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the ghost and the machine

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There is a Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian, all pomp and flashing lights and little kids yelling at their parents to buy them this or that.

Bucky goes only once since waking up in this brave new world. All the displays, all the history, are a little too sanitised for any of it to feel real. A voice-over talks about Captain Rogers' brave sacrifice; about the two Howling Commandos who gave their life to the cause, freedom, democracy, heroism, big empty words echoing hollow. All Bucky remembers is being either hungry or hungover or terrified. That, and Gabe's truly inspired use of multilingual profanity. Blood, too. Needles. Questions.

Good times.

The SHIELD shrink tells Bucky a trip to the exhibit could help him put his ghosts behind him, but the one ghost haunting him these days is the one he doesn't want gone.

~

There is an empty grave at Arlington with Steve's name on it.

It's been there for almost seventy years.

Bucky would do anything, give anything, give back every second of his borrowed time, to make things right. It should be his name on that grave; it should have been him.

~

He doesn't wear the prosthetic to the VA centre. People give him enough looks as it is without the fuck-off metal arm. He has no idea what it is about him that apparently just screams he doesn't belong, but people can see it from a mile off. Bucky sits in the back of the room with a hoodie pulled low over his eyes and his hand buried in the pocket and listens to veterans talk about getting their limbs blown off in the Middle East.

Funny how wars don't end; they just shift, like tectonic plates, and the legacy and privilege of America in the future is that the wars keep moving farther and farther away.

'Listening to other people only takes you so far.'

There is a tall guy leaning against a vending machine with his arms crossed over his chest, and he gives Bucky a look that isn't quite pity. Bucky recognises him as one of the counsellors.

'Not much to talk about,' he says, shrugging.

'It's good that you're here, but you're still keeping everything bottled up. Eventually it's gonna have to need an out.'

Bucky laughs. 'What if it's classified?'

'You don't have to share and care at a group meeting,' says the guy. 'You can just talk to one person. See how it goes.'

'I — look, I appreciate it, but I'm fine. Nothing to say. It's good enough to listen to other people talk, y'know? They had it worse than me and still made it through.'

'You connect with the things that happened to them, but they're not the same things that happened to you. War is different for everyone. And the things that happened to you? Are in the past.' The guy smiles, and holds out his hand. 'You made it through. Sam, by the way. Wilson.'

Bucky shakes his hand. Sam has a sure, warm grip and — give or take a couple scientists poking and prodding at him like some kind of futuristic cybernetic toy — it's the first time Bucky has touched another human being in almost seventy years. It's the first time he has wanted to.

~

He runs into Sharon in the hallway that evening, and she eyes him and the empty sleeve of his hoodie with open exasperation. 'Oh, come on, the arm doesn't charge by the hour. You don't have to ration it.'

'Maybe I just don't like it,' he says.

'What a waste,' she mutters, fishing in her pockets for keys.

Bucky wants to let it go. He clenches his fist and breathes and thinks of an empty grave with the wrong name on it. It doesn't work.

'Waste of what?' he demands. He stalks across the hallway, the height difference letting him loom over Sharon's slight frame. She glares up at him. 'Enhancements? Engineering? I didn't ask for any of it. I only need two hours of sleep to function, did you know that?'

She shoves him in the arm and Bucky takes a step back. 'It's a waste of skills. SHIELD could use what you know, what you can do,' she says. She doesn't sound angry yet, but she's getting there. The two of them are too alike to get along without a buffer, Bucky knows. 'With or without enhancements, we could use you. You could help a lot of people.'

'Not my fucking responsibility. Already died for my country once.'

'He would've wanted you to —'

'Yeah, well, he ain't here.'

~

'It shoulda been me,' Bucky says over his fourth glass of whisky. He can feel his right hand shaking, nothing more than a fine tremor. His other hand is still, covered with a leather glove, and he doesn't feel it at all.

Sam puts his hand low on Bucky's back, warm, and Bucky never thought he might need grounding — he never thought he might need someone other than Steve to do it. 'There ain't a soldier in history who didn't think the exact same thing at least once.'

The bar isn't crowded or loud, it's not filled with soldiers still in uniform; it couldn't be more different to the bars Bucky remembers from his time if it tried. Still, the sense of deja vu is overwhelming. The whisky tastes the same.

'It's different,' he says, tracing the edge of the glass with the tip of his index finger. 'We were…it's different. He wasn't just any other soldier. I served with guys who died. Saw them get fucking shot or blown up. But Steve —' he cuts himself off with a frustrated noise.

Sam waits a moment before nudging him again. 'Tell me about him.'

'Nothing to tell,' Bucky lies, then takes in a deep breath. 'We grew up together. Did everything together. He's…he was better than me. Wanted to enlist, tried his fucking hardest to get on the front lines and save the fucking world like it was his personal duty. Like he had to carry everything. He looked out for everyone. No one looked out for him, no one but me. And I fucked it up.' His voice breaks. Bucky doesn't care. His eyes are fixed on the remainder of the whisky in his glass. 'Couldn't even do one thing right in my fucking, fucking life.'

After a moment, Sam asks carefully, 'Where'd you serve, Buck?'

The cover story Bucky is supposed to use is Afghanistan. The only people who know the truth are Sharon, who is supposed to be some kind of monitor for Bucky, though most of the time he kind of assumes she's there to make sure he doesn't blow his own brains out (and it's tempting; jesus, has he thought about just finishing the job that should've gotten done in 1944), and Nick Fury, who reminds Bucky too much of the old SSR higher ups to really be someone he could ever confide in.

'Europe,' he says in the end. 'It's a long story.'

Sam breathes out a laugh. 'Hey, man, I got time.'

~

Bucky Barnes watches his life in the future like he's a tourist, a couple degrees removed from it all, like it's happening to someone else. He doesn't care about the Avengers, and he cares even less about SHIELD.

And then Nick Fury bleeds out on the floor of Sharon's apartment.

Everything happens at once. Sharon screams, 'Go! Fucking go after him!' and Bucky breaks into a run and throws himself onto the staircase and runs the length of the roof at breakneck speed that rattles his bones, but the shooter is fast — inhumanly so. Bucky only catches a glimpse of black and by the time he reaches the ledge, he might as well be chasing smoke.

By the time he gets back to the apartment, Sharon is throwing guns and ammo into a beat-up leather bag. Bucky drops down next to Fury. He checks his pulse, and something twists painfully in the pit of his stomach when he can't find it.

'He told me not to trust SHIELD,' Sharon says. She looks terrified and small; her eyes are wide and too-bright and she seems to be moving on sheer adrenaline, but she's moving. Bucky has no doubt she knows how to look after herself. 'They did this. I'm not — I don't — They're gonna be here soon. I don't know where to run,' she admits.

Bucky doesn't have to think about it. 'Take my phone. The only contact on the list. He's not SHIELD, he'll help you.'

She doesn't ask Bucky to run with her and Bucky doesn't ask her where she plans to go once she gets in touch with Sam. He doesn't ask her if Fury told her anything else.

After she's gone, he closes Nick Fury's eyes and sits with his back to the wall, and waits.

~

He lets the SHIELD team drag him out into the corridor and doesn't resist when they put him in restraints, slam him face-first into a wall and throw a black hood over his head. He could break the cuffs easy, but his left arm is his only advantage and he needs at least one ace in his sleeve to get out of this alive.

He lets them push him down the stairs and doesn't trip, and only hisses in pain when they shove him into a car and he bangs his head against a window. It's pointless to try and map out which way they're going, but Bucky gives it his best shot anyway: each turn, estimated speed. If they think he only did some light work on the punching bags, fucking let them. He might be rusty, but he's still got all his instincts and even if the enhancements are mild, they're there.

The agents don't speak, and just as Bucky thinks they might be reaching the bridge there's a loud mechanical whistle and he breathes in something that smells like antiseptic, like cleaning detergent, and he —

~

He comes to with a start, opening his eyes only to shut them again when the light overhead is nearly blinding. Massive headache, check. Bad taste clinging to the roof of his mouth, check. It's all too familiar, but at least the room doesn't smell like that factory camp. Bucky breathes through his nose, shakes his head to get rid of the faint dizziness and opens his eyes again.

Both of his hands are cuffed to a chair, though his feet are free. He takes in his surroundings: empty room, metal table, two-way mirrors lining all four walls.

He can feel himself breaking out in cold sweat. He knows what's coming. Oh, he knows.

The room must be soundproof; he doesn't hear the approaching footsteps, but then the door opens and a man in a suit walks in. He's flanked by two armed guards. Their fingers rest lightly against the triggers of their automatic rifles and that, too, Bucky knows. Before the door can close on automatic, someone else holds it open and when Bucky gets a look at him, his blood runs cold.

Heavy armour. Mask. Goggles. Leather gloves. He stands in the corner of the room at parade rest and even though Bucky can't tell where he's looking, he would bet the man's eyes are focussed on the wall opposite.

The other two are mooks, the man in the suit isn't here to get his hands dirty.

The third one is the heavy hitter.

Bucky swallows. He looks away.

'Sergeant Barnes,' says the man in the suit as he sits in the chair on the other side of the table. 'My name is Alexander Pierce. I'm — well, I was Director Fury's superior. You might have heard of me.'

'Sorry.'

'That's all right. But I did hear a lot about you and your impeccable service record, Sergeant.'

Bucky shrugs as much as the restraints let him. 'Y'know what they say, Greatest Generation an' all.'

'Oh, indeed.'

Bucky waits, but when Pierce says nothing else it's up to him to crack. He's never been that good at waiting, anyway. 'So since we're having a nice chat — you, me, and the three blind rats over there — why don't you uncuff me?'

'I'm afraid I can't do that,' says Pierce. Bucky raises his eyebrows, but he's not surprised. If stalling is the only way to go, though, fuck him if he isn't going to try. 'At least not unless you cooperate.'

'Cooperate? I've been cooperating with SHIELD since you thawed me. What makes you think I'm gonna stop now?'

Pierce smiles. 'You've been privy to some delicate information. I only have a few questions.'

Just that one word is enough for Bucky to start breathing faster — he knows what's coming, and what's coming is a world of fucking hurt. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the man in the mask cock his head to one side until he's looking directly at Bucky. The movement looks mechanical. Bucky swallows again.

'Where is Agent Carter?' Pierce asks.

Bucky almost chokes on a laugh. 'Pal, I got no fucking clue,' he says, and it's god's honest truth. In that moment he knows, with sudden bright clarity, that it's the wrong thing to say — that it's the wrong first answer and with equal clarity he knows, in his bones, that he's doomed.

He's still laughing when Pierce leans back in his chair, completely unamused.

Without warning, the man in the mask starts moving. He crosses the room in four precise strides until he stands at Bucky's back.

'I am reliably informed that you have some amount of experience in prolonged exposure to torture and psychological warfare,' says Pierce. He looks up at the man in the mask and Bucky has to bite his tongue on a pained noise when the man grabs a fistful of Bucky's hair and roughly yanks his head sideways. 'Luckily, your files indicate that you have only limited immunity to sodium thiopental.'

'The what,' Bucky bites out, though he knows full well what a truth drug is. He tries to jerk back at the pinprick of a needle in the side of his neck, but he's held in place with one gloved hand. After a moment, the man lets him go. Bucky drops his head and tries to breathe.

Pierce says, 'We can do this my way, or we can do this the painful way. Which is it going to be, Sergeant?'

'Why don't you go an' fuck yourself,' Bucky whispers. His right hand starts to shake. 'Think I can't take this? Fuck you. Bring it on.'

'Very well.' Pierce stands up. He rubs his hands together and doesn't spare Bucky another look. 'Codename Winter Soldier — make it quick, but make it count.'

Pierce walks out of the room, then the armed guards.

The sodium thiopental works slowly through Bucky's system and he thinks he can feel it like the slow burn of a fever. He closes his eyes against the sharp white light and knows he's shaking, like a scared child, but it's all right. Fear keeps you focussed. Adrenaline keeps you alive. Maybe, if he's lucky, it'll dull the pain a little.

The Winter Soldier moves from his position behind Bucky to stand on his right side. His presence is like a shadow, an absence of light. There's a soft click; when Bucky looks up, it's to see the Winter Soldier's goggles lying on the table.

Even with his eyes open he still barely catches the swift, fluid movement when the Winter Soldier takes out a knife and without a warning or a question or a single fucking word drives it right through Bucky's right palm.

From that point on, Bucky doesn't stop screaming for more than a minute at a time.

~

1940.

The summer is too hot, too sticky, heat rising from brick walls and pavements and cement with no promise of rain in the low-hanging sky. Bucky gets any work he can get, be it in the docks or doing odd jobs for neighbours, but the nights are his.

The nights are his, and most nights he doesn't come home. If his old man could smell the booze and sex on him, he'd throw a fucking fit. Bucky hasn't been pelted within an inch of his life in years now, not since he filled out some and could stand as tall as his father, but if there's one thing that would make his father whip out the good old belt, Bucky knows it'd be the thought of him knocking up some poor gal.

Jesus, if only dear old dad knew the half of it; if only he knew Bucky was spending his nights out drinking all the way out in the Village.

That particular night he stumbles up the stairs to Steve's place and his hands are shaky enough it takes three or four tries before he gets the key in the lock. Predawn light is slowly starting to creep across the floorboards, grey and muted. Bucky can still feel the adrenaline under his skin, adrenaline and gin, and it's a terrible combination, but at least it numbs the pain in his face and his shoulder and his ribs. He wishes he could make himself throw up, fall asleep and not wake up for a solid week.

The plan is to get himself cleaned up in Steve's tiny bathroom, no hot water and all, and crash on the floor in front of his bed and hope like hell he's not as much of a wreck as he thinks he must be. (And, for sure, You shoulda seen the other guy.)

Steve wakes up as soon as Bucky closes the door behind himself — all quiet-like, but that doesn't amount to much in a one-room apartment where every fucking thing is creaky and old, including the door.

He gets off the bed and turns on the light and Bucky winces when he sees the blood falling from his upper lip to the floor. Without a word he lets Steve steer him back towards the bed and sits down heavily. He feels small and stupid, and it doesn't help that Steve isn't watching him with pity or even sympathy, just annoyance.

He doesn't ask any questions, just gets water and a washcloth from the bathroom. They've been through this kind of rodeo more than once, patching each other up; two hungry kids with too much bravado and not enough brains, and it's always been like that. Steve kneels between Bucky's spread thighs and starts wiping the blood from Bucky's face and collar bone. His hands aren't gentle, but they don't need to be. The only comfort Bucky needs is the knowledge that this, here: this is home and this is safety, even if Steve will rip him a new one for getting into a fight, like he's one to talk.

Bucky hisses in pain when Steve pulls his shirt over his head. In ends up on the floor, forgotten and probably unsalvageable; Bucky was never that good at getting blood stains out of clothes, that was Mrs Rogers.

Tentatively, Steve pokes at his ribs to check for damage. 'Don't think you broke anything,' he decides. He sits back on his heels and levels Bucky with a pointed look.

He picked that up from Mrs Rogers, too.

'Got jumped walking out of a bar,' Bucky mutters, looking somewhere off to the side.

'What kind of bar?' Steve asks, incredulous.

Bucky doesn't dignify that with an answer. He can feel a hot flush spilling over his neck, over his shoulders, and it's damning. Shame and anxiety settle heavy in his stomach. He can barely feel the gin any more, or the blood in his mouth. Bucky's shoulders hunch and he's never felt this naked or weak in his entire life. The part that terrifies him, the part that makes his nauseous, is that Steve could fucking kill him right here and now with just one word without even raising a hand.

A beating Bucky can take; a pelting, too. Steve saying disgusting, though, is something Bucky couldn't live through.

The silence stretches into something taut and uncomfortable, and finally Steve breathes out.

'Jesus, Buck,' he whispers. He doesn't —

He doesn't sound angry, or disappointed, and it's still like a slap in the face and it makes Bucky recoil.

He asks, 'Are you disgusted?' It's like picking at a cut on the inside of his cheek, pressing his tongue there just to see how much it'll hurt.

Steve looks away, jaw set, shoulders tense. 'No.'

'You should be,' says Bucky, chasing the ghost of fear in Steve's expression and still finding nothing. 'You should throw me the fuck out.'

'Are you gonna leave?' Steve asks.

Bucky curls in on himself. 'Not unless you want me to,' he says, because it's the truth. 'I ain't that noble. I ain't you.'

After a moment, 'I ain't that noble either,' Steve whispers into the deafening silence of the room. His gaze is fixed on the bloody washcloth in his hands, his fingers clenched in the fabric tight enough his knuckles go white. There's enough light to see by, and Bucky sees that the tips of Steve's ears are burning. He's all bony shoulders and earnest pissed-off swagger and he's blushing like a schoolboy, and Bucky wonders if this is what going insane feels like.

He knows he's going insane when Steve says, 'You still don't get it, do you?' and awkwardly climbs onto the bed to straddle Bucky's thigh, and kisses Bucky on the mouth.

It's — it's not even a good kiss, not with Bucky's aching jaw and busted lower lip and shaking hands, not with the taste of gin still clinging to the roof of his mouth. But Steve is determined and it's enough, it's enough when they overbalance and land on the bed in a mess; it's enough when Bucky's hands fist in the front of Steve's shirt. The cut on Bucky's lip reopens and he can taste blood and knows Steve can taste it, too. Like a fucking idiot, he's grinning against Bucky's mouth.

When he pulls back there is blood on his mouth and he wipes at it distractedly with the back of his hand, but his eyes are fever-bright and he's still smiling, fierce and reckless and so goddamn beautiful Bucky could die. It's just the gin talking, the delirium, but he thinks — he thinks he'd die for Steve, no question, and follow him through fire.

'You're a piece of shit,' Steve says in something like open wonder.

'W-what?'

Steve punches him in the arm and Bucky hisses in pain. 'You're a shit, you miserable punk, going 'round getting beat up in bars. What if there was a raid? How'd you get work if you got arrested for, I dunno, public lewdness? Got your name printed in the paper?'

With the adrenaline still buzzing in Bucky's veins, he manages a weak laugh. 'Y'know, I liked you more when you were kissing me. Hey, did I just discover the one way to make you shut up?'

Steve punches him again.

Bucky grabs fistfuls of his shirt and drags him down and shuts him up.

~

2014.

He loses track of time.

He says: 'Sergeant James Barnes.'

He says: 'Three-two-five-five-seven.'

He says it over and over until the words lose all meaning, until the sound of his own voice — slurred and choked and sometimes, when he's clenching his teeth against the pain, unintelligible — becomes just white noise in the background.

Blood is pooling at the foot of the chair Bucky is tied to, dripping slow and steady from his hand, and he thinks he must be close to passing out (please, god, please let him be close to passing out) when there is a soft hollow thunk. Looking up takes effort, but Bucky manages.

The Winter Soldier's mask is lying on the table.

The Winter Soldier orders, 'Say it again.'

It's the first time he has spoken and something about his voice, hoarse from misuse, sends a freezing shiver down Bucky's spine. Something about it —

'Sergeant James Barnes,' Bucky breathes, fighting to stay conscious. 'Three-two-five-five—'

'Again,' the Winter Soldier growls, moving in front of Bucky and leaning in close. He grabs Bucky's hair to force him to look up.

'Sergeant…James Barnes, three-two—'

And then Bucky looks up at the Winter Soldier, and time freezes.

His hair is buzzed and he needs a shave and his gaze is cold, dead and unfeeling except for the bright flash of anger and confusion. He's as pale as he'd been when pneumonia almost killed him when they were kids. There are shadows under his eyes. His grip on Bucky's hair is sure and ruthless and he is still holding the knife he used to make Bucky bleed.

The only thing Bucky can say, nauseous and dizzy and more terrified than he's been in his entire life, is —

'Steve?'

The Winter Soldier scowls. His fingers on the knife tighten.

'It's me,' Bucky chokes out, trying to will down nausea and terror. 'It's Bucky.'

The Winter Soldier asks, 'Who the hell is Bucky?'

In another time and another world, in another war, Steve Rogers moved like his body was too big for him and he wasn't always sure how to fill the empty spaces; he moved like his body was still not big enough for his heart and his pride and his damned dogged stubbornness. Bucky did his best to fill the gaps and he tried his best to make more room for Steve's lion heart even when Steve said, I ain't that noble.

Now, when the Winter Soldier grabs Bucky by the throat and slams him into a wall with enough force that Bucky can feel the one-way mirror crack under his back — when the Winter Soldier lifts him by the neck like he weighs nothing — he moves like a soldier or a tiger or a dancer, if dancers walked on knives.

'You know me,' Bucky manages to bite out before the pressure on his trachea is too much.

There's no recognition in the Winter Soldier's eyes. He tightens his fingers around Bucky's throat and lifts him up another couple of inches.

The door bangs open and the last thing Bucky hears before passing out are footsteps and yelled orders and the metallic smell of fear; it might be his own.

~

He wakes up in a holding cell. There is blood on his clothes, dried and sticky and stiff, and when he clears his throat it hurts like hell. He touches his neck lightly and doesn't need a mirror to know there are stark and even finger-shaped bruises circling it. His right palm is throbbing with a dull, muted kind of pain and he can't extend his fingers without bleeding everywhere like a fucking champ.

He strips out of his shirt and rips it to shreds to have something to bandage his hand. Not the best improvised first aid, but still better than the Commandos' meagre resources back home.

There are no noises outside the cell and no windows inside, nothing Bucky could use to tell the time. He counts his heartbeats and he'd measure the length and width of the cell except he doesn't have the strength to stand up.

Instead, he sits with his back to the wall and pulls his knees up to his chest and doesn't listen to the soft mechanical whirr in his left arm each time he moves it.

He doesn't think about falling or about freezing cold wind howling in his ears and Steve's hand reaching out too late. He doesn't think about the two of them in Steve's tiny cold apartment, trying to crawl inside each other's skins like a couple hungry kids who thought they would live forever. He doesn't think about waking up in a SHIELD recovery room in a world so alien and so loud and so empty it might as well not be real.

He doesn't think about Nick Fury saying, 'I'm sorry for your loss.'

He doesn't —

He doesn't think.

He rests his forehead on his knees and doesn't, doesn't think.

~

('The man I interrogated,' says the Winter Soldier. 'He knew me.'

There is a moment of silence, tense and heavy, and the Winter Soldier waits. His fingers are wrapped tight around the scientist's neck. The man is not moving, and there are fourteen red laser pointers criss-crossing over the Winter Soldier's heart.

Everyone in the room knows if he put his mind to it, the Winter Soldier could kill them all without sustaining significant damage.

'He knew of you,' says Alexander Pierce. He sighs. 'In a world filled with killers, you are the most gifted one. Your work is spectacular, a true masterpiece. I asked this organisation to provide me with someone who'd help me shape the future, and they chose you. Do you understand?'

The Winter Soldier frowns. 'Did I know him?' he asks.

'No,' says Alexander Pierce, and the Winter Soldier can taste the lie.)

~

Enough time passes that Bucky starts to feel hunger, but not enough that his hand stops hurting. If he waits much longer, it'll probably get infected. The thought of losing both his arms is somehow tragically amusing, but the fresh memory of Steve plunging a knife into his palm without a second thought is enough to make Bucky want to curl up on the floor and wait for someone to come put him out of his misery.

It feels like a bad dream, Steve's blank lifeless gaze and the ruthless methodical violence. It feels like delirium, and Bucky thinks it would be real fitting if he woke up back in 1944 in that factory camp, still strapped to that table. Everything that came after felt like a dream, one way or another; maybe it is.

Bucky hopes it is.

After however many hours, the cell door finally opens. Haloed by the stark yellow light from the corridor, Agent Coulson looks like judge and executioner. His expression is carefully set and Bucky finds that he doesn't, actually, care what SHIELD decided should happen to him now.

'You really don't know where she is,' says Coulson in lieu of a hello. The last time he and Bucky spoke, while Manhattan was on fire and Bucky refused to pick up the shield that was never his to begin with, he was all sympathy. He isn't now.

Bucky tips his head back against the wall. He shuts his eyes. 'It's funny how you people think anyone tells me shit.'

'Director Fury and now Agent Carter have gone rogue, and she's in possession of materials that could jeopardise the stability of this entire nation. There are three other operatives we can't track down. With your service record, I would've thought you'd be in the thick of the conspiracy.'

Bucky had no idea there was some kind of conspiracy right up until Nick Fury bled out in front of him. He doesn't care; jesus, he doesn't care. He liked Fury well enough, but he never signed up for SHIELD. He wasn't going to take up the Captain America mantle when he woke up in this nightmare future and he wasn't going to fight anyone's wars, because the only war he wanted to be in belonged to —

'You told me he was dead,' Bucky says. 'You told me to carry on the legacy in his name, to — christ, to honour his fucking memory.'

'The Winter Soldier chose his side,' says Coulson. He takes a step closer, his shoes loud on the bare concrete floor. 'He was on ice during the Chitauri incident. If you agreed to pick up Captain America's shield, I was authorised to disclose his status.'

Bucky swallows. His throat feels parched, hoarse from screaming and hunger. He looks at Coulson; he looks Coulson right in the eye and asks, 'What did you do to him?'

'SHIELD saved him,' Coulson says, frowning. 'He was found by a Soviet research expedition in the Arctic. He was comatose and brain-damaged. Do you think he would have wanted his sacrifice to go to waste? SHIELD took the pieces that were left and put them to use.'

Brainwashed, then, Bucky guesses. That's why Steve didn't remember. Which means — which means that the Winter Soldier didn't choose a side, it means that a side was chosen for him.

'You didn't need a good man.' Bucky breathes out. 'Just a perfect soldier.'

'You could join him,' says Coulson. 'I could take you to him right now. We could take away all of this guilt, Sergeant Barnes. You can choose your side right now, and I'll take you to see the Winter Soldier.'

It's —

It's tempting. God, it's tempting. The thought of his past and present memories being removed with surgical precision the way they've been removed from Steve; the thought of that is so tempting Bucky could howl. He spent the past couple of months swinging between suicidal apathy and an anger that kept eating him from the inside out, tearing at his bones, because it should have been him and Steve should have lived, except Steve did live and maybe it's true when they say to be careful what you wish for.

In a world where Steve Rogers was dead, Bucky watched news reports of Manhattan burning and didn't lift a finger to help, because it wasn't his battle and he was done fighting and dying in other people's wars.

In a world where Steve Rogers lived, in a world where everything that made him who he is was taken away and replaced with mechanised violence, their war never ended. In a world where Steve Rogers lived, Bucky knows he would go through hell and fire and the land of the dead to get him back, because Steve would've done the same thing for him.

Before he leaves, Coulson says, 'I'm sorry.'

Bucky doesn't reply.

~

Since he's disposable, he expects SHIELD will kill him now. It's the funniest thing — less than a day ago, he'd be fine with it. He might have been too much of a coward to eat his own gun no matter how many times he thought about it, but if push came to shove he wouldn't put up much of a fight. He was never that big on religion and the thought of a timeless eternity wasn't particularly appealing, but he wouldn't have minded going to sleep and just…not waking up. He wouldn't have minded the ghosts in his head finally, blessedly, going quiet.

Now he wants to fight.

He forces himself to stand up even as his entire body protests; he's still coming off the drugs, and his joints ache. He can barely feel his right hand.

The cell, it turns out, is some thirteen by ten feet. Easily big enough to get in a quick workout. There are no cameras visible, and the staleness of the air tells Bucky this part of the facility is probably a sub-basement level. The walls and floor are all cement, the door is reinforced. When he tests it with his left arm, it gives a low moan but doesn't budge. Good enough. He's in no shape to try to break himself out, anyway. He tightens the blood-soaked fabric he'd wrapped his injured hand in, and drops to the floor.

He manages eighty-seven pushups on his left arm before he has to stop, and it's disgraceful, it's a fucking embarrassment. He kneels on the floor and breathes.

'Stand up, soldier,' he growls through gritted teeth, metal fingers digging into the concrete floor with a blood-curdling creak. 'Now.'

He imagines Steve saying it to him, even if Steve would never use that tone of voice — he saved all his contempt for the bad guys, and all his authority for the brothers in arms who were too close to the edge. It helps, though, and thinking of Steve as he'd been and as he is now is enough that Bucky gets up from his knees.

They left him no weapons, searched him thoroughly enough that they got the pocket knife Bucky started to carry around more for reassurance than anything else, but he's still plenty dangerous unarmed.

He curls the fingers of his left hand into a loose fist, then extends them again. The movement doesn't look as stiff as Bucky always thought it did, but most of the time he avoids looking at his left arm at all.

What's the plan?

Does he even have a plan?

Does he need one, other than to get out first chance he gets and kill anyone who stands in his way if that's what it takes to find Steve?

~

He doesn't have a plan and he has no expectations, but the last thing he expects is to be rescued.

The last thing he expects is for the good guys to show up.

~

'You look like utter shit, Sergeant,' says Sharon. She gives Bucky a frank once-over from where she's standing in the doorway, shoulder resting heavy against the door to keep it open. She's haloed by green security lights, like an avenging fury in black fatigues with a rifle slung over her shoulder and a gun carefully pointed towards the floor. Her finger is on the trigger and her eyes are bright.

The last time Bucky saw her — what feels like weeks and weeks ago, but can't be more than two days — she was scared and determined. Now she's like bent and polished steel, and Bucky wonders what happened to her and Sam in-between then and now.

'Yeah, well, not all of us got to have our beauty sleep,' he mutters, and it makes her bark out a quick, harsh laugh that is all adrenaline.

Sam glares first at Sharon, then at Bucky. 'Both of you, can it. You're like children, I swear.' He peels the dirty, bloodied and sweat-stained cloth off Bucky's right hand. There's the world's smallest med kit spread out on the floor before them and Bucky is a little touched that they thought to bring it with them. 'Can you move your fingers?'

Bucky tries, but the pain is bad enough he has to bite his tongue on a moan.

It doesn't even faze Sam. He just rips open a sulfa powder kit and dumps it all on Bucky's hand. 'Nerve damage, I'm guessing,' he says. 'Dunno. As long as it doesn't get infected, you'll probably be fine.'

'Probably,' Bucky echoes. He shakes his head to clear it. 'Fuck it, don't care. Why're you here?'

'You sent her to me for help,' says Sam, jerking his chin in Sharon's direction. 'What, d'you think we'd just leave you for dead?'

'SHIELD is HYDRA,' says Sharon. 'They've been here from the start. This is the intel Fury gave me before they killed him.'

But Steve died destroying HYDRA, Bucky almost says.

But Steve didn't die, did he?

With Sam's help Bucky gets on his feet and after he gets moving, it's easier. They run through the empty corridor drenched in security lights, and off in the distance Bucky can hear the faint shrill of an alarm siren. The facility looks deserted as they make their way through it, climbing staircase after staircase — Bucky was right, he was kept underground. It takes two flights of stairs before he sees any windows. They end up coming out into a low-ceilinged parking garage and Bucky still can't believe they make it.

They're welcomed by one of the Avenger people Bucky remembers seeing on television, the hawk guy. He spares Bucky a long look, gaze lingering on the torn shirt and blood-soaked trousers, and his expression goes a little pinched and dubious. 'He gonna be fine?'

Bucky scowls. 'He can talk.'

It just gets him a shrug.

'We're meeting the others at the safehouse,' the agent — god, what's his name? — says as they make their way across the empty, dim parking. His voice echoes in the open space. 'They should have the second datadrive by now, and I'm guessing all of the security is focussed on the top floors. Any trackers they put on Sergeant Barnes that we should know about?'

Sharon just shakes her head. 'No time, no way to tell. We can EMP the shit out of it when we get out of here.'

~

Ten minutes later they blend seamlessly into the afternoon traffic in a plain grey sedan. Next to Sam in the back seat, Bucky finds himself breathing fast — he stares at his hands, the provisionally bandaged one and the one that feels nothing, and the street noises and Sharon's conversation with Barton is enough that Bucky doesn't want to scream, but he can still hear himself think.

Without a word, Sam reaches out to put his hand on Bucky's thigh. The warmth of his palm is the most real thing Bucky has felt in ages.

'You made it through,' says Sam. He sounds so certain, and Bucky wishes he could believe him.

'He's alive,' he just stammers, hating how small and childish he sounds. 'They have him. Had him all along. Steve is alive, Sam.'

Sharon and Barton stop talking and both turn to stare at Bucky with the same incredulity Sam is giving him. 'Wait,' Sharon says. 'You mean Captain Ameri—'

Before he can finish the thought, something lands heavily on the hood of the car.

'Shit. Shit —'

Barton veers to the side and they graze the car passing next to theirs. The traffic around them explodes into chaos and the shriek of horns and tires is deafening, but not as deafening as the sound of the windshield shattering like it's made of thin ice. Sharon dodges low and Sam does the same, pulling Bucky down just as the edge of a knife comes crashing through the hood of the car, cutting through steel easily.

'The fuck did you tell them?' Barton demands, trying to keep control of the wheel and failing as someone rams the car from behind, sending the four of them jolting forward with the force of it.

'I didn't tell anyone a goddamn thing, they already fucking had you in their sights!' Bucky yells. There's broken glass all over him and Sam, and it takes little to no effort to yank the passenger side door open with his left arm. The useless hunk of metal crashes into the street breezing past them and Bucky hopes, detachedly, that no civilians run into it and get themselves killed.

Out of the corner of his eye he can see Sharon grabbing her gun. She starts firing blind at the hood and the shots are barely any louder than the overwhelming chaos. Another crash, and to the left Bucky sees the attacker — god, it's him, in all-black armour and with the mask back in place, jumping onto a civilian car and off it with terrifying speed and precision.

'Hawkeye,' Sharon is yelling, 'stop this piece of shit, we gotta run!'

Barton does. He tries to, anyway, but as he manages to get free of their tail there's not much else he can do but slow down only enough that they don't all immediately die when the car veers into a back alley and crashes into a wall.

A part of Bucky keeps screaming at him that a busy street in the middle of DC is no fucking place for armed combat, but there's nothing he can do. He staggers out of the car and pulls Sam after him, then dives back to help Sharon get out. Blood is slowly oozing from a gash on her forehead, but there's no time to get emotional. Barton climbs out after them, holding his right arm close to his chest. Broken, maybe. He pops the trunk and when the mangled metal refuses to cooperate, he kicks it open. There are more weapons there than each of them can carry, but Bucky quickly and quietly accepts the gun Barton throws him.

'Split up,' Barton orders. 'Don't get captured, don't get dead. We need out of this alive.'

Bucky is barely listening. Adrenaline and fear are keeping him upright and the gun in his hand feels useless; he flexes his left arm, instead.

The Winter Soldier stands in the middle of the road, unmoving and still as death. He lets the traffic pass him by with no regard for his own safety or any threat of danger — because even in the centre of a busy city street with cars rushing past at breakneck speed, he's still the deadliest thing around. He takes a step forward, then another. To the side, the car that chased them finally catches up.

Everything happens at once.

The air breaks open in a roar of gunfire. Five men step out of the car, heavy armour, heavier weaponry. Sharon dodges to the right, diving behind a parked car and Sam follows her, raining cover fire. Bucky moves towards the Winter Soldier in a daze. The noise all around is muted and faraway and all he can hear is his heart going a mile an hour in his chest. All he can hear is Steve's voice, angry and confused and angry, when he'd asked, Who the hell is Bucky?

The Winter Soldier spares him one look — one blank, empty, calculating look that betrays no recognition — before he shakes loose two knives he must've had strapped to his forearms, and launches himself at Barton.

It's ugly and it's vicious and it's fast, and Barton doesn't stand a chance. He's quick on his feet and he has two guns, but the Winter Soldier knocks them off-aim effortlessly and in less than three moves — in less time than it takes Bucky to stop fucking standing there, frozen — he has Barton by the throat and throws him to the ground, slams his into it, and even a few steps away Bucky can hear the horrifying crack of Barton's skull on the pavement.

Flash of movement and the knife is back in the Winter Soldier's hand, flipped into reverse grip (ease of cutting through tendons, Bucky remembers, it puts more force behind every thrust), and Bucky fires before he can even question the impulse. The bullet barely grazes the Winter Soldier's wrist — the knife clatters to the street, landing next to Barton's unconscious body — and he's up and moving before Bucky can pull the trigger again, inhumanly fast, inhumanly graceful, inhumanly lethal.

The roundhouse kick knocks the breath out of Bucky's lungs but doesn't knock him out and he bites his tongue on a pained noise, but refuses to drop the gun. The Winter Soldier doesn't even slow down. He goes after Bucky with the same unblinking single-minded focus he went with after Barton, the other knife held steady, and it takes every ounce of Bucky's enhanced reflexes to parry his attack with his left arm.

The edge of the knife lodges itself in-between the metal joints and the machinery gives an agonised creak. With one hand occupied the Winter Soldier strikes with the other, and Bucky sidesteps an elbow to the collar bone. Close quarters combat flying high on adrenaline and terror, and Bucky would give anything for a rifle, for some space, for —

He's outclassed, outgunned, hopelessly on the defensive. The arm is his only real weapon and he spares no thought to the damage the Winter Soldier delivers it; he just needs to survive, survive and get a word in edgewise. Something in the Winter Soldier reacted to him earlier and Bucky needs to get under his skin again any way he can.

'Remember,' he chokes out as the Winter Soldier's fingers close around his neck. 'Steve, remember me, remember who you —'

He lifts the gun and the Winter Soldier grabs the barrel, pulls it closer until he has Bucky aiming right between his eyes. His gaze zeroes in on Bucky. They stand there, the Winter Soldier lifting Bucky by the throat with enough force there are black spots dancing at the edges of Bucky's vision. He looks Bucky right in the eye and holds the gun and his grip on the barrel is steady, as if he knows Bucky couldn't pull the trigger if he tried.

'Steve,' Bucky begs.

The Winter Soldier drops him to the ground and Bucky falls to his knees, struggling to catch his breath. His hands come up to his neck, but then the Winter Soldier grabs him again and yanks his left arm behind his back, far enough that through the roar of blood in his ears, through the chaos and gunfire, Bucky hears the noise the metal makes as the joint is dislocated from his human shoulder, and then all he can hear is his own scream.

The Winter Soldier wrenches his arm further away, one knee planted between Bucky's shoulder blades, and through the haze of pain and fear Bucky feels the barrel of his own gun pressed to the back of his head.

He closes his eyes.

He breathes out.

He —

'Three-two-five-five-seven,' the Winter Soldier whispers.

The gun goes off.

The shot rings in Bucky's ears and it takes him a few seconds to realise that he's not dead; he's on the ground, face-down, and before he can force himself to get up Sam is right there helping him. Bucky's head is swimming. Everything is noise and lights and he wants, desperately and with everything in him, to throw up.

'You're okay,' says Sam. 'You're okay, Buck, it's okay. C'mon, man. Get up. We gotta go, our ride's here.'

'Steve —'

'Got him in the leg.' When they stand up, Bucky starts taking in his surroundings. The street is quieter, the chase car gone. Water is gushing from a hydrant, drenching the pavement and concrete, and two civilian cars are off to one side, smoke rising from their burnt out remains. Bucky must have passed out for a moment. He can't move his left arm at all; the artificial nerve endings got disconnected when the Winter Soldier dislocated the joint. 'Nothing vital, he'll live. C'mon.'

There's another car waiting. Behind the wheel Bucky recognises Fury's deputy, Hill, and he recognises the redhead Avenger from television. She's sitting on the ground with Barton still unconscious in her arms.

'We have t-minus three minutes before they send reinforcements,' says Sharon. She's wrapping a torn piece of cloth around her thigh, wincing against obvious pain. 'Let's get the fuck out of dodge.'

~

The safehouse is a warehouse just outside city limits, guarded with an intricate net of traps and surveillance. It's echoing and empty and they stumble through the entrance like a pack of drunkards. Hill and Romanoff carry Barton between them; he hasn't woken up, and as soon as their merry band of misfits crosses the threshold a couple scientists are on them. They look more like vets than doctors.

Bucky takes everything in — the conspiracy, the new allies, the pained noises each and every one of them makes as they get checked over and rudimentarily patched up — with a cold sense of detachment. It's not that he doesn't care, it's that these people and their pain and their cause all pale in comparison to the memory of Steve's voice whispering Bucky's serial number like it's a lifeline, a benediction.

(A curse.)

His left arm gets fixed quickly, though not painlessly, and afterwards Bucky can barely even feel a thing when someone gently treats his right hand. He barely feels a thing when the doctor says, 'I think there might be some nerve damage, but hopefully nothing permanent. You'll need to take it easy and let the healing factor do its job, Sergeant.'

After they put him back together, more or less, Bucky takes his cue to leave. He has no useful intel for these people. They don't need him, and he wonders if they only rescued him from that cell because they were storming the facility anyway for that — datadrive? — whatever it was Barton mentioned.

He finds a dingy, industrial bathroom on the first floor of the warehouse. Paint is peeling off the dirty off-white ceiling and half the tiles are cracked. So is the mirror. It's real fucking fitting. Bucky feels like every bone in his body might break with the smallest push.

He splashes cold water on his face, rakes his fingers through his hair, waits for the water to wash off the dust and blood and run clear again. With a sigh he forces himself to look in the mirror. His reflection is uneven through the spiderweb of cracks, and the glass is dirty and smudged with what Bucky sort of hopes is nothing more disgusting than grease and motor oil.

He looks like shit.

There are shadows under his eyes and he looks sick and pallid, the red marks on his neck standing out bright and stark and obvious against the pale skin. Bucky fits his hand against his throat, barely touching, and carefully lifts his chin to better see his fingers covering the bruises. After the serum Steve's hands were a little bigger than his, but even before that he had long fingers. Bucky could watch him twist a pen between them, captivated, like a lovesick spaniel.

He used to —

~

1944.

They only get moments, but it's enough. Everything is enough — all the time Bucky has already feels borrowed. He tricked death somehow, and he knows sooner or later it'll catch up to him. Meanwhile, though, he gets this: two in the morning in a half-bombed out bar in Paris, with no heat and no bed and the muted noises of their unit and other patrons drinking themselves sick downstairs, and he gets Steve pinning him to the door of his room (he gets a room of his own as their brave leader, and Bucky feels like a cheap date sneaking in there, but jesus, fuck him, it's worth it).

He gets Steve mouthing obscenities into his ear, one hand clamped tight over Bucky's mouth to keep him quiet and the other thrust down his trousers. He works Bucky with practiced ease; he was never shy, not about this, not about the two of them, but he's got new tricks up his sleeve and he takes so much naked joy in making Bucky fall to pieces that Bucky doesn't know if he wants to punch him more or beg him to never, ever stop.

They're pressed so close together they're breathing the same air, and Bucky is so hot he thinks he might burn right through his skin.

'You should see yourself like this,' Steve breathes. 'C'mon, Buck. C'mon.'

Bucky bites the inside of Steve's palm and Steve half-laughs, half-moans as he leans heavier against him. His hand slips and Bucky barely recognises the sound of his own voice when he whispers, 'Shut the fuck up and — jesus, don't stop, don't — fuck —'

Afterwards (and it's a lot of afterwards; Bucky likes taking Steve to pieces, too, sucking him off slow and thorough and infuriating until Steve has to bite down on his own fist to keep from yelling — the only shame is that the bite marks fade so quickly, healing factor and all), they lie sprawled half next to and half on top of each other, tangled together so close Bucky can hear Steve's heartbeat like it's his own. Christ, maybe it is. The sleeping bag Steve uses in lieu of a bed is too narrow and the floor is hard and uncomfortable underneath it, but Bucky can barely move through the haze of fucked out bliss.

There would be no saving face if anyone walked in, but so far chairs pushed under doorknobs have proven enough to preserve their modesty, or honour, or something.

'Heard Gabe talking 'bout stealing parachutes for his girl back home,' Bucky mutters, the words muffled against the skin of Steve's collar bone.

'Parachutes?'

'For a wedding dress.'

Steve laughs, quick and breathless. 'You jealous, Buck?'

'Very funny, asshole. You're a regular riot.' Bucky gathers up the last of his strength to straddle Steve's hips and pin his shoulders to the floor. He puts his weight behind it and it's freeing, it's brilliant, to know Steve can take it easily and then some.

Steve looks up at him with wide innocent eyes and says, 'I could steal parachutes for you. You've got real nice legs.'

'Don't make me hit you.'

'We could go somewhere,' says Steve. His smile goes a little melancholy, a little aching. 'After the war. Just pack up and leave. See the world.'

'After the war,' Bucky echoes. He swallows and looks away — he doesn't like to think about any kinds of afters, he ain't that optimistic — but he doesn't lean back. 'Right.'

Steve curls his hands over Bucky's hips, just the ghost of a touch. 'We get Zola in two days. It's a solid plan. After that, it'll be easy.'

Easy, assuming they live. Easy, assuming the war ever ends. Easy. Right, that's exactly the word Bucky would use. He can see Steve reading him like an open book and it kills him a little when Steve's expression cracks and his smile slips. The realisation that Steve was lying through his teeth, that a happy future might just be the kind of lie he needs to believe to keep going, settles heavily like ashes on Bucky's tongue.

'Then let's do it,' he says. 'After this shitshow ends, let's do it. If that's you want, I'm in. Where d'you wanna go first?'

It surprises a laugh out of Steve. He grins up at Bucky, wide and reckless. 'I honestly don't care. Anywhere's fine, as long as you're with me.'

~

2014.

Sam finds him in the bathroom. He stands in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, and his expression is pure worry. Their eyes meet in the mirror and Bucky sees Sam's gaze slide to the edge of the sink where Bucky cracked it with his left hand. Could've been worse. He really wanted to break his fist on the glass, too.

'I'm not gonna ask if you're okay,' says Sam.

Bucky turns away from the mirror and leans back against the sink. 'Thanks.'

'The guys downstairs are regrouping. Barton's in bad shape. Docs don't know if he'll pull through, he might not be waking up. He and the other agent, Romanoff, are they…?'

Bucky gives him an incredulous stare. 'How should I know?'

'She seems to be taking it the hardest. So…you really don't know them. Got the impression they're not that fond of you either, to tell the truth.'

'They wouldn't be,' says Bucky, shrugging. 'I woke up in this place and they told me Steve was dead, then they told me to pick up his shield and go fight space aliens. Preserve Steve's legacy, boost morale, all that. They even told me I should do it because Steve would've. What fucking bullshit. I told them to fuck off. Nick Fury was the only one who didn't take that as some kind of personal goddamn affront.'

'And now you're joining the fight.'

'Steve is alive,' Bucky says matter-of-factly. 'I couldn't give two shits about the rest. This isn't my war. I'm not a hero, Sam. I ain't noble. I just have to save him.'

There is a long moment of silence and downstairs Bucky thinks he can hear voices. The warehouse is wide and echoing and feels like a tomb, but one way or another every space he's been in since waking up felt like a tomb.

Eventually Sam takes in a deep breath and says, 'Buck, there — there might not be much left to save.'

'He remembered my serial number,' Bucky argues. 'He remembered.'

'I ain't talking about you. I'm talking about him. Everything you told me about Steve Rogers, everything I've ever heard about Captain America… Look, if the same thing happened to you, think you'd want to live with it? Think you'd want to be saved?'

Bucky looks at Sam mutely, and knows he must look numb and stupid and gut-punched. He doesn't care. He doesn't care, and he doesn't care if people think Steve is some kinda sick dog that might need to be put down. There was more than just programming in him when he spoke to Bucky on that street, he remembered, and Bucky has to cling to that or he'll go insane.

'I have to try. I'm not asking you to help me.'

'You know I'm gonna anyway,' Sam says with a defeated sigh. His shoulders slump.

'Why?'

''Cause you are a hero, and you are noble. And if you think Steve Rogers is worth it, fine, I guess that's gonna have to be good enough for me.'

~

They split up once more and Bucky pays little attention to the plan. He trusts Sam to steer him in the right direction. They're paired together, him and Sam on one side, Sharon and Hill on the other, Romanoff taking the third Helicarrier on by herself since she refused any help with Barton out of commission.

Through their comms Bucky can hear the mission reports and he can hear the gunfire; he can hear explosions and Hill attempting to make an impassioned speech to rally SHIELD agents into battle. She says SHIELD is HYDRA. She says HYDRA brainwashed wartime heroes and set them on enemies of the state, on women and children and diplomats. Bucky can hear the gunshots following Romanoff's, he's here, oh god —, he can hear Sharon taking on some HYDRA mook after she gets separated from Hill, and all he can focus on is the howl of wind in his ears as Sam flies them to the Helicarrier.

They gave him a plain black uniform and a gun.

Sam takes out the chip and replaces it with the override.

The Winter Soldier stands on the other side of the bridge, and time slows.

'Go,' says Bucky, not taking his eyes off the grim expression stealing over the Winter Soldier's face. He came here on purpose, not for his mission; he doesn't even look in Sam's direction. He came here for Bucky, he must have, and Bucky — 'Sam, you gotta run.'

'It's not him,' Sam tries to plead. 'Buck, he shot Romanoff. We don't even know if she's alive. This isn't him.'

'Then he and I are going down together. Go,' Bucky yells, and doesn't look back as he hears Sam's wings activating because the Winter Soldier is moving.

The elbow to the jaw rattles Bucky's skull but he doesn't let himself fall, and catches the Winter Soldier's fist in his left hand before the punch can crack his collar bone. This fight isn't a fight, not like the last time they did it; the cold ruthlessness is gone from the Winter Soldier's posture like it was just another mask, another front manufactured by forces outside of him, and all that's left is brutal physicality and anger.

The anger and the brutality are honest and real and the Winter Soldier lets go. It's all Bucky can do to parry each strike, trying to keep up. It's honest and it's broken, and Bucky tastes blood in his mouth.

Each strike connecting rings in his ears and he can barely hear the noises he's making, heavy breathing and soft pained gasps he can't hold in, and it's a matter of time before he ends up on his back with the Winter Soldier pinning him to the ground with a forearm against Bucky's trachea.

'Your name,' Bucky tries to say, 'is Steve Rogers. We're best friends, we're so much more, you saved my life so many times — my last night in New York I told you we'd go an' see the future and we did, we did. You know me, Steve, you know who I am.'

The Winter Soldier leans low over him, mouth twisted in a vicious sneer, but this close Bucky can see the flash of fear in his eyes. 'Yeah. You're my mission.'

It takes everything in Bucky, every ounce of strength he has left, to throw Steve off. He dodges a roundhouse kick that would've sent him flying off the bridge, and the Helicarrier is burning — it's crashing, it must be, and Bucky realises that he lost his comm link somewhere along the way and doesn't care — the noise is overwhelming, but the Winter Soldier goes after him with no holds barred and Bucky takes it, he takes it and tries to get enough air in his lungs to beg the Winter Soldier to remember.

He manages to stagger away using the forward momentum of the Helicarrier, but the Winter Soldier grabs him around the waist and throws him down, and Bucky lets out a moan as his back connects with the floor. He ducks and rolls away and only sees out of the corner of his eye as the strike that was meant for him dents the steel grating. He doesn't have time to duck again. The Winter Soldier kicks out and trips him up and this time he gets Bucky right in the solar plexus and jesus, it hurts, he can't breathe.

They brawl for life and limb, Bucky grappling for any kind for leverage — the Winter Soldier has it, it's not even a question, but Bucky is desperate and desperation gives him enough of an edge that he survives.

The Winter Soldier nearly wrenches Bucky's shoulder out of the socket; Bucky almost cracks his jaw with his knee. Vaguely, he's aware that the Helicarrier is about to plummet into the river and they'll drown like the doomed fucking relics they both are. But he wants to carry every bruise the Winter Soldier gives him, taste every drop of blood spilled between them. Steve is bleeding, too, and it feels like a victory.

The Winter Soldier throws him again and Bucky goes; the Winter Soldier straddles his hips and catches Bucky's left fist and slams it into the grating, metal meeting metal with a shrill noise that makes Bucky's teeth ache.

They're both breathing hard, both bleeding, and the Winter Soldier looks furious and terrified and this is Bucky's only chance.

'You don't remember me,' he chokes out. 'But you know me. You know me, Steve. I would die — I have died for you and I'd fucking do it again, for you and for what you believe in, and I'll blow my own brains out before I let you down again.'

He sees the flash of white in the Winter Soldier's free hand — knife. Bucky's blood runs cold and he hasn't prayed for as long as he can remember, but god help him, he prays now. He doesn't know how long they have before the Helicarrier crashes. Everything is on fire around them, and the noise is unbearable.

The Winter Soldier's expression is raw, broken. 'I —'

'If you don't know me, then finish it,' Bucky says, willing the Winter Soldier to understand. ''Cause if you go, I go. I'm not leaving here without you.'

'I can't —'

It's a Hail Mary, it's the desperation of a drowning man clutching at razors, and Bucky holds his breath as he reaches out with his free hand — dislocated, almost, but he doesn't care about the pain. The Winter Soldier doesn't move away from the touch, doesn't dodge, looking beaten and scared and completely lost, and then he starts to break. It's in his eyes first, wide and bright. The knife is still in his hand, but he half-collapses on top of Bucky and he might be crying, or he might be hyperventilating. He lets Bucky's left arm go and cradles his head in his hands.

And then he moans, audible above the roaring fire and the Helicarrier crashing, 'Kill me. Please. Please.'

Bucky fists his hands so tight in his uniform he thinks the bones might break. He can feel the Winter Soldier shaking, the bunch and release of muscle under the armour, and he can't even manage anything other than, 'I lo—'

The bridge collapses.

Bucky is still gripping the Winter Soldier's uniform when they hit the water.

~

The first thing he registers is the ache, low and insistent and thrumming in every bone in his body like someone took him apart and rearranged all the pieces and put them back together ill-fitting. There is a low hum of machinery right next to him, the steady beeping of a heart monitor and the softer sound of someone's breathing. The light is too bright when Bucky forces himself to open his eyes. White fluorescents make the room seem pale, washed-out.

There's a window, but the glass is dirty. The walls are bare. The bed is more like a gurney, though at least there are no restraints.

Another facility, what feels like another goddamn cell.

Next to the bed, Sam is curled up in a plastic chair that looks mighty uncomfortable. He's playing something on his phone.

Bucky tries moving, but just ends up making a pathetic noise of pain when every inch of his fucking body screams in protest. It gets Sam's attention.

'Hey.' He's a little hoarse, like he screamed himself raw earlier. That, more than the aches and bruises and pain, tells Bucky that he wasn't out for long. Sam smiles at him crookedly and says, 'You made it through.'

'So did you,' says Bucky. He's — god, he's glad. He's real fucking glad Sam is alive. 'How…?'

Sam shrugs. He slides his phone into the pocket of his uniform trousers. 'Steve saved you. Pulled you out of the river, dragged you to shore and waited for rescue. When we got there he didn't put up a fight, just went peacefully. Sorta.'

'He's here?'

'Yeah, they got him in a holding cell downstairs.' At Bucky's agonised look, Sam raises his hands in a pacifying gesture. 'For his own protection as much as anyone else's, man, he's in pretty bad shape. The docs couldn't get close enough to even check him out. One of 'em got a broken arm for her troubles. He's — Bucky, he's a wreck. They think those HYDRA whackjobs went overboard with the brainwashing or the programming or whatever the fuck they did to wipe him and rewrite him, and now he's breaking down too fast.'

'I need to see him,' says Bucky. He doesn't know from where he gathers the strength to unhook the IVs and tubes and the heart monitor, but he does it. As soon as he gets wires disconnected, the low beeping of the monitor turns into a steady flat shrill. The floor is freezing under Bucky's bare feet, but he doesn't bother looking for his boots. He was stripped out of the uniform, and the thin cotton shirt and hospital-issue trousers make him feel naked. At least his left arm is in working order; fuck, it's the only part of him that is.

Sam is watching him with a resigned exasperation and, 'Yeah,' he says. 'I figured as much.'

The facility is not another warehouse, and it's still bright outside. Bucky wonders if it's been more than a day since they took down the Helicarriers. He wonders if there's ever gonna come a time again when he gets to sleep.

They make their way through empty corridors and downstairs. The place isn't outfitted with technology and security advanced enough to stop them — no retinal scans, no lasers, no nothing. It must be some kind of backdoor backup safehouse. The sub-basement level where the cells are is just another long corridor, lined with heavy reinforced doors but no sophisticated locks. The whole place looks dirty and industrial and it reminds Bucky of a slaughterhouse.

Sam has to help him down the stairs. 'He's at the far end. Take this,' he says, and pushes a gun into Bucky's hand. Bucky's fingers close around it instinctively.

'I'm not gonna —'

'Just take it.' Sam doesn't say anything else; he doesn't say, if he goes after you you'll probably have no time to defend yourself anyway, and he doesn't say how many bullets there are in the clip (two, there would have to be two for Bucky to be able to pull the trigger), and he hangs back as Bucky slowly walks past door after door after door until he stops at the end of the corridor, heart somewhere in his throat.

He pushes the gun behind the waistband of his trousers and unlocks the door. It opens with a heavy grating screech, and the sound of it closing behind Bucky when he steps inside the cell is nothing short of ominous.

The Winter Soldier sits on the concrete floor, knees wide apart, head bowed. He's still in uniform though the armour is gone, and — and Sam was right, he looks like a wreck. The Helicarrier crashing into the river wasn't kind to either of them. There's blood on the Winter Soldier's face, over his hands, on his right temple. There's dried blood in his hair, making it stick up like he ran his hands over it. When he lifts his gaze to Bucky, it's flat and lost. There are dark circles under his eyes. He needs a shave.

Bucky takes a step in his direction then, carefully, another. (The docs couldn't get close enough to even check him out. One of 'em got a broken arm for her troubles.) The Winter Soldier's eyes track him across the cramped space of the cell, dropping once to the gun Bucky feels like a cement block weighing him down.

Without a word Bucky stops in front of the Winter Soldier and holds out his hand.

The Winter Soldier looks at the bandage covering the place he stabbed Bucky through the palm, and his expression cracks like thin ice. With a pained noise he curls in on himself, raw and split open, and with nauseating clarity Bucky realises it must have taken a long time for HYDRA to take everything that made Steve Rogers a human being (the person Bucky would go through hell and fire and war for, the only person he ever really lo—) and replace the broken parts with gruesome and mechanical and brutal wrongness.

Bucky drops to his knees. The words feel like sandpaper dragging across his tongue when he says, 'Hey. Missed ya.' Steve doesn't move away and doesn't protest, even though he's tense and too still, when Bucky wraps his arms around him and rests his head on Steve's shoulder.

'You know me,' Steve says, voice scratchy and hoarse.

It's all Bucky can do to keep himself from laughing hysterically; if he started, he would probably never stop. 'Yeah. Yeah, I do. I know you, Steve. I've known you all my life.'

The click of the safety on his gun makes Bucky jump. He didn't feel Steve taking it from him. He leans back, less because he wants to and more because Steve is pushing him back, the barrel of the gun pressed under Bucky's chin until he has to tilt his head up or risk getting choked. Their eyes meet and Bucky has no idea what Steve can read in his expression. He doesn't care.

'I'm not afraid of you,' he lies.

Steve's gaze goes flat and cold, like he can see right through Bucky.

Moving slowly, carefully, Bucky wraps the fingers of his left hand around the barrel of the gun. Steve watches him do it with a detached curiosity, and keeps watching as Bucky forces him to move the gun so it's aimed between Bucky's eyes in a mirror image of the way the Winter Soldier did the same thing not too long ago. Then, it seemed like the Winter Soldier was daring Bucky to pull the trigger because he knew Bucky never would.

Bucky wishes he had that certainty. His heart is going a mile an hour and he realises, belatedly, that he doesn't really want to die.

'I'm not afraid of you,' he says again, with more conviction than he feels. 'This is it for me. You're it. Always have been. If you don't like it you're just gonna have to go ahead and fucking shoot me, pal, 'cause I ain't leaving.'

Seconds crawl past, bleeding into minutes, and the reason Bucky grabbed the gun with his left hand is that he knows the other would have started to shake.

And then Steve takes his finger off the trigger.

When Bucky lets go of the gun, it falls into his lap. He starts breathing again, sharp heaving breaths that leave him cold and shivering. He grabs the gun and cocks the safety back on and throws it to the floor, and doesn't watch it skid across the concrete. Neither does Steve.

'I'll kill you one day,' he says. 'Probably.'

Bucky sets his jaw. He smiles, and the smile feels like something lost in time — he hasn't used that expression, that exact shade of shit-eating and manic and reckless, since before the war. (The war that never ended.)

He says, 'Fine by me.'

~

Sharon catches him and Sam as they're walking out of the sub-basement level. Bucky didn't want to leave; he'd be happy to stay with Steve in that dark, damp cell until kingdom fucking come, but the myriad injuries all over his body had different ideas. He needs help getting up stairs, and Sam doesn't say a word as he lets Bucky lean heavily against his side and helps him with one arm around Bucky's hips.

At the top of the staircase, Sharon is already waiting. She looks pale, though she got herself cleaned up sometime between beating the shit out of HYDRA mooks and blowing up Helicarriers. Her arms are crossed over her chest. 'You have to go,' she says without preamble.

'Go,' Sam echoes.

'Secretary Pierce isn't dead,' she says. 'Maria and I will get to him before he manages to reorganise HYDRA and close ranks, we're tracking him down, but it'll take time. He'll want his pet assassin back, though. Soon.'

'You want to trade Steve?' Bucky demands.

'Trade? No, asshole. I was outvoted. The plan is to terminate him.'

Sam takes in a sharp breath. 'Wait. You don't mean —'

'Euthanise,' Sharon snaps. It's merciless, and Bucky staggers back as it lands like a punch to the gut. 'Put out of his misery. Cut our losses, move on, go off the grid and regroup.'

'You can't fucking kill Steve Rogers,' Bucky says, voice close to breaking.

'The Winter Soldier killed Nick Fury,' says Sharon. She stares Bucky down. 'He put Barton in a coma. He shot Romanoff through the goddamn spine. She's never gonna walk again, did you know that? It's down to me and Maria to take out Pierce and the rest of HYDRA. All this would have had a much happier ending if we had Captain America on our side, Barnes, but you were too much of a coward to commit and pick up the fucking shield.

'I owe you one, though,' Sharon goes on. 'You told me to call Sam when I had no one else to go to, and it worked. Thanks to you he saved my ass. I'm just returning the favour. I don't know if the Winter Soldier can be fixed, or saved, or anything like that. I don't even know if he deserves it, truth be told. But you clearly think so. So this is me, saving your ass. There's a car waiting in the parking lot behind the warehouse. I took out the trackers and left you some weapons and cash. Just promise me you're gonna keep your head down.'

Bucky sets his jaw. He knows a favour when he sees it, and for all her prickly demeanour Sharon has never been anything but a friend to him. In another life, in another world, they might have gotten along. In another world, Bucky might have been the kind of friend she deserves.

He smiles, grim. 'Keep my head down, sure. Don't I always?'

~

'I can't ask you to do this, Sam.'

It only gets him a long-suffering sigh. 'Yeah, yeah, 'cause you totally know how to navigate twenty-first century America, or Europe, or wherever you wanna go. You ever even been outside of Brooklyn, kid?'

Bucky pulls a face. 'Kid? I could be your grandfather,' he says.

'If my grandfather was a pasty-ass white boy, I think I'd remember. C'mon, let's get food and water so we don't have to stop 'till we're outside DC.'

He gives Bucky the kind of look that means he won't accept gratitude or thanks, and Bucky has to wonder if he's so eager to help fix other people — first Bucky, now kind of by extension Steve — because it's a way for him to avoid looking at his own baggage and trying to fix himself. And ain't that just Bucky's life in a nutshell: the blind leading the blind.

Steve goes pliantly when they take him out of the holding cell and he keeps his head bowed like a man walking to the gallows. He accepted Bucky's escape plan without a word, staring at Bucky like a puzzle he couldn't quite figure out — but would like to try. If clinical curiosity is all the attachment to Bucky he has so far, it's fine, it's all right. He dragged Bucky out of the river. He put the gun down when Bucky dared him to shoot. He said, I'll kill you one day, and it didn't sound like a threat — it sounded like self-preservation.

Maybe it'll turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe —

~

The sky is heavy with rain and the electric promise of thunder as they drive down the interstate. Sam is behind the wheel, humming along with the radio. The station he picked plays a lot of jazz standards and Bucky doesn't have to wonder if that is an accident. He sits in the passenger-side seat with his feet propped up on the dashboard, pretending to be engrossed in his game of Angry Birds when mostly he's watching Steve in the rearview mirror.

Steve is stretched out in the backseat, eyes half-shut, head resting against the window. He watches the wide open horizon pass them by with a careful, though not entirely blank, expression. He's quiet, and back at the warehouse when Bucky asked him if he'd like to shave or something Steve just stared at him in confusion. Now his hands are curled into loose fists and he looks alien in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans.

He doesn't tell Bucky what he remembers, or if he remembers anything at all.

Bucky doesn't ask.

~

There is an empty grave at Arlington with Steve Rogers' name on it.

It's been there for almost seventy years.