The soldier, who sometimes knew his name was Bucky, and who sometimes thought of himself as the Asset, lay flat on his belly in the shadow of a narrow rooftop wall and peered up at the Tower.
At first, the soldier had been keeping watch because the one called Steve (codename Captain America) returned there, time and time again. The soldier had found the small, empty apartment that Steve kept up, but it was oddly depressing to watch Steve putter around the tiny place, with no friends and no engagements, cooking his bachelor meals and washing the single pot, plate, and fork he used to prepare and eat them. The soldier found himself wanting to do something about the situation. In absence of orders, however, he didn’t quite know what that something might be.
Twice weekly, Steve went to the Tower for dinner, entertainment, and general camaraderie. They were a close knit group, the Avengers. Unlike Hydra, which was an assembly of snakes, each vying for the title of most venomous, the Avengers appeared to take comfort in each other's presence, even if they had difficulties with any sort of relationship with normal citizens who were not gifted and deadly individuals.
Occasionally, there was an alert for the Avengers to take action. The soldier had witnessed several of these, heralded by flashing lights and alarms within the Tower. The soldier surmised that there were other alerts as well, because when they happened, Steve shortly arrived at the Tower, shield in hand and uniform in a canvas bag over his shoulder. He entered the building as Steve and left, usually on the Quinjet, as Captain America, leaving the Asset to wrestle with the fear and uncertainty for a mission unfinished.
These incomplete orders swarmed in his mind, a nest of angry wasps that stung and stung and burrowed and crawled around under his scalp. Sometimes it seemed as if he could dig them out if he scratched enough, but all that happened was that he would injure himself. Activity not advised: head wounds are particularly noticeable and difficult to self-treat.
Sometimes, the soldier watched because he intended to finish the mission, to finish it and be at peace, hoping it would stop buzzing in his head, then, handlers or no handlers, orders or no orders. With nothing and no one to report back to, the Asset didn’t know what to make of this brave new world that had no ice and no cold and no commands in it. He’d looked for his masters, but they were nowhere to be found. The old bases had been abandoned, the frequencies he'd tried left unmonitored.
Occasionally, the soldier watched because he hoped that Steve would find him and rid his head of the buzzing of unfinished orders. Whether Steve did that by finding a way to supercede the current mission with a new one, or by killing him, the soldier did not particularly care. Steve had exhibited a reluctance to kill the soldier, however, despite the soldier's initial unwavering determination to kill Steve. That fact made the soldier feel...
Anomalous behavior: an Asset does not feel.
In the absence of orders, aside from the unfinished one that he was strangely reluctant to complete despite the buzzing in his mind, otherwise and left to his own devices, the soldier had waited and watched.
And in watching, he’d discovered something else entirely: Anthony Edward Stark, aka Iron Man.
It was a name he already knew. Hydra been very certain that Iron Man was under their thumb, operating out in the open like he was. While he spoke to Congress in tones of sarcasm and obscenity, and levied a team of lawyers committed to locating and exploiting every available loophole, Anthony Stark was still, in the end, bound by the laws of Congress. And Congress, despite Senator Stern's outing and impeachment, was still almost entirely under Hydra control.
Anthony Stark was a firebrand, and like any firebrand, sometimes he set the wrong things on fire, but he was useful. His brilliant mind was still churning out ideas instead of ideals. Dr. Zola had made good use of those items which had passed from Stark to SHIELD and from SHIELD to Hydra, even when Stark thought those things had been secured, like the tesseract.
Unlike his previous business partner, Stark was not directly controllable, but the man could be goaded like nobody’s business. And Hydra had made it their business to goad him.
In absence of other orders, the soldier had improvised. He would keep an eye on Stark. Hydra valued Stark's brilliant mind, and so the soldier would protect it, guard it. Wait for orders. Keep... current, this time.
The soldier had never been current; he’d been in stasis, on ice, until he was needed. When he was awakened, he was given very little info, just a mission and a target. When the mission was completed, the soldier was returned immediately to stasis. He was a particularly dangerous weapon, after all, one that needed to be kept away from the general population, because of course, the idea of ruling the planet didn’t appeal to his masters and handlers if there were no people to rule. (Somewhere, there might be a mad Hydra scientist who wanted to utterly dominate star-nosed shrews, but they didn’t come into contact much with high-end Hydra assets.)
With no one to return the soldier to stasis, he waited. Kept current. Kept his ear to the ground, so to speak, for rumors of his masters’ return, because they would return, of course. He knew that. Cut off one head, and all that. The soldier wasn’t in it for the slogans or the patriotism. He was in it... because...
He shook his head. Watching the Tower nonstop was giving him a crick in his neck. Anthony Stark was a lot of things, and one of them was a fucking size queen, because what the hell; really, did the building need to be that tall? The soldier had overheard a rumor that Stark added two or three floors every time the Baxter Building added one, and what was up with that shit?
The soldier rubbed a hand through his hair, the gesture ending with a tight squeeze at the back of his neck. He had no right to be thinking thoughts like that. No right, really, to be thinking at all, except that without orders, he was having to improvise, and improvising meant having thoughts, that he might keep the Asset in working order until his masters came to claim him.
Maybe, he thought, there were no more masters after all. Maybe there would be no more orders.
In which case, what did he do?
The thought was... disturbing. And exhilarating. And frightening. It was not a thought that was useful, and so the soldier pushed it away, and made himself focus on his self-imposed mission: Watch Stark. Protect Stark.
As if summoned by his thoughts, Iron Man flashed by, that brilliant gold and red armor catching the light as he spiraled around the Tower. Anthony Stark was many things, but subtle wasn’t any of them. The soldier recognized the distinctive whine of the repulsors as Stark shot upward toward the landing pad at the top.
The soldier scrunched further into the shadow of the building, knowing it probably wouldn't help if Stark happened to look his way. Stark’s armor contained guided missile launchers, it wasn’t like he wouldn’t have thermal vision as well.
And then the soldier forgot about hiding, because Iron Man was... The only word the soldier could summon was dancing. Bucky’s mouth dropped open as Stark circled, spun, dove and weaved around the building, not in combat, but for the sheer joy of flight, reveling in his abilities, grace and acrobatics and sheer mechanical beauty. Bucky couldn’t look away, mesmerized by the display of engineering, skill, showmanship, and above all, love. Stark loved what his body could do, what his engineering could do, and it sang out in every line of the armor, in every aerial acrobatic twist. Bucky imagined that he could hear Stark laughing with joy, though even his enhanced hearing wouldn't be able to detect that at this distance.
He stared, long after Stark had finally landed and gone inside and when Bucky reached up to rub his eyes, his hand came away wet.