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Captain America: A Matter of Time

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Chapter 1: The Long Path

 

[09-24-1946, 63°17′34″N 168°42′05″W]

Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.

How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you.

Steve stared at the red digital date and coordinates on the ‘time GPS device’. He took a single deep breath and noisily blew it out. He looked up; the cold, salty breeze of the Bering Sea brushing over him.

“Hang on, Bucky,” he murmured, deactivating the device. “I’m coming.”

Steve tucked the device underneath the nanosuit layer. He looked around, noting that there was nothing except for a bleak landscape surrounding him. Only a speck of white tent and a flag pole bearing the colors of the United States stood out against such a drab, desolate island.

That was his destination, and there was nothing that Steve could see that was a direct threat. Yet, he knew it was designed as such – this area had not yet been developed, and most of the inhabitants of the island were living on the western end. In a few years, there would be life here, as an early warning system would be installed.

But that was a few years that he didn’t know if it would happen anymore – not with what he was about to do. But he had already made up his mind to do it. He had chosen to do this, because after all that he had seen and done—

“Hang on,” Steve murmured again as he shook his head to dislodge his circular thoughts and concentrated on the now.

He had chosen this – he was not going back.

Setting off at a light jogging pace, Steve kept alert for any sudden movement or activation of a large-scale electronic system that would announce his arrival. He could not hear a hum of micro electronics – none of those had been invented or shrunk down to the size he had gotten used to. Technology was not running away rampantly, or almost magical-like yet.

Reaching the tent, there was a single military jeep parked behind it. It was unguarded, and the keys had been left in the ignition. Steve entered the tent and while it looked as if it were built for a guard post, he knew it was anything but.

Going to where the two cots were, he crouched at the foot of the first cot where there was a trunk. While ordinary-looking, he knew it was anything but. Taking Mjolnir into his hand, he gently placed it on the edge of the trunk and tapped the hammer.

A bolt of electricity shot out and crawled all over the trunk as he holstered Mjolnir at his side again. At almost the same time, he heard the clank and whine of gears turning, followed by the hum of an elevator rising. Stepping back, he waited a few minutes before the noise stopped.

The cots automatically parted to either side, as the ground-embedded door to the underground base slid open. The first time Steve had been here was when he had been hunting down and eradicating any remnants of HYDRA’s brainwashing facilities. Concentrating mainly on Soviet assets had almost led him to ignore this particular base.

Natasha had been the one to flag it after digging through the data that she and Fury had released. Even then, it had been almost dismissed by both of them. It was due to the fact that it came from Zola’s personal diary. SHIELD had scanned it into their databases after the scientist had physically died.

[July 2nd, 1945. Coordinates approximately 63°17′34″N 168°42′05″W, or so my captors tell me. My new ‘home’ for the foreseeable future.]

Steve clearly remembered the words, especially the coordinates. It would have made sense for the US government to hold someone as valuable as Zola in a remote area. Yet, the accuracy of the coordinates had made no sense—

He shook his head again, surprised at himself for letting his thoughts wander, when he knew that he should be more careful. The base in the here and now, was not what it had been the first time he had investigated it. It was an active base, and whatever guards down below would have clearly heard and seen the elevator move.

Swinging himself over the lip of the entrance, he dropped fifteen feet down to the catwalk and strode into the elevator. Pressing the button to take him down, he took another deep breath and focused on what was going to happen in the next few minutes.

As much as he had wanted to travel back to the exact date state in Zola’s diary, he didn’t. This particular date he had arrived in was the earliest known time and location of where Bucky was – after he had fallen from the train. Whether by fluke or by something else, someone named Alexander Lukin had made a note about this location in the Winter Soldier folder that Natasha had given him.

Steve took another deep breath and stilled his mind, as the layers of concrete and darkness that passed him by emerged to a more brighter, large cave-like structure. The elevator continued to descend, and he could see the specks of the guards grow ever closer and larger.

They were craning their necks up to see who exactly was coming down through the cage-like elevator. Keeping his hands loose beside him, Steve tilted his head slightly to stretch his neck one last time. He would play it by ear, as to whether or not the guards were friendly—

“Hands up where we can see them!” the guards shouted as soon as the elevator stopped.

One had already stepped forward to yank the cage-like door open. As soon as Steve took a good look at the guards and the weapons that were pointed at them, all thoughts of being ‘friendly’ to the guards disappeared.

All of the guards were wielding Tesseract-based rifles.

“Holy shit, it’s him!”

“Fire! Open fi—”

Mjolnir flew into Steve’s right hand. The bolt of electricity that shot out and into the HYDRA-allegiance soldiers cut their declaration short. It forked and spread as Steve ran out of the elevator. Explosions littered the air as he threw Mjolnir with all of his might in an arc, damaging several key pipes that kept the life support system of this base afloat.

Alarms were already blaring, with the lighting in the immediate area shorting out emergency systems. Recalling Mjolnir, Steve holstered it and picked up the lone Tesseract-based rifle that had not been destroyed.

While this base had been home to a fledgling HYDRA in regrowth, Steve knew that it was only one of many in the world. The Red Skull and most of his European bases had been destroyed, but it was as they said their namesake was: cut off one head and two more shall take its place.

He could not casually wield Mjolnir in a destructive manner – at least not yet. The primary concern was that this was an underground base, and he did not want to collapse it upon himself or Bucky. He would consider doing that after he got Bucky out.

Steve ran down the first corridor, hoping that he had chosen correctly as to where Bucky may have been kept. The first time he had entered the facility, everything had looked to be abandoned. There had been barely anything left except for a lone, empty cryogenic pod positioned next to the elevator. What little paper trail that had been left had been burned by him, before he had laced up enough C4 to bring the place down.

Now, it was a rescue mission.

Taking cover, Steve felt the sizzling heat of the blue bolts pass by where he had been. Flecks of super-heated dirt and concrete peppered him. Steve briefly squeezed his eyes shut as he turned away from it. It was not something he wanted to do, but considering he did not know just how many soldiers the SSR had stationed here, he had to.

A split second later, Steve felt the Mind Stone slip into his left hand. Its mental link to him felt like a cool, uncomfortable cascade of oil that seemed as crystal clear as it was muddy. He didn’t like the feeling worming through him, but he had to stomach it. It certainly felt better than the dark, seductive call of the Power Stone.

He opened his eyes, briefly glancing down at the yellow stone in his hand, before curling his nanosuit-encased hand around it. A few seconds later, the multiple visages of him appeared. They were semi-transparent, but were all wearing the same uniform and holding the same Tesseract-based rifle as he was. A copy of Mjolnir had also been made.

Steve didn’t even need to command the doppelgangers he had created with his mind to move. They just did – becoming the visual distraction he needed.

Shouts carried across the corridors as the soldiers were drawn elsewhere. He waited a few more seconds for the firefight to die down, before popping out. The Mind Stone was stored in its own compartment, and its influence on his mind lessened considerably.

Hurrying down the corridor, he headed towards where he remembered seeing cell-like structure the first time. He wouldn’t put it past HYDRA here to make sure Bucky was stored in this somewhat isolated area, if whenever US government officials or SSR brass visited.

Breaking past the door that led into the cell area was simple enough – a quick application of force on the door handle. The lights were flickering with the continued collapse of life support and other systems. Most of it caused by his usage of Mjolnir, and the rest most likely by HYDRA’s wild shooting of their weapons at his visual doppelgangers.

Steve hurriedly checked all the cells, finding them empty, until he got to the last one at the end of the area. Yet, the man standing in the corner of the cell, seemingly terrified that he was about to be killed, was not who he expected.

“Michael?!”

“Steve?”

Steve immediately wrenched the cell open with sheer force, as the fear that he had seen in Michael Carter’s eyes died. Peggy’s brother gingerly stepped forward, looking at him in disbelief. His hair was grown out again, and he looked emaciated and unkempt. His appearance at the moment was much like his first appearance since being found alive as a prisoner-of-war by the Howling Commandos.

To be captured once by HYDRA in Norway and found again, to being captured a second time – by HYDRA yet again… Steve wished that he had known. When he had read the dossier SHIELD had on Peggy, there was barely a mention of her brother, Michael. All it had said was that Michael had been declared dead in 1942, and again in 1945 – shortly before VE Day. Peggy had not talked at all about her brother whenever Steve had visited her in hospice.

As much as he wanted to question why Michael was being held at this specific facility, he didn’t. After what he had learned about what Peggy’s brother did as a SOE agent, it wasn’t all that difficult to connect the dots to how the Winter Soldier had been created. HYDRA would’ve wanted a test subject before implementing the ‘final product’ on Bucky. Michael was most likely HYDRA’s ‘test subject’.

The thought angered him even further, and he was now glad he had chosen to do this. “You coming?” he asked, gesturing for Michael to follow him.

Michael gave him a puzzled look before taking the offered Tesseract rifle. “You’re...”

“Not dead,” he said, taking point, but did not bring Mjolnir to bear.

Wielding the hammer in front of Michael was not something he wanted to do – only because he didn’t want to answer questions. It was better for everyone to still think of him as dead – except for the ones he cared about. And even then, he was going to return Mjolnir to its rightful place in time – there was no need to draw even more attention to himself.

That ‘life’ he wanted, was one of peace and quiet.

“How…?” Peggy’s brother began.

“Crashed into the ice,” he stated, kicking up and snatching another Tesseract-based rifle into his hands. “Woke up, found out everyone thought I was dead. I figured that dead people have an easier time eliminating the last vestiges of HYDRA.”

“Woke up, found out everyone thought you were dead, and got a strange sense of humor,” Michael stated, as they traversed down the corridor, side-by-side. “Comics said you crashed some HYDRA super-weapon into the ice. True or not, are you certain that you didn’t get knocked around—”

HYDRA soldiers appearing at the end of the corridor cut Michael’s question off, as both Steve and the SOE agent ducked into adjacent corridors, evading enemy fire. A shout down another corridor briefly diverted HYDRA’s attention. As soon as there was a brief lull in the firefight, Steve immediately emerged and fired his weapon.

The soldiers vanished in a puff of black and blue.

“Do you know where they’re keeping Bucky?” Steve asked, as the two of them continued down the corridor.

“What?”

Steve turned back to see that Michael had stopped, gaping at him. There was a stunned look on the SOE agent’s face; it was clear that Michael never received news that Bucky had ‘died’ during the operation to capture Zola. A field agent such as Peggy’s brother wouldn’t have gotten such news anyways.

But, Steve didn’t have time to explain what happened. Instead he said, “Woke up and found out that he got captured. The trail led to here. We need to find him and get out.”

He turned back around. Before he could take more than two steps forward, Michael had closed the distance and forcibly grabbed his arm.

“When?” Michael demanded as Steve turned back around.

“Later,” Steve insisted, shaking his arm loose.

Michael looked to object, but realized that it was not the place or time to demand such things. Steve saw him curtly nod before gesturing for them to continue. It was not ideal, but Steve didn’t blame him for not knowing that Bucky was here or held captive. He thought that perhaps the two might have been held in captivity together – but that was also untrue.

If there was one thing HYDRA was good at – it was hiding prisoners away. But Steve remembered, knew the corridors like the back of his hand. Thus, he took point and continued down a set of corridors that he hoped would lead them to where Bucky was.

The rumbling of explosions continued as they made their way through the base. They occasionally ran into one or two HYDRA soldiers, but it seemed that this base only had the bare minimum of a skeleton crew guarding it. Steve could only surmise that most had been killed in the initial fight.

The alarms were not as noisy the further he traversed this area. Lights continued to flash red, and intermittent explosions rumbled through the area. Steve was greatly reminded of the first time he had searched for Bucky in Azzano.

The eerie relative quietness of the current corridor that led to what he remembered looking like laboratories, were sending even more unease down his spine. He slowed down to a cautious walk, checking behind each closed door. What he had initially thought were laboratories were much worse than he could imagine.

Apparatuses that looked like prototypes of the metal conditioning chair he remembered seeing in the Siberian silo decorated each room. Adding to his anger were several tables, some full of charts and diagrams of the human body, others of the brain.

Steve had never asked Bucky if he remembered any of his conditioning, and Steve would never. Just seeing what he was seeing was making him sick. Bucky had told him that his first ‘activation’ or deployment as the Winter Soldier had been in 1947 – Steve was here well before that year.

Bucky would never become the Winter Soldier.

Steve found Bucky in the second to last ‘laboratory’ in the corridor. The door was locked like all the others, and all it took were a few blasts of the Tesseract-based rifle to get it open.

The cryogenic tube was not front and center of the room, but rather ensconced off to the side – as if it were an accessory. An operating table, along with an unusual-looking machine that contained a giant semi-transparent sphere of sorts took up nearly the entire rest of the room.

Steve immediately slung his rifle over his shoulders as he heard Michael curse. Hurrying over to where the cryogenic tube was, he searched for the panel that would allow him to wake Bucky up. To his frustration, there was nothing overt on the cryogenic tube that indicated a panel.

“Search the table and machine,” he ordered, as he went over the seams of the tube again, wondering if he missed a hidden catch. “See if there’s anything there that tells us how to open this damn thing.”

Steve tried to avoid staring at the frozen face of his best friend. He had to thank God that it looked as if there was still some power source that kept the chamber active. He was not keen on rolling the cryogenic chamber with him, but if Michael could not find—

“Got it!” Michael shouted. “Bottom edge of the chamber, panel. Three-two-two-three-one.”

Steve crouched down and ran his hand along the edge. At the left most side was a slight catch, and Steve snapped it open. Inside were three buttons, all colored the same – red. “Any indication as to which side is one, and which is three?” he asked.

“No,” he heard Michael say, as he glanced back to see him approach. “But I have a feeling that it may be opposite of traditional convention.”

“So right to left then,” Steve stated. He stared at the panel for a brief moment before tapping in the code from the right.

For a few seconds, nothing seemed to happen. Then there was a sudden hiss and pop, before a sudden rush of cold and fog enveloped the immediate area. Steve waved his hands in front of him as he scrambled up in time to dodge the chamber’s door sudden swing to open.

“Bucky…” Steve began, but stopped short as he saw the state that his best friend was in.

Dried blood and frost was stuck on the uniform that Bucky wore. It took Steve a moment to realize that the Soviets or HYDRA had not even bothered to change or clean his wounds from his fall. Lacerations and slowly healing wounds that still looked to be flash-frozen mid weep covered Bucky. The Soviets had sawed off his left arm and attached the gleaming metal arm – and the implant site still looked infected.

Worse yet, the arm was already marked with the blood red star.

“Jesus Christ,” Michael whispered in horror, stepping around Steve.

Michael’s exclamation snapped Steve out of his fugue as he reached out and placed a hand underneath Bucky’s jaw. There was a pulse, but it was incredibly faint. He didn’t know when Bucky would wake up, but they had to get out of here fast.

“Michael, take point,” he ordered, as he pulled Bucky out of the chamber. He grunted with exertion as he hefted Bucky up, slinging him across his shoulders in rescue-carry. “Back down the corridor, take a right, down past the first adjacent hall and left. Down to the end and take a right – should get us back to the entrance.”

“Got it,” the SOE agent answered, leading the way.

Steve took one quick look around the area before following Michael out. He was slightly worried that he hadn’t seen a hair or sign of Zola thus far. While not a large facility, the corridors were all interconnected. It was not his objective to pursue Zola, but he wouldn’t mind if the man was trapped down here… or even killed when he destroyed the facility.

Carefully making their way through the even more violently shaking ground that was now additionally filled with debris, Steve began to feel Bucky stir. Just after they crossed the first intersection, Steve felt a rather painful jolt against his back.

“Easy, easy!” he said. Steve stopped and gently slung Bucky off his shoulders. He grasped Bucky’s shoulder, to steady him. “Take it easy, Buck,” he continued to say.

“Wha...” he heard Bucky slur incoherently. The confusion that gripped him was short-lived. Pain immediately replaced it, and Steve immediately slung Bucky’s right arm over his shoulders to hold him upright.

“Come on, soldier. We’re going home,” he stated to Bucky while silently nodding towards Michael to continue forward.

After passing two more intersections in the long corridor, Steve could see that Bucky was beginning to regain some coherency. As soon as he felt Bucky tugging his arm away, Steve let go, but kept close to catch him, if needed.

As silent as Bucky was, Steve could see some confusion still swimming in those pain-filled eyes of his. It was clear that Bucky was puzzled as to why he was here, where they were, and how exactly Michael was here as well. But, he was willing to put all of his questions aside and get free and to safety first, before asking.

Steve silently nodded once to Bucky, receiving the same nod in kind. It filled him with hope and happiness to see such a response. He remembered how long it had taken Bucky to recover even some of his old personality before Wakanda had removed those commands—

He mentally shook his head as he dashed the thought away, handing his rifle to Bucky as he picked up another one on the floor. He didn’t need to think about his or Bucky’s past and future that would not happen – not for Bucky now.

The three of them got to the elevator relatively unhindered. Most, if not all of the soldiers who had been ‘guarding’ the facility were dead. “Go,” he said, gesturing for the two to enter the elevator. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to go set off some explosives.”

He expected their splutters and protests, but immediately turned around and lightly ran off. To his relief, neither Bucky or Michael followed him. What he could only surmise as the generators that powered the facility were down another set of corridors. The first time he had been here, he had placed most of his C4s in that particular area.

Now, he was going to destroy it using Mjolnir—

Steve skidded to a halt; the tell-tale flap and sliver of what looked to be a white lab coat flitting by the corner of another corridor. He hurried towards the corner, and turned— “Zola!”

His roar seemed to echo and drown out the alarm and explosions for a brief moment. Steve’s eyes were not deceiving him; he saw the short statured, balding, and glasses-wearing HYDRA scientist.

“The rumor of your demise seemed to have been greatly exaggerated, Captain Rogers,” Zola stated.

Mjolnir flew into Steve’s right hand. Zola’s eyes widened in surprise, but before Steve could unleash a bolt directly into the scientist, he saw him pull a small, cylindrical item out of a coat pocket. Zola pressed the button—

Steve immediately abandoned all thoughts of unleashing Mjolnir, as the Space Stone slipped into his left hand. Just as the first explosions ripped across the corridor, Steve let the ice-cold feeling of the stone snake its way through. He mentally grasped onto it, and was enveloped with a cloud of blue and black.

He stumbled out of the cloud, emerging into the main area where the elevator was. The ground roiled beneath him, as he ran up and into the elevator. Bucky had already slammed the button to send the elevator topside, while Michael had reached out to grab onto him so he didn’t fall back out as another violent explosion tore through the place.

Chunks of debris were falling all around them, crumbling from the top on down. Zola’s last stand was going to bury them, and Steve knew that they would not make it to the surface in time. He didn’t want to continue to use the stones, but he didn’t return here from 2023 only to fail.

Letting the Space Stone’s cold stab fill him again, Steve gritted his teeth as the chilly tendrils expand in his mind to capture the presence of Bucky and Michael. A second later, they were all enveloped in blue-black smoke…

… only to be deposited a few hundred feet away from the white tent, on the surface of the Alaskan island. The stone’s grip on his mind didn’t even fully receded when the ground seemingly belched, fifty yards from where they emerged.

Steve stumbled, and fell to the ground with the others, as he raised an arm to cover his own head. Peeking out from under his arm, he saw the tent, and all of its surroundings enveloped in a spray of super-heated and scalding hot dirt. Those clumps flew high into the air, before falling down like rain, pelting the immediate area.

Luck seemed to be with them, as the three of them were upwind of the explosion, and had escaped with little to no new injuries. “Everyone all right?” Steve asked as an eerie silence fell over the area.

Michael coughed before saying, “Right as rain. Nice work with the… hammer… I think.”

“Wasn’t me,” Steve said, helping him up before going over to where Bucky was. Steve helped him up, but held on – it looked like Bucky was far more injured than what he could see. “Zola set it off—”

“Zola?”

Bucky’s quiet, angry growl of the scientist’s name, coupled with his stepping away, caused Steve to turn slightly. “The mission… failed? What day is it?”

“September 24th, 1946,” Steve stated, as Bucky took another step back. As injured as Bucky looked, Steve did not miss the intense, almost strangely hostile look shot his way.

“Holy…” Michael began, collapsing to his knees. The SOE agent buried his face into his hands. “What the hell…”

“We won the war,” Steve quietly answered, looking at both of them before focusing on Bucky. “But you—”

“Fell,” Bucky quietly stated, the hostile look dying slightly in his eyes. Steve saw him squeeze his eyes shut for a moment, grimacing. “I… remember… “

The happiness that Steve knew he should have felt at the fact that he had timed it correctly, and saved Bucky from a fate worse than death, didn’t come. Relief was there, but it was severely tempered by the fact that they had escaped by the skin of their teeth. Not to mention that he had been forced to use the stones to get them here.

As uncomfortable as the silence was that stood between the three of them, Steve didn’t let it linger for long. “I need to get the two of you to a hospital—”

“Ivenchenko,” Bucky suddenly stated.

“Who?” Steve asked at the same time Michael had echoed that question.

Bucky silently shook his head, indicating that he wasn’t too sure, but said, “I just remember his name and seeing him work with Zola once… while down there.”

“No,” Steve said, shaking his head slowly. “But I don’t think anyone would’ve survived that explosion anyways.”

As Bucky glanced back towards the several hundred feet deep hole in the ground, Steve followed his gaze. The first time he had been here, he had tried to see if there were any secret passages in or out of the facility – a way that things could be smuggled in or out without going through the elevator. But there had been none in that base. There was only one way in and one way out – and now, it was destroyed.

“Let’s get you to a hospit—” Steve began again.

“What did Philips do, to make you agree to do this on your own, Steve?”

Steve opened his mouth to answer, but thought better of it, in response to Bucky’s quiet but furious question. A moment of regret that he didn’t try to find and recover his own body in this timeline first, briefly filled him, but he dashed it away. When he was finished with that task, this rescue and all of the strangeness that Bucky and Michael had witnessed would be a thing of the past.

Steve from 2023, would just be a small aberration in the flow of time.

“I… ‘died’,” he stated. “Bringing Schmidt’s war bomber down over the Artic. The war ended, but HYDRA is not yet completely defeated. This…“

“You’re not done yet, are you?” Michael’s question filled the silence as Steve fell silent.

Steve didn’t want to continue to tell Bucky what happened. This was supposed to be a new leaf for all of them – a new lease on a life that they should have had.

“One more,” Steve said after a moment. “One more, and then…”

One more – to rescue my self from the Arctic – then I can go.

“So… hospital, then?” Michael asked, getting up and slung Bucky’s right arm over his shoulder.

If there was one thing that Steve was grateful for, it was the fact that Michael knew when not to push for secrets. Bucky might’ve been Steve’s best friend, and there were little to no secrets that stood before them, but Steve was unwilling to continue to share what he knew. There were just some things that should be put to rest.

“Yeah,” he said, stepping back up to them, as the Space Stone slipped into his left hand, once again.

The piercing cold fingers of the stone enveloped his mind again, as he concentrated and expanded the sensation to include his friends. A second later, the cloud of black and blue enveloped them – and deposited them into what looked to be an airfield.

“We’re just outside of London,” he said, stepping away from both of them, letting the icy sensation in his mind receded slightly. “Think the two of you can manage?”

He could see that Bucky still had questions, still wanted answers, but the pain and his injuries were getting to him. “Don’t… do—” Bucky began, huffing with each word.

“Anything stupid,” Steve finished up, nodding towards Michael – grateful that there was someone else here to make sure Bucky made it to the hospital. “Yeah, I know. I gave it all back to you, jerk.”

“Punk,” Steve heard him mutter, before the blue-black cloud enveloped him again.

This time, it was not just an uncomfortable sensation of cold that slammed into him in a mental sense, but also a physical one. The winds howled as Steve raised his arm to try to block the snow from blowing into his eyes. Using Mjolnir to clear the snow in front of him would’ve been a good idea, if Steve were not doubtful on how steady the ice floes below him were.

He could use Mjolnir to fly as Thor did at times, but with the weather as it were, it would be difficult enough to see anything from several hundred feet above. Where he had teleported to was what he remembered seeing from the various footage file SHIELD had on the place.

Pushing forward, Steve holstered Mjolnir at his side and held up both arms against his face. Bitterly cold winds whipped at his face, stinging him, but as Steve continued to walk, he thought he could see the shadow of something large looming in the distance.

He didn’t know how long it took him to get to the shadow, but his hunch was right – the war bomber was here. Going to where he hoped was the wing tip, Steve fought the aching cold within his body and leapt up. Scrabbling for purchase and grabbing onto whatever he could find, he slowly climbed up.

Hauling himself up onto the top of the structure, Steve gingerly made his way across and to what looked to be the fuselage of the bomber. It was slippery here, and the unrelenting winds were threatening to knock him off.

When he got to the center of the fuselage, Steve withdrew Mjolnir and placed the flat of it on the surface. It was going to be tricky, but without a good insight as to where exactly he was on the surface of the bomber, he couldn’t use the Space Stone to teleport in. He didn’t want to anyways – the less he felt the stones crawling through his mind, the better.

Raising Mjolnir slightly Steve swung it down, hoping that the force of it and the lightning was enough to carve a hole into the hull. The dull ring of the hammer hitting ice and into the hull was nearly lost to the winds. It took Steve three tries with the hammer for the structure to collapse into a jagged hole.

Holstering the hammer again, Steve waited a few seconds for the shift in the ice floe to subside. He hoped that it would hold for just long enough for him to get in, rescue his other self from here, and get out.

Jumping into the hole, Steve landed lightly onto the deck. He was not at the cockpit, but near it. The direct corridor to the cockpit was destroyed, but Steve hoped the secondaries were still intact. Gingerly and carefully, Steve made his way through the ice-covered stiff wires, hearing the wreckage groan with the shifting of the ice floes.

Pushing and wrenching the door open to the cockpit, Steve squeezed his way through. Carefully making his way forward to the cockpit chair, Steve couldn’t help but pause at the area where the Tesseract had been kept. The device was completely inert, but the hole where the cube had burned its way through was still there.

His shield was lying a little ways away from the base of the device. Picking it up, he absently hooked it onto his back, feeling a little better with the familiar weight of it sitting there. Yet, he knew that he shouldn’t get used to it. He was just a transient visitor to this time.

The bomber groaned and shifted again, forcing Steve to pause in his approach. It settled after a few minutes, but Steve was already looking at the cockpit chair in slight puzzlement. Stepping over to it, he frowned as he turned the chair to face him.

It was empty.

Looking around, Steve could see no overt sign that his body had flown out of the cockpit chair when he had crashed. The cockpit window was spidered with cracks, but there were no signs of blood splatters from cuts that indicated a body had gone through it.

Carefully walking around as the bomber shifted again, worry began to settle within him. Steve remembered sitting in the chair, guiding the bomber down and the blackness claiming him on impact. He remembered seeing SHIELD footage of them discovering and thawing him out from the block of ice. He had no memory of being awake between the crash and his waking up in New York City in 2011.

So where was his body, in 1946?

We both need to get a life.

You first, Steve…

Steve took one last look around, half-wondering why one of the heaviest conversation he had ever had with Natasha, had popped into his thoughts. It felt wrong, for him to remain… yet…

Peggy and Bucky, the two people he cherished the most, were alive. They were here, and he had even freed Bucky before HYDRA and the Soviets had a chance to turn him into the Winter Soldier.

Then what was holding him back?

Steve glanced over at the empty chair again, before a warm, soothing feeling suddenly blossomed into his mind. The weight of his trusty shield seemed to be a bit more solid, more comforting than ever before. Unsure as to what was causing the slightly strange feeling, Steve looked around—

At once, he felt a stone slip into his left hand. Glancing down, he opened his hand, only to find the Soul Stone resting in his palm. It always puzzled him as to what the purpose of the Soul Stone was, and what powers it contained. While sinister in the nature of how it was created, Steve thought that the stone was a leash of some sort – a way to channel or exert some ‘control’ over the other stones when being wielded.

Another burst of a soothing feeling filled him, causing him to recoil slightly. The feeling lessened, and he peered at the stone. Before he could examine it further, a rather loud crack! filled the air. It was swiftly following by a groaning rumble through the decks. The floor beneath him began to feel greatly unsteady.

Stowing the stone back into its compartment, Steve knew that he couldn’t stay any longer on the wreckage. The Space Stone landed in his hand, as if by thought. Steve mentally grasped onto the ice-cold shards it offered, before being enveloped in a cloud of blue and black.

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Memory Extraction Session: ржавый

 

Even though the forest that they trudged through was mostly of the pine variety, there were occasionally a few trees that had leaves changing color. It added some life and splashes of color to the drab, dreary days upon end of them hunting down Krauts and HYDRA soldiers behind enemy lines.

The only thing that Bucky appreciated at the moment was not the bright red-green-leafed tree that they had passed a few yards back. It had been standing proudly near the creek. B ucky appreciated the fact that it was not cold as it had been for the past few days.

The unusual warmth had followed an enormous windstorm that had plowed into the area a few days ago, forcing the Howling Commandos to take shelter in a cave for three days. The rain that had fallen had also caused the river to swell.

That in turn had washed away the bridge that they had been hoping to cross. Thus they had been forced to ford the river a few miles more north where the water was not rushing down, and threatening to drag even Steve under.

However, that rain had also caused the ground that they trampled on to become incredibly soggy. After he had fallen into a sinkhole up to his waist that thankfully only contained water, and climbed out, they had been a little more careful to tromp through the area. Unfortunately, he had to sweep the perimeter of their advance in wet clothes – hell, even his socks were wet…

 

“What inanity have you extracted this time, Ivchenko?”

The nasal sharpness of Zola’s voice woke Bucky up. Or at least jolted him out of the listless fugue he had fallen into. A hazy blanket of pain and fever enveloped him, as he blinked and tried to focus his eyes on… whatever was ahead of him.

“Something possibly of interest, Zola,” came the conversational, almost lighthearted reply—

 

It was not Bucky’s fault that the sinkhole water produced a rather unpleasant smell, though it kept the swarms away. The rest of the commandos were just going to have to deal with the foul smell until they were dried.

Turning towards the formerly soggy, but somewhat dried pack that he had been carrying, he dug around to try to find the shovel. While Bucky normally used it to create foxholes, considering how far back they were behind enemy lines, they needed more of an in-ground hearth than a campfire. The in-ground hearth would be easier and quicker to douse with the dirt, should any German or HYDRA soldiers breach their perimeter.

… ржавый…

Frowning as he continued to dig around, feeling some really strange mud-like texture within his pack, he continued to rummage about. After a minute of digging around, Bucky pulled his hand out, only to find it covered in mud.

He wondered where his shovel went; it had been in his pack yesterday when he had finished digging several holes to bury and hide the scraps of bone and skin from the rabbits they had caught and ate.

Seeing that he had no other choice, Bucky overturned his pack and emptied it of its contents. Half of what had been inside of the pack fell out among a mass of red-brown mud, along with an extremely foul smell that had him gagging.

… ржавый…

Aw, shit,” he heard Morita exclaim, just as Falsworth echoed the sentiment…

 

“Functional memories—”

“Do not govern the Sergeant here,” Ivchenko interrupted Zola.

Bucky tried to turn his head to look towards the voices, but only succeeded in making himself extremely dizzy. He knew that he was strapped to a chair, feverish and in a lot of pain, but not enough to pass out into blissful oblivion. They… he… Ivchenko was somehow forcing him to stay awake—

“The memory command for the first extraction is sealed, and you are erased from it, Zola,” Ivchenko continued to say. “It is the catalyst point for the transformation.”

Silence answered Ivchenko, before Zola asked, “What… Are you able to say the command, without consequences?”

“The command is: желание,” Ivchenko simply stated—

 

James...Buchanan...Barnes...”

It was hard to breathe, much less talk. Bucky knew that if he kept repeating his name, rank, and serial number, maybe... just maybe they would stop, make it all stop.

He could feel himself involuntarily arch slightly as something burned inside of him, starting at his right elbow. That fire crawled up his arm and he could feel it spreading across his chest with each pounding beat of his heart. Someone one was muttering something…

 

Bucky tried to cry out, but nothing left his lips, except for a hoarse, dry cough. He could feel something crawling through his thoughts, leaving small, sharply painful tears inside of him. He could hear Zola’s laughter in his thoughts – or was that actual laughter? It was difficult to tell—

 

heavy eyelids scraped over his eyes as he blinked. Surely he was dreaming; the face peering over at him couldn't be—

Steve?” he whispered. He desperately hoping that it was true, and that he was not seeing his best friend's face in the last moments of his life.

Hang on, I'll get you free.”

Maybe he was dying, maybe that bald-headed, white-coated man was finally putting end to his misery…

“… joined the army,” Steve quipped before readjusting his hold on him. “Come on, we got to go.”

Bucky wanted to laugh, wanted to cry, wanted to say a dozen absurd things to Steve, to thank him, but he was spent. There was nothing he could do or give at the moment – he was too exhausted and in too much pain. Despite it all, his longing for death had been granted a reprieve, and he wasn't about to waste it.

All he could do now was survive, because he longed to live…

 

Were those his tears? Bucky tried to scream, tried desperately to grasp onto the memory of Steve – of those blue-green eyes that had filled him with hope—

 

Bucky was sure that he could remain in his clothes while in the river, considering what the potential culprit had done to his supplies, he wanted to make sure that every inch of his skin was thoroughly buffeted by the water. He didn't want anything of the potential contaminated sinkhole water and silt he had fallen into, to remain on him. However, he also knew that he couldn't stay in the water for long – it was too damn cold.

… ржавый…

Surfacing, he heard an unexpected voice exclaim, “Bucky!”

Looking up and over, Bucky saw Steve crouched along the shore, extending a hand towards him. Grateful, he grabbed on and with Steve's help, was lifted out of the eddy pool, though he reached back to grab the pieces of clothing with one hand.

Though he was completely naked, he didn't care as he sat down on the ground, not realizing how exhausted he was. Bucky hadn't realized just how much of a fight he had put up with the current in the eddy pool until now. His wet clothes had been dumped to the ground, but he would wring the water out of them in a few minutes.

… ржавый…

Steve sat down next to him, but despite how tired he was, Bucky couldn't help but laugh. A few moments later, Steve joined in, in the laughter – his chuckles to Bucky's outright laughter.

It reminded Bucky of the first time he and Steve had went to Coney Island, and the first time he had jumped into the water at the end of the pier. Steve had panicked, remaining on the pier until he had surfaced.

He had then tried to convince Steve to jump into the water as well, though back then, he hadn't realized just how strong the current at the end of the pier had been. It had been a good thing that Steve had been a stubborn ass and refused to jump in.

Bucky had spent the rest of the day, after getting out of the water, using Steve's lap as a pillow and sleeping until the sun had set. Their first grand adventure on Coney Island had turned out to be a simple, ordinary, lazy summer day.

Need a nap?” Steve asked in between chuckles.

No,” he snorted, nudging his best friend with an elbow. “But thanks for the offer, punk.”

The laughter and lightness in Steve's eyes died as Bucky frowned slightly, wondering why there was a searching look in Steve's eyes…

 

“Ah, that was an unexpected reaction to the command,” Ivchenko said, sounding insincerely apologetic.

“Unexpected,” Zola flatly stated, unimpressed. “You have had plenty of time to practice your techniques on the other prisoner. I cannot do my work if your ‘techniques’ result in the commands canceling each other out—”

“And this is a delicate operation, Zola,” Ivchenko interrupted. “I used functional memories with the other prisoner, in the first experiment. Emotional memories are better for extraction, but they must be refined and eased through a more pliable method—”

If it works with your proposed methodology of electroshock therapy—”

“Which, might I remind you, that you are in charge of that portion of the project. We both will share full responsibility of the consequences—”

Bucky finally managed to move his eyes ever so slightly up and over towards the two arguing scientists. He could barely follow what they were saying, but beyond the two was a spherical-like structure. Hovering as if it were a nightmarishly large image within the sphere was Steve, frozen in time with a searching look—

 

New York City summers were the worst, in Bucky’s opinion. Not only was it constantly hot and sticky – even at night – walking on the sidewalks and roads made it feel more like an oven roast on Easter. But the worst thing that Bucky hated about summer was that the Shipyards never stopped their work.

The furnaces, smelting, hammering, welding, and so many other tasks kept going day after day. Thus, entering his apartment felt like a blessing of coolness. The windows were open, and there was some breeze going through, but Bucky surmised that t he floor his apartment was on was high enough for him to do this. He wouldn’t be embarrassed by what he was about to do, but he didn’t want the police to be called on him by passerby for doing thi s.

Stripping out of his coveralls and everything underneath it, including his socks and heavy boots, Bucky kicked everything to the side. He closed his eyes and took a deep, relaxing breath. It felt so much better to bathe naked in the coolness of the breeze coming in through the windows—

Um.”

B ucky whirled around, eyes opening wide. Steve was standing at the threshold between the small kitchen that doubled as a living room, and the tiny bedroom with their bunk bed. Bucky had forgotten that he was now sharing an apartment with Steve—

Sorry,” he said, going over to pick up his clothes.

Nope, it’s fine,” Steve quickly stated. Steve walked right between Bucky and the pile of clothes, strangely beet red.

It’s really hot, and you’ve just returned from work,” Steve said, taking a seat at the tiny dining table that doubled as a work table. “It must have been incredibly stifling at the Shipyards,” Steve continued to say, as Bucky saw him place his sketch pad and today’s newspaper on the table.

B ucky remained where he was for a few moments, noticing that Steve was reluctant to even look at him when he had stated those words. His best friend was still flushed red— “It’s not fine,” he stated, going over and picking up his clothes.

It had been three, almost four long years since they had gone swimming together. They had been fourteen back then – still both rail skinny, all bones, lanky, and growing. Steve had spent the past few years caring for his ailing mother, before she had died – and had not time to go swimming, much less do anything else .

After Steve’s mother died, Steve had lived alone for about four months. Then, Steve had admitted to being three months behind rent at that apartment. Bucky had cajoled him to get an apartment with him; to split the rent and bills. That had been just after the end of winter.

This was the first time Steve had seen him all grown up, and naked.

I’m sorry, Steve,” he said, heading towards the bedroom. “I’m embarrassing you—”

You’re not,” came the quiet admission.

Bucky paused at the threshold, turning slightly to see Steve still working at the table, hunched over. There was tension written all over Steve though. Bucky placed the pile down, but did not turn around to walk back. Instead he took his coverall and began to put it back on—

I bet all the girls you’ve dated appreciate the view, so if you need to practice, go ahead and practice—”

What?!” Bucky had paused in pulling up his coverall uniform, and immediately knotted the rest of the uniform around his waist. “What the hell?” he demanded, going back to where his best friend was sitting.

Nothing,” Steve said, giving him a quick glance before going back to the political cartoon he was sketching. “Forget it,Bucky heard him grouse.

A s much as Bucky wanted to reach out and shake some sense into him, he refrained from doing so. He was not a bully, and this was Steve. “ Steve,” he stated, trying not to put his anger into that one demanding word.

I said forget it,” Steve said, sliding himself and his chair away from him. “Forget what I said, and go do whatever the hell—”

Steve,” Bucky repeated, this time a little less forceful.

He reached out to place a hand on his best friend’s shoulder, wondering where this unexpected anger, much less biting words came from. To his surprise, Steve leaned away. Bucky withdrew his hand, taking a step back.

Steve, where is this coming from?” he asked. “I’m sorry for doing that. I forgot that you were living here—”

I f there was any more tension that could encompass Steve’s skinny body, it tried to. B ucky saw him shake his head rather vigorously, stopping him from continuing to say anything. Bucky fell silent, but did not reach out with his hand again.

Why did God give you an Adonis-like body, and me, a frail one?”

The question had been whispered so quietly that Bucky thought he had imagined it. But Steve squeeze d his eyes shut, tension and misery envelop ing him, with his hands curled in fists – Bucky realized he was seeing jealousy from Steve as clear as a sunny day. At that very moment, he also realized that he had made an even larger mistake than just stripping.

God gave you a talent for art that cannot be compared, Steve. He also gave you a brilliant mind that will one day, take you out of this miserable hell hole. If the girls that I’ll ask on a date on your behalf can’t see that, then they’re not worth your time, Steve,” he stated.

Silence enveloped the two of them for a few long moments, before the tension surrounding Steve suddenly fled in one breath. Bucky saw him hesitatingly glance up, hastily wiping tears from his eyes. He reached out and placed his hand on Steve’s shoulder, squeezing it.

It’s a promise,” he solemnly stated.

Thanks,” Steve said, sniffling while smiling. A bark of self-loathing laughter emerged from his lips, as Bucky heard him say, “I must be out of my mind to have thought that of you. I’m sorry.”

T he edge of Bucky’s lips quirked up in a smile. He couldn’t help but gently retort, “ Well, if you’re saying that my stripping act needs to be refined in order to perform at Minsky’s—”

Steve rolled his eyes at Bucky, causing both of them to laugh. “You’re lucky we live on the third floor, Bucky,” Steve stated.

Bucky snorted, before letting Steve’s shoulder go. He returned to where he had left the rest of this clothes and boots. “You free Friday night, Steve?”

Yeah,” Steve answered.

Good,” he said, picking up the pile. “Because I’m going to see if Dot has a friend. We’re going to go on a double-date, Steve.”

 

The humming noise that Ivchenko made caused Bucky to blink as another bout of dizziness clawed at him. He gasped and coughed, feeling his chest pound as the fever continued to ravage him. The sphere that had held Steve’s face with the searching look was still up there.

“How strange,” Ivchenko stated. “The graphs recorded activity from a memory, but nothing on the sphere changed...”

“Perhaps there is more resistance within him that you have yet to discover,” Zola snidely stated. “After all, I do remember Sergeant Barnes here being incredibly resistant to my careful chemical ministrations—“

“Which you have not successfully replicated in any of the subjects that the Motherland allowed to be altered—”

“Your motherland, Ivechenko,” Zola sharply said. “Not mine.”

Blissful silence fell between the two, but it didn’t last long as Bucky heard footsteps approach. He tried to follow the man named Ivchenko with his eyes, but the dizziness was too much for him to bear. Steve’s image in the sphere seemed to swim this way and that—

“Focus, Winter Soldier. Focus...” he heard Ivchenko’s voice hum and drone in a gentle manner near his left ear.

A slithering sensation of warmth seemed to enter him from his ear, spreading slowly across his head and then down his body. It was uncomfortable to the point where Bucky wanted to squirm and physically wrench himself away from it—

 

Steve murmured, “Turn slightly to your right. There's nothing on this side to indicate that the sinkhole water's done anything to you.”

Bucky obliged, shifting slightly. Somehow, despite the intensity in Steve's eyes, he did not feel any discomfort. It was unlike when the doctors at camp had performed physical check-ups on all of the former prisoners to make sure that they were still fit for duty.

… ржавый…

The doctor who had examined him when it had been his turn had made him feel very uncomfortable, even though he had not been questioned during the checkup, and only had a stethoscope pressed against his chest. He never had been afraid of a doctor, but since being rescued from the HYDRA facility, he couldn't shake that uncomfortable feeling.

Well, nothing,” Steve said after a few moments, as Bucky returned to sitting in his original position. “Looks like the water was only interested in making whatever metal things you carried into mud.”

Still externally 'Adonis'?” he joked…

… ржавый…

...Scooping up his clothes and draping it all over him in an attempt to cover as much of his body as possible without slogging through wet clothes, he felt Steve clap his hand over his shoulder saying, “At least Vera hasn't rusted into mud.”

… ржавый…

 

“You see there, Zola? That flare of brightness enveloped in the emotional context of the memory?”

“Yes...” Zola said, almost purring. “Fascinating.”

Bucky tried to peer up again, to see what was happening, but the warmth worming its way through him held him still—

“Focus...” Ivchenko gently hummed into Bucky’s ear again. “Listen to the sound of my voice...”

 

… ржавый…

That's my girl,” Bucky said, smiling half in relief.

His beloved sniper rifle with the out-of-regulations divot at the end of the barrel, had not turned into a foul-smelling gloop. It was still intact, mainly thanks to his quick thinking of raising it high above in the air when he had plunged into the sinkhole…

… ржавый…

 

“That is the functional memory?” Zola asked.

“Yes. Now I shall wrap it around the emotional memory, and embed the command: ржавый, like so…” Ivchenko began.

Bucky screamed – or at least he tried to. No sound came out of his mouth except for a weak, choking cough. It was swiftly followed by the blindingly agonizing pain of a thousand knives tearing through him—

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Interval

1948, London...

 

He screamed – or at least he tried to. No sound came out of his mouth except for a weak, choking cough. It was swiftly followed by the blindingly agonizing pain of a thousand knives tearing through him —

Bucky snapped his eyes open.

His breath was harsh against his ears; heart beating like a drum in his chest. He was not injured, even if it felt like he had just been stabbed multiple times—

Shoving what little sheets covered him to the side, he got up and headed into the bathroom. The light in the small bathroom was harsh, but it was welcomed. He didn’t squint against the sudden brightness and instead stared at the reflection of his visage for a brief moment.

He turned on the water and plunged his cupped hands into the stream. Bucky splashed his face several times until it felt like he was drowning. It was the only way he could try to get rid of the feeling – however little the action provided.

Bucky stared at the running water for a few seconds, before his eyes strayed to his gleaming silver, metal left hand. Droplets dripped down into the sink, as he gripped the sides of the sink, and tired not to scream. It looked like rain in a lake, tasted like salt—

A hand appeared in the corner of his vision, turning the faucet off. Moments later, warm, comforting arms gently embraced him from behind. He hadn’t realized just how cold he was, lightly pressed against the warm, comforting body of his lover.

“I woke you,” he murmured. “I’m sorry.”

Frustration slowly replaced the shame he felt as the last vestiges of his nightmare for today swirled away with the last of the water within the sink. He was not even a half day returned home, and the nightmares still plagued him. He thought that by agreeing to the mission – however long it took – that it would help put to rest the awful memories that haunted him.

It had taken over a year to complete the mission—

“You’re home, you’re safe.”

The murmur had been whispered against his back; containing only understanding that Bucky didn’t think he’d deserve. Not after being away for over a year… not after what they both had been through… not after—

Bucky curled his damp right hand around the hands of his lover that rested against his chest. Just as he was about to answer, a knock at the apartment door interrupted him. He glanced over at the grandfather clock in the bedroom – exactly six in the morning.

He hadn’t even gotten five hours of sleep, much less restful sleep.

“She’s early,” he stated, letting go and stepped out of the envelope of warmth. “Go back to bed. This shouldn’t take long.”

Going over to where he had discarded the collared shirt he had worn the day before, he plucked it up and put it on, buttoning only a few buttons in a slightly haphazard manner. He could greet the woman at the door with only shorts and wearing nothing else, but he didn’t. She wouldn’t have bat an eye at his appearance anyways. The past year had revealed more details about her to him and vice versa, than he had ever cared to know.

Bucky opened the door to the apartment, just as the woman was about to knock a second time. Piercing eyes like his own raked up and down at his appearance, but there wasn’t any sort of intent behind it – just a physical health assessment of him. Until recently, he had never realized that she always did that whenever he had come home after a day of roughhousing.

“Mother,” he simply greeted.

“James,” she answered.

Before this mission, before he had been deployed in the war, he called her ‘Mom’. After he had found out what she was, had done, and was still doing, it didn’t feel right to call her that with any affection. She was… for the lack of a better term he had for her – a contemporary of him in espionage and assassination skills.

He stepped to the side and she stepped in. Closing the door, he didn’t bother taking her coat and instead, gestured for her to go forward and into the kitchen. There was a small dining table shoved to the corner, and he gestured for her to take a seat.

As strained and twisted beyond recognition their relationship as mother-son was, Bucky still cared about her. Firing up the stove, he began boiling water for the coffee. He would’ve brewed tea, but neither of them were behind enemy lines, and thus, had no need for a самовар for заварка.

The black, potent liquid was quickly brewed and poured. Bucky silently carried over two cups, placing one in front of her. The sugar bowl was already on the table, and he knew that she didn’t like cream or milk in any of her drinks – just like him.

“Did you get some sleep?” she asked after a few minutes of stirring the sugar into her cup.

“No,” he answered, sipping his coffee. “Where did you stay the night?”

“A friend’s place,” she answered.

He would have pressed for a less vague answer, but knew that she would never reveal what ‘friend’s place’ was. Instead, he got down to the reason why she was here, asking, “Your report?”

Instead of verbally answering him, she placed her cup down and pulled out a folder from the shoulder bag she was carrying. She placed it on the table and slid it over to him. Bucky reached over with his good hand, and tried to pick it up, but she didn’t remove her hand.

“I think it may do us both some good if you didn’t come home for Christmas this year, James,” she stated.

The words stung, but Bucky understood why, and nodded in agreement. “I had other plans anyways, Mother,” he stated.

He would have to write or call his sisters near that time to make up an excuse as to why he couldn’t come home, again. It would be five, no six years now that he hadn’t been home in New York City for Christmas. He was starting to get used to it.

The first two times had been the easiest – he had been serving in the 107th, specifically with the Howling Commandos and fighting in the war. The third time was 1945 – he had been a prisoner of HYDRA yet again, and everyone had thought of him dead. The fourth – he had been in the hospital, still recovering from his injuries after being rescued by Steve. The fifth had been a little harder – he had been out in the field completing the mission with his mother. This was now the sixth time—

“My sister has invited us to spend Christmas at her place, Mrs. Barnes. We’ll be just outside of the city, should you change your mind.”

Michael Carter’s strong, warm arms enveloped him again, but only for a brief moment. He felt Michael gently press his lips against his left temple, and did not shy away. Michael then let go, and walked over to the stove to start making breakfast.

As expected, there was no reaction from Bucky’s mother to the abbreviated display of affection he had received from his lover. She knew about his preferences for women and men – it was the same with her, except that she had been specifically trained to seduce both men and women. He hadn’t – he naturally liked both.

Yet, for all of her training, she had fallen in love and married James Barnes, Sr. Bucky had learned that her marriage to his father had been both out of duty, and the need for protection.

The protection aspect of his parents’ union was not from being discovered about her mission-specific predilections for the same sex. It had been to bring her into the fold after the fall of the Tsar – to bring her in from the cold as a turned Imperial Russian spy.

His mother was supposed to be embedded within her former home country as a double agent. The operation had failed, until attempts to resurrect the mission had been done during the war with the Special Operations Executive branch and MI5 – but within the Soviet Union. That too, had failed…

…until his mother had agreed to be reactivated, and work with him to close out Operation Midnight.

Midnight’s purpose was no longer to embed, but to destroy all fantastical weapons capabilities that the Soviets had. It started with the damnable ring that the SSR had encountered in Estonia, finding prisoners long thought dead – Michael having been one of them – and—

Bucky stopped his thoughts, focusing back on the present. His mother had let the folder go, and Bucky slid it to the side. He would look at it later – if necessary. He met the simple, neutral look that his mother was giving him, with one of equal intensity.

“Have a good flight home, Mother,” he said, ending her reason to be here.

“Be careful, James,” she stated, getting up.

Without another word to him, or to Michael, she left. Bucky sat at the table, staring at still steaming cup of coffee that had been barely touched by her. He didn’t know what to think about his mother – now that their own secrets had both been laid to bare on the mission. There were just so many things he wished he didn’t know about her, and things that he wished that she didn’t know about him—

“I get the feeling that she doesn’t approve of me,” Michael’s voice interrupted his thoughts.

A moment later, a plate of eggs and toast slid into his vision. He blinked and glanced up to see Michael taking the seat that had been vacated a few minutes ago, pushing aside the barely touched coffee. There was also a breakfast plate in his hand.

“She… doesn’t care who I date, have sex, love, or live with,” Bucky answered, poking around at the food before taking a few bites. Due to his nightmare, he had no appetite, but Michael had generously cooked the meal; Bucky could not let it go to waste.

“She did, until… well, until she agreed to carry out the mission,” he amended. “She always had a fondness for Steve, so it’s not you. She just thinks that no one else I’ve committed to, can compare to him. She said as much, into my face… shortly after Christmas last year.”

“That is quite harsh.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, apologetic. He hadn’t meant for the words to come out that unpleasant. Nevertheless, the words he had heard from his mother had been decidedly more vicious and cutting than what he had just said. “I—”

Michael shook his head, saying, “I wanted to know, and now I know. But… she doesn’t know that Steve’s alive, yeah?”

“She doesn’t,” he answered, glancing down at his still mostly full plate. “Have you found out anything?”

“Nothing,” Michael said. “I’ve turned over every rock that I could find, and there’s no one that held a knife over Steve’s head back then. All the stories are the same – everyone thought… they still think he’s dead.”

“And Peggy?” he quietly asked.

“As happy as I’ve ever seen her be,” Michael answered. Bucky looked back up to see him with a small, satisfied smile on his face. “She told me she had her doubts, but it looks like whatever Steve had agreed to with whomever, they’re letting him be. According to her – and I’ve also seen this first hand, last November – Steve is enjoying the life of anonymity and doesn’t show signs of moving from that.”

As happier as Bucky wanted to feel, he couldn’t make himself be so. He was sure that there was some entity somewhere blackmailing Steve, or waiting for the most opportune time to—

Bucky mentally sighed and tried to shake off his doubts. It was mostly what Steve used to break both him and Michael out of whatever the hell HYDRA prison that had been, that seeded those doubts.

He had been in a lot of pain, almost to the point where he couldn’t even put one step forward after the other. But it was the armor that Steve wore, and how his best friend had gotten from place to place during the rescue that looked… advanced.

HYDRA’s weapons had been a pain in the ass to contend with. The only saving grace they had to even the odds were because of Stark and his teams’ creations. Steve’s weapons and armor did not match what he knew of Stark and his creations, or HYDRA weapons.

It was also the inconsistencies that he had read about, with regards to Zola being held there. The reports he had read after he had ‘died’ stated that Zola had indeed been captured. Personal recounts by his fellow Howling Commandos had stated that Steve almost murdered Zola twice while they were bringing the scientist into custody. All the files said was Zola was kept as a prisoner somewhere in England for the remainder of the war, before being transferred to the isolated island.

He didn’t doubt Steve seeing Zola in the base, but he did wonder what exactly the base was and who really controlled it. Records stated that the SSR owned it. The records also stated that the SSR placed some of Stark’s more dangerous weapons there.

In that context, Bucky could agree with the fact that Zola was considered a ‘dangerous’ weapon – namely his mind. But arming guards solely with HYDRA weapons seemed to go against all that the SSR had been fighting against. Of course, he could attribute it to the SSR not wanting to take any chances of their ‘dangerous’ weapons escaping.

But it didn’t make sense – especially if the SSR knew who he was; then why keep him there?

He had no answer, and it worried him.

“Going to see her in a couple of days then?” he asked.

“You should come if you can, Bucky. Don’t be a stranger, please,” Michael said. “I’m sure word is going to reach her by the time she goes in to work, that you’ve returned. Steve and her - they’ll be happy to see you, as well.”

“November 5th,” Bucky said, shaking his head slightly. It was a tradition that Peggy had introduced to Steve and him: the burning of one regret in a campfire, so that regret could no longer weigh upon one’s thoughts.

“Come on,” Michael said, reaching out and briefly squeezed his flesh-and-blood hand. “You’ve just returned. Eat up. You’re not Steve, but there’s a lot of people on base who miss your rakishly daring presence. You’ve got a long day ahead with them.”

He gave Michael a slightly dubious look, but nodded and began to eat. He was still not hungry, but he knew that he had a long day ahead, no matter what Michael stated. Most of it would be taken up by the debrief with Philips and possibly others from MI5.

He could worry about Steve later.

~~~

Just Outside of New York City…

 

It was past midnight, and well past the usual time that most people would be asleep. But Peggy was used to staying up at all odd hours of the night. Most of it was due to her duties as an agent of the SSR. Some of it was due to an irrational part of her that was still in disbelief that the man she loved was really here.

She and Steve had been quietly married for over a year now. He had unexpectedly shown up at her door shortly after news had reached her that her brother had been found alive. She had known then that somehow, Steve had survived the crash and also carried out whatever mission or rescue it had been, to get her brother back.

Yet, there had been days – long ones, mainly – that she sometimes doubted what she saw whenever she entered her home. Those doubts never lasted long, but she had noticed that Steve had become more quiet, more withdrawn. Not from her, but seemingly from the world and everything that governed her work.

She had not asked him about how he had survived, or what he had been through before he had re-entered her life. Just one look into his mesmerizing blue-green eyes showed her an occasional glimpse of pain. Whatever it was a remnant of, it was enough for her to put her questions aside, and simply enjoy their reunion.

At this very moment though, she watched him, sitting in the second bedroom in their house sketching something by moonlight. The quiet life was Steve’s life now, and Peggy thought he deserved it. Steve wasn’t a recluse, but spent most of his time sketching and submitting political cartoons and illustrations under an alias.

The only strangeness to their lives was that Steve wished to remain dead to all but herself, her brother, and Bucky. Peggy understood why Steve wanted to live his life that way, but trying to convince him to let at least Howard know that he was alive had become their first and only argument thus far in their married lives.

She respected his wishes to not let Howard know, but it also hurt her to see their friend living life still in mourning for Steve. At the moment, she was a little glad that Howard had been quite busy with his fledgling movie studio in California, and expansion of Stark Industries there. The distance made the secret she kept from him more palatable.

While her marriage to Steve had been done quietly, she elected not to wear her ring openly. Instead, she strung it around a necklace that she kept under her blouse. It made her work and interaction with the men at the SSR easier.

“Hey,” Steve’s gentle, apologetic tone shook Peggy out of her thoughts. “Am I keeping you up? I’ll be in bed in a few minutes, after I put this away—”

“No, no,” she answered, shaking her head as she smiled at him and approached. He opened his right arm up, and she slipped underneath it, snuggling slightly against him. “After what happened a couple of days ago, I’m used to staying awake for now,” she continued, looking up at him.

She saw him frown slightly, asking, “That’s been resolved, right?”

“It has,” she answered, nodding. “We could all use the quiet for the next few days, before a new crisis erupts.” Shaking her head slightly, she glanced down at the sketch that Steve was working on.

It looked like an expanse of an airplane cockpit hurtling through something. She could guess stars, but it also looked like lines of fire – of flying through a fireball. Where such a vivid image came from was unknown, but she could reasonably guess that it came from Steve’s dreams.

He had such vivid dreams at times; sometimes waking up shouting someone’s name, or even issuing strange orders in his sleep. Some sounded as if they had been from what he had seen and done during the war – others from elsewhere.

Where he had been for over the year since he had crashed the Red Skull’s war bomber, to showing up at her door was a complete mystery. But Peggy had to guess that some of the sketches she saw were of that missing time in both of their lives. Even as quiet and withdrawn as he was, Steve never hid any of his sketches from her.

Steve’s nightmares and dreams were another reason why she felt he deserved the life of peace and quiet. He had seen and done too much during the war – more than she had. Yet, Steve still gave her the strength to continue to protect the world as he had done.

It was her turn now, to protect the world – in her husband’s name, and for the future.

* * *

Later, London…

 

The SSR Headquarters was no longer in London, but had moved to New York City after the end of the war. With the apparent loss of Steve during the final months of the war, Colonel Chester Philips had also been summarily dismissed from his post as soon as the war ended. The man had been living in forced retirement just outside of London when he, Bucky, and Michael had been found and freed.

MI5 had then approached Philips with a bold proposal: aid them in the completion of Operation Midnight, and they would help stand up a SSR branch to safeguard the Western Europe. A line had been drawn between the Soviet bloc and the West – and there were many who feared Communism would destroy them all.

Philips had agreed to the proposal, but had surprisingly sought Bucky’s opinion and agreement to participate in Operation Midnight. After working for the man as his assassin during the war, Bucky thought Philips would just order him to participate. The completion of Operation Midnight had been discussed by Philips and MI5 prior to the mission to capture Zola.

Given the choice by Philips, and after what he had been through, Bucky agreed. During the war, elements of the Soviets had shown that they had been willing to work with HYDRA to acquire advance weapons. Their greed was their downfall – Bucky made sure of it.

At the present, it seemed that the higher ups of MI5 and Philips were done with their questions for his debrief. Bucky was certain that there would be more questions in the coming days, but plenty about the mission details had been told. Some of it had been incredibly gruesome – the way targets associated with the operation had been killed; others more intimate – seducing and sleeping with targets that had the necessary information.

Nothing had been spared.

It was mainly thanks to the stone faces that both Philips and an original former participant of Operation Midnight – MI5 Senior Agent Samuel Brewster – that Bucky managed to describe some of the sexual details that he had to perform on female targets without faltering. Others listening to the debrief, had become highly uncomfortable.

One thing that he was glad that he had not had to detail to the others was what he had seen or listened to, when his mother seduced targets. All the details had been written in her report that she had given him that morning. He hadn’t read it, and didn’t need to – he knew what was in it. It was why the relationship between his mother and him was now strained – and why she didn’t want him home for Christmas.

He knew too much about his mother – details that no one except for her husband, should know. It was the same with her – she knew too much about him – nothing that a mother should ever know or care to know about her son.

It was the only way Operation Midnight could be brought to a close; and the fantastical weapons that the Soviets had, destroyed.

Philips and Brewster knew the stakes – especially what had happened to the SSR in a shadow war against elements of Soviet espionage, and Soviet science divisions. It was also why Bucky respected what they said and did, and dismissed all the other brass who had attended the briefing as nothing more than pencil pushers.

The war was over, but the more sinister, political war was quickly becoming a Cold War – both in nuclear capabilities, and technological ones. It was clear to Bucky now that the front lines were not won by soldiers, but by agents, proxies – by the shadows.

And it was exactly where he wanted to be – his own nightmares notwithstanding.

As the MI5 brass filed out, he heard Philips say, “Barnes, a word.”

“Yes, sir,” he answered, remaining in his seat.

As soon as the last MI5 brass left, closing the planning room door, Philips set aside some of the reports that had been written up for the mission. Among those was the one his mother had handed to him. Copies would most likely be circulated to MI5 later, but for now, his commander had the only copy.

“I’d hate to do this to you, since you’ve just returned, Barnes,” Philips began, folding his hands together. “But, the wolves have been clamoring at my door for the past two months. I’ve only been able to hold them at bay until you returned.”

“Sir?” Bucky questioned, frowning.

“The brass back home want you to transfer to SSR-East Coast,” Philips said.

“Sir, I don’t want to,” he immediately protested. “You know why, and you know that I’d rather quit first—”

“Son, I know,” Philips interrupted him. “It’s why I arranged for a short tour of duty there, instead of a full transfer.”

Bucky was silent for a few moments, his frown growing more pronounced. “Short,” he repeated.

“Two months at the most, Barnes,” Philips stated. “You should be back here by Christmas.”

Bucky considered his options. He had been made aware of SSR-East Coast’s interest in him just before he had left for his mission to complete Operation Midnight. While another agent may have found it flattering that Headquarters was doing the song and dance of recruitment, Bucky found it slightly suspicious.

He had read up on the dossiers of the agents in SSR-East Coast. All of the agents who served there were veterans of the war – both in Europe and in the Pacific. However, none of them had ever encountered or fought against HYDRA… except for Peggy. She was the only female agent actively serving in the SSR when SSR-Europe had been stood up.

Lorraine, Philips’ former spy-secretary during the war, became the second active female agent. There were a couple of other female agents within SSR-Europe, but Peggy was still the only female agent in SSR-East Coast, and still their only highly experienced agent. At least that was Bucky’s opinion, based on the cases that SSR-East Coast had solved.

Among the cases had been the capture of Dr. Ivchenko, and the removal of the damnable ring he wore. Somewhere during the prisoner transport of Ivchenko and the ring weapon – separate transports – SSR-East Coast had lost the ring. It had ended up in Soviet possession again, where Bucky had found and destroyed it late last year.

While it was natural to think that SSR-East Coast needed bolstering for experience, the cases solved were difficult enough to not justify transferring SSR-Europe agents over. Especially when SSR-Europe was primarily tasked with cleaning up HYDRA. One would have thought the opposite: agents wanting to transfer over to SSR-Europe to get more experience.

It was not the case, and it was also primarily thanks to MI-5’s intervention that SSR-Europe did not become a political tool as SSR-East Coast had become. That was the primary reason Bucky never wanted to transfer to Headquarters. He had seen the effects of what being a political pawn in the game did to Steve.

The secondary, and the excuse that Bucky verbally used, was that New York City had too many memories of Steve there. Everyone else in the world thought Steve was dead, and thus at the request of his best friend, Bucky remained silent.

It was natural for Peggy to transfer to Headquarters, due to her not having a lot of memories of Steve while in New York, but Bucky grew up in the city with Steve. Staying in Europe was his ‘excuse’. He wanted to see Steve again, wanted to enjoy the days with him again, but he also wanted to continue to serve and protect – to hold up Steve’s ideals.

“Will it be enough to placate them?” he asked, getting back to the matter at hand. He was worried that this was going to become a periodic thorn at his side.

“Do what you need to do, Barnes,” Philips answered, nodding once. “Your flight leaves tomorrow morning at 0700. One of the secretaries will have your travel details at your desk shortly. Dismissed.”

* * *

November 4th, 1948, SSR Headquarters, New York City…

 

“Rose, would you please hand me those folder in the corner there marked ‘Ni to Ny’?” Peggy asked, reaching backwards.

When the weight she had expected didn’t land in her hand, she glanced back, only to see that Rose had stepped away from helping her file the folders in archives. The telephone operator-cum-part time secretarial help was watching someone walk into the bullpen.

“Hello tall, dark, and handsome,” she heard Rose murmur appreciatively.

Curious, Peggy went over to where Rose was and stood on her tiptoes to look over Rose’s shoulder. Her eyes widened slightly in surprise as she saw Bucky walking by. He was dressed as sharply as any other agent within the SSR – with his dark grey duster and fedora tucked to the side. The only marked difference was that he wore black gloves on both hands, and was carrying a briefcase and small suitcase.

She had gotten a welcomed phone call from her brother a day ago, stating that Bucky had finally returned home to England. The relief and happiness that she heard in Michael’s tone made her happy – not just for her brother’s own happiness, but also that Bucky had survived the secretive mission SSR-Europe had sent him on.

Peggy had not expected him to be here. As far as she knew, the crisis that had gripped Headquarters was done and resolved. She hadn’t recalled hearing Thompson requesting any agents from SSR-Europe. Most of the agents had been given the day off today, strictly because of what they had done to resolve the crisis.

Before Peggy could step out and greet Bucky, Daniel had already risen from his desk and approached. “Daniel Sousa,” he said, extending a hand out. “Can I help you?”

It was not quite challenging, but Peggy heard some suspicion in Daniel’s tone. While she knew that the telephone operators wouldn’t have knowingly let anyone suspicious in, she knew the skills that Bucky possessed. He was a charmer, and considering the predilections of the women on the ground floor, he wouldn’t have had a hard time convincing one or two of them to let him into Headquarters.

“James Barnes,” she heard Bucky answer, glancing around for a moment before he firmly shook Daniel’s hand with his right hand.

Peggy knew about the metal left arm that was grafted to Bucky, but she had never seen it before. Even now, it was hidden underneath the glove and duster he wore.

“Chief Thompson is expecting me, Agent Sousa,” Bucky stated, fishing out a piece of paper from a pocket of his duster. “Temporary transfer orders from SSR-Europe. Is he around?”

Just as Daniel took the piece of paper to read, Peggy decided to step out from the archives chamber. “The Chief is currently down in engineering,” she stated, ignoring the raised eyebrow look that Rose had given her for her boldness. “He’ll be back up shortly.”

It was slightly difficult for her to suppress the smile that threatened to erupt across her lips. She could see that Bucky was also trying to play it straight – but was failing quite miserably. It was even more prominent when she saw he had caught the slightly puzzled look that Daniel was giving the two of them.

“Agent Carter,” Bucky said at last, taking the paper from Daniel, caving into the brief game they had silently played.

“Sergeant Barnes,” she answered in kind, an open smile on her face as she closed the distance and embraced him. She didn’t care if Daniel, or even Rose’s gasp of surprise floated through the air – Bucky was a dear, treasured friend, and she hadn’t seen him since her secret wedding.

“Or, should I say, Agent Barnes, now?” she asked, stepping back after he had returned the embrace.

“Wait,” Daniel jumped in before Bucky could answer. “Wait… you’re the Sergeant James “Bucky” Barnes of the 107th – the Howling Commandos?!”

The look that Daniel was giving Bucky reminded Peggy not of the awe-struck look that Agents Ramierz and Li had given DumDum and the other Howling Commandos, but of bafflement. Peggy had only one reasonable guess as to why Daniel would react in such a way.

It seemed that Bucky understood as well, as she heard him say, “Truth is sometimes far from fiction, Agent Sousa, especially when reading comics.”

“Uh, yeah,” Daniel answered, looking slightly flustered and embarrassed at the same time.

Peggy was slightly sympathetic to Daniel’s plight. Most peoples’ exposure to Captain America and the Howling Commandos had been through the comics that were published about their ‘adventures’ during the war.

Better yet, most people knew of the comics-depicted ‘Bucky Barnes’ as a sixteen-year-old recruit who was the counterpoint to the Nazi Youth movement. No one expected a sixteen year old to actually be a twenty-something, highly skilled and trained Army marksman operative. She knew and understood how much of an advantage that false assumption gave Bucky – both in the field and off of it.

“Agent Barnes?” Jack Thompson’s question from the entrance to the bullpen caused the three of them, and Rose to turn towards it. “Jack Thompson, Chief of SSR-East Coast,” Thompson continued to say as he approached, extending a hand out.

Peggy saw Bucky briefly shake Thompson’s hand, saying, “James Barnes, pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“Follow me right this way, Agent Barnes, and we’ll get you squared away,” Thompson said, leading Bucky to his office.

As soon as the door to Thompson’s office closed, Peggy saw Daniel lean against a desk, face crumpling. “I can’t believe I said that...” Daniel said in a mournful tone. “I must’ve sounded like a fool—”

“There, there, dearie,” Rose answered in a motherly tone, though Peggy could hear the sarcasm dripping to the ground. Before Daniel could lament any further about whatever perceived wrongs he had stated in front of Bucky, Rose said, “Bold of you to step right in, Peggy. Good for you!”

Peggy laughed a little, feeling slightly embarrassed and flustered. She knew she had to correct Rose’s assumptions about what she might’ve seen in that embrace, but she had to do it carefully. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen him. He’s an old friend of mine. That’s all.”

“Old friend, eh?” Rose said, giving her a dubious look. Rose was not believing any of her words. “Well, you’d better try to convince your ‘old friend’ to make his temporary transfer into a permanent one. Can’t always keep reeling in the fish and letting them go, Peggy.”

Peggy’s light, deflecting laughter turned into a slightly uncertain one as Rose abruptly flounced back to the archives. Bucky’s reluctance to work at SSR Headquarters was the same excuse that she gave to not return to SSR-Europe: they both had deeply held memories of Steve in their respective locations.

It was for Steve, and his one chance at a small, quiet measure of peace that they remained in this arrangement. And Peggy knew that neither she, nor Bucky, would ever break their promises to Steve.

~~~

Bucky had reread the dossier on Jack Thompson before he had left. The current Chief of SSR-East Coast was also Chief of the entire SSR. Thompson was a little young for the position. But the agent had been appointed the position as a reward to solving the case of Howard Stark’s missing weapons cache, and foiling a Soviet incursion using Stark’s missing weapons.

That was what the official reports had stated, but Bucky knew better than to believe the reports. He hadn’t had time to dig up much before he left, but what he found pointed directly at Peggy and Agent Sousa doing most of the work on the case. Still, a political appointment was a political appointment.

For all of Bucky’s dislike as to the underhanded nature of how politics worked at Headquarters, Thompson led SSR-East Coast with a firm hand. SSR-East Coast was solving case after case – just as well as its predecessor chief, Roger Dooley had done. Efficiency of resource usage had been up, and the agents here were competent enough – but not comparable to SSR-Europe’s agents, in Bucky’s opinion.

“I’ll get right to the point, Agent Barnes,” Thompson began, as soon as Bucky closed the door to the office and placed his briefcase and suitcase down.

“I don’t want you here,” Thompson continued, standing behind his desk, but did not take a seat. Instead, Bucky saw him fold his arms across his chest, giving him a chilly, calculated look. “But, because I can’t fight the politicians on this one, I have to let you work here.”

Thompson then unfolded his arms, bracing himself against his desk as he continued to say, “You’ll do your time here, but in case I’m not clear on this: I read your file, and frankly, I don’t care that you were a Howling Commando. I’ve seen what you guys can do. The senators, and the others – all they see in us are political tools. Whatever their reasons are to send an assassin to SSR Headquarters are not for me to know, but under no circumstances will I authorize any sanctioned hits on targets on US soil. This is not Europe, Agent. Understood?”

“Perfectly, sir,” Bucky answered with absolutely no inflection in his tone.

Before Thompson could dismiss him, Bucky continued, saying, “And for the record, sir: I don’t want to be here either.”

“Good,” Thompson said, nodding once. “That will make both of our lives easier.” The SSR Chief rose back up to his full height, saying, “I’m under the impression that you’ve worked with Carter before, being a former member of the Commandos. Therefore, I’m assigning you to help Carter.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Dismissed.”

Bucky left, taking his bags with him. Outside, it seemed that Peggy and the other woman she had been working with were no longer in what looked to be the filing and archives area – or in the bullpen. Agent Sousa was sitting at his desk by his lonesome self, seemingly absorbed with reading over a few files and cross-referencing them with today’s newspaper.

It was obvious where Peggy was sitting, based on the neatness of the desk, and a rather bright red fedora that sat on the corner of her desk. But, Bucky didn’t bring his things over to her desk, and instead, stopped by Sousa’s desk.

It took two clearing of his throat to get Sousa’s attention. Even then, Sousa’s reaction amused yet exasperated him. “Um, sir,” Sousa began, looking embarrassed. “I am so sorry for what I said earlier—”

Bucky shook his head, interrupting the poor agent before Sousa could stutter any further. He supposed that this was an indirect revenge that Steve was getting on him, for all the times that Bucky had snickered about the attention that his best friend garnered as Captain America. With Steve ‘dead’ to the world, and the exploits of the Howling Commandos known through comics, Bucky could not live in relative anonymity anymore.

“Water under the bridge, Sousa,” he stated. “I read the reports about what you and Peggy did to stop Dr. Ivchenko, and clear Howard Stark’s name. Credit given where credit is due.”

Sousa frowned slightly, saying, “But the reports—oh.”

It seemed that Sousa caught onto the subtly implied statement that Bucky had made, and glanced over towards Thompson, who was still sitting in his office. “Jack’s a good man,” Sousa stated, sounding slightly defensive. “He’s relented over the last couple of years, and given Peggy some cases to work on. He knows her value to the SSR.”

Bucky heard the fond inflection for Peggy in Sousa’s tone. While it wasn’t difficult to read the man, Bucky could see hints of more than fondness for Peggy within Sousa. Peggy had an ally – a sort of champion – at SSR Headquarters, which made him somewhat relieved. But it seemed that her champion was also blinded by genuine affection. Bucky wondered if Peggy was aware of Sousa’s crush on her.

“Do you happen to know where she went?” he asked. When Sousa shook his head, he asked, “All right, then do you happen to know what cases she currently has assigned to her? Chief Thompson’s tasked me to help her.”

That got Sousa to raise an eyebrow in disbelief at him, before Bucky saw him glance over at Thompson again, frowning. “I know of a couple,” Sousa stated, returning his attention to him, before gesturing to Peggy’s desk. “The folders should be within the top left part of her desk.”

Bucky looked over towards Peggy’s neat and orderly desk, before saying, “I’ll wait until she returns then. She has the lead on her cases, and she probably more information on whatever she’s working on that’s not in the folders.”

A small, genuine smile appeared on Sousa’s face as he brightened up. “She’s currently being tasked to re-file all the reference materials we used in the case that’s finally been resolved. It’s also why the office is empty as-is today. Chief’s given most of us off. None of us got a lot of sleep for the past couple of weeks.”

“Except for you and Peggy?” Bucky questioned, curious as to what exactly had SSR Headquarters pull several sleepless nights in a row. Philips had not mentioned anything with regards to any sort of crisis that Headquarters faced before Bucky had left.

“Someone’s gotta keep the midnight oil burning,” Sousa stated, shrugging. “Here’s part of the reports on the case, if you’re interested.”

Bucky placed his bags down and drew up a chair from one of the other desks. Accepting the folder that Sousa handed him, he sat down and began reading through the report. Parts of it caused him to raise his eyebrows in surprise, while others puzzled him, but he was glad that Sousa was not jumping in with some comment or another, as he read through all of the materials contained within the folders.

When he was done, he wasn’t sure if the frown he now wore on his face was permanently etched. Sousa looked to be reabsorbed back into whatever work he was doing with today’s paper, but as soon as Bucky placed the case file down, the agent looked up.

“We had strongly considered calling in SSR-Europe for help on this particular case,” Sousa stated, answering Bucky’s unspoken question.

“This happened before?” Bucky asked, gesturing to the folder.

“Twice before,” Sousa answered, nodding. “But we didn’t make the connection to the other two cases until Peggy went through the archives. Both of the other times were under completely different circumstances – except for the one person sighted in all three cases.”

“Dottie Underwood,” Bucky stated.

“Peggy wrote up the dossier on her, if you want to read it, Barnes,” Sousa stated, gesturing to the archives.

“Bucky,” he said. “Friends call me Bucky.”

“Daniel then,” Sousa answered, grinning. The brief moment of camaraderie didn’t last long, as the agent continued to say, “But even if you don’t read the report, this ‘Dottie Underwood’ character is bad news. Supposedly, she had a rather insidious hand in the whole Ivchenko and Stark weapons mess.”

“Supposedly?” he questioned.

“We knew Ivchenko had accomplices, but he never confessed, never broke during interrogation,” Sousa said. “Peggy was the only one to encounter Underwood after Ivchenko did something to Stark, and tried to apprehend her. All we really know of this ‘Dottie Underwood’ is that she is a Soviet agent, the same as Ivchenko.”

Bucky remained silent for a long moment. It was apparent from Sousa’s words that SSR Headquarters had not been made aware of SSR-Europe’s activities. It was as if both branches were operating on completely different agendas.

“Still the same old Bucky,” Peggy’s warm greeting from the other side of bullpen caused Sousa to look up and over, and Bucky to turn slightly in his seat. “Always making friends with everyone.”

Bucky grinned, saying, “What can I say, Pegs. I’m such a likable guy.”

“Enough that you’re constantly leaving a trail of broken hearts,” she continued, approaching with a smile on her face, while she shook her head. “Honestly, what am I going to tell the operators downstairs, after you leave?”

“Tell them to transfer to Europe,” he answered facetiously. “I’ll even leave a phone number they can easily connect to – provided that the operators there are willing to connect them to me.”

He saw her sigh, rolling her eyes slightly at him. It did not escape his notice that Sousa had a most interesting look on his face. Bucky could only guess that because of what Peggy faced day-in and day-out, this was a side of her that Sousa had never seen before.

“Oh, how I missed you,” she stated, grinning.

“Well,” he said, drawing his chair over to her desk, tone serious again, “Thompson has me working with you. So, what cases do you have?”

“These,” she answered, pulling out a rather thick pile of folders and placed them on her desk.

The stack looked a lot more enormous than others he had seen on various desks in the bullpen. He couldn’t help but wonder if she was being overworked, and gave her a concerned look.

“But,” she said, slowly putting the stack back into her desk, “they can wait until tomorrow. For now, I’m more interested to hear how you’ve been, and what you’ve been doing in Europe. We should go grab a bite and some drinks at Lawson’s.” In a slightly louder, more inviting tone, she said, “Daniel, would you like to join us?”

Bucky glanced back to see Sousa faintly grin in relief, looking over towards Thompson’s office before nodding at Peggy, saying, “Anything to get out of here earlier, Peggy. Thanks.”

“All right, then,” Bucky answered, nodding in agreement.

It seemed that both Peggy and Sousa had drawn the short straw for duty day, while their fellow agents had the day off. He did not mind being the excuse that both of them took, if it would grant them some small modicum of time to relax and rest after a long, arduous case.

* * *

November 5th, 1948, Outside of New York City...

 

Steve hadn’t realized just how much he missed Bucky. It was not the fact that Bucky had been away on a long, secretive mission for the SSR. Nor was it that Peggy had told him about Bucky’s unexpected temporary transfer last night. But just because his best friend was… here in this moment in time.

Bucky was safe and sound, with his personality intact, and not brainwashed to serve HYDRA or the Soviets.

He knew it was unfair to the Bucky he had left behind in 2023 – whom had recovered most of his old self. But after seeing his best friend fade into dust before his eyes in 2018, something inside of Steve had broken. He had thought that after everything that he and Bucky had been through, in the future, there was something inherently wrong about his best friend dying before having a chance to live free.

And then, the Avengers had brought everyone Thanos had killed, back to life. But Steve couldn’t face it anymore – couldn’t continue on after losing everything worth living for in 2018, then losing Natasha and Tony in rapid succession. He couldn’t move on. There was too much death in his life…

Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.

How can I? You’re taking it all with you.

Steve had seen the knowing look in Bucky’s eyes when they had exchanged those words in 2023. Bucky knew that something was about to happen that would separate them forever, and had accepted it with a silent blessing to go. Steve had wanted to prove Bucky wrong. And a s transient as Steve had wanted to become when he had teleported back to September 24 th , 1946, he found that he could not bring himself to go back to 2023.

He had not been able to find his body in the Red Skull’s war bomber wreckage – yet. He couldn’t leave those he cared about, in 1946 without Steve Rogers. So he stayed, and he lived. Even with the quiet life he led with Peggy, he found himself regretting, missing, and being glad all at the same time, that he stayed.

“Welcome home,” Steve warmly said into Bucky’s ear before letting him go. He stepped back to let him through, ignoring the slightly puzzled but happy look that his best friend was giving him.

Closing the door, he took both Peggy’s coat and Bucky’s duster from the two and gestured for Bucky to go further into the house. Amusement sprang into Bucky’s eyes, and Steve couldn’t help but laugh – this was the first time that he was playing host to his friend.

Quickly hanging up the coats in the closet, Steve followed them into the living room, asking, “Did I arrange the logs correctly this year, Peggy?”

He saw a faint smile appear on Peggy’s lips, before her eyes crinkled in amusement at the arrangement of the logs in the fireplace. “Yes,” she answered, before glancing over to Bucky, saying, “There’s a method to the logs to burn the paper more quickly. There’s always a chance when the paper shrivels up, that someone can see what you’ve written. This arrangement makes the paper burn faster.”

Before Bucky could answer with some quip or amused comment, there was a knock at the front door. Steve left the two to their discussion and went to go open it. The tired, but happy face of Peggy’s brother, Michael, greeted him.

“Hey, Michael,” he said, gesturing for the man to enter. “Glad you could make it. Peggy and Bucky just got home. Long flight?” Closing the door, he took Michael’s coat and hung that up as well, as Michael placed his suitcase to the side.

“Too long, as usual,” Michael answered. “It’s good to see you as well, Steve.”

“Come on,” he said, clapping his brother-in-law on the back. “I’ve got the perfect remedy for that.”

He left Michael at the living room to reunite with Peggy and Bucky – who were oddly and amusingly enough, now discussing and admiring Bucky’s shoulder holster for his handgun. Going into the kitchen, he pulled out four beer stenies from the refrigerator. He couldn’t help the sad smile that briefly quirked up the edges of his lips – modern refrigerators were much more efficient than what everyone had now.

“Everything all right?”

Steve looked up from where he was, to see Michael enter the kitchen, giving him a slightly concerned look. “Yeah,” he said, breaking open all four bottles, before handing Michael one. “Just thinking about some things.”

Michael took a swig out of his bottle, before going over to where Steve was, and leaned against the counter top. “Bucky’s back home and safe, so you shouldn’t worry anymore, Steve.”

Steve nodded. Looking back on his life, especially during the war, he understood why Bucky kept so many secrets about himself from him. Of course, Steve had to partially blame himself for being unsure of what he felt for Bucky as part of the reason. But he knew that the reality was because the majority of people right now, were incapable of accepting that love knew no boundaries.

Early in his settling into his new life here in this time, Steve had briefly entertained the notion of transporting Peggy, Bucky, even Michael to the future – to 2023. But only to show them what good came about from their efforts, and to live a life that was not against the backdrop of a possible nuclear war.

He knew that he had the power to completely stop the Cold War – to even destroy all nuclear arsenals of America and the Soviet Union. He had the power to stop, to dictate, and to ensure world peace – but that would be akin to HYDRA, to even Thanos’ vision born of blood.

“I don’t,” he quietly answered, returning to the present. “But I still do,” he continued. “I know it’s selfish of me, but you’re there, every step of the way with him, so I know that someone is watching over him; someone who cares deeply about him in a similar manner as I do.”

Steve watched as realization slowly dawned over Michael; his eyes widening, and his hand holding the beer to his lips dropping ever so slightly. It was the 5 th of November. Though the tradition in the Carter family was to burn regrets in a bonfire lit because of Guy Fawkes Day, Steve found the day to be more of a confessional day than anything else.

“He…” Michael began, curiously looking at him. “You haven’t told him? When did you… how did you…?”

“The when and how doesn’t matter,” Steve began. Before he could continue on, they both heard Bucky’s raised, annoyed tone carry into the kitchen.

“There’s some injustice to all of this bullshit going on at Headquarters. Here you are, getting the shit cases. I mean, half of them aren’t even worth the SSR’s time and can be shoved onto the desks of the police – lost dog, found dog. Snatched purse in broad daylight with no one being able to catch the robber… What the hell, Peggy?”

“Don’t you dare make my life more difficult at work than it already is, James Buchanan Barnes,” Peggy stated.

Steve heard the touch of warning in her tone. He caught Michael’s concerned look at him before they both left the kitchen. The sight that greeted Steve in the living room would have been somewhat amusing, if not for Peggy’s tone.

Peggy was sitting on the opposite end of the couch, legs crossed and glaring at Bucky. Bucky had a hand over his eyes and looked to be nursing a headache of sorts. To Steve, it sounded as if the two had had this argument before, and very recently.

“A beer for you, Pegs,” Michael swooped in, placing the bottle into Peggy’s hand. “And a beer for you, Bucky.” Michael did the same for Bucky, before standing opposite of the two, on the other side of the coffee table, and crossed his arms over his chest – as if he were an angry father admonishing misbehaving children.

“So what’s going on at work, Pegs?” Michael asked after a moment.

“Better question is,” Bucky began, removing his hand from his eyes and sat up a little straighter. “Do you two talk about work at home?”

“Sometimes,” Steve answered, knowing that Bucky’s question had been directed at both him and Peggy. “But not in detail.”

It had been Peggy who had established the clear delineation between work and home, and Steve respected that. He knew that there were days when Peggy returned home, frustrated and annoyed with a case, or with her fellow agents.

She kept so many secrets. I didn’t want her to keep one from you.

Steve never asked what the cases were about, but asked her to open up to him if there were any perspectives he could provide when dealing with her fellow agents. It was rare that she did take him up on the offer, but she was consistent in telling him if she would be working late – to not stay up to wait for her.

“They may be cases you feel are worthless, Bucky,” Peggy began, placing her untouched beer down onto the table. “But they’re my cover.”

Steve followed her with his eyes as she got up and made her way to the corner of the living room. She crouched down and drew back a rather large portion of the rug. Tapping and digging up a piece of the floorboard, Steve was not at all surprised to see that she had hidden a small cache or box away.

“I’m sorry, Steve,” Peggy began, as she brought the dusty box over. “I know that we agreed to keep work at work—”

“It’s your life and career, Peggy,” he gently answered. “I wouldn’t have expected any less, to see that you’re working on a more important case. Just like how you solved Howard’s missing weapons’ case.”

Peggy made a humming noise before setting the box down in front of Bucky, and unlocked it. “This is my case that I’m working on. Now that you’re working with me, you get my covers, and I get your help on this. Agreed?”

Steve saw Bucky frown, scooting forward to gingerly open the case with his flesh-and-blood hand. “You have at least one ally and friend in Headquarters, Peggy,” Bucky began. “Why do you need to keep this secret—oh.”

As much as Steve wanted to go around and stand behind the couch to peer into Peggy’s box, he remained where he was. He could see Michael wanting to do so as well, but it seemed that Peggy’s brother and Bucky had a similar delineation between their work and personal lives.

Michael was a MI5 agent, now that the SOE had been dissolved. Bucky was a SSR agent. Despite what rumors Steve heard about SSR-Europe being funded in part by MI5, there were still some separation between the two entities.

The silence that enveloped the living room was broken only by the sound of Bucky flipping through the notes that Peggy had either collected, taken, or jotted down. A minute later, Steve saw Bucky fish out a single photograph from the box and placed it on the table.

“She’s gorgeous,” Michael remarked, as Bucky firmly shut the box.

Steve felt a slight chill go through him, but managed to keep it from showing on his face as he stepped around to look at the photograph. The woman in the picture was striking in appearance, with light-colored hair and an expressive, happy-looking smile. Were it not for the vacant look in the woman’s eyes, Steve would have called her a Hollywood starlet.

Except that Steve already knew who the woman in the photograph was—

“Dottie Underwood,” Peggy stated.

“That’s the same Dottie Underwood mentioned in the SSR report about Howard Stark and his missing weapons?” Michael asked, looking slightly alarmed. “The same Dottie Underwood that you mentioned, who was your neighbor while you lived in the Griffith?”

“The one and the same—” Peggy answered, nodding to Michael’s question.

“She’s a product of a Soviet program code-named ‘Black Widow’,” Bucky interrupted, jabbing his still-gloved metal hand at the picture. “You’re very lucky you didn’t die when you fought her at that airfield, Peggy. Why the hell are you going after her – alone?!”

“Because I think she wants to defect,” Peggy answered.

Silence answered her declaration, but before Peggy could continue, Steve saw Bucky fold his hands together, and sit forward, hunched over slightly. There was a pensive look on his face – one that Steve knew all too well. “Peggy,” Bucky began, “When my partner and I were completing Operation Midnight, I visited that place where you, DumDum, and the others ‘found’ Dr. Ivchenko. The Soviets had burned it all down, but my partner found a clue.”

Bucky paused for a moment, as if considering his words, before continuing on. “There were twenty-one other girls, women, in that place. All of them were… ‘activated’… if you want to call it that. Sent out into the wild by their handlers within the Soviet Union. They were all labeled as ‘Black Widow’, and given aliases just like Dottie Underwood. Neither my partner or I knew why the Soviets did that all at once, and thought it a seeding policy – to preserve knowledge and disappear from being hunted down.”

“We don’t have pictures of the girls or women, but we do have initials of their aliases. If you’re still keen on this ‘Dottie Underwood’ defecting, Peggy, you’re going to have to be extremely careful. The Soviets do not like one of their own defecting. They will hunt her down, and there is a likely chance that they will send one or more of their Black Widows after her.”

And if the successor Black Widow did not kill her defecting predecessor, they would’ve sent the Winter Soldier to kill both of them.

Steve mentally shook his head, trying to dislodge the brief thought that had settled. There was no Winter Soldier anymore – he had rid the Soviets of their greatest weapon by rescuing Bucky. While it did not surprise him that the Black Widow program had begun so early – possibly earlier than the war – he was worried.

The beer he held in his hand wasn’t doing him any favors, and it looked as if Peggy and Michael both needed stiffer drinks. Steve knew that the only reason why Bucky was openly discussing parts of his secret mission now, was because the four of them had been initially read into Operation Midnight during the war. He was a little surprised that that was the secret mission that Bucky had carried out in the past year-and-a-half that he had been incommunicado.

Steve turned towards the kitchen, but before he could take one step towards it, he found himself face-to-face with an entity dressed in an all-black leather jacket, leather gloves, jeans, with chains wrapped in an ‘X’ around his torso. Most prominent on the entity was not the dressage, but the fact that the entity had a skull for a head, and it was on fire.

“Ghost Rider,” Steve whispered, eyes widening in uneasy surprise.

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Memory Extraction Session: сумеречный + рассвет + семнадцать

 

Peering through the scope again, Bucky saw Steve signal to fall back and lifted his eyes from the scope. Rolling over and up, he brushed the brambles and pine needles off of him and slung his sniper rifle across his back, while pulling his regular rifle back out and into the forefront.

Grabbing the spent cartridge with the single bullet left, he shoved that into a waist belt compartment. Even with no more HYDRA presence here, he wasn't about to leave some Howard Stark custom-made technology out in the open.

Jogging down from where he had been perched, he met Steve on the brush-covered path they had taken in, sliding down the steep hill and landing on the ground. “That was amazing!” Steve exclaimed, as Bucky saw him run up to him with a wide smile and eyes lit up in a giddy manner.

… семнадцать…

Huh?” he began, sorely confused before it hit him that maybe Steve was talking about the snipes that he had done. “Someone's gotta watch your back, Steve,” he said, grinning as he slung an arm around his best friend and pulled him closer. “For all of those enhancements that the serum's done, you still sometimes don't pay attention to what's around you, do you?”

Pot calling kettle,” Steve answered, looping his arm around in the same manner, before thumping him on the chest with his free hand. “But seriously, that was amazing. I've never seen anyone, snipe so fast! Seventeen HYDRA soldiers in less than the time it took me to down five of them with my shield. And that one with the flame thrower pack—wow.”

… семнадцать…

Bucky couldn't help but chuckle as he said, “Are you seriously going to keep gushing like one of those star-struck letter writers that you let me read a few days ago?”

Steve laughed, shaking his head slightly. “No, no, but come on Buck, with those skills, you really should teach some of the boys back home. Give them a better fighting chance out here.”

Steve,” Bucky said, stopping as all of the good humor left him, causing Steve to stop walking as well. He didn't remove his arm from around Steve's shoulders, but he did make him face him, as he said, “You know that I'm not leaving unless you're leaving. The boys back home have good instructors; they know what they need to teach them, to give them the best chance to survive out here. I don't care if I have the 'points' to leave, I'm not going to – not until this is all done. Not until we go home – together.”

I know,” Steve answered. There was a solemn look in his eyes, as he said after a moment. “Until the end of the line, right?”

You're damn right,” he agreed, a crooked grin winding its way up his lips. Turning Steve back around, he started to walk again, half-pushing him along, saying, “Come on, lets see how much Jones and the others destroyed on the other side.”

… семнадцать…

 

That is where you are wrapping the end of the command?”

Bucky blinked as he heard the disbelief in Zola’s tone. He was once again, strapped to the infernal chair, watching when he could stomach it, his memories on the sphere. Fire burned through him, with rivulets of sweat dripping down him – or was that his blood?

я не знаю.

“The core of the command is enveloped and embedded around his sniping skills – seventeen targets. All taken out with efficiency unseen in the battlefield before—”

“Unseen to the likes of you, Ivchenko,” Zola stated. “The Red Skull’s men—”

“Let us not get into the semantics of a needless debate, doctor,” Ivchenko sardonically said.

я не знаю.

я не знаю.

Bucky tried to scream again. Nothing came out as he saw Steve’s solemn look projected onto the sphere. They had made a promise…

“Ah, it seems that I have not yet stamped out his resistance to my ministrations,” Ivchenko stated, as Bucky tightly squeezed his eyes shut—

 

Hey Steve,” Bucky said, glancing over as Steve clapped him on the back.

Hey Buck,” came the warm reply.

The hill – mountain, Bucky wanted to declare – that the Commandos were climbing to get out of the hilly valley was not as much of a burden as it had been a few days ago. The explosives that Jones and the others had wired up were all used up to great effect.

You doing good?” Steve asked, gesturing towards what was in front of them. The rest of the Commandos were already half-way up the rocky hill-mountain, while he, Bucky, was trailing far behind.

What kind of question is that Steve?” he asked, giving his best friend a puzzled look. “I ain’t injured. Just was thinking about some stuff.”

Steve made a humming noise before asking, “What stuff?”

Just stuff,” he answered, not wanting to get into details.

The brief moment where their fingers had tangled together last night while engaged in Morse code taps, still lingered within his thoughts. It wasn’t the usual wishful thoughts that always came, whenever Steve physically did something seemingly accidental with him.

No, the thoughts that drew him back to their fingers tangling had been born out of the seventeen rapid shots he had done. They were uncomfortable thoughts, circular ones that he seemed not able to escape. The thoughts made his skin crawl, driving more and more loathing at himself for reacting with disgust at the fact that he could not derive any former pleasure, or comfort whenever Steve touched him – embraced him.

Even now… with Steve clapping his back, Bucky felt… wrong…

Bucky blinked, as he realized that they had stopped walking. The Commandos were still continuing up the rocky hill-mountain, but it seemed that DumDum and the others were not paying too much attention, and were concentrating on just getting up the enormous, steep slope.

Hey, I’m here if you want to talk, Bucky,” Steve said, tone full of concern.

Bucky shifted the strap going down from his shoulder to waist, and glanced down at his hands. The weight of his beloved sniper rifle, Vera, was seemingly heavier than the largest steel plate he had helped move and set at the Brooklyn Shipyards. Staring at his hands was the wrong thing to do, as disgust welled up within him.

That bastard did this without my consent.

Zola will pay for what he did, Bucky.”

Steve’s gentle voice that hid the steel behind the words startled Bucky. He hadn’t realized that he had stated that last thought out loud. It had not been his intent, and ashamed, he looked away. Before he could continue to climb, Steve appeared in front of him, blocking his way.

Bucky,” Steve began, looking at him eye-to-eye. “I may not understand what you are going through. I know you’re angry—”

Angry doesn’t even cover half of what I feel, Steve,” Bucky stated, shrugging Steve’s hand off of his shoulder. “That bastard… that fucking bastard…”

Bucky tried to go on, tried to spit it out, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t even begin to describe to Steve what he remembered Zola doing to him – the needles, the chilling laughter, the pain, the isolation, his body reacting in ways that he never wanted to react.

He hated it, and he hated himself for being like this. He hated that he allowed the one moment where he used to long for whimsical what-ifs from Steve, to become a catalyst of self-loathing, disgust, and revulsion at himself.

Hey, Cap! Everything all right?” Morita’s shout down the hill-mountain interrupted them.

Yeah,” Steve said, turning slightly so his voice carried up. “We’ll be up there shortly.”

Bucky tried to step around Steve, but it seemed that Steve was not having any of it. They stood like two statues, staring at each other. There was some frustration in Steve’s eyes, but also a gentleness and want to understand what the problem was – to help him.

He couldn’t tell Steve. Steve would never understand what it felt like to be… physically violated… in such a manner—

 

Fury unlike anything he felt before surged through Bucky. Lethargy, dizziness, fever, everything that held him down and into the chair seemed to disappear for one moment. Clarity, driven by his rage, gave him the strength to break this bonds. An audible, awful-sounding whine buzzed near his left ear, as he landed on the ground in a crouch.

Target—two meters to the left.

Secondary target—two-point-five meters to the left.

Weapon—left arm—gears whining—metal—

“You will not disobey—желание!” the primary target fearfully shouted.

Skittering knives lanced down through his head, tearing pieces apart—

 

agonizing fire licked its way down his body, warming certain parts of him that did not feel pleasurable at all…

the flames burned and licked their way under his skin, traveling back up through his legs…

he could not draw breath anymore as he felt a vice-like thing squeeze his chest. The light that now shone into his eyes seemed so angelic…

 

He growled and took two large, menacing steps forward. He ignored the pinpoint burst of sharp pain that started in the back of his right eye, and swiftly drilled through his skull.

Targets backing away to wall—corner them.

“Stop where you are— ржавый!”

“Why are your commands not working?!”

 

he was completely naked, he didn't care as he sat down on the ground, not realizing how exhausted he was…

laughter and lightness in the light-haired, blue-green eyed soldier’s eyes died as he frowned slightly, wondering why there was a searching look in the soldier’s eyes…

 

White encompassed his vision for a brief moment, accompanied by agonizing pain seizing his the sides of his head—

“Stop him, Ivchenko!”

“I am trying—семнадцать, рассвет!”

 

there was a certain, strangely lithe grace about which the light-haired, blue-green eyed soldier was methodically taking out the enemy soldiers…

it was voyeuristic of him to just watch…

daybreak had arrived…

I've never seen anyone, snipe so fast! Seventeen American soldiers in less than the time it took me to down five of them with my shield.”

there was a solemn look in the soldier’s eyes…

 

“Let me try—сумеречный!”

Pitch black enveloped him, unexpectedly falling over his eyes. That was swiftly followed by pain blooming along his right side of the body, as he fell to the ground.

He couldn’t move.

He had to move. He had to move—to kill… them? Him? The soldier with the light-colored hair and blue-green eyes?

S teve?

“Thank God,” the secondary target whispered above him. He could see their feet standing next to his face. All he had to do was reach out—

“What was that, Ivchenko?” the same target asked.

S teve?

Help. I need your help, Steve.

Save me.

Please.

“Something I was working on as a possible fail safe, Zola,” the primary target stated. “A stop or cease-all activity command. A way to shut the Winter Soldier down, should something like what we have just witnessed, happen.”

 

tangling their fingers together for a moment…

 

The tears wouldn’t come. His silent, imploring pleas to make it stop fell on blind eyes. As Bucky felt himself being rolled over onto his back, he thought he felt the lingering warmth of Steve’s fingers brushing against his own fade.

They had made a promise—

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: The Choice

 

Ghost Rider,” Steve whispered, eyes widening in uneasy surprise.

Two sharp clicks of hammers being pulled back immediately answered Steve’s whisper. Even before Steve placed his beer down, and brought up a hand to try to hold off on Peggy and Bucky shooting at Ghost Rider, he heard Bucky’s exclamation of, “…. the hell?” follow.

“Steve?” Michael questioned. There was a tension-filled edge in the MI-5 agent’s tone. Steve knew that his brother-in-law was not carrying a gun – MI-5 had no authorization on US soil.

Steve didn’t dare look back at his friends and family. Instead, he kept his eyes on Ghost Rider, who was staring directly at him. Flames enveloped its head, whipping this way and that with an invisible breeze that he could not feel. There was no sound or movement from the entity, only a seemingly eerie stare-down directed solely at him.

“What do you want?” Steve asked, addressing the entity.

Ghost Rider continued to stare at him, stretching the uncomfortable silence. Steve sensed that if this went on any further, Bucky or Peggy – or both – would throw caution into the wind, and open fire on the entity. Yet, as suddenly as the entity had appeared in between the threshold to his living room and kitchen, Steve saw the entity tilt its head to the side.

“Weapons down,” Steve said, continuing to hold his arm out, hoping that he interpreted the non-verbal gesture correctly.

“What?” Bucky hissed. “Have you lost your—”

Out of the corner of his eyes, Steve saw Bucky try to step out from behind him to get a better shot. Steve immediately threw up his other arm and took a half-step over. This time, he glanced directly back at Bucky, pinning his best friend with hard look.

“Weapons down,” he repeated, pouring every single ounce of authority into his tone.

It had its intended effect; Bucky’s eyes widened ever so slightly. Steve had never used that tone on his best friend before – even when they had been reunited in 2016. But at the moment, he could not have anyone shoot Ghost Rider. He didn’t know why the entity was here, and he didn’t like it at all.

As he saw Bucky frown, but reluctantly obey the order, Steve glanced the other way to see Peggy do the same. Of Michael, the man was taking a step back from the phone sitting next to the recliner, looking puzzled and concerned at the same time.

Steve slowly lowered his hands and returned his attention to the entity. He waited until he heard both Peggy and Bucky holster their guns, before asking, “What do you want?”

To his surprise, Ghost Rider took a step back, still staring directly at him. But unexpectedly, the entity suddenly took on a startling visage.

“Your friends tried to buy you as much time as possible, but I am afraid that you are now out of time, Captain Rogers.”

~~~

It was taking all of Bucky’s will to not draw his gun again, as soon as the… thing Steve defended, changed from having a skull for a head on fire, to wearing his face. Except that it was not really his face… Bucky noticed that the entity was wearing a more youthful version of his face.

“Your friends tried to buy you as much time as possible, but I am afraid that you are now out of time, Captain Rogers.”

Bucky knew that what he, Steve, and the others had seen in the war was fantastical, almost akin to the pulp science-fiction magazines and books that he loved to read. But the sound, the inflection, the noise, the voice coming out from the thing that now wore his identical likeness was downright creepy.

Even more alarming was that he hated when his gut was right. Someone was blackmailing Steve—

“I don’t understand,” Steve said.

There was utter confusion in Steve’s tone, and it sounded genuine. Before either the thing wearing his face, or Steve could continue, Peggy jumped in with a demanding, “Why… who… what are you? Why are you wearing his face?”

She had jabbed a hand in his general direction, but like him, Bucky could see that Peggy was also trying not to withdraw her pistol that had been hidden under a seat cushion, again. Of Michael, he had remained where he was, but looked ready to spring into action on either his, or Peggy’s command.

It was clear that the three of them did not believe Steve’s unspoken declaration that the thing standing in the living room was benign. But, they were willing to give Steve a small sliver of the benefit of doubt – for a short time.

“Will you please wear another face, Ghost Rider?” Steve asked, grimacing slightly.

“No,” the thing answered.

Bucky could’ve sworn he heard an almost obstinate tone – eerily similar to his own, whenever he felt like digging in, and not budging on an argument. Even eerier was that the thing then crossed its arms over its chest – definitely reminiscent of his own actions.

“Okay, then,” Bucky heard Steve murmur. “So, care to explain?” Steve said in a louder tone. “Because I wasn’t aware that I had friends helping me, or that there was some time limit to whatever I needed to do. For you, I might add. I don’t even remember agreeing to a contract with you, Ghost Rider.”

Steve casually talking to all of them was one thing. But Steve casually talking to a strange, hostile-looking entity, wearing his face and sounding just like him, continued to send unease down Bucky’s spine. If the confused tone that Steve had was real, then when did Steve meet the thing – and how?

“Steve—” Peggy began.

“Vengeance is a bloody affair, Captain,” the thing stated. “While trillions of lives were extinguished on that day with a simple snap of fingers, those left alive vowed vengeance. Chief among those were—”

“Us,” Steve whispered. “Those Avengers who survived.”

Bucky saw a crestfallen, regretful look eclipse his best friend’s face. As confused as he was, it seemed that whatever the thing was here for, it was drawing out Steve’s reluctance to talk about what he had done after surviving the war bomber crash.

“Was the price we paid to bring them all back not enough? Was Nat’s sacrifice… Tony’s life, even Vision, and Thor’s family not enough?”

There was a broken, tired tone in Steve’s words. It alarmed Bucky as much as the words themselves. Peggy immediately stepped in and slipped her hands around Steve’s right hand, but to Bucky’s surprise, Steve pulled away. Bucky could not help but glance over at Michael – silently asking him the same question he saw reflected in Michael’s eyes: just what the hell was going on with Steve?

“What was… what is the price that still must be paid?” Steve asked, tone hard again and unrelenting.

“You need to return the stones, Captain,” the thing stated.

Bucky had enough. He reached out to Steve with his still-gloved left metal hand and clamped it over Steve’s shoulder. Using just slightly more force than necessary, he pulled Steve back behind him, and stepped forward. “Listen, asshole—” he began.

“Don’t touch him, Bucky,” Steve warned, as Bucky felt him tug him back from going straight up and into the thing’s personal space. “Ghost Rider is… death incarnate, I think. It dissolves people if you touch it, or it touches you.”

That stopped Bucky cold. Incredulous, he glanced back at Steve to see him shaking his head. “Then why the hell is it wearing my face?”

“Because you died in another reality. Another universe. Another point in time,” Steve answered in a solemn tone. “You made a secret deal with Ghost Rider to get myself and others back to our own worlds, our own time.”

Steve stepped away from all of them. Bucky was not the only one to watch Steve’s short steps towards the plank of wood that had served as a covering for Peggy’s secret case. He saw Steve crouch down and reach deeply into the hole. When Steve withdrew his hand, dirt followed, but there was something within Steve’s curled fist.

Steve brushed the dirt off of the object in his hand – a piece of balled up cloth – before standing back up. Bucky saw him turn towards the thing, saying, “I haven’t found my body yet. Is it possible for me to return here?”

If the night could get any stranger, Bucky was fairly certain that he would’ve called all of this a dream. Yet, even stranger statements were coming out of Steve’s lips, confusing him more than what he was seeing. Now there was a body – Steve’s body – apparently, to contend with.

“Steve?” Michael hesitatingly questioned.

“As I said,” the thing said, seemingly ignoring everyone else. “Your friends tried to buy you as much time as possible.”

That cryptic statement caused Steve to frown, but a moment later, Bucky saw him narrow his eyes slightly – as if a thought had occurred. He saw Steve open up the cloth, revealing a gleaming, silvery metal bangle-like object that had a flat black surface inset in the center. The bangle-like object’s jewel inset didn’t look like a jewel, but before any of them could stop Steve, Steve put the object onto his wrist.

Steve double-tapped the black surface. Bucky watched, more fascinated than startled, as something metal and crawling-like bled out from it. It was fast in covering Steve, and the clothes that Steve wore. By the time Peggy had taken two steps towards Steve, it was complete.

Bucky’s jaw dropped open – what Steve was now wearing was the exact armor that he remembered seeing him in, during the rescue. How such a thing – what it was, never mind how it was packed into such a tiny device – came to be, baffled him.

“That’s…” Michael began, looking as gobsmacked as Bucky did.

But it seemed that Steve was still full of more surprises. He saw him raise his left hand up, curled into an armored fist, before closing the distance to the thing. There was a reluctant look in Steve’s eyes as Bucky saw him uncurl his fist.

In the center of Steve’s palm was a yellow stone, and it was glowing ever so faintly.

“My friends?” Steve asked.

In response, the thing suddenly transformed back into the skull on fire visage, before unwrapping the chain bound across its chest. Bucky’s eyes widened slightly in fear as he took a step towards Steve, saying, “Steve—”

The light that burst out from the contact between the stone in Steve’s hand, and the chain was bright enough that Bucky had to shield his eyes. As quick as it happened, it was suddenly gone. But two new people were now standing in the living room.

One was a woman with flame-red hair and sharp eyes, wearing some kind of skin-tight suit – leaving nothing about her to the imagination. That suit also had what Bucky considered an unnecessary amount of belts.

The other, was a man with dark hair and a face that could be of strong relation to Howard Stark. The man was wearing what looked to be red-gold armor, more streamlined-looking than a 1948 Ford.

“Nat. Tony,” Steve greeted the two people, fondness mixed with grief in his tone.

“Steve,” the redheaded woman – Nat – answered in kind.

Bucky was certain that ‘Nat’ was either an alias or a shortened version of her full name. But the way Steve said it sounded as if he considered her a close friend, if not family. Of the man Steve called ‘Tony’, there was some tightness in Steve’s tone.

“Good job on doing the life thing, Steve,” Tony said, looking around before taking a few steps away from the flame-wrapped skull thing, Steve, and the woman. “Wasn’t sure if you’d have the balls to actually take advantage of the device and go be selfish. But yeah, good on you.”

While the man who looked like Howard continued to ramble and walk around them, Bucky saw him pause before him, giving him a rather curious look. “Huh. So that’s what you look like when not a murderous killing machine. Can’t believe Mom had a crush on you.”

“Tony,” Steve began, sounding slightly annoyed.

Before Bucky could question ‘Tony’ on his words, the man continued to walk on, before back pedaling a step when he stopped in front of Peggy. “Gah. Still as terrifying as I remember, Aunt Peggy.”

“Tony—” Steve began again, sounding both exasperated and annoyed.

Peggy spluttered for a moment, but didn’t get to say a word. Bucky saw ‘Tony’ look towards Steve, throwing out what sounded like a casual quip, “Your taste in women—”

“Hey,” Steve warned at the same time ‘Nat’ stated the same. “Enough.”

‘Tony’ held his hands up, feigning surrender, and stepped back towards Steve. The man then clapped his hands together and addressed, Steve, saying, “Build an anchor point if you want to stay, Steve.”

“What?” Steve asked, frowning slightly.

“Build another platform. Same as what I’m going to assume Banner did, to send you on this little wild trip,” ‘Tony’ stated in what sounded like an obvious, condescending, and helpful tone all at the same time.

“But,” Steve began, “I don’t know—I can’t even begin to understand—”

“Ah, but I do,” the man answered, holding up a finger.

The tone that ‘Tony’ was using with Steve irritated Bucky. How his best friend could stand this person who looked like Howard, but definitely did not act like Howard on his worst days, was baffling.

Bucky had met and talked with pilots before. They had egos the likes of which could barely be tempered. But this ‘Tony’ fellow seemed to be several miles out of a pilot’s ego league.

Steve remained silent for a few long moments. It was ‘Nat’ who broke that silence, saying, “Steve. You have to tell them. You want to stay here, you have to tell them. They’re your friends – your family – and if they’re everything that you’ve told me about… they’ll understand.”

“Tell us what?” Peggy asked, taking a step forward and crossing her arms over her chest.

She was not quite looking at Steve, but Bucky could tell that Peggy was getting very concerned. It was currently overriding her irritation, but if the cryptic, almost one-way conversation between Steve and these… others… in the living room did not stop—

A remorseful look appeared on Steve’s face as Bucky saw him turn to face the three of them. Steve curled his armored left hand around the stone, but ‘Nat’, ‘Tony’, and the skull thing did not disappear. Stranger yet, Steve seemed to stand at a loose parade rest, as if trying to summon the courage to say something.

“Peggy, Bucky, and Michael,” Steve began. “I’m sorry. I should have told the three of you when I had the chance, but I didn’t. I was afraid of the consequences. Seeing all of you alive, hale, and healthy also robbed me of my resolve. In the end, I just wanted to live a quiet life. I hope you will understand that.”

Steve paused for a moment. But before any of them could say a word, Steve said, “I came from the future. Specifically, I traveled back in time from 2023.”

Silence answered Steve’s declaration.

Bucky wanted to laugh, derisively, hilariously, even in disbelief. He did not. All Bucky could do was stare at Steve, hearing the absolute truth in Steve’s tone and words. He knew Steve could not lie for his life, and yet his best friend had kept this enormous of a secret from him—from all of them.

The shrill ring of the telephone next to the recliner, and echoed by the one in the kitchen, shattered the silence. Peggy seemed to lunge towards it, as if grateful for the distraction.

“Carter,” she answered curtly. Five seconds later, she stated, “On my way. ETA fifteen.”

She immediately hung up the phone and without further instructions, Bucky knew that something had happened at SSR Headquarters. He was already in the midst of picking up and slinging his shoulder holster across.

“The crisis is not over. HQ is receiving reports of the same things that showed up a few days ago – except in Port Chester, Main Street,” Peggy stated, pausing only for a moment to look at the relative mess that Steve had created with whatever the hell the skull-on-fire thing, and other two people were.

“Take Natalia with you,” the thing unexpectedly stated. It was wearing half of his more youthful visage, which made it look even more frightening than just the skull on fire. “You and your fellow agents may need her help.”

“Wait,” Steve said, taking a step forward in alarm. “What are they facing—”

“Death incarnate is sending help,” Bucky said, narrowing his eyes slightly at the thing, feeling slightly suspicious.

“We’ll take it,” Peggy said in a short tone, surprising everyone.

Without another word or glance at Steve, Peggy immediately headed towards the door. Bucky followed her. Just as he snatched his duster from the closet and hurried out the door, he glanced back to see Steve and Michael also trying to follow. Both the thing – now transformed back into a skull-on-fire – and the man named ‘Tony’ had both stepped in front of the two.

Bucky didn’t wait, or stop to ask why. Whatever this mess was that SSR Headquarters was tangled in – they would solve it first. It would give him time and space to think about what Steve had said and done.

It would also allow him to consider if he could trust Steve’s word anymore.

~~~

“What the hell, Tony?” Steve angrily stated, as he tried to go around.

Tony kept sliding in front of him, but did not touch him. Considering the tenuous connection between Ghost Rider and the Soul Stone, he didn’t dare reach out to push Tony away. It seemed that Michael was at least taking his words about Ghost Rider being able to dissolve people, seriously. His brother-in-law had taken a clear step back from the rather menacing presence that Ghost Rider was giving off.

“Your wife – I’m assuming Aunt Peggy is your wife now – and the not-a-murderous-killing-machine you call your best friend are clearly angry at you. Clean up your mess, Cap,” Tony stated. “Starting with—who are you?”

That question had been directed at Michael. In the middle of Tony’s strange, uncharacteristic admonishment of him, Steve had noticed that Ghost Rider had moved to stand in the corner of the living room. He was worried, especially since he still didn’t fully understand the entity’s connection with the Soul Stone – and even more worried that the entity had suggested that Natasha go with Bucky and Peggy.

“Michael Carter,” Michael answered. “Peggy’s brother.”

“Brother?” Tony questioned, looking surprised. “I thought she had a younger brother named Alex. Born what… May or June 1948? Accidental kid and everything with the parents. Didn’t expect a kid at their age, plus lack of condoms, and poof—”

“How do you know about Alex?” Michael challenged.

There was an edge to his brother-in-law’s tone. Steve knew that everything that Tony had just stated was true. Peggy and Michael’s parents had not expected to be welcoming a child, while nearing the age of 50. Though he had never read the file on Sharon Carter, Steve could connect the dots to reasonably assume that Alex Carter would eventually become Sharon’s father.

“Tony,” Steve intervened before things could get more out of hand. It was already enough that Ghost Rider had forced him to reveal when in time he was from. Tony was just making it worse.

“Oh… oh,” Tony said, ignoring both him and Michael. “Oh, that’s who the picture on Aunt Peggy’s desk was. You. She never talked about you, but I remember seeing a sad look in her eyes on the 5th of November whenever she threw the pieces of paper into the bonfire.”

“Tony, please,” Steve said.

“Resentments are so corrosive, Cap,” Tony suddenly said, returning his attention to him, before jerking a thumb at Michael. “So, clean up your mess. Starting with Carter.”

As much as Steve wanted to throw a retort at Tony, he settled for shaking his head. It still made him uneasy to have realized that the ‘soul for a soul’ that Clint had described, involved trapping Natasha’s soul in the Soul Stone. It made him even more uncomfortable that Tony was trapped in the stone as well. He was also incredibly sad and angry that the stones extracted a higher price from Tony than just his life.

At the moment, Tony didn’t show signs of moving. Wanting a little bit of privacy without his friend’s commentary to make everything worse, Steve gestured for Michael and him to go into the kitchen.

“No need, Steve,” Michael answered, shaking his head slightly. “As fantastical as this all is, I believe you.”

“Well, that’s unexpectedly forgiving and trustful,” Tony spoke up before Steve could.

“Except for you,” Michael continued, pinning Tony with a heated glare. “Whoever the hell you are, stay out of my sister and Steve’s lives—”

“Michael,” Steve said, holding his hands up in a placating manner. “Thank you, but it’s all right.”

Though it heartened and sometimes exasperated him that Bucky could be overbearing at times, Michael took it to a whole new level. It seemed that facing death or at least little to no hope of escape from that infernal hidden HYDRA prison at the island, and then being freed, had given Michael a new perspective on life. His brother-in-law could be quite overprotective at times.

“Tony is a friend,” he continued.

“Was,” Tony corrected, much to Steve’s chagrin. “I’m dead. Broke my soul into six pieces like Voldemort did with the seven Horcruxes—oh shit! Those books haven’t been written yet—”

For once, Steve was glad that Tony had a tendency to throw so many random pop culture references into everything. It was enough to baffle and calm Michael down enough that his brother-in-law had settled on staring at Tony.

“Tony,” Steve gently interrupted, pushing aside his unease at the mention of Tony’s soul in pieces. “Thanks, but you haven’t answered my question: how do I build a machine? The tech now isn’t as advanced as it is in 2023.”

You don’t,” Tony answered. “My dad builds it.”

“Dad?” Michael questioned.

“Man, have you kept silent this whole time?!” Tony’s rather exasperated question was directed at Steve. His friend didn’t even wait for an answer, rolling his eyes at him. “Would it have killed you to at least told them some things? I get you don’t want to change too much things, but it’s way past that now, Rogers.”

Tony headed to the couch and took a seat. Despite being linked to the Soul Stone and somehow drawn out by Ghost Rider, it looked as if Tony could interact with inanimate objects. Steve did not take a seat though, as Tony seemed to silently observe both him and Michael for a few moments.

“Howard Stark is my father,” Tony stated after a few moments.

To Steve’s surprise, Michael did not react as he had partially anticipated – disbelief. Instead, his brother-in-law frowned, before going to the recliner to sit slightly opposite of Tony. Steve watched as Michael scrutinized Tony. Surprisingly, Tony was not reacting as Steve thought he would react as well.

Both of his friends were not behaving as he thought they would – and it worried him slightly. Tony always had a quip ready when put under the microscope, but he was being uncharacteristically silent.

As for Michael’s behavior, it reminded him of the times where Peggy would sit in the recliner and imagine some person of interest sitting before in the couch. Steve had seen her used the mental image of the imaginary person of interest to sort through what she knew for her cases. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to see Michael doing the same then.

“I’m willing to wait until Peggy and Bucky get home for you to give us a comprehensive explanation, Steve, but isn’t it dangerous to involve Howard?” Michael asked, frowning as he folded his arms across his chest. “He already has a lot of enemies and rival manufacturers. His security teams and protection on his patents, inventions, and devices are not all that robust. I mean, remember when he was accused of selling weapons to the Soviets in 1946?”

“You must be an intelligence agent,” Tony quipped at Michael.

“I had the same doubts,” Steve agreed before Tony could say anything else.

He was glad that Michael was being rational about recruiting Howard. The technology and stones that he carried specifically made him a rather large and attractive target for more than just industrial espionage. It was the sole reason why he refused to let Howard know that he was alive – that his and Peggy’s first and only argument thus far had been about.

That silenced Tony for a few long moments before Steve saw him sit forward. There was as seriousness on his face that reminded him of the time the Avengers had been discussing the contents of the Sokovia Accords.

“Rogers,” Tony began, folding his hands together. “You want to stay, you’re going to have to take the risk. As much as I hated my dad, all I remember now are the good parts. Strangely, and I’m going to hate myself for saying this: that included you, in his life. It’s your choice, Steve, but if I were you, I’d seize it.”

~~~

Peggy was well aware that she had a tight grip on the steering wheel of her car. She had to thank the fact that Thompson had required all agents – her included – to attach the rotating beacon whenever responding to emergencies. Traffic peeled out of the way, not allowing her to give into the shock that still coursed through her from Steve’s revelation.

“Glove compartment has cartridges for the rifle under your seat,” she directed to Bucky.

“Same sightings as what’s written in the report?” she heard him ask as he bent down to retrieve the rifle from under the seat.

“Yes,” she curtly stated. “The bullets for the rifle are custom designed and made by the engineers. Punches a hell of a lot more than what regular bullets from our pistols can do, but still takes a lot to take them down.”

Silence answered her, but Peggy saw Bucky checking over the rifle and cartridges before snapping a cartridge into the rifle, ratcheting it. “And then, they just fade away. Leaving no trace.”

“They just fade away,” she answered, nodding. She jerked the car around two other cars on the road who had not been fast enough to get out of the way.

“Do you believe him?” Bucky suddenly asked

Peggy took a sharp left and slowed down. They were on Main Street in Port Chester, paralleling the river. The night was clear and crisp, but Peggy could not see anything, even with the headlights on the car shining straight ahead. The other agents were not here yet, but would be shortly.

Parking the car next to the kerb, Peggy left the engine running, but did not move to get out yet. She could feel Bucky’s inquisitive eyes on her, and met it unflinchingly.

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

Anger, heartache, and sympathy flooded her. She wanted to believe that Steve was her Steve miraculously come back from the dead. That his unexpected appearance on her doorstep on that day in 1946, at the luxurious apartment she had rented with Angie from Howard, was a dream come true.

Yet, what Steve had finally admitted, felt like a weight lifted that she hadn’t known had settled on her chest. It explained so much that she had tried to make excuses for, or discreetly figure out via the sketches he did.

“He selfishly went back in time for you,” the red-headed woman sitting in the back of her car stated. “For both of you. I may not know him as well as either of you did, but I know that he never does a lot of things selfishly. Give him a chance to explain himself—”

“Why?” Bucky questioned rather harshly enough that Peggy was slightly surprised at his tone.

“He’s your best friend—” the woman began, as Peggy noticed that she was wearing an utterly puzzled look; as if she could not believe Bucky’s harsh questioning tone either.

“No,” Bucky interrupted. “Why you? Why did ‘death incarnate’ tell you to come along with us? What the hell are we dealing with here tonight that’s been different from the other times? Why the fuck did you or that ‘Tony’ character not help before, if the two of you’ve been living in that stone?”

“It’s the same reason why we negotiated with Ghost Rider to not let Steve know we were in the stone, Barnes,” the woman answered in a hard tone. “It’s the same reason why we’ve tried to hold the tide back as best as we could. We’re just out of time.”

“From what?” Bucky angrily asked. “What reason?”

“Give Steve a chance to explain himself,” was all the woman answered. “He came back for both of you. It’s the least you can do for him.”

“They’re here,” was all the woman said a moment later.

Peggy saw her slide across the back and exit the car in a normal fashion. Headlights shining down the long street from the distance told Peggy that the other agents were arriving. There was still no sign of the reported disturbance that was called into local police.

Peggy realized that that was the problem – there were no police around. She quickly got out of the car, her Walther already up and pointed forward as she sighted down all corners. Bucky had exited the car at nearly the same time she took action, rifle up and looking warily around.

As the other cars approached and stopped, she saw her fellow agents: Li, Calhoun, Thompson, Ramirez, Marshall, and Daniel get out of the cars they had taken from the city. “Carter. Barnes,” Thompson greeted curtly. “Anything?”

“Sir,” both she and Bucky answered at the same time.

“Nothing so far, sir,” she answered. It hadn’t escaped her notice that the woman, ‘Nat’, was not visible anymore. Where ‘Nat’ was, was a mystery, but she wasn’t about to reveal any further oddities at the moment.

The SSR was used to dealing with all sorts of unusual things – even here in the East Coast branch. But Peggy had a feeling that revealing ‘Nat’ was not going to do anyone any favors; least of all, Steve. Despite the ache sitting in her chest, she still kept Steve secret from the SSR.

“No police,” Daniel murmured, sweeping the torch in his hand up and down. What little they could see in the inky darkness of the river and bank, along with an intersection they had parked at, was ordinary.

“Who called it in?” Li asked, as Peggy saw Bucky carefully looking around, rifle at the ready.

“Anonymous tip,” Thompson answered.

“Any sign of Dottie Underwood?” Daniel asked.

“What does she look like?” Bucky asked.

Peggy knew that he already knew what the Soviet agent look like. It seemed that even without discussion, he was willing to help her maintain her cover – to confirm and possibly bring in Dottie from the cold as a turned agent. What reports Bucky had most likely read at Headquarters did not contain any photographs of Dottie.

“Blonde, tall,” Daniel described. “Definitely exudes innocence, but then turns into Rita Hayworth’s character from Gilda. Definitely someone you do not want to cross in an alleyway.”

“Sounds like you have a crush,” Bucky quipped.

Peggy didn’t think it was the right time or place for such a thing to be said, but she knew why Bucky said what he said. Word had gotten around fast that she was ‘old friends’ with Bucky. She partially regretted hugging Bucky in front of Daniel, and especially Rose.

By the time she had walked into work in the morning, the rumors that floated around about her and Bucky were beyond ludicrous. During the war, everyone thought she and Bucky disliked each other – that was a perspective they both readily agreed to enhance. It had made for his reporting to her about various intelligence-related details from the field ever more secret and secure.

At the present, Peggy ignored the light laughter from her fellow agents.

It was difficult to re-establish the ‘dislike’ of each other, since Headquarters was staffed with new agents who had not worked with both of them during the war. Thus, Peggy knew that Bucky was settling on the ‘irritated Peggy enough to cause her to leave London’ angle of their relationship. That angle would allow them to maintain a good working relationship, while giving the excuse for distance if needed.

“All right, split into pairs,” Thompson ordered, before Daniel could splutter too much in protest to Bucky’s quip. “North, south, east, and west—”

Peggy had tried her best not to let the same look she had given him during their 1946 mission to Soviet border appear. But despite her best efforts, Thompson had picked it up, and stopped, giving her a look. “Teams of four?” Thompson asked.

“Teams of four,” she answered, knowing that she did not have to expand on that suggestion.

“Barnes, Li, and Sousa, with Carter,” Thompson stated. “The rest with me. We’ll take south. Report back in fifteen.”

“Yes, sir,” Peggy and the other agents echoed.

“Forested canopies, Pegs?” Bucky asked, as Daniel and Agent Li gathered around.

“Forested canopies,” she nodded in agreement.

“You two Army?” Bucky asked, directing the question to Daniel and Li.

“Yeah, saw action near Bastogne in ‘44,” Daniel answered.

Li had nodded as well, but did not state where he had served. Peggy knew it was Europe, but Li was quiet, and usually did not speak up about what he had done in the Army during the war.

“Good,” Bucky stated, before making the appropriate hand gestures.

She saw the two’s eyes blink slightly in surprise, before silent nods of acknowledgment. In all the previous times the SSR had encountered the same situation, they had done so with sound, noise, and orders shouted to each other.

What Bucky suggested was a different approach that she remembered the Commandos using one time they had spread out to sweep a dense forest. That silent creep through the forest had saved their lives – and allowed them to completely ambush enemy forces.

He wanted to employ that tactic here, with her, Daniel, and Li. They knew little to nothing about what they faced before, other than the fact that the creatures faded away after being killed. Attraction to noise didn’t seem to enhance their abilities, but Peggy was willing to test any theory that would give them more information about the creatures.

It would also allow them to potentially sneak up on Dottie Underwood – if she was here. The Soviet agent was notorious for flitting in and out of their fights with nary a sound. She was also fast in escaping as well.

Peggy stepped out of her heels, leaving them by her car. She could fight comfortably in them, but for the sake of stealth, she discarded them. She took point with Daniel to her right, and Bucky to her left. Li was positioned on Bucky left.

Together, the four of them swept north along the road. They were spread out enough that they could still see each other, but still covered a wider area. And for a few long cold minutes, nothing jumped out at them.

Suddenly, Bucky held up a fist, halting all of them. Peggy warily looked around, noting that Bucky was not doing the same. Instead, there was a frown on his face, before a split second later, he spun to the left, and fired.

The shots missed Li, but they hit the shadow that had tried to creep up on Li. Chaos exploded all around them, as Peggy fired directly at the shadowed creature that was scrabbling towards her. Just as it resolved into the most hideously disgusting thing with rows of razor sharp teeth, it fell to the ground – disappearing instantly.

Reloading, she leapt back as another creature sailed by. It was brought down by several rapid shots from Daniel’s rifle. In turn, Peggy fired her Walther at another approaching creature, until that clip was also emptied.

“Li! Barnes!” Daniel’s shout for their fellow agent turned Peggy’s attention to her left.

Bucky was fighting off three creatures, with more rushing towards him. He was drilling precise shots into the creatures as fast as he could, but even with Li’s help, the creatures were going to overwhelm both of them soon.

Even before Daniel’s shout fully left his lips Peggy was in the midst of reloading – her third and final clip for her Walther. But she knew that she was too slow to match the speed in which the creatures were attacking Bucky—

Red hair flashed by her vision, followed by the sudden hissing noise. Three half-formed shadowed and monstrous creatures immediately disappeared. That sudden attack by what Peggy could only guess that ‘Nat’ had done was so fast that she didn’t even get to see how the woman attacked.

Even more sudden was the ringing of metal slicing through flesh, in two wet thumps, behind Li. Peggy thought she caught a glimpse of Dottie Underwood beyond Li, but another shadow rapidly approaching drew her attention away.

Nine shots and several bursts from the rifles that the others carried later, silence fell upon the area. Peggy didn’t even wait for the remnants of the too-many-teeth creatures to fade as she glanced towards Li.

“Wait, Dottie!” she shouted, as she saw the telltale glint of the strange weapon – sword like, in her opinion – that the Soviet agent used to kill the creatures, flash.

It was too late though – the agent disappeared into inky night. Peggy saw Bucky take a few steps towards where Dottie had been last spotted, but it seemed that even he could not see where the agent had gone.

She knew Bucky had been enhanced by Zola to be nearly equal to Steve in terms of super-soldier augmentation. If he could not see Dottie anywhere, then the woman was as good as gone – again.

The noise of Thompson and the rest of the agents running towards them brought Peggy back to the forefront. Lamp lights, along with some storefront lights flickered on. She had not realized that they had been deliberately suppressed due to the creatures. This was a new development, and one that made her uneasy.

The cold wasn’t lifted, but it seemed that life was returning to the area. The lapping of the water in the river became a little louder, and the distant sounds of late night traffic floated by.

But, there was little she and the other agents could do at night. Everything would have to wait until morning – when they could see things better. This was a main thoroughfare for travelers, but it would have to be shutdown for the next few days until the SSR could collect every clue they could find – which Peggy knew would not be much.

Except for the fact that she now had an additional clue not known to them before: somehow Steve, or at least the golden yellow stone he had held in his hand, was connected to this. Sending the woman named ‘Nat’ with them had been somewhat helpful; even if she had not seen just how ‘Nat’ killed the creatures. Nevertheless, the redheaded woman was nowhere to be seen again.

“Marshall and Ramirez,” Thompson, began, shaking Peggy out of her thoughts. “Start cordoning off the area. I’ll go update the police on the situation. The rest of you, go home, stand by your phones, and be ready to respond at a moment’s notice. It looks like none of us are getting any sleep again.”

“Hey Bucky,” Daniel called out as Peggy made her way back to her car. “D’you need a ride to your hotel?”

“Thanks, but no,” Bucky surprisingly answered. “I’ll take a cab back to the hotel. I want to see if it’s possible for me to modify or adapt the bullets for my gun. Europe gave us customized weapons, and Peggy says that she has a few tools and left over cartridge she’ll let me use.”

To her surprise, Daniel nodded. Peggy could have sworn she had seen a slightly jealous look appear in her friend’s face when Bucky had mentioned customized weapons. She didn’t know SSR-Europe’s budget, but considering the engineers who worked there, she was not surprised.

Headquarters’ engineers were not from Howard’s teams he had during the war. They had been pulled from various research areas the Army had, after the war. While no less brilliant, Peggy felt the engineers at Headquarters were not used to developing experimental weapons and items in a fast manner. The engineers learned quickly, but their adaptability to the ever changing environment the SSR faced was lacking.

Getting into the car, Peggy glanced back to see that ‘Nat’ was not there. She did not see the woman anywhere, but waited only until Bucky got in and closed the door. It was with that closing of the door that ‘Nat’ suddenly appeared in the back seat, nearly startling her.

It took Peggy a few seconds to calm down, and a few more for the strange whine she heard to fade. A glance over towards Bucky – specifically his gloved left hand – showed that his hand was curled into fist. Peggy could only assume that the strange whine was a result of the metal arm that had been grafted onto him – that he had responded in a similar manner as she had done to ‘Nat’.

She slowly turned the car around, and drove away. “I’m assuming you have something to back that claim up, Bucky?” she asked, as the adrenaline of the firefight and the redheaded woman’s appearance began to fade from her.

It was slowly being replaced with uncertainty, and the fact that she and Bucky were returning to her home; to where Steve was. Her question to Bucky was as much of a deflection, as it was inquisitive. She knew that Daniel was interested in the chemical design aspect of the bullets – and would want to see if results could be made in adapting their regular pistols to use the customized bullets.

“Would I make that claim, if I didn’t?” Bucky countered.

“Daniel is sharp, Bucky,” she cautioned. “He’s done some forensics work as a New York police officer, before he signed up for the war.”

“It’ll hold to scrutiny,” her friend stated. “David made it.”

Peggy faintly smiled. David Brewster was Howard’s protege during the war, and had become a brilliant engineer in his own right. The young man had left both the SSR and Howard’s employment after both Bucky and Steve had been declared dead – heartbroken and despairing.

When Michael and Bucky had been found alive, Howard had tried to rekindle a working relationship with the young man – inviting him to work in the California branch of Stark Industries. Peggy only knew of the invitation, because Howard had tried to get her to go to London with him to personally convince David.

She had refused. It was not her place to do any of Howard’s bidding. She was glad she refrained from it. Michael had told her that David had been recruited into the joint engineering teams that MI-5 and MI-6 shared. It seemed that as separate as SSR-Europe and their patron, MI-5, was, David was still customizing weapons for Bucky.

Peggy glanced back for a moment, but ‘Nat’ was still sitting silent. Returning her attention to the front, she asked, “Do you want me to drop you off at your hotel right now?”

Bucky was silent for a few long moments before he took a deep breath, and nosily blew it out. The action reminded Peggy of Steve – and of how Steve would sometimes have a far away look in his eyes whenever performing it.

There was no such faraway look in Bucky’s eyes though, as he said a moment later, “Steve has answers to whatever the hell those things were. I wanna listen to what he has to say, before considering my options.”

“I do as well,” she agreed.

* * *

Later…

 

Steve took a deep breath, feeling the hungry, devouring ache of the Reality Stone lash against his mind. It felt like an endless abyss of darkness that clawed at him, but did not overwhelm him. Natasha was tempering the Reality Stone’s insatiable thirst.

But only so.

Ghost Rider was nowhere to be seen, but Steve had a feeling that the entity was somewhere near. Both Tony and Natasha were back within the stone, providing the barrier that they had been maintaining since he had been given the responsibility of putting the stones back.

He knew that his friends and family – if they allowed him to call them that anymore – had questions about the Soul Stone, but even Steve could not answer them. He knew little to nothing about the mysterious stone.

Reality around him and the others blurred, as Steve summoned the images from his memories. “I was found above the Arctic circle,” he began.

Blinding snow, and the wreckage of the war bomber surrounded by the light markers that SHIELD had set up faded. It was replaced by what Steve remembered seeing SHIELD footage of him on ice. “The year was 2011,” he continued, trying to avoid Peggy’s slightly horrified look at him.

He showed what he woke up to, including the hum of the radio playing the baseball game. “The organization named SHIELD, found me.” As he poured his memories into showing them his escape from custody and bursting out into the middle of Times Square, he saw all of their eyes widen in shock at just how chaotic the place was.

“They were the successor of the SSR, which had been dissolved in 1947,” Steve stated, deciding not to show the memory of him and Natasha wandering around the old SSR base in New Jersey. It would invite more questions than he wanted to answer. There was also the memories he had of Bucky as the Winter Soldier that he definitely wanted to avoid.

Bucky was not the Winter Soldier anymore; there was no need to subject Peggy, Bucky, or Michael to those despairing memories.

“In 2012, I was recalled to active duty,” he said, showing the memory he had of Fury handing him the folder with the Tesseract details. “SHIELD had the Red Skull’s weapon – the Tesseract – in their possession, but an Asgardian named Loki had stolen it. Loki was under orders from Thanos, who needed that weapon.”

As briefly as he manipulated the Reality Stone to show what exactly the Avengers had fought against, he made sure that Peggy and the others saw Bruce, Natasha, Thor, Clint, and Tony. He also made sure that they saw Thanos’ image, even though all Steve could draw from was his 2018 and 2023 memories of the Mad Titan.

“We called ourselves the Avengers,” he continued. “And we protected the world as best as we could. The threats came from both terrestrial, and extraterrestrial – outer space. But, we weren’t always successful in protecting everyone.” He paused for a moment, his courage faltering ever so slightly before a tendril of warmth and comfort from Natasha bolstered him.

“Peggy,” he began, focusing his eyes on her. “We were briefly reunited for about five years, but you passed away in 2016.”

“Oh, Steve,” Peggy began, looking dismayed.

“At the same time, a… political incident happened that caused the Avengers to disband,” Steve continued, as Michael put an arm around Peggy in comfort. “I was labeled a fugitive, and spent the next two years on the run.”

“What?!” the three of them echoed at nearly the same time.

“Show us?” Michael asked after a moment.

Steve had deliberately left the Reality Stone’s projection blank – a grey state. To show that Bucky was the reason why, was to bring questions that led back to the Winter Soldier. He was adamant in not letting that part of his life – or even Bucky’s – be known. This life they had now, was the new leaf turned over for them.

He shook his head. “In 2018, Thanos attacked Earth again – stronger. He was searching for six powerful stones: Mind, Time, Space, Power, Soul, and Reality. The Reality Stone is the one I am currently using to show you my memories.”

He looked at the stones and their original housing and forms that they had been hiding in. “The Red Skull’s weapon,” Peggy whispered, reaching up to touch the image of the Tesseract. Her hand passed through the image, but Steve could see a concerned look on Bucky’s face.

“You’re using the Reality Stone?” Bucky asked.

“Only to show you, to tell you my story… my journey,” Steve answered, before manipulating the images to show the battlefield of Wakanda. “Tony led a separate team off-world, while the rest of us defended the Mind Stone. By the time we managed to gather a force to fight Thanos, he already had the Space, Power, Soul, and Reality stone in his possession. Tony’s team defended the Time Stone.”

“Wait,” Bucky began, as Steve let the memory of the last stand in Wakanda expand and wash over him. “That’s me,” his best friend continued.

“You… had also been frozen in time,” Steve began, knowing that he could not keep all of his memories of Bucky in the future from the three. He could keep the Winter Soldier ones away, but Bucky here and now, deserved to know just how hard he had fought in the war against Thanos.

“You were freed, and you returned to fight,” he said. He couldn’t help the bittersweet smile that quirked up the edges of his lips.

For a few seconds, Steve let more of his memories of the desperate battle in Wakanda pour into the Reality Stone. He didn’t need to look at the others to know that they were wide-eyed in astonishment and fear of what the future possibly held for them.

“But ultimately, we failed,” he stated. “We lost.”

The snap of Thanos’ fingers echoed all around them. Thor’s disbelieving protests were heard, before Thanos disappeared into a cloud of blue-black smoke.

Steve?

Steve couldn’t bear to see Bucky disappear into dust and ash again, and squeezed his eyes shut as the memory was drawn from him. He heard the memory of himself whisper, “Oh, God,” at the same time Bucky had stated that out loud within the living room.

He opened his eyes and looked up. He forced himself to continue on, saying, “Thanos killed half of all life within the galaxy, with the six stones. That was trillions of lives. The surviving Avengers wanted revenge, and pursued Thanos to where he had escaped to. He had destroyed the stones to render his doing permanent. Those of us who survived lived with that reality for five years.”

“In 2023, using research and technology that had previously existed, but was not known to all of us, Tony managed to create a time-traveling device,” Steve said, showing the memory of Tony and the others working on constructing the device, and of the small ‘time GPS’ wristband.

“Our goal was to go back to various points in time, steal the stones from there, and assemble it together. We were going to undo what Thanos did and bring everyone who had been dusted by the snap, back.”

Natasha’s warmth filled him again as he faltered for a moment. “It was not without further sacrifice though. Natasha—” he showed her image to them “—gave her life to activate the Soul Stone.”

The image of Bruce clutching the glove with all six stones pouring their dark energy into him appeared, before another loud snap filled the room. “What we did not anticipate, was Thanos following us from a point in time, back to 2023.”

As the images of the battle between Thanos and his forces, and the Avengers and their reinforcements flitted by, Steve was careful to not show himself wielding Mjolnir. He needed to return it to its proper place in time, and wanted to avoid any further question. It was enough that Peggy, Bucky, and Michael would soon know that he carried all six stones – separately – but that he was also carrying a lot of technology.

With the Cold War and arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union heating up, he was unwilling to put the three of them at further risk than he already was. They knew about the stones. They did not need to know about how his armor came to be, Mjolnir, or anything else.

“We tried to get the glove away from Thanos – to throw it back in time,” he explained. “But his forces were too much for us to handle. Even with the addition of the strongest fighter on our side—” Steve specifically showed Carol Danvers fighting toe-to-toe against Thanos. He had been briefly in awe that she had survived Thanos smashing his head into her.

“—was not enough.” Thanos wielding the glove, and the Avengers and their allies’ desperation to keep him from snapping his fingers filled the air. “It was Tony, who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

And I am… Iron Man.

Tony’s snap of his fingers seemed to crackle like thunder. The damage was done again, as Steve briefly looked away. He clearly remembered each and every single detail as Tony’s life faded away.

Steve curled his hand around the stone. “I’m supposed to return the stones,” he quietly spoke up, breaking the silence that had fallen.

He opened his hand again. The Reality Stone was back in its separate compartment, seemingly sated with what he had done. Yet, Steve couldn’t help but look at his left hand.

“To prevent too many timelines from splintering, I’m supposed to return them,” he explained. “It was supposed to be a one-way, continuous trip, but…”

Steve paused for a moment, knowing that he alone, had done this to himself. “I wanted to see all of you again, one last time. I wanted to give myself a timeline where I didn’t wake up to a world unknown. I was supposed to be transient, but I didn’t want to leave the three of you without myself – here and now – reunited. Yet, after two years of searching, I can’t find my frozen body here, in this point in time.”

We both need to get a life.

You first, Steve…

“I don’t want to leave,” he whispered.

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Memory Extraction Session: печь + морозилка

 

Jesus Christ my balls are going to fall off if it gets any colder than this,” Bucky heard DumDum mutter, his voice clearly audible across the eerily silent, partially destroyed building they were currently sweeping through.

Well, at least we'll have something to contribute to the Christmas decorations they're adorning the headquarters with,” Falsworth's bitingly sarcastic quip answered DumDum complaints.

I'm sure the ladies would greatly appreciate the decoration if it were placed as a tree topper,” Steve followed up in an equally dry tone.

Ha ha, Cap,” DumDum answered, as Bucky fought to contain his laughter.

It seemed that the other Commandos did not have any reservations about keeping their laughter hidden, as a rash of chuckles erupted across the abandoned building.

Wistfully, Bucky thought: if only the press and even those who interviewed Steve for their morale films knew just how dirty of a mind Steve had. It would completely destroy the 'squeaky-clean' image of Captain America. The weekly comic strips that were printed in the papers back home about 'Captain America and his Howling Commandos' wouldn't be able to print their sanitized stories any longer.

Both Bucky and Jones were the ends of the sweeping line of the Commandos. They had staggered to cover the width of what looked like a former factory.

Bucky turned the corner of the bombed out first floor and halted. All thoughts he had earlier were quickly shoved to the side as he held up a fist, immediately pointing his rifle in his other hand towards the door that was at the end of the hall. Something about the door at the end of the hall, even though there was nothing on it – not even a lock – and it gave him an uneasy feeling.

The laughter among the Commandos abruptly died.

He felt and heard Morita sweep up to his left, as he lowered his fist and readjusted his grip on his rifle. Following Morita, he saw him pause at the door, on the hinge side, and pointed his rifle at the handle. Bucky aimed his rifle at height and nodded once for Morita to yank the door open.

Quickly sweeping across all four corners, nothing from the darkness jumped out at them, but something did emerge from behind the door – a most foul smell. While it wasn't comparable to the stench that had been the result of his metal items being strangely turned to mud a couple of months ago, this smell was different.

There was something coppery about it, or sulfur that reminded him of the factories. It was clearly mixed in with what shit smelled like that had been frozen. Bucky knew only because he had accidentally stepped in horseshit when he was thirteen and forgot to completely clean his shoes off before stowing away in the ice cream truck's freezer locker with Steve.

Reaching for his flashlight, Bucky drew it out and snapped it on, tucking it into the palm of his hand that held the underside of the barrel of his rifle. Sweeping all four corners again as Morita's flashlight joined his sweep, there was nothing to indicate that the area was another room – only a passage down a flight of stone stairs. Silently, he stepped in and began to slowly make his way down, with Morita following close behind him.

The stairs were a spiral wind, much like what he remembered reading in Becca's books about the old castles of yore. The walls were incredibly dry, and there seemed to be no draft pushing air around. The smell remained, lingering, almost seemingly cloyingly clinging onto him, but he pushed on.

Soon, after spiraling for two revolutions, he saw a faint amount of light begin to spill into the staircase. There was either a window or some light source at the bottom.

Continuing down, he didn't hurry towards the light, as each step towards the bottom became more visible and brighter. Still, he did not snap his flashlight off, as he kept his grip on his rifle tight and listened closely for any sign of an ambush.

It was only when he finally reached the bottom and ducked his head to step out, that he stopped where he was. Horror gripped him as he saw what was spread out before him in the dungeon-basement of this factory.

Cages upon cages, some as large as a lion's circus cage, some smaller than what a pet dog lived in, lined either side of the enormous underground hall. Slits of windows high above in the ceiling showered light into the hall, barely illuminating the place. However, it was neither of those that had him staring in pure, horrific shock.

Frozen bodies of children were within those cages.

Bodies upon bodies, the children looked half-dazed; some looked asleep, some had clearly a starving look about them with their distended stomachs and too-thin arms – but all had the blue-tinge of being frozen to death. Even more appalling was the fact that there was an enormous furnace in the center of the room, and it was empty.

Oh God,” he managed to utter in a whisper as Morita's rifle clattered to the ground beside him, with Morita himself also stunned.

Morita, Barnes, sit-rep,” DumDum's voice immediately answered the clattering sound.

Bucky tried to form words, tried to say something, but nothing was working. All he could do was stare, stricken that something—someone would do such a thing.

What monster would leave children in the basement of a factory, and forget them? What monster didn't even fill the furnace to at least give them some semblance of warmth? What monster used children and had the gall to starve them? What monster--

Oh my God,” Steve's whispered exclamation of horror snapped him out of his fugue.

Christ Almighty,” Falsworth muttered, as the others chimed in with their own curses or kept silent in the same manner that Morita had done.

We need to bury them,” Morita was the first one to break the silence that followed the rest of the Commandos' descent into the basement hall. “We need to bury all of them.”

They deserve at least that much in death,” Jones muttered, agreeing.

There was a hardware shop of sorts about two hundred yards before the factory,” Steve spoke up. “Falsworth and Dernier, go see if you can find shovels or anything that we can use to dig holes.”

Yes, sir,” the two answered, grateful that despite their original mission, they were not going to just leave the bodies of children who died in such a horrific manner here.

The rest of us will carry the children up and get them ready for burial,” Steve continued.

 

“You have not wrapped this one in a command, yet this is the third time I have observed you watching this memory today, Ivchenko.”

“I am attempting a new technique to embed the command. After that last session, I would not want to have a repeat of that… incident.”

To Bucky, the voices of Zola and Ivchenko seemed to be muddled and barely audible. As he swam up from the depths of darkness and back into the world of cold, agonizing pain that seemed to crawl under his skin, the voices became more coherent.

“Surely the guards present know not to fire their weapons at the asset?” Zola asked.

“That is why you are here, Zola,” Ivchenko stated. “Have you brought it?”

“Enough to keep him sedately lucid for thirty minutes,” Zola answered. There was some shuffling noise, but Bucky was still in too much pain to attempt to open his eyes. “The more doses I inject him with, the more resistance he builds up. Will you be able to complete the command wrap in thirty minutes?”

“Are you so sure that your formula will still work on him?”

There was no answer from either scientist, but as Bucky slowly blinked his eyes open, the world blurred into focus. The scientists were standing a ways away in their usual spots, and the giant globe-sphere thing that projected his memories was frozen on Steve yet again. Except that there was a grim look on Steve’s face.

It took Bucky a few long, excruciating seconds of pushing through the pain that wracked his body, to realize that the scientists and he were not the only ones in the room. Several guards, dressed in the green uniform of the US Army were present. In their hands were rifles that glowed blue—

“Ah, the Winter Soldier is now awake. Good. Begin sedation, Dr. Zola.”

Bucky opened his eyes wide at the words, only to have his vision filled with a white lab coat and an eerily familiar smile upon a rotund, balding head. An acute prick of pain sliced into his left leg. His world spun—

 

It was the potent smell of coffee that woke Bucky up.

He blinked the sleepiness from his eyes as he sniffed the air again – it definitely was coffee – and to his surprise, Steve was brewing it. It seemed while he had been sleeping in their foxhole, Steve had somehow silently dug and expanded their foxhole enough to place a tiny campfire within the hole.

Smoke filtered out of the other hole, carefully funneled by the interesting slope that Steve had dug within their foxhole. He caught Steve’s rather brash grin at him, before hearing him say, “Rise and shine, sleepyhead.”

Bucky couldn’t help but chuckle at the words: Steve must have trained under Sergeant Duffy as well. The drill sergeant was the only one to ever shout those words in their ears as unpleasantly as possible at four in the morning.

What time is it?” he asked, yawning slightly as he stretched as best as he could within the cramped space. However long he had slept was a godsend, and Bucky was surprised that he had slept as soundly as he did.

Just a little after six,” Steve stated. “I’ll be right back, after I give this pot of coffee to the rest of the team.”

Steve then carefully climbed out of the foxhole, taking the rather aromatically pleasing smell of coffee with him. Bucky couldn’t hear him move around the area, but a few seconds later, heard the tell-tale whisper of Steve saying, “Merry Christmas, Gabe. And a Happy Christmas to you, Monty. Tins out, got some coffee for both of you.”

The hushed, but grateful and excited exclamations that followed Steve’s offering floated by. Bucky smiled to himself. After what had happened with finding the frozen children, along with their rather angry march to contested lines, and then camping in the frozen wasteland for the past few days, morale was low.

Bucky had tried to at least cheer Steve up yesterday by giving him back his compass, but with an additional item inside of it – a photograph of Peggy. He thought that Steve wasn’t fully aware of just how much his actions, emotions, and reactions to things influenced the behavior of the Commandos, but Bucky found himself pleased that he was wrong. Steve going around from foxhole to foxhole with fresh coffee for the rest of the Commandos was do so much to lift all of their spirits up.

Deciding now was a better time than never, Bucky focused his thoughts back on his duty. Shrugging the blanket he had shared with Steve, off slightly, he shuffled forward slightly. Taking his sniper rifle that had been positioned at rest, but ready for action, he peered through the scope. There was nothing he could see, except for more snow falling in the fields.

Minutes later, Steve entered their foxhole, tin not empty as Bucky thought it would have been. Instead of coffee within the tin though, there was some fresh snow packed into it. “Snow cone on Christmas?” he facetiously asked.

No,” Steve answered, grinning as he placed the tin back over the fire. “Coffee for both of us.”

For a few moments, Bucky was speechless. He had not expected anything for Christmas from Steve – especially not here. “When did you bring or get coffee?” he couldn’t help but ask, as the snow melted rather quickly, and he saw Steve stir in the last of the ground beans into the tin.

Steve shook slightly, but then turned towards him for a moment, trying to contain his laughter. “Promise you won’t tell the others – especially Philips?”

Steve, why the hell would I rat you out to Philips?” Bucky asked, shaking his head as he grinned.

I stole it,” Steve simply stated, returning to stir the coffee around a few times. “Peggy taught me how to filch, when she caught me trying to nick one of Howard’s test cartridges for closer examination.”

For a few seconds, Bucky couldn’t help but stare at his best friend. It was absolutely absurd, but considering what he knew of Steve’s girl – it seemed to fit her. “Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers, bank robbers extraordinaire,” he couldn’t help but joke. “The new Bonnie and Clyde?”

That got a bark of laughter out of Steve, though it was still subdued enough that only Bucky heard it. Seeing that Steve was being incredibly generous with his coffee, Bucky reached inside his uniform’s pocket, and pulled out something that he had been saving for later.

Here, Steve,” he said, unwrapping and waving the stick of candy cane at him. “You’ll need a cigar to go with your new image.”

Bucky saw the laughter in Steve’s eyes slowly melt into that of surprise. “Bucky…” Steve hesitatingly began.

Christmas, Steve,” Bucky reminded him, before crookedly grinning at him. “Besides, you’re not the only one with filching skills. Got it off the tree they put up.”

That got a smile out of Steve, as his best friend took the stick of candy cane. He watched as Steve stuck a small part of it into his mouth, lips pursed slightly, with his tongue playing briefly over the stick

An unexpected fluttering sensation bloomed within Bucky’s stomach, and he quickly looked away, feeling himself flush ever so slightly in warmth. He forced himself to breathe as normally as he could, suppressing the wild thoughts going through his head. Now was not the time—

Steve crunching down on the candy cane stick caused Bucky to glanced back, as he heard his best friend ask , “ Want to try candy cane in your coffee, Buck?”

However innocent the words were, Bucky was glad that Steve had followed up on the action associated with the word s . What was left of the candy cane was hovering over the tin, ready to be dropped. Bucky managed to shrug, and the candy cane instantly disappeared in the dark, aromatically pleasing—

 

“He is resisting again… why do we not see these resistant memories? Why are you still allowing it, Ivchenko?”

“The more he tries to resist, the easier it becomes for me to slip in, and embed the commands. Watch, my skeptical doctor, at the series of stop commands that I have managed to extract and embed within him...”

“… безразличие.”

 

how long are you going to keep doing this…

as long as I need to…

 

“… незапятнанный.”

 

the shield howled in derision at him…

those vivid blue-green eyes of his looked up…

 

“… сумеречный.”

 

tangling their fingers together for a moment…

all he could do was wait until dusk melted into nightfall, and for nightfall to bleed into daybreak…

 

“… морозилка.”

 

he enjoyed surprising him at times, now that they were both the same height…

your north star…

 

“What… what have you done to him, Ivchenko?

“He is still breathing. I have immobilized him – forced his sluggish thoughts brought on by your chemical injection to tell his body to stop moving, except to breathe. He cannot move, even if his resistance memories trigger the monster within him to wake up. We are perfectly safe at the moment. I need you to observe and make notes so that you may incorporate the sedation level associated with his brain activities into your contraption.”

There was a pause before Ivchenko continued to say, “It is as you say, Zola, the more we attempt to sedate him using chemicals, the more resistance he builds up. We must make it a manipulation of the mind so that when these or any other stop commands are given, the body triggers this state.”

“Fascinating… absolutely, wonderfully fascinating…”

Silence enveloped the area, before Zola said in a half-awed tone, “I will be sure to incorporate this particular aspect into the design. May I presume that you will now embed the command into that thrice-watched memory?”

“Yes,” Ivchenko simply stated. “Witness, Dr. Zola, the creation of… печь.“

 

there was an enormous furnace in the center of the room, and it was empty…

carry a frozen body, child or adult…

 

Bucky screamed—

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Fissure

 

carry a frozen body, child or adult…

He screamed—

Bucky looked up as the door to the second bedroom in Peggy and Steve’s house, opened and closed. Footsteps approached, and stopped before him. The bedroom doubled as a guest room, or Steve’s art room, considering the enormous table and paraphernalia of graphite pencils, paint brushes, canvas, and other items in the corner.

Warm, slightly damp skin, touched his forehead, and the fresh scent of soap filled his nose. Michael’s comforting embrace drew him in, warming him further from the chill that he felt. It was enough to shake Bucky out of the waking nightmare that he had somehow fallen into.

“Sorry,” he apologized, glancing up and shifting slightly on the edge of the bed where he sat. It had been almost a year since he had had a waking nightmare. He didn’t know what triggered those horrific memories right here and now – when he should have already been getting ready to sleep.

To his chagrin, he was still fully clothed; he hadn’t even loosened the tie he had been wearing all day, while Michael had been in the shower. “I should—”

“Go talk to Steve, Bucky.”

Bucky blinked, surprised at the amount of understanding in Michael’s tone. “I wish I didn’t… I wish I wasn’t like this,” he whispered. “I wish I didn’t remember anything during… like you—”

“Bucky, go talk to him, please,” Michael repeated, crouching down so that they were eye-to-eye. “He said that you were freed in his time, remember? Maybe… maybe he can tell you how, or what happened…”

The beginnings of their long, on-going disagreement with how Bucky himself could find ways to cope with his nightmares died on his lips. As much as he wanted to protest, say that he shouldn’t be as weak and of a mental mess as he was, something in Michael’s eyes silenced him.

They hadn’t had this disagreement in over a year – not since he had been undercover and behind enemy lines for that length of time. The night before he had left for his mission had been one of the rare nights that the disagreement hadn’t come up. Now, since returning, he had barely spent two whole nights with his lover, and those nights had been won out by nightmares, and pure exhaustion of a mission completed.

Bucky knew that it wasn’t fair to Michael, for him to be saddled to Bucky like this. Yet, they had found physical and mental comfort with each other; similarities, seduction, and eventual mutual caring borne from the war.

“Talk to him. He’s still awake and in the dining room,” Michael said, reaching out and loosening Bucky’s tie, before drawing it over his head. “For me, please?”

There was an earnest pleading in Michael’s tone – enough that Bucky was greatly reminded of Steve. Silently nodding, he leaned forward and gently pressed his lips onto Michael’s forehead. “I will,” he whispered, getting up.

Exiting the bedroom, the steps down the stairs to the first floor seemed to be arduously long. He paused for a moment as he saw what was laid out in the living room: the couch had a pillow and blanket. He didn’t need to wonder why Steve was sleeping in the living room, and not with Peggy in the master bedroom.

It didn’t take him long to cross the living room and stop at the threshold. The kitchen’s lights were off, but the dining room’s light still cast a glow into the kitchen. Steve was sitting hunched over at the table, sketching something on a piece of paper. There was a pile of sketches off to the side.

The man named Tony was sitting across from Steve, seemingly dictating something to Steve. Of Nat, or Natasha, she was no where to be seen, but the skull-on-fire thing was standing in the corner of the dining room like a silent sentinel.

Tony had stopped talking as soon as Bucky showed up, drawing Steve’s attention away from the current sketch. Bucky didn’t like the critical look that Tony was giving him – as if evaluating if he were a threat. It was the same look that the man who looked similar to Howard Stark had initially given him, while muttering some confusing words.

“Bucky,” Steve greeted in a slightly hesitant tone.

“Can we talk?” he asked, knowing that he had to do this – for both his own sake, and Michael’s. “Privately?” he continued to ask, indicating with a gesture of his chin towards Tony and the thing that had worn a more youthful version of his face.

The hesitancy in Steve’s tone disappeared, as Steve nodded, looking relieved. “Sure.” Bucky saw him turn his attention to Tony, saying, “We’ll work on this some more later, if that’s all right?”

“There’s some time,” Natasha’s voice unexpectedly spoke up, as Bucky saw her suddenly appear, leaning against the wall opposite of where Steve sat. The woman then glanced over at the skull-on-fire thing, saying, “It’s not as dire as Ghost Rider is making it out to be. There’s still some time – not a lot, but still enough to make amends.”

“And after everything, neither of you still won’t tell me what it is?” Steve asked, while putting all the sketches on the table into a folder.

Internally, Bucky frowned slightly. It seemed odd that Steve wouldn't know what exactly time was running out for. Yet with what he heard, it also seemed that the two people within the stone were determined to keep whatever ‘it’ was from Steve.

“Go, Steve,” Natasha gently said, before disappearing. Tony had disappeared as well, but the skull-on-fire entity remained, seemingly ignoring all of them.

Bucky heard Steve sigh, shaking his head slightly before returning his attention to him. “Let’s go outside, if you’re okay with that, Buck?”

Bucky glanced over again at the thing that had worn his face, before shrugging and saying, “Sure.” While he was sure that the thing could overhear them, he was glad that Steve was giving them a semblance of privacy.

It didn’t take either of them long, or cause a lot of noise, to put on their coats and head outdoors to the back of the house. Steve didn’t go out farther than sitting on the steps that led to the back yard, and Bucky sat down with him. He noticed that Steve had yet again, forgotten his gloves – an old, but surprisingly comforting refrain.

It was cold out here, but Bucky wasn’t bothered by it. During Operation Midnight, he had spent nearly the entire mission in the cold regions of Siberia. He watched as Steve huffed out a breath before looking up at the crystal clear skies of the inky night. There was a strange mix of a light, carefree look in those blue-green eyes of his, and sorrow as well.

“You must have so many questions for me,” Steve said at last, looking over at him.

“But you’re trying not to answer all of them, are you, Steve?” he asked instead.

“Some, but not all,” Steve admitted.

Bucky glanced down at his hands in his lap, still gloved in leather. He had already determined that his left hand would be gloved and hidden as much as possible. He hated what Zola had done to him, in addition to giving him his hated super-soldier augmentations—

“When you said I was ‘freed’, what did you mean by that, Steve?” he asked, looking back up and over at Steve.

“I found you,” Steve began. “You had been frozen, and were… grievously injured. It took you a couple of years to heal. I wanted to be there for you during that time, but because I was a fugitive myself, I didn’t want to place you in danger. So… we lived apart. Only to be reunited when Thanos attacked that second time.”

“We lived apart?” Bucky questioned, slightly puzzled, yet a little curious if the words that Steve seemed to have purposefully chosen, were true.

Instead of answering him, Bucky watched as Steve deliberately weaved their fingers together, flesh-and-blood palm resting against gloved metal palm. It took Bucky a few seconds to realize what he was seeing – his eyes shot up to Steve, widening in shock.

“Laws in the United States and around the world were passed, during the time I lived in the future,” Steve answered, looking sightly sad. “Hiding about who you loved wasn’t considered a crime anymore – at least in the United States. There were still intolerant people and nations, though. People still hated, but the majority supported those laws. I wanted to take you, Peggy, and even Michael back to the future, but… those were not peaceful times either.”

Bucky heard Steve sighed and saw him shake his head. Steve’s eyes were now cast out into the inky night instead of focusing on him. “Neither of us really got to ‘live’, while in the future, Buck. Everything changed for the both of us. It wasn’t fair that by the time we truly reunited, you perished. I was alone for five years – really alone – and after everything, all I wanted to do was return to a world I knew. I’m know I’m being selfish, but I can’t stop.”

Steve returned his gaze onto him, saying, “Peggy and you. The two of you are the ones I care deeply about. My loved ones. My family. I want to stay, if you’ll have me.”

Speechless, Bucky stared at both Steve and their entwined hands for a few long minutes. It was everything he had longed for and dreamed of; yet it seemed not real. A myth, a legend, a derisive laugh that could shatter the illusion. Watching himself dissolve into what looked like dust in that extraordinary battle against Thanos was terrifying. But seeing himself step through that portal in the final battle – ready to help Steve—

Bucky abruptly disentangled their hands, startling Steve. “You left me behind,” he said, realizing the gravity of what Steve had done – to his own self in the future.

“Bucky—” Steve protested.

“You said you spent five years alone, and now you don’t want to return. After all the hell I just saw—”

I will return a few seconds after I left in that point in time,” Steve interrupted. “It’s built into the device. The time I spend here is nearly instantaneous time from the time I left in 2023.”

But it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve already spent two years without myself in the future? That you left my future self behind. We made a promise, Steve—”

With each other, until the end of the line,” Steve stated in a solemn tone. “I know. I know.

At once, the armor formed around Steve, faster than it had the first time he had witnessed it . Before Bucky could protest and argue some more, a memory from Steve surrounded both of them:

The woods were peaceful and quiet. Most of the Avengers were already scattered after Tony’s funeral. Only a handful remained to help Pepper, Morgan, and Happy before they too would leave.

The time transport device had been built out of the prototype scrap that Tony had initially tinkered with. Steve hadn’t known that Tony had shipped the prototype back to his cabin in the woods, but he was glad that Tony had done so. Building the device from scratch using what blueprints they could recover would’ve taken them weeks.

Even so, the stones that were tucked in his armor’s compartments still felt like lead weights. He could feel the tendrils of power brushing across his mind. One whispered sweet nothings in the voice of Peggy, trying to seduce him to use the stone. Another felt like staring at an endless swirling storm of madness—

Hey.” Sam’s greeting and clap on his arm drew Steve out. “Ready?”

As ready as I can be,” he answered, nodding. “Take care, Sam.”

At that, Sam laughed, and Steve forced himself to grin. But when he turned to Bucky, he saw the knowing look in his best friend’s eyes. Bucky knew what he, Steve, was about to do.

There was no malice, scorn, or admonishment in Bucky’s eyes. All Steve saw was acceptance that their journey, their ‘train to the end of the line’ was complete . Bucky knew what was coming, and was ready for what would happen afterwards.

Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” he said, letting go of Bucky.

How can I?” Bucky gently retorted. “You’re taking all the stupid with you.”

S teve stepped back and made his way up the platform. He tapped the inset twice to activate the time jump armor, and picked Mjolnir up, hooking it to his side. Taking one last look at his friends, he then tapped out the coordinates [ 09-24-1946, 63°17′34″N 168°42′05″W ]—

and disappeared.

The memory faded, returning to the inky, cold night sky. At nearly the same time, the armor that Steve wore bled from him, and receded back into the wrist bangle. Bucky looked at Steve before glancing down at his gloved metal hand. It was still unnerving to see himself as he was in the future – longer hair, but seemingly almost as tired as Steve was.

But he had seen himself let Steve go – possibly forever – so that Steve could live here and now.

“Do you know what happened to me before you found me, in the future?” he quietly asked, looking back up.

Steve’s eyes tightened minutely, but it was enough for Bucky to tell that Steve knew, and didn’t want to say what it was. Bucky could only assume that there were some memories that Steve was unwilling to share with them – more horrific than watching trillions die before his eyes. “Sorry,” he apologized. “That’s your past, and probably a future that will never come to pass—”

“It won’t,” Steve said, surprising Bucky with his hard, sharp tone. “Your future… frozen in time, will never happen.”

Bucky remained silent for a few long moments before saying, “Whatever it was, my future self isn’t here to say it. But I am. So, thank you, Steve. For rescuing me, and giving me a second chance at life.”

He reached out and placed his left arm around Steve’s shoulders. He was slightly surprised that Steve allowed himself to be drawn into an embrace. Just as Bucky rested his chin on the top of Steve’s head, he felt some wetness against his chest. Steve was shuddering ever so slightly under his arms, and Bucky realized that his best friend was silently crying.

Whether it was for happiness or sadness, or even both, he just held him. “Stay, Steve,” he said. “Stay, be happy, and live your life.”

~~~

Steve didn’t know how long he stayed like that, clutching Bucky’s coat and shirt underneath, and crying into Bucky’s chest. Relief from the words Bucky had said, and grief for all that he had lost clashed together until it had overwhelmed him. It had been a long time since he had cried so openly. Natasha and Tony’s death had not afforded him time to properly mourn—

“Let’s get you inside, before your tears start to become icicles, yeah?”

Steve sniffled, rubbing his eyes and nose with the sleeves of his shirt, before feeling Bucky thrust something him, sighing and saying, “For a what… forty-year-old, you sure still cry like a twelve-year-old.”

Steve blinked, and couldn’t help but smile slightly as he saw Bucky was holding out a handkerchief for him. Taking it, he wiped the rest of the tears in his eyes, but did not blow his nose into it.

“Thirty-eight,” he managed to grouse as Bucky then helped him stand up. “Or close to thirty-nine,” he conceded, as Bucky gave him a look before they headed into the house.

That got a snort out of Bucky, as he said, “Well, you’re now a hell of a lot older than me, but don’t start thinking about doling out life advice, punk.”

“Wasn’t going to tell you that things go downhill after thirty-five anyways, jerk,” he gently retorted, pocketing Bucky’s handkerchief. “I’ll wash the handkerchief and return it to you later, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed, before abruptly headed towards the couch.

“Bucky...” Steve began, protesting as he saw his best friend sit and stretch out over the couch.

“Go to sleep in your own bed, Steve,” Bucky said, deliberately turning away from him, as Steve saw him pull the blanket over him, and stuff the pillow under his head. “You owe Peggy as much of an explanation as you owed me.”

In a quieter, more serious tone, Steve heard Bucky say, “She’s your wife Steve, the one you made a vow to. In sickness and in health, you promised to be there for her.”

Silently, Steve nodded, knowing that he had no argument against Bucky’s words. Peggy had quietly went up the stairs and into their bedroom as soon as Steve had finished showing them his memories via the Reality Stone. Steve had heard the door click shut, and had assumed that Peggy did not want him to sleep in their bed tonight – thus he had pulled out another spare set of pillow and blanket.

“I will,” he quietly stated, going into the kitchen and taking an empty tin out of the cupboard, before turning the dining room light off. Ghost Rider was no longer standing in the corner like a sentinel, but Steve could reasonably assume that the entity was still somewhere close by.

Going back into the dark living room, he then removed the ‘time GPS’ device from his wrist, feeling the weight of the stones lessen on his mind. The seductive pull of the Power Stone tried to entice him to put the device back on, but Steve was well fortified against the mimicry of Peggy’s voice, by Bucky’s statement.

Taking and placing the tin into the dirt, before placing Peggy’s box over it, Steve gently pushed the floorboard close. The rug was adjusted back to its original position, and he stood back up. Bucky was watching him through half-sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes, but there was a smile on his lips.

“Thank you,” he said, going over, as Bucky rolled over and fully closed his eyes to sleep. Placing a hand on his best friend’s shoulder, he saw Bucky reach up with his other hand and gently pat his own. “Good night, Bucky.”

“G’night, Steve,” Bucky sleepily said.

Steve hesitated for a moment, but then shook his head, and decided not to do what he almost impulsively wanted to do. The past was the past – his past specifically – and even if Bucky now knew what he knew about him, it wouldn’t change a thing. He had his loved ones in his life again, and that was enough for him.

~~~

Bucky felt the weight of Steve’s hand on his shoulder for a moment longer than usual, before that weight disappeared. As he heard Steve’s footsteps fade up the stairs and away, he opened his eyes again. Rolling over, he stared at the area where the rug covered the floorboard, and frowned.

Steve knew about him, about his deepest secret, and Bucky wasn’t sure if he was relieved or scared of that. The derision, rejection, and emotional pain that he thought – irrationally – would have come from his best friend, had not. Instead, there had been acceptance, and even a hint of reciprocation – but only in the future.

There was only acceptance now, as Steve was married to Peggy. Bucky knew that he could not – and would not – tear that away from Steve . It heartened Bucky as much as it saddened him. He had Michael, but was slightly surprised that a part of him still wanted…

Bucky roughly shook his head, both mentally and physically as he tucked the blanket around him a little further. Burying his face into the pillow was the wrong thing to do, as he smelled Steve’s scent on the pillow. It was both comforting and not. In turn, it brought forth more recent but not fond memories…

Because you died in another reality. Another universe. Another point in time.”

Steve?”

Just how many times did Steve watch him die? Or Peggy, for the matter? Nothing was mentioned about Michael, but Bucky didn’t know what to make of it. Michael had been declared dead once in 1942, before being found as a prisoner of HYDRA by the SSR. Then, Michael had been declared dead again in 1945. Perhaps Steve had found the record, which could possibly be why Steve had not made any mention of it.

But how many universes, timelines, or elsewhere, had Steve gone to, or watched him or Peggy die? It felt like someone had walked over his grave, as the image of himself fading into dust briefly played over his eyes again.

Bucky shuddered and focused his eyes on the rug again. He had been sleepy enough to almost fall asleep, but now couldn’t anymore. He saw death, and death was wearing his face.

Beneath the rug, beneath the floor, and the dirt was a device so powerful that it had the potential to wipe out half of all life. He wasn’t even sure if Steve was aware of it himself, but Bucky had noticed that Steve looked to be in discomfort, whenever he used the stones.

It wasn’t quite a tick, but it was more Steve grimacing whenever using a stone. He didn’t know what exactly they were, other than what Steve had shown them, but he could tell that they were incredibly dangerous. Whatever and however Steve was going to ensure that he stayed here, in this time and now, Bucky hoped that it would not involve the stones too much.

The thing called Ghost Rider had demanded Steve to return the stones, but Bucky had a feeling that returning the stones was not the price that Ghost Rider wanted Steve to pay.

* * *

Early next morning...

 

There seemed to be a more relative calm around the house, compared to last night. Peggy had gone to bed with a heavy weight of sorrow and relief, mixed with worry and a touch of anger. It had not been her intention to sleep separately from Steve, but she had been grateful for the space between them.

The door seemed like a solid wall for her to gather her thoughts, process what she had seen, and calm herself down. Steve… was not her Steve, yet he also was. Steve had been through so much, seen too much, and Peggy didn’t know where to start.

A s the minutes of the solid door that stood between them dragged into hours, Peggy had contemplated going back down to fetch Steve; to tell him that she forgave him. That she still had mixed feelings about what he had done, but that s he still loved him.

B efore she could do that, the rear door on the first floor had opened. She watched, peeling back a small corner of the curtain at the window on the ir second floor bedroom, as Steve and Bucky talked. She had seen Steve entwine his hand with Bucky’s gloved metal one, and she knew what it meant.

P eggy wasn’t proud of the small burst of jealous feelings that had arisen when she had seen that. But she knew that she could not deny what she saw – especially since she had seen the mutually affectionate looks in both of their eyes towards each other during the war.

There was an incredibly strong bond of love – brotherly and otherwise – between Steve and Bucky that surpassed simple, or even passionate affection. It was something that she knew that she could never compete with. Nor would she ever try to.

Steve’s heart was generously open to those he loved dearly, and Peggy knew that it encompassed both her and Bucky. Michael was a part of the familial love, but there seemed only to be a n endless depth reserved for both her and Bucky.

M inutes after the two had returned inside, Peggy had heard footsteps come up the stairs. To her surprise, it was not Bucky returning to the spare bedroom he shared with Michael, but Steve returning to t heir bedroom .

Steve had gently knocked and murmured an apology. Peggy wanted to throw open the door and fall into his embrace, but she h ad been much too tired from the day. She had simply opened the door, silently took his hands, and led him in.

A t the present, Steve had woken up early, but Peggy smelled the wonderful scent of a hearty breakf ast being cooked. Crossing into the living room, she saw that a folded blanket and pillow were sitting on the corner of the couch, but the lock box that held the contents of her information about Dottie were not at the coffee table anymore. She could only assume that the box was stored underneath the floorboard again.

Steve was at the kitchen, finishing up cooking breakfast, while Michael was setting out the last of the plates, utensils, and cloth napkins. Bucky had placed the pot of coffee brewed to the side, having filled all four mugs. Seeing that she had nothing to do to help, Peggy joined her brother and Bucky at the table.

It was a luxury that she got to sit with her family at the dining table – even more so considering the events of last night in Port Chester. She had thought that the phone call from Thompson or others would have both her and Bucky bolting out of the house in the middle of the night, to respond to another emergency. But even that seemed incomparable to the memories, wonders, and terrifying vision of the future from Steve’s memories.

“Will your friends be joining us today, Steve?” she asked, curious and a still little disturbed. There was no sign of the strange entity with the skull-on-fire in the kitchen and dining room, or of the two people Steve claimed to be his friends, from the stone.

She was sure that Steve would have found some way to free his friends from such imprisonment. But after seeing her husband’s memories, it seemed difficult to release people from the stones. While that didn’t settle well with her, she was further greatly unsettled at the fact that the entity Steve called ‘Ghost Rider’ had the ability to do so – and was not releasing Steve’s friends to be completely free. Still, little had been spoken of, or said after Steve had whispered his heartbreaking, confessional wish to stay.

Peggy didn’t understand why Ghost Rider seemed intent on Steve returning the stones, or how the woman named ‘Natasha’ and her claim to be unable to ‘hold back the tide’ factored into it. She had heard the genuine confusion within Steve’s tone about not making a bargain with the devilish entity. But neither did Steve offer an explanation.

Her brother, Michael, certainly hadn’t told her anything, even after he had knocked on her door last night to say a simple goodnight. Peggy knew her brother was excellent at ferreting and inferring information with just a simple glance around the room. Yet, for him to keep silent about what he and Steve possibly discussed when she and Bucky had been responding to the SSR emergency, was strange.

Perhaps Michael knew little to nothing as well—

“I’m not sure,” Steve admitted, frowning slightly as he brought the plates of eggs, sausages, and toasts over. She saw him look around before shrugging. “I honestly don’t know how the Soul Stone works, other than what Clint – one of my friends – told me: a soul for a soul to activate and claim it. I would’ve returned that stone first, but—”

“The Soul Stone acts as a barrier for when the other stones are wielded,” the unexpected, slightly sultry voice of the woman named Natasha spoke up. “I would highly suggest that it is returned last, Steve.”

Peggy wasn’t the only one to jump slightly, but she was glad she was seated, instead of standing. The red-haired woman named Natasha was seated at the head of the table, with an impish smile on her face. The whirring whine of Bucky’s metal arm spooling up and then down at the woman’s unexpected appearance briefly filled the air.

Nat,” Steve began, sounding slightly annoyed. “Please stop scaring them like that.”

Peggy saw the woman purse her lips, as if considering Steve’s words before shrugging in agreement. “ Sure, but only if you’ve fully agreed to stay. Tony tells me that you weren’t exactly paying attention to sketching, or jotting down details on the blueprints last night.”

And I’m assuming Tony can still speak for himself?” Steve questioned, sounding even more annoyed.

Were it not for the fact that Peggy was still uneasy about whatever bargain Steve seemingly struck with the entity named Ghost Rider, or otherwise, she would’ve thought that the argument between Steve and Natasha sounded almost sibling-like. “So your friends are joining us,” she intervened before things could get even further out of hand.

Guess so,” Tony spoke up, appearing next to Michael, while simultaneously shoving the chair next to Michael closer to Natasha. “Can’t eat when you’re dead though…even if I miss your terrible cooking that made everyone miserable, Rogers.”

T he expression that crossed Steve’s face was an interesting mix of insulted offense and sadness, before the latter seemed to override Steve’s grief at the flippant remark of death made by Tony. As Steve went back to the kitchen for the condiments to go with the toast, Michael spoke up, asking, “ Let’s get back into more diplomatic territory. Introductions to everyone else here?”

A Black Widow, and high probability that Mr. Egotistical is either Howard’s son, or grandson,” Bucky stated, pointing to Natasha and Tony, respectively. “You have some seriously strange taste in friends, Steve.”

T he casualness of Bucky’s remark caused the tinkling of forks and knives against plates to pause. Peggy slowly placed the mug of coffee down, as she noticed that both Natasha and Tony were staring at Bucky as well. Steve had returned and quietly set down the condiments, before taking the final seat at the dining table.

Someone with that enormous of an ego, and recklessness in weapons-building from Steve’s memories lends credence that there is a high probability in relation to Howard Stark. The fact that you were advising Steve last night about blueprints reinforces that fact,” Bucky stated, taking a sip of his coffee.

Far from being offended, Peggy saw a tight, unfriendly smile appear on Tony’s face. “Anthony Stark,” the man introduced himself, but seemingly had focused his intense, almost hostile look on Bucky . “ Howard’s my old man. I only introduced myself to Michael here last night, so it stands to say that perhaps he told you after all of that.”

Tony,” both Natasha and Steve warned at the same time.

Just that one word of a raised tone from the two was enough for Peggy to infer that Bucky of the future had not gotten along with Tony at all. Whatever bad blood there was between the two, had not been shown by Steve. Peggy was sure Steve had to intervene a number of times between the two, and sympathized with his plight.

To her slight surprise, Bucky didn’t rise to the challenge in Tony’s tone. Instead, h e just merely flicked his eyes over towards Natasha. Widows don’t have a distinctive hallmark in the way they fight, but there are elements of the same kind of schooling I saw last night, between you and Dottie Underwood,” Bucky calmly explained.

Natalia Alianovna Romanova,” Natasha stated in a solemn tone. “That’s the alias they gave me. I was the last of the Black Widows trained, and the only one to successfully defect. From what I saw last night, it looks like the one alias as Dottie Underwood may also be trying to defect.”

Yes, I believe so,” Peggy spoke up, curious. “Do you know of anything that could help?”

Dottie Underwood died in a secret Siberian outpost in 1947, in the other timeline. She was hunted down in the US, dragged back to that silo, and executed. Two bullets to the chest and a snapped neck,” Natasha stated.

Peggy found it strange that there was a careful tone being used, as if there were some detailed things that she knew about this particular era in time, but didn’t want to say. Considering how old Natasha looked, Peggy found it even more strange that she would know such details. The conditioning of the girls at the ‘school’ on the border didn’t lend any facts that they forced the girls to know what happened to any of them, should they fail in their mission or defect.

How many Widows did that take?” Bucky asked, breakfast completely forgotten. “To bring her back?”

None,” Natasha stated. “The Soviets used another asset that does not exist in this timeline. Steve’s arrival here changed a lot of things.” In a softer tone, Peggy saw a bitter smile quirk up the woman’s lips, as she said, “Maybe… maybe she’ll survive this time.”

She has at least twenty-one other Widows coming after her,” Bucky stated. “They were all activated and sent out into the wild, given aliases, and are hunting for her. Anything you know that could help her survive?”

Twenty-one Widows...” Natasha mused, strangely amused. “They didn’t even bother going with the single successor trial. Have the successor Widow kill the defecting Widow to prove her loyalty and take the title.”

The amusement in Natasha’s eyes died, as realization overtook her. “They’re going to end the Program entirely. Now. Not in five decades, ” she said, giving both her and Bucky a most curious look. “What did either of you do to the Soviets?”

T o deny was to outright lie, and Peggy could see that Natasha was too sharp to buy into any denial. Instead, it was Bucky who glanced over at Steve, asking, “ I take it that Peggy had a large influence in the world when both of us were asleep? But I thought I was asleep until more recent times in the other timeline?”

S teve silently nodded – to both questions it seemed. “I trust her with my life, Bucky. She can be trusted with all of this. With both of your work at the SSR.

And the SSR was the predecessor to SHIELD,” Peggy murmured, remembering Steve’s words last night. “SHIELD helped you defect. Took you in from the cold, didn’t they?”

Gave me a family,” Natasha said, nodding.

B ucky was silent for a few moments, tenting his gloved fingers together. Peggy saw him glance up at Michael asking, “Did you get to read the debrief, or a summary of the operation before you left?”

Some, not all,” Michael answered in a neutral tone.

My partner and I were behind Soviet lines for the better part of about one-and-a-half years,” Bucky stated, focusing his eyes on Natasha. “We destroyed everything that came from what they called ‘Department X’ or ‘Red Room’. That included their capability to train and produce the Black Widows.”

S ilence fell around the table before Peggy saw a rather hungry, predatory look within Natasha’s eyes. It was not directed at Bucky, nor was it to Steve, when the woman focused her eyes on Steve and smiled.

Dottie Underwood is in good hands, Steve,” was all Natasha stated, before focusing her attention back on Bucky. “Thank you, Barnes, for doing that. For giving myself in this timeline a better future.”

T he unexpected statement of gratitude surprised them all. Despite the animosity between Bucky and Tony, even Tony looked slightly amazed at the turn of events. There was silence from Bucky, but he was turning a rather interesting shade of pink in embarrassment , before nodding once. Peggy could only imagine that few ever thanked Bucky for doing what most considered dirty work in the espionage business – especially with his deadly skill set.

Do you remember where you were—” Steve began.

Rogers, don’t,” Natasha said, shaking her head. “I’m still not telling you where or when I was really born. Regimes fall and change, and they might be doing so sooner than later, now. I’m Russian, and I’m not going to weep over the fact that I don’t have a life in the States. Call me a Communist if you want, but I want myself here and now, to live a different life.”

All right,” Steve nodded, slightly surprising Peggy that he was not pushing the issue of potentially rescuing Natasha from living under Soviet rule, somewhere in the future.

And maybe my own father won’t be such a dick, now that you’re staying here, right Steve?” Tony spoke up.

E yes turned towards Steve, Peggy’s included. They had not discussed anything of the sort, but considering what Bucky had obliquely mentioned about Steve and blueprints, she thought it was a forgone conclusion. Now, Tony seemed to press doubts into that.

I’m staying,” Steve confirmed, nodding. Peggy reached over and grasped her husband’s hand, just as he continued to say, “but I need you to work in a fail safe into the blueprints Tony.”

Fail safe?” Tony questioned, looking puzzled.

1948, Tony,” was all Steve said. “You know how many enemies your father has – how many you had. If he builds this, he’s essentially painting an enormous target on his back. I’m not going to risk your father’s life, just to stay here. If push comes to shove, it needs to be destroyed, stones returned or not.”

Steve…” Natasha began, her worried tone carrying the same worry as Peggy felt.

No, no,” Tony interrupted, nodding. “I get it. Dad could be a real asshole sometimes, but yeah. I get it.

Then it’s settled,” Peggy said, squeezing Steve’s hand before letting go and getting up. She made her way over to the phone. “How long did it take you to build the machine, with the materials you had on hand, Mr. Stark?”

Erm, what are you doing, Pegs?” Michael asked, as Steve and Bucky look at her in puzzlement.

Summoning Howard here as soon as humanly possible,” she stated, before focusing her eyes on Tony. “I’m assuming that this ‘time is running out’ message that you, Ms. Romanova, gave us, is because of these creatures that the SSR has been facing yesterday, and a few other times?”

No,” Natasha answered, shaking her head slightly. “None of those creatures are from the menagerie that are trapped within the Soul Stone. Ghost Rider sent me out so I could kill some of the creatures. It’s to help reinforce the barrier that is holding back Thanos’ army when Tony snapped them out of existence. To buy some time before the barrier becomes too thin. What the SSR is facing is not of any of our doing.”

Peggy frowned, as Bucky gave Natasha a sharp look. “Nat?” Steve asked, eyebrows furrowed.

The Soul Stone tempers and regulates the other stones, Steve,” Natasha explained. “If it is used with the others stones, such as what happened the first time around, all souls snapped out of existence end up within the stone – stored there. A piece of the stone wielder is also stored there as an additional barrier. You know my ledger is gushing red, Steve.”

And that personal ledger is a barrier to keep Thanos’ army from escaping,” Steve said, eyes wide with disbelief. “God, Nat… why didn’t you…?”

Shut up and don’t carry that guilt, Rogers,” Natasha admonished. “It was my choice, and Ghost Rider adhered to it. Go punch it, if you think it’s a bully.

Then time is still running out,” Peggy stated, not appreciating the rather dark humor from Natasha.

The fact that Natasha all but verbally confirmed that Black Widows were trained assassins – and that Natasha herself had personally killed many people, made Peggy slightly uneasy. Steve striking up a sibling-like friendship with such a dangerous woman made her a little apprehensive. Yet, she couldn’t judge Steve for that – she herself was trying to help Dottie Underwood – a Black Widow herself – defect.

She’d be a hypocrite, if she didn’t accept Natasha as she was. The red-haired woman had, after all, sacrificed herself for the rest of them – to stop an all-consuming evil within the world… galaxy even.

Peggy’s thoughts spun.

Slowly, now that three of those creatures from last night are helping with the barrier,” Natasha stated, nodding in agreement.

P eggy decided not to press for details, and instead, focused her eyes on Tony, asking again, “How long did it take you to build the machine, with the materials you had on hand, Mr. Stark?”

A couple of weeks, ma’am,” Tony spoke up, grimacing slightly.

Did you just ‘ma’am’ my sister?” Michael murmured, giving Tony a strange look.

But that was with materials that haven’t been invented here yet,” Tony continued, seemingly ignoring Michael’s amused look. “It might take a month at the least, with 1940’s tech—”

I thought that’s what we’ve been adapting the blueprints for, Tony,” Steve began.

“All bluster and no substance then, Stark?” Bucky challenged.

Peggy rolled her eyes as an argument looked to erupt, and picked up the phone. Requesting the operator to connect her to Howard’s number, she pressed the handset to her ear. The phone was picked up on the third ring.

“Good morning—” Peggy began.

“Hey, English,” an unexpected voice answered, slurring drunkenly. “Been a while since you visited out here. You calling to make a trip?”

“Angie?!”

Whatever argument was going in the dining room was silenced by her exclamation, but Peggy was not paying attention to them at all. Instead, she had briefly pulled away the handset and looked at it, before placing it back to her ear.

“Yes,” Angie answered, laughing rather drunkenly. “Of course it’s me, silly. It’s a great party that Mr. Stark is throwing here—”

Peggy groaned, shaking her head and glanced up at the ceiling. Of everything that Howard was doing in California, the parties he threw for the cast and crew of his fledgling movie company were the worst. Peggy had just happened to run into one of those parties before, in New York, when she and Angie had been renting an apartment from Howard.

“Angie, would you please put either Mr. Jarvis, or Mr. Stark on the phone? It’s—”

“Oooh, something you can’t tell me about? Hmmm?” Angie said, in an attempt at a conspiratorial whisper, but dramatically failing to do so. Fortunately, it seemed her friend was not as drunk as Peggy thought her to be. After a second, Angie brightly said, “Sure thing, English. But promise me to come out a visit soon! I want to show you the movie set before we’re done wrapping up!”

“I’ll try,” she said, glancing over towards those in the dining room and shook her head.

Michael gave her a sympathetic look before leaning over the table to tell Bucky what the exchange was about. Bucky had never met Angie Martinelli before – since he had been deployed on his mission before Peggy had a chance to introduce Bucky to Angie. Steve had picked up her mug of coffee and silently offered to bring it over to her, but she shook her head, indicating that it was not necessary.

Angie was not drunk enough like the last time she had rung up her phone, causing her to stay up for six hours. They had talked and commiserated about the loss of a lead role Angie was in the running for, to another starlet. Peggy had ended up drinking nearly the entire pot of coffee after Angie had hung up – tired but needing to go into work.

“Peggy!” Howard’s cheerful voice blasted across the phone.

“Go secure,” she cut in before Howard could say anything else. In turn, as she listened to Howard splutter, realizing that she was being serious, Peggy reached cross the sink to pluck a tiny device from the plant sitting at the windowsill.

Unscrewing the caps to both ends of the handset, she placed the two parts of the device on each end. Screwing the caps back on, she brought the phone back to her ear, and waited.

Two minutes passed before Howard’s voice came back through the phone, tinny but still audible. “Secured,” was all Howard said, the cheerfulness gone from his tone.

“I need you here, shadow condition five,” she stated the code words she had made Howard memorize.

While renting an apartment from Howard was a generous payback for all that she had put up with in clearing Howard’s name, her friend had insisted that it was not enough. The ‘I owe you one’ had turned into a promise to help, no matter what – for Howard to drop whatever he was in the middle of doing and just come and help her. Peggy never thought she’d be using it, and would’ve thought that Howard was – to quote Bucky’s recent caustic words thrown at Tony – ‘all bluster and no substance’.

There was silence on the other end, before she heard Howard answer, “Jarvis and I will be there tonight, nine at the latest. Teterboro Airport.”

“Thank you,” she said, and pressed the switch hook to hang up. After disconnecting the secure device and configuring the phone back for normal usage, she turned towards the dining room and gave those seated a tired smile.

“Howard and Mr. Jarvis will be here by nine tonight, at Teterboro Airport.”

* * *

Later, New York City, SSR Headquarters...

 

There wasn’t a lot more on Dottie Underwood that Bucky could find in the archives, that wasn’t already in Peggy’s notes in the lock box. He did find a different picture of her within the folder that the SSR kept on her. It was more of a glamour shot than the utilitarian one Peggy had.

“Didn’t I tell you? As gorgeous as Rita Hayworth.”

Bucky looked up from the folder to see Sousa leaning against the door frame that led in and out of the stuffy area. He inclined his head in agreement before asking, “Thompson’s looking for me?”

“No,” Sousa answered, shaking his head. “Just thought I’d find you here, looking up stuff about her after what happened last night. Figured that if you have any questions, I’d be the best in answering.”

“I heard Peggy was the one who encountered her first, and interacted with her the most,” Bucky carefully stated, closing the folder.

Sousa nodded in agreement. “Federal agents aren’t supposed to have biases when it comes to law and order, but you can’t just stamp it out of everyone. Otherwise, we’d be ineffective. Peggy pointed Underwood out as a clear threat to all of us, and we ignored it. Not our finest moment, I’ll admit that, but she was right. Just like she was right about Howard Stark all along.”

The agent stepped in further, but did not shut the door. The conversation was not private, but Bucky got the sense that Sousa didn’t want his next words to be heard by any passerby. “Now, she’s claiming that Underwood wants to defect. That’s a whole spin around from the killer Soviet agent that Peggy had claimed her to be.”

“I saw Underwood kill two of those things yesterday with some sword-like object. Do you believe Peggy?” Bucky asked.

Thanks to his spending over a year with his mother while in the field, he had seen exactly how Dottie Underwood killed the creatures with her sword-like object. It confirmed to him that the woman was trained in the same school that his own mother had been trained as – a Black Widow. The only difference between his mother and the Soviet agent aliased as ‘Dottie Underwood’, was that Underwood fought with more evolved fighting style.

“No,” Sousa answered, shaking his head slightly. “I think she’s going to become a Soviet mole, if we bring her in from the cold. I’m not sure how much you’ve read about the Howard Stark case, but Peggy and the Chief went over to the border to investigate some Soviet coordinates for a weapons exchange setup.”

“I heard a little about it from the other Commandos,” Bucky nodded. He did not mention that he and his mother had traveled to and searched through those ruins. “Said that Pinkerton was killed nearly point blank by an innocent little girl with a gun. DumDum got stabbed by the same girl,” he continued.

“Yeah,” Sousa said, looking slightly uncomfortable. “From the way Peggy described her fight with Underwood at the airfield, it sounds like the lady is a product of that… school. Can’t believe that they would even do things like that to girls, much less women.”

“Hidden in plain sight,” Bucky murmured.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Sousa spluttered slightly. “I’m not saying Peggy can’t handle stuff on her own, but… it’s just… the way her report said that subliminal messages were hidden in that movie reel of Snow White. It’s… eerie…”

Sousa took a deep breath and seemed to refocus himself, looking at Bucky, worried. “I’m worried about Peggy. She won’t let the idea of Dottie Underwood defecting, go. No matter how much I try to convince her of the facts that she herself presented. As an old friend of hers, I was hoping that you’d have a better chance of convincing her than I did. Would you please do so?”

Bucky considered what Peggy had in her lock box case, the discussion from breakfast, along with the plea and rationale he heard from Sousa. All were convincing in their own right, but it seemed that while the rest of the SSR – or at least Sousa – knew that Peggy argued for defection, everyone else thought of Underwood as an obvious Soviet double-agent trap.

It seemed that Peggy was planning to find Dottie, and secretly smuggle her to safety. That was, if the route maps, along with several snippets of hand-written contact information that looked to be of the shady sort in her lock box, were anything to say. The only problem with Peggy’s plan was that the woman only showed up whenever there was one of those strange shadow creature attacks.

“I can try,” he said.

“That’s all I can ask,” Sousa answered, nodding in relief. “Thanks.”

Sousa left, and Bucky took another look at the cover of the file he held in his hands before reaching up to re-file it in its proper place. While he was worried that there were twenty-one Widows out in the world, and only the initials of their known aliases, it was Natasha’s words during breakfast that made him curious.

Gratitude for what he had done was never said to him, nor had he expected it. He knew what he was – assassin – but the fact that Natasha thanked him for a better life now, was concerning. Added to the fact that Peggy’s report on the ‘school’ for the girls involved subliminal messaging being embedded within the girls’ mind made him think that the girls were unwilling subjects.

“I think you could give The Thinker statue a run for its money, Barnes.”

Bucky managed to contain his response to immediately attack down to a mere one-second low-high-low pitched whisper of his metal arm spooling up. He supposed he was getting used to the fact that Steve’s friend just appeared and disappeared as she pleased. But it was rather annoying—

“And I take it that despite whatever relationship you had with Steve, you never listened to him?” he quietly stated, glancing towards the door to the archive room to ensure that no one saw them talking.

“Only when in battle,” Natasha impishly stated, smiling up at him, as she stood close to him.

Despite being a messenger of death – or whatever the hell Ghost Rider was – there was at least an inch of space between them. She was standing close enough for him to get a good personal look at her – the sensuous curves of her breasts, hips that most likely invited men into her bed with a simple sway, doe-eyes that played innocent when the need called for it, and sinewy strength that seemingly laid hidden away.

Bucky couldn’t help but smirk; as his eyes roamed about her, taking her in, she had done the same to him. A Widow’s Call, he had secretly termed the conditioning that he had read about in one of the reports found within another ‘school’ during his mission. It was a siren’s call for mostly men – the targets of the Widows. His mother had stated that while it was used mostly on men, there were times where that ‘siren’s call’ was used on women.

Bucky had developed his own ‘siren’s call’ out of necessity – when he had been growing up in Brooklyn. He used it to date the girls he liked, and to rope them into bringing a friend in to date Steve. The first time he had used his ‘siren’s call’ on a man had been on Michael. That had been during the war – when Philips had ordered him to vet Peggy’s brother as a potential double-agent.

He had sort of failed in that mission. He had changed the parameters of the mission on his own, when he found out what Michael really was, and the secrets of Operation Midnight. Bucky had been glad that he had done so.

“But even then, Steve generally went with more of the wild ideas I had,” Natasha followed up after a moment.

“Like that flying thing you caught a ride upon, during the battle in New York against this Loki fellow?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

He knew Steve was sometimes easily swayed to do some rather riskier things, but put is foot down most of the time. Steve caving into Natasha’s insistence could’ve been attributed to the fact that even he, Bucky, would’ve been hard-pressed to deal with the chaos in New York in a calmer manner.

Natasha hummed, but did not confirm or deny. She merely gave him a cheeky grin.

Bucky couldn’t help but chuckle, feeling strangely at ease with her. “I have to ask,” he said. “You knew me in the future?”

“I had known you for a little while,” she stated, nodding in agreement.

“Were we?” he began, then gestured to just how close they were standing.

Even after sizing each other up, it would be natural to step away and give some space to each other. But Bucky did not feel a need to step away – even if Natasha could move one inch closer to him and dissolve him right then and there.

She smile, sad and knowing at the same time. “No,” she answered.

“That’s it?” Bucky couldn’t help but ask.

“A girl’s gotta have her secrets, Barnes,” Natasha said.

“<Even if she was brainwashed and forced to serve her motherland?>” he softly asked in Russian.

“<You saw, you read about what the did to us, in the Red Room.>” she answered, the smile disappearing from both her eyes and lips. “<Any one of us would have been unwilling to go through that, without those mental conditioning… exercises…>”

“<I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you earlier in the other timeline, Natalia.>” he said.

A bitter smile and chuckle escaped her lips, as she shook her head. “<Please don’t start sounding like Steve. It’s not who you are. Even in this timeline.>”

“<Then how do I save Dottie Underwood?>” Bucky asked.

She looked up at him, capturing him with her eyes. “<Be who you are, Barnes. Find and hunt her down. Save her, if you can – save my fellow Widow sisters as well. But, if you can’t, grant them mercy, and kill them.>”

* * *

Evening, Teterboro Airport…

 

“Such a shame that Peggy and Bucky aren’t here to see Howard’s reaction to seeing you alive,” Michael quipped as the two of them watched Howard’s plane land.

Steve gave his brother-in-law a mild look, before shaking his head. He had hoped that it would never come to this, but it seemed that there was a limit to God granting him his wishes.

The blueprints had been almost finalized, but at least Tony had been cooperative in incorporating built-in explosives. While there was no guarantee that Howard wouldn’t discover some parts that were wired as explosives, Tony had been deviously clever in hiding others. Steve felt better at the fact that Tony had taken the threat on Howard’s life seriously.

“They’ll be all right,” he said, looking at the wide airfield wistfully.

Peggy had specifically called Michael this time, instead of her ‘neighbor to feed her cat’. She was supposed to be on a short vacation while Michael was here – spending time seeing the sights with her brother. However, due to last night’s incident in Port Chester, that vacation had been canceled.

Peggy had not stated what was happening – other than a simple ‘I will be late coming home’ to Michael. It was Natasha who had briefly appeared, and informed both of them that an incident was brewing in New Rochelle.

Knowing what and why Natasha was sticking with the two gave Steve some comfort as much as it worried him. Steve wished that Natasha had not waited or made a seemingly dark pact with Ghost Rider to keep the fact that she was holding back the ghosts of Thanos’ army in the Soul Stone.

“I take it from the look on your face, things looked different at Teterboro in the future?” Michael conversationally asked, dragging Steve’s thoughts back to the present.

“Security for one thing,” Steve said, gesturing towards the airfield. “We wouldn’t have even been allowed to bring the car up to the tarmac. The world in the future was more fearful… less open, and less trusting.”

Michael remained silent at that, but Steve could see his eyebrows were furrowed in thought. He never asked about his brother-in-law’s work, but he could reasonably assume that MI-5 was primarily concerned with the growing rise and infiltration of Communism within the homeland.

Steve had tried to read up on what happened in the years after the end of the war. But with so many biased historical texts, it was difficult for him to grasp who was right or wrong in the era known as the ‘Cold War’. All he got from his attempt to read and formulate an unbiased opinion was that it had led to HYDRA tightening their hold on the chaos they had been creating.

“All right, looks like post-flight checks are complete,” Michael stated, as the two of them saw movement coming from the cockpit.

Michael exited the rental car first, knowing that Howard would want to see a familiar face to confirm Peggy’s call. But Steve was not content on waiting, and exited as well, coming up to the hood of the car where Michael stood. He didn’t lean against the hood as Michael had done, but decided to stand straight.

The door to Howard’s personal airplane was lowered. A few seconds later, Steve saw Jarvis appear and begin to descend. The man glanced over at them, eyes searching out for Peggy, but then stopped in the middle of the stairs as Steve saw him focus his eyes on him.

“Come on, Jarvis,” Steve heard Howard complain, as the inventor emerged from the airplane. “What’s the damn hold up?”

“Sir...” Jarvis began.

“What,” Howard began, then looked towards the same place that Jarvis was staring at. “Holy… S-Steve?” Steve heard Howard stutter.

“Hello, old friend,” Steve answered.

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Memory Extraction Session: возвращение на родину + один + многочисленный

 

Time…

He always lost track of time whenever it was like this. Whenever he bit down on his lip to keep from crying out in pain. As the shoe, the foot within the shoe, and the force behind the kick stabbed into him. Into his gut, into his back, into his leg, into his arms, but never into his head to end it.

Time…

He wished it would stop.

But he would never take back his words. No matter how furious it made his father. No matter how many cruel names his father viciously spat at him. No matter how many times his father kicked, punched, and hauled him up like a sack of grain – only to slam him into the floor, bloody and bruised. He would never take back his words.

He loved—

 

Bucky gasped. His eyes snapped open, only for his vision to be washed in harsh light. The sounds of his breath were scraping against his ear, his heart beating unevenly in his chest—

“So kind of Dr. Ivchenko to let you sleep, just this once.”

The cold, chilling voice of Zola near him on his left caused Bucky to turn his head slightly. He couldn’t feel a thing, could barely move, but from where he was, his world looked oddly horizontal. He was no longer strapped to the infernal chair, and was now lying on a metal slab or something. The scientist was standing next to the globe, seemingly watching the memories floating by with disinterest.

Bucky knew those memories being projected on the globe. He clearly remembered the date: November 5th, 1944, and where the memories came from: SSR Headquarters. It was a date that he would never forget—

 

возвращение на родину

If he closed his eyes and muffled his ears enough, Bucky could sometimes imagine that he was home, and that the noise was from his sisters chatting gaily about their day. Sometimes Mother would join in as well, but most of the time, she would be at the stove, cooking up a scrumptious meal.

However, that moment would never last more than a few seconds as the sounds of the SSR Headquarters always sent him back to reality. It was in those times, where the murmurs and noises of people walking everywhere, things getting fixed or created, the ringing of telephones, or even the crunching noise of the Enigma machine being decoded, made him open his eyes to see his brief reverie dissolve away.

Bucky missed his mother and sisters, missed New York in general, but he never missed home.

At this very moment though, he was sitting in the corner of what most of the NCOs had nicknamed 'the cage', cleaning not only his sniper rifle, but other rifles. Most of the personnel didn't want to spend their days off cleaning the weapons.

A rota had been drawn up to do so, but he liked doing such a task. Of course there were plenty of other things he could have been engaging in on his days off, but Bucky liked it here.

Not only was it quiet, it afforded him a lot of luxury in listening into idle conversations. More than once, he had picked up on rumors, on observations of interaction between personnel, and best of all, sitting in 'the cage' gave him a wide view of the main room.

One of the best kept secrets of 'the cage' was it also gave him a view of the halls that led down to the laboratories where Howard and his team were always creating new gadgets. Most people didn't use the hall, since bothering the team usually resulted in one or more of the engineers complaining to the brass about unnecessary distractions. Thus the halls was sometimes used by personnel who wanted just a brief moment of privacy to engage in some moments of affection.

Bucky was sure he wasn't the only one who watched those using the hall as a semi-private place – some of the people were more openly affectionate and passionate than others – but at the moment, there was no one in the halls. Jones sometimes joined him in the cleaning of the rifles and pistols, but tonight, most of the personnel were above.

It was apparently Guy Fawkes Night, and most of the British were off celebrating it by drinking instead of lighting bonfires. They had also dragged most of their American and French allies into the festivities.

A few level-headed ones remained though. Someone had to keep working, since there was still the primary HYDRA base and a few smaller ones that recently cropped up that they needed to destroy.

Dr. Zola still had not been captured yet, and no one knew where he was. Schmidt was also on the loose, though Bucky had heard some rumors of Schmidt being sighted somewhere in the Alps.

That had not been confirmed yet, and with winter settling in soon, going anywhere near the Alps at the moment was going to be incredibly tricky, even for the Howling Commandos. They ate impossible for breakfast, but he knew that they were not invincible. Sooner or later, their luck was going to run out.

Shaking his head slightly, Bucky tried to brush the thoughts away as placed the barrel of the disassembled pistol down and picked up another one and began to clean it. He heard the footsteps and murmurs of voices coming down the halls of the laboratories and smiled to himself.

He had seen both Steve and Peggy go down the halls about an hour earlier, and it seemed that neither had seen him sitting in 'the cage'. Clearly the two had business to discuss with Howard, but it seemed that that business was done, judging by how slow their footsteps were on the floor. They definitely were taking their time returning to the main area.

Peeking up from his cleaning, Bucky didn't see Steve or Peggy, but he did hear Peggy softly murmur, “Not here, Steve. It's a little too open.”

There's no one here, Peggy,” he heard Steve softly answer.

Bucky had to bite on his knuckles to keep from openly laughing. How Steve missed seeing him in 'the cage' when he and Peggy had descended from above ground to the bunker proper was hilariously amazing. He hadn't even situated himself deep within 'the cage', buried proverbially up to his shoulders in firearms and cleaning materials.

There was a sigh before he heard Peggy say, “Sometimes, you really don't pay attention to your surroundings, do you Steve. Isn't that right, Sergeant Barnes?”

Bucky laughed, this time not bothering to contain himself as Peggy had stated that last question a little louder, and clearly directed at him. Footsteps echoed down the hall and a moment later, he saw Steve emerge, looking a little affronted.

How long have you been sitting there?” Steve asked.

Bucky shrugged and merely gestured towards the open saying, “Best view of the house.”

Peggy emerged, shaking her head slightly in exasperation, saying, “Only for a voyeur like you, Sergeant.”

It was interesting to see Steve's face turn a few shades of red in embarrassment before an indignant expression finally ended it. Bucky couldn't help but widely smile in return, just as Peggy asked, “I'm surprised though, that you're not upstairs, drinking with the others. It would be much more productive to collect rumors and the like from looser tongues.”

Wanted some peace and quiet,” he answered, amused at Steve's ever-changing reaction.

Not that he minded that Peggy was spilling some of the well-kept secrets he had done while at headquarters; she was the only person he spoke to with regards to the many rumors he heard. She was more entrenched and in the know of the 'politics' behind the SSR, and thus would know what to do with the information he picked up.

It was only fair that Steve now knew a little what he did when not engaged in any other tasks at headquarters. It also alleviated the possibility of Steve's worry (and potential rumor that had started only very recently) that he, Bucky, was charming away his best friend's girl.

Care to join us, Sergeant Barnes?” Peggy unexpectedly asked after a moment.

Drinking?” he asked, holding his tongue on the other thought that had immediately sprung into his thoughts with regards to the question. Steve had been teased enough for tonight, and Bucky didn't have the heart to tease him any further, especially not when Peggy was present.

Not quite,” she answered, walking over to an empty desk and took several sheets of blank paper and three fountain pens. “A tradition that my family used to do during the fifth. A bonfire variety, but doable with a simple campfire.”

Intrigued, Bucky set the barrel he had been cleaning down and said, “All right. Give me a few minutes to put the rest of these away.”

Wiping his hands down on another cloth as best as possible, he placed the rifles that had been cleaned on one side of the racks, and the others that had not been cleaned yet on the other. For the pistol he had been cleaning, he set that to the side, and neatly folded the cloths before stacking them and the other cleaning materials to one side of the table.

Emerging from 'the cage', he locked the door behind him. Peggy took the lead in making their way up the stairs, but as Bucky followed the two, he couldn't help but smile to himself. Home might have been in Brooklyn, but he knew that for him, home was wherever Steve was...and when Peggy would finally marry Steve, where those two were.

They were his reason to come home, no matter what happened.

возвращение на родину

* * *

один

... at least she's safer in the countryside than in any of the cities. That's all I can ask for,” Peggy finished saying, drawing up her knees and wrapped her arms around them for a moment.

Silence fell among the three of them, punctured only by the pop and crackling sound of the wood burning in campfire before Steve spoke up, saying, “I don't have any brothers or sisters. My father died from mustard gas poisoning. I never knew him, even though Mother had a picture of him. She didn't talk about him a lot, but I had seen her cry over the picture many times. She was a nurse, worked in the TB ward. Passed away a few years ago after contracting it.”

And you, Sergeant Barnes?” Peggy asked after a few moments, uncurling herself to sit properly again.

Three sisters,” he began, “Rebecca, Samantha, and Agnes, all working as seamstresses in the factories, though last I heard, Agnes picked up work as a riveter. Father killed himself in after running afoul of the Atlantic City mob when I was ten. Had to take over and help Mother make ends meet since I was the oldest and the man of the household. Had to take care of this punk—” he affectionately jerked his thumb at Steve “—as well. He wouldn't stop getting into fights.”

There was an amused look on Peggy's face as Steve protested with a, “Hey!”

So family histories aside,” Bucky said after a moment, “you're surely not asking us to write confessionals and throw them in the fire, are you, Agent Carter?”

He could have easily called her 'Peggy' as the other Howling Commandos did whenever she was among them and not among the brass. However, it was a long-standing agreement-disagreement of sorts between him and Steve's girl to just refer to each other by rank and surname.

It made it formally entertaining. Yet, most of all, Bucky found himself greatly amused by the guessing game that had sprung up with the others in the group as to why he and Peggy called each other by formal names.

Most thought neither could tolerate each other, and both he and Peggy had agreed to let that rumor grow – to see how it shaped other rumors running around camp, and to give him the best cover to report rumors to her. Of course, Steve had figured out part of the name addressing formality. It was due to him, Bucky, being completely ignored that first time Peggy had stepped into that bar in her gorgeously stunning red dress.

I am,” she answered, distributing the papers and pens to both him and Steve. “But it's more writing the one thing you regret and tossing it into the fire. It started with my great-grandfather when he was a young naval officer fighting in the Napoleonic War. His shipmates started that tradition on their ship in the hopes of going into battle with no regrets. It carried over to the Fifth of November, since it was easier to toss a piece of paper during a bonfire in public than in private and potentially have a family member read the scrap before it completely burned away.”

One regret?” Bucky asked, his pen poised over the paper. “I have a few.”

One regret,” Peggy answered, giving him a solemn look. “From your heart. You write it, burn it, and leave it to ashes. That regret should haunt you no longer after it's completely burnt.”

Do we have to say what it is?” Steve asked, his tone a little melancholic.

No,” she answered, shaking her head slightly. “I'll admit, this has been helping me cope, and I hope that it will help both of you as well.”

Bucky saw Steve start, before seeing Peggy reach out and grasp Steve's hand, squeezing it in reassurance. “Peggy,” Bucky spoke up before Steve could say a word. “Thank you.”

He returned his attention to the paper sitting on his lap as he thought about what to write. Even though he had stated that he had a few regrets in a joking tone, it was true. There were so many things he regretted not doing or had done up until now.

However, as he glanced up for a moment, looking at both Steve and Peggy, lit up by the firelight that sat in front of them, he couldn't help the brief smile that appeared on his face. Focusing back on the paper, he wrote down his one regret that he knew was finally time to let go of.

Folding the paper into quarters, Bucky blew out a noisy sigh and readjusted himself on the chair as he leaned forward, sitting slightly hunched over. Soon after, the two were done with whatever they had written as well.

Any formality to this?” he asked.

No,” Peggy answered, reaching forward and stuffing her folded paper into the bottom of the fire where it was the hottest. She took a stick lying on the side and poke it in some more before handing the stick to Steve.

Steve did the same and after he was done and handed the stick to Bucky. Bucky leaned forward and poked his folded paper into his section of the fire. Seeing that paper curl and burn felt oddly satisfying, and he had to give credit where it was due.

Peggy was right – he felt a lot lighter, a lot more relieved that he had finally written down that one regret that had haunted him, and watched it turn into ashes and dust. It would no longer hang over him, because he should have made his peace long ago; long before Margaret 'Peggy' Carter stepped into his best friend's life.

The three of them sat in silence for a while, seemingly content on watching the fire burn. It was only when the scuffling of feet on the ground that they all looked up to see that one of Howard's assistants was approaching.

Captain Rogers?” the assistant questioned. “Mr. Stark is looking for you.”

That was fast,” Steve said, looking a little regretful that he was leaving the peaceful atmosphere that had settled around them, as he stood up.

We'll still be here, Steve,” Bucky grinned, knowing that despite whatever Howard had finished for Steve, Steve wanted to stay here and enjoy the company. “Just bring something strong back after Howard's through with you.”

Not that strong, please, Steve,” Peggy chimed in, before giving Bucky a withering glare that didn't fully reach her eyes. “Some of us still have work to do in the morning.”

All right,” Steve answered, smiling, and nodded towards the assistant to lead the way.

It was only well after Steve and the assistant had disappeared that Peggy shifted over to sit in the spot that Steve had vacated. Bucky didn't mind, but neither did he move to open the space between them.

Over the crackling and popping noise of the fire, Bucky heard her ask, “You wrote it down, didn't you?”

He glanced over at her, before focusing back on the fire, weaving his hands together and rested his arms on his knees. “Yeah,” he answered. “I did.”

The silence that fell between them was long, but it was not uncomfortable. It was broken after a few minutes as she asked, “Why didn't you ever tell him?”

What difference would it have made?” he countered, glancing over at her. “You've seen him before the serum transformed him. You know what he was like. That punk had a single-minded goal, and nothing was going to change that.”

He returned his gaze to the fire. “I tried to, Peggy. I honestly tried to, but I couldn't do that to Steve.”

He fell silent, looking down at the ground before looking back up and over to her, saying, “I don't have to regret anymore. You're the best thing that's happen to him – even better than that serum. You're his light, but I'll always be his shadow... be both of your shadows. It's where I live, where I work, and where I'll protect both of you.”

In another life, you would have made a wonderful agent, Bucky,” she softly stated, reaching out and grasping his left hand with her right for a moment. “But here, you are a wonderful friend, and I'm glad to have come to know you. Thank you.”

She let go and leaned slightly away, staring at the fire. Bucky could feel the sad smile tug up at the corners of his lips as he too returned his gaze to the fire. He had never stated his regret to Peggy, never said or indicated anything with regards to what she had figured out.

It was, as he had determined long ago, that Peggy Carter was one extremely intelligent and astute woman. Time would only tell what the future held for her, even after she married Steve, but he had a feeling that she was going to be a force to reckon with.

So he said, “Thank you, Peggy, for keeping my one regret, secret.”

один

* * *

многочисленный

Howard must be having a grand old time, if he’s kept Steve down there for as long as it has been. Usually, it would have been a quick ten or fifteen minute discussion, and an ‘off you go’ from Howard, while shooing Steve away.”

Bucky glanced over to see that Peggy had crossed her legs, one over another, folding and weaving her fingers together while resting her elbows on her knees. There was a light smile on her lips, with the firelight casting all sorts of interesting shadows across her face. It had been at least a half-hour since Steve had been summoned away by one of Howard’s assistants.

You getting cold, Peggy?” he asked. “We could head back down and wait there.”

No, no,” she answered, shaking her head slightly. “Just wistfully wondering what new gadget or device Howard’s cooked up this time for Steve to try out in the field. He didn’t say much to either of us when he requested our opinions and some information earlier in the day.”

If it were any other woman wondering the same thing, Bucky would have answered with a lighthearted quip about some new gadget that would help them in the field, or even jokingly state that it could possibly explode even before it even got to the field testing phase, but he didn’t.

Peggy was not that kind of woman that he would ever speak that way to. She was Steve’s girl, and incredibly intelligent to see past bluster and false reassurances. She had proven that time and again, most recently just less than a half hour ago, by correctly guessing – unstated as well – what he had written on that piece of paper that he had burned in the fire.

Instead, he asked, “So what are you plans for after the war?”

It’s a little early to speculate on that, isn’t it, Sergeant?” she asked, giving him a mild look with one eyebrow raised.

It’s never to early to have things to look forward to,” he answered. “This—” he gestured to everything around them “—is eventually going to all end.”

Yes,” she agreed, but the lightness in her eyes was gone as she leaned forward slightly, asking, “What is your real question, Bucky? You know me, you know my work, and you know that I’m not going to give up my duties to the SSR even after the war ends. The threats to this world will not end with Johann Schmidt’s capture.”

Not even if Steve asks you to?” he carefully questioned.

We already had that discussion,” she stated, pressing her lips firmly together in slight anger.

Good,” he said, nodding in approval.

A sense of relief also swept through him, as he knew that were it any other man, they would not have as open of a mind as Steve to allow their best girl – or even wife – to continue to participate in such a dangerous line of work. Bucky knew that he had had initial reservations about the competency of Peggy, but his previous assumptions about her had been quickly and succinctly proven wrong.

Peggy Carter was Steve’s equal in every way, super-soldier serum aside. Bucky could see that she was not going to let her own career stall in whatever advancement Steve would get after the war.

I know how everyone else sees me, Bucky,” she said. “Even you had done so before.”

I know,” he answered, nodding in agreement, “and I’ll say it again: I’m sorry.”

In a slight effort to steer the conversation back to a more lighthearted discussion so that if Steve came back, he would not be stumbling into a tension-filled atmosphere between the two of them, Bucky said, “It was one of the many regrets that I had, that I wanted to write down and burn.”

You’re only allowed one per year,” she pointed out.

He sighed, shaking his head as he couldn’t help the wistful smile quirking up his lips. “I guess I’ll save that for next year’s burning. Underestimating you, and all of the stupid assumptions that came with it.”

And I’ll save mine about you for next year as well,” she answered, the light smile back on her lips. “Pig-headed womanizer with little to no grasp of the obviousness of the situation.”

At that, Bucky could help but laugh, even though it did sting ever so slightly that she had initially thought that about him. “You wound me, Pegs,” he said, chuckling.

I have many more where that came from,” she stated, shaking her head slightly as the light smile on her lips bloomed into a full one. “I did grow up with a brother, after all, and he taught it all to me.”

It was the distant, “Hey!” of Steve calling out to them that caused both him and Peggy to not launch into a brief, but most likely bound to be amusing, insult-lobbying war of words.

Bucky turned slightly from where he was sitting, and at the same time, Peggy did as well. He saw Steve approaching, with a bottle and three squat glasses in his hands. Bucky moved over to open up the space between both him and Peggy, so that Steve could sit between them.

Sorry for making both of you wait that long,” Steve apologized as soon as he got close, taking a seat in the space between them and handing out the glasses.

Don’t worry about it, Steve,” Bucky said, as Steve poured a generous amount of liquid into each glass, before setting the bottle down. “We were just discussing what we’d do after the war’s over.”

Oh?” Steve said, swinging his head back and forth between the two of them, giving both of them a slightly quizzical look.

Well, Sergeant Barnes here, says that he wants to become a mime, when he gets out of the Army,” Peggy spoke up, her tone and facial expression completely without humor.

And Agent Carter says that she wants to tour with a vaudeville company, try some exotic belly dancing… you know, that sort of risque stuff,” Bucky countered.

He tried, but he couldn’t keep his expression as straight-laced as Peggy had, and openly grinned. He saw Peggy flush a little redder than what the firelight was casting on her skin.

Steve groaned, shaking his head slightly as he said, “The two of you are terrible.”

And don’t you know it,” Bucky stated, laughing as he slapped Steve on the shoulder. “So what are we drinking to?”

The future?” Peggy said after regaining her composure.

The future, but without those ridiculous things both of you just mentioned,” Steve stated.

The future,” Bucky agreed.

многочисленный

 

“These memories,” Zola began, taking a step back from the globe.

The scientist turned towards him with an unkind smile alighted upon his face. Despite himself, Bucky squirmed, trying to get away as Zola approached. He did not want to be poked, prodded, or touched with those filthy hands of the madman again. But his body would not respond to his need to move – to escape.

“Ivchenko said that they are complete in the wrapping and embedding. Two command memories, and one stop memory. Yet they are whole,” Zola continued to say, leaning slightly over him.

The doctor observed him as if he were an insect, and though Bucky wanted to squeeze his eyes shut, he didn’t. If his body wouldn’t obey, if he couldn’t scream or shout, then he would pour every ounce of hatred and fury into glaring at Zola.

“You,” Zola said, eyes flickering towards his own with some disinterest before focusing somewhere else upon him. “Are a most curious of a subject-specimen, Sergeant Barnes. Your love and adoration for Captain Steven Rogers is unnatural, immoral, and never reciprocated or acknowledged. Yet, you blindly followed him, as if a lost dog with no where else to go. Why? What do you gain?”

Those hated, dead and dull eyes of Zola focused back on his own, but Bucky continued to glare. “It is intriguing,” the doctor continued to say, picking at something that sat on Bucky’s chest, “these memories you have, that my colleague has extracted and used. I do not appreciate another shaping my own work, but I have to acknowledge that it has to be done this way.”

“It will grow, Sergeant,” Zola stated, giving him another unkind smile. “The seedling of a new HYDRA reborn. The beautiful parasite that you will help birth with your own two hands, when we are done.”

Zola moved back towards his head, and crouched down, whispering in a sinister tone, “But first, I want to know, what you burned that night, Sergeant Barnes. What did you throw into that fire?”

“Show me… один,” Zola commanded—

 

he felt a lot lighter… and watched it turn into ashes and dust…

he should have made his peace long ago…

 

Bucky gasped again as the knives skittered across his head, tearing and ripping everything apart. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to escape into another memory—

 

He laid on the ground for a few seconds longer after the door had slammed closed, listening to the footsteps of his father stomping away, fade. It was only after he could not hear those footsteps anymore that he tried to get up—

Bucky—” the fearful, frightened voice of Becca shattered the silence.

Go back to your room, Rebecca,” the sharp voice of their mother cut in.

But—“

Back to your room, now!”

Bucky heard soft footsteps reluctantly hurry away, and the door to his sisters’ room close. Heavier footsteps than Becca’s approached, stopping before him. Yet, his mother did not help him up, and stood there waiting.

She had neither hindered nor helped defend him while his father was beating him. All Bucky knew was that she had been sitting with his sisters, as their father rained hellfire, punishment, and pain down upon him.

<Get up.>” she commanded in Russian, startling him.

It was not harsh, but it was not stated kindly either. Bucky blinked and blearily looked up, trying to get rid of the fuzziness in his eyes. She still had not moved, but he could tell that she was not going to repeat her command.

He wanted to disobey her, to let her do what his father had done to him for saying those words that had caused all of this in the first place. But the longer Bucky laid there, letting the agonizing pain that wracked his body settle, the longer she just stood there. She was not moving, she was not helping, but she was not hitting him—

Bucky slowly, painfully pushed himself up. The floor around him was a mess of slippery blood and spittle. He could not find the strength to stand, and sat, head hanging down. His legs were curled slightly underneath him – it was all that he could move without crying out in pain. Blood dribbled down his nose and lips; he had bit the inside of his cheek—

<You will never say those words to your father ever again, James.>” his mother stated.

<I will declare it to the world—>” he shot back, anger over taking him again.

She roughly grabbed his chin, sending a jolt of pain lancing through him, silencing him. Forced to stare at her, Bucky dared not close his eyes in fear – and continued to project defiance through his eyes. He didn’t care if his mother decided to beat him, just like his father.

He loved—

<You will never say those words to your father ever again, James.>” she repeated harshly. “<You will hide that from him, and everyone else in the world. It will be your secret to carry to your grave, because if you don’t, you will be killed.>”

S he let go of his chin, but did not stand back up. Before Bucky could recover from the pain and retort, a much gentler, strangely kind and almost sympathetic countenance seemed to overtake her. “<The world is a dangerous and cruel place for those who do not believe in boundaries when in love. Let it define you, my son, but do not let it consume you.>”

 

A deliberate cough caused Bucky to open his eyes again. The cruel, but life-learning lesson memory faded from his mind. Zola had moved away from him and was standing next to the globe—

Bucky tried to cry out, as he saw the image of his mother, his sisters, even his father projected onto the globe. He thought he had contained the memory—

“The mother: Winifred Barnes,” Ivchenko stated, drawing Bucky’s gaze towards what little he could see of the far side of the chamber. “That is her alias though. She is of the motherland, of the fallen Imperial family. Vera Fyodorovna Romanova. She was the first that we trained, and she is the first that defected.”

“The first? Not the only? You believe that there will be more?” Zola asked.

“Yes. These women we condition, are delicate not in the mind, but in the matter that we need them to be. They must have the flexibility to engage in their missions for the motherland. A few will attempt to defect, but they will not survive long enough to do so.”

“I… see…”

“We had thought we lost Lady Vera to the chaos of the revolution, until recently,” Ivchenko continued. “Until my esteemed colleague, Colonel Rostov, encountered Sergeant Barnes and the SSR during the Estonia campaign in the war. A slip of an accent from Barnes’ Russian, was all it took, to discover that Lady Vera was still alive.”

“If she is the first trained and defected, then why did your people, your government not send people to kill her? Surely the sleeping viper must be killed before it is awakened.”

“On the contrary, Dr. Zola, she is the Black Widow,” Ivchenko stated. “The first and the best. Not even the women we are training now, can compare to her. We have sated her attention by feeding our agents through her daughters: Rebecca Barnes Proctor, Samantha Barnes, and Agnes Barnes. She thinks her son is dead. She will do anything to protect what is left of her freedom and family, so long as pressure and engagement is placed upon her in America.”

“And what of the father?”

“A counter-intelligence agent of some renown within his motherland, England, during in the Great War,” Ivchenko said. “We need not worry about him. He died at the indirect hands of our Winter Soldier here.”

Silence answered Ivchenko’s statement. It was broken a few moments later, when Ivchenko said, “Was it not obvious to you, Zola, as to what was burned in that memory you examined? The Winter Soldier killed his father via proxy when he was a mere child. He is truly a child of a Black Widow, never mind the Black Widow. It is in his very nature to kill anyone who threatens the one he loves.”

Ivchenko’s footsteps echoed throughout the room. “You may think sentiment is a chemical defect, that love is silly and a fairy tale. That what this man feels for another man is unnatural. It is not. It is the most powerful and potent emotion that I can draw out of my subjects. It is why using Captain Steven Rogers, and wrapping each and every command within those memories is vital to the creation of the Winter Soldier.”

The scientist stopped next to Bucky, filling his vision with white lab coat. Moments later, the face of Ivchenko filled his eyes as the scientist crouched down and stared at him. Glaring at the scientist did nothing, as a moment later, Ivchenko stood back up.

“Rip away those memories, leave the skills behind, and you will have someone stronger than the seductress Black Widows,” Ivchenko stated. “You will have a soldier – the perfect soldier – to help bring about the New World Order.”

Bucky tried to pull at the bonds that held him down, straining with all of his might. But his body continued to not obey or move. He gritted his teeth. Despair filled him, but the tears still wouldn’t come.

“One more, Zola. One more command, and my work, my shaping of the Winter Soldier will be complete.”

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: Aftershock

 

“God,” Howard breathed again, as Steve felt him clap his arms and stared at him. “I may need to start going to church again… Miracles of miracles…”

Steve couldn’t help the small but sad smile that quirked up the edges of his lips. A small part of him knew it was not appropriate to smile, or laugh at the Lord’s name stated in vain or in jest. But Howard’s reaction from the airport, within the car, and now at the house made him wish that he could’ve found his actual body here in this point in time.

Of course, as soon as the shock had begun to wear off, Howard had demanded to know when, where, and how he survived. Fortunately, that had happened while in the car. Then disappointment and anger at not being told until now about his survival had settled in. That had happened as they approached the house.

Steve was glad that the neighborhood was not full of nosy people. Michael had had a hard enough time ushering Jarvis and Howard into the house. Steve was sure that whatever neighbors were peeking out of their windows knew that Michael was staying over – and could infer that Michael was of relation to Peggy. But two additional ‘mysterious’ men entering the house, was going to draw some attention.

Even then, Steve had dared not use the Mind Stone to fuzz memories. The cloy, oily feeling that slowly drifted across him the first time he had used the stone in a significant manner in 1946, was something he never wanted to feel again.

It had felt dangerously suffocating for even that brief moment of usage. He could only imagine how Clint and Dr. Selvig had felt when Loki had used it on them – and wished he hadn’t used it on himself in 2012.

But neither could he just exit the car without drawing even more attention. It had not been ideal, but the only way he had managed to get in and out of the car was via the Space Stone. However little he had used the stone, the ice-cold sensation had immediately released its grip upon him – seemingly sated.

“Howard,” Steve began, returning to the present. He took a couple of steps back from his friend and from Jarvis. “I’m not the Steve you know, from this time.”

“What?” Howard began, looking slightly flabbergasted. “But you’re here—”

“Sir,” Jarvis surprisingly interrupted, taking a step forward to plant himself between the two of them before Michael could intervene. “I believe it is best to just let Captain Rogers explain his miraculous survival.”

Howard leaned slightly over to peek out from behind Jarvis, but Steve did not step forward to close the distance. Instead, Steve tapped the inset twice to activate his armor. He saw Howard’s eyes widen, and saw him take a step back. Jarvis had also turned, and was staring as well.

As hungry as ever, the Reality Stone had felt all too willing to show the memories he had shown to Peggy, Bucky, and Michael. But he did so again – hoping that Howard would understand that these were dangerously destructive weapons. That his friend would not try to hunt for them after the set he, Steve, carried were returned.

It was enough that Howard or the SSR already had the Tesseract of this timeline within their possession. They did not need the other stones. As of this point in time, Steve knew that they didn’t have the capability to reach the others stones. The Space Race within the Cold War had not heated up in earnest yet.

“In 2011, I was found above the Arctic circle,” Steve began.

~~~

Meanwhile, somewhere in New Rochelle…

 

“Where the hell did Barnes go?”

“He’s a sniper by training, Marshall,” Peggy heard Li state. “Where do you think he went. Don’t believe everything you read in the comics – he’s definitely not going to bumble this up. The guy is genuine, bonafide Howling Commando. If he’s off doing something on his own, I’m sure there’s a really good reason for it.”

Peggy couldn’t help but share an amused look with Sousa, though Sousa looked a little surprised at the defense that Li had given. After what happened last night, along with the past couple of days of shine and shock of Bucky not being who they all thought him to be – per his comics counterpart – had died rather rapidly.

That shine and shock had been replaced by awe – something that Peggy knew Bucky hated. Peggy also knew that most of the other veteran Commandos who served with Steve during the war also hated that awe. It was one of the reasons why out of all the Commandos, only DumDum had remained to lead the new group of Howling Commandos. Falsworth, Dernier, Jones, and Morita had retired to quieter lives.

“Sounds like someone has a crush on Barnes,” Sousa jokingly whispered to her, as they continued their careful patrol around.

Another anonymous call had been placed for New Rochelle – except this time, the majority of SSR agents had responded. There were a handful who remained back at Headquarters to field other calls, but Peggy and Bucky were among those out here tonight – spread out among the town – searching for a sign of the creatures.

Police had been contacted, and they had set up a perimeter around the central location. Residents had either been evacuated, or told to remain inside. Yet, the same kind of eerie, almost dimmed ambiance that had surrounded them yesterday in Port Chester had settled not long after they had arrived.

Whatever the environment that surrounded them was, there was a single advantage – it seemed to muffle or completely silence gunfire from their pistols and rifles. Apart from the recurring lightning-quick strike of the creatures, along with the brief appearance of Dottie Underwood, no resident who lived along the main street in Port Chester had reported gunfire.

Thompson had tested the theory himself, by stepping outside what seemed like the edge of the perimeter. He had reported that everything looked brighter, but no other agent heard him. They saw him, saw his lips move, but there was no sound. When Thompson entered the perimeter, he repeated his words – and all within hearing range heard him.

There was no clear delineation between what surrounded them, and where it ended. The ‘perimeter’ was fuzzy and unclear – defined only when they could see the lights and surroundings seemingly becoming ‘brighter’. It would have only been eerier, in Peggy’s opinion, if fog as thick as she had seen it before in London, surrounded them.

At the present though, Peggy smiled slightly at Sousa’s joke. But she deflecting it, saying, “I’d hate to break it to Agent Li, but there’s a really long line for that – and I heard that it’s a possible million year wait.”

Sousa’s soft snort of laughter answered her. Focusing back onto the task at hand, Peggy couldn’t help but briefly glance up and around the darkened rooftops. Bucky was possibly somewhere up there, taking careful watch of their surroundings. Wherever her friend was, Peggy knew that his keen eyes would not miss anything.

~~~

“… and I heard that it’s a possible million year wait.”

Bucky couldn’t help the grin that quirked up the edges of his lips as he watched Peggy, Sousa, Li, and Marshall carefully walk down the empty street – spread out in the same formation as he had dictated Peggy and the others yesterday. They couldn’t see him, but he could see and hear them clearly.

His augmentations afforded him that clarity in hearing and sight – even if he hated them. As he continued to observe the four of them, he briefly wondered if Sousa knew that his limp was improved. The former infantryman’s limp was greatly pronounced whenever around the office, but out here, it didn’t seem as pronounced. Sousa was able to do the careful, slow patrol, clearly displaying his training from the Army.

Adjusting his grip on the standard-issued sniper rifle from the SSR’s armory, Bucky cast his gaze elsewhere. The lights up here on the rooftop of the building he was currently perched on were as dim as they were while on the ground. It was another point of information they could use – whatever surrounded them tonight and last night had height, depth, and width. Yet, there still wasn’t—

The soft scrape of footsteps approaching from behind him caused Bucky to turn. “Agent Romanova,” he greeted, glad that she chose to enter with some forewarning noise this time.

Despite the intimately and death-defying closeness he had shared with her earlier in the day, he still knew little about her. What he saw from Steve’s memories were only of her skills in combat, even though there Steve had spoken of and towards her – as they were close like siblings. But, it was clear that she was Steve’s friend, and he had the utmost respect for the courageous dead to not pry further.

“Romanov,” she answered, smiling at his confusion. “Or Romanoff, if you really want to get into the technicalities, Barnes. The Soviets gave me my alias, expecting me to romanize it when I carried out my missions in the West. Natasha Romanov.”

“Linguistics butchering,” he couldn’t help but mutter.

She laughed, a throaty and rich sound.

It was a pleasing sound in Bucky’s ears, and despite the fact that she was what she was, he found himself attracted to her. She was as captivating in physical beauty as she was in skills and intelligence. But he knew that it would never be. It still didn’t prevent him from deciding to flirt with her. There was also the need to sate the thrill of just how close he could get to her, without touching her.

“Agent Romanov,” he repeated, altering his tone ever so slightly to put the smoldering, sexual intent behind it.

He smiled as she responded gamely, walking up to him with her hips swaying this way and that until they were standing face-to-face, inches apart. “Agent Barnes,” she purred. “You sure you want to be doing this with me? I am a Black Widow in the literal sense now.”

“And I’m not married,” he answered, his smile turning into a grin. “If Steve trusts you with his life, then I’ll trust you with my own. You did, after all, save mine yesterday.”

“Touche,” she answered, relenting and taking a step back. There was no sexual intent behind the up-down, piercing gaze she gave him a moment later, as she crossed her arms across her chest.

Instead, a slightly sad look seemed to eclipse her eyes as she said, “I’m glad Steve did what he did – creating a new timeline for himself and you, in particular.”

“Not Peggy as well?” he asked, slightly puzzled, as he took a quick glance around. There was still nothing out of the ordinary.

“I didn’t know her,” Natasha said. “Steve kept that part of his life private, even from me. I only found out about her later through other circumstances. But yeah… Steve did right by you, and Agent Carter. I’m glad.”

“Was I so different, or our circumstances so different?” he asked, curious.

“It’s the past – at least mine and Steve’s past. It’s not your future, Barnes. Don’t worry about it.”

As much as Bucky wanted to reconfirm that Natasha didn’t want to be rescued from living in the Soviet Union, he didn’t. Whatever reasons that laid between that unstated promise between Steve and Natasha when it was briefly discussed earlier in the morning, he, Bucky, would not intervene.

“The other agents didn’t hear, or see you yesterday,” he said instead, returning his full attention to what he and the other SSR agents were here for.

“Shadow-like creatures,” she said, as she stepped up next to him and leaned over the rooftop slightly. The cold breeze carried her flame-red hair briefly up, while the belts around her uniform jangled slightly. “With what I am, it’s easy to pop in and out.”

She glanced over at him, a curious look in her eyes, saying, “But you reacted as if it were a natural instinct. As if you’re used to fighting with a Widow by your side.”

Bucky remained silent. It was clear from the discussion over breakfast that the Black Widows were kept away from a lot of knowledge. Natasha’s comment about the successor Widow killing the defector Widow was unsurprising to him, but it did tell him that she knew little to nothing about previous Widows.

The only previous one other than her predecessor – whomever that previous Widow was – that Natasha knew about, was Dottie Underwood. Even then, Natasha’s reluctance and caution in telling the information told Bucky that there had been some extraordinary circumstances for her to find out that information.

“A guy’s gotta have his secrets,” he stated, deciding to throw a variant of her flirtatious words from the archives room, back at her.

“You’re infuriating,” she answered, shaking her head slightly in amusement.

“Good,” he said, nodding once, before movement to his left and down the alleyway caught his attention. “Because I’m hopefully going to infuriate another Widow into telling me what she’s doing.”

“Work your charm, Barnes,” Natasha stated. “I’ll protect Agent Carter and the others.”

As the sound of gunfire began to be unleashed in earnest, Bucky swung his sniper rifle across his back, and jumped down. He landed heavily on the ground, but not too heavily to break bones.

The Soviet operative code-named Dottie Underwood immediately spun from her careful approach towards the main road where the other SSR agents were fighting. Just as fast, Bucky instinctively brought up his left arm, just as she slashed down with the unusual-looking sword in her hands.

Bong!

The dull crashing sound of metal-on-metal didn’t ring as Bucky had expected it to. It was the sound of cloth tearing that made a louder noise than their clash. His eyes widened in slight surprise, mirroring the look on Underwood’s face as he stared at the sword that was blocked by his arm.

Vibranium.

Both his arm and Underwood’s sword were made of vibranium – the rarest metal on Earth. Howard Stark had claimed that the country of Wakanda had given to him the only ore they had. That ore had been smelted into Steve’s shield – now lost to the cold depths of the Arctic Ocean.

There was supposedly no more raw vibranium in the world. From what he knew, the scraps that Stark had ended up with after making Steve’s shield had been mixed into whatever the inventor had been making at the same time the shield was made. Where had his arm come from, and how did Underwood get a sword made of vibranium?

“You’re the one he called the Winter Soldier,” she whispered in surprise, eyes focused on the large tear within his coat and shirt that showed his metal arm. “Carving your way through Сибирь, hunting all of them down—”

“Who?” Bucky demanded.

“I don’t have time to deal with you,” Underwood stated, an opaqueness over taking her eyes.

Before she could scrape her sword down across his arm, tearing further into his coat sleeve, Bucky twisted his arm and wrapped his gloved metal fingers around the sword. “What the hell do you want?” he hissed, holding the sword in place as she pulled, biting the edge into his glove.

“Let go,” she growled.

“No,” he answered, planting himself where he was.

She was strong – stronger than he anticipated for a Black Widow. Even after all that he had read about what happened to the women in the program, this was the first time he truly faced against one.

“I have to protect Peggy. She shouldn’t have involved herself—” she insisted, continuing to pull at the sword.

“Why?” he asked, watching her carefully. Her behavior was odd for what he knew about the Black Widows. Whereas he knew that his mother and others trained through the program would have left the sword alone and just outright attacked, Underwood was still clinging onto the sword.

“They’re after me,” Underwood stated. “The SSR is only in their way, and I can’t let them kill Peggy. I owe her for sparing me. And my sisters won’t stop until I’m dead.”

“So let us help you,” he insisted. “Let the SSR help you—”

Underwood abruptly let go, taking a couple of steps back with a desperate look in her eyes. “Naivete does not become you, Winter Soldier. It’s too late for me.”

She abruptly turned and ran down the alleyway – straight into the chaos on the streets. Bucky tore after her, flipping the sword so that the handle was in his left hand. Bursting out, Bucky swung the sword at the nearest creature. It exploded in a small puff of dust, startling him.

For a split second, Bucky stared at the sword before catching a glimpse of Peggy within the firefight – she looked to be nearly out of bullets. Further ahead was Underwood, and she was slipping through the knots, nimbly dodging gunfire and attacking creatures. He didn’t have time to chop his way through—

“Carter!” he shouted, catching her attention for a brief moment. A flash of red-hair behind Peggy told him that Natasha was protecting her. “Catch!” he shouted, tossing the unusual sword at her.

As soon as she caught it and swung it at the creature nearest to her, Bucky was already weaving his way through. The report of his sniper rifle going off in close quarters to punch through the creatures was loud.

Yet, just as he reached the other side of the street, Bucky skidded to halt – Dottie Underwood was no where to be seen anymore. Just like the yesterday, she had slipped away, sight unseen. And furthermore, Bucky could hear the sounds of the firefight dying just as quickly – and normalcy returning to the streets of New Rochelle.

“What the hell is that, Carter?” Bucky heard Agent Marshall ask.

He turned to see the agents beginning to stand down; holstering their guns, or placing their rifles in a more relaxed position. Bucky slung his sniper rifle back over his shoulder, and approached the small crowd forming around Peggy. She was examining the strange sword.

“Whatever the hell it is, it dusted the creatures with one swing,” Sousa exclaimed.

“Bucky?” Peggy asked, as a few of the agents parted to let him through.

“Underwood had it on her,” he answered. “Couldn’t capture her though.”

“You did your best—” Sousa began. Bucky saw Sousa’s eyes stray to the tears on the sleeve of his clothing. “Shit, we need to get you to a doctor—”

“No need,” Bucky said, mentally bracing himself as he raised his left arm and removed the glove. Gleaming silver metal fingers danced across his eyes, before Bucky then tore away what he could of the ragged ends of his ruined sleeve. Everything just a little above the elbow was removed.

“I’m fine,” Bucky bluntly stated. He glanced back up at Sousa, daring the SSR agent to say another word, or make a pitying remark about his arm.

Bucky hated the arm – hated the looks that went with it, whenever someone who didn’t know him saw him with it. He knew of the struggle that a lot of wounded soldiers who lost limbs during the war, to find and hold down jobs. He knew he had been one of the very few lucky ones to have been given a limb that was shaped to look normal. Most, if not every other wounded soldier he knew, did not have a functional false limb.

The arm came with questions, and Bucky never wanted to answer those questions. The only person he had talked to about how the arm came to be was his commander. Even then, Philips only knew a sliver of what haunted Bucky’s dreams and memories. Zola had grafted the arm to him – that was all he had told Philips – and all that he would say about it.

It was why he gloved his hand, wore long sleeved shirts every day of the year. He only uncovered the arm when engaged in more private, intimate matters. Even then, it was still difficult for him to swallow and cope with what Zola had done to him – physically violating him, again.

“Good to know,” Peggy stated before anyone else could remark on the arm.

“Let’s get a perimeter set, the area cordoned off and swept for potential stragglers,” she continued, briefly using the sword as a pointer. “Li and Marshall, get this sword back to HQ as fast as you can. Peters, head to the police station and let them know that the worst of it has passed. Daniel, inform the Chief of what happened here. Barnes, rooftops – report in twenty. The rest of you, with me. We’re setting the perimeter.”

It was slightly remarkable what a little bit of authority behind a voice, and the brusqueness of the situation could do. Grateful for Peggy’s intervention, Bucky curtly nodded and turned to leave the crowd. It took slightly longer than he liked, but as soon as the others saw him accept and obey Peggy’s orders, they followed suit.

The creatures had not killed any civilians, but neither had they killed an agent. This was the fifth time the SSR had been engaged. As he thought back to Dottie Underwood’s words, Bucky couldn’t help but wonder if this was all a distraction for something more sinister from the Soviets.

~~~

“Then where is your body?”

Of all the questions or exclamations that could have emerged from Howard’s lips as soon as Steve was finished, Steve had not expected that. As his armor bled back into the wristband, he said, “I spent two years looking, searching through the wreckage. Diving into the cold waters when I could. Nothing.”

“So now, he’s summoned up the balls to stay.”

Steve supposed that there could have been far worse ways that Tony decided to make his entrance as a resident of the Soul Stone. Casually standing behind Howard and Jarvis, just out of arms’ reach was mildly tame – considering what Steve remembered of the showboating entrances Tony loved to do.

“Who the hell are you?!” Howard exclaimed as both he and Jarvis took a half-step back from where they were. “Wait… you look like me… like the memory that Steve showed—you’re that Tony fellow. Called himself ‘Iron Man’.”

“Anthony Stark,” Tony stated without any other flourishes. “I was your son in that other timeline.”

“But… you’re dead,” Jarvis began, then glanced over at Howard. “Sorry, sir. It is just highly disconcerting—”

“It’s all right, Jarvis,” Howard said, taking a curious step forward. At the same time, Tony took a step back, and held his hands up.

“Yeah, no,” Tony began, shaking his head. “I’m dead. Touch me, and you dissolve.”

That made Howard stop, but before the inventor could say a word, Michael spoke up, “It’s better if you don’t think too hard about it, Stark. It’s also not the point that Tony is making.”

“Hey, someone with practicality,” Tony sarcastically exclaimed. “Finally.”

“Howard,” Steve spoke up, drawing his friend’s attention back to him.

Just before his armor had fully receded back into the wristband, Steve had extracted the folder full of blueprints and schematics of the time jumping platform. Now that it was drawn and fully realized on paper, Steve knew that he could not keep it anywhere else in the house.

It needed to stay with him until he could hand it over to Howard. Even then, because of just how many enemies Howard had at this point in time, Steve knew that he needed to stay close to Howard. Especially if the platform could be built.

“I need to return the stones, but in order to return to this point in time, I need an anchor. The device that allows me to jump from time to time is supposed to be continuous – from anchoring me to 2023 back through where the stones were retrieved, and then returning me to 2023,” he said, holding out the folder. “According to Tony, another anchor will allow me to return here. Do you think you can build it?”

A seriousness unlike anything he had seen on Howard’s face before, overtook his friend. Steve carefully watched as Howard flipped through the diagrams, opening a portion of couple of schematics before closing them again. The minutes of silence that encompassed them within the living room seemed to stretch towards an hour.

“There are explosives drawn into the blueprints,” Howard stated, closing the folder.

“I can’t let anything from this fall into the wrong hands,” Steve carefully answered.

“Get rid of them,” Howard said, shoving the folder back at him. “Get rid of them, and I’ll be able to build it. “I know that this is something that should never fall into anyone’s hands. I’ll make sure it’s destroyed after you’re done with it. But don’t insult my intelligence ever again, Steve, by blindly, and visibly drawing those things into any blueprints.”

“Thank you,” Steve quietly answered.

He reached out to take the folder, but Howard didn’t let go. Howard surprised Steve a moment later, by letting go and immediately taking a step forward to embrace him tightly.

Steve smiled, both in happiness and sadness, patting his friend on the back as he returned the embrace. “I’m glad you’re alive, Steve,” he heard Howard say in a muffled tone.

After a few moments, Howard let him go, and stepped back, clearing his throat slightly in embarrassment. Jarvis covered for that by stepping forward, welcoming him home. Steve shook the butler’s hand, the smile upon his lips getting slightly larger as he saw Tony roll his eyes at the antics.

For good measure, Michael slapped him on the back, before going into the kitchen to fetch some stenies for the four of them. Jarvis initially tried to pass off not drinking, until Howard made him cave in. There were some laughter going around, before Howard gestured for Steve to hand the folder back to him.

Steve obliged, but saw the silent, non-verbal gesture from Tony that they would work the blueprints later. Tony was careful when he stepped into the group, though Jarvis seemed to take Tony’s words about dissolving to heart. The butler shifted just a half-step away from Tony, even though there was a decent amount of space already between Tony and Jarvis.

Steve did not move away, and remained where he was. He trusted Tony to be fully aware of all of his actions, and watched as Howard flipped through the pages yet again.

“How long do you think it will take?” Steve asked after a few moments.

“Well, we need to secure a location, and then logistics first,” Howard stated. “Has to be somewhere secret and safe. Jarvis can begin the bulk ordering and shipping of materials when that happens. Got a few contacts we can use that won’t squawk as much—”

Steve was slightly puzzled at the shrewd look that Howard had on his face, when the inventor looked up. Howard’s eyes were not on him though, and instead, had focused on Michael. “You’re MI-5, correct?”

“Yes,” Michael answered. “I’m not using people I know to help you, Stark.”

“No, no,” Howard answered, shaking his head slightly. “Didn’t expect you to anyways. It’s just… you’re a foreign federal agent. And here I am, talking stuff that’s grey, possibly black market.”

“I’m not going to arrest you, for Christ’s sake,” Michael said, looking slightly offended. “This isn’t going to be reported to my superiors either. You don’t think I know how dangerous it is – with what we’re dealing with here? No nation – not even one person – should have this much power in their hands.”

“Welcome to the conspiracy,” Tony sarcastically stated, causing Michael and Steve to glare at him. However, Howard had a mild look upon his face and merely shrugged. Jarvis just looked a little worried.

“So,” Howard drawled slightly, turning his attention to Steve. “Are you okay with telling at least two others that you’re alive?”

Steve frowned. “Are they necessary?” he cautiously asked.

“One is a definite. The other… yeah, is also someone I need to tell,” Howard said, before waving the folder in the air for a few seconds. “This thing here, it’s complex. It would take at least three, maybe four months for me to even get a prototype working. I would say that I’d need a team, but that’s too many people in a conspiracy that do not need to know. So I’m going to go with the next best thing: recruit the only other engineer who can help me complete this faster. A month, month-and-a-half tops. If he agrees.”

“If he agrees,” Michael repeated, folding his arms across his chest. “Four months for you alone, and down to one-and-a-half months with only a second engineer? You’re not suggesting—”

“Oh but I am, Carter,” Howard answered, seemingly giving Michael a challenging look. “He’s wasting his potential away, building useless ‘gadgets’ for—”

“Which have saved countless of agents’ lives, Stark!”

“Hey!” Steve shouted, physically placing himself between Michael and Howard, arms out. He flicked his eyes at both of them, before putting his arms down. “Enough. What is going on, and who is this other engineer? Can’t Tony help instead?”

“You’d think Tony would understand just how technology worked right now?” Howard asked, eyes flickering back and forth between him and Tony.

Instead of exploding as Steve had anticipated Tony to do so – especially with the very visible bristling from Tony – his friend said, “Dick move, Dad, but he’s right, Steve.”

Steve blinked, speechless for a couple of seconds. Before he could say anything, Tony continued, saying, “I tried to dumb the concepts down to what I know what people knew in the 40’s, but I think its still too advance. I can help, but only in verification that the thing is going to work. Don’t be shocked, but reverse engineering this kind of tech over seventy-five years is tough – even for me.”

As much as Steve wanted to say that he had confidence in Tony being able to reverse engineer the time-traveling anchor point, he didn’t. Tony had an ego that was as large in life as he was. Howard was nearly the same, even if that ego was shown differently. For both to admit that building this device was going to be difficult, said a lot.

“But, I… we still want you to stay, Steve,” Howard spoke up.

“Who is this other engineer?” Steve asked.

Howard gave him a slightly puzzled look. “You should know him, Steve. He worked with us in the SSR—”

“David Brewster,” Michael interrupted, before glaring at Howard. “Peggy and I usually don’t discuss work while at home, especially with Steve.”

“Oh,” Steve said, remembering the young engineer. While Brewster’s impact during his time in the SSR was not as great as Howard’s impact, Steve recalled that the engineer seemed to impact Bucky’s life more.

“He quit the SSR and my team, my company, Steve,” Howard stated. “One minute after we found out you died bringing Schmidt’s war bomber down, he wrote his resignation on a piece of paper, thrust it at me, and walked out. I had barely managed to convince him to remain on the team after Barnes was declared dead, but it seemed that your death was the last straw for him.”

Howard paused for a moment, sighing as he ran his hand through his hair. “We weren’t on speaking terms, until I found out that he joined up with the joint MI-5 and MI-6 engineering team. They came to me, wanting a verification of employment. I gave it to them, but David has continued to refused to return to work for me, or with me. He’s wasting his potential there!”

“And I’m sure what Michael said is true – he’s saving a lot of peoples’ lives, working there,” Steve carefully said. “I remember he was quite a good engineer during his time at the SSR. Why do you feel the need to take him away from doing what he wants to do? Isn’t there another engineer you can recruit, Howard?”

“Quite a good engineer,” Howard began, shaking his head slightly. “Steve. He was the only engineer on my team who managed to figure out how to shrink down a two-way radio to manageable sizes! To give you and the Commandos the ability to talk to each other across the room without shouting, or hand signals! Don’t you remember that mission where you guys had to go to the Savoy and work with the Soviet delegation? David also took that invention, and shrunk it down even further. The one-way radio ‘bugs’ that all the spy agencies use nowadays? They’re all built from that concept! That prototype!”

Steve was silent for a long moment. There were so many things he could say in rebuttal, but he was afraid that Howard just wanted David back in the folds of Stark Industries.

Even while working for Howard in the SSR, Steve had seen just how kindhearted David was. Creating destructive weapons was only necessary for the engineer because of the war; to win against HYDRA. Steve had seen that eat at the engineer – and David had tried to walk as far away from that life as possible.

“Steve, we’re going to need a micro-engineer,” Tony spoke up, tone surprisingly not full of arrogance. “That kind of tech hasn’t been invented, and won’t be invented for another couple of decades. The fact that there is an engineer who understands the concepts behind it, and is capable of building that right now—”

“Michael?” Steve held up a hand to silence Tony, as he looked over towards his brother-in-law.

“You know who David’s father is, Steve,” Michael quietly stated. “Think about it.”

“We’ll need a good cover story,” Steve stated, sighing.

“Best excuse I can come up with, to cover all of this, is that I’m working on the serum,” Howard stated. “I found out that the government finally blew through their entire stockpile of your blood, Steve. I have a vial, and the SSR knows this. Which brings me to the other person that needs to know you’re alive.”

“Hold that for a moment, Howard,” Steve said, holding up his hand. “You might want David to help you, but he gets to make the choice. Just let him look at a couple of the blueprints – the ones that are geared towards his competencies, and let him decide. He doesn’t get to know that I’m alive, or what you’re building, or any of this. Not unless he agrees by his own choice.”

“I’ll make sure that happens,” Michael stated.

The look that Howard gave Michael was indecipherable, but Steve saw him nod in agreement. “And the other person?” Steve asked.

“Philips,” Howard stated.

As much as Steve wanted to explode in protest, he managed to take a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Why?” he asked, trying to keep calm.

“He’s the only one who can authorize the reactivation of the Brooklyn base,” Howard answered. “If I’m using the serum as the excuse, what better place than where it all started? One way in, one way out. Good, secured place—”

“That was infiltrated by a HYDRA assassin,” Michael muttered.

“Michael,” Steve began, silencing his brother-in-law. He focused his attention back on Howard, saying, “Philips isn’t head of the SSR anymore, Howard. He’s Section Chief of Europe—”

“I know,” Howard interrupted, nodding. “But the place was used during the war, and he still probably knows the right palms to grease to keep this under wraps. You think politicians and the US Army will listen to Chief Thompson when it comes to re-creating the serum, Steve? He’s a Navy boy who fought in the Pacific.”

Howard scoffed at the notion, before continuing to say, “It’s a laboratory, and we’re not going to interfere with HQ’s activities. People get curious, and he’ll be able to slap them away—”

“I think you’re overestimating the amount of influence that Chief Philips has, Stark,” Michael interrupted him. “But, he’s right, Steve. At least on getting the cover story and Philips to back it up.”

Steve didn’t say anything for a few long seconds. The arguments presented were sound, but he was worried about Philips knowing that he was alive. Both Peggy and Michael had told him what happened to his former commander after he had died. The barrier between Philips knowing and the world finding out that Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers was not dead, was incredibly thin.

Yet, Steve knew that there was no other place they could build the device in secret, and keep it as safe as possible. The underground facility in Brooklyn was the only other secured place. Camp Lehigh’s underground base for SHIELD didn’t even exist in this timeline.

“All right,” Steve said.

He was sure that there would be some price to remaining here, and it looked as if it were to come due – if Philips agreed.

* * *

A few days later…

 

“We have evidence that within recent weeks, an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR…”

The radio continued repeat President Truman’s message to the world. Every SSR agent had already heard the initial broadcast, chilled by the implications of what it meant. Reports from the other US intelligence agencies had stated that the Soviets would not have nuclear capabilities until possibly 1953. Michael had all but verbally confirmed that that was what several European intelligence agencies had thought as well.

They were wrong.

Even worse, was that Tony had stated that the Soviet Union was a little less than a year early on the detonation – that in his, Natasha, and Steve’s timeline, that first detonation didn’t happen until the 23rd of September in 1949. The implications of an accelerated timeline of events were vast, and Peggy had seen Steve deeply frown, but remain strangely silent.

Then, Tony had stated in what Peggy felt was an inappropriately casual tone, that the best case scenario was that ‘mutually assured destruction’ would hold between the Western bloc and Eastern bloc. That between the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union, if either would fire their weapons at the other, retaliation would be swift and deadly. That had not garnered any good will towards Tony.

That was also when Howard and Jarvis had arrived at the house. Nothing more had been said between all of them, as they made their goodbyes. Michael left with Howard, taking advantage of Howard’s offer to fly to England on his private airplane. Steve left with them – his first overseas trip since arriving and settling in this time.

Peggy could still feel the strong, warm, protective arms of her husband wrapped around her when they said their goodbyes… His broad, powerful body pressed against her, shielding her from the world… The unspoken words in his eyes that told her that he would be there to protect her – no matter how far apart they were—

“Hey,” Bucky’s warm, reassuring voice shook Peggy out of her memories of the morning. He had pulled up a chair next to her desk, placing a bagged sandwich from the deli down the street, and full mug of coffee in front of her. “Everything’s going to be all right.”

She silently nodded, and forced herself to not wring her hands together in worry. The prospect of a full-blown nuclear war on the horizon was on everyone’s minds. As much as she wanted to believe in Tony’s words that ‘mutually assured destruction’ would stay the hands of their leaders, she couldn’t fully believe it.

Phones at the SSR were ringing off the hook – especially for engineering. Everyone wanted to know if the SSR had devices, or plans to help defend the West from the East. Cases, such as the simple, mundane ones she had been given had been pushed to the side in favor of analyses, and more pressing matters. Those pressing matters had been to investigate, analyze, and assess threat levels for any suspicious activities from possibly Soviet citizens or Communists in the past few weeks.

It was paranoia, driven by a sense of fear, and urgency – it was madness.

The case involving Dottie Underwood and the creatures still dominated part of the strategic board in the meeting room, but only a small portion now. The case was still open, but Peggy had been assigned as the sole agent on the case this morning. As much as it surprised her and everyone else – Thompson had drafted all other agents into the priority threat analyses of Soviet presence and activities within the US. No one else had time to deal with Dottie or creatures that were and were not quite a threat to lives.

Yet, since New Rochelle, there had been no sighting or attack of the creatures. No one had also seen Dottie, which worried Peggy. The night after New Rochelle, Bucky had told her in private – away from the other agents – what Dottie had said to him, and how she had reacted to his offer of help.

However, in light of the morning’s radio broadcast, Bucky had also been drafted into helping Thompson and the others. It had come to light, by Thompson himself, that Bucky had worked in and around Soviet lines in Berlin.

While the Soviet blockade and Western airlift operations were still on-going, Peggy already knew of Bucky’s service record in Berlin, because it was detailed in his personnel file. Berlin was one of the first missions Bucky had been assigned as a newly minted SSR agent – utilizing his linguistic skills in Russian. It was what SSR-Europe had termed a ‘getting the feet wet’ mission.

Everything else that she knew of in Bucky’s file was simple, general information – or misinformation, she presumed. What she knew of her friend, and of his skills and time during the war, was guaranteed to have SSR-Europe place misinformation within his file. It was to ensure that everyone else did not know too much about what he actually did.

Nothing had been written of Bucky’s deployment behind enemy lines for Operation Midnight; Peggy didn’t expect it to. Midnight was a top-secret operation, and she herself had only been privy to a small portion of it during the war. Even now, Bucky spoke little of it – and only the portions relevant to her search for Dottie Underwood, a Black Widow.

She took the coffee and sipped at it, glancing over at the meeting room. It was still full of agents, but some of them were down in the engineering laboratories. She was sitting at her desk in the bullpen, which seemed cavernous, compared to the sardine-like meeting room.

“I’m surprised they let you go for a break,” she remarked.

“I may have said some choice words to Thompson,” Bucky answered in a rather neutral tone. “You’re just as much of an expert in the Soviet Union as I am. Why didn’t you speak up?”

“Only during the war,” she answered. “You have more recent experience. At least I can now fully concentrate on trying to find Dottie Underwood, without having to cover my tracks.”

“You still think she’s trying to defect?”

There was nothing in Bucky’s tone to suggest that he doubted her, but she heard it all the same. She looked at the lone bullet sitting on her desk. It was from one of the cartridges that engineering had supplied her for her Walther. While outwardly the same, if held up to the light correctly, there was a sheen coating the bullet that would not normally be there.

Dottie’s sword had been confirmed to be vibranium – the same material as Steve’s shield. As useful as it was to keep the sword intact, someone in engineering had proposed to melt down the sword and coat the bullets that they fired with the metal. The theory was the hope that because the sword dusted the creatures instantly, bullets fired would do the same.

No one had a chance to field test the theory, yet.

“I’m still keeping all options open,” Peggy answered, returning her attention to him.

He silently nodded, and got up, pushing the borrowed chair back to its desk. “Be careful, Peggy,” was all he said to her, before heading back to the busy meeting room.

* * *

Just outside of London…

 

Steve remembered Gatwick Airport, but not as it had been in the 1940’s. The air transports that flew the Commandos to Europe on their missions never flew from Gatwick. He only knew of the airport from the future – busy and chaotic with enormous airplanes, as it ferried take-off and landings.

It was not as chaotic, and the passenger airplanes not as large as they would become. Yet, Steve sat in Howard’s relatively comfortable, personal airplane, still feeling apprehensive. He knew he shouldn’t worry, that he should trust Michael and especially Howard to keep their word, but they were potentially bringing in two more people into the secret.

With President Truman’s address to the world, secrecy was ever more important. Yet, he also knew that even with the best case scenario of what Tony had stated was ‘mutually assured destruction’ between the US and Soviet Union—

“Don’t even think about doing it, Steve.”

Steve blinked and looked up from where he had been staring at a spot within the airplane. He didn’t know how long he had been sitting in the same position, but he was a little glad that Tony had shook him out of his reverie.

“Do what?” he asked, frowning. “I’m not going to go and destroy nuclear weapons and piles of radioactive materials, Tony.”

“Yeah, not what I was thinking of, Rogers,” his friend answered. “More like you spewing your rhetoric of peace and harmony, blah blah blah and all that—”

Steve bristled, but managed to keep his calm, saying, “Tony. You know that’s not me—”

“Really?” Tony sarcastically questioned. “Because last I remembered, you gave a rather interesting speech to the world after you and the others came back from killing Thanos in his retirement home. Had shades of keeping the peace in the world, and to not rise up in arms against each other.”

“And you remember that I barely participated in the peacekeeping process myself,” Steve pointed out. “That’s not me anymore, Tony. As much as I want to teleport into those facilities and stop all of this, I won’t. It’s akin to the Sokovia Accords that didn’t let us choose. Akin to HYDRA—”

“That’s unfair, Rogers,” Tony stated. “You can’t just equate the Accords to HYDRA—”

“The world needs the freedom to choose what they want to do, Tony,” Steve interrupted. “Especially right now. The situation is standing on the edge of a knife – it hasn’t gone south yet. Why are you questioning my judgment, Tony? I know the risks of using the stones at this very moment.”

“You’re a walking arsenal of power,” Tony stated. “Romanov didn’t want to tell you this, but since she’s across the Atlantic keeping any eye on your wife and your not-a-murderous-killing-machine best friend, she can’t stop me. It’ll take her a few minutes to transport back to stop me anyhow.”

“His name is Bucky, Tony,” Steve said. “And what’s this about stopping you? I thought you’re a resident of the stone, a barrier, the same as she is?”

“A piece of my soul as a barrier, yes,” Tony agreed, nodding. “Her ledger, or the blood that fills the stone, is her barrier. Her barrier is thinning faster than she’s letting on, Steve. Whatever the hell she’s killing while protecting your wife and… Barnes… isn’t working. She needs to kill actual people to replenish that barrier – to keep her ledger dripping red.”

Steve remained silent, frowning as he glanced down at his left hand. The wristband was hidden beneath the shirt he wore; he had dared not leave it at home, now that people knew about it.

“How long?” he quietly asked.

Silence answered him. Steve looked up, only to see Tony shaking his head. “You have a plan that doesn’t involve using the stones?” he asked instead.

“The SSR has the Tesseract here, Rogers,” Tony answered, an unusually ominous gleam suddenly in his eyes. “All you need to do is go grab it, and then, an alternate wielder exists. You don’t have to use it, but Barnes can. He’s all but said that he’s been behind enemy lines, and can take Romanov—”

“Who the hell are you, really?” Steve interrupted, standing up as best as he could within the airplane. He immediately took a step away from Tony.

The mannerisms and appearance were Tony – but the words were anything but. ‘Tony’ looked at him, still sitting in the seat with a simple look before falling over to the side—no. Tony fell over, but a shadow clothed in glittering purple-black like a crystal, remained.

“What the hell...” Steve began, appalled. He dared not step over to see if Tony was all right.

“You never use me, Steve,” the entity said in a darkly seductive tone. The voice was still Tony, but Steve thought he could hear the whispered echoes of Peggy mixed with Bucky’s voices all around him, murmuring sweet nothings into his ear—

“Power Stone,” Steve realized. “How—”

“Sorry,” Tony, having fallen to the side, suddenly growled. Steve saw him leap up, tackling the entity.

The entity rammed into the side of the fuselage, physically shaking the aircraft for just a moment, before suddenly dissolving into a pile of purple-black sand. That pile slowly faded until all Steve could see was the seat, and Tony half-sprawled over it.

“Tony?” he cautiously said, taking a step forward.

“Sorry, Steve,” Tony croaked out, opening his eyes and looked up at him. “Kind of my fault there with the six split souls and all—”

The aircraft door suddenly opened, letting cold air spill in. “Captain Rogers?” Jarvis’ voice floated up into the airplane a moment later.

Just as Jarvis entered, Tony disappeared, leaving Steve standing where he was. “Sir?” Jarvis questioned.

Steve blinked in confusion and unease, staring at the space where Tony and the pile of purple-black crystalline sand pile were. Glancing down at his left hand, there was nothing to suggest that his armor had been activated. There was also nothing to suggest the sinister, insidiously alluring whispers of Peggy and Bucky crawling through his ears, had also been there.

“Sir?” Jarvis questioned again, this time causing Steve to look up to see the butler standing before him, reaching out.

“I’m fine,” Steve said, shaking his head slightly. “What’s going on?”

Jarvis looked hesitant for a second, as if not believing him, before giving him the benefit of the doubt. “Philips has agreed to meet in a safe house just outside of the city. Agent Carter is currently traveling with him, Mr. Stark, Mr. Brewster, and Chief Philips himself to the safe house.”

“Brewster?” Steve questioned. “David?”

“Ah yes,” Jarvis said, brightening slightly. “Howard did as you asked, with Agent Carter supervising of course, and handed young David Brewster a couple of blueprints. Mr. Brewster agreed to work with Mr. Stark in building the device, with some conditions.”

“Anything that I need to get involved in?” Steve asked.

“I shall tell you the whole story, on our way there, Captain Rogers,” Jarvis answered.

* * *

New York City…

 

“Not a good time, Romanov,” Bucky managed to say through gritted teeth as soon as he heard the tell-tale sounds of her deliberate footsteps within his hotel room.

The bathroom light was soft as it was harsh against his eyes. Sunken eyes with dark circles surrounded by pale skin could be explained by the lack of sleep due to the various crises that the SSR was responding to. But Bucky knew it was a pittance of excuse he could give to others.

His nightmares – the chilling, revolting voices of Zola and Ivchenko – continued to plague him.

Days had passed without an attack by the creatures. Thompson had set a rotation for shifts for all of the agents in response to Truman’s speech. Bucky was supposed to be sleeping at the moment. But sleep eluded him – even when sex with Michael the night before Michael had left, had physically exhausted both of them.

It keep eluding him, and soon, Bucky knew that he would collapse out of pure fatigue. Even his super-soldier body could not keep up with over ninety-six hours of wakefulness. He was beginning to skirt into dangerous territory where he knew hallucinations—

“Journaling,” was all Romanov stated.

Bucky glanced towards the entrance to the bathroom. He had left the door open, letting the yellow light spill out into the small room. Romanov had not entered, but he could see the barest outline of her, leaning against the wall adjacent to the entrance.

“Pardon?” he asked.

Bucky slowly letting go of the sides of the sink that he had held onto with both of his hands. The left side of the sink had some spidering cracks. He knew that he would have to inform hotel management of it sooner rather than later.

“When Steve was on the run, I got caught up in the same circumstances as he did, and went with him. He… had a lot on his mind. I couldn’t help him—”

“He turned you down for sex.” Even before the words had slipped out of his lips, Bucky knew that he shouldn’t have made that snide comment. It was unfair, and his lack of sleep was talking—

“I’m sorry,” he immediately, and sincerely apologized.

Romanov remained silent for a long moment before continuing to say, “One of the ways he coped with it was to journal – to write it all down. Then he waited one day, read over the words, and then burned it. He told me it was a tradition that Agent Carter introduced to both you and him.”

Not quite, he wanted to correct Natasha, but held his tongue for the moment.

“Steve saw many things – too many things. If half of what he saw and wrote down were of the war, then I have to guess that you were witness to it as well,” Natasha said after a few seconds of silence. “I don’t know if it will help you—”

“Romanov,” Bucky began.

Before he could thank her, he saw wobble slightly, before collapsing to the ground in a heap. Two steps was all it took for him to emerge from the bathroom. Bucky barely remembered in time to not touch her. He aborted his action to reach out and help her.

“What happened?” he asked.

She didn’t respond. There was a glassy look in her eyes, even though he could see the faint up and down movement of her chest that indicated that she was breathing.

Bucky wasn’t sure if taking a towel or even ripping sheets off the bed to wrap around his hands would prevent ‘dusting’. All he could do at the moment was watch over her, as she laid curled on the floor.

Just as he was about to give up and throw caution into the wind, she suddenly coughed. She sat up so fast that Bucky barely took a half-step back in time to avoid brushing against her. A moment later, a rather interesting litany of curses in Russian fell from her lips, before she took a deep breath.

“Tony briefly lost control of the Power Stone,” Natasha whispered.

She wasn’t moving from where she sat, but neither was she offering any further explanation to her somewhat confusing statement. Bucky knew that the ‘Power Stone’ was one of the stones that Steve carried – the purple-black one, if he remembered correctly.

He still didn’t like the fact that Steve was actively using the stones, but all he had seen and remembered the ones Steve used were the Reality, Soul, and Space stones. Space – the Tesseract that had powered HYDRA’s weapons – being the first one that transported him, along with Michael out of where they had been held captive. Of the others: Time, Power, and Mind, he had never seen Steve use them.

“Lost control?” he questioned, worry trying to override the exhaustion he felt.

“It’s the most dangerous stone out of the six,” Natasha stated, looking up at him. “It needs to be returned first. I think it was just sensing that it would be returned to its original state soon, and wanted to exert some control, tempt Steve into using it—”

“You make it sound as if they’re alive, Romanov,” Bucky began, unease filling him. When she didn’t immediately answer him, his unease grew. “Are they? Is Steve… possessed?”

“Tony has it under control again,” was all she said.

“You should go and help, then,” he said. “We got it covered here, if the creatures attack again.”

She gave him a mirthless smile, shaking her head. “They haven’t attacked in the past few days. Why do you think I’m still here, Barnes?”

“I don’t know,” he answered, crouching down so they were eye-to-eye. “Why are you?”

“Spelling it out for you was not my intention, Barnes,” she stated. “Neither was offering that suggestion of journaling—”

“And I’ll say it again,” he said. “I’m sorry for making that remark. It was uncalled for.”

She merely stared at him, eyes telling him nothing, before saying, “You truly are different.” She stood up, and Bucky followed her action. “I will not accept your apology,” she continued to say, “but I will accept the sentiment behind it, Barnes.”

As she walked further into the room, the shadows seemed to partially swallow her. Bucky realized she was fading out to return to wherever she ‘lived’ while not in the stone. At least that was his assumption.

She turned slightly, half-faded into the shadows that it made her look ever more mysterious. “Word of advice: get as much rest as you can, Barnes. This war… it’s just beginning, and I’m not talking about the stones. This ‘Cold War’, if the US and Soviet Union are able to remain calm… it can only be won in the shadows. Where you, the other Widows, myself, and countless of other spies live, breathe, fight, and… die.”

Her words, though dire, stirred something within him. It wasn’t a sense of fear, nor was it the tiredness that clawed at him. Instead, it was a strange sense of anticipation – of a calling.

you’re the one he called the Winter Soldier…

“Romanov,” Bucky called out before she could fully disappear. “Dottie Underwood said something – something I didn’t tell Peggy. I’m not sure what it is, but I think it might be related to the year-and-a-half that I spent behind enemy lines. During that time, I never encountered or found any documents referencing this program or code name. Do you know who or what is this ‘Winter Soldier’?”

It was almost lost to a blink of his eyes, but he thought he saw her stiffen. “No,” Natasha answered, giving him an unremarkable look. “I don’t know who that is here.”

She disappeared before he could ask her to clarify the ‘here’. The fact that she had deliberately worded it in such a way, told Bucky that she most likely knew who the Winter Soldier was in her and Steve’s timeline.

Her reaction also told him that she had memories of the Winter Soldier as well – bad ones. Bucky glanced down at his left hand, clenching his jaw. He curled his metal fingers into a fist, and squeezed his eyes tightly shut. The echoing memories of Ivchenko’s voice slithered into his thoughts:

the Winter Soldier killed his father via proxy when he was a mere child. He is truly a child of a Black Widow, never mind the Black Widow. It is in his very nature to kill anyone who threatens the one he loves…

* * *

Outside of London, Undisclosed SSR Safe House…

 

Steve took a deep breath as he stood outside on the steps before the door to the safe house. It was a simple, small nondescript-looking house. But he was wasting everyone’s time by remaining out here, picking apart the house with his eyes.

Glancing over at Jarvis, he nodded, and the butler opened the door, entering first. Steve followed and shut the door, before following Jarvis to where the others were waiting.

There was no ostentatious display to his entrance into the living room. Michael was standing on the far side, as was Howard. Howard’s protege from the war, David Brewster, was looking through one of the blueprints, while Philips was waiting with as much patience as he could muster.

Steve ignored David dropping the blueprint in shock, and sought out Philips with his eyes. He stood at attention before his former commander.

“C-Captain Rogers?! Steve?” David stuttered slightly, gaping at him.

“What the devil? Rogers?!” was all Philips stated, taking a single step forward.

Rather than the continued and repeated song and dance that he had done with his friends and family in the past few days, Steve merely tapped the inset of his wristband twice – the armor bled over him.

“I’m not here to lead the country, or any other nation in this brewing conflict, sir,” he began. “I am here because I made a mistake. I chose to be selfish for once, and it led me here to this point in time – to live anonymously, hoping for a quiet life. By remaining here, as-is and as the way I am, I am putting my friends, my family, and the people of the world in danger.”

The Reality Stone slipped into his left hand, its hunger lashing ravenously against his mind. But Steve did not activate or project his memories into the stone. All he did was allow the memories of the six stones to appear around them.

“Where I am from, trillions of lives died because of these six stones, sir,” Steve continued. “I saw them perish, and was powerless to stop them. I was given a mission to return them to where they came from. To do that, I need your help.”

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Memory Extraction Session: грузовой вагон

 

Fight! You have to fight!

His eyes remained closed, ignoring the persistent, insistent voice that was not his own, in his head. Images that were conjured with the voice showed a young man with a mop of blond-brown hair, blue-green eyes, and a stubborn look set upon his thin face. The young man’s body was so thin that the clothes he wore were absurdly large.

Don’t give up! Fight!

He wanted to retort. To just banish the thought, the voice, the memories away – to just let it all go and rest. He didn’t remember who he was, or who the young man was. He didn’t… care. He was much too tired – too lethargic and weak – to try to remember where he was or how he got here. All he found comfort in was the fact that there was something cold, almost unforgiving pressed up against his back.

He was laying on a metal table. Chills swept through him. Each point where bare skin touched the table seemed as much of a comfort as it was a knife silently plunged into him.

“Sir, he’s not moving,” a voice said from somewhere near his foot.

“Of course he is not,” a nasal, oily-like sharp toned voice answered. “I have no doubt that the stop commands my colleague embedded worked.”

“I thought we were supposed to only use one of those commands. Not all eight stop commands at once, sir.”

The shuffling of feet filled the silence, before the nasal voice said, “Testing and retesting are all I am doing. I must begin the fine-tune calibration of the electric device to the Winter Soldier. To preclude any sudden attacks, this is the safest way I can subdue the Winter Soldier. Until my colleague returns and completes the final transformation command, using the stop commands are all we have.”

Silence and seconds passed before he heard feet shuffling around again. The sounds of things being moved around filled the air, yet he still did not open his eyes. It would be better if he drifted off now, to let it all go and give up—

Fight!

Please!

“Radio report, Dr. Zola,” a voice jolted him awake. “Alexander Lukin and Dr. Ivchenko are inbound in thirty minutes—”

A sudden and deep rumbling sound, shaking and rattling everything around him – including the slab he was lying on – cut off whatever else the voice was saying. He could see lights flickering this way and that through his closed eyelids—

You have to fight!

“Put the Winter Soldier back to sleep—” the nasally-voiced man named Zola hastily commanded.

hang on Bucky. I’m coming…

The voice, so clear and not muddied like before, seared like a cleansing fire through his thoughts.

“Steve!” he gasped.

Bucky snapped his eyes open, just as hands were placed on his arms and shoulders. Heaving with all of his strength, he snapped the leather binds apart, tossing the two soldiers on either side of him away. He rolled up with renewed vigor, and strength drawn from the cold, deep well of anger within him.

Bucky growled—

“желание.”

all he could do now was survive, because he longed to live…

“ржaвый.”

there was a searching look in his eyes…

“семнадцать.”

there was a solemn look in his eyes…

“рассвет.”

daybreak had arrived…

“печь.”

...carry a frozen body, child or adult…

“девять.”

his eyes were doing that searching look again…

“добросердечный.”

how many more times they had before either of their luck ran out…

“возвращение на родину.”

they were his reason to come home, no matter what happened…

“один.”

he should have made his peace long ago…

He staggered, watching the man in the white lab coat’s lips split into a cruel smile, and collapsed. A piercing point of agonizing pain drilled between his eyes, and wouldn’t let go.

Rough hands swept him up, and off the floor, dragging him somewhere, as the rumbling noise grew louder. Chaotic sounds of explosions and flashing lights of red assaulted his ears and eyes. He didn’t know where the hands were taking him—

“Dr. Zola! It's Captain America! He’s here, attacking—” a horrified voice shouted.

it’s me. It’s Steve…

hang on Bucky. I’m coming…

He couldn’t hear what else was being said, as he suddenly felt himself being lifted up and deposited rather roughly into a cramped space. Feebly protesting, a metal door closed against him, sealing him within in the coffin.

A jumbled, disconcerting rush of fragmented memories flooded him. The last thing Bucky felt was the ice cold sensation coating and filling every part of him—

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: Resonance Cascade – Part 1

November 21st, 1948, New York City…

 

“Carter!”

Peggy was a little glad that she was not the only one to jump ever so slightly at Thompson’s shout. “My office, now!” her commander continued after a moment.

She caught Daniel’s look of surprise and worry at the same time. Even Bucky, sitting three rows up from where she was, and a couple other agents were looking at her with some concern. Shaking her head slightly, as she also didn’t know what was going on, she quickly left her desk and entered Thompson’s office.

Closing the door, behind her, she saw Thompson gesture to one of the two chairs before his desk. “Have a seat, Agent Carter.”

“Yes, sir,” she obediently answered.

Thompson looked not to be in a terribly foul mood, but there did seem to be irritation written all over him. “I just got off the phone with the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Thompson stated. “Howard Stark has been authorized to attempt to recreate the serum, using the old Brooklyn facility. I’ve been ordered to put you as the Agent-in-Charge on the project. They said, and I quote ‘need expertise within the previous iteration of the project, even if it is a woman’.”

Peggy stared at Thompson in surprise, before realizing that Steve had convinced Philips to reopen the Brooklyn facility. Her former commander had agreed to it without forcing Steve to reveal himself.

She knew that Steve had been incredibly reluctant to even agree to let Howard ask Philips to open the facility. Even if the recreation of the ‘serum’ was the cover story of Howard building the time-traveling device, she knew that there would be some price to pay to get Philips’ agreement in the ‘conspiracy’.

It was doubly more so now. In all practical purposes, Steve appearing at this very moment, when the world was still roiling from President Truman’s message, was a symbol of hope. The stones he carried were powerful weapons. But she could clearly see that he did not want to give that to any country – even the US.

No person or country, not even myself, should have this much power. The corruption, the influence, and the want to change – for better or worse – is too great. The world must decide on their own, the path they want to take. I cannot – I will not – take away their freedom of choice, no matter what may happen.”

His words to her just before he had left, were held tightly in her heart. They both knew that Philips had started the Super-Soldier Program to give the US and their allies an advantage in the war. But it had been Dr. Erskine who ultimately made the choice on who would be the first. It was a condition that the good doctor made the SSR agree to, before signing up to help with the project.

Only, Peggy had not heard from Steve since he had left.

Michael had sporadically contacted her, telling her only of the weather in England. She had to listen closely between the lines to interpret that Steve was doing well. Nothing had been mentioned of convincing Philips or anything else – until now.

“Um,” she began, accepting the rather thick folder that Thompson handed to her.

“Summary dossiers of all SSR agents – Headquarters and Europe,” Thompson stated. “You’re authorized to recruit the necessary agents needed to maintain whatever cover story you come up with for the Brooklyn facility.”

This was the true source of Thompson’s irritation. The fact that she was pulling agents off Soviet intelligence duty for a project that had a slim chance of succeeding, was telling. It was blatantly clear to her that the Joint Chiefs were hoping that she would fail. The US government had blown through their stockpile of Steve’s blood nine months ago, and they only turned to Howard now, at the last minute.

Whether that had been through Philips’ influence or not, it was clear to her that they were desperate. Truman’s message had shaken not only the people of the nation, but even their military leaders.

Yet, she couldn’t tell if Thompson was trying to set her up to fail. She knew he tolerated her – they had come to a grudging mutual understanding of sorts after the Ivchenko and Dottie Underwood debacle. But she was still given – to borrow Bucky’s more colorful term – ‘shit’ assignments.

Thompson never stepped in to stop the newer agents from harassing her, leaving her to deal with it herself. He only reluctantly acknowledged her work at the SSR whenever the brass visited – most recently in the last few days.

Even then, the brass had come just to talk to Bucky. Her friend had attempted to defer some of the knowledge about Soviet intelligence to her during his ‘interview’ with the brass. They had not approached her.

Bucky had told her about the reason why he had been temporarily transferred – and that he refused to play the politics with the role. It was clear that all he wanted to do was his job, especially in Europe. She suspected that even if Steve were not alive, he would have preferred to work in Europe, no matter the excuse.

But to survive here at SSR Headquarters, they all had to play politics while performing their duties as federal agents. Thompson was Chief, but Peggy had long been working at Philips side during the war to know how to be an effective, if shadowed and hidden second-in-command.

Before Peggy could comment, Thompson continued to say, “SSR-Europe has already assigned one of their own to the project – Joint Chiefs didn’t protest it. Another so-called ‘expert’ who apparently worked with you before. Name is Meredith Lorraine.”

“Lorraine,” Peggy repeated, surprised.

She flipped open the folder and found that Philips’ old personal spy-secretary’s dossier was at the top and marked with an [AUTHORIZED] stamp. She never knew what happened to Lorraine after the war. When Philips was forced to retire as the commander of the SSR, Lorraine seemingly went into retirement as well. Neither Michael or Bucky had certainly never told her that Lorraine had rejoined the SSR – as an active field agent.

“Stark also received permission to recruit an engineer whose ‘expertise’ is needed for the project,” Thompson continued to state. “I was told the engineer is affiliated with MI-5, and comes with a bodyguard.”

Peggy blinked, surprised and somehow not at all as well. She knew that Howard’s secondary goal was to recruit David Brewster – Howard’s former protege – but she hadn’t expected him to be successful. Assigning a bodyguard to David was even more strange.

But she also knew that that was not the point of Thompson’s brief. “There are already agreements in place between SSR-Europe and MI-5. Whatever their reason, the vested interest of both agencies in this project will be well-protected.”

“See to it that it does, Carter,” Thompson stated, before standing up, and gestured to the meeting room. “Meeting room is open for the next hour.”

“Thank you, sir,” she answered, standing up as well. “May I also recruit outside the SSR?”

She could see Thompson wanting to immediately say ‘no’, but hesitated. A shrewd look appeared on his face before he said, “You’re not thinking of recruiting from the 107th?”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

“I’ll make the call,” Thompson said, reaching for the phone. “Might alleviate the drain of agents here.”

She nodded once, before saying, “I also already have the agents in mind to be tasked to this duty.”

“Let me guess,” Thompson began, moving his hand away from the phone. “Barnes and Sousa.”

“Li as well,” she finished up, nodding once.

“That’s it?” The skeptical, but surprised look that he gave her was expected. She presumed that he assumed that she would recruit at least ten agents minimum for a protective detail around Brooklyn.

“For now,” she confirmed. “If the 107th are allowed to be recruited into the project, then that will be it.”

“Your call then, Carter,” he said, but then walked to the door and opened it. “Barnes, Sousa, and Li!” he stated in an authoritative tone.

Heads turned, and Peggy saw puzzlement float across the three’s faces. “Hand off your work,” Thompson stated after a moment. “You are all going with Carter on her assignment. She’ll brief you on the details shortly.”

Eyes blinked, though Bucky’s was the only one that Peggy saw slide into both understanding and satisfaction. Thompson stepped to the side, clearly indicating for her to leave his office. “Your team, your brief, Carter,” he stated clearly enough that everyone in the bullpen heard him.

* * *

Bucky wanted to back-slap and congratulate Peggy every step – or rather drive – of the way, until they got to their destination in Brooklyn. Even as they stepped out of the cars, Bucky still wanted to hug her – but he didn’t. Instead, he settled for simply grinning.

He was proud of Peggy – for her to be assigned as the Agent-in-Charge of the Brooklyn facility. Though he hadn’t been under her direct command the one time she had been tasked to lead the SSR during the war, he had heard the reports of her leadership from others. Her short stint as commander of the SSR while Philips was busy elsewhere, was remarked upon as ‘steady and inspiring’ in the face of conflict.

In his opinion, Peggy deserved to lead the Brooklyn team and facility.

“You’re from Brooklyn, aren’t you, Bucky?” Sousa commented as they made their way down the slightly crowded sidewalk.

“Yeah,” he answered, looking around. It had been almost six years since he had left Brooklyn, and the place looked only slightly different. Memories flooded him, as a wistful smile quirked up the edges of his lips.

“First time back?” Sousa continued to ask.

“Since the war,” he answered.

“You could apply for a transfer—” Sousa began.

“Michael?”

Bucky dragged his gaze down, as Peggy’s question drew all of their attention to the small group of three standing in front of what looked to be a shuttered antiques store. The wistful smile upon his face turned into a small grin as he saw Michael, standing next to David.

Michael’s presence certainly explained just how David had acquired a ‘bodyguard’. He couldn’t help but wonder if Philips had arranged it – or if the bodyguard assignment was an actual MI-5 assignment. Bucky knew that David was one of the joint team’s top engineers – working mostly on communications, listening, and encryption devices.

Even more surprising was that Lorraine was here, but he had a hunch that she was here because of Philips himself. Given the miracle that Philips had most likely arranged for the Brooklyn facility to be reopened, Philips would embed his trusted personal spy among them. But Lorraine was a known entity to him, and Bucky could only assume that she knew something of what was going on.

And that was the crux of it. Sousa and Li were only given the ‘cover story’ to the Brooklyn facility’s purpose – Howard recreating the serum. The others – himself, Peggy, Michael, Howard, David, and most likely Lorraine – knew that the facility was going to house the time-traveling anchoring device.

If the 107th were recruited to help guard the facility, only time would tell if Steve was willing to allow the others to know of his survival. Peggy had not briefed all of them on the ‘cover story’ of the ‘cover story’, but he was certain that only a select few of them would be allowed into the facility once Howard began construction.

“Been a while Peggy. Bodyguard duties,” was all Michael said.

Introductions were made. Bucky noticed that Lorraine was taking careful interest in both Sousa and Li – especially Sousa, but left it alone. He had a contentious relationship with Philips’ spy-secretary – both during the war, and after she had rejoined as a full-fledged agent. For the sake of the mission and task, he would try to keep the peace.

After a few minutes, they headed inside the shuttered antique shop. Bucky was the last to follow them in, as he took one last look around the neighborhood – and spotted something interesting on the rooftop of the shop.

A flash of red hair swinging back over the lip and beyond his current line of sight, was all that he needed to know from Natasha that Steve had returned.

~~~

“Are you really sure you don’t want me to find you, wherever or whenever in the next few years, you are in the Soviet Union?” Steve couldn’t help but ask as he watched Natasha saunter away from the edge of the rooftop.

“Trying to set me up with Barnes via wife husbandry, Steve?” Natasha asked, turning around and gave him a mild look.

Steve spluttered. It was not what he had meant—

“Relax, Steve,” Natasha breezily said, grinning at him. “Barnes is cute and all that, and I commend you on trying to set me up with him – but that’s for another life. Another time. Another reality. Isn’t that right, Ghost Rider?”

Steve turned towards where Natasha was looking at. Far be it that Ghost Rider was wearing his usual frightening visage of a skull-on-fire, the entity was once again, wearing the more youthful-looking face of Bucky.

“Another reality,” Ghost Rider echoed, nodding once.

“I’m going hate myself for this, but I have to agree with this timeline’s Barnes just this once. It’s fucking creepy to see his face like that,” Tony muttered as he appeared beside Natasha.

“How you holding up, Tony?” Steve asked.

“Just peachy, Rogers,” was all Tony answered, before directing his attention to the entity. “The hell do you want now, Ghost Rider?”

“Boss just wanted to check up on things,” the entity simply stated.

“Checking up on things,” Tony repeated before Steve could.

Steve shot a quick, slightly puzzled look at Tony. Tony was almost always unpredictably volatile with snappish words, but Steve thought his friend would have been a little more amenable or even ‘friendly’ towards Ghost Rider. The entity did, after all, release both Natasha and Tony from the stone so they could communicate and help him.

“Listen, asshole,” Tony continued, closing the distance and jabbing Ghost Rider with a finger in the center of his chest. “We got things covered here. The menagerie that your ‘boss’ is so worried about getting loose isn’t going to. So fuck off, because Romanov and I aren’t going to cut another deal with your ‘boss’.”

“Tony—” Steve began.

As concerned as Steve was, he wasn’t sure that all of Tony’s anger was due to Ghost Rider. Neither of them had spoken about what had happened in the silo when they had reunited in 2023. But Steve was sure that Tony still harbored some anger against Bucky. Ghost Rider’s current host was not doing Tony any favors.

However, the entity didn’t say a word and merely took a single step back, before transforming into what it actually looked like. A second later, Ghost Rider disappeared through a fire portal, leaving the three of them on the rooftop.

Steve still maintained the light illusion he had created with the reality stone. It masked his, along with Natasha and Tony’s presence from any person who happened to be on other rooftops.

“No, we’re not going to tell you the deal, Steve,” Natasha preempted his question.

Steve frowned. As much as he wanted to protest, he could tell that his two friend were united in keeping their lips sealed. “Then what about the barrier you maintain, Nat? The Power Stone said that it’s thinning faster, and that you need to kill to maintain its current state.”

“You really going to believe what a manifestation of the Power Stone said, Steve?” Natasha questioned.

Tony’s face was unreadable to Steve. The Power Stone’s manifestation had not happened again, but it hadn’t escaped Steve’s notice that Tony had not shown up as frequently while they had been in London. Steve didn’t know if it was because of the distance between Natasha and Tony, stretched resources within the Soul Stone, Tony trying to contain the stones, or something else.

He quietly sighed. “Just be careful, you two,” he cautioned. “The three of us are in this together. If you need my help, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“We won’t,” Natasha reassured him, “but, we’re dead, Steve. There’s not much you can do to help the dead. You’re not Charon ferrying on the river Styx.”

“We got this Rogers,” Tony stated, nodding in agreement. “Just stick to the plan, or plans on how you’re going to be returning the stones.”

Steve hesitated for a moment, but it was a moment too long.

“You do have plans for each stone, right Steve?” Natasha asked.

“Shit, Rogers,” Tony stated, shaking his head in slight exasperation. “You know that you can’t use the same disguise to at least put the Tesseract back, right? Hell, Rocket said that he had the Asgardians palace guards chasing after him when he retrieved the Reality Stone. How the hell are you going to put that back?”

“I’ll think of a way,” Steve answered.

* * *

Later that night…

 

Steve was careful to set Thor’s hammer down on the shield lying on the table. Any sound, however soft it was, could possibly echo louder than usual within the facility. Though he doubted anyone outside of the facility could hear the clanks and cranks of whatever went on in here, he didn’t want to risk it.

“So you did find the shield.”

Steve turned around. Bucky was standing at the doorway into histemporary room. “My body was supposed to be next to it,” Steve answered, glancing at the shield as he heard him walk further into the room.

He glanced up as Bucky stopped before him. “I didn’t know Peggy instituted a 24-hour guard rotation. I thought the alarm and lock down system Howard and David set up was supposed to supplement the night guard until the 107th got here.”

“It is,” Bucky answered, tilting his head slightly.

The logical question would be to ask why Bucky was still here, but he didn’t. “Can’t sleep, right?” Steve asked. “Bed too soft, feels like a marshmallow, sinking right in. And just when you finally adjust, close your eyes and think you’re about to fall asleep, any noise or bad memory wakes you right back up. You think it’s a prelude to an attack.”

He saw the minute hardening of Bucky’s eyes for a brief moment, before his best friend glanced away, ashamed. “Romanov told you, didn’t she? That I can’t sleep. That when I do, it’s only for a couple of hours at a time?”

Steve shook his head. “She didn’t,” he answered. “You… we both had the same problem in the other timeline. Nightmares. Of the war, of what we’ve seen. I still sometimes struggle with it.”

“That why you’re not home with Peggy right now?” Bucky asked, returning his sharp gaze onto him.

“PTSD is what they called it in modern terms,” Steve said, lifting his hand with the wrist band up and glanced at it, before lowering it. “Shell shock. Some veterans of the wars after the one we fought in, found that talking to counselors and therapists—”

“I ain’t talking to some shrink, Steve,” Bucky spat out, angry. “I already—I am having this argument with Michael, and I’m not going to hear it from you as well.”

“I’m not asking you to, Buck,” Steve calmly answered. “I don’t know how you dealt with your nightmares in that timeline. My being on the run didn’t afford me a lot of options, so I did the next best thing. I wrote—”

“Down your memories and burned them,” Bucky finished up. “Romanov told me. I tried it. It didn’t work.”

Steve remained silent. There was no other advice he could offer Bucky. Wakanda had been the one to heal Bucky. When they had been briefly reunited before the battle against Thanos in 2018, Bucky never told him what Wakanda had done to help him find peace.

“I can’t leave this place until the device is complete, and the stones are returned,” he said after a few moments of silence, in an effort to steer away from the discussion about Bucky’s apparent insomnia.

“Hell of a way to live, Steve,” Bucky answered, shaking his head slightly.

“Only for a month or two,” Steve said, faintly smiling.

“Then, do you mind if I move in and share the space?” his best friend unexpectedly asked. “It’ll save the SSR some of their money. And, you won’t be stuck here alone.”

Steve couldn’t help but grinfor a brief moment, feeling happier. “Thanks. But wouldn’t you rather stay at the hotel? With Michael?”

He had said something wrong. Bucky immediately frowned, causing Steve to drop his grin. “Steve, what exactly are you saying?” came Bucky’s rather accusative question, stated in a defensive tone.

“I thought…” Steve began, then grimaced.

He hadn’t realized just how used to living in modern times, even if he missed the time period he had been from. Any person with certain predilectionshad to hide it – the fact that there was no boundary for when it came to matters of the heart. It was still illegal in this time period—

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, realizing his mistake, as he looked away. “I shouldn’t have—”

“Michael has a cover to maintain, Steve,” Bucky quietly stated. “I have one too. That’s on top of this cover, and the cover for that cover. It’s not just convenience, or you being alone, that I’m asking to move here, Steve. It lessens the temptation between Michael and I not giving a rat’s ass about the illegality of what we are.”

As surprised as he was with Bucky’s indirect admission, Steve returned his gaze to Bucky and saw nothing but compassion in those mesmerizing eyes of his. Bucky rarely directly admitted to anything – always wrapping a grain of truth in tall tales. Steve remembered all the times he had been caught up in a grand, fun tale that Bucky had told him about.

As silver tongued as Bucky was, Steve knew that Bucky only kept things from him to protect him. Like before, and even now, he could see that it was difficult for Bucky to be open with him. Steve remembered just how difficult it had been for Bucky to admit to him that he, Bucky, had killed his own father to save him, Steve, and Steve’s mother.

Steve had to partially blame himself for some of the reluctance – for outright telling Bucky that he knew how Bucky felt about him – from the other timeline, no less. But, for all the tall tales, larger-than-life stories, and withholding of truth, Steve knew that his best friend had never maliciously lied to him.

Wordlessly, he nodded. “I’m sorry about that, Bucky,” he apologized again. “Guess I had gotten used to living in different times.”

Before his friend could say anything, Steve shook his head, saying, “You’re more than welcome to stay, Buck. I’d like and appreciate the company.”

“Thanks,” Bucky answered, shifting slightly from foot to foot as he briefly looked away.

Awkward silence hung between them, and Steve mentally winced. It was not quite an argument, but neither would Steve call it a disagreement. He also didn’t know why he suddenly felt a strange, swooping sensation in his stomach when Bucky returned his gaze onto him.

He deliberately cleared his throat. “Do you want to help me plan a reverse heist?” he asked in a clearer attempt to steer away from sensitive topics drowning in fraught waters.

Bucky merely raised an eyebrow, looking at him with some puzzlement. “Heist?”

Steve couldn’t help but grin at the unstated ‘Steve Rogers, who stands for truth, justice, and freedom, is planning a heist’. “Reverse heist,” he repeated. “The objects have already been stolen. They just need to be returned. And almost all of them require some sort of plan.”

“Not as simple as placing a pretty rock back where it used to be, eh?” Bucky asked, grinning as Steve gestured for him to follow him to the other table.

He brought the folder of sketches that he had been working on since settling down in this timeline forward. Opening it, he began to spread out the various scenes and people that he had been working on. While most of the full-figure portraits he had drawn of the Avengers and their allies were calmly poised, there were a few that he had drawn in action.

“I had a metal arm,” he heard Bucky murmur, pushing the sketch of himself – poised in action that was in the middle of firing a rifle – up next to the others in the row. “Different design, too.”

“It was a vibraninum arm,” Steve answered. “You told me that you had gotten used to living without an arm, but that because of what we faced…”

“This arm—” Bucky began, briefly touching his left arm, the metal husk hidden under clothing “—it’s vibranium as well. The same as your shield. I thought Stark had the only ore available from Wakanda. Where did Zola get this one?”

Steve remained silent. To tell Bucky was to reveal the Winter Soldier memories – and he was determined to never do so. He continued to silently distribute the drawings onto the table until he was done.

Gently placing a hand on Bucky’s left shoulder, Steve squeezed it for a brief moment. “Zola is dead, Bucky. He won’t be able to hurt you anymore.”

Bucky was silent for a few long seconds before nodding. “Yeah,” his best friend murmured.

“All right,” Steve said, taking a deep breath, before dragging the sketch of Camp Lehigh forward. “Tony and I went back to 1970 to retrieve the Tesseract from SHIELD. At this point in time, they were located at Camp Lehigh…”

* * *

A few days later…

 

There was one good thing about the rain, especially drearily cold, late-November early-December rain. It drove many people indoors. Less people meant less threats that Bucky had to watch for from his rooftop perch.

“Baker One, call in for shift change and com check,” Sousa’s voice rang clearly over the two-way radio piece he was wearing.

All agents and 107th members assigned to the Brooklyn facility had been outfitted with specialized, encrypted two-way radio system. The radios had been derived and modified further from those used by the Commandos during the war – by David no less. It was an experimental system, as it no longer used Tesseract components to power them, but modified dry-cell batteries.

When David had unveiled the new communications system to Steve and the others in private, Bucky had seen Steve, Natasha, and especially Tony’s eyes widen in surprise. Tony had then picked up the device and examined it closely enough that it was clear that the three had not expected such a small device to be invented now.

It shouldn’t have been a worry to Bucky, especially since he knew little about the other timeline, but David’s further modification was another mark of an accelerated timeline. Natasha’s words to him in his hotel room all those nights ago had come back to the forefront.

This war… it’s just beginning, and I’m not talking about the stones. This ‘Cold War’, if the US and Soviet Union are able to remain calm… it can only be won in the shadows. Where you, the other Widows, myself, and countless of other spies live, breathe, fight, and… die.”

The door to the rooftop that housed the facility, opened. Bucky glanced back to see DumDum approaching. To his surprise, David was following as well, but hung back to allow DumDum and him to perform a handover briefing.

“Nothing standing out at the moment,” Bucky said, unhooking the comm equipment as DumDum slung his own sniper rifle off his back and leaned it against the parapet of the rooftop.

“All’s quiet on a terrible day such as this,” DumDum said, taking the comm equipment from him. “Get warm and get some rest, Sarge.”

Bucky couldn’t help but chuckle. Despite not even being near the chain of command for the 107th anymore, DumDum was not the only former teammate of his to keep on addressing him with his former rank. Bucky didn’t mind – especially when he learned that the Commandos thought his new title of ‘Agent Barnes’ had a stuffy connotation.

“Stay warm, el-tee,” he answered, slinging his custom-made sniper rifle over his shoulder.

DumDum’s grumbles followed him as he left and approached David. It was clear that his friend wanted to talk to him. Since Philips had authorized the reopening of the Brooklyn facility, there had been so much to do that he hadn’t even had time to stop and say more than a ‘hello’ to David.

The brief day-and-a-half that he had spent in London after returning from completing Operation Midnight, hadn’t even afforded him to visit any of his friends within the office. He had been stuck in debrief meetings before being sent to New York.

“Been a while,” he couldn’t help but say as they went to the other side of the rooftop for some privacy. “Thank you for bringing my rifle, by the way.”

His sniper rifle had been custom-made and configured by David, when he had joined up with SSR-Europe. It had been the fulfillment of an old promise between them – made before Bucky had gone on that fateful mission in the Alps to capture Dr. Zola.

Bucky had left the rifle in the armory of SSR-Europe when he had been deployed on Operation Midnight. His mission then, had not afforded him to carry such a conspicuous weapon.

“Caroline doesn’t need any adjustments or further calibration, does she?” David asked, gesturing to the rifle.

Bucky shook his head. His first sniper rifle that he had used during the war had been named ‘Vera’. It had been named after his mother – in a more naive time of his knowledge of what his mother was. This current one was named ‘Caroline’. It was a name he liked, and would have wanted to name a daughter of his; if he ever chose to adopt, or have a child.

Given his current employment, it was highly unlikely that he would ever have a child. Thus, he treated his sniper rifle as if it were his own child – taking care of it with the love and care that he felt a daughter of his would have.

“She’s working perfectly,” he answered. “How have you been?”

“Well,” David answered, resting his arms on the short parapet, as he stared out into the grey skyline of New York. “Emily and I… I didn’t see us working out in the long-term. We catch up when we can, but she’s been dating this guy at an ad agency for over a year now.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Bucky said.

It was the truth – Emily Hattersfield had been David’s closest friend and confidante during the war. Bucky had advised that David pretend to date Emily to protect himself, due to David’s preferences for the company of men.

“Truth is, I had met someone around that time,” David said, glancing over and faintly grinning. “Literally ran into him when he had been presenting a scientific paper to the brass. His name was Alan. Worked at Bletchley Park during the war. That’s all I know of what he did.”

“Was,” Bucky carefully repeated, feeling glad that his friend had finally found someone, but slightly apprehensive.

“He recently took a position at Victoria University of Manchester,” David said. “I didn’t want to leave the job I had at the engineering labs. So it ended. But I am doing well, Bucky. You don’t have to worry.”

“I’ll try not to,” Bucky said. “But you know I will.”

“Mother-henning me won’t get me to work faster on your requests, Bucky,” David laughed. “MI-5 and MI-6 tasks are always priority.”

“Except for this, now,” he followed up.

“Except for this,” David repeated, nodding. Bucky saw him hesitate for a moment, before saying, “He rescued you, didn’t he?”

“Steve rescued both Michael and I,” Bucky said. “We were held in the same place.”

“How?”

“That’s not my story to tell, David,” Bucky answered.

He didn’t know how much Steve had told or shown Philips and David, but it was clear that Steve was holding back a lot of information. Not just from him, Peggy, or Michael – but everyone else as well. Bucky could only speculate that part of it was due to the enormous burden of the stones that Steve silently insisted he carry. No one had argued or attempted to alleviate Steve of that burden, yet – and Bucky was sure that Steve would never allow it to happen.

“I almost said ‘no’ to Mr. Stark,” David quietly admitted after a few moments of silence. “After everything, I didn’t want to work on some fantastical, new, and potentially devastating weapon he was constructing. In the name of apparent peace, no less.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what made you say ‘yes’?” Bucky asked.

“He never said ‘I need your help’, when he showed me the blueprints,” David stated. “Not once. I don’t know if it was Michael being there, or otherwise. Those four words that he constantly said to me over the phone, were… not there… if you know what I mean.”

“Humility isn’t his strong suit,” Bucky stated.

“No,” David agreed. “It isn’t. This is the first time that I’ve seen him work on a project without the pomp and circumstance. It’s as if he truly understands just how dangerous these stones that Steve has, are.”

“Are you getting along, down there?” he asked, slightly concerned.

It had happen two days ago, when Howard was orienting the newly arrived 107th, and SSR members, on the general layout of the main area of the laboratory. Beakers and other chemical items for the ‘serum’ cover had been set to the side. The mechanical aspects of the cover project were on the far side – disguising the true intent of building the time-traveling anchor.

Steve had not been present, due to obvious reasons. Bucky knew that he was holed up in his room on the far side of the main floor. It had a window built much like the main observatory room had – except that it had long, thick curtains drawn.

Yet, somehow, during the orientation for everyone, Howard had gotten into his head to ask him, Bucky about his arm. It had only been because Philips had called Howard in while Bucky had been unconscious and in the hospital in 1946, that Howard knew he had a false, but mechanically working limb. Philips had only disclosed that fact to him after the fact – Howard had only been there to verify that the arm was not explosive in nature.

Even before the intent of Howard’s question had made itself known or finished, Bucky had walked away. He didn’t want to hear the curiosity or desire to poke around in the arm – it reminded him too much of Zola.

Whatever had happened after that, was not known to him, but he was grateful that Peggy had assigned him to the rooftop rotation. As much as he wanted to remain inside for some of his shifts, he couldn’t tolerate being within the same building, much less the same floor as the inventor.

“At times,” David answered. “He shouldn’t have asked you about your arm, Bucky—”

“It’s all right,” he interrupted. “I don’t need to know what happened. I’ll ask Peggy for a shift change, when I’m certain I’m not going to punch him into a wall.”

“You and me both,” his friend admitted, shaking his head slightly. “There are times when that Tony fellow and him do not get along. Separately, they’re both tolerable to work with. But together, it is as if both want to show who is superior in intellect and ability. It’s why I’m up here, braving the miserable conditions. They’re having yet another ‘argument’ at the moment.”

“I can only imagine the noise,” Bucky couldn’t help but dryly state.

Of Tony, he wasn’t sure what to make of the man who was Howard’s son in the other timeline. It was clear to him that he had done something along the lines of ‘murder’ to be called that several times by the man. But he was glad that the mutual dislike that sat between them was enough that Tony barely interacted with him. Bucky much preferred Natasha as company.

“But, I do have to get back,” David said, sighing and pushing back from the edge.

“I’m going to the deli down the street to grab something,” Bucky said, as they entered the building and made their way down the stairs. “Want anything?”

Unlike the Headquarters, the Brooklyn facility did not have any ‘offices’ or space rented out in the floors above the entrance. While no longer an ‘antique’ store, Peggy had chosen a small casting/talent acquisition company as the front. If any one saw Howard walk in and out of the building, it would fit the story of the fledgling movie company Howard ran out in California.

To keep that cover, she had also instituted a random lights on-off for the upper floors. One or more of the agents were tasked to occasionally switch out the record of tap shoes or people practicing lines. When appropriate, the radio was blasted at full volume to give the appearance of the casting agency doing their work in vetting potential actors or actresses.

“Large cup of coffee, please?” David asked. “Howard hates the smell of that particular brew, and Tony doesn’t like it anywhere near his work area. Says is the amount of sugar that I pour into it, that makes it intolerably sticky, should I ‘accidentally’ spill it.”

“And here I thought you were above such petty tricks, David Brewster,” Bucky said, trying to contain his laughter.

“I learn from the best, Agent Barnes,” his friend cheekily answered.

They parted near the entrance within the shop. Lorraine was sitting at the counter, seemingly working through a casting list of people. She flicked her eyes up at both of them, before slipping a hand under the table to press the button to let David back into the facility.

Once the engineer was gone, Bucky slung his sniper rifle off back, and discreetly handed it to her. She slipped it under the table, securing it back into the front desk armory. Without another word to her, he left, braving the cold, dreary weather once again.

He didn’t get more than a block from the outer perimeter that the 107th had set around the facility, when he noticed something slightly strange. Being followed was an occupational hazard that a few federal agents dealt with. It was a city – and there was still the occasional curious person, mob boss, or distressed person who gravitated towards an authority figure. Most agents weren’t trained like he had been.

Bucky did not project anything of the sort, and walked among the crowd as a passerby – innocuous and non-threatening. He walked as if he were tired of the long shifts of office work he had to deal with day in, and day out. All the while, he kept a sharp eye on his surroundings – and it was because of that, that the strangeness caught his eye.

It was the glimpse of a woman down an alleyway, and turning left into another alleyway – opposite of the direction he was walking – that caught his eye. She was bundled up against the elements. Plain coat from what he had caught a glimpse of, woolen hat pulled over her hair, and looking as frumpy and unassuming as possible.

It was not the way she was dressed though; it was the way she deliberately walked.

One-and-a-half strides disappearing into the alleyway was enough for Bucky to discern that her walk was not natural. He couldn’t tell if she had been injured, or something else, but it didn’t sit well with him. Curious, he slipped out of the crowds and quietly made his way down the alleyway.

As soon as he turned the corner, he caught another glimpse of her – and followed.

* * *

“Ma’am and sirs.”

Steve looked up, as Tony, Peggy, and Michael fell silent in their discussion on how to return the Tesseract to 1970’s SHIELD, without Steve getting caught. They turned towards the source of the voice, only to see that David was standing before them, holding one of the blueprints.

“Yeah, kid?” Tony asked before Peggy could answer.

Steve threw Tony a look. While David still had an appearance that was on the slightly younger side, Steve knew that the engineer was definitely not a ‘kid’ or deserved such a nickname. But it seemed that David had not taken offense to the nickname, and merely stepped forward, unfolding the blueprint.

“Howard told me that all diagrams relating to explosives were removed,” David stated, before pointing his finger at a certain area within the blueprint. “He’s working on other things, and gave me this set to work on. That area is wired up to be an explosive. If overloaded correctly.”

Howard was currently working on the far side of the laboratory, seemingly concocting a chemical mixture for the cover. The inventor had not heard David’s quiet statement.

Tony’s face was blank. Steve internally winced, David had pointed out one of the hidden explosives that Tony had him disguise within the blueprints. All external, visible, and obvious forms of explosives had been removed from the blueprints, but he and Tony had agreed to leave the hidden ones in.

“He’s already built three sections that contain hidden explosives, sirs,” David stated after a moment, tone still neutral.

“Leave it be, David,” Steve quietly stated.

“All right, si-Steve,” David answered, then seemingly took a deep breath before turning his attention to Tony. “Would you allow me to modify this section to have it run parallel instead of serial, sir? It guarantees that the resultant explosion will completely destroy the piece, instead of a partial destruction.”

A most curious of expressions crossed Tony’s face. “Yeah, sure kid,” Tony stated, getting up. “Let me watch and help?”

“You’re welcome to, sir,” David answered, smiling faintly.

“Stop calling me, sir?” Tony asked, as Steve watched the two walk away.

“Stop calling me ‘kid’ then, sir,” David retorted.

Steve couldn’t help the grin that quirked up the edges of his lips.

* * *

Black Widow.

The fact that it was only by the height and gait that he had identified Dottie Underwood surprised him slightly. But even more concerning was the fact that it looked like she was injured.

To any other person, her movements still looked fluid, but to Bucky, there was a slight emphasis of weight being put on her left side. If he weren’t aware of how she fought and moved, he wouldn’t have noticed it.

But he hadn’t outright followed her as soon as he made the connection. Instead, Bucky had quietly and discreetly intercepted her – just before the ground perimeter for the Brooklyn facility began. He had then taken her unconscious body to an apartment that he knew was not occupied.

It had been the apartment he and Steve had shared before the outbreak of war. The entire building had been condemned two years ago, but nothing had been done about tearing down the place yet. Squatters and homeless people now lived in it. No one had batted an eye to him bringing an unconscious woman, slung over his shoulder, with him.

During some of the nights in which he couldn’t sleep, or was not otherwise engaged with his duties at Headquarters, Bucky had wandered down to this part of Brooklyn. He had hoped the memories of more peaceful days he had shared with Steve would help him find some peace from his nightmares.

Instead, he had ran into the homeless squatters within the old apartment building. At first, they had been incredibly wary of him. But night after night, he returned – some times with bottles of alcohol, or even a sandwich to help tide their hunger. They got used to him, and he got used to them.

While some of the squatters were not benign, most of them were content to find some decent shelter in the coming winter, within the condemned building. A couple of them even did him the favor of keeping other squatters from occupying the apartment he had shared with Steve – after Bucky kept returning to it. There was a silent, mutual understanding between all of them.

At the moment, it was cold in the apartment, but Bucky wasn’t overly concerned. He was sitting on one of the two chairs that was left of the non-broken furniture within the apartment. The table that he remembered Steve working at was broken in half, and the bunk bed they shared shattered from something.

As Dottie Underwood began to stir, Bucky shifted slightly to sit more forward. He watched as she carefully woke up – feigning grogginess that was almost convincing. She was testing her bonds, and could not fully conceal her surprise when she realized that she was not bound hand or feet.

Bucky had deliberately left her unbound – and had merely placed her slumped in the chair opposite of him. As tempted as he was to interject or say a word, he remained silent, and continued to observe her.

She was well-trained; he could see elements of commonality between her, Romanov, and his own mother. His mother had been the apparent first female agent to hold the title of Black Widow. But he knew that his mother had never called herself that. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Imperial throne that the moniker had been given to the women who survived the training.

But when she snapped her striking eyes open, she didn’t lunge at him, as he thought she would. Instead, her eyes focused on him, before sliding ever so slightly to his left – settling on his metal arm.

There was clear fear in her eyes, but it was not because of the arm. Bucky found it odd, but he wasn’t about to question her without Peggy present. She was the one who still insisted that Dottie Underwood was defecting, and at the moment, that theory was proving strong.

Of course, he knew that it could be a complete ruse. There could be several other Black Widows standing right outside, and he’d be none the wiser. He knew how quiet they could be, when they wanted to sneak up and assassinate their targets. For all he knew, Underwood being injured was just bait for him – or Peggy.

But, Bucky was willing to extend a sliver of trust towards Underwood’s possible defection.

“Natasha.”

He didn’t expect Natasha to actually show up, but managed to keep the surprise from showing as she just appeared. Out of thin air; right in front of Dottie Underwood, frighting her enough that she yelped – her first and only sound since waking up.

“James,” Natasha greeted in kind, then raised an eyebrow at Underwood. “I see you’ve been busy.”

“Got a minute to watch over her?”

“Still going to involve Carter in this?” she questioned.

Bucky shrugged, and took his coat with him. He had to be careful to not reveal Natasha’s last name – lest Underwood decided to have a change of heart from defecting. He was already uneasy that he had spotted her closer than he liked to the Brooklyn facility.

“Her case, Natasha,” he simply said, and left.

* * *

“Asgardians.”

Steve nodded.

The planning for the reverse heist to put the Tesseract back in 1970’s SHIELD had gotten nowhere. Even with the layout of Camp Lehigh and the underground facility drawn to the extent of what he and Tony knew about it, it seemed impossible for Steve to get back into the facility without more guards being alerted.

MPs had already been on his tail the first time he had been there. He had barely been able to escape up to the surface. Even then, he had taken shelter next to some large vehicles, pretending he was inspecting them while waiting for Tony.

He put that aside, and pulled the sketches that he had of the Asgardians from 2023 forward. Of Valkyrie, he had not finished his sketch of her yet. He placed the rough sketch of her next to the sketches of Thor, Loki, and the regular guardsman.

“They look like us,” Michael exclaimed, pouring over the sketches. “Who’s this supposed to be?”

“Valkyrie,” Steve answered. “Haven’t finished the sketch yet, but she’s the new Queen of Asgard. Thor stepped down from leading his people after the battle.”

“Valkyrie? As in Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries?” Michael questioned, fascinated.

“That’s Thor’s brother, Loki. Adopted, according to Thor,” Steve continued to explain.

“His species is actually Frost Giant,” Tony spoke up from where he was working with Howard and David on a component for the time-traveling device. “Got Thor drunk enough one night for him to tell me that.”

Steve couldn’t help but turn slightly and stare at Tony. It was impressive – and a little improbable, in his opinion – that Tony had managed to get Thor drunk enough to have that happen. Of all the silly contests that the Avengers had challenged each other to before they disbanded in 2016, drinking challenges were the most common.

Of course, Steve always deigned to participate, citing that he couldn’t get drunk because of the serum. While a small part of him missed the camaraderie that came with participation, he ultimately found it entertaining to watch his friends become more and more incoherent as the challenge went on into the wee hours of the night.

“Don’t look at me like that, Rogers. I passed out after that,” Tony stated.

Steve merely shook his head, as he returned his attention to the maps and diagrams spread across the table. Howard’s bark of laughter accompanied his return to work, and was followed by some squawks of protests from Tony. He caught David rolling his eyes in exasperation, before the engineer focused on his own work.

“Anyways,” Steve said, nodding towards the rough diagram of the halls of Asgard. “Not the point. Rocket leading a contingent of the guards away is good, but the problem is—”

“Returning the Reality Stone, Aether, or whatever it’s actual form is, into Dr. Foster,” Peggy finished up, her chin resting in her hands, while her elbows propped her up on the surface of the table.

“Yeah,” Michael voiced in agreement.

“It needs to be inside of Jane, for the plan that Thor executed with Loki’s help, to work,” Steve said, shaking his head. “Jane will be freed from it, but it was only through her help and her work that Thor was able to completely defeat the Dark Elves. I don’t know of any other way it can happen.”

He really did not want to do that to Jane, but to not return the Reality Stone in its state would potentially cause the timeline to splinter. Considering the aftermath of what he had seen happened in Greenwich, the Dark Elves were a threat that could not remain.

“Can the device be placed near Jane?” Peggy asked, reaching forward to take the cylindrical item that had drawn the Reality Stone out of Jane, and turned it into a solid. She examined it for a few moments before setting it back down.

Steve had withdrawn the cylinder from another compartment. Out of all the containment chambers that carried the stones, he only had the ones for the Power and Reality stones. The staff Loki had used for the Mind Stone, along with the cube that contained the Space Stone were destroyed in 2023.

“One way manifold, in or out,” Steve said, shaking his head slightly. “It needs to be depressed for the stone to turn back into liquid, and injected into a host.”

“That’s… troubling—” Peggy began.

The clicking heels of Lorraine approaching caused the three of them to pause. There was a clear look in the former spy-secretary’s eyes that indicated that the message or whatever it was, was for Peggy alone. Wordlessly, Peggy stepped away.

Before Steve could fully return his attention to the diagrams and sketches, he heard Peggy approach. Turning slightly, he smiled as she slipped one of her hands into his and gently squeezed it.

“I’ll hopefully be back soon,” she said.

He nodded. He knew that long ago, he would have asked what drew her attention away, but since living this life here, he found it better for both of their peace of mind if he didn’t inquire. He still worried about her, but she was strong and knew her limits.

Her posting in this position required her to be more than just a senior SSR agent. Steve could see elements of ‘Director’ within her at the moment. And that was only because he knew how she operated as Director of SHIELD – from another reality.

Another time.

Another life.

“Stay safe,” he said, and watched her leave.

~~~

Peggy was not that surprised that it was Bucky who was waiting for her at the front of the ‘casting agency’ lobby. “Arm up,” was all he said, holding out two cartridges for her Walther.

She already had cartridges, but quickly realized that the bullets within the two cartridges were not the typical ones. They were the ones coated in vibranium. Either a call had come in for the shadow creatures appearing yet again, or Bucky had found something—

Yet, Bucky himself was not holding himself in high alert – just caution.

Working with him in the past few weeks, and during the war, had accustomed her to how he behaved in a non-verbal fashion. He had found something, but wasn’t sure if it was a threat yet. Calling it in had not been an option, as the public phones were not secured. Neither did he want to start a panic among those guarding the facility.

She took the two cartridges, and slipped them into the pockets of her winter coat that hung on the coat rack, before donning her coat. “If neither Barnes or I report back within the hour, lock down the facility,” she ordered Lorraine.

“Understood, ma’am,” Lorraine answered, settling down at her station, calm and composed.

Following Bucky out, Peggy was slightly surprised at just how crowded it was on the streets. But then again, it was the end of the workday, and everyone was trying to get home. It made for blending, and walking to wherever Bucky was taking her, easier.

She slipped and hooked her arm around Bucky’s right one – only to continue to blend in with the crowds. It was easier for anyone who was a potential spy for a foreign country, or a part of the threat assessment Bucky still hadn’t completely vetted, to think the two were just a couple.

Steadily, she could feel Bucky gently tug on her arm to lead her in the direction of where he had found the potential threat. Their calm gait soon carried them beyond the crowds, and wound them around various alleyways in Brooklyn.

Soon, the smell of sulfur began to saturate the air. They were approaching the shipyards – or somewhere close to the shipyards. The last corner they turned led them to a fence that surrounded a building. There were clear signs that the building was condemned and slated for tear down, but the notices were about two years old.

Bucky unhooked their arms, ducking under a loosened area of the fence. She followed, and they climbed the stairs until they got to the third floor. Bucky entered the apartment first, and she heard him softly sigh, shaking his head.

“She’s still here, Barnes,” Peggy heard Natasha surprisingly say, as she followed him in, and stepped to the side.

Natasha was standing at what looked to be the threshold between this main area within the apartment and a tiny bedroom. The former Black Widow stepped to the side, and Peggy’s eyes widened in surprise.

Dottie Underwood stepped out.

“Peggy,” Dottie simply greeted.

There was no arrogance, anger, or resentment within those eyes of hers. It was what Peggy remembered of Dottie, the last time they had fought, and she had fallen into the hangar. Dottie looked calm, but fearful as well, and was clearly favoring her left side.

Peggy flicked her eyes towards Bucky for one moment – somehow her friend had cornered, captured, or done something to isolate Dottie. There was also no screeching noise, strange fog, or the shadow creatures jumping out at them.

The fact that the last two times had the SSR’s firefight against the creatures had abruptly stopped as soon as Dottie disappeared, should have given her good cause to dismiss defection. But, Peggy was determined not to give up on her theory. It was all because of how desperate Dottie had been when they had fought.

Peggy knew what it felt like, to have a world torn down – to be cast down into the depths of despair with the loss of belief. She had acutely felt and experienced it when she thought Steve had truly died. It was for the memory of Steve and what he had stood for, that she had picked herself back up – determined to continue his work in his name.

Dottie had her world torn away from her in the aftermath of Ivchenko’s machinations. Peggy wanted to steer her right. It was easy to find something worth dying for, but it was harder to find something worth living for.

“Dottie,” she answered in kind.

Peggy was still well aware that her ideals were not always reality. She was not always right, but she hoped to be – with Dottie. At the present, Dottie didn’t seem to pay much attention to Natasha, who hadn’t moved from where she was, as she took a seat.

“The Winter Soldier protects you,” Dottie said, glancing over at Bucky. “I’m glad.”

Peggy glanced at Bucky. She had never heard that nickname for him before. But neither did he didn’t give any indication otherwise about the moniker.

Seeing that it was going to go nowhere, she sat opposite of her, in the room’s only other chair. Bucky remained behind her, but wasn’t looming as he could have been. Like Natasha, he was watching this exchange carefully.

“Do you want to defect?” she bluntly asked.

Dottie remained silent. Without an outright admission of yes, or no, she couldn’t go to Thompson and ask him for resources to help Dottie. As the silence stretched into long minutes, Peggy wondered if she had assumed wrong—

“I want to help,” Dottie suddenly stated before Peggy could gather her coat around her and stand up.

“So you do want to defect,” Peggy stated.

“I want to help,” Dottie repeated, eyes hardening slightly in insistence.

Peggy frowned. “But not defect. A Confidential Informant working behind the lines.” She paused for a moment, thinking back to her notes about Dottie, and what Bucky had told her about his encounter with Dottie.

“Will you give us the names of the twenty-one other Black Widows?” she asked.

“I will, but they will be useless to you, Peggy,” Dottie answered. The smile on her lips was anything but kind. “You have a traitor in your midst, and this traitor has been passing information to the Motherland for the past two years.”

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Resonance Cascade – Part 2

 

“A traitor,” Peggy stated, frowning slightly. “Who?”

“Someone close enough to be able to pass messages back and forth to the Motherland,” Dottie answered.

“That’s horseshit—” Bucky began.

“Someone who isn’t aware of their actions, but has been secretly ordered to carry them out—” Dottie interrupted.

“A sleeper agent?” Peggy questioned, as an uneasy feeling bloomed in her stomach.

The first time the SSR had encountered an agent who had stolen into them, had been during the war. In mid-to-late 1943, Alistair Brooke, a code breaker who had been recruited from Bletchley Park, had been revealed to be a HYDRA spy. He had been killed by both her and Bucky while trying to escape in the chaos that he had caused.

The second time had been when Steve and Bucky had been briefly captured and held behind enemy lines in Estonia. When they had escaped, they had also freed a woman named Marta. Marta had been ‘held’ in HYDRA facility where the two were. She had somehow received orders from the Soviets working with HYDRA, to attempt to kill Steve, the Commandos, and her, when they had returned to the HYDRA facility to find more information. Bucky had killed her.

The third, and thankfully failed attempt had been through Peggy’s own brother. Michael and what was left of the SOE platoons had been found in another HYDRA facility. It came to light that Ivchenko had tried to manipulate and embed compulsion commands into Michael to turn him into an active, but more secret and insidious sleeper agent. The extent of Ivchenko’s grasp with the ring he used had not come to light until after the Soviet scientist and head of Leviathan, had been captured.

Three times. HYDRA had tried three times, and failed, due to the SSR's vigilance. Two of those times had been with Soviet help. While the Allied forces had counted on the Soviet Union to be amenable to fighting against the Axis powers, that alliance was only because it was mutually beneficial. The nuclear tests, Berlin Airlift, and other incidents that had happened since after the war only highlighted the divide between the West and East.

“Prove it,” Peggy stated before Bucky could intervene again.

“I don’t know the traitor’s name,” Dottie answered.

“You don’t know,” Bucky scoffed, shaking his head. “That’s rich. Coming from a Leviathan agent of your calibre. Didn’t like the flood that drove you from home, didn’t you, Black Widow?”

Dottie’s heated glare on Bucky was brief, before she focused her attention back on Peggy. “Nine months after you captured Dr. Ivchenko, the training facility where you encountered some of my younger sister-Widows was burned to the ground. Those girls who did not pass the training by that date were locked in the building, and perished in the fire.”

“What?” Peggy stated, horrified.

“We didn’t find bodies,” Bucky stated, as Peggy glanced over to see him folding his arms across his chest.

“Because my sisters got word from the traitor that you and the woman you were working with, were coming,” Dottie answered, eyes focused on Bucky when she stated that. “They gave you nothing – not even a scrap of a burnt hairband.”

“That still doesn’t prove—” Bucky began, anger clear in his tone.

“You think you and the woman you were working with destroyed everything?” It was Dottie’s turn to scoff.

“Agent Barnes,” Peggy warned, before Bucky could rashly say another word. Returning her attention to Dottie, she calmly stated, “There’s very little here that we can discern as truth or lie. You are not telling us anything that we do not know. What proof do you have?”

“Peggy,” Dottie began, shaking her head slightly. “I don’t have a lot of information – not since I’ve been on the run here. But, I can tell you that this sleeper agent had been embedded during the war, and is still among you. The commands to truly active this agent, replacing his or her personality with a different one, are spoken in Russian.”

“What are the commands?” Peggy asked.

Dottie tilted her head ever so slightly, giving both her and Bucky a shrewd look. She then turned slightly in her chair to look at Natasha, before returning her attention forward. “Dr. Ivchenko knows that both you and Agent Barnes know Russian. Do you truly want me to state it right now?”

“Yes,” both she and Bucky answered at the same time.

Peggy was glad that both she and Bucky were of the same thought. If there was indeed an embedded, unknown sleeper agent who had been hiding in the SSR since the war, it narrowed down the list to a handful of people here.

She could not speak for SSR-Europe though. The summary personnel file that Thompson had given her showed that most, if not all of SSR-Europe were staffed with several personnel who had worked in the original branch during the war.

Should either she or Bucky suddenly and unwittingly turn, the Natasha would be able to stop either of them with a simple touch. But if either of them were not the sleeper agent—

“Дождь – вселенной голоса,” Dottie suddenly stated.

For a few seconds, silence enveloped them. Peggy glanced over towards Bucky, seeing him do the same. She frowned, feeling no different than she had been – cold, surprised at Dottie’s admission, and wishing that she could shake the feeling that Dottie was speaking the truth. A glance over towards Natasha showed that the woman had not moved – she did not see either her or Bucky as a threat.

“Rain, the voices of the universe?” Bucky questioned after a few more seconds of silence. “That’s a very odd phrase and choice of words. Almost song-like.”

Peggy had to agree, but there was conviction in Dottie’s tone that was unshaken, no matter how much they tried to doubt her words. Peggy could sense that she had more information, even if she claimed to not have much from being on the run.

“Agent Barnes, if I could speak to you outside, please.”

“Ma’am,” was all Bucky acknowledged, before stepping out after her.

Peggy didn’t immediately speak and followed Bucky until they were on the ground floor again. “Take her to a more secured location, Bucky. I’ll return to make sure the alert isn’t sounded.”

“You believe her?” Bucky asked.

“Do you?” she countered.

“She might be scaring us with the whole embedded, sleeper agent activated with that ridiculous phrase,” Bucky stated. “Ivchenko was her handler, Peggy. He knew what happened to the SSR and SOE during the war.”

“And yet, it’s not a phrase that you would think someone would use,” she pointed out. “I want to see where this goes.”

There was reluctance written all over Bucky’s face, but he nodded. “It’s going to have to be a temporary location, until you or I can find something more secure.”

“Agreed,” she answered. “And for now, we keep it among ourselves. And ask Natasha to do so as well.”

“Will do,” he agreed. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather have Natasha escort you to the facility. See if you can get her to tell us any further information about Black Widows.”

“Yes,” she said. “And please, be careful yourself, Bucky.”

* * *

A few minutes later…

 

“<Why should we believe you?>”

Bucky hadn’t so much hissed the words in Russian, but rather growled them. Underwood’s reaction was telling, but he was not in the mood to analyze it at the moment.

“Well aren’t you the two-faced knight in shining armor,” she answered in as flippant of a tone, as possible.

He could see right through the facade and bad acting. “<Where the sun shines on the knight, there is always a shadow. Tell me why we should fucking believe you, and not turn you in—>”

“<Then kill me, Winter Soldier.>” she suddenly said. “<Do you duty and kill me now, before my sisters tear me from limb to limb.>”

The retort was on the edge of his lips; the lunging action beginning to ripple through his muscles to scare her into confessing, but he did neither. It was her eyes – the readiness to die – that made him pause.

She was willing – wanting – to be killed right here and now; rather than be hunted down by the other Widows. She thought a simple shot through the heart or head was better than whatever the Soviets were going to do her.

“<Compassion.>” she sneered. “<Sentiment. You wear them poorly, Winter Soldier.>”

“<Who the hell is this Winter Soldier?>” he asked, unable to hold back most of the snarl.

“<Certainly not you. You are more Wolf Spider than Winter Soldier.>”

Frustrated, and seeing that he was going to get nowhere with his own questions, he said, “Stay here. I’ll be back in a minute.”

She gave him a thin smile. He left without another word to her, and went down the three flights of stairs. Turning the corner, he pounded on the door to the first floor apartment. It opened a moment later. Wordlessly, Bucky thrust a small wad of bills towards the squatter before pointing to the scarf the squatter had wrapped around his head. The squatter handed the scarf over after taking the bills.

Bucky returned to the third floor. He entered the apartment and found Dottie still sitting where he had left her. Tossing the scarf at her, he ignored her look of pure disgust and gave her a minute to wrap it around her head.

He wasn’t quite forcible in yanking her up, but neither was he gentle. As strikingly beautiful as she was, she was a dangerous threat that he needed to make sure that he had a good grip on her arms. He needed to make sure that she did not try to steal anything from either him, or anyone else they would pass in the streets, to use against him.

It took them a few short minutes to depart the apartment and end up on one of the main streets. The crowds had lessen quite a lot, as it was near the end of the evening rush hour. Yet, Bucky didn’t release his tight grip on Underwood, and continued to steer her towards the seedier section of Brooklyn.

He had only been to this part of Brooklyn once – before the war – and certainly without Steve’s knowledge. Considering how well put-together and elegant-looking Dottie Underwood was, enemies trying to find her in a run-down, almost whore-house like hotel would be last in their places to search. It was the best that he could do for now, as it would take a few days to secure a better location for a secret safe house.

Thankfully, Underwood kept her mouth shut and plastered a rather pleasant, if not slightly drunk expression on her face. The hotel manager gave both of them merely a glance, before reaching over in his booth to pluck a set of keys out.

“Three days,” Bucky stated, while shoving a rather fat wad of bills towards the hotel manager.

“Room 221,” the manager said, handing the keys over. “Laundromat is two doors down.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“Come on, sugar,” Underwood simpered at nearly the same time in a high-pitched, breathy tone.

For a few moments, Bucky allowed her to lead him up the stairs. Once they were out of view of the manager, Bucky immediately took control again. It didn’t take them long to arrive and enter the room. As soon as the door closed, Bucky let her go, pushing her away from him.

He stood by the door, watching her unravel the scarf and toss it across the room in disgust. Before he could open his mouth to set the temporary terms of her ‘help’ and possible defection within the hotel room, she turned to face him.

“Is this the part—” she began, sauntering towards him “—where we give our neighbors a symphony of moans, or do you really show me just how tame you are with your… compassion.”

She had placed her hands lightly on either side of his chest, under his arms, but did not unbutton his coat, or slip them inside. Where she had placed her hands was where he had his gun and cartridges holstered – on either side. Bucky knew that she could feel the outline of both.

“Dangerous foreplay is not my thing, darling,” he said, plucking both of her hands off of him, as if he were prying a cat away.

She briefly smiled at him, unkind and unnerving. “<Is she forbidden fruit?>” she suddenly asked in Russian. “<A test by your handlers to resist great beauty? Or a test to see if you’re able to rise to the occasion? On command?>”

Underwood gave him another thin smile. “<’Natasha’. Her name has a pleasant ring to it. Her assets are certainly lending her a generosity unseen before—>”

“Guess I’m interrupting the foreplay,” Natasha’s unexpected, but wholly welcomed interruption cut Underwood off from whatever else she was going to say.

Bucky immediately used the sudden jump of surprise from Underwood to push her further away from him. Natasha’s arrival meant that Peggy had made it back to the Brooklyn facility unharmed. Though he was curious as to how exactly she knew he was here, he pushed that thought to the side.

“Didn’t expect you to like the talkative ones, though, James,” Natasha continued to say, giving Underwood a mild look.

Either Natasha had told the current Black Widow what she was, or Underwood had sensed that Natasha wasn’t exactly… human. Or alive, in a strange sense.

Bucky watched as Underwood carefully navigated around Natasha, and stopped near the bed. Underwood’s gaze was sharp, calculating, and focused solely on Natasha. He was apparently less of a threat than she was to her.

“How many days?” Natasha breezily asked, shrugging as Bucky saw her turn her attention back onto him.

“Three,” he answered, knowing that she was asking about how many days he had paid for, for the room. “I’ll drop by with some food in a few.”

“Good,” she answered, nodding once. “I wasn’t going to feed her anyways.”

Seeing that there was nothing else to discuss, Bucky left the keys to the hotel room on the rickety dresser, and left. If Dottie Underwood was serious about helping them and giving them information, then a few days in a hotel such as this was the least she could put up with. If not, then she was free to run into the wind – and let her own fate be decided.

Either way, Bucky had gleaned another piece of information: she knew something of his time behind enemy lines. Something about whatever this ‘Wolf Spider’ was – and its link to ‘Winter Soldier’. Both were pieces of information that he had missed collecting, or destroying during Operation Midnight.

* * *

Brooklyn Facility…

 

“So, is there any chance that you’ll allow a tourist to come with you?”

Steve didn’t know why he had been anticipating such a question, but it made sense to have come from Michael. His brother-in-law had a sense of adventure that was as vast, if not more than Peggy’s sense of curiosity. He couldn’t help but grin for a brief moment.

“I don’t have enough Pym Particles to carry everyone through several round trips,” he answered, giving Michael a sympathetic smile. “Sorry.”

“Pym Parti—?” Michael began.

His brother-in-law didn’t get to finish his question as the main doors on the second floor walkway that led directly into to the laboratory opened. Steve looked up to see Peggy walk in, followed by Bucky who was holding a bag that looked not quite like a takeout bag.

“Coffee for everyone,” Bucky said, setting the bag down, and passed out the drinks. “And a special ordered one for you, David.”

“Thanks,” the engineer answered.

Steve did not miss the withering look that Tony had given David, before hearing Tony mutter, “Keep that candy-guise coffee away from my workspace.”

In response, David merely snorted in laughter, before taking his cup back to where he was working. Steve wasn’t fast enough to place his attention elsewhere as Tony caught him looking at him mildly.

“What, Steve?” Tony said, shaking his head slightly in exasperation. “He puts four spoonful of sugar in his coffee. And I’m not talking about teaspoons! Who the hell does that—”

Steve sipped his own cup, shrugging slightly before saying, “Dunno, Tony. Maybe he’s just a sweet guy.”

That got a couple of chuckles around the table, followed by outright laughter from David. Even Howard was unable to contain his snort of laughter. Tony’s muttered, “Fucking hate you, Rogers. Forgot how much of a troll you were,” made it even better.

Steve couldn’t help the slightly smarmy smile that quirked up his lips.

“Anything we need to worry about up there?” Michael asked a few moments later, as the four of them settled around the table.

“Nothing to be worried about,” Peggy answered, shaking her head slightly. “Just some law enforcement activities close to the perimeter.”

Peggy didn’t elaborate, and Steve didn’t expect her to. Michael’s assignment as David’s bodyguard was an actual assignment. Unless there was any real threat, anything the SSR or 107th personnel who guarded the facility would stay within SSR knowledge. Steve was confident that Peggy would warn them in advance – if possible – of any dangers.

“Hey, Barnes,” Howard’s approach drew their attention towards the inventor. “I’m sorry for what I said to you.” Howard continued to say, stopping next to where Bucky sat around the table full of sketches and building diagrams.

Steve watched as Bucky took one look at the hand that Howard offered in apology, eyes narrowed ever so slightly. While Steve hadn’t been there, he had been watching from his room that overlooked the main floor. All he had seen was Bucky abruptly walking away, Howard looking slightly baffled, and Sousa and several of the 107th glaring at Howard.

It wasn’t until Peggy had told him that Howard had put his foot in his mouth with regards to Bucky’s metal arm, that Steve felt slightly angry at Howard. Even if one did not know how Bucky got his metal arm, it had been utterly rude of Howard to say what he had said.

“It was rude of me, and I wasn’t thinking at all, when I said those words,” Howard continued to prattle on.

As much as Steve could see that Howard was digging a hole by not shutting up after his initial apology, Steve did not intervene. This was between Howard and Bucky, and Steve would always take Bucky’s side when it came to this – no matter what.

“I can’t ever take them back, but I can only say that I’m sorry. And that I will never, ever mention it again to you,” Howard finished up.

The silence that fell between all of them was uncomfortable. However, just as Howard was about to withdraw his peace offering handshake, Bucky said, “It’s not me you should be apologizing to, Stark. It’s every single man, woman, and child out there who weren’t as lucky as I was to receive a working false limb. You want to make a better difference in the world? Help them. Help them regain the life they lost because of injury.”

Bucky jabbed his right hand at his gloved and covered left arm. “Whomever created and grafted this arm onto me is as mechanically minded as you are. Be better, than profiting off the greed of those who want nuclear war, Stark.”

Loving warmth bloomed and expanded ten-fold in Steve’s heart in response to Bucky’s statement. His best friend was not always the most eloquent, or diplomatic with words, but this… it was a masterpiece. It was similar to the words that he had wished he had said to Tony when the Avengers had first been thrown together on the Helicarrier – but not under the influence of the Mind Stone.

Howard seemed stunned by the words, blinking several times, before snapping out of it. “Um...” Howard began, but decided it was better not to continue to dig the hole he was in. “Yeah…”

Bucky didn’t shake Howard’s offered hand, but as Howard withdrew the offering, Steve saw his best friend nod once. There was no forgiveness for Howard’s words, but Steve could see that there was at least some understanding between the two. He didn’t think Bucky would accept and forgive Howard for his words until Howard decided to go into the medical prosthesis field.

Silently, and looking slightly cowed, Steve saw Howard return to where the time-traveling device was. The noise and discussion between the engineers started up again, and Steve returned his attention to his own task at hand.

“You all right?”

Michael had asked that question. Steve saw his brother-in-law place a comforting hand on Bucky’s shoulder, squeezing it gently in reassurance before letting go.

Bucky shrugged, and silently returned his attention on one of the diagrams of the New Jersey base in 1970. “Anyone consider going through the vents?” Bucky asked after a few moments.

Steve couldn’t help but share a look with Peggy and Michael. Out of everything they discussed, none of them had thought of that. But, this was SHIELD, and for all of their engineering and scientific prowess, there was a chance that someone thought of that.

But, then Steve remembered how Zola’s databank area looked. There were enormous gratings covering either tunnels or the miles of electrical wiring that was needed to power Zola’s brain on a tape.

Tony had drawn what the area where the Tesseract and other items of high security interest were kept. To keep the system that contained them powered, it would most likely require a large amount of electricity and wiring.

“Maybe—” Steve began.

“Wait, what are you doing?!” Tony squawked loud enough to draw all of their attention towards him.

Steve thought he saw David pouring some of the coffee into some component of the time-traveling device, but all further protests from Tony had fallen silent. Instead, all he and everyone heard from Tony was a humming noise.

“Tony?” Steve questioned, as Howard went over to see what had happened.

“Wait a minute...” Tony began, ignoring everyone else except for whatever was happening in that area. “That’s… I read about a derivation of this in a paper for my Master’s. Fissile materials… but the experiment was different… and not as benign as this—”

“You must’ve read David’s thesis at Cambridge that he wrote in 1940,” Howard said, almost clapping Tony on the shoulder, before remembering that Tony was not to be touched.

“You’re the author of ‘Fissile Materials and the Sustainability of Graphite as a Moderator’?!” Tony exclaimed.

Steve was sure that he had never heard awe coming from Tony before. It was strange to hear it, and even stranger to hear him directing it at David. Tony’s camaraderie with Bruce, and endless discussion of scientific theories or papers, wasn’t anything like what Steve heard at the moment. David had turned beet red, but gave a small nod of confirmation.

“Well, shit, kid—sorry,” Tony began, but quickly apologized. “Shit. Your paper, Dr. Brewster, saved my ass from a potentially embarrassing thesis defense at MIT.”

“You were a nuclear physicist at MIT, Tony?” Peggy questioned, curious.

“No. Mechanical engineering,” Tony answered. “The thesis I defended was a theory for the arc reactor. Sustainable energy that wasn’t nuclear reactor type of stuff—aw man.”

Tony’s attention was diverted once again to David as he asked, “You were part of Tube Alloy, weren’t you, Doc—”

“Mr. Stark, please stop harassing my employee with your questions,” Peggy suddenly interrupted. She then turned slightly towards Michael, saying, “Michael, I think it’s getting late for all of us. Would you please escort David to the car, while I ensure Howard makes it home safely? I’ll join the two of you shortly.”

There was a definite edge to her tone. Even as Howard spluttered, Steve briefly felt Peggy slip her hand into his and gently squeezed it in farewell for the night. She rarely ever did that, and it told him that she was unequivocally not happy with what had happened in the past few minutes.

Steve wasn’t sure what exactly was the cause of that, but he was sure it had to do with David and the fact that the engineer had a doctorate in a highly sought-after field in this point in time. As surprised as he was that someone as young as David was, had such an advanced degree, he knew that the SSR did recruit the best and brightest.

“Will do,” Michael answered, getting up and giving Bucky another brief squeeze on his shoulder, before going to collect David.

With Howard confused and still spluttering, Peggy almost forcibly dragged him away. That only left him, along with Bucky, still sitting at the table, and Tony, who was idling near the assembled components for the device.

As soon as the door to the main area closed, Tony said, “Sorry about that, Steve. I forgot that the Official Secrets Act was still in effect. Almost everything about early atomic weapons, and their creation was unclassified by the time you woke up from ice.”

“Is knowing about whatever Tube Alloys is, necessary to making the device work?” Steve asked, as Tony took a seat at the table.

“Not directly,” Tony stated, shaking his head slightly. “But this is going to draw a lot more power than what happened with you and the serum. This is not 2023, where I have a working arc reactor to power the device.”

Tony paused for a few moments, tapping his chin with a finger. “I think that’s also one of the other reasons why Dad wanted Dr. Brewster on the project. Tube Alloys was the joint Canadian-UK’s R&D program that preceded the Manhattan Project. It got subsumed into Manhattan during the war. When I was working on my thesis, my professor just happened to have worked in Tube Alloys, and referred me to several participants’ early research. One of which was Dr. Brewster’s thesis.”

Steve remained silent for a few long minutes. On one hand, he agreed with Peggy that things should not have escalated to the rough parting that had just happened. On the other hand, it now became painfully clear to him that Howard had not recruited David Brewster just because the engineer was a micro-engineer. David had most likely either been plucked – or quit, Steve didn’t know and dared never to ask – from the British equivalent of the dangerous Manhattan Project to analyze HYDRA’s weaponry brought upon the 107th in Azzano.

“How much power are we talking about, and where are you going to source it from, Stark?” Bucky’s unexpected question startled both of them.

“Dad has the Tesseract,” Tony stated, without any of the usual snark, sarcasm, or anger in his tone. “It’s the only power source, short of actually building a nuclear reactor, that can power the machine.”

“Steve,” Bucky began, looking slightly pained.

“I know,” Steve answered, feeling the unease and uncertainty within him bloom.

To harness and use the Tesseract’s energy was putting them too close to what HYDRA had done. Steve had never asked Tony how the time-traveling device would be powered. He had assumed that plain old electricity – like how they had powered Bruce’s machine in 2023 – would be enough. He hadn’t realized that Tony had used an arc reactor to power the actual machine.

“Is there any other way?” Steve asked.

“If there was, I would have already told you, Steve,” Tony solemnly stated. “Fury’s Phase 2 weapons with the Tesseract never sat well with me either.”

“What’s Phase 2, and who is this Fury character?” Bucky asked.

“Nicholas Fury was Director of SHIELD during the first time Thanos attacked via proxy by Loki,” Steve stated before Tony could answer. “Phase 2 was SHIELD creating weapons using the Tesseract.”

“What the hell?” Bucky softly exclaimed, looking completely appalled. “I thought you said SHIELD was the good guys, Steve. That’s just like—”

“HYDRA, I know,” Steve answered, giving Tony a pointed look to not say a word about HYDRA resurgent within SHIELD. “It was immediately stopped. Thor took the Tesseract with him after the battle.”

“Well, our timeline’s Thor,” Tony clarified, wincing slightly. “2012—”

“Tony, that’s not the point,” Steve interrupted.

He still had not begun to contemplate or discuss how to return the Time and Mind Stones to 2012. Nor had he thought about what he would do – if anything – to try to restore the Tesseract and Loki in that particular point in time.

To his slight surprise, Tony did not push any further, and said, “Dad has the Tesseract at this point in time – not the SSR. If there’s a way to safely harness the energy into an arc reactor equivalent, then I’m sure the kid – Dr. Brewster – will find a way.”

There was a bitter taste in Steve’s mouth, and it was not from the now-cold coffee.

“Is there a way to destroy the Tesseract once we’re done with it?”

Bucky’s question surprised Steve. Tony didn’t seem to expect it either, but was faster in recovering, saying, “Bringing it to 2014 when the Power and Soul Stones were retrieved might be the best option.”

Steve frowned slightly, but understood what Tony was getting at. “No Thanos in that timeline, since he was killed in our 2023. Would an extra Tesseract in a timeline be detrimental?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” Tony said, shaking his head. “Quantum mechanics and relativity are not easy concepts to put black and white boxes over them. Theoretically, it shouldn’t. It will also protect this timeline from Thanos collecting all of the stones.”

Steve nodded, even though he was just as puzzled, if not more than confused than Tony. There was concern in Bucky’s eyes as he held his best friend’s gaze with his own. But there was also the opposite side that needed to be addressed.

“And, if there is no way to safely harness the energy from the Tesseract into an arc reactor, then I leave,” he quietly stated.

“Not going to happen, Rogers,” Tony unexpectedly stated, giving him a pointed look. “Have some faith in us, will you?”

Steve glanced over to see a similar look being directed at him by Bucky. His best friend shook his head slightly in exasperation, before nodding in agreement with Tony. Despite both of their unease at what needed to be done with this timeline’s Tesseract, Steve was glad that they were in agreement about the disposal of the Tesseract.

Humanity had made mistakes – gravelly large and infinitesimally small – before and after Steve woke up from ice. But if there was one thing that Steve was willing to affect in this world, it was to preempt Thanos from gathering all the stones.

After all, second chances to make things right were rare.

* * *

Several days later…

 

“It’ll take days to verify what she’s given us,” Peggy couldn’t help but mutter as she and Bucky made their way down the fairly busy sidewalk.

“That’s if we keep it discreet,” Bucky answered. “If the information is solid and true, then it’s SSR-Europe that we need to worry about.”

“I haven’t worked in a song, or a natural way to test Lorraine with the commands,” Peggy admitted, as they stopped at the corner of the intersection.

If they turned left, it was a direct path back down to the Brooklyn facility. If they turned right, then several streets and a maze of alleyways would carry them to where Dottie Underwood had been temporarily housed.

Where Dottie currently resided was a small apartment owned by Howard. Howard was not using in the apartment – having decided to take up residence somewhere else in Brooklyn. Peggy had convinced Jarvis to allow her to borrow the apartment, under the guise of the project.

While she normally wouldn’t have done such a thing, the apartment also had a customized security system – which was what she needed to ensure that Dottie remained safe. The system was different than what Howard employed at the Brooklyn facility, so there was little worry that Dottie would be able to break in.

Bucky and Steve rooming together in the facility until the time-traveling device was built, and the stones returned, added an extra layer of security for the facility. She knew that Steve prioritized the fact that the device and stones should never fall into the wrong hands.

There was an edge to that knife that he could disappear without her knowing, but she never lingered on that thought. It was akin to any of them being randomly hit by car while walking on the streets. The time she spent, whenever she could, with him after hours in the facility were treasured times.

“We’ll cross that bridge when the time comes,” she said after a moment. “Are you sure that you want to take this shift?” she asked, looking up at him with some concern.

“If Steve ever needs Natasha’s help for something, I don’t want her to not be there,” he answered. “I’m fine with the double-duty, Pegs. You have a project, team, and facility to run. Let me take some of the burden off your shoulders.”

“All right,” she answered, patting his arm. “It’s just, your frequent absence has been noted by a certain someone. I make your excuses when I can, but there’s only so much I can say.”

“Pass along a message then, please,” Bucky answered, the edges of his lips quirking up in a slight smile. “Rooftops, tonight at moon rise.”

“Oh, a romantic,” she couldn’t help but tease. In a more serious tone, she said, “I’ll pass on the message. Be careful, Bucky.”

“You too, Peggy.”

* * *

Later in the evening

 

Bucky wasn’t quite panting by the time they parted for a second to breathe. It always surprised him just how unexpectedly and deeply passionate Michael could be at times. Another few minutes more of being pushed against the rough brick wall and fervent kisses that left him breathless – Bucky might’ve abandoned all caution, and have Michael on the ground; illegality of their relationship be damned.

Yet, Michael pulled back when Bucky leaned forward slightly to kiss him with renewed vigor. “What’s wrong?” he asked, sensing that something was strangely not all right.

Michael looked away, and a moment later, let him go. Bucky saw him take a step back, as a surprising look of hurt briefly eclipsed his face. “Is she treating you all right?”

Bucky frowned. “What?” he asked.

“Your new Confidential Informant,” Michael answered, finally looking at him again, before gesturing up and down his body. “I’m assuming that’s who you’ve been running off to, when you’re not on shift.”

“Michael—” Bucky began.

“Her perfume is all over you,” Michael said. Bucky saw him clench his hands into fists, looking away again. “I can’t…” his lover began. “I know that it’s a part of your duties. But I can’t—”

“I’m not—I didn’t—Having sex with CIs is not a part of my duties,” he said, appalled at what he was hearing.

“Then what the hell do you call what happened while you were behind the lines?!” Michael exploded, hissing his words just loud enough for Bucky to hear the anger and hurt. “How the hell would you describe what you briefed them: ‘orally serviced the target for a half-hour before penetrating’—”

Michael didn’t even get to finish his accusations, stepping away from him in disgust and revulsion. Bucky didn’t attempt to defend himself from the words – he had stated those words during the briefing. He also didn’t close the distance between them, and remained where he was.

“Michael,” he began again.

“Don’t, Bucky,” Michael said, looking up at him, eyes red-rimmed with unshed tears. “Don’t even think about saying those three words to me. They’re not… I’m not… meant—”

The loquaciousness that Michael usually commanded faltered him. Michael then turned and walked away. Bucky didn’t go after him, and even after the door to the rooftop slammed close, he remained where he was.

Michael had been the one to convince him to return to serving his country, after they had both been rescued by Steve. Bucky had remained in the hospital longer than necessary, his memories a jumbled mess – and uncertainty as to why Steve had decided to suddenly ‘retire’ into anonymity.

Philips had visited him with the offer to join the SSR’s Europe branch, and to complete Operation Midnight. Revenge for what happened to him hadn’t been on the top of his list, until Michael had secretly let him read reports from MI-5. It was those reports of what was happening in and around Soviet lines that convinced him to become the agent he was today.

Then, they had enlisted his mother into the operation. She had been the one to fully open his eyes to the dirty world of espionage. She had trained him, and she had warned him – that he could never hope to have a normal life, or relationship ever again.

She had told him that his life was a lie to everyone but himself.

“Dottie Underwood just caught me off guard when she tried to test boundaries today. That’s all that happened,” he whispered into the relative silence of the night.

* * *

Doors being slammed were always a sign that something was wrong.

Doors being slammed in this particular facility were a sign to Steve that something bad had happened to Bucky. Even more alarming was the angry stomp of footsteps down the hall, and past his room.

Steve immediately placed the sketch he had been working on to the side, and investigated.

Just as he opened the door and peered out, he saw Bucky disappear into the small locker room. That door too, was slammed shut. Something had happened on the rooftop – something that made Bucky angrier than he had ever seen him. It left Steve wondering what on earth had happened?

He knew that Michael had stayed behind after lights-out, while Peggy had not. She had told him that she needed to go present her progress report to Headquarters, before Chief Thompson left for the day.

Because of the secret circumstances between Michael and Bucky, and separation to prevent ‘temptation’ – according to Bucky – a rooftop rendezvous was the only other option. Steve almost offered to use the Reality Stone to conceal the two, but that would’ve been an even more awkward conversation that he really did not feel like having with his brother-in-law or best friend.

The sound of tiles being smashed, followed by a yell of anguish snapped Steve out of his brief reverie. He tore out of his room and ran to the locker room.

The door opened with ease, but wafting out into the three-person showers that were connected to the lockers was a thick blanket of steam. The sound of tiles being smashed again, along with Bucky grunting carried across to the lockers, but Steve didn’t run in. Instead, he cautiously approached.

What he saw through the glimpses of the steam that covered the entire communal shower was… Steve had no words for it.

Bucky had punched his flesh-and-blood arm into the wall hard enough to dent it, and was still doing so. Blood from his strikes were being washed away by the scalding spray of water he stood under. His best friend wasn’t aware of just how red and blistered his skin was becoming.

Even before Steve was halfway into the area, Bucky suddenly heaved and collapsed. Steve rushed forward, ignoring the blast of pain that prickled across his skin that was not covered in clothing.

He caught Bucky in his arms, and reached up to quickly shut the spray. He could feel Bucky shaking like a leaf against him, as he sat back against what was left of the tiles blanketing the wall.

“It’s all right,” he gently murmured, rocking him back and forth slightly.

There was no sound coming from his best friend, but Steve didn’t need to glance down to know that Bucky was silently crying. Whatever happened up there, whatever it was, it was enough to overwhelm Bucky. His best friend, his rock, his anchor in life was collapsing – and all Steve could do was hold him—

Because it hurt to do anything else.

Because he knew that he should have done so long ago.

Because Steve knew what it felt like.

Because no one should have to suffer alone through heartbreak.

* * *

Hours later…

 

The gentle sound of pencil scratching on paper woke Bucky up.

Fuzziness enveloped his thoughts, and an overwhelming sense of exhaustion accompanied it. But as he clawed his way up from sleepiness, the sound of pencil on paper became more acute.

With that also came the memories of what had happened – and a sudden awareness that he was not lying on his own bed. Nor were the blankets tucked up against him his own. They smelled of—

Bucky blinked and slowly sat up, wondering how he had ended up in Steve’s room, tucked into Steve’s bed, still naked no less—

“You don’t have to tell me what happened, Bucky.”

Bucky’s eyes swiveled to stare at Steve. His best friend was sitting on the floor, wearing comfortable clothing, and was still sketching whatever he was sketching on the paper. “How…?”

“Well, you’re not 90 pounds when soaking wet,” Steve said.

Bucky heard the slight bitterness in his chuckle.

“But it was easier to just let you rest here, rather than carry you across the facility to your room,” Steve continued.

He saw Steve put down the pad and pencil, and get up. The edge of the bed sank slightly with Steve’s weight. “Turn slightly to your left,” Steve said. “Your back blistered up badly while you were under the spray. I just want to make sure that your skin’s healed over.”

Wordlessly, Bucky complied. Grief, frustration, anger, and everything in between all of those had torn across him after Michael—

“Let me see your hand, please?”

Steve’s question brought him back to the present. Bucky turned to face Steve once again, and was slightly surprised when he drew his flesh-and-blood hand out from under the blankets. His knuckles and a third of his fingers had been wrapped in a thick amount of gauze.

Silently, he watched as Steve slowly undid the wrap. There was a sheen over the still raw and red skin. The cuts were still visible, but it was clear that they were slowly healing.

The bed shifted slightly again. Bucky’s eyes traced Steve’s short route from sitting by his side to retrieving the small medical kit on the table, and back to him.

“I had a CI’s perfume all over me,” he quietly broke the silence as Steve worked on his hand. “I should’ve taken a shower before—”

Bucky stopped and sighed, looking away for a brief moment. “It wouldn’t have mattered, anyways. I… we… it was falling apart the minute I returned from Operation Midnight. This was just the last straw.”

He glanced down at his left hand, the metal gleaming and shiny, even under dimmed lights. “Why the fuck am I like this?” he couldn’t help but whisper.

“There is nothing wrong with you, Bucky,” Steve’s gentle comment caused him to snap his eyes towards his best friend.

“The hell—” he began, feeling insultingly patronized.

“You are a spy. You are an assassin, and the best one in the business,” Steve continued to say, surprising Bucky with his words. “You defend the innocent, speak for those oppressed, those who need help, and those who can't fight. You are a winter soldier who is ever vigilant in his defense of life and liberty. And you use every single means available at your disposal to do so.”

Steve finished binding his hand in gauze, and gently clasped it. “The life you… Peggy… everyone in this business leads is isolating, but necessary,” Steve continued to say. “I know. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. If whomever you seek solace with cannot, then they don’t deserve you.”

I know how it feels, to try your damnest to protect the one you love, only to fail because help couldn't get there in time. I see you, and I see what you're doing. I know and understand something of how you feel. You're not alone.”

Michael had said those words to him so long ago – in a hotel room at the Savoy – when they had just been two agents trying to figure out who they were in world gone mad. It was not the same words as Steve’s, but the sentiment behind them were.

Bucky tasted bitterness in his mouth. Time changed all, but it seemed that time in captivity, and Operation Midnight for both Michael and he had changed both of them. More than either of them could live with. But that time in captivity…

Bucky glanced at his metal arm for a brief moment before looking back up. Steve’s blue-green eyes were full of comfort, sympathy, and something else – something that looked surprisingly intimate. But Bucky had to ask—“You call me a winter soldier.”

Immediately, those blue-green eyes of Steve’s hardened into crystals. Bucky was quick to move his injured hand from under Steve’s care to grasping them tightly together. He needed to know—

“The CI is a Soviet agent,” he stated. “She called me ‘The Winter Soldier’. Romanov said that she doesn’t know who this person is, now. Who was he, in the future?”

Steve looked away. When those mesmerizing, ocean-like eyes of his returned onto him, Bucky saw that the crystals they had been had softened.

“He was a soldier… brainwashed to become a weapon of fear and chaos. Someone I fought against,” Steve said. “Someone I searched for, when he disappeared. And someone I was determined to save.”

“You… you loved him, didn’t you?” Bucky asked. It was the first time he had ever said that particular word seriously to Steve. And in the context of what he did not verbally hear – it sounded like Steve had been betrayed – had his heart broken – by this ‘Winter Soldier’.

“Peggy had little time left in her life, when we were reunited,” Steve answered. Bucky heard the melancholy in his tone as clear as day. “It was… difficult for me to find someone that I could relate to, in the future.”

Bucky felt Steve’s hands shift ever so slightly under his grasp. “But, I don’t… know…” Steve began, but faltered for a moment. “By the time I found the Winter Soldier again, it was too late. He was saved, but very little was the same between us anymore.”

“I called you a winter soldier because that is who you are, Bucky,” Steve said after a moment, voice stronger than before.

Bucky eased his hold on Steve’s hands. There was such conviction in his best friend’s tone that he could feel the knot in his heart that he hadn’t realized was there, begin to lessen.

“Get some rest,” he heard Steve say after a moment. Bucky watched and felt Steve tuck his injured hand back under the covers, before standing up.

“This is your bed, Steve,” Bucky began, feeling a little embarrassed and uncertain—

“So?” was Steve’s unexpected shrug, before he turned and walked away.

Bucky watched him leave, and the door to the room close. Silence enveloped him as he heard Steve’s footsteps fade. He blinked; puzzled, surprised, and most of all – confused.

~~~

Steve made it to the stairwell that led down to the laboratory floor, before he stopped. He leaned his forehead against the cool brick wall, a rushing sense of relief and regret coursing through him.

Heartbreak was something he never knew how to deal with – even when he had been trying to lead the support group in the aftermath of Thanos’ work. All he had said to Bucky was the truth – even if it were a variation of the words he had said to Bucky in the future – when they had been stuck in another reality.

Another time.

Another life.

But to discuss the Winter Soldier—

“You need to tell him, Steve.”

Steve opened his eyes and looked left. Natasha was standing there, arms crossed over his chest. “Heard all of that, didn’t you?”

“No, actually,” she stated. “But because you hold the stones, I can sometimes feel strong emotions from you. Anything relating to the Winter Soldier has a distinct feeling. You need to tell him about the Winter Soldier.”

“No,” he said, looking back at the brick wall.

“It’s who he is, Steve.”

“It’s not,” he answered, trying to keep himself from lashing out at her in anger. “You said so yourself! He’s not the Winter Soldier.”

Silence answered him. Steve glanced over again; Natasha was still standing there, but she had uncrossed her arms. “Why?” he asked.

“They captured Dottie Underwood,” she quietly stated. “Your wife and your best friend.”

“Bucky’s CI is a Soviet agent,” Steve couldn’t help but murmur. “It should’ve been obvious.”

“Underwood says that there’s a traitor in our midst, but she isn’t specifying who or where. Only that there has been someone feeding information across lines for the past two years. They’re holding her at a safe house for now, while they try to verify everything that she’s given them so far.”

“On top of what they’re doing here?” Steve asked, straightening himself.

“That’s not the point, Steve,” Natasha answered. “You need to tell Barnes about the Winter Soldier. Underwood explicitly called him that – in front of your wife.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. As worried as Steve was, he couldn’t bring himself to agree. It was a name – it was only a name, and neither Peggy or Bucky knew what it truly was.

“Steve,” Natasha began, taking a step forward. “How do you know—”

“Don’t,” he warned. “Don’t you dare—”

“Steve, he was first deployed in 1947,” she insisted. “We don’t know exactly when. We don’t even know why that September date marker was in Zola’s journals. For all we know—”

“Bucky is not the Winter Soldier!”

Natasha remained silent for a few long seconds. “No,” she agreed. “He’s not.”

Steve watched as she wrapped her hands around her arms, rubbing them as if she were cold, before looking back up at him.

“You rescued him on September 24th, 1946, but he was captured in 1945. He’s not the traitor, but if Underwood knows about him, who else – right now – might know the conditioning commands?”

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: Resonance Cascade – Part 3

December 23 rd , 1948...

 

“Bucky,” Peggy’s gentle, but firm tone stopped him from reaching for the rooftop door’s handle.

He looked at her, seeing her silently indicate that they needed to talk in private – away from DumDum, who had taken over for the next shift. Following her to the other side of the rooftop, he leaned slightly against the parapet, waiting for her to speak.

“Michael said that you cheated on him,” she stated in a blunt tone.

Bucky briefly closed his eyes before opening them again. During the war, Peggy had intuit his interest in her brother. While he knew that Peggy had initially assumed his interest in Michael for the wrong reasons, his interest had become genuine. But even then, she had warned him that he would have to answer to her, if he ever broke her brother’s heart.

It had been a few days since the rooftop rendezvous. A few days since Michael had stormed off. A few days since Steve’s strangely heartfelt, but comforting words to him to try to ease his heartache. A few days since he had fallen deep asleep in Steve’s bed, with the last thing he felt was Steve gently pressing a kiss to the crown of his head.

Bucky still didn’t know what to make of that affectionate, but seemingly chaste gesture.

It had been a few days, and in those days, neither he nor Michael had directly talked to each other. Bucky had continued his double-duty shifts, rarely going into laboratory to see how things were progressing. In turn, Michael had remained in the laboratory, helping Steve or Howard and the others wherever they needed.

When he did go into the facility, it was only to have Lorraine pass messages to Peggy. It was only to also return to his room to sleep – if he could at all, and only when Michael was not there.

After that one night where Steve had generously let him stay, Bucky dared not to ask to stay again. He knew what rebound relationships were like – having been the rebound guy with a girl who had been dumped by the guy she had been dating.

Steve had stayed that night, watching over him. It felt like old times, before the war, but the only difference was, that Steve knew about him – knew how Bucky felt about him. And Bucky knew that as much as he wanted to – he should not read any further into any of Steve’s actions or words of comfort, than what they were on the surface.

His best friend was married to Peggy – and definitely off limits. Bucky made sure to remind himself of that every morning, since that night; even if a couple of those mornings had required cold showers.

At the thought of Peggy, Bucky mentally shook himself out of his brief reverie. “I did,” he stated, holding Peggy’s eyes with his own. “I had to, to complete Operation Midnight. You can call me a prostitute, selling my body for information, but it was the only way.”

“But not with Dottie,” Peggy finished up, eyes betraying nothing.

“Not with Dottie,” he said.

He wasn’t going to make the excuse that Dottie Underwood had caught him off guard. In hindsight, he knew that he had been in the wrong for non-verbally goading her during his shift. But the swiftness of her ‘attack’ had given him an extremely good indication to how well-trained in the killing arts she was.

Peggy was silent for a few moments before asking, “Those people you slept with, during Operation Midnight, you killed them afterwards, didn’t you?”

“I can ask Philips to make an exception for you to read the reports,” he answered instead.

Midnight was still classified under the Official Secrets Act, and he was bound to it – even as a US citizen. Everything Peggy knew of, was indirectly alluded to her initial read into the operation during the war. Bucky guessed that Michael had read the full report when he and Steve had been in London, recruiting David and getting permission from Philips.

“You’re more Black Widow than whatever this Winter Soldier nickname Dottie’s given you,” Peggy muttered.

Bucky remained silent. Steve had told him a little about the future-Winter Soldier in confidence. Bucky was certain that Peggy didn’t know about this apparent second love – he still wasn’t entirely sure of the relationship – of Steve’s. Yet, despite what Steve had said, Dottie’s Winter Soldier ‘nickname’ for him, still didn’t sit well with him.

But he also thought the comparison of him to a Black Widow was a little unnerving, and too accurate. Peggy knew about his mother being a turned Imperial Russian agent from the Guard Department, but she didn’t know that his mother had been the first Black Widow.

Dottie’s initial information had all but confirmed to him that she knew a woman had been the one to assist him in Operation Midnight. Someone from SSR-Europe had leaked that information – but not the identity of the woman.

Yet, Lorraine had been secretly cleared. Even the rest of the SSR and 107th here with them in this facility had also been secretly cleared of being turned agent with a different personality.

“I can’t mediate between the two of you,” Peggy said, bringing him back to the present. “Nor will I take a side, even with Steve clearly taking your side. All I can ask is that the two of you try to find some way to separate work from your personal lives – until this is over. After that…”

She paused and took a deep breath, sighing noisily. “After this project is complete, then we’ll see what happens.”

“Thank you, Peggy,” he solemnly stated. “And I will try. How are things progressing down there?”

“Howard, David, and Tony will be attempting to power up the integrated system later this afternoon,” Peggy said. “I’ve warned those on perimeter duty for that time frame that Howard will be testing a portion of the serum on mice.”

“They actually created an arc reactor?” Bucky asked, surprised.

“I was told by Tony that given the current capabilities and understanding that we have at the moment, it is a prototype of the actual one. But, it theoretically should work,” Peggy answered. “The morning test went well.”

“But?” Bucky questioned, sensing that there was something more important.

“But according to David’s analyses and Howard’s verification of those analyses, sustaining the power output of the reactor can’t be maintained for a long continuous journey,” she explained. “The engineering knowledge to build the device here and now does not easily lend itself to 2023’s knowledge.”

“Meaning Steve will have to jump back and forth,” Bucky concluded. “That’s good, right?”

“Yes and no,” Peggy answered, frowning slightly. “Steve still won’t explain what these Pym Particles are, and Tony won’t even put an explanation into proper English. But suffice to say, Steve’s going to have to steal some more of these particles from 1970 to make sure he has enough to finish delivering all the stones back.”

“Shit,” Bucky breathed.

Returning the Space Stone or Tesseract to SHIELD in 1970, in a highly secured military base that was already on alert for Steve and Tony’s first journey, had hit a wall in planning. However they had all looked at it, it was damn near impossible for Steve to slip back in without being noticed.

Both Tony and Steve had made it out there with the Tesseract and these ‘Pym Particles’ by pure sheer luck. Going back to return the stone and stealing more was just asking for more than just trouble, or ripples in an already precarious timeline at that point in time.

From what little Steve had told them about this ‘Cold War’ that they were entering – the fifty-plus years it spanned – was a time of fear, mistrust, and proxy wars between the US and Soviet Union. Many crises and outright nuclear war had been averted due to cooler heads.

But, Bucky listened between the words that Steve had said; a splinter in time caused by the wrong people catching a glimpse of Captain America in 1970 could cascade to deadlier consequences.

It was ironic to Bucky that they were concerned about time in the future, yet now, they didn’t have time to waste.

“I may have a way to verify that Dottie Underwood is telling us the truth,” he spoke up after a few moments.

It was not ideal, but considering the time that minding Dottie was taking away from their primary duties to the facility and project, it was better than waiting another few weeks. If today’s integrated power up of the device worked, then it would only be a matter of time until Steve began to return the stones to their proper place in time.

No one knew how long that would take.

A successful test of the time-traveling device was also guaranteed to have people become curious. Even if Sousa, Li, and the 107th were mollified with the excuse to ignore the noise, they would eventually become quite curious and would want to watch some of the tests. Neighbors in the area would also not be able to fully ignore the noise.

Noise brought curiosity, and curiosity brought danger.

Both he and Peggy could not waste anymore time after the first successful test to keep an eye on Dottie. Either they had to hand her over to the SSR without verifying her story and information, or set her free to be hunted by her fellow Widows.

“Faster than waiting for information to return through other means?” Peggy asked.

“Yeah,” he answered, nodding once.

He glanced down at his metal gloved hand for a moment before looking back up. “I haven’t been entirely truthful to you about the Black Widows, or the twenty-one of them that have scattered into the wind.”

“Go on,” Peggy answered after a moment, thinning her lips ever so slightly.

“The twenty-one survivors didn’t all come from that same training compound you initially found,” he said. “I can tell you that what Underwood said is the truth – the burning of the building with the trainees who had not passed, still inside. My partner and I found several other compounds – all burnt to the ground. There was only one of them we managed to make it to – somewhere in the steppes – that we saw bodies burning.”

He took a deep breath, briefly closing his eyes at the horrific memories seared in his mind’s eye. He could still hear the screams, the smell of burning flesh—

“Bucky,” Peggy’s gentle voice and equally gentle hand on his own shook him out of his memories. “It’s all right.”

“We killed everyone there,” he stated. “Every man or woman who was holding a log, torch, anything that contributed to the fire. Then, we tried to save those we could. When the ashes settled, only three girls survived. A fourteen, twelve, and nine-year-old.”

“There was no way we could take them with us – we were only a few months into our mission,” he continued after a moment. “But then, my partner did something unexpected. She started killing the girls.”

“What?” he heard Peggy’s horrified whispered cut through him like a knife.

“She killed both the nine-year-old and twelve-year-old,” Bucky said, forcing himself to continue. “I wasn’t fast enough to stop her. But she didn’t touch a hair on the fourteen-year-old. She just knelt down in front of the girl and looked at her, before telling me ‘she can be saved from what she knows and has already done’.”

He looked down at his metal left hand, curling it into a fist before saying, “Even at that age, they were already sending them out to do the work of a highly trained seductress and assassin.”

Bucky fell silent.

Black Widows terrified and fascinated him – and Natasha Romanov was no exception. He knew that the only reason why he flirted with her was to make sure his own skills were kept sharp. It seemed that Natasha knew it as well without him telling her about it. It was also because Natasha was Steve’s close friend as well, that he completely trusted her.

Dottie Underwood was not – and only a reminder of the things he had seen in the past year-and-a-half.

“What happened?” Peggy prompted a few seconds later.

“We took the girl with us,” he stated. “While my partner began to undo the damage done to the girl, I had to take over her role as the seductress to lure our targets in. At the same time, I also be the assassin who killed the targets.” He couldn’t help the bitterness in his tone as he said, “So yes, I willingly did cheat on Michael.”

He glanced over to see Peggy frowning, but she was staring out at the city skyline. “This partner of yours, she lives here in the city?” Peggy asked after a few moments.

“She does,” he answered.

“The girl, where is she now?”

“Home,” he said.

Bucky decided not to tell Peggy that his mother had sent a secret call out for Becca’s husband – Peter Proctor – to pick the girl up from across the border in China. After all, he knew very little of what Peter now did, after being turned from being a NKVD agent. All he knew was that there was enough reconciliation between Becca and Peter for them to have married.

“My partner undid most of the damage and conditioning – enough to send the girl home,” he said.

“Do you know how your partner decided that a fourteen-year-old girl could be trusted?” Peggy asked, glancing over at him.

He shook his head. “No, but she’s never been wrong about anything else we encountered in the mission. I trust her with my life, and I want her to vet Dottie Underwood.”

“Contact her then,” she stated. “And let’s see what she has to say about Dottie Underwood.”

* * *

Inside the Brooklyn Facility…

 

“Is it me, or did something happen between Barnes and Michael?”

Steve ignored Tony’s questioning quip, and returned his attention to the diagram of the area where where the Tesseract had been stored in 1970. Vents were a no-go for crawling into the area. First, it was on it’s own circulating system. Secondly, the vents – while numerous – were half the size of normal ducts—

“Like seriously, I’ve never seen Michael be so engaged in assembling the device. It’s almost uncanny clock work too, how he arrives and leaves with Dr. Brewster – never staying behind now—”

“Tony, shut up,” Natasha stated from where she sat at the table, pushing a couple of the sketches Steve drew, to the side. “Friends fight, and they just need time apart to settle differences. Remember your own grudge match against Steve here?”

“Yeah,” Tony stated, tightness in his tone.

“So leave it alone,” Natasha said. “I don’t ever recall you being a gossip monger anyways.”

“Who the hell would I gossip to anyways?” Tony asked, sounding offended. “I’m a dead ghost haunting this place.”

The noise of disgusted exasperation that left Natasha never reached its full volume. Steve heard her shift in her seat, before the sketch of the containers for Time and Mind Stone were slid across the diagram he was looking at.

“You’ve been awfully quiet on how you’re going to return these two, Steve,” Natasha said.

“Go to Bleecker and return the Time Stone after Bruce leaves. Stick the Mind Stone in a container that can hold its powers, and give it back to—”

“HYDRA?” Natasha asked, as he glanced over at her to see a dubious look on her face. “Seriously?”

“Loki already disappeared with the Tesseract in that reality, Steve,” Tony said. “I know, I know. Lang and I screwed up badly, but that timeline is splintered because of that. Why not just hand that stone over to say, my 2012 self. I can even command JARVIS to enact some protocols I know I built in to him during that time to keep it safe.”

“Just saying, Steve,” Natasha said, nodding in agreement with Tony.

Steve looked at both of them. It was extremely rare that Natasha ever agreed with Tony about anything – initial agreement of the Sokovia Accords notwithstanding. Yet, he was really hoping that he could avoid talking to the two about what he had done to get it.

Or how it was going to be impossible for him to fix that ripple in time.

He sighed and glanced down at the sketches.

“Shit, Rogers, what did you do to get the Mind Stone?” Tony immediately asked.

Steve was silent for a few moments before he looked back up. “Sitwell didn’t buy the excuse of me invoking Pierce’s name to get the scepter away from them. So, I had to improvise.”

“Oh no,” Natasha began, as Steve saw realization dawn in her eyes.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I told them ‘Hail HYDRA’. It felt great at first, pulling the wool over their eyes with that, and got me out of the elevator with no complications—”

“Fuck, Steve,” Tony said, shaking his head. “You just made your 2012 self a fucking HYDRA agent?!”

“There’s a ‘but’ to this, isn’t there?” Natasha questioned.

“I ran into my 2012 self while enroute to the rendezvous point,” Steve said. “We fought, fell several stories to the ground floor, he got the upper hand and put me in a sleeper hold. Telling him that Bucky was alive was what gave me the upper hand. But, then I used the scepter on him.”

Natasha and Tony were silent for a few long moments before Tony muttered, “And I thought losing the Tesseract was the biggest fuck-up of that mission.”

Steve didn’t answer. He merely folded his hands together and looked at his friends. They could judge him however they wanted, but what was done, was done. A forceful cranial recalibration was needed to shake his 2012 self out of the Mind Stone’s hold, but the other incidents could not be undone.

He heard Natasha hum for a few seconds before saying, “There might be a way—”

“Tony?” Steve suddenly asked, as he saw his friend stiffen.

Not a second later, Tony suddenly tumbled off the chair, leaving a very familiar, sinister shadow covered in purple-black crystals behind. Steve was not the only one to immediately push away from the table.

“You can use me, Steve,” the Power Stone seductively purred.

The continuous, distorted, whispered echoes of Peggy and Bucky’s voices brushed across his ears as the crystal-like Power Stone continued to sit where Tony had been sitting. As for Tony, he was still on the ground, frozen like a statue.

“The hell—” both Howard and Michael exclaimed at the same time.

“Stay back!” Steve warned the others, as he snatched up the shield he had brought from his room for the morning test.

He flung it at the crystal-like entity. It laughed in Tony’s voice as the shield harmlessly passed through it, lodging itself into the brick wall. The laugh was as eerie as it was grating—

“Use me, and I will be able to solve all of your problems,” the Power Stone stated, languidly getting up and began walking through the table.

Natasha’s red hair suddenly appeared in front of Steve’s vision, as she stepped in front of him, arms held out. “You shall not touch him,” he heard her growl – her voice sounding unlike anything he had ever heard before.

Gone were the whispers of sweet nothings in the voices of Bucky and Peggy, in his ear. It was from Natasha’s mouth that he heard their voices now – overlapped with Natasha’s own.

The Power Stone stopped a few inches away from Natasha, menacingly staring at both of them. Steve took a step out from behind Natasha. Both the entity and Natasha moved in the same direction as he did.

Steve could’ve sworn he saw the purple-black crystalline entity smile at him, before it was suddenly tackled from the left. Tony slammed into the entity, dissolving it into the dust it had turned into the first time. Like before, as Tony crashed to the ground, the dust began to fade.

Steve wanted to help him up, but Natasha kept moving with him, blocking him. It wasn’t until Tony slowly picked himself back up the floor that Natasha lowered her arms.

“We can’t wait any longer, Steve,” she whispered, twisting slightly to look up at him. “That particular stone needs to go.”

* * *

S omewhere in Brooklyn…

 

There was a festive cheerfulness that surrounded the apartment building that his mother, sisters, and brother-in-law lived in. While he knew Agnes and Samantha still lived with their mother, Becca and her husband apparently lived just down the hall from them. At least that was what he had been told the last time he had called his family.

Entering the building, it didn’t take him long to get to the floor where his mother lived. Those neighbors and others he passed by gave him some odd looks, but gave him room. Dressing sharply as he did as a federal agent sometimes had that effect – even if no one could tell he was concealing a pistol within his coat.

Stopping before the door, he could hear the faint noise of his sisters chatting away, and the sounds of people making things in the kitchen. He hoped his mother was there – never mind that her request to him to not return home for Christmas still lingered in his thoughts. And he hoped that despite their strained relationship, she would be amenable to help him.

Reaching up with his good hand, he knocked.

The faint noise of Becca yelling, “I’ll see who it is!” rang faintly from the other side.

A few moments later, she opened the door. Bucky saw her standing there, apron and dress covered in splotches of flour, with her brown hair pulled back and covered by a handkerchief.

“Bucky?” she whispered, before screeching his name. He only had a moment to brace himself before she launched herself at him.

Embracing her tightly, Bucky allowed himself this one moment of pure happiness and relief – that he could see his sister and family again. It had been almost six years since he had seen his family – Becca’s deployment as a WASP-turned-ATA pilot not withstanding.

Becca’s screech brought the rest of the family, and guests of the family for Christmas, out from wherever else they had been. He saw his other sisters and mother among the other two strangers – both men – in the crowd. He could only assume that one of the men was Peter, Becca’s husband, and the other possibly dating either Agnes or Samantha.

As he let Becca go, she tried to urge him to come in, but he shook his head. “This isn’t a social visit, Becca,” he said, loud enough for the others to hear. “Work has me temporarily assigned here, and I need to talk to Mom.”

He didn’t know what excuses their mother had made for her year-and-a-half long absence, but he could reasonably assume that she had told them something about working with him. After all, the Christmas that he and their mother had been deployed, they had both shared a phone call to the rest of the family.

There was disapproval written all over their mother’s face, but to his surprise, she gracefully nodded once to his request. Even more surprising was that she gestured for him to come in. He did so, but did not shed his coat, as he then followed his mother further into the crowded apartment.

“Please go join the others, Natalie,” he heard his mother say as they approached the bedroom at the end of the hall, and saw a girl peeking out.

It took a moment for Bucky to realize that the girl was the fourteen-year-old that they had rescued. She was all cleaned up, and apart from her eyes that looked too old for her age, she looked like any other ordinary girl at her age – all limbs and no coordination.

“Yes, ma’am,” the girl whispered, giving him a quick look before scampering away.

“She’s still adjusting to her new life,” he heard his mother state, as she closed the door to give them the necessary privacy. “But, Becca and Peter are in the midst of signing the papers to adopt her.”

“So you told them,” he stated, hearing the unsaid words that his mother was not directly saying.

“They only know what I was,” she answered, giving him a simple look. “Not what I had done, or of the mission we carried out. I came clean to Agnes and Samantha before I left.”

As much as he wanted to ask his mother if his sisters were all right after the fact, he didn’t. His mother could easily spin up lies like he could. But he didn’t need to ask her anyways – he had seen it in his sisters’ eyes just now. His sisters did not begrudge their mother for her past.

“And Peter?”

“He knows his place. Nicholas as well. Samantha’s betrothed, and a former MGB agent. Peter helped turn him,” his mother stated.

Bucky felt a chill go through him. Soviet agents were still targeting his family.

After the war, the intelligence arm of the Soviet Union had gone through some changes. Even though most of its activities stayed the same, it was currently known as the MGB – Министе́рство госуда́рственной безопа́сности СССР. Regardless, they were still a threat, though not at the capacity that they had been before Operation Midnight.

Yet, he dared not call his mother out on just how manipulative he thought she was. He didn’t know the whole story, and with just how strained their relationship was, she wouldn’t even listen to his words.

“I need you to vet a Black Widow,” he stated rather bluntly after a few moments. It was better to just get his purpose for being here out. “Are you willing to do that?”

“One of the twenty-one finally appeared?” his mother questioned, though it sounded more rhetorical than anything else.

“No,” he answered anyways. “The Widow that the twenty-one are pursuing.”

“And how are you sure that all twenty-one are pursuing her? And not other targets of interest… say whatever is going on at that former antiques store on Lafayette?”

Bucky tried to keep his expression schooled to impassivity. His mother would never mention anything like that so lightly in front of him. Yet, for all of his rooftop observations, he had never once seen her anywhere near the perimeter – or within it.

“I know that is where you are staying and sleeping for the time being, James,” his mother stated. “You’d best tell the woman in charge of that place that her people need to be more aware of their surroundings. Peter and Nicholas have both spotted several potential threats over the last few weeks. Not all of them are focused on Howard Stark’s presence within that… casting studio.”

“What do you want?” he asked, refusing to let his unease at her words affect him. There was a price to her information, especially with her revelation of just how she was ‘fielding’ both Becca’s husband and Samantha’s betrothed.

“If this Widow can be saved, I want her.”

He couldn’t help but gape at her for a few seconds. “Pardon?” he questioned, hoping that he had heard her correctly.

“There is only so much I can teach your sisters, James,” his mother unexpectedly stated. “My techniques were developed for the times I lived in. Natalie’s own was not cultivated in full, but enough to allow unmaking and remolding. This Widow, if she can be saved, is what I need—”

“What the hell are you turning my sisters into?!” he couldn’t help but hiss in anger. “They—why must you drag them into this?! This dirty, disgusting, filthy business—”

“You left me no choice, James,” his mother answered in a hard, unrelenting tone. “The day you signed up for war, knowing that you could have easily claimed that you were the only one to carry on the family name, was the day you left me no choice.”

“You could’ve told me!” he said, trying not to raise his voice. “You could’ve told me the whole truth! Not some half-baked horseshit story—”

“And what would that have done?” she countered. “I warned you to never let it consume you – only to guide you. You were blinded by love, James! Love of country, love of duty, love of—”

She abruptly stopped, taking a deep breath to compose herself. There was nothing in her eyes that betrayed the state she had been in when she looked at him again.

Calmly, she stated, “Let me see the Widow and keep her if she can be saved, or go back to whatever the hell you are doing for your country to ‘soothe’ your soul.”

Bucky knew he could walk away. He could walk away right now, and continue on with his life – as if he had never come to ask his mother for help. Belatedly, he realized that in an oddly kind way, his mother forbidding him to return home for Christmas was to keep him away from the knowledge of what his family was now.

Bitterly, Bucky couldn’t tell if his mother was just trying to be merciful, or still trying to control the narrative he heard. Time changed all, some more than others – and his family was no exception to that.

But he could not do that to Peggy – to the mission, or to those in SSR-Europe. They were under threat of a sleeper Soviet agent, and God only knew how he and Peggy were going to be able to warn SSR-Europe.

If all of Dottie Underwood’s story proved true.

“I need your help,” he quietly stated.

* * *

Elsewhere in Brooklyn…

 

This morning, the prototype arc reactor had been installed and powered on for a few minutes before being shut off. The reactor had not been connected to the other components when the power test happened. While Tony and the others were examining it, Peggy had taken the opportunity to go talk to Bucky about the sudden rift between him and Michael.

It had been Steve who told her what happened – or at least as much as he knew what happened from the one-sided story he got from Bucky. Peggy had to drag it out of Michael herself. But in hindsight, there had been signs that the relationship had been falling apart.

Fundamentally, Bucky was still the same. But after what little she had learned about the horrific portions of his mission behind Soviet lines, Peggy knew that he had pushed the boundaries of morality into a grey area that was incredibly murky.

Her brother… her brother had tried to save what he could. Yet, the depths of darkness that surrounded Bucky and what he had done during Operation Midnight were too much for Michael to bear. Michael couldn’t pull Bucky back to the light – reading the full report on Operation Midnight had been the last straw. Peggy worked with Bucky long enough over these nearly two months to see that he didn’t want to return to the light.

Nevertheless, she couldn’t send either away from the project—

“Peggy?”

Dottie’s eager, questioning tone that she had used countless of times before when she had been undercover at the Griffiths, startled her. “Peggy? Hello?”

Blinking and feeling a little flustered at just how close Dottie’s face was to hers, Peggy pulled back slightly. “Yes?” she asked, keeping herself calm.

“You seem more distracted than you usually are,” Dottie answered, sitting back slightly and picked up the teapot. “More tea?”

“No, thank you,” she said, shaking her head slightly.

She watched as Dottie placed the teapot back down. The tray of cookies that Dottie had surprisingly baked and presented to her was untouched. Peggy knew better than to eat anything that had been made by Dottie, but the woman seemed strangely genuinely happy to see her today. She knew that she shouldn’t think much of it, but there always seemed to be a combative air around Dottie, whenever both she and Bucky visited.

“Then, shall we continue on with the questions—”

Dottie immediately fell silent and darted her gaze around. Not a split second later, Peggy’s senses were prickling as well. There was something amiss in Howard’s apartment—

A cacophony of noise would have been more apt in a surprise attack. But Peggy only had a moment to catch a glimpse of a knife being thrown her way, before she was suddenly tackled.

Slamming into the plush carpet did little to cushion the blow. Peggy tried to get up, but found herself pinned to the ground by Dottie. Worse yet, Dottie had snatched her gun from her holster and began firing at the shadows that surrounded both of them.

The hunting Black Widows had found their prey.

It only took Dottie seven shots to make the shadows disappear as suddenly as it had appeared. The creatures prowling within them had also faded into nothingness. Five heavy clinks had slammed into the ground.

Peggy glanced over towards the nearest clinking noise to see the same type of unusual-looking sword that Dottie had left with Bucky weeks ago, stabbed into the plush carpet. Beyond that particular sword was a woman, dressed head-to-toe in black with a red bodice-like thing wrapped around her waist.

As cliché as it was, it was also apt, in Peggy’s opinion. Five Black Widows surrounded her and Dottie – and Dottie still wasn’t letting her move, or get off the ground. She had her in a tight straddle, leaning over her with a hand pinned to her shoulder and gun in her other – raised and pointed at the nearest Widow.

“Sisters,” Dottie began, looking at the other Widows, who were rubbing their wrists. Peggy could only surmise that Dottie had shot the swords out of their grips with uncanny accuracy.

“Let this one go,” Dottie continued to slowly say, dipping her gun just slightly enough to gesture towards Peggy. “She is not your prey. I am.”

Silence answered Dottie’s words. Peggy could not even read what the women were thinking – their expressions completely blank. It was eerie enough that they looked like life-sized exquisitely gorgeous porcelain dolls.

Who were able to kill without sparing a thought.

The sudden, explosive noise of glass being broken, following by a hail of sharp shards flying into the apartment immediately caught the Widows’ attention. Dottie immediately whirled off of her, and leapt at the nearest Widow.

Freed, Peggy rolled up and into a hard kick, preventing another Widow from rushing towards a sword. Grey overcoat briefly filled her vision, as she blinked and saw Bucky swoop in and lock his metal arm around the Widow’s neck, snapping it instantly.

Peggy didn’t even get to attack another Widow – the fight was over in a matter of seconds. She couldn’t help the chill that swept through her as she saw the five dead bodies of the Widows strewn about. They had been killed so fast that she hadn’t even seen, much less follow Bucky’s other attacks – or Dottie’s – or the newcomer—

“You’re—” Peggy began, blinking as she slowly stood up to see an older-looking woman, wearing a black coat, standing next to two dead Widow.

“Vera Romanova,” the woman stated, giving her a rather haughty look.

Peggy couldn’t help but gape for a moment. Bucky’s ‘partner’ from Operation Midnight was indeed, Bucky’s mother. She had her suspicions, especially when Bucky had revealed his parentage to her and Michael, just before the Alps mission. Yet, she never thought MI-5 or the SSR would go through with the reactivation.

While it was quite clear where Bucky got his handsome looks from, it was also clear to Peggy that Bucky definitely did not get his kind nature from the woman. It was also clear that Bucky’s mother was not even bothering to use her alias: Winifred Barnes.

“Peggy Carter, SSR,” she said, holding out a hand. “Thank you, for saving us.”

Vera’s grip was firm and strong, but did not attempt to overwhelm her own. “I see James has already told you who I am.”

“Only to put into context about one of the SSR’s missions during the war,” she carefully answered.

Even now, she dared not to refer to Estonia, or anything else that could give away how little she knew about Bucky’s mother. All she really knew was that Vera had been turned into a double-agent against her motherland – Imperial Russia – but had to flee when the revolution swept in. Then the woman had lived the life of anonymity as Winifred Barnes, homemaker and wife to Bucky’s father.

Peggy could’ve sworn she saw a ghost of a twitch upwards from Vera’s lips. But she didn’t linger on that, and instead, said, “I presume you’re here, because Agent Barnes told me that he was going to bring in a specialist to help us.”

“She’s already done so, Agent Carter,” Bucky’s unexpected statement startled her slightly.

At her puzzled look towards him, he elaborated by gesturing to Dottie. Peggy turned and saw that far be it that the woman was slowly relaxing, Dottie was still standing in a guarded manner. Dottie’s eyes were not on her or Bucky – they were on Vera.

“Five dead Widows. She’s still alive,” Bucky stated. “Everything she’s said is the truth.”

Peggy frowned slightly. “How—” she began, but then realization over took her. All the pieces of what Dottie had told her about the Soviet program for ridiculously beautiful-looking women fell into place. It made complete sense as to why Vera Romanova would be reactivated to complete Operation Midnight – and why what happened in Siberia happened.

She returned her attention to Bucky’s mother. “You’re the first Black Widow,” she couldn’t help but say.

But there was something wrong – and Peggy’s gut was telling her that. “What’s the price for your help, Ms. Romanova?”

“She takes Underwood away, and rehabilitates her,” Bucky answered.

“Do I have a choice in this?” Dottie spoke up, taking a step closer to Peggy, but kept her eyes on Vera.

“No,” Bucky answered. “But it’s better than what the SSR would’ve potentially done to you, had we handed you over to them instead. Or set you free to run for the rest of your life.

As angry as Peggy was that Bucky did not consult her about the price for this help, she knew that she couldn’t fight it. She had authorized Bucky to bring in his ‘partner’ from Operation Midnight.

“Five of your sisters are dead, Dottie,” she said, turning her attention to her. “Sixteen are still out there. You’ll be safer with Ms. Romanova than remain here, or anywhere else.”

She saw Dottie thin her lips, clearly unhappy. But with the choices presented, going with Bucky’s mother was the best option. She just hoped that she was making the right choice, as she barely knew a thing about Bucky’s mother – other than what she had inferred, and what little Bucky had told her about his mother.

“Agent Carter,” Bucky spoke up after a few moments of silence, gesturing to the grandfather clock that still surprisingly remained standing. “It’s almost time.”

Peggy glanced at the clock – the full test of the time-traveling device was about to start. She needed to be there, but knew that Bucky wanted to as well. She glanced over at him, but there was clearly some other things he wanted to say to Dottie and his own mother – without her there.

“I trust you’ll get this all sorted out and cleaned up? I’ll contact Mr. Stark about the property damage, myself.”

Bucky silently nodded, before saying, “Go. I’ll be there shortly.”

Somewhat reluctantly, Peggy nodded, accepted her gun back from Dottie, and left.

* * *

Late Afternoon, Brooklyn Facility…

 

Nervousness and excitement was evident on all of their faces – the full integration test had been successful. Rather than wait a day as originally planned, Steve had said that he was going to attempt to return the power stone.

There was a seriousness in his eyes that Peggy had not seen in a while. Even Howard and David were nodding in agreement, and she saw relief in their eyes with Steve’s declaration. As much as she wanted to demand what had happened while she was gone, she didn’t. They had much more to worry about, and when Steve returned, she would get the full story from him.

She was determined not to doubt that he would not return.

“Be safe,” she said as Steve stopped before her, clad in his strange armor.

He grasped her hands, and for a brief moment, they were in a world of their own as his beautiful eyes captured her own. Steve surprised her with a brief kiss on her lips, before stepping back.

“I will,” he said.

The door to the laboratory opening and closing caused both of them, and the others to look up. Bucky had finally arrived. There was nothing in his eyes to suggest that anything else had happened after Vera had taken Dottie away.

Steve let go of her hands and stepped away. Peggy briefly watched as her husband met Bucky at the foot of the stairs, and explained what was going on. She couldn’t help but glance over at her brother, seeing hurt appear briefly on his face before it was masked into an uncaring look.

There was nothing she could say to refute Michael’s words about Bucky. Bucky had cheated on Michael, even if it had not been with Dottie Underwood. All she could ask the two was to remain professional to each other whenever they were together – to try to work together until Steve completed his mission.

She returned her attention onto Steve and Bucky, seeing Steve embrace Bucky for a brief moment before letting go. For one strange moment, Peggy thought that the embrace was a little closer, and a little more affectionate than what she had seen happen between the two before.

She mentally shook her head to dislodge the strange thought. Steve had told her that he let Bucky stay in his room the night that Michael and Bucky broke up – that he couldn’t just leave his best friend to misery alone.

Or injury. Peggy had seen the aftermath of Bucky punching the tiled wall in the shower area of the locker room. She had tried to cover it up before Michael could see it – but had failed.

At the present, Peggy focused her thoughts on the test ahead. Guiding Bucky back to where the others were gathered, she saw Steve reach out and grasp Michael’s hand, briefly shaking it. Then, Steve was done with his temporary farewells.

Stepping up to the platform, Peggy watched as Howard stood by the switches to activate the machine. There was a piece of paper with Tony’s explicit instructions in Howard’s hand. David stood by the lever for the guillotine that would cut the wires connecting the prototype arc reactor to the rest of the apparatus. Those wires would only be cut if catastrophic failure of a component was about to happen.

“Ready?” Steve said, glancing over at Howard.

Howard began flipping the switches before looking back up. “Ready. Good luck, Steve.”

“How long will it take?” Bucky suddenly asked.

“A few seconds here in this time,” Steve said. “And as long as I need to put that stone back where it belongs. 2014 Morag, here I go.”

Peggy saw him tap out something on the underside of his wrist. A split second later, another armor, off white with black and red trim, and a strange-looking helmet enveloped him. There was a logo stamped on the side of his shoulder, and above his left breast – stylized in an arrowed ‘A’.

Before any of them could ask a question with regards to this new armor, Steve winked out of existence. Peggy nearly jumped, as beside her, both Michael and Bucky had astonished looks upon their faces. Bucky had taken only one step forward towards the platform, before Steve winked back into existence.

But Steve did not return alone – a noxious smell accompanied him, along with something that looked like a lavender goop of sorts. It covered his formerly pristine white armor, and Peggy was not the only one to gag.

“What the hell is that smell?!” Bucky exclaimed.

“Not a damn word, Nat,” Steve spoke, his voice tinny and slightly muffled as Natasha appeared a few feet away from the platform. “Not my fault it thought I was a possible tasty meal.”

Peggy raised a hand to her nose and pinched it. She tried to breathe shallowly through her mouth, but she could still smell it. Natasha was merely shaking her head with her arms crossed over her chest. She was also rolling her eyes at Steve in annoyance.

“Yeah, but you didn’t have to do the whole Jonah and the Whale thing,” Tony exclaimed, appearing as well, though he was near Howard and David. “Quill’s an idiot. You could’ve left him as-is, and that creature wouldn’t have eaten him anyways—”

“The hell happened to you, Steve?” Bucky interrupted.

Steve was in the middle of retracting the off-white armor while stepping off the platform. The lavender splotches fell to the ground in meaty chunks behind him. She saw Steve give them a rueful smile, before casually saying, “Sorry about the mess and smell. I’ll clean that up—”

“Steve!”

Peggy was not the only one to scream his name in fear, as a towering ape-like beast wielding an enormous axe suddenly appeared behind Steve. Her heart didn’t even get past two beats when the creature gave a rumbling, earth-shaking roar – and attacked.

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 : R esonance Cascade – Part 4

 

For a single moment in time, Steve, the ape-like beast, and the enormous axe swinging down at Steve were frozen in action and reaction. In a blink of an eye, the axe crashed into the ground—

But Steve was no longer there.

Bucky gaped for a split second, as he saw Steve whirl around the hulking creature, and struck several punches and kicks – almost impossibly faster than he could follow. It was the creature rocking away from the device, and towards the entrance that snapped him out of his fugue.

He leapt towards Steve’s shield on the table, and curled his metal hand around it. Whirling, he threw the shield as hard as he could at the head of the beast. It struck, knocking it further back towards the entrance.

Bucky saw Steve immediately take advantage of the creature being severely unbalanced. Even before Bucky had a chance to rush in, Steve had snatched the shield from its wobbly trajectory, and slammed it into chin of the creature.

Sliding down into the deep crater formed by the falling axe, Bucky only had a split second to react as he saw Steve toss the shield at him. Grabbing it, he immediately danced and dodged his way into and past the wild swings of the creature’s axe. Slicing the shield as hard as he could, he cut across the tendons of the creature’s ankles.

A flash of blue at the corner of his vision had him tossing the shield back up to Steve. Rolling and scrambling away from the creature falling onto its knees, he heard the crackle of metal being split by metal.

Half of the axe – the broad blade end – came falling down. There was a small amount of the staff it had been attached to, that came with it. But it was enough for Bucky to snatch it up with his left hand – and slam it directly into the chest of the creature.

Purplish-red blood and guts from the creature sprayed out, covering him, but he held his ground. Yet, the force of the blow was not enough as the creature roared—only to have it cut short when it suddenly pitched forward. The creature’s momentum and mass drove itself further into the blade. Bucky had to brace himself on the slippery ground with all of his strength.

The beast’s roar turned into a gurgle, and then fell silent.

It was only then, as Bucky continued to hold the axe in place, that he saw Steve step out from behind the creature. Steve had slammed himself and the shield into the back of the creature – to force it into the broken axe’s blade.

With the last of the dying tremors fading away, Bucky finally let go of the broken weapon. He was slightly surprised at just how hard he was breathing. He had not realized just how fast he had been fighting – and Steve didn’t look to be winded at all.

Bucky only had a moment to survey the damage done to the place. Thankfully, it looked as if Peggy and the others had found someplace to take shelter – or avoid a lot of the broken equipment scattered about. But neither he or Steve got to ask if everyone was all right, when the door to the laboratory slammed open.

“What the hell happened, Peggy?”

Bucky stared up at Sousa before looking back at Steve. Yet, as he returned his attention to Sousa, the agent was just looking frantically around, but dared not approach the stairs that would lead him down to the floor. DumDum, Lorraine, and several other 107th personnel entered the facility a few seconds after Sousa.

Bucky swung his eyes back onto Steve. It baffled him as why no one was reacting to the fact that Steve was standing in the crater. Or even to the dead creature’s body right next to him—oh.

Steve’s jaw was set, and there was a concentrated look on his face. Bucky saw that his left hand was curled into a fist. Steve was using the Reality Stone—

“Erm, exploding mice guys,” Bucky shouted up to the others. “Apart from mice guts covering us, and some scrapes and bruises, we’re all okay.”

“No need to panic, Daniel,” Peggy immediately followed up. The others had noticed what he had seen with Steve and the Reality Stone. “Just a small setback, and no celebrations of success before the Christmas holiday, unfortunately.”

“You’re sure?” DumDum asked. “I mean, it was a pretty big ‘boom’ – even from where I was perched, ma’am.”

He saw Peggy look around before focusing her attention back up to those gathered on the walkway. “Yes. Thank you for your concern. We’ll get this cleaned up, but if you could make the proper excuses to the authorities, Daniel?”

“Understood, Peggy,” Sousa stated, nodding once. “We’ll keep them away.”

Bucky glanced back at Steve as the others began filing out. He didn’t like the sheen of sweat covering Steve, nor did he like how pale Steve looked. Neither looked like it had been a result of the fight.

It seemed to take forever and a day for the last of the perimeter patrol to leave. But as soon as the door clicked shut, Bucky saw Steve immediately open his left hand, relaxing—

“Steve!” he shouted.

Bucky dashed forward to catch him before Steve could crash onto his knees. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Peggy attempting to slip down into the crater. Thankfully, Michael had stopped her from doing such a dangerous thing.

Putting a hand to Steve’s forehead, Bucky immediately yanked his hand away. “Jesus Christ, you’re burning up—”

“I’m fine,” Steve said. Bucky braced himself and helped Steve shakily stand up. “Just… wielding two stones at the same time… takes a lot out of me.”

Two stones?!” Peggy said, before Bucky could.

“Reality for the projection. Mind Stone for the angles that I needed to maintain the projection from various perspectives,” Steve huffed slightly as if he were out of breath. “I’m all right, Peggy.”

He saw those blue-green eyes of Steve’s focus on him. “I’m all right,” Steve repeated.

Bucky wasn’t reassured, but he didn’t press. It didn’t sit well with him, that for one frightening moment, Steve looked almost as frail as he did before the serum. Even if his best friend was being a stubborn mule, Bucky still kept a firm grip on Steve’s arm.

“Nat?” Steve called out after a few moments.

Bucky looked around – Natasha did not appear. Even as Steve called out again, neither did Tony. While it was reasonable to think that the two had disappeared back into the Soul Stone when the creature attacked, and when Steve used the stones, them not appearing even after a few seconds was a little worrying.

“Nat, are you—” Steve began.

“Fine, Steve,” Natasha stated, appearing a couple of feet away from them.

She looked just as dirty and bruised as both he and Steve. Bucky couldn’t help but wonder if an internal fight had happened—

“That’s Cull Obsidian,” Steve said, turning slightly and pointed to the dead creature with his free hand. “What is he doing here? I thought he was on Thanos’ ship when they were transported to 2023.”

“He was,” Natasha answered. Bucky heard the careful tone in her wording, and it seemed Steve had not missed it as well. “He slipped through the barrier. Ripping the Power Stone away left a hole that I couldn’t repair fast enough. I’m sorry.”

Bucky looked back and forth between Steve and Natasha, as silence fell between the two. After a few seconds, a determined look settled on Steve’s face as he raised his head slightly and asked, “So what the Power Stone initially told me is true. I’ll take you some place to kil—”

“Don’t, Steve,” Natasha warned. Bucky’s sense of danger spiked for a moment with the venom and anger behind that warning. “That’s not you,” she continued to say in a calmer tone. “This is my ledger. My responsibility. Not yours.”

As confused and feeling as if he had missed something significant between the two, Bucky remained silent. He remembered the ledger discussion in the morning after Steve revealed the existence of the stones. It had something to do with the barrier, and her ability to repair it as a resident of the Soul Stone. But there still was a missing piece not known to him.

The silence that fell among them didn’t last long as a sudden circle of swirling fire appeared to their left. The entity known as Ghost Rider walked through it, startling those standing at the crater’s edge who had never seen it before. Strangely enough, Bucky saw both Natasha and Steve frowning – neither had expected the entity to show up.

Yet, Ghost Rider calmly walked up to the dead creature, and suddenly unraveled the chain wrapped around his shoulders. The chain whipped through the air, trailing fire after it, before lashing itself around the creature.

A sudden conflagration erupted around the creature, followed by the overwhelming smell of burnt flesh. But as quick as it had appeared, it and its broken weapon disappeared, leaving almost no physical trace that something had been there. The smell was gone as well.

Ghost Rider then wrapped the chain around himself again, before turning his attention towards the three of them. Bucky wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but he thought the entity gave them a single nod of its skull-on-fire head, before disappearing into another circular fire. It winked out of existence a moment later, leaving everyone baffled.

“Did he just clean up the messy part of the mess?” Tony’s sudden appearance where the creature had been, and quip broke the tension in the air.

Tony looked almost as roughed up as Natasha, though it was Natasha who said, “I don’t like this. Ghost Rider just doesn’t come and leave as he pleases.”

“I don’t either,” Steve spoke up.

Bucky glanced over to see him looking stronger, and less pale and sweaty than before.

“But we best leave it alone for now,” Steve continued to say.

* * *

Late at night, December 25 th

 

The sound of the main doors leading into the laboratory quietly opening and closing caused Steve to draw his hand away from the sarcophagus. He glanced up to see Bucky enter and pause on the landing. Snow was covering him, and there was a slightly puzzled look on his face.

Michael, David, and Howard had spent Christmas Day with him and Peggy. Bucky had not, but Steve did not begrudge him for that – the tension between Michael and Bucky was palpable. As soon as Michael had arrived, Bucky had left – and Steve could only assume that he had spent it with his family. But for Bucky to return so late was a little puzzling. Steve would’ve thought him to not return until the morning – to spend the night over with his family.

Wordlessly, Bucky quietly descended to the floor, but did not draw his thick, woolen grey coat off. The fedora also remained on his head as he approached, leaving a slight trail of wet spots that would be dried by morning.

“Need me to find some place else to sleep for a few hours?” Bucky unexpectedly asked.

It took Steve a moment to realize what Bucky was implying and why. He, Steve, was wearing a robe over his pyjamas, and comfortable slippers. Peggy’s car was still parked outside, and thus Bucky thought to give them privacy for more… intimate matters.

“No,” Steve answered, shaking his head. “Peggy’s sleeping, and I can’t. So here I am, wandering around here at Christmas night like a ghost.”

“Spirit of Christmas Present, more like it,” Bucky quipped, smiling as he began to shed his coat.

On impulse, Steve reached out and plucked the fedora from Bucky’s head, surprising him slightly. Instead of dusting the snow off, Steve gathered it into his hand, and lightly threw it at Bucky.

“Punk,” Bucky said, grinning before he flung his coat at him, scattering the spray of snow and droplets of cold water in the area.

“Jerk,” he playfully retorted. “Sorry,” Steve continued, handing the fedora back, as he wiped some of the droplets off his face. He returned the fedora to him. “It’s been a while.”

“Uh huh,” Bucky said, giving him a dubious look. “It would be a little unfair now to have a snowball fight, especially with your improved aim and height.”

Steve laughed a little – it had never been the two facing off against each other whenever throwing snowballs. Bucky always made sure that he, Steve, was always on his team whenever the other neighborhood children decided to have a fun-filled day for the fight.

Steve was forever grateful for that.

“Are your family doing well?” he asked after a few moments.

“Yeah, I guess,” Bucky answered, shrugging slightly. “Spent the day at Becca and Peter’s place. She and Mom haven’t been getting along these past couple of weeks, so I thought I’d spend it with her instead of the rest of the family.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Steve said.

He reached out and clasped his hand around Bucky’s shoulder, and briefly squeezed it. He could hear the melancholic tone in his best friend’s voice.

In all of the times that he had spent at Bucky’s home when they had been growing up, Bucky’s mother and sisters had made him feel incredibly welcomed and inclusive to their family. Mrs. Barnes had always sent him home with a small bowl of leftovers – if there were any from dinner – or with cookies.

Of course, Steve made sure he gave his mother the food, especially the cookies. It was all he could do, besides trying to keep up with his school work, to help his mother and her demanding job as a nurse.

When he and Bucky began rooming together in their own apartment, Mrs. Barnes occasionally visited them after dinner. More than once, she brought her homemade, delicious cookies for them. There was one time though, that she had visited during the day, and patiently taught him how to cook a few dishes.

It also just so happened that all the dishes were Bucky’s favorites.

Steve still wasn’t sure what to make of Mrs. Barnes selecting certain, but ultimately a variety of dishes for him to learn. But, that cooking skill had ended up being the most useful thing he had, when the Commandos were deployed. It kept the spirits of his men up; that they could eat a decent meal while at war.

Nevertheless, during the months when Bucky was at Army training, Steve remembered Mrs. Barnes coming over almost every day – worrying about her son. He could do little to reassure her, or Bucky’s sisters of Bucky’s safety and health, and commiserated with them.

The Barnes, even without their patriarch, were a close-knit family. To hear of an argument happening that was enough to not have the family together on such an important holiday, was depressing.

“There’s only so much we can all do,” Bucky’s comment drew Steve back to the present.

However, just as Steve was about to let go of Bucky’s shoulder, he heard him say, “Then I went to go talk to Michael.”

There was nothing in Bucky’s eyes or expression that told him the results of the chat. So Steve waited patiently for him to continue. After a few seconds of silence, Bucky then said, “It went… better than I had hoped.”

“So, you’re back together?” Steve couldn’t help but ask.

Steve hadn’t exactly taken his brother-in-law to the side to admonish him for emotionally hurting Bucky, but neither did he just glare at Michael. Instead, all he had stated to Michael was that right or wrong, he would always take Bucky’s side.

It wasn’t quite the words, but it was his actions at the silo in 2016 that cemented his resolve to defend Bucky until the day he died. Whatever Bucky did to cheat on Michael with a CI, Steve was sure there was a reason or reasons. He knew that his best friend never did anything for a mission without weighing the consequences.

It was just who Bucky was – the one willing to get his hands dirty enough so that others could sleep at night.

Steve hated it, but the years that he spent in the future – working for SHIELD, running and leading missions with the Avengers, being on the run, and destroying what HYDRA-Soviet brainwashing things were left – shattered a lot of his more idealistic thoughts. HYDRA and Zola just harnessed that drive from Bucky, and twisted it to suit their own purposes.

It wasn’t me. But I still did it.

And Steve knew then, that he would be the only one who truly understood what Bucky’s words meant. After everything they had been through and sacrificed, it was all either of them had left to give.

Bucky had given it all in 2018, to try to stop Thanos – and had died for it.

“No,” Bucky began, giving him a slightly puzzled look, as Steve focused back on the present again. “But you say it, as if it had been a bad thing to begin with.”

Steve slid his hand from Bucky’s shoulder to the side of his arm. “I just want you to be happy, Buck.”

You know what makes me happy.

But Bucky never said those words that Steve hoped to hear. Instead, he heard him say, “I’m… I’ll be happier, once all of this is over.”

Steve slowly withdrew his hand from Bucky’s arm, as he saw him turn slightly and rap his knuckles on the sarcophagus. “This, and the serum changed everything.”

He saw the edges of Bucky’s lips quirk up in a smile. “When I was commissioned as an Agent, the first thing I did was read the file they have on you, Steve. The assessments, evaluations, scores from the written and physical tests, everything.”

Bucky looked over at him, palm resting on the sarcophagus now. “It’s all numbers and words. It didn’t capture who you were. If this cover of ours – this serum re-creation – becomes real, how are they going to choose the candidates? There’s no Dr. Erskine to make that moral choice. It’s all politics and numbers to them.”

Steve remained silent for a few moments, before reaching out with his left hand to place it next to Bucky’s own, on the sarcophagus. He then held Bucky’s eyes with his own, making sure that Bucky saw his intent, as well as heard them.

“We’ll cross that bridge when the time comes,” he stated. “You and me. Together across that bridge.”

“Steve—” Bucky began, slightly alarmed.

Steve dropped his arm and sighed.

“May we...” he began. “May we talk about this in your room?”

He saw the concern flit across Bucky’s face. Not a moment later, Bucky gathered his coat and fedora that was draped across his right arm, a little more tightly before silently nodding. Together, they ascended the stairs, and made their way to the other side of the facility.

Entering Bucky’s room, Steve drew out one of the two chairs that Bucky had at his workbench table out, and sat in it. He watched as Bucky threw his coat and hat towards the coat stand – both landing with precision in their places.

“So what’s going on, Steve?” Bucky asked, as Steve saw him make his way over to the small filing cabinet that had been converted to a make-shift dresser.

Steve sighed. “I have to go active duty again once this whole time-traveling thing is done. It’s the agreement I made with Philips in exchange for keeping this a secret.”

Bucky had paused in removing his sweater over his collared shirt, and glanced over at him. Bucky remained silent for a few long moments, before Steve saw him briefly glance away with a disappointed look on his face.

“I thought as much,” he heard him say, before coming over – undressing himself into more comfortable clothes forgotten. “Senators and their committees unceremoniously ousted him after the war ended. You’re his bargaining chip to get back into their good graces.”

“I won’t be active duty with the SSR, Buck,” Steve said, reaching out to pull the sweater off of Bucky’s arms, as Bucky sat down heavily in the other chair.

Steve held onto the sweater for a moment as he continued, saying, “Philips had to pull a lot of favors, promises, and bargains to get the Joint Chiefs to agree to let Howard try his hand at creating the serum. I’m supposed to be the ‘end product’ for the military. Like I was supposed to be, the minute I emerged from the sarcophagus. I won’t be allowed to live my life as ‘Steve Rogers’ anymore.”

“What the fuck?” he heard Bucky softly swear. “What the hell—”

“I don’t know what alias the Joint Chief, or whomever the orders come from, are going to give me,” Steve continued, unable to stop himself now that he started. “But I go where they tell me to go. I strike where they tell me to strike—”

“Steve,” Bucky interrupted.

Steve felt him grab a hold of both of his arms, having gotten up from where he sat, and was now kneeling down in front of him. Bucky was not squeezing hard, but Steve could hear the audible whine of Bucky’s metal arm.

Those darkly oceanic eyes of his best friend stared up at him. “Steve, you can’t—” Bucky began, looking horrified and desperate. “How the devil—why did you agree to this?!”

He was unable to hold the piercing look in Bucky’s eyes, and looked down. He picked at Bucky’s sweater, still sitting in his laps and within his hands.

“The Joint Chiefs don’t know I’m alive,” he quietly stated. “It’s just what Philips promised to them, because they held two files over his head – and by extension my head as well.”

Steve looked back up. There was no warmth of courage from Natasha coursing through him. The ‘time GPS’ wristband had been left in a small box within his room for today. But even without a bolstering of courage, Steve knew that he had to see his explanation through.

“Yours and Peggy’s files,” he said. Before his best friend could protest, Steve continued, saying, “Philips thought it cowardly for them to employ blackmail. So he and I secretly agreed to another deal between ourselves.”

Bucky gaped at him, letting go of his arms as Steve saw him blink a few times in utter surprise. “What?” Bucky asked.

“The Joint Chiefs and their demands are Philips and mine’s cover,” Steve explained. “Lorraine has been and still is ferreting information from DC through her contacts there. We need to get the physical files they have on you and Peggy out of their hands and burned – if at all possible. Then, we both go public with the reorganization of the SSR into SHIELD. We’re going to try to bring everyone out of the political machinations of lawmakers who think that the only way they can fight nuclear fire is with more nuclear fire.”

Silence fell between them. There was an utterly shocked look on Bucky’s face. Yet, the first question out of his mouth was not what Steve expected.

“When the hell did you get so politically devious? And what have you done to my best friend?”

Despite himself, Steve couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Steve, I’m being serious,” Bucky said, sounding slightly exasperated. Steve felt Bucky’s grip on his arms loosen, but Bucky still did not get up from where he was kneeling.

“Sorry,” he said, sobering up. “The years I spent in the future were my primary teacher,” he said. “And, though I didn’t want to admit it then, I learned from the best there – specifically from Director Fury. I want the SSR to survive, but being used as a political tool is just going to hurt everyone in the long run. There are times where people in the world cannot wait—”

“Steve, you’re preaching to the choir,” Bucky gently interrupted, letting go as he placed a warm, comforting hand on his shoulder. “I know, and I agree. But why now? Why tell me now? Does Peggy know? Howard? David? Or even Michael?”

“Not yet,” Steve admitted. “I wasn’t supposed to tell you either, but…” He sighed, as he couldn’t help but mutter, “I suppose it’s a good thing that that’s why I kept getting assigned as Fury’s janitor to clean up SHIELD’s messes.”

“You’re too honest, Steve,” Bucky said, withdrawing his hand before lightly thumping Steve’s chest with his fist. “But, I wouldn’t have seen that kind of political maneuvering from you. To be fair, it’s a little blindsiding.”

“I still have to go public with being alive,” Steve said, “but it’s for a much better reason than what the brass was thinking of doing.”

“But the files are still in DC, right?” Bucky asked, serious. “Just say the word, or hell, if you’re not comfortable, have Philips issue the order—”

“No,” Steve interrupted, alarmed. His hand shot out, cupping the side of Bucky’s face in slight fear for what Bucky had almost suggested.

“No,” he imploringly repeated. The last thing Steve wanted was for Bucky to assassinate – accidentally or otherwise – any US citizen in DC, as he had done as the Winter Soldier.

That was another life.

Another time.

The assassin that Bucky was now, had choices – knew what he was doing and why. Chose to do so, and Steve did not hold that or anything else he had done here and now, against him. But this agreement he had with Philips had to be done carefully.

“Neither you or Peggy should go anywhere near DC,” he said.

As much as Steve wanted to just continued to hold his hand at the side of Bucky’s face, he didn’t. He had captured the angles, lines, shadows, and shades of Bucky’s face so many times before, that his own imagination had conjured up what it would feel like to do such a thing. To attempt to be daring at the age of twenty and—

Steve slowly drew his hand away, and sat back.

Those unrealized dreams of his were a lifetime ago. Before he had met and fell in love with Peggy. Before he had taken a leap of faith with Dr. Erskine. Before the war, and before—

Absently, Steve folded Bucky’s sweater, and mentally refocused himself. He said, “Lorraine going to DC is a possibility, but they may know her face from the war. There might be one person who may know, but that’s only because Nat and I have read her file before.”

Steve paused for a moment, before saying, “Nat told me that you and Peggy captured Dottie Underwood.”

“Well, so much for trusting her to keep secrets,” Bucky muttered, annoyed.

“It wasn’t difficult to link your CI to Underwood, Bucky,” Steve said. “Nat just confirmed.”

“I suppose it wasn’t difficult,” Bucky admitted, nodding in agreement.

“Do you trust Underwood?” Steve asked.

It was Bucky’s turn to look down and away, as he saw his shoulders sag. He saw him slowly get up and sit in his seat. Wordlessly, Steve handed him his sweater.

“If you’re thinking of bringing her into all of this, and sending her to DC, don’t do it,” Bucky answered, folding his arms across his chest. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t trust her.”

Uncertainty flitted across Bucky’s face, surprising Steve. But that uncertainty was short-lived, as he saw the familiar resolve and determination settle.

“There’s a mole within the SSR’s ranks,” Bucky unexpectedly stated. “Specifically in SSR-Europe.”

“Shit,” Steve couldn’t help but softly curse. He ignored the slightly surprised and raised eyebrow that Bucky gave him.

“Underwood told Peggy and I this, and the command words or phrase to active the mole,” Bucky continued after a moment. “She says that the mole has a secondary personality implanted within him or her, that will wipe out the primary personality, when the phrase is stated. Peggy and I were cleared. Romanov was there, and she didn’t kill either of us. We’ve also secretly cleared all personnel at Brooklyn, including the 107th.”

“Why SSR-Europe?” he asked.

“Underwood said that the mole has been in our ranks since the war. Everyone, except for Peggy in today’s HQ didn’t serve in Europe, Steve,” Bucky explained.

“Philips,” Steve began, realizing the implications. Yet, it wouldn’t make sense for his former commander to be such a thing—

“The command’s in Russian,” Bucky supplied, noticing his uncertainty. “I highly doubt Philips is the mole, but I’m guessing you’re going to need to make a long-distance phone call to let him know that I’ve been read into your operation. I can vet him then.”

“All right,” Steve agreed, nodding. “But Underwood is a Black Widow. I admit, it took me a couple of years to trust Natasha with my life, but that was only because of the dire circumstances we faced. I don’t recall either you or Peggy facing anything that drastic – apart from Cull Obsidian showing up.”

“Which you’re still going to have to explain that one to all of us, Steve,” Bucky pointed out.

“Nat won’t tell me, and I’m not going to force her to do so,” Steve answered. “But she did say it is unlikely to happen again.”

“Unlikely.”

“Not the point, Buck,” Steve said. “So, how did you and Peggy decide to take Underwood at her word? I mean, for all we know, she could be under orders from her handler to cause chaos in the SSR ranks with this kind of rumor.”

“The thought did cross my mind many times,” he heard him mutter, before seeing him shake his head. “But it was another who convinced me,” Bucky said, unfolding his arms and letting them rest on his lap. “My mother.”

Steve stared at Bucky, complete baffled.

“She was the first Black Widow they trained,” Bucky stated before he could say a word. “She defected, with my father’s help, from Imperial Russia – and fled when the revolution happened. And she was the one who helped me complete Operation Midnight.”

Bucky paused for a moment, as if carefully choosing his words. “Her real name is Vera Romanova. I don’t know if she had been active before the war. But since then, she’s been active in her own informational gathering, and vetting of people close to her and her family. She’s turned two Soviet agents against their country, and killed countless of others – including the Widows we faced while behind the lines. She didn’t kill Underwood when she had the chance. It’s why I trust Underwood’s words.”

Steve wanted to stand up, close the distance, and embrace Bucky. He heard the despair in his tone, even if stoicism remained on Bucky’s face. He wanted to tell his best friend that it didn’t matter if his mother had been a Black Widow – that he was who he was – James Buchanan Barnes.

But, he didn’t stand up – at least not yet. Ever since Steve had learned Russian to read the files on the Winter Soldier that Natasha had given him, the memories he had of the war – of the SSR’s interactions with the Soviets never sat well with him.

Steve had never got a chance to ask Bucky about them – at least not in the future.

“Estonia,” Steve began after a few seconds of silence. “I can’t tell the differences with the accents, but Colonel Rostov did, didn’t he?”

“You remember—” Bucky began, blinking in surprise. “Wait, when did you learn Russian? And why?”

“The future,” he simply answered. “It’s not important.”

“My accent,” Bucky reluctantly answered. “My mother taught Russian to me with a specific kind of accent. She told me to hide it, because of her heritage. So I did. At least I tried to. Rostov being a complete asshole made me slip.”

Silence fell between them, but Steve didn’t let it linger long. “Then the command, or phrase. What is it?”

“Дождь – вселенной голоса,” Bucky said.

“It sounds lyrical,” Steve couldn’t help but state, frowning. It was nowhere near, or like the commands that governed the Winter Soldier.

“There’s more, Steve,” Bucky’s statement brought him back to the present. “Remember when I asked you about this ‘winter soldier’ thing?”

Steve tried to mentally brace himself for yet another deluge of memories, as he nodded once. Yet, he couldn’t help but feel a little more apprehensive than he usually did. Especially with the knowledge of a single phrase to wipe out a personality and replace it with another.

He thought what the Soviet and HYDRA did to Bucky was inhumanely horrific – this sounded even worse.

“Underwood kept calling me ‘the Winter Soldier’ - as if it were a title of sorts,” Bucky said. “Then she compared my current state to what sounded like another Soviet program: Wolf Spider. My mother and I never found information on either of those programs. Only the Black Widows and what went into creating them. Do you have anything from the future that could help?”

He wanted to say ‘no’ and be done with any further discussion about the Winter Soldier. But Steve knew that it would be a disservice to Bucky – to everything that he had put his life on the line for, in the past year-and-a-half.

“At present, nothing for the Winter Soldier,” he said. “But I’ve never heard of Wolf Spider.”

“Would Romanov know?” Bucky asked.

Steve couldn’t help but shrug. It covered his relief that Bucky was not pressing for further information about the Winter Soldier – even though Steve had left a direct allusion to the fact that it was a Soviet program that he knew about.

“Nat?” he called out.

She appeared a moment later, giving both of them a rather exasperated look. “Heavy conversations on Christmas? Really, Steve? I’m surprised you haven’t already upbraided him for this, Barnes.”

“Habit,” Bucky surprisingly stated, shrugging.

Steve knew it was a bald-faced lie, but he wasn’t going to call his best friend out on that. Instead, he said, “I hope I’m not conjuring bad memories for you, but have you ever heard of Wolf Spider, Nat?”

Natasha blinked a couple of times before saying, “It wasn’t talked about a lot during training. It got mentioned only once when one of the girls asked why boys weren’t trained the same as we were. The matron told us that it had only a single candidate, who failed at his duty. Whatever that candidate had done, was enough to shutter the program. Why? Did Underwood call you that, Barnes?”

“Nat,” Steve began, annoyed.

The last thing he wanted, was for Bucky to be denigrated into the basest terms of what apparently was the male equivalent of the Black Widow Program. A seductor who used sex as a disposable weapon against targets.

Steve knew that Natasha had wielded and molded the Black Widow title into her own after defecting. Bucky didn’t have either this ‘Wolf Spider’ or the Winter Soldier reputation on him now – he was his own person.

“Yeah,” Bucky answered. “Which means, that Underwood has possibly met, or heard of the Wolf Spider. We know she was active during the war.”

“But it’s a failed program,” Steve said, furrowing his eyebrows. There was an uneasy feeling blooming in his stomach – and it was not just from the fact that there was a mole in the SSR’s ranks.

“Failed in the future,” Bucky pointed out.

“Not here, not now,” Natasha finished up. “Shit. She wasn’t referring to you in particular as the Wolf Spider, Barnes. She was telling us that the mole in the SSR ranks is the Wolf Spider.”

* * *

The next day…

 

Peggy couldn’t help but smile as she heard the light conversations interspersed with the sounds of things being hammered or moved around the laboratory issue through the earpiece she wore. It was only because of the noise in the laboratory that she worked at the front of the facility – the casting studio store front.

There was a closed sign, and the lights were off. Only a desk lamp was shining on the paperwork that she was currently reading and making notes on. Damage assessments, repair costs, and a report needed to be written and securely delivered to Philips. Then, the cover story of that had to be filed with Thompson.

Steve had offered to let her use his room as her office for the day. But, the curtained window had proved to be too distracting for her. She found it too easy to idly watch her husband working on the floor, as if she were a voyeur.

It had surprised her in the morning, when Howard, David, and Michael had showed up to continue repairing the place, and working on reconstructing the time-traveling device, that Bucky had not left. Instead, there seemed to be a more calm and not as tension-filled air between Michael and Bucky.

It was only Steve’s murmured “They talked it over” that she understood what may have happened. Forgiveness may not have been given between the two, but her brother and Bucky were willing to continue to work together. Albeit it was more professional and distant between the two now.

At present, it had been Howard, who had surprisingly engaged Bucky in a conversation relating to welding or something. That had led into a discussion of ships at the Brooklyn Shipyards. Peggy couldn’t help but quirk up the edges of her lips in a smile as she heard Bucky say over the two-way radio:

“Yeah, helped with the construction of several Brooklyn-classed cruisers: Brooklyn, Savannah, Nashville, Phoenix, Honolulu, and Helena. Call it a promotion, I then was put on the team to build the North Carolina – start to finish. She was a battleship the likes I’ve never seen before. I only got to work on parts of the Iowa and the beginnings of Missouri before enlisting, but damn – those three ships were something to behold.”

“He likes big ships, he cannot lie,” Peggy heard Tony sarcastically mutter over the radio.

Natasha’s groan of exasperation was audible, but there were a couple of puzzled, “Huh?”

“Never mind,” Tony said a little louder. “Pop culture drought here.”

“Maybe you should’ve studied up on the 40’s or 50’s, Tony,” Steve lightly stated, seemingly trying to contain his laughter.

“Oh, and you’re going to tell me that you’ve seen Rebel Without A Cause, Rogers?”

Peggy tuned out whatever else was being said over the radio, as she returned her attention to the paperwork she needed to completed. Though Boxing Day was not a US holiday, she had given the team an additional day off. It also gave those in the know of the actual work being done here, a day to catch up on any work they needed to do.

Apart from Lorraine, who was still up in Connecticut visiting extended family, Howard seemed eager to take advantage that he didn’t have to split his time between cover work and actual work. With what happened a few days ago after the first trip with the machine, there were some safeguards that they needed to put in.

Peggy was worried about the fact that Steve had used two stones simultaneously – and after a terrifyingly brutally fast fight against whatever Cull Obsidian was. It seemed to hurt him, more than it helped him. Despite his insistence to not worry, she couldn’t just not do that. Yet, after a few hours of rest – he looked his usual self.

She had so many questions, and so little answers. And she knew that she was not the only one who had questions. But Steve seemed reluctant to talk a lot more about what he faced in the future, other than related to returning the stones.

Sighing, Peggy put aside the report, and uncovered the small note that Bucky had slipped to her this morning. She had not time to read it – until now.

[S knows about U.]

Peggy frowned slightly. While the statement was blunt and to the point, it was the underlying meaning that worried her. She and Bucky had kept the knowledge of the mole from the others to not cause unnecessary panic and suspicion.

Bucky could have easily taken her to the side earlier in the morning and told her the same information. But the fact that he didn’t, meant that when Steve found out about the mole within the SSR ranks, some additional information had been discovered.

Taking her aside would have involved a longer conversation than the normal morning brief he usually gave her. That may have caused the others to become concerned – and it told her what Bucky discovered was concerning enough that he wanted the others to have the full briefing on Dottie Underwood.

When Steve found out about Dottie Underwood was a slight mystery to Peggy. But she wouldn’t have put it past for her husband and Bucky to have had a late-night, or ridiculously early morning discussion.

She had, after all, woken up to find that Steve was not sleeping in their bed. Instead, she had found him standing next to the sarcophagus that had helped physically transform him into Captain America.

“Ma’am?”

Peggy looked up, muted her line, and turned down the audio output of the radio as she saw David with a mug of freshly brewed coffee in his hands. He handed it to her, and grateful, she took it, murmuring her thanks. But, he didn’t immediately leave, and looked slightly hesitant – as if he wanted to say something else.

“David,” she began. “What is it?”

“Ma’am, I just wanted to say that my assessment is still preliminary, and I am unsure if my analyses are correct, or that the results are accurate—”

“David,” Peggy interrupted, reaching out and gently placed a calming hand on her friend’s arm. “Please.”

“Ma’am,” David began again.

“Sit, David. What’s wrong?” she asked.

Slowly, and nervously, David took a seat. While she knew him to be on the shy side – even more so than Steve had been – this nervousness did not seem like any sort of shyness attributed to what she perceived as his usual causes of his shyness.

He briefly wrung his hands, looking down at his feet before seemingly found courage from somewhere to look up again. “I think the stones are emitting gamma radiation. Non-lethal amounts if, say, the Tesseract is sitting there idly, and if used in a short burst – such as what Howard and I did to harness its energy for the prototype arc reactor.”

“Go on,” Peggy prompted as David fell silent.

“I learned some protocols to detect the beginnings of radiation sickness when I was working on my thesis, ma’am. Acute and sudden fever, followed by disintegration in cellular composition follows – which is dependent on the level of exposure. HYDRA’s weapons worked the way they worked by disintegration because they expelled a lethal amount into the human body. Dense materials, such as steel or the vibranium shield stopped it,” David explained.

He paused for a moment, weaving his hands together as he grimaced slightly. “I think Captain Rogers was briefly suffering from sudden onset acute radiation sickness, when he used the Reality and Mind Stones together,” David softly stated.

Peggy remained silent. She clearly remembered the terrified look that had overtaken Bucky’s expression, the minute Steve collapsed. Yet, Steve had insisted that he was fine. He had climbed out of the crater by himself with his injuries already mending.

Using the six stones together had killed Tony – she couldn’t deny not seeing that from Steve’s painful memories. But she knew that she could not depend on one point of information for the whole of the picture. They knew little to nothing about the Stones – only enough to understand that they were dangerous.

Yet, Peggy also understood why David had come specifically to her to speak about it. Emotionally, she and Bucky cared deeply about Steve. But objectively, she knew she had a more level-headed countenance about her than Bucky.

During the war, she had clearly seen Bucky get riled up even more than Steve was, whenever it involved protecting Steve. Had David gone to Bucky with the same information that he presented to her now, there was a fair chance that Bucky would’ve overreacted.

She knew that there was no stopping her husband when it came to defending the stones – they had all witnessed it first hand when Cull Obsidian attacked. But with armed with this knowledge, Peggy hoped that she could temper Steve’s usage of the stones – and try to take measures to prevent the usage of two stones at once, again.

“I can try to convince him—” she began.

“You have to, ma’am,” David insisted. “The serum…I know not how Dr. Erskine created it, but I don’t know if it can withstand, repair, or does what it does to keep Captain Rogers alive. If he uses two stones at once again, and especially for a longer period of time.”

“David,” she said, reaching out and placed her left hand over the top of his, to stop him from wringing his hands together. “Thank you for letting me know. I worry for him as well, but I can only try. Please keep watching him when you can, monitor the levels, and let me know if anything changes.”

Reluctantly, David nodded before he stood up. Peggy watched him leave, buzzing him back into the facility. It was only after the door closed that Peggy let the shuddering breath she had held back throughout the conversation, go.

She wanted to cry.

Not in anger or despair, but because she knew that when she told Steve about the likelihood of radiation poisoning, it would do little to convince him to stop his mission. Peggy knew that he would insist on completing it – no matter the cost.

Even if that cost meant his life.

* * *

Later in the day…

 

It was a little dramatic, but it got everyone’s attention.

Dumping the five vibranium swords onto the table that had held Steve’s sketches of the Avengers and their enemies, and diagrams of the various ‘time heist’ locations, made a dull ring. The sketches were stored within a folder, but that was not the point that Bucky wanted to make at the moment.

“Vibranium,” Howard commented, as they gathered around the table, staring at the swords. “Where did it come from?”

“We were about to ask you, Stark,” Bucky said. “You told us that you had the only ore Wakanda had.”

“Yeah,” the inventor stated, absently stroking his chin in thought. “But who did these belong to? The craftsmanship is remarkable. I’ve never seen precision work or details like that before.”

“It belonged to five Black Widows. Highly trained female Soviet agents,” Bucky stated, withdrawing his sidearm and ejected the clip. He also ejected the lone bullet sitting in the chamber before putting all three pieces down on the table.

“They were hunting a former colleague of theirs, another Black Widow aliased as Dottie Underwood. She had a sword just like theirs, except the SSR got a hold of it, and smelted it into a coating around the bullets,” he continued to explain.

Bucky picked up one of the swords with his right hand, and depressed the tiny inset where his index finger curled around the handle. Hideous creatures with jaws full of sharp teeth suddenly surrounded them, causing some alarm.

“It’s all right, they’re not going to attack,” he calmly stated, before glancing over at Peggy. “Peggy?”

Peggy withdrew her sidearm and shot at a creature. Bucky felt a sharp pain lance through his hand – like a stab wound. It looked like one as he felt a small trickle of blood slide down his hand.

“You’re bleeding!” David exclaimed.

“That’s the side effect of using a sword like this, and having someone kill one of the creatures,” he explained, dumping the sword back onto the table. “The SSR has encountered this five times in the past few months – most recently in early November.”

Early in the morning, he had climbed onto the rooftop to perform the experiment – to see what exactly the swords were capable of. The instant he let go, the blood, the pain, and the creatures disappeared.

“What on earth—” Michael exclaimed, looking a little horrified.

“There are sixteen other Black Widows out there,” Bucky interrupted before other questions could be asked. “And the five these came from are already dead. These Widows are difficult to kill, and even more difficult to detect.”

“A reliable source of ours,” Peggy began, taking over, “has informed us that over the past few weeks, there have been some potential threats sniffing about in the area. The five Widows were one of those threats.”

“Since there are sixteen others, and our cover is a casting studio, I need all of you to be extra vigilant whenever you’re not within this building. The other agents and 107th will be briefed on a variant of this information, but it will be relatively the same. If anyone who looks too pretty approaches you, take note, don’t engage, and get away as fast as you can. When you can, let Bucky and I know. We’ll deal with it.”

Almost all eyes were focused on Howard, who gave them a slightly offended look, saying, “Hey, don’t look at me—”

“Howard, you’re a prime target for the Widows. Don’t you even remember that you briefly dated Dottie?” Peggy flatly questioned.

“She was pretty—” Howard began, not at all sheepish.

Peggy wasn’t the only one to groan in exasperation, but Bucky refocused the briefing by saying, “Our source also informed us of two more threats that are more unknown, and not as easy to pinpoint. There is another Soviet operative code-named ‘Winter Soldier’, who may be potentially in the area. This operative may also be augmented by a different operative code-named ‘Wolf Spider’. We don’t know if the Winter Soldier actually exists – no proof has been found. But there is strong evidence that the Wolf Spider does—”

“—and he or she has been within the SSR since the war,” Peggy finished up.

Before a clamor could break out within those gathered, Peggy continued, saying, “SSR-Europe may be compromised, but the extent is unknown. For now, any reports – even the ones for the cover story – need to go through either Bucky or I. We don’t know how much this Wolf Spider knows about what is going on here, the cover story, or cases within SSR Headquarters.”

“And MI-5?” Michael asked.

Bucky had nothing for Michael in reassurance that that organization was kept safe from the Soviet agent named Wolf Spider. There was an enormous probability that Wolf Spider had leaked details of the joint SSR and MI-5 Operation Midnight to his or her handler.

“We’ll vet Philips first,” Peggy said, as Bucky glanced over to see her give a reassuring nod towards her brother. “Once he’s cleared, he’ll get the full briefing. Then we can begin to find out how much damage has been done to both the SSR and MI-5.”

* * *

Evening…

 

“Why the hell did you stop me from telling them about Barnes?”

Steve rinsed his toothbrush out as he saw Tony pace back and forth in the reflection of the mirror above the locker room’s sinks. Natasha was standing a little ways away, watching Tony pace back and forth.

The briefing had been blunt and to the point – and Steve did not blame either Peggy or Bucky for the way they had conducted it. It was the only way to get the point across. He was also incredibly grateful that Natasha had forcibly faded both herself and Tony from the briefing as soon as the Winter Soldier had been mentioned – and that she had apparently gagged Tony from saying anything.

“Because it’s not your story to tell, Tony,” Natasha answered, annoyed.

“Story?!” Tony scoffed. “There is no story behind that – no fucking fairy tale! The Winter Soldier—”

“Is not him!” Natasha vehemently followed up, surprising Steve enough that he turned from the sink to see the two almost at each other’s throat.

“Nat. Tony,” he quietly stated, knowing that he had to intervene before things got out of hand. He needed the two to continue to work together, as he sensed that them being barriers were stronger united, than divided.

Bringing his cup and toothbrush over, he sat on the bench and packed them away, before looking up at his friends. “That’s enough, please.”

“Fucking hell, Rogers,” Tony began. “You cannot just sit there, and deny that the Winter Soldier Program is him.”

“Was,” Steve said, taking a deep breath to calm himself. It was clear that though he and Tony had put their past behind and returned to being friends, Tony had not put what the Winter Soldier had done to Howard and Maria, to rest.

“Not anymore,” he continued to say. “Not in this timeline.”

“And how the hell do you know that?” Tony questioned.

“Steve, you need to tell him.” Natasha spoke up, before Steve could say a word.

Steve scrubbed his face once with his hands, removing them as he glanced up to see that Natasha had taken a seat at the end of the bench. Tony was still standing, but was now glowering at him.

“No,” he answered, shaking his head.

“Tony’s right, Steve,” Natasha stated, giving him a pointed look. “You need to verify that he does not have those commands from the red book. Five Widows, Steve. Five Widows attacked Underwood, and they were all activated after her. There’s a good chance that they know—”

“I know, Nat!” he said, angry and frustrated. “It’s just…” he began, curling his hands into fists as he squeezed his eyes shut. “It’s just…”

“Look, Rogers,” Tony spoke up, sounding a little less hostile. “Think of it this way. Loki’s already scampered off with the Tesseract in 2012. That timeline is fucked up. We know HYDRA still exists there. You made yourself a fucking HYDRA agent there. So, fix it.”

“Time jump suit?” Steve questioned, realizing what Tony was implying. “What about Pym Particles?”

“The five swords are enough for me to melt down and make a suit. You have enough to take a passenger on one round trip. Let it be this one,” Tony stated. “But only if you first make sure Barnes isn’t a murderous killing machine.”

“I’ll think of another plan to fix my mistake in 2012—” Steve began.

He knew it was a rather devious plan that fit the way Tony tended to think. But to put Bucky – who was not the Winter Soldier right here and now – into the line of fire in 2012… To drag his best friend into a war not his own, just to save another timeline iteration of himself and Bucky—

“You told me that the two of you made a promise,” Natasha gently stated.

Steve opened his eyes to see that she was sitting closer to him. It looked as if she wanted to reach out and embrace him – promising that he would not be alone like she had done after Peggy’s funeral, but didn’t.

“We’re with each other, until the end of the line,” he murmured.

“Not that one,” she said, giving him a brave smile.

“Forward and together, until the end of the line,” he softly whispered. The promise that he had made with future-Bucky.

“That one,” she said, nodding in understanding. “He let you go, Steve. He knew that you were going to make things right. So go forward, Steve. Let Barnes make the choice to accept the future of what he could have been, or what he will become.”

“And what will he become, Nat?”

Natasha didn’t answer him. Instead, she faded away, taking Tony with her.

Steve sat in silence. He couldn’t help the bitter chuckle that escaped his lips, wondering when his dear friend had become so counselor-like. In response to his stray thought, he felt a warmth bloom within his mind, before it receded. It felt like Natasha warmly laughing.

He looked at his hands, before closing his eyes and tapped the device in a short pattern to activate his armor. The scale-like metal armor that Tony had created specifically for him before they had left on the time-traveling trip, did not cover him. Instead, when he opened his eyes, he saw himself wearing the uniform that he had received from SHIELD upon formally joining them.

As loose and cloth-looking as the trousers were, and as padded the top half of the SHIELD uniform was, the uniform was different than its original. There was a layer of vibranium woven into the uniform – unlike the final uniform Tony designed. That was just outright vibranium armor on full display.

Steve didn’t know why Tony decided to shove all the variations of his uniform into the device. He could only surmise that his friend found it funny, or was bored. Steve put money on the latter, rather than the former for the reason.

Still, he knew he was dawdling, and delaying the inevitable. Natasha was right – Steve could try his damnest to keep the memories of the Winter Soldier away, but it would only cause misinformation to spread. He couldn’t let that happen – they needed to concentrate on finding the mole within their ranks.

Exiting the locker room, he walked across the length of the facility, taking only a moment to pause. He looked out onto the floor at the partially disassembled time-traveling device – and the enormous crater Cull Obsidian left behind. Had Bucky not done what he had done with the axe—

Steve shook his head, and forced himself to continue on. Stopping in front of Bucky’s door, he raised his hand, and knocked.

“Yeah?” came Bucky’s voice through the door.

Steve opened the door and stepped in. He was not surprised to find Bucky sitting at his desk, with what looked like a disassembled sniper rifle covering the table. There was a cleaning cloth in his hand, and several other rags set to the side. Still, the sight of the disassembled sniper rifle was not making this any easier.

“Nice uniform,” Bucky’s quip brought Steve out of his musing.

“One of the variants that Tony somehow stuffed into my device,” Steve said, closing the door. “You got some time?”

Bucky glanced at the disassembled rifle, before returning his attention onto him, shrugging. “Sure. Going to do a personal fashion show thing for me? Heard that they’re becoming popular in circles of wealth.”

As much as Steve didn’t want to laugh, especially at the absurd exaggeration that Bucky parroted of an English noble with a monocle while sipping tea, he chuckled. “No,” he said, shaking his head slightly as he approached, and took the offered seat.

“It looks good on you, Steve,” Bucky said, in a more sincere tone. “Less flashy than what you wore during the war. Or that 2012 memory you showed us. But it can’t be compared to your armor, can it?”

“I don’t know,” Steve admitted. “It was one of the uniforms I wore before, but not the original. Tony somehow weaved vibranium into it.”

He saw Bucky’s eyes widen in surprise, before reaching out to touch a sleeve. “Really?” Bucky asked after a moment, sitting back.

“But that’s not why I’m here, Buck,” Steve said, knowing that he needed to just stop delaying the inevitable. Tony’s plan was one of the most viable plans that the three of them had come up with, to change that timeline for the better.

“I’m going to need your help in returning the Time and Mind Stone—”

“Steve,” Bucky spoke up, shaking his head slightly, frowning. “I’m in. You need help, I’m there to help—”

Steve clenched his jaw for a moment, before saying, “There are some memories I need to show you. Some things in 2012 that I didn’t mention when I showed the memories. Some things that I didn’t have knowledge of during that actual time, and some acquired after that year and applied when I went back to that point in time. I wish that I didn’t have to—”

“Hey,” Bucky said, leaning forward. Steve felt his comforting, warm right hand upon his, as Bucky continued to say, “You’ve had bad experiences, bad memories. You don’t have to show me—”

“It’s not just 2012, Bucky,” Steve said, withdrawing his hand from underneath Bucky’s.

He tried to ignore the concerned and slightly hurt look Bucky gave him. He curled his hands into fists, pressing them down in his lap.

“With this whole Dottie Underwood debacle, and a sleeper agent in the ranks—”

“It’s all right, Steve. Peggy and I have—” Bucky began, trying to reassure him.

Steve adamantly shook his head. It was all going so wrong.

You need to see the memories, because…” he tried to say. He didn’t want to accuse Bucky of anything, but he also couldn’t let this sit between them. “Because…”

His hesitancy made Bucky sit up straighter. “Memories that you can’t show the others?” Bucky questioned. “Not even Peggy?”

“Memories that I am unwilling to share with anyone but you, Bucky,” Steve answered, feeling Natasha’s warmth flood over him, giving him courage.

“Memories of who you were, in the future,” he continued. “Who you aren’t anymore, right here and now. Memories of you, whom was captured in 1945 by Soviet forces, brainwashed, and forced to serve a homeland not his own for nearly seventy years.”

He paused for a moment, as he felt the Reality Stone slip into his hands. It’s hunger lashed at his mind like an endless storm. “My memories of you; the ghost the intelligence community called the Winter Soldier.”

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Pretender – Part 1

 

Steve began with the Lemurian Star mission.

“After Loki was stopped in 2012, I took a position with SHIELD,” he explained. “At this point, I had been with SHIELD for almost two years, when I, along with Natasha, and a SHIELD elite commando team, STRIKE Delta, were deployed to the Lemurian Star. It was a rocket launch ship, designed to send satellites into space.”

“Many satellites launched into space were used for scientific purposes – observe the earth, research into the cosmos. But many national defense measures of the major world powers also used satellites for military coordination and spying purposes. SHIELD’s satellites were designed and launched towards that end.”

Steve let Bucky see his entire briefing, to his deployment and securing of the ship. The battles that he had shown of Thanos and fighting with the teams were frantic, desperate, and frenetic – incredibly similar to how he operated during the war.

He saw Bucky’s eyes widen at just how deadly and effective he and the STRIKE teams were. At the brush of Natasha’s warm touch within his mind, he allowed her to show her memories – they were integral for Bucky to understand why and how the fall of SHIELD happened.

The memories of the confrontation between himself and Fury washed over him, as he said, “Colonel Nicholas Fury was the current Director of SHIELD, and was largely responsible for the creation of weapons – big and small – to combat terrestrial and extraterrestrial threats. That included the attempt at creating weapons using the Tesseract – Phase 2.”

“SHIELD was held generally in check by the World Security Council, a committee of representatives from superpower nations around the world. The Insight Helicarriers and their associated satellite systems were selected by the Council members to be built to protect the world.”

This isn’t freedom. It’s fear.

SHIELD takes the world as-is. Not as we’d like it to be.

He didn’t show Bucky his memories of visiting Peggy in hospice – those were extremely private ones. Steve did, however, allow him to see what had happened in the last few minutes of his listening in as Sam counseled the veterans group. He wanted Bucky to know that he wasn’t alone in suffering from PTSD – and that there was no shame in asking for help.

He could feel Natasha’s sympathetic warmth wash over him, bolstering him, as he accelerated the memory to nightfall – to when he got home to his apartment in DC.

Steve showed the interaction between him and Sharon, but didn’t dare mention that she was Peggy and Michael’s niece. He hoped that Sharon would eventually be born in this new future and timeline he was carving.

A brief wistful smile appeared on Steve’s lips with the song that played in his apartment. But he had to continue on with the memory. The brief amount of light that showed Fury’s injuries, followed by the sudden explosion of three sniper shots into the Director had Bucky reacting in a similar way to how Steve had initially reacted.

Do you have eyes on the shooter?

Tell them I’m on it.

As the memory of himself chasing the shadow of the sniper across the rooftops cascaded across, Steve carefully watched Bucky. Steve still remembered the raw shock of throwing the shield at the Winter Soldier that night, and having him unexpectedly catching it. No one had done that before, but even as the memory faded to him catching a ride with the EMTs bringing Fury to the hospital, all Steve saw was a slight twitch of Bucky’s gloved metal fingers.

Hiding the USB drive, along with his recall to SHIELD Headquarters, and talk with Alexander Pierce was shown in its entirety. Steve had half-expected Natasha to intervene with her set of memories at this point, but there was nothing from her at the moment.

His fight against the STRIKE teams and their reinforcements in the elevator, along with his jump out from the elevator, and crash into atrium had him wincing slightly again. He knew that he had been extremely lucky to not have broken anything – escaping only with quickly healing fractures and contusions.

Steve plowed on through his memories, until he returned to the hospital.

I know who killed Fury. Most of the intelligence community doesn’t believe that he exists. The ones that do call him the Winter Soldier. He’s credited with over two dozen assassinations in the last 50 years.

So he’s a ghost story.

There was still barely a reaction from Bucky, but Steve could see that his eyes were riveted to the memories floating around them. Steve showed him how Natasha taught him to blend in while on the run, hunted by SHIELD. He was not afraid to show the fact that Natasha had kissed him to distract their pursuers.

He didn’t bother showing Bucky the long, harrowing journey to New Jersey. Instead, he started that set of memories when he and Natasha arrived at Camp Lehigh. The discovery of where SHIELD started, following his observations of the three photographs of Philips, Peggy, and Howard, garnered a slight furrow of eyebrows from Bucky.

But when Zola appeared, Steve clearly heard the whine of Bucky’s metal arm spooling up.

“Bucky, Zola is dead.,” Steve said, pausing the memory. “Zola is dead, here and now.”

Bucky didn’t look at him, but Steve could see the cold fury within Bucky’s eyes focused on the image of Zola projected around them. It took a few seconds for the whine within Bucky’s arm to die down. Steve then continued to show his memories, giving Bucky the much needed answer to what happened to HYDRA after the war.

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, they resist. The war taught us much. Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly. After the war, SHIELD was founded, and I was recruited. The new HYDRA grew, a beautiful parasite inside of SHIELD. For 70 years, HYDRA has been secretly feeding crises, reaping war. And when history did not cooperate, history was changed.

That’s impossible. SHIELD would’ve stopped you.

Accidents will happen. HYDRA created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security. Once the purification process is complete, HYDRA’s New World Order will arise.

“That base, where you found Michael and I, Steve,” Bucky began, voice croaking slightly. “Was that...”

“A base owned by the SSR, operated by a nascent HYDRA,” Steve answered. Bucky was not looking at him, but Steve was not about to coax him to. “...and also by the Soviets,” he finished up.

Steve let the rest of the memory be drawn out. Taking shelter as the base exploded around him and Natasha, along with their escape back to DC, recruiting Sam, and their plan to stop the Insight Helicarriers were shown.

By the time Steve showed him, Natasha, and Sam capturing and interrogating Sitwell, Steve could see tension radiating clearly from Bucky. Natasha’s presence with the Soul Stone expanded to blanket around him, bolstering his courage. The memories both he and Natasha were about to show were incredibly painful, personal, and heartbreaking.

The Winter Soldier exploded into the projection around the two of them – terrifying, menacing, and merciless. Gunfire filled the air, as Steve entwined his memories of the hand-to-hand fight he had engaged in with the Winter Soldier, with Natasha’s own.

It was kill, or be killed.

The whir and whine of the metal arm drowned out most of the other noises. Steve didn’t know if it was from his own memories, or if it was from the fist that Bucky, here and now, had curled his metal arm into.

And then, Steve unmasked the Winter Soldier.

Bucky?!

Who the hell is ‘Bucky’?!

“You didn’t remember who I was,” Steve whispered in the silence that fell, as he let his memories drift off towards the rescue by Hill, and reuniting with Fury. “HYDRA… the Soviets… they wiped your memory after each mission. I didn’t know what they did, or how they did it, until later.”

He focused his eyes on Bucky, but again, Bucky was not looking at him. Steve didn’t dare reach out towards Bucky. His best friend had turned slightly away.

“Did you...” Bucky began, looking up at the argument that was going on at Fury’s hideout.

Stop all of them? Stop you? Steve wanted to finish and say out loud, but did not. “Yes,” he stated.

He accelerated his memories to show him what happened during the Helicarrier fight, and call to arms within SHIELD. Natasha again, intertwined her memories of the World Security Council, providing much needed context.

Violence and desperation filled the second fight between him and Bucky – especially at the part where Bucky shot him several times. Steve could still feel the phantom pain lancing through him, but did not stop the memory.

You know me!

No, I don’t!

Bucky, you’ve known me your entire life. Your name is James Buchanan Barnes—

Shut up!

I’m not going to fight you. You’re my friend.

You’re my mission. You. Are. My. Mission.

Then finish it, ‘cause I’m with you, until the end of the line.

“You dragged me from the Potomac, and then disappeared like the ghost you were,” Steve quietly stated.

“Natasha shook up some of her contacts in Kiev. She gave me a file with some details on what the Winter Soldier Program was, and what was done to you. The rest of what little information about the program there was, came from what she and Fury released to the public.”

“Sam and I searched for you for two years, in between our missions for the Avengers. We couldn’t find you until someone deliberately put your name into the public’s awareness.”

Steve began the next set of memories with the Avengers’ mission that had caused the Sokovia Accords to be proposed, and ratified by nearly the entire world. Steve showed Bucky the arguments between all of the Avengers at the compound.

“Peggy passed away during this time,” he quietly stated, as he briefly showed him a portion of that part of his memories. The rest were not for anyone else to see.

“I was in London for her funeral, when this happened in Vienna,” Steve said, as Natasha’s memory of the UN meeting in Vienna burst forth.

But the aftermath was what Steve directed. The image of Zemo disguised as Bucky, along with Sharon’s information about Interpol, and Bucky’s location in Bucharest was shown.

Do you know me?

You’re Steve. I read about you at the museum.

I know you’re nervous, and you have plenty of reason to be. But you’re lying.

I wasn’t in Vienna. I don’t do that anymore.

Well, the people who think you did are coming here now. And they don’t plan on taking you alive.

That’s smart. Good strategy.

This doesn’t have to end in a fight, Buck.

It always ends in a fight.

You pulled me from the river. Why?

I don’t know.

Yes, you do.

The teams breached the apartment, and all Steve heard was gunfire, grenade explosions, and the squawk of exclamations again. The chase, escape, and his trying to defend Bucky from being killed was his memories being shown, alone.

Natasha hadn’t withdrawn her presence, but neither was she bolstering it. Steve knew that she still thought that he should have done this a different way – less messier than what he had turned it into.

But it was Bucky – and Steve had and still would do anything for him and to protect him.

As Steve continued to show the memories up to the point of Zemo beginning his interrogation, he was a little glad that he hadn’t known the transformation words back then. Right here and now, Steve was confident that he had gotten to the HYDRA facility in time to rescue his best friend.

“Zemo transformed you back into the Winter Soldier,” Steve spoke up, just as his memory showed the facility plunging into a blackout. “There was a red book he used. It contained conditioning words. But without the rest of the apparatus, it didn’t work as well as he hoped it would. Knocking you out brought the real you back.”

He didn’t dare mention that he thought he had seen Bucky warring with some part of himself while trying to escape the facility – especially during the confrontation at the helicopter. Steve showed him the memory of Sam winching the press against the metal arm, and Bucky waking up – confused, somewhat coherent, but a mess of muddled memories. There was enough of his old self in there for Steve to reach for, and trust though.

I am not the only Winter Soldier.

After the memory of Bucky describing the other five Winter Soldiers and the aftermath of their conditioning was shown, Steve spoke up, saying, “Howard managed to recreate the serum in 1991, but the Soviets stole it. They used it on their people. It made the other five Winter Soldiers violently unstable… insane. They were put into cryogenic sleep and left at the Siberian facility. With time against us, I recruited some friends of mine to help stop Zemo.”

Steve wasn’t keen on showing his memories of the fight at the airport, but he did so anyways. Natasha’s presence remained constant, but again, she thought it could’ve gone so much differently. With the rest of the team remaining behind and urging both him and Bucky to go, Steve plowed through the aftermath of the airport fight.

The silo was still as eerie as it had been for him in 2016, and in his memories. But Steve saw no recognition of the place in Bucky’s eyes. As the memories of their careful exploration of the silo played out around them, Steve kept an eye on his best friend.

He showed Tony’s arrival, along with their discovery of the core of the silo, Zemo’s deliberate trap, and the video that showed the death of Howard and Maria Stark. It cascaded into the violent fight between the two of them versus Tony.

He’s my friend.

So was I.

Steve was not apologetic about showing the fight. He needed Bucky to understand here and now, it didn’t matter who Bucky was – he, Steve, would always have his back. And, he hoped that Bucky would forgive him for showing these memories, even if he needed him to understand who the Winter Soldier had been – and was not anymore.

Tony’s words about the shield, about how his father had built it, still stung. The dull ring of the shield landing on the floor of the blast tunnel seemed like a loud gong. But Steve didn’t let it last long, as he closed his memories, and slowly opened his left hand.

The Reality Stone was gone, back in its compartment – sated and satisfied again.

“An ally of ours offered us shelter,” he said, staring at his left hand. “I didn’t stay. It wasn’t safe for either of us to remain together. I also wanted to find and destroy as many of the old Soviet-HYDRA facilities as possible. You eventually chose to go back on ice, wanting a cure – a way to get those commands out of your mind – before you were willing to—”

“Stand trial?”

Steve snapped his eyes up. Bucky’s eyes were on him, and he could plainly see the heartbreaking hurt within them. The faint whir of the metal arm, along with Bucky’s hands curled into fists, told Steve just how tense Bucky was.

“No,” he said, shaking his head once. “To live.”

The silence that fell between them, punctuated by the noise of the heating within the facility and distant horns of cars, was uncomfortable. The whirring of Bucky’s arm was the loudest sound in the room.

“You were cured by the time Thanos attacked, but…” Steve began, but could not bring himself to go on.

This has been a grave mistake.

“I’m sorry,” he said, immediately getting up. He could not meet Bucky’s eyes anymore – not when he felt so guilty, so ashamed of himself for ruining the new lives that both of them had. “I shouldn’t have done this. I shouldn’t have shown you this. It’s all a mistake—”

Steve forced himself to snap his mouth shut, as he turned and headed towards the door. Before he could reach for the handle to open it, the silver glint and shtunk noise of a combat knife landed just an inch above where his hand was.

He half spun around, startled. Bucky’s eyes were now completely unreadable, even as Steve saw him lower his still-gloved metal left hand from throwing the knife. Yet, those ocean-like eyes of Bucky’s were not blank like he had seen and experienced before when fighting the Winter Soldier.

“What are the commands, Steve?” Bucky quietly asked.

“No,” Steve adamantly stated, shakily reaching for the door handle. “You don’t need to know—”

Impossibly, or because he was still ashamed of what he had done, he didn’t even get the door open more than a crack, before it was slammed shut. Bucky’s left arm was pressed up against the door, holding it close by force.

Steve was pinned against the door itself, some of it by his own will, most of it by just how close Bucky was standing in front of him. Their noses were nearly touching each other, hot breaths licking this way and that, despairing blue-green eyes meeting unreadable oceanic grey-blue—

“What. Are. The. Commands.”

Bucky had punctuated his question with a jab of his right index finger into Steve’s chest. Each forceful expulsion of his words seemed like fire upon Steve’s face. But there still was no blankness within Bucky’s eyes.

“I can’t—” Steve began, feeling hopeless.

“Goddammit, Steve,” Bucky said. There was a flicker of desperation that he saw in Bucky’s eyes. “I remember, Steve. I remember what Zola did. What Ivchenko did. What they did to fucking embed those commands—”

Horror turned into ice-cold fear, blooming in Steve’s stomach. Bucky in the future had not remembered. Or if he did, never wrote it down in the various journals that Steve had been allowed to read. This was worse – so much worse—

“You’re not—” Steve began, desperately hoping he was wrong.

He had gotten to Bucky in time.

September 24th, 1946 had been the correct date—

“You don’t know that,” Bucky cut in, eyes flashing in anger. “You know the commands,” he heard him say, despair coloring his tone. “Steve, please. I need to know…”

Steve thought that it couldn’t get any worse, but it did. Bucky had removed his left arm from the door, and had drawn up the blade he had thrown. The flat of the blade was pressed against his chest, as Bucky said, “Please.”

Mercy kill.

That was what Bucky was asking him to do. To say the commands, and if Bucky truly was the Winter Soldier returned, to kill him right then and there—

“I won’t,” he said, stubbornness and anger bubbling up from the fear within him. “I saved you once, Bucky, and I’ll do so again.”

“And leave me what? A broken shell of who I used to be?” Bucky hissed. “My other self in your timeline let you go. To make things right. You said so yourself that there was little commonality between us left. I’m choosing right here and now –I need to know—”

“You are not the Winter Soldier, Bucky!” Steve exploded, yanking the knife out of Bucky’s grasp, and flung it away from both of them.

“Then say them!” Bucky roared.

Movement beyond Bucky caught Steve’s attention for a split second, but it was too late—

“желание, ржaвый, семнадцать, рассвет, печь, девять, добросердечный, возвращение на родину, один, грузовой вагон,” Natasha unexpectedly fired off in rapid succession.

* * *

The next day, December 27 th , 1948…

 

“Is everything all right between you and Steve?”

Peggy looked up from typing out the official cover report of what happened with the ‘exploding mice’ on the 23rd. Michael had taken a seat across the table, pushing the various sketches of the Avengers and their allies off to the side.

“Yes,” she answered, slightly puzzled as she removed her hands from the keys. “Why?”

Her brother didn’t immediately answer her as he glanced over to where Howard and David were working. She followed his gaze, noting that there was concern not just in his eyes, but on his face.

Tony was a little ways away, working on something that had required him to detach the five Black Widows’ blades from their handles. The handles were laid out in the corner of the table she worked at, but it looked like Tony had smelted the blades using energy from a backup prototype of the arc reactor.

Steve was currently standing next to Tony, doing something at the station Tony worked at. She had seen Michael attempt to approach, but had been angrily waved away by Tony. It was Steve’s kinder, but still firm request to stay away that made Michael leave.

“There’s a lot of technology that we shouldn’t even have knowledge of, right here and now, Michael,” Peggy spoke up. “I know you’re curious. I am as well, but it may be for the better if either of us don’t know what Tony and Steve are doing. Everything will be back to normal once all of this is complete.”

The look that her brother gave her was a little doubtful. Sighing, she couldn’t help but smile slightly, saying, “Or as normal as anything can be.”

As disheartened as she was, especially with the news from David of possible radiation sickness being a side-effect of using more than one stone, she wanted to keep a good outlook. They had already returned one stone – and Steve had returned to this point in time a few seconds after he left.

Cull Obsidian was something of an aberration, but with safeguards and more improvements being put into the device, she was certain that there would be no repeat of that happening. Steve had reassured her that Natasha had said it was unlikely to happen again.

“I think Steve might be telling Bucky more about all of this, than either of us,” Michael quietly said, as she saw him return his attention onto her. “There seemed to be something different between the two of them, since this morning. Closer, perhaps. More intimate.”

As much as she wanted to say that Michael was looking at it from a lens of heartbreak and betrayal – especially from the relationship he and Bucky had had – she didn’t. She knew that some of it was colored by that, but she had seen what Michael had described.

Except that it felt different to her – a possible fundamental shift in the foundation of what bound Steve and Bucky together.

“I think they might’ve had an argument,” she said.

Michael was still grieving for the loss of his close relationship with Bucky. As much as Peggy could comfort him, she also knew that her brother knew that Bucky was devoted to Steve. That whatever Bucky did in his life was for a singular, core reason. Ruined relationships – especially intimate ones with others – came with that kind of devotion.

“Argument,” Michael repeated, not believing her words.

She gave him a simple look, folding her hands together. “You know what you were getting into Michael.”

“Do you?” he answered.

He didn’t hiss is words at her, but she did hear the challenge behind his tone. She hated arguing with him, especially when it concerned the men she had dated prior to Steve. He had supported her relationship with Steve – especially during the war. But it was clear that his break up with Bucky was coloring his views at the moment.

Michael was jealous – plain and simple. Peggy could not remove him from the project, or send him home.

Howard had Jarvis as his bodyguard. David needed one while abroad. Michael was one of the few that MI-5 currently had, who was qualified to be a bodyguard. All other bodyguards employed through the Home Office were assigned to other domestic persons of interest.

It was only through Lorraine via Philips that she had learned just how many attempts on several nuclear physicists lives had been had. When it was not assassination attempts, it was attempted recruitment through blackmail or other means, that Soviet agents tried to acquire physicists and engineers.

It was easier for her to remove Bucky from the project than Michael, but she would never do that. She needed Bucky here – not just because of Steve – but because he had the skills set for the work they needed to do. It was only because of those skills of his that they had captured Dottie Underwood, and discovered information about an active mole within the SSR.

“Michael,” Peggy began.

She didn’t get to say anything further, as the sudden clatter at the corner where Steve and Tony were working drew all of those present’s attention. Peggy quickly stood up from where she was sitting, as she saw Steve immediately take a few steps away from Tony—

~~~

The scuffling of snow and ice on the rooftop, and the appearance of Natasha at the corner of his peripheral vision was all the indication he needed to not react to her as if a threat. It didn’t help that after what happened last night, Bucky was…

‘Jumpy’ was not the right word.

For all of his expanded vocabulary – courtesy of Becca’s love of the English language – Bucky couldn’t find the right word to describe himself at the moment. But he was still on duty, on patrol, and on the ice-and-snow covered rooftop. Thus, Natasha’s noise of arrival, and careful appearance were welcomed.

Muting the radio, and making doubly sure no one could hear him or her, he wrapped a spare piece of cloth he carried to clean his scope around the microphone, before shoving it into a pocket. It was obvious from Natasha’s appearance, that she wanted to talk.

“I bullied Steve,” he admitted out loud, as he took a step back from the parapet. “I verbally bullied him. Some fucking friend I am, for being the one thing he hates above all else.”

“To be fair, Steve was being a stubborn ass,” Natasha stated, taking a seat on the cold ground. For a few moments, he watched as she idly traced a figure-eight pattern in the snow.

Then, she looked up at him, saying, “He didn’t want to tell you about the Winter Soldier. It was Tony and I who forced him to do so, because he’s going to need your help. You’re going to have to travel with him to 2012—”

“And pretend to be the Winter Soldier?” he questioned, looking up and around. “Why the fuck—”

“Because to get the Mind Stone, he perjured himself. He made Rumlow, Sitwell, everyone we knew who was a HYDRA agent after 2014, think he was a HYDRA agent in 2012,” Natasha stated.

“The fuck?” Bucky swore, glancing down at Natasha. “Fucking hell,” he couldn’t help but mutter in realization.

In order to preserve that cover Steve had inadvertently created, the Winter Soldier had to be there to reinforce it.

Steve was a terrible liar. It was a complete miracle that those in 2012 had believed him to be a HYDRA agent. Now, his best friend was stuck in a bind of his own making – a mistake that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

“My other self,” he began, realizing that there was also an opportunity to enact change. But, with all things considered, it was rather heavy-handed to do so.

“Tony and Scott failed to acquire the Tesseract in 2012, necessitating Steve and Tony to travel to 1970 to get the Tesseract there,” Natasha explained. “So yes, if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking – Steve’s going to do what he does best, when he returns the Time and Mind Stones.”

“Take down HYDRA in 2012,” Bucky finished up.

It need not be said that if he and Steve failed, their counterparts, their other selves in that timeline, were going to bear the brunt of the horrific consequences.

“Pretend to be the Winter Soldier,” he couldn’t help but mutter, as he glanced around again, before focusing back on Natasha.

It was then, that he noticed the tiny amount of fear in her eyes. He had seen it countless of times before, but had thought it fear for Steve or something else. Now, he realized that it was fear of him. Of what he almost could have been—had been.

“I’m sorry, Romanov,” he softly said.

He did not reach out towards her, or step closer to her as he had done before when flirting with her. She had flirted right back, but it was now obvious to him that it was a coping mechanism. It had been a way for her to ease her own fears of him no longer being the Winter Soldier.

“You’re not the Winter Soldier now, Barnes,” she solemnly answered, before she gracefully stood up. “It’s why Steve kept refusing to talk about the Winter Soldier – or show those memories to you. Tony and I forced – we bullied him to reveal those memories. I hope you’ll forgive us and him—”

“There’s nothing to forgive, Romanov,” Bucky answered, shaking his head slightly. “I don’t know if you were listening to us last night—”

“I can’t,” she said. “Only when I’m visible. I can sometimes feel strong emotions from Steve through the stones. There was a spike, which is why I showed up.”

“Regardless,” Bucky continued, “I remember, Romanov. I see, I hear, and I keep remembering the nightmares of being held by Zola and Ivchenko. Having my memories examined, extracted, manipulated, and shoved back into my head. They kept calling me the Winter Soldier – just like Underwood. So there’s nothing to forgive. I would’ve begun to severely doubt myself, had you and Stark not pushed Steve to show me those memories.”

“How many?” Natasha asked after a few seconds of silence.

“All of them,” he answered.

Her simple, vague question was enough for him to understand that she had worked with him as the Winter Soldier before, before defecting. She knew the conditioning commands, and the stop commands that Ivchenko had buried within him.

“All of them except for the final command: грузовой вагон,” he continued.

“The linchpin command,” she murmured.

Silence fell between them, but it seemed Natasha was content on standing next to where he stood, on the rooftop. She seemed not bothered by the cold, snow, or wind, and instead, had a contemplative look on her face. Bucky left her alone, and returned his attention to the horizon, looking out for any unusual activities in the distance.

“It was… difficult, working with you,” she spoke up after a few minutes. “Both before and after. But, I’m glad Steve got there in time.”

He glanced down, seeing a solemn look in her eyes and expression. “And I’m glad you were there, to help Steve through everything, Romanov,” he answered.

“Natasha,” she insisted. “Or Natalia, if you’re more comfortable with that.”

“Bucky,” he answered, the edges of his lips quirking up in a slight grin, at her raised eyebrow. “Or James, if you want.”

The genuine smile that split across Natasha’s lips was short-lived. She frowned as she turned her head towards the rooftop entrance. “Something’s going on down stairs...” she began, tilting her head slightly.

“Lock down?” he questioned, taking the microphone out of his pocket, but did not unmute it just yet.

“No, I don’t think so,” Natasha answered, getting up. “But I’m getting an odd feeling from Tony.”

“The stones?” Bucky asked.

David had told him about the frightening manifestation of the Power Stone – the day of the test activation of the device. It had been the reason why Steve had returned the Power Stone only hours later, instead of cautiously waiting to make sure everything about the time-travel anchoring device came back green.

Just before she faded away, he heard her say, “Get below as soon as possible, James.”

~~~

It wasn’t Tony anymore.

Where Tony had been was a glittering green statue that was vaguely in the shape of Tony. Judging by the coloring, he could only presume that it was the Time Stone – another of the stones he had never used before.

Yet, unlike the Power Stone manifestation, Steve could not see Tony anywhere. He took another few steps back as the stone began to march forward. It wasn’t quite melting – more like it was a slow rock slide cascading down a mountain – while taking on a new visage.

By the time Steve made it to the middle of the floor – safely, he hoped, beyond the time-traveling device – the Time Stone had shed it’s green crystal ‘skin’. He was looking at himself – before the serum had transformed him.

“What the hell—” Michael began.

“Stay back!” Natasha’s sudden appearance in front of Steve, caused the Time Stone to stop approaching.

The unease in Steve’s stomach rapidly disintegrated into outright horror as he saw the Time Stone begin to split. His old self remained, but the new crystal structure that was shedding its ‘skin’ was turning into a young girl who looked no older than nine or ten.

Except that the girl had blood all over her white nightgown, and an enormous gash that split the center of her chest. Steve didn’t know what he was looking at – and only the agonized whimper of Natasha told him that it was related to Natasha’s memories.

“Oh, God,” David’s soft, agonizing exclamation broke the relative silence.

Steve saw that both Howard and David were being ‘herded’ from where they had been working on the device, towards where he and Natasha were. The Time Stone was manifesting more people – more frightening visages plucked from time itself.

Howard’s older self – bloodied as he had looked the night he died, was slowly walking towards Howard. A somewhat familiar young man being revealed by the shedding of green crystals, was taking deliberate steps towards David.

He turned to see that Peggy and Michael were facing the same things as well. Frail and old Peggy crowded around her younger self. There was a young man pushing towards Michael, clutching his own arm that looked to be ripped off.

At nearly the same time, a clamor was beginning to grown among the manifests. Steve heard himself talk, but he couldn’t even understand what was being said. It was getting louder and louder – the expressions on the visages’ faces uglier and more vicious.

And the stone itself was still directing all of its manifestations.

Steve knew that he could summon Mjolnir from his room. He could call upon the lightning to eradicate the threat of the Time Stone, but he didn’t know what that would do. Yet, he could not let any part of the Time Stone touch him, or anyone else—

Eerie silence suddenly blanketed the floor.

The Time Stone screamed. It’s maw of sharp, crystalline likeness for a mouth was open wide, but not a sound was heard. All of its visages were still surrounding them, mouths moving, still saying words that they could not understand – but there was no sound.

Steve saw the stone take a deliberate step forward while raising a fist up towards someone. His eyes traced the path of where the fist was being directed. Hidden half in the shadows of cast by the lights was Bucky – and only a portion of him, along with the sniper rifle he held, could be clearly seen.

That rifle was pointed directly at the Time Stone.

The stone silently screamed again, and took another threatening step towards the stairs. Yet, it didn’t seem to be able to manifest anything that was reflective, or time-related to Bucky. The Time Stone was clearly angry.

Steve tried to shout – tried to call out for Bucky to get away, but the silence remained. He could feel his mouth moving, his vocal cords shouting, but there was no sound – no noise. He still could not move from where he was – the manifestation of his skinny self kept stepping into his path, caging him.

He tried to wave Bucky off. Except when Steve raised his arms, the manifestation of himself lunged towards him—

The loud crack Steve had expected from the sniper rifle firing never came. All he saw out of the corner of his eyes was the crystalline green structure of the Time Stone rocking back for a moment, before shattering into millions of shards.

They glittered and glinted beneath the lights of the facility as they fell rather elegantly – as if within an hourglass. As soon as the last shard touched the ground, all the manifestations turned into dust, puffing out of existence.

A cacophony of noise came rushing back, but that loudness was short-lived. Steve reached out to steady Peggy as he saw her stumble, looking bewildered and confused. She was shaken, but silently nodded to him that she was all right.

Steve looked around, seeing the others recover as well. Where the shards of the Time Stone had been was Tony, looking as startled and as confused as the rest of them.

“The hell was that—” Howard began.

Steve wasn’t paying attention to his friends’ questions, as movement out of the corner of his eyes drew his attention up to the walkway. Bucky had slung his sniper rifle across his back, but in his left hand was ungloved, and curled into a fist.

There wasn’t a blankness in Bucky’s eyes as he descended the stairs to the ground floor, but it was unreadable. Yet, Steve felt a tiny prickle of apprehension as he realized what was curled within Bucky’s hand – the Time Stone itself.

Whatever had happened, it was clear enough that the stone had somehow escaped confinement.

When Bucky was two steps away from him, Steve activated his armor. It quickly bled over him, and a moment later, he opened his armored-covered left hand. Bucky stopped and raised his silvery left hand over his.

The ethereal green stone fell between their hands.

* * *

Nightfall…

 

It wasn’t so much aversion to what he now knew about himself – or at least many other iterations of himself, that Bucky knew what he had to do. It was more hesitation that he hadn’t immediately sought out Steve, until now.

Natasha’s explanation could be blamed for the resolve beginning to lodge in his thoughts. But he attributed to what he had seen on the floor of the facility earlier for cementing it.

Were it not for the fact that Ghost Rider had shown up as soon as Natasha had disappeared and told him what was going on, Bucky would have called for a lock down of the facility. That, and the rather unambiguous and blunt statement from the entity that because of who his host was – he, Bucky, was the only one able to ‘temper’ the Time Stone.

Bucky thought the Time Stone’s multiple manifestations was more nightmarish and frightening, than the Power Stone. He knew he was also not the only one to take its manifest at face value – that it needed to be returned soon.

He had seen the various manifestations, ranging from Steve’s pre-serum self, to what he thought could have been Natasha’s first assassination. Thomas Hattersfield, David’s friend who died to save him, had manifested. A frail, old visage of Peggy, and a bloodied one of Howard had both manifested as well.

Michael’s manifestation had been an unknown young man, except that Bucky had seen a part of that young man’s arm ripped off. He only knew of the young man in the vaguest sense, due to Michael telling him what happened at Dunkirk in 1941. Michael had lost his best friend and first love, during the evacuation to a torpedo ripping apart the rescue ship. All Michael had recovered of his best friend was an arm.

They all had manifestations – except for him.

And it was only then, that Bucky realized what sort of role Ghost Rider played in all of this. The thing that possessed himself from another timeline, another reality, was outside of time. The Time Stone could not affect any iteration of himself.

It was a heady feeling, but it also made Bucky feel sick.

In the short amount of time he had held the stone within his metal left hand, Bucky had seen countless of realities and timelines, and of himself within them. He knew what he had to do – not just because of what he had seen, but because he needed to.

Raising his flesh-and-blood hand, he gently knocked on Steve’s door. Footsteps approached and a moment later, the door opened. Steve greeted him with a variety of dark smudges that looked like charcoal, on his face, arms, and hands.

What Steve looked to be wearing this late at night didn’t look like pyjamas. The clothes were old, covered in paint residue, charcoal, and chalk. Beyond him, Bucky could see that he was working on some artwork that was fairly enormous – given that he couldn’t see the table, and only saw paper.

“Hey, Buck,” Steve greeted, cautiously, hesitatingly.

“Hey, Steve,” he answered.

It seemed that was enough to melt the tension that stood between them since last night. Steve broke out into a warm smile, full of hope, but still a little cautious. It wasn’t the sun-bright smile that warmed Bucky, but it was enough for now.

“Wanna come in?” Steve asked, stepping back and opening the door a little wider.

“Sure,” he said, stepping in.

Steve closed the door behind him, and brushed past him. Bucky wasn’t sure if the light, affectionate brush of Steve’s fingers across his back, and down his arm was deliberate or not. But it did leave a small streak of charcoal on the sleeve of his left arm.

Bucky found that streak on his arm slightly amusing. It was also typical of Steve sometimes forgetting just how dirty his hands were from manipulating his chosen media.

“Working on something big?” Bucky asked as he approached the table to see that Steve had been shading and outlining several shapes of people.

“Working on the sketches of all the Avengers made me want to put it all together,” Steve said, stepping back and gesturing for him to take a closer look at what had been drawn thus far. “For posterity’s sake, and possibly when my own memories of another lifetime begins to fade.”

Bucky’s eyes traced the beginnings of what he knew of as the ‘core’ team of Avengers: Tony, Steve, Natasha, a man named Bruce Banner, a demigod named Thor, and a SHIELD agent named Clint Barton. This was the first drawing that he had ever seen Steve self-portrait himself into.

Beyond the core team were outlines of others, most of whom were familiar to him from the sketches. The stances Steve drew them in were different from the sketches, but still just as familiar. It truly had been an enormous team that had fought, sacrificed, saved, and ultimately won against Thanos.

But that was not the reason why he was here.

Bucky looked up and caught Steve’s eyes on him. There was a familiar searching look in Steve’s eyes. It meant that Steve was worried about him, and knew that he was not here for just idle chitchat.

“You all right?” he asked.

After he had returned the Time Stone to Steve, he had turned and left without another word. Even after talking to Natasha, he had still been angry, saddened, and conflicted about what Steve had done. It had taken him up until now, to summon not the courage, but the will to go talk to Steve.

Yet, Steve was the one with an even more enormous burden than he did with memories not of himself or his own. The Time Stone’s appearance and its visages had shaken everyone. He had seen it in the way Howard, David, even Michael and Peggy had walked, as they left the building at the end of the day.

“Yeah,” Steve answered.

His best friend’s tone was short, but there was no anger or irritation behind it. Just a tiredness that seemed to be alleviated only when he worked on sketches, or now with the large composite art piece.

“You?” Steve asked after a few moments of silence. “Time Stone didn’t seem to affect you at all.”

“Because of who Ghost Rider’s host is,” Bucky answered.

The entity didn’t say that he couldn’t tell anyone else. And if this piece of information helped ease a small part of the worry in Steve’s mind, then he would gladly share it.

“Unstuck in time,” he heard Steve murmur, seemingly not needing any further explanation. “We had to go through its… realm or reality… once before. To get to another—”

“Steve,” he interrupted, even though he didn’t want to. But, it was better for him to get it out now, than get into a discussion that would derail his intent and purpose for the visit.

“Natalia told me what you did to your 2012 self,” Bucky stated. “I’ll still help you, Steve, but on one condition.”

“Name it,” Steve said, seemingly not minding the interruption. Yet, Steve’s eyes were not giving anything away in response to his statement.

“Teach me,” Bucky said. “Teach me how to fight. Teach me how to fight like the Winter Soldier of your memories. That title – that name – no longer belongs to the Soviets. It’s mine, and mine alone.”

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: Pretender – Part 2

December 28th, 1948…

00:17 –

 

Bucky slammed into the floor with enough force to see stars for a second. Pain blossomed all along the back of his body as he laid on the floor. He hadn’t had this kind of hurt aching all over his body since before the war – when he and Steve had been fighting bullies on the streets.

“Ow,” he muttered, catching his breath.

Steve’s outstretched hand appeared in front of his eyes. Reaching up, he firmly grasped Steve’s hand and was helped up. Wordlessly, they positioned themselves at the ready again – except this time, Bucky was going to be performing the move on Steve.

They had started out with the bare basics – things that Bucky already knew. Yet, he had kept his mouth shut as Steve then broke down even the basics, and showed him the concepts and reasons behind them.

It was eye-opening. Bucky had not needed a demonstration of the simplest of a punch to begin to get some ideas on how to turn everything he thought he knew, upside down.

For the past two hours, he mirrored Steve’s demonstrations – fighting parallel with him, as if sparring against a shadow. Each fluid movement from one stance to the next had gotten faster and faster, until Bucky was sure he could do it with his eyes closed.

Then, they had faced each other for the next set of techniques. That was also when Steve had unexpectedly swiped him onto the floor with a simple instep and quick hook of his right foot around his left ankle. As fast as Steve had done that move, Bucky had seen it – which meant Steve had performed the move in a slower, demonstrative manner.

Bucky was a little winded, and Steve being the smarmy ass he was at the moment, was not. But, the night was still young, and Bucky was determined to keep going at it until neither of them could move anymore.

~~~

02:56 –

 

“It’s called Krav Maga,” Steve said, as Bucky was pulled up off the ground yet again. “There’s definitely some more advanced techniques that SHIELD’s trainers taught me, but with the basics down, I think we’re making good progress.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Progress in making me numb all over.”

He could barely feel Steve’s hand on his shoulder, but felt him pull him close. “Do you want to stop for now?” Steve asked, concerned.

“No,” he answered, dropping his hand as he shook his head. “Let’s keep going.”

There was a second where Bucky thought Steve would not listen to him, but that second passed. He saw it in Steve’s eyes, but that was only a momentary hesitation, before Steve nodded and stepped away from him.

“All right,” Steve said, sliding to a ready position. “We’re going to focus more on the Aikido aspects for now. That good with you?”

“Fine by me,” Bucky answered, standing at his own ready stance.

~~~

04:34 –

 

Steve laughing a little as he was flipped into the ground with the unexpected move Bucky had managed to spring upon him, was a little disconcerting. But, given that this was the first time he was sparring against Steve, he supposed that it was normal.

Steve had never mentioned that he had trained some of the Avengers. Yet, there had been one or two moves performed by other members of the Avengers – especially the one named Sam – that Bucky remembered seeing from Steve’s memories. What had also not been mentioned was the fact that Steve had also been trained and sparred with Natasha – a lot.

He could see elements of how a Widow fought in some of Steve’s fluid fighting style. But most of what he saw, and what now Steve was teaching him, was so many fighting styles and forms learned and blended, from the future.

“Nice,” Steve commented, as Bucky held Steve down for a brief moment.

Rivulets of sweat dripped and trickled down their faces. They were close enough together that their noses almost touched; breaths huffing back and forth against each other’s skin.

If he really wanted to make sure Steve stayed down, he would’ve rolled him over and twisted his arm up, while simultaneously applying pressure to Steve’s back with a knee. But this was only sparring, and Bucky was still learning.

“Don’t kiss him for getting one up on you just yet, Steve,” Natasha’s casual tone interrupted them.

Bucky blinked in utter surprise at her choice of words, glancing over to see her grinning at them. At nearly the same time, he had let Steve go, unconsciously making sure there was some distance between them.

For the past few minutes, they had been sparring in and around the facility. After nearly six continuous hours of practicing and learning, Steve had determined that he, Bucky, knew enough to begin sparring – to integrate all the separated moves into a fighting style.

They had been careful to avoid the main area where the time-travel device, and the ‘serum workstation’ were. The crater, stairs, halls, and even the locker room had all been fair game for helping him demonstrate the various fighting styles, forms, and techniques Steve had taught him.

Natasha’s sudden appearance was welcomed, as Bucky had a few questions for her. Yet, he had not expected her comment to be of that kind – even if it sounded like it had been stated in jest.

At least Bucky thought it was jest; doubts were humming at the back of his thoughts.

“All’s fair, in love and war, Nat,” Steve answered just as casually, sitting up.

It did not escape Bucky’s notice that far be it from stammering or turning red at such a risque comment, Steve seemed to not be bothered by it. He could’ve sworn that there had been a momentary look in Steve’s eyes that said that he might’ve done it – actually kiss him.

Bucky was again, uncertain and confused.

This was the second time such feelings were welling up within him, and he wasn’t sure what to make of it. He knew that he shouldn’t read more into Steve’s more affectionate actions towards him as of late, but—

“What’s up, Nat? Here to berate the new trainee?” Steve’s lightly stated questions gratefully interrupted the near-circular thoughts going through Bucky’s mind.

“Only if the trainee is named Sam,” Natasha answered, folding her arms across her chest and grinning.

Bucky stood up, extending a hand to help Steve up, who had snorted in laughter. “You know, Sam still hasn’t forgiven you for what you tried to do to Redwing.”

“That thing is a mechanical robot. Not a living, breathing pet, Steve,” Natasha protested. “But,” she began in a more serious tone. “There’s something I want to try – specifically relating to the commands embedded within you, James.”

Bucky quietly sighed as he glanced down at his hands for a brief moment. “The stop commands,” he murmured.

“Nat—” Steve began, concerned.

“Best way to find out just how extensive those fucking bastards went, Steve,” Bucky said, looking up at Steve. Looking over towards Natasha, he said, “All right, hit me with one, or all of them, Natalia.”

“No,” Natasha began, shaking her head. “Go spar. Learn whatever else Steve has left to teach you tonight, James. This needs to be done when you’re least expecting it. I just wanted your permission to do so.”

Bucky remained silent for a few long moments. His joy at learning something new, something that could help him, and finally feeling like he had some control over his life was tempered. He knew that he still had control, but it was all rushing back – the fact that he had been the Winter Soldier.

In another life.

But if he wanted that title, that name, that reputation that had scared the world, and shape it to his own image, he needed to be damn sure he could control it as well. “Thank you,” he said, nodding once towards Natasha.

~~~

07:10 –

 

Both he and Steve had gotten less than an hour’s sleep by the time they were done for the night. But Bucky considered it well worth the lack of a night’s sleep. The physical exercise, mental clarity that came with it, and breath of learning something fresh and new was as invigorating as the hot shower he had taken in the locker room only a few minutes ago—

“… сумеречный…”

Bucky gasped – at least he tried to.

 

tangling their fingers together for a moment…

 

He crumpled boneless to the ground, as a paralyzing sensation seized his body. The towel that had been in his hands as he dried his hair slipped out of his hands. He saw two booted feet approaching him, as he tried to force himself to move.

The stop command had been completely unexpected.

Natasha crouched before him, sympathy written all over her face and eyes. “Come on James,” she said. “Fight it.”

Bucky wanted to – desperately wanted to. He tried to force his body to obey, to get up, to even move a finger, much less his hands. But he was fighting his own body, brutally conditioned to respond this way—

 

for nightfall to bleed into daybreak…

 

Daybreak – the sun breaking through the clouds, as he watched through the scope—

“Two minutes, James,” Natasha said.

Bucky could hear the faint shout of Steve, calling out to ask him what type of eggs he wanted for breakfast that was being cooked in the small kitchenette near where he slept. He wanted to answer, wanted to shout, but all he could do at the moment was breathe—

 

all he could do was wait until dusk melted into nightfall…

 

Dusk – where he had been cognizant of the noise that surrounded them, hoping that they would not be prematurely discovered by HYDRA just a hill over—

“One minute,” Natasha continued, counting down.

He could hear Steve moving around in the kitchenette. Bucky knew that he needed to move, to not let Steve see him like this. He wanted to prove to himself – to Steve – that he was not governed by the commands. He needed to make a concentrated effort to not be bound—

“Thirty seconds.”

Bucky could hear Steve’s footsteps approach, as white hot anger filled him. Zola had done this – conditioned him to be this way. The man was dead and would not get the last laugh—

“Bucky!”

Bucky hadn’t even heard Steve knock, as he saw, in his tilted world, Steve’s feet approaching. He saw him kneel down, but Steve did not reach out to help him up. All Bucky saw was Steve’s solemn, heart-wrenching expression.

 

tangling their fingers together for a moment…

all he could do was wait until dusk melted into nightfall, and for nightfall to bleed into daybreak…

 

Nightfall – where he had laid, watching and waiting, wishing and hoping, accepting and knowing that things between them were ultimately never meant to be—

“Fight it.”

It was not a command.

Steve never commanded him. It was a call to arms, an order, a rallying cry that Bucky embraced whole heatedly. It gave him strength that fueled the deep seated anger within him—

Bucky gasped—and finally forced his stiff, aching muscles to obey him as he sat up.

Steve gently caught him, as Bucky pitched forward and sagged against him. He was exhausted, but he had broken free of the command of his own will – again. The first time had been when he had thought he had heard Steve’s voice sear through him like a cleansing fire.

hang on Bucky. I’m coming…

Now, was the second time he had fought and won. He clung onto Steve, his own heavy breaths harsh against his ears. Bucky knew that he now had more than just a weapon to fight back against what was done to him.

He had hope.

* * *

December 29th, 1948…

01:03 –

 

“Feet here and here,” Bucky heard Steve say, as he glanced down to see Steve nudge his feet this way and that, with his own feet.

“And if you set yourself like this—” Steve continued, gently adjusting his shoulders, before Bucky felt him slide his hands down his arms—

“незапятнанный.”

 

the shield howled in derision at him…

those vivid blue-green eyes of his looked up…

 

As paralyzed from the command as he was, Bucky realized that he hadn’t hit the floor like a flopping fish. Instead, Steve had caught him – slightly awkwardly, as the stance that Steve had been showing him to hold had made it that way. Yet, his best friend was not lowering him to the floor either.

At nearly the same time, instinct hadn’t quite kicked in yet, as Bucky immediately begin to mentally fight back. Natasha hadn’t even invoked the command while fighting – but the sign was clear.

He had to make his instincts kick in much faster—

“Come on,” he heard Steve murmur in encouragement.

 

the shield howled in derision at him…

 

And that shield that robbed him of his place to protect Steve was lying only a couple of feet away from them. It still howled in derision, still laughed at him, still taunted him with everything that he could not be for Steve anymore—

Bucky angrily strained against the bonds of the stop command, and broke free. His sudden, and violent movement that launched himself from Steve’s arms was not at all graceful. Slamming into the ground, Bucky groaned as another wash of exhaustion seeped into him.

 

those vivid blue-green eyes of his looked up…

 

He blinked, and found those mesmerizing blue-green eyes of Steve looking down at him. Steve did not say a word, but Bucky could see the relief in those eyes of his. Steve then offered a hand to help him up.

As soon as Bucky was back on his feet, he looked over at Natasha. She was sitting at the table, observing the two of them like a contented cat.

“How many minutes did that take, Natalia?” he asked, trying to steady his breathing so it didn’t feel like he was gulping for air.

“морозилка,” was all Natasha stated.

 

he enjoyed surprising him at times, now that they were both the same height…

your north star…

 

Bucky crumpled to the ground.

“Nat! What the hell?” he heard Steve exclaim.

Agony crawled through Bucky like the freezing ice of the stop command. But he was faster this time – and poured every ounce of his cold well of anger into breaking past the wall.

A growl escaped his lips as he forced himself past the shaking exhaustion gripping him, and snatched the shield up from where it laid. It was the closest long-ranged weapon he could get his hands on—and he threw it.

Petty satisfaction filled him as he saw Natasha barely dodge the shield. He met her glare with an equal one of his own, before she unexpectedly smiled in satisfaction.

“Skip the training wheels, Steve,” Natasha stated, sauntering over to where the shield had lodged itself into the brick wall. She yanked it out with some force before returning to where he and Steve were.

“James can handle himself when it comes to fighting with his metal arm,” Natasha said, as Bucky saw her hand the shield back to Steve.

Before Steve could say a word, Bucky saw Natasha turn her attention onto him, saying, “One minute and ten seconds, James. Then you knocked it down to forty-five seconds.”

Bucky nodded, but he knew that there was much more he needed to work on. There was only so much anger could do. And he knew that he could not rely on Steve being there to motivate him to fight the commands.

~~~

05:55 –

 

“Hey, you all right?”

Bucky glanced up as he felt Steve’s hand on his shoulder. There was warmth, concern, and affection in that tone of Steve’s. He reciprocated the action and squeezed Steve’s shoulder in reassurance, silently nodding his affirmation.

They had decided to call it a night again – even if it was already early morning. It would be another hour of sleep for both of them before they had to get ready for the day.

“Yeah,” he answered.

There was a slightly hesitant look in Steve’s expression, as if he wanted to say something, but was deciding it would be best not to. Bucky could reasonably guess what it was about, and said, “Look, Steve. Thank you, for doing this. It’s helping. Honestly. These memories I have, these nightmares – I still see them, I still hear them, but they’re not keeping me awake anymore.”

He had expected Steve to doubt his words, but nothing was said. Instead, Bucky was suddenly, and unexpectedly enveloped in Steve’s warm embrace.

As strange as it was comforting at the same time, Bucky didn’t know why tears pricked at the corner of his eyes, as he returned the embrace. It used to be him, enveloping Steve in the same way he was being held at the moment – to protect and comfort him, to silently tell him what he dared to never say aloud—

“Good,” Steve murmured, warmly.

* * *

December 30th, 1948…

05:07 –

 

“You know, you’re pretty vicious, Rogers.”

Bucky glanced over and up to see Tony suddenly appear next to Natasha, who was observing and refereeing the current sparring match.

At the moment, Steve had him pinned on the ground, flat of the blade pressed up against his neck. But, Bucky had the flat of his blade pressed against the inside of Steve’s right leg. It was a mutual point in their match.

The inventor was giving both of them a mild look, but seemed less… angry than Bucky had ever seen him be. Yet, he knew and understood why Tony now regarded him with such disdain – his other self in Steve’s timeline had killed Howard and Howard’s wife.

“Oh, hey Tony, glad you could join us,” Natasha blithely and sarcastically stated.

Steve withdrew and sheathed his blade, before extending a hand to help him up. Bucky had done the same with his own blade, and accepted the help up.

“No sparring mat, no cushion to land on… but it does look like you’re pulling your punches, Rogers,” Tony continued to say. “Still won’t let your Manchurian Candidate of a friend off the reservation, huh?”

As much as Bucky wanted clarification to what a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ was, it was Steve suddenly pivoting and tossing his knife onto the table where his shield was, that stopped him. Without another word to him, or to Tony and Natasha, Steve left.

Just as Bucky was about to chase after Steve, Tony surprised him by immediately following Steve. He watched the two travel up the stairs and through the doors—

“Training’s over for tonight, James,” Natasha stated, drawing his attention away. “At least Steve’s done training you for now. In fact, I think he’s taught you pretty much everything he knows. You’re an extremely fast learner.”

Bucky took one last look at the doors that had shut behind Steve and Tony, before focusing his attention on Natasha, asking, “What the hell was that about?”

“Leave it alone,” Natasha answered, shaking her head slightly. “You know why Tony hates you, so it’s just his way of getting back at you.”

“What?” Bucky questioned, angry. “Bullying Steve to get at me?! The hell—”

“безразличие.”

 

how long are you going to keep doing this…

 

Bucky stumbled, but kept himself upright as he took two ragged breaths, and glared at Natasha. “The fuck are you—”

“Training… многочисленный.”

 

what he had written on that piece of paper…

 

He gritted his teeth as the paralysis tried to send him to the ground. Lunging menacingly towards Natasha merely made her step back – daintily. As irritating as it was, Bucky kept fighting, kept moving, and kept pushing—

* * *

23:51 –

 

“Tony’s right, Steve.”

Steve looked up. Natasha was perched on the edge of his bed, with a knee drawn up to her chin. It was well past the time that he and Bucky usually began sparring and training, but he had been sitting in his room since Howard, David, and Michael had left for the day. Peggy had left earlier, having been summoned to Headquarters.

Not only had it been four days and nights since Bucky had asked him to train and teach him, it had also been the same amount of time since Peggy had briefed Philips on the possibility of a mole within SSR-Europe’s ranks. Yet, even after that briefing, Steve had not revealed to Philips that he had told Bucky about the price he, Steve, had to pay for this.

Part of the reason why was that there were too many things going on. Even with Philips vetted by both Peggy and Bucky, Steve didn’t know how much the mole knew. With Operation Midnight potentially compromised in a severe manner, Steve hated the fact that he had to do what Fury loved to do – compartmentalize.

Bucky knew about his, Philips, and Lorraine’s DC operations to get the blackmail files destroyed. Philips did not know that Bucky knew.

Michael, Howard, David, Lorraine, Philips, Peggy, Bucky, and he knew about Dottie Underwood and the mole. They also kept the cover story of the Brooklyn facility intact.

Sousa, DumDum, Li, and the others of the 107th remained in the dark about the true nature of what was being created and built at the facility. Their cover story was the serum re-creation.

Compartmentalization.

It was all to keep secrets safe. To keep knowledge away from the mole – whomever he or she was. Steve disliked the fact that he now understood why Fury did what he did back then.

And he hadn’t realized that he had been doing that to Bucky as well during their training. He had compartmentalize the fact that they both needed to engage in an actual fight to bring out the full potential that he knew Bucky possessed as the Winter Soldier.

Not as the Soviet’s greatest asset and weapon, but as the Winter Soldier.

“Whatever he’s using for motivation to fight past the commands, it’s strong Steve,” Natasha continued to say.

“I know,” Steve softly said, as he glanced down at his left wrist.

The black inset remained inactive, but as he stood up, Steve tapped out a specific pattern. Dark blue, cloth-like material slowly bled out and enveloped him.

“I just hope it’s strong enough for what we’re about to do, Nat,” he quietly stated.

~~~

December 31 st , 1948…

00:01 –

 

Bucky leaned against the table that held Steve’s shield, the few knives that they had been using for sparring, and a couple of knickknacks that Howard had placed on it. The shield and knives were always put away after the training and sparring sessions, but brought out after everyone had left for the day.

Because of the heightened alertness within the facility, both he and Steve had agreed to keep the knowledge of the Winter Soldier – at least the identity – secret for now. No one knew how much information the mole knew about the operation here, or of any other SSR cases.

If the mole was working alone, then that limited the damage – though not by much. If there was someone augmenting the mole – which Bucky still couldn’t discern if Dottie Underwood’s words were an attempt to rile him up, or were cleverly disguised as absolute truth – then they needed to also pursue and stop the second mole.

Dottie Underwood had called him the Winter Soldier. Peggy had heard that nickname, but at the moment, she, along with everyone else were concentrating on hunting down the known mole – the operative code-named Wolf Spider.

Steve wanted to make doubly sure that there wasn’t another Winter Soldier – as per his memories – before telling the others about who the Winter Soldier had been in the other timeline. It had warmed Bucky that Steve had asked for his permission to eventually reveal the identity of the Winter Soldier – even though they both knew that he wasn’t the Winter Soldier of the other timeline.

Bucky had agreed to it. The Winter Soldier name and reputation was his for the taking, and his to shape now—

His thoughts screeched to a halt as the doors that led to the facility’s floor opened. Steve stepped through, but far be it that he was wearing the usual comfortable, loose clothing he sparred in. Steve was wearing his SHIELD uniform, and had a single pistol on him.

His best friend’s demeanor was also different, as Bucky stood up, warily watching Steve make his way down. Natasha suddenly appearing and standing akimbo near the serum workstation, and Tony’s appearance near the time-travel device caused his instincts to flare up in danger.

As soon as Steve’s feet cleared the stairs and landed on the floor, Steve attacked.

Bucky immediately dove for the first object he could get his hands on – Steve’s shield. He barely had enough time to pivot from the table with the shield in his hands before Steve’s fast combination of punches landed.

Blocking and dodging to his right, Bucky didn’t try to hold onto the shield as Steve ripped it out of his hands. The pistol on Steve immediately flew up and out of it’s holster – Bucky lunged in and smashed it out of Steve’s hand with his left elbow

But he had unbalanced himself at the same time. Two sharp blows landed on his right shoulder and back as he spun out of Steve’s reach. Only to bring up his hands in an ‘X’ to ward off the combat knife that came smashing down towards his head—

“желание.”

all he could do now was survive, because he longed to live…

—and curled his right hand into a fist. Bucky punched once-twice, into Steve’s stomach, folding him ever so briefly. He snatched the blade out of Steve’s hand with his left, before reaching in further to grab a fist full Steve’s vibranium-laced uniform—

“ржaвый.”

there was a searching look in his eyes…

—and threw Steve over his shoulder, and clear across the floor. He didn’t even wait for Steve to get up, as he rushed towards him, combat blade held low in his hand. Bucky struck from down low, forcing Steve to grab the shield and block. The blade screeched as it scraped up—

“семнадцать.”

there was a solemn look in his eyes…

—and over the shield. But that was only a distraction he employed, as Bucky then spun, snap kicking and lashing out. His booted feet connected with both Steve’s unshielded arm and shield that had been brought up the last minute. Steve stumbled to his left, but—

“рассвет.”

daybreak had arrived…

—Bucky was not done. He continued to push the relentless assault, instincts screaming at him to not falter, even if it was Steve attacking him. He punched once-twice-three times, and brought his left arm to block Steve’s retaliatory shield strike. Bucky turned into—

“печь.”

...carry a frozen body, child or adult…

—the strike, putting himself perilously close to where Steve could put him in a choke hold. But as soon as he felt Steve fall into the instinctual hold, Bucky whirled around, the blade in his right hand held close. It sliced between metal and Steve’s uniform, into the leather—

“девять.”

his eyes were doing that searching look again…

—and snapped the shield off Steve’s arm. It thudded to the ground. Steve immediately struck at his hand, but Bucky opened his palm and immediately flipped the knife to his left hand, as he brought up in a backhand strike—

“добросердечный.”

how many more times they had before either of their luck ran out…

—only to be met with Steve stiffly blocking the strike. Bucky only had a moment to react, as Steve suddenly lunged in, feinting a strike, before he was swept off his feet. Landing hard on the floor, Bucky rolled out of the way—

“возвращение на родину.”

they were his reason to come home, no matter what happened…

—springing up, just before Steve could step in and kick him. He brought his hands up again to block the axe-kick that Steve bore down upon him. Heaving with all of his strength, he shoved up and forward, unbalancing Steve—

“один.”

he should have made his peace long ago…

—flipping him up and over. Steve landed lightly on his feet a few feet away. Bucky snatched up the shield from the floor and threw it with all of his might. It sailed through the air, scraping by Steve with only a few inches to spare as Bucky saw him lean backwards—

“безразличие.”

how long are you going to keep doing this…

—and lodge into the brick wall. But that hadn’t been the only thing Bucky had thrown. To his surprise and annoyance, Steve had caught the knife that had been transferred back to his right hand before he had thrown the shield. But instead of directly attacking, Steve continued to use his momentum from leaning back to dodge the shield, and kicked the shield out of the brick wall—

“незапятнанный.”

the shield howled in derision at him…

—only to have it land neatly in his hands. Bucky was already lunging towards the dropped pistol on the floor, and snatched it up. A brief moment of panic surged through him as he felt the weight of the gun – it was loaded. But he was the Winter Soldier—

“сумеречный.”

tangling their fingers together for a moment…

—and turned and fired. He only got three shots off, all of them pinging against the shield, as Steve charged. Blocking with his left arm, Bucky let the pistol go and snatched it up with his right hand. He brought the butt end of it up and clubbed it against Steve’s unprotected head—

“морозилка.”

he enjoyed surprising him at times, now that they were both the same height…

—only to have it blocked and scrape against the knife in Steve’s left hand. Locked against Steve, Bucky pushed, trying to use his weight – the only advantage he had now – against Steve. They were the same height—

“один единственный.”

they were facing each other with their noses nearly touching…

—and Bucky saw the opportunity a split second later. He immediately dropped low, taking the blow of Steve’s shield against his body for a moment. As he rolled onto his back, he snap-kicked up, flinging the shield up and away from Steve’s grasp. The shield landed somewhere on the second floor landing—

“злобный.”

you wanna join the outfit, don't spread malignant rumors…

—and he knew that that was all the opportunity he was going to get. Turning and racing towards the table, Bucky snatched another combat knife off the table. He instincts screamed at him, as he spun and brought the blade up. Metal crashed against metal—

“отъезд.”

a sudden fear of not being able to come home from the war…

—as he met Steve’s blade with his own. Bucky lashed out with his left hand, whir and whine loud in his ears as Steve met him blow for blow. He pushed Steve back, determined to force him towards a wall where Steve could not dance around him—

“многочисленный.”

what he had written on that piece of paper…

—only to suddenly stop himself from bringing his blade down onto Steve’s right shoulder, when Steve’s uniform unexpectedly bled away.

Bucky took a step back, silently watching Steve. At nearly the same time, Steve had tossed his blade away, and stood before him – unarmed and seemingly unwilling to continue to fight.

The blade in Bucky’s hand clattered to the floor – he was not going to fight Steve in this manner.

Then, Steve closed the distance to him again – much closer than before. But Bucky’s instincts were not screaming in danger. The rush of their fight was slowly ebbing away as he stared at Steve.

Both of them were breathing quite hard, but their breaths were not labored. Rivulets of sweat dripped down their faces as blue-green eyes met grey-blue, and blinked.

For a second, Bucky was thoroughly tempted to throw caution into the wind and close the few inches between their faces to kiss Steve. Steve’s hot breath brushing across him was not helping the temptation, and neither was the fact that Bucky’s eyes had briefly traced the outline of Steve’s lips.

But that was all a second, a moment’s temptation that he determinedly held in check—

“You did it, Bucky,” Steve’s breathless praise, and sun-bright smile wrapped around him tighter than what his own temptation could withstand.

That temptation was shattered back into reality as Bucky realized what exactly had happened. The commands – both conditioning and stop had been fired in rapid succession by Natasha, but he had continued to fight against Steve.

Bucky had seen the brief flashes of memories, had heard the words being said, but he had not stopped, had not slowed down. He had continued to fight, attack, and defend against Steve.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Steve reach up and cup his right hand around his neck and cheek. Bucky almost gave into his desire to turn into Steve’s hand and press his lips against Steve’s palm, but stopped himself.

He further surprised when Steve leaned slightly forward, and pressed their foreheads together. “You did it,” Steve repeated.

“Because you were with me, until the end of the line, Steve,” Bucky softly answered.

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Pretender – Part 3

December 31 st , 1948…

01:04

 

“End of the line. We were six… no, seven when we made that promise, weren’t we?”

Bucky glanced over at Steve. Steve was leaning against the parapet, staring out at the dark, cloudy horizon. There was an eagerness on his face that didn’t seem affected by the cold breeze blowing by – as if Steve hadn’t seen the city for a long while.

He didn’t know how long it had been since Steve actually went outside – or even onto the rooftops. While it was not too dangerous for Steve to be on the rooftops during the middle of the night, it was unsaid that the less he remained outside the facility, the better.

Bucky thought it was a harsh way to live – even if it was temporary.

But Steve did not seem to mind it, even if he did look slightly like an eager puppy at the moment. It was also going to snow soon – Bucky could feel that in the slight ache in his bones that pulsed where his metal arm had been grafted to him. He would remain up here for as long as Steve remained – if only to see if Steve would react like he used to before the war – whenever it snowed.

“Seven,” he confirmed. “I emigrated when I was six.”

“And if I remember, two days after you moved here, you started school. We ran into each other in the schoolyard,” Steve answered, grinning as Bucky saw him glance over.

It had only been about a half hour since the end of their match – the end of everything that Steve could teach him about hand-to-hand combat. Bucky still felt overwhelmed, but was relieved, happy, and surprised that he had been able to continue to fight past the damned commands.

Steve had stepped away from him after briefly bringing their foreheads together. Yet, he hadn’t done it in an abrupt fashion either. Bucky could still feel the lingering trace of Steve’s fingers brushing along his neck, and sliding down jaw.

It had left Bucky slightly regretful that he hadn’t thrown caution into the wind and do what he had wanted to do for most of his life – kiss Steve. But he was also glad he hadn’t. Steve was married, and firmly in love with Peggy.

Bucky also knew how much vows and promises meant to Steve. His best friend would never break them, and Bucky would never force him to.

Hell, they were discussing promises now – reminiscing about the first and the oldest of their promises: to be there with each other, until the end of the line.

Bucky had been the one to say that promise to Steve – after he had defended Steve for the fourth time in the schoolyard against the bullies. Steve, being the stubborn ass he always was, had tried to shake it off. Bucky had not relented, and after the sixth fight, got Steve to finally agree to it.

“Forward and together, until the end of the line,” he heard Steve murmur, as he saw him return his gaze out to the city and horizon. “That was the newest promise we made after we got out of the silo.”

“And you kept it, Steve,” he answered, hearing the melancholy in Steve’s tone. “It’s thanks to both you and Natalia, that I’m not a prisoner of my own mind.”

Bucky reached out with his good hand and patted Steve’s folded hands. “You made it in time, Steve,” he stated. “Thank you.”

He saw the edges of Steve’s lips quirk up in a smile, though it seemed to be still slightly melancholic. Before Bucky could continue to ask what was bothering Steve now, when they both had every right to be happy about the outcome of the training, Steve suddenly unfolded his hands.

Bucky’s hand was left sandwiched between Steve’s hands. Even gloved, he could still feel the warmth emanating from Steve’s hands. Curious, yet unsure if he was reading the action correctly, he glanced up from their hands to see Steve looking at him with some regret.

“I’m sorry that I can’t wholly give you want you want, Buck,” Steve began. Bucky felt the tiny amount of pressure Steve briefly placed on his hand, indicating what he meant. “I wasn’t able to in the other timeline, and I’m not able to do so here—”

“Steve—” he began.

“It took me too long to realize that I should’ve dug up the courage to say it when I was twenty,” Steve said, shaking his head slightly. “I’m sorry.”

Despite recognizing that Steve was making in oblique confession, Bucky still sympathized. After all they had been through, everything between them was still the same, yet completely changed. “It’s all right. I’ve made my peace,” he answered, trying to reassure him.

It was also in that moment that he realized what kind of promise his other self had made with Steve – the newest of their oldest of promises: forward and together, until the end of the line. With that startling realization also came with a strangely sound conclusion as to why Steve had been giving him so many mixed messages since… well before, during, and after the war.

Especially after the war – since Steve’s revelation that he had traveled back in time.

“I see it, and I wish…” Steve solemnly began, but paused as he sighed. “I just want you to be happy, Bucky. I wish there was something I could do—”

Bucky didn’t know why he was breathing a mental sigh of relief with the fact that it was clear Steve was not going to betray his vows to Peggy. Yet, Bucky also felt sad. Life and missed opportunities for both of them to find happiness with just each other – illegality be damned – had passed both of them by.

“If Peggy is okay with this, then this is okay,” he said, wiggling his gloved hand that was still sandwiched between Steve’s own, slightly.

He didn’t know what in his statement made Steve laugh a little before his hand was let go. But as quickly as that had been, Bucky was then swept up in a warm embrace. Warmth and comfort filled him, driving away some of his sadness.

“Peggy gave me the whole ‘if you hurt him, you’ll have me to answer to’ spiel, this morning,” Steve said after a moment as he let go and held him less than an arm’s length away. “She doesn’t know about the Winter Soldier, and she won’t until you give me permission to tell her. But, I was telling her a little about our training sessions. I thought she meant for me to not injure you earlier—”

“Which I don’t think you can now, punk,” Bucky pointed out.

Steve laughed at that, before his eyes took on a more serious quality, as he continued to say, “but she told me that she’s always been comfortable with what we have – what we feel for each other.”

“Ménage à trois?” Bucky couldn’t help but state slightly in jest.

It seemed that Steve had never considered it, and flushed bright red at the thought. Bucky couldn’t help but grin – he had finally found something of the old, stammering Steve.

“We’re good as we are now, Steve. I’m just damn glad that you’re alive and well,” Bucky said.

The words almost stuck to the roof of his mouth, but Bucky forced himself to say it. He had already cheated on Michael, and he was not going to make Steve into one.

It didn’t matter if Peggy was comfortable with the subtle, small displays of affection Steve had been sharing with him. Bucky knew he could deal with his own wants and desires. He had done so since he was ten – even if Steve’s oblique confession made him regret that he had not said anything earlier.

That was the past – this was the now, in the river of time.

He reached out and placed both hands on Steve’s shoulders, shaking him slightly. “And besides, there’s only so much of you and Peggy I can stand for a limited time. You snore, and she’s always getting on my back for one thing or another. I’d be the miserable one in a ménage à trois.”

It was enough to get Steve to lighten up, as he saw him frown slightly, saying, “I don’t snore.”

Bucky let go as he held up a finger, and pretended to look up into the cloudy sky in thought, before looking back down. “Tell you what, punk. I’ll see if I can get David to create a bug and stick it on you. Record you snoring, and play it back to prove my point.”

To his surprise, Steve gave him an exasperated look. Bucky couldn’t help but wonder if someone he had worked with, or was close to in the other timeline, had suggested something similar.

“Are you happy, Bucky?” Steve solemnly asked again, after a few seconds of silence.

Bucky didn’t know why the words just suddenly tumbled out of his mouth – stated in a slightly derisive tone as well, “What, going to ask permission to kiss me?”

“If that’ll make you happy, yes.”

Bucky blinked.

Those words were completely unexpected. There was nothing in Steve’s eyes to suggest that he was joking either. Bucky immediately looked away, unable to face the depth of Steve’s actual willingness to do such a thing.

Yes, i t will .

“Please, don’t,” he somehow managed to say, as he felt his left hand curl up into a fist.

It took him a couple of seconds to calm himself down and open his hand again. The temptation to throw caution into the wind was so close to him, but he was determined not to succumb to it. Peggy trusted him – trusted Steve – and Bucky was not about to betray that trust.

Or cross the line in his and Steve’s already tangled, complex relationship.

Bucky forced himself to look at Steve. There was a moment where he saw defiance flash through Steve’s eyes – as if Steve was not going to obey his request. Despite himself and the convictions he tried to hold within him, that look sent an odd thrill down Bucky’s spine.

But that moment passed, and he saw Steve nod – albeit it was very reluctant. The action was almost similar to how Steve behaved whenever he had been rejected by the girls that were on a double-date with the two of them. But Bucky was determined not to give in and envelope his best friend in a comforting embrace – not this one time.

“I’m going to turn in for the night, then. Don’t stay up too late, Bucky,” Steve quietly said, before turning and left.

Bucky waited until he couldn’t hear Steve’s footsteps on the stairs before sagging slightly against the low parapet. An ache tore at his heart, and he knew that it was irreparable.

This was not like the heartache that had clawed at him when he and Michael had broken up – this was something that had governed his life, his actions. He hadn’t wanted to do that to Steve, but he couldn’t let his best friend break vows and promises made to Peggy.

Steve’s lips and the deep affection behind those kisses – and more – belonged to Peggy, and only Peggy.

The soft scrape of footsteps on the rooftop caused him to turn his head slightly towards the sound. Natasha approached, but there was a solemn look on her face. Bucky could only surmise that she had felt a spike of despairing emotion from Steve via the stones.

“I’d like to be left alone, Natalia,” he stated.

“Then go,” she bluntly and unexpectedly stated, stopping next to him. “Why remain up here, freezing your ass off in the bitter cold, when you can be wallowing in whatever guilt, loneliness, or self-loathing disgust in the so-called comfort of your own room? You’re not the type for self-flagellation from the cold.”

Hot anger – not the irritating and cold well that Natasha seemingly drew out these past few days during training – filled him. But he remembered that he could not intimidate Natasha the way he wanted to – she was dead, and touching her would have severe consequences for him.

As quickly as that white-hot anger came, it dissipated. Her words were goading, and she had left it open enough to allow him to take it at least two ways: mock and goad her, or listen to her words.

Either way, it was clear to him that she had experienced something similar.

“Who was… or is he?” he asked instead.

“His name is Clint Barton,” she quietly stated. “He was a SHIELD agent. I had made a name for myself after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Freelance, mercenary. Didn’t matter who I killed, so long as… well, it didn’t matter. I got on SHIELD’s radar in a bad way, so they sent their best agent into assassinate me. He made a different call.”

“Brought you in from the cold,” he murmured.

“Clint saved my life,” she said, nodding once. “I found out afterwards that he was newly married too, and had postponed his honeymoon for that mission.”

Bucky remained silent, seeing that she had more to say.

“I had nothing to lose, he had everything to lose,” she continued after a moment. “Coping with what we both did for SHIELD was difficult, and there had been some comfort both Clint and I found together.”

“But there’s only so much satisfaction an affair can provide,” Natasha said. “Laura was her name, and Clint tried to keep her far away from what he did for SHIELD. I forced Clint to confess his infidelity to Laura after learning she was pregnant with their first child. Clint knew that I couldn’t ever have children – and I wanted them to remain a family.Then, I spent the next few years working on my own missions for SHIELD.”

She crossed her arms across her chest before saying, “When Coulson, our handler, told me that Clint had been turned into one of Loki’s flying monkeys – possessed and controlled via the Mind Stone – I was determined to stop and save him. The years we spent apart made us both realize how naive we both were. Laura never fully forgave me, but we made our peace. After what Clint and I faced in New York, she told me to keep protecting her husband in any way I could. And that if Clint or I had any moments of weakness, it was only because he was human – and so was I.”

Natasha paused for a moment, but Bucky could sense that she was not done. After a few seconds of silence, she continued, saying, “Clint lost his wife and children when Thanos snapped his fingers. In those intervening five years, he became someone I almost did not recognize. His own ledger was fuller than mine.”

“Clint was willing to sacrifice himself for the Soul Stone, wasn’t he?” Bucky quietly asked.

“It requires sacrificing someone you love to obtain it,” she answered.

He also understood why she was telling him this. She was only seeking to protect Steve. Much like Peggy telling him that he had to answer to her if he ever broke Michael’s heart – which he had, and he got his lecture from Peggy – Natasha was doing the same on behalf of Steve.

“Then why the innuendos, Natalia?” he questioned. There had been a multitude of sexually charged insinuations that Natasha had thrown at the two of them, whenever they ended up close together after sparring.

“Because Steve wears his feelings on his sleeve,” Natasha answered. “It’s bitten him too many times since I’ve been working with him – especially if it involves you.”

“Training,” Bucky stated, blinking in slight surprise. “You were training him to brush it off.”

“He’s gotten a lot better, but you still read it in his eyes, didn’t you?” she asked.

“I take it that in the future, the cat was out of the bag on his—”

“Preferences?” Natasha questioned. “No,” she continued, shaking her head slightly. “When it came to his private life, he kept a lid on that. None of us knew that he visited Peggy in hospice as much as possible, during the last few years of her life, until she died. With you, he…”

“It was… difficult?” he ventured.

She paused for a moment before tilting her head slightly as she looked at him. “I don’t think Steve’s like Howard or Tony when it comes to things like that,” Natasha said. “You know him better than anyone else, Carter included. Are enormous displays of affection… him?”

Bucky frowned slightly. “No,” he answered after thinking about it. “But then why train him to completely hide it, when it looks like he’s been doing a fair job of it?”

“Divide and conquer,” Natasha stated, the quality of her tone taking on a hardness. “That is what Widows try to do,” she continued to say. “Seduction by a Black Widow does not have to be sexual. If this Wolf Spider is the male equivalent of a Widow, and has been in your ranks since the war – there is a good chance that he knows or has observed various types of relationships between personnel.”

“But only Peggy, Howard, David, Michael, Philips, Lorraine, and I know that Steve is alive,” he pointed out.

“You listen and see, but you don’t hear or observe,” she interrupted. “The war ended, but this is the age of shadows, of spies like you and I.”

“Are you saying that I can’t – shouldn’t – trust any of them? Peggy included?” he asked, incredulous.

“You and Carter claimed to have cleared all of the SSR and 107th here. Now you’re focused on Europe,” she answered. “Dottie Underwood never specified the organization. Do you remember what she said?”

“The agent was embedded during the war and is still among you,” Bucky quoted, narrowing his eyes ever so slightly. “It can’t be Howard or David?”

“Have you cleared them? Or Michael Carter?”

As horrified and skeptical as he was of Natasha’s question, he knew that she had a point. He didn’t know why she didn’t just vet the others, if she had her suspicions. It didn’t seem like she was beholden to a non-interference clause of any sort.

“Michael was SOE during the war,” he stated. “He occasionally liaised with the SSR whenever mission parameters crossed paths. He wasn’t ‘embedded’. David and Howard, they’ve been with the SSR since before I joined up. If they wanted to sabotage anything, they were in the perfect place to do so. They could’ve killed all of us many times over.”

Nevertheless, as those words left Bucky’s lips, he hated the doubts that had lodged into his thoughts. During the war, David had been blackmailed into building something that would kill Steve in the field. The engineer thankfully had been defiant in that endeavor – and the blackmailer killed by both Peggy and him, Bucky.

Bucky himself had been assigned by Philips to vet and clear Michael of being a double-agent for HYDRA and the Soviets, during the war. Michael had been a prisoner of HYDRA for two years – and ultimately, the truth had come out: Michael had been a double-agent, but for his homeland. That was how the wrap up of Operation Midnight came about.

After the war, Howard had been subjected to accusations that he was selling weapons to the Soviet Union. Peggy had been forced to become a double-agent to find out what was going on. She and Sousa eventually cleared Howard’s name, captured Dr. Ivchenko, and stopped the Soviet’s mass hysteria plans.

“Why haven’t you cleared them?” he asked.

“Because I assumed that you or Carter would want to bring them in with little to no harm,” she answered, lifting a hand up from her crossed arms and waved it. It served as a reminder that because of what she now was, any touch from her killed living things instantly.

“So I can trust Peggy?” he asked.

“The next time Steve talks to her in private, you need to be there,” Natasha advised. “If not to make sure that if the Wolf Spider is either of the three, he does not use any potential rift between the three of you to an advantage.”

“Paranoia at its finest,” Bucky couldn’t help but mutter.

It was an indirect way of confirming that Peggy and Steve could be trusted with this information. Bucky hated the fact that he had to suspect Howard, David, and Michael, but Natasha was right. Neither he nor Peggy had stated those command words to the three.

They had just assumed.

“It happened in another reality that Steve and I traveled to,” Natasha quietly answered. “Except that it was subtle enough that your counterpart didn’t see the betrayal until it was too late.”

“Telling my story, Natalia?”

The unexpected voice, more youthful, but just as full of experience and age as his own, startled both of them. Both Bucky and Natasha turned towards the voice, only to see Ghost Rider standing a little ways away from them. The fire-circle behind the entity was rapidly disappearing.

As unsettled as Bucky was, seeing his other self that was host to the entity approach, Natasha seemed not too bothered by it and answered, “If you’ll let me, Barnes? I’d rather not pay a price for having you tell your story.”

“Consider it a freebie,” the entity strangely stated, before turning his attention onto Bucky. “Ghost Rider was surprised that this reality shifted. Very few of us ever break free of the Winter Soldier, and even fewer survive without it.”

Bucky saw the entity stand at parade rest, clearly displaying a military bearing and training about him. “Consider my story as gift of warning and caution, in the hopes that you’ll survive what is to come in the next few decades of your Cold War.”

“You were the same as my other self in Steve’s timeline, weren’t you?” Bucky asked.

“James, please don’t ask questions—” Natasha began, worried.

The entity held up a hand, before saying, “Questions are included, but only up until I leave. And to answer yours, yes. I served the Soviet Union as the Winter Soldier in my reality. Embedded commands, conditioning, everything was similar. I’m not a super-soldier though.”

As much as Bucky wanted to ask how this counterpart of his broke free, he didn’t. He got the sense that there was a limited amount of time he had for the entity to tell him things. “Why?” he asked. “Why now?”

“Because Ghost Rider wants Steve Rogers to complete what he started – return the stones,” the entity stated. “And the shift that this reality has taken has put it on a precipice. On the tip of a blade. The price for Ghost Rider’s intervention to make sure the shift does not fall one way or the other, is too great for one man, much less a world to bear.”

“Sounds overly dramatic,” Bucky couldn’t help but mutter.

“Any single time someone wields the Infinity Stones, all realities tend to skew towards crises,” the entity said. “Steve Rogers returning the stones brings some balance to the chaos.”

“So, then, what’s your story of betrayal?” Bucky asked, though he couldn’t keep the slightly derisive tone out. It was strange and utterly disconcerting to hear himself speak bombastically – even if his younger self was not entirely… himself.

“Steve Rogers of my reality was a mentor and something of a big brother to me. Because of this, I was blinded to many of the clues that in hindsight, should have been clear. He became possessed by the Red Skull. I myself, and countless of others who were considered close friends of his, did not see it until it was too late. Superheroes and their allies were completely decimated and indiscriminately killed until there was just a handful of us left,” the entity stated.

Bucky had to credit the straight face of Natasha, and the fact that she had a serious look on her face, for not dismissing the story. “But…” he began.

“Mercy kill was the best we could do for Steve,” the entity stated. “Myself, your counterpart in Steve’s timeline, and another counterpart of ours from another reality. Together, the three of us killed the Red Skull and his host. But reality crossings are not my stories to tell. Betrayal, subtle ones by those you least expect, will happen in this reality, Sergeant Barnes. It’s a part of the shift that has taken place.”

“It’s Agent now,” Bucky corrected.

“All the more to remember what you’ve experienced during the war, Agent Barnes,” the entity stated. “Your Cold War will be much darker, more sinister and insidious than anything I have ever seen in other realities.”

“Then you know who the Wolf Spider is,” Bucky realized. “Who?”

“That requires an equivalent exchange transaction—”

Before the entity could finish his words, Natasha had surprisingly stepped in front of Bucky. “Leave now, Ghost Rider,” she growled, splaying out her arms and legs – as if she was protecting him from the entity. “You will not cause, or receive a transaction here from him.”

“Natalia,” Bucky began, but fell silent as he saw half of his younger self become enveloped in the skull-on-fire thing. He stepped slightly out to the side, but did not step forward from where Natasha was.

“If you’ll allow me one last free question, Ghost Rider,” he began.

The entity nodded once.

“What is the equivalent exchange transaction for the knowledge of who the Wolf Spider is?” Bucky asked.

“Your life,” the entity stated. “And your return to becoming the Soviet Union’s greatest, deadliest asset – undoing everything that Captain Steven Grant Rogers has done in this timeline.”

~~~

S SR Headquarters…

08:00

 

The snow lightly teased across her face as Peggy closed the passenger door to her car. The streets were somewhat empty, and sidewalks sparsely populated with civilians. With the weather, and anticipated upcoming New Year tomorrow, everyone was staying indoors – or visiting family and friends elsewhere.

It was also the perfect time for the SSR to hold their annual budget, cases, and projects review. The days after Christmas were usually quiet ones, even for the SSR. These past four days had had her dividing her time between Brooklyn and Headquarters, barely leaving her any time to privately spend with Steve.

Still, she was glad that Thompson had declared today, the 31 st , the last day – and a half day of work, to boot. But she still had to sit through four hours—

“Need some help carrying those files, Peggy?”

Peggy glanced over to see Daniel approaching. “Daniel,” she greeted. “Thank you, but I thought you and the rest of the 107 th have a day off?”

Her friend smiled, and extended a hand out to take the rather heavy briefcase that she had lugged out of her car. It looked like he was not going to leave. Grateful, she gave him the heavier briefcase, before adjusting the lighter one in her other hand.

“Yeah, but I’d figure I’d pay my desk a visit and clear off the cobwebs. If not to make sure that Thompson didn’t lease it to some newbie agent,” her friend joked.

She couldn’t help but laugh at that. Their duties at the Brooklyn facility took up enough of their time that it was unfeasible for any of them to go back to Headquarters, unless necessary.

“Besides,” Daniel said as the two of them made their way into the ground floor telephone operating center of Headquarters. “Since Barnes is still considered a temporary transfer, I figured that if you needed to take a day off or such, I could help out with at least the day-to-day running of the place. And I want to know what Thompson has planned for all of us after Stark completes the serum.”

If Howard is successful,” Peggy couldn’t help but say. “But thank you, Daniel, for your generosity and support.”

~~~

B rooklyn Facility…

08:22

 

There was nothing out of the ordinary within the perimeter, even on the rooftop. Yet, the unsettled feeling that Bucky felt since waking up this morning wouldn’t go away.

He knew that a small part of it was from Ghost Rider’s words of warning last night. Yet, Natasha had helped him do a perimeter check this morning – having also felt something ‘off’ about the place. She was currently on the rooftop, checking it again.

The puttering noise of car approaching, parking, and shutting its engine off,caused him to look up from the morning reports that Lorraine had collected from Headquarters. Both he and Lorraine were currently skimming through them to make sure anything of interest was noted.

The rest of the team, including the 107th had New Years Eve off, but it was still work for those who knew about the time-travel device. The studio itself wouldn’t be open, but Bucky wanted to keep the external security system activated.

“Morning,” David greeted, as Lorraine buzzed the two into the front of the studio lobby.

A faint grin quirked up the edges of Bucky lips as he saw his friend yawn widely. Behind David was Michael, and he saw him raise a cup of coffee that he was holding for the engineer.

David himself was carrying two briefcases with him. Both were most likely full of whatever was needed for today’s continued repairs and improvements on the time-travel device.

“Morning,” he answered.

“Good morning,” Lorraine echoed at the same time.

To his and Lorraine’s surprise, David placed one of the briefcases onto the side of the table they were working at. “Weaponry improvements. Happy Christmas and New Year,” was all the engineer said, grinning as he turned to take the cup of coffee from Michael, murmuring his thanks.

The mild look that Michael was giving David was one that both Bucky and Lorraine were all too familiar with. It need not be said that David had once again, stayed up all night, working on a project that fascinated him, and forgot to sleep.

There had been times during the war, and wandering into the engineering laboratories at MI-5, that Bucky found his friend sleeping at his desk with several gadgets strewn about. Forcing the engineer to go home after hours did little to deter David from working on different things while at home.

Then, there was Lorraine’s fascination at every little gadget that came from the engineering laboratories. Bucky could see her eyeing the briefcase with curiosity, wanting to dive in and possibly ‘test’ all the new improvements.

“Hey, can I speak with you in private, Bucky?” Michael asked, just as Lorraine pressed the other buzzer under the desk they were currently standing near, to let David into the facility.

Bucky glanced over at Lorraine, who shrugged, and returned his attention to Michael. The reports they had skimmed through had not shown anything of interest. Thus, he would leave Lorraine to the gadgets.

Michael’s request also gave him an excuse to not remain longer than he liked with Lorraine. They tolerated each other, but only for so long. Even Bucky had his own limits when it was with a woman who irritated him greatly.

He followed his ex-lover outside, adjusting his fedora on his head as the lightly falling snow blew by. There were already a couple of inches sticking on the sidewalks. The roads had thin patches of coating in places, and cars were already being covered.

They stopped at the entrance to the alleyway. It had been a week since Bucky had attempted to reconcile with Michael about what he had done. He wasn’t getting his hopes up for any further reconciliation – at least that was his assumption for Michael pulling him aside to privately talk for a few minutes.

“Tell me David is at least getting a few hours of sleep, and not constantly working on whatever he has in that briefcase,” Bucky began.

“I think he is,” Michael answered. “I just… I just wanted to ask how you were doing, Bucky.”

“Fine,” he answered, though he hadn’t meant to make his tone short. “Better,” he amended in a kinder tone.

“You don’t look as tired as you used to,” Michael commented.

Bucky remained silent at that. Natasha’s questions about Howard, David, and Michael rang in his thoughts at the moment. He hated suspecting the three, but now was a better time than any, that he could at least clear Michael.

“You?” he asked.

“Fine, I suppose,” Michael answered. Bucky could see the slight uncertainty in Michael’s eyes, of still not fully coping what had happened that tore their intimate relationship apart.

“Agent Romanov was telling me the other night, of some of the music that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union,” he said. “A lot more hopeful than the bombastic anthems they currently blast over the radios.”

“Similar to the illegal songs that the pirate radios play?” Michael asked, curious.

Because Michael’s duties as a MI-5 agent were mostly counter-intelligence, Bucky knew that he had to listen to pirate and propaganda radios alike. Every radio frequency in between the two was also monitored and analyzed for any clues to orders or secret messages.

During the war, Allied and Axis orders and messages were sent through such frequencies. Now, it was the Soviets, United States, and their allies on either side that utilized such methods in their ‘war’.

“Some, not all,” Bucky answered. “One of the lyrics she told me about sounded quite nice: Дождь – вселенной голоса.”

He didn’t know why he was anticipating an explosive change of personality from Michael. But that moment of hesitation, of fright, and of anticipation passed. Michael blinked a couple of times before a faint smile quirked up his lips.

“It sounds lovely,” Michael simply said. “Like an anthem of hope for millions who want peace.”

As Bucky quietly let go of the breath he hadn’t realize he had been holding, the smile on Michael’s face drooped ever so slightly. “I… miss us, Bucky,” he heard him say.

The elation he thought he would feel with such words, never came. Instead, Bucky didn’t know why he felt a hollow feeling with Michael’s words. He was half-afraid that perhaps it had been Steve’s oblique confession last night, that had finally settled his heart.

But that didn’t make any sense. Even when Bucky had longed for a future that would never be, Michael had known, accepted, and lived with the fact that he, Bucky, could not fully love him. Now, there was just… emptiness.

“This is who I am, Michael,” he said. “I’m not going to change.”

“You have,” Michael answered. “I don’t know what’s happened to you over the past week, but you seem a lot stronger, and I’m not just talking about physicality. You seem more focused. I miss that, and everything else that we had.”

“Can… will you forgive me?” Bucky hesitatingly asked.

“No and yes,” Michael answered. “I see you, and every time I do, I’m reminded of Thomas Paine’s words: these are the times that try men’s souls – the summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. At the core of everything it’s who you are, and who you always will be.”

He saw Michael shake his head slightly, giving him a repentant smile. “I’ve been a fool to not have seen that, until now,” Michael continued. “That you are the unstated soldier within those words: a winter soldier of war and peace.”

~~~

08:57

 

“He’s late. Howard’s never late.”

Steve glanced over to see David checking his wristwatch, before looking up at the double doors that led into the facility. With Howard being Howard, Steve could see an excuse being the obvious – Howard had conveniently ran into a ‘beautiful dame’ and got distracted.

But that excuse did not match the latest briefing that Jarvis and Michael had given to Peggy about protecting Howard and David, respectively. It had been a surprise to all of them that in the past month-and-a-half since Howard had begun working on the time-traveling device, the inventor had not been spending what little free time he had chasing skirts.

Most of Howard and David’s free time had been spent going over how to improve, or invent new components for the time-traveling device. It certainly explained why the two always went straight to work whenever they came in – plan for the day already hashed out the previous night.

Slowly, they had enlisted Michael’s help with simple assistance in holding together or wiring various components. It was mainly because Tony was also being cautious about explaining more advanced and not-yet-discovered concepts within the blueprints, that Tony didn’t help the two as much as he used to.

Ever since Peggy and Bucky had revealed the fact that there was a mole with the SSR ranks, Tony had been more reticent, than his egotistical talkative self. While Steve understood that some of the technology he carried definitely should not be known to anyone here – especially Pym Particles – it did make for the repair and integration of safeguards into the device a little more difficult.

Peggy was not yet here this morning – again. She was currently attending the debrief that Chief Thompson was holding for the year’s end. Projects, cases, budgets, and everything that needed to be worked, had been discussed for the past few days. Today was the final day though, and Steve was glad she would be returning soon.

“Maybe this one time, Howard did run into—” Steve began.

A strange, three-toned beeping noise that crackled from the radio speaker mounted to the far wall, interrupted him. It was a descending tone, not the constant tone that was usually associated with an emergency beacon.

But emergency or not, it was still a beacon, and someone activated it.

The doors leading into the laboratory proper opened and closed a few seconds later. Steve saw Michael slip in, armed with a rifle, before tapping out a series of alpha-numeric code on the keypad next to the doors. An audible hum filled the air.

“Beacon from Howard,” Michael curtly stated. “Not sure what’s set it off, but it’s not the emergency one. Bucky’s ordered a partial lock down, while he and Lorraine go investigate.”

Steve didn’t breathe a sigh of relief. Howard’s safety concerned him as much as Peggy’s. He immediately ascended the stairs, as Michael ordered David to prepare whatever was needed to destroy the time-traveling device.

“I’m going to get something from my room,” he stated, as Michael brushed past him, to ensure that all other areas within the facility were secured.

Natasha had appeared and merely glanced at him, before silently gesturing that she was going to the rooftops. He nodded once in return.

In a complete lock down, Steve would not even have access to his room. The doors that led into the stairs and down to the floor would’ve been completely armed and locked. Instead, the hum that filled the air was indicative of a partial lock down. Any power surge, explosion, or something destructive detected by the sensors would active the complete lock down.

Tony had been the one to design, build, and implement the system using 1940’s technology. It was advanced enough that his friend had destroyed the blueprints, and refused to tell anyone how it worked – other than what the sensors did.

As worried as Steve was, he forced himself to be calm. Bucky was out there, making sure Howard and Jarvis were safe. After yesterday’s victory against the commands, he knew that he did not have much to be worried about – even if he still worried over Bucky.

He still found it slightly surprising that he was feeling a little hurt by the fact that Bucky had spurned him. He hadn’t meant to say those words to his best friend, but they had tumbled out of his lips on their own accord.

But what was said, was said – and done was done.

Even then, Steve still wished—

He physically shook his head as he entered his room. He couldn’t afford to linger on drifting thoughts about Bucky – not when there was the possibility of danger looming before them.

Steve paused as he clipped Mjolnir to his side. Tony was standing near the window, pushing the closed curtain back slightly. It was an extremely odd sight that Steve didn’t know what to make of it for a second.

“Tony,” Steve began, going over to his friend.

He made sure that he was not standing anywhere near Tony’s immediate reach. He wasn’t sure what his friend was looking at, except that he saw David moving a few items around. Michael was making his way around the device, and had stopped at the area where Tony had been working.

Michael picked up a small device from the workbench and turned it over in his hands. It took Steve a moment to realize that it was identical to the wristband that he wore. Tony had finished making the time-jump suit for Bucky, and stored it within the wrist band.

He saw his brother-in-law look up, and spotted the two of them peering through the window. Tony waved at Michael, but it didn’t escape Steve’s notice that there was a mirthless smile on his friend’s face. Then, the curtain was abruptly closed.

“Tony?” Steve questioned.

“Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief,” he heard Tony mutter while frowning and staring at the closed curtain.

“Tony,” Steve tried again, slightly annoyed.

“You ever consider the possibility that your brother-in-law is a Soviet mole?”

Steve gaped at Tony. “What the hell, Tony?” he managed to utter.

“Natasha was talking with your boyfriend, after you left,” Tony stated. “Which, by the way, Steve, explains a whole hell lot about you. Never realized that you swung that way, or are comfortable with an open—”

“Tony,” Steve cut in, irritated. “You point about Michael—”

“Is valid,” Tony interrupted, seemingly getting back on track. “Natasha made an extremely good point about Aunt Peggy and Barnes not bothering to clear my dad, Dr. Brewster, or Michael.”

“Wait, what?” Steve questioned, surprised. “Surely you’re not accusing—”

“Your boyfriend is already investigating—”

“Tony, stop calling Bucky that,” Steve ground out, extremely annoyed. “He’s not my boyfriend. End of story.”

Rather than acknowledge the fault, Steve felt another layer of irritation settle within him as he saw Tony merely shrug. “I completely doubt that my Dad is a Soviet spy,” Tony continued. “I want to doubt Dr. Brewster being one as well – I mean come on, look at him. The kid’s worse than you when it comes to lying.”

“And Michael is not a Soviet spy either,” Steve finished up.

“Then why the keen interest in my tech, or helping Dad and Dr. Brewster with their work?” Tony questioned.

“Because you’re certainly not helping them,” Steve pointed out. “They come to you with questions, and you’re always saying you’re busy with other parts of the project.”

“But why assign a counter-intelligence agent to be a bodyguard?” Tony continued to ask. “Growing up, Jarvis told me that he wished he had training from the Home Office to be a proper bodyguard for Dad. They have actual people trained for that capacity.”

“Would it kill you twice over to have a little empathy for the fact that Michael might’ve wanted to spend time with his family – with Peggy, Tony?” Steve asked, not even bothering to apologize for his slightly poor choice of words. “We see little of him enough with his duties for MI-5, as is, Tony.”

“Everything I know of Colonel Philips tells me that he’s a hard-ass. He doesn’t assign people to projects or missions based on sympathy, Rogers,” Tony stated. “You’re working on that DC case with him and that viper of a woman, Lorraine. You tell me if he’s really that soft, or not.”

Steve didn’t immediately answer, though he did settle for glaring at Tony. He was determined not to doubt the integrity of any of the three. It did dishearten him to hear that Bucky had his doubts.

Yet, he did not dismiss Bucky’s intuition. Every single time that intuition of his poked around, it uncovered far more than the initial investigation. But Steve was certain that Howard, Michael, and David were going to be cleared.

“They’re not spies for the Soviets,” he quietly stated. “None of them are.”

“For the sake of returning these stones, I hope you’re right,” Tony answered just as evenly.

~~~

S SR Headquarters…

09:10

 

The phone in the conference room rang. Its shrill bell startled all of them, before Daniel – nearest to the phone – picked it up. The operators on the first floor knew not to call into the conference room unless it was an emergency.

“Stark’s activated his beacon,” Daniel stated, even before he hung up the phone. “Location is near Polytechnic.”

“Oh no—” Peggy began, rising from her seat.

“Not the emergency one though,” Daniel continued to say, getting up as well. Thompson and the other agents present for the meeting were rising from their seats at nearly the same time.

“Spooked then?” Thompson asked.

“Possibly,” Daniel answered.

“Daniel and I will investigate, and radio if we need backup,” Peggy stated.

“Report when you have answers, Carter,” Thompson answered, dismissing them.

She and Daniel hurried through the nearly empty bullpen of Headquarters. Wasting little time when they got to the first floor, they took the nearest car – Daniel’s car. The snow was still falling, but it didn’t seem heavier than earlier in the morning.

Still, the drive to get to Howard’s location was a little slower than she liked – even with Daniel’s rotary light on and visible to other cars. But there was nothing they could do about the weather delaying them.

They were not first on the scene, when they arrived. Peggy saw caught a glimpse of Bucky disappearing around the corner of the building. Lorraine was warily looking around, gun in her hands, and had briefly focused on both her and Daniel when they stepped out.

“Howard and Mr. Jarvis, glad to see both of you unhurt,” she said, as Lorraine stepped slightly over. “Agent Lorraine, report.”

“Mr. Stark claims that he and Mr. Jarvis—” Lorraine began.

“Claims,” Howard began, looking slightly offended. “Come on, Meredith, we did see them—”

“—were unexpectedly surrounded by the same creatures Headquarters described in their reports about the five incidents, ma’am,” Lorraine continued as if Howard had never interrupted her. “Agent Barnes said that he may have caught a glimpse before they disappeared the moment we got there. I was not fast enough to see them through the snow. Agent Barnes is currently performing a perimeter check.”

“I’ll catch up to his position,” Daniel stated, drawing his gun out, and left.

“Barnes, Sousa’s incoming to your position,” Lorraine stated, as she briefly touched her ear, indicating that both she and Bucky were wired up for radio communication.

“The creatures didn’t attack?” Peggy asked, frowning.

“Nope,” Howard interrupted, shaking his head slightly. “Just sat there, growling at us. Didn’t let us leave or move, until help arrived.”

“Any other witnesses?” she asked.

“If there were any civilians peeking out of their homes at the time of the incident, they’ve made themselves scarce, ma’am,” Lorraine answered, just as Jarvis shook his head.

“It is quite convenient that these creatures ‘attacked’ when there were no other persons present,” Jarvis stated, before turning and pointing to a place on the sidewalk. “Mr. Stark and I were standing right there, and the creatures were clearly walking along the ground.”

“But no footprints from the creatures,” Peggy finished up. The rate of the snow falling made it impossible for imprints to be covered fast enough – she clearly saw Howard and Jarvis’ footprints still there.

A few seconds later, Bucky and Daniel returned. Both had grim looks on their faces, as they shook their heads. Neither had found any evidence of the sixteen remaining Black Widows within the area.

That was both worrying and relieving. A firefight against sixteen Widows at this very moment was something that none of them were completely equipped to deal with.

“Daniel, if you would please inform Chief Thompson of what happened,” Peggy said a moment later. “I’ll be returning with Howard and the others to the facility. I’ll join you at Headquarters once everything is secured.”

“Will do, Peggy,” Daniel answered. “Stay safe. If the snow keeps up like this, I’d stay there if at all possible. Thompson can go eat his shoe, if he’s going to recall you in this weather.”

Despite the situation, Peggy smiled and nodded. “Thank you, Daniel.”

As Daniel got into his car and drove away, Peggy accepted a spare two-way radio from Lorraine. She made her way to Howard’s car and took the front seat, while Jarvis helped Howard into the back, before taking the driver’s seat. Lorraine and Bucky had returned to their car. As soon as they were all ready, began the slow journey back to the facility.

The roads were slippery, but Peggy was not paying too much to how Jarvis was handling the car. She was instead, looking up and around, trying to spot anything of interest through the snow.

Nothing from Bucky or Lorraine was crackling through their two-way radios, as they continued to drive. Peggy took the chance to glance back towards Howard, asking, “How long do you and David need to get the device up and running, minimally?”

“Hour, hour-and-a-half tops,” Howard answered. “But Pegs, if something like whatever the hell that Cull Obsidian thing appears again—”

“If it happens again, we will deal with it,” Peggy answered. “This was a warning. I’m certain of it. If they’re watching you, then it’s fairly certain that they already have eyes on the facility. We can’t let those stones fall into enemy hands.”

~~~

B rooklyn Facility…

11:32

 

Bucky looked up as he saw the door to the locker rooms open and close. He saw it from the reflection of the tiny mirror within the locker he was standing at.

Steve had entered, a melancholic countenance about him. Even more surprising was that Bucky heard and saw Steve flick the lever to lock the door.

“I told them,” Steve quietly stated. “They only know who the Winter Soldier is, and why you’re needed for this mission.”

Bucky silently nodded, grateful for the fact that Steve had locked the door – if only temporarily. At this very moment, the Winter Soldier was not something he wanted to discuss with anyone else, except for Steve.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked after a moment, giving him a slightly curious look.

“The red star,” he simply stated. “It was prominent in your memories. And I remember waking up to see it on my own arm.”

“Bucky…” he heard Steve plaintively say. “May I?”

Bucky glanced down at the paintbrush and jar of red paint. As much as he wanted to complete it himself, he knew that he didn’t have the steady, precise hand for what needed to be done. Silently, he nodded.

Steve strode over and gently plucked the brush and jar out of his hands. Bucky held himself still, and tried not to watch Steve carefully, meticulously apply each brush stroke of red on his arm.

But his fascination at watching Steve draw, paint, and do what he did with any sort of media was stronger than his aversion to what he knew needed to be done for the illusion to work. The long spindly fingers of Steve’s hands had grown a little thicker, stronger by the serum. But those fingers of his were still delicate and precise in handling the paintbrush.

Peggy had ordered the return of the Time and Mind Stones – two for the price of one trip. Bucky had not wanted to carry out the 2012 mission just yet, but with what just happened to Howard, and the manifestation of the Time Stone a few days ago, it made sense.

The return of the two stones would leave Steve with three stones remaining: Reality, Space, and Soul. Of what little he knew about the stones, the Tesseract was the most powerful of the three left – and could be easily kept away.

Bucky hadn’t even made an excuse to go to the locker rooms to prepare. He just left without a word to any of them. All he had done was nod once towards Steve – to let him know that Steve was free to tell them about the Winter Soldier. And, if Steve chose to, to also tell them what the Winter Soldier had done—

“It’s finished,” Steve’s whisper shattered the silence.

Bucky saw him pull slightly away, the paintbrush tipped in bright red drooping down. He briefly looked up into Steve’s eyes – full of regret, sadness, and something else that he couldn’t identify – and looked away.

“Thank you,” he managed to say, swallowing to try to alleviate the dryness in his throat.

He heard Steve put the paintbrush down on the bench before saying, “I’m sorry, Bucky. I’m sorry for everything. I wish I had known—”

“You did what you could, Steve,” he quietly answered.

Bucky wanted to admonish Steve for his words – that should have been said to his future self instead – he didn’t. Just the tiredness, the heavy amount of guilt he heard in Steve’s voice told him that Steve had tried to apologize to his future self.

It seemed like ages ago that they had been celebrating the fact that he had mastered the conditioning and stop commands. Ages ago that he heard Steve’s oblique confession… It had only been less than twelve hours ago – and now…

He knew that he should’ve been mentally readying himself to become the Winter Soldier, but for this, he was willing to delay it as long as necessary. He stepped forward and tightly embraced Steve.

“We’ll be all right, Steve,” he said. “You and me, we’ll be all right. Forward and together, until the end of the line.”

He heard the brush clatter to the floor, before Steve returned his embrace. He didn’t know how long he and Steve held onto each other, as if they were trying not to drown. When he felt Steve begin to pull away, he let go.

There were no tears, nor any trace of regret or sorrow in Steve’s eyes. Bucky finally identified the look in Steve’s eyes that had initially eluded him: unconditional acceptance and love. He also realized that Steve did not fear him immersing himself in the deadly persona of the Soviet asset named Winter Soldier.

“Are you ready?” Steve softly asked in concern, after a few seconds of silence.

“Yeah,” he answered, nodding once.

“Tony finished creating the time-jump suit for you. He’s also managed to modify, and weave a small amount of vibranium into your uniform,” Steve said, going over to one of the lockers.

“Steve,” Bucky began, surprised at Tony’s generosity.

He saw him open it, before reaching up to take out a small bundle of folded black clothing. There was a half-mask and glasses sitting on top of the bundle.

“Why?” he asked.

Instead of answering him, Steve placed the bundle down in front of him, saying, “Suit up, Winter Soldier.”

~~~

12:04

 

Peggy wasn’t the only one to turn towards the sound of the double doors opening and closing at the top of the walkway that overlooked onto the floor. Her eyes followed Steve entering, dressed in a bright blue uniform.

It had a bright silver-white star front and center, a single chevron stripe on his each of his shoulders, and torso clad in white-red stripes. A bandoleer of small compartments was also wrapped around his waist. Dark red, shin-high boots were wrapped around his legs, with brighter red flying gloves wrapping around his hands.

It was almost as if she were watching Captain America, reborn with a uniform that was reminiscent of the one he wore during the war. His purposeful stride down the stairs, and confident scoop up of his shield, gave them a boost of hope.

However, it was Bucky’s entrance shortly after Steve, that drew a couple of gasps – and a visible flinch from Natasha. He was clad in black combat trousers, black vest, and armed to the teeth with an assortment of weapons – including his sniper rifle. The black mask and glasses across his face just made him look even more menacing.

Peggy still could not believe that the Winter Soldier – the Soviet’s greatest asset and weapon in another timeline – was Bucky.

If those gathered around the platform had gathered closer because of Steve and the hope he brought into their eyes by his mere presence, they recoiled when Bucky – no, when the Winter Soldier approached. From just the way the Winter Soldier carried himself, Peggy could feel absolute fear and danger sinking into her.

But, there was nothing in Steve’s eyes that told Peggy how he felt about the visceral reactions from everyone else. She saw him step up to the platform, glancing at her for a moment before activating the time-traveling suit.

Natasha and Tony immediately disappeared.

The Winter Soldier had taken the bangle from its place on the table and snapped it to his wrist. He too, tapped the inset and activated the time-traveling suit. Some words were exchanged between Steve and the Winter Soldier, before they both tapped a few things within the underside of their left wrists – the coordinates for travel.

“Ready?” Steve’s authoritative question directed at Howard caused a few to jump.

“R-ready,” Howard scrambled up to the console.

Steve’s nod was the last thing Peggy saw, before two tiny pops filled the air where Captain America and the Winter Soldier had been.

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: Pretender – Part 4 – 2012

 

Bucky never thought he’d see New York City as a war zone. But that was what he and Steve popped into, even in the alleyway. Debris – large and small, things on fire, dead creatures, sirens, faint shouts, and the smell of acrid smoke and rot filled the air.

It felt like Europe during the war, again.

Gone were most of the familiar buildings that he recognized in this part of downtown Manhattan. Towering spires of metal rose up to the sky, some of them decorated with fire, others squashed and sliced from their former grandiose height.

“All right,” Steve mutter, deactivating his time-jump armor.

Bucky did the same. He quietly followed Steve to the end of alleyway, and peered out at almost the same time as Steve did. To his slight surprise, he saw Tony, Scott Lang, Steve, and the gigantic green form of Dr. Bruce Banner a little ways down the debris-covered road.

The four briefly conferred with each other, before he saw Lang, Tony, and Steve peel off into another alleyway. Banner had gone the other way, while ripping his shirt off, and smashed what was left of a car to the ground. Considering what Bucky remembered seeing from Steve’s memories of the initial fight against Loki and the Chitauri, and then what Steve had shown them of their ‘time heist’, Dr. Banner was trying to blend in.

“I don’t want to pop in unexpectedly next to, or near the Sorcerer Supreme’s base of operations. So, I’m going to try to wrap an illusion around both of us while we follow Bruce,” Steve said.

“Wait… we have a wizard in our realities?” Bucky couldn’t help but say.

“Wizards,” Steve answered, grinning. Banner’s movements away from the hot zone drew their attention back to the task at hand.

“Stay close,” he heard Steve murmur, as Bucky saw him curl his left hand around the exposed red stone.

“Always,” Bucky answered.

Together, they took off at a fairly fast pace across the ground. Occasionally, Steve glanced up to make sure that they were still following Banner, while avoiding most of the stray enemies.

There were a few times where they had to take action though – and it was mostly Steve following up on Banner’s attacks on stray Chitauri, guiding civilians away from the battle. Bucky made sure to slip away so that he wasn’t seen where Steve was, until they were clear and could resume secretly following Banner.

At long last, they finally got to a familiar-looking building. Bucky remembered the building quite well: it had been where the lawyer who helped his mother execute his father’s Will, worked.

It was the small flashes of orange disks, and the fact that Banner had landed on the roof and paused, that told Bucky that this was the place. Where a wizard – or wizards, according to Steve – lived.

He couldn’t help but wonder if lawyers still worked in the building, or if, like the SSR, the building was just a front. Mentally shaking his head slightly, he refocused himself.

A tap on his arm, had him looking at Steve and his silent signals to climb up to the building adjacent to where the Sorcerer Supreme’s base was. As much as he wasn’t entirely convinced it was a good idea, it looked as if Steve had swapped out the Reality Stone for the Time Stone.

Bucky nodded once, and quietly leapt up after Steve onto the fire escape.

Carefully, they made their way up, occasionally pausing as a few stray Chitauri on strange-looking flying things zipped by. Some of them were blasted out of the sky by orange discs originating from the rooftop. Others veered away as soon as their comrades were hit.

Once on the rooftop, he crouched low, and crept after Steve until they were positioned behind the half-demolished storage shed of the building. Steve peeked out again, and the second Bucky did so as well, his eyes widened in surprise.

The woman… man… it was a little difficult for him to tell the gender of the yellow-orange clothed person, with the person facing away from them, punched Banner. The green part of Banner flew back, while a man with dark hair remained behind, looking quite surprised himself.

“Neat trick,” he heard Steve mutter, before returning to hide behind the shed.

“What…” Bucky began, glancing over at Steve, before realizing that Steve could not see his expression or his eyes.

“Keep the lens and mask on,” Steve said, shaking his head slightly. “I think it’s better we don’t ask about that. Looks like an out-of-body experience that neither of us wants to experience.”

A brilliant flash of light coming from the skies above Grand Central Station and what used to be Stark Tower drew Bucky’s attention for a brief moment. He saw the funnel that connected the world to where the Chitauri came from, slip close. The blue-black cloud was sealing up fast, and a few seconds later, it was as if the skies had never rained fire.

The Battle of New York was over.

“Now what?” he asked.

“Now we wait for Bruce to collect the Time Stone, before we return it,” Steve answered. “By this time, Scott, Tony, and I have observed and have begun to make our way to key positions in Stark Tower. We’re going to have to teleport there, using the Space Stone, to intercept my 2012 self. You want to surprise HYDRA in the elevator? I heard it could be fun.”

At that, Bucky couldn’t help but grin, even though he knew that Steve couldn’t see it at all. He knew that Steve was all but explicitly giving him an invitation to have at it with HYDRA, within a confined space. It would be similar to what Steve did to STRIKE in 2014 within SHIELD’s elevator, except that with the Winter Soldier there.

The Winter Soldier was going to ‘teach’ HYDRA a lesson.

“Lesson number one: they shouldn’t have let you take the stone,” he stated.

“Gullible,” Steve answered, faintly grinning. “It’s written all over their foreheads.”

“Oh, really?” he sarcastically answered.

At that, Steve chuckled. Bucky wanted to join in, but there was only so much he could do to not fully shake himself out of the Winter Soldier persona. It didn’t mean he had to remain in a cold, blank, and calculated state of being, but it did help.

“What will you be doing?” he asked after a few moments of silence.

“Dragging America’s ass up to safety,” Steve stated, though Bucky heard the touch of sarcasm when he had stated ‘America’s ass’.

I t is a fine, shapely ass, he couldn’t help the brief thought that broke through the mental dam that he had constructed to keep the Winter Soldier persona active.

“I know several HYDRA agents, but I didn’t know all of them,” Steve continued. “When HYDRA goes down, I don’t want myself to be caught in potential crossfire. So pick the floor that you’ll keep HYDRA and the elevator trapped on, and I’ll bring myself several floors above that.”

“I’m presuming Natalia and Tony are helping in some way or form?”

“Yep,” Tony’s affirmation came as soon as the man popped into existence near them. “I’d say pick some floor below thirty-three. That place has an easy access point for me to build a container for the Mind Stone, and interface with JARVIS.”

“Jarvis?” Bucky asked.

While it was natural to assume that a few who had served during the war would still be alive this day and age, he thought that Jarvis was at least a few years older than himself, Peggy, or Howard. The butler/bodyguard of Howard Stark would’ve been at least over 100 years of age in 2012.

“Just A Rather Very Intelligent System,” Tony answered, before shaking his head slightly. “Not the point. Anyways, Rogers, I’m going to assume that you and Romanov are breaking into the Triskelion to release the files?”

“Yeah,” Steve answered. “That program you had running on the Helicarrier – is it still accessible, or localized to just the base?”

“Oh, look at you, Mr. I’m Just Faking it For Not Understanding Technology,” Tony stated, tone dripping with sarcasm.

“Tony—” Steve began, annoyed.

“Yes, I can interface with it,” Tony answered, almost chuckling to himself. “They might’ve closed the primary backdoor, but there’s more than one way in to get that program reactivated again.”

“Yeah,” Tony confirmed again, before Bucky saw him focus his attention on him. “Choose a floor below thirty-three then, Barnes.”

“And don’t worry about the noise, and two instances of myself falling several stories after you’re done with HYDRA, Buck,” Steve stated.

Before Bucky could ask him to clarify that rather ominous statement, Tony suddenly disappeared, as Steve peeked out from behind the shed again. Bucky did so as well, and saw that Banner had curled his hand around the Time Stone, and was looking towards Stark Tower. The yellow-orange clad wizard was no where to be seen.

“I can only presume that neither of you wanted to be seen by Dr. Banner.”

Bucky had a knife already half-way out of its sheathe even before the feminine-sounding voice had finished. He had also half-turned, and about to step forward to attack, when he stopped himself.

Standing before the two of them was the yellow-orange garbed wizard. Neither he, nor Steve – judging from the similar stance that he had also taken – had heard her arrive.

Bucky realized that the Sorcerer Supreme looked familiar. At least familiar enough to what he remembered of the primary clerk – not bald, but with a full head of hair – at the law office, who had helped his mother. The clerk had patiently walked his mother through every part of the Will, explaining the nuanced differences between an execution of a Will in the US versus England.

“Captain America,” the Sorcerer stated. There was a touch of humor and awe in her voice, though Bucky saw a twinkle of sarcasm laced in her eyes.

“Ma’am,” Steve greeted formally. “Or is it sir?”

Bucky flicked his eyes over to Steve, unsure as to why Steve couldn’t discern the wizard’s gender. It was the mysterious smile on the wizard’s face that drew his attention back.

“And the Winter Soldier,” the Sorcerer continued. “You are wise not to step into the Sanctum Sanctorum in your current state, Winter Soldier. Hosts of Ghost Rider, even if they are not directly linked, are not welcomed.”

“But it’s 2012,” Steve spoke up. “Private Barnes, the one that Ghost Rider took as host—”

“Time and different realities are tricky rivers to navigate, aren’t they?” the Sorcerer stated, faintly smiling that mysterious smile again. “You have something of mine, Captain?”

In response, Bucky saw Steve silently open up his left hand. The green stone sat gleaming in his gloved hand, before it was suddenly lifted out. Bucky watched as it was slowly guided by some manner of magic that fascinated him, back to what looked like an eye-shaped container.

As soon as the stone settled within the container hanging around the Sorcerer’s neck, he saw her do something with her hands to close it. “Was it worth it all, Captain?” the Sorcerer asked.

“Yes,” Steve steadily answered. “Except for the sacrifices that had to be made to make it happen.”

The Sorcerer sagely nodded once, before saying, “They’ll be with you, Captain Rogers, until your duty is complete. Treasure the remaining time you have with them, in the hopes that this will never again, have to be done.”

“I will, and thank you,” Steve said.

Steve didn’t so much as jog off, but instead, enveloped both of them in a blue-black cloud of cold. Bucky only had a moment to brace himself before an icy sensation shot through his body.

It felt like going into cryo, but not, as a second later, he blinked and found himself within a rather spartan, but elegant-looking hall. It was movement from Steve – or rather Steve’s uniform – that briefly drew his attention.

Steve’s bright blue uniform was rippling into his dark blue SHIELD uniform. Bucky’s attention was drawn away with Tony’s barked command, “Zephyr Protocol, JARVIS. Copy?”

There was silence in the air before an unexpected, disembodied voice that seemed to have come from above them said, “Copy and comply, sir.”

“Good,” Bucky heard Tony state, almost purring the word. “We’re in the clear, Cap,” Tony stated to Steve, before leading the way down the hall.

Bucky followed Steve, half-marveling at the offices that he saw beyond clear glass panes. While the backdrop of destruction was sobering, he could not believe that machines – computers as both Steve and Tony had stated numerous amounts of times before – were the among those that pushed technology to the forefront it was at this point in time.

At the end of the hall, there was a lobby of sorts with two elevators on one side, and a gleaming laboratory of sorts on the other. Tony pointed to one on the right, saying, “That’s where HYDRA’s coming from. The other will take you to whatever floors you two need to be at. Barnes, just call out to JARVIS when you’re ready to hold the elevator.”

“JARVIS won’t hurtle the elevator to the ground?” Bucky asked.

A rather wolfish smile curled up Tony’s lips, before the inventor stated, “I like where you head’s at Barnes. But as much as I want those bastards to pay with their lives, seeing them get served with justice and sentencing is much more satisfying.”

“Which they will get,” Steve answered, giving both him and Tony a slightly reproachful look. Bucky ignored the look, as Steve then asked, “How long will it take you to build the containment unit, Tony?”

“At least a half-hour,” Tony stated. “Provided that my other self doesn’t realize that I’ve invoked Zephyr Protocol on JARVIS.”

Bucky saw Steve frown slightly, before Tony waved his hand dismissively. Despite expecting Steve to say a word of protest or caution, Bucky was slightly surprised that Steve merely reached out and hit the down button on the elevator.

A few seconds, there was a faint ding and the doors to the empty elevator slid open. Steve entered, and Bucky stepped in after him. With one last look at Tony, who was now in the laboratory, the door slid close.

Bucky reached past Steve and hit the 23 rd floor’s button. Both he and Steve silently rode down to that floor. Just as the elevator stopped, he heard Steve say, “Good hunting, Winter Soldier.”

Bucky nodded once as he stepped out. As soon as the door slid close, he took a deep breath. Slowly exhaling as he silenced every single thought, every wondrous awe at the future, and worry. He reached forward and hit the down button.

The seconds slowly ticked by, and it was the faint ding again that sealed up everything else within his world – his mind. Ice-cold, tension-filled frostiness, and wired tight, Bucky slipped back into the persona of the Winter Soldier.

You are a winter soldier who is ever vigilant in his defense of life and liberty.

The doors slid open, revealing an elevator full of STRIKE soldiers that he recognized, along with Agent Sitwell. They took one look at him, and the Winter Soldier saw their eyes widen in horror.

“Oh shit—” Sitwell exclaimed.

The Winter Soldier didn’t even allow the agent to finish his exclamation, and struck.

His snap-kick solidly connected with Sitwell, folding him in half. Even before the agent slammed into the STRIKE soldier directly behind him, the Winter Soldier was already lashing out with two quick punches – left and right – at the two soldiers next to Sitwell. He moved further into the elevator.

Someone had tried to hit the emergency close button, but he had smashed the hand of the STRIKE soldier into the panel. The emergency stop was activated as the doors remained open, but none could get out – he made sure of that.

The Winter Soldier, upended another STRIKE member into the ceiling with a simple grab and throw of his left hand. He caught wild movement out of the corner of his right, and raised his right arm to block the electric stick that tried to smash into his head.

The jolt from the stick cascaded harmlessly down his vibranium-weaved clothing, as he wrenched the stick from the muscular-looking STRIKE soldier. Flipping the stick in his hand, the Winter Soldier jammed it into the soldier’s neck.

The soldier twitched and writhed before succumbing to the stick’s shock. At nearly the same time, the Winter Soldier hand immediately held up his left hand to deflect the bullets from the gun another STRIKE soldier had managed to pull out.

Taking two steps forward, he crushed the gun in the soldier’s hand, ignoring the soldier’s scream of pain. A solid punch to the soldier’s head was enough to silence him. Another snap-kick was also enough to silence two other soldiers within the cramped elevator.

Unfortunately, his movement further into the elevator had left a sliver of window open, and the lone conscious, but heavily bruised soldier – Rumlow – had slipped out. The Winter Soldier turned from where he was, and plucked out a combat knife.

Rumlow was five steps away from the elevator and gaining, when the long blade sunk directly into and through his left leg – directly above the knee. The STRIKE soldier fell, screaming and clutching his leg in pain.

The Winter Soldier merely stepped around the unconscious bodies within the elevator, casually and slowly making his way to where Rumlow was. On the other hand, Rumlow was still trying to get away, scraping his useless leg underneath him, trail of blood slowly pooling out.

“Look, man,” Rumlow desperately stated, when it became clear that he could not get away. “Tell Pierce that we’re – I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to give the fucking thing to Rogers! He fucking played us like fools—”

A horrendous crash of glass to their left, briefly drew both of their attention. The Winter Soldier saw two bright-blue, red-white striped clad bodies flash by in their fall—

Steve!

—and promptly remembered what Steve had stated to him earlier. That for him to not be alarmed with the two instances of Steve’s selves falling.

“The fuck—” Rumlow began.

Bucky immediately returned his attention to the HYDRA soldier. One simple kick to the head was all that it took to silence Rumlow. Disgust welled up within him as Bucky then took the man by the vest and dragged him back into the elevator.

As tempted as he was to yank his combat knife out of Rumlow, his Winter Soldier persona had struck to kill Rumlow – but slowly. The soldier was already slowly bleeding out, but would survive if he got medical intervention within the next few hours. Yanking the knife out would drop Rumlow’s chances of survival down to less than a half-hour.

“JARVIS, hold the elevator here, please.”

“Yes, sir,” the disembodied voice stated. “And if I may ask… I heard Sir address you as ‘Barnes’. I am unsure of your combat style, but based on my parameters, search through the internet, along with your appearance next to an apparent third iteration of Captain Rogers, may I assume that you are Sergeant James Barnes?”

Bucky glanced up and around, wondering how the disembodied entity could see him. Seeing nothing that could indicate a camera of the sort, he stepped out of the elevator. There was nothing to indicate cameras around this elevator lobby area either.

He didn’t confirm the entity’s correct assumption though, and said, “Close the elevator doors as well, please.”

“As you wish, sir.”

As soon as the elevator doors closed, Bucky took another deep breath and let everything flood back into his mind. He was, however, careful to not completely let the Winter Soldier persona go. The main threat to this 2012-version of Steve’s life was dealt with, but the soldiers had not been killed.

It would’ve been easier to just kill everyone within the elevator, but Bucky adhered to the requests of Steve and Tony. He was not the Winter Soldier that everyone else knew about – he was his own, as was the name – and it would be shaped to the image he wanted to carve.

Reaching out, he hit the up button. Thirty seconds later, he was greeted with the faint ding and the doors sliding open. Steve was standing to the side, with his 2012-self half-slung across his shoulders. Two shields were lying at the back of the elevator – and he caught Steve grinning faintly at him.

That grin slowly faded, as Bucky saw him look beyond him to see the trail of blood. “Rumlow tried to escape,” Bucky simply stated as he got into the elevator. “He’s not dead if he doesn’t pull the knife out of himself.”

“Oh,” Steve answered, before seemingly shrugging slightly. Steve then hit the button to close the doors and continue to bring them back up to the 33rd floor.

The reaction was so nonchalant that Bucky couldn’t help but stare at Steve. Even with his glasses still on, his apparent bafflement still got through to Steve as he caught Steve glancing over at him, before he shrugged slightly.

“Rumlow was a complete asshole,” Steve stated.

Bucky nodded once, but did not press for any further explanation. Steve’s uncharacteristic cursing was enough for him to understand just how miserable Rumlow had made Steve’s life – after the collapse of SHIELD.

The elevator deposited them to their floor. While Steve carried his 2012-self out, Bucky took up the shields and brought them out. Entering the lab after Steve, he placed the shields to the side while Steve situated his 2012-self against the wall.

“Got zip-ties around here, Tony?” Steve asked.

Bucky’s attention was drawn to what Tony was currently doing. It was not quite molding, but it was fascinating, watching the tiny fizzles and sparks of whatever containment unit was being created on the workbench.

“Can zip-ties even hold you? You might as well try cuffs,” Tony’s muffled voice from underneath the welder’s mask he wore, issued through. “Titanium ones are at the far side of the room. Strongest material I had on hand when I created them.”

“Wha—” Steve began, as Bucky saw him give Tony a bewildered look. “I don’t even want to know why you were creating them—”

“What… never had kinky sex before, Rogers?” Tony retorted, as Bucky saw him flip the mask up.

The glare that Steve threw Tony was withering, but Bucky could see that Steve was flushing slightly red under his collar. Bucky was a little glad he had his half-mask and glasses on. His own reaction to the banter would have most likely drawn Tony’s attention onto him.

It was thankfully short-lived, as Tony then returned his attention to the compartment. Steve retrieved two sets of cuffs, and returned. Bucky watched Steve gingerly cuff his 2012-self around the wrists and ankles.

He didn’t need to ask why Steve was doing that to his 2012-self. It was obvious that when Steve’s 2012-self woke up, there was a great possibility that he could be combative, or summon the rest of the Avengers – which none of them needed.

“Press the center button, Rogers,” Tony’s unexpected statement came a moment later.

There was a moment’s pause from Steve, before Bucky saw him comply, and the cuffs suddenly turned into rather large ones that enveloped 2012-Steve’s forearms, and shins. He saw Steve frown before looking up towards Tony.

“Prototype for what I had installed in the suit in 2016,” was all Tony stated.

“Go for the legs,” Steve answered just as evenly, before standing back up.

Bucky didn’t quite understand the exchange, but he wasn’t going to ask either of them to elaborate. He understood enough to know that the year referenced was when the Avengers had fractured, due to disagreements. And that the cuffs on 2012-Steve were a prototype to whatever arsenal Tony had on him in 2016.

“Nat,” Steve called out, going over to pick up his shield.

“Ready, Steve,” Natasha answered, appearing. “And don’t worry, I can handle the load.”

“We’re going to have to make a stop at New Jersey first,” Steve said. “Are you sure?”

“Detour to Jersey?” Tony questioned before Bucky could. “Why—”

“Zola,” Natasha stated. “He’s still alive right now.”

“Shit,” Tony muttered.

Bucky frowned, as cold anger surged through him— “Yeah, I can still handle it,” Natasha stated. “How do you want to play it?”

He caught Steve’s worried glance over at him. Even without a request, he was already approaching, sensing that this particular detour was a spur of the moment thing.

“Are you willing to draw Zola’s attention away from Natasha and I?” Steve asked.

Bucky heard more than Steve’s careful tone in that request. There was deep concern. Steve knew what Zola had done to him, and his need for revenge during the war. It had been taken from him, with Zola blowing himself up in that base on September 24 th , 1946. Now, was another chance—

“So long as I get to kill him – properly – this time,” he stated with absolutely no inflection in his tone. He was not going to give Steve or Natasha any excuse to push him away from exacting revenge on Zola.

“He’s reams and reams of tape and databanks, James—” Natasha began.

“And all we need to do is cut off the communications portion of him,” Steve interrupted, shaking his head slightly at Natasha. “That’s it. Then—”

“I get to kill him?” Bucky pointedly asked.

In response Steve nodded once. There was nothing in his best friend’s eyes that spoke of admonishment, of the need to see justice through for a scientist who had been the sole cause of HYDRA regrowing.

“Let me guide the Space Stone’s teleportation then, Steve,” Natasha stated after a few moments of silence.

“Steve...” Tony’s sudden and uncharacteristically concerned tone drew their attention onto the inventor.

“It’s a short amount of time, Tony,” Steve stated. “Not like the aftermath of Cull Obsidian.”

Bucky frowned at the cryptic words, but neither his best friend, Natasha, or Tony elaborated. There was still a highly concerned look in Tony’s eyes – and it worried Bucky. Of what he knew of the man – especially from Steve’s memories – it didn’t seem like Tony ever really cared about what happened to Steve on a personal level.

This – Tony actually and personally caring – was unexpected and troubling.

“Short burst, Tony,” Steve stated, before Bucky saw him curl his gloved left hand into a fist.

Before Bucky could ask what the hell was going on, a blue-black cloud of cold enveloped him. He was then quickly wrapped in ice, before being deposited in what looked like an elevator.

Steve landed next to him, and for a split second, Bucky thought he saw a burst of sweat appear on Steve’s face. But the poor lighting within the elevator, and his slight disorientation from being transported by the Space Stone, seemingly erased that strange visage.

“Well, here we are,” Natasha stated from Bucky’s left as he turned slightly to see her standing next to the singular up-down button. “You all right, Steve?”

“Fine,” Steve curtly stated, giving Natasha an irritated look.

“The hell is going on, Steve?” Bucky questioned, before anything else could happen.

“Nothing.”

“Gamma radiation,” Natasha had stated the same time Steve had stated his denial.

“What?” Bucky asked, eyes widening in alarm. He reached up to take his glasses off so he didn’t have a slightly darkened view of Steve.

“Nothing that the serum can’t repair,” Steve immediately followed up, placing his gloved hand against Bucky’s own.

There was the silent invitation for Bucky to reach out and remove the glove from his hand to press against Steve’s forehead. Even with what little he knew of the effects of radiation on a body – he at least knew that fever accompanied it. Yet, he remembered how Steve had looked after in the aftermath of Cull Obsidian’s attack – had felt feverish

“The stones emit mostly low levels of gamma radiation when idle. Barely enough to detect, but not enough to kill if dense materials are used to handle them,” Steve stated, as Bucky lowered his hand, seeing the truth in Steve’s eyes. “It’s what killed Tony. All six of them used together to cause an overdose of radiation—”

“And you’re using them—” Bucky began, even more alarmed now.

“Vibranium armor holds it back,” Steve stated. “So does Natasha and Tony acting as barriers. A tiny surge will not kill me, Bucky. My serum prevents cellular degeneration that the burst of radiation causes – such as wielding two stones. So, our transportation using the Tesseract was nothing.”

“Nothing,” Bucky repeated.

“Nothing,” Steve answered.

Bucky heard the stubbornness in Steve’s tone. As doubtful has he felt, his glance over at Natasha yielded no other reasons to be overly worried. There was a calm and composed look on her face. The slight incline of her head towards Steve also indicated that Steve was not omitting anything from him.

“Ready?” Steve asked after a few seconds of silence. Bucky saw him position himself to the right.

That left Bucky standing in the center, and he silently nodded. He pushed all thoughts of just how dangerous the stones truly were, to the back of his thoughts.

Steve’s memories of finding Zola in the secret basement were drawn to the forefront of his thoughts. The glacial ocean of the Winter Soldier persona was still brimming at the edge, ready for him to dive back in.

Natasha pressed the button, and the elevator slowly and creakily descended. As Bucky slowly breathed in and out, he saw her disappear. Steve shifted slightly, bringing his shield up in a defensive position, as Bucky saw him curl his left hand into a fist again.

You are a winter soldier who is ever vigilant in his defense of life and liberty.

The elevator ground to a halt and the doors slid open. Beyond what the Winter Soldier saw were metal cases full of blinking lights and electronics that he could barely begin to comprehend.

He stepped out, and the lights above him blinked on. He slowly moved forward and into the area. Yet, he did not look around in wonder – and focused on the console directly ahead.

A faint whine coming from the console alerted him to movement from the two cameras positioned on the top area of the console. The three screens were also seemingly blinking awake, as he stopped two feet before the center most one and stared at it.

[Initiate System.]

Patiently waiting, the Winter Soldier simply stood there, before a nasally-voiced echo broke into the relative silence. “The Winter Soldier. Born September 24 th , 1946.”

The voice grated upon him, but the Winter Soldier made himself still, kept himself as still as the deep ocean of cold anger within him. Zola had no hold upon him, and when ready, would receive his due.

“Mission report. Why are you here, Winter Soldier?”

“<Ready to comply.>” the Winter Soldier stated in Russian.

It was spontaneous, something that felt right to say in the face of such a demanding question. Whether it was an artifact of what they had done to him before that fateful day, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the illusion remained as robust as possible.

“Who sent you, Winter Soldier? Alexander Pierce?”

The Winter Soldier remained silent. The memories that he had seen, that he knew of, told him that handlers were not known by name – only by face, by voice recognition. The question could not be answered by him.

“Ah, yes, I had forgotten,” Zola stated, a touch of sarcastic amusement in his tone. “We stripped you of all but the most important areas of cognitive function. You do not have to answer that question Winter Soldier. You are the perfect machine soldier—”

There was a slight burst of cold that brushed across the back of his neck and head behind him. Yet, the Winter Soldier did not immediately turn to see what it was. Even Zola’s startled, buzzed, but still nasally voiced, “What was that?” didn’t make him turn.

Instead, the Winter Soldier continued to stand at parade rest. As much as he wanted to immediately draw his sniper rifle out and unload all of his ammunition at the nearest banks of tape he could see, he did not.

The Winter Soldier did not react rashly when patiently waiting to kill.

And neither did Bucky.

After three slow heartbeats, Bucky finally turned, back facing Zola and his cameras. He had been tall enough and broad enough to mask Steve’s arrival, but not enough to completely conceal Steve’s shield that was hooked on Steve’s back.

Reaching up, he slowly removed both the half-mask and glasses. Steve’s blue-green eyes were steadily upon him, waiting for him to give the order to whatever he wanted him to do.

Bucky handed the mask and glasses over to Steve, who silently took it. As if reading his mind, Steve then silently unhooked his shield with his free hand, and drew it forward.

Taking the shield, Bucky took a deep breath, heartbeat still steady—

B reathe—pause—heartbeat— turn— throw.

“No—!” Zola’s garbled, electronic scream seared through the air.

Throw—draw back—three degrees right —throw—

“морозилка!”

Shift five degrees left —throw—shrapnel collateral damage.

“отъезд! желание—”

Throw—heartbeat—shift two degrees left—throw—throw—throw—

Breathe.

Bucky caught the shield in his outstretched left hand, just as he felt Steve’s hand clamp around his right arm. He was partially dragged back, right before an I-beam clattered to the ground a few inches away from where he had been standing.

“Let’s go!” Steve shouted in him as secondary explosions bloomed all around the two of them. Bucky hadn’t even heard the first ones, but the place was definitely coming down upon them.

Ice immediately surrounded both of them, accompanying the cold blue-black cloud. A moment later, both he and Steve were deposited onto the ground – which did not look anything like SHIELD headquarters, or anywhere else.

Instead, they had landed in a decrepit-looking place that looked to be a former military base. Rumbling from behind Bucky caused him to turn, only to see a weapons storage bunker partially collapse. He realized that they were still within Camp Lehigh – only above ground now.

Zola – and everything in that bunker – was destroyed.

Zola was dead; by his hand—

Bucky suddenly had the shield in his left hand plucked out of his grasp. At nearly the same time, he was enveloped in a warm, comforting embrace. The shield clattered to the ground in a dull thud, as he felt Steve wrap his arms around him.

Words did not need to be exchanged between the two of them as Bucky immediately reciprocated the action. Steve’s presence was enough for him to remember the almost blind, but precise actions he had taken to toss the shield into key areas to destroy all of Zola—

“He’s dead,” Bucky whispered, feeling strangely and slightly giddy. “Zola—”

“He’s dead,” Steve’s murmured confirmation in his right ear was enough to settle the unusual giddiness.

Steve loosened his grip, and Bucky did so as well. Steve took a small step back, sliding his hands down Bucky’s arms to rest at his elbows. Those blue-green eyes of Steve’s held nothing but acceptance in them, as they stood slightly apart for a few seconds. Then, Steve leaned forward slightly to touch their foreheads together.

“Thank you, Steve,” Bucky stated, closing his eyes ever so briefly as the memories of what Zola had done to him began to fade.

He felt Steve move his left hand up and curl it on the back of his neck and head. Mental exhaustion was sweeping through Bucky. The warmth from Steve’s soft, caressing touch caused him to lean forward until he was resting his forehead against Steve’s chest.

Bucky stood like that for what felt like a few long minutes. Even the gentle pressure of Steve’s lips upon the crown of his head didn’t move him, as he took slow, deep breaths.

Zola was dead. Even though this particular Zola was not his reality’s captor, torturer, and violator, he couldn’t help but feel an enormous sense of relief.

He slowly came back to himself – to the mission – and to what else they needed to do. “Let’s finish this, Steve,” he said after a few moments, somewhat reluctantly drawing himself up and away from Steve.

In response, he saw Steve silently nod, before seeing him take the half-mask and glasses out of a compartment casing. Bucky shook his head – the Winter Soldier’s initial disguise was not needed by him anymore. There was no more he needed to hide from this world – from HYDRA.

Steve returned the accessories back to where they had been stored, and picked up his shield. Slinging it over his back, Bucky then saw him raise his left hand up. The blue stone was glowing – ready to transport them.

A single nod was all he needed to give Steve, before they were whisked away in a blindingly cold cloud of blue-black. They landed within the World Council chambers on the top floor of the Triskelion—

“What the fuck—”

“Halt!”

Bucky whirled to his left, just as Steve tossed the shield from their right. The shield hit the guard at the far end of the Council chambers, just as Bucky’s metal arm connected with the guard to their immediate left. Both fell and crumpled to the floor before they could send an alert.

As Steve retrieved and holstered his shield, Bucky crouched down and plucked the comm device from the guard’s ears. He hooked it onto his left ear, and made sure that the mute capability was enabled. While more advanced-looking and smaller than what he worked with at Brooklyn, the basics were still there.

“Steve,” he heard Natasha say, as he stood up and glanced over to see Natasha making her way to the lone console-like area near the glass panels that separated this room from what looked like an office.

“You and James will need to stand at those two panels over there when I give the signal. Project both Fury and Pierce onto yourselves, and make sure you use Fury’s blind eye to unlock the files,” Natasha continued to say as she began to type on the console.

“Why not his good eye?” Steve questioned.

“Fail safe,” was all Natasha answered before a rather familiar voice piped through above them.

“Oh good, you’re in,” Tony’s disembodied voice stated. “Great – let me take over some things—”

“Let Natasha do her work in separating HYDRA files from SHIELD, Tony,” Steve ordered. “I need you to specifically begin searching for any and all data about the Winter Soldier and his current location. We’ll also need collation of all Red Room bases—”

“Tell the local AI system to do that, Rogers,” Tony cut in. “I’m encountering some fairly nasty firewalls, tracers, and the like with your first request.”

“All right...” Steve said, stepping up to a glass panel that was suddenly filled with what looked like typing keys – keyboard, as he had learned – and other things that looked almost scientifically fantastical.

“SHIELD knows we’re in their systems,” Natasha spoke up after a few seconds. “James, any chatter over the com?”

Bucky glanced down at the communications device he held in his left hand, before carefully turning the dial on it with his right hand fingers. He listened carefully through each frequency on the device before setting it back to its original frequency.

“Not yet,” he answered.

“Monitor, and let us know the minute they squawk,” Natasha ordered.

“Wish I could do more than just listen,” Bucky said, looking at both concentrated looks on his friends’ faces.

“We got this, Buck,” Steve said.

“Shouldn’t take too long,” Natasha stated.

“Search parameters: Red Room, mental conditioning, psychological evaluation, physiological experimentation. Append with criteria of locale: Russia, and the former Soviet Union from the 1917 revolutions until December 26th, 1991,” Steve then stated, seemingly talking directly at the panel.

Bucky saw what looked like a numerical percentage to 100 slowly, but steadily rising, projected to Steve’s right. As he watched it tick up, he gently dialed the comm device through its various frequencies again. There was still nothing over the frequencies to indicate a physical attack.

“Only those in Russia or the Soviet Union?” Natasha questioned.

“Start small, strike hard,” Steve answered. “We know two locales – that silo in Siberia, and the one off Alaska. The Avengers will be able to take care of the rest—”

“Rogers, the Winter Soldier is not in DC – not where he was confirmed to have undergone conditioning during the 2014 attack,” Tony’s voice cut into the conversation.

“Shit,” Bucky heard Steve softly, and very uncharacteristically curse.

“They’re definitely onto me—” Tony began.

“Package up what you have, now,” Natasha ordered.

Worry crept into Bucky as he saw Steve’s startled, yet somewhat desperate look up at Natasha. But Steve did not countermand that order, as Tony’s confirmation curtly spat through wherever the speakers were situated in this chamber.

“We don’t have—” Natasha began.

“Time. I know,” Steve said. Bucky could hear the defeat in Steve’s tone.

Before he could step forward and tell Steve that it was all right that they didn’t have the exact location of his counterpart in this timeline, a disembodied voice stated, “Files found.”

Bucky glanced at the percentage on the glass panel on Steve’s right. It was at 100, and Steve manipulated a few things with his fingertips pressed against the glass.

“You boys are up,” Natasha stated a few minutes later.

As Steve silently directed Bucky to stand in front of a glass panel, Bucky once again, listened to the various frequencies over the comm device. Then he stepped up to the panel.

What looked like a circular, semi-transparent dial popped up in front of him. Natasha disappeared out of the corner of his eyes. He saw Steve raise his left hand for a brief moment, before something seemingly shimmered over him.

Steve’s visage changed to that of what he remembered SHIELD Directory Fury to look like. Bucky could only assume that Alexander Pierce’s visage was draped over himself.

“Lean in, and look directly at the circular thing, Bucky,” Steve said – definitely not sounding like Fury at all.

Bucky complied, and a moment later, he saw something begin to blink at Natasha’s console. As he stepped back, the glamour of Steve looking like Fury disappeared. A second later, Steve opened his left hand, and Natasha appeared at the console again.

There was a slight upwards quirk of her lips as she typed in a few things, before murmuring, “Oh… it’s trending on Twitter… again. And it looks like a lot of people are trying to correlate HYDRA causing the attack on New York…”

“Search parameter: Wolf Spider. Append with possible initials of ‘WS’, excluding references to Winter Soldier. English and Russian languages.”

Bucky glanced over sharply, eyes widening slightly. Steve continued to type on the projected keyboard, while manipulating a few things. Bucky caught Natasha’s surprised look as well, before noticing that the ‘search’ numerical value looked like it was rising at a fair pace towards 100.

[Searching… ‘Wolf Spider’ and ‘WS’…]

“If this Wolf Spider exists,” Steve began, pausing for a moment before looking left and right at both him and Natasha, “and is a part of the Soviet-HYDRA suite of joint programs, then it’s fair to say that the candidate may have existed at one point.”

“Very few files about the Black Widows or Winter Soldier programs were ever digitized, Steve,” Natasha cautioned. “That file I gave you from my contacts in Kiev constituted the bulk of what little could be found.”

“And we decrypted and found many of the old Red Room facilities via what was dumped onto the internet, Nat. Just like how Zemo’s search led him to the Siberian silo,” Steve stated. “You said so yourself that it looked like some bean counter in the seventies decided to begin populating information on ARPANET to make it easier for HYDRA operatives to secretly communicate with each other.”

Bucky was a little confused at what Steve was talking about, but it seemed that Natasha understood what Steve said. Yet, based on the words alone, it sounded as if information was being secretly, and almost instantaneously shared between people. Considering the extent of what he knew of HYDRA’s hold in 2012, and what he was witnessing at the moment – the world was connected in ways that he found more fantastically imagined, than real.

“Ghost Rider knows who Wolf Spider is,” Bucky quietly spoke up.

“Yes, and he’s from a completely different reality than ours,” Natasha spoke up, a touch of anger in her tone.

“Wasn’t going to trade anyways, Natalia,” he answered. “It’s a price—”

Squawks over the comm system that he had filched from the knocked-out guard diverted his attention for a brief moment. “They just called for STRIKE Alpha and Bravo to storm this place,” he told the two. “ETA five minutes.”

“Which means, they’ll be here in three,” Natasha began.

“Files found,” the same disembodied voice spoke up.

Bucky saw Steve immediately shift his attention over to where the projection was showing a pictorial depiction of a file. The numbers had disappeared.

Steve immediately opened it, and ran his eyes over the first piece of information before splaying his left fingers out to seemingly discard it. The second file was opened, and Bucky saw him immediately take a step back.

“Oh, God,” Steve whispered in horror.

Bucky stepped around, and only got two steps closer to Steve before he saw what was being displayed. It was a file, similar to what he saw in Steve’s memories of the Winter Soldier folder that Natasha had given Steve. Except that this file was labeled in Russian with [Project 02: Wolf Spider].

The photograph within the file was that of Michael Carter.

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: Pretender – Part 5 – 2012

 

“No,” Bucky denied, voice cracking with despair.

He saw Steve reach out and hesitatingly swipe the photograph to the side, revealing further contents of the file. His eyes read through the notes, meticulously taken by someone, but Bucky couldn’t – wouldn’t – refused to – understand all that was written.

“They gave him the super-soldier formula in 1991,” Natasha breathed, eyes wide with horror and surprise. She slid the file closer to where she was, and scanned it intently.

“He… they grafted Carter’s face with another, after a mission in Bucharest. His fellow operatives noticed that SHIELD Director Margaret Carter – confirmed to have been within the city – may have recognized him prior to executing the mission…” Natasha continued, but trailed off into silence.

“But I...” Bucky began, not wanting to believe what he was hearing was true. “I said those code words to him… I said it… and he didn’t change—”

He could feel the heavy gaze of Natasha on him. Bucky couldn’t even finish his denial as Steve briefly drew up the two photographs of Michael – one showing his enlistment photograph, the other after he had apparently got his face replaced with another person’s skin.

“Aliased as Michael Walker,” Steve murmured, horrified as well. “Kept on periodic ice. One of the five Winter Soldiers… dear God—”

“Package it up, Nat,” Steve abruptly stated, dropping his hand from the glass pane. “Package it up with the Winter Soldier location and Red Room files – and get them to Tony.”

Steve’s hard tone was enough to shake Bucky out of his brief fugue. Bucky checked the time, “Ninety seconds.” He could hear the faint pounding of boots coming up the stairs, and the faint beating of helicopter rotors in the distance.

Steve glanced over at him, but didn’t say a word, even though sympathy and remorse were shining through his eyes.

At nearly the same time, Natasha said, “Package sent. Tony’s algorithm is already doing its erasure work. Let’s go.”

“Later,” Bucky somehow managed to say, as he stepped up next to Steve. “We’ll… later.”

A split second later, the sensation of an ice-cold blast of air surrounded him. SHIELD Headquarters, the glass panes, and the file that held the identity of the Soviet asset code-named Wolf Spider, disappeared.

The laboratory replaced his vision, and Bucky stumbled ever so slightly out of the chilling grasp of the Tesseract. Tony himself was at the panels, and there was a small cube-like container sitting on the table next to the inventor.

“Shit, Rogers,” Bucky heard Tony begin, as the inventor glanced back at the three of them, eyes wide with alarm. “He fucking knows about the stones, their locations—”

“We don’t know if he is still the Wolf Spider—” Steve began, going over to where Tony was standing.

“Sit rep, Stark,” Natasha ordered, going over to the table next to Tony and brought up a few screens on the glass panels situated there.

“Shit’s on fire,” Tony sarcastically spat out, as Steve went over to where Natasha was and manipulated a few screens. “What else is new.”

“Tony,” Steve began, exasperated.

“Pierce is having the time of his life, trying to explain what the hell happened,” Tony stated, glaring at Steve. “Fury’s squabbling on an encrypted channel that I can’t break into yet, but I can bet that it’s the World Council. Happy?”

It was also then, that Bucky noticed that their ‘guest’ was awake, and silently watching the exchange. He tried to shove all thoughts about the identity of the Wolf Spider to the back of his thoughts – he needed to concentrate on the here and now.

Focusing on Steve’s 2012 counterpart was not helping much, but it was better than having his thoughts turn circular. In the brief moment that he observed Steve’s counterpart, he saw mistrust, alarm, confusion, puzzlement, and finally a sliver of possible understanding dawn across 2012-Steve’s face.

“Hey,” Bucky called out to the three. He ignored the startled yet burst of confused happiness that appeared on 2012-Steve’s face, attention drawn to him. “Your other self is awake, Steve.”

That stopped the three cold, as Steve immediately turned and approached. Bucky didn’t move towards 2012-Steve, but carefully watched him as Steve’s counterpart warily glanced at Steve himself.

“Not… Loki.” he heard Steve’s counterpart state.

“Not Loki,” Steve confirmed, crouching before his counterpart. “Sorry about what I did earlier,” Steve continued to say after a moment.

Bucky caught Tony’s exaggerated rolling of his eyes at Steve’s apology to his 2012 self, as Steve then said, “But I needed to borrow this—” Steve uncurled his left hand to show the glowing yellow stone “—to save my reality, my timeline.”

“Timeline? Reality?” 2012-Steve questioned, looking quite confused.

“Thanos, the guy behind Loki, attacked us again,” Steve answered, deciding to sit down instead of remain crouched before his counterpart. “2018. He collected all of the Infinity Stones. I’d ask Thor about them, when you get time to do so. He knows a little about the stones.”

“This stone here—” Steve continued, gently hefting the stone up and down for a brief moment “—was in Loki’s scepter. It’s the Mind Stone. That cube, the Tesseract, it’s the Space Stone. I don’t have a lot of time to explain any further, but suffice to say, the Avengers need to try to find some way to destroy at least one of the stones. It’s what Thanos is looking for and collecting – six of them. He…”

Steve paused for a moment. “He killed trillions all over the galaxy with the six stones in 2018. It took us five years to figure out a plan to get everyone we lost, back. Which is why we needed this stone.”

“Everyone you lost…” Steve’s counterpart began, then craned his neck towards Bucky.

As much as Bucky could see the conflicting despair and hope within 2012-Steve’s eyes, he shook his head. “I’m not from your timeline or reality,” Bucky stated.

“Bucky is alive,” Steve firmly stated, drawing his counterpart’s attention back onto him.

Bucky glanced up to see Natasha toss a small rectangular object at him. He caught it, but it didn’t look like much to him – all plastic and metal. However, he understood enough that it was something that he should give to 2012-Steve.

Crouching down for a brief moment, Bucky placed the object next to 2012-Steve, just as Steve himself said, “Your reality, your timeline’s Bucky is alive.” Steve gestured towards the object with his right hand, saying, “Everything that we could find is in that USB drive. We don’t know where he currently is, but you’ll have to move fast to get him out of HYDRA’s hands—”

“HYDRA,” 2012-Steve’s counterpart half-growled the word, before a disgusted look briefly appeared on his face.

“I can provide assistance in the decryption of the files, Captain Rogers…erm, I suppose, this reality’s Captain Rogers, then,” the disembodied voice of JARVIS stated.

“Nice of you to offer that assistance JARVIS, but I’m still not releasing you from Zephyr Protocol just yet,” Tony quipped from where he was still standing – still watching the multiple screens.

There was no answer from JARVIS, but both Steve and his counterpart seemed to ignore Tony’s statement for the moment. Bucky watched as Steve curled his left hand close again, before opening it – the Mind Stone was no longer in his hand.

Steve then slowly drew his shield forward, carefully keeping an eye on his counterpart. There was wariness reflected in both of their eyes, but Bucky’s instincts were not flaring up to anticipate an attack from Steve’s counterpart. Instead, Steve then broke both titanium cuffs with ease, with two swift strikes from his edge of his shield.

As soon as Steve sheathed his shield, he helped his counterpart up. The remnants of the cuffs clattered to the floor. Steve’s counterpart had also swiped up the USB drive with his free hand, and shoved it into one of his belt’s compartments.

“We’re good?” Steve asked, as Bucky saw Steve’s counterpart look over at where Natasha and Tony were.

Natasha had briefly stopped what she was doing, and gave a rather almost flirty wave of her hand. Despite the situation, Bucky found that slightly amusing, especially the confused look that appeared on 2012-Steve’s face. Even more amusing was Steve’s rather exasperated look.

“Nat…” Steve began.

Steve’s counterpart’s eyes then landed on Bucky, lingering over him with a rather thoughtful look, before returning to Steve. “Yeah,” Steve’s counterpart answered. “We’re good.”

Steve curtly nodded, before going over to where the palm-sized cube was sitting. Bucky saw him swipe it off the table. “This ready, Tony?” Steve asked, glancing towards Tony for a brief moment.

“Yeah,” Tony answered.

“They’re not the Agent Romanov or Tony Stark of my reality or timeline, correct?” 2012-Steve asked out loud.

“Yeah,” Bucky answered.

Like Steve, he was not going to elaborate – and now he understood why Steve had been and still was, incredibly reluctant to talk about what happened to him. He could see just how much of a mess things were rapidly becoming, even without the notification to the world about HYDRA from within SHIELD.

The faster they removed themselves from here, the better he felt.

“All right—” Steve began, approaching – just as the door to the laboratory swished open—

“Shit, what the hell?!”

Bucky immediately raised his metal arm and swiftly blocked the five rapid gunshots that had been directed at him. Yet, he dared not pull out his pistol to return fire.

“Romanov! Hold your fire!” 2012-Steve ordered, immediately stepping into Bucky’s direct line of sight before Steve could get there.

The man Bucky recognized as Clint Barton had been the one to say that exclamation, but Natasha – 2012-Natasha – had been the one to immediately leap into action without a sound. He had seen her move as a Widow did in ambush – no hesitation and fear.

“Get out of the way, Rogers,” 2012-Natasha – Romanov, Bucky mentally termed her – growled, stepping to the side. 2012-Steve took the same route, continuing to block her line of sight. “That’s the Winter Soldier—”

“Oh, fucking hell,” Barton muttered, briefly glancing over at him.

The archer had drawn his bow back, with a strangely-tipped arrow pointed directly at Steve, Natasha, and Tony. Steve had his arms held up slightly, but the compartment was still firmly in his hand. Natasha and Tony were standing by the consoles, warily watching the rest of them.

“They’re friendlies,” Bucky heard 2012-Steve calmly state, continuing to partially hold his hands up in a slightly placating manner towards Romanov. “That—” 2012-Steve jerked a thumb back at Bucky “—is Bucky Barnes, and that guy over there—” 2012-Steve pointed with his right finger “—is myself, except from a different reality.”

“Well, the four of us are all from a different time and reality,” Tony suddenly spoke up.

A sudden image – that of Bucky himself, except it looked to be an external photograph of himself within a cryogenic tube – popped up next to 2012-Steve. Bucky couldn’t help but feel a chill crawl down his spine, as he stared at the image.

“That’s your Winter Soldier, Romanov,” Tony stated. “Your reality’s Winter Soldier. Your reality’s James Barnes, Capsicle. That one over there—” Tony jerked his chin towards Bucky “—doesn’t have his brain scrambled into bits and pieces. So fuck off, all of you, and let us finish our mission here.”

“Language!” 2012-Steve admonished.

It was rather callous and extremely rude, but it got the point across bluntly enough to jolt everyone out of their shock. It seemed that it was also incredibly uncharacteristic of Tony to say such as thing, as Bucky saw every single person in the room, except for him, stare at Tony in surprise.

“HYDRA’s falling, and we’re almost done here. We’ll be out of your hair soon,” Tony stated, giving them all an annoyed look before turning back to work on whatever he was doing.

The image of Bucky himself also disappeared. Romanov did not lower her gun yet, but Bucky could see that she was considering Tony’s uncharacteristic words and the situation. It was also then, that he realized just how wide of a gulf there was, in the mixing of personalities within the Avengers.

They had been thrown together – a volatile mixture. Even though the fire had forged them together, there were still mistrust and uncertainty within them. Taking down HYDRA at this very moment added to that uncertainty.

“You weren’t answering your comm, Cap,” Barton stated, breaking the silence. “Meltdown’s happening out there, and all that—”

As the archer lowered his bow and sheathed his arrow, it was Steve who spoke up, saying, “That’s my fault. It was the only way I could induce cognitive re-calibration.”

Bucky saw Barton blink a few times in surprise, before saying, “You got whammied by… what… another one of your self, Cap? How the hell did that happen?”

Steve’s counterpart didn’t answer, but Bucky could reasonably assume that there was a frown or something to that nature across his face. It was what he imagined Steve’s expression to be, had that question been directed at him.

“Romanov,” 2012-Steve answered instead, seemingly ignoring Barton’s question for a moment.

Romanov still had her gun up, but Bucky was done waiting for her to stand down. He stepped out, faster than what 2012-Steve could react to and headed over to where Natasha – the Natasha Romanov he knew – was standing.

“Do you have a physical copy of the files on the Wolf Spider?” he quietly asked, as he heard the near-silent click of Romanov safing her gun.

The tension within the laboratory was ebbing as he heard Natasha’s counterpart reluctantly holster her weapon, just as Natasha herself said, “Yes.”

Bucky saw her withdraw a small folder from underneath a silvery-plate of sorts, and slid it over to him. He picked it up and discreetly stuffed the file between the armored vest and shirt he wore.

“James—” Natasha quietly began.

“I know,” he answered. “He might not be the Wolf Spider anymore.”

“If he is...” she said, but trailed off, looking uncharacteristically uncertain.

“We’ll cross that bridge, if the time comes,” he answered.

He drew upon the somewhat comforting words that Steve had said before – of Steve adhering to Philips’ request to reveal himself after this entire Infinity Stone thing was complete. It was not much, but at the moment, he could not – did not want to – think about the possibility of Michael continuing to be the Wolf Spider.

“How did you guys find me, anyways?” 2012-Steve’s question drew both of them out of their private conversation. Bucky glanced over to see that Steve’s counterpart had directed his question towards the two SHIELD agents.

Romanov remained silent, as Barton scratched the back of his head before saying, “SHIELD put a tracker in your uniform, Cap.”

“What?” Steve’s counterpart questioned, looking affronted.

At nearly the same time, Romanov had glared at Barton, as Barton himself shrugged at Romanov. “What, Nat? You know I hate that sort of shit.”

“You can talk it over with Fury later,” Steve interrupted before his counterpart could continue to question the need for a rather invasive intrusion into his privacy. “Here.”

Bucky saw Steve open up the palm-sized compartment before tipping the yellow stone out of his left hand. He couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief that another stone was no longer within Steve’s arsenal. He still thought it was incredibly reckless of his best friend using the stones, knowing just how dangerous they were – much less using two stones at once.

“Wait,” Romanov began, just as Steve snapped the compartment close. “Is that—”

“Stone within the scepter,” Steve stated, handing the compartment over to his counterpart. “Either hide it somewhere where Thanos can’t find it, or destroy it,” Steve stated to his counterpart.

“2018?” Steve’s counterpart asked, holding the compartment in his hand for a brief moment before placing it in a compartment around his waist belt.

“2018,” Steve confirmed, nodding once. “But with Loki and the Tesseract gone, I don’t know how accelerated, or different your reality and timeline will be. With luck, perhaps Loki will lead Thanos on a chase throughout the galaxy for the Tesseract – buy the galaxy some time to prepare.”

“Loki?” Romanov questioned.

“There’s another invasion coming?” Barton asked at nearly the same time, looking worried.

“I’ve been asked by Sir to brief the three of you and the other Avengers, on what happened to Captain Rogers, Agent Romanov, and Sir’s reality and timeline,” the disembodied voice of JARVIS stated.

“But not his,” Romanov immediately pointed out, gesturing towards Bucky with her chin.

“Still not from your reality or timeline, Agent,” Bucky answered, giving her a cool look, crossing his arms across his chest.

He would have substituted ‘Agent’ for ‘doll’ or something of that nature, but at this moment, he could tell that she still considered him an enormous threat. It was only by virtue of being partially blocked by Barton and Steve’s counterpart, that Romanov did not attack. Given what he knew of her fighting capabilities, he was not going to attempt anything – physical or verbal – that could potentially cause her to disregard those who stood in front of her, and attack.

Fracturing the fledgling Avengers was not something he wanted to be a part of – again. Even though he had not been the particular iteration of himself to do so in Steve’s timeline, he still felt a strange ghost of a guilt for what his counterpart had done.

“All right, we’re done here,” Steve stepped physically into the line of sight between Bucky and Romanov. “Nat, Tony, we’re done. We’re leaving. You too, Bucky.”

Bucky wordlessly pushed off the console he had been leaning against, and made his way over to where Tony was already situated. Though they had not been close to the others, it seemed better if that when they left, they were physically farther away from those in the 2012 timeline.

“Nat,” Steve began, “come on—”

Bucky’s eyes were not the only ones to widen as he saw Steve stop in the middle of approaching, only to focus directly on Natasha. Steve’s friend was still at the console, but her face was etched in pure agony.

Blackened lichen – Bucky could not find any other word to describe it – rapidly sprouted all along her face, clothes – everywhere. Dark red blood was weeping from the sprouts—

“Steve, on your right—” Natasha rasped, then suddenly disappeared.

For all of his heightened sense of awareness and reaction time, Bucky hadn’t even turned half-way, much less draw forward his sniper rifle, when the enemy struck . All Bucky saw was a grey, concrete block plowing into Steve.

Steve’s name didn’t even get to leave his lips—

Heartbeat—fire—fire—fire--

“Avengers...no. You are not the stonewielder—” the thin, spindly creature that looked similar to a squid, began to say.

Dodge, run two feet left—dive—fire—

Protect Steve—

The squid-faced creature waved his long thin fingers, sending pelting, razor, sharp pieces of concrete and metal straight towards them—

“Stark! Where the hell are you? Thirty-third—!” Romanov shouted.

Pale, splotched creatures that possessed six leg-like arms and maws full of razor-sharp teeth appeared all around them—

Knife—claws—flesh between armors—stab up, away —

Their blood burns—f ire—two degrees right—fire—fire--

“Jesus fucking Christ—” Barton’s exclamation was roughly cut short.

Close quarter—stab out, stab in— acidic blood— dodge— pistol—fire—

Protect Steve—

High ground—roll—dodge— kick—roll— exploding arrow—

Three degrees roundabout—f ire—fire—fire—fire—fire—fire—fire—empty—

Protect Steve—

The Winter Soldier kicked with all of his might at the incoming creatures. Their acidic blood burned across and into his clothes and skin. Yet, they still swarmed, even after he unleashed nearly all clips of the bullets he had for his pistols.

Every single time he tried to withdraw his sniper rifle, either the squid-faced creature commanded slabs of concrete or remnants of tables to shield, or the creatures sought him out. The Winter Soldier was forced to fight close-quarters, and dangerously so with others who were being slowly overwhelmed—

Stab in—in—in—acid biting—dodge—shield arcing—now!—

For one moment, the forefront most of the ravenous creatures were briefly knocked back by the swift arching crash of the silvery red-white-blue shield. The Winter Soldier immediately snapped his sniper rifle forward, pressed his eye into the scope and sighted—

Heartbeat—fire—fire—fire—

The Winter Soldier suddenly gasped, as something tightened around his neck. It happened so fast that he saw a burst of black stars across his eyes, before he felt himself being roughly lifted off the floor. He was unable to move—

“You dare to attempt to kill me from afar with such a pathetic weapon?”

He gasped, metal hand going for the hand that grasped his neck, but feeling absolutely nothing physical. His eyes riveted towards the squid-faced creature, who was standing beyond the laboratory, right arm outstretched, and hand curled—

“Let… him...go—” the Winter Soldier heard Steve’s counterpart gasp, fighting the bonds.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw the other three also bound by invisible bonds, slowly choking from the lack of air. The creatures were tauntingly snapping up at them, as they hung in the air like bait above a pit of wild beasts.

The Winter Soldier’s eyes returned to the squid-faced creature, who had his three bullets shot from his sniper rifle slowly turning back towards them—

No—!

Almost impossibly, the three bullets that the Winter Soldier had shot at the squid-faced enemy were intercepted by a flash of silver carrying a red-white-blue streak. They ricocheted, and fell to the ground, just as the shield arced and bounced back, only to land—

“Let them go now, Ebony Maw,” the Winter Soldier heard Steve softly growl in anger.

Steve had stumbled further up, covered in a thick layer of concrete dust and debris, but there was something shimmering and overtaking him under all of that. The Winter Soldier saw him snatch the shield out of the air, while taking another two steps forward – eyes focused directly on the squid-faced creature.

“Your powers are inconsequential compared to mine, stonewielder—”

The creature’s taunt was cut short when something slammed into it from behind, causing it to fall flat onto the ground. Dropped to the ground, the Winter Soldier immediately lashed out, combat blade flying into his left hand. He killed the two creatures that surrounded him with a whirling strike.

Just as he snapped up and out of the strike, he saw a hammer of all things, land in Steve’s hand. The creatures – even the squid-faced enemy – all paused for a single moment. The three fighting near the two of them – Romanov, Barton, and Steve’s counterpart – had also warily paused.

“Is that Thor’s—?” Barton began, staring at the hammer.

“Last chance. Surrender and go back into the stone, Maw,” Steve evenly stated, tightening his grip on the hammer’s handle.

The Winter Soldier warily brought up his sniper rifle at the squid-faced creature, who was slowly getting back up onto its feet. He didn’t know how or where Steve had summoned the hammer, but his fogged memories told him that he had seen it before – when he had been held captive and was freed. There had also been a brief instant he had seen it within the facility.

Defiance shone in the squid-faced creature’s eyes. A gust of wind, seemingly blasting from the hammer, cleared most of the debris that covered Steve – revealing the full vibranium uniform.

The Winter Soldier could feel a hair-raising crackle in the air.

Not a split second later, a thunderous crackle, and bolt of lightning crashed directly into the squid-faced enemy. He only had a brief moment of seeing lighting crawl through and across Steve’s armor, before Steve threw his shield in an arc, and the hammer directly at the lightning-struck creature.

As soon as the blue-black cloud enveloped Steve, the Winter Soldier sprang into action. He dodged and rolled up, just as Steve’s shield and Barton’s explosive arrows littered the area, killing several creatures around them. Sprinting up a broken beam towards the highest point he could find, the Winter Soldier then turned, brought up his sniper rifle and pressed the scope to his eye—

Steve had teleported behind the squid-faced enemy, latched onto him from behind, and wrapped the hammer and his arm around the enemy’s neck. Rivulets of electricity were pouring into the squid-faced creature, channeled by the hammer—

“Bucky, now!”

Breathe—pause—heartbeat—fire.

One shot, combined with the streams of lightning being driven into the creature to disrupt its powers, was enough to kill the creature – permanently. The Winter Soldier only needed one precise shot through the head—and watched as Steve wrenched his head as far and away from the blood spray as possible.

The creature toppled over, just as Steve leapt off. The Winter Soldier didn’t even need to unsheathe the single knife he had left, nor bring up his rifle to block the last of the razor-toothed creatures. Romanov’s definitive shot did the job, as the dead creature slid to a halt near his feet.

Slinging his sniper rifle over his shoulder, the Winter Soldier dropped down to the floor. The hammer flew from Steve’s hand, just as he heard the clamor of more arriving to respond to the situation – all of them too late, as all the enemy were dead.

“No enemy!” the voice of the Hulk bellowed.

“What the hell—” Stark began.

“Steven Rogers, who is that, that wields Mjolnir with familiarity—” Thor also said at nearly the same time.

The Winter Soldier ignored all of them as he strode across the debris-covered floor, intent on rendezvousing with Steve. Even as covered in liberally in the black blood of the squid-faced creature, he could still see that Steve was too pale, too sweaty—

And at once, Bucky snapped out of the cold, calculating Winter Soldier persona as pure dread and worry crept up his stomach. Steve didn’t allow him to voice his concern, as he saw him suddenly disappear into the time-jump armor.

They had overstayed their welcome.

Steve wrapping his time-jump armor was his silent way of saying that they needed to get back to their place in time now. That they could not, and would not remain to brief the rest of the Avengers.

As much as Bucky wanted to disobey that order, to make Steve rest after that tremendously overwhelming battle, he did not. Just as he reached Steve, he too, activated his time-jump armor.

The chaos, bewildered faces of the Avengers, and clamor of 2012 New York were suddenly silenced for a blessed instance. A split second later, both Bucky’s vision and hearing were replaced by the more familiar sights and sounds of 1948 New York – specifically within the SSR’s Brooklyn facility.

Peggy’s worried expression, greeted his sight. Fear still saturated the air, and was evident in the eyes of the rest of those gathered. Bucky remembered how exactly he had entered the room, carrying the Winter Soldier persona around him. Now, he returned with it still within him, but mastered and forged into a weapon.

As both of their time-jump armors retracted, Bucky couldn’t help but admonish, “Steve—”

He never got to finish his chiding, as Steve abruptly wobbled for a moment before he collapsed. Bucky lunged forward and caught him in his arms, but it was too late – Steve began to cough up blood.

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 15 : Stasis – Part 1

December 31 st , 1948…

12:05

 

In the timeline I came from, Bucky is the Winter Soldier.

The solemnly stated words still chilled Peggy. Bucky’s appearance as the Winter Soldier – menacing, frightening, and exuding a coldly murderous intent – hammered home the words. Of a timeline that was changed.

And it made Peggy realize that Steve had not just went back in time to spend his life with her. He had primarily done so to free Bucky, to save him from being what she realized had been the Soviet’s greatest asset in Steve’s timeline.

Yet, when Steve and Bucky popped back into existence, the frightening demeanor that Bucky carried was completely gone. Their time-jump armors retracted, revealing the fact that they had been in a fight – battle more like it. Peggy stepped forward—

Steve suddenly collapsed, and began to cough up blood.

Peggy bit back the cry that threatened to emerge from her lips as she rushed over. Before she could get within two steps of the platform, an alarm began to sound.

“Radiation alarm!” David cried out, before silencing it. “Stay back!”

Peggy stopped where she was, partially held back by Michael, who was also looking towards the two on the platform in alarm. David had hurried over to pick up a piece of equipment, as Howard went over to shut every else around the device, down.

“He’s burning up!” Bucky shouted, when the armor on Steve retracted back into the bangle.

David came over and carefully panned the device – Geiger counter, Peggy recognized – over the two. “Shit, it’s that thing on his wrist—” the engineer began.

Realization as to what may have happened dawned upon Peggy. David’s warning about acute radiation from the stones was also at the forefront of her thoughts. She saw Bucky yank the bangle off of Steve, yelping in pain, and violently tossed it away—

“—and you, Bucky—” David continued.

“Showers, now!” Peggy ordered. “Get under the cold spray, and stay there,” she said. After David had informed her of the potential consequences of what the stones could do, she had discussed with him about possible mitigation efforts – should the worse happen.

Bucky didn’t need to be told twice, as he yanked his own bangle off and tossed it onto the table. Bucky then lifted Steve up, grunting with the effort as he tried not to further jostle him, while Steve continued to cough out blood. Without the armor covering Steve, Peggy could see lesions, burns, and openly weeping wounds crawling across Steve’s skin and under his clothing.

She could see the similar types of wounds and bleeding beginning to form on Bucky’s flesh-and-blood arm, as Bucky held Steve close to him. Pain was etched on his face, and Bucky was dripping with sweat, but there was desperation and determination to not let Steve die, written in his eyes.

Peggy followed and snatched up the nearest tin pail she could find. She ordered the others, “Buckets, ice, snow – whatever cold thing you can find and bring. We need to rapidly cool both of them.”

“I’ll get the first aid kit, and see if there’s anything else we have for burns,” David stated. “Whatever any of you do – do not touch either of them yet. They might have lingering traces of radiation upon them.”

As much as Peggy did not want to separate herself from where Bucky was carrying Steve to – the locker room’s showers – she forced herself to do so. Bursting out into front of the closed studio, her appearance startled Lorraine.

“Steve—” Peggy began, but found that she could not say it.

“What do you need me to do, Peggy?” Lorraine’s firm, strong voice, along with her steady hands upon her arms, brought Peggy back to the present.

“Ice, snow – anything cooling,” Peggy found her voice and wits again. “Radiation overdose.”

“Come on,” Lorraine said, snatching up what looked to be a prop tin fire bucket – but served as well as anything else that was container-like.

Peggy followed Lorraine out of the studio front, and into the snow storm. Even though it was incredibly cold, Peggy didn’t care.

Both she and Lorraine dug their pails into the sidewalk, and scooped up as much snow as possible. Howard and Michael joined them a minute later. The four of them reentered the studio and into the facility itself.

The buckets were heavy, as the snow was already beginning to melt within, but the lockers were close. David joined them, coming from the area where the first-aid kit was stored. Yet, it didn’t look as if he had found anything else that would help.

The clatter of the door between the studio front and the facility itself opening, startled not only Peggy but everyone else. Peggy’s eyes widened in alarm and surprise, as she saw Daniel enter with a confused but concerned look on his face—

“Daniel—” Peggy began, dismay etched upon her face.

“Go, Peggy!” Michael said, pushing her towards the locker room, while simultaneously handing his bucket over to David. “I’ll take care of Sousa!”

She watched as her brother took Daniel by the shoulder, turning him none-too-gently around. As torn as she was, the weight of the bucket in her hands was an acute reminder of what she needed to do.

Peggy turned and hurried back to the locker room, to Steve – to her husband – and prayed with all of her might that there was some mercy in the world to save him.

* * *

Hours later…

 

The bandages hitched and pulled at his skin, sending pain up and down his right arm. It was like and unlike what he remembered Zola’s experiments upon him, but Bucky endured it. He had to – in order to not worry David, who was slowly binding up his right hand and arm.

He kept his expression as impassive as he could, as he watched the layers of white bandages wrap around and around his forearm. His right hand and forearm were the only places where his serum-enhanced healing had not yet had time to recover from the severe dose of radiation induced by him yanking Steve’s bangle off and away. All other places where Steve’s irradiated body had touched him were already healing over.

Most of the radiation that he had been doused with had been severely tempered by the vibranium-weaved armor he wore. That was what David had theorized. Without Tony or Natasha present, he knew that they could only guess that Steve’s full vibranium armor had tempered an even larger dose of gamma radiation that should have killed Steve before they had returned from 2012.

Bucky had briefed them of what he knew about what may have caused Steve to receive what apparently should’ve been a lethal dose of radiation. He told them of Steve’s knowledge and statement about gamma radiation to him. He also told them about Steve separating Tony from being an active barrier, and absorbing more than the usual amount himself.

Peggy had then quietly spoken up, with concurrence from David, that they suspected using two stones in the aftermath of Cull Obsidian’s attack was also another instance. The repeated low-level radiation from just the stones themselves could have sent Steve’s serum-enhanced blood replenishment into an accelerated state, with occasional bursts pushing his body briefly to the limits.

Then, Bucky told them what Steve had done while using the hammer – wielding lightning of all things through his armor and most likely, his body as well. Bucky suspected that that had been the catalyst for the overdose induced by using the Space Stone at the same time. The grim looks in both David and Howard’s eyes confirmed that suspicion.

The hammer – whatever it was – combined with repeated exposure to the stones, including using them in the middle of battle, had pushed Steve and his serum-enhanced body past the point of no return.

The doors to the lockers opened, causing Bucky to look up, and David to pause in his ministrations. He saw Michael enter, looking as if he had some news to pass on. Yet, Bucky had not missed the strange flash of jealousy that had briefly appeared on Michael’s face.

David was sitting close to Bucky, but there was nothing going on between him and the engineer except for medical assistance. Michael knew that. Bucky was not one to seek comfort in someone he had pushed away long ago, even though he knew that David still harbored some feelings towards him.

Yet, even as panicked as he had been – even as pain-filled he had been from his own exposure to the radiation – Bucky had kept a sharp eye on Michael. The folder – apparently sealed in a thin waterproof kind of technologically advanced bag before Natasha had given it to him – was sitting near his still-soaking wet armored vest.

David had tried to move it out of the way after scanning it with his Geiger counter, but had immediately pulled his hand away, seemingly shocked by it. The folder was not irradiated, but it was seemingly protected by something Bucky knew not what of. When Bucky had picked it up to move it away, he had encountered no resistance or shock of sorts.

“Jarvis just called in – says he and Lorraine are on their way back with a few bottles of saline. Sousa’s covering for Howard’s break into the SSR’s labs at Headquarters to see if they can find anything of use,” Michael stated.

Bucky nodded, and glanced down as David finished his ministrations and stood up. With his right hand bound up, Bucky reluctantly tucked it into the makeshift sling. It was more to prevent him from using his right hand than anything else.

He stood up. His still-healing wounds pulled under various patches of gauze taped over his skin to prevent his clothing from chafing against them. But the pain was mild, compared to his right hand and arm.

Bucky picked up the folder again with his left hand, and asked, “Any changes?”

“IV drip of saline seems to be holding back the advance for now,” Michael answered, as both Bucky and David followed him out of the lockers. “But there’s been no visible change from his current condition.”

Steve’s room was too short of a walk from the lockers. Michael knocked on the door, but there was no answer. A few moments later, he gently opened the door, revealing the despairing scene within the room.

Bucky felt utterly powerless as he took in the scene of Steve lying prone on his bed, nearly completely wrapped up in bandages. A blanket was pulled up to his chest. An IV drip was hung next to him. Were it not for the various personal items littered about the room, Bucky could have sworn it looked like a hospital room.

He could barely see Steve’s chest move up and down. It was only sign that Steve was still clinging onto life.

Peggy was sitting vigil by Steve’s left. She currently had her head pillowed on her arms, resting on the edge of the bed.

He turned away from the scene, as Michael entered, and leaned against the wall. As he heard Michael shuffle around the room – most likely looking for a spare blanket to drape over Peggy as she slept – Bucky stared up at the ceiling.

Tears pricked at the corner of his eyes. There was a heaviness in his heart gripping him. He was supposed to have been the one to protect Steve from his own recklessness. Forward and together until the end of the line – that was the promise made. The promise he was supposed to keep—

A gentle, briefly comforting hand landing and squeezing his shoulder caused Bucky to look down. He saw David nod at him, eyes silently conveying to not lose hope. David then let go and stepped to the side as Michael emerged, and silently closed the door behind him.

“Has anyone told Philips yet?” Bucky asked.

Both silently shook their heads. Bucky tiredly pushed himself off the wall, saying, “Keep me posted, please. I’ll brief Philips.”

He only took two steps away from them, when Michael spoke up, saying, “Bucky. You should get some rest. David and I can brief Philips—”

Bucky paused and glanced slightly back at them, shaking his head. “Neither of you were on that mission. Neither of you saw what happened. Steve only returned three stones – and then this happened. Three fucking stones—”

“Bucky, it’s not your fa—” Michael began.

“Stop.”

Silence answered him. He had not meant to growl out that word in a harshly cold tone – akin to the razor sharp, focused thoughts he had while in the Winter Soldier persona. Yet the deep ache that tore at him – the guilt that he felt – the knowledge that he had had the chance to stop Steve from being utterly reckless—

The doors to the laboratory were only a few steps away. Bucky approached and entered. He heard the two follow him, still silent, but didn’t look back towards them.

Of the two, he would’ve thought that Michael would have understood just how it felt to watch, helpless to rescue or save a loved one. He remembered Michael telling him about what happened during the evacuation of Dunkirk – had even seen a visage of Michael’s best friend when the Time Stone had managed to escape confinement.

The area where he had thrown the bangle towards was cordoned off. Someone had hastily written a sign to warn others away, and placed it at the edge of the cordon. Yet, of all things that was covering the bangle, Bucky thought Steve’s shield should’ve never been used in that manner.

“Is it still irradiated?” he asked, hearing the two stop at the foot of the stairs, while he stood a little ways away at the edge of the cordon.

“Not since it was deactivated,” David answered. “Like your arm, along with your armor, as soon as the source was removed from proximity, the counts dropped.”

“No biological thing to leech off of,” he couldn’t help but mutter in a derisive tone.

“I wanted to put a lead container over it,” David continued to say, as Bucky heard both of them approach. Out of the corner of his eyes, Bucky saw David gesture to the time-travel device, saying, “But the cover that keeps the radiation from spilling out of the active prototype arc reactor is too heavy. I don’t know how Mr. Stark lifted it, even with the strange armor he wore.”

“The reactor is only active when in use, correct?” Bucky asked.

“Yes.”

That was all he needed to hear as he went over to the table and placed the folder down. Then, he made way over to the reactor and removed the covering with ease. Of course, he could hear the whir of his left arm rise to a fairly loud hum, but it wasn’t whining as it usually did when in combat.

Bucky took the cover over to where Steve’s shield was. Setting the cover down, he removed the shield to the side. The bangle was lying on the floor, looking completely harmless.

“There’s been no sign of Agent Romanov or Mr. Stark since the two of you returned,” Michael quietly stated.

He nodded once, acknowledging the information. After a few moments, he placed the lead covering over the bangle, and stood up. Taking the shield, he placed it on the other end of the table, where the hammer that he had seen Steve wield in 2012 sat.

Bucky had thought the hammer was just a simple, oversized hammer on September 24 th , 1946 – but he was wrong – so wrong – about that. That hammer, was another artifact of something that Steve needed to return.

For a moment, Bucky reached out and wrapped his left hand around the hammer’s shaft. It did not budge an inch as he tried to move it to the side. Mystified as to how Steve was able to wield the hammer, he let go and tore his eyes away from both the shield and hammer.

Bucky picked up the folder again—

“What’s in the folder?”

Bucky paused before he could begin to climb the stairs. Michael had asked that question. “Nothing that would help Steve right now,” he quietly said. “Just artifacts now, of a long war past. Let me know when Sousa and the others return, please.”

He climbed the remainder of the stairs without interruption. Nor did he hear the two follow him up. He made his way to his room, and as soon as the door closed, he leaned against it.

The tears were still at the corner of his eyes, but they were not falling. Instead, Bucky breathed in deeply, letting his despair, anger – at himself and at Steve – along with a whole host of worry and guilt wash over him.

He blinked and looked down at the folder in his left hand. Irony tugged at him, that suspecting Michael of being a turned agent – again – was slowly focusing him from worrying about Steve.

Going over to the table where he usually used it as his workbench to tweak or clean his sniper rifle, he placed the folder on it. Then, he went over and dragged the phone next to his nightstand over. He placed it on the table, and reached for another set of objects.

Where he slept used to be an office of sorts, vacated after the initial HYDRA attack on the facility in 1943. The phone had remained, and Bucky had found it surprising that the line it connected to had not been rewired or cut.

A new connection had been made to the SSR’s switchboard at Headquarters. Yet, he hadn’t used it at all since that connection had been made. Peggy usually made her conference and report calls using the front of the store – or squared herself away in Steve’s room to use that line.

Bucky had opened the folder in the mean time with a simple slide of his right hand down the seam of the folder. Dumping the contents out, he couldn’t help but frown as a thin, slightly raised rectangle – the size of his palm – that looked like a glass pane, but didn’t weigh anything like it at all, slid out. Accompanying it was a letter. Nothing else fell out of the folder.

Bucky gingerly slid the transparent rectangle to the side, and pulled the letter forward:

[First off, I didn’t do this for you, Sergeant Barnes. You may not have been the one to murder my father in cold blood, but there are just some things that I can’t let go of – no matter how many different iterations there are of you in countless of universes.

I’m doing this for my father in your reality. Because after all that you… your counterpart has done, and what I’ve seen whenever you’ve fought or sparred with Steve, you’re the only one I ironically trust to keep my father safe. Not Steve, because to quote Steve (and yes, Romanov said that she’s not able to hear your conversations with Steve, but she’s just being polite – we both can)…

Anyways, to quote Steve ‘you are a spy and an assassin – the best one in the business’. I’ve seen what the Winter Soldier had done in my timeline, and what a Black Widow can do. I don’t know what the Wolf Spider’s capabilities are – except that the same people who trained you and the Widows, had transformed the Wolf Spider into a Winter Soldier…

Well, fuck.

Everything on that rectangle contains the data that you all found in SHIELD and HYDRA’s databases. Data on the Wolf Spider, Red Room locations, and what little digitized files there are on the Winter Soldier and Black Widow programs.

To activate it, it needs both your metal and flesh-and-blood thumbprints. If you want to secure it even further, I’ve programmed the cache to store a string of alpha-numeric digits of your choice. Steve knows about passcode safety, but you don’t have that tech yet – so here it is:

Don’t use your fucking birth date. Or address. Or anything that can be found in public records. Not even your mother, sisters’, or anyone’s information. Make it random, but easy to remember.

Be like Aunt Peggy w ith her encryption-decryption skills. It took me a decade with JARVIS helping to crack through a ciphered letter she gave me in 1980.

O r not. I don’t fucking care.

All I care about is that you get to the bottom of this whole Wolf Spider thing, and make absolutely sure that Michael Carter either is or is not the Wolf Spider. If he is, then I’ll leave it to your judgment as to what you want to do with that information.

This is for my father, and the hope that this new timeline that Steve has carved w ill not be as shitty as the one we’re both from. -- Tony Stark ]

Bucky placed the letter down and to the side. But he did not draw the rectangular thing forward. Instead, he picked up the phone; having a feeling that opening the true ‘folder’ would just cause him to forget to brief Philips – which was a priority.

“SSR Europe – Section Chief Chester Philips, please,” he stated.

“May I ask who is calling?” the woman on the end of the line crisply asked.

“James Bourne from Logistics,” he stated, using the agreed-upon alias that Philips had presented to him before he had left Europe.

“Please hold,” the woman answered.

As Bucky waited for the line to be connected and answered on Philips’ end, he unscrewed both end caps and placed the scramblers in their proper housing. The alias he used was only for emergency purposes; not to prevent wire tapping. That was what the scramblers were for.

“Philips. The line is secured,” he heard his commander gruffly state.

Even at the ungodly hour it was in London, especially on the New Year, Bucky heard no exhaustion or tiredness in Philips tone. “Sir,” he began. “There’s been an accident. The stones induced an overdose of gamma radiation – lethal amounts, I was informed by David – on S.”

Silence answered him.

Then, Philips asked, “Alive or dead?”

“Alive for now,” Bucky answered, half-marveling at just how calm he was, stating the bare minimum details into the phone. “Saline bags are being found and brought over by Michael and Lorraine. Sousa knows and has been briefed appropriately. He and Stark are raiding HQ labs for anything that might help.”

“And Carter?” Philips questioned.

“Sitting vigil,” he replied. “Do you want me to fetch—”

“No,” his commander uncharacteristically interrupted, then fell silent.

“Sir?” Bucky prompted after a minute of silence.

“Give me the how, Agent,” Philips said, sounding older and more tired than Bucky had ever heard him before.

Bucky began from the night that he had learned who the Winter Soldier was in Steve’s timeline, to the discussion and realization he had with Natasha about what Steve was trying to accomplish in 2012. He glossed over the training he had received from Steve – it was not wholly relevant to the ‘how’ of what happened in 2012.

He told his commander about Peggy’s orders to return the two stones. The order had been compounded by the fact that the Time Stone ‘escaped confinement’, and Howard’s run-in with the creatures that the sixteen remaining Widows had.

Very little details had been left out when Bucky explained what happened in 2012. Yet, he did not talk about the files that Steve had searched for – about the Wolf Spider. He still hadn’t gone through all of the files yet, and considered it a separate incident than what happened to Steve and his reckless usage of the Stones.

“This hammer,” Philips began as soon as Bucky fell silent.

“S had it with him when he found and freed Michael and I,” Bucky stated. “Thought it was just something oversized he had found. It flew back to the demigod named Thor, when Thor, Stark, and Banner arrived. Thor questioned S’s counterpart on how exactly S was able to use it. S has a copy of it here. Can’t seem to move it at all though.”

“A remnant artifact then?” Philips questioned.

“More than likely, yes,” he answered.

“Carter informed me three days ago that Stark has been working on an actual serum. What’s the status of that?”

“Unknown, sir,” he said.

He knew a little about the fact that Howard was attempting to actually recreate the serum – in between his work on the time-travel device. Howard considered the cover story of the Brooklyn facility to not just be a cover story, and it was more wholly relevant now than ever.

“And R’s… companions?”

“No one has seen them since we’ve returned,” Bucky answered.

“There’s more?” Philips asked after a few seconds of silence.

“Yes, sir,” he truthfully answered.

He didn’t know how exactly his commander always managed to do that over the phone whenever speaking to anyone – agents, legal representatives, or even members of Parliament. But Bucky also knew that keeping the Wolf Spider knowledge from his commander was detrimental – no matter how much he wanted to deny it.

“We may potentially have the identity of Wolf Spider,” he stated, lowering his voice.

He got up, took the phone with him, and went to the furthest area of the room from the door. He would not put it past anyone to have listened to his briefing to Philips through his door. For the information about Wolf Spider, Bucky knew he had to be extremely careful.

“According to information that S and his companions searched through in 2012, Wolf Spider was a former prisoner-of-war held by the Soviets. With HYDRA’s help, they created, conditioned, and deployed him during the war. Coupled with the information from the current Black Widow, there’s only one agent we both know who fits this criteria, sir.”

“And he was cleared – by his own chain of command, no less. And by you, as well,” Philips stated.

Bucky remained silent.

He had no excuse. Philips was certainly not one to buy ‘falling in love’ as an excuse. Bucky knew that he himself had been seduced and blinded by what Michael physically and emotionally offered – a kindred soul.

“Are you able to confirm?”

Startled by the question, Bucky hesitated in answering for a few seconds. He didn’t think that Philips was one to give second chances, or have seeds of doubts. He knew Philips dealt in absolutes—

“Agent,” Philips impatiently stated.

“I will confirm if it is true,” he said.

“By any means necessary, Agent,” Philips said. “You are authorized to utilize the Widows as resources, if you believe that they may help.”

“Understood, sir,” Bucky answered, but hesitated for a moment. “Sir. If it is true?”

Silence answered him and remained there for a few long moments. “Son,” Philips began, sounding as if he had no other choice in the matter. “I appreciate the fact that you told me the truth about the Winter Soldier. Not the usual silver-tongued wordsmith reports you seem to like to employ with me.”

“Sir—”

“You didn’t have to tell me, Agent,” Philips interrupted. “R showed me some of his memories of what the SSR had become – SHIELD. But I know he didn’t show me all of it. He only told me how SHIELD fell, but I caught a glimpse of your counterpart, with the blood red star marked on the silver arm. That same marking I saw on you when you were in the hospital.”

“It’s why I allowed Carter to request your presence for Brooklyn, Agent – and extended your tour of duty there. Operation Midnight might have been wrapped up, but your report indicated that there are far more threats out there than old caches of long-gone fantastical weapons. Your presence there is as much of a deterrent to enemies, as it is to ensure that no one outside of the team Carter has put together, absconds with any information.”

“I expect that R has told you about what should have happened after this mission should have been completed?” Philips asked.

“Yes, sir,” Bucky answered.

“Good,” Philips stated. “The Winter Soldier may have had a reputation as a Soviet agent in that other timeline. Here and now, is another story.”

Bucky remained silent for a second, understanding what Philips was trying to do. It was obvious to his commander that he had taken the Winter Soldier name, and was trying to mold it into something of his own making.

Even with Steve in his current condition, Philips was still going to plow ahead and try to bring SHIELD to life – to bring the SSR out from political control. The only difference was that Philips was going to swap Steve as Captain America, out for him, as the Winter Soldier. One super-soldier for another – the light of day for the shadow of night.

It was ruthless and a little heartless of Philips to be treating both him and Steve in this fashion, but with tensions escalating between the United States and Soviet Union, Bucky knew it had to be this way. None of them knew if Steve would recover – or when.

“Do what you will, sir, with the name,” he stated at last. “I will attempt to confirm if the Wolf Spider’s identity is true, but, my priority remains here.”

“Understood,” Philips answered. “And if the identity is confirmed as true, you are ‘go’ for a sanctioned action against the threat. I’ll deal with Headquarters and MI5.”

Bucky couldn’t help but glance down at his left hand, and curled his metal fingers into a fist. Ex-lover or not, friend or not, family of Steve and Peggy or not, Bucky knew why Philips ordered him to assassinate Michael – but only if Michael was confirmed to be the Wolf Spider.

Because however he felt about the order, Bucky knew that he wouldn’t hesitate.

Especially not a second time, and especially when it was Steve’s life on the line.

Because Philips didn’t need to know that Bucky had indirectly, but deliberately, killed his own father when he was ten. Because his commander didn’t need to know that he only remained with the Howling Commandos to protect Steve. Because for every action that he had taken in his life since meeting Steve Rogers in that schoolyard playground – Bucky did it because of Steve, for Steve and the world they lived in.

Selfish reasons, not selfless reasons.

“Yes, sir,” he quietly answered.

“And Winter Soldier,” his commander began.

“Sir?” he answered.

“Keep me appraised of R’s condition.”

“I will, sir.”

* * *

Morning, January 2 nd , 1949…

 

“The rest of the 107th and Li are going to show up soon for the start of their shifts. Can either of you tell me what the hell are we going to say to them?”

“Things progressing as normal—”

“Normal, Carter? The hell—”

Peggy heard the door to the lockers open, before Bucky’s sharp tone carried down the hall, saying, “Hey. Best take this elsewhere, you three. If I can hear you in the lockers, you’re being too loud—”

She got up from where she had been listlessly sitting for the past half-hour since she had woken up and briefly went to go clean herself up for the day. There had been no change in Steve’s condition – still abnormally feverish, and his radiation burn wounds still not healing.

The only saving grace was that most of the bleeding had stopped. Yet, what little expertise Howard had on him in bio-chemistry only stated that a thin layer of sub-dermal skin had formed to stop the bleeding.

Any sort of movement – even replacing bandages – caused the bleeding to begin again. Yet, Steve needed fresh changes of bandages – to protect against external infection, while trying to give his body a chance to fight whatever infections had settled in. Not to mention that it looked like his serum-enhanced body was taxed beyond its limit.

None of them had been prepared for this. Bringing in an outside doctor had been considered, but Howard had been the one to state that it was too risky. Peggy knew what it meant, if Howard was denying the chance of having Steve’s condition looked at, by a specialist.

With what Howard had developed thus far of the serum, using what was left of Steve’s blood, Peggy understood that there was an even larger chance for misdiagnosis or something that could further adversely affect Steve – should a doctor with no knowledge of how the serum worked, try to help Steve.

Opening the door, she stepped out, surprising her brother, along with Daniel and David. The three were standing further down the hall. Her appearance had also surprised Bucky as well, who had poked his head out of the locker room to admonish the three for their loudness.

“Peggy,” Michael began.

“We tell DumDum and the others, when they report in,” she declared. “We tell them everything. They deserve to know what they’re defending, especially now that none of us know when or if we’ll ever be able to return the rest of the stones.”

She paused for a moment, taking a deep breath and tried to shove her worry and helpless feelings away. Taking a couple of steps forward from Steve’s door, she heard the locker door close for a brief moment before it opened again.

Peggy waited until Bucky joined them – having hastily gotten dressed, hair still unruly and damp. “Howard’s serum development will continue,” she began. “But I need the three of you—” she nodded towards Daniel, Michael, and Bucky “—and the others to be ever more vigilant. We hold four powerful weapons – two of them the same Tesseract.”

“You know that there is a mole in our ranks, even if peripheral and not directly related to our work here. There are sixteen Widows poking at our weak spots. There are most likely more groups or individuals out there, who would love to get their hands on a super-soldier serum – and if they can’t, possibly one or more of the stones. Or—”

“Or Steve,” Michael quietly finished up. “If there is a mole within SSR Europe, he or she might be directing those Widows as a distraction. We have to consider the possibility that knowledge of Steve being alive might already be compromised, Peggy.”

The words were painful to hear, but Peggy heard them. It reinforced the uneasy knowledge she had held within herself that ever since Dottie had warned them, there was a great possibility that Steve’s secret was out.

“I know,” she answered, nodding. “That’s why the others will be briefed by me alone. It is my responsibility.”

“We’ll keep a weather eye on things, Peggy,” Bucky reassuringly stated.

“Go sit… with your husband, Peggy—” Daniel began.

“Too much sitting, too much inaction,” she said, shaking her head slightly.

Peggy had an idea of just how much of a heartache Daniel was going through. She had known about her friend’s interest in her since they had begun to work together. She had also briefly entertained the idea of dating him – before Steve had stepped back into her life.

Since Steve’s arrival, Peggy had tried to keep Daniel at arm’s length – to maintain the boundary of their friendship. She had not wanted him to find out about her marital status this way – or break his heart in this manner. But what was done, was done.

“Thank you for your kind words, Daniel, but I know Steve wouldn’t want me to just sit there all day – not with everything else going on in the world.”

There were two nods that agreed with her words – both from Michael and Bucky. She could only imagine how much guilt Bucky was carrying, knowing now about the binding promise Steve and Bucky had made.

“Ma’am,” David hesitatingly began. “Is there anything… I feel kind of useless in this situation… I don’t have Mr. Stark’s knowledge about bio-chemistry, and there’s only so much I can check on his work on the serum—”

“Improve what you can of the device, David,” Peggy reassured him. “Research what you can for possible safeguards into the stones and device. And how we can safely store and lock away the stones – to keep them from falling into the wrong hands.”

The engineer brightened up with her words, and nodded, saying, “Will do, ma’am.”

“Come on, boys,” she said, giving all of them an expectant look. “We’ve got work to do.”

* * *

Afternoon, January 9 th , 1949…

 

Bucky quietly sighed and knocked on the door. It was not a door within the Brooklyn facility, nor of Headquarters that he stood before. Instead, it was an apartment door that he waited in front of, hoping that perhaps it would be answered at this time of day.

It had been several days since Steve had collapsed from an acute overdose of radiation poisoning and exposure. Several days since hooking up IV bags of saline seemed to halt the progression of what the radiation was doing to Steve’s body. Yet, there had been no progress or improvement in healing or health from Steve thus far.

It was not that Bucky did not want to be by Steve’s side – to sit there and care for him whenever Peggy could not. It was because the past few days since the 107th and Agent Li had been briefed about the true nature of the facility, there had been a greater series of threats against both Howard and David’s lives.

With such an escalation of threats, it would’ve been natural to assume that someone in the 107th or even perhaps Agent Li himself had leaked the secret. Yet, Bucky did not see it that way. Instead, he saw it as a potential deflection of attention by Michael.

He hated the fact that his suspicions about Michael had deepened tremendously after reading the data that Stark had given him. Yet, he still did not tell anyone – not even Peggy – nor informed Philips about the additional information.

Michael was his mission again. Unlike the first time, Bucky knew that he had to be extremely careful and thorough in vetting whether or not the former SOE and now MI-5 agent was indeed a true double-agent, for the Soviets.

The door suddenly opened, jarring him out of his thoughts as he saw his sister beaming at him. “Bucky!” she exclaimed happily. “You got another day off—”

“Unfortunately, no,” he interrupted her, shaking her head slightly, as she gestured for him to enter her home.

As soon as she closed the door, he nodded towards Becca’s husband, who had looked up from where he was sitting in the small living room, and back towards him. The newspaper Becca’s husband was reading was seemingly abandoned for a moment as Bucky saw him raise a hand in a friendly greeting.

Bucky nodded once at the greeting. As much as Becca completely trusted her husband, Bucky did not. It wasn’t because Becca’s husband was a former home-grown recruit for the NKVD, who turned against the NKVD out of love for Becca. It was because his mother enlisted Becca’s husband’s help in seemingly collecting various kinds of intelligence in and around the United States.

Becca had found out what their mother had planned for Agnes and Samantha – training them to be just like their mother: seductress and combat-ready. She had also found that that their mother was using the 14-year-old – aliased now as ‘Natalie Barnes Proctor’ – both he and their mother had found in the steppes, and Dottie Underwood for that purpose.

That was what the Christmas argument had been about, and Bucky didn’t blame her for seeing their mother in a whole new light. It was also why Becca had withdrawn herself, her husband, and Natalie, whom her and her husband adopted, and refused to reconcile with their mother. She and her husband still lived next door to her, Agnes, and Samantha, but it looked as if things had not changed much since Christmas.

“I don’t hear Natalie,” Bucky couldn’t help but comment about the unusual silence within the apartment.

He knew that ‘Natalie’ still retained some of the more ingrained training that she had received as a Widow in that ‘school’. However, during his Christmas visit, she had been ‘noisier’ with her footsteps than usual, allowing him to relax and not react to her as if she were a threat.

“She’s at Mom’s,” Becca stated in a short tone. “Mom’s home, if you’re here to talk to her, Bucky.”

He shook his head slightly. “I need to speak to Dottie Underwood,” he said. “Do you know where she lives now?”

“Apparently, with Mom and our sisters,” Becca stated, disgust clearly in her tone.

Bucky couldn’t help but blink in surprise. Before he could comment on the unusual living arrangement, Becca continued to say, “I’ll go with you, since it’s almost time for me to begin making supper, and I refuse to let Natalie spend more time than necessary with Mom.”

“Are you sure?” Bucky asked. “I can just ask Mother to send her back.”

“I need to find a way to at least put some of our disagreements aside,” Becca admitted after a moment. “Peter noticed an increase in unsavory activities as of late, and it’s not just around where you’re currently working, Bucky. Whatever is happening—”

“I’ll keep all of us safe, Becca,” Bucky stated, keeping the frown and unease he felt from appearance on his face. “You know I will—”

“I know,” Becca answered, stepping in to embrace him tightly for a moment. “But you have your own life to live, and your own burdens to contend with. Mom’s right about one thing – we are able take care of our selves. We’ve been doing so since you left for war. You don’t have to worry about us.”

Bucky wanted to be reassured by those confident words, but he wasn’t entirely convinced. “I’ll try not to, but you know I will always worry about all of you, no matter what.”

She silently nodded, and reached behind him to open the door. Stepping out as he waved a farewell to Becca’s husband, she closed the door behind him. Several steps down the hall later, the two of them stood before their mother’s apartment door.

Becca knocked. Bucky could hear shuffling within the apartment before Samantha opened the door. “Hey, Sammy,” Bucky warmly greeted.

“Bucky!” his sister cried, grinning, as she opened the door further to let both of them in. They stepped in, and Samantha closed the door after them – offering to take Bucky’s coat.

“Bucky! Becca!” Agnes called out, turning slightly from where she was, apparently making some kind of cake or pastry of sorts with Samantha’s help.

“Aggie,” Bucky greeted, only to have the youngest of the Barnes children turn and stick her tongue out at him. They all knew that Agnes disliked, but tolerated the diminutive nickname that the family occasionally called her.

“Ah,” the sound of their mother’s voice floated down the hall, as Bucky heard her approach. “Rebecca and James. What brings the two of you—”

As soon as their mother turned the corner, Bucky’s guard went up. Gone were the imperiously haughty eyes of hers that held a hidden strength within. Bucky saw clear and present danger within those crystal eyes of hers.

Even stranger was Natalie’s reaction. She had followed their mother down, and as soon as she peeked out behind, she froze for a second. Then, the girl darted towards the kitchen counter top where the knives block was – and reached for a knife.

“What on…” Bucky heard Becca begin, before Samantha snatched the block far and away from the teenager.

As momentarily confused as Bucky was, it was finally the appearance of Dottie Underwood from the other end of the hall, that gave him a clue as to what was going on. The current Black Widow had abruptly stopped at the threshold, pinning her piercing gaze on him. Bucky recognized the signs of her belligerence towards him.

“You’ve changed—” Underwood began in a carefully neutral tone.

His mother, Natalie, and Underwood were reacting because of him. Because they now saw him as an apex predator, as the—

“Winter Soldier,” Underwood finished.

“You said that program does not exist – no longer exists—” he heard his mother hiss, pinning Underwood with a heated glare.

At once, Bucky had an inkling as to why his mother wanted Underwood under her watchful eye. It was not just to train Samantha and Agnes in combat, but to apparently ensure or continue making sure that fantastical human weapons created by her former motherland did not exist.

“It no longer does,” he stated, taking a single step forward in the direction of where Underwood was.

Given the confused looks that his sisters were giving him and their mother, along with Underwood, Bucky surmised that even with everything, their mother had not told them the whole truth. It was much too late to send his sisters away – and he could see that glimmer of defeat in his mother’s eyes.

Natalie still looked like the coiled cat, but there was absolutely nothing about her that Bucky found threatening. It looked like she had found a pencil and was thinking of using that as an improvised weapon, but Bucky was not worried about her attacking him.

“I need to speak with you, Underwood,” he bluntly stated to the woman.

“I don’t give information freely anymore—” Underwood began.

“In this household, no matter whom my son or daughters are affiliated with, you will,” his mother viciously cut in. “Especially when you’ve withheld the fact that this Winter Soldier Program exists—”

“Enough.”

Bucky had not meant to frighten even his sisters with that single word – coldly growled. But it had completely stopped the argument from escalating. Seeing that he was not going to be prevented by his mother from questioning Underwood, he gestured to her to sit at the dining table.

“Please, have a seat, Underwood,” he stated, approaching and taking the seat directly opposite of where she still stood.

It took his mother, grabbing Underwood by the arm and leading her to the table, to sit – they both did. Bucky tried to ignore the actions of his sisters as much as possible, but he noticed that they crowded within the kitchen. He also noticed Becca attempting to calm Natalie down, and draw the pencil-turned-weapon out of her grasp.

Bucky withdrew his sidearm from within his shoulder holster, and ejected the clip and single bullet within the firing chamber. He placed it to the side. The 2012 folder was still sitting within his jacket pocket – safe and secured. He did not withdraw it, but instead folded his gloved hands together.

“Wolf Spider. What do you know?” he asked.

“Everything you know, Winter Soldier,” she answered.

“Humor me,” he stated, not even bothering to give into the petty spat she tried to instigate.

Whether it was the minute tightening of his mother’s hand on Underwood’s arm, or otherwise, the anger within the woman’s eyes suddenly fled. There was not a sense of defeat that replaced it, but a sense of inevitability.

“I only know that the program was the equivalent of the Black Widows, but that it only produced one candidate-agent. I do not know whom the candidate was aliased as, and did not interact with the Wolf Spider much – only once. It was to retrieve him from the front lines. Word reached my handler—”

“Ivchenko?” Bucky interrupted.

“Shostakov,” Underwood stated, a humorless smile gracing her lips. “Ivchenko became my handler after the war.”

She tapped the table top with her fingers for a brief moment, before continuing on. “Word reached us that Wolf Spider was unstable, possibly sabotaging the war efforts of our country. I was dispatched to retrieve him.”

“Where did you find the Wolf Spider?” he questioned.

“Prague. 6th of May, 1945,” she stated. “He was highly unstable. I was unable to physically subdue him, even after drawing his attention away from those still fighting in the streets. Ivchenko had armed me with several phrases to say – but he never told me that the compliance commands were not fully operational.”

Bucky felt a chill go through him, but kept it from showing. After all that he and Michael had been through during the war – after finding out that Michael had been affected by the damnable ring that Ivchenko had worn – Bucky had dismissed the signs.

He had seen Michael unable to move or shoot Ivchenko in the aftermath of the London Underground incident. Michael had explicitly told him that he had been affected by the ring that Ivchenko wore – had had commands embedded within him to give information to Ivchenko and Shostakov.

The SOE and MI-5 had known and cleared Michael to continue with his work as a double-agent—

They all had known, and they all had ultimately been taken in by the grain of truth seeded with just enough doubt about Michael – after he had been found alive in that HYDRA facility in November 1944.

“Then what?” Bucky forced himself to continue to ask.

“Then I brought him back, and told both Ivchenko Shostakov that they needed to recondition him – if they wanted to continue using him,” Underwood stated. “Shostakov shuttered the program right then and there.”

“What was the date?”

“The 10th of May – four days after I found him,” she answered. “You’ve found information about the Wolf Spider, didn’t you?”

“Why did you call me a Wolf Spider before?” he questioned.

“Mannerisms mostly,” Underwood stated. “Your behavior had lent you more of being Wolf Spider than the beginnings of the Winter Soldier that I had caught a glimpse of. Seeing you on ice after your fall and capture… I had heard about the stories from Colonel Rostov and then-Lieutenant Shostakov – not the propaganda comics – about what you did as the sniper for the Howling Commandos in Kronas—”

“I’d advise you to stop now, and drop it,” he interrupted her, deliberately flicking his eyes towards his mother.

Wisely, Underwood understood the implications, and did not even glance over towards his mother. Instead, she folded her hands together, resting them on the table in a similar manner.

Her taunts were shallow and no longer affected him. From just the questions he asked, he knew that she knew little about the other programs – especially about the Winter Soldier Program.

“On ice?” Becca had whispered that in a horrified tone.

Bucky remained silent. All his sisters and mother knew was that he had been declared dead from the Alps mission, and then found alive half-way around the world. None of them knew what Zola and Ivchenko had done to him – while being held prisoner at that damnable HYDRA facility within the Bering Sea.

“Is Peggy all right?”

He ignored Underwood’s question, hearing the protectiveness within her tone. It was well-hidden though, but he caught the knowing look that his mother had silently shot him. Peggy was to Dottie as Steve was – had been, as far as his mother knew – to him.

“Your warning to the SSR—”

“To Peggy,” Underwood corrected, a touch of anger in her tone. “I don’t care for your SSR.”

“Regardless,” he continued in calm, controlled tone, “Your warning: ‘you have a traitor in your midst, and this traitor has been passing information to the Motherland for the past two years.’ Who did you hear it from, how, and where?”

“Ivchenko, in early 1946, before I was sent to New York to gain access to Howard Stark’s cache of weaponry,” Underwood said. “All I had overheard was the possibility of him being able to resurrect the Wolf Spider, after they had completed their work on the Winter Soldier. On you.”

“They. They who?” he asked.

At the same time, his mother asked, “What ‘work’ on James?”

There was no way around it, and Bucky knew that he could not withhold any further information from his mother – or his sisters – about what happened to him. Especially not with the words that Underwood had stated.

“I was held prisoner at a secret facility in the Bering Sea, Mother,” he stated in a short tone. “From my fall in the Alps, until I was rescued. I was kept on periodic ice, cryogenic freezing, and occasionally… thawed, for my captors to ‘experiment’ on me. Much like how HYDRA’s Dr. Arnim Zola made me a super-soldier, when the majority of the 107th had been captured by HYDRA in Italy.”

He had also never told his family about being a super-soldier. During Operation Midnight, he had been careful to hide most of his enhanced strength and agility from his mother – occasionally chalking it up to US Army training for some of the more ‘impossible’ feats, or blaming it on the metal arm she knew he had.

But before his sisters, or mother could say a word, he pressed on, asking, “They who, Underwood?”

“Ivchenko and the other scientists. I have no other names,” Underwood stated.

Bucky considered his options for a brief moment at this juncture of his questioning. He could continue to press, but as he had concluded earlier, she knew little to nothing about the other two programs. But the question remained: how exactly did she know that the SSR had a traitor – and where she had seen Michael after he had been captured again in 1945?

“Is this the Wolf Spider you captured in 1945?” he asked.

He reached into his jacket pocket for the small photograph of Michael he had managed to steal off of the dossier files that Peggy kept within Brooklyn. He slid the photograph forward and withdrew his gloved hand.

Underwood, along with his mother, and even his sisters, leaned forward slightly to peer at the photograph. Even before Underwood fully raised her head to answer him, Bucky saw the confirmation in her eyes.

“Yes.”

“Per your warning, where and when did you last see him in the past two years?” he asked, managing to keep himself calm at the face of the revelation.

“Twice before, both times within the vicinity of Peggy’s house. He evaded my tracking, using various techniques that I had seen MI-5 agents utilize – and those taught to both Widows and apparently, the Wolf Spider as well,” Underwood answered. “Who is he? Is Peggy safe? Is she all right?”

“Agent Carter is safe, for now,” he answered her, gathering up the photograph, along with his pistol, cartridge, and bullet. He re-armed himself, and placed the photograph back into his pocket, before standing up. “Thank you for your cooperation, Ms. Underwood.”

Turning his attention to his mother, and avoiding the dismayed expressions on his sister’s faces, he said in a quieter tone, “Mother… Mom, I’ll give you a call when this is all over. Is that all right with you?”

“Take all the time you need, James,” his mother softly stated, nodding in understanding.

As he went to the closet where his coat was hanging and took it, he heard Underwood say, “Let me help, please, Agent Barnes. I’ll submit to whatever the SSR wants to do with me, but please let me help and protect Peggy—”

“I don’t have authorization to bring you in, Ms. Underwood,” Bucky stated, as he buttoned up his coat, glancing back at her.

“You don’t have…” Underwood began, frowning, “They know I’m here?”

“My commander knows you’re working independently,” he stated, reaching for the door handle. “But, I’ll ask him if he’s willing to bring in a Black Widow from the cold, and give you asylum.”

Bucky left without another word to his family or Underwood. Nor did he look back as he closed the door behind him.

Silently, and with a heavy heart, Bucky made his way down the hall, stairs, and out into the streets. The light snow that had been falling since the morning had turned thicker and more adverse. There was a clear, slippery layer on the sidewalks, and not a lot of footprints around. He stepped out into the sidewalk and began walking back towards the Brooklyn facility.

“04-07-1970, Barnes.”

Bucky turned towards the source of the voice, only to see Tony standing in the shadows of a rather dirty, snow-covered alleyway. “Stark?” he questioned.

Glancing to his left and right – and above for the hell of it – he didn’t see anyone suspicious within his vicinity. With the snow falling at the rate it was falling now, most people would’ve already headed indoors.

Bucky took a couple of steps into the alleyway, but before he could get any close, he saw Tony lift up a hand up – still shadowed by the darkness of the alleyway. The non-verbal cue was enough to halt Bucky where he was.

However, he couldn’t help but feel gravely concerned. This was the first time since they had returned from 2012 that he had even seen a hair or hide of Steve’s two friends who were ‘trapped’ in the Soul Stone.

“04-07-1970,” Tony repeated, seemingly shuddering and struggling to breathe for a moment, before taking a single step forward.

Bucky nearly recoiled at just how horrifically wounded Tony looked. He had seen how the stones had affected the inventor in Steve’s memories, but it didn’t seem real back then. Now, Tony stood before him, leaning heavily against the alleyway’s wall

Tony looked desiccated with blood-shot eyes. Blackened blood and burst veins crawling up from his right hand to his face. The Iron Man suit, formerly pristine red-gold vibranium armor, was complete crackled in black.

It looked worse than what Bucky had seen in Steve’s memories. He couldn’t help but think that if Tony looked like this at the moment, then Natasha was most likely sharing a similar fate. And that all three – Steve, Natasha, and Tony – had been affected by the radiation overload, and escape of what seemed like another one of Thanos’s erased generals.

“Get help, Barnes,” Tony raggedly whispered as he faded. “04-07-1970, Garden State.”

* * *

Brooklyn Facility…

 

Peggy gently reached out and smoothed Steve’s hair back from his forehead. The acute hitch of his breath – steady, but clearly labored – continued to make her heart ache. Yet, there was nothing she could do to ease the pain she could only imagine Steve to be in.

Howard had tried all sorts of painkillers – from potently powerful ones to illegal substances. None looked as if they eased Steve’s pain, or help him relax. Even the small droplets of blood that Howard had taken and experimented with, from the bandages that were changed daily, yielded no cure.

As Peggy sat back in her chair, she knew that she should have been focusing more on her duties as the Agent-in-Charge of the facility. Yet—

A slam of the doors and clatter in the laboratory below startled her. Quickly getting up, she went to the window and drew back the curtains – only to see Bucky hurry down the stairs. Even before he reached the area where the lead covering for the prototype arc reactor had been placed over the time-jump bangle, Peggy was already on her way out.

Even this far down the hall, she could hear Howard and David’s shouts of exclamations and protest. Even Michael’s voice was raised in alarm. Daniel appeared at the end of the hallway, and joined her as they both went through the doors and stopped at the top of the stairs.

“Agent Barnes!” she cried out.

Bucky had his pistol out in his left hand, and was pointing it at Howard – occasionally shifting to Michael to prevent Michael from taking a step forward, or closer to the time-travel device. David was standing a little ways away, looking both afraid and in shock.

“Let me go, Peggy,” Bucky stated in a strained tone, keeping an eye on Howard, Michael, and David. Peggy saw him step backwards until he was on the platform.

It was then, that Peggy noticed that he wore the time-jump bangle. The other one that had been thrown on the table was also gone. She saw him reach across with his right hand and tap a pattern on the bangle. A dark-blue uniform with a dark-colored imprint of a star, along with segmented red-white stripes that enveloped his torso, bled up and around Bucky.

“What are you doing? Why?” she shouted.

It was obvious that Bucky was attempting to complete Steve’s mission. But for what gain or purpose, even at the potential expense of his own health, was something that Peggy did not understand.

“Getting help,” was all that he answered, before he tapped out something under his left wrist. The time-jump armor formed around him even more quickly than one of Steve’s Captain America uniforms.

Then, Bucky suddenly vanished.

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 16: Stasis – Part 2 – 1970

 

Peggy rubbed her temples with both of her hands as soon as the door closed. It was always like this – last minute meetings to ensure the smooth operation of things at Headquarters during her time of absence. Not to mention that her colleagues and the department heads always seem to find an excuse of sorts to panic about some inanity or another less than a day before she was due to depart—

“Ma’am!”

Peggy hadn’t even gotten to cross the threshold between her secretary’s office and into her own blissfully darkened and silent cave of an office, when the MP had burst in.

“Ma’am, there’s been a situation. You gotta come see this. He’s been asking for you—”

“Deep breaths, Private—” she began.

The MP huffed and took a deep breath before straightening at the doorway. “Sorry, ma’am,” the MP said. “There’s been a… not quite security breach…”

“A not quite security breach,” she repeated.

“Ma’am… a man dressed in some kind of uniform that looks similar to Captain America’s uniform just… appeared in Dr. Pym’s laboratory,” the MP stated.

“A 0-8-4?”

“We… Lieutenant Baker believes so, ma’am,” the MP answered, nodding once.

“And Dr. Pym?” she asked, as she nodded for the MP to show her the way.

“Safe. The Lieutenant had Gregson bring Dr. Pym to the infirmary, just in case. He was returning from Shipping, and complained to us about those in Shipping playing an apparent prank on him – before the 0-8-4 showed up,” the MP briefed her.

It was a short few winding halls to Dr. Hank Pym’s laboratory. When they arrived, there were two MPs at the door, looking alert, while another was a little ways down the hall, redirecting traffic.

Peggy entered, and stopped short as she saw a man kneeling in the center of the laboratory, with his gloved hands held behind his head. The man was surrounded by six highly armed guards, and Lieutenant Baker, but didn’t look as alarmed as Peggy thought he would be – given the rifles pointed at him.

The uniform that the man wore did indeed, look similar to the uniform that she remembered Steve wearing. Loose, but still somewhat form-fitting, flexible material, and dark blue in color. There was a dark outline of what looked like there should have been a star in the center of his chest.

Darkened and dirtied white and red stripes surrounded his torso, and a small bandoleer of compartments ran around his waist. The man’s hands were gloved in the same color as his shin-high boots were.

The helmet was almost as dark in color of the entire uniform, but the eyes within the helmet was not the blue-green color she expected. They were oceanic blue in color… and coupled with the angular shape of the chin—

The stranger’s helmet suddenly retracted – no, bled away to his neck—

“Sergeant Barnes?!” she squeaked.

“Hey, Carter.”

* * *

Despite his underlying worry for Steve, and unease of his surroundings, Bucky forced himself to remain calm.

He could hear the tiny whirs of various observation cameras in the medical laboratory. He knew there were MPs standing outside, guarding the area. He was being watched by unseen eyes carefully. Apart from the slightly awkward greeting he and this timeline’s Peggy Carter shared, no one had approached or questioned him.

All Peggy had done was to order the MPs to escort him to the medical wing.

The laboratory looked bright and pristine. The walls were colored in a rather soothing gradient-like scheme from soft grey to soft blue. The lights were not harsh in coloring, tables colored in the same grey color as part of the wall, and even curtains that sectioned off each area for a single patient, were not stark white.

It was completely different from what he hazily remembered of the brick-lined, cold, and dirty area in the HYDRA facility where Zola had conducted his super-soldier experiments upon him. It was also different from the damp and dark laboratory where Ivchenko and Zola had performed their Winter Soldier experiments upon him.

But a medical laboratory was a medical laboratory, no matter how much one could dress it up.

The door to the laboratory opened, and Bucky saw a young man – younger than he expected – wearing a white laboratory coat walk in. There was a stethoscope draped around his neck, and a couple of pens sticking out of his coat’s upper breast pocket. His SHIELD identification badge was clipped to the pocket, but flipped so that Bucky couldn’t see his name.

Bucky frowned – as good-looking as the young man appeared, there were similar features to Peggy—

“Sergeant Barnes?” the young man asked, giving him a kind smile, as he approached and stuck out his hand. “Dr. Alex Carter. Director Carter’s brother. Pleasure to meet you.”

Bucky blinked in surprise before manners kicked him in the head to return the handshake. Still, the white lab coat unsettled him, no matter if the person wearing it seemed kind.

“Firm grip you have there, sir,” Dr. Carter stated, grinning slightly as they let go of each other’s hands. “Your temperature seems a little elevated, but none of the alarms here have gone off thus far, so I think it’s safe to say for the record: you’re not a biological threat to us, even for a 0-8-4.”

“0-8-4?” Bucky questioned, realizing that Dr. Carter was stating the assessment out loud for those watching and listening through the cameras. It was also then that he realized that SHIELD – specifically Peggy sent her own brother in, into a potentially dangerous situation.

“Carter… Peggy used you as—” he began, slightly appalled that Peggy would order her own family into something dangerous.

“I volunteered, Sergeant.”

There was still a kind expression on Dr. Carter’s face, but Bucky heard the steel behind the words. He didn’t need much, and his initial assessment told him a fair amount about the young man.

“You enlisted,” he began, tilting his head slightly. “Served initially as a medic for your unit, before being recruited by another...more classified one. Perhaps SAS. You were deployed somewhere remote for direct engagement to serve British interests.”

“I was in Dhofar for a brief spell, before being offered a rotation here,” Dr. Carter answered.

The smile on the young man’s face was full of good humor, and none of malice. Bucky had guessed right, and given the slightly elevated nod he saw Dr. Carter perform at the camera 90 degrees from both of them, it was a signal to stand down.

He heard the minute shifting of the guards outside, and could only surmise that they had relaxed their guard slightly. Of the cameras, they continued to whir, but Dr. Carter had stepped back out of his personal space. Bucky’s sense of unease diminished only slightly – the lab coat that Dr. Carter wore was still unsettling him.

“So what brings you to this neck of the woods, Sergeant?” Dr. Carter conversationally asked, as Bucky saw him hop up on the table directly across from the one he was sitting on. “It’s not every day we get people as 0-8-4, especially travelers that look like people long dead. I can safely say that you almost gave my sister a heart attack.”

“How sure are you that I’m not Sergeant James Barnes, return from the dead?”

“Your uniform for one thing,” Dr. Carter stated, gesturing to his outfit. “And the reports from Lieutenant Baker and his team, indicating how your helmet retracted. That’s highly advanced technology that nearly boggles the mind – almost science-fiction.”

“But that’s only the physical appearance,” Dr. Carter continued to say. “I’m under orders to conduct a medical exam of you to ensure that you truly are not a biological threat to us. And to assess whether or not you really are Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes of the Howling Commandos, returned from the dead.”

Bucky really had no compunction about stripping naked in front of people when changing in and out of uniform. Yet, the prospect of a medical exam made him feel even more uneasy—

“I only need a blood sample, sir,” Dr. Carter’s kind voice interrupted his thoughts. “That is all, for the medical exam.”

Bucky couldn’t help but frown. While he remembered seeing Steve’s memories of his early days spent in SHIELD – orientation, fitness and medical exams, and so many other things – he was a little surprised at the simple request.

“That’s it?” he asked.

“That’s it,” Dr. Carter answered. “SHIELD… learned its lesson in full-body medical exams on humanoid 0-8-4s after the last one that ended up here. That 0-8-4 turned out to be a blue-skinned, angry alien who was not dead, that killed the former Chief Medical Officer. It took ten of our strongest guys and a tall order of heavy elephant tranquilizers to subdue it.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky couldn’t help but say.

The smile that Dr. Carter gave him was humorless, but it was quickly erased as Bucky saw him hop off the table and head to another. Dr. Carter put on some gloves, and collected what looked like a thick rubber band and a strange-looking syringe and tube, onto a tray.

Even before the young doctor got within a few steps of him, Bucky gritted his teeth and said, “Would you—would you please… not the coat. Please.”

It sounded as if Dr. Carter was telling the truth about whatever had happened here, and that he only wanted to draw some blood for the medical exam. But even that was a little too much for Bucky to bear – especially with any medical officer standing close to him dressed in a white lab coat.

“Oh,” he heard Dr. Carter murmur, stopping where he was, before backtracking.

Bucky saw him place the tray down before shedding his medical coat. It was draped over another table, and Dr. Carter changed out his gloves again.

“I’m sorry about that,” Dr. Carter gently and sympathetically stated, as Bucky avoided looking at the medical equipment tray that was placed next to him.

“Doctors… aren’t my most favorite of people,” Bucky quietly answered, hoping that it was enough to suffice any curious questions.

“I understand,” the young doctor stated, nodding once. “Would you like me to play some music, as a distraction?”

Bucky silently shook his head, before taking a deep breath. “Let’s get this over with,” he gruffly stated.

Deactivating the armor, it quickly bled back into the bangle still strapped around his gloved left wrist. He didn’t even wait for the murmur of surprise from Dr. Carter, before roughly unbuttoning the cuff of his right sleeve and rolled up the sleeve of his collared shirt. Sticking his arm out to the side, Bucky then turned his head to the other side.

To his relief, and slight surprise, Dr. Carter worked on drawing his blood rather quickly. Bucky felt the large rubber band being tied around the upper part of his arm, but didn’t even feel the prick of the needle. Only a couple of minutes had passed before he heard the materials being used to draw his blood be placed on the tray again.

The tourniquet around his arm was loosened, and then the puff of a cotton ball was pressed against his skin. “Hold that for a few minutes, please, while I go find you a band aid, sir,” Dr. Carter stated.

Bucky turned back, and did as he was told. But he couldn’t hide the fact that he had rapid healing abilities, as Dr. Carter returned with a small adhesive strip and indicated that he should remove the cotton ball.

“Huh...” was all Dr. Carter stated, unable to find the area where the needle mark had been.

“Super-soldier,” Bucky simply stated.

It was Dr. Carter’s turn to blink in surprise. With the young doctor standing this close to him, Bucky could definitely see the resemblance to Peggy. Handsomely confident, calm and composed in the face of danger. Yet, he could also see hints of Michael in Dr. Carter’s facial structure and especially in his eyes.

The thought of Michael made him look away, as an even heavier feeling settled within his heart. His looking away also apparently broke the spell of prolonged staring between the two of them.

Bucky heard the young doctor clear his throat, and glanced back just in time to see Dr. Carter’s cheeks turn slightly red for a brief moment. Bucky knew that look… that flushed reaction… It was the same reaction Michael always had whenever—

The doctor recovered quickly though, and said, “I’ll have the results and verdict on Director Carter’s desk soon. If you would please, Sergeant—”

“It’s Agent,” Bucky stated, as he hopped to the floor, rolling down his sleeve.

He strode to the door, not surprised as the two MPs outside, entered. They were ready to escort him to wherever he was going to be held for the time being.

“Agent James Barnes, of the SSR,” he stated, turning slightly towards Dr. Carter. “I’m here,” he continued to say, “because I need Peggy Carter’s help to save my best friend, Steve Rogers.”

* * *

Peggy knew that she should have been home sleeping – her flight to Bucharest was due to leave in a few hours. But, with the unexpected arrival of one SSR Agent James Barnes—even her husband had asked if she needed him to report to Headquarters.

It could have been a lie, but as she stopped the recording and played it back again, Peggy knew that this James Buchanan Barnes – this Bucky Barnes – was not lying. Steve was alive, somewhere in perhaps another world that this Bucky came from. His words woke a formerly long settled ache within her heart.

Steve was alive.

But not here—

The knock on her office door from the hall entrance startled her slightly. “Come in, Alex,” she stated, seeing the familiar outline of her younger brother through the frosted glass.

Her brother entered, looking as tired as she felt. There was a seriousness in his eyes though, as he closed the door and took a seat before her desk. He silently handed an unmarked folder to her. She took it, but did not open it yet.

“One hundred percent James Buchanan Barnes, Peggy,” she heard him state.

“But…” she began, expecting it.

“None of the details that Dr. Zola gave us about how he created his version of the super-soldier serum matches the markers that I was examining in Barnes’ DNA—”

“So this Agent Barnes is a 0-8-4, a traveler from another—” Peggy began.

“I’m talking about what little DNA sample was extracted from the recovered personal effects that Sergeant Barnes – our world’s Sergeant Barnes, owned during the war, sis,” Alex said, shaking his head slightly. “Like I said – that Agent Barnes is a hundred percent match to himself here. But he is a 0-8-4.”

“How?” Peggy questioned.

“There’s trace amounts of signs of radiation damage in his blood,” Alex said, sighing and rubbing the back of his neck. “Judging by the match, it’s safe for me to assume that whatever Zola did to him during the war – his war – it’s holding back any further damage. But it would explain why he has a slightly elevated temperature when I shook his hand.”

Peggy frowned.

Alex had taken an unusual interest in the fledgling field of nuclear medicine when he had briefly attended college before deciding to enlist. Though never extensively trained, what little Peggy knew of the missions that Alex had been deployed on with his SAS unit, was that he acquired even more knowledge about nuclear medicine during that time.

Only a few weeks after Dr. Franklin had been killed by the 0-8-4 alien, the World Council had overruled her request to not bring her brother into the folds of SHIELD. They were determined to have someone in that medical field heading up a re-attempt of creating the super-soldier serum with Howard and Dr. Zola. Alex was their best candidate – and thus, he had been made CMO of SHIELD.

“But how do you know Agent Barnes is from another world?” she continued to ask.

“Gut instinct,” Alex answered. “His words to you, and most of all, that tech he’s wearing – especially his Captain America-like uniform.”

Peggy didn’t realize that she had been rubbing and twisting the wedding band on her ring finger, until her brother’s hand landed over her own.

“From everything you told me about Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes, I don’t think this Agent Barnes would deliberately invoke bad memories for you, unless he didn’t know, Peggy,” she heard her brother gently say before letting go and sat back.

“So you’re also saying that Dr. Zola lied to us, about his serum research?” she said after a moment, unfolding her hands.

Alex remained silent.

“The room has been swept for bugs, Alex,” she stated. “I did it myself.”

“Maybe,” her brother conceded at long last. “The World Council might have overruled you, but I’m sure they have their own spies here. They haven’t stopped us from interacting, yet.”

“Alex,” she began, feeling a little apprehensive.

Her brother did not have the spy training or experience she – and their deceased older brother – had. Her brother was a formerly enlisted medic – a soldier-doctor. Not a spy.

“Don’t worry, Peggy,” he said, giving her a smile. “I’m leaving all of that cloak and dagger thing to you. I just have my reservations, having worked with both Dr. Zola and Howard for these past few months.”

She silently nodded. “Well then, let’s see what this Agent Barnes of the SSR wants.”

~~~

“Tony’s managed to gather enough strength, and repair most of his armor to loop the cameras for a few minutes at your two and seven-o-clocks. The bugs have also been disabled.”

Bucky nearly jumped up from where he was sitting in the ‘cell’ at the unfamiliar voice. While not quite a guest room, it was half-cell, half room. There was a small bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower adjacent to the rather uncomfortable, cramped room. A slab with a blanket and pillow that served as the bed was situated here.

With his serum-enhanced hearing, Bucky had identified two cameras, and numerous amounts of bugs that had been placed in various areas around the room and bathroom. It was more an observational cell than anything else.

It took him a few moments to realize that the voice sounded like Dr. Banner – from Steve’s memories. Turning slightly towards the voice, Bucky saw that there was a rather large outline standing in the shadows of the ‘cell’.

“Dr. Banner?” he curiously questioned.

“A small part of me,” Banner answered, taking a step out of the shadows – enough so that Bucky could visually confirm that it was the green not-quite-Hulk person.

“I’m the third and final barrier within the stones,” Banner explained, gesturing to his appearance. It looked much worse than what Bucky remembered from Steve’s memories of Banner snapping his fingers to bring everyone lost in 2018 back to 2023.

“Not much for talking or showing myself. It looked as if Nat and Tony had everything handled. I tried to take the brunt of the radiation from the others and Steve, but… there’s only so much—”

“You, or the others could absorb,” Bucky finished up.

As angry as he wanted to be, to blame Banner, Stark, and Natasha for not doing their jobs to protect Steve – especially with the apparent unleashing of another of Thanos’ generals – he could bring himself to feel so. Just looking at Banner, and Stark when Stark told him the date to input into the time-jump armor, made his anger flee.

“Yeah,” Banner reluctantly answered. “Sorry—”

“Steve’s a dumbass,” Bucky couldn't help but state in slight bitter derision. “I’ve spent nearly my entire life trying to stop him from doing stupid, reckless stuff. I don’t expect his friends to succeed where I failed—”

“And that’s why Tony had you return here, to return the Tesseract and get help here, in 1970,” Banner quietly interrupted.

“Ask a person well-versed in radiation poisoning for advice?” Bucky questioned. “I was going to ask them that, but then I remembered that this place is overrun by HYDRA. I’d also rather keep the Tesseract away from SHIELD in this timeline.”

“SHIELD knows about radiation damage, and how to help someone who’s suffered from it,” Banner stated, taking a seat next to him on the cold floor. “Dr. Alex Carter. He became one of SHIELD’s experts in radiation biology. His work here was the basis for some of my work in the future.”

Bucky couldn’t help but frown. “He looks a little young to be an expert, Doc.”

A small grin crept up Banner’s lips, before the man said, “1970 is when he was recruited into SHIELD. He’s still not the expert he will become, but if Steve’s memories of SHIELD are anything to say – SHIELD recruits really smart people, no matter their age.”

The frown on Bucky’s face remained, as he couldn’t help but wonder— “If you know so much about gamma radiation and the damage it can cause, why didn’t you show up before all of this?”

“Because I’m the last gatekeeper that keeps Thanos’ horde from escaping,” Banner answered. “It’s more difficult than either Nat or Tony are letting on, Agent Barnes. The stones give and take – and leaving them together provides better escape routes for Thanos’ army than separating all of them. And with Nat and Tony now down—”

“I understand,” Bucky quietly answered.

“Seek out Dr. Carter’s advice,” Banner suggested. “And if it’s the same as mine, then...”

“What advice is that, Doc?” he questioned.

“You most likely need to find Steve in this timeline and rescue him from the war bomber in the Arctic. Steve, in your timeline, will need a transfusion of clean, fresh blood that’s not contaminated – to jump-start his healing process,” Banner said, glancing over at him. “I’m sorry.”

As much as Bucky wanted to swear, he refrained from doing so. He didn’t know where exactly Steve was in the Arctic. SHIELD here held a nesting, hidden HYDRA – and bringing Steve back from the relative dead was sure to ruffle more than just feathers.

“This place is a den of HYDRA, Banner,” he stated.

“There’s at least three people you know you can trust here, Agent,” Banner answered. “Director Carter, Howard Stark, and Dr. Carter.”

Bucky considered Banner’s words for a few moments. “Dr. Carter… HYDRA killed him, didn’t they?”

“He drove his car off a cliff in the Palisades, and into the Hudson,” the man quietly said. “1989. He had a male passenger with him – passenger was killed as well. Police ruled it as accidental suicide. Dr. Carter had been served divorce papers the day before by his wife. Interview with their daughter, Sharon, indicated that Dr. Carter and his soon-to-be ex-wife had been fighting for the better part of six months.”

“But…” Bucky began.

“Postmortem autopsy by SHIELD found traces of radioactive material in his stomach lining,” Banner said. “Half-life decay suggests that he was fed those traces well before the arguments began. DNA trace of the passenger also yielded a mismatch between the appearance of the passenger people saw getting into his car, and the body found at the accident site. Those results never made it to Director Carter’s desk.”

“Did the results ever had a date of radiation poisoning inception?” Bucky asked, frowning and feeling a slight amount of dread well up in his stomach.

“No, but there are estimates of up to a year-and-a-half, perhaps two at most,” Banner answered. “At least that’s what the files Nat released in our 2014, suggested.”

“Shit,” Bucky couldn’t help but mutter. “I think the Wolf Spider killed Dr. Carter. There was a note in his file that mentioned a mission to the New York’s Hudson valley region from 1987 to 1989. To ascertain and ensure that the true biological contamination extent of the Chernobyl incident in 1986, was not made public by a British-American researcher.”

Banner remained silent. It didn’t help Bucky at all, as he felt an awful feeling in his stomach. Wolf Spider was confirmed to be Michael Carter – but only through the leaked files. It sickened him to think, and possibly confirm that Michael had deliberately killed his own brother in 1989.

Bucky knew for sure as hell that Wolf Spider was active right here and now, and neither Peggy or her younger brother knew—

The sounds of footsteps approaching caused him to look up as he saw Banner disappear out of the corner of his eyes. He could hear the faint whir of the cameras spooling up, and schooled his expression to that of slight boredom.

The door opened, spilling some brighter light into the dim ‘cell’. “Agent Barnes?” the guard at the door said. “Please follow us. Director Carter would like to speak to you.”

Bucky got up and followed the guard out. He could only surmise that it was quite late at night, given that the only people he saw in and around the halls they were walking through, were guards. It was also apparent to him that SHIELD did not consider him a threat or a prisoner – they did not cover his head in a sackcloth at all.

They finally stopped at Peggy’s office. The guard knocked, and Bucky heard the faint confirmation from Peggy to enter.

Stepping in after the guard opened the door, Bucky waited until the guard closed the door and footsteps faded away, before looking around. Peggy was sitting behind her desk, looking as stern as ever. There were tiny, thin wisps of grey interspersed within her brown hair, but she still looked quite youthful for her age in 1970.

In the far corner of her office was Peggy’s younger brother – who was in the midst of hanging up his white lab coat at the coat stand. “Dr. Carter,” he greeted, before turning his attention back onto Peggy. “And… I guess you’re Director Carter now. No longer Agent.”

“And you’re not Sergeant Barnes,” she answered, gesturing for him to take a seat before her.

He did so, and was not surprised that Peggy’s brother took the other seat. “Was,” he said, focusing his attention on Peggy. “I left the service after the war. Philips offered me a job with the SSR, and I took it.”

“Second World War?” Peggy questioned.

“Second World War,” he confirmed.

“You’re what we, SHIELD, call a 0-8-4, Agent Barnes,” Peggy began. “An anomaly that we are unable to classify, due to the advance nature of technology that we do not have the means to discern. It’s rare that we get people classified as 0-8-4s. To put it bluntly, you’re dead in this world.”

“D’ya ever recovery a body, Director?” Bucky asked.

Peggy frowned – a familiar sight to him, whenever confronted with the possibility of something that could become a danger. “No. We could not,” she carefully answered. “Captain Rogers and his team were on a mission to—”

“Intercept and capture Dr. Arnim Zola. In the Swiss Alps. The Howling Commandos left SSR HQ mid-January, 1945 for the mission. They returned one man short, one man lost as a casualty of war. Sergeant James Barnes. Myself. I fell. I remember falling and living in darkness for a very long time, Director,” Bucky stated.

Before Peggy or Peggy’s brother could interrupt, he continued, saying, “A miracle… if you want to call it that, happened from the timeline I am from, Director. I’m not going to explain what it is, but suffice to say, I’m from 1949. I jumped through time because I need your help.”

“Steve is alive?”

Bucky could hear the heartbreak in Peggy’s tone, even if her expression did not show it. He also couldn’t help but notice that there was a wedding band on her ring finger. Peggy was married to someone in this timeline.

“He’s alive,” he confirmed. “For now.”

“For now?” Peggy questioned, the heartbreak no longer in her voice as she seemingly sat up a little straighter – more concerned than anything else.

“He did something stupid,” Bucky said, unable to keep the irritation out of his tone at what Steve had done. “He’s been doused with what apparently should’ve been a lethal amount of radiation, during some experiments with a device the SSR was developing.”

While not entirely the truth, it was a good summary and vague enough to get the point across.

“Peggy, we don’t know how to fix Steve,” Bucky continued. “We have him on IV drip, but his cells – his serum is not healing him. I thought that maybe twenty or so years in the future, there might be a cure – another way to get Steve’s super-soldier serum working again. If you don’t, I’ll just keep going further into the future—”

“Steve’s dead, Bucky,” Peggy broke in, voice trembling slightly. She looked at him with sadness in her eyes before saying, “I don’t know if whatever you used to time-travel is damaged, but Steve’s dead. He… he died shortly after you did, bringing Schmidt’s war bomber down, somewhere over the North Atlantic. He—”

“He was never found. No body recovered, Agent Barnes,” Dr. Carter spoke up.

Bucky saw him lean forward and place a comforting hand over Peggy’s own, before focusing on him. “I think… I think whatever device you used to bring yourself to this point in time transported you to another timeline, Agent. You, along with Captain Rogers, are both dead.”

“If you’re looking for some help to mitigate and ease your timeline’s Captain Rogers’ pain from radiation poisoning, I can try to provide some things. But, if you’re wanting for him to completely heal, I’m sorry, we don’t have a working super-soldier serum. My colleagues and I have only just begun working on a second attempt – and that will take months, if not years. Dr. Erskine’s formula is no easy task to replicate.”

“What about transfusion?” Bucky asked. “Blood transfusion—”

“That may work,” Dr. Carter began, hesitant.

“But the US government here in the timeline, has already blown through their entire stockpile of Steve’s blood,” Peggy finished up, sounding a lot stronger, but still had a remorseful look on her face. “What we have is a single vial of Steve’s blood, for our attempt.”

“That’s not enough for a transfusion,” Dr. Carter stated, shaking his head slightly.

Bucky was hoping that the stockpile of Steve’s blood had not been emptied. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to bring this timeline’s Steve back from wherever he was in the Arctic – he knew he would just be bringing Steve back to heartbreak.

Peggy was married, and he did not want to ruin whatever loving relationship Peggy had forged in her new life without Steve. He was now beginning to understand just how ‘fish out of water’ Steve felt – displaced in time, and with everyone he knew having moved on.

But…

Bucky briefly twiddled his thumbs and fingers for a few moments. Then he reached over and tapped in the pattern to activate Steve’s armor that he had worn while on the run. He dared not use the pure vibranium armor. Not only did not not know the state of that armor after everything it had been through, it didn’t feel right to wear it.

Both Peggy and her younger brother jumped slightly in their seats as the armor bled over him. He didn’t really know how the stones worked, only that he felt an uncomfortable, almost insatiably hungry, otherworldly feeling wash over him. It wasn’t him that felt hungry, but it was something lashing against his mind—

Physical pain accompanied it – crawling up his metal left arm and began to encompass his entire body. Bucky opened his gloved left hand, and found the red Reality Stone glittering up at him.

Somehow, the stones seemed to know what he wanted to do, and responded. It felt… invasive, almost as if Zola and Ivchenko had opened his mind again to violate and pollute his thoughts.

But this was the path he needed to show them. And now he completely understood why Steve was so reluctant to even tell them about himself – his journey through time.

“What I am about to show the two of you cannot leave this room,” he stated, looking up. He closed his left hand over the stone, and a grey, blank cloud seemed to wrap around the three of them.

“Nor, can it be discussed outside of this room,” he continued to say. “There are certain forces at work that we discovered in my timeline, that may or may not exist here. Do I have your word?”

“Yes,” Peggy stated, nodding once.

“Yes, but I have one concern before you show us whatever you’re going to,” Dr. Carter answered, frowning. Bucky waited for the young man to continue.

“If I may?” the doctor asked, reaching towards his forehead with the back of his right hand.

Bucky shook his head, and Dr. Carter dropped his hand, sitting back in his seat. It was clear that the doctor had suspicions about the gamma radiation.

“Low level gamma radiation,” he said, internally wincing that he was openly lying in the same exact way Steve had done to him and the others. “My serum can handle it.”

“As my analysis had shown,” Dr. Carter said, nodding once. “And yes, I will adhere to your requests, Agent Barnes.”

“The miracle that I had talked about earlier,” Bucky began. “Was Steve being alive in my timeline. This is how he achieved it.”

Silently and without comment, Bucky showed them his memories of the night that Steve revealed where he had come from. A memory within a memory. It was not much, and certainly would leave both Peggy and her brother puzzled, but Bucky felt that it was enough to get the point across.

As soon as it was done, Bucky felt the hunger from the Reality Stone recede. The pain that encompassed his body also slowly died away, leaving an uncomfortable ache that felt like he had fallen ill.

“Is that Michael? Is that what he looked...how he acted and behaved?” Dr. Carter hesitatingly asked. “Our brother?”

“Yes,” Peggy said, nearly whispering her answer.

“Steve’s alive in this timeline,” Bucky quietly stated. “Steve in my timeline, he and his compatriots came here to borrow SHIELD’s Tesseract. I have what’s left of it in my possession, and I will return it to you under one condition.”

“You want Steve’s blood?” Peggy began, sounding horrified at the same time a little angry. “You want SHIELD to find him in the Arctic – when we’ve been trying for years upon years to do so—”

“No,” Bucky interrupted, a little angry that Peggy would think of him so merciless.

“No,” he repeated this time a little more softly. “I have a better sense of where Steve may be, with what I know,” he explained. “I’ll go find him, and bring him home. My condition in returning what remains of the Tesseract is the removal of Dr. Arnim Zola from SHIELD. His execution, if you can even swing it – for war crimes committed during and after the war.”

“Dr. Zola—” Peggy began.

“Don’t give me the official bullshit, Peggy,” Bucky bit out. “I know the SSR recruited him via Operation Paperclip. I know that the US wanted his knowledge – that they put greed over humanity. What the US, what the SSR and even SHIELD don’t know is that he’s been rebuilding HYDRA from the inside of this place.”

“What?”

Both Peggy and her brother had stated at in the same incredulous tone. As much as Bucky had not wanted to become overly involved, he knew that he had committed to this path once he had shown them the memory. There was no turning back now – not if he was going to make sure Peggy, Dr. Carter, Steve, and not only himself as Soviet asset named Winter Soldier, but also Michael, survive.

“There’s an operation in Bucharest happening in the next few days,” he began, focusing his attention on Peggy. “That operation is to recruit a possible Soviet defector who has access to Soviet leadership. General Nicolai Krylenko. Your flight leaves at 04:35 from the flight field just outside of Camp Lehigh. You land in London and catch another flight to Berlin that leaves at 20:04 local time. From Berlin, agents are positioned at the various checkpoints to sneak you—”

“Stop,” Peggy hoarsely said.

“That’s classified—” Dr. Carter began, startled.

“It’s not,” Bucky said, turning his attention slightly towards the young man. He retracted his armor and unbuttoned a couple of buttons on this collared shirt.

Pulling out the folder that contained Tony’s letter and the glass pane of data, he placed it on the edge of Peggy’s desk. As he buttoned up his shirt again, he saw Peggy reach forward to draw the folder towards her. She yelped as she touched the folder, and quickly drew back her hand.

“It’s been coded to my prints and alpha-numeric passcode,” he stated, taking the folder and placed it on his lap for the moment. “It’s from 2012, where the tech is more advanced than anything else I’ve seen.”

“2012?” Peggy questioned.

“I was helping Steve return the stones to various points in time, when he did the stupid thing with the radiation,” Bucky said, running his hand along the seam, and opened the folder. He took the rectangular object out and ungloved his left hand.

“Your hand…” Dr. Carter began.

Bucky ignored the sympathetic statement as he pressed both thumbs to the rectangle and then quickly input the alpha-numeric passcode that was hidden behind the star-like characters.

Pulling up the appropriate file, he placed the object on the edge of Peggy’s desk again, and let the projection showing at their eye level speak for itself. It was completely in Russian, and it was word-for-word, what he had just stated to Peggy before being told to stop.

“W-what is this?” Peggy asked, horrified. “Where did this—”

“Cut off one head, and two more will grow,” Bucky softly stated. “Dr. Zola and his associates within SHIELD have cultivated contacts and small cells all over the world in these past years since the end of the war. Several of those cells are within the Soviet Union. They know you’re coming, Peggy.”

Thankfully, he knew Peggy was not the sort of panic and immediately call off the mission. Neither, did it seem Dr. Carter was either. The young man was not panicking at all, but was frowning at what was projected.

“Who are they sending to intercept?” Peggy asked.

As tempted as Bucky was to show her further details about the mission report he had perused, he didn’t. Instead, he narrowed his eyes slightly at Peggy before sitting back in his seat.

She was carefully watching him. Though Bucky could not discern any ill intent from her, he was rather curious as to why she was now scrutinizing him.

“Hmmm,” she hummed after a few minutes. “You’re not as arrogant as I thought you were, Bucky,” she said. “Deliberately showing up in Dr. Pym’s laboratory, then saying all of that, even showing us your fantastical proof. You don’t have a concrete plan, but you’re not arrogant enough to change things so drastically in this timeline.”

“All I want is to save Steve, my timeline’s Steve,” Bucky quietly answered. “I was hoping that the stockpile was still plenty. That was the extent of my plan, Pegs.”

“And we’ve forced your hand,” Peggy agreed. “Twice now. You gave in to the first, but you’re unwilling to give in to the second. Why?”

“Because if I show you the rest, it could potentially cause so many to lose their lives. Alter the course of your timeline’s history forever. You have enough to begin hunting down HYDRA operatives within SHIELD,” Bucky carefully answered.

“Yes, but no proof to charge Dr. Zola of war crimes after the war,” Peggy pointed out.

“Are you sure you want to do this, Peggy?” Bucky asked after a few moments of uncomfortable silence.

“Do have no other proof to show?” she asked.

Bucky shook his head.

“Then we’ll have to take the risk,” she answered. “Please show me who the Soviets will be sending to intercept this mission in Bucharest.”

“The assassin sent to kill Krylenko is code-named the Winter Soldier,” Bucky began.

“That… can’t be right,” Dr. Carter said, giving both of them a puzzled look. “MI-6… they said this Winter Soldier person is a ghost story. Doesn’t exist—”

“He exists,” both Bucky and Peggy stated at the same time.

“And he will… he did succeed in assassinating Krylenko,” he quietly followed up after a moment.

Bucky mentally braced himself and flipped to the next report in the file on the Bucharest mission. It was a full write-up in Russian by the Winter Soldier’s handler on what happened at what exact time the assassination took place place. In the upper corner of the report was a small photograph of the Winter Soldier in cryo—

“Dear God,” he heard Peggy gasp, eyes flickering back and forth from him and to the picture. “Bucky—”

“The Winter Soldier will be indirectly assisted by the team known as Winter Guard,” Bucky continued, but did not flip to the next page in the report just yet. “The Winter Guard’s primary objective is… was to quietly take out every SHIELD agent stationed around the meeting point – except for Director Margaret Carter. To allow the Winter Soldier unfettered access to kill his target with no collateral damage. They are led by the Soviet operative code-named Wolf Spider.”

He flipped the page, and fell silent. The report was again, in Russian, but the photographs accompanying the report were of the five Soviet operatives he remembered seeing in Steve’s memories. Except for one of the five – Michael, the operative who had the other code-name of Wolf Spider.

Bucharest was the only report he had received and read about that had both the Winter Soldier and Wolf Spider working ‘together’. It was also the only operation that Peggy had caught a glimpse of her brother before the mission commenced – nearly derailing the Soviet side of things.

“No...” Peggy’s voice cracked in anguish on that one word. “Why… how?”

“The Soviets… they found me… him,” Bucky began, knowing that he owed Peggy a straightforward explanation for all the grief and hurt he was causing both her and her brother.

“They found him in the Alps after the fall. They re-captured Michael in Prague a few days before VE Day. After Zola was captured, he was sent to an isolated ‘prison’ in the Bering Sea. His contacts brought both myself… him, and Michael to there. Dr. Ivchenko was there was well. They stripped the Winter Soldier of his memories, and they re-conditioned Michael as well – turning both into the Soviets’ weapons. Ivchenko and Zola delivered their results to the Soviets before being recruited into the SSR… into SHIELD.”

Bucky fell silent for a brief moment, before saying, “It may be safe to say that Zola and Ivchenko’s techniques were extended and applied to the others of the Winter Guard. That unit is HYDRA’s most elite combat force. Between themselves alone, they speak more than thirty languages, and can topple regimes overnight. But, Bucharest is.. was the only mission that I know of, that had the Winter Guard and Winter Soldier working in concert to stop SHIELD from getting their hands on General Krylenko.”

It was the scrape of Dr. Carter’s chair that shattered the silence that filled the air. “Where are you—” Peggy began, as Bucky immediately reached out and forcibly grabbed the doctor’s arm to prevent him from leaving.

“The fucker needs to pay,” Dr. Carter spat out, eyes blazing with cold rage. “That’s not just war crimes. That’s inhumane—”

“He will pay, Alex,” Peggy coldly stated. “Sit.”

Bucky couldn’t help feel a slight shiver crawl down his spine at her words. But it seemed Peggy’s words were enough to break through the haze of anger that enveloped the young doctor. He let go a moment later and Dr. Carter returned to his seat.

“Steve… your timeline hopping Steve,” Peggy began, glancing up at the file again for a brief second. “He intercepted you and Michael, using similar information, didn’t he?”

Bucky inclined his head briefly. “He did,” he confirmed. “Freed both of us from a fate worse than death. I owe him my life.”

“But you specifically said that Zola and Ivchenko… they re-conditioned Michael? Was he…”

“I don’t know,” Bucky admitted, understanding that Peggy was beginning to get a vague sense of the possibility of the Wolf Spider existing as early as the war.

“That’s also why I came here to return your Tesseract,” he said. “I don’t know if Michael of my reality, my timeline is still the Wolf Spider… still an unwitting Soviet spy. I can’t take that risk with the Infinity Stones, especially with Steve’s current physical condition.”

Peggy remained silent. Bucky saw her fold her hands together and rest her chin upon them. There was a pensive look on her face as she considered her options. A few minutes later, she looked back up at the file, before reaching forward to flip the page back to the report on the Winter Soldier’s Bucharest activities.

“You take those six out, Peggy… it will change the course of the entire world,” Bucky carefully warned.

There was a glint in her eyes that made him uneasy as it inspired him at the same time. “And you’re going to help me, Agent Barnes.”

 

~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

Chapter 17: Stasis – Part 3 – 1970

 

It was dangerous, foolhardy, and downright mad, but Bucky knew that he shouldn’t have expected less from Peggy Carter. Nor should he had expected her to take a more cautious route after what he had shown her.

The only difference – besides gender – between her and Steve was the fact that she was not a super-soldier. While not identical in how either made tactical and strategic plans, Bucky had to admit to himself that seeing Peggy Carter plan for a massive change in her original mission parameters, was inspiring.

Especially since this change could quite possibly end the Cold War and HYDRA’s existence in less than a decade.

Howard had been brought into the fold after Peggy and Dr. Carter – Alex, the doctor had insisted Bucky call him – had found out about his fate. Bucky had to tell them about Howard’s fate – to warn them that it was more than just HYDRA who was interested in the re-creation of the super-soldier formula.

By the same token, as curious as Peggy and Alex were about their own, Bucky refused to divulge the information. All he had told them was that what the four of them were about to do would change many other fates, including their own.

It was overly dramatic, similar to something Steve would say, but Bucky could find no other words to describe it.

Howard’s initial briefing was similar to all others within the facility who had gotten wind of a 0-8-4 incarnation of ‘Captain America’ appearing. Pure curiosity had driven the inventor go to find him. Then, a disregard for protocol that had Bucky being on the receiving end of a rather fierce bear-hug from Howard.

Bucky hadn’t need to fake his embarrassment or exasperation at Howard’s antics. By the time Howard showed up, Peggy was already well on her way to Bucharest, via London and Berlin. It was up to both him and Alex to brief Howard on the situation and plan – Alex more so than him.

Being a rather benign 0-8-4, along with being cleared of being a biological contaminant, had allowed Bucky some freedom in wandering the halls of SHIELD. Of course, there was the initial clamor from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and World Council, both of whom wanted to speak to the unexpected ‘Captain America’ from another reality.

Peggy had left orders stating that no such meeting or arrangements of a meeting without her present, would happen – until she returned. It gave Bucky the freedom to move around, albeit he still had an escort. She had also emphasized a fair warning to the rest of SHIELD that even though ‘Captain America’ had returned – Bucky was not this reality’s Captain America.

Bucky didn’t bother to correct assumptions about being ‘Captain America’. It was a lie that he took refuge in – to allow himself some protecting from SHIELD, and HYDRA operatives within. Only Howard, Alex, and Peggy knew what little he had shown them of his mission, and what was about to happen in this point in time for this timeline.

Instead, to keep at least a few more curious departments occupied, Peggy had also issued orders to have them search for ways to ‘return Captain America’ to his reality. Peggy had never questioned how exactly he had gotten here, but he saw the glimmer of suspicion that his landing in Dr. Pym’s lab was not just to cause a scene.

At present, Bucky was taking a break in his temporary quarter. He was quartered somewhere a little less cell-like – but no less observational. Two cameras were still present, but there were considerably less bugs in the room. He was a little grateful that there were also no bugs in the tiny adjacent bathroom.

The knock on the door was somewhat expected. With all that was going on outside of his quarter, he barely heard the footsteps approaching. But, he could not discern who it was, at his door.

Pulling the towel off his face, he stepped out of the tiny bathroom and said, “Enter.”

The door opened, letting a wave of chatter and noise from the outside flood in. Alex stepped in, carrying two black duffel bags with him. The bag that he extended forward towards him didn’t looked to be stuffed with things, but neither did it seem empty.

Alex’s appearance meant that it was time to go and carry out the change in Peggy’s mission.

At the present, there was a slightly sheepish smile on Alex’s face that sent a slight pang rolling through Bucky. That expression was so similar to what he remembered seeing on Michael’s expression several times during the war. Especially when the two of them were still warily and new, but somewhat hopeful for a good outcome in their complicated relationship.

As soon as Alex closed the door, the doctor apologized, saying, “Sorry, were you—”

“Nah, Doc,” Bucky said, shaking his head as he stepped over to hang the towel up. “Just needed to splash water on tired eyes.”

“I’ll say,” Alex answered, laughing a little at the fact that Bucky called him ‘Doc’.

Bucky made no comment to that; it was a part of the ‘personality’ he had carved as a partial cover story. He had been ‘escorted’ by several department heads and shown around SHIELD in a whirlwind tour since ‘waking up’ this morning. It felt slightly disconcerting that everyone in the facility seemed to be in livelier spirits with just the mere presence of ‘Captain America’.

The Cold War in 1970 – while it inspired scores of people to push themselves to the limits and beyond, Bucky could see that the moral compass that guided not only the US, but the world, had been thrown off-center. Peggy’s willingness to induce a drastic change – and draft him into it – in the course of history was certainly an example that he was willing to point to.

But his willingness to stop Peggy was almost non-existent. He wanted as much change to this reality as she did – and he knew it was for selfish reasons. Primarily, it was to not let himself continue to be used as a tool of mass destruction in the hands of the Soviets – or the US.

His timeline, his reality’s Cold War was just beginning. Could Steve’s presence merely change so much? Bring out the best in people? Bucky didn’t know.

“Well, I think you’ll be grateful to hear that Howard has arrived with his airplane in the field,” Alex continued. “I’ve brought you some changes of clothes from Supply for the trip.”

“Coming with me, Doc?” Bucky asked for the sake of the bugs, while taking the proffered bag.

He angled his body enough so that his back was obscuring one of the cameras, and by virtue of where Alex was standing, the young doctor was obscuring the other. Opening the bag just so, he grimly smiled at the contents within, before zipping it back up.

“It’s Howard Stark, and no matter how much of a genius he is, the health and safety of the people at SHIELD is my priority. Yours a little more so than others, for now,” Alex stated.

“I hope you don’t mind me being your escort while not on base. Your files look clear of being a hazard to us,” Alex continued after a moment, “but should anything happen while you’re with Howard—”

“I understand,” Bucky cut in, nodding once to make sure the cameras recorded the words and action. “Thanks.”

Had Bucky not known that Alex was twenty-one, nearly twenty-two years of age, nor spoken to him in Peggy’s office, or known a little of his career thus far, he could have sworn the words sounded just like a doddering old doctor.

“Guess Howard Stark in any reality is a bit of…”

“A menace? Most likely so,” Alex agreed, and opened the door.

Bucky activated the armor he had been wearing, but did not activate the helmet. He stepped out into the cacophony – mentally wincing that he should have been more sympathetic to Steve and Steve’s distaste for the public eye, during the war.

Following the doctor, he merely nodded towards those he passed, and kept as pleasant of an expression as possible on his face. More than a few SHIELD personnel he had seen in the halls earlier still paused and watched him walk by. Bucky endured it—

“Ah, so this is the 0-8-4 Captain America.”

It was a voice that both angered and chilled him, as much as it brought horrific memories to the forefront. Yet, Arnim Zola’s voice had not issued up from behind him, but in front of him.

SHIELD agents and military personnel crowded in the halls alike, seemingly parted as if Zola’s presence merely demanded they stood at least a foot, if not more away from the man. Bucky stopped where he was, unable to move – frozen in time—

It will grow, Sergeant,” Zola stated, giving him another unkind smile. “The seedling of a new HYDRA reborn. The beautiful parasite that you will help birth with your own two hands, when we are done.”

“This is Dr. Arnim Zola, Agent Barnes,” Alex stated, almost belatedly.

Bucky heard the clear stiffness in his tone. It was clear that the doctor had not expected Zola to show up. He also saw the barely held-back disgust begin to creep over the calm that Alex was fighting to keep—

“Dr. Zola,” Bucky greeted in a calm tone, taking a step forward – in front of Alex to cover the control he was losing. Violently clamping down on his own disgust, revulsion, and want to not interact at all, Bucky stuck a hand forward.

“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” he said, forcing himself to say it in a pleasant tone. “I’ve heard a lot about you and your work.”

For a few seconds, Bucky’s words were enough to surprise and disarm Zola of whatever cruel thoughts he had. Yet, it didn’t stop Zola’s eyes roaming around him that made him feel ever more violated.

Bucky didn’t so much advert his eyes from Zola. Instead, he took that moment, to glance around. Thankfully, his eyes caught Howard hurrying his way down the hall towards them.

“Ah, yes,” Zola recovered, and clasped his hand against Bucky’s gloved right hand. Niceties had to be met in public.

As much as Bucky wanted to squeeze Zola’s hand until bones broke, he didn’t. He applied just enough pressure for a tiny flash of pain to appear in the scientist’s eyes. Throwing his best ‘Steve’s fake grin for the sake of the press photographers’ at Zola, he then let go.

“I wish I could stay and talk with you, but I see an old friend – well, I suppose not quite my old friend from my reality – coming down our way—”

“As I live and die, we meet again James Barnes!” Howard’s exclamation cut into Bucky’s excuse – right on cue.

Either Howard had heard the full story from Alex, or the inventor just didn’t care too much for Zola – Howard shove himself right in between Bucky and the scientist. Bucky felt himself being clapped on the shoulders, before being pulled into yet another hearty embrace.

His slight confusion was not entirely faked, as he managed to choke out, “Erm… good to see you too, again, Stark? We did meet this morning…”

“Sorry, sorry,” Howard apologized, letting him go and took a step back.

That forced Zola to step to the side, looking indignant and quite annoyed. It didn’t escape Bucky’s notice that some of the civilians and MP lingering around had amused looks in response to Howard’s antics.

Fortunately, neither Alex or he had to linger in Zola’s presence any longer, as Howard immediately looped an arm around his shoulders, saying, “I keep forgetting that you aren’t… well… you aren’t…”

“Yeah,” Bucky finished up. “Guess I am truly dead in this world. Sorry for your loss, Stark.”

Howard remained silent, but he did begin to push him towards the entrance. Alex followed, and a few seconds later, in a more upbeat tone, Bucky heard Howard exclaim, “Well, let’s try to find a way to get you home then. Let SHIELD do what they do best to keep the rest of us safe, and let me do what I do best. Once we get you squared away, I’ll have you back here in no time.”

“Sure thing,” Bucky answered, relieved.

He could feel the detestable curious eyes of Zola on his back as he went with Howard and Alex. But for now, Zola did not pose too terrible a threat – and it seemed that the scientist had brought the simple story spun in the halls. That he, Agent James Barnes of the SSR, was his reality’s Captain America, and remained completely ignorant of what Zola had done during and after the war.

It was only when he, along with Howard and Alex got onto the private airplane parked in the adjacent field, that Bucky allowed the sigh of complete relief and tension bleed from him. Howard went straight into the cockpit, and a few minutes later, the airplane began to taxi.

As Bucky sat on the rather uncomfortable jump seat near the fuselage’s closed door, Alex had taken the seat opposite of him. Closing his eyes for a brief moment, he felt the airplane begin to move and taxi to the runway.

It was a light thing tapping the side of his right arm that had him opening his eyes again. Alex was shaking a headset at him, before gesturing to the one hanging near him.

Bucky reached up and took his headset down, placing it over his ears. At once, the engine noise of the rather spartan-looking aircraft became muffled. He could only surmise that Howard had either converted his private airplane for cargo use, or was rich enough to afford both a cargo aircraft and a private one.

“Gonna be all right?” he heard Alex ask through the headset, after the doctor returned to his seat.

Bucky didn’t get to answer as movement out of the corner of his eyes had him turning to see Howard passing between the cockpit door and into the cargo hold. Bucky caught a glimpse of Jarvis – older now – sitting in the co-pilot’s seat and flying the aircraft.

He waited until Howard placed his own headset on, before answering Alex’s question, “Didn’t think I’d be able to get away with murder in front of all those people.”

To his slight surprise, he saw the doctor casually shrug before saying, “You’d be surprise at what can be passed for an excuse if all of them saw you clobber Zola into the wall. Psychotropic drugs in the water, for instance. Mass hallucinations. SHIELD personnel have witnessed stranger things than simple murder.”

Though Bucky knew that the doctor was saying some of it half in jest, the illusion-like lie that easily fell out of Alex’s lips chilled him slightly. Alex did not know just how close he was to the truth of what Bucky could have done. Bucky could have easily used the Reality stone right then and there to have masked him murdering Zola, and dragging his body off for disposal.

No one would have been the wiser.

Worse yet, Bucky had felt the ghost of the Reality Stone’s hunger lash at his mind.

“Goddamn, I wish I had known!” Howard’s vehement exclamation startled him slightly. There was anger, along with pain and guilt displayed clearly on the inventor’s face, as he began pacing back and forth – almost snapping his headset’s cord. “How could I have been so—”

“Stark,” Bucky said, standing up and going over to the inventor. He placed a calming hand on Howard’s shoulder. “Hey, Stark.”

Howard immediately stopped his pacing. But far be it the man actually stopped his movements to listen to him. Bucky stepped back, letting Howard go, as he saw him scrub his face for a few moments.

“God...” Howard began. “Tell me that bastard is dead in your reality? Tell me I didn’t make the same damn mistake of agreeing to work with him – after everything?”

“Zola is dead,” Bucky solemnly stated.

“Firing squad?” Alex asked in a hopeful tone from where he was sitting, watching the exchange.

“Blew himself up,” Bucky answered. “But that’s another story for later. We’re good to go, Stark?”

“Yeah. I’ll have everything ready by the time Peggy’s mission is underway,” Howard answered, nodding once. “Just… God…”

“One step at a time, Stark,” Bucky stated, partially marveling at how easy it was to sound almost as reassuring as Steve – especially while wearing the uniform.

“You almost sounded like Steve for a moment there,” Howard said, giving him a slightly uncertain smile.

“That punk has a bad way of rubbing off on all of us, Stark. You should know that as well as I… or at least my counterpart here, does,” Bucky answered, and removed his headset before Howard could make any further remarks.

Picking up his bag, he walked over to the far end of the airplane. Setting the bag down, the Captain America uniform bled back into the time-jump bangle, leaving him dressed in the collared shirt, pant, and shoes he had worn underneath.

He quickly stripped out of his clothes, careful to not drop the folder with the 2012 information within. Bucky unzipped the duffle bag and pulled out the disguise that Peggy had packed for him, and quickly put it on.

Wearing his old 1940’s clothes under the disguise could not be done – especially with just how dangerous this infiltration was. Bucky only risked carrying the time-jump bangle and folder of 2012 information with him, only because it was too dangerous to leave it with Howard.

Tugging the gloves over his hands, it was only when he placed the folded pile of clothes and shoes near Howard that he saw that both Howard and Alex had turned away from where they had been. Both had given him a semblance of privacy to change – something that Bucky wasn’t quite used to.

Neither could hear him over the engine noise, and thus, Bucky patted both on their shoulders to indicate that he was done changing. A few seconds later, Alex then placed his badge, along with a couple of other things on top of the clothes pile. His white laboratory jacket was still on, but he had placed a dirty-blond wig over his brown hair, and now sported glasses.

Bucky silently gestured towards the wig – it was slightly askew and wild looking. As if it were Alex’s first time putting on a wig. He surmised that given what he could discern about Alex, the doctor most likely had never been trained as a field agent, much less spy.

Alex silently nodded his assent, and Bucky carefully adjusted the wig so it sat correctly and naturally on Alex’s head. As he expected, Alex tried to reach up to scratch his itchy scalp. Bucky silently intercepted the doctor’s hand, wrapping his right hand around the doctor’s own, and shook his head.

He let go and stepped back towards the rear of the aircraft. Bucky was not quite happy in going on a mission with a completely untrained person, but there was no other within SHIELD he or Peggy could trust. And Bucky knew that his portion of the mission needed a second person with possible medical knowledge to assist.

Howard was definitely needed here to continue the cover story of the ‘great Howard Stark trying to find a safe and secure way of sending a wayward Captain America home’. Not that SHIELD’s other scientists and engineers were not smart in that aspect.

It seemed to Bucky that Howard had cashed in on some enormous favor that both SHIELD and the World Council had owed him. That favor was to allow Howard Stark a few days of peace and quiet to work on this ‘displaced from another reality Captain America problem’.

And Bucky was glad that Peggy was as determined as he was to take advantage of those ‘few days of peace and quiet’ to upend and abscond with six Soviet assets, and General Krylenko. Bucky also hoped that those few days would also allow him to retrieve Steve from wherever he was in the Arctic—

But it was as he said to Howard minutes earlier: one day at a time.

Tapping the pattern to activate the armor, it bled over his disguise, as Alex stepped up, staring at the effect in fascination. Howard was staring at him as well, but there was also a slightly nervousness about him – worry.

There was nothing Bucky could say to ease that worry – and he was not wont to do so. He was not Steve, even if some of Steve’s tendencies as Captain America seemed easier for him to channel while in uniform. Completing the mission was the only way to ease worried thoughts.

As soon as the uniform was complete, he glanced over at Alex. There was some nervousness in the young man’s eyes, but Bucky received a nod of confidence from him. Alex placing his hand on his right forearm indicated his readiness to be transported.

The Space Stone slipped into Bucky’s left hand before he could complete his thoughts. He felt a strange sensation of cold not enveloping him, but stabbing into his mind like tiny ice pricks. It felt almost like going into cryo—

Bucky coughed and stumbled ever so slightly forward as the blue-black cloud that surrounded them disappeared. Beside him, Alex had stumbled as well, but didn’t fall as Bucky felt the pressure on his forearm increase for a few moments with Alex partially using him as an anchor.

Still, he deactivated the armor, as he glanced around. The countryside where they had landed had changed from what he remembered, but he was glad that he hadn’t transported the two of them with the Tesseract into a wall or anything—

Bucky glanced down and then over, as he realized that Alex still kept a firm grip on his right arm – except that that grip had shifted to rest between his gloved hand and sleeve cuff of his disguise. The moment his eyes landed on Alex’s hand, he realized what the doctor was doing by taking his temperature—

And before Bucky could say a word about the fact that using the Tesseract in that brief instant was nothing he couldn’t handle, Alex let go. Bucky looked away, feeling guilty that he had almost said another of the same lies that Steve had said about the Infinity Stones.

“Where are we?” Alex asked instead.

“Just outside of Budapest,” Bucky answered.

He decided to let the matter of his usage of the Infinity Stones rest without addressing it. Alex was much too inquisitive for his own damn good, but Bucky recognized the same signs of worry that he himself had displayed whenever Steve used the stones.

There was nothing he could say or do to assuage the young doctor of his apparent low level radiation absorption. Alex already knew about the limits to which a super-soldier serum could withstand radiation.

“One of my missions for the SSR had me traveling through here,” he stated, setting off down the thankfully empty road. “It’s changed a bit, but it’s the closest I’m daring to transport us. Come on, we’re going to have to steal a car. It’s about a 10 hour drive to Bucharest, and we’re going through as much of the back roads as possible to avoid the checkpoints between here and there.”

* * *

Hours later… on the road to Bucharest…

 

“Come on, out with it.”

It wasn’t so much that Bucky was trying to keep Alex up in the middle of the night – the young doctor looked as alert as he did. It was more that even with most of back roads they were taking, they had not even hit one checkpoint yet. Bucky would have thought that perhaps one or two would have been set up on these back roads.

They had been driving for over five hours, and there was none to be had.

“Pardon?” Alex questioned, glancing over.

“Out with it,” Bucky repeated, flicking his eyes over for a moment. It was the middle of the night, and only the faint moonlight and reflected light from the car’s headlights shone through.

“You looked like you wanted to ask me something since I transported us here,” he continued. “What is it? If it’s about the Tesseract, I’m not answering it. I don’t know how it works, it just does.”

“Your hand… your arm,” Alex began. “I couldn’t help but notice while you were changing. And I remember the rumors MI-6 fielded about the Winter Soldier – that he had a silver left arm emblazoned with a blood red star. Zola or this Ivchenko guy you mentioned grafted it, didn’t they?”

Bucky’s right hand tightened on the wheel. But he managed to keep himself calm enough to not crush the wheel with his right hand. He glanced down to see that his left hand had tightened into a fist. An audible whine was spooling up—

“Sorry,” Alex’s sincere apology snapped Bucky out of his fugue. “I shouldn’t have—”

“Zola,” Bucky ground out, forcing himself to say the name. “It was Zola. Ivchenko was the one who manipulated my memories. Michael’s memories. Everything.”

“There wasn’t much in Ivchenko’s files from the old SSR reports,” Alex admitted. “Only that he was in possession of a strange ring, and that he was the handler for a Soviet agent named Dottie Underwood. There’s nothing on him in the files after he was captured by the SSR in an attempt to frame Howard for the mass murder of millions in New York.”

“Alex, I don’t know what the state of your brother will be in, when we intercept him and the rest of the Winter Guard,” Bucky stated after a few minutes of silence. “I might have to hurt—”

“I know,” the doctor answered. “But at least he’ll finally be home. You… well, the other you, and Captain Rogers, as well. When all of this is over.”

Bucky remained silent. He knew that there was a good chance that he would have to not only fight himself, but possibly kill some of the Winter Guard in order to bring at least Michael home. Yet, he didn’t know what to do when it came to undoing whatever Zola and Ivchenko had done to create the Winter Soldier, much less Michael as the Wolf Spider.

“Agent Barnes—” Alex began after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence.

“Bucky,” Bucky interrupted. “Friends call me that.”

“Bucky,” Alex began again. “Thank you.”

Bucky glanced over to see a faint smile quirk up the edges of the doctor’s lips. It was the same kind of faint, shy smile he remembered seeing Peggy give Steve, whenever Steve’s attention had been elsewhere, but was sliding towards her.

However, Bucky’s attention was quickly drawn back onto the road, as they crested a ridge over a hill. Below was what looked to be a two-man checkpoint. The first and only one he had seen thus far—

“Don’t thank me just yet, Alex,” he said, slowing the car down as the two officers on duty stepped out of their guard house. “Let me do the talking.”

Alex silently nodded. As soon as Bucky pulled to a stop in front of the bar, he rolled down his window and waited for one of the officers to approach.

“<Papers and turn off your car, please.>” the guard ordered in Russian.

Bucky obeyed, and reached over to where the ‘papers’ had been stuffed. Affecting a nonchalant look, he handed it over to the officer, who took it.

At the same time, his eyes quickly flicked towards the other guard. The other guard was approaching the other side of the car, hands resting seemingly casually on his rifle.

“<We do not receive many officers through here. Purpose of your travels on the back roads, Lieutenant Rostov?>”

“<It’s faster to get to my destination, than the main roads.>” Bucky answered.

“<To… deliver… a Dr. Wieczorek to Bucharest?>” the officer questioned.

“<Wieczorek?>” the other officer questioned, looking slightly surprised, before Bucky saw him crouch down next to Alex’s window. The officer tapped it, while saying, “<Let me try my Polish on you, Doctor.>”

Ice bloomed in Bucky’s stomach as Alex hesitatingly began to roll down his window. Neither of them could afford to be seen disobeying orders – even if Alex did not understand or speak Russian or Polish.

“<You are delaying us, officer.>” Bucky interrupted, putting some anger in his tone to mask his unease. “<These orders come from Department X, from Colonel Lukin—>”

“<And I shall confirm those orders.>” the officer on Bucky’s side cut in. “<Please step out and follow me, Lieutenant. Ivanov, the good doctor.>”

Bucky forced himself to be calm as he nodded once towards Alex, hoping it was enough to convey that the young doctor was to do nothing and say nothing to compromise them. Getting out of the car, he closed the door and silently followed the officer. He could feel the metaphorical eyes of the officer following him – along with the barrel of the officer’s rifle.

When they got to the guard house, the officer gestured with the barrel of his unholstered pistol, to go in first. Bucky did so. As soon as he heard the guard fully enter and press the pistol into his back, he struck.

Bucky whipped his left arm back, socking his metal elbow into the officer’s gut, while his hand simultaneously curled around the pistol. The discharge of the bullet was barely heard, and barely felt as it impacted against Bucky’s left hand.

Not a split second later, as he whirled around, crushing the pistol, along with the fingers of the officer’s hand that held the gun, he brought up his right arm. He hooked it around the folded officer’s neck. Even before the officer could scream, Bucky wrenched his arm – nearly his whole body – to the side – hard.

The snap of the officer’s neck seemed to echo within the small guard house. But, Bucky was already dropping the body to the ground, as he hurried out. He had to get to the other guard—

Bucky blinked as the faint orange light of the lone street lamp shining down on the checkpoint yielded an unexpected sight. The other officer was writhing against the passenger door – head within the passenger side, and neck pressed against the window frame.

He skidded to a halt, just as he saw Alex forcibly wrench the officer’s neck against the frame. The snap of the officer’s neck was quite audible, as Alex let go and Bucky saw the body slump to the ground.

“You’re a doctor,” Bucky couldn’t help but dumbly state, glancing between the dead body and Alex, who was rubbing his arms for a brief moment.

“I have bad days,” Alex quietly answered, glancing up at him, eyes unreadable.

Bucky didn’t press the issue. There was much that needed to be done to clean up this mess at the checkpoint – and hope that they didn’t encounter any others before they got to Bucharest. The night was also running away from them, and he hoped that they could get to the safe house before dawn.

“Help me strip the bodies,” he began, dragging the officer away from the door.

“Will do.”

* * *

La ter, at the SHIELD Safe H ouse in Bucharest…

 

There had been no explanation needed, when Peggy had seen the state that Bucky and Alex arrived in. There was a haunted look in Alex’s eyes that she recognized all too well. The two had run into a checkpoint, and in the spinning of the cover story, something had gone awry.

She had immediately sent Alex to the bathroom first to get himself cleaned up, while Bucky detailed to her what exactly had happened at the checkpoint. In the end, she had to thank her lucky stars that the alarm had not been raised.

They might still make it out of Bucharest with the changed parameters intact.

Bucky had then went to go clean himself up after Alex emerged, looking a more relieved. Peggy was the last. She had directed Bucky towards the table where the latest maps and reports. She had received them from other undercover agents within the city – and she was sure Bucky would want to know the most up-to-date information.

At the present, she emerged from the bathroom, and peeked out into the tiny living room—

“James,” Peggy sighed, as she took one look into the room.

Bucky was wearing nothing but the loose black combat trousers of his second disguise, boots, and white sleeveless undershirt that did nothing to hide his gorgeous muscular physique. Nor did it hide the puckered scars of where his metal left arm had been grafted to him.

“What, Pegs?” Bucky questioned, sounding as annoyed as she felt.

Peggy rolled her eyes and snatched the black t-shirt off the dresser. She went over and shoved it directly into the center of Bucky’s chest.

“Stop being a visual distraction,” she stated, and let the shirt go.

As she rounded the table to return to the bathroom, silence answered her annoyed comment. Out of the corner of her eyes, she had seen Bucky scramble to curl his hands around the shirt.

She glanced over towards where Alex was sitting. She saw him immediately glance away from her while raising the book he had been reading a little higher to cover his slightly flushed face.

Yet, she didn’t call her brother out of his voyeurism. It was as amusing as it was a cautionary tale for her, where her younger brother was concerned. She didn’t want him within SHIELD, but she did not have the authority to overrule the World Council on their decision to recruit him.

Bucky was not of this world or timeline. If anything that she had seen and heard from Bucky a little over 48 hours before were anything to say – he could very well break Alex’s heart with one simple look or action.

There was also the matter of false presumptions and identities. The James Barnes of this timeline – the Winter Soldier – could be someone completely different. Especially if what this timeline hopping Bucky was telling the truth about what Zola and apparently, Ivchenko, had done.

Just as Peggy reached the bathroom, she heard Bucky sarcastically and teasingly retort, “Didn’t realize you ever saw me like that, Peggy.”

“Never did,” she answered in as stinging of a tone as he had, before disappearing around the corner and into the bathroom.

But that doesn’t mean, I never appreciated the view.

As Peggy continued to towel herself dry and change into something more appropriate, she couldn’t help but silently chuckle to herself. To be twenty-five years younger again – and to be reminded of the more relaxing times she had during the war. It gave her both joy and sadness to think about those times, when she merely had to look into Steve’s eyes—

Peggy abruptly shut those thoughts and roughly pushed them away. The weight of her wedding band on her ring finger suddenly felt heavier than it ever had—

Steve was alive.

A shuddering sense of overwhelming panic swept through her. Peggy paused in buttoning up her blouse. Gripping the sides of the sink, she closed her eyes and took a couple of deep breaths, trying to calm herself.

Steve was alive, but they still did not have an exact location. Bucky had not provided coordinates, but he had promised to go find and retrieve Steve when they were done with the mission in Bucharest.

Steve was alive.

Michael was alive.

Bucky was alive.

And Peggy was going to make sure HYDRA did not take away the three men she cared deeply about, ever again. She would tear the world apart with her bare hands to make sure that they all survived—

She took another deep breath and eased her grip on the sink. Blinking as she looked up and into her own reflection, Peggy smoothed out her blouse and resumed buttoning it up. The weight of her wedding band still felt heavy, but once they had the three safely in their custody, only then would she tell her husband about what happened.

How it happened.

And reassure him that she still loved him. That she would always look upon Steve fondly, but that that chapter of her life was closed.

Taking one last deep breath, Peggy tucked away her thoughts and distress to the corner of her mind. She had taken long enough in the bathroom, and there was much to be discussed between her and this other timeline Bucky about the operation.

Stepping out, she approached the table. A small amount of amusement filled her, driving her troubling thoughts a little further away as she saw that Bucky had put the t-shirt over the sleeveless undershirt he had on.

“Still have an enormous crush on Marlene Dietrich, James?”

Peggy couldn’t help but faintly smile as she saw Bucky glance up, puzzled and slightly confused by her question. She didn’t elaborate on her question, as the confused look slid into an understanding look. It was followed by an equally faint smile appearing on his face.

“If you’re still pretending that you’re dancing with Fred Astaire,” he said, as he slid the paper he had been writing on over to her.

The facetious grin he had matched her own, before Peggy glanced down at what he wrote. “I suppose that it is safe for me to assume that our differences is based solely on that… incident?” she asked.

As bug-free as Peggy had made sure the safe house was, they were still behind enemy lines. No radio had been provided in the safe house to cover any conversations. She had to be careful in her casual words – making sure that she kept referring to Bucky with his given name. Who knew what fantastical weapons the Soviet Union had on hand to try to listen in to houses in this neighborhood.

“I still have her picture hanging up in my locker,” Bucky answered. “She looks just as beautiful as ever.”

Peggy took a moment to jot down some of her answers to Bucky’s question, as she caught movement from her brother out of the corner of her eyes. He had been sitting on the ground, back against the wall. He had been reading over some local literature – even though she knew that he could not read or understand Romanian, much less Russian – and placed his book down.

“But, your heart is still set on Katharine Hepburn?” she questioned, returning her attention to Bucky, as she passed the notes back to him.

“Yeah,” he answered, the easy smile on his lips faltering just ever so slightly as he read through her answers.

Peggy didn’t say a word. Nor did she explain what was going on to her brother – who had no experience in this sort of thing. It was too dangerous for her to do so anyways – he was going to have to learn by watching.

The conversation that had taken place was a painful reminder, as it was for a cover for them. The last time she recalled discussing Hollywood actors and actresses was with Bucky, Steve, and DumDum. They had been in the pub in London, during the war.

She recalled that it had started out with DumDum arguing with Bucky about who was the prettier actress – Marlene Dietrich or Rita Hayworth. Peggy had learned that DumDum had a pinup of Hayworth in his locker at SSR Headquarters. Bucky had a cut out Dietrich from an advertisement for the 1937 film, Knight Without Armor, in his locker.

In hindsight, especially what little she knew and remembered about Bucky’s heritage, Peggy couldn’t help but wonder if Bucky had deliberately picked that 1937 film as his favorite Dietrich film to argue with DumDum about. But then, the two had to rope her, and eventually Steve into their ‘argument’.

Over the course of the four’s discussion on Hollywood films, two rather surprising things had been revealed. The first was that Bucky had what he claimed was a shallow crush on Dietrich – finding her gorgeous to look at. It was Katherine Hepburn that had Bucky declared as his ‘lady of choice’, if ever given the chance to date any Hollywood actress.

Bucky had provided no explanation for that.

The second revelation involved Steve, and his then-recent trip to help the OSS with their propaganda. He had quietly admitted to briefly running into Dietrich during his duties for the OSS, before she had been whisked away to record some songs.

The table had gone absolutely silent as soon as Steve said that – all red faced with embarrassment. Hilariously enough – and much to Peggy’s exasperation – DumDum had demanded why Steve hadn’t gotten her autograph, or even tried to introduce any of them to her.

“Have you gotten a chance to see Ms. Hepburn on Broadway yet?” she casually asked, as Bucky passed the paper to her again, having written some more on it. “Coco, I think, is the name of the musical she’s in.”

“Not yet,” Bucky answered. “Tickets and time are hard to come by these days.”

Peggy scribbled down her clarification to Bucky’s response on one of his questions, before returning the paper to him. “I have a friend working in the business. Let me see what I can do to get you tickets.”

“Generous,” Bucky commented, glancing at the paper before nodding once in agreement and understanding of what was written.

“Tickets for one, or two?”

“Two, please,” Bucky answered, before getting up and gathered the paper, along with the maps. “And if you could do me one last favor, Pegs?”

“Yes?” she asked, rolling up the larger portions, before placing them into Bucky’s hands.

“Got a cigarette and light? Seemed to have forgotten my own.”

“Top left corner of the dresser,” she said. “Smoke in the bathroom please? You know I hate that smell everywhere else.”

“Thanks, Peggy,” Bucky said, and carried the folded papers and maps into the bathroom, before coming back out to retrieve the carton and lighter.

If Bucky noticed Alex’s fascinated eyes on him, he gave no indication, even as he shut the door to the bathroom behind him. Peggy was a little glad of that – that Bucky was hopefully ignoring her brother. She waited a few seconds before catching her brother’s attention with a simple signed gesture of her hands.

<Be careful.> she signed to him in Ameslan.

Only she, along with Howard knew that Alex was completely deaf in his left ear, and 80% in his right – due to what happened to him and his SAS unit in Dhofar. That incident in Dhofar had also left him more changed than just deafness.

It had transformed him. He now had an uncanny and voracious appetite to absorb and learn information – faster than before. Peggy didn’t know what caused it, and Alex was tight-lipped on that.

At nearly 22 years of age, when others would be beginning to graduate with premedical degrees, her brother was already a doctor. He had passed the exams, practicum, and residencies with flying colors. Peggy could not keep that knowledge from being in the public – and it led to the World Council recruiting him.

It was also thanks to Howard that Alex had regained most of his hearing – an experimental implant had been placed inside of him. Alex, however had picked up on Ameslan before hand, unsure if the implant would even work.

At the present, she saw him frown, puzzled.

<Careful of what?> he signed back.

<Of all the people I served with during the war, Sergeant James Barnes is the most ruthless and deadliest of them. Even before Steve… Captain America became what he was, Bucky was always the shadow to Steve. He carried out the dirty work of the SSR, no questions asked, so the flag would not ever be soiled.> she explained.

<Peggy…> her brother signed, clearly annoyed.

Peggy knew she was smothering him. But she needed him to understand that as much fun as he had in secretly sleeping with who he thought were interesting sexual partners of either gender, this particular iteration of Bucky was dangerous. And that the Winter Soldier of their reality was not Bucky – at least that was the impression she got.

<Give him a target, and he will kill that target; friend, lover, or family.> she signed. <Wolf Spider… Michael is proof of that. Our brother and Bucky… they were… more than just friends during the war, Alex.>

<But he said that—> Alex began.

<Alex, this Bucky, this 0-8-4, not just here to return that Tesseract, or to bring Steve back home.> Peggy explained. <He’s here to see and learn if there is any way to stop Wolf Spider without resorting to assassination – to save his own timeline from becoming the world we live in. If there isn’t… he’ll kill Michael without hesitation. His timeline’s Michael… maybe our timeline’s Michael as well.>

Alex hesitated, and then he scowled at her. <I refuse to believe it.> he stubbornly signed. <I refuse to believe that such a cold-hearted person could exist—>

The bathroom door suddenly opened, and the faint odor of smoke wafted out. Bucky stepped out and closed the door behind him, nodding once towards Peggy. The papers, maps, and all things related to their mission that would begin in less than seven hours, was burned and drained.

Getting up, Peggy walked over to her brother and briefly embraced him. “Just be careful,” she repeated to him in a whisper.

He didn’t answer her, but she did see the stubbornness in his eyes fade. She walked away from him. As she passed Bucky to get to the tiny bedroom in the safe house, she said, “You should at least try to get some sleep, James.”

“I’ll try,” Bucky answered.

Peggy knew that tone in his voice. It was the tone of his refusal to sleep while behind enemy lines – that he would remain awake to stand watch while the rest of them slept. She also knew that there was no other argument she could try – to convince him to at least get a couple of hours of shut-eye.

While her memories of the war were not as sharp as they had been, she clearly remembered that Steve had been the only one able to successfully order Bucky to at least g