The longer he is out of cryostasis, the more confusing things appear to be. It was never confusing before the man on the bridge started calling the asset strange names, before he failed his mission and started malfunctioning. And he is malfunctioning now, he must be. His head hurts and there is a tight, painful feeling in his throat and abdomen despite him being uninjured. The metal arm, which is normally silent, is beginning to make clicking, whirring noises when the asset moves, alerting him to some mechanical malfunction.
He needs to go in for maintenance and debriefing, but he does not know where the extraction point was supposed to be. The drop site and laboratory where he woke up this time were empty when he made his way back to the bunker in Arlington. The room with his cryo-tank had been blown out and the rest of the equipment stripped. His radio and tracker were damaged when he jumped off the helicarrier into the Potomac, so he cannot call for his own extraction. He does not know how to access the Hydra communications network any other way.
Normally, his commander —
(his handler, his superior officer, the battle captain in charge of the mission; they keep changing the word for it every time he wakes up, but he likes ‘captain’ best)
— would take care of this. His commander is supposed to make sure that they return to Hydra according to the time table. The handler can do basic maintenance and keep the asset combat ready for up to two weeks. A superior officer can give him orders to obey and missions to carry out. The captain makes everything simple and clear.
Which is why the asset ends up at the Smithsonian. There was a poster with a picture of the man on the bridge on it beneath a promise of answers.
He is standing in front of a picture of a small man who looks like the man on the bridge but is not the man on the bridge. This man is frail and familiar in a hazy, indistinct sort of way. The asset stands in front of this picture for thirty-seven minutes, memorizing the angle of his bony shoulders and the defiant, proud way his chin is lifted in the photograph. This man makes him think of things that the asset has no reason to know, like the smooth feel of chalk smudged on his wrists when slender fingers pull him back —
— the smell of buttered popcorn and the salty tang of the Lower Bay off the south pier —
(was there a mission set in Coney Island? When was he there?)
— the gasping sound a man makes when he is dying of asphyxiation. That is the only memory he does not question.
He moves on to another part of the exhibit. There is a wall of photographs of a man who looks like the asset. He pauses, brows furrowing in confusion. No, it is not a man who looks like him. He does not know how he knows this but he knows that those are pictures of himself, which means that he is not looking at a man at all. It is a weapon, an asset, smiling charmingly out of the frames. The text beside the display name the asset as ‘Sgt. James Buchanan Barnes.’ It says that he went by ‘Bucky’ —
(“Who the hell is 'Bucky?'”)
— and that he served under someone named Captain America.
His last target. The man on the bridge —
(“But I knew him.”)
Of course. Things are clicking into place finally, and the smoke is clearing. He knew that the last mission had been a captain, but had not been able to place its importance before now. The asset relaxes, his features smoothing back out. Of course. In the ‘40s, Hydra was still calling them battle captains. They were not called handlers until the ‘60s and the ‘70s. The captain is making things simple again. The Howling Commandos had been an elite team, according to the exhibit. He has worked in teams many times. The text beside the display says that he was Captain America’s sniper. One of his assets. His weapon.
The man on the bridge was his handler before the current commander. That was why it was so difficult to eliminate him.
He goes back to the wall dedicated to Sgt. Barnes.
The asset in the pictures looks. . . He does not know the word for it. The asset is smiling in these, and he does not remember smiling before. He is different in the older pictures, and in one, he spots the small man with him. Was this his handler before Captain America?
He leans in and checks the number next to the photograph with the text below. It tells him that the small man is named Steve Rogers. The asset nods a little to himself. Yes. That sounds familiar, fits with the earlier thoughts or memories, the flashes of colors and sounds and smells. The small man is Steve Rogers, who must have been his first handler until —
(he’s being yelled at and told he’s stupid he’s a jerk he better just go and pack his damn shit up before his train leaves and there’s a door slamming and he knows Stevie is pretending not to cry on the other side)
— until he was transferred to Captain America’s Howling Commandos.
His vision feels distorted, and he feels a wetness on his cheek. The asset wipes his right hand, the flesh hand, across his face, squeezing his eyes shut. What happened? He shakes his head and tries to swallow. The action hurts. Maybe the captain knows why he was transferred. He walks out of the exhibit quickly, head down past the security cameras at the entrance.
He tries to remember how or when he was assigned to Captain America. Why did he not stay with Steve Rogers? Did he fail a mission then as well? Is that why Steve Rogers was upset with him? A cold feeling settles in his chest at the thought, but it seems plausible. If he was not a good weapon when he was assigned to Steve Rogers, Hydra would have given him to a new handler. He would have been —
(strapped to a table in a dimly lit room experimented on tortured screaming nonononono)
— reprogrammed and given a new set of missions and targets in a new place.
That must have been what happened, the asset reasons as he walks away from the Mall, headed east. That was why he went to Europe the first time, and he does not know how he knows that but he does and so he does not question it. He was assigned as Captain America’s sniper while in Europe. And then he did something wrong and was reassigned again. The asset frowns. He does not remember the next set of handlers until his mind gets to Commander Pierce —
(who appears to him at a variety of ages, and at first reminds him of the man on the bridge until he grows too old and no longer does)
— and Commander Rumlow, who the asset believes is new but has little memory to back that belief.
The asset stops at a street corner. Commanders Pierce and Rumlow had hurt him. He does not remember the details, but he knows that he could not fight back because they were the superior officers. Did Captain America ever hurt him? They fought on the bridge and the helicarrier, and he was hurt in those fights but he does not have any memories or distrust towards the captain. The captain had recognized him as having been his subordinate and refused to hurt him after that.
They were with one another to the end of the line.
He does not know what those words mean. The asset thinks that they are a code from his first handler, perhaps, or some kind of trigger to activate certain programming. He knows that there are triggers programmed for complex behaviors as part of his Hydra training. All the operatives have triggers. If Captain America knows them, then he must also be Hydra, and he thinks that he probably knew Steve Rogers.
This thought reassures the asset. If he reports to Captain America, then he can be reassigned from Commander Rumlow back to the captain. He will be given a new mission once Hydra realizes that they made a mistake in targets; the asset was not supposed to kill Captain America. He had never before been given a mission to eliminate a prior handler, why would they start now? No, no, it makes more sense that there was a mistake. Faulty intelligence, perhaps, or part of some larger strategy involving covers and double agents and SHIELD, part of something complicated.
The captain, he thinks, will make it simple again.