Actions

Work Header

Falling and The Fallen

Work Text:

The world is white and black and red, and you are alone.

The red is dripping from you, from the ruin of your arm. It's pitting craters in the slushy snow beneath you, staining it pink.

You know you should get up, should move, but your energy has drained out into the snow as well.

You sleep.

*

You hear a rhythmic, unsynchronised crunching. Footsteps.

You used to have a rifle, you know. Maybe even a pistol. They're both gone.

There's a bitter little pill waiting in your coat pocket. It'd be simple to find and to take, simple to end it, but you know that's never been a real option for you. You'd much rather go down fighting, spitting blood at your killer, cursing.

There's a knife in a hidden holster that fits into your hand easily. It has tasted blood before, you know, and maybe it will again.

The group of men crunches closer. You can't move to conceal yourself. Instead, you lie still, your knife ready, and wait.

“Something fell here, you see?” one voice says.

“I see,” another grunts.

“Oh Jesus,” a third says. “I've found him. Sweet Lord.”

You nearly stick your knife in his gut when he leans in close.

They all startle and swear. The big one grabs your wrist easily, peels your fingers from the knife.

“I'll call it in,” one says, setting a box down on a flat rock and slipping headphones on.

“We've got you, Bucky,” the man who found him says. “You're safe, now.”

You look at the circle of faces, at the uniforms that you don't really recognise but which you feel maybe mean friend not foe. There's a collection of accents but even the man on the radio with his foreign features is speaking a language you understand. It's the words you can't make sense of.

“Who the hell is Bucky?” you ask.

*

You leave your arm and your memory in that snowy chasm.

The Commandos, as you learn they are called, haul you out.

“Apologies for the conveyance,” the man called Monty says. “To be perfectly frank, we were expecting a body.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” you slur, and the men chuckle.

Before tourniqueting and wrapping your stump, they'd given you an injection of morphine, far too little to do much of anything, and a healthy slug from a flask the Frenchman parted with reluctantly.

He mutters something when he hands it over, and whoever Bucky is, he apparently understands enough French to know that the man's complaining about being robbed of his emergency flammables.

It certainly does burn the whole way down, like something left over from Prohibition.

You can feel your hand twitching, the one that's feeding the scavengers somewhere right now. The men had looked, but hadn't found it. They had had a hushed argument, and then just covered up all of your blood with clean snow instead.

They'd cut saplings and lashed them together with a length of cord before laying you out on them with your remaining limbs crossed like you're in a coffin. The cord cuts into bruised skin and broken bone, and even the folded cloth they place under your head can't soften the jolting of men carrying you over uneven ground up the side of a mountain.

You wouldn't think it'd be possible to sleep, but you drift in and out, coming to now and again because of their rough movement. It's like sleeping in a rowing boat on choppy water.

*

It takes days, you think, to move you to a muddy camp filled with tents and weary soldiers.

You're parted from the men who've become familiar to you over the painful journey and passed into the hands of hurried field doctors and nurses.

There's still not enough morphine to stop you from screaming when they start fixing your arm.

They hold you down until merciful blackness swallows you up.

*

There's a little less of you when you wake, but what there is is wrapped neatly.

You think you had a fever, but it's passed, leaving you clear-headed but still too weak to fight.

“You're on the next plane,” a nurse assures you when she changes your dressings.

“Oh,” you say, knowing that asking where it is going is a wasted question when you won't know what the answer means.

*

You're in London, they tell you.

You're in a long ward with a dozen other men, all of you broken in some way. It smells of blood and piss and harsh soap, disinfectant and disease. The man two beds over won't stop sobbing, even in sleep.

It's dim and cave-like because all the windows are boarded up. You feel like you've been interred ahead of schedule.

You don't say much, don't move, try not to think. You eat and piss when the nurses tell you to, take your medicine, and try to remember not to reach for things with your missing arm.

It all blurs into one long mush of time until suddenly, there's a man to see you. He's tall and handsome and wearing a coat with a fistful of medals pinned to it.

“I came as soon as I could,” he says. His face is shadowed and his eyes are hollow. He slides his own warm, dry hand into your remaining clammy one, and your fingers twitch closed around his. It's the first gentle, non-clinical touch you've had since you got here.

You should tell this man that you don't know him, that you're adrift in a sea of confusion, but you don't want to let go of his hand.

“Thought you'd stood me up, you punk,” you say instead, because it feels right on your tongue.

The man lets out a choked sound, somewhere between a laugh and a sob, and tears hover in his eyes.

“I sorted everything out,” the man says when he's calmed a little. “They're sending you home. You won't have to worry about a thing. Not even if... I can't be there,” the man says.

If I die, your brain supplies.

“I can look out for myself,” you insist.

“I know you can,” he says, and his hand squeezes yours.

*

You're in some kind of convalescent home in New York when you're visited by two men in uniform.

Captain Steve Rogers, killed in action, they say, and that's how you learn his name.

*

You're standing on the pavement outside in a borrowed uniform with one sleeve pinned up, wondering where to go, when a slick car pulls up and the man in the back invites you to get in. His name's Howard Stark, you learn, and he was a friend of Steve's.

He's got a huge mansion to match the car, and a plush suite of rooms that he says is yours.

“For as long as you want it,” he says.

“I don't have any money,” you protest, though the words shame you.

“You've got plenty, but that's not the point. The point is, Steve told me to look out for you, and that's what I'm doing,” Howard says.

“I don't want to be any trouble,” you say.

“I'm trouble enough for the both of us,” Howard says with a showman's grin, and leaves.

*

A beautiful dame in a uniform visits you. Her lipstick is very red, but there's a discreet scrap of black ribbon pinned to her collar.

She places a box with Steve's medals in it in your hand.

“But you're his girl, aren't you?” you venture. It's a guess, based on intuition and something Howard said once, something about 'Cap's English firecracker'.

Her smile is sad. “I might have been. But he'd want them to go to you.”

“What about his family?” you ask, and by the widening of her eyes, you know you've misstepped.

“You're his next of kin,” she says gently. “He had no family. And if you want to keep up the charade, you'd do best to remember that.”

You nod, because your throat is tight.

*

Howard doesn't notice a thing. Dugan, when he comes to stay, deduces it almost immediately.

“You're making a good show of it,” he says, lighting a cigar. “But you talk in circles and you hesitate. Before, even when you were rattled with shell shock, you had a mouth that could run underwater.”

“I...” you try, but Dugan just shakes his head.

“You didn't even know your own name when we pulled you outta of that ravine. I thought maybe once you came home, healed up some, you'd come back to yourself.”

You look down at your knees, at your lone hand clutching a tumbler with a generous inch of Stark's whiskey in the bottom of it. Anywhere but Dugan's sympathetic eyes.

“I guess I was wrong.”

When you raise the glass to take a mouthful, your hand is trembling.

“Maybe if Steve had made it, you'd remember. But maybe not. There's no shame in it,” he says gently.

You've got a handful of medals of your own, shoved in a drawer beside Steve's, that tell you that whoever you were, you weren't a coward. Dugan's calm reassurance layers over that, suggesting that that your mind hasn't fled because of fear.

“Maybe,” you say eventually.

*

Howard Stark is making the cloth of the SSR into a division to carry on after the war is over for good, after the last treaties are signed and all the men not dead or lost find their way home.

He's back from a few long months in the Arctic, criss-crossing the frozen wastes of frigid water to find the body of a man you don't remember besides a pair of tired eyes and his warm hand in yours and the growing pile of posthumous honours you never look at if you can help it.

The men in the fledgling SHIELD office glance at your empty sleeve, but they don't stare like people on the street do.

“You have sharp eyes,” Peggy says. “I need them.”

You can't fight with your hands, but you can stand behind Peggy's shoulder like a shadow, checking and double checking everything she asks you to.

It feels natural to stand there, backing her up as she leads the charge.

*

Operation Paperclip brings Axis scientists across the Atlantic and the government welcomes them with open arms.

A strange little man with round glasses is shown around the office one day. He fixes his eyes on you, cruel and pleased, and you nearly flinch. When he's led away, you discover you're shaking.

That night, your sleep, which is usually void and empty, is filled with nightmares of captivity, pain and that smug little smile.

Every slip into semi-consciousness brings them back, so when dawn arrives you're sitting on your windowsill, chain smoking and shivering.

You have a fragment, a memory, a moment that you didn't have before. You're strapped to the table in your nightmares, reciting a string of numbers, and Steve is standing above you, scared and desperate, saying, Bucky, Bucky.

You've never felt so safe.

*

Zola wriggles his way into SHIELD like a worm in the bud. You stand at Peggy's side like a soldier, but he watches you in a way that makes you feel pinned all over again, as though you're a creature opened up for dissection.

“Your arm, you lost it in the war?” he asks one day.

“Yes,” you reply.

“How, may I ask?” he asks.

“I fell from a train,” you tell him, because that's what they told you about how you ended up in the snow.

“And you were not killed? Remarkable,” Zola says, and there's something covetous in his eyes that chills you.

*

Howard Stark still hunts the Arctic with a single-minded purpose but when he's stateside he seems to grant Zola a grudging degree of respect.

“He's brilliant,” Howard says, flapping a hand. “Completely unethical, but brilliant. The things he created under Hydra were inspired.”

You feel a sharp shock of remembered pain, and for a moment, you lose track of where you are.

When the fog clears, you're reciting a string of numbers under your breath like it's a prayer. Howard is looking at you with alarm.

“You all right, Barnes?” he asks.

“Fine,” you gasp.

Some time later, Howard raises the idea of a prosthetic arm Zola's designed that might enable you to get back into the field. You refuse so firmly and so frantically Howard looks like he thinks you've cracked.

*

Dugan visits again for the first time after a long time. He's been off doing something that even you, as Peggy's shadow, don't have clearance to know about. He eyes you like he can see into your soul, then pours you both a drink.

“Don't know how you do it,” he says, pressing the glass into your hand.

“Do what?” you ask.

“Sit in that office with Zola swanning in and out like he owns the place,” Dugan spits.

“He's useful,” you say dutifully.

“You really think that?” Dugan asks.

“Don't matter what I think,” you say.

“It should,” Dugan says, watching you steadily, “seeing as he's the one who tortured you.”

There's a flash of light from a lamp over your head, glaring down into your eyes. You're strapped to the table, unable to move, and there's a needle pumping fire into your veins. Zola smiles down on you with a sadistic satisfaction.

“You are a fighter, aren't you, Sergeant Barnes,” he murmurs. “The others all died long before this.”

You bite down on your shout as the light gets brighter, brighter...

“Steve!” you cry.

“Easy,” someone says, but you push them away.

“Barnes, report!” they bark, and you blink.

The room comes back into focus. There's a glass broken on the floor, liquid seeping into Stark's expensive rug. Dugan's standing over you, holding your shoulders, and there's naked fear in his eyes.

“Fuck,” you swear, wiping the cold sweat from your face.

“You with me?” Dugan asks.

When you nod, he lets go of you, hurries to the side table and busies himself. A moment later, he's pushing another glass into your hand.

“Drink,” he orders.

It's brandy and it burns warm fire the whole way down. You shudder and force yourself to finish it.

“You didn't know?” Dugan asks.

“No,” you force out.

“Jesus Christ. I'm so sorry,” Dugan says, shaken and contrite. “I thought you would have stumbled across it, or someone would have told you. I guess they all thought you remembered.”

You think of Peggy's sharp eyes at that first meeting, her almost instant recognition of his condition.

“I guess they did,” you say.

*

You stand stalwart at Peggy's side. You check and recheck and always look out for the small details, the little points that make up the bigger picture. You're a sniper, according to your record. Looking for the tiny, out-of-place elements comes naturally.

Zola's made a comfortable nest for himself, feathered with the praise of politicians who never took up arms for their country, or who sat in a comfortable war room miles from the front if they served at all.

“What do you think of this?” Peggy asks one day. She hands you a manilla folder marked with every secrecy warning they have stamps for. The clearance level written on the top is at least two numbers higher than your own.

You raise an eyebrow and crack it open.

Project Winter Soldier is apparently Zola's proposal to recreate Erskine's serum. Zola vaguely references promising clinical trials he performed some years earlier, dangles the promise of a breakthrough in reach of his fingertips should he receive appropriate funding and freedom to conduct his experiments.

You are very careful to keep control and not crease the edges of the pages when you read that Zola suggests that appropriate subjects for his experiments would be invalided soldiers, men who are disciplined and trained in combat who would be grateful for the opportunity to serve again, and to relieve the state of the burden of their care.

You are a fighter, aren't you? you hear, a poisonous whisper in your mind.

“I'm coming under a lot of pressure to accept this project. Some see it as a way to keep a step ahead of the Soviets,” Peggy says.

You look at her over the edge of the file and snort. You may have been talkative before your fall, but you don't speak much these days unless you have something to say.

“He's hiding something,” you conclude, when you've turned the last page.

“I've also been reminded that if we decline this project, there are other, less ethical parties who would be more than happy to fund Zola's research and will give him his head to a degree SHIELD won't,” Peggy says.

“You want him closely watched, so you're going to say yes,” you deduce.

“Yes,” she says.

“And you want someone you can trust on the inside,” you say. “You want me.”

Peggy's face is a mask, but her slow blink gives her away. “Steve would never forgive me for putting you in that position.”

“Steve isn't here,” you say, and she nods.

*

Zola smiles like a snake when you walk into his space. “Sergeant Barnes,” he says.

You bite down on your terror and nod. “Doctor Zola.”

“Shall we begin?” he asks and gestures to a waiting table.

*

You sleep the sleep of the damned and you wake to the same nightmare.

Zola treats you with a combination of deference and clinical distance. He pays you particular attention, but it's attention you'd rather shrink from than endure. They take hundreds of samples from you. They make you run and stretch and lift weights. They cut you, bruise you, burn you, and chart how long it takes for you to heal.

You lie down on the table each day of your own volition. There are no straps holding you, but every time, you catch yourself running the numbers through your mind. Every time, you realise that you're waiting for Steve to appear.

He never does.

*

Peggy's eyes bore into you, sharp as needles.

“I'm pulling you out,” she says.

“I can do this,” you say, but rather than sounding firm, your voice comes out plaintive and weak.

“We haven't found what Zola's really up to, and it's been months. He's too self-satisfied for my liking, and I've got no proof he isn't just using this whole project as an excuse to torture you again,” Peggy says, her lips thinning.

“I can take it,” you insist, curling your trembling hand into a fist.

“You're a wreck, and to be blunt, you're worth more to me than Zola is,” Peggy says. “The higher-ups can rain hellfire down on me all they like, but I don't care. I've made my decision and I'm cancelling the project. I need my sharp-eyed sergeant back, and at the rate Zola's going, he's going grind you to powder instead. I can't, in good conscience, allow him to continue.”

“It was right to try,” you say.

“Was it?” she throws back. “Because all I can think of is how ashamed Steve would be that I even entertained the notion in the first place.”

You still don't remember more than a handful of fragments about Steve. Him at your bedside, him freeing you from the table. You don't really know Steve Rogers, the person.

Steve Rogers, the subject, however, you know about in detail.

“On paper, was what he did all that different?” you ask.

“On paper, perhaps not,” Peggy says. “But his reasons were far more pure.”

“He wanted to go to war,” you say.

“He wanted to help, and that meant making himself stronger,” Peggy says.

“Would it help you, if I was stronger?” you ask.

“You are strong,” she says.

“That's not an answer,” you say. “The arm, with the arm I could be stronger. I could be your soldier.”

“You already are,” Peggy says. She suddenly looks desperately sad. She reaches across the desk and takes your hand in her own, cupping her warm palms around it.

“I can't fight for you like this,” you say. “If I was whole, I could fight.”

“If you want it, fine, but you're not doing it for me,” Peggy says, her face hard, unlike her still-soft clasp. “Do it for you, or don't do it at all.”

*

Zola is ushered out of SHIELD towards a black town car, his hat in his hand and his coat folded over his arm. He seems serene despite the abrupt termination of his tenure.

“I shall see you again, Sergeant Barnes,” he says with a parting smile.

That smile haunts you through the rest of the day, but that night, you sleep better than you have in months.

*

You take time to think about it, and you choose the arm.

The designs were Zola's originally, but Stark takes a vacation from building bigger bombs than the Russians to go over every inch of them.

Howard studies them for a week, initially.

“Some nasty stuff in there,” Howard says with a grimace. “I'll need some time.”

In the end, it's three months, and from what you can understand of the science talk, Howard pretty much rebuilt the plans from scratch.

“Dugan sent me; he's on assignment. You look like shit,” Morita says.

“Still better than you,” you rasp.

“How's it feel?” Morita asks.

You lift both hands up into your field of vision, one flesh, one gleaming.

“Good,” you say. “It's not the same, but I can make it do what I want it to.”

“Like something out of science fiction,” Morita muses, watching as you flex your fingers wide.

“Or a comic book,” you agree.

“You gonna come out with us, once you're back on your feet?” Morita asks.

“That's the plan,” you say.

“We could use your eye. And your aim,” Morita says.

“I'm a little rusty,” you say.

“We can wait,” he replies.

*

None of your shirts or jackets fit over the new arm or the muscles you've had to build up to carry the weight of it. They need to be let out across the shoulders or remade all together.

“Should just cut all the left sleeves off. Never really saw the point of having a sleeve all pinned up when I didn't have an arm to fill it anyway,” you grouch.

“Because nothing says covert like a shiny metal arm,” Peggy says.

“Paint it, then,” you say with a shrug. “I'm gonna just be sneaking around or sniping from a rooftop, ain't I? They don't have to match.”

Howard hears a whisper of the plan and looks pained. “Paint it and you'll gum up all the plates. You'll turn a ground-breaking prosthetic into scrap metal.”

You do paint it, just a little.

There's a kid in cyphers who's got a talent for drawing, something that tugs on a thread in your mind that leads off to something you can't reel in. You waylay him one day and tell him what you want, and he's happy to help, despite the unconventional nature of the canvas.

In the newsreels, you had a wing on your shoulder, a patch you think maybe you sewed on yourself, your stitches as neat as your mama taught you. You don't remember her, but that's what you like to think, even if it's something your mind invented to fill the void.

Now, there's a white star surrounded by rings of blue and red.

*

You sleep in your own bed for the first time in an age, in an apartment you bought outright just before the operation. When you wake, it's with a soft sigh.

The metal that's now a part of you is skin-warm under the sheets. You trace the fingertips of your right hand across it, then tuck the covers down to look at it in the morning light.

A memory seeps up, slow and steady.

There's music playing, men singing out of tune, the smell of cheap alcohol and cheaper cigarettes and your own unwashed skin.

You're keeping the uniform, right? you ask Steve.

You don't remember what he said but you remember his expression, the way his lips tilted up and his cheeks pinked a little. He'd looked shy and amused, but steady and solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, as though nothing could shake him.

I'd happily walk through the gates of hell if I could do it by his side, you'd thought.

You still don't know Steve Rogers, but you think you understand him a little.

Or maybe, all this time after waking in the snow, you've just come to know yourself.

*

Your left arm doesn't really have sensation, so you need to watch it at times to make sure it's doing what you want it to. You still do most tasks with your right, since that's habit by now, but some things, you have to do with both.

You find that with the metal hand curled around your rifle, steadying it, you're a better shot than ever.

In hand-to-hand, you learn that if you want to, you can lift a large man off the floor with little effort. That a casual grab from either hand can leave bruises on your opponent.

It's also the first time someone besides Zola has remarked on the fact that your own bruises heal in hours, rather than days.

“Maybe Zola was onto something after all,” Peggy says.

“Maybe I always healed fast,” you counter, because there's a faint memory teasing you, a feeling that once you sat and watched a minor cut seal itself closed by the light of a camp fire.

*

When you've practised enough that you can move your new arm as easily as your original one, Peggy clears you to start working missions. Milk runs at first – dead drops, surveillance, shadowing. Then, she attaches you to a team.

It's on your first operation with them that you learn that though your new arm is a weapon, it's also a shield, that it can stop a fist or a knife in a way your flesh won't.

Howard tuts while he checks it over and wants to buff out the scratches, but you resist. They're marks that your body won't heal overnight, like the painted star, that you can touch and look at and remember things by.

Memory is becoming more important to you these days.

*

There's a photograph that Peggy keeps in her desk drawer. You've never seen it. She's always tucked it away before you've done more than step into the room.

Today, she doesn't.

Today, there's a teacup at her elbow but the scent of scotch in the air, and you wait until she lifts her eyes to yours.

At her nod, you approach.

It's Steve, but not how he appears in the newsreels. He's frail-looking and slender, with a pale complexion. He has a set of dogtags hanging around his neck and he looks mulishly stubborn and a little confused.

You remember that face, you realise. You remember it bloody and bruised and furious, at war with the world. You remember it smiling and sharply cynical, earnest and solemn.

“We were going to go dancing,” Peggy says, and you realise what the date is.

“I'll take you dancing,” you say.

You don't even know if you can dance, but your body remembers. Peggy's a good partner, confident and quick on her feet. You feel a smile curving on your face that's rusty with disuse.

As you step around the floor, you get flickers of dozens of girls, in dresses dark and light and bright with colour. You used to do this a lot, you realise. You wonder if Steve was dancing at your elbow with a girl of his own. You hope he was.

Peggy invites you up for a nightcap and you follow in her shadow like always, though your heart is thumping faster than it was when you were dancing.

“Have you done this before?” Peggy asks.

“I don't know,” you admit.

You gasp while she touches you and rolls a skin on with a practised hand.

“You'll work it out,” she assures you.

She sinks down and the warm clasp of her body makes you groan and fist your metal hand in the sheets.

It's a different kind of dancing but you find the rhythm quickly enough.

“I won't break,” Peggy assures you, amused, so you allow your hips to shove up hard the way they want to.

You're not making love or spending time, you're fucking, pure and simple, your bodies fighting each other for every ounce of pleasure. One part of you wants to roll her, press her back into the sheets, but the other wants to lie here at her mercy while she rides you. You come before you can choose.

“You don't own me, now,” Peggy says, when you're reclining back against the pillows.

“I know,” you say. She hasn't tried to kiss you once, after all.

*

You split your time pretty evenly between the field and the office. You're still the person Peggy turns to when she needs an opinion she can trust, but you also become a weapon she can command from a distance. You fight and you shoot and you kill in the name of freedom, and it feels right, like some wild part of you that had been wilting in a darkened room has been brought out into the sun.

There's a cold pleasure in the work you do, a satisfaction in your competence. You kill with a clean smooth style that you execute with the same precision as your handwriting. You've won praise for both.

As you're garrotting a look-out in the dark shadows of an alley, you idly wonder about your skills. The man struggles weakly in your grip as you think about Steve.

You wonder how often you were his weapon to wield from afar, how many men you killed in his name without a flicker of hesitation.

There's certainly no shame in your heart about the blood you wipe from your hands.

*

“Was it always this easy?” you ask one night, when Dugan is there and you've both had a few glasses. You feel like you've been sober forever; that warm buzz you wait for expectantly never arrives. You might have put it down to watered booze, but you're certain Stark wouldn't want or need to thin out his intoxicants.

Dugan doesn't ask what you're talking about. He just watches you steadily as you curl and uncurl your hands, one metal, one flesh, both clean, for the moment.

“Some, it came easier to than others,” he says slowly, “and some, it got easier the longer the war dragged on.”

“Which was I?” you ask.

“Do you really want to know the answer to that?” Dugan asks.

You think of how seamlessly you stepped back into operations despite no memory of your service, of the emotional distance that's effortless to maintain while you cross off people whose only sin might be that they saw you, or that they got in the way.

You think of small, vulnerable Steve, and you wonder if you blackened your soul in his name years before Hitler ever came to power.

*

The name Winter Soldier has stuck to you like glue, despite the canning of Zola's project. When you become a solo operative, it ends up being your codename.

You appreciate the appropriate nature of it, if not the origins. After all, in what is becoming known as the Cold War between the East and the West, you're sent to some of the most frigid places in Europe. You intercept communications, steal secrets and sow discontent, and when the order comes that you must, you kill. Often quietly, but sometimes in a public, showy way that will have the desired effect.

There's a whisper that the Soviets have perfected their own experiments, that they're selecting and programming their own soldiers for the great game. You know little besides the name – Red Room – and that the subjects are children, groomed to be loyal to nothing but the cause.

You learn Russian, and prepare for the day you'll be sent to cross them off.

*

It's some time later, but you are sent.

Peggy farewells you herself, her face grim and care-worn. She has lines around her eyes and mouth that didn't used to be so deep, and at the very roots of her hair, you can see a little regrowth of grey.

“Come home,” she says, and cups your cheek in a gentle hand.

You rarely touch. Besides the handful of times you've slept together over the years, your contact has been limited to clasps of hand and claps on the shoulder. You've sparred and danced, but you've never been casually intimate. It startles you, and you still completely under her hand.

“I always come home,” you remind her.

“I've become the Wendy to your Peter,” she muses, stroking your skin with her thumb. “I sit here and wait and wish for you to return, my beautiful Lost Boy, my soldier.”

“I'm hardly a boy,” you protest.

“You'll still be a boy when I'm ready for retirement,” Peggy sighs, her hand falling away with a final pat. “I'd be lost myself, without you.”

On the plane over, you stare out the tiny window into the black of night. Your own face reflects back at you. Your hair is the same chestnut it was when you woke in the snow. Your skin is smooth, your eyes are bright and what creases dent your skin do not leave lasting furrows when your expression changes.

You're a boy no longer, but your body belies it.

*

It takes you twelve long months to find the Red Room, and when you do, it's on fire.

You smuggle home the only thing that remains.

Given that that thing is a teenaged assassin hellcat, it's the most excitement you've had in years.

“I missed your birthday,” you say with a cocky grin. You've got a black eye and an angry line around your throat from where she tried to garrotte you not two hours before.

“You shouldn't have,” Peggy drawls, her expression a mixture of dismay and amusement.

*

Natalia Alianova Romanoff goes into the care of the interrogators and head-shrinkers and doctors, and it's so long before you see her again that you begin to wonder if Peggy's had to have her neutralised.

The possibility causes even your blackened heart to give a twinge.

The girl you'd dragged halfway around the world had fought you every step of the way with her fists, her words, and the promise of her body (if not her heart). The idea of her meeting an unremarkable end followed by an anonymous cremation repulses you the same way that bitter pill in your pocket in the snow did.

You of all people understand the necessity of quick and quiet death in your chosen profession, and yet you looked in her eyes and you saw a similar soul.

You'd like to grant her a warrior's death but you don't know how you'd go about asking Peggy for the privilege to do so.

*

“Your little stray has been cleared,” Peggy says, and for a moment, the words hang in the air.

“I thought...” you begin, and stop.

Peggy raises an eyebrow. “You thought I'd had her taken out the back and shot?”

You don't say a word, but you know Peggy reads the answer in your face, no matter how impassive your expression.

“I can say with all honesty that she is far too valuable for that. Even if it had taken them twice as long to break her programming, she would still have been worth the time, the effort, and the injuries she inflicted,” Peggy says. “She's an asset beyond price. And since you brought her home, she's yours.”

“What?” you ask. Your mouth is actually hanging open a little.

“This lone wolf act of yours might get me results, but I don't think it agrees with you,” Peggy says, eyeing you shrewdly. “Mentoring a protégée might do you the world of good.”

“I've never trained anyone,” you protest.

“Besides, she requested you personally,” Peggy adds. “You made an impression.”

She cocks her head and smiles. No doubt she's taken note of the flush creeping up your neck.

“Mutual, from the looks of it,” she remarks, then bends her head back to her paperwork.

*

You and Natalia circle each other on the mat.

“I'm strong, and I'm fast,” she says.

“I remember,” you reply with a smile that she echoes.

“I heal quicker than I should, and I'm older than I look,” she says.

“Join the club,” you say, and at her quizzical look, you shrug.

“I remember my childhood. I remember dancing. But I also remember that those memories are lies,” she says.

“I don't remember my life before 1945,” you say.

It's the first time you've ever said it aloud, you suddenly realise.

Natalia raises an eyebrow. “Older than you look?”

“Older than I look,” you agree.

“How old?”

“Too old,” you say, and she laughs. “Your English is excellent.”

“Your Russian's not bad, either,” she says.

“Do you know how to spar without actively trying to kill your opponent?” you ask, because you think it'd be useful to know before you begin.

“I'm willing to learn,” she says with a sly smile.

*

You call her Little Spider because she's a spy at heart and the most nimble and dangerous opponent you've faced in years.

She calls you Yasha. She never seems in awe of you but she takes instruction from you with complete focus and dedication.

Within a week of her probationary period ending, you start sleeping together.

Unlike Peggy, Natalia covers you in sharp kisses, kisses you return with equal hunger.

You've killed dozens since you woke in the snow, and until Natalia, kissed no one.

You've never in your memory been in love, but you think that maybe it feels like this, a wild and passionate tumble, a fall that never seems to end.

*

Though you think there's probably a regulation somewhere in SHIELD's code of conduct forbidding fraternisation, Peggy just smiles at you benevolently the next time you're in her office.

“So you've given in, then. About time. It looks good on you,” she says.

“Ma'am?” you attempt, all raised eyebrows and innocence.

Peggy hits you in the right arm with a curled folder like you're a naughty puppy.

“You're strutting like a rooster. I haven't seen that walk from you since before my marriage,” Peggy says. “And don't you 'ma'am' me. I may look old enough to be your mother, but I forbid you from rubbing it in.”

“Understood, sir,” you say gravely, but your salute has a frivolous air to it that you think would have you written up anywhere else.

Peggy just rolls her eyes and hands you the folder she'd hit you with. “Sweden. Infiltration and theft of information. You'll be posing as a couple. Newly engaged, I think given your demeanour. It'll mean you don't have to act like you're not itching to get your hands on each other. Have fun, and get the job done in there, somewhere.”

“I always get the job done,” you say, completely straight-faced.

Peggy calls you incorrigible and orders you out.

In the end, it's a perfect cover. Natalia's dress is a silver sheath that fits her perfectly, a fall of fabric that slices open to mid thigh. You know for a fact that she's concealed half a dozen essential and deadly items about her person but isn't wearing any underwear. You allow yourself to devour her with your eyes all evening, and then, when you not-so-subtly slip away, you steer yourselves to the room mentioned in your briefing packet.

By the time someone comes to check where you've ended up, you've got her dress hiked up to the waist and you're eating her out while she groans and scratches her nails through your hair.

“Sorry,” the lackey apologises, and retreats.

“Ten minutes, at the most,” she pants above you.

“We'd better make the most of it, then,” you say, and lift her to press her against the wall.

Ten minutes later, you're still flushed from your orgasm and carefully post-coitally rumpled. The safe is relocked and concealed behind you, the papers within replaced with dummies that will pass for those tucked under your shirt-front at casual inspection.

You rejoin the crowd in the ballroom, and the only glances that people send your way are knowing and amused. You're nothing but a couple in love to them, a reminder of the insatiable appetite of young people who've newly discovered sex.

The best cover has an element of truth to it, after all.

*

Your first year as a team is dizzying, and it sets the pattern for the years to come. You work in tandem beautifully. Trust doesn't come easily for either of you, but you trust each other's judgement in the field without hesitation.

You'd always been treated with a kind of fearful respect at SHIELD. The Winter Soldier, Director Carter's personal attack dog. Your stillness and your silence only contributed to that mystique. With Natalia at your side, you're infamous. Your failure rate is almost non-existent. You go in with only the bare bones of an extraction plan, or none at all. You're behind the Iron Curtain as often as not, working silently in cities where the price of failure is always death, and yet you've never felt so alive.

It's all going so well that you should be waiting for the short, sharp, shock at the end of your fall. You arrive home from a mission in the Balkans to be told that Peggy's been shot.

*

In her hospital bed, she looks pale and old. You hadn't realised just how old until this moment. Some time ago, she'd expressed annoyance with dyeing her hair, called it 'dressing mutton up as lamb' and let it go. It's grey from root to tip, now, and her hands resting outside the thin blanket have the slightly thickened knuckles of age.

“You should see the other fellow,” Peggy rasps. You hadn't realised she was awake, and you wonder how much of your shock had shown on your face. “Come here, Peter.”

She hasn't called you that in years. You sit on the edge of her bed, and she takes your hand between hers. Her skin is dry and papery, but her grip is firm as ever.

“You left him alive?” you ask, hoping your voice doesn't betray the thick feeling in your throat.

“Thought questioning him would be rather important,” Peggy says. “Refreshing. Nobody's had a proper go at killing me for years.”

“I should have been here,” you say. You try to remember when you were last her shadow, when you last stood behind her shoulder and waited for her to pass you something, saying, cast your sharp eyes over this, Sergeant, see what you make of it.

“Nonsense. You're having far to much fun romping around the Soviet Bloc to be cooped up with an old woman all day. It'd be shamefully selfish to keep you all to myself,” Peggy says.

“If you need me, there's nowhere I'd rather be,” you say.

She cocks her head. “My word, you actually mean that. That's terribly flattering, Sergeant, but to be honest, I'm really not important enough in the scheme of things to warrant pulling you from operations to stand behind me and menace any comer who looks suspicious. Besides, I've got myself a bright young thing who should do nicely as my replacement in a few years, once I've got him trained up properly. He menaces well enough, if not to your high standard, but then, he's not had forty years of practice at it. He shows promise, though.”

You think of the people who'd been around Peggy the last time you'd been given an assignment, and you remember the serious young man at her side.

“Fury?” you ask.

Peggy nods. “Nick. His eyes are nearly as sharp as yours, and he's got a natural gift for big picture intelligence work that would be wasted in operations. Much like you would be wasted behind a desk. Have I upset you?”

It takes you a long moment before you realise she's talking about the directorship.

“No,” you reply.

“Good,” she says. “I know you're more than capable, but I thought you'd hate it. Too much diplomacy. We're all of us liars, but not all of us can be politicians.”

“Wouldn't have thought you'd stick it out for so long,” you say, thinking of Peggy in her youth, snarling in her office about having to wrestle for every modicum of respect.

“I can play the game as well as any, if it gets me what I want. And most people know me well enough by now that they give it to me without too much of a fuss. Saves time,” she says.

“You think they'll give Fury the same respect?” you ask.

“Oh, I can guarantee that they won't. He's young, black, startlingly intelligent and immovably stubborn. He won't be swayed and he won't be bought. He'll be everything they hate in one neat bundle, and he's going to be marvellous,” Peggy says with a happy sigh.

“What does Howard think?” you ask.

“I don't give a tinker's damn what Howard thinks. I haven't asked him. When he's not building bombs or off playing Captain Ahab, he's drinking himself into incivility. If he doesn't like my choice for my successor, he can boil his head. He hasn't paid proper attention to a SHIELD project in months. Last I heard, he was giving them to his son to complete.”

You frown. “Isn't he a child?”

“A most remarkable child, highly gifted, but yes, still a child,” Peggy says. “If you wanted a pet project, an asset to shadow, Tony's a far better prospect. The children are our future, and all that.”

“He's an asset? Officially?” you ask.

“Since he was five years old,” Peggy says. “His mother dotes on him, but between his obsessions and his alcoholism, Howard rather neglects him. Dugan's been more of a father to him than Howard ever has, but Dugan's agitating for retirement. Has been since Tony first went away to school. We're all of us at an age to be put out to pasture. Well, most of us,” she says, squeezing your hand.

You watch each other for a dozen heartbeats. The weight of years has never felt so heavy, so present.

“Think about it,” Peggy says. “You're enjoying your wild ride now, but it wouldn't hurt you to make some connections. Anchor yourself to the new blood. Tony will be running Stark Industries in truth if not in name by the time he's twenty if Howard continues to decline. You could stand to play a little politics to guard against the time when I'm gone.”

“Don't,” you say, the protest escaping your lips without volition.

“I don't want to wound you, but you need to be prepared, dear boy,” Peggy says. She's looking right through you in that way of hers that makes you feel like all your thoughts and feelings are an open book. “I'm in the twilight of my usefulness, and I'm not going to linger beyond it. I want a little time with my grandchildren before they bury me. I think I've earned that much.”

You force a smile.

“Of course you have,” you say. “No one deserves it more.”

*

Howard is charming and distracted when you visit. He pours you both a drink. You're certain it's not his first of the day, although he doesn't appear affected.

“Looking for an upgrade?” Howard say, gesturing at your arm.

You feel a surprising surge of defensiveness and have to quell the urge to clasp your left arm with your right hand.

“Maybe,” you say, because it's as good an in as any.

“You should talk to my son. He's always tinkering away at something frivolous and fanciful. Robotics is his current thing. Or it was, last time I talked to him,” Howard says absently.

“I'd like that,” you say. “Is he at home?”

Howard actually has to take a moment to think before he replies in the affirmative.

*

Tony's not the child you expect, but a young man with the gangly limbs and deep voice of late adolescence. He's already completed his college degree despite being young enough to be a high school senior. He's also charming and clever and polished, despite the engine grease and general state of unwashed teenager.

Your liking of him is helped along by the fact that he handles your arm like it's as precious to him as it is to you.

“It's beautifully made. Elegant. Deadly,” Tony says. “I can do better.”

Underneath the swagger and brashness of youth, there's honest excitement, eagerness to please and subtle desperation to be appreciated. Peggy's assessment was right on the money, as always.

“Big talk,” you say with a crooked smile.

“I'm a prodigy,” Tony says matter of factly. “And that dinosaur you're wearing was built before microprocessors became the next big thing. If I can't do better, I should give up and be the poor little rich boy the tabloids say I am. If you trust me to try, that is.”

There's a tentative note to the end of his sentence that's heartbreakingly vulnerable.

“Of course, I do,” you say smoothly, as though you'd never seen him falter.

*

You spend a rather dull and dangerous six months in East Berlin, playing the lay-about husband to Natalia's overworked wife. You orchestrate loud fights and louder make-up sex to fill out your cover that earn you the ire of your neighbours and your landlord.

Most of the time, the fighting is fake.

It's real or half-real enough of the time that you're both worn thin by the time you set foot on American soil again.

“I need some time to shake this off, and so do you,” Natalia says frankly. “I've been offered a solo job. Infiltration, organised crime. Russian mob connections.”

“Sounds like a milk run,” you decide.

“Sounds like a vacation, which is what I need,” Natalia says.

“Sounds kinda like goodbye, too,” you say.

Natalia stretches up onto her toes to kiss you chastely on the cheek. “We've had a good time,” she says. The past tense is devastating. “I'm not saying never again, I'm saying I want some space, okay?”

You nod, because you don't trust your voice.

“Thanks,” Natalia says and walks away.

*

“Holy shit, you're back,” Tony Stark says, nearly falling off his chair in surprise and excitement.

“What is this racket?” you say screwing up your face.

Tony fumbles around until he finds a remote control. “AC/DC. Get with the times, Grandpa,” he says, but he turns the volume right down low anyway. “God. Okay. Right. Wait here.” He drags a hand through his disordered hair and disappears into a side room. You hear the beeping and heavy clunks of a safe unlocking, and then the rumbling rolling of casters on concrete.

The crate he reappears with is about the same size as a medium suitcase. Tony attempts his usual dazzling smile, but it fails to meet his eyes. You wonder, out of the two of you, who's more nervous.

“It should fit onto the existing socket,” Tony says. “No surgery required. Unless you want it, of course.”

“Why would I want surgery?” you ask.

“Neural chip. Very cutting edge, still in its early stages of development, but you'll get far more precision and control, if it works. You'd have to seek out a willing practitioner of the squishy sciences, though. I'm not exactly qualified or kitted out to go screwing around with your brain.”

“Noted,” you say.

Tony laughs. “You sounded just like Aunt Peggy, then,” he says, laying the box flat on a hastily-cleared surface.

A combination lock and a thumbprint scan and the box finally pops open.

“It looks the same,” you say, and discover you're relieved.

“Seemed important to you,” Tony says. “Under the hood, it's all different, though. I experimented with alloys, and found one that should do the job and be about half the weight. It's just as strong, though. May I?”

“Be my guest,” you say.

Tony finds and unlocks the catch for your old arm, then nearly staggers with the weight of it when it comes free in his hands. You list sideways dramatically and have to shuffle your feet to avoid a stumble.

“Definitely a lot lighter,” Tony says, laying the arm down next to the crate with a barely controlled clunk. “You might find your balance is screwy until you've got used to it.”

“I've got time,” you say.

The new arm slips on and locks with a smooth click. Tony opens up a panel and twists something inside. You feel a low-frequency hum start up and build a little.

“Initial boot sequence,” Tony says, rummaging on the desk behind him and coming up with a bag of trail mix. “Might take a few minutes. Or, might not. I don't know. Haven't made an actual robot arm before. Well, aside from Dummy.” He gestures across the space at a robot that's begun a slow trundle towards them at the sound of his name. “No, I don't need you, why would I need you? Hunka junk,” Tony says affectionately. The bot chirps and rolls back the way it came. “College project. Extra credit. He followed me home. Makes about as much mess as a dog and he's twice as useless.”

The hum in your new arm dies down to something that you can't hear and can barely feel, which is promising.

“Ah, bingo. We're golden. One more adjustment...” Tony says, and flicks a switch.

You cry out. Your knees shake and threaten to buckle, and the rooms spins.

Tony swears and reaches for the switch again, but you grab his hand in your flesh one and pant, trying to get the breath back for words.

“Shit, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, don't kill me. I know you haven't said you kill people, but I can read between the lines and you've got this whole Terminator vibe that I'd have to be way more fried more often to not pick up on. I can fix it, just let me...” Tony babbles.

“It's fine,” you finally manage to say. “It's good, it's fine, I just wasn't expecting... I need to sit down,” you realise. Tony shoves his chair up behind your knees and urges you to sit with a hand gently pressing on your shoulder.

You haven't fainted without serious injury as an excuse for years, but you think for a perilous moment you're going to.

You can't take your eyes off the arm.

At the slightest thought, the fingers curl into a fist and fan back out again.

“I can feel that,” you say in a hushed whisper.

“Nerves... they're just wiring. And you had to have the nerves involved to move the old one, sensors in your shoulder and chest to tell the arm what to do and how to move. I just... I thought it might be useful if you had sensory feedback,” Tony says.

“It's amazing,” you say. You clear your throat and wipe your flesh hand across your face. Your cheeks are wet.

“I know the old one had battery packs, and every few months or so the batteries were exhausted and had to be swapped out. Clumsy, but what they had to work with back when this was built. A lot of the weight came from the batteries, not the metal at all.” Tony reaches forward and stops. “May I?”

“Please,” you say, your composure mostly regained.

Tony twiddles something under the panel, and another plate slides open. From your bicep shines a pale blue light. “Eternal power source,” Tony says. “Arc reactor technology. You'll have to bring the arm back here for service, if it needs it, though. Those SHIELD chimps won't know what to do with it.”

“This power thing... it's new?” you ask.

Tony shrugs. “Old, actually. Something Dad played around with back when I was a kid. Please don't tell him about it,” Tony says. “I... I don't think he'd be happy I made it work.”

Tony's looking down at the arm as he closes the panels, not at your face. His shoulders are hunched, his body language submissive and almost cringing, like a dog expecting to be hit.

“Not a word,” you promise.

*

That night you dream for the first time in a long while. There is a weapon of unearthly blue light and shouts of pain and terror. Men charge forward with rifles only to be vaporised with one deadly pulse.

Bucky, c'mon, there are men laying down their lives, Steve says, standing next to you.

He's small and skinny and breakable and you think, No, no, you're not supposed to be here. You're supposed to be safe, back home.

I got no right to do any less than them, Steve says, and climbs up over the top into No Man's Land.

He's gone in a burst of enemy fire, and you wake, screaming.

*

It takes longer than you'd like to adjust to the new arm. You walk with a swaying stride like you're on the rolling deck of a ship, and your sparring sessions disintegrate into soft losses simply because your opponent grabs the metal and the feedback distracts you.

“What a marvel,” Peggy says, running her fingertips lightly over it. You shiver, and her smile turns sly. “How delightfully sensual you are, like this.”

“It's a liability,” you grouch.

“What a shame it's come at least two decades beyond what is decent, or I'd contribute to your readjustment myself,” Peggy says, the sparkle in her eyes wicked.

“You only have to ask,” you say, and she laughs aloud.

“Wicked boy. I'm far too old for your particular brand of enthusiasm, and you know it,” she says, but her fingertips linger.

“You think I can't be gentle? Treat a lady right?” you ask, raising her hand to your lips. The kiss you place is slightly open mouthed, a promise.

“I'm certain you can, Peter. You were never anything less than stellar in that department,” she says. “But while it would be lovely to end my tenure with a terribly juicy sex scandal, I'm afraid I'm going to have to decline. The past is a beautiful place to visit in memory, but one shouldn't try to live there.”

You mug a heavy, disappointed sigh.

When Fury comes in a moment later, you're still holding hands like sweethearts.

*

The Berlin Wall tumbles down and changes the shape of the world.

Howard Stark's car falls off the road and shatters the world of his messed up kid.

He kept up the Arctic explorations every summer like clockwork until his death. He never found Steve.

“The house isn't receiving visitors,” the man who opens the front door of the mansion says. “Family only. You understand, of course.”

Obadiah Stane. You recognise him from SHIELD's files. He's got a moderate amount of power in Stark Industries, more so now that Tony is the heir to Howard's company and fortune. He's got an insincere smile and a salesman's slick demeanour, and you've got no patience to stand and play nice with him today.

“I am family,” you snarl and push past him easily.

Tony's down in his workshop, exactly where you expect him to be. When he stands to greet you, he nearly falls over.

“Tune-up?” he asks, waving the bottle in his hand at your arm.

“No,” you say, and take the bottle from him.

You wind up sitting on Tony's beat-up workshop couch, the one you suspect he sleeps on more than his bed upstairs, with Tony sobbing wetly into your chest.

“Why did the stupid bastard have to drive? We've got a fucking chauffeur, a limousine, he could have got as drunk as he liked, then,” Tony says.

“People do stupid, selfish things,” you say. It's not comforting, but it's all you have.

“What am I going to do?” Tony asks, at once a man of twenty and a child of five-years-old, alone in a world that sees him as a commodity, not a human being.

“Well, you've got the company,” you say.

“In a year,” Tony corrects.

“You've got the company, and you've got more smarts than anyone I know. You can do anything you want,” you say.

“So long as it's weapons,” Tony says. “Like, any colour you want, so long as it's black.”

You shrug. “Anything you want. The Cold War's over. The fingers of the East and the West aren't hovering over the buttons any more. People want clean energy, no more nukes. They want to fix what humanity's spent forever trying to break. I can't think of anyone with as much potential as you to solve the world's problems. That thing in my arm, is that mass-produceable?”

Tony's stopped sniffling and is just laying in your arms, limp and wrung-out.

“Maybe,” he says eventually, like he's already trying to think about it through the haze of alcohol and trauma. “Maybe, if I...”

You sit and listen to Tony ramble himself to sleep, your fingers threaded through his hair.

*

Natalia comes home from yet another solo, shutting down a gun-for-hire ring, with a new name – Natasha – and a profoundly deaf and illiterate sixteen-year-old carnival trickshooter.

Fury seems like he's living up to his namesake. His directorship is barely a month old, and he's already impatient with the shit his agents pull. You smirk openly at the shouting that echoes through his closed door.

Natasha doesn't look quelled at all when she emerges. Rather, she's bordering on smug.

“I showed him Clint's range scores,” she says when you raise an eyebrow.

A forgettable man in a carefully pressed suit approaches. “Agent Romanoff? Director Fury has assigned...”

He stops dead. His eyes widen, and he visibly trembles a little with excitement.

“You're Bucky Barnes,” the man says. “Oh my God.”

He stands and stares for long enough that it officially crosses the line into awkward.

Natasha actually snorts, and it breaks the spell. The man flushes deep red.

“Agent Phil Coulson. Sir, it's such an honour to meet you,” he shoves a hand out, and for lack of anything better to do, you shake it.

“You had an assignment for me?” Natasha prompts, and somehow, Agent Coulson blushes more. She's enjoying herself immensely. You aim a little kick at her shin which she sidesteps neatly.

“Um, oh, yes, er, yes. Sorry. If you'd like to come with me?”

You watch Coulson turn and scurry away, muttering something under his breath.

“New handler,” Natasha says. “I think he liiiikes you,” she sing-songs.

You flip her the bird with your left hand.

*

“I'm not a babysitter,” you say.

Clint bristles like a hedgehog. “I'm not a kid,” he says, like every kid, everywhere, ever.

“From my perspective, everyone's a kid,” you snort.

Clint's chin juts out and his fists bunch.

“Son, just don't,” you say, because you know that look. You've seen it on another face.

I had him on the ropes, Steve wheezes in your mind.

“You both done?” Fury says, unimpressed and impatient.

“I'm done,” you say blithely.

Clint just huffs and looks away.

“Now that we're behaving like adults,” Fury drawls. “Barnes, you've got a history of bringing home strays and training them up into good agents. Barton, you're a pain in my ass, and with a weapon out of Robin Hood you've blown away fifty years of SHIELD records. You're a runaway, a delinquent, and when Agent Romanoff found you, you were a handshake away from becoming a mercenary. You're also two years shy of majority. I asked you to choose between SHIELD or juvie, and because you're a punk kid but not a dumbass, you chose SHIELD.”

Fury smiles, and there's something slightly vicious behind it.

“Congratulations, gentlemen. You're teamed up until further notice.”

*

Clint Barton makes Tony Stark seem well adjusted.

Whereas Tony just needs a little attention and appreciation, Clint's a ball of anger, aggression and no-go areas that might as well have giant, flashing 'keep out' signs posted above them. He fights like a brawler, all flying fists and no discipline, and has a temper with a low-flash point that you seem to set off whether you mean to or not.

You let him hit you, once.

“That's your free shot,” you tell him calmly. “You won't get another.”

The next time he swings at you, you catch his arm, easily, in your left hand.

You just hold him, not even hard enough to bruise, but he flinches violently, ducking his head to his chest to protect his face.

Please don't tell him about it, Tony had said, cringing.

You swallow hard and uncurl your fingers. Clint blows out of the room like a gale, and you don't see him for two days. When he returns, it's like it didn't happen at all. He's back to his abrasive, mouthy, stroppy self, but he doesn't try to hit you again, outside of sparring.

For a dramatic contrast, as a sniper, he's got a stillness, patience and focus that you've never seen in a raw novice. He takes a healthy pride in his abilities and would be on the range every waking hour if he was allowed. He's dedicated, passionate and eager to improve on his already formidable skill. He's had some experience with hunting rifles and stalking game, but he's never used a handgun or rifles of a higher, military calibre. He takes to everything you hand him with almost unnatural ease.

You find yourself sitting opposite Fury, wishing, not for the first time, that he were Peggy.

Fury just looks you up and down. “Welcome to parenthood, Sergeant.”

You growl deep in your throat, and he actually laughs at you.

*

“Present!” Tony says.

You look down at your empty hands.

“No, no, present, from me, to you. I'm rich, I can buy whatever I like if I haven't already. Why would you need to give me anything?” Tony says.

“Because it's your twenty-first?” you say, because it's the obvious answer.

“You've been riding herd on my security team so that no one gatecrashes and tries to murder me. You're fine,” Tony says with a flap of his hand. He brushes off the attentions of a hopeful-looking society debutante and seizes Bucky's hand, leading him away and down into the basement.

“Won't they miss you?” you ask.

“Unlikely. Besides, when they notice I'm gone, they can have a rousing game of 'who's Tony fucking upstairs?' Always a crowd pleaser.” He rummages on his cluttered desk and emerges with a box that looks like it should have a ring in it.

“Why, Mister Stark,” you sigh, spreading a hand over your heart. “Aren't you going to kneel down?”

“Not in this tux. It cost about as much as your arm did,” Tony says, grinning. “Shut up. I didn't have time to wrap it, and this had cuff links or something in it before, not a fucking engagement ring. Just take it, would you?”

You smirk and take it from him, prising open the lid.

“It's... lovely?” you say, raising an eyebrow at the piece of circuitry inside.

“It's an upgrade. Take off your jacket and your shirt, I need to fit it,” Tony says, placing his champagne flute down and taking the box back while you wrestle with the top half of your formal wear.

Tony tinkers under the panel in your forearm for a few moments before clicking the circuit into place. “Done.”

You blink. “That was quick,” you say. He hadn't even reached for his soldering iron.

“I left a space for it when I designed the arm,” Tony says, reclaiming his glass and taking a swallow. “It wasn't ready, so I got the arm made and kept playing around with it until I got a working prototype.”

“What does it do?” you ask, because it doesn't feel any different.

“It's the latest designer wear for the one-armed spook who has everything. Everything, that is, except the perfect disguise.”

Hidden between two plates is a tiny switch you'd never really noticed before, just proud enough of the surface that you can flick it with your thumbnail. A moment later, you have two flesh arms.

“You need to sit down?” Tony asks.

“No,” you say. “No, I'm okay.”

“It won't hold up to physical contact, of course. It's just an illusion. It'll fool the eyes, but if someone grabs it, they'll feel the metal,” Tony says. He reaches out and wraps his free hand around your left wrist to demonstrate. The projection holds, but there's something... wrong about the edges where Tony's skin meets it.

“No shadows,” you say.

“Uh huh. And real skin dents and blanches slightly with pressure. But good enough to pass. Holographics, it's the future. It's no big deal,” Tony says, flippantly.

You know better.

Tony's spent the year since his parents died frantically building prototypes to spearhead his vision to change Stark Industries' direction, or, at the very least, diversify it. You know he's barely slept, let alone had the free time to fiddle with an upgrade for the arm that will be incredibly useful but that you could have managed perfectly well without.

You reach out and tug him into a hug. After a moment, he sighs and relaxes against you.

“Thank you,” you say.

“No problem,” Tony says, and hugs you back.

*

“Very cool, Robocop,” Clint says, prodding your arm with a finger.

“Poke me again and you'll regret it,” you grouch.

Clint proves he's every inch his age by jabbing the air as close as he can without actually touching the holographic skin. You turn your best frown on him and he just laughs.

Clint laughs a lot more these days. He's still a little shit who'd rather start a fight with half a dozen first year candidates than make nice and keep his head down, but he seems to have decided you're not going to beat him, brutalise him, or change the rules just to fuck with his head.

On your darker days, you fantasise about hunting down every last one of Clint Barton's abusers and meting out punishment. Given that the first person on the list, Clint's father, has been dead for a decade, you know it's a grim pleasure you'll never get to experience.

“How's school?” you ask.

Clint's education is as much as a requirement for him becoming a SHIELD agent as his hand-to-hand training and range qualification. He's muddling along with one-to-one tutoring, since the SHIELD Academies generally require a college education and, as far as you can tell from spotty child welfare records, police reports, and Clint's reluctant accounts, he dropped out of school before he hit puberty.

Clint shrugs. “I keep tellin' 'em I'm thick as a plank, and they still keep tryin'.”

“Uneducated don't mean stupid,” you say.

Your accent has thickened strangely in your mouth, as it does at times. From Clint's piercing gaze, he's noticed, too.

“I had a friend. He was sick a lot, missed a bunch of schooling, so he didn't test well. The nuns used to cane him for it,” you say, as the memory rises, insubstantial and ephemeral as smoke. “Make him stand in front of the whole class till he just about fainted from the strain. His heart...”

The levity has completely gone from Clint's expression. He's as attentive as he would be were he staring at a target. His lips press together like he's biting back words, a restraint you've never before observed in him.

“You ain't stupid,” you say, and this time, it's you that leaves in a rush. Clint doesn't follow.

*

That night, you dream.

A thin blond boy is lying in a bed layered with blankets and winter coats. His cheeks are hectic spots of colour in his white face. He coughs and coughs and coughs with barely a pause to suck in a breath.

You hold his limp, damp hand and pray to a God you barely believe in. Your soul is grey with sin, an unworthy offering, but it's offered with true contrition. You promise to repent of your ways forever after if he is spared.

You wake.

You still don't know if God exists, but decide that if he does, he's cruel beyond comprehension.

After all, he spared that frail child only to let him die a handful of years later, the martyr of a war, and sentenced you live without even the memory of him to comfort you.

*

Clint learns and fights and makes friends and enemies and eventually, takes the SATs at nineteen. He scrapes a respectable score for a kid who'd spent his formative years learning to throw knives and walk a tightrope rather than work trigonometry and write essays on the American Civil War.

When he gets his results back, you hand him a long, thin package almost as tall as he is.

“Is it a Nimbus 2000? Because I think the owl with my Hogwarts letter was intercepted by the screeners in the mail room,” Clint cracks.

“Spoilers,” you mutter, because you've only just reached the chapter with the magical wall onto the train platform.

Clint giggles while he wrestles with the tape. “The mental image of you reading Harry Potter in bed at night, after a hard day assassining people, will never not be...”

Clint's mockery trails to a stop as the arm of the bow is revealed. It's sleek matt black, made of some special carbon fibre that Tony had raved about. It's light in weight, elegant in line and deadly in function.

The paper is brushed aside completely and Clint's face is turbulent with emotion. He swallows, and then he swallows again.

“I... I can't take this,” he says, finally. “There's no way I can afford it.”

“It's a gift,” you say.

“It's too much. You must have spent a lot on it. I ain't worth...”

“You are,” you say firmly. “But if it makes you feel better, it didn't cost me a dime. A friend of mine made it, said he hasn't had so much fun in years, wouldn't take a cent. But even if he had, you'da been worth it.”

Clint scrubs at his eyes, then lets a hand drift across the surface in a caress. “Thank you,” he says, his voice thick.

“He made some arrows, too, experimental. Projectiles are his bread and butter, but they're normally missile-sized. The results might be unexpected.”

Clint coughs a little, clears his throat, and visibly regathers his composure. “Sounds like fun.”

They spend the afternoon at the range, shooting all Tony's ridiculous arrows. By the end, Clint's a bit starry eyed and in love with the potential and has carefully scribed a list of likes, dislikes, improvements and suggestions.

“Boomerang arrow?” you ask, dubious. “Why?”

“Because, boomerangs,” Clint says, and underlines it for emphasis.

*

“Sergeant Barnes?”

Phil Coulson is a little older, a little thinner on top, and, besides the colour on the tips of his ears, a lot more composed than their first meeting years before.

“Sir?” you say, and his cheeks pink.

It's technically correct. You know from casual gossip that Coulson has advanced steadily up the ranks, and that, as a handler of highly specialised assets, his clearance level is higher than your own.

“You know that Barton has been cleared to begin field duties?” he asks, pushing through his bashfulness.

You nod.

“You wrote a glowing report of his progress and his potential,” Coulson says.

“I did,” you say.

“I suppose I wondered if you had any more... specific advice,” Coulson says, a touch tentative.

You cock your head. “You're going to be his handler.”

Coulson shrugs. “Trial basis at first. If we get along, which I hope we will, then I'd expect it to become more permanent. What's he like?”

“Gifted,” you say. “Headstrong. Tactical thinker. Dedicated.”

“Tell me something that isn't in the report,” Coulson says.

“He's young and he's vulnerable. Don't let him provoke you and don't let him play dumb. He's intelligent but he doesn't rate himself outside the range. Big praise and grand gestures spook him. He doesn't understand them. He's been used by too many people. He's always waiting for the slap,” you say, and you're pleased when Coulson's lips tighten and he nods.

“Softly, softly, then,” he says. “Thank you.”

“If you're still handling Agent Romanoff, you might think about teaming them up when you can,” you add as he's turning away. “She brought him in. There's trust there, and he doesn't trust easily.”

“Already done,” Coulson says with a small smile.

*

The millennium turns, and you see it in alone.

You long ago worked out that alcohol doesn't do anything for you, but you drink a bottle of something anyway while fireworks burst like mortar shells outside your window.

For something to do, you send an international text to Tony at an indecent hour, telling him the y2k bug has killed your prosthetic.

Liar liar, Tony texts back. Alos thems duelling words poitn of pride.

Arm has now detached from my body and gone on an independent spree of violence, send hel-, you reply.

Dude, tryn to get laid her, Tony eventually replies.

Be sly, VD is high, you reply.

omfg, bukcy barnes jus told me no glove no love, nevr havnig sex again, Tony shoots back after a marked pause.

Not if you don't put your cell phone down, you won't, you send with a chuckle.

FUUUU, Tony replies, and you can sense his eye roll from the other side of the Atlantic.

*

The war on terror sends you to places near and far and almost universally hot and/or sandy. Often, you're with a strike team but sometimes a little more precision is needed. That generally means you're alone, the Winter Soldier, the one man solution.

This time, it was decided that a couple would be best, so you're teamed up with Natasha again. It's pleasant and familiar, a comfortable worn space that you both still fit into. You counterpoint each other just as beautifully as you used to when you were stealing doomsday device designs and running from the Stasi. It's just the same, and it's completely different.

“So, you and Barton,” you say after the third day without movement from your target.

“Me and Barton, what?” Natasha asks, her slight smile giving nothing away.

“You know what,” you tease.

“He's sweet,” she concedes. “Young.”

“Breakable,” you say.

“Not as fragile as you might think,” she says.

“Energetic?” you ask, wriggling your eyebrows.

“Delightfully so,” she replies.

“It's the arms, isn't it?” you say, and she actually snorts.

“They're a definite perk,” she says, her smile turning smug.

*

You visit Peggy for the first time in a year when you get back.

“You've had your heart broken,” she assesses shrewdly.

“I see you couldn't retire completely,” you grouch.

“I survive on gossip and hearsay – a character flaw I made a very fine career on,” Peggy says. “My great-niece is at the Academy, top of her class. She's my inside woman.”

“And all the rest,” you say.

“I do have my own modest share of old friends who come to visit,” she says shamelessly. “Sit down and take tea with me. A little civility in the afternoon.”

The tea comes in a silver service, very fine, with delicate teacups that glow translucent in the sunlight. You stare down into the liquid for long moment, as though your fortune really does lie at the bottom of it.

“You're holding your heart in your hands, Peter,” she says, after looking you up and down.

You sigh.

“Are you jealous of them?” she asks.

“No,” you reply immediately, and it's true.

“What, then?”

“I think I'm too old for... all of that,” you say, feeling it in your bones.

“You were born old,” Peggy says. “Reborn old, anyway. The war did that to all of us. You're not too old, you're tired, there's a difference.”

“Feels the same,” you say.

“Too old means never again,” Peggy says. “Tired means your spirits will rally in time. And they will rally.”

“You're so certain.”

“Of course, I am. I know you,” she says.

“You're one of the only ones left who remembers,” you say. “None of them remember, they're too young. I don't know why that matters, but it does.”

“Because to be remembered is to be seen,” Peggy says. “Your work is best done from the shadows, but no one wants to be invisible, Peter. Even you.”

*

The latter part of what wags in the media call the Naughties comprise of a succession of horrible shocks and near losses.

First, Peggy has a stroke. She rallies quickly enough and is able to go home after a couple of weeks, but it leaves her weak and hesitant to move unassisted, and, just once or twice, you sense a confusion in her that wasn't present before. They frighten you, those little moments when her mind is less than razor sharp.

To be remembered is to be seen, she had said.

Sometimes it feels as though without Peggy, you'd vanish altogether.

Second, Natasha is shot outside Odessa. She gets herself and her asset to the extraction point, but her healing rate is slow, for her. For the first two days, they daren't move her at all, but eventually, she's medivacced back to the States.

You visit her in the hospital, but you don't linger. There's no need, once you see her sleeping, safe and mending. You leave her with a chaste kiss on the forehead and an ironic bunch of grapes. You stumble across Clint sitting in a stairwell, hollow-eyed and shaking, and take him to a bar, where you buy him drinks until he's boneless. You pour him onto your sofa and place a bucket beside him, and, on an impulse, you kiss his forehead, too.

For the final blow, Tony visits Afghanistan. He's there to demonstrate the Jericho, the missile that he's told you is Stark Industries' swan song for the weapons industry. The convoy is attacked and Tony is taken, leaving nothing behind but a puddle of blood.

You storm into Fury's office like an avenging angel, demanding to be assigned the mission to find him.

“That's not your call to make,” Fury says, unimpressed.

“The hell it ain't,” you spit.

“You're compromised,” Fury states. “Agents have been assigned, agents who are not you.”

“Agents who were children five minutes ago,” you say. “I've got more experience than all of them put together.”

“Is that really how you want to play this? The seniority card? May I remind you that you're a floating asset, you go where we send you. The people I've got on the ground know the area intimately, know the climate, and know which groups are active and which ones are most likely to have taken him. They're the experts, not you.”

“That's bullshit,” you say.

“That's the way it is. And that's how it's going to be,” Fury says. “Go home.”

“I'm a weapon. I'm made for action, not waiting,” you say.

“This time, you don't have a choice,” Fury says.

You growl as you turn away, pushing out through Fury's door.

“He's probably already dead, Barnes. You know that,” Fury says to your retreating back.

*

That night, you dream of the table for the first time in decades.

You're reciting your name and serial number while Steve stares down at you, his eyes wild.

Bucky, oh my God, he says, and rips the bindings from you. It's me, it's Steve.

Steve, you say, Steve, your mouth curving up into a smile, and he pulls you up off the table and into his arms.

The next morning, at dawn, you con your way onto a troop transport with your SHIELD I.D. and a carefully cultured degree of menace. You sit alongside a Seal team as you bump through the atmosphere, every stomach-churning minute a few miles closer to Tony.

*

For the first time in memory, you're completely independent. There is no extraction point, no handler, and no safe house but the spaces you make safe with your own hands. You take down splinter cells and agitators, discover training camps and carefully guarded bolt holes. You're one man, and even though you're a white man, you're able to move deep in territory the American military don't bother going. Your place is in the shadows, after all.

Three slow unfruitful months tick away, and by month two, you're convinced that there's money behind this, that the group responsible has powerful sponsors.

You hear the name Ten Rings and it leads you to the hills.

You hear of an explosion, of a rocket shaped like a man that shot up into the sky, and you walk into the desert.

You spot a cluster of helicopters and you run, faster than you think you ever have, in time to see a ragged figure being embraced by a man in fatigues that you vaguely recognise from some of Tony's parties. He's a friend of Tony's, an actual friend, Rhodes, but if your hunch is right, even the closest of friends are suspect now.

You ignore the orders for you to stop from the men behind the guns. Nothing is going to stop you now.

“Hold your fire, stand down,” Rhodes shouts to the gunners behind him. “Barnes, he's all right,” he says to you, but you pull Tony from him into your own arms, anyway.

“Hey, hey, the gang's all here,” Tony slurs up at you. He's filthy, thin and bloody, and from the centre of his chest glows a familiar blue light. Pain has carved deep lines around his mouth and eyes and you realise with a cold horror that he looks older than you, that he likely has done for years.

“We can take him,” says a woman nearby. A patch on her uniform says she's a medic.

“I'm taking him,” you snap, daring all those around you with your eyes to try and argue. None do.

You slide an arm behind Tony's knees and lift him with ease, cradling him against your chest. His breath escapes him, a little huff of amusement and pain, but then he relaxes against you, like he always does.

Once you're in the air, you consent to the medics lying Tony out on the stretcher, starting an IV, and tending to his many hurts. They push some kind of narcotic into the bag and Tony's eyes slip slowly closed. You sit by him, holding his hand, and no one asks you to move, not even Rhodes, who keeps as close a vigil as you do.

Every now and then, Tony stirs a little, his eyes opening just a crack. He looks about until he can focus on you and you say, “It's me, it's Bucky, you're safe.” He slides back into sleep, every time.

*

From the moment you hold onto him in the desert, you become his shadow.

You trail him from chopper to field hospital, from hospital to troop carrier, and from the airport to the press conference where Tony drops the biggest bomb he's ever made.

Agent Coulson sidles up to you, a polite smile fixed firmly in place. “Director Fury has asked me to convey a message. He says you're to get your ass home now, or else.”

“Tell Director Fury I remember when he was a snot-nosed kid fresh out of the Army Rangers, and he'll need to get some bigger boots to make me do something I don't want to,” you reply.

Coulson's mouth twists in amusement.

“Stark's a big boy,” he says a moment later. “I think he can take care of himself.”

You shake your head. “There's something not right here. Something's rotten, and I ain't going back until I find it.”

“Or whom?” Coulson asks.

“Yeah,” you say, scanning the crowd of reporters, looking for the sour notes in the symphony.

Coulson looks out across the room himself. “You need support?” he asks.

You shake your head. “I need time.”

He nods in agreement. “I can buy you a little.”

“I went AWOL for three months. I'm the wrong person to be running interference for, if you like your career,” you say.

“There's loyalty, and there's loyalty,” Coulson says. “You've been SHIELD's soldier for the better part of a century, since before there even was a SHIELD. If anyone's earned a little leeway, it's you.”

He sidles away to talk to Stark's assistant while you're still struggling for an answer.

*

Obadiah Stane oozes around, never far from Tony's side, murmuring self-serving words into Tony's ear. You wonder how much Stane stands to lose if Tony goes through with his plans to default on their military contracts rather than gradually tapering off, as he had been before his capture.

Pepper Potts, Tony's personal assistant, is as much a shadow to Tony as you are, half a step behind in person and two steps in front anticipating Tony's needs. Most people would dismiss her instantly, but you know the power in being able to move invisibly. And, after all, two of the most deadly people you've ever met have been women.

Happy Hogan, Tony's driver and bodyguard, resents your presence for a little while, but settles once he's given something to do. You don't think he'd have the motivation or the brains to do something on his own, but you don't discard the possibility that someone might have acted through him, maybe even without his knowledge.

James Rhodes is perfectly positioned to be the greatest threat. He's got influence in the military, in politics, and in Stark Industries. Most importantly, he's got influence with Tony, a sentimental attachment that could sway Tony any way he needed; well, as much as anyone can sway Tony to do anything.

You sit and you watch and you wait for the traitor to make their move.

*

It's Stane. Of course, it's Stane. He's twisted the board against Tony, and he's rotten to the core. All they need now is the proof.

“I need you to go with Pepper,” Tony says.

“I'm not leaving your side,” you growl, and Tony wheels on you. For a moment, you think he's going to shout, but when he speaks, his voice is carefully controlled.

“I'm sending her into the lion's den. You've got no reason to be there alone, but if you're accompanying her, you can protect her. I can't do it myself,” Tony says.

“If we wait until after-hours, I can get in and get the data without any questions asked,” you say.

“If we wait, there might not be anything left to find,” Tony says. “Bucky, please. I need you to keep her safe.”

You swallow hard. “And what about you?” you say.

“I've got the suit and I've got JARVIS,” Tony says. “I'll be fine.”

“Better be, you punk,” you say.

You get in and get out with the data but Stane makes you. Phil Coulson appears like a miracle and you hand Pepper over to his care.

“I have to get to Tony,” you say.

You're incapacitated before you even reach your car.

“The Winter Soldier,” Stane says, standing over you, flicking off his little device. “Fated to walk the earth forever, like The Wandering Jew of myth. I'd heard the legend, of course, but I didn't really believe it until I met you face to face. A marvel of science,” he says.

You fight and you fight and you fight, but you can't move a muscle. Your arm is dead weight, junked by a localised EMP a second before the paralysis hit. It's designed to reboot, but that won't help you, since the nerves that control it aren't working.

“The creation of a very gifted man, a man with vision. Sadly gone, but his legacy lives on in his research and in you, of course. You're a valuable commodity, Sergeant Barnes. Once I've set my house in order, perhaps I'll find a use for you. Doctor Zola certainly had some clever ideas about how you might be improved upon. The arm was just the beginning of his plans.”

Stane isn't strong enough to carry you but he's wise enough to use his position against you. He calls security.

“I caught him trying to steal information; probably a corporate spy working for Hammer Tech. I got in a lucky punch, knocked him loopy,” Stane says, shaking out his hand as if to dim an imagined ache. “Don't call the police; put him in the basement. Lock him in one of the empty vaults. I'll be back to interrogate him about his employers later. Let him sweat for now.”

You watch his polished shoes stride off into the distance and will yourself to move.

*

The vault is beyond even your strength to breach; solid steel and concrete. Your muscles tremble and twitch and the walls seem to creep ever closer in on you. They've left you the light on, at least.

You pace like a tiger once you're able to stand without falling over, muttering under your breath.

“Three two five five seven zero three eight, Barnes,” you recite, like a prayer.

You're locked in long enough that you start calculating the dimensions of the space, estimating the remaining oxygen. You remember the hospital in London, the boarded windows, the sense of being entombed. It's nothing like the real thing; the helplessness you feel at the reality of an encroaching quiet death just as lethal as the one granted by that little pill, one that will have you struggling to breathe as the air thickens, turning toxic.

Finally, the door opens with a groan and you whirl, hands up and ready to fight.

It's Pepper. She's disarrayed and dirty. There's a faint glitter of pulverised glass on her hair and clothing and her eyes are red.

“Tony?” you ask, and it sounds like you're pleading.

“He's alive,” she says.

Phil Coulson appears behind her and looks you up and down as though checking for damage.

“I need to see him,” you say.

Coulson nods. “I'll take you to him,” he says, and leads the way.

*

Tony puts up with you hovering at his bedside for twenty minutes then kicks you out without ceremony.

“Seriously, go home. And not to my home, to your home. Go creep around after someone else, someone who is not me. I love you but I want my life back,” Tony says.

You nod and leave.

“He'll be monitored,” Coulson assures you. “There's a car waiting for you outside.”

You fly back overnight. The car from the airport takes you directly to SHIELD and to Nick Fury.

“Well, if it isn't the God-damned prodigal son,” he begins.

He only stops shouting at you when Tony's press conference hits the airwaves. Then, he's got something better to be steamed about.

“Get out,” he says, and you do.

“Hey, stranger,” Natasha says from where she's leaning casually against the wall.

“Hey,” you say. You start walking and she walks with you.

“You were gone a long time. Rumour mill said you'd turned merc,” she says with an amused quirk to her lips.

“Rumour you started?” you say.

Natasha scoffs. “Far too unimaginative. I started the rumour that you'd joined the circus. Clint supplied enough details that we sucked in more than I expected. How's your juggling?”

“Passable,” you say with a shrug.

“You can actually juggle?” she asks, genuinely curious.

“It was the War,” you say, as though that explains everything.

“I thought you didn't remember your service,” she says.

“I get bits, sometimes,” you say. “I don't remember learning, or why I learned. Just that I did, and there were men, laughing, bored, trying to amuse themselves. There was a fire. Stewed, twice used tea leaves in the bottom of a tin cup. The scent of pine forest. And that's it. No context. No faces. No idea if it really happened, or if my brain made it up to fill the space.”

“It sounds real,” she says.

Your smile feels sad on your face. “So do your memories of dancing. You move like a dancer, sometimes. It's easy to forget you weren't.”

“Yeah,” she says.

You walk in silence for a moment before she says, “Fury wants to embed me in Stark Industries. Not openly, but close to Stark. I thought you needed to know.”

“So that I don't blow your cover,” you say, and she shakes her head.

“Because you're compromised when it comes to him, and you'd take it as a betrayal of trust if I didn't tell you,” she says. “Your trust matters to me.”

“I trust you to watch him,” you say.

“Thank you,” she says. “I'll do my best to look out for him.”

“I know you will,” you say.

It's the knowledge that Natasha will soon be at Tony's side that keeps you from defying Fury's orders and Tony's wishes and getting straight on a flight back to the West Coast.

You go to the gym and knock the stuffing out of some of the heavy bags instead.

*

You're not quite reduced to scrubbing floors with a toothbrush or peeling a million potatoes, but Fury makes his displeasure clear. You're sent to a lot of faraway places over the next year, places with problems and without much else for you to do save for your job. Every now and then you hear scraps of information from home. You know that Tony's been dealing poorly with things and that there's a new man gunning for him, but you also know that Natasha would tell you if it was something she couldn't handle herself. She's considerate enough to send you a message after the attack on the Stark Expo to let you know it's all resolved, that Tony's okay. You tell yourself that it's enough to be kept in the loop and that you don't need to see for yourself over and over until you almost believe it. It's not until you see Tony getting an award from some Senator on the news that you finally relax.

As the crowning glory, the worst assignment of the lot, you actually spend three whole months as an Arctic fisherman, trying to crack a smuggling ring. Given the smugglers have been smugglers for generations, they're reluctant to trust an outsider, even though they've modernised enough to be running illegal bioweapons to political hotspots rather than bootleg liquor. You'd attempt a more head on approach, but you know they'll just melt away at the first irregularity, find a new route, a new contact, and you'll be back at square one. It's the only thing that keeps you here, gutting yet another fish, washing it, putting it on ice.

The seasons have turned to full winter, forever night, when the call comes through on your sat phone.

“Change of plans,” Fury says. “Get your ass to the airport right now. There'll be transport waiting. I need a man I can trust on the ground, and there's no one I trust with this more than you.”

“That's not the impression I was given,” you quibble.

“Sergeant, you just stuck it out through nearly four months of fish guts. If that isn't loyalty, I don't know what is. KP duty's over. You passed. Good job. Now I need you to be my soldier. Get down to the airport. Your mission is to protect the package at all costs. Until you touch down on US soil and walk into the base with that package, undamaged, at your side, you're to hold the line. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” you say.

*

The package is a refrigerated box. It's taller and broader than a man and very heavy. You could probably lift it if you had to, but someone has found a heavy goods trolley for it. They wheel it across the tarmac to the waiting SHIELD plane, and you're in step with it the whole way. You've taken Fury's words to heart – you're wearing body armour and are openly carrying at least three guns and two knives. There are more concealed in your clothing that you could reach for in a moment if you needed to. Like the reassurance of holding that hidden knife in the snow, you always feel more secure if they're there, an extra set of teeth that your opponents don't see until you strike out at them.

Some people ride along, but they're scientists, not soldiers. You allow them to monitor the readouts on the box to make sure the numbers hold steady, but you make it clear through body language and terse words that they're not to do anything else, nothing that constitutes tampering with the seals. They eye the rifle in your hands and keep a respectful distance.

Fury himself is waiting when they wheel the package down the tailgate. He looks at you for a moment and you think that there's a tiny hint of amusement in the twitch of his mouth. It vanishes as though it never was a second later.

The cowering scientists are joined by a handful of colleagues and they hurry the trolley away.

“Come with me, Sergeant,” Fury says. “There's something you need to see.”

*

The box is whisked into a surgery suite and the scientists and doctors within bustle around it like bees in a hive. You stand with Fury outside, looking through a window on the scene.

“Did they tell you what was inside?” Fury asks.

“They didn't say much of anything,” you say.

Fury snorts. “No, I suppose they wouldn't have,” he says, gesturing at you.

You've set the rifle aside and leaned it in a corner of the booth, at least.

“What's inside could change the world,” Fury says, simply. “It could give us the tools to make our agents strong enough to face the threats the Gifted and the enhanced pose, or it could give people everywhere a symbol to follow. Trouble is, we won't know which, until they open the box. And opening the box could destroy the chance of either, if it's not done right.”

There's a ringing in your ears that's getting louder. Your flesh hand is cold and clammy, and your heart feels about ready to thump its way out of your chest.

“I think you know what I'm talking about,” Fury says.

You lean forward, your forehead pressing against the glass. Your breath mists the surface, turning the people beyond it into colourful blurs, softening the line of the casket. Because, that's what it is, you realise, like the painted boxes at the museum that you suddenly remember gazing at, over eighty years ago.

It's a sarcophagus, Steve says, scrawling out a sketch in his notebook with a stubby pencil.

That's a two-bit word for a gaudy coffin, you scoff, before turning to look at the glass case with the mummified cat inside.

“Do it,” you say.

“If you're sure,” Fury says.

You shrug, never taking your eyes from the box.

“You'll do it anyway,” you say. “And what have I got to lose?”

“Everything, I should think,” Fury says, and leaves.

You see him step inside the room to give the order and then you wait.

*

You don't sleep for three days.

You guard over Steve from that little room as faithfully as you've ever guarded anything in your life. From the moment Fury called you on the sat phone, he became your mission. From the day you met in the dim and bloody past, in an alley or a playground or a classroom, he was your responsibility.

You cannot leave.

At first, they simply open the lid. Then, they crane him out onto a stretcher, run all kinds of scans and tests.

“My God,” one says. “This guy's still alive.”

You sit, because your knees threaten to give.

They slowly melt away the ice, and push warm saline once they find a vein. They attach sensors to his chest once the remains of his uniform are carefully cut away.

Every two minutes, the machine beeps, recording a glacially slow double-beat.

Now and again, somebody brings you food. You eat it mechanically, watching as Steve's chest rises and falls, his first breaths in seventy years.

“We're keeping him sedated,” a doctor comes to explain. “We want to give his soft tissue and brain longer to regenerate before he's conscious. If he woke now, he'd likely be disoriented, or in great pain, or both.”

“Drugs don't work on him,” you say, a faint sense of horror underlying your words, a memory of a field, of blood, of someone's penknife, all thankfully just out of your reach. There are some things you don't need to remember.

“The sedative was developed for yourself and Ms. Romanoff. We've had to increase the dosage significantly to keep up with his metabolic rate, but it seems to be working.”

“So he's not in pain?” you ask.

“Not that we know of,” he says.

“Thanks,” you say.

You look away from Steve some time later to see that Coulson has joined you, his face a curious mixture of hunger and hope. He presses a hand to the glass.

“This means a lot to you,” you say.

“Yes,” he says, his voice rough.

“Why?” you ask.

“Because we need heroes and he was the greatest hero of his time,” Coulson says. “Why is it important to you?”

You focus on something other than Steve for what feels like the first time since you stepped into the room, sharp words ready on your lips.

“Forgive me, but your amnesia, it's documented. It's not well known about, but it's there to be found for those who know where to look,” Coulson says apologetically. “Why does it matter to you?”

“Because to be remembered is to be seen,” you say.

“And if he wakes, and doesn't remember? It's a possibility,” Coulson says.

“Then we make do with what we've got,” you say. “We start from the beginning. We did it once already. We can do it again.”

“I hope so,” Coulson says. “I really do.”

He smiles warmly and slips away.

*

Fury makes a fake room with antique store furnishings and an old baseball game on the radio.

“This is shit, and he'll know it's shit the moment he looks around. He ain't stupid,” you say.

“Call it a test,” Fury says.

“You can stick your test up your ass,” you growl.

“You got a better idea, Sergeant? Because right now, you're just making me want to send you on another fishing trip,” Fury says.

“You bet I do,” you say.

*

You keep the room and the sounds of the traffic outside. You turn off the fake ball game, but leave the radio there as a prop. It's familiar enough to be a comfort, after all.

You let them dress Steve in a replica SSR T-shirt and a pair of slacks and lay him out on the old iron framed bed. You've tugged on a uniform that smells of mothballs. There's a row of medals and ribbons pinned to it, those medals you shoved away out of sight seventy years ago and never tried on, even in private. Your left sleeve is pinned up, Tony's beautiful prosthetic abandoned outside. You'll show it to him soon, but right now, you need him to see you without it. You need to appear as you once did. You need to be the man he left behind in London, just for a little while.

There's a chair for you at the bedside. You sit in it, take his hand, and watch his now-familiar features. His breathing is slow and steady and his heartbeat taps in his throat. Just sleeping now, they say. When he's ready, he'll wake.

When he wakes, you'll be ready.

*

You doze without meaning to, days without rest catching up to you without warning.

You stir when the hand in yours squeezes tight.

Steve's eyes are open, deep ice blue and aware, and there's a small smile curving on his face.

“Hey, Buck,” he says, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Hey, Steve,” you say.

“Where are we?” he asks, looking around the room for cues, frowning.

“New York,” you say.

“Where are we really?”

There's suspicion in every line of his face. Fury's little charade would have made him come up swinging. As it is, he's barely holding himself in check.

“New York, really. But it's complicated,” you say.

“Complicated, how?” Steve asks. He's listening, but he's also checking the exits, looking you up and down like maybe you're lying to him. “You look different,” he says. “Older.”

“You've been asleep for a long while,” you say.

“How long?” he asks.

“Years,” you say.

“How many years?” he presses.

“It ain't gonna make sense unless I start at the beginning,” you say.

“Ain't ever gonna get there if you just keep dancing round the question,” Steve says.

“All right,” you say. “But it's a long story, and you gotta stop interrupting.”

“No promises,” Steve says. The crease between Steve's brows doesn't go away, but he settles back to listen, his fingers still threaded through yours.

“It all started when I woke up in the snow,” you say. “That's where I began.”