The fire that had driven Steve to see Bucky ebbs as quickly as it rose, dragging him back, off the helicarrier and back to Brooklyn. Years later, Steve still won’t remember the journey, the time that passed between his recognition and his flight.
His hands shake as Steve tears the dog tags off his neck, dropping them atop the file on his night table before he sits on the edge of the mattress. Bracing his elbows on his knees, he cradles his head in his hands, fighting the mix of nausea and grief that’s been roiling in his stomach since he took that first look though the glass.
Time slips along, hours blurring together as Steve reads the file again, trying to find out just how he hadn’t figured this out. How he had managed to wake up in a world where James Barnes still lived and not know it in his bones; not know it before he was faced with what the man had become. How Steve had managed to pick up in a new time and dive back into saving countless lives, all while the one man he would have traded anything for a chance to save again still existed. Steve had been alone, in that darkness – Fury had known, and kept it from him. How many other people had suspected, had seen the photographs, before Steve had?
Steve spreads the contents of the file across his kitchen table and pours himself a drink. The wooden chair creaks as Steve settles into it, and for a moment he stares into his glass, watching the streaks of early afternoon sun spark against the ice, sending threads of gold twining through the honey-colored whiskey, before he reaches for one of the photographs.
It’s a CCTV still from Dulles, the one that Fury had finally shown him just a week ago. It is the last photo of Bucky taken before the Red Skull was killed, before Steve had seen him face-to-face, before Bucky had ended up in that cell. In the photograph, his face is hidden in the hood of his sweater and Steve can read his exhaustion in the slump of his shoulders. Bucky looks so familiar, so young, but now that Steve’s seen him up close, he knows that everything he remembers about Bucky Barnes has no bearing on who the man is now.
Pushing the photograph away, Steve lifts the glass and takes a sip. It’s a mistake; the whiskey turns to ash on his tongue, the taste of it combined with the table full of photographs before him dragging Steve through memories of other places, other losses. He sets the glass back on the table, the nausea shoving the grief aside in the pit of his stomach, writhing, and Steve can’t push it back anymore. Bucky’s eyes stare back at him accusingly from dozens of different airports and train stations, his profile circled in red in each blurred photograph. The eyes of the man he couldn’t save, the eyes of the man that managed to survive without his help.
Steve jerks, backhanding the glass off the tabletop, and it explodes against the wall, the sound of its shattering magnified against the bricks and echoing around the kitchen. The shards tumble to the tiles, glinting sharp among the spilled whiskey and ice. Steve grinds his palms against his eyes, willing the rush of images to fade, and rises from the table, abandoning the photographs.
Steve unplugs the answering machine. If it’s anything pressing, they’ll contact him on his SHIELD comm. If not, he’d rather that they leave him alone.
When the phone continues to ring, Steve rips the cord from the wall.
The silence isn’t any better. The photographs stay on the table, the shards of glass on the floor, and Steve pulls out the tidily-tucked corners of his sheets and tugs back the blankets with shaking hands.
All the faces in his dreams look familiar. Except none of them do.
Steve leaves it, rolling away and letting it ring, but the beep that indicates a text message sounds a few moments later. Turning back to his nightstand, doing his best to avoid looking at the abandoned dog tags and the now empty file, Steve picks up the comm and reads the transmission.
>> Finished upgrade of arm, new model approved by SHIELD internal security team this morning. Scheduled for surgical retrofit this afternoon. Thought you’d want to be there.
Tony clips the dark film of an x-ray onto the backlit frame on the wall.
“See, here…” he draws a large circle with the pad of his finger, “is where the old attachments were. The implant was nearly seventy years old, it’s a minor miracle it lasted as long as it did. The surgeons are working on parting the separate nerve clusters for individual conduction, and they’re hoping that he’ll regain full use.”
Steve grips the cup of coffee on the table in front of him. It’s cold; he hadn’t wanted it, anyway, but it gives himself something to do with his hands. His eyes run over the x-ray, lingering on the dark spots Tony says is scar tissue, and Steve may not be a doctor but he’s seen enough war wounds to understand what Tony’s trying to say.
“It’s going to hurt, isn’t it?” Steve speaks up for the first time since Tony started talking, and the man turns to him, running a hesitant hand along his beard as he answers.
“We’re looking at six weeks of recovery, easily.”
Steve looks back down at the cup of coffee, the surface of the dark liquid perfectly still in his grip, reflecting the question in his eyes back at him. Before he can respond, one of the nurses pokes his head in to the door. “Captain Rogers, Mr. Stark... the patient’s en route to recovery. The procedure was successful.”
Both men nod, and Tony turns to gather the x-rays. Steve pushes back from the table, abandoning the coffee as he makes his way through the med bay, toward the room at the end of the hall.
Bucky sleeps for a while, nothing but his chest moving as it rises and falls sluggishly. Every so often, a doctor stops by, checking the machine readouts and recording them in the chart stowed at the end of the bed. Steve doesn’t move from his spot, watching through the mirror. A junior agent comes by and offers him coffee, but Steve ignores him. He can’t tear his eyes off of Bucky’s face, and he doesn’t need any distractions as he waits for the sedation to finally wear off for the first time since Bucky has arrived on the helicarrier.
Another hour passes, maybe two, before a doctor slips past Steve, entering the room and performing the same routine checks, lifting the chart from its pocket at the foot of the bed. But this time, as the doctor circles the bed, Bucky’s head moves, his gaze tracking the man’s movements from one machine to another. He makes a small movement with his right hand, but the restraint jerks him back before he can accomplish it. Bucky turns his head fully toward the doctor, and Steve can see the lines in his face deepen, watches Bucky’s lips move beneath the oxygen mask. Finally, after a few eternal seconds of watching Bucky struggle against the restraints, the skin of his wrist turning white where it meets the leather cuff, Steve lets out a relieved huff of breath as the doctor turns.
He lifts the mask slowly off Bucky’s face, and Steve watches his eyes slide slowly in and out of focus as the doctor speaks.
Bucky’s eyes rake the doctor’s face, and he redoubles his efforts against the restraints. Steve can see his chest straining, and he realizes finally that Bucky’s trying to move his left arm.
“I’m going to ask you a few questions. I need you to try and calm down.”
The doctor cradles the chart beneath his arm, pushing his glasses up his nose in a practiced gesture as he watches Bucky struggle with an indifferent look on his face.
“You are currently aboard the SHIELD helicarrier. You have just received a necessary operation to replace your cybernetic prosthesis. My name is Dr. Katz. What is your name?”
The doctor waits, his posture impassive, as Bucky’s chest heaves with the exertion of his continued struggle. He braces his right hand against the bed and attempts to lunge at the doctor, who takes a startled step back. Bucky grits his teeth, a shock of pain mixing with the wild confusion on his face, and as he drops his weight back against the bed Steve watches a line of red bloom along the gauze wrapped tightly around Bucky’s shoulder.
Dr. Katz speaks again, his voice louder as he takes another step back from the bed. He reaches to press a large blue button on the wall.
“Do you know what your name is?”
Turning his head away from the doctor, Bucky closes his eyes, the rawness of pain gaining traction on his face as the fight seems to flood out of him.
“My name is James Buchanan Barnes. I am a sergeant of the 107th Infantry Division. My serial number is twelve oh seven eight oh nine six.”
Steve’s heart drops into his stomach. Bucky – James – he thinks he’s being held captive here. He thinks that he’s a prisoner. He’s woken up in a sterile room with no familiar face to anchor him, strapped to a table and in pain and for the second time Steve hasn’t been able to stop it.
Anger boils inside Steve’s chest, the empty space where his heart should be filling with the heat of it. He turns from the mirror, unwilling to watch the pain on Bucky’s face for any longer. Clenching his fists at his sides, Steve paces the hallway, trying to decide what he can do to fix this - what he can do to help this time. He refuses to watch this, to sit idly by like a good agent as SHIELD does this to Bucky. This is Fury’s design – Fury’s ideas, to tear the arm from him and lock him up down here, to put him through more hell before the man had even had time to adjust to the flood of memories thrust upon him. Fury’s plan to hide the Winter Soldier’s very existence from Steve until the last moment, putting all of their lives in danger, not the least Bucky’s.
A strangled yell tears out of Steve’s throat as he sinks his fist into the metal supply closet door in front of him. The metal warps around his fist, and as Steve withdraws his hand, his knuckles pink and throbbing from the impact, he follows with a sharp kick, leaving another deep dent. Bringing both palms up to smash against either side of the frame, Steve stops, his head hanging between his stilled fists as his shoulders slump.
That’s it, that’s the way he can fix this. Fury may have been pulling the strings, but this is Steve’s op now, his best friend on that table. There’s no way that Bucky’s recovery is going to be spent in a roomful of strangers who know more about him than he does, poking and prodding and forcing him into the world on their terms.
No. This time, Steve is going to get it right. This time, he’s going to be the one waiting when Bucky wakes up.
Dropping his hands, Steve casts a glance down at the ruined door. He reaches to crack the still-sore knuckles of his right hand as turns on his heel, leaving Bucky’s room behind him as he makes his way to Fury’s office.
A medical team rushes past, pushing a cart of supplies toward Bucky’s room. Before he pushes the door open, Steve turns in time to watch one of the nurses sink a syringe into the straining cords of Bucky’s neck. His body slackens, and as the fear dims in his eyes, Steve shoves open the door.
He has some unfinished business with Nick Fury.