According to the comics, one-reels, newspaper articles and other fanciful pieces of fiction, being one of the Howling Commandos consisted entirely of ingenious plans and fantastic acts of bravery and daring. Bucky Barnes shivered in the frigid wind, and frantically rubbed his hands together for the hundredth time that night as he paced around the dilapidated hut they were currently using as a base. He should be asking for his money back, he reflected to himself. Tonight’s guard duty had been discouragingly devoid of dazzling heroics, unless you counted his heroic decision to venture out of the warmth inside to check the perimeter.
He stopped briefly, listened and watched. The wind whistled faintly through the snow-covered trees, rocking the lantern that hung from the eaves, making the shadows dance and twist. The snow muffled all other sound, the silence echoing through the night. If he didn’t know better, he could believe that he was the only person for miles.
He sighed and hitched up the rifle on his shoulder. Quiet was good, no matter what the newsreels said. Quiet meant safety. If it also meant that he had to be alone with his thoughts, that was a small price to pay. Fog ghosted out into the air as he took a deep breath. Thoughts were nothing to worry about, anyway. If his brain happened to flash back every now and again to the table, and the straps, and a pudgy man in round glasses hovering over him with a syringe full of something that burned like acid and froze like ice until the world was nothing but—
A sudden crack echoed through the forest and he nearly jumped two feet into the air, and had his rifle out sweeping wildly around before his brain caught up to what he was doing. He held his breath and scanned the shadows frantically, ears straining to hear a sound. The lantern swung gently. The shadows flickered. The breeze wafted branches. Nothing else moved.
Slowly he let out his breath. A broken branch from the snow? Nothing to worry about, in any case. He lowered the rifle, took a deep breath, turned back towards the hut—
—and swallowed a scream as the world turned inside out.
Something grabbed at him from two hundred directions at once. Bright sparks of colours flashed across his vision. Something howled in his ears and itched under his skin and stole his breath when he tried to shout. He hit something, or something hit him, and his back lit up with fire, his head shrieked, he tried to move his arms and legs but he couldn’t be sure that the messages were getting through from his brain— just like when— The colours screamed at him and fragments of sounds swirled around him, making no sense at all.
“—careful he’s not—”
“—his arm isn’t—”
“—ucky, just calm—”
Somewhere in his mind, a signal fired and he lifted his eyelids. Ghostly faces crowded over him—too-bright lights behind them and melting ribbons of colours wavering around them. He tried his tongue. “Wha—”
A hand cradled the side of his head and one of the faces came closer. Blue eyes looked urgently at him. “It’s okay Buck—”
“…steve?” For a few fragile seconds, his brain attempted to pull his thoughts into something resembling coherency. Then another wave of colours slammed through his vision, swirling like a pin-wheel until they blended into bright, clear white that bleached away everything else and then faded into nothing at all.
He woke up in fits and starts; at first awareness was elusive, then there was a snatch of sound, the feel of a hand on his wrist, softness underneath his body, the growing recognition of light under his eyelids. It was vague and confusing, and then suddenly his thoughts focused enough for him to realise that he didn’t remember falling asleep and also he didn’t know where he was.
Instinct slammed into gear. His muscles surged, his eyes snapped open, and he launched himself upright, nearly slamming straight into the man who had been leaning over him seconds before.
“Whoa!” Familiar hands grabbed his arms and a familiar face looked worriedly at his. “Buck! Bucky! Calm down. It’s okay. It’s me. Please stop struggling.”
Struggling? Bucky stared wildly at Steve and belatedly realised that his arms were still fruitlessly trying to grapple with his friend’s, trying to get free… What the hell was he doing?
He took a breath and forced himself to freeze, forced himself to look at Steve with a gaze that was at least approaching collected. It was just Steve, for heaven’s sake. It was his best friend. It was Captain freaking America.
When he found his voice, Bucky was relieved to discover that it was relatively steady. “Steve. I… right. I was lying down and I didn’t recognise…” He frowned as he began to notice his surroundings. “Wait, this… isn’t that hut we were using as a base…”
The walls surrounding him were dark and made of a material that was almost reflective. Classy-looking ornaments decorated sleek and streamlined furniture that looked like it had been designed by someone who had spent way too many hours at the World Exposition of Tomorrow. It was definitely a far cry from the battered timber walls of their temporary base. What?
He turned back to Steve, the sense of alarm he’d awoken with suddenly pushing to the fore again. “Jesus, Steve, how long have I been out!?”
Steve looked like he was trying to make his expression comforting without quite being successful at it. “Not for long. It’s okay, Buck, I swear.” His eyes flicked down to Bucky’s left, just momentarily, and then snapped back to his face. “Everything’s okay.”
He looked doubtfully around the room, and then down at himself, suddenly realising that his coat had been stripped off and replaced with a soft gown made of some kind of weird, overly soft and slippery material. It was red and gold, just this side of ostentatious. He looked back at Steve and raised an eyebrow. “Everything’s okay.”
“Yeah.” His expression turned pained. “There’s just been a bit of an…incident.”
“An incident,” Bucky repeated, and then he frowned. “Wait, did you cut your hair?”
He looked somewhat thrown by this statement. “My hair?”
“I thought you said I was only out for a little while!”
“And you had time to get to the barber?”
Steve shook his head, looking something between exasperated and… amused? “Bucky—”
Suddenly irritated, he snapped back. “What is going on, Steve? Where are the others? Where am I?”
There was a pause, and the pained look was back on Steve’s face. “Not so much ‘where’, Buck, as ‘when’.”
Bucky stared back at him. “When?”
And Steve took a deep breath. “As I said,” he explained. “There’s been an…incident.”
“2015.” Bucky stared down at the glass tablet in his hands. Symbols glimmered along the sides of it, and in the middle was what looked like a newspaper headline with what looked like the start of a newspaper article, except the pictures were in colour and it was on a glowing glass screen. There was a date at the top. It was not a date that he had at all expected to see.
“You touch it and pull it down to read the rest,” said Steve. “Swipe it to the side to go to the next page."
Newspapers. Of the future. That you swiped to read. In the future. He looked up at Steve and then turned again to look at the left wall of the room. The black colouring there had disappeared with a few words from his friend, and the wall was now a vast window looking over a massive cityscape. It was just familiar enough to be identifiable, and just different enough to be disconcerting.
“2015,” he repeated. And then: “Right outside that window is New York in 2015.”
Steve smiled slightly. “Inside the window too, Buck. This isn’t a magical building.”
“Is there a magical building? Because I’m pretty sure this isn’t something that happens out of nowhere!”
Steve looked sympathetic. “Not a magical building, but no, definitely not something that happened out of nowhere. It was more like a kind of… accident. With an alien artifact.”
He frowned. “An alien— What, like Howard thinks that thing Hydra’s using might be? Well that’s just swell.”
“Like that, yeah,” Steve replied. “Not Hydra, though. This was… another crowd.”
“Another evil society?”
He looked somewhat rueful. “We’ve got quite a few of them gunning for us.”
Bucky looked at the window, at the strange, impossible city that lay beyond the glass, and then back at Steve. “We? Okay, look. Steve, this is nice and all, but you’re gonna have to go back a step right now because this is… okay. This is 2015?”
“—So how are you here? How do you know what’s going on? The war… the war’s over? And we won? We must have won. What happened? And this… alien artifact. It brought you here too? But earlier on, so you had time to figure everything out and spruce yourself up, and come talk to me….”
Steve made a face.
“It’s a bit more complicated than that, sorry.”
“Complicated.” Bucky put down the news tablet and looked at Steve, really looked. There was something— It wasn’t just the hairstyle that was different, or the clothes. It was the way he held himself, the troubled set to his expression…. His eyes widened. “How long have you been in this time?”
Steve looked almost apologetic. “A couple of years.”
“A couple of years.”
“A couple of years,” he confirmed. “But the artifact? That, we just found. I kinda went a different route.”
“Different…wait. Did the serum— Are you saying you don’t age?” He blinked. “No wait, you said only a couple of years, that wouldn’t—”
“No!” Steve replied hastily. “Not that different. I mean, I think it’s going slower, but I do normally age. I just stopped while I was frozen.”
There was an uneasy pause while Bucky stared at him.
“While you were frozen.”
“Yeah. Uh—it was in the arctic. And, yes, the war did end. The Germans, the Japanese, they lost.”
He gazed at Steve in amazement. “So that means we won?”
Steve looked conflicted, but he nodded. “Yeah.”
Bucky paused to let this sink in. “The war’s over, and we won. And you got frozen into a block of ice in the arctic. And then they—”
“Unfroze me in the future.” Steve shrugged ruefully.
“And now I’m in the future too. Because of an alien artifact.”
“I’m afraid so?”
Bucky shook his head slowly. “Our lives are very, very strange.”
Steve looked sympathetic. “Well, that’s not uncommon around here.”
“I’d question whether all of this is real—“
He put up a hand. “I would question whether it’s real, but I’ve spent the last few months of my life blowing up factories full of weird blue energy weapons made by a guy whose complexion is the colour of my last date’s lipstick so no, it’s fine, I believe you. It’s just…. I remember when we were kids, playing all those fantasy games about what we were going to be when we grew up. I guess real life can be even stranger than a kid’s imagination, sometimes.”
The look on Steve’s face was… hard to decipher. “Yeah,” he said. “Sometimes it can be.”
Bucky took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. “So how do we need to deal with this? Am I going to… mess up time being here like this? I mean, I didn’t get here the frozen way.”
Steve’s expression turned even more indecipherable. “No…. No you didn’t. Of course. Look, you’ll be okay here for the moment. We’re still trying to figure what the… best course of action is.”
“‘We’ again? Do you have a team in the— What am I talking about; of course you have a team in the future. Are they as interesting as us?”
“They are certainly interesting,” said Steve.
“Any of them experts on alien artifacts?”
Steve’s lips curled into a smile. “Well, one of the guys is an alien, so….”
Bucky blinked. “You have an alien on your team. No wait, seriously. You have someone from another world on your team?”
“I’ve got someone from another world on my team.”
He stared at Steve with a certain degree of awe. “Okay, you have gotta introduce me to him.”
The alien team member, who was apparently called Thor, of all things, was currently not in the building, but Bucky managed to get a guarantee that he could meet him when he came back. In the meantime, Steve suggested that he clean up so they could grab some food and meet the team who were currently on site. He took a look at himself and agreed that this was probably a good idea, partly because of an ingrained soldier’s instinct to use good bathing facilities when he could get them, and partly because apparently travelling through time didn’t do much for your personal hygiene. He dimly registered that he should maybe be panicking more on the whole “travelling in time” thing but his life had been so saturated in insanity of late he found he couldn’t muster up the energy. Getting clean seemed far more important right now.
The bathroom was astonishing in its opulence. It was huge and sparkling clean, with an enormous mirror and an even more enormous shower. There were dozens of different-smelling soaps, aftershaves, and other mysterious potions that he had absolutely no idea of the purpose of. When he turned the shower on, the water pressure was amazing and the water temperature was sublime. Apparently either bathing was an astonishing pursuit in the future, or Steve had really fallen on his feet here.
He spent far too long drenched in the shower and then longer than he probably should have looking at the clothes that Steve had provided and wondering what the hell they were made of. He eventually found a label that talked about woven bamboo fibres, and that was even more baffling because since when was bamboo something that you could weave into soft shirts? Geez, he hadn’t even got out of the bathroom and already the future was confusing.
Eventually he wandered out, dressed in bamboo fibres and cleaner than he’d felt in months. Steve was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, and there was another man talking to him, with dirty blonde hair and wearing a short-sleeved top that showed off muscular arms. As soon as he exited the bathroom, the man tilted his head and watched him keenly. Bucky got the feeling that he was being quickly and thoroughly appraised for strengths and weaknesses, which would have been more disconcerting had Steve not obviously been at ease in the guy’s presence.
“One of your team?” he said to Steve, and gave the man a nod of greeting.
The man smiled. “Or, if you put it another way, you could say that he’s one of our team,” he said. “I mean, technically no one elected him leader.”
Bucky grinned. “Let me guess. He walked up, started to lead, and everyone decided by mutual unspoken agreement to do what he said?”
The man’s smile widened. “You guys too, huh?”
Steve looked slightly embarrassed. “You can kick me out if I’m not up to scratch, you know.”
The man looked at Steve with a mixture of amusement and fondness, and Bucky instantly liked him. “And yet you’re still here? How’d that happen, I wonder?”
“Careful, I think he’s blushing.”
Steve shook his head at them both, and then nodded it towards the man. “This is Clint Barton, Bucky. He’s our eyes in the sky, and also the resident funny guy, apparently.”
“I’m great value at parties,” Clint quipped.
“Eyes in the…” Bucky looked at him, interested. “You a sniper?”
He shrugged modestly. “I tried hand to hand, but it’s hard to compete when you’ve got a god-like alien and the peak of human physical perfection on your team.”
“I know what you mean,” Bucky said. “Well, except for the god-like alien, unless there was something Dum-Dum wasn’t telling us.”
Steve gave a snort of laughter at this, and Bucky grinned at him and then turned back to Clint. “So how’s the rifle tech in the future?”
Clint shrugged. “Adequate. But me, I’m more of an old-fashioned type.” He nodded his head towards the bed that Bucky had recently vacated and he realised that someone had placed a sleek, black bow and a bafflingly futuristic quiver on top of it.
He blinked. “You’re an archer?” Then he looked back at Clint with a calculating grin. “Wow, thought people’d be beyond the Robin Hood stuff by this point.”
Clint raised an eyebrow at that. “Oh, I’m so going to school you for that comment, sniper-boy.”
“Looking forward to it, Robin.”
“Maybe later, you two. Clint, don’t you have somewhere to be?”
Clint turned back to Steve and shrugged easily. “Nat’s fine, Steve. Just letting her enjoy an extra coffee before the pick-up.”
“Pick-up?” Bucky asked, curious.
Steve looked faintly exasperated. “Natasha’s another team mate. We can be… busy, and there have been some fires to put out—”
“—metaphorical and literal—” interrupted Clint.
“—while we’ve been dealing with your situation. Natasha’s done with her one but there was an issue with transport…”
“She totalled the jet,” said Clint. “Second time this month, too. Tony’s gonna be pissed.” He looked a bit more pleased about that than he probably should have.
“Tony’s what? Your engineer?”
“Something like that,” said Steve. “Look, I’ll introduce you a bit later. Clint—“
“I know, I know.” He put his hands up in a placating gesture. “I’m gone. Nice to meet you, Bucky. See you around.” Just for a second, his eyes flicked to Steve with an odd expression. “If you have time.”
“Right. You too.” He watched Clint go, then turned to Steve. “Fires to put out? Is that what your alien is doing as well?”
Steve nodded. “We’re not always this busy, but when it rains…”
Bucky looked at him soberly. “Do you have to be anywhere? ’Cause I can wait, if you need to. Just point me to the food before you go because I think I could eat a horse or two right now.”
Steve’s expression was back to being slightly indecipherable. He smiled, and it looked…fond. “It’s okay, Buck. The others have been—They’re all very capable, and they’ll let me know if there’s something that I’ve gotta see. And Tony and Bruce are still here; they’re working with the artifact.”
Bucky nearly jumped out of his skin as a voice said, “I am likewise still here, Captain, although I will grant that I am also in the field.”
He spun around, but there was no sign of the person to whom the voice belonged.
Steve seemed to be just fine with talking to thin air, however. “JARVIS. I’m sorry, I should have mentioned you.”
The voice sounded unbothered. “An understandable omission, Captain. You did not wish to startle your friend before he was somewhat settled.”
Bucky glared at Steve. “Okay, what the hell?”
To his credit, Steve did look apologetic. “Bucky, this is JARVIS. He’s… well, he’s a machine that can think like a human. The word they use nowadays is artificial intelligence.”
Bucky stared at him, and then looked up towards the ceiling.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” said the ceiling.
“You’re… Okay, where are you exactly?”
“I am currently maintaining many locations,” said JARVIS. “I inhabit the servers in this building, and numerous other residences. I have several backups available. I am also out in the field with the Falcon and his team, at the moment.”
“What, all at the same time?”
“Indeed. I am an unapologetic multi-tasker.”
Bucky glanced back at Steve, who looked sympathetic, at least. He addressed the ceiling again. He really wasn’t sure how else to talk to a voice that seemed to exist in any number of places. “So you— If you’re artificial, then where did you come from? Someone made you?”
“That is correct. And I feel that this is an appropriate time to mention that I have a message for the Captain from my creator.”
Steve frowned at that. “Exactly why is Tony not talking to me himself?”
“Tony! The engineer guy, right?”
JARVIS’s voice was as calm and composed as ever. “Indeed. And Sir claims to be too busy attempting to address the situation with the artifact.”
“Not at this current moment in time. That would be the content of the message, which is that the situation with Thor escalated and Bruce left to join him.”
At this, Steve crossed from being annoyed to genuinely looking heated. “I asked to be kept informed about any—JARVIS, patch me through to Tony.”
“He claims to be very busy with the artifact.”
“I’m sure he claims that. Patch me through!”
There was a brief silence, and Bucky wondered whether that meant that JARVIS was thinking, and then wondered whether artificial intelligences that could apparently be in dozens of places at once really needed thinking time.
Then another voice said, “I’m sorry, did the ‘too busy’ message not get through, or are you just deliberately being a pain in my ass?”
Bucky tried to suppress a grin. The elusive Tony was apparently not one to sugar-coat things.
“Why was I not informed about the situation with Thor?”
Tony sounded just as annoyed as Steve looked. “That’s what you’re interrupting me for? Look, Thor called in looking for a fighty type, you were busy fussing over the Summer Sergeant, and Bruce volunteered to help. Why exactly is that hard to understand?”
“If Thor needed help you should have called me to go in! You told me about the importance of what you were doing—”
“And Bruce knows the importance of what we are doing! Which is why he was feeling just a little stressed.”
Steve hesitated, and Bucky frowned. He had a feeling that there was another layer to this conversation that he didn’t quite understand. “Uh, Steve? I don’t want to butt in here or anything, and I know you’re worried, but you were just saying about how capable they all were…”
Tony’s voice rang through the building’s speakers again. “Of course he was. He’s always going on about how awesome we are. You should hear him at parties. He’s like a proud grandparent, both in disposition, age and sadly, fashion sense. So, Bucky, right?”
“Tony…” said Steve, warningly.
“Yeah,” said Bucky. “And you’re Tony. The engineer?”
“I prefer the title ‘resident genius and sugar daddy’ myself. Look, I’d chat with you, but I’m in the middle of a bunch of calculations that you most certainly won’t understand. Steve, Thor needed help and Bruce needed to blow off steam. He’ll be back, and this lab will be more likely to stay intact for one more day. The situation is under control at this particular moment. Go get something to eat, and I’ll talk to you when I have enough figured out to talk about.”
“Sayonara. Signing out. Over and out? Is that how you soldier types do it?”
“Sorry Cap! Can’t hear you! Signed out!”
There was an awkward silence. Bucky turned to Steve, raising an eyebrow. “Wow. He’s worse than Howard.”
A complicated expression danced across Steve’s face.
“Wait, he’s not—”
“Oh Jesus, he is.”
“Tony Stark. Only son of Howard and Maria.”
“Howard had a kid. You have Howard’s kid on your team. That’s… wow.”
“He does have his good points,” said Steve. “He’s just—“
“I was going to go for, ‘a little over the top’…”
Bucky grinned at him. “That’s one of the reasons you’re a better man than me.”
Steve smiled back, although there was something odd in his eyes—
JARVIS interjected smoothly. “If I may interrupt? Reports show that the situation with Thor and Dr Banner appears to be almost resolved. I’m sure they will be back soon. If you’d like to have something to eat while you wait, there is a selection of lunch materials available in the common lunch room.”
Bucky’s stomach rumbled and he was suddenly reminded that he had no idea how much relative time it had been since he’d last eaten. “Sounds like a great idea to me.”
Steve nodded and gestured down the corridor. “Okay, follow me. If there’s one thing you will like here, it’s the food.”
“Hey, I’ve been living on army rations, so really anything would be a step up.”
Steve looked a bit happier. “Try more like a pole vault than a step.”
“Okay, now I’m interested.”
Steve headed off and as he made to follow, Bucky glanced back at the room with the dark walls, and the sleek furniture, and the window, and the twisting crack of light along the wall.
He blinked. The room looked perfectly ordinary, if somewhat futuristic.
“You coming?” said Steve, looking back at him.
Bucky frowned and shook his head. Trick of the light. Must have been. “Sure,” he said. “Coming.”