Bucky wakes up in a recovery room in New York, and his best friend is dead.
'Evening, sir,' he welcomes Director Fury a few weeks later. He's holed up at the firing range, still getting used to being left-handed and the suddenly nonexistent trigger pull in anything short of a tank. The kickback is all different, too, neural receptors interpreting the data and sending it to Bucky's brain like a gentle nudge at the edges of his consciousness.
'Sergeant Barnes.' Fury looks from him to the target at the other end of the room, riddled with holes that may or may not make up a smiley face. It was a dare from Barton, what can he say? 'Settling all right, I see.'
'Oh, you know,' Bucky says, too light, 'still waiting to wake up back on the front, but the coffee's great. Got a mission for me, sir?'
(He's been running errands for SHIELD, mostly learning the lay of the land until they give him proper clearance and an official status. Fury told him he could get a life, if he wanted; but Bucky was fighting his own wars long before the War started, and it's the only life he knows.)
'Got an intergalactic crisis,' Fury corrects. At Bucky's raised eyebrows, his mouth twists in the sort of grimace that's as close to a smile as he gets. 'There's a shiny new uniform in it for you.'
'No,' Bucky says. 'I'm not Captain America.'
'Captain America is dead,' Fury says, blunt and merciless, and it makes Bucky wince. 'But the world still needs him. The question, sergeant, is: are you going to step up to the challenge?'
And Bucky knows he'll cave, because he's seen the looks people are giving him, SHIELD agents and even the scientists and civilians who shouldn't know who he is. He knows what they see: a man out of time, a tin man playing the part of a real live boy, and the closest thing to a supersoldier left in this brave new world. They don't believe in him, but they'll give him a chance, because the world needs all the help it can get and beggars can't be choosers.
'Fine,' Bucky says. He ignores Fury's triumphant smirk. 'But this uniform is too goddamn flashy.'
'I knew men who were none of those things worth ten of you, so stop playing a hero.'
'A hero? Like you, the guy in a hand-me-down spangly getup? There's two things that make you special, Barnes.' The Stark kid pokes him with a finger, straight to the chest, and it takes all of Bucky's willpower not to break his fucking hand. 'One came from Nazi experiments, and the other from me. How's that left arm feeling, good?'
'Why don't you see for yourself,' Bucky says. 'Put on the suit, though, I'm not beating up a fella with his pants down.'
The Avengers fight the Chitauri, and they fight the Kree, and they fight Skrulls. They stop Kang the Conqueror from, well, conquering the world. When they get stuck in an alternate reality for a week, Bucky personally takes down their Captain America, whose only defining characteristic seems to be that he's a complete shit; it's a shitty alternate reality, period. On his own, Captain America hunts HYDRA cells, and the half-machine monstrosity that calls itself Zola.
They help with relief efforts and hunger crises and riots. Bucky saves more people than he ever thought he could; in this time, wars aren't fought in trenches.
The Avengers try calling him Cap but he can't answer to that outside the field, then they try calling him Sarge but it makes him feel ninety-odd (which he is) so he asks them to stop, and then after a few drunken nights of team bonding they settle on James. No one ever called him that except his mother, but they don't have to know that, and Bucky doesn't even mind all that much.
The media go crazy over them. They want to know Captain America's secret identity. Captain America just smirks and shakes his head.
He can't give the world passionate speeches, or wide-eyed idealism, or the unshakeable certainty that people are truly good at heart (he's a ridiculously bad public speaker, he never believed in anything except Steve, and he knows humans are the real monsters). He can give it military precision, and combat pragmatism, and just the right amount of determination to walk away alive from a fight with a god.
'Four high-ranking UN officials have been assassinated in the past week,' is how Fury opens the meeting. 'We have reason to believe Codename Winter Soldier has been activated.'
'Oh, shit,' says Clint. Next to him, Bucky can feel Natasha tense up.
'The Winter Soldier is a Soviet secret weapon,' Fury says, for the benefit of everyone else at the table. 'He was first deployed in the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, then in Czechoslovakia in 1968, at least three times during the war in Afghanistan, and that's not counting the individual assassinations we can't even confirm are his work. He's a brilliant strategist. He's an even better killer.'
'So,' says Bruce, 'are we talking human, here? Or a cyborg, or android?'
'Human,' says Natasha. 'Cryogenically preserved between missions. He was never out for more than two months, in case he started resisting the mental conditioning. He could be…volatile.'
'From what little intel we have,' Fury adds, 'there's reason to believe our Russian friends might have been successful in replicating the SSS, or something akin to it. There are second-hand accounts of the Winter Soldier dodging bullets and slaughtering entire platoons bare-handed.'
'What do you want us to do?' Bucky asks.
Fury looks straight at him. 'Funny you should ask, Cap. I want you to catch him.'
On the floor of the UN General Assembly hall, Stark is unconscious, trapped in his own malfunctioning suit. Bruce is lying next to him, naked and human and bleeding, with a tranquiliser dart sticking out of his neck. Clint is visibly trying not to pass out, both arms broken in at least three places. Natasha looks like a puppet with her strings cut off, thrown carelessly over a chair like so much almost-dead weight.
Bucky is fighting for every breath. The Winter Soldier's boot is pressed against his trachea, and it takes all of the strength in Bucky's left arm to keep him from crushing it.
'Steve,' he rasps, barely above a hoarse whisper. 'C'mon, it's me, you gotta remember me. It's Bucky.' With his right hand, he pulls off his cowl, then sweat-damp hair out of his eyes. The pressure on his neck increases and he's choking, but he keeps talking. 'It's me. You know me.'
Steve watches him with a mild frown, and his eyes are cold and dead. 'Ya dumal,' he starts. He shakes his head and says, slowly, 'I thought you were dead.'
And that's when Thor blasts him across the room.
Fury lets Bucky listen in on the interrogation, through a thick bulletproof one-way glass. On the other side, Steve is cuffed to a chair by his hands and feet, with adamantium-reinforced restraints, and the chair is screwed to the floor. His eyes are closed against the harsh white light. Every fifteen minutes a SHIELD scientist administers an incapacitating agent. Water is soaking the front of his shirt, his hair is wet, and it shouldn't faze Bucky; he'd seen interrogations before, hell, he's been on the business end of interrogations before.
It really fucking fazes him.
'I don't know if they broke him,' Fury says. 'Or if they just bent him far enough. Agent Romanoff tells me he's always been resistant to brainwashing, so we're gonna try to give him time to adjust.'
In the interrogation room, one of the SHIELD agents asks Steve a question. Bucky can't read lips that well, but he sees enough to know that Steve answers in Russian.
Fury doesn't let Bucky stick around for when they start breaking through the programming.
Steve doesn't remember the war. He doesn't remember being Captain America. He doesn't remember growing up in Brooklyn. He remembers Bucky, because his handlers never thought to take away his sketchpads, and Bucky is all he ever drew.
'How can you be Captain America?' he asks.
(Bucky has been spending all his downtime in Steve's recovery room. It's like when they were kids, and Bucky took care of Steve when he had scarlet fever and pneumonia and the flu. Except it's nothing like when they were kids.
Sometimes, Steve's face will go blank and hard and in one fluid movement he'll be pinning Bucky to the floor, to the wall, holding him up by the throat. It happens less and less, though. After a few weeks he tells Bucky to stay still, and draws him in black ink, but when he shows Bucky the sketches they're always of him in his old army uniform.)
'They asked me,' says Bucky. 'Someone had to. Guess I was the next best thing.'
Steve shakes his head. There's a small shaved patch above his right ear, where SHIELD doctors took out the neural implants suppressing his emotions and empathy. 'The uniform means something, though. It's about ideas. The propaganda, the imperialism, an American superhero policing the world. The farce of a dream, fed to the working class so when they fail to pull themselves out of poverty the system can say it's their fault.'
'If you start waxing poetic about Marx, I'm gonna have to deck you.'
Steve just smiles.
Sometimes Bucky thinks Department X took everything that makes Steve the person he is, that makes him a hero, and gave it a vicious twist.
Natasha talks to him. Well, as far as Bucky can tell she talks at him, but when SHIELD declares him sane and mostly safe and lets him move into Bucky's Brooklyn Heights apartment, Steve agrees to join the Avengers. His condition is that they won't ask him to take part in missions that directly further the US political agenda. Stark laughs himself sick: if his father knew the original Captain America was a dirty commie, he'd weep. Steve doesn't laugh, and doesn't trust Stark, because Stark stands for everything he believes is wrong with the modern world.
(Steve, when he finds out he has a small fortune in back pay, donates all of it to the Moscow Helsinki Group. He won't tell Bucky what he's trying to atone for; Bucky suspects the list might be long.)
The Winter Soldier spots the team when the Super-Skrull tries to invade Australia. He and Captain America take down Kingpin and the Hand's operation where Eastern European kids were trafficked to Britain and America. He helps defeat Doctor Doom. He fields questions at press conferences, polite and a little bashful, all fake accent and lilting vowels.
The media go crazy over him: a real Russian superhero with a dark and troubled past. They want to know the Winter Soldier's secret identity. The Winter Soldier just smiles and shakes his head.
The little old lady who owns Bucky's building (she was four when he shipped out, and lived across the street from Steve; her father had a newspaper stand), who treats Bucky like he's some sort of lost puppy, invites him for tea and tells him Steve seems like a fine young man, and it's about time Bucky found someone to take care of him.
Bucky chokes on his tea, because little old ladies should not be so invested in his private life. She ignores his wheezing and says he's lucky; she'd been told Russians are very passionate, if you know what I mean. At that Bucky has to laugh, because if Steve heard this, he'd be blushing so hard his head would explode.
Department X gave Steve Rogers a twist, but they couldn't change what makes him the person he is. He gives passionate speeches, he's a wide-eyed idealist, and has the unshakeable certainty that people are truly good at heart. He doesn't believe in America and the farce of a dream; he doesn't believe in Bucky's uniform.
And Bucky would follow him to war, and to hell, and he'd die all over again for the world Steve fights for.
Slowly, piece by piece, Steve adjusts. His memory is Swiss cheese; he remembers bits of conversation, or how the neighbourhood looked like. He likes Bruce and Clint and Thor, respects Natasha and doesn't understand Stark. He invades Bucky's coffee table and couch with Pushkin, Nabokov, Bulgakov and Dialectic of Enlightenment. The floor is littered with half-chewed pencils and crumpled paper and sketches of Red Square and the Winter Palace. Steve wants to show him St Petersburg.
'I know I didn't really grow up there,' he says. 'But I still sort of remember it, you know? Like there's two sets of memories in my head, and the fake ones just feel more real.'
'Am I real in your head?' Bucky wants to know.
'The realest,' Steve says, mock-earnest, and laughs when Bucky cuffs him over the head.
Bucky spends less and less time holed up at the firing range. Maybe he's starting to adjust, too.
(Steve kisses him on the Promenade when it's snowing, when the sky over Brooklyn is dark and low. Bucky doesn't know what to do, and doesn't know what to do, except hold on.
When Steve lets him go, snow is melting in his hair and there's colour high in his cheeks that Bucky suspects has little to do with the cold. 'I think I wanted to do that for a long time,' he says. There's something familiar in his lopsided smile, even if his eyes are a little more bleak these days.
'You gotta be kidding me,' Bucky says. It's what he thought he'd say when he imagined Steve kissing him, lifetimes and lifetimes ago, and he might be Captain America and Steve might slip into Russian when he feels like it, neither of them the men they were in their time; but this is what Bucky thought he should say. This, and: 'What took you so long?')
Bucky has to believe, with everything in him, that it'll be okay.