APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
The soldier was supposed to come in for debriefing and reset, but there was nowhere to go and no one to debrief him.
He spent eight days in a safe house waiting for someone to come and get him. He was a valuable asset. He was supposed to wait.
No one came.
The pictures of Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes in the Smithsonian matched his own face. He checked his reflection in a glass case to be sure. Differences could be accounted for by hairstyle, a different diet, three to five years' ageing. There were books for sale in the gift shop. He glanced at the security cameras—poorly angled—and shoplifted a couple. He had no money. He needed information.
The soldier read the personal accounts of men who had known Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes. He cross referenced them against each other. He went looking for more information. A great deal was publicly available. He went to libraries and scanned books, articles, websites. He committed key details to memory.
The Captain's recognition had been genuine. That much was obvious. The thought sat oddly in his mind when he had it, unconnected to anything else. He kept it in the back of his mind while he gathered information.
He was supposed to come in for debriefing and reset. He was supposed to come in—
Bucky Barnes was good-natured, easy-going, popular with his fellow soldiers, known for his charm especially with women, loyal until death. He was a first-rate hand to hand fighter as well as a sniper. He came from Brooklyn. He had three younger siblings living at the time of his death. He followed Captain America—
It was not difficult to become someone. The soldier knew how to do it the way he knew how to plan an ambush, pull a trigger, blend into any crowd; it was part of what he was. To become someone it was necessary to inhabit their skin, and the key was detail: the diplomatic aide taking off his wedding ring before he went to bed with a stranger, the late night security guard yawning and scratching his belly as he glanced at a picture of his kids, the taxi driver starting a friendly conversation with his passengers as he drove them somewhere the bodies would not be found. The soldier did not remember ever doing any of those things, but he had done them all in the course of his duties.
Bucky Barnes was good-natured, easy-going, popular with his fellow soldiers—
Bucky, he tried the name on his tongue. Bucky. I'm Bucky. That's me. He decided Bucky probably preferred being himself to being the Winter Soldier, and started favoring his right arm, using his flesh and blood hand to touch things and pick them up instead of his metal one wherever possible.
He followed Captain America—
The soldier (Bucky) stalked the Captain for several days. He bugged the house the Captain lived in and listened to conversations. The Captain was visited by both the Black Widow and the Falcon. He was a good source of information on his own history, and he mentioned Bucky Barnes several times. The Winter Soldier listened for the cadences of his accent and the obsolete turns of phrase that the Captain's friends reacted to with confusion or amusement. His own voice settled into the patterns easily, as if he'd known them for years. He located some scissors and cut his own hair, raggedly, without a mirror.
Debriefing and reset. He was supposed to come in for—
On an April morning six weeks after his first visit to the museum, he pounded on the front door of the Captain's apartment a couple of times right-handed. Then he waited.
The Captain's recognition had been genuine, he thought. The thought had been lurking in the back of his mind all this time while he gathered information, while he prepared. Now it was joined by another thought which made it relevant, which made it make sense: the Captain knew this Bucky Barnes. The Captain knew what he was supposed to do.
Of course he had to go to him.
The Captain opened the door, and stopped, and stared. His mouth moved but made no sound.
"Hiya, Steve," said Bucky. "Sorry I'm late." He swallowed. "Can I come in?"
They sat on couches in a cluttered room. The Captain—Steve—couldn't stop looking at him.
"I got something on my face?" Bucky said finally.
"No—Bucky—Christ," said Steve. "I just," he laughed a little wetly, "I'm not sure I'm not dreaming. I thought you were dead. I saw you fall."
"We both fell," said the soldier uncertainly. That had been only a few weeks ago. The Captain must have known he'd survived, because if he hadn't the Captain wouldn't have been dragged to shore.
"No, I meant," said Steve. "The bridge."
It took a moment for his mind to find the right piece of information. The bridge. Sergeant Barnes gave his life for his country during an engagement with the enemy on—
He looked up. Steve's expression had changed. "You don't remember," he said quietly.
"I don't remember a lot of things," said Bucky. "The bridge, I—" He stopped. "We were there for Hydra," he said. "For Arnim Zola." That was in the books. Saying the name sent an odd shiver through him. He ignored it; not relevant. "Weren't we? And there were bad guys—"
"Wearing masks," Steve finished for him. "With those Hydra energy weapons, the ones that disintegrated people."
Bucky nodded. His left hand twitched with the knowledge of the shape of a gun.
"I don't remember the rest," he said. "What happened?"
Steve smiled at him, a funny lopsided smile, suspiciously bright-eyed. He started to talk. Bucky hung on every word. He only interrupted once, when Steve talked about rescuing him from a Hydra goon. "Tell me I at least said something funny when you were saving me. This is undignified."
Steve smirked. "You said you had him on the ropes."
"Sure I did," said Bucky.
"Yeah, that's what I said."
Steve laughed again, properly. It made his eyes crinkle up at the corners. The soldier filed away that information the way he filed away everything else he’d learned about the Captain.
There wasn't much left to the story. The laughter quickly vanished from Steve's expression as he told the rest of it. "And I—I couldn't reach you. I couldn't catch you," he said at last, and stopped to turn his face away, wipe his eyes with the back of his hand. The soldier waited, but the Captain didn't start talking again, only sat there with his head down, not looking at him.
"What about Zola?" he asked.
"What?" said Steve.
"The bad guy," he said, "the mission. Did we get him?"
"Yeah," said Steve after a moment. "Yeah, we got him. You fell, but we got him." He swallowed. "It didn’t feel worth it."
Worth it. That was a strange concept, one that people didn’t normally bother to share with him. It hardly mattered to the Winter Soldier whether any given mission was worth it or not. Pricked by a strange curiosity, he asked, "Was it worth it?"
Steve paused. His mouth went into a tight line. He said, "If we hadn’t had Zola’s information," and stopped.
He followed the line of Steve’s gaze, but there was nothing there; he was staring blindly at the window, and outside there was just an ordinary spring day in the city.
"If we hadn’t had Zola’s information, the Red Skull would probably have flattened every major city in the States," Steve said. "I... I told myself, in the end, at least you didn’t die for nothing."
"I didn’t die," he said, for no reason except that it appeared to be true. Three to five years’ ageing, that was all.
Steve made a strangled noise and got to his feet. He took Bucky's hand and dragged him up off the couch, pulling him into a tight embrace. The soldier went still at the feeling of Steve's arms locked around him. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know what Bucky would do. He heard the Captain take a shuddering breath before he muttered, "Sorry," and started to step back.
Then he did know what Bucky would do.
"C'mere," he said, and he hauled Steve back in. He put his good arm around him, pressed the palm of his human hand against the back of Steve's neck, put his face down against Steve's solid shoulder. After a moment Steve's arms locked close around him again. He could hear Steve's breathing, and feel the rise and fall of his chest where they were pressed together.
"I can't believe you're really here," said Steve, muffled.
"I'm here," said Bucky. He kept his face hidden against Steve's shoulder, and his metal arm still by his side. "I'm here."
The soldier dreamed, that night, of a sound. A long shrieking howl of wind rushing past him.
He woke in the dark under the blankets on the couch, and thought about the sound. It was attached to nothing else in his mind. It came from the Captain's story.
Bucky Barnes must have been afraid when he fell, he thought. Afraid when he died.
"Holy shit," said the Falcon.
"Sam, I'd like you to meet my old friend Bucky. Bucky, Sam," said Steve, with a defiant note in his voice.
"Holy shit. Does Natasha know about this? No way does Natasha know about this."
"Nice to meetcha," said Bucky. He gave Sam a rueful grin.
"Am I supposed to pretend this isn't insane?" said Sam. "Steve, do you even remember what happened the last time we saw this guy?" He gave Bucky a look and added, "No offense."
Steve's face took on that stubborn look. "Sam—"
"Steve, you are one of the best guys I’ve ever met, so don’t take it the wrong way if I say you are maybe a little low on self-preservation instincts," Sam said. "I sat by that hospital bed for you. I don’t wanna do it again if I don’t have to." He turned to the soldier and said, "If you really are Steve’s old friend Bucky then you know damn well why I’ve got concerns right now. Don’t you?"
If you really are—
Bucky nodded. He licked his lips. "He's got a point, Steve," he said. "You know he does."
"Right! Thank you! He’s here and I’m glad he’s here, it’s gonna save me plenty of money on gas if we don’t have to chase him all over the country like you were planning, but you cannot just keep him on your couch, Steve, come on. He’s trouble. This is trouble." Sam was gesturing big. He glanced at Bucky again. "Still no offense."
"Sam—" said Steve.
Sam raised his eyebrows and held up his hands. "Am I wrong? Tell me I'm wrong."
"You're wrong," said Steve.
The soldier knew what Bucky Barnes ought to say. "He's not wrong," he said.
"He's not wrong," Bucky said again. He had to feel his way through what he said next. It was both easy and hard to think the way Bucky Barnes would think. The Winter Soldier neither considered nor reflected: he had no past and no need for one. But Bucky Barnes had been the Winter Soldier. He would take that into account when he talked.
"Steve, I'm dangerous," he said at last. "You know I'm dangerous. You've seen it. You gotta be careful."
"I'm not afraid of you, Bucky," said Steve steadily. He met Bucky’s eyes for a long moment.
Bucky drew a breath for the next thing he had to say, but no words came.
"Well I'm scared out of my mind, so at least one of us is sane," Sam muttered. "Listen, Steve, I came here with a message from—" he glanced at Bucky "—a friend, but now I'm thinking maybe we've got more urgent things to worry about, so—"
"A mission?" the soldier said.
"I want it on the record that I have serious doubts about bringing him," Sam grumbled over his headset.
"Bucky and I work well together," said Steve’s voice in Bucky’s ear. "Always did. Thought you said I wasn’t allowed to leave him on my couch, anyway."
The soldier laughed, low, because Bucky would. He settled himself into the shadows of his perch. The weight of the sniper rifle was satisfying, his field of vision clear. He could see the faint shape of the Falcon waiting on top of a building opposite. The wings were extended, angular shapes in the gloom. He remembered destroying the last set, but did not waste time wondering where these ones came from.
The Falcon was not well hidden, but he did not need to be. Operatives on the level of their current targets were unlikely to remember to look up, and between them they could see every exit from the Hydra compound. The Captain was below. Bucky didn't like that he was going in alone, but there was information in his mind about bases like this one, ground plans and defenses and security systems, and he'd already relayed it. He knew the Captain's capabilities (hand to hand fighter, enhanced strength and healing, precise and tactical, team leader, dislikes civilian casualties, watch for the shield—)
Steve could handle himself.
He watched the exits and picked off the panicking Hydra operatives one by one when they tried to evacuate. He was aware that the Falcon was paying more attention to him than to their targets. He ignored it, breathed slow and deep, aimed and fired. He wasn’t leaving anything for the Falcon to do anyway. He was a valuable asset; he was effective, he was useful. Bodies fell one by one, in a world that was clear, that made sense. The Captain knew what he was supposed to do, and the soldier understood perfectly how to do it.
The Captain emerged from the base not via one of the exits, but through a wall, in a shower of brick and plaster dust. He was locked in combat with an operative dressed all in black. The two figures rolled over together, and there was no clear shot. The soldier watched through his crosshairs. The bounds and rebounds of the colorful shield were oddly soothing to observe.
(The Hydra operative was not, in the soldier’s expert opinion, a match for Captain America. Steve was breathing a little harder than usual, but with a slight smile around his mouth. He seemed to be enjoying himself.)
"Hey!" said the Falcon sharply in Bucky’s ear, and he realized his attention had slipped, that he’d failed to notice two more operatives emerging from the base and stalking towards the Captain. Both of these were more heavily armed than those who had tried to flee the base earlier, and they moved differently, heading towards Steve with confidence, with slow menace. There was something familiar about them, the soldier thought, and did not understand why he felt uneasy.
The Falcon was already throwing himself into an elegant dive. His wings snapped wide open and then folded as he dropped to engage the leftmost of the new hostiles. It glanced up and then rolled to the side just in time to avoid the diving attack. The soldier knew the Falcon was competent enough to distract it. He took aim at the other. His finger tightened on the trigger in the space between breaths: a perfect shot—
—and he was still watching through his scope so he saw his target’s reaction, unbelievably fast. The head turned very slightly upwards towards his perch, and then the hand came up and his bullet was snatched cleanly out of the air. There should have been a blood spray, but there was nothing.
There was a curse over his headset. "Did you see that?" the Falcon said in his ear. "How—Steve, watch out!"
But the warning was unnecessary. When the two hostiles saw that the Captain had dealt with his target, they both turned and ran, inhumanly fast. The soldier could have tried to drop them as they disappeared into the night. He did not. His hands were shaking.
On the ground the Captain and the Falcon were standing together looking down at the Captain’s erstwhile opponent. There was foam around the man’s mouth. He was very definitely dead.
"I only knocked him out," said Steve as Bucky came to join them. "He was the one giving the orders." He glanced in the direction the two heavily-armed hostiles had gone. It was unlikely they’d succeed in tracking them down now. "I thought."
"What were those guys?" Sam said. "One of them nearly grounded me. Went straight for the wings. Way faster than he looked." He made a face and added, "I think he scratched them up. And who catches a bullet like that?"
"I don’t know," said Steve.
The soldier said, quietly, "I could."
When they both looked at him he flexed his left arm. Metal moved against metal, whisper smooth. He avoided their eyes and didn’t think about why.
"Do you think they were like you, Bucky?" said Steve. "I mean—enhanced, like you. The arm."
That wasn’t what he’d meant. "I don’t know," the soldier said. Then he said it again: "I don’t know."
"Okay," said Steve after a pause. "We’re done here. We’ll report in and then—"
Bucky Barnes, he told himself, he had to beBucky Barnes. "And then I’m starving. Give us a break, Steve. There’s gotta be something good to eat in the future," he glanced at Sam for support, "Right?"
They sat on the couches in Steve's front room and ordered pizza. Sam spread his wings out on the floor and went over them clucking his tongue. "Son of a bitch," he said, "he did scratch them, look at that."
"They damaged?" said Steve.
"They can take worse," said Sam. "And I can do field repairs later. It’s just annoying, man." He patted the wings gently before he folded them up and put them away. "Where’s that pizza?"
The pizza was good. The soldier ate it steadily and listened to Steve telling Sam stories about the Howling Commandos between bites. Having Bucky with him on a mission seemed to have woken something in him—or maybe, the soldier thought, he was trying to convince Sam of something. Whichever it was, the words came out of him so freely that sometimes he was talking with his mouth full, and he switched from one thread to another, one mission in Belgium and another in France and a week on leave in London, like he couldn't pick which one to talk about. Every memory seemed to lead him on to half a dozen more, each one full of layers and layers of detail, things Steve had seen, heard, felt. He kept looking over at Bucky and grinning, that same crinkle-eyed smile that was getting to be familiar.
Bucky spoke now and then, when he could. He gave details from the books, the first-hand accounts he'd read. Sometimes he added things, or made them up, things that seemed right, that Bucky Barnes would have noticed. It was easy to do it. He let himself sink into the flow of Steve's storytelling until he almost felt like he did remember the events Steve was describing and the people he spoke of with such affection.
"And then Peggy came in—" Steve said.
"Wasn't she wearing a red dress?" said Bucky, a stab in the dark that felt like it was angled right.
He was rewarded with Steve's smile, which was huge. "Yeah, yeah she was. She looked like a million bucks. Of course you started flirting with her—"
"—can't blame a guy for trying—"
"And my heart sank," Steve explained, turning to Sam. "Bucky always got all the attention back home. I mean, he was the good-looking one, tall and handsome. He’d talk a couple of girls into a date with him and his friend—and then when I showed up, I was usually a head shorter than them. Talk about a disappointment."
"You know, I’ve seen pictures, but I still find it hard to imagine," Sam said, grinning. The soldier knew exactly what he meant, but couldn’t say me too. Bucky Barnes had known the small, sickly version of Steve Rogers much longer than the powerful weapon created by the serum. It was this one that should seem strange to him, not the other.
Steve laughed at Sam and carried on the thread of his story. “Sometimes he'd get me a girl for a double date and then pick her up too by the end of the night."
"You dog, Barnes," said Sam, but he was laughing. Bucky—dragged himself back into the moment, smirked, mimed a helpless shrug.
"So Bucky starts his routine on Peggy," said Steve, "and I think well, that's it, then."
"But she looked right through me," Bucky said. This story wasn't in any of the information he'd found but it didn't need to be. He knew the right answer because of everything else he knew about Steve Rogers, because of the way Steve sounded when he spoke about this woman. He looked at Steve for confirmation. "Didn’t she?"
Steve seemed to be holding his breath. He nodded very slightly.
"She didn't have eyes for anyone but Steve,” Bucky went on more confidently. “Smart dame."
"Yeah," said Steve, and his good humor faded a little. He was still smiling, if a little sadly, when he said, "Yeah, she always was."
"What happened to her?" said Sam.
"She got married after the war. Had kids. Helped found SHIELD. She's in her nineties now."
His tone of voice said there was more, and that he didn’t want to talk about it. Sam clearly understood. He nodded, solemn.
Bucky Barnes wouldn’t let Steve sit there looking like that. The soldier had to struggle, reaching for the right thing to say, and what came out of his mouth was, "In her nineties like us.”
Steve's smile went a little less wistful. He reached out and touched Bucky’s right arm, the human one, like he was grounding himself. "Yeah. Like us."
"Tonight's the most I've ever heard you talk about the war," said the Falcon. The soldier listened quietly from the shadowed hallway. He could just see the side of the Captain’s face from this position.
"I think it's the most I've talked about it since I woke up here.”
"Yeah," said the Captain. "Yeah." After a moment he went on, "You know, when I woke up after the ice, and everything was different, there were times I wondered if maybe I'd just dreamed my whole life while I was under there. If none of it was real. I stumbled out into Times Square the first day and I thought I’d lost my mind." He laughed a little bit. The soldier, memorizing, cataloging, thought it wasn’t a happy sound. "But right now," the Captain said, "I don’t feel crazy anymore."
"How do you feel?" the Falcon asked.
"Like—like maybe things are going to be okay." The Captain took a deep breath. "Sam, I thought this was going to be hell. It’s been hell. But now instead it’s—he’s remembering. He knows me. He came to me."
The Falcon cleared his throat. Discomfort. "Listen, Steve. I'm not going to say I get it, because I've got no clue how I would feel in your position. I think it would half kill me if someone I've lost, if—God, if Riley came back like that. I can see how much the guy means to you. And you know I’ve been there."
"I know," said Steve. "Sam—"
"But I think maybe I’m seeing a little clearer than you right now, so you gotta trust me, Steve. I’m telling you that sometimes when something seems too good to be true, it’s because maybe it is," the Falcon said. He was trying to be gentle about it, the soldier thought. "We still don’t know for sure why he came to you or what he thinks he’s doing here. It’s not so long ago he was trying to kill you. And the guy who dropped a couple of dozen Hydra operatives with headshots earlier this evening, I don’t think that’s necessarily the guy you remember."
"He's Bucky," said Steve. "He was always a sniper, he was always a fighter. We weren't kids playing around. It was a war."
"Yeah, no, I get that," said Sam. "But that's not what I'm talking about. Listen, for you it was an eye blink, right? You went down in 1945 and when you woke up it was the future and everything had changed but you. You, you stayed the same guy. But him—he turned into someone else in between, and we know almost nothing about that guy. Knowing nothing, that's what worries me."
Steve stayed quiet. The soldier breathed lightly, kept his stance loose. The metal fingers of his left hand twitched by his side.
"I'm really glad to meet your old friend Bucky, Steve," said Sam. "I think I could probably get to like your old friend Bucky. He seems like an okay guy. But that doesn't mean I like it that you've got the Winter Soldier sleeping on your couch. At the very least he needs debriefing, and I know you know that."
"Who’s going to debrief him?" said Steve. "SHIELD?" His tone made it clear what he thought of that. There was no SHIELD now.
"No. You need to call Natasha," said Sam. "You know you do."
"I—" said Steve. The soldier saw him glance towards the door.
Bucky walked back into the room. "Is there any of that pizza left?" he asked.
"Natasha means the Black Widow, doesn’t it?" he said when Sam was gone. She was an associate of the Captain’s. He’d listened to her conversations with him when he was scouting for details of the Captain’s life. He knew they were friends. He also knew that she was a fast, agile, deceptively strong and clever opponent in combat, though he had no idea how he knew that. The information was just there.
Steve gave him a wry look. "I was wondering how much of that you heard."
"I don’t," he began, and then stopped. Debriefing was correct, debriefing was what he required. Debriefing and then—
"I don’t want to talk to anyone. Not yet," he said.
Whatever Steve saw in his face made him look serious. "You don’t have to," he said. He touched Bucky’s human arm again, warm fingers against the inside of Bucky’s elbow, and then pulled his hand quickly away. Bucky didn’t understand any of that, so he ignored it. "I’m on your side," Steve said softly. "I promise."
Bucky slept on Steve's couch. He wore Steve's track pants and soft t-shirts which were too big for him until Steve went out and bought him some clothes. He only left the house a couple of times, after nightfall, to go running with Steve. He would have preferred not to do that either—something in him disliked the idea of walking around in public places, risking recognition for no reason—but Steve wanted it, said nothing but clearly wanted it, so Bucky suggested it. Steve was faster than he was, but slowed his pace to stay close to him.
His hair grew out a little of the ragged rough chop he'd given it. He tried slicking it back when Steve wasn't there but the result looked wrong, made his face too hollow. He practiced Bucky Barnes' expressions in the bathroom mirror in the mornings, the smirk and the smile and the quirked eyebrow. He watched the baseball on the TV. He listened to Steve.
"I never used to do so much of the talking," Steve said to him.
"I know," said Bucky.
"It's okay," said Steve quickly. "I know you've been through—I know. You don't have to talk till you want to."
"I want to, pal," said Bucky. "I just don't know what to say."
Steve still left spaces in everything he said, room for Bucky to comment on the story he was telling or make a joke or just plain interrupt him. It was like the rhythm of combat, strike and return, except the return was seldom there. Sometimes it would be obvious to the soldier what Bucky would think, what he'd say, how he'd nudge and tease. Sometimes he'd have no idea what was meant to go into the yawning gap. He didn't dare risk it and get it wrong.
The world of Steve's stories became familiar. He'd learned about the war, before he came in, but now he learned it from the inside. It made more sense the way Steve told it. There were objectives, targets, assets acquired or destroyed, mission outcomes to focus on. Steve never said it that way exactly, but the soldier could hear it in the shape of the stories, and he held onto it. Those things were pegs in his mind for all the other details Steve told him, intricate recollections of people and places and individual conversations, sights and sounds and smells and feelings. He learned about a Hydra cell eliminated in Poland and the coldest goddamn night, even I felt it; a counterintelligence mission in London and the cathedral never burned, they kept a fire watch on the roof right through the worst of the Blitz; a raid in support of the French resistance and do you know, even in the middle of all that, I've still never seen anything so beautiful as the Alps in the sunlight.
Bucky Barnes was always there, in the stories. "You always had my back," said Steve. "Right back to when we were kids."
The soldier nodded. Bucky Barnes had fought for Steve Rogers, defended him, attacked for him, followed him wherever he led. He had done his duty. He had already possessed this knowledge, but he still filed Steve’s words away, additional intel. He thought about them most days.
He had more dreams. Dreams meant he was overdue for a reset; he knew this. He should have reported them but no one asked. He still needed debriefing but Steve hadn’t said anything else about it.
In his dreams his mind rebuilt the world of Steve's stories, set photographs he'd seen of long-dead strangers into motion. He sat above them on a sniper's perch and eliminated hostiles. Sometimes he heard the sound of the shrieking wind in the night. It usually woke him up. He would lie there waiting to go back to sleep, and while he waited he thought about being Bucky Barnes. About what it would have been like to follow a man like Steve into war.
Once, and only once, he woke up to find Steve crouched down by him. He had a hand reached out, not quite touching Bucky's good shoulder. "I heard—you were—" he said, and then stopped.
Bucky waited, hardly breathing.
Steve took his hand away. "I'm not tired," he said. "I might watch a movie. Do you want to stay up with me?"
Bucky sat up, licked his lips. "Could you—talk?"
"Talk?" said Steve, sounding surprised.
"Talk. Say anything you like. Tell me about the old days."
"Does that help?"
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, it helps."
Steve switched the lights on. He sat on the floor near Bucky and started telling a story about New York, a fistfight Bucky had rescued him from. Bucky closed his eyes and listened, committing facts to memory. Sometimes he'd parrot back a memorized detail from one of Steve's stories a day or two later, making it sound as if it was something he remembered for himself. Steve liked that. He never caught on.
He was supposed to report it if he was having dreams. He was overdue for a reset.
He didn't say anything. Steve didn't make him.
Once when he woke with the howling wind in his ears he got up and went into Steve's room instead of lying there thinking. Steve was sleeping deep, his breathing slow, head turned sideways on the pillow. He slept in a wide sprawl, covers half kicked off the bed. The soldier looked at the strong shape he made in the half-dark. He looked very real.
He thought about a story the Captain had told about a mission in France, enemy patrols everywhere, all the Commandos on edge. Steve had described sleeping with his boots on and a hand on his gun. You had to sleep lightly when there was a threat in the darkness.
Bucky stood just inside the doorway and watched for a long while. He hardly noticed that he was slowing his own breathing to match the steady rise and fall of Steve's chest.
When the Black Widow arrived, she arrived with a mission.
"It should be simple," she said. "It's an underground bunker, and we think it's storage, not an active cell. It'll be hand-to-hand work if it's anything, but there's a good chance the place is empty. We're there for any intel we can find." Her eyes slid sideways over Bucky, but she didn't say anything to or about him. She'd barely reacted to Steve's introduction. Faced with her like this, as an ally instead of an opponent, the soldier wasn’t sure what to make of her.
Underground and hand-to-hand meant no Falcon. The Captain took point. The place was set up like a series of offices, but there was a thick layer of dust over everything. It had clearly been empty for a long time. Bucky would relax, be relieved, the soldier thought, but he couldn't do it. Something felt unpleasant. He had a slight persistent headache.
The Widow powered up a computer and bent over it. The Captain pulled a sheaf of papers out of a drawer and flicked through them, reading. The soldier stood in the shadows with his back to a wall and watched the doors.
He heard a scratching sound behind him an instant before the first attacker ploughed through the thin wall in a shower of dust.
Steve yelled, "Bucky!" and started towards him, and then two more figures burst through the wall opposite and he was fully occupied. Bucky instinctively brought his right hand up to block his attacker's chokehold and slammed his left fist back into the man's head with a blow that should have smashed his skull.
It left a slight dent. There was a ringing sound, metal on metal.
The robot reeled backwards a step or two, balance thrown. The soldier lunged at it. The other two were fully occupied with their own sudden attackers. It took him a moment to remember that Bucky would tell them. Before he could Steve had already made the same discovery and shouted, "They're robots! Look out—"
Natasha was already coolly adjusting her fighting style. Bucky—
—didn't like the metal arm—
—was a first rate hand-to-hand fighter—
"Bucky, just smash it!" roared Steve over to his right, and in his peripheral vision Bucky saw him set the shield on his arm and take out an android with a right hook that sent it flying into a wall with a crunching sound. It twitched, sparked, and lay still.
Bucky's attacker lunged for him again and this time he let instinct carry him. He set his stance and let the thing close with him. He dropped under the tackle, locked his metal fingers around its throat and wrenched. The android kept lashing out even when its head was bent back at an impossible neck-snapping angle. He twisted his arm sharply and its head came right off in a shower of sparks, revealing a mess of trailing wires. It was a clean kill; there was no spurt of arterial blood the way there would have been with a human opponent. He threw the head aside and turned, rising smoothly to his feet to face two more robots that had come through the gap in the wall. He was already assessing the threat—they would try to come up on his right side, which was weaker; the arm was a better weapon against these than a knife or a gun; he needed to—
The shield spun past his face in a colored flash, bounced off the wall beside him, and knocked the last two robots down like dominoes. The Widow fired two shots. Both hostiles slumped where they'd fallen.
"Armor-piercing rounds," the Widow said. "Main power source is shielded by the ribcage, but not well. It's on the right hand side. Secondary power in the skull. The other vulnerability is the throat, if you're strong enough."
There were six things that looked like human bodies scattered around them. "What are these things?" said the Captain. He gingerly picked up the head of the one the soldier had decapitated, looking unnerved. Its eyes flashed dully and it snapped its teeth at him.
"I don't know," said the Widow. "Hawkeye reported encountering one in Prague last month, but we thought it was a one-off. If I'd expected these tonight I would have warned you."
"We’ve seen them," the soldier said. Both of them looked at him. It was the first thing he’d said since the mission began. "The last mission. The one that caught the bullet. It was one of these."
The Captain nodded slowly. "That makes sense." He put down the head he was holding, oddly gentle. Bucky didn’t understand the gentleness until the Captain said uncomfortably, "They look a lot like people."
It was true, they did. The robots had realistic skin and hair, and they were wearing normal everyday clothes, things you might see on the street.
"Well, they're not," the Widow said.
The soldier said nothing.
The Widow nodded towards the series of gaps in the wall the robots had made when they erupted into the office. The corridor beyond was blue-lit and metallic. "Looks like this place is bigger than we thought. Shall we?"
They encountered no people, but there were four more squadrons of androids. They seemed to be patrols and they attacked on sight. They were tough opponents; each six-man squad was harder to beat than the last. "They're learning," said the Captain after the third encounter. "Is that possible?"
"Looks like it," said the Widow.
The blue-lit corridors led to a door marked COLD STORAGE. On the other side was a long room filled with rows of glass-fronted tanks, one robot per tank, hanging suspended in fluid with their eyes open. There were at least a hundred of them. Steve was obviously disturbed. Natasha only murmured, "But what are they for?"
Bucky walked towards a control panel at the far end of the room and put in the first password that occurred to him. "Codename: Winter Soldier. Acknowledged," bleated a synthesized voice from a speaker overhead.
"Bucky, what are you—" said Steve.
He felt rather than saw the Widow slip into a ready stance and take aim.
"Natasha!" said Steve.
There was a big red button on the far right of the control panel. It looked promising. He hit it. An alarm sounded. The blue lights in the tanks switched to red. "Command acknowledged," said the computer. "Destruction sequence initiated."
Something green began pumping through the clear fluid of the suspension tanks. The human-looking skin of the sleeping androids began to bubble and melt like plastic, revealing metal underneath which started to buckle in turn. Slurry dripped down to the bottom of the tanks. Bucky turned back to the others.
"Well, did you want to wake them up and fight them one at a time?" he said to Steve's shocked look.
Steve started to grin. "Would've taken a while, I guess."
Natasha kept her pistols aimed at Bucky. "What do you know about these things?" she demanded.
"Nothing,” said Bucky. “Nothing."
"Then how did you know what that would do?"
"Easy—" said Steve.
"I need an answer."
"I don't know," he said. "Sometimes I know things I don't know."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Steve hoist the shield on his arm. Natasha's eyes flicked sideways to Steve, and back to him. She slowly lowered her pistols. Her face was expressionless.
"Let's keep moving," she said.
A door leading off the tank room turned out to be an entrance to a laboratory. One wall was paneled with screens, and there were computers awake and humming. Natasha took a seat in front of one, glanced up at Bucky, and said, "Any chance you know the password for this one?"
He shook his head. He couldn't even remember what he'd used for the control panel ten minutes ago. Natasha's lips twisted and she turned to her work. Steve came and stood next to him, on his right side. Their shoulders were nearly touching. "Hey, Bucky," he said. "Want to help me look around?"
"Sure," said Bucky. "Why not?"
"Natasha's a cautious person," said Steve quietly. They were on the other side of the laboratory looking at an empty human-sized tank. "She's got lots of reasons to be. She'll see."
He nodded. Steve was standing very close to him. Close enough to touch if he wanted to.
"Don't let it get to you," Steve said. He did touch, then. His hand on Bucky’s elbow was a brief steadying pressure.
The soldier’s throat was dry, which was unacceptable. The tank was made of something clear, like glass. He could see the bank of computer screens through it, high as the ceiling. After a moment he managed to say, "Bit like Peggy, ain't she? Smart as a whip, scary as hell." He summoned up Bucky Barnes' smirk and aimed it at the Captain. "You always had a type, Steve? I forget."
Steve reddened under the Captain America cowl. "That's not—I mean—she's a colleague I respect a great deal, not—" He stopped. "Wait."
Bucky sniggered at him.
"That mean I've got a shot?" Bucky said. His mouth was running on automatic, saying the things it ought to say. He forced his eyes away from the tank.
Steve rolled his eyes. "You haven't changed a bit." He sounded fond.
"Captain," said Natasha across the room.
Steve went to her. Bucky stayed where he was. He tried not to look at the tank anymore but his eyes kept going back to it. He made himself look through it and observe the wall on the far side instead. The rows of screens were blank.
Suddenly both Natasha and Steve let out exclamations.
In the same moment every screen in the room flashed green and shattered. Broken glass went everywhere. When it was done the only thing left in the laboratory that didn't look broken was the big tank.
"Failsafe," said the Widow, standing up. "We're not getting anything else out of this place. Let's go."
The soldier followed them. He didn't say anything about the face he'd seen looking out of every screen in the instant before they'd broken. He wanted to, but his mouth wouldn't make the words.
They ran into a final patrol on the way out, half-size, only three androids. One of them targeted Bucky immediately, going for his weaker right side. It looked like a fair-haired young woman and it was quick, unpredictable, deadly; it moved like the Widow.
He eliminated it.
When he looked up both the Captain and the Widow were still in combat. The android wrestling with the Captain had the appearance of a heavyset man and was making effective use of moves it had clearly adapted from its opponent. That explained the similarity to the Widow as well. The robots did learn, he thought.
The Widow was exchanging blows with a thing that fought like the Winter Soldier. She had to be out of bullets—no, it had disarmed her. Her pistols were on the ground and out of reach. It must have done that first, fast. It was what he would have done. The Widow seemed unfazed. She was striking hard and then ducking away, trying to trick it into giving her an opening. It wouldn't do that, he knew, not if it was being him. Why was she—
"Captain, a little help," she said briskly, and the soldier saw that she was angling it so Steve would have room to distract it with the shield while she went for her weapons.
Teamwork. But the Captain was fully occupied.
Bucky moved before he thought about it, stayed out of the thing's line of sight as he went for one of the Widow's pistols. He aimed and fired in the same motion. The first bullet sang past the Widow's flank and took the robot in the hip joint. The Widow took the opportunity to wrench the slightly disabled android around and gave him a clear second shot at the primary power source.
The Captain dropped his defeated opponent and pivoted with his shield at the ready only to find Bucky and Natasha staring at each other over the twitching, sparking robot. Bucky mutely held out Natasha's pistol to her. It was a Glock 26; it had a custom grip, slightly too small for his hand.
"Thanks," said Natasha.
"Good work, Bucky," said Steve. He came over and clapped Bucky on the shoulder briefly, gave him a grin.
Hearing the Captain’s praise felt like—like having Steve’s hand touch his elbow. Warm.
He could do this. He could get this right.
"So. Bucky Barnes," said Natasha back at Steve's apartment. She smiled at him, slow and sly. "Nice shooting."
"Aw, it was nothing," said Bucky.
"Not exactly nothing," said Natasha, and she took a sip of her beer and uncrossed her legs, smile broadening.
Bucky was very aware of the way Steve looked between the two of them like he thought he was noticing something. He leaned forward, opened up his body language to mirror hers, returned her smile.
Steve stood up abruptly and said, "I’m getting another beer."
"Of course you've always been a good shot," Natasha said while Steve was in the kitchen. She was still smiling at him, and she tapped her own abdomen with two fingers, above the hip. When he looked blank she lifted her eyebrows. "You don't remember? Steve made it sound like you were getting things back."
"I... there's a lot I don't know," said Bucky. He shrugged.
"And sometimes you know things you don't know," said Natasha. "Well—"
She lifted the bottom of her shirt and pressed three fingers against the exposed pale skin. Her body language was inviting; he looked at her the way Bucky Barnes would look, seeing a beautiful dame being friendly, making a silent suggestion, and let himself grin. In the corner of his eye he saw Steve come back into the room with a couple of beers and pause, watching.
"Don't know if this jogs your memory," said Natasha, framing a white scar on her abdomen with her fingers, "but that was you. Bullet straight through me and into your target." She flashed him another million-watt smile.
"Natasha," said Steve. He didn’t sound pleased.
The soldier stared at the scar. It didn't jog his memory. He had no recollection of a mission that had ended that way. But there was the evidence in front of him, proof that it had happened, a physical mark he'd left, something real. He had a past.
It took him a moment to remember that Bucky Barnes would feel something. He would probably apologize. "I'm sorry—" he began.
"Don't be," said Natasha. "All part of the job."
She pulled her shirt back down, stroked the fabric like she was putting it back in place, and smiled at him again, something warm and secret in her eyes. He didn't avoid the eye contact. Didn’t let himself want to.
She flirted with him all evening and he flirted back. Known for his charm especially with women, he thought.
He was aware of Steve watching him, both of them, expression hard to read. There were moments, though, when something Bucky said made him hide a smile in his beer, and the soldier found himself judging how well he was doing at being Bucky Barnes by keeping an eye on how much Steve was smiling. A slight innuendo got him a muffled laugh; a more vulgar one drew out a disapproving look, although the part of him that was focused on keeping the flirtation going noticed that Natasha seemed amused. He couldn’t decide whether Bucky Barnes would rein himself in after Steve’s disapproval, or keep going in order to wind him up. Both seemed plausible. He went with the former; it was safer.
"Well, I have a report to make," Natasha said some time after midnight. She stood up and stretched. "Any messages for our mutual friend, Steve?"
Steve shook his head, seemed to hesitate, and then blurted. "You know, you're welcome to stay, I don't mind. I mean, Bucky and I don't mind—anyway," he said. He went red and drank some more of his beer. Bucky and Natasha exchanged a look, both of them trying not to laugh.
"No, I don't think so," Natasha said. "Get up, Sergeant Barnes, you can walk me to the door."
"Uh—" said Bucky. She walked past him with a swish of her hips and leaned against the door frame, waiting, with a small smile on her lips. Bucky met Steve's eyes and after a second Steve gave him an encouraging look and a tiny nod.
He got up and went with Natasha to the front door. She stepped through it, stood in the hallway outside and tilted her head. She wanted him to come closer, and Bucky would, so he did. She put a hand on his left shoulder, touching metal through the fabric of his shirt.
"I'm really glad Steve's got you back," she said quietly. "He's missed you a lot. He talked about you all the time."
"He did?" said Bucky.
"He did,” said Natasha. “He'd tell stories, like—oh, the time you both rode the Cyclone at Coney Island, and he was sick after. Or the time when you were kids and you got lost in Central Park. Little things. You know how Steve remembers."
"Yeah," he said. "I know."
"When Steve loves people he loves them hard," she said. Her eyes were shadowed. "He missed you. He needs looking after sometimes."
"I always looked after him," Bucky said. That was true. He always had. The Captain had told him as much.
Natasha moved her hand from his shoulder to his chest, stood on tiptoe and kissed him. She felt small and strong and warm. He didn't move his left arm. He put his right hand on her side, where the white scar was. His body seemed to know what to do even if he didn't. Her mouth was soft, slightly wet. He wondered if this was how kissing was supposed to feel.
Natasha broke the kiss first and stepped away. "Good night," she said, and disappeared into the dark before he could answer.
When he went back into the front room Steve looked up and raised an eyebrow. "She kissed me," Bucky said.
Steve’s lashes fanned against his cheeks as he glanced down and away for a second. Then he looked up again and smiled. "Yeah?"
"Gimme that beer," said Bucky. "It ain't gonna work on you anyway."
In the morning he said to Steve, "Do you remember riding the Cyclone?"
Steve did. Bucky remembering it too made him grin all over his face. He talked about it right through breakfast, and the soldier drank in the details. "Yeah, and you were sick," he said at exactly the right moment.
Steve groaned. "Of all the things to stick in your head," he said ruefully, but he was laughing.
Steve got a phone call a few days later. It was brief. Bucky listened to him say, "Huh, I—sure." He ended the call and looked at Bucky. "Natasha says she needs to meet me," he said. "She must have more information about those robots. I'll see you later?"
He nodded, and didn’t let the warning that was shrieking in his head show on his face.
He gave Steve ten minutes before he left the house. It was the first time he'd been out in daylight. He left by a window and climbed up to the rooftops. Steve was easy to follow. The soldier tracked him to a tea shop full of students. Natasha was sitting at one of the outdoor tables, leather jacket slung over the chair and sunglasses on top of her head. She had a pile of books on the table and a backpack on the floor, like she was just another student.
"What's going on?" Steve said, dropping into the chair opposite her.
"I need to talk to you about the Winter Soldier," said Natasha calmly.
Steve frowned. "Don't call him that."
"If you're referring to the man currently living in your apartment and sleeping on your couch, there's nothing else to call him."
"He's not Bucky Barnes," said the Black Widow.
"Natasha, you don't understand," said Steve.
"Steve, listen to me. That man is not who he's claiming to be."
"Do you think I don't know him?" said the Steve. "I know him better than anyone, Natasha. I know who he is. He's the one who came to me. He still doesn't remember everything, but—"
"He said it in exactly those words, didn't he?" said the Widow. "He came to you and said, I don't remember everything."
"He doesn't remember anything, Steve. He won't have told you any direct lies. I doubt he's capable. But he's playing Bucky Barnes because you want Bucky Barnes. There's plenty of information out there on both of you—I've done successful deep cover operations based on less intel than you'd find at the Smithsonian exhibit alone. The Winter Soldier is a highly skilled covert operative and he knows how to play a role."
"No," said Steve after a moment. "It's not like that. He remembers things—he knows things he couldn't know—"
"—unless he was there? Or unless he had a reliable source who was there?”
Steve said nothing.
“You, Steve.” She was, the soldier thought, trying to be gentle. Like Sam, before. “He's taking his cues from you."
"No," said Steve. "Listen, just this morning he remembered—"
"—an incident in Central Park," said the Black Widow. "Which is a story you told me and which I fed to him when I last saw you."
Steve fell abruptly silent.
"And a few days ago he 'remembered' the Cyclone, which is another one I gave him. He generally leaves at least three days between getting something out of you and feeding it back to you as his own memory. He hasn't mentioned a single thing about his experiences as the Winter Soldier in the last few days—or in the entire time he's been with you. Am I wrong?"
She waited for a moment, but Steve still stayed quiet. It was a terrible silence.
"If he's regaining memories he should be getting those too," said the Widow. "He is the Winter Soldier, Steve. He's lying to you." The soldier saw her take something out of her backpack and set it on the table. He wasn't close enough to see what it was, but he could guess. The Captain wouldn't believe what he was being told without evidence. The Widow would have brought evidence. Audio recordings, probably—word for word comparisons. That would be enough.
The Captain didn't look at it. "And why the hell would the Winter Soldier do that?" he said.
"Because he's a soldier, and a soldier takes orders! Do you think they put a killer like that into cold storage without building in a way to control him when they took him out again? The Winter Soldier does what his handlers tell him to do, and we took down Pierce and left him flapping loose. He's playing Bucky Barnes because he's imprinted on you like a baby duckling. He'll do anything you want. If you want him to watch baseball and eat pizza he'll do that, and if you told him to go and shoot the President he'd do that."
The Captain let out a sharp breath, like he'd been hit. The Widow went on ruthlessly, "I'm not telling you this to hurt you, Steve. I'm telling you because you need to know."
"You think he'll be volatile. Unpredictable."
"No, he's entirely predictable. If you point a loaded gun at someone and pull the trigger, you know exactly what's going to happen next. You're holding the gun, Steve."
Steve said, "No."
Even from a distance the soldier could see the pity flicker across the Black Widow’s face. He did not wait to hear what else she said. He got up and left. He went back to the Captain's apartment. The bug was on the doorframe, where the Widow had posed invitingly, waiting for him to walk her to the door.
He picked it up between his metal fingers and crushed it. Then he swept the rest of the house. He found three others and crushed them too. He only remembered afterwards that the last had been one of those he'd planted himself when he started watching Ste—
When he started observing the Captain.
Stupid. Stupid to underestimate the Black Widow. Stupid to relax even for a moment. He'd done what Bucky Barnes would have done; but Bucky Barnes had been stupid, must have been stupid, or he would never have fallen, never have died, never have been taken, never have failed so badly.
"Stupid," he said out loud without meaning to, and nearly startled at the ugly unfamiliar sound of his own voice.
He sat down on the couch where he slept, where he dreamed the dreams Steve let him keep, and stared at nothing. He could have left before the Captain came back. But there was no one else with any use for him.
A cold detached voice in his mind pointed out that the Captain too had no use for the Winter Soldier. The Captain wanted Bucky, who had fallen from a bridge more than seventy years ago and never been seen again. He closed out the thought because he could not endure it. He called up instead the world of the Howling Commandos and their war, the world of Steve's stories. After so many nights lying here in the dark thinking about it the whole thing bloomed easily in his mind. He ran through a list of all their names, the people Steve had known, and then all the places, huge spaces opening up for him, right across America and right across Europe, France and Belgium and Italy, the Alps never seen anything as beautiful and England where Peggy came from, Steve and a row of chorus girls Deborah Sally Stella Jane selling war bonds in Oklahoma and Illinois and Virginia, and then he thought of New York, then Brooklyn, where Steve and Bucky grew up together, which he could not picture at all.
If only you could remember, said that same cold voice, but he could not. He knew he could not. He had tried.
The shriek of the wind sounded around him. He sat there staring at the wall until Steve came home.
He heard the Captain come in but didn't look up. There was the sound of the door closing, and quiet for a moment. He knew he was being watched. He wondered what Steve was seeing.
"Bucky—" the Captain began, and then cut himself off.
There were footsteps. Steve's bottom half entered his line of sight. He would have to look up to see the rest of him. Then the Captain might require him to say something.
The Captain didn't command him to look up. He crouched down instead. Doubt and worry were at war in his face. The soldier discovered as the Captain looked at him that waiting made it worse.
He said, "I underestimated her," and watched Steve's expression change.
It was not pleasant to watch.
"You really don't remember anything, do you," said the Captain eventually, very quietly.
He said nothing. But he wasn't allowed to lie to his handlers. He shook his head.
The Captain dropped his gaze, swallowed hard, and said, "Why—" before he stopped.
In the long quiet that followed he thought he could hear the howl of wind rushing past him. Falling from a great height, he thought. Bucky Barnes had been afraid when he died.
"Give me a mission," he said.
The Captain jerked his head up. "What?"
"Send me away, but give me something to do. Give me a mission."
Steve looked appalled. "Bucky, I'm not gonna—"
"A mission," the soldier insisted. Something in his head was screaming at him. He wasn't supposed to speak to his superiors like this. The asset did not make demands. "Send me to kill someone—take out a Hydra base, anything."
"Is that what you want?" demanded the Captain.
If he couldn’t be Bucky at least he could—
"Yes," said the Winter Soldier.
But there was no mission.
He could see why not. He was damaged; he was compromised; he was overdue for a reset. He had underestimated the Widow. He had no evident value. He would wait, and hope for a further opportunity to prove himself. Even if he wasn’t the man the Captain wanted, he could be useful. He was a valuable asset.
The Captain kept him in his home. A day passed, and another, and another. The soldier ate, and slept, and woke, as his body demanded. He grew very familiar with the pattern of cracks in the wall that faced the couch.
The Captain kept talking to him at first. He stumbled over Bucky's name when he used it. The second time that happened he stopped himself, and his jaw tightened. After that he said 'Bucky' without any hesitation every time he addressed him, with a little too much emphasis on the name, as if by saying it he could make it true. The soldier answered if he was asked a direct question. Otherwise he did not speak. There was no point in telling lies anymore, and nothing else to say.
The Captain tried sitting down next to him. The soldier flinched away from the warm press of his hand, and then forced himself not to. He was not supposed to react that way. He was not supposed to react at all. He had not controlled himself fast enough to prevent the Captain seeing. Steve looked, briefly, devastated, and did not try to touch him again.
Some days passed. The soldier’s dreams were getting more varied and more frequent, images bursting open inside his head in bright jangles of color and pain. He woke up four times on the third night ears ringing with a howl that had not happened. The fourth time he woke the Captain was in the room looking at him. He came closer and said, "Bucky—"
He was going to ask. Dreams meant he was overdue for a reset. Something must have shown on the soldier's face. He was failing, he was failing, he could not control himself. The Captain stopped, didn't come any closer, and began, "Would it still help if I—"
He didn't finish the question. He came closer, not touching, and sat at the soldier’s feet. He licked his lips and said, "Did I ever tell you about the time Becca—your sister Becca—wanted to go swimming? Summer of ’35, and we—"
"Stop," said the soldier. Hazy panic was rising out of nowhere in his mind. "Stop."
Steve stopped mid-word. He looked up, waiting. The soldier said nothing else. He turned his face away so he didn’t have to see Steve’s look. It was a weakness to do so, but the Captain did not admonish him.
"I can go," Steve said finally.
The soldier nodded very slightly, and did not look to see the expression on Steve’s face. There was a pause. Then he listened to Steve’s footsteps going away.
He did not attempt to sleep any longer. He did not require very much sleep to be functional. He lay there and listened to Steve’s footsteps in the other room.
They kept going on and off all night. The Captain was not sleeping either.
Then it was the fourth day. Shortly after sunrise the Captain came in and said, determinedly bright, "I'm going running with Sam, Bucky. Do you want to come?"
The soldier said nothing.
"Okay," said Steve, and took a deep breath. “I'll bring back breakfast."
Since an acknowledgment was required he nodded. The Captain left. He remained seated where he had been for the last several hours. He looked at nothing. He did not think about the Commandos, or your sister. He did not think about any of Steve's memories. He no longer had any justification for doing so.
He heard the Captain coming back in two hours later, the rattle of the door and footsteps in the hall. "—killing me," the Captain was saying. "He was quiet before but this is like—it's like there's no one home. I need help here, Sam. I don't know what to do."
"You can't always know what to do, Steve," said the Falcon.
Bucky stood up.
"Just last week he was—he wasn't okay, but he was talking. He was even cracking jokes. He laughed." There was a pause. "You told me it was too good to be true," the Captain added. He sounded tired.
"It’ll be okay, Steve," said the Falcon.
"I hope you’re right. I just don't want to believe there's nothing left of him. And you know, I don't believe it. Even if he never remembers he's still—he came to me, and I don’t care why. Hydra’s got to be looking for him, and he knew that, and he came to me."
A long pause.
“Sorry,” said Steve. “You must be sick of hearing me talk about this."
The Falcon still did not reply. Bucky curled his hands into fists.
The Captain came into the front room. He looked surprised to see the soldier on his feet. He was carrying a plastic shopping bag. "I got breakfast, Bucky," he said gesturing with it. Sam came into the room behind him, his face still creased with sympathy.
The soldier snarled and sprang at him.
Sam went down hard and cracked his head on a side table. Half a dozen books crashed to the floor along with Steve's sketch pad and an empty coffee cup. The Captain yelled, "Bucky—Bucky!" but he didn't listen. Then Steve's arms were around him, dragging him back. He watched his target get up, his mind already sinking into the cool calm emptiness of a real fight.
The target was watching him warily, rubbing his head where he'd hit it. The Captain let the soldier go. He held up his hands, unarmed, and started talking in a calming tone. Sam was trying to edge behind him, put the wall of Steve's body between himself and Bucky. The window was on his other side. An escape route.
The soldier estimated the distances, compensated for the impediment of the Captain in his way, feinted left and then moved right. He vaulted the couch while Steve was half a second behind and threw himself straight into a tackle that pinned the Falcon to the ground. Had to keep him down. "Kill you," he grunted. "I'll kill you."
Sam twisted under him and shouted for Steve. There wasn't time.
He made a fist with his left hand and punched straight down into the right side of the Falcon's chest.
Metal crunched. Sparks flew.
Until that moment he really hadn't been sure.
Whoever was making the robots had upgraded the design. Taking out the primary power source didn't seem to slow the thing. Cover broken, it started fighting back for real. It was much, much stronger than Sam Wilson. It tried to choke him. His vision went spotty, but he ripped its arm out of the socket left-handed. Then it grabbed him by the scruff of the neck with its remaining hand and threw him into the wall in an arc no human being could ever have managed, not even the Captain. He both felt and heard the crack of a breaking rib. His vision blurred. He tasted blood. He stood up again. He was not supposed to be hindered by pain.
The robot got to its feet as if it was unaware of its missing arm and the massive hole in its chest. The soldier threw himself between it and the window; it hissed at him, a sound that should never have been coming out of the Falcon's body, and came in low. They grappled again, and this time the soldier had his metal hand around its throat; if he could just get the leverage, he could wrench its head off, as he had with the androids they'd encountered before. He dug his fingers into the slight give of synthetic skin, feeling the too-strong resistance of metal bone underneath. The android didn't give him time to finish the movement. With a sudden twist of its spine that was well outside the range of human movement, it flipped him over. For a moment the soldier was looking up into brown eyes that still looked very much like Sam Wilson's. The thing could kill him easily now. Instead it frowned.
"Winter Soldier," it said.
Then it twisted again and with a swift, calculated efficiency it seized his left leg in two places and applied pressure. Its terrible strength was more than enough to snap bone.
There were two loud cracking sounds.
The struggle had taken a matter of seconds.
The part of the soldier's mind that was not consumed by his body's sudden terrible agony, damage sustained, and the awareness of bone ripping through his skin, registered that it had chosen to disable him, not eliminate. Even as he had the thought it lurched towards the window. There was a faint mechanical whir and then metal wings spread from its shoulder blades, ripping its shirt open. They erupted straight through the skin on the android's back.
There was a colored flash as Captain America's shield spun past him and knocked the thing off-balance. It stumbled.
The Captain leapt between it and Bucky and seized one of the wings. He used it as leverage to haul the android back and flip it over. His strength was a match for the thing. He punched it in the face. He kept punching it in the face until it didn't have Sam Wilson's face anymore. Only when the thing had completely stopped moving and its metal skull was mostly fragments did he stop and look over at where the soldier was still on the ground.
The soldier coughed. "Its voice was wrong," he said. His throat felt raw. His leg was injured badly enough that he doubted he could stand. "Recordings. And its tread was wrong. It was too heavy."
There was an awful look on Steve’s face as he stared down at the remains of the android. He crouched and touched a scratch on the metalwork of the wings that sprouted from its back. The soldier remembered Sam spreading out his wings on the floor the night they got pizza, complaining about scratches. The pattern of damage was the same. If he could see it, then the Captain with his perfect visual memory definitely could. When Steve looked up and met Bucky's eyes, the shock and fear was written large on his face. "God, Bucky," he said. "If you hadn't—"
Then his expression changed and he said, "You're hurt."
"Functional," the soldier said, which was an obvious lie. A stupid thing to say when there was bone sticking out of your leg, a clear compound fracture; when you were manifestly not in working order. Steve clearly thought so too; his expression was briefly incredulous, and then he was there very close, gentle hands poking and prodding, investigating.
"We ought to get you to a hospital," he said, and then his gaze went back to the broken remains of the android copy of his friend and he looked sick.
The soldier said, "There'll be a trail. Call the Black Widow. Go find him."
The Captain looked torn. There was no reason for him to do so. The Winter Soldier was perfectly capable of taking care of himself. Sam was Steve's good friend. Then Steve said, "I'm not leaving you here bleeding, you hear me?"
The soldier could have cursed his broken leg. He'd allowed himself to be damaged and rendered useless and now he was holding the Captain back from what he really wanted to do. "Set it and splint it," he said. "I heal fast."
The Captain hesitated. "How fast?"
It was clear he was hoping for the Winter Soldier's assistance on his rescue mission. The soldier felt a stab that had nothing to do with his broken ribs at the understanding that it was impossible. "Not as fast as you," he said. He knew his own specifications; could reel them off for a handler who was unfamiliar with his capabilities and required more information. He was his own help manual. He began to recite it: "Hairline fracture, sixteen hours. Simple fracture, twenty-eight hours—"
"Okay," said Steve, holding up his hand; he'd gone slightly pale, tight-lipped. The soldier wondered, for the first time, how exactly it was that Hydra had learned these things which he was expected to know about himself. The simplest way to find out would have been to break Bucky Barnes' body in various ways and time how long it took to fix itself. The Captain's expression made sense, then: he would not like to consider those things happening to a man he had known. His touch on the soldier's human arm, gentle, also made sense, considered in those terms.
"Set it and splint it," the soldier said again. "Then go. Don't—"
"These things are Hydra," Bucky said. "Don't leave him with Hydra."
The Captain closed his fingers around the soldier's arm in a sudden tight squeeze. "I won't," he said.
Steve had a well-stocked medical kit in his bathroom. He dealt quickly with the soldier's injuries, touching him with gentle, knowledgeable hands, setting and splinting the broken leg, taping up the ribs. His mother, the soldier knew, had been a nurse. He had memorized that detail weeks ago.
All of it hurt, but he tried not to make noise. He suspected the Captain heard him anyway.
When the work was done, the Captain said, "Come on, Buck." His superhuman strength made it much easier for him to get the soldier to his bed than it would have been otherwise. When Bucky was lying flat and more or less comfortable, the Captain said, "Okay?"
A request for current status. The soldier nodded. Okay.
"Okay," said Steve. He passed his hand briefly over the soldier's hair, a kind of benediction, and his face did something unreadable. "I'll be back," he said.
The soldier nodded again.
From where he was lying he could see the Captain scooping up the shield in the next room. He heard the beginnings of the cell phone conversation with the Black Widow. "Natasha," Steve said, and from the terrible shake in his voice it was very clear how tightly he had been controlling his emotions while he saw to the soldier's injuries. "Someone's got Sam."
Then the door to the apartment closed behind him.
Two days passed. The soldier's damaged ribs healed quickly; the bruises quicker still. The damaged leg was slower to recover, but by the end of the second day he could hobble around the apartment fairly easily, although it was not comfortable. The remains of the android were where they had fallen. They did not appear to have moved.
The Captain did not return.
Captain America was highly able; the Black Widow equally so. But the soldier found he felt something. It was a physical gnawing in him, like the extremes of hunger, when he thought that the Captain might have encountered an enemy that was beyond him. He did not know for sure if this gnawing was something he was supposed to feel, but he suspected not. He told himself he did not feel it. He continued to watch the remains of the android for signs of movement, though there were none. He tried not to think about Steve.
On the second day, watching sunlight crawl across the carpet and light up the twisted metal edges of the android's empty arm socket, it suddenly occurred to him that no one would know if he did.
No one was interested in him; no one asked about his dreams; no one had debriefed him. No one wanted to know what was in his mind. He was alone. No one would ever find out. He could think about Steve as much as he wanted.
So he did.
He stopped sitting on the couch all day. More days passed and he paced the rooms of Steve's home, picking things up and putting them back in their places, and thought about Steve. There was a strange pleasure in being able to think and not sift his own thoughts for information on how to be Bucky Barnes. He let things come the way they wanted, and they came disjointedly, brightly, almost like his dreams: pieces of Steve's stories mixed up with other things, like Steve letting him in, and giving him clothes, and bringing him food even when he knew that it wasn't his old friend Bucky waiting for him, not even a little, not really.
Strange things occurred to him. He had already known that the Captain was in some way exceptional. That was clear from the books, from the truths around the edges of Steve's stories, from the evidence of the soldier’s own failure to prevent him from blowing up Project Insight. This was information he had gathered. But after thinking and thinking and thinking he arrived at a thought which was not information received, which was his own: the reason that the Captain was exceptional was not his tenacity, his intelligence, his impressive combat skills or his sheer physical excellence, but the fact that he was Steve, and Steve was good.
He could not remember ever having a thought like that before.
Steve was good. He was good. He was kind, he was careful, he valued things that other people did not value. He chose his own fights, he chose the right fights, and somehow he always knew which ones those were. And he showed concern for the sickening remnant of a man who had once been his friend, because when he loved people he loved them hard—
He looked up and found his pacing had carried him into Steve's bedroom. He sat down heavily on Steve's bed. It was neatly made. As inevitably as a train being carried along its appointed tracks he found his mind turning to the next thought. If Steve was good, what was he? He was not like Steve. The memory of a white scar framed between Natasha Romanov's fingers came to him. He had a past. He didn't know most of it, but it had happened.
He guessed that on the whole he was probably not good.
That was why Sam had sounded worried when he said we know almost nothing about that guy, and it was why Natasha had taken steps to expose him. Both of them gentle with Steve, knowing his weakness. He remembered saying in Bucky's Brooklyn accent that Steve needed to be careful. He clenched his fists, flesh and metal. Steve didn't have the sense he was born with. He would probably try to keep a brain damaged killer with Hydra programming on his couch indefinitely.
Steve was an idiot.
Thoughts were coming quickly and clearly now. It didn't feel like the cold focus he had when there was a mission and a target. It felt better. Steve had asked him not to leave, but Bucky didn't have to listen. He didn't have to listen. He could go. He could go and he should go. It would be for Steve's own damn good.
He was on his feet before he understood what he'd heard, knife in hand, heart racing. He hadn’t even realized he had a knife on him until he was holding it.
"Easy," said a voice he didn't recognize. A man stepped out of the shadows near Steve's bedroom door. He was wearing an old jacket which strained over his broad shoulders, and opaque black sunglasses which hid his eyes completely, but he did not look as though those clothes belonged on him. "It was not my intention to startle you," he said.
The man had one hand hidden. A gun behind his back. Cautious, but not intentionally threatening. But he was inside Steve's home, where he had no right to be.
"Do you know who I am?" said the man.
The name was in his head although he had no memory of ever being told it. He licked his lips. "Fury," he said. "Nicholas J."
"Mr. Barnes," said Fury, Nicholas J.
That had been proven untrue. He shook his head.
Fury's eyebrows drew together in a frown that was clearly visible even behind opaque sunglasses. "If you think I'm going to call you Mr. Soldier, first name Winter, then you are mistaken."
"Why are you here?" he said.
"Not for a social call," said Fury. "A mutual acquaintance of ours asked me to look in on you. He said you were injured." He stepped forward, putting away the gun inside his jacket as he did so. It was still within easy reach. Not easy enough to save him if the soldier decided to kill him, though. Fury had to know that, but he showed no sign of fear. He said, "I see that you are not. You heal quickly.”
After a moment the soldier nodded.
“Good,” said Fury. “Because it is my hope that you are a man in need of a mission."
He drew in a breath. A mission. A chance. "Yes. Yes."
"I'm glad to hear it. There was a time when if I needed an experienced operative I had a dozen high rated agents on call. Unfortunately it appears that ninety-five percent of them were never working for me, and since then as a dead man my options have become limited."
He was moving as he talked. The Winter Soldier kept shifting his weight to keep him in view. The knife was a steady weight in his hand.
"Most of what I have remaining is currently involved in a very delicate rescue operation in Central America." Fury went on. He paused and tilted his head very slightly. "I can inform you that at the time of their last report a few hours ago Captain Rogers and Agent Romanov had the situation under control."
The gnawing inside him stopped, then, for the first time in days. Steve was okay. His face was doing something he didn't mean it to. He had to force it back into blankness, and he knew Fury had seen.
"Was it the Captain," he said, "who told you I was here." His voice sounded rusty and he forgot to make it go up at the end for a question.
Fury inclined his head.
The soldier swallowed, lowered the knife, and then raised it again. "Tell me about the mission."
Even with the sunglasses in the way he could tell Fury was watching the knife. It was in the way he stood. "You are aware that somebody out there has been manufacturing hyperrealistic androids with advanced combat capabilities," he said. "We know it has something to do with Hydra. We keep finding the damn things in their bases. Now I've received intelligence that leads me to believe Hydra are not just deploying but actually building these things on American soil. Or rather, under it." He reached into his jacket but brought out a file instead of the gun. He threw it onto Steve's bed, where the soldier could reach it. "A massive installation under an abandoned meat packing factory in Chicago," he said. "Capable of storing several thousand androids in tanks similar to the ones I understand you've seen. We don't know what Hydra is planning to use them for, but I somehow doubt it'll be a peacekeeping initiative. The mission is simple, Mr. Barnes. That place could be hiding an army. I want it gone."
He didn't pick up the file. "This isn't a mission for an assassin," he said.
"No, Mr. Barnes, it's a mission for an army, but I haven't got one of those. I've seen you in action and I consider that you are the next best thing."
"You don't know that I'm not Hydra. They made me. They could still control me."
"I'm very aware of that," said Fury. "The only thing I have to go on here is Captain Rogers' trust."
Bucky's breath caught.
He stared mutely at Fury, Nicholas J., whom he did not remember ever seeing before, though Fury clearly knew something about him. Fury's expression gave nothing away.
It was a mission. It would take him away; when Steve rescued Sam and came home he would be gone, and that was good. His thoughts began to settle into straight lines. He nearly reached for the file. He only stopped because a possibility occurred to him.
"What if you're another android?" he said.
"What would convince you that I am not?" said Fury after a moment.
"Take off your sunglasses," he said.
Fury did, slowly. The scarred ruin of his bad eye looked stark and white against his dark skin. The soldier stalked closer, still holding the knife, creeping inside Fury's space. He picked an angle that meant he was not easy for a man with limited peripheral vision to see. He was aware of the way Fury tensed. When he got close enough he put the flat of his knife against Fury's face, under his bad eye, and then slid it across so it was under his good one.
The eye swiveled, following him, not the knife. Fury did not move. His breathing picked up, perhaps—very slightly.
He turned the knife sideways and flicked a cut across Fury's cheekbone. It started to bleed almost at once.
He stepped back.
"They don't bleed," he said.
He deliberately put the knife away. He could take it out again if he needed it. Just as deliberately he turned his back on Fury and picked up the file which was still lying on Steve's bed. He opened it, read the contents through once, and put it down again. He would remember.
He could be useful.
"I'll do it," he said.
Fury nodded. "Then don't waste time, Mr. Barnes," he said. "It's a long way to Illinois."
Bucky looked around Steve’s bedroom. He picked up a leather jacket which belonged to Steve and shrugged it on. He had two knives on him. He could pick up the rest of his weapons from the empty safe house where he'd stashed them. Fastest and safest was over the rooftops, off the streets. He paused with one foot on the window ledge when he thought of something else.
"Codename," he said.
"Excuse me?" said Fury.
"My first name. Codename," he repeated. "My middle name is Winter."
There was a pause. Then Fury grunted. "And I'm sure it's Code to your friends, Mr. Barnes, but I'm not one of those. I expect a report within twenty-four hours."
He saluted. He went out of the window and up onto the roof.
Steve would've laughed, maybe.
He picked up his gear and stole a car to drive to Chicago. It was a twelve hour drive, but he found he didn't mind that. He did not tire easily. He couldn't remember ever driving through Indiana before, and it was nice to think that he hadn't. His mind was the clearest it had ever been. He was still wearing Steve's jacket, slightly too big for him. He liked it anyway. And there was a mission.
He couldn't remember ever being sent to assassinate a robot army before either. Though that didn't mean it hadn't happened.
He staked out the abandoned meat packing plant and was rewarded not long after midnight when an unmarked van drove in and, a few hours later, out again. He picked his spot, dropped flat onto the roof, and wrenched the driver's head off from above. It would've been messy if the driver had been human, but she was metal all right. Fury's intel was good.
From inside it was more obvious that the van wasn't as innocuous as it looked. There was too much armor plating and bullet-proofing for that, as well as a decent amount of ordnance stored in the rear. The dash had some weird displays and dials on it, high-tech stuff. He parked it and poked at them; they flashed green and then went dead. If Fury wanted someone with computer skills, he should have waited and sent the Widow. The soldier could still drive the thing.
He drove it straight through the plant's main gates, which opened for him automatically, no one in the tiny old security booth.
It wasn't the most subtle way of getting in. He could probably have thought of something better. You are a ghost, a shadow, something in his mind said, not in his own voice. The perfect murder weapon—like the story of the icicle.
An icicle melts. Fingerprints dissolve. No trace is left... Should he be asking questions?
A minor malfunction, sir. The reset will fix it—
Bucky closed the fingers of both hands tight around the van's steering wheel. There was a warehouse opposite with a suspiciously strong-looking padlock on its metal doors. Every instinct he had told him to be cautious, be careful, and figure out a quiet way to break in.
Among the piles of weaponry in the back of the van was a rocket grenade launcher. He didn't know when or how he'd learned what one of those was, but that didn't seem to matter. He knew what it could do.
In a dreamlike, deliberate way he got it out, hoisted it on his shoulder, and took aim.
The warehouse doors exploded with a satisfying boom and a dull burst of dark flame.
He felt the corners of his mouth tugging up into a grin that wasn't at all like the ones he'd practiced for Steve.
The first two dozen or so hostiles he encountered were human. Hydra, presumably, or something like it. He didn't leave any alive to ask. Blood spattered the walls and his clothes when he was done. He wiped some off Steve's leather jacket. He picked up a corpse that had been shouting orders and dragged it over to a scanner that wasn't hidden well enough. When he pressed the dead man's hand to it a trapdoor slid open in the floor. There was a metal ladder leading down into the dark. Blue strip lighting like the lights from the cold storage facility he'd investigated with Steve and Natasha gleamed far below.
He switched his pistol to his human hand and swung himself into the hole, closed his metal fingers around one rail of the ladder and slid down. Two guards appeared in the pool of light at the base of the ladder and aimed upwards. He shot them both, bullet to the head, blood sprays—so they weren't robots either. His metal fingers screeched against the ladder rail, but he knew the arm could hold his weight. His feet hit the ground hard. He switched from the pistol to a submachine gun and waited.
No running footsteps. No one came.
Somewhere in here there were maybe several thousand hyperrealistic androids with advanced combat capabilities.
But none of them was him.
The soldier shrugged his shoulders, settling Steve’s leather jacket around them. He advanced.
The first squadron of androids met him at the first corner. There were twelve of them. The world narrowed and went icy sharp. He didn't have to think. Anything that wasn't himself was an acceptable target. It didn't need to be clean, or precise, or subtle. There were no ostensible allies to get in his way. He was here to destroy.
He took down twelve, and another twelve, and when the corridor widened out, twenty-four. Several thousand minus forty-eight left several thousand to go. He found an echoing roomful of the cold storage tanks. The nearest ones slid open, blue fluid leaking out as the things inside came online and stepped up to meet him. He let them push him across the room towards a control panel that looked familiar, and spat a password at it while he was blocking a series of blows like jackhammers with his metal arm.
"Codename: Winter Soldier," bleated a speaker somewhere. "Acknowledged."
The androids still fighting him all suddenly went still. He flinched trying to dodge an attack that wasn't happening anymore.
"Acknowledged," said the nearest android, and its eyes flashed green. "Acknowledged. Acknowledged," echoed the others. Green lights rippled under their skin. "Acknowledged."
"What the hell?" said Bucky.
He shot the nearest android, chest and skull for both power sources, and it toppled over. It didn't even try to dodge. These things could snatch bullets out of the air. He began to systematically eliminate all the others the same way. The last one, twitching on the ground, looked up at him with a young man's face and said, "Winter Soldier, please proceed to Control."
He shot it between the eyes. Metal gleamed from inside the neat bullet hole.
Something was wrong here. Something was wrong. Mission abort, he thought. Blow the place up and get out.
Mission abort, he thought, but he started to walk and he kept walking.
He passed three more squadrons of androids on the way, all of them stock still with fine threads of green light under their synthetic skins. He killed—he deactivated them all. It was a useful precaution in case they came back online once he was past them. They did not fight, but their human-looking eyes watched him. He held his pistol in his left hand. He kept walking, and he didn't know why. He knew where to go, and he didn't know how.
Control was a small white room which contained nothing but a low table. On it lay a body—no, an android. It had no synthetic skin, no hair, no clothes; it was bare metal, but there were limbs, a head, visible among the mass of wires around it. The wires ran in and out of it and tangled around the table and through and the walls. On the edge of his hearing he could hear a very low hum in the air.
It was the hum that made him aware that he was feeling something. He was so unused to feeling anything that he had barely been aware of it. It registered as a crawling at the back of his neck.
The thing on the table turned its metal skull and opened green-lit glass eyes. It was looking at him.
"There you are," it said in a voice he—no, no, please—a voice he—James Buchanan Barnes, sergeant, three two—a voice—
The thing on the table had nothing to make facial expressions with, so it did not frown at whatever it saw. But he knew it had frowned at him once, frowned and made a note on a clipboard and said to someone he couldn't see, "Increase the dosage and try again—"
His left arm wouldn't work. He had to reach across with his right hand to take his pistol out of it. His right hand was shaking. His hands never shook. He did not feel. He did not fail. He—
He aimed at the skull of the thing on the table and shot it, and then he aimed at the chest and shot it again, and he aimed at the biggest cluster of wires and shot at that, and then alarms started to ring and things began to explode but he used up the rest of his clip putting bullets in the thing before he turned and ran, and ran and ran down blue lit corridors that all looked the same.
He didn’t know how he ended up standing outside the abandoned plant watching the ruins collapse gently inwards as the ground buckled. He had no idea what he'd done. There were rumbles echoing under the ground. In his mind he saw the androids that looked like people, hanging in their tanks with their eyes open, buried alive under the weight of the collapsing plant. The sound of the earth rumbling rose until it was shrieking, howling, and he stood right at the edge watching the ground fall away until someone bowled into him from the side and knocked him backwards.
"Whoa," said the Falcon, "watch your step, don’t fall into that. You okay?" He glanced at what was rapidly turning into a crater and whistled through his teeth. "Christ. First a little light kidnapping and now this. Never a dull moment, I swear."
Then Steve was there, arriving at a run, skidding to a halt next to them, and he said, "Bucky?" and then fell silent looking at the crater.
Having Steve there made something in him wake up. Steve, who loved too hard. Steve who was an idiot. He wanted to turn to him and smile Bucky Barnes' smile and have Steve roll his eyes in relief and say you coulda waited for me, jerk. He wanted to follow him home and sleep on his couch and drink in his memories until they felt real, as real as anything; Christ, he wanted to be Bucky Barnes, he wanted that dead man's life, it was the only thing he could ever remember wanting, but he made his face go cold.
"No such person," he said to Steve. "You ought to know that by now."
If it hadn't been for Sam saying, "You think we should maybe get out of here?" he would have had to have the argument with Steve right there. He knew as soon as he saw the look on Steve's face that it was going to be an argument if Steve had anything to say about it. Of course it was. Steve wouldn't give up on a friend. Steve was good.
He closed his eyes on the car trip back and let them think he was dozing while he tried to think of what to say to make Steve let him go. It was hard to think. His mind kept going back to the room with the table and the thing on the table: Control. There you are, he thought, and then to make it go he tried to think of what to say to Steve, and his treacherous mind slipped away from him and retrod the well-worn paths of Steve's stories instead. I heard your voice and I came for you. You were there on the table but I helped you up, you could walk. We got out. We got away.
He was muzzily taking Steve's hand and stumbling out of a bank vault, past the smashed remains of a bank of machines, a chair, a man-sized glass tank, when one of the dead Hydra operatives lying at his feet said, "I don't feel like he's the sort of guy you should ever wake up suddenly," and then more quietly, "Looks like he's having a nice dream, at least."
"For once," said Steve, hand on his shoulder, which had turned back into metal when he wasn't looking. "Hey, Buck. Hey, c'mon, Bucky." The pressure of his hand left Bucky’s shoulder and brushed against his face by his ear. Brushing his hair back.
He opened his eyes and Steve's face was right there, closer than expected. He blinked a couple of times.
"We're home," Steve said.
He followed them silently back into Steve's apartment. The remains of the android that had impersonated Sam were still on the floor. Sam let out a noise that was only just short of a shriek when he saw it. "What, I don't normally get this kind of view of the back of my own head, that's creepy," he said. "It's got my wings."
Then he walked round the thing and saw the broken metal and rags of synthetic skin that were all that was left of its face. He didn't say anything for a moment. Finally he laughed, nudged the thing with his foot and said with a glance in Bucky’s direction, "You really don't mess around, do you."
"That was me, actually," said Steve, a little hangdog.
Sam's eyebrows went up.
"When I realized they had you, I got a bit..."
"I'm touched," said Sam. "Though, Steve, I don't know if anyone has ever said this to you, but I think you might have some anger issues."
Bucky would snort a laugh and say yeah, tell me about it, you shoulda seen this little guy back in the day. Bucky would have an anecdote about a fight in a bar or a bathroom or a back alley, Steve's knight erranting and his dumb temper—a little guy couldn't afford to get angry like Steve got angry, but that never stopped him, not for a moment. Bucky would've thought it was pretty funny, and Steve's awkward expression funnier still, and he'd already laughed before he remembered he wasn't trying to be Bucky Barnes anymore.
Both of them looked at him. Sam's look was considering, Steve's reflexively annoyed and then suddenly hopeful. He remembered he'd barely been speaking to Steve in the days before he left to rescue Sam. He hadn't been laughing.
He felt a dull anger with himself. He hadn't meant to be here when Steve got back. He'd made a decision about it. It was the only decision he'd ever made and he couldn't even stick to it for two minutes because he let himself get distracted by dreams. He had to leave. No, he had to tell them about the thing called Control which he knew was behind the robots, which he was pretty sure he hadn't actually succeeded in killing, and then he had to leave.
His mouth wouldn't work. He already knew it wouldn't, but he still tried. No words came.
"I'm going to sleep," he said instead. He sat down on the couch which was his.
"You're welcome to stay too, Sam," said Steve.
"You mean you want me where you can keep an eye on me," said Sam. "Hey, no, I'm not arguing. I want me where I can keep an eye on me too. This stuff is enough to make anyone paranoid." He made a face. "That base in Mexico was full of these things. They get creepier the more time you spend with them. Did I say thank you?"
"Anytime,” said Steve, with a small smile.
"Thank you,” said Sam. "And, hey, are you wondering if anyone else we know has been replaced by an evil robot yet? Because I know I am."
Steve winced. "Well, now I am."
"We'll check everyone we know in the morning," said Sam. "Somehow. Anyway, I'll stay on one condition, which is that you've got to clean up evil robot me before I'm sleeping in here."
Sam stretched out on the other couch once the android's remnants were cleared away. Steve was in his bedroom with the bedroom door open. It was a long time before the soldier risked getting up. He turned to the window, and then turned again to Steve's bedroom.
Steve slept in a comfortable sprawl. The soldier stood at the doorway and watched, matching his own breaths to the rise and fall of Steve's chest. He thought, inexplicably, of the Black Widow kissing him the night she’d set her trap for him. Soft mouth and closeness. Steve’s fingers warm on his elbow. He did not try to connect the thoughts.
When he turned away again Sam's eyes were open and gleaming a little in the dark. "Hey," he whispered, when he saw the soldier looking at him. "Checking on him?"
The soldier said nothing.
"I'm a vet. Light sleeper," Sam said, like an apology. "Don't worry about it. He okay?"
The soldier nodded.
"Glad to hear it," murmured Sam, and closed his eyes again.
The soldier went and lay down on the couch. He waited for Sam's breathing to even out. He got up. This time he didn't let himself stop to look at Steve. He didn't need a goodbye.
Out in the night he walked on the street in no particular direction. It took him a while to notice when someone started following him. That was proof all by itself that there was something wrong with him.
He turned into an empty street and the person behind him quickened their pace. He listened to the footsteps. Two of them. He turned around.
The two boys behind him exchanged glances and one said, "Uh."
"We want your wallet and your phone," said the other one, belligerence shading into nervousness by the end of the sentence.
He stared at them. "Are you trying to mug me?"
After a second the first boy nodded awkwardly.
"How stupid can you get?"
"Hey," the second one began.
"Get lost," Bucky said.
He turned away and kept walking. He heard them whispering behind him. He raised his voice a little. "If you try to jump me you’ll get killed."
After that there were no more whispers and no more footsteps.
He kept going. He wasn’t going anywhere in particular. He’d tried to do what he was supposed to do and failed twice. He couldn’t kill the Captain and he couldn’t be Bucky Barnes. That left him with nothing, unless he went to Fury. Fury had uses for him, that was obvious. Fury could give him someone to be. But—he thought of the thing on the table again. Control. There you are. Shh. Fury could call him Mr. Barnes and treat him like something halfway between and send him to find Control again and—
He was leaning against a tree. He had no idea where the tree had come from. He had his arm over his head and his face pressed into the trunk. There was a sound of leaves. He was in a park. The tree trunk was rough-textured and uncomfortable. He was shaking, shaking. He couldn’t, he couldn’t be that either, not if it meant facing that thing, the thing that recognized him and wouldn’t let him speak. You do not fear, he thought, and was terribly, hideously afraid.
There was a soft sound as someone stepped onto the grass near him. Bucky didn’t move. "Get lost," he said. "Scram. I mean it."
"Scram," echoed someone who didn’t sound anything like the would-be muggers from before. The voice was soft. "I mean it." There was a pause. "Scram, I mean it," the speaker repeated, and now the emphasis was the same as his, every syllable in place. Bucky straightened up. His flesh hand still shook. His spine was crawling. When he turned to look he already half knew what he was going to see.
The man wearing his face smiled Bucky Barnes’s smirk at him. "Scram, I mean it," he said again. Then his stance changed, settling into a cold readiness Bucky knew a hell of a lot better than he knew himself.
The android attacked.
Bucky ducked the first blow and there was a thud and a crack as a metal fist slammed into a tree. Both its fists were metal; it didn’t have a weak side. It was faster than him and it knew how he fought. The thought of this thing going back to Steve—walking into Steve’s home, pretending to be Steve’s friend—gave him a kind of desperate strength, but it wasn’t good enough.
He felt the needle slide into the side of his neck. Then he didn’t feel anything at all.