5. Make sure Jane Foster stays alive.
He doesn’t remember everything about Bucky, about his history, about being Bucky, but some things are quite clear. Such as the particular way his ma said the words “trouble magnet,” as in “that child is a trouble magnet.”
She’d said it about Steve, a lot, always with that little note of disapproval and exasperation. It didn’t mean she disliked Steve. But being friends with Steve had gotten him into a lot of trouble he wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise; he supposed it was a parent’s prerogative to disapprove of that kind of thing.
It had been less a judgment of Steve and more a description of Steve’s particular relationship with the world, anyway. Steve had always had a certain way about him, that attracted attention, and he had a tendency toward the most outrageous luck, both good and bad. It was an . . . interesting combination.
The same could be said, he thought, of Dr. Jane Foster.
In theory, the mission is a simple one. Rescue scientist targeted by HYDRA for “compliance training.” In the process, thwart HYDRA’s plans.
Simple. Everybody wins.
Unfortunately, said scientist didn’t recognize a rescue op when it barged into her laboratory, insisted there was no time to talk, and threw her over his shoulder when she resisted.
Okay, fine. He doesn't exactly have the Widow’s people skills.
Later she theorizes that it was the interaction of the technology she’s been working on in her lab, that she’d accidentally (or not so accidentally, he thinks darkly) kicked on one of the machines in their struggle.
All he remembers at the time is a blinding flash of light - not white, but a dazzling, dizzying spectrum that imprints on the backs of his eyelids - and then -
And then there's a lot of shouting, some panicking, mutual accusations, and a few honest-to-goodness aliens watching them go at it all the while.
They've landed in a bar, it turned out. A little podunk outfit on the edge of a star system during what passes for early afternoon, which explains the lack of a crowd. The bartender has tentacles, he notices in his excellent peripheral vision while in the throes of being castigated by a certain petite scientist.
An insect-looking thing waves its arms and makes a clicking noise - is that supposed to be speech? Bucky shakes his head, wary, and at the same time Dr. Foster's anger begins giving way to shock; he recognizes the signs, the pale, drawn skin and glazed eyes. He inches closer to her - she could be a fainter.
One of the bartender's tentacles tosses something to the insect, who holds it up in a conciliatory gesture - is that supposed to be reassuring, Jesus - and Bucky reflexively backs away. It's a syringe, a fucking syringe - not again, no way in hell, he thinks immediately of Pierce looming over him, the mouthguard rubbing against his teeth, and tenses all over. Foster squeaks when his hand nearly crushes her arm, but he doesn't let go.
"We have to get out of here," he whispers, almost frantic. Her head bobs - they're finally in agreement - and he surveys their surroundings.
There are two exits; in both paths there is a - a creature in the way. Looks are often deceiving, but if Bucky had to make a bet, even with the syringe Insect-guy looks more beatable. More fragile, anyway, unless that exoskeleton is made of steel. Which it might be.
If he picks Foster up, if he sprints, they might just make it -
They don't get the chance. Something hits the back of his neck - sharp, not a bullet, but a sting. He swats at it, too late, he's too late, but he can already feel the effects. A tranq. Insect-guy advances on Foster first, and the last thing Bucky sees is the light glinting off the silver needle.
When he wakes up, he finds himself chained to a bed. His first thought is - HYDRA lab. Cold fear creeps over him.
"Oh, you're awake," says a relieved voice. Female. Vaguely familiar.
Foster, he remembers, still foggy. Retrieval/rescue. Bang-flash, like one of Steve's old pulps. He could have sworn he remembered - tentacles - Insect-guy - a hallucination, surely, a side-effect of whatever he's been given?
She eyes his restraints. "Sorry about those." She doesn't sound sorry, though.
And why would she, if she thinks she's been kidnapped? But she hasn't abandoned him, not yet. Maybe she needs him for something.
He forces his muscles to relax, one at a time from his neck down. Nonthreatening. Palms up. The last of the fog clears away; he can think again. Good.
"Where are we?" His voice sounds raspy.
Foster fidgets, tucking her hair back and folding her arms. She's sitting in some kind of - almost a chair. A future space chair. It hurts his eyes. He thinks again of Steve's pulps. He'd drawn for them occasionally, and there were always a few lying around. He doesn't know why he's remembering this now.
"I don't know." She gives a startled laugh. "Not Earth, that's for sure."
Not hallucinations, then. Damn. His training, extensive though it was, did not cover tentacles and man-sized cockroaches.
"What do they want with us?"
"We-e-ell . . . they know you kidnapped me. Hence the restraints."
"It was a rescue. I saved you from being kidnapped. HYDRA was going to -" He grinds his teeth. Even after all this time he hasn't managed to break all of his conditioning.
She glares at him. "You kidnapped me. Now we're on an alien space station. This is all your fault. Just admit it!"
"So, what, you're on their side now?" he snipes, aware that he is quickly losing ground. He really could use the Widow's help. She left him a number he could contact. But he hadn't, and now he's paying for it. "And how are you talking to them?"
Foster hesitates at that. Uncertainty flits across her face; good, he can use that. "They . . . gave me a chip with a translation program." She mimes injecting herself. The syringe. "They gave you one too, while you were out."
He tries to bang his head back, frustrated, but there is only soft, yielding plastic behind him - nothing satisfyingly hard. They tranq'd him, injected him (enhanced him), overcame him while barely even trying.
"Out of the goodness of their hearts?"
The uncertainty grows. She chews her lip, glancing away from him. "Now they think we owe them. We've been, uh, impressed into service. I think."
"Service?" he demands. "What service?"
"Have you ever bartended?" asks Foster hopefully.
4. Acquire and maintain a base of operations.
There is no where, and no way, to run, he realizes quickly enough. The space station is a waterhole for wayfaring travelers, surrounded by a fat lot of nothing in every single direction, including up and down. There are few permanent residents, and as far as he can tell, they've been transported to the slums of the galaxy. Foster refers to it more affectionately as a "trailer park," whatever that is.
Trust is a difficult thing to come by on the edge of outer space. But as they're the only two humans this side of the galaxy - there are rumors of a famous "Terran" hero running around, but since his dumb-ass name is Star-Lord Bucky doesn't think he'll be much help - Jane sticks close to him despite her mistrust. Small mercies.
Their "jobs" are the kind where your wages and hours never outstrip the interest accruing on your "debts," so they enter the market looking for another currency. What they find is one Mr. Calabaz, trader in memories. (The "Mr." is a required form of address by all accounts, including Mr. Calabaz's.)
"I don't come by here very often. You're lucky you ran across me," Mr. Calabaz says slowly. Underneath the translator Bucky can hear the whirs and buzzes of his natural language. His particular shade of garish purple is hard on the eyes, but Bucky doesn't look away. He knows this game: he's trying to remind them of their needy position.
Unfortunately, they are needy. "We're looking for a ship," Bucky says bluntly.
Mr. Calabaz's antennae twitch and he makes a thoughtful buzz. "Hmm, I suppose I do know of a few . . . lying around, here and there . . ." Bucky is tempted to throttle him. He's reminded of a used car salesman. Sleaze is sleaze no matter how far you get accidentally transported, he thinks sourly.
They wind up with the junkiest junker Bucky's ever seen in his two lives. It's mixed organic-mechanical, which Mr. Calabaz tries to talk up as a selling point, but fortunately Foster sees through that.
"We're humans, not idiots," she snaps, crossing her arms. "We know perfectly well parts are easier to grow than mine, especially out here, and that FTL is impossible in a living ship."
She must be making all this up off the top of her head - or she's spent more time talking to their neighbors than he's realized - but somehow it works. She talks him down from three memories apiece to one, in a show of haggling Bucky finds to be the most entertainment he's had out here yet. After all, she blusters, they're exotic creatures; aren't their memories worth more than those of your average alien? Does Mr. Calabaz even have any Terran memories in his collection?
Mr. Calabaz grows more sour by the minute, but he finally agrees to the terms, as long as the memories are especially meaningful or interesting.
Foster doesn't tell him what she trades in, but before the electrode is attached to her temple, he sees tears in her eyes. It makes him feel sick: they should stop, maybe this isn't worth it, they'll find some other way. But he doesn't stop it, and soon enough it's his turn. There are still as yet precious few memories of his life before the Soldier; he doesn't want to let go of any of them.
He calls to mind Sarah Rogers's funeral, the conversation with Steve afterward. Steve can remind him what happened later. If they can get back.
"Funereal rites, I take it?" Mr. Calabaz murmurs, looking at his little viewing screen. "I suppose an anthropologist might . . ."
Bucky wants to punch him, but then the memory is wisping away, a cloud dissolving into nothing, and he can't remember why he was angry. Foster isn't teary-eyed anymore, either, just a little confused. The whole thing is unsettling.
"Our own ship!" she crows, smile just a shade too bright. She wraps her arm around his; for her comfort or his, he doesn't know. That's a bit more excitement than he can generate for a trash heap with a decontamination chamber for a shower and sterilizing units for laundry, but he smiles anyway. It's a start.
3. Assist Dr. Foster in acquiring information relevant to 1.
She spends most of her free time on the ship's computer. When he asks her to explain what she's doing, she says, "So the nav drive is pretty limited and our knowledge of the surrounding area is limited. Relatively speaking. Obviously we also need the hardware to actually go there, but it can’t hurt to calculate a route home in the meantime, but that's hard without more data."
She turns a pair of big brown eyes on him.
For once Bucky recognizes his role in the script here. "And how do you get more data, Jane?"
Jane brightens. "More starcharts. The further away the better. Once we have a better knowledge of where we are, and where Earth is, we can begin plotting a route home. Even though we'll need an FTL drive to do that..."
"Starcharts, huh? You think we have the space for that?" he asks skeptically. It's a little hard not to wind her up, tease her a little.
She gives him a look. "They'll be on data sticks. It's all electronic." She seems to suddenly have a thought. "I don't know how much you understand about computers."
He feels a little headache begin between his eyes, as it does whenever he thinks about being the Soldier. Remnants of his leftover programming, he suspects, designed to discourage him from thinking too critically about what he's doing. Or maybe they wanted him to keep his mouth shut, simple as that. In the months since his unlucky step had brought him to the other side of the galaxy, it's become nothing more than a persistent niggle, ignorable enough. He hates talking about it, especially to Jane, but he makes himself do it on occasion just to prove he can.
"I used computers on missions. You said it was a stick? Like a port?"
Her gaze, which is veering dangerously close to pitying, as it always does when this topic of conversation comes up, snaps back to the console. "Yeah, they look like this one. I don't know where we're going to look for them, though. Or what to pay for them." She takes a deep breath. "I don't want to pay with another memory."
Sometimes Bucky dreams of getting everything they need by selling all his memories as the Soldier. Wiping himself clean and waking up as someone who could call himself Bucky without hesitation. But he knows, with a certain grimness, that knowledge is power, and the Soldier knows a lot of very useful things. "We'll find another way," he promises.
When his "other way" involves going into a fighting ring under the seller's terms, however, Jane balks.
"This is a really bad idea," she hisses into his ear as they walk. "Look at that guy! His muscles have muscles!"
"You don't think I have muscles?" he asks cheekily.
Her blush tells him all he needs to know about that, but she won't be distracted. "What if you die? What am I supposed to do then?"
"This isn't a death match, I made sure. Would get more than a data stick for that." He speaks on autopilot.
"Death matches are a thing here? What is this, the Colosseum?" she hisses.
"Trailer park, remember? This is the poor alien's version of the gladiator games." On impulse he adds, "Kiss for good luck?"
She stares at him, and he grins to show her he's joking, but then it's time for him to enter the ring and they're separated. The cage snicks shut behind him.
Bucky Barnes knows some boxing and how to use a gun, but this is on another level entirely. He pulls the Soldier's mask over his face.
The match is short, and dirty. Muscles-With-Muscles is bulky - too bulky, in fact, enough that it actually hampers his movements. It's obvious his strategy is just to outlast anything his opponent throws at him, then bash them in the head a coupla times with one of his four arms. Very little range of motion; heavy; low center of gravity. All this he calculates with the Soldier's eye. Fortunately, within the Soldier's skillset is the ability to take down an opponent without killing them.
Muscles-With-Muscles taps out when, twenty-six seconds in, the Soldier has his metal elbow a quarter-inch from his one enormous eye, a nanosecond from smashing it in. There are some murmurs in the crowds, but mostly it's quiet. He's suddenly aware of a lot of eyes trained on him.
He jerks away. Before the war, Bucky might have swaggered, preened a little, proud of his victory. That's not in him anymore. He collects payment (there's some other stuff, besides the drive, it'll be delivered the next day) and makes a beeline for their ship, blind to everyone and deaf to every voice. He manages to make it back there before vomiting into what passes for a toilet in these parts.
Like a moron, he's left the door unlocked, and a few minutes later he hears the soft pitter-patter of Jane's footsteps come up behind him. "Bucky?"
Right. He makes the metal hand unclench, revealing a sleek, crystal drive. She takes it, but she doesn't leave. His head throbs.
"Are you okay?"
"Fine," he manages. He wants her to leave. He doesn't want her to leave. He can't make up his damn mind, so he stays silent.
"You don't look fine," she replies, and he doesn't contradict her. Hands reach out, gently if awkwardly, to gather up his hair - it's getting long, he's thinking about a haircut - and for a while she chatters about nothing of consequence (doing this for her intern, who made an art form out of getting wasted on Keystone Light, whatever that is; how she learned her bargaining skills by unionizing the grad student workers and almost getting expelled as a result; the first time Thor landed in her trailer's backyard, and right, she has a boyfriend, he knew that).
"You look better now," she says finally, after running out of things to say.
He gathers up what he can of Bucky and wipes his mouth. "Damn right I do. Bet you wish you'd given me that kiss now, huh?"
Her starburst of laughter makes him smile.
2. Maintain acceptable performance levels to accomplish 3-5.
A week after the fight, and his arm still isn't quite right. There's a burr in his shoulder movement, slowing him down. Just a fraction, but a fraction might be all it takes. Muscles-With-Muscles had managed one glancing hit right there at the top of his shoulder, where the arm is attached, with enough strength to dislodge something.
If that isn't annoying enough, it's right exactly where he can't get at it with his other arm.
He expects Jane to look pitying again when he asks for a little help, but instead she's curious. Like he should have expected, he realizes. She leans forward as the plates unlock and display the contents of his arm, her chin resting on her hands. He looks away, embarrassed; it's like someone poking at his innards, strangely intimate. (When the hell did he start thinking of the arm as his own body?)
Aliens apparently don't believe in flatheads, so for once he thanks his previous captors for including the self-repair kit. The adjustment is a simple enough one to make; he feels the weight shift minutely - the arm is sensitive - and gives it a full rotation. No burr. "Thanks, doc."
She's not done, though. Jane glances at him for permission before diving in to look at the rest of the limb. "A lot of changes were made," she muses, tapping the screwdriver against her teeth. "I guess that makes sense. Updates over time. But still . . ."
"KGB, HYDRA, lots of evil organizations out there."
"If you want, I could see about streamlining some of the operations." She prods at a wire, squints at a joint. "A lot of it looks pretty inefficient."
He raises an eyebrow. "You can make something of this mess?"
She shrugs, looking wistful. "I made all my equipment specialty at home. No one else is doing what I'm doing. Well, now they are." She looks briefly annoyed. "Bandwagoners."
His mouth twitches. But - "What are you going to do when you get home?" he asks.
Jane has always seemed as determined as him to get home, more so, so he's surprised when she frowns. "I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know?" he asks, faintly annoyed.
Now she looks annoyed. "I said I don't know!" The screwdriver slips, and she huffs.
"Don't you have" - Thor - "family?"
"Of course I do! It's just, it's always been my dream to explore different worlds. Not just study them, or chart them on a map."
It makes sense, but - Bucky has the peculiar feeling she's both telling the truth and lying to him, at the same time. "Why don't you want to go home?"
She exhales sharply. "There's just some stuff I - I don't want to go back to, okay?"
He gives her a look. "You know who you're talking to, right?"
Jane sighs again, this time more resigned. "Last year I got possessed by an alien life-force and it gave me nightmares for months, okay? I had to dump my boyfriend because I was getting flashbacks around him all the time. The worst thing is, it did make me feel better." Her mouth twists sourly.
"How've you been sleeping out here?"
"Since being kidnapped and traveling to a different star system? Pretty good, all things considered. How's it been for you?"
"Pretty good," he snaps back, before realizing it's true. A certain - weight has been lifted. There's been space from all the expectations on him, literally.
There's a moment of silence. "I can't believe we're having an argument about how both of us are having a better time in space than at home," she mutters, not meeting his eyes.
He considers. Unexpected revelations about himself are not his forte, but the path ahead of them seems pretty clear. "We can't leave yet, anyway. We have some time. To figure things out."
Her fingers wander down the back of his hand, tracing over the metal knuckles and plates absently. He turns his hand over, captures her fingers in his. She smiles. "We should get to work, then," she says, and they do.
1. Get the hell home.