He thinks about his arm, sometimes. He wonders if it’s buried in a shallow grave or frozen in the Alps. He wonders if it’s still reaching uselessly for the man who failed to save him.
His sanity is conditional on his memories and his memories are cold and fractured things. His breath is frosting in the cryochamber and if he can see it, it means his eyes are open and it means he is awake. He is unbearably weary. Even a soldier must grow tired of dealing in death.
This is what he knows: he is a man, of no discernible nationality. He tastes the air and thinks it might be Sweden. A gun is pushed into his hand. This is what he knows.
“No one made a fucking manual for this thing.”
“Do we even know if he’s still alive in there?”
“I’m pretty sure that tapping on the glass isn’t gonna help.”
“Maybe a crowbar.”
“I think he’s dead.”
“Do we need to explain cryostasis to you again, Yvgeny?”
“I’m just saying, we paid a lot of money for this guy.”
“Oh, wait, we’re actually using a crowbar?”
(And somewhere, from the ashes of the Red Room, is a furled page, torn from a personal ledger and filled with cramped near-illegible writing. The operative must be eased from cryostasis as one would ease a child from a nightmare. A low level of lighting is required. Remember! Soothing voices. Previous experience has shown that the operative reacts unfavourably to conflict within the first ten minutes of waking. He is our greatest achievement. Treat him accordingly. Treat him as one of the Kelch eggs. Treat him as you would your ailing grandmother. Treat him as you would your lover. Treat him as you would any volatile substance. Failure to do so is catastrophic. Remember Sasha. - Nasten’ka Petrova.)
The stark overhead lights are blue and garish and they buzz irritatingly. He is covered in blood, from head to toe. There is a crowbar clenched in his right hand and he has to pry it free with his metal fingers. The bodies do not disturb him. His nakedness does, a little. He shakes his head, over and over. There is a brown envelope on the table. It is splattered with blood.
It is a mission.
[OBJECTIVE: Kill Captain America.]
He purses his lips. There is a lighter in the pocket of one of the dead men. The cryochamber is highly flammable. He steals a fur coat and walks barefoot out into the snow.
He inhales deeply. He is a man of no discernible nationality and less morality and memories eat at the corners of his mind. He is fraying at the edges.
There are papers, money and a passport in the glove compartment of the car outside, weighed down by a gun. He picks it up. This is what he knows.
It is easy to travel to America. He opens his mouth and he speaks English and his accent is entirely Brooklyn. The woman sitting next to him on the plane tells him he sounds like an actor she once saw in All My Sons.
He smiles and he is not oblivious to the way the colour rises in her cheeks. He says that he is not a fan of Miller; he prefers the Russians. Theirs is a bleakness he can understand.
The woman is interested. She is curling her hair around her fingers. It’s chestnut and falls in thick waves around her face. He thinks that she is pretty and he’s pleased that such subjective observations are not beyond him. He will be a real live boy yet.
He drinks bourbon, on the rocks. She asks if he’s heard of the Mile High Club. His lips curve into an easy smirk. He says that he might have spent the better part of the twentieth century in stasis but he is remarkably widely-read.
She does not mind his metal arm. She is fascinated, in fact.
(He does not tell her of the multitude of tests that were run to ensure he had full range of sensitivity and dexterity. Somewhere, there is a record; there is empirical evidence that, like all Red Room operatives, his body is a weapon, not a temple.)
After she leaves the restroom, he counts to thirty. He looks at himself in the mirror. When he leaves, the air steward gives him a knowing smile and the air stewardess sighs and slips ten dollars to the air steward and, of the forty-six passengers he can see before he sits down, he knows that thirty-three are asleep, eight are watching cartoons, three are drunk, one is reading the bible, like she knows something the rest of them don’t, and the other is the woman whose teethmarks are hidden beneath his shirt.
When they land, he steals her passport.
Red Room operatives are strongly discouraged from collecting souvenirs.
It is only when he is sitting on the C-train that he stops to consider how familiar this is, from the smell of the train to the raucous announcements. He gets off at High Street.
His memories fracture. They are like splinters. There is a war memorial and his palms are sweating, though it’s so very cold, and the wind picks up and he shivers.
He is the Winter Soldier and he shivers.
This memorial is dedicated to the heroic men and women of the borough of Brooklyn who fought for liberty in the Second World War 1941-1945 -
He is the Winter Soldier and he cannot breathe. He folds to his knees and snow seeps through his jeans.
“Watch it, buddy,” says a man, who comes to a slip-sliding stop alongside him. This stranger is obviously at least as nuts as he is, wearing shorts in winter and stopping to help a madman to his feet.
He looks up and he blinks.
The man is big and blonde and his cheeks are ruddy from the cold winter air. His lips move soundlessly.
“Bucky,” Steve sighs against his neck and his fingers tighten over Steve’s shoulders and their bodies move together, and the wrought iron headboard clatters against the wall, and this is what he knows.
Steve holds his hand a lot. Bucky wonders if it is to make up for the time he missed.
Steve comes home in the evening and stares at the television when he walks into the room and he jumps when Bucky comes out of the kitchen, as though he’s surprised to see him. They eat omelettes and they pour over the documents that Steve liberated from SHIELD.
[...] a process that amounts to ablation of the pyramidal cells of the hippocampus, albeit as temporary as the subject’s state of stasis. It is reversible and approximately recapitulates the pathophysiological condition of hippocampal sclerosis. The intention is to invoke anterograde amnesia, preventing the subject from laying down new memories. [...]
“What did they do to you, Bucky?” Steve asks and his voice is a pained moan.
Bucky shakes his head numbly and then shakes apart but Steve’s arms are around him and his lips are pressed against Bucky’s temple and he is murmuring soothingly. Bucky is like a child, being lulled to sleep, and for a frantic moment, he is in the Red Room and his fingers dig into Steve’s arms.
“I don’t want to go back there,” he says brokenly.
“If you think I’m gonna let anyone put you through that again, you’re dumber than I thought, Buck.”
Sometimes, Bucky can only think in Russian.
Steve comes home one day with a battered, second-hand Russian phrasebook because he didn’t want to ask Natasha.
He sits at the kitchen table, frowning, his hair falling over his forehead and he looks up at Bucky and says, tentatively, Я люблю тебя and Bucky laughs and laughs and tells him, in English, that that was pretty good.
Bucky sits opposite him and tells him how they called him Яша and Steve sounds it out in a soft murmur and then Bucky tells him how they called him the American, sometimes, too.
One day, Steve returns distraught. He tells Bucky that there is a kill order on the Winter Soldier.
There was a time when the thought of death was a peaceful one but now his heart hammers behind his sternum and he lets Steve draw him into the bedroom, away from the flickering blue glow of the television.
Bucky promises that he won’t go out without Steve.
Sometimes, Bucky doesn’t keep his promises. He terrorises a young boy in Queens, purely so that there will be a positive ID on the Winter Soldier.
Steve scolds him.
“It’s worse when you’re disappointed,” says Bucky and his lips curve up and he reaches for Steve and wishes he could make it better for him.
“What do you tell them?” he asks.
Steve shakes his head. “I don’t - I don’t tell them anything.” His voice drops. “I don’t think they’re that interested when I’m not, you know, Captain America.”
Bucky feels a faint flicker of something in his brain, a long-forgotten objective, but it sputters and dies and he presses a kiss to the corner of Steve’s mouth. “They’re missing out, pal,” he says and he can’t help that he sounds husky.
“Missing out, huh?” asks Steve. His smile is sad. “You always use to say that about the dames.”
“Who needs ‘em?” Bucky is dismissive of his old girlfriends, of modern girls and modern boys and of Steve’s colleagues. They may be genius-scientists and assassins and models of efficiency but they must be pretty goddamned stupid if they can’t see Steve Rogers’ worth.
Bucky Barnes meets Tony Stark just after Stark has used up the last of the cheese in the fridge.
“I was gonna make mac and cheese with that,” he says, grumbling as he throws himself onto the couch, under the watchful gaze of all the goddamned guns on the Iron Man suit.
“You must be a fake,” says Stark dismissively. “Everyone knows that mac and cheese comes from a box. I grew up with a chef to do the cooking and I know that.”
Steve emerges from the bedroom, wearing only sweatpants and bruises from Bucky’s fingers, and Director Fury arrives and a contained sort of hell breaks loose.
“Told you that the Winter Soldier was giving Cap a going-over,” says Stark.
“Sometimes I really don’t like you, Tony,” says Steve.
“Why didn’t you tell us, Cap?”
“I thought,” says Steve. “I thought I might be imagining it.”
Bucky’s fingers tighten on Steve’s thigh and Steve doesn’t even flinch. His heart, wretched thing, squirms and Bucky doesn’t care that there’s a man in the room wearing a metal suit with a few dozen guns attached. He touches his forehead to Steve’s temple and murmurs softly, Я люблю тебя, and Steve nearly laughs.
“It sounds better when you say it, Buck.”
Bucky shakes his head because it nearly kills him with how perfect it is when Steve tells him that he loves him.
“I’ll come in quietly,” he says, raising both arms, and now Stark is eyeing his left arm with unholy glee.
For three days, Bucky is kept in a cell in SHIELD. He undergoes a half-dozen lie-detector tests, four interviews with four different telepaths and two general anaesthetics. One is to remove his arm and it looks like Steve’s on the verge of tears when he comes to visit Bucky and Bucky is a little off-balance.
“I know that you said Stark could be disarming when he tried -,” starts Bucky and Steve clamps a hand over Bucky’s mouth.
“No punning, Bucky,” he says, his words a warm whisper against Bucky’s ear. “How long you been waiting to say that, anyway?”
“Only about five hours. You should’ve heard the other stuff I had. Comedy gold.”
“Remind me never ever to introduce you to Clint Barton.”
“The fella with the bow and arrow?” Bucky points up at the ceiling panel overhead. “He’s been and gone.”
Steve mutters something under his breath and Bucky’s pretty sure it’s the first time he’s ever heard Steve Rogers swear.
The second general anaesthetic is to replace the arm. Stark says that he’s spared no expense, either financial or intellectual, and that it’s got all the whistles and bells.
“If there are actual whistles and bells on it, pal, I’m gonna be pissed,” says Bucky.
What is on the new arm is this: a navy finish and Steve’s insignia, those stylised wings, just like the sleeve of the uniform Howard Stark made for Bucky when he was a Howling Commando and a man of whom his country could be proud.
He celebrates by making snow angels on the roof with Barton.
He celebrates by walking home with Steve.
“They’re still gonna call you the Winter Soldier,” says Steve, sifting through mission reports.
Bucky shrugs. “‘s okay. I am a soldier and winter’s not so bad.”
It’s not so bad, when there are no mountain-side escapades and the Cyclone is closed for winter and they have an electric blanket and regular houseguests in the form of Tony Stark and Clint Barton and Bucky wonders how Steve ever thought they didn’t care; not when both of them have personally assured him that they’ll hurt him if he ever hurts Cap.
Killing Captain America is the only objective the Winter Soldier failed to complete (and it was not out of fear of Iron Man and Hawkeye).
This is what he knows: he is a man, who is American. He is a man who laughs. He is a man with friends. He is a man with fractured memories and nightmares but he can wake up when he pleases, in a warm bed, where his breath does not frost and where he is anchored by strong arms around him. This is what he knows.