either his mind is his own or it is not
His gas tank hits empty in Alabama. It’s hot and dry and the hood of his car burns his hand when he leans on it. The sign he just passed says Welcome to Birmingham and he thinks that he has never been here before. He doesn’t recognize its easy smiles or the accent that coats everyone’s vowels like molasses and turns every hello he hears into Are you alright there son.
He walks down a main street named Main Street, waiting for the temperature to drop, and thinks Yes I am alright and pretends that he is a person and that he is telling the truth.
He remembers a different city. One that never got this hot without raising a stink to match: sweet air that wafted from candy shops’ open windows, mixing with the acrid scent of spilled beer and settling smoke.
He walks down lazy streets and lets his eyes lose focus, lets memories of a forgotten time superimpose themselves on tan buildings. It’s dangerous, this courting of the past. It warps the worried expressions he is so used to seeing into open smiles.
When had anyone last smiled at him? Had it been reflex, a reflection of the broad grin he thinks that he wore before he put on this uniform? His broad grin and the smile on the man who’d walked by his side—
The buildings here are not grey or black, the voices are drawling instead of sharp, the air smells like dirt and tar.
Over and over his instincts tell him to say something to the men sitting on benches like weather-beaten statues, to women walking in pairs bent towards each other like loving trees, and running children who part around him like chattering waves ignoring a boulder. Over and over his instincts say Hi, hello, how are you, do y’all know any place a guy can get a decent cup of coffee have you ever seen me before do you know my name do you know my mission can you help me hi, hello, wanna get a cuppa joe.
In the end he steals a new car instead of money for gas. He does not think he can bear to be close enough to another person to get into their pockets (close enough to be touched). He finds an open car window, slides inside, and twists colored wires together with his metal hand.
He drives out of town and forces himself to focus. This city is real and it does not know him. He has no name because he does not need one. His mission is incomplete. There is no molasses accent softening the words in his head: Take out your target and come home.
if his mind is his own he has to either make his own choices or stop, just stop, stop and breathe
Peggy Carter is at once both old and young. She wears age over her strongly-boned face like a thin and graceful veil. He wonders if he will ever have those lines on his face: lines that crease when she smiles and then deeper when she laughs. “I should have known,” she says, full of warmth and humor.
“Known that when Steve showed up you wouldn’t be far behind.”
He does not know how she would have known that. He does not know why he is here. He had woken that morning with the smell of foreign perfume in his nostrils and the texture of smooth paper under his hands. A mission briefing. At the top of the page Peggy Carter: Director of SHIELD. He tracked her down even though her address now is not the same as it had been when she had been an obstacle. Peggy Carter: Director of SHIELD had stood between him and Howard Stark: Weapons Manufacturer, holding a gun and wearing a suit and a snarl. He hadn’t shot her then but he should have.
“It was my job to follow Steve,” he says, trying out the words. Protect Steve used to be engraved in his bones. Hydra had to carve it away to cut Steve out of him, leaving him brittle and thin.
“No. You followed him before the army, Bucky. I didn’t know you then, but everyone could see—”
“My name isn’t Bucky,” he says, voice like a dull knife.
Her smile deepens. “Do you know what Alzheimer’s is?” He stays silent because Yes feels cruel. “My memories are leaving me,” she says. “The newest ones fade first. The old ones— Oh, I remember you. I remember Steve jumping on a grenade. I remember you smiling at him like you knew he was always about to jump, always about to throw himself in front of a bullet. And that smile of yours was bigger than his shield.”
“I was never going to outlive him,” he says, saying it out loud to make it real. He thinks she will understand. She too had known Steve when he was small and thin and more fire than strength. Even—especially—then, there had been some cussed spirit in him that was immortal. It was only when his body had grown to match the fight inside that other people started to say Hey, that Steve Rogers, he sure is one helluva guy and everyone who had loved Steve when he was more fury than fists said Yes, you’re right, he always has been.
“You didn’t,” she says softly. “He’s alive.” He waits for her to make sense. “You’re alive, Bucky.”
“I’m not Bucky,” he says again.
“But you are alive.”
He stays with her until she loses the thread of the moment. Watches her unravel in fear and frustration. The he stays to help knit everything back together: there are fresh flowers on your table I do not know where they are from, it is 2014 and aliens are real but you already knew that somehow didn’t you, I am alive but I am not Bucky Barnes, you are Peggy Carter: Former Director of SHIELD and you have always been the best of us.
if he does not stop either he will find steve or steve will find him
He ends the merry chase in France. Finds Steve sitting in a chintzy café with his back to the wall, slides into the chair across the table from him and says, “I surrender.”
No. That is a dream. He is not Bucky Barnes he does not get to make that choice or his own words or Steve Rogers into a reality.
He tells himself he does not like France and never has and leaves Steve and his laughing friends behind.
if he is not someone else’s weapon either he will kill on his own or he will stop
He burns a HYDRA base in Germany to the ground and then explodes it for good measure. Steve and Sam Wilson and Natasha Natalia Romanoff Romanova arrive while rain is putting out the last of the fire and the ruins hiss with steam.
“I feel like Barnes is bringing dead mice to your doorstep,” says Sam Wilson. He has brought his wings and they are folded against his back. They are beautiful in a way that the metal arm is not.
“Bucky’s not a cat,” Steve says absently, picking his way across the rubble.
He want to grab Steve and yell Are you an idiot that’s dangerous get away from there I swear to god Steve if I were your momma I’d—
“He’s not,” Romanoff Romanva says. “He’s more like a pit bull.”
“Bucky’s not a dog,” Steve says, more out of reflex than protest, finally retreating back to safe solid ground.
“He’s a tabby,” Sam says.
“Pit bull,” Romanoff Romanova says, with a matching growl.
“Pit bull,” Sam Wilson agrees easily, holding up his hands in surrender.
“He’s a person,” Steve says. His expression is hard and the shield looks like a weapon in his hands. A shiver runs through Bucky’s body. Somebody just walked over your grave.
either he is a person or steve rogers is wrong
Today it is still raining and his fingers feel stiff and his knees ache. He stares at his metal hand and tells himself It’s not real it can’t feel pain there is no stiffness in those metal joints it is not real I can’t feel pain until the rain stops and dreams distract him from his body.
either he finds steve or steve finds him or it does not matter because nicholas j. fury happens
He wakes with a start. There is a man standing in front of him who is blocking the light from the streetlamp. The alley he curled up in for the night smells bad but in a familiar way, and everyone here knows to leave a sleeping man alone. Everyone but the man in front of him who is striking a pose. It is a good pose. Hands on his hips, a frown on his face, his one eye creased with disapproval.
He does not say I am not a soldier because even though the Cold War’s been over for a long time Winter is more his name than anything else is.
“Goddamn.” The man breaks his pose and crouches down, his hands folded and elbows resting on his knees. It is not a defensible stance. He is also saying I am not afraid of you. “There are people looking for you.” Steve and Sam Rogers and Natasha Natalia Romanoff Romanova and Tony Stark’s computer and men whose names and faces he only remembers in the breath of time between asleep and afraid. “And they’re going to find you.”
He gets to his feet, embarrassingly unsteady. He braces himself against the wall at his back, pulls the gun out of its holster behind his back, and points it down at Nicholas J. Fury’s bad eye.
“I could have shot you before you woke up. Hell, I could kill you now. You look about as threatening as an upside-down turtle. But instead, I’m going to offer you a helping hand.” It is a terrible turn of phrase and it makes him want to shoot Fury in the eye even more. “I’m going to give you three options. You’re going to choose which option you want, and I’m going to respect that choice.”
The gun is shaking in his metal hand. He wants to put it down.
“One: you come back with me to SHIELD. We fix you up. Get you some food, some medical attention, some psychiatric care. We get you ready and put you back in the field. The world needs its soldiers now more than ever. Two: I tell Steve where you are, and he brings you home. Hopefully you put him out of his misery one way or another.” He does not like those options and he does not— “Three.” Fury gets to his feet and Bucky holds onto the wall with his free hand, wishing he could run away. “You give me that gun, and I shoot you with it.”
It is so tempting. He feels burnt from Alabama sun and blank without lines of laughter around his tired eyes, he smells sweat and closed candy stores and the last lingering trace of Peggy’s perfume. His hand aches. It is not real. He does feel pain.
“Two,” he says, because he does not want to say Steve’s name out loud and he does not want to be another man’s weapon and he does not want to die.
either he is bucky barnes or