They say it's not the fall that kills you; it's the sudden stop at the end.
For Bucky Barnes, it was neither.
Up until the very last second, he'd been sure Steve would save him. Steve had always been the kind of guy who could do anything with nothing; now that he had a body to match that heart and that spirit, Steve really could do anything. Only it turned out that Steve couldn't reach any farther than his arm let him, and then that bolt broke, and all Bucky could think was Steve and all he could see was the horrified expression on Steve's face as he vanished in the swirling snow.
The landing, well, that hurt like hell; there was no getting around that.
He hadn't moved since hitting the ground; it seemed like a lot of effort to put in when he was pretty sure he was going to die anyway. And he was fairly certain that he was going to die; most of the bones still attached to him were probably broken, and some of them weren't attached any more; he knew, because he could see his left arm, and it was lying about four feet away. He wondered if there were any other pieces that weren't attached, but the effort required to lift up and check, well... he just really didn't have it in him right then.
Drifting was nice, because it was warmer inside his head and Steve was there. He got a little confused; sometimes Steve was big, but sometimes he was still little and skinny. Either way, he was there, and sometimes he curled around Bucky and held him close, but sometimes he curled up with his head on Bucky's chest. He was talking to Bucky, telling him that everything was going to be okay, that he'd be all right, help was on the way. He reached up and stroked Bucky's face the way he had sometimes done on balmy spring nights when they lay curled up together in bed, or on summer nights when they lay on the floor together, too hot to do anything but sweat.
Bucky had known he was queer for Steve before he'd really known what it meant to be queer; his father would've probably killed him if he'd known, but his mother had understood. She understood about Steve, and she quietly encouraged Bucky to love who he loved even as she warned him about his father and about how the world at large viewed such things. “Ye got to be careful, Jamie me lad,” she'd told him, her voice thick with the old country. “It's not many folks as understand how it is sometimes, but the Lord works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform. It's not me who'll tell ye otherwise.”
Bucky hadn't known Steve was queer for him until after Steve's Ma died. He'd got sick again, all by himself in that shitty apartment and this time with nobody to look out for him; when Bucky hadn't seen him for a couple of days, he went over there to check on Steve and found him shivering on the couch, burning up with fever. Steve's eyes had been glassy when Bucky woke him from a fitful sleep to find out if he'd taken any medicine - of course he hadn't - and Bucky went down to the druggist on the corner that knew Steve and Steve's Ma. He sold Bucky a course of those new antibiotic drugs and gave him careful instructions on how Steve should take them and how to get the fever down. By the time Bucky got back, Steve was nearly delirious, and somewhere in his ravings, he let on about how he felt.
Bucky was nothing if not patient; he waited until Steve was better before confronting his friend. Faced with the knowledge of what he'd said, Steve hadn't even tried to deny it. Instead, he'd got that look on his face like he always did when he was staring straight into a beat-down and he'd said yeah, he was queer for Bucky, and he understood how Bucky didn't feel the same way, but -
He hadn't been able to say much else, what with Bucky's mouth on his, but that was good enough for both of them and they'd been together ever since. And they were careful, sure - you had to be, in that day and age, and Bucky could defend himself against one or two guys, but five or six of them with tire irons and chains were a different story, and Stevie couldn't hold his own against one drunk asshole in an alleyway outside the bar where the queens all went on Friday nights.
Leaving him alone to go to war was the hardest thing Bucky had ever done.
When they strapped him to that table in the crazy little German's lab, Bucky had prayed for the first time in a very long time. But he hadn't prayed for himself. He knew, in his own mind, that he was going to die. And he figured he'd maybe spend some time in Purgatory atoning, not just for the queer thing but for other stuff, too, but that was okay. He'd get where he was headed eventually. No, his prayers had been entirely pointed elsewhere. Jesus and God and Mary and all the saints and angels, he'd prayed, please look out for Stevie. He's little and sickly and somebody's got to take care of him if I'm not gonna be there any more.
He opened his eyes, delirious, to find Stevie kneeling over him in the snow, telling him everything was going to be all right. He blinked. No. That wasn't Steve. That wasn't anything like Steve, no matter how his mind tried to substitute. Steve was
(five foot nothing, blonde hair, weighs about ninety-five pounds soaking wet)
six feet tall now, and two hundred or more pounds of pure muscle stuffed into a kinda silly-looking blue suit. This guy was as tall as Steve, sure, but he was skinny as hell, and he was wearing a pinstriped three-piecer and a trench coat and talking with an English accent. And he had a woman with him - a tiny little dynamo, all red hair and curves, and they were lifting him up out of the snow and carrying him through a narrow doorway into - into -
Everything went black.
Donna read the tags the man was wearing as they got him settled into the med bay. Barnes, James B. The next line was a sequence of numbers, a letter at the end. Donna knew this was his blood type but the TARDIS would figure that out for herself. The next few lines were the name and address of his next of kin - probably his mother, given how young he looked. Lastly there was a stark ‘C’ stamped on the tag. Donna was C of E but she said a few words for James anyway. There was something about his name that tugged at her mind.
“ Excuse me, Doctor,” she said softly as he fluttered around the bay, making sure James was getting the best care the TARDIS could offer.
She went to the control room, and the TARDIS had what she needed: a keyboard and a screen, ready for her. Donna stroked the railing in appreciation. She typed in the man’s name and a flood of information scrolled across the screen. Her hand went to her mouth, not suppressing a gasp.
“ You can’t say anything, Donna,” said the Doctor from behind her. His face was grim and resolute.
“ But… he’s Captain America’s best friend,” she said.
“ He’s so much more than that,” the Doctor replied. “To him, history is still happening. Anything we tell him could affect the timeline.”
“ So what are we gonna do with him? Put him back where we found him?”
“ Nah,” the Doctor said with a grin. “Think he deserves better than that, don't you? We let the old girl see if she can fix him up; if not, we take him somewhere that can. I know just the place.”
Bucky woke up to find himself surrounded by bright lights and whirring noises. This wasn’t a hospital. Had he been dreaming those people, like he’d been dreaming of Steve? Steve! He tried to sit up but he set off some kind of alarm, and the skinny guy and the redhead came barreling in.
“ Oh, good, you’re up,” the man said, checking one of the machines and stopping the alarm.
“ Who are you? Where am I?”
“ Oh, yes, hello, I’m the Doctor,” the skinny man said, offering his hand.
“ Doctor who?” Bucky asked, shaking automatically.
The redhead giggled. “Never gets old, that does. I’m Donna by the way. Now settle back down and get some rest. You had a bit of an incident.” She pressed gently on his right shoulder, pushing him back down.
Bucky did a quick check of himself. He ached all over, but it didn’t seem as serious as it had been when he’d been lying there in the snow. Except... his arm. He didn’t want to look, but he turned his head anyway to see that it was definitely gone.
“ Sorry about that,” the skinny man - the Doctor - said, running a hand through his hair. “The arm was too damaged from the fall. The TARDIS couldn’t reattach it. But I know where we can get a really good prosthetic so it’ll look good as new.”
“ A pros-what?” Bucky asked.
“A replacement,” the Doctor explained. “It'll be lovely. Don’t worry, we’ll get you right as rain soon enough.”
“ Whatever you say, Doc.”
The redhead, Donna, came over and fussed with the blankets. “Now you need to rest there, James. I can get you some food if you like, or anything else you might need.”
“It's Bucky. Nobody’s called me James in years, ‘cept my Ma. And I’ll take anything from a good looking dame like you,” he grinned, giving her a broad wink.
“ Go on, you,” she blushed, leaving the room.
“ You seem pretty calm about all of this,” the Doctor said.
“Man, my best friend since childhood grew a foot and a half and put on a hundred pounds of pure muscle in the space of a coupla months, right before pullin' me and a hundred other guys out of a HYDRA base with no backup. At this point, I f igure anyone who can fix me up and make me not dead is okay in my books. Unless you’re HYDRA. And you never did say where I was.”
“ I’m not HYDRA. They’re a bunch of fools who… I can’t tell you about. As for where you are, well… this is my ship. She's called the TARDIS.”
“ It stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space.”
Bucky raised one eyebrow. “In space?” he repeated. “Nah! You're havin' me on! Where am I really?”
“No, it's true,” the Doctor replied. “Can't show you here; no windows. Tell you what, though - you take a bit of a rest, and eat whatever Donna brings you, and I'll prove it. All right?”
“Fair enough,” Bucky agreed amiably.
The Doctor clapped him on his shoulder. “Good man. And no worrying about the arm, all right? By this time tomorrow, you'll never even know it was gone.”
“Yeah, Doc,” Bucky replied. “You bet.”
Donna bustled in then, carrying a huge bowl of split pea soup on a tray. The Doctor obligingly raised the head of the medical bed, and Donna set the tray across Bucky's lap. He stared into the bowl; the soup was absolutely thick with ham. He raised his head and stared at her. “Where'd you get all this ham?” he asked softly. “That's half a month's ration.”
Donna shared a glance with the Doctor before looking back at Bucky. “Not any more,” she said simply.
Bucky pushed the tray away. “I think maybe it's time for you to tell me where I really am.”
The Doctor sighed heavily. “Bloody rationing,” he grumbled. “Come on, then. Just remember, if you fall over halfway there, I told you to eat and rest first.” He moved around to Bucky's right side and helped the soldier off the bed. Bucky groaned softly at the ache of moving, but allowed the Doctor to keep him steady. They left the med bay and made their way up a short hallway and into...
He froze in the doorway, staring around. If it was HYDRA, it wasn't any damn HYDRA lab he'd ever seen before. He couldn't even begin to describe it to himself. Everything was a dingy sort of orange, and the support struts looked like coral, like they'd been grown instead of built. There was a huge central tower covered with switches and levers and lights, and off to one side, a narrow set of doors. It was in this direction that the Doctor led him, Donna following along with the tray in her hands.
The Doctor flung the doors open and Bucky stared, his mouth open in shock.
“What?” he gasped. “But... how?”
“I told you,” the Doctor replied. “Space.”
“Technically,” Donna said softly, “It's the time vortex.”
Bucky moved closer to the doors, staring out at the view. “It's beautiful,” he murmured. He stared around at the soft lavender clouds that surrounded them, streaked with pink and blue like a summer sunset; the occasional flash of lightning; the whip of comets and the billow of stardust, and the vast, star-spangled blackness of deep space beyond it all. He looked down, noting that the ship itself was resting on absolutely nothing but more of the same, and up, seeing even more in that direction as well.
“I'm guessin' I ain't in Kansas no more, huh?” he said, glancing around at Donna.
She gave him a gentle smile. “Now will you come and eat before you pass out?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Yes ma'am.”
After half a day spent resting in the med bay, the Doctor decided it was all right for Bucky to be up and wandering around.
“ Just, don’t go into the pool, it’s… occupied at the moment. The library is all yours. If you get lost, just give a shout; the TARDIS will guide you back. And don’t mind her if she dotes on you a little. She likes taking in strays.”
Bucky just nodded, not sure how to take that. But later on when Donna guided him to a bedroom, he may have gaped. It was fucking huge, bigger than he’d ever seen in his life. There was a bed at the far end, large enough to fit even Steve and maybe the rest of the Commandos as well. There was a bathroom off to the side. Bucky didn’t even blink at taking the chance to be clean, really clean for the first time in… forever it seemed. The hot water went on for days and there was a warm towel waiting on the sink when he stepped out.
“ Thank you?” he said, feeling a little awkward.
The light in the room went a little pink, and he grinned. Still had the old charm and it even worked on a spaceship. He sat on the edge of the tub for a moment, thinking about that. He was in space . Steve would have gotten such a kick out of all this. Right out of those pulp magazines he liked to read. Would he get to see Steve again? How was he coping? Did he think Bucky was missing? Dead? He'd have to talk to the Doctor about that. For now he was going to try out that bed.
“ Is he doing all right?” Donna asked.
“ Yes, it seems so,” the Doctor answered. “He’ll be better once we get him to New Earth.”
“New Earth?” she asked. “No, don’t tell me, I don’t want the long boring explanation. I want to know what you plan on doing once we’ve got Captain America’s best mate fixed up.”
“Whatever we like, Donna,” the Doctor replied, grinning broadly. “We're time travelers.”
“Yeah,” said Donna, “but you're missing something pretty important.”
“What's that?” the Doctor asked.
“Captain America's best mate is dead.”
The Doctor didn't give Bucky much time for the questions he wanted to ask; instead, within minutes of Bucky staggering, sleep-mazed and time-lagged, into the control room the next morning, he was whisking the young American into the lobby of a huge, brilliantly white hospital and turning him over to a cat-woman in a nurse's costume.
The cat-woman, who introduced herself as Sister Wenn, led them into an elevator and called for Ward Seventeen. “Oh, mind the disinfectant,” the Doctor said as the elevator began to rise.
“The what?” Donna asked.
“Disinfectant,” the Doctor repeated.
A calm female voice said, “Commence Stage One disinfection.” A tiny alarm sounded, and some form of cool liquid sprayed from the ceiling. Donna shrieked; Bucky jumped in surprise. The Doctor merely closed his eyes, tilting his head back into the spray. When it stopped, as suddenly as it had begun, it was followed by a puff of powder, and Bucky grumbled but figured it was probably better than other ways of being deloused. The powerful jet of warm air that came afterward to dry them all was very welcome, and by the time they arrived at their floor, they were dry and more or less back into proper form.
Sister Wenn led them to an unoccupied bay, prompting Bucky to hop up onto the table and asking him to remove his shirt. He did so, and she tutted around him for a few minutes, carefully examining the stump of his left arm. “Excellent healing,” she said, nodding at the Doctor. “It's been well cared for. I assume the lost limb was irretrievable? No matter; replacing it won't be difficult at all.” She gave Bucky a gentle pat on his right shoulder. “Novice March will be here momentarily to discuss your options.”
Thoroughly bewildered, Bucky merely nodded. The cat-woman left. Bucky looked around at the other patients in the ward, surprised by what he saw. On one end of the room, a man whose skin had gone bright yellow was hovering - hovering! - above his bed; not far away, there was another man who looked like he was turning to stone. Bucky gave the Doctor a significant look. “This place is fucked up,” he mumbled.
“It's the year five billion and fifty-nine,” the Doctor replied. “Human race has all sorts of new diseases you've never seen before.”
Before Bucky had a chance to respond, another cat-woman had arrived, carrying three small discs. “Good afternoon,” she said, giving them a respectful nod. “I'm Novice March. Sister Wenn asked me to come and show you your options for prosthetics.”
“Oh, sure,” Bucky replied, giving the young woman a smile.
She actually blushed - who ever made a cat blush?! - and fumbled with the discs. “This is the first one,” she said. “It will look perfectly human in every way.” She flicked a switch, and the disc displayed a holographic image of a man with two perfectly normal arms. Bucky stared in shock at the hologram, but the novice set it aside and flicked a switch on the second one. “This one is a bit basic,” she said. “As you can see, it's skeleton-only. There are a variety of exoskeletal covers available for it, but this is the basic model.”
Bucky examined the holo of the man with one arm that seemed to be made out of metal piping. “No,” he said. “I don't think so, not that one.”
The novice nodded, flicking it off again and setting it aside. “The third one is the newest option,” she said. “It's very versatile. There are a huge number of options - sonics and lasers in the fingertips, even covert weaponry, for the individual in need of self-protection. The biggest drawback is that it currently can't be made in flesh-tone; the synthetic skin interferes with the additional gadgetry.”
Bucky examined that hologram and noted the difference. The arm in question was metallic, made of what looked like a variety of interlocking plates. He leaned toward the human one, just because it was human, but on the other hand... “You said lasers?” he asked.
The novice grinned.
Two hours later, when Bucky was done, he stood there smiling, flexing the hand and listening to it whir. Donna tried not to stare, but wasn’t doing a very good job of it.
“ Can I touch it?” she asked.
“ I think there’s someone who might have something to say about that,” Bucky replied with a wicked grin.
“What, him? Not bloody likely,” Donna gasped . “He's not my boyfriend!”
“I actually meant someone else, but that was some pretty impressive conclusion jumping you did there, ” Bucky drawled, grinning as Donna went red with outrage. “So, where can I test this bad boy out?”
“Firing range on the TARDIS,” the Doctor said. “We’ve taken up enough of the good sisters’ time. You know, according to the brochure, not only does it have lasers, but it can be adapted with other attachments. Oooh, look, sonic fingers!”
“ Does that sound as dirty as I think it does?” Bucky said.
“ Only if you want it to,” the Doctor replied.
Bucky just chuckled and grabbed Donna’s hand. “Come on, sweetheart, let’s see what this spaceship of yours can cook up for me.”
“ She’s not my….” Donna objected. She didn’t finish the sentence because she was too busy trying to keep up with Bucky and the Doctor as they prattled on about sonics and lasers and aliens. Boys .
Donna took Bucky down to the firing range while the Doctor went wandering, muttering something about a back storage room and extra sonic attachments for Bucky's arm. It took a few tries for him to work out what he was doing with the arm - the Doctor had explained the neural attachments, and the surgeon had given him a quick rundown of how to work the thing, but practice was the only way to really figure it out. Within a couple of hours, though, he was firing lasers out of a tiny wrist-mounted cannon like a champ, grinning broadly and wondering what Steve was gonna think about this fancy piece of tech.
The thought stopped him cold and he turned to face Donna. “So, what happens now?” he asked her.
Donna raised an eyebrow. “What d'you mean?”
“I mean, do I go home now? You and the Doc, you'll take me back to base, drop me off with the boys, yeah? They need me - I'm the only sharpshooter on the team, and Stevie's gonna be a wreck, thinkin' I'm dead after that fall. So you're gonna take me back, right?”
Donna swallowed hard, moving to a nearby seat. There was a data pad lying on a table nearby and she picked it up, pressing buttons absently. “Sit down, Bucky,” she said gently.
Bucky sat down. He looked down at his hands for a minute, rubbing at the metal one with the flesh one, and then he looked back up at her, taking in the expression on her face. “This ain't gonna be good, is it, Doll?”
“No,” Donna said softly, “I'm afraid not.”
He took a deep breath. “All right,” he said. “Lay it on me.”
Donna cleared her throat. “I can't tell you everything,” she said. “But I can tell you this. Just a few days after you fell, your friend Steve - that's Captain America - and the rest of your team attacked a HYDRA base in the Swiss Alps. They succeeded in taking the base, but the leader, the one they called the Red Skull, was escaping in an aeroplane carrying enough nuclear material to destroy the entire eastern coast of the United States.”
Bucky swallowed hard. “Go on.”
Donna scrolled down the page she was looking at. “Captain - I mean, Steve, your friend - he got onto the plane and fought the Red Skull. And he won.”
“You got a look on your face says there's a 'but' comes after that.”
She nodded, unable to look up at him. “But he wasn't able to turn the plane round. It went down in the coastal ice off Greenland and was never found.”
“Never.” Bucky stood up, pacing, and ran a hand through his hair. “Never found. But it can't be never found, Donna. It's only been a few days since I fell. Unless - I mean, how long was I out, Donna?”
“Just a day,” she said. “But Bucky... you have to remember... the Doctor and I, we're time travelers.”
He stared at her for a long moment before he said, “What year is it for you?”
She swallowed. “I shouldn't say any - ”
“What year is it for you?”
Her response came in a whisper. “2008.”
“2008,” Bucky repeated. “2008. Hell, Steve'd be ninety years old in 2008. I'd be ninety-one.” He ran a hand through his hair again, pacing back and forth. Then he whirled on Donna. “But wait. You said it went down off the coast of Greenland, right? But you know when that was. And you said it yourself - you're time travelers. So we could go there, right? In time. And then when he crashes the plane, we could go get him, same as you got me, right? And then he'd be okay.”
“We can't,” the Doctor's voice said, cutting across the room. “I'm sorry. The death of Captain America is a fixed point in time. It has to happen. It has to happen the way that it happened. And if we interfere, the entire universe could be destroyed.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, looking at Bucky mournfully across the firing range. “I'm so very, very sorry.”
Bucky tried unsuccessfully to blink back the tears that came. Gone. Steve was gone. In the blink of an eye his whole world had crumbled. He flexed and the cannon disappeared back into his new arm. Then he rushed out, pushing the Doctor out of his way and ignoring Donna calling his name.
He stormed off, not really sure where he was going. How big was this fucking thing anyway? Somehow, in the middle of a corridor that he’d never been in before, the door to his room appeared. Probably the TARDIS. He didn’t want to try and wrap his brain around it right now. He went in and slammed the door behind him.
He threw things. Pillows, vases, the mirror over the dresser. All of them smashed to the floor. He used his newly tested laser to blast at the bed, causing the sheets to catch fire. There was the blare of a siren and suddenly water was spraying from the ceiling. It was then that he collapsed. He sat in the middle of the floor and hung his head. The water stopped.
“ Bucky?” Donna’s voice was soft as she peered around the door.
“ Go away.”
Instead she came closer, sitting next to him. She gently put a hand on his new arm, unafraid of what he could do to her if he wanted. Then she moved it to his back, gently stroking up and down. He tried to shrug away, but she moved to pull him to her. Giving in to his grief, Bucky let out a choked sob and fell into her arms.