Glass. Glass in front of his face -- glass -- cage --
It's sheer, visceral panic, the crawling feeling of being trapped, that makes Bucky lash out with all the strength in his metal arm, shattering the already cracked glass into a shower of fragments. As it cascades across the floor, as he stumbles after it and slowly his brain starts to come back from its initial blank panic, he looks up, and then around --
Around, at wreckage and smoke and rubble, at showers of sparks and the twisted infrastructure of some kind of vast -- he's not even sure what it is. Hangar? Tower? ... Zoo? He stares around him at hundreds of glass cases like the one he just broke out of, at twisted girders and sparking wires and -- things --
Something twists past him through the air; he gets a brief impression of multicolored wings and a sinuous, flowing body that might have been covered with fur or feathers before it's flitted away away and gone. And there's nowhere he can look where there isn't something bizarre, sometimes locked away in glass and sometimes scampering or rolling or just lying there -- things that might be machines or treasures, things that look like plants, things that are definitely animals, things he can't even identify as to whether they're alive or not, let alone what kingdom they belong to --
"What," says Bucky, with feeling, "the actual f --"
He's interrupted by a muffled scream from somewhere nearby. Turning, he sees a girl with bright pink skin and a mass of tousled hair pounding on the glass of a cage similar to his own. He can't understand what she's saying through the glass, but the meaning comes through loud and clear: Help! Get me out of here!
Bucky stumbles through the wreckage. "Stand back," he tells her, gesturing to make sure the meaning comes through, but she's already flattened herself in the back of her cage, covering her head with her arms. He doesn't like this -- the thin shift she's wearing gives her little protection from lacerations -- but there's not much he can do about it, so he tries to aim his punch to shatter the glass (or whatever it is; it's something shatterproof and tough, though apparently it's no match for good old-fashioned HYDRA engineering) in a direction angled away from her as much as possible.
"Sorry," he says as glass rains down, sparkling in her hair and leaving bright bloody lines on her face and shoulders. He's slightly disturbed to notice that her blood is bright pink, although given everything else, that's really not his biggest concern.
She takes her hands down and looks up at him with a stunned expression. Bucky hesitates, then does something he's almost never done since he started falling back into his own brain, and cautiously holds out a hand. (The flesh one. Never the metal one.) He knows most people are afraid of him, responding with an instinct they've almost forgotten to the predator in their midst. He doesn't really know how to touch people anymore. On some level, he expects her to cringe away.
But instead she seizes his hand and lets him pull her to her feet. She says something, and Bucky still can't understand what she's saying, because it turns out she's speaking a language he's never heard before. It's light and musical and, rather unusually for him, doesn't strike a chord with any of his buried memories.
Well okay then.
He's really not expecting what happens next, which is the girl throwing her arms around him and hugging him. It's very quick, just a brief squeeze and then she's pulling away and stumbling forward, looking around and blinking, wearing an expression that Bucky (from experience) recognizes as the wide-eyed, baffled stare of the newly freed. And he stands still for a moment, not quite sure how to cope with the first hug he remembers getting in seventy years.
And then he shakes himself out of it, because all around him there are more people, and animals, and creatures that might be people or animals or maybe something else, but are definitely alive and scared. And all of them are trapped, and right now he doesn't care if this is a zoo or a prison or something else entirely, because as long as he's got a metal arm to punch with, he's not going to stand for that.
And there's also a fear (hope?) on some deep level of his brain, that if he's here someone else might be here, and he doesn't even want to put a name to that feeling, or that person, but he's not leaving here until he's looked into every one of those cages.
On another level of this huge intergalactic zoo or whatever it is, shaking glass from the crevices of his metal arm, Bucky meets a woman who's doing the same thing he is, opening cages and helping their occupants out.
She looks human, but he's already gotten the impression that appearances don't matter all that much around here. However, her cheerful "Hallo! Hi! Bonjour!" is one hundred percent pure Earth, totally comprehensible, and he's a little embarrassed by the vast relief of finding one thing that's almost familiar. For one thing, it's the only thing that makes him sure (at least reasonably sure) that his inability to understand anyone else here is them and not just his brain having slipped a language cog.
"Hi," he says, and gives her an awkward, rusty smile.
Her face lights up like an incandescent bulb. "Are you from Earth? You are! You speak English! I once spent a week on a tramp freighter with a chap who was from Earth and only spoke Cantonese; you can't imagine what a disappointment that was, at least in the beginning. On the bright side, I can now ask for directions and stumble through a basic conversation in Cantonese, and I'm confident he can do the same in English, so not for nothing, innit?"
This comes out in a disconcerting torrent. Bucky isn't even used to having conversations, let alone conversations with someone who seems to treat words like a tap that she opens and shuts off at will (with more of the opening, less of the shutting off). However, he finds that it's actually easier to just let her talk at him than it is to deal with most people. She doesn't seem to mind very much if he doesn't answer back except in single syllables and grunts.
As they work their way through the zoo place and it starts to empty out, Bucky ends up learning quite a lot about his new human companion, at least in terms of random facts about her life, ranging from an oddly complete and heavily annotated list of temp jobs she's worked at ("If that Mrs. Higgenbotham from the handbag accessories counter could see me now, she'd be laughing out from under the other side of her mustache, wouldn't she?"), to random facts about her childhood ("Was sent home from school for biting on my first day, so don't get cheeky with me, you little bugger" as she picks up a striped thing like a furry toadstool with teeth from its glass case and sets it firmly on the floor), to odds and ends about her family -- but nothing, Bucky can't help noticing, that might even hint at how a woman he gathers is some sort of office worker from London ended up ... wherever they are now.
Oh, and he also learns her name is Donna.
"We're not on Earth, are we?" he finally ventures as he twists off the lock on a case of something vaguely like glowing, multicolored cockroaches, which skitter away and vanish into the surrounding crevices. Bucky would feel guilty about that except that, first of all, whoever runs this place really deserves a glowing cockroach infestation, and second, several of them stopped to wave goodbye.
"... no?" Donna says, surprised, pausing in the act of helping some sort of crawling moss crawl out of its cage. "Why? Did you think we were?"
"Oh, you know what we need." She snaps her fingers, looking around. "Have you seen -- it'd look like a little chip, about so big, with a gun to apply it with -- looks sort of like one of those things for giving a smallpox jab. You haven't seen anything like that?"
"No, but ..." Bucky looks around eloquently at the seemingly endless mess. He's starting to have a crawling feeling on the back of his neck that they really need to get out of here before whoever runs this zoo or prison comes back. Occasional explosions from outside let him know that the owners have probably got bigger problems right now, but the sounds of fighting are dying away, which makes him think it's probably about time to get out of Dodge. "What is it?"
"It's a translator," Donna explains, "the sort they use in this place and time." Odd wording, that; Bucky files it away for future reference. Odder still is the look that passes across her face, a moment of confusion and wistfulness and terrible sadness. As bizarre as it is to even entertain the idea, maybe some of the strangeness he senses from her is because he's not the only person around here who's been dislocated from his own time. "Without it, we can't understand anyone here. I had one, but that Collector jerk must've taken it out." She touches her neck, where a tiny, healed scar is just visible.
"Yeah, Taneleer Tivan, runs this place, all around unpleasant sort. I -- er --" Donna looks down at the main floor. "I think now would be a good time to leave."
A group of individuals with guns, armor, and assorted blue glowing parts have just marched in. Bucky is reasonably confident in his ability to take on a small army singlehandedly, but maybe not this kind of army. He doesn't have a clue what their capabilities are, and they're fanning out into the rubble, clearly looking for something.
"Do they work for this Collector?" he asks softly.
"I haven't a clue, but I've gotten as far as I have in this galaxy by knowing when to run, and this, my new friend, is a good time to run."
He thinks about staying. He doesn't want to leave unless he knows -- unless he's sure --
But by now, he's pretty sure. And also, he's come to accept that this place is big enough he could search for Steve for days and never open all these cages.
What in the world are the odds they're both here, anyway? He still doesn't know how he got here -- his memories are no less of a jumble than before, but the last few months' worth are reasonably linear, and all he remembers is Earth, no aliens whatsoever. But he had to have been half a world away from Steve at the time.
So they flee out the back into the neon-lit darkness of an alien city.
"I hope it's not rude to ask, but is there something I can call you?" Donna asks Bucky as they hole up a few streets away, under a curving arch of something he swears looks like bone. "Usually people give their names when you first meet them, and if they don't, there's a reason. So feel free to make something up if you'd like. But I really would prefer not to have to holler 'hey you' across a crowded shop floor."
He hesitates. On Earth, he was living under aliases, most of them already made for him, acquired from passports in old HYDRA dead drops his memories-that-aren't-his-memories told him how to find. Usually if he needed a throwaway name to give someone in a temporary encounter when it didn't matter much, he gave them either John or James, both of which seem to be as common and unremarkable in this time as in his own.
The last person who called him Bucky was Steve, on the helicarrier. Claiming it as his name feels like trying to stuff his feet into boots that no longer fit. But giving Donna a name that's not his own feels wrong somehow. He decides to split the difference.
"Barnes," he says.
"Nice to meet you, Barnes." Donna shakes his hand.
Two days later, using snatches of space pidgin that she picked up somewhere, Donna has bargained their way onto an ore hauler heading for a place called Koskogarr, or something like that, by convincing them to accept Bucky's skills as a security guard/mercenary in lieu of payment. Bucky's not sure if Donna has a clue how dangerous he really is, but he's starting to get the distinct impression that being extremely dangerous here is not as much of a liability on Earth, and it's not terribly rare either.
Whether Koskogarr is closer to Earth than they are now, Bucky doesn't know. But he's also not sure if he wants to go back.
(Steve is on Earth.)
(He's not sure, right now, if that's an enticement or a reason to stay away.)
Bucky isn't sure why he and Donna decide to stick together for awhile. They just do. Maybe it's because they're the only humans for a thousand parsecs in any direction. And right now, they can have actual conversations with each other, which is a nice change from grunting and gesturing at most of the other people they meet.
Slowly he gets some tiny bits and pieces of Donna's story -- her recent story, that is. She's not at all shy about sharing her early life in great detail. And then, sometime around 2008, it's like her life falls into a black hole. He never gets more than a few hints.
But then, he doesn't share his story with her, either.
And yet, one drop at a time, they learn about each other.
He learns that it's not just that she doesn't want to talk about it. She's missing parts of her life, too.
He learns that, like him, she keeps finding random bits of memory stashed away in unexpected parts of her brain.
He learns that she talked her grandfather into helping her build a device for contacting aliens, and she used to be modestly wealthy after winning the lottery, but she gave away her entire winnings in exchange for something to trade with the aliens to take her offworld.
("You know what it turned out to be? What they took in payment, I mean?"
"No, what?" Bucky asks, lying awake on a long sleepless night. They're on a planet called Abriska, temporarily working as stablehands for a breeder of many-legged racing centipedes to earn passage to somewhere else. Anywhere else, because Abriska is a miserable insect-infested wasteland with perpetual acid rain.
"Bananas," Donna says with relish. "I paid my way to the stars with bananas. And trust me, an entire winning lottery ticket's worth of bananas is a lot of bananas. You don't even want to know how many. If banana prices went through the roof the winter of 2012, that's on me then.")
So he knows what Donna is coming from, at least a little bit.
He never finds out what she's going toward. He only knows that it's obvious she's looking for something.
He's not sure if even she knows what that something is.
Bucky Barnes: Intergalactic Space Hobo is definitely not how he pictured his life.
The weird thing is, though, he actually feels more ... well ... comfortable isn't quite the right way to put it, and neither is at home. But what he doesn't feel is -- alien. Yeah. That's it. Out in space, surrounded by actual aliens, he doesn't feel like as much of an alien as he remembers feeling during the months after he fled D.C. in the wake of the helicarrier crash.
The thing is, out here in space, Bucky's augmentations and his assassin background and his allegedly-impossible-by-Earth-technology brainwashing are ... they're actually kind of, sort of normal. So far, in his wanderings with Donna, he's met all kinds of cybernetically augmented soldiers, mercenaries, and pirates; he's met people who have electronic memory implants, people who are running from a life of forced killing, people who are the sole survivors of their planet in the same way he sometimes feels like the only survivor --
(but for one)
of the world he grew up in.
He and Donna never quite talk about whether the incredibly advanced technology around them might be able to fix them (if they could only pay for it, which is a different problem altogether), but they talk around it sometimes.
"The way I think of it," Donna says quietly as they sit close together in a tiny shared berth on the livestock freighter that's currently jetting them from one part of the galaxy to somewhere else, "it's like my brain was stuffed full of too many things for a human brain to hold, so some of them must have fallen out along the way. Maybe all of them fell out. And now I'm getting them back, one little piece at a time. Getting too many of them back might kill me, especially all at once. So I just have to take them one at a time."
Bucky never thought about it that way -- like maybe his brain is actually protecting him, in its own clumsy way, from having the weight of an entire lifetime (most of it consisting of pain and blood and death) fall on him all at once. The nightmares, he's just about learned to deal with; the implanted triggers, he will get taken out on Xandar some months hence, when one of them is accidentally set off by his and Donna's discovery that the word for "ticket" in Xandarian is identical to the Russian word for "seventeen".
But right now, on this night, looking out at the stars, he ventures quietly, "Do you ever wonder if there's going to come a tipping point ... if each one might be the one that is too many, the one that tips you over into ... that?"
He would never ask if he couldn't plausibly pretend he's asking about her; and he'd never ask a question like that of her if they didn't both know he's asking about himself.
"Of course I do," she says after a little while. "It's just a risk, you know? There's a risk every time we go into a jump point that we won't come out the other side. If I worried about it too much, I'd have never left Earth."
There's a long silence, companionable in the way their silences have come to be (when he first met Donna, Bucky never would have guessed how much time she spends lost in silent contemplation), and then she says quietly, "Do you have anyone who misses you, Barnes, on Earth?"
Once, he would have answered in the negative. Steve will get over it, he'd have told himself. Everything we ever were is seventy years in the past.
"Yes," he says.
She doesn't ask any more questions.
He's napping in a coffinlike bed-berth in a sleepery on Bo Ges Prime when Donna nudges his shoulder to wake him up.
"Here," she says quietly, and puts something in his hand.
Bucky looks at it, then at her. It's a ticket, glittering with its little lights. Without the kind of skull implants that a lot of people in this part of the galaxy have, he can't tell just by looking where it's going.
"I found someone who's going to Terra," she says quietly. "Or at least in the neighborhood. He's delivering a shipment of power converters to one of the Kree colonies at Alpha Centauri and said he'd swing by Terra and drop you off for a few extra units."
Bucky just stares at the ticket, then at her. The big problem with going to Earth is that it's expensive. It's jumps and jumps from anywhere civilized, and it's under galactic edict as an uncontacted planet, which means anybody who makes a run by the planet is risking having their license pulled or having the Nova Corps come down on them.
And, to tell the truth, he's not even sure why Donna thought he was looking. Sure, he asks around occasionally for nibbles on someone who might be headed out that way, but it's really just ... feeling out his options. Seeing how things might go, if he might want to drift in that direction someday.
"How?" he says after a moment. They've both been scraping the bottom of their credit on every trip. At least he thought so.
Donna smiles a little. "I suppose you could say I learned, growing up, to always hold a few bananas back for an emergency."
"Getting me back to Earth isn't an emergency," he says, staring at the ticket.
"Stuff it in the bin, pawn it for a ticket to somewhere else. That's all up to you. It's a gift, Barnes."
A gift. No one's given him a gift in seventy years.
He feels like the decision should weigh on him more heavily than it does. But once it's made, it feels like a weight off his shoulders. He's chosen, in a way he never could have if he'd stayed on Earth, where the entire planet didn't feel like enough space, sometimes, to put between himself and Steve.
He could stay out here forever. He's learned that he can survive here. He's learned that it fits him, in some ways better than Earth ever will.
But he's also learned that it isn't home, and maybe it's worth seeing if it's possible to go home again.
Something else dawns on him, slowly: that it's only one ticket. He looks up; the question is unspoken. Donna shakes her head.
"I'm not going back. Whatever's for me, it's out here."
She hugs him goodbye at the spaceport. This is hug #2 in 70 years.
"Bucky," he whispers into her ear. "Bucky Barnes. That's my name."
She kisses his cheek, and stands back. From the one tiny port in the ship's economy-class passenger hold, Bucky watches her dwindle until she's gone.
He wishes he'd said that he hopes she finds who or what she's looking for. But she didn't say it to him, either. Maybe what made them work for all these months was the way they knew how to leave things unspoken.
Bucky settles back in his economy-class berth. He's going to be stuck on this ship for a week; all those jumps to Earth's galactic neighborhood take awhile. He wishes he was there already. He wishes it would take forever. He thinks about how he could hop off at any of their stops between here and there, and knows at the same time that he won't.
He wonders if the ship's captain will give him a choice about where he gets dropped on Earth, or if it strictly depends on wherever they think they can land undetected. And then he realizes that he doesn't care. Something about bumming around the galaxy for months makes Earth, in all its vastness, feel as tiny as a marble in the great depths of space. Whether they leave him in New York or Beijing or the Australian Outback, he's confident that he can find his way to where he wants to be.
He's been looking for Steve all over the galaxy, in a way. Next to that, finding him on Earth should be a breeze.