYDRA. He was to be considered a prisoner of war and an American hero for his actions during World War II.

A press release went out the same day announcing his survival.

He drank until he passed out, muttering in Russian about how monsters couldn’t be considered heroes.

OOO

Some things never changed, he mused while riding the elevator to the communal floor. Steve had been bad with leaving the tiniest amount of food left in a jar and putting it back in the pantry; it had made sense when they were scraping together the cash to buy a meal (usually damaged goods James got for cheap at the grocery store he worked at), but when they didn’t have to worry as much, it was just an annoyance.

This time it was the milk.

As he stepped off the elevator, he paused upon hearing someone moving around. After a moment, he forced himself to keep moving – Steve’s team didn’t flinch away from him any more, and even Stark seemed to be coming around.

Except it wasn’t anyone on the team.

The woman was pacing back and forth as she typed on her phone. She hadn’t heard him enter the room, and he heard her huff loudly.

“The Prisoner’s Dilemma! It’s not a difficult concept, people, come on!”

James froze.

The woman turned and let out a soft gasp. “Oh, sorry, didn’t realize anyone else was here.” She lowered her phone and swiped away a lock of dark hair before giving him a soft smile. “I’m, uh, waiting for Jane. She and I are supposed to go to lunch together.”

His heart was pounding and his human hand curled into a fist.

“I’m Darcy, by the way,” she said, shifting her weight nervously. He watched as her eyes flickered to the elevator and then back down to her phone to check the time. She crossed her arms under her breasts and chewed her lower lip. “Um…”

They stared at one another for a long moment before he turned on his heel and strode to the elevator, pounding the down button, and darting inside as soon as the doors opened.

His metal hand moved to trace the scars on his wrist as he struggled to pull in a full breath.

No. Not now. Not ever.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma.