Tony remembered the first time he heard of the legendary Winter Soldier.
Instead of making the flight out to the Avengers training facility in upstate New York, Director Fury had called all of them into the Triskelion, even Bruce, who did as little Avenging as possible, Thor, who was occupied with kingly matters in remote regions of Norway, and Clint, who was on babysitting duty with the Young Avengers.
When they were present, settled, and mostly caffeinated, Fury sat at the head of conference table with Coulson and Hill flanking him and said one sentence:
“The Winter Soldier has gone rogue.”
One simple sentence shouldn’t have had so much impact, but this one did. Coulson and Maria both flinched, even though they had already heard the news. Clint went white. Natasha visibly tensed. The rest of them sat there like morons because they weren’t up-to-date on the weird world of secret intelligence.
Then Fury laid out the contents of SHIELD’s entire dossier on the Winter Soldier. It was thin, distressingly so, but frightening in its implications. A single man, active for more than fifty years, with dozens of attributed assassinations but only a handful of confirmed kills, one of which he had made by going through Natasha, literally. His only distinguishing feature was a metal arm, which was pretty damned distinguishing but obviously not impossible to hide.
“How do we know that Winter Soldier did go rogue?” asked Steve studying a blurry outline which was probably their killer.
“We caught wind of some chatter,” said Hill. “Whoever had him last is panicking about it. Apparently, he’s never gone missing before.”
“Maybe he’s looking to start a solo career. All of the boybands break up. Ask anyone who lived through the nineties,” said Tony.
Coulson grimaced. “There’s evidence that the Winter Soldier was kept in line using the same techniques as the Red Room. Memory modification. Cryostasis. He wouldn’t have had the will to break free on his own.”
Everyone carefully avoided looking at Natasha, except for Clint, who could get away with that sort of sympathetic gaze without being ventilated.
“Do we know where he was when he disappeared?” asked Steve. “Was there any sort of trigger?”
“Everything we know is in the file,” said Hill. “There was an American special forces unit in the area. They were caught up in riots that followed the Winter Soldier’s desertion, but there was nothing in their report to suggest a reason.”
“Why then have you called us here?” asked Thor. “Are we to pursue this individual?”
“No,” said Fury instantly.
“This is more of a heads-up,” explained Coulson.
“And why couldn’t it be done over the phone?” asked Bruce. He disliked being in any government-owned building for obvious reasons.
“We don’t want word getting out that we know the Winter Soldier is in the wind,” said Maria. “But you all need to be alert to the possibility that he is out there.”
“Do you think he’ll come for us?” asked Steve.
“We don’t know,” admitted Coulson.
“We do know he’s spent the last fifty years doing nothing but killing people and that he is very good at it,” said Fury. “He might go solo. He might curl up in a corner and die. He might join some other organization that’s more determined to take on the Avengers directly. We’ll have to wait and see.”
“Tony,” said Rhodey, who had been reading through some of the Soldier’s known hits--ones the intelligence community thought were probably his anyway. “This is not like the thing with the Mandarin. Do not call him out on national television.”
“You do that one time and they never let you forget it,” grumbled Tony.
He let the matter go. Tracking down trained super-assassins wasn’t exactly in his wheelhouse, but it fell right in line with SHIELD’s M.O. The most Tony did was occasionally ask Natasha or Clint how the search was going. Most of the time the answer was nowhere.
SHIELD had an entire department of analysts dedicated to studying the Winter Soldier’s movements. (It was one of the smaller departments, but still, they were dedicated to their work.) Since his defection from whatever group—no one had claimed ownership of the Soldier, likely to avoid messy retribution—killings attributed to man had tripled. A lot of those killings were made by copycats, who were then killed by the ghost himself, but a handful were legitimate contracts. Apparently, Tony’s guess about the Winter Soldier starting up a solo-career wasn’t that far off.
After several years of study, the Meteorology Unit, as some sad soul had dubbed the department responsible for tracking the Winter Soldier, provided Fury with what they had decided was the perfect sting to bring him in, and he called in the Avengers.
The plan was to offer the legend a chance to work for SHIELD. If he refused, they had to take the Winter Soldier down. Natasha was running point, posing as a wealthy mafia wife looking for an outsider to kill her abusive husband. She would make the initial offer. Clint was positioned in a sniper’s nest almost a thousand yards away. Steve and Tony were situated slightly closer, in a disguised quinjet, and keeping an ear on the situation over comms. They were supposed to be Natasha’s immediate backup if things went south, but everyone knew that if the Winter Soldier decided not to be agreeable, then Clint’s gun was Natasha’s best chance at survival.
The day of the meet, Tony provided Natasha the best spy-cam he could build and settled back to watch the showdown up-close and personal. If nothing else, they were hoping to at least get a face to go with the name.
At the appointed hour, a man slid into the seat at the Montreal café across from Natasha. Tony’s camera did its work, relaying a crystal-clear image to the quinjet and back to SHIELD HQ. A fantastical, unbelievable image.
“Oh my God,” said Steve, his voice so heavy-laden with emotion it was practically unrecognizable. “Bucky.”
“Steady on there, Cap,” said Tony. He was just as shocked, but he thought he hid it better.
Tony didn’t remember the first time he had heard of James Buchanan Barnes. His father was telling bedtime stories about Captain America and the Howling Commandos before Tony was old enough to talk. But when Tony was a precocious four year-old, he asked his father why Captain America had jumped out of the plane with all the gunfire going on around them when he hadn’t even known he would rescue those 400 men.
Howard had faltered and gone quiet. It was the only time Tony ever saw his father go quiet like that without a drink in his hand. He finally said, “Because James Barnes was down there, and he was Steve Rogers’ best friend in the whole world. And when your best friend in the whole world is in trouble, you’ll do anything to help them, even if it means stepping in front of a bullet.”
It had taken Tony an unreasonably long time to realize that Captain America’s real name was Steve Rogers, so James Barnes was really Captain America’s best friend. But he had eventually figured it out and developed a small obsession over the man good enough to be Captain America’s best friend. Even when he had started to resent Captain America, he had never stopped admiring Barnes. Unlike his famous bestie, James Barnes was just a regular guy, doing the right thing, and looking after his best friend in the middle of war-torn Europe. Barnes was admirable, courageous, and underappreciated by Tony’s father.
“You are the man I spoke with before?” asked Natasha not once breaking character despite the Soldier’s startling appearance and unexpected identity.
The James Barnes lookalike met Natasha’s gaze steadily. “I am,” he said. “But I don’t think you need my help getting rid of a husband, Чёрная вдова.”
The camera lens shifted slightly as Natasha tensed. Clint’s voice whispered over the shared comm-line, “I have a shot.”
“Why did you sit down?” asked Natasha abandoning pretense.
“I was under the impression you had work for me,” said the Winter Soldier.
“SHIELD has work for you,” said Natasha bluntly. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“If I do, I imagine your teammate will try to put a bullet in my head,” said the Winter Soldier.
Natasha shifted again. “Hawkeye doesn’t miss.”
“Damn straight,” muttered Clint.
“But do you really want to risk upsetting Captain America by shooting his best friend?” asked the Soldier.
Steve jumped out of his chair. “Nat.” It was the closest to panicked Tony had ever heard him. He subtly positioned himself between Steve and the door. There wasn’t an easy way to be subtle while wearing the Iron Man suit, but Tony tried anyway. Steve’s glare was completely unnecessary.
“Am I supposed to believe you’re really Bucky Barnes?” asked Natasha coldly.
The Winter Soldier remained impassive. “I used to be.”
“Bucky Barnes died more than 70 years ago,” said Natasha. “Steve was there.”
“Unfortunately, Steve was only there for the fall, not the landing,” said the lookalike. “I survived mostly intact.” He rolled his left shoulder, the one supposedly made of metal. A light jacket and a pair of gloves hid the offending arm from sight.
“How?” demanded Steve heatedly.
“How?” echoed Natasha. Her voice was pointed and biting.
The Winter Soldier’s face lost what little animation it had had. “Zola’s initial experiments weren’t completely ineffective.”
Tony kept an eye on Steve and said carefully, “That’s not impossible. There weren’t any tests done on Barnes after he was recovered, so we don’t know what happened to him.”
On the other end of the line, Natasha said, “I’ll buy that for the moment. Now, tell me your price.”
“If I go with you, I won’t work on SHIELD’s payroll,” said Barnes intently. His eyes were sharp and hard.
Natasha jostled the button-cam as she shifted ever-so-slightly from nerves. “You’ll come in out of the goodness of your heart?” The doubt in her voice was unmistakable.
“I’ll let SHIELD clear the last of my programming and take scans of my arm out of the goodness of my heart,” said Barnes coolly, all business and swagger. “I’m willing to consult on specific incidents if requested and fulfill contracts at a generous discount. I won’t give myself up to become SHIELD’s newest asset.”
“The only person who consults for SHIELD at that level in Tony Stark,” said Natasha pointedly.
“You think I’m not an expert in my field?” asked Barnes.
“You are the best,” agreed Natasha. “But it will be difficult for some people to swallow.”
“This was SHIELD’s best plan for finding me,” said Barnes drily, gesturing at the café around them. “A trap so obvious a blind man could see it coming. If you can’t convince SHIELD’s top brass to swallow, well, it’s not my style to go around springing traps.”
Natasha leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms in a pantomime of relaxation, barely missing the hidden camera. “Oh, I can make them choke it down. But your consulting contract will come with an exclusivity clause. No consulting for competing organizations.”
“Of course,” agreed Barnes easily. “One other thing.”
“You want to work with Steve, be an Avenger,” said Natasha in an attempt to reclaim control of the conversation.
“Who would I be to reject an invitation to the Avengers Initiative?” asked Barnes modestly. “But I was actually thinking of something else.”
Natasha waved an arm in a silent order to proceed.
“I want someone you trust to be in my line of sight at all times during the reconditioning process,” said James.
“Why?” asked Natasha.
“I don’t trust SHIELD not to try to put something else in,” said Barnes bluntly. “But I don’t think you’ll let them do that, Наталья Романова.”
Natasha shook her head, a motion so small it looked like a reflex twitch more than a denial. Barnes watched her reaction with flat eyes. If she refused, then he was gone. Tony and Steve both stared in rapt attention at the screen.
“It’s your call, Widow,” said Hawkeye quietly over the comms.
“It sounds paranoid,” said Natasha slowly. “But it’s not an entirely unreasonable demand.”
“Don’t let Steve be one of my watchers,” said Barnes. “Or Stark or Rhodes.”
“I can understand not wanting Steve to see you,” said Natasha. “Why not the other two?”
“Because I killed Howard and his wife,” said Barnes. “Is that not in my file? It should be in Howard’s. I know someone had eyes on the scene.”
After that, things had gotten a bit messy. Tony and Steve accidentally destroyed the interior of the quinjet as they both tried to get to Barnes first. By the time Tony shook off Steve to reach the scene, the Winter Soldier was long gone. Natasha may or may not have had a way to contact Barnes to let him know SHIELD had agreed to his terms, but if she did she hadn’t been willing to hand it over to either of them.
With Natasha, Steve, and Fury working together, it was only a week before Barnes showed up at the Triskelion. Tony wasn’t allowed near the building, much less inside it to confront Barnes, but that didn’t stop Tony from hacking into the cameras to watch what SHIELD called the reconditioning process. It was supposed to breakdown any lingering programming but looked and sounded an awful lot like plain torture. Tony had to stop watching after barely an hour. He was getting too many flashbacks to his own time in captivity. Whenever he tried to listen in, it was more of the same.
Just over a month passed before SHIELD’s psychologists had announced Barnes had as much self-control as he ever would. It was a much shorter period than Natasha, Clint, or Coulson--the three were on constant eight hour shifts the whole time--had expected the process to take. But given that Winter Soldier had been operating on his own for years, it was widely believed that time and a slowly healing had worn down the programming independently. A month was just enough time for Tony to be willing to admit that Barnes had not had control over his own actions. However, Tony was not willing to be in the same room or on the same team as his one-time hero. Everyone understood, even Steve, who never once tried to apologize on Barnes’ behalf or reconcile the two.
Tony’s opinion changed again when he received the schematics for the Winter Soldier’s mechanical arm, and Friday found not one but four progressive sets of blueprints for the arm in Howard’s personal archive. Then Tony had to demand a meeting.
It was a carefully chaperoned meeting in one of the secure rooms of Stark Tower. Pepper and Rhodey sat with Tony, Steve and Natasha sat with Barnes, Maria Hill was the neutral mediator.
After Zola became unavailable to perform maintenance on the Winter Soldier, the heads of Hydra--and hadn’t that been a kick in the teeth for everyone to learn that Hydra wasn’t as dead as they thought, Steve’s reaction had been particularly hard on the gym equipment--decided it would be the greatest of ironies for Howard to be the primary engineer for their asset. The decision was practically impossible to execute, but Hydra managed to slip schematics for the arm into the man’s work pile and retrieve updated plans after he had finished on three separate occasions.
“The last time, they took the arm off for maintenance and had him take a look at it,” explained James. “It was while SHIELD was transitioning from their old HQ to the Triskelion, so everything was a mess, and no one was paying as much attention as they should, especially to R&D. There was shouting in the hallway, and my handler ordered me to hide and observe.
“A minute later Howard burst into the room and started yelling at my handler about keeping up with times, and recycling old materials, and holding back progress for the sake of money,” continued Barnes. “Howard had seen the plans before. He thought it was one of SHIELD’s projects, that they were trying to create artificial limbs to extend the shelf-life of field agents, and that they hadn’t produced significant results because they were too afraid to ask for a budget increase for new materials. And then he dropped a brand new arm on the desk and left.”
Barnes rapped his metal knuckles on the table. “This arm.”
Tony stared at the arm. That arm had killed his dad and his mom, and his dad had made it, a weapon of war disguised as a prosthesis. Tony thought he would be sick. It would be like the Iron Man suit killing him and Pepper.
“You were inside SHIELD HQ?” asked Maria in alarm.
“You were in the same room as Howard?” murmured Steve. “And that didn’t jog your memory?”
“I thought your current arm schematics were different from the most recent ones in Howard’s archive,” said Pepper coolly.
Barnes looked at Maria. “The old HQ, but SHIELD is not as secure as you think it is. You should look into that.” He glanced at Steve. “I was behind the door if you must know. And he was just another engineer. There was new one every other time I woke up.” Then he turned to Pepper. “The shoulder is the major difference. Howard didn’t know it needed to fit into a pre-existing socket, so Hydra’s tech-team had to attach and rewire it to a different fitting.” Barnes proceeded to do the crazy shoulder thing that flipped his arm all the way around without disturbing the rest of his body and made everyone flinch in pain. “They also need to modify it slightly for all of the tracking devices and the bombs. And they replaced key plates with better armored ones.”
“Bombs?” demanded Steve, Rhodey, and Maria almost in unison. Military instinct kicking in at the threat of explosives.
“Insurance if the asset was deemed unrecoverable,” said Barnes. “I had them removed.”
“You’ve had someone working on your arm since you--” Tony stumbled then, over which word to use, “went rogue” was for when the Winter Soldier was an unknown, “got loose” made him sound like an attack dog off his chain, but he was a man, a P.O.W. so he--“escaped. It’s the same person too. Making incremental adjustments every time.”
“That’s right,” said Barnes in surprise. “You can read a lot from a blueprint.”
“I’ve had some practice,” said Tony dismissively. “I’d like to talk to them and get a better look at that arm.”
“Maybe someday,” said Barnes.
Almost a year had passed since that meeting, six months since the assassin in question joined the Avengers on a semi-permanent basis. It was nice having a backup sniper on the team, especially since Clint was starting to lose some of his spring and was not thrilled about putting Hawkeye the Younger on the main line up. Barnes had more than proven himself sane and reliable in that amount of time, even if he did disappear to parts unknown on a frequent basis.
As the elevator doors opened, Tony saw something that brought a new worry to the fore. “Freezer Burn, why are you using that piece of crap phone to text instead of your Starkphone?”
Barnes sprawled gracefully over the loveseat. Dressed in his usual grunge chic--according to the assassin, regular civilians avoided looking at dirty people, which made it easier to disappear--and focused intently on his phone, Bucky Barnes looked astonishingly similar to a moody teenager.
“That’s my work phone. This is my personal phone,” muttered Bucky without raising his head.
“Aw, you text me on your Starkphone,” said Clint.
The other sniper was lying on the sofa reading a book on, Tony squinted to read the title trying to ignore the fact that the other occupants of the room could probably read it from thirty feet away, woodworking. Tony looked away in shame. Surely, Clint could have found a book on engineering somewhere around here. Woodworking was so old-fashioned.
“I met you through work,” said Bucky simply.
Tony rolled his eyes and stalked closer to examine the offending phone. There was no brand on the case, which was an unsubtle allusion to the Winter Soldier and Captain America with its red and white stars. It was thicker than a typical smartphone, and Tony couldn’t identify the brand from the shape. Maybe it was a custom job?
“Who could you possibly know outside of work that you would want to text?” he asked.
“My boyfriend,” said Bucky.
The sudden silence was astonishing with a Stark in the room. Bucky didn’t bother looking up to check their reactions after dropping this truth bomb. At a loss for words, Tony exchanged a desperate look with Clint, who looked as surprised as Tony felt. Who knew what to say when a nonagenarian came out of the closet?
“You have a boyfriend?” asked Clint while Tony blurted, “Dad never mentioned you were gay.”
That got a reaction as both Bucky and Clint stared at him incredulously. Tony ignored the growing kernel of embarrassment. He had had plenty of practice at it by now.
“Dad talked about a lot of stuff. Said you were a real ladies’ man,” explained Tony easily.
Bucky rolled his eyes. “Howard didn’t know. It was none of his business who I went to made time with, and it was sure to have gotten me a blue ticket home.”
Tony was very proud of himself for not suggesting that might have been better for everyone in the long run. He was grown-ass man who did not sucker punch his teammates, and also, there was the distinct possibility that without Bucky, Steve would have gotten himself killed, and they would all be dead or living under a Hydra-ruled planet.
“And now you’re okay with people knowing?” asked Clint, who had insight into how actual people behaved, not the crowd of celebrities and reporters Tony associated with regularly.
Bucky thought about it for a minute. “I’m not going to make a big announcement or anything. But if people ask, I’m not going to lie and you don’t need to either.”
“What’s his name?” asked Tony. With the initial shock out of the way, his natural curiosity was taking control.
Bucky returned his attention to his phone and resumed texting his boyfriend . “I’m not telling you. He’s currently serving and doesn’t need you poking at his records or stirring up attention.”
“Wait, in the U.S. Army? Wasn’t that technically treason before you joined SHIELD?” Tony waved a hand in dismissal. “No, no, stupid question. How did the two of you meet?”
“I’m not telling you anything that will help you figure out who he is,” said Bucky staring intently at his phone.
Tony made a noise of indignant protest. It didn’t matter that Bucky was right about him poking into things. He turned to Hawkeye for backup, but Clint was gazing into the distance clearly thinking about something else. This was fascinating insight into the newest addition to their team, and the man was staring into space! Eventually, Clint sensed Tony’s pointed look and tuned back in.
“Does Steve know you have a boyfriend?” asked Clint.
Bucky hunched his shoulders. “It hasn’t come up.”
“Does he know you like men?” Clint continued gently.
Bucky hunkered further down in his seat. “I dunno. I never brought guys back to the apartment. He might’ve noticed and never said anything.”
Tony knew he couldn’t match the Winter Soldier’s speed under normal circumstances, so he took advantage of the man’s emotional turmoil and went for the phone then danced quickly out of range. Bucky's startled yelp as he reached for the phone and toppled over on to the floor was worth almost as much as having some questions answered. Clint, torn between scolding Tony and laughing at Bucky, went for the laugh.
The screen was open on a messaging platform Tony had never seen before. The initials at the top read of the chat read “A.A.” and there was no indication of who was writing what.
“Who is this?” typed Tony. Unusually, the dialogue box opened on the left side of the screen.
“Who the fuck is this?” was the anonymous answer.
Whatever service this was kept the ellipses to suggest indicate the other person was typing. When it disappeared, Tony received neither a demand for Bucky’s whereabouts nor the usual gushes of praise or floods of damnation his name usually provoked but a scathing review of the most recent computer tower released by StarkTech.
“Should have failed in beta-testing?” screeched Tony typing back a furious reply “The processing power makes it half again as fast as nearest competitor, which I might add is also StarkTech!”
“What is he talking about?” demanded Clint.
“Christ Almighty, I knew it. They’re arguing about computers,” groaned Bucky from the floor. “Lock screen.”
The screen went dark beneath his fingers before he could get halfway through his reply. Tony glared at the phone and turned on the assassin, waving the device at him in protest.
“Bring it back. I’ve got to school your boyfriend in computer sciences!” he shouted.
“No, thanks,” said Bucky reaching for his phone again.
Tony backed out of the way. “If you don’t unlock it, I could take this down to my lab and disassemble it. Then I’d have the number in a matter of minutes.”
“You might be able to do that,” said Bucky, his voice polite but his gaze chilling. “If you weren’t injured by the compressed hydrochloric acid trap, and if it didn’t dissolve the phone’s innards when forced open.”
Tony gaped at him then stared at the phone in wonder. “Is that why it’s so clunky? I thought that was to protect it from your metallic paw. Is there anything else in there?”
“Jesus, Tony,” said Clint faintly. “You know Pepper won’t approve a line of booby-trapped phones by StarkTech.”
Bucky took the opportunity to reclaim his phone and stalked to the elevator grumbling aspersions about tech-heads the entire way. Tony let him go, too distracted by the very idea of possible modifications to their phones currently on the market. Maybe he could add mace to ward off creeps? Or hadn’t Thor been tased once by Dr. Foster’s assistant?
“We seriously need to work on your people skills,” said Clint when the elevator doors shut again.
Tony flapped a hand. “I have all the people skills I need. Just read the society pages. Do you think the person who designed his phone is the same one who works on his arm? There can’t be that many people capable of those modifications. Even if they’re flying under the radar now, I should still be able to find something .”
“Just don’t push too hard,” said Clint. “Barnes values his privacy. He didn’t have any for almost 70 years.”
“I promise I won’t go looking for his boyfriend,” said Tony. “I make no promises about the engineer.”
“Uh-huh,” said Clint flatly.
When Tony looked over, the other man was giving him a pitying look. “What?”
“Someday I’m going to say, I told you so. And I want you to remember this conversation,” said Clint.
“Pepper will love the mace-taser-phones. They’ll be very empowering for young women,” said Tony. “You’ll see.”
Clint laughed himself off the couch. Tony let him lie. He had a new product to design and an engineer to find. And maybe he could find some reading materials to have on hand for when Bucky eventually came out to Steve, which promised to be emotionally fraught. Tony’s people skills weren’t lacking, but he could maybe use some help in this one thing.