If Steve had dreams while frozen in the ice, he doesn’t remember them.
Now his head is full of flashing lights and snatches of memories colored with the illogic of the subconscious: he’s in the trenches with the Howling Commandos, except it’s Sam and Natasha and Tony and Bruce wearing the Commando uniforms and a jumble of Nazis and Chitauri charging their position. Steve is snapping out orders, telling Tony to watch his six dammit, but something in his chest feels warm and alive like it hasn’t been since the ice thawed.
Then he looks up and the Winter Soldier closes his hand around Steve’s throat, lifts him bodily up out of the trench like a ragdoll.
After that the dreams get more fragmented. He’s back on the Charlie target and he doesn’t get the chip in place in time, and everyone he knows dies all over again. He’s in some kind of forest and everything hurts. He’s in New York after the Chitauri attack, the ground crumbling and exploding under him and he falls into a crack in the Earth that’s full of ice. He’s shivering. He’s on a bed. Snowflakes fall on his face and evaporate instantly, going from ice to gas. His left arm is frozen in place. He’s on a bed.
Well, more of a cot, really, the sort of thing that Sam would have found comfortable. The ceiling above him is white plaster, cracked and stained with water damage. Steve turns his head and feels the tug of stitches in his cheek, the grind of broken bones still knitting themselves back together.
Bucky’s crouched with his back against the far wall.
The uniform is gone—he wears jeans and the kind of olive-drab jacket that SHIELD mechanics sport—and he’s got the start of a beard. A plain, dark baseball hat covers his hair. It is, Steve realizes, Bucky’s version of Natasha’s civilian disguise for him, minus the eyeglasses.
When he sees Steve looking Bucky pushes up from the wall. If he’s still feeling his injuries from the carrier crash, he doesn’t show it. Crossing the room to Steve’s cot, he reaches out with the metal arm and grasps Steve’s right shoulder. The room goes spotty and dark and then Steve’s on his side at the edge of the cot.
His left arm hangs over the side. A manacle, similar to the one SHIELD—or Hydra, it’s hard to keep straight in his head right now—had slapped on him in the van, is firmly attached to his forearm. The manacle’s attached to the bed and the bed is attached to the floor.
Bucky’s watching his face. He nods once, wordlessly, then rises in that same smooth, deadly way and goes out the door. The world outside is bright, stabbing pain into Steve’s eyes, but it’s only a brief flash before Bucky closes the door firmly behind him.
Steve slips back under.
The next time he wakes up his ribs still ache but he can move his head, and Bucky is back. The baseball cap’s still jammed down and his hair sticks out in funny ways around his ears.
“Y’need a haircut,” Steve slurs at him.
Bucky doesn’t smile.
Instead he unlocks the manacle and makes Steve get up, which is hell. Blood throbs against his skull and he gets sick on the floor. Bucky’s grip is insistent, though, tugging him outside into warm air and then to a vehicle of some kind. A minivan, Steve thinks. It’s called a minivan.
Bucky shoves him in to lie on the minivan’s bare, dirty floor. Steve gratefully passes back out.
He’s naked and Bucky is running his hands over Steve’s skin. The throb in his head has faded along with the dizziness, but Steve finds himself disoriented all over again by the situation.
He must make some kind of movement as he wakes, because Bucky lifts his head. He’s ditched the ballcap and his hair hangs in his face.
“Where’s your tracker?” Bucky asks.
“What?” Steve tries to sit up but Bucky’s metal palm slams into his sternum. Pain rockets through him and Steve gasps for oxygen as his lungs seize up.
“Where is your tracker?” Bucky demands, biting out each word. “You can tell me or I can start cutting in the most likely places.”
Both of Steve’s hands are chained behind him. He twists to escape metal hand pinning him down, fighting for breath. The pressure eases up but he only gets one good breath in before he’s being flipped onto his front.
The white-hot pain of a knife blade traces across the back of his thigh, making him shout and kick out with his other leg. The metal hand is on his neck now, keeping his cheek pressed to the minivan’s dirty carpet.
“I don’t—have one,” he finally manages to get out.
The knife stops moving and after a moment he’s flipped over onto his back again. Steve moans, trying to curl up into a ball. Only the metal hand on his chest keeps him flat.
Above him, Bucky’s eyes are hard and narrow. “They never gave you a tracker?”
“Couldn’t,” Steve wheezes. “Bullets and trackers...my body pushes them out.”
Bucky studies his face. Steve half-expects to feel the knife again, but instead Bucky sits back, letting Steve curl in around his bruised chest the way he wants.
Something soft lands on him, covering his naked body. It’s a thick woolen blanket that smells faintly of dog. Steve draws his legs up, wincing at the pull in his gut. It feels like the bullet there has already wormed its way back out, which is probably the only reason that Bucky believes him.
Groggily Steve lifts his head. All of the seats have been removed from the minivan’s interior, leaving a big empty space littered with the remains of Steve’s uniform—it looks like Bucky cut it off of him, and Steve feels a pang of guilt for the poor museum—along with a carefully-folded pile of gear that it takes a moment for Steve to recognize as Bucky’s uniform.
Bucky himself is seated against the back of the minivan. He’s not wearing his cap and in the weak sunlight filtering through the windows his hair has more red tones than Steve remembers. Or maybe that’s because it’s so much longer than Bucky’s ever worn it before.
It’s probably a strange thing to focus on at the moment. Especially considering that Bucky also has a gun in his hand and while it isn’t currently pointed at Steve’s head it’s definitely addressed to his general vicinity.
“Where are we?” Steve asks. He moves his jaw from side to side, cringing at the stretch of stitches. Who stitched him up?
There’s no response. He tries again, “What happened? I don’t remember anything past you—hitting me.”
Steve blinks. Bucky’s voice is a lot lower than he remembers it. Of course, it’s been two years since he heard it...or seventy, depending on if they counted by the objective timeline or Steve’s own, fractured version. “Out of the helicarrier? That’s—that.” Steve tries to uncurl, sucking a breath in through his nose. He can taste blood in his mouth. The world is spinning very slightly, enough that he wants to hold still. “I shoulda died,” he manages to croak.
“There was water.”
Steve vaguely remembers the shock of hitting the river’s surface. At that height there wouldn’t be much difference between falling onto water versus solid earth, but apparently that slim distinction had bought him his life. Of course it’d also given him a helluva concussion and knocked most of his ribs loose, not to mention the fact that he should have drowned—
Realization strikes. “You pulled me out?”
Bucky turns his head, peering out of the van’s window. “You have information that I need.”
Blue eyes, so familiar in their shape and color but not in their expression, fix on him. “You called me a name.”
Steve swallows, licks his lips, and breathes, “Bucky.”
There’s not even the flicker of a reaction. “What kind of name is ‘Bucky’?”
“It’s—it was a nickname. Your middle name’s Buchanan. James Buchanan Barnes, after—there was a president. You really don’t remember your name?”
That does get a tiny reaction, a crack in the blank stare. Bucky looks out the window again then snaps back around as Steve groans his way up into a sitting position, the blanket kindly coming along for the ride. From this new vantage point he can see out the windows: they’re in the parking lot of some kind of store, edged by trees. The store’s sign is written in Spanish.
Steve props himself against the back of the passenger seat and waits for the world to stop spinning. It feels like the cut on his thigh has already started to close up. Across from him, Bucky’s still got a firm grip on the gun and eyes him warily.
“You’re James Buchanan Barnes and you were born in—”
“Brooklyn,” Bucky says and Steve’s heart leaps before it crashes as Bucky goes on. “I went to that museum. I want to know what happened after that.”
Steve swallows, nods. “I’ll tell you what I know.”
“Not yet. Not here.”
Bucky gives him pants and dispassionately watches Steve struggle into them. He unlocks the manacles just long enough for Steve to put on a shirt. “You don’t have to do that,” Steve points out as Bucky roughly pulls his arms behind him again. “I’m not going anywhere. If I weren’t here, I’d be out there looking for you.”
The manacles snap into place, briefly pinching the delicate skin at Steve’s wrist. “Stay down or I’ll knock you unconscious again.”
He gets into the front and starts driving.
Ten minutes later Steve is braced against the back of the van, where he rolled to after the last hard swerve, with his feet planted on the wheel well. “Bucky,” he says desperately, “Bucky, maybe I should drive.”
Clearly whoever taught Bucky how to operate a motor vehicle were more interested in combat scenarios than stealth, safety, or sanity. In the rearview mirror Bucky’s hard gaze cut to him briefly—no no, don’t take your eyes off the road—but he says nothing.
They head south, watching each other out of the corners of their eyes: Bucky with suspicion and Steve with a dazed kind of amazement. Over the long, bruising journey Steve manages to surmise that they’re somewhere in Honduras, winding through back country and avoiding the cities. How they’ve managed to get this far, he’s not sure. Either he was unconscious longer than he thought or Bucky stole a quinjet for part of the journey. He’d never had any pilot training but who knows what Hydra crammed into his mind?
Bucky doesn’t speak all day. He drives with a single-minded purpose and a clear destination in mind.
When they get there, that certainty shatters.
At dusk they reach a battered house in the hills, notable only for the number of satellite dishes perched on its roof. Bucky pulls up to the front, kills the engine, and spends five minutes staring at the house while the engine ticks. The windows of the house are dark, empty.
Eventually Bucky gets out, gun in hand, and eases up to the front door. Watching him disappear inside, Steve feels a horrible surge of panic and sets to dislocating his shoulder.
Having twisted his manacled arms around to his front, he scrambles out of the minivan and follows Bucky inside. The soldier in him immediately identifies this place as a safehouse: small windows with strategic sightlines to the road and the surrounding hillsides, reinforced walls, low cupboards full of supplies. It’s been vacated in a hurry. Gun cartridges and cans of food litter the floor, and in the corner there’s a half-burned pile of papers.
Bucky stands in the center of the front room, the gun hanging at his side. He doesn’t even startle when Steve busts in after him, just keeps turning his head from side to side. Easing around him, Steve checks the roach-infested kitchen, the two adjoining bedrooms, the disgusting toilet, before coming back out to face Bucky.
“Is this where you were supposed to go?” he asks. “If a mission failed?”
Bucky doesn’t answer. He’s staring at the papers on the floor but making no move to pick them up. There are dark circles under his eyes.
“Bucky,” Steve says gently. “You need to sleep.” They both do. The worst of Steve’s injuries have healed but he has the empty, exhausted feeling that means his metabolism needs a break. And a large meal, but one thing at a time. This run down little house, reeking of turned food and Hydra, wouldn’t be his first choice of lodgings; Steve doesn’t think they’ll find anything better and he’s suddenly very sure that Bucky hasn’t rested anytime in the recent past.
He steps a little closer and Bucky’s gaze snaps to him. Steve holds up his hands, displaying the manacles. “If I wanted to hurt you or even capture you, I could have done it on the helicarrier.”
“Why didn’t you?” Bucky asks. The determination—or programming—that got them here is gone and he is hunched, uncertain, peering out at Steve from under his ragged hair. He sounds so perplexed. Steve aches to just put one hand on his shoulder, anything kinder than the punches they’ve thrown into each other’s bodies, the damage they’ve done.
“You’re my friend,” he tells Bucky again, will tell him again and again. “And I know you don’t remember that right now, but I swear to God—I would never willingly do anything to hurt you.”
For a long moment Bucky visibly wrestles with himself then straightens, his mouth tightening. “If you try to run—”
“—if you try to run,” Bucky goes on, inflectionless. “I won’t kill you. I’ll find someone you care about and kill them.”
Steve goes cold. He means it; the person inside might be different but Steve still knows the way that Bucky’s face moves, knows his tells. Bucky absolutely means what he’s saying.
He thinks of Peggy in her hospital bed, Sam with his open heart and unreinforced front door. Natasha could handle herself, except then he remembers the steady gush of blood from her shoulder.
“I’m not going to run,” he says numbly.
Mollified, Bucky backs into a corner of the room not occupied by insects or ashes and sits down against the wall, ignoring Steve’s incredulous look. Steve is less inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth or turn down a free bed, and sacks out on the rickety cot in one of the back rooms.
Hours later Steve’s awakened by bitten-off whimpers from the front room and the sound of scrabbling. When he rolls off the cot he half-expects to find a Hydra team and Bucky in a shock collar; but there’s only Bucky, shoved into his corner, his heels pushing on the floor and his face screwed up in fear and pain.
“Bucky,” Steve says. “Bucky.” There’s a gun clenched in Bucky’s right hand. Currently it’s pointed at the floor but Steve can’t see if the safety’s on. Bucky’s finger is on the trigger. Steve keeps his distance and tries to use his voice, murmuring a constant litany.
It takes way too long of Bucky looking agonized and scared before his eyes snap open. The gun comes up, zeroing on Steve’s head. He holds very, very still while the terror and confusion fades from Bucky’s expression.
They stay in those positions, Bucky backed into a corner with his legs drawn up and Steve kneeling on the floor, until slowly the gun lowers.
Bucky. His name is Bucky.
What a weird frigging name.
Not that he has all that much to compare it to. And maybe it fits, that weird name. He finds himself responding to it despite hearing it for the first time only four days ago. (Five.) (Five?) Four or five days ago. In the—before that, he heard other people call him “the asset.” That fits, too: it’s what he is, there is nothing more, it is not important.
Steve calls him Bucky, though, and he—he does not trust Steve, but he doesn't think that Steve would lie to him. And even if he did, Bucky would know. Four (or five) days spent in his company has already taught Bucky that Steve is a terrible liar.
So, his name is Bucky.
A weird name for a weird subject. Anatomically there is no major difference between him and other people except the arm; he has a head, a torso, a face. Put on a long-sleeved jacket and the dirty mitten that he spotted on the side of the road. (It is small, pink, and right-handed. He forces it on over his metal fingers anyway.) Dressed that way, he can pass for human. No one will look at his body and scream. (Some people have, before. He can't remember who or why, but he knows it happened.)
They leave the safehouse behind and Steve asks again to drive. “If you’re trying not to attract attention it might be a better idea to—”
Bucky calculates with the intel he has—Steve has had multiple chances to attack or attempt escape and has not; he is unarmed while Bucky has a round in the chamber; he knows Bucky's name; he is…important—and reaches over wordlessly to unlock the manacles.
Then he sits back in the passenger seat and keeps his finger curled on the trigger of his sidearm.
They head into the city. It is a risk. A city means eyes, both digital and human; he is still not certain how much ground they have on their pursuers. And he is not meant to exist among people. Someone may look at him and see through the jacket and cap and dirty pink mitten. See all the empty places in him, the things he cannot remember and the things he wishes he could forget.
Steve gets food.
There is a roadside vendor selling things that he doesn't know the name of. Steve buys a lot. He brings it all back to the van and hands a paper plate full of greasy, savory-smelling...things to Bucky.
“You need to eat,” he tells Bucky.
He does that a lot. Tells Bucky to sleep, to let him drive, to eat...except they aren’t orders, exactly. More like instructions. Helpful ones. Admittedly the sleep idea hadn’t gone so well—he’d seen things, gone places and gotten lost and there had been people he knew he’d already killed even if he couldn’t remember their names—but his stomach just gave a loud gurgle of approval, so he takes a tentative bite.
The burst of flavor across his tongue is unexpected and almost shocking in its intensity. Bucky chews, swallows, and takes another, bigger bite. It feels like each individual cell in his body is opening up to suck nutrients out of the food. He eats all three of the things on his plate then sits in the open sliding door of the minivan watching as Steve buys another plate for them both.
As they eat he periodically catches Steve looking at him. It’s always with that same stunned fascination, like Bucky’s done something amazing in the last five seconds that he can’t remember.
When Bucky catches him staring for the fourth time, Steve ducks his head. The skin of his neck flushes. “Sorry, sorry. I just—can’t really believe you’re here. You’re actually alive.”
Is he? He has a name. He sleeps and eats. He has Steve, who he should have killed already. He might yet do it. Steve clearly doesn't want to hurt him, but his associates may not share that weakness.
He will learn as much as he can from Steve and then he will—he will—
Steve's voice jerks him out of his head. He is sitting hunched over his food, staring at the ground. His eyes burn. He forces himself to blink. Bucky is not very good at acting like a person; they did not think it was important, so what he knows is only what he has observed on his own. He waits three seconds then blinks again.
Steve is watching him. Steve does not look like he's counting out the proper intervals between blinks.
Steve asks, “How much do you remember?”
Then, “Do you remember anything?”
Then, “Okay. Okay. We’ll work it out.”
Bucky’s fingers curl on the edges of his paper plate, crumpling it. The thought rises up in his mind, not for the first time, that Steve is wrong and Bucky isn’t who Steve thinks he is. The idea closes his throat, turns his palms slick. If Steve is wrong then—then Bucky doesn’t know what else there is. He has a name now. If it isn’t actually his then he has nothing and the asset will go back in the chair to be scrubbed down to a bloodless stump, a thing that barely thinks, barely exists.
No. No, not that. Even if he isn’t who Steve Rogers thinks he is, he will find out how to act like that person until Steve believes he is.
He cannot go back.
Steve takes the half-crumpled paper plate out of his hands and stacks it on top of his own before carrying them over to a dented garbage can on the street. Watching him, Bucky is struck all over again at the easy way he moves. He is used to people who run, cower, or attack, not walk steadily across a dirty street, turning his head to watch some kids play a soccer game in a nearby field, rolling the shoulder that Bucky shot as if it hasn’t quite healed all the way yet.
Steve, he knows, is different from other people. Bucky has killed enough human beings to know when they should go down and four bullets is three more than typical. Yet despite his body, Steve is still very human in a way that goes beyond biology. He exists inside himself effortlessly.
Rising, Bucky tries to roll his shoulders the same way, hold himself like a person instead of a weapon. Steve isn’t the only one Bucky has to convince: they need to find a way across the ocean, and that means passing under both human and digital eyes.
By the time he returns Steve has obviously cottoned onto what Bucky’s doing. There’s something like amusement in his expression, but tempered with enough affection that Bucky doesn’t want to smash his face into the pavement. Instead he watches the swing of Steve’s arms as he walks, the way he looks but doesn’t stare.
Maybe—maybe Bucky can learn more from Steve than just his own name.
They get on a train heading for the coast. They are moving fast, trying to leave as small a trail behind them as possible. Steve isn’t sure what travel plan Bucky is following, if their destination is another Hydra safehouse. Bucky could be leading him back to his masters for all Steve knows, Captain America turned into the most docile prisoner of war.
It doesn’t matter. Steve will follow him anywhere.
Back among people, Bucky goes tense and silent, his baseball cap pulled low and his eyes darting among the other passengers. Watching him watch them, Steve catalogues the differences between the man he knew and the one sitting beside him. The profile is the same, though the curved mouth turns down at the ends instead of forever quirking with some inner mischief. He doesn’t show much emotion at all, so different from the expressive face that Steve knows and grew up with. He’s bulkier, not just in the left shoulder: they are not quite of a size, Steve still has a few inches on him height-wise, but Bucky has put on muscle mass far beyond what he wore in the Howling Commandos.
He knows that when Bucky was a kid he lost his front baby teeth on the top and the bottom at the same time so his mouth looked like a square hole, but he doesn’t know what Hydra did to him, how they changed his body and mind into what it’s become.
Beside him, Bucky’s tension abruptly rackets up a few notches. Steve sees it half a second later: two local police officers are moving down through the train. They’re clearly not on any pressing mission, chatting in Spanish as they go and pausing to officiously nudge people’s bags out of the aisle.
Bucky shifts, one hand dipping towards his jacket. “Bucky,” Steve hisses.
The officers keep coming. Bucky cuts him a quick look, hard and flat, and subtly screws the soles of his boots against the train floor, setting their traction. Steve swallows, his mind racing.
A memory catches at him. Before he can think about it too much Steve lifts his arm and drapes it over Bucky’s shoulders, pulling him into Steve’s body. Instantly his wrist is being bent back hard enough that something cracks. Steve grits his teeth together and tries not to let any other reaction show.
The whites of Bucky’s eyes are visible. Looking into them, Steve mumbles, “Public displays of affection make people uncomfortable,” before he leans in and kisses Bucky.
The tension doesn’t immediately leave Bucky, but after a moment he does relax his grip on Steve’s hand. He doesn’t let go all the way, which is probably good for the image they’re trying to present: two men kissing on a public train.
Privately Steve can’t imagine anything more uncomfortable. He knows things have changed, that the world is more willing to accept this sort of thing, but all that means is that the two police officers will hopefully avert their eyes instead of arresting them.
It’s not the strangest or even the most embarrassing thing that Steve’s ever done to evade capture. Once in Hamburg they all had to wear ladies’ wigs. Nothing else, just the wigs, but that was worth a few months of ribbing. And anyway, it’d be silly for him to be willing to do this with Natasha but not with Bucky. The point isn’t the kiss, the point is the two police officers currently passing them.
It’s not even that much of a kiss, though Steve doesn’t have much to compare it to. Bucky’s lips are dry and warm against his. Neither of them moves their mouths but the bill of Bucky’s cap hides most of their faces, so it’s not like anyone’s going to grade them on technique.
Once the police officers have safely moved down the train Steve slowly pulls back. Their lips part with a soft, wet sound. Bucky’s eyes blink open—did he actually close them?—and he stares at Steve.
Sitting back in the bench seat, Steve keeps his arm around Bucky’s shoulders. He wants to; he can rationalize it—physical contact will keep up the illusion that they’re together—but the truth is he wants nothing more in the world than this, Bucky tucked safely underneath his arm, against his side.
His heart beats fast. His skin prickles. He fights the urge to lick his lips.
Bucky keeps looking at him. Steve feels vaguely like he should say something—apologize, maybe, or remind him about the time with the wigs. Bucky probably wouldn’t remember, though, and Steve doesn’t want to make him feel bad.
What he really wants to say is I missed you so much and I know you don’t remember but when I woke up everyone else acted like you’d been gone for decades, and for me it was just a few days. That was the one thing I truly hated about this place—that you were just a sad story from way back when, and I’d seen you last week.
But that’s nothing new.