Actions

Work Header

The Winter Soldier

Chapter Text

The cryo-tube is more like an upright coffin, even if its occupant is mostly counted among the living. He might not seem so at first, not if you’ve never seen a dead body before. If you have, the differences between the frozen man and the dead become clear; there’s no eerie slackness to him, not even that which occurs in deep sleep, and no unseeing, waxy eyes.

However, it’s understandable why some would assume him to be dead. The deep bruises beneath his eyes are deceiving, being almost purple, and even when he’s been interred after more peaceful circumstances, his face never shows anything but a rictus of fear and pain.

Not that that fear has ever stopped him from crawling back into the tube at the end of the day. His masters have trained him well. And now he’s needed again.

To prepare for his rising, they’ve called in more security personnel, just in case. The first few moments of being unfrozen he’s always slightly unbalanced, and given his strength and skill, a single swipe would be all it took for some poor technician to bite the dust. It’s one of those malfunctions they haven’t worked out of him yet, even after all these years.

Disengaging locks in three. Two. One,” one of them counts.

There’s a click and a whoosh of air, and the door to the tube creaks open just a little. The hinges need greasing; it’s been a while since they pulled him out, so general maintenance on the tube has fallen by the wayside in all the furor after the Battle of New York. They can’t be too careful these days.

The tension in the room ramps up as the sounds of him waking disturb the restless silence. The noises themselves aren’t particularly nerve-wracking; sluggish and cold, he sounds like a child stumbling through a house in the dark, scared and eager to reach his parents’ room after a nightmare.

But the Soldier isn’t a harmless child.

He emerges from the tube steadily, the first steps heavy. Then, he regains himself, raises his face to the warmer air in the lab, and sucks in a deep, deep breath. His stillness unnerve security, make them tighten their hands around their weapons.

The small movement catches his attention. He swivels his head around, those pale eyes freezing the well-armed officers in their tracks. One looks close to bolting. There’s something so deeply unnatural about him, something that makes the hair on your arms stand on end with just one look. Maybe it’s the way there no emotion, no anything in his expression, or maybe it’s the prowl present in his every move.

One of the officers step forward, assumes the role of temporary handler. “Soldier,” he barks in Russian. “Report for maintenance.”

The change settles over the Soldier at once. Though his back is still straight, he drops his gaze, submits to the technicians advancing on him carefully; everyone breathes a little easier. His programming hasn’t suffered unduly. He’ll likely only need a basic run-down of the new codes.

He’s naked, as always; it’s easier to spot malfunctions when all of him is constantly on display in the tube. Also, it’s easier to clean him like that; he just needs to be hosed down. It’s a right quick, painless procedure. It helps that he doesn’t try to duck away from the harsh spray, barely even flinches anymore.

Well-trained indeed.

They fall upon his left arm first; it’s an astounding feat of engineering, a complex metal copy of his right arm, the flesh arm. This version of the metal arm was affixed to him sometime during the ‘70s, but though it is light years ahead of any of the other ones he’s had, it’s still not perfect, and they haven’t been able to have another one made.

With the Tesseract gone, they might not be able to make another, not without unduly calling attention to themselves. The current Stark is more paranoid than his father.

Hold out your arms,” they instruct the Soldier, and he complies. His balance needs a little bit of recalibration.

Once the physical exam has been completed—a complete, thorough affair given his long time under the ice—they run him through simple drills to fix the balance issue and to test his reaction times. They start out easy, making him walk, then jog, then sprint from one end of the room to another. “I think it’s just disuse that’s made him seem off,” one of them comments. “He’s settling back into functionality just fine.”

Next, they test his fine motor skills, having him assemble and dissemble a rifle (unloaded, of course. You can’t be too careful, even if he’s showed himself submissive to the handler). Then, they test his protocols.

What is your name?” they ask. It’s a trick question, used to ease him in.

I have no name,” he replies in clear, crisp Russian. He’s not allowed to mumble or pause overlong. With the mask on, they allow such annoyances; he’s not supposed to talk then anyway. In the mask, his jaw can barely move, and the words are near incomprehensible.

At least, that’s what they think. In reality, he slurs the words on purpose whenever he wears the mask. He doesn’t know why, but his body reacts positively when he does; a squirming sort of feeling in his chest. They would take it away if they knew.  

Where are you from?”  

A beat. “Russia.”

The technicians frown. “They ought to have scrubbed that from him. Calibrate the machine for long-term as well as the standard wipe. And old allegiance might prove interfering.”

It takes all in him to stay still, to not succumb to the shake wanting to overtake him. The words unsettle him. He doesn’t know why. His head aches with sharp spikes of phantom pain and his mouth tastes like blood.

They prod at him while asking the last of the questions. His diet needs to be changed, they say, he needs to put on enough weight to get back to the condition he was in the last time there was use for him. He’s strong now, there’s no doubt about it, but to carry the weight of the arm they need to get him stronger. Besides, his new mission might require more of him than ever.

No one says a thing about his hair, even though it hangs in front of his face, obscuring his eyes. It’ll get in the way during missions if they don’t order him to tie it back—which they rarely do. The lank, brown locks are seldom on their minds.

What is your purpose?

I am the Soldier.”

Who is this man?” They show him a photograph of a blond, blue-eyed man.

I don’t know.” Except…

Who is Steve Rogers?

He blinks. They ask him again, the security officers growing tense. “Stevie.”

It’s the wrong answer. The technicians throw each other frantic looks and write furiously on their pads. One suggests upping the electrical frequency on the machine. The most senior among them watches him carefully. But he is the Soldier; he will not shrink from their stares.

What is your name?” the senior technician asks.

He’s already answered this? “I have no name,” he repeats, nonetheless.

That at least settles them at little, even if they still seem antsier than to begin with.

Their nerves manifest in the way security hangs over him while they finish comparing data. He meets the handler’s eyes while they speak as if he isn’t there; the man can’t quite hold his gaze, unnerved despite having done this several times. Only the Director truly doesn’t seem to fear the soldier. That alone proves his worth to them.

Soldier,” they tell him. “Sit.

The Chair is ready for him.

Chapter Text

There’s this fella who runs the same route as Steve. He’s tall, dark-skinned, and has the kind of focus that’d be enviable if Steve didn’t recognize the emotion behind his placid expression so well. This is not a man who enjoys his run, or even his day. This is a man going out of his mind with utter boredom and yet is also desperately trying to convince himself that he’s perfectly fine.

Steve wears that mask a lot, too.

Usually, he’s already done with his run by the time Runner Guy shows up to start on his own. Steve’s never talked to him, even if he’s wanted to a couple of times, especially on days when Runner Guy’s face settles into such an emotionless mask that it hurts just to look at him.  

And yet: not a word, not once in the almost two years Steve’s lived in DC and had this routine.

At first, it was because he’d actively been trying to keep to himself, to settle into the new century without the scrutiny of the public eye. He’d quickly been disabused of that notion, however, once he realized that no one really recognized him on the street. When they did, it was mostly children, probably because kids have the kind of rich inner lives that allow for them to see him on the street and go, “well, of course that’s Captain America.” Why wouldn’t they accidentally run into him on the street?

Adults, though, their minds went more along the lines of “yeah, there’s no way that’s Captain America, why the fuck would I meet a superhero just like that.” It made it easy to hide in plain sight, especially once Steve updated his wardrobe a little. He now has Public Clothes, Work Clothes, and then Clothes He Actually Likes to Wear. His closet has never been so organized, not even when he had had four shirts in total back in Brooklyn.

Then, it was because he didn’t want to disturb Runner Guy. There was a reason he was lapping national landmarks before dawn, and those reasons were probably the same as Steve’s, given his Air Force sweater and T-shirt. That observation hadn’t made it easier to ignore him, though. Instead, it had been the start of an unspoken sort of kinship between them, one that Steve knows better than to speak aloud to anyone. He knows very well how pathetic it is—and how unreciprocated and borderline creepy, too.

And finally, it’d been because Steve had convinced himself that he had the kind of job that didn’t allow for casual friendships outside of work. Ninety percent of the time, he was on some sort of mission—not an Avengers mission; the kind of disasters that needed their special brand of dysfunctional attention didn’t happen often. No, Steve had taken a day job at S.H.I.E.L.D. to keep busy. And then that day job had consumed him, and before he knew it, he slept in his own bed maybe two nights out of ten.

But this morning… well.

It’s not that Steve’s lonely, exactly. He has friends. Friends whom he sees regularly—and not just on the job. He saw all of them for Christmas, New Year’s, and then Clint’s birthday in January. There’s lots of texting back and forth, too (and sometimes yelling at the sky for Thor; they’re never quite sure if he hears them or not. Sometimes he makes jokes that are too pointed for him to not have heard them, and then other times, he seems completely oblivious. They’ve even taken bets on the likelihood that he’s fucking with them).

It’s just that they’re all busy. And he doesn’t like to be a bother.  

A few weeks ago, 10 March came and went. A normal day to the rest of the world, but to Steve...  Well. To Steve’s mind, it was the day Bucky should’ve turned thirty. In real time, he’d have turned ninety-seven. If Steve hadn’t let him down, that is.   

Because Steve wasn’t fast enough, and Bucky never came home.

Steve doesn’t commemorate the day of his death, despite how horrible that makes him feel. Instead, he’ll spend days on his couch, not sleeping, not eating. A few days after, he’ll force himself to go and place flowers on Bucky’s empty grave, then get right back to not existing for another few days.  

But Bucky’s birthday? That’s the only time Steve can stand to watch the old Disney movies and Hollywood classics that they’d seen back in the day, when he can listen to the swing music of their youth. When he gets too maudlin, he’ll watch sci-fi movies, as Bucky would’ve wanted to.

It’s not just Bucky’s loss that hit Steve, but every loss he’s had to face since waking up from the ice. The Barnes family in its entirety. The Commandos. Peggy, though she might still be alive. The life he would’ve tried to make, as promised. His city, in a way, too.

So, maybe that’s what does it. Steve’s hurting, and Runner Guy has obviously seen his fair share of shit and is going it alone as well. Steve even thinks that he catches a glint of sorrow in Runner Guy’s eyes in the few seconds it takes for him to run past Steve. He’s alone, Steve’s alone, they’re both trying to pretend they aren’t. It’s a match made in heaven.  

But how do you make friends? Bucky had done all the heavy lifting what with breaking the ice and such, and Steve’d been so starved for companionship that he’d immediately attached himself to Bucky’s side like a barnacle. With the Avengers… sometimes he can’t let go of the idea that maybe they’re only his friends because he’s been inflicted on them. And the Howlies, well, he’d had to break them out, hadn’t he—

Actually, that’s not a bad idea.

Not literally, of course. He’s not going to orchestrate some weird, half-assed plot to save this guy. But he does need to be broken out, so to speak. His routine, that self-made prison, needs to be shaken up.

Steve gets back on his feet.

Runner Guy’s already a quarter into his run. He runs fast, for a non-super; steady, easy, but still working hard enough to put sweat on his brow. Any ordinary person might have trouble catching up to him.

To Steve, it’s a jog.

He blows past the guy, warning him of his approach with a little, “On your left.” Runner Guy jumps in surprise but runs on.

Steve frowns, takes a shortcut to lap around, and catches up to Runner Guy again, employing the same, “On you left.” This time, the guy mutters a quiet, “Uh-huh, on my left, got it”, but also still keeps running. Dammit.

Another shortcut, and Steve’s coming up behind him. This time, Runner Guy has already caught onto his approach and has sped up a little. His shoulders grow tense as Steve easily catches up, and he starts into a sprint. “Don’t say it! Don’t you say it!” he barks at Steve.

So, of course, Steve says it. “On your left!”

Come on!

Steve grins as Runner Guy finally gives chase.

*

Runner Guy can’t keep up with Steve for long, but that’s to be expected. Steve finds him collapsed in the shade of a tree, holding his side and mumbling under his breath—all insults to Steve’s person, which he fully deserves.

It’s probably not wise to poke at him, but Steve’s never claimed to be wise.

“Need a medic?” he jabs lightly as he approaches.

Runner Guy looks up sharply, outrage written all over his face. It doesn’t last for long, giving way to laughter. “I need a new set of lungs! Dude, you just ran like thirteen miles in thirty minutes!”

Steve’s not going to mention that he didn’t run the whole route. For reasons. Instead, he shrugs. “Guess I got a late start.”

“Oh, really? You should be ashamed of yourself. You should take another lap!” A beat. “Did you just take it? I’m gonna assume you just took it, Christ on a bike.”

Steve beams at him; his smile’s a little rusty, but it breaks over his face all the same. He puts his hands on his hips, a little unsure what to do with himself or how to talk like a normal person, so he falls back into Captain America Is Listening mode, nodding at Runner Guy’s Airforce sweatshirt. “What unit you with?”

“58th, Para-rescue,” Runner Guy says, a wistful but proud smile tipping up the corners of his mouth. “But now I’m working down at the VA. Name’s Sam Wilson.”

He holds out his hand, and Steve rushes to take it, pulling Sam to his feet at the same time. Up close, he’s not quite as tall as Steve’d thought he’d be, shorter than himself—not exactly unusual—but also shorter than Bucky had been. But then, Bucky’d been almost unbelievably tall for their time. When Sam’s steady on his feet, Steve offers his own name, heart beating a little faster; it’s like being a kid on the first day of school again.

“I kinda put that together,” Sam says wryly, dark eyes steady. Somehow, getting recognized hurts. What did you expect, Rogers? “Musta freaked you out, coming home after the whole defrosting thing.”

Steve freezes, looks away. “It takes some time getting used to. It’s good to meet you, Sam.” He turns, heart sore. Just this once, he’d have liked to not be Captain America first, but that’s what you get for running circles around a fella when he’s just trying to go about his day at a normal pace. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

“It’s your bed, right?”

Steve spins, not sure he heard the man right. “What’s that?”

“Your bed. It’s too soft.” Wow, this guy’s a fan of eye contact. “When I was over there I’d sleep on the ground and use rocks for pillows, like a caveman. Now I’m home, lying in my bed, and it’s like—”

“Lying on a marshmallow,” Steve follows up. He’s almost embarrassingly eager talk to Sam, as long as it isn’t about the ice. “Feel like I’m gonna sink right to the floor.”

In fact, Steve’s just graduated to sleeping on the couch rather than the floor, and he’s disproportionally proud of it. He only tries to sleep on the bed when Thor crashes on his couch. It’s not an experience he likes to dwell on. But Sam probably wouldn’t be impressed to hear that.

But Sam’s nodding at him, smiling like he understands, like he isn’t put off by Steve’s awkwardness.

“How long you in?” Steve asks.

“Two tours. You must miss the good old days, huh?”

And we’re back. Steve shuffles his feet. If he’s a little sharp, he thinks he can be excused for once. Do you have any idea how often people say this to him? “Well, things aren’t so bad. Food’s a lot better, we used to boil everything. No polio is good. Internet—so helpful. I’ve been reading that a lot, trying to catch up.”

He expects another question about the ‘good old days’, but it never comes. “Marvin Gaye, 1972, Trouble Man soundtrack,” Sam says instead, eyeing Steve like he’s trying to communicate the meaning of life or something. “Everything you’ve missed jammed into one album.”

Already pulling out his notebook, Steve says, “I’ll put it on the list.”

While Steve does have a phone—a fancy, latest model Stark Phone something or other—and uses it liberally, there’s something about carrying a pen and paper with him, even if they barely fit into his sweatpants pockets. Maybe it’s a stubborn holdover, maybe it’s just nostalgia, or maybe it’s because Steve sometimes like to encourage people to think of him like a poor, helpless ‘40s relic. You can tell a lot about people by the way they react to his ‘antiquated’ habits.

Sam just waits, doesn’t bat an eye. Steve likes him all the more for it.

The list Steve adds Marvin Gaye to isn’t overly long, mostly because when he goes on information binges, he truly goes all out. He’s pretty much caught up on history, but there are still a few things he wants to read more about, thus their continued presence on the list—besides, he likes the disbelieving confusion on people’s faces when they see some of the items, as if they can’t comprehend that he wouldn’t know about them in the first place.  

Modern people take a lot of stuff for granted, is what he’s saying.  

The page he adds to have just a few items:

 

I Love Lucy (television)

Moon landing

Berlin Wall (up + down)

Steve Jobs (Apple)

Disco

Thai food

Star Wars /Trek

Nirvana (band)

Rocky (Rocky II?)

Marvin Gaye, Trouble Man

 

He’s just slipping the notebook back into his pocket when his phone vibrates, and he needs to dig that out of his other pocket. His Stark Phone is pretty lightweight, and not nearly as large as some of the other phones Steve has seen people cart around in their bags (iPhones? Smartphones? What’s the difference?), and despite what Tony thinks, Steve’s not actually incompetent when it comes to technology.

It’s set up to be intuitive, for God’s sake. Steve’s from the 20th century, not Mars.

The message is simple, and despite the sender being unknown, he knows who it is at once. Mission alert. Extraction imminent. Meet at the curb :).

“Thanks, Sam,” he says sincerely, waving the phone around. “I’d like to stay and chat but—duty calls. Thanks for the run, too. If that’s what you wanna call running.”

Sam, in the process of shaking Steve’s hand, flicks a disbelieving glance at him. “Oh, that’s how it is?”

“Oh, that’s how it is,” Steve mimics cheekily.

Sam laughs; it’s such an easy sound, makes you want to laugh along with him. There’s not a single trace of sorrow or loneliness in it, and while Steve tries not to, he envies it desperately. “Okay, okay—any time you wanna stop by the VA, make me look awesome in front of the girl at the front desk, just let me know.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” And Steve will, even if the kind, soft smile on Sam’s face says that he doesn’t quite believe that. Poor Sam; he doesn’t know it, but Steve’s his friend now. Time-travel would be easier than shaking him now.   

A fancy, black car with a noisy, purring engine rolls to a stop by the curb not too far from them. Sam gives the car an impressed glance, but Steve can’t quite muster the same enthusiasm. All modern cars look like toys to him. Besides, he never favored cars (to the relief of all the Howlies. Steve’s a great driver okay? No one died).

The window rolls down and Natasha peers out, looking as flawless as she did the first time Steve met her, a day that seems like it’s both ages and a day ago. Her hair’s longer, lighter, and carefully straightened to fall elegantly around her face, and she’s dressed in a nice leather jacket.

“Hey fellas,” she calls in that husky, smoky voice that make all sorts of people weak in the knees. Steve barely refrains from rolling his eyes. “Either one of you know where the Smithsonian is? I’m here to pick up a fossil.”

“That’s hilarious,” Steve says without a single trace of laughter in his voice.

He ducks into the car—why are fancy sportscars so fucking low to the ground, how the hell is he supposed to be comfortable like this—and fastens his seatbelt, ignoring the looks Natasha and Sam trade over his head; Sam looks intrigued, and Nat has this smoldering face that Steve has learned is less an indicator of interest than an I will dissect you later, human type of look.

Yeah, she scares him a little.

She probably prefers it that way.

Looking up, Steve gazes mournfully back at Sam; he’d hoped today would’ve been nice and calm. More fool he; S.H.I.E.L.D. let him have the past two weeks on his own, and that’s practically every single one of his sick days for the next year. He was beyond due for a mission.

“Can’t run everywhere,” he says, a little helplessly.

“No, you can’t,” Sam replies with a shake of his head, smile a little sadder now.

Maybe S.H.I.E.L.D. would take ‘needed to comfort my friend, what do you mean one conversation doesn’t make us friends’ as a good excuse to stay out of a mission. Right? Fury would definitely accept that.

Yeah, no, Steve doesn’t believe it either.  

Chapter Text

After Steve’s bright blue Avengers uniform had had a most unfortunate accident involving jet fuel, a small flamethrower, and absolutely no fault of his own (that’s the explanation Steve’s sticking to, and Tony has been sworn to secrecy on the matter), S.H.I.E.L.D. had produced a number of other uniforms for him. There are two he favors; the one he uses for official Avengers business, which is honestly mostly publicity at the moment, and then the one they’ve been calling the Stealth Suit.

The Stealth Suit is a muted, navy blue uniform with hardly any other color on it but for the silvery bands across his chest and, of course, the silver star in the center. His gloves, belt, boots, and shoulder harness are all good quality, brown leather, and his helmet is an actual helmet and not a damn cowl. It leaves his ears free, which is both a little weird and a lot more comfortable. Even his original helmet had covered his ears, and the first few times he wears the new one, he feels like Dumbo. Nat likes to comment on how lovely his blush looks with the navy blue.  

Best of all, Tony helped design the suit, so despite its form-fitting nature it’s all reinforced to be durable and protective while still being lightweight and leaving plenty of room for movement. Given the new tricks Steve’s been trying out lately, that’s a big plus.

It’s so comfortable that he’s already changed into almost before they start their flight, leaving Natasha to roll her eyes at him. She’s just jealous her own formfitting, black suit isn’t nearly as nice, Steve’d bet every penny in the bank on it.

For ordinary people, a plane ride from Washington, D.C. to the Indian Ocean takes something like fifteen hours, but S.H.I.E.L.D. scoffs at ordinary methods of transportation and have assigned them a Quinjet for the mission. Instead, it’ll take them maybe five or six hours to get there in total. That alone is enough of an indicator that their mission is time sensitive as all hell.

The first half of the ride is spent largely in silence, everybody psyching themselves up for the fight ahead. Steve and Nat are accompanied by their usual STRIKE team, a tough-as-nails, well-oiled little enclave led by S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Brock Rumlow. He’s a sharp man, the kind who’ll keep grinning even bleeding out and never lets anything bother him for long. Even had his fighting skills been mediocre, he’d have been assigned to them on pure guts alone.   

Steve spends the ride either napping or chewing down protein bars that taste a little bit like cardboard and a whole lot like artificial berry-flavoring. They’re really awful, but he needs the energy. He’ll just have to get Vietnamese take-out when he comes home, that’ll cheer up his taste buds. God, he’d kill for some spring rolls right now. And crispy-fried noodles. He should really add Saint Lawrence to his little list of prayers. He’ll be in good company with Saint Agatha and Saint Gertrude.

“Alright, listen up!” Rumlow barks, firing up the computer screens. Everyone gets to their feet and crowd in, Steve still chewing on the last piece of disgusting protein bar. It’s supposed to taste like raspberries. Supposed to. “The target is an off-course, mobile satellite launch platform off the coast of India, called the Lemurian Star. They were sending up their last payload when pirates took them. They’ve been held hostage for the last seven hours; emergency personnel are on standby in Kochi. Minor injuries expected, as well as dehydration and the like.”

“Any demands?” Steve asks, having finally forced down that mouthful, thank Christ.

“A billion and a half.”

Steve frowns. Next to him, Natasha tilts her head in inquiry, too. “Why so steep?”

Brock taps the screen, zooming in on a picture of the platform. A little circular eagle-insignia is boldly placed on the sides. “Because it’s S.H.I.E.L.D.’s.”

Oh, great. “So, it’s not off-course. It’s trespassing.”

S.H.I.E.L.D. might like to present themselves as the alpha and omega of international law enforcement, but there are some areas where their continued presence simply isn’t welcome. India, for one; Great Britain, weirdly enough, for another (Fury had gotten really pissy when Steve’d asked about that, muttering curses on “fuckin’ Pete Wisdom and his fuckin’ knife hands”; Steve’d very carefully retreated). Despite the World Security Council seating both Indian and British ambassadors, some nations just weren’t keen on the interference of shadow agencies, which Steve thinks is perfectly understandable. He’s not even sure he likes being a part of it. Lord knows how he might lose his temper if he were to be involved in the politics of it.

“I’m sure they have a good reason,” Natasha says mildly.

Steve almost doesn’t hold back his bitchy grimace, eyeing everyone with as much disappointment as he can muster; it makes a few of the STRIKE agents shuffle their feet uncomfortably. “You know, I’m getting a little tired of being Fury’s janitor.”

“Relax, Cap, it’s not that complicated,” Natasha says, like Steve’s throwing a tantrum over picking a lunch spot rather than international goddamn crime. 

He very carefully doesn’t let himself belabor the point. Natasha is… well. Steve trusts her, enjoys being her friend, but she’s just way more comfortable with the gray areas of it all than he’ll ever be. Or at least, he hopes he’ll never get comfortable. He’d hoped that about killing, too, though. And see just how that worked out for him. “How many pirates?” he asks instead.

“Twenty-five, all top mercs,” Brock answers quickly. “Led by this guy: Georges Batroc. Ex-DGSE, Action Division. Top of Interpol’s Red Notice. Before the French demobilized him, he’d had thirty-six kill missions. Guy’s got a rep for maximum casualties.”

The picture of Batroc must be recent; it sure isn’t his old personnel photo, looks more like a mug shot than anything else. He’s a squat, muscle-bound guy, pretty standard GI—well, standard for modern times. In Steve’s time this fella would’ve been a bit too bullish-looking for his CO’s to be perfectly satisfied. He’s bot buzzed hair, a calm expression, and rather flappy ears. His profile’s nothing to be scoffed at, and Steve gut jolts with that guilty, little thrill that comes from knowing he’ll need to not only fight hard but fight smart.

“And the hostages?”

“Mostly techs,” Rumlow says, pulling up the personnel listings. “One officer: Jasper Sitwell. They’ll be held in the galley.”

Steve’s met Sitwell before; he’s the one who oversaw the retrieval of Loki’s scepter and the Tesseract after the Battle of New York (not that he’d ever gotten the latter, much to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s continuing disapproval). He’s a hard worker, by all accounts a good handler, and one of the few who hasn’t yet had a meltdown over having to deal with Tony’s theatric moments of megalomania. Not even Steve can say that, and he calls Tony his friend.

“What’s Sitwell even doing on a launch ship?” Steve mutters, turning to pick up his helmet and shield. “Alright, I’m gonna sweep the deck and find Batroc. Nat, you’ll kill the engines then await further instructions. Rumlow, you take your team, sweep the aft, find the hostages, get ‘em to the life pods, and set ‘em on the course for Kochi. Let’s move.”

Rumlow gets his men in order fast, all of them pulling on their parachutes with the ease of long familiarity. They’re not a chatty bunch, which has always weirded Steve out; the Howlies were never quiet if they didn’t have to be, not even in moment of utter bleakness. Someone’d always been talking, keeping his friends and fellow soldiers above water while the world grew colder and the blood dried on their hands and souls.

Steve taps his earpiece, then his wrist comm. “Secure channel seven.”

Seven secure,” Nat confirms, striding up to him. She’s zipped her uniform all the way up in the front, much to the disappointment of a few STRIKE agents. Steve’s not quite sure why she’s testing them, but she sure is trying. Her coppery hair’s in a low ponytail. “Did you do anything fun Saturday night?”

“Well, all the guys from my barbershop quartet are dead, so… no, not really.” Never mind that Steve’s never had a barbershop quartet in his life. He’d had Bucky, a few casual art class acquaintances, sometimes Arnie Roth. Ephemeral friendships, most of them, but whenever Bucky’d been going steady with a girl, they’d been enough to keep the loneliness at bay.

Not that Bucky’d gone steady all that often, but it used to feel like Steve’d gone years without him in those few short months. Never mind that he always came home to Steve at the end of the night—or early morning, as it were. Nearly a century later, Steve can bitterly admit that if anyone could’ve been said to truly have had Bucky, it’d have been him. Seems almost poetic that he was the one to lose him, too.

Coming up on the drop zone,” the pilot announces.

“You know,” Nat says in that really unsubtle tone that tells Steve that he’s not going to enjoy this conversation at all. “If you ask Kristen out—Kristen from Statistics, Rogers, don’t even try to pretend you don’t know her—she’d probably say yes. You could have fun Saturdays together.”

“That’s why I don’t ask,” Steve quips, pretending to be very absorbed in adjusting his gloves. Very important, that. They have extra padding over the knuckles, sure is handy in a fight. Good call, Tony, real swell.

Nothing, however, not even the world ending, could stop Natasha now. Which god would he have to pray to for her to find a better hobby than trying to set him up? “Too shy or too scared?”

“Too busy!”

The latch opens, and Steve moves forward, more to escape the conversation than because he really needs to hurry now. One of the less experienced STRIKE agents exclaims as he jumps, noting Steve’s lack of parachute. Rumlow just laughs it off, as if he hadn’t also been shell-shocked the first time Steve threw himself out of plane like he had a death wish.

The fact is: if a crashing plane couldn’t kill him, neither can a short drop into non-arctic waters. He doesn’t even think of dying when he falls anymore, barely gets a flash of that emergency door aboard the HYDRA plane and his decision not to try it. If the echoes of several voices saying “we’re with you, Steve,” still haunt him, that’s his business.

Small steps and all.

*

Sneaking aboard the platform is easy, even with how well-guarded the Lemurian Star is; the pirates don’t expect people to have swum to them—just as they won’t be expecting the agents gliding in from above any time now. Even with the little fractures in his shins and feet from hitting the water at high speed, all of which are nearly healed and now merely pinches sharply, he climbs aboard undiscovered.

Steve lands on his toes, quiet as can be as he sneaks up on a guard. He’s dripping water, but the suit’s pretty non-absorbent; he’ll be dry again in a few moments. He smoothly grabs the guard around the neck and puts him in a sleeper hold until he passes out. One down; several to go.

Almost noiseless as he runs, he comes up behind the next two before they know what’s going on. He slips the shield free from its harness, lets it fly from his hand. He barely has to consider this move anymore, it’s instinctual, just throw it and fight on. It bounces off the first guard, downing him, then off a pillar, then off the wall, then glancing the second guard’s neck, and sending him to the floor, too. Steve picks the shield out of the air seamlessly and slams it against the second guard’s chest, making sure he’s out cold.

He clears the deck in record time.

The next guard goes down with just a single kick to the chest, hitting the side of the platform with a sickening crunch and going over into the water. Pull your punches! Don’t kill them! The next two he’s a little more careful with minimum-effort moves to knock them out quick. Through it all, he’s on his toes, weightless.

There’s something liberating about fighting, something that makes him forget himself and just be. It’s not as good a feeling as you’d think.

The next guard, Steve simply pushes overboard, the man’s yell drowning in the sea. Next one, he tackles effortlessly, heart thumping excitedly when he manages to incorporate the handspring he’s been practicing. It probably isn’t as elegant as when the Olympic gymnasts do it, but it works just fine. Another guy tries to knife him, so Steve twists his wrist, steals his knife. It comes in handy for pinning his buddy’s wrist to the wall, hand is just inches from the alarm.

He doesn’t need to kick him in the face. He knows that. But he does anyway; it comes easy to him, the violence. He doesn’t even feel gutted about that anymore.   

It’s becoming harder to pull his punches; the deck’s almost cleared of guards, and the last ones are congregated on the level below. One, Steve knees in the stomach, sending him flying into some machinery. Next two, he uses the shield. Third one has a gun, and he’s too far away for a quick punch—Steve throws himself into a vertical spin to avoid the bullet, lite as a dancer, and then lets the shield fly. Next ones… more punches, kicks, he even flips one.

When he turns, there’s another gun pointed at his face. The guard barks at him in French, eyes wide with fear even as he threatens Steve. Halfway through a demand for him to kneel, there’s the subtle, sharp ping of a silencer. The guard goes down, bleeding from the neck.

Rumlow lands on the deck, tucking his gun away and shrugging off his parachute.

When Steve thanks him, he grins easily. He’s always more at ease in the thick of battle; privately, Steve fears he’s the same as him.

Rumlow’s arrivals herald the others’, and as Steve moves to locate Batroc, Natasha appears at his side, looking put out. “What about your neighbor, the nurse? She seems kinda nice.”

Jesus fucking Christ, Nat. “Secure the engine room, then find me a date,” he tries to derail.

He should know better by now. “I’m multitasking!”

Thankfully for his sanity, Nat does disappear to do her job—which does not, under any circumstance, involve getting him a date. She’s been really persistent about it lately, and he’s growing more and more tempted to snap at her. Why does it matter that he’s not seeing anyone? Isn’t he enough in himself? Besides, shouldn’t Nat, as his friend, be a little more sensitive to the supposed star-crossed lovers thing people seem to think he’d had with Peggy? To him, that’ll only be two years lost. That’s not nearly enough time to grieve, is it?

He’d be willing to pretend that story was true, if only for Nat to stop trying to ‘help’ him. 

Shaking off his unease, Steve slips into position just out of sight of the bridge. Batroc’s pacing back and forth in front of the windows, a little restless as one of his henchmen announces yet more radio silence from S.H.I.E.L.D.

The STRIKE team check in, ready to go.

“Natasha, what’s your status?” Steve says, sotto-voce. There’s nothing but silence over the comms. “Status, Natasha?”

Hang on!” she chirps, voice lost in someone else’s pained groan. Sounds like good times—for her, not so much for whatever poor bastard’s being downed by her widow’s bites and stellar hits. “Engine room secure.

“Everybody, on my mark. Three. Two. One—”

Chapter Text

Steve was right; Batroc does make him fight smarter.

He manages to clear out from the bridge before Steve can get to him, thus starting a game of high-stakes hide-and-seek all over the platform. It doesn’t help Steve’s concentration when Rumlow reports that Natasha had missed the extraction point. Thankfully, the hostages have all been recovered alive and largely unharmed.

“Natasha, Batroc’s on the move. Circle back to Rumlow and protect the hostages!” Steve orders down the comm. There’s no answer, just white noise. Fuckin’ shit.

Just as Steve’s working up to a real sharp reprimand, Batroc attacks from above. Steve only gets the shield up at the last moment, deflecting what would otherwise have been a kick to the face.

And so, it begins.

Batroc’s fighting style would be a joy to watch if it weren’t currently focused on kicking Steve’s ass. Still, there’s a level of enjoyment to fighting him that Steve will only ever guilty admit to in the deep, dark recesses of his mind. Had it been before the war, he might have confessed it at church, but he doesn’t go much anymore. If it weren’t for the saints and rosery he keeps, he’d almost be Protestant. What would his Ma say? 

Batroc uses his legs much more than most mercenaries Steve’s ever come across. It puts more strength behind his hits, so much so that you’d think he’d be more unbalanced, but he’s not. He’s light on his feet, almost acrobatic, and he’s not afraid to jolt himself into spins and jumps that’d break the ankles of lesser fighters.

Steve’s no stranger to such movements, having often trained with Natasha in between missions. Batroc’s not quite as graceful, manages to get something workman-like into it, as if he’s been practicing his jumps as part of his drills. Still, Steve deflects most of them with his shield or fists, keeping Batroc coming at him without exerting himself. Steve wants to know just what he’s up against, just how risky he can get with his own moves, and what better way to learn than by having his opponent tire himself out?

At one point, however, Batroc gets too close to Steve’s face, so Steve knees him in the gut, once, twice. He’s not using full-strength, but maybe he shouldn’t have held back as much, as Batroc manages to backflip away from him like some kind of circus artist.

Standing a few yards apart, they watch one another like cats in an alley.

Licking over his teeth, Batroc suddenly speaks, his words flavored by an unfamiliar accent. He might be from down South, not like Dernier who’d grown up in the Picardie region and had been the one to teach Steve French in the first place. “I thought you were more than just a shield,” Batroc says, eyes flicking down disdainfully.

Steve tilts his head. From beyond the veil of death, the Howlies are surely yelling at him, knowing just what that little movement means. Hell, Bucky might be working on resurrecting himself just to kick Steve’s ass. He slides the shield back in its harness, then slips off his helmet. Batroc smiles like he’s won something.

On va voir,” Steve says, dropping the helmet casually to the floor. Let’s find out.

To his credit, Batroc doesn’t just rush him. He feints a few hits, making note of how Steve reacts, then bulldozes forward. He’s fast and brutal, Steve’ll give him that, but he’s no supersoldier—or Natasha, for that matter. He dances too close, so Steve elbows him in the face, sending him stumbling back. He rallies commendably, growing even more vicious with his blows.

And that’s when Steve starts putting his back into it.

Mirroring Batroc, he kicks and jumps. Obviously unused to having his methods used against him, Batroc spends the rest of the fight backing up, trying to avoid Steve’s hits. But Steve’s not going anywhere; he hits him with a flying karate kick that Natasha had taught him, slamming him straight to the cold, steel floor.

Batroc gets back up again, breathless. He can go a while more it seems, but Steve’s a little pissed from the backhand slap Batroc had managed to lay across his cheekbone, so rather than letter him regain himself, he just tackles him straight through a door. For the sake of ending things cleanly, he also clocks him clean across the jaw, and Batroc’s out like a light. 

A beat, and then, “Well, this is awkward.”

Steve looks up. They’ve barreled into a control room of some sort, monitors and computers everywhere. In the middle of it all is Natasha, a few strands of hair slipping from her ponytail. She’s smiling at him, almost motherly, the way you smile at dogs when they finally learn how to fetch the ball and drop it again.

“What are you doing?” he demands, striding towards her.

“Backing up the hard drive,” she drawls, clicking away at the keyboard without a care in the world. “It’s a good habit to get into.”

Steve’s temper rarely leaves his standard ‘vaguely disgruntled’ setting, but this just brings him right to the edge of ‘really fucking pissed’. “Rumlow needed your help, what the hell are you doing here?” At her side, he glances at the screen. “Are you—you’re saving S.H.I.E.L.D. intel.”

“Whatever I can get my hands on, yes.”

“Our mission was to rescue hostages.”

“No, that’s your mission,” she says, sugar-sweet. Done with the files, she snatches a small, silver thumb-drive from the computer. “And you’ve done it beautifully.”

Forget pissed off; try apoplectic. Steve grabs her arm when she tries to pass him, gentler than he would’ve been with anyone not his friend. “You just jeopardized this whole operation,” he hisses at her. 

Flicking a glance at his hand with an air of excuse you, Natasha remains unbothered by his tone. “I think that’s overstating things. It’s not on me if Fury doesn’t clue you into my part of the mission—”

Something beeps loudly. Batroc, apparently not as unconscious as Steve’d thought—that’s what you get for pulling you punches, a nastier part of his brain whispers, just like on the train—is on his feet, hauling ass to get away from the bomb he’s just lobbed towards Steve and Nat. Steve’s already got his shield in hand, having reacted at the first beep, and manages to deflect it away from them.

There’s not a whole lot of deflecting to be done, however, when the bomb is still in the room.

On instinct, and frankly a little panicked, he picks up Natasha under his arm like a ragdoll, running for cover. Finally helpful, she shoots out the glass windows to the office next door, allowing him to throw both of them through.

It’s just a small caliber bullet, though, so Steve ends up taking most of the glass—and the blinds besides—out himself, crashing through them like a particularly ungainly monkey. Twisting to break their fall with his body, he lands with Natasha on top of him, both of them curling up close to the wall to avoid debris from the blast.

Once it’s over, they clamber to a sitting position, ash and dust settling on their skin. Steve was already a little sweaty; it’s going to be hell cleaning the filth from his skin now.

“Okay. That’s on me,” Natasha admits, coughing.

She has the gall to look hurt when he snaps, “You’re damn right it is.”

To avoid yelling, he storms away.

His Ma would be proud of his restraint.

*

His Ma would not, however, be surprised to see him storm into his boss’ office the second they’re back at the Triskelion, also known as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters in D.C. He’s not even changed out of his uniform, is still covered in sweat and grit beneath it. Fury should be damn thankful that Steve took the time to even wash his face before showing up. 

He’s spent the entire ride back stewing in a corner, passive-aggressively cleaning his shield. He was even deliberately short and non-confrontational when Natasha tried talking to him—not to apologize, oh, no, Nat’s quite convinced that she was just doing her job and he’s just being petty about it—and has worked up some good, old-fashioned, righteous fury.

It’s almost comical, the way the door slams open to admit his six-foot-four frame to Fury’s glass and chrome fishbowl of an office. Fury looks up from his computer screen, already done with Steve and his dramatics.

Which is why Steve’s opening salvo is: “You just can’t stop yourself from lying, can you?” The outrage in his voice is probably why most of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the public all still seem to think he’s nothing but a good Catholic boy who never stepped a toe out of line. What do you mean Captain America got to where he needed to be by lying and cheating? No, sir, not my Captain would never.

“I didn’t lie,” Fury says, tone deliberately calm, but Steve’s noticed the annoyed twitch in his uncovered eye. Fury’s this close to kicking him right back out of his office. “Agent Romanoff had a different mission than yours.”

“Which you didn’t feel obliged to share!”

More eye-twitching. “I’m not obliged to do anything, Agent Rogers.”

“Those hostages could’ve died, Nick.”

Fury’s not even looking at him anymore, instead turning back to whatever is so important on his screen. Probably secret plans to have Rumlow do the macarena next mission to distract the enemy. “I sent the greatest soldier in history to make sure that didn’t happen.”

“Soldiers trust each other,” Steve keeps going. “That’s what make them part of an army. Not by being a bunch of guys running around, shooting guns.”

“The last time I trusted someone,” Fury proclaims grandly, rising to his feet and staring Steve down. “I lost an eye. Look, I didn’t want you doing anything you weren’t comfortable with, and let’s face it, Cap; you’ve been lookin’ like someone’s pissed in your cereal since your first day here. Agent Romanoff, however, if comfortable with everything.”

And limits are a bad thing? What kind of fucking soldier do you think I am? “I can’t lead a mission when the people I’m leading have missions of their own,” he bites out. And if I can’t lead, if I can’t fight, what am I even good for?

“It’s called compartmentalization,” Fury says in a tone that Natasha must have learned from him, the are you as stupid as you look one. “On and off the battlefield. Nobody spills the secrets because nobody knows them all.”

Steve smiles meanly. “Except you.”

Fury sighs and pulls himself to his full height. He’s wearing one of his nicer black jackets, not that leather monstrosity that he’s usually so fond of. It’s cut more like a dress uniform and buttoned from neck to hip. “You’re wrong about me,” he says softly. Then, much sharper, “I do share. I’m nice like that.”

Steve has more to say, but evidently that’s the last bit of patience Fury has with him today. Must be a record; Fury usually lets him work off some steam before telling him to beat it. He’ll have to note it on his calendar.  

Fury herds Steve into the elevator, following him in. “Insight bay,” he orders. The building computer denies him access at first, citing Steve’s presence, but Fury deals with that by way of director override and down they go. 

The elevator is situated on the edge of the Triskelion’s main building. The Triskelion itself is a tripartite, circular structure, each wing curved slightly and connected to the others by way of a round helicopter pad at the very top and a series of glass walkways between the wings. In addition, there’s a stockier add-on building that largely consists of administrative offices and conference rooms, perfect for uninitiated visitors.

Like Fury’s office, the elevator has glass sides, offering a swooping view of the Potomac as well as the long drop to the ground should the cables malfunction. Given the architectural design, there aren’t a whole lot of elevators, so the ones they do have are sizeable. It allows Steve to stand as far away from Fury as he can, which really excuses any other flaw.

He’s pushed Fury enough for now, so all he can do it fume quietly, going over all the reasons why joining S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place was a dumb idea. They’re not transparent enough, most other government organizations are wary of them, they meddle where they shouldn’t. Steve might not bring up the Battle of New York disaster anymore, but don’t for a minute think he’s forgotten it. Sure, it wasn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. who threw a nuke at them, but they answer to the people who did.

The end justifies the means. It was true in the war, and it’s still true now. Who cares how many bodies they need to bury to seize victory in the end? The war’s been won, and the cost doesn’t matter. It’s not like the ones gambling with the lives of ordinary people will ever bleed for the cause themselves.

“You know, my grandfather operated one of these things for forty years,” Fury says about the elevator, seemingly at random. He doesn’t continue until Steve grudgingly hums to show that he’s listening. “He worked in a nice building, got good tips. He’d walk home every night, a roll of ones stuffed in his lunch bag. He’d say ‘hi’, people would say ‘hi’ back. A steady life, that.”

Steve remembers a time when a steady life was the last thing he wanted. Now… “Sounds nice.”

Fury chuffs, smile sharp. “Quite. Then the Depression hit, you know how it went. Neighborhood got rougher; people lost their jobs. He’d still say ‘hi’, but they’d say ‘keep on steppin’’ now. Grandad got to grippin’ that lunch bag a little tighter with every day.”

“He ever get mugged?” Steve asks, like that’s a rare occurrence. Where Steve grew up, it was a damn rite of passage, and it doesn’t seem to have changed much. Hell, he almost got mugged going for groceries a few weeks ago. That mugger must have never made a single wise life choice.

“Every week some punk would say, ‘what’s in the bag, old man?’” Fury goes on, an almost nostalgic smile on his face. Steve wonders briefly how old he is. He’s got battle scars and plenty of crow’s feet, but he doesn’t look old. But if his grandfather was working during the Depression, he might be just one generation younger than Steve, chronologically speaking.

“What’d he do?” he asks as the elevator disappears below ground.

“He’d show them the bag. Bunch of crumpled ones and a loaded .22 Magnum.” Fury smiles, a baring of teeth. “Granddad loved people. He just didn’t trust them very much. And neither do we.”

With that, he indicates the hangar that’s just come into view and Steve’s jaw drops.   

Chapter Text

“Yeah, I know,” Fury says proudly. “They’re a little bit bigger than a .22.”

The ‘they’ in question are three gigantic Helicarriers. They’re not quite like the Helicarrier from two years ago, having little to no areas for personnel to hide in. There are a few walkways and a landing pad at the top, but that’s it. Most of all, they look like less monstrous versions of the Chitauri Leviathans, their spikes made of guns and cannons.

Fury, mistaking Steve’s continued silence for awe, continues. “This is Project Insight. Three next-generation Helicarriers synced to a network of targeting satellites, all monitored directly from headquarters. The algorithm cannot be broken by anyone with just an internet connection either. It’s practically un-hackable.”

“This is what you were gonna be launching from the Lemurian Star.” That explains Sitwell’s presence at least.

“Once we get them in the air, they’ll never need to come down again. Continuous suborbital flight, courtesy of new repulsor engines. Stark had a few suggestions once he got an up-close look at our old turbines—I’m sure you remember that occasion.

“Still, took him a while to get on it, what with his whole attempted no-weapons manufacture policy, but thank God some of Stark Senior’s ironclad contracts are still in play. We might have had to look to Hammer if they’d fallen through. Thanks to those, we’ve got these new long-range precision guns. They can eliminate a thousand hostiles a minute, and the satellites can read a terrorist’s DNA before he steps outside his spider hole. We’re gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.”

How can he be so blasé about this? These are intelligent weapons, trained on unsuspecting citizens. Sure, they’re aimed at terrorists now. But what about when those terrorists are gone? “I thought the punishment came after the crime,” Steve blurts, jaw ground tight.

Fury frowns at him. “Can’t afford to wait that long. Imagine what might’ve happened if we’d had these when the Chitauri came.”

You’d have shot us down rather than nuke us? “Who’s ‘we’?”

“After New York, I convinced the World Security Council that we needed a quantum surge in threat analysis. For once, we’ll be way ahead of the curve with these.”

Had this been the army, Steve would’ve been told to shut up long before he opened his mouth, but Fury doesn’t quite have Colonel Phillips’ bullshit radar, or he’d have sensed Steve’s temper the second they stepped into the holding bay. “By holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection, you mean.”

Fury watches him steadily, head tilted. He’s obviously had beyond enough of Steve’s attitude for today, but he keeps his temper well. “You know, I read those SSR files. Your so-called ‘greatest generation’? You guys did some nasty stuff for the greater good.”

As if Steve doesn’t know that. As if he hadn’t felt the politics of ‘greater good’ every day of his life, a poor third-generation immigrant, sick as a dog more than half the time, raised by a single mother in a bad part of town. As if he hadn’t learned of the injustice of ‘goodness’, hadn’t known men who could’ve been so much more but for the state of the world. Isaiah Bradley, who should’ve been Captain America. Gabriel Jones, who should’ve been promoted long before Steve met him. James Morita, who should’ve been able to return to the US without fear of being put in a detention camp. They’d all fought for a country that despised them.

“We compromised,” he says. Too much, he doesn’t, and rarely the good of anyone but the rich and powerful. “Often in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so that people could have a chance at freedom, people who hadn’t had that chance before. We’ve come this far, and this is how you repay those sacrifices? This isn’t freedom—this is fear.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be,” Fury says gravely, looking at Steve with something like pity. “It’s getting damn near past time for you to get with that program, Cap.”

Steve turns on his heel. He’s so damn tired. “Don’t hold your breath.”

*

Since starting work, Steve’s often wondered if this was how Peggy and Howard had envisioned S.H.I.E.L.D. Phillips wouldn’t have been bothered by the shadier sides of the intelligence service, at least not in any way that’d have prevented him from carrying out his job. Steve’d learned that in Italy.

Howard… honestly, Steve hadn’t known what motivated that guy half the time, and if Tony’s rare comments on the man has taught him anything it’s that not even his family ever truly knew what he wanted. Maybe their dirty deeds hadn’t bothered him, maybe they had. Who knows now.

But Peggy, she couldn’t have been so cavalier about it all, could she? That’s not the woman Steve remembers, not the values she spoke of back then. Sure, she hadn’t been as squeamish as he had, but she’d never blatantly disregarded the choices of others either, hadn’t judged them before they proved their intentions to her.

But the road to hell and all that jazz.

It niggles at him for the rest of the day, even as he packs the suit away for cleaning and showers off the sweat and dirt of the mission. He likes to tend to his uniform himself, the same as he would tend to his own weapons back in the war, learning it inside out. But that’ll have to wait; he’s starving.

The second he’s clean and dressed again, he’s off to the Vietnamese restaurant on 18th Street. They’re familiar with him there and never ask him for pictures—possibly because the old lady who runs the kitchen, the stone-faced Mrs. Ngô, tolerates absolutely no gossip of any kind. She also gives him the senior’s discount but refuses any sort of superhero discounts.

Or maybe she just doesn’t like Clint after that thing with the arrow chopsticks.

He must look particularly pathetic, because he ends up with much larger portions than usual. Given his usual order, that’s a hell of a lot of food. There are summer rolls, spring rolls, two kinds of meat skewers, about a gallon of spicy, fragrant pho, a gallon of plain noodle soup, and then four boxes of fried rice. That’s about enough for a meal and a snack, and he gobbles it all down. He doesn’t even need to loosen his belt.  

At home, Steve has a very orderly routine. First thing, he cleans. Even if there’s no mess, he still takes the time to dust and wipe down the kitchen and bathroom.

Whichever S.H.I.E.L.D. employee had been in charge of furnishing his apartment had made sure to make it as simple and outdated as possible. When Steve’d first walked in, he’d thought it was all a joke. The furniture was nice, but it also the kind of furniture you’d have seen in hot-shot offices in the ‘40s, and thus not the kind that Steve would’ve ever thought to buy for himself. Even the wallpaper gave him horrid flashbacks to Bucky’s aunt’s flat, a truly kitschy place that had smelled like cabbage year-round.

Do you know how difficult it is to fit into a new world when everybody around you subtly communicates that you never can? It’s a fuckin’ Sisyphean struggle.

Still, he hasn’t replaced anything in the apartment—except for the TV, but that was Tony’s doing. He just hasn’t had the time, or inclination. Not even when he lies awake at night and stare at the hideous armchair in the corner. Even his Ma would’ve been hard-pressed to say something nice about it, and that woman was a saint.

Next, he budgets.

One of the reasons Steve doesn’t live in Stark Tower—Avengers Tower, what-the-fuck-ever—is the inescapable guilt that seizes him when he so much as looks at it. Tony might like to kid himself that it’s because it offends Steve’s artistic sensibilities, which it also does, but it’s more than that. It’s such an ostentatious sign of wealth that Steve just can’t deal with.

Even when he himself has that insane amount of money, too. Technically, that is. He has an accountant to keep track of it, one that S.H.I.E.L.D. hired when they first found out just how eager Steve was to give the money away. He’s now allowed four charity donations a month, none superseding 10K per donation. The rest of the money, well. Most of it he doesn’t touch. He has a set ‘allowance’ per week that just about covers groceries, bills, and the odd splurge.  

He just… he really doesn’t need that much money. He could feed an entire state for months on what he has in the back, could pay for thousands to go to college, could single-handedly pay for state-of-the-art health clinics to be opened and run for free in the poorer parts of town.

And yet, S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t allow that. He tries not to dwell on it. Tries.

Despite the budgeting, he prefers going to one of the more expensive markets for groceries. It’s a farmer’s market out in Brentwood, so Steve gets in his S.H.I.E.L.D. issued truck and drives, turning the music up real loud.

He likes all sorts of music these days, as long as it was recorded after the ‘50s. Anything earlier, and he feels like going out of his mind. For training, he likes upbeat pop songs, or hip-hop for when he dons his boxing gloves and beats the shit out of yet another punching bag. When he’s missing Tony, he puts ‘70s rock; for Natasha its early 2000 girrrl power pop; late ‘90s boybands for Clint, angry housewife country for Bruce; and for Thor it’s ‘80s pop rock.

When it’s just for his own enjoyment, punk and blues are his go-to choices. It’s a relief to listen to someone angrier or sadder than him, revelatory almost. It’s even better when they aren’t just ragging on the state—though it deserves to be ragged on, thoroughly. There’s this band whose lead singer is a trans woman; the struggles and feeling she sings are so unfamiliar and yet Steve feels them move through him, makes him want to sing along with her. Her honesty and spite and strength make him want to be brave like she has been, brave like he never was back then.  

But his favorite band?

He’d found them by accident, having gone down another Wikipedia spiral in one of his fits of insomnia. He doesn’t quite remember where he’d started out, but he’d ended up on The Jackknives, a Brooklyn-based band that sound like they cut open Steve’s heart and played its strings so beautifully. The front man and singer-songwriter for the band it even an Irish lad who grew up just like Steve, some fifty years after his time, and he sings with nostalgia of a time both alike and different from Steve’s own youth.  

But best of all? He’s like Steve. You know, queer. Bisexual—or does he use ‘pansexual’? Or was it that one of those prefixes was attached to -sexual and the other to -romantic? Steve can’t quite tell it all apart despite being in the middle of it, and it’s not like he’s ever shared it with a whole lot of people. Just two, actually. Irina Dugan and Peggy Carter.  

The Jackknives have got a song called My Man that shook him to the core the first time he heard it. He’d barely been able to function, hadn’t known what to do with himself. You could just… do that? Could just speak your love for another man out loud like that and make it poetry? And God, Steve’d heard his own love in every word, had felt it mirrored in every memory of Bucky.

He listens to them now, humming along to their first album. It’s much angrier than the rest of their stuff, borne of restlessness and a deep kind of melancholia that pervades every single note. They sing of Brooklyn, of heritage, sing of lost chances, of times that seem happy only in the light of more recent pain.

Listening to them is the only way for him to connect with home after all these years.

At the market, he works through the stalls methodically. He’s not a casual shopper who just picks up whatever catches his eye, but he does like to try new things. Before the war, skill hadn’t been an issue what with the way they boiled everything as he told Sam, and Bucky and he had always been hungry enough to eat anything. In the war, the Howlies had banned him from cooking, citing crimes against nature and the art of turning beans into… well, cooked beans, but not bean mush.

Nowadays, he tries to cook more, and not just because it got really embarrassing that his various take-away vendors started recognizing him on the street. And not as Captain America, but as Mr. Four Pepperoni Pizzas and Two Large Fries or Forty Crab Rolls and Twenty Tuna Rolls Guy.

Thus, take-away is only for emergencies, such as today, but otherwise, he fumbles along by using recipes and cookbooks made for children and students. Those are often much more forgiving of his skill level. He’s gotten pretty good, if he says so himself. Thor hadn’t complained once during his last stay, and he’s usually pretty easy to read when he doesn’t like something.

The only one ‘simple’ thing he can’t make at this point is bread. Fuck bread. Fuck yeast. Fuck the dough sticking to his hand and getting all over the table when he tries to knead it.

Grocery shopping takes just under two hours, and he comes away with seven bags of food—all in reusable tote bags, of course. The last time he hadn’t carried one of those, he’d ended up in half-hour lecture with some dame who’d never heard of personal space.

And then he’s home again and there’s still at least six hours left before he can go to bed. His sleep cycle is fucked from the mission but going to bed now would mess it up even more, so while he brushes his teeth and dresses down for bed, he doesn’t lie down just yet.

Who knows, maybe later he’ll be tired enough to try the bed again. 

To while the hours away, he pulls out his sketchpad and the watercolors he’d bought a month ago. He’d felt strangely embarrassed as he paid for them, almost fragile. Old hurts still tender. Not even art circles could’ve been said to be free of prejudices back when he was learning to paint, despite what modern society seems to think.

Back then, real men used acrylics or oils. Watercolors were for women and homosexuals.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always been half-drawn to them, he thinks darkly as he carefully draws the first few strokes. He’ll paint a forest. Paint the undergrowth, maybe even a hare or some birds. He doesn’t paint people anymore.

When it finally comes to bedtime, he’s not tired. He yearns to put down the brush, but he’d rather force himself to keep going than go to sleep. He can feel nightmares nipping at him already, manifesting as a sort of oversensitivity to everything in the room. Noises are louder. His eyes dart without permission. His skin feels tight.

Tonight will be a bad night.

And tomorrow… well. Tomorrow he has another promise to keep.

Chapter Text

A symbol of the nation. A hero to the world. The story of Captain America is one of honor, bravery, and sacrifice.

Standing outside the Smithsonian Air and Space building, Steve can hear the announcer clearly. He’s dressed in Public Clothes today, a light jacket, tight T-shirt, somewhat formfitting jeans, and a blue cap pulled low. He’s found that the tighter his clothes, the less likely people are to look him in the face, too distracted by his body.

Despite his statuesque physique, they usually don’t connect him to Captain America—he’s thinner in their minds, proportions all out of sorts; his waist is practically non-existent, his chest too wide to fit through doorways. In reality, it’s not that he’s not broad-shouldered or that his waist isn’t trim, but he’s not the fat-free action figure they’ve all seen on Project Rebirth photos. He’d been starving and dehydrated when those were taken.

Now, eating as well and working as hard as he does, he’s got fat on his body, his skin falls into rolls when he bends, his muscles jiggle with movement, like for all healthy people. He may be a supersoldier, but he’s human, still.

Still, he’s going to a Captain America exhibit, so there’s a higher chance of being recognized if he didn’t do a bit more to hide in plain sight. Thus, the blue cap. He also hasn’t shaved, has some nice stubble going. That should be enough.

He’s dead tired, having been haunted by nightmares and unable to break free. The phantom touch of hands on his chest and around his throat had slid from his bed like the touch of a living ghost. He hadn’t even tried the bed.

He’d have gone running at four in the damn morning if Tony hadn’t called him, demanding facetime. Tony’s got some sort of radar for when Steve’s having a particularly bad night and almost always gets a call through. They’ve grown quite close since Steve dropped everything and sat vigil by Tony’s bedside after the whole thing with the Mandarin and the subsequent chest surgery last Christmas—even if Steve only lasted a week. You try being cooped up with a bored, restless, healing Tony who most definitely does not appreciate being seen as weak but also desperately wants the comfort.

Neither of them are good at talking about how they feel, so Steve’d just let Tony ramble on the phone. “My first word was ‘dad’, you know,” Tony had said, eyes on whatever he was picking apart in his workshop. Despite insisting on facetime, he never actually looks Steve in the eye. “But I wasn’t calling for my father.”

After, Steve’d managed a nap after and dreamed of his Ma’s empty apartment, then his own back in Brooklyn. And now, he’s here. Not really ready to face the day, but determined to do it, nonetheless.

Why they put this exhibit in the Air and Space building is anyone’s guess. The one and only time he’d actively had anything to do with a plane had ended with him taking a seventy-year nap. It’s not exactly what you’d call a positive experience.

He’s not particularly keen to go in. But he promised Peggy, whom he’s seeing tomorrow. So, here he is.

Deep breaths. Steady.

He’d tried going once before but doesn’t remember much of that trip. He’d ended up in front of a letter from Bucky that Steve’d never received before going on tour with Brandt’s troupe. He’d had to leave the museum, rushing out like he was on fire. It’s the only thing clear in his mind, an unending whisper of courage was mine, and I had mystery…

To enter the Captain America section, you pass through an almost-gate of hastily erected stage-walls, one bearing a high school history book resume of Steve’s story, along with a welcome-back quote from President Ellis.

Just inside is a short hallway with a giant mural of Steve—or rather, Captain America—saluting the American flag. It’s quite lovely work; special attention has been paid to his eyes and lips in a way that feels almost adoring. Steve passes it by with his head ducked.

The exhibition proper starts with a brief look into Steve’s life before the war. The photographs—scans and originals both—must have been gathered from the Barneses’ photo albums or even Steve’s old apartment. There’s also his acceptance letter from art school, wherever the fuck they’d gotten that from.

Next, there are few pictures of him from the early days of bootcamp followed by one taken almost right after the serum injections. A pair of large screens show him in full, the little guy from Brooklyn fading into the absolute tank of a soldier. Kids and adults alike line up to compare themselves to the After image.   

Denied enlistment due to poor health, Steven Rogers was chosen for a program unique in the annals of American warfare. One that would transform him into the world’s first supersoldier,” the narrator drones on, straight out lying. Steve notes it down on his phone, determined to write a strongly worded letter when he gets home. Without S.H.I.E.L.D. finding out first, of course, or they might not allow him to.

From next to the screens, a small, Indian-looking kid is watching him tap angrily on his phone. Feeling eyes on him, Steve looks up slowly, careful not to draw attention. The boy stares, looks from Steve to the big screens now showing Captain America, then back again. His eyes bug out.

Steve lifts his finger carefully to his mouth, shushes without noise. The boy nods, then scurries off. Hopefully that’ll be the one and only encounter he has.

He walks on.

His old life now over, the next section of the exhibit briefly concerns itself with his life on the stage, then moves straight into his life in the army.

In rare footage…” the narrator says of the screens showing him running around in the suit. It’s not fuckin’ rare. No one had been filming Steve on missions, they’d been covert for God’s sake. Every single picture of him and the Howlies had been very carefully staged and curated, not a single thing left to chance.

His old bike is exhibited, too, or at least a replica. Could’ve been one of Howard’s spares from base, who knows. It’s all faded chrome, nothing like the one he has now.

… battle-tested, Captain America and his Howling Commandos quickly earned their stripes. Their mission, taking down HYDRA, the Nazi rogue science division…” If they’d quickly earned their stripes, why hadn’t Morita and Gabe been promoted? Hell, why hadn’t anyone but Steve? Becoming a Howlie wasn’t as much a promotion as reassignment. Monty had practically been demoted to join under Steve’s command. Another note for his angry letter.

The Howling Commandos section is by far the largest section.

A giant mural overlooks the hall, depicting Steve looking up and ahead with the Howlies fanned out on either side of him. It must be the same artists as for the entrance hall; the brush strokes are the same, the muted way it’s been colored, too. Bucky’s been given scruff—he’d have hated that, had always kept himself clean-shaven for official pictures. But then, this century has quite a different idea of Bucky than what he’d really been like.

Below the mural, mannequins wearing their signature outfits stand guard over screens showing little clips with each Howlie. They’re snippets of interviews, must have been recorded almost directly after the war. They’re all a little wild around the eyes, as if they don’t quite believe the war to be over yet.

And then, there it is.

Bucky’s little corner of the exhibit.

A large glass plate has been erected there, carrying a blow-up headshot of Bucky in black and white. It’s almost funerary, a grave marker depicting a ghost. Bucky looks gaunt, a little morose, a lot handsome. “Best friends since childhood, Bucky Barnes and Steven Rogers were inseparable on both schoolyard and battlefield. Barnes is the only Howling Commando to give his life in service for his country.”

Bucky didn’t give. That implies a willing, conscious act. But these days—hell, in those days—people are always so, so willing to pretend that soldiers gladly give their lives. Like they don’t want desperately to get out, leave it all behind. Bucky hadn’t wanted to give his life. He’d wanted to go home, had wanted to be by Steve’s side.

It’s Steve’s fault that Bucky’s life was stolen from him, and he’ll never forgive himself for that.

He reads the plaque on the glass wall with single-minded intensity. From the corner of his eye, he can see the illuminated box with the letter, and he can’t go there yet, can’t bear to—wait, what did he just read? Barnes was drafted prior to Pearl Harbor 1941…

Bucky hadn’t been drafted, he’d enlisted alongside Steve. Right? He better not have been drafted. Steve will personally break open the gates of Heaven and slap the shit out of his best friend if that’s the case. He wouldn’t have hidden that from Steve, this has got to be another error. Right? Right?

On the subject of erroneous information about Bucky; what’s with this century’s obsession with him being a sex symbol? It’s not that Steve would ever disagree about his charms, but Bucky hadn’t ever been kissing on just anyone. Danced with anyone, sure, even Steve on occasion, but he’d been a good boy, more sensitive than he let on. His type might have been any girl who paid him attention for more than a hot minute, but sex had been a big deal for him.

Hell, not even in the war had he let that go entirely. Of course, Steve doesn’t know whether he went with anyone before arriving at the front himself, but Bucky sure hadn’t mentioned anyone, and everyone had been screwing like bunnies then. It wasn’t exactly as taboo as it had been in polite society.

After Steve arrived though, Bucky hadn’t sought anyone out. Hadn’t seemed to want anyone close to him, might have been haunted more by his quiet spells than he let on, hadn’t wanted to risk anyone seeing.

Except Steve.

With Steve, Bucky had let down his guard, had taught him to kiss in an alley, in a tent, in a forest in Austria. Had let Steve see his face when he came, had let him hear his moans.

It’s been such a long time, hasn’t it? Feels like forever, a dream of another life.

Then, there’s the letter.

Steve stands in front of it, wishing he could break open the display case and make off with it, keep it from prying eyes. It had been delivered just after Steve’d left their apartment for the last time in 1943. Bucky’d mentioned it once during the war, just, “did you get my last letter? No? Good. When we get back, burn it.”

Bucky’s written of London, of drinking with some English soldiers, of a poem that one of them had recited. It’d stuck with him, more so than you’d expect. It’s like I’m two people. I’m the speaker and the specter both. But only the specter’s words remain in my head. I know it isn’t me, it’s the poem, but I don’t … God, this fucking poem, Steve. Why can’t I forget it?

Bucky’d only been able to remember a few parts of it; the full thing has been added by some scholar or other, but Steve only has eyes for Bucky’s remembered words:

… Whatever hope is yours, / Was my life also…

… of my weeping something had been left, / Which must die now. I mean the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled…

… Courage was mine, and I had mystery; / Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery …

And lastly, written with a hand that had shook so bad it’s nearly unreadable, the words Bucky had heard in his mind over and over: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend. / I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned / Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. / I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Steve hurries for the men’s room, locking himself in a booth. The flimsy door doesn’t close all the way, leaves a gap about three inches wide for anyone to see through, but he’s alone so it doesn’t matter. His throat feels tight, his stomach roils, he’s shaking, trembling, breaking¸ and there are just those words, whatever hope is yours, and I knew you in this dark, and my hands were loath and cold, and he’s going to throw up, God, it’s coming, he tastes the bile and chokes it down, he can’t cry, please, they’ll all see, they’ll know, he has to do this, he promised—

 Another man comes and Steve forces himself to be quiet, barely breathing. The man’s humming as he goes about his business, quickly in and out. The melody is familiar, something melancholic and hopeful. It’s My Man by The Jackknives.

When he’s gone, Steve takes up the melody, breath choppy and ruinous to the rhythm. He gets through but is still coming apart at the seams, so he segues into I Was A Ghost, another Jackknives song. It, too, reminds him of Bucky, of the desperation and stubbornness and loneliness of yearning for someone right next to you before you smothered it and buried it deep. Of promises made in a dream, of a heart given freely before Steve had even known what it meant.

He finally exits and looks in the mirror; he’s looks a mess. His eyes are red rimmed, there are angry splotches all over his neck, and his lips are bitten raw. He scrubs his face and goes back out. He promised he’d see it all. Just get through this.

Most of it goes by fast. There’s a bit more on the Commandos after the war—nothing on Gabe’s battles with the system, just a few notes on his civil rights accomplishments in sterile wording, and nothing on Morita’s experiences with racism at all. There’s not a single mention of Isaiah Bradley or Camp Cathart.

And then, there’s Peggy.

Considering how little was devoted to Steve’s time as a dancing monkey, there sure is a lot of stuff from the post-war comics and radio shows focused on his and Peggy’s supposed romance. He cringes just listening to some of the recordings; the Peggy in them are as unfamiliar to him as any stranger on the street. God, she must have hated these.

There’s thankfully also a lot of stuff focused on her career; the struggle to fit into the SSR after the war, her time at university, founding S.H.I.E.L.D. How anyone could think that Peggy Carter, Agent, Director, and Doctor, had ever been just decorative is beyond him.

It’s a common misconception though, despite every evidence to the contrary. One of the first things he was given back after coming out of the ice was his compass—that stupid, old thing with Peggy’s picture plastered on the inside. The agent who’d handed it to him had been all starry-eyed, as if she’d handed him a holy relic.

Steve settles in a small auditorium where a documentary is playing. It’s pretty new, covers his resurrection and everything, but some of the footage is old. In it, Peggy’s sits in what looks like an office, dark hair styled in a short bob. She looks to be maybe fifty, fifty-five years old.

That was a difficult winter,” she’s saying. “A blizzard had trapped half our battalion behind the German line. Steve—Captain Rogers, he fought his way through a HYDRA blockade that had pinned our allies down for months. He saved over a thousand men, including the man who would… who would become my husband, as it turned out.” She blinks, looks away. Her eyes are a little wet. If Peggy’s in her fifties, her husband will only just have. His loss will still have been raw. “Even after he died, Steve was still changing my life.”

The documentary ends soon after, and Steve sits in the darkness, waiting for something and nothing at all.

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t bring flowers when he goes to see Peggy at the hospice. He itches to, feels wrong not to, but the one and only time he’d done it, Peggy’d taken just one look at them and told him she wasn’t dead yet, so please quit it with the funeral bouquet, Rogers.

It’s weird to visit her. Steve feels guilty admitting to it, but it’s the truth. Part of it is her illness; he doesn’t just visit the Peggy he knew or the Peggy she became, but a mix of those, then none of them, then one of them, then someone else entirely, someone who glimpses death just out the corner of her eye.

The other part of it is something as simple and insidious as envy.

He hadn’t envied the Commandos going on without him, had felt nothing but joy once the grief of losing them became bearable. But with Peggy… it’s not that he isn’t happy for her. She came so far, has lived such a long life, and she deserved every single ounce of good fortune to ever come her way.

Envy, however, isn’t a rational emotion, and when Steve looks at her, he sees all the things he didn’t get to see, get to do. The person he could’ve been, had he been by her side rather than undying in the ice. She was the crux of his promises, the person he’d sworn to make a life with if he survived the fall. He could’ve loved her, could’ve devoted himself to her. He would’ve built his life around her. And now, well. He’ll build a life around her legacy and tell himself it’s enough.

The worst thing is that Peggy knows how he feels, even without him saying a word.

She reads the longing in his eyes when he looks at the family photographs on her bedside table, sees the cracks in him when he tries to smile. He doesn’t even want a family. He wants to want one, but… there’s always a ‘but’ with him, isn’t there? He’s never quite enough when it truly counts.

Maybe it was a good thing that he never got the chance to inflict himself on her. 

“You should be proud of yourself, Peggy,” he says, as much to remind himself as to compliment her. It’s a good day for her so far; she hasn’t had a single slip, had listened all through his rambling about the Captain America exhibit and laughed at all the right times.

“Mm,” Peggy hums, glancing at the photographs. There’s a few of her children, one of her brother and his wife, both her wedding pictures. She looks almost nothing like the woman in those photographs; her dark hair has gone silver, her limbs have lost their strength. She appears as frail as a bird, all wrinkles and butter-soft skin. Not even her eyes are as sharp as they once were, though they are perhaps the most familiar part of her now. They seem so large in her face, and he can’t quite bear to meet them. “I have lived a life. My only regret is that you didn’t get to live yours.”

He fidgets. “Probably for the best that I didn’t, or you wouldn’t be here today.”

“I don’t much appreciate that attitude, Steve, but for the sake of this argument, I’ll allow it; why do you think it’s for the best? Would you not have supported me?”

“Oh, hell, Peggy, of course I would! I just mean—I’m not sure S.H.I.E.L.D. would’ve been able to stay in the shadows if I’d tried to be a part of it from the beginning, and who knows how that might’ve changed things. And you and I, maybe if I’d come back—”

“We would’ve married?” At his helpless look, Peggy pats his hand, her smile a little sad. “The last time we spoke, you were dead-set on dying, so forgive me if I was a little unsure of you.”

He winces. “I would’ve tried to be the best man I could for you, Pegs, I swear it.”

She hums again, a little skeptical. “Steve, my dear, I say this not to wound you, but to remind you; we barely knew one another outside of war. Maybe we would have fallen in love afterwards, maybe we would have tried our best to be like in those silly stories the comic books and radio so liked to tell about us. Or maybe, trying to live like that would have broken us. We are so alike, you and me. We never did anything by halves, never knew when to slow down. Would we have had anything left when we’d both given our all to other causes? We’ll never know.”

“I kinda get the feeling you have some thoughts on that, though,” Steve says, forcing a chuckle and pretending it doesn’t matter that she so effortlessly shreds his half-baked dreams as easily as wet paper. 

“We both know that our home would have never been just for the two of us. It would have been you and me and the ghost of James Barnes. Steve, dear, look at me; I’d like to say I never would have begrudged him your love, but I’m not that selfless. I’m sure you would have tried to love me like you loved him. And in time, you would have loved me as dearly, I’m sure. But the hole he left would’ve been with us every day, in our silences and in your guilt.”

Outside her window, birds are chirping. They’re much easier to look at than her. “I did like you, Peggy. I was never faking that.”

“I know. But knowing what I knew of your heart, how could we have gone on pretending you didn’t try to kill yourself to be with him again?”

It’s an old argument between them. Peggy’d read the report on his discovery, had poured over the photographs of the plane. She’d seen the emergency door, had known he could’ve made it out. God, she’d cussed him up one side and down the other the first time he saw her again, tears pouring down her face and her mind going in and out and starting the whole process over and over again.

“For as long as I can remember,” he says slowly, changing the subject with about as much subtlety as he has charging into battle, “I just wanted to do what was right. Waking up here, after—after that … I guess I’m not quite sure what is right anymore. I thought I could just throw myself back in and follow orders, serve. But it’s not the same. I’m not the same. Knowing you helped found S.H.I.E.L.D. is half the reason I stay. Some days, it’s the only reason, really.”

Peggy chuckles. “You’re always so dramatic. You have a good heart, Steve, and nothing and no one can take that away from you. Look, the world is… we rather mucked it up, once or twice, despite our best intentions.” She takes his hand. “Reality is, it has changed and none of us can go back. All we can do is our best, and sometimes the best be can do is to start over—” Suddenly, Peggy starts coughing, the hoarse, dry sound shaking her body like earthquakes. Steve hurries to hand her some water, pushing it into her hands as softly as he knows how. He’s had flashes of panic that he’d break her just by breathing many times before.

“Peggy, you okay?”

Peggy turns her head, a frown having settled between her brows. A beat, a blink, and her eyes fill with tears. “Steve—” she gasps “oh, my—you’re alive! Y-you came, you came back.”

His heart plummets. She’s pulling at him, nails digging into his hands. The whites of her eyes show, and her face is a snarl of grief. He tries to settle her, nods along with her words. It never gets easier, leading her through these moments. They come and go, transform her into the young woman he once knew, but only a pale imitation of her.

“It’s been so long,” she cries. “So long.”

“Well, I owe you a dance, don’t I?” he jokes weakly, pushing the call button for her nurses. He can do no more for her; in this state, his presence only taxes her, confuses her further. Just staying in the room while the nurses calm her can provoke another bout, and another and another until she passes out from the toil of it.

Once the nurses arrive, he slips from the room without saying goodbye. In this state, Peggy can’t comprehend it anyway. Out of sight, she’s forgotten him already, asking the nurse about her husband; where is he? Why hasn’t he come?

In the hallway, Steve leans again the wall, rubbing at his face with shaking hands. At the sound of approaching footsteps, he straightens, tries to look less affected.

A short, eighty-something woman comes shuffling into view with her cane. Her hair is short, grey, and curly, she’s a little stooped, and she’s got keen, playful eyes and an impish tilt to her lips.

Seeing Steve, she pauses, then marches up to him as well as she’s able. “She had another one?”

“Yeah. Bad one, this time. She’s asking for her husband again.”

Angie Martinelli, Peggy’s wife, pinches her lips, tight worry lines permanently edged on her forehead. Usually, when Angie walks into her room, Peggy will say her wife’s name in the softest, most adoring tone. Others, she’ll ask who that lovely lady is to come visit her. Angie loves her so, it’s plain to see. It obscures the way her heart breaks every time Peggy forgets her.   

He must look particularly forlorn, because Angie punches him in the arm. Why she insists on doing that, he’ll never know; her small hand barely makes his arm jiggle. “Chin up, Brooklyn. It’s not your fault.”

He smiles in an effort to pretend he believes her. She narrows her eyes at him dangerously.  

While they wait for the nurses to finish with Peggy, she prods and pokes at him with what she and Peggy call ‘small-talk’ but that the rest of the world and many an intelligence bureau besides would call interrogation. She may be just five feet and a prayer tall, but she’s got all the tenacity of a terrier and the smile of an angel. You’ll never see her coming.

“You going to that get-together the kids are throwing in May?” she asks, watching him shrewdly.

He shrugs, shuffles. “I don’t wanna be a bother.”

She rolls her eyes dramatically. Steve’s Ma would’ve told her that her face could get stuck that way, especially with how often Angie makes that exact face—especially when confronted with Steve. It’s probably a sign of affection at this point. “They’d be happy to have you. Don’t go breaking their little hearts now. Besides, it’ll be good for you.”

The ‘kids’ in question are the descendants of the Howlies, most of which Steve has never met. When he visited Irina Dugan, he’d met some of them briefly, but never got to talking to any of the seemingly one million grand- and greatgrandchildren coming and going from her house. Still, they’d made note of him, and once word had spread, the Howlie legacies had all tried their best to include him.

It’s a little odd for them all, he suspects. He’s practically a fairy-tale to them, an absent, could’ve-been-uncle. And yet, he’s psychologically younger than most of them, too. The expectations they must have of him are enough to keep him up at night.  

He’s met up with just one, thus far, and only because he’d filmed his high school PSAs at Midtown High School, the domain of Jim Morita’s grandson. After two hours of gruelling work to produce what could surely be deemed torture devices, Principal Morita had taken him out for a beer and then spent all evening laughing at him. It’d actually been really sweet, in a very Morita-esque way.

“You’re looking tired, Brooklyn, are you getting enough sleep?”

Sure. He just dreams and dreams and when the dreams get too heavy, he runs. He ran today, too, after a dream where Bucky skulked around behind him, trying to wheedle Steve into looking at him. He’d known that if he did, it wouldn’t be Bucky standing there, just a nightmare using his voice. Thus, Steve’d stared ahead and fought against turning, even when Bucky had put his arms around him and put his face right next to Steve’s, speaking promises and pleas into his cheek.

Waking up, he’d felt Brooklyn pulling at him, a siren call from still waters. He’d wanted so badly to go; it’d be like visiting an old friend, his heart insisted. Except that old friend is dying, his mind had reminded him.  

It’s bad enough, going back to the city for Clint’s birthday.

Clint lives out in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood Steve hadn’t had all that much to do with before the War, so it wasn’t quite as bad as going anywhere West of Fort Greene. But it is still Brooklyn, and the second Steve crosses the bridge from Manhattan, his mind will play every single memory of his life before the War in excruciating detail.

“She’s ready for you, ma’am,” the nurse says, holding the door open.

“You coming, Brooklyn?” Angie says, glancing back at him over her shoulder.

“Nah, I’ve gotta get going,” he lies.

“Oh, really? And just where are you going?” She’s turned completely, tapping her foot at him. She looks so much like his Ma that he’s really, honestly cowed.

“Visiting a friend, ma’am.”

And then, because he can still feel her stare on his neck even when he’s left the hospice, he actually does seek out a friend. Which was probably her plan all along. She’s sneaky, that one.

Chapter Text

Something is off about the mission, even if the Soldier can’t quite pinpoint what.

He knows it in the same way that he knows that the Chair is to be feared, that his eyes are pale, or that the Handler must be obeyed. Some things just are, you just know them. You may have learned them once, but the memory of learning is long gone. Instead, such things become self-evident truths, unquestionable and unchangeable.

He’s poked and prodded at the notion of wrongness carefully while waiting for his target. He’s not questioning his orders—orders cannot be questioned. Once issued, they are law. It’s more like a highly informal sort of mission assessment, something just for him. Everything could go sideways if he didn’t work out the kinks beforehand. One misstep won’t stop him, of course, but it’ll make the mission last longer, and that means more time in the Chair upon his return. 

He’ll do almost anything to avoid that.

He has not been told much, just the bare minimum—which is business as usual, don’t ask him how he knows that. What he does know is this: the Handlers have been planning this attack for days. He hasn’t been privy to the planning itself, but there are signs. Like the fact that the Soldier has been awake for at least a week, running drills and getting re-fitted for his uniform (they’ve still not cut his hair or given him a hair tie, so it hangs in his face most of the time. He tries to push it back behind it ears, but it won’t stay). Or the that they’ve put him on a new diet to make him put on more muscle, but it’s not for this part of the mission. Something bigger lies ahead.

Thus, he has come to these conclusions: the mission has been underway for weeks, possibly months; this is the first part of a larger, master plan; and whomever is at the end of it all is strong, maybe even strong enough to truly challenge the Soldier, hard as that might be to comprehend. The Soldier is the best. He has to be, or he will be redundant and discarded, as is fitting for a broken asset. 

He will not voice any of this, of course. A soldier does not question. He obeys.

He was given coordinates to this intersection in Washington, D.C. and told to wait for the target, Director Fury, Nicholas J. That was hours ago, and he’s sweltering in his all-black body armor. It’s getting a little hard to breathe properly, especially with the mask and the plain jacket they’ve added to his uniform. Still, it’s better than the long-lived cold in his bones.

Make a spectacle, they’d told him. He had nodded and kept the frown from his face. This is… off. Why is it off? Has he not made spectacles before? He thinks he has, though he can’t remember exactly. Past missions often escape him. It’s odd things that linger, small, insignificant flashes. At least, he thinks they might be memories. It may be simply system failures—if so, they’ll recalibrate them soon.

Target engaged,” he hears over the comms. There is a while yet to wait. Maybe they won’t need him—though he doubts that. He does not get pulled from the ice for nothing.   

Even then, the exact parameters of this mission are unclear to him. But, of course, they often are. Eliminate the target. Retreat. Recalibrate. Those are the things the Soldier always knows; the rest is inconsequential. These remain the same—except not real, not this time. A STRIKE team awaits to take the first crack at Fury, all camouflaged as friendlies. Why would the Handlers send them out, when the Soldier has also been dispatched?

To his mind, there are two possible explanations.

One: the STRIKE team are expected to fail. It cannot be due to incompetence, as such things are not tolerated. Thus, they must have been ordered to fail. They will have been sent to scare Fury, and the Soldier will then finish him off. But what is the point of fear that barely gets a chance to take root? The Soldier discards this explanation.

Two: Fury is an important piece in the game, and he cannot be left to circumstance. He’s also highly competent, according to his file. He will outmatch them, somehow or other, not because of incompetence on their part, but experience and wits on his. Thus, the Soldier is backup, just in case. He is not a stranger to that role, even if he rarely plays it. This makes more sense.

Over the comms, the Soldier listens to the quibbling of the STRIKE team as Fury gets away. “Target inbound,” he is told.

Unfolding from his crouch, he ambles into the middle of the street. At this hour, most people will have left the offices that flank this road, so there will be few—if any—bystanders to notice him. Traffic is slow as well, and no one pays any attention to the Soldier calmly walking into the road. You can get almost anywhere if you seem at ease, even away from a murder scene with blood still on your hands.  

Something in him itches at being out in broad daylight. Maybe that’s why everything feels off. The Soldier is not to be seen; he is their ghost. What use is a ghost in the light of day? Such a change to his MO speaks of breakthroughs yet to come; the Handlers must be planning something cataclysmic. Maybe they’ll keep him awake longer, too. Maybe then, the cold will leech from him entirely. The regular wipes will not be so bad when his bones no longer feel like cracking ice.   

Up ahead, Fury skids into the street. Standing completely still, the Soldier goes unnoticed until Fury is nearly upon him, peering intently through the broken front window of his car. He has taken a lot of fire; the STRIKE team did not go easy on him. Yet, he escaped, as they expected him to. Competent, indeed.

Make a spectacle.

He slides the long, slender weapon into his hands before Fury can even blink. The Soldier was carefully instructed in its use during these last few days. He knows to brace for the kickback—nothing like the kickback of a true rifle, more like a sudden, violent change in the wind (a stiff breeze would bowl you over, pal, he must have used those words as a code at one point for them to echo now). When he fires, the small but powerful bomb attaches itself to the underside of Fury’s car, near the tail.

The blast flips the car into the air, tail over snout, but it’s still coming straight at the Soldier. He takes a step to the side, calmly turning at the last second before impact. He’s close enough to feel the ends of his hair get singed, close enough to see Fury’s surprised face through the window.  

The car ends up upside-down, a helpless metal turtle lying in a ditch some fifty yards away. From this angle, the Soldier cannot see inside the car, cannot know whether to brace for a counterattack. However, given the crash, it is unlikely that he will meet much resistance.

He walks towards it steadily, palming a different gun. The explosion has attracted bystanders. He pays them no mind; they cannot see his face, hidden under the mask and goggles. Make a spectacle. Walking through the smoke of from the crashed car, he’s half-hidden, like something akin to both a specter and a man. Or at least something that mimics its shape.  

He rips the car door clean off, gun at the ready.

But the car is empty. There’s no Fury, just an uneven hole in the ceiling which continues through the pavement to the sewers below. Fury’s cut himself free with a laser. The Soldier almost wrinkles his nose. Even through the mask, the smell of the stagnant water below is astringent, salty-rotten-sharp. He has smelled worse, he knows this, even if he cannot remember where or when or why.

He resists the urge to sigh. This is what you get when you make a spectacle. Sloppiness.

Now is the time for efficiency; the Handler would agree with him, this is not disobeying orders. A spectacle was achieved, but the results are lacking. And results take precedence over methods, always.

He jumps into the sewers, lands with a splatter. The hunt is on.

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t go straight to the VA. He checks his phone for messages first and pretends not to be desperate for company for a few minutes, even if talking to Angie has made him realize how very fragile he feels and how very much he needs help getting out of his head for a few hours.

Natasha’s texted him, just a brief we good? that he answers with an affirmative. He’s still a little sore with her, but it’s not strictly her fault, so he can be gracious. He can let things go, no matter what his Ma and Bucky used to say. He can.

Tony’s texted him, too, just a picture of himself smoldering at the camera. There’s a plane in the background of the photo; he’ll be heading to Singapore today, he’s been raving about some Korean geneticist for weeks, and she’s supposed to be there for some science conference or other. He’s probably going to try and charm her into coming to work for Stark Industries—but really, he should’ve thought to send Pepper for that.  

There are no other messages, not even from S.H.I.E.L.D. who usually calls him in for a debrief.

It’s been a while since Steve saw the rest of the team. Clint’s in Argentina last Steve heard, and Bruce is… Steve doesn’t actually know where Bruce goes when he’s not with them, he’s usually rather reluctant to reveal where he’s been—which Steve fully understands; the less he has to tell S.H.I.E.L.D. about his whereabouts outside of a mission the better. Bruce might have agreed to be on the team, but he’s not forgotten how he was brought in and why. At least he and Natasha don’t eye one another with distrust all that often nowadays.

As for Thor, he is probably still in Asgard. Things have not been going well up there—over there?—and Steve’s not seen him since he’d crashed on Steve’s couch for a week straight. Steve had found him a few days into his Earth-bound exile, eyes red-rimmed and not a single ounce of peanut butter left in all of Steve’s apartment. He’d been quiet and withdrawn, until suddenly, he’d have long, near-silent sobbing-fits, and Steve had been helpless to do anything but listen and pat his hair while he cried.

The story had been pulled from him slowly; a contingent of Dark Elves had gained access to Asgard and as a result, the Queen had died. And so, later, had Loki, trying to help Thor defeat the Elves—though Thor doesn’t seem like he fully believes Loki to be dead, cussing his brother out between breaths and then sniffling some more.

Still aching with the loss of his mother all those years ago, Steve had ached all the more for his friend now going through that, too. The loss of a beloved parent is a life-long grief; the wound scabs over, but never truly heals.

At the end of the week, a fierce, dark-haired woman had arrived to collect Thor, practically bundling him up like a child and frog marching out the door. If it hadn’t been for the tenderness with which she looked at Thor, Steve would’ve fought her to keep Thor from harm. But Thor had leaned into her, muffling his voice in her hair, and there’d been no question that they cared for one another. He would be in good hands, and she would know how to mourn with him properly.

As his inbox remains empty, Steve gives up on dallying and heads to the VA.

It’s located in the same quadrant of the city as Steve’s apartment, so it doesn’t take him to long to find it, being familiar with the area. Like most public buildings, its architecture is an unfortunate mix between an in-patient facility and an airport entrance hall. What better way to communicate to the vets “we care, but we’d prefer it if you left quickly.”

Steve’s been reading all sorts of things and noticing all sorts of homeless people. Amongst the many vets on the streets, many of them disabled. To say that he’s not impressed with the way his country ‘cares’ for its soldiers would be a severe understatement, and this building isn’t exactly giving him any hope.

But Sam works here, so there must be something good about it.  

Inside, everything has that odd institutional smell, like cleaning fluids and human bodies. It’s not exactly pleasant, but it could be worse. It reminds Steve of hospital wards, and he wonders if every other person in here also feel like they’re wearing a sign that says there’s something wrong with me! the second they enter, or if that’s just him.

Keeping his hat down low, he asks for Sam at the reception desk and gets directed to a small auditorium. Sam’s in session, so Steve doesn’t go in, lingering instead in the doorway.

Rationally, Steve knows there’s nothing wrong with therapy. He was offered sessions with a therapist himself after the whole New York debacle (and probably also for the shell shock, but he likes to ignore that). He didn’t go. He doesn’t need to. He’ll process his experiences just fine in time, he’s got nothing but time. Sometimes, the decades stretch out like infinities before his eyes, and he grimly wonders if he’s going to live to see the turn of the century. The serum’s good for that at least. He’s fine.

Sympathy is the only reason he feels untethered at hearing the vets in Sam’s group talk. It’s just that seeing his own pain reflected in the generations he and his men had fought to protect from war pokes at something hopeless in his heart. War never ends, does it? Their sacrifices have made little difference in the end.

“… the thing is,” one of them is saying, her voice breaking a little. “I think it’s getting worse. A cop pulled me over last week, he thought I was drunk. I—I swerved… to miss a plastic bag. I thought it was an IED.”

The others nod like this has happened to them, too.

Sam stands at a small podium, dressed in chinos and a plain button-up. His dark eyes are full of compassion, but not pity, not even when another vet chimes in with a heartbreaking joke that just being alcoholics would solve a great many of their problems.

“Some stuff you leave there, other stuff you bring back,” Sam tells them. There’s a gravitas to his words that can only ever have come from personal experience. “It’s our job to figure out how to carry it. is it gonna be in a big suitcase or in a fancy leather purse? We’re all hoping for the latter, but in the end, it’s up to you.”

Steve turns, disappears into the hallway. This is not for him to watch; their pain is not a tragedy for him to consume. He’s not supposed to be there. He doesn’t des—he just shouldn’t.

Despite the urge to leave entirely, he forces himself to linger, pacing the hall while Sam finishes up. He’s spotted Steve already, but doesn’t hurry to his side, instead taking his time and saying proper goodbyes to his group.

Here, at the VA, there’s a lightness to him that Steve hasn’t seen before. It’s almost familiar, almost like the calm Steve feels whenever he’s on mission, that joy of doing something, anything, of being of use, of being part of something. Like he’s not lost everything.

“Look who it is,” Sam jokes easily. “The running man.”

Steve smiles, a little wry. He shouldn’t comment on it, it’s none of his business, and he really shouldn’t butt in on any of this—given that he has no use for it, he’s fine, who cares that some of his issues appear to be the same as these vets’—but the words flow from him nonetheless. “Caught a few minutes of that. ‘S intense.”

“Yeah, brother, we all got the same problems,” Sam replies easily, but his eyes grow a little sharper. Steve shuffles, even more so when Sam continues: “Guilt. Regret.”

Just my life’s story, then? And maybe yours, too? “Who’d you lose?”

To anyone else, it’d be imperceptible, but Steve catches the stiffening in Sam’s spine, the punched out, shaky breath he takes. He feigns nonchalance, but the truth is all over him. “My wingman, Riley. We were flying a night mission. Standard PJ rescue op, nothing we hadn’t done a thousand time before… ‘till an RPG knocks Riley’s dumb ass outta the sky.” He shuffles some brochures, shakes his head, and crosses his arms, defensive but trying not to be. “Nothing I could do. It’s like I was up there just to watch.”

Like Steve had been on that train in Austria just to watch Bucky fall. “I’m sorry.” It’s useless, but it’s all Steve can offer. There are no words, he knows this better than most.

Sam nods. “After that, I had a really hard time finding a reason for being over there, you know? I came home, reintegrated. So here I am.”

“And you’re… happy, now? To be back in the world?”

Sam looks at him like he knows what Steve’s not saying, like he hears the little I’m not always sure that I am that he never voices and always ruthlessly smothers when the thought rises. He should be grateful to be alive, and most of the time he is. This is a world he could’ve only dreamed of as a child, a world that Bucky would’ve loved to see. And yes, he’s perfectly well aware that staying alive for the sake of a dead man isn’t optimal, but sometimes you’ve just got to go with the bad reasons until the good ones come along.

“Hey, the number of people giving me orders is down to about zero, so hell yeah am I glad,” Sam jokes, gesturing to the empty hallway. “You thinking about getting out or somethin’?”

“No,” Steve denies at once. Then, “I don’t know.” A smile, a breath that could only graciously be called a laugh. “I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I did, so it’s probably best not to. World’s crazy enough as it is, we don’t need a restless supersoldier added to it, right?”

“Ever try ultimate fighting? Come on, Steve, don’t laugh, it’s a great idea! But seriously—you could do whatever you wanna do. Wouldn’t that be something? To come home, for real? You could do what makes you happy, you could—actually, what does make you happy?”

There’s a long silence, almost fragile. Steve likes a lot of things; he likes trying new foods, learning new songs, being in the company of his friends. He likes learning, likes to see how far the world has come since his day. The possibilities he’d have had if only he’d grown up today, it’s mind-blowing. He’d still have been dirt poor, but maybe he and Bucky wouldn’t have gone to war. Maybe, he would have been brave enough to confess… but Bucky wouldn’t have wanted him anyway.  

Sometimes… sometimes it feels like all the good things just happen to him. Like the effect of them doesn’t last, and he’s left sleepless and tired and empty at the end of the day. Like it was all a dream, and the stark reality is that there is nothing, nothing, that will ever make it worth smiling again.

“I don’t know,” he admits softly, almost a whisper. “Guess I haven’t thought about it.”

*

He spends the rest of the day with Sam, grabbing early dinner at an Indian restaurant across the road. Talking to Sam is easy, almost suspiciously so, but Steve chooses to believe that it’s because Sam is a genuinely good person and not because he’s a spy sent to soften Steve up. A couple times, he asks a question that gets a little too fixed on Steve’s state of mind, and Steve promptly changes the subject with about as much subtlety as a charging bull. Still, it works; Sam doesn’t push him, doesn’t change tactics or try to get him to slip up.

He makes it easy to just be Steve, not Captain America.

They’re just two guys making small talk, getting to know one another. Sam has very vocal opinions on any and all war movies—which, really, Steve gets it, he feels the same, but he’s just discovered Pacific Rim and it was so cheesy and amazing, he will not allow it to be slandered. Besides, Steve is a little shit, so he needles Sam mercilessly. What? Needling had worked at the park; Sam will probably be even more likely to become Steve’s friend if Steve keeps it up than if he doesn’t.

At the end of the day he returns home, about sixty percent certain that he and Sam are friends. At least early-stage friends. He’d have told Steve to piss off if he was a bother, right? Right? He wouldn’t have given Steve his number if he didn’t want him to have it, Sam may be nice, but he’s not that nice.

So: they’re friends.

Steve has a friend. He found him all on his own. See, Nat, he does know how to meet other people.

Chapter Text

When he gets home, Steve spots his neighbor, the pretty nurse Natasha had mentioned. She has her phone clutched between her ear and shoulder and a laundry basket resting against her hip as she tries to unlock her door. He’d rush forward to help her out, but women don’t take kindly to that sort of thing anymore, especially not from a man of his size and stature. Maybe in this century, it would’ve been easier to live a happy life if he’d been just Steve Rogers, hundred pounds of creaking bones and wheezing lungs.  

Her call is winding down. “I’ll try and shift some things around, but no promises, okay? Mm. Yeah, goodbye. Oh, shit—” she’s dropped her phone, but manages to catch it by smacking it against the door. She looks around, a little sheepish, and shrugs at Steve when she sees him. “Work, you know?”

Steve hums. He watches her struggle with the laundry basket a few seconds more—it’s absolutely overflowing, stuffed to the brim, though not with her scrubs. Those probably need to be washed separately, and the building machines might not be the best for that, not unless she boils the shit out of them each and every time.  

Impulse makes him say, “Hey, if you want… uh, if you want to, you’re welcome to use my machine. Might be cheaper than the one in the basement.” And no bacteria she might have stuck her clothes is going to affect him, so there’s that, too. Nurses don’t make a lot of money despite their insane hours, and back in the day, it would have taken a lot off his Ma’s shoulders if just one part of her day got a little easier.

A smile creeps slowly across her face. “Oh, yeah? What’s the cost then?”

He doesn’t mean to say it, but he panics a little. There’s a flirty undertone to her voice that he hasn’t heard before—not that he’s spoken to her all that often—and there’s something familiar about her. He’s been trying to place her face, suspecting that she might have some of the same features as one of the chorus girls from the USO tour, but the exact likeness escapes him. That, and the fact that asking might get Nat to back off a little, makes him blurt, “A cup of coffee?”

Her smile falls a little—fuck, he doesn’t even know her name, what the fuck, Steve, you’re supposed to be a tactical genius—and she’s a little guarded as she replies, “Thank you, but, um… I already have a load in downstairs, and, uh… you really don’t want my scrubs in your machine. I’ve just finished orientation in the infectious diseases ward, so…”

In that case, using the machines downstairs doesn’t just seem unwise but outright risky, but like hell is he going to lecture her. She’s a nurse; she knows what she’s doing. Better than he would, anyway, so he just backs off and promises not to get in her way. He’s a little relieved, truth be told. Going on a date with her—even if he had truly wanted to—would be unfair to her. It’d be too much like using her to get over something that would’ve never been, not even with Peggy, if her depressing theory about the two of them is accurate.

“Well, you don’t need to go out of your way or anything,” the nurse hurries to assure him. She’s a little tentative but seems genuine. Just unavailable then, not outright offended that he’d asked her. Believe it or not, that’s actually a step up from some of the girls Bucky had tried to set him up with back in the day. “Oh, and by the way, I think you left your stereo on?”

Steve frowns. Despite the relative soundproofing in the walls between the apartments and the hallways, he should’ve noticed the faint notes coming from inside his own damn apartment. The song is even vaguely familiar.

He thanks the nurse, then waits for her to disappear into her apartment with her laundry. The second she’s gone, he makes his way to the roof, scaling the fire escape down to the window he’d left cracked when he left home this morning. The music grows more discernible, takes the shape of an old song Bucky had once tried to teach him to dance to.

He feels eyes on the back of his neck, but when he looks around, there’s nothing there.

Sneaking into his own home, Steve grabs the shield from the hallway and makes his way slowly through, checking the rooms one by one. The area’s not well-known for seeing many home robberies, but it does happen, even in buildings like his—though the music would make it a very strange robbery, and it makes him uneasy.

With good reason, it turns out.

With his back to the corner and a glare like an angry cat on his face, Fury watches Steve tiptoe into the living room, sneering a little at Steve’s put-upon sigh at the sight of him. Is this how it’s going to be now? Random home invasions? Steve only accepts that from Thor, thanks.

“I don’t remember giving you a key.”

“You really think I’d need one?” Fury says. “My wife kicked me out.”

Raising his brows at the non-sequitur, Steve grabs the shield a little tighter. “Didn’t know you were married.”

“A lot of things you don’t know about me.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem.” Steve turns on the light, making Fury blink to adjust. Only then does the irony scent of blood register, along with the scrapes all over Fury’s skin and his torn clothes. “What—”

Fury makes a slashing gesture at him to keep quiet. Flicking the light back off, he then writes out a text and shows Steve the phone: Ears everywhere.

Shit. Fury doesn’t get spooked. Cautious, absolutely, but not scared.

“I’m sorry to have to do this,” Fury says while Steve settles into readiness, senses wide-awake. That damn itch of being watched is still on him, now more so. Fury’s paranoia must be catching. “But I had no place else to crash.” SHIELD compromised, he writes.

Double shit. “Who else knows about your wife?” Is Natasha safe? Is Clint? Steve needs to get his team somewhere safe—he won’t lose them, too. How can he get to Bruce, does S.H.I.E.L.D. know where he is?

“Just,” Fury replies, standing slowly. “My friends.” You and me, he texts.

Steve eyes him. “Is that what we are?”

“That’s up to you.”

There’s a beat of silence, just waiting for Steve to fill it. After, he’ll remember the unflinching way Fury held himself despite his injuries, his slightly desperate but also weary gaze. Steve’s about to promise that he’ll see Fury through this safely—no matter his personal opinion of the man, he does appear to be working for the good of mankind, and Steve needs him in his corner if nothing else—but three shots split the silence.

Each bullet finds it target, blowing through the wall and downing Fury. Hearth galloping, Steve grabs him and drags him into the kitchen to take cover behind the cabinets. He can’t see anyone through the window, can’t even comprehend that someone took Fury down through the wall.

When he jumps back up, Fury drags him back down by the hand, one last show of strength. “Don’t… trust anyone,” he says, a fine mist of blood rising from his lips. He pushes a small object into Steve’s hands—a flash drive like the one Nat had used on the Lemurian Star—and slumps back, shivering violently.

The door is kicked open and Steve’s neighbor moves in. He doesn’t recognize her at first, disoriented by the complete change in the way she carries herself. Gone is the kindly nurse, now a prowling, confident predator still wearing pink scrubs. She should look soft, approachable. She does not.  

“Captain Rogers?” she says, meeting Steve’s eyes. “I’m Agent 13 of S.H.I.E.L.D. Special Service. I’m assigned to protect you.”

What the fuck is happening? “On whose authority?” he demands, because it’s better than admitting that he hadn’t even noticed. So much for a soldier’s instincts. Christ, they should just decommission him already, he’s clearly no use to anyone.

Agent 13 has come around the cabinets, her eyes fixing on Fury’s unmoving form. She rushes to Fury’s side, take his pulse, then puts her hand to her ear, to her comm. “His. Foxtrot is down, he’s unresponsive, I need EMTs.”

Something flashes at the corner of Steve’s vision, and he spins. On the roof of the building across from his apartment, a shadow shaped like a man has just started running. Eyes on the shooter, Steve takes off, crashing through his living room window and through to the next building.

Rolling through glass to break his fall, he’s back on his feet in second. His shield has taken the brunt of the impact; the only damage is a few shallow cuts, already healing—some of them will need to be reopened to pry out the glass, but that’s a problem for another time.

Right now, he needs to move.

This building houses half a hundred offices, and the top floor has a skylight through which he can see the shooter fleeing the scene. Steve sprints after him, crashing through walls—they’re thin, it’s practically cardboard with high notions of its own structural integrity—and flimsy doors, not stopping for anything.

He does encounter one reinforced wall though. He bounces off, leaving a dent, but keeps going.

The shooter is fast, almost faster than Steve himself. Through the window at the end of the hall, Steve sees him land on the lower roof of the next building. He almost blends right into the shadows, his longish hair mixing with the night, his dark clothes made for hiding. His left arm however, that’s what Steve had caught sight of; he’s wearing a metallic sleeve of some sort.

Crashing through yet another window, Steve lands on the roof some yards behind the shooter. He plants his feet, throws the shield, aiming for the other man’s back. In his anger, he’s forgotten to pull back; the throw might do more than just stop the shooter, might even break his back.

It doesn’t.

Not because the shooter’s lucky, or because he manages to duck. Just before impact, he skids to a stop, pivoting to face Steve. His arm, the one encased in metal, reaches out with the speed of light, and stops the shield point blank.

Steve halts. But not just because of the shield being caught.   

For a moment, he’s transported from this century to another, from the US to Europe, from the rooftop to a forest. It can’t be—he knows this, but his brain, his eidetic fuckin’ memory, insists that these eyes, the shooter’s eyes, are Bucky’s eyes, those pale eyes. They’re not, he knows they’re not. Bucky would never look at him like this, even in his darkest moments, but the color and the shape are just…

Sad eyes, his Ma had always called them, and later girls had called them bedroom eyes. There’s no sadness in these eyes, no bedroom thoughts. They’re just… empty. Devoid of even life.

Steve’s mistaken parts of Bucky in other people before, but every time feels like the first. It takes his breath away, trips up his heart, then drowns him in grief, foolish hope snatched from his grasp with the speed of light. There’s this actor, Thomas Hammond or something, that Steve can’t stand to look at because he looks so much like Bucky, it’s unreal. And there’ve been people, just random people on the street, who has a little something of Bucky Barnes to them, a swagger to their walk, a daring glint in their eyes, a smile that spells sin. Hell, now that interest in Captain America has been resurrected alongside Steve, even Bucky’s haircut is coming back in style.

Steve hates it, because all it does is remind him that Bucky’s not here.

There’s black paint around the shooter’s eyes, making them seem more deep set, bottomless. He’s dressed in some kind of uniform, a black, sturdy contraption created to withstand heavy fire. His dark hair stirs listlessly in the night breeze, and there’s a scary-looking muzzle encasing the lower half of his face.

He is nothing but unsettling.

And yet he caught Steve’s shield like it’s nothing, like he does it every day.

And not even by the straps, no, that’d make him too human. He’s caught it by the edge, the edge that is sharp enough to take off heads when Steve throws it just right, and with his bare—actually, his hand might not be bare. It’s encased in the same metal as his arm, and frantically, Steve starts to understand that it is his arm, not just fancy armor. It’s too dexterous; not even the Iron Man suits are this nimble.

Staring at one another, Steve frozen like prey, the shooter seemingly just waiting for him, an age and a half passes before their eyes. Steve remains unmoving as the shooter uncoils, too shaken to curl into a defensive position, still winded from those haunting eyes—not Bucky’s eyes, but close, so close, almost the same, they’re not, he’s dead, he’s dead, and it’s your fault—

Graceful and powerful as a ballet dancer, the stranger flings the shield, aiming it just like Steve has done countless time. It strikes Steve in the chest, sends him skidding backwards, but not killing him. The shooter could’ve killed him—he definitely has the strength to have done so—but he didn’t.

Those few seconds it takes for Steve to realize he hasn’t been murdered with his own shield are all it takes for the shooter to vanish into the night. Though he tries, Steve can’t locate him.

It’s like he just melted into nothing, disappeared off the face of the Earth.  

Like the nightmare creature in Steve’s dreams, or the specter in Bucky’s poem.

Chapter Text

They’re all on high alert, so Steve suits up before leaving, just in case the pale-eyed assassin comes back. The stealth suit has largely been cleaned, but the leather hasn’t been treated properly, so it’s a little stiff and uncomfortable. There’s no time to rectify that, and Steve doesn’t try. He arrives at the hospital just in time to see Fury flatline the first time.

He’s not been there long when Natasha charges through the doors, her usually perfectly neutral expression cracking.

“Is he gonna make it?” she demands, eyes fixed on the operation room. When Steve can only shrug, she turns her immediate attention to the shooter instead.

“He’s fast. Strong.” Caught my shield like it was a fuckin’ frisbee. “Had a metal arm.”

Almost imperceptibly, Natasha stiffens, and for a moment, it seems as if she’s forcing herself not to throw up. Her green eyes burn, a flash of fear followed by anger. “Ballistics?”

“Three slugs, no rifling,” another voice answers. Maria Hill’s arrived, looking as harried as Natasha. She, too, steps up close to the observation glass, eyes on Fury and the doctors. “Completely untraceable.”

“Soviet-made?” Natasha asks. Well, she states. There’s no uptick to her tone to indicate uncertainty, and Steve glances sharply at her.   

Maria notices, too, but just as she opens her mouth, the shrill beep of the heart monitor falls into just a single, drawn out note. Steve, Nat, and Maria watch the unfolding chaos with their hearts in their throats, Natasha cursing Fury under her breath with a shaking voice full of helpless fear.

“Don’t do this to me, Nick. Don’t you fucking do this—”

It’s 01:03 and the doctor calls time of death.

Nat, Steve, and Maria stay while Fury’s body is cleaned for storage. S.H.I.E.L.D. wants access to his body as part of the oncoming investigation into his assassination. Hill quietly relays all this, ignorant that Steve is picking apart her every word. He doesn’t want to suspect her—doesn’t want to suspect anyone—but Fury’s paranoia has its claws in him.

It’s perfectly logical for S.H.I.E.L.D. to carry out an investigation. But claiming Fury’s body immediately, barely waiting for the doctors finish up? Right after Fury’s come to Steve in secret, telling him to trust no one? Beyond alarming. Add in how banged up Fury had been—what if that was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s doing, too? And what of the shooter? Had he been just a mercenary, or something more sinister? Remembering his horrifyingly dead eyes, Steve fears the latter.

Speaking of, Natasha is on edge, nearly snarling with unease. Her reaction to the assassin’s description, her knowledge of the kind of bullets he had used… it looks pretty bad in the context of conspiracy.

But… she can’t have known. She may be a spy and a killer, but she’s not a bad person. And her grief—Steve would like to believe he would know if that was feigned. Fuck, he really doesn’t want her to be implicated in this, and like hell is he going to accuse her without hard proof. 

Selfishly, he knows it’s because she’s his friend. Those are in short supply these days. And he never had much sense when it came to the ones he loved, so sue him, but he’s not going to burn those bridges just because Fury’s a paranoid maniac.

“I have to take him,” Hill says, standing a respectful distance from Nat as she says her goodbyes, her hand on Fury’s head as if in mournful benediction. A few silent tears have rolled down her cheeks, but no noise has slipped from between her thinned lips.

Steve carefully puts his hand on her shoulder, but she turns away to storm past him, emerging out into the hallway. He follows on her heels, calling her name. He wants to tell her he’s sorry, that he’ll be there for her. But with the mess Fury’s left for him, who knows what might happen?

Halting suddenly, Nat spins around, fixing Steve with a keen look. “Why was Fury in your apartment?” There’s a slightly accusing tone to her voice, which Steve elects to ignore. She’s grieving and angry, and doesn’t like being left out, doesn’t like being surprised. He’s just the convenient target for her ire.

He could tell her the truth. She’d be useful. Except… Don’t trust anyone. Fuckin’ Fury.

“I don’t know,” Steve lies, regretting it at once, ashamed that he has to play this game of theirs. The flash drive seems to burn in his pocket. Natasha narrows her eyes.

“Cap,” another voice calls. Rumlow comes jogging up, looking harried. He dressed like the rest of the response team; Steve had glimpsed their arrival at his apartment when he’d started making his way to the hospital. “They want you at S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Oh, I just bet they do. “Give me a second.”

“They want you now.”

Steve only barely restrains himself from snapping at Rumlow, but it’s a close call. Instead, he nods an affirmative. He turns back to Natasha, empty reassurances on his tongue, but she’s burned through her patience. “You’re a terrible liar,” she says, something ugly and hurt in her tone, then turns and walks off.

Rumlow’s mumbling into his earpiece, throwing little annoyed glances at Steve still standing around. He waves Rumlow on, swearing up and down that he’ll be right behind him. The second Rumlow turns away, Steve allows himself a millisecond of panic.

He can’t bring the flash drive into S.H.I.E.L.D., can’t make it easy for them. But what else can he do? He can’t just run away with it without drawing attention, can’t just drop it in a random drawer around here, it’ll get found—might not be recognized, but it will be put away where even he can’t find it.

The solution presents itself as he’s ambling down the hall, slow enough to fall behind but not enough to bring Rumlow to his side. A vending machine is undergoing maintenance, the front pulled open to allow access to its innards.

It’s a stupid fucking idea, Steve’s well aware of this; but he notices how there’s plenty of bubblegum whereas the rest of the snacks are nearly depleted, and he hopes like hell that that’s more about the bubblegum being unpopular rather than having been refilled recently. If it is a highly attractive snack, well. He’s fucked. Tell me something I don’t know.

When the janitor turns away, Steve slips the flash drive into the back of the bubblegum row. Rumlow’s still got his back turned, and there’s no one else in the hallway. It’ll be a pain to get back out, but it’s the best Steve can do at the moment.

Unless he breaks it back out and stuffs it in a vent.

He should’ve stuffed it in a vent from the start, shouldn’t he.

Fuck it, it’s in the vending machine now. Will God take prayers today? None of his other prayers have seemed to make their way to heaven, but maybe this one is rooted in enough idiocy for God to take pity on him.

*

On the top floor of the Triskelion are a number of offices that belong to people even higher up the bureaucratic food chain than Fury. One of those offices is held by an American Secretary of the US Government, the official liaison to the World Security Council; his name is Alexander Pierce, and it’s to him that Steve is ordered to make his report.

Steve’s met him before, but just briefly. In the aftermath of the Battle of New York, there’d been plenty of press and reports to go through, and as much as Steve had been sidelined from the political sniping that ensued, he’d come to know the faces of the key players. Secretary Pierce had appeared to be an experienced, no-bullshit man, and Fury had been easy in his company.

Which raises the question: why wouldn’t Fury have trusted Secretary Pierce with this? He’s an obvious choice, much more than Steve. In fact, most days Fury had seemed like he would’ve rather pushed Steve into the path of a speeding car than have a conversation with him.

It pings every single one of Steve’s instincts, but he’s going to try something new called ‘thinking things through before acting’. The Howlies would’ve been bowled over by this development.

But you know how the world seems especially out to get you when everything is already falling apart? Steve’s sure that somewhere, someone’s decided to fuck with him just for shits and giggles, because the first person he sees when he’s back at S.H.I.E.L.D. is Agent 13, ex-neighbor, talking to Pierce.

How could he not have made her? He’d known he was being watched every day he’d been at S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first weeks after he woke up from the ice, had known how to spot a tail at a moment’s notice. Has he grown placid? Lost himself? He used to think he’d be useful, that if only he got his chance, he’d prove himself.

Nowadays, it feels like the only thing he’s proving is his incompetence, not just as a soldier but as a man. Maybe Erskine chose the wrong man all those years ago.

At his approach, Agent 13 turns, and Steve’s struck by that strange familiarity once again, as well a slew of other, less positive notions. It makes him snippy, makes him snap out a less-than-polite “neighbor” when Agent 13 cautiously greets him on her way out. His Ma must be turning in her grave.

Secretary Pierce welcomes him brusquely, ushering Steve into his office. It’s a space that’s a little old-world but also thoroughly modern, sleek and with an air of efficiency. In that same way that antique furniture makes you wary to touch them in case they fall apart, this office makes you wary to touch anything for fear that you’ll set off an alarm.

On Pierce’s desk, there’s an old photo of him and Fury, and Steve’s eyes snap to it first thing. Fury has a moustache, and Pierce’s hair is more golden than greying.

Following his look, Pierce smiles a little wryly and says, “That photo was taken five years after Nick and I met. I had been in the employ of the State Department in Bogota back then. ELN rebels took the embassy, and security managed to get me out—but there were plenty of other hostages, including my daughter. Nick was deputy chief for the S.H.I.E.L.D. station there, and he comes to me with a plan: ‘storm the building, don’t negotiate.’ I told him no; I was eager to avoid accidental casualties, especially with my daughter among the hostages.

But it turned out, the ELN didn’t negotiate. Instead, they put out a kill order when our offer arrived and stormed the basement where they’d been holding the hostages. What did they find? Nothing. Nick had ignored my direct order and carried out an unauthorized military operation on foreign soil. He saved the lives of a dozen political officers that day, and my daughter.”

“So you gave him a promotion,” Steve says.

“And I’ve never had cause to regret it. Now, Captain, let’s get this over with, shall we? Just a formality, as I’m sure you’re aware, we’re trying to piece the events together. Can you tell me why Nick was in your apartment?”

Now, Pierce might seem unhurried, but Steve’s been watching him closely since they sat down. For a man who’s just lost a friend, he seems almost blasé. Steve can appreciate keeping up a façade and hiding your emotions—he grew up in the ‘20s and ‘30s, he knows a thing or two about biting back both words and tears—but with the warning claxons ringing in the back of his mind, it all just rankles him.

He’s not good with outright lies, as Natasha had pointed out. But half-truths? “I don’t know,” he says, thinking of why Fury would’ve shown up there of all places.

“Were you aware that the apartment was bugged?”

“Not until Nick told me last night.” And how he chafes at that. “He made me be quiet, then tugged at his ear and pointed around. I caught on quick.”

“Why do you think he told you?”

Careful. “Why do I think he told me now rather than before?”

A shrug. “Sure.”

“Maybe he wanted me to let him stay.”

“Gain your trust maybe? Did he also communicate that he was the one who bugged it? No? Huh.” Pierce leans back, seemingly deep in thought. “You know, there’s something I think you should see.”

He fetches a tablet and fiddles with it for a while, then hands it to Steve. On screen, an interrogation video plays out; Batroc sits facing the camera, jaw clenched as he’s questioned. Steve leans forward, intrigued.

“They got him?”

“Mm. Picked him up last night in a not-so-safe house in Algiers. He’s not been keen to share, but we’ve been trawling through his communications and accounts, too. What we know now is this: he had been anonymously hired to attach the Lemurian Star. He was contacted by email, paid by wire-transfer, both of which we have logged. When we followed the money back, we found that they were run through seventeen fictitious accounts, the last one going to a holding company registered to a Jacob Veech.”

A beat, then, “Am I supposed to recognize that name?”

“Oh, no. Veech died six years ago, and he was never of interest to us. But his last address was 1435 Elmhurst Drive, which is just next door from where Fury’s mother lived when I first met him.”

Of all the things Steve had expected, this is not one of them. Interrogation masked as debriefing: sure. Lying: oh yes. But linking Fury to Batroc? Really hadn’t seen that coming, and Steve says as much.

Pierce makes a face, too, clearly unsatisfied with the explanation himself: “The prevailing theory is that the hijacking was a cover for the acquisition and sale of classified intelligence. The sale then went sour and that led to Nick’s death.”

“You don’t believe that?”

“Do you? Captain, I took a seat on the Council not because I wanted to, but because Nick asked me to, because we’re both realists. We knew that despite all the diplomacy and the handshaking and the rhetoric, in order to build a world that is truly better you sometimes have to tear the old one down. That makes enemies. And those people will call you dirty for having the guts to stick your hands in the mud and try to build something better while they won’t lift a single finger.” He sucks his teeth, staring off into the distance. “That those people could be happy today… that makes me really, really angry.”

The interrogating goes on a for a while longer. Steve’s sweating in his suit, and his shield isn’t exactly comfortable to lean against, so he sits slumped forward, banking on his hang-dog expression to carry him through. They mostly go over what Steve had noticed before, during, and after the shooting, what he’d done to catch up to the assassin, pretty standard debrief.

However, something sharpens in Pierce’s eyes when Steve mentions having stood across from the assassin. “He looked at me like…” Steve’s saying, drawing it out when Pierce looks at him intently.

“Like… what?”

Why this interest? “I can’t say, exactly. It was almost like… like he couldn’t care less that I’d followed him. There was just nothing behind his eyes.” Nothing but that strange illusion of the long-dead. But that was neither here nor there.

It seems to satisfy Pierce. “Alright, Captain, let’s wrap it up. Just… humor me for a moment, this is my friend we’re talking about, and you were the last person to see him alive. I don’t think that’s an accident, and I don’t think you do either. Now, are you absolutely certain that you don’t know why that is? He didn’t tell you anything?”

You remember when Steve decided to not charge into things blindly? He’s about had enough of that approach; time to throw down the gauntlet. “The last thing he said to me was to not trust anyone.”

Nothing changes in Pierce’s face. “I wonder if that included himself.”

Oh, I’m sure you’re wondering. But not about that. “I couldn’t tell you. I’m sorry.”

Pierce waves grandly, almost fatherly. “I understand. If I come on a little strong, I’m sure you get why. Someone murdered my friend—well, you know a thing about that, don’t you?”

Steve snaps straight, having been on his way to stand. Between ground teeth, he forces out, “Yes, sir.” Don’t punch him, he’s needling you, don’t punch him.

Pierce hums, preternaturally still. His blue gaze is unflinching, direct in the way of a predator. “You see understand why I won’t stop until I find out what happened, then? Anyone gets in my way, they’re gonna regret it.”

“Understood,” Steve says, just barely calm. I understand why Fury didn’t come to you.

He’s almost surprised to be allowed to leave the office.

In hindsight, a STRIKE team charging in to take him down right then would’ve been much too messy, but at the moment he’s just stupidly relieved that he doesn’t have to fight his way out, that he might have a little more time to pull a plan together before shit hits the fan.

How God must be laughing at him.  

Chapter Text

Steve boards the elevator calmly, not rushing but not lingering either, trying to make it seem like it’s a perfectly ordinary day. Pierce knows something is up, but Steve doesn’t think it’s outright suspicion as much as basic distrust.

Jesus fuck, what’s Steve supposed to do now? Find out just how S.H.I.E.L.D. was compromised, yes, sure, that’s obvious, but how is he supposed to do that? He’s an agent at worst, an Avenger at best, but matter how much S.H.I.E.L.D. has used him its poster boy, he doesn’t actually have a lot of clout—if any.

First things first: he’s got to get out of here. Changing out of the suit would be preferable, but he doesn’t want to stash it here, not if he’s going into a fight. The other suit is here, too, so he’d have nothing left and—

Just before the elevator doors close, Rumlow pushes in with two other STRIKE agents. He’s focused on relaying orders to them, but still gives Steve a brief little nod of acknowledgment. “—and keep all STRIKE personnel on site. Cap.”

“Rumlow.”

“Evidence Response found some fibers on the roof that they want us to see. You want me to get the tac-team ready?”

Steve frowns. What possible fibers could that be? The assassin hadn’t left a shred of evidence beyond the untraceable bullets, Hill would’ve mentioned it otherwise. Are they chasing theories now? “No,” he says, “let’s wait and see what it is first.”

Rumlow nods and turns back to his men, all of them looking away from Steve and out the window. It’s not unusual for people to ignore him—they either stare or fake being casual, there is no in-between. But one of the agents is a little… Steve wouldn’t call it tense, exactly, but maybe restless? Could be that he’s uneasy with heights, they are pretty high up and descending rapidly, but in that case, why not look away from the windows?

A few floors down, the elevator halts and four more S.H.I.E.L.D. agents get in. Two of them are important-looking guys in suits, both holding metallic briefcases. As the elevator is filling, they stand very close to Steve, so close that he feels a little smothered and side-steps to let them have the corner to themselves.

“I didn’t say before,” Rumlow says, voice low and face turned to keep their conversation somewhat private. “I’m sorry about what happened with Fury. I didn’t know him as well as you did, so I didn’t think—it’s fucked up, is what I’m saying.”

“Thank you,” Steve says. That’s quite a roundabout attitude from the hospital, but Steve’ll take it. Your boss gets murdered in the dead of night and you get called out to comb the scene, it’ll make anyone a little harried and thoughtless.

Something picks at his attention, making him turn slightly to look at the two guy he let have the corner. They’re still prattling about something to do with company insurance, nothing suspicious. But look closer, and you’ll see that one of them is sweating.

It’s not warm in the elevator. If anything, the air-condition in here makes it nearly unpleasantly cool and dry; when you build an all-glass fishbowl and place directly in the glare of the sun, you either let the people inside cook alive or you get proper climate control. They’ve got the latter.

So, why the sweating? Steve’s brows draw a little tighter.

The elevator halts again, admitting three STRIKE team members, among them Jack Rollins. He’s a tall, broad man with slicked-back hair and an oddly narrow face. He’s been on Steve’s STRIKE team a few times, but Steve doesn’t know him all that well. Rollin is a man of few words and those he does speak are to Rumlow.

He and his men stand in front of Steve, backs turned. The elevator renews their descent again.

Going by the floors requested, they shouldn’t be going at this speed; Records—Rollins’ requested level—isn’t too far below them, but the elevator doesn’t so much as stutter, gliding downwards easily. Steve stands a little straighter, listens to the chatter around him. The agents who came in with the suit guys are behind him, Rumlow and his men fanned out to the side, and suit-guys have shuffled to stand at his other side.

He’s surrounded, and the elevator keeps going.

Fuckin’. Great. “Before we get started,” Steve says easily, almost casually. “Does anyone wanna get out?”

There’s a moment of slightly incredulous silence, and then Rollins moves.

He slides a stun baton from his sleeve, turning to aim it straight at Steve’s chest. Steve twists away, kicking out, but the other agents have rushed him at once. They grab him around his arms, shoulders, and neck, pulling him backward to keep him still and open to a frontal attack. They slip shield from its harness and kick out of reach, too.

It’s complete mayhem from then on.

Steve fights like a cornered cat, kicking and snapping and wriggling for all he’s worth. The handles on the suit-guys’ metallic briefcases have been detached and become magnetic handcuffs instead. With just one agent left to try and choke him out, the rest try to force his arms up and chain him to the steel near the top of the elevator box.

To keep him docile, Rollins jabs at him with the baton, sending shocks of pain through even the reinforced Kevlar of the suit and Steve grunts.

Thank God, Steve’s serumed brain works through torture, or he might’ve been toast. He aims a sharp, precise kick to an agents’ knee, sends him crashing down with a howl. Still wearing a cuff on one arm, he throat-punches the agent holding the other cuff; the cuff ends up attached to the ceiling on its lonesome.

He hits where it hurts, stomachs, necks, faces, using his knee, his heel, his fist.

He doesn’t hold back, but he doesn’t have enough wriggle room to truly go all out, so the hits are mostly disabling rather than deadly. Still, these agents are a tough bunch, and they don’t go down easily. One manages to kick his still-cuffed arm upwards, and he’s attached to the wall above his head before he can redirect the hit.

It’s Rumlow, because of course it is. There’d be no greater irony than having the point man of Steve’s STRIKE team take him down, real clever there, Pierce, I see your grubby little hands all over this.

While Steve struggles with the cuff, Rumlow gets a hold of Rollins’ baton. The ensuing jab is prolonged and sends Steve’s heart into a tizzy. It’s almost like his old arrythmia, skipped beats that feel like falling. It hurts like hell, makes him want to throw up.

He settles for punching Rumlow in the face instead. Another agent rushes him, but Steve throws him backwards; he crashes into the security camera in the upper right corner. He gets back up, though, and pulls out his own baton. Steve only just manages to grab his wrist and redirect, so it’s the agent coming from his left who gets fried, not him.

When he releases the agent with the baton, he stumbles to one side, and the electrified agent stumbles to the other. To take them both down, Steve jumps into a split kick, nailing one in the chest, the other in the neck.

Another kick, another guard, and there’s a window of opportunity. Steve jumps upwards, curls up near the cuff and puts his feet against the wall. Pulling with his free hand, he strains against the cuff, feels sweat drip down his face. His mouth tastes like blood, like ozone. Fuckin’ batons.

Another heave and the cuff parts from the wall, far enough for the magnet to disengage and send him tumbling down. He flips in the air and manages to land on his feet rather than his back.

Three agents are still standing; Steve takes one out with an elbow to the face, but the second takes a bit more grappling. Finally, he slumps to the ground, Steve having thrown him into the wall.

But there’s still Rumlow. Cockroach fucking motherfucker.

And he has the gall to speak. “Woah, big guy,” he says, like Steve’s a misbehaving horse. He’s got two batons now, held at the ready. “I just want you to know, Cap—this ain’t personal.”

Which is why they sent you, whom I trusted, right?

He comes at Steve fast. Steve blocks most of his hits, but as Steve’s keeping one baton from stabbing him in the face, Rumlow sneaks the other one past his block and stabs him in the side. The ensuing jolt punches the breath out of him, along with a half-choked scream. The elevator’s starting to smell like burning meat.

Somewhat desperate—and beyond furious—Steve lets go of Rumlow’s arm and instead punches him meanly in the jaw. Rumlow falls back, and the batons fall away. Then, to be safe, Steve grabs him by the shirt and throws him straight into the air, crashing against the ceiling.  

Breathing heavily and still twitching a little with leftover electricity, Steve spits, “It kinda feels personal.”

In the middle of the circle of downed agents, Steve finds his shield close by his feet. One of the agents had tried to grab it to protect himself, but Steve’d knocked him out before he could put it on properly. With ease, Steve picks it up, using just a sharp tap of his foot against the edge that sends it flipping into the air. He slides it onto his arm as easily as he’d put on a glove and uses it to break the cuff still on his wrist.

If there’d been any doubt about Fury’s claims, they’re long gone by now. 

Someone had thought to press the emergency stop button, so Steve disengages it, and the doors slide open. Not to an empty hallway though, as he had been hoping; instead, another STRIKE team have their guns aimed straight at him.

He doesn’t waste his time trying to talk them down. Spinning, he slides through one glass wall to the elevator cables, breaking them. At once, the elevator drops. It won’t crash, Steve knows this—there are security measures for this exact situation—but in the moment, all he knows if the rush of air and the loss of gravity, and if he’s a little scared, well. He’s only human.

The elevator grinds to a stop some nine or ten floors below. He’s somewhere between two floors, so Steve staggers upright and pulls the external elevator doors apart. If he can just get out of the elevator then he can run, he just needs—

There’s another STRIKE team running down the hall towards him. How many fucking STRIKE teams are in the building? What exactly are their orders? Did he become their enemy so easily? He lets the doors snap closed.

He’s fallen far, but he’s still up high, some seven floors above ground. Below, there’s just the glass-roofed add-on building, nothing that would cushion him if he jumped. When he jumps from planes without parachutes, it’s usually into water, which, while still damaging, doesn’t crush him upon impact. But as the STRIKE agents start yelling for his surrender, he knows there’s no other way.

He backs up, nudging the downed STRIKE agents out of his path. Then, he starts forward, shield up. Body stretched out straight as if in a dive, he rockets through the glass. To slow his descent, he spreads out his limbs, a flightless bird falling. 

As the roof rises up to meet him, he curls into a ball behind the shield.

Impact… hurts. The glass cracks under him immediately and something snaps in his elbow. Over the shattering beams and glass, you can’t hear his cry of pain.

He keeps falling, smacking into the floor of atrium, four floors from the roof.

People are astonished enough to keep from rushing him. Small mercies. He groans as he gets to his feet; his ribs are creaking, and his right leg pops back into place. With great effort, he becomes upright and staggers into a run, heading for the garage.

He steals a set of keys from behind bullet-proof—not vibranium-proof—glass and frantically clicks the fob until a motorcycle unlocks with a beep. It’s not his motorcycle, that one’s back at his place, but it’s still S.H.I.E.L.D. issue and thus tricked out with all sorts of gadgets. Most importantly, it’s fast.

He puts on his helmet and guns the engine to the sound of lock-down sirens.

The gates are closing, but he makes it out, feels the upper edges graze the top of his head. Up ahead, a vicious looking spike strip has been raised—that’s going be more difficult to evade, but if he can find an incline of some sort, he might be able to jump it—

They’ve sent a Quinjet after him. Because of course they have.

Stand down, Captain Rogers,” the pilot orders, his voice echoing through the speakers. “Stand down.” Steve keeps coming; the machine gun is lowered out, fixed on his chest. “I repeat: stand down!”

Instead, Steve puts on another burst of speed. It’s strange, but in a firefight, you almost stop registering the sound of bullets. It becomes white noise, staccato heartbeats, and only afterwards do you realize how loud it really was, when the ringing in your ears becomes deafening.

He evades the bullets by zigzagging, wanting to get in close. Despite Tony’s re-designs for the Helicarriers, the Quinjet rotors haven’t been updated yet, and Steve knows just how to disable them; he slips the shield from his shoulders and throws it.

It curves beautifully in the air, rounding the front of the Quinjet to land between rotor blades, immediately destabilizing it. As the pilot grapples with the Jet, Steve slams the brakes sharply. The near-immediate holt sends the ass-end of the bike flipping over; he uses it to carry him upwards, letting go of the bike to land on the nose of the Jet.

Still riding the forward motion, he flips and jumps toward his shield. The second he manages to pull it from the rotor, the Jet violently tries to stabilize, and he ends up being thrown back and worth between the wings before managing to impale the shield into steel and cling to the edge.

The Jet finally levelling out, he scuttles upwards, freeing the shield and sending it ricocheting between the two back engines, destroying them. As the Jet spins out of control, he throws himself off, landing semi-steadily on his feet—you try being thrown around like a ragdoll, you’d be a little dazed, too.

As luck would have it—really, he didn’t plan this; in a fight, he mostly moves by instinct, not conscious thought—he’s landed on the right side of the spike strip. Without waiting for the plane to crash, Steve turns and runs.

Chapter Text

He’s panting. There are a dozen dead men at his feet, and yet he is told: “Next batch. Again, Soldier. Five minutes.”

He flicks the knife, breathes. The gate opens and the next batch rush in, four opponents in total. They are all tall, well-built, and blonde—like the golden man on the roof. But unlike him, these men are ferocious. They charge like bulls and attack like wolves, no rhyme or reason to their madness. Yet they are strong, far stronger than any man should be. Like him, they have been made.

And by him they shall be unmade.

It is a mercy, killing them. Whatever they have been given—“a mixture derived from Kozlov’s Combat Enhancers,” according to one of the scientists monitoring this session—may have made them strong, may have made them dangerous, but it will kill them, slow and fast at once, painful always. They have not been given this drug so that they can be of long-term use. Their fate is simple.

The Soldier must learn to fight the golden man. And thus, these knock-off substitutes are at his seemingly unending disposal.

He has been trained like this before. He knows this like he knows left from right, but once more, the exact memory is gone. It must have been many years past, or else they would not care to run him through these drills. But they must have been planning for him to resume his training thus—why else chose opponents so much like the golden man on the roof? Why take the time to bastardize a drug already imperfect?

At the end of the five minutes, his adversaries lie dead and he is still standing. He’s sweating and his breath is choppy. These opponents may be poor imitations of his future target, but they are not useless. One of them broke his flesh arm, another crushed his kneecap, and yet another was clearheaded enough to go for his face. He’s bleeding.

But it is not over yet.

“One minute, Soldier.”

The last opponent is more animal than man. Larger than the rest, he snaps his teeth and curls his fingers into claws, and despite the Soldier’s perfect training, it is an equal match. The opponent wrenches at the metal of his arm where it meets the skin—the pain, it hurts, hurts like dying, hurts like being born again. It reminds him of another fight, one that he cannot place. It was in the night, somewhere he can’t remember, and he had an ally at his back—

The opponent bites him on the neck, tearing skin and sinew. The Soldier snarls; if he did not, he would scream. When the knife finds its home in the opponent’s abdomen, the Soldier guts him like a pig, a quick, steady cut from navel to neck. When the opponent keeps fighting, crazed with dying, the Soldier cuts his throat. In the brutality of it, the act is almost kind.

He turns to face the doctors.

“Adequate,” he is told.

They have started speaking English—in deference to the new Handler, he has been told. The Soldier follows suit; the language feels comfortable in his mouth in a way that Russian doesn’t. Used to be, it was the other way around. English used to feel like trying to speak without spilling blood from his mouth, like he was drowning and slurring and clumsy. The recalibrations did not help.

It has been nearly a day since his last mission, and he has still not gone back into the ice. They must be fascinated by it, for they have not recalibrated him either, running him through debriefs instead. It is not even the mission itself that they are interested in, not his target, Director Fury, Nicholas J., but rather its aftermath, and the Soldier knows why.

The golden man scares them.  

“How did the Captain react to seeing you?”

“He entered into pursuit.”

They frown a little; it was not the answer they were looking for. “Did you let him catch you?”

“No.” His voice is sharp; the scientists flinch. The Soldier fights down a tremor, too; he is not to cause trouble, but the Handler isn’t here. The Soldier must regulate himself for now.

“What did he do when you were face to face?”

“He ceased fighting. He stared.”

“Why do you think that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Just give us your best assessment, Soldier.”

“He was… surprised. At being matched.”

“Mm. And what was your first impression of him?”

He is silent, so they ask again, this time uneasy. “He is… like me?” he asks.

Silence. Then, “No, Soldier,” they say. A guard scoffs, contemptuous.  

The Soldier accepts this correction. However, he doesn’t abandon his assessment entirely. They must be lacking in information, for the Captain had not been like these ill-fated opponents either. He wasn’t like the Soldier then, but something just as efficient. Dangerous and fast and strong, but not without intelligence. He must not be underestimated.  

“High threat level,” he reports.

“Correct, Soldier.”

“Target?”

No. Not yet.” They shuffle. “But when times comes, it must be quick. Do not let him speak. He will try to break you.”

That is impossible. The Soldier was built to endure. The recalibrations would have terminated him otherwise. He will not break. But if it is a worry, they must be privy to information about the Captain that he is not.

Fighting him will be a test. That is why they have given him a knife and not a gun. It is paramount that he engages the Captain face to face. They want to send a message, despite the Captain’s considerable threat level.

This hydra will not bow to a Heracles.

“Now,” they tell him. “Again. Thirty seconds.”

He grips the knife.

Chapter Text

Before heading back to the hospital to rescue Fury’s flash drive from the vending machine, Steve gets redressed in civilian clothes. Running around in a super-suit with the shield slung across his shoulders isn’t exactly inconspicuous. There’s also the fact that he’s never been entirely certain that there isn’t a homing beacon hidden somewhere in the suit—for emergency reasons or just in case Captain America goes rogue and needs to be hunted down like a dog.

It sounds like something S.H.I.E.L.D. would do, doesn’t it? 

They won’t expect him to go home, so that’s what he does. Blows through his apartment, shedding the suit as he goes along, grabs some new clothes and the emergency go-bag from under his bed—a left-over habit from being at war, kept alive by his own paranoia—and heads out, almost without looking back. He doesn’t feel all that bad about leaving the apartment and all his things behind, despite the life he’s made for himself. He’s left life behind before, what’s another loss? But the suit... he’d really rather keep that. Of all his things, he’s probably the most attached to that, and he won’t have access to another uniform if he needs to fight, not without risking himself. But fuck it. Run now, plan later.  

Despite the wiggling insistence of his conscience that phones do not go into the trash but need to be properly disposed of, he throws his onto the back of a garbage truck passing by. The shield he hides in the trunk of the car he ‘borrows’—the keys are in the ignition, okay, and this is an emergency. He’ll give it back. The car is an older model, half-falling apart and has a For Sale sign in the window that Steve throws into the backseat. The engine doesn’t cough too much and tank is half full. It probably won’t be missed too much. He’ll leave it somewhere obvious for the owner of the police to find later.

Or get Tony to look up the plates and make an anonymous donation if they don’t.

When he walks into the hospital, no one gives him a second look. He’s slouched, wearing sweatpants and a hoodie with the hood up, doesn’t look anyone in the eye, and is carrying an empty to-go coffee cup that he’d swiped from the nurses’ station downstairs. He looks just like any other beaten-down relative.

The hallway is nearly deserted when he reaches the vending machine, much to his relief. A guy buying p every pack of bubblegum would probably raise a few eyebrows. Dollar already in hand, he’s halfway to punching in the number when the glaringly empty bubblegum rack fully registers. Steve stares, feels like the world drops away beneath his feet, ice-cold distress rushing through him.

And then there’s an obnoxious bubblegum pop next to his ear.

Turning slowly, he meets Natasha’s eyes. She’s watching him steadily, jaw working as she chews, blows a bubble, pops, chews, and on and on it goes. Her pockets are full to bursting with the rest of the bubblegum packets, and her expression is perfectly placid and pointedly smug.

Steve doesn’t react as rationally as he could’ve hoped, but his nerves are shot. All the way up until now, he’s been stubbornly rejecting the notion that any of his friends might be involved in the less savory aspects of this mess, but seeing Natasha here, having obviously and pointedly meddled, he loses his composure just a tad.

Grabbing her arms, he forces her backwards, banging through a door an into an empty room. She bares her teeth when he slams her against the wall, but doesn’t maul him—which, really, that’s a mark of friendship right there.

“Where is it?” Steve demands, getting in her face.

“Safe,” she replies glibly. Her breath smells like artificial watermelon flavoring.

Fuck off.

“Where did you get it?”

“Why would I tell you?”

Her eyes sharpen. “So, Fury gave it to you. Why?” And why not to me, her tone adds silently.

Since he doesn’t know that himself, Steve changes tracks, “What’s on it?”

“I don’t know.”

Stop lying!”

“I only act like I know everything, Rogers,” she says, a little offended that he hadn’t come to this conclusion himself.

“Right. But I bet you knew Fury hired the pirates, didn’t you?”

She blinks in surprise, but after a beat says, “Well, it makes sense. The ship was dirty, Fury needed a way in. I didn’t know before—I didn’t, okay? But I know who killed Fury.”

Steve stills. “Just the assassin, or the backers, too?”

“Well, I can certainly take a guess at the backers, what with you running from S.H.I.E.L.D.” Of course, she knows that already. “But it’s the assassin I’m talking about.”

“Yeah, it wasn’t exactly hard to figure out that you might after the debrief with Hill.”

She sneers, but there’s a bit of fear in her eyes, fear that she locks down tight when she speaks again. “Most of the intelligence community doesn’t believe he exists. The ones who do… they call him the Winter Soldier. He’s credited with over two dozen assassinations in the last fifty years.”

That’s bullshit. “You believe this ghost story?”

“I don’t believe, Rogers. I know. Five years ago, I was escorting a nuclear engineer out of Iran. We’d been running for days, covering our tracks carefully, leaving our pursuers in the dust. Except one—and we didn’t know until it was too late. Near Odessa, somebody shot out my tires. We lost control, went straight over a cliff. I pulled us out, but the—the Soldier was there. Anyone but me, they might not have noticed him. I covered the engineer, refused to give the Soldier a clear shot. But he took it anyway—straight through me.” Almost jerkily, she pulls up her shirt to bare her skin; between hip and belly, there’s a bullet scar, pink and smooth with age. “Soviet slug, no rifling. Bye-bye bikinis.”

The last bit is weak, obviously meant for Steve to seize on. “Yeah, I bet you look real terrible in them. But plenty of people have shot at you before, and I’ve never seen you blink an eye.” The only thing Steve has seen her be scared of is the Hulk—which, well. It had tried to kill her, violently and without reason. The Soldier obviously hadn’t tried any such thing, since she was still alive with only a scar to remind her. “What makes the Soldier special?”

She pushes him back and he lets her. There’s obvious the tension running through her, but the most worrying part is the hollow terror in her voice and her face. “You know of my training?”

“The Red Room? Yeah.” And other things, besides, but that’s neither here nor there. She won’t have known Maddie. The little girl is Steve’s ghost. No one else remembers her now.

“They didn’t… they didn’t create him—or at least, I don’t think so. They just borrowed him,” Natasha says, gaze fixed on some far-off point that only she can see. “We didn’t fully believe in him then. We were young. They said the Soldier would come for us if we failed, but we heard that all our lives. He was just a scary story, nothing more. And then, one day, we were given an assignment. ‘Run’, they told us. ‘Run, and if the Soldier can’t find you, you win.’ So we ran. I used every single trick they’d taught me, covered my tracks, laid low, hid in plain sight, disappeared. It went on for days. I thought I’d been winning, but he’d just been waiting.

I—most of it, I can’t remember. All these years later and I still can’t remember. I don’t know how he found me, or how he got close without me knowing. I’d started to hope that I could really run, that if they didn’t find me, it would mean that I’d be free. But he found me. What they did as punishment for me failing—I never ran again. And then Clint found me.”

“And the Soldier didn’t come for you.”   

She smiles, fragile. “I tried to find out why, but it was a dead end. Half the time, I wasn’t even sure whether he was a nightmare or a memory, so I let it go. There was nothing tangible to back up his existence, just conjecture and a pile of unsolved assassinations. Then, Odessa happened. And now this.” Nat holds up the flash drive, lets Steve take it. “Another ghost story to tell.”

Steve watches her steadily, eyes flickering over her face. The fight has drained from him, leaving him lonely and stressed and desperately needing a friend. And here is a friend; Natasha with all her secrets and skill and she’s offering her help as plainly as she can without saying the words.

He doesn’t think twice. Fury must be yelling himself hoarse from his afterlife. “Well, let’s find out what the ghost wants.”

*

Natasha, possibly feeling exposed from her story about the Soldier, ambushes Steve with a question of her own while they’re in the car together. Steve’s changing in the backseat, because apparently sweats aren’t as inconspicuous as Nat would like, and the go-bag has an extra set of clothes. As such, he can’t just run away to avoid answering, much as he would like to.

“When you look at me,” she says while he’s wriggling into his pants. There’s very little room in the backseat. “Who is it your see?”

Steve freezes. He knows exactly what she means, but still, he plays dumb. “I don’t follow.”

Natasha doesn’t do anything as pedestrian as glare or scoff, but the sentiment is present in her steady gaze, flickering to meet his in the rearview mirror. “You don’t do it as much as you used to, but just now, when I mentioned the Red Room, it came back. You used to look at me like that all the time when we met, like you weren’t seeing my face, but someone else’s.”   

Steve takes his sweet time zipping up his pants and settling a pair of chunky glasses just right on his nose. Then, he climbs into the front seat, starts the car, and calmly pulls into traffic.

Then, and only then, when he doesn’t have to look at her, does he answer. His voice is remarkably steady, almost dead. “Back in the war, we found a girl. It was… winter, I think? Cold as hell, especially during the night. We—the Howlies and I—we’d been clearing out HYDRA bases and concentration camps, too, if we happened on them. We were on our way back to… England, I think? We came upon a slaughter in the woods. There were dozens of dead, just lying in the snow, all Jews, all escaped from a camp, it seemed. I sent Monty and Dum Dum out to check for survivors. And Dum Dum found a little girl.”

By her stillness, Steve knows that Natasha’s already guessed at how this story ends. In all this time, Steve hasn’t once talked to anyone about Maddie, not even the other Howlies. Bucky had tried once, when they were on leave and no one else had been around, but he’d barely gotten the words out before he’d changed the subject, noting the instant paling of Steve’s skin and the horror in his eyes.

Steve’s never truly dreamed of her, not like he dreamed of all the other men he’s killed, not like he’s dreamed of Bucky’s corpse. Maddie’s memory is a different haunting, something that comes back to him in snapshots, buried in his mind the rest of the time. It’s like he can’t think of her too long, and he doesn’t want to. Doesn’t want to talk about her.

But now the words spill from him, like blood from a wound. “We called her Maddie. There was no one around for miles, so we brought her with us. She was… she was traumatized, refused to speak. Dernier tried to bring some routine back into her life, prayers and such, but she just flinched from him. She wouldn’t leave my side, wouldn’t sleep unless I was with her.

It was like… like finding a flower in the middle of desolation, you know? She was so small, so fragile. It was like we were all suddenly reminded that we could die at any moment, if we weren’t careful—and that she’d die if we made just one misstep. God, at the slightest hint, we gave her what she wanted. Dressed her in our clothes, gave her food even when we had nothing to spare. Anything to keep her safe.

And then… we were getting close to camp. She woke me up one night, made me go with her into the woods. I thought she just needed to do her business and was being obstinate, you know, just like any scared kid. But she wasn’t. She was—” his voice shakes, for the first time.

“She was a Widow,” Nat says, voice soft with understanding.

Steve nods, swallows. His hands are tight around the steering wheel, making it creak and groan. “I couldn’t—I couldn’t bring myself to harm her, not even when she came at me with a knife. I threw—fuck. I just threw her, tossed her like ragdoll, I had to put distance between us, try to talk her down. But the Howlies had noticed that we’d been away too long, so they came looking. They froze when they saw and—Bucky… Bucky was just standing there. She looked at me, looked at him, and she—she would’ve killed him, he would’ve let her. I just—I just reacted and—”

“You killed her.”

No. Or—I don’t know, maybe… maybe it came to that, after. I… I shot her, but she didn’t die, not then. Hit her in the shoulder. She ran. We never found her. Never told anyone about her. God, she was just a child, and I shot her, intended to kill her. I almost did… probably caused it, even if indirectly.” He clears his throat, blinks away the stinging in his eyes. Had they had the Soldier then? Had that been why she ran, to disappear before he could find her? “That’s who you remind me of. Maddie.”

The rest of the car ride is made in uneasy silence.

Chapter Text

“The first rule of being on the run,” Natasha had told him, “is don’t run; walk.

“If I try running in these shoes, they’re gonna fall off.” The laces are triple-knotted. He still fears for their integrity.

To an outsider, it might seem like it’s the clothes that brings Steve discomfort as he and Natasha stride through the mall. It’s not; he packed these clothes himself, chose them specifically for hiding in plain sight. Not even the clunky glasses put him off too much, despite being overly conscious of the frames at the edges of his vision.

The thing that unsettles Steve is the simple fact that he is not a spy, never was. He was a stubborn back-alley scrapper, a punk who started fights with any and all shitheads who crossed his path, and lastly a soldier wearing a goddamn red-white-and-blue suit in the middle of the WWII battlefront. He’s always made a good, and horrendously easy, target.

Hiding like this is nothing like wearing plainclothes when he’s out and about on a day-to-day basis. Actively trying to remain unseen does not come easily to him, not the way a spy needs it to. If Natasha wasn’t such a consummate professional, she’d have tied him up and hidden him in the trunk by now.  

He’s too tense, almost restless, walking half a step behind Nat, an elephant trampling through the dainty footsteps of a gazelle. Nat’s got a firm grip on his arm, and it looks like she’s merely pulling him along from store to store. Like Steve, she’s in everyday clothes, a hoodie and jacket, jeans and high-top sneakers. They blend in near perfectly.

They head for the Apple-store. Steve wants to find out what’s on Fury’s flash drive first thing, and Natasha had been firm that just plugging it into one of their own computers would immediately bring S.H.I.E.L.D. down on their heads, so off to the mall they went. “Everybody’s got their hands all over the computers there,” she’d said. “We’ll be indistinguishable—and it won’t bring them to our base.”

“We have a base now?”

“We certainly have not-bases, and the mall is one of them.”

“How much time do we have?” Steve now asks, hovering awkwardly at Nat’s shoulder. He’s never actually been in a computer store before—he’d broken one of Tony’s Stark-tech phones the first time he held it, and he’s been wary of ordinary iPhones and androids and whatever else pocket-sized electronics are called since then.

“About… nine minutes from now,” Nat replies, having already plugged in the drive. Steve’s had a—very—rudimentary hacking basics course, but the speed Nat is working at leaves him dizzy.

He glances around, trying to be subtle. It works… somewhat. At least he’d like to think so. No one’s looking at them weirdly at least. Still, they can’t be too careful. Well, Steve can’t be too careful. Natasha probably sprung into existence fully camouflaged.

“Fury was right about that ship,” she says distractedly as she works. “Somebody’s trying to hide something. Also, this drive is protected by some sort of AI, it keeps rewriting itself to counter my commands.”

“Can you override it?”

“The person who made this is slightly smarter than me,” she admits grudgingly. “Slightly. But at least it wasn’t Stark, or we’d be dead by now.”

It’s been nearly five minutes now and they’ve got nothing to show for it. Steve tenses at every movement, even when it’s just a moping teenager looking vastly unimpressed by the gadgets on display. He shifts his weight and crowds Nat, much to her annoyance.

Stop fidgeting. I don’t think I can break through this; I’m gonna try running a tracer—it’s a program that S.H.I.E.L.D. developed to track hostile malware. It might lead us to ground zero for the file, it’ll be easier to hack then—”

“Heya! Can I help you guys with anything?”

In the least subtle and most incriminating way possible, Steve stands ramrod straight to face the hapless Apple-store employee beaming at them. The guy’s quite tall, wears a bright blue shirt and an employee badge, and has long hair and a big, neat beard.

Steve’s first instinct when faced with a problem has always been to punch it until it either goes away (which rarely happened pre-serum, but worked like a charm post-serum) or knocks him down (which did happen a lot during his pre-serum days), but that doesn’t exactly work with civilians. In the face of such adversaries, Steve’s superpower is to appear as awkward and suspicious as possible.

Thank God for Natasha.

“Oh, no, my fiancé was just letting me try out some of your new models!” she coos in a cutesy voice, wrapping around Steve. Instead of being helpful, he goes stiff as a board. “I really wanna include a new MacBook for our wedding gift register!”

To which Steve chimes in, like a champ. “Right. We’re getting married.”

Gold star performance there, Rogers. All those months on stage, wasted.

“Congratulations!” the store assistant chirps, looking much happier for them than Steve is managing to. “Oh, are you looking up honeymoon destinations?”

“Yeah, we’re thinking of going to…” Steve glances over his shoulder to the screen where Nat’s called up a map. He quells a shudder and forces out, “New Jersey.”

Not even the shop assistant can fake much enthusiasm for that. “Right.” He’s staring at Steve, tilting his head and squinting. If this is the day that a random person recognizes Steve in public, it’ll be proof that God has marked Steve down specifically for eternal damnation even in life. “You know…” Here it comes. Steve braces himself. “I have the exact same glasses!”

Flabbergasted, Steve blinks.

“Wow, you two are practically twins,” Nat deadpans, not even looking away from the screen now that she’s forced the program into submission.

The store assistant scoffs but looks a little pleased. “Yeah, I wish.” He gestures to all of Steve, flushes a little. “Like, specimen. Uh… that is, uh—if you guess need anything, I’ve been Aaron.” And with that, he flees as quickly as a shop assistant can without getting yelled at by their boss.  

Shoulders now so tense that they’re in danger of getting stuck around his ears, Steve spins around. “You said nine minutes, it’s at least been ten by now, come on.”

“Shh, Rogers. I got it, look.” The little dot on the screen has come to a stop on Wheaton, NJ. Steve’s heart skips a beat and his stomach turns to lead. As if he’s standing there still, he feels the gravel crunch underneath his feet, smells sweat and dust and grass, remembers how dull he’d imagined the colors of the area would’ve been even to those who weren’t colorblind like him. Noticing his expression, Nat goes on, “You know it?”

“I used to. In any case, I know how to get there. Now, let’s go.” He snatches the drive and stalks out, Nat on his heels.  

They’ve been lucky to have remained undisturbed the entire time they were at the store, but that luck has run out. The second they’ve merged with the general public, Steve spots the STRIKE team; two behind them, two across from them in the plaza, two walking towards them—thankfully without having spotted them just yet. They’ve got good sightlines and are blocking the closest exits.

Nat’s spotted them too.

“If they make us, I’ll engage, you hit the south escalator to the metro,” Steve plans aloud, sotto-voce. He might not make it back to the car for the shield, which would be really bad, but at least it’ll take their attention off Nat. He’ll slip her the drive and—

“Put your arm around me and laugh like I said something funny,” Natasha orders, looking up at him with a saccharine smile and soft eyes. She’s pulled her hood up; it makes her appear younger, a little rumpled, a little bit more approachable. When Steve stutters instead of hopping to, she snaps, “Do it!”

His resulting faux-laugh and embrace are… passable, at least. Or they must be, because the agents pass them by without a doubletake.

Taking the lead, Natasha weaves them in and out between the other shoppers, her hand in Steve’s like they’re truly the couple they’d been pretending to be at the store. Even out of direct line of sight of the agents, she keeps up the façade, her body curving into his in a way that he’s never had a woman do before.

Peggy had never gotten close enough, and not even the dames he’d met after USO shows had managed to… but Bucky had, once upon a time, to teach Steve how to hold someone, how to kiss them and want them and leave them breathless.

And like every lesson Bucky ever taught him, it seems to have only worked with Bucky, because Steve is as clumsy letting Natasha close to him as he ever was dancing with someone other than Bucky.

They’re heading down the escalator, the quickest route out to the car park, when Steve’s tolerance for intimacy hits another snag. He doesn’t boil over, but by God does he want to.

Natasha spots Rumlow up the escalator parallel to them a second before Steve does. Turning quickly, she says, “Kiss me.”

“What?” Steve explodes, though still rational enough to keep his voice to a whisper-shout rather than an actual yell.

With thinly veiled impatience, Natasha explains, “Public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable.”

“Yes! Yes, they do!”

Rumlow’s almost upon them, and Natasha has lost patience. She pulls Steve down—making it look intimate, like she just can’t help herself, but really, it feels like she’s yanking him down to strangle him, her grip like iron on his neck—and kisses him; a slow, almost loving peck that would have made Steve weak in the knees, had he wanted it.

He hadn’t.

“You still uncomfortable?” Natasha asks when they’ve passed Rumlow, the other man instinctively having looked away from them.

“That is not exactly the word I would use.” Steve doesn’t spit out the words, which he’s proud of, but his voice has gone completely flat. Natasha eyes him briefly but doesn’t say anything else as they make their way outside.

“Let’s change cars,” she says. “Just in case.”

Steve grunts and goes to hotwire a car, hands steady despite the desperate, angry sorrow coursing through him.

*

They’re a few miles down the road when Natasha speaks again. They’d transferred the shield from one trunk to the next in silence and made their escape from the mall without drawing attention by getting into a fight. So far, it doesn’t appear they’ve been followed.

She’s good at what she does, and good at reading him besides, so any hope that she hasn’t noticed just how much of an emotional uproar is taking place inside of him is doomed. Bless her for circling the obvious pink elephant in the room, though. “Where did Captain America learn how to steal a car?” she starts, voice softened to let him know she’s just teasing him. She probably even knows the answer. Hell, maybe it was in his file.

“Nazi Germany.” Forcing himself to resurface from the gulf of grief that’s been reawakened inside of him, Steve continues, “And we’re borrowing. Take your feet off the dash.”

She does so, but slowly, to show that she’s only humoring him. Besides, she wants him to keep talking, and pissing him off it a delicate balancing act just then. “Alright. Okay, so, I have a question for you—which you do not have to answer. Though I feel like if you don’t answer it, you’re kinda answering it anyway, you know?”

Like that’s gonna stop her. “Just ask.”

“Was that your first kiss since 1945?”

Steve wants to stomp on the brakes and send her slamming forwards. It won’t hurt her—they’re not going very fast, well within speed limits, and she’s wearing her seatbelt besides. It’ll only be a little uncomfortable. She’s had much worse.

But it’d feel so fucking satisfying, even with how cruel it would be.

She couldn’t have known. He shouldn’t take it out on her. It’s not her fault. It’s not her fault that the last person who kissed him—really kissed him, not like Beth from the diner in New York, with her peck on his cheek, or Peggy doing the same at the end of the world—had been Bucky. And when Natasha had kissed him, he’d remembered Bucky’s kiss, the last kiss Bucky had ever given anyone, and he’d given it to Steve. And his words, let your taste be my last, then, said in jest and yet so heartfelt before letting Steve lead him down the wire he’d eyed so skeptically, right to his death in the end.

That kiss was supposed to have been Steve’s last, too.

He can’t cry, but he wants to. Natasha doesn’t know what she’s stolen. Doesn’t know that the reason he can’t even seriously contemplate finding someone to love like he’d loved Bucky is because his heart was buried at the bottom of a ravine back in 1945. He knows this, knows he shouldn’t react like this, but God fucking dammit. What if it’ll make Bucky’s taste disappear? What if the feel of his lips with leech from his memory, overwritten by Natasha’s soft kiss?

She did the smart thing, came up with the easiest way to keep them hidden while being right in front of Rumlow. Maybe, someday, he’ll admit that he would have come up with the same plan, had he had her training. Someday. But not today. Today, he grasps the memory of a last kiss and clings to it with every ounce of stubbornness and devotion he’s ever had in him.

Sam would have something to say about unhealthy coping mechanisms, probably. Sam would be right.

So, instead of snapping at Natasha, he forces out a not-really-lighthearted, “That bad, huh?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“It kinda sounds like that’s what you’re saying.”

“No, I didn’t. I just… wondered how much practice you’ve had.”

“Don’t need practice.”

“Everybody needs practice.”

Like this, Stevie. “It was not my first kiss since 1945. I’m ninety-five, not dead,” Steve semi-lies. If you count Beth, it’s not a lie at all, and Nat technically only said ‘kiss’ not ‘kiss on the lips’. Abusing such technicalities allows Steve to say things like, ‘my first kiss was Bucky’—because the one before that wasn’t a proper kiss, not according to Bucky—and ‘my first time was with the man I still love best in the whole world’—he’d come, Bucky had come, that’s sex, isn’t it? Technically, Steve is not a virgin. Technically, Bucky was his everything.

Well, maybe the last one is not so technical. Years later, Bucky is still his everything.  

Natasha watches him steadily, gauging his sincerity. He doesn’t crack. “Nobody special, though?” she asks. She even sounds a little wistful on his behalf.

He really doesn’t see how this is any of her business. He doesn’t go around stirring up her love life with questions about Clint—whom she is apparently not dating, but whose emblem she wears on a chain around her neck and would die to save from Loki’s mind-warping scepter. It’d be easy to lash out with that, but he’s calm enough by now that he doesn’t, makes a wry excuse instead. “Believe it or not, it’s kind of hard to find someone with shared life experience.”

“Well, that’s alright. You just make something up, and voila.”

“What, like you?” Okay, maybe he’s not above petty shots.

She doesn’t take offense. “Mm. Maybe. I don’t know. The truth is a matter of circumstances, it’s not all things to all people all the time.” She smiles, and he can’t tell if it’s heartbreaking or peaceful. “And neither am I.”

“That’s a tough way to live,” he says, because saying that’s no way to live will probably get him punched by his one and only ally.

“Good way to die, though.”

“Kinda hard to trust someone when you don’t know who that someone is, isn’t it?”

She gives a slight nod. Point. “So, who do you want me to be?”

Steve sighs. “I don’t want you to be anyone you’re not.”

“And who am I?”

A beat. “How about a friend?”

“There’s a chance you might be in the wrong business, Rogers,” she laughs. But her eyes have warmed.   

Chapter Text

Okay, so, Steve will admit it: saying that he knew how to get to Wheaton, NJ had perhaps been a bit of a stretch. Had they been in New York, he would’ve known, but they’re not in goddamn New York, are they? If it hadn’t been for the GPS, they’d have ben utterly lost. Natasha’s never going to let him live it down.

They’re closing in now, though, and all is right in the world. Apart from the fact that they’re  on the run from the far-reaching shadow government agency who they had up until then been working for, then there’s the whole their-boss-was-assassinated by a semi-mythical operative thing, and, oh yes, if this whole goose-chase leads to nothing but a dead end, Steve honestly doesn’t know what’s going to happen to them. Will they run? Will they fight? He’d prefer the latter, but he’s not foolish enough to think that he and his army of two can come out of that unscathed.

Worry swirls through his head, blocking all other things. Just two hours ago, he’d been awash in grief and anger, and now, the whole kissing incident with Nat feels like it happened weeks ago. He hasn’t even spared his confession about Maddie a thought. Like in the war, everything irrelevant becomes a blur, not even secondary to the mission but tertiary. There’s only planning for their next move, weighing their last mistake, reacting to the moment.

It feels like going to war. God, will he ever stop feeling at home with that?

The dirt path to Camp Lehigh is overgrown, full of potholes, and doesn’t appear to have seen much use for the last decade or so. Steve drives right up to the chain link fence, and when he gets out of the car, the smell of the camp hits him, familiar and strange at once; earth and wood and evening air, cleaner than it ever was back then.

“This is it.”

“Yeah, the file came from these coordinates,” Natasha confirms, looking around for a way to get past the fence.

“So did I,” Steve says warily, and she pauses, nods slowly.

Steve came from here; the original file came from here. You know what else originated at Camp Lehigh? S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. This is where Peggy and Howard and Colonel Phillips planted their flag, where they formed an agency to handle the kind of cases that ordinary law enforcement just hadn’t been able to deal with. This is where it all began, and maybe… maybe it’s where it all went wrong, too.

Just look at Steve.

Nat finds them a way in. They look around quietly—Nat because she really is focusing on finding the exact spot the coordinates refer to, Steve because he’s trying to keep melancholia at bay, but it’s slamming into him from all sides.

Every corner, every cranny—not even wandering about with the shield on his arm can keep him grounded in the present. Over there’s the mess where he used to sit and eat alone. Behind that building there used to be an obstacle course; Gilmore Hodge had once kicked over one of the posts holding up the razor wire over the mud pit and gotten Steve stuck. There’s the building where Peggy taught him how to fight smart, where Steve met Isaiah Bradley. Over there’s the barracks where Steve had slept, and where Erskine had reminded him not to be a perfect soldier, but a good man on his last night alive.

Christ, Steve’s list of acquaintances is just full of dead people, ain’t it.

And here. Here’s the flagpole that earned Steve the one and only victory that had ever truly impressed the officers before Project Rebirth. It had been so hot that day; his breath had been choppy, and he’d wanted to throw up. Their drill sergeant’s voice had followed him to sleep that night.

Pick up the pace, ladies! Let’s go! Let’s go! Double time!

Come on, Rogers, move it!

Come on, fall in! Rogers! I said fall in!

It seems like it was all a hundred years ago. It nearly is. A lifetime. Steve could’ve grown old in Brooklyn, could’ve stayed the same and never gone to war. Could’ve given up and collected scrap metal like Bucky had wanted him to, honored his last-ditch effort at keeping Steve safe. He could’ve had a life, could’ve tried to make it on his own.

But that’s nostalgia talking. It would barely have been a life at all. He wouldn’t have lasted the winter. He’d been growing weaker, hadn’t told Bucky. Bucky would’ve gone to war none the wiser, would’ve died on that table in Italy while Steve died soaked in fever-sweat and coughing up blood in a hospital bed. Ma gone, Bucky gone, Peggy and his friends and teams all strangers he’d have never met. He’d have had no one but the Barneses, would’ve been a burden to them.

Living out that life would’ve been crueler than living out this one. At least he’s alive. At least he’s not alone. At least he’s useful. That’s got to be enough.

He turns away, striding back towards Nat. She’s pacing back and forth in front of a low building that’s—wait a second. That’s not right.

“This is a dead end,” Nat says, waving her GPS-gadget around in frustration. Steve calls in a gadget, but it could be just her phone, he just hasn’t seen anything like it anywhere else. Could be one of Tony’s projects—in which case, it’s likely just the tiny bit safer to use than anything S.H.I.E.L.D.-issued. “Zero heat signature, zero waves, not even radio. Whoever wrote the file must have used a router to throw people off. We won’t get—Steve? What is it?”

Steve jerks his chin at the out-of-place building. “Army regulations forbid storing ammunition within five hundred yards of the barracks. And the barracks are just over there.”

It’s easy enough to break in—well, for them it is. There’s only a simple padlock on the door, and it breaks from one sharp hit of the shield. When no alarm sounds, they slip inside silently.

The ground floor mostly consists of storage and slender catwalks leading nowhere, so they head downstairs. With the light flicked on, a large, open-plan office is revealed, the tables dusty, the chairs still bearing the imprint of long hours and lots of sitting. S.H.I.E.L.D. ground zero.

At the far wall, there’s a grand stencil of the S.H.I.E.L.D. sigil, a bold eagle with wings flared out. It’s must be one of the first versions of it, though, not nearly as stylized as the one Steve’s used to.

They go through the larger, single-person offices one by one. In the last one, there are three old photographs that no one had bothered to take down when they moved out. The glass is overlaid with a layer of greasy dust, but the pictures beneath are still perfectly distinguishable.

“Stark’s father,” Nat murmurs softly. “And Director Carter.”

Steve doesn’t say anything, keenly aware that Nat’s watching him closely. Instead, he wanders toward a massive, wooden bookshelf. Peggy’s usually one of the few subjects he doesn’t mind talking about, but there’s a time and a place. He’s already been through enough emotional turbulence today, thank you, he’s not avoiding it.

It proves a good move, anyway. The bookshelf isn’t a single piece of furniture; it’s made up of several bookcases pushed together, but here, in the middle, there’s a small, odd gap between two of them. It’s wide enough for Steve to slide his fingers in between and get a good grip.  

“If you’re already working in a secret lab,” he wonders aloud, “why would you need yet another secret compartment?”

With a slight grunt, he pulls the bookcase to the side. Behind it is a pair of strangely modern steel doors. To get past those, you need to operate a rather modern-looking electronic keypad. Nat quickly hacks into using her phone, and the doors slide open to reveal an elevator. The air in there is stale, but not musty. 

The elevator only goes down, so down they go.

Some three, four levels below, it comes to a stop and the doors slide open. Ahead, there’s just one big room, another office, or maybe a computer lab. If it had been dusty above, down here, you practically breathe it. It lies thickly across the floor, snow-like and furry. However, other parts of the room are suspiciously clean; a mass of old computers—really old; they might have been invented somewhere around Steve’s dive into the arctic—are connected to one another via a mess of cables. They all contain rolls upon rolls of black tapes.

Lastly, there’s a highly modern flash drive port at the table in front of them.

“This can’t be the data-point, this technology is ancient.” Steve shrugs at that. Nat rolls her eyes and steps forward to plug in the flash drive.

Much to their surprise, the computer boots up, much faster than you’d expect for such a fossil. The screen has a sickly-green glow, and the software seems rather outdated, but it works. A command prompt pops up: Initiate system?  

Natasha settles in. “Y-E-S, spells yes.” The system accepts the command. If only the hacking basics course had been this simple. She smirks at Steve and says, “Shall we play a game.” He has to fight not to sigh. “It’s from a movie that—”

“Yeah, I know, Nat.” It had been an okay movie, not Steve’s thing but interesting enough. He’d liked the main character.

The tapes start spinning; the computer wakes up. There’s a crackle, and then an accented voice. A small, external camera pans over them slowly, whirring dully, and on the screen, a figure appears, wearing big, dark glasses. In another world, it might be human; here, it just looks mostly alien.

Rogers, Steven Grant. Born 1918. Romanov, Natalia Alianovna. Born 1984.

Natasha eyes it warily. “It must be some kind of recording.”

I am not a recording, Fräulein,” the figure on screen tells them condescendingly. “I may not be the man I was when the Captain took me prisoner in 1945, but I am still a man.” The figure flickers and is replaced by an old, old photograph of a slight, round-faced man.

Steve’s heart drops to the bottom of his stomach.  

“You know this thing?” Nat asks.

Steve’s hands are shaking. He never heard his voice until now. This man—this roach—hadn’t tried to plead with them when they took him, and Steve hadn’t been allowed to watch the interrogation—or negotiations, as they turned out to be. He’d seen him just thrice; running from a lab, watching Bucky with fascination, and finally surrendering aboard a train in Austria. Always an author of pain.  

Steve spits the words, “Arnim Zola was a German scientist who worked for the Red Skull. He’s been dead for years.”

First correction,” Zola grinds out, “I am Swiss. Second: it’s Doctor Arnim Zola. Third: look around you. I have never been more alive. In 1972 I received a terminal diagnosis. Science could not save my body. My mind, however… that was worth saving on two hundred thousand feet of data banks. You are standing in my brain.

“How did you get here?” Steve asks. ‘Here’ not so much meaning the US, but rather ‘S.H.I.E.L.D. original headquarters where Peggy Carter sure as hell wouldn’t have allowed you to just stroll around.’

Invited,” is the smug reply, dispelling that notion.

Nat murmurs. “After World War II, Operation Paperclip made it so that the government could recruit German scientists of strategic value. Even those that worked for the Nazis.”

S.H.I.E.L.D. thought I could help their cause,” Zola chimes in, pleased as punch with having an audience. “I did. I also helped my own.”

“HYDRA died with the Red Skull,” Steve insists. The Nazis, not so much. Boy, had he been pissed to wake up and find that those were still around, especially in fucking USA.

Cut off one head… two more shall take its place.”

“Prove it.”

Accessing archive.” The picture flickers again, Zola disappearing. A series of photographs flash across the screen; Red Skull, footage from the HYDRA factories. “HYDRA was founded on the belief that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom. What we did not realize was that if you try to take that freedom away by force, they resist. The war taught us much. Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly.” A new series of pictures, these of the S.H.I.E.L.D. founders, both from their service records and what appears to be candids from around the first offices. “After the war, S.H.I.E.L.D. was founded and I was recruited. I had known much, had been privy to the initial stages of Erskine’s serum. They knew the risks and watched me, but even they had to sleep. The new HYDRA grew from within, a beautiful parasite. For seventy years, we have been secretly feeding crises, reaping war. And when history did not cooperate… history was changed.

“That’s impossible,” Natasha states in a leading tone. She doesn’t outwardly appear ruffled, emotions locked behind her interrogation mindset. “S.H.I.E.L.D. would’ve found out.”

Zola gives an odd hum, almost static. “And accidents would happen.” More pictures; Fury, then—Howard? And a woman who looks so much like Tony she can’t be anything but his mother. Crime scene photos of a car crash, a horrible accident—or so it seemed. “HYDRA created a world so chaotic that humanity was finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security. Once the purification process is complete, HYDRA’s new world order will arise. We won, Captain. Your ‘death’ amounted to the same as your life: a zero sum—

Steve moves, body on fire; his shield cuts through the computer screen, makes the wires fizzle and crackle as they break. Don’t listen, don’t listen, he’s lying, don’t listen—

Ahem,” the voice goes on, another screen lighting up with Zola’s image. “As I was saying…

But Steve’s had enough. If he wants to listen to a monologue about his own failures, he’ll lie down in bed and let his nightmares sweep over him uninterrupted, or maybe go down a nice, intense anxiety spiral. If Zola wasn’t their only lead, Steve would’ve happily torn through the office, smashing absolutely everything. “What’s on this drive?”

Project Insight requires—insight. So I wrote an algorithm.

“What kind of algorithm? What does it do?” Natasha cuts in before Steve can start growling.

The answer to your question is fascinating! Unfortunately, you shall be too dead to hear it.” With that, the doors slide shut behind them; Steve throws his shield to halt them, but it’s too late, and it just bounces off, coming back to him. The locks engage, a deafening sound. There’s no other way out. They’ve been entombed.  

Natasha’s phone starts pinging madly. “Steve, we’ve got a bogey. Short range ballistic, thirty seconds out, tops.”

“Who fired it.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D.”

I am afraid I have been stalling, Captain,” Zola says, sadistically pleased. “But you must admit… it’s better this way. We are—both of us—out of time.

Steve wants to rage back, no, I’m not. But in the back of his mind, the nightmare creature that looks like Bucky whispers, aren’t you?

Move, don’t think. There’s a small trapdoor in the floor, barely big enough to allow Steve to fit through. Nonetheless, he flings it open, pushing Natasha down into safety, then nearly squashing her when he curls around her to protect her—he’s survived a plane crash, being shot, stabbed, and nearly mowed down by an army of aliens, a little missile won’t be a problem.

He’s hidden them at the very last second, only barely thrown up his shield for cover when the missile hits, and all pandemonium breaks loose in a flash of heat and noise.  

Chapter Text

They are at risk exposure, or so the Soldier has been told. They can’t just expect the Handler to walk in here with Captain America still on the loose, so the Soldier must go to the Handler instead. Don’t draw attention, don’t get recognized.

He gets to the Handler’s home base in the middle of the night. The Handler is home, clearly visible through the windows. Most of the outer walls seem to be windows, in fact. Unwise. He’s in casual clothes, looks like he’s winding down for the night. A few times he glances at his watch, furrows his brow. Impatient.

The Soldier should have entered the house by now. But there’s a housekeeper finishing her duties, having stayed late to make up for the Handler’s late hours. The Soldier has no kill orders. She must not die by his hand. Somehow, that matters. The Soldier is a good soldier, an asset to his Handlers. He does not disobey orders. And the orders were, don’t draw attention.

A dead body in the Handler’s house would draw attention. Or so the Soldier interprets it.

Ten minutes later, the housekeeper has almost finished with the kitchen, so that is where the Soldier will make his entrance. He sneaks in, soundless, a ghost, as she’s turning off the lights. She’s neither young nor old, but closer to the former than the latter. Someone’s beloved. Someone’s friend. Someone with a life. He makes sure she does not notice him.

He sits in one of the uncomfortable but stylish chairs at the dinner table, back to the window-walls, face half in shadow. The light from the hallway only just illuminates his eyes. They had not given him the mask this time; he may need to make a report, and this Handler does not care for slurred speech. He is important.

They have also still not given the Soldier a hair-tie, so his hair falls in his face. However, they had washed him before sending him here, just a quick sluicing down. He’s long used to the hose and the freezing water. He doesn’t flinch anymore, not even at the first, sharp slap of cold.

In the kitchen, he waits. He must not be seen, and the housekeeper is still in the house. The Handler will understand his caution—once he stumbles on the Soldier in his kitchen, that is. The Soldier waits and he thinks and his head aches.

He is due for recalibration, but they are withholding it. He does not understand why. Maybe they will forget. If he never tells him about the glowing image of the golden man, maybe they will assume he does not need recalibration. They will let him keep it, a secret just for him.

The golden man is the final enemy; that must be why the sight of him has shaken up the Soldier’s system so. The more he tries to think about him, the more his body reacts. His vision clouds, his head spins with sharp spikes of pain, and his stomach roils as if he’s been starved so long that he’s now fit to throw up his very organs.

The golden man’s face… the Soldier cannot fully remember it. Abstractly, he knows what he looks like, would be able to pick him out of a crowd at a moment’s notice. On the other hand, every feature eludes him. If he tries to recall, the golden man becomes godlike in his mind, explodes into light like a thousand stars.

The Soldier will keep this secret. This malfunction harms no one but himself.

A noise in the hall, a shuffling of feet. The Handler comes in, heading for the fridge for a drink. He’s poured it and half-drunk it, too, before noticing the Soldier in the corner. He freezes but does not drop the glass.

The housekeeper calls, “Mr. Pierce, I’m going to go now. You need anything before I leave?”

“No, Renata,” the Handler calls back, a little delayed in responding. The Soldier can hear his heartbeat; it is elevated. He was frightened, still is, but is forcing it down, controlling it. This is why he is a Handler. “It’s, uh, it’s fine. You can go home.”

She calls out a last goodbye, then the front door closes behind her. They are alone.

The Handler’s shoulders relax, and his heartbeat is almost steady. His voice even, he asks, “Want some milk?” It is rhetorical. The Soldier does not consume food outside the lab, not unless it has been carefully prepackaged for him to bring on longer missions. He must maintain himself when no one else is available, but only sparingly. The Handler knows this, it is clear from his sly smile.

And so, the Soldier doesn’t answer.

To the Handler’s credit, the unflinching stare doesn’t seem to rattle him much. Many a handler has been replaced because they could not hold the Soldier’s eyes. You flinch like cowards. You have no business handling such an asset.

“The timetable has moved up,” the Handler says, finally getting to the point after having taken his seat across from the Soldier. “Our window is limited. Two targets, level six threats. They already cost me Zola.” The Soldier feels a stirring in his chest, something like ice. The Handler doesn’t notice, too busy pouring more milk. “I want confirmed death in ten hours.”

The front door opens. Only the Soldier notices. To draw attention, he nods once.

Renata, however, comes into the kitchen. “Sorry, Mr. Pierce, I forgot my phone—”

She stands frozen in the doorway, horror overtaking her as she spots the Soldier. Even folded into a corner like he is, he plainly outsizes her, not only in muscle but in height. His face is smooth, young but old, too, and his eyes are flat. He looks inhuman. He is. He knows this.

The Handler sighs, a little annoyed. “Oh, Renata. I do wish you would’ve knocked.”

Upon entering, the Soldier had placed a gun on the table. It is required of him to present his Handlers with one of his own weapons if they are ever alone with him. If he hadn’t, he would’ve been chastised. But he had. And so, it comes to this.

The Handler grabs the gun and shoots Renata, almost casually.

She stumbles backwards. It takes great skill to kill with just one bullet, and while the Handler has had training, he is not known for wet work. She pleads, she hurts, she tries to crawl. In the end, she dies.

“Get rid of the body,” the Handler says.

Her name had been Renata. She had been someone.

In another world that mattered to him. Or so the Soldier dreams.

Chapter Text

Steve digs them out of the rubble, rising like the living dead. With dirt and dust down the back of his shirt, he’s thrown back to one of the Howlies’ missions, one that had involved him barreling into a HYDRA camp like a bull in a china shop, Bucky lying in wait with his rifle, and the rest of the Howlies tunneling into camp via an old fox den. There’s a horror to being surrounded by the earth like this, you can’t breathe right, can’t truly move, and every second, something shifts, burying you again and again. Natasha’s expression depicts the terror perfectly, fear akin to an up-close meeting with the Hulk in a snit.

They pick themselves up and run, no rhyme or reason, not really. There’s got to be agents on their track, so they change cars, too.

They could’ve headed for New York, but Natasha says nothing when Steve turns the car towards D.C. Likely, she senses the high-strung tension running through him, the shock and fury at what they’d found. He doesn’t want to taint New York with that. The city is already steeped in ghosts, he can barely bear to be there as it is. It doesn’t need to be painted with the fall-out of his failures as well.

Knowing that Zola had been alive and well, knowing that Peggy and Howard had let him in… it’s indescribable, what Steve feels. Logically, he knows they must have tried their best to contain him, but logic can do nothing in the face of his anguish. The brought Zola here. Who else did they allow in? How many died for it? Fury, obviously. But also Howard and his wife.

Fuck. They’ll have to tell Tony. Did he ever suspect that it wasn’t just an accident that took his parents? Tony doesn’t talk about them, not directly, it’s always jabs or sarcastic comments that reveal much more than he’d probably like. Did he ever wonder, or had their death simply crystalized his trauma, making it unbearable to even contemplate?

“Do you think he’s gone?” Natasha asks, breaking the silence. She’s downgraded from the rattled, uncontainable terror of being crushed in the crawlspace and settled on a tightly restrained sort of focus to keep her emotions at bay.

“Zola? I fuckin’ hope so.” Zola been preserved on tape, and all the tapes were burning now. But what about back-ups? Steve doesn’t know much about outdated technology, there’s too much for him to learn already to waste his time on useless tech. Can you even back-up tape like that? God, he hopes not.

But if you can. He’ll finally get his chance to dropkick Arnim Zola in the fuckin’ throat. Or the fucking hardware, whatever works best.

They reach D.C. by early morning. Somewhat on auto-pilot Steve ends up driving towards the neighborhood that Sam Wilson had mentioned he lived in now. There’s not much thought behind that action other than, we need to get somewhere safe. Sam makes me feel safe. No one knows about Sam.

In other words: Sam’s just the closest unlucky bastard who happens to be friends with Steve Rogers. Bet he’ll be thanking his lucky stars for that.

They abandon the car and continue on foot. If they have to, Steve will sneak through every single backyard to find out which house is Sam’s, but thankfully they do not have to resort to such measures. He spots Sam coming back from a morning run, all dewy (sweaty) and fresh-faced (panting like a dog).

After checking that they’ve not been followed—with Nat double-checking—they knock on his door. They make a sorry sight; dirty, worn, and starting to get a little shaky with adrenaline slowly leaking from their bodies. The look on Sam’s face is one of utter disbelief and instant focus.

“Hey, man,” he says cautiously, only a little suspicion working its way into his voice.

“I’m sorry,” Steve blurts out, his most hangdog expression on his face. “We had nowhere else to go.”

“Everyone we know is trying to kill us,” Nat adds, staring Sam down like she’s going to eviscerate him if he turns out to be part of ‘everyone’.

There’s a beat as Sam looks them up and down. When he finally comes to a decision—a billion years and only a second later—it’s nearly palpable. The restlessness behind his eyes has settled. To Steve, it’s like looking in a mirror. “Not everyone. Come inside.”

*

Nat badgers Steve into taking the first shower. After, he feels nearly human again, and peculiarly calm. It’s a feat of the serum; it makes him feel like he can stroll through a battlefield on fire without a single care in the world except completing his walk. He changes into the sweatpants from his go-bag and a white tank-top that Sam’s loaned him. He is never getting that back. This is Steve’s shirt now.  

Natasha’s in a guestroom across the hall. Through the slit in the door, he just can make her out, crumpled and vulnerable in a way that he’s never seen her be before. She’s drying her hair in sections and staring into nothingness.

Carefully, Steve knocks on her door. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she says, too fast.

Try again. “Nat, it’s just me. What’s going on?”

A beat, and then she sighs, slumps. “When I joined S.H.I.E.L.D., I thought I was going straight. I knew there’d still be shades of gray—there always is in our line of work. But… in the end, I guess I just traded in the KGB for S.H.I.E.L.D. How many debts have I truly managed to repay? How many of my sins have I truly atoned for? A handful? None at all? I thought I knew whose lies I was telling, but… but I guess I can’t tell the difference anymore.”

Through her self-doubt and the walls she has so carefully built to keep everybody at bay, Steve glimpses the emerging shape of a truly good person. Someone who owns up to their failures and is doing their best to right it. Who’s learning. Who’s ready to stop pretending. Who knows something can’t be fixed but gets up anyway. It’s why he says, “There’s a chance you might be in the wrong business,” and means it as nothing but a compliment. She’s good at her job. Excellent, in fact. But she deserves better than just being a good operative.

She smiles faintly, not misunderstanding. Then meets his eyes, serious. “I owe you.”

“It’s okay,” Steve says with a shrug.

Nat draws a sharp breath, frustrated. “Steve. If it was the other way around—if it was down to me to save your life—be honest; would you really trust me to do it? After all I’ve done? Done to you, even?”

“I would now,” he replies, without a shred of doubt. “And Nat, please. I’m always honest.”

“That’s a fuckin’ lie, Rogers.” They laugh. “But you do seem pretty chipper for someone who just found out they died for nothing.”

Well. It’s either faking it or unstoppable crying in a corner. “Guess I like to know who I’m fighting. They’ve already thrown Zola at us, who else they gonna resurrect?”

At that moment, Sam appears in the doorway, looking a little daunted but soldiering through it. “I made breakfast,” he says, then adds, sarcastically, “If you guys eat that sorta thing.”

He probably regrets saying that as Steve works his way through his portion, then the fruit in the bowl on the table, then random snacks in the cupboard, then whatever else is ready-to-eat in Sam’s kitchen, cheeks ballooning as he stuffs his face. Sam mutters rather unflattering things under his breath.

“We’ve probably got every major government agency on our tail, not to mention HYDRA. And they have the Winter Soldier in their employ—we fit his usual targets, so we can’t entirely discount him. Our only hope is that he’s already been put away; he doesn’t usually strike so soon after an assassination. So, the most pressing question for now is,” Natasha says, having finished her own plate and now fully committed to ignoring the increasingly disgusting amount of food Steve can fit in his mouth, “who at S.H.I.E.L.D. could launch a domestic missile strike?”

“Pierce,” Steve warbles. Sam walks off in disgust, but not too far.

“Who happens to be sitting on the top of the most secure building in the world. And yeah, sure, he could, but he’s probably one of the higher ups. He’ll give the order, not do the deed. Next.”

Steve forces down his mouthful. “Fury could’ve. But they killed him for trying to hack the drive with Zola’s algorithm. Which we picked up on the Lemurian Star.”

“Along with Jasper Sitwell. He’s high-level enough to have access to missile codes, too. He’d be our best bet for information.”

“And how do the two most wanted people in Washington kidnap a S.H.I.E.L.D. officer in broad daylight?”

You don’t,” Sam pipes up, dropping a thick file on the table.

Steve glances at it; it as CONFIDENTIAL stamped across the front. “What’s this?”

“Call it a resume.”

 Nat flips it open; photographs spill out, the first one of Sam and his team. She frowns, but it’s more pleased surprise than disgruntled. “Is this Bakhmala? The Khalid Khandil mission? That was you? You didn’t say he was para-rescue, Steve.”

Steve hadn’t said a goddamn thing about Sam, but he’s going to let that slide. He’s focused on another photograph, Sam and another fella. Even looking away from each other, the trust and ease between them comes through plain as day. “This Riley?” he asks softly.

Sam stiffens, despite having expected the question. “Yeah.”

Nat’s keeps going. “I heard they couldn’t bring in the choppers because of the RPGs. What did you use, a stealth chute?”

“Nope. These.” Another file gets tossed to them, stamped all over with warnings and TOP SECRETs.

From the very first schematic, Steve can see why they’d want that file hidden away. “You said you were a pilot,” he says, slightly accusing. These aren’t planes; Project Falcon is mechanical, fully functional wings.

“I never said pilot. You need to go back to grunt-camp, get them ears checked, Rogers.”

Steve chuffs, heart beating faster. This is amazing—they’d have an edge with these, they could just swoop down and get out before anyone would even know! But… “I can’t ask you to do this, Sam,” he says, meeting Sam’s eyes. Well, he could ask. That desperate boredom has left Sam’s gaze; it’s all too clear that their presence and the danger in their wake is more than welcome. But still. No one should have to live like they do. “You got out for a reason.”

“Dude, Captain America needs my help. Oh yeah, and Steve Rogers, too, but that’s a given. You seen that guy? Total disaster. There’s no better reason for me to get back in.”

And so, their duo becomes a trio.

Despite Sam’s warning that the one place to get a set of wings from is at Fort Meade—behind fortified twelve-inch steel walls—Nat shrugs like she’d have more trouble getting Clint through a full day without getting into some kind of trouble than she’d have breaking into military bases. Sam looks at her adoringly for the rest of the day.

Steve is ready to head out at once, but Natasha puts her foot down and enforces a two-hour nap for the both of them. She even goes as far as kicking him in the back of the knee, making him to collapse onto the couch in surprise, and then climbing onto his back of him and curling up like at kitten like that’s in anyway a comfortable position for her.

She falls asleep quickly, so it must be, somehow.

Sam wisely stays the hell out of it.

Steve’s body obeys him for once, and he falls asleep with the same ease that he had during the war. Back then, sleep had been precious and scarce when they were out in the field, and they’d all been able to sleep practically anywhere, anytime.

That does not mean he sleeps pleasantly.

His dreams are a confusion of sensation, memory blending with things that never happened, seamlessly, endlessly.

They hand Zola over, but he just walks away, Peggy and Howard not even blinking.

Steve’s on the plane, he’s falling, he knows he’s going to die. He knows he’s dying for nothing. He doesn’t care.

Bucky kisses him on that mountainside amongst the trees, pulls away and says, “You taste like her.”

They’re in New York. Steve’s small again, gasping for breath while destruction rains on the city. Tony’s there, dressed in a fancy mobster-suit. Natasha’s fighting someone using only a brick. Sam’s falling from the sky, Thor racing to catch him. Bruce is shaking, pale and depleted. Clint has run out of arrows.

Sarah Rogers calls Steve’s name, voice breaking on a cough.

He’s on a train. There’s a hole in the side. Bucky stumbles and Steve dives after him, clinging to the side of the train, wind in his hair. Hanging over the side, he sees the Commandos fall one by one. He can’t reach Bucky, is just a little too late. He slips—

Steve jumps after him.

He wakes.

He’s alone.

Except, he’s not. Sam’s in his room, getting ready by the sound of it, and Natasha’s curled up in a kitchen chair, typing out a long string of code. Later, she’ll tell him all about it, how she’s digging using a code only she and Clint know, a secret warning just for him. No one else will be able to read it, though that’s a dangerous thing to assume. It’s her one small transgression, reaching for her best friend. Her not-lover-but-beloved.

Steve gets to his feet slowly, rising like an old man. His bones don’t creak, but he imagines that they do. His brain is slow in coming back online, but when it does, it spits out every single thought all at once, all the things he has to do, all the things he didn’t do, all the mistakes he ever made.

He looks to the ceiling and says a low prayer for Thor, a please, if you can hear me, be careful. If you can hear me, go to the others first. Keep them safe. He hopes Tony and Pepper are safe and well in Tokyo, that Bruce is hidden away in whatever corner of the world he runs to when it all becomes too much, that Clint hasn’t been compromised, that they’re all still free.

That Peggy compromised, never knowing how wrong it would go. That he’ll forgive her in time for that.

God, what will he tell her? The agency you built, your life’s work, made in the image of what Captain America once represented, it’s all a lie. It was rotten from the start. Should he even tell her? Will she even remember? Or will it be a scar upon her mind, another thing to confuse her, the scab ripped off over and over again until she dies?

She doesn’t deserve that. And even as angry as he is, he won’t hurt her like that. He’s already hurt her too often for how briefly they’ve known each other. Christ, it’s a wonder she’s his friend at all.

Natasha calls his name. It’s time.

Chapter Text

Sitwell’s out and about, which normally would make things a tiny bit more difficult. However, Natasha Romanoff didn’t become a world-class spy and Avenger just to be stumped by one measly officer not even actively trying to evade her. Privately, Steve finds that to be absurd. HYDRA—or S.H.I.EL.D., or whichever, really—knows they’re on the loose and looking for answers. Are they really so arrogant as to ignore that and go about their day?

The answer is yes. Steve’s not going to look that gift horse in the mouth.  

Sitwell is still using the work phone that Nat and Steve had both had the number for. Tracking him down is child’s play. They let Sam at him first, and listen in as he lures—or rather, goads—Sitwell away from his (almost definitely HYDRA) associates.

Who’s this?

The good-looking guy in the sunglasses at your ten o’clock—your other ten o’clock! Christ. There you go.

What do you want?

You’re gonna go ‘round the corner, to your right. There’s a gray car, two spaces down. You and I are gonna take a ride.

And why would I do that?

Because that tie looks hella expensive, and I’d hate to mess it up.”

The tie in question has a red dot on it at just that moment, orchestrated by Nat. They’re not going to tell Sitwell it’s just from a laser pointer that Sam had lying around. Why did he have that lying around, Steve had asked. The feral cat in my backyard likes playtime, Steve!

A short drive and an elevator ride later, Sam hands Sitwell over to them and goes to get ready for his next act, gleefully skipping away. From there, it’s all about theatricality. Nat is delighted; you can tell by the glint in her eye.

“Tell us about Zola’s algorithm,” Steve orders, stalking Sitwell across the rooftop as he scrambles to get away. Steve used to think that Sitwell was very competent, but maybe the mere act of finding one’s way out of a wet paper bag would’ve impressed him when he’d just come out of the ice. It certainly seems so now.

“Never heard of it,” he tries, and he almost sounds believable. Almost. Sweat drips from his bald head. He knows that the Black Widow and Captain America don’t come a-knockin’ for small-talk.

“What were you doing on the Lemurian Star?”

“I was throwing up, Agent Rogers, I get seasick,” he says, prissily. However, he keeps eyeing Natasha nervously, unsettled by her casual prowling in Steve’s wake. Natasha Romanoff intensely listening to you in a situation such as this is a high-key warning sign, and Sitwell is not quite rattled enough to forget that just yet.

Time to bring out the big guns.  

At the very edge of the rooftop, Steve catches Sitwell by the collar and bends him backwards over the low wall separating them from the long drop onto the pavement. Vertigo hits instantly; it’s as if even with the wall between you and a free fall, you might pitch right over the edge anyway. Or at least, that’s what Steve’s mind whispers. Onto the hard, cold ground, into the ice below…   

Sitwell, however, scoffs. “Is this little display meant to insinuate that you’re gonna throw me off the roof? Because I gotta say that’s really not your style, Captain.”

Steve rolls his shoulders back in a reluctant shrug and sighs heavily. “You’re right.” He pulls Sitwell back up a little, dusts him off and makes sure his eyes are on Steve. “It’s hers.”

He steps to the side and Natasha is there, kicking Sitwell right in the chest with extreme prejudice. He goes flying over the edge, yelp turning to a shrill scream. That’s going to sting; Natasha kicks like a horse. Ah, the joys of slapping Nazis around.

His scream fades the farther he falls. Steve puts his hands in his pockets, waiting.

Natasha snaps her fingers. “What about that girl from accounting—Laura? With the lip piercing? She’s cute.”

Really, Natasha? Really? “Lillian. And yeah, no, I’m not ready for that.” After this—if they survive—Steve’s going to have be firm and come clean. About not wanting to date just yet, that is. Not about Bucky. That’s no one else’s business. But maybe… he can start talking about his sexuality? God, that unnerves him more than storming a HYDRA factory.

Sitwell’s shriek is rising in volume. He’s coming back up.

And not by his own power. Sam soars into view, large wings spread wide. In the air, they aren’t apart from him, but a part of him. It’s as if he doesn’t have to think about how to move, just does it, as if he’s always had wings sprouting from his shoulder blades. There’s something glorious about his ascent, something like a resurrection.

He dumps Sitwell at their feet like an eagle dropping off a stunned rabbit. When he lands a short distance away, the wings fold seamlessly into his pack, taking up almost no space. He’s trying to keep a straight face, but a grin is pulling up his lips, elation pure and simple.

Before Steve can do more than take a threatening step forward, Sitwell starts spilling the details like a leaky faucet. You got to hand it to him; he’s not ralphing all over the roof, much as it seems like he’d like to. “Zola’s algorithm is a program! For—for choosing Insight’s targets!”

What. Targets.”

Sitwell’s shaking and white-faced, but he’s got enough guts to put true venom into his words. “You! Or, or a TV anchor in Cairo, the Undersecretary of Defense, a high school fuckin’ valedictorian in Iowa City. Bruce Banner, Wade Wilson—anyone who’s a threat to HYDRA! Now… or in the future…” He laughs, bordering on manic. “The 21st century is a digital book. Zola taught Insight how to read it all. It’s got access to everything—bank records, medical history, voting pattern, e-mails, phone calls, your damn SAT scores. After the Patriot Act, it was child’s play to incorporate it! Nothing can keep it out. The Insight Algorithm evaluates people’s pasts to predict their futures.”

There’s a ringing in Steve’s ears, warning claxons mixing with mounting horror, but he has to ask. “And what then?” Sitwell blubbers, spouts non-sense and pleads for Pierce not to kill him, as if he can hear them. “What then?

The answer rocks the foundations of Steve’s fragile, laboriously constructed world. “Then the Insight Helicarriers scratch people off the list. A few million at a time.”

*

They tie up Sitwell and get back in the car, Sam at the wheel, Natasha in the back with Sitwell. Steve’s really starting to appreciate how much easier it is to get shit done when you’ve got the backing of either the army or S.H.I.E.L.D., because this? This is a bitch of a situation. How are they supposed to take out the Helicarriers? To prove that they did the right thing afterwards? That half of the people in power are corrupted goddamn villains? What if no one believes them? What if it’s all in vain?

Captain America isn’t supposed to have doubts. But Steve Rogers? He’s full of them.

They could really use someone on the inside, but Fury’s trust no one rings clear and true. Nat suggests Hill, but they’re both a bit too leery to try it. She’d be their best bet, no doubt about it, but what if she’s not on their side? She’d be competent enough to singlehandedly set them back days, maybe weeks. God, they could really do without looking over their shoulders every minute.

“What about trying one of the Agents? Like… Agent 13, I heard good things.”

“Yeah, no. Fury used her to spy on me, and I saw her talking to Pierce.”

“What do you mean Agent 13 was your neighbor Kate?”

That’s what her name was?”

Jesus Christ, Steve.

Fuck it, they’re just going to have to use Sitwell. Might as well, now that they’ve gone through the trouble of bringing him.

Now that he’s become aware that they’re not going to just abandon him to the tender mercies of Pierce, Sitwell has grown more and more vocal about his discomfort. Sam’s snapped at him a few times already, sick to death of his whining, and Steve’s more and more tempted to smack him with the shield.

“HYDRA doesn’t like leaks,” he keeps insisting, loudly.

“So why don’t you try sticking a cork in it,” Sam says, eyes firmly on traffic. They’re heading onto the freeway, driving over the bridge now.

“Insight’s launching in sixteen hours, we’re cutting it a little bit close here,” Nat chimes in.

“I know,” Steve says. “We’ll get in fast, then use him to bypass the DNA scans and access the Helicarriers directly.”

Sitwell yelps. “What? Are you crazy? That is a terrible, terrible idea—”

And those are the last words Jasper Sitwell ever speaks, because the next moment there’s a thud on the roof and then a metal arm smashes through the window. Sitwell is pulled through faster than even Steve can react, and mercilessly flung into oncoming traffic. There’s a scream, the squeal of brakes, and the horribly noise of a body being crushed to death.

From there on, it’s chaos.

The Winter Soldier fires at them through the roof, one of the bullets grazing Steve’s knee. Natasha launches herself into the front seat, covering Steve with her body, eyes wide with an old fear never quite forgotten. Sam hisses something about where the fuck did he come from, did he fucking teleport? and hits the brakes. The car halts sharply, skidding forward.

The Winter Soldier is flung from the roof. He flips in the air, lands on his toes. They’d been going at a decent speed before braking, and he can’t keep himself from skidding backwards despite the acrobatics. Instead, he digs his metal fingers into the tarmac, leaving a trail of gouges before coming to a complete stop. He stands slowly, utterly calm, not disoriented at all.

Natasha pulls her gun—

An armored jeep slams into them from the rear, forcing the car forwards even with Sam stubbornly pumping the brakes. They’re gonna mow the Soldier down, Sam can’t drive around him, there are still other cars on the street, speeding past them on both sides. Three feet from impact, the Soldier moves, runs forward, flips.

He lands heavily on the roof, taking out the rear window when his boots come crashing down.

Natasha had lost her gun when they were hit, and now she desperately fumbles for it on the floor. At the same time, Steve tries to fumble for the shield, hastily pulling away when Nat hisses at him to give her space. Unhurried, the Soldier puts his metal hand through the windscreen and pulls the steering wheel right out of the dashboard.

Sam’s cursing gets decidedly more distressed.

Steve’s near to useless, serving both as Natasha’s safety belt and her human airbag. Having finally gotten hold on her gun, she returns fire. To avoid the bullets, the Soldier jumps from their car and onto the jeep literally on their tail. He moves strangely; sleek as a cat, but heavy as a boulder, denting the bonnet when he lands. The armored car falls back a bit.

There is still plenty of traffic on the bridge. So many things that can go wrong.

Perched like some sort of homicidal car hood ornament, the Soldier watches them steadily as the jeep approaches. He’s dressed almost the same as he’d been on the night of Fury’s assassination, that black mask—more like a muzzle—menacing beyond belief. The only change is a pair of dark goggles, hiding his too-still, unearthly eyes.

Sam’s car is still rolling forward at high speed, the brakes having given out. It’s also swerving dangerously towards the concrete median barrier. There’s nothing they can do to deter it.

Except abandon the car.

Steve rips off both his and Sam’s seatbelts, then pulls Sam in by the scruff like a kitten. “Hang on!” He has put the shield between them and the door, a last-ditch effort to break their fall a bit. With Nat clinging to his front and Sam under his other arm, Steve throws his body backwards against the door, just before impact.

The car hits the median, flips up and over their heads. They hit the ground hard, eyes closed as they slide along the pavement. The whine of steel on concrete is near deafening. Around them, traffic is finally coming to a halt, people abandoning their cars and running screaming in the other direction.

Sam slips from Steve’s grasp too soon, taking a tumble across the tarmac. A scream gets stuck in Steve’s throat—but Sam gets to his feet. He’s okay, he’s alive. They’re okay.

But the Soldier approaches.

The armored jeep had come to a stop when their own car hit the median. HYDRA agents, dressed simply in black body armor, mill around it, pulling out weapons. One hands the Soldier a heavy-looking rifle as Steve and Nat get to their feet.

But it’s not a gun. It’s a miniature rocket launcher.

Thankfully, Steve notices before the missile hits him. He’s still a second too slow. When the Soldier fires, Steve instinctively pushes Nat well out of the way and gets the shield up. He doesn’t have time to plant his feet properly, and the vibranium can only do so much.

He’s slammed backwards, shield flying from his hands. He hits a car hard, but it barely breaks his trajectory. Fuck, shit, motherFUCK. He keeps going, feeling like a ricocheting bullet; falling from the bridge, crashing straight into a bus and nearly taking out several passengers before finally coming to a stop, head smashed against a seat. His brain feels like it’s rattling around in his skull, every single bone in his body hurts, and he can’t seem to find his balance and get back up.

The driver, shocked and distracted, doesn’t see the bus coming from the side.

Impact. And it all goes dark.

Chapter Text

Captain America may be down, but the Soldier doubts he’s out for good. The Soldier has been through worse—he knows this like he knows how to shape words, how to switch languages between one sentence and another, without blinking, without thinking—and lived. The Captain will, too.

But for now, he turns his attention elsewhere.

The Soldier has no orders for the unexpectedly competent third member from the car, so he sets his sights on the Widow only. Romanova, Natalia Alianovna. He has chased her before, has he not? The bright flame of her hair lit up lit against the fairy lights and colorful turrets of St. Petersburg, unaware that he was with her. That he was gaining. That he was close.

She knows it now.

Though she tries to stand her ground and return fire, the agents with him are shooting like they’ve got bullets to spare. Wasteful, and not particularly effective. She seeks cover, sprinting through traffic, dodging cars as well as the Soldier had once done with a blond boy in his wake—

Malfunction. Discard the comparison. 

The Soldier follows her path through the crosshairs of his rifle. When she dives between a car and the bridge railing, she is briefly trapped. Breathe in. Leaves. Earth. A man in blue. Breathe out. Fire.

The car blows up magnificently, but the Widow, quick-witted, launches herself over the railing to get away from the blast. It’ll be hard to break that fall unless—there she goes, rappelling down, ducking under the bridge.

The Soldier is handed a new weapon, a semi-automatic rifle more suited for precision and quick to reload. He approaches the railing on the other side of the bridge with steady steps, content to wait for the Widow to reappear. He plants his feet, rifle at the ready.

She’s nowhere to be seen.

He listens for footsteps, but there aren’t any—at least none that stand out amongst the patter of civilians fleeing the area. The bus that the Captain had fallen through lies on its side, the Captain’s shield next to it, dirty from the impact of the missile. But where is he? Where’s St—

A bullet hits the Soldier in the eye.

He flinches backwards in surprise, and instantly his entire body roils. Weapons do not flinch. Weapons do not fear. When they recalibrate him, they will dig deep to correct that malfunction. After, they will run him through simulations until he forgets to duck blows.

As luck would have it, his goggles take the brunt of the shot, protecting his eyes but breaking in the progress. There’s a big crack right along the lens; a distraction. Sitting back against the railing—solid concrete, perfect cover—he sheds them, leaves them behind.

When he takes aim again, he is more liberal with his bullets, as focused on herding the Widow as he is on hitting her. She’s clever though, lets him chase her around until he runs out of bullets, and she can safely slip away. When she glances over her shoulder, her grin is triumphant.

She’s mine,” he says, slurring his Russian more than usual. He nods toward the unknown, exceedingly competent third man. He’s still giving the agents plenty to do. “He’s yours.”

Despite the near unintelligible order, the agents get the gist.

The Soldier jumps over the railing. He lands on a car—not lightly on his toes, as he would normally, but heavily on his heels, crushing the roof of the car beneath him. This mission is not for stalking through the night. Even if it was, they would’ve blown any secrecy directly out of the water by engaging their targets on a crowded road.

Today, the Soldier is a harbinger. Not just of death, but of a message. The time for secrecy is coming to an end.

He stalks forward, the uneven foundation beneath him exacerbating the uneven swagger of his gait. The arm is heavy, weighs him down. He compensates.

The street is littered with abandoned cars, and something is smoking heavily. A police car careens onto the street, sirens blaring; he shoots out the tires and ignores the officers. The agents still on the bridge will clear his way, if needed.

As he walks, he reloads, eyes never straying far from the last place he’d spotted the Widow. Most civilians have fled the area, but there are still a few running about, panic having rendered them thoughtless. Their distressed noises overshadow any sounds that the Widow might make, but still he listens closely. Soldiers who does not know how to utilize every sense in their arsenal is no use. 

A woman’s voice emerges from the din, tinny. “—twenty-three hundred… Virginia Avenue. Rendezvous two minutes. We’re taking fire above and below the expressway. Civilians threatened. Repeat, civilians threatened. Hello? Please, can you hear me? I’m—”

It’s coming from behind a car, some distance from him. He could sneak around, but she’s expecting that. Instead, he plucks a small bomb from his belt; it’s a tiny thing, a silver ball of destruction, and doesn’t cause too much damage. Enough to injure her, but she’ll scramble away quick. Kneeling down, he gently rolls it towards her hiding place, then replants his feet and wait.

A boom. The car goes up in flames. But there’s no Widow.

Where—

He hears her just as she runs up behind him. She’s on him before he can turn fully, kicking the rifle from his grasp. Using her momentum, she climbs up onto his shoulders and wrap her legs around his neck, some deadly parody of a child seated on its parents’ shoulders.

He manages to shrug off one leg, but she’s already pulled out a wire garrote. The move is familiar, but the dimensions are off; she’s grown now, stronger. He only just gets his hand between the wire and his neck, keeps her from choking him, and flings her off.

While she stumbles to her feet, gasping, he grabs the rifle.

She’s not out of tricks just yet. Instead of attacking, she runs. First, however, she flings a small magnetic device at his metal arm; it pulses, sputters and sparks, sends a shockwave of electricity through him. It hurts—like lightning through his spine, and he can’t think but for the burning need to get it off. His metal arm is useless like this.

Not the Chair, not the Chair, please, ready to comply, ready

When it finally comes off, it takes another moment for any sensation to return, for his mind to calm. The Widow’s gone—not far, but a good head start. Carefully, he tests each finger, ignoring the furor around him, clenches his fist. Hand is in order. Now the arm; rotate fully at the shoulder. No obstructions.

Forward.

Unwisely, she gives away her position, yelling for people to get away, to run, run! It slows her down, puts her on display. It is useless besides; they are not his targets. He does not turn to them. Her voice shakes; she is frightened, not thinking straight. Failing to keep safe.

All he has to do is take aim.

In the moment before impact, she stumbles, a move that saves her life. The bullet hits her in the shoulder, not the chest. Still, she goes down, disappearing behind a car. There is nowhere else to take cover, not quickly. He has her.

The Soldier jumps onto the bonnet of another car and takes aim. She turns, face frozen in fear.

Footsteps; someone running—sprinting.

The golden man is shooting towards him like a star across the sky.

Chapter Text

Steve had come to in the bus with a harried, frightened teenager shaking him and crying, “God, please, don’t be dead, don’t be dead, I’m sorry, please, sir, Mr. America, don’t be dead.”

The head fracture he’d suffered tingled still but felt most healed. The world wasn’t constantly listing to one side, and he’d been able to get on his feet without feeling sick. One leg felt like he’d stretched it wrong; it must have become dislocated in his fall and popped back into place during his black-out.

He tells the teenager to take cover and runs for the shield.

The Soldier has got Natasha cornered, ready for the kill-shot. Steve wastes no time, rushing at the Soldier, intentionally making noise to draw his attention. The most important thing is getting him to look away; any injuries Steve might sustain are secondary to that.

The Soldier is taken aback, but he’s also fast—as fast as Steve himself. And his strength, God.

Steve blocks the first punch with the shield. Whatever metal that arm is made of, the Soldier’s physical prowess renders it an equal match for the shield. The sound of his fist and the shield colliding is like a hammer on a big bell, a deep, echoing vibration that moves through your very bones. Steve has to grit his teeth just to stay standing.

While he’s still reeling, the Soldier slaps the shield to the side and dropkicks him in the chest. Steve tumbles backwards, ass over tits, onto the ground. Reacting on instinct, he curls up like a turtle behind the shield, just in time to avoid the spray of bullets fired at him.

What follows is a deadly game of hide-and-seek. Steve’s focus is on leading the Soldier away from Natasha—preferably without being shot, but he’ll take a bullet over Nat dying any day. They weave between the abandoned cars, ducking in and out of sight, Steve dodging bullets. The Soldier’s goggles have come off. His pale eyes are as haunting as they are haunted.

Despite fighting for his life, Steve is struck by a strange pity for him, this broken shell of a being. He’d rarely felt pity in war, not for the soldiers they killed, the HYDRA agents they hunted. Pity for his own soul, yes, for the blood on his hands and the things they had to do to survive. He’d learned—forcibly—to tune out anything that would’ve put him at a disadvantage in battle. You don’t just come back from that.

But how can you not pity a snarling wolf, when it’s so obviously wounded?

When the Soldier pauses to reload, Steve attacks. He kicks sharply at the Soldier’s hand, hoping to make him drop his gun, but his grip is too firm. All it gets him is are a series of close-range shots aimed at his face. He dances in close to throw a wild haymaker—he’d once seen Bucky putting an opponent out with one hit just like this, back in his boxing days—hitting the Soldier on the jaw and snapping his head back.

Then another hit aimed at the Soldier’s chin, this time with the shield; the Soldier blocks it, returns it, one punch, two. A truck would’ve struck more softly. He wrenches the shield around, and Steve, attached by the arm, has no choice but to follow, turning it into a flip and landing on his feet. He slips out of the harness, fights unarmed, and gets kicked onto his back, legs flying over his head. He scrambles to his feet, winded.

The Soldier holds the shield like he’d been born to carry it.

Something about is familiar, and provokes a deep horror, as if a distorted memory is trying to consume him. Steve forces it from his mind; the Soldier will seize on any mistakes and make it Steve’s last. When Steve rushes him, the Soldier flings the shield at him, nearly cutting Steve’s head right off. He only just manages to dodge; it grazes his shirt, a hairsbreadth from impact, and ends up deeply embedded in the back of a van.

Howard Stark had once said, “HYDRA’s not gonna come at you with a pocketknife.” When Steve gets to the afterlife, he’s going to throttle Howard, because the Winter Soldier has clearly never been informed of this, and he’s not at all daunted by the prospect.

He wields the knife like an extension of himself—a very sharp, detachable extension that Steve can’t wrest away from him no matter how hard he tries. He simply has to dodge and pray he’s fast enough to get out of the way.

They fight in close quarters, too close for Steve to do much more than punch and block, having no space to attempt anything more elaborate. Hell, he can barely even get enough space to attempt a proper knock-out, has to rely on a mixture of boxing moves and dirty hits. Finally, one of his hits catches the Soldier across the jaw, sends him stumbling back. In those precious few seconds to breathe, Steve spins, does a push kick; the Winter Soldier flies backwards, crashes into the side of a van. To keep him there, Steve runs up and knees him in the stomach, nearly embedding the Soldier into the side of the car.

Any ordinary opponent would’ve been too hurt to get back up right away. Not so the Soldier; he’s already swinging, the metal arm whirring with effort. None of them are pulling their punches, and it shows; the cars that get in their way are dented to hell and back.

The Soldier catches Steve by the throat, grip strong enough to make something pop, and pulls him in close to snarl in his face through the mask. Steve’s nearly passed out when he is finally thrown like a ragdoll, taking a tumble over the bonnet of a car. What do you even write on insurance claims after this? Captain America literally broke my unmoving car with his body?

The Soldier follows quickly, vaulting over the car. Steve’s only just caught his breath and jackknifes out of the way, avoiding a punch from the metal arm that cracks the pavement. From there on, the Soldier leads with the metal arm, nearly breaking every single rib on Steve’s right side with a nasty two-jab that steals what little air he’d just managed to get back in his lungs. He’d had an easier time breathing through an asthma attack back in the day.

They’ve come close to the van with the shield embedded; Steve moves towards it, but the Soldier forces him up against the car instead, wielding his knife. Steve manages to block his next move, a stab that would’ve taken an eye, at best. Still, he’s holding off the knife while it’s just inches from his face. Determined, the Soldier pours all of his considerable strength into it and powers through Steve’s defense; the knife ends up embedded right next to his ear and cuts up the whole side of the van as Steve desperately tries to slide away.

Finally, close to the shield, he grabs it.

Doesn’t he tire at all? Steve’s using muscles he’s never before had to rely on in his life, and he’s breathing like a racehorse with sweat pouring from him. No matter how many hits he gets in, the Soldier returns each and every one with a vengeance, seemingly attuned to the exact spots that Steve isn’t blocking at that exact moment. If he blocks the knife with the shield, the Soldier punches him in the belly or kicks him in the knee; if he advances, the Soldier dances back, nimble as a cat; if he retreats, the Soldier falls upon him.

At last, Steve gets in a good hit with the shield; it falls right between two plates in the metal arm, catching the Soldier off-guard just long enough for Steve to throw a punch, then grab him by the face and fling him over his shoulder.

The straps holding the mask in place break, and it falls onto the pavement between them.

And then the Soldier turns around.

The world goes silent. Long hair falls messily around the face of a ghost. Steve’s frozen. Wake up, wake up, you have to wake up. Is he still blacked out? This is a nightmare. It has to be. It’s not real. It’s not real. There’s frost on his tongue, blood in his mouth; stale coffee turning into warmth from a last kiss. He can’t get enough air, is gasping. Empty eyes watch him closely.

He breathes, “Bucky?” and expects to blink awake.

He doesn’t. For a second—a fraction of a second—wonder breaks through on the Soldier’s—on Bucky’s—face, there and gone in the blink of an eye. Almost softly and against his will, he asks, “Who the hell is Bucky?” Then, focused once more, he pulls his gun.

If it wasn’t for his friends, Steve would’ve been dead.

First, Sam swoops in, having grabbed his wing-pack from their crashed car, and kicks Bucky in the head, hard enough to have him tumbling down and letting Sam get the hell out of dodge. Long enough for Steve to gather his wits and end it.

But he doesn’t; he’s still frozen, his body completely shut down, bile rising in his throat.

Bucky gets back up, stares. There’s nothing in his eyes, no spark of recognition, none of that surprise that Steve will later think he’d simply imagined. His gaze flickers away, just briefly, and then the gun is raised again. Steve doesn’t lift a finger to stop him, to dodge. Why would he?

This time, Natasha saves him. She’s made her way to the rocket launcher, through shock and blood loss, and has absolutely no compulsion about firing it directly at Bucky. Despite his resilience, even the Winter Soldier must sometimes duck a blow.

When the smoke clears, he’s gone.

And Steve’s still just standing there, the shield close to slipping from limp fingers. Why is he not waking up? His heart beats out of tune, blood pumps through him like crashing waves. Sound filters in as if he’s under water. How is he even standing? Wake up, wake up, please, God, please, no—

It is no dream, and there is no waking.

By the time Steve accepts that, they’re surrounded. Natasha’s stumbled to his side, supported by Sam. Their faces blur before his eyes, as if he can’t quiet absorb the details. He can only slowly lift his head and a STRIKE team rushes them, yelling all kinds of orders.

“Drop the shield, Cap! On your knees!” Rumlow yells, because of course he’s there. “Get on your knees! Now! Get down!”

Steve starts to slowly raise his hands, but it’s like he can’t quite get a sense of how to move. His limbs are heavy, overlarge as if it’s the first minute after the serum all over again. Rumlow’s patience has run out; he kicks Steve in the leg, and Steve stumbles to the ground, graceless as a newborn fawn.

A news chopper circles above them. Rumlow, well-aware of this, hisses at his team to lower their guns. They can’t be seen as a hit squad, not just yet. Captain America is still an American hero, and for all intents and purposes, he must outwardly appear to be treated as such. Even if he’s led away in handcuffs.

But Steve’s so far gone they could’ve tied him up and stuffed him in the trunk, and he wouldn’t have said a word. That was Bucky—God, fuck, it was Bucky. Bucky on the roof, with those sad eyes. Bucky on the bridge, a stranger. Bucky right before him, set on killing him.

Bucky’s alive. Bucky is alive.

Steve leans over and throws up, much to the disgust of the STRIKE agents. The wipe his mouth roughly and stuff him in the back of a car along with two guards and Nat and Sam. Sam’s saying his name. He doesn’t react.

*

Time stretches. When Steve checks back in, Nat’s looking worse for wear and Sam’s grown more and more tense. When he sees Steve’s eyes spark with life, he eases a little, but still his worry lingers, painted all over his face.

Steve’s mouth dry, he croaks, “It was him.” Natasha lifts her head as if it pains her to do so, forehead creased in a frown. “He looked right at me like he didn’t even know me.”

“Who, Steve?”

“Bucky,” he whispers, shaky with terror. He'd fought Bucky. Hurt Bucky.

Sam blinks. “How is that even possible?”

Steve casts about, seizes on the first thing that comes to mind. “Zola… Bucky’s whole unit was captured in ’43. Zola experimented on him, was trying to—to recreate the serum. But nothing seemed to have changed, he was just—he was just Bucky. But he’s here, it’s him, it is, he survived, oh, God, they must’ve found him and—”

“Steve, slow down. If it is him—” Nat tries.

“It is,” he insists loudly, voice breaking. The guards shift uneasily.

“—then him ending up here is not your fault.”

But Steve’s heading quickly into a state where rationale has no place, his body wrecked with shivers. After all this time, after all that grief, after everything he’s kept locked away, he can’t keep it down, not this time. “I left him there—it’s my fault, it’s my fault, why didn’t I come for him, Bucky—” His breath grows choppy; why can’t he cry? He can’t breathe, there’s too much spit in his mouth and it tastes like iron, and he just wants to cry, to scream, to run. “Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky…”

There’s nothing they can do for him, not even reach out and hold him. Nat’s strength is waning, and Sam’s too far away. The blood from Nat’s bullet wound stinks up the whole car. “We need a doctor here,” Sam insists, turning towards the guards. “If we don’t put pressure on that wound, she’s gonna bleed out right here. Are you even listening—”

The guard on the left has pulled their stun baton, a movement sharp and sudden enough to distract even Steve. They all flinch backwards, trying to get out of range of a stray blow. Leftie stares them all down, their black helmet obscuring what is no doubt a glare.

But then, Leftie stabs the other guard, a move so fluid it’s almost beautiful.

Rightie convulses, voice caught in their throat. While they’re shaking, Leftie strikes again, laying Rightie out flat in just a few seconds. Silence reigns.

Leftie shrugs off her helmet.

Ah, that thing was squeezing my brain,” Maria Hill complains, pushing her hair out of her face. She looks around at the trio, lingering on Sam. “And who the hell is this guy?”

Chapter Text

In his head there are fireworks and Ferris wheels, carnival lights and salt on his tongue. There is laughter and squeals and his heart thumps faster. It is… kind, somehow. Like nothing he’s ever felt.

And in the midst of it all there is the golden man, the sunshine child of love, a supernova in the making. As if God had plucked the sun and stars from the sky and molded it into a single body, so bright it hurts just to look at him.

He’s all the Soldier wants to think about.

But something cruel creeps in, distorts the scene. Around him, the scientists fret, hesitant to approach him but forced to under the Handler’s glare. The Soldier’s arms are both strapped to the Chair, but not as tightly as for recalibration. This is basic maintenance. They expect him to be compliant.

The small man had, too.

Sergeant Barnes,” he whispers, simpering.

The Soldier recoils. The scientists scurry. The Handler studies him with cold, curious eyes.

There’s a train. It’s cold, so cold. Warmth in his mouth. Lips tingling. The shield in his hands; must protect—

Someone’s roaring. It’s not him. He’s falling. 

A name. That name. Bucky?

It’s a long way down. Rocks and snow and air and he keeps falling. There’s a name on his tongue—he can’t remember. A last thought: I’m never coming home. He doesn’t have a home. A last prayer: Ave Maria, gratia plena, please, save him. Take him from this war, I beg. Bring him home where I cannot go.

At the bottom of the ravine there is only pain. He is broken. Death watches but does nothing.

He’s found—please, please help me.

His arm, his broken, torn, bloody stump, leaves a trail for only wolves to follow.

No, stop, stop. Don’t touch me, FUCK YOU.

They’re coming, they’re all around him. The hold him down. He fights, he does, he’s not giving in, what if St—he has to be alive, they’ll come for him. Spits in their faces. They throw him away, leaves him to starve. Why is he here? What’s happening? He doesn’t understand.

But they come back. A newspaper. A nation mourns. They’re lying.

A recording. A man going to his death. This is my choice.

No one’s coming. He’s lost. He’s lost. All is lost.

The Soldier knows that voice.

Electricity. His own flesh cooking. The recording play on. A drill starts up, obscuring the lie, there’s no time. His body shakes, pain and helplessness and so, so scared. He’s no one. He wakes up; he has two hands, but one is monstrous. You are to be the fist of HYDRA. Who are these people?

He attacks.

Put him on ice.

The scientists scurry like mice, but he’s much to fast. He has seized one, long lost in memory, and chucks them across the room. He’s cold, God, he’s so cold.

The guards have their guns trained on him, but he hasn’t moved from the chair, is bent over shivering. The Soldier raises his face, stares at them. Even the largest of them is unsettled, but he keeps his position.

The Handler, having had enough, intervenes.

“Sir, don’t—he’s unstable,” one of the scientists warn, hands outstretched as if to keep him back.

The Handler ignores him completely, takes a seat across from the Soldier. “Mission report.” Fuck you. Where did the dream go? Come back— “Mission. Report. Now, Soldier!”

When the Soldier deliberately turns his face away, the Handler strikes, a stinging slap. Reality sets it. He must answer the Handler, always. The malfunctions are reaching new severity. 

He could tell the Handler that he failed. That the targets evaded him. He’ll receive punishment, but it would be worse to lie. He could tell him that he’ll rectify his mistakes. But what he does instead is ask, “The man on the bridge… who was he?” Who is Bucky?

 “You met him earlier this week on another assignment,” the Handler tells him. “And we have been preparing you for him. He must be eradi—”

“No.” The room goes silent as a tomb. “I knew him.”

The Handler has to understand. He does not. He says, “Your work has been a gift to mankind. You shaped the century, Soldier. And now I need you to do it one more time, just one more. society is at a tipping point between order and chaos. Tomorrow morning we’re gonna give it a push. But if you don’t do your part? Then I can’t do mine. And HYDRA can’t give the world the freedom it deserves. Don’t you want that, Soldier? Don’t you want to be free?”

Why doesn’t he understand? The Soldier can’t—this he cannot do. Will not. Malfunction. “But I knew him.” The words stick in his throat. The guards hover like carrion crows. Which one will replace him?

The Handler’s mouth twists. He rises, anger in every movement. “Prep him.”

“Sir, he’s been out of cryo-freeze too long, it won’t take—”

“Then wipe him and start over. Why the hell has no one reported on this before? How long has he been glitching?”

The Soldier’s rocking back and forth, little jerks that shake the chair. They push him back into the Chair and his skin crawls; he’s not wearing a shirt, everything had to be on display for maintenance. Why won’t they replace him? He knew him. He knew him, he knew him, he knew him.

His name is—

They hold out the mouthguard and his mouth pops open, the reaction so ingrained he cannot fight it. He lets them strap him back down, doesn’t fight it in time. The Chair whirs and the headguard comes down. He’s shaking, breathing hard. He begs through the mouthguard, but no one cares to listen.

The first spark; he’s on fire.

Some talk lunch while he screams.

“How soon will he be ready to go out again?” Pierce asks, well out of the Soldier’s hearing. The noise irks him, so he rarely conducts his business while maintenance happens.

“Anywhere between six to twelve hours. A recalibration of this intensity will leave him confused; we must check the protocols one by one, perhaps even use the triggers—he might have forgotten too much, the machine is not overly precise. It may have erased some things beyond immediate recall.”

“Chances of relapse?”

“Well—”

“Well? You don’t know? What the devil have you been doing with him? We charge you with his upkeep and you grow complacent? Is this the attitude you wish to take with you into the new world?”

“N-no, sir.”

“Good. Make him ready. The Winter Soldier’s last stand will continue as scheduled.”

Chapter Text

Steve, Nat, Sam, and Maria flee the city via the sewers, using nothing but an industrial strength laser cutter and Maria Hill’s God-given tenacity to burrow through layers and layers of steel and concrete. Steve has to carry Nat; but as he’s also not all that sure on his feet, Sam has to then pull him along by the arm.

In the humid, disgusting air and darkness, his mind shuts off for a while. His body keeps moving, but there’s no one home in it. His soul is a thousand miles and seventy years away, on a plane headed for the ice.

He doesn’t know which thought sickens him more: what they must have done to Bucky to make him forget himself—or that if Steve had died on that plane, Bucky wouldn’t have been waiting for him on the other side. Steve would’ve died for nothing, and Bucky would’ve been here. Steve would have abandoned him—again.

What would have happened to Bucky then? When Fury found out about HYDRA, would he have run to Natasha? In the end, would she have pulled the trigger without flinching when the Soldier stood before her? Or would the Soldier have finished his mission? On and on and on the nightmare goes…

Up ahead, there’s light.

They emerge into a small clearing near an abandoned factory. Maria hails them, using a series of complicated hand gestures, and a small group of medical personnel rushes out to meet them. None of them are familiar; they might as well be outsiders, to minimize risk of exposure, though that in itself would be a bit of a risk.

“Let me take her,” the doctor in front says after performing a quick, preliminary exam on Nat. “She needs a transfusion, and we need to clean out that wound before infection sets in.”

“Not yet,” Maria orders. “She’ll want to see him first.”

Steve glances at her sharply. There’s no ‘he’ that Nat would want to see at this point other than maybe Clint Barton, and if Maria’s dragged him into this mess, Nat might actually kill her with her bare, bloody hands, bullet wound be damned. Much as she respects Clint, she’s also endlessly protective of him, and she specifically warned him to keep away for the time being.

But it’s not Clint waiting for them.

In an improvised medical suite in the bowels of the factory, a very-much alive—if somewhat rough-looking—Nick Fury peers at them from his hospital bed. Sam, not completely understanding what’s happening, glances between Steve and Nat’s faces and hastily gets out of the way.

“About damn time,” Fury drawls.

And that’s when the yelling starts.

*

As the one least in need of immediate medical assistance, no one stops Steve from storming from the room. He’s not truly mad—well, actually, he is, but it’s more about being overwhelmed at this point than anything else. He’s felt about the entire spectrum of human emotion in the last hour, and his body can’t handle much more.

He needs to be alone.

He finds the first small space not too infested with cobwebs and dust and shuts himself inside. The lights are off, and it’s quiet in here, the echoes of the skeleton crew at Fury’s disposal barely reaching him down here.

A lacerated spinal column, a cracked sternum, a shattered collarbone, a perforated liver, a collapsed lung, and one hell of a headache. That was what Fury had suffered from his bout with the Soldier—with Bucky.

“They cut you open,” Nat had snapped, spitting words like daggers. “Your heart stopped, I saw your body, you were dead.”

“Shot of tetrodotoxin B. Slows the pulse to just one beat a minute. Banner developed it for stress, didn’t work so great for him. But we found a use for it.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Any attempts on the director’s life had to look successful,” Maria had piped up.

“Can’t kill you if you’re already dead. Besides, I wasn’t sure who to trust.”

That’s when Steve had made his exit, but not fast enough to miss Nat whispering, “You trusted Steve, but not me?”

Whatever Fury’s reasons, Steve tunes them out. They’re not for his ears, and at this point, honestly? He doesn’t give a single fuck who Fury did or did not trust. It’s not that he doesn’t get it; he does. S.H.I.E.L.D. fosters distrust of others, even amongst themselves. And look where it got them.

If S.H.I.E.L.D. had known about Bucky, would they have used him, too? Would his humanity even have mattered to them, when the perfect weapon was in their hands? They sure had let the Tesseract lie unused on a shelf, despite knowing just how HYDRA had used it for ill in the war.

No. S.H.I.E.L.D. blurred the line between good and evil for so long, they forgot there even was a distinction.

If Steve had been found sooner, if he’d come back home after the war to an empty apartment and a broken heart, would he have had enough strength left in him to care about such things? Or would he have stood passively by as Peggy, Howard, and Phillips raised an agency in his spirit and made compromises fit to raise the devil? Would he have understood the need to make those choices? Would he have fought on their side?

Would there even have been anything left of Steve Rogers, Sarah’s boy from Brooklyn, or would he have had nothing but Captain America? Would he have been nothing but Captain America? Would he have spent seventy years fighting for an organization that indirectly left Bucky to rot away, forgotten and misused?

And worse: would Steve unknowingly have contributed to that?

Has he done so?

That ends now. Steve gets back on his feet, ignores the nausea lingering in his belly, the stale taste of vomit in his mouth. You always stand up. Bucky Barnes will not be left behind, not this time. Never again.

He finds them all in a small room that’s been turned into something approaching a main office or conference room. They’re all seated around the slightly dusty table, going over a dangerously small number of manila folders and trying to piece together a plan from scraps. Sam and Nat both eye him, Sam with compassion, Nat with a carefully neutral expression that spells trouble.

Fury’s picking at a photograph—Pierce’s staff picture. “This man declined the Nobel Peace Prize,” he says, allowing some sorrow to slip into his voice. Despite it all, they were once friends. “He said, ‘peace is not an achievement; it is a responsibility.’” A brief, sharp bark of laughter, not at all humorous in tone. “See, it’s stuff like this that gives me trust issues.”

“We have to stop the launch,” Nat says, turning them all back to the matter at hand.

“Yeah, I don’t think the Council’s accepting my calls anymore. But I do have these.” He pulls a suitcase from between his feet, flicks it open and shows them its insides. Nested in soft, black foam rubber are three small flash-drives, much like the one that had gotten him killed the first time around.

Maria explains: “Once the Helicarriers reach three thousand feet, they’ll triangulate with Insight satellites, becoming fully weaponized. Their systems were specifically built to withstand outside interference, but they can still be reconfigured from the inside in case of emergencies.”

“We reached out to an ally,” Fury continues. “You are familiar with him, but we’ll get to that when all this is over. His team are completely off the books, even from S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. One of his agents created a code to counter the Insight Algorithm.”

“For someone telling me to trust no one, you sure are trusting a lot of people yourself,” Steve says, not above taking cheap shots when Natasha tenses at having been surpassed yet again. If she won’t say anything, he sure as hell will.

“One of his agents was immediately revealed to be HYDRA,” Maria says calmly. “They subdued him before he could do any damage, but it just goes to show how deep their roots.”

Fury ignores Steve completely. He has become quite adept at that. “We need to breach those carriers and replace their targeting blades with our own.”

“One or two won’t cut it. We need to link all three carriers for this to work—if even one of those ships remains operational, a whole lot of people are gonna die. This code is only basic, there wasn’t time for anything more sophisticated. It’s the best we could do on such short notice,” Maria supplies.

Fury nods along. “We have to assume everyone aboard those carriers is HYDRA. We need to get past them, insert the server blades, and maybe—just maybe—we can salvage what’s left—”

“No.” Steve’s voice cuts through the room like a death knell. “We’re not salvaging anything. We’re not just taking down the carriers, Nick, we’re taking down everything, S.H.I.E.L.D. included.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D. had nothing to do with it,” Fury says, tone not brokering any argument.

That tone has never worked on Steve Rogers in his life, though. “You gave me this mission. This is how it ends. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s been compromised, you said it yourself. HYDRA grew right under your nose and nobody noticed—”

“Why do you think we’re meeting in this godforsaken factory? I noticed.

“And how many paid the price before you did?” How many payed the price before Steve did?

Fury leans back, expression settling into a more placid, non-confrontational stillness. “Look. I didn’t know about Barnes—"

Fuck you, don’t you fucking dare use his name like that. And don’t fucking bullshit me, even if you had known, would you have told me? S.H.I.E.L.D., HYDRA, it all goes.”

“He’s right.” Fury turns towards Maria, almost theatrically betrayed. She shrugs. “You know he is.”

Natasha is silent when Fury looks at her, but Sam isn’t. “Don’t look at me,” he says, subtly turning towards Steve, his loudest proclamation of loyalty since literally forcing his services on them. “I do what he does. Just slower.”

Fury sighs, but gives in.

It’s the middle of the night when they finally break, having cobbled together a plan of attack based on hopes, dreams, and fairy dust. Steve’s heading for the door, in desperate need of air, when Natasha catches him. She’s a little wobbly, but the doctor had cleared her—though probably under much protest. Bullet wounds aren’t kind, even the ones that go through and through and miss everything important.

Steve kind of wishes she was confined to bed, but that’s mostly because she says the things he doesn’t care to hear.

“When it all goes,” she says, “do you truly mean it all?”

“Of course.”

“Even him?”

His spine snaps ramrod straight. It would be unwise to start screaming at her now. “I’ll do what it takes to stop S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA.”

“But not him.”

“I’ll get past him—”

“Steve, you’re not seeing this clearly. Or you don’t want to. You think I didn’t read your file back when we were first assigned? Did you think I missed the fact that your first mission—unauthorized and suicidal, I might add—was literally for him, and the overall rescue was just a happy coincidence? That it was barely a month after his fall that you refused to give up your coordinates and crashed a plane into the sea? A plane we later found had clearly marked exits? And with what you’ve told me, about the little Widow? You honestly think I haven’t noticed the way his name sticks in your throat? Or the way you just stood there when you saw his face—”

Steve turns on his heel, stalks away at a pace she isn’t up to matching quite yet.

*

Steve and Bucky had never said ‘I love you’ to one another. In the romantic sense, it would, of course, have been purely one-sided, so Steve buried any such sentiments deep and never let himself think about it too long. But even the fraternal way that men back then could get away with proclaiming love for one another (when suitably drunk), even that never passed between them.

It went unspoken, plain as day in the way they cared for one another, but somehow, they’d both kept the words out of their mouths. Steve wasn’t sure why, but he’d both ached for the words and feared them. Some days, it felt like those words might have shattered the whole world, if spoken.

Still, Bucky had gotten close, one day. And everything Steve had ever feared and dreamed of had come true; for days, they had been unable to stray from each other’s side for even a second, had had to ground themselves with too-fleeting touches and long silences aching to be filled.

It had been clumsy, just a nearly-adult boy’s attempt to put a smile on his best friend’s face, but somehow ending up offering him his beating heart straight from his chest instead. The experience had shaken them both so thoroughly that even that saying became as taboo as any ‘I love you’ had ever been.

It had been on one of the worst days of Steve’s life, only surpassed by the actual day that Sarah Rogers died. Struck by tuberculosis, she’d ended her life in a sanitarium. Steve had been prohibited from even visiting. His stupid, sickly body would’ve caught every single disease under the sun faster than you could blink, and never had he hated it as he did then. He’d nearly died several times already, but nothing compared to losing his Ma and knowing he was completely alone in the world.

Except he wasn’t alone.

He’d left the funeral in a haze, wandering around Brooklyn like a lost child. When he finally made it back home to the small, shoe-box apartment he’d shared with his Ma, Bucky had been there. Leaning on the stairwell, his nice suit rumpled and his slicked-back hair coming undone. His eyes were wide with worry, a feeling that clearly didn’t lessen even with Steve right in front of him.

“We looked for you,” he said, hands fidgeting nervously at his sides. “My folks wanted to give you a ride to the cemetery.”

“I know, I’m sorry, I just…” Steve replied, though he’d been only barely aware that of course the Barnes’ had all showed up. They’d loved Sarah, too. Most of the neighborhood had. But every single angel in heaven could’ve filled the pews and Steve wouldn’t have noticed a single thing. “I kinda wanted to be alone.”

Bucky sucked in a breath like that hurt him more than anything. “But… you did go? How was it?”

Awful? How do you describe your mother’s grave, when she’s been lowered into it far too soon? When the only place of rest she should’ve known for decades yet should’ve been her bed, or maybe their somewhat comfortable couch with the ugly upholstery? “It was okay. She’s next to her parents.”

Bucky kept shuffling around, stepping in close, then backing away again, as if wanting to herd Steve to safety, to home, but afraid he might shatter with only a touch. Steve was patting his pockets for the key, when Bucky finally said, “We should—that is, I was gonna ask—”

“I know what you’re gonna say, Buck.” And he had. Bucky had not been subtle in hinting at it even before Sarah took to her sickbed. The only reason he hadn’t pushed it was that he’d practically lived at Steve’s for weeks, keeping him alive as Sarah faded more and more with every day.

“So, you’re not gonna argue? Please, Steve, we can put the couch cushions on the floor, like when we were kids. It’ll be fun.” He tried to smile. “All you gotta do is shine my shoes, maybe take out the trash.”

Steve had given up looking for the key; it clearly wasn’t in his pockets, and he didn’t have the energy to even get upset that he’d lost it again. What did it matter? Even if thieves chanced on it and somehow found the door it unlocked, there was barely anything left to take in the apartment. They’d sold off almost anything that wasn’t bolted down, trying to pay for Sarah’s treatments.

So, Bucky had to be the one to unearth the spare key from underneath a brick, to unlock the door and gently push Steve inside. The air was slightly stale; it had already been so long since Sarah had been in it that her scent was fading fast.   

 Steve’s throat had been thick with unshed tears. “Thank you, Buck, but I can get by on my own.” What was he going to do but drag Bucky down? They both knew his chances of ending up at the sanitarium himself were high, and Bucky was already working extra shifts to support his family. Steve would be nothing but a burden.

But Bucky had always been stubborn. “The thing is… you don’t have to.” He patted Steve’s shoulder awkwardly, the first time he’d ever been unsure of how to touch Steve. And then, he tried to smile through the grief and love in his eyes and said, “I’m with you to the end of the line, pal.”

And they’d never needed any other words.

Chapter Text

They get a few hours of sleep. Not good sleep, but sleep nonetheless. When he wakes, Steve doesn’t feel particularly rested. Everything seems to exist in a fog. He could be sleeping still and just dreaming that he was waking up, or he could be truly awake. He’ll only know for sure by lying still for a few moments and wait for the specter of Bucky to climb on top of him and cut off his airways.

That probably says a lot about his psyche.

A few minutes of stillness later, there’s still no Bucky, so Steve gathers himself and gets out of  bed. It creaks something fierce whenever he moves, loud enough to wake Sam and Nat and get them moving, too. They’ve all slept in the same room, in stolen hospital beds that bring back horrible memories.

Not wanting to talk to Nat just now, he gets dressed in a hurry.

Maria has already been up for a while and is sorting through their stuff at the table. She points Steve towards a box of energy bars and bottled water but otherwise leaves him to his business. She’s laid out a blue skirt-suit for Nat, along with a wig and their only mesh-mask. The British councilwoman whom Nat will be impersonating will be wearing the exact same suit—though how Maria knows this is a mystery. The woman is about the same height and weight as Nat, though not as muscled. They’re counting on no one noticing, and the wig and mask will take care of the rest.

For Sam, Maria was smart enough to steal his wings when she broke them out, and that’s about all he needs. There’s also a few cases of guns and ammo, and Fury’s long leather jacket. They’d all been a little unsure what to do with Steve other than stuff him in a dark combat suit—those are lying in a neat heap on top of the ammo. Clearly, Maria hadn’t entirely trusted him when he said he was going to wear a uniform, likely thinking he wouldn’t be able to get to any.

In a way, she’s right. He can’t get to any of the official Captain America uniforms, all probably locked up at S.H.I.E.L.D. But he’s not going for the official gear. Not that he told her that just yet; it’s a bit of a harebrained idea. Best keep it close until he either fails or gets his hands on a suit.

He takes his coffee outside, watching the sun rise and settling into the headspace he’ll need to go into battle. Even in the war, he’d had time to perfect this submersion, especially on the days that the Howlies were barely keeping it together and Bucky retreated into himself. It’s like an old cloak, heavy on his shoulders.

Sam joins him as he’s finishing the last dregs. He leans next to Steve without a word, the quiet between them easy and pleasant. Since they’ve met, Steve sometimes forgets that he hasn’t known Sam for all that long. In all, they’ve maybe spent two or three full days together, and yet Steve trusts him as if he’s known him all his life. Sam slots into a part of his soul with an ease that only Bucky had ever managed before.

It’s why Steve can read Sam’s little cues already and knows he’s about to say something that Steve probably won’t like. It’s the carefully constructed inoffensiveness in his posture and the softness of his breath. Steve cuts him off before he can get started: “Did Natasha tell you to talk some sense into me?”

Sam’s brows jump. “No.” He draws out the word, suspicious.

“Alright.” A beat. “You don’t have to come, you know? You’ve done your part.”

“Shut up, Steve. It’s my choice.”

Leave him the dignity of his choice. Steve’s heart clenches. “The Captain America effect finally get to you?”

“Meh. I mean, if you’d been Isaiah Bradley, then maybe. But I suppose Steve Rogers ain’t too bad.”

Steve chuckles, surprised. “He was a good man. Bradley.”

Holy shit—you met him? Oh my God.” Sam needs another minute to gather himself, that little revelation having rocked his worldview. His next words are much less welcome. “He’s gonna be there, you know?”

“I know,” Steve says, too quick to be anything but defensive.

“Look, whoever he used to be… the guy he is now, I don’t think he’s the kind you save. He’s the kind you stop.”

Steve will not bring up Riley. Won’t make hypotheticals that put Sam in his shoes and Riley in Bucky’s. He’s tempted. But he doesn’t. He can’t afford to have both Sam and Nat—and Fury—getting frustrated with him. “I don’t know if I can do that,” he lies instead. He knows full well what he can do, and stopping Bucky the way that Nat and Sam both think he needs to be stopped? Not a skill Steve Rogers will ever, ever, wish to possess. He’d rather die.

Sam knows this, too, or at least senses it. “He might not give you a choice. He doesn’t know you.”

“He will,” Steve says, full of false bravado. It’s all he’s got at this point. That, and a piss-poor sense of when to back down. “Gear up, Sam. It’s time.”

“Says you. You gonna wear that?”

Steve grins. “Nope. If you’re gonna fight a war, you gotta wear a uniform.”

“I don’t trust that face for one second, Rogers, don’t get yourself killed already, okay?”

*

Getting his first, true uniform out of the Smithsonian is way easier when you’ve got Maria Hill passive-aggressively following you and keeping you out of trouble. She rolls her eyes skyward when he appears in it, shoulders back and chin raised obstinately, but doesn’t cuss him out. Which is better than what Fury does when he finds out.

It’s a little stiff, but Steve relearns how to move in it quickly, feeling more like himself than he has for the longest time. When he first put it on, way back when, he was only barely Captain America, just one successful mission under his belt, and with everything to prove. He’d had Peggy on his side, Bucky on his left, and the Howlies at his back. He’d never felt so strong.

He knows the value of strength now. And the fallacies.

Nat’s already en route to intercept the councilwoman’s car, and Fury lies waiting in the wings. Maria, Sam, and Steve make their way into the Triskelion from the service entrance in the basement. While they’re expected, there are no guards down here, only a janitor. At Steve’s polite but firm excuse us, as well as Maria’s less polite gun pointed at his face, he lets them pass.

Nat will have arrived by now; she’ll be on the top floor with the rest of the council and Pierce.

With most of the agents focused on keeping Steve’s team out rather than looking for them within, they make their way to the small control room near Fury’s old office and get a hold of the internal comms. Steve takes a deep breath; this is it. This is their only chance to tell the truth, their one shot to warn everyone.

He hasn’t prepared a pitch, hadn’t really listened when Fury went over the things he had to include. Just keep it short and to the point, Fury had said. Even if we ain’t salvaging it, I’m not gonna let our people just go down in flames. They need to be warned, even if it costs us the element of surprise.

Attention all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents,” Steve begins, voice clear and strong. “This is Steve Rogers. You’ve probably heard a lot about me over the last few days. Some of you were even ordered to hunt me down. I don’t know what you were told. It’s probably not the truth. So I think it’s time you heard it:

S.H.I.E.L.D. is not what we thought it was. It has been taken over by HYDRA. Alexander Pierce is their leader. My former STRIKE team and the Insight crew are HYDRA as well. I don’t know how many more, but I do know they’re in the building. They could be standing right next to you.

They almost have what they want; absolute control. They shot Director Nick Fury when he got in their way, they hunted me and my allies down when we tried to find out why. It won’t end there. If you launch those Helicarriers today, HYDRA will be able to kill anyone who stands in their way—unless we stop them.

I know I’m asking a lot, but the price of freedom is high. It always has been. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, and if I’m the only one… so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.

The speech rings out all over the building; in the offices, in the control rooms, on the launchpads, in the entrance hall. Steve can’t see it, but people look up, glance at the person next to them, a wash of emotion flashing across their faces. Fear. Guilt. Horror. Resolution.

He won’t know until later how quickly they answered his call. How fast HYDRA acted to try and stop them from gaining the upper hand. How an ordinary control room tech looked Rumlow and the eye and told him no when he said to launch the carriers. How Agent 13 fought to get them out alive when Rumlow got the launch to go through anyway.

When Steve’s speech ends, there’s only the frail hope that they listened.

And then, Sam says, “Did you write that down first, or was it off the top of your head?”

“Shaddup, Sam.”

Maria cuts in, “They’re initiating launch.”

She stays behind, ready to fire up the system for when—if—they succeed. Steve and Sam sprint to the roof, only faintly registering the fighting happening all around them, colleagues ripping off their civilized masks and becoming enemies in the blink of an eye. Steve’s running with the shield in hand, just in case. He hasn’t seen Bucky yet, but Bucky’s skilled enough to sneak up on him, and he won’t go easy just because he takes Steve unaware.

As HYDRA aren’t exactly dressed to stand out, Sam and Steve quickly agree they won’t engage anyone unless shot at first. If they’re shooting, they’re not on the same side; that at least is easy to remember.

Sam spreads his wings and heads for the first Helicarrier, leaving Steve to meet the first volley of opponents alone. He pulls no punches, doesn’t even think about it. It’s all dirty fighting; throat punches, grenade-stealing, and shield-throwing. What’s another dozen men on his blood-soaked conscience?

In the air above, they’ve started shooting at Sam, who weaves and ducks like a dream. He’s not wearing a whole lot of body armor, and what he is wearing won’t do shit for the kind of firepower they’re throwing at him. Steve is just going to have to trust that as long as Sam can cuss at them, he’s fine, or he’ll worry himself to distraction.

It helps that Maria also checks in regularly. “Eight minutes, Cap.

Working on it!

He and Sam move in tandem. Sam gets Steve aboard one Helicarrier while heading for another himself, and they manage to get their drives locked in; Sam with a bit more difficulty than Steve, going by his increasingly creative swearing over the comms. At one point, he goes completely silent, not even responding when Steve calls his name with fear in his throat.

When his whoop of joy sounds, Steve breathes easy again.

Alpha locked. Bravo locked. Charlie to go.

Which is when Maria says, “The Soldier’s here.”

Do not engage!” Steve yells, skidding to a stop and nearly taking a bullet for it.

He’s on the roof, picking off pilots like flies—” A beat, gunfire on her end and she disappears. When she comes back, she continues calmly: “Fuck, I lost him. Cap, Charlie carrier is forty-five degrees off  Alpha’s port bow. Six minutes.

More and more Insight crew have made their way to him, so Steve has to fight his way out. Beyond the windows, he can just see the Charlie carrier; too far to jump, even for him. “Hey, Sam, I’m gonna need a ride.

Roger! Let me know when you’re ready.”

That’s what I just did!” Steve yells as he jumps ship, narrowly missing the missile just fired at him.

Freefalling for nearly a minute, it’s the perfectly horrible time for a flashback to strike. Which of course means that it does. Between blinks he sees ice rise up to meet him, hears the rumble of old engines. Remembers aiming for the ground, and for the first time since it happened, remembers, suddenly and sharply, the pain of impact—

And Sam’s got him. Sam yells as they rise, straining to keep hold of Steve.

“You know, you’re a lot heavier than you look! And you look plenty heavy!” Sam gasps when they finally land on the launchpad of the Charlie carrier.

“Had a big breakfast.”

A freight train named Bucky slams into him.

Steve goes over the edge, scrabbling to seize hold of something, anything. From above, he hears the sounds of fighting, the ping of bullets and the ominous whine of breaking metal. The wind howls, nearly deafening. He slams into a ledge, gets the breath knocked out of him, but finally has something to hold on to.

Sam? Sam, are you okay? Sam, don’t hurt him—” he yells into the comms.

I’m okay, are you okay, Cap where are you?” Sam babbles back, sounding pained.

I’m still on the Helicarrier, where are you?

I’m grounded. He ripped my wings, Cap, I’m sorry, the suit’s down.

Don’t worry, I got it.

Later—much, much later—Steve will hear of all the things that made it possible for them to turn the tide. He’ll hear how Natasha got to Pierce’s office, how she held him at gunpoint and got started on leaking each and every file on their servers, exposing their sins at last. How, when Pierce asked her if she was ready for the world to see her, she just stared coldly back and said, are you? How Sam fought Rumlow single-handedly, told him to shut up the second he started monologuing, and dropped a building on him. How Fury’s eye—not the one he uses to see, but the dead, scarred one behind his patch—hadn’t been wiped from the protocols, enabling him to unlock the last security measures for Natasha. How Pierce had electrocuted her with the little pin given to the ‘councilwoman’ upon arrival before being shot to death by Fury himself.

But for now, all that exists is Steve’s mission.

And Bucky. Always Bucky.

Chapter Text

The heart of an Insight Helicarrier is, strangely, located near the belly of the ship, a protruding dome of glass turned downwards. It allows you a bird’s eye view of the ground below, of the long way you’ll have to fall. Its arteries are steel catwalks and arching beams, the processor core its aorta. That’s where Steve is headed, the last drive in one of the pockets of his utility belt.

Right in front of the core, a ghost blocks his path.

They haven’t bothered with the mask this time, and Steve can take a guess why; he knows who the Soldier is and seeing Bucky’s face bare will hurt worse than anything else. The view is obstructed only by the longish hair falling lankly around his face. His eyes are shuttered abysses. He’s pale, paler than he’d been on the bridge, paler than he’d ever been, even during the war. Bucky Barnes had loved the sun and it had kissed his skin, but the Soldier is cut from ice.

They stand across from each other, arms at their sides. Bucky in his dark armor, Steve in his colorful suit. The soldiers who fell yet remained deathless. Pulled out of time just to meet again, warped. Finally, maybe, hopefully, to be given second chances.    

But not easily.

“People are gonna die, Buck. I can’t let that happen,” Steve pleads, trying to keep his voice steady, but it’s hoarse and cracks. “Please, don’t make me do this.”

Bucky just lowers his chin, gets ready.

A beat. Silence. And then Steve moves first; if he can just get past Bucky, if he can just disarm him, finish the mission—but Bucky is too fast, too skilled to go down easy. They clash on the catwalk, fists and feet and bullets. Steve spends a little too much time dancing away from lethal blows, dodging Bucky’s well-aimed shots. It’s not that he pulls his punches; he puts as much into them as he can. But he doesn’t wound when he can evade or block.  

It’s why a bullet slips past the shield, piercing his side.

Steve grunts. Keeps fighting, ignoring the sting that winds through him like serpentine fire. Bucky bares his teeth, feral. When Steve manages to knock him back with a blow to the face, he gets back up in seconds. He pulls a knife, dances forward.

They’re too well matched for any one of them to gain the upper hand within the allotted timeframe, so Steve changes tactics. It’s not about winning; he just has to get past Bucky. However, that’s easier said than done. With every step forward, there’s two steps back. When Steve makes it to the processor core it’s only to be pulled back again. Bucky paints him in bruises. He nearly looses a tooth. Faintly, he wonders whether they’d grow back if he did.  

They grapple, dodge to avoid shield and knife. Steve tries to hold Bucky at arm’s length, pressed up against the railing, but the metal arm, beautiful and horrible, gives him a distinct advantage to power through. Besides, while Steve tries to injure him as little as possible, Bucky has no such compulsion and fights to kill. It destabilizes them, turning their fight into a chase with no end in sight.

In between clashes, Steve tries to exchange the drives. When his back is turned for just a moment, Bucky goes for his injured side, finding it with unerring accuracy. It’s on his left. In the war, that’s the side Bucky had always watched. It’s instinct to leave himself open even now. Each hit jars the bullet inside, reopens the barely healed wound.

Desperate, Steve punches him in the face. Bucky roars, charges, and they go over the railing, falling onto a ledge just below the catwalk. In the middle of it all, the drive—the last drive, their only hope—slips from Steve’s grasp. He lunges for it, Bucky on his heels.

They go over the ledge. He drops the shield.

The glass—the last barrier between them and a free fall—takes their weight, thankfully, but resonates ominously upon impact. Steve scrambles for the drive, heedless of anything else. If he can just get to it, can just get it in place, it’ll all be over, he’ll get Bucky ho—

The shield hits him in the back. It hasn’t been angled to cut him open, but it does enough damage as is, costing him precious seconds. Something cracks inside him, and again; vertebrae popping back into place. The pain whites out his vision.

He’s never fought someone as comfortable with the shield as he is, and his inexperience shows. If he curls up behind it to avoid a bullet, Bucky charges him; if he throws it, Bucky bats it out of the air almost casually and sends it spinning off to the side.

Another knife appears in Bucky’s hand, and this time Steve can’t deflect it. It cuts through his uniform, piercing his shoulder and going straight through muscle to slip between two bones and wrench. He screams, headbutts Bucky, once, twice, anything to get him off. Instead he throws Steve into a beam headfirst. At least the knife gets pulled out, too. His right arm hangs useless, his hand shaking as bones knit back together.

Bucky throws himself toward the drive. Steve has no choice but to follow.

They scrabble on the glass, scratching and tearing at each other like cats. Bucky even makes a sound like a hiss-roar when Steve grabs him by the neck, lifting him up and flipping him over. Slamming him into the floor. He still won’t let go of the drive.

“Drop it! Drop it!” Steve yells, one hand trying to wrest it away, the other pinning Bucky’s face to the floor. Bucky bats at him, teeth bared and chomping viciously when Steve’s fingers get too close. The clock ticks; they’re running out of time. Steve won’t win this, not unless he fights dirty. So he grits his teeth, prays for forgiveness, and wrenches Bucky shoulder from its socket.

The crack echoes, but not as loudly as Bucky’s scream of pain. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Amazingly, he keeps fighting. Steve yanks him backwards so that he’s lying half on top of Steve, back to front. Steve curls himself around him then, tries to put him in a sleeper-hold. The metal arm keeps getting in the way, flailing wildly. He has to pin between his legs and hold on for dear life.

It’s the closest he’s been to Bucky in seventy years, and he’s hurting him.

Finally, Bucky goes limp, slumps into unconsciousness.

Steve rolls him off, not as gently as he’d like, and scrambles for the drive. He climbs toward the processor core. It takes more than a few acrobatics, moves that are likely only possible because of the litany of is it too late, have I failed, please, God, no, don’t let me fail, let me save him playing in his mind.

He’s halfway up the ledge when there’s a bang and a tearing pain in his thigh.

Bucky’s back on his feet, right arm cradled protectively against his body but metal arm steady and raised, gun in hand. Steve can only afford a single glance back, has to keep moving, has to turn his back. It’s a mistake; another bullet, another hit, this time in his shoulder, inching closer to his spine, sticking between two ribs.

There’s so much pain, it all kind of starts to bleed together, white-noise and shrieking. He rolls onto the catwalk, clumsy and heavy. Getting back on his feet is a struggle, barely possible. Maria is in his ear, calling “30 seconds, Cap!” Has it only been five minutes? It feels like they’ve been fighting for years.

He raises the drive, so close—

Another shot, grazing one of the other bullets on its way out. He falls to his knees, slumping back against the railing. When he looks down, there’s blood on his belly, a hole through his gut. Beside it, the first bullet is in the process of being pushed out, his body trying to heal.    

Around him, the Helicarrier rumbles; guns locking into position.

*

On the monitors, the Insight targets are just dots. They have no humanity, no lives, no markers of identity. To HYDRA, they’re just points on a list of chores, not people. They’ll work their way through, sector by sector, until there’s no one left to kill.

But those names do belong to people, even if HYDRA has forgotten that.

Like this one: in Queens, a teenage boy perches on the roof of his building. There’s grief on his face and his shoulders are slumped. He’s dressed in a rumpled suit. They’ve just buried his uncle; all he’s got left of his family now is his aunt. When darkness falls in a few hours, he’ll crawl back into his room through his bedroom window, a path no one but a spider could take.  

Or this one: on a farm in Louisiana, a middle-aged air force pilot sips sweet tea on her porch, face tilted towards the sky and unending space beyond, imagining her friend and former lover smiling back at her. It’s been so many years since she saw her. Most days, she doesn’t blame her for leaving. Most days, she’s proud of her. She’d always reached for the stars and now she flies among them. This is one of those days.  

Or any of the others.

In a rundown apartment in a city that might be Boston, or New York, or Chicago, or any other metropolis in the US, a mercenary holds a conversation with nothing but air, twirling a pair of katanas in lazy circles. He loses a step, distracted by something shiny, and thus loses a finger, too. He whines and tries to reattach it. He’s waiting for food to be delivered, and the delivery guys tend to panic when there are spare body parts lying around.

In San Francisco, a reporter stuffs his face with chocolate to cover the lingering taste of blood in his mouth. He doesn’t mind it that much anymore, has grown used to it. At least it was from beef, this time. A dark, eerie voice whispers to him, a voice that no one else can hear. It gives him comfort. It means he’s not alone. They will never be alone.

In the same city, a father lowers his phone. His daughter is dodging his calls, has been for months. He won’t cry. He wasn’t raised to cry. Instead, he trembles and goes back to work. It’s all he’s got, has been for years. He doesn’t know how to admit his mistakes. Doesn’t even know how to acknowledge that he doesn’t know.  

In Hell’s Kitchen, a lawyer pauses in his reading, fingers trembling over braille. He’d taken a beating the night before, and his ribs aren’t fully healed. His split lip has reopened, the blood sharp on his tongue and in his nose. He’s got yet another case going nowhere, even when he works it by night with less legal means. The police won’t do anything, so he must.

At LaGuardia Airport, a stocky soldier with a severely crooked nose says goodbye to his family. Being home had felt like… being away. The desert on the other side of the world is more familiar. At the start of every leave, he’s almost a stranger to his children. He’s a stranger to himself sometimes, too.

In an MIT lab, a young blonde woman pours over her research, her heart freshly broken. She’s called her brother, and he babbles about sports cars and space travel in equal measures, sunny and young and a bit of a dick. She envies him his ease in the world, but only sometimes. Most days, it’s like nothing has a hold on him, and she fears he’ll never let it.  

In a once-mansion in Westchester, a pair of old men are playing chess. One is bald and wheelchair-bound, the other silver-haired and tall. When the former isn’t looking, the latter watches him with longing. The former chuckles, Come here, my love. They speak without speaking, thoughts flowing freely between them. It’s a hard-won trust, but deep and true.

In a small airport in Malaysia, a doctor—not that kind of doctor, though he supposes he does act that kind of doctor sometimes—hovers near the departures board. It’s time for him to go home. He misses his friends, and how strange and joyous it is to be able to do that. He’s an unassuming guy, most of the time. Once a loner by choice, by trial and error. Some days, he wakes up from nightmares that he still is.

On a plane just entering American airspace, a mechanic and a CEO sit gaping at a screen. A reporter narrates the battle above the Triskelion in D.C., shaking them both. He’s half-in, half-out of an iron suit, and she’s glowing as if from within. He calls for the pilot to fly faster, calls the rest of his suit to him, and flies out by himself. She yells at him to be careful. Not so long ago, she nearly lost him, and then, he nearly lost her.    

None of these people have any inkling that deadly eyes are on them. When the lists go public and disappear just as fast, scrubbed from the internet by diligent techs, some will come to know. The mechanic will. One of the old men. The mercenary. The doctor. The rest of them remain ignorant.

*

“Charlie…” Steve gasps, forcing the drive into place. “Charlie locked!

Launching now, get out of there,” Maria calls back.

The Helicarriers shudder, recalibrating, locking on themselves. The edges of his vision have gone hazy. He can’t feel his fingers, can’t breathe properly. Blood in his mouth, heart beating erratically. Is the serum failing him? Is he dying? Not yet. Not yet.

“Fire now.” He’ll get out; he’ll get Bucky and they will live.

Steve—”

Do it! Do it now!”

And the end of Insight begins.

With each boom of cannon fire, Steve is caught in the past anew, in the rain of bullets, the suddenness of buried grenades. The Howlies hadn’t seen much trench warfare, but they hadn’t entirely been able to avoid it. The SSR couldn’t afford them to be pinned down with the ordinary troops, but needs must. Almost every soldier at the front had been haunted by the thunder of guns and the fear that you were standing in your grave.

With the Helicarrier crumbling around him, Steve staggers to his feet. Stumbling into railings, gasping and holding back cries of pain. There’s no simple way to navigate a ship under fire. Where’s Bucky? He has to get to him, has to get him out, bring him home. Steve can’t bear it if—

Bucky’s screaming, wild and animalistic. An enormous beam has fallen on him. Pinned like a butterfly, he looks fragile, almost like he had after Zola’s table. In response to his anguish, a yell rises from Steve’s chest, both a cry and a roar, and he launches himself off the catwalk, each bump on the way down nearly causing him to black out.

Outside, the first Helicarrier goes down, taking half the Triskelion with it. A small figure launches itself from one of the upper floors, gets caught in the air by a swarming helicopter. There’s a lot of yelling, wide-eyed terror, but Steve can’t her that, of course. Sam will narrate it later, though.

The other two Helicarriers are still firing, slowly sinking.

Steve hits the floor, narrowly keeps himself from falling over. The shield lies nearby; his fingers are so numb it almost slips from his grasp. One foot in front of the other, stand up, soldier, you’re almost there. The glass beneath his feet shudders. Cracks have spread like spiderwebs.

They’re running out of time.  

Chapter Text

If the target—Captain Rogers, Steven Grant—doesn’t kill him, the Soldier thinks the Handler might have him decommission anyway. He’s failing, badly. There’s no coming back from that.

Upon seeing the Captain, the Soldier’s head had exploded into pain, icepicks through his eyes. His blood had run cold. He… fears this man? The sight of him makes something echo in the Soldier’s bones, something deep and primal. The only experience he can relate it to is the Chair. It is the only thing capable of producing a reaction that strong.

If he could just get out from under this beam, he would fight to the end.

He knows just where he’d strike; the Captain’s injured belly, or his left side, so vulnerable. For a man of such obvious skill, he’d made so many little mistakes. Left himself open, fought almost gently. The hits he’d managed to land had been too careful, only just enough to keep the Soldier at bay. The dislocated shoulder was his only true effort.

The Captain stumbles towards him. Frenzied, the Soldier scrabbles against the beam, but it barely shifts. Just keeping it from crushing him takes everything he has. His injured arm shrieks in protest, but he has to keep using it. If he doesn’t, the beam will flatten his ribcage. The bones will puncture his lungs and leave him to die out. The Soldier isn’t human, but even he would struggle to survive that long enough to get away.

The Captain grabs onto the beam; the tiny movement forces the Soldier to choke back a scream, the beam shifting to rest over his collarbone. Is this to be a slow death? The Captain had seemed the type to go for a quick kill. It suits him better, is almost charitable. If he has to die, he’d want to die quick. If he even can die—maybe they’ll just put him in the Chair, rebuild him.

But then, the Captain heaves. He groans with effort, trembling so bad it makes the beam shake. The Soldier flops around awkwardly, eager to escape as the beam is lifted away; the prolonged effort to stay alive has worn him out. His body struggles to function, limp and useless. 

And then suddenly, finally, he’s free. The Captain drops the beam. The glass below them whines in protest.

The Soldier struggles upright, hair falling in his face. He’s dizzy, nearly depleted. He twitches his fingers; metal arm functional. All other weapons gone. His knees are close to buckling. His right side is useless, must be protected from further damage.

But the Captain isn’t rushing him.

He just stands there. To the Soldier’s eyes, he seems to glow. Visual malfunction.

“You know me,” he pants, his big eyes gut-wrenchingly sad.

His voice stirs something deep in the Soldier. When the Captain had first spoken, tried to plead, it had been that same feeling; as if the Soldier was being turned inside out, unmade.

And now… those words, you know me, nearly burn him up from the inside. They echo like the howls of the dying. He can barely exist, barely function with those words ringing in his ears. Above it all, there is rage. How dare he try to fool the Soldier? How dare he speak to him so softly? How dare he lie?

No, you don’t!” he roars and lashes out.

His punch glances off the shield, but still makes the Captain stumble and fall. In the Soldier’s head, the Captain is replaced with a vision of a place the Soldier has never been, of a man he’s never met. A dark street, a slight man. A bloodstained grin, a hoarse voice. Eyes like the summer sky. Something soft and sharp and all-important roaring through his body.

There are… tears? Yes, tears in the Captain’s eyes. The Soldier wants to wipe them away.

Bucky,” the Captain pleads. What the hell is a Bucky? “You’ve known me your whole life.”

But I knew him.

The Soldier backhands him. His metal hand cuts open the Captain’s cheek. Viciousness roars through him, feels like hatred, feels like sacrilege. What is the Captain doing to him? How can he twist the Soldier’s mind with just his voice? He has to be shut up, has to be silenced, he has to stop talking, it hurts, God, it hurts.

But the Captain gets back up. He’s still not fighting back, doesn’t even raise the shield this time. “Your name… is James. Buchanan. Barnes.”

Jemth.

No, no. Jaaa-mes. James Buchanan Barnes.

Jameth. Jameth Buc—Jameth Bucha-, Buch-, Bucky—

Shut up!” the Soldier screams. Begs.

This next blow knocks the Captain flat, sends him sprawling on his back. The shield clacks noisily against the floor; it had taken the brunt of the hit. The vibrations still shudder all the way up the Soldier’s arm. He’s shaking, hurting.  

The Captain gets back up. There’s a tinny noise from somewhere, someone yelling. The Captain clumsily sheds his cowl, drops it carelessly on the floor, then rips a small earpiece out of his ear, crushes it under his booth. Stupid, the Soldier almost tells him.

“I’m not gonna fight ya,” the Captain tells him. Blood mists in front of his face with every panting breath. Still he holds his head high and lets the shield fall from his hand. As it bounces across the floor, slipping between the cracks to hurtle into space, he holds the Soldier’s eyes. “You’re my friend.”

Bucky? Bucky! I thought you were dead.

“You’re my mission,” the Soldier hisses. “You’re my mission!

He lowers his shoulders, charges the Captain like a bull. They tumble to the ground together, the Captain’s hands gentle on his shoulders. He doesn’t try to get away, doesn’t turn his face when the Soldier start in on him, takes every blow and keeps looking at him. Something cracks. The Soldier raises his arm again, now desperate to erase the Captain’s face. It’s—it’s too much, it makes him see things that aren’t there, imagine things that never happened, makes him want to—

I had him on the ropes.

He hesitates, arm pulled back for another blow. Bruises have bloomed across the Captain’s pale skin, the artwork of violence. One eye is nearly swollen shut, the cheekbone below definitely broken. Why does he look at the Soldier like that, so steady and resigned?

“Then finish it,” he slurs. His hands are so careful on the Soldier’s waist. “’Cause no matter what you do… I’m with you, Buck. I’m with you to the end of the line.”

I thought you were dead.

I thought you were smaller.

Just go! Get out!

No! Not without you!

Grab my hand!

The glass belly of the Helicarrier gives out.

By sheer instinct, the Soldier grabs hold of a protruding beam. The Captain doesn’t. Surprise flickers across his face, slides into acceptance, then grief. He holds the Soldier’s gaze for as long as he can, until his injuries finally catch up to him and his eyes roll back into his head.

He falls.

He won’t wake again.

The water below will be his grave.

The Soldier closes his eyes.

And then… the man who was once Bucky Barnes opens his eyes and roars.

Chapter Text

On the upside, Steve is pretty sure he’s alive. Everything hurts too much for him to be dead.

On the downside, even without opening his eyes, he knows Bucky isn’t with him. And that means, he’s failed. Again.

The room smells of antiseptic and something a little funky that he recognizes as his own body odor—blood, sweat, and… murky? There’s a sense-memory of coughing up water, of a dark form bent over him. Of sad, sad eyes watching him with desperation.

He’d… fallen? Yes, fallen. He’d thought, yes, this is penance. This is just.

He’d taken Bucky’s place as he should’ve done all those years ago.

There’s music in the room, jazzy and upbeat, and beyond it the ordinary noises of a hospital. The beeping of monitors, the squeak of rubber on linoleum, coughing and groaning and babbling. There’s a person in the room with him, breathing steadily.

Jesus fuck, everything fucking hurts. His head especially. His gut. The latter also itches like you wouldn’t believe, and he kind of wants to scratch at it until it bleeds. Good thing he can’t really be bothered to raise his hands yet. He’s so tired. Bucky’s not here. He failed him. Where is he?

Slowly, Steve forces his eyes open. His vision is a little blurry, one eye barely opening. His mouth is dry, tastes like something up and died in it. His nose is blocked, tingling slightly over the bridge. It may have been broken at one point.

With the air of Atlas shouldering the horizon, Steve turns his head.

In an uncomfortable chair next to the bed, Sam is flicking through a magazine, head bobbing gently to the music. He’s got some bruising at his temple, disappearing into his hairline. There’s a little more stubble on his cheeks than Steve is used to seeing. Overall though, he looks alright. He made it out.

“On your left,” Steve mumbles.

Sam jumps, eyes flashing to Steve’s face. After a moment, he smiles, relieved. “Just conscious and you’re already sassing me? Yeah, you’ll be fine.”

The damage Steve had suffered had been… extensive. Sam relays it all in a voice that clearly expresses just how worried everyone had been. Multiple bullet wounds, some of which had to be reopened because his body kept healing over them while also trying to reject the shrapnel. His large intestine had been punctured, leaking fluid everywhere. The filthy lake water hadn’t helped. Shattered cheekbone, severe damage to one eye; any other patient, they would’ve had to remove it. A couple of lose teeth. And what had really put them all on edge had been the swelling on his brain. Bucky hadn’t been gentle, not even when his eyes had clouded with terror and doubt.

“Natasha had to be hospitalized, too,” Sam says. “Pulled her stitches fighting Pierce. Still about ready to claw everyone’s eyes out, don’t know how many casualties we would’ve had if it weren’t for that bird guy come tumbling through the goddamn vents. She’s been up and about though, Congress is all up in arms.”

“Has anyone been—” Steve starts, pathetically hopeful. “Has anyone been to see me?”

Sam tries not to wince; it’s clear just whom Steve is really asking for. “Well, a few people. First day you were here, Tony Stark dropped by. I was just getting up to get some more water when he ran in, threw his arms around me. Looked real offended when he noticed I wasn’t you. He’d had, I’d say, about five thousand coffees too many. He then noticed you, literally tripped over his own feet, faceplanted in your chest, and knocked himself out. I had to carry him down to the nurses’ station. Other than him, Nat came, of course, Hawkguy, Maria, Agent Carter—”

Steve frowns. Or, well, he tries to. Parts of his face are a little out of his control at the moment. “Peggy came?”

“Who—oh! No, uh. Sharon Carter. Agent 13? She did say her aunts send their love, though?”

A beat. “So that’s why she looked familiar.”

Steve will have to process that later. Right now, he’s sliding back into nothingness.

*

Despite Nat’s tenacity, not every HYDRA plot was revealed in the fallout. She’d only gotten to the files that were on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own servers, and half of those had been intrinsically linked to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own machinations, and the rest were evenly split between absolute horror show and written in fuck-you code. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

On top of that, people—and perhaps more significantly, politicians—were baying for blood. The second Nat had stepped outside the hospital, she’d been swept off to Capitol Hill to stand trial before a grand jury just to defend her choice to release the files. The trial of the Black Widow, of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the rest of them, hasn’t even started yet.

“Yes, the world is a vulnerable place,” she’d said, cameras flashing in her face. The whole world had watched from their living rooms. “And we helped make it that way. But we are also the best qualified to defend it now. You want to arrest us all? Then do it. If not… allow us to make things right.”

By ‘us’, she’d meant the Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D. was no more. At least for now.

It’ll rise again, purged of all this poison. It’s already happening, if slowly, or so Steve has been told, more or less indirectly. Not at least because of the dearly departed Agent Phil Coulson, who is, first of all, goddamn alive, and second of all, the mystery ally that Fury had alluded to back at the hideout. His little operation had not been leaked, so Coulson and his team were in the wind.

As for the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D.—or HYDRA, or whatever you want to call it—there’s been a mass exodus, though for one half that exodus has been towards other jobs, while the rest is either on the run or trying to go out guns blazing. A bunch of people have been arrested, even high-ranking politicians. Rumlow had somehow survived and been hospitalized, only to go missing. He’s out there somewhere, much to everyone’s distress. Sharon Carter was snapped up by the CIA almost the second the news broke. Maria Hill has gone to work for Stark Industries as a HR manager. Nick Fury is… technically still dead? He hasn’t been mentioned on the news, so he’s probably in hiding.

As for Steve, it takes another three days just to get out of bed. He tries once on the first day of being awake, and nearly gets himself another head injury. The nurses are unimpressed. So unimpressed, in fact, that they distrust him to even tell the truth about his pain levels. Which, well, technically, he had been lying about those, but the morphine-mix makes him groggy and cranky, and he just wants to get out, damn it.

Bucky is out there.

Is he safe? Is he alone? Has HYDRA come for him? God, Steve prays they haven’t gotten to him. There are still so many factions they haven’t uncovered, secrets they haven’t revealed. Cut off one head, another two hundred seems to pop up in its place. Tony’s working on it, has even excavated what was left of Camp Lehigh and Zola’s tomb. Which: Steve really needs to tell him about his father, preferable before Tony finds out on his own. No one should have to go through that alone.

His friends—even Thor, who created quite a stir when he fell off the roof, having landed right on the edge—have come and gone. Bruce had been the calmest, probably because if he hadn’t kept it together, he would’ve been pulverizing what was left of the Triskelion and roaring at the clean-up crew. Not even Pepper had been that zen, her mouth pinched tight and her phone ringing off the hook. Angie had come by to yell at Steve on Peggy’s behalf; her imitation was quite accurate, and slightly scary. He’d taken it as graciously as he could. Sharon had spared him from having to tell Peggy about S.H.I.E.L.D., but there are still things he needs to ask her. Of all people, why did it have to be fucking Zola that they gave shelter to?

Sam’s been talking about moving to New York. “I only really got my job here,” he says. “Which is so fucking important, don’t get me wrong. But there are VAs in New York, too. And, well, you and your merry band of idiots need someone to keep y’all from killing yourselves. It’s closer to my family, too.”

“And your friends?”

A beat. “After Riley, I—I burned a lotta bridges. Even before that, my whole life had become the army. It got hard, connecting with ordinary people. It was just easier to make my unit my entire circle of friends. And then… shit happened. Didn’t care ‘bout much, told myself I was okay as long as I got through the day. I was doing good, helping others. If I felt like I was going crazy, I just ignored it, told myself a lotta soldiers feel like that. And then your dumb ass galloped into my path and now I got a bunch of idiots texting me about stupid shit like, birdbro, do you prefer kestrels or peregrines? Asking for a friend—aka me. I’m the friend. By the way, is Stark for real when he says he’s gonna make me new wings?”

Finally, after an eternity of three whole days, Steve is allowed to leave the hospital.

He has a list of things he needs to do, another of things he’d rather do. Sadly, the former has to take precedence. So he goes home with Sam, takes the first proper shower he’s had in nearly a week, and together, they both visit Arlington.

Nick Fury demands their presence.

They head for his empty grave, stop and stare at the headstone and feel a little silly. They’re just standing there, waiting. It helps a little that neither Sam nor Steve have been to the grave before, allows them the opportunity to look around and not fake it. The headstone bears an epitaph from Ezekiel, familiar to Steve from Sunday mass. The path of the righteous man. In context, he rather feels like it makes it sound like you have to fake your death to walk the side of the angels, because the living won’t keep you honest. But that’s just his reading of it. He’ll admit to being slightly cynical at this point.

Thankfully, Fury shows up a few minutes later.

He doesn’t beat around the bush. “As you both know by now, a lotta the rats didn’t go down with the ship. HYDRA’s still out there, some we know of, some we don’t. I’m heading to Europe tonight, thought I’d ask if you wanted to come.”

“There’s something I gotta do first,” Steve says. If it weren’t for Bucky, he’d like nothing more than to rip through HYDRA’s strongholds, cleaning them all out once and for all. He’s a soldier. He goes to war. It’s all he’s got. And for Bucky he would fight to the day he dies. But first, he’s got to bring him home.

Fury hums. “How about you, Wilson? Could use a man with your abilities.”

Sam shakes his head, scrunching his face a little. “I’m more of a soldier than a spy.” For emphasis, he stands at Steve’s side, just a step behind him. His loyalty couldn’t be clearer if he’d taken out a billboard on Times Square.

“Alright then,” Fury says, accepting their answers more than gracefully. Steve suspects he hadn’t ever expected a yes from any of them. He shakes their hands. “Anybody asks for me, tell ‘em they can find me right here.”

“Any idea how long you gonna play dead?” Steve asks.

“As long as it takes, Rogers. As long as it takes.”

He ambles off, disappearing into the distance. Because of Steve’s serum-sharpened eyes, he can make out a man in a suit joining him, a tall, handsome fella with grey hair and keen features. It must be a trick of the light, for in the second his eyes flick back towards Sam and Steve, they appear almost completely black.

“You should be honored, you know,” a voice says. Natasha grins at them, well aware that they hadn’t noticed her sneaking up. “That’s about as close as he gets to saying thank you.

She looks well, even with her arm still up in a sling. She tends to overextend herself, so the stitches keep coming loose. Despite having seen her just yesterday, Steve’s heart rejoices to see her again. She’s one of his people; her safety matters more than he can say. “Not going with him?”

“No.”

“You staying here, then?”

“Kinda blew all my covers, Rogers. I gotta figure out a new one.”

“That might take a while, yeah?”

“Counting on it,” she admits. She’s got a manila folder in hand, tapping against her leg. “I called in a few favors from Kiev. It’s not much, and none of it is good, but… it’s a start, I guess. And I owed you one.”

She hands the file to Steve. There’s some Russian scribbled across the front, none of which he can read. He flicks it open, almost drops it. The first page is a photograph, aged and soft at the edges. Bucky’s face, behind glass, beneath ice.

The file is so slim. Seventy years, and this is all there is. “Thank you.”

Nat nods, watches him closely. “Be careful, Steve. You won’t like what you find. I skimmed it, and I can tell you already that that is not the worst of it. There’s nothing about the Red Room, nothing about where he came from or who he was or what he was made to do. Just some instructions for ‘upkeep’, some medical files. You might not want to pull on that thread.”

“It’s Bucky,” is all he says.

She sighs, nods. A kiss to his cheek and she’s gone.

Sam ambles over, looking over Steve’s shoulder at the photograph. “You’re going after him?” he asks as if he doesn’t already know. As if he hasn’t made it perfectly clear that where Steve goes, Sam will follow.

Last chance. “You don’t have to come with me.”

“I know,” Sam says. “So, when do we start?”

Chapter Text

At the Captain America exhibit, a ghost slips quietly through the crowd, attracting no attention. Those that glance at him quickly look away; they assume him to be a messed-up veteran, or a hobo. Their pity and veiled disgust render him near invisible, a non-entity, subhuman.

He keeps his head down.

There’s a giant mural on one of the walls, painted faces of dead men, a single one who lived, and one who should’ve died. He himself is just a revenant, rattling around between the gibbering mess that might be James Barnes and the unfeeling Soldier, the asset who wrought the world in blood.

He’s taken the name ‘Bucky’.

He’d like to say he doesn’t know why he’s claimed it, but that would be a lie. On the Helicarrier, the Captain had said it belonged to him, and the way he’d said it… Bucky would kill James Barnes to possess just a fraction of what he had had. A family, a home, a l—someone to come home to. His best friend. Steven Grant Rogers, Captain America. Stevie.  

Is it so wrong, to want to be Bucky?

He glances at pictures and objects, tries to sort through the clamoring that stirs and revels at the back of his mind. Maybe-Barnes hasn’t shut up for days, despite never making much sense. Bucky can’t quite handle acknowledging him, tends to let the Soldier drown him out. Which is its own kind of headache; it’s all protocols and fear and violence. He has to shut him down, too.

In a way, he is on his own.

It makes his skin crawl.

He’d found out about the museum at random, holed up in an abandoned building and trying to quell the conflicting urges in his head; on one hand screaming at him to go back to the riverbank, Steve is unconscious, Steve is hurt, on the other telling him to make his way to a safehouse and await extraction. They had been equally loud, those urges, but Bucky had wanted the former the most, had had to fight it harder. He’d hurt Steve, nearly killed him. What if he went back, and the Soldier won? Can’t risk it. He’d forced his shoulder back into its socket and waited.

Then, he’d found flier for the museum, leftover from another squatter.

He’d stolen new clothes from out of a backyard, snapped up a cap. Hunched down and hands in his pockets, he doesn’t register as dangerous or even extraordinary. The city sees too many beaten-down people. He just looks a little lost, a little tired. No one looks at his eyes, sees the endless years and the barely leashed horror.

He lingers at a screen that shows Steve as he was, back when he was Barnes’ Stevie and the world revolved around his smile. He has an almost defiant air, like he knows just how preposterous the whole thing is, but damn it all, he’s going to go through with it. Barnes’ babbling takes on a whining undertone. I want to shake his fool hide, God, how stupid, how reckless! What if you died and left me all alone?  

He walks on, reads a letter from Barnes to Steve. The letters are shaky, parts are crossed out. He was never supposed to see this. Bucky looks down at his own hands; he’s never held a pen, has he? Wait—one time. He’d snatched it from a tray, stabbed a technician in the throat. Or, the Soldier had. But the Soldier was Bucky was Barnes was the Soldier.

Or… whoever he is, that man had become the Soldier. What if they cut Barnes out and shoved Bucky in instead? What if these memories, hallucinations, whatever they are, are just stolen flashes, what if they never belonged to him in truth? He’s just a squatter in another man’s mind.

His heart sinks, gut growing leaden.

But what if they do belong to him? The words he hears in his head? I’m with you ‘til the end of the line. He wants that to be his, needs it more than he needs to breathe. Barnes may have had those words, but Barnes was gone, nothing but a broken voice in the back of Bucky’s head. Why shouldn’t they be Bucky’s now? If Steve had said them to him, had given them so freely, didn’t that make it okay? He’d be Bucky as long as Steve wanted him to be.

He passes through the exhibit in silence, hands trembling and clenched. In a small theatre, he watches Peggy Carter speak of one of the Captain’s missions, of the Howling Commandos. Barnes grows quiet but doesn’t go away; instead he floods Bucky’s body with poison, lets it take root in his belly and hollow out his chest. He’d hated the very sight of her, because he knew she meant loss.

Bucky leaves, nearly running.

And then, he stumbles on a screen.

It’s in the Commandos’ section, nestled between a bunch of other stills and clips of them all rushing into battle. He pays those no mind, enthralled by a single, looping clip.

Barnes and Steve stand side by side, speaking words that have been lost. They’re grinning, Steve trying to keep his composure, but Barnes throws his head back with mirth and makes him break. When Barnes looks at him, Steve’s whole face grows soft, then goes a little slack, like he can’t quite believe that Barnes is real. And Barnes? Barnes looks at Steve like there’s no one else in the world.

This is the moment that Bucky knows for sure.

He can’t hear the Soldier, can’t feel Barnes. Instead, he remembers how laughing had felt, how it had been months since he’d done so. How his heart had skipped a beat when Steve held his eyes. He remembers Steve teasing him, poking fun at his pout. He remembers the growing pangs he’d been going through after the table, feels the phantom aches of them again, hungry and cranky and restless.

He remembers.

He’s a poor excuse for the man Steve Rogers had smiled at, but he is that man. Broken, rusted, half-out of his mind, memory full of holes, more than half a monster.

My name is Bucky.