Steve doesn’t scream when he falls.
“Barnes, you need to slow down and think. The Winter Soldier is not your friend. He’s not even an asset. He’s a goddamned loose cannon and half the covert ops divisions in the world want to put him down.”
“He’s Steve. Don’t you see? He’s Steve. He’s the real Captain America.”
“You are the only man on the planet who remembers a time when that was true.”
Bucky sits down. He cannot be the only one. Steve knows. Steve will remember, when he was a chorus boy and when he was a hero.
Bucky doesn’t remember Steve falling. He remembers the train journey and he remembers the futile search in the valley below. He remembers being flung through a hole in the carriage wall and he remembers preparing to die. Except-
Except Steve reached out and grabbed Bucky by the wrist and hurled him back into the carriage. Bucky remembers cradling his wrist and waiting for Steve and waiting and the train hurtled on even though Steve had fallen.
Bucky remembers when Steve was a chorus boy and when he was a hero.
There is a funeral for Captain Steven Rogers. It is brief, between briefings, and Colonel Phillips reads that greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends and Bucky and Peggy drink to Steve in a bombed-out pub and Bucky never listened to what the priest said in Mass and he’s not about to start now. Except-
Except that he listened.
Great love, greater love, greatest love.
The Winter Soldier is apprehended. He still cannot talk to women. Natasha says he has other strengths and she wipes her bloodstained mouth.
Bruce is not that kind of doctor but he looks at the strength and the blend of anaesthetic agents used to keep the Winter Soldier under and he blanches. He says that it’s enough to keep the Hulk down, give or take a milligram per milliletre or so.
Bucky’s fingertips rest on the reinforced glass window of the Winter Soldier’s cell, or hospital room. His throat is dry. “What happened to his arm?” he asks.
“I don’t know, Cap,” says Natasha. “I can’t remember a time when he was anything other than he is.”
Bucky is afraid to ask what he is.
Steve Rogers was a good man. Bucky Barnes cannot claim the same. He wants to kill Schmidt.
One hasty promotion later and he is talked into wearing Steve’s uniform, into carrying the shield, into putting a flickeringly brief fear of god into Schmidt that Captain America is not dead or that Erskine’s formula lives on and there is a whole army of super soldiers.
Bucky Barnes knows that he is no super soldier. He knows enough that he has to crash the plane. There’ll be no weeping for him. No one cries for orphans. He will bury the plane in the Arctic.
Peggy is on the end of the line. Her voice is calm and steady.
Bucky is wistful. He tells her they were supposed to go dancing, at the end of the war.
Peggy’s laugh is harsh and hiccuping but she can’t be crying for Bucky. No one cries for orphans. She tells him that they can still go dancing.
There is a line, he is sure, about finding the right partner, and he is wearing the red, white and blue of a hero and he says he’ll show her a good time.
It sounds like a sob, now, but he can hear Peggy’s attempt at a smile. “You’d better, Captain,” she says. “And don’t dare be late.”
The sun splinters off the sheets of ice beneath him and before the collision, Bucky remembers that Steve’s smile was dazzling.
The Winter Soldier is perfection. American steel tempered and twisted by Russian innovation. He looks like a statue, pale skin and golden hair. His smile never reaches his eyes. They say he moves like he could be in the Bolshoi, or the Soviet Army, or the KGB. They say that you don’t know he’s there until the garotte wire is around your throat and sometimes, even then, you can’t be sure.
They say he has the strength of ten men. They say the Black Widow is besotted.
There is a furling black and white photograph, singed around the edges. There is the Bronze Horseman and there is snow, thick on the ground. A man. A woman. He is tall and he has a bottle of vodka in one gloved hand. His arm is draped around the shoulders of the woman, who is laughing up at him. They might be in love.
(Just out of shot, there is a man. A woman. A diplomat and his mistress. There is blood, thick on the ground.)
“It’s not your fault.”
“I know you think so, Tony, but I didn’t save him.”
“You couldn’t save him.” Tony’s frustrated and so is Bucky. Heroes cannot be saved.
When Bucky emerges from the ice, the world is a painfully different place. He doesn’t know how he survived.
Clint Barton asks if he swapped any bodily fluids with the first Captain America. Bucky punches him and then takes the shield.
Clint’s face cracks into a bloody grin. “I think I’m gonna like you, Bucky-Cap.”
Bucky doesn’t know what to make of him, any more than he knows what to make of Tony Stark or Natasha Romanov or Bruce Banner or alien gods that fall from the sky. He thinks he’s got the measure of Phil Coulson, until he dies, as all good men must.
Steve won’t talk to Bucky.
“No offence, pal, but I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
Steve will talk to Natasha. His face is wreathed with smiles.
“Are you jealous, Cap?” asks Tony, wrapping his knuckles lightly on the metal table outside Steve’s cell.
Bucky looks at him, his mouth a little twisted. “He’s my best friend,” Bucky says quietly. Natasha’s fingers are laced with Steve’s and Bucky cannot figure out her expression. “He died to save me.”
There is a pause. “Then your best friend is dead,” says Tony.
Bucky clenches his fists, nails digging scarlet crescents into his palm. “Fuck you, Stark,” he enunciates clearly.
“Am I a bad person for wishing he’d never gotten the serum?”
“You’re a bad person for a lot of reasons, James, but not for that.”
Tony’s mouth closes on Bucky’s shoulder. He likes to bite and dig his fingers into Bucky’s skin.
Natasha sings him a lullaby. Bucky doesn’t know what it is but it settles Steve more effectively than the veterinary doses of ketamine.
He lies with his head in her lap and she strokes his hair and Bucky knows how it felt, when Steve was sick or dying and frail as anything; he knows how each strand felt, gliding between his fingers like sand, like a goddamned hourglass or doomsday clock.
“Styopan’ka,” she whispers.
Tony has theories about why Bucky survived. Bucky seldom cares to listen. He knows that his blood must have turned to ice and that his heart must have stopped and he’s not sure how to make it start again. His fingers wrap around Tony’s cock and Tony calls him a clever, wicked man and Bucky says it takes one to know one.
He wonders if it’s worse for Natasha, seeing Steve like this; devoid of heart and devoid of purpose. Steve is not the Winter Soldier and he is not Captain America and Bucky puts on the uniform and Tony slaps him on the ass which startles a laugh out of him and when he pulls up the cowl, he can feel the burn from Tony’s beard on the side of his neck.
He can feel it like guilt. It is an itch under his skin.
Bruce tries to explain what the Red Room did to Steve. Bucky’s not sure he wants to hear it but surely he can be brave enough.
The difficulty, Bruce says, was to defeat the serum, which, as everyone knows, rejects any attempts to permanently harm or injure.
A scar, Bruce says, is an attempt at healing. It happens in the heart, he says, and in the skin. It is fibrous and tough and Steve’s body is unblemished. This is something deeper. It cannot be excised. He says that it looks as though there have been multiple attempts at brain surgery. A lobotomy that didn’t take. Targeted cautery of the hippocampus. Repeated embolisation of the amygdala. Liberal application of electrical currents. Over and over until even Steve Rogers’ perfect body could not tell right from wrong. Inhibition, memory and emotion have all been warped.
Tony is pale. He doesn’t look at Bucky when he speaks. “If you believe in souls, Cap, you gotta understand that -”
Bucky swallows. “Steve’s is gone.”
Bruce nods, heavily. “Whatever makes Steve Steve has left the building.” He lifts one shoulder in an aborted shrug. Bucky wonders if Bruce believes in God or in souls or whether it is all neurons firing and misfiring to a scientist. Bucky doesn’t know if he believes but he knows that Steve did.
Steve used to light candles in Holy Innocents and he never once complained that he was always sick.
Steve was never angry at God, and Bucky sometimes wonders.
He asks Steve, in the white-walled, empty cell. “Do you believe in souls?” he asks.
Steve looks at him quizzically. Bucky wants to reach out with one finger and drag his fingertip over Steve’s jaw.
“Do you know Moscow at all, Captain Barnes?” Steve asks.
Bucky shakes his head. He has only ever passed through Russia. Now, he wishes he had lingered. He thinks that maybe, if he had, there might have been some fragments of Steve to save.
“There are five cathedrals in the Kremlin,” Steve says. “Not bad for a briefly godless state, wouldn’t you say?” He counts them off on perfect, long fingers; fingers that have killed a man, or many. “There are the Cathedrals of the Annunciation and of the Archangel. The Cathedral of the Dormition. The Church of the Twelve Apostles. The Church of the Deposition of the Robe. Everyone believes in a little bit of soul, no? Even Stalin prayed.”
He sits back, sprawling and entirely dangerous. “And on another hill, there’s the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It was demolished, under Stalin. They say that the last nun chained herself to the railings, raining down curses and whatever impotent threats a nun might have.”
Bucky’s fingers dig into his knees. Steve doesn’t remember that he used to be afraid of the nuns in the orphanage.
“They planned a great statue to Lenin but there was war,” says Steve, with great satisfaction. “There were so many battles to be waged. The site became a swimming pool and then, in the nineties, the Cathedral was rebuilt. After all of that, the Cathedral was restored. Everyone believes in a little bit of soul, even my country. That spark. That animus that makes us human.”
“But you don’t, do you?” asks Bucky, softly.
Steve’s smile is slow and gruesome. “Why are you here, Captain Barnes? It cannot be to discuss matters of spirituality.”
Bucky shakes his head. He licks his parted lips. “Are you the Cathedral, Steve?”
“I am sure there is something to be said here about bodies and temples, Captain Barnes, but I cannot be so easily restored.”
James Buchanan Barnes is not a super soldier but whatever was done to him by Zola has been enough to ensure his survival.
Stealth is his strength, and his mind is analytical and shrewd. He is determined. Stubborn, Steve would have said (and Bucky would have said that it takes one to know one). He learns how to use the shield. He learns how to wear the uniform.
He learns, in the end, how to be Captain America.
Natasha is sitting at the bar. She is wearing a tight black dress and fishnet stockings and Bucky doesn’t know if she is on a mission or on the hunt.
He sits next to her.
“How is he?” he asks.
Natasha snorts. Somehow, it is ladylike. “He asks for you,” she says.
Bucky has learned not to get his hopes up.
“Steve,” she says. She stops. She raises her glass to her lips and leaves behind a perfect arc of red lipstick. “He was perfect. At what he did. At what we did.”
Bucky swallows. “And what did you do?” he asks.
“We obtained knowledge,” Natasha says. “By any means. We were assassins. We were seducers. He is so good at it, Captain Barnes. It is addictive, you know.”
Bucky knows that dealing in death is addictive. He has been a sniper and a scrapper. He has never once enjoyed it, though.
“Tell me,” he says.
“We lit fires,” says Natasha. “We struck matches and we reveled in the flames.”
“Tell me, Captain Barnes,” says Steve, leaning close. “What were we to each other, you and I?”
Bucky lies. It is not the first time he has lied to Steve. He often told Steve that it would get better. That his breathing would improve, that tomorrow, the medication would have started work. He always said that they could afford it. During the war, he told Steve that it didn’t hurt.
Bucky told Steve that his girl had a friend who’d just love Steve. Steve stopped believing Bucky after a while. Not even Steve Rogers could endure all that rejection, no matter how much Bucky loved him and lied.
And Bucky got better at lying. He told Steve that there were loads of girls out there who’d appreciate Steve for who he was and what he was.
He was as surprised as anyone when Peggy Carter came along to make honest men of Steve and Bucky.
When Bucky learns who the Winter Soldier is, he is furious. Bucky has never been a master of his temper. It is ugly and furniture is thrown. It is the first time he sleeps with Tony.
“The act of observing a phenomenon changes it,” says Tony. He looks disappointed.
“Thwarted by science?” asks Bucky, his fingers combing through Tony’s hair.
“Never,” says Tony.
“What would happen if we weren’t watching Steve?”
Tony shakes his head. “I don’t think I want to know what would happen if his brand of psychotic sociopath was set loose.”
“He’s never going to get better, is he?” asks Bucky. He hates that his voice is small, broken, like a little boy who’s just been told that Father Christmas isn’t real and the tooth fairy’s sick.
“He’s not sick, Cap,” says Tony, quietly. “I mean, he is sick in the head but he’s not dying.”
It would be easier if Steve were dying.
“He’s going to be with us for a while,” says Tony. “Or until Fury decides to pull the plug.”
Bucky goes into Steve’s room. It’s a sunny Saturday morning and there is nothing for the Avengers to avenge.
Steve sits next to him on the white sofa.
It is a surprise when Steve smiles at him the way he used to and Bucky has learned not to hope but he cannot do anything but smile back. Steve kisses him.
“Is this what we used to do?” asks Steve, his voice a husky murmur against Bucky’s lips.
Bucky lies and nods, his heart pounding. He nods and lies and pulls Steve closer, his hands fisting in the loose fabric of Steve’s t-shirt. They kiss and it is soft, at first, until Steve’s metal hand is curled around Bucky’s hip and then Bucky is sitting astride Steve and he hates that he is moaning against Steve’s lips, like he can’t get enough, like he has never gotten enough. Steve is smiling until he pushes Bucky’s shirt off his shoulders.
“What is this?” Steve’s snarling and now his face is distorted with rage and this is not Steve and this man has never been Steve.
When Bucky wakes up, Tony is sitting next to his bed.
“Tony, I can -”
“He turned on the charm, James, I get it,” says Tony. He doesn’t look angry. He looks entirely sympathetic. “Natasha said that he was one of the best seducers the Red Room produced.”
Of course. Bucky should have known. It was premeditated. It wasn’t love, or even attraction. It was Steve doing what he now does best.
“Why?” asks Bucky. “What did he want?”
“To get out, probably,” says Tony. “I think he believed - what you said.”
“What I said,” says Bucky, slowly. (Oh, what he said; that he and Steve had been intimate and that they had fucked, during the War, in bomb shelters and French forests and safe houses. Bucky has always lied to Steve.)
“He got angry,” says Tony. He ducks his head and gestures. “He saw the - ”
Yes, of course. Steve had seen the marks and bruises from Tony’s fingers and he had been inexplicably jealous. Fortunately, or perhaps not, Clint and Tony burst into the room and pulled Steve off Bucky before he could do too much damage.
Steve is currently sedated, between ketamine and Natasha’s lullabies. Bucky, his wrist held tightly by Tony, is envious.
Bucky heals. It is not fast and his broken ribs are tender to the touch.
“It should have been me,” he murmurs.
It’s dark. “What?” asks Tony, who seems never to sleep.
“It should have been me who fell from the train,” says Bucky. His voice is steady and his thoughts clear.
“Fuck you,” says Tony. “If you’d fallen, god knows what would have happened. Maybe you’d be where Steve is now, huh?”
Bucky sighs. His head is pillowed on Tony’s chest and the light of the arc reactor is harsh and blue. If he was where Steve is now, Steve might be here, heroic and alive. Bucky does not know what kind of Winter Soldier he might have been but there is less of him to break. His morality has always had a certain flexibility to it; it is not brittle in the way of Steve’s faith. Steve could not be moulded and so he has been broken.
He escapes and Clint is collateral damage and Tony is his target. Bucky and Natasha take him down, on the roof of the Mansion where all things must come to an end, where there is still a Loki-shaped hole in the floor because it amuses Tony and bemuses Bruce.
Steve’s lips curl into a snarl. “You said you were mine, Captain Barnes.”
“I was,” says Bucky, desperately. It is not a lie. He doesn’t think it is a lie. “You called me Bucky.”
“One thing I have never been,” says Steve, slowly and deliberately, “is gullible. And yet I fell for your lies. I should have known. I should have known. They told me about you.”
“They told me about Captain America and about his plucky sidekick, Bucky Barnes.” Steve’s voice is cold. It is not Steve’s voice. It is not. “His great weakness. The little guy.”
The Winter Soldier is beautiful. His victims invariably die with a smile on their lips. He is some sort of an angel, an avenging angel.
“Have you heard of Samael the Archangel? There are so many conflicting stories. There are the tales where he is Lucifer, or as good as, and there are the tales where he never fell. He was an Archangel of Death and of Destruction and of Judgement. He was a seducer, you know. He had four concubines. He was a commander of armies of angels, or maybe of demons. He was five hundred years tall and had more wings than your average angel and he was a terrifying motherfucker.”
“Have you heard of the Winter Soldier? He’s so fucking beautiful. He’s got this smile and he’s got these knives. He’s got this belief. It’s fucking terrifying but when it’s your time, it’s your time, and if he comes for me, I’m not even going to argue, you know?”
Steve is mostly sedated, now. Bucky visits him once more.
“Do you remember Reims, in the war, Captain Barnes?”
“Do you remember the smile? The smiling angel of Reims?”
Bucky shivers. He doesn’t know why but it’s got something to do with an angel with bullet-holes in his wings.
Steve is a hero. They are near Chartres, in a burned-out farmhouse. It is cold and they can’t light a fire. Morita is on watch and Bucky sits next to Steve, close enough that their shoulders touch.
“When the war is over,” says Steve, as he pulls off his boots.
“We’ll live in Brooklyn,” says Bucky. “When the war is over.”
“I’ll marry Peggy,” says Steve. “We’ll live in Brooklyn. When the war is over.”
“I’ll marry Peggy’s sister,” says Bucky. “If she has one.” He nudges Steve’s shoulder. “Our kids’ll be cousins. When the war is over.”
“Our kids’ll be cousins anyway, Buck. You can’t choose your family but we kinda did, didn’t we?”
“That’s not in the rules,” says Bucky. His head’s on Steve’s shoulder. Steve’s arm is around his waist. Steve’s no good at this game, when the war is over.
“Fury’s calling it, Cap. Don’t go in today.”
He sees the grainy security footage later. He wonders if Steve knew what was going to happen. Clint is out of hospital and Tony wears his scars like badges of honour. He is the one that got away from the Winter Soldier’s knives and smiles and thighs.
Bucky reminds himself that Steve wanted to kill Tony and that he tried to kill Clint. Perhaps if Steve had known about Clint and Natasha, he would have tried harder.
In the video, Steve looks woozy. There were anaesthetic agents in everything that Steve ate and drank.
He smiles at Natasha, in the video, and she sits at the end of the sofa. After a quiet exchange, he curls up and his head is in her lap. She strokes his hair, as though he is nothing more harmless than an over-tired child. His hand wraps around her leg and he is smiling. There’s no sound on the video but Bucky’s pretty sure that Natasha is singing softly to Steve.
He sees the moment Steve’s eyes close and he sees the moment Natasha pulls out her gun. Steve doesn’t even flinch when the muzzle is pressed against his temple.
Bucky goes into the room, after. There is a brown-red splatter across the coffee table. Bucky thinks he should cry, or something, but there is still a statue in Arlington, in memory of Captain America and Bucky Barnes and there is still a myth or a lie that Bucky Barnes fell off a speeding train and there is a living legend that is Captain America.
Steve Rogers dies during the Second World War. He doesn’t scream when he falls.