Author's Note: Say hello to my baby :3 I've been working on this story practically non-stop for a little over a year now, so I'm really excited to finally send it out into the world! (I gabble on for quite a bit in this author's note; feel free to skip ahead to the chapter if you want.)
This whole thing began so innocuously, I have to laugh at how quickly and completely it's taken over my life. It was Civil War that finally tipped me over the edge and made me a complete Cap fangirl. A few weeks into this new stage of my life, my dear friend NewMoonFlicker (who eagerly fanned those first fandom embers into a flame) passed along a Tumblr post by wintergaydar talking about how they wished someone would write a canon-divergent AU with this premise. Almost immediately, I could feel this itchy sense in the back of my mind that I knew was the plot bunnies nibbling away. Even in the middle of all the other projects I had going on at the time, the more I thought about this one, the more I wanted to write it. Naively, I started off thinking that this would be a shortish chapterfic, with not too much time passing before everything got resolved. But the more I thought it all through, the more problems cropped up that needed resolving, the more time needed to pass for it all to be believable, and before I realized what was happening, this was turning into an 80,000-word novel. Even right up to the end, I kept on coming up with new complications I hadn't thought of before that would need to be worked out for this story to be complete.
I have to give at least half of the credit for this story to NewMoonFlicker. This is almost as much her baby as it is mine (though...let's stop the analogy there before it gets awkward XD). She pointed me to the original inspiration, and she has been my foremost cheerleader, brainstormer, editor, and encourager from day one till now. This story would be nothing without her ideas, I would be endlessly stuck in Chapter 2 without her fresh perspective, and I might have given up altogether if not for her staunch support and an excitement about the project second only to mine.
Make Me Whole is canon-divergent from midway through TWS, as you will soon see. I realize now that TWS is probably intended to occur the same time the movie came out, April 2014. Unfortunately, before I realized that, I decided the movie took place in the fall, and by the time I realized my mistake, the plot of Make Me Whole was inextricably bound up in this timeframe. I think this is a plausible conclusion from the evidence we can see in the movie (things people wear, leaves still being green, etc.), but if you're adamant about TWS happening in April, I'll have to ask that you suspend your disbelief for this AU.
Another note I feel I should make, just to make it clear from the outset, is that there will be no pairings in this fic. This is about bromance and friendship, nothing more and nothing less. I particularly want to mention that in this version, Black Widow and the Winter Soldier don't know each other. I know some versions of the canon give them a lot of history, but since I think it would be distracting and (at the time I'm writing this) we don't have any of that confirmed in the MCU, just assume they've had no contact before other than the time he shot her.
Also be forewarned that this story contains discussion and descriptions of abuse/torture (psychological as well as physical), drugs, self-harm, panic attacks, non-sexualized nudity, and truckloads of angst and pain. If you're sensitive about any of those things, this is probably not the story for you. (I probably make it sound worse than it actually is—right next to the truck of angsty awfulness is a truck of fluff and giggles, so all your bases are covered :P)
All right, now let's get started!
I'm here again
A thousand miles away from you
A broken mess
Just scattered pieces of who I am
Then I see your face
I know I'm finally yours
I find everything I thought I lost before
You call my name
I come to you in pieces
So you can make me whole
- "Pieces" by Red
The first time Steve saw the Winter Soldier, he saw a dangerous enemy. He was confused, shocked, and angry. This man had just shot Nick Fury three times in the chest—in his apartment. The Winter Soldier led him on a desperate chase through several buildings and over the rooftops, pushing him to his limits.
And he had caught the shield. This man had caught the shield that normally cut his enemies down. He'd simply snagged it out of the air with his metal hand, and thrown it back to him with such force that Steve skidded backwards several feet.
As he stood on the edge of the roof, palms still stinging, searching vainly for some trace of where the Winter Soldier had run off to, Steve knew their paths would cross again, and that the resulting battle would be difficult. This might be the most formidable single enemy he had ever fought.
But he had no idea just how much the Winter Soldier would change his life.
"This can't be the data point," Natasha said. "This technology is ancient."
Steve had to agree. He couldn't always tell what technology was new or cutting-edge (since it was all new to him), but dust lay inches thick on every component of this hidden computer lab. Everywhere, that is, except for a small row of slots that looked like they would fit the kind of flash drive Fury had given them. It had obviously been placed there recently, disturbing the dust on the desktop. After considering for a moment, Natasha plugged the flash drive in. Words immediately began scrolling across the screen in the middle of the desk: Initiate system?
"Y-E-S spells 'yes,'" Natasha muttered as she typed in the word. As the computer whirred to life, she smirked. "'Shall we play a game?' It's from a movie that was real pop—"
"I know, I saw it," Steve interrupted. He was more interested in the rows upon rows of computer equipment that had just come to life, whirring and spinning and blinking like a sprawling monster roused from an enchanted slumber.
Some kind of camera mounted on top of the computer screen slowly turned towards them. Something vaguely resembling a face appeared on the green computer screen—two enormous, bug-like eyes and a sound wave for a mouth. "Rogers, Steven," a voice with a pronounced German accent said over the loudspeaker, echoing all throughout the room. "Born 1918. Romanoff, Natalya Alianovna. Born 1984."
Natasha frowned. "It's some kind of recording."
"I am not a recording, Fraulein," the voice said immediately. "I may not be the man I was when the captain took me prisoner in 1945, but I am."
Dread pooled in the pit of Steve's stomach. He knew that voice with its German accent. He knew the face that appeared on a smaller screen to the side, much easier to distinguish than the outline on the main screen.
"You know this thing?" Natasha asked him in a low voice.
Steve began to pace around behind the computer, too restless to stay in one place. "Arnim Zola was a German scientist who worked for the Red Skull. He's been dead for years."
"First correction, I am Swiss." The voice sounded quite pleased with itself. "Second, look around you. I have never been more alive. In 1972, I received a terminal diagnosis. Science could not save my body. My mind, however—that was worth saving, on two hundred thousand feet of databanks. You are standing in my brain."
Steve's pacing took him behind the machine, where he could see the databanks that held Zola's brain stretching into the darkness. "How did you get here?" he demanded, returning to the front of the computer. He could see the camera following his movements.
"Operation Paperclip," Natasha supplied. "After World War II, S.H.I.E.L.D. recruited German scientists with strategic value."
"They thought I could help their cause," Zola said. "I also helped my own."
A bitter taste filled Steve's mouth as he thought of Zola smugly strutting around this place, secure in the knowledge that he had infiltrated his greatest enemy. "Hydra died with the Red Skull," Steve said, his hands curling into fists.
"Cut off one head, two more shall take its place."
Steve glared at the face on the screen, which had split into two. "Prove it."
"Accessing archive." Zola brought up a series of news clips to illustrate as he spoke—many of the same news clips Steve had looked up to learn what had happened since the war.
"Hydra was founded on the belief that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom. What we did not realize was that if you try to take that freedom, they resist. The war taught us much. Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly. After the war, S.H.I.E.L.D. was founded and I was recruited." He showed them a picture of the first S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists, with little Dr. Zola smiling serenely in the background. "The new Hydra grew, a beautiful parasite inside S.H.I.E.L.D. For seventy years, Hydra has been secretly feeding crisis, reaping war. And when history did not cooperate...history was changed."
"That's impossible." Steve could hear the fear behind the confidence in Natasha's words. "S.H.I.E.L.D. would have stopped you."
"Accidents will happen." He showed a picture of Howard Stark, his eyes blacked out. Then a picture of Fury, followed by dozens more agents throughout the years that Steve didn't know, all of them eliminated in suspicious 'accidents.' "Hydra created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security. Once the purification process is complete, Hydra's new world order—"
"Wait." Among all of the pictures gloatingly showing them how Hydra had gotten rid of all obstacles, Steve had seen a blurry photograph of a sniper seen from a distance. A sniper with a metal arm that had a red star on the shoulder. "That man—who is he?"
"Ahh, that is my greatest creation," Zola said, a smug smile evident even over the old, crackly speakers. "And it is very fitting that you should be so curious about the Winter Soldier, Captain. You see, you were his inspiration."
His insides went cold. "What do you mean?"
"Once I discovered that Dr. Erskine's serum was a success, I set out to recreate the serum. Alas, it was not a perfect copy, but I could make no more progress after the Winter Soldier. Every subject after him rejected the serum and perished mere hours after injection. So we had to preserve our Asset. We perfected cryogenic stasis, and now we only bring the Winter Soldier out when it is necessary. Unfortunately, though the serum has given the Winter Soldier strength, speed, and stamina equal to yours, what he lacks is your conviction. You and Johann Schmidt believed in your cause, and that gave you potency. Focus. Resolve. We have had to go to much trouble to give the same to our Asset."
Steve's mouth was dry. He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer to his question, but he asked it anyway. "How?"
"Oh...brainwashing. Drugs. Physical...incentives. We have found that a combination of techniques brings about the best results." As he spoke, pictures flashed across the screen—chemical formulas and diagrams of what looked like a modified electric chair. Instead of being used as a method of execution, this monstrosity allowed Hydra to coerce the Winter Soldier to do their bidding.
Natasha glanced at him, then took over the interrogation, demanding to know what was on the drive. Though he listened to what they were saying, Steve's mind seemed to be stuck on that blurry image of the Winter Soldier. He couldn't even imagine what horrors that man had endured, forced to do Hydra's bidding. It didn't matter whether he'd volunteered in the beginning, or if he wanted out now. Hydra never let a useful tool out of their clutches, and that was all he was to them now.
And it was all Steve's fault.
Steve felt much better after he, Sam, and Natasha had hashed out a plan of attack while sitting around Sam's kitchen table. Ever since he'd gotten on that elevator the day before, he'd been running, thinking on his feet, improvising a plan while he was still trying to process everything that had happened. Even though he knew everything could change in an instant on the battlefield, he'd always felt better with a plan firmly in mind ahead of time.
"There's one more thing," he said as Sam grabbed his keys, preparing to head out. "The Winter Soldier."
Natasha gave him a guarded look, as though she knew what he was thinking. Which she probably did.
"The guy who killed Fury?" Sam asked, glancing between them. "You think he's gonna come after us next?"
"He's definitely gonna come after us," Natasha said, still watching Steve. "At least he will once S.H.I.E.L.D. gets wind of what we're doing."
"I want to help him." Sam and Natasha both stared at him, so Steve looked at his hands folded on top of the table. "They torture him. They drug him and coerce him and force him to carry out their missions." He closed his eyes, and he could see the Winter Soldier silhouetted against his eyelids, as if the sight of him had been branded there during their brief encounter. "He doesn't have a choice. So I want to give him one." Slowly, he opened his eyes again, looking up beseechingly at his companions. "I just...I have to save him. I have to."
"Look," Sam said gently. "Whoever he used to be...and the guy he is now...I don't think he's the kind you save. He's the kind you stop."
Steve shook his head. "I have to try. I have to give him a second chance."
Natasha and Sam shared a look, then Natasha stepped around the table to put a hand on Steve's shoulder. "Why are you taking this so personally?" she asked gently. "None of that's your fault, Steve. Hydra's responsible for everything done to him."
"It doesn't matter whether it's my fault or not," Steve said, though he knew it was. He leaned back in his chair, staring out the window at the tree in Sam's front yard without really seeing it. "They were trying to create another supersoldier like me. That makes it my responsibility to help him. I may be the only one who can."
Biting her lip, Natasha said, "If he's been brainwashed...he probably won't even be willing to listen to you. You might not be able to get through to him; there'd be too much Hydra in the way."
Steve frowned thoughtfully. "What did you do, back when Loki was controlling Clint? You were able to get him back to normal."
With a grimace, Natasha reluctantly said, "Cognitive recalibration. Basically, I hit him as hard as I could in the head to knock him free of Loki's control."
"Then that's what we'll do with the Winter Soldier."
"There's no guarantee that this will work, Steve," Natasha said, looking worried. "This guy's had people playing with his mind a lot longer than Clint did. Even if you can get through to him...there might not be enough of him left to even respond."
That thought just made Steve feel sicker and guiltier than ever. "He's still a human being, and every human being deserves a chance to make the right choice."
Sam sighed. "After that, there's no way I could refuse to help you. But seriously, do you know how hard that's gonna be? It would probably take everything we've got just to keep him from killing us anyway, but now we're supposed to whack him on the head hard enough to undo seventy years of brainwashing. And we have to do all that without killing him."
"That's Steve Rogers for you," Natasha said, punching him in the shoulder with an exasperated smile. "Always asking for the impossible."
Steve hadn't expected to run into the Winter Soldier again quite so quickly. But apparently he had been tailing them much more closely than they'd expected, because he attacked them soon after they'd kidnapped Sitwell and gotten the information they needed from him about Zola's algorithm. And Steve was beginning to realize what Sam had warned them about: Just trying to avoid being killed was hard enough, let alone the rest of their intentions for the Winter Soldier.
Cognitive recalibration was one thing when it was a one-on-one fistfight in the deserted hallways of a helicarrier. But out in the open, with civilians milling about and Hydra agents firing on all sides... Natasha, as the most agile of the three (and the only one who actually had experience with cognitive recalibration), went after the Winter Soldier while Steve and Sam took care of the rest.
But then Natasha was shot. Steve saw it from a distance, and started to run towards her, but he knew he was too far away. Just as the Winter Soldier raised his gun to fire again, Sam swooped in on his Falcon wings, knocking the Winter Soldier flat on his back. He started to flip back onto his feet, but Sam kicked him sharply in the head, and he staggered back down.
Now was his chance. "Natasha!" Steve cried, and Sam nodded, rushing off to help her. Steve turned back to the Winter Soldier just in time to catch his metal fist on the shield.
"Wait!" he yelled, backing up as he ducked, dodged, and blocked the Winter Soldier's attacks. "I don't want to fight you!"
It was much more difficult than he'd thought it would be, trying to fight and talk to him at the same time. The Winter Soldier was incredibly strong and skilled, even though blood trickled into his eyes from where Sam had kicked him in the forehead. Steve had no way of knowing whether they'd cut through the brainwashing or not—the Winter Soldier didn't look very disoriented or confused, but maybe he was so used to fighting Hydra's battles that he kept going on instinct.
"Please!" The Winter Soldier shoved him against the side of a van, his knife cutting into the metal with a shriek. "Let me help you!"
He ducked under the Winter Soldier's arm and panted as he whirled away, "Don't go back to them. Don't let them hurt you anymore."
Slowly, the Winter Soldier turned to face him. The mask covered his nose and mouth, so all Steve could see of the man's face were his blazing eyes and his bloody forehead, furrowed with shock and confusion. "What?"
He didn't lower his knife, but he also wasn't attacking. Steve didn't relax his guard or lower his shield, but he held out his free hand, open and unthreatening. "They hurt you, don't they? To make you do what they want. But you deserve better than that." He swallowed, then staked everything on one final plea. "Come with me. I can hide you—take you far away, somewhere Hydra can never find you. You'll never have to let anyone lay a finger on you again."
For a moment, he thought he'd actually managed to get through to the Winter Soldier. The man looked unsure, his eyes darting between Steve's face and his outstretched hand, as though trying to detect a hint of deception. But then his eyes hardened into steel, and he raised a gun, preparing to shoot.
Steve ducked behind his shield just as something exploded into the van behind the Winter Soldier. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Sam at Natasha's side, holding a rocket launcher. When he turned around again, the Winter Soldier was gone.
"Drop the shield! Get on your knees!"
A quick glance around told Steve that they were completely surrounded. Black-clad members of the S.T.R.I.K.E. team that had tried to kill him before encircled them, advancing with weapons drawn. Steve knew that, as double agents working for Hydra, they would have no compunction about killing them where they stood. But if they hadn't simply opened fire, that meant they were probably going to let them live for at least a little while. So Steve dropped his shield on the ground and lowered himself to his knees, signaling to the others to stand down.
Sam, who knelt by Natasha's side, slowly put down the rocket launcher and raised his hands over his head. Natasha sat slumped against the side of an overturned car, clutching her bleeding shoulder and looking like she was about to pass out.
As the S.T.R.I.K.E. team surrounded them, handcuffing them and hauling them toward a black van, Steve found himself more preoccupied with the Winter Soldier than their present predicament. Would he just trot back to his Hydra masters as usual, and let them punish and torture him all over again? Or would he realize that he could have something better? Steve hoped that, even if the Winter Soldier never took him up on the offer to hide him from Hydra, he would at least decide to leave.
He just couldn't get the look on the Winter Soldier's face out of his mind when he'd mentioned that they hurt him.
It was a while before they saw the Winter Soldier again, but he never really left Steve's mind. There were plenty of other important things to think about, such as how they were going to destroy the helicarriers and thwart Project Insight. He also realized he needed to get his hands on one of his suits, so all the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who hadn't gone over to Hydra would immediately know who he was and where they needed to direct their loyalty. Rather than risk going back to his apartment, which was probably still under surveillance, he decided to break into the Smithsonian and steal the old suit from his own exhibit. There were a lot of details to attend to in a short amount of time.
But always in a back corner of his mind, he kept coming back to the Winter Soldier. Where was he now? Was he in pain? Was he being punished for not completing his mission? Was he wishing he'd taken Steve up on his offer, or did he only hate Steve more than ever for causing him more hardship?
So it really didn't come as a surprise when the Winter Soldier showed up on the deck of the first helicarrier they landed on. The ordinary soldiers they encountered were no problem; they stood no chance against Steve's shield and Sam's increased mobility. But just as they emerged onto the deck after replacing the chip, a black blur sailed over a stack of crates and threw Steve onto the ground.
Steve could immediately tell that they had brainwashed the Winter Soldier again. His eyes were cold steel traps, imprisoning his emotions behind them as completely as his mask hid his identity. There was none of the confusion and hesitation that had let Steve dare to hope he could convince this man to walk away.
So Steve renewed his efforts to break Hydra's hold. The shield had fallen from his hands when the Winter Soldier had first attacked, so Steve tried everything he could to hit the Winter Soldier's head with his fists and elbows. The Winter Soldier seemed to know what he was trying to do, and blocked every attack. Steve was hard-pressed to avoid the Winter Soldier's knife, which he kept switching from one hand to the other, trying to throw Steve off.
Steve barely even had to glance over to know that Sam had thrown him his shield. Snatching it out of the air, he smashed it into the Winter Soldier's right wrist, making him drop the knife with a grunt of pain. Without even losing a beat, his metal hand shot forward and latched onto Steve's throat.
"Steve!" Sam raced towards them, but just then a jet swooped overhead, firing at them. Sam shot into the air, drawing the gunfire away from Steve. Unfortunately, it also meant he couldn't break the Winter Soldier's hold.
Steve couldn't pry those steel fingers away from his throat. They squeezed harder every second, determined to choke the life out of him. Cold blue eyes stared at him dispassionately, not even displaying anger or triumph. He couldn't stand it. He refused to let those eyes be the last thing he saw.
He couldn't get a good enough angle with the shield in his hand, so he threw it at the nearby stack of crates. It bounced off, slamming into the back of the Winter Soldier's head. As he staggered, his grip slackening, Steve headbutted him hard enough to throw him to the ground.
Even as he desperately gasped for breath, Steve started to talk. "Please...c-come with me..." He had to stop to cough, his throat burning as though those fingers had been made of fire. The Winter Soldier struggled to rise, but fell back down. Hopefully all of this hadn't caused permanent damage.
"You can...walk away right now," Steve choked out, bending over and resting his hands on his knees. But he didn't go for his shield. "Stop letting them...tell you who you are. Make your own choice! They call you...their Asset...but I know...you're more than that."
"Th' hell d'you think you know 'bout me?" the Winter Soldier slurred, struggling to his feet and grabbing onto the crates for balance.
"I know that you're a human being!" he cried, the bitter taste returning to his mouth as he thought of everything this battered man had endured. "And that is not how you treat a human being. It's not even how you treat a dog! You don't have to put up with that. You deserve so much better! And I'll hunt down every last one of the scum who did this to you."
The Winter Soldier straightened, blinking rapidly as if trying to focus his vision. He looked at Steve with surprise and confusion, as if he couldn't understand why Steve was trying so hard. For a long moment, neither of them said anything. Then the Winter Soldier took a tentative step away from the crates supporting him.
The jet Sam had been fighting crashed to the deck, the force of the impact making the ground beneath their feet pitch and roll like a ship on the sea. They both stumbled. Steve caught his balance quickly, but the Winter Soldier, already unsteady, staggered several feet and slipped off the edge of the deck.
Steve realized what was going to happen moments before it did, and he raced for the edge, throwing out his hand and grabbing desperately at the Winter Soldier. But he got there a split second too late. Metal fingertips brushed his, and the Winter Soldier plummeted thousands of feet to his death. His eyes, thrown wide with fear, seemed to stab right through Steve and drag him down with them.
"No!" Steve screamed, still reaching even though the Winter Soldier had already disappeared into the distance.
It was just like when Bucky had fallen from the train, reaching for him, screaming as he fell out of sight. No matter how far he reached, how fast he moved, he had failed to save Bucky. And now, he had failed another man he had sworn to save.
Then, wings shining white like an angel, Sam soared up towards him, towing the Winter Soldier by his metal arm. The thrusters on Sam's back blasted as hard as they could, and even from a distance Steve could see the strain on Sam's face as he lifted his quarry and deposited him safely on the deck. Sam landed next to Steve, his wings whining as they folded up.
"Dude, that guy's heavier than you!" Sam panted. "I almost dislocated my shoulder doing that!" He groaned, rolling his shoulder. "Must be the metal arm that makes him so heavy."
"Thank you," Steve said, putting a hand on his unhurt shoulder.
"Yeah, yeah. You owe me big time for this one."
Steve bent down and picked up his shield, which had gotten wedged among the clutter of fallen crates when the jet had crashed. He looked over at the Winter Soldier, who crouched several feet away on hands and knees, visibly trembling.
Steve took a step towards him, but Sam put a hand on his arm. "Cap, we're running out of time. We've still got two of these things left."
Reluctantly, Steve turned away. "You're right." Before Sam lifted him into the air, he glanced over his shoulder one last time. The Winter Soldier was staring at him.
When Steve finally made it to the third helicarrier, he was alone. The Falcon suit had finally given out; Sam had managed to land safely, but he couldn't watch Steve's back anymore. Soon, this would all be over. Hydra would be crushed, S.H.I.E.L.D. would be gone, and millions of people would live to see the end of this day. All he had to do was place the final targeting chip and get off this thing somehow.
There was only one thing standing in his way: The Winter Soldier. Steve stood at one end of a long, narrow catwalk, and the Winter Soldier stood at the other end. He stood directly in front of the console Steve needed to use.
Steve sighed, but no matter how much he wanted to save this man, he still had to do the right thing. Even if it meant killing him. "People are gonna die," he said. "I can't let that happen."
"I don't care about them," the Winter Soldier said. "But if I step aside...can you make sure Hydra never finds me?"
It took a moment for the words to sink in. But when they did, Steve took a hopeful step forward. "You mean...you're going to walk away?"
"They...hurt me," he said in a tight voice, as though he was struggling to speak through a throat closing around a torrent of emotion. "I don't...want to...anymore." There was something almost childlike in his words—which only made it more horrifying when Steve considered what he was saying.
"I tried to, once," he continued haltingly. "After my mission, I just...didn't go back. It took...two weeks...for them to find me. But...it was...worse." He shook his head in a sharp twitch, as though trying to dislodge a fly. Steve noticed his right hand was tight around the knife at his belt. His shoulders heaved; he was practically gasping.
"This time will be different," Steve said, taking another cautious step forward. The Winter Soldier jerked backward, his back pressing against the console. Steve kept his hands loose and open at his sides. "This time, I'll be there to protect you, and hide you. Besides," he added, daring a small smile, "this is Hydra we're talking about. The last place they'll look for one of their own would be at Captain America's side, right?"
"So I'll...stay with you?"
He wasn't sure what emotion lay behind that question, but he nodded. "I think that would be the safest thing to do. At least until you feel ready to strike out on your own. If you disappear for long enough, they'll probably stop looking for you."
The Winter Soldier didn't relax. He still clutched his knife, still watched Steve with wary, calculating eyes. But slowly, he took two steps to the side and left the way clear for Steve.
Steve couldn't stop the delighted grin that crossed his face. It had actually worked. He had saved the Winter Soldier.
...whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
- John 6:37