Rumlow first met Bucky Barnes on a mission in 2013.
He didn’t know the Asset was Barnes then, obviously. He didn’t know anything about the Asset, except what the rumor mill at Hydra’s armed response division had to say. Rumlow’s team of elite commandos gossiped worse than old women. Theories about the Asset ranged all across the board. Some said “the Asset” was a code name for an entire team. Others said he was only one dude, but was enhanced somehow, or an alien. After the invasion in New York, that one didn’t seem so implausible. One persistent rumor had it that the Asset was the Winter Soldier. Which also implied alien or enhanced, since the Winter Soldier’d been active since the 50s, at least as far as anybody knew.
Rumlow didn’t waste a lot of time speculating, since he figured he’d never have cause to find out. He and his men were old-fashioned flesh and blood, but they did good work for Hydra. And there was no shortage of work for them, either running Hydra ops or faking it on Shield missions. Even if Hydra was actually using the Asset, it didn’t seem like something that was likely to intersect with Rumlow’s work.
He was wrong about that, of course. He was wrong about a bunch of stuff.
The day Rumlow met the Asset, things had been quiet for a while, both at Shield and at Hydra. His men were playing poker in the lounge and Rumlow was watching YouTube videos of people blowing shit up.
“Gentlemen,” Pierce said from the doorway. Rumlow looked up from his phone.
“Mission?” he said hopefully. Boredom was bad for the soul. And it made his guys even harder to manage than usual.
“Walk with me,” Pierce said, nodding at Rumlow. “I want to introduce you to your new team leader.”
This was news. Rumlow cycled in and out of heading the strike team. He didn’t have an ego about it—Hydra brought in the occasional specialist to lead them as required. And obviously Cap led any Shield missions he was called in for. But Pierce’s tone implied a more permanent arrangement.
Pierce led him through several underground levels to a secure wing Rumlow hadn’t ever been in before. It was a branch of R&D, he thought, but there were no signs and the agents they passed in the halls wore no identifiers of any kind.
They arrived at a cell. The door was steel—it looked heavy, too. The thick bullet-proof glass window was small and placed at eye level. Pierce gestured, and Rumlow peered in. The cell walls looked like steel as well, and there was no furniture of any kind, no fixtures. Just a drain in one corner and a man in the other.
The man was sitting slumped with his legs stretched out in front of him. He was wearing black fatigue pants, and his feet and chest were bare. His eyes were open and he was breathing, but that was the only indication he was alive or conscious—his face was eerily slack behind his shaggy hair, his stare fixed and vacant. His left arm was metal, polished like chrome.
It was a pretty weird sight, but Rumlow had seen weirder. Hell, he’d put that look on a few people’s faces over the years. They were usually dying of shock and/or blood loss, but it had definitely happened. He stepped away from the door. Pierce was giving him an expectant look.
“Okay,” Rumlow said. “Who’s this guy?”
“Your new team leader,” Pierce said, and that was an actual honest-to-god surprise. Rumlow squinted at him, trying to figure out if he was making fun or not. Pierce could be hard to read. Better to take him at his word.
“What’s the mission?” He was having trouble imagining what the hell kind of mission this guy could be expected to lead.
“Briefing is in three hours,” Pierce said. “In the meantime, I want you to get acquainted. Take him to the exercise yard. Give him something to do, get him warmed up. He should respond just fine to direct orders. Don’t ask him any questions. Don’t get chatty. Don’t touch him unless it’s necessary, or if you’re fighting him.”
Pierce gestured at the door and an armed guard stepped forward to unlock it. The door swung open, and Pierce looked at Rumlow expectantly.
Rumlow shrugged. If Pierce said a lobotomized cyborg who only responded to direct orders was going to be their new team leader, then that was that. He stepped into the cell. The man didn’t look up.
“Hey,” Rumlow said. The man still didn’t look up.
He turned back to Pierce, who looked amused. “What’s his name?”
“He doesn’t have one,” Pierce said. “We just call him the Asset.”
That answered that question. It was hard to believe this guy—metal arm and all—was responsible for even half the mayhem people generally attributed to the Asset, but again, Rumlow had seen weirder things.
“Hey, uh, Asset,” Rumlow tried again. Direct orders. Okay. “Stand up.”
The man rose to his feet, all grace and efficiency. It was a weird contrast to the nobody’s-home look on his face. His body seemed to be paying attention even if the rest of him was in la-la land.
Anyway, so far so good. “Come with me,” Rumlow said. He walked out of the cell, and the Asset followed him, still moving with liquid ease, his bare feet silent on the metal floor.
Rumlow led the Asset out of the R&D wing and across to the exercise yard, where a row of reinforced crash test dummies were set up. Time to see what the Asset could do. He pointed at one of them. “Hit that as hard as you can,” he said. The dummies could take a lot of damage, and did—Rumlow had his guys pummel the shit out of them once a week or so. Hitting things that looked like real people was good practice for hitting real people. He was thinking about adding some audio to the experience, just to give his guys some practice hitting things that cried and begged while you did it. It was important not to get squeamish about that sort of thing.
The Asset decapitated the dummy in one blow. The head flew across the yard and bounced and rolled for another hundred feet or so. It was pretty awesome. Rumlow kind of wanted to high-five the Asset, but Pierce had said no unnecessary touching, and he didn’t look like he’d know what to do with a high-five, anyway. So Rumlow put him in front of a Wing Chun wooden dummy instead and watched him work through a few forms. His body was a blur—the guy was as fast as anyone Rumlow had seen.
He was just as good with knives, his metal hand flashing as bright as the blades he spun, slashed with, and threw. Throughout it all, his face stayed perfectly blank, and he didn’t say anything, didn’t make any noises of any kind. He didn’t even break a sweat. The Asset finished every task perfectly and then just stood there, staring at the floor or into the middle distance, waiting for his next order. It was eerie. It was also kind of awesome. The guy was the perfect soldier. The whole thing was starting to feel like Christmas come early.
It was time to have some real fun.
“Listen carefully,” Rumlow said. The Asset looked at him obediently, not making eye contact but almost managing to focus on his face like a normal person. Rumlow thought his next step through for a few moments before he spoke. It was hard to tell how much actual human consciousness the Asset was hiding behind that very impressive body, but Rumlow figured it was probably better to spell everything out with this guy, and not assume he had any independent understanding of what was expected of him.
“When I say ‘go’ you attack me—fists and feet. No weapons. Do not injure or kill me. Do not let me injure or kill you. When I say ‘stop’ you step back five feet and stop moving until I give you your next order.” It was like trying to come up with a wish for a genie that wouldn’t backfire.
They squared off. “Go,” Rumlow said, and the Asset erupted into a blur of motion, nearly KOing Rumlow with his first blow. Rumlow dodged just in time, shot his foot out, got the Asset off-balance, and kept coming. The Asset regrouped instantly, back on the offensive. Rumlow met him blow for blow, first pulling his punches a little, and then, as he saw the Asset pulling his, laying it on faster and harder. Soon they were dancing fast and hard, no time for thought, just pure physical instinct. Rumlow’s blood sang, wild and high.
The moment he felt himself flagging, he put an end to it.
“Stop,” he said between pants, dodging a blow from the metal fist that would have crushed his jaw if it’d connected. The Asset immediately lowered his hands and backed away. His gaze didn’t flatten out, though—his eyes stayed sharp and focused. Good.
Rumlow took the Asset back to his cell. The faint spark of life that had welled up in the guy’s face died right back down the second he laid eyes on the door to the cell. Rumlow almost felt sorry for him.
“Get him a sweater or something,” he said to one of the guards in the hall as the Asset slumped back down in the corner of his steel box. “He’ll catch his death.” They snickered at each other, and the guard went off to find the Asset something to wear. “Grab him some boots, too,” Rumlow called after him. The Asset was his team leader. No way was he letting him walk around barefoot.
“How’s your Russian,” Pierce asked when Rumlow led his team into the briefing. The Asset was standing behind Pierce, all blanked out again. But he was wearing a thermal t-shirt and a pair of boots, and some kind of recognition flickered across his face when he saw Rumlow.
“Pretty basic,” Rumlow said, a beat late. “Why?”
“Sometimes the Asset defaults to Russian during combat. We’re trying to iron out his programming but the Soviets seem to have really made an impression.”
So the Asset was the Winter Soldier. Pierce dropped that little nugget like it was nothing, and Rumlow was too well-trained to react, but behind him his guys started whispering like the goddamned grannies they were. Rumlow hadn’t bothered to tell them their new team leader was the Asset, so this was a twofer for them. Pierce looked sort of smug. Rumlow guessed it wasn’t every day you got to tell a bunch of commandos that the secret ops easter bunny was real, and was also the same person as the assassin tooth fairy.
But the whole thing kind of annoyed him anyway. “Shut up and pay attention,” he snapped at his team.
The Asset spoke nothing but Russian during the entire op.
Luckily, it was all vocabulary Rumlow was familiar with, stuff that had to do with killing people. So it didn’t really matter. And the Asset ran a tight operation, never hesitating; always making the right call. It was impressive. Rumlow held himself to a high fucking standard, and he didn’t mind admitting the Asset was better than him. Still, Pierce looked pissed off when they got back. Rumlow figured he’d been listening in on the comms. Listening to all that Russian the Asset wasn’t supposed to be speaking.
Pierce debriefed Rumlow. He didn’t even glance at the Asset, who got swept off by some guys in lab coats. The Asset looked at Rumlow as he left, meeting his eyes directly for the first time.
Just a look. Nothing to read into it.
Rumlow wondered what “We’re trying to iron out his programming” meant, exactly. He hoped he got to watch sometime. He wanted to know how you went about making a perfect soldier.
Rumlow didn’t see the Asset again for a few weeks. He kicked around base, working out and practicing his sharpshooting, hassling his guys. Went on a bullshit Shield mission with Captain America, which was aways good for a laugh. Even when Rumlow knew there was nothing at stake, there was still something fun about running around with Steve Rogers. Rogers was a good guy—and a good soldier. Rumlow liked being his teammate, even if it was fake. Sometimes he thought if someone had explained it right to Rogers what Hydra was really about, Rogers probably would have just joined up. Sometimes Rumlow thought about trying to bring Steve in. Trying to explain it to him so he got it, so he understood why the work was so necessary, why the world needed Hydra. But that shit was way, way above his pay-grade. Pierce would have flayed Rumlow alive if he knew he even daydreamed about it.
So he kept his trap shut. And soon enough another mission came up to distract him from that kind of thinking.
“Go get the Asset,” Pierce said. “I want him here for the briefing.” And Rumlow wound his way back through base to the unmarked R&D wing where they kept the Asset.
The Asset was asleep in his cell.
“Hey,” Rumlow said. Nothing. “Hey,” louder. The Asset twitched, his metal hand opening and closing once. He didn’t wake up, even when Rumlow clapped his hands loudly.
Rumlow kicked his foot, not too hard.
“Steve,” the Asset said clearly. “Knock it off.” Then he woke up.
Incurious eyes peered up at Rumlow. His face was slack, empty. It was like he’d never spoken.
“Who’s Steve?” Rumlow asked, and got nothing in return, not a flicker, nothing.
He’d never heard the Asset speak English before.
The thing was, Rumlow’s dad had hunting dogs when he was a kid. Used to take them out tracking pretty frequently. So Rumlow had no problem working with the Asset, because he figured the Asset was basically Hydra’s hunting dog. In the field he was the alpha, sniffing out the prey, calling the shots. You followed him with your gun and let him tell you where to shoot it, because he was the one with the nose, with the perfect instincts. He was the boss.
Back at home, he wasn’t the boss anymore. Back at the base, the Asset was the animal you didn’t let on the couch, the thing that shat in the yard and slept in the shed and knew its place.
Dad’s dogs were never allowed on the couch. But they got treats sometimes. Because they were good dogs.
Rumlow brought a pack of peanut M&Ms with him the next time he took the Asset out for exercise. He waited until they’d done their usual lap of the training yard, adding in a few minutes with the new machetes he’d ordered just because he’d wanted to see what the Asset would do with one. (It was awesome, as predicted.) Then he brought the Asset back to his cell and tossed the pack of candy at him. The Asset caught it neatly out of the air and looked at it. Either Rumlow was getting better at reading the Asset, or the Asset was getting better at feeling things, because he was pretty sure that was confusion, right there.
“Good job,” he said, instead of “good dog,” though that was what wanted to come out. “Enjoy.”
He came back the next morning and the Asset was asleep again, curled up around himself in his usual spot. He slept a lot, but Rumlow figured it was better than the alternative, which was sitting in the corner like a doll somebody propped up, staring into the middle distance, unmoving. Sleeping was less creepy. Except this time he was sleeping with the unopened pack of M&M’s clutched tight against his chest.
“Christ,” Rumlow muttered. Sometimes the Asset worked his last nerve. That someone could be so unerring and brilliant and flexible in the field and then…like this the rest of the time. It was the weirdest fucking thing. He wondered again how they’d managed to do it. He was pretty sure the Asset hadn’t started life this way. At the very least he hadn’t been born with a metal arm.
Rumlow kicked the Asset’s foot. “Wake up, dummy,” he said. The Asset blinked up at him for a few moments before sitting up against the wall, the candy still held tight. Rumlow slid down the wall to sit next to him. “Gimme that,” he said, pointing at the M&Ms. The Asset’s grip tightened around the candy. Rumlow sighed. “I’m not taking away your toy,” he said. “Just give it.”
The Asset watched him tear open the top of the packet and shake a few brightly colored pieces into the palm of his hand. He was about to hand them over, but then something occurred to him.
“Hey,” Rumlow called to the guard out in the corridor. “This guy isn’t allergic to peanuts or anything, is he?”
“How the fuck should I know?” the guard answered. “I’m not his personal chef. All he eats is goop in a jar the lab guys mix for him.”
“Some help you are,” Rumlow said.
“Fuck you,” the guard replied pleasantly.
Rumlow shrugged. Probably wouldn’t matter anyway. The Asset clearly had some enhanced healing stuff going on. Rumlow had seen a bullet graze on his face close up over the course of ten minutes. That kind of thing worked for anaphylactic shock, too. Right? Whatever. He was thinking too much about this. It had been weird already and now he was making it weirder.
He held up a peanut M&M. “This is candy,” he told the Asset. “It tastes good. You should eat it.”
The Asset stared at him, and at the candy in his hand. “Like this,” Rumlow said. He popped it into his own mouth. Chewed.
“Now you,” he said. He held up another one. Before he could react, the Asset tipped his head forward and took the M&M in his teeth, his lips brushing Rumlow’s fingertips very softly.
“You fucking freak,” Rumlow said. He felt a little shaky for no good reason. He scrubbed his fingers along the fabric of his pants.
They shared the rest of the candy. Rumlow made the Asset feed himself, though. He wasn’t into that kind of shit. Whatever kind of shit that was.
He kept bringing treats.
It became a routine. He’d take the Asset out for a runaround, and then come back with him to his cell and share whatever he’d gotten at the vending machine. Pierce had said not to touch him, but he hadn’t said not to feed him.
Rumlow didn’t touch the Asset. Ever. Except to kick him awake, or spar with him. And he did his best to ignore how the Asset would rub the back of his own neck absently, a weirdly human gesture from someone who moved like the world’s most athletic zombie most of the time. But it was hard, because that one motion sort of implied a personality, the way nothing else about the Asset did.
The whole “the Asset” thing was getting on Rumlow’s nerves, honestly. It was one thing to talk about him—“the Asset will lead the first attack,” that sort of thing—but it was just awkward to call him that to his face, because of the “the.” Rumlow could never figure out if it should be “Hey, the Asset, come here” or “Go away, Asset,” or what. It sounded dumb either way, every time.
“You must have an actual name,” he said, finally. It was late at night, and he’d stopped by the cell for a quick check-in. He didn’t usually come around at night, but he’d been nearby in the interrogation area, torturing a guy they’d brought in a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t really his specialty, but the interrogator who’d been working on this dude was out with the flu, and Pierce knew Rumlow was good with knives. He’d spent a few hours carving up the guy’s feet, but he hadn’t gotten much out of him except a lot of noises. It left him feeling sort of irritable, so he swung by the Asset’s cell.
The Asset hadn’t been asleep, for once, hadn’t even been sitting in the world’s-creepiest-Raggedy-Andy pose he usually favored. Instead he’d been standing in the corner, his back to the center of the room, his face shoved into the angle where the two walls met. Rumlow had sat down in his usual spot anyway and started talking. It wasn’t as though the Asset was less conversational than usual with his face stuck to the wall.
“I mean, your mom didn’t name you ‘The Asset,’ did she,” he said, not expecting a reply. The Asset seemed to understand the difference between direct questions—which he answered as briefly as possible and still usually in Russian, despite increasingly long hours spent with the lab guys trying to fix that—and rhetorical ones. “What’d they used to call you, anyway?”
“Bucky,” the Asset said, his voice muffled by the wall.
Rumlow was on his feet in a second.
“The fuck did you just say,” he said, grabbing the Asset’s shoulder, despite Pierce’s direct order not to touch him, despite everything, and yanking him around. The Asset was as blank as always, his eyes refusing to focus.
“What did you just say,” Rumlow repeated, pushing the Asset back against the wall with a thump. His head rocked back and hit the wall with a crack.
He opened his mouth to speak. Rumlow gritted his teeth and waited.
“Что?” the Asset said. What?
Steve. The Asset had said, “Steve. Knock it off,” in his sleep.
The Asset had some kind of enhancements that made him heal fast. That maybe would make him age slow, too.
It was—it wasn’t impossible.
No internet connection would be secure enough for Rumlow to avoid Hydra’s eyes. So he went to the library instead, after a sleepless night, doubling back several times on the way just in case, and found a book about the Howling Commandos with a lot of photos in it.
The hair was different, the posture was different, the metal arm was different and the expression on his face was really, really different, but there was no question about it. The Asset was James Buchanan Barnes. Steve Rogers’s best fucking pal. Thought to be deceased on account of falling five hundred fucking feet off a bridge in 1943.
Cap’s dead best friend was Rumlow’s pet.
He started laughing and couldn’t stop, not even when a librarian came over and honest-to-god shushed him. It just made him laugh harder.
Who knew? Maybe nobody. The more he thought about it, the more certain Rumlow was that not even Pierce knew who the Asset really was. Hell, the Asset didn’t even seem to know who the Asset was—he’d been blanker than usual in the week since he blurted his name out in that fugue state. Pierce was hauling him offsite every day to a facility in a converted bank vault to do god-knows-what to him. It seemed to be working, whatever it was: the Asset was mostly speaking English all of a sudden.
The Asset knew to speak in English now. But Bucky still didn’t know he was Bucky. Would never know.
It was Rumlow’s secret.
His own secret.
What would Rogers think, if he knew? Oh, it would kill him. Rumlow liked Rogers a lot, more than he should, but the thought of it still thrilled him to his bones, made him feel jumpy and giddy. Rogers’s best friend, the man he’d risked everything to save, the man whose death—“death”—had driven Rogers to make a final sacrifice—a sacrifice that had nearly destroyed Hydra… That man was now property of Hydra. That man was leading an elite Hydra strike team. Was personally ushering Hydra into the culmination of Project Insight. Would most likely be sent to kill Rogers himself at some point.
It made it really hard for Rumlow to be around Rogers for a few weeks—he knew he was getting a crazy grin on his face every time he saw him, so he avoided Rogers as much as he could at the Triskelion. With Bucky, though, it was a different matter. Rumlow felt a sort of weird sympathy for the guy now that he knew who he’d started out as.
“You’ve had a weird life, huh, buddy,” he said, sitting down next to him in the cell and handing him his half of a Twinkie. Bucky took it from him and ate it silently, without showing any sign of pleasure.
“No idea why you bother trying to talk to him,” the guard outside remarked. “Every day you’re in here with some weird little valentines gift or whatever. Give it up, Rumlow, he’s never going to prom with you.”
“Ah, you’re just jealous,” Rumlow said. But he toned it down a bit after that. And he saved his big treat for late at night several weeks later, when the guard was off disabling the smoke detector in the bathroom like he did every night around 1 AM.
“Listen,” Rumlow said quietly, hunkering down in front of Bucky, who was flung in the corner like a puppet with his strings cut. Rumlow really, really wished he would sit like a normal person for once. “Something big is going down in a couple of days. We both have our parts to play. But I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
Maybe it was something in his voice. But Bucky’s face turned up towards him. And Bucky looked at him, his eyes tracking restlessly across his face. Saw him. Maybe for the first time. And nodded.
“Okay,” Rumlow said. He fished his old iPod out of his coat pocket. He put the earbuds in Bucky’s ears, gently, one at a time, and then hit play.
He watched the music wash over Bucky, watched his eyes squeeze shut and his mouth drop open. Watched his face go all sweet and transported. Hunkered down next to him, back against the wall, and pressed his shoulder against Bucky’s metal one.
Feeling better about the world than he had for a while, Rumlow sat quietly next to Bucky and counted down six minutes for the guard’s smoke break. Bucky’s eyelids fluttered open slowly when Rumlow took the earbuds out. His eyelashes were very long.
Rumlow ducked in and pressed his mouth against Bucky’s, just for a moment. His lips were soft and he smelled like metal.
When Rumlow stood up and walked to the door of the cell, Bucky stayed on the floor. But his eyes followed him, shining in the darkness.
“Thanks,” Bucky said, his voice hoarse.
Rumlow didn’t say anything. What was there to say? “Hail Hydra”?
The next morning, pirates took the Lemurian Star.
In the thunderous chaos that ensued, there was one moment of absolute silence.
Bucky stopped screaming and the machine in the bank vault slowly swung away from his head. Silence rang out, filling the room like a bell. A lab tech stepped forward and pulled the bite guard out of Bucky’s slack mouth.
Bucky’s eyes opened, and the Asset stared out of them. Rumlow felt a little sick. He hadn’t realized how much personality Bucky had gained over the months until that moment, when it was all gone again. Until the Asset looked at him with no hint of recognition in his eyes.
It stung. It more than stung.
But there was a whole world out there waiting to be put in order; a whole civilization waiting to be remade. This wasn’t a good time to get sentimental.
Really, Rumlow thought a little bitterly, there was no such thing as a good time to get sentimental. He ought to know that by now.