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Mercury Saga, Part V: Into the Light

Chapter Text

~Undisclosed Location, Siberia, January 4, 1992~

"General Karpov."

Karpov looked up from his paperwork as the chief of his medical staff entered his office, his white lab coat billowing behind him as he walked with purpose in his step. Setting his pencil down, he leaned forward to rest his elbows on the desk, clasping his hands in front of him. "Report."

"Prognosis negative, Sir."

"Proklyat'ye!" His loud curse echoed off the metal walls as he slammed his fist down, shoving his chair back as he stood. "What were your findings?"

Unfazed, the doctor opened the folder in his hands. "Significant inflammation to the ACC in all cases," he pulled forth an MRI scan from inside, showing it to Karpov as he came around to his side. "It is one of the key sectors of the brain that manages impulse control, as well as certain emotional reactions. But with the implementation of the serum, that sector has increased to four times its normal size, which would explain the sudden shift to disobedience and psychosis in each subject. Now, compare that to the readings on Barnes' brain in the exact same region…" He pulled out a second MRI scan for him to see.

Karpov exhaled audibly through his nose, taking both scans and looking closely at the areas that had been circled with a red wax pencil. "And there is no way to reverse these effects on the Squad?"

"None, Sir. The results are permanent." Karpov cursed again, then slowly began pacing around the room. "In terms of physical transformation, the serum was a complete success; psychologically, however, it was a failure. It will not produce the level of compliance you are seeking from your potential soldiers."

Karpov continued to pace, staring between the two scans he held in his hands. Though he attempted to maintain a stoic appearance, his agitation was quite obvious, based on the hunch of his shoulders and the tension he held in his upper lip. "The modifications to Zola's serum had supposedly been perfected."

"Supposedly, but apparently not, Sir."

"Apparently not," he repeated, muttering something unintelligible about Stark under his breath. Pausing in his step, he angled his head back at him. "Recommendations, Dr. Ovechkin?"

The two men talked quietly, though terms like "geneticist" and "formula" and "phenotypic alteration" occasionally cut clearly through the muffled conversation. At one point, Karpov glanced over at the doorway, seeing three doctors from Ovechkin's team as they awaited further orders. They didn't appear to be nearly as old their chief.

"It can be properly adjusted, then?"

"Give us time, and we will produce the results."

"Make sure you do," Karpov warned, turning back to the doctor. "You put your top genetic engineers on this, and make sure they leave nothing to chance. It must be effective on all levels this time."

Ovechkin nodded taking back the scans that Karpov handed him. "Yes, Sir."

"And the Death Squad?"

"All subjects successfully sustained in cryofreeze."

He gave a nod. "Keep them as such. If a permanent solution to the psychological effects can be found, they may prove to be of use to us yet, but until then, they are to be designated as unstable and completely dangerous." Then Karpov turned to the lone soldier who'd been standing in silent vigil beside his desk the entire time. "Well, then, that means your services are no longer needed at this time, Soldier. You are dismissed."

The Winter Soldier didn't move, didn't even blink. Just stood by obediently and stared straight ahead at his General, the man he'd been assigned to protect. Services are no longer needed. He knew what that meant: sleep. Deep sleep. Embraced by the darkness until HYDRA had need for him once again. At least, that's what his mind told him now that his missions were complete…despite the scream of protest that seemed to continuously linger in the deepest recesses of his heart…

Clenching his teeth against the thought, his eyes remained focused on Karpov, and the only response his mouth was able to form was, "Understood."

A sharp pain tore through his back, causing him to cry out as his knees buckled beneath him, and arms seized him before he hit the cold cement floor. It'd been enough to immobilize him, but not completely anesthetize him, and he felt himself being dragged away as the world around him became hazy.

Deep sleep, his mind kept repeating, his head starting to feel like a heavy weight. Deep sleep until…until I'm needed again. For my mission. The mission is what matters, and the Winter Soldier must complete his missions, no matter what the cost. For HYDRA. For honor…

The dim lights of the long corridor were too bright, stinging his eyes and making him wince as the air around them gradually became cooler. No, his mind wheezed as he shied away from the ruthless light. Please stop…

The air was growing even colder. Colder.

Somehow, he found the strength to clench his hands—one flesh, the other metal—into fists. Deep sleep, he told himself as they rounded a corner and entered a vast chamber. His hair fell across his face as he forced his head up, his eyes registering the amber glow of multiple containment tubes within. Only one of them was unoccupied.

Sleep, he told himself, his eyes closing as his head fell forward once more. Sleep…

Proklyat'ye! = God damn it!

Chapter Text

~Columbus, Georgia, May 25, 2015~

The storage facility had the same sloping, green-colored roof as the adjacent art museum, making it appear as though it had been built at the same time as the rest of the campus. According to the curator, though, the museum itself had been erected in 1953, while this particular structure hadn't been added until 1987, following a generous donation from a wealthy, private patron. A more critical mind, however, would have questioned the need for such a separate space when the museum's basement vaults were sufficient enough for storage purposes. Such deception had been characteristic of every HYDRA location they'd uncovered over the past year.

From his vantage point on the rooftop, Steve had an impressive view of the city to the south, but the sight of the urban skyline was hardly enough to hold his attention. Instead, he found himself staring raptly at the image he currently had displayed on his phone: a shot of him and Kim from two years ago, when he'd given her an impromptu piggyback ride at her playful request. At the time, she'd been wearing her standard prosthetic model—a skinnier, less accommodating piece than what she had now—and she thought it would make her too cumbersome to lift in that manner. But he quickly proved otherwise when he'd hoisted her up without hesitation, and God, he remembered feeling the way she smiled as she hugged her arms around his neck. Rebecca had been the one to take the photo for him, and he'd kept it as the wallpaper on his iPhone ever since.

Kim, he whispered to himself. His best friend's great-niece, and the young woman he'd been proud to call his little sister for the past four years. Since his revival, she'd become one of the few people who helped him stay grounded in some semblance of normalcy, even after being involved in the most treacherous of encounters with the Avengers. She was his family; his friend; someone he considered one of his closest confidantes without a second thought. He felt blessed to have her be a part of his life.

That was why he'd been so damn worried about her lately, especially with everything that had taken place over the past few weeks. Particularly following the awakening of Ultron, the sentient artificial intelligence that Stark had uploaded into his global defense network.

~One Week Earlier~

"So it's really gone? I mean…completely gone?"

"Yeah, Kim," Steve sighed into the receiver. "Almost completely disintegrated. Some land masses fell into the sea, but other than that, Sokovia's gone."

There was a pause on her end before she finally uttered, "Shit…"

He hardly blamed her for her for the sentiment. It had been about a week since the fall of Sokovia's capital city, and it was the first time he'd gotten a chance to contact her since that fateful day. The city had made up nearly two-thirds of the entire fledgling nation, which meant that thousands of Sokovians had lost their home, while many others lost their lives. One hundred seventy-seven lives, to be exact…including the death of one of the Avengers' newest allies . Ironically, it was that city's destruction that had ensured the safety of the world, a bittersweet victory on many fronts. "My sentiments exactly," he sighed again. "We didn't have any choice—"

"Hey," she said gently, "you don't have to explain it again, Steve. Like you said, Ultron's was bent on wiping out all of humanity, and I know you saved as many people as possible before Sokovia fell."

"Many more than we lost, thankfully."

"Umm…I heard about your teammate; the one you lost."

It was his turn to pause. "Yeah."

"What was his name again?"

"Pietro." He felt his chest tighten. Even now, memories of that boy weighed heavily on his mind. Though he'd been misguided at first, Pietro Maximoff ultimately proved himself to have a good heart, leading him not only to protect others at all costs, but also to lose his life in an act of self-sacrifice. "We would have lost a lot more if it hadn't been for him. He was just a kid; only about a year older than you." And that was what still struck him hardest. Just a kid. Even at nineteen, Kim was still just a kid to him.

"I'm so sorry," Kim offered sincerely, and he thought he heard a mild quake in her voice. "I know it's hardly comforting…but I know you guys did everything you could to protect us. All of us. You always do, and I'm grateful to you and your team."

He was quiet for a moment, then exhaled softly. "I should have called you as soon as I got back to New York, but I had to—"

"Don't," she interrupted. "I hardly hold that against you. You're okay, and I'm hearing from you now; that's all that matters."

He couldn't help but smile at her reassurance. "It really is good to hear your voice, Kim." And he meant it. To be able to talk with her at length; to listen to the low tone of her voice; to know that she really was okay. To be assured that, despite her continuous adjustment to life after Rebecca's death, Kim wasn't allowing the darkness of her past to completely encompass her heart. Especially since his duties had regrettably kept him away since the funeral. "It'll be even better when I get a chance to finally see you in-person. It's been way too long."

"How's Tony, by the way?"

He furrowed his brow slightly at the sudden change in subject, but brushed it aside. "He's alright. He's spending a lot of time in Malibu, but commutes to New York a couple times a week to make sure renovations at the facility are on schedule." He knew her concerns were stemming from Stark's recent onset of PTSD, so he understood the reasoning behind her inquiry. "He mentioned that you guys Skyped recently. How'd things turn out with your leg?"

"Back in place. Homing chip is out, so there's no possibility of being tracked anymore."

"That's good to hear." With the discovery that HYDRA was still active, it was revealed that Stark had initially outfitted Kim's REBECCA prosthetic with a homing device, one that was linked to his personal network at Stark Industries. It was intended it to be used as a safety precaution in case he ever needed to keep tabs on her, a measure she had previously agreed to.

However, it had become an unexpected source of panic for both him and Stark when Ultron began infiltrating computer systems and databases worldwide. Stark realized that this potentially included the exposure of his files on Project Mercury, and Kim's subsequent involvement with that research. Fearing Ultron would somehow gain control of her prosthetic and cause her harm, Stark had placed an urgent call to Kim at the beginning of the month, insisting that she immediately remove REBECCA and downgrade to her previous model until further notice. To Steve's relief, Kim had obliged without hesitation, but it had been enough to keep him on-edge until they could guarantee that she was absolutely out of danger.

"I was not exactly calm when Tony told me the kind of risk that could have posed for you," he admitted.

"Yeah. I understand now, but…not gonna lie: kinda sucked going back to my J-model."

At last, Steve released a chuckle. "I don't doubt that for a second. Were you able to at least keep up with your jogging?"

"Yeah, just took some readjustment. Was almost like getting reacquainted with an old friend."

"Good," he grinned. "Can't have you getting lazy on us, now, can we?"

She snorted softly. "Punk."


He heard Kim giggle, and then she sighed. "Any word on Bucky lately?"

It didn't surprise him that the conversation had taken this turn. "Nothing new since we last talked. Any leads we get still take us to locations where HYDRA might have held him, but as far as anything recent…no. He's still out there, and regardless of how long it takes, I'm going to keep looking. I promise you."

For a moment, she became quiet. "I know." When she paused again, he didn't press her, but part of him wished he could detect what was going through her mind. "You think he's okay, Steve?"

He sighed quietly, thinking once again about being pulled from the river. There was no doubt in his mind that Bucky had been the one to rescue him. "I hope he is." He drew in a breath.

"More importantly, though, are you doing okay?"

"I'm okay. I just…I really miss you, Steve. I'm just glad that I'm finally hearing from you."

"I know. I miss you, too, Kim." And then it was his turn to go quiet, his brows knitting as events from the past few years suddenly flashed through his mind. It would be a drastic understatement to say that he and the other Avengers had known danger in many forms, and they'd certainly battled their fair share of global threats, starting with the invasion of the Chitauri. Then the resurgence of HYDRA. And then Ultron. Each one seeming to build on the last in terms of scale and intensity, a thought that bothered Steve a lot more than he'd been willing to admit to himself. Now, though, especially with Thor's recent assessment of what he'd referred to as Infinity Stones…


He cleared his throat. "I'm here."

It was as though he could sense her head tilting through the receiver. "What is it?"

How she could be so perceptive about his thoughts was something that still amazed him, a thought that had him briefly smiling. He released a long, slow sigh through his nose. "I worry."

"About what?"

"You; the people I vow to protect; my friends," he shook his head. "The things I've experienced lately…I can't help but feel that this is all building up to something much bigger than any of us realize."

"How do you mean?"

He opened his mouth, hesitated. "I'm not entirely sure, to be honest, but whatever comes our way, we're going to do our damndest to make sure that we're ready. That much I can promise you."

When silence lingered between them for a time, it didn't occur to Steve to mind, especially since he was trying to piece together his own thoughts on the matter himself.

It wasn't long, though, before he heard her sigh on her end of the line. "Tony mentioned…that Pietro had a sister. The woman in red?"

"He does," he affirmed, "a twin named Wanda."

"She still with you, or…?"

"Training with us at the compound now."

"What can she do?"

"She's very talented with telekinesis and mind manipulation," he said, quietly recalling the heartrending demonstration of her abilities on him, "and we think there's a good chance that her powers could be strengthened through some focusing techniques. I think she's going to be a great asset to the team."

A pause. Then, "Steve?"


"Keep a close eye on her, would you? She's probably hiding it really well, but…she's going to have a hard time with her brother being gone. I don't know what it's like having a twin, but…She needs to know she's not alone."

His heart swelled, and it was that interesting dichotomy of gratitude and sympathy he felt filling his chest. "I think she'd appreciate that, and I promise I'll look after her, Kim."

"Thank you, Steve…"

Releasing a sigh through his nose, Steve lifted his eyes at last, taking in the vacillating rooftops of the buildings in the distance. He couldn't even begin to describe the peace that had overcome him during that last conversation, and not only because of his concerns for her safety and well-being. No: deep down, he also feared that he and Kim had somehow been drifting apart over these past few months. He hated entertaining such a thought, but it was true, and though he'd done his best to keep in touch since her grandmother's funeral…he couldn't deny how different things had felt between them during some of their previous conversations. Normally, even with Rebecca's failing health, Kim had been someone who was rather open and forthcoming with details about her life, and it wasn't unusual for them to talk for extended periods of time whenever he called. But lately…

Lately, there were times when she'd just seemed so…so distant towards him. As if she was holding back at a time when he wanted nothing more than for her to speak freely. Was it possible that his prolonged absence was causing her to withdraw from him? He clenched his teeth against the thought, praying that wasn't the case, but until he got a chance to see her again, nothing was certain.

I really miss you, Steve.

His nostrils flared as he exhaled, recalling those exact words to him earlier that month. It was that simple statement of hers that had been the most reassuring, one that gave his heart something to quietly cling to. The notion that things were still okay between them, despite their time apart.

I miss you too, Kim, he thought. How he did miss her after all this time. How he wished he'd gotten a chance to at least see her at Christmas…or at the very least, for her birthday back in March…

It's something I'll have to fix, he vowed to himself as he pocketed his phone. And soon.

"Might have something here, Cap," Sam's voice announced in his earpiece. "Nothing concrete on Barnes, but it might give us our best lead on another potential HYDRA cell."

Though he felt a small twinge of disappointment, the news wasn't entirely unexpected, and Steve was already turning on his heel as he responded, "On my way."

Heading toward the service access entry, he took a hold of the knob and easily wrenched the heavy door open, hearing it creeeeeak slowly shut behind him as he descended the narrow stairs.

When he wasn't fighting alongside the Avengers, his search for Bucky continued to be the top priority in his mind, a journey that had taken him and Sam to seven different HYDRA locations across three continents. A cryogenics lab in the mountains of British Colombia; a recruiting and training center near an arena in Buenos Aires; a weapons vault on the desert outskirts of Phoenix, just to name a few. All containing crucial information that proved useful to Fury and the remaining facets of SHIELD, but none that yielded any further information on Bucky or his potential whereabouts. Not since finding his dog-tags in Vancouver. The trail of clues they'd begun following since last May had resulted in many a dead-end for Steve, but as disheartening as it could be at times, he wasn't giving up on his friend. Not after they'd come so far; not after assuring Kim that he'd never give up on her great-uncle. Not after proving that somewhere deep down, there was a part of the old Bucky who'd managed to break through, and managed to remember who he was.

No; there was no giving up on him.

Coming down the last few steps, Steve rounded the metal railing and crossed the vast foyer of the main floor, his steady footsteps echoing off the high walls. He hardly paid mind to the paintings, sculptures, and boxes of precious artifacts lining his path on either side. Many of the larger works had been draped with white sheets for protection, a convincing façade, considering every piece in here was probably a fake. While he was no expert on art, common sense told him that museums were kept cold for a reason, and that was to maintain the integrity of the works they housed; storage vaults would have been no different. The inside of this building, however, was far too warm and humid for proper preservation to take place, which had immediately raised his suspicions when he and Sam first walked in.

On closer inspection, those suspicions had—once again—been proven right. Approaching the farthest corner of the foyer, a doorway gradually came into view, one that had been previously concealed by one of the larger painting set against the wall: a representation of what appeared to be Hades guarding the gates of the Underworld. How fitting.

Steve entered what turned out to be a well-equipped surveillance room, complete with multiple television screens, computer monitors, and other high-tech gadgetry that would make some of the engineers at NASA jealous. Whatever they were watching, it certainly had nothing to do with safeguarding art. "What have we got, Sam?"

From the chair he was sitting in, Sam Wilson angled his head toward him, but didn't quite look up from the data on the monitor in front of him. "So far, the files contain detailed blueprints and a list of codes for a SHIELD facility known as The Treehouse. As far as we can tell, it's one that's still under HYDRA's control, and looks like it's about twenty miles from downtown Columbus."

"Which I'm sure Nick will be eager to see as soon as this transfer is complete," the image of Natasha Romanoff spoke from the laptop Sam had set up on the desk. She was still sporting her softly curled red bob, and she casually brushed a stray tress away from her forehead. "Treehouse was a good strategic base for SHIELD, and it's one he'll definitely be interested in taking back. Those blueprints will come in handy if he wants to make any plans for a counteroffensive."

Steve nodded. "Right. Make sure we get all of that saved, too," he said to Sam.

"On it," Sam had already pulled out a silver flash drive and inserted the device into one of the USB ports.

"And the e-mails you found on their server?"

"Ask and ye shall receive," Sam mused. "Should have an exact location on an IP address once Nat's done working her magic."

"Hey, now, that kind of flattery will get you far, Sam," one corner of her mouth lifted in a subtle smirk. "Very far."

"Is that right?" He grinned, leaning back in his chair. "'Cause say the word, and I'll keep right on talking."

Steve could hardly suppress a smirk of his own as they continued on. He'd come to rather enjoy the comfortable banter that had developed between those two. Not only did it have the ability to make the most stressful of situations seem bearable, but it was also reassuring to know how well they worked together during instances like this. Plus, with all that had taken place recently, he had a feeling that Natasha appreciated the distraction more than she would ever let on.

After a moment, he asked, "Same thing we've been running into, Nat?"

"Oh yeah: HYDRA and their fondness for multiple AI routers yet again," Natasha said. "Got me doing another elaborate dance with a series of encryption codes, and in five different languages, no less. By now, you'd think they would just make it easier for us to track them down, you know?" She didn't even try disguising the irony in her voice.

Steve gave a humorless laugh. "You'd think."

"Not to worry, though. There was one thing they never counted on when they set out to cover their tracks."

"And what's that?"


He smiled inwardly. Steve was glad they could defer to her expertise whenever they came across intricate computer systems such as this. Part of the difficulty they'd run into was the fact that HYDRA's entire digital network could not be accessed from just one location. During their rise within SHIELD, they had scattered much of their encrypted data to various safe houses around the world, which meant they would have to hunt down each cell in order to access the information harbored within them. Thankfully, Natasha had a few tricks up her sleeve, and while she couldn't identify every HYDRA hideaway out there, she could use the frequency of e-mails sent from each facility to track down the IP addresses of where they ought to look next.

Only several more seconds passed before Natasha announced, "And without further ado, gentlemen, behold," she said as an inserted image popped up on the screen next to her, "next on your to-do list."

Steve and Sam both leaned in close, Steve's eyes scanning what appeared to be a small-scale road map bearing a location marker. As soon as he recognized the series of intersections and landmarks on display, he felt his heart briefly flutter.

"Well, what d'ya know," Sam muttered first, sitting back again, "back to D.C. we go."

Back to D.C., his mind echoed, and though he knew this meant their work was far from over...

"You got an exact location for these coordinates?"

"Ideal Federal Savings Bank in the heart of downtown," she reported, "on the corner of 14th and New York Avenue. The building itself has been abandoned for about ten years, but this IP was active as recently as the end of last April. Looks like it'll be another one worth checking into."

Nodding slowly, Steve exhaled quietly as he straightened up. "Thanks, Nat."

"Anytime, Cap. I just wish it could be more."

"I know."

"Anything else you guys need from me?"

"Plate of sushi and a bottle of warm saké?" Sam mentioned, making her lips twitch into a smile.

Steve grinned, shaking his head. "At this time, no. Just be sure to get those files to Nick, and if anything pertinent comes up before we leave, we'll be sure to be in touch."

"You got it. You watch your backs out there, okay?"

"We will. See you soon."

"I'll be here." With that, Natasha ended the transmission on her end, her image disappearing from the laptop screen.

After a moment of quiet, Sam turned in his chair to face him, an eyebrow arched in a knowing manner. "So, what'll it be first? Checking out the bank, or stopping in to see your girls?"

Steve smiled gently. By now, Sam had heard enough stories about Kim to know that he'd take any opportunity to see her if he was anywhere near the vicinity of D.C. And the other girl—his best girl…

Feeling an ache in his chest, he let the thought fade. "Kim's not exactly 'my girl.'"

"I know, but it's cute to watch you blush," Sam teased, reaching over to remove the flash drive from the port.

"Thanks a lot," he said humorously, accepting the silver device from him. "But no: let's head back to New York and touch base with Tony first. I want to see how things are progressing at the new facility before we plan a course of action, but I wouldn't mind seeing if we could get out there by the end of the week."

Sam gave a nod. "You gonna give her a heads-up? Let her know you're coming?"

He thought about that for a moment, and as much as he wanted to hear her voice when he told her of his upcoming plans, his mind recalled the elation that had been in her eyes when he'd suddenly shown up on that somber day last July…

"No," he said softly, looking over at Sam. "No. This one I'd like to keep a surprise this time. Might make up for me missing out on her birthday."

Chapter Text

 ~Frederick County, Maryland~

"Hands up," Bucky repeated for the third time. "Protect your face."

Right, Kim thought, resetting her feet as she lifted her fists once more. Right.

Angling his head downward, Bucky brought his hands to chest level. "Again," he said, just before striking at her head with his right hand, a move she quickly deflected with her forearm.


Then he struck low with the same hand, and Kim, focusing on keeping her elbows in, shifted her arm down to block him from hitting her gut.

"Better," he praised, taking a step back, "much better."

Kim's eyes remained locked with his as she continued to circle him slowly, trying to anticipate his next move. It wasn't just his impressive build and bionic arm that made him such a daunting opponent. He was also good—really good—at concealing his intent, a testimony to the decades of fighting experience he had over her. But sparring over the past few months had improved not only her reflexes, but also her ability to read the clues conveyed in even the most subtle shifts in his body language. Eyeing him carefully, she looked for a mere twitch of the eye; a clench of the jaw; anything that would suggest a hint at his next move.

Know your enemy, she recalled his words to her, feeling another bead of sweat drip down her temple. Know them better than you know yoursel—

Catching the barest purse of his lips, Kim instinctively ducked as his metal arm swung at her head and, seeing that his side was temporarily exposed, struck out with a quick jab that elicited a low grunt from him. Pulling back, she reset her fighting stance, keeping her senses on high alert.

Narrowing his eyes, it was only a split second before Bucky charged right at her.

There was no time to think. Stomping down hard with her right foot, she bounced back twice to give herself some distance, blocking a strike at her chest before launching herself to his left. He turned sharply, though, delivering a blow to her lower back that had her grimacing in pain.

"Ungh!" She groaned, stumbling a few steps before planting her foot down. Turning, she caught sight of his furrowed brow, but then exhaled roughly as she rushed him again, throwing another firm jab at his shoulder. He blocked it, though, and just as she was about to follow through with a cross-punch, Bucky shifted his footing, and her eyes went wide when his metal fist slammed directly into her side.

"AAGH!" She cried out, dropping to a knee as she clutched the source of her pain. Shit, she mentally hissed, waiting for the throb to ebb.

She sensed him kneeling beside her. "Kim."

Hearing the edge of concern in his voice gave her something to focus on. It took a moment, but the waves of pain began to subside a bit, and she pulled in a deep breath before blowing it out through her lips.

"You alright?"

"Yeah," she managed to wheeze, then lifted her eyes to his, seeing that he'd hardly even broken a sweat during their workout. "You're holding back."

He arched an eyebrow. "Do we need to have this conversation again?"

"I know, but—" she groaned, wincing as she shifted her aching torso, "you're the one who said I need to be prepared for anything; that HYDRA will never show mercy. You know I can take a hit, so how am I gonna learn to protect myself if you keep half-assing it with me?"

"And if I were to go full-strength and break one of your ribs in the process?" He countered patiently. "If I were to injure you in a way that requires you to go to the emergency room, then what? Do you want to explain to your friends what really happened? Or do you have enough excuses lined up to keep hiding the truth?"

She stared at him, those grey-blue eyes incredibly steady as the quiet lingered between them. Something about them always had such a calming effect on her, allowing her mind to clear, to really think things through. He had a valid point: it wasn't like she could keep an unexpected stint in the hospital a secret from Stark; Dr. Bishop probably had the guy on speed dial, knowing how chummy they were. And if Steve ever caught wind of something like that...

Exhaling audibly, she lowered her gaze from his. No. The last thing they needed was a screw-up like that to raise the suspicions of certain members of the Avenger's team. At the same time, however, she couldn't help but feel a twinge of disappointment.

"This is not about holding you back," he said. "You're getting stronger, Kim; I see the growth in your abilities every single day, and as such, I have to modify my methods in order to keep challenging you. To be honest, I'm surprised you were still standing after that blow to the back. Pretty sure I bruised your kidney."

That got a harsh laugh out of her, breaking the tension in her mind a little bit. Then she felt his fingers beneath her chin, tilting her eyes up until they met his. "But I need you to understand where I'm coming from: some of HYDRA's tactics bordered on torture, and while that can force you into survival mode, it also has the potential to result in long-term psychological damage. That's not the kind of exposure you need, and it's not how I'm going to train you."

She clenched a hand into a fist, remembering some of the gut-wrenching stories he'd told her. The pain he'd endured went so much deeper than she could comprehend, and though she wished to understand it for the sake of empathizing what he'd experienced…she knew he would never want that for her. Ever. And deep down, she could appreciate his reasoning for it.

"I swore to my sister that I would protect you at all costs, Kim, and I intend to follow through on that promise," he stood to his full height, offering his metal hand, "even if that means protecting you from me."

Her heart swelled at his solemn promise. Releasing a sigh, she reached out to accept his hand, letting him pull her up to her full height.

"Fighting has been an everyday part of my life; you've only been at this for a short time, but we both know what you're becoming more and more capable of. Just remember to be patient with yourself; don't let your frustrations get the better of you."

She listened, taking his words to heart, and at the same time, she smiled inwardly. Her great-uncle had come into her life such a broken man, but the subtle changes she'd seen in him over the past year had been nothing short of remarkable: the calmness that was present in his features was so different compared to the uncertainty and fear that used to perpetually haunt his eyes; the dark hair that had once been long and unruly was now being kept trimmed on a regular basis; the significantly thinner layer of stubble on his cheeks, which was due to him getting into the habit of shaving at least once a week; even his wearing that black t-shirt was a departure from his standard wardrobe, as he often wore long sleeves to keep his bionic appendage hidden. All suggesting that he was gradually becoming more and more comfortable in his own skin.

Peeling back the layers of the Winter Soldier one-by-one...seeking to become the Bucky Barnes he wanted to be…

"You got enough strength left in you?" He asked.

She lifted her arms and gave herself a stretch, assessing the lingering soreness in her side. Amazingly, it wasn't that bad. "Why? You getting tired, old man?"

The barest of smiles ghosted his lips, and he turned his head just as a breeze picked up, seeming to silently consider their surroundings in the backyard. No doubt taking in the scents in the air, the temperature, the position of the sun in the afternoon sky; anything that could possibly affect the outcome of his next decision. Such an admirable trait for the former assassin.

Then he turned to lock eyes with her, his gaze never wavering as he very distinctly said, "Leti, soldat."

Her ears perked up at that. Fly, soldier. Not a request, but a direct command.

Sergeant, she whispered to herself…Without another thought, Kim took off at a dead sprint, heading directly for the woods at the far end of the yard. She knew that Bucky would follow soon enough, a thought that had her automatically lengthening her stride.

Fly, her mind echoed, stomping her right foot down to launch herself into the encompassing shade of the trees. Fly.

It wasn't long before she heard the distinct snap of twigs behind her, and Kim stomped down hard, managing a frontward flip over a fallen tree trunk just ahead. Touching down on her right foot, she sprang forward again, catching a low branch on another nearby tree as she swung herself further out of reach and just kept running. Her acrobatic feats had definitely improved over time, which had served to amplify the complexity of her abilities. Most of Bucky's teachings were reminiscent of various parkour clips she'd seen, which made sense considering his own agility and strength. She was amazed, though, at how quickly she was picking up on these maneuvers. It hardly required any thought on her part: if she had an instinct, she simply followed it, and she could feel her confidence growing every time she practiced these techniques.

And that, she knew, was Bucky's intention: to continue renewing her confidence in herself, regardless of the seeds of doubt Aunt Laura was still trying to plant in her mind.

From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of Bucky several feet off to her left, nearly matching her pace through the thickening vegetation. Glancing right, she stomped down and veered sharply in that direction, throwing her foot out to bounce again, this time high enough to actually land atop the low branch of one of the sturdier oaks. And still, she kept going, leaping to a higher branch on a neighboring tree, and then another. Another. Traversing the wooden limbs from above with a nimbleness that still surprised her, and down below, Bucky was almost a blur of movement as he swiftly followed.

Like flying, Kim mused, extending her leg as she aimed for her next landing point.

But she gasped when that very branch shook beneath her feet, Bucky having suddenly leapt up to smack it with such force that she lost her balance and slipped. Luckily, she managed to grab onto the branch with both hands, wincing at the pain that shot through her shoulders as she came to a jolting stop. Before she knew it, his hand wrapped around her ankle, trying to pull her down, but she kicked him away with as much strength as she could muster.

No! She told herself, swinging her legs to build up momentum. Once she reached her desired height, she relinquished her hold on the branch, flipping forward and going to one knee upon landing. Snatching the karambit from her belt, she immediately slashed outward, and Bucky released a grunt of discomfort when she came in contact with his right arm. Stomping down, she flipped backwards—twice—landing solidly on her feet before dropping back into a fighting stance. Her heart was pounding, her breathing heavy, and sweat dripped down her temples, but her focus remained on him, her dagger at the ready. Waiting for his next attack.

He watched the blood drip from the cut on his bicep, but didn't bother concealing the wound. Lifting his eyes to hers, she could detect the approving glimmer behind them as he inclined his head toward her. "At ease, soldier."

Releasing a slow breath, she relaxed, lowering the knife. "Well met, Sergeant."

Closing the distance between them, Bucky cupped her cheek with his left hand, bending to rest his forehead against hers. Her hand automatically wrapped around his metal wrist, and they remained that way for a time, holding onto one another as the breeze picked up around them, gently rustling the leaves overhead. He spoke quietly to her, and she nodded in reply, the Russian phrases becoming as familiar to her ears as the sound of his deep, soothing voice.

"You okay?" She finally asked, pulling back to glance at his arm.

"Yes," he assured, not objecting when her fingertips lightly touched the skin below his wound. Then something in his features hardened. "Laura?"

Kim sighed, knowing he'd be asking about their phone call that morning eventually. "She's coming out for a visit by the end of the week."

"What day?"

"Thursday, Friday?" She half-shrugged, carefully wiping the blade of her dagger on her shirt before re-sheathing it. "Didn't really specify, but she said she'll call when she's ready."

He gave a brief nod. "She still wants to discuss living here."

She snorted softly. Like hell, she thought, and not just because of Bucky. With the way Laura was still criticizing her for—well, everything, it seemed these days—the last thing she needed was a roommate like her aunt. "She really doesn't want to take no for an answer," she said calmly, shaking her head, "but there's no way I'm letting her live here. You deserve to be here more than she does."

His stony gaze remained, but then there was a softening in his eyes as his other hand briefly covered her left shoulder. Kim smiled knowingly: his affinity for her tattoo had hardly waned over the past few months, and she never tired of seeing his reaction to it.

"That's enough for today," Bucky said, kissing her forehead. "Come on."

"Yeah," Kim agreed, and as he draped an arm around her shoulders, she felt that familiar sense of protection emanating from him as he led her back towards the house.

Splashing one last handful of water onto her face, Kim released a long, slow breath. Easy, she soothed herself, lifting her head to stare at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. It had certainly been one of the more intense workouts he'd ever given her, but it hadn't been at Bucky's insistence. It had been at hers.

And in truth, it had little to do with Aunt Laura.

Watching the water droplets drip down her skin, Kim's thoughts inevitably drifted back to Steve, to that last conversation they'd had a week ago. Everything surrounding the altercation with Ultron had been enough to keep her anxious for days, especially with the implication that the homing device in her prosthetic could potentially put her in serious danger. On top of that, she'd been worried sick about her friends, and from what Steve had explained, it was clear that despite their victory, those events had taken a serious toll on everyone involved.

But these were not the thoughts at the forefront of her mind. No; it was something else Steve had said to her after the fact that bothered her more than anything.

I can't help but feel that this is building up to something bigger than any of us realize.

She'd repeated those words to herself over and over again, and even now her brow furrowed slightly. Something about the way he'd said that—the certainty in his voice—had struck her in a way she hadn't expected. Building up to something bigger…Considering his experiences, she knew it wasn't just speculation on his part, and that was what worried her.

We're going to do our damndest to make sure that we're ready. That much I can promise you…

Not just you, she'd silently vowed. And that was why she'd asked Bucky to intensify her training yet again, which he'd agreed to without question. It hadn't been easy for her to sit at home while the battle of Sokovia raged on, watching live footage on T.V. and desperately waiting for any updates on her friends. The same could be said for Bucky, who'd been right beside her the entire time, his metal hand grasping hers as he searched for any sign of Steve's whereabouts in all the commotion. It didn't matter that the hand holding hers was bionic; through his touch, he conveyed the same emotions raging within Kim's heart at that moment. Fear. Regret. Despair. And then as the city began to fall before their eyes…

Helpless. That's how she'd felt when Sokovia was plummeting back to Earth, doom all but certain until the Avengers had managed to pull that last ploy to destroy the city in midair. There was only one other time Kim could ever remember feeling consumed by such helplessness: the night she'd tried to kill herself. While not entirely the same, there were familiar elements summoning those memories within her, the worst being that undeniable feeling that she'd been swallowed whole. She couldn't struggle, couldn't breathe; could only close her eyes and scream internally as that darkness slowly overtook her mind.

It was a feeling she never wanted to experience again, and thankfully, Bucky was more than willing to provide her with an escape. A chance to feel like there was so much more she could do than just sit on the sidelines while chaos ensued around them. Even if all they did was spar in their backyard…well, at least she knew what she was becoming more and more capable of, and because of him, she was growing stronger mentally and physically.

Not helpless, she thought, reaching for her towel. Not anymore…

Dabbing her face dry, Kim sighed heavily, tossing the towel aside and grabbing the hem of her shirt with one hand. Angling her body in the mirror, she eased up the fabric so she could examine the bruise that Bucky's punch had left on her lower back. Surprisingly, it wasn't as bad as she was expecting; just a slight dark mark no bigger than a walnut, one that would most likely fade in a few days. Still a hint of soreness, but that was typical.

Still toughening me up, she mused, pulling the shirt over her head. Man, speaking of toughness...It had been interesting to see the physical transformation she'd made over the past year, and standing there in her black sports bra, she couldn't help but notice her physique once more. Running had definitely strengthened her legs and kept her lean, but combining that with the fight training was having a clear impact on the overall definition of her muscles. Her biceps; the curves of her shoulders; the deepening cut of her abs. More and more, she was looking like someone who could eventually participate in some of those fitness competitions she'd heard about.

Except I'd have an unfair advantage being trained by a super-soldier, she thought wryly. And there's no way in hell I'm using that disgusting tanning spray—

In her pocket, her iPhone buzzed, and as she pulled it out to check the screen, she immediately opened Emma's text. First thing that came up was an image she'd attached: a black and white photo of four of the Howling Commandos, two sleeping back to back while the other two—Bucky and Steve—stood vigil. Kim smiled, reading the message below it.

Found this in a new textbook I was leafing through. Thought you might enjoy it.

She certainly did. Emma was really good at finding photos of the Commandos she hadn't seen before, and seeing that image of Bucky now…the unmistakable youthfulness that he seemed to emit…There was something so calming about the quiet dignity in her uncle's features, and the longer she stared at it, the stronger that feeling grew.

A good man, she thought to herself. You always were, Buck, and you always will be. No matter who tries to tell you otherwise.

Thanks, Emma, she texted back. Then, after a moment, added, Call you later?

Not more than a minute passed before she replied. Of course. Class in session now, but can talk after 8.

Good, she thought, texting an affirming response. The great thing about Emma was that she offered her a much needed female perspective on so many things, something Kim had come to greatly appreciate in her grandmother's absence. As such, Emma had a tendency to have as much of a calming effect on her as Bucky did, and having her become so involved in both their lives had just felt so natural. So right. And the quiet attraction that continued to develop between Bucky and Emma with each passing day was something that truly warmed Kim's heart. She couldn't imagine anyone more deserving of his affections than her.

A knock on the door pulled her from her thoughts. "Kim? You okay?"

"Yeah," she answered, her eyes scanning her bruises in the mirror a second time, "just gotta get changed."

"You hungry?"

She felt herself smile. God, when wasn't she anymore? "You bet your sweet ass, Sergeant!"

A distinct chuckle could be heard through the door. "I'll make us something, okay?"

Hot Pockets, she smirked to herself. It was such a go-to for him. "Alright; I'll be down in a few."

Hearing his footsteps descend the stairs, Kim glanced at the digital image on her phone once more. She tilted her head, curious as to what thoughts might have been going through Bucky's mind right at that particular moment. Would he even have any recollection of that day? Would it take time for him to remember? As usual, there was only one way to find out. Pocketing her phone, she draped her shirt over her shoulder, exiting the bathroom and making her way towards her bedroom to change.

Chapter Text

~Private Residence, Washington, D.C.~

The curtains in his office were always drawn, even if it was daylight outside. Even the slightest chance of being discovered would ruin everything he'd already worked so hard for. Behind his desk, the man was still holding up the x-ray to the lamp, taking his time as he studied every intricate detail that his eyes could discern. Lifting his other hand, he brought a second x-ray up for inspection, taking just as much time to examine it.

Structures are remarkably similar, he thought. Good. Very good.

Returning the images to their respective folders, he closed the cover of the first one, resting his hand upon it briefly. Тема № 2, it's green label read. I'm working on it, he silently promised.

Glancing at the other folder on his desk, he lifted a page of notes to reveal one of the photographs hidden underneath: a still shot of James Buchanan Barnes training Kim Proctor in the backyard of her residence, who was little more than an indiscernible blur as she evaded his attack. This particular photo had been taken three months ago.

The Winter Soldier. All this time eluding those who sought him only to wind up in practically the same vicinity all over again. The fact that Barnes had ended up at his great-niece's doorstep had been an interesting development, though, and despite the setback it had ultimately caused…he was a patient man. He would bide his time until the moment was right. So long as events continued to quietly progress—and so long as it didn't draw the attention of some of Proctor's more high-profile friends—that was where his focus would remain.

There was no other option, after all. One way or another, he would have the enhanced being for the purposes he'd set into motion so long ago, regardless of the price he would have to pay.

Setting the paper back down, the man reached out to stroke the gilded frame of one of the photographs he had displayed on his desk. No matter how many times he looked at it, it made his heart heavy with sorrow. Soon, his mind whispered.

Тема № 2 = Subject #2