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But the Sea Does Not Change

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"When it rains the sea changes colors but the sea does not change."

--Stevie Nicks, "The Edge of Seventeen."

 

The Winter Soldier moves through the crowd at the Captain America exhibit, deftly dodging the unaware who might jostle him. His right forearm is mostly healed since the bone was snapped, but some tenderness remains. And the other arm--well. No one colliding with it could mistake it for a human limb.

His collar turned up to hide the length of his hair and a hat brim pulled low over his eyes, the Soldier has come to find something of the man who saved an enemy from becoming part of the wreckage that tumbled into the Potomac. It's what he knows how to do. Watch, take in information, assess. Of course, this Captain America is the version fit for public consumption. The Soldier has no doubt there are lies and omissions--what man can stand up to scrutiny of his every action? Certainly no soldier can. This pretense of virtue and the embodiment of American ideals turns his stomach.

The knot of people blocking his way moves on to the next room, leaving the Soldier face to face with a doubled image of Rogers, one inside the other like nesting dolls. One is the man he battled against, but it's the other that feels like a solid kick to the chest. The pre-serum Rogers' silhouette is about the size of a 12-year-old boy. Somehow it's this version of Steve Rogers that resonates, though it pings no actual memories.

The strangeness of this feeling is an almost unpleasant buzz in his head. It leaves him torn between the desire to have answers and an urge to be hurled back into the chair to have all the doubt and confusion scrubbed away. But the latter option is gone.

The Soldier sets his jaw and follows the flow of the crowd into the next room. There he finds himself confronted with a diorama of ghostly mannequins representing the Howling Commandos, below a marquee-sized painting of each man's face in heroic fucking perfection. One of the faces, he sees, is his own. The sight brings him to a sudden halt, causing a couple of teenagers to jostle him from behind.

"Sorry, dude," one of them says, and the other echoes, "Sorry," but he barely registers their voices.

Those faces. His face.

The others--the Howling Commandos--touch nothing in him but a void.

Abruptly he turns away, lets his gaze settle on the people around him. A middle aged man crouched by an old man in a wheelchair, pointing out a figure in a picture. A teenaged couple thinking they're being very subtle, kissing in a corner. A woman helping a young boy with the activity sheet meant to guide him through the exhibit. People interacting, exchanging smiles, touches. Even the woman he saw wandering the exhibits alone is chatting with the guard just inside this room.

It's not his memory that's the void, but the Soldier himself. He searches inside himself, but everything human has been burned away. For a stretch of time he can't fathom, he has been nothing but a tool, no more than a mission. But there's no longer a hand wielding the tool, no mission but the one he refused to complete.

The Soldier forces his attention back to the exhibit. A whispered Russian curse escapes him as he sees a large panel with a header in large type and the marble floor seems to lurch beneath his feet.

FALLEN COMRADE JAMES BUCHANAN "BUCKY" BARNES

Though Captain America had claimed to know him, claimed they were friends, the Soldier had not expected to be even a footnote in the legend they had built around Rogers. To find his own biography and image hanging by the side of America's heroic icon--it's impossible. A ruse, perhaps, set up to snare the Soldier should he come here to learn about his enemy.

The face in the picture, weary and guarded, is not a lie like the iconic propaganda portrait, but the Soldier feels no more connected to this Bucky Barnes than the one in the painting.

The Soldier ducks into a darkened side room, settling on a bench in the back. Just a moment until he can catch his breath, that's all he needs. But the wall in front of him--no, it's a screen--flickers to life with black and white newsreel footage. Something in this feels vaguely familiar. Not the content, which is Captain America prancing around with some showgirls and fake punching a fake Hitler. It's in the music, the clipped narration, the jerky, flickering images. The not-quite-memory pulls at a thread in the Soldier's mind.

Others have come into this room, making him edgy. As the newsreels follow the Captain America US tour to its run at Radio City Music Hall, a couple of snot-nose punks a couple of rows ahead start with the wisecracking.

"This is so gay," one of them says at normal conversational volume.

"Shut. The. Fuck. Up," the Soldier says, and the pair instantly lays off the yapping.

I had to, Buck. The Soldier gets an unshakable mental image of that slight young man from the first room of the exhibit, but rumpled and bloody. He was showing disrespect for you and all our soldiers.

"Punks," he mutters, and the couple next to him quietly gathers their young children and departs. The Soldier realizes then that his breathing is ragged, his hand shaking.

It's then that Bucky Barnes makes his first appearance in the newsreels, just as the heroic Captain America replaces the costumed lunk selling war bonds. The narrator describes Cap's daring raid behind enemy lines that rescued his best friend and 400 other captive soldiers. Barnes walks at Captain America's side, skinny, face lined with pain, but grinning for the cameras.

I know, Buck. It feels stupid, but it's for home-front morale. All we gotta do is walk in to camp like we did before. I don't want to do it unless you're at my side.

He'd done it. When didn't he do what Steve asked?

The Soldier's head is full of a roaring buzz as he watches Barnes and the Howling Commandos assemble around Steve Rogers, who led as naturally as breathing.

Of course he did.

Barnes filled out over the course of the weekly newsreels, faster than he should have on Army rations. He never grew to Captain America proportions--Zola never got that right--but he shook off the injuries and malnutrition.

Barnes looks so fucking natural at Rogers' side. Poring over a map, planning a raid. Returning from a successful mission. Laughing at a shared joke. Performing an off-key rendition of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" for the Commandos--somehow the Soldier knows that each eye roll and gesture at a body part is exactly as Groucho Marx had done it. For a dime you can see Kankakee and Paree/And Washington crossing the Delaware. Though all the Commandos are laughing, the Soldier sees Barnes' antics are focused on Rogers, who seems careworn beneath the humor.

This is not who the Soldier is. He works alone, forms no attachments, needs nothing and no one. In the field he patches his own wounds and gets on with his work. He lets nothing stop him from fulfilling the mission.

Except this one.

A cry escapes a girl in the front when the newsreel narrator strikes a somber note for Bucky Barnes' "heroic sacrifice." The noble rhetoric piles on higher than a Dagwood sandwich to keep that home-front morale cranked up high. Fucking propaganda. There's no glory in death, not the killing or the dying. Even strapped in that chair, receiving his missions, he knew the justifications and rhetoric were bullshit.

Still, it floors him to think that all the people who went to the movies in that one week might have spared a passing thought for Barnes' death. The camera stays a respectful distance from Rogers and the Howling Commandoes, but the Soldier zeroes in on his face. His expression is not just sad but wrecked.

Then comes Captain America's own heroic sacrifice, taking down the Red Skull and saving the eastern seaboard. Trust him to make the morale-raising bombast unquestionably true. There are follow-up newsreel accounts of the search for the downed plane, but they're anti-climactic. The Soldier starts to rise, but there's more footage, this time in sharp focus and bright colors. Giant armored beasts swoop out of the sky, ridden by otherworldly riders. The destruction is not unlike the devastation in the Potomac a few days ago, but the scale is clearly much larger.

In the midst of the chaos he sees Captain America and Romanova, among others, fighting the invaders. When had this happened? Such a world-shaping event taking place while the Soldier had been sunk in dreamless sleep is a shock he can't come to terms with. A couple two rows ahead quickly departs as one--the man or woman, he can't tell--makes muffled sounds of distress. The others stay, but he can tell from their reactions that none of this is new for them. But it hadn't suited Pierce for the Soldier to fight that threat, so he'd stayed on ice.

Of course he had. Pierce and Zola must have loved the panic it raised.

He watches the fight rage on in the city, parts of which look completely foreign to him, but others he remembers so well. This is his fucking city. He should have been there to defend it. He should have been there to have Steve's six.

On the screen a blonde girl, messy-haired and face caked with grime, says, "Captain America saved my life."

Mine too, sister. Several times over.

This knowledge bubbles up from inside him, not from the accounts of the newsreels. But there are no memories to support it. He wonders if they'll someday come back, or if Hydra burned them away completely.

He wants to leave, yet somehow he doesn't. Instead he stays to watch the loop of film clips a second time, then a third. Tourists come and go around him but his attention stays rooted on Rogers and Barnes.

Memory doesn't come rushing back to fill the void, nor does the man he used to be. Some things do. Cold and hunger and fear and desperation. The searing pain of Zola's experimental serum remaking every one of his cells.

He's not even certain these are memories. They are the fabric of his life. Always have been. Always will be.

An actual memory surfaces--or at least he thinks it is. Rogers leaning over him like a fever dream.

After this, there was still cold and hunger. Generalized fear swapped for moments of sheer terror. But underneath it was the faith that following Steve would get them through.

That's all that comes to him--sense memories, a strong emotion or two, a brief, hazy moment that seemed like delirium. And, perversely, every single word of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," as well as a couple of even racier songs.

When he finally emerges from his fourth viewing of the film clips, blinking in the light, he finds himself in a room dedicated to Steve Rogers' discovery and reappearance as Captain America in the fight against the alien invasion.

He reads it all with a desperate hunger, mingled with fear. Steve is the man he always was, even when Bucky towered over him. The Soldier is not who he once was--Bucky may be gone forever.

I'm with you to the end of the line.

He's struck with the sudden certainty that "the end of the line" doesn't translate as "until I find out you're not the same." Steve already proved that when he dropped his shield into the Potomac. Maybe--

Maybe following Steve would get him through.

He has no idea how to find Steve apart from stalking him like a target, and the Soldier is not that stupid. He doubts Steve's friends have his infinite patience, and there are undoubtedly government agencies that also want him dead. The Soldier has already lingered in D.C. far too long for his own safety. He has never worried about this before--a tool doesn't think about the effects of being bashed against something harder than itself. A weapon doesn't care how it's wielded. But now he needs to see Steve, to tell him--

Fuck. I don't know what.

The last display in the exhibit is painted with the words of the girl in the final film clip. Captain America saved my life. Wherever he is, and wherever any of them are, I would just want to say thank you. Around it is a collection of letters written after the battle of New York.

And a rack with postcards with a sign above: TELL CAP THANKS. The Smithsonian, the sign promises, will deliver the cards to Captain Rogers every week.

The postcards are designed to look like V-Mail, which prompts both a smile and a tightness in the Soldier's throat. He takes one, but it's still blank--and slightly crumpled--when a guard tells him the museum is closing in fifteen minutes.

His fingers grip the chained pen so tightly his fingernails are white as he writes, though the words that finally come seem casual.

Here's a salute from Lydia's right arm, the Soldier scrawls. (Not my left.) See you around. J.B.B.

Quickly, before he can change his mind, he slides the card through the slot of the wooden box provided.

Then he walks out into the warm D.C. evening, formulating a plan to make his way to Kankakee.