"Son." Nick Fury stares at Steve with an intensity that can only lend credence to the popular theory that behind his eye-patch lies another eye-patch to block the death laser embedded in his skull. The other patrons in the diner keep giving him the side-eye. "You want to tell me how I turned on the TV to see Captain America heading a gay pride parade?"
"I don't recall being on your payroll," Steve says, crossing his arms. He's not, either, he looked into it to make sure when Fury and his goons kept sniffing around, but Steve is still on his army pension, and with the interest accrued over his years in the ice, well, he's doing fine. That doesn't mean he's happy doing nothing and taking the money for it, but he's not real happy with what the world has done in the absence of Hitler, either. "Last I checked, I didn't have to answer to you."
"Of course you don't." Fury turns down the level on his glare just a notch or two. "I'm just checking up on you. I have a special interest in making sure America's greatest hero is settling in all right. I think some people down at psych might consider fronting at pride to be a cry for help."
"With all due respect, sir, I'm doing just fine." Still, Steve supposes Fury has to tell something to the people whose job it is to run around with mirrored sunglasses and those funny headsets and clean up public relations messes, and Fury always looks like he could use a drink or he's already started. "And for the record, I didn't know what it was. I was going for a run and I had my headphones in. I tend to -- well, focus -- when I run, and when I looked up there were people everywhere. I just figured it was one more thing I wouldn't understand, so I went with it."
'Focus' is a nice word for it. Steve does his best to disappear into his runs; one nice thing about modern technology is those portable music players, and while back in the day Steve preferred to run in silence, now with his own thoughts it's just as crowded as being in a ballroom full of chatty socialites at one of Senator Brandt's parties. It's better to put the headphones in and turn up the volume and pretend he's being chased by a full-piece band playing Glen Miller in double-time. It's not very road-safe -- Steve read the manual and saw the warnings about volume and busy streets -- but if it drowns out the voices in his head and the whistling of the winter wind as the Hydra train zips down the line, he'll take the risk.
The leaves are turning now. Steve has no idea how he's going to handle that.
"Well, I've got people beating down my door asking for a statement," Fury says, breaking in on Steve's thoughts, and he shakes himself. Focus, soldier. "I don't suppose you'd care to provide me with a soundbite?"
Steve's shoulders tense. After he figured it all out, he went home and checked his computer -- in his apartment, he has a computer, in his apartment, and it's the size of an envelope, sometimes he thinks he'll never get used to this -- and found out it was because New York state passed legislation to allow men and women to marry each other in addition to the traditional definition. They turned Niagara Falls rainbow -- he and Bucky always talked about hitchhiking up to see the falls sometime, but life, it goes on, or it ends, and sometimes it's one path for one of them and one for the other -- and the whole city of New York partied while Steve buried himself in scans of old newspapers searching for anything related to a James Buchanan Barnes.
"I think it's swell," Steve says, and Fury's face doesn't change but he bets the big man is surprised. Yeah, that's right, Captain America -- who vows to fight like a man for what's right night and dayyyyyy -- thinks it's swell, chew on that, head of the Strategic Homeland Intelligence and whatever else Division. "I think it's about time folks get to spend their lives with people they love, raise families, get the benefits they work for. Nothing more American like that. Same-sex marriage is like apple pie and the old red, white and blue." He taps his forearm. "That a good enough quote for you?"
"It'll serve," Fury says, and Steve fights off an itch beneath his skin.
Fury takes his leave, and Steve sits in the diner and stares through the grimy window at the street outside. The waitresses here haven't cottoned on to who they're serving their terrible coffee -- and Steve likes it terrible, only thing that would make it better is served cold in a metal cup, and he thinks of passing the cup hand-to-hand while ankle-deep in freezing mud -- and Steve can sit and think and pretend. The lights of Times Square aren't visible from here, and it's all dark corners and honking cars and 'HEY, ASSHOLE', and he keeps looking up to grin across the booth except there's no one there.
It's 2011, men are allowed to marry, and Bucky is dead.
Steve spends a lot of time wandering. The streets, the subways. He thinks of all his friends, dead and gone, but it's Bucky he finds around every corner. New York is the same and not the same all at once, and he finds Bucky in the differences just as much in the surprising hits of nostalgia, like when the old restaurant they used to go to is still standing. He catches himself in the middle of mental reminders to tell Bucky this, or show him that, just like he did when he was little and his mother passed away.
One day finds him in front of a women's clothing store for thirty minutes, staring at the mannequins. He would have married Peggy, he thinks, maybe, it seemed like the thing to do -- and he has no idea if she wore that red dress because she liked the colour, or the style, or just because it was the farthest thing from her green and brown uniforms. Steve turns away after the third time the store manager wanders by the window, each time looking increasingly concerned, and nearly stumbles into a rack of leather jackets. Bucky would have liked those, Steve thinks automatically.
Exactly two months after the incident with Loki, when Steve finally worked up the nerve to call a meeting with Fury and ask him to change the status on Bucky's file from MISSING IN ACTION to DECEASED -- "Sir, even if he wasn't killed by the fall, it's been over seventy years. I've done the math. I need closure" -- one month after Steve gets back from his motorcycle journey across the country, stopping by the old base camp, the war memorial, the cemetery where all his friends are buried -- SHIELD agents burst into his tiny Brooklyn apartment, muscle him downstairs and shove him in the back of a car.
They're lucky Steve is awake enough to notice the logo on their uniforms, otherwise there would be an apartment full of unconscious agents with bruises and a lot to answer for. "You fellas gonna tell me what's going on?" Steve asks, but they don't say anything. These aren't the ordinary SHIELD gofers, either; they're dressed in black, masks and weapons and the whole bunch. Specialists. Specialists expecting trouble, no less.
They don't answer him, but Steve didn't really expect that. He's not an official SHIELD employee -- he draws a salary, or at least his bank statement tells him he does, but Fury's requests for him to join the action are backed less by actual command structure and more the 'the Earth will be doomed if you sit this out' -- and who knows what level of clearance this requires.
Steve isn't exactly bothered about being shipped out to places without needing to know why -- or, well, it gets under his skin, but he knows it's an inevitable part of military operations, whether it's actually necessary or not. The brass like to make themselves feel good by keeping their operatives in the dark, but after that whole Phase II debacle Steve tells himself Fury won't keep any big secrets like that from him again, not if he wants Captain America's help in the next crisis. Which, Steve supposes, is now.
The jet they usher him onto is sleek and black and completely devoid of windows, and so Steve sits in silence with the rest of the team, all of whom look as tense as men with their faces covered by helmets can. "I don't have my suit," Steve speaks up at one point, though he bets Fury has a few spares just in case something happens to the main one. Nobody answers.
In the end they don't take him to the helicarrier at all, or to any command rooms or briefing areas or anything that looks like Steve will be part of any sort of real action. It's a big, grey, nondescript building that could be anything, on a street that could be anywhere, and Steve only sees it for a second before the doors finish closing and they get him into an elevator that starts dropping at stomach-curling speed.
This is the point where Steve realizes this could all be an elaborate trap, that it could be someone other than SHIELD entirely and that maybe he's been too trusting. Fortunately for everyone in the elevator with him, that idea barely has enough time to work its way through Steve's brain, not enough for him to tense his muscles and prepare to fight, before the elevator stops and Nick Fury stands in front of the doors as they slide open.
"You going to tell me what's going on, sir?" Steve asks with what he thinks is remarkable politeness. Just try hauling any of the other Avengers around like this without a word and see how well that worked out for everyone involved.
"We will," Fury says, which is about all Steve could ever hope to get from him, and he's resigned and irritated rather than surprised. "Right now we have a situation, and in order to contain it we need you safe."
"What?" Well, that's a new one. "Shouldn't I be up there helping?"
"In an ordinary situation, yes," Fury says, beckoning Steve to follow him. They end up in a room that looks like a luxury hotel suite transported into the middle of a military stronghold, a big bed and television and some sort of entertainment system Steve will take an hour to decipher, all with blast-resistant walls and keyed entry. "But this is a bit more complicated than that."
Bucky used to say that's what people said when they wanted to sound smarter than they were. Steve clamps down on the memory and clasps his hands behind his back. "So what can you tell me, sir?"
"There's been an assassin dispatched after you, contracting organization unknown," Fury says, and Steve draws back. "I have the others on it, but I think it's best if you stay here and minimize the risk. We can't lose you."
Steve supposes he should be flattered that he's a valuable asset, but instead he feels like he did in 1942 all over again, listening to Phillips telling him his men didn't have the time to be part-time babysitters. "I'm not about to go and get myself killed, sir," he says, but Fury shakes his head.
"Sorry, son, not this time. Can't risk it. This is a delicate situation."
'Delicate situation' is Fury code for a whole bunch of other words that Steve isn't comfortable saying aloud. "I see," he says, though worry starts chewing at his chest like a nervous puppy with a pair of shoes. "So what, I just sit here? Can I at least have a headset so I can hear what's going on?"
Fury shakes his head again. "That's not a good idea. Just wait until we take him down, and then I'll call you in for a debriefing."
"Debriefing?" Steve frowns. "How can I be any use in a debriefing if I wasn't actually present for the action? Sir?"
But Fury has turned his back, spinning on his heel at the precise angle to make his coat fan out as though there's a gust of wind following him at all times. Tony and Clint made a bet that he practiced that move for hours when he was still a junior agent, back in the dinosaur age.
"And in the meantime …" Steve says to the empty room, once the door locks. He blows out his breath in annoyance and sits down on the sofa. There is a laptop on the desk, but it's not connected to the internet, and when Steve flicks through the TV channels he realizes with annoyance that they're all movies, nothing live or that could be preempted by news reports. No way for him to find out what's going on other than being a good little boy and waiting like Fury said.
They did leave him a pad of paper and some pencils -- Staedtler, good stuff, way more expensive than the ones Steve used to cart around with him on the field, carving with a knife until the stubs were too short for him to hold in his post-serum fingers -- and with nothing else to do, Steve settles himself down and draws. He intends to draw the Avengers, but Steve sketches absently without paying attention, and when he finally looks at the paper with any sort of conscious focus it's the Howling Commandos around the fire. He swallows and tosses the sketchbook on the table, unable to look at it.
They're all dead, and Steve should be, too. Instead he's stuck here in a world that's outgrown him, that's shiny and loud and new and cynical, like all the glitz and glamour of the Stark Expo of '42 and none of the hope. This is the future, people of today seem to think; it's all downhill from here.
They didn't leave him with any kind of timekeeping device, but Steve knows enough by his estimation that this is not a cake mission. He watches several movies without really paying attention and eventually picks up the pencil and draws a few more portraits -- this time it is the Avengers, Natasha in profile when something surprises her and the hard lines of her face soften, Bruce and Tony hunched over the workbench doing something Steve will never understand in a million years, Clint smiling to himself as he disassembles his bow for cleaning and gives each piece a kiss before setting it reverently down, Thor with a slice of pizza in one hand and a mug of beer the size of his head in the other.
He's starting to get hungry -- one thing Steve's learned over all these months is that his voracious appetite wasn't just because of the aftereffects of the procedure combined with inadequate rationing, but something that will stay and gnaw at him for the rest of his life -- when at last the door clicks. Steve leaps to his feet, dusting off his hands.
It's Clint, which is not what Steve was expecting. He's been to medical -- he has bandages on his arm that don't quite cover the damage, and there's blood in his hair that doesn't look like his -- and he sits down on the couch and drops his head into his hands.
"Clint?" Steve asks, adrenaline spiking. "Is everyone okay? Did you catch the assassin?"
"Yeah," Clint says, his voice gravelly. "Nat's with him now."
"What --" Steve blinks. "What do you mean, Nat's with him? Does she know him?"
That makes sense, at least; Steve knows very little about Natasha's past pre-SHIELD, only that if it's mentioned she clams up and Clint's posture suddenly shifts to a kind of protective aggression. Still, someone from Natasha's old life can't be a good sign, and by the way Clint's muscles stand out in his arms as he clenches his fingers together, that only makes it look worse.
"Clint," Steve says, eyes wide. "Tell me. Is someone hurt?"
"Not -- exactly." Clint runs a hand through his hair, not even stopping when it tangles in one of the matted blood clots. "It's -- we have the assassin on file here at SHIELD. We didn't know his name, but Nat did. It never came up in any of her debriefings so it didn't go into the system."
Clint doesn't usually talk roundabout like this, doesn't like to back into answers and play the SHIELD game of hide and seek with the truth. If Steve had been worried before, he's edging up toward panic now. "What aren't you telling me? Why did they come after me? Is Natasha all right? Clint, please."
Finally Clint leans back, collapsing against the sofa and pressing hands to his eyes. "It's someone Natasha used to work with, back at the Red Room. He trained her. They were -- close. Lovers for a while, it helped keep them both in check I guess, I dunno. I didn't ask. I knew there was someone once, she talked about him sometimes, but only in her sleep. She called him 'the American'. SHIELD called him the Winter Soldier."
Steve waits for some trickle of recognition, some reason for this to be connected to him, but there's nothing. "The Russians?" he asks, frowning. "I don't remember ever having any problems there. We were allies back then. All that Cold War stuff, that was after my time."
After his time and before Clint's, which is one of those weird things that have finally stopped knocking Steve over whenever he thinks about it. Clint nods. "I know. This is -- different. Personal."
"Clint!" Steve doesn't mean to snap, but he did spend the better part of the day in an empty room with nothing but paranoia and memories to keep him company. "Will you just tell me? Please."
"With him in custody, SHIELD managed to confirm his identity." Clint swallows. "At first we thought -- coincidence, but then they ran his image through SHIELD's facial recognition software and we got a match. One hundred percent positive ID. It took a while because all the photos we have on file are old ones, black and white and they're all candids, none of them are studio quality --"
Steve's breath leaves his body as thoroughly as though he's sixteen years old again and some big jerk has just punched him hard enough in the stomach to send him reeling. "No," he says. "No, you're wrong."
"Wish we were." Clint still hasn't looked at him. "We actually got back a few hours ago, but we've spent the whole time at SHIELD HQ cross-referencing. It's not just that it looks like him, it is him. We looked up every record we had -- fingerprints, dental, all the stuff from his enlistment forms, and it's all a match. They even did some kind of carbon dating from his hair, and it looks like he's been in cryo since the eighties, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Unless he's some kind of advanced clone -- and if he was, why there's only one of them makes no damn sense -- well, it's him."
Clint reaches into his pocket and pulls out a thick piece of paper, folded into fourths. "All that's left is for you to give us a positive ID, just, you know. Confirmation of what we already know."
Steve takes the paper, opens it and stares at the face looking up at him. The hair is much too shaggy and expression is all wrong -- there's a cruel twist to the mouth he's never seen in his life, not in nearly twenty years of knowing each other, and the eyes are hard and terrifying -- but it's Bucky. There is something about him that seems off, but it's subtle and not something Steve can put his finger on until he realizes that he's never seen a colour photograph of Bucky before this moment. Bucky died before that was invented.
At least, Steve thought he did.
"Impossible," Steve says, and he doesn't know whether to clutch the photograph close or throw it as far away from him as he can. His body compromises by clutching it hard enough to bend the thick, glossy photo paper around the edges. "He -- I watched him fall. I saw that ravine. Nobody could have survived."
"We don't know what happened yet," Clint says. "They're going to try to piece things together as best they can, but it doesn't look good. Based on the initial brain scan it looks like he's been in and out of storage for the last seventy years. You got a long sleep; he got a bunch of catnaps."
Steve's hands twitch. "I want to see him."
"Because he tried to kill me?" Steve can barely choke the words out. "Clint, I -- if he's -- if something like that has changed, I want to know what it is. If he blames me for letting him fall or for getting him involved I need to talk to him --" But Clint says nothing, only sits with his eyes closed and his jaw clenched so tightly the bone stands out in his cheek.
And then, it hits him.
"They sent you for a reason," Steve says, at the same time hoping, praying, pleading that he's wrong. Not this. Anything but this. "They sent you because you can explain to me what it's like. What he's gone through." He sets the photo down on the table, and Bucky's eyes aren't glowing blue but it's not that kind of thing, is it. His legs give out, and he collapses down onto the couch next to Clint. "He's been unmade, just like you."
Clint lets out a slow breath. 'Looks like it. He doesn't respond to anything , though when Nat talked to him his eyes flickered. Nothing we could dig up on his past life -- Howard, the Commandos -- got through to him at all. We tried saying your name, and nothing. The only other thing that registered --"
"Captain America," Steve says, a bitter taste in his mouth like he's just drunk the last dregs of unfiltered coffee that's been sitting in the bottom of the pot until it burned and stuck to the metal.
"Yeah. Say that and --" Clint snaps his fingers. "We had to tie him down. We took the arm off, but --"
"His arm?" Steve jolts upright. "Clint, I know he's different, but --"
"No, no, not like that. He's got a prosthetic. Metal one, cutting-edge back in the sixties, maybe, but the tech is old now. The Ruskies must've been having problems near the end. It had weapons built in, you know, like those rocket gauntlets Nat wears? We had to take it off. The doctors think he lost it to frostbite and whoever found him, well, made him a new one."
Steve gags, his hand pressed to his mouth as his stomach heaves. Clint sits forward, palms the back of Steve's head and shoves him down, bent double with his head between his knees. "It's okay, buddy, just breathe," Clint says, his voice dull. "They want me to talk to you. To tell you what it feels like, so you can be prepared."
"Prepared for what?" Steve chokes out. He doesn't vomit, but that doesn't stop the tears from building up in his eyes and dripping down.
"Prepared for how he might really be gone. Cognitive recalibration ain't gonna cut it this time, else he would've come back at least ten times during the fight to bring him in." Clint's hand tightens on Steve's neck. "Loki pulled me out of my head and put his own thoughts in there, but I was still there somewhere to come back. Results are preliminary, but from what they're able to tell, it's more like they took your friend, chopped him up good, and stuck him back in there wherever. There might not be enough of him left to come back."
Steve survived one of the riskiest scientific procedures in history, enduring searing pain to get there; he went through test after test of his pain tolerance, endurance, and resistance to toxins, chemicals, and diseases. He marched through Europe on his own and with his friends, fighting Nazis and Hydra agents on double rations when his new body required at least five times that. Just last week some two-bit villain with a freeze ray managed to throw him off the side of a skyscraper, which would have been the end if Tony hadn't managed to catch him, and even then the sudden jolt nearly gave him whiplash. He's been through more than most men will have to deal with in a lifetime, and he's not even thirty.
He hopes they keep that in mind and don't laugh at him too much when he passes out.
When he comes back, Clint has somehow managed to manhandle him up onto the sofa. Steve sits upright, ignoring the stabbing pain in his head and the swimming in his stomach. "I want to see him."
Clint, stretched out on the bed with the pillow over his face, shakes his head. "You can't."
"Can't when? Can't now, or can't ever?"
"That depends." Clint sits up and swings his legs over the side. "Look, I know it sucks big time, but right now Captain America sends him over the deep end. SHIELD is gonna do their best to pull what's left of him back into his head, but it's gonna take time, and if you're there throwing him back into assassin mode it's only going to make it worse. Right now you're the trigger, and until SHIELD can dig that out, you can't see him."
Steve presses both fists to his forehead and grits his teeth. "I want them to give me progress reports. And I want to be able to see him as soon as I possibly can."
"It's not gonna be pretty, Cap."
"I don't care about pretty!" Steve glares, and Clint shrugs. "I just -- please."
"I can't make any promises for the brass," Clint says. "But they'll call a meeting with you in a couple of days. Fury said for you to sit tight. You're pulled off missions until they can debrief you on this one."
"Fine." Steve lets out a breath. "But if they're keeping me here, they should at least give me something to eat."
Clint stands up and stretches, joints making horrible cracking sounds. "Fury said to tell you if you can behave, you can go home. But first sign of you trying to sneak in to find him and your ass is dumped under high security."
Steve clenches his jaw, but part of fighting is knowing when you're licked, and sometimes it's not when you can't get up anymore. "Understood."
Clint slaps him on the back. "It's okay. We'll get him back."
Steve has made it through a world war, through a seventy-year sleep under the ice, through aliens and monsters and mythological figures and technology he never knew existed, and he still goes to church every single Sunday -- but if Bucky stays trapped inside his own head forever, Steve knows that will be the straw that breaks his faith.
"I hope so," he says, and Clint gives him a sad, tight smile.