sam_storyteller: (Gen Fic)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2015-06-21 11:50 am
Entry tags:

Avengers: Longform

Title: Longform
Rating: PG-13 (Violence)
Summary: The Fugitive's History: A Search For A Man Out Of Time. (How I Found Bucky Barnes And Barely Lived To Tell About It.)
Notes: This is a sequel to Exclusive, which was written as a piece of longform journalism about the Avengers, pre-CA2 but set in a slightly alternate universe where the Avengers have moved into Stark Tower. Longform is set after CA2, pre-Age Of Ultron, and while it acknowledges the events of CA2, it uses the same general continuity as Exclusive.
Warnings: Mild violence; mentions and portrayal of PTSD. What you'd generally expect from a story with a barely-recovering Bucky at its core.

Also, there's no twist at the end of this one, guys, sorry. I couldn't top the twist at the end of the last story. :D

Also available at AO3.


THERE IS only one professor of Superheroism in the United States, possibly in the world, although she prefers the term Metahuman Studies. Dr. Joan-Marie Provone has a lot to say about the emergence of real life genre superheroes, the history of comic book heroism, and way society treats the Avengers now, as well as the way it may react to them in the future. But one remark she made in a recent interview about the Avengers stands out.

"Superheroes are tasked with the unusual, the epic, the overscale," she said. "In the meantime, there isn't much for them to do. And it behooves us to remember that nature abhors a vacuum. The frequency of overscale events is likely to rise in direct correlation with the number of overscale individuals present to combat it."

In other words, the more superheroes you get, the more supervillains start appearing.

Even so, nobody's liable to ask Captain America, on whose image the "super hero" comic book genre was founded, to leave New York just yet.

"I hate these sons of bitches," Clint said over the comm, as he rained hell down on the pair of men who had Steve cornered. The arrows bounced harmlessly off one of them, but an explosive caught the other one in the back and blew him flat. "Can we please finally take them down? They're ruining my morning commute."

"To where?" Tony asked. The last Steve knew, he'd been about a block north, trying to hold the perimeter around the bank. "Where exactly are you commuting, Hawkeye?"

"I have places to go, people to see," Clint insisted.

"They blocked off the street to his favorite bakery," Natasha put in.

"Oh man, no carrot muffins? I was looking forward to carrot muffins," Sam added, and Steve smiled.

"Carrot muffins after bad guys," he said.

"That's cool, they're worth it," Sam replied.

Tony ignored the discussion of muffins as if baked goods were beneath him, when Steve knew they absolutely were not. "Okay also? This guy has a giant iron ball covered in spikes on a chain, and I am not sure how to deal with that."

"Shoot him in the face," Natasha suggested.

"Thor, behind you," Sam added.

"These men have no honor," Thor roared.

There were eight of them, or at least, there had been eight of them at the last two bank robberies; less than eight were still standing after the Avengers mobilized against them during the third. They called themselves the Wrecking Crew, and Steve really, really hated them. They had heavily reinforced body armor of some kind, at least two of them were strong enough that they had to have some kind of biological enhancements, and they were bank robbers.

It just struck him as so terribly unimaginative.

These men could be heroes. They could be Avengers, with time and training. And at least, though he never wished for terrorists, if you were going to be a bad guy you might as well go for broke. Bank robbery was beneath them; it was a waste of their power, and it showed a petty turn of mind that was almost more offensive than the theft itself.

A large green hand swung down from above, and the second guy who'd had Steve pinned was swept away in a blur of motion that said the Hulk was getting tired of toying with them.

"Oh, hey," Tony said suddenly, sounding genuinely startled. "Your pal's here, Cap."

"My who now?" Steve asked.

"Well, someone just swung past me in blue tights and a red face mask."

"Hey! I see him!" Sam called, sounding delighted.

"Oh man, Spider-man's here?" Clint asked. "Where? I'm collecting urban legends. Falcon, come get me, I wanna see him."

"Focus," Steve said, disarming the fella that Clint's arrow had knocked unconscious. He kicked him over onto his back and set to work, bending a handy bit of rebar around his wrists. This wasn't one of the enhanced ones, at least he thought not. It'd probably hold him. For good measure, he took the man's helmet and plonked it down on his own head, on top of his cowl.

"That's a good look for you," Natasha said, as Steve joined her in the little plaza in front of the bank. "Civilians are all out, bank's locked tight, but if they can just push through walls that's not going to matter."

"Hawkeye got one, Hulk's got one -- " Sam said, spotting from above.

"I have two down, here," Tony said. "One of them's a heavy hitter. He's not gonna stay down for long."

"Uh, Spider-man got one but then he disappeared," Clint said.

"It looks like he took a hit," Sam agreed.

"That leaves three -- " there was a roar and the sound of a hammer colliding with metal, " -- two," Steve corrected.

"One," Thor said in a satisfied voice.

"What did you do?" Tony asked.

"I struck a man with my hammer. He struck his brother with his body."

"Either of them one of the heavies, Thor?" Steve asked.

"No. One remains."

"Anyone seen Hulk?"

"I've got a bead," Tony replied. "He's, ah, he's boxing with our last baddie."

"Okay. Let's get everything secured. Widow, Falcon, go help Iron Man keep his down. Hawkeye -- "

"I'll coordinate pickup with NYPD, they're on their way."

"Great. Thor, back Hulk up, I'm coming to you."

Natasha held out her fist for a bump as they parted. He bumped obligingly, grinned at her, and took off towards the sound of distant roaring. He ran down an alley, cornered when the roars began shifting to his left, and dodged past a dumpster.

There was a rustling noise and a soft, pained breath, and Steve jerked to a stop.

THE SOCIAL and possibly metaphysical phenomenon that requires supervillains to fill the vacuum created by out-of-work superheroes may be the reason the Wrecking Crew formed, though their decision to rob banks in Manhattan seems less than well-planned. Why would you deliberately get as close to the Avengers as possible when committing a crime? Surely they could have robbed banks in San Francisco, or Buenos Aires.

There are extenuating circumstances, of course. Crime, particularly of the "overscale" sort, has been on the rise since the fall of SHIELD and the rediversion of other law-enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, to support part of the workload SHIELD formerly handled. Particularly in Washington DC and New York, where the Avengers are most visible, Captain America's violent destruction of his former place of employment, accompanied by Black Widow and the Falcon, seemed to stir a revolutionary spirit in certain kinds of criminal.

The Wrecking Crew, an entire assembly of that kind of criminal, moved with a vicious efficiency that hardly allowed time for a response. Their first robbery was completed in eight minutes; the Avengers weren't even notified until police arrived, two minutes after the completed robbery, to find a war zone where a bank had been. The Crew had simply bulldozed their way in, picked up anything not bolted down, and vanished. The second robbery, four weeks later, took six minutes. The Avengers were called, but it took them six minutes just to reach the crime scene, even with the small, efficient urban jet they keep on standby.

The Avengers aren't really designed for first response. Seven people need time to assemble, especially when some of them have very specific gear to put on, and seven is not quite enough to have a smaller team on standby at all times. As a unit and as individuals they are extremely capable, but they are not generally regarded as an immediate solution to any given problem smaller than full-scale invasion. They defer, whenever possible, to police and fire units, and rightly so, to the minds of most New Yorkers. Nobody likes a show-off.

In this, Captain America has set an impeccable tone of respect and cooperation that has even the surliest of NYPD hardliners admitting that the Avengers aren't out to steal anyone's thunder. (Thor has plenty of his own.) He has also set a non-expansionist policy, post-SHIELD, when people were murmuring worriedly about Tony Stark funding the Avengers as a private security force. The Captain's mandate is clear: the Avengers are a small, special-operations force, and they are neither credentialed nor trained to take on the duties of law enforcement and emergency service agencies.

But the Wrecking Crew aren't exactly your run-of-the-mill bank robbers, either.

"Hello?" Steve called, when he heard the sound again -- wet breathing, a person in pain. "Who's there?"

The breathing went silent.

"It's okay," he said. "You're safe now. I'm Captain America. You sound injured -- I just want to help."

A soft scrabbling noise was enough to lead him to the source, but in the dim light of the dust-filled alley it was hard to discern at first where exactly the other person was.

"Guys, I'm going to need a minute," Steve said, and tapped his comm off. He swung his shield, dispersing some of the dust in the air, and came forward when he saw a shadow against one wall. It was a man -- small, young, but too large to be a child. He was smeared in dirt, knees against his chest, curled with one arm tucked between thighs and belly in a way that was worrying, given the smell of blood in the air.

"Hi, I'm Steve. Can you tell me your name?" Steve asked, kneeling next to him. There was a gasp and a soft laugh, followed by a grunt. "Hey, can you hear me?"

"Yeah," came a voice, low and oddly hostile. Steve reached out, then hesitated.

The man was wearing the shredded remains of a shirt, and at first it looked like one of the Spider-man costume shirts that had sprung up lately, blue with cheap red-and-black print on it. But the shirt was skin-tight and thick, and most of the imitations didn't have the red gloves.

None of the imitations were one-piece, with blue leggings and red boots. Steve noticed, slower than he should have, that a shredded cowl was hanging off the man's face.

"Spider-man," he said calmly. "Clint and Sam said you took a hit."

"I'm fine," the man rasped.

"Okay, well, clearly that's not the case," Steve said. "Listen, let me -- "

"I'm fine," he insisted. "I have a healing factor, like you."

"Son, you have lost a lot of blood, and I already went easy on you once," Steve insisted. "Just let me have a -- "

The man let out a rueful laugh and reached up with his free hand, tugging the shreds of cowl off completely. He raised his head and Steve knew that face, the curious brown eyes and unruly hair.

"Oh, Parker," he said, as Peter Parker gave him a hangdog look. "You are trouble in tights."

THE THIRD time the Wrecking Crew robbed a bank, the Avengers were ready.

I kept in touch with a few of the Avengers since my original piece on them went live. In fact, it would have been difficult not to. For two full weeks after Heroes In Manhattan appeared, my life got very crazy: comments flooded the online article, and emails and even handwritten letters poured in. My professional freelance blog's following doubled in size overnight, though most people were only following me so that they could comment on the article there as well.

Suddenly, someone with a real face and a real name had a direct line to the Avengers, and it was me. Overnight I was expected to become either their pimp or their PR man, I never quite knew which. Most of the questions were typical curiosity -- what are they like? What do they like to eat? Is Captain America single? -- but a handful of letters had more insightful questions, questions that I found I wanted answers to as well. I began to compile a list of talking points to bring along if I were ever invited back to the Tower.

And then I realized I had Captain America's email address, because he sent me a thank-you note for the article. I also had Hawkeye's phone number, and contact information for Tony Stark's scheduler. I had Maria Hill's business card. (Former SHIELD Agent Hill now works for Stark, as an upper-level logistics manager at Stark Industries.)

So I opened a dialogue with Steve Rogers, which lasted through the destruction of SHIELD and the hearings that followed, at a time when it would have been politically inexpedient to do a follow-up article. Around the time the Wrecking Crew was gaining momentum, we had brunch at a cafe that he likes near Stark Tower.

"Well, don't put this on the record," he told me (he's now given permission, since the Wrecking Crew are safely under lock and key), "but we're on a rotating sixty-second standby."

He explained that they had instituted the standby as an emergency measure, unsustainable long-term but practical and useful for the moment. At least three Avengers were in-uniform and on-call, required to be able to report to the jet in a minute or less, at all times, until the Crew was brought under control. He was on a break, but as soon as we were done, he was heading back to the Tower to suit up. His official shift would cover five o'clock in the evening through four in the morning, leading a downsized team consisting of himself, the Falcon, and Hawkeye. The scheduling was arranged, in part, so that Tony Stark could have dinner with his fiancee and Natasha Romanoff wouldn't miss Dog Cops.

It appears that none of them counted on one of New York's local urban legends waiting on standby as well.

"I can't go to the hospital," Parker rasped. "I have family, I can't -- "

"It's okay," Steve soothed. "Just let me see, all right? I can't leave you here if your guts are hanging out."

Parker sighed, but he tilted his head back against the wall and let his legs slide out, hand dropping away. The entire front of his costume was deeply gouged, but he'd been lucky. The only place the skin was broken was his abdomen.

But there it was...bad. Maybe not so lucky.

"This, this is," Steve said, pressing his wrist to his mouth. He'd seen wounds like this in the war. "Parker, you're going to need a doctor. Even if you heal fast, you might not heal correctly, and sepsis -- "

"I've dealt with worse. I'll be okay."

"In an alley? They'll find you anyway. Look..." Steve cast around. "We'll get you out of the uniform, you'll be just another casualty."

"And when I heal over by tomorrow?" Parker asked, breaking into a cough.

Steve reached up to rub his forehead, then realized the helmet he'd stolen from the Crew was still on his head, as was his cowl. "Here," he said, tugging both off and yanking hard enough on the cowl that the seam where it was sewn into the uniform ripped neatly. "Wear this. We'll get you back to the Tower, there's medical staff there that can help."

Parker gave him an incredulous look, so Steve put the helmet back on his head and put the cowl on Parker's. It covered enough of his face that he probably wouldn't be recognized. Steve tapped his comm.

"I need medical at my location," he said. "I have a friendly with injuries for Stark Tower."

"Dispatch confirmed," JARVIS said in his ear. "Ambulance is on its way."

"Okay, this isn't going to be fun," Steve warned Parker, then hoisted him up in his arms. Parker grunted but didn't cry out as Steve brought him to the mouth of the alley.

"They'll see," Parker mumbled, sounding like he was fading fast.

"It's okay. I'll make sure you're safe," Steve assured him. He thought he'd read somewhere that Parker was a prodigious rising star journalist -- he was twenty four, only two years younger than Steve, but he looked much younger. Steve remembered meeting him when he arrived to do the story on them and thinking he wasn't much more than a boy.

"Sorry," Parker murmured, and Steve felt him go lax in his arms as the ambulance approached. The back doors popped open and two women in uniform were out almost before it stopped.

"This is Spider-man," Steve said, as he laid him on the gurney they tugged free. "He's friendly, he's a metahuman. Do not take the mask off his face."

"Captain, we need to -- "

"He has a healing factor," Steve interrupted. One of the women glanced up at him. "He's going to heal fast, you just need to stabilize him and get him disinfected and stitched up. You have to leave the mask on and we need to take him to the Tower as quickly as we can."

They exchanged a look as they loaded him in. Steve climbed in after.

"Sir," one woman said warily.

"I'm making this easy on you," he said. "I'm riding escort. If your boss yells or someone tries to sue, you just say Captain America made you do it. I'll take the heat."

"Do we have a name, sir?" the other paramedic asked, radio at the ready.

"John Doe Rogers," Steve replied. "You can list me as next of kin."

He waited until she was done with her radio, then tapped his comm. "This is Cap, I'm en route to Stark Tower with Spider-man. I need a status report, because I'm out for the next fifteen minutes at least."

"All clear here," Natasha reported. "You can stand down."

"Excellent. You mopping up?"

"NYPD and emergency services are on the scene," Sam answered. "How's Spider-man?"

Steve glanced at Parker, now unconscious with a drip in his arm. One of the paramedics nodded.

"I think he'll be fine. I'll let you know when I do."

"Lay on some food for us, will you?" Tony added. "See you home in an hour."

"Sure thing. Yell if they get rambunctious," Steve said, and heard Tony mutter rambunctious amusedly before he tapped off again.

THE BATTLE with the Wrecking Crew was not the first time Spider-man had been sighted in New York, or been mentioned in the media. Along with a handful of others who may or may not exist, he comprises the shadowy side of superheroism: individuals unsanctioned by law enforcement or federal mandate, whose motives can be as opaque as their masks.

New Yorkers who believe they exist at all generally believe they are a force for good, but there is a tension between wanting heroes to protect us and fearing people with more power than ordinary humans possess. Heroes who won't show their face -- who won't even stand forward to be acknowledged in daylight -- fall under more suspicion than a billionaire who grants magazine interviews or a soldier whose newsreels are archived at the Smithsonian. Even Natasha Romanoff, who is perhaps the most private of the Avengers, doesn't wear a mask. New Avenger Sam Wilson has a very public record of exemplary military service, and has not taken specific precautions to avoid the spotlight the way many Avengers did in the days immediately following the Chitauri invasion.

It may be that Spider-man realized the fine line he walked after tangling with the Wrecking Crew as an auxiliary Avenger, or it's possible that Captain America caught him by the elbow and convinced him to raise his visibility. The Avengers are coy about their dealings with their shadowy colleagues. It's even possible the recent public reaction to Daredevil, prior to the fall of Wilson Fisk, has made Spider-man wary of secrecy.

How this singular oddity will be treated in the coming days in the media, by law enforcement, by other metahumans, and even by the general public, is likely to be a test case for other non-sanctioned superheroes to emerge from the shadows. It is a lot for one man to carry.

Once he'd seen Peter delivered to Medical in Stark Tower, and warned the doctors there not to remove the mask, Steve stepped out of the treatment room where they were puzzling over what to do with Peter's already-healing gut wound. With one eye on the glass window so he could monitor them, he took his phone out of his belt.

"JARVIS, Peter Parker has some family in Queens, right?" he asked.

"Indeed, Captain. Mr. Parker lives with his father's sister-in-law, May Parker. Records indicate she is his only living relation."

"Can you find her phone number?"

"Yes, Captain."

"Okay. Put me through."

The phone rang three times before there was a click, and a clear, worried-sounding voice. "Peter?"

"May Parker?" Steve asked.

"Oh -- ah, yes," she said. "I'm sorry, I'm waiting for a call from my nephew and I'd like to keep this line free -- "

"I'm calling about Peter, ma'am," Steve said, and heard her inhale sharply. "He's safe!" he said hurriedly. "He's getting medical treatment at Stark Tower."

"Medical treatment?" she asked. Steve winced.

"He's been hurt, ma'am, but it's not serious. I got your number from him and I thought I'd let you know he's safe."

"Who is this, please?" she asked.

"Sorry, my name is Steve Rogers. I'm -- "

"I know who you are, Captain," she said gently. "I assume you helped him?"

"Yes, Ms. Parker," he said.

"Thank you, Captain. Peter is very important to me. Are you sure he's all right?"

Steve looked back into the treatment room. Peter was pale, dark circles under his eyes visible even with the mask, but an IV was already draining nutrients into him, and they were stitching up the worst of the wounds.

"Well, he'll be off his feet for a day or two, but otherwise he should be fine," he said. "I can send someone to bring you here, if you like, but the mess downtown -- it might be better to wait for a few hours at least. Peter's probably going to be unconscious for a while anyway."

"He thinks very highly of you," she said quietly. Steve wondered if she knew who Peter really was. "Will you stay with him? If you can't, I should come."

"No, Ms. Parker, I'll stay," he said. "We're all very fond of Peter."

"I'm glad. Thank you, Captain Rogers."

"Call me Steve. Let me give you my number," he said, and after she'd written it down and he'd assured her again that he'd stay with Peter, they said their goodbyes. The doctors were mostly gone from the room, only one nurse remaining. Steve knocked, and she gestured for him to come in.

"How is he?" he asked.

"Recovering fast. I'd think he was you if he weren't so scrawny," she said, smiling at him. "This is Spider-man?"

"Yep. Good kid."

"Not one of your team, though."

"Well. Not yet. Doesn't mean he's not one of the good guys," Steve said. "I'll sit with him a while, if you're done."

"Press the call button if you need anything," she said, and patted him on the shoulder as she left. Steve sat next to the bed and tucked a finger under the edge of the cowl quickly, brushing a shaggy lock of brown hair back up behind Peter's ear.

"What are we gonna do with you, kid?" he asked with a sigh.

THE TERM "metahuman" has come to be preferred, at least by their own PR officers, for human beings with enhanced or altered biology. Thor Odinson, not being human, is not a metahuman; Steve Rogers, with chemical enhancements bonded to his DNA, is. Tony Stark, while a genius, is a physically baseline human who uses a "prosthetic", and is thus not a metahuman; Bruce Banner, with an alter ego who changes his physical form and inhabits it, is. Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton, and Sam Wilson are highly trained and naturally talented, but they, like Tony Stark, are "baselines".

Sources within the superhero establishment seem in agreement that Spider-man is a metahuman, but there is some debate over the nature of his enhancements. Witnesses have seen him climb sheer glass with his hands, but never his bare hands, always the gloves that are part of his full-body concealment. He appears to spit a sticky fluid from his wrists, but the fluid is synthetic and may be the product of mechanical compression, like very high-tech Silly String. His acrobatics, while impressive, are not any more impressive than Natasha Romanoff doing an agility workout.

But then there's the footage of him on YouTube, taken during the Wrecking Crew fight. In it, at one point, he lifts a car.

In the footage, relative to the car, it's been calculated that he stands at about five foot ten and weighs maybe a hundred and sixty pounds. But there he is, benching a Volvo. Either he's got some serious engineering game on Iron Man, or he is metahuman.

With the help of JARVIS and a handy StarkPad, Steve ordered a massive amount of food from three different restaurants. JARVIS let him know when it arrived, and he left his vigil for a few minutes to unpack and lay out the food, filling a plate for himself quickly. By the time the Avengers arrived back at the Tower, he was settled in at Parker's bedside again, eating lasagne and trawling the internet for news stories and posts about the fight. Tony had some service that clipped it all, and the Stark Industries PR office would handle any negative publicity, but Steve still liked to get a feel of the news for himself.

"Sir would like to know if you are coming to the meal, Captain," JARVIS said, after a while. "They have not waited on your presence to begin."

"Good," Steve said. "Tell him I'm going to stay here, unless I'm needed. I promised Spider-man I'd make sure nobody messed with him."

There was a momentary pause, and then JARVIS said, "Agent Romanoff wishes to know if you desire company."

"Sure, if she wants to," Steve said. "Everyone else planning to get some shuteye after the grub?"

"I believe so. Shall I have them report in to you when they wake, Captain?"

"No rush, we have the Crew in custody. The debrief can wait."

A few minutes later, Natasha walked in, wearing her favorite after-battle outfit -- sweatpants and a worn-out t-shirt, usually stolen from Clint or Sam -- and smelling like soap. She took in Steve, the empty plate, the boy on the bed wearing his cowl, and asked, "So...who is he?"

Steve raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think I know?"

"You've met him, what, twice now? Sitting by the bedside of a wounded comrade is one thing. You know him," she said, settling into a chair on the other side of the bed. "Also, you're still a really bad liar, Steve."

He shrugged. "Doesn't mean I'm gonna give you a name."


"Guilty." He glanced at Parker. "He was scared someone would find out. He has family to protect."

"So does Stark," she pointed out.

"Tony's a billionaire. Pepper has the best security in the country, and she lives with us."

"Thor has Jane Foster."

"Jane's in this voluntarily, and she's shown she can defend herself. Besides, keeping her a secret from Loki was never really an option."

Natasha sat back. "And you and me, Clint, Bruce and Sam, we're just lonely assholes."

"Basically," Steve replied. "Sam's got family but I wouldn't mess with his ma if you paid me."

"So what's he got?" she asked, nodding at Parker. "A spouse? Kids?"

"He's practically a kid himself. I don't know about a spouse."

She picked up his left hand, studying it briefly. "No ring or tan line. Maybe siblings? Parents?"

"Tasha," Steve said tiredly.

"Nosy by nature," she said impenitently.

"Leave him alone."

She saluted, then leaned back. "He did good work today, anyhow. We should recruit him."

"The Avengers have a transparency policy." Steve shook his head. "I can try to talk him around, but you know I'm not good at that...manipulation stuff."

"I could take a crack at it."


"Anyway, what're we gonna do about his face? Make him wear your big A-hat around until he leaves?"

"He won't be here that long. He has a healing factor."

"Jesus," she said, glancing at his bandages.

"Yeah, you should've seen him when I brought him in. Anyway, he'll be fine in hours, not days -- I'll take him home tomorrow or the next day." Steve looked down at his tablet. "I'm going to try to convince him to tell us who he is. Just the Avengers, at least. He knows we can keep a secret."

"It's probably smart, not telling anyone," she said. "Can't stuff that genie back in the bottle."

"It can't be easy."

"No, not easy," Natasha agreed. "But there's a freedom in being unknown. There's a boldness that I think you lose when you're made visible. For good or ill."

"He hasn't seemed that bold in the past."

"Not as Spider-man, perhaps. Maybe in his other life. I would imagine he's an extraordinary person to know, out from under the mask."

Steve thought about the man they knew as Peter Parker -- an accomplished young journalist, intelligent, well-mannered, curious and capable. He'd liked him. He knew Clint had taken a shine to him, and Clint didn't often like strangers. He'd even been respectful of JARVIS.

All that, and he had committed himself to defense of the city, as well, without a support structure or anyone he could talk to about it. It fitted together, certainly, the fact that Parker had made a quiet, intensive study of superheroism, writing a book on the battle with the Chitauri and accepting SHIELD's invitation to do a piece on the Avengers.

"Yes, I think he probably is extraordinary," he agreed.

"Well, let me know if you need my help. I'm very persuasive, even when I'm not allowed to be manipulative," she said with a smile. Steve smiled back.

"Thanks," he said. "Get some rest in the meantime."

"Physician, heal thyself," she replied, and got up to leave.

WHEN ASKED if he is a metahuman, Spider-man asks first what a metahuman is. When told, he responds simply, "Yes. I am."

Bet you didn't see that one coming, did you.

Peter woke once in the night, but only briefly; once Steve told him that he was somewhere safe and his aunt knew he was all right, he slipped back into sleep pretty quickly. Steve went up to bed, leaving JARVIS to make sure nobody bothered the kid, and when he came down again in the morning, Peter was sitting up and eating breakfast, still in the cowl, looking about a million times better than he had the day before.

"The gaping abdominal wound is healing nicely," Peter said, showing off what looked like a bad case of road rash on his stomach. "In case I didn't say it in a haze of painkillers last night, thank you for saving me."

"All part of the job. There's a shower through there," Steve said, indicating the door to the bathroom, where there were no cameras. "When you're done, you can put these on."

He set a pile of clothes -- pants borrowed from Tony, who looked like he'd be a pretty close fit, and one of his own shirts, plus a full-visor motorcycle helmet -- on the bed. Peter eyed the helmet curiously.

"We're taking my bike," Steve said. "Plus it'll hide your face."

"Bet you want your cowl back," Peter remarked, hand rising to touch the tattered edge of it almost reverently.

"Keep it, I have more," Steve said easily. "Go, get cleaned up so your family doesn't think we kept you in a holding cell all night."

When Peter emerged from the bathroom, motorcycle helmet plonked on his head, Steve got a text from Tony. Very "The Stig". Not even one little peek?

Keep your eyes to yourself, Steve texted back, and led Peter down to the garage, where his bike was waiting at the exit ramp. Peter scrambled onto the bike behind him, wrapping his arms around Steve's chest, and they took off up the ramp with a roar of the engine and a whoop from Peter.

The ride out to Queens was nice -- not too long, and the traffic was decent -- but Steve was distracted for much of it, making sure they weren't being followed or watched. By the time they pulled up in front of Peter's home it was midmorning, and May Parker was out in the front yard, tending a scraggly but clearly well-loved garden.

"Thank goodness," she said, as Peter dismounted and tugged the helmet off. "I swear, Peter, you're going to get yourself killed for a story one day."

"Aunt May, this is Steve Rogers," Peter said, as she took her hands off her hips and hugged her nephew hello. "Steve, this is my aunt May."

"Pleasure to put a face with the name," Steve said, shaking her hand.

"Thank you for looking after this one. He doesn't know when to run away from danger," she said.

"An admirable trait, ma'am, at least in my part of the world," Steve said with a grin. She was a striking woman, very different from Peter -- short, solidly built, with fine threads of silver in her black hair.

"His uncle used to fill his head with comic book stories," she said affectionately, as Peter blushed. "Never thought he'd be making a living off the real thing. Will you come in for a drink, Steve? I'd like to say thank-you for pulling Peter's fat out of the fire."

Peter, slightly behind her, was making a wide-eyed NO face, shaking his head.

"I'd love to, but I can't today," Steve said. "Would you mind if I stopped by tomorrow to see Peter? Make sure he's doing all right?"

"Of course. I'll be out most of the day, but Peter will be here resting. Won't you?" she asked Peter, who nodded obediently. "Stop by any time, Steve."

"Nice to meet you, ma'am," Steve said, pulling his helmet on. "Peter, I'll see you tomorrow. Keep your head down, hey?"

"Yes, Captain," Peter said, and Steve saw May smack him in the back of the head, lovingly, as he pulled away.

UNFORTUNATELY, SPIDER-MAN is not granting interviews to the press. My discussion with him was less due to any decision to emerge from hiding, and more because Captain America told us to play nicely together.

Spider-man remains a non-Avenger. The Avengers' new transparency policy conflicts with his strongly-held, almost Libertarian belief in personal privacy, and until he is willing to remove the mask, Stark Industries can't sanction him as a member of the Avengers Initiative. Legally, there's too much at stake for a multinational corporation to fund a vigilante metahuman who won't show his face and can't prove any alibi if someone else in his costume commits a crime.

Spider-man is philosophical about this; he refuses to stand idly by when he could give aid, but he also refuses to sacrifice his friends and family "on the altar of heroism" as he puts it. To protect them from reprisal, he remains anonymous, and is willing to risk legal sanctions to keep them safe.

But to explain how I came to be standing on a rooftop in Washington DC, chatting with Spider-man under cover of darkness, we have to go back a lot further than the roots of his urban legend -- all the way back to 1943, to a Nazi slave labor camp full of American soldiers.

This is a story of the second world war, the cold war, the space race, the secret infiltration of an intelligence agency, the rise of Hydra from its own ashes, and the longest serving prisoner of war in the history of the American military: James Buchanan Barnes.

In the aftermath of the fall of SHIELD -- what Natasha Romanoff succinctly called "the wreck in the middle of the Potomac," -- I was asked by Captain America to find James Barnes, and Spider-man was asked to protect me while I did so.

When Steve returned to the Parker house the next day, Peter made coffee in the cozy, dim kitchen, and waited expectantly for Steve to speak. Steve thought he was probably preparing to receive a lecture about his behavior, but that would be hypocritical at best. Instead, Steve said, "How are you healing?"

"Pretty well," Peter replied nervously, sliding his mug between his fingertips, hand to hand. "Honestly, I think the shock was worse than anything."

"From the injury?"

"From being found out," Peter replied. "I'm uh. I can be a little high strung. I had anxiety dreams most of the night."

"I'm sorry," Steve said. "Honestly."

"Not your fault. Bound to happen sooner or later. But I don't think you came by to ask how I am, did you?"

"In part. But I'm glad your aunt's not here, because I have a favor I'd like to ask you," Steve said, sipping from the coffee mug. "One I can't really ask without us discussing Spider-man."

"Ah," Peter said. "A hero favor."

"Yes, but -- I don't want you to take this the wrong way. I don't want you to feel you have to do this. Your secret is safe with me, Peter, no matter what. Your safety isn't dependent on anything you do or don't do for me. If that helps with the anxiety." He saw Peter's curious expression and shook his head. "I have bad dreams too, sometimes. You knew that, you reported on us."

"Yeah, I just..."


"You really are just like they say in the high school history books. It still catches me off-guard."

Steve's mouth quirked. "I try to live up to my reputation."

"So what's the big secret favor?"

"I wanted to ask you before -- as a journalist -- if you could help me find someone. But the someone I'm trying to find is dangerous, and I didn't feel I could involve you in that. It's one of those things a person has to take on voluntarily, and I knew you hadn't signed for this kind of duty. Now, though..."

"You know I can protect myself," Peter said shrewdly. "You want me to find the Winter Soldier."

Steve flinched, startled. "How do you know that name?"

"I'm a journalist, Steve. I'm a lead journalist on the superhero beat. I don't even always have to look anymore; these things find me."

"What do you know?"

"I know someone was loose in DC. He killed after Nick Fury, then he went after you -- not hard to work out Hydra was running him, at least in retrospect. Rumor has it his codename is the Winter Soldier. Sketchier rumor gave me some backstory, nothing I can confirm. All the footage from the Triskelion is locked down tight, but once the Helicarriers got in the air, people started filming on their phones. There's footage of your fall from the third carrier, did you know? Footage of someone falling after you, too."

Steve nodded. He did know; he'd watched himself fall on YouTube, Sam sitting next to him with an anchoring hand on his back, reminding him that he'd survived and could turn off the video if he wanted. He'd watched it three times, and hadn't gone back to YouTube since.

"It's all conspiracy theories," Peter continued, "but I've had a look, and the footage of the man falling after you seems authentic to me. Is it?"

"Yes. At least I believe so. He was on the carrier with me. Someone pulled me out of the river."

"The hikers on the Potomac who found you, they saw a man in black leaving the area. The descriptions match as close as these things ever do." Peter shrugged. "So he survived the fall, presumably making him a metahuman, like we are. I figured you were probably looking for him."

Steve nodded. "I'm sure he survived. Why haven't you....?"

"Reported on it? None of the information is actionable yet. If I wrote about it I'd sound like a whack job. But I'm learning that if you wait, there's a time for all things to come to light."

Steve was silent; he kept trying to think of something to say and failing. If Peter could assemble all this...

Peter cocked his head, apparently puzzled by the silence. "He can't still be after you, or he'd have been tearing up New York by now. Do you want to find him because he's dangerous, or because you need to know what he knows in order to burn Hydra's last roots out of the ground?"

"What conjecture have you had about his history?" Steve managed.

"Not much. People say he's an assassin. The first credible sighting of him is in 1954, so it's probably an inherited title. That Winter Soldier spoke Russian; this one might, I don't know, but if he works for Russia he's been on loan to Hydra for a while now. Unless...?" Peter peered at his face. "I can't look for him if I don't know what you know."

"Do you know who Bucky Barnes is?" Steve asked.

"Sure, who doesn't? He was your XO during the war. Died during a classified mission near the Russian border...." Peter trailed off. "No fucking way."

"He was experimented on by the Skull. More properly, by Arnim Zola. He was brainwashed. Wiped clean. They gave him -- probably they gave him some version of the Serum I got. They gave him a metal arm..."

"No shit, the Winter Soldier is James Barnes?" Peter asked. "Does he know that?"

"I think he does now. He didn't before -- well, a lot happened, and I think he knows at least that he knew me. But he hasn't come to find me, either to kill me or get help. I need to know what he knows, yes, but it's more important that I know he's safe. I need to find him and -- Sam and Natasha are good, but Sam's not a spy and this isn't the way Natasha does things. found out about what Ross and Abomination did to Harlem, you got Clint to talk, you charmed Pepper and JARVIS...and you can defend yourself."

Peter seemed to consider this, looking down at his coffee. "It's not Spider-man's normal gig, for sure, but it's Peter Parker's specialty. The thing is, Steve, I do these things so I can write about them. It's my job."

"I'll pay your expenses," Steve said.

"That's not what I -- "

"It's not a hardship for me. When I -- came home, the government cut me an almost criminally large check. Felt like blood money. Guess now I know why," Steve added. "I haven't touched it, other than to invest it. I can pay you for this. Put the money to good use."

"Which is fine, and I'll take you up on that, but what I mean is that my time is valuable. Journalism is a hustle, especially freelance, and if you step out for too long, stepping in again is hard. The money isn't an issue. But I want exclusive rights to the story, and I want to be able to publish it without you coming after me."

"As long as you're honest, that's fine," Steve said. "He's not the bad guy, Peter, he's a victim. A prisoner of war. You'll see, you'll understand."

"But he is dangerous."

"Yes. Even when he remembered me, he lashed out, and he doesn't know you." Steve hesitated. "Tony had some ideas about kevlar for your -- "

"Thanks, but no thanks," Peter said with a smile. Steve nodded. "All right, then. Let's get started before Aunt May gets home. I'll need everything you have on him."

Steve reached for the messenger bag, pulling out a thick file of photocopies. "It's all in here, including my after-action reports -- Natasha translated the Russian records for me, the translations are there with the originals. You know how to reach me if you have questions. JARVIS is at your disposal too, there's an email address for him in the file."

"I can email an AI," Peter murmured, still smiling. "What a wonderful world we live in."

JAMES "BUCKY" Barnes has almost as much ink dedicated to him as Steve Rogers, at least in the history journals. Captain America's executive officer during the war, Barnes was also his childhood friend, and his rescue was the reason Captain America first crossed enemy lines and entered combat.

Barnes was serving as a sergeant in the 107th Infantry Division when he, along with four hundred other men, was taken prisoner in one of Hydra's first independent military actions during the war. The prisoners were forced into a Hydra slave labor camp, where those who weren't worked to death were experimented on by Arnim Zola, Hydra's chief scientist.

In a letter written to a friend after the war, Colonel Chester Phillips -- Captain America's commanding officer, and one of the unsung heroes of the European campaign -- describes Arnim Zola thusly:

He was a rat-faced pittance of a man with a petty way of talking that always implied he thought you were beneath him. He was like if you took Howard Stark and drained all the color and charm out of him -- freakishly intelligent, but otherwise a bland, snotty little potato-salad smear of a human being.

Barnes was Zola's last experiment, according to Captain Rogers, who pulled him off an operating table during his successful raid of the camp. What Zola did has never been made entirely clear, but subsequent events indicate he was working on -- and may even have perfected -- a version of the original "super soldier" serum which turned small, asthmatic Steve Rogers into Captain America.

There are no records, military or personal, that suggest anyone knew what had been done to Barnes. Even Captain Rogers admits, when asked, that he didn't notice anything unusual about his friend beyond the trauma of being tortured -- and even that was kept well-hidden most of the time. If James Barnes noticed he was suddenly stronger or faster than he had been, he kept it to himself until the day in 1945 when he died -- or when it was assumed he had.

Barnes fell to his "death" from a train, during the same classified mission where Zola was captured and subsequently interrogated by Colonel Phillips. The intelligence Zola provided led Steve Rogers, still mourning his best friend, to a frontal attack on Hydra's last stronghold in the waning days of the war. Peggy Carter, in an account for a documentary in the 1960s, recalled those pivotal days:

His death crushed Steve. I'd never seen him so despondent. While I agreed with his strategy at the time and I still think it was the wisest option, Steve's decision to attack Schmidt's stronghold directly was undoubtedly driven by James's death. I don't think he was acting in passion or revenge; I don't think Steve had a vengeful bone in his body. I think he simply didn't care if he lived or died anymore.

James and Steve were closer than brothers. I don't think Steve loved anyone in his life the way he loved James Barnes. And the loss drove him to take risks he would not otherwise have taken.

In the course of three days, Barnes had fallen to his presumed death, Johann Schmidt died in an altercation with Rogers for control of the bomber they were on, and Rogers himself was presumed dead when the bomber crashed somewhere in Greenland.

What happened to Arnim Zola?

Zola's history is murky in the aftermath of the war. He was meant to be extradited to Switzerland, his homeland, but he never got there; instead he was a prisoner of the US Army until the Allies and the Soviets began divvying up Germany after the war. He was traded to the Soviets for concessions (which remain confidential) during that negotiation, and became a prisoner -- sources indicate perhaps more of an honored but involuntary guest -- of the USSR.

Which was where he and Barnes met again. And again, Zola was the one standing over the operating table.

Peter left for DC the following day.

It seemed the logical place to start. Barnes had grown up in Brooklyn and might return there, but Peter had spent most of the afternoon combing the DC papers and police blotters from just after the Helicarrier incident. He'd found a report of a grave at Arlington being dug up -- cache boxes were an old cold war ploy, and graves made good stash pits. Nearby, an army surplus store had been robbed, but the thief had only taken clothing and supplies, no money.

And the same day as the Helicarrier crash, late that evening, a pediatrician from a local hospital had been carjacked in the parking garage, driven to a deserted field, and made to re-set the shoulder of a man matching the description of the Winter Soldier. That hadn't made the papers, but after hearing from Steve about the Soldier's injuries, Peter had called around to local hospitals. The doctor hadn't reported the incident, fearing for his life, but he'd clearly wanted to tell someone, and Peter made a very sympathetic ear.

So Bucky Barnes had spent at least a few days in DC -- gotten patched up, probably found an old cache box, and stolen enough clothing and supplies to get by while he recovered. DC would tell Peter where to go next.

Sam Wilson had sold his house in DC and moved down to New York, but the apartment Steve had been staying in during his temporary assignment to DC hadn't sold yet. Nobody was sure who owned it, in the face of SHIELD's dissolution, so when Peter reported where he was headed, Steve brought him the key. Peter's nominal regular boss, J. Jonah Jameson at the Bugle, didn't like Peter leaving to work on such speculative freelance material, but Peter promised him an atmosphere piece on DC post-Hydra and got cranky permission to absent himself from New York.

Steve's apartment still had furniture, some of it bullet-riddled, and the kitchen was stocked with plates and cups, though there was no food in the cupboards. The bookshelves and the closets were empty, too. The air was stuffy and stale. There was a safe in one of the closets, SHIELD design, and Peter locked his laptop and files in the safe before opening the windows to air the place out. His spider-sense should warn him if anyone was intending to break in, but it never hurt to be cautious.

That evening, after settling in, he went up to the roof; from here you could almost see the trail of destruction Steve had left when he'd chased Barnes away from his apartment, though aside from a few boarded-up windows, most of the damage had been patched. It was pretty quiet, and a nice night out; a good time to think rationally about what he was doing, which he hadn't really done since the first rush of discovery had hit.

He believed Steve -- it was hard not to believe Captain America -- but the anxiety that roiled his guts every time he thought about someone else knowing about Spider-man wasn't quelled by the fact that it was Cap who knew. He felt a little blinded by it, knowing that his attention wasn't wholly on his work, and he worried he'd overlooked something about Barnes. He was trying to trust his journalistic instincts, but we was well aware that most of his colleagues thought he didn't have any yet; they all thought you had to be fifty before your Journalist Sense kicked in. He was so young, Ben Urich was always telling him. Ben said he shouldn't burn out before thirty. Peter occasionally wondered if he'd make it to thirty, the way Spider-man's life sometimes went.

He had a plan, though, and it was a good plan. Tomorrow he'd talk to local homeless shelters, posing as a private detective looking for a friend's brother. If the shelters turned up empty, he'd try poking around in the area where the army surplus store had been robbed, and he had a friend in DC who said she could hook him up to the police for a scan of arrest records. Peter was pretty sure anyone arrested with an arm like Barnes had would become the NSA's problem pretty quickly, but at least he'd know where Barnes had disappeared into.

He couldn't possibly be the only one looking for Barnes. Hydra was in tatters, but surely someone else out there was, as well. More than one person in Hydra had known about him. If they'd recaptured him, this could all go south very fast.

"The things I do for a story," he muttered, and went back inside.

THE HISTORY of the Winter Soldier is not yet fully known, and not really the right material for even a very long long-form journalism piece; it deserves at least one book, and probably an annotated history on top of that. If it is ever told in its entirety, James Barnes should be the one to tell it, and it will need to be vetted by authorities in at least three countries for material harmful to national security.

Even writing about him requires caution, and an account from his own mouth would contain gaps. For example, we don't know exactly how Barnes survived the fall that should have killed him, ending up in Zola's custody under the auspices of Hydra, physically located in the USSR. It is important to state that Barnes was not officially held by the Russian government. He was a prisoner of Hydra, operating much as it did in SHIELD: without the state's knowledge and certainly without its approval. On paper, at any rate, and paper is all the reliable evidence we have. It is wisest to assume the Kremlin knew nothing of Barnes, if only in order to avoid triggering a second cold war.

We don't know how Barnes got to Zola and, having spent that time unconscious and wounded, neither does he. We don't know precisely what Zola did to him, though some tattered and incomplete records remain, currently in the custody of Stark Industries. We know that the US military realized its mistake in letting Zola go to the Russians sometime in the late forties, and in 1950 he was smuggled out of the USSR as one of the last scientists to arrive under the auspices of Operation Paperclip. The flight manifest for that trip, or at any rate a document I was given purporting to be the flight manifest, claims that Zola brought with him three crates of lab equipment, as well as one crate containing "biological specimen samples, refrigerated". It may safely be assumed that these "specimens" were, in reality, the frozen body of James Barnes.

From there, Zola began what may have been his mission from the start: the infiltration, infection, and corruption of SHIELD by a small and dedicated Hydra cell which eventually came to include every department of the organization and several key government offices outside of it. Using crude neurological electro-stimulation, repetitive psychological and biochemical programming, and a pattern of cryogenic storage between missions, Zola used James Barnes, by then known as the Winter Soldier, to do the dirtiest of his dirty work for the next twenty-five years. When not kept in cold-storage, Barnes was stripped of his identity, repeatedly tortured, and forced to commit countless murders* at the behest of Hydra.

Arnim Zola died in 1975. The Winter Soldier lived on, passing from one Hydra leader to another like an heirloom hunting knife, eventually ending up in the hands of Alexander Pierce.

* A full and accurate accounting of the Winter Soldier's actions may never come to light. A partial timeline of his confirmed missions has been constructed from SHIELD records dumped to public servers during the Battle of the Potomac; it can be found at Confirmed kills include Brazilian mayor Celso Daniel, South African anti-apartheid activist and theologian Johan Heyns, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, and surprisingly, George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. In many of these cases, other individuals were tried and convicted for their deaths. Notable among these are the deaths, once thought accidental, of American industrialist Howard Stark and his wife Maria, parents of future Avenger Tony Stark.

"Well, I know where he's been," Peter said into the phone, at the end of his second day in DC. "For someone who used to be a ghost, he hasn't been particularly careful about who sees him."

"That's good, isn't it?" Steve asked. "Means maybe he wants to be found?"

"I don't know," Peter said. "And neither do you. We both know I'm probably not the only one looking for him. But I think maybe whoever still knows about him doesn't have the right resources, or the right frame of mind."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, I found people who'd seen him in half a dozen homeless shelters, pretty good IDs," Peter said. "He only spends a night or two in any given shelter before he moves on. He's covering a lot of ground. But these people maybe don't have to spend shoe leather like I'm doing. If they know where he's been kept, where his other cache boxes are, they can just stake those out and grab him when he hits them. Which may be why he's sticking to shelters," Peter allowed.

"It kills me," Steve said, his voice low and full of pain. "Kills me, thinking about him hiding out in a shelter when I'm here in Stark Tower."

"Which is why I'm here and not you," Peter reminded him. "Look, the last place he stayed, he was there two days ago, so we know he's probably still in DC. This is great progress already."

"If you need anything, if you think I should come up there, you'll call, right?"

"I'll call," Peter promised. "I'm going to do some less orthodox looking around tonight, I'll let you know how it goes."

"Thanks, Peter."

"My duty as an American," Peter said, and managed to draw out a laugh. "Later, Cap."

He hung up and tucked his phone into the slim bag buckled across his chest, pulling his cowl down over his mouth again. It wasn't far from the rooftop he'd stopped on to the Air and Space Museum, where the Captain America exhibit was. He'd made a mental list of all the places Hydra might look for the Winter Soldier; if all else failed he could let them do the work, follow them, and snatch Barnes out from under them.

He figured if they knew why Barnes broke conditioning, they might be staking out the exhibit. Besides, the other two safe houses where they'd kept Barnes in DC -- a bank vault and an abandoned warehouse, according to the data-dump from the Battle of the Potomac -- didn't have security cameras. The Smithsonian did.

It wasn't hard to get in, especially since he wasn't aiming for the exhibits. The security booth was just down the hall from an empty office he let himself into through a convenient high window, and after-hours the whole place was basically empty.

"Budget cuts," Peter murmured to himself, shaking his head. He could see, on the screens, the single night-security guard walking his beat, and an elderly custodian pushing a mop bucket through the darkened halls.

He pulled off his gloves, cracked his knuckles, and rested them on the keyboard thoughtfully. It took a few minutes to familiarize himself with the program, but security was very user-friendly these days, and in short order he'd managed to start an export on the video files from the last two weeks. He found a copy of Firefox which, to judge from the search history when he poked around, was not legally installed, and began uploading the finished files to a nondescript, made-for-purposes Google drive. It wasn't encrypted the way it probably should be, but Peter had always favored being unnoticed over being well-armed.

While the compressed video files were uploading, he sat back in the chair and tapped out a message to JARVIS, who had access to the drive. Sending you a ton of surveillance from the Smithsonian. Can you do facial recognition for me? I'm looking for anyone not on museum staff who has been to the exhibit more than once in the past two weeks, especially people who loitered in the Cap exhibit.

Of course, Mr. Parker, JARVIS replied. Shall I rule out anyone who has been arrested?

Why? Lots of arrests?

Attempted vandals. The exhibit has become quite controversial in the wake of SHIELD's fall.

Peter supposed he could see that. It was stupid, but plenty of people were stupid.

Track anyone being arrested too. They probably aren't Hydra, but I want to see them. Thanks, he finished, and checked the cameras. The guard was just keying through downstairs, and the upload was complete. Peter shut down the window, erased the exports from the hard drive, and slipped out of the booth. He was just going out the window when he heard "HEY! STOP THERE!" and turned, giving the security guard a salute as he dropped out of sight.

JARVIS had downloaded the files and was halfway through reviewing them by the time Peter got back to Steve's apartment. He shook out his arms and stretched, waiting for the review to complete. The computer beeped, and he flopped on the bed with it, opening the PowerPoint JARVIS had sent him.

There were several slides, each with a series of images of people who'd come to the exhibit more than once; there was some live video of people getting arrested. None of them seemed especially menacing or as if they were looking for a runaway asset --

Peter sucked in a breath on the second-to-last slide.

That was Bucky Barnes. In a hoodie and a hat, left hand tucked in his pocket to hide the glint of metal, but the jawline and the nose, the deep-set dark eyes, were unmistakable even on the grainy security footage. Bucky Barnes, there in the museum, staring at an exhibit on himself.

Another day, he was studying his uniform on the mannequin display. And another, standing with a group of kids, all of them staring at the mock-up of Steve's shield and uniform in fierce, awed concentration. JARVIS had even caught him stealing a Captain America notebook set from the gift stand at the exit -- a cheap flag-branded pen and a notebook with a panel from the old Cap comics on the front, wrapped in cellophane, tucked neatly in his pocket when the attendant wasn't looking. He was also on film multiples times buying and wolfing down a hamburger at the McDonalds in the food court.

He was there nearly every day.

"So where's Hydra?" Peter murmured, checking the datestamps. Perhaps they didn't know much about Barnes. Perhaps they didn't know he was Barnes. That kind of thing could get lost in the mythology, after a long enough time. "And how's he getting that arm through security?"

He hit JARVIS with an email: Track this guy on the footage, see if anyone's been following him. Don't tell Steve, I don't want him barrelling up here.

The response came back a minute later. No follow pattern I can detect. And then, I did not cross check before because it wasn't in my parameters. That is James Buchanan Barnes?

It sure is. Do we have any footage of him entering?

No, came the reply, after a delay. He is arriving via an off-camera entry point, likely illegally. He is almost certain to return to the exhibit given past behavior. What will you do?

Not sure yet, Peter said.

WHEN VARIOUS agents of SHIELD began to suspect something was amiss earlier this year, the Winter Soldier was chosen to assassinate them: first SHIELD's Director, Colonel Nicholas Fury, and then Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, and eventually Sam Wilson, all of whom carried on Fury's work after his assassination. One skirmish between Rogers' team and the Winter Soldier destroyed a sizeable chunk of downtown. The next time they met, three helicarriers fell from the sky.

"I didn't know it was him," Rogers told me, when I pressed for details. "During that first fight, he wore a mask. I didn't know it was him, but the mask came off during the fight, and I just stared and said, Bucky? And he didn't know who that was. Not at first."

Later, during their second fight, Rogers tried deliberately to trigger any memory of him in the Winter Soldier's mind. Rogers sustained four gunshot wounds from the Winter Soldier, as well as a handful of broken bones from the fall into the Potomac after the Helicarriers were sabotaged. He was dragged from the water and left on the bank; witnesses in the area gave a description of the man who brought him ashore which matched the man who'd tried to kill him ten minutes earlier.

Eventually, with too few resources and other duties to attend to, Rogers came to me to find his friend, who had disappeared after the fight and left no way of locating him. But the Winter Soldier is a killer, and even Bucky Barnes was a soldier. So I received, in addition to what little Rogers had on the Winter Soldier, a bodyguard: Spider-man, doing a favor for a guy who once had him by the neck and let him go.

As it turned out, it was just as well that I did. The Winter Soldier is not an easy man to lay hands on, or keep hands on.

I made contact with James Barnes for the first time at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, in the Captain America exhibit, where I'd been tipped off by a source that he might be visiting. I already knew he'd been frequenting shelters in the area, but I'd been unable to find him at any of them, and the Smithsonian was a safer venue in any case, or so I thought. The museum requires all visitors to undergo security checks, meaning he wouldn't be armed and he would, hopefully, know that I wasn't armed either. So I arrived at the museum early on a Friday as it was opening, and I went straight to the Captain America exhibit to wait.

There's a lot to do at the Air & Space Museum, and the Captain America exhibit is both interesting and interactive, but it's hard for an adult to occupy himself there for the entire seven and a half hours the museum is open. You can measure yourself against life-sized photos of pre- and post-Serum Steve Rogers, listen to friends and fellow soldiers recount their memories of the Captain on video and audio, admire the haphazard approach to "uniform" the Howling Commandos employed, and even climb into a replica of the terrifying sarcophagus that was a key element of the Serum transformation. The sarcophagus closes around you and a little video plays; while I was there, at least three people freaked out and forced it open manually, which tells you something about the guts it took to stay in there during the actual transformation.

"We get that a lot," one of the docents told me. "Don't know what the hell they were thinking, putting that in here."

But even after spending half an hour watching people dare each other to enter the sarcophagus of terror, after having your picture taken with a prop shield in front of a dismal WWII backdrop, you've still got five hours left to listen to Gary Sinise narrate the life of Steve Rogers in a dramatic yet endless ten minute loop.

James Barnes himself can't say what drew him to the exhibit over and over again. The first time, he says, it was a sign outside with his own face on it. There are multiple signs outside the museum, featuring members of the Howling Commandos in dramatic poses, and Barnes appears on several over a range of several blocks. He isn't sure which one he saw, and in his conscious mind he says he was really just looking for somewhere to stay warm.

"I coulda just gone the once," he told me later. "It's not like they got an encyclopedia there. I had most of the signs memorized after the first visit."

But he still went back, over and over, drawn not just to the single monolithic monument to his own sacrifice but to the whole experience -- the faintly nasal narration, the real and mocked-up uniforms, the dark, stuffy room where relics from Johann Schmidt's Hydra are kept. The day I was there, he strolled through with his hands in his pockets, wearing a scruffy green hoodie, and he stopped in front of the reproduced painting of Schmidt in his full Nazi-Hydra regalia and unmasked red face. (The original is in the custody of, though not located at, the Holocaust Museum; the Museum declined to release the original, fearing it might become a neo-Nazi or pro-Hydra rallying point.)

"Hello, James," I said.

It wasn't really a chase. Not the kind of chase Peter was used to, anyway, the kind that involved either property damage or violence or both. When he said his name, Barnes just turned, looked at him, and then walked away. But the momentary look triggered his spider-sense, which in turn prevented him from reaching out. There were kids here, after all.

So he just followed, at a reasonable distance, as Barnes wound his way through the exhibit to the exit, and then through the museum, turning sharply at one point and waving what must be a stolen keycard, letting himself into the hallway Peter had broken into the night before.

"Smart," Peter said, following him through the door and into a storage area. "Coming and going this way, means the arm doesn't -- "

His sense tingled, much too late; the arm he'd just been talking about whipped out, grasped him by the throat, and lifted him off the ground, slamming him into a wall. When Peter kicked out, trying to get leverage with his feet, the other arm caught his ankle and twisted his whole body painfully, pinning his leg up next to his ear. Barnes' knee nudged up sharply against Peter's balls, the evident threat of crushing more than clear, until Peter stopped trying to get free.

"Well," Peter managed, after a few seconds of silence, "this is a revealing position you've put me in."

"I ain't goin' back," Barnes hissed. "Don't know who you are, don't care. Saw you movin' in. Ain't goin' back. You have backup?"

"Steve Rogers sent me," Peter blurted.

"Don't lie," Barnes said, hand tightening with bone-breaking strength on his ankle. "You lie I'll slit your throat, I got enough blood on my hands that yours won't matter."

"I'm not lying," Peter gurgled. "I'm not -- a soldier, I'm -- a reporter."

The hand on his throat eased. "Prove it."

"Press card in my wallet. You can check my phone, Steve's number is in it."

Barnes released his leg, moving back enough for him to get his feet again, but he kept him pinned to the wall by his throat.

"Flexible, for a reporter," he said, rifling Peter's pockets with his flesh hand.

"I do yoga," Peter answered.

Barnes flipped his wallet open, eyes flicking back and forth between his face and the various IDs in it. He checked his phone, too, grimacing when he saw the calls to and from an ID marked CAPTAIN STEVE.

"Why'd he send you?" he asked, hand easing off Peter's throat.

"He's worried about you. He wants me to bring you to New York."

"No," Barnes said. "Why'd he send you?"

"I'm good at finding people."

"Good at fighting people too?"

Peter shrugged. "Instinct."

"Uh huh. And if I don't want to be found?"

Peter eyed him, tipping his head in the direction of the exhibit. "You really want to try that one on me, Barnes?"

A smile whipped its way across his face, gone as soon as it had arrived. "I'm not entirely sure who I am yet," he said, "but I think I like you, fella. You remind me of someone I used to know."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Peter said. "Look, nobody's after you that I can see, and I'm not here to hurt you. Lemme buy you lunch. No tricks, just a meal and some talk."

Barnes frowned, clearly assessing him, but then his eyes got distant and his face seemed to cloud over, muscles tightening, jaw clenching.

"There were reporters," he said, shoulders jerking like he was trying to shake something off. "They liked me 'cause I -- he never was comfortable with -- my ma sent me a letter saying she saw me in a newsreel -- "

Peter waited while Barnes held an internal battle, visibly trying to control the memories wracking him. He heaved a hard breath and then brushed his flesh hand across his eyes as his face cleared.

"You know who I am," he said. Peter nodded carefully. "Steve sent you."


"I don't wanna see him."

"He's not here. I won't even tell him we talked until I'm back in New York, if you want," Peter said. "Right now it's just you and me and honestly I mean, I know you, but I don't know you."

"We weren't ever friends."

"No. We've never met before today."

"I think most of my friends are dead," Barnes said quietly.

"That's pretty heavy to deal with on an empty stomach," Peter said. "Come on, I know a place."

OVER LUNCH that day, at the especially good cafeteria in the Museum of the American Indian, James Barnes and I discussed a lot of things. The making and eating of fry bread, airplane development in the last seventy years, the Battle of New York, the best homeless shelters in DC and how to make sure you got in; he had a lot to say once he had an audience. We did not discuss the personal history of the Winter Soldier, or whether Barnes was willing to let me bring him back to the one other man out of time in existence, a man who desperately wanted him to come home. This was just the getting-to-know-you meeting. Barnes was enjoying the freedom of having, if not his memory, at the very least his personality back, and he hadn't had many people to work it out on.

He confirmed what I'd already independently suspected, that he was rotating through shelters, trying not to stay in one place long enough to be noticed or recognized. He was on the run from a Hydra he wasn't sure still existed -- one he hadn't yet seen but both he and I believed might be waiting to recapture their top asset.

In the newsreels from the forties, James Barnes seemed like a remarkable man, and he still is. When we met, he was holding himself together with threads of sheer determination, bolstered by very thin props of memory. He slipped from war stories to short but paralyzing flashbacks to jokes about the homeless shelters with an almost determined seamlessness, as though if he stopped to consider how he sounded he might break down. But there was nothing false or brittle about him, and indeed something very charming. He felt the way Steve Rogers felt when I first met him: vividly from a time when strangers spoke on the street more, when you had to make friends quickly if you needed help, when the Depression had bound all its survivors up in a sort of camaraderie of poverty.

"I always thought I'd be an engineer after the war," he said, in one of his more lucidly historical moments. "Stark told us he'd get us jobs if the three of us made it through. He used to let me tinker with his machines if they weren't so valuable. Comes in handy, y'know, knowing how machines work, how a circuit completes when you flip a switch."

"Do you think you'd still like to do that?" I asked him.

"Dunno," he said, and his eyes flickered. "Dunno what I'm gonna do. Keep my nose clean until I shake loose, I guess."

"What are you shaking loose from?"

"No, until I..." he pointed at his head, "Until what was me shakes loose. And I'm me again."

Steve answered the phone call from Peter in the middle of the afternoon breathlessly, fresh from the heavy bag. "Hey, Peter, how's the capitol?"

"Still standing," Peter replied, and what he said next was like a shock of icewater straight into Steve's veins. "I found Barnes, I just finished having lunch with him."

"Is he there?" Steve demanded, eagerness overriding manners. "Can you put him on? I wanna talk to him. What does he remember?"

"He's not here, I let him go."

"You let him go?"

"I had to, I'm trying to build a little trust," Peter said. "He's fine. I fed him. He's got cash, he's sleeping in shelters, he's as safe as he can be right now. Safer in the shelters than he'd be anywhere else, at least if Hydra really is after him."

"But you don't know -- "

"Hey, give me some credit. I asked him to meet me again tomorrow."

"What if he doesn't show?"

"I have a few tricks up my sleeve," Peter said. "Listen, okay, he's fine. He's not -- he's definitely not all there, but he's lucid, and he remembers who he is for at least ten minutes at a time."

Steve's legs gave out, more or less, and he sat down hard on the gym bench. Sam, running on a treadmill in the corner, hit the stop button and pulled his earphones out, a questioning look on his face.

"He knows?" Steve said.

"He's mixed up, but yeah, I think so. He knew who you were. I think -- the part of him that knows who you are doesn't want you to see him like this. Or maybe he's trying to protect you."

"Tell him I don't care," Steve said. "Tell him -- tell him anything that'll get him here. I can come up there -- "

"Don't," Peter said sharply. "Let me work on him."

Steve felt pain pricking behind his eyes, the familiar, humiliating wash of grief he fought so hard not to show every time Bucky came up. Half of it was relief; he'd been found, he wasn't sick or dead, he knew at least in part who he was. But the other half was fear and pain, anxiety over his safety, and it was hard to be told there was nothing he could do.

"Please look after him," Steve said.

"I'm doing my best. Give me a few more days. I'll call you after the next time we talk."

"Thank you, Peter."

"Don't thank me yet," Peter said drily. "When I get him back to New York you can send me a fruit basket."

Steve managed a laugh. "Sure thing. Thanks. I'll wait for your call."

He hung up and pressed the edge of the phone to his forehead, eyes closing just as Sam sat down on the bench next to him. After a second he felt Sam's hand on the back of his head, and a gentle tug. He turned and pressed his face to Sam's shoulder, and sat that way for a long time, thinking.

"He found Barnes?" Sam asked.

"He says he's safe."

"He say anything about him ripping my wings off? Because he and I still gotta have words about that."

Steve smiled. "Not yet. I'll make sure Peter asks him about it, gets a formal apology."

"You okay?"

"No. I think I'm kind of a wreck, Sam."

"Yeah, well, you're in the right club for it. Do we need to drive to DC tonight?"

Steve sat back, rubbing his eyes. "No. Peter says to let him handle it."

"You really trust this guy."

"He did right by us before, and when I asked him to do this, he told me exactly what his terms were. He's a good kid."

"If you say so," Sam said.

THE SECOND time I met James Barnes, a day after our first meeting, was also the first time we confirmed that what remained of Hydra wanted its asset back.

Barnes hadn't given me a meeting place when we parted, so I was intending to go back to the Air and Space Museum; instead, while I was walking there the following morning, he stepped out of an alley and grasped my arm, guiding me gently up 4th street, past the Air & Space, and along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Newseum, a smallish and often overlooked museum dedicated to journalism. They, too, have a Captain America exhibit currently, although theirs is focused on Captain America as a propaganda tool, both early in his career and after his presumed death in 1945.

A museum is a good place to take someone you don't want to feel awkwardly silent with; there's a lot to look at and discuss. It's not quite so great a venue if you're a reporter wanting a story, but my primary goal was to convince Barnes to travel back to New York with me. The story, as painful as it is to say, was secondary.

Our conversation was much the same as it had been the day before, a mixture of abrupt questions, reminiscences, and moments of confusion. When confronted by film footage of himself and Steve Rogers giving an interview, Barnes paused; he stared for minutes on end as the film looped over and over. First the interviewer asked a question to which Rogers answered with a wide, all-American grin; then there was a second question that caused Rogers to freeze uncomfortably. On the film footage, Barnes steps up smoothly, answering for him with a laugh, so well-orchestrated that Rogers' momentary lapse isn't noticeable until you watch three or four times. Barnes, hoodie pulled up around his face, watched himself save Steve Rogers from an awkward moment for a solid five minutes before sniffing and moving on.

"Do you remember much from the war?" I asked him, as we entered a gallery of posters and advertisements featuring Captain America.

"No," he said. "Some things. I will, though. They feel like -- when you know a word but can't think of how it starts."

"You think you'll remember that?" I asked, pointing back to the screen showing the film clip.

"Oh sure, when I see it, I do," he told me. "They asked him how it felt to be a hero and he said he was just doing his job. Then they asked him how it felt to be every girl's heartthrob and I had'ta save him."

"What did you say?"

"Don't recall. What did I ever say? Probably that it kept us warm in the field."

On the walls, in the gallery of posters at the Newseum, Captain America urges visitors to buy war bonds in 1942, to keep canning vegetables in 1944. Illustrations of him tell kids to stay in school in 1956, to enlist ("I Didn't Wait For The Draft!") in 1971, to stay off drugs in 1984. He insists that READING IS FREEDOM in 1995, and in 2012 asks everyone to help rebuild New York.

Steve Rogers knows about the posters, and approves of some of them; in recent ones, like the Rebuild New York fundraising campaign, he was an active participant. Between 1945 and 2012, Stark Industries actually owned the rights to his image, and Rogers is grateful that Howard Stark wouldn't let him be used in anti-Communist propaganda or for anything too commercial. But he looks a little askance at the Vietnam enlistment posters, and has opinions about the war on drugs that make his status as an anti-drug icon very awkward.

Tony Stark legally reverted the rights to Captain America back to Steve Rogers in 2012. His most recent propaganda effort, fashioned after the oldest of the posters, is the I AM CAPTAIN AMERICA campaign, administered by the Stark Foundation. The controversial image of Steve Rogers grinning as transgender activist Laverne Cox holds up the shield in front of both of them has been a heavy target of vandalism, as has the image of him in a BLACK LIVES MATTER t-shirt next to Sam Wilson, the first non-white Avenger, in a Captain America t-shirt. (For more on the controversy, see the Daily Bugle's archive tag "i-am-cap" here.)

"He isn't screwing around," I said to Barnes, as we stopped in front of the banner-sized versions of the new posters.

"I don't think he ever did," Barnes answered. "Not his style."

The posters are for sale in the requisite tiny gift shop beyond the exhibit, but we passed them by and left the museum behind, strolling around the Canadian Embassy next to the museum, to the small park beyond.

"Where would you like to go?" I asked, as we left. "Want to get lunch?"

"No," he said, and then, "You need to run."

When Peter's spider-sense alerted him to the several large men circulating in the Newseum, drawing gradually closer to wherever he and Barnes went, he started trying to hustle Barnes outside -- away from the students and children, away from civilian collateral damage.

"I see them," Barnes said, sounding amused. "They won't jump me in here. Good eyes."

"Thanks. What do we do?" Peter asked.

"It's Hydra. They'll follow to see where I go. They'll follow you now that they've seen us talking. If they're military, we're in a lot more trouble."

"You have a plan?"

"More or less," Barnes said. "When we walk out the front door, you go right, circle around the building and meet me in the park. I'll go left. Got any weapons?"

"I have a bodyguard," Peter said.

"Haven't seen him."

"He's good. He'll be there."

Barnes nodded and opened the front door; Peter hurried off to the right, but as he glanced back he saw Barnes take a long, thin baton from the sleeve of his hoodie and shove it in the door's handles. It wouldn't hold them for long, but it'd give the two of them enough time to get to the park, an open space where there hopefully wouldn't be too many people.

There was an alley between the Newseum and the Canadian Embassy, a dead-end but perfect for Peter's purposes as he stripped off his outer clothes and pulled the cowl over his head, glad he'd worn the costume underneath. He went straight up the wall, over the roof of the Embassy, and dropped down into the park directly on top of a Hydra assassin who had Bucky Barnes in a chokehold from behind.

"Sorry Parker couldn't join us for the party," he said, as he rode the man backwards, flipped his body down, and used his leverage to slam his opponent knees-first into a tree. The man howled in pain. "He sent me. Captain America says hi."

He got to his feet in time to catch the barrel of a pistol someone was trying to shoot him with; beyond him, Barnes was kicking the shit out of three men who were, collectively, about five times his size.

"Bout time you showed up," Barnes called.

"Was I expected? My heart goes pitter-pat," Peter replied, throwing his new opponent through the foliage of another tree and webbing him up tightly when he stuck between two branches.

"Well I figured someone was looking after the pipsqueak," Barnes said. He punched one of his opponents in the head and then swung wide with a knife, neatly slitting his throat. Peter tried not to gag, and reminded himself they were Nazis. "I was kinda hoping for the redhead he runs around with but I think she's got a grudge."

"I might be a redhead, don't make assumptions," Peter admonished, taking down one of the other guys before Barnes could kill him.

"Either way I don't mind the hand," Barnes said, as Peter circled, looking for a way into his battle with the last of the goon squad. "I got -- "

He was interrupted by the zing of a bullet, which whined through the air and bounced off his metal arm. Peter's senses alerted him in time to dodge the next one by throwing himself into the bushes nearby. There were five more in quick succession while Barnes rolled, grabbed the gun Peter had taken off his second victim, ducked behind a tree and fired back.

But the shots weren't aimed at Barnes.

One had hit the man Barnes had killed, turning his head to the side. Another hit the guy in the tree, sending a thin trickle of blood down his temple. By the time the hail of bullets stopped, all five of their attackers were dead.

"Jesus H. Christ," Barnes panted, rifling the nearest body for a spare magazine. "You see him?"

Peter, peering through the undergrowth, searched in vain for the glint of sun on metal or the dark line of a rifle barrel. "Nothing."

"Well, they won't kill me if they can help it. That one on my arm was a warning shot."

Peter considered this. "How'd you like a lift to safety? The fare is: you act as my human shield."

"Works for me."

"I'm going for the wall. Piggyback me and I'll take you up."

"You climb a wall that fast?"

"Guess we'll find out."

He saw the glint of teeth as Barnes flashed him a grin, and realized that on some level, the guy was enjoying this. Then again, he wasn't exactly weeping himself. The sniper murdering the retrieval team was freaky, but at least it meant Barnes wouldn't be murdering them.

"Okay, I'm going," Peter said, and took off running for the wall of the Embassy at the edge of the park. He heard Barnes laying cover fire and assumed he'd have to wait at the wall, but as soon as he got his hands on the masonry he felt Barnes's flesh arm wrap around his shoulders, his knees gripping Peter's hips tightly.

He wasn't light, but Peter had good motivation, and he got up the wall in probably record time, even with Barnes covering them, firing behind them with his free hand. They tumbled over behind a low barrier of planters, and Peter shook out his aching wrists.

"That's a hell of a talent," Barnes said, reloading the gun. "I bet you're fuckin' great at parkour."

"You've been a brainwashed assassin for seventy years, how do you even know what parkour is?" Peter asked.

"I spend a lot of time in parks lately," Barnes answered. "So, your place or mine?"

"Is your place a homeless shelter?"

"Right now I'd favor underground, I don't want them finding me in a crowded room of people."

"Parker's got a place."

"Parker does, huh," Barnes said, rolling his eyes. "Okay, sounds like a plan."

Peter ignored the implication of that, and tried to quiet his pounding heart. He managed to get them down into the courtyard of the embassy and, in front of two very surprised-looking Canadian diplomats, Barnes hoisted a drainage cover and slipped down into the storm drains below the street.

"Blackhawks suck, go Leafs!" Peter called as he pulled the cover back over his head.

Their journey back to Steve's apartment was almost entirely underground. Barnes dodged through the drains -- and eventually the transit tunnels -- as if he'd memorized them, which perhaps he had. Once the adrenaline had died down he went silent again, grimmer, less playful; it was almost like the violence and danger had summoned up the soldier Barnes, and without that threat, he was back to being a blurred page waiting for a firm hand to write on it.

"I'll go up and have Peter let you in," he said, and Barnes grunted a reply, sliding into the shadow between buildings quietly. Peter rushed up the wall, ducked into the roof stairwell, slipped out into the hallway when nobody was looking, and began stripping off his uniform as soon as he was inside, grabbing the first clothes that came to hand and barely remembering to get his wallet, keys,and phone out of the interior pocket of the suit before he ran down the stairs.

Nobody was on the doorstep when he opened the front door, but when he turned around, Barnes was coming up the stairs from the basement. He nodded to Peter and followed him up again, slipping into Steve's apartment with the caution of a wild animal. As soon as he'd determined the blinds were closed and nobody was in the apartment, he went straight to the television and turned it on. He didn't even have to change the channel.

" -- five dead in a skirmish with what witnesses say may have been Spider-man, a vigilante thought to make his home in New York City; experts are saying this could be a copycat. For more on this theory..."

Peter's phone rang, and he answered without even looking. "Yep, Steve, I'm here."

"Did you just murder five Hydra intelligence operatives?" Steve asked.

"Hey, whoa, no, they started it," Peter said. He glanced at Barnes, who was standing three feet away, neatly disassembling the gun they'd taken from Hydra. "They jumped us, and then a sniper shot them when Barnes and Spider-man kicked their asses."

"Is he okay?"

"Yeah, they got out fine." Peter caught Barnes's eye and pointed to the phone. Barnes shook his head violently. "I'll catch up with him as soon as I stop having a panic attack."

"You're sure he's not hurt?"

"I'm sure."

"This isn't what I intended when I wanted to find him."

"I know," Peter said. "Look, if you really want to help, find a way to get the cops off Spider-man's case. You know he didn't do this. They should check the roofs for evidence of a sniper."

"I'll talk to Tony, he'll know whose strings to pull. Stay safe. Keep him safe."

"I will. Call you later when I know more," Peter said, and hung up, dropping down onto the sofa. Barnes carefully settled next to him.

"Look, far be it from me to try and tell you how to live your life," Peter said, closing his eyes as he leaned back, "but what exactly is your plan, here? Because now they know you're in DC and they clearly have resources to spare if they're capable of killing five dudes for failing to bring you in."

"They knew if they didn't I'd take them," Barnes said.

"And do what with them?" Peter asked.

He felt Barnes shrug. "Get what I needed from them. I wasn't trained for interrogation but I know a lot about...I know how to take a body apart. And they know that."

Peter glanced over at him, saw the deep hollows under his eyes and the set scowl of his mouth.

"What do you need from them?" he asked carefully.

"Whatever they know. I aim to wipe Hydra out, I just gotta get my feet under me. Maybe then -- well, we'll see about after."

"Would you have?" Peter asked. "Even for that could you really have tortured them for information?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Sometimes I lose the upper hand against the Soldier."

"That's why you don't want to go back to New York. You think you'll try to kill him."

Barnes didn't need to ask who Peter was referring to. "Yep."

"Well, DC's no longer safe for you," Peter said. "And you won't get anything more than you've already got by visiting the Captain America exhibit for the nine millionth time."

"Nowhere's safe from me."

"For you, Barnes. For you."

Barnes looked at him under his brows, eyes darting sidelong and then away.

"Whatever he's payin' you, he oughta pay you double," he said.

"He's not," Peter admitted. "Other than expenses. The deal was, I find you, I get to write the exclusive."

"The exclusive what?"

"I told you, I'm a journalist. The story. Your story. Well, the story of looking for you."

Barnes gave him a baffled look. "Who cares about that?"

"Everyone. Everyone's terrified of the Winter Soldier -- but more than that, you're Steve Rogers' best friend. You're a hero. There's a reason there's a feature on you in the museum. The idea that you might be alive? It's going to knock the whole country on its ass."

Barnes' look turned sardonic. "You're really selling me on coming back to New York with you, right now."

"What if you came back but not to Steve?" Peter asked. "I've got an aunt, I live with her in Queens. We have a spare room."

"You really want to get your aunt murdered by Nazis?"

"Well, point."

Barnes sat forward, hands going to the back of his head, elbows resting on his knees.

"They didn't need me," he said. "They were -- they sent me on a suicide mission, they knew I probably wouldn't survive. Insight was going to make everything orderly, they said so. If Insight had worked they wouldn't have needed me. Now they need me again so they're tryin' to get me back. They won't stop. They just -- "

A tremor ran through his frame.

"All they need to do is get me back in the chair and flip the switch. And it all goes away." His voice cracked. "Sometimes I think it might be better. It was easier."

"Easy isn't usually very interesting," Peter said, remembering the photograph of the chair in the file Steve had given him.

"Do I look like I need any more fucking interest in my life?" Barnes snapped. Peter held up his hands, a gesture of innocence. "Interesting, Jesus."

"Well, whatever you want, you should probably start making an actual plan for it. Hydra only has to get lucky once." Peter considered the problem. "You don't know what you want, do you?"

"I want to shake myself loose."

"Okay, well. You won't get any more results doing stuff you've already done," Peter said, tossing his phone on the coffee table as he stood to go to the safe. "Time to try something new," he called, entering the combination. The paperwork was still inside, neatly organized and by now covered with little sticky flags, added as Peter had sorted and digested it. "Can I make a suggestion?"

Barnes just watched him, wary. Peter set the file on the table next to his phone, then dug a dictation recorder out of his bag and set it nearby.

"Tell me your life's story," Peter said. "Whatever you remember, whatever you can think of, even if you're not sure if it's true. I'll ask questions, you answer until you don't want to anymore. If we don't know whether something is true, we'll look it up in the file."

The blank look turned suspicious.

"Talking helps people remember things," Peter said. "Frees up the subconscious to make associations. And I haven't had anyone to just talk to in a really long time."

The suspicious look deepened.

"I do this all the time," Peter continued. "It's part of my job, being a journalist. Asking questions that people have to think about before they can answer. Not, you know, leading the witness. Just..." he seated himself on the coffee table, facing Barnes, and said, "Tell me about your favorite food."

"Food," Barnes muttered, but he went silent, considering it, and Peter composed himself to listen.

WHEN I took off running on Barnes' order, I didn't know why in specific. In a general sense, I knew something bad must be about to happen. While journalists are of the rare and stupid breed that runs towards danger instead of away from it, Barnes and I were by then each depending on the other for survival. So I ran, and Barnes ran the other way, and Spider-man went after Barnes.

The fight in the park has been covered by other news media, and I wasn't there; Barnes didn't want to talk much about it and Spider-man just wanted it made clear (really, perfectly, crystal clear) that he didn't kill anyone, and Barnes didn't kill anyone who wasn't already trying to kill him. The ultimate point of the fight is that five Hydra agents tried to drop Barnes, and when he and Spider-man dropped them instead, a sniper executed them rather than let them fall into the custody of Barnes or the police. For an organization in visible tatters, Hydra is impressively wasteful of human life.

When the heroes retreated to my apartment, Spider-man stayed just long enough to secure us before going on patrol. Barnes, meanwhile, was shaken by the encounter and more willing than usual to speak: about what his goals were, about what he needed, about what Hydra wanted him for and would do to him if they caught him.

My job was to bring him back to New York, per my instructions from Captain America himself. But it's hard, with superheroes, to keep yourself out of the story. I'd already become involved with the rehabilitation of the Hulk, during my last tenure with the Avengers. I found myself believing it was my job to bring Barnes home, but my duty to help Barnes out.


On the run from Hydra and hiding out in Washington DC, Peter Parker took a moment to sit down and ask James Barnes about his life. It's not the most elegant of interview situations.

PP: You grew up at the tail-end of Prohibition and during the Depression, eras most of us have only studied in school. What's your most vivid memory from before the war?

JB: I don't think about that time much. I don't remember much clearly. People don't think, "Oh, well, I'm living through history." They just think they're living.

Most often I remember running. I was running from something, I think -- had my pockets full of walnuts. We used to run a scam on the fruit-cart guys, one of us would fake a fit and the others would grab what we could. Must've been five or six of us. The littlest fella always did the faking because he couldn't run.

PP: Is it possible that was Steve Rogers?

JB: Yeah probably. I don't remember it so well. War's a little clearer.

PP: What do you remember from the war?

JB: Canned rations. USO clubs. What I want to remember, more than what I oughta. You try to forget the ugly stuff. Anyone ever ask any of the others about this? Dugan* or -- Jones** was his name, or -- there was a Frenchie...

* Timothy "Dum Dum" Dugan, Barnes' fellow sergeant in the Commandos.
** Gabriel Jones, the first enlisted African-American to serve as an active combatant in an integrated Army unit, later the fourth African-American ever to serve as a United States Senator. His distinguished political career has been referenced in many of President Barack Obama's interviews and speeches as an inspiration to the young Obama growing up.

PP: That would be Jacques Dernier.

JB: Boy, did he know how to build a bomb. Wonder what happened to him*. Guess I could look it up. Maybe oughtn't.

* After the war, Jacques Dernier immigrated to the US to work in Hollywood as a pyrotechnics expert. Most of his children and grandchildren followed in his footsteps as special effects or stunt coordinators. One grandchild, actor and fight choreographer Chris Dernier, has just been cast as James Barnes in a new Captain America biopic to be released next year.

PP: Why not?

JB: They all had lives. I mean I guess so. The Smithsonian says I'm the only one who died in the war.

PP: You don't want to know what happened to them?

JB: Must be hard to hear about all your closest pals having lived their lives and done, and you're still stuck just trying to get out of the war. The girls I used to dance with, they're all grannies now. It's a strange thing. Isn't very helpful, when you already got all your strings cut.

PP: What would be helpful?

JB: I don't know. I will when I find it, I suppose. Sometimes there's a smell, or a sound. It's like unlocking a million doors one at a time, using bad lockpicks.

PP: What is your most vivid memory?

JB: Out of everything?

PP: Everything.

JB: You know that news story, the one where Captain America saves four hundred guys from Hydra and walks 'em back past enemy lines to base? I didn't remember that till I saw it at the Smithsonian. Couldn't have told you what it was about, even. But I saw the headline and I was back there, in this big long column of soldiers, half of us not really fit to walk by then. I hadn't had a real meal in two days, hadn't had a hot one in a month. We stank like a New York sewer. And we saw the base, we saw the flag and the soldiers running out to see us, and I looked back briefly just to make sure everyone was still coming on. You could see it like a wave -- I laughed at the time -- the way we saw we were home and everyone just jerked upright, straightened up enough to look like we hadn't just marched thirty miles on empty bellies.

That's how people were around Steve. You saw him and you stood up straight, just so you wouldn't look so damn cold and tired. Sometimes you felt less cold and tired on account of it.

So that's what I remember most, I guess.

PP: If you could say one thing to everyone, what would it be?

JB: Why do I have to?

PP: You don't.

JB: I got nothin' to say to the whole world. No good comes of making speeches for the sake of them, that's what my dad always said. Usually to Steve, after he'd had another beating from whoever he'd pissed off that time, but it ain't bad advice.

By the time Barnes fell asleep on the couch of Steve's apartment, head tucked into one of the arms, feet curled into the crack of a cushion, Peter had ten pages of notes and two hours of recording. He figured if he could sell the article they'd only use about seven or eight minutes of it total, but then Barnes was a difficult subject, and probably there were only thirty minutes of usable stuff anyway.

Barnes...he wasn't right, not fully. He paused, he drifted off, he sometimes snarled or refused to even acknowledge a question. It reminded Peter of his internship with the Bugle crime desk, trying to get coherent quotes out of traumatized witnesses. He hadn't liked it then, and he'd tried to do stories where he didn't have to pester people who were suffering, but it had achieved his goals now -- an interview with Bucky Barnes, and wearing Barnes out enough to get him to sleep somewhere safe.

He didn't want to risk waking him up, but he left a blanket on one arm of the couch, checked the windows and the lock on the door, and went to bed. In the morning, maybe Barnes would agree to at least go back to New York.

He woke in the dark, spider-sense blaring so hard it was a physical itch at the back of his neck, and rolled out of bed carefully. He listened for Barnes in the other room, but heard nothing. Peter silently pulled his uniform on, just in case, lowered the hood over his face, and poked his head through the bedroom door.

Barnes was gone. The blanket was still neatly folded on the arm of the couch.

He hadn't locked the file up before going to bed, worried that the noise of the safe would wake Barnes. It was gone too, but his laptop was still there. The window was open, and there was a red glow outside --

Peter just barely had time to dive back into the shelter of the bedroom before the world exploded in heat and light as a bomb came rocketing into the apartment. It blew with a cloud of billowing smoke and a hot shockwave.

"Fuck!" Peter managed, grateful for the thin filter of the mask over his mouth. He crawled to the closet, slung his bag with his recorder and wallet in it over his shoulder, webbed his phone to him from where it lay on the nightstand, and made a mad dash for the door over the sound of breaking glass and crackling upholstery.

Heads were popping out of doors up and down the hallway.

"Bomb!" he yelled, pulling the fire alarm. "Everyone out, come on!"

The next half hour was a jumbled mess -- fire and police were there within minutes, but neither of them bothered him as he helped evacuate the building. Steve's floor was pretty well gutted by then, and water was cascading down into the lower floors, but nobody was yelling that their kid was trapped inside, and all household pets seemed to be accounted for. Peter hid in the shadow of a fire truck, bent over with his hands on his knees, and took a few deep breaths.

Barnes couldn't have done it. He'd had no reason, and Peter's spider sense hadn't pinged off him before. He was damaged but he wasn't psychotic, and anyway where did a guy like him find equipment for a projectile-based bomb like that at -- he checked his phone's cracked screen -- two in the morning?

"Parker," someone barked, and Peter barely stifled himself from looking up. Probably some other guy named -- "Parker, hey, Red and Blue."

Peter lifted his head slowly. About ten feet away, Barnes was sitting in a tree.

"Everyone get out okay?" he asked.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Peter exploded, taking a running leap and scrambling his way up to where Barnes was perched. Barnes didn't even flinch when Peter grabbed his shirt and shook him like a puppy. "Did you do this?"

Barnes just looked past him, up at the sodden, smoking building. "Everyone okay?" he repeated.

"No thanks to you!" Peter said, flailing in annoyance. "Why'd you run? Do you have the file?"

Barnes patted his chest, which rustled.

"Figured out they were followin' you. Peter Parker-you."

"God dammit!" Peter yelled, and Barnes put his hand over his mouth. It was the metal hand, and it smelled like oil and ozone. Peter jerked back. "Don't say my name!"

"Look, I'm not a fool," Barnes said. "They don't know who you are, probably. But you did a spread on the Avengers. Once they worked it out, saw you in DC...Hydra probably found me through you."

"You worked this out how?"

"Looked you up on your computer after you went to sleep. Saw the spread you did. Figured if they were gonna go after us there -- " he pointed to the smoldering building, "I'd come out here, get the drop on them."

"What happened?" Peter asked.

"Didn't figure on them having a long-range grenade launcher."

"Is that what it was?"

"Sorry," Barnes said. "Time I got to where they were, they weren't there anymore. They were tryin'a flush us out -- you came out as Spider-man, I wasn't ever in. Failed ambush on their part," he added with a satisfied air.

Distantly, Steve's apartment building collapsed in on itself.

"Well, I've got fifteen bucks, no street clothes, and a dying phone," Peter said, settling down onto one of the branches with a sigh. "What've you got?"

"Couple of knives, gun, spare clip."

"Steve's gonna freak out," Peter said.

"Why? He's not living there anymore."

"Because he's gonna think we got bombed, asshole," Peter retorted.

Barnes grinned. "You're salty when you don't get enough sleep."

"Ugh, we're screwed. I'm calling Tony Stark and getting him to buy us some way home," Peter said, reaching for his phone. Barnes's hand snaked out and caught it.

"Not this again -- " Peter began.

"Not Stark. They'll be watching," Bucky said.

"You on board?" Peter asked, hesitating. Bucky nodded. "You're sure?"

"Back to New York?" Bucky asked, mouth turned down in a grim scowl.

"Back to New York. I need to know -- "

"I'm in, fine, fuck," Bucky said.

"Got any cash?"

"No, but I can get some. There's a stash near the train station. It has clothes, too, I think." His eyes unfocused, as they tended to do when he was trying to hold onto something. "Not I know that."

"You think Hydra will have eyes on it?"

Barnes turned to him, but he mostly looked through him. "I don't think Hydra put it there."

FOR A man whose goal was to be left alone until he could work out who he was, Bucky Barnes got into a lot of trouble in the handful of days we spent together in Washington. By the time the police reached the park behind the Canadian Embassy, Barnes was holed up with me at Steve Rogers' former DC apartment, which was bombed later that night. Spider-man, who was certainly earning his keep, got both of us out, then went back to clear the building, with instructions to Barnes to keep anyone from killing me. Which I very much appreciated.

It became evident that we were not safe in DC, and that Hydra was sparing no expense. This wasn't a job for a journalist and one lone superhero; this was a job on a scale with the Avengers, a job for a team of fighters backed by Tony Stark's considerable resources. So we took stock of our situation and decided to make our escape.

We didn't know that we were running into the trap, not out of it.

The plan seemed decent. Hydra couldn't possibly be blanketing the entire city. They'd have eyes on the airports and bus stations and the train, but it's easy to slip past an unofficial blockade on a train station during rush hour, or so we thought.

Barnes, whatever else he may or may not be, is resourceful. With Spider-man's help, he got me through the nighttime city to the Amtrak station, where we could get a train to New York. I suggested the Chinatown bus, but apparently Hydra had made extensive use of bus networks to move the Winter Soldier when he had to be in transit. It made sense; the bus is anonymous, takes cash, doesn't check ID, and they haven't yet started running anyone through a metal detector.

"I don't really like the bus," Barnes said, which was probably an understatement.

The train had an additional bonus: buried at the very bottom of one of the giant cement planters outside of it was a steel box that Barnes dug out, solving the combination key from memory.

In addition to a false US passport and a Canadian passport, both with his photo in them, there was nearly a thousand dollars in coins and small bills. None of the money had dates later than 2001.

"I don't think Hydra left this," he said. "They would have given me a Soviet passport. At least, this late."

"Why Soviet? Isn't that kind of a big tipoff?"

"A Russian spy post-cold-war is a joke," he told me. It seemed more like a quote than an explanation, something he'd been told by some handler in his past. "Nobody buys a Russian as a bad guy anymore."

"If Hydra didn't leave it here, how did you know where to look? Who left it?" I asked.

"I think maybe I did," he said.

In the file that Captain America provided me and that Barnes had now taken full custody of, there is one notation that may explain what happened. In December of 2001, Barnes had been "inert" -- Hydra terminology for "cryogenically frozen" -- since 1998, and was revived for "Mission 11245". The record of Mission 11245 is missing, and Barnes doesn't recall it, or know which one it was. All we know is that he was revived in late 2001, and disappeared in early 2002.

There are no hardcopy notes in the file between December and the following July. At that point, a chilling memo appears:

Asset recovered. Poor condition. Hardware malfunction, semi-lucid, suffering infection and infection-related fever.

Asset resisted recovery vigorously and was immediately prepped and cleared to reduce resistance. Antibiotics have been administered. Repairs to hardware pending.

Asset may no longer be functional for domestic operations. Advise relocation overseas. Continual use of Asset in domestic operations may result in relapse, recurrent escape, and disturbed state of mind.

It is signed by a medical professional employed with SHIELD at the time of the memo, and in one corner, the phrase CC: A. Pierce appears.

It seems likely that at some point in December of 2001, the Winter Soldier slipped his traces and disappeared into an America plunged into deep turmoil by the recent attacks on 9/11 and the hyperpatriotism -- some would say jingoism -- which followed. Whatever his mission, it appears Bucky Barnes surfaced from the Soldier's grip for long enough to try and escape. The secrets he left behind before his capture, like the dead-drop to himself from the past, are locked in the head of the man who was "recovered" and deemed potentially unfit to continue even existing in the country. They may have been wiped clean from his memory. Or they may rise to the surface when needed, as so much else has.

Barnes, however, seemed increasingly unbothered by the mysteries of his past as we split the cash and bought a few necessities from a 24/7 stop-and-shop in the early hours of the day. For him, secret caches of supplies and hasty last-minute escapes seemed familiar, possibly even comforting.

The plan wasn't complex. We would wait until rush hour, buy tickets in cash, board an incorrect train, and then at the last possible moment, swap platforms and board a train for New York. Spider-man would be riding shotgun, as it were, patrolling the roof of the train. He wanted to keep an eye out for Hydra, who presumably were going to parachute down onto us. At that point, it seemed possible.

Unfortunately for us, Hydra didn't need to go that far.

Barnes was wary of calling the Avengers, even to let them know the bomb hadn't taken out either him or Peter. He finally allowed Peter to text Steve a quick "we're alive, more later" using a burner phone purchased at the gas station. Then he took the phone and threw it into the back of a passing garbage truck.

"In case Hydra's got any eyes on the Avengers," he said, when Peter glared at him.

"You think Hydra's really bugging phones given to the Avengers by Tony Stark?"

"You wanna be funny, funny boy, or you wanna stay alive?" Barnes asked. "I got seventy years experience with this."

"Who taught you how, anyway?" Peter asked, as they circled the train station, looking for back ways in. "Dead drops, stolen keycards, the technology..."

"Handlers," Barnes said carelessly. "Knew a lot of it already by the time they got hold of me, I guess. They used to put me in a team, learned a lot from them. Sometimes they didn't wipe me if I'd learned something 'specially good."

His voice took on the robotic flat affect he sometimes fell into when he was talking about terrible things. "Skills make an asset more valuable. Longer you get to use them, more you remember them, so you remember them after the wipe. For a while they didn't wipe me at all."

"How long?"

Barnes shrugged, jimmying a lock open effortlessly. "They started doing it again after I got loose, I think. That's when they gave me to Pierce. He said what I needed was a firm hand."

Peter thought of Alexander Pierce, taking Barnes in hand less than a year after 9/11. Urich was the Bugle's lead guy on Pierce's fall from grace; he'd already found at least three instances where women working in Pierce's employ had vanished without a trace. Their families suddenly came into money, and suddenly got very quiet about the deaths.

"Pierce himself was a monk, though," Urich had said to him. "Feds have been all over his home and accounts. No drugs, no kinky sex, no embezzling, no financial scandals of any kind. How the guy got his jollies I'll never know."

"He was getting them," Peter had said, and Ben had frowned at him. "Some guys get their rocks off on power, Ben. On secrets. He didn't need porn. He had the US Government instead."

"Interesting angle," Ben said thoughtfully.

"You think he was jerkin' it to the Official Secrets Act?" Sally asked as she breezed past.

"Don't knock it till you've tried it!" Peter yelled after her, and Sally and Ben had both laughed.

Looking at Barnes, it seemed a lot less funny now.

Peter kept quiet, and Barnes seemed disinclined to talk, as they went through the oddly Cold War routine: bought tickets for train B, got onto train A, got off train A right before it left, snuck onto train B. The express train from DC north to New York would only take three hours. While it was packed with people, to Peter's pleasure the wifi was actually working; his laptop might be a lost cause but all of his work on the story had been on Google Docs anyway, so he could at least make notes on it using his phone.

"What's that you're doing anyway?" Barnes asked, peering at the device as the train picked up speed.

"You know what a smartphone is?"

"More or less. Tech jacking was always someone else's job."

"I'm writing down what we've been doing, so I can put it in the article later."

"So I could write in one of those. If I wanted to and I had one."

Peter thought briefly about the notebook he'd seen Barnes steal on the surveillance footage.

"Yeah, if you wanted," he said casually.

"And nobody could look at it, right?"

"Not unless you gave them access. It's all password protected."

Barnes made a thoughtful noise, but he went back to staring out the window.

"You hungry?" he asked eventually.

"I could eat," Peter agreed.

"Breakfast is on me," Barnes said, getting up. "Come on. Hey, do people make Jello Salad anymore?"

I DIDN'T need to have super senses or a spy's observational skill to notice something was wrong when we walked into the train's dining car to get some breakfast. It wasn't crowded, but there was an odd buzz in the air. Later, Barnes would say people saw us too much -- they shifted a little too quickly out of our way, noticed our presence more than commuters normally would. I tried to ignore it, to chalk it up to paranoia. Barnes was apparently doing the same, at least for a while.

The breakfast options didn't apparently appeal to him, either; I got a bagel, a safe bet even considering transit food, but he went straight for the hot dog and the king-sized Snickers bar. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying it, too, until he was nearly finished. As he stuffed the last bite of the hot dog into his mouth, he leaned over and said, "Next fella who leaves the car, be in front of him. I'm gonna be behind him and between cars we're gonna choke him into the bathroom."

I was unprepared for choking someone into the bathroom, but my growing unease made me game to try. When Barnes gave me the signal, I got up and insinuated myself in front of a burly man in a badly-fitting suit, who on closer examination seemed to have some odd bulges underneath it. I wasn't sure what Barnes wanted me to actually do, but it turned out it didn't matter. Barnes simply grabbed him in a chokehold and hauled him sideways.

The bathrooms, I will say this for Amtrak, are spacious, particularly the accessible bathrooms. One car down from the dining car, we managed to cram me, Barnes, and the big guy with the bulges in with room to spare.

Steve Rogers had told me that James Barnes was dangerous. I'd seen enough to know that this was true, but my impression mirrored what I've shown here -- a man who was capable of violence but only in self-defense, and only when it wouldn't put others at risk. What happened in the bathroom that day was the first time I came to understand how truly dangerous Barnes could be, and why he was afraid of his own abilities if he ever reverted fully to the Winter Soldier. This extreme behavior from an otherwise confused and docile man is the reason for much of what happened, with regards to James Barnes, after the derailment of Acela Express 2201, which at that point was still nearly forty minutes in our future.

For certain reasons of confidentiality, not to mention my editors' insistence on this being a tasteful piece of journalism, I can't and won't discuss the process Barnes used to extract information from what turned out to be a well-armed Hydra agent. I will say that Hydra breaks more easily than either Barnes or I suspected. Thirty-two minutes from the point of derailment, he started weeping and he told us everything.

The plan was at once simple and ludicrously complex. Hydra had known that, with no safe refuge left, I would probably try to get Barnes to New York. They had small teams waiting to board when they saw us board, and unfortunately our ruse hadn't fooled anyone. They'd been watching the Acelas and the other northeastern-corridor trains carefully. They knew how Barnes operated.

Once we were aboard, they were to board as well. As soon as they could, they were to take Barnes, sedate him, and get him off the train. They had a limited amount of time in which to do this, because midway between Baltimore and Philadelphia there is a very tight turn in the train tracks, one that requires a slow train to prevent derailment. Once Barnes was safely off the train, Hydra agents would take the engine, drive the train up to full speed, and hit the turn doing a hundred and fifty miles an hour. This would derail the train, probably killing nearly everyone on board, and allow them to fake Barnes's death and make off cleanly.

Some of these details we only became aware of later, but the testimony of the Hydra agent, blubbering quietly on the bathroom floor, was enough to give us a general gist of things.

Barnes took him outside, threw him off the train, and held a brief conference with Spider-man. We were thirty minutes from the turn with no stops inbetween. No help would reach us in time, and the train was packed with people. Any other agents on the train were probably going to be alert to Barnes's presence.

"We're gonna have to take the train," Barnes said. "Start at the engine, secure the engine room, work our way back. If we can, disengage the engine from the train."

"Amtrak's gonna kill us," Spider-man said. "Okay, fine, let's do this."

Spider-man did a vertical leap to the ledge of the carriage roof which I wouldn't have believed if I hadn't seen it; he bent down to haul Barnes up, and then yelled down to me, "See you at the front, Clark Kent!" which I took to mean I should try to get as far towards the front as I could without getting murdered by Hydra.

Superheroes have a great deal of faith in their friends. Sometimes more than is warranted.

"Should we be telling someone that we think the train is full of Nazi terrorists?" Peter asked, as he and Barnes ran for the front of the train, over the carriage roofs. He'd pulled his costume on as soon as they hit the roof, and he hoped never again to strip down while standing on a moving train in the open air.

"Can't know who to trust. Hydra might have guys on the train staff. Knock someone out, take their uniform..."

"Right," Peter sighed. "What about evacuation? I mean we can't just tell people to smile and jump from the train."

"There's a trestle. I checked the map," Barnes said, looking like he was choking on the words.

"You want us to have people jump from a moving train up high?" Peter asked.

"It's not that high. It's over a river just before the turn. It's their best chance if we can't get the passenger cars disengaged. Hope it doesn't come to that. People are dumb, probably wouldn't jump even if we told them to."

"Yeah, I know my first instinct is not to listen to the guy in blue tights," Peter agreed.

"Dunno, Steve always made it work," Barnes said. "Heads up," he added, just as Peter's spider sense gave a tug.

Up ahead, two cars from the front, a handful of men were climbing onto the roof.

"Oh good, a fistfight on the top of a moving train, I needed this for my Action Hero Cinematic Sequence bingo card," Peter said.

"Not a fistfight," Barnes said, kicking Peter's legs out from under him and dropping to the roof just as they opened fire. Peter grabbed him by the back of his shirt, rolled both of them over the side, and grabbed the ledge at the last possible minute, sticking hard, dangling by one hand. Through the window of the car they'd been standing on, a businessman gave them a startled look.

Barnes threw his arms around Peter's neck and Peter shot a web towards the end of the car, where crossing platforms would give them at least a little purchase. They swung perilously close to the ground but Peter managed to toss Barnes onto the platform and stick to the edge, going over the top to take the agents from behind. Barnes was a half-breath behind him.

The fight was over faster than the one in the park; Peter had extraordinary balance on his side and they'd had at least a second of the element of surprise.

"We're amassing an admirable collection of guns," Peter said, as Barnes tucked two pistols and a semiautomatic in with the guns he'd taken off the earlier agent. He pointed to the disarmed, unconscious Hydra agents. "Over the side?"

"Over the side," Barnes confirmed. "They'll probably survive. How long till we hit the turn?"

Peter's sense warned him, too late, of one more agent coming up over the edge. "Shit -- "

The guy dove for Barnes with a knife in one hand, but there was a high, purring whine, a crack of white light, and then the familiar roar of repulsors.

"Hey there kids, how's shakes?" Iron Man's slightly tinny speakers asked, over the roar of the train and the wind. Clinging to his back, one arm around his neck, Steve Rogers rolled off and landed on his feet on the train.

"Son of a bitch am I glad to see you," Peter said, but Steve wasn't listening. He was staring at Barnes, who was staring back.

"Got yourself in a jam, Buck," he said tensely.

"Guess I did," Barnes replied.

"What's the story?"

"Hydra's got the train. Gonna derail it, make it look like I died. Got about -- " Barnes looked at Peter.

"Twenty five minutes," Peter supplied.

"Train's crawling with Nazis," Barnes continued. "Lotsa hostages, Steve."

"Right," Steve said, as Iron Man landed next to him. He tilted his helmet curiously at Barnes, who narrowed his eyes in return. "Okay. Falcon and Thor are on their way with Widow and Hawkeye but they're not as fast, it'll take them some time to get here. We can't wait for backup. All of us are going to the front. Spider-man and Iron Man, I want this thing stopped. You can't stop it, you cut the engine off. You can't cut the engine off, start the evacuation at the front, follow us down."

"What's your play?" Iron Man asked.

"Bucky and I are going to follow the original plan. Work our way front to back through the train. Take out Hydra. You in?" he asked Barnes, who nodded carefully. "Then let's go, time's a'wastin. You two get there fast, Bucky and I'll follow."

Iron Man turned to Peter, said "I'll still respect you in the morning," grabbed him in a bear hug, and took off for the front of the train.

"How'd you find us?" Peter asked, as they matched and then exceeded the train's speed.

"JARVIS saw you outside the train station. Someone bought like thirty extra tickets to this express. Didn't take a genius to figure out you were there and Hydra was too," Tony said. "Got here as fast as we could. Where's Parker?"

Peter almost startled before remembering he had his uniform on. "I sent him to the front of the train, down below. Hydra won't bother him if he's alone."

"Better hope that's true, Cap took a shine to the kid. Hey, how much you know about trains?"

"Not a thing," Peter admitted. "You?"

"I'm reading up as we speak. I'm not giving us good odds of disengaging the cars from the engine; there's maglocks and triple-security in place to prevent that kind of thing."

"So it's either stop the train or blow the engine."

"Looks that way," Tony said, setting them down carefully and skillfully at the door to the engine.

Gunfire burst through the door and Peter darted hastily around behind the armor, shielding himself. Iron Man only sighed.

"I just detailed this one," he said loudly, and blew the door off its hinges.

Inside, the engine operator was very clearly dead, slumped in a corner like spare baggage. There were three Hydra agents between them and the controls -- two with guns, one working frantically at the controls themselves. Iron Man swatted both of the armed men out of his way and Peter webbed them to the walls they collided with; the third, Iron Man grabbed by the hair, hauled backwards, and held up by the throat.

"Tell me how to stop the train," he said.

"You can't," the man replied.

"You're willing to kill hundreds of innocent people to get to one man? Nobody's worth that much."

"Hail Hydra," the man said, and something crackled; Tony shoved his fingers in the man's mouth, trying to hold it open, but foam bubbled up over his lips and Tony let him fall, disgusted.

"These zealots, for the love of -- this is what being a team player gets you," he said to Peter, popping the faceplate of his helmet. "So, if we brake suddenly, at this speed, derailment," he continued, as the train began picking up speed. "JARVIS?"

"Analyzing, sir, but it may be several minutes before I understand what's been done to the circuitry."

"We have under twenty," Tony said. "Be fast. What happens if I get out front of the train and just brace my feet and push really hard, like on the old Superman cartoons?"

"You will destroy the structural integrity of your armor, break both legs, and die horribly," JARVIS told him.

"What if he does it?" Tony asked, jerking a thumb at Peter.

"Unfunny," Peter told him.

"Okay, J, Spidey," Tony said, leaning over the controls. "We're supposed to be the brains of this outfit. Let's explore other options."

THE DERAILMENT of Acela Express 2201 at 7:30 in the morning, on a promising-to-be-sunny day in May, has been hailed as a triumph for the Avengers, and in particular for Sam Wilson, the newest of all the Avengers but a trained and experienced pararescue specialist. Because the Avengers were prevented from making public statements until after they'd debriefed, and because witness accounts are often confused and sketchy at best, a firm timeline of the evacuation and derailment has not really come to light.

At twenty minutes to derailment, ten past seven that morning, Spider-man and Iron Man were in the engine of the train, trying to figure out how to slow it down. Captain America and his former sergeant, Bucky Barnes, were fighting Hydra hostage-takers somewhere in the second car from the front. I had reached the front by then but was unaware of what exactly was going on, and had been told simply to stay put.

With fifteen minutes to derailment, Iron Man had determined there was no way to stop the train, and was working on decoupling the engine from the cars, with little success. Spider-man had come into the front carriage and taken the intercom; he was beginning to organize for the evacuation while trying to keep panicked commuters calm. Four cars down, Barnes and Rogers were still fighting Hydra while terrified commuters fled past them to the front of the train.

At twelve minutes to derailment, reinforcements arrived. Thor began immediately shuttling people off the train, dropping Hawkeye near the end to start closing on Hydra from that direction. Black Widow was dropped off just behind Barnes and Rogers, and took point in identifying and subduing Hydra hostage-takers. Falcon, like Thor, began lifting people to safety, beginning with the handful of children on the train.

Returning to the train from his third flight to safety, Wilson caught a stray bullet from a Hydra agent who had slipped past the others and joined the front of the train; the operative had been trying to get to Spider-man, who had been working to disarm him. Cameraphone footage of Wilson shaking off the bullet and disarming the agent with a single sweep of his powerful mechanical wings would later go super-viral on YouTube.

Wilson stopped for two minutes to bandage his arm, then returned to airlift. With eight minutes to derailment there were still thirty people to evacuate, and no single airborne hero could carry more than two or three people at a time; Iron Man gave up on decoupling the engine and joined Thor and Falcon in the evacuation. Spider-man, unable to take part in the active evac, was performing triage for the lift, making sure the wounded were taken off first.

At three minutes to derailment fifteen people remained. Iron Man took four; Thor took four. Sam Wilson, with the remaining seven, plus five superheroes, turned to Spider-man.

"Can you strap 'em together?" he asked.

"Can you carry seven people if I do?" Spider-man asked, but he was already herding the last seven -- including myself -- into a tight knot.

"Gonna have to try," Wilson told him, and got us out onto the platform. With two minutes to derailment, our chests were bound in harnesses of sticky synthetic webbing and pushed tightly together; straps were slung around the webbing where it connected, and then run over Wilson's shoulders, between his wings.

With thirty seconds to derailment, Wilson took to the sky, straining, bleeding, and we were slowly lifted off the train.

"Everybody off who's getting off!" Spider-man yelled, and jumped. At the back of the train, Thor lifted Black Widow and Hawkeye into the air.

Steve Rogers turned to James Barnes.

"We're gonna have to jump this time, Buck," he said. Barnes, so Rogers says, looked paralyzed. They were approaching the trestle Barnes had pegged as the last hope for survival. The last time James Barnes fell from a train off a trestle, he had become the Winter Soldier.

"Come on, Bucky," Steve urged. "I'll be with you this time."

Barnes couldn't move.

"It's okay," Steve said, and offered his hand. "We'll go together. I'll be there when we hit the water. I'll pull you out this time."

James Barnes took his best friend's hand, and they jumped just as the train hit the trestle.

Ten feet below the train, about twenty feet above the water, Iron Man caught Steve Rogers by the mounting-hooks on the back of his uniform, meant to hold his shield. His other hand caught Barnes around the chest, under his arms.

"You two should be grounded for stupid," he said.

They were still in the air, as were we, suspended from a desperately struggling Sam Wilson, when the train hit the curve.

The engine itself actually seemed like it would survive the turn, for a moment. It jerked around like a car fishtailing, and the wheels of the right side left the tracks, tilting upwards, but for a breath it seemed like all our panic had been pointless.

Then the first car behind it swung into the turn, and its momentum carried it left while the engine was turning right. The engine swung so far to the right it actually overcompensated the turn and went off the tracks. The car behind it went flying onward, serenely unconcerned with physics, and the engine dragged sideways along the ground, gouging a scar twenty feet wide, six feet deep, and fifty feet long before stopping. It was on fire for at least half of those fifty feet. The cars behind the first car accordioned into each other like a giant had grabbed them and smashed them end-on-end.

An average Amtrak Acela express train is about six hundred feet long. When the train came to rest, it was in a crumpled, burning coil, a rough circle about a hundred feet in diameter. Salvage crews estimate that perhaps one in twelve commuters would have survived.

Hanging in the air over the countryside, just shy of the Maryland-New Jersey border, the man harnessed in next to me spoke for all of us:

"Well, there goes my fucking commute."

The evacuation of the train left a trail of confused and injured commuters strewn across the wilderness of northern Maryland. Thor and Iron Man barely paused for a check-in before they went to round them up and help local emergency services tend to the injured, Tony carrying Hawkeye along with him. Natasha had to literally grab Sam Wilson by his wings to make him sit still long enough to get proper treatment for the bullet that took a chunk out of his arm.

But it was Barnes that Peter was most concerned with. Iron Man had dropped him and Steve next to Peter, who was dusting himself down after having jumped from the train. He was already trying to figure out how he was going to explain Peter Parker's escape from the train in his article. Clearly the derailment would be the climax of the story; it was so juicy Peter wanted to do a little dance once he knew everyone was safe.

Barnes had staggered away from Cap and Iron Man, clutching his head; when Peter tried to get close he'd heard him grunting in pain and fear, a low nh-nuh-nh that gradually resolved into no, no, no. Cap, trying to help Natasha grab Falcon, hadn't noticed for just long enough to freak out when he finally did.

"It's fine, it's fine, breathe," Peter was telling him, one hand on his back, as Barnes knelt in the dirt and trembled. He looked up and held up his free hand, warning Steve not to get any closer. "You're safe, it's okay."

"No, no, no -- " Barnes groaned.

Peter looked around, shuffled a little closer, and lifted his cowl enough to show his face. "Hey, hey look, it's me. It's me, you can trust me. Steve's right here, he's really worried. You know I trust him, you know how strong I am. If you try anything I'll stop you. He'll stop you too."

"Nh -- no -- nuh -- "

"Bucky," Steve said, and Peter pulled his mask back down as Barnes straightened, dragging him upright with him.

"I can't," Barnes blurted. "I can't, my head -- there's too much -- "

Peter figured out what was happening first. He'd seen that expression before, when Barnes was slipping between memory and flashback. Steve was triggering something, something huge, and Barnes wasn't keeping up.

He moved on instinct, which probably could have gotten him killed, and clapped both gloved hands over Bucky's eyes.

The trembling stopped, and the horrible grunting. Barnes stayed tense, but he managed a few deep breaths.

Peter jerked his head, and Steve stepped up, taking Barnes by the shoulders, raising him to his feet. He pulled him in close, face pressed to Steve's throat, and held his head there. Peter let go.

"It's okay," Steve said quietly, as Barnes clung tightly to his uniform. He brought his shield up to shelter his head, enclosing him in warm darkness. "It's okay, Buck, I gotcha."

Peter could hear himself narrating this moment in his head, journalist style, and felt a sharp pang of guilt. He began to back away. Steve let him go with a single, grateful nod, and then went back to sheltering Barnes, murmuring reassurances and promises.

AS THOUGH it weren't already, after the derailment the story of Bucky Barnes gets complicated.

The Avengers, to a one, declared they hadn't seen him since the rescue. He'd slipped away while they were helping get the stranded commuters to safety. Emergency Services ran buses and ambulances and cop cars out, taking the injured to the hospital and the uninjured to a hastily-emptied high school gymnasium where they could give their statements and be reunited with their loved ones. In the confusion, the Avengers claimed Barnes simply faded away.

For weeks, they were a solid wall of resistance. They didn't know where he was, and they wouldn't have told anyone if they did. They didn't believe Barnes was a traitor or a murderer and they refused to aid federal law enforcement in seeking him. Technically, as a private not-for-profit organization, they had the right to do so, and with the backing of the Stark Industries legal department, they had the firepower to enforce their resistance.

The absence of Steve Rogers from these press conferences and informal interviews was noted.

Finally, a month after the derailment, with eyewitnesses testifying that Bucky Barnes helped save their lives and a strong undercurrent of support from the veteran and military communities, the federal government blinked first. A federal prosecutor announced that they had been in negotiation with James Barnes through Stark Legal for several weeks, and had agreed to award him full amnesty and immunity for all past crimes, known and unknown, in return for intelligence provided by him leading to the discovery and capture of several Hydra bases still operational in the North American continent. Critics mumbled that Tony Stark bought someone off, but to the survivors of the derailment and to veteran activist groups around the country, the news was a victory.

Barnes agreed to speak with me by phone one last time. In the coming weeks he is expected to return to New York and take up residence in Avengers Tower. With time, he may take up the cause, as well.

He is happy, he says. Not perfect, but better. His memory problems have receded, and he feels more like a whole person; a neurology team and a very good psychiatrist are on hand, wherever he is, to help him put himself back together. He spends most of his day, each day, with Steve, but that's started to get annoying, so now he makes Steve go on food runs or go see a movie so he can have some time to himself. He's discovered Netflix and Instagram, and owns a StarkPhone.

He has bad days, terrible days, and he carries the weight of what he was made to do with him, as he likely always will. He is plagued by nightmares and there are times when he believes he might have died falling from the train -- either one. He has flashbacks, and his depressive episodes are dark and terrifying.

But he is, slowly, coming home.

His first public appearance since the derailment seems to prove that: in the newest I AM CAPTAIN AMERICA ad, unveiled yesterday, he stands with a handful of other veterans in full uniform, the shield hanging casually at his side, hair neatly trimmed, eyes bright. Sam Wilson stands shoulder-to-shoulder with him at his right. Steve Rogers stands just behind and to the left of him, arm over his shoulders, face luminous with the joy of a man who finally has his brother back.

And Bucky Barnes is smiling fearlessly at the world.
emeraldsword: River Song holding a tiny gun (Default)

[personal profile] emeraldsword 2015-06-21 06:00 pm (UTC)(link)
The twist at the end of the last one was fantastic though. I was so happy when I realised who had narrated it!
madripoor_rose: milkweed beetle on a leaf (Default)

[personal profile] madripoor_rose 2015-06-21 10:02 pm (UTC)(link)
lara_quinn: Naked Lily (Default)

[personal profile] lara_quinn 2015-06-22 06:22 am (UTC)(link)
Wonderful story. Poor Peter must have a split personality from interviewing himself and reporting on his own actions as Spiderman.
yubishines: (Default)

[personal profile] yubishines 2015-06-24 10:05 am (UTC)(link)
Man, if Peter thought he was a celebrity after the article in Exclusive, what is he going to be now?

Also, Aunt May is going to skin him alive.