This is what Steve Rogers knows about the Winter Soldier: He is a Russian-trained operative. An operative is an assassin . Steve writes the words in a margin and underlines them. He doesn’t believe in anything but straight-talking.
The Winter Soldier doesn’t seem to believe in anything but straight-shooting. He’s allegedly been active since the fifties. Steve wonders if the Winter Soldier has been a series of different men or whether he is like Steve, somehow frozen and neither young nor old.
He wonders if the Winter Soldier remembers the war, like Steve does. He wonders if he was a soldier, too, or a civilian. The Winter Soldier might remember a siege that lasted longer than Steve’s entire campaign as Captain America. While the snow fell thick in Leningrad, Steve remembers another front, where there were pretty French Resistance fighters, and cheap red wine that blossomed in Bucky’s cheeks, and stained his lips and Steve’s.
The Winter Soldier wears a mask. His arm is metal, or cybernetic, as Tony says.
The Winter Soldier is just a man, decides Steve.
Steve is good with men and he is good with soldiers. He has no time for bullies. He is optimistic that this soldier who is a man who is a Soldier can be apprehended.
Steve Rogers is the fool who believes it is possible to reason with the Winter Soldier.
Capturing the Winter Soldier is child’s play, or so Natasha says. Give him bait, give him a target; give him a brave man and he will eliminate him.
He will destroy him, she says.
Steve is the first with his back against the wall. He is the first to volunteer. His shield is shaped like a target and the Winter Soldier is one hell of a sniper.
He’s no Clint Barton but he’s a crack-shot, or so Natasha says.
Natasha doesn’t scare Steve, not really, or no more than Peggy Carter did. She is a terrifying woman. She is formidable. She is the Winter Soldier’s finest achievement, polished and hard like a diamond. Steve does not understand what it means when she smiles thinly and her eyes flash with something polished and hard like a diamond.
They will go to Moscow, though the Red Room has long since bled into nothing and dust, like flaking rust. They will go to Moscow and Steve will walk through Red Square, his collar up against the wind. He will walk the gentle slope, towards the bright colours of St Basil’s, and it is Saturday, and brides and their grooms pose for photographs, with cheap champagne and dresses like the clouds that scurry overhead. He will feel the red dot against his skin and he will trust that Clint Barton will take down the Winter Soldier before Steve has the chance to die.
There will a gentle in-drawing of breath in Steve’s ear and then Hill’s brisk tones will tell him to stand down.
“No one told me,” says Steve. He is angry. He is angrier than he has ever been and Steve Rogers has ripped apart HYDRA bases, and airplanes, and he has ripped a hole in the Arctic ice. His voice is low and calm and steady. “You knew and you didn’t tell me.”
“It was on a need-to-know basis,” says Fury but he lacks the strength of his conviction and Steve is standing, turning facing a window in a Stark Tower conference room, and his breath clouds up the glass. Manhattan is almost back to rights and Steve’s hands curls into fists. He wonders if he could break the reinforced glass, given enough time.
“You didn’t think I needed to know that Bucky Barnes was still alive and gunning for me?” asks Steve.
“We couldn’t be certain-”
“Stop,” says Steve. He holds up a hand. He looks at them all. Coulson looks pained because this is another black mark against his name and Hill looks weary and Stark looks angry, but Steve thinks Tony’s on his side, and Clint looks sullen and Bruce’s expression is closed and tight because he knows how it goes when SHIELD takes it upon itself to lie. Natasha is nowhere to be seen.
“When can I see him?” asks Steve. It is by the grace of God, or Tony’s restraining hand on his arm, that Steve hasn’t ripped a hole in Medical to get to Bucky. His heart squirms and aches, in the way it hasn’t since he knew he was never going to make it to the Stork Club.
“Charles Xavier has sent someone over,” says Fury, “and then we wait for whatever the doctors say. His arm, Stark?”
Steve’s eyes widen. Even Tony has seen Bucky.
“Disabled. It can still pack a punch.” Tony gestures, forming a fist, punching the air. “I mean, an actual, physical wallop but, yeah. No EMP, which is a fucking stupid weapon, by the way, and no surprise electrical discharges.”
Steve sits down and puts his head in his hands. He doesn’t understand.
Everyone leaves, one by one, apart from Tony.
“It’s okay, Cap. He’s going to be fine.”
“Was he-?” Steve looks up. “Did he ask for me?” It is a fool’s hope.
Tony shakes his head and puts his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Guy’s brains are still pretty scrambled, Cap. He’s all Winter Soldier but if anyone can find Bucky Barnes, it’s you.” He hesitates and Steve thinks he’s trying to be subtle or tactful, which is oddly sweet and entirely unnecessary. Steve likes Tony’s straight-talking, even if it’s usually in a language Steve doesn’t understand. “Dad used to talk about him, too, when he talked about you.”
It is about a year since Steve lost Bucky. Steve may have been encased in the ice like some kind of Snow White, with fewer poisoned apples, and let this cup, let this poisoned chalice pass from me. His heart may have been beating only often enough to shake off the cold and the cobwebs and he may have scarcely drawn breath in all those sixty-something years but he is sure, beyond all reason, that he mourned Bucky with every one of those rare heartbeats.
He doesn’t tell his team this. He doesn’t tell Fury. He doesn’t know why except that none of them do not deserve to know. They are not like Peggy, who talked brisk sense to him in a bombed-out London pub, who kissed him for luck and maybe for love, and whose skin was paper-thin and whose smile was still radiant before she died.
The Second World War was seventy years ago for everyone, except for the one man in this building who fought in it.
(But now, but now, there are two men and Steve’s heart beats, fit to shake off the cold and the cobwebs.)
Against medical orders, Steve visits the Winter Soldier and his cold metal fingers tighten around Steve’s wrist and he breaks it easily.
He sits on a low, three-legged stool. The Winter Soldier is shackled to the bed.
“Shall I tell you about the Red Room, Captain Rogers?”
Steve can only nod. His fingers twist together. There is not a hint, not a gleam, not a hope of recognition in the Winter Soldier’s eyes, though his accent is pure Brooklyn.
“They called me Yasha from the start.” The Winter Soldier leans closer. “My dog tags, see? I wasn’t all there, of course. Physically.” He rattles the cuff that binds his cybernetic arm to the bed. “Or mentally. It amused them, I think. I have always been James.” His lips curve into a smile. “Why, yes, we do have a sense of humour, we Russians.”
“You’re not Russian,” says Steve.
“Yes, they said you’d say that.” The Winter Soldier crosses his legs at the ankles. “I don’t remember being anything else, Captain Rogers. I am sorry.”
“Bucky, I - “
“James,” says the Winter Soldier, his mouth tightening. “I have always been James.” He pauses. “I am sorry about your wrist. I was not myself.”
Steve is suddenly, coldly certain that the Winter Soldier was himself.
“Is it possible to remove specific memories?” asks Steve.
“No,” says Bruce. “Not really. Not physically. It’s possible to condition someone so that certain memories are painful.” He shrugs. Steve knows this isn’t Bruce’s area of expertise but Bruce is expert and he’s kind and he’s the only one, apart from Tony, who calls him Steve, sometimes. “If a memory becomes associated with great physical or mental anguish, it’s in our nature to repress it. To wall it off. It’s like scar tissue around an infection. It stops being a memory. It becomes like an abscess.” Bruce slides his glasses off and pinches the bridge of his nose. “And sometimes we do it to ourselves.”
Steve thinks it makes sense. He uses charcoal again and draws and draws and these are his memories, and this is the agony of his remembrance.
He visits the Winter Soldier every day and every day, he hopes he will be Bucky.
He is not Bucky.
Tony puts his hand on his shoulder and says that Steve should probably prepare himself, that maybe he’ll never be Bucky again.
There is a change, though. He is less the Winter Soldier and more James, who laughs with Clint and who’s allowed to wander certain floors in the tower. His arm is modified and he is not concerned that it is a tracking device.
Steve says that James is allowed on his floor, too. JARVIS asks if he is sure and Steve appreciates the concern.
He does not say that he hopes, some night, that James will come to him and he will be Bucky and they will laugh against each other’s skin.
“Tell me about James,” says Steve.
Natasha uncoils from her position at the end of the couch. “What do you want to know, Cap?” she asks.
“Who is he?”
“The Red Room’s greatest accomplishment,” says Natasha. She is a schoolgirl at lessons, her legs crossed daintily and her hands resting on her knee. “My teacher. Only the best were trained by the Winter Soldier.” Her fingers twitch slightly.
Steve nods. “Do you -?” He hesitates. “Do you remember anything before the Red Room?”
Natasha looks at him sharply and then shakes her head. “No, but I was six. It is easy for children to forget who they are.”
She does not offer him words of comfort but she does not leave the room when Steve sinks down onto the couch.
“It’s like he’s still falling,” he mumbles.
He hears Natasha’s intake of breath but she does not say anything.
“I do not look like this,” says James. He leafs through the sketches on Steve’s coffee table.
“You did,” says Steve.
“Two arms,” says James. “You draw me with two arms.”
Steve doesn’t know how to say that he’s drawing Bucky. Over and over, he has drawn him, until his hand cramps and he runs out of paper and charcoal.
“If I didn’t know better,” says James, not looking up from a sketch from a camp in Gard, “I’d say you’re a little obsessed with your friend, Captain Rogers.” He peers closer. “I recognise this place.” Steve’s heart leaps up. “Aigues-Mortes, isn’t it? With a most novel solution to the disposal of corpses.” James looks at Steve and his expression is open and curious. “A tower and a whole lot of salt.”
Steve bows his head, and nods. “We - I was there during the war, with my team.” They saw some flamingoes. Steve remembers that. He remembers Bucky laughing. He wonders if James laughs. Steve has never heard it.
“The famed Howling Commandos,” says James. “I read all about them.” He turns to look at Steve and his eyes are kind. “Look. Captain Rogers. I know - I accept that this man was me but -” He shrugs.
Steve knows. “You are not him, James. I know.” He smiles. “It’s okay,” he says and maybe he’s gotten better at lying though Bucky would always have seen right through him.
“You are a good man,” says James, and there is something approving in his voice.
“I am not so good as all that,” says Steve.
“Oh, I think you are.”
Steve is not a good man. Not when he thinks he is alone in the building and he walks into the living room and Natasha is straddling James’ hips and they’re mostly clothed but they’re moving together with soft murmurs in a language Steve doesn’t speak and has never understood.
He takes his bike and he drives through the night. He drives to Arlington cemetery where there is a memorial to Captain America and Bucky Barnes. They never tore it down, even when it emerged that Steve is alive. He wonders if they’ll demolish it now that it is a monument to a great fallacy.
“Sometimes, it might have been easier,” says Phil Coulson. “If we had died for our beliefs.”
They put Steve’s bike in the back of a SHIELD van and Clint drives them back to New York.
He supposes he has been expecting Clint’s visit.
“Are you here to warn me away?” he asks.
Clint looks unhappy but determined. “He’s good for Natasha,” he says. “She’s good for him.”
Steve nods. He can’t deny it.
He starts to avoid James because it’s easier. Steve Rogers has never been a coward and so he compensates. With every mission, he pushes himself further. He is the first to any battle-field and the last to leave. He bleeds more than anyone and when they try to help him, he says that he is the one who can afford it most.
When he draws now, it is James, who is broader than Bucky, whose chest and back are criss-crossed with scars that Steve has never touched, whose left arm is metal and around the waist of the Black Widow.
When he draws, it is his team, and it is Tony and it is Bruce and it is Clint and Coulson and it is Thor, whose arrival is the only thing that has, thus far, shocked James until he laughs with delight that Norse gods are real and he smiles at Steve and Steve smiles back through the cold and the cobwebs.
“He loves you, James.”
“He loves a man who is not me, Natashka. I love you. I have chosen you.”
“Maybe you did not have all the information-”
“I have all the information I need.”
They are in Brazil, near Iguazu, and Tony overrides the PA system with Gabriel’s Oboe and Clint gives him a fistbump.
“Okay, kids,” says Tony. “Everyone heard what Cap said. We all know what to do. Take out the offensively ugly robot army, a slap on the wrists for Doom, nobody pull a Reichenbach and we are home and dry.”
The thing is, Steve can’t even say he doesn’t understand the reference.
They come at the robots from different sides (from different countries) and it is an easy mission until Steve stands on ground that is not as firm as he thought. He is swept away by the river and then he is brought to a sudden, painful stop by some jagged rocks. Not far away, James is grappling with one of the bigger robots and if he’s not careful, he’s going to join fall into the water too. The robot has its forearm against James’ throat and James is thrashing like crazy.
The current is strong and dragging at Steve’s legs. Every few moments, he is pulled beneath the surface but all will be well and he holds onto the rocks that rip through his uniform and he distantly thinks that Tony and Coulson won’t be pleased with the mess. He hauls himself up far enough to hurl the shield at the robot’s head.
His shield thunks harmlessly on the ground near James and the robot turns and sees Steve and lets out some sort of electronic screech and hurls itself in Steve’s direction.
It is quicker in the water than it is on-land. Steve’s not expecting that. He shouts at James to go, just to get out of here, and he can’t hear James’ response.
Falling is familiar, though, like a lullaby.
“What did I say?” demands Tony when Steve opens his eyes. “No grappling with arch-enemies while at the top of a waterfall. It’s been done, Cap.”
“What happened?” asks Steve. His head hurts.
“You’re metabolising painkillers so quickly that you’re upsetting the medical staff,” says Tony. He waves a hand. “Also, you broke a bunch of ribs and maybe your head, but the jury’s out on whether you were certifiable before you fell to an inevitably messy end.”
“I’m not dead,” says Steve. It’s a reasonable observation, he feels.
Bruce raises his hand. “The other guy loves waterfalls,” he says, almost apologetically. “And he’s pretty fond of you, too, Cap.”
“Yeah, the Hulk caught you in his tender loving embrace,” says Tony and he offers Steve his fist to bump. Steve does so, only because it’s easier than arguing. “Welcome to the club.”
“There’s a club?”
“Yep. All the members are people who’ve been caught by Hulk.”
Steve’s quiet for a moment. “So. That would be the Avengers, then?”
“What can I say, Cap?” Tony’s grin is oddly infectious. “We’re a team and the team that plummets to their untimely deaths together, stays together.”
They leave and before Bruce goes, he touches Steve’s shoulder. “You’ll be okay, Steve.”
Natasha visits on her own. She tells Steve where she’s put her newest knife. Her long fingers gently touch the edge of the bandage around his head.
She smiles at him and it is only mildly terrifying.
She tells him to get well soon.
Then it is James. He steps in as Natasha leaves and Steve doesn’t miss how their hands brush as they pass.
James sits down next to Steve’s bed and he frowns. He smoothes out the wrinkles in the bedclothes and is careful not to touch Steve. They look at each other for a long time. It hurts to move but Steve inches his hand towards James’ and their fingers touch and then lace together. It still feels like loss but maybe Steve can breathe again.
“What you did, at the Falls,” says Bucky. “You shouldn’t have - you could have died.” He squeezes Steve’s hand. “Steve, I had him on the ropes.”
“I know you did.”