Title: Chapter One
Reader: RsCreighton & SomethingIncorporeal
Format: MP3, Streaming
Cover Artist: SomethingIncorporeal
(Right-Click, Save. Thank you, Paraka! <3)
It was a cold Friday morning in February and the area surrounding Euclid Avenue was still asleep. A few early risers could be seen on the streets, finishing their morning jogs and cardio, but the shopkeepers were still in bed, rendered lazy by the cold weather. It was still too early to comment on that considering it was merely seven thirty in the morning, but a lone figure dressed in a professional shirt and a pencil skirt partly covered by a knee length overcoat, walking briskly down the sidewalk, painted a completely different picture against the sleepy backdrop of Cleveland, Ohio.
Dr. Helen Cho was not bothered by the cold weather as she quickly made her way to the Walker Center where her lab was situated. What bothered her was the biting wind whipping around her face, messing up her hair and tangling it further than it already was. Combing her hair was not on Helen’s list of priorities that morning. She had received an automated message from the Human Genetics Lab alarm system half an hour earlier and it seemed like someone had broken into her lab.
Helen tried to convince herself that it was some kind of malfunction in the system, because nobody had ever broken into her Cleveland lab. It was a well kept secret and she rarely used it. Whenever she came to the States, she spent most of her time at the Avengers compound with Dr. Jane Foster and Dr. Erik Selvig. Their fields of science were different but both Jane and Erik were extremely intelligent and they were good company. It was always a bonus when Stark visited them but this time, Helen was in America because Dr. Bruce Banner had returned from wherever it was he had disappeared after the Ultron debacle. The Avengers had searched for him but he had turned up two weeks ago on his own.
For some reason that even she herself wasn’t sure about, Helen had decided to take a detour to Cleveland instead of going directly to New York. It was just as well since the very next day her flight from Korea landed, the alarm system went off and she received the break-in message. It was best if she checked it out first before involving the cops. Because it’s definitely a system malfunction, she told herself, definitely.
The Human Genetics Lab was steeped in darkness when Helen entered. She shut the door behind her and quickly checked the alarm. It seemed to be working fine. The geneticist fingered the taser Darcy Lewis had given her during her last visit to the States as she slowly made her way further into the lab. It was dark but it wasn’t that dark that she couldn’t make out the familiar shapes of the furniture, the work tables, the computer and the various machines and equipment that Helen kept in that lab for whenever she felt the need to visit.
Everything was intact. Not even a pen was out of place. That much Helen could make out in the morning rays pouring through the open window. She was just about to heave a sigh of relief when she did a double take, her eyes flying to the open window. Her fingers wrapped tightly around the taser in her bag as she used her other hand to switch on the lights.
The shadows disappeared as the entire room was bathed in artificial light. There was a figure standing in the corner to her left.
“Please don’t scream,” the figure said.
Helen screamed, hand pulling out of her bag of its own volition and pressing the trigger on the taser. The metal probes shot towards the intruder and struck him in the abdomen. He jolted a bit from the shock but didn’t go down as Helen had expected. Instead, to her surprise, he plucked the wires from his skin and let them fall to the ground, cocking his head to grace Helen with a small frown. She would have screamed again or tried to electrocute him a second time but it was then that she noticed the metal arm and the long hair and she remembered reading about him in books and Steve showing her his photograph last time they were alone together.
It was Sergeant James Barnes, or more recently known as the Winter Soldier.
He wasn’t frowning anymore but he was still looking at her, his eyes flickering to the tiny device in her hand as if expecting her to pull the trigger again.
“Are you here to kill me?” Helen asked, her voice mostly steady.
He shook his head and looked at the taser again. Helen gave him a once over. If she was being honest with herself, Barnes looked rather innocent as he stood there in her lab in a torn jeans and t-shirt, looking worst for wear. A large piece of fabric that could only be his coat lay on the floor by his feet. Hoping she wouldn’t regret her decision, Helen slowly lowered the taser and spoke to him, this time gently.
“Are you here to see me?”
He nodded. So he had known she would be in Cleveland. That, or he had followed her.
“What do you want from me?”
Barnes lowered his eyes and looked to be ashamed of answering her question. What could he possibly want from her? He was supposed to go to Steve, who was out there searching for him in places like Germany and Romania when Barnes was right under his nose.
“There’s something wrong with my arm,” he spoke. His voice was raspy from misuse. “I can’t fix it.”
Helen watched wide-eyed as he wrapped his flesh hand around the wrist of his metal arm and raised it, but when he released it, instead of staying up, the metal arm flopped back to his side as if it was boneless.
“How did that happen?”
“It hasn’t been serviced in months.”
There was a slight derisiveness to his voice that Helen couldn’t ignore. Throwing caution to the wind, she stepped into his space and touched his metal arm. He didn’t back away nor did he give any reaction to her touching him. Instead he fixed his big blue eyes on her and gave her a pleading look.
“I know about your invention of the Cradle,” he said, surprising her again. “Can you give me a new arm?”
Helen later supposed she should have seen it coming. Why else would the Winter Soldier follow her and break into her lab? While the Cleveland lab—or even her lab at the compound—didn’t have the tools or the resources required to give him a flesh arm, the least Helen could do was help him fix what was broken. He was Steve’s friend and he didn’t look hostile. Helen Cho was a kind soul and James Barnes had sought her out; she wasn’t going to let his efforts go to waste.
“I can’t give you a new arm,” she told him. “With Vision, I had Vibranium and the Mind Stone and I like to think it was pure luck, but be assured that it was a one time thing. The Cradle cannot create body parts, it can only mend them.” She tried not to see the disappointment in his face as she continued, “But maybe I can fix your arm. Get it to work again.”
He seemed to consider it but he didn’t really have a choice. “Yes. Thank you.”
Helen looked at Barnes’ grateful face and nodded. She was doing the right thing, she told herself. She wasn’t afraid of him—she had been through worse with Ultron controlling her mind and getting shot during the fight in the lab—but she reminded herself that she had to be careful around Barnes. She didn’t want to do anything or behave in any way that would trigger the Winter Soldier in him. She didn’t even know how it worked. She would have to ask him about it.
She pointed to a high metal chair in the middle of the room. “Please take a seat there. I need to call Steve, then I’ll take a look at your arm.”
He tensed at the mention of Steve’s name. Helen raised her eyebrows at him. If he thought that she wouldn’t at least inform Steve of his presence in her lab, he was seriously misled. Steve deserved to know and she willed Barnes to understand that.
Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but he shrugged and wordlessly strode to the chair, checking its arm rests for goodness knows what and then seated himself in it, his back straight and his metal arm hanging uselessly by his side. Helen kept her gaze on him as she fished in her coat pocket for her cell phone. She scrolled through her contacts until she found Steve’s name and pressed the call button next to it. He picked it up on the first ring.
“Hi, Dr. Cho.”
“Steve, how many times do I have to ask you to call me Helen?”
“Sorry. Hi, Helen.”
Helen smiled, pointedly ignoring Barnes wince in the background. If she was guessing correctly, he had enhanced hearing just like Steve, and hearing his old friend’s voice on the phone must be uncomfortable, especially since the last time Steve and Barnes were together, Barnes had tried to kill him.
“I’m pleasantly surprised to receive your call,” Steve was saying. “I thought you were coming to New York.”
“I was but there’s been a change of plans. I’m in Cleveland and I’m going to be here for a while.”
“Why Cleveland?” A pause, then, “Is something wrong?”
There was no point in beating around the bush because there was no better way to say what she was about to say. So Helen skipped right to the point. “Your friend James Barnes is here.”
Steve took some time to reply. “I’m sorry I must have misheard you. Can you repeat what you just said?”
A soft snort made Helen look in Barnes’ direction again. His eyes were closed and he looked mildly amused.
“I said your friend James Barnes is here. He needs my help to fix his metal arm. I… uh… thought you should know that he’s with me.”
“James Buchanan Barnes, as in my best friend Bucky who I’ve been searching for all these months, is there with… you?”
There was a pause during which Helen heard Steve take in a shaky breath. She couldn’t tell if he was happy or offended or just plain confused at hearing the news that Bucky had sought Helen out and not him.
“Is he there now? I mean, is he near you?”
Helen glanced at Barnes to see him open his eyes and look at her. “Yes, he’s here.”
“Steve, are you there?”
“May I speak with him?”
Barnes’ flesh hand started twitching and he looked slightly alarmed. That reaction was enough to tell Helen that he wasn’t ready to talk to Steve yet. She sighed; she hated breaking Steve’s heart.
“Sorry, Steve.” She waited for him to say something but when he didn’t, an idea struck her and she said, “But you could come here and see him personally, if you want. I don’t know what’s wrong with his arm or how long it’s going to take me to repair it, but… you can take your time. Hopefully, by then, he’ll be ready to see you.”
“Are you sure?” He sounded uncertain. She didn’t blame him.
“Yeah, I mean, why not? I’ll knock some sense into his head.”
“What if he hurts you? What if he runs away?”
“He won’t. But I’ll let you know if that happens.”
“All right. Let me call you back, Helen. I need to talk to Tony and Natasha. Be careful.”
“I will. See you soon, Steve.”
She disconnected the call and looked up to find Barnes watching her warily. “Why’d you think I won’t run away?”
To be honest, Helen had no idea why she had said that to Steve, maybe to just make him feel better and give him confidence. But she realized that Barnes had let her call Steve in the first place. He could have snatched her phone the moment she told him about calling Steve but he didn’t. So maybe he was open to seeing his childhood friend again, not immediately but definitely sometime in the near future.
She shrugged and decided to tell him the half truth. “Call it a hunch,” she said, walking up to him and gently easing him back in the chair. “You shouldn’t torture him like that, you know. He deserves a chance to see his best friend and you deserve a chance at redemption.”
He leaned back against the chair and stared stonily up at the ceiling. “I don’t think I can ever be redeemed.”
“That’s not true.”
Helen ran her fingers down his arm, assessing the damage done to the metal and checking for some sort of an opening. He had recently been in a fight, that much was clear. Although she couldn’t see any noticeable injuries on his person, his clothes were torn and dirty, and his metal arm was scratched and blackened in places. Before she could ask him what had happened to him, he spoke.
“You think so?”
She struggled to remember what she had said to him. It took her a few seconds but when she remembered, she paused in her inspection to give him a small, confident smile. She had initially wondered if she would be able to handle him but here, right now, he was her patient. And patients she could handle. In fact, she was very good at that. Without even pausing to consider, she answered him.
“I know so.”