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Devil Put Aside For Me

Chapter Text

1944

 

This mission is one of the weird ones.

The Howling Commandos can spend hours debating whether they get all the crazy jobs because nobody but Steve can handle them, or because the brass have a theory that folks on the homefront will lose interest if they send Captain America out on missions that are ninety percent boredom and ten percent terror instead of the other way around. Lately, though, Bucky has been working on a different theory: maybe Steve’s shenanigans—which tend to be dangerous, against direct orders, and worst of all, successful—have pissed off Colonel Phillips to the point where the guy is actually trying to get them all killed just to get Steve out of his hair.

Today the punishment takes the form of Steve literally kicking in the front door of a HYDRA facility and marching in with his shield up and the Commandos following him with guns blazing, or as the Army calls it, “utilizing the element of surprise.” As plans go, it’s the stupidest Bucky has ever heard and he griped about it all the way here, so of course it goes off like a charm just to prove him wrong. Not that he wants to be disintegrated by one of HYDRA’s horrible death-ray guns, but it’d almost be worth catching a bullet if it would make Steve show a little fucking caution in the future.

Plus, he heals fast now, since Zola pumped all the whatever-it-was into his veins.

Really fast.

It’s creepy.

So Bucky is in a foul mood when they start securing the base, and it only gets worse when he starts finding stuff that… well, it doesn’t belong here, is what. He knows the Nazis have been looting their way across Europe and sending the treasures back home, so if it were gold, or paintings, or what Falsworth calls “antiquities,” Bucky would be unsurprised to find it in a HYDRA stronghold.

This stuff is something else entirely.

Carter told them all, before their first mission as a unit, that Johann Schmidt, A.K.A. the Red Skull, is obsessed with anything mystical, even though (or maybe because) science made him what he is now. Well, Bucky’s no scholar, but he’s pretty sure this qualifies. Other than the fact that it’s all old stuff, ritual-looking stuff, there’s no rhyme or reason to the mess that clutters every surface in the bunker’s treasure room. Stone crosses and icons of saints are mixed in with carved clay tablets in no alphabet he’s ever seen before, rusting weapons and tarnished jewelry, even some of those little painted statuettes they used to bury with mummies. A wooden panel leans against a wall with a hypnotic arrangement of circles and lines carved into its surface; the last line at the bottom trails off in a long scratch, as if the carver had to be forcibly dragged away.

It’s when he sees the scattering of bones inside a circle on the floor that he knows he’s out of his depth.

He’s tempted to just wedge the door shut and walk away, but orders are orders: anything weird gets kicked up the chain. So he turns and yells over his shoulder, “Hey, Captain Stupid, c’mere and look at this,” and Steve shows up in the doorway a moment later. His eyes follow the same track around the room that Bucky’s did, also lingering on the bones at the end of it, and he says, “This is one for the SSR, all right. Okay, let’s clear out and let the smart people handle it.”

“You better be first out the door, then,” Bucky says, mostly to hide the fact that this place is giving him the creeps. He turns, but he’s still holding his rifle in his right hand, and the stock catches the edge of a nearby table and scatters an assortment of junk. A stream of metal falls to the floor: corroded coins, bracelets, trinkets, a tarnished medallion on a chain.

He’ll never be able to explain what makes him lean down and start to pick things up. It’s not as if his ma is here to yell at him for making a mess. It’s just a thoughtless reaction: he put something out of order and his instinct is to fix it. It’s dumb and he doesn’t know why he bothers.

When his hand closes on the medallion, his left arm goes numb to the shoulder and the taste of metal fills his mouth.

the target’s battered face looks up at him the target’s blood is on his knuckles and there’s something he doesn’t remember something he doesn’t want to remember because he has to finish the mission there’s nothing for him in the world but the mission he has to

—finish the mission—

he knows the target he knows the target’s face but he can’t think about it because he has to keep going he has to

—finish the mission—

Bucky starts to shiver, and his fingers grip the amulet so hard that the rough edge of the metal bites into his skin.

You know me.

No I DON’T—

Steve rips the medallion out of his hand and flings it away, and Bucky realizes he’s on his knees, and Steve must’ve been yelling for a while, because the Commandos are piling into the room to see what’s happening. “Shit, Rogers, we thought you found another HYDRA squad in here,” Dugan says, and Morita says, “What happened? Barnes, are you hurt?” and Falsworth looks around the room and says, “Good God,” and Bucky just wants them all to just stop, and he says, “Sh-sh-sh-shut up,” which is when he realizes his teeth are chattering and his left hand is in a fist he can’t unclench.

Morita looks sick. “Christ,” he says, “nobody touch anything,” and it takes Bucky longer than the others to realize that he’s thinking contact poison. They all hustle back to the doorway except for Steve, who’s holding him up, and Morita, who’s pawing through the med kit as if anything in there would help if Bucky did get a dose of some weird HYDRA drug. Bucky didn’t, though. He isn’t sure what just happened to him, but he knows exactly what’s to blame for it.

He raises his rifle and fires at the medallion four times before Steve grabs his arm and knocks the gun away.

It leads to a fresh outbreak of yelling from the Commandos, of course, but Bucky has a sniper’s eyes now, and he sees what the rest of them miss: the medallion doesn’t move. It wasn’t heavy, and the first bullet should’ve sent it skittering across the floor, but it lies there as if it weighs as much as a tank. At least it’s warped out of recognition now, the symbols around its edge obliterated by dents where the bullets bounced off the metal, and Bucky doesn’t know if that’s enough to take away whatever power it had, but he hopes so.

“Bucky, what the hell,” Steve says.

“L-l-language, Rogers,” Bucky manages, because yeah, maybe he just ran into a magic amulet like something out of H. Rider Haggard but that’s no excuse not to give Steve shit when he has the chance. “I’m okay,” he tells Morita, “I’m f-fine.” But his left arm feels wrong, somehow, too heavy and numb, and he’s still cold. “And shut up, all of you, I can hear you, you know.”

The murmuring from the rest of the squad stops abruptly, and to Bucky’s surprise, Dugan comes over and puts a hand on his shoulder. “What is it, kid?” he says, with surprising gentleness.

“I think something really bad is gonna happen,” Bucky blurts, before he can stop himself.

They all look at him like he’s crazy, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Then Jones, always the skeptic, steps forward, with a snort of derision. “Come on, Barnes, quit with the pranks. We’re supposed to be working here.” He reaches down to pick up the warped metal disc.

“Don’t touch it, Gabe,” Steve says, in his Cap voice, and Jones freezes, then backs away.

Steve turns back to Bucky. “Hey,” he says, in a voice pitched too low for the rest of the squad to hear, “do you have some reason to think the team’s in danger? Because if you do, you gotta tell me. Even if you think it sounds crazy.”

Bucky has to stop himself from reaching up to touch Steve’s face, where the blood was. The guys would definitely never let him live that down. But no, when Steve puts it that way, the team isn’t in danger, and Steve definitely won’t abort the mission if Bucky says it’s just him, and from Bucky, no less. “It’s nothing,” he says, hunching his shoulders and pulling away. “It’s fine. Can we just go?”

He can see Steve fighting his natural urge to press for an answer, and consciously deciding to let it be. Deciding to trust him. In light of what he just saw, it kills Bucky a little, that look. But Steve does trust him, so he just nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Come on, guys, let’s go home.”

 

Bucky does okay at pretending he’s forgotten all about the treasure room while the Commandos set up camp for the night, some distance from the bunker. He pitches the tent he’ll share with Steve, and starts a fire, and tries to be his usual asshole self when anybody talks to him. But every so often he starts shivering again, and he keeps rubbing his left arm, until Morita finally takes pity on him and says, “You know, you don’t look so good, Barnes. Maybe you’re coming down with something.”

“Maybe,” Bucky says, and sure enough, everybody around the fire relaxes a little as soon as they’ve got the flimsiest excuse for his weird behavior. The Howling Commandos are great at denial.

“Hey, you know what’ll make you feel better, Jimmy,” Dugan says.

“Dugan, you better not even be thinking about—” Bucky is starting to say, when something soft flies through the air and hits him in the face.

Jesus Christ. Of course, knowing that they were walking straight into a HYDRA fortress today, Dugan’s top priority was to make sure he planned some sort of harassment involving the stupid Bucky Bear toy that the real Bucky hates with every fiber of his being. He must make a really great face when he sees it, because even Steve cracks up, the traitor. Bucky snatches the teddy bear off the ground and whips it back at Dugan, aiming for his stupid hat, which he manages to knock off Dugan’s stupid head. It’s a mistake; he should’ve tossed the bear in the campfire instead and been done with it. “I fucking hate you, Dum-Dum.”

“I’m sorry, who was just giving me grief about my language?” says Steve.

“Va te faire foutre,” Bucky says, which earns him a grin and a thumbs-up from Dernier. “I’m turning in.” He crawls into his tent and flops down. At least in here, nobody’s looking at him like he’s crazy.

He lies awake while the guys flap their gums about various things, hoping that’s the end of it, but of course it isn’t, because Jones won’t let it go. “No offense, Rogers,” he says, eventually, “but I never took your buddy for a superstitious guy.”

Bucky is a little surprised that it isn’t Steve who comes to his defense first, but Dernier. “Sergeant Barnes is not a superstitious guy,” he says, slow and careful with his English. “This is why, when he says he sees a bad thing, I believe him.”

Aww, Jacques, you’re a pal. Okay, you’re off the hook about the whole Bucky Bear thing.

“You know, most of the time, I believe in what I see,” Dugan says. “But Jimmy’s not the kind of guy who jumps at shadows. I don’t know if he really got a premonition or something, but it’s not like it’d hurt some of us to be a little more careful.”

You’re not off the hook, Dugan, but thanks anyway.

“You guys are ridiculous,” Jones says. “Nobody can see the future.”

“My ma knew when my father died,” Steve says. “He was in France, and she told me she knew the minute the mustard gas got him. She didn’t get the telegram until a couple days later, but she knew exactly when it happened.”

“I’m sorry, but I agree with Jones,” says Falsworth. “That sort of thing is coincidence at best and wishful thinking at worst, Steven.”

“You’re entitled to your opinion,” Steve says, unruffled. “What do you think, Morita?”

“I think you boys couldn’t handle it if I told you some of the old Japanese stories my grandfather used to tell me about this kind of thing,” Morita says. Which isn’t exactly an answer, but at least it steers the conversation in a different direction: it turns into a ghost story contest, which quickly devolves into a jump-out-and-scare-the-guy-next-to-you contest. He’ll take that over their throwing words like shell shock or combat exhaustion around, any day.

Because if he ever does crack… well, then they’ll send him home, and that can’t happen. Not unless it’s because the war’s over and Steve is going home, too. Because the others, well. The others still see Captain America when they look at him, not Steve. That’s why none of the others will ever really have his back, not the way Bucky does.

When Steve finally crawls into the tent beside him, Bucky waits for him to settle in before he says, “I forgot that about your ma, how she used to say she had the second sight.”

Steve sighs. “Yeah, and your ma told her a good Christian lady shouldn’t say that.”

“I figured it was because she was a good Christian lady that she got it. She knew about you before anybody else, anyway. She used to say God kept you from dying all those times because you were meant for something big. Bet this whole Captain America thing wouldn’t surprise her at all.”

“Flattering your CO won’t get you promoted, Sergeant,” Steve says, but Bucky can tell he likes the idea of his mother being proud of him for all this.

“Remember how she used to call me Jamie?”

“I forgot all about that. You finally made her stop.”

“Yeah.” Bucky's never told Steve that there was one last time, though. The night he’d been sound asleep, and he’d felt someone ruffle his hair, and a voice in his ear said, You look after my boy now, Jamie Barnes, and he'd woken up to find out that Sarah Rogers was dead. Until today, he was with Falsworth; he figured it for wishful thinking. Now he’s not so sure. “So you don’t think I’m crazy?”

“No, I said I believed you about today. I always knew you were crazy.”

“I forgot you, Steve.”

“Huh?”

“When I picked up that thing. What I saw, the… the premonition I got,” he says, which he figures sounds less extreme than vision and saner than hallucination. “It was that I, I forgot you. I didn’t know who you were. We were fighting, and I think you were trying to stop me, but I… It felt like I was really trying to kill you.”

Steve pushes himself up on one elbow and stares down at Bucky as if he can see in the dark, which he probably can, thanks to the stupid serum. “I take it all back,” he says. “Gabe’s right. You’re a superstitious idiot.”

“Hey—”

“You think we’d ever really disagree on something big enough to kill each other over? Then you’re even dumber than I thought. And any other day, you’d tell me I’m way too annoying to forget.”

“Well,” Bucky says, placated, “this is true.” He hesitates. “Hey, Stevie?”

“Yeah?”

“If Zola ever… got me again,” Bucky says, with an effort. “If HYDRA made me into something like Schmidt… You know I’d want you to stop me, right? You know I’d want you to kill me before you let me hurt you.”

“If you think I’d let it get to that point, then you can brûle en l’enfer, Barnes.”

“Steve? There’s something you gotta promise me, okay?”

“Bucky, I’m not gonna promise that I’d—”

“Promise me,” Bucky says earnestly, “that you’ll never try to speak French again. Your accent is awful.”

Steve punches his shoulder, lightly. Then he pauses, and grips Bucky’s arm. “Jeez. Your skin is like ice.”

“It’s cold out,” Bucky says, ignoring the fact that there’s more to it than that. His arm doesn’t feel numb anymore, but there’s an ache in his shoulder like it’s been too cold for a very long time.

Steve throws an arm around him, pulling Bucky close against his chest. “This okay?”

“I guess.” Actually, it’s a hell of a lot better than okay. Steve doesn’t mean it the way he’d like him to—never has, never will, especially not with Carter in the picture—but it feels safe, and Bucky hasn’t spent a lot of time feeling safe lately. “Hey,” he says, “will you ask Carter to tell me if they find out anything about that weird necklace?”

“Sure. Doubt they will, though. I think you beat it up beyond all recognition.”

“Yeah, well,” Bucky murmurs, before he lets himself relax into sleep, “I just hope I never have to deal with anything that weird again.”

He never does find out what the medallion was, or what was written on it, or why it did what it did—if it did, in fact, do anything. But he’ll forget all about it soon enough.

It’s 1944, and six weeks from now, Bucky Barnes has a train to catch.

Chapter Text

Now

“‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh,’” says a voice in the doorway.

Barnes looks up at the couple who’ve just walked into the building. Not too many people are out on a rainy Tuesday night in this little tourist trap of a town, and until now he’s had the bookstore almost to himself, other than a barista who’s on her third smoke break and a couple of clerks who’ve been out of sight, supposedly rearranging the art history section, for a suspiciously long time now. Honestly, as long as they’re not reporting him to the CIA or HYDRA, Barnes doesn’t care what they’re up to. He came in the store tonight to mooch off the free wifi, but once he was inside, he realized it’s also been seventy-odd years since he sat down and read a damn book. He was lost in this one for a couple of hours, long enough for his coffee to go cold and his neck to get a crick in it from being curled up in one of the soft chairs, before this pair of shoppers came in and he had to snap back into wariness.

He relaxes a little when he decides these two can’t possibly be HYDRA. The woman almost could be; she moves like she could handle herself in a fight, and he spots her concealed-carry holster right away. His gut says cop rather than spy, but if she were alone, he’d make a beeline for the nearest exit. The guy she’s with, though, he’s another story. He’s making no effort at all to blend in, wearing a long, dark coat and weirdly old-fashioned boots and looking around like this place is completely new to him. Barnes’ first thought is Halloween costume, and his second is historical reenactor, neither of which is exactly an approved HYDRA cover.

Oh, yeah, and he’s very British. Talks like Falsworth at his most officious, or Carter at her most grumpy.

“Yeah,” the woman says, in a tone somewhere between weary and resigned, “tell it to the six-year-old who wants a Captain Underpants book for his birthday. Now, tell me again what you’re going to do.”

“Leftenant,” the man replies, drawing himself up to his full height, “having faced and defeated untold perils at your side, surely I’ve given you sufficient cause to think I can handle an errand of this small consequence.”

Leftenant, not lieutenant? Do people say that in England now? He thought that was an old-fashioned style back in his day.

“Which,” says the woman, calmly, “is exactly what you said before you got kicked out of Wal-Mart last week.”

 “A most unfortunate circumstance, to be sure,” the tall man admits. “But since you broach the subject, had you warned me of our imminent confrontation with the infernal device you call a ‘self-checkout machine’—”

Barnes tips his head down and lets his hair fall over his face to hide his smile. Oh, buddy, just do whatever the lady says, because this is not a fight you’re gonna win.

“What are we going to do in the bookstore today, Crane?”

Well, at least the guy knows how to concede a losing battle. “You shall proceed to the children’s section and make your purchase,” he says. “And I shall remain here, avoid the history section altogether, and make no edits nor addendums—however sorely needed—to any manuscript herein. Like young Master Potter, I shall expend the coming hour in sitting quietly, making no noise, and pretending that I do not exist.”

“Good. I’ll be right back with Captain Underpants.”

“I sincerely hope not.”

The woman—the lieutenant—takes off toward the back of the store, and the man, Crane, wanders over to a nearby table. He’s shaking his head, muttering to himself about the woman not trusting him with simple errands. He picks up a book, and Barnes hears him say, “Hmph. Looks a dull tome,” before he opens it to somewhere in the middle and starts reading.

Barnes sees the title and chokes off a laugh, waiting for it. Sure enough, ninety seconds later, Crane says, “Good God!” and drops the book onto the display pile, which sends a cascade of books sliding off the table and hitting the floor.

Barnes has been minimizing contact with civilians on this little road trip, not wanting to be remembered just in case either HYDRA or one of Steve’s buddies comes through here later, but he knows the look of a poor bastard having a rough day too well to ignore it. He sets his own book—it’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one of his favorites from when he was a kid—on the table beside the cold coffee, walks over, and starts picking up fallen books and setting them on the table with his right hand, keeping his metal left hand concealed in the pocket of his hoodie.

“Oh, no, don’t trouble yourself,” Crane says, apparently noticing him for the first time.

“No trouble.” Barnes lets himself smile, just a little, as he hands Crane the last book. He’s seventy years behind on popular literature, but even he’s heard about this one. “Guess you’re not in the Fifty Shades of Grey target audience.”

“I suppose I can hardly claim to be shocked by the subject matter, having chanced upon Fanny Hill in my youth, but I admit to some surprise at finding this volume so prominently placed. Is it commonplace in this day and age to display such a title in a shop that caters to children?”

“Oh, I’m really the wrong person to talk to about what’s commonplace,” Barnes says, before he catches himself. Damn. For an ex-assassin, sometimes he’s really bad at being covert. “I mean, uh, I got out of the military not too long ago. Seems like every time I turn around, I find something that’s different now than it was before.”

“I imagine we have more in common than you might suspect, in that regard,” says Crane.

Barnes decides not to follow up on that; the last thing he wants is to give Crane an opening to ask any awkward questions.  “Anyway,” he says instead, “I think people are happy nowadays if kids want to read at all. Seems like an awful lot of them just want to play Pokémon, whatever the hell that is.”

“If you find out, do explain it to me,” Crane says dryly. “Of all the facets of the modern world that continue to baffle me, Pokémon is in the top tier.”

“Grocery stores are what get me,” Barnes admits. He shouldn’t be talking this much, but Tall, Dark, and English here is giving him a weird-but-harmless vibe, and his instincts are pretty good about this kind of thing.  “Used to be, you wanted bread and milk, you went in and got bread and milk. Now there’s thirty kinds of everything.”

“Yes, I’ve yet to discover how one milks an almond. Also, I was shocked when I learnt how much of that food is discarded.”

“Same with clothes. Something gets a hole in it now, people just throw it out. My ma would turn over in her grave, all the time she spent sewing for us. Hell, I don’t think my littlest sister ever had a dress that wasn’t cut down and remade at least once.”

“I said much the same to my companion the other day. It seems few things are made to last anymore, or to be repaired. If any value at all were placed on craftsmanship, we could have quite easily avoided the entire incident of the toaster fire.”

“Okay, I got a good one,” says Barnes. “What the hell is up with the presidential candidates these days?”

“Good Lord,” Crane says. “I love this country dearly, sir, but if that pumpkin-skinned cockalorum is elected to the highest office in the land, then all hope is truly lost.”

Barnes actually lets himself laugh at that. “But, you know, even as weird as things are now, I don’t think I’d want to go back. I mean, seventy years ago, we still had segregation and eugenics and polio. I think about this buddy of mine who was always real sick when we were kids… He ended up having this crazy experimental medical treatment that could just as easily have killed him. These days, if a kid had those problems, they’d just give him some medicine and he’d be okay. Maybe not great, but okay. When we were about fourteen and he got really sick, I would’ve killed for the stuff they’ve got now. I would’ve…” Barnes stops. “I’m talking too much.”

“Not at all. What became of your friend?”

“He’s fine now. Haven’t seen him in a while, though. I… kind of screwed things up with him pretty bad. It wasn’t really my fault, but sometimes you need to make things right even if you weren’t really to blame, you know?”

“Come to think of it,” Crane says, “I suppose I do.” He holds out his hand. “Ichabod Crane, sir, at your service.”

Ichabod? Jesus, he thought Buchanan was bad. “James Barnes,” he says, returning the handshake. He shouldn’t let that slip, ever, but… Well, fuck it. Even the HYDRA handlers rarely saw the secret files, the ones with his real name; the scientists who did know didn’t want to take the chance someone would let it slip to him. So he’ll be himself, just this once.

“Of course. I should have guessed. And is Mr. Noble also on the premises?”

It takes him a minute, but then Barnes smiles. “Aw, no, no relation. And I should get going, but it was nice meeting you.”

“The pleasure was mine, sir,” Crane says, and Barnes thinks he might actually mean it. Too bad he doesn’t dare stay and talk any longer than that, but oh well. It’s still been good for his morale.

The rain has let up, and Barnes is walking across the parking lot to his motorcycle—speaking of his favorite things about the modern world; it’s a Triumph Scrambler, and he has a deep and completely unreasonable attachment to it—when his cell phone vibrates in his pocket: two quick shakes, an incoming text. Six people in the world have his number, and only one of them texts him regularly. He checks the screen, and smiles.

What’s up, BB?

Barnes’ metal hand won’t work on a touch screen, so he’s learned to hold the phone in his left hand and type with his right. He’s not bad at it, either, for somebody who grew up when phones still came with party lines. Hi, Daisy, he sends back. I’m at the bookstore.

I know. Who’s the hot guy?

Sometimes Barnes forgets that Daisy Johnson was a hacker before she was a SHIELD agent or a superhero. Took him a while to figure out that tracking the phone she gave him and tapping into the nearest security camera feed isn’t just a way of telling him he’s getting picked up by too many cameras; it’s also because she cares enough to want occasional visual confirmation that he’s okay. A hot guy whose equally hot girlfriend dragged him into the store, sadly, he types back.

Bummer. It’s good that you’re talking to people, though. How’s the other thing going?

Barnes considers for a moment before replying. I don’t know. Weirder than I expected but also better, I guess.

Maybe Steve will be like that too?

This time he takes too long trying to come up with an answer, because the phone buzzes again: Sorry. I’m being a jerk.

No you’re not. It’s a weird situation.

Bucky Barnes, master of understatement.

He smiles. Daisy’s pretty great, and she’s been through enough herself to understand that he’s just trying to keep himself together in complicated circumstances. Hell, the only reason he doesn’t ask her out is the fact that she deserves better than a fugitive ex-assassin with a weird metal arm and epic PTSD. I’ll call soon, he types.

K. Just be careful. If I can figure out why you’re in Sleepy Hollow, so can the bad guys.

Same to you. You’re hunting Inhumans, you have more to worry about than I do. Don’t let your guard down. Goodnight.

Barnes tucks the phone back in his pocket, turns, and comes face to face with a monster.

 

The one good thing about what’s left of his HYDRA conditioning is that Barnes’ muscle memories kick in while his eyes and brain are still catching up. His brain is still stuck on There’s a seven-foot-tall thing with horns and glowing green eyes in front of me and it can’t possibly be real when his metal arm comes up to block the claws that are going for his throat. Once his arm moves, his body follows, falling into a fighting stance, and then it’s just another hand-to-hand combat, a thing he’s done a thousand times. His right hand goes smoothly to the most accessible of his hidden knives while his brain is still looping on what the actual fuck is it and how did it sneak up on me, and the knife flips through the air, lands in his left hand, and plunges into one of those convenient green eyes while his brain is having the same reaction he used to have to spiders, no conscious thought beyond aaaah kill it kill it kill it. He sinks it in hilt-deep, then breaks away and stumbles back a few steps while he waits for the monster to fall.

Okay, he tells himself. So you ran into the Red Skull once, and you know about Inhumans. This thing is obviously something like that. Something human…ish, plus serum or alien or something, whatever HYDRA had on hand. Probably sent it to bring you in. But you got it now. You’re fine.

Then the thing reaches up a hairy, clawed hand and pulls the knife out of its eye socket, tossing it aside to clatter on the concrete, and Barnes’ brain says, Yeah, we’re done here, right before it grabs him.

The metal arm ought to be enough to break, or at least counter, any hold. Ought to. Problem is, this thing is bigger than a human, with a longer reach, and it’s lightning-fast. It’s got him by the throat, and it’s tall enough and strong enough to lift him fully off the ground, leaving him with no leverage and a rapidly dwindling air supply. He twists his body and swings his feet in to kick it in its stomach. That kick would knock it off its feet, possibly even rupture organs on a standard human, but it’s the second time his assumptions about its anatomy prove wrong. The thing doesn’t so much as flinch when both of his boots connect with its gut. In fact, nothing happens except that the clawed fist squeezes harder. Startled into speaking in a way he usually isn’t during a fight, he croaks, “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” before he realizes he doesn’t have enough oxygen left to waste on words.

Abruptly, the monster’s face contorts, and it opens its mouth—wider than ought to be possible, showing more and sharper teeth than anything relatively human-shaped should have—in a shriek. Then it hurls him twenty feet across the parking lot.

Barnes fights the instinct that drives him to panic every time he falls, twisting his body to try to get his metal arm behind him and absorb some of the impact before he crashes off the side of a parked sedan. His arm does take the brunt of it, crumpling the metal of the door panel, but he still cracks his head on the window hard enough to break the safety glass before he hits the ground.

Dazed, he pushes himself up and looks toward the monster. Sure enough, it’s coming after him, closing the distance between them fast. His vision is starting to blur, but he can see enough to know it’s coming at him with claws extended, ready to leap and disembowel him. Fuck that, he thinks. This isn’t where you die, Barnes. Not after everything else you’ve lived through. He waits to see the knees tense, then rolls out of the thing’s way, so that its leap carries it to the empty patch of ground where he used to be. He comes to his feet in the same motion, dizzied and stumbling but with a second knife in his hand, trying to assess the thing for weaknesses, with a sinking feeling that he’s not likely to find any.

Then Tall, Dark, and English shouts something from behind him—he’s not sure what language it is, but it’s none of the ones Barnes speaks; Greek, maybe?—and throws a handful of something white into the monster’s face.

Barnes had thought the sound the monster made before was bad. Now it opens its mouth and wails, and the noise is unspeakable. Then it starts to… what the… is that thing’s face actually melting? Yeah, that’s the only possible word Barnes can put on it. Like someone poured hot water over a sugar cube. It’s collapsing in on itself, and what’s left of it is… it’s steaming. That’s… disturbing, is what that is.

Crane steps up beside him and watches expressionlessly for a moment, then turns. The woman is standing nearby, with her gun leveled at what’s left of the thing. She holds her firing stance until all that’s left is a smoking puddle on the pavement, then holsters the gun and straightens up. “Looks like your theory was right, Crane,” she says. “Good job.”

“Once the creature was distracted, it was a simple matter to apply the salt,” Crane says. “For which I owe credit to this gentleman. Mr. Barnes, I do hope you’re not injured?”

Simple’ my cryo-frozen ass, he thinks, but manages not to say it. “Th’ fuck was that thing?” he asks instead, and the words come out sounding slurred, like he’s drunk. Shit. That probably means concussion. He’s going to have to be really, really careful until he gets away from these two, because in this state, he could easily slip up and blow what’s left of his cover.

The woman hears it too. She walks over to him, cups her hand under his chin, and looks into his eyes. “Hey. What’s your name?”

“Sergeant J—” Shit. It’s so hard to focus. “James. Just James.”

“James, I’m Agent Abbie Mills with the FBI. Don’t worry, we’ll take you to the hospital, okay?”

FBI? Дерьмо, this is worse than he figured. A lot worse. “No,” he says, pulling away. “No hospital.”

“James, I know you’re very upset, but you need to let us help you, okay?”

She’s doing what he thinks of as a field medic voice, the one first responders use when somebody’s in shock. He shakes his head, which is a mistake; he almost falls. “Not like that. There are… bad people after me. Find me if I go to a hospital. Jus’ gimme… minute… Be fine.”

“I think you have a serious head injury. You’ll be perfectly safe in the hospital. I’m calling an ambulance—”

Concussion or no, his reflexes are still better than she has any reason to expect, which is how he’s able to swipe the phone out of her hand. It’s a mistake to use his left hand, and more of a mistake to grab as hard as he does. Both of them hear the screen crack. “Shit. Sorry. I’ll pay for that. But ’m not goin’ to a hospital.”

“Leftenant, a word,” Crane says. He takes her arm and tugs her a few steps away—not far enough to keep Barnes, with his enhanced hearing, from catching every word, but they’d have no way to know that. “Leftenant, the gentleman was wounded while assisting us in destroying a demon,” he says. “We owe him more than simple gratitude, and few incidents in our lives are truly coincidental of late. Suppose he has part to play in future events?”

Demon? Wait, what?  People around here just casually talk about demons? This town is so much weirder than Minnie let on.

Hold up, Barnes. You saw the same thing Tall, Dark, and English did. If you didn’t know about HYDRA and Inhumans, what would you think that was? Alien, right? And Asgard’s kind of like some other dimension. In your day, anybody who showed up from space claiming to be a god definitely would’ve been called a demon. Maybe this Crane guy thinks the same way. And he saved your ass, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

“Suppose he doesn't?” Mills says. “Or worse, suppose he's on the wrong side?”

“Perhaps I am simply overly inclined to trust anyone met in a bookshop,” Crane says, “but—”

“You better not be about to say what I think you’re going to say, Crane.”

“—I believe we have a responsibility to this man, Leftenant.”

There’s a long silence. Barnes waits, leaning against the mangled sedan (someone’s going to have fun explaining that to their insurance company, he thinks, giddily) and rubbing his left shoulder where the metal meets the skin, until Mills turns back. “Okay, Barnes,” she says, “I guess you’re coming to my place tonight.”

Barnes doesn’t want to do that, either. Walking into an FBI agent’s house is currently near the top of his list of terrible ideas. Unfortunately, driving is higher on the list. His vision is doing weird things, and he could easily run the Scrambler into a ditch, or worse, hurt somebody else with it. And the crappy little motel where he was planning to hole up is too far to walk. Also, he’s pretty sure that now that Crane’s won this fight, Mills will swing over to his side hard and will make sure Barnes goes along. “’S kind of you, ma’am,” he sighs. “Lemme grab my stuff.”

He walks—unsteadily—to his Scrambler, which was mercifully out of the line of fire during the fight, and takes the duffel that contains most of his earthly possessions out of one of the saddlebags and a small, polished wooden box out of the other. “Y’didn’t answer my question,” he says, rejoining them, and Crane catches his arm as he nearly falls again.

Actually, this could work for him. Play up the injury, convince the FBI agent he’s too harmless to be worth looking at any closer than just some random stranger she did a random favor for one time? Probably can’t hurt.

“What question?” Mills asks.

“What was that thing?”

Mills gives him a long, thoughtful look before responding. “Let’s talk about it in the morning,” she says. “I imagine you’re pretty mixed up about what you saw, but it will all seem clearer after a good night’s sleep.”

Ha! She thinks she’s going to get him to doubt what he saw. She hasn’t gone up against the Barnes family stubbornness yet. And maybe it’s just the concussion talking, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer to Barnes that there’s something really weird going on in Sleepy Hollow.

He doesn’t know what, yet, but it seems like the kind of thing he should find out.

Chapter Text

48 Hours Ago

Barnes kills the Triumph's engine in the driveway and waves to the little old lady who’s on her knees in the flowerbed, digging with a trowel. She stands up when she sees him, moving so slowly and carefully that it hurts his heart, but she’s smiling. He walks over and lets her put her arms around him, careful not to squeeze back too hard. This is so weird, he thinks, for the hundredth time this week. “Hey, Minnie,” he says.

“Bucky.” She pulls back. “You look well.”

“I’ve been sleeping better. Talking to you helped a lot.”

“Did it? I was afraid it would stir up too many old memories.”

“Nah. At this point, remembering anything is good.” He’s surprised, when he says it, to find that it’s true. Even when they hurt, memories are better than empty spaces. He kneels in the flowerbed and picks up the trowel. “Why are you planting flowers when it’s almost winter? They’re just gonna die.”

When Minnie laughs, she still sounds ten years old to him. “You plant bulbs in the fall so they’ll come up in the spring, city boy. No, if you’re going to help me, don’t put them so close together.” She taps her foot on the dirt. “There.”

Barnes makes a hole in the dirt, looks at her for approval, and drops a bulb into it. “Now you have to think about me when they grow, right?”

“Why don’t you just stay here, Bucky? Lord knows I have the room, and it would be so much fun to scandalize all the neighbors by telling them you’re my handsome young lover.”

This time, he laughs. Of the Barnes kids, he and Minnie were always the most alike, in spite of the age difference. And his baby sister has definitely followed his shining example over the last seventy years: from what she’s told him, in her youth she drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney, swore like a sailor, and made time with all the attractive men. The one she married sounds like kind of an asshole, but, in her words, he had the courtesy to die young, leaving her free to spend twenty years working and traveling before she met the love of her life at forty-six. From what he can tell, she’s had an amazing run. And he missed all of it. Just another thing HYDRA took from him. “I can’t stay, Min. The longer I’m around, the more dangerous it is for you. I shouldn’t even be here now. Every time I come back, there’s more of a chance the people after me will find you.”

“One of them already did. Steve looked me up after they took him out of the ice.”

“He did?” He carefully doesn’t look at her as he digs another hole, drops another bulb in. Doesn’t ask what did he say about me, because he doesn’t need to sound that pathetic.

“Of course,” Minnie says. “He considered us family, you know. He told me all about the things you did in the war, how brave you were.”

“I wasn’t brave. I was just too stupid to say no to him.”

“You really loved him, didn’t you?”

He raises an eyebrow at her. “And here I thought I had everybody fooled.”

“You should have told him.”

“Aw, Min, even if things had been different back then, it never would’ve happened. Steve had been talking about finding a nice girl his whole life. Somebody he could settle down and have a bunch of kids with. Then he met Peggy, and she was amazing, so…”

“So what was stopping you from joining in?”

“Minnie!” He can’t help laughing. There’s been so little to laugh about in the last seventy years. “You did not just tell me I should’ve had a three-way with Captain America. Ma would turn over in her grave.”

“That’s usually how I know I’m doing something right.” She laughs, too, but then her smile fades. “Steve blamed himself terribly for your death, you know. He thought it was his fault.”

“Of course Steven Grant Martyr has to beat himself up over it. Never mind that I would’ve already been dead in Zola’s lab if he hadn’t risked his life to save me. He probably feels even worse about it now that he knows I didn’t die.” Barnes stabs the ground with the trowel a little harder than he needs to. “I never had to join the Howling Commandos, you know. They gave me a choice. I could’ve taken an honorable discharge and gone home. Sure, I mostly stayed because of Steve, but it was still the right thing to do. I was an officer, and I’d lost good men to HYDRA—some of them they killed right in front of me in the prison, and there was nothing I could do. I owed it to them to keep fighting as long as I could. Even after they caught me and put this thing,” he shifts the plates in his metal arm, “on me, I kept on fighting them until they had to mess with my brain to make me stop. It was that important.”

 “Have you thought about telling Steve what you just told me?”

“Every damn day since he made me remember.”

“Then why haven’t you?”

Because he’s scared is why, scared and angry and afraid he’ll lose it again if he faces Steve, that he’ll run away and hide from the things he can't deal with again like he did on the riverbank, or worse, flash back to the Asset long enough to hurt him. Or maybe he’s really just dreading the pity he’s going to see in Steve’s big stupid sad eyes. But what he says is, “I need time to figure some things out first. There isn’t really a handbook for what happened to me, Min.”

What happened. As if not saying it out loud makes it better. He already knows he doesn’t have to dance around it with Minnie. At first, he was careful to stick to euphemisms about bad things he’d done or had done to him in place of words like mind wipes and wetwork. (Hell, the first time he came to visit her, he didn’t think she’d believe it was him. He’d worked up a plausible story about being the original Bucky Barnes’ grandson via one of the girls he’d actually dated in England, but that alibi lasted all of two minutes before she said Stop being an ass, Bucky, as if I wouldn’t know my own brother, and dragged him into the house to see the photo of him that she keeps on the mantel.) But Minnie’s a smart cookie, and she’s tough, and even as a kid she had no patience for bullshit. She asked a lot of pointed questions, and he ended up telling her a lot more than he planned about his time as the Asset.

He even told her about the Chair, eventually. There was crying. He doesn’t want to think about it.

“I got something down from the attic for you,” Minnie says. She goes into the house and comes back with a wooden box, not much bigger than a cigar box. It had a pattern once, but it’s been handled so much that the carvings have almost worn away. He sits on the porch swing next to her, opens it, and stares at the contents.

“How’d you get these?”

“Your friend Dum-Dum Dugan came to see us after the war. Steve had asked him to make sure we got your things, if he didn’t make it home himself. Ma used to take them out once in a while and look at them, around Christmas, maybe, or your birthday. She said it helped.”

Barnes’ right hand is shaking hard enough that he has to lift the medals out of the box with his left one. “I don’t recognize all of these,” he says. “They must’ve added some later.”

“This one’s a Victory Medal,” Minnie says. “They gave them out after the war ended. And this one is a Distinguished Service Cross. That was for the train. ‘Extreme gallantry in combat’ was the phrase they used. Steve said that described you perfectly.”

“Considering I was an enemy of the state for seventy years, I should probably give these back.” But he keeps looking at them. He remembers the infantry badge, the award for expert marksmanship, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Purple Heart (and if he wasn’t sure then that getting experimented on by Zola counted as a war wound, he more than earned it later by losing his entire damn left arm, thanks very much). There are photos in the box, too, and some other stuff—a pocket knife, a cigarette lighter, some coins, whatever junk he dumped out of his pockets on his last night in the barracks. He doesn’t want to go through it right now. Later, maybe.

He closes the box and offers it back to her, but she presses it back into his hands. “Everything in there is yours,” she says. “Keep it.”

Chapter Text

Now

Barnes is eager to find out what these two semi-strangers know about what the thing was that grabbed him last night, but apparently in Abigail Mills’ house, the rules are that any discussion of monster attacks has to wait until after breakfast. And the food is worth concentrating on, actually; Crane cooked it, and apparently he’s into not only old-timey clothes (which Barnes is curious as hell about, but he can’t think of a socially acceptable way to ask So is this some kind of reliving-the-past experiment, or are you just way too into cosplay?), but also old-timey food. He’s done bacon and eggs in cast-iron pans and pancakes with actual lard, which Barnes didn’t think you could get anymore, and while there’s no toast, probably thanks to the recent toaster fire, there is fresh bread with jam and honey. It’s so much like the way his mother used to cook when he was a kid, before the Depression and rationing meant there was never quite enough of anything, that he lets Crane stack up his plate with a second helping, then a third.

“You are both going to die of heart attacks,” Mills tells them, eyeing their plates over a tragically healthy-looking bowl of granola.

“Probably,” Barnes says cheerfully, reaching for the coffee pot.

“Uh-uh, James.” Mills grabs the pot’s handle and slides it out of his reach. “No coffee for you today.”

He narrows his eyes and gives her the full Asset glare, momentarily forgetting that he’s a guest in her house. “Why?”

“The internet, in its wisdom, has advised Miss Mills that indulging in caffeine is unwise after a head injury,” Crane says. He looks sympathetic—he’s also got coffee, in a mug with the logo for something called Colonial Times on the side—but not nearly sympathetic enough to go against Mills.

“I don’t have a concussion,” Barnes says. “I just got knocked for a loop yesterday, is all. I’m fine now.” He’s stretching the definition of fine, given that the oversized hoodie that usually just hides his metal arm is now also covering up the swollen, black-and-blue mess of his ribcage and some ugly claw-shaped bruises around his neck, but his head doesn’t hurt and the double vision has cleared up. And even if it hadn’t, he should know what his own brain can handle better than fucking WebMD.

“Let a doctor check you out and confirm that,” Mills says calmly, “and you can have all the coffee you can drink.”

Barnes sighs, knowing he’s beaten. Okay, yeah, he guesses it is pretty suspicious that he wouldn’t let her take him to the hospital after a significant head trauma, and yeah, that does happen to be because he can’t risk anyone finding out that he’s a previously brainwashed ex-HYDRA assassin with a bionic arm who’s wanted for murder on multiple continents, but denying a man coffee, well, that’s just harsh.

“Speaking of last night,” he says, quietly, “what was that thing that came after me in the parking lot?”

The mood at the table changes instantly. Crane and Mills look at each other across the table, and he can see them trying to work out how much to tell him.But he’s been thinking about this, and he’s already come to some pretty interesting conclusions. Last night, he assumed the whatever-it-was that was kicking his ass had been sent after him specifically, whether it was a mutant or an Inhuman or just one of HYDRA’s garden-variety mad science experiments. But knowing that Mills and Crane have encountered things like that before? That changes everything. It implies that things like that one were around well before he rolled into this town a week ago, and maybe it was just a coincidence that he caught its eye before it attacked somebody less durable.

Of course, if it’s not after him, then that gives him a choice. Enhanced he may be, but he’s never claimed to be a hero like Steve, and he’s got no moral obligation to the citizens of Sleepy Hollow. He could hop back on his bike, ride away, and leave the locals to deal with their monster problem while he concentrates on settling old scores with HYDRA. But there’s one thing that complicates all of that.

Minnie.

“When I was with the Sleepy Hollow police force,” Mills says, carefully, “we used to get calls all the time that people had seen something crazy—a monster, a demon. Most of the time, we didn’t find anything. If we did, it usually turned out to be something perfectly normal, or maybe some kids out in the woods playing a prank. One time I got a call from a woman who claimed there was a werewolf in her back yard, and it turned out to be a raccoon that had gotten into her trash. Most of the time, a day or two after someone sees something they think is supernatural, they change their minds. They decide there was a perfectly normal explanation for what happened, and they go on with their lives.”

Yeah, Barnes has been half-expecting something like this. “So if I went to the police,” he says, “they’d probably try to convince me that I just had a run-in with, I don’t know, some local who was drunk or high or something. It was dark, maybe he was wearing a mask or a costume, and I got hit in the head pretty hard, so it’s no wonder I was confused, but the more I think about it, the more I’ll see that it was just an ordinary attempted mugging, and I should forget it happened and move on. Is that where you’re going with this, ma’am? Because I can tell you right now that you can cut the bullshit, if you’ll pardon my French. I’m a pretty damn good fighter, but whatever I went up against last night definitely wasn’t human. How can I prove to you that you can trust me enough to tell me what’s really going on?”

Crane and Mills look at him, then look at each other, and it’s Crane who answers. “It’s not a matter of trust, Sergeant Barnes—”

“I’m not in the Army anymore. Just James is fine.”

“Give up now,” Mills says, smiling for the first time all morning. “You don’t want to know how long it took him to break down and call me Abbie.”

“—It’s more a matter,” Crane continues, “of knowing things that perhaps, on reflection, one would rather not comprehend. Once certain aspects of the world are laid bare, a return to normality can prove… difficult.”

Barnes’ mouth twists. Oh, buddy, you did not just try to warn the Winter freaking Soldier that there are some things you can never unsee. “Yeah, but the thing is,” he says, “there’s somebody I care about who lives in Sleepy Hollow, and I’m not leaving town until I know something bad won’t happen to her—not if I could’ve stopped it. So whatever’s going on here, I figure we can work together, or I can get in your way and make myself a pain in your ass until you bring me in on the job.”

It’s funny, Barnes thinks, how sometimes people who’ve known each other a long time, maybe fought together, can say a lot without ever opening their mouths. He can see clearly that Crane is giving Mills an I told you look, and Mills is giving Crane an it’s your funeral look. Finally, Crane just goes for it. “The creature that attacked you last night was one of a minor order of demons,” he says. “It was most likely summoned here at the bidding of a powerful witch or sorcerer.”

“Summoned, huh?” Barnes takes another piece of bread and starts spreading jam on it. “Is that anything like how that Loki guy supposedly opened up a portal to space and brought all those aliens into Manhattan?”

Crane blinks. “I don’t believe I’m familiar with that incident.”

“I’ll fill you in later,” Mills says, in an undertone.

Okay, Barnes gets that Crane is a relatively recent transplant from England and all, but he somehow managed to miss the entire Chitauri invasion? He’s tempted to ask Crane if he was also cryogenically frozen in 2012, but he swallows the question and asks, instead, “So you two are… what, monster hunters in your spare time?”

“It’s a calling, not a hobby,” Crane says, getting a little huffy now. “We’re not amateurs.”

“We’re called Witnesses,” Mills says, taking a sip of her coffee. Barnes looks at it longingly, but she's clearly unmoved by his suffering. “It’s a long story. But, yes, it means we fight evil.” Her tone is still mild, but there’s an undercurrent that’s practically daring him to question her.

“Witnesses, okay. And this demon thing, how did you know how to kill it?”

Poor Crane. He was expecting a lot of “What?” and “But that’s impossible!” and now that he isn’t getting it, he’s the one who’s struggling to keep up. “We have an archive containing a great deal of research on the subject, stretching back to the founding of Sleepy Hollow.”

“So here’s the million-dollar question. Well, two questions, I guess. What was it after, and how do we stop any more of them from showing up?”

“As to the first, it was almost certainly sent to attack the Leftenant and myself,” says Crane. “A rather weak salvo on the part of our enemy, whoever that may be.”

Barnes fakes a smile, wishing he could believe that. Demon summoning was exactly the kind of thing HYDRA was interested in back in the day. It would figure if they’d given up on trying to find him through conventional methods and decided to dig into their Weird Shit files to find something to take him out. “And how do we stop it? Or them?”

“I believe some research is in order,” Crane says. “I shall go to the archives.”

 “Can I help?” Barnes says.

“Given your recent injuries, I think it would be more advisable for you to remain here and rest,” Crane says, and Barnes is pretty sure that’s a brushoff, but he really doesn’t have the first idea how you go about studying things that aren’t supposed to exist, so he lets it slide.

“And I have a real job to get to.” Mills stands up and heads for the door, but she pauses, while Crane heads off to another room to get his research materials together. “You know, you’re taking this a lot better than I did.”

“Yeah?” Barnes hesitates, then decides: she’s been straight with him, he can afford to give her a little of the truth too. “Maybe that’s because I spent a lot of my life wanting this stuff to be real.”

“What do you mean?”

“It means… well, when I was a kid, I had this buddy, Steve, who had real bad asthma and a heart murmur and a lot of other stuff wrong with him. He’d have to stay in bed for weeks sometimes, and he’d get bored out of his mind, so I’d go down to the library and check out a stack of books to read to him. He’d tell me to get adventure stories, anything with a lot of running around and fighting, but I kept bringing back Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells. I wanted stories where anything was possible—rocket ships, time machines, whatever. I guess what I really wanted was to believe in either enough science or enough magic to fix him so he’d stop getting sick and get big enough and tough enough that nobody would ever beat him up in an alley again.”

And you got it, too. How’s that working out for you, Barnes? Now the only dangers to Steve are hired thugs, robots, aliens, and you.

“And that has what to do with demons, exactly?”

“Everything,” Barnes says. “Because one of those guys who wrote science fiction novels also said that magic is just science we haven’t figured out yet. If I can believe in one, I can believe in the other.”

“In our world, magic is a lot different than science, James.”

Oh, really? Tell it to the Red Skull, Barnes thinks. Tell it to my friend the walking science experiment who pals around with an alien who people used to worship as a god, and a guy who literally turns into a monster when he’s pissed off, and a woman who… let’s face it, HYDRA might’ve made Wanda Maximoff, but I’m not sure even they have the first clue how her powers work. Next to that stuff, monsters and demons look positively ordinary.

Of course, as soon as he thinks that, he shifts position and his bruised ribs start to ache in protest. “Okay,” he says, “point taken. I won’t underestimate what I’m getting into.”

“Don’t,” she says, seriously. “If you’re going to fight evil in Sleepy Hollow, the first thing to learn is that what you don’t know can kill you.”

He nods, to show her that he really is taking her warning seriously. But then he thinks about one of those monsters—demons—threatening Minnie's safety, and under the sleeve of the hoodie, he feels the metal plates of his left arm shift and click.

So can I, Agent Mills, he thinks. So can I.

Chapter Text

Now

Ichabod Crane has spent the last four hours in a haze of musty books and dead languages, and even without a foray into the cryptic text of Washington’s Bible, his research has borne considerable fruit. This is precisely the sort of afternoon that leaves him feeling most content in this brave new world of the Year of Our Lord 2015. But all good things must end, and his current tranquil state of mind is destined for a rapid departure.

There’s no obvious reason for the sudden wariness that descends on him as he sets his foot on Mills’ back porch. Call it an old soldier’s instincts; Crane feels the hairs on the back of his neck rise and knows, intuitively, that something is amiss. The quality of silence in the house is somehow different to the tranquil atmosphere he left this morning, and it fairly begs to be broken. “Sergeant Barnes?” he calls, rapping on the door. Then he kneels and runs his finger along the sill. The line of salt that marks the threshold is intact, but it’s been trodden on, perhaps by a heavy boot. He draws his cellular telephone from his pocket, in case he should need to make an emergency call to the Leftenant, before he opens the door and steps carefully across the protective ward. “Sergeant?” he calls again, and this time his halloo is rewarded with a thump and a rapid series of scuffling sounds.

“Hang on, Crane,” Barnes calls out, with a distinct note of alarm in his voice. “Give a guy a minute to get decent before you come barging in—”

It’s too late. Crane has already stepped into the doorway and is regarding the catastrophic scene before him.

Barnes is on the floor, back against the sofa, with the medical supplies from Abbie’s first aid kit scattered across the coffee table. Bloodied gauze and medical scissors lie in a bowl with an alcohol-drenched, red-stained cloth. Barnes himself is bedraggled and filthy, with leaves in his hair, a streak of blood on his temple, and his clothing in a state of disarray to rival the kit. Crane has caught him in the midst of pulling the garment Mills refers to as a hoodie over his bared torso; he sees the splotches of purple bruising along the left side of his rib cage and under his throat, and also a flash of silver as his left hand vanishes into a pocket.

When his eyes meet Crane’s, Barnes rakes his right hand through his hair, scattering forest debris on the hardwood floor. “It’s not what it looks like,” he says, drawing back as if he expects another blow to fall—beyond whatever he’s tangled with today that’s wounded him already. Those bruises may be from last night’s adventures, but the hoodie doesn’t quite hide the smear of bright blood across his chest, and his pallor indicates that it may not be the only blood he’s lost.

“I beg to disagree, sir. It looks as though you’re injured, perhaps seriously so.” Crane kneels in front of him and gently tries to move his right arm, which is clasped protectively across his chest. It’s no easy task; the man’s muscles are strong as steel bands under his fingers. “I take it your reluctance to allow a physician to attend you is unchanged since yesternight?”

“Why do you Brits all have to talk like freaking Shakespeare?” Barnes rasps. “No, I’m still not going to the goddamn hospital. And I’ll tell you the whole story, but give me a couple minutes to patch myself up first, okay? In private,” he adds, with a hint of urgency.

“Nonsense. You’re clearly in need of aid, and I’ve some skill as a field medic. I assure you, Sergeant,” he tugs on the hoodie, and Barnes is actively pulling away now, fighting him, “you’ve nothing I’ve not seen a hundred times bef—”

Barnes’ blood-slicked fingers slip and the hoodie slides down, laying his left arm bare—or rather, not his arm at all, but its replacement. This is no flesh and blood limb, but a jointed metal casing of shifting plates of polished steel, replete with a blood-red star stamped on the shoulder.

Crane stares, profoundly amazed, for a space of perhaps five slow seconds, before Barnes breaks free of his grasp and pulls the sleeve of the hoodie back into place. He snatches a black leather glove from the table and slides it over the wrought metal fingers of the strange appendage, then turns back to Crane, with a glare that would test the courage of Gilbert du Motier himself.

“Okay, I realize this looks pretty bad,” he says, “but let’s be fair about it, English. This whole thing never would’ve happened if your girlfriend had just let me have a goddamn cup of coffee.”

 

3 Hours Ago

Barnes isn’t used to idleness.

Inaction, sure, that he can handle. The Asset knew how to be still in the field, crouching behind cover for hours or even days while he waited for the perfect kill shot. And even the part of Barnes that doesn’t share the Asset’s conditioning spent a good part of the last two years paralyzed by acute PTSD on top of a painful recovery from psychogenic amnesia (or at least, that's what he's self-diagnosed with some help from the Internet). In the early days after DC, any time he wasn’t actively running away from HYDRA, he was usually lying on the nearest flat surface, riding out the panic attacks while he waited for his jumbled memories to settle down in his brain and trying not to let them shake him apart in the process. So he knows how to be still when there’s actually something to wait for.

But sitting on his ass with nothing to do? That just sucks.

He’s finished his book. He’s done the dishes and straightened up the kitchen, because he wasn’t raised in a barn and he wants to do something to thank Mills for taking him in. He's texted Daisy, but she shot back, Busy :(, so he'll catch up with her later. He’s watched a couple of nature shows on Mills’ TV (daytime programming is a wasteland, but at least Animal Planet is unlikely to trigger any flashbacks; plus it’s a proven fact that anybody who doesn’t like meerkats doesn’t have a soul). But by early afternoon, he’s getting twitchy. His bruised ribs aren’t up for any real exercise, but it can’t hurt to go for a walk. Mills’ house backs up to a wide stretch of woods, so what the hell, he’ll go look at some nature in person instead of on a screen.

Once he’s suited up in four layers of clothing—probably overkill for late autumn in New York, but even with the serum in his blood, he doesn’t run as hot as Steve, and he’s damn well determined never to be cold again if he can help it—Barnes crosses Mills’ yard to the woods and shuffles through the fallen leaves until he finds a path to follow. Within a few minutes, he’s out of sight of any developed property.

When Barnes was tramping around the woods of Europe, he didn't really pay much attention to the scenery, not the way some of the guys did. Morita knew every bird in the woods by sight and by its call, and Dernier could tell you what every plant was and whether it was edible, useful, or to be avoided at all costs. But for Barnes, one little brown bird was indistinguishable from another little brown bird, land animals mostly fell into the “I won’t bother them if they don’t bother me” category, and trees were either background or things he could climb for a better sniping position. Now he thinks maybe he's been missing out. It's pretty out here: plenty of leaves left on the trees at this time of year, red and orange and gold. It's peaceful.

Trusting his decent sense of direction not to let him get too lost, he lets his mind wander. He thinks about Minnie and how glad he is to have seen her; how much he wishes he could’ve talked to Becca and Lizzie one more time, too; how Abbie Mills reminds him a little of Lizzie, with that shell of skepticism that can’t quite hide the maybe too-compassionate person underneath. He guesses it’s inevitable that he’s going to think about Steve, but he’s firm that he’s not going to dwell on that right now—especially not on the fact that, by his estimate, there’s something like a 40% chance Steve is jumping off something tall, with no proper safety precautions, at any given moment.

Nope, totally not worrying about Stevie at all. Congratulations, Barnes, I think we're making good progress on that front.

He’s gone maybe a mile into the woods when he realizes he’s actually pretty tired, which is weird, given that he slept like the dead last night. Okay, so maybe Mills was onto something with her concussion theory. Well, if he decides to give his much-abused brain a little extra break today, nobody needs to know about it. He finds a spot where he can sit down with his back against a tree, and closes his eyes, just for a minute.

He opens them when he realizes that he’s no longer alone.

In seventy years of operating as the Asset, Barnes can count the number of people who actually got the drop on him on one hand. (Two of them, incidentally, were Natasha Romanoff and Sam Wilson, and they were the exceptions that proved the rule: a person has to be damn good to sneak up on him and it doesn’t hurt to have a jetpack and wings.) So there’s one thing Barnes knows for sure about the man in front of him before he even sees him: just by managing to surprise him, this man has earned a place among the five most physically dangerous people he’s ever encountered.

“Hello, James,” the man says, with a smile that Barnes doesn’t like at all. “You have something that belongs to me.”

Chapter Text

Two hours, fifteen minutes ago

Barnes narrows his eyes and regards the man in front of him. He’s tall and slim, with narrow shoulders and sharp features, and he’s wearing a tailored suit with an overcoat and scarf, which, Barnes is not gonna lie, looks damn good on him, but is not the most practical attire for wandering around the woods outside Sleepy Hollow. His voice and accent are what Carter might’ve called posh, and the clothes say money and power, for sure, but there’s nothing in his build or bearing that makes him seem like a serious physical threat. “Sorry, pal,” Barnes says, “but I’m not your guy. This James, does he owe you money or something?”

The man smiles, and damn, that’s an expression that Barnes does not like at all. “You have spirit,” he says. “But you also have something of mine, and I will have it back.”

Barnes stands up. The last few months, he’s been working on deliberately changing his posture, relaxing his spine, walking like a civilian instead of a soldier. He’s been blending in as hard as he can clothing-wise, favoring jeans, Henleys, baseball caps, and, of course, the awesome hoodie from Jurassic World; besides the fact that it helps hide the width of his chest and shoulders, not much says “unremarkable citizen who has definitely never been sent to murder Captain America” better than a friendly silhouette of a stegosaurus. That’s for when he wants to seem harmless. But when the situation calls for it, he can turn that off like a switch.

All he has to do is imagine HYDRA putting him back in the Chair, and his body knows how to move like a killer again.

“Buddy,” he says, “I don’t know who you are, or who sent you, or what you think I have that belongs to you. But if you think you can just show up here and threaten me? Then boy, do you have another think coming.”

The stranger’s grin is startling, wide and wild and joyful. “Oh, I was hoping you’d say that,” he says, and Barnes swears he doesn’t blink, there’s no way anybody human could possibly have moved that fast, but the guy is already behind him and Barnes doesn’t even know the knife is there until it’s already hit bone.

 

Now

“So your first move was to pick a fight with a complete stranger,” says Mills.

Sitting in one of the kitchen chairs, Barnes turns—carefully, because he doesn’t want to pull any of the fresh stitches Crane put in him while they waited for Mills to get home; the guy wasn’t lying, he knows his emergency field medicine—and looks at her. It makes sense to tell them both the story at the same time, but damn, he wishes he’d gotten to practice on Crane first. He doesn’t like the way Mills is looking at him, ready to pounce on any holes in his story. No wonder the FBI put her on the fast track through Quantico. She hasn’t bothered to ask him the simple, obvious questions a regular cop would ask in this situation. Her questions are designed to get at his character, not the assailant’s.

“I didn’t pick a fight,” he says, knowing he sounds defensive and maybe a little embarrassed. Okay, so the Asset wouldn’t have let his emotions get involved and screwed things up so badly, but an occasional bad judgment call is part of being human rather than a HYDRA killing machine. “The guy was threatening me. I was just ready to defend myself, which seems reasonable, seeing as how he, you know, stabbed me.” He gives Crane a look that says c’mon, buddy, back me up, but he can see that he’s on his own.

“So all that business about how you were in trouble with dangerous people the other night,” Mills says. “And you didn’t consider running away or calling the police?”

You start running, they never let you stop, Barnes almost says. But he catches himself; that was Steve’s stupid philosophy, not his. “I already knew he wasn’t with the people I pissed off,” he says. “If it’d been them, I would’ve run like hell. But this guy, he didn’t seem like the type to get physical. I figured a little intimidation might get me out of a bad situation without a fight, for once.” He looks down at the gauze wrapped around his midsection. “Guess I kinda miscalculated that.”

“James, I am trying to trust you here,” Mills says, measuring out the words carefully. “But if you’d never seen this man before, how did you know he wasn’t sent by these mysterious bad guys you keep mentioning?”

“He didn’t fit the MO. The people who are after me know exactly how well I can handle myself in a fight, and they wouldn’t throw away an advantage just for some trash talk. If they’d managed to sneak up on me, they would’ve neutralized me before I came around. Then they might’ve beat the crap out of me, but not before.”

“Okay,” Mills says.

He can’t tell if she believes him or not. Well, that’s fair, he guesses, because he’s telling her an incomplete truth. Mostly, it’s because the guy called him James, the name he’s been using around Sleepy Hollow. A low- or mid-level operative would’ve addressed Barnes as солдат, because taking away his name reinforces their control, and anybody high enough in the hierarchy to know his real name would also know by now that it would get under his skin a lot more to call him what Steve calls him. That’s what makes him pretty sure this guy isn’t from HYDRA: because HYDRA never operates at, say, 30% of their asshole potential when 100% will do.

On the one hand, obviously, he’s glad HYDRA hasn’t found him. But it’s pretty fucking bad news if there’s a new player out there, because this enemy is completely unpredictable—and judging from today’s encounter, it’s possible that he’s as dangerous as all the heads of HYDRA put together.

 

Two hours, thirteen minutes ago

It isn’t a life-threatening wound—not on Barnes in particular, but it wouldn’t permanently damage an ordinary person, either. It’s a four-inch gash and it hurts like a sonofabitch when his lowest rib turns the knife, but the blade goes in at an angle that’s clearly not intended to puncture anything vital. Barnes understands: this is a warning. But the interesting thing about warnings is that they mean somebody wants you alive to cooperate, and that gives you some room to work with.

He makes a grab for the guy with his left hand, clutching a handful of jacket in the metal fist, and throws a punch behind him with his right. The move strains the freshly cut muscles (which he mentally upgrades to “hurts like a motherfucker”) and sends a gush of blood down his side—if this дурак has ruined more than half the clothing Barnes currently owns and the stegosaurus hoodie then so help him—but now he’s got the slippery bastard. There’s a thing he learned a long time ago, when he was just a skinny kid in Brooklyn trying to defend an even skinnier kid from guys two years older and a foot taller than either of them, and it’s this: if you’re the little guy in a fight, then you’d better be faster and trickier than the big guy. Because if the big guy manages to grapple you, he’s going to pound you into the pavement.

Barnes plants his feet and throws his assailant in a martial arts flip that slams him on the forest floor, also giving him time to reach for one of his own knives. He spins it in his hand as he strides purposefully toward the stranger, already lining up a nice kick to his ribs. No hurry now. The enemy is down, and it’s all over but the shouting.

Well, that’s what he figures.

He doesn’t count on the blast of—something—that slams him in the chest.

All the guy does is hold out his hand and say a single word that’s not found in any of the languages Barnes is conversational in, and with no sense of transition, Barnes goes from upright to flat on his own back, with the guy’s knee pressing down on his chest. That’s not even the part that has sudden panic rising in Barnes’ brain, though. It’s the fact that he is suddenly so. fucking. cold. It’s like getting shoved into a cryo chamber before the stabilizing drugs kick in. It’s like the time a scientist in the Novosibirsk base pushed him out into the snow half-naked to see how fast the serum would heal frostbite. It’s like the bottom of a ravine in the Alps, with the world spinning in every direction at once and a throbbing pain where his left arm is supposed to be. It’s all of those things at once and Barnes is so cold he can’t breathe, how, how is this happening, and he’s starting to feel the fear rise up in his chest again, his heart pounding and the world going blurry, when the stranger leans over him.

The stranger has a small cut over his cheekbone from the punch that should have knocked him out, and he’s smiling again, the smile that makes Barnes sincerely want to beat this guy’s face in as soon as he stops shaking. He leans into Barnes’ field of view, pressing his knee down, which only intensifies the developing panic when it cuts off a little more of Barnes’ air supply, and traces the flat edge of the bloody knife blade across Barnes’ jaw.

“The next time I see you, James, I won’t be so patient,” he says. Then the weight on Barnes’ ribs lets up and by the time he manages to slow his breathing enough to sit up and look for the stranger, Barnes is alone.

 

Now

“So that’s how I got stabbed,” Barnes finishes, resisting the impulse to add this time to the end of the statement. He really does have some shit luck. “After that, I came back here. I guess it took a while, and I fell a couple times,” because panic attacks will make you fucking dizzy even if you didn’t hit your head on a car yesterday, “but I got back, and I was trying to get the bleeding stopped when Crane came in. And that’s what happened.”

Jeez. They both just look at him, like his story hasn’t been absolutely straightforward. Then Mills says, “How many knives do you have on you right now?”

He just told them that some asshole used some kind of freaky ice magic on him and that’s her takeaway? “It’s perfectly legal to carry concealed knives in the state of New York. I looked it up.”

“That’s not an answer, James.”

“And you’re certain it was magic,” Crane says.

Is he fucking kidding? Twice in two days, Barnes, who not that long ago punched a velociraptor in the face and lived to tell the tale, has tangled with something that’s managed to beat the crap out of him. If it’s not magic, then things are looking bad for Team Stegosaurus. “Yeah. And I also think it’s pretty damn likely this is the same guy who,” Barnes never figured he’d say this out loud, but there it is, “summoned the demon that came after me yesterday.”

“That does seem the logical conclusion,” Crane chimes in. “But what is this item he’s after? Neither of you ever named it. In fact, it sounds as if the scoundrel was deliberately vague.”

“I noticed that myself,” Barnes says. He’s already cataloged his possessions and eliminated most of them. Beyond what he’s wearing, he’s got some clean… okay, clean-ish clothes in a duffel bag; five Gerber Mark IIs and one Bowie knife (he decided to forego bringing a gun on his trip to see his 83-year-old sister, but c’mon, knives); a wallet, a fake New York drivers’ license, the burner phone—all fairly standard stuff that shouldn’t matter to anyone but him. He bought the motorcycle off a random stranger from Craigslist, but he hardly thinks it’s the suit-wearing asshole’s kind of ride. That really only leaves one option, and he guesses he’s going to have to get it over with. “There’s a box,” he says, “on the dresser in the guest room. It’s… it’s some family heirlooms from World War II. My sister just gave it to me. Maybe there’s something valuable in it.”

Crane gets up and goes upstairs to get the box, which leaves Barnes trying not to twitch as Mills continues to study his face. “Are we going to talk about the metal arm?” she says.

Fortunately, he’s been rehearsing this part. “Accident,” he says. “While I was deployed. This is a military-grade prosthetic.”

“Could that be what your new friend is after?”

“Don’t think so. This one’s built for me, and getting it to work was still kind of… tricky.” Fitz told him, before they parted ways, that if he hadn’t had the super-soldier serum, he wouldn’t have survived the amount of fucking around HYDRA did with his nervous system before they ever put him in the Chair. Apparently, Coulson’s also had some kind of scientific meddling that made his body receptive to a similar fancy prosthetic—Barnes is both deeply curious about this and at the same time kind of doesn’t want to know—but for standard humans, this kind of tech is a no-go. “Besides, you’d need tech like Stark Industries has to make one, and as much as I don’t love Tony Stark, I bet he could design something better than this without needing to steal a prototype. Nah, it has to be something else.”

“Then why are you hiding it?”

“Do you like it when people see your scars, Agent Mills?”

It’s a shot in the dark that she’s carrying around, if not the physical damage, at least some of the same baggage he is—not murders, but mistakes, maybe. Regrets. Holes in her life where friends or family ought to be. And it’s necessary, because he’s practicing some Steve Rogers-level selective honesty here: he can’t tell her that he’s sure the metal arm will be recognized, that if by some miracle word didn’t get back to HYDRA that their lost cyborg killing machine had been spotted in the wild, it would definitely get back to Steve, and Steve would come looking and bashing things open to find him and then all hell would break loose. That’s the real reason even long sleeves and motorcycle gloves aren’t enough to make him feel safe, why he still feels like he has to keep his hand in a pocket as much as possible. But as soon as he says it, he feels like shit, because, yeah, when she lowers her eyes and clasps her hands in front of her on the table, he can see that he’s just poked an open wound, and he knows what that feels like too well to want to pass that pain around.

The awkward little silence continues while he pulls his shirt back on over the bandages and the glove over his hand. He’s checking out the back of the hoodie to see if it’s salvageable—he can sew up the gash in the fabric; it’s the bloodstain that’s going to be a problem—when Crane finally breaks it by coming in and setting Minnie’s jewelry box on the table. “Now then, shall we see what our villain intends to purloin?”

“Seriously, English, you gotta take that down a notch.” Well, it’s not going to get any easier if he keeps putting it off. Barnes lifts the lid off the box, sets it carefully aside, and spills the contents across the kitchen table.

He sorts out the photographs first, pushing them into a row with his fingertips, as if they might burn him. Mills leans over his shoulder to look at the nearest one. “Your relatives?”

“Yeah.” It’s the family portrait they scraped up the money for right before he went off to Basic. It was just going to be him and his ma and sisters, but he insisted that Steve Might-As-Well-Be-A-Barnes Rogers had to be in it, too, so there they are, his left arm—his real left arm—around Steve’s thin shoulders and his right arm around Becca’s, while Lizzie sits in front of them and Minnie sits on his ma’s lap. In spite of everything, they’re all wearing stupid goofy grins, even his mother, in complete defiance of the photographer’s attempt to make them look sane and dignified. God, does he miss them.

“Well, he’s handsome,” Mills says, with a smile.

“Oh, uh… Yeah, that’s the first James Buchanan Barnes right there. He went by Bucky Barnes, most of the time. Yeah, he did okay with the ladies. And occasionally the men.” Still weird, being able to say that out loud. Because he could never resist being an asshole, he adds, “People tell me I look like him.”

“Do they?” Mills studies his face. “Maybe a little. Hang on—Bucky Barnes? I know that name. Wasn’t that Captain America’s sidekick?”

Steven Grant Rogers, I’ve loved you since 1932, but if I’d known my reward for all those times I pulled your ass out of trouble was to go down in history as your fuckin’ sidekick, I would’ve just kept walking and let the Murphy boys beat the crap out of you. Well, at least she didn’t mention the—

“Yeah,” Mills adds, “I’m pretty sure he was the one they named the Bucky Bears after.”

Barnes shuffles the photo into a pile with the others: Becca graduating her nursing program, glowing with pride, showing off her cap and pin. Lizzie in a white wedding dress, next to some smug-looking little Navy squid who was damn lucky he ended up stationed in the South Pacific, where Barnes couldn’t get his hands on him—Steve had to talk him down when he got the letter, remind him that Lizzie was seventeen and full of the famous Barnes stubbornness and he probably couldn’t have stopped it even if he’d been there. It occurs to Barnes that, given his tendency to accidentally wreck, break, or bleed on his possessions, he should probably make copies of these and put the originals in a safe deposit box somewhere. The medals, too; Crane is eyeing those with interest, but he doesn’t think they have any bearing on the matter at hand. Neither does the silver cigarette lighter with the etching of the Brooklyn Bridge on it—he remembers Steve’s efforts to bully all of the Commandos into giving up smoking, him most of all, because those things will kill you, Buck—or the handful of pocket change in shillings and francs, or the razor, or the bullets.

He doesn’t look at the knife until he can’t avoid it anymore. When he finally picks it up, he uses his left hand and holds it out by the blade, offering it to Mills for inspection. “This is the only thing I can figure might be important.”

Crane, not Mills, is the one who leans over and takes the knife. “It’s not particularly old,” he says, as if that disappoints him a little.

“Yeah, it’s just an ordinary World War 2 trench knife. A lot of guys carried them, on both sides of the fighting. I never thought it was anything special, either.” Now that he knows knife fighting backward and forward, it seems even less special; it’s a shorter blade than he likes, not even all that durable, and the balance is crap. “I have no idea why… Bucky even hung onto it, to be honest, but there is one thing.” He points to the hilt, which is made of ivory, or maybe bone. There’s an enamel emblem set into it, red and black, just one word over a symbol Barnes knows altogether too well. “If there’s a thing with, uh, dark energy on it or something? It’s probably this.”

“Ah,” Crane says, turning the knife this way and that, inspecting the blade, the hilt, the blood-colored octopus. He sets it on the table and says, “And what, pray tell, is HYDRA?”

Chapter Text

August 1943

When Bucky Barnes went to war, he thought he knew what he was getting into. A lot of the guys in Basic seemed to think that the war would be like a back alley brawl, that once the Americans got there it would just be a matter of marching into Berlin and punching Hitler like that tights-wearing Hollywood moron in the films, then sailing home with a pile of medals. But Bucky has seen real fights before—not the kind Steve gets into, where his plan is to teach some bully a lesson and the bully’s plan is to drag out the humiliation as long as possible, but the kind where rage flares up fast and hard, where the object isn’t to embarrass but to maim or kill.

He thought he knew, but the war is much, much worse.

This is the hottest fighting the 107th has seen yet, and they’re winning, but the victory ain’t cheap. They lost Weaver on the ridge when a bullet clipped the side of his skull, and McQuarrie bled out in Jackson’s arms not fifteen minutes later. If he lives through this, it’s going to be his job to find something to say to Jackson about that. Bucky’s ears are ringing from gunfire and he can’t tell if he’s bleeding anywhere under all the mud, but he keeps his rifle up and makes his way forward, stepping over the dead and the dying numbly, as if it’s just a bad dream, as if he can’t smell the stench of human guts through the clouds of rifle smoke.

“Barnes,” somebody yells at him. Kelley, he thinks, though who can be sure, in all the noise and smoke. “Fall back. Get your men and go back to the rendezvous poi—”

Boom.

The blast knocks Bucky to the ground, and when he gets up, he can’t see Kelley anywhere. Shit. “Fall back,” he shouts at his remaining men, throwing them the signal for retreat, “fall back, fall back,” and for once he’s giving a command they’re happy to obey. Bucky covers them from behind what used to be the wall of a farmhouse before a shell hit it; then he follows, keeping his head down while he looks for the next place to take cover and regroup.

Christ, if Steve had any idea what he kept trying to sign on for. If anybody had told Bucky in 1936 that one day he’d thank God for Stevie’s busted lungs, he would’ve punched them in the mouth. But that was before Steve lucked into a cushy USO job stateside. It’s heavily classified, but evidently they’re feeding him well and sending him all over the country on the government’s dime. Bucky can read between the lines that the gig is far from perfect—best guess, Steve’s making propaganda and worrying about it being dishonest, God help him—and he’s already written back, with plenty of creative swearing for the censors to sift through, that Steve is to shut up, take Uncle Sam’s money, and enjoy the fact that for once in his life he’s actually caught a break. (“And for Christ’s sake, take one of those pretty dancing girls out on the town and show her a good time for me,” he closed the letter, not that Steve will, but he has to try.) The point is, Steve has no idea what war really is, and thank God he never will. Thinking about Steve safe and warm and maybe even socking away a little cash for the future—that’s one of the things currently helping Bucky sleep at night.

The other thing is his deal with Lenoir: if one of them outlives the other, then no matter how it really happens, the unlucky one’s family will get a letter that says I was there and he died a hero, had just enough time to say tell my ma I love her before he shut his eyes and went peacefully to his eternal rest.

But hell, here he is borrowing trouble, and he’s got plenty already. Matter at hand, Barnes: line up another shot on the enemy, fire, and fall back. Line up, fire, and fall back. Line up, fire, and—

He stumbles. He stumbles over a body, and goes down on his ass in the mud. “Shit,” he mutters, but then a bullet zings over his shoulder and he throws himself flat. The dead man he tripped over might’ve just saved his life, but there’s another German soldier advancing. The bastard is coming straight toward Bucky, who raises his rifle and—

Click.

Bucky is out of ammo. Shit, shit, shit, shit. He casts about wildly for anything that might save him. The dead man lost his gun before he fell, but something glints on his belt, and Bucky reaches for the knife just as a shadow falls over him.

The Nazi soldier’s eyes are flat and distant, but the hand aiming the Luger at him is steady. Bucky has exactly one second, looking down the barrel of the gun, to decide if he’s going to live or die.

At the end of that second, his fingers tighten around the knife’s hilt.

The battle must go on after that, although he can never really reconstruct it in his head afterward. Obviously, he gets back to the lines somehow, makes sure his surviving men are all there too. He must’ve reported to somebody and got new orders, because he knows his job now is to sit tight and wait for evac without knowing how he knows it. The first thing he remembers clearly is wiping the blood off his hands with a relatively clean cloth he found somewhere. He cleans the knife, too, without really thinking about it, and sets it on the ground beside his empty gun.

He’s mechanically going over the rest of his gear when somebody says, “Hey, Buck, stop and rest a minute, you’re making the rest of us look bad,” and he looks up and remembers how to smile. “Danny,” he says.

Daniel Lenoir sits down beside him and hands him a canteen, and Bucky takes a long drink. “Did Kelley make it?” he asks, between swallows.

“Yeah, took some shrapnel in the leg, but they said he’ll be fine. Probably get to go home, the lucky bastard. You seen McQuarrie?”

Bucky looks at him bleakly. “Didn’t make it.”

“Damn.” Maybe it’s easier for Lenoir not to think about it, too, because he reaches down and picks up the knife. “What’s this, Buck? We’re taking trophies now?”

The best and worst thing about Lenoir is how much he sounds like Steve sometimes. “Forgot I had it,” Bucky says, truthfully. Trench knives are a common thing; there are dozens just in the 107th, although until today, they’ve seen more use opening rations than in combat. The enameled symbol on the hilt catches his eye, though. “Hydra,” he says aloud. He’s discovered on this tour that he’s got a surprisingly good ear for languages—at least, he’s picked up enough Italian to charm the local girls when he wants to—but this isn’t a word he knows. “Is that German?”

“No,” Lenoir says, frowning. Lenoir was in college before he quit to join up. “It’s Greek, I think. From one of the myths, Hercules or Ulysses or one of them. Big monster with a bunch of heads. Every time they’d cut a head off, it’d grow two more back.”

“That’s messed up. Why didn’t they just stab it in the gut? That’ll kill most anything.”

“Mystery for the ages, my friend,” Lenoir says, handing the knife back.

Lacking anything else to do with it, Bucky shoves the blade through his belt. “I gotta find Jackson,” he says, and Lenoir gets to his feet and gives him a hand up. If their hands clasp for just a second longer than they should, well, nobody’s going to notice out here. Bucky’s so used to being the strong one: man of the house, sergeant, protector of little punks who can’t keep their big yapping mouths shut—everybody saw Steve leaning on him, and they never seemed to notice how hard he was leaning back. Lenoir is the first person in a long time to see how much Bucky needs somebody to look after him once in a while, even if all he can offer right now is a friendly face and a drink of stale water on the edge of a battlefield. “Hey,” he says, trying to put all the things he can’t say behind the words. “Thanks, Danny.”

“Don’t mention it, pal,” Lenoir says, and Bucky knows he understands.

He forgets all about the knife after that until he’s back at the base, stripping out of his uniform on the way to the showers. Then he pulls it out of his belt, looks at it for a long moment, and drops it into his foot locker, where it stays, forgotten, for a very long time. And a few months later, days after Steve pulls him out of the HYDRA prison factory, Bucky writes a letter to Daniel Lenoir’s mother, saying that he was there, and her son didn’t suffer, and that he died a hero.

 

Now

“James,” Mills says. “James.”

He comes back to himself with a start. The fingers of his left hand have clenched into a fist hard enough that one of the motors in the hand is complaining about it. Shake it off, Barnes, he tells himself, and says, “Sorry, I was… just thinking. Anyway, Bucky took that knife off a dead German during the war. Probably saved his life, but he didn’t carry it around for luck or anything after that. Never thought there might be anything weird about it until today.”

“HYDRA,” Crane repeats, as if the word is foreign to him. “I take it you’re not referring to the Lernaean monster slain by Heracles? In legend, the hydra was a beast with several heads, and if one was cut off—”

“Please don’t finish that sentence,” Barnes says.

“I’m pretty sure James is talking about the Nazi organization, not the dragon,” says Mills. When Crane looks blank, she elaborates, “Remember when we talked about World War II? 1941 to 1945?”

“’39,” Barnes corrects. “Germany took Poland in ’39. The U.S. formally got involved in ’41, after Pearl Harbor, but the war had been on for a while before that.” The fuck are they teaching kids in school these days? “And HYDRA recruited the worst and the craziest of the Nazis, which is saying something. Seriously, how do you not know this, English? I thought you were like the world’s biggest history nerd, what with the…” He gestures, taking in Crane’s outfit.

“His interest tends to end around 1781,” Mills says dryly.

Barnes snorts. Yeah, he noticed earlier today, when he was prowling around the house looking for something to read, that all Crane’s books seem to be about the Revolutionary War. The autobiography of Ben Franklin, in particular, looks like it’s been read to death, or thrown across the room a number of times, or both.

“Whilst I confess myself unsurprised that the Hessian appetite for magical conquest once again reared its head in the twentieth century,” says Crane, “I fail to see why such a simple weapon would be of significance.”

“Does it really matter?” Mills says. “If the bad guys want it, we need to keep it from them. James, I know this is sort of an heirloom, but—”

“Fuck that,” says Barnes. “If you melt that damn thing to slag, nobody’ll be more fuckin’ overjoyed about it than me.”

Crane raises an eyebrow at him. “Sergeant Barnes, I realize this has been a trying day, but I really must insist that you moderate your language in female company.”

“Sorry,” Barnes says, with an apologetic glance at Mills. “I meant, fuck that, ma’am.” Mills’ mouth twitches, but Crane doesn’t even crack a smile. Jeez, tough room. “Seriously, though, if there’s mystical sh—stuff going on with this thing, would melting it down take care of it?”

“I’ve got no idea,” Mills says. “I wish we knew more about either the knife or the man you fought. I’ll call Hawley, see if he knows anything useful.”

Whoever Hawley is, she looks not-thrilled enough at the prospect that Barnes says, “If there’s something that needs done, let me do it. I’m the one who got you guys mixed up in this.”

“James, in the last twenty-four hours you’ve broken a car window with your head and literally been stabbed in the back.”

Barnes realizes half a second too late that “Only a little,” may be the wrong reply when stabbing is involved. On the upside, their expressions are both pretty priceless. “Okay, fine,” he says, “I know what I can do. Somebody hand me my phone.” Mills slides it across the table, and he starts tapping out a message to Daisy. “I’ve got this friend who works for SHIELD,” he explains. “If our magical psycho buddy is looking for HYDRA stuff in this area, it could mean he’s gotten into the files in one of their old bases, maybe even that he's holed up and hiding there.” The odds that the magical asshole will be there are low, but the truth is, remembering Lenoir really, really makes him want to punch something HYDRA-related. Besides, Barnes kind of specializes in long shots.

His phone vibrates. Daisy has replied with several sets of coordinates, the nearest under ten miles away, and a single line of text: What are you up to, B.B.?

Nothing stupid, I promise, he lies. Thanks. Tell you everything over milkshakes later. He turns back to Crane and Mills. “If I check it out and don’t find anything, no loss. If I do, then among us, I bet we can take out any supernatural threats.”

“Indeed,” Crane says, “we can, the three of us together.”

“I’d like to repeat my point about the window and the stabbing,” says Mills.

“Do you really think we’ll be able to keep him out of it, Leftenant?”

“Fine,” Mills says. “But if we’re doing this, we’re bringing backup.”

“No,” Barnes says. “No, absolutely not. I know how to do recon and get in and out undetected, and you two know what to do if any crazy mystical shit gets thrown our way, but we are not bringing the FBI in.” The more people who see him, the more chance that either his face or his metal arm will be recognized.

“We don’t need federal agents, Sergeant,” Crane says, looking surprised. “We were referring to Miss Jenny.”

Barnes looks at him. “Your backup is named Miss Jenny?  Crane, if we find the guy who stabbed me, we're going to need somebody who can hold their own in a fight, not... not some Sunday school teacher.”

He has no idea why both of them just look at each other and start laughing. Oh, well, he supposes he won’t be able to avoid finding out.

Chapter Text

Destroying the knife turns out to be the easy part. As a former cop, Mills has a guy at the Tarrytown crematorium who owes her a favor (Barnes isn’t sure he wants to know) and can incinerate the handle; and as a first-class Revolutionary War nut, Crane knows somebody in the local reenactor community (Barnes is sure he doesn’t want to know) who has the right blacksmithing equipment to melt down the blade. When they leave, he puts up a token protest about how he should go along, but the truth is, getting stabbed hurts no matter how fast you heal, and he’s perfectly happy to stay home. There’s no need for Mills to tell him that he can either stay on the couch voluntarily or be handcuffed to it, and Crane’s resigned “Do endeavor to avoid further maiming until our return” is just rude.

Honestly, Barnes doesn’t know why people always assume he’s the troublemaker. It’s not his fault he keeps getting dragged (or drafted, or brainwashed) into fights he didn’t start. And if he needs proof that he doesn’t go looking for trouble, he can point to the fact that he’s following orders, lying on the couch and doing nothing more aggressive than flipping channels, when trouble walks into the living room.

He has a knife in his hand as soon as he hears a footstep on the front porch, but he slides it back into its sheath when a key turns in the lock. Neither thieves nor HYDRA generally walk in through the front door with bags of takeout food. And once he sees her—well, he’d damn well remember if HYDRA ever had an operative who looked like that. She sets the bags down on the table and looks him over. “You must be James,” she says. “I’m Jenny Mills, Abbie’s sister.”

Being seventy years out of practice, Barnes has lost a lot of his smoothness with the ladies, but usually he can come up with something better than just gawking. “You’re… not what I expected when Crane told me he was calling a Miss Jenny,” he finally manages.

“You’re exactly what I expected when I heard Abbie brought home another stray. Right down to the desperate need for a haircut.”

Okay, the hair. Yes, fine, someday he’ll have to do something about it. But he’s not ready to let a stranger near his face with blades yet, and besides, he secretly thinks it looks pretty good on him. He scowls, and she shrugs. “Brought you food,” she says. “Just burgers and fries, but I heard you lost some blood, so you can probably use the iron. And while we eat, you can tell me how you ended up here.”

Barnes makes a note for the record that on the one hand, it would be a terrible idea to get mixed up with an FBI agent’s sister, but on the other, a beautiful woman who's come prepared for action in light, practical tac gear, wearing a small arsenal of knives and handguns, has just offered to listen to him talk while giving him food and damn it, at least eighty-five percent of him is not made of steel. He tries to deflect: “I thought Crane told you my story on the phone.”

“Maybe, but between us, I start tuning him out after the second time he mentions Thomas Jefferson.”

“Oh, God, is he always like that?” Barnes reaches for one of the bags. “I have to give your sister a lot of credit. I can’t imagine having a boyfriend who’d actually go around in a historical costume.”

Yeah, yeah, brain, I heard it halfway through that sentence too, but it was too late to stop, shut up.

“Crane isn’t Abbie’s boyfriend.”

Barnes swallows his first bite of cheeseburger and looks at her. “Sure he is. Maybe the two of them don’t know it yet, but he’s her Steve.”

“What does that mean?”

Well, she did ask. “When I was younger,” he says, “my best friend was this really stupidly idealistic artist named Steve. We lived in kind of a rough neighborhood, and he was always getting in fights because he was out to singlehandedly right all the wrongs in the world. And my self-appointed job in that relationship was to to follow him around and make sure he didn’t forget to feed himself, or take any really bad beatings, or get so caught up in defending truth and justice that he’d forget to watch where he was going and fall down an open manhole.”

Jenny grins. “Can’t argue with your assessment. But between you and me, Crane’s still pretty messed up about his ex-wife.”

“Well, I hope he doesn’t take too long to figure out he’s got a better thing going now. It’s a fuckin’ tragedy when people don’t.”

“Did your Steve ever catch on?”

Barnes shakes his head, laughs a little. “Nah. He knew I was hooking up with guys some of the time, and he let me know it didn’t matter to him—and believe me, that meant a lot, because I had to be so careful, I couldn’t even let on to my family—but I don’t think he ever guessed that I thought of him that way. Hell, it probably never occurred to him that anybody might think of him that way. Maybe it’s for the best, though. The way our lives went, the fact that he’s straight would’ve been the least of our problems.”

He waits for her to say he should’ve told Steve anyway, but instead, she gives him a little smile. “So you only date guys some of the time?”

Fantastic. Now the former world’s-deadliest-assassin is blushing. Barnes has never been so glad to hear a door open: Abbie (which he’ll have to call her now that there’s another Mills, because he sure as hell ain’t calling her Leftenant) and Crane (who’s staying Crane; he can’t bring himself to call the poor bastard Ichabod), back from their errands. “Is it done?” he calls toward the back door.

“Yeah.” Mills comes into the living room and sets a mason jar on the table. There’s a lump of discolored metal in it, and a smudge of ashes. He picks it up and examines it while she and Jenny greet each other. So much for the supernatural threat. He thought that if there was some kind of dark energy or magic or something on the knife, he’d sense it somehow when it got destroyed, but then again, what the hell does he know about this stuff?

“So what about this bunker?” Jenny says, and he snaps out of his reverie. She’s ready to get down to business, and she’s got a point. “I’m thinking James and I should get close first and see what we’re dealing with.”

Barnes nods. “Best case, there won’t be anyone there but the guy we’re after.”

“What level of threat are we looking at?”

“I don’t know how you classify guys who can do magic,” Barnes says, baring his teeth in something that isn’t quite a smile, “but I can tell you this: he’s pretty damn powerful, but he’s not invincible. I got in enough of a hit to be sure of that. I know he wants me alive, so worst comes to worst, I’ll distract him and buy enough time for you two,” he nods to Abbie and Jenny, “to restrain him and you,” he looks at Crane, “to neutralize his magic—I’m really hoping you can do that.”

“I believe I have just the thing, Sergeant.” Crane’s smile is almost as grim as his own. However eccentric he is the rest of the time, he’s in soldier mode now. “And a place to secure any foe, once captured.”

“If this is a bunker,” Abbie says, “how do we get in?”

“Leave that to me,” says Barnes. “I know some HYDRA overrides that didn’t get dumped on the internet. If we can find the front door, I can get us through it.”

Abbie looks—not suspicious exactly, but like she’s trying not to look suspicious. “How do you know these things?”

The answer, of course, is that the loose-lipped HYDRA bastards counted on their memory wipes to keep their secrets instead of good old-fashioned not talking in front of the brainwashed enemy, but while he finds it heartwarming that they’ve royally fucked themselves over, he’s not quite dumb enough to tell the FBI agent that. “Classified,” he says. “But trust me, it’ll work.”

“I only see one problem,” says Jenny.

“What is it?”

“Is that what you’re wearing?”

Barnes looks down and thinks, Oh, fuck me. He was down to his last non-bloodstained shirt, and desperate times… “This was kind of a gag gift. I have this friend who’s a real Captain America fanatic.” Jeez, even to him, that sounds fake. “And I’m out of clothes that aren’t, uh—”

“That don’t make you look like an Avengers fanboy?” Abbie’s doing him the courtesy of not laughing outright, but just barely; her eyes are dancing.

“That don’t either have a big damn bloodstain on the back or a big damn target on the chest.” The whole point of the shield’s paint job, according to Howard Stark, was to trick enemies who knew better into aiming at it anyway. It’s just really satisfying to shoot at that big white star for some reason, and he should know; he used to steal it and take potshots at it whenever Steve pissed him off. Going into a fight with a “shoot me here” sign on his chest is asking for extremely ironic trouble, and he can’t borrow any clothes from Crane, because 1) they’re not remotely the same body type and 2) he really will walk around naked before he suits up in Revolutionary War gear. “Anybody up for some shopping?”

Abbie starts to stand up, but Crane beats him to it. “Allow me,” he says. “If I trust you to the Leftenant, I’ve no guarantee that you won’t return in what it pleases her to call the skinny jean.”

“James,” says Jenny, “I will give you a hundred dollars if either of you comes back in skinny jeans.”

Abbie grins. “Five hundred if it’s both.”

“If only Alexander Hamilton could be with us today to see the fruits of the Federalist economic system in all its glory,” Crane mutters. “Sergeant, let’s go.”

 

“You know, Crane, you’re awfully cagey about your past,” Barnes says, after a few minutes in the car, “but there’s one thing I know for sure about you.”

Crane glances at him—is that a flicker of alarm on his face? Maybe. Barnes was right; there’s definitely more to this guy than meets the eye, and he wishes like hell he could figure it out. “And what is that, Sergeant?”

“You might be from England, but you sure as hell learned to drive in New York.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You got some road rage issues, buddy.”

“Any sensible man would be enraged by blatant flouting of the laws of the land with regards to signalling before a left turn—”

“Hey, I’m not complaining, it makes me feel right at home. Besides, this is educational. I never heard anybody call someone a—what was the one before ‘imbecilic coxcomb?’ Slubbering something?”

Crane sighs. “Beslubbering maggot-pie?”

“That’s the one.”

“That was regrettably harsh. Although, while we’re on the subject, Miss Jenny has informed me of an etiquette particular to the operation of moving vehicles of which I believe you to be in violation.”

“What’s that?”

“I believe the exact phrase is, ‘Driver picks the music, shotgun shuts his cakehole.’”

Barnes snorts. Some people just don’t appreciate good rock and roll. Still, rules are rules, and he’s leaning forward to punch the off button on the radio when something ahead catches his eye.

There’s a man standing in the middle of the road.

“Crane, look out!” he yells, because he doesn’t know how the evil magic guy knew they’d be coming down this relatively quiet stretch of road—in fact, since Crane turned at the last intersection, there’ve been no other cars on the road at all—but shit, shit, shit, he knows this trick. And Crane sees him almost at the same second and slams the brakes, jerking the wheel to the right—the right thing to do, hell, the only thing he can do, and in most cases the car would fishtail and maybe slide into the ditch but he’d save the guy’s life, except this is a setup, as plain as any the Asset used to do, and before he has time to tell Crane any of this the car’s gone into a wild skid and what the fuck, there’s no grip under the tires at all, which would make sense if this were like that time he shot out the ambassador’s tires outside of Helsinki but that was different because then there was—

Oh, fuck, of course, because outside of Helsinki there was ice—

The car is spinning out of control, and Barnes is trying to hold himself still with his back pressed against the passenger seat, to trust all the great modern inventions like airbags and crumple zones, which won’t necessarily let him walk away from this unharmed but should keep him in good enough condition to fight, and then he realizes the bad guy is still standing there, just standing there like a fucking idiot in the middle of the road and he has to brace himself for something else now, the unforgettable dull thump of two tons of metal colliding with a human body, but it doesn’t come. At the very last second, somehow the guy just… blips… and he’s not there anymore. Jesus, he thinks, he wasn’t fast at all, it was just a trick, and all of a sudden it comes clear to him and he knows who this guy is, and he has just enough time to think, Oh, Barnes, you stupid son of a bitch, right before the car slams into the tree.

Chapter Text

 “This is Yolanda from North Star Assistance. It appears your vehicle has been involved in an accident. Is everyone all right?”

Barnes opens his eyes and shakes his head, a little bit dazed. He must be in shock, hearing voices coming out of nowhere… oh. No, the car just has one of those fancy alert systems that monitors everything. Fuckin’ future. He looks to his left and finds Crane slumped in his seat, unmoving. He reaches over and presses his fingers to Crane’s neck, doesn’t feel a pulse, swears, feels the panic start to rise, then remembers to unhook his seatbelt and reach with his right hand. The sensors in the metal fingers are fine for judging the pressure needed to pull a trigger, but it was never HYDRA’s priority to let him feel anything as fragile as a human heartbeat. The pulse under his right hand is strong and steady, and he lets out the breath he’s been holding.

“This is North Star Assistance,” the voice out of nowhere repeats, a little more urgently. “Are you able to respond? If not, I can dispatch a—”

“Yeah! Yeah, Yolanda, I can respond.” Barnes draws a sharp breath. “I’m gonna go find out how bad the wreck was. If you don’t hear from me in about five minutes, can you send an ambulance?”

“We certainly can, sir, but I strongly suggest you wait for medical personnel—”

No time for that. Barnes is already out of the car, slamming the door behind him and dropping to the ground. The car’s in the ditch, halfway tipped over with the driver’s-side wheels spinning in the air, but there’s space for him between the door and the side of an embankment, which gives him almost perfect concealment. He flattens himself down and watches through the space under the chassis and between the tires.

His gut was right: once the driver’s-side wheels stop spinning and the bent metal stops pinging and creaking, the asshole walks up to the car. Trying not to think about how many times he did this very thing to confirm kills in the Asset days, Barnes waits, listening for the change in the enemy’s breathing that will signal that he’s checked the car and found one passenger instead of two.

At the point of maximum distraction, he flicks his knife under the car, straight into the enemy’s foot. The asshole is wearing boots, but they’re flimsy ones, and the blade shears through the soft leather like butter. He feels gratified when he gets an actual yelp out of the guy. How do you like getting tricked, обманщик? But he’ll bask in the win later; now he’s already up and jumping over the hood of the car, bringing his left fist up for a roundhouse punch.

He doesn’t really expect to be able to land a hit that easily, but the asshole dodges like he’d dodge a regular human with an arm made of meat. Before he can recover from the first punch, Barnes lunges, grabbing the asshole and slamming him against the car with his right hand while he smashes his left hand into the asshole’s smug face.

He doesn’t even realize he’s screaming at the guy until Crane yanks him backward and he hears a click like handcuffs closing. Then he sees the asshole’s face change—well, in a different way than it did when Barnes was trying to break every bone in it—and hopes it’s the restraint Crane mentioned that’ll stop the asshole from doing magic. If not, well, metal arms don’t get tired, and it’d just be a crying shame if he had to keep beating on this guy until he passed out.

“Sergeant Barnes,” Crane says, laying a hand on his shoulder. “James. What’s got into you? I believe you were less upset about being stabbed in the back.”

“You’re fucking right I was,” Barnes says through clenched teeth. The bastard is drawing a breath to say something, so he shoves the side of his left hand into his mouth. It’s an effective gag. He feels the pressure as the asshole tries to bite down, and smiles. Then, when his teeth click harmlessly on metal, he starts struggling, which gives Barnes an excuse to slam him against the car again. “The one thing you don’t get to do to me is put my friends in danger, pal, and you’ve done it twice now. Speaking of, Crane, are you okay?”

“I’m quite unharmed, and the intrepid Miss Yolanda is making arrangements to have the car set to rights.”

“Good. So tell me: this prison that you say will hold anything. You ever put a god in it before?”

He’s just hoping Crane will play along, but Crane affirms it so quickly that Barnes finds himself reevaluating this guy yet again. Damn, Witnesses are hardcore. “The Leftenant and I have imprisoned a great many beings of power. Does this… person have a name?”

“Yeah.” Barnes shoots him a positively feral grin. “Ichabod Crane, meet Loki.”

 

Even by Barnes’ exacting standards, Team Witness has a pretty good secret underground prison. The stuff about Masonic symbols and wards and how to keep magical types from using their magic goes way over his head, mostly because he lacks a working knowledge of witchcraft and has no idea what a ley line is. But the part where there are iron rings sunk into the stone floor with ten-foot-long chains attached to them so a prisoner can be tied up with four points of restraint? That he understands, and approves. Nothing smaller than a Hulk is getting out of here without help.

Once Loki is secured, with two of the chains connected to shackles on his wrists and the others to a heavy iron belt around his waist, Crane opens a book and starts walking the perimeter of the circle in the middle of the cell. Barnes leans against the far wall of the cell and takes his very favorite knife out of its sheath. Intimidation tactics? Not him. This is just an extremely convenient time and place to run a whetstone along a blade that’s already sharp enough to shave with, that’s all. “What are you doing?” he asks.

“Adding a spell to counteract illusions,” says Crane, kneeling and tracing a few lines on the floor. “It would seem advisable when dealing with a trickster god.”

“Need any help?”

“Do you read Sumerian?”

Barnes stares at him. “Sumerian.”

“Yes.”

“No.” He’s not going to ask, he’s not going to ask, he’s not going to… “How many languages do you know, anyway?”

“At last count, twelve.”

“Bullshit,” says Barnes.

“Why do you find that unbelievable? You’re quite fluent in a second language yourself.”

“Sec—buddy, try five, and you know what else? They’re all languages I can actually go somewhere and talk to real, not-three-thousand-years-ago people in.”

“And yet, miraculously, none of them is needed for the task at hand, so if you’d kindly allow five minutes of silence…”

“Oh, no, please do go on,” says Loki, very mildly. “I never tire of contests of masculinity. Perhaps you’d like to find a ruler so you can simply measure your—”

“Shut up,” Barnes snaps. At least the interruption has reminded him what he’s really angry about. He sheaths the knife and walks up to the edge of the circle, giving the alleged god of mischief a good long look. He’s not wearing the sharp suit anymore; it vanished when they threw him into the circle, replaced by a long coat made of something that looks almost, but not quite, like leather, with trim that looks exactly like hammered gold. His black hair is matted with blood, but his face is less bruised and swollen than it should be, given that Barnes wasn’t exactly pulling his punches before Crane stopped him—and he was using a fist that has no problem ripping steering columns out of cars.

In theory, Barnes already knew that Asgardians are tough sons of bitches. HYDRA gave him a high-level briefing on them the first time they woke him up after the Battle of New York, although it focused on a directive to bring in any Asgardian artifacts he might find rather than on the Asgardians themselves. Later, after D.C., he went online and watched some of the blurry cellphone videos that included flashes of Thor fighting in the background. (He’d been working on a handful of shaky, half-formed memories then, and he’d only cared about seeing Steve, which had led him to focus on the street-level videos. Now he wishes he’d watched a few more of the ones people filmed out the windows of high-rises; if he’d bothered to get a visual on the mastermind behind the invasion, instead of scaring himself sick watching Steve almost get pulverized by alien footsoldiers, this week might’ve gone a lot differently.) But it’s one thing to see Thor swinging a hammer around on Youtube and another to have a guy in front of him who by rights should be in a coma, standing there calmly and snarking about dick-measuring contests.

Hell, if the guy hadn’t threatened Steve and killed a couple hundred innocent people in an attempt to take over the planet, Barnes might even respect him for that.

As if he senses the thought, Loki looks up, staring directly into his eyes. Barnes senses that this is some kind of power play and gives him only the blank Asset stare in response, but he still has the uncomfortable feeling that the guy is seeing more than Barnes wants him to. “What was the first time?” he asks.

“I thought I told you to shut up,” Barnes says, taking a step forward. Loki looks back at him impassively.

“You say I’ve endangered your friends twice. We were alone the first time we spoke. And our meeting on the road, by the way, was never intended to harm you or your friend, nor did it, beyond a few bruises.” Loki spits a mouthful of blood on the stone floor. “I appear to be the loser in our confrontation. So tell me. What was the first time I endangered one of your friends?”

A little alarm bell is going off in the back of Barnes’ brain: don’t talk to the crazy alien, not when you’re worked up and you might give something away. But the rest of him is just so almighty pissed off that he doesn’t care. “The first friend of mine you put in danger,” he says, taking another step forward, “was named Steven Grant Rogers.”

“Who?”

“Also known as Captain America, you Asgardian piece of shit.”

“Technically,” Loki says, “I was born in Jotunheim.” His eyes slide down to the shield plastered across Barnes’ chest. “How foolish of me not to recognize you as a personal friend of the good Captain, rather than a member of his… fan club.”

Barnes makes a noise like “Rrrrrrrgh” and turns away, raking his hair back in frustration. On the one hand, it’s good that this asshole apparently doesn’t know who he really is, because it’d be damn awkward if Loki told Crane that he’s a member of the Class of 1935. But on the other hand—preferably the metal punching hand—he wants Loki to realize exactly who he pissed off. “You know what?” he says. “The important message here isn’t that I know Captain America. The important message is that I know a guy named Phil Coulson who would love to get his hands on you. And you know what else, Loki from Jotunheim? I bet he has your big brother on speed dial.”

Barnes used to be the king of Brooklyn trash talk, and he knows when he scores a hit. A look of uncertainty crosses Loki’s face—just for a second, but it feels pretty great. “You plan to hold me like a child in a nursery until my brother comes to fetch me home?”

“Don’t blame me if you don’t like it, buddy. I’m not the one who had to start all this drama. If you’d just, I don’t know, pretended you were a collector and offered to buy the damn knife, I probably would’ve let you have it, but no, it had to be some weird elaborate scheme. Oh, and forget about getting your mitts on it now, by the way. We destroyed it.”

“Knife?” Loki says. “What knife?”

“Quit with the mind games already. It had to be the knife. There was absolutely nothing else in the box Minnie gave me that could’ve—”

“Yes?” Loki says, very calmly, when Barnes stops in mid-sentence. He doesn’t even look surprised. The bastard—he knew somehow. Knew they were chasing their tails, worrying about the wrong thing all along.

“The box,” he says. “It wasn’t a thing in the box that you wanted at all, was it?”

Loki gives him a long, slow smile. “Oh, things are getting interesting now, aren’t they, James Buchanan?”

Barnes feels his stomach plummet. “Crane,” he says, “is this place escape-proof yet?”

“It should suffice for the time being.”

“Good,” says Barnes. “We need to get back to the house now.”

Chapter Text

 Now

 Barnes bursts through the front door of Abbie’s house with a knife in his hand, and Crane is only a few steps behind him, but he already knows it’s too late. Loki’s not some second-rate HYDRA asshole who’d let any part of his plan slip if Barnes had a chance in hell of stopping it. He should have realized earlier that if the actual god of mischief got caught and didn’t even try to wriggle out of it, it was because he wanted to be exactly where he was. He set a trap, and Barnes walked right into it. And the worst part of all is that, honestly, the Asset would have seen it a mile away. While Good Guy Bucky Barnes was busy getting distracted, or angry, or cocky enough to think he’d actually won, the Asset would have calculated the odds, decided there were too many unknowns in dealing with Asgardians, and double-tapped him on the spot. The Asset would have finished the mission. And even though Barnes knows full well that the world is better off without the Asset, he can’t help thinking that the Asset isn’t the one responsible for the fact that Jenny Mills is unconscious on the living room floor.

Jenny stirs when Crane drops to his knees beside her, and a little of the weight lifts off him—a little. He wants to stop and triage, but she’s in good hands, and right now he can do more good elsewhere. He sweeps the rest of the house, fast and thorough, like the Asset would have done it, scouring every potential trap and hiding spot. The house is clear, but although the medals and photos that were in the box are still on the kitchen table where he left them, the box is gone—and there’s no sign of Abbie, either.

He punches the wall in the basement, with his right hand, because he deserves the bloodied knuckles for being a кретин. Then he heads back upstairs. Jenny is sitting up, holding an ice pack against the side of her head. “You call 911?” he asks Crane.

“The medics are on their way.” Crane’s eyes are very cold. “They’ve taken Abbie.”

“Figured. Who are ‘they’?”

“Big demon-looking things with horns, same as you ran into the other night.” Jenny sounds a little fuzzy, but she’s lucid enough to be mad, which is a good sign. She points to an ugly pile of dust on the floor—one of many, actually. “We got five or six of them, but they just kept coming.”

Which means somebody probably sent twice as many demon-creatures against two women who were in their own home, minding their own business. “This is my fault. I should’ve…” Barnes stops himself, with an effort. That road goes nowhere. He’s had his moment of wallowing, and now it’s time to do something about it. He sets his metal hand on Crane’s shoulder. “Hey,” he says. “Abbie will be fine. They won’t hurt her.”

“You can’t know that.”

“Educated guess. They wouldn’t have taken her unless they needed leverage, and things can go wrong real fast when you start hurting your hostages. They won’t want to take a chance on killing her by mistake.” It’s true: sincerely evil people operate at a surprising level of practicality—although, looking at Crane’s expression, he realizes he could’ve found a better way to say that. “Crane, listen. Take Jenny to the hospital and wait for me there. I’m going to get some answers, and I need to know you won’t run off and do anything stupid in the meantime.”

“What makes you think I would do so?”

“Christ, do you have a couple hours for me to give you the list?” The short answer, of course, is that Crane is Abbie’s Steve, and on at least two occasions Steve has acted like a complete fucking idiot to rescue his Bucky, despite having every reason to think he was beyond saving. (Which, incidentally, is on his short list of things to take Steve to task about next time they meet, because one of them has to start acting like a sensible person and it should probably be the one without verifiable brain damage.) “Wait for me and I swear on my mother’s grave, we’ll get her back.”

“Sergeant Barnes, I don’t believe we need any further help from you.” It’s the sharpest tone he’s heard Crane use yet—not that Barnes blames him in any way, shape, or form. “You’re already hurt,” he says, trying to temper the outburst, “and there’s no obligation to put yourself at further risk.”

“Crane, I know Abbie wouldn’t be in this mess if she hadn’t been helping me, and I know so far I’ve been more of a liability than, uh, then an asset, but I might surprise you. And I might not’ve started this fight, but that doesn’t mean I get to walk away. Just promise you’ll wait, okay?”

There’s an uncomfortably long pause before Crane says, “Very well. You have my word.”

Barnes leaves it at that; he can hear a siren in the distance, so he grabs the stegosaurus hoodie from a chair—he’ll just have to hope nobody looks at him hard enough to notice the blood—and leaves before there can be any further argument.

In the yard, he gets his first lucky break of this whole lousy week. Abbie must’ve asked someone to bring his motorcycle here, because there it is, sitting in the driveway, and his keys are in his pocket. He’s out of the yard and headed down the road seconds ahead of the approaching ambulance, and he kicks the Triumph into high gear as he heads across Sleepy Hollow.

Over his last few visits to Minnie’s house, he’s gotten pretty adept at screeching the bike to a halt in her driveway, because it makes her laugh and call him a showoff—which he is, obviously, but this time he’s just in a hurry. He charges up the porch steps and bangs on the door until she throws it open. “Bucky, what on earth,” she says, and the way she reaches out and puts her hand on his metal arm, as if he’s the fragile one, just about breaks his heart.

“I have a big problem, Min,” he says, “and if I’m going to fix it, I need to know exactly where you got that jewelry box you gave me. I need you to tell me anything you remember.”

“The box?” Minnie stares at him. “That old thing? It was just… Oh,” Minnie says. “Bloody hell.”

  

1958

“You’ll never defeat us,” the soldier hisses, through clenched teeth. “Cut off one head and—”

“Oh, would you please shut up,” Minnie says, and kicks him in the stomach.

It’s been a disappointing day for Minnie. Not that she wanted to uncover evidence of a legitimate HYDRA operation, of course. In her head, Minnie knows that HYDRA is as dead as poor Bucky and Steve, and it’s a blessing that this is little outpost is the home of a group of isolated lunatics who found one cache of Nazi technology and thought they could start the whole mess up again. But something in Minnie’s gut says that the real HYDRA is still out there, somewhere, lurking and waiting. And if she ever does find them? Well. Bucky shipped out in 1943, which means that Minnie is coming up on her fifteenth Christmas with an empty space at the dinner table where her big brother’s quick grin and endless supply of stupid jokes ought to be. There’s a part of her that would still relish the chance to show HYDRA why it’s a bad idea to mess with the Barnes family.

Minnie ties up the HYDRA pretender, scoops up his weapon, and slings it over her shoulder. She figures she has fifteen minutes before anybody finds him and raises the alarm. “I’m in,” she says, into her little handheld radio. “Heading toward the lab now.”

“Be careful in there, Barnes.”

“Careful is my middle name.”

“Your middle name is Winifred.”

Yes, and the SHIELD psychiatrists had a field day with the fact that Sarah Winifred Barnes goes by a modified version of her middle name. “I’m perfectly safe, Timothy,” she says, as she kneels in front of the steel door marked LABORATOŘ and starts jimmying the lock. Once she has it, she swings the gun down, pushes the door open, and bursts inside.

There’s only one man in the lab, and he yelps when he sees her and puts his hands in the air. “Doctor Ciernik?” she asks.

The man nods, but he follows it up with a stream of words that would be too fast for her to follow even if she was fluent in Slovak, which she isn’t. “Doctor,” she says, holding up a hand, “I’m Minnie Barnes from SHIELD. I’m here to help you escape.”

“SHIELD,” he repeats, looking startled. “Ste americký špión?”

“Sure, why not? Come with me if you want to live.” Minnie has always kind of wanted to say that. She gestures at the door with the gun. “Ponáhľaj sa.”

He tries again, but she’s pretty much exhausted her Slovakian vocabulary at this point. She’s going to have a word with the boys down in Intel who told her she shouldn’t need a translator. He’s pointing to a table; she goes over and gestures at it. “Your research?”

“Áno.” There’s a handful of machine parts lying scattered around an open wooden box, inside of which is an odd-looking… jewel, is the only way she can think to describe it, although it’s far too large to be any kind of ordinary gemstone, almost the size of her fist. It almost seems to glow from the inside, and Minnie is reminded sharply of Howard Stark’s stories about the thing they called the Tesseract. As soon as she puts that together, she recognizes the mechanical pieces scattered around the workbench, too. HYDRA loves their weird unearthly artifacts, and when they find one, there’s only one thing they want to do. The bastards have brought Ciernik here to build them a weapon.

“Okay,” Minnie says. She closes the box and tucks it into her backpack. “Don’t suppose you want to tell me what this thing is, do you?”

“To je duša klenot.

“I didn’t think so. Okay, Doctor, let’s get out of here before we get—”

The gunshot cuts off her words, and Minnie instinctively drops to the floor. Ciernik stands frozen, with his mouth open, for a long moment, while a red stain blooms under his lab coat. Then he falls, and Minnie finds herself raising her rifle and returning fire. A sharp pain lances through her shoulder, but she hardly notices under the surge of adrenaline. When the soldier in the doorway goes down, she leaps out from behind the lab table and slams the steel door, but Ciernik was a prisoner, not a guest, and there’s no way to secure it from the inside. Minnie is strong, but she’s small, and dragging one of the heavy tables over to barricade it will take too long. She looks around, sees the window, and uses the butt of the rifle to smash the glass. “Change of plans,” she shouts into her radio, while she connects the grappling hook from her belt to the window ledge. “Ready for immediate extraction.”

“Shit, Barnes, what—” Tim says, at about the time Minnie dives.

Minnie is in free fall for five awful seconds before the line runs out and she’s caught, sharply, ten feet above the ground. It’s close enough. She releases the line and drops the rest of the way. It’s a rough landing, but she pushes herself up and starts to run. In another minute, one of the SHIELD jeeps rolls up, and she throws herself inside. “Ciernik is dead, go, go,” she says, and she doesn’t have to ask twice; the engine roars, the jeep peels out of the yard, and Minnie collapses against the passenger seat, panting.

“You okay?”

“No.” Now that the crisis is past, Minnie is shaking. “I watched Ciernik die, Tim. They sh-shot him right in front of me and there was nothing I could do.”

Tim looks over at her; then he reaches for the dashboard and flips the radio transmitter switch to off. “Believe it or not, I know a little about what that’s like.”

“I know. I just—”

“This rescue was always a long shot. They never intended to let him out of that lab alive. If you hadn’t gone in, they’d have made him build their weapon and then killed him anyway.” Tim leans over and puts his hand on her arm. “The hardest lesson you learn in war is that you can’t save everybody. I had to learn it, your brother had to learn it, hell, even Cap had to learn it, and he took it hardest of all. But you got out, and you got us some valuable intel, and I’m counting that as a win.”

“I got a little more than intel.” Minnie takes the box out of her backpack, then takes the jewel out of the box. “I got this.”

Tim frowns. “Should you be touching the green glowy thing?”

“I have no idea. Ciernik didn’t speak English.” Minnie tugs off the scarf that was covering her hair and wraps the gem in it. It’s still glowing faintly through the cloth. Is it her imagination, or is it pulsing, almost like a heartbeat? If she concentrates, it’s almost as if she can feel it.

“Barnes,” Tim says, and then, “Minnie,” and then she doesn’t remember anything for a while.

When she wakes up, she’s in a SHIELD medical bay. They always have the same unmistakable smell of stale air and antiseptic, and whose idea was it that all hospital walls should be painted the same ugly greenish-gray? Her arm hurts, but in that distant way that means she’s been drugged. Tim is dozing in a chair beside the bed, and he sits up when he sees that she’s awake and offers her a glass of water, which she takes and drinks. “Minnie,” he says sternly, “I know you Barneses live for your reputation as tough stubborn bastards, but next time you get shot, you make a fuss about it. That’s an order.”

Minnie shakes her head. She’d been flying so high on adrenaline, she didn’t think to stop and assess the wound. Rookie mistake. “I’m sorry, Tim.”

“You should be. You got some nerve, trying to get your name on the Wall of Valor on your first mission. And don’t call me Tim.”

Minnie looks at him skeptically. “I can’t believe you actually prefer Dum-Dum.”

“I’m used to it,” says Tim Dugan. “It suits me.”

“Where are we?”

“London. The boys in R&D wanted a look at that shiny rock. Then they ordered us to forget we ever saw the shiny rock. That usually means you found something interesting. They sent your jewelry box back, though, said it wasn’t radioactive or anything.”

Minnie blinks. “That wasn’t mine.”

“Well, it’s yours now, if you want a souvenir.”

“Of that one time I got to do fieldwork like a real spy?”

“Of the first time. Carter’s already got another mission lined up for you once you’re out of Medical.” Tim gives her a serious look. “You’re going to make a fine SHIELD agent, Minnie Barnes. Your brother would be proud as hell.”

“Do you think so?”

“Sure. Once he got tired of yelling at you to stop getting shot at and picking up creepy glowing rocks, anyway. Get some rest, Agent. Tomorrow, we’ve got more work to do.”

 

 Now

 “Minnie,” Barnes says, raking his hands through his hair, “you’re my little sister and I love you and everything, but you are batshit fucking crazy.”

“Because I joined SHIELD?”

“Because you jumped out windows! Черт возьми, why does everybody always have to go jumping out fucking win…” Barnes can’t even bring himself to finish. He’s already pacing around the room, the metal plates in his arm whirring and clanking. “Duša klenot,” he repeats, determined to focus on the matter at hand so he doesn’t die of retroactive anxiety. God knows he had enough of that when he found out about the ridiculous shit Steve got up to as soon as his back was turned for a lousy seventy years. “Are you sure that’s what it was?”

“Of course not,” Minnie says. “It was decades ago, and I don’t have your knack with languages. Why? Does it mean something to you?”

“Not sure. Never got around to Slovak.” But it’s close enough to Russian that he can make a guess at it. Duša could be душа, which is… spirit, maybe? “I have to go,” he says. “I have to… I don’t even know where to start explaining. You’ve lived here a long time, right? You ever meet a woman named Abigail Mills?”

“Yes, the one who was the police lieutenant,” Minnie says. “I was good friends with the late sheriff and she was his protégé. She’s a wonderful young woman. I tried to get her interested in SHIELD, but it’s probably a blessing she went to the FBI instead. Why?”

“She’s in trouble. I’m going to try to help.”

“And this trouble is related to the box I gave you?”

“I’m not sure how all the pieces fit together yet, but yeah.”

“Is this likely to be dangerous?”

Barnes nods, because there’s absolutely no sense in lying to Minnie.

“Do you want a gun?”

Okay, that he wasn’t expecting. “Min—”

“If your eighty-three-year-old little sister offers you a gun, Bucky, you take it.”

There’s really no arguing with that. “Then yes, please, I would like a gun, Minnie.”

“And I won’t tell you to be careful, because you won’t, but don’t be stupid. You just came back, Bucky. It would kill me to lose you again.”

Barnes swallows hard. All this time he thought he was completely alone, and here’s this unexpected blessing, that he’s still got family. Well, besides Steve, who counts, but in a more complicated way. “Minnie, you didn’t really join SHIELD because of me, did you?”

“Not just because of you,” Minnie says. “Bucky, I used to imagine you coming home after the war. I tried to picture you getting a job in an office. Finding a nice woman to settle down with, one who you’d tell yourself you loved as much as Steve. Taking the train home to a little house in the suburbs, watching television at night, mowing the lawn on the weekend. Pretending you never saw or did all the things you did in Europe. I hate that HYDRA took that choice away from you, but if you’d gone that route, would you have been happy?”

Barnes has to think about it for a long time before he admits, “I don’t know.”

“Well, I tried that life for a few years, and I hated it. I was lucky Dum-Dum and Peggy gave me a second chance with SHIELD. At first I think it was for your sake, but I more than pulled my weight. Oh, I was livid when I found out we hadn’t rooted out HYDRA after all, but we still managed to save some lives and do our share of good in the world, whatever anyone says. I’m not sorry for a moment of it.”

“Well, then,” Barnes says quietly. “Dugan was right. If I… inspired you… then I’m proud as hell of that, and I’m proud as hell of you.” He wouldn’t be him, though, if he didn’t add, “But for fuck’s sake, don’t get shot at or pick up any creepy glowing rocks.”

Minnie swats at him. “Go on, Bucky. Go be a hero.”

 

“You do realize you’re a huge hypocrite who should be in a hospital bed himself right now,” Jenny says, when Barnes walks into her room at Phelps Memorial.

“Or so you think. Maybe I secretly have a healing factor, like a superhero.”

“Barnes, you are such a nerd.”

“Yeah.” He’s smiling again in spite of himself. “Even brought you a nerdy present.” He sets it on the tray table by the bed. It’s deliberately the most un-Jenny thing he could find, a little stuffed bear from the hospital gift shop, wearing a pink shirt that says Get well soon. He’s considering it another act of penance, because Jenny will never know what it cost him to voluntarily purchase a teddy bear, even one of the non-Bucky Bear variety.

Jenny looks like she doesn’t want to laugh but can’t help it, which was kind of the idea. “Why did you think you had to do that?”

“Well,” he says, seriously, “because I came into your life and caused your family a bunch of trouble. And also because when your sister was telling me about the whole Witness thing, she mentioned that when you two were kids, you tried to tell people you ran into something creepy and nobody believed you. There was a time when people did that to me, too—tried to tell me I didn’t know something I knew. Don’t take this wrong, but I think we’re kind of fucked up in the same way.”

“Wow. Are you always this charming?”

“Nope. You’re getting my A game.” He sits down. “Where’s Crane?”

“I sent him downstairs. He was driving me crazy, freaking out about Abbie.”

“And you’re not,” he observes. “Why not?”

“Because I know my sister. She’s tough and she’s smart and wherever she is, she’s not going to sit around like a damsel in distress. Everybody needs a hand now and again, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you get to wherever they took her and find out she’s running the place. Of course,” she adds, “she is my sister, so if you tell her I said any of that, I’ll deny it.”

“Yeah, I’ve got a sister who’s a badass too. When this is over, maybe I’ll introduce you.”

“When this is over, you can buy me a drink.”

He lowers his eyes and grins. Maybe he hasn’t forgotten everything he ever knew, after all. “Well, I think it’s only fair to tell you that superheroes like me can’t get drunk.”

“Shut up, Barnes.”

“No, really. I have a weird metabolism. Alcohol gets processed out too fast to affect me.”

“That,” says Jenny, “just sounds like someone isn’t trying hard enough.”

Has Barnes mentioned that he really, really, really likes Jenny? And he’s pretty sure she was checking out his ass earlier. Come to think of it, he hasn’t been on a real date since 1944. Maybe, just maybe, if the metal arm and the scars don’t creep her out too much… Well, just because he’s in love with the original paragon of virtue doesn’t mean he should never get to have any fun.

He makes his escape before he can mess up what might be the beginning of a good thing here, goes looking for Crane, and finds him in the hospital cafeteria, having a difference of opinion with a vending machine. “—how there can be no attendant for this infernal device,” he’s muttering, when Barnes comes up and whacks it with his metal hand. He doesn’t know where he learned the trick to that, it’s lost in one of the holes in his memory somewhere, but it works; the stuck item drops, and he fishes it out of the machine and holds it out to Crane. “Good call. The price of powdered sugar mini donuts is high, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”

Crane looks like he might explode at any second, not that Barnes blames him. “Is everything a joke to you, Barnes?”

Barnes has the impression that for Crane, dropping the sergeant from his name is basically equivalent to a “Hey, asshole” from anyone else. About damn time. “Of course it is,” he says, snagging a seat from the nearest cafeteria table and sitting down. “It’s called a coping mechanism. Kind of like being all British and formal and acting like you were born in the wrong century is for you.”

Crane is dumbstruck by that for a minute. Barnes doesn’t know why. He might be an asshole, but at least he’s a self-aware asshole. “No, I believe I was born in my right and proper century,” he finally replies. “A coping mechanism. Is that what it’s called.”

“Crane, I know this is chewing you up pretty bad, Abbie being… missing. So here’s the thing. I had… I have… this friend, I thought I was gonna lose him one time. No, I know you’re gonna ask me what this has to do with the price of eggs,” he says, when Crane opens his mouth, “but just let me say this, okay? We were about fourteen, and he got really sick. Scarlet fever. I guess it’s not that serious anymore, but Stevie was sort of the definition of medical complications. For all the close calls he had, that was the only time his ma ever got scared enough to call in a priest for last rites. When I heard that, I just… See, I hadn’t really figured things out at that point, I’d never even heard the word bisexual,” and wouldn’t until 2014, and wasn’t the internet just full of fascinating revelations that a brainwashed assassin who barely remembered his own name was not emotionally equipped to deal with, “but I knew that if Stevie died, I wanted to die too. I was never big on praying or anything, but I remember thinking, Just let him make it and I don’t care if he never loves me back, I don’t care if I go to hell for this, just let him stay alive and I’ll never ask for anything again. I’m pretty sure you feel the same way about Abbie, Crane. Well, I got my miracle, so I figure you, being a guy who’d take a complete stranger in and help him out, you deserve one, too. And I’m ready to kick ass and take names until we bring her home.” He takes a deep breath. “Anyway, I figure my next step is to go beat up on this Loki asshole until I get some answers. Care to join me?”

Crane smiles. It’s a little forced, but it’s enough to tell him that he’s got his second chance on this one. “I believe I could come to endorse that strategy with no small amount of enthusiasm.”

“Cool,” Barnes says. “Let’s go punch a god in the face.”

Chapter Text

When Barnes walks into the underground holding cell, Loki looks like the cat that ate the canary. “Ah, Sergeant Barnes,” he begins, then stops, as Barnes walks right past him to light the oil lamps on the other side of the room. He’s not kidding himself that he can actually put one over on this guy, but he is making a point, one bullshit artist to another. “So,” he says, as he’s striking a match to light the last lamp, “let me tell you how this is gonna go.”

Loki raises an eyebrow. “James,” he says, “surely you don’t still believe you hold any of the cards in this situation. You know by now that the woman has been taken captive. We both know you’re a protector by nature, and you’ll do as I say to ensure her safe return.”

“Well, you’re right about most of that,” says Barnes. “I can’t walk away from somebody who needs my help. Never fuckin’ could. But the do as you say part? That’s not really me. Especially not when you fight my best friend, mind-control some of his buddies, sic a bunch of aliens on my hometown, and on top of all that, now you threaten Abigail Mills. Do you know how rare it is that somebody wants me to actually take care of my brain instead of screwing it up even worse than it is already? So I’m gonna make you a counter-proposal: Do as I say, and you get to keep both your kneecaps.”

“And there it is, the shadow of the Soldier,” Loki says, mouth twisting into that little smirk that Barnes has been longing to knock off his face since the first time he saw it. “Barely back on the path of righteousness, and you already look for a reason to stray. Imagine the good Captain’s disappointment. I dare say it would break his heart.”

Okay, that one hit close to home, but Barnes is damned if he’s going to let this asshole see it. “Hey, I just gave you a chance to keep your kneecaps,” he says. “I never said it was gonna be me taking them.” And right on cue, Ichabod Crane walks in, steps into the circle, and takes a swing at Loki’s face.

This is the thing about good people, Barnes knows—people like Steve, people like Crane. Push them far enough, and they have to do something about it. Push a Witness that far, and apparently you get a whole new level of righteous fury. For such a lanky-looking guy, Crane’s got a mean right hook. “Hey, English, don’t hit him in the mouth. You ever tried getting answers out of somebody after you break their jaw? Everybody knows you start with the fingers.”

“An excellent point,” Crane says, stepping back. “Any one in particular?”

“Surprise me.”

“This is incredibly unnecessary,” says Loki. “I’m prepared to tell you anything you want to know without this sort of… crudeness.”

“Hey, I’m not the one who decided to become the god of being a needless prick all the time.” Barnes leans against the wall, opens the pack of powdered sugar mini-donuts he swiped from Crane’s coat pocket, and pops one into his mouth. Healing from stab wounds is a calorie-burning activity. “You tell us where you took Mills, and we’ll rethink this.”

“Speak for yourself,” says Crane. “I’m quite content to carry on.”

“I haven’t taken her,” Loki says, with what might pass for a casual wave of his hand if it didn’t make the chain clank. “I was here, in these shackles. But I know who did. It was an Asgardian enchantress named Amora.”

He pauses, waiting for them to be impressed. Barnes isn’t. “What’s she going to do to her?”

“The Mills woman has encountered enough of the supernatural to have gained some resistance to magic. Amora most likely intends to manipulate her to use the Soul Gem.” He does the dramatic pause again.

This guy, Barnes thinks, but then he puts it together. “You mean the thing from the HYDRA lab, the thing my sister found and gave to SHIELD.”

“It was briefly possessed by one of your interchangeable human organizations, yes. And when your SHIELD fell, a great many of their treasures became available for the taking.”

Jeez. Barnes has been so worried they’d notice him raiding a few HYDRA safe houses, when it turns out HYDRA and SHIELD both had bigger fish to fry. “What does a Soul Gem do?”

“It opens a way to Hel.”

Barnes’ mouth falls open in surprise. “Hell?” he repeats. “As in hell hell? Look, I’m not exactly an altar boy, but this is a little out of my league.”

Crane narrows his eyes and strokes his short beard, thoughtfully. “I don’t believe this man is speaking of the Christian afterlife, Sergeant. To the Norse, Hel was merely a realm, as are Midgard and Asgard. As such, one might travel there. And in that place, the barriers between the living and the dead are said to be exceptionally thin, permitting communion.” Barnes looks at him, and he adds, “George Washington’s Bible speaks of an attempt to cross into Hel and obtain information vital to the Revolutionary War effort. The attempt was unsuccessful and was quickly abandoned.”

Barnes has a shit ton of questions about that, but they’ll wait. “So this enchantress, this Amora,” he says, suddenly struck by how familiar this is feeling. “She gets her hands on this magic rock so she can open up a door to Sleepy Hollow and bring those demon things over to our side, and then she drags Abbie Mills back through it to her side to do some dirty work for her.”

“Precisely,” says Loki.

“And the box? What did that have to do with it?”

“The box is made of the wood of Yggdrasil, the World’s Tree. It was made to contain and control the power of an Infinity Stone.” He gives Barnes a mildly disgusted look. “And your sister kept trinkets in it.”

“You do not bring my sister into this, asshole. I’ve beat up bigger guys than you over how they treated my sisters and that was before I had a metal arm.” Barnes closes his eyes and forces himself to take a slow breath. “This Amora character, what’s her end game? Is it what you did? Bring enough of those demon things here to conquer the earth, the way you tried to do by bringing about a billion blue alien things here to conquer the earth?”

“Something along those lines, I imagine,” Loki says.

“What is it with you Asgardian types and earth, anyway? Aren’t there supposed to be like six realms or something? Why you gotta bother us all the time?”

“Midgard would have been no small prize for me,” Loki says. “It will be a greater prize for Amora.”

Something about the way he says the name catches Barnes’ attention. He looks hard at Loki’s face, and then it all falls into place in his head. “Amora’s got something personal against you,” he says. “She wants to succeed where you failed, but why would… Oh, for shit’s sake. Are you motherfucking Asgardians seriously fucking up a bunch of human people’s lives because of some kind of jilted lover thing?”

“I wouldn’t put it in those terms.”

“Did you dump her or did she dump you?”

“That’s hardly relevant.”

“Loki and Amora,” Barnes chants, taking another donut out of the wrapper. “Sittin’ in a tree. K-I-S-S-I—”

“I see that humans are capable of the same level of maturity as my brother,” Loki says, but his face is getting red. And really, Barnes isn’t only doing it to be a dick; intel is intel, and he wants to get under Loki’s skin for the same reason Loki attacked Barnes—to make him mad enough to fuck up and give something away. To that end, sometimes the twelve-year-old approach is the best approach.

“So when you found out this woman was gonna beat you at your own conquering-the-earth game, you couldn’t handle it, and you decided to come here and take the box. Look, not that I’m advocating this, but why didn’t you just steal it from Minnie?”

“The box remains hidden until it is opened. It hadn’t been in some time. And you, James Buchanan Barnes—” Loki runs his eyes up and down Barnes’ body in a way that’s somehow amused and calculating at the same time. Hell, it might actually be kind of hot if Loki wasn’t a fucking genocidal maniac. “You were an unexpected bonus. Once I encountered the Winter Soldier, a change of plans was in order.”

Barnes cuts his eyes toward Crane, wondering if the guy is making anything of either his real name or his code name, but Crane’s putting up a pretty good poker face on this one. “Change of plans,” he repeats.

“Previously, I would have had to mount a difficult and dangerous attack against Amora to win the Soul Gem alone. Now Amora has the box, the gem, and the woman. I require the first two. You require the third.”

“So you’ll help us find Abbie and bring her home if we steal some shit for you on the way.”

“This may be the first time in all of the Nine Realms that a quest for an Infinity Stone has been referred to as ‘stealing some shit,’ but essentially, yes.”

“Let’s talk terms, then. At the very least, I want all the intel you got on the gem and on this Amora dame. And I hope you’re not expecting anything subtle, because if you know who the Winter Soldier is, you know what I’m good at is smash-and-grabs and explosions, not cat burglary.”

“Sergeant,” says Crane, “you’re not considering making a deal with this despicable creature.”

Barnes sighs. “I don’t see where we got a choice, my friend. Unless you got a way to get to Hel and,” he adds, when Crane takes a breath to answer, “also know exactly what we’ll be up against once we get there.”

“You’ll have the information you require,” Loki says. “As to subtlety, I very much intend the enchantress to know that I was behind this. And rest assured that I would be the focus of any retribution. Most Asgardians wouldn’t consider a Midgardian worth their time.”

“Big talk from the guy who got chained up by Midgardians a couple hours ago.”

“Unlike Amora, I believe you mortals have your uses.”

“Stop it, you’re making me blush. Okay, I have what I need. Crane, you and me, outside, now.”

He makes Crane go all the way back to ground level, outside the bunker, with a sealed door between them and Loki, just in case the guy has super-hearing or something. As the door shuts, he cuts off Crane’s opening line with, “I know, buddy, I don’t like it either. In fact, I think it stinks to high heaven.”

“That was, indeed, about to be my objection, if perhaps less colorfully phrased. If this gem is such a prize, what does that vile creature believe will prevent us from double-crossing him and seizing the power for ourselves? Especially if he believes that Abbie…”

Crane’s been putting up a good front till now, but his voice breaks a little on that. Barnes puts his metal hand on Crane’s shoulder. “What I said before still stands. They won’t want to hurt her if they plan to use her. We’ll gear up and get there as fast as we can, we’ll get her back, and then we will figure out a way to double-cross Loki. Remember, I can still call his big brother. Which… actually, maybe we should call him now. I bet this Amora person is no friend of his. Maybe he’d help us.”

Crane thinks about it, then shakes his head. “From what I’ve heard of Thor, involving him could further imperil Abbie. It goes against the grain, Sergeant, but I believe you’re right. We have to ally ourselves with that loathsome creature. We have no choice. Although one grows weary of allies one feels one cannot fully trust.”

Oh, shit. He’s looking at Barnes a little too hard. “You picked up on that Winter Soldier thing.”

“Being not entirely witless, I did. Do you care to explain?”

Barnes really, really doesn’t want to open up that can of worms right now. “It was my code name when I did black ops,” he says. “I don’t know how Loki knows about it. I did some stuff that… The important thing is, I don’t do it anymore.”

Crane looks at him for so long that he almost starts to squirm like he did the time he and Steve got caught stealing the pie his ma was saving for the church bake sale. Then he says, “Very well. I trust you, Sergeant,” and holds out his hand.

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“Okay. Then let’s go get your girlfriend back already.”

 

The only vehicle that will hold three people, all the weapons Barnes and Crane could dredge up on short notice (which is a lot of weapons, between them), and the camping gear that Loki has assured them they’re going to need for the assault on Amora’s mountain fortress (fortress, he actually used the fucking word fortress) is Jenny’s, and Barnes doesn’t know how to start it.

Seriously. He called her and got her permission (“Try not to hit any gods this time,” she said, and has Barnes mentioned that he really likes that lady), but there’s no actual key on the key ring, just one of those electronic fob things. When the hell did all cars turn into computers? And how the hell is any kid supposed to spend the weekend in the garage, helping his dad rebuild one of these things and making the memories that said kid is going to need when he’s only sixteen and his dad unexpectedly kicks off and he suddenly has to be the man of the house?

Well, there’s a pushbutton beside the steering wheel that says IGNITION, so at least that’s something. He pushes it, and nothing happens.

“What,” says Barnes. He pushes it again, and nothing continues to happen, loudly. “Fuck me with a chainsaw,” he mutters. “Crane, how do I start this thing?”

“The button isn’t working?” says Crane, looking startled.

“No, the button is working fine, I’m just asking for my health. Of course the button isn’t working!”

“Press it gently,” says Loki, from the back seat.

“I am pressing it gently!” Barnes says, giving it a whack. He swears, he can almost hear Loki roll his eyes.

“Perhaps we should consult the manual,” Crane says.

“Perhaps cars need to be less fucking complicated,” Barnes snaps, stomping his foot on the brake as he gives the button another thump, and suddenly the engine roars to life. “Oh. Well, that was stupid. And don’t even think about saying it,” he says, glaring at Loki in the rearview mirror.

This is, admittedly, not the most auspicious start to a mission.

Their destination is the HYDRA base out in the woods, and at least Barnes gets to feel momentarily vindicated that he was on the right track with his idea of beginning the Loki-hunt there. It’s apparently at a convergence of these things called ley lines that Crane and Loki have both mentioned (that still sounds fake, Barnes thinks, but okay), and the HYDRA asshats of the SHIELD-infiltration era were apparently trying to draw on those to open up their own portal—like the portal Loki’s going to make to Asgard, only they were probably trying to reach something much worse on the other side. Regardless, the base is abandoned now, and after a couple of minutes of tinkering with the emergency override on the blast doors, which date from an era when everything was still blessedly mechanical, Barnes gets them to slide open.

A chill runs down his spine when he looks into the dark entrance, and he shakes it off, telling himself that this mission is about Abbie Mills, not for James Buchanan Barnes, and he can deal with his PTSD on his own time. “You got the lanterns?” he asks, and Crane hands him one: another old-fashioned oil lamp like the ones from the cell. Okay, now he’s out of excuses. With a backpack full of supplies on his shoulders, a rifle slung across his back, Minnie’s service pistol in a holster at his belt, and Crane following closely behind him (and keeping a death grip on Loki’s chains while he does), Barnes leads the way underground.

It’s cold in the base, and the air is stale, and Barnes walks briskly, keeping his head up and scanning for tripwires or sensors or klaxons that could go off at any second, but the worst thing that happens is that he startles a bunch of bats with his light. There’s a tense moment in there when he freezes and stays frozen even when the flapping has cleared out, and the other two probably have no idea how close to catatonic it leaves him, but he manages to put one foot in front of the other again. Somehow or other, they finally reach their destination: the nerve center of the HYDRA base, the control room, where most of one wall is taken up with a bank of computers and most of the far wall is some kind of odd metal framework, with a roughly human-sized gap in the middle. “Portal?” he asks, pointing at it.

“Portal,” Loki confirms.

“Okay, activate it.” Before he chickens out, he hopes; this place… this place is really fucking with his head. He’s busted up other HYDRA bases since D.C., but this one just has a bad vibe to it that he can’t put his finger on.

“This will take time,” Loki says, “and would be considerably easier if you were to free my hands.”

“Uh-uh. In fact, thanks for the reminder.” Barnes reaches out, grabs the chain between the shackles on Loki’s wrists, and loops it around the nearest thing, which happens to be a heavy desk with a scattering of curled, waterstained papers on it. He slides a padlock through the links and snaps it shut before Loki has time to pull away, even with his Asgardian reflexes. “Insurance,” he says.

“And if you do something idiotic and get yourself killed in Amora’s fortress, I’m to stay down here and starve to death, I suppose,” Loki says.

“Don’t be melodramatic. I’m sure you know how to call your dad or your brother if you get really worried about that,” Barnes says. Frankly, though, it’s a risk he’s more than willing to take. “Less talking, more portal-opening.”

Loki sighs, then spreads his hands as far as the chains will allow, and Barnes feels the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. There’s a green glow inside the portal structure, widening out gradually into a fog, and then—“Fascinating,” says Crane, as Asgard slides into view.

Well, Barnes assumes Asgard, anyway. It looks like a fairly ordinary hillside covered in trees to him, but what the fuck does he know? “So how does this work?” he asks. “This portal stays open until we come back, right?”

“It will be more direct for you to open your own way home with the Soul Gem, which either of the Witnesses should be able to do easily,” says Loki.

“Mm. And if we can’t get it for some reason, we’re just fucked sideways, then?”

“What colorful expressions you people have,” Loki says flatly.

Well, it’s not like that changes anything, Barnes supposes. They won’t be able to force Loki to do anything, once they’re through. “Okay, let me try it first—” he begins, and then he says, “Fuck!” because Crane is already halfway through the portal.

There’s no appearance of transition; he just lifts his boot over the metal frame and sets it down in Asgard. Barnes doesn’t stop to think; he just jumps through after him, because he doesn’t trust Loki not to have some kind of trick in mind that will separate them or otherwise make this harder somehow. But his boots hit soft earth just a few yards behind Crane, who’s walking so fast that Barnes jogs a few steps to catch up with him.

“Crane,” he calls. “Crane, wait the fuck up. Do you even know where you’re going?”

“To high ground, first, to look for this enchantress’s fortress, and thence to the fortress itself,” Crane says, as if this is the most obvious thing in the world.

“Jesus, you really are Steve Rogers’ identical twin, you know that? Has it occurred to you that we have to be careful? We just walked into a different world, Crane, and we’re in the middle of enemy territory that belongs to somebody we know next to nothing about. We don’t even know whether she has any patrols in these woods, or what they’ll look like if she does. At least let me go ahead and scout so we don’t walk straight into an ambush—”

Given the way Barnes’ luck runs these days, he supposes he shouldn’t bother pretending he’s surprised that the exact second he says the word, he hears the unmistakable click of a rifle safety being removed, probably three feet behind his head.

“Turn around slowly and put your hands up,” says a voice, and Barnes’ entire body goes cold.

It can’t be. It can’t be. It’s not possible.

He hasn’t heard that voice in over seventy years.

He puts his hands up and turns around to find Jim Morita aiming a rifle at his heart.

Chapter Text

Now

“Jim Morita, you son of a bitch,” Barnes says, his face lighting up with delight—until Morita takes a step back and recenters the rifle.

“So help me, Barnes, you come one step closer and you’re losing a kneecap. Let’s see your super-soldier serum powers bounce you back from that.”

Saying that the bottom has just dropped out of Barnes’ world would be an understatement.

“Sergeant,” Crane says beside him, while he slowly raises his hands, “I believe your promised explanation has become a matter of urgency.”

“Yeah, ya think, English?” Barnes hisses, but then Morita gives the whistle—the whistle, the Commandos’ signal that Dernier always insisted sounded like some French songbird only he had ever heard of, Barnes hasn’t thought about it in seventy years—and there’s more movement in the brush: speak of the devil, there’s Dernier, with a wolfish grin that makes him look like an even crazier bastard than usual, and Falsworth and Jones with their weapons up, and Barnes can’t believe it because these are his guys, his team, his Commandos as much as they were ever Steve’s, and he loved them and thought they loved him back. “I don’t understand,” he says, but of course, he’s pretty sure he does.

Somehow, they must know what he did. Who he was. These were the best friends he ever had in his life besides Steve, and some of the things he told them in the prison camp—because none of them expected to walk out of Kreichsberg, and he was pretty sure he was going to be the first to go, so he figured, why not unburden his fuckin' soul and tell the whole entire truth for once?—are things that even Steve doesn’t know. And he's not just talking about being in love with Steve, either. He's talking about the war, the damage, the way that when he killed those sonsabitches HYDRA operatives, it felt good, felt right. The Howling Commandos are a group of guys he can’t bullshit, and he can’t tell them he was a good guy before HYDRA got him because they were there, and they all saw how close he was to cracking a long time before he took that ill-fated train trip through the Alps.

HYDRA pushed him over the edge, sure. But the Commandos, they know it wasn’t that big a push. They know how little it took to turn him into a killing machine.

“Jesus Christ, Barnes,” Morita says abruptly, “do you know what you did to us, going and dying like that? Much less what you did to Rogers, for chrissakes.”

What?

“What?” Crane says, unwittingly echoing the voice in his head.

“I had to pull Steve back onto that train after you fell, you jackass,” Gabe Jones says. “Do you have any idea how heavy the guy is? I thought he was going to try to jump after you and take me right down with him. Guess I should feel lucky he hung there like a sack of cement and made me do all the heavy lifting.”

“Steve gave me your rifle,” says Falsworth. “He said, ‘Monty, you’re the best shot in the unit now. Bucky would have wanted you to have this.’ Don’t talk to me about weight, Gabriel, not when I had to haul this bloody thing around for the rest of the war.”

“I… don’t… understand,” Barnes says.

“Quand il pensait que vous étiez mort, Rogers était si misérable qu'il a essayé de se saouler,” says Dernier. “Il a bu tout le whisky qui a été laissé à Londres, et il ne partage pas une goutte avec nous, même si elle a été gaspillé sur lui parce qu'il savait qu'il ne pouvait pas se saouler. Ce fut un acte monstrueux de la dépravation et la cruauté envers le soldat.”

Okay. Barnes gets it. “You guys are fucking with me,” he says. “I haven’t seen you guys in seventy years and you sons of bitches are actually fucking with me. Fine. Go ahead, Dugan,” he calls out into the empty air, spreading his arms wide. “You know you want to get it over with.”

Sure enough, something soft smacks him in the back of the head, and bounces off, and he turns around, kneels down, and picks up the absolutely fucking inevitable Bucky Bear doll.

“I hate you all so much right now,” Barnes says, pulling a knife out of his utility belt. He positions the blade under the bear’s arm, then pulls it upward in one clean slide that severs the arm at the shoulder joint. He turns around, whips it back at Dugan, and says, “There we go. Now it’s a Bucky Bear.”

There’s a brief, stunned silence, and then every one of the Howling Commandos cracks up at the same time. Barnes is laughing too, but for a different reason. Thank God, thank God, he doesn’t know how they can possibly love him in spite of everything, but somehow, they do. It’s a damn good thing Morita steps forward and pulls him into a hug, because his knees have gone weak with relief. “I thought you guys would hate me,” he says.

“We just told you how much we hate you, Barnes,” Morita says, but he’s laughing while he says it. “Why’d you think anything was gonna be any different than it ever was before?”

“Oh, I dunno, because if you’re here and you’re not surprised to see me, I’m figuring you know I worked for HYDRA for seventy fuckin’ years?”

“Yeah, and we also know it wasn’t exactly by choice, buddy,” Jones tells him. “Those mind-wipes left you even dumber than I remember. I didn’t think that was possible.”

“Been reaching new heights of stupid since I started hanging around you, Gabe.”

“Now, that’s what my grandson would call weak sauce,” Jones says. “But you’re out of practice and you could use the win, so I’ll let you have it.”

“But, you guys.” Barnes gestures around helplessly. “You, you’re, uh… you’re not…”

“Yeah, we know we’re all dead, Jimmy Boy.” Dugan comes over and claps him on the back in the way that used to make him stagger, when he was still a skinny kid from Brooklyn instead of an enhanced super-soldier, then slings an arm around his shoulders. “You can say it. Not gonna offend us.”

“But how—how,” he repeats, helplessly, because the question in his mind is just too big to come right out and ask.

“Beats the shit out of us exactly how,” Morita tells him. “But we know it has something to do with this dame named Amora. Calls herself Enchantress, if you can believe that. She has some kind of magic thing that can bring the dead back, and once she started messing with it, we just found ourselves here. Monty has a theory that you called us, actually. That she’s been trying to use the magic for herself, but it got disrupted somehow and pulled us here to help you out instead.”

“That’s crazy. I don’t know the first thing about magic, except that I don’t seem to be able to stay the fuck away from it no matter how hard I try.”

“I still prefer that to Dugan’s theory that the artifact formed some sort of bond with your sister, while in her possession, that made it want to help you,” Falsworth says.

“You think that,” Dugan retorts, “but you haven't met Minnie. That little broad is fierce.”

“You do realize you’re all talking about a decision you think was made by a rock, right?” Jones interrupts.

“God, Jones. You’re standing there dead and still giving me a hard time about supernatural shit. Anyway, it’s called an Infinity Stone,” Barnes says, because he has one fact on his side and damned if he’s not going to use it to impress them. “Hey, Crane, get over here. These guys are my Army buddies. Gabe Jones, Jim Morita, Monty Falsworth, Jacques Dernier, and Dum-Dum Dugan, and yeah, I’m pretty sure that is what it says on his birth certificate, ’cause even his mother knew there was no help for this guy.”

“Ichabod Crane,” Crane says, looking bewildered, but gamely holding out his hand. Yep, Barnes thinks, smiling. Crane might be talking to a bunch of crazy dead Army vets, but God forbid he’d forget his manners. “I’m sorry, but did you say you were all dead?”

“Is he okay?” Jones asks Barnes. “Shouldn’t he be a little more upset about this?”

Barnes grins, because Crane really does seem more curious than upset. “Nah, ain’t his first rodeo. I do kind of owe him an explanation, though. Uh, Crane, buddy? You know how I told you I was a descendant of this soldier named Bucky Barnes?”

“Yes.”

“I was, um. Well, I wasn’t completely truthful about that.” There’s absolutely nothing to do but blurt it out. “Look, I know how crazy this is going to sound, but I’m him.

“You… are…”

“Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes of the 107th Infantry.” He takes a deep breath, thinks, Steve, the shit I do for you, and adds, “Captain America’s sidekick.”

“Is… that… so,” Crane says, his voice uncharacteristically flat.

Damn it. Barnes was ready for any number of reactions: disbelief, shock, confusion—but apparently Crane is just going to sit there and be… calm? No, that’s weird.

“Was it magic?” Crane asks.

“What? No. Fuck, no. I was, uh.” Well, in for a penny, in for a fuckin’ pound. “Remember HYDRA? They caught me and, well, they cryogenically froze me. Kept me in stasis, for the better part of sixty-five years, as near as I can figure out. Pulled me out occasionally and did some pretty seriously fucked-up stuff to my brain to make me do some pretty seriously fucked-up stuff on their behalf, which, you’d think they’d just cut out the middleman and do it themselves if they were willing to go to that much trouble, but there ya go.” He’s aware, now, that he’s babbling, but this… this is hard. Except for Minnie, he’s never told this story to anyone who didn’t already know at least part of it. And unlike Minnie, Crane just stands there, continuing to not react, until Barnes just can’t take it anymore. “Hey, I’m sorry I lied to you,” he finally blurts, “but honestly, before I had anything to back it up, well, I figured there was no scenario where I told you I was born in 1917 that wasn’t going to end with me in a loony bin.”

Crane is silent for a few heartbeats after that, and then he whoops with laughter. He laughs so hard that he can’t stay on his feet; he goes down on one knee, clutching his stomach and gasping, and the Commandos all stand there looking at him and each other in approximately equal bafflement. “Barnes, did you bring us another crazy guy?” Dugan finally asks. “I mean, the first one wasn’t bad enough?”

“Yeah, I do kind of attract ’em, don’t I,” Barnes says, resigned. “Okay, so while he’s finishing up with… whatever that’s about, are you guys ready to help me storm a castle and steal a magic rock from a demon-summoning magical alien so we can rescue a nice lady who doesn’t deserve any of the crap I’ve put her through?”

“Jimmy,” says Dugan, patting him on his metal shoulder, “we thought you’d never ask.”

 

Five Hours Ago

Agent Abigail Mills’ hands are trapped in a thick silver cylinder that reminds her of one of those bicycle locks that spells out a combination, only neither the metal nor the letters are anything she’s ever seen before—and that’s not something that happens every day, because Abbie has been to some very strange places. She’s standing on a floor that could be marble, in front of a throne inlaid with gold, and the table holds a bottle of ruby-colored wine that catches the light as if it’s made of diamond.

Abbie isn’t impressed.

She’s already made her professional assessment of the woman who had her abducted. Caucasian female, blonde hair, green eyes, clothing: a floor-length green silk gown that looks incredibly impractical for running and a fortune in jewelry that would definitely weigh her down in a fight. If she frees Abbie’s hands, Abbie is going to kick her in the stomach and make a break for it. So far, her captor hasn’t made any mistakes that suggest that she’ll skip right to a big one, but it never hurts to plan for every contingency.

A lot of people would be panicking at finding themselves in this position, but the truth is, Abbie isn’t worried about whether she’ll be able to get home. So far she’s escaped from Purgatory, a brief accidental stay in 1789, and an extradimensional prison. Either she’ll escape from Asgard too, or Crane will get her out. It’s just a matter of which of them gets around to it first.

No, all told, Abbie would describe her state of mind as pissed off.

“So,” she says, “how do we do this?”

The woman—Amora, she calls herself—doesn’t move a muscle in her body except her lips, which twist into a smile that doesn’t touch her eyes. “How would you like to do this?” she says, in a voice like silk.

“It’s really not up to the prisoner, is it? But I can take a guess at what you’re planning.” Abbie glances around the room again. “Nice place, very impressive. Probably means you brought me here to intimidate me. You’ll play nice for a little while to put me off my guard. Then you’ll threaten me again, to throw me further off balance. Bring out some more of those horned demon things, have them rough me up a little. Maybe you’ll tell me you can hurt someone else I care about. And once you’ve shown me the stick, you’ll go back to the carrot. That’s when you’ll tell me why you brought me here, what you want me for. So if you’re giving me the choice?” Abbie smiles. “Let’s skip all that. Tell me what you want so I can say no, and you can throw me in a cell to start softening me up.”

“And you can start planning your escape.” This time, when Amora smiles, Abbie can almost believe it’s genuine. Almost. “You’re clever for a Midgardian, Grace.”

“That’s not my name,” Abbie says.

“It’s not what you call yourself,” Amora says, dismissively. “The names we choose have power, but true names have more power still. I didn’t bring you here because I needed the Witness Abbie Mills. I brought you here as a descendant of your ancestress.” Amora stands up in a single, flowingly graceful motion that must have taken a lot of practice, and crosses the room to another table. She picks up the jewelry box that Barnes was keeping his stuff in, holds it in front of Abbie, and opens the lid. Inside, resting on a velvet cushion, is a green gemstone. It looks like a rough chunk of crystal, and it’s the perfect size to fit in the palm of Abbie’s hand. “Do you know what this is?”

“Looks like your fairly standard semiprecious stone,” Abbie says. “The kind of thing you’d buy your teenage daughter at the natural history museum’s gift shop.”

That annoys Amora, although she almost doesn’t show it. “This is the Soul Gem,” she says. “Wars have been fought for it. Kingdoms have fallen for it. Even I paid dearly to acquire it. Few Midgardians could hope to control it. I’m offering you the chance of a lifetime.”

“You sound like you’re trying to sell me a condo in Miami.”

“I’m offering you the chance to bring back your dead.”

Abbie tips her head to the side. “My dead?” she repeats.

“It will only restore those who bore some connection to you in life. Your Sherriff Corbin, perhaps. Your mother. Others you’ve loved, others you’ve lost. Souls damned, or not—even that makes precious little difference to an Infinity Stone.”

“And you’ll just let me bring back everyone I care about who’s died, out of the goodness of your heart.”

“With each use, the gem will grow stronger. It may lack the power, now, to do what I ask of it. You will use it first, and restore its power. You will simply take your restored friends and go. I will then use it to bring back an ancient friend of Asgard, and your realm will be the safer for it. It is what I believe your people call a ‘win-win.’”

“Wow. I expected quite a story, but that is some grade-A horseshit.”

Amora’s smile freezes. “What?”

“So this gem will only bring back the dead connected to me,” Abbie muses. “The question is, what if it turns out I can’t pick and choose? Because the scariest dead people I know, the ones most strongly connected to me, are two separate Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And you? You’d either try to control them—which you might be able to do, I don’t know what kind of power you’ve got, but I don’t imagine you want either of them for their charming personalities—or you’d just set them loose on Earth—or Midgard, according to you—and let them destroy the place. Then maybe once the Apocalypse was over, whoever won would be weak enough that you could sweep in and take over the ashes. Am I getting close? Is that something like what you’re plotting?”

Amora narrows her eyes. Just a little; if Abbie wasn’t watching her so closely, she’d miss it. Unfortunately, Abbie strongly suspects that this is a better indicator of mortal danger than a hundred of her demon things wielding axes would be… but it also means she hit close to home. Maybe she didn’t quite guess all the details of Amora’s plan, but she was in the right neighborhood. “You’re not worthy to hear my plans for any realm,” she says. “But you will use the gem for me.”

“I can’t wait to see how you make me.”

Amora snaps her fingers, and one of the demon-things appears—through a doorway, not quite out of thin air, but the effect is almost as unsettling. “Take her,” she says, and the carelessness in her voice is more chilling than any threat would be. “Free her hands and give her food and water, but keep her in the cells until I send for her again.”

The demon-thing grabs Abbie roughly by both arms, but it’s not even the first time she’s been manhandled like this today, and she’s gotten used to the rough texture of the thing’s hands, and even to the dust-and-brimstone smell of it. Abbie has definitely fought worse than this, and survived. Abbie isn’t particularly afraid.

Not until she hears Amora call for another of the demons and, just as the door is shutting behind her, hears her say, “Take as many of your kind as necessary and find the woman’s friend, Ichabod Crane. Find him, and kill him.”

Chapter Text

They’re walking toward the fortress, which Morita scouted out before Barnes and Crane arrived, when the demon-things attack them.

Without discussing it, they’ve fallen into a variation on their old marching order, with the addition of Crane next to Falsworth, who heard his accent and is doing his damnedest to pump Crane for information on family and school ties despite Crane’s caginess on those topics. It feels too weird to take Steve’s place at the head of their little wedge formation, so Barnes has let Morita take the lead and taken the position behind and to the left of him. That leaves Dugan free to fall in on his right and start up a steady stream of ridicule, most of it centering on his hair. Apparently Barnes looks like a “goddamn hippie,” whatever the fuck that is. He lets it go on for about a half-mile before he finally says, “Figured my hair needed to look pretty damn stupid to compete with your moustache, Dugan.”

“You always were jealous you couldn’t grow whiskers on that baby face of yours, Jimmy boy,” Dugan says, which is ridiculous, given how badly Barnes needs a shave right now. “Truth is, that mop on your head really works to distract me from how bad those twenty-first-century clothes are, and that’s before you put your own special touch on them. Do you even own one thing that ain’t ripped or bloodstained?”

Barnes isn’t about to admit that he’s still wearing the Captain America T-shirt, layered under a Henley that’s definitely seen better days, so he says, “Only your ma knows for sure, Dugan.”

Jones chuckles, and Dugan grumbles, “You think you’re something else, don’t you, Barnes?”

“Your ma wasn’t complaining.”

Dugan manages to look angry for almost a full three seconds before he cracks up and pulls Barnes into another one-armed hug, using the other hand to muss his hair. “Damn, I’ve missed that mouth of yours, kid.”

“That’s… That’s what your ma…” Barnes can’t even finish; he’s laughing too hard.

“Forty years I’ve worked with them, and I still find American humor bloody incomprehensible,” Falsworth says.

“It does take a bit of getting used to,” Crane is agreeing, when the demon things jump them.

It’s a classic ambush, a lot of demon-things springing out of nowhere at them at the same time, and even Barnes’ enhanced senses give him less than a second to prepare. As for the Howling Commandos, they have a procedure for being attacked by evil nightmare things, left over from their HYDRA-fighting days, and that procedure is “get behind Steve until you can figure out where the things’ soft parts are and shoot them.” Without Steve and his shield… well, he guesses that grouping up behind the guy with the metal arm is the next logical choice.

He doesn’t have time to make fun of any of them for it or, more importantly, time to find out if, being dead, they can get killed here, which now strikes him as a pretty fucking major oversight in his intel gathering. Maybe he was just scared to ask too many questions, in case looking too hard at the miracle made it vanish. But it’s too late now, and besides, even if they do turn out to be functionally immortal, they’re his guys. Of course he’s going to protect them.

Barnes spins a knife into his right hand and lets the Asset’s instincts take over. His body explodes into motion, throwing a spinning kick at the closest demon-thing before grabbing the next-closest by the throat with his metal hand. “Crane!” he yells, while he stabs his knife into its chest, even though he has no idea how to hit anything vital in its weird demon anatomy. Crane is already behind him, ready with a handful of salt to fling into its face, but he holds back—and then Barnes sees it, too: he doesn’t need to. The thing’s flesh is sizzling and melting, the same way the demon-thing in the bookstore parking lot melted, but this time the effect is spreading outward from his metal hand. “The fuck,” he says, but another one is swiping its claws at Dugan, and then Barnes takes a flying leap at it, grabs its head in both hands and cranks it to the side in a way that would break any human’s neck. He doesn’t feel the crunch of a spine snapping, but the thing falls down anyway, and this time, the imprint of the metal hand on its grizzled-looking face is clear.

“Crane, what is happening right now,” he demands, while he goes after the demon that’s charging toward Jones. Jones is firing his rifle into its midsection, but it isn’t falling down.

“Save your bullets! They’ve got no vital spots to hit,” Crane shouts at the Commandos. He grabs a canister of salt from his backpack and tosses it at Dugan, who’s closest, before he—God in heaven, he actually draws a sword. “They only have two weaknesses: salt and cold iron.”

“Iron!” Barnes repeats, and a smile spreads across his face. He doesn’t know a ton about metal, but there are a couple of basic facts that came up while he was learning weaponry. His beautiful Gerber Mark IIs are anodized steel, and he guesses they don’t have enough iron to count under whatever freaky supernatural rules these bastards follow; the bullets in the Commandos’ guns are copper and lead. But he’s pretty sure his arm contains a little of the same vibranium as Steve’s shield… and Howard Stark told him once that the stuff was so rare, so weird, that even the shield wasn’t made up of it entirely.

Iron-vibranium alloys, on the other hand, function beautifully in weapons design, and his left arm is—was always meant to be—a weapon. Shit, it might as well be made for killing these sons of bitches. And when the surprise wears off, he throws himself back into the fight as if he was made for this, too.

With the Commandos behind him, Barnes has never fought faster, or harder, or better in his life than he does for the next eight minutes: punching, kicking, and in one instance that he’s especially proud of, slicing the chest of one of the demon-things open while his left hand throttles another, then ramming his metal elbow into the cut. It might not have any vital spots, but that move disintegrates it so fast that it literally splits in half and falls down. Take that, fucking creepy HYDRA ray guns, he thinks, and scans for his next target, only to realize that there are no more enemies to fight. A few yards away, Jones is pouring salt on the last of the demon-thing corpses, which Crane apparently took down by flat out decapitating the fucker with the sword.

“Nice work, Mack the Knife,” Dugan says, dusting salt off his hands. “What are those things?”

“Demons, apparently.”

“Bullshit,” says Jones.

Barnes can tell it’s more of an expression of shock than actual disbelief, but it’s still pretty funny that Jones, who’s back from the dead, has just now exceeded his tolerance for weirdness. “Call bullshit on me when you don’t owe your life to the Morton Salt Girl,” he says. “Frankly, I’m more interested in how Crane learned how to pull off a decapitation with one hit, which is not as easy as it looks. Believe me, I’ve tried. Where’d you pick up that trick, buddy?”

“Are you familiar with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?” Crane replies.

“Right, right. My fault for asking.” Barnes pulls himself up, straightens his shoulders the way he used to watch Steve do after every Brooklyn fistfight and every Howling Commandos firefight: shaking it off, reminding himself that there are eyes on him. “Is everybody okay? I’m invoking the Steve rule here: if you’re hurt, you speak up, because I will beat your ass if I find out you’re trying to act tough.”

“Monty a été rayé par les griffes d'un démon,” Dernier says, and when Falsworth glares at him, he adds, “Ne me jugez pas, frère. Comme il le dit, il est plus que capable de battre nos derrières.”

Falsworth does have a couple of nasty scratches, and the way he flinches when Barnes grabs his arm to look at them certainly answers the question of whether the Commandos can be hurt. He hopes he doesn’t have to find out any more than that. While Morita’s patching up the wounds, he takes Crane aside and says, “How worried do we have to be about infection from those things?”

“You and I, perhaps a bit. Your friends, I shouldn’t think very,” Crane says, also pitching his voice low. “You know, of course, that their time here is limited. At the end of this, we’ll need to send them back.”

Barnes stares. “What, as in kill them? The fuck is wrong with you, Crane?”

“That’s not at all what I mean, and I think you know it. You don’t strike me as the type to bury your head in the sand, Sergeant. You know in your heart that your friends are long dead and that the current state of affairs can’t possibly last long.”

“They look alive enough to me. They bleed, Crane. How much more proof do you need?”

“‘Embodied’ is rather different to ‘alive’ in this case. The soul gem is holding them here now, but it’s most likely a temporary measure. Once we return with the gem—”

“Most likely?” Barnes repeats. “That means you don’t know.”

“Nothing in my research indicates that the return of souls from the afterlife can be permanent.”

“Does anything indicate for sure that it can’t be? Crane, the thing is, me and Steve… we’ve already lost so much. Look, if this was Abbie we were talking about, wouldn’t you have to try to find a way?”

“On one occasion, it was my wife,” Crane says, and suddenly he’s got that carefully neutral look that means he’s trying very hard to keep his expression from going all scary-intense. “That was Purgatory, not Hel, and although my wife was never truly dead, the cost of her return… let us say that it was steep. For the souls of those already dead, it may well imperil your own soul to try to return them.”

“So souls are on the table, huh?” Barnes gives him a smile he doesn’t feel. “Shit, somebody might be doing me a favor to take mine off my hands. I wasn’t exactly a saint even before I was, you know, brainwashed and murdery. Used to say the only way I was getting into heaven was that Steve wouldn’t go through the Pearly Gates unless they let my sorry ass in, too.”

He’s mostly joking. Mostly. But Crane looks him in the eye. “If someone wishes to take your soul from you, Sergeant, consider that proof positive that a great deal depends on your keeping it.”

“Okay, Crane, I get that you deal with this stuff all the time, but I’m out of my depth here, and we’ve still got your girlfriend to rescue. Do you think we could hold off on the philosophy until after we finish hitting stuff?”

“For Miss Mills’ sake,” says Crane, “I can endorse that suggestion with no small amount of enthusiasm.”

 

Barnes started off his Army career with a sniper’s eyesight, and from there, the super-serum enhanced his vision from pretty darn good to fucking amazing. He doesn’t need Jones’ binoculars to see what’s waiting for them up on the hill, and he doesn’t need to spend another minute inspecting it through the scope of the rifle Minnie gave him, but he does it anyway, because it takes him a while to believe what his perfectly good eyes are telling him. Finally, he hands the binoculars off to Crane and says, “You ever see anything like that before?”

Crane does exactly the same thing Barnes did: he looks, and then he looks again, and then he keeps looking at the… thing… that’s between them and the… structure… that’s obviously the Enchantress’s fortress. This would be easier if Asgardian was one of the languages he knew. “I believe,” he finally says, slowly, “I believe that particular creature is called a bilgesnipe.”

“A whosa-what now?” Dugan asks, making a grab for the binocs. He stares, then whistles. “That’s one ugly motherfucker.”

“Language, Dum-Dum,” Barnes says absently. He’s seen some things in his time, but never anything with scales and antlers before. “The good news is, she seems to be the only thing guarding the place. I guess they figure they got her, they don’t need to post a guard 24-7—or however long the days are here.”

“She?” says Morita. “You flip her over and check underneath when I wasn’t looking?”

Barnes ignores him. “Bilgesnipes don’t happen to be vulnerable to iron, do they?”

“No,” Crane says. “This being is of Asgard, not Hel. They say the hide can’t be pierced by any weapon known to man. I was only able to bring a few of my books, so a solution may take—”

“So we’re gonna blow the sonofabitch to high heaven, right?” Jones says.

Crane turns and stares at him, but Barnes is already smiling. “That’s the kind of can-do spirit I appreciate, my friend. Dernier, what’ve you got for me?” Even in the afterlife, it’s impossible to conceive of Dernier running around without at least a couple of explosives.

Dernier holds out his backpack. Barnes looks inside and his grin widens. “Oh, yeah,” he says, selecting a fragmentation grenade. “This’ll do.”

“This seems a good time to remind you of the impenetrable hide—” Crane begins.

“Not gonna go through the hide,” Barnes says. “Gonna toss it down her throat. Nice little contained explosion in its guts ought to do the trick.”

“Will that work?” Jones asks.

“Well, Crane can probably tell us for sure, but it went okay when I used it to fight a fucking dinosaur a couple months ago, so I’m gonna say it’s worth a shot.”

Crane frowns. “It’s an unorthodox idea, and I suppose it’s worth a go, but… what exactly is a dinosaur?”

Barnes blinks. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I’m not familiar with the—creature?—in question.”

“Crane, if you’re trolling me, this is a bad time.”

“Killing a troll would be an entirely different matter, Sergeant.”

Barnes sighs. “No, I said trolling, which is Internet for ‘deliberately being a jackass.’ I refuse to believe you know about demons and bilgesnipes and what George Washington ate for lunch, but not dinosaurs.”

“Hey, does anybody know when they found the first dinosaur fossils?” Jones asks suddenly.

“Uh, early 1800s, maybe? I know Cope and Marsh got started in the 1870s,” Barnes says, and then, when the rest of them look blank, “The two crazy fossil hunters who were always sabotaging each other’s shit? Nobody knows that story? Seriously, we thought Red Skull was nuts, but he had nothing on those guys.” They’re all still staring at him. “What?”

“You just happened to have that specific piece of information in your brain? Barnes,” Morita says, setting a hand on his shoulder, “I mean this from the bottom of my heart: you are such a nerd.”

“What? I had to learn about it in a hurry one time, okay? What’s more interesting to me is, how has this guy never heard of dinosaurs? Jesus, Crane, have you been living underground for the last couple decades or what?” Now the Commandos are openly grinning, and he sighs. “Okay, I get it. I’m the fuckin’ дурак who’s missing something obvious again. Go ahead, have a good laugh at my expense, God knows that’s your collective fuckin’ raison d’être.”

“I love it when we break his linguistic center,” Jones says to Dernier, who grins and slaps him five.

Barnes rolls his eyes. “Okay, guys. You’ve had your fun, but seriously, animals this size are no joke. If this goes sideways, the backup plan is that I’ll lead it into the woods and try to lose it, you all run like hell the other way, and we rendezvous back here in an hour. Yeah?”

“Oui, mon capitaine,” Dernier mutters, not quite far enough under his breath.

“Hey! I am not pulling a Steve here. This plan doesn’t involve jumping off anything,” Barnes says, which gets a couple of smiles, anyway. He picks up the grenade in his left hand and draws Minnie’s gun with his right—no, it won’t hurt the bilgesnipe, but he thinks he’s earned the right to having what amounts to a security blanket—and starts down the hill, keeping low and out of sight, to get as close as he can to the monster before he kills it.

And then he stops, because he hears what he just told himself.

The monster.

“Curule,” he mutters at himself, and then, before he can think too hard about it and talk himself out of this, he stands up, breaking cover. He clearly hears Crane say, “Sergeant, no!” and Falsworth say, “Bloody hell,” in unison, but he knows what he’s doing. He deliberately steps on a branch, breaking it.

The bilgesnipe’s enormous horned head swivels toward him, yellow eyes gleaming as he takes another step. It doesn’t react beyond that, though, and he starts walking forward at a slow, steady pace, trying not to project menace, trying to project friend. The bilgesnipe watches him alertly, and he smiles, carefully, without showing his teeth. “Hey, buddy,” he says. “Hey, pal, it’s okay. It’s all gonna be okay.”

The bilgesnipe curls its lip, just a little, showing the edge of a fang, and Barnes stops, trying to be still without that coiled, ready-to-spring stillness they trained into the Asset. The bilgesnipe lowers its head and whuffs a breath at him, a half-reptile, half-something-else alien smell that makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up, but he sets his jaw and moves again, slowly, feeling the Commandos’ horrified eyes on his back. He knows the only reason they’re not all screaming at him is that they’re trusting him not to fuck this up. He hopes they’re right to put this much faith in his damaged brain. Hell, he hopes he is.

“Hey,” he says, and he’s twenty feet from the bilgesnipe, then ten. He holds out his metal hand, and it skitters its massive bulk a few yards back, then leans forward, narrowing its eyes at him. “Hey, buddy. Hey, Bilgey. It’s okay, I’m a friend. I’m not gonna hurt you.”

The bilgesnipe stands and shakes itself. It’s… well, it’s not bigger than the average dinosaur, so that’s something. And once it stands, he can see the shackle on its hind leg. The chain it’s attached to is long; the bilgesnipe is definitely still a threat to anyone who gets close to the fortress. But it’s a chain, all right, thick metal links attached to a shackle around the bilgesnipe’s hind leg. Some of the scales have rubbed away, leaving raw spots under the band.

“Aw, no, pal, they hurt you! That’s not okay,” he says, reaching his metal hand up to touch the side of the bilgesnipe’s neck. The animal jumps back and lets out a noise that isn’t exactly a roar but definitely isn’t friendly, and he instinctively raises his metal arm higher, as if that would protect him from something that can basically swallow him whole. But he waits, and the bilgesnipe eventually makes an almost dismissive huffing sound and lowers its massive body to the ground again.

Barnes walks around behind the animal, which turns, making the chain clank, and keeps a wary eye on him, shuffling away as he runs his hands down the length of the chain and around the ring that holds it to the wall. The ring is solid, and the chain doesn’t have any obvious weak links, so he’s going to have to do this the hard way. He wraps the chain around his metal hand, braces one foot against the stone wall, sends a silent prayer out to the universe that this isn’t made of some weird space metal like Thor’s hammer is supposed to be, and starts to pull.

The metal arm can stand up to a lot of punishment, but the rest of Barnes is human muscle and tendons, and it’s been a long time since he tried anything like this Coney Island strongman shit. There’s a bad moment where he flashes back to the helicarrier fight, the part where he was trapped under the metal bar and Steve’s muscles strained and popped the way his are now, fighting gravity to free his sorry ass; but he grits his teeth and keeps pulling. When he lets go, he doesn’t think he’s made any difference, but then he sees it: just the tiniest separation in one link, where maybe the metal wasn’t welded properly. He adjusts his grip and redoubles his efforts, and the metal starts to bend. It takes him another two tries to make a wide enough gap, and by the end of it he’s sweating and panting and seeing black spots in his field of vision, but then, then he grabs the chain with one hand steady and the other hand shaking, and separates the broken link from the solid one.

“Go on, buddy,” he says, leaning back against the wall. He needs a minute to catch his breath; if it turns around to eat him now, he’s not going to be able to run. But he doesn’t think it will, and for once, he’s right. The sound of the chain dropping from his hand startles it, and it darts forward a few steps, then seems to realize that the weight of the chain is different. It turns itself in a circle, so much like a dog chasing its tail that Barnes actually manages to crack a smile, and finally sees the broken chain dragging behind it.

Its reaction is to let out an immediate bellow and start running.

Barnes throws himself flat as the bilgesnipe charges at the gate of the fortress, and the Commandos give up on stealth and rush down the hill to join him as the gate shatters and demon-creatures come pouring out. The bilgesnipe doesn’t seem to have any trouble figuring out how to kill them; if it doesn’t have a good opportunity to tear them to pieces with its horns and claws, it just steps on them. “Go Team Bilgesnipe!” he hears himself say, about the time Falsworth reaches him, and leans against the wall, breathless again with slightly hysterical laughter.

“What is wrong with you, Barnes? You just completely blew our chance at stealth!” Morita shouts. “Why the hell did you do that?”

Barnes shrugs. “It looked sad.”

“You risked your life because you thought a giant alien monster looked…” Morita shakes his head. “Of course you did. Well, it’s not going home with you, and you’re definitely not naming it Bilgey.”

“I know. But seriously, we gotta move. Follow me.” He grabs the grenade and the pistol again and manages a sprint toward the damaged main gate, and the Commandos and Crane follow him. “Change of plans,” he says. “Everybody behind me. We’re doing this—”

“As Steven would have done, no doubt,” says Falsworth.

“By running straight into trouble?” Dugan’s moustache is quivering with amusement. “We’re always up for that, Jimmy.”

“Good.” Barnes leads them past the bilgesnipe, which is making short work of the last few demons—God, he loves a good revenge story—and tosses the grenade through the wrecked gate and into the fortress, counting on the resultant explosion to clear out anyone (or anything) staying at its post inside.

Déjà vu hits him hard as he waves for the Commandos to follow, then kicks aside what’s left of the doors and leads the way inside. Like so many other things, this used to be Steve’s job. There’s no time to dwell on it, though. They’ve entered a large hallway with widely spaced stone pillars and doors leading off in all directions, and while there are no immediate threats, there are also no big flashing neon signs reading “This way to abducted human prisoners.” He turns to Crane. “Any ideas about where to find your girl?”

“I’ve no earthly idea. It will be faster if we split up.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Have you never seen a horror movie? We stick together.” Barnes spots a stone arch, way in the back of the hall, that looks like it slopes down into a stairwell. Well, prisoners go in dungeons and dungeons go in basements, so it’s worth a shot. He leads the way, waving the Commandos once again to follow, and stops at the base of the stairs to look around. Yep, this is less inviting accommodations, although he’s not sure it qualifies as a dungeon exactly; it’s just a lot of big empty spaces set off by what looks like ordinary glass—until he pokes it with the metal hand and a mild electric shock runs through it. A containment unit, he’d say, more than a prison cell. “Mills!” he shouts, while he gives the metal arm a crank from the shoulder to make sure all the circuits have reset.

“Barnes?” a voice calls from the end of the hall. Is it Abbie? It could be. “I—” he’s beginning, when Crane darts past him and races toward the last cell.

Shit. He let himself forget, just for a minute, that Crane is Abbie’s Steve, and people’s Steves do the stupidest things for them. Barnes pelts after him, but he has a sinking feeling that it’s already too late.

The cell is open; the glass, or screen, or whatever it is, is down. Crane is in the cell, being gripped around the throat by the tallest, blondest, objectively most beautiful and generally most terrifying woman Barnes has ever seen—the Enchantress, of course. Mills is in the corner, with her hands tied behind her, gagged, so she couldn’t give warning. And she’s watching helplessly while blood drips from the dagger the Enchantress has just plunged into Crane’s chest.

Chapter Text

More of the Enchantress’s demon-things surround Barnes and the Commandos while they stand there, but Barnes barely notices, because he’s got something much bigger to worry about: Crane is dying and in a few minutes he’ll be dead and Barnes can’t do anything about it. With emergency response, with an operating room prepped and ready to go—maybe. But all they have is Morita’s med kit, and Crane needs more than a field dressing and a shot of penicillin. Jesus Christ, the guy doesn’t deserve this. Abbie doesn’t deserve this. All they did was help a stranger who was in trouble, and now one of them is going to die and the other is going to lose the love of her life because they were trying to be kind.

Barnes doesn’t know what to do.

The Asset would shoot through him to take her down, a little voice in the back of his head tells him (it’s 2009 on a cliff outside Odessa and the troublesome redheaded enemy is blocking his shot on the nuclear engineer). Crane’s dead anyway. It’s what he’d tell you to do. The Asset would finish the mission.

The Asset conditioning can go fuck itself, because he knows (it’s 1943 in a HYDRA prison and he’s screaming no, not without you across a pit full of fire) that Abbie will die before she goes on living without Crane.

Steve would attack her anyway. Steve would say, Do what’s right, no matter what. But Barnes isn’t Steve. He’s never been as strong as Steve. He…

No.

That’s what Captain America would say. But Steve, his Steve, the guy who lied on his enlistment papers four times and was invited into Project Rebirth as a result, the guy who literally went in through the front door of the Red Skull’s stronghold, the guy who choked the Asset unconscious when he could’ve easily just stuck a knife in his throat and who dropped his shield in the Potomac rather than fight his friend? That Steve would say, If the game’s rigged against you, find a way to change the rules.

The Enchantress has been speaking for a while now, and Barnes snaps himself back to attention. She’s telling Abbie, “It’s far too late to save him from dying. But my previous offer stands. All you need to do is use the Soul Gem. Return him from the underworld.”

Previous offer. So she wants Abbie to use this Infinity Gem, for some reason, and Abbie has already refused, for what’s probably a damn good reason. Crane warned him not to risk his soul; maybe this was exactly the situation Crane was talking about. And, oh, if it is, this is very bad. Because Barnes still isn’t sure what all is included in being a Witness, but he suspects it’s pretty damned important that both Witnesses keep their souls. And the Enchantress might have found the only leverage in the world—in any world—that Abbie will throw all that out the window for.

The Enchantress nods to one of the demon-things, and it removes the gag from Abbie’s mouth and drags her to her feet. She’s looking at the Enchantress with an expression that makes cryo look warm and inviting by comparison. But the desperation is there, too, raw and real. She shuts her eyes, and opens them, and looks at Crane. He’s trying to shake his head at her, trying to tell her no, but Barnes knows what’s going to happen before she says it, because it’s exactly what he would do if it Steve were the one who was dying.

“Okay,” she says. “I’m in.”

“Free her hands,” the Enchantress tells one of the demon things, which promptly rakes a claw down the ropes binding her hands behind her back.

“Abbie, no,” Crane says, with what sounds suspiciously like it might turn out to be his last breath, but the Enchantress is smiling. Asgardian, probably lived a couple thousand years already, she knows how to read people, and she knows Mills’ offer is genuine, and suddenly she’s holding out the container he knows as Minnie’s jewelry box in one elegantly gloved hand and Mills is reaching for it and—

“What the fuck is that?” he yells, staring at a point over the Enchantress’s shoulder, and in the quarter-second when her attention wavers before she realizes this is the oldest, dumbest trick in the Nine Realms, the kind of trick that would only work because nobody except a Howling Commando would be dumb enough to try it, he moves.

She should’ve tied him up, too, instead of just assuming the demon-things would be enough of a deterrent, because one of them grabs him and actually burns itself on his metal arm, and the other rakes its claws across him in a way that might slow him down if not for the whole super-soldier thing. When he crashes into the Enchantress, he knocks Crane free of her grasp and slams her against the wall, metal fingers locking around her throat.

“Loki Laufeyson sends his regards,” he says, as the hand starts to whirr and close. His gut is already saying this isn’t the end of the Enchantress, and he wants her to know that if she’s going after somebody for revenge, it shouldn’t be his family, or Abbie’s, or Crane’s, if he’s got one. Sure, Loki wanted her to know who got the better of her and Barnes hates to play into his hands, but he’s still going to consider it a little fuck-you to the bastard. He’s not wrong about the Enchantress being hard to kill, though. Asgardians are a lot tougher than humans; the couple of extra milliseconds that toughness buys her are enough for her to say something in a language Barnes doesn’t know, and then there’s a burst of weird green smoke and the woman vanishes, just like Loki has done at least once now.

But by then, his right hand has already reached into the box and closed around the Soul Gem.

 

Maybe it’s because it’s been used recently to open a way for the demon-things, or maybe there’s some other reason he’ll never understand, but for Barnes, holding a Soul Gem is nothing at all like Minnie described it. Instead, it’s skin-crawlingly reminiscent of the Chair: the way the pain slams into his head and knocks him to his knees, the way his brain blanks in response to the white-hot agony. He feels the unexpected sensation that the gem is reading him, studying him. It’s making its way down into the crevices of his brain, finding memories that he hasn’t even dredged up yet.

Oh, God, there’s stuff in there he really doesn’t want to see again.

Please, he thinks, please, no—and to his very great shock, the Soul Gem seems to listen.

what do you want, it says.

Well, it doesn’t say it, exactly. It’s more like it plants the idea of the question in his brain, which is more fuckery he doesn’t need right now, but honestly, the pain is pretty bad even on a super-soldier scale and he doesn’t figure he can keep it together for long. Fix my friend, he thinks back at it. Keep his soul in his body until we can get him some help. Can you do that?

he will be in pain, says the gem.

Yeah, tell me something I don’t know. Can you do it or not?

…it can be done, the gem tells him. And then, before he can even feel any satisfaction about that, much less consider his next move, it says,

you’re thinking too small

What the fuck.

you could bring all of them back. the ones you lost. your friends. your family. There’s a heartbeat’s worth of space, and then it adds, your victims

Barnes almost drops the thing when the implications hit him.

He could bring all of them back. Not just the Commandos; not just the men of the 107th who got vaporized right in front of him at Azzano, or Danny Lenoir, maybe the only other man besides Steve he’s ever loved, who was forced to his knees and shot in the head in the HYDRA factory for absolutely no reason except that the guards wanted to make an example. Not even just Sarah Rogers (and surely, a little voice in the back of his head whispers, surely Steve would do anything for that; maybe Steve would even love him back in the way he’s always wanted Steve to love him, for that). But he could go even further. He could restore all of the Winter Soldier’s victims, wipe out all the red in his ledger in one go.

Oh, God, he could bring back Howard and Maria Stark. Tony Stark wouldn’t just have to forgive him; he’d practically owe him for that. And he could tell Howard how sorry he is, that if he’d been in control of his mind, he would’ve died himself rather than murder a friend. There’d be nothing standing in the way of his going back to Steve, if he could make that one thing right.

He could…

He could…

He could, but can he? is never the right question.

Yeah, he thinks at the gem. Yeah, sure. I could do all of that. Or you, whatever you are, you could do all of that for me. But what’s it gonna cost me? Why did Mills refuse to do this? She’s lost people before. She didn’t need Crane to die to have somebody on the other side who she’d like to bring back. So if she had to be pushed that hard to even touch you, there must be one hell of a catch.

There’s a moment of… silence, for want of a better word, although the pain is still happening, which always makes for a lot of noise in Barnes’ head. Then it says,

it would bring back all of your dead

Yeah? So?

it would bring back all of your dead, the gem repeats, and then there’s a picture.

Johann Schmidt. The Red Skull.

Barnes slams his metal fist on the ground so hard that the flagstone floor actually chips. I didn’t kill Schmidt! He’s not my dead!

he was killed for you, the gem tells him, and then the picture is Steve. Steve crashing into a HYDRA facility, being an idiot like always, going up against like twenty guys with those disintegration guns that still count among the worst things Barnes has ever seen and, wow, has he seen a lot. Steve facing off against Schmidt, on some kind of weird futuristic plane, or maybe a rocket ship, for all Barnes knows or cares. Schmidt, the Red Skull—Barnes only ever saw him once, across a bridge in the HYDRA factory, and he thought at the time that he was just hallucinating a mutilated face the color of blood, but it’s not a picture he’ll ever forget; and it’s just a flash, just a second where Steve is standing across from Schmidt and Schmidt is holding the thing they chased all over Europe looking for, the Tesseract, and then Schmidt is somehow melting and he feels Steve think, although he doesn’t say it out loud, That’s for Bucky, you son of a bitch.

God. All this time he’s been wanting Steve to love him just a little bit differently than he does. But Steve did the single thing he was most famous for in the fight against HYDRA—he got on that plane, he ended Schmidt, he died—for him. Steve always loved him more than he knew, always.

It doesn’t make it less hard, exactly. But it makes it possible. And it’s definitely what Steve would do.

He opens a portal to home, like Loki told him to do. He can never explain it afterward—he suspects the gem does most of the work—but he does it, and instead of the HYDRA base, he makes sure it opens up right outside the emergency room entrance to Phelps Memorial. Then he opens his fingers, drops the Soul Gem into the wooden box it came from, and slams the lid shut.

Everything stops: the noise, the pain, the sense of someone or something else being inside his head. Then Abbie gets up and runs to Crane, and he realizes that to the rest of them, the whole thing with the Soul Gem happened in just a few seconds, and Abbie has no idea about any of it. Which means that he has a mission to finish.

He makes himself stand up, and go over, and touch her shoulder. She turns, and as she’s drawing a breath to speak, he interrupts with, “I made sure he won’t die, but he’s in a lot of pain and he needs help fast. Can you get him through the portal on your own?”

The raw pain in her eyes is staggering, deeply personal and uncomfortably familiar, but when his words register, he sees a spark of hope. She nods, and then she half-lifts, half-drags Crane—who looks to have passed out from pain, but is breathing pretty well, thank God—through the glowing circle of light.

Barnes takes a deep breath, and then he turns to face the Howling Commandos. Somewhere in there, they’ve dispatched the remaining demon-things, buying him time to play out his little drama with the gem. Dugan is even still holding the container of salt. The Commandos always did have his back when he did something stupid. “Guys…” he begins, and then he shifts the wooden box to his left hand and rubs his right hand across his eyes. “Guys, I’m sorry,” he says.

“What, for handling the situation?” Jones says. “You did right, Buck. You saved the lady from doing something that would’ve hurt everybody in the long run, and you’re helping her save her friend. Speaking of which, are the two of them…?”

“Are you seriously trying to ask if that sugar’s rationed, Jones? Come on, man, we all saw the way she looked at that Crane guy.” Dugan shoulders him aside, steps forward, and lays a hand on Barnes’ shoulder. “What are you sorry for, Jimmy?”

“I… I can’t save you. The Soul Gem is an all-or-nothing deal. I can’t bring you back to life without bringing Schmidt and a bunch of HYDRA shitheads back too.”

The words hang heavy in the air for a minute, and then Dugan snorts. “Barnes, what on God’s green earth makes you think any of us wants to go back?”

“Well, I mean, I hate to tell you this,” Barnes says, “but you’re dead, Dum-Dum.”

“Yeah, because I lived my life, kid. All of us did, in no small part because you had our backs in the war. Even after we thought you were dead, you gave Steve the push he needed to take down Schmidt once and for all.  God knows we weren’t happy to lose him, but it had to be done or all of our kids would’ve been hailing HYDRA in kindergarten.”

“It’s true. We had good lives, thanks to you and Steve,” Morita agrees. “And good things waiting for us on the other side.”

“It’s not the harps and puffy clouds we were led to expect,” Falsworth says, “but yes, James, it’s a good place. And I expect we’ll see you there in due time. Although, now that Rogers knows you’re alive, you’d better do your best to stay that way as long as possible.”

“Yeah,” Jones adds. “You get killed, he’ll probably show up in the afterlife with his ‘I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed’ face on, and nobody wants to see that.”

Barnes forces a smile. He’s still not convinced, but if the guys are okay, that’s something. “You guys are… you’re really okay with it, then? With… going back to wherever?”

“Barnes, one afternoon watching you make friends with bilgesnipes and I have a whole new appreciation for going someplace restful,” Morita tells him, grinning.

“Oh, shit, yeah. I didn’t see where it went. Do you think it’s gonna be okay?” Barnes asks, and even though he’s completely serious, all of them crack up.

“Only you’d be worried about the well-being of a two-ton monster, pal.” Jones grabs him and pulls him in for a hug, and then the others follow suit. Dugan waits until the others have had their moment with him, and then he lays a hand on Barnes’ shoulder.

“Kid,” he says seriously, looking into Barnes’ eyes, “I think it’s only fair to warn you that you’ve got a pretty rough time coming up. You’ve come a long way, and it isn’t fair that you’re gonna get thrown right back into the fire again, but it’s gonna get a hell of a lot worse for you before it gets better.”

Barnes scowls at him, to cover the fact that the words send a shiver down his spine. “Why would you tell me that?”

“Because you’re strong enough to handle it,” Dugan says. “You’re the only one who ever thought you weren’t. And really, leave it to a moron like you to miss the most important part, which is: it’s gonna get better.” He smacks Barnes on the shoulder, affectionately. “When you talk to Steve,” he says, “when you really talk to him—which you will—you tell him we all said hello.”

“Et de lui dire de ne pas sauter des immeubles de grande hauteur,” Dernier adds.

“Yeah, like he’s ever gonna quit that.” Barnes rubs his eyes. He must be allergic to something in Asgard, because crying isn’t a thing former brainwashed HYDRA assassins do. “Thanks, guys. You’re a swell bunch of crazy assholes, you know that?”

“Hey, watch your language, Barnes,” Dugan tells him. “Don’t you know there’s a lady present?”

Barnes turns, and his breath catches. She’s the last person he expected here—and how or why this is happening is anyone’s guess—but it looks like the Soul Gem is going to give him one more thing before he locks it away for good. She’s so much smaller than he remembers, but there’s never any question but that it’s her. That blonde head with her hair out of its pins, like she’s just gotten off her shift. Those blue eyes, the same ones that still look out of Steve’s face a hundred years later.

He takes a step toward her and she wraps her arms around him, letting him press his face into her shoulder like a little kid. “You’ve still got a good soul,” she says, in that odd, mix of Brooklyn and Irish accents he’d almost forgotten. And then, “You keep an eye on my boy, now, Jamie Barnes.”

The noise he makes is somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “You know it’s Bucky, Mrs. Rogers,” he says, the words coming completely unbidden across life and death and seventy-something years. “And time hasn’t made your kid any less of a stubborn asshole, pardon my French.”

“Of course not. That’s why he still needs you,” she says, with that bright sunshine laugh of hers running underneath the words. She leans down, takes his face in both hands, and kisses his forehead, like a benediction, before she’s gone.

 

Barnes doesn’t really remember how he closes the portal any more than he remembers how he opened it; it’s one of those things that makes sense at the time and never will again. He goes through, but he doesn’t immediately go into the hospital. First, he goes back to the HYDRA base to check on his prisoner.

Loki has escaped, leaving the chain still padlocked to the desk and the base completely empty. Barnes doesn’t even bother to pretend he’s surprised. As long as he and the Enchantress concentrate on annoying each other instead of coming after the humans they were using as pawns, he’s not going to worry too much about it. While he’s there, he sweeps the base and extracts all the records and data he can—old hard-copy stuff, a lot of which never made it into the files Romanoff released into the world when HYDRA fell. It’s enough for him to guess which cells might still be active, and to line up his next couple of targets. Then he goes outside to look for a decent cell signal.

When Daisy picks up, he starts to say, “Hey, it’s Ba—” and then he stops. “It’s Bucky,” he says.

“Bucky!” If she notices the difference, she doesn’t harp on it; he figured she’d understand. “I’m so glad you called. You would not believe the day I’m having.”

“Same. I have a weird favor to ask you.”

Daisy laughs. “Nothing you say could possibly sound weird compared to what I just dealt with.”

He tells her what he wants. There’s a long pause on the line, and then she says, “I take it back. That’s pretty weird.” But she puts him on hold for a minute, and when she comes back, she says, “Done.”

“So you can tell me how to reach him?”

“You don’t find him, B.B. He finds you. Anything else?”

“Yeah.” He’s been pawing through the papers he found in the abandoned HYDRA base, and he has his next couple of targets lined up. “Think I can hitch a ride next time you guys have a Quinjet heading for eastern Europe? I have some business there.”

“Yeah, we can make that happen. Not before you buy me that milkshake you owe me, though.”

“You got it, kid,” he says. As he hangs up, he suddenly realizes that Dugan must’ve felt about him like he feels about Daisy. He must’ve seemed so young during the war; looking back, he wonders exactly how much Dugan kept a protective eye out for him without his ever even knowing it.

Which is why he doesn’t immediately go into a murderous rage when he opens his backpack and finds the tattered, filthy Bucky Bear tucked neatly inside it.

Jeesh.

 

He goes back to Minnie’s house to return the gun and equipment he borrowed from her, and once again, he gets to have the surreal feeling of sitting on her porch, drinking lemonade, while he tells her a fairly horrible story. If he chokes up a little at the end, she doesn’t give him any grief about it. “I don’t remember Sarah Rogers,” she says, pretending she’s looking at the hydrangea bush in her yard to give him a minute to recover himself. “I know I’m named after her, but all I remember is stories you and Steve told about her. I’d like to have known her, though. She must have been quite a woman.”

“She was. …Do you remember much about Steve?”

“That you were always pulling him out of fights and then Ma would yell at you for coming home covered in dirt and bruises,” she says, with a grin. “That he was the only person who could get me to brush my hair in the morning. That he insisted on paying rent to Ma for as long as he lived with us, even when he had to do it in pennies.”

“Oh, God, his pride! I remember Ma giving the money back and telling him to buy himself a new pair of shoes instead, and he kept saying his were fine, even though I’d literally just helped him cut up the newspaper to put inside them because the soles were worn through in about three places—”

“—And then you called him a stubborn son of a bitch—”

“—And then you went to school the next day and repeated it on the playground, and Ma just about murdered me for teaching you bad words.” He puts his gloved left hand over his eyes, laughing.

“What was the first thing you remembered about him?” Minnie asks suddenly. “After the helicarrier, I mean.”

“After… I dunno, the first couple of days it was all really confused. Just pictures I couldn’t make sense of. The first real thing…” Barnes folds his hands in his lap and looks down at his mismatched fingers. “You weren’t even born yet, but Steve had scarlet fever in 1932. He was so sick, everybody thought he was done for. You know I never prayed much, but I remembered sitting in church and thinking that if he survived, I’d never ask for him to love me back, I’d never ask for anything again, I’d just watch out for that dumb little punk for the rest of his life.”

“Oh,” Minnie says. “So do you think that’s why you didn’t die when you fell off train?”

Barnes blinks. “Min?”

“Seems like a pretty big coincidence that you’re both still alive, doesn’t it? Maybe you got a little more than you bargained for, but it sounds to me like you got an answer when you asked for a miracle.”

“Wow,” Barnes says. “Minnie, I don’t… I mean, even if… I’m the last guy who’d deserve that.”

“I know, dummy,” Minnie says. “That’s why they call them miracles.”

Barnes is saved from having to answer by his phone making the incoming-text sound. “It’s Jenny,” he says, looking at it. “She, uh, she requests the pleasure of my company.”

“I’m old, not blind, Bucky. I can read ‘be here in 15 minutes or kiss your balls goodbye’ perfectly well, thank you.” Minnie grins. “Go. Tell the Mills sisters to come see me the next time they finish fighting evil; I’ll make them some cookies and they can tell me all about it.”

Minnie is awesome, but he likes his balls where they are, so he goes.

 

“I ought to be furious with you,” Abbie Mills says, when he finds her in the hospital hallway. “Why did you get in the way? I had a perfectly good plan.”

“I know,” Barnes says, honestly. The more he thinks about it, the more he thinks it was unnecessary, maybe even stupid of him to intervene in the matter of Team Witness vs. Soul Gem. Abbie is smart and capable and knows a lot more about supernatural stuff than he does; more than that, she’s good deep down in her soul, in a way he’s not sure he ever can be but is very sure he’d like to be. But he did what seemed right at the time, which is all anybody can do. “It was just that, you know, you’d already gotten abducted by a crazy Asgardian and it didn’t seem fair to make you do all the work. And I’m pretty sure I did get the gem to save Crane’s life, so… can we call it even?”

Abbie laughs, which pretty much confirms that Crane is going to be absolutely fine. “He’s out of surgery,” she says. “And he told me who you really are, by the way. Nineteen-seventeen, huh?”

“Yeah, he thought it was real funny for some reason.”

“So he didn’t tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“Just come in,” Abbie says, pushing open the door.

“…many strange things, madam, but you’ll never convince me that this substance is intended as a source of nourishment,” Crane is ranting at a bored-looking nurse. He’s got a tray of hospital food in front of him and is poking the Jell-O with a fork. It jiggles, and he glares at it suspiciously.

“So you seem to be feeling better,” Barnes says, sliding into the chair by the bed. It’s the first time he’s seen Crane out of his old-timey getup, and the hospital gown isn’t an improvement. He looks pale, but really remarkably good for having been stabbed; either Barnes misjudged the seriousness of the earlier wound—which he didn’t; the little part of the Asset that lives in his head doesn’t make that kind of mistake—or the Soul Gem did something a little more than just keeping Crane alive until he got medical attention. With all this talk about there being a price for using the Infinity Stones, he feels like he got away with something there, but then again, maybe the universe finally cut him a break. God knows it owes him one.

“You’ll want to get out of here before he starts quoting Thomas Paine,” Abbie tells the nurse.

“Too late,” the nurse says wearily, but she leaves, and Abbie shuts the door. “Crane,” she says. “Tell James what really happened to you.”

Crane looks at her. “Must I truly perform this dog and pony show again?”

“Rip off the Band-Aid, sweetie.”

Crane sighs, turning his attention to Barnes. “Very well,” he says. “In 1781, having left my home in England and joined the American Revolution, I fell in battle to a being known as the Horseman of War. My wife Katrina, who unbeknownst to me was a witch, ensorcelled me to sleep for over two centuries, until such time as I was needed in the world again.”

“Oh,” Barnes says.

“I imagine you have questions?”

“Oh. Oh, yeah, God, I have so many questions,” Barnes says. “Like, okay, have you found out what the deal is with nail salons? Because I swear, you can’t throw a rock without hitting one these days. And why do they need so many colors? Red was good enough for Rita Hayworth, it oughta be good enough for anybody. And on top of that, a lot of these places have beds that you lie on and get sunburned on purpose? Honestly, how is any of this a thing?”

“Sergeant,” Crane says, “as a fellow man out of time, I do realize that you may be less predisposed to incredulity, but compared to others I’ve informed as to the nature of my circumstances, you’ve still taken this better than I expected.”

“Are you kidding me? Crane,” Barnes replies, in complete seriousness, “at this point I’m like, ‘Oh, look, some weird supernatural shit is trying to kill me. Fuck me, is it Tuesday already?’”

“Oh my God, Crane,” says Abbie, looking delighted. “You’re disappointed. First time somebody comes along and believes your crazy story about witches and time travel, and you can’t stand it that he doesn’t want you to prove it with obscure historic facts or something.”

“Like I’d even know any obscure historic facts I could call you out on,” Barnes says, rolling his eyes. “Actually, the truth is, I only have one question I really want to know the answer to, which is, why aren’t the two of you hooking up?”

“Excuse me?” says Abbie, raising an eyebrow at him.

“I’m just saying, Mills, you must really, really like this guy to keep putting up with his Colonial-era bullshit. And Crane, no question about where you stand, you’re so obviously head over heels for this woman that you’d run blind into another dimension to help her even though you know she can handle herself. I swear, it makes me want to knock your heads together. So why the fuck don’t you two just kiss and be done with it?”

“I take offense to that,” Crane says, drawing himself up as much as he can manage, clearly ready to go off on another Founding Fathers rant at a moment’s notice. “I’ve behaved as a perfect gentleman toward Miss Mills, and she—”

“—Is starting to wonder the same thing as James,” Abbie says. “When someone who’s ninety-nine years old thinks you’re being ridiculously old-fashioned, I think you ought to hear him out.”

Crane is indignant. “I suppose I ought to be unsurprised to learn that the age of Tinder has no concept of courtship,” he says, and by now, Barnes recognizes when he’s winding up for a good screed. “No appreciation of romance, indeed, only the most base and lustful desire are to be celebrated under the guise of—”

If he was Abbie, Barnes would kiss him to shut him up, too. Hell, under different circumstances, Barnes might kiss him to shut him up too, but it’s better this way. He’s her Steve, he thinks again, and swallows hard as he gets up and goes out of the room, shutting the door and leaving them to it.

He almost walks right into Jenny.

“You,” she says. “I can’t wait to hear what you have to say for yourself, running off like that.”

What he says is, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, checked out earlier today. Knock on the head, couple bruises. I’ve walked away from worse. A lot worse, in fact. How’s Crane?”

“He’s gonna be okay too. Give them a minute, though,” he says, as she puts her hand on the door. “I kind of threatened them if they didn’t just kiss already, and I guess I’m intimidating or something.”

“Oh, thank God,” says Jenny, fervently. “They were taking forever. I was sure I was going to have to punch some sense into both of them.”

Barnes grins. “Hey, Jenny,” he says, “if you’re feeling up to it, is there any place around here where a guy can take a girl dancing?”

“Depends. Are we planning to Jitterbug or Lindy Hop?”

Barnes blinks. “Abbie told you.”

“She’s my sister. We tell each other everything. Well,” Jenny amends, “almost everything. And yes, I know a swinging gin joint where a hep cat could take a dame to cut a rug.”

“You know, we never really talked like that.”

“And you know what the best thing about this bar is?” Jenny adds. “It’s within walking distance of my place.”

Has Barnes mentioned that he really, really, really likes this woman?

 

Barnes is lying awake in Jenny’s trailer, with Jenny sprawled across the right side of his chest—seems like the metal arm might not be as much of a turn-off as he thought it was, turns out in some cases it might be kind of the opposite, actually, but it’s still an uncomfortable pillow—when he hears a low rumble of thunder off in the distance. He doesn’t want to get up; he may not be able to get all the way drunk anymore, but after he and Jenny conducted a science experiment involving a bottle with no label and something at the bottom that looked suspiciously like an eel, it’s clear that if he’s willing to ignore taste and common sense, it is possible for him to stay pleasantly buzzed for a good long time. He wants to lie here for a while longer, enjoying it, but he has a responsibility to fulfill. He gently shifts her weight off him, finds his clothes and pulls them on, wonders if it’s really a great idea to take a metal arm outside in a thunderstorm, then decides he’s a super soldier and he can take the chance. He shuts the door behind him.

There’s a rising wind, and that weird energy in the air that sometimes comes right before a big storm, and then there’s a crack of thunder and yeah, there it is: a flash of lightning nearly blinds him and when he blinks, there’s a figure standing there that wasn’t before.

Thor.

Barnes puts his metal hand up in a little wave, and Thor moves forward—this guy definitely doesn’t walk, he strides—and stops a few feet ahead of him. “Bucky Barnes,” he says, and inclines his head, not quite making it a bow. “You are a friend of the son of Coul, and so a friend of mine.”

It takes Barnes a minute—possibly because part of his brain is still spinning on holy fuck, May was right, he really is a god, look at his arms—but then he gets it. “Coulson’s good people,” he agrees, and reaches into the pocket of the much-abused stegosaurus hoodie to hand over the wooden box with the gem in it. “I have something you might want.”

Thor opens the box and Barnes sees something on his face he doesn’t figure many humans have: surprise. “This,” he begins, “this is a dangerous—”

“I know, I had a talk with it. That’s what made me think maybe it doesn’t belong on, uh, Midgard. We kind of have too many weapons down here already.”

Thor closes the box, almost reverently. “How did you come by this?”

“Long story short, your brother Loki has a really crazy ex-girlfriend.”

Thor’s expression changes in a way that’s hard to read. “My brother is dead.”

Barnes raises his eyebrows at the thunder god. “I saw him less than forty-eight hours ago and he looked pretty lively to me.”

“You are mistaken,” Thor says, and there’s a low rumble of thunder somewhere not far enough away. “Or there is some trick—”

“Skinny guy, long dark hair, does ice magic? Likes to do a thing where he disappears in this puff of green smoke and then all of a sudden he’s behind you with a knife?”

“That is impossible,” Thor says. “I saw my brother die. I held him while he breathed his last.”

“No offense, but there’s no chance at all that he could’ve been faking it?”

The lightning bolt hits just far enough away for Barnes to know it’s not really intended for him, but close enough that he’s sure it’s not a coincidence. Thor is pissed. “If I find that you’ve been less than truthful—”

“With all due respect, pal, I have nothing to gain from lying and everything to gain from keeping that thing,” Barnes nods toward the stone, “and using it for myself. And I didn’t.”

Thor nods, just once, briskly. Barnes recognizes the look of a guy who’s trying to keep it together in front of a near-stranger, and feels a twinge of sympathy. Big muscley blonde guy, thought he’d lost a brother, maybe hasn’t—yeah, he doesn’t keep walking into these things at all. “Thank you for this,” he says, gesturing with the box in his left hand.

He’s still holding his hammer with his right hand, and as the last dregs of alcohol cycle through his brain, Barnes thinks very briefly about asking for a shot at lifting the thing, then shakes his head at how stupid he’s being. Worthy. What a joke. Still, there’s something in him that wants to be worthy. Maybe that’s what Sarah Rogers saw in him, or sees in him still, after all these years. “You’ll take it somewhere safe?”

“I will take this to my father’s treasure room to be safeguarded,” Thor says. He looks troubled. “And I will confer with him on this tale of yours, the matter of… Loki. If he lives, Heimdall will find him.” Thor hangs the hammer on a little belt holder thing and extends his hand. After a moment of puzzlement, Barnes shakes it—either Asgardians do handshakes or he’s learned it here. “Should there be need, Coulson can reach me again,” he says, and starts to walk away, reaching for the hammer again.

“Thor,” Barnes calls after him. “Can I—quick question? Just one, I promise.”

Thor turns back, looks at him inscrutably.

“I, uh, I know you know Coulson isn’t dead, and that he’s keeping that quiet from the other Avengers, and that’s fine. But I’d really appreciate, if you see Steve Rogers—”

“Your name is not to be mentioned either. I was told by the Lady Daisy,” Thor says.

“Thanks. I just wanted to know… Have you seen him lately? Is he okay?”

Thor hesitates. “He searches,” he says. “There is a longing in his heart. But he is well, and strong, and a good man.”

Barnes manages a half-smile. He guesses he knew all that already. “Thanks.”

Thor doesn’t answer. He stares up at the sky, and then he takes the hammer by its strap and starts to whirl it in a circle, faster and faster. His knees flex, he jumps, and then he’s gone, so fast that Barnes could almost believe he dreamed the whole thing.

He doesn’t feel relieved like he thought he would, getting rid of the Soul Gem; he can’t quite shake the feeling that he’s still been played somehow. And beyond that, it’s a little like watching his old life fall away again, knowing he’ll never have a chance to see any of the people he used to love again. His other two sisters, his mom. The Howling Commandos. Danny. All of them so long gone and not, at the same time.

He needs to talk about this. He needs to talk to Steve about this. He knows that. After he clears out the last few HYDRA bases, will he finally start to feel like he’s on that path to redemption he’s been looking for? Will he ever be ready for the way Steve’s going to look at him now?

He sits out on the little stairway that leads into the trailer for a long time, until the clouds roll away and the sky is quiet again. Then he goes back inside and lies down next to Jenny. For now, this is enough.

 

Crane has been uncharacteristically silent for so long that Barnes is starting to get worried about him. He’s staring at the tower of dinosaur fossils on their steel frame: the small head on the long neck, the massive ribs, the armor plates along the back, the spiked tail. Just as Barnes is about to finally give up and break the silence, though, Crane says, “It’s not so large as I expected.”

“…What?”

“You described the dinosaurs as the most massive beasts ever to walk the earth. I expected it to be rather more impressive. Now that,” he points across the hall at a T. Rex, “that, to me, seems more akin to a proper beast.”

“Crane, we’ve been through a lot together, but disrespect the stegosaurus again and I will fucking end you.”

“Hey! No killing people in the Natural History Museum, B.B.,” says a voice behind him, and he turns around and sweeps Daisy into a hug. He would’ve had her meet him at Minnie’s house, but he’s pretty sure that if an Inhuman walked into a weird-ass place like Sleepy Hollow, you’d need words like “smoking crater” to describe the results. A SHIELD Quinjet can take him as far as Constanța; he’ll make his way to Bucharest from there. He turns back to Crane, Abbie, and Jenny. “I’ve gotta go. Abbie, do your best to keep this guy out of trouble, okay? And away from self-checkout machines.”

“Be safe, James,” Abbie says.

Jenny leans in to kiss him, quickly, and he smiles. “Jenny, if I were in any shape to get involved with somebody long-term—”

“—I still wouldn’t be looking for that, and you’d still be in love with your oblivious best friend,” Jenny says pointedly. “But you’re a lot of fun. If you ever need to fight a demon again, look me up.”

“I will. Hey, English, do something for me.” Barnes drops the keys to his motorcycle into Crane’s hands. “Take care of my ride. And don’t pop any wheelies.”

“Is that some sort of drug?” Crane asks, and when Barnes just laughs, he says, “It’s been a pleasure, Sergeant.”

“A pleasure? Both of us got stabbed!”

“An honor, then. I was part of the founding of this nation. If it produces men like you, I feel we did well.”

There’s another round of hugs, and Barnes shoulders his backpack and he and Daisy walk out of the Hall of Dinosaurs. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, but he does know one thing: he’s got friends again, not just in this world but also in another one. No matter what happens, he’s not alone anymore.

Or maybe he never really was to begin with.