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Winter's Children

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The base was supposed to be deserted.

According to the notes he'd found, the place was just a glorified warehouse, poorly constructed and even more poorly secured. The soldier had planned to sneak in and resupply without a fuss, so it came as a surprise to find the interior well-lit and occupied. There were a bunch of HYDRA scientists holding a low-voiced but heated argument amidst rows upon rows of tiny desks. Several of the desks had been shoved together to make one big table, covered with markers and sheets of paper.

A small group of kids was gathered around the table.

There was something strange about these children. It took him a moment to figure it out, because he was busy assessing threats: the scientists were mostly unarmed and entirely untrained, but there was a single guard near the door – distracted, inattentive. He went down without a sound when the soldier clenched his metal hand around his throat from behind.

He turned to look back at the children.

They looked similar enough to be siblings. All of them were small, skinny, with blond hair and narrow faces. They looked… familiar, looked like... like… Steve Rogers, he thought, but that was absurd. Rogers – Captain America – had been 200 pounds of deadly muscle, nothing at all like these frail little kids.

His head spun dizzily. And then one of the scientists spotted him. The room turned into mayhem, kids and handlers fleeing, leaving behind one little blonde boy who was wheezing too hard to run.

The Winter Soldier stared, motionless. The boy looked back at him, scared and wheezing but too stubborn to cry – and suddenly the Winter Soldier knew what to do.

"Easy there," he said, kneeling down in front of the boy. "You got your medicine, kid?"

He reached out with one hand – slowly, carefully, don't startle him – and suddenly the boy grabbed his wrist and yanked, rammed his bony shoulder into the soldier's side, heaved. It was a Judo throw, all leverage and momentum; the kind that, if executed well, would allow a fifty pound boy to put a grown man on his back.

The boy executed it perfectly, but the main reason it worked was that the soldier wasn't expecting it at all. He hit the floor hard and lay stunned for a moment, the air knocked out of him. The boy scrambled on top of him, reached for the gun at his side –

There was a limit to how much the Winter Soldier could let himself be surprised, even by a nine year old boy. He closed the metal hand around the boy's wrist – gently, careful, don't hurt him, don't hurt him – and the boy went still, wide-eyed, terrified, his breath rasping loudly in the quiet.

"Codename Winter Soldier. Authorization 9054FT67," the soldier said, on a hunch, and the boy relaxed all at once, recognizing the code. His breathing was still getting worse, though, the exertion catching up with him. The soldier braced him, helped him into a half-remembered position – kneeling upright, hands on thighs, letting the stomach muscles help with the exhausting work of breathing. "Where's your medicine?" he asked again.

"Table," the boy croaked.

Asthma medication had changed a lot since… since… When would he have had cause to care about anyone's medical problems? The soldier shook his head, dazed. Thankfully the boy seemed to know what to do, sucking in big lungfuls of medicine with the air of a well-practiced ritual, and his breathing was already getting easier.

"What's your name?" the soldier asked quietly.

"Alex, sir. Alexandra 483047." The soldier blinked. Alexandra? But no, he could see it now: despite the shorn hair and the boyish clothes, Alex had a girl's fine-boned facial structure. She was looking at the soldier with wide eyes, a little awed. "Are you really the Winter Soldier?"

"Yes." The soldier said. He studied the girl, her watchful, alert body language, her graceful movements. "Hydra trained you."

"Yes, sir. They used to train us real hard, and Trainer said I was the best fighter of all of us!" Alex said. She looked down and her voice got small and quiet. "But then we didn't grow up big like they thought we would, and me and Adam have the asthma, and Mary had pneum– um – pneumonia again, so they said they were going to eliminate us. But Uncle Pierce said, we don't eliminate kids, and it would be a terrible waste, and we could still grow up to be loyal soldiers of Hydra!"

She ticked those last three points off on her fingers, clearly quoting, and Bucky got the impression the words have been carefully stored away and rehearsed, repeated so often their comfort had worn thin. The girl suddenly flinched, cowering away. "Are you here to eliminate me?"

"No," the soldier said. "I'm here to take you somewhere safe." He hesitated. "If there's anything you want to take, pack it now."

He had some vague idea of the things children valued – a blanket, maybe, a stuffed animal? – but what Alex brought back from her quick forage around the room was a sackful of medication and a gun. It was a Glock 19, too large for her small hands, but she was handling it with the certainty of experience. He watched her eject the magazine, check that it was fully loaded, slam it back in with the flat of her hand, and chamber a round; the whole thing took maybe five seconds altogether. Hydra had trained her well. With the gun she'd be a valuable asset in a fight, small and agile and unexpected. People didn't expect children to be a threat.

He wondered if she'd used the gun against a real opponent before. His stomach clenched and turned over, a queasy feeling he didn't quite know what to do with. She wasn't going to kill anyone on his watch, he decided.

"Give me that," he said, gently but firmly taking the gun from her reluctant hands.

"But I can help!"

"No. I know you could, but you won't. If there's a fight, you go and hide and leave the shooting to me. That's an order."

"Yes, sir," Alex said unhappily.

He let her lead the way to the exit through the maze of corridors, but halfway there, she paused, signaling in Hydra's familiar code: Wait. Silence. The soldier nodded, ducking back into the shadows. She tapped a panel on the wall. After a moment it slid open, revealing a narrow vent. There was another kid curled up in a corner of the small space. This one was a little older than Alex, ten or eleven at a guess, but small for his age, just like her. He had the same narrow shoulders and thin arms, the same face. One leg was stretched out stiffly in front of him.

"Oh no, Max, did you break your leg again?" Alex said.

The boy glared at her – and that expression, like everything about his face, was so naggingly familiar the soldier could hardly bear to look at it. He shifted his eyes down, looking at the boy's bony shoulders, his stubborn chin. That wasn't any better. His head spun; he swallowed hard against a surge of nausea.

"What did you go and lead him here for?" he heard Max say, through the rushing in his ears.

"No, it's okay! He's on our side. He's the Winter Soldier!" Alex said, with the air of someone unveiling a truly impressive surprise.

Max didn't look impressed. "How do you know?"

"He said! And he knows all the codes!" Alex said indignantly.

"Maybe he lied. Maybe he got the codes from somewhere," Max said.

"He's got a metal arm!"

"…okay," Max finally admitted, still sounding skeptical, but apparently unable to come up with any defense to that.

"Can you stand?" Alex asked anxiously. She helped Max crawl out of the narrow space and pulled him carefully to his feet. Max was gritting his teeth, sweat breaking out on his face. He didn't put any weight on his left leg, but it was clear even the careful movement hurt him.

"This is Max. He's my brother!" Alex said proudly, turning to the soldier. "He breaks his bones lots, 'cause they gave him a serum to make his bones stronger but they got worse instead."

"Alex, shut up!" Max said between gritted teeth. He was looking worriedly at the soldier.

Alex's face fell, her shoulders pulling up. She shifted her own body between Max and the soldier. "But he's real smart!" she added hurriedly. "He's the best at solving all the puzzles and he comes up with the best plans!" Now she looked worried, too.

"That's great," the soldier said after a moment, a little helpless. He ought to say something reassuring, he thought, but what was there to say? Max was still watching him, suspicion and hostility on his face, his body screaming defiance. The soldier could see the fear beneath it. He'd gotten very good at recognizing fear.

"You can't walk," the soldier said. Max hunched his shoulders, hugging his arms around himself. He mutely shook his head. The soldier looked away from the naked terror in his eyes. "I'm going to carry you," he said.

Max was stiff and distrustful when the soldier picked him up. He settled the boy on his right hip, where he could turn and shield him with his metal arm if anyone fired at them. Still, the boy was going to be a problem if he had to fight. Nothing he could do about that, though. Keeping these children safe was his mission now. Failing the mission wasn't an option.

As it turned out, Alex's little satchel of medicine contained Max's painkillers, too. "Did you know he'd be here?" the soldier asked.

"I thought probably. Mr. Smith, he's one of the handlers today, he always forgets to be careful with Max when he's scared, and then Max always breaks something. So I thought maybe he'd hide here if he couldn't run."

The soldier's metal hand was balling into a fist by his side, gears whining. It took more effort than it should have to unclench his fingers.

They didn't encounter any resistance on the way out. The base was empty. There hadn't been anyone here capable of putting up resistance to the Winter Soldier, he suspected. The project had obviously been abandoned, just another failed experiment discarded in some remote base. His fist was clenching again.

*******

The soldier took the kids to the McDonald's drive-through. Nothing they sold tasted right to him, barely like food at all, but it was quick and kids were supposed to like it, weren't they?

"Fast food's not allowed!" Alex said, looking at him with wide eyes, clearly awed by this daring breach of the rules.

Max looked unimpressed. "It's a stupid rule anyway," he said defiantly. "They know we're not gonna get fat, and we eat healthy food all the time. They just don't like us doing normal kids stuff and it's mean and you know it!"

He glared at Alex, who glared back. "We're not normal kids! We're soldiers of Hydra and that's way better," she said. The soldier got the impression this was a well-worn argument.

"What do you want to eat?" he asked, which short-circuited the arguing effectively enough.

There were special meals for kids. They contained a toy, which seemed to be the main draw. Alex shyly gave hers to Max in silent apology; he clutched it for a moment, looking agonized, and then handed it back to her with obvious reluctance.

*******

The soldier chose the most respectable-looking motel he could find on short notice. It hadn't mattered when it was just him, but he wasn't going to take the children to some place with dirty carpets and stained sheets.

"Let me see your leg," he told Max. Max looked at him with barely-hidden terror in his eyes, but finally he stretched his leg out, chin lifting stubbornly; knowing he was going to get hurt but too damn proud to beg. It made the soldier want to – to shake him, to fold him up in a hug and keep him safe, to yell until that stubborn punk saw some goddamn sense, too proud to keep himself safe and without the strength to fight back…. Nausea was rising up in his throat again. The soldier looked down, focused on getting Max's pants off without hurting him.

It was a clean break. The soldier's emergency kit contained a field splint. It would have to do. He'd take the boy to a doctor if he could, but they'd find him if he did. If Hydra didn't get there first, Rogers would find him for sure.

Rogers wouldn't kill him, but he wouldn't want the Winter Soldier. He'd take him to his allies, and they'd burn the Soldier out of his brain like Hydra had burned out Bucky Barnes. He'd be useless then, no help to anyone. He couldn't let himself be captured, not yet; he needed to find the rest of the children.

"My bones heal real fast," Max said anxiously. "In a couple days I can walk on it again, I promise."

"Does the rest of your body heal that quickly, too?" the soldier asked. He didn't mean anything by it, just a simple tactical assessment, but Max went pale and still.

"No, sir. The rest of me just heals like normal," he said.

"It's true, you don't have to try it out," Alex cut in hurriedly. "The doctors tried lots of times, but he heals just as slow as the rest of us."

The soldier took a deep breath. With a start he recognized the wild, formless feeling clawing in his chest as rage. He hadn't been angry at Hydra before, not even when he'd been killing them. They'd hurt him and they'd lied to him and they'd needed to be stopped, so he was stopping them. That had been all there was to it. Killing had been necessary, nothing more; suddenly, he felt a cold, burning satisfaction for every drop of their blood he'd spilled.

Max was shaking. The soldier took a deep breath, made his face blank and empty again, kept his hands gentle on the boy's leg until the splint was on firm and tight. "Comfortable?" he asked. Max nodded slowly.

There was a tub in the bathroom, the rim low enough that Max should be able to get in with the splint on. "Go get cleaned up, okay?" he told the kids. "You need to be quiet, though. I need to call someone, but he can't know you're here."

"Is he dangerous?" Alex asked, clearly wanting the answer to be yes.

Her wide-eyed, hopeful expression startled the soldier into a laugh. It hurt in his throat, low and grating; barely a human sound at all, and not one he could remember making for a long time. "Yes. Very," he said.

There was a post-it note in his pocket, crumpled and torn – unfolded, refolded, balled up and smoothed flat many times over. Steve, it said, and a cell phone number in a round, curly hand. Old-fashioned hand-writing. Subject probably between seventy and ninety years old. Steady hands despite the age, some detached part of him analyzed automatically, but of course that was wrong. He always had such girly handwriting, an entirely different part of him thought.

Steve – Rogers – the target had given him the note. He'd caught up with the soldier in a dead-end alley, managed to get the drop on him – could have taken him down from a safe distance with a gun or a tranq dart, but instead he'd squandered his advantage and come right up close, reached for the soldier's arm –

caught his wrist and slammed him up against the alley wall, one arm across his chest to cushion the impact. Steve crowded up close behind him, grinding his hips against Bucky's ass. He was already hard, the hot heavy shape of his cock pressing against Bucky through two layers of clothing. Steve's hand groped roughly down between Bucky's legs, and Bucky made a choked, involuntary noise –

The soldier sucked in a desperate breath. Where had that come from? That wasn't what had happened. His heart was racing. His cock had stirred with the memory, but the sudden, unsettling arousal was already fading again. He squeezed his eyes shut and focused on the memory of what'd really happened, which had been disturbing enough at the time –

Rogers' fingers closed around his wrist. The soldier swung around and drove his metal fist into Rogers' unprotected face. Rogers stumbled back, dazed. He dropped the note he'd been holding in his hand, left a wide opening the soldier could have used to get in another punch.

The soldier bent down and snatched the note off the floor. "Stay away from me!" he snarled, and turned to flee.

Why hadn't he taken the chance to hit Rogers again? He should've taken him down hard, should've made it clear what would happen if Rogers didn't stop following him.

He should've dropped that note once it became clear what it was. He'd never planned to use it, after all. Calling Rogers would send the wrong message entirely, would only encourage him to keep pursuing the soldier. And after that – whatever it had been, that disturbing image just now – the soldier dreaded the thought of contacting Rogers in person. There was something about his voice; it stirred up unwanted images, messed with his mind. He didn't want to know what he'd see if he called Rogers now.

But none of that mattered. He needed to find those kids, and Rogers was the only person in the world who might be willing to help him.

He picked up his phone.

It only rang once. "Hello?" Rogers said. He sounded anxious, hopeful. Worried. The soldier could picture him, big shoulders hunched, clutching the phone too tightly.

The soldier clenched his hand around the gun by his side, made himself focus. There was always too much noise in his head when he talked to Rogers. Rogers' allies had access to powerful technology. He didn't know how fast the call could be traced, but he needed to keep this short.

"I need intel," he said.

He'd asked the children where Hydra might have taken the others during the drive. Checkpoint Three, they'd both agreed, their designated fallback base. Neither of them had actually known where it was. He repeated the few clues Alex had been able to give him on the location. "I need to find this base. It's important."

"I'll see what I can do. Give me an hour," Rogers said. "Can I call you back at this number?"

"No," the soldier said curtly. "Send me an email."

"Bucky, wait–" Rogers said.

There was a thump and a splash from the bathroom, and then a scream from Max, one single sharp sound, quickly bitten off. Bucky whirled around. He could hear Alex frantically shushing Max.

"Bucky? Was that a kid? Is there a kid with you?"

Steve sounded strange, his voice tight. The soldier barely heard him, although part of him noted the tone of voice for later analysis.

He rattled off his email address. "Send me the data before those kids get hurt," he snapped, fumbling for the button that would end the call.

"Bucky–" he heard Steve saying. His voice was a pained whisper, as if he'd had the breath punched out of him; horrified. "Bucky, my God, don't–" The call finally cut off. The soldier crushed the phone in his metal hand, let it fall to the floor in a shower of broken parts.

He threw the bathroom door open. Both kids flinched. "Sorry, I'm sorry, sir, I'll be quiet!" Max said, cowering away in the tub. He'd been stubbornly defiant earlier, but the soldier had told them to be quiet, and Max had given their position away by making noise. The soldier didn't know what kind of training these kids had gone through, but that kind of slip-up wouldn't have been tolerated.

Max was breathing harshly, sweat standing on his forehead. "I slipped and banged my leg. Sorry, sir." It was clear, from his frantic tone of voice, that he didn't expect the soldier to be moved by the explanation. Pain was no excuse; pain was never an excuse.

The soldier realized that he was looming, standing in the doorway like this. With the lights of the motel room behind him, he'd be nothing but a large, threatening silhouette to the kids. He drew his shoulders in, crouched down. They needed to leave, and quickly, but things wouldn't go any faster if he spooked the children now.

"It's all right," he said roughly. "Let me see."

Max was lying in the bathtub with his broken leg awkwardly propped up on the rim. The improvised cast was dry and sound.

"It was my fault. I pushed him," Alex said bravely, shifting in the water to put herself between Max and the soldier. Behind her, Max made a protesting noise.

"It wasn't her fault at all!"

"It doesn't matter. No harm done," the soldier said, although he knew Rogers would be trying to track them now even as he spoke. Belatedly, it occurred to him that Rogers might've taken that last sentence wrong, might have taken it as a threat against these children here; Rogers didn't know about the children in Hydra's hands. Why had he mentioned them at all? For a single critical moment after Max's scream, he hadn't been thinking at all.

Max's breathing was already easing, the pinched look around his eyes loosening up. He didn't seem to have damaged the leg any worse.

"You two done getting clean?" the soldier asked. The kids nodded, but some mindless, automatic instinct had taken over his mouth, and he added "Washed up properly, too? Face, feet, butt?" Becky and Alice always got distracted in the tub, splashing around, flooding half the bathroom and forgetting to wash. Mom was gonna be mad if they – if… if they…

The soldier blinked and grabbed the sink with his metal hand. For a moment the room spun around him and then reoriented itself. The floor was dry. "Yes, sir," the children chorused, like the pair of well-trained soldiers they were.

"I'll help you out of there," the soldier told Max. He lifted him out of the water, careful of the broken leg. The boy weighed almost nothing. His sharp shoulder blades pressed against the soldiers arm. His skin was hot from the bath. Too hot, fever-hot… He tucked his face against Bucky's chest. "Don't gotta carry me, Buck," he said, stubborn little punk, like he wasn't gonna fall over and crack his fool head open if Bucky put him down now.

Bucky blinked away the image and the resulting moment of disorientation. He set Max down carefully on his good leg, waiting until he'd caught his balance before letting go and wrapping him in one of the motel's big, fluffy towels. He got the other towel down for Alex and tucked it around her bony shoulders. "Make sure you dry off properly," he said.

The children were exhausted, but he had to take them to a different motel before he could let them rest. By the time they'd fallen asleep, there was a new email from Rogers on his phone. The intel you asked for. We didn't have enough information to locate the base, but this might be a start, it said, and then, in a second paragraph, Bucky, whatever's going on, I can help. Please call me.

Bucky opened the attachment. Like Rogers had said, there weren't enough clues there to know for sure where the children might have been taken, although they'd figured out a few new leads, at least. Of course anything Rogers had sent him might well be a trap. He had no real reason to help the soldier, no reason to trust him.

The soldier checked the locks on the doors and windows and swept the room for bugs before he lay down. Even then he slept uneasily, one eye open. He hoped Rogers didn't have another way of tracking him; hoped Hydra didn't have a way of tracking the children.

Alex and Max were sharing the second bed. Max was out cold after the pain pill he'd taken, snoring a little in his sleep – I don't snore, Buck. – Like hell you don't, – but Alex kept shifting restlessly, occasionally making quiet distressed noises in her sleep. Finally she startled awake with a little cry. He could see her eyes shining wetly in the darkness. She had both hands pressed to her mouth, trying to stifle the sounds she was making, but he could still hear her breathing wetly.

"Status: Base secure. No enemy activity," the soldier said quietly. She looked at him with her wide blue eyes, and then she scrambled out from under the blankets and into his bed, curling tightly against his side. She threw an arm around him and buried her face in his chest.

"I miss the others," she whispered.

The soldier stared down at her helplessly. He'd gone to bed fully clothed, as he always did. The studs and straps of his armor were poking into her face. He shifted to try and get her lying a little more comfortably, palmed the knife on the hip that was facing her and put it on the bedside table with the rest of his arsenal. Finally he shifted the gun beneath his pillow further away from her. And then he slowly, hesitantly put his arm around her. She curled more tightly against him.

"Go to sleep," the soldier said, and eventually she did. The soldier lay very still. Alex was a warm, soft weight against his side. Her breath wheezed a little in her sleep. She'd need another dose from her inhaler when she woke up, but for now her chest was rising and falling in a slow, regular rhythm; the medicine could wait a little longer.

*******

The soldier went out for breakfast while the kids were still asleep. Turned out there were a lot of options for children these days. The soldier hesitated, looking over the rows and rows of colorful boxes.

Steve liked the fancy oatmeal with nuts and dried fruits, but he'd get mad if Bucky splurged on his breakfast when money was already tight, especially since he knew Bucky hated oatmeal, and –

– and it wasn't worth making his handler angry over something like this when the punishment –

– harsh hands in his hair, pulling his head back so far his spine screamed in protest –

– Steve's hand, yanking his head back, twisting his face around so he could close his teeth around the muscle of Bucky's neck, suck a stinging bruise into the skin –

The soldier startled when his back brushed up against solid wood. He'd backed himself all the way into the next row of shelves, knife clenched in his hand. His breath rasped painfully in his throat.

He quickly slid the weapon back into its sheath. Thankfully the store was almost empty this early in the morning. There'd been no one around to notice his strange behavior.

He wished he knew what was triggering these strangely vivid, sexual memories, especially since they were most likely false. Rogers had never been his handler. Even if it was true that he'd known Rogers before Hydra had ever gotten their hands on him, it seemed unlikely that Rogers had used sexual violence to keep him in line. It didn't fit his personality profile.

The soldier rolled his shoulders, shrugging off the tension and the vague, uncomfortable arousal the memory had left behind. He stacked a few different boxes of cereal into his arms without looking at them and left the store as quickly as he could.

*******

The kids were just waking up when he got back to the hotel room.

Max hadn't been lying about how fast his bones healed. He was already tentatively putting weight on the broken leg, hobbling around with the crutches the soldier had acquired for him.

The soldier set the boxes of cereal down on the table. Max eyed them suspiciously. "What happens if we don't pick the healthy kind?"

"Pick whatever kind you want," the soldier said. He hadn't meant it as a test, but he should have known it would look that way. Any choice they gave you was always a test.

Max poured himself a large bowl of something pink and heavily sugar-encrusted, giving the soldier a challenging glare. The soldier kept his face impassive.

"Really any kind?" Alex asked, wide-eyed.

"You can try all of them, if you want," the soldier said.

She gave him an astonished look and immediately started pouring a little bit of every kind of cereal into her bowl. The milk turned into a horrible multi-colored swirl. She beamed, delighted with her creation.

The soldier settled back in his chair. The queasy feeling that had followed him back from the store had finally eased.

"You our new handler now?" Max asked.

Alex froze with her spoon halfway to her mouth, giving the soldier a pleading, hopeful look.

"No," he said, taken aback.

Alex's face fell. "You said you'd take care of us!" she said accusingly.

"Till I can take you somewhere safe," the soldier said. He softened his voice. "I'm a soldier, kid. I can't take care of you."

Alex's lower lip started wobbling. She roughly wiped the back of her hand across her nose. "I'm a soldier, too!"

"You're a kid," the soldier said. Alex flinched as if he'd struck her, shoulders hunching defensively. She stuffed a big spoonful of cereal into her mouth and turned away, chewing grimly.

Max glared at him. "So what are you gonna do with us then?"

"I'll take you somewhere safe," the soldier repeated.

Alex curled in tighter on herself. Max glared. "Heard that one before," he muttered sullenly. He wrapped an arm around his sister's shoulders. "Stop crying, Alex. It doesn't matter anyway, he's just a handler. We've had tons of them. We'll get a different one at the next base."

"I'm not crying!" Alex sobbed. "And I don't want a different handler!"

The soldier looked down, swallowing against the rising feeling of helplessness. He had no idea what to say to comfort her. What was he going to do with them? He couldn't take care of children. But he didn't have anyone he could trust with them.

Steve, he thought. But he couldn't trust Rogers, either. The instinctive, unreasoning urge he felt to run to Rogers for help was only one more reason to distrust his own mind. He had nothing to base that feeling on except some blurry, fractured memories that might or might not even be real. He'd trusted his handlers like that once, blindly, mindlessly, deeper than conscious thought; all it meant was that he couldn't rely on his instincts. And now there were those new memories, too, and no way to know whether they were fake or not.

He'd have to forge on by himself, figure out a way to do this on his own.

"Tell me about your siblings. How many of you are there?" he asked Alex.

Alex sniffed. "There's eight of us." She started counting off on her fingers. "Adam–"

"Alex, shut up!" Max snapped. "You don't even know what he wants with us!"

"You shut up! I trust him!" Alex said. She continued, more loudly, drowning out Max's objections. "Adam takes care of us, 'cause he's a grown-up already." She raised a second finger. "Mary – she's old, too, but she always gets sick, so she has to stay in bed a lot. Fred and Georgia, they're twins, and Elisabeth, she's only three."

"That's seven, with you and Max."

Alex bit her lip. "David's probably dead," she said quietly. "Dr. Coleman took him away for retraining, and he never came back."

The soldier looked at her. She hunched her shoulders, sniffling quietly. He reached out, hesitated, and finally laid his hand on top of her shoulder. Alex let out a loud sob and hurtled himself into his arms. He caught her, startled, remembering only just in time not to catch her with his metal hand. She wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her snot-damp nose against his chest. For a moment he just sat there, holding her stiffly against him, and then he tentatively started stroking her back.

"You remember anything more to help us find the others?" he asked her quietly.

Alex went still, lifting her head. Her face scrunched up in concentration. "Darryl might know," she finally said. "He used to be our handler, and I know where he lives 'cause he let it slip once."

"Yeah, cause Darryl's an idiot," Max muttered, but he didn't object again when she told him the address.

*******

Darryl's place was a dark, dingy basement apartment. Apparently tending an army of secret child soldiers for Hydra didn't pay as well as you'd think it would. The apartment was a mess, too; moldy half-empty take-out containers everywhere, dishes stacked into a teetering pile in the sink. The soldier saw a cockroach scuttling away out of the corner of his eyes.

He was glad he'd banned Alex from coming in with him despite her angry protests.

Darryl himself was gone. His wardrobe was standing open, clothes yanked out partway, possibly speaking to a hasty departure – or yet another sign of general messiness. The computer was running on standby. A half-empty cup of coffee sat on the desk. The soldier touched his fingers to the side. Lukewarm.

He started up the computer. There was a video file saved to the desktop. Immunity, it said. The soldier started it up, set the rest of the files to copy to his drive while he watched. It was blurry Skype footage, Stark and Rogers sitting in front of a desk, Darryl himself visible in a window in one small corner of the screen.

Rogers looked tired and worried. It didn't show at a glance, but you could tell by the way he sat up just that little bit straighter; shoulders back, chest out, overcompensating for his body's urge to slump in exhaustion. Stevie, the soldier thought, swamped by a dizzying wave of fondness and exasperation.

He forced himself to look away from Rogers and focus on Darryl. "I'm going to tape this now, for proof," he was saying."You're gonna give me one million dollars, immunity, and you'll get me on a plane anywhere I want to go."

"Sure. Fine. Whatever. All that and a sports car," Stark said. "Now tell us about the children."

"They're all a bunch of clones or something," Darryl said. "Project Rebirth, that's what it was called. They were trying to breed an army of super soldiers, like Cap here." He nodded at Rogers, who narrowed his eyes a little at hearing the nickname from Darryl. His face looked calm, but the soldier could see the hate beneath, the barely contained rage; wondered that Darryl couldn't tell the danger he was in.

"Anyway, the experiment failed. They're all a bunch of shrimps," Darryl went on. "I don't really know anymore than that. They just paid me to babysit them one day a week. Ain't nothing special about them or anything. Bunch of shrill little troublemakers, if you ask me."

Rogers wasn't asking him. Rogers wanted to reach through the screen and strangle Darryl with his bare hands, and Darryl didn't even notice.

"All right, so where do we find these children," Stark said with exaggerated patience.

"Well, like I said, I only know how to find the one of them," Darryl said. "They took him away for retraining cause he kept trying to run away. Dunno exactly where it is, but the codename was Base 67, so you oughta be able to figure it out from those leaked SHIELD files, probably. The rest of those kids, I dunno where they took them. Might wanna hurry up and find them, though. I think the Winter Soldier's following elimination protocols."

Steve's face froze. "What do you mean?" he said, very quietly. His voice sounded calm, if you didn't listen too closely, but the soldier could hear the cracks.

"A buddy of mine told me. He was there. Said the Winter Soldier showed up at the base out of the blue, and he barely got away with his life. I mean, they used to talk about it, after the project failed. Eliminating those kids. And they were gonna have the Soldier do it, cause who else can you just order to shoot a buncha kids, right? I mean, they were fucking annoying and all, but they're just kids. Like, that's pretty awful if you really think about it, right? So I figured you guys could maybe do something 'bout that. Save them or whatever."

Stark was looking at Darryl with open loathing. Rogers sat very still, hands flat on the table in front of him. Darryl gave them a shaky grin. Even he was beginning to notice the rising tension now.

Stark pulled up a tablet and started typing something. The soldier only noticed from the corner of his eyes. He watched Steve, who was pulling in tiny, painful breaths like a man punched in the solar plexus, fighting for air that wouldn't come. Darryl was silent.

"So? I'm listening. Keep talking," Stark finally said, looking up briefly from his tablet.

Darryl swallowed nervously. He rattled off everything he knew about bases and passphrases, and the soldier listened and memorized, but he couldn't seem to tear his eyes away from Steve's face. Steve looked like he was hurting, like someone trying hard not to scream; he looked broken. His shoulders slumped more and more, bowed down by a great weight. He slowly balled his hands into fists on the table.

"Give me your account number," Stark said, when Darryl had finished talking.

"I'll get my million dollars?" Darryl said.

Stark smiled at him, big and full of teeth. "Sure. Believe me, I'll make sure you'll get what's coming to you." He wasn't even trying to hide his loathing now.

Darryl shifted uncomfortably, but didn't back down. “I've got this on record, you know, you can't just screw me over – hey, what's up with him?"

Steve had shoved his chair back with a screech and was walking away, hunching in on itself like a man curling up around a wound.

"Don't worry about him," Stark said.

At that point, the recording cut off.

"David! It's gotta be David!" Alex said.

The soldier flinched violently. He hadn't heard her come in, had no idea how long she'd been standing there. The floor was shifting beneath his feet; all he could see was that broken, gut-punched look in Steve's eyes.

"What?" he asked. He tried to focus enough to make sense of what she was saying.

"That's who they were talking about! David. They took him away 'cause he kept trying to run, and then he didn't come back and we all thought he was dead."

The soldier took a deep breath, tried to gather his thoughts. "The base he mentioned–"

"67! I know where that is. We used to train there. It's been empty for ages, though."

"Let's go," the soldier said.

"Are we gonna get David?"

Alex was looking up at him, big blue eyes full of hope in that familiar face; his head was pounding. The soldier squeezed his eyes shut, looked away. "Yes," he said.

*******

"I wanna come along!" Alex said.

"Too dangerous," the soldier said shortly. He could probably sneak in unnoticed, but he might have to fight his way back out with David. The last thing he needed was another kid in the line of fire.

"I can take care of myself!" Alex protested, her voice rising.

"I know. Still too dangerous," the soldier said. "Hell, if your asthma acts up again–"

"I don't get asthma attacks!" Alex insisted.

The soldier just looked at her, raising his eyebrows. The entire reason she was with him now was that she'd been wheezing too hard to flee with the others. "Well I wasn't taking my meds then," Alex muttered grudgingly.

The soldier looked up, startled. Alex was meticulous about her meds, swallowing her pills and taking drags from her inhalers on a strict schedule, and he had yet to see her forget a dose.

"Why?" he said.

"Cause she was mad they weren't letting her go to the shooting range anymore," Max said, a gleefully malicious edge to his voice. The kids had had some kind of low-voiced argument in the bathroom earlier; apparently Max wasn't over it yet.

"Shut up!" Alex hissed.

"Don't do that again," the soldier said sharply. She'd been in pretty rough shape when he'd found her. It took a hell of a lot of strength just to keep breathing when your lungs seized up like that, and she was so small. If she exhausted herself…

If they exhausted themselves, there wasn't anything you could do but pray. Hope and pray and send for a doctor who couldn't hardly do anything, either, and would take the rest of your meager savings regardless.

The soldier sat down hard on the edge of the bed, squeezing his eyes shut. Alex was fine, she had her inhaler, and it worked just fine; there was stuff the doctors could do for asthma these days. He took a deep breath. The kids were watching him worriedly. "Sorry I asked. I'll stay here," Alex said anxiously.

"Stay here. Take your damn meds," the soldier said. His voice came out too harsh. "Stay safe," he added, a little more gently. Both kids nodded.

*******

Base 67 was an old weather station. The upper levels were deserted except for two sleepy scientists, who sat hunched over their computers, tiredly entering climate observations. He booted up a dust-covered computer in an empty room. No one had even bothered changing the security codes. All his old authorizations still worked.

According to the plans on the intranet, there was a single basement level: one guard on a rotating twenty-four hour shift guarding a small prison with seven cells, all of them empty except one, which held "subject 75572", on lockdown for "behavior modification". There was a meal schedule for the prisoner, delivery electronically signed off three times a day by whatever guard was on duty, and biweekly visits by a "Dr. Coleman"; nothing else. No exercise schedule, no yard time. If this data was correct, "subject 75572" hadn't left that cell, or seen a single person apart from Dr. Coleman and his guards, for two months and seven days. The soldier clenched his fists.

Not even the passcodes for the elevator had been changed. The guard didn't bother looking up from his game of solitaire at the sound of the elevator door sliding open.

"Aren't you a little early, doc?" he asked. By the time he caught sight of the soldier and reached for his gun, it was already too late. The soldier took him down with a single crushing blow to the neck.

The cell door had a small observation window made of one-way glass, and a slot that a food tray could be shoved through. The cell itself was empty, concrete floor and four bare walls, completely featureless except for a hole in one corner and the bolted-down grate that covered it.

A boy was sitting in the corner farthest from the door, curled up into a little ball, knees drawn up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. He was rocking slowly back and forth. They'd shorn his hair close to his head. He was barefoot, dressed in gray scrubs; no older than eleven, if that.

The boy flinched at the sound of the door opening. He scrambled further back until he was wedged tightly into the corner. His eyes went wide at the sight of the soldier.

The soldier wondered how long it had been since he'd last seen an unfamiliar face. How long it'd been since he'd seen anyone's face at all; Dr. Coleman's last visit had been thirteen days ago, and the guards might never have come in here at all.

"Easy there," the soldier said. "Not gonna hurt you." He crouched down, made himself as small and unthreatening as he could. "Are you David?"

After a moment, the boy gave a single, tiny nod.

"I'm here to take you to Alex and Max. They miss you," the soldier said. David's eyes lit up with a tentative glimmer of hope, but he didn't uncurl from his defensive position, or make any move to leave his corner.

"Are you hurt anywhere?" the soldier asked.

David shook his head.

"All right. That's good. Can you come to me?" He held out his hand. David didn't move. His breath came in short, harsh gasps, a familiar wheeze starting up in the back of his throat.

"Okay," the soldier said gently, when it became clear that the boy wasn't going to move; couldn't, probably. "All right. I'm going to come over there, okay? Not gonna hurt you," he repeated.

David pressed himself further back into his corner. He was shaking.

The soldier had cringed and cowered like that in the beginning. He remembered what it felt like, the paralyzing fear that left you unable to do anything but cower away even when you desperately wanted to be good, when you knew you were making it harder on yourself by being difficult.

He hadn't thought of that in a long time. The memories of his early training were blurry and indistinct, nothing but scattered, context-less snapshots, worse even than the usual jigsaw puzzle of his mind. When he'd thought of it at all, he'd felt shame at the memory of his weakness, his fear; the terrified, flinching thing he'd been. But now he looked at David and was suddenly, furiously angry. They'd made David feel like that, when he was nothing but a little kid.

The soldier tried to imagine what he'd have wanted if a friend – Stevie – if a friend had found him like that. He knelt down in front of David; hesitated, and then slowly, carefully gathered him into his arms.

David held himself stiffly, a terrified, awkward weight, but he didn't resist. The soldier just kept holding him, cradling him against his body. And finally David unfroze, throwing his arms around the soldier's neck, burrowing tight against his body. It wasn't a sign of trust, the soldier knew; didn't even mean David trusted the soldier not to hurt him right now. It wasn't anything but the animal desperation of a human being left alone for too long.

The soldier knew what that felt like, too. You could get so starved for touch, you'd lean your cheek into a slap just for the feel of someone's skin against yours.

"They got shoes for you anywhere here?" the soldier asked.

David gave a tiny shrug.

"I'm gonna carry you out then, okay?"

There'd been debris on the floor, shards of glass, nails and splinters of wood where shelving had been torn down. He wasn't going to let David get hurt. Not now, not ever again.

*******

Alex and Max snapped to attention like a pair of hunting dogs at the sound of the door opening. David started squirming wildly in his arms until the soldier all but dropped him to the floor. The kids fell all over each other, Max and Alex squealing with excitement, David silent but smiling for the first time, a shyly happy expression that completely transformed his serious little face.

"You found him! Thank you!" Alex broke out of the pile for a moment to enthusiastically hug the soldier's legs. Even Max gave him a tentative smile.

The kids didn't let go of each other all evening. Alex and David, in particular, were holding hands the entire time they weren't hugging. Max shook them off after a while, but stayed close-by the entire time, not quite touching. None of them so much as went to the bathroom alone.

The soldier heard David whispering with the other two behind the closed bathroom door once or twice. So it was only him David didn't talk to. That was all right. It was hard to make yourself talk to your handlers sometimes, when you knew that saying the wrong thing would get you punished, and everything you said might be the wrong thing. Easier to stay silent, even knowing that silence might be punished, too.

******

The soldier lay awake for a long time that night, his heart pounding, images crowding in on him: harsh, impersonal hands on his body, the pain and terror of his early training sessions. Seeing David like that had broken something open in his mind, and the memories kept spilling out. He made himself lie still, keep quiet, the way he'd learned to be still for the scientists.

The children slept in a pile on the other bed. Alex and David had curled tightly together like a pair of puppies. Max slept a little further apart, only his fingers tangled with David's.

A little after midnight Alex woke up and silently untangled herself from David's grasp to slip into bed with the soldier, snuggling up against him in what was already becoming her usual place against his side. His breathing eased, feeling her there; the tide of memory ebbed, and the formless terror receded.

He dozed off for a little while and came awake to the feeling of the mattress dipping: Max and David climbing into bed with them, David curling up with Alex again, Max tucking himself close to the edge of the bed so none of them actually touched him, one arm stretched out so his hand just barely brushed against David's side.

The soldier closed his eyes. It was a risk, having the children in bed with him. If they were attacked, the kids would slow him down, and being close to him would place them directly in harm's way. And yet he couldn't bring himself to chase them off. Alex was drooling on his shoulder, a warm, comforting weight, wheezing slightly in her sleep. David had both hands fisted tightly in the back of her pajamas even in his sleep.

The memories weren't gone, but they seemed far away now. They were safe, for now. No one was going to hurt these kids, not ever again. No one was going to do to them what they'd done to him.

*******

Moving around in public was beginning to become a problem. The soldier had shaved neatly, tied his hair back into a ponytail, and acquired high-waisted jeans and a plaid shirt – the sort of clothes people's dads seemed to wear these days. But people still noticed a man alone with three children.

There was a part of him that knew how to lie, how to deflect attention smoothly, charmingly. But it was hard to remember how when he was also trying to think tactically, keeping the lines of approach in sight, assessing threats. Mostly people looked away if he glared at them long enough, but he knew that'd make him memorable.

He didn't want to take the kids out to eat if people were going to stare at them, so that night he got them one of those hotel suites with a hot plate and cooked dinner himself: stew, because that only needed one pot, and he knew how to make it, if he didn't think about it too much.

The children had come over when he'd started laying out ingredients. They watched him cutting the meat with rapt attention. The soldier wondered whether they'd ever seen anyone prepare a home-cooked meal for them before. David had drifted closer every time he looked up, eyes riveted to the soldier's hands.

Finally the soldier held out a potato and a knife, handle-first. "Cut that into chunks about this big," he said. David reverently took the potato and the knife.

"I wanna cut something, too!" Alex yelled, so the soldier let her have a carrot and another of his knives. "Careful, the edge is real sharp," he said automatically, even though he knew perfectly well she could handle herself around a knife.

Alex chopped with more enthusiasm than skill. The chunks of carrot came out ragged and uneven, but that didn't matter much for stew. David was cutting his potato with painstaking precision, tongue caught between his teeth and a little wrinkle of concentration on his brow. He kept giving the soldier anxious looks from the corner of his eyes.

"You're doing fine," the soldier told him. David gave him a shy, tentative smile.

Max watched the proceedings with a frown on his face, asking questions about every step. Some of them, the soldier could even answer.

"Why does the meat have to go in first?"

"Because it has to brown, or it won't taste good."

Some of the questions were about things he was pretty sure he'd known, once upon a time, but which took painful effort to dredge up now.

"Why are you putting so many potatoes in? Potatoes are boring."

Because potatoes had been cheap and plentiful, back when paying for food took more than just a stolen credit card. It took the soldier long minutes to get his mind untangled from that memory, and everything it dragged up with it. By then, Max had moved on to questions that left him baffled in a more ordinary way.

"Why does the onion make your eyes tear up?"

"I don't know, kid," he said. Max gave him a look that was at once unsurprised and deeply disappointed. The soldier wondered whether anyone had ever really indulged Max's curiosity. "We can look it up on the internet later," he promised.

All in all, it took a lot longer than it probably should have until all the ingredients were simmering away in the pot. At that point they had to leave it to stew for two hours. The room slowly filled with the smell of food, meat and onions and broth.

The soldier curled himself up in the armchair in the corner and fought the urge to pace. The smell was stirring up something inside his brain, sinking claws into some deeply buried part of his mind and yanking. It hurt. He drew his legs up, curling up against it.

Alex came over to perch on the arm of his chair. Thankfully she didn't seem to notice his dark mood. "Why do you keep your hair like that?" she asked.

"I don't know," the soldier said after a long moment. Bucky Barnes had been short-haired and clean-shaven. It'd been easier to look in the mirror when he'd still had a beard covering his face. The man who'd look back at him if he cut his hair would be someone he wasn't anymore.

"Mrs. Wilkerson says girls should have long hair. But Trainer says long hair gets in the way and soldiers don't have time for vanity," Alex told him seriously.

"You can wear your hair any way you want."

Alex thought about that for a long moment. "I'm gonna keep it short then," she finally said. "Can I braid yours?"

The soldier looked at her, startled. "Yeah," he finally said. She scrambled up onto the back of the chair. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back. This had been a mistake, he realized after a moment. Like the smell of bubbling stew, this was a memory: someone's gentle hands tugging at his hair, tilting his head this way and that. The snip of scissors, a low laugh in his hair – Looking good there. Didn't we do this just last month?

Maybe my hair just grows quickly. You wouldn't know anything about that.

Maybe you're just a vain peacock, Buck.

A deep, gnawing ache grew inside him until it filled his entire chest. The soldier curled up as tightly as he could without pulling his hair out of Alex's grasp. His face was wet. He wiped his cheeks surreptitiously. Didn't want Alex to think it was anything she'd done.

The braid he ended up with was both lopsided and slightly tangled, but it kept his hair back from his face, and there was less for an attacker to grab onto than with the ponytail. "Thank you," he told Alex solemnly. She beamed at him.

The food was just about done by then. It'd come out well enough in the end. The meat was a little tough, and the potatoes had turned out too mushy, but it was still rich and thick and flavorful, and the kids had seconds and thirds with obvious enthusiasm.

This wasn't going as badly as it could have, the soldier thought. David still didn't talk in front of him, but he was coming out of his shell a little, smiling more. Max didn't look quite so certain he was going to get hurt any minute now. Alex seemed happy, when she wasn't pouting about him not letting her have any of his knives. He'd already confiscated the biggest of the kitchen knives from her twice.

He was untangling his braided hair in the shower that night when the memory came back: gentle hands in his hair, a low laugh in his ear.

Steve brushed a few loose strands of hair off the nape of his neck and pressed a kiss against the sensitive skin.

Bucky shivered. "That tickles," he said. Steve laughed and bent down further, mouthing the knob of his spine until Bucky groaned and twisted in his arms

The soldier shuddered. Somehow that image, with all its gentleness, was no less unsettling than the more explicit flashbacks he'd had of Rogers holding him down.

As before, his cock had stirred with the memory – if it was a memory – and this time, it wasn't going down by itself. He reached for the shower controls and twisted the knob all the way to the left, balled his hands into fists and braced them against the shower walls as icy water started pounding down his back.

He wished he knew if those memories were real. Bad enough if Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes really did use to fuck. Rogers was already so damn persistent. If there was yet another reason for him to think he had a claim on the soldier….

Worse if the memories were fake. Who'd have implanted this, and to what end?

His body was starting to shiver, his teeth clenching against the cold. The soldier turned the shower off. All that was left of the unwanted arousal was a bitter taste in the back of his mouth.

*******

The soldier woke up to the sound of the door crashing open. The children had slipped into his bed again some time in the middle of the night, and untangling himself cost him precious fractions of a second. He didn't dodge fast enough. Something hit his shoulder. Tranq dart, or possibly poison. He yanked it out, grabbed the gun beneath his pillow, and threw himself clear across the room, as far away from the children as he could.

A red-golden blur slammed into him, tackling him into the wall hard enough to rattle the windows. Iron Man. Steve's allies had finally found him.

His metal arm was about evenly matched for strength with the Iron Man armor, but his other arm was already at a disadvantage, and the tranquilizer they'd shot him with was beginning to work. His limbs felt slow and sluggish, and his vision was blurring.

The kids, he thought frantically, he had to make sure the kids were all right. Max, with his fragile bones, if they tried to grab him – and David was already so traumatized – God, Alex was going to try and fight – He planted his left hand against Iron Man's chest and shoved as hard as he could, gears grinding, the motors whining with strain. He felt a faint pulse of pain in his shoulder, the signal that warned him when he was getting too close to damaging the arm, but he'd bought himself a second's freedom, just a moment to look around.

Rogers was crouched on the bed in front of the kids, his shield up. Max and David huddled behind him, David hunched protectively over Max. Rogers was holding on to Alex with his free hand. She was struggling grimly, frantically. He outmatched her massively in strength, but he constantly had to shift his grip so he could keep hold of her without hurting her.

The kids were going to be all right. For a moment, he felt nothing but relief. And then the door opened again.

More men streamed into the room, faceless and bulky in helmets and heavy tactical gear, Stark Industry's logo on their shoulders and chests. They were wheeling in a metal gurney, restraints dangling from both ends, ready to strap him down. The soldier's entire body wanted to shrink away from the sight, sweat breaking out all over his skin. No.

Iron Man took advantage of his brief moment of distraction. He locked his hand around the soldier's flesh and blood wrist and squeezed until the bones ground together. His gun dropped from lifeless fingers.

The soldier slugged him as hard as he could, driving him back again. Iron Man fired his thrusters in a short pulse, slamming him against the wall. He crowded up close enough that the soldier didn't have space to draw back his arm for another blow.

There was a knife in each of his boots, but not anywhere he could get to with Iron Man as close as he was. He hadn't felt safe keeping knives on his belt with the children sleeping against him on both sides.

The men with the gurney were coming closer. No. No.

There was a gap where the plates of Iron Man's chest piece overlapped with the ones protecting his stomach. The soldier rammed his metal fingers into that gap and levered at the plates until they gave with a groan. He forced his fingers deeper until he got to the soft human flesh beneath the armor.

Iron Man swore and wrapped his hand around the soldier's metal wrist. The motors in his arm revved up with a high-pitched sound, but Iron Man didn't have enough leverage to force him to let go from that angle. The soldier forced his fingers in a little deeper, kept pushing until he felt the skin beginning to split. Iron Man yelped and clamped down hard on the soldier's other wrist, the soft, fleshy, vulnerable one. He squeezed until the soldier let out an involuntary sound of pain.

"Tony!" Rogers protested sharply.

"Doing my best here, Cap," Iron Man said. He sounded strained. Pained.

The soldier twisted his hand and yanked at the plates, felt the metal beginning to splinter. Iron Man yelled. The edges of the broken plates must be digging into his skin.

The soldier hadn't meant to hurt Steve's allies. But he couldn't make himself stop fighting. He wasn't going on that gurney, he couldn't.

"For fuck's sake, you guys," he heard someone's voice, tinnily, over the other men's comms. Another dart hit him in the shoulder. This time he had no hand free to pull it out.

The soldiers legs went limp and wobbly beneath him. He swayed against Iron Man's chest, metal arm a heavy weight at his side. "Whoa there," Iron Man said, catching him around the waist when his knees gave out.

"Thanks," the soldier said. That had been nice, Iron Man catching him. Falling would have hurt.

Iron Man picked him up, and then picked him up more, until they were hovering a foot above the motel room floor, whoa. Iron Man spun around and dropped the soldier onto the gurney.

"No," the soldier said sadly when they began strapping him down. He didn't want to be there, he knew he didn't, although right now he couldn't quite remember why it had seemed so terrible a minute ago.

"You're high as a kite right now, aren't you," Iron Man said. "Did we ask Bruce what he put in those darts?"

The soldier frowned. "No," he said again, quietly. He didn't like drugs.

"It's okay, Bucky," Rogers said. "No one's going to hurt you."

The soldier blinked slowly. The room was wavering in and out of focus. He could feel the restraints around his arms and legs, securely fastened down. They'd caught him.

Alex gave an ear-splitting yell and yanked herself out of Rogers' hold. She dodged Iron Man's restraining hands and darted to Bucky's side, started pulling at the buckles that fastened his metal arm to the gurney.

"Whoa, there, Xena, you don't want to be doing that," Iron Man said. He reached for her, but he was slow, obviously worried about grabbing her too tightly with his metal gauntlets, and she was quick and agile. The soldier could already feel his restraints beginning to come loose. He yanked, metal screeching in protest; the last of the buckles gave. His arm came free. Iron Man swore. Alex gave a yell of triumph.

It didn't matter. They were surrounded by men with guns, and even now that he had his stronger arm free, getting the rest of the restraints off would take longer than he had, especially with the drug slowing him down. The soldier caught Alex round the shoulders. Stark's men lifted their guns.

"Don't shoot!" Rogers ordered. Alex struggled in the soldier's hold, ready to throw herself back into the fight.

"Alex! Listen to me!" It was hard to focus. The soldier fought through the fog. He needed to make her listen.

She threw herself against his restraining arm, yelping in frustration. "Let me go! I'm gonna kill them!"

He tightened his hold on her, desperate. His vision was going dark at the edges, and he felt slow and sleepy. Whatever drug they'd used on him was beginning to win out against the adrenaline again. He gritted his teeth. If it took him down now, Alex was going to get herself killed. "Listen to me! Are you listening?"

Finally Alex went still, reluctantly turning to look at him. The soldier fought against the magnetic pull of the drug, struggled to find the words he needed. They'd have taught her about this, they must have. "You're a tactician, you know this. You're surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned. What do you do?"

Alex glared at him. She knew the answer, but it wasn't the one she wanted. "Retreat. Regroup. Try again," she finally recited sullenly. She was twitching with the urge to fly into motion, a barely controlled bundle of kinetic energy.

"That's right," the soldier said. He felt light-headed with relief. The drug was rushing through his veins, a great warm river. She was listening; she was getting it. "But you can't retreat right now. What do you do, Alex?"

She took a deep, unhappy breath. "Surrender. Stall for time. Escape."

The soldier smiled. "So what do we do now?"

"Surrender," she whispered dejectedly.

He hugged her tight to his side and finally let himself close his eyes.

He drifted for a while, half in and half out of consciousness. Someone was barking orders. Max argued someone, in his impatient, skeptical voice; the soldier grinned to himself. So sure of himself, for such a little guy. Beside him Alex gave an angry yell and grabbed on to him with both hands. The soldier couldn't quite manage to get his eyes open, but he swiped out with the metal hand after whoever was trying to pull her away from him. He connected hard with something solid, heard the distinctive sound of a body hitting a wall with a thump. More yelling.

"For God's sake, let her be, can't you see he's not hurting her?" Rogers. Stevie. The soldier smiled. Of course Steve would get it.

Oh. There was something he needed to tell Steve, wasn't there? "Steve," he said. His tongue felt thick and clumsy, and the word came out too quiet, barely intelligible. But the room was finally going silent around them.

"Yeah, Bucky?" Steve said.

Bucky. That was him. He was Bucky. He needed to tell Steve… needed to tell him… "The kids," Bucky said. He fell silent again. It was so hard to think.

"Tell me, Bucky," Steve said gently, and then, when Bucky's mind just continued whirring in useless circles, "Gonna brief me on those kids, Sergeant Barnes?"

A briefing. He could do a briefing. The effects of the drug still came in waves; things were getting a little clearer again. He gathered his thoughts with an effort. "Max got brittle bones. Gotta be real careful when you touch him," he said. "And you gotta explain things to him. Not just order. Dig his heels in, otherwise. Stubborn lil' shit." He grinned. Max was great, he was so great, such a clever, stubborn little guy. Didn't have to explain that to Steve, though. Steve was gonna get it. Alex stirred at his side, twisting to look up at him. He curled his hand protectively around her bony little shoulder. "Alex thinks she's a soldier, so you gotta rein her in. Gonna get herself killed."

His words were beginning to slur more and more. He blinked his eyes open with an effort. The world had gone warm and blurry. Nothing hurt anymore. Steve was here, and Alex was tucked safely into his side. She was such a tiny little miracle. Suddenly he wanted, badly, to share that with Steve. "She's you, Stevie," he whispered, smiling. "They're all you."

Steve came closer. His eyes were sad and worried. Bucky reached out for him, but stopped when his hand came into his field of vision. His arm was metal. Why had he forgotten that his arm was metal? "Sorry, Stevie. Robot arm," he said sadly.

Steve gave him a shaky smile. "That's okay, Buck." He was coming even closer; didn't flinch when Bucky reached for him with that deadly metal hand. "It's okay. Everything's okay."

Bucky cupped Steve's face with his hand. Steve tilted his cheek into Bucky's palm. Bucky smiled, stroking his thumb against the ridge of Steve's cheekbone.

"Holy fuck, what are you doing? Get away from him, Cap," someone snapped. Steve didn't move.

"You're safe here, Bucky. Go to sleep," he said, and Bucky did.

*******

He woke up in the back of a truck, still strapped to the gurney. Alex was curled up half on top of him, clinging to him with both hands. Rogers was standing off to the side, watching him. Apart from the three of them, the back of the truck was empty.

The effects of the drug had worn off, and the hazy, artificial feeling of safety and well-being with it, but so had the blind, unreasoning panic of before.

Rogers was soft-hearted, and he still saw his old friend when he looked at the soldier's body. He wasn't going to let anyone hurt him, strapped down or not.

He still had to get out of here, though. Rogers was an optimist, he wouldn't believe that there wasn't anything left of Bucky Barnes. He'd let Stark wipe the soldier, try and wipe Hydra's programming from his brain. But if they did that, there wouldn't be much of anything left. The soldier couldn't let them do that, not now. The children were still in Hydra's hands. He needed to make sure they were safe.

He looked down at Alex. "Are you hurt?" he asked. He couldn't see any blood on her, and from the way she was lying, she didn't seem to be in pain, but he needed to make sure.

"Nah," Alex said. She mustered him critically. "You awake now?"

"Yes," the soldier said.

"Good." And then she jumped off the gurney, pulled a gun out from under her sweater, and pointed it at Rogers.

The soldier's breath stopped. Rogers took a half-step closer, startled, then went still again.

"Where did you get that gun?" the soldier asked. It was the Glock, the one he'd already taken from her twice.

Alex was wild-eyed, breathing too quickly. But the gun was steady in her hands. "It's my gun! I'm a soldier of Hydra!" she said loudly, her voice cracking.

Rogers' face screwed up, pained. He took a slow, deliberate step towards her.

"Don't move," she said, and began yanking on the soldier's restraints.

"Put the gun down," the soldier snapped.

The buckles on his restraints had gotten bent when the soldier had broken himself out the first time, and been locked back into place by force. They stuck that way now, and getting them loose again was taking her a lot longer the second time.

"Alex, put the gun down," the soldier repeated. This was too dangerous. Rogers would be careful of her safety, but anything could happen in a gunfight in close quarters. Alex ignored him.

"You don't have to do this, Alex," Rogers said. He took one step closer. "No one's going to hurt him."

"Shut up! Stay back!" Alex snarled. Her voice was shaking.

Rogers still had the shield on his back. He didn't take it down. He couldn't use it in here. Bullets tended to bounce unpredictably from the vibranium surface, and in the metal cage of the truck they might ricochet anywhere. Rogers wasn't going to risk Alex getting hurt. He took another step closer.

"Stop it!" She was yanking at the buckles frantically, and finally something was beginning to give. But Rogers was almost in grabbing distance now. "I said stay back!" Alex yelled.

She took the gun into both hands, pointing it steadily at Rogers' chest. "I'm gonna shoot you! I swear I will!"

Rogers was taking her seriously, the soldier saw; he believed she'd do it. But he was faster, stronger, and better trained, and anything short of a direct hit to a vital organ wouldn't even slow him down. The soldier could see him weighing the odds, could tell when he made up his mind to jump her in the slow shift of his weight; he could tell that Alex recognized the signs, too. Her grip tightened on the handle of the gun.

"Alex, don't," the soldier said.

Alex turned the gun around and pointed it at her own head. The soldier froze. In front of him, Rogers did the same.

"No," the soldier said. "No! Alex! You need to listen to me now. Put that gun down."

"Back away," Alex told Rogers, and then she put the gun inside her mouth. The soldier made a horrified, pleading sound – No. Rogers looked pale and shocked.

Alex's eyes were hard and determined, too old for her face. Hydra had taught her that strategy, the soldier thought, with a surge of rage so strong it hurt. They'd probably taught her that strategy specifically for this particular target. And it worked. This was going to stop Rogers in his tracks like no threat against his own safety possibly could.

"You don't need to do that," Rogers said. He was backing up until he hit the side of the truck, raising his hands. "It's all right. Please. You can let him go, I won't move."

She glared at him, silent; didn't take the gun from her mouth. She gave the buckles another vicious yank with her free hand. She had her finger braced safely against the trigger guard, so a slip wouldn't cause her to accidentally shoot herself, but just looking at the gun in her mouth made the soldier feel sick to his stomach.

He threw himself against the restraints as hard as he could. The skin on his human arm, already bruised and abraded from Iron Man's hold, was beginning to bleed. He barely felt it. He needed to get free, needed to get that goddamn gun away from her.

On his left side, the buckles were beginning to give under the strength of his metal arm. On his right side, it was his hand that gave first. Blood slicked down his wrist, and one of the small bones in the heel of his hand cracked under the pressure. His hand slipped free. He gave a final vicious yank, and the buckles on the other side broke open.

The soldier made a split-second calculation. Alex was fast, and trained, and she had the gun in her mouth. He wouldn't be able to take it from her by force, not without taking the risk that the gun might go off by accident. He'd need to talk her down, and she wouldn't let him talk her down while the threat was still active.

He unsnapped his shackles and launched himself at Rogers. Rogers caught him, the two of them crashing hard into the wall, wrestling for control. They were almost evenly matched for strength and speed. Rogers' hand closed around his flesh wrist, thumb groping down for the broken bone. Pain flared, white-hot, sickening. The soldier snarled. He grabbed Rogers' shoulder with his metal hand, slammed him violently against the wall. If he could just get Rogers off-balance, get him down

A shot rang out. The soldier flinched, a wrenching, full-body jerk. No, no, she'd been all the way over there, safely away from the fight, no, why would she….

Rogers flinched, too, his tight grip slackening until the soldier could yank him around so he could see–

Alex was standing, safe, unharmed, gun pointed at Rogers back, safe. A sound clawed its way out of the soldier's throat, a shaken, helpless sob of relief.

Rogers should have taken advantage of his moment of distraction, but he hadn't. He was swaying in the soldier's hold. The soldier finally registered the feeling of warm blood flowing over his fingers where they clamped around Rogers' leg.

She'd shot him high up in the stomach. Rogers barely put up any resistance when the soldier heaved him up onto the gurney. It was only when the soldier forced his arms down into the restraints that he started to fight, and it was too late by then. It was easy enough to get him secured.

The restraints' buckles were bent and dented. The soldier had to force them back into place. They wouldn't hold Rogers for too long, but with his wound and the soldier's metal arm pinning him down, he wasn't going anywhere for a while yet. Rogers seemed to realize that, too. He stopped fighting, let himself go limp on the gurney. The soldier used the opportunity to buckle the gurney's restraints over his chest and hips, immobilizing him properly. Those extra straps hadn't been used on him. Probably Rogers had been concerned for his comfort. Stupid. Reckless.

Rogers' breath came in short, pained gasps. He'd gone greenish-pale, his body clammy with sweat. Blood was still spurting out of the hole in his uniform. A normal human would have been dead five minutes ago with a wound in that location.

The soldier grabbed Rogers' uniform jacket by the lapels and yanked, tearing it open all the way down to his waist. He needed to see what he was doing.

He forced his fingers into the wound, clamping down on the spurting artery. Rogers made a high, whining sound, body jerking against the restraints. But the flow of blood slowed down to a trickle.

The soldier looked up. There was a tinny sound coming out of Rogers' headphones. He thought it might have been going on for a while, but he hadn't had any attention to spare. "…Steve? Cap, what the fuck is going on back there? Fuck this, I'm pulling over."

And Alex was pointing the goddamn gun at herself again. Rogers had noticed, too, watching her with wide-eyed concern. The soldier gritted his teeth. "Alex, put it down."

She completely ignored him. "Tell them everything's all right," she said. Rogers stared at her helplessly. He was barely tracking, his face tight with pain, eyes glazed over. "Tell them!" Alex snarled.

Rogers sucked in a shaky, painful breath and activated his comm by pressing his ear against his shoulder. "Negative, Hawkeye, keep driving," he said. Somehow, impossibly, his voice came out steady and calm. You'd have to know him to hear the strain. "Everything's under control back here. I had to fire off a warning shot, but I've got it handled now."

"You sure, Cap?" Hawkeye said after a moment.

"Positive," Rogers said calmly.

"Well, if you're sure," Hawkeye said dubiously. "Let us know if you need any help back there."

It was obvious he didn't quite believe it, but it was equally obvious that he didn't think Rogers would lie to his face like that, either. People never believed Steve would lie to them. And it was true that he didn't like doing it, but he could and he would if he thought the situation called for it. He'd lied to – to –

The soldier blinked against a momentary disorientation. This wasn't the time to get distracted.

Alex had finally lowered the gun. "Give me the gun," the soldier said, holding out his metal hand.

"Sir!" she said, protesting.

"That's an order!" the soldier snapped. His heart was still racing, his stomach clenching queasily. She'd put the goddamn gun in her mouth. "Threat contained. Mission completed. Give me the gun."

Rogers watched him intently, something unreadable in his face.

"Fine!" Alex said angrily. She engaged the safety and slapped the gun into his hand with a clang of metal on metal. She crossed her arms and glared at him.

The soldier put the gun into the empty holster by his side and secured it with a strap. He felt instantly and physically better for having it safely out of her reach.

He looked back down. Rogers looked better, too. The flow of blood had almost stopped. The soldier could feel Rogers' body knitting itself together beneath his fingers. Rogers' chest was rising and falling in a slow, even rhythm. He was still looking at the soldier, but trying to meet his gaze gave the soldier a lurching feeling in his gut, the floor shifting beneath his feet.

He had a nauseating moment of seeing double, another face overlaid on Rogers': a younger man's face, narrow and more delicate, with Alex's stubborn blue eyes, Max's defiant chin, David's long eyelashes. He looked down, but that was almost worse, seeing Rogers' broad, solid chest where an entirely different body should be; powerful muscles all wrong where he expected narrow shoulders and jutting clavicles.

The soldier shoved the ragged remains of Rogers' uniform top to the side and set his metal hand down flat on Rogers' chest, felt him solid and real and dangerous beneath his palm. He tried to push aside the vision and ground himself in the reality of Rogers' body.

That was a mistake. Touching Rogers' naked skin set off a nauseating chain of images in his head. The soldier gritted his teeth. Rogers was a living weapon, a powerful threat. Those memories – both the ones of the younger boy, Stevie, skinny and fragile, and the other kind, the disturbingly graphic ones – they were nothing but a distraction, if they were real at all.

And yet all his instincts screamed to be careful of this body, to be gentle.

Rogers shivered at the touch, but he didn't try to fight it. "Starting to remember me, Bucky?" he said quietly.

The world fractured. The sound of that name broke his control over the memories, called them forth in a flood.

Rogers' head snapped back when the soldier's metal first crashed into his jaw.

"Don't call me that," the soldier snarled. Blood dripped down Rogers' chin. Beside him, Alex made a startled sound at the sudden burst of violence. The soldier looked over at her, her narrow face, her mouth, so much like Rogers' – like Steve's – and felt a sickening stab of remorse.

"I – Sorry," he said, wiping clumsily at the blood trickling from Rogers' split lip. The world was spinning around him. He needed to get out of here.

Alex would be safe with Rogers and his allies, much safer than she'd be with him, getting tangled up in his missions, getting herself killed trying to fight by his side. Rogers wouldn't let her get hurt.

"You'll look after her, won't you?"

Rogers' face went frantic. "Bucky, wait!" he said urgently. The soldier carefully eased off the pressure he'd been putting on Rogers' wound. No new blood appeared. Rogers' body was well on its way to repairing itself. He'd be all right now. Rogers was yanking at the restraints, wincing when the movement strained his wound. It would take him a few minutes to free himself. The soldier had a little time, but not much.

"Take care of her," he said. He opened the rear door of the truck, looked out, and jumped. A weight barreled into his side, hitting him in mid-air, clutching at his shoulders. Alex. God damn it. The soldier caught her with his flesh arm and tucked her tight against his body. And then the road came up to meet them. The heavy pads protecting his knees took the brunt of the impact. He caught himself with his metal hand against the asphalt, but Alex's weight threw off his balance. He tucked his body around her and rolled, trying desperately to keep her from hitting the road.

His shoulder slammed into the ground, and then they went tumbling, uncontrolled. His cheek scraped against the asphalt. For a moment, his human hand was crushed between his body and the ground, a white-hot burst of pain from the broken bone. He finally got the metal hand beneath himself again, clawing into the surface of the road and jerking to an abrupt halt.

Around them, cars were honking and swerving. Alex stirred in his arms. "Ow," she said in a small voice, and then, quickly, "I'm okay!"

A car pulled to a stop beside them, brakes screeching. The woman at the wheel was staring at them in wide-eyed horror. The soldier pushed himself painfully to his feet and set Alex down. She stood just fine on her own; not too badly injured then, at least.

In front of them, the truck was braking, too. But you couldn't stop seven tons of metal on a dime, especially if you were also trying to avoid causing a pile-up on a crowded highway. They'd have a bit more time yet.

He walked over to the car and calmly pulled open the driver's side door, feeling a split second of resistance before the lock gave up the fight against his metal hand. "I need your car," he said. "Please," a deep-seated, unthinking instinct made him add.

The woman gave him a look of sheer terror and scrambled out of the car – out the passenger's side door, where he wasn't standing. The soldier got in, Alex climbing in on the other side. "Sir, wait! We gotta get back, we gotta save Max and David!"

"They'll be safe," the soldier said.

"But sir –"

"Buckle up," he told her, putting his foot to the gas, speeding up until he had enough momentum to crash through the divider. He timed it for a break in the flow of traffic, pulled the handbrake and swung the car around.

They sped down the highway, which thankfully was almost empty. They wouldn't have more than a minute's worth of head start, but that would do. There was an off-ramp coming up, and from there they'd be in the city almost right away. They could disappear between the buildings there.

Beside him, Alex let out a quiet sob. The soldier jerked his head around. "Are you hurt?"

She shook her head. "I'm sorry," she said. "Sorry! I didn't think you'd get hurt!"

The soldier caught a glimpse of his face in the rear view mirror. He winced. No wonder that woman in the car had looked so horrified. The entire left side of his face was raw with road rash, dirt and asphalt ground into the skin. Blood trickled down his neck. He looked like something out of a horror movie.

"It's fine," he told Alex. "Doesn't hurt." It was mostly true. Adrenaline was still pounding through his veins. He could hardly feel his body at all, although the throbbing from his broken hand was beginning to make itself felt again. His face was already knitting itself back together, itchy more than anything. Those scrapes were all superficial. They'd be gone in a few hours.

"Are you mad at me?" she whispered.

"No," the soldier said. He squinted at the road. He could probably pull over between those building up ahead; there'd be a few alleys to get lost in.

"Then why did you try and leave me with him?" Alex asked. It came out in a sob.

The soldier looked over at her. Her face was wet with tears. "Alex, no. I wasn't mad. You'd have been safe with him," he said, as gently as he could. "You're not safe with me."

"I don't want safe! I'm a soldier! I want to stay with you!" Alex yelled, her voice hitching.

The soldier took a deep breath. "If I let you stay with me, you have to promise me something. Are you listening, Alex? I don't ever want you pointing a gun at yourself again. No!" he snapped, when she opened her mouth to protest. "I know that it worked, but it's not worth it, okay?" He searched for words, tried to think how his handlers would have put it; how her handlers might have taught her to think of it. It was strange to think of her in those terms, but he wanted her to understand. "You're a more valuable asset than I am. You can't risk your life to save mine, okay? Promise me."

"I promise," she said sullenly.

She was quiet for a long moment while the soldier navigated them down a series of progressively smaller side roads, and then she said, in a small, shaky voice, "It's not true, though. They were gonna eliminate us 'cause I'm never gonna be any good as a soldier." She broke into tears again, crying for real now: big, disconsolate sobs that made his heart clench.

The soldier pulled the car to a stop behind a dumpster and opened her seat-belt. She was just sitting there, shoulders slumped, shaking – Becca used to cry like that, when she was younger, and he'd used toused to hold her, dark curly head against his shoulder, wet spot in his shirt from her tears – he pulled her against him on sudden instinct, wrapped his arms around her. She shuddered, grabbed his jacket with both hands.

"You're a great soldier," he said. "Got me out, didn't you?"

She looked up at him hopefully. "Really? For real?"

"Really for real."

She sniffled. "Are Max and David gonna be okay?"

"Yes. They'll be safe. I promise."

"Okay," she whispered. She was clinging to him tightly. He could feel her shaking, could feel her heart beating frantically against his chest, strong and alive. He didn't set her down when he climbed out of the car. They were gonna have to move fast, but her featherweight was hardly going to slow him down. Somehow he couldn't bear to let go of her just yet.

*******

Alex slept restlessly that night, twitching and kicking, mumbling unintelligible words. The soldier stroked her back, trying to soothe her, but it didn't help much. Finally she startled awake with a cry.

"It's all right. Just a dream," the soldier said quietly. Her eyes shone wetly in the dim light spilling from the open bathroom door. She curled up tight against him, shuddering. He stroked her sweaty hair back from her face.

"I didn't think he was gonna bleed that much," she said, mumbling the words against his chest. "I never shot anyone for real before."

That answered one question then, at least. They hadn't made her into a killer yet. Good. That wasn't gonna happen now, not on his watch.

"You were real brave," he said. "You rescued me."

"Why didn't you kill him?" she suddenly asked. "Captain America, I mean. That was him, right?"

The soldier hesitated. "There wasn't any reason to kill him," he finally said.

"Uncle Pierce says Captain America's evil," Alex said. "And he says when people are evil we need to eliminate them so they can't hurt anyone else."

The soldier hesitated, casting for words. She was objectively right, of course – sometimes people were evil and needed to be eliminated. He knew that; it was a simple fact. And yet he hated hearing those words come out of her mouth, hearing her sound so casual about taking a life.

"You don't kill except when there's no other choice," he said after a long moment. There'd been a part of him, once, that knew these things. It was hard, finding that part again; his mind shied away from it. There was nothing but weakness and pain there. He made himself reach for the memory anyway, for her sake, although the words came slowly, painfully. "You know how you love Max, because he's your brother and your friend? Can you imagine if someone hurt Max?"

He'd meant it as a hypothetical, unthinking; but her expression darkened. "Like Dr. Coleman," she said.

"Yeah," the soldier replied gently. "Like that. Remember how sad it made you when Max was hurt? When you kill someone, that's someone's brother, too, or someone's friend. So you think about that, how you'd feel if they were your brother, and then you don't want to kill them unless you have to."

That wasn't a normal way to think, he knew. Normal people didn't have to resort to elaborate mental constructs to remind themselves not to kill. Steve didn't – he forced that train of thought to a halt. Normal people wouldn't stand a fighting chance against Hydra. Bucky Barnes had never stood a chance.

Alex was still pondering what he'd said, face screwed up in thought. "Captain America's nobody's brother, though," she finally said, dubiously.

"He's somebody's friend," the soldier answered.

She looked at him thoughtfully. "He knows you, right? Is he your friend?"

The soldier bit his lip until he tasted blood. Just thinking about this made his head ache. But… "I think so," he said slowly.

"He does look a little bit like my brothers," Alex conceded.

The soldier winced. He was gonna have to tell her about her relation to Captain America some day, and probably soon. But now wasn't the time to drop that particular bomb.

"You sure Max and David are gonna be okay with him?" Alex asked.

"Yes," he said with total certainty. That, he was sure of, like he wasn't sure of much of anything else right now: Rogers wasn't going to let a child get hurt, not if he had to move heaven and Earth to keep them safe. "You can call them tomorrow and make sure, okay?"

"'kay," she said. She threw an arm across his chest and pillowed her head on his arm. After a few minutes, she started breathing in that familiar sleep wheeze of hers. The soldier spread his hand across her back, felt her breathing, warm and alive and safe, and finally closed his eyes.

*******

"Alex wants to talk to Max."

"Bucky! You two all right?" Rogers said, the warmth and concern in his voice coming through even over the tinny speakers of the burner phone. The soldier gritted his teeth against it.

"Put Max on the phone," he repeated, and shoved the cell into Alex's hand. "Say hello to Captain America," he told her.

She made a face at him. "He's evil!" she whispered.

"We've talked about this," the soldier replied, equally quiet.

She grimaced. "Hello, sir," she said grudgingly.

"Hello, Alex," Rogers said gently. "I'll get Max for you, all right?" He muffled the phone with his hand and raised his voice. "Max, David, can you come here, please?"

"You're not our handler! We don't have to do what you tell us!" Max yelled back.

The soldier felt his lips twitching.

"You know, Mom used to tell me she hoped I'd have a kid just as darned stubborn as me some day," Rogers said. He hadn't put the phone back to his mouth, and anyway he wasn't speaking to Alex, who was holding the phone. Rogers had enhanced hearing himself, just like the soldier did; he had to know that the soldier could hear him. Rogers raised his voice again. "Max, it's Alex on the phone for you!"

The soldier could hear the pounding of two pairs of feet, and then there was the sound of the phone being yanked out of Rogers' hand. "Alex! Are you okay?"

"I'm fine! Are you okay?" Alex asked anxiously.

"They've got a particle accelerator! Right in the basement!" Max said. "And there's like five whole huge labs and Bruce and Jane say I can come watch as long as I don't touch anything, and Tony yelled about it but he didn't really say no properly, so it doesn't count. Oh, and they haven't hit us yet or anything. Not even Captain America," he added, and the soldier didn't have to see him to know that he was shooting Rogers a suspicious look from the corner of his eyes.

"Tell them if they hit you, we'll come over there and kill all of them," Alex said loudly. Max's tone of voice immediately changed to one of concern.

"No, you stay safe. You know I can handle it, and I'll take care of David."

In the background, the soldier heard Rogers make a quiet, unhappy noise. "No one's going to hurt either of you, Max," he said.

"Yeah, sure," Max said dismissively. "Anyway, they're being real nice right now. They let David have a whole bunch of fancy colors to paint with and everything. And Jane had this big bucket of dry ice and we put it in a water tank and –"

"Are you still listening, Buck?" Rogers asked quietly, and Max's excited babble faded abruptly into background noise. "Tony helped me create an account for you." Rogers rattled off a number. The soldier memorized it automatically. "There's a hundred thousand dollars in there right now. You can let me know if you need more, I've got a lot of back pay from the army collecting dust. I know you don't trust me right now, but I'm not going to trace the money, or whatever you're thinking. I just want you to be able to keep yourself and Alex save, okay?"

The soldier didn't answer. He could hear Rogers shuffling his feet. "Well, I hope you can hear me," Rogers said. He went quiet again.

"… and Bruce made octopus for dinner, and it had tentacles on it, and it was real good! David was too chicken to try it, though," Max was saying.

"Yuck," Alex said emphatically.

"Can you answer me just one question?" Rogers suddenly spoke up again. The soldier braced himself. "You got angry when I called you Bucky. What do you want me to call you?"

The soldier hesitated. He wasn't Bucky, wouldn't ever be Bucky again; he still wasn't entirely sure that had ever been him at all. He looked like James Buchanan Barnes. He had some memories that might have been Bucky's, if they were real. That was all he knew for sure. Even hearing the name still made him feel dizzy and disoriented. He'd had things implanted into his mind before, had had memories and trigger words installed, and "Bucky" certainly felt like one of those at times, with the power it had over him.

But he wasn't the asset, either. Not anymore, and certainly not to Rogers. He didn't have a name for Rogers to use, and even if he had, the thought of asking Rogers to call him anything else… It didn't feel right.

"Call me whatever you want," he finally said. "Doesn't matter."

"All right," Rogers said, and the soldier thought he could hear him smiling. "Thank you, Bucky."

The soldier winced. But it really didn't matter. The man Rogers thought he was addressing was dead, and Rogers would have to realize that sooner or later. And if it was a trigger after all, it would lose its power eventually, like everything else they'd put inside his mind.

*******

He started going through the files he'd taken from Darryl's computer once he had them safely settled down in a new motel room. Alex had shoved all the furniture up against the wall and was playing Viking Princess in the space she'd cleared, whirling around stabbing imaginary enemies with a stick as a sword and a trash can lid for a shield. It was clear that no one had ever trained her in how to fight with a shield, and she lacked the instinct for it that Rogers had had right from the start – Steve, in that ridiculous showgirl costume, so broad and tall and different it made Bucky feel queasy just to look at him, easily turning knifes and bullets and falling debris aside with that flimsy bit of metal in his hand.

The soldier grimaced. If the memories were implanted, they were certainly effective. The strong feeling of fondness and protectiveness they called up was going to slow him down if he ever had to fight Rogers again.

He forced himself to focus on the present, on Alex; let the thread of memory sink away.

Alex wasn't a defensive fighter the way Rogers was, no patience for letting enemies come at her. She was holding the stick like it was just an oversized knife, and her knifework was good, fast and clever, with the instincts of someone who'd been trained from childhood. Seven years older and a bit more muscle on her frame, she'd be almost unstoppably deadly.

He forced his attention back to the laptop in front of him. It was clear that Darryl hadn't been trusted to know much about the program, but there had to be something he could use….

He found it, in the end, in an offhand mention of a Dr. Thompson and his lab. Darryl didn't seem to think there was anything important there, but it was related to Project Rebirth. If nothing else, it gave him another place to keep searching from.

It took him a while to convince Alex to stay behind, and she only did so reluctantly, after he gave her a mission of her own: someone would need to call in Rogers for backup if he was gone for too long.

*******

RTA Labs masqueraded as a facility for testing cosmetics on animals. From the outside, the building looked completely ordinary, a sterile white concrete construction just like a dozen similar office buildings around it. But the metal detector at the entrance was state of the art, and the security guard had a badly-concealed semi-automatic in addition to the handgun by his side.

The soldier came in fast and silent, dropping the guard and the receptionist each with a single sharp blow to the neck and dragging them behind the reception desk for cover.

The first floor was all offices. There was another security checkpoint by the elevator, another two men with semi-automatics who fell without ever seeing him. The next floor down held rooms full of cages, mice and rats and rabbits. There were a few men and women in lab coats, none of them combat trained, none of them even particularly alarmed by the appearance of a stranger in their lab in the moments before he attacked. They didn't act like people who thought they had anything to hide. The soldier left them unconscious on the floor. Hydra liked to hide in legitimate operations. These people might not even know that their building sheltered a parasite.

He found a second elevator at the back of the building, this one biometrically secured. The guard's fingertip unlocked the door. Another level down. There were two rooms full of cages here, too, but most of them were empty, and on this floor, the charts by the side of the cages were filled out in code.

The door at the end of the corridor was locked. The soldier set his metal arm beside the doorknob and pushed until the latch gave with a quiet groan. The room was empty. The soldier stepped inside.

There weren't any cages here; there was a crib.

He froze in his tracks. A baby lay on the bare white sheet, naked, tiny, so small he could have fit her entire body in the cradle of his palms. She was surrounded by machines on all sides, hooked up to machines, electrodes on her chest and temples, a bare patch shaved into the blond fuzz on her head, an iv line running into the exposed vein there; another line running into a port on her shin that seemed to have been drilled right into the bone.

He took one slow, hesitant step closer. The baby was sleeping, her breathing quick but even, tiny hands curled into fists by her side. The soldier instinctively reached out a hand; yanked it back without touching her.

There was another door at the back of the room. The soldier tensed when it opened, getting ready to spring. A man came in, middle-aged, glasses, pristine white coat: Dr. Thompson, presumably. The soldier shifted, hand going to the stun gun at his back. He needed this one alive and able to talk.

“What are you doing here?” Thompson asked, but his tone was off; the soldier hesitated. Thompson didn't sound scared, or like he’d even realized he was under attack. At most he sounded irritated, a busy guy who'd been interrupted in the middle of his work.

Of course. The soldier was deep within the anthill here, and he hadn't left anyone out there in any state to sound an alarm. Thompson wouldn't have any reason to assume he was an intruder. He'd come this far, so he had to have come through the checkpoints, so he must be authorized to be here.

His metal arm was covered by his jacket, but Thompson might not have recognized him regardless. He'd known Hydra scientists. They didn't tend to leave the lab much, or stay particularly informed about what was going on in the world outside. This might give him a chance to get some answers before Thompson realized he was talking to the enemy.

"Hail Hydra," the soldier said. He held up a security badge he'd taken from one of the guards outside, his fingers mostly obscuring the picture and the spatter of blood on it.

“Did General Ziegler send you?” Thompson asked.

“I'm supposed to take the child for inspection,” the soldier said curtly, improvising. It wasn't an answer, but if you said little enough in a firm enough voice, people tended to fill the gaps with their own assumptions.

Thompson's face went eager and hopeful, losing all traces of irritation. "Yeah? Is he finally going to look at her? We've been sending him emails for weeks, Coleman and me. This is the biggest breakthrough in genetic manipulation since the creation of the Winter Soldier, and Ziegler's ignoring our emails just because Project Rebirth's had some setbacks in the past. They never ignored Zola, you know." His mouth twisted, bitter.

The soldier didn't say anything. Thompson cleared his throat. “Well. How long is this going to take?”

“I don't know.” The soldier kept his voice blank, indifferent. He wouldn't have cared, back when he'd been Hydra's tool; wouldn't have thought to ask anything but what he needed to know to complete his mission.

Thompson looked a little unsettled. "You're not taking her all the way out to the hospital, are you?"

"I'll return her when the inspection's done," the soldier said flatly. Thompson glared, but didn't say anything. People never liked to challenge the soldier. Thompson came up and silently started detaching the electrodes. The baby woke up with a startled wail. Thompson didn't make any move to reassure or comfort her.

“General Ziegler's gonna be impressed,” he said. “Coleman and me, we've been telling him all along it was a mistake to give up on Project Rebirth so easily. Now look at her. Perfect health. Look at this.”

He pulled out the last of the IVs, the one that went into the bone of her leg. A single tiny drop of blood welled up before the wound started healing instantly, the skin closing up in seconds. The little girl was still crying, a thin, desolate sound. Thompson hardly seemed to hear it. The soldier kept his face blank and still. “Anything I have to know about her?” he asked.

“We've been feeding her every two hours, so try to have her back here by eight, all right?”

“I'll return her when the inspection's done,” the soldier repeated, making his voice uncaring, disinterested. Hydra's asset wouldn't have cared whether a little baby would go hungry. “She have a name?”

Thompson nodded. "She's subject number 87470. Isn't that on the paperwork?" He frowned. "Let me see. You do have written orders from Ziegler, right?"

“No,” the soldier said calmly. He gripped Thompson by the neck with his metal hand and slammed him up against the wall. "Where are the rest of the children?"

Thompson gasped, hands clawing ineffectively at the soldier's metal arm, his eyes going wide and panicked. "What – Who are you?"

The soldier gave him a shake and slammed his shoulders against the wall again, hard enough that Thompson made a pained sound, his body trying to curl in on itself. "Where are the children?"

"I can't – Ziegler's gonna–"

The soldier tightened his grip, pressing his thumb against the cluster of nerves behind Thompson's ear until he whined with pain. "Please, I can't," Thompson said, looking up at the soldier with his eyes wide and pleading. His expression went pale and defeated at whatever he saw in the soldier's face. The soldier could make him talk – would make him talk – and he knew it, too. His face shut down: resignation. The soldier had seen that kind of expression before, on men who were – who were gonna–

He caught it a moment too late. Thompson twisted his jaw, biting down on something with a crunch even as the soldier dropped him to his feet with a startled curse. He forced Thompson's jaw open with his metal fingers, but he'd been too slow. White foam was dripping from Thompson's mouth. His face twisted up in agony.

The soldier let the body fall to the floor, where it twisted a few times and went still. God damn it.

The baby was still crying. He took a deep breath, made himself settle down before he reached into the crib. He picked her up with his human hand, wrapped the sheet around her and tucked her gently against his chest. "Hey," he said quietly. "Hey, you're okay." His voice came out rusty and rough. He smoothed his fingers over the soft fuzz at the back of her head. She made a startled, hiccupy sound and went quiet, twisting her face up to look at him and clenching one tiny hand in the collar of his jacket. "You're gonna be okay," he said again.

*******

The files on the scientist's computers turned out to be encrypted. The soldier finally gave up on finding anything immediately useful and just copied over the entire hard drive. Damn it, he should have been faster, should have realized Thompson was going to try and kill himself. And yet some part of him was fiercely, viciously glad that the man was dead, that he'd died in pain. His heart was pounding, his chest filled to bursting with a white-hot, simmering feeling, so intense it hurt. He wanted to go back into that room and empty his gun into Thompson's head, just to make sure.

The baby was sleeping in the crook of his human arm, just a little scrap of a thing. She barely weighed anything at all. They'd looked at this tiny helpless girl and seen an experiment, something they could dissect and study under a microscope. He curled his metal arm around her back like a shield.

The soldier looked around the room while the last of the files copied to his flash drive. The shelves were stocked with formula and diapers. He could fit a couple days' worth of supplies in his pack without loading himself down too much.

No. He'd stop by the shop on his way back. He wasn't feeding her anything that had come out of this lab.

*******

Buying stuff for babies had gotten a lot more complicated since – since…

It had gotten pretty complicated.

The soldier stared helplessly at the enormous shelves full of choices. He'd simply grabbed the most expensive brand of bottles, and the diapers had been helpfully labeled with the sizes they were meant for. But formula was a lot more complicated than that. Even the most expensive brand had a lot of different options he didn't know what to do with. Soy-based? Partially hydrolyzed? Hypoallergenic?

The baby had started crying ten minutes ago and had worked herself up into a proper rage now, red-faced and flailing. They were drawing attention. He could feel people's curious glances like a physical touch, raising the hairs on the back of his neck. He'd thrown a wind-breaker on over his uniform jacket, gloves covered his hands, and his pants would pass for cargo pants at a casual glance, but none of it would hold up to scrutiny.

The soldier cradled her more tightly against his chest and rocked her gently. She only wailed louder, inconsolably. “Shh,” he whispered. “Shh.” She was hungry, he was pretty sure, but he really needed her to be quiet for a few more minutes.

A woman caught his eyes from across the aisle. She was carrying a canvas bag covered in a child's clumsy drawing of a tree: a mother. She was smiling at him sympathetically. “You two doing okay?” she said.

Every instinct told him to deflect attention, or better yet, chase her off. But the baby wouldn't stop crying, and he didn't know what to do. He needed help. He'd known how to do this, once; he'd used to be Bucky Barnes, and Bucky Barnes had been a charmer, the kind of guy who could get a random woman in a store to help him out.

He forced a smile. He knew it came out strained and exhausted, but that would work, maybe; new parents were tired a lot.

“There's just a lot of choices,” he said. He could do this; he'd known how to lie, once. “Her and her mom just came home from the hospital, and I'm supposed to be doing the shopping, except–” he gestured at the crowded shelves, made his face look pleading and a little helpless. The woman's face softened with understanding.

“Yeah, it's a lot, isn't it,” she said. “How old is she, couple days?”

“Four weeks,” the soldier said. Or so he'd gathered from what few unencrypted notes he'd been able to find.

“Oh, she's tiny!” She looked him up and down, assessing. The soldier tensed, but the woman only smiled. “She must be taking after her mom. Or was she early?”

“Her mom's pretty small,” the soldier said after a moment, blinking away a sudden image – a thin chest, a blond head that came up to his chest, narrow shoulders that fit easily under his arm.

The woman gave a little smile at whatever she'd caught on his face and then nodded at the shelves. “Well, you can't go wrong with hypoallergenic. It's a little more expensive, though. Are you, uh–”

“It's not a problem,” the soldier said quickly. He gathered a couple of cans of formula into the cart.

“You got a sling for her yet? Or actually, she's so tiny, you'd probably do better with one of those strap-on carriers,” the woman said. “Here, let me show you–”

He finally escaped from the shop twenty minutes later with a cart full of formula, blankets, onesies, and a carrier that'd look into a car seat. The baby's crying had settled down to quiet hiccups at some point, which had been a relief at first but was starting to worry him now. What if it meant she wasn't okay, somehow? Had she exhausted herself already?

The woman left the shop five minutes after he did. She'd seen him, seen the baby; she'd remember them. The parking lot was pretty quiet, his car parked in the darkest corner of it. He could ask her for help getting the car seat set up. She didn't suspect anything, would follow him over without thinking twice. He could snap her neck. It'd be quick, soundless. The car was a delivery van, no windows in back, purchased with cash under a false name: the kind of car that wouldn't draw any attention to itself if you left it parked somewhere. He could simply leave her body in the back. With any luck it'd be days before anyone discovered it.

The woman was shuffling through her purse, not looking at him. If he wanted to call out to her, it needed to be now.

No.

No. He wasn't going to do it. He wasn't Hydra's asset anymore. This was his mission, his call. He got to decide what was an acceptable risk; what was acceptable collateral damage.

She finally looked up, saw him standing there. Gave him a smile. "Need any help getting the car loaded?" she asked.

It'd be easy. So easy. Safer.

"No," he said. "No. Thank you."

*******

He'd been worried about Alex's reaction to him showing up with the baby. Turned out he needn't have.

“She's all tiny like a doll!” Alex said excitedly, bending down over the baby in her carrier. The baby reached up for her with one tiny flailing fist, and Alex smiled at her and let her catch her thumb. “What's her name?”

The soldier hesitated. It felt wrong to just… give her a name. What right did he have?

But he couldn't just leave her nameless, either. He looked down at Alex and his mind filled with a startlingly clear image of another woman: small, blonde, with blue eyes just like Alex's, bending down over a little boy with that same soft smile on her face.

“Sarah,” he said.

Alex got really excited about being allowed to feed Sarah, and even enthusiastically helped change her diaper. Diapers, at least, had gotten a lot less complicated than the fabric version the soldier could remember fastening on a wriggling child, dark-haired and chubby. She screeched with delight when Bucky bent down to blow a raspberry against her soft stomach.

"You're so good with her," Steve said.

"Babies are easy. Here, want to hold her?"

Bucky grinned when Steve backed up a step. Stevie was terrible with babies. He pulled Steve back in with one hand, looked around to make sure they were still alone, and pressed a quick, fond kiss to Steve's mouth.

The soldier squeezed his eyes shut against the memory. It was a real memory, he knew that now. The memories of Rogers young and vulnerable, the deep, unquestioning loyalty and affection he felt every time he thought of him – those might have been fake, implanted in an attempt to subvert Hydra's valuable asset. It'd been tried before. Hydra wasn't the only organization that had use for a weapon like him. But no one would have bothered implanting this, that baby and her laugh, the hassle of getting a fabric diaper pinned just right, the memory-within-the-memory of the hilarious alarm on Steve's face when you handed him a screaming child.

He really had, once upon a time, been James Buchanan Barnes, oldest of four. In love with stubborn little Stevie Rogers.

“Can I hold her again?” Alex asked, startling him out of the memory.

“Yeah,” the soldier said, putting Sarah carefully into her arms. “Remember to hold her head like I showed you, okay?”

“Okay,” Alex said determinedly. She was more careful with Sarah than he'd ever seen her, biting her lip in concentration while she shifted Sarah in her arms until she was cradled exactly like the soldier had shown her, making sure to tuck Sarah's head safely against her shoulder. It was quickly becoming obvious that Sarah didn't need the support, though; for a baby that small, she was ridiculously strong already.

Alex carefully sat down on the sofa, bouncing Sarah gently on her lap, giggling when Sarah's flailing arm hit her in the chin. Looking at the two of them made the soldier's chest felt tight, bursting with some intense, almost painful feeling he hardly knew what to do with.

“You gotta sing her a lullaby!” Alex told him imperiously. “Adam says you gotta sing for babies. He always used to sing for Lizzy.”

The soldier looked at her a little helplessly. He didn't know any lullabies. Hush little baby, he thought suddenly, Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird – but there wasn't a melody to go with the words, not even a sound. He was reading the words from her lips through the scope of his rifle, watching the woman rocking her baby in her arms. His line of sight was clear, the angle as good as it was going to get, and in a minute his handlers were going to ask why he wasn't taking the shot. But if he shot her now she was going to drop the baby on the tile floor. He didn't know why that mattered – the infant wasn't part of the mission objective, but it was designated an acceptable casualty – but if he waited just a minute longer, the woman might sit down. The angle to the sofa wasn't as good, but the baby would be safe in her lap.

The soldier drew a shaky breath and took a stumbling step backwards. "Why don't you sing something for her," he said.

He sat down in front of his laptop while Alex starting singing, cheerfully and totally off-key. His flesh hand was shaking a little. He couldn't remember his hands ever shaking before. Wouldn't have made much of a sniper if they did. What was he doing here? He wasn't fit to be taking care of any child, never mind one that small and vulnerable.

The soldier made himself focus. There were things that needed to be done. He sent the encrypted data he'd copied from Thompson's hard drive to Rogers. Can you do anything with this?

The answer came back just a few minutes later.

Tony says it'll take about 24 hours to get anything useful. Sorry. I didn't understand what he said the problem was, but he was swearing a lot, so I think it's pretty complicated. I'll get back to you as soon as we have anything.

The kids are fine. David's still not talking, but they both seem a little less scared, at least.

Are you and Alex doing okay? Max and David are worried about you. Please check in when you can.

The soldier closed his eyes for a moment, unsettled by the obvious concern in Rogers' email. He was alive and functional and out of enemy hands, the mere fact that he'd been able to send the email proved as much. What else was there to worry about? But of course Rogers worried. Rogers, he suddenly knew, was a worrier, the kind of person who liked to take care of other people.

He closed the laptop with a decisive click, stood up, and turned around just in time to realize that while he'd been distracted, Alex had set Sarah down in the center of the bed and was in the middle of launching herself at him. He instinctively yanked away the stick she was aiming at his throat but got himself under control in time not to fight when she let out a war cry and jumped him, hooking her foot behind his leg and throwing her weight at his chest, knocking him to the floor. He went down with Alex on top of him, suppressing a wince when her knee caught him in the stomach.

Alex snatched her stick back from his unresisting hands and set it at his throat. "I'm Princess Freydis and you've been captured by the Vikings! Give me all your gold!"

The soldier took a shaky breath. His heart was pounding. He'd come within a hair's breadth of responding to her like she was an actual threat, knocking her aside with his metal arm; it would have smashed her into the wall hard enough to break bones.

"Don't you goddamn sneak up on me like that," he snapped.

Alex grinned down at him, entirely unimpressed. "Gotcha! You gotta be more careful. Gotta be on your guard all the time, or you'll get hurt and it's your own fault for not paying attention. Don't you know that? We used to train that all the time."

The soldier felt his mouth twisting into a snarl. The things Hydra had put those kids through–

Alex's face fell. "I'm sorry," she said in a small voice. "I was just playing! Are you mad at me?"

The soldier got himself under control, smoothed out his expression with an effort. "I'm not mad, I'm worried. You could have gotten hurt!"

The unimpressed face she made in response was utterly, deeply familiar. He knew exactly what she was going to say next, could already hear it, the exact tone of voice – Knock it off, Buck, you sound like my mom.

"How are you gonna get any good at sneaking and defending yourself if you don't practice all the time?" Alex said instead, and the incongruity of it left him dizzy for a moment.

"You need to be careful. Don't sneak up on me again," he finally said, nudging her carefully off him and pushing to his feet.

Sarah woke up with a wail and immediately started crying. The soldier hesitated with his arms already reaching for her. She looked tiny and delicate in the middle of the big motel bed, and his metal arm seemed monstrous beside her small body. He was horribly conscious of how easy it would be to hurt her; couldn't seem to stop thinking about it, how little it would take, the slightest application of force, nothing more than a twitch of the metal fingers. His human hand was shaking again.

He glared down at his fingers until they stilled. Sarah was still crying. She needed someone to take care of her right now, and there wasn't anyone else to do it.

He picked her up with infinite care. Sarah didn't stop crying. The soldier cradled her against his chest, rocked her gently. "You can't be hungry again, we just fed you," he said, looking down at her, at a loss. Her diaper was clean and dry, so that wasn't it, either. "Why are you crying, huh?"

"Bet she just wants to be held. Lizzy wanted to be held all the time when she was a baby," Alex said.

The soldier looked down at Sarah. Skin contact. How had he forgotten something so basic? What had he been thinking, handling her with his working gloves on? He was still wearing his armored jacket, and although he'd shifted Sarah so none of the buckles dug into her skin, it still left her lying against stiff leather. He yanked the jacket open with his free hand, pulling layers of leather and Kevlar aside until he could feel Sarah's warmth against his chest through the thin fabric of his undershirt. She pressed her soft cheek against his neck, sniffled, and finally went quiet.

The soldier sank down on the bed, closing his eyes for a moment in the sudden silence. Alex clambered up onto his lap, curling up around Sarah, her head against his shoulder. "I'm really glad you didn't leave me with Captain America," she said, wrapping her arms around his neck.

The soldier swallowed hard. She didn't know any better. She was just a kid. It was up to him to make the sensible decisions. Rogers would take good care of her. The soldier was hardly fit to take care of himself.

He looked down at the two of them, Sarah sleeping peacefully in his arms and Alex snuggled trustingly against him, and felt his chest clench up small and tight and selfish. It was going to hurt, giving them up.

He'd call Rogers tomorrow, first thing in the morning.

*******

Apparently when Thompson had talked about feeding Sarah every two hours, he'd meant every two hours around the clock. It was a good thing the soldier hadn't planned on sleeping anyway. Alex crashed sometime around ten, curling up with her head beneath a pillow, hardly shifting in her sleep when Sarah started crying yet again. But then she was used to sleeping in a room full of her siblings and their noises.

The soldier held Sarah in his arms all night, cradling her against his chest, feeding her whenever she started getting restless, rocking her while she slept. He couldn’t stop looking down at her, tiny and warm in his arms.

He should have called Rogers as soon as the sun came up. He'd be awake, the soldier knew; probably out on a run somewhere. But Alex was still sleeping, and he didn't want to disturb her. And then Sarah was getting hungry again. Finally he fell asleep himself for an hour or so, Sarah resting on top of his chest.

In the end it was Rogers who contacted him first.

The soldier woke to the ping of his email program. Call me as soon as you can, the message said. No signature, not even a please; this was serious, then, not just Rogers checking in. Max and David, he thought, instantly wide awake. If anything had happened to the kids–

"Bucky? Thank God. Can you hear me?"

Rogers was yelling over some sort of loud mechanical noise. A quinjet, the soldier thought, although something in the plane was making an alarming rattling sound that almost covered the noise of the engines. "Tony decoded some of the data you sent us, he managed to get into one of their email accounts–" Rogers said.

Something was off in his voice, something was wrong, badly enough that the soldier could hear it even with Rogers shouting over the background noise. His hand tightened around the phone.

"We think they're planning to kill the children. Probably today."

The phone's edges cut into his palm. The soldier carefully loosened his grip before he broke it. Rogers was still talking. "If you've got any idea where they could be – anything–"

"No," the soldier said, the word scraping roughly out of his throat. He didn't know. They were going to kill the children, and he didn't have anything to offer that would be any help at all.

There was a booming noise over the phone, and the rattling sound of the engines turned into a scream. Someone was yelling in the background. "…way back from a mission," Rogers said, half the words swallowed up by the noise. "…call you as soon as we're home. If you think of anything–"

The call cut off. The soldier stared down at the phone in his hand.

Sarah stirred in his arms, feeling the tension in his body. The soldier rocked her absentmindedly. There had to be something he could do, something useful in all the information buried in his brain. He could go back to the old bases he'd raided, try and find something he'd missed – he couldn't do that while he had the children, though. He looked at Alex, who'd started wheezing in her sleep again, her breath rasping loudly in the quiet. Yes. He'd call Rogers back, make sure at least Sarah and Alex were someplace safe, somewhere Alex could get medical attention if she needed it.

Medical attention. Hospitals. There was something about that thought –

You're not taking her all the way out to the hospital, are you? Thompson had said. The hospital, as if he should know which one he was talking about; as if there was only one hospital he could possibly mean.

There was a Hydra base camouflaged as part of a hospital.

The thought rose sluggishly to the surface from somewhere deep inside his brain. He'd never thought of it before, even when he'd been searching out bases all across the country. The memory had been wiped more thoroughly than most. Parts of it were still slipping through his grasp when he tried to reach for it.

He'd done a risk assessment on the base as a strategic exercise. He'd approved. The hospital was big enough that the additional traffic Hydra generated wouldn't draw attention, and had a crematorium for convenient disposal of any bodies. It was a good cover. A good place to hide an experimental program you needed to disappear at a moment's notice.

The soldier tried to slow down the accelerating beat of his heart. There was no reason to assume that the children would be there; but it was a chance, at least.

He picked up the phone again, dialed Rogers' number. The call went straight to voicemail. The soldier swore. "There's a base I just remembered." He rattled off the coordinates. "I might need backup. And you're gonna need to pick up Alex." He gave the motel address, too.

He crouched down in front of Alex, who'd woken up from the sound of his voice and was blinking up at him sleepily. "Alex? I need to go find the rest of your siblings. You need to be brave and stay with Max and David for a little while, okay?"

"No!" Alex said, jumping up, instantly awake, her face twisting. "I want to come with you!"

"You can't," he said gently. His stomach was clenching miserably at the look of betrayal on her face, but there wasn't any other way to do this, and he didn't have time to argue.

"No!" Alex stomped her foot. "I won't and you can't make me!"

"I'm sorry," the soldier said. "You need to take care of Sarah until Captain Rogers gets here, okay?"

He strapped on weapons and armor while Alex reluctantly picked up Sarah from the bed. There were tears in the corners of her eyes, he could tell, even though Alex was refusing to look at him now. "Get the rest of your stuff from the car, okay?" he said gently, putting the key into her hand.

He went to pay for the room for one more night, just in case. It was almost check-out time, and he didn't know how long Rogers would to take to get here. Alex was already gone by the time he got out to the car, the key stuck in the driver's side door. His gut twisted again at the obvious message. Alex was too mad to even stick around to say goodbye. For a moment he thought about going back inside, but he knew perfectly well there was nothing he could say right now that she'd want to hear. And the other kids were out there, in danger right now. He didn't have any time to waste.

She'd forgive him when he got back. If he got back.

*******

He'd picked the van because it was unobtrusive and convenient, with space to store his weapons and gear in the back. Now he desperately wished he'd chosen something faster. Time was counting down in his head, every beat of his heart one more wasted second, time the children might not have. He pushed the van to its limits, whipping around the other cars on the highway, gritting his teeth every time he had to ease up on the gas. Hydra might be killing them right this minute, and he didn't even know if he was going to the right place.

The last of the memories clicked into place the second he saw the hospital, a looming, ugly concrete building. Yes, this was the place.

The soldier left the van in the furthest corner of the enormous parking lot, in the shadow of a stand of trees. The hospital itself was a hospital like any other, a thick unsettling smell of sickness and disinfectant in the air, doctors hurrying trough the hallways, patients getting wheeled around in chairs and gurneys and beds. The soldier forced himself to walk slowly enough not to attract attention. He followed the faint thread of memory along a long corridor and down a staircase into the basement, where he stopped in front of a locked door. There was a sign on it, an incongruously cheerful pink in his memory, now yellowed and bent at the edges: The patients in this ward are severely immunocompromised. For their safety, all visitors must be accompanied by a nurse. Please ring for assistance.

There was a locker room on the other side of the door, where nurses and visitors could change into clean scrubs, and a door opening into the ward; a second door, hidden behind the shelves of scrubs, that led into the Hydra installation. The hinges screeched when he forced the door open, not bothering with the coded lock. The two guards on the other side jerked around, too slowly. Two quick jabs with the metal arm to their throats, and both of them went down.

The soldier held his gun ready across his body. This had been mostly a research base the last time he'd been here, but his intel was years out of date. They might have increased security since then. But no one came running.

The first office he came to looked like it had been deserted in a hurry, chairs shoved back, a cup of coffee spilled all over the floor. One of the computers had been left unlocked, an Excel table open with an incomprehensible sheet full of numbers. There was an email program running in the background, still logged in, the information he was looking for three emails down:

From: A. Coleman | To: [Project Rebirth – Scientists] | Re: Project Rebirth | 08:17 am

He skimmed down the lines. Only a few sentences stood out as tactically important – after Everett Thompson's murder … emergency meeting with General Ziegler … finally achieved a breakthrough in phase three … to receive additional funding … will be able to resume phase three in a new and better-secured location – until he stopped dead at the final paragraph.

I've agreed to the termination of all phase two subjects. I know this is a blow to the research program, but if SHIELD is sending the Winter Soldier after the Rebirth subjects, they've turned into a liability we can't afford. Termination has been scheduled for today 4:30 pm, which gives you eight hours to collect any further samples you need to take from living tissue. The subjects' remains will of course be made available to us for autopsy and further study.

A. Coleman

The soldier had always had a precise and reliable sense of time. He didn't need a clock to know what time it was. He knew. And yet he couldn't help glancing down at the corner of the monitor, hoping; just this once, this one time, he might be wrong. But he knew what he was going to see before he saw the numbers: 5:18 pm.

Too late.

*******

He pushed on because he had to. You didn't assume someone was dead until you'd seen their body.

The base was strangely deserted. There were a few guards around the hallways and a small number of scientists working on their computers, but far less than there should have been, judging by the number of work stations.

He paused behind a corner at the sound of voices.

"Kyle?" someone said in a startled tone. "The fuck are you doing here? Thought you got reassigned like two years ago."

"Hell if I know," Kyle said. His voice tugged a thread somewhere in the soldier's memory, but he couldn't quite pin it down. "Got a really weird email from Martin about how there's something going down with Project Rebirth and I need to get here right away. And there's some crazy rumor that the asset's going after the Rebirth kids." A moment of silence, and then, in a different tone of voice: "Shit, what's with that face? Is it true? He here?"

"God no. He's been to some other bases, though. That's probably not what Martin emailed you about, though. There's, um. Actually, Coleman can tell you about that himself." The man gave a nervous laugh. "Come on, I'll get you to the conference room. Probably a good thing you're here, anyway. At least those damn kids used to listen to you. Maybe you can make them see sense."

It felt like his entire body tightened with the sudden spasm of hope. If the children were still alive, he didn't have any time left to lose.

He took the corner at a sprint and crashed into the two men at full speed, left arm sweeping out. He slammed them into the wall hard enough to leave them stunned on the floor, finished the scientist off with a quick slash to the neck, and whirled around for the other man.

He faltered in the middle of the strike. Kyle was unconscious, mouth slack and eyes unseeing, but he knew that face. Something inside him was cringing violently at the thought of raising a hand against this man.

Handler, he thought, struggling to drag the memory to the surface. He'd worked with Kyle as his team leader once or twice. He'd been a good handler, brutally efficient, a clever tactician and a deadly fighter; too dangerous to leave alive now.

And yet the soldier couldn't make himself lift the knife again. His hand had gone numb around the handle, the fingers slack and nerveless. The soldier snarled in frustration. This had been a problem before, when he came up against higher-ranked Hydra operatives or people who'd handled him on missions. It wasn't insurmountable – he could kill them just fine if he didn't have to see them while he did it, and a grenade thrown around a corner would usually do the trick. But he didn't want to make that kind of noise right now. He hadn't set off any alarms yet, and he wanted to keep it that way until he knew more about what was going on.

He left Kyle on the floor, unconscious but alive. From the look of the spreading puddle of blood beneath his head, he'd be out for a while yet, anyway.

He could hear the conference room the scientist had mentioned from all the way down the hall. What looked like half the base's population had crammed into that room, and quite a few of them were shouting over each other.

"–without using any explosives!" he heard one voice, rising above the rest. "These are research subjects. We need the bodies intact."

Someone else was yelling, voice cracking with rage: "– brought your crazy child soldier experiments here without clearing it with anyone, and now they're disrupting the whole–"

The soldier flattened himself against the wall and peered through the window in the door, counting heads. The last time he'd been here, this base had had forty guards. Nine he'd already killed, and fifteen were in there. If he could take out everyone in the room at once, he'd give himself reasonably good odds against the rest even if the sound of gunfire drew them in all at once.

He shifted the machine gun to his left hand, drew the Skorpion from his back with the right, kicked the door down, and opened fire from both barrels.

No one in the room had been prepared for an assault, and the guards who'd looked the most alert were the ones he took down first. Half the guards were bleeding out on the floor by the time there was any return fire, and even then it was scattered and ineffective, scientists milling around panicked and confused, fouling up everyone's shots. A single bullet grazed his flesh arm, ripping a stinging trail through the muscle, and his metal arm deflected two more; no serious damage done.

He lowered the guns once the screaming had mostly died down and fished a bleeding scientist off the floor with his metal hand. "Where are the children?" he asked.

The man was twisting in his grip, panicked and in pain. "Barricaded themselves in operation room three," he gasped. "Please–"

The soldier dropped him to the floor and took off at a run.

Another, smaller group of guards met him in the halfway. He ripped through them, barely slowing down. He was fairly sure now the security hadn't been upgraded since the last time he'd been here. These were guards, not soldiers, and obviously barely combat trained.

Six more men were waiting for him at the end of the corridor. They must have been stationed there to watch the door behind their back, but all of them were turned towards him and the sound of gunfire.

The soldier flew around the corner and tucked into a roll without breaking momentum, laying down covering fire with both guns. Two men went down and another fell to his knees with a scream. The rest of them returned fire. He deflected a couple of bullets with the metal arm but caught one in the critical spot by the side of his elbow. It lodged in the place where the plates left a gap to allow for better mobility. His shoulder lit up with a moment of sharp pain, the arm's danger warning.

He closed in on the men in two huge leaps, getting himself right into the middle of their group, where he'd be too close for them to use their guns effectively and they had to worry about hitting their team mates besides.

He knocked two men down with a single sweep of the metal arm and got the last one with a backhand stab of his knife. He dispatched the men on the floor and then stood for a moment, catching his breath in the sudden silence.

A burning pain on the outside of his right leg was only now beginning to register. He looked down and grimaced at the sight of his blood-soaked pants leg. He probed the bullet hole with his fingers, gritting his teeth. A clean through-and-through, no bone damage, and the leg was still functional. But in combination with the wound on his arm, he was losing blood much too quickly now.

He pulled a field dressing from his pocket and yanked it tight around his thigh till the bleeding stopped. The right arm was more of a problem. His left hand wasn't quite as dexterous as the right, so tying one-handed knots in a fraying elastic bandage would have been a problem anyway, and after the bullet damage to the arm, the elbow wouldn't bend all the way anymore. But at least he got the bleeding slowed down from a stream to a trickle. Good enough.

He looked at the door. It was made from solid metal, with only a small window of bulletproof glass that let him see that it had been wedged shut from the other side with a number of metal tables. It was a cleverly constructed barricade, the tables braced just so; without explosives or heavy equipment, that door wasn't going anywhere.

But this was the kind of obstacle the soldier had been designed to handle. He braced himself. The arm's auxiliary motors powered up with a whine. For a moment, there was that pain in his shoulder again. A warning – if he kept going like this, he was going to damage himself. He ignored it, hauled back, and rammed his fist against the upper edge of the door. It struck with a noise like a bell and a shock of impact that reverberated all the way through his body, setting off echoing flares of pain in his thigh and arm.

The corner of the door peeled back from the frame with a screech of tortured metal. Again. Again. Something gave in his arm, a plate caught on top of another one, levered up and out by the impact. Again. The arm had grown so hot he could feel the burn even in the numb scar tissue at his shoulder. But on the next strike, the corner of the door bent back far enough that he could force his arm through and dislodge one of the tables from where it had been braced against the doorframe. It disrupted the barricade just enough that he could finally force the door open.

He kicked the obstacles out of the way, tables scattering around him with an enormous crash, and took in the situation at a glance: a scientist and two guards dead on the floor in a puddle of blood; a small group of children huddled at the back of the room; a young man crouched protectively in front of them, the knife in his hand already caked with blood, and his face–

The world lurched. Stevie. Steve had dropped into a fighting stance when Bucky came in, knuckles going white around the handle of his knife, his face tightening in grim determination. Bucky gave him a smile, waiting for the moment of recognition, already anticipating the face Steve was going to make, half relieved, half rueful; Steve hated being saved.

But Steve's eyes slid over his face blankly, without recognition, until he got down to Bucky's metal arm. His face drained of color, expression freezing. "You're the asset," he said.

Bucky physically flinched. "No," he said, voiceless, almost pleading. This was Steve. Steve knew him, Steve had to know–

Footsteps came pounding down the hallway behind him. More guards. Bucky grabbed Steve, yanked him behind himself for cover, and fired three shots. The men went down.

When he turned back around, the world had righted itself. This was a Hydra base, not an alley in Brooklyn, and that boy in front of him was just another child Hydra had created in Steve's image. Adam, he thought. He could recognize the children from Alex's descriptions: Mary, fifteen years old and thin as a rail, holding a toddler by the hand – Elizabeth – and the twins, Fred and Georgia, peeking out from behind her back.

But his eyes kept going back to Adam. All the kids looked like Steve, to a greater or lesser degree, but Adam was a perfect carbon copy: Steve at eighteen, identical down to the crooked line of his spine and the cluster of freckles beside his nose. Adam was still holding the bloody knife, and the soldier belatedly realized how close he'd come being stabbed in the back just now.

"Thank you?" Adam said tentatively. He glanced down at the dead guards on the floor, then back at Bucky. Even knowing better, the total lack of recognition on his face was hard to bear. "I'm Adam," he said.

"I know. Alex told me about you. I'm…" he hesitated, but there wasn't anything else he could say, not while looking at that face. "I'm Bucky."

Adam's face lit up with a desperate hope. "Alex is alive?"

"Yeah," Bucky said. "Her and Max and David. They're all safe."

Adam closed his eyes for a moment, shoulders slumping in relief. Mary caught his hand. They hung on to each other for a moment, both of them squeezing tightly.

Mary had a knife, too, the soldier realized, concealed behind her back. That was a good strategy for someone that small: lure the enemy in close with a show of vulnerability, then stick the knife in their back when they weren't expecting it.

And no one would expect an attack from Mary. She looked terrible, as bad as – worse than – Steve ever had, that one terrible winter when he'd caught pneumonia twice. Her skin stretched paper-thin over a skeletal frame, and when Adam let go of her she turned her head to the side and coughed, a wet, rending sound.

"Come on, I'll get you out of here. Get you to a doctor," Bucky said.

Mary laughed wheezily. Her voice was low and rough. "I'm fine," she said. "I just got crappy lungs, not much the doctors can do about that." She reached down for Elizabeth, who was hiding her face against her thigh, and boosted her up to sit on her hip. Mary looked like a stray breeze would knock her over, but she was carrying Elizabeth easily enough. Steve had been like that, too, stronger than he looked.

Fred took Mary's hand, and Georgia took Adam's. Both the twins were studiously looking away from the three dead bodies on the floor.

"How many guards does this base have?" the soldier asked.

"Forty," Adam said.

"Six left, then," the soldier said.

"Christ," Adam muttered, looking the soldier up and down, taking in the blood spattered all over his armor. "You're not with Hydra?"

"No," Bucky said succinctly.

Adam looked like he wanted to ask, then obviously changed his mind. "So we were right. They want us dead," he said after a long minute of silence.

"Yes," Bucky said. "How'd you know?"

Adam snorted. "The program's been as good as shut down for two years, and now suddenly they show up in a swarm, start chopping bits off us like they'll never get another chance–" he held up his arm in illustration, showing a series of deep parallel scratches where someone had scraped off skin samples – "and then we're all supposed to sit down for a round of vaccinations after? Wasn't that hard to figure out that wasn't the flu shot. No, not that way," he added, when Bucky turned to lead them back the way they'd come. "There's an old secret tunnel to the parking lot. Hasn't been used since I was a kid. If they're calling in reinforcements from outside, they probably won't know it exists."

He led them to an empty office, nodding to a heavy filing cabinet. "You can move that, right?"

Bucky hooked his metal fingers behind the cabinet and yanked it away from the wall. Adam did something that revealed a small door in the wall paneling, a narrow tunnel leading off into the darkness.

There was a sound in the hallway. Bucky lifted his hand. The children fell silent. Three men, all of them in heavy military boots; guards. "Go. I'll stop them," Bucky said. He dropped the car keys in Adam's hand. "Blue van, row W. Get on the highway, take the first exit, keep taking right turns until you can pull over somewhere with cover. I'll find you."

He lifted the cabinet back into place behind the kids, concealing the doorway, and left the room just in time to see the men coming around the corner: Two guards, and Kyle. God damn it.

Kyle's hair was crusted with blood. He moved like a man with a murderous headache, shoulders stiff and teeth gritted, but he didn't let it slow him down.

Bucky ducked back into the room, grabbing a grenade from his pocket. He wasted a long moment just standing there, grenade in a hand grown numb and useless. Kyle had probably retreated, he told himself. He knew that the soldier was dangerous. He'd be careful. Bucky would only take out the two guards, no reason to hesitate–

His left shoulder exploded with pain. Bucky screamed. His left leg folded beneath him, dumping him to the floor. The grenade slid from his fingers and clattered away. His entire left side had gone numb, the feeling gone from his neck to the tip of his toes, and his strength with it. His arm powered down, and his leg splayed out limply on the floor. The only thing he could still feel on that side was his shoulder, pain pulsing bright like a fire.

The three men came into the room. Bucky tried desperately to struggle into a more defensible position against the heavy pull of his paralyzed left side, gritting his teeth against the pain; screamed again when it flared up red-hot and sharp. He reached for the Skorpion, but even his good hand was clumsy and fumbling. He could hardly think. It hurt, it hurt like nothing he'd ever felt before.

"Hold him down," Kyle said.

One of the guards knelt on his outstretched arm, the other on his legs. Kyle frisked him with quick, impersonal hands.

Bucky gritted his teeth, tried to stop screaming at least, to pull it together, to do something. But his body was twitching helplessly on the floor, and another ragged cry ripped its way from his throat.

Kyle piled his weapons beside him on the floor – guns, knives, grenades, even the garrote. He'd been a handler. He knew where to find the hidden pockets in the soldier's armor. He dragged Bucky's jacket off him, too, which meant he lost the last of his knives and the poison-tipped needles.

He still had a piece of razor wire hidden in the seam of his pants. It was going to mess up his flesh hand if he had to use it without gloves, but might at least let him take out the guards. Kyle would be a problem to kill at close range at the best of times, though. And none of it was any use to him now, when he could hardly move at all.

"Get him up," Kyle ordered, slinging Bucky's metal arm over his shoulders while one of the guards did the same to his flesh arm. The third guard was collecting up the pile of his weapons and gear.

"Fuck, you're heavy," Kyle said, gasping. "Come on, help us out here. Sooner we get you where we're going, the sooner I can turn this thing off."

It took him a long moment to process the words, and another of struggling with himself. His instincts screamed to go limp, to refuse to cooperate, to slow them down; but he couldn't bear this. He couldn't. Bucky set his unsteady right leg down, taking some of his weight. The pain battered at his mind until he felt like he might splinter into pieces.

The trip through the corridors was a blur. Bucky couldn't seem to do much more than hang limply between the two men, left leg dragging uselessly on the floor, struggling to help as much as he could; screaming. Finally the men dumped him in a chair, and magnetic restraints clamped shut to pin him down at arms and legs and chest. His left arm powered down the moment the manacle closed on his forearm.

And then the pain stopped. Bucky curled in on himself as much as the restraints would let him, gasping for breath; helplessly, utterly grateful for the reprieve.

"Slow breaths," someone said. A hand pressed down in the center of his chest, where he could feel it lift and fall with the rapid rhythm of his breath. "Slow down. You're hyperventilating."

Bucky forced himself to count. In two three four. Out two three four five six. Again. Again, until the room swam back into focus around him.

"There you go," Kyle said. "You tracking now?"

Bucky nodded wordlessly, looking around for the first time. They were alone in the room. His gear was piled up on a desk. The chair he'd been fastened to was obviously meant for the Winter Soldier, with restraints designed to withstand his strength and the special clamp that would deactivate his arm; most larger Hydra bases had one just like it. But it was just a maintenance station. There wasn't any of the equipment they'd need for a wipe. That meant they'd have to transfer him for reconditioning, which would give him a chance to get away if he could keep his head together. Although if Kyle activated that thing in his shoulder again…

Don't worry about that now.

Kyle reached out for the wound on his flesh arm.

Bucky flinched, and came up sharply against the restraints. He was horribly aware of the vulnerability the wounds presented. The pain in his arm and leg had settled down to a dull throb, hardly noticeable after the agony in his shoulder, but it would be easy enough to make it spike again. And now Bucky had shown fear, let Kyle know he was getting to him. Stupid.

Not that it made much of a difference now. Kyle had already proven that he was willing and able to hurt Bucky beyond what he was able to bear. The point was made.

Kyle held up his empty hand for a moment, palm out. "'s okay, just fixing up that bandage. You're bleeding through." He tightened up the strip of fabric and redid the knots, his touch firm but careful. He re-bandaged Bucky's leg after, too. When he was done, he picked up a sports bottle from the table and held it to Bucky's mouth. Bucky jerked his head away.

"Nah, it's just water," Kyle said. "Your throat's gotta be shredded." He took the bottle back and demonstratively took a big gulp. Bucky watched him warily. It might be a trick, but anything strong enough to have an effect on him at all would be strong enough to take out an unenhanced human. Even antidotes were dicey at that dosage. And nothing stopped Kyle from pinching his nose shut and pouring whatever it was down his throat, or for that matter sticking a needle in his arm.

Kyle touched the bottle to his lips again. Bucky opened his mouth and sucked. It really was just water, cold and clear and soothing on his aching throat. He was suddenly unbearably thirsty, his body screaming for liquids to replace the blood he'd lost.

Kyle held the bottle for him until it was empty. "More?" he asked. He nodded casually towards the tap, like he might actually go and get more if Bucky asked for it. Bucky considered it for a moment, but his stomach already felt uncomfortably full. He shook his head.

Kyle's comm unit activated with a burst of static that made him wince. He listened for a moment and then said "Be there in a minute."

The minute the door closed between them, Bucky threw himself against the restraints. They didn't budge an inch. His disabled left arm lay by his side like a piece of wood.

He gave up after a minute. He wasn't going anywhere right now. Might as well conserve his strength. There'd be another chance later.

Bucky drifted. He snapped back into awareness when the door eased open. Bucky turned his head to look, and then his entire body jerked at the sight of the small figure slipping inside.

"Alex? What –"

"Found you," Alex said. Her face twisted anxiously at the sight of him. "Are you okay?"

Bucky stared at her. He was half convinced he was hallucinating. But even his twisted brain couldn't possibly have come up with this. God, she was going to get herself killed. "How did you–" No, that wasn't the most important thing right now. "Where's Sarah?"

"She's with Adam," Alex said. She glared at him. "You were going to leave us with Captain America!"

"…so you hid in the goddamn van." Of course she had. Of course. "What the hell were you thinking!"

"I wasn't gonna do anything dangerous! We were gonna stay in the van and hide until we got somewhere safe, and I took real good care of Sarah just like you showed me. But then Adam found us, and he said you were still in the base, and he can take care of Sarah now. So I snuck back and I found you," she finished triumphantly.

"You gotta get out of here! It's not safe."

"It's safe for me, silly. This is a Hydra base, and I'm a Hydra soldier. No one's gonna hurt me. Why are you tied down like that?" She tugged at the cuff with both hands and frowned. "How does this come off?"

"Alex, listen to me. You gotta–" Too late. He could hear Kyle in the hallway. "Hide," he said. "Please. Don't come out, no matter what you hear. That's an order, soldier."

"Okay," said Alex, who'd snapped to attention at the word 'order'. She squeezed herself behind the desk in the corner of the room.

Kyle let the door fall shut behind him and leaned back against it. "All right. Doc Coleman's gonna be here any minute now, and then he's gonna explain to me what the fuck's going on he–"

That was as far as he got before Alex made a sound from where she was hiding. Bucky flinched, jerking against the restraints. Kyle whirled around, reaching for his gun. His hand dropped back down at the sight of her, eyes going wide.

"Trainer!" Alex yelled, crawling out from underneath the desk and barreling towards him.

"Holy shit, Alex?"

She launched herself at him. Kyle caught her in mid-air and settled her on his hip with the ease of familiarity. She immediately threw her arms around him. Kyle grinned at her incredulously. "Look at you, you've grown! What the hell are you doing here, are you sneaking around again? Where are the other kids?"

Bucky threw himself against the restraints. He knew perfectly well he wasn't going anywhere, but everything in him was straining to get to her, to get her away from Kyle.

"Knock it off," Kyle said warningly, turning to him. Bucky barely heard it. Alex. His forearm was bruising beneath the manacles, and his wounds had started hurting again, but he barely felt it. The force of his struggles shifted the metal arm in its clamp, disrupting the connectors. The motors powered up with a low hum. "Stop," Kyle said. He picked up something that looked like a small remote from the desk and hit a button.

Bucky's left shoulder went white-hot with pain. He howled, struck dumb all over again at the intensity of the pain. His arm powered back down.

"Stop!" Alex yelled. "Stop, what are you doing to him?" She pounded her fists against Kyle's chest. "Stop it!"

Kyle caught her hands, stilling her; caught the soldier's eyes above her head. "Gonna stay still if I turn this off?" he asked calmly.

The pain was as close to unbearable as anything Bucky had ever felt. He'd have gladly born it if it'd do anything to get her out of here. But he wasn't any good to her like this.

Bucky made himself nod. He could barely feel the rest of his body through the scream of pain his shoulder was sending up. It took him a moment.

Kyle hit the switch again. The pain stopped. Bucky fell back against the backrest, gasping.

Alex slumped in Kyle's arms, sniffling. He rubbed his thumb over the tear tracks on her cheek. "Hey, what's this?" His tone was almost gentle, just a hint of reproach in it. "What did we say about crying?"

"Soldiers don't," Alex choked out miserably. She wiped roughly at her eyes with the back of her hand. "But you were hurting him!"

"Yeah, I was," Kyle said calmly. He set her down on the floor and crouched down in front of her, bringing himself to eye level. "You know the Winter Soldier's one of Hydra's most important assets, don't you?" he asked.

Alex nodded.

Bucky gave an abortive twitch, and then made himself still again when Kyle shifted his thumb warningly over the button on the remote.

"Look at him," Kyle said. "He's the most perfect soldier Hydra ever created, and now SHIELD messed with his mind and made him fight us. We're going to take him for reconditioning, and he'll remember that he's a loyal soldier of Hydra, just like you."

Bucky's muscles tensed, his arm and legs pressing up against the restraints. He forced himself back to stillness with an enormous effort.

Alex looked back and forth between Bucky and Kyle, her face twisting up anxiously. "Is it gonna hurt him?"

"Yes," Kyle said. Alex made a choked little noise. He took her hands in his. "Sometimes you're gonna have to hurt someone to keep Hydra safe," he said. His tone was horribly gentle. Bucky's right hand was balling into a fist. "If you want to be a soldier of Hydra, you gotta be able to make hard choices like that."

Alex looked at Bucky. Her eyes were red and swollen, but she wasn't crying anymore. "Then I don't want to be a soldier of Hydra!" she said.

Kyle jerked a little, a tiny flinch, and for a moment his face looked genuinely stricken. Then he took a deep breath, mouth tightening. "We're gonna talk about this later," he said.

"I won't! I'm not gonna hurt him!" Alex yelled. "I won't let anyone hurt him!"

She yanked her hand from his grip and ran over to Bucky, feeling frantically along his restraints for a way to make them give.

The door opened again. A man stepped in, tall and lean, wearing a tailored suit. The two guards behind him were dressed in black tac gear, and just from the way they were carrying themselves Bucky could tell that these were a whole different class of fighter than the base's complement of unprepared security guards.

Alex made an anxious sound and shifted closer, cowering against Bucky's side. Bucky twisted his arm in the manacles, trying to reach for her hand. He'd never seen her frightened of anyone before.

The man raised an eyebrow. "What the hell is going on here?"

"Doctor Coleman," Kyle said.

"Kyle. Care to explain this?"

Kyle shrugged. "Found the asset trying to run off with the Rebirth kids, that's about all I know. I guess SHIELD managed to subvert him somehow. Whole base was going crazy before he even showed up, though, and I still got no idea what was going on."

"Great," Coleman said. "Well, at least you caught the asset, that'll be one point in our favor when Ziegler finds out about this mess. And subject 483047. Any news about the rest of the subjects?" he asked, turning to look at the guard beside him.

The man murmured a question into his comm unit and then shook his head."Still nothing."

Bucky didn't let any of his relief show on his face.

"All right, let's pack this up. You've worked with the asset before, right? Can you secure him for transport?"

"Yeah," Kyle said. "Doc, what's going on with the–"

Coleman ignored him. "Great. Do that, get rid of 483047, and get him out to the garage. We'll be leaving in thirty."

There was a long moment of silence. "Get rid of," Kyle repeated slowly, like he couldn't quite believe Coleman had meant that the way it sounded.

"We're terminating the phase two subjects."

Alex made a small, startled sound. She pressed herself closer to Bucky's side.

"What?" Kyle was shifting, putting himself subtly between Alex and Coleman.

Coleman shrugged. "I don't love it either, but Ziegler's right. If SHIELD wants them badly enough to send the asset after them, we can't afford to keep them around."

"Are you insane?" Kyle said. His hand was on the butt of his gun now. Glock 19, Bucky noted automatically – the same model gun as the one Alex liked so much.

Coleman shrugged. "They're just a bunch of failed experiments."

Alex was close enough that Bucky could feel the way she shuddered at the words, the barely-audible hurt-animal noise she made.

Kyle gritted his teeth. "They've been training since they were little kids. They're loyal, they're clever as hell – I'd bet on Alex against half the brainless goons you had guarding this base, and she's nine years old! Max is one hell of a tactician already, and Adam's the best sniper I've worked with in two decades. They're not a failure just 'cause they don't look like Captain America, and if you think killing them's in Hydra's best interest, you're out of your mind!"

Alex had turned towards him at the words like a flower towards the sun, her hunched shoulders straightening out at the words of praise. It made Bucky nauseous, seeing how much it meant to her, that tiny scrap of affirmation from one of the monsters who'd raised her. He silently strained against his cuffs.

"This discussion is over," Coleman said. "Do it yourself or get out of the way."

"God damn you, you short-sighted idiot," Kyle snapped. His shoulders were slumping, tired and defeated. He took a deep breath. "Sorry, Alex," he said, very gently. He took a step back and raised the Glock, knuckles white around the handle.

Alex stood still, looking up at him with wide, shining eyes.

Kyle's hands shook. He shifted his grip, took the gun in both hands. Pointed the muzzle at the center of Alex's forehead.

Bucky was making a sound now, he was vaguely aware, snarling like a trapped animal. His forearm was bruising black where the restraints cut into it. His left arm had powered up again, shifted away from the electronic contact points, and it was burning his flesh where the overtaxed motors transmitted their heat to his shoulder. The restraints didn't give.

"Fuck," Kyle snarled, voice cracking. He whirled around and put a bullet through Coleman's head.

Alex screamed, a single short sound, immediately choked off. Kyle's next bullets took down Coleman's guards. An alarm started blaring. Bucky could hear feet pounding down the other end of the hallway.

Kyle hit a couple of buttons on the computer. The door to the hallway sealed shut with a hiss, and Bucky's restraints slid open. Kyle tossed him his armored jacket and the Skorpion. Bucky barely got his aching arms up in time to catch them. He grabbed the remote off the desk and shoved it into a pocket. He could only hope that no one else in the base had another one of those.

A hidden door slid open at the back of the room. Someone was pounding against the front door with something that made an ominously loud metal sound. The frame was already beginning to bend.

"Get her out of here. I'll try and buy you some time," Kyle said. He grabbed Alex and thrust her at Bucky, who caught her tightly in his arms. "Alex–" He stretched his hand out as if to touch her, but didn't force the issue when Bucky took an automatic step backwards, cradling her protectively against his chest. "Remember what I taught you."

Alex twisted around in Bucky's arms, reaching out for Kyle. "Trainer–" she said anxiously.

The front door gave a groaning sound, the handle clattering to the floor. "Go!" Kyle yelled.

Bucky turned and ran. The door sealed behind them. "Wait!" Alex yelled. "Wait, we gotta go back! They'll hurt him! Please, we gotta–"

There was a crash behind them, the front door finally giving; the sound of gunshots, the distinctive bark of Kyle's Glock. Screams. A single burst of machine gun fire, and then a long moment of silence.

"Clear! He's down!" someone yelled.

Alex made an awful moaning sound, jerking once in Bucky's arms.

Another crash. The door behind them shuddered. Bucky ran. His left leg was numb and nerveless, and every step jarred a wave of pain up his body. Blood dripped slowly down his arm. Alex was slumped in his arms, limp and defeated.

Behind them, the door burst open. The strike team came through in a spray of gunfire. Bucky twisted around, shielding Alex with his body and his metal arm, returning fire. There was a single grenade left in the pockets of his jacket. It bought him just enough time to set her down safely. "Run! Get to Adam, tell him to call for backup!" he yelled. There wouldn't be any backup to be had, certainly not in time, but as long as it got Alex out of here and to safety, anything else hardly mattered.

The guards were coming closer again, but Alex was already safely around the corner. He only had to slow them down long enough for her to get away. Bucky dodged and fired, dodged and fired. His metal arm was sluggish and unresponsive, overheated far past safe parameters, and his other arm was still half numb from the wound and the bruising.

A bullet hit him high up in the side, the impact knocking the breath out of him even through a thick layer of Kevlar. His next gasping inhale came with the grinding pain of broken ribs. The next bullet took his good leg out from beneath him. Bucky crashed to his knees. He was five bullets away from running empty on this magazine, he didn't have time to reload, he couldn't run, and there were two men coming through the door for every one he'd taken down.

He was going to die. Bucky took a deep breath. He made his last five bullets count, but he already knew how this was going to end. He could only hope he'd bought enough time for Alex to get away.

A blue-red blur whistled past his ear. The sound it made was familiar on a level deeper than conscious memory. Bucky jerked his head around just in time to see it bowl one man over, ricochet off the wall, and take out two more, so quickly he could barely see the shape of it. Not that he needed to see it to recognize it.

Steve's shield.

Steve stepped around the corner just in time to catch it on the rebound. His eyes widened. "Bucky?"

"Yes," Bucky said, and "Watch out!"

Steve was already moving, shaking off the brief moment of distraction. He threw the shield in a powerful arc to send it scything through a group of three men and launched himself at a fourth one. Another two men fell with Bucky's knives in their necks.

Fighting beside Steve felt deeply, intimately familiar, as right as a dislocated bone sliding back into its socket. His body knew where Steve was going to move, and falling into sync with him was as automatic as breathing. Steve tossed him a gun one of the guards had dropped. He caught it in mid-air without even looking, forcing himself back up to unsteady feet. Steve's hand locked around his arm just when he needed a moment of support and was gone the second he'd caught himself. The next throw of his shield sent it bouncing off the wall right into Bucky left hand. Bucky threw it back without even having to think about it, knocking a guard into the wall.

Steve had a gun now, too, taken from one of the men on the floor. He wasn't the marksman Bucky was, but with the guards no more than the length of the corridor away, he didn't need to be.

And then it was over.

Bucky just stood there a few seconds, feeling the pounding beat of his own heart. They'd survived.

Steve was listening to something over his comm unit, just a faint crackle of noise from where Bucky was standing. "Yeah, I got him," he said after a moment. "No, I've got things down here. Secure the exits."

He turned to give Bucky a grin. "Let's get out of here," he said. He slung Bucky's arm over his shoulder and dragged him into a run. Bucky was hanging off Steve's shoulder more than anything, one leg numb and both of them bleeding. But Steve could take his weight, could and would carry him if he had to; and it was looking more and more like he'd have to. With the adrenaline ebbing away, Bucky was starting to feel every single one of his injuries. The hallway wavered in and out of focus, and the sound of their feet on the floor had turned into a hollow pounding like an echo of far-off drums.

"…Bucky. Bucky!"

Steve's face slowly swam into focus above him. Bucky was flat on his back on the floor, legs sprawled out at an awkward angle. He must have passed out. Steve had unbuckled his jacket and was frantically running his hands over Bucky's sides and chest, looking for wounds. Bucky gently knocked his hands away. "Stop it, it's just my legs. And my arm. Couple broken ribs. Nothing serious."

"Okay," Steve said. "Bucky. You're okay." He looked down at Bucky with his eyes a little damp, smiling shakily. One of his hands curled loosely around Bucky's flesh and blood wrist, thumb stroking the skin below the purpling ring of bruises.

He's still in love, Bucky thought with a pang of sorrow. Poor sucker. This was the first time since World War 2 they'd been face to face without Bucky trying to attack him, and yet Steve's feelings hadn't faded. But the man he loved – the man who'd loved him back – was gone for good.

"We gotta go," Bucky said, pulling his arm from Steve's grasp and breaking the moment. He looked down and grimaced. Both legs of his pants were now thoroughly soaked with blood. But he could move everything just fine, and he could already feel the wounds beginning to knit together. "Slap a bandage on that, will you?"

Alex was out there, and the rest of the kids. He needed to get to them, and fast. He didn't have time for his body failing him.

"I'm sorry I didn't get here earlier," Steve said. He wrapped a bandage around Bucky's leg with quick, sure hands. His voice was soft and careful on the next question. "Did you find the kids in time? Are they–"

"I got them out," Bucky said. Steve's eyes closed with relief. He refocused on what he was doing after no more than a moment though, pulling the bandage tight, tying it off. Bucky gritted his teeth. He pushed to his feet the instant Steve took his hands off the knot, forcing his legs to bear his weight. They didn't buckle beneath him this time. Just shallow flesh wounds, and they'd already stopped bleeding; he'd be fine.

"Let me help," Steve said instantly. "Whatever you gotta do, let me come with you. Please."

"No," Bucky said. Steve's face grew pinched and tight. It wasn't the answer he'd wanted to hear. Steve so badly wanted to bring him in. Even if Bucky was prepared to let him, it wouldn't get him the result he wanted; but he was too emotionally compromised to see that. He'd followed Bucky halfway across the country and back, chasing after a man he didn't realize was gone.

"You gotta secure the base," Bucky said urgently. "Everyone in here, they know about the children. You gotta make sure they can't come after them."

Steve looked at him for a long moment. He wouldn't want to let Bucky go, not now, not when he finally had his chance. But Bucky couldn't let himself be taken. He still had a mission. Hydra had at least one more base out there, one more cell whose members knew about Project Rebirth.

"Please," Bucky added. The word tasted bitter on his tongue. Asking for anything only ever gave them another thing to use against you. But this was Steve. "Please."

Steve looked at him. Nothing stopped him from taking Bucky now. A fight with Steve would mean a delay Bucky couldn't afford, another set of injuries at best – if he won, which he wouldn't. Steve was fresh and rested, and Bucky was near his limits already. Steve would be handicapped by his feelings, but by this point Bucky didn't think he'd be able to hurt Steve without hesitation, either.

It'd be so easy to give in right now. Steve would let him get the kids first, would make sure they were safe. Bucky could finally stop fighting, stop running. But the safety Steve offered could be nothing more than an illusion as long as there were still Hydra scientists who knew about the children.

Steve took a deep breath. "All right. Go, I've got this."

He pulled a syringe from his pocket and held it out. Bucky eyed it warily.

"It's a mix of painkillers and stimulants," Steve said. "Bruce made it. Keeps you going for a couple hours longer than you usually could. The crash after's pretty brutal, though. You want it?"

Bucky hesitated. There could be anything inside that syringe. If he accepted it and he was wrong about Steve, he'd wake up restrained to another chair, waiting for someone to try and wipe the Winter Soldier from his mind. And Hydra would still be out there.

Steve didn't move any closer. "Only if you want it," he said.

"Yes," Bucky said.

He took the syringe from Steve's palm.

"In your thigh," Steve said, gesturing. Bucky stuck the needle right through the fabric of his pants and pressed the plunger.

It felt like jumping into an icy mountain stream. His skin prickled up with goosebumps. His muscles tightened. The feeling washed over him in a wave, bright and sharp. It left him gasping, wide awake, the cloying exhaustion wiped away. The many points of pain on his body felt numb and distant.

"Thank you," he told Steve, and took off at a run.

Hydra had given him drugs sometimes to keep him functioning on long missions, but this stuff worked better than anything they'd ever dosed him with. He felt as fresh and well-rested as if he'd just gotten up from a good night's sleep, his injuries nothing more than tiny pinpricks of irritation.

He had to detour around Steve's backup team when he left the hospital, but apparently Alex had had to spend some time hiding, too; he caught up to her halfway through the parking lot.

Adam was coming towards them from the other side of the lot, running flat out, wheezing with exertion. "Oh thank God," he said, catching sight of her. "Alex, what the hell were you thinking running off like that! Are you okay?"

"No!" Alex said. She sniffed loudly, scrubbing the back of her hand across her face, her eyes red and swollen.

Bucky immediately took a step towards her, concern swelling up sharp and sudden in his chest.

She kicked him in the shin, a hard, vicious blow. Bucky flinched; more from shock than from pain, but it did hurt. She'd meant it to hurt.

Alex snarled at him. "Trainer's dead! He's dead and you let him die! I hate you!"

She threw herself at Adam, who caught her automatically. "Kyle's dead?" he asked quietly, looking stricken.

"Alex–" Bucky reached out one hand.

Alex flinched away from him, glaring, her face twisted up with rage and misery. "You're the Winter Soldier! You could've helped him! I hate you!" She pressed herself more tightly against Adam, who wrapped both arms around her, hunching over her a little, defensive, protective.

Bucky slowly dropped his hand. There was blood all over his fingers, sticky and repulsive. He shouldn't have tried to touch her at all.

"I'm sorry," he said very quietly. "I couldn't–" He stopped himself, took a deep breath. No. He couldn't let himself deal with this now. Hydra might still have backup of their own out there. The kids weren't safe, the mission wasn't finished, and you didn't stop in the middle of the mission just because it hurt.

"Let's get out of here."

*******

They stole a large van that looked like it hadn't been moved for a few days, the roof littered with twigs and leaves leftover from the last storm. With any luck it wouldn't be missed for a while yet.

Bucky drove, Adam navigating them to where Mary had taken the rest of the kids. Alex was curled up on Adam's lap, entirely still except for the occasional convulsive shudder running through her. Bucky wanted desperately to reach out and touch her. He kept his bloodied hands on the wheel.

Mary had parked the van in the shelter of an old warehouse. Elizabeth and the twins were huddled together on the front seats, but Mary knelt on the ground in front of it, hunched over Sarah, who was bundled up tight in her blanket. "Bucky! Help!" she called, the minute he stepped out of the bus.

Bucky turned to her, feeling his breath catch. If something had happened to Sarah….

Something cold touched the back of his neck. "Don't move," Adam said, tapping Bucky lightly with the muzzle of his gun. Bucky tensed, a plan of attack unspooling in the back of his head – a twist to the side to get out of the line of fire, a fast, crushing blow to the trachea…. He froze when he realized what he was doing.

This was Adam. Adam, who'd stepped up behind his unprotected back in that moment when his focus had been entirely on Mary.

Of course. That's how you did it, Bucky thought ruefully. Lure the enemy in with a show of weakness and stick the knife in his back.

He should have been prepared for an attack. There was no excuse for the way he'd reacted, for how he'd come within a fraction of a second from killing Adam.

"We're not gonna hurt you," Adam said. He took Bucky's Skorpion and tossed it to Mary, who pointed it unerringly at the center of Bucky's forehead. "I'm gonna tie you up now. We'll leave you a knife and your van. You're not gonna follow us. Sorry," he added. "Thanks for getting us out of there. We all owe you one. But I'm still not letting you hand us over to SHIELD."

"I'm not working for SHIELD," Bucky said, twisting his head back to look at Adam.

Adam's face was hard with determination. "Alex said you've handed Max and David over to the Avengers. I don't care whether they're SHIELD now or not. That team's half scientists. Banner's experimented with the serum before. You think he wouldn't jump at the chance to get his hands on Hydra's subjects?"

The way Bucky figured it, it didn't matter what Banner wanted – no one was going to experiment on a kid in Steve's care. But that argument wasn't gonna impress Adam any.

"So what are you gonna do? You can't take care of six kids. You're just a kid yourself." That last bit had been a cheap shot, and he regretted it the instant it came out of his mouth. He still couldn't help seeing Steve every time he looked into Adam's face, and it kept hitting him how young he was; how young they'd both been, back then. What a couple of dumb kids they'd been.

But this wasn't Steve. Steve hadn't ever had it easy, but compared to what Adam must have gone through….

Adam only looked back at him calmly. "I've been taking care of these kids since the day they were born. You think anyone else ever gave a damn about any of us? Thanks for the help, but I've got it from here."

"All right," Bucky said. He threw himself to the side, twisted around and grabbed the muzzle of Adam's gun with his metal hand. He yanked sharply enough that Adam let go with a pained yelp, dodged a burst of machine gun fire from Mary, leaped, and tore the gun away from her.

Mary flinched. The bundle of blankets fell open on her lap, revealing nothing but a rolled-up jacket. At the sound of the shots, Sarah started crying. She was inside the van, then. Of course. No need to risk her for this ruse. Clever kids.

There was a moment of horrified silence from Mary and Adam. Adam swallowed hard and shifted a little, putting himself between Bucky and Alex, who'd watched the entire exchange in angry silence. Alex instantly shifted back out from behind him to glare at Bucky.

"No SHIELD, no Avengers, no Hydra. Got it," Bucky said drily. "I'm taking you to a safe house. No one but me knows the place exists. Anything else, we can talk about somewhere safer. Now get in the car."

He didn't bother lifting the gun. Adam and Mary knew who he was. They knew what he was. The Winter Soldier's reputation was threat enough by itself, and Bucky knew the picture he made right now, standing there covered in blood and grime.

Of course they didn't trust him. They'd be crazy to. Hell, he knew perfectly well he wasn't fit to be taking care of them. But he still needed them to come with him right now. Adam had already made it clear he wouldn't go with Steve, and Bucky wasn't going to leave them on their own with Hydra out there looking for them.

Adam's shoulders tightened. He exchanged a look with Mary. Bucky waited, giving them time. They must have already realized he didn't want to hurt them, or they wouldn't have risked attacking him. Going along was the sensible choice right now. They'd figure it out.

After a moment, Mary gave a tiny nod, and Adam reluctantly returned the gesture. He waved the twins out of the van.

By the time Bucky was done transferring his weapons to their new van's storage compartment, all the kids were in their seats and buckled up. It was quickly becoming obvious that Adam and Mary were a well-practiced team when it came to wrangling their siblings.

Adam had taken one of the two passenger seats in front and put Sarah's car seat beside himself. Alex huddled up against a window in the second row, her shoulders hunched. Mary reached out for her, trying to put an arm around her, but Alex shrugged her off harshly. Bucky forced his eyes away, made himself focus on the road. He turned the radio on low, searching for the traffic report.

Fred and Georgia were having a whispered argument in the back row of seats that got progressively louder as they forgot to watch their volume. "That's not true!" Georgia yelled. "Adam, Fred forgot Panda and he says it was my turn to keep track of him but it's not true!"

Bucky tried to tune them out. He was watching the cars around them, weaving through dense traffic as quickly as he could without attracting attention, keeping both eyes out for signs of pursuit, and listening to the radio at the same time. If they got caught in traffic now, they were going to be sitting ducks. Steve's drug was still rushing through his veins. He could feel his heart beating like a drum inside his chest.

"Panda!" Elizabeth said. She was twisting around in her seat, reaching both hands towards Georgia. "Panda Panda Panda!" Her voice was rising to a shrill peak. Bucky turned up the volume on the radio.

"I don't got him, dummy!" Georgia told Elizabeth. She glared at Fred. "You forgot Panda and now she's gonna cry!"

"Kids–" Bucky started.

"That's a lie!" Fred yelled, his voice cracking in outrage. Sarah, whose face had started twisting up unhappily at the first sound of rising voices, chose that moment to start wailing. Fred yelled louder to make himself heard over her. "Adam, she's lying, it wasn't my turn at a–"

"Everyone shut up!" Bucky snapped.

The kids went silent like a radio with the plug pulled. Only Sarah was still crying. Adam bent over her, shushing her frantically. Bucky glanced in the rearview mirror. Fred and Georgia were looking back at him with wide, terrified eyes. Mary had gone pale and still, one hand clapped over Elizabeth's mouth. Elizabeth was whimpering unhappily, squirming in Mary's hold. Only Alex hadn't moved. She was still staring determinedly out the window.

"Sorry," Bucky said, instantly remorseful. Goddamn it, he'd known they were scared of him. "Sorry, just– be quiet for a minute, I need to hear the traffic report."

There wasn't so much as a whisper from any of the kids until the report was through and a song came on. Bucky switched the radio off.

Mary pulled something black and white and fuzzy out of a pocket and handed it to Elizabeth.

"Panda!" Elizabeth said happily, hugging the thing to her chest.

Fred grumbled. "Told you it wasn't my turn–"

"Shh!" Mary said sharply, and Fred fell silent again instantly, shooting Bucky an uneasy glance.

"It's okay, you can talk now," Bucky said, but he wasn't surprised when no one took him up on the invitation. The first time you annoyed a handler you might only get yelled at, if you were lucky. The second time your luck might run out.

They drove for thirty minutes in uneasy silence. Adam twisted around in his seat, having some sort of wordless conversation with Mary with nothing but eyebrow twitches and little shrugs. Finally he nodded and turned back around.

"If you're not working for SHIELD, why are you helping us?" he said abruptly.

It took Bucky a moment to come up with an answer he could put into words, to explain the bone-deep protectiveness he felt every time he looked at one of the kids. He'd like to think it didn't matter, that he wouldn't have left any group of kids in Hydra's claws. But deep down he wasn't sure he could make himself believe that. He'd barely been human when he'd stumbled upon Alex in that warehouse: Hydra's weapon, turned back on its master. If that moment of instinctive recognition hadn't stopped him in his tracks.…

"You remind me of an old friend," he finally said, inadequately. Adam shared a significant look with Mary, like that meant something to the two of them.

"You're Captain America's Bucky, aren't you. Bucky Barnes."

Bucky glanced over at him. Something about the way Adam had phrased that was resonating strangely inside him. Captain America's Bucky. He'd been Captain America's before he'd been Hydra's. Captain America's weapon – but no, that wasn't quite right, either. That wasn't what it'd been like. He'd been… Steve's. Steve's weapon. Steve's friend.

He'd been in love with Steve.

"Yes," he said.

Adam gave a low laugh. "Wow. There were all kinds of rumors about the asse– about the Winter Soldier. But I always thought that one was kinda crazy."

Bucky glanced over again. Adam was watching him, studying him curiously – trying to find James Barnes in his face, Bucky thought, the way he himself had, months ago, staring into a mirror in the middle of the Smithsonian exhibit.

Finally Adam looked away. "You sure no one knows about this place you're taking us to?"

"Yeah," Bucky said. The Cabin had been a safe house meant for a select few Hydra executives. The last person who knew that it existed had died screaming more than two months ago.

They drove for hours, through deepening dusk and into night. Elizabeth fell asleep almost immediately, and the twins followed soon after.

Sarah, of course, still demanded to be fed on schedule, but at least she seemed content with formula dissolved in lukewarm water in a gas station cup. Adam fed her while Bucky drove. He was gentle with her, careful, but in the sure, confident way of someone used to handling babies. It struck Bucky all over again that Adam, who looked impossibly young in the dim light inside the bus, had been taking care of his siblings for years.

Mary nodded off once, too. A few minutes after, she startled violently awake.

"Sorry," she said, while Bucky tried to loosen his white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. He'd just barely stopped himself from swerving at the panicked sound she'd made. "Won't happen again."

"It's fine," Bucky said.

It didn't happen again, mainly because Mary didn't let herself fall asleep after that. Bucky kept half an eye on her in the rearview mirror, watching the way her head would start drooping with exhaustion, eyes falling shut, and the way she'd force herself awake again with iron determination. Adam reached back once or twice, tapping her hand when she got too close to sleep. The nightmares weren't new, then; they clearly had a system all worked out for this.

But mostly it was Alex he watched in the mirror. She'd slumped down against the window, asleep or faking it well, her breathing deep and even.

Adam followed his gaze. "What happened with Kyle?" he asked quietly.

Bucky told him.

"Saved her life," he added, at the end. "If he hadn't bought us that time, I don't think I'd have gotten her out."

Adam was still for a long moment, looking off into the darkness ahead. "She loved him a lot," he said. "And he loved her right back, you know? Like a dad. As much of one as any of us ever had."

He sighed, tiredly rubbing his hand across his face. "She's gonna be okay," he finally said. "We're good at getting over things."

*******

Bucky pulled over at the first open store he found, which was an enormous Walmart by the side of the highway. The Cabin's kitchen would be stocked with non-perishables, but it wouldn't be set up to feed seven people and a baby.

He pulled on a hat, fresh gloves, and an oversized windbreaker. It didn't exactly make him look like a respectable member of society, but at least you couldn't see the bloodstains at a glance.

"One of you is gonna come in with me," he told Adam, who'd started eyeing their surroundings with interest the second Bucky had pulled to a halt. "Sorry," he added. It felt entirely too much like taking a hostage for his comfort, but he knew perfectly well that if he went in alone, he'd come back to find the van gone. He hated keeping them prisoner like this, but he wasn't letting the kids disappear until he'd taken care of Hydra.

"I'll do it," Mary said.

She went a little wide-eyed inside the store, looking down the enormous shelves.

"That's something, isn't it," Bucky said, nodding at the rows upon rows of cereals in the breakfast aisle. The future was pretty crazy, if you thought about it.

"Yes, sir," Mary said, her tone so smoothly diplomatic and polite, Bucky was pretty sure he'd have gotten the same bland agreement no matter what he'd said. Bucky suppressed a sigh. He'd gotten used to Alex, who'd taken to him so quickly. Of course two wary teenagers weren't going to trust him the way she had.

The thought of Alex gave him a sharp pang. Yeah, Alex had trusted him. Look where it'd gotten her.

"Just grab whatever looks good to you," he said, picking up the pace. They still had a long way to go tonight.

*******

Even Adam was beginning to look a little drowsy by the time Bucky pulled off the main road onto the uneven dirt track through the woods, but he instantly snapped awake when the truck pulled to a halt. "That it?" he asked, looking at the building illuminated by the bus's headlights.

"That's it," Bucky confirmed.

"Wow," Adam said.

The Cabin was a one-story log house, larger than its name implied, with a big stone chimney on one side and a wide porch in front. The whole thing looked like it had jumped straight out of the pages of a catalogue for rustic vacation homes. That was what it'd been used for, mostly; at least one Hydra general had brought his mistress here, and a few others liked to use it as a secret getaway. As far as Bucky knew, it hadn't ever seen emergency use before. Now there was no one left who knew it existed at all.

Bucky and Adam left Mary watching over the sleeping kids in the van while they checked the perimeter and the cabin itself. He wordlessly passed the Skorpion off to Adam, taking an assault rifle for himself. Adam wasn't stupid enough to try attacking him again, so soon after that first failed attempt. Even if he somehow managed to get the upper hand – and he had to know that it'd take either a lot of luck or a lot of planning – there wasn't any point trying to escape with the rest of the kids as sleep-addled and vulnerable as they were right now.

Adam slotted into place by his side as naturally as Steve had. They were both of them products of Hydra's combat training, which made it easy to coordinate; and he knew the limits of Adam's body as well as his own.

They swept the cabin quickly but thoroughly, finding it empty as expected, everything covered in a thin layer of dust that hadn't been disturbed in months.

They set to work getting the bedrooms ready in silent accord, stripping the dust covers off the bed and getting the central heating going. Even with the covers off the bedding smelled a little dusty and stale, but it'd have to do for tonight.

Alex had woken up by the time they came back out, stumbling blearily behind them while they carried in the little ones. Mary started coughing spastically in the dry, stale air, making a face and reaching for her inhaler. Bucky watched her worriedly. He didn't like the sound of that cough.

They laid the kids down on the enormous bed in the master bedroom. Alex curled up beside the pile of her siblings, already half asleep again. Mary dragged a blanket down onto the floor, making a nest for herself on the thick carpet and sinking down on it with a sigh of relief. She looked frail as a bird, her face grey with exhaustion, but Bucky's look of concern only got a defiant stare in return.

Bucky didn't bother pointing out that there was a second bedroom they could be using.

Adam reached for Sarah, who was sleeping in Bucky's arms. "You can leave her with us. I'll take care of her."

"I've got it. I'm awake anyway," Bucky said, and watched Adam struggle to find a way to argue with that without straight up telling Bucky he didn't trust him with the baby. Adam nodded reluctantly.

He wasn't surprised to hear Adam lock the door the minute Bucky left the room.

Bucky himself felt wide awake and alert. Whatever drug Steve had given him was still going strong. He left Sarah sleeping in her carrier in the living room – he'd hear if she woke up, even from another room – and searched the house again, more thoroughly this time, sweeping for bugs. The few he found were old and inactive.

He finally settled down on the porch with his rifle by his side. He'd already turned the lights on the roof so they pointed out into the woods. If anyone came up the road, he'd see them approaching, and he'd be hidden behind the glare of the lights.

But he didn't think anyone was going to come for them tonight. They hadn't been followed, he'd made sure of that. No one knew this place existed. No one knew where they were. Behind him, the children were sleeping, and anyone who wanted to get to them would have to go through him. Tonight, they were going to be safe.

There'd been a half-empty six-pack in the back of one of the cabinets. Bucky had taken it out to the porch with him, feeling defiant as hell. Alcohol wasn't allowed, not ever. Slowed down the reflexes, dulled the mind. But he knew perfectly well a single bottle of beer wasn't going to do anything.

Bucky popped the top off one of the bottles and took a slow, deliberate sip. He remembered this, not so much any specific instance but the feeling of it: sitting back with a bottle of beer after a successful mission, the warm feeling of a job well done.

Felt a little strange to be sitting there alone at a moment like that, actually. There was an absence at his side where Steve would've been, tipping back his own bottle of beer, sitting just a little too close, their shoulders brushing; but all the Commandos lived in each other's pockets, and no one was going to say anything.

Bucky put his feet up on the rickety old porch table, tipped his chair back on two legs, and leaned back with a sigh – and then quickly put his feet back on the floor. Even knowing they were safe he couldn't make himself stay in a position that unbalanced. If anyone attacked him now–

No one was going to attack him. But he still put his free hand on the rifle.

The front door swung open, one of the hinges creaking quietly. Bucky's hand tightened on the rifle, even knowing it had to be one of the kids. His body was still braced for battle, and he couldn't quite make himself settle down.

Adam hesitated in the doorway, arms wrapped around himself. Bucky kicked the second chair out from under the table in silent invitation.

"Couldn't sleep?"

"No," Adam said. He sat down. They were silent for a long moment.

"You okay?" Bucky asked quietly. It'd been one hell of a day for all of them, but Adam maybe most of all. He'd killed those two guards to protect his siblings, and he'd bought a bit of time by barricading them in, but he hadn't known anyone was coming to save them. He'd stood there armed with nothing but a knife and waited for an entire Hydra base to come for him and the children he was trying to protect.

"I'm fine," Adam said, and Bucky felt a small pang at the prickly tone of his voice. Stevie'd sounded just like that, when he wasn't fine and didn't want to talk about it.

Adam eyed the bottles of beer on the table.

"Can I have one?" he finally said, squaring his shoulders. He expected a no, Bucky could tell; he was just testing the boundaries. Well, he wasn't going to find any here. Bucky wasn't their handler, and he wasn't gonna act like one, either. He wasn't gonna try and boss Adam around. Hell, if Adam had one tenth of Steve's stubborn streak, Bucky wouldn't like what would happen if he tried.

Bucky raised an eyebrow. "Thought you weren't a kid. What'cha asking me for?"

Adam's face twitched with surprise. Bucky nudged over the six-pack. Adam took a bottle, then paused with it in his hand, looking down at the cap. "Gimme," Bucky said, holding out a hand. Adam's muscles tensed for a moment in instinctive denial before he realized that Bucky wasn't trying to take the offer back. He handed the bottle over. Bucky popped the top off for him with his metal fingers.

Adam took a tentative sip. His face screwed up in distaste for just a fraction of a second, but Bucky, grinning, realized he'd been watching for it. Steve had made that face, the first time he'd tasted beer.

"Acquired taste, huh?" he said.

For a moment, it looked like Adam was going to deny it. Then he gave a short laugh, swiped the back of his hand over his mouth. "Kind of a let-down after all the hype," he said.

"You'll get used to it," Bucky said. Steve had. He'd come to like the taste enough to keep drinking beer long after alcohol had stopped working on him.

They were quiet again after that. Bucky listened to the background sound of the woods: a bough cracking and falling, the rustling of small animals, an owl hooting somewhere in the distance. No cars, no sign of human movement. Adam watched him from the corner of his eyes, trying to be subtle about it. He was a little better at subtlety than Steve had been, but he wouldn't have made much of a spy.

"I can't believe we actually got out of there," Adam said abruptly.

He'd pulled one leg up in front of him on his chair, wrapping his arms around it. The posture made him look small, younger than he was.

"You ever tried to run before?" Bucky asked.

"Yeah. Couple of times when I was younger, with Mary. Never made it that far. Wasn't really worth the punishment after." Adam shuddered faintly and wrapped his arms a little tighter around himself. "Not for a while, though," he added. "Mary wasn't gonna be okay on the run, with her lungs. And I couldn't just leave the little ones."

He took another sip from his beer, grimaced again. "Anyway, things haven't been that bad the last two years. No more experiments, no one hurting us, you know?" He shrugged.

No one hurting us, like a thing to be grateful for. Bucky's hand tightened into a fist in his lap. Adam's sharp eyes flicked over to him, cataloguing the reaction.

"David was the only one who kept trying to run," he said. "He wanted a real family so bad. He had all these fantasies about it – if he could just get out of there, get himself into the system somehow, and someone would adopt him. I tried to explain it to him. Even if Hydra didn't find him, people adopt little kids, not–" He made a vague, expansive gesture with his free hand. "No one's gonna want a bunch of screwed-up teenagers." His mouth tightened. "And then they took him away. I thought they'd killed him."

"He's alive," Bucky said, even though Adam already knew; seeing the look on Adam's face, he'd had to say something. "Wasn't your fault," he added quietly.

Adam gave him a sharp look – What do you know about it? – and Bucky looked away.

Bucky was still wondering what Adam was doing here. He hadn't just come out for the company. Trying to get to know him, maybe, trying to figure out where he stood with Bucky; opening up a little to see how Bucky would react, or to encourage him into doing the same.

Bucky had the kids' lives in his hands. Maybe Adam was just trying to show him he was prepared to cooperate. Well, as long as Adam was willing to answer questions, he'd take it. The thing Adam had just said still echoed inside his mind: No more experiments, no one hurting us.

He'd known it must have been bad. But hearing Adam talk about it so casually….

"Did anyone ever –" Bucky hesitated. He could hardly bring himself to say the word to Adam, who looked so young, sitting there with his narrow shoulders hunched, little more than a kid himself.

But Adam had clearly already gotten what he'd been trying to say. He shook his head. "Nah. Trainer and Mrs. Wilkerson, they made it pretty clear they'd kill anyone who tried. They didn't hurt us for fun, really. Just what they needed to, for training, and the experiments. Punishment, if we did something. Which was plenty, don't get me wrong."

"What were they trying to do, anyway?" Bucky asked. "They got the serum they gave me. Why not just use that instead?"

"Doesn't work," Adam said. "I mean, they never explained this stuff to us, this is just what Mary and I put together from what we overheard, but – there's a first step, something you need to do to make the serum work. They called it priming. What Zola did to you the first time they had you. Except it mostly kills people."

Zola. What Zola did. Zola's experiments – they'd taken people. Taken Davis, and forced the rest of them to dig a hole for what remained of him three days later. Taken Kowalski and Browne and Campbell, who hadn't even made it a full day, and then Alvarez, who'd lasted ten days until Zola's goons had rolled his corpse out on a gurney, covered haphazardly with a sheet. His hand had stuck out at the side, fingers bloated and purple.

They'd taken people, and no one had ever come back alive. And then they'd come for Harrison: the first time they'd tried to take someone from Bucky's cell, someone he knew.

He remembered it with sudden clarity, their little group all huddled together at the back of the cell, the look of terror on Harrison's face. Remembered his own voice, ringing out too loudly in the stricken quiet, startling himself as much as everyone else: "How 'bout you take me instead?"

Harrison had a family, a wife and four kids he could never shut up about. And Bucky was going to die anyway. He knew, he'd felt it in his bones from the moment that goddamn draft notice had shown up in his mail box. Might as well go out doing some good for someone else.

"Bucky–" Harrison started, but he fell quiet after that. Bucky could see the fear in his eyes, the gnawing shame, the gratitude; Harrison was terrified of being taken. Bucky ought to be terrified, too, he knew, but right then he was hard pressed to feel anything at all. He felt far away, like he was a stranger looking down at his own body from a distance.

"Don't worry about it," he told Harrison. Made himself smirk with an effort. "I was getting sick of sitting in this cell, anyway."

The memory cut off at that point – although not, like most of his memories did, because the rest of it had gotten scrambled or deleted. There was more stuff there, stuff he remembered about what Zola had done to him. His mind flinched away from those memories when he tried to reach for them.

"You okay?" Adam asked, snapping the thread of memory. He was watching him warily, both feet braced on the floor, ready to run. Bucky wondered what had just shown on his face.

He swilled down a big mouthful of beer to wash away the cloying taste of fear in the back of his throat. "Yeah," he said. "I remember that. No one else survived."

"They could never figure out why it worked on you and not anyone else," Adam said. "And if you try to use the serum without that first step, it mostly just makes people worse. But they still had some samples of Captain America's DNA, so I guess they figured they'd grow their super soldiers from scratch instead." He looked down at the bottle he was rolling between his hands.

"Zola thought it was a stupid idea. Said it wouldn't work. He'd been a computer for like thirty years by then, but he still thought he should be in charge of the science division. Him and Coleman, they were always at each other's throats. I used to think that was pretty funny when I was little, Coleman always getting yelled at by a computer screen." His mouth tightened. "Then Zola caught me laughing at him one time. Didn't think he was so funny after that."

Bucky clenched his jaw. He'd thought Zola was ridiculous at first, too, that pompous little man all swelled up with his sense of importance. He'd stopped laughing pretty quickly himself.

"You know the first time people tried to clone a sheep, they mostly just ended up with a bunch of dead sheep?" Adam said. "I don't think Hydra knew what they were doing much better than that. They just figured the serum would pick up the slack. Except the serum never kicked in."

He tore a long, ragged strip off the label of his bottle. "Guess they got lucky the first time around, or at least they thought so at first." He gestured to himself, a wry curl to his lips. "Adam. The first human being created by God. In case that tells you anything about Coleman's mindset at the time.

"'Course then they realized I wasn't going to grow up to look like Captain America pretty quickly. And the next couple tries went even more badly. Victor and Charlie only made it a couple days. Paul died when he was three, and Marshall was sick all the time. Even more than me, I mean. That's when they gave up on cloning. I don't actually know how they made the younger kids, but they're not clones, obviously. And then they tried to fix us with the serum. That's what killed Marsh in the end. Mary and Max got a modified version, and, well, you've seen what it did to them. "

"Jesus Christ, kid," Bucky said helplessly.

Adam shrugged, but he looked somewhat satisfied by Bucky's horrified expression. Bucky'd been right, then: Adam's sudden openness was at least partly a test. He'd wanted to see how Bucky would react.

Adam took another swallow of his beer with what looked like grim determination. Bucky reached out and gently tugged the bottle from his hand. "Don't force it if you don't like it," he said. Steve had taken that first-ever beer as a challenge, too, made himself sick drinking the whole thing. Bucky smiled absently at the memory. Stubborn punk.

A thin, piercing wail split the silence. Sarah. Bucky groaned. "There we go again."

"I'll take care of her. You can go to sleep if you want," Adam said quickly.

"That's okay. Go to bed, kid, it's been a hell of a day."

Adam eyed him nervously. "She's probably gonna wake up a couple times in the night, the way she's been eating."

"Every two hours," Bucky said grimly, and then belatedly realized why Adam looked so worried. "It's fine, don't worry about it. I don't need that much sleep, she doesn't bother me."

The scientists wouldn't have been patient with a fussy baby. He wondered how often Adam had had to jump in to protect a little sister or brother from someone's fraying tempter in the middle of the night.

Adam didn't look reassured. "You can wake me up if you get tired. Or if she gets on your nerves. Any time."

"Nah, get some sleep, I've got this," Bucky said, pushing to his feet with a sigh. The drug was finally wearing off. Every part of his body hurt, even the ones that weren't human anymore. His left arm ached, deep down where the bones should have been, and occasionally something inside the shoulder sparked with a sharp electrical pain.

He fed Sarah and got her settled down again. The house was quiet by the time she was finally asleep. Bucky paused in front of the children's door, listening to the sound of their breathing. Bucky pulled his jacket back on. One last thing to do before he could finally catch some sleep himself.

He pulled the spark plugs from the car and took the ignition coil wire for good measure. They were fifty miles from the nearest town up here. Without the car, the kids weren't going anywhere while he was sleeping.

*******

He was seriously reconsidering Adam's offer of help the third time he jerked awake that night to Sarah's angry howls. Waking up was getting harder and harder. He was so exhausted he felt it like a physical pain, and his mind churned sluggishly; he couldn't seem to gather a clear thought.

Sarah turned her head away from the bottle when he tried to feed her, and her diaper was dry, but the second he tried to put her down, she'd start screaming all over again. Probably getting dragged all over the goddamn state had messed her up as much as any of them.

Bucky hadn't even bothered going to bed, just crashed on the couch in the living room, Sarah in her carrier by his side. Now he paced around the room with her. The wound in his left thigh had started bleeding again, and his entire flesh arm was a swollen mess of bruises, two brighter spots of pain radiating out from the places where the manacles had been. He wanted to lie down as badly as he'd ever wanted anything in his life.

Sarah's screams began to feel like a dentist's drill boring into a sore tooth.

Adam needed his sleep. He could handle this. He'd handled much worse.

The TV had a clock on it. The red numbers felt like they were mocking him. 3:35. 4:05. 4:15. 5:07. 5:23. 6:01. Sarah let him feed her once, but otherwise just wanted to be rocked; he stopped moving, she started screaming again.

6:13. Bucky was sitting down, somehow. When had he sat down? The room was wavering around him, the lights pulsing sickeningly. Sarah was still and quiet in his lap, breathing evenly. He felt his eyes drifting shut and forced them open again. God, he hurt.

He blinked again, and when his eyes came open, Steve was crouching in front of him. "Hey," he said with a smile. "Here, gimme. I've got it from here." Steve took Sarah from his unresisting arms and pulled Bucky to his feet. "God, you look awful. Let's get you to a bed."

It was already light outside, the thin grey of early dawn. In the bathroom, Fred and Georgia were having a loud argument over who could have the toothpaste first. "Gotta make breakfast," Bucky said blurrily.

"Don't worry about it. You bought a whole truckload of cereal last night, remember?"

"'Kay. Thanks, Stevie."

He fell facedown into bed and dragged the pillow over his head. "Sleep well," Steve said, a warm thread of amusement in his voice. Bucky smiled into the sheets for a moment before letting himself fall into sleep.

*******

Bucky woke up to the sound of shattering glass. He yanked his gun out from under the pillow and rolled to his feet, sprinting down the hallway.

The little window next to the door had been smashed from the outside. A soccer ball lay in the hallway, deflating slowly. Georgia was crouching on the floor, frantically sweeping shards into a pile with her bare hands.

"Stop that!" Bucky said sharply. She was gonna cut herself. His heart was pounding, ready for a battle that wasn't going to happen.

Georgia flinched. "I'm sorry! It was an accident!"

"It wasn't her fault, sir," Fred added. He'd been hovering nervously in the doorway, but now he took a step closer, standing by his sister's side.

And then Adam was there, too. He put himself bodily between Bucky and the kids, hands up placatingly. "Sorry, sir," he said quickly. "She didn't mean–"

There was something off about the way he was standing, his shoulders hunched, arms tucked in close. It took Bucky a moment to place what made him so uncomfortable about it. Everything about Adam's body language was designed to seem submissive, conciliatory, to make him look small and harmless. The posture clashed sharply with Bucky's scattered memories of Steve. Steve hadn't ever stood that way in his life. He'd bluster and put his chin up if he felt threatened, and he wouldn't back down to save his life.

But Steve had only been putting himself on the line. Adam was protecting his siblings. If he provoked an angry handler, he wouldn't be the only one getting hurt.

Still, Adam had Steve's stubbornness written all over his face. Bucky didn't want to think about what it must have taken for Hydra to make that lesson sink in. It made him feel faintly sick to have Adam look that way at him.

"I know she didn't mean to. She's just a kid, for God's sake," he snapped.

Adam squared his shoulders, visibly bracing himself.

Bucky reined himself in with an effort. Adam had no reason to trust him and every reason to be scared, and Bucky had no right to let it get to him. Hell, anyone with any sense would be scared of him. "Georgia, leave it, I'll deal with the glass," he said.

He stepped over the shards and pulled Georgia up. She flinched when he touched her. Bucky kept his grip as light as he could, taking her gently by the wrists and inspecting her hands for cuts. She wasn't hurt, but she had a few tiny shards sticking to her palms that he brushed away as carefully as he could.

"It's okay," Bucky said. Goddamn it, if he could go back and kill those Hydra bastards all over again –

But that didn't matter now. The kids needed him calm. "You two go back outside, and don't take the ballgames so close to the house next time, okay?" he said.

"Yes, sir! Sorry!" Fred and Georgia said, and then they darted away as quickly as they could.

"Thank you," Adam said quietly.

Bucky looked at him. "I'm not gonna hurt you. Any of you."

"Yes, sir," Adam said. Bucky could tell it was meaningless, polite agreement. It would take more than words to earn Adam's trust.

Bucky sighed. "We can board this up later. Won't hurt to let the place air out a little." He squinted out into the sunshine. Almost noon, by the looks of it. "Let's take care of lunch, first."

Adam's mouth twisted wryly. "I hope that means you know how to cook," he said.

Bucky went to wash up before he went anywhere near the kitchen. He'd changed out of the bloody body armor the night before, scrubbed his hands and face and made sure he wasn't bleeding through the bandages yet, but that was about all he'd had the energy for.

His thighs and arm had healed up pretty well overnight. The wounds really hadn't been that deep. They'd still need bandages for another day or two, though, which was a pain in the ass. His metal arm wasn't just gonna fix itself like the rest of him, and even after he dug the bullet out of the elbow joint, the range of motion wasn't what it was supposed to be. He'd lost some fine motor control, too, and there wouldn't be any fixing that without specialized tools he didn't have.

He was still trying to tighten the bandage around his upper arm, swearing muffledly around the end he was holding between his teeth, when there was a light knock on the doorframe. "Need a hand?" Mary asked.

"Yeah. Please," Bucky said. It made him feel a little twitchy, letting anyone get that close to a wound, see exactly where the weakness was; but if Mary was trying to reach out, he really didn't want to discourage her. And in any case he could use the help.

Mary was quick and skillful with the bandages and didn't seem bothered by the sight of blood. She had him neatly patched up in no time at all.

"Thanks," Bucky said.

"You're welcome." Mary turned away, coughing harshly into the crook of her arm. "Dammit. It's nothing contagious," she added quickly. "Just the air in here's kinda dusty." She was still wheezing faintly. Bucky watched in concern as she dug an inhaler out of her jeans pocket.

"You okay?" he asked, once the wheezing had died down.

He wasn't surprised when she waved him off impatiently. "I'm fine."

She sounded just like Adam when she said it; just like Steve.

*******

Adam had lined up their entire stash of supplies on the kitchen counter. Bucky looked over the choice of groceries. In retrospect, maybe the drug had been affecting him more than he'd realized the night before. He'd clearly been shopping with the part of his brain that hadn't yet arrived in the twenty-first century. What on earth had he been thinking, buying yeast and flour instead of bread? Who cared about the two bucks it'd save?

No wonder Adam didn't know where to start. Kid had probably never had to cook anything before in his life, and apart from the five different kinds of cereal lined up on the table, everything Bucky had bought would have to be prepared from scratch.

Adam perched on one of the kitchen chairs while Bucky picked out ingredients. He didn't mention the disabled car. Bucky wondered whether he'd noticed yet. Bucky had slept for quite a while. If they still wanted to flee, that would have been their chance. But Adam wasn't acting like someone whose escape attempt had just been thwarted. With any luck, him and Mary might have decided that Bucky was their best option after all. They had to know that now they'd flown Hydra, it was going to be open season on all of them out there.

Bucky made pasta with meat sauce for lunch, and then started up chicken soup for dinner while he was at it. It was going to need to simmer for a few hours, anyway.

Cooking turned out to be a lot easier with Adam. The memories kept coming up all by themselves every time he looked at Adam from the corner of his eyes, thin arms and crooked back and the way he'd pinch his tongue between his teeth in concentration while he chopped an onion.

He had to remind himself more than once that he wasn't in Brooklyn anymore, and it wasn't Stevie by his side. Caught himself, once, in the middle of reaching out to sling an arm around Steve's shoulder and pull him close. Converted the motion into an awkward grab for the salt in the cabinet just in time. Jesus, that would've been a bad idea.

It helped that Adam's wary body language was all wrong for Steve. Steve hadn't been scared of him a day in his life. Hell, he hadn't been scared when he damn well should have been, when Bucky had been doing his best to beat his face to a pulp on the helicarrier.

Adam watched him avidly, taking notes on a piece of scrap paper. "So you just put the entire chicken in, with the skin on and all?"

"Gotta cut off the thighs first, or it won't fit in the pot," Bucky said absentmindedly, examining a carrot for bad spots.

"Um. Yes, sir," Adam said, his voice carefully bland. Bucky followed his skeptical gaze to the cooking pot, which was a stainless steel monstrosity big enough to comfortably fit two chickens side by side. For a moment the sight was so disorienting he had to grab the counter for balance. That wasn't what their pot looked like – Sarah's old pot, dented on one side, with the handles crooked and bent.

"Sir? Bucky?" Adam asked. He was watching him warily.

Bucky squeezed his eyes shut. "I'm fine," he said. He really needed to stop letting the memories get to him like that in front of Adam.

He mostly managed to keep himself from drifting after that, but he still startled a little when Adam broke the charged-up silence between them.

"What's he like?"

"Hm?" Bucky said, looking at him in confusion.

Adam avoided his eyes, fidgeting with the knife in his hands. Bucky braced himself for whatever he was about to ask.

"Captain America. Is he, you know… a good guy? Like they say?"

Well. That was easy enough to answer. "Yeah," Bucky said. Adam didn't ask anything else, but he was watching Bucky; waiting. He'd been made from Steve's DNA. Of course he'd be curious. "Too good for his own good," Bucky added. "First time I met him –" He hadn't been aware he knew this, but the memory was there now, clear as day – "I got in some stupid argument with Bobby Kingsley, and him and his big brother went after me after school. Steve jumped right in, trying to help me out."

"Did he win?" Adam asked. He watched Bucky intently, a hungry look in his eyes.

Bucky laughed. "Nah," he said. "We must've been, what, seven at the time? He was – well, you know what he looked like at seven. Got his ass beat pretty good. But he tried, you know? Didn't matter if he thought he could win or not. He'd always try."

Adam was still watching him, so Bucky kept talking while the kitchen filled with the smell of sizzling onions and bubbling soup. He told him about a few of the scraps Steve had gotten them into, before the war and during. The memories came as he talked. There were so many of them now. Not enough to add up to the lifetime he'd lived, not enough to add up to a real human being; more than Hydra's weapon had ever been allowed to have.

*******

The big table in the kitchen pulled out, but they still had to crowd together to fit all eight of them. Fred and Georgia kept jostling each other's elbows. Sarah sat on Mary's lap and doggedly tried to put her hands in the sauce. Elisabeth held her stuffed panda on her lap and was earnestly feeding it from an empty spoon.

The kids ate hungrily, apart from Mary, who'd taken a small potion and was forcing it down with what looked like grim determination. Probably felt sick, Bucky figured. Steve had used to get nauseous a lot.

Alex sat quietly, picking at her food without looking up from the table. Bucky watched her helplessly. He wished he knew how to help. But even if he knew what to say to her, he didn't think she'd want to hear it. She'd demonstratively picked the chair farthest away from his.

Mary wrangled Fred and Georgia through the clean-up after lunch, which wasn't a task for the faint of heart. Bucky watched the resulting barely-controlled chaos in fascination.

Adam helped him board up the broken window. They found some plywood out in the shed, and an entire bucket of nails. No hammer, but his metal arm took care of that.

The twins came running up to Adam when they were done fixing the window, clutching a giant bag of marshmallows Bucky vaguely remembered seeing somewhere at the back of a cabinet.

"Look what we found! Can we make a fire and roast them?"

Adam gave Bucky a questioning glance.

"I guess," Bucky said after a long moment. There was a fire pit behind the house, safely contained in a circle of stones and shielded from view of the road. Not much risk of anyone seeing their fire and getting curious. He couldn't remember ever roasting marshmallows before. Might not ever have, really. James Barnes had been a city boy.

*******

Even Alex came out when the first logs caught fire and sent up a shower of sparks into the darkening sky.

Elizabeth and the twins made a gleeful mess of themselves, burning marshmallows to a crisp by the dozen and smearing their hands and faces with sticky goo.

Alex kept tossing more wood on the fire every time Bucky's back was turned, until it was great roaring blaze, so hot it hurt to stand too close. She was staring at the flames with her face set in hard, grim lines, the fire reflecting orange in her eyes.

The sight of her tugged at something in the back of his mind. An illustration he'd seen once, a woodcut in an old, yellowed book: a funeral pyre, a woman standing next to it with her head bowed in grief.

He crouched down by Alex's side. She didn't look at him, but at least she didn't move away from him, either.

"The Vikings used to have a ritual," Bucky said quietly. "When a warrior died, they'd burn his body on a pyre like that, and they'd put his weapons into the fire with him, so they'd be with him in the afterlife."

Alex turned to look at him. Bucky pulled out one of his knives and held it out across both palms like an offering. He nodded at the fire. "For your trainer. If you want."

Alex took the knife, looking it over carefully. It was a good knife, well-balanced, sharpened to a razor's edge. She held it in both hands for a moment, and then she solemnly handed it back to him, shook her head, and pulled the Glock out from under her jacket. Bucky had a moment of incredulous surprise: where had she even… But the Glock had been in his room with the rest of the weapons, secured by nothing more than a door with an ordinary household lock. Of course that hadn't stopped her getting her gun back.

Alex unloaded the Glock, sliding the bullets into her pocket, and then she hesitated, giving him an uncertain look. Bucky bit down on an instinctive protest. Guns were a lot harder to replace than knives. But they had weapons to spare, and this was the first time he'd gotten a reaction out of her all day. He nodded.

Alex threw the gun into the middle of the roaring flames.

They both stood there and watched the fire burn for long minutes, until she turned and flung herself into his arms. Bucky caught her. He sat down on a log, holding her tight.

Alex didn't cry, but she held on to his arms so hard it hurt. "They lied to us," she finally whispered. "Hydra lied. Trainer said we weren't failures at all, but they were still gonna eliminate us, and then they killed him."

"I know," Bucky said gently, stroking her back. "They lied to me, too."

She burrowed tighter against him. Bucky pulled the edges of his jacket around her and held her as hard as he dared.

Adam and Mary were sitting on the other side of the fire, leaning their shoulders together, watching him intently. He couldn't quite read their expressions.

The fire burned down, crackling quietly in the still air. Alex fell asleep in his arms. Bucky sat and held her, hardly daring to breathe.

*******

The peace lasted all of an hour. By then the fire had burned down, and the evening air was cool enough that Adam sent the kids inside, where Elizabeth promptly threw up purple-colored goo all over the hallway floor. Fred and Georgia curled up on the couch, whining about how much their stomachs hurt. Mary was coughing again, wretched full-body spasms that left her shaking and pale.

"Don't get so close to the fire next time, you know the smoke's bad for you," Adam said.

"I'm fine," Mary said sharply.

Bucky was glad when Adam sent everyone to bed and the house finally fell silent. Not that the silence lasted.

Sarah still wouldn't let him get hardly any sleep, and it wasn't just her this night. Ten minutes after Bucky had finally fallen asleep on the couch, he woke up to a tug on his sleeve. He blinked his eyes open to the sight of Elizabeth's tear-streaked face. She tugged his sleeve again. "Bucky? Panda," she said plaintively.

Bucky yawned. His eyelids were stuck together with grit. "What's going on? You okay?"

"Panda," Elizabeth repeated sadly.

Bucky forced himself to his feet with a groan. "Did you lose him? Come on, let's go look for him then. Where did you put him, huh?"

Hydra had taught him how to systematically search a house. Turned out he hadn't lost the knack. He found Panda stuffed beneath the cushions of an armchair. Elizabeth's beaming smile almost made it worth being awake.

"Bucky? What's goin' on?" Adam said. He was standing in the doorway. His hair was wildly tousled and he was stifling a yawn, but his eyes were alert and wary. There was a knife in his hand.

"Adam!" Elizabeth said happily. She handed Panda back to Bucky and ran over to throw her arms around Adam's legs. The knife disappeared somewhere beneath Adam's shirt. Sheath strapped to his ribs, Bucky noted automatically.

"Lost Panda emergency," he said, lifting the animal in demonstration. Adam didn't return his smile. His face tightened.

"Lizzy, you can't wake Bucky up in the middle of the night," he said sharply. "Send her to me next time she bothers you, okay?" he told Bucky, gathering her up in his arms. She leaned her head against his shoulder, eyes drooping shut.

"I didn't mind," Bucky said. He looked down at Panda. Up close, the little stuffed animal was only recognizable as a panda with good will and a lot of imagination. The fur on its back had been rubbed off in patches. One of its legs was stitched in place with green surgical thread, and one ear had been replaced with a swatch of black fuzz that looked suspiciously like the fur that lined the hoods on SHIELD issue parkas. "That bear's been through the wars," he said, holding Panda out to Adam like a peace offering.

Adam set Elizabeth on his hip, freeing up one arm. He turned Panda gently back and forth in his hand. "I guess he looks pretty mangy by now, huh," he said. "He used to be mine, and then Mary had him, and she gave him to David, and he gave him to Lizzy."

"Surprised they let you keep him," Bucky said. Anything you cared about was leverage. Anything you loved could be taken away.

"They had other things to threaten me with by then," Adam said, his eyes flicking towards the bedroom where his siblings were sleeping. He caught Bucky following his gaze. His expression had softened when he'd been talking about Panda, but abruptly his face was hard and unreadable again. "I should take her to bed," he said, nodding to Lizzy, who snuffled softly against his neck, half asleep already. "Thanks for taking care of her. I'll make sure she won't bother you again."

"She didn't bother me," Bucky said. Adam had already turned away.

*******

The next day was strangely peaceful in comparison. They spent a few hours cleaning the cabin, which had accumulated a thin layer of dust on every horizontal surface.

Mary tried to insist on helping, but Bucky and Adam told her to go sit outside until she finally gave in. She kept getting occasional spasms of wet, choking coughs as it was. Bucky didn't like the sound of it at all. He didn't want to find out what all that stirred-up dust might do to her lungs.

Bucky cooked for them all again, an enormous roast with potatoes and a loaf of crusty, freshly-baked bread. Sunday food, he thought, feeling vaguely guilty serving up a meal like that on an ordinary weekday; but that was an old, useless instinct. He had a dozen forgotten Hydra accounts at his disposal, money no one would ever miss. They could afford to eat like kings every day of the week, and God knew every one of that skinny bunch of kids could use some meat on their bones.

The weather stayed sunny, so they could chase the kids outside to play every time they got restless. Bucky was pretty sure half the reason Adam wanted them out of the house was to keep them away from him, but it was still nice, seeing them playing out there in the sunshine.

Bucky hated to disturb that fragile peace, but it needed to be done.

"I'm going to call Captain America. You can talk to Max and David if you want," Bucky told Adam that afternoon.

Adam lunged to his feet. "He'll be able to track us down!"

"He's not going to," Bucky said.

He wasn't going to be around to protect the children forever. Adam would need to trust Steve when the time came. After the conversation they'd had the other day in the kitchen, Bucky was pretty sure Adam wanted to be able to trust Steve. Hell, who didn't? Wasn't that the whole point of Captain America?

But Adam didn't trust easily, which meant Bucky'd have to force the issue now, let Adam get to know Steve while there was still time. He suspected Adam was going to fight him every step of the way – physically, if necessary, if he felt like Bucky was putting his siblings' safety at risk.

As if on cue, Adam's eyes flitted over to the meat cleaver on the counter, and from there to Bucky, something coldly assessing in his eyes.

Bucky shifted just slightly, balancing his weight on both feet.

Adam instantly eased off. He wasn't stupid enough to start a losing fight, and he knew he didn't have a chance in hell of winning if Bucky saw him coming.

"There's no reason to call him now. We can't go fetch David and Max right now, anyway. I don't want to get them all excited for nothing," Adam said, shifting seamlessly to bargaining for time. No doubt he already had some plan for how to get his brothers out of Captain America's hands. Bucky had no intention of giving him time to carry it out.

"I'm calling. You want the others to have a chance to speak to Max and David, better go get them now," he said in a tone of finality.

Adam glared at him viciously, and for a moment Bucky was worried he'd go for the meat cleaver after all. But then Adam turned on his heel and stalked away.

"Bucky? You all right?" Steve said. He sounded slightly breathless.

"We're fine," Bucky said, feeling guilt creeping up on him. He should have called earlier; he'd known Steve would be worried. But he hadn't wanted to push Adam too soon. "Got the kids here with me. Adam's just getting them from outside."

"Thank God. How many kids you got there now?"

"Seven," Bucky said. Well. Seven if you counted Adam and Mary, who were barely kids by any standard.

"Christ," Steve muttered.

"They're good kids," Bucky said sharply. There was something about Steve's tone –

"I know," Steve said quickly. "It's just – couple months ago, my whole family was dead. You were dead. Everyone–" he broke off, swallowing hard. "And now you're back, and there's nine kids out there they made from my DNA. It's not a bad thing, Buck. It's just a little much to take in." He took a deep breath. Bucky recognized the sound of him bracing himself. "Tell me about them."

"They're great, you'd like them," Bucky said. "Bunch of crazy little shits."

He told Steve about Adam and Mary protecting their siblings in the Hydra base, their surprise attack in the warehouse parking lot, about Alex coming to save him. By the time he'd finished, the corners of his mouth were aching faintly; he was smiling, he realized. Steve sounded like he was smiling too when he said "They sound like great kids, Buck."

"They are."

“You got a baby there, too, right? She doing okay? What's her name?”

“Didn't have one. I called her Sarah,” Bucky said.

Steve was quiet for a long moment. “Oh,” he said, sounding stricken.

“Something wrong with that?” Bucky asked tightly. There was something about that name, some memory he couldn't quite grasp – but it was a good memory, wasn't it? It'd felt good. The gaps in his memory were suddenly looming large in his mind in a way they hadn't in a while.

“No,” Steve said. “I just…. Did you remember her? Sarah? My mom?”

Mom. Sarah. The tiny blonde woman with the sweet smile. Oh.

"Think maybe I did," Bucky said quietly.

"I'm glad," Steve said. His voice sounded a little shaky.

"You got anything new on Ziegler?" Bucky asked, changing the topic without even trying for a graceful segue. He hadn't meant to shake Steve up like that, to stir false hopes. It wasn't much he remembered, in the grand scheme of things.

"Tony's working on the files we got from that Hydra hospital. He says it might take a while. If you need a safe place to stay–"

"We're safe where we are," Bucky said. He wasn't coming in before he'd finished taking care of Hydra. He couldn't. He still had a mission to finish.

"Okay. But – any time, if you need anything. You know that, right?" Steve said. Bucky winced at the naked honesty in his voice. Steve was emotionally compromised to hell and back, and he wasn't even trying to hide it. If Bucky wanted – But no. He didn't need to manipulate Steve into anything. One last mission, just to make sure the kids were safe, and then he could stop.

 

The front door slammed open with a crash.

"Bucky! Can we talk to Max and David?" Alex yelled.

"Yeah, hang on," Bucky said. "Steve, you got Skype over there?"

They hadn't done that before; far too easy to identify location on a video feed. But there wasn't any reason to hide now. Steve would let Bucky come in when he was ready. And Bucky would. He just needed a little more time.

It took a while to get everything set up and all the kids corralled in front of the laptop, mainly because Adam, who usually wrangled the little ones, dragged his feet.

"You don't have to talk to him if you don't want to," Bucky said, pulling him aside for a moment.

Adam shook his head. "I want to see David and Max."

The call itself was a lot of noise and chaos, all the kids shouting over each other. Elizabeth let out a high-pitched scream at her first sight of David. "Panda!" she yelled, reaching out for him with one hand, leaving a smeary palm print on the monitor.

David grinned and waved back. "Hi, Lizzy," he said. It was the first time Bucky'd ever heard him speak in front of an adult.

Mary was welling up a little, looking at David. "We thought you were dead, you jerk," she said, her voice cracking.

David shook his head, smiling. He looked a lot better than he had the last time Bucky had seen him: still guarded, too weary for his age, but the hunted look was gone from his eyes.

But he did flinch when Steve stepped up too close behind him.

"Sorry," Steve said, rubbing his fist across his chest in a weirdly deliberate way that Bucky was startled to recognize as an ASL sign. He knew some of the basics of ASL, he remembered, they both did, because…

"…because it's stupid, Buck. I'm not gonna go deaf."

"'Course you won't," Bucky said immediately, although the doctor had said there was no way to know; they didn't really have an idea what'd caused Steve's hearing loss in the first place, or why it'd gotten worse so suddenly. All he knew was that if Steve was gonna lose his hearing, Bucky'd need some other way to talk to him, and he'd better be prepared. "I just think it's a neat thing to learn, that's all."

Bucky blinked.

All good, David signed back – not in ASL, but with the sign SHIELD and Hydra used for combat situations.

Bucky smiled. Of course Steve would try and figure out a way to talk to the boy who didn't talk.

Max had his arm in a sling.

"Did they hurt you?" Alex asked, in a tone that made it clear she'd be perfectly happy to come over there and start shooting people if they had.

"Nah, fell off the monkey bars," Max said. "It's almost healed already, anyway. They still haven't hit us or anything."

Steve said hello to all the kids, but mostly he let them talk amongst each other. He kept looking at the corner of the screen, where the side of Bucky's leg was just barely in frame.

Bucky watched those little restless flicks of his eyes for a few minutes, but finally took pity on him. He crouched down next to Alex, moving into the camera's field of view, letting Steve see him. The tension around Steve's eyes smoothed out a little more. "Hey, Buck," he mouthed, quietly enough not to interrupt Lizzy, who was telling David about an owl they'd seen earlier. He was smiling at Bucky, the same hopeful, too-soft look he'd given him in the Hydra base.

Bucky abruptly pushed back to his feet, stepping out of frame, The smile faded from Steve's face. That was for the best. Steve needed to stop getting his hopes up like that. Bucky wasn't the guy who'd been in love with Steve. That guy was gone, and probably for good. The sooner Steve accepted that, the less he'd get himself hurt.

With the kids talking all over each other, there was enough noise and confusion that Bucky barely noticed that Adam wasn't talking. But eventually the din died down and Steve said "Is Adam there, too?" That's when he realized how careful Adam had been to stay out of reach of the webcam.

Adam squared his shoulders. "Yes, sir," he said, nudging Alex aside and sitting down on the chair in front of the laptop. There was a strange look on his face, anxious and hopeful all at once.

"Call me Steve, Adam," Steve said immediately, and his tone was perfectly friendly and normal. But Bucky had been watching him. He saw the tiny flinch Steve couldn't quite suppress at his first sight of Adam's face.

Bucky watched them talking. There was something off about Steve. He'd sat up straight, shoulders squared, his smile just a little too stiff on his face. He was being Captain America, Bucky realized in surprise. What the hell. Adam was a great kid. Steve had no call to treat him like he was some foreign dignitary he was forced to make nice with.

Adam could tell something was off, too. Bucky watched the way his shoulders tightened more and more, watched him retreat into a polite shell.

It made him want to grab Steve by the back of the neck and shake him. But saying anything now would just make it worse. Steve had never been that comfortable with kids, and now Bucky was making him deal with seven of them at once. And, all right, it probably was plenty weird for him, Adam looking so much like him. He'd get over it.

After the end of the call, the kids went out into the garden, still talking excitedly amongst themselves. Only Adam stayed, helping out while Bucky got started on dinner.

"Do you think he…. Nevermind," Adam said, cutting himself off.

"What?" Bucky asked.

Adam kept his head down over his work. "Nothing."

He'd been slicing a carrot into thin, even rounds, but now his rhythm faltered. His next cut left a scar on the cutting board. There was a faintly defiant tone to his voice when he spoke up again. "When I was a kid, after I found out about… about where they got my DNA from. When they got angry at me, I used to tell myself, maybe he'd be proud of me, at least. If I was brave enough."

"He'd be proud as hell," Buck said instantly. "Adam, if he knew you –"

"It doesn't matter anyway," Adam said quickly, talking over him. "It was just a stupid kid thing. I don't care, I don't even know him."

"He'll like you once he gets to know you, you'll see," Bucky said.

*******

The next two weeks felt like a bubble of stolen time. With Steve and Stark on Ziegler's trail, there wasn't any mission for Bucky but to watch over the children, nothing to do other than make sure they were as safe and happy as they could be. It felt like a gift.

The kids did seem, if not happy, at least as content as anyone could hope for under their circumstances.

Adam and Mary still watched him warily. Alex was too quiet, and the twins were loud in a frenetic, obnoxious way that felt like a test half the time: was this too much? And this? And this?

But they smiled, too, and they seemed to like it out here in the cabin, surrounded by wilderness. They stopped flinching at Bucky's presence.

Adam came out to sit with him on the porch most nights. He didn't talk much, but he liked to listen: stories from the war, what little Bucky could remember of life in pre-war Brooklyn, and, most of all, stories about Steve. It'd been a long since Bucky had kept up an actual conversation, but if it got Adam sitting with him, he was willing to try.

New memories popped up all the time now. Most of it was insignificant little moments, but some of it, the crazy trouble Steve had got them into as kid, made for a pretty good tale.

They called Steve every night. Mostly the kids just talked to Max and David, but Bucky tried to make sure every one of them spent at least a little time talking to Steve.

Steve always found an excuse to ask Bucky something, too, to talk to him at least for a minute or two. Bucky tried to keep it short. It wasn't that he minded talking to Steve. Steve was – he was complicated, he messed with Bucky's head, and Bucky still felt uneasy about the strange rush of feelings and memories talking to him brought up. He found he liked seeing Steve anyway, though. Liked talking to him.

But it couldn't be good for Steve, letting himself get that hung up on Bucky when he wasn't the guy Steve remembered at all.

*******

The kids really liked going out into the woods. Bucky took them on a lot of hikes, mostly just around the vicinity of the cabin, so he could get them home quick when they got tired.

He took Adam hunting once, deep in the woods where no one would hear the shots.

Kyle hadn't been exaggerating about what a sniper Adam was. Bucky'd had a hard time imagining it, because Steve himself was so rotten at it. Oh, he had the eye for it, the instinct for angles and trajectories that made the shield such a deadly weapon in his hand, but he didn't have the temper. Stick him in a sniper's nest and he'd get restless thirty seconds in.

Adam, on the other hand, settled down on his stomach on top of a thick branch, took a couple test shots, sighting in Bucky's rifle, and then didn't so much as twitch a muscle for the next hour and a half. Bucky, who was perching in the next tree over, studied him from the corner of his eyes. He looked peaceful, watchful but calm; the expression was weird as hell on that familiar face.

Adam was a lot more settled inside his own skin than Steve had been at his age. At eighteen, Steve had been running himself ragged, picking fights, struggling wildly against the limits of his own body. He'd been like one of those working dogs, the kind that'd drive you crazy if you didn't give them something worthwhile to do. He'd always needed a task, a purpose.

Adam, who'd grown up the only protector his sibling had, had had that purpose all his life.

A branch cracked quietly beyond the border of the clearing. Leaves rustled. A deer was stepping out of the woods, big ears flicking warily. Adam shifted the rifle, getting it in his sights in a smooth, barely-perceptible motion. He drew a deep, steady breath, finger moving over the trigger –

"Don't shoot her!" Alex yelled.

Apparently some part of Bucky's subconscious had learned to brace for hearing that voice behind him at the most unexpected moments. He still startled, and he still whirled around so fast his metal fingers left deep furrows in the branch he'd been lying on, but he managed to stop himself from drawing his gun.

"Alex, what the fuck are you doing here?"

Across the clearing, the deer was bounding away.

"I was practicing sneaking," Alex said. She was looking from one of them to the other, her face starting to fall. "Are you mad? I'm sorry I startled your deer," she said, her head drooping. She was looking up at them through her lashes, though, trying to see if the display was getting the reaction she wanted.

"You could've gotten yourself shot!" Bucky snapped.

"Adam's not gonna shoot me," Alex said, which was true enough. Adam, who clearly was used to his siblings and their unpredictable ways, had barely twitched when she'd shown up behind them. But Bucky didn't have that kind of training. When he'd worked with allies for Hydra, they'd been acceptable casualties, disposable; they'd sure as hell known better than to try and startle him.

Adam sighed. "You gotta stop sneaking up on Bucky, Alex. We've talked about this."

"Yes, sir," she said sullenly.

She trudged behind them all the way back to the cabin, arms crossed, kicking up leaves.

Bucky started turning around once, to try and talk to her again, but Adam stopped him with two fingers on his arm. "Leave her. She's gotta get that through her head before she gets herself killed."

Alex was quiet the rest of the day. She barely ate anything at lunch, and she was avoiding Bucky's eyes. Bucky wished he knew what to say. Was he supposed to comfort her? He could barely bear to watch her so unhappy. But she really had done something stupid, and probably he needed to let the lesson sink in.

Adam always seemed to know how to handle her. God, Bucky wasn't made for this.

He forced himself to let her stew for a while longer, but finally couldn't take it anymore.

By the time he'd worked himself up to talking to her, Alex was curled up in the arm chair in the corner of the living room, knees drawn up to her chin. She didn't move when Bucky crouched down in front of her.

“You okay?”

She wouldn't meet his eyes. “Are you still mad at me?” she asked. He winced at the shiver of fear in her voice.

"I'm not mad," Bucky said. Was that the right thing to say? Should he let her think he was mad? But he didn't want to lie to her. She'd been lied to enough.

"I was scared for you. You gotta stop running into danger without thinking. You're gonna get yourself killed."

"I can take care of myself," she muttered, and the way she said it was so familiar his ears rang with it. Stop worrying, Buck, I can take care of myself. He took a deep breath, felt an intensely familiar rush of exasperation.

"The point is, you don't have to," he said, hearing his own voice like an echo. He reached out and squeezed her shoulder once, gently. She shrugged him off.

"I don't need anyone protecting me!" Her voice was rising. "Trainer would still be alive if he hadn't tried to protect me!"

Oh God, no.

It'd hurt when she'd gotten angry at him over Kyle's death, but that'd still been a million times better than her blaming herself.

"It wasn't your fault," Bucky said, well aware of how weak the words were. What the hell was he supposed to say? Adam would probably know. Hell, Bucky Barnes would probably have known, once upon a time. He'd had three younger sisters. But if Bucky had once known how to comfort a grieving little girl, Hydra must've taken that from him, too.

"Hey, come here," he said, reaching out for her. She threw herself into his arms. He hugged her tightly. "It's okay. It wasn't your fault," he repeated, the only words he could think of to say. He felt her shaking with silent, angry sobs, tears soaking through the shoulder of his shirt, and knew that it wasn't enough.

*******

The phone startled Bucky out of a doze. He'd been feeding Sarah, and Alex had used the opportunity to cuddle close, curling up on the couch with her head on his thigh. She'd been hard to get a handle on lately, prickly and standoffish half the time, clinging to him as hard as she could the other half. Bucky knew she wasn't okay, but he had no idea what to do about it other than hold her close when she let him.

Now Sarah and Alex had both fallen asleep on him, and he'd just been sitting there, not wanting to disturb them, until his own eyes had fallen shut.

"Yeah?" Bucky said. Alex stirred a little at the sound. Sarah was still cradled in the curve of his right arm. He pinned the phone between his ear and his shoulder, freeing his left hand so he could stroke Alex's hair until she settled back down.

"We found an abandoned base today," Steve said, and Bucky snapped instantly to attention.

"Nothing new on Ziegler or the Rebirth scientists yet–" Steve continued, and Bucky couldn't have said what it was he felt at that moment. Disappointment? Relief? Every second that Hydra cell was out there was a danger to the kids. But when Steve found them, this stolen little moment of peace would be over for good.

"–but there was something else," Steve was saying. "We found one of those chairs."

Bucky closed his eyes. A shudder ran through him. Alex shifted uneasily, mumbling in her sleep. He soothed her back to sleep, metal fingers carding gently through her soft hair.

"Tony wants to keep it. Study it," Steve said. Bucky shuddered again. He felt cold through and through. He'd known this was coming, he'd thought he was braced for it–

"I told him no way. Destroy it," Steve said. Bucky went very still. There was something sharp inside his gut. It felt like he was splintering into pieces, ice breaking to shards inside him.

"…but Tony said he thinks maybe he'll be able to fix some of the damage Hydra did to your brain," Steve said carefully. "If you're okay with him looking into this. Your choice. You say the word and I'll smash that chair into a million pieces."

Bucky stayed silent for too long. Steve didn’t prompt him further, just waited patiently while Bucky’s stomach churned. He couldn’t find his words. He'd been so sure Steve was going to have him wiped when he caught him.

Now that he really thought about it, he could barely remember where he'd come up with that idea. It must have been right at the beginning, when he'd barely known who Steve was. He'd been running blindly, and Steve and his allies had been just one more faction hunting him for their own purposes. He'd never bothered to re-examine that thought until now. He should have known better.

Of course Steve wouldn't make him. Steve wanted the real Bucky back, the guy who'd been in love with him, the person Hydra had almost completely overwritten with the soldier's programming. But he wouldn't force him into the chair. Of course Steve felt bad about the idea of erasing someone, even if it was just a fake construct of a person.

Bucky looked down at his metal hand, smoothing a strand of hair back from Alex's forehead. He'd crushed someone's skull with that hand. He'd clawed open a man's stomach and ripped out his guts. He'd killed and killed and killed with that hand, and he'd keep killing until there was nothing of Hydra left standing.

Would he even know how to stop killing, when the time came? Someone needed to take care of the kids, and that wasn't a job for Hydra's weapon. He'd been okay with that, more or less, when he hadn't thought it was a choice at all. He'd known he'd have to come in to Steve eventually, for the children's sake if nothing else, and he'd thought – he'd been so sure it'd mean being wiped whether he wanted it or not. He'd made his peace with that.

Now that he knew it was a choice…. God, it wasn't fair. It wasn't a choice anyone should be asked to make, sitting down in that chair when he knew how much it hurt, how it'd rip pieces of him away bit by bit.

So what if he said no? He'd been doing okay taking care of the kids so far, hadn't he? Maybe he could just keep doing it, do a good enough job, show Steve he was safe to be around–

Only he wasn't, was he? How many times had he reacted badly to one of them startling him? How long until he slipped up and hurt them for real?

He didn't have to decide this now, he told himself. Right now, Hydra was still out there, and the soldier had one last mission to complete. And when that was over… he'd have a decision to make. And that meant Stark might need to know what to do when the time came.

Bucky took a deep breath. "Let him study it," he said.

*******

He was restless after that. Their peaceful life in the cabin started feeling unreal around the edges, the kind of fantasy a soldier might console himself with in the trenches before a battle. It had to end, and soon.

And then it happened.

"We got them," Steve said. Through the shaky cell phone connection, he sounded tinny and far away.

For a moment, everything went silent. Bucky was standing in the middle of the living room, Sarah in his arms, wearing nothing but a bathrobe over his tactical pants; she'd spit up on his shirt, and then spit up on the spare. Outside, the kids were chasing each other around the porch and screeching. For a moment, that was all that mattered: the baby in his arms and the children in the garden. And then something shifted. Around him, the room snapped into sharp focus. Exits. Obstacles. Potential weapons. Lines of sight.

Sarah opened her eyes and started screaming at an ear-shattering pitch he'd never heard from her before. Bucky looked down, startled out of his concentration for a moment. But she was fine, unhurt, resting safely in the crook of his arm. He hadn't been squeezing her.

"She all right? What happened?" Adam said.

He was standing in the door, balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to snatch Sarah out of Bucky's arms if necessary – knife in a concealed sheath under his arm, in easy reach of the fireplace poker, quick and agile, extensive training but inferior strength and endurance – no serious threat in close combat, Bucky noted clinically.

Sarah was still wailing like a banshee.

"Take her," Bucky said. Adam startled to attention at his tone of voice, taking Sarah from his arms. He cradled her against his shoulder with one arm – his left arm, Bucky noted, keeping his weapon hand free – and retreated from the room.

"Was that Sarah? She okay?" Steve asked.

"She's fine," Bucky said. He took a deep breath. He'd planned this; he knew what he had to say.

"You'll fight with me, won't you? I can't do this on my own, Steve." He made his voice soft, pleading, a little scared; for a moment, he worried that he'd laid it on too thick. But Steve didn't seem to think there was anything amiss.

"Of course," Steve said instantly. "We'll go in together – Falcon's here, and Iron Man. You don't have to do this alone."

"Thank you," Bucky said. "Stark can send a jet, right?"

"Sure," Steve said. "We can be in the air in thirty minutes."

This was where things got tricky. "They're dug in where they are, right? Didn't look like they were going anywhere? Can you give me forty-eight hours? I'm gonna need to tie up some loose ends here."

Bucky kept his breathing steady and even; Steve might hear him over the phone. Steve would know he'd be in a hurry to go after Hydra, now that they'd found the base. Bucky was pushing it, asking for that much time.

But Steve didn't sound mistrustful yet. "Of course," he said easily.

Bucky let a little bit of tension creep into his voice. Steve wouldn't expect him to sound entirely calm about this. "Where are they?"

This was the most critical bit of intel. If Steve caught on now–

"New Mexico, near the border to Texas. Hang on, I'll send you the coordinates," Steve said.

Bucky kept breathing. That wasn't too far. He had forty-eight hours; plenty of time to get there and finish the mission.

Outside, the children had gone quiet.

*******

There'd never been any question of taking Steve on this mission, of course. This wasn't a task for Captain America.

Preparing his next steps, he felt something like peace settling over him: the calm, alert stillness of a sniper in his nest.

There'd been so many things to worry about over the past couple of days. The kids were doing fine, physically, but they weren't okay, not where it counted. They needed more than he had to give, and every day that passed only made that more obvious. Being there for them, being Bucky Barnes, had been a constant wearying struggle. He hadn't realized how it'd weighed on him till now. Now, there was just one thing left to worry about, only one mission to complete. It was a relief to pack his weapons in the van and get ready to go.

This, this was easy.

Something deep inside him was cringing. What did that make him, if it was such a goddamn struggle just to be a human being? It he could barely handle taking care of a couple kids like most every normal guy on the planet could manage to do? If getting ready to kill came so much more easily?

He knew he was being too short when he told the kids goodbye, too distant. But the part of him that knew how to reach out to them felt very far away already.

It was quickly becoming obvious how badly he'd been fooling himself. All that was left of Bucky Barnes were a few scraps of a human being, loosely stitched together to camouflage the weapon he was now.

Bucky took Adam to town with him, left him the van and stole a car for himself. He wasn't going to leave the kids stranded up there in the wilderness without transport if anything went wrong.

"I'll be back soon as I can," he told Adam. "Couple days at most." If he wasn't back in a couple of days, he wasn't coming back at all.

"What are you going to do to them?" Adam asked quietly.

"You sure you want me to answer that?" Bucky said. Adam's shoulders tightened, his eyes flashing. He started to turn away. Bucky caught him gently by the arm. "I'm not brushing you off," he said. "I'm asking for real. Some of these people you've known all your life."

Adam was smart enough; he could figure out perfectly well what Bucky was planning to do. It was another thing to hear it out loud, to admit it to yourself. But he wasn't surprised when Adam said it himself: "You're going to kill them, aren't you."

Steve hadn't ever flinched from unpleasant truths, either.

"Yeah," Bucky said honestly.

Adam looked down for a long moment, and then he looked up, caught Bucky's eyes, and said "Good," in a tone that sent a shiver running down Bucky's back.

Bucky held out to keys to the van. "Will you be here when I come back?"

He'd had to ask, but he already knew it wasn't going to happen. The bland tone in Adam's voice when he said "Sure" only confirmed it for him.

The way Adam had grown up, it wasn't a surprise that he didn't trust anyone but his siblings. He'd want to strike out on his own. That was okay, though. The kids would be safe with him for a while, as long as Bucky took care of Hydra. And Adam knew where to go once he was ready to accept help.

But that was for Bucky Barnes to worry about, later. Right now, there was only the mission. One last mission for Hydra's weapon.

The soldier settled down behind the wheel of his stolen car and turned the key in the ignition.

*******

This base was a lot better defended than the hospital had been, the guards well-trained and obviously prepared for an attack. But this time, the soldier wasn't frantically racing the clock. He went in silently, methodically, dispatching the guards one by one. When you came right down to it, it was only a question of timing and patience, and the soldier had plenty of both.

This was what the soldier had been made for; this was easy.

Except there was something wrong. Something didn't feel right, and he didn't think it was the mission. Something was wrong with him. His heart was beating too hard. His chest felt tight. Pat of him flinched at every headshot, every snap of bone beneath his hands.

The soldier ignored it. There was a mission to complete. You didn't abort a mission just because it hurt.

It was easy enough, in the end. He'd come for them in the dead of night, and none of the guards lived to raise an alarm. Most of the scientists died without ever waking up.

The officers' quarters were easy to find. Ziegler was sleeping, sprawled comfortably on his back. The soldier looked down at him in the dim light spilling in from the corridor. A slim man with his hair just going gray at the temples, his face relaxed and peaceful in sleep. This man had ordered the children killed without a second thought. The soldier's metal arm whirred softly, plates shifting. It'd be easy to end it now. A single, crushing blow to the trachea; death would be silent but not quick.

Ziegler was high enough in Hydra's chain of command that he'd almost certainly have invaluable intel.

The soldier had a few tranq darts left. It hadn't been the kid of mission that called for them. He jabbed one into Ziegler's upper arm hard enough to feel the tip crunch against bone. Ziegler jerked once, then went still again, muscles going slack. The soldier rolled him roughly to his side. Serve Ziegler right if he choked to death now, but they still needed his intel.

He was going to have to take him along. Interrogating him would take more time than he had, and should probably be done by someone who was a little less emotionally compromised about the entire situation.

First he had the rest of the base to secure, though. There wasn't anyone left alive when he was done except for the two scientists he'd picked to interrogate, mostly because they'd looked easily intimidated. They were huddled together on the floor, watching him warily. The soldier grabbed the one who seemed slightly calmer, hoisted him up with his metal arm, separated him from his clinging coworker and dropped him harshly to the floor.

"I need the names and addresses of anyone who knows about Project Rebirth and isn't on this base," he said.

The man stared up at him. He was sweating, drops running down his waxy-pale face. "There's no one," he said. "They thought someone had to be leaking information to the asse– to, to you. They made all of us live on base."

"Lies," the soldier said. He put a bullet through the center of the man's forehead, turned to face the other scientist while the body was still falling to the floor. He was reasonably sure the man had been telling the truth, in fact. But he had to be certain.

"Tell me," he said.

His demonstration had had the intended effect; the second man didn't have the nerves to try and bluff. He was crying, half hysterical. "It's true!" he said, his voice cracking with terror. "Please, Matt wasn't lying, they, they made us all live here for security, we weren't even allowed cell phones. They caught Webb trying to call his wife and Ziegler had him shot."

Truth.

"I need the database passwords," the soldier said.

The scientist gave them up without a fight. The soldier cloned the hard drive, made sure there weren't any further passwords needed, and then shut down the machine. Beside him, the scientist had fallen to his knees, curled in on himself, breathing in shuddering gasps. He had to know the soldier had no further use for him now.

The soldier turned to him. "Please," the man choked out.

The soldier snapped his neck, quick and clean.

For a moment, the silence was absolute. Nothing else was moving in the base. A drop of half-congealed blood dripped from the grooves of his metal hand and hit the floor with a near-silent plink. His breath was sawing in and out of his chest, the sound of it echoing in the dead stillness. The scientists lay at his feet like ragdolls.

Mission accomplished.

The soldier shuddered. It was over. The last mission. Now he could stop, he could let Steve take command. Let Steve wipe Hydra's killer from his mind; let Steve have his Bucky back. And if it didn't work, if there was nothing left afterwards...

That'd be okay. It'd be peaceful, probably.

The soldier felt the stillness settling over him again, now that the decision was made. His body felt a little distant, like he was just barely out of phase with it. He washed the blood from his arms and face and ate a ration bar, refueling mechanically, without tasting the food. Changed out of his bloody body armor. Bandaged the minor injuries he'd received.

One of the guards had gotten a lucky hit in, rammed a knife between two plates on his metal arm and must have hit something critical. The arm hitched when it moved, and worse than that, there was almost a full second's delay between his brain giving a command and his arm doing anything at all.

Nothing to be done about that now. Steve would probably make Stark fix that along with the rest of him.

The soldier slung Ziegler's unconscious body over his shoulder and prepared to leave.

The base had a hangar with two quinjets parked in it, a small combat model and a transport plane big enough to carry him and all the children. Good; that was going to make it a lot easier getting where he needed to go. He dumped Ziegler into the cargo hold, still carefully propped up on his side.

The base fell away beneath him. The soldier kept count inside his mind: 117, 118, 119…

A shockwave buffeted the jet. Behind him, the base was collapsing in on itself, burying Project Rebirth and everyone who knew about it.

*******

He'd been sure the cabin would be long deserted by the time he got there. Seeing the windows brightly lit hit him like a punch to the gut.

Alex opened the door.

"Bucky!" She ran towards him, beaming, getting ready to jump with her arms raised for him to catch her. He sidestepped her neatly. She stumbled and almost fell.

The soldier left his hands hanging by his side, made no attempt to catch her. There was blood caked beneath his fingernails and in the grooves of his metal arm. He wouldn't touch her with those hands.

"Give him some space, Alex," Adam said quietly. He was leaning against the doorjamb, shoulders slumped. He looked terrible, waxy-pale and exhausted, dark circles like bruises beneath his eyes.

Alex looked up at the soldier, wide-eyed, confused. The soldier turned his eyes away. It hurt, looking at her, made shockwaves ripple through the still, quiet place he'd found inside himself. If he let himself hug her now, he wasn't going to stop until he'd gone to pieces.

He needed to get her to Steve. Steve would have real people to take care of her, people who could actually be trusted with a child.

"Figured you'd be long gone by now," he said to Adam.

For a moment Adam's whole face went tight with some inner struggle, and then he said, in an angry mutter, "We need help."

His gut clenched. The soldier knew what those words must've cost him. He knew what he was gonna see before he even entered the house.

Mary lay on the couch, covered in a heap of blankets but still shivering faintly. A spasm ran through her, and she started coughing so hard it shook her entire body. When it was over, she turned her head to the side, spitting something green and bloody into a tissue, and then dropped limply back against the cushions. Her skin was pale and clammy with sweat.

"I'm taking you to Steve," the soldier told Adam.

Adam's mouth twisted. The soldier could see the protest forming on his tongue. But he'd already admitted that they needed the help, and the soldier knew where to apply the pressure. "An ordinary hospital won't know how to help."

Adam dropped his head, defeated. "All right."

*******

The younger kids had been silent and subdued in the house, clearly worried about Mary. Adam, who was obviously determined to distract them, finally managed to get them excited about flying in the jet, though.

"Don't let them get near the cargo bay," the soldier told Adam in an undertone. He didn't want them anywhere near Ziegler.

The flight seemed to last a long time. The soldier tried to tune out the children's voices and the wet rattle of Mary's breaths. It felt like something was about to burst open in his chest. All he wanted now was to get to Steve before he had the chance to change his mind and turn the jet around. He'd been a lot of things in his life, a lot of monstrous things, but he hadn't been selfish; he wasn't about to start now. The kids needed a home, stability, medical care; they sure as hell didn't need to live on the run with Hydra's weapon.

The soldier brought them in low and cloaked over Manhattan, but he started transmitting a signal a mile out from their destination. He didn't think even Hydra quinjet stealth tech was up to landing undetected right on top of Avengers Tower.

The roof was empty when he set down. The soldier didn't have any illusions that that meant it was undefended.

"Stay here," he told the kids. "Adam, don't let them come out till Steve or I say you can." He turned his head and caught Adam's eyes. "No matter what happens," he added.

Steve would want him alive, but Steve wasn't the only person defending this tower.

He walked to the middle of the roof, went down on his knees, and folded his hands behind his head.

For a long moment he waited in silence. Even without seeing anyone, the soldier knew it was the silence of people waiting for the other shoe to drop; but they didn't let it stop them for long. The roof doors flew open and guards rushed out. Well-trained, disciplined, good equipment, the soldier noted distantly. They'd be a challenge in a fight.

He wasn't fighting. He didn't move.

They surrounded him, a dozen guns pointed at his head. The soldier lowered his eyes. If they were gonna shoot him, they'd have done it on sight. If he was still alive now, they'd be willing to hear him out.

It should have been a relief. He didn't feel anything but a great, numbing exhaustion. There'd be no easy out for him today.

And then Steve was there. The soldier heard him coming, recognized him by the sound of his steps on the stairs. He was already looking towards the roof door when it banged open and Steve flew out. He wore a jacket and boots, and his hair was dark with sweat. He must've been out, but he would have come running when the soldier's signal had come in.

Their eyes caught. Steve stopped dead in his tracks.

"Bucky," he said. "You came."

Steve was smiling, glad and grateful, so happy to see him. The soldier flinched away from the naked hope written all over Steve's face.

"Reporting for maintenance," he said. The words came out automatically. He immediately realized they'd been wrong, seeing Steve's pained, full-body wince.

He took a deep breath. This was a mission, but that didn't mean he could afford to let himself slide into the mission mindset so deeply.

"We could use some help here, Steve," he said, softening his voice. He braced himself, setting his entire body against the shaky, wet-eyed smile Steve gave him.

"About time," Steve said with a rusty laugh, his eyes dipping down to the broken, blackened plates of the soldier's metal arm, the half-healed cuts and bruises on his skin. There were tears in the corners of Steve's eyes. "I was worried sick about you, you jerk."

Steve shoved through the circle of guards. "Put the guns down," he said sharply.

The guards hesitated, looking at him, then down at the soldier, who was still kneeling with his hands behind his head.

"Down," Steve repeated, implacable. "He's not gonna attack us."

The guards looked pretty damn unhappy about lowering their guns, but they did it. It was the Captain America thing; it messed with people's brains. It was hard, ignoring Steve when he sounded like that, even when you should know better. The soldier – Bucky – he'd never been any good at it, either.

Now he didn't have to anymore. He'd surrendered. He could let Steve make the decisions now.

"You're gonna make Stark fix me. Like you offered," he said. It came out almost belligerent. He defiantly held Steve's eyes. Steve better not try to be noble about it now. This was the best thing for everybody.

But Steve was smiling. "Of course. If that's what you want, Buck," he said.

The soldier let out a long slow breath, let his shoulders sink down loose and easy. There, he'd done it; no backing out now.

"That's what I want," he confirmed.

Steve knelt down in front of the soldier. He reached out a hand as if to touch him, let it drop again without making contact. "You okay?"

"Just some bruises. My arm's damaged, though," the soldier said.

"Tony can look at that for you. He should be here any minute now. Come on, get up," Steve said. He reached out a hand.

The soldier didn't need help getting to his feet, but he could tell how bad Steve wanted the excuse to touch him. Steve still looked a little like he thought the soldier might disappear before his eyes.

The soldier took the hand and let Steve pull him to his feet. Steve stood there for a moment, holding on to Bucky's hand, just a little inside the soldier's personal space. He reached out with the other arm, but stilled when the soldier couldn't control a minute flinch at the sudden movement. "Sorry," he said quickly, arm still hovering awkwardly in mid-air. "Is this–"

He'd surrendered himself to Steve. He'd meant it. The soldier made himself step into the offered hug.

Steve let out a long, shuddering sigh and buried his face against the soldier's shoulder. He was shaking. His hands clenched into fists in the back of the soldier's jacket.

The soldier stood very still. Something about the hug, about Steve's warm arms around him, was tearing at his calm detachment, the barrier between him and the turmoil roiling somewhere beneath the surface of his mind. The soldier closed his eyes and braced himself against the onslaught.

Finally Steve broke the hug, stepping back, his hands lingering for a moment on the soldier's arms. He awkwardly swiped a hand across his face. "Sorry," he said. "I've missed you, Buck."

There was a roaring sound in the air above them. The soldier looked up. Iron Man and Falcon were coming in, not landing yet but circling cautiously. Steve waved them down. "It's all right, guys," he called.

Iron Man set down on the roof with a thump. Falcon landed further back, towards the edge of the roof – keeping himself out of close combat reach. Sound strategy for an unenhanced human with no armor.

Steve turned to smile at Iron Man.

"Tony, Sam, this is James Barnes. Bucky, Tony Stark, Sam Wilson."

He was making a point, the soldier knew, introducing them to each other as if this was some kind of tea party instead of an armed stand-off.

The face plate slid back, revealing Stark's deeply skeptical face. "Steve–" he started.

"Tony, please," Steve said.

The soldier snapped his head around at Steve's tone. That had been pleading. Steve didn't plead for anything. The soldier wondered what had brought him to it now. Was it worry about Stark scaring him off – or scaring him into an attack?

Stark crossed his armored arms in front of his chest. "Yeah, much as I hate to rain on your happy little reunion parade, Iceman here only just got back from bathing in the blood of his enemies at that Hydra base. After you pointed him right at the front door, not to put too fine a point on it. You missed a little spot there, by the way," he added to the soldier, tapping his cheek. The soldier wiped a finger over his cheek at the spot Stark had indicated, faintly surprised when it came back without a stain of blood. Stark pointedly raised an eyebrow at him. Steve glared at Stark.

"I needed to make sure the kids would be safe," the soldier said. He didn't bother trying to apologize. He was sorry he'd lied to Steve to get the coordinates, and he was sorry it was causing trouble for Steve now; he wasn't sorry he'd done it.

"I would have come along if you'd asked me, Buck," Steve said. He was facing Stark with his arms crossed. "What do you think we did when we were fighting Hydra in the war? We were six guys alone behind enemy lines, you think we took a lot of prisoners?"

They hadn't taken many prisoners, no. They hadn't gone slaughtering people in their beds, either. Or he didn't think so; his memories of the war were maybe the spottiest out of all of them, and it was hard to be sure, sometimes, that he wasn't getting things the Winter Soldier had done confused with his missions with Steve. There were some lines Steve wouldn't have let them cross, surely.

"Are the children safe now?" the Falcon asked, the first time he'd said anything. The soldier turned to face him. "You were killing to protect them. Are there any other threats we need to know about?"

It was a pretty diplomatic way to ask him if he was done killing, the soldier thought. "Steve's gonna make sure they're safe now," he said. He lifted his empty hands. He'd left his weapons in the plane. "I'm done fighting."

"He's not gonna hurt us, Tony," Steve said.

Stark gave the soldier a sharp-eyed skeptical look, but finally shrugged. He turned to his guards, who still ringed them in a loose circle, uneasy hands on their guns. "Back off, guys. Mr. Barnes is a guest."

"Thank you, Tony," Steve said. The soldier winced at the naked gratitude in his voice. Steve was giving far too much away.

The Falcon eyed Steve with concern, too. Actually, he'd kept his eyes on Steve almost the entire time they'd been speaking. It was clear who his main concern was. The soldier could appreciate that.

"How about you introduce us to those kids of yours?" Steve said.

The guards had cleared off the roof. The door was just falling shut behind the last of them. Of course, sending them away hadn't been more than a symbolic gesture on Stark's part. They weren't the main threat here, and all of them knew it.

The soldier would've given himself even odds of winning a fight against Iron Man if he could do it on his own terms, with plenty of advance planning. Unarmed and out in the open air, he didn't stand a chance. That suit packed enough fire power to reduce the top ten floors of this tower to rubble. And then there was the Falcon with two submachine guns, and whatever automated defenses the tower had.

But neither of them were likely to harm the children, and Steve was here. The soldier figured it wouldn't get much safer than this.

He raised his voice. "Adam? You can bring them out now."

Of course Adam came out first, narrow shoulders squared, blocking their view into the interior of the plane. Steve was standing close enough that the soldier could hear his indrawn hiss of breath when he got his first sight of Adam in person. He glanced over, but Steve's face gave nothing away. He was smiling, but it was the big bright Captain America smile, the one that didn't mean anything.

Adam took in the situation for a long moment, and then turned back to the plane. "Come on out, guys."

Fred and Georgia were torn between wary politeness and fascination at the sight of Iron Man and Falcon. Lizzy ran up to clutch Adam's hand, half hiding behind his leg. Alex carried Sarah, arms wrapped around her protectively. She glared at Steve. Mary held on to the side of the plane, swaying slightly. She was so pale her skin looked translucent, and her breath came out in an audible wheeze. Adam reached out a hand to brace her. She pushed it away with a glare.

"My God, it's the Brady Bunch," Stark said.

Behind them, the roof door banged open again. The soldier whirled around. Max and David ran towards them, yelling.

After that, everything descended into chaos for a little bit as the kids all crowded together into a tangled group hug. Lizzy clung to David with both hands, beaming. "Panda!"

He hauled her up into his arms, grinning back. "Hey, Liz."

She'd dropped her panda in her excitement. The soldier picked it up and put it in his pocket.

Now that they'd seen that Max and David really were okay, the rest of the kids looked a bit less wary. Even Adam unbent a little. Introductions went more smoothly after that. It helped that the Falcon, at least, seemed to know how to handle himself around children.

Steve had always been awkward around little kids, and if anything it'd gotten worse after the serum. He'd told Bucky once that he always worried he'd squish one by accident. People had forever been asking him to hold their babies back then, too. It'd been, bar none, the funniest bit of the Captain America dog and pony show, watching the look on Steve's face when someone made him hold a crying, squirming infant; and they always started crying, even if they'd been calm to begin with. It was hilarious.

The soldier frowned, shaking his head a little to clear it. He hadn't had one of Bucky's memories since the final mission had started. None as vivid as this, at least. Anyway, it wouldn't be funny now. He badly needed Steve to get along with the kids.

"Let's get you inside," Steve said. "We'll find you some rooms, Bucky can stay with you–"

He broke off when the soldier gripped his arm and drew him aside. "Not till I'm fixed," the soldier said.

He desperately wanted to stay with the kids, at least until he'd made sure they were settling in okay. But he knew that if he let himself start putting it off now, he'd keep putting it off forever. It'd be easy enough to keep finding a reason. The kids had only ever known Hydra's labs and training grounds. It would take more than a few days for everything to stop being new and scary. And then they'd have to start thinking about getting them signed up for school, too, which was going to be another terrifying new thing – and suddenly it'd be months, and he'd still be around.

Alex had already gotten too attached. How much worse would it be if he'd been taking care of them for months? Better to do it now, like ripping off a bandage.

At least right now Adam couldn't cut and run, even if things went badly. With Mary this sick, he’d have to rely on Steve. It'd give him time to see what a good guy Steve was.

It was for the best.

Steve gave him a skeptical look. But he wouldn't argue now, not in front of all the kids. "If that's what you want," he finally said. He eyed the cracked and bent plates on the arm. "Does it hurt?"

The soldier had to think about it. His body felt very far away.

"Some," he finally decided. His arm ached dully right where it attacked to the shoulder. Occasional, there'd be a spark of electric pain shooting up from the tips of his fingers, and he felt a grating sensation in his elbow when he bent it, strangely sickening, like the edges of a broken bone grinding together. But the worst thing was that unsettling delay when he tried to move.

"Tony's gonna fix it, okay? Just – don't let him get to you. He can be kind of an ass."

"All right," the soldier said, unconcerned. He very much doubted Stark would be the most unpleasant tech who'd ever worked on him. "You'll stay with the kids?"

Steve didn't look happy about that, either – he wouldn't like letting the soldier out of his sight – but he nodded, which was good enough. When Steve promised to do something, he'd do it, whether he liked it or not.

Stark was coming closer, blatantly listening in on their conversation now. The soldier ignored him. They were still out of earshot of the kids, at least.

"You gotta take care of them, okay? Mary's got chronic lung damage, and I think pneumonia on top of it, so she'll need a doc ASAP, don't let her tell you she doesn't. Oh, and Alex skinned her knee pretty bad, have the docs look at that while they're here, okay?"

He tried to concentrate. There were so many things Steve needed to know, he hardly knew where to start. "Sarah needs to be fed every two hours, and she'll need to be changed soon. Just buy the smallest size of diapers they have. Alex needs a new inhaler, she's only got a couple days left on hers. Don't let them sell you the off-brand version at the pharmacy, it's cheaper but it doesn't work as well. Adam's probably got a couple weapons concealed somewhere. Just leave him alone, he's not gonna do anything stupid. For God's sake don't let Alex have a weapon, though. Lizzy needs a nap in the afternoon, but no longer than an hour or she won't sleep at night–"

"All right, slow your roll, Fran," Stark said. "Pretty sure they can manage without their nanny for a couple hours. Half these guys look old enough to talk and everything."

The soldier swung around to glare at him. Stark actually took a step back, clanking in the suit, and then bristled like an affronted cat when he realized what he'd done. "Or, you know, go right ahead, any more advice? Bedsheets tucked or untucked? Does Stevie need to sing them a song after he kisses them nighty-night?"

The soldier ignored him. "Fred and Georgia are allergic to a bunch of things, make sure Adam gives you the list, okay?"

"All right," Steve said gently. "I'll take care of them, I promise. You just focus on getting fixed. If you need anything, Tony knows how to reach me, okay? Any time."

"Yeah, come on, Octomom, let's have a look at that arm."

He said goodbye to the kids in a daze, trying not to let any of it get through to him, not Alex's rage or the look of betrayal in Adam's eyes when he told them he was leaving. Adam hadn't argued about it, and had stopped Alex in her tracks when she'd tried – Not in front of them, he'd whispered, tilting his head at the Avengers – but his anger and fear had been obvious enough.

He wouldn't have to remember this for much longer. It was going to be over soon.

He drew Steve aside before he left. "Left you a present in the cargo hold," he said, nodding towards the jet. "Wait until the kids are gone before you get him out, all right?"

Steve's eyes widened, but he only nodded silently.

It was a long ride down to Stark's lab. Stark filled it with chatter. The soldier let him talk, listening to the tone more than the words; Stark was uneasy and trying to hide it.

He'd kept the suit on, but in the close quarters of the elevator, they'd be a lot more evenly matched than out on the roof. The soldier's metal arm was almost as strong as the suit, and although he had a lot more vulnerable spots than Stark did in his armor, of the two of them he was the better hand-to-hand fighter by far.

But Stark wouldn't have gotten in the elevator alone at all if he was genuinely worried, which meant there were more defenses than the soldier could see at a glance. Nerve gas would be a good option; that's what he'd do himself, at least. The suit had its own oxygen supply. Stark could simply slide the face plate closed, take a step back, and watch him collapse.

There'd be at least one automated gun behind that retractable panel in the ceiling, too.

They were halfway down when the soldier realized he'd forgotten something. "Can you call Steve?" he said.

"Getting lonely already?" Stark replied, arching an eyebrow, but a moment later, the soldier heard Steve's voice from the speaker in the ceiling.

"Bucky? Everything all right?"

"Mary's a vegetarian," the soldier said. "She'll eat anything you put in front of her, though, so you gotta make sure she gets something without meat."

Beside him, Stark was rolling his eyes, but it'd taken the soldier a week to figure out that the way Mary ate like a bird wasn't just down to her general bad health. Adam wouldn't say anything about this, not when it might make her look fussy and piss someone off. And as sick as she was, she needed to eat.

"I'll take care of it," Steve promised.

And then the elevator dinged and the doors opened.

"Welcome, sir. Mr. Barnes," someone said. The soldier looked around for the source of the voice. Stark's lab was a mess, parts piled up everywhere; there were a dozen possible places to hide.

"Relax, that's just JARVIS. He's an AI, not that you probably know what that is. How do I put this in grandpa terms…. He's a person who lives in a computer."

The soldier suppressed a shudder. So the Avengers had a Zola of their own. It took a particular kind of sick mind to trap itself in a machine forever, he thought. Or maybe it was being a machine that'd twisted Zola up like that. He'd started out mad and seemed to get worse with every year that passed.

"Gimme a hand with this," Stark told him. He was pulling a heavy chair over from the far corner of the lab, maneuvering a little awkwardly inside his suit, especially since he had a weird little one-armed robot getting underfoot in a clumsy attempt to help. The soldier took the other side of the chair, even though his feet wanted to drag.

The chair looked nothing like a maintenance station. The seat was padded with shiny red fabric, and it had no attached electronics. This wasn't where the wipe would happen. Steve had said Stark would look at his arm first.

The soldier untucked his shirt and belatedly realized that he still had Lizzy's panda tucked into the pocket of his pants. Crap. He hesitated for a moment – he'd already bothered Stark once, and the man didn't strike him as having much patience to spare – but Lizzy was going to be scared enough as it was, in this strange new environment.

"Stark, can you make sure this gets back to Elizabeth?" he said, holding the bear out. "She'll get really upset when she realizes she's lost it."

"Well, let's see, can I do that? JARVIS, why don't you bring up my schedule."

A hologram appeared in the air beside him, some kind of timetable with items crammed in so tightly the soldier could barely read them, many of them highlighted in red, exclamation marks blinking all over the place. Stark twisted his head back and forth, making a show of looking it over.

"Nope, doesn't look like I have anything more important to do than run around behind a bunch of kids picking up lost toys. Don't you agree, JARVIS?"

"Indeed, sir," JARVIS said, in that kind of crisp, upper-class British accent that always seemed to lend a mocking edge to every word.

The soldier gritted his teeth. "Never mind."

Stark held out one hand. "I'm just joshing you, come on. Gimme."

The soldier hesitantly laid the stuffed animal into Stark's gauntlet.

"DUMM-E, run this up to the 47th floor. Give it to Cap. Don't break it," Stark said, handing the animal to his little robot, which took it carefully in its single claw.

The soldier watched him all the way to the elevator, but the robot was being careful. He turned back around. Stark was watching him with a thoughtful expression.

"You really care about these kids, don't you?"

"They're great kids," the soldier said.

"They're a bunch of brats, if they're anything like the two you already stuck us with. At least that freckled one's got a good head on his shoulders, though."

The freckled one was Max, who'd been pretty enthusiastic about the wonders of Stark's various labs in their Skype calls.

"You know what, hang on a second. JARVIS, get me out of this tin can, I can't work like this," Stark said. A bunch of robot arms appeared from the ceiling to reach for him. The soldier took a step back while the arms whirled around, peeling Stark out of his armor. He looked a lot smaller barefoot and in formfitting grey underarmor. But the soldier knew that was an illusion. This was Stark's lab. He still had all the power here.

"Now can we get started, or do you need to go back up there and wipe some snotty noses first?" Stark said.

The soldier yanked his shirt off and sat down in the chair. It had sturdy metal arms, strong enough to fasten him to if he made it necessary.

He wasn't going to make it necessary. He'd asked for this.

Stark hooked over a stool with his foot and sat down by the soldier's left side. "All right, Robocop. Let's see the damage."

The soldier laid his arm out along the arm of the chair, palm up, the way the techs usually wanted it. Stark ran some kind of small handheld device over it a few times. He frowned at it thoughtfully for a moment, took a tiny screwdriver from his worktable and pried it right into the spot that would make the access panels open. The plates slid back, exposing the thin, delicate bundles of wires inside the arm, glistening wetly with coolant and insulating gel. With the outer shell pulled back, the arm was easy enough to damage; pliers or a pair of wire cutters would do.

The soldier turned his face away. There was a small greenish stain splattered over the wall in a corner. He fixed his eyes on that spot and kept his breathing slow and steady.

Stark muttered under his breath as he worked, but the soldier knew from the cadence of his voice that he wasn't expecting a response. Occasionally, the tone of Stark's voice would change, letting him know that he needed to listen, and the soldier would take a moment to focus on whatever it was Stark had just said. Simple questions or orders, usually – can you feel this, does this come off, clench your fist.

He answered honestly and did what he was told.

"Okay," Stark finally said, and the soldier snapped to attention at the tone of his voice. "This next bit, I really need you to hold still. And this might sting a little. I can clamp your arm down for a couple minutes if it'll be easier."

No, was his first thought. He didn't let it pass his lips. He could tell Stark he'd hold still, and he probably could; he was good at holding still for maintenance. Except he had no way to know what Stark meant by 'sting'. If it hurt enough that he lost track of where he was, he might lash out. It'd happened before. He didn't want to find out what'd happen if he hurt Stark, even by accident. He didn't want to hurt Stark at all.

"All right," he said.

Stark turned around and dug through a large box full of clattering metal, pulling out an enormous metal clamp; the kind of thing you'd use to fasten equipment to your work bench. It sealed shut around the soldier's forearm with a clank. The soldier couldn't help tugging on it, just once. It held, as he'd known it would.

He offered up his other arm without being asked, laying it out along the sturdy arm of the chair. But Stark didn't even look in that direction, which was astoundingly careless. Didn't Stark realize the kind of damage he could do with one arm free, even if it was his flesh arm?

Not that the soldier was going to lash out, in any case. Stark was Steve's ally. The soldier had asked for this.

Tony picked up a tool that looked vaguely like a screwdriver but gave off a low thrumming hum of electricity. The soldier gripped the chair tightly with his flesh hand and braced himself. This wasn't a problem. Electricity was… was a little more unsettling than other things, but he was good at holding still.

Tony touched the tool to his arm. The soldier controlled the urge to flinch. Nothing happened. There were faint zings of electricity sparking up his arm every time the tool connected to a wire, a slight current transmitting up into his shoulder, but it wasn't even enough to make his muscles twitch. The soldier held himself very still and waited for the pain to start.

"Sorry, sorry, almost done, ten more seconds, just lay back and think of Captain America," Stark said, half a minute in; his voice was tense.

The soldier looked down at him in surprise. Stark was biting his lip in concentration, darting guilty little glances up at the soldier every time he touched the little tool to the wires.

"It doesn't hurt," the soldier said.

"Really? Huh. Really? Lemme– ouch!" Stark twitched back from where he'd stuck his fingertip inside the arm, touching a wire to test the current for himself. "Okay, what's wrong with you, that stings like hell!"

The soldier touched his own finger to the wire, but it still wasn't anything worse than a faint sting; somewhat unpleasant, if he really focused on it.

Stark stared at him. "You can feel that, can't you," he said. It wasn't a question. He shook his head. "Okay, I get it, you're the Terminator, pain is weakness leaving the body, etc. Moving on. While I've got you all tied up, let's take a look at the control circuits for the motor units–"

He switched out for a different tool and did something inside the arm that made sparks fly up. It twitched so violently against the restraints that the arm of the chair started bending with a groan of tortured metal.

"Whoops. Don't give me that look, cupcake, that one was fried before I got to it. Okay, lemme see, hold still for a sec–"

Stark twisted the tool deep into the inner workings of the soldier's arm. It gave another violent twitch. Stark swore when it jostled his hand.

"Sorry," the soldier said automatically, reaching out to pin down the metal wrist with his other hand. Stark had told him to hold still.

"Whoa, whoa, what are you doing? Hands off! You want your fingers broken?" Stark slapped his hand away. The soldier's muscles clenched in involuntary response. Stark took a step back, hands raised.

The soldier slowly, deliberately laid his flesh arm back down on the arm of the chair.

Stark made his arm twitch twice more before he finally said, "There, that's done it. Now let me just–"

There was a tug on his arm, on the inside of his arm, a horrible disturbing feeling of something sliding out of place inside of him. The soldier gritted his teeth and held himself still, kept his face blank, didn't make a sound, even when the feeling spiked into blinding, white-hot pain.

"Gotcha," Stark said triumphantly. The pain stopped so abruptly the soldier could barely contain a sound. Stark pulled back, something in his hands – a part of the soldier's arm in his hands. Even knowing that this was maintenance, the soldier had to fight himself not to snatch it back.

"Look at this bad boy! Torture device and tracker, all in one nasty package."

Stark laid it down on the worktable. This had to be the thing Kyle had used to disable him, the cause of that paralyzing pain. It looked entirely innocuous, lying there like that, just a small carbon-and-metal tube with a bunch of circuits and connectors dangling from it.

"You wanna do the honors?" Stark picked up a heavy wrench and held it out. The soldier took it hesitantly.

The restraint on his left arm unsealed and fell to the floor with a clang. "Well? Go for it. It's not gonna smash itself."

The soldier looked down at the little device, the time bomb Hydra had left inside him.

He brought the wrench down as hard as he could. The device splintered into shards with a crunch. The soldier swung again, pulverizing the biggest of the shards. Again. Again. He didn't stop until there was nothing left but splinters and dust.

The soldier took a deep breath and carefully laid the wrench down beside the dent he'd left in Stark's table. "Sorry."

"Nah, don't worry about it. Catharsis, it's good for the soul. Here, sit back down for a minute –"

It was harder sitting still now, harder not to jerk away when Stark stuck the electric tool inside his arm again. Stark poked around for a few minutes, dictating numbers to his computer as he went. He soldered a few wires, and finally did something that made all the plates seal back up. "There we go. Arm's all yours now. No more trackers, nothing that can be remote controlled, and I've fixed the worst of the damage to the gears. Try it, see how it feels."

The soldier cautiously spread his fingers and flexed the arm. No more sparks of electric pain. There was still a low ache deep in the shoulder joint, but he thought that might be organic damage. The structures that anchored the metal to his flesh and bone had taken a beating in the last couple days. The delay between thought and motion had improved a lot, too; he still felt it, an unsettling fraction of a second where the arm just wouldn't move, but he could fight like this if he had to.

Stark watched him eagerly. "It's just a field repair, don't expect any miracles yet–"

"It's good," the soldier said.

"Obviously." Stark grinned. And then his face got serious again. "Okay, so," he said. He was taking a step backwards, putting some distance between them, hands coming up in front of him. Bucky's shoulders tightened. He didn't like that body language, and he didn't like that tone of voice.

He didn’t like it when Stark went on, "Hear me out before you get mad, okay. I wasn't gonna ask this before I'd done some basic repairs, because if you freak out and punch me in the face, at least you'll have a working arm. More or less. Don't punch me in the face, by the way. But the thing is, that thing needs a lot more work. Some parts of it we should probably just trash and start over, and I can't do most of what needs doing while it's still attached– Wait, you knew it comes off, right? Yeah? Anyway. This is just an offer. You don't want me messing with it, I'll butt out. But that arm's gonna break down on you sooner or later, and it's gonna be sooner. You let me have it for eight hours, I can get it back to you like new. Better than new. Your call."

No.

No. Please. No.

The soldier flexed his hand. Back and forth, back and forth. Took him a moment to even realize he was doing it. It moved fine, and it didn't hurt anymore, but that maddening delay remained, just enough to make him feel like the arm wasn't entirely under his control. He could fight like this, but it'd be a liability.

No.

It'd just be the one night. If Stark said he could do it in eight hours, he probably could.

No.

Thing was, it'd need to get done eventually. He could let Stark do it now, or he could let him do it after the wipe, when the arm eventually broke down for real.

The soldier'd been through worse. This wouldn't be the first time his arm had been taken, for discipline or for repairs.

No.

If he did it now, the wipe would take the memory along with everything else. Bucky Barnes wouldn't ever have to know what it was like.

No.

There was sweat gathering in the hollows above his collarbones, running ticklishly down his chest.

"All right," he said.

"Really?" Stark blinked. "I mean, good call. Excellent choice. Let me just get that screwdriver– DUMM-E! For God's sake! What did we say about cleaning up tools I'm still using? I'll have your arm off if you don't behave yourself. Sorry. It's so hard to find good robot help these days. Now just don't move…."

The soldier made himself nod.

Stark worked his tool into the soldier's arm again, hitting the switches that retracted the protective panels, exposed the hinges, and finally released the pins that held the arm in place. The soldier felt a sharp tug on the inside of his shoulder, a spark of familiar pain, and then his arm came off in Stark's hands.

Stark staggered a little, wrapping both hands around the soldier's – the arm's – the upper arm. "Shit, that thing's heavy," he said, putting it down on the worktable with a dull thud.

The soldier flinched. He made himself sit still. He'd given permission for this. He wasn't going to reach out and snatch his arm back. He got up slowly, carefully, mindful of the way his body kept trying to pull to the right.

"I'm calling Steve, okay?" Stark said. He was already bent over the arm, prying a bent panel open by force. The soldier forced himself to look away.

Steve got there barely five minutes later. From the sound of his breathing, he'd run down the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator.

"Hi, Buck. How are you doing?" he said. He was smiling, but his mouth kept twitching down at the corners, and his eyes flicked down to the empty socket at the soldier's shoulder. He looked unhappy but not surprised, so Stark must have warned him he might need to take the arm off. Still, he couldn't like seeing what Hydra'd done to Bucky's body.

The soldier pulled his shirt back on, rolling the empty sleeve up.

"You ready to go? Mary's down at the clinic right now. Bruce got a couple specialists in, people he trusts. They're pretty sure they can figure out a mix of meds that'll work for her."

The bands of tension around the soldier's chest loosened slightly.

Steve smiled at him, a little more genuinely this time. "The kids've been asking about you. I'll take you to them."

"No," the soldier said sharply.

Steve's mouth twisted. "Buck–"

"Not till I'm fixed," the soldier told him again.

Steve looked down at his missing arm. "Buck, they won't care–"

"Steve, please. I can't." His voice cracked. He looked away.

"All right," Steve said reluctantly. "Not tonight, then. We'll talk about this again tomorrow morning, okay? Come on, I'll take you to your room."

So they weren't going to do it tonight. Well, it was late, and he had no idea how long it'd take. A few hours might not be enough.

It was a pretty nice room Steve took him to. Swank furniture, great big window looking out over Manhattan. High enough there weren't any good sightlines from the neighboring buildings.

Cameras lined the edges of the ceiling, covering every part of the room.

Steve followed his gaze. "There's cameras in every room in the tower," he said. "It's not to monitor you. They're for JARVIS. There's no recordings. None of us are gonna be spying on you. Not even Tony. He would, but Pepper made him promise."

Great, that was reassuring. So only the crazy computer person would be watching him.

"You want to cover the cameras, that's perfectly okay. JARVIS won't get mad. He's just here to help," Steve said.

Except covering the cameras would make them think he had something to hide. He'd surrendered himself, and he'd meant it. He wasn't gonna give them a reason to distrust him, even if that meant letting JARVIS watch him. Not like he was planning to sleep much tonight, anyway.

Steve kept hovering near the door while the soldier explored the room. It'd been good, seeing him again, but right now it felt like too much, his anxious concern and his hopeful looks.

"Steve, get some rest. It's late," the soldier said firmly.

Steve started, probably becoming aware that he'd been standing there staring at the soldier for the last five minutes. "Yeah. Sorry. I'll come get you tomorrow morning, all right? Sleep tight, Buck."

"You too," the soldier said.

He dropped into a fighting stance the minute the door closed behind Steve. He had a whole series of exercises designed to remind his body how to balance without the weight of the arm. He did the whole set three times in a row, not stopping until he was sure he could move as quickly and surely as necessary if he needed to.

He took another shower after that, pulled on a clean change of clothes from the drawer, and laid down on his back in the middle of the ridiculously oversized bed.

His right hand kept drifting to the empty socket of his left shoulder, like niggling your tongue at a missing tooth.

He wasn't helpless without the arm. He'd had to deal without before, had lived like that and fought like that. He could do most every ordinary thing that needed doing, and he was still more deadly than any five normal men in a fight. He didn't need the arm, not really.

But it was still his goddamn arm.

He wasn't going to sleep like this: no weapons, no arm, a talking computer watching him with a dozen electronic eyes. That was okay. He could go without sleep for days if he had to, and he was a sniper. He could outwait anything.

*******

The soldier was still lying in the middle of the bed when Steve knocked on the door early the next morning, snapping him out of his mindless, patient wait.

"Morning, Bucky," Steve said. He had a large duffle slung over his shoulder. He set it down on the floor beside the door with a heavy thud.

Bucky sat up. "You coming from the kids? They okay?"

"They're fine. Mary's doing a lot better already, and the rest of them were no trouble at all. Real polite and quiet."

The soldier winced. "Polite and quiet" meant 'scared out of their minds'.

"I can take you to them right now, if you–"

"No," the soldier said. His voice came out cracked and rough. He wished Steve would stop asking. He couldn't. He wasn't strong enough; his resolve was going to crack. He couldn't have them again, even for a few minutes, and then turn himself over for the wipe.

He'd known things would be scary for them at first. But they'd get used to this place eventually.

"Steve, please. Let's just get it over with."

"Right," Steve said reluctantly. He squared his shoulders. The soldier braced himself. He knew that body language. He wasn't going to like whatever Steve said next.

"There's some people I'd like you to talk to," Steve said.

The soldier went very still. It abruptly occurred to him that he'd been very stupid.

Of course they'd need to debrief him first. His memories might be fractured and scattered, but there'd still be useful intel in there. They wouldn't wipe him without extracting whatever they could.

Even through the distant numbness, bitter resentment rose up in him. He just wanted it over with.

You've surrendered. Now cooperate, he reminded himself.

Steve eyed him worriedly. "Nothing you tell them can be used against you in any way, or I wouldn't even let them near you. This isn't an official hearing, and they all signed papers – Tony's lawyers drew something up, and I had someone from outside check to make sure it's airtight, too. But these people are out there fighting Hydra, Buck. Ziegler's talking, but he's not telling us everything. If there's anything you know that might help–"

"Of course," the soldier said. He suddenly felt very tired.

Anything you know that might help of course meant everything. In a war you wanted every scrap of intel you could get, no matter how irrelevant it seemed at first. You never knew what might turn out to be important later.

This was going to take a while.

The soldier took a deep breath. This was Steve. He could ask for things from Steve, even if asking gave too much away. "Can I have my arm back first?"

"Of course! I'll take you to Tony first thing, okay?" He nudged the duffle over. "Thought you might want this back, too."

The soldier opened the bag and pulled out the heavy weight of his armored jacket. He'd left his body armor in the jet's cargo hold, beside Ziegler's unconscious body; the last two souvenirs of his time as Hydra's weapon.

The soldier touched the tips of his fingers to the front of the jacket. It'd been covered in thick smears of blood by the end. They'd cleaned it very thoroughly.

Steve meant it kindly, the soldier knew, returning his armor to him before making him face the enemy. And if Steve decided to sit in on the debriefing, it'd be a strong visual reminder that the soldier wasn't his Bucky, not yet; draw a clear dividing line.

His one remaining hand felt thick and clumsy when he buckled himself back into the tight straps of his armor.

*******

Stark looked manic enough that the soldier suspected he hadn't slept all night. He was sitting on top of his worktable, the soldier's arm propped up on his knees, working on a bundle of wires with a miniature pair of pliers. He didn't look up when the door opened.

"Good timing, guys! I'm just about done here." He pulled the pliers out. The soldier took a step forward. His arm looked good, whole and perfect, all the damaged panels replaced. Even the deep scratch across the back of the hand, which hadn't affected function at all, had been buffed out.

Stark clicked the last panel shut. "There, done. Good as new. Now let me just turn off the sensors for a moment so you can reconnect the–"

Something inside the soldier just snapped. He crossed the distance to Stark in three long steps, yanked the arm from his grasp, and pushed it back into the socket with a firm click.

It felt like his whole body clicked back into place with it. His spine straightened out with the return of the familiar weight, his body balanced easily on the balls of his feet.

And then the sensors reconnected to his nerves, and the room whited out in the familiar rush of pain. The soldier stood very still, focusing everything he had on not making a sound. For a long, blinding moment, it felt like he'd thrust his arm into the heart of a fire. Every nerve shrieked with the searing pain of a fresh burn. And then it was over, and his arm was just his arm again.

Stark was staring at him, open-mouthed. "Or you could just ram it back in with all the sensors still running, sure, that works. Because why take five extra minutes just to spare yourself some excruciating pain."

The soldier shrugged his shoulder firmly, resettling the plates. Huh. "Didn't know that was an option," he said. It'd never not hurt when they reconnected his arm.

Stark winced. "Wow. It really does only take five minutes to turn the sensors off. They really never…? Actually, you know what, I'm not even going to touch that. I recommend a million years of therapy. Also, if your arm's working okay, you need to go away and let me get some sleep, because I'm about to crash here."

The soldier twisted his arm back and forth. It moved smoothly and easily, as comfortable and familiar as the one he'd been born with.

Stark grinned at him. "See? Told you it'd be worth letting me work on it. You ever want it improved, get back to me, there's plenty of places we could go from there. Think miniaturized rocket launcher, think lasers, think repulsor tech – no? None of that doing it for you? Hey, you want a compartment to store baby wipes in there, I can make that happen. "

"Thank you," the soldier said. "But I'm good."

Not that a launcher wouldn't come in handy. He wouldn't let anyone take his arm off him for a good long while after this, though. If it was up to him. It might not be, after today's debriefing session.

Steve smiled, watching him wriggling his metal fingers. "Ready?" he asked.

"Yeah."

Steve led him to a room on another level of the building. Not a prison cell, like he'd half expected; there were large windows all along one side of the room. There was something off about the way light reflected off the glass, though. Shatter- and bulletproof, the soldier figured.

There were three people in the room already. Romanov, who he'd fought before. A woman with black hair and a military posture. A middle-aged man in a suit. He had the balanced stance of a fighter, but everything else about him had been carefully designed to draw attention away from that fact – from his drab suits to the way he stood with his shoulders slightly slouched.

The soldier sat where he was directed and put his hands flat on top of the table. Compliant. Non-threatening.

"Bucky, these are Maria Hill and Director Coulson. And you probably remember Natasha. They'd like to ask you a few questions."

The soldier nodded. He'd answer their questions. There wasn't any point making them ask when he already knew what information they wanted, though.

On the way here, he'd prepared what he needed to say. He hadn't quite realized how much memory he'd regained until he'd tried to sort it all out in his head. There seemed to be so much of it suddenly. For a moment, he hadn't known how to begin. But this was only a mission report. He knew how to deliver reports. You started with a summary of the most important facts and then went chronologically.

Coulson and Hill gave him polite, encouraging smiles, although he could tell by the way they held themselves that they'd be ready to launch into motion at a second's notice. Romanov watched him with her face blank and still, her hand on the butt of her gun. She knew he knew what she was; there was no point trying to pretend.

The soldier left his hands spread flat on the table. He wasn't going to give them a reason.

"As far as I can remember, I killed 87 people for Hydra between 1950 and 2013," he said. Only Steve startled visibly. Hill's eyes widened, and Coulson's hands tightened a little on the edge of the table. Only Romanov gave nothing away. The soldier kept talking, not letting himself look at Steve again. "They mostly used me on political assassinations. I don't recall all of the targets, but the ones whose names I remember are…"

Coulson and Hill had stopped smiling by the time he got to the third name on his long list. No one scrambled for a recording device, which only meant that they'd been recording all along.

Steve winced. "Bucky–"

Coulson lifted a hand. "Let him talk, please," he said, and Steve reluctantly subsided.

But then Bucky finally got to the end of the list and started on the first detailed mission report, and he piped up again. "Buck, you don't need to –"

Romanov leaned over and said something, quietly enough that the soldier couldn't pick it up. Steve stilled again with obvious reluctance.

The soldier went through the missions in reverse chronological order, trying to include as much detail as he thought they'd find relevant. Steve didn't try to interrupt again, and neither did anyone else. Coulson and Hill asked the occasional clarifying question when he came to a halt. Apart from that, they just let him talk.

The soldier kept his head down, looking at his pair of mismatched hands spread flat on the tabletop. He glanced up only once, just long enough to see the sickened, miserable look in Steve's eyes.

He lowered his head, bitterly sorry he'd looked, sorry for what this was doing to Steve. Steve shouldn't have to listen to this. He didn't need to know this much about what Hydra had turned Bucky Barnes into.

But the soldier already knew what Steve would say if he tried to make him leave for his own good. He didn't bother trying.

He talked until his voice rasped painfully in his throat. Steve pressed a bottle of water into his hand; when the soldier only took it without interrupting his report, Steve commanded, "Drink."

The soldier obediently lifted the bottle to his mouth. The water felt good going down. Steve put a sandwich in his hand next. The soldier ate it without having to be prompted this time.

It was getting harder to stick to any kind of chronological order. Talking about the missions was bringing them back in increasingly vivid detail, setting off chains of images inside his head. He was stepping into the road to toss a grenade beneath the treads of a tank – tanks rolling on Beijing – Steve yanking up the tank's hatch and dropping in the grenade, grinning triumphantly when the entire thing rocked wildly with the force of the explosion

He couldn't seem to focus. He was looking at the woman through the scope of his rifle, reading the words from her lips. "…gonna buy you a mockingbird," she was singing, rocking her baby in her arms. The baby, who was going to die if she didn't sit down soon. It was laughing, reaching – Sarah, reaching for him with one tiny flailing fist, giggling – the infant had been designated an acceptable casualty –

"That's enough for today," Steve said sharply. "Bucky, stop." He reached out and caught the soldier's hands. The soldier realized that he'd been digging his metal fingers into his flesh-and-blood wrist. Bruises were spreading in rings around the tips of his fingers.

"I'm not done," the soldier said, sorry for it. Steve shouldn't have to listen to any more of this.

"You can pick it up tomorrow," Steve said.

Steve took him up to his room, a guiding hand on his arm. The soldier gratefully laid down on his bed. The world was spinning, images flashing before his eyes so quickly he could hardly see the room through them.

The mattress dipped. The soldier forced his eyes open. Steve had sat down at the edge of his bed. "Want me to take your boots off?" Steve asked.

"No," the soldier said. His combat boots laced up halfway to his knees. There'd be no time to put them back on in an emergency. He'd fought barefoot before, but it was a worse tactical disadvantage even than being unarmed.

"All right," Steve said. He reached out, telegraphing the movement. "Can I just–" He tugged gently on a strap on the soldier's armor, shifting a buckle the soldier hadn't even realized had been pinching his skin.

After a while, Steve said, "I slept in my gear for months after I woke up here. Half the time I woke up thinking I was back in the war. And even when I knew exactly where I was…. Everything was so damn strange all the time. Felt a lot better waking up to that with my boots on."

Steve was silent for a long moment. The soldier closed his eyes again.

"Want me to stay?" Steve asked quietly.

Yes.

"No," the soldier said. Steve needed a break, time away from him. Time to get the things the soldier had told him today out of his head.

Steve gently tapped the back of his metal hand. "Gonna have to let go of me then."

The soldier opened his eyes. At some point he'd curled his hand around Steve's belt and locked it like that. He looked down at his fingers, frowning. After Stark's repairs, his left arm moved just as smoothly and naturally as the one he'd been born with, and took no more effort to control. But right now, the fingers didn't seem to want to unlock.

Steve's hand covered his, flesh fingers curling over his metal ones. "It's all right. Go to sleep, Buck. I'll keep watch until you're sleeping."

The soldier stopped trying to make himself let go. Just a few more minutes. He could let himself have that much. He bent his neck and pressed his face against Steve's thigh. Steve still smelled like himself, under the tang of an unfamiliar soap and a modern deodorant.

The tide of memories still flooded his mind, but the images were changing now, with Steve's scent in his nose and Steve's thigh solid and warm beneath his cheek.

This was going to give Steve the wrong impression, the soldier thought. Except selfishly, horribly, he didn't give a damn right then. Steve could think what he wanted – hell, he'd let Steve do what he wanted, just so long as he stayed, touching him, keeping the worst of the memories away.

But Steve only stroked his hair back, and then fiddled with a buckle on the armor, loosening a strap that had been cutting into the soldier's shoulder. The soldier shifted his head just a little, until the side of Steve's hand brushed against the bare skin of his neck. He slept.

*******

The soldier woke up to find Steve asleep on top of the covers. He'd listed over to the side, curled around the soldier like an awkward parenthesis, the soldier's hand still locked around his belt. Steve's hand rested lightly his waist, fingertips dipping beneath the waistband of his pants, brushing bare skin.

The soldier watched him. Steve didn't look entirely relaxed even in his sleep. He twitched a little, his brow wrinkling with tension. The soldier sat up.

The second he moved, Steve startled awake. He looked up at the soldier, the unhappy tension in his face smoothing away. The corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled. "You're really here," Steve said.

He yawned, belatedly covering his mouth; blushed when he realized where his hand had been. "Sorry. Didn't mean to fall asleep on you."

The soldier's metal hand unlocked easily now. He got out of the bed. They'd continue the debriefing today. His mind had settled down while he'd slept; the cascade of memory had stopped.

"We can visit the kids after you've showered," Steve said.

The soldier closed his eyes for a moment. "I can't, Steve. Please."

"They're scared. They need you."

The soldier snorted. "Not like this they don't. I did okay protecting them out there, but they're safe here. They don't need me right now. When this is all over...." He made a vague gesture: the debriefing, the wipe…. "Just let me get it over with, okay? I don't want to see them while my mind's full of Hydra poison."

"It's not gonna be much longer, Buck. Couple days for the debriefings, no more, I promise," Steve said. The soldier turned away. If there was pity in Steve's expression, he didn't want to see it. He'd volunteered for this, and he could take it.

"I'll go check on them, okay?" Steve said.

"You'll tell me how they're doing?"

"'Course I will."

*******

The second day of interrogations wasn't any easier than the first, although he wasn't quite as out of it at the end as he'd been the first day. Later that evening Steve came to the soldier's room with a thick folder in his hand, his face set. The soldier braced himself.

"We're gonna have to hire someone to help out with the kids. At least until the debriefings are over," Steve said. He grimaced at the face the soldier made, but forged on determinedly. "Everyone's pitching in, but they all got full time jobs they can't just drop, and the only one who's got any experience with children at all is Sam. These kids needs someone who knows what they're doing, Buck. They aren't any trouble, that's not the problem. But they've been traumatized. David doesn't talk, Adam goes around armed all the time, the docs say Elizabeth's more than a year behind where she should be in speech development."

Steve pushed the folder into the soldier's hand. "Those two were our top pick, but if you don't like them, there's other options. They used to do foster care, so they've got experience with kids who've been through some hard times."

The soldier reluctantly accepted the file. He didn't want any strangers near the children. Adam and him had managed fine in the cabin, just the two of them, hadn't they?

But Adam had been about to keel over in exhaustion at the end. And now there were Max and David to take care of, too.

There was a picture on top of the file, a woman with dark skin and curly black hair beside a pale, red-headed man with a face full of freckles. They had their arms slung around each other's shoulders, grinning broadly. Dylan and Maura O'Brian, the file said.

Dylan had studied child psychology and worked in a daycare. Maura was an electrical engineer. The dossier was fully an inch thick, starting off with the standard research the state did on potential foster parents, followed by a background check that would have put the CIA to shame. Hell, Hydra wasn't that thorough. There were notes on every job, every hobby, every friend, every relative the O'Brians had ever had. Copies of letters from former foster children. Financial records.

It was an incredibly thorough invasion of privacy. The soldier approved. If Steve was thinking of putting the children's safety into the hands of a pair of strangers, at least he'd had the sense to do his research.

That still didn't mean he liked the idea. They didn't know these people. Everyone had a breaking point, everyone could be subverted, and Hydra played the long game.

If things didn't work out the way they hoped, Bucky might not be around to help out with the kids. Sarah was almost a full-time job by herself already, and no one on the Avengers had that much free time.

If they trusted the wrong people.… They didn't even have to be Hydra. Ordinary people could be cruel.

But Steve was right. They needed help.

"All right," the soldier said tiredly.

*******

He watched the security feed when the O'Brians arrived the next day. It was just Steve and Wilson in the room with them for now. Dylan was a talker, friendly and charming, Maura a little more reserved; nothing in their body language set off any warning bells. After twenty minutes, Steve glanced up to face the security camera.

"Go ahead," the soldier said. JARVIS transmitted his words to the comm unit in Steve's ear. The soldier watched as the door opened and Adam came in. The camera angle didn't let him see Adam's face, but he had a great view of the wary hunch of his shoulders and the way his right hand hovered near the concealed knife at his side.

He slammed the laptop shut. He couldn't watch this. Adam needed to learn to trust these people; it wouldn't do any good for the soldier to run down there and put himself between Adam and anyone who scared him.

Steve would tell him how it had gone tonight.

*******

He gave himself five minutes every evening to ask Steve about the kids. Five minutes, no more, and even that much made it hard to stick to the plan. Steve's stories were worryingly unchanged, even with the two new caretakers to help out: apart from Sarah and an occasional bit of toddler mayhem from Elizabeth, the kids were polite, quiet, cooperative, no trouble and no work at all. Which meant they weren't adjusting, and they weren't getting comfortable. The soldier had a feeling this was building to some huge explosion, and he just hoped that it would clear the air when it happened.

At least Dylan and Maura seemed to be working out. Steve liked them, anyway, which was a good sign. Not that that made it any easier, knowing these strangers where taking care of the kids when he couldn't.

He'd thought the debriefings would get easier as he got used to them, but they were getting harder every day. Steve always brought him back to his room in the evening, stayed with him for a bit so he could fall asleep.

The soldier was pretty sure it was fucking him up, spending his days listening to the horrors in the debriefings and then spending his evenings with the monster who'd committed them. Steve still smiled at him, but it didn't reach his eyes anymore.

But of course Steve wouldn't go when he told him to, and, selfishly the soldier couldn't bring himself to push him away as hard as he know he'd need to to make the message stick. Steve, and the memories he triggered, were about the only thing that got his mind off the train of horrors in his head these days.

It'd been five days, and they were dredging up things now that he very much didn't want to remember. At first it'd been just him talking and talking; now Coulson and Romanov asked the questions, while the soldier wracked his brain for ever more deeply buried fragments of memories.

The soldier curled up on his bed. His skin felt stretched tight and painful over his bones. Steve lay beside him, close enough to touch. If he wanted, he could push his face in the crook of Steve's neck and breathe him in, let Steve's scent call up memories to crowd out the noise in his head. Steve would let him. He'd lie still, and he wouldn't say anything. The soldier knew; he'd done it before. Steve had been hard when the soldier had finally pulled back, but he hadn't said anything about that, either. Blushed a little, when the soldier had looked down at the obvious tent in Steve's pants. Neither of them had acknowledged it any more than that, although the soldier hadn't been able to stop thinking about it for hours, after.

He could do it again, now. He could press himself against Steve's back and slide his hands down between Steve's legs, see if Steve would let him do that, too.

Except he wasn't the guy Steve really wanted.

The soldier rolled to his other side, turning his back on Steve, disgusted with himself. Touching Steve hadn't felt right for days now, as if the grimy feeling sticking to the soldier's skin might rub off on him.

"How's Sarah doing? She gaining any weight?" he asked instead.

The five minutes the soldier allowed himself to spend talking about the kids had been over five minutes ago. But he knew what he'd see if he tried to close his eyes now, and he wasn't going to use Steve as a distraction, he wouldn't, but he could at least let himself think about the kids for a while.

"Little bit. Still freaks me out how small she is," Steve said, cupping his empty hands around a Sarah-sized space. "Docs say she's healthy as a horse, though." He smiled. "Healthy set of lungs on her, definitely." His voice was wry, affectionate.

"Mary's doing better every day, too. She's tough as nails. Never complains, nothing. We pretty much have to sit on her to keep her in bed at this point, though."

"Wonder who she got that from," the soldier said, letting the memories come as Steve spoke, a rush of images all tinged with exasperation and warmth, crowding everything else out of his head.

"Adam's pretty good at distracting her," Steve said, and the words were all right but the tone was off; the warmth was suddenly gone from his voice, and he sounded awkward and uncomfortable.

The soldier reached a sudden breaking point; it'd been days, and Steve still stumbled over every mention of him. "The hell's your problem with Adam, anyway? He's a great kid," he said. It felt good to let himself get angry about something. He cooperated with their debriefings even when it felt like his head would split apart, he'd made his peace with the fact that strangers were taking care of his kids; but Adam deserved better than this from Steve.

Steve winced. "I know!" he said quickly. "I know, Buck. It's just… It's like looking in a mirror. Except… I look in a mirror these days, I see this." He gestured down his enormous, powerful body. "Adam looks more like me than I do, and he's nothing like me at all. It just trips me up. I'm sorry. I know it's not fair."

The soldier stared at him. "What are you talking about? He's plenty like you."

"He's… polite," Steve said, wincing again.

"Yeah, I can see how that'd be a change, you ass. What the hell, Steve? He's polite, that's your problem?" the soldier said, exasperated; but the shape of the problem was abruptly coming clear to him.

Yeah, Adam was being polite. Adam was scared out of his mind, trying to protect his siblings when all the rules had been changed on him. The soldier would bet he was working his ass off trying to be charming and deferential, trying to stop people from getting angry when it might reflect on his siblings in unpredictable ways. And he was probably turning it up to the max with Steve, if Steve was so obviously uncomfortable with him.

It'd freaked Bucky out, seeing that submissive I'm no threat, don't hurt me, don't get mad! expression on Steve's face; how much worse would it be on the original owner of that face? On the other hand, it baffled him that Steve hadn't caught on to the act yet.

Possibly the act was more effective when you hadn't seen Adam prepared to fight down a base full of Hydra soldiers with a bloody pocket knife to protect his siblings. He'd told Steve how he'd found the kids, during that first-ever Skype call from the cabin, but that wasn't like seeing it firsthand.

Nothing he could do about it now, either way. The kids would have to manage on their own for a few more days. He pushed himself as hard and as long as he could in the debriefings, trying to get it over with, but he always hit a wall eventually, the returning memories tangling up and overwhelming him to the point where he had to take at least a few hours' break if he wanted to be able to give a coherent report.

Even so, it had to end eventually.

On the evening of the seventh day, Coulson, Hill and Natasha sat back, exchanged a series of looks, and finally nodded at each other.

"Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Barnes. No further questions," Coulson said.

The soldier slowly lifted his head. He hadn't had anything useful to contribute for the last two hours. He'd told them everything he could remember, in exhaustive detail, most of it twice. They'd been probing at the edges of his memory for hours now, but nothing further was coming back to him. Most of what had come, during the last two days, had been… hard to bear. Maybe there was a reason those memories had come back last. He'd made Steve leave for the very worst of it, in the end. It'd be hard enough looking in the mirror after this. He didn't need to see it reflected back at him in Steve's eyes, too.

But now it was over. He could stop.

He sat at the table while Coulson, Hill, and Romanov packed up and left, until Steve finally came to get him. He managed to find a smile for Steve.

It'd be over soon; he was glad. Coming here had been the right decision.

"Gonna get on with fixing me now?" the soldier asked.

Steve's face was pained and sad. "You know it won't be that easy, right? You can't just flip a switch–"

"Obviously," the soldier said. "Whatever it takes." It had always hurt. It was going to hurt this time, too. He'd hardly let that scare him off now.

"All right," Steve said. Then he hesitated again. "Tony's got this machine."

Finally.

"It'll take a scan of your brain, and then–"

"All right," the soldier said immediately.

"Buck–" Steve hesitated again. "He says it'll be pretty unpleasant. He's modified it, but it's still gonna–"

"It's fine. I don't need to know how it works," the soldier interrupted, a touch of desperation in his voice. He didn't want to know what it was gonna do to him.

Steve laughed a little, startled. "Hell, I don't know how it works. Something to do with magnets and electric currents, I think."

"All right," the soldier repeated. He took a deep breath. "Might need some help holding still. I'll try," he added quickly.

He hated this, asking for help like this, and Steve was gonna hate it, too, strapping him down like a lab rat. But he'd done a wipe without the restraints once, when the techs had had to improvise during some drawn-out fuck-up of a mission, and it'd been bad; much worse than the wipes usually were, when he could just lie there and take it, go away in his head and let it happen.

"I'll be there the whole time," Steve said immediately.

"Gonna help hold me down?" the soldier asked. That'd be nice, Steve's strong hands holding him; much better than metal restraints. Kind of a lot to ask of Steve, but. Steve would have his Bucky back, after. If things went well. The soldier could be selfish this one last time.

"If it'll help," Steve said. He still sounded skeptical. "I'll call Tony, we can do it first thing tomorrow morning."

One last night to get through, then. The soldier thought of going to visit the kids one final time. But Adam, at the least, would realize something was off, and it'd only scare him more. If this worked, Bucky could go see them, after. And if it didn't… .

They'd be fine without him. Steve would take care of them.

He drew Steve down on the bed with him that night. Steve would get what he wanted tomorrow; the soldier could let himself be selfish this one last time.

"Hey," Steve said gently.

The soldier closed his arms more tightly around him, pressed his face against Steve's shoulder.

"Hey, Buck. You know you don't have to–"

The soldier desperately crushed his mouth to Steve's, shutting him up.

Steve made a startled noise against his lips. The soldier could taste a faint hint of blood. He gentled the kiss, touched the tip of his tongue against the split in Steve's lip in silent apology.

Steve squirmed a little, but he wasn't struggling to get away. The soldier kissed him, gently, thoroughly, until Steve went still; kept kissing him until Steve's lips opened to let him in, until Steve made a low, helpless noise in the back of his throat. It felt like his entire body was coming alive for his, like every inch of his skin suddenly ached for Steve's touch.

"Hey," Steve said, when the soldier finally pulled back. "You sure about this?"

He was sure. He was sure he shouldn't be doing this. He was sure he didn't want to stop.

He kissed Steve again, harder, made the kiss as greedy as felt. Steve groaned. He grabbed the back of the soldier's shirt and yanked him closer, pulling the soldier down on top of him. He spread his legs so the soldier could settle between them. Steve was hard; the soldier could feel the hot, heavy shape of his cock even through all the layers of clothing between them. Steve shuddered all over when the soldier ground down against him.

"Bucky," Steve said, his voice cracking a little. The soldier turned his eyes away from the look on Steve's face. Tomorrow, if things went well, Steve would have his Bucky back. And if it didn't go well….

He wasn't thinking about this now.

He yanked Steve's shirt open, shoved his own up to his armpits, and pressed them together skin to skin. It soothed a little of the hungry, desperate ache inside him. He gently stroked his human hand up Steve's side. It was a disorienting feeling, touching Steve for the first time already knowing his body from a dozen blurry memories. Worse because he could remember touching Steve's original body like this much more clearly, skin and bone and jutting ribs under his hands.

But Steve, now, was warm and real under his hands, and right now, this one moment, was all that mattered; he didn't want to think of anything else.

The soldier had taken off his armored jacket earlier, but he was still wearing the combat pants. His cock strained painfully against unyielding fabric, but he couldn't make himself stop thrusting down against Steve. Steve wrapped his legs around him, pulling him closer. His cock pressed against the harsh line of his zipper, but there was a bolt of pleasure shivering up his spine. He didn't want to stop, not even long enough to take off his pants.

Steve ran his hands up the soldier's sides, shoving his shirt aside so he could spread his hands over the soldier's naked back. The soldier shivered, arching into the touch. He buried his face against Steve's neck. God, why hadn't he done this earlier? Steve would've let him, he could've had this every day, he could've… Could've come back from his debriefings shaking and half-mad and put his hands all over Steve, when they were both still reeling from the things the soldier had done. The soldier's stomach clenched. God, he should've never done this at all.

No. No thinking.

He pushed Steve's shirt up over his head. He wanted Steve naked, wanted to see him. He struggled with the zipper on Steve's pants, impatient. Steve tried to help, his fingers tangling with the soldier's. Something gave. He shoved Steve's pants and underwear down his thighs together. Steve squirmed beneath him, kicking them all the way off.

The soldier pulled back to look at him. Steve was smiling, his eyes closed. The soldier knew that the person he'd be seeing behind his closed eyelids was Bucky Barnes, not the soldier. That was all right. That was for the best. He didn't want Steve looking at him, didn't want him to see clearly what he'd gotten into bed with.

He flipped Steve over onto his stomach; knew he was gripping too hard the instant he did it. He gentled his hands, smoothed them over Steve's shoulders in silent apology. Steve twisted his head to look back at him, his eyes still half closed, dazed with pleasure; not really seeing him at all.

The soldier thrust down, grinding against Steve's ass. A buckle on his pants caught on Steve's naked skin, scored a thin red line up the back of his thigh.

He stilled. "Sorry," he said, laying his fingers lightly over the scratch.

"Mmm. 's all right," Steve said. He twisted a little, pushing himself suggestively against Bucky's hips. "You want to?"

He probably shouldn't. He was doing this wrong, couldn't seem to stop himself hurting Steve.

Steve squirmed under him, stretching until he could fish the bottle of lotion off the nightstand. He held it out in silent offer.

"Yeah," the soldier said.

He kicked his pants off, first. Took his time about it, opening Steve up slow and gentle and careful. Steve pressed his face into the pillow and moved with him, making pleased little noises; he was getting this part right, at least.

It was a lot harder to be careful when he actually pushed inside. The soldier gritted his teeth against the feeling, hot and wet and tight around his cock; made himself go slow.

Steve arched his back, groaning. "Come on," he said. "I can take it, Buck, you don't gotta be so careful," and then he was shoving back, pushing up onto his knees.

The soldier found himself grinning faintly. Yeah, God beware anyone should be careful of Steve Rogers. Impatient punk. He stopped holding back. Steve arched back into every thrust, swearing under his breath. He reached back, caught the soldier's left hand; froze for a moment when the soldier's metal fingers tangled with his.

The soldier tried to yank his hand away, but Steve held on tight. The soldier buried his face against the back of Steve's neck, closed his eyes for a moment. Steve's skin was hot and damp with sweat. He closed his teeth around the thick muscle at the back of Steve's neck, didn't let up until he'd sucked a vivid bruise into Steve's skin. Steve gasped. He dropped his head, baring the broad span of his shoulders. The soldier bit him again, leaving marks on the other side of his neck, on the back of Steve's shoulder, besides the knob of his spine.

He wouldn't remember this tomorrow. But the bruises would still be there. Maybe Bucky Barnes would see them, when he touched Steve. Bucky would know the soldier had touched him, too; he'd been here and he'd made Steve happy, just for a moment. Made him groan like that, made him come.

The soldier wrapped his hand around Steve's cock; it didn't take more than a couple strokes. Steve squeezed his hand when he came, and his body squeezed down tight on the soldier's cock.

The soldier gave one last hard thrust and let go. Steve collapsed beneath him with a low, content sound, stretching out on the bed. He caught the soldier's hip when he would have pulled out. "Stay for a minute?"

The soldier lay down on top of him, his face pillowed on the back of Steve's shoulder. Steve's back was mottled with bruises. He looked like he'd been mauled by an animal. The soldier touched one of the marks, gentle, apologetic. They were already beginning to fade, as he'd have known they would, if he hadn't been out of his mind with sex at the time.

Tomorrow, there'd be no sign he'd ever touched Steve at all.

He let himself sleep with his face pressed to Steve's back that night. He'd thought there would be nightmares, but he slept deep and well. The decision was made, and it was the right one.

*******

Steve took him down to the lab the next morning, one hand on his arm; not holding him, just touching for the sake of it. He kept looking at the soldier from the corner of his eyes, smiling to himself. The soldier couldn't make himself smile back.

Stark's machine was an enormous ring with a narrow tube in the middle. The gurney that'd slide him inside had already been modified with four heavy restraints.

The soldier felt calm and sure of his decision right until he sat down on the gurney, and then Steve gently pushed him down with one hand on his shoulder, and fear washed over him so suddenly it took his breath away.

He didn't say anything. This was still the right decision.

Stark had already left. He'd be monitoring them remotely from his lab, but apparently the machine didn't need much oversight, just someone to push the big red button and start the program.

The soldier put his feet into the brackets, let Steve seal the shackles around them. His left arm went next. Stark had apparently created a modified restraint for it by now. The clamp closed around his forearm, and the arm powered down. The soldier squeezed his eyes shut. His breath rasped in and out of his chest, and he couldn't seem to still himself.

His right arm came last.

"You're shaking, Bucky. You sure you want to do this?"

"I'm all right," the soldier said. Even through the immobilizing force of terror he felt a faint, sullen thread of resentment. Wasn't it enough he'd asked for it once? Did he really have to beg for it now, when he'd already laid down for the restraints?

But that wasn't fair. Of course Steve couldn't just stand by and watch him suffer. "I'll be fine when it's done. Always am," the soldier said, gentling his voice. "Go wait outside."

He shouldn’t have asked Steve to stay. He'd known better once; it was coming back to him now, almost too late. Steve wouldn't ever look away when his people suffered, but it got to him in the worst way. Bucky'd had to kick him out of the infirmary more than once, back in the war. He'd sit and hold the hands of the wounded and the dying till he'd made himself sick with misery.

Steve looked sick now, pale and nauseous. "Come on, you don't have to do this. There's no rush."

Yeah, because what he wanted was to have this hanging over his head for even longer.

"Just do it," he said.

"Captain Rogers," JARVIS said.

Steve ignored him. "Stop being a stubborn jerk. If this is freaking you out so bad–"

"Mr. Barnes. Captain Rogers." JARVIS sounded really urgent now.

"What?" Steve snapped.

The lab door crashed open.

The soldier startled violently, brought up short by the restraints. Steve jumped to his feet.

Adam stepped over the threshold. He was holding a sleek, experimental-looking gun, a bright blue light shining from the barrel. The bulletproof vest he wore was ludicrously oversized. He must have scavenged it from somewhere in the tower. He had Bucky's rifle strapped across his back.

"Get the hell away from him," Adam snarled.

"It's all right," Steve said, lifting his hands placatingly.

"Get. Away," Adam repeated.

He had the gun pointed dead-center at Steve's forehead, his hand steady and certain on the barrel of the gun, index finger already curled over the trigger.

"Steve, do what he says," the soldier said. "Adam, don't. It's all right. He's not hurting me."

"Yeah, I can tell," Adam said sarcastically, eyes flicking down to the heavy restraints.

"It's all right," Steve echoed. He had his hands up now in a gesture of surrender, but he still wasn't moving. He tilted his head for a moment, and the soldier heard a faint echo of someone talking through Steve's comm unit. Steve winced. "No, Tony, stay out of this – JARVIS, keep that door locked, please."

He sat down on the gurney next to the soldier, in between him and the malevolent blue glow of Adam's gun.

"Steve, move before he shoots you," the soldier said urgently. Steve of all people ought to know what a mistake it'd be to underestimate Adam just 'cause he was young and small.

"I'll do it," Adam said. There was a cold, desperate light in his eyes. He looked calm and determined at a first glance, but the soldier knew him enough, knew that body well enough, to see the terror underneath. "Get away from him. I've killed people for Hydra, you think I won't kill for a friend?"

The soldier's stomach flipped over. For a second, he was feeling so many things at once, he couldn't even sort through it anymore; it was all one thing, a feeling as intense as physical pain. Gratitude. Adam had come to protect him, and he was standing there now, holding a gun to Steve's head, no matter how terrified he was. A sad, resigned horror. It didn't surprise him that they'd made Adam kill, but he hadn't wanted to have it confirmed. Pleasure, tentative and stunned. A friend. Fear. If Steve didn't start taking this seriously, Adam was going to shoot him for real.

He took a deep breath. "I asked for this," he said. "Hydra put some pretty toxic stuff in my head, Adam. They made me kill for them for years, you know that. Steve's gonna wipe all that out of my brain for me. I'll be fine after."

"What?" Steve said. He wasn't looking at Adam at all anymore. He'd turned to face the soldier, his eyes wide and horrified. "Bucky, no," he said, "My God, we're not gonna wipe you. It's just a scanner, I told you, it's one of those magnetic, um,–"

"You said you were going to fix me," the soldier broke in. "You promised–"

"God, Buck, I was thinking… therapy, or, I don't know. Bruce thinks they can probably figure out a nutrient solution to help your brain heal itself, and Tony says once he know where the damage is he can maybe do something with targeted gamma waves, but he's gonna need more time–"

Maybe. They thought they might be able to do something, in the future. Wasting time, maybe years. Years where he might do God knew what damage.

"You got a chair," he said, his voice cracking. "You told me you salvaged a chair."

Steve snarled. "We're not gonna put you in that chair!" he snapped. "For fuck's sake, Bucky, the things they put you through–"

"I'm not gonna let you wipe his brain!" Adam interrupted angrily.

"Yes, thank you, I completely agree!" Steve said. Adam glared at him.

The soldier groaned. Stubborn goddamn bastards. They weren't gonna get anywhere having this conversation at gunpoint, though. "Steve, get me out of these goddamn manacles and go sit over there. Now!"

Steve was still glaring, but he unsealed the restraints and got up from the gurney, hands held up in surrender. He walked over to the wall and sat down with his legs crossed, deliberately non-threatening.

Adam eased his finger off the trigger, although his tense shoulders didn't relax. He stepped in between Steve and the soldier. Across the room, Steve was watching them; watching Adam. The soldier knew what he was seeing: the fear, the determination, the way Adam made his narrow body into a shield for Bucky as much as he could. For the first time, there was something warm in Steve's eyes when he looked at Adam.

Adam checked the soldier over for injuries, gun still pointed at Steve with one hand. "Come on. I'll get you out. The others are safe already."

The soldier caught his hand, stilling him, then let go immediately when Adam tensed. "It's okay. I really did ask for this. He wasn't hurting me."

He hadn't been. He hadn't, even though the soldier had asked for it. Steve wasn't going to wipe him. The soldier looked at Adam, who still looked terrified and angry; at Steve, who was sitting against the wall, glaring at the soldier, being no fucking help at all. Someone needed to defuse this situation, and it wasn't gonna be either of those two stubborn jerks.

Fear settled thick and cloying in his stomach. What the fuck was he going to do now? They wouldn't wipe him clean. He wasn't any more fit to take care of a bunch of vulnerable kids than he'd been an hour ago. Hell, he could barely keep Adam and Steve from shooting each other.

He'd have to figure it out somehow. Find a way to keep the kids safe. Find a way to get on with the things Hydra had put in his brain. Find a way to live.

This wasn't a job for a weapon. They needed Bucky Barnes, the guy who'd been good with people. But Hydra had overwritten that guy with a dozen layers of programming, and if Steve wasn't going to wipe that from his brain, Bucky Barnes wasn't ever coming back. There was just the soldier now. And that meant he had to step up.

He'd been Bucky Barnes once. He remembered being Bucky. He knew what Bucky would do. He couldn't be Bucky, but he knew enough now to pretend.

The soldier took a deep breath. This wasn't the first time he'd been set an impossible mission. He was good at those. There wasn't a trick to it; you just kept going, no matter how much it hurt, no matter how scared you were. You kept going and you made it work, because failure was not an option.

"Sit down, Adam," the soldier said, in Bucky Barnes' firm voice. "No, Steve, shut up. I think we all got some wires crossed here. Adam, put the gun down. We're gonna have a talk."

*******

It took a while to get everyone on the same page, so Mary and the rest of the kids were halfway to New Jersey by the time they caught up with them.

Adam was tense and silent in the van on the way there, clutching his little burner phone, twin to the one Mary had taken along.

"What do you think they're gonna do to us?" he asked quietly, nodding towards Steve and Wilson in the front of the van. "For trying to run away?"

"Nothing! I swear, no one's gonna punish you. We know you guys were just scared," Bucky said.

Adam shrugged. "Figured they were either experimenting on you or retraining you. Guess we weren't all wrong." His eyes flashed. He lowered his voice. "Why the hell would you just let them–"

He broke off, making a flailing gesture with one hand, encompassing the way he'd found Bucky, strapped down in that lab.

Bucky shrugged. "I wanted them out of my head. Some of the things Hydra made me do…."

Adam picked at the phone in his hands, fretfully shredding a peeling sticker. "Do you think I should let them do it to me? I killed for Hydra just like you did."

"No!" Bucky stared at him, horrified. "No. For God's sake, Adam, that's a completely different situation, don't even think about…. Don't ever think that, okay? They manipulated you, they made you…. You were protecting your siblings. There's nothing wrong with you." He gave a short laugh. "Hell, Steve wouldn't do it if we asked him to. To either of us. You heard him."

"Damn right I won't," Steve called, giving up any pretense of not listening in.
Adam glared at him. Bucky sighed.

The kids had holed up in the basement of a run-down apartment building. Bucky and Adam were the first down the stairs, both of them almost running on the last few steps.

The kids looked up anxiously when the door opened. They were all curled up in a corner on a pile of blankets. Mary and Alex jumped up, both of them clutching knives.

"Oh thank God," Mary said, giving Adam a shaky smile. She caught sight of Steve coming down the stairs behind them and went pale. She took a step back, clutching the knife.

"It's okay," Adam said. He still looked anxious. Bucky could only imagine how he felt, the weight of his siblings' safety on his shoulders and no way to know whether he was making the right choice. Adam managed a smile for Mary. "I think it's gonna be okay."

She threw her arms around him. Adam buried his face against her shoulder. Both of them were shaking. Bucky made himself look away.

Alex was staring at him, her knife clutched in front of her chest. Bucky took a step towards her. She inched backwards. He crouched down. "Hey, kiddo," he said.

"You left!" Alex snarled. "You promised you'd take care of us!"

Bucky bowed his head. God, he'd fucked up, and he had no idea what to do to make it up to her. He wasn't qualified for this. He had no idea what to say. Hell, maybe even the real Bucky Barnes wouldn't have known. "I'm sorry," he said, inadequately. "I'm here now. I won't leave again."

"Yeah, sure," Alex muttered.

She didn't fight when he picked her up and wrapped her in a hug, but he could feel her vibrating with tension. She was still holding the knife in one hand. Her other hand clenched tight in the fabric of his shirt.

Things were a pretty long way from okay, Bucky figured. But maybe they could still get there from here.

*******

Bucky slept in the kids' bedroom that night, Alex clinging to him anxiously. Adam slept on a blanket on the floor, stretched out across the doorway, Bucky's rifle cradled in his arms.

He snapped awake in the middle of the night, reaching for a weapon that wasn't there. Bucky took a deep breath. No danger, just the baby monitor vibrating softly. Adam rolled over groggily, clutching his blanket.

"Go back to sleep, I got this," Bucky said quietly.

Sarah had a room of her own, because otherwise no one else would be getting any sleep. It had to be driving Adam crazy not being able to watch her and the rest of his siblings at the same time. But he seemed content enough to go back to sleep, knowing Bucky would check on her.

Steve had gotten there first. He was sitting on the couch, cradling Sarah to his chest. She looked impossibly tiny in his big hands.

Bucky hesitated in the doorway for a moment. This was the first time they'd been alone together since the things that had happened in Stark's lab. But Steve had already heard him; no way to back out now.

"Hey," Steve said, twisting around to look at him. "Gonna come in, or do you need to hold up that wall some more?" He smiled, but the corner of his mouth twisted wryly, and his eyes were hard. Bucky sighed. Time to face the music. He'd known Steve was mad.

"Hey there," he said, bending down to brush a finger through Sarah's soft hair. She gurgled happily.

"Here, you take her," Steve said, handing her over like it was nothing. Bucky swallowed hard. People weren't going to stop trusting him with vulnerable little children any time soon; time to get used to it.

Sarah wrapped her hand around his shining metal fingers. He settled her against his shoulder, rocking her gently.

"What the hell were you thinking, Buck?" Steve asked – quietly, in deference to the baby, but with heat in his voice. "If you thought we were gonna brainwash you, why the hell would you just lie down and take it?"

"I killed a hell of a lot of people for Hydra," Bucky said. "You know what I did."

Steve was full-on glaring at him now. "Adam killed for them, too. You gonna hold that against him?"

"He was a kid!" Bucky said. "He's been tortured and lied to his entire life! Don't you dare–"

"You've been tortured. You've been brainwashed. They wiped your memories, they hurt you, they manipulated you, if you really think I'd blame you for any of–"

Sarah whimpered. Steve broke off and sighed. "Sorry, kiddo. No one's blaming you, for God's sake," he added more quietly.

"Doesn't matter who's to blame," Bucky said. "They made me a weapon. That's not just gonna go away."

"Yeah, and you spent three months protecting all those kids with your life 'cause you're capable of nothing but being a weapon. For God's sake, Bucky," Steve said.

"Oh, shut up," Bucky said. The fact that he'd gotten decently good at pretending to be Bucky Barnes didn't mean he'd stopped being the weapon Hydra had made of him. But of course Steve wouldn't want to see that.

They sat in silence for a while. Sarah had dozed off again, breathing evenly, a warm comforting weight against his shoulder.

"What we did last night…" Steve began tentatively.

"I wanted that," Bucky said immediately. It'd been the only thing he'd wanted for himself, in the middle of all that misery and fear; he wouldn't let Steve beat himself up for it now.

"Okay," Steve said quietly. He didn't sound entirely convinced.

Bucky twisted his head around, pressing a soft kiss against Steve's lips. "I wanted it. I want to keep doing it," he said.

Steve kissed him back for a bit, slow and gentle, although both of them were twisted awkwardly sideways with Bucky still holding Sarah in his arms. Bucky pulled back after a few minutes, stretching his aching neck.

"Hey, asshole," Steve said, his eyes warm, "glad you came home."

"Me too," Bucky said. He slid down on the couch until he could rest his head against Steve's shoulder. Steve slung a heavy arm around him. Bucky closed his eyes and slept.

*******

- six months later –

Bucky was making pancakes for breakfast, Sarah cradled in his free arm. It meant he had to work sideways to shield her from splatters, but he didn't want to put her down. She'd been fussy all morning, waking up and crying every couple minutes. She only settled down when he held her.

Behind him, Fred and Georgia played catch around the kitchen table. Bucky had been studiously ignoring them for the last five minutes. There were rules about running inside, especially in the kitchen, but he hadn't even had his coffee yet, and he just really didn't feel like dealing with it.

A chair tumbled to the floor with a crash.

Bucky sighed.

"Sit down and shut the heck up," he said, turning around, baby in one hand, spatula in the other.

"Yes, Bucky," Fred and Georgia said in unison, which wasn't a good sign; and then they started giggling, whispering with their heads tilted together, which was a surefire sign they were planning something.

Something smelled like it was burning.

Bucky turned back around, plucked a slightly blackened pancake off the griddle with his metal fingers, flapped it through the air a couple times to cool it down, and popped the whole thing in his mouth. The way this morning was going, he figured he ought to take his breakfast where he could get it.

Usually, Dylan and Adam wrangled the kids while Bucky made breakfast. But they'd both come down with the stomach flu yesterday.

Sarah stirred restlessly in his arm. Bucky rocked her gently, humming under his breath, and flipped the next batch of pancakes. At least Steve was due back from his run any minute now, and Maura'd be there in a bit with David and Lizzy. Actually, she should've been here by now, Bucky realized. It was a quarter to seven already. Which meant Alex and Max were late, too.

School started at eight, and although the teachers in the Manhattan Science Institute had all kinds of weird ideas about raising children, they were still pretty big on punctuality.

MSI didn't really have much in common with the kind of schooling Bucky had known. It'd been founded as a place for the children of diplomats, superstars and other people who needed special protection, although by now two quarters of the kids were normal kids attending on a Stark Industries scholarship. Small class sizes, lots of individual attention from the teachers, even if they did have weird ideas; at least it was the kind of place where no one got bent out of shape about Max's need to question everything, David's continued refusal to speak more than a word or two in the presence of anyone but his siblings, or all the kids' tendency to run off and hide when they thought they were in trouble.

Most importantly, they had a staff who understood the importance of security and not talking to the press. That'd been pretty important, after the whole media explosion.

"Well, what did you expect? Bucky Barnes reappears from the dead, gets gay married to Captain America, and adopts nine children. Of course you're more interesting than Brangelina," Stark had said, shrugging.

So far, Bucky had managed not to punch any reporters in the face on reflex. It'd been close a couple of times. He mostly went out in disguise these days.

Things had settled down a little since then, but then the press hadn't found out about the connection between Bucky Barnes and the Winter Soldier yet. The sheer size of the SHIELD data dump protected them, so far. But it was only a matter of time until someone stumbled over the truth, which was gonna be a whole 'nother shitstorm. Bucky didn't even want to think about how he was going to handle it when that happened. That was going to stir up a lot of things he tried not to think about these days.

The kids seemed to be doing okay in school, at least. Even Alex, who thought studying was an enormous waste of time when she could be training instead, was doing okay with it now.

Speaking of.

"JARVIS, where's Alex?"

Him and JARVIS had come to an uneasy truce. Bucky still wasn't really comfortable with a computer watching his every move, and in his own room he had the cameras quite firmly disabled. But, well. He also frequently had to wrangle nine genetically engineered stealth-trained spy children at the same time, and sometimes there were unavoidable advantages to living with an all-knowing AI.

Especially on mornings like this, when JARVIS was the one being in the tower who was any goddamn help at all with the childcare.

"Miss Alexandra is currently in the gym," JARVIS said.

Bucky groaned. "How often do I have to tell her – patch me through, will you?"

She'd been quiet and docile for far too long after everything that had happened, trying so hard to be good, terrified he might leave again. He was glad that was over. He was glad she felt secure enough to rebel against the rules now, no really, he did.

He raised his voice, even though the sound system would transmit his voice loud and clear. "Alex, training's over! Breakfast! School starts in fifty!"

"Don't wanna!" Alex yelled back, loudly enough that he heard it in faint echo from the gym down the hall.

"I don't care! You're going! Jarvis, at least tell me Max isn't still in the lab."

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Mister Barnes," JARVIS said. He sounded genuinely apologetic.

"God dammit."

"Swear jar!" Georgia said gleefully.

"JARVIS, put me through to Stark, please." There was the faint static sound JARVIS used to indicate an open connection. "Stark, what did I say about letting the kids into the lab in the morning?"

"No earlier than six, don't let them handle anything dangerous, and don't make them late for school," Stark recited. "And we're three for three here, so quit your bitching, mama bear."

There was the sound of Max giggling in the background, and then something that sounded suspiciously like a high five. Stark was a terrible influence on that kid.

"Seriously, he's even all dressed up already. I'll send him up in a min– Uh-oh. Just hold that steady for a second, will you? JARVIS, lower the heat to thirty– Crap."

There was a loud, gloopy sort of sound, and then an enormous splash. "Fuck," Stark said, and then, more loudly, "It's fine, nothing happened! Nothing dangerous. Don't worry, I'm sure this is gonna wipe right off."

"Stark!" Bucky yelled. The connection was already closed. He groaned.

"Morning, Bucky," Lizzy said from the doorway. David, standing behind her, waggled his fingers hello.

"Where's Maura?" Bucky asked David. There was a sinking feeling in his stomach.

David jerked his chin in the general direction of the O'Brians' apartment.

"She's been pooping and puking! All night!" Lizzy said gleefully. She'd been catching up on her language skills by leaps and bounds, just in time for that delightful phase where kids thought talking about poop was the funniest thing in the world.

"Great," Bucky muttered. "JARVIS, tell Mary she'd better stay in her room today."

Mary's immune system had come a long way with the experimental drugs Banner and his team had knocked together for her, but she still had to watch herself around viruses of all kind.

Something smelled like burning again. Bucky swore, whirling around. There went another pancake. He plucked the charred remains out of the pan. Sarah let out a startled squeak at the sudden motion, squeezed her eyes shut, and started wailing like a banshee.

"I've taken the liberty of disabling the smoke alarms for the time being," JARVIS said, over the general din.

Bucky looked up into the nearest camera. Really, him and JARVIS had gotten off on the wrong foot; maybe it was time to get over that. "Thank you, JARVIS. You're a gem."

"I appreciate the sentiment, sir."

Alex came in still wearing her sweat-soaked gym clothes, trailing Max, who had fluorescent green stains all over the front of his school uniform.

"Tell me that stuff's not toxic," Bucky said, although he was pretty sure it wouldn't be. Tony was a reckless idiot, but he was good about keeping the kids away from the dangerous stuff in the lab.

"It's algae," Max said, rolling his eyes.

"Great. Wash your hands, breakfast in five, go change after. Alex, you too."

And then finally Steve was there. "Oh thank God. Here, take her," Bucky said, pushing the still-screaming Sarah into his arms, leaning over to give Steve a quick, distracted kiss.

"Steve!" Fred and Georgia yelled, jumping up on him from behind. Now that Thor was back in Asgard, Steve was the adult in the tower with the most patience for serving as a human jungle gym, and therefore their current favorite.

"Fred, Georgia, sit down. Alex, stop playing with that knife, that goes for you, too, Max. Steve, can you go get Max's other uniform from the laundry room?"

"Sure," Steve said, just as his phone started to ring with a familiar alarm tone. "Oh damn, Buck, I'm so sorry."

"Yeah, I know, I know. Go," Bucky said, taking Sarah from him. "Any idea what's going on yet?"

"Just says to assemble. I'll call you as soon as I know." Steve was already turning to leave, slinging his shield over his shoulder.

Bucky watched him go, biting his lip. They'd decided together that they wouldn't both go out to fight at the same time unless the fate of the world hung in the balance. They had the kids to take care of; they couldn't both risk getting themselves killed at the same time. Still, letting Steve go out without him never got any easier.

Bucky took a deep breath and surveyed the battlefield in front of him. Sarah was still screaming. Max had managed to spread his green stains to both Alex and David. Someone had upended a glass of chocolate milk over the entire table, and Fred and Georgia were yelling at each other about it.

Fifty minutes to get the whole pack of them fed, cleaned up, organized, and transported to school.

There wasn't a trick to impossible missions. You just kept going, no matter what, and you found a way to make it work.

Bucky smiled and got to work.

END

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