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Title: Some Debts Cannot Be Paid
Fandom: Captain America
Series: To Rewrite History
Pairings: unrequited Steve/Bucky, Minor Bucky/OCs
Warnings: angst, torture, more angst, Hydra being evil, violence, evil science, murder, dubious consent, etc.
Word Count: 7614 (13,933 so far)
Disclaimer: If I owned it, the good guys would have lost.
Summary: Bucky doesn't think much of Captain America but he would die for Steve ten times over and consider it a price fair paid.

Part I: To Fall


“Congratulations, Soldier. Your recovery has been faster than I expected. You may begin repaying my great kindness very soon.”

“Your kindness?” Bucky rasps, looking up at Grebenshchikov in disbelief. His time with the Russian has been many things, but it was hardly charity. He has paid in blood and pain and suffering and he barely even recognizes his own body anymore.

“I'm supposed to be grateful for this thing?” the sergeant asks, waving at the doctor with a shining metal hand. “You cut off my arm, you bastard; why the Hell would I be thankful?”

“We did what was necessary. That is all. I can bring out the screws and thumbtacks if you would like to see real torture or perhaps I should simply carve your captain up for parts? The Red Room has been kind to you, Soldier, and you must remember that we can be cruel instead,” the scientist tells Bucky, cold eyes piercing the sniper through and through. “I have made you into a weapon, perhaps one greater than your captain, and now you must repay my generosity. After all, a better future has many enemies.”

“I'm not gonna kill anyone,” Bucky says. “Not for you.”

His voice doesn't tremble but the words still sound so fucking weak. Indeed, Grebenshchikov's smile just grows more condescending, as though the sergeant were a child acting out.

“Do not worry, Soldier. Your conscience need not fear. You and the Red Room share common enemies.”

Bucky knows the scientist is lying; he's not an idiot. But the sergeant lets himself believe it because he has no other choice. Even if he knew how to wake Steve up, even if he somehow escaped from this damn compound, Bucky still doesn't have a plan for surviving afterward. He has no money, no friends, and no bolt-holes; he's been MIA for two decades and he can't trust the SSR, not after some of the secrets that the Russian has let slip.

So the sergeant bites his tongue and listens when Grebenshchikov lays out his mission two days later. Just a week's surveillance as the doctor tells it, a test of Bucky's skills in their new modern world. In and out and then back to the Red Room, back to his fucking gilded cage.

As long as Steve remains imprisoned, the sniper will return to Hydra; he doesn't see another choice. Hell, Steve's insistence on fighting was the only reason that Bucky didn't take the discharge he was offered after Azzano; the sergeant couldn't let his best friend face the horrors of war without someone he trusted at his back.

And look how well that ended up, Bucky thinks bitterly. I'm off to spy on some poor bastard for our worst enemies.

Grebenshchikov never even gives the sergeant a name for his new target – the doctor just calls him 37 – and while the man could well be famous, Bucky doesn't have a clue. His lessons have been focused more on tactics than popular culture and his target looks like an accountant to his eyes.

Sneak, hide, watch, and listen; those are the sniper's orders and he should be able to handle that just fine. He's always been good at blending into crowds.

Not that Hydra actually trusts Bucky to work alone despite his captors hold on him. Grebenshchikov hands the sergeant off to a minder – an enormous grunt who doesn't speak a word. He grabs hold of Bucky's arms, keeping him still as the doctor pulls out a syringe and stabs him in the neck. Within seconds, the world is going black around the edges and the sniper's last sight before he falls unconscious is Grebenshchikov's damn smirk. He's getting really tired of losing time like this.

Bucky wakes up in the back of a van, his head aching and his handler crouching over him. The other man hands the sergeant a bundle of well-worn clothing and then climbs into the front seat to drive them to their goal.

So the sniper shakes out the bundle, looking at his options with a sigh. Bucky isn't sure if he likes the clothing of the future – the Red Room is all fatigues and lab coats like he's still in the army, but these new threads are something else entirely. Shapeless and loose, the sergeant isn't sure what they're even made of and they're certainly nothing like the snazzy clothes he used to wear for going out.

Hideous is probably the best word. Hideous and grey. But maybe that's just the local style here in Somewhere, Russia, and Bucky has to admit there's something to be said for dressing practically.

Once his handler parks the van, the sniper blends in perfectly with the few people on the street and when an icy gust of wind slams into his body, his clothes block the worst of it. The coat may be hideous but Bucky really could have used it during a few cold winters in New York.

The mission itself is as boring as the sergeant had expected. His handler plants him in an apartment with a pair of binoculars and a notebook and he spends the next three days watching his target through the windows of the place next door. If 37 is a spy then he's not a very good one since he always leaves his curtains open and never once looks up. But Bucky sees no evidence of anything suspicious; the other man spends his days sleeping and watching television, his food delivered by a service every morning so that he doesn't have to leave.

After three days of this, Bucky is going stir crazy, only his training as a sniper stopping him from bouncing off the walls. However, even training doesn't keep him from feeling guilty about spying on a stranger at Grebenshchikov's command. For all he knows, Hydra plans to kill this man and the sniper is 37's only chance of getting out. If he just warns his target now...

And what purpose would that serve? Bucky thinks with a silent snarl, shoving the idea from his mind. Boris there would probably shoot me and then we'd both be dead for no damn reason. Watching someone ain't killing them; even Steve can't argue that.

The sergeant is almost relieved when the other man finally leaves his building. Following 37 requires enough concentration to keep his conscience quiet and for the first time in days, Bucky is out from under his handler's watchful eye.

Of course, it's probably a test. There are probably more of Hydra's soldiers watching Bucky's every move. But the sergeant breathes a little freer anyway. No one on the street seems to pay him any notice and he has the feeling that he could just disappear. If not for Steve then Bucky could run away right now...

But what's the point of wishing when no one is listening? It's not as though the sergeant's prayers have ever once come true.

So he does his damn job. He makes note of everyone his target speaks with and what purchases he makes. He practices his Russian while flirting with the shop girls – friendly is always less memorable than silent glowering – and he learns that the cold makes his left shoulder ache down to the bone.

Nothing important happens, not a damn thing, and when his handler packs them in four days later, Bucky isn't sure whether to be worried or relieved.

---

On the sergeant's fourth mission, everything goes straight to Hell.

It's his own fault, really. Bucky should have known better than to get complacent when Hydra was involved. But Grebenshchikov has so far kept his promise: no killing and no threats. Just a few simple reconnaissance missions for the Red Room, watching men and women that the sniper doesn't recognize. Bucky feels guilty every time but if he didn't follow them, some other agent would. Or maybe that's just the lie the sergeant uses so that he can sleep at night.

He tells himself it's worth it. He nods and smiles and pretends that he doesn't hate his captors' guts. He complies because compliance lets him keep searching for a way to get Steve out.

Bucky has made a little progress. He stole the code to his captain's cryo-tube, the one that starts the thawing process and allows him to be removed. However, according to the sergeant's information, Steve won't wake up instantly. It will take the other man at least three days to recover and so Bucky will have to carry Steve on his way out. Carry Steve, fight off Hydra, and somehow make a grand escape.

One step at a time, the sniper thinks. One step at a time.

Bucky's mood improves a bit when Grebenshchikov says that his newest mission will take place in France instead of Russia. He wants to see how the rest of the world is doing – news about New York has been slim out here in bumfuck nowhere – and maybe, just maybe, he can make contact with some of his former allies now. The sergeant may not trust the SSR but the French Resistance was quite fond of his captain and Dernier will vouch for him if he's still alive. So Bucky plans to follow his target until he can slip his handler and then conduct his own fast reconnaissance.

Unfortunately, 521 turns out to be much like 37 and for the first four days, the sergeant doesn't see anything but his apartment walls. He can't leave his target unattended – his watch dog never seems to sleep and disabling him isn't worth the consequences that might land on Stevie's head.

By the fifth day, Bucky is chewing on the walls. This is his best shot of contacting an ally and it's slipping through his fingers; who knows when Grebenshchikov will send him out to France again?

The sergeant is antsy enough that he doesn't hesitate to follow when number 521 finally leaves his house, even though it's after midnight and there's no one else around. He just sticks to the shadows and trails his target carefully through the winding streets.

Hydra wants to know where this man is headed so Bucky will get them a location and then briefly disappear. Something to write in his little fucking notebook before he claims he lost his target and heads off on his own. As long as 521 doesn't suddenly turn around, the sergeant should be safe staying out until the morning, hopefully long enough to find an open library and a damn telephone. Hell, he'll break into the library if it comes to that.

Bucky ducks behind a crate when his target glances backward, the man looking around shiftily before darting into an alleyway. The sergeant waits five beats and then he follows, peeking around the corner to see number 521 slip through an unmarked door.

All right, time to go, Bucky thinks. He has no intention of following his target into his secret meeting; that's a good way to get himself shot by some trigger happy idiot since the metal arm is a little bit conspicuous up close.

So the sergeant pulls out his notebook to jot down the building's address. He considers writing something false and giving 521 a break but then decides that he can't risk it. If Grebenshchikov already knows the truth, telling a lie would tip his hand.

Bucky has just slipped the notebook back into his pocket when he hears footsteps coming up behind him on the street. He spins around to look, crouching back into the shadows warily. Although the sniper doesn't have a weapon, he'll never be unarmed and his leather glove creaks loudly around a metal fist.

The footsteps come closer and closer, a dark shape resolving into someone that Bucky recognizes instantly. It's his handler; Boris is here in the alleyway when he should be back in the apartment waiting for the sniper to return.

“What are you doing here?” the sergeant asks, a flicker of doubt rising in his mind. No one followed him, he's sure of it, and yet here the Russian is. “Is something wrong?”

The other man doesn't answer. He's never spoken a single word to Bucky – even Boris is a nickname – and that does not change now. The Russian just hands him a gun, the first that the sniper has seen outside of training since the Red Room woke him up. The weight is familiar, heavy enough to be fully loaded, and more comforting than it probably should be when he doesn't know what's going on.

As soon as he takes the gun, Boris smiles. It's a sharp, cruel smile, and Bucky raises his weapon, convinced that the other man will try to kill him now.

But the Russian just throws something past him down the alley and then disappears around the corner, leaving Bucky gaping after him in shock.

What the Hell was that about? the sniper wonders before turning to look for the object that his handler threw. There's only a single flickering street light in the middle of the alley and his eyes struggle to make out any details in the gloom. But when the sergeant squints and takes a few steps forward, he sees a small sphere lying by the door that 521 had gone through.

Shit! That's a grenade! Bucky curses when the sphere suddenly starts blinking. He barely has time to cover his face before the weapon explodes, a wave of heat slamming into him.

The sergeant is still blinking the spots from his eyes when the alley door bursts open and close to a dozen agents boil out. One of them, a dame, sees Bucky standing in the street and barks out a command. French, of course, which was never his best language, but he can guess the gist.

“Wait! I didn't...” he starts, holding out his hands. Only, like a total genius, he forgot about the gun.

The sniper dives to the ground as the air fills with lead, half a dozen slugs sparking off his metal arm. Then one grazes his side and instinct takes over; suddenly Bucky is back on the battlefield. These people are a threat and eliminating threats is what he does. He takes out the shooters so that Steve can go in clean.

Bucky fires. One bullet. One agent. One after the other until there are no targets left. He's lying on the street, the scent of blood and gunpowder heavy in the air. All of the French agents are down, no moaning, no groaning; the sniper always was a damn good shot when he put his mind to it.

“Shit, shit, shit,” he curses, staring at the scene in horror. “No. I didn't mean... Shit!”

The sergeant drops the gun like it's on fire and scrambles to his feet. His shoes stick on the cobblestones as he runs to the first agent, hoping against hope that the man is still alive. It's 521. His target. Bucky's shot took him right between the eyes and the sniper has to look away from that accusing gaze. It's not the blood or the smell that makes his gorge rise violently; it's the knowledge that this man didn't need to die.

Bucky hears a groan and snaps upright, searching for the source. However, finding it doesn't make him feel any better. By the way her breath is bubbling, the dame won't last very long.

“Oh, God. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry,” Bucky says, kneeling at the agent's side. He takes her hand and her eyes widen slightly, probably wondering why her killer is pretending at remorse. But the sergeant does care no matter what she thinks and while it's much too late to save this woman, he won't let her die alone.

“Wh-” the agent starts to ask, a bloody froth spilling from her lips before the question cuts off suddenly. She shakes her head, panic filling her eyes as she looks at something over Bucky's shoulder, and then a shot rings out.

The dame's head dissolves in a shower of blood that splashes scarlet across the sergeant's face and hands. He grabs the agent's pistol off the ground as he spins from his crouch and sees Boris standing right behind him, a gun in his hand and a smirk upon his face.

“She was dying!” Bucky shouts, a red haze of fury washing over him. He barely hesitates, just aims and fires, three bullets taking his handler in the chest.

But that's not enough to satisfy the sniper. He tackles Boris to the ground, dropping his gun to wrap his hands around the Russian's neck. Months of hate and helpless fury have overwhelmed his self-control and Bucky doesn't care about the consequences anymore. Not right now. All he cares about is punishing this bastard for his sins.

Bucky punches his handler in the face with his left hand, bones cracking underneath that metal fist. He beats the other man until he's nothing but a pile of twitching meat and then he sits back, panting heavily.

Fuck. What do I do now?

The sergeant is so lost in self-recrimination that he doesn't hear the man walking up behind him. There's just the click of a syringe being emptied and then Bucky crumples, a puppet with its strings cut now that the play is done.

---

When he opens his eyes, Bucky assumes that he's in a French prison, waiting to be charged with twelve counts of murder and one righteous execution. Because he's handcuffed to a table in some tiny cell, nothing but cold white walls to keep him company. The thought sets his heart racing – if he's been arrested, what will Hydra do to Steve? – and he yanks at his cuffs until the left one snaps.

“Breaking our equipment again?” The door in the far wall swings open and Bucky isn't sure whether he's relieved or horrified when Grebenshchikov walks into view. He's back in the Red Room after all.

“What the hell is going on?”

Instead of answering Bucky's question, the scientist tosses a folder down onto the table and then sits in the chair across from him. “That was quite a show. You could not have performed your task more admirably.”

His tone is amused, far too amused for the latest clusterfuck. Unless... “You set me up!”

“Not at all. Pieter set the stage but you could have fled or surrendered. We did not make you fight,” Grebenshchikov says. “However, for all your protests, it seems you kill when threatened and kill quite skillfully. So it is time to admit that you are a weapon, Soldier. A weapon that will fight for Hydra or be broken down for scrap.”

“What?! No!” the sergeant protests. “I won't be your assassin!”

“You do not understand, soldier. There is no other option,” the doctor tells him, his proud smile making Bucky want to puke. “You are a murderer already, killing for our cause.”

Grebenshchikov opens the folder and lays a series of photos out on the table one by one, the sergeant's blood running cold when he looks at the images.

“How did you get these?”

The photos are of his mission, of the bloodbath in the alley. No one should have been able to take a picture under those conditions but here they are in living color: Bucky with the gun, Bucky watching the explosion, Bucky with his finger on the trigger, and Bucky kneeling at the female agent's side. Every image paints him as a cold-blooded killer and when Grebenshchikov lays down the final image, the sergeant knows he's fucked. Because the series ends with a picture of Bucky's snarl as he beats his handler bloody and there's no way to argue that. He's Hydra's fucking patsy now; the fool who takes the fall.

“How is not important,” the Russian answers. “What matters is that you killed a dozen agents and we have the proof right here. We have sent copies of these photos to the French, the Americans, and the British. Every country where you might have found an ally, you will find only hatred because James Buchanan Barnes has been proven a traitor to his country and his cause. Hydra is the only place that will give you succor now.”

Bucky can feel the trap closing in around him but he can't see an escape. Despite his protests, the sergeant had known that Grebenshchikov wouldn't accept disobedience forever. His only hope had been to get out before that moment came. But now it's here and it's too late.

He doesn't want to kill people, not for Hydra, not for anyone, not anymore. But if the sergeant doesn't then that's it, game over; he'll be dead and Steve will still be trapped here with his worst enemies. Hydra will tear the other man apart unless Bucky surrenders to be broken in his stead.

So really, the choice is easy. His hands are stained with blood already and protecting Steve is worth the cost.

I've always been your shield, Stevie. Ever since that scrawny kid cussed me out in Brooklyn for coming to his rescue; ever since you grinned at me with a split lip and bloody teeth. I'm yours in every way that counts already so what's one more sacrifice?

“Fine. I'll do your missions,” Bucky tells Grebenshchikov through gritted teeth. “But don't expect me to be grateful for the opportunity.”

“Don't worry, Soldier. You can curse me all you like as long as you pull the trigger when required,” the scientist replies. He stands up again, leaving the photos on the table as he turns to go. Grebenshchikov opens the door and then pauses, looking back over his shoulder to twist the knife a little more. “The lead agent was your old friend Dernier's eldest daughter; did you know that? One of the best agents France has ever had.”

The doctor's words leave Bucky reeling as the door clicks shut again. He drops back into his seat and buries his head in his hands. Hurting his friend was the last thing that the sniper ever wanted and killing his family is the worst hurt of all. He remembers Dernier talking proudly about his girls during the war, remembers the photos that the other man used to show them. I guess I know why she looked familiar.

Eventually someone comes to let the sergeant out, unlocking his remaining cuff and leading him back to his room. He opens the door with a sigh, wanting nothing more than to shower and to sleep. But when Bucky walks inside and turns on the light, he stops short in surprise.

There's a dame on his bed. A real looker wearing nothing but a satin slip and a scarlet smile, her lips curved at him invitingly. She's blond and pretty and what the hell is she doing in the Red Room? What is she doing here? Hydra wouldn't send him a girl for no damn reason and he doesn't need another gift with strings attached.

“What's going on?” Bucky asks warily.

“What does it look like?” the broad replies, letting out a coquettish little giggle as she stretches on his bed. The motion makes her slip ride up her thighs and the sniper catches a glimpse of lace before he tears his eyes away. “I'm your reward for a job well done.”

“My what?”

“Your reward. Grebenshchikov thought you might be lonely and asked me to comfort you. All men have needs and it's my job to fulfill your fantasies. Come here, handsome. Show me what a hunk like you can do.”

“No. I don't want... No,” Bucky says, shaking his head. It's been a long time and she's damn attractive, but he can't do this. Not here. Not now. Not when his captors are probably watching to see what lines he'll cross. How can the sergeant trust that she actually wants to be here when Grebenshchikov is so damn good at blackmail? How can he trust anything? Bucky has never bedded anyone who didn't want him and he won't start now, not willingly.

“Please, doll; you need to leave.”

“Fine.” The dame climbs off his bed with a huff, glaring at the sniper as she stalks out the door. Maybe she really did want to be here but that doesn't change his answer.

Bucky hopes that she won't get in trouble for her failure. He hopes that Grebenshchikov will let him have this one denial and write the whole thing off as a failed experiment. He needs this small rebellion, sad though it may be; he needs to pretend that he's still human after what he just agreed to, a human with a conscience buried somewhere deep.

What the hell am I doing, Stevie? Bucky thinks, throwing himself down on the bed. You always were the better Catholic so tell me, how many sins can one person commit before God stops forgiving? How many pieces of my soul can I afford to sign away?

---

One target. One bullet.

One target, one bullet, half a dozen missions and the dominoes keep falling one by one. Although Bucky sometimes hesitates, he never fails to pull the trigger when it counts.

Grebenshchikov christens him the Winter Soldier after he spends three days in a snowdrift waiting for his seventh target. He breaks the man's neck with his bare hands and then shoves him off a cliff to fake a tragic skiing accident. It takes the sergeant two more days to thaw and sometimes he can still feel the echo of that frozen cold beneath his skin. Sometimes he feels like a corpse in truth instead of just in name. For Bucky is a ghost, the assassin Hydra uses when no one else will do. He's the one they don't admit to, the shadow in the dark, and his targets are dead men walking as soon as he's set loose.

The sergeant doesn't ask any questions beyond what's necessary. If he has to kill these people then it's better that they're strangers and he tries not to think about the sorrow that he's leaving in his wake.

After every mission, there's a new dame waiting for him. Blond, brunette, redhead – Bucky sends them all away. No matter how tempting, the brief pleasure isn't worth it. He doesn't want to be rewarded for killing Hydra's enemies and he plans to continue his refusal as long as Grebenshchikov allows.

Bucky's existence is a grey limbo broken up by bursts of violence. Sometimes he wakes up on a table in the lab and doesn't remember how he got there or struggles with his name. The scientists age and disappear but the sniper never changes; he still looks twenty-seven even as Grebenshchikov gains a smart young protégé. The only bright spot in Bucky's life is seeing Steve before each mission, these brief visits the one demand he ever makes.

If the Red Room ever kills his captain then the sergeant will destroy them. Hydra's greatest assassin would turn on his masters instantly.

But Grebenshchikov knows which threats to utter. The doctor has Bucky by the balls as long as Steve is in his pocket, a careful balance that he juggles skillfully. He can give the sergeant any order, send him anywhere without supervision, and trust that he'll come crawling back with one more stain upon his soul.

---

On his twenty-second mission, the sniper is sent to New York City. He doesn't know how Hydra manages to sneak him into the country when he's a wanted traitor and to tell the truth, he doesn't care.

Bucky is used to being drugged and waking up in foreign countries – that's the Red Room's basic MO every time he starts a mission – and it's not as though he could borrow Hydra's method. He'll have to get Steve home some other way.

This time the sergeant wakes up in a bank vault underneath Manhattan. His captors seem to have these safehouses in every major city. They're stocked full of money, guns, clothing, and one or two low level flunkies to give him everything he needs. No handlers any longer, not for him.

Bucky blinks at the ceiling a few times and then sits up, waving off the man who tries to help him stand. One of Hydra's nameless lackeys, he hovers awkwardly as the sergeant runs through some stretches to get the stiffness out. As always, Bucky finishes with his left arm, twisting and turning until the gears are whirring smoothly once again. While the ache in his shoulder never fades completely, the stretches keep him functional enough to push on through the pain.

“My mission?” the sniper asks once he's worked out all the kinks. He holds out his hand and Hydra's man gives him a folder with the details of his target. Grebenshchikov has gotten lazy with his briefings; “You're killing someone in New York” was the extent of his latest summary.

That was more vague than usual, which probably means that Bucky's current target isn't someone that he'll like. The sniper has crippled half a dozen doctors over the years in fits of temper, Boris far from the only soldier who gave his life for Hydra's cause. Honestly, Grebenshchikov doesn't seem to care as long as he's not injured and indeed, Bucky may be adding another flunky to his body count tonight. Because when he reads the target's name, his vision washes red.

Howard Stark, Bucky thinks, crushing the folder in his hands. Howard fucking Stark.

“What the Hell is this?” the sergeant growls, slamming Hydra's unfortunate lackey up against the wall. Bucky presses his metal arm against the man's throat until he chokes and it takes all of his self-control not to kill the bastard now. Grebenshchikov has never asked the sniper to assassinate someone that he recognizes; the Red Room has never asked him to kill someone that he knew before.

“What the Hell is this?!” Bucky asks again.

“I-I don't know,” the other man gasps out. “I-It's just w-what I was given. I h-hand out paperwork. Please... I d-don't want to d-die.”

The sniper shoves his arm forward until his captive starts turning purple, his feet kicking helplessly against the wall. The world would hardly miss another Hydra flunky, some dumb-ass kid who chose the wrong side in this war.

And what would Steve think if he saw you now? What about this poor fool's mama when he never comes back home?

“Fuck. Just fuck this shit,” Bucky swears. He drops the other man to the floor just before he passes out and then spins around, kicking a chair across the room. “Howard fucking Stark.”

The sergeant doesn't know if he can do this. Stark might have been an asshole through and through but he'd been a friend to Steve when Bucky couldn't. He deserves better than a bullet in the dark. Hell, he won't even get a bullet since the Winter Soldier isn't meant to be here; Howard Stark is slated for another tragic accident.

“You. What's your name?”

“Jasper, s-sir,” the lackey stammers. He looks like he's not sure whether to be honored or terrified that Bucky is speaking to him, one hand rubbing at his tortured throat.

“Show me your clothes. I need something inconspicuous that will blend in on the street,” the sniper orders and Jasper jumps to obey. He opens a cabinet in the far wall, offering Bucky his choice of casual wear. Jeans and hoodies and long sleeve t-shirts; it's enough to make the sergeant sigh.

“No one makes an effort anymore,” he mutters. No gal would have looked twice at someone who dressed this badly back in 1945.

“Sir?”

“It's nothing,” Bucky says, waving Jasper off. He makes his selection and changes quickly, finishing the outfit with a pair of leather gloves. “Is there a key to this place? I need to do some scouting and I don't know when I'll be back.”

“No key, sir. Code 5671 will open the side door,” the other man explains as Bucky swipes his mission folder off the floor. “I've been instructed to wait here until your work is finished so just knock on the vault when you return. Oh, and the cameras have all been taken care of; you won't need to be careful sneaking out.”

Bucky acknowledges Jasper's information with a sharp nod and then strides out of the vault. A hallway, a set of stairs, and then another hallway spits him out in the bank proper, high arching ceilings and gilded frescoes on the walls. Steve always used to love these sort of buildings; he used to say that art and architecture should work hand in hand. The memory hits Bucky hard and he has to stop for a moment, his heart aching to be back home again.

But Brooklyn isn't home now; not with Steve in Russia. And our old apartment was probably torn down years ago, the sergeant tells himself. He hasn't been back to New York since he shipped out in the forties and there's no way his city hasn't changed.

Indeed, stepping out onto the street is like stepping into a war zone, lights and cars and noise as far as he can see. The city has only grown more crowded and the apartments taller, concrete spires reaching toward the sky. Bucky doesn't recognize more than half a dozen building in the skyline when he looks around so he just picks a direction and starts walking aimlessly. He's always thought best while moving and he needs to think right now.

How did I get here? the sniper wonders. How did whether or not to murder Howard Stark become a choice I have to make?

He doesn't want to. Of course he doesn't want to. But what Bucky wants hasn't mattered for a long, long time. What matters is Steve and what he can get away with, whether he can lie to Grebenshchikov without pushing him too far. The man accepts Bucky's hatred without flinching and injured henchmen with a shrug but actual disobedience is met with swift and brutal retribution; the sergeant's learned that lesson more than once.

Those are the nightmares that make him wake up screaming, a stranger's fingers clawing at the inside of his brain. Those are the nights that he ends up puking his guts out in a corner, trying to erase the memory of Steve's whimpers from his mind.

Grebenshchikov won't kill the other man – the sergeant won't allow it – but he can't stop the scientist from hurting him, from hurting both of them in ways that Bucky doesn't want to think about. The space between dead and dying is larger than most people realize, an empty chasm that the doctor fills with pain.

So doing nothing is not an option. Howard Stark isn't exactly a private figure and Hydra is certainly going to notice if he simply doesn't die. Bucky could try to fake a failure but Grebenshchikov knows the limits of the Winter Soldier's skill too well. The sniper would probably have to get himself shot in order for the Russian to believe him and Hydra would just send someone else to do the job instead. He may be their most talented assassin but quantity over quality will take the best man down.

I could tell him, Bucky thinks. Tell Stark the truth and ask for him to help me. The man's a genius, a weapons trader, and filthy rich to boot; who better to go against the Red Room? Who else would be mad enough to try?

Stark could fake his death, keep Hydra off balance long enough for Bucky to be transported back to Russia and signal him somehow. All the sergeant needs is a bit of tech to scramble Grebenshchikov's defenses, a bit of luck to break into Stevie's cryo-chamber, and a fancy Stark-made weapon to fight his way back out. Plus a ride, of course, but Stark owns half a dozen airplanes; he could afford to pick them up.

And then what? Assuming Stark believed his story, assuming the other man actually had tech to match the Red Room, assuming that Grebenshchikov didn't find out the truth and kill his captain first... What would happen afterward? Captain America was a national fucking hero; he had his own damn holiday. Even without Hydra's influence, the SSR would never allow Steve to continue his friendship with a traitor. If Bucky was lucky, they'd just execute him and he might get to say goodbye. If he was unlucky, they'd toss him in prison or another laboratory and throw away the key.

Either way, Steve would be left with no one. No one who remembered that there was a man inside that costume; no one who cared more about Steve Rogers than the hero he'd become. Steve would be left with only the SSR for protection, a few good agents and a mountain of corruption underneath.

Bucky can't trust them to keep Steve safe and he sure as Hell can't trust the other man to keep himself alive.

“Watch it, dickhead,” someone snarls, bumping into the sniper's shoulder. Bucky's head snaps up, his hand curling into a fist before he can stop himself. But it's not a threat; it's just some asshole who's too big for his britches, and Bucky actually finds it comforting that New Yorkers haven't changed.

Apparently, the streets also haven't changed as much as he'd thought. When the sergeant looks around, his feet have led him straight back to Brooklyn and his old neighborhood. Not much of it is left now, the old apartments replaced with gleaming condos, and his old haunts long forgotten. No one goes to dance halls anymore. But the corner store is still there, the one that used to sell candy for a penny and soda pop for five. It's even got the same name on the sign above the door, three generations of Giovannis going strong.

The sniper grew up on these streets. He hung out on that corner and met Steve behind that building, threw two punches to end the brawling and completely changed his life. Because Bucky didn't fall in love like in the pictures – with some gorgeous broad in a flowing gown and everybody cheering. Bucky fell in love with dirt on his knees and blood on his knuckles and he never once looked back.

Never told him either. Told Stevie all about the dames just to see him blushing but never told him how many times I've almost called his name in bed. Couldn't risk him hating me, the sergeant thinks before his lips twist sardonically. Actually, no, who am I kidding? I knew he'd let me down gently while promising eternal friendship and that would've been so much fucking worse. I probably would've volunteered instead of being drafted just to escape the awkwardness.

Bucky's life would have been a whole lot shorter then. He would have died on Zola's table without Steve's slapdash rescue. No serum. No Winter Soldier. Just one more forgotten grave.

James Buchanan Barnes. MIA. 1943.

But Bucky didn't tell him and Steve paid for his silence with his freedom if not with his life. It's Bucky's fault that the other man was captured by the Red Room and that's a debt he cannot pay.

“I'm going to kill Howard Stark,” the sergeant murmurs, shoving his hands into his pockets as he takes one last look around. The street is mostly empty now, no one close enough to hear him, and he just wanted to know how the words would sound.

Truthfully, Bucky almost expects to be struck by lightning but all that answers him is silence. If God exists, then He's not interfering, maybe because the sniper already knows that this is wrong. Free will means the right to sin as well as prosper and he knows which road he's on.

So Bucky just nods once before spinning on his heel and walking off. He's done talking to his ghosts and now that he's come to a decision, it's time to make a plan.

In truth, the act is simple. The security in Stark's mansion is laughable considering his fortune, men hired for their ability to look scary rather than their skill. Within six hours, Bucky has snuck inside and is hiding in the rafters, staying out of sight as he listens to the servants gossiping. One is getting married, one doesn't know what to buy for supper, and one needs to prep the Lamborghini so that Stark can drive back into the city later on.

Apparently the scientist is still a workaholic, spending more time in his lab than with his family, and Bucky can't help feeling sorry for the man's poor wife and kid. Howard always was self-centered and the woman who married him must have the patience of a saint.

Her loss is the sergeant's gain since a late evening drive is the perfect setting for an 'accident.' Bucky follows Stark's mechanic into the garage, waiting until the man is finished and then making a few modifications of his own. Bucky doesn't cut Stark's brake line; there's bound to be an investigation and that would be too obvious. However, a few frayed edges can work wonders, enough that a sudden stop should send Stark spinning out of control. If the crash doesn't kill him then the sniper will.

Once the car is prepped, Bucky sneaks back outside and jogs a few miles up the road. He's not leaving anything to chance on this one, but ensuring an accident isn't hard at all. The sergeant simply finds a blind corner and waits until he hears Stark coming before stepping out into the middle of the road.

Honestly, the other man might have crashed without assistance since he and his wife are fighting when Bucky startles them. He can see them through the windshield: Stark frustrated and the woman disappointed before she sees the sniper and her eyes go wide in fear. She wasn't supposed to die tonight but Stark is already swerving and his wife screams shrilly as the Lamborghini goes careening off the road.

All Bucky can do is watch as the car flips and rolls, sliding down the embankment with a crunch of broken grass. When he looks in the window, both Starks are dead already, necks broken cleanly in the fall.

Their deaths were quick and painless and the sergeant takes this as a comfort. A small comfort but the only one he has.

Bucky checks the scene one more time and then heads back the way he came. While this road is private, Stark's servants might have heard the crash and he needs to be gone before someone calls the cops.

The sniper takes a roundabout route back to Manhattan, slipping onto a bus with a bunch of drunken students to muddy up the trail. No one should be looking for him but it never hurts to be cautious and focusing on stealth stops Bucky from thinking about what he's just done.

“The job is finished. Get your drugs and call my fucking masters because I want to leave right now,” the sergeant growls when he finally arrives back at the safehouse, shoving Jasper out of the way when he opens the vault door. The other man was waiting there just like he'd promised, a good little flunky through and through.

“Okay, um, I need to make a phone call,” Jasper stammers, waving vaguely toward the back. The man's an utter twit and the sniper really wants to smack him, which means he'll probably be running the whole show in twenty years. However, twit or not, he gets Bucky out in record time.

Grebenshchikov is all smiles when the sergeant wakes up in the Red Room, patting Bucky on the shoulder like he just passed another test. Hell, he probably did. But he's not in the mood for celebrating. The Winter Soldier never fails a mission because Bucky Barnes is Hydra's fucking lapdog and the chain around his neck gets tighter every time he breathes.

He returns to his room as soon as Grebenshchikov allows it, ready to send away the usual broad so that he can go to sleep. But when the sniper turns on the light, his words die unspoken and his heart lurches painfully.

Because the man on his bed is small and blond and fragile, like Steve before the serum, and Bucky can't stop himself from reaching out. He touches the man's face, half expecting him to be a hallucination, but his skin is warm when the sergeant strokes two fingers down his cheek. The blond smiles up at Bucky, his lips parted in invitation, and the sniper's resistance shatters into dust. He's never going to have Steve and he knows it; what the harm in pretending just this once?

“Don't say anything,” Bucky orders, waiting until the other man nods before leaning down to claim his mouth. He kisses the blond fiercely and then again with all the gentleness that he can muster. Tonight this man is Steve. Tonight the sergeant is going to forget that he's a traitor, a coward, and a sinner with bloodstains on his hands.


Part III: To Gamble