The Asset is returning after his latest mission when he hears two children calling for help in the remains of the bombed city. He has been out of ice long enough that his programming is beginning to malfunction, which is possibly why he follows the cries instead of returning straight away. What he finds is a young boy and a young girl [both approximately between nine or ten years of age with similar facial features, genetically related, high probability of twins] trapped by a live mortar shell. They’re small and scared and weak but with defiance in their eyes [there is a boy with a bloody lip, the same eyes only bluer] and the Asset acts without orders, extracting the children from the rubble.
He gets the girl to safety first. He would have chosen to save the boy first [further from the mortar, slightly calmer, higher chance of extraction success] but the child insists he saves his sister and something in the Asset listens.
“Stay,” he tells the girl, lowering her onto a large piece of rubble a safe distance away, and then returns for the boy.
They cry out and cling to each other when reunited after the short separation. The boy runs his hands over the girl, checking for injuries. “Wanda, Wanda, Wanda,” he repeats through his tears.
“Pietro, Pietro, Pietro,” the girl echoes.
After a few minutes, holding hands they turn their attention to their rescuer, who has watched them with confused fascination.
“Thank you,” they say, “You saved us. What is your name?”
The Asset cocks his head in confusion. “I don’t have a name.”
The girl [Wanda] looks upset about this. “Everyone has a name.”
“I am an asset. I have no name.” Then he turns to leave. He has already diverted from his mission too much.
“Wait,” the boy [Pietro] calls, his hand gripping onto the Asset’s trouser leg. “Where are you going?”
“I need to report on my mission.”
“Please don’t leave us,” Wanda begged.
The Asset considered the situation [he’s not supposed to consider situations, he’s to follow orders] and decides against leaving the children. Children are weak and unable to fend for themselves and would not be left alone in such a situation if they had carers. His superiors will know what to do with them. His superiors work for the betterment of mankind.
“You can… come with me. I shall see you to safety.” The Asset’s speech is slow and disjointed [making decisions is much harder than following orders; the thoughts are slow and sluggish, as if they do not want to come].
The children give the smallest smiles and separate for the first time. Pietro holds his right hand and Wanda holds his left as they walk towards the Asset’s latest base. It takes longer than it should have without the children but the Asset feels something [the programming is failing, he must report for conditioning] warm in his heart. They talk to him the whole way and decide that if they must call him something they shall call him Prijatelj.
“It means ‘Friend’,” Wanda tells him. The Asset [Prijatelj] nods at the explanation.
He wants always to keep Wanda and Pietro close to him.
When they finally arrive at the base his superiors angrily shout at Prijatelj as they separate the twins from him and take him to conditioning. Afterwards, when the cold sets in, something feels like it is missing but the Asset is not sure what.
“Prijatelj,” a young voice calls in the Asset’s direction. He turns not because he thinks it’s directed towards him but because it is unusual to hear such a young voice at any of the bases he has been to.
The voice came from a young girl with dark, curly hair. By her side is a boy with dark hair [similar age and features, most likely twins]. They are looking at the Asset in a ware that makes him feel uncomfortable. No one ever looks at the Asset that way. The Asset does the tasks that no one else will for the betterment of humanity. Those tasks do not lend themselves to inspiring [joy, hero-worship, admiration, lo-] those emotions on the children’s faces.
“Who are you?” his head cocks to the side in confusion.
“Y-you do not remember us, Prijatelj?” asked the boy. The girl’s bottom lip wobbled as her eyes grew wide.
“I do not recall meeting you before.”
If anything, rather than resolve the issue, this clarification seems to upset them all the more [heartbroken, they are heartbroken].
The Asset swallows. Their reaction elicits certain responses he does not understand [he should report on the issue]. “Memories are a distraction to the mission. I undergo conditioning to ensure my performance is not flawed by such distractions. If we have met before then it is likely that is the reason I have no recollection of you.”
The Asset is not meant to comfort children. He is meant for murder, death, and destruction [for the betterment of mankind]. However, seeing the twins smile, he feels that this is an acceptable exception. They are on the base after all, which means they must be fellow Assets. Keeping others working for the same cause happy can only work to further that cause. The Asset tells himself this as he walks to the other side of the base to leave on his mission with two young hands in his.
Afterwards, reporting to conditioning, he feels a little sadness that he will not be able to recall Wanda and Pietro.
The Asset is sat in an empty room, waiting to be debriefed from his mission. He isn’t sure why he has to wait to be debriefed [he is sure he is normally taken straight to conditioning] but it does not feel like the first time it has happened.
“Prijatelj!” a voice calls. The Asset turns [he is the only other one in the room, logic dictates that he is the one being addressed]. There are two young children, no more than thirteen, smiling at him. He looks at them in confusion.
“I am sorry. I do not believe I am this ‘Prijatelj’ that you seek.”
“It’s okay if you don’t remember,” the girl tells him. “That happens sometimes.”
This only confuses the Asset more. And there is something about the children that seems wrong to him [they are too tall, the Asset is unsure where this thought comes from but it feels right].
“I’m Pietro,” the boy says with a smile. “This is my sister, Wanda. You saved us when we were ten.”
“You agreed that we could call you ‘Prijatelj’,” explains Wanda, before she takes his left hand in hers. The boy does the same with his right hand [this feels right, the Asset does not understand].
“It’s been a while since we last saw you. Can we tell you about what has happened?”
Prijatelj nods. And the twins [his twins] begin to tell him what has happened to them, how they are being trained to help people like he helped them. Prijatelj is unable to share his own tales, these are not something he remembers, but he is able to comment on the twins’ tales and, when they excitedly show him the forms they are learning, he is able to correct them.
“You are doing very well. It makes me … happy. And proud.”
His twins beam at him, as if he has made their day. Pietro buries his head in Prijatelj’s chest and murmurs something that he cannot make out but Wanda clearly does. She looks at her brother with wide eyes that water with emotion. But she nods in agreement and throws her arms around the both of them.
“We love you, otac,” she says.
Prijatelj does not know when he learnt Serbian [it is a skill he is sure he did not have before] but the knowledge of what the word means settles in his chest like warm honey.
“I…I love you too.”
It’s not long after that someone enters the room to escort the twins away and Prijatelj to conditioning. When he next wakes from cryo, the Asset does not know why tears are frozen to his face.
“Otac,” a surprisingly deep voice calls.
The word belongs to the Asset in a way he did not realise. There are a boy and a girl [maybe between fifteen and seventeen, they have grown much, which makes no sense] standing in the doorway with one of the Asset’s handlers. “You have until this evening,” the handler says before leaving.
“Otac,” the girl smiles, taking his left hand. The boy takes his right. “We have been given permission to go into town with you. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“I do not understand. What are the mission parameters?”
“To have fun. Today is just for you, me, and Pietro.”
“Wanda wants you to help her pick out some clothes. Apparently I have not taste, otac,” the boy says. His voice is deep. It sounds like him but not [Otac does not understand how he would know this].
“Your voice is deeper,” Otac says.
Pietro smiles and Wanda squeezes his metal hand tighter. “You missed when it was cracking all over the place.”
Otac feels a wave of sadness that does not quite go away until the three of them are in town and following the mission parameters of ‘fun’. He is not quite sure what that implies but, whenever he sees Wanda or Pietro looking longingly in the direction of a stall or activity, he makes sure to suggest they try it. It seems to work because the day is filled with laughter and smiles, which – to his shock – includes his own.
At one point he ends up buying Wanda a necklace set with a red jewel and Pietro one of those watches with too many faces. There is no reason to buy them. It doesn’t fall nicely within the mission parameters but something tells him that he should do it. When he mentions this, Wanda smiles and tells them he promised them one time it was something he would do for them.
As evening gets closer, the three of them are all too aware that this day together is about to end. Otac asks what has been on his mind since near the beginning.
“Why were we allowed this day?”
Wanda bites her lip and looks away. Pietro fiddles with his watch clasp. “We agreed to something,” his boy explained. “We asked for a day with you in return.”
Otac’s heart clenches fearfully. “Will you be okay?”
Wanda nods determinedly. “We shall.” Pietro nods in agreement.
“It’s just preliminary stuff,” his boy adds. “They don’t have bigger plans for a few more years. We’ll be fine.”
Otac must trust in them [it’s all too easy to believe in his twins].
The walk back, despite being dragged out as long as possible, goes too fast for any of their liking. Otac’s handlers are waiting by the doors for them along with those he assumes are there for his twins.
He brings Wanda and Pietro’s hands to his face. “I love you,” he whispers into them. His voice cracks [how can he love them so much? He’s known them but a day].
The twins cry, hugging Otac with all their might until they are dragged away.
When it is time for Otac to be strapped into the chair for conditioning, he fights and fights until he’s injected with something that clouds his mind. He can hear his handlers saying something about having disagreed with the outing.
The Asset is confused when after his mission he is taken straight to conditioning. He feels he’s meant to go somewhere else first [there is something important] but it is not the Asset’s place to question orders.
As the ice takes him, he feels uncomfortably like something has been stolen from him.
The Asset faithfully follows his handler down the hallway, listening to his latest mission parameters. He is to attempt to calm an Enhanced that they have in their care. The boy is fast and the abilities are taking a toll on his body. However they are more worried about his mental state, which they have been unable to gain an explanation for.
The Asset is unsure of why he has been chosen for this mission but it is not his place to question orders he is given.
He slips into the cell where the boy, Pietro Maximoff [the name fills an empty slot], has been cuffed to the bed for his own protection. Pietro is older than the Asset presumed and his hair is unexpectedly pale [the Asset knows it should be darker] and there are half healed sores along the edges of the cuffs that the Asset does not like. Not one bit.
Pietro turns to his new visitor in a blur and rattles off something to fast to make sense. And then his body jerks in response to the use of his powers and the boy clutches his head, rattling off words far too fast to for the Asset to process. The sight makes the Asset’s heart ache painfully. The boy [his boy, his, his, his] was in so much pain.
The Asset sits on the edge of the bed and [carefully, the boy is frightened, act with caution] wraps his arm around the boy’s shoulder.
“Shhh, Pietro, listen to my voice. Otac is here.” The Asset does not know where the word comes from but it seems to calm the boy somewhat and the words come slow enough the Asset is able to make some sense.
“Ican’tdothis. Ican’t. Ican’t. Ican’t. EverythingistooslowandtoofastandIdon’tknowhowtostopit.”
“Shhh. It’s okay now. Otac has you.” The Asset ran his hand over the watch on Pietro’s arm. It’s a nice watch, expensive. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing the boy would buy for himself, so it was probably a gift. Someone must have been very fond of the boy to get it for him. “Listen to otac’s voice. Can you hear the watch ticking?”
Pietro nods. A small half whine leaves his throat.
“I need you to focus on the second hand.” The Asset pulls on the cuff holding the boy’s left hand, easily snapping it and bringing the wrist with the watch to the boy’s ear. “Can you hear the seconds?”
Pietro nods again, a little more firmly this time.
“Count them. Let them ground you.”
The Asset starts them off and Pietro counts along with him. At first the words come quickly, barely filling the second, but soon he is able to slow down enough to match the Asset. The Asset smiles, dropping off to let Pietro count the seconds on his own. The boy fumbles for a moment but soon manages to keep pace on his own.
“Good boy. I’m so proud of you. You’ve done so well. Rest now.”
Pietro nods and it isn’t long before he falls asleep in the Asset’s arms, beyond exhausted from the ordeal. The Asset remains until his handler opens the door and indicates that it is time to leave. He finds himself oddly reluctant to extricate himself from the boy. However it’s not his place to question orders.
The Asset faithfully follows his handler down the hallway, listening to his latest mission parameters. He is to attempt to calm an Enhanced that they have in their care. He thinks maybe he has done this before. He is led to a room with a dark haired girl. She’s huddled in a corner, broken items scattered in a ring around her. There’s a suspiciously dark stain on the floor, which the Asset presumes is involved with the ‘Incident’ that necessitated his involvement with the Enhanced.
He’s told her name is Wanda Maximoff [he feels he should know that].
“Wanda,” he says, as much to test the name out loud as it is to announce his presence. The name feels familiar in the way it rolls off his tongue.
She looks up with wide eyes. “Nonono. You can’t be here. I’ll hurt you.”
As if to prove her point red energy explodes outwards, carrying with it the broken items. The Asset easily blocks these with his arm and joins the girl on the floor in the corner.
“Everything is going to be okay, Wanda.”
“No. No it’s not. I hurt someone. I can’t control it.”
“You can,” he tells her, reaching over with his left hand to hold hers. “I believe in you.”
“I’m scared.” The red energy starts rising again.
“Shhh. It’s okay. Otac is here.”
Even as the Asset puzzles his use of the word, the girl buries herself in his chest. “I’m so scared. I don’t know how to control it. And they say I can’t see Pietro until I can.”
“It’s worst when you’re upset, yes?”
“Then, whenever you get upset, think of a good day – the best day. Focus on that and that only.”
The girl brings a hand to her necklace [it’s rather pretty, if impractical] and nods. “I can do that.”
The Asset crosses the room and picks up a small wooden block, one of the few undestroyed items in the room. He holds the item on top of his flat hand, the one made of flesh and blood. “I want you to move this.”
The girl shakes her head, eyes flashing to the dark stain. “Nononono. I’ll hurt you. Noooo.”
“Shhh. It’s okay. You can do it. I believe in you. Focus on your good day. You won’t hurt me.”
The girl’s arms shake as she brings them up but, as she breathes in and out, they begin to steady. The Asset grins as her eyes narrow in determination.
“That’s my girl. You can do it.”
Red energy surrounds the block and only the block, and Wanda is able to lift it up in the air and spin it around. For the first time since she got her powers there is no stray energy flying off and causing damage to surrounding things. It’s just her and perfect control.
She laughs, her focus fails, and the block falls to the floor. The Asset offers her his hand. She accepts and is gently pulled out of the corner.
“You are something very special,” he tells her. “You just need to believe.”
Wanda takes the Asset by surprise and hugs him round the waist. “I love you, otac.”
“I love you too,” slips out of the Asset’s mouth. He doesn't know where it comes from but it feels truer than anything the Asset knows and leaves him empty when he is led away.
Once the Asset [‘your name is James Buchanan Barnes’] has pulled Captain America from the water he briefly contemplates going back to his handlers [something important is waiting for him, he knows it, it whispers in his mind] but he can’t do that. Louder than the whispers, the truth demands to be found. He needs to know who he is.
It doesn’t stop the sickness in the stomach when he counts down the moment his handler would leave the meeting point, presuming him dead and the mission failed. He’s lost something and the emptiness is swallowing him whole. So he does the only thing he can do.
It is Strucker who informed the twins that the Winter Soldier is missing, presumed dead, taken out by SHIELD and the Avengers. He only did so after carefully weighing up whether it would be more beneficial to encourage them with the prospect of future meetings with the assassin they had adopted as their father, as he had throughout their childhood, or whether nurturing a festering hatred against the Avengers would pay off more in the long term. The latter won out, especially considering they could only keep the twins from the Winter Soldier for so long before they grew suspicious.
The twins’ initial reactions weren’t very encouraging. Pietro regressed to the twitching, uncontrolled mess he had been before the Asset’s intervention. Wanda was little better. She retained some control, especially when working with the blocks, but any exposure to her abilities for more than a few seconds tended to result in destructive results.
Soon though, they began making progress in leaps and bounds. It’s a shame the other experiments fail. He has the twins though. One day in the near future he'll be ready to turn them in the right direction and point them at the Avengers. And the fallout will be magnificent.
The memories come back slowly. At first it’s only things that happened before HYDRA. He’s consumed with memories of Steve (the two of them in a park, at school, and at war). It’s almost crippling to realise what he has lost and he’s barely scratched the surface. He’s not the Asset anymore but he doesn’t know how to be Bucky either (there’s another name that slips through his fingers whispering to him) so he sticks with James. The name is his and he can use it in a way that doesn’t feel like a betrayal to his memories.
Months after he left Hydra behind, he sees the children. It’s just a boy and a girl, maybe ten at most, playing together in park together, all dark hair and laughter. For a moment he thinks he’s having a heart attack. There’s crippling agony in his chest and his eyes water. (And, oh god, he has lost something important and has to get it back.)
He turns from the children and throws some money to pay for his meal on the table. He leaves without looking back.
He books a flight to a country in Europe he knows held a HYDRA base, one he is pretty certain he remembers the location of. When he arrives it’s easy enough to seek out a shady guy involved with arms dealing. He purchases a small arsenal.
HYDRA took something from him, something important. He doesn’t know what yet but he is going to get it back.
Occasionally he will get a tail closing in. He knows Steve is searching for him but James is just a broken shell with fractured memories. He can’t go back just yet. Especially when he hasn’t found what was taken from him.
He remembers more now. There’s a boy and a girl in his memories who grow too fast. The small hands that were once covered by his get bigger and bigger in his memories, until the boy’s hands are bigger than his (there’s an odd sensation of pride and loss). He needs to find them. HYDRA has them (there’s a young man cuffed to a bed and a young woman huddled in a corner) and he needs to find them.
He wants to see them again. He wants to hold them again. He wants to call them by their names.
(What are their names?)
Eventually he runs out of leads. All the bases he’s aware of are abandoned. There’s no clue to what happened to the twins (his children, they’re his children) or if they’re even alive. He’s lost them. He should have returned when he had the chance. He knew something important was waiting for him and he abandoned them.
He dreams of all the things that could have happened from the moment he left them. Then he starts dreaming of could have happened in the time he knew them.
(He leaves them in that house with the shell, they die. He brings them back with him, HYDRA kills them. They agree to the experiments, they’re poisoned slowly to death.)
He abandoned the ones who needed him most and now he’s paying the price. They are lost to him. He can’t remember their names and they are lost to him.
He thinks of the one other person in his life that holds meaning (‘I’m with you until the end of the line.’) and realises he cannot lose him too. He can’t be with him, not as he is now. But he can’t lose him either. So he packs his bags in the shabby hotel he’s been staying and follows the wind back to Steve.
The next time Captain America’s back is turned and an enemy tries to take advantage, Bucky puts a bullet through that bastard.
Steve knew it was him afterwards but Bucky was long gone by the time he could search. It happens time after time, like a messed up version of cat and mouse. So, by the time Bucky follows him to Sokovia, they’re used to how the game works. Which is why Bucky starts shaking; he’s stuck on the ground and Steve is miles above on floating piece of land without Bucky to watch his back.
He waits, frantic with worry like everyone else down below in an old school building that is being used as an emergency shelter, while a battle rages on above their heads. His heart leaps into his chest when the landmass starts falling and holds his breath when it explodes. Steve needs to be safe (he has to be safe).
The lifeboats start to land and Bucky forgets Steve because his boy (Pietro, Pietro, Pietro. His name is Pietro) his lying on the floor of one cold and pale and –
One of the emergency paramedics places her fingers on his neck and shakes her head. (Nononononono…) Someone else wraps Pietro in a blanket and carries him away so the sight doesn’t upset anyone. Bucky follows at a distance and slips into the room once it’s empty.
Pietro is laid out on the floor and his boy is too still. He was never so still, always full of restless energy. Why does he have to remember so much now when it hurts so badly. Bucky crumples on the floor next to him and, unwrapping the blanket, (he lets out an agonised moan upon seeing the bullet holes in his boy) takes Pietro’s left hand in his own.
He’s held this hand so many times before. He’s wanted to hold it again for so long. But not like this. Never like this.
“Please don’t do this,” he begs. “Not now. I remember you. Please, I remember you. You were so little and small, you and your sister. And you were so scared of that shell. And I picked you up and carried you to safety. You gave me a name. You made me human again. You made human, Pietro. So please, please don’t do this. I love you. You’re my son and I love you.”
Pietro sucks in a small raspy breath. “Otac?” he asks, eyes flickering briefly open before he falls unconscious.
Bucky breathes. It feels like he hasn’t been breathing since he saw Pietro lying there. “Good boy,” he whispers and presses a kiss to Pietro’s temple. Then he lifts him up and carries him into the swarm of activity outside. “Help! He’s still alive. He needs help.”
Someone takes Pietro from him and he has to fight every instinct to pull the boy back. He stays until he sees one of Steve’s friends (the Archer, the father, trustworthy) out of the corner of his eye. Then he fades back into the crowd. His son is in good hands.
His children join the Avengers, Wanda first and then Pietro once he’s recovered. He watches from a distance, full of pride. Occasionally they spend quiet evenings alone with Steve. Bucky likes to think that they talk about him when this happens. The sight makes him feel oddly warm.
Looking out for three people is harder than looking out for one. They seem to lack any sense of self-preservation and never stay in one place (Pietro is the worst for that) and he doesn’t have the benefit of being patched into the communicators they use. He manages though. Never quite and smoothly and invisibly as before but he manages.
At least until he takes out the latest threat to his daughter (excluding the android but he has to deal with that issue in another manner entirely) and suddenly the world blurs and he’s standing between the three most important people in the world to him.
“It’s time to come home, Bucky,” Steve tells him.
And when Bucky nods, his daughter takes his left hand and his son takes his right. The world slips into place around him, centred in on the hands he holds.
Art by the amazingly wonderful elenorasweet