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ask me what it’s like to have myself so figured out

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It’s a puff piece, a bit of fluff and positive PR focused around kids and public schools and supporting the city, and there’s a question and answer segment. They vetted all the questions before the kids lined up with them, but that doesn’t actually account for the whims of small children.

“Um, I’m Kate and I have a question for Winter Soldier. How does it feel being a traitor to Captain America?” the little girl at the microphone asks, and the entire room freezes. “He used to be your best friend.”

Bucky looks devastated, stiff and mute in his seat as a hundred flashbulbs go off at once. Kate’s teacher looks terrified. Steve . . . Steve fucking hates the entire fucking world, right now. Someone lets out a nervous little whisper from backstage in the horrible hanging silence and the moderator dives for the microphone, but Bucky is just a little faster.

“Awful,” he says roughly, shoulders drawn up tight. “Worst thing I ever felt.”

“Even worse than the brainwashing machine?” Kate asks, peering across the auditorium at him. Steve wants to scream, and also kill the HYDRA tech who filed recordings of the wiping procedure right in the dead center of all the information that ended up in the SHIELDRA data dump.

“So much worse,” Bucky says. His hands are fisted in his lap. The moderator and Kate’s teacher both look too terrified to intervene, and Steve just . . . can’t. Sam and Natasha are just as quiet beside him, for whatever their own reasons are. “He was my friend. And I knew him. But they told me he was bad and that they were doing what was right and I believed them, and I hurt him. Even though he was--even though he was my friend and he was trying to help me. I hurt him anyway.”

“Did you mean to hurt him?” Kate asks.

“Yes,” Bucky says, sounding agonized. The entire room stares at him, numb with shock at the sight of tears in the Winter Soldier’s eyes. Steve opens his mouth to say something, to fucking stop this--

“. . . does it get better?” Kate asks, her voice very small. Bucky’s eyes refocus, and Kate hunches in tiny on herself. “I got my friend hurt. She’s littler than me and we were playing with the boys and she came ‘cause I asked her even though I knew she didn’t really wanna and then she--and then she--” Kate stops to take big gulping breaths, tears welling up in her own eyes, and Bucky stares at her. “She fell really far and got hurt really bad and the hospital still won’t let her daddy bring her home and even if it does I don’t think she’s ever gonna be my friend again and maybe she won’t even come home at all and it feels so bad and everybody says it was an accident but it’s my fault.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Bucky says, and his demeanor completely changes, going soft and kind in a way Steve can’t remember seeing on him since . . . since maybe not even the war, he thinks. Maybe not even before that. “No, kiddo, an accident’s not your fault. You didn’t want her to get hurt, right?”

“Never!” Kate says tearfully, shaking her head furiously. “Cassie’s my best friend! I miss her all the time!”

“I bet she misses you too, sweetheart,” Bucky says, still tender in a way that is painful to watch, like he’s not quite sure he’s doing it right. Steve can’t make himself not watch. “I bet she misses you like crazy.”

“She--she can’t,” Kate hiccups, tears spilling faster now. “She’s asleep. She won’t wake up.”

“Believe me,” Bucky says, not taking his eyes off her for a moment, “no matter how deep somebody sleeps, they still miss their best friend.”