Bucky wakes up, which is something of a surprise.
He aches all over, and is freezing cold, which is less of one. Last he remembers is falling, Steve's hand just barely out of reach -
God, Steve. Bucky had figured this war would take him away from Steve - he'd known it when he had to register for the draft, years before he got his order to report for induction - and he'd figured it'd be a permanent, lethal separation, but not even at his darkest moments had he thought Steve might see it happen.
He gets to his feet, shaky, and reevaluates. He aches all over, except for his left arm, and he's freezing, all of which leads him to believe he's not dead yet. Odds are decent he won't make it - alone in the snowy Alps, no gear, not even a dry change of clothes - but he's gotta try.
He finds a would-be river, frozen over, and follows it downhill. The snow is piled up twice as high as his head here, maybe higher. Probably how he survived, Bucky thinks, and does not think about Zola or injections or fire crawling under his skin or -
He stumbles, a few times. Realizes that the only reason his arm doesn't ache is because he can't feel it at all. Stuffs the dead weight inside his shirt, held in place by the buttons above and below. Keeps walking.
He loses track of time. He has no idea where he is, how far away he is from base camp - from any Allied camp, god, he'll take any remotely friendly face at this point. But rivers go downhill, and there are cities along rivers. He'll find something eventually. Someone.
His stomach growls at him. He ignores it - has a lot of practice ignoring hunger. Back when Steve got sick and needed every bite he could get, that first year after his ma was gone. Bucky had slept on a pile of cushions and forced Steve to eat seconds and thirds of every meal he could wheedle out of his folks.
Hunger was nothing to lying on the floor listening to Steve wheeze and shiver all night, wondering if this was it.
Hunger was nothing to this pain, to this cold. Hunger would be nothing to the look on Steve's face, wonder and grief and joy, to a breathless "I thought you were dead."
Thinking of that - of being able to clap Steve on the shoulder and call him a broken record, of making him laugh and hearing no sorrow behind it - thinking of that makes it easier to keep going.
He finds a house. The man inside speaks no English, and both Bucky's French and German are subpar, but they manage to communicate. Bucky's clothes get dried by a fire, Bucky gets dried by the fire, gets something warm if thin in his stomach, and the man gets Bucky's pocket knife, his belt, a handful of metal scrap that fell with him from the train that he hadn't noticed he was carrying. Bucky gets a full night's sleep, and the man gets company at breakfast.
It turns out to be two days after he fell. Bucky is deep in enemy territory - in Austria, to be precise. There shouldn't be a remotely friendly face around for miles and miles. There shouldn't be, and yet. His host leaves briefly, and Bucky takes the time to dress, to look out the windows and memorize this location. If he survives the war, he's going to find this place again. His gratitude can't be paid in scraps.
His host runs back in, shouting frantically, incomprehensibly. It takes Bucky too long to figure out what he's saying, but when he does his heart skips a beat. Allied troops have been seen approaching the Alps - approaching a base everyone around here knows to avoid, or risk never returning.
It has to be HYDRA, and any Allied force attacking a HYDRA base has to have Steve and the Commandos among their number.
Bucky thanks his host profusely, is handed a hastily drawn map, and leaves. It's still cold, and he still aches, but he doesn't feel it. He's got a mission, and the end's in sight, metaphorically speaking. After marching most of the day, the end becomes literally in earshot. Bucky listens to the shouts and explosions and picks up the pace, hoping he gets there before they leave, or he collapses.
He doesn't collapse.
It's a goddamn miracle, or at least strongly resembles one, but he's only a little shaky when he comes across Allied soldiers. The bored rear guard, left to collect equipment and line up what bodies remain. Whatever fighting there was, it's over. Bucky can't help but be relieved about that; he would've tried if someone asked, but his arm is making it difficult to walk straight, let alone shoot.
A major notices him approaching, and soldiers are suddenly scrambling for their guns. Bucky waits a moment for them to notice he's in an Army uniform, then salutes with a trembling hand.
"Sergeant James Barnes, presumably listed as missing in action, sir."
"Barnes?" someone whispers. "Like the guy - "
" - the one from the - "
"You with the Howling Commandos, Sergeant?" the major asks.
Bucky grins. "Yes sir, I am. And if it's all the same to you, I'd like to find them, let them know I made it out alright."
The major looks dubious at Bucky's claim of being alright. He mutters an order to one of his subordinates, who runs off. "The Commandos have taken the complex," the major explains. "Your best bet is to find the communications center of the building. Private Matthews will be bringing a medic to that location to treat any illnesses or injuries you may be hiding."
"Sir - "
"You are far from alright, Sergeant," the major says firmly, "but I know better than to keep a man from his squad, especially when he's been MIA."
"Thank you, sir," Bucky says, and stumbles off into the HYDRA base. The structure of these places is always the same, so it doesn't take him long to orient himself and make for the communications center. He doesn't run into any of the Commandos on the way. He imagines Dugan has taken Jones and a tank and driven off in search of stragglers, and Falsworth is probably somewhere else in the base looking for inventory reports, but he'd expect the others to be -
"Jeeeesus Christ," Colonel Phillips says, drawing out his blasphemy a good three or four extra syllables.
Bucky grins and salutes him. "Sir."
Phillips stares at him for a long minute, jaw slack. "I don't know if you have the luck of the devil or if God is smiling down on you, Sergeant," he finally says, "but it is one hell of a surprise to see you."
"Don't I know it."
Morita ducks around the corner, saying "Colonel" before performing the greatest double-take Bucky has ever had the pleasure to witness. "Barnes? Shit, Barnes!" He looks at Phillips, wide-eyed, alarmed. "Sir, shouldn't he - ?"
"Right. Barnes, come with me." Phillips leads Bucky back towards the communications center. "There's something you need to know before you walk in there, Sergeant." And quickly, quietly, he fills Bucky in: the intel from Zola, Steve's crazy idea, the plane, the bombs, Schmidt gone, Steve with one option left. The last thing Phillips says before pushing him through the door is, "We gave Captain Rogers and Agent Carter some privacy for their goodbyes, but... well, I don't think either of them will mind the interruption much if it's you."
When Bucky walks through the door, shocked stupid, Agent Carter cuts off whatever Steve is saying with a loud "Holy God."
Bucky cracks a grin, though his heart isn't in it. "Haven't gotten a reaction like that from a dame in a long time."
The radio sputters and goes staticky, then Steve's saying, "Peggy. Peggy, please tell me I'm not hearing things."
"You're not," she says, and if it sounds like there's tears in her throat Bucky's not going to point it out. He stumbles over to the microphone and his knees give out. "He's here, I'm not sure how but Sergeant Barnes is here, sitting right next to me."
"Bucky - god, Bucky, I thought you were dead," Steve says breathlessly, and god, this is not how Bucky wanted that conversation to go. What kind of shitty timing does he have, climbing out of his own grave just in time to hear his best friend dive into his?
"You're starting to sound like a broken record, Steve," Bucky says, doing all he can to sound lighthearted. His voice wobbles over the last few words of "Going down with the ship, huh? Very noble."
"I have to, Buck. There's no other way."
"I know there isn't," Bucky reassures him, "you would've found it if there was one, wouldn't you? But hey, I survived falling off a mountain. Bet you can live through this."
Bucky risks a glance at Carter, who looks like she's barely holding herself together. Must be that British stiff upper lip keeping her eyes dry, since he's pretty sure she loves Steve as much as he does, and his chin is dripping tears. "Sure, why not?" he says. "And once you get outta there, you, me, Agent Carter, an amenable lady-friend of Agent Carter's, we can all go dancing, how's that sound?"
"That... that sounds pretty great to me. Peggy?"
Carter laughs, a frail little sound. "I'm sure I know someone who can stand Sergeant Barnes's company for a night." Bucky laughs too, and somehow it doesn't sound like he's dying inside. They keep talking about dancing. Steve is impossibly calm. Maybe he really thinks he'll survive - hell, maybe he really will.
Bucky sure wishes he will, for all the good wishing's ever done him.
Whether he survives or not, the radio cutting off before Steve can finish a joke about stepping on Peggy's toes still feels like the end, like a really shitty goodbye.
Bucky chokes on a sob as she finally starts to cry. For a minute, he thinks it would've been better if he hadn't woken up after that fall. If he hadn't, if he'd stayed dead, he never would've heard -
God, Steve. Bucky had figured this war would take him away from Steve, but he'd never thought it could take Steve away from him. And not even in his worst nightmares had he thought he'd have to listen to Steve go.