The Winter Soldier doesn't need anyone to protect him.
He is a highly trained, medically enhanced super assassin, and he is quite capable of taking care of himself.
That is, at least, what he told himself when he left Captain America on the side of the river.
Hydra doesn't own him anymore, and so he is free to do as he wishes.
Though, it is harder than he thought it might be, having freedom and independence.
He visited the Smithsonian, seeking answers from a display case and the picture of a stranger who wore his face.
Is he Bucky Barnes?
When he strains hard enough, or finds himself just on the edge of consciousness, it almost feels as if he could be. Fleeting glimpses of memories that do not belong to him. Of a familiar face, but smaller, and skinnier.
These strange visions of the past are foreign and distant to the Soldier, but it is hard to ignore the feeling of peace they give him. Steve Rogers wants him to be Bucky Barnes.
Bucky Barnes died a long time ago. Whether he used to be Barnes or not was irrelevant. He is the Winter Soldier, now.
When the urge to see Steve and make sure he was still alive becomes too much to resist, he finds him and watches him. For the first few months it is somewhat tricky to locate him, even for the Asset. Rogers is keeping a low profile, him and the man with wings that the Soldier remembers fighting in the sky. They are looking for something, and it took a few weeks before he realized it is him.
They never get close to finding him, of course. The Soldier leaves a lot of false trails for them to follow. A man at a bar who saw a stranger with a metal arm. The elderly motel owner who swears a man with dark hair and a hand that made odd noises had rented a room upstairs, paid in cash.
It makes it easier to find him when he needs to see him.
He knew him.
It is oddly comforting, to realize someone cares enough to come looking for you. He doubts Rogers has any interest in him as a weapon. He isn’t searching for the Asset. He is looking for… for Bucky Barnes.
But Bucky Barnes is dead. If Steve has no use for the Soldier, and Barnes is dead, then, why is he still searching?
A few months later the Winter Soldier decides that is something he can use to his advantage.
Steve Rogers isn’t the only one trying to find him, though he is the only one who probably didn't intend to imprison him once he did. Hydra is still searching for their strongest weapon, and the Soldier knows there are more close calls than he would like. Times where he can hear the boots on the stairs, even as he slips out the window or out across the roof. When he has to make a run for it, the screeching of tires not far behind.
He is a capable assassin and he is much stronger and faster than any of the remaining agents Hydra can muster to capture him. But his body demands food, and rest, and it is during these times that he is vulnerable.
He is hunkered down in the burned out shell of a warehouse on the outskirts of Harlem when they find him. The Soldier pushed himself to the brink of exhaustion before finally deciding to rest a few hours, and that weariness makes him even more vulnerable than usual. He does not hear the Hydra soldiers approaching, or the sound of a taser being charged, until the electrified prongs are buried in the flesh of his neck and several pairs of hands are grabbing for him.
When he snaps to consciousness, it is to the sight of a black bag being shoved over his head, and the feeling of electricity numbing his body.
He knows he has a very small window of time to escape before the safe word Hydra had implanted in him to shut him down is uttered, and it is with an edge of desperation that he launches into action. If they get him under their control, it's over, and he will become their Asset once more, and that is suddenly the very last thing he wants to happen.
Metal fingers collide with the nearest moving object, and he cqn feel bone crunching beneath them as a pair of hands drop away from him.
With a snarl and another carefully placed punch, he is unrestrained enough to be able to launch his body sideways and roll free of his captors, ripping the bag from his head so he can assess the situation.
Two Hydra agents down, ten more trying to regain control of the Soldier, who takes one last look at them before launching himself out of the window.
He tucks and rolls into the impact of the concrete three stories down, ignoring the incredible pain that blossoms in his shoulder as it takes the brunt of the fall, finding his feet and taking off at a sprint.
He can't go back to Hydra, not now that he is starting to remember who he might be.
It's winter, now, and snow makes him slip and struggle to keep his footing with every step he takes, careful to keep his weight off his most definitely broken shoulder as he leaps over fences.
He has to get to higher ground, he knows, and it is with some difficulty that he breaks his way into an office building and climbs up the stairs to the roof, throwing himself over to the next rooftop with some difficulty. It is easier going than having to dodge backyard debris and invisible potholes, but as the buildings get taller and farther apart, and the snow on the ground gets heavier, things start to become treacherous.
The Winter Soldier doesn't even realize where his feet were taking him until he finds himself opposite a familiar Tower, staring dazedly up at the large ‘STARK’ emblazoned across the top.
He has sat on this very roof many times, sometimes four or five days a week, watching one person in particular.
Steve Rogers, who has finally come to New York after months of searching for Bucky Barnes without results. Steve Rogers, who often spends his days in his room, drawing or reading or listening to the radio.
The very same Steve Rogers who is currently sleeping on the couch in the expansive living room Tony Stark has provided him with, a worn copy of The Silver Chair resting open on his chest.
Steven Grant Rogers. Captain America.
He knew him.
The Winter Soldier doesn't even think about it.
He can hear the soft whp-whp-whp of a helicopter behind him, closing in. They are coming for him. They are going to wipe him, and use him.
The Soldier isn’t sure if he is Bucky Barnes, or if he is even the Soldier, anymore. All he knows is that, more than anything, in that moment, he doesn't want to be Hydra’s Asset. Not again.
He backs up as far as he can without leaving the roof, and puts every ounce of strength left in his body into throwing himself at Stark Tower, colliding with the window of Steve’s living room and shattering it, rolling across the glass strewn carpet until he hits the wall opposite with his bad shoulder.
The noise is more than enough to startle the sleeping man into full alertness, heaving himself to his feet with fists up for a fight. The Soldier watchs him take in the shattered glass strewn across his carpet, and the huddled, shivering shape against his far wall.
If he had ever expected to see the Winter Soldier lying on his carpet, covered in bloody cuts, he hides it well behind an expression of almost comical shock, mouth open and eyes bulging.
The concern and desperate hope in that voice is very real, and the Soldier knows he’d made the right choice in coming here. Steve Rogers can be manipulated into protecting him from Hydra. He can trick him into keeping this illusion of Bucky Barnes safe.
He manages a vague imitation of Bucky’s smirk and winks at Steve, the world going grey around the edges.
“The one and only, Stevie.”
Just before darkness closes around him, Steve’s face fills his vision, and he looks so painfully, desperately hopeful that the last thing the Soldier remembers feeling before he’s unconscious is…
When the Soldier wakes up, Steve is still there, in his line of sight. He’s talking to someone that he can’t see, and with some small effort he tries to shift himself into a sitting position, drawing the attention of the blond haired man beside him.
“Bucky, you’re awake.”
Guilt again, crawling like spiders through his insides.
He swallows it down and manages a faint smile, doing his best not to flinch away from the foreign touch when Steve moves to help him sit up.
“How long was I out?”
The Soldier gingerly presses metal fingers to his heavily bandaged right shoulder, relieved that the swelling is minimal and the pain far more manageable than it had been before. His superior healing abilities are at work, mending the broken bone much faster than a normal human being’s. In a few more days he won't even remember that it had been broken at all.
“Almost a week. We were starting to wonder if you were going to sleep forever,” Steve says from somewhere beside him, drawing his attention back away from his sore shoulder.
The words are out of his mouth before he has much of a chance to think about them, and afterwards the Soldier is left to wonder where on earth they came from in the first place.
“You didn’t kiss me awake, did you?”
He isn't sure if it is the words themselves, or the wink that accompanies them, that makes Rogers’ face light up like that, but, the Soldier finds himself almost amused by the embarrassed, pink glow he now wears. Imagine Captain America blushing like a teenager at a cheesy bit of flirting.
Whatever he is about to say is cut off by the loud entrance of another man, with short dark brown hair and a carefully sculpted beard and mustache. The Soldier remembers his name from one of the many files Hydra had made him memorize.
Anthony Stark. Alias: Iron Man. Genius level intelligence, but, minor combat ability without the Iron Man suit. Hydra Threat Assessment: Level 7.
“So, Sleeping Beauty finally decided to grace us with his presence.”
Anthony Stark. Alias: Iron Man. Of questionable intelligence, and minor combat ability without the Iron Man suit. Updated Threat Assessment: Level 5.
Tony seems unfazed by the unimpressed look he gets from the prone man, instead choosing to approach him and reaching out to tap the metal plating of his prosthetic arm.
“You gonna tell us why you’re here? Because you have sixty seconds to explain why you defaced my brand new Tower at two in the morning when there is a perfectly good door.”
The Soldier racks his brain for something that Bucky Barnes would say, struggling to control the Hydra implanted impulse to just eliminate the threat before him.
“The Hydra agents behind me weren’t giving me much of a choice,” he settles on finally, head cocking to the side and eyes focusing on Stark’s.
“Besides, it isn’t as if you don’t have a habit of making up your own front door on a building.”
He looks down and away from Tony, and his gaze settles on Steve, who’s wearing an expression of mingled amusement and uncertainty. Tony must have said something to make him doubt the Soldier’s motives. Perhaps, then, it is time for a bit of the truth.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” he tries again, and the way Steve’s face pinches between his eyebrows lets him know he’s hit a mark.
The Winter Soldier knows the Avengers inside and out. He knows their weaknesses, their mannerisms, their habits, their eccentric way of entering buildings. He knows the places they visited regularly, and which people he will take if he ever needs to force any of their hands. Hydra has made sure their strongest weapon will be useful against their most capable enemies.
Except for Steve Rogers.
He knows very little about the man dressed in blue beside him, who is looking at him like he is prepared to go to war with Hydra that instant if it means keeping Bucky safe. Though, now he realizes the reason for that is because Hydra feared he would renege on his training if he knew too much about the man that he had once fought and died for.
With good reason, too, he thinks to himself, letting his mind drift as Steve and Tony start to argue about whether he should be allowed to stay in Stark Tower.
Hadn’t he, after all, only been capable of breaking years of conditioning and psychological abuse after recognizing the man with the silver star on his chest?
There was something about Steve Rogers that Hydra couldn’t cleanse from the mind of Bucky Barnes. Something that has stuck, rooted deep within his mind. Something that will remain with him, no matter how many times he is wiped.
“I can’t leave the Tower. This is the only place where Hydra won’t dare to storm, not when their forces are already so limited. They’re a long way off from having the strength and numbers to take on the numerous high threat individuals that reside here,” the Soldier says abruptly, cutting off whatever argument Tony is about to make.
He looks up at the Iron Man with a quiet expression, and that feeling of boiling guilt is back when he finally gets a nod, reluctant as it may seem.
“You came here because you think it is somewhere where you will be safe from Hydra.”
Steve’s voice breaks in once more, drawing the attention of the Soldier. He swallows, and shrugs, reaching up to rub awkwardly at his injured shoulder.
“I recently came to realize that it is… a lot harder to go it alone than previously assumed. And that this is the safest place for me to be. Both for my own personal protection, and… everyone else’s.”
He is a threat to the safety of anyone near him if he were to leave Stark Tower. Hydra had no problem eliminating anyone that got in the way of them recapturing their prized weapon. Once upon a time, the Soldier was one of those men who took no issue with killing any innocent that stood between him and his mission.
But things change.
The man himself changes.
Maybe he doesn't want to be a weapon any longer. Or at least, not if Hydra was the one pulling the trigger.
He decides that, perhaps, it won't be so terrible to be Bucky Barnes. Even if it is only for show.
“I don’t want any more people to get hurt because of me.”
Except for Hydra, perhaps, but, no one can really begrudge him his desire for that particular brand of revenge.
This seems to be what finally gets Tony to agree, and the Soldier breathes an inner sigh of relief. Tony Stark has a save-the-world complex a mile wide, and it is easy for him to take advantage of that.
At least, that’s what the Asset tells himself. It has nothing to do with an actual desire to see no more people end up in harm’s way because of him.
Nothing at all.
Steve sighs and waves his hand for Tony to leave, and his absence results in an awkward silence between him and the man opposite him. It takes a couple minutes for either of them to find something with which to break it, and it’s the Soldier, surprisingly, that speaks up first.
“Who were you talking with before Stark came in?” he asks suddenly, remembering that the other man had been conversing with an empty room when he woke up.
A quizzical expression forms before comprehension dawns on Steve’s face, and he flashes a grin that says he’s excited to tell the Winter Soldier something.
A brief moment of silence, where the Soldier is left wondering if maybe all those months of chasing after a ghost have left Rogers a little imbalanced, before he’s shut up by a smooth, almost bored sounding voice emanating from the walls and ceiling.
The Soldier goes still and looks around him warily, trying to pinpoint the source of the voice. Steve’s grin only gets wider.
“Jarvis, can you play something from my tracklist?”
Another brief moment before soft jazz fills the room, a mix of piano and saxophone with the gentle tp-tp of a beat from a drum. Bucky recognizes the song. He remembers dancing to it in a tiny, dirty little apartment in Brooklyn wearing only his socks and pajamas, and a skinny boy named Steve trying to follow his steps on clumsy feet, one clammy hand clutched in Bucky’s and another hugged tight to his waist.
“You still listen to this song?” he asks in a quiet murmur, distracted from his confusion about the source of the music by the gentle croon of the saxophone. You Don’t Know What Love Is, 1941, written by Gene de Paul and Don Raye. Bucky had picked up the record for ten cents on his way home from the docks one day on a whim.
Steve smiles faintly and reaches out to place his hand on Bucky’s metal one, head cocking to the side.
“Of course I do, Buck. You told me you were going to teach me how to dance that night if it killed you. Didn’t want me embarrassing you in front of the girls, anymore,” he chuckles, and the warm glow of nostalgia is almost painful in the cage of Bucky’s ribs. He remembers that. He remembers using any excuse in the book to get Steve to dance with him. They couldn’t go dancing in public, after all. But, in the privacy of their own home…
A soft female voice starts to purr words that Bucky is all too familiar with, and the ache grows until it consumes his entire body.
“You don't know what love is until you've learned the meaning of the Blues.. Until you've loved a love you had to lose… You don't know what love is.”
Bucky’s lips move of their own accord, silently forming around the words that he knows better than his own name.
“You don't know how lips burn until you've kissed and had to pay the cost, until you've flipped your heart and you have lost… You don't know what love is.”
He remembers hoping that Steve would hear the lyrics, would really hear them. Remembers the feeling of his heart thudding painfully against his ribs and wondering if it was loud enough for Steve to hear.
Remembers the ache in other places when Steve tentatively rested his cheek against Bucky’s chest as they sway, and the desire to hold him even closer. To wrap him up in his arms and shield him from the rest of the world.
He looks down to see Steve’s hand, no longer skinny and frail but broad and strong, resting over the metal abomination of his own hand, and something dark seizes inside him.
The Soldier has no place trying to become part of this memory. It is not his memory. It's Bucky Barnes’ memory.
But there was something about Steve Rogers that made the Soldier desperately wish it was his.
If the Steve of 1941 had known his best friend would become such a monster, would he have danced with him so easily that night?
The Soldier doubts it.
Steve would hate him if he knew what he would become. He would spurn him, and turn him away. This Steve will too, in time. He will grow tired of the Soldier, of the monster he has allowed into his home. He will send him away from his sight soon enough.
He ignores the rest of the song as it croons over the intercom, too focused on getting himself out of that bed and across the room.
The final notes of the song play out as the door slams shut behind the Winter Soldier, leaving Steve to sit there with a crushed expression on his face.
“I am sorry, sir. I thought the song seemed appropriate,” Jarvis says in a quiet voice, earning a small smile from Steve.
“It’s not your fault. I appreciate the effort, Jarvis, thank you. I think it was just a little too much too soon,” he sighes, sinking back in the chair to stare up at the ceiling, as if it holds all the answers to his questions.
Bucky is in there somewhere. Steve just has to find him.