"He was wrong," Barnes says.
It's the first thing he's said in over eighteen hours. It takes Sam a few seconds to process the words.
"What?" he says. They've encountered a lot of very wrong men in the past couple of weeks. Most of them are dead now. "Who was wrong?"
He's not expecting much of an answer. Even though Barnes is starting to remember who he used to be, and isn't actively trying to kill them anymore, it's still about 50/50 at any given moment whether he'll participate in a conversation or let his glaring speak for him. It's some pretty damn eloquent glaring.
But Barnes does answer: "The one in the lab."
Right. That one. The white-haired HYDRA scientist with the evil villain monologue that sounded like he'd been practicing for decades. Maybe he had been. Didn't seem like he got many visitors in his underground lair. He wouldn't be getting any more.
The old guy had been gloating about how proud HYDRA had been of their Winter Soldier, how he was their greatest achievement, how magnificent it was to take a man who had so loved fighting for America and freedom and all those foolish ideals and turn him into their perfect machine, their attack dog, their--
Their whatever. That's when Steve had shot him, and only because Sam couldn't pull fast enough and Natasha was clearing the next level down. Barnes had just stood there, staring at the guy with that eerie blank expression, never even reached for his weapon.
Sam hasn't slept in three days or eaten in two, he has no idea if it's day or night outside, they're somewhere over the North Atlantic, and he's strapped into an uncomfortable seat in the back of a cow-scented cargo plane of unknown origin. (He doesn't ask how Natasha arranges these things, doesn't want to know.) But he knows an opening when he hears one.
"What was he wrong about?" he asks.
"I didn't love it," Barnes says. He tilts his head back against the rumbling wall of the plane and closes his eyes. "The war. The fighting. I hated every fucking second of it."
Sam glances around. Natasha is in the cockpit with the pilot, possibly to kill him if he thinks about double-crossing them. Steve is asleep for the first time in, oh, about ten days. Give or take. A few seats down. Not right next to Barnes, never right next to him. Steve is taking "give him space" a little too literally.
"Hating war is a sign you've got your head screwed on right," Sam says.
"Or you're a dumb kid who didn't know what you were getting into."
Barnes makes a face, something that would almost be a smile if it weren't so close to a grimace. "Most of the guys, they'd put on a good show, telling themselves and everybody around them it was for the best, they were protecting all the moms and pops and kids back home. But me, I went to sleep every night and woke up every morning thinking I shoulda never left New York."
Barnes' eyes are still closed, so he doesn't see the smile that Sam lets slip and quickly hides. It's only there in fleeting moments, and only if you're listening for it, but Barnes says shoulda never left New York like somebody who never did. After months of not even knowing if there was anything of Bucky Barnes left inside the Winter Soldier, Sam is willing to count that as a victory.
"You weren't the only guy thinking it," Sam says. "No matter what kind of show the others put on."
"When we were captured--"
Barnes stops mid-sentence. He opens his eyes and looks down at his hand, the metal hand. He makes a fists, relaxes the fingers, makes a fist again, watching like he's not sure he's the one controlling it. There's a splash of scuffed black paint over the red star on the shoulder; it's not pretty but it makes a point. Something's creaking and grinding every time he moves it. Two weeks ago he used it to stop a truck that had been aiming straight for Steve, and it hasn't sounded right ever since.
"Yeah?" Sam prompts.
"I'm going to sleep," Barnes says.
He's been doing that lately, started it up a couple of weeks ago, not too long after he finally started answering to his name. He announces simple actions before he does them: I'm going to sleep. I'm getting a sandwich. I'm taking a shower. I'm going to shoot that guy. I'm getting some air.
It breaks Sam's heart a little more every time, because Barnes doesn't say it like he's giving them warning, like he's waiting for them to flinch. That would be bad enough, but it would be understandable. Instead he says it defiantly, uncertainly, like he's daring them to say no. No, you can't sleep. You don't need a sandwich. You don't get to shower. You don't need any of that.
"Me too," Sam says, a beat too late. "Good night."
Sam and Steve didn't so much find the Winter Soldier as catch up to a HYDRA loyalist at the same time, a former Austrian intelligence officer hiding in Italy. He'd been expecting the wayward Winter Soldier to come after him--they all were now, as soon as word spread he was off his leash and active without orders--but he hadn't been expecting Captain America to bust through the wall of his villa five minutes later.
Literally. Through the wall. Steve had left subtlety behind about ten thousand miles ago.
After the shooting stopped, the smoke cleared, and the Austrian was cooling in a pool of his own blood on the marble, the man who had once been Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes of the 107th lowered his gun and dropped it to the floor.
Ever since they started this chase, Sam and Steve had been talking about what they might find when they found the Winter Soldier. Permanent amnesia. Unbreakable conditioning. Brain damage. An enemy. A misfiring weapon. An empty shell.
But what stood before them was a tired man with sad eyes and trembling hands who dropped his weapon and said, "You should have let him kill me, Steve."
Whatever Steve was going to say got cut off, because that's when Barnes collapsed. His black clothes were hiding two fresh bullet holes from the scientist's last lucky shots and several injuries days or weeks older, bound up in dirty bandages made from ripped shirts, cloth stuck to the wounds with dried blood. They got him out of the villa, got him cleaned up and stitched up and bandaged again, and for seven days he didn't say a single word except feverish pleas in Russian while he slept. Sam didn't know much Russian, but he knew enough to recognize no and please and be thankful he didn't know any more.
When Barnes finally woke, clear-eyed and wary, the first thing he said was, "I'm not who you think I am."
But he didn't run away, and he didn't try to kill them. It was a start.
The arm is getting worse. It grinds now when Barnes moves his shoulder a certain way, an honest-to-goodness metal-on-metal grind that sounds uncannily similar to the death throes of Sam's first car. They haven't been fighting anybody, or stopping any more vehicles from messing up Steve's hair, so Sam can't tell if it's painful or slowing him down. Barnes hasn't said anything.
They're in São Paulo, five days and five thousand miles from where the sketchy cargo plane dropped them, looking for a guy who knows a guy who might have some scattered pieces of the Winter Soldier's history. Business as usual. Barnes remembers being in the city, but he doesn't even know what decade it was, much less what he had been doing there. There are gaps in the files almost as big as the gaps in his memory. Steve and Natasha are out doing their clueless American honeymooners routine to loud-mouth their way into the wrong streets in the wrong neighborhoods. Natasha's started using a southern accent, just for kicks, and Steve pretends not to know the difference between American football and the kind of the rest of the world plays. Their act is a work of art. If they weren't too busy fighting the forces of evil, they'd have a real shot on Broadway.
After standing watch all night, Sam's been napping off and on all day. Six months ago he wouldn't have been able to sleep if he even suspected the Winter Soldier was in the same city; six weeks ago being in the same room was a lot to ask. Now, well, now Sam's pretty sure Barnes will say something from his spot by the window if there's anybody suspicious lurking outside, and if not, at least the gunshots will wake him up.
It's not a gunshot that jerks him out of a restless sleep, though, it's that damn metallic grinding that sets his teeth on edge. Sam sits up and rubs his eyes. Barnes is still sitting by the window, slumped against the frame, but he's rubbing at the ragged flesh where his metal arm meets skin, a deep scowl on his face.
"That bad?" Sam says.
Barnes' face goes blank and he drops his hand. He looks away pointedly, and Sam stifles a sigh.
"Don't suppose they ever gave you a maintenance manual to go along with it?"
"I didn't need to know," Barnes says. His voice is flat, but his lips quirk in a quick, bitter smile. "They didn't want me to know."
"I know you didn't get a close look, circumstances and all, but the wings were a pretty complicated piece of machinery--" Sam hears metal grind as Barnes makes a fist. "And I spent six years repairing them in the field because the techs were never where they needed to be. Let me take a look."
Barnes only glares at him.
Sam shrugs. "Can't promise it will help, but I can promise I won't make it worse."
Finally, Barnes nods, and he strips off his long-sleeved shirt as Sam drags a chair over to the window. Sam can see one seam where the upper arm opens, but he doesn't make a move.
"Before I do this," he says, "I need you to promise me one thing."
Barnes is staring out the window. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Sam shakes his head. "That's not what I'm worried about. You've got to tell me if I'm hurting you."
"That's all. If it starts to hurt, you speak up."
"But it--it doesn't hurt like that," Barnes says. The look he's giving Sam is one of pure bafflement. "It's--I can feel pressure, heat. But it's not like that."
Maybe not in the arm itself, but there's no way to ignore that knotted mess of scar tissue all along the joint where metal meets flesh, or the red inflammation of the skin just beneath the metal edge. Sam had once flown a mission to pull out a Green Beret who had been holed up for a week with a three-inch piece of metal pipe in his left foot. He wasn't sitting on his ass either; he was hobbling around his rat-hole hideout, limping like a fool on that rotting wound. After Riley had gotten a look at that hunk of pipe and exclaimed, "Holy shit, dude, doesn't that hurt?" the man had just looked down at his foot and said, "Yeah, hurts like a sonofabitch. Guess I stopped noticing."
"Humor me," Sam says.
Barnes doesn't quite roll his eyes, but his eyebrows communicate a definite lack of concern. "Fine."
"Good. Now how the hell does this thing open?"
Sam gets the arm open, but not without a fight. Some of the metal plating is dented around the back, where the triceps would be if it were muscle rather than metal.
"Maybe next time you should just push Steve out of the way," he says. "He can handle getting his knees a little scraped up."
The truck Barnes had so kindly deflected had been going forty, fifty miles an hour, but Sam suspects he's looking at months of accumulated damage on top of that. He can see a few sliced wires and a circuit that looks like it was smashed, but none of them anywhere near the other damage. He's afraid to poke around too much. He doesn't quite believe Barnes that nothing in that arm is capable of causing him pain.
"What happened here?"
"Tracker," Barnes says. "I cut it out with a knife."
"Right." But it's not right, not exactly. If the assholes at HYDRA didn't even trust the Winter Soldier enough to let him know how a part of his own body worked, they sure as hell wouldn't have told him how they were keeping track of him. "How'd you know where to find it?"
Immediately Barnes' face goes blank in that way it does when he knows there's something he ought to remember, but he can't find a memory to fit in its place. That terrifying blank look and the long, long silences that follow are the reason Steve is so careful around Barnes now, never saying anything unexpected, never assuming, never pushing. Sam could kick himself; he shouldn't have asked.
He tries to change the subject. "I'll be honest, I don't even know what kind of metal this--"
"There was a woman."
Sam tilts his head to get a better look at Barnes' face. Not blank now. Thoughtful. "A woman?"
"She was there once when I woke up. She told me about the tracker." Barnes shakes his head, as though trying to jar the memories loose. "Why would she do that? She had to know they wouldn't--why would she tell me that?"
It's not a rhetorical question. He's looking at Sam like he thinks Sam can give him an answer.
"Maybe it was a test. Maybe she was careless. Maybe they wanted to see what you would do. Or maybe--" Sam twists the cut wires aside for a better look. He can't even identify a power source. "Maybe even in an organization like HYDRA there were people who knew what they were doing to you was wrong."
Barnes looks at him with those big blue eyes, as uncomprehending as he would be if Sam was speaking Swahili. Three days ago, he had grabbed a knife and disappeared into the bathroom for an hour. When he came out, his long hair was gone, hacked off into ragged spikes. He looks like a permanently surprised hedgehog now, and about nineteen years old after he shaves.
Barnes blinks and looks away. "They probably killed her. It was for nothing."
"You got the tracker out when you needed to," Sam says. "These days they only find you when you tear the doors off their hideouts. That's not nothing."
Sam goes back to examining the inside of Barnes' arm. He can't make heads or tails of how it works. He can't see the shoulder joint, can't see where it attaches to flesh and bone, can't see what must be bent out of shape to make that awful noise.
"I used to fix cars," Barnes says suddenly. "Before the war."
Sam knows that already, but he's not sure Barnes knew it before this moment. The problem with repairing a fractured memory is that it doesn't always come together in predictable or meaningful ways. "Yeah? How'd you like that?"
"It was a job. It kept food on the table."
There's a drawing in Steve's sketchbook, a carefully detailed image of Bucky Barnes in rolled-up sleeves, leaning over the open hood of a Cadillac Series 61, smudged with grease and smiling that smile that had been luring college students of both genders into becoming dedicated historians for at least as long as their "America in the Second World War" classes lasted. Steve had left the sketchbook out before collapsing with exhaustion in a crappy hotel in Berlin, and Sam had felt only a little bit guilty about paging through it while he slept. It's easy to forget that what's been seven decades for the world has only been a year or two for Steve. All of his wounds are fresh, his grief sharp. He doesn't draw Bucky's cocky grin over and over again because he worries about forgetting. He draws because he's never going to, no matter how many pencils he wears down to stubs.
"What do you think?" Barnes says after a few minutes of silence. "Think you can fix me?"
"I gotta say, Barnes, I have no idea how to fix your arm."
Barnes starts to move away. "You don't have to--"
Sam laughs. "Hey, not so fast. I don't give up that easy. I am more than just a pretty face, you know. We'll figure this thing out." He waits for Barnes to settle again, still tense, still wary, but giving no sign he's about to jump out the window and flee. "Make a fist for me, okay? Let's get a look at all your moving parts."
Another string of sketchy leads, another trip across the Atlantic. HYDRA cares about as much for international borders and national autonomy as they care for human life and dignity, and SHIELD was only part of where their infestation had spread. There is no end in sight.
And Sam is starting to wonder if they're still moving because Steve is afraid of what will happen when they stop.
The intel they collected in São Paulo has led them to a run-down Soviet-era warehouse in a grim factory town outside of Moscow, but they're too late. Somebody has gotten there before them.
"Looks like they left in a hurry," Natasha says, peering into the shadows. "They left a lot behind."
Steve pauses just inside the broad sliding door. He looks tired and disappointed and a lot like all he wants to do is turn around and drive away.
"There's probably nobody here, but we should be careful anyway," he says. "Sam, Bucky, you guys go left. Nat and I will go right."
Barnes doesn't say anything until they're far enough away that Steve and Natasha won't overhear. "Is that his idea or yours?" he asks.
"Hmm?" Sam is busy thinking about how much he wants to be somewhere that isn't a creepy abandoned warehouse and how he would feel safer if he knew what "ARK OF THE COVENANT: DO NOT TOUCH" looked like in Russian. "What idea? This place?"
"No," Barnes says, and damned if he doesn't almost look amused at that. "He goes that way, we go this way. I've noticed."
Sam has noticed, although he and Steve have certainly never talked about it. "What's the matter, Barnes? You don't like getting stuck with me?"
"I've noticed that too," Barnes says.
"What too? You lost me."
"You don't use my first name."
Sam stops and faces him. "You didn't seem to like it very much at first."
It's something of an understatement. The first few days he had been with them, Barnes had almost physically recoiled every time Steve called him Bucky. Steve, being Steve, never stopped. Natasha, when she joined them, pointedly avoided addressing him at all. Sam had decided to split the difference. He wouldn't call a man by a name he didn't want, but he wasn't going to let him go without a name at all.
"I didn't," Barnes says. "I don't mind now."
"All right, but only if you return the favor." Sam sticks out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Bucky. I'm Sam."
Bucky gives him a look like Sam's the one whose mental stability is highly doubtful, but he shakes on it, then turns abruptly and keeps walking. His arm is sounding a little bit better. They've been tinkering with it on and off as they travel, Bucky patiently putting up with Sam's poking and cursing as he slowly fixes what he can and leaves the rest alone. The tech is way, way over his head, but at least it doesn't grind like a '72 Dodge Dart in need of a new transmission anymore.
Sam catches up in three swift steps. "And to answer your other question, that's all Steve. But not for the reasons you're thinking."
"You don't know what I'm thinking."
"I think you're thinking that he sticks you with me because he still thinks there's something wrong with you, or maybe because he can't stop making those sad-puppy eyes--"
Bucky snorts, tries to hide it.
"--every time he looks at you and sees that you're not the same man you used to be, or because he's decided it's just too painful and it's easier this way."
Bucky doesn't answer, but his angry stride tells Sam he hit pretty close to the mark.
"You remember fighting with Steve in the war, don't you?"
"Most of it."
"And you remember how he led your unit? You remember what made him good at it?"
"He's Steve," Bucky says, like that's the only answer he needs. "He was always going to be brilliant, it's just that everybody was too stupid to see it until--"
"Yeah, yeah, I get it," Sam says quickly. "But pretend for a second you're an impartial observer and not somebody who's--" Loved him, but there are things Bucky has to figure out for himself. "Somebody who's known him since he was five."
Sam rolls his eyes. If they ever get bored during downtime, Sam's going to teach Bucky how to edit Wikipedia and set him loose on the "Steve Rogers (Captain America)" collection of articles.
"Since he was six. But even without that insider knowledge, anybody can see that the reason Steve's good at what he does is because he knows what his team is good at, and he knows how to use them best."
"And you're good at..." Bucky searches for a word, makes a face when he settles on one. "Wrangling me?"
"Almost as good as you are at keeping my fragile totally-not-superhuman bones intact," Sam says. "Since I can't fly away and all. Since somebody wrecked my wings."
They walk about twenty steps in silence before Bucky mutters, "Sorry about your wings."
"Apology accepted," Sam says graciously. "He's not avoiding you, man. Not deliberately. He just thinks you're more comfortable chasing rats in abandoned warehouses with me. Is he wrong?"
At first he thinks Bucky's lack of response is just another one of his stubborn silences. Then he realizes Bucky has stopped and is staring into the shadows. Sam backs up a few steps to see what's caught his attention.
"Shit." He doesn't realize he's said it out loud until the word is echoing around them.
"That's--" Bucky chokes on the word. He can't get any further.
"I know," Sam says. "I know what it is."
He'd been dozing beside Steve's hospital bed in D.C. when Maria Hill had appeared in the room with no warning and said, "Want to take a field trip?" She had tracked down the empty bank from which Pierce and his men had been running the Winter Soldier, she explained, and she wanted back-up when she went to check it out. Sam hadn't even been able to make his best, "Who, me?" face before she said, "I can count the number of people I trust right now on one hand, and you're my pinkie. Hurry up." It turned out HYDRA had left their equipment behind: the chair with the headpiece and the straps, the cryogenic chamber in the shape of a coffin. They had barely gotten a glimpse before Maria spotted the flickering red light that had sent them running: the place was rigged to blow.
The sound of the explosion was still ringing in Sam's ears by the time he made it back to the hospital. Pierce had never intended for his most dangerous asset to survive the mission. The Winter Soldier and the machines that made him would have been obsolete in HYDRA's new world order.
Past a pile of broken shelves, past a sweep of discarded files and boxes, the chair in the warehouse is old, dusty, covered with cobwebs. The leather seat is cracked and stained from neck to seat with what Sam suspects is blood. It looks like an old-fashioned dentist's chair, if dentists needed to shackle their patients in with metal cuffs hand and foot. There's a metal ring mounted above the headrest with a sprouting tangle of wires. The wires lead to a jumble of boxes that must be what passed for computers when they last used this chair.
Sam can hear the ragged struggle of Bucky's breath, but he can't think of a damn thing to say. Let's get out of here. They won't get you again. You are not their asset anymore.
Fuck them anyway.
Sam started on this mission not because he thought they had any chance of success, but because Steve was going to do it whether he had help or not. Whatever they found, it didn't matter, Sam wasn't going to let Steve find it on his own.
But it turned out they didn't need to save Bucky Barnes or stop the Winter Soldier, because he had already done both for himself. And, damn it, Sam is starting to like the man he now knows is still alive beneath all the trauma, the man who's been teaching himself to use that deadly arm for carrying coffee and holding ice packs to bruises, who wakes from his nightmares with his hand clamped over his mouth to keep the screams inside, who watches Steve in quiet moments like he can't believe his eyes but prefers the illusion to reality. The man who hasn't hurt or endangered a civilian since the day he pulled Steve out of the Potomac and went looking for answers. The man who can't yet escape from the weapon they turned him into, but can at least decide for himself where that weapon is going to strike.
Sam looks around until he finds a bent metal support bar from the toppled shelves. He picks his way over to the chair.
"So this was the old model? Didn't work anymore?"
The first swing knocks the metal headpiece loose.
"What a piece of shit."
The second blow sends the headpiece flying. It clatters into the darkness. The noise echoes through the warehouse. It does the trick. That awful blank mask slips from Bucky's face. Sam tosses him the bar; he catches it with his left hand, a cool clank of metal on metal.
"You've got more power in your swing than I do," Sam says.
For about thirty seconds he doesn't think it's going to work. Bucky just stares at the piece of metal in his hand, stares at it like he has no idea how it got there or what it's for. Then he looks up, and he kicks his way through the debris of fallen shelves, and Sam gets the hell out of the way. For months now it's been clamped down and controlled, the Winter Soldier's raw destructive power, that hurricane force of rage that's all the more terrifying without a target to aim it at. With every swing Bucky lets out a strangled animal whimper, wordless and choked, as though every blow sends a wave of pain through his body.
The chair and machines are little more than rubble by the time Steve and Natasha come running from the other end of the warehouse.
Steve stops when he sees that Sam's not fighting, not hiding, just standing at a safe distance. Natasha runs up behind him, gun drawn, but doesn't approach.
There's nothing left of the chair. Bucky swings three more times, takes a few chunks out of the concrete floor, then he stands upright and hurls the bar across the warehouse with a scream. He drops his arms to his sides but doesn't turn around. He's breathing heavily, shoulders rising and falling with every ragged gasp.
Steve touches Sam's arm, and Sam steps aside.
"Bucky," Steve says, his voice quiet. "Bucky."
Bucky doesn't flinch or strike out when Steve approaches, and at Steve's touch on his back he finally turns. He can't hide his face behind an inhuman black mask or neglected hair anymore, so he hides it in the crook of Steve's neck. Steve wraps his arms around him, presses a kiss to his temple, his ear, the side of his neck.
Sam looks away. Natasha raises an eyebrow and tilts her head toward the door.
The sunset is a deep red and there's a cold wind that smells like oil winding around the empty warehouses. Natasha doesn't say anything until they're standing beside the van.
"Was that a good idea?" she says. "Encouraging a violent outburst?"
"I have no fucking idea," Sam says. Some day they're going to realize he's making all this up as he goes along, just like the rest of them.
Natasha looks unusually restless, almost fidgety. She crosses her arms and uncrosses them.
"They kept him here, didn't they? Here or someplace like it. Those long gaps in the record, the ones we can't account for. They put him in storage when they didn't--" She stops, looks away. There's no sign of it on her face, but her voice is shaking with anger. "The longest was twenty-seven years."
Sam feels sick to his stomach. Every time he starts to think he couldn't possibly hate HYDRA any more, the assholes have to go and prove him wrong.
Fifteen or twenty minutes pass before there's motion at the warehouse entrance. Sam sees the shield first, then the men. They walk toward the van slowly. Steve is saying something to Bucky in a low voice, but he falls silent when he gets close. Bucky's eyes are red and there are tears on his face; he scrubs them away self-consciously and looks at the ground.
Natasha says, "They left enough behind that somebody's going to be interested."
"What are you suggesting?" Steve asked tiredly.
Natasha nods toward a far corner of the warehouse. The silhouette of a fuel truck stands out against the darkness. She smiles like the world's prettiest pit viper.
The red and orange flames light up the night as they drive away. Sam's at the wheel, Natasha beside him. In the back Steve and Bucky are sitting shoulder to shoulder. Nobody says anything until the fire has faded in the distance.
Steve clears his throat. "We should keep moving tonight, and tomorrow we can head toward--"
"No," Bucky says.
Sam glances in the rear view mirror; Natasha twists around in the passenger seat.
"Bucky?" Steve says.
Bucky is looking at Steve. "Let's go home," he says. He manages a crooked smile, frail but genuine. "I haven't seen New York since 1943. I bet a lot's changed since then."
Steve's laugh is breathless and short. "Uh, well, they tore down Ebbets Field, and aliens invaded from the sky, but it's still the same city."
"You can show me."
Sam meets Natasha's eyes. She shrugs a little--boys, right? what are you going to do?--and faces forward again to kick her feet up on the dash.
"So," Sam says. "New York it is. Which is still, uh, forty-five hundred miles away."
"Go to Domodedovo Airport," Natasha tells him. "Don't worry. I know a guy."
"I'm not going to ask," Sam says, and keeps driving.