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The Company You Keep

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After SHIELD falls, Bruce manages to go a month and a half without trouble. He ends up in the Alps on a whim, with no real thoughts on a destination apart from Shit Shit Shit Run. Maybe it was watching The Sound of Music with Clint last Christmas (I lift up mine eyes into the hills) but for whatever reason, when he needs to split, he ends up in Switzerland, von Trapp style. Nevermind that the von Trapps didn’t climb any mountains en masse, as far as Bruce knows, and they most definitely took a train to Italy when they left Austria. His escape isn’t defined by its historical accuracy.

And since he will never fess up to Tony that he’s been walking the mountainside humming Edelweiss for the last five weeks, it doesn’t matter.

Bruce misses Tony. It’s a strange, unfamiliar feeling, to be drawn to something or someone. It seeps around the ever present anger in his mind, and numbs it. It drowns out the images of a helicarrier aiming a gun at him while he’s sitting quietly in an NYU library. He sleeps easier. He smiles more often, even if it’s only to himself. Tony keeps him entertained, from 4,000 miles away, mostly with jokes, threats of dick pics, and occasional news of SHIELD and Steve and Natasha. Tony isn’t as accurate as say... CNN, but he’s a hell of a lot more interesting. Their text relationship largely involves emojii abuse, coded sentences that take a full day to break, and an unsurprising amount of Pig Latin. Bruce would not have it any other way.

He’s sitting on the floor of an old barn, waiting for a text back from Tony, when he first sees the flash. A man is approaching from a distance, with a bare, metal arm angled to reflect the sunlight directly into Bruce’s eyes. It feels deliberate. Without question he knows who has found him. It’s the Winter Soldier.

It helps his control immeasurably that Bruce has already gotten enough of the story from Tony that he knows the Winter Soldier isn’t necessarily a threat. That he might not be on team Hydra anymore. Everything is okay for now. They’re far enough from civilization that this might not even get ugly.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Bruce calls out in warning, as the man approaches. “Please don’t make me do something we’ll both regret.”

The soldier walks on, as if Bruce hadn’t spoken at all. His hands are free of weapons, and he keeps them where Bruce can see them. That helps keep the Other Guy from shoving his way to the surface.

When the soldier steps fully into the barn he isn’t what Bruce was expecting. He’s limping ever so slightly. He looks miserably tired. And when he speaks his voice is scratchy and unexpectedly hesitant. Like English doesn’t come as easily as it should.

“You know Steve Rogers,” the soldier says, and it’s almost a question. There’s room for denial, if Bruce has any reason to deny it. He doesn’t.

“I do know him,” Bruce confirms. His own voice is the sound of calm. He is steady. Everyone gets to live (for now). “So do you, I think.”

“No, I don’t,” the soldier says wearily. “I don’t fuckin’ know him. Bucky Barnes knew him and I’m not Bucky Barnes.”

Bruce puts down his phone and telegraphs his movements as he sits it on the ground. They both need to prove that violence isn’t imminent.

“I guess maybe we should introduce ourselves then,” Bruce says, for lack of better conversation. “I’m Bruce Banner. And you are?”

The soldier’s eyes bore into Bruce. Bruce takes a deep, stilling breath, and lets it out on a four count. The Other Guy is definitely not a fan of the soldier’s sharp gaze.

“A weapon,” the soldier replies finally. “An asset.”

“I more meant your name,” Bruce points out. “Do you have a name?”

For nearly a minute the soldier says nothing. Bruce takes that time to catalogue the soldier’s injuries. When the man lets another minute pass without an answer Bruce speaks again.

“I’ve got some food,” Bruce offers.

He knows malnutrition when he sees it. He sees other things too-- tattered clothing, favoring of the left leg, dark shadows under the eyes, shallow breathing, rib retractions-- those aren’t as easily solved as hunger.

“Won’t stay down,” the soldier replies. He sounds weary in a way Bruce understands. Life on the run is a bitch. Doubly so, if you’re sick or injured.

Bruce really isn’t sure where else this will go and the staring contest going on between them only seems to agitate things. Bruce reaches slowly for his backpack and pulls a StarkBar out of a side pouch. StarkBars aren’t technically a thing yet, so much as a side project that Bruce had been working on before he left. On the run they’d been a life saver. When Bruce gets back, he and Tony are going to revolutionize food aid.

For now, it’s the best he has to offer.

“This might be different,” Bruce says. “Here, I’ll break it in half and we’ll split it.”

The soldier considers it and then steps closer when Bruce reaches out half the bar to him. Bruce is reminded sadly of a stray dog he and Betty used to see on campus back in the day. The poor thing had been about as wary of human kindness and food handouts as the soldier is now. The comparison only amplifies when the man sniffs the food cautiously before taking a hesitant bite.

“It’s meant to be easy to digest,” Bruce says conversationally, as if this isn’t one giant mind fuck unravelling around him. “High calorie. And it has enough fat that it will kind of... slide down. Ummmm... won’t induce thirst, and shouldn’t upset your stomach. Maybe. I haven’t let myself get thirsty enough for it to matter. But here--” Bruce reaches back into his bag for one of the two bottles of water he keeps refilling from a nearby stream. He rolls it to the soldier. “Just in case.”

The soldier stares at the bottle of water with the same intensity he’d stared at Bruce. Bruce gets the feeling it isn’t anything personal.

Eventually the man sits down, more obviously favoring his leg when he has to shift his weight to do it. He ends up facing Bruce, with his back to the door, and that feels odd in the same way it felt odd to see him moving toward the barn out in the open. Bruce has spent enough time around Clint and Natasha that he thinks sightlines are just a given with assassins. So either the soldier doesn’t care if he gets shot in the back of the head, or he’s good enough that he doesn’t need the reassurance of a view.

Or he’s Hydra and there’s backup out there, though that seems like the least likely of the three considering the calm Bruce is maintaining.

“You mentioned Steve,” Bruce says, bringing up the topic that had started this whole bizarre encounter. “Is there something about him you wanted to know?”

“He’s got eighty-six biographies in print,” the soldier says. His focus is entirely on his food as he takes small bite after small bite.

“Eighty-six, huh?” Bruce asks. “Did you read them all?”

“The ones I could find.”

“Did you read any biographies on Bucky Barnes?”

The soldiers eyes flick up. “The ones I could find.”

There is the slightest hint of life in the soldier’s stare.

“Did you learn anything interesting?” Bruce asks.

“Bucky Barnes is dead. I’m what they stuffed in his corpse.”

“That sounds painful,” Bruce says, which is the first thing that comes to mind. He hasn’t spoken out loud much lately either so he’s not exactly at top form. He has never been at top form, really, now that he thinks about it. “Is there a specific reason you came to find me?”

Bruce isn’t sure how to get an answer without being awkwardly direct.

“You know Rogers and you would be the most difficult to kill if I couldn’t...” The soldier struggles for words.

Bruce gets it though.

“If you couldn’t stop yourself from killing?” Bruce guesses.

“Yes,” the soldier replies. “I kill. That’s what I do.” He says the words in a different voice. It’s recitation. Rote learning.

“You didn’t kill Steve,” Bruce says carefully. He wants to tread lightly here, since he imagines the soldier’s conditioning makes a failure unacceptable. “You rewrote your mission. That’s... it’s incredible, honestly.”

“He’s an idiot,” the soldier says. For a moment he sounds as young and frustrated as he looks. “I could have killed him. He was going to let me kill him. I... I couldn’t let that happen.”

“Maybe Bucky was protecting his friend?” Bruce asks, not wanting to accidentally program any definites into the soldier. He knows just enough about brainwashing to know he treads on dangerous ground, and that he’s probably already fucking things up. “You said you’re Bucky’s corpse. Maybe there’s more of him left in there than just a body.”

“I don’t have his memories,” the soldier says. “Only his face.”

“It was a guess,” Bruce offers. “Not even an educated one. Maybe wishful thinking on Steve’s behalf. He’s out looking for you.”

“I know,” the soldier says. “He’s an idiot.”

The soldier stands, and despite his natural grace, lists a little on his feet.

“You can stay if you want,” Bruce offers. “I have more food, and a blanket. If Hydra comes looking for you, they’ll have to get through me first.”

“Hydra isn’t looking for me. I went down with the helicarrier. They won’t be looking for you either. They have other objectives.”

“You know that for certain?” Bruce asks.

“Yes.” The soldier’s tone leaves no room for follow up questions.