January 3, 2017
Steve was giving him that look. The one that said, say the word and I will get you out of this. In 1930 that would have meant Stevie looking at Bucky’s mother with big eyes and the most disgustingly earnest face to ever be made, swearing up and down on a stack of bibles that Bucky hadn’t wanted anything to do with that fight, but he had sure saved Stevie’s life, Mrs. Barnes. In 1941 it would have meant that Buck’s date laughed with a snort and started talking about how many kids she wanted before they even got their first drink and Steve would have faked an asthma attack to give them an excuse to call her a cab and head home. In 1944 Steve would have been planning how to use two sticks of dynamite and an abandoned church to stage an ambush on Nazi tanks just to get his friend out of a rough spot. A hundred years after they had both been born, and that look had become a signal for saving Bucky from not just physical, but emotional damage.
As if there was anything left to break.
Barnes shook his head once, mouth set. He knew Steve would get the message. Same as it had ever been. I got this. I deserve this. Let me handle this. Get gone, punk. Although Steve obviously disagreed, he still pushed out of his chair and left the conference room behind the rest of the team. Barnes had to bite back a sigh of relief. There had been too many arguments since he had gotten his mind, what was left of it, back. And all of them centered on Steve’s firm belief that his best friend couldn’t be held accountable for what had happened while he was controlled by HYDRA. Barnes knew better. It had never been his choice, but he had still pulled the trigger. Wielded the knife. Broke necks with his bare hands. Like any other weapon, any other machine of war, even if he wasn’t held accountable, he still couldn’t be expected, trusted to be allowed loose in the world. If he had been corrupted once, it could happen again. The truth of it had made him consider taking his own life – more than once.
In the end, as he got more and more of himself back, he had decided that was the coward’s way out. He had done those things, so he had to pay the price. HYDRA would too, Barnes and Steve and the rest of the Avengers would make certain of that. But, in the end, the people who were left behind when the Winter Soldier had taken a life deserved their pound of flesh. Pierce was dead. The men before him who had ordered the hits were dead. The Winter Soldier was gone but for a whisper at the back of his mind. There was only Barnes left to stand for those crimes.
So he would. It was his penance. Even with his mission to destroy HYDRA, it wouldn’t be enough – there could never be anything that was enough, but it was all Barnes could do. Stand before those that suffered because of the Winter Soldier and take the punishment they deemed appropriate. Sitting alone in a conference room with Tony Stark would be the first, and perhaps the hardest, sacrament he would endure on a path – not to redemption, because that was not possible for him. It was a path to acceptance. Of himself and his own life. Twisted and dark and terrible as it had been.
“I don’t like you.”
It might have been the most honest thing that had ever come out of Stark’s mouth. Barnes nodded, once, in acknowledgment that he had heard.
“I think I even hate you,” Stark continued conversationally. “It’s difficult to say, really. I haven’t hated – viscerally and absolutely hated – many people. So I don’t have a lot for comparison. But you. For you I think I have my emotions pretty well sorted out. I hate you. I wish you had died when you fell off that train. It would have been better for everyone, maybe even Captain Brotherly Love, if you had just stayed dead.”
“Probably,” Barnes admitted. It took decades of experience forcing himself into the mindset of a soldier, a killer, to keep from cringing at the look on Stark’s face. Raw. Grieving. Ripped open and furious. It took everything that he had gotten out of interminable sessions with Sam to keep from offering his own neck for retribution.
“So, he wants you on the team. Wants you to help save the world with him.” Stark’s voice was even and calm, but his eyes burned with something long held down and allowed to smolder. “Says it’s not my call. But asks for my blessing. Blessing-” Stark snorted, “didn’t think you were the marrying kind, Barnes.”
“It’s not your call,” Barnes agreed, and continued with what he had to say before Stark could light the room on fire with the vitriol clearly brewing. “It’s mine. Steve asked. The others agreed, but it’s my call to go back out there.” He could feel the sweat prickling just under the skin at his spine. It would be the most he had said to anyone other than Steve or Sam in months. Years. Decades, really. But he had to finish. “But I won’t do it if you can’t work with me. You tell me to leave, and I will. I’ll find another way – won’t be as good – but I’ll find some other way to help.”
Stark stared, his attention making Barnes want to squirm. Instead he held himself even more still. It had to be done.
Submit. Present for inspection. Unacceptable. Lacking. Unsatisfactory. Take it back to the Chair.
Tony was talking and it took Barnes a moment to focus again on his words instead of the memory. It was a day that had no connection to any other, except for the pain, and the obedience, and more pain. He knew things were different, that the most Tony would – could – do to him was insults and harassment. Still, he breathed shallowly until he could un-clench his metal fist.
“-those years. Those deaths. Do you remember them Barnes? Or is your brain too fried for that?”
Barnes knew what Stark was looking for. He knew what the older man wanted, but it was something he would never find. Barnes could only give what he had.
“Every day,” he said quietly. His eyes focused on the wall behind Stark’s shoulder as he remembered. “Most of the missions are clear. I have perfect recall of every kill shot, even if I don’t know why or who. He turned his eyes back to Tony’s face, twisted with disgust and anger and fear. “You look like him. Not like he was before, during the war. That is still hazy for me in places. But the night he died, in the car. You look like that now. Except,” Barnes had to swallow hard to keep going, to force the tightness threatening to choke off his words down into the twisting pit of his stomach. “Except he was more gray. His face a little longer. He called out my name, and even as I fired he looked hopeful. Desperately hopeful that I would remember and know him and stop. She had no such hope. Just fear. And pain. And tears in her eyes and streaking through the blood on her face. I had to bend down into the car to finish her, and she smelled like expensive perfume and powder. I remember the recoil of the gun in my hand and the hope in his eyes and the smell on her skin. Every. Day.”
Stark’s face had frozen, his mouth slightly open. He stared. Barnes could feel his gut churning and the whisper in the back of his mind to leave. To run. To escape and push everything else down and away so that he wouldn’t hurt anymore. To survive instead and forget everything that he had remembered. He had to force his tongue and jaw to keep moving.
“Sometimes I think it was part of their goals. To keep those memories in my head. The good things, from before, they are all far away.” A bitter smile quirked his lips. “That seems like something HYDRA would have found…interesting.” He spat the word, too familiar with the consequences of HYDRA’s interests. “After all this time, everything that’s been done – the serum, the doctors, even Wanda in my head – when I try to think of my own mother, her face is blurry. I can’t recall the color of her eyes or the way her arms felt around me. She wore perfume to mass on Sundays, I know that. But no matter how hard I try I can’t remember the smell. Maybe it isn’t HYDRA. Maybe that is my punishment for what I did. I don’t know my own mother’s face – but every morning I wake up remembering how your mother smelled as I killed her.”
Until he saw the tears on Stark’s face, he hadn’t realized he was crying. His own cheeks were wet. Great splotches had curved down his neck and fallen into the collar of his black t-shirt. Tony still hadn’t said anything, so Barnes forced himself to keep going. His voice cracked, losing volume, but he finished what he had to say.
“Say you can’t work with me on the team and I’ll leave. You do not ever have to see me again.”
The tension in the room wasn’t quiet. It pounded in Barnes’ ears. The rasp of Stark’s breath. The faint drip of water onto the floor. A minute creak of a chair as the other man shifted. Central heating forced air through the ducts and it seemed like a windstorm racing through the ceiling overhead.
“You think I’m going to let you out of my sight, Barnes?” Stark began nearly whispering, but quickly rose into a snarling sort of condescension. “I’m going to be watching you for the rest of your life, and if you so much as shrug like the Winter Soldier, I will end you. If they’re willing to allow it, you go ahead and work with the team, but remember. I’ll never forget what you’ve done. I will always know what you are.”
Barnes nodded, sharply, just once, and stood. It was more than he deserved. Less than Steve, the optimistic fool, hoped for, but it was far, far more than Barnes had ever thought he would have.
“Don’t think you can go room with Mr. Soulful Eyes, either. You’ll stay in the tower, where Friday can monitor you.”
Barnes nodded again, but kept his back to Stark as he left. He couldn’t look at the man any longer. He had used all his courage for one day.