It begins with the shield, although he doesn't understand it then. Not the first time he comes face to face with the blond soldier -- then, he only registers weapon, calculates the velocity, and brings his metal arm up because he knows deep in his blood that mere flesh and bone will not suffice.
(Mere flesh and bone so rarely do. That is why they send in the Asset.)
A shield is not generally used offensively, but the Asset knows that anything can be made into a weapon. He hurls it back at the soldier at precisely the same speed and trajectory, and doesn't think on it again. The soldier is irrelevant. His mission objective was Nicholas J. Fury. Target eliminated.
It begins with the shield in the wreckage of the streets of Washington. It's purely tactical: Steven G. Rogers, alias Captain America, is one of his two targets. The other (Natasha Romanoff, alias Black Widow) is cunning and clever, but Rogers is something else entirely. He uses that gaudy shield as though it's an extension of his own body -- as much a part of him as the metal arm is a part of the Asset. Disarming Rogers of his shield is akin to disarming any normal soldier of his firearm: a tactical advantage. The Asset sees his opportunity, and takes it. A shield is just an object. A weapon. The Asset is willing and able to use any and all weapons at his disposal.
He slips the shield onto his flesh-and-bone arm, and
muscle memory takes over.
There's a rushing in his ears like a shrieking wind, and the shield is heavier than he expected, a solid weight on his arm, too heavy. It should feel awkward, it should feel wrong (this is not his burden to carry), but at the same time, it feels natural. Right. Wrong-and-right. Like a part of him always knew he'd have to pick it up at some point (the passing of the torch) and he's not ready, he's not worthy, but Steve is crumpled against the wall and he picks up the shield where it fell because damnit, someone's got to go on defending him, and
he hurls it away with no tactical advantage whatsoever, embeds the damn thing in the side of a car just to be rid of it. For the first time, the Asset feels -- irritation. Annoyance. Anger.
Rogers scoops up the shield again the first chance he gets, of course, and rage courses through the Asset's veins. His mistake. How could he have made a mistake? He has not been programmed to err.
"Bucky?" Rogers says, some alien emotion catching in his throat.
The Asset does not engage in pointless discussion with his targets, does not bother trading insults or epithets the way he has seen other fighters do. Conversation is extraneous to the mission objective. Words are irrelevant.
But Rogers stares at him like a half-forgotten dream, and the words tumble from his mouth unbidden.
"Who the hell is Bucky?"
The burst of blue-white energy hits the shield so hard his whole arm goes numb, and the next thing he knows the shield is gone and the freezing wind whistles around him and he can just barely grasp the twisted metal bar on the side of the train, and -- "Bucky!" Steve yells, with that awful look in his eyes--
--just the same look in his eyes.
The Asset does not complete his mission on that day.
"I knew him," he tells Pierce.
This is his mission report.
"But I knew him."
The mind wipe doesn't take. Not entirely. The doctors rush through the procedure -- they don't say anything to him (he is not a person, he is an object), but there's a strange tension in the air, a need to hurry, to push forward. Haste makes waste, someone whispers in his head with the singsong rhythm of an old adage. Haste makes people sloppy, imprecise. The Asset never rushes his missions.
Or does he? Is that why he never completed his last one? He doesn't remember. Not entirely.
But he knows that there is something he should remember, and that's abnormal. He is not a blank slate. He is not the perfect weapon. Weapons don't have extraneous thoughts. They don't wonder what it is they're missing.
He doesn't inform the doctors of the incompleteness of their wipe, and that, too, is an aberration. He keeps the thoughts tucked carefully away behind his usual blank mask, and no one thinks to question him. They give him his revised mission parameters instead.
Steven G. Rogers, alias Captain America. Again. And he knows it is again, that he has been assigned this target before, that he failed to complete the mission once already. And he wonders why.
Rogers appears on the helicarrier walkway, shield gleaming on his arm, and for a moment the Asset is blinded by someone else's memory of
a skinny, scrawny kid in a filthy alley, blood dripping from his split lip, brandishing a trash can lid like it's some kind of defense -- an asthmatic underfed white knight with his battered tin shield, defending the back alleys of Brooklyn from bullies and bigots.
Rogers meets his eyes, and something in his face says -- I thought you were dead.
I thought you were smaller.
He takes three potshots at Rogers. Hits him each time. Noncritical injuries. Disabling, not kill shots. It's the first time in his memory he has aimed to miss.
But he now has so many more memories than he ever expected, crammed into his skull, ripping him apart from the inside out. He can't make sense of them. He can't be sure what's real and what isn't. Blood and bullets and pain and death and Steve, Steve, Steve--
The Asset has never felt so angry in his life. He has never felt so terrified.
He has never felt.
"Your name is James Buchanan Barnes!" Rogers insists, and a quiet voice in the midst of the chaos in the Asset's head murmurs, yes.
He punches Rogers again and again and again, desperate to drive the voice away, but never quite succeeds.
He fishes Steven G. Rogers out of the Potomac and waits until he can be sure the man is still breathing before turning away.
A few minutes later, upon further consideration, he plunges back into the river and fishes out the shield. But he doesn't leave it on the shore beside Rogers. The shield, he takes with him.
The Asset has never truly been a blank slate. Not in the purest sense. He would be useless as an assassin if he had only mission parameters and muscle memory to go by.
He knows how to blend in amongst a civilian population. He knows how to track a target for several days at a stretch without being noticed. He speaks seven languages fluently and can get by in several more. He can mimic human expression and interaction as needed. He can lift a wallet or hotwire a vehicle or purchase groceries without attracting any attention at all.
He stuffs the star-spangled shield into a ratty duffel bag, covers his metal arm in a stolen hoodie, smiles at the cashier at the 7-11, and devotes himself to the mission objective of disappearing in plain sight. After all: the three helicarriers are so much flotsam and jetsam upon the river bed. The newspapers tell him that Pierce is dead. If HYDRA still exists -- and it must -- it seems to have forgotten about its Asset for the time being.
Not that he has any intention of returning to that place, anyway. He has no one to report to. And his final mission has not yet been completed.
So who the hell is Steven G. Rogers?
He visits the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian. It tells him nothing. Propaganda. Anger bubbles up in his chest at the cheapness of it all, the glossy fantasy they made of the man. None of 'em ever really knew Steve. They never saw him brandishing his tiny fists at a bully twice his weight; never heard the breath rattle in his lungs on a cold winter midnight and still somehow felt sure he'd live through this night like the one before it, and the one before that, because the little punk was just too damn stubborn to quit fighting. Never knew what it felt like to know that someone that stupid, that good, was fighting for you.
Then he comes face to face with the enlarged photograph of Bucky Barnes. It snaps him right out of his reverie. The memories flicker and fade back into the recesses of his mind like the flapping end of a film reel. Were they real? Were they his? He reads the description next to the photo, but it means nothing to him. If Barnes is the quiet whisper in his head, he has once again gone silent as the grave.
He can't begin to comprehend Rogers the man, but the shield is just an object. Weapons are easy for him to understand. (He is one himself.) Learn the weapon, learn its bearer.
The first thing he realizes is that he'd used it wrong, when he'd thrown it back at Rogers like any other projectile. Yes, it could cut through just about anything. (He tests this extensively in an abandoned warehouse in Anacostia.) But once tossed aside, it becomes useless to him, a chore to reclaim, a distraction. This is how the Asset uses his weapons: empties the clip on a rifle, tosses it aside and moves on to a pistol, or a knife, or whatever else comes to hand. He doesn't play favorites, doesn't cling to one particular weapon of choice, assigns no sentimental value to anything. They're simply means to an end. Some are better made than others, some accomplish his objectives more efficiently, but when all's said and done, they're just objects. Even his own body means no more to him than any other tool -- and could be just as easily discarded.
But Rogers follows a different style of combat. Where the Asset favors brutal efficiency, Rogers is all fluidity of motion. He's very nearly graceful. He doesn't just hurl the shield at his target -- he's constantly calculating angles, velocity, trajectory, so perfectly that he nearly always catches it back again on the rebound before it ever comes to rest.
That's important, the nagging voice in the Asset's head -- Barnes -- whispers to him. Rogers isn't just a dumb soldier, and he isn't just following orders. He's fiercely intelligent, and creative. No one else fights with a shield like that; no one taught him how to use it. He made it up as he went along.
And the shield always returned to his arm as though it longed to become one with him. As though caught in his orbit, unable to keep away.
When Rogers leaves Washington, Barnes follows.
The fight is three-on-one in the alley behind Rosenbaum's bakery when he finally tracks Steve down, which is just unnecessary. It's the Murphy brothers and their pal Johnny, and any one of those assholes alone could easily wipe the floor with Steve, so why bother piling up on him like that? Bucky sighs and jumps right on into the fray.
They're tough -- had an ugly reputation at school when they still went, and nobody knows for sure if they dropped out or were kicked out by the seats of their pants -- but Bucky's taller than two of 'em and what he don't got in bulk, he makes up for with meanness. After flailing about for a bit, he knees one brother in the balls and smashes his own forehead into Johnny's nose, whirling around half-dizzy and spitting out blood to face down the other Murphy with a wild grin. Steve manages to get in a lucky whack with a garbage can lid from behind, and while it ain't near enough to send the big lug sprawling, it distracts him so's Bucky can smash him across the face, too. Might not've ended there, but now they're makin' enough noise that old man Rosenbaum sticks his head out the back door of his bakery and starts hollering that he's gonna call both the cops and their mothers if they don't scram right this minute, and damned if those Murphy boys ain't half-terrified of their mama, so they scram.
(Bucky can't blame 'em. Mrs. Murphy is a magnificent hellcat of a woman. He once saw her beat the snot out of a would-be pickpocket with her handbag.)
He leans back against the dirty wall and quickly assesses the damage. Ears still ringing a bit from the headbutt, but he ain't seeing double, so he'll be fine. Split his knuckles on Jack Murphy's teeth. Got a couple of bruises blooming of unknown provenance, no surprise there. Blood on his shirtfront, could be his own or could be from Pat Murphy's nose -- damn, his ma's gonna kill him. But Steve's got a helluva shiner and he's curling up in on himself like his ribs might be busted, so Bucky shrugs off his own hurts and crouches down beside him. "You all right?"
"Fine," Steve mutters. "Was doing fine."
He's breathing heavy but without the gasp-hitch in it that means an asthma attack, and he'd be wincing more with each breath if he'd cracked a rib, so he's probably okay. Bucky relaxes a little, gives him a grin. "Yeah, you really had 'em on the ropes," he says. "Embarrassing as hell, guys like that getting beat down by a punk like you. Figured I should put them out of their misery."
Steve snorts. It's almost a laugh. Bucky counts that as a win. He's uncurling now, pulling himself to his feet, and Bucky knows better'n to help him up. Just stands when he does, side by side. As Steve straightens, Bucky realizes he wasn't protecting himself -- he's clutching a notebook of some kind. It's bent and battered from the fight.
Curious, Bucky tugs at it, not so hard Steve can't keep hold of it if he doesn't wanna share. But after a moment's thought, Steve shrugs and hands it over. It's just a notebook nicked from school, but instead of notes, the pages are covered with drawings -- pencil sketches of places, people. There's the Brooklyn Bridge sprawling across one page, and a startlingly lovely sketch of Steve's ma on another, making her thin face look angelic instead of sickly.
"Hey," Bucky says, surprised. "These are really good. I didn't know you could draw."
"You don't know everything," Steve retorts, but he's smiling now, and Bucky thinks: but I should. If it's about you, I should.
He turns another page and catches a glimpse of a face that reminds him of himself -- except not, because Bucky's never been that good-looking -- but then Steve snatches the notebook back and he never does get a proper look.
He can't be sure, but he thinks this is the longest he has ever gone without a wipe, or being returned to the cryo chamber. (He hated the wipes -- the searing pain through his skull, the flashes of images-sounds-sensations-faces that he could never quite remember again afterward. The cryostasis, though, he didn't mind so much. He only felt the cold for one intense moment before everything went numb and quiet.)
Maybe that's why the memories are beginning to seep back in. Rogers triggered the first agonizing flood, but they were fractured, disjointed -- incomplete. They soon slowed back down to a trickle. Manageable. Like plugging a leak in a dam.
But as days pass into weeks, the cracks in the dam begin to grow, to spread. He knows eventually it will shatter apart, explosively. There are only so many secrets one mind can keep from itself before it must give way.
Rogers leads a three-man assault on a HYDRA base outside of Fort Bragg, accompanied by the man with the mechanical wings from Washington and another whose face itches inside Barnes's skull like another submerged memory. He's a marksman, like the Asset (like Barnes himself used to be, the voice in his head whispers); unlike the Asset, this one prefers arrows. Weird.
Rogers has a new shield, he notices, with a strange twisting sensation in his gut that he later identifies as jealousy. The new shield looks virtually identical to the one Barnes plundered from the Potomac, but shinier. And of course Rogers would have a new shield -- how could he fight as Captain America without it? (How would he be Steve without it? he thinks, with a rush of fondness he doesn't quite understand.) But still, it rankles. Barnes has gotten to know the old shield, learned its shape and the weight of it on his arm, the feel of the smooth curve of the indestructible metal beneath the fingertips of his still-human hand. He carries it with him still, though he dares not bear it openly.
(He does nothing openly, nothing to draw attention to himself. Not since the day on the bridge. Not since he began to remember who he once was.)
When all the HYDRA agents have been rounded up outside the base like so much cattle, Rogers chats with the archer while the winged man makes a call on his radio, presumably for law enforcement of some kind. None of them see that one of the HYDRA agents has somehow managed to conceal a small handgun until it's too late. He brings up his arm, aiming directly for Rogers.
Barnes drops him with a headshot from his concealed position in a tree fifty meters away. He shimmies down the trunk and disappears into the forest, but not before glimpsing the wide-eyed shock on Rogers's face, the naked hope in his eyes as he scans the treeline. If it weren't for the resurgence of chaos amongst the HYDRA captives, he thinks Rogers would have chased right after him. Idiot.
It's not that he cares, he reminds himself sternly. It's just that Steven G. Rogers is still his mission. It's his call when and where and how Rogers will die. No one else gets to take that choice from him, damnit.
He overplayed his hand outside of that HYDRA base by taking out Rogers's would-be assassin. His second mistake is returning to the base itself late that night to search through its files before Rogers or any of his associates can acquire or destroy them. The wall in his head that keeps the bulk of the memories at bay is crumbling, and before that happens, he needs to know how they created him. How he might unmake himself.
Zola captured Barnes first, in 1943. Zola experimented upon him in service of the Red Skull, until Rogers found him. But despite Zola's role in recreating HYDRA under the guise of S.H.I.E.L.D., none of those original files seem to exist anymore. Barnes punches through a computer terminal with his metal arm in frustration, then moves on to the next.
The only information he can dredge up is record of a sale, made in 1991, from a General Aleksander Lukin (formerly of the KGB) to Alexander Pierce (of HYDRA), of a cryogenic chamber containing the preserved body of an assassin known as the Winter Soldier.
HYDRA only ever addressed him directly as the Asset. He has not used the alias Winter Soldier himself in many years, had forgotten it along with everything else in the smoldering ruins of his past. But the name calls out something buried deep within his mind. And this is his third and final mistake.
If Rogers and his shield had triggered Barnes's memories, this file -- this name -- triggers the Winter Soldier's. And that turns out to be the straw that broke the camel's back.
He'd been in East Berlin on the day the Wall fell. It felt an awful lot like this.
So of course this is how Rogers finds him: in the wreckage of the HYDRA base, curled up against the star-spangled shield like a child huddled against his parent, clutching his head in both hands, throat raw with the effort not to scream, nearly catatonic from the assault of memory.
At some point he realizes he's mumbling to himself, words with no meaning whatsoever, but he repeats the familiar shape of them with his swollen tongue over and over and over again. His hands twist the sheets at his sides. He stares up at the blank white ceiling. If he can only focus on the ceiling, on the bumpy words in his mouth, he can keep the memories at bay.
Blood seeping into on the carpeting beneath the man's head as the woman cuffed to the desk screams and screams and screams and he slashes out once with a knife to her throat to silence her--
The earth rocking beneath his feet as the bomb goes off and he just keeps on walking and the silence after the blast is far worse than the sirens and shouts and cries that stutter back to life afterwards--
Looking down in horror at hands he no longer recognizes as his own, and the seam of his shoulder where metal meets flesh is a line of burning agony--
Someone presses something against his cracked lips -- a glass of water. "C'mon, Buck," a voice he ought to recognize says. "You gotta drink."
He nearly chokes on the water, spits it back out, shakes his head again and again, still mumbling to himself. He speaks up louder, repeating the nonsense words more forcefully, as though that will make a difference, as though the empty syllables can somehow keep him out of his own head.
"Barnes, James Buchanan. Sergeant. Three-two-five-five-seven. Barnes, James Buchanan. Sergeant. Three-two-five-five-seven. Barnes--"
"Oh, Bucky," Steve murmurs, and presses a cool hand against his fevered cheek.
When he comes back to himself -- for some loose definition of the term -- he's stretched out on a bed in an unfamiliar room. The curtains are drawn; he can't tell what time of day it is. The sheets are damp with his own sweat. His mouth is dry and his throat aches. When he runs his tongue across his lips, he tastes blood.
Of course he does. The Winter Soldier was steeped in blood, and now Barnes is drowning in it.
He turns his head to see Rogers sleeping in an uncomfortable-looking armchair. From the bland beige walls and carpeting to the impersonal furnishings and scratchy blanket, they're in a motel of some kind. Not government, he thinks. Not military. Off the radar.
He can't look at Rogers (Steve) for too long. Can't bear the thought of him waking up, of having to meet his eyes. Slowly, quietly, he slips out of the bed. His head hurts and his whole body feels weak, uncoordinated, but muscle memory wins out: the Asset was well-versed in stealth.
The old, battered shield he'd carried with him ever since pulling it out of the river is resting against the side of the bed. He nearly picks it up again out of sheer habit. Then he remembers the new, shiny shield Rogers was using at the HYDRA base. He leaves his (Steve's) old shield behind when he goes.
He's still angry at Steve. Furious, even. Steve was the first to force him to remember, and Barnes may never forgive him for that.
But with the cacophony in his head now settling into coherency, he realizes he's far angrier at HYDRA. Because HYDRA made him forget.
He's not the Winter Soldier any longer, although he carries the crippling weight of those memories. He is no one's Asset but his own. And he can craft his own damn mission objectives.
And so he embarks upon an intelligence-gathering mission across much of the former Soviet Union.
That makes it sound simple. The mission itself is straightforward, at least, but nothing else is. His head feels as though it's splitting apart, shattering into a million different pieces. The only way to keep all those competing memories (voices) under control is to focus on the mission with the Asset's single-minded intensity.
(The Asset and the Winter Soldier, he's realizing, were really two separate entities. HYDRA's techniques were inspired by the Red Room's, but did not copy them entirely. The Winter Soldier was given something to believe in, after a fashion. He mistakenly thought he retained some degree of agency. The Asset explicitly existed only for the mission.)
It's as though his brain is a hard drive, and someone has just uploaded nearly a century's worth of data -- but patchy data, with yawning gaps that might have been spent under ice or might have been permanently wiped away. The most coherent memories are the Winter Soldier's. The most vivid are Barnes's. He has no idea who he is now -- Barnes, the Winter Soldier, the Asset, someone else entirely. He's not quite sure he's a person at all. His hard drive is incapable of processing the emotions triggered by these memories.
But he does have a wealth of intel on old HYDRA and KGB caches scattered across several continents -- weapons, mostly, and enough currency to get by, although some of the cash is now painfully outdated in the era of the euro. He sells most of the weapons on the black market, which helps his financial situation. When he reaches the brink of exhaustion, he rents single rooms in seedy hotels where no one will pay attention to his screaming nightmares (the stench of burning flesh and the gasoline staining his gloves). He never sleeps through a full night. It does not affect his mission.
He hunts down retired Red Room operatives and KGB officials, threatening and bullying and torturing scraps of information out of them that the Winter Soldier never possessed himself. He is outwardly unaffected by their tears or their blood, although deep within his mind, he thinks he can hear Bucky screaming.
But he does not kill them. Not a single one. He should, the Asset informs him. Should slit their throats and dispose of their bodies. This is how to disappear. And yet something holds him back.
Most are too terrified of the Winter Soldier to speak of him afterwards, anyway.
Some weeks later, while staking out an ex-KGB commander in an upscale restaurant in Moscow, he happens to glance up at the TV over the bar. The evening news is on, muted, showing images of an attack on some American city. The Iron Man swoops over the streets in his garish red-and-gold suit, and then the scene changes to the aftermath, the reporter standing in front of rubble and overturned cars. Behind them is Captain America, helping an emergency worker carry survivors out of the collapsed building. There's a shield slung across his back. It's the one from the Potomac, not the new shiny one he'd used at the HYDRA base. Barnes can tell the difference instantly.
An unfamiliar emotion bubbles up in his chest. Something like pride. He smiles to himself and then turns to follow the ex-KGB man out of the restaurant.
As his metal fist connects with the man's face in the neighboring alleyway, he half expects a scrawny blond kid to jump into the fray at his side, trash can lid at the ready.
In 1970, the Winter Soldier is given an assignment in San Francisco. There is a man running for Senate whom the Soviets deem a threat. The Winter Soldier is never told why, and never asks. He was created to serve and protect the Motherland. That this man must be eliminated is enough.
The Winter Soldier uses a civilian cover in order to get close to his target. His English is flawless. The cabbie who drives him in from the airport says, "Brooklyn boy, eh?" and starts a long conversation about growing up in New York and the differences between the east and west coasts. The Winter Soldier plays along without revealing any personal information. He wonders what Brooklyn is like. Something about the name of the place is appealing to him, and he doesn't know why.
He attends a rally for the would-be senator, listens to him speak about education and the war in Vietnam and President Nixon's foreign policy. The man is articulate, engaging, self-deprecating in a way the Winter Soldier (who has not been been programmed with a sense of humor) finds amusing. His target is a man he'd like to have a drink with, swapping war stories. It's a very strange sensation. The Winter Soldier does not tell stories, and has no interest in anyone else's. Curious.
He carries a disassembled Kalashnikov rifle and silencer in his briefcase. His assignment was to assassinate Candidate Jim Morita at this very rally, a bold statement. He should be up in the rafters of the hall, finding his best vantage point, plotting out escape routes. Security here is lax -- Morita is no Kennedy. He's a long-shot candidate. There must be something more to him, to make him such a threat to the Soviet Union, but for the Winter Soldier's purposes, he is not a difficult target.
And yet the Winter Soldier remains with the rest of the crowd throughout the rally, and disperses along with the other civilians when it ends.
He tracks Morita back to his home and shoots him later that night instead, as he is sleeping. A merciful kill. The murder still makes all the headlines. The Winter Soldier's mission is a qualified success. But there was something about the target that unsettles him, leaves him feeling uncertain and uncomfortable, and that feeling lingers right up until he is plunged back into the cold again.
His self-appointed mission finally leads him here: a long-abandoned HYDRA bunker in Austria which miraculously contains, in one dusty filing cabinet, many of Zola's notes from the war -- including his research on Erskine's super-soldier serum. There are a few answers in those files, but no surprises.
The serum did not create the perfect soldier, not in the way the mind-wipes could. The Red Room forged weapons out of the bodies of men and women by erasing the person within; the serum, on the other hand, amplified the humanity that already existed, to an extreme degree. So a human monster like Johann Schmidt became the Red Skull. Decent, noble, creative, intelligent, scrappy little Steve Rogers -- he became Captain America. He didn't change at all after the serum, not in any way that mattered. It was just that his outside finally matched the person he'd always been on the inside.
And Bucky Barnes became the Winter Soldier. He knows this in the very marrow of his bones, has always known. It began long before he fell from the train. Bucky should never have survived that fall. (Bucky didn't, the Winter Soldier whispers; there are many voices in his head these days.) But Zola had already begun his experiments with the serum. And Barnes knows that he's physically stronger than most other men. Knows that his injuries heal more quickly, that his eyesight and hearing are better, that his reaction times are swifter. It's part of what made him the Asset. It's how the Winter Soldier became a legend.
He's not as strong as Steve, but then, he never has been.
Bucky had never wanted to be a killer -- never really wanted to join the Army. He just wanted to keep Steve safe. But it was either enlist voluntarily or be drafted, and he always tried to do the right thing (to be the man Steve seemed to see in him), so he learned how to kill. And discovered that he was very, very good at it. Was the Winter Soldier really any different? Or the Asset?
Steve is the only person he's ever wanted to fight for. The Winter Soldier and the Asset never experienced desire for anything at all.
And now? Now he's not even sure who he is anymore, much less what he wants.
For the first time, it occurs to him to wonder why his arm doesn't set off any metal detectors at the airport -- but it doesn't, so he guesses he should be grateful. In the airport waiting area, he finds an abandoned old copy of John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He hasn't bothered paying much attention to pop culture in the past seventy years, but the title intrigues him, so he picks it up. It's a long flight back to the States, and not a very long book.
He learns that when you've been out in the cold for so long, there is no way back.
He knew that already. But the part of him that used to be Bucky asks plaintively, why not?
He's drawn to New York, the weight of half-remembered history towing him forward, but he resists the pull for now. The Avengers are based out of New York. He's not ready to face Captain America's new team just yet.
(Not so new anymore. He's done his internet research. The Battle of New York was more than two full years ago now; the Asset slept through it, unknowing. But the Avengers rarely come together as a full team. Not like the Howling Commandos, who lived in each other's pockets for months, fighting together, killing together, drinking together -- that was the team Steve handpicked for himself. Not these so-called superheroes.)
Instead he winds up in San Francisco. And that's where Romanoff finds him, in a coffee shop on Columbus Avenue, just a few blocks away from the house where Jim Morita died almost forty-five years ago.
Her vibrant red hair is pulled back into a messy bun at the nape of her neck, and she's dressed like a college student, thick-framed glasses and all. There are no fewer than four weapons concealed on her person -- three knives and one small handgun, plus probably a garotte tucked away somewhere he can't see -- but she deliberately keeps her hands in sight as she approaches his tiny table in the corner. Of course, she could easily throw her scalding cup of coffee in his face to temporarily disable him while going for her gun, but something in her cautious body language makes him relax slightly. If she wanted him dead, he probably would be already.
That's a strange thought. Given their past encounters, he and Romanoff are fairly evenly matched in a fight. He's gotten the upper hand on her on at least three separate occasions - twice as HYDRA's Asset, once as the Winter Soldier -- and yet…
He supposes he just doesn't have the fight left in him anymore. Not for her. The Winter Soldier has retreated to only the barest whisper in his mind, a constant low-level threat assessment. Barnes's memories may be sparser than the Soldier's, still an incomplete patchwork quilt of words and images, but they're somehow stronger than the Winter Soldier's cold, precise mission reports. And Barnes's voice in his head is far more persistent. Maybe because Barnes truly had a voice of his own, once.
"Is this seat taken?" she asks, with a smile that doesn't reach her eyes. She's evaluating him. Threat assessment. He knows the look.
The part of him that's still the Asset wants to grab her by the throat and squeeze. The Winter Soldier would lure her out back and then dispose of her quietly. What's left of Barnes just wants to run, hard and fast, and never look back.
Instead, he forces his body to relax, slouching back in his chair with one eyebrow cocked. "Not at all, sweetheart." His accent is pure Brooklyn now. When she sits down across from him, he adds, "So what's a dame like you doing in a place like this?"
"A favor for a friend." She tilts her head to one side, eying him thoughtfully. "You're not what I was expecting. But Steve did warn me that Bucky always ran off at the mouth."
He hunches in on himself at that, scowling. "I haven't been Bucky in a long time."
"I know," she says quietly. "How much do you remember?"
"Damn near everything."
She nods, as though she was expecting that. "It's the serum, we think. Or, rather, Dr. Banner thinks. You heal more quickly than you should, right? So does your brain. Whatever neural pathways the mind-wipes were supposed to destroy -- the longer you went without a wipe, the more your brain was able to regrow. Or however it works, you'll have to talk to Bruce for the biology lesson. Then all it took was the right trigger."
Steve, he thinks. He already knew that much. Instead, he asks, "So where's Steve?"
"He and Sam are chasing your ghost all across Eastern Europe." The corners of her mouth twitch in what might be amusement. "You left...quite an interesting trail."
"I haven't killed anyone," he says at once -- blurts it out, really, and then wonders why.
She does smile at that. Just barely. "No, you haven't. You could have -- it would've made you a hell of a lot harder to track. But you didn't. Why didn't you?"
He shrugs with his human shoulder. "It was not essential to the mission objective."
That's the Asset's expressionless tone seeping through again, and a little of the Winter Soldier's sentiment. The one thing Barnes can cling to, in all this, is that he's never enjoyed killing. And while HYDRA deliberately used their Asset to sow chaos, the Winter Soldier tended to minimize collateral damage where possible. Not because he cared about the lives he indirectly spared -- nothing so altruistic as that. Simply because it was untidy, and drew unwanted attention.
But Romanoff is shaking her head. "The Winter Soldier would have killed them anyway," she points out. "Dead men tell no tales."
He snorts, all Barnes again. "Where'd you learn spycraft, on a pirate ship?"
She gives him a hard look. "You know who trained me."
It sobers him right up. "Yeah, Natalia, I remember."
She lets the matter drop, for which he's grateful. She wasn't the only little girl the Winter Soldier molded into a killer, but she may well be the only Widow still living. He hasn't heard so much as a whisper of any of the others in his recent travels.
"So if Steve and his new buddy are traipsing across Europe, how'd you know to find me here?"
"Because you already found all the Winter Soldier's answers over there. So you came back here for Bucky's." She gives him a razor-sharp smirk. "Also, your arm kinda stands out. S.H.I.E.L.D. may be in shambles, but we've still got some security apparatus left."
He should've known his free pass from the airport metal detectors was too good to be true. He shrugs that part off. "I already told you, I'm not Bucky."
"But he's still you," she says. "As much as the Winter Soldier is. You forget, I know what it is to have been many people, and to have to contain all of them inside of you." She leans forward, eyes intent on his. "But was the Sergeant Barnes that Captain America pulled out of that HYDRA base the same person as the Bucky who went to war? Is Steve Rogers now the same Steve you left behind at home? No one expects you to be that kid from Brooklyn anymore. Not even Steve, not really. People change. It's what we do."
"And who are you now?"
She smiles then, a genuine smile, bright and unexpected. "I'm not entirely sure yet. But I'm starting to like Natasha, now that I'm getting to know her. And I hear Bucky Barnes was a real swell guy. You might like him, too."
"I might," he admits. "But he doesn't like me very much."
She shrugs. "That's what therapy's for. I can recommend a couple of good counselors, if you're looking." When he doesn't respond, she pushes her chair back and stands. "It's up to you, James."
He grimaces. "Only my ma ever called me James," he complains without thinking about it. It takes a second for his brain to catch up with his mouth. He shakes his head, frowning. "What do you want from me, anyway?"
"Just checking in on you, that's all," she says easily. "Like I said, a favor for a friend. Don't worry, I'm not going to tell Steve where I found you. I know what it's like to have other people making all your decisions for you. I'm happy to leave you be as long as you're not hurting anyone. Well," she amends, with a smirk, "anyone who doesn't deserve it."
"I've killed a lot of people who didn't deserve it," he points out quietly.
"Yeah," she says. "You're not the only one. Oh, and Barnes?" She tosses it over her shoulder as she walks away. "Get a damn haircut."
He gets a damn haircut.
It's a military-style buzz cut, shorter than he's ever worn his hair. The wind feels strange against his nearly-bare scalp. He's not sure if he likes it. But now people around him treat him like a soldier -- like a vet -- and it's an interesting experience. He yells himself awake in a motel outside of Reno (how easily bone snaps in his metal hand), and the next morning, the proprietor slips him a note with website links about PTSD along with a quiet "Thank you for your service."
It unnerves him a bit. There's no mission anymore, not really. He's floundering for scraps of his past without context. San Francisco still held echoes the Winter Soldier, but now he's adrift, uncertain. He avoids airports. He steals a car in Oakland and drives, just drives.
He finds himself at the Grand Canyon, because Bucky always wanted to see it. He remembers that, but can't remember why. The view is pretty enough, he supposes, but he doesn't find Bucky there.
He ditches the first car, picks up another, keeps on driving.
("People change," Natasha told him. "It's what we do.")
It's colder than a witch's tit up in the mountains, but it took the Howling Commandos the better part of a day and a half to hike up here, so they sure as hell ain't budging now. The other guys are crowded around the campfire, passing around the French equivalent of moonshine out of Dernier's not-particularly-secret stash and shooting the shit. Bucky finds himself wandering away after the first hour, though, for no real reason he can name. Fire doesn't do much to break up the cold anyway, and neither does the booze, so what the hell.
(He can't seem to get properly drunk these days. It worries him in a way he doesn't want to put to words.)
He's got a sour taste in the back of his throat, and takes another swig of alcohol to wash it out. Doesn't work.
He likes the fellas, really he does. Him and Dum Dum were in the 107th together before everything went to shit. The other guys are all good men -- bit crazy, but hell, who here ain't? They all decided to invade fucking Europe, didn't they? Steve was right -- Bucky took all the stupid with him when he joined the damn army.
Something twists in his gut, and he tries to chase that away with booze, too. Still doesn't work.
He's had months now to get used to this new, much bigger Steve, and it's not the physical change that's tripping him up. That almost seemed -- right, somehow. Appropriate. 'Bout damn time Steve's body caught up to the man he was on the inside. Weird having to look up instead of down to talk to him, and Steve didn't need any help finishing his own fights these days, but that was all right. Good for him.
It's sharing him that Bucky can't quite stomach. Always used to be just him and Steve together against the world. Now Steve's got a whole army on his side. And that's good, right -- it's fantastic, it's how it should be. He's got friends, brothers-in-arms, even a swell dame of his own. It's what Bucky's always wanted for him.
Bucky's just not sure where he fits into that anymore.
He flinches, slips on a patch of ice, and nearly goes sprawling. The remaining alcohol in his cup sloshes over his gloves. Real smooth, Barnes. He turns to face Steve with a scowl. "Now look, you've gone and made me spill my drink. That serum teach you how to walk without making any goddamn noise, too?"
Steve cracks a smile. "Nah, should've seen me when I first came out of the machine. Flailing and skidding all over the place. Took a while to get used to it."
"You're telling me, buddy," Bucky says quietly, a little too honest.
They stand together in silence for a bit. Bucky leans back against the trunk of a spindly pine, tilts his head back and closes his eyes. The air smells like snow -- well, like more snow. Maybe a storm's coming. Maybe not. He's a city kid, what the hell does he know about weather in the mountains?
A big hand clasps his shoulder, and he flinches again. He never used to be this jumpy back in Brooklyn, did he? "Hey," Steve says, sounding concerned. "You okay?"
His hand feels warm even through Bucky's coat. And his eyes haven't changed at all. Bucky doesn't try to shake him off. "Yeah, no problem, 'cept for freezing my balls off. Don't know why I ever wanted to see mountains."
Steve huffs out a laugh. "I think the Grand Canyon's a little warmer than the Alps."
"You're thinking now? Since when?"
"Jerk," Steve says, and his voice is even warmer than his hand. "It's not so bad by the fire, anyway. Why'd you run off on your own?"
Bucky shrugs, looking past him out into the trees and snow and darkness. "Dunno. Not feeling fit for company, is all. You should get back there before anyone misses you."
"I was missing you."
Bucky can feel his mouth twist into a bitter smile. "Yeah, sure. Like Captain America needs some dumb kid from Brooklyn following him around."
Steve's grip on his shoulder tightens. "You are pretty dumb, if you think that." His eyes are dark with anger and something else, and he's close enough now that Bucky can feel the warmth radiating off him, like he's a damn furnace or something. "I'm always gonna need you, Bucky."
What the hell, he can always blame it on the drink later.
He tugs Steve in by the front of his stupid spangly uniform and kisses him, hard, like he can maybe snatch up a little of that warmth for himself.
It's not the first time they've done this, but it ain't exactly a common occurrence. And the handful of times it happened before were, well, before -- back home, before the war. Only a couple of times, only ever when they were both stinking drunk, and they never talked about it after.
Steve's mouth tastes just the same, like moonshine and snow and home, and so damn warm that Bucky can feel it fizzing through his whole body like electrical sparks. There's a part of him that's felt dead for months, ever since he got captured by Zola's troops, like a light burning out, a hollow place inside of him. But when Steve makes a low noise in his throat and pulls Bucky closer still, Bucky feels the strangest ache in his chest -- a good sort of pain, like maybe he's not quite dead yet after all.
He should have covered his tracks better in Eastern Europe. And he should never have stepped through a metal detector.
HYDRA catches up to him in Nebraska, somewhere along an endless isolated stretch of I-80. He hasn't been paying attention to the sparse signage, couldn't tell you the name of the town off the most recent exit (thirty miles or so back). Doesn't matter. It's a long, straight stretch of empty road by night, and when the black helicopters appear out of nowhere, Barnes knows he doesn't stand a chance in hell.
At first he thinks it might even be the US government, the police or the FBI or whatever, tracking him by his stolen car. But then the HYDRA agents with their distinctive red insignia start spilling out of the choppers, harshly illuminated by the sudden searchlights, and he knows.
He's too valuable of an Asset to kill. They're going to take him in. They're going to wipe him. And then they'll order him to finish his final, incompleted mission.
It's not the thought of being forced to fight Steve again that triggers him. It's knowing that they intend to take the memory of him away -- and not just Steve. Not just the skinny kid fighting in back alleys or the best man Bucky ever knew or that cold night in the Alps (the night before the train, the night before he fell); but also Natalia Romanova, the young girl he trained, sparring with a dancer's grace and a spider's deadly bite--
Jim Morita's infinite supply of terrible jokes, the tenor of his laugh, the way his blood pooled on the white pillow beneath his head--
his ma's voice when she screamed at him for fighting, again, and it was awful because she was mad but even then he could tell she loved him so much, that's why she was yelling, and the kitchen smelled like boiled potatoes and fresh-cut apples--
the smell of sand and saltwater and popcorn and hot dogs at Coney Island in the seemingly endless summer heat--
the winter sunlight glinting off the golden dome of the cathedral in Leningrad, a spark of beauty transfixing him for a moment despite the cold--
the feel of a rifle in his hands, setting his sights on his target, waiting for precisely the right moment, the grim satisfaction of making the perfect shot--
falling, falling, falling--
It's all his, all of it, even the ugly parts, even the horrible ones, and he might never be able to scrub his hands clean of seventy years of blood but that's his problem to deal with or not as he sees fit. And he wouldn't trade away a single wretched nightmare, not one, not at the cost of forgetting a single one of Steve's smiles.
HYDRA has returned for their Asset. And that's precisely who they find.
His metal arm is nearly black with soot and dirt and blood. One bullet grazed his left temple and another his hip, but though the head wound is still bleeding sluggishly (head wounds always bleed more than they should), those are his only injuries, and he knows he'll heal soon enough. He's glad of the too-short haircut now -- nothing to get matted with blood, to fall in his eyes. There are fifteen bodies strewn across the prairie grasses, and the wreckage of three helicopters burn merrily a few hundred feet off the highway. He's almost insulted that they sent so few agents to take him in. They clearly haven't done their research. (Or maybe HYDRA's in more desperate straits than he expected.)
His stolen car is a lost cause. He's at least thirty miles from the nearest gas-station-and-McDonald's masquerading as a town, but the ground here is flat in all directions, and there's nowhere for him to disappear. He's always worked better in cities.
The clean-up crew should be here shortly, he thinks. Or the county sheriff. Either will do. If more HYDRA arrive instead, he'll kill them, too. Otherwise he'll go quietly. He's done. He's done.
He wants to go home.
He doesn't even realize he's crying until the black car pulls up and he has to blink away tears to make out the face of the woman who steps out. She's tall and thin, with dark hair and hard eyes. She says she works for Stark Industries. Her name is Maria Hill. She looks almost apologetic when she cuffs him, pressing some sort of electronic device into the crook of his metal elbow to disable the arm. He gets blood all over the upholstery in the back seat. Almost none of it is his own.
When he wakes up, the first thing he sees is the shield, propped up on the foot of his bed. He's in a holding cell of some kind, more comfortable than he probably deserves. There's a real bed, although the blanket is scratchy, as well as a sink and a toilet. He doesn't even know what state he's in, let alone the city. Hill offered to sedate him, in the car, and he accepted. He didn't care anymore. He just wanted to sleep.
There's no one else in the room with him. Just the shield -- the shield from the river, the one he returned to its rightful bearer. It looks like it's been polished recently. The white star at the center gleams.
("Who thought it was a good idea to send you up against the Nazis carrying around a big damn bullseye? It's almost as bad as the target stitched across your chest."
"Hey, I gotta give 'em a fighting chance, Buck. It's only fair.")
His metal arm is still nonfunctional, a dead weight at his side, but the shield is just as much of a weapon as he's ever been. Doesn't seem real bright to leave it here with him. Only one person he knows is that dumb.
"Hey," he says to the empty room. "Steve. You out there?"
The silence stretches out for a few moments too long, but then the intercom (or whatever) switches on.
"Yeah." Steve's voice comes from nowhere and everywhere all at once. The air in the room feels just a touch warmer for it. "Yeah, buddy. I'm here."
Bucky closes his eyes and leans back against the thin pillow, his whole body relaxing for the first time in he doesn't know how long. "All right," he says. "All right."