He hides for one month and then allows them to find him. He is so very, very tired and he has questions he thinks only they can answer. One of them specifically. He remembers that his mission, Captain America, the man on the bridge, is also Steve, the skinny little runt he spent the better part of his childhood protecting and picking up and dusting off and watching over and praying for, please just breathe another breath, just one more, repeated again and again through the night. He remembers when Steve became Captain America and grew and saved him and led the Howling Commandos, let’s hear it for Captain America. He remembers when Steve screamed his name and reached for him as he fell from a train into the harsh, biting wind and the arms of the Soviets.
He remembers cold and ice and pain and shock and killing, so much killing, and he’s tired and he’s confused and he just wants to hear Steve call him Bucky again. So he goes to the Smithsonian, the exhibit about Captain America, and he stands by the picture of Steve back when he was just Steve, scrawny little Steve, before he had the muscles to back up his earnest conviction, and he waits.
“Bucky.” Steve whispers, and he feels little shivers go through him because he remembers it’s his name, sort of, but not to everyone, only to Steve, and his hand is shaking. Not the other one, not the metal one—that doesn’t shake, doesn’t waver, and it takes all of his effort to drop a gun that’s in that hand. He’s only ever done it for Steve.
I knew him, he remembers saying, his words a faint echo, easily ignored and brushed aside by those who used him.
“I’ll go with you.” He rasps, voice harsh from not speaking for a month.
“Okay.” Steve says it easily, like they’re agreeing on lunch. He follows Steve out of the museum, and though he knows he's seen it all before and had time to get used to it, he still marvels a bit at how broad Steve's shoulders are now, how Steve's chest isn’t sunken in anymore, at how Steve can walk without the sound of heavy breathing cutting through the air.
He doesn’t ask where they’re going. He doesn’t care.
They pull him away from Steve and take him away to a lab of sorts, and his breathing picks up before his mind even registers what’s going on. He screams and fights and they sedate him and as he sinks down into oblivion he thinks, maybe it was a dream after all.
“Why is he restrained?” Loud, angry bursts cut into his ears and he doesn’t know how much time has passed. He is pinned down to a bed and he thrashes, not caring if he hurts himself. He knows he’ll only succeed in wearing himself out—thrashing never changes anything—but he always does anyway. It seems to be human instinct, maybe, because maybe underneath it all he’s still human.
“He’s dangerous, Captain, the Winter Soldier—”
“Don’t call him that; his name is Bucky, and he’s not dangerous! He doesn’t even know who he is. He’s been restrained enough for a million lifetimes. Let him go!”
“We’re not hurting him—”
“You are, by restraining him, now let him go.” The last part is a growl and he remembers then and quits thrashing; the growl is Steve and this is not Hydra, a thought that is little comfort because though he knows what it isn’t, he still doesn’t know what it is. All he knows is Steve is outside and Steve will make sure he’s okay.
That also feels like instinct.
“Bucky!” Steve’s burst into the room and immediately starts loosening the restraints. He rotates his flesh wrist from where the restraints dug in, feeling the blood rush back to his hand. He keeps his body as still as he can, his breath only a whisper, because behind Steve hovers lab coats and scrubs and clipboards and those are all too familiar.
Steve is leaning over him, looking at his eyes, and whispers, “I’ll keep you safe, Buck.” Instinct makes him believe it, even if experience seems to discount it.
The doctor is shooting disapproving glances at Steve. He thinks he’ll lose it if Steve has to go, but Steve seems to know this and gives the doctor a steely glare.
“I’m not leaving.” Steve’s chin is raised defiantly. “I’m staying with Bucky.”
Something stirs in his mind, a thought, a phrase. A memory? ‘Til the end of the line. It feels important, and some long-buried part of him feels the urge to tug at Steve’s sleeve and say it out loud. He thinks Steve is supposed to hear that. He thinks he is supposed to be the one to say it. He remembers, in a rush, that Steve said it—‘til the end of the line—on the carrier, as they both plummeted. He’d pulled Steve from the river based on a phrase he only half-remembered.
Apparently Steve and the doctor have argued and come to an agreement while he was working through it all, because all the lab coats and scrubs and clipboards are gone from hovering in the doorway.
“It’s okay.” Steve says reassuringly. “I’m here, Bucky.”
He thinks it’s time for him to say the phrase, to whisper ‘til the end of the line, but the words are trapped in his throat and he doesn’t know what they mean. He blinks a few times. He hasn’t spoken a word and there’s a furrow of worry between Steve’s eyebrows that makes his stomach hurt a little bit because he doesn’t remember much but he knows he’s supposed to look out for Steve, not scare Steve.
“Where are we?” He asks. The words scrape all the way out and his throat burns. Steve frowns and looks around for water, but there isn’t any.
“S.H.I.E.L.D.” Steve tells him. It doesn’t make him feel much better. “Well, kind of. We sort of…destroyed S.H.I.E.L.D., actually. This is Stark Tower.”
“Stark?” He asks.
“Howard’s son.” Steve says with a nod, smiling a little like the fact that he remembered is a feat to be proud of. It annoys him but pleases him in equal measure, and that annoys him further. They’re quiet for a long minute, ‘til the end of the line trying to burst out of his mouth but not making it past the fire in his throat. He means to say it but instead what comes out is,
“I don’t know who I am.”
“You’re Bucky.” Steve says definitively, like that should be the only explanation he needs.
“I’m not sure I am, anymore.” He admits quietly. Steve bites his lip.
“Well, you’ll always be Bucky to me.” Then, after a beat, Steve adds, “Unless you don’t want to be, I mean. You can be James, if you want. Even Barnes, I guess. Jimmy? You never used to like James. But if you want to be James now—”
“They call me the Winter Soldier.” He says. He’s not sure why he says it, except that Steve is babbling and that means Steve is nervous and he can’t let Steve babble nervously. He doesn’t want to be the Winter Soldier and he doesn’t want to be James or Jimmy but he’s not sure he can be Bucky, either.
“I’ll never call you that.” Steve’s eyes go hard but not at him. “That’s Hydra. That’s not you.” It makes his throat tighten in a way that has nothing to do with screaming or being thirsty and he blinks a few times.
“I…” He pauses and sighs a little. “I think I want to be Bucky.” Steve’s grin is wide and happy and it convinces him he’d chosen right. “But I’m not sure how to be.”
“I’ll help you.” Steve promises easily, almost coaxing him to smile back. “I’m with you, pal.”
And suddenly the words can come out, but only in a whisper. “’Til the end of the line.” Steve’s lips tighten, eyes sliding closed, and he feels his stomach hurt at the look on Steve’s face, but it’s a good kind of hurt—Steve is happy he said that, and that makes him happy.
Later that night, as he lies unrestrained in his bed, beeping monitors around him, he whispers to himself,
“My name is Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers is my best friend.”
He repeats it until he falls asleep. He doesn’t know much else, but somehow, that’s enough.