The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Santa Cruz, California
Two months previously
It is said that a good gunman treats his weapons like a master craftsman treats his tools. He cares for them meticulously, makes sure they are always clean, always oiled, stored carefully and exercised regularly. He views his weapon as his companion, as his friend, as his sacred trust.
The Winter Soldier lay on his stomach atop a tall building. There was a raised edge of concrete between him and the long drop below, and his sniper rifle rested on this ledge. The rifle was cradled in his arms, which were wrapped in the most sophisticated braces money could buy. By contrast, the rest of him was shabbily clad in cargo pants and a t-shirt that was stained and worn. The small pebbles of the roof dug into every surface of his body.
He did not care. He did not move. He almost did not breathe. There was only silence, and the sound of the wind blowing.
A better gunman treats his weapon like a man treats his lover. He holds conversations with his gun, treats it tenderly. A good gunman talks to his bullets, tells them where to fly, and they always fly true.
Ninety-eight floors below the man lying in wait, a press conference was being held. A group of reporters milled around like the denizens of an angry ant colony. From the gunman’s height, the neutral colors of the reporters’ suits blurred together, making it impossible to tell where Fox News ended and CNN began. The Avengers, by contrast, were bright and distinctive, even up here. The aggressive flash of Iron Man. The barbarian splendor of Thor. The red-white-and-blue of Captain America.
There could be no difficulty in telling them apart. There could be no difficulty in selecting the appropriate target. Lights flashed and questions were shouted. On the top of the skyscraper there was only silence, and the sound of one man breathing.
The best gunman does not speak to his gun. He listens. His weapons sing to him, telling him what they need, how they should be held, how much force to use on the trigger and how their sights drag ever so slightly from true. He listens to his bullets, lets them tell him their secrets, their impurities, and curves them lovingly into their target.
The man who used to be Bucky Barnes lined up his shot. His finger twitched, only once, very precisely.
Help me, the bullet sang.
Ninety-eight floors below him, the bullet glanced off a vibranium shield with a musical ping.
And Steve Rogers looked up.
New York, New York
The sound of a shrieking alarm cut through Steve Rogers’ pleasant dream, where he was knee-deep in mud, hadn’t slept for three days, and was about to charge valiantly into a well-defended HYDRA base with nothing more than a bowie knife and his shield. Steve groaned, flailed for the button that would kill the banshee wail, and wondered when alarms had gotten so goddamned annoying. Then he wondered what it said about him that dreams of World War II had started getting categorized as pleasant.
Steve sighed and rolled out of the luxurious queen bed onto the thick carpet of one of the three bedrooms his apartment had. Down the hall was a palatial kitchen with granite countertops and chrome appliances. His bathroom looked like it belonged in the Taj Mahal. The showerhead blasted perfectly temperature-controlled water with enough force to stop an attacking HYDRA battle tank in its tracks. Steve stuck his head under it and tried to think about how nice this all was and how lucky he was to have it. It wasn’t any use. He was still nostalgic for the good old days.
Damn, Rogers, a familiar voice laughed from memory. You just don’t know when you’ve got it good, do you?
Steve wiped wet hair out of his eyes and leaned against the shower wall for a moment. Guess not, Bucky, he answered the voice silently. The thud of water drops drumming against the floor of his shower sounded like gunfire.
At least the motions of applying soap and shampoo were familiar. So much had changed, it wouldn’t have surprised him if the future came equipped with robots whose job it was to wash humans. Or if people these days climbed into machines, like dishwashers or car washes, and got buffeted from all sides by water and soap and hot air until something went ding! and you were clean.
Mostly he was content to have it be treated like a joke, the way he was so completely and thoroughly out of step with the world around him. It was laugh or cry anyway. But here in this place Steve was trying to call home, it was hard to shut out the sounds of the past.
Steve wandered out into his kitchen and stared at his custom-made, Tony-Stark-designed, far-too-complicated coffeemaker. He was hoping that this would be the time he was visited by a choir of angels with idiot-proof instructions on how to make the thing produce coffee instead of brewing tea, ejecting the filter, or attempting to lift into orbit. Steve gave it a full minute, staring patiently into the entirely electronic display, but the coffeemaker continued to scroll GOOD MORNING and MAKE 1000 DIFFERENT BEVERAGES instead of something helpful like PRESS THE RED BUTTON FOR COFFEE. Looked like today wasn’t his day, then. Steve decided, yet again, to stop in the Starbucks on the way to SHIELD headquarters. He also decided, again, not to admit to Tony that he didn’t understand the coffeemaker. Stark may have custom-built the thing for him, but he’d also never let Steve live it down.
He was beginning to seriously consider privately asking another Avenger for help, though. The only thing Steve could really say for Starbucks coffee was that it was better than Army coffee.
And that’s saying something, Steve could imagine Bucky joking. Seriously, man, you gotta talk to somebody about this thing. Bucky would poke experimentally at the hulking chrome-and-metal appliance, shaking his head in bemusement. Can’t live in an apartment without a coffeemaker, he’d say. We didn’t have running water most days, but we had coffee, am I right?
If Steve tried, he could conjure Bucky’s image up into the empty space by the coffeemaker. He’d lean there, one arm propped against the counter for balance while the other raked through his hair, giving Steve that familiar grin that was one part humor and one part irony.
“You’re right,” Steve said out loud, experimentally. The still air of the apartment seemed to consider the words for a moment before letting them drop to the floor, unheard. Steve exhaled silently and turned to get dressed.
The truth was, Steve was having a hard time calling anywhere home that wasn’t shared with at least one other person. He kept turning around and expecting to see someone. His parents. The other boys at the orphanage. The other commandos. Bucky.
Bucky most of all. Steve had been turning around and seeing Bucky next to him since he was five years old. He’d stood in one of the wards at the orphanage, staring at nineteen other boys staring at him and clutching a bag containing all his worldly possessions. Bucky had been the one to break out of the crowd and smile at the new boy. Steve could have had to share a bed with Jimmy, who stole the covers and bit whoever was unfortunate enough to try to get them back. Or Sean, who talked Irish in his sleep and no one could understand. Or Billy, who was nice enough but had feet like ice. Steve had been lucky, really, to end up paired off with James call-me-Bucky Barnes. Who neither snored, nor hogged the covers, nor complained when Steve woke them both up with an asthma attack in the middle of the night. Who had, in fact, helped Steve through more than one episode, pounding him futilely on the back and talking to him until the constriction in his chest eased and he knew he’d live to see another dawn.
Seventy-five years later, Steve Rogers couldn’t turn around in his palatial apartment without remembering creaking floorboards and drafty windows and Bucky –
Relax, Steve, just breathe, the familiar voice admonished from memory.
Steve tugged the front door shut behind him and headed for the elevator, shaking his head. I don’t have asthma anymore, Bucky. Just breathing isn’t going to cut it.
The ding of the elevator car arriving was the only answer he got.
SHIELD maintained a land-based headquarters in New York, conveniently located in what remained of the original Stark Industries building after the Chitauri had trashed New York. Coulson promised that funds were coming to fix the worst of the damage, but no one wanted to divert money from reconnaissance, R&D or recruitment, so what actually happened was that they hung up a lot of tarps over structurally unsafe areas and set up facilities in whichever part of the tower had space. It made the interior layout pretty idiosyncratic, but in an impressive if misguided display of shared culture, most SHIELD employees swore blind they liked it better this way. Steve watched the junior agents troop up and down five flights of stairs any time they wanted coffee and thought that at least anyone who tried to invade the building would be at a significant disadvantage.
Tony had paid to shore up the upper floors so that at least nothing would fall over, and also so that he could install a skyway between SHIELD tower and the new Stark Industries building, because heaven forbid Tony have to walk outside unnecessarily. He seemed to get a kick out of the rest of it, though, and always seemed to have a convenient excuse ready whenever someone suggested he chip in a few thousand extra for actual repairs.
Steve himself showed up to SHIELD Tower regularly every day for his Fury-ordered round of therapy, training, lunch, and more therapy. A group of historians had been coming by in the afternoons, too, to talk to him about his experiences growing up in the Depression and fighting in World War II. They were a loose confederation of men and women from at least twelve different universities, and they infought mercilessly for the right to direct the discussion, but when it came to actually talking with Steve they all had an air like they were listening to God himself. It creeped Steve out. Frankly, he preferred therapy. At least none of the SHIELD psychiatrists behaved like what Steve had gone through was some kind of good thing.
His usual schedule had him meeting with Dr. Martin in the morning and Dr. Alvarez in the afternoon. Alvarez was a specialist in war-related trauma and battle fatigue. Martin covered the more prosaic subject matter of Steve’s childhood and the trials of adjusting to daily life in the twenty-first century. Steve had double-checked his messages this morning, though, because today was Wednesday and Wednesday was, on paper, Dr. Stamford’s least busy day. The head of the SHIELD psychiatric corps was usually too swamped with what she herself cheerfully referred to as “bureaucratic bullshit” to get in with Steve more than two or three times a month, but she was far and away Steve’s favorite shrink. Her brisk, no-nonsense attitude appealed to Steve’s outward pragmatism, while her willingness to regard any change, no matter how small, as “progress” fed Steve’s inner optimist. Best of all, she absolutely refused to sugarcoat anything for Steve. Stamford wasn’t always the most comforting woman to be around, but at least Steve always knew where he stood.
When he’d first woken up, it had been Dr. Stamford who had taken on the herculean task of pinning Steve down and not letting him go until he opened his mouth and words came out. Unfortunately, as head of an entire SHIELD division, Stamford was staggeringly busy. It had been a minor miracle that she’d been able to devote as much time to Steve’s case as she had. Steve reminded himself of this frequently: he’d been lucky to get as much of her time as he had, and still did. And he was also lucky that she had extremely a well-trained and competent staff – like Doctors Alvarez and Martin – that would continue to work with Steve when Stamford’s own duties drew her away.
Steve just missed making that kind of progress.
For all that he spent four hours every day in therapy, Steve often felt like he was beating his head against a brick wall. Somewhere in his file it probably said ‘poor communications skills’. Steve didn’t know what it was, exactly, but talking about how he felt had never been one of his strong suits. Maybe it was just because he’d never really had the practice. A childhood in the orphanage and an adulthood in the military didn’t exactly bias a man towards long conversations about his feelings. In between, there’d been Bucky, true. But Bucky had never needed words to know what Steve was thinking.
At first therapy had been an exercise in frustration and futility. Even if he had wanted to talk – and he had, really – there was too much going on in his head for him to even begin to deal with. The world had remade itself overnight and he had no kind of idea how to even approach it. In a way, the big things were the easiest to deal with. The internet, nuclear weapons, the civil rights movement. It was like living in a science fiction world. Steve learned about those changes like a foreigner learning a new language, and it wasn’t easy, but it was something he could lay side-by-side with his old life and say, Okay, this is what’s different.
The little changes, though, the ones that wormed their way into the things he’d always taken for granted but never known, those were the ones that still blindsided him. The way a dime was worthless and a dollar wouldn’t get you on the subway. Bread that came from the supermarket in a plastic bag and tasted like chemicals. Chain stores. Takeout.
The way most people had stopped living with death close by. No infant mortality. No risk of starvation. Childhood diseases a rite of passage instead of a very real fear.
For someone who had woken up to find everyone he’d ever known was dead, it was a lot to take in.
“Why am I alive and they’re dead?” Steve had asked Martin once, early in their association. He wanted to go on, but his throat closed up and he felt like he couldn’t breathe.
“Do you want the therapeutic answer, or the real one?” Martin asked bluntly in return. He’d never coddled Steve like some SHIELD agents did, who seemed to think he was made of glass and would shatter if they treated him too harshly. Steve knew other members of the SHIELD psychiatric corps thought Martin was too abrasive, sometimes, put too much faith in a steel spine and didn’t have enough respect for the occasional need to tread lightly.
Steve had had enough of people treading lightly around him for one lifetime. That was all anyone else around here ever did. “The real one.”
Martin shrugged. “Luck. Fate. Chance. The will of God. You can pick the one that helps you sleep better at night. But that’s all the good it’ll do you. The real answer is ‘we don’t know’.”
Steve really wished that made him feel better, but it never seemed to work that way anymore.
“I’ve lost soldiers before,” Steve had said to Alvarez, a few days later. At Steve’s request, Coulson had gotten him the military files on the rest of the Howling Commandos, on the SSR. They’d all been disbanded after he’d crashed Red Skull’s plane. The Commandos had been assigned to other units, but most of them hadn’t even gotten a chance to ship out before V-E Day and the end of the war. They’d gone home a little older and maybe a little wiser, and they’d lived the rest of their lives believing that Steve was dead and gone. How many of them had lain awake nights after the war and asked themselves some variation of this exact question?
“But?” she prompted, giving him a look that managed to combine encouragement, sympathy without pity, and warmth. Alvarez was good at that; she had a knack for reading any situation and playing herself to best advantage. When Steve was upset and afraid, she was unassuming and meek. When he needed a kick, she was five feet three inches of sheer holy terror. And on days like today, when he just needed someone to listen when he talked and make him feel like he was still real, she was the sister he’d never had.
That feeling of rapport let Steve swallow his first, reflexive answer, that he was okay and it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. Instead, he looked past Alvarez and out of the windows at the top of SHIELD tower, over New York spread bright and glittering beneath them. Almost automatically he tried to identify the places he’d known – the orphanage, the newsstand, 33rd street. But none of them were there anymore, and all he saw was Bucky, slipping through his fingers and falling forever into the whiteout of an Austrian winter. “But this is different. It’s like – they’re the ones who lost me, but I’m the one who’s here telling you about it.”
“It’s backwards in your case,” Alvarez agreed, “but survivor’s guilt is an old thing. Your friends got past it. They lived happy, full lives. You can too.”
Happy, full lives. Well, yes, mostly. Morita had become a great-grandfather and lived to see the new millennium. Dernier had recovered his family’s land from the Nazis and started a winery. The rest of the commandos had similar stories.
But Bucky was still dead at the bottom of a cliff in Austria. And when he opened the files on the SSR and flipped through them, looking for one familiar face, he learned that Peggy had gone right back into the secret service after the SSR disbanded. A new branch of some classified division had just been forming, somewhere in England. And then the records just… stopped. No more information. As if Peggy Carter had been erased from history, in favor of whoever she had gone on to become.
The file said she’d volunteered for the posting. Steve hoped like hell he was wrong about why.
When Red Skull’s plane had been shaking apart beneath his hands, its cargo of destruction minutes away from everything Steve loved and its nose pointed down into the water, he’d opened his compass and put Peggy’s picture where he could see it. She was going to survive, and Steve had hoped she’d do great things. He’d talked to her until the radio shorted out, then he’d kept right on talking, to Peggy and Bucky and Doc Erskine, all the way down, until his plane hit the water. Telling them everything that had ever gone through his head, now that they couldn’t hear him anymore and it no longer mattered. Telling them what he’d hoped for and what he’d gotten, the good he’d tried to do, the mistakes he’d made and the lives he’d lost. Sometimes Steve thought the ability to talk had been eradicated by the rush of water into his lungs, right before the ocean closed over his head for what he’d thought would be the last time.
Dying hadn’t scared him, in the end, not when he’d thought of all the lives he was saving. It was living that was turning out to be the problem.
“Steve, you’re a good man,” Alvarez said earnestly. “Your friends would be glad you’re alive.”
There had only ever been three people who had seen something in Steve worth respecting, before the serum had given him the opportunity he’d always wanted. Steve felt the weight of their hopes and dreams settling on his shoulders every time he put on the red, white and blue; he judged his actions by what they would have thought was right. And he thought to himself that if he was a good man, it was because he had been more fortunate than most in his friends.
“Did you have a girlfriend?” Tony asked, during one of his rare serious moods. Most of the time, Tony was noise and motion, tossing off comments that would have been grounds for a fistfight during Steve’s childhood and seeming to take delight in seeing what made Steve twitch. Sometimes, though, when Tony’s latest flight of fancy had fallen flat, when Pepper had been away long enough for him to really miss her and there had been no Avengers-related mayhem to bring out his manic side, he’d come down to the rec room in SHIELD Tower looking for company.
Steve was often to be found there in the evenings. SHIELD wasn’t strictly military but it was run on military lines, and the army – the Howling Commandos – had been Steve’s life for three years, right until he rode Red Skull’s plane down in the middle of the Arctic. And while everyone had always talked about what they’d do when the war was over and they got to go home, Steve found himself staring vacantly at a wall most evenings and wondering what the hell he was supposed to do with himself when there weren’t any more missions. No orders, no HYDRA bases to invade, no prisoners to rescue or tanks to stop from rolling over civilian towns. No errands to run; no need to do odd jobs for shopkeepers to make ends meet, and no shopkeepers to do odd jobs for because apparently all of that had vanished while Steve slept twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea.
So Steve hung out a lot in the SHIELD rec room. Sometimes he’d find a junior agent looking for a sparring partner, and they’d head down to the gym and work off some energy. Sometimes he’d end up talking with some of the more senior agents, the ones who had come to SHIELD after their own stints with the Marines or the SEALS or black ops, who had some war stories to set against Steve’s and make him feel a little less alone in his experiences. And some nights, Tony would produce the bottle of 50-year-old scotch that Coulson thought no one else knew about, tell JARVIS to turn off his phone and pour them both a drink.
“Yeah, I had a girlfriend,” Steve said after a moment. He shrugged a little, uncomfortable. “At least, well, mostly I did.”
“Mostly?” Tony raised an eyebrow. “It’s not usually the sort of thing you do by halves.”
“She was stationed with the SSR, back in London. I was out behind the lines with the Commandos.” He sighed. “We didn’t see each other much, and when we did, well.”
“You were too busy for formal definitions,” Tony nodded. Usually the comment would be snarky, accompanied by a waggle of eyebrows or an exaggerated wink. Tonight it was just a statement of fact.
Steve shook his head. “It wasn’t like that.”
Now Tony did move his eyebrows, in surprise. “What was it like?”
Steve looked away. “Well. We talked, man. And we were going to go dancing, one day… I mean, when the war was over.” He could still feel Tony’s eyes on him. “The war was everything,” he tried to explain. No one in the modern era understood that. Alvarez said that was normal, that adjusting back to civilian life – even SHIELD’s admittedly skewed version of it – took time. Martin said that someone who had never fought in a war wouldn’t understand, and Steve shouldn’t expect too much.
“Didn’t you like her?” Tony asked, sounding honestly curious.
“Of course I did,” Steve said reflexively. He bit his lip, looking down into his glass and watching as the liquor swirled around. Tony still poured a glass for Steve every time, even though it didn’t do any good. Asgardian mead or the cheapest moonshine ever brewed; it didn’t matter. Steve still couldn’t get drunk.
He looked up; Tony was still watching him expectantly, waiting for more. “She was smart,” Steve said. “And tough, and…” He gestured loosely with his free hand, trying to put what he’d felt into words. “She knew me before the serum, and she… I used to be this scrawny little kid, I mean, ninety pounds dripping wet, short, asthma, the works. And she still saw something in me. Not many people did, you know? And then after the serum, all of a sudden I looked like this – ” he waved down at himself. “And suddenly girls were lining up around the block, right? I mean, one of them actually pulled me into a dark corner and kissed me, just like that!”
“Hmm,” Tony said, trying and failing to hide his smile behind his glass.
“But Peggy wasn’t like that,” Steve finished. “She was just the same.”
“Sounds a little like Pepper,” Tony said wistfully. “I used to be this self-centered, egotistical jackass… yeah, laugh it up, Cap, but it’s true,” he added, grinning, when Steve chuckled. The look on his face turned introspective. “But she stuck with me regardless.”
“And you kind of want to show her, right?” Steve asked rhetorically. “That her faith wasn’t misplaced, that you’re still a good person, no matter what.”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed.
Silence fell for a moment.
“Was she hot?” Tony asked. “Peggy, I mean.”
“I don’t really…”
“It’s not a hard question,” Tony said, smiling. “Was she hot or not?”
Steve hedged. “There was this one time when she walked into a bar, wearing this… this dress… and everyone stopped and stared.”
“Steve.” Tony leaned forward, eyes serious. “Was she hot?”
“I… yeah.” Steve laughed a little, took a drink of his scotch. The burn was still there, at least, running down his throat but vanishing before it hit his stomach. “Yeah, of course.”
“Sounds like you don’t know for sure.”
“What the heck does that even mean?” Steve snapped, stung.
Tony looked at him. “Nothing.” He leaned back, shrugged. “So what happened?”
Steve’s mouth felt dry. “I died.”
“And your friend?” Tony’s voice was unwontedly casual for an evening drinking in the SHIELD rec room.
“My – what?” Steve blinked in honest surprise.
“The one you grew up with. The one you’re always going on about.”
“Bucky.” Steve tried to swallow, failed, and took a larger swig than usual from his glass. Tony watched him, a line appearing between his eyes like he was trying to figure out a particularly knotty engineering problem. Steve didn’t know what to make of that, didn’t know what to make of any of this – hadn’t they just been talking about girls? “He died before me.”
“Did he think Peggy was hot?”
“Jesus, Stark, what does this have to do with anything?”
“Just asking,” Tony said calmly. He unfolded himself from the couch he’d been sprawled across, empty scotch glass dangling from his fingers. “I like hot women, that’s all.”
“Yeah, okay,” Steve muttered, a little ashamed of his reaction.
“I’m gonna call it,” Tony said, setting his glass in the rec room sink for someone else to deal with, because that was just how Tony was. His stride across the room was the picture of confidence bordering on arrogance, the gait of someone who was sure of himself and his place in the world. Steve, watching, thought of Bucky, how he’d always had that same kind of swagger.
He stared down at the amber liquid in his glass, tempted to down it all in one go. He didn’t, because there was no point. Alcohol wouldn’t do anything to dull the grief that settled over him like a physical weight whenever he thought about Bucky. He’d proven that once already, a world away and a lifetime ago.
Steve stood up, put his glass in the sink next to Tony’s, and tried to convince himself that he didn’t care.
The next morning, Steve jogged the last few flights of stairs up to the floor housing the SHIELD psychiatric corps and nearly clocked Dr. Stamford with the door.
“Good morning, Steve,” she greeted him, sounding amused. She was dressed in the standard SHIELD field suit, carrying a ruggedized briefcase, and was clearly waiting for Steve to vacate the doorway so she could take the stairs to the roof. Steve smiled in return and held the door for her.
Looking at Stamford as she went by, Tony’s question from last night still ringing in his ears, Steve thought that she should be a beauty. He couldn’t tell; it had always been hard for him to tell that sort of thing, and it had gotten harder in the modern world, where fashion and makeup had changed so drastically that Steve had a hard time telling a society girl from a street rat. Bucky would have thought Stamford was beautiful. But Bucky had thought everyone was beautiful. That had been one of Bucky’s many gifts, his ability to look past the physical and find something wonderful underneath anyone’s skin. Even that of a skinny waif, pressed up next to him in the too-narrow beds of the Avondale Home for Boys.
“Steve.” He blinked and looked back. Stamford had paused partway into the stairwell, catching the heavy fire door with a well-placed knee. “Are you all right? You look a little pale.”
“Oh, well.” Steve resisted the urge to back away. “Not sleeping that well,” he finally admitted.
“Dreams again?” She gave him a look, and he nodded unwillingly. “Well, talk to Martin about it, that’s what he’s there for,” she admonished. “I’m sorry, Steve, I have to run – there’s a situation in Portland – but I really want to get in with you after I get back. I know it’s been a while.”
“That’s all right, Doc,” Steve said. “I understand.”
Stamford looked as if there were something else she wanted to say, but her watch beeped at her and she sighed. “Talk to Martin,” she said again, and started up the stairs. The door fell closed behind her.
Steve repressed a sigh. He wished Stamford weren’t quite so busy, then felt guilty for the wish. He’d taken up a lot of her time already, after all. Stamford had worked with him nearly full-time after his reawakening. She’d helped get him through that first horrible shock, easing him into modern living with a deft touch and a sense of humor that helped Steve feel grounded. But SHIELD was stretching itself thinner and thinner, with Steve’s revival only the latest in a series of world-changing events – Tony’s kidnapping, Bruce’s accident, Thor’s appearance – and projects requiring SHIELD’s specialized talents were vastly outpacing recruitment. Steve couldn’t really argue in good faith that he had more issues than a man who had been tortured or one for whom emotional control could literally be a matter of life and death.
It was just selfishness that made Steve wish he were talking to Stamford instead of Martin or Alvarez. And that wasn’t the sort of thing Captain America was supposed to stand for, after all. He was supposed to be a better man than that.
“So you’re still having trouble sleeping,” Martin said, leaning comfortably back in his chair. The afternoon sun slanted in through the windows of his office, near the top of SHIELD Tower, and illuminated his face.
When Steve didn’t answer immediately, Martin tapped his fingers against the polished surface of his desk. “You’re not used to living alone. You lived with Bucky before.”
Steve nodded. “Yeah. First in the orphanage, then… after it.” When Bucky had turned fifteen, he’d gotten a job at the local newsstand that paid enough to buy bread and rent a roof that only leaked for six months out of the year. He’d woken Steve up in the middle of the night and told him he was getting out of the orphanage, and taking the blankets with him. The blankets, and Steve. They’d been worse than poor, because Bucky’s job barely paid enough for one to live and Steve, with the best will in the world, had been a scrawny, under-fed fourteen-year-old and couldn’t land a full-time job in the middle of the Depression, not for love or money. But he’d run errands for the shopkeepers and collected cans for the deposit and, when the nights were fair, he’d taken his prized chalks down to the main thoroughfare and done portraits for rich tourists for a penny apiece. They hadn’t starved, and Steve had grown older and the Depression had eased and things had gotten better.
“That’s a long time,” Martin said carefully, watching Steve for a reaction. Steve met his eyes squarely and wondered what he saw in them. Steve’s relationship with Bucky had been the subject of a significant number of his sessions. More, even, than his relationship with Peggy. He always left with the impression that Martin was asking questions that were subtly different from the ones Steve heard. Now he said, “We’ve talked about carrying guilt over his death…”
“That’s not it,” Steve said quickly. Maybe too quickly, judging by the way Martin’s eyebrow went up, but it was the truth. Mostly. “It’s just… the place is too quiet. And too big for me by myself.” He shrugged self-deprecatingly.
“You have trouble accepting that you deserve so much,” Martin said, trying on a paternal smile. He had to be in his sixties, and the grandfatherly act probably worked very well for him most of the time. The topic of family and fathers was still a little raw for Steve, though, and the whole thing fell flat when they started talking about a childhood which had taken place before Martin was even born.
“It’s not uncommon,” Martin was continuing. “You’re not alone in that. Growing up as you did with so little, it can be hard to adjust to suddenly having a lot. Especially if the person you’re used to sharing everything with isn’t with you anymore.”
Steve nodded, not quite trusting his voice.
“Maybe it would be a good idea for you to try moving into SHIELD group housing for a while,” he suggested. “Or you could try staying with one of the other Avengers? Goodness knows Stark’s got the room.”
Aren’t I supposed to be getting better, not playing into my own insecurities? Steve wondered. Still, he considered it for a moment. “No,” he said finally. “I know you’re trying to help, but I don’t think… I don’t want to live with just anyone, you know.” He tried to smile, but knew he wasn’t keeping the sadness out of his voice or eyes. “Going into SHIELD housing would just remind me of the orphanage all over again. And Tony’s nice, but he’s, well…”
“Tony?” Martin guessed, voice understanding.
“Yeah.” Now Steve was able to grin a little. “Besides, I had quite enough of one Stark already, during the war. I’m not gonna jump back in with another.”
“Fair enough. But – ” Whatever Martin had been going to say next was cut off by the shrill ring of his office telephone. Steve winced. The alarm clock, the telephone – what was it about the 21st century that all of their devices had to sound as unpleasant as possible? Martin eyed the device in annoyance. “We’re not supposed to be interrupted, it must be important – sorry, Steve, can you hang on a moment?” He picked up the receiver at Steve’s nod and pressed a button. “Martin. What? Oh.” He listened for a second, then held the phone out to Steve. “It’s for you.”
He took the receiver hesitantly and brought it to his ear. “Rogers.”
“Coulson here,” the familiar voice of SHIELD’s commander of agents said into his ear. “Director Fury is calling a briefing. Twenty minutes in Conference Room Charlie. You’ll be there?”
Steve blinked. “At the New York headquarters?”
“That’s right,” Coulson answered, and now that Steve listened for it, he could hear the sounds of wind and helicopter blades in the background. Modern noise-dampening technology, at least, was something Steve had no problem appreciating. “We’re en route now.”
“Affirmative,” Steve answered. “I’ll be there.”
“Twenty minutes,” Coulson repeated. The click of the telephone was all the signoff he got.
“You’re running out on me?” Martin asked, accepting the receiver back from Steve and replacing it in its cradle.
“Fury’s calling a meeting,” Steve said, giving him an apologetic look. “Sorry.”
“That’s all right, it’s only a little bit early.”He smiled. “Steve – look. I think the trouble you’re having, with sleeping and living alone, is just a minor symptom of a larger issue. I think we need to spend more time talking about your friend Bucky. Maybe we can figure out why you’re having so much trouble letting go.”
Martin’s voice was kind, but Steve couldn’t shake the feeling that he was a little disappointed, like he thought Steve was holding out on him. Steve nodded uncomfortably. It was technically true that Steve hadn’t told Martin every little thing about how he and Bucky used to be. But he was afraid that if he tried, Martin would give Steve a pep talk about overcoming his losses. And since Martin’s pep talks always ended up somehow making Steve feel worse, he just nodded uncomfortably, hoping the subject would drop.
“Steve,” Martin said patiently. “You have to tell me about it sometime.”
“Sure, Doc,” Steve said, standing and summoning up a smile. “Sometime.”
In a well-designed building, Steve liked to think, the offices and the conference rooms would be relatively close together. Maybe on the same floor, or the same couple of floors. And probably you could take an elevator between them if you didn’t feel like taking the stairs.
This being SHIELD Tower, though, the situation wasn’t so convenient. The psychiatric corps had taken over a still-intact attic at the top of the building and subdivided it into offices, so that’s where Steve had therapy. Meanwhile, conference rooms were what happened when someone shifted some boxes around in one of the basement storage rooms and lugged over a table and chairs. There were a few elevators in operation, but most of the shafts were either blocked by rubble or cordoned off as unsafe. Current policy frowned on using the elevator unless you were wheeling equipment around. Even then, if you were a serum-enhanced supersoldier who could carry twice his body weight without too much issue, you were pretty much expected to take the stairs regardless. So it took Steve almost the full twenty minutes to slide down fifty flights and then jog through the maze of corridors to get to his destination.
The conference table was only half put together when he got there; Steve gave the junior agent setting it up a hand, while her partner ran down the hall and came back with some chairs. There was already a place cleared away for Fury to alternately loom or pace, which he vastly preferred to sitting. The two agents put one chair at the head of the table in a way that was clearly meant for the briefing officer and pulled three other seats up before asking Steve if there was anything else he needed. He waved them away and tried to figure out who else was coming. Thor, he knew, was back in Asgard, so it wasn’t a surprise that there was no specially reinforced, Norse-god-sized chair awaiting his presence. But that was as far as his knowledge of his teammates’ location went. He shook his head a little as Natasha came through the door. During the war he would always have known where his commandos were and what they were doing. Clearly, Steve was going to have to step it up if he expected to lead the Avengers effectively.
“Morning, ‘Tasha,” he greeted. “Where’s Barton?”
“Working a smuggling ring out of Brazil,” Natasha answered. Her look was eloquent of annoyance, but the fond smile tugging at one corner of her mouth rather ruined the effect. It made Steve grin, a little, and that was always a welcome feeling.
“Well, the most important member of the team is here,” Tony announced, breezing through on Natasha’s heels. One hand was cradling a cup of coffee and the other was clutching some device Tony seemed to be interacting with via his mind. Steve looked at it sideways, trying to see if he could match the tiny thing’s profile against some of the electronics he had learned about, but drew a blank. Might be homemade, anyway, there was no telling with Stark. But along with Steve and Natasha, Tony made three, so they settled into the chairs provided. No Bruce Banner, then.
“Banner’s doing a turn with Doctors Without Borders,” Natasha said, quirking an eyebrow at Steve’s look of surprise. Of course she would know that Steve was taking a headcount. He had to remember that she had years of military experience, too, despite looking like one of the girls the commandos had posters of back during the war. Steve had never been interested in collecting snaps or magazine clippings of movie stars and chorus girls, but Dum Dum had practically had a catalog’s worth, and somehow the image of full lips, round hips and a chest you could stack books on had stuck in Steve’s mind.
“So it’s just the Three Musketeers,” Tony finished, throwing out his hands extravagantly and grinning at Steve like he’d deliberately picked a pop culture reference Steve would get. Which was probably the truth, but Steve grinned back anyway. Tony could be a little patronizing at times, but his heart was essentially in the right place. He’s a lot like Howard that way, isn’t he, Bucky?
“Or the Three Stooges,” Natasha deadpanned.
“Hah hah.” Tony rolled his eyes and propped his feet up on the conference table, right on top of one of its foldable seams, ignoring the way it sagged. “Heya, Steve. Life treating you okay? How’s the therapy going?”
Steve fidgeted. “Fine.”
Natasha’s gaze sharpened a little. “Just ‘fine’?”
Steve shrugged a little, trying for nonchalant. “Well. You know.”
“Yeah, that whole ‘talking about your feelings’ thing. Gets me too.” Tony waved a hand lazily.
“You never show up to therapy,” Natasha said pointedly.
“And now you know why.” Tony grinned at her.
“It’s fine,” Steve repeated, torn between wanting to head off a potential inter-team argument and wanting to get off this topic as quickly as possible.
“Don’t worry about it,” Tony said, suddenly sounding serious in that mercurial way he had. “It’s a process, you know?”
Steve was saved from the necessity of answering this by Fury’s entrance. Fortunately he caught himself in time to not stand or salute; Fury had not been amused the first few times Steve had done that out of sheer reflex. Hill had laughed and Coulson had just sighed. Suppressing the old habits was another thing that was ‘a process’. To this day Steve still made his bed with tight corners every morning, though the inspection never came, because Director Fury frankly had better things to do with his time than make sure the Avengers made their beds.
Fury took up his customary position at the head of the table, looming ominously over the proceedings. Two steps behind him was Coulson, carrying a thick manila folder in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. He sat down in the briefing officer’s chair and nodded to everyone.
“Good morning, agents.”
“Morning,” Steve answered, always polite. Natasha nodded. Tony studied his fingernails with great attention. “What brings us here today?”
“The Winter Soldier,” Coulson said briskly, slapping the folder down on the table. Steve looked expectant and Tony yawned. Natasha, however, sat bolt upright.
“What about him?” she demanded. Steve tried not to stare in surprise, but hearing that tone out of Natasha was definitely worthy of concern. She sounded almost afraid, and there wasn’t much that scared Black Widow.
“Who or what is a Winter Soldier?” he asked.
“A Soviet assassin,” Coulson answered. “One of the first to come out of the Red Room, a Soviet-era black ops group that dabbled in a little bit of everything. Mind control. Artificial intelligence.Cybernetics.”
“One of the defining features of the Winter Soldier is that he had his left arm replaced with a metal one,” Fury said. “US intelligence believed that it contained a backup weapon, or possibly that it was a weapon. Handy thing, for an assassin.”
“At least in those days,” Coulson amended. “Make it hard to get on an airplane today.”
“Tell me about it,” Tony muttered. “Thank goodness for private jets.”
“There are a lot of rumors about his kill list, all very sketchy, and most of them probably exaggerations or outright lies,” Coulson continued. “But the ones we have confirmation on are bad enough. The US Ambassador in ’56 – the Winter Soldier got to him through a state-of-the-art security system and a hundred-meter dead zone. A scientific asset being guarded by two platoons of marines in ’58. A high-ranking defector in the heart of an army base in West Germany in ’65. The list goes on.”
“So, what?” Steve asked. “Those were all a long time ago. Why are we interested in him now? Is he retiring? Looking to defect?”
“No and no,” Fury said, sounding amused. “He’s still at large.”
“How much of a threat can he be?” Tony said scathingly. “If he was one of the first products of the Red Room, he’s got to be pushing seventy.”
“No,” Natasha said tightly. “He was too valuable and too dangerous to leave out when he wasn’t killing enemies of the state. They kept him in cryosleep between missions. No aging. He’s no older than Steve.” Her gaze slid sideways. “Or maybe Tony.”
Tony bristled at the jab to his age, but Steve blinked. “You mean he’s like me?” He didn’t want to sound too hopeful, and a Soviet assassin would definitely not have been his first choice for a contemporary, but… “He’s my age, he’s from my time? He’s missed most of what’s been happening in the world?” He won’t get pop culture references either? He’ll remember struggling to survive during the Depression? He won’t act like the war was a million years ago?
“Bingo,” Fury said, nodding approvingly at Steve.
“Well, except for being a walking communist death machine, sure,” Tony muttered. Steve shot him a Look, but what was there to say? Tony was right, it was just… even so, it made Steve feel a little bit less alone.
“He was a walking communist death machine,” Coulson said calmly. “Not anymore.”
Pause, and Tony and Steve shared a look. Steve tried to catch Natasha’s eye, but she was staring into space, looking like she was barely paying attention to what was going around her. Steve cleared his throat. “So what’s changed?”
Fury considered him coolly. “No more Soviet Union,” he answered mildly.
“No more Soviet technology,” Tony amended. “Right? The government changed a while ago, but underneath the hood it’s all been the same old gang. But they’ve been putting less and less money into their tech, and the old Soviet-era machines are finally beginning to wear out. It’s been good business for Stark Industries lately.”
“But the more clandestine technology isn’t getting replaced,” Coulson said. “No more cryosleep. No more cybernetic arms.”
“And no more orders,” Natasha said, coming back to reality, a note of finality in her voice.
“If the Winter Soldier had been asleep when the breakup happened, he might still be there to this day,” Coulson continued. “But as the Soviet Union spiraled into destruction, they were making more use of their tool, not less. Hoping to assassinate their way back into stability.”
“Spoiler warning: it didn’t work,” Tony muttered.
“Mmm.” Coulson gave Tony a thin-lipped grin. “As far as we can reconstruct, the Winter Soldier was putting a bullet into a mobster’s brain right around the time the spiritual successor of the Red Room finally got, ah, decommissioned with extreme prejudice. We’re not sure if he deliberately stayed away or if his pickup just left him out in the cold.”
“A highly-trained assassin isn’t the sort of asset you just leave lying around,” Tony objected.
“There are some indicators that the Russian government attempted to recover or eliminate him,” Coulson conceded.
Natasha snorted eloquently. Coulson quirked an eyebrow at her. To Tony he said, “Pretty much, yeah.”
“Either way, he’s been a free radical for the last year,” Fury picked up. “There’s always room in the criminal underworld for a man of his skills, and for a while he prospered.”
“But?” Tony asked. He saw the looks of surprise thrown his way and shook his head in disbelief. “Come on, guys, you don’t drag us all out here to tell us it’s business as usual. What’s the ‘but’?”
“It’s actually three ‘buts’,” Coulson answered. “First is that the competition for the Winter Soldier’s services is heating up, and not in a nice way. It seems that documents possessed by the Red Room have leaked into the criminal underworld, including some information on how they controlled the Winter Soldier.”
“And several of the more ambitious organizations are starting to dream about having their very own pet assassin,” Fury said grimly.
“Reports indicate that the Winter Soldier has spent as much time dodging potential suitors in the last three months as he has taking paying contracts,” Coulson continued. “Our projections say it’s just a matter of time before someone picks him up.”
“Damn,” Tony summarized. “And that’s not bad enough?”
“Oh, no, it gets worse,” Coulson said with inexplicable calm. He tapped the folder in front of him significantly. “That’s the second ‘but’. The Winter Soldier’s behavior is becoming erratic. He’s botched four contracts in the last six months. Two of them it looks like he simply walked away from. The third, he actually shot the man who hired him instead. A particularly nasty ex-KGB operative.”
“The man had hired the Winter Soldier to murder a group of women who had escaped from sexual slavery in one of his brothels,” Fury added.
“I admire his taste,” Steve murmured.
“Yeah, but it’s still not good for a hitman’s long-term prospects to kill his employer,” Tony countered. “So not only do we have a former Soviet assassin being pursued by a bunch of unsavory criminals interested in controlling him, but said assassin is starting to behave unpredictably. That’s just great.”
“What’s the third ‘but’?” Natasha asked, sounding as if she dreaded the response.
“That’s the best part,” Fury answered with a humorless grin. He turned to look at Steve, who instinctively straightened his spine. “The fourth contract the Winter Soldier broke was against you, Cap.”
“Me?” Sudden adrenaline shot through Steve’s veins. Hearing that an assassin was gunning for him was not calculated to help him with his sleeping problem. He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder and make sure someone had his back.
“Steve?” Tony started to cock a thumb at him, then paused mid-motion with one eyebrow raised. “The man who shot at him in Santa Cruz,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“Can’t have been,” Natasha answered at once. “The man in Santa Cruz actually took the shot.”
“And missed,” Tony pointed out.
“The Winter Soldier doesn’t miss,” she insisted, something dark and ugly shadowing her eyes and tone. “It’s impossible.”
“Nevertheless, it appears to have happened,” Coulson said. He flipped open the manila folder and slid eight-by-ten glossies across the table at each of the Avengers present. “We have confirmation that the man who shot at Steve was, in fact, the Winter Soldier.”
Steve tugged the picture closer and stared at it. It was a wide-angle shot, zoomed to the far end of usability, showing the top of one of the skyscrapers in Santa Cruz. Steve vaguely remembered this particular building being across the street from the bandstand where he and the other Avengers had stood around and answered questions during a press conference. Just one of the many stops on the goodwill tour Coulson had routed them all on after their success in stopping Loki had left a lot of New York in ruins. There had been nothing special about it – until a bullet had pinged off of his shield. They had searched the area, of course, and so had SHIELD’s agents, but they hadn’t found any trace of the shooter. It hadn’t been the first time a disgruntled member of the public had tried to get physical with an Avenger, and SHIELD had been forced to ration the resources it devoted to such incidents. The ones where someone (usually a bystander) actually got hurt tended to jump to the top of the list. Steve had honestly forgotten about Santa Cruz.
Bucky would have a field day if he’d known that. Only you could forget about someone trying to take your head off, Rogers, he’d say. His voice would be bright-edged with laughter, overlaying a darker current of worry and protectiveness.
“Where did these images come from?” Tony was asking. Steve blinked and made himself focus.
“Anti-theft cameras on the roof of an adjacent building,” Coulson answered. “It took a while to get the footage and enhance it to something useful.”
“Winter Soldier probably didn’t even know the cameras were there,” Fury said, shaking his head. “World’s changed. It’s a whole new way of doing business.”
Just visible over the ledge of the building, Steve could see the familiar shape of a long-distance sniper rifle. The angle meant that there was no visible tripod, but the incline of the gun and the way the shooter wasn’t using his own body to brace it meant there had to be one tucked in the shadow of the ledge. The shooter himself was only partly visible. A domino-style mask covered his face, and Steve wanted to point out that anyone could wear a mask, anyone could be under one. But the sun had been shining when this picture had been taken, and it was glinting unmistakably off the shooter’s left arm, which appeared to be made entirely of metal. Steve shivered again and pushed the picture away from him.
“It’s definitely him,” Natasha said, astonishment and fear warring in her voice. “But I don’t understand. He shouldn’t be capable of missing.”
“It could have been an accident,” Tony suggested. “I mean, he’s still human, right? Humans make mistakes.”
“No.” Natasha slammed both palms down on the metal table, and the abrupt gracelessness of the gesture drew every eye to her suddenly. Her face was drawn and pale. “A mistake – unlikely, but possible. But then what?” She looked around the table and shook her head. “He just leaves? Writes off the job because he missed the first shot? Why didn’t he take a second one? Why didn’t he follow us back here and try again? I tell you, it’s impossible. The training does not work like that. If he chose not to follow it up, if he let Steve live, it was on purpose. It was part of his plan somehow.” Her shoulders shook minutely, and her breath came faster.
“I asked you here because I hoped you might have some familiarity with the Winter Soldier,” Fury said cautiously. “Whatever it is you know, I need to know it too.”
Natasha took several deep breaths, then sat back down and folded her hands demurely in front of her. “The Winter Soldier was the Red Room’s crowning triumph. Completely loyal, and completely malleable to their will. They wiped his memory between every mission so that he would never be able to develop any autonomy or compromise any projects. When he wasn’t on a mission, they stored him in cryosleep. He was their all-purpose tool.” She had been staring fixedly at her copy of the picture, still lying askew where Phil had pushed it towards her. Now she touched it with one slim finger, drawing it towards her. “He was involved in my training. He was… extreme. They had made him so. I do not know what they did to him, but if it was anything like what they did to me, he would be dedicated. Beyond devotion. He would not miss, would not falter or fail. It would be impossible.” Natasha shook her head, refusing to meet anyone’s eyes. “None of this makes any sense. Without this photo, I would say there’s no way the Winter Soldier could be involved.”
“Uh-huh,” Tony said impatiently. “Fascinating. Great stuff. Can we focus on the big picture here?” He pointed at Steve. “Someone shot at Steve. What are we going to do about it?”
“Well, regardless of his motivations, we can’t have an ex-Soviet assassin becoming the personal property of an underworld gang,” Coulson answered wryly.
“And if he’s taking potshots at my Avengers, sooner or later he won’t miss,” Fury said grimly. “No, we need to neutralize this threat.”
“What exactly are you ordering us to do?” Steve asked warily.
“Bring him in, if possible,” Coulson said. “His knowledge about the Red Room’s methods and Soviet-era secrets in general would be invaluable, assuming we can persuade him to cooperate.”
“But if it’s not possible, your orders are to eliminate him,” Fury finished, holding Steve’s, Tony’s and Natasha’s eyes in turn. “He’s a menace. A nightmare, left over from America’s last great war. He’s killed before and he will kill again. We need to stop him, one way or another.”
“Fine with me,” Tony said. He picked the photo off the table. “Send the rest of the dossier to JARVIS, won’t you, Phil?”
“Sure thing,” Coulson said.
“Cap?” Fury asked. “You good to go on this?”
“Yes, sir,” Steve answered. It was nice of Fury to ask, but the prospect of having to kill an ex-Soviet assassin wouldn’t be what kept him up at night, even if the man was probably the closest thing Steve would ever have to a true contemporary in this crazy modern world. They’d try to bring him in if they could. Steve would be lying if he said he didn’t hope very much that would be the case. Fear and distrust of ‘commies’ was a part of the modern world that had completely passed Steve by, so there was no reason to believe Steve couldn’t make a friend. But if that wasn’t to be, well, Steve had been through a war. If it came down to the Winter Soldier’s life versus the lives of innocents, Steve wouldn’t hesitate.
“Romanoff?” Fury’s voice remained even, no hint of worry or concern peeking through.
“Yes.” Natasha nodded, though her eyes never left the photo of the man lying on the roof in Santa Cruz.
“All right then,” Fury said briskly. “Coulson will give you the material we have on the man. Study it. I need you three ready to go the next time we get word the Winter Soldier’s surfaced. Until then, stay loose.”
Tony nodded, already out the door, probably eager to get back to his latest pet project. Natasha followed more slowly, almost visibly lost in thought. Steve considered going after her and trying to talk, but decided that she looked like she’d rather be alone. Instead he turned back to Fury. “Sir,” Steve said. “Do we have any idea what he – ” waving the photo of the Winter Soldier gently – “looks like under the mask?”
“No,” Coulson answered for Fury. “It was one of the Red Room’s most closely kept secrets. During the Cold War the Winter Soldier would often work as an infiltrator.”
“Since the War ended, the man’s never taken the mask off, far as we know,” Fury finished. “Guess he made it his trademark or something.”
“Hmm,” Steve muttered, eyes going back to the picture. There was something about the man in the picture that was niggling in the back of his mind. Something about the way he sprawled on the roof of that skyscraper, the set of his shoulders… but Steve only had a little to work with, in the picture. Part of a torso, a face wearing a mask, one-and-a-half arms. It wasn’t enough.
Who are you? Have I seen you before? On one of the many battlefields of the war? He’d worked with some Russian units. Even had a few specialists assigned to the commandos, for certain missions. It wouldn’t be out of the question for Steve to have met this man, a lifetime ago, before the mask and the arm and the rift between their countries.
“Maybe you’ll find out for us, Cap,” Fury suggested.
“Yeah,” Steve said absently, still trying to pin the feeling down. “Maybe.”
Steve went to his afternoon counseling session still thinking about the Winter Soldier. He tried to talk out some of it with Alvarez, but absent anything concrete about the other man, Steve was just spinning his wheels. She realized it after the first fifteen minutes and spent the rest of the time determinedly keeping the conversation off the topic.
He ran into Martin on the way out for the day, which was unusual; the other man must have been hovering. He pinned Steve down and asked very earnestly if Steve needed to talk, if there was anything Martin could help with, since hearing that he might have a contemporary in the Winter Soldier must have been such a shock for him. Steve genuinely appreciated the thought and effort Martin had put in on his behalf, but there really wasn’t anything to say, and encountering Martin’s disappointed look twice in one day didn’t actually help.
At home that night, he tried to read the dossier on the Winter Soldier and discovered it was barely worthy of the name. It was short on facts and long on speculation and mysticism. If every kill attributed to the assassin were actually his, there wouldn’t be much time for cryosleep. Steve remembered Natasha’s assertion that the man wasn’t much older than Steve and guessed that he had actually been used sparingly, but that his personal legend has been as big a weapon for the Soviets as the assassin himself.
In a way, Steve thought, the Winter Soldier had a lot in common with Captain America. They both had legends vastly outweighed their personal presence; they had both disappeared behind the mask in their people’s collective consciousness. But Steve liked to think he stood for some of the better aspects of America. Truth, justice, all that stuff. The Winter Soldier represented the dark underbelly of the communist regime: fear, control, violence. Steve shook his head in mute sympathy. If the Winter Soldier had started as a patriot, he had been betrayed. If he had gone along with the Red Room’s plans willingly, he was a monster. It was hard to figure out which would be worse, in the grand scheme of things.
After dinner, with nothing better to do, Steve spent a while attempting to figure out which kills actually belonged to the man and which were the acts of lesser-known assassins following in his footsteps. It was familiar work, almost comforting if Steve didn’t think too hard about why that was. Target, profile, plan, mission, debriefing. Routine. Steve caught himself planning out scenarios to capture the Winter Soldier that involved the Commandos and shook his head sharply, trying to make himself focus.
Anyway, it was a wash. There were a few obvious big-name kills, and a few lesser targets during drought periods that Steve figured had been chosen more to keep the legend of the Winter Soldier alive than anything else. Beyond that, though, the whole thing was too much of a jumble to keep straight. Steve stayed up until midnight trying to get the timeline to gel, but finally gave it up in disgust and went to bed.
He dreamed of Bucky falling down the mountain again. When he woke in the middle of the night, shaking and in a cold sweat, it occurred to him to wonder what dreams the Winter Soldier might have.