By the light of the moon, I'm comin' home
Howlin' all the way, I'm comin' home
On my hands and knees, I'm comin' home
I know when I've been beat, yeah, I'm comin' home
- Murder By Death
One last mission, they say, one last mission, like it's possible they would ever let him go. One last mission, he knows, means one last time to see the sun, one last time to feel the wind on his skin before they take everything away and he's left to decay in a glass case in the dark, left to atrophy forever. One last mission for a broken toy no longer fit for his one intended use.
He knows it's a big one, an important one, by the amount of time his master's puppets spent in his head, scraping out anything that might compromise him on his mission or them in his capture.
He is his master's dog, his master's assassin.
His master's 7.62.
He screamed as they treated him, as they took everything he'd had left, scrubbing him away right down to a tiny seed of something that had never germinated. He screamed for the first time in decades.
The distance to his target is just shy of 800 metres. There's little breeze to stir the sluggish air and there will be no difficulty negotiating eddies and gusts. 800 metres on a becalmed day, as if the city holds her breath on the outcome.
He breathes out, takes the shot and knows he's missed, even as the bullet leaves the chamber. He's missed. The target has deviated from a pattern for the first time in two weeks, swaying left instead of right.
He's missed, and he knows the target's chances of surviving the shot have skyrocketed.
He's missed, and he knows now that he was never meant to go back. That "one last mission" wasn't a promise before mothballing; it was his death warrant writ deep in his own brain.
His hand doesn't shake as he presses the barrel of his sidearm into his mouth (it's a Colt and he doesn't know why, but they said take this gun, not your usual one and he doesn't question an order).
They find him an hour later, sitting by his rifle, shoulders pressed to the brick wall. Gun in his mouth. They find him with his hand locked around the grip and finger pressed to the trigger but unable to pull. He doesn't know why he can't pull it. He should be dead. He's meant to be dead.
He's programmed to be dead.
He's embarrassed that he's drooled down his chin and down his front, unable to pull the gun from his mouth. He doesn't know why he's embarrassed any more than he understands why he's still alive. He is his master's will made flesh but he's still alive.
He's taken alive when he should have been taken dead, his finger still crooked on a phantom trigger.
Russian assassin, they call him, Soviet killer. Terrorist and bastard and murderer. Winter Soldier, they call him—the only familiar name in a litany—as they take him down. He doesn't put up much of a fight. He's not sure whether he's meant to, since he's meant to be dead. It's the only time he doesn't put up a fight.
He doesn't remember much about what happens next. There is pain (a lot of it) and chains and faces and bright lights (and he struggles and he screams, because his master's puppets have taken everything, how can anyone expect to take more?) and then he opens his eyes to a prison cell that reeks of antiseptic and every inch of him hurts.
There's a phantom pain where there hasn't been for decades and when he slowly, painfully, investigates he finds his arm is gone and the metal parts that attach it to his shoulder too. They haven't left anything behind, stripping him back to the bone, to raw, bleeding flesh as he pulls the bandages away. There's shouting and footsteps and hands on him to hold him down as he tears into his own flesh, because he disobeyed his last order (pull the trigger) and he doesn't want to live.
They watch him after that, these people. These Americans. They take away the obvious, the sheet, the pillow case. He tries a noose with the soft cotton of his shirt and they take that and his pants away too. He's naked but for the undershorts and his scars, the heat jacked in his cell because they won't even leave him to freeze to death.
He wishes he'd fought harder on the rooftop; maybe he mightn't have been able to complete the first half of his mission, but he could have completed the second. Nothing as elegant as finding his corpse and his rifle, but they'd still have a broken carcass to display. He attacks those who come near him time and again, because someone might get trigger happy and he might get lucky. It's different, difficult, with only one arm to adjust to the change in his balance when he fights, and when he gets a gun in his hand he puts two bullets into the guts of the agent he took it from. The third is meant to go into his own head, but he still can't pull the trigger.
They take him down soft, like before, and when he wakes he aches all over, his one good wrist chained to the bed. His wrist bleeds from the metal and it's another sedation and a padded cuff, then no bed at all.
He hears them wonder how much they have to take away before he stops trying, like it's that easy. He thinks of others who took from him, took too much of him and didn't give enough back.
They come, sometimes, others, different to those who make sure he stays alive. They come in the dead of night, and take out their rage on him with fists and feet, and when they leave he's bruised and broken but still breathing. He doesn't know how long this goes on.
There's dull aching pain in the fingers where his arm was and he can smell the faint sour-sweet rot of the infection in his shoulder.
He's crouched in the corner of the cell when there's a noise at the door behind him. He draws himself in tighter, breathing shallowly around the ache in his ribs. The door opens and he hears the scuff of footsteps (two people, one who treads heavier than the other). When he turns his head he can see their legs from the corner of his eye. A man and a woman.
The woman has been here before. He recognises her step.
"—But he shot you, sir." She's trying hard to convince the man of something she believes to be an unassailable truth.
"Regardless of what his crime was, Agent Garner, it's still not right to treat a prisoner like this—"
"Captain Rogers, he's tried to kill himself repeatedly, with the clothing and furniture we gave him and even with his own hand. And he very nearly succeeded. Unfortunately, this is as good as it can be for now. We consider it a good day if he eats anything and doesn't try to kill himself with the kiddie spoon he has to use."
He hears the steps on the floor, the quiet approach and tenses. The man has stopped maybe a metre and a half behind his right shoulder. Close enough.
"Keep your distance, he's dangerous." (That gets a huff of soft laughter in response; it's not him, though he would have laughed at the irony if he could.) There is a pause then, "No, please don't touch him, sir."
"I want to see his face. I want to see the man who tried to kill me."
"As you wish. He will need to be sedated first, however." (A quiet, murmured command. More footsteps. One of the goons who mind the door. He knows them too.)
"A tranquiliser dart? Why not a needle?"
"You've seen the reports, sir. He broke the arms and wrists of the last two agents who tried to administer it that way."
"Even with only one hand?"
"Even with only one hand. We don't take the risk anymore."
"It seems... inhumane."
"As opposed to a high-powered rifle from three streets away, sir?"
From the corner of his eye he sees how the man shifts his weight from foot to foot, sees when he's distracted, when he half-turns away.
It's just what he was waiting for. He uncoils like a striking snake. Or at least, that's the intention, except where the mind is willing, the flesh is weak—from abuse, from hunger—and he turns and stands and staggers and he can't quite get the energy to lift his head up but he can see the man move, and the man moves not in self-defence, but to catch him, and he snorts and manages to pull himself together enough to lash out. He misjudges the man's height, so instead of the heel of his hand crunching up into the man's nose, he strikes the man on the chin, forcing his head sharply back. The movement was sudden enough to catch the man off guard and he staggers, flailing to steady himself.
"Captain Rogers!" the female agent exclaims. There's the familiar sound of boots rushing into the cell that precedes the click and pop of one of those guns so different to the ones his master gave him.
His body is littered with scabs from these needles, darts in his skin to keep him quiet. He moves, quick but not as quickly as the sedative, and as always his fingers close around the fletching as his palm goes numb. He yanks at the dart, tearing his flesh, but he can't pull it out, and instead he staggers to his knees and then slumps forward onto the cold concrete floor.
There's a hand on his side, firm and warm. ﹤"Don't touch me,"﹥ he spits, but it comes out jagged and broken. The hand tugs at him until he's rolled onto his back, the sedative making him horribly pliable. These people could—and often did—do anything to him and he couldn't fight it any more than he could fight everything done to him at his master's behest.
The man crouched by his side, this Captain Rogers, reaches out and brushes the lank hair from his face and he recognises his target immediately; blond hair, broad shoulders. His name in the brief had been Steven Rogers.
There's a bandage on Roger's throat. He feels nothing when he looks at it.
Rogers stares at him, eyes widening. Then he twists, turning to look up at the agent at his shoulder. "I know him," Rogers says in a disbelieving tone. "I know him. Do you even know who this is? This—this is..."
Rogers turns back to him. "...Bucky?"
He stares back at Rogers, confused by the grief in Rogers' tone. This man is a target, a kill (a miss). This man is no one he knows. ﹤"Who the hell is 'Bucky'?"﹥ He's never heard of anyone called Bucky, if it's even a name. He'd say he has never seen this target before the mission, but he knows they took everything from him, so how would he even know?
Rogers looks confused and glances questioningly to the agent. "He said 'who's 'Bucky'?'" she says in a quiet tone.
He sees the way Rogers' shoulders hitch and sag almost as if he'd suppressed a shudder of breath, before he steels himself. "This is Bucky Barnes," he says to her. "My best friend, who was—he died when I—he..." Rogers stops, shakes his head. "It's him. Believe me, I'd know him anywhere."
"Sir, we all brushed up on our history when they pulled you out of the ice. Had he even survived that explosion he'd be an old man now. You know that. You were the one who was given the serum, which is how you survived until now. He was just an ordinary soldier."
"He was never 'just an ordinary soldier'," Rogers says. There's something about Rogers' tone that makes him feel sick to the stomach. He hates the way Rogers looks at him. Like he's real, like he's something that's been long lost and now found, like he's precious. He is nothing. He's a ghost. He's a shadow. He's a dead man breathing.
"You know what I mean, sir." The agent shifts uncomfortably under Rogers' stare. She tucks her hair behind her ear and breaks his gaze awkwardly.
He huffs a derisive laugh and Rogers turns back at the sound. ﹤"I'm not who you think I am."﹥
"I don't understand," Rogers says, reaching out and touching him again, running a fingertip along the valley between his ribs where the hunger he's teaching himself to ignore hides. He flinches, pulls away and it takes all his remaining energy to roll onto his side again, his back to the man. But Rogers persists, kneeling now, bending over him. He feels Rogers' hand on his greasy hair, stroking gently. He shudders again, pushes away, but he's now trapped between Rogers and the wall. He's never missed his metal hand before, but he could crush this man's throat in his fingers without even thinking about it. If he could kill Rogers he'd stop touching because it's the touch that makes him feel so ill. "Bucky, please."
﹤"I told you, my name is not Bucky,"﹥ he mutters, pressing his face against the floor.
The agent steps forward and he hears the squeak of her shoes. ﹤"What then, is your name?"﹥ she asks, sudden and sharp. He remembers this line of questioning from previous visits. He only has to say one or two things and they think that means he will talk, that he'll answer questions he doesn't know the answer to. Her Russian is nearly incomprehensible.
He thinks of what they've called him, the only answer he's ever been able to give. ﹤"Codename: Winter Soldier,"﹥ he spits, because it's the only name he has left and they always, always ask. There's a sudden, light touch on the bandage at his shoulder and he winces because even that hurts. "This is—his wound is infected," Rogers says angrily. "How is he treated? Who is his doctor?"
"He..." The agent hesitates. He feels his mouth curl a little in scorn as she stammers through the explanation. Four doctors down, and a caution against too many sedations, and, "He's given the medicine and bandages to treat himself each day now, under armed supervision so he doesn't try to kill himself with—"
"Well, it looks like he's found a new way."
He really is sick of the way they speak as if he isn't there, talking about him like he's a thing. And yet it's no different to the way his master and his master's puppets talk about him. He doesn't know why it bothers him now. He is a thing. He is not a man.
"Call through to Medical; we need to get this treated as soon as possible before it does kill him. And no more shooting him with these tranq darts like he's some wild beast. It's not right. We'll find a better way." Rogers touches his cheek. "I don't know how you're here, or what's happened to you, Buck, but I promise I'll fix it. I'll get you better again."
He wakes, strapped down at every limb, across the chest and head secured. Adrenaline and panic burns the last of the sedative from his system because his master's puppets have taken everything from him already, there's nothing left to give. He'll burn if they try again, curl and crisp like tissue paper in flame.
There's a drip and nasal cannula and he struggles, or tries to—they've secured him well, and he's weak from malnourishment—then he feels fingers curl against his and Captain Rogers leans over the bed. He sees the bandage at Rogers' throat is gone, revealing the black caterpillar march of stitches. Still he feels nothing.
"Shh, it's okay." Rogers' grip tightens on his hand in a way that's probably meant to be reassuring. It isn't. "We have someone here to help you. His name is Charles, and he's going to help you remember."
﹤"Nothing left to remember. It's all gone."﹥
No, there is something left. The words are placed directly into his brain.
﹤"How?"﹥ I don't understand. They took everything away. They made sure there was nothing left.
They may have taken most things away, but they couldn't take everything. We know everything they were trying to hide from us. We know what they turned you into. I am here to help you find out what you still know. Can you tell me your name?
Name? He doesn't have a name. He's never had a name. They call him Winter Soldier. They call him weapon, assassin, they call him soldier. If he had a name it's long lost to him, just like everything else.
(There's a whisper repeating his thoughts aloud for all to hear. It bites at his spine and he wants to cover his ears, curl around himself, but he can't move. He is a pane of glass to that insidious voice, that soft whisper.)
What was your mission here?
To kill a man, to kill someone who was a threat to him and to Mother Russia—
"It's not his mother country—"
"Steve, shh. Let Charles work."
Steve? The name is familiar to him. He thinks of a black caterpillar crawling over skin and then there are thousands of them crawling all over him, and he's smothered by their furry, wriggly little bodies and he wants to scream—
"Department X did a lot of damage to your friend, Captain. It's difficult enough to read an intact mind, but the damage here is extensive... I've not seen anything quite like it, even with the Red Room and Ms. Romanova."
Romanova. The name is... no, it's not known to him. But, he thinks, if it were, she'd have red hair and she'd be a killer just like him. She'd understand what it was like to be made obedient and willing. He was always obedient and willing when they wanted to take something away and put something new in its place. He is a good soldier. He was a good soldier.
He failed his mission. He failed all of it.
He is not a good soldier.
He should be dead.
"I've taken away the order to kill you, Captain Rogers—"
"But what about the secondary order, the one to kill himself? Can you...?"
No, you can't.
You shouldn't have to kill yourself at someone else's wish. And you won't die for your own. Shh.
No, please, I—
And he stills, because there's nothing else he can do, as his agency is taken from him by the soft voice in his mind. He can't scream, because he's been hushed to silence. No matter how much he might want to end himself, even above and beyond the imperative scored deep into his mind, he can't. There is no end for him now but the one they will give him.
And then even the sense of loss is gone, leaving him hollow and obedient and utterly alive.
Show me what's inside you.
But there's nothing, he thinks. There's nothing but him, now. No past, no future. He's trapped in what they made of him. Nothing.
There is something. Here. Hold out your hands.
He does what he's told, because that's how they made him. He holds out his hands, cupped together and it's not just him in the nothingness, there's light in the dark, just around him, like it's coming from his own skin. Holding back the dark. In his cupped hands he holds a small terracotta bowl filled with dirt. It's warm against his skin and he can smell the comforting scent of damp earth after rain.
I don't understand, he thinks. There's something wrong here, something he's missing—
There is nothing wrong. I am here to help you understand that.
He feels vaguely comforted.
Good. Now I want you to close your eyes and focus on your hands.
He closes his eyes. Even though he knows he's inside his own head it all feels so real and it feels cold, colder with his eyes closed. He gasps softly and for a moment it's like there's icy salt water running down his throat. The warmth of the bowl in his hands cuts through the cold and he concentrates on that—not because he was told to, but because when he does the cold recedes.
You're doing well. Now open your eyes.
He shakes his head.
Please. Open your eyes.
He opens his eyes. Oh, he thinks and in the dirt in the little bowl in his hands in a speck of green, tiny and fresh against the darkness of the soil. What is it?
That is you.
Yes, he thinks. It's him. It's... it's James Barnes. James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky. What Captain Rogers calls him, that must be where it's from. James Buchanan Barnes. That's who he is. It's not just a name said to him or written on a passport. It's him. My name is James Barnes. "But you can call me Bucky," he says to that little green shoot.
The encouraging tone is heartening. He's remembered something that was taken away from him. More, he thinks hungrily, I want to remember more. If he remembers more maybe he won't need to die (he can't, he can't, it was taken away from him).
That's enough for—
No I need more I need more I need to remember—
Please. James. I will help you tomorrow, when you will remember more, and the day after that, and the day after that. Until you remember everything. But for now, enough.
He looks up at the soft voice, and it's Captain Rogers, poking his head around the door. The way he's reacted seems to be enough and he can tell from the way he moves that Rogers is holding back from rushing to him. Rogers can't hide his smile like sunshine but it fades when James looks away. ﹤"I still don't remember you,"﹥ he says shortly. ﹤"And don't call me 'Bucky'."﹥
There is the pause he's becoming used to, as Rogers checks the translation of his words on the toy the other one, Stark, had provided him. "Sorry," he says apologetically. "Can... can I call you James, then?"
Glancing back, James nods slowly. It turns out it was easy enough to think of himself as that. Maybe it really is his name, and not a trick implanted by that voice.
"You remember who you are."
﹤"I remember a name, that's it,"﹥ James corrects him, though perhaps not as shortly as before. He knows he meant something to this man, knows he still does when he shouldn't, because James tried to kill him. Would have killed him if not for a fluke of timing—he knows now that a telephone call had saved Rogers' life as he shifted one way instead of the other. Instead of death in a pool of blood he ended up with a neck wound that healed far too quickly. He realises he's staring at the scar (just a puckered pink line now) and Rogers shifts from foot to foot uncomfortably under the scrutiny.
He's not a bad person, this Captain Rogers. James can tell that. It makes James uncomfortable the way Rogers looks at him sometimes, like he thinks he's found the thing he's been missing his whole life.
Rogers slides into the seat on the other side of the table, setting the tablet down in front of him. He knows they've put him in front of Rogers because of this so-called history he can't even remember, and because they think he will spill everything to this man who has been nice to him. They've had their fingers in his head: they have to know everything he knows so he doesn't understand why he's here now with Rogers.
"How are you feeling?"
James grunts, because how do you answer that?
There's a hint of a smile on Rogers' face. "That's familiar," he says fondly.
There's a long pause as Rogers pokes at the tablet in front of him and James shifts restlessly in his chair. The chains at his ankles rattle loudly against the chair legs.
Eventually Rogers speaks. "They found your things where you'd hidden them. They found the passport you used to get into the country." Leaning forward, Rogers presses an open passport to the tabletop in front of him and there is his picture and the name James Barnes. Yes, of course. His gaze flicks back to Rogers, who wears a pained smile. "Even if I was dead Lukin had planned the outcome down to the last detail. They'd have your body, my Colt from the war. This."
He wants to reach out and take the passport, because it's familiar, because he's held a hundred of these with a hundred different names and this one is no different.
"What I don't understand is why now? If they had you all this time, why did they send you after me now?"
﹤"Because I'm of no more use,"﹥ he says. ﹤"Because I'm broken."﹥ He says it before he can stop himself, the words thick on his tongue.
Rogers props his chin on one hand and considers him. He fights the urge to squirm under the scrutiny and his stomach flip-flops. "I'm told Russian is the last language you remember, yet you've no problem understanding English." He sees Rogers' gaze flick down to the tablet on the desk by his elbow, where it translates his words to something this man can understand. He sees the faint flinch, the pained inhalation. "So they sent you to kill me because you were of no more use. And then to kill yourself, right? This is why they found you with the gun in your mouth?"
He scowls and looks down at where his hand is cuffed to the table, but his reaction is enough of an answer. He hears the shift of the chair as Rogers leans forward on his elbows. "You didn't pull the trigger because you couldn't make yourself, could you, Buck." It's not even a question, and he catches the hint of hope in Rogers' tone.
﹤"Like I said,"﹥ James says coldly. ﹤"I was of no more use. I failed the first half of my mission because of dumb luck, but that I failed the second is proof. They should have terminated me when they realised I was defective, but instead they sent me on one last mission. And I failed."﹥
He hates it.
If not as a killer, a soldier, what is his purpose? His last orders (kill Steven Rogers, kill yourself) have been taken away from him, by the man who went into his head and tried to lead him out (home, he'd said, but where is home to a dead man?), and now he has no purpose, perhaps, but to die here in this foreign country for the all crimes he can't even remember committing and the one he can.
(Sometimes Rogers will do something, will move in some particular way, and he'll be reminded of the way he'd spent two weeks as his shadow. Sometimes he'll look at Rogers and see a crosshair, 800 metres out and his finger will twitch on an imaginary trigger. Would he still miss if he had his time over? He doesn't think so.)
When he looks back up, Rogers is staring at him with utter sadness. It angers James to see that look, not because he cares what this man thinks, but because there's someone who cares that much about him.
No one cares for the Winter Soldier. No one cares for an automaton.
His rage is sudden and visceral. ﹤"I'm not who you think I am!"﹥ he snarls. ﹤"I mightn't know who I was then but I know what I am now."﹥ He lunges forward, furious, brought up short by the chains at his ankles and cuff on his wrist. Unbalanced, he slumps against the tabletop, unable to even right himself. He hears the scrape of a chair against the floor and then feels Rogers' hands on his arm, his side. He pulls away. ﹤"Don't touch me. I'll kill you. I will kill you,"﹥ he spits, but Rogers ignores him and his hands are gentle as he rights James in his chair.
Rogers seats himself again like nothing happened, like James isn't sitting on the other side of the table, gasping around the knot of rage in his throat because he wasn't programmed with a better fail safe than kill yourself. He can't hear the words Rogers says around the rush of blood in his head, but he feels a touch to his hand and jerks violently back.
The sudden movement unbalances him and his chair tips. With his hand chained to the table he falls awkwardly, wrenching his shoulder with a cry of pain. Then Rogers is there, because Rogers is always there, taking his weight and trying to help him upright again and he's mad, raging mad that this man won't leave him alone that he turns his head and sinks his teeth into the flesh of Rogers' inner arm hard. It's Rogers' turn to yelp as James tastes the metallic bite of blood.
He's vaguely aware of the sound of the door, the commotion of boots on the hard floor, shouting. Rogers rescues his arm and James spits, looking up to see Rogers trying to physically block one of the goons from getting to him even now.
"Wait, wait—!" Rogers shouts.
"Sir, this interview is terminated," a guard barks, and James realises they're holding Rogers back too.
They lay hands on him and when he struggles, he's struck across the face. Dazed, he feels a needle pressed into his neck. The sedative acts fast and he can't do anything but let them as a couple of the guards unchain him from the chair and the table and drag him between them back to his cell. They pause a moment and each takes a turn for a punch or a kick, the last spitting on his face before they shove him in through the door. He falls heavily, unable to catch himself on his one hand, his wrenched shoulder protesting. It's a long time before he can drag himself to his pallet, whimpering softly at the effort.
He can still taste Rogers' blood in his mouth.
Eventually though, he pushes himself into a sitting position, his back against the wall and hand loose in his lap. The pain in his shoulder has eased now, though he's raw through the ribs and the stomach. It's nothing worth thinking about. Pain means he's alive and he doesn't want to be alive. Even attacking their precious Captain Rogers again couldn't change that. He closes his eyes, reaching for that cold dark place inside him and the tiny growing thing. He doesn't know if he should be trying this without that voice to guide him, with the muddling sedative still in his system, but he needs to remember. He has to remember. He has to know why he's still alive, why they won't kill him or let him do it himself.
He has no other choice.
And this, whatever it is, this gave him something back. It wasn't just a name on a passport. It couldn't be, he remembered Buchanan, he remembers Bucky.
﹤"Please,"﹥ he whispers softly. He needs to know the truth. He needs to know what happened to him, why Rogers looks at him like he's real and something beyond a scoped rifle and 800 metres of dead air, the crack of punctured glass and a spray of blood.
He feels the warmth pool in his real hand and his phantom hand, and he focuses on that little green, growing thing, the thing the voice had said was him. He made it grow and give him his name, he can make it grow again and reveal the rest of his secrets. He can find out who James Buchanan Barnes really was before he became the Winter Soldier—
The Winter Soldier. No.
He remembers red.
The Winter Soldier remembers.
Anger. "How long was he left there without anyone going in to check on him?"
"I don't—when I came on duty I just thought he was sleeping—you saw it yourself, sir, he looked like he was—"
"Th-thirteen hours. Maybe fourteen."
Desperation. "Can he remember anything else? Like this? The way you helped him remember his name? The way he's—the way he's managed to remember everything about the Winter Soldier?"
"No. Not like this. I am sorry, Steven, but there is no simple way left for him to remember who he was."
Fear. "Why hasn't he woken up? It's been a week, he should be waking up."
Pain. He twists away from it, and there are hands on his skin. "Shh, shh, it's okay, Buck, you're okay now." A gentle, sweet tone and he shies away from that too.
He'll never be okay. Not with what he knows he's done. He knows he did it at the command of his master, but that doesn't change that he did it, that he killed without remorse, without discrimination. (He doesn't understand that it matters that he feels guilty now, that it means he's more, because he's a monster.)
They took the memories that might have compromised him from mission to mission, and the feelings that kept trying to break through. Even more than the women or children who were intentionally targeted--and Department X would often have a bloodline destroyed, branch and root--they took away the collateral damage: the women and the children killed because they got in the way, because they were there, because he could... these are the ones he remembers now with clarity.
And there are so many of them.
Yet even with everything he's done and all the blood on his hands, he's been given tiny shining moments too. He remembers Natalia, because they took her away from him, and he remembers that there was once someone who didn't think he was a monster or a machine programmed to kill. Did she love him? He doesn't know, but he loved her and she risked her life to be with him, so that has to be love, doesn't it?
He's asked: "How are you feeling?"
﹤"I want to see Natalia Romanova,"﹥ he says, voice rough. He remembers someone talking about the Red Room and someone called Romanova, and he might not be in possession of his faculties, but there's no one else it could be. It has to be Natalia.
His words produce a flurry of quiet, heated discussion. He's not surprised when it's Rogers who says, "Enough," in a sharp tone. "She's on duty on the Helicarrier. How long will it take to get her down here?" And then: "I'll replace her there if I have to."
More hushed discussion and then Rogers appears by the bed. He doesn't take James' hand, and James is glad. The man's propensity to touch him all the time alarms him. "She'll be here soon," he says.
﹤"She works for this place?"﹥ He'd thought she might be in a cell too or a prison somewhere, somewhere secure that a Black Widow couldn't creep and crawl her way out of. The thought that she could be... that she might be free of the Red Room to work for anyone she wanted to, even these Americans (he can't think of himself as one, thought he doesn't think of himself as Russian, either), well, he doesn't know what to think.
Rogers smiles gently. "She does. Natasha is a highly respected SHIELD agent."
Natasha, then. No longer Natalia. She is Natasha Romanova who works for SHIELD now, who is respected by these people.
Rogers opens his mouth, hesitates and then before he can say what is on his mind James grabs his arm. There's a bandage under his fingers and he remembers the taste of blood. ﹤"Don't,"﹥ he says. ﹤"I can't be that. Everything I've done… even if I wanted it—which I don't—I wouldn't be allowed. I'll be tried for my crimes, found guilty as charged and I will rot somewhere, far away from here, if I am not to die."﹥
He can't bear the pained look on Rogers' face as the translation comes through and squeezes Rogers' arm hard when he says, "Over my dead body."
﹤"We tried that,"﹥ James snaps.
He releases Rogers' arm and the flesh is white where he'd gripped it.
They move him into a chair because he's too weak to walk, and wheel him to a tiny little sun room, warm and bright and incongruous in the cold steel and plastic of the rest of the building. There are guards stationed by the floor to ceiling window, like they think he'll try and throw himself through the glass. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't.
And then she's there; she's everything he remembers from the way the sun catches on the curls of her red hair to the defensive lift of her chin. He looks at her and she at him and he thinks, he loved her and they took that from him for his transgressions.
﹤"James,"﹥ she says and takes the hand he holds out to her. She loved him too, he can see it now. They told him it was all in his head as they took the feelings away, and then the memories, but he can see that she had loved him too. ﹤"You look—"﹥ she hesitates, smiles faintly. ﹤"Alive."﹥ He clings to her hand and stares at her. Looking at her now (and unlike him, she's never looked so well), his memories of what it was like to feel love take his breath away.
﹤"Have they—did they tell you everything about me?"﹥ he asks.
﹤"They told me on the flight here."﹥ She squeezes his hand. ﹤"You've been very brave."﹥
﹤"Brave?"﹥ He laughs bitterly. ﹤"They didn't tell you—"﹥
﹤"Brave,"﹥ she repeats firmly. She doesn't cry, she never does, but he can tell how she feels just looking at her. It's the keen knife edge of loss and he knows it too. ﹤"I would have killed them for what they did, had I been able to. I saw you, after, and I saw where they kept you. I would have killed them all for us, if I could."﹥
She might not love him anymore and he might not love her, but she wraps her arms around him and he presses his face against her neck. He holds her as tightly as he can with his one arm and thinks that maybe his memory of love is enough.
If this is all there is to be of him then maybe it has to be enough.
She leaves two hours later, to return to the Helicarrier, and he sits where she left him in the sun, eyes closed and hand loose in his lap. He's not happy but he is almost content. She's always been good for his soul, even in the darkest times, his Natalia.
Rogers comes to him an hour after she leaves, his steps cautious and quiet. James opens his eyes. ﹤"Thank you,"﹥ he says simply.
Rogers nods. Then: "How are you feeling?" Always with that one question. It irritates James.
﹤"I remember the face of every man, woman and child I killed under orders and I have no way to get away from any of that. How do you think I feel?"﹥ No doubt the agents who stood silently in the room while Natalia was there have provided Rogers with a translation of their conversation—maybe even Natalia herself did it, telling Rogers how James had wept as she held him, now that she works for these Americans. He has no dignity here, no privacy to deal with all that he has remembered, with this man, Captain Rogers, debriefed over his every movement.
Rogers sits down on the bench next to him. He's silent a long moment, but it's not oppressive, it's not painful. Eventually he says, "Charles says you won't be able to get any of your other memories back the way you remembered your name or—what happened as the Winter Soldier."
James snorts. ﹤"That's no big surprise,"﹥ he says bitterly. His urgent need to remember had closed that door to him, instead opening him up to the nightmare of complete and utter recollection. Like Svetlana Milonova, killed to make a point to her father, an ambassador. She'd been eight years old. He'd killed her father too. His programmed parameters had been whatever it takes and the Winter Soldier always did whatever it took.
"But that's not to say that you won't be able to remember anything else ever again. He said…" Rogers scrubs his hands together, a betraying sign of anxiety. "With the right cues he might be able to bring the memories of before you—before you died back to the surface. That those memories should stabilise the Winter Soldier memories and you could... You could deal with them. Learn to live with them."
James laughs bleakly. ﹤"It's not like I have any other choice."﹥
﹤"Don't give me that. You know what your man took from me."﹥
Rogers glances up from the tablet and stares at him stupidly like he doesn't know what James is talking about. It's bullshit; he remembers hearing Rogers' voice. Remembers him asking about that.
﹤"He took away my only way out!"﹥ He lurches towards Rogers, crowding into him, and it's just as he thought, Rogers is too gentle, too careful with him and even as the guards dart forward, James fumbles in Rogers' pocket for his pen. Rogers shouts, "Wait!" at the guards in a strangled tone, holding out his hand to stop them and James falls back, the tip of the pen pressed hard to his throat. He knows how to kill with surgical precision. Opening your own throat with a pen is a horrible way to go, but he'd do it. He'd do it if he could but he can't and instead he flings the pen away with a cry of rage.
Still holding up a hand to keep the guards at bay, Rogers drops to his knees by James' side. "I didn't know. I swear to god I didn't know. It was only ever meant to be the kill commands they programmed into you, it's—god, Buck, I'd never be able to live with myself if I couldn't save you again, but even then I'd never ask anyone to violate you like the way they—the way Department X did." His voice shakes.
"But I can't let you go, either. I know you want to, but I can't, I just—I can't. I know you. You're a good man and you're a fighter and I know you'd never have willingly done what they made you do. And I have to try everything I can to save you. Please," he pleads, "please let me," and it's pathetic, it's so pathetic that this man would plead to save a killer, someone who would have been his own death, but it's even more pathetic when James feels the stir of response, that Rogers could help him, that maybe he wants Rogers to help him.
The flicker of hope... He feels all the tension flood out of him and lets out a sigh. Almost simultaneously he sees the tightness ease in Rogers' shoulders. He finds himself scooped up and cradled against a broad chest and it has a similar kind of comfort to what he had found in Natalia's arms earlier. (He wants to hate it—thinks he should hate it—but he doesn't. And that's what he hates the most.)
"Will you let me try?"
﹤"Yes,"﹥ James says helplessly. ﹤"I shouldn't, but I will. But not that man. I won't have him back in my head."﹥
Rogers fumbles for the forgotten tablet's translation, and his brow crinkles at James' words. "I—I don't know who else can help. But... I'll find someone you're comfortable with, I promise. We'll bring you back."
﹤"You'll never accept it, will you? That your friend might really be gone?"﹥
"I'll never accept it because I know it's not true," Rogers says. "Because he's sitting in front of me, whether he remembers himself or not."
﹤"You remember I nearly killed you, right?"﹥
"I remember that the Winter Soldier nearly killed me." Rogers touches his neck where the scar is a smooth pink line against his skin. "Not Bucky Barnes. Not James Barnes. Not you."
James looks at the scar and wonders if one day it will be gone completely.
﹤"Who did you say this girl is again?"﹥
"Her name is Rachel. She's... from an alternate future."
James blinks. ﹤"Okay,"﹥ he says dubiously.
Rogers grins. "I was in an iceberg for decades, there's a god who flies by spinning a hammer, one of our brothers from the war is the Atlantean king, and you're sceptical about alternate futures?"
James shrugs. He doesn't remember icebergs or gods or kings. He watches the woman intently as she hurries towards the door from the helipad, a stocky man who carries himself like a brawler at her side. As if she could detect his scrutiny (and perhaps she can), she glances up to the window where he watches, then flicks him a wave. Startled, he half-raises his hand before he realises she can't actually see him through the glass.
He doesn't know why he's so nervous.
As the woman and the man enter the room he and Rogers (and the ever-present guard escort) wait in, he realises he knows the man. The Wolverine, he'd been called in the briefing documents the Winter Soldier had been given. Recognising him sparks a cascade of memories—some bad, most worse—and he inhales sharply, taking half a step in retreat—a movement that's halted by Rogers' hand at the small of his back. He twitches away from the touch, scowling.
"Logan, Rachel, this is James Barnes. James, Logan Howlett and Rachel Summers."
He's not sure whether he's meant to shake their hands or what, so he settles for nodding awkwardly. The Wolverine—Logan—is looking at him as a curiosity, rather than with the loathing that he expected (except maybe it was resolved, he can't tell; the order of the memories isn't chronological and all he knows is he wronged this man and has felt claws in his flesh), so he guesses Rogers has paved the way to reconciliation. He seems good at that.
The woman turns to him. "Would you like to sit and talk for a while? I can tell you're not sure I can be of any use to you."
Oh, right. Telepath. ﹤"If you'd like,"﹥ he says politely.
Rogers starts to speak up, to offer her the tablet, but she touches her temple. James can't help a small, involuntary smile. He can't remember the last time he smiled. Maybe he never has before. "Come on," she says, and holds out her hand.
He takes it.
Her skin is warm.
"I understand what they did to you."
﹤"How could you even understand? You can't, unless—"﹥
She stares at him and raises an eyebrow. "Unless it happened to me?"
﹤"Someone did this to you?"﹥ The thought disturbs him more than he's willing to admit. He's not sure why; he knows people are terrible creatures, and what happened to him, and to Natalia, and to the other agents of the Red Room and Department X is proof of it. That this girl from another future, with her haunted eyes and the tattooed skin she hides from this world (he doesn't know how he knows, but he knows they're there), should have to go through the same. It disturbs him that the future isn't better at all.
"Here." She opens her mind. Parts are carefully walled off, and he gets the impression of immensity and of wings and of flame, but then he sees what happened to her. She's right, she does understand.
﹤"I'm sorry,"﹥ he says, and means it.
"So am I. For what has happened to both of us." She hesitates. "I spoke with the Professor about what he thought might help you. I don't... I don't think it can help you the way they hope it will, but if it doesn't, it won't hurt you either. I think it's good for you to know who you were before, even if it's only as someone else saw you."
He nods. ﹤"I'm... curious."﹥
"Which is better than the alternative."
﹤"Curiosity keeps my mind busy,"﹥ James says. ﹤"A busy mind has little time to remember the only things it knows."﹥
"Yeah, I can relate to that." She squeezes his hand.
He knows why he's confiding in her. They want him to talk to Rogers, to confide in him, but he doesn't know what James has been through. He just remembers who he thinks James was before. Natalia knew, but she's come to terms with herself, and he can't relate to that steady serenity. Not when he still burns with the lives he's taken.
But this girl, Rachel, she hasn't come to terms with it, no matter how together she looks on the outside. He senses that in her. She knows, and she can't forget, even with the good things she's done since. Yet she's found a balance he envies. "I'll do everything I can to help," she says. "Are you ready?"
﹤"Is there a rush?"﹥ He's nervous. Of course he is.
She grins. "If you want to wait, I won't push you."
He knows he's being stupid. ﹤"No,"﹥ he says, ﹤"let's do this."﹥
There's a room set up, with two gurneys close beside each other. "It'll be more comfortable if you lay down," Rachel says, and I promise that I won't touch anything in your head unless you want me to. Except this. He gasps and stumbles as he feels her touch something in his mind and suddenly the almost imperceptible tightness he's felt since Charles was in his head is gone.
"Buck—James!" Rogers exclaims, reaching for him.
I've undone what the Professor did to you, he hears Rachel's voice in his head again. Even with something like that, everyone deserves their own free will. I hope you don't do it, but it wasn't right what he did to you.
﹤"...Thank you,"﹥ he whispers and he sees her nod from the corner of his eye.
"What—what happened?" Rogers says, still clutching at his arm. He didn't realise Rogers had grabbed him.
He shakes his head, shrugs off Rogers' grip and climbs up onto the gurney. He didn't think a thing as simple as giving him back his agency could make him feel better about what his life has become, but maybe he was wrong.
Rogers climbs onto the gurney next to him and lies down. Rachel puts her hand on his head for a moment, obviously communing within his mind as she had with James. He watches her face intently. First surprise, then amusement, then her expression softens to something he doesn't recognise and when his gaze flicks to Rogers, he sees Rogers looking warmly abashed.
"Okay," she says aloud, and then echoing James from only moments before: "Let's do this."
Her hand is gentle on his head.
The memories are fed to him, slowly at first.
It's odd to see the person he guesses is himself from Rogers' point of view; it's hard to tell, because he's not allowed a mirror and he doesn't remember the Winter Soldier looking back at him much. He's young, very young, going to war a lifetime ago with a man who is more than a man (Steve Rogers) and who is scared for him. He is so very young. He was a killer then too; it's not explicit in the memories, but it's something he can extrapolate from what he's shown. He knows he's supposed to understand the difference though—he was working for the good guys then, against the scourge of Hitler and the rise and rise of Hydra.
The good guys. In the war era narrative of—of Steve's memories the Russians—the Soviet Union, still, the might of the USSR—are neither the good guys or the bad guys; they were worthy of suspicion for their behaviour, but their change was for the better, even if only spurred by Stalin's realisation of Hitler's arrogance in the German invasion that festered on his western flank. Yet the memories are framed by a bleed of recent feeling; the Cold War Steve had known little of past his history briefings, until he learned that the man who'd put a bullet in his throat was an old friend, a Soviet assassin who'd lived through those days. Bucky Barnes, who killed at the order of his Soviet master, an American corpse plucked from the ocean, reborn with ice in his blood. (No, Steve does not feel neutral about the Russians these days.)
The speed of the memories changes, increasing even as it thickens with emotion. They are friends, he and this man, this Steve Rogers, who he'd first seen through a scope, his finger light on the trigger. They are friends and they trust each other with their lives and their secrets. They are brothers, they are more than brothers, they are—
The sudden explosion of memory and emotion hits him like a steam train. There's so much, he can't process, he can't—and then under it all is a hand, his (Steve's) hand reaching out and Bucky looking back, and he can see the determination in Bucky's eyes, then fear as his sleeve catches, and then he (Steve) is falling away from—what is it, it's a plane? A drone?—he's falling away and he's screaming, and then there's an explosion, heat and pain and the long drop. And Steve falls and Bucky is gone, he's gone, he's gone, and there's loss and there's pain
and there's loss
and there's loss
He wakes suddenly, coughing around the water in his throat.
He wakes, not on the gurney, but in a bed piled with bedding, a thick, soft pillow under his head. It's disorienting; it's not the familiar thinness of his pallet on the floor in his cell, with its equally thin pillow. They hadn't given him a bed or any furniture back, even when that Professor Charles who'd promised to help, had gone into his head and turned off his autonomy.
James pushes himself into a sitting position. The room is plain but luxurious and he doesn't remember ever being in a room like this before. No—that's not true, there were missions. Undercover as the Winter Soldier, with a cover to maintain. He'd never slept in the bed, though, but on the floor.
There's noise at the door as he moves.
It's Rogers, of course. There's no one else it would be.
Except now he can't help but think of him as Steve, because it was Steve who showed him some very private parts of himself to try and help, and even if they haven't made the Winter Soldier memories any easier to live with, Steve's memories have shown that he could have once been someone better and. And maybe if there's a chance to be that again, he should take it. So it's Steve who peers around the door, eyebrows knitted together in an uncertain frown, as if he'd leave if James told him to. "Hey," he says softly. "How are you feeling?" Because that's how all their conversations start; a tentative enquiry after his health, like being a one-armed basket case killer is going to change overnight.
"This is different," James says, gesturing to the room.
Steve sidles into the room, looking down at the ever-present tablet. It squawks something at him and his frown deepens before clearing suddenly in surprise.
"What?" James asks suspiciously. He's already scanned the room for exits and he can't help the way he inches across the bed towards the window. His movements are instinct.
"Nothing. At all. Everything is fine. I just—did you want breakfast?" Steve gestures to the door. "I came to see if you wanted breakfast."
He gives James a sunny look and James knows there's something not right here. He doesn't understand why he's in this room, why the man he nearly killed is brightly asking him if he wants breakfast of all things, like he'd bring it too, if James said yes. No glimpse of what he'd seen in Steve's memories of him (was he ever that young?) could account for this change, because he's still the assassin who tried to kill the hero. Surely Steve couldn't think his memories would affect James' own; he doesn't have his own memories to connect to the ones Steve showed him, or to help him understand the feelings that go with them. He still only remembers the name and face of every person he killed for a country allegedly not his own.
He doesn't feel any attachment to this America, any more than he felt an attachment to Mother Russia. He was a brainwashed soldier; he did as he was ordered and then he was put on hold, for years or decades. Time is the only thing he doesn't remember. He could have killed every single one of those people in only weeks, in a slaughterhouse, or it may actually have happened across the decades as he's told it had.
"Breakfast," James says flatly. "Breakfast is slop served with a plastic spoon so I can't hurt myself."
"I'm—no, it's—I don't have slop, I have eggs and bacon. You always liked eggs and bacon."
"Oh, I see what this is. If I behave, I'm rewarded, like a good dog. Do as I'm asked and I get a proper room as some kinda reward, and bacon and eggs. I was okay in my cell—"
"It's not—" Steve stops, scrunches up his face a moment then continues, his tone calmer. "Okay, it is, but is there something wrong with cooperating and being given something in return?"
James knows why he's being so antagonistic. The memories he was shown, events in details from a point of view not his own, have sunk their little claws into his mind. Intended just to show him who he was, he feels like he carries them with him too, and all the emotions that go hand in hand. It's not the memory of emotion, it's the raw feelings Steve lives with every day. He thinks of loss and doesn't know how Steve didn't go mad from grief when he was pulled from the ice decades later, only minutes from that moment of death. He can't reconcile that the loss Steve feels is for him, that the relief and desperation that he's back, the aching need to see him remember himself, is for him, James Buchanan Barnes.
Because it's not. Not to him. It's not for him, it's for Bucky Barnes, Captain America's once-teen sidekick, who grew up in the war. Steve Rogers' best friend, who survived the impossible in the worst kind of way.
He's not that man.
And now he carries parts of Steve in his head too, even as he carries the Winter Soldier.
He takes a deep breath and lets it out. "Can I shower, then? Is that something I can do now, in a proper shower without your guards watching?" He tries to be nicer, he does, but the words still come out with the bitterness he can't let go.
"I—" Steve says then stops. His head dips a little. "You still need supervision," he says and sounds genuinely apologetic.
"The cameras aren't enough?" he asks, flipping the blankets from his legs and climbing from the bed. It seems a novelty now not to be sleeping on a pallet on the floor. He's bare to the waist, but they've even given him new cotton pants to sleep in that cover him to the ankle. He guesses they don't think he'll try to hang himself anymore.
"They prefer someone physically with you. Just in case."
"Why? It's not like I can kill myself anymore," he says. He doesn't think Rachel would have told Steve what she did, but he's willing to challenge that assumption.
Steve suddenly steps right up into his personal space, and the way James reacts—fight not flight—is instinctive. They grapple a little and there must be somewhere in his brain that recognises now that Steve won't hurt him as he allows Steve to twist his arm up behind his back; not hard, but his shoulder still twinges and he grunts. Steve eases up and James could easily twist away were he inclined.
"Sorry," Steve says a little ruefully. His breath is warm on James' neck. It sends a shock down James' spine. "I should've realised you wouldn't be able to help yourself."
James doesn't say anything. He remembers Steve's memories of the boy who was supposed to be him. They'd never cared about things like personal space and lived under each other's skin. He can't imagine why anyone would want to now; his skin is electric shock, he's toxic. But Steve still holds him, fingers gentle on his wrist, other hand curved where his neck meets his shoulder.
He tenses and the hair on the back of his neck prickles as he senses Steve lean in and say very softly, "They don't know what Rachel did for you. I do. And I'm not going to tell them."
"Because they don't need to know everything."
He laughs sharply. "About the Winter Soldier? Or about James Barnes? You know I'm not your old friend, Captain, no matter how much you might want me to be—"
"But you are," Steve interrupts. "Even now, you're still you."
"I don't…" James suddenly loses the thread of the conversation when he realises that Steve isn't constantly referring to that ever-present tablet for a translation of his responses. Both of his hands are on James and James can see it, discarded face down on the bed. Alarmed, he twists out of Steve's grip—and Steve doesn't try to stop him—retreating, his hand raised defensively against the things he doesn't understand.
"What?" Steve asks cautiously.
"I just—how do you…" He stops. "English," he says. "You can understand me."
Steve nods. There's the faintest hint of a proud smile on his face before he suppresses it. "Whatever seeing my memories did, it appears to have jogged that part of your brain."
"You look pleased."
"It means your memories are in there and they're still accessible, it's just a matter of you remembering—"
"I spoke English as well as Russian as the Winter Soldier."
His harsh words cause Steve to sag a little, and he feels guilty, though he doesn't know why. He is only being honest. "Look," he says, trying to ease his tone to something softer. "I'm sorry. I am sorry. I know you want your friend back, but I have to be realistic. I can't just... be him. And I don't want to mislead you into thinking that there's more to this than there is."
"I know," Steve says, scrubbing his hand over his face. "I just want to help."
James didn't realise how easy it could be to be gentle. He doesn't remember being gentle, because the Winter Soldier has never been gentle, and even though he thinks being honest is better, it doesn't hurt him to give something back to Steve, who thinks so highly of him regardless of what he is.
"Of course you do," James says. "...And maybe it is helping."
"You're just saying that."
"Maybe I am, but if I don't know the difference, then...?"
Steve reaches out to put his hands on James' shoulders. He hesitates of course, because he clearly doesn't want to put his hand on the still-healing scar tissue, so his hand ends up higher, near James' neck, and James is confused by how self-conscious he feels, like the gesture has drawn attention to the scarring that riddles his body.
"Maybe it is helping," Steve echoes, like he's trying to make himself believe it, and his hands are warm on James' skin.
Steve takes him to Medical, so they can check up on his healing shoulder—no longer bandaged—the scabs falling away from where James had let the infection fester. They spend a lot of time poking and prodding at what's left of it, and poring over the schematics some SHIELD lackey had drawn up of the arm and the shoulder joint they'd prised from his flesh.
Then there is a battery of tests and sometimes Steve needs to convince him to submit, because he doesn't want to be easy, he doesn't want to make it easy for them. Just because he's been shown memories of a life he doesn't remember, just because he'd been rewarded like Pavlov's dog for his good behaviour, he doesn't want to be easy.
He is the Winter Soldier. He does not roll over and bare his throat to anyone.
Some of the tests jolt and sharpen memories of his time as an agent for Department X, and of Karpov's doctors who slid electrodes into his flesh and mental scalpels into his brain. These times he recoils and retreats, breathing heavily. He forces himself to look at the doctors and remember that these are new faces, to look at the symbol on the wall and know it's nothing like he remembers. That this is not a trick, a new way of conditioning him.
Sometimes Steve has to come back, like the time he snatches up a scalpel and threatens the doctors administering him. Instead of calling for the guards with their tranquilisers, the female doctor with gentle brown eyes requests softly for them to bring Steve Rogers back in.
Some of it sinks in, that she, at least, doesn't want to hurt him further, and sometimes he looks at Steve and all he can think of is crosshairs. He doesn't have the urge to kill Steve, but he thinks he could, still, if he was given the opportunities. Even without his orders, he thinks that Captain America is not so invulnerable as the white line of the scar fading against his skin would imply.
It's late afternoon when he's released from the medical wing, and Steve is waiting to collect him. "You did well today," he says with a warm smile and it's hard for a moment for James to remember that it is maybe only two or three weeks since this man came into his cell and wanted to see the face of his killer. He's not so good with time in here.
Steve takes him to the cafeteria, and even though James has been given clean clothes to wear that don't scream 'prisoner', there aren't that many one-armed men going about with Captain America, so his identity is hardly a secret.
There aren't many people there—it's too late for lunch and too early for dinner—but the murmuring, with an ugly edge to it even in their Captain America's presence, gets under James' skin. "I'd like to go back to my cell now," he says, because even if his cell is now a fancy room with its own bathroom, he's still a prisoner and it's still a cage.
He wakes in the dark, gasping and feverish, face down on the bed. There's an ache and a need in his gut he hasn't felt for decades. Those memories of Steve's... except they weren't, because nothing in anything he'd been shown showed this, showed his mouth on Steve's skin, them rutting against each other, Steve's hand on his thigh to hold him close as they pushed and slipped together, slick with sweat. God, he didn't think he had the imagination left in him to dream, much less dream up sex with a man he should have killed, and who thought of him as his long-lost best friend.
He's hard against the mattress and curls over onto his side, awkwardly balanced as he wraps his hand around his dick. He jerks himself swiftly and quietly until he comes, wet on his fingers, in the curl of his hand, then swears softly as he casts about for something to wipe his hand on that isn't the sheets (he doesn't doubt they'd leave the messy sheets; despite the softness of the bed, this isn't the Hilton, his room made up daily).
Awkwardly, he slides out from under the covers, hand held so he doesn't touch anything. He nearly trips as his foot catches in the tangle of his sheet pulled from the bed and it's stupid, it's so stupid, but he thinks maybe he's never missed his other arm—flesh or metal—quite so much as he does now as he struggles not to trip in the dark making his way to wash up in the small bathroom.
It's only when he's back in bed that he squirms at the thought that Steve might see all of this recorded on the ever-present cameras.
He doesn't know why it matters.
Steve's angry when he comes by the next morning. He doesn't speak much, which is unusual, and James is not good at starting conversations, so he washes his hands and his face in silence as Steve supervises. But he's distracted, James can see that much in the reflection from the mirror as he runs the toothbrush over his teeth. The facial hair that's grown in since James' capture is scrappy and itchy and he wonders if he could ask for a razor, even just a safety razor, to take the hair off.
He glances at Steve again, brow crinkling, and wonders if he should ask if everything is okay. He thinks that regardless of whether or not he'll get an answer, Steve would still want him to ask. He would want Bucky to ask.
He's not Bucky.
He asks anyway.
Steve looks at him, surprised. He moves from the chair by the shower to stand next to the vanity and it looks like a casual move, but James knows better; he can read people like a book and Steve is paper and newsprint to him.
"Just had a bad start to the day," Steve says easily but James can see the tightness of the lie around his eyes.
"Mm," James says in a noncommittal tone. He's not sure why they're playing this charade but he can go along with it. He spits and rinses.
While the tap is running, Steve says, "Now that you're responsive, they want to interrogate your Winter Soldier memories," in that soft tone James remembers from when Steve told him his captors didn't know Rachel had returned his free will.
"I've told them what I know."
"They want all the details." The way Steve emphasises 'all', even at his low whisper, sends a chill up James' spine. All the details? Nigel Marsten, aged 43, nuclear physicist. Kidnapped and dismembered to send a message to his American dog masters. Mila Putina, aged 52, KGB double agent. Traitor to the motherland. Dmitri Rostov, aged 35, KGB double agent. Traitor to the motherland. Dusan Kovac, aged 19, Communist Party dissident. Traitor to the—
"Aren't you done brushing your teeth yet?" Steve says suddenly, louder. "I have permission to take you out later today, and if you need to have a shower you'll have to hurry so we can get everything done."
Yesterday it had meant nothing to strip to his skin in front of Steve, but today he remembers his dream and flushes, painfully aware of where Steve sits on the chair near the door, yet with a plain view of him now and through the glass shower door.
"They're worried you might fall," Steve says suddenly. "Not that you're going to try and knock your brains out against the wall."
"What?" James looks back over his shoulder. Steve isn't looking at him, he's studying his fingernails with the kind of forced scrutiny that says to James that he's deliberately not looking.
"The supervision. Me. Being here now. It's to make sure nothing happens to you. No accidental slip on the soap." Steve's gaze flicks to him for a moment. "You may no longer be considered an asset to Lukin, or to any of the organisations that have sprung up to fill Department X's void, but SHIELD now considers you a valuable asset. And assets are to be protected."
An asset only for the Winter Soldier's knowledge in his head.
They think he might slip and fall because he's a cripple without his metal arm, a one-armed man who they can't trust enough to shower on his own. The phantom pain in his missing hand intensifies and if he closes his eyes he can imagine the pain radiating up from his fingertips, through the palm of his hand and into the bones of his wrist.
And it's odd, because he can't remember ever having a flesh-and-bone arm there to feel pain to start with.
"I'd protect you anyway," he hears Steve murmur, soft enough that he's not sure he was supposed to hear it. He looks at Steve and Steve looks back, steady. Maybe he was supposed to hear it. It twists his stomach and he doesn't look at Steve again as he steps into the shower.
He stands for a long time just letting the hot water beat down against the back of his neck, his eyes closed.
Breakfast isn't eggs and bacon, it's fruit and yogurt and cereal and toast, and Steve eats too, like a starving man. James wants to ask—the super soldier metabolism, that's what it is, right?—but the words catch behind his teeth and trip on his tongue and instead he concentrates on the food in front of him, opening and closing the fingers of his phantom hand under the table.
(There's no murmuring, not this morning, since they don't go to the mess, because someone has lost their office to the Winter Soldier's dining needs. This place, James decides, is completely ridiculous. How they were even a considered a threat to his m—)
"Just a quick stop in Medical today," Steve says, leading James through corridors he's starting to remember. He senses the fear and anger and dismay in the people they pass and he thinks it would be easier if he still had both arms; he'd be seen as less of a threat if they'd shackle him properly, but instead he walks at the side of Captain America like an equal.
As he follows Steve from his upmarket cell to Medical, he picks out weaknesses in the structure, in the staff they pass. It would be easy to infiltrate this place, he thinks, with the right tools and time. He wonders what this Helicarrier he's heard so much about is like on the inside; he's sure the hull would be difficult to breach, providing you could even close enough to try, but like a stone fruit once through the protection of the skin, the soft flesh inside would pose little problem.
The female doctor with the gentle brown eyes is there in Medical when Steve ushers him through the door. She greets James with, "Sergeant Barnes," he's perplexed a moment before he realises that she's talking to him and Steve's trying to hide the amusement on his face at James' confusion.
"Ma'am," he says politely and she smiles. She's scared of the Winter Soldier, of course, but she speaks to Sergeant James Barnes the way Steve speaks to him; like he's a good man who has done no evil.
Maybe not like Steve, because there's something else in Steve's tone that his handlers never taught him to recognise. It's this something else that's the source of most of James' discomfort, because it's honest and raw and it turns what could quite easily be a facsimile of truth or a desire to be truth into complete belief.
The doctor is scared of the Winter Soldier but she talks Sergeant Barnes through the new tests, an extension of the ones he let them run on him yesterday. She talks to Steve about exercise and diet programs to restore James' health and kick start his metabolism, because he's malnourished from his incarceration—he wants to interject that he's still incarcerated, but Steve touches his wrist—and he would heal better for it.
While she talks to Steve, she doesn't act like James isn't there, or isn't important, which he guesses he appreciates. She talks about his blood, which will need to be re-analysed because it's given them some unusual, unexpected results. Steve looks surprised but James isn't. "They ran their own tests," he says in a low voice. "They did their own experiments."
"Did they tell you what they were doing?"
James shakes his head. "I did as ordered," he says and Steve flinches.
Then the doctor says, "Captain Rogers, this is the first full physical Sergeant Barnes has had since he joined us, but there's…" and she hesitates. "There's more damage here than just what is in the arrest report and from the—the reported incidents since."
Steve looks at James with disappointment, like he thinks that whatever it is, it's something James has done to himself.
"No," the doctor says, because she sees the look too. "He couldn't have done this kind of damage himself. It's... very specific." She looks at James. The sympathy in her gaze unnerves him. "I will report it to Director Fury, of course, and I am sure he'll order a full investigation."
Steve looks at him too. "Why didn't you say anything?" he asks quietly.
James shrugs. "I didn't think it was important." He doesn't mention that every time it happened he'd been hoping they would kill him, because he doesn't want to see the sad look on Steve's face. "I hurt their friends. I nearly killed their hero." He doesn't bother to mention they often shot him full of tranquiliser darts before they took turns using him as a punching bag, so he wouldn't fight back, like the cowards they were. He's sure the doctor's report pieces his injuries together well enough.
"You didn't think it was—" Steve stops, closes his mouth on the sharp words and James feels guilty when Steve looks sad anyway. "How many times did it happen?"
"Only the once," James lies, and doesn't know why. Maybe it's not a lie. It's only been the once since Steve came to his cell and called him by a dead man's name, so maybe that's the only time that matters. Whatever had happened before, well, James isn't even sure he really remembers it. All he remembers is darkness and pain, being drugged and asked questions he no longer had the memories to answer.
(Later he hears Steve talking in a low voice with someone called Hill, who is clearly high up the food chain of agents. "I want them found and I want them disciplined," he hears Steve say angrily and she agrees. She looks disturbed by what Steve's told her, and James wonders why she hasn't been to see him, or this Director Fury he's heard so much about.
Maybe they had, earlier, before Steve. Even with everything else he remembers, the first days of his incarceration are patchy. And now, with Steve handling him, he guesses they think him under control. He closes his eyes and thinks of decimation.)
After Medical, he's given a hooded jumper emblazoned with the SHIELD emblem which is utterly tasteless given the circumstances, but he guesses it's less distinctive than a pair of striped jailbird coveralls, yet still paints a target on his back should he run.
Of course, they then clip a neural inhibitor collar around his neck which will drop him like a poleaxed ox should he run, so the point is moot really. Not that he would, because he has nowhere to run to.
Even with the Winter Soldier's memories, he remembers little of New York (remembers going off mission and following ghosts to New York, to Brooklyn, but it's a haze even in his sharp memories), so it's with a new eye that he appreciates the city. Steve takes him to Central Park, which is overwhelmingly huge and green after the inside of his concrete cell; the armed guards who linger just out of earshot aren't subtle, but Steve doesn't seem bothered so James elects to follow his lead. It's nice to be out in real daylight, and when he closes his eyes and turns his face to the sun he finds he doesn't care so much about armed guards and neural inhibitor collars.
He's not too surprised when Steve produces a picnic basket and blanket, and sets it out in a cleared area (the guards, even in their civilian clothing, hold the perimeter and were James even able to run he knows he couldn't make it far before being taken down). He watches Steve carefully unpack the basket. Juice and salad and bread and dips, cured meats and cheeses and then two bottles of beer.
"Is this a date?"
Steve looks shocked. "I—sorry?"
"I said... is this a date? With the nice park and the nice weather and the picnic blanket and the—and the basket. I was just—it was a joke. I was making a joke..." James trails off awkwardly, scrunching his face up. He rubs the back of his neck and wishes he'd never said a word. "Sorry."
"No, I'm—Buck—James, I'm sorry, I just... I wasn't expecting it." Steve still has that astonished look on his face, but there's also the start of a smile. "Here," he says, patting the blanket next to him.
James sits. "I wish I knew why I trusted you," he says.
"I'm glad you do."
"Do you trust me?"
Steve doesn't hesitate. "With my life," he says.
James lets out an ugly laugh. "With your life. We know how close I came to taking that," he taunts.
But Steve won't be baited. "That wasn't you, that was the Winter Soldier."
"I'm the Winter Soldier." Even now, he knows he's still the Winter Soldier, but he's a soldier without command, without a master. He is a hollow shell without purpose. When he doesn't dream about killing, he dreams about the death lists and voices whispering in the back of his head whenever he's put into their machine: targets and parameters and back stories, missions and weapons and deaths. He's been a hundred different people as the Winter Soldier and none of them were James Buchanan Barnes.
Sometimes it feels very crowded in his head.
Steve gives him a stupid, infuriatingly placid smile. "You're no longer that programmed killer, James. You are not the sum of your memories, because you remember being someone other than the Winter Soldier, even if it's only a name."
He's so naive, James thinks. As if it could be that simple.
"So tell me," he says, reaching for a piece of the bread, a poor attempt at a diversion from something he doesn't want to talk about, and he knows Steve knows it, "what do your people think a list of my long-completed missions will give them?"
The faint crease between Steve's brows shows he didn't miss James' emphasis on the possessive pronoun. "It's less about who the Winter Soldier killed, but why. They believe the information you have about Lukin, about Karpov's activities up until his death, the Red Room and Kronas Corporation—"
"Kronas Corporation?" He knows it's Lukin's company, but he knows little of it past that. He knows Kronas existed, and he knows the competition he eliminated—Ari Hassan, 28, corporate lawyer for Al-ahadi Petroleum, Michael Mason, 63, CFO for Campbell Pharmaceuticals—but he knows little of Lukin's plans. He was there for wet work, after all, not for his business acumen.
He says as much to Steve.
"I'm not sure they'll believe that," Steve says. "They think—and I think so, too—that you might have heard discussions that maybe you don't realise the import of. But the difference between me and the rest of SHIELD is that they want that information, regardless of the cost." He sighs. "I don't think any information they might get from you is worth the risk."
It's like Steve's words spark something in his mind, bridging connections in his brain. He did hear conversations, when he was in the machine for programming, when he was Karpov's bodyguard, when he was waiting for further briefings. Even after he went rogue in the 70s, they didn't guard their tongues around him. He wonders if they thought his mind little use in comparison to his physical skills.
He remembers hearing Lukin speaking to someone when he was strapped into the machine the last time, as they tried to strip away everything he might have had left of himself and of them, so he could kill and die in one last glorious service for the motherland. So he could be the message they wanted to send to the American dogs (look, his corpse would have said, look how unsafe you are if we can kill your heroes and subvert your past so easily). He remembers the tone of Lukin's voice, all amusement and satisfaction, that the WWII boy prodigy of the US Army turned costumed sidekick would kill his one-time best friend and resurrected hero, Captain America.
He can't breathe.
He can't breathe and his vision fuzzes, because it's true. He is who Steve tells him he is. The name he remembers, James Buchanan Barnes—"but you can call me Bucky,"—is the name of the boy Steve remembers watching fight at Camp Lehigh, and the name of the boy who was never really a boy, who grew into a man fighting on the side of the Americans in the Second World War. A costumed symbol in his own right to counteract the Hitler Youth, at the side of Captain America.
Lukin's laugh seems to echo in his skull, because even broken the Winter Soldier would still be an asset in his final mission. If the Americans had tried to keep it secret that Bucky Barnes had killed Captain America, Lukin planned to leak it himself in a petty but insidious strike at the heart of the overwhelming American self-confidence, because if one dead teen sidekick had been able to kill a man of Captain America's stature, then what other weapons forged from American heroes might there be?
"James?" Steve's voice seems to be coming from down a long tunnel. "Are you okay? You've gone as white as a ghost."
He can feel Steve's hand on his shoulder, shaking him gently. He snaps to, still feeling light-headed and disoriented. "I'm—" He stops and swallows. Maybe he's going to be sick. "I'm okay," he manages to say.
"You remembered something, didn't you?" Steve says and James nods jerkily. For a moment he thinks Steve is going to pull him forward, in against him, but he doesn't. "This is why I don't want them to interrogate you. If just a mention of it can make you like this, what good do they think a full interrogation for specific details will do?" He can hear the threads of anger that wind through Steve's tone, but he knows it's not directed at him.
"How can you even work for these people?" James says and his voice sounds false to his ears, because he can't tell Steve what he remembers, because he can't tell Steve he's right, that James really is the boy of Steve's memories grown up into a nightmare.
He wants to run. If he could, he would; he'd start running and never stop. But instead he's frozen in place, his blood like ice in his veins, next to the best friend he tried to kill but doesn't even remember.
Steve looks at him, sad and concerned. "I know the way you've been treated by SHIELD has been less than exemplary, but it's not standard, I promise." James can see the way he hesitates a moment before reaching out, nudging his knuckles against James' thigh. It's a strange little gesture, oddly comforting, and for a moment James thaws and he leans into the touch, his whole body leaning a little closer to Steve, like he's a flame or magnetic north or the sun.
There's something about him. Something about the shade of blue of his eyes, the way the sunlight catches on his golden hair. James is staring, he knows he's staring, and Steve's looking right back at him. Steve raises his chin, moistening his lips a little and James can't hear the screams and shouts of the children playing far beyond the ring of guards, or the birds, or the distant sound of traffic anymore. He can only hear his breathing.
When he looks away, the rest of the world comes back into focus.
Then Steve continues, like nothing had just happened.
"They know I don't believe this is a good idea, that you're not ready. That you mightn't ever be ready," he says. "But they believe that I'm exaggerating because of—because of Bucky, and because of what happened to me and because they think I might be..." He stops suddenly and shrugs. "Well, they think I'm being overprotective, and I am. I won't deny it. But my personal pros and cons aren't the same as the pros and cons of obtaining this information for SHIELD, who think I might be able to convince you that if you tell them everything, you'll secure your freedom."
"Possibly," Steve admits. "Depending on the value they put on the information, if it's considered good enough to give you immunity against prosecution for the Winter Soldier's crimes. Hill thinks the enticement of possible freedom is a suitable reward for the price of your sanity." Your life, is what he doesn't say. "But I'm not about to let them risk you like that." He hesitates. "I've got an idea though."
"Oh?" James asks neutrally.
"I want you to say you'll tell them everything if they agree to release you after," Steve says, leaning back on his hands, face tipped up to the sky.
James stays silent. Clearly that's not the whole plan.
"But only if they give you something first."
Steve looks at him. "They've built a new arm for you. I think if you're convincing enough they'll let you have it in exchange for all the Winter Soldier intel they can handle."
He's convincing enough.
They don't give him the arm immediately; there are more tests, poking and prodding to discover what nerves and muscle are viable in what's left of his shoulder and in his chest and x-rays to see what bone remains, and as the tests go on he hears the rising confidence in the soft murmurs of the doctors and technicians.
The female doctor with the gentle brown eyes is the only one who isn't scared of James Barnes. She is the one who tells him what they are doing as they do it, as needles are slid into his flesh, probes that hook him up to some sort of machine that creates a holographic replica of the arm. She calls it a prototype, that they've never built an arm like this before, that it'll revolutionise prosthetics and cybernetics for amputees.
James finds he's uncomfortable with the term, because he's never seen himself as an amputee; he may never have had a flesh and bone arm in his memory, but he's always had some kind of permanent prosthesis, removed only when damaged or to be upgraded or for cleaning, and even then it was never for long enough to make an impact. Not like this. He supposes it's true, he's an amputee, but he's never looked at it like that.
"Now we're just going to do some testing of how the arm will respond to your thoughts. Just relax and take it slow."
Phantom pain lives in the holographic fingers as he tries to manipulate them. Big movements of the arm come naturally, but he has difficulty with simple things, like clenching the fingers into a fist or trying to pick up something equally as non-existent as the arm. "Because there's little left of your shoulder joint, we have to use nerves and muscles to do things they weren't designed for. Between the neural hook up and the direct connections from the arm into your body, however, you'll be able to retrain this part of your body—" and her gesture encompasses his whole left shoulder, "—to operate your left hand with just as much deftness as your right."
"Neural hook up?" He tries to keep the apprehension from his tone and fails. The thought of anyone going into his brain again turns his stomach.
"Strictly to assist with fine motor control and feeling—pressure, heat, cold, minor pain—from the neural net embedded surface of the arm." She tweaks something on the screen in front of him and the hand spasms and he flinches. He felt it, and not in the way he feels the phantom pain, either. "I suggested that the minor pain threshold be implemented, because if anything happens to the prosthesis you won't be crippled by the pain, but you will be aware there's an issue."
It's difficult for him to take in. He's good at killing, and at muscle memory, and at training others to kill; at following mission parameters and memorising details. He's not good at physical biology (unless it's put knife here, here or here, for maximum death, minimum fuss) and he doesn't understand why a pain threshold should matter at all for him. They're not giving him an arm for any reason other than to get at the information in his head, right?
But then he realises that although he's been treated poorly before this, SHIELD will hold up their end of the bargain. They're going to give him an arm, and it's going to be the best arm they can give him, whether or not they then destroy his brain. He guesses the fact that it's going to be some kind of prototype helps; they'll use him as a guinea pig, an experiment for building incorporated shoulder joints and retraining the brain, just to see if this damn thing works.
He doesn't see Steve at all in the week and a half it takes for them to finish running the tests to establish nerve and muscle viability for his new arm, and attach it. In the morning when he's collected from his fancy cell to be taken to Medical, and in the evening, when he's escorted back, it's by Agent Garner, the agent with Steve the first time he came into James' cell, and a visibly armed SHIELD guard in body armour. James wonders if SHIELD suspects Steve is up to something, or maybe he's off on a mission. He is their precious Captain America, after all.
It's only when Natalia shows up one day and takes him to lunch mid-week—stern-eyed, and the guard who starts to follow falters under her steely gaze—that he learns what's going on.
"They're suspicious about how Steve has stopped protesting against the interrogation," Natalia says, "even though you agreed to it. They suspect he's up to something, which is why they've been keeping him away. He is... not happy."
"No, I don't suppose he would be." It surprises James to realise he's not happy either. Not because of the suspicion and the threat to whatever it is that Steve is planning, but because he actually misses Steve and his idiotic earnestness a little. He might have been a hoverer, but there was something familiar about him, something reassuring, and he's been the only face James had seen with any kind of consistency since his capture.
There's a hint of a smile on her face, like she knows what James is thinking. "Do you remember Alexei's dog, Sezja?"
Sezja had been a big, friendly dog belonging to one of the scientists they'd extracted from West Berlin three weeks after the Wall went up. Sezja had been sleeping on the stairs when the Winter Soldier and Black Widow had broken into the house from the upper balcony, and instead of attacking this danger to his master, he'd bounded up to the two assassins, completely unafraid, full of happy licks.
The Winter Soldier had let the man take the dog with him as they returned to Moscow.
James nods. He remembers Alexei's dog.
"He is like Sezja," Natalia says. "And he is very easy to like."
She says 'like', but he thinks maybe she means something more, like love. He thinks of being unhappy he hasn't seen Steve, and of his dreams—the odd ones of sweat-slick bodies moving against each other—and wonders if, were he someone else, he'd be half in love with Steve already. (He wonders if Bucky had been half in love with Steve too, and if he had been then maybe that's why James feels so... disoriented.)
But maybe Steve is like Sezja, he thinks, because Steve has never been scared of him either. Even though he is the Winter Soldier, and he knows how to kill a person in more ways than he can count, and even though he tried to kill Steve, Steve is not scared. He's not scared, and he doesn't hate James for not being who he wants him to be the most.
Maybe Steve even likes the man who was the Winter Soldier, who isn't his friend Bucky Barnes.
Steve isn't there when they wheel him into the operating room to install the new shoulder joint, nor is he there when James comes out to recovery. The female doctor with the gentle eyes is there though, taking him through the procedure and what it means. Her name is Evelyn Li, he finds out, and she's not just a normal doctor in Medical. She designed his new arm, and she operated on his shoulder because she was a brilliant surgeon before she was a brilliant scientist for SHIELD. And she doesn't trust anyone else to do right by him.
(He's glad when he forces himself to remember the death list of people to be eliminated and she isn't on it. She's smart. Too smart. If Lukin had known about her she'd be dead or abducted by now.)
She explains to him that SHIELD has requested the arm be attached sooner than she's happy with, but with his healing and his metabolism, providing he keeps the arm steady, there shouldn't be any issues with his healing shoulder. Even though James is still muzzy from the anaesthesia, he still recognises that there's something else in her tone, something pointed, and she's trying to tell him something more. When she quietly, intently asks, "Do you understand?" and he shakes his head and says helplessly, "I'm sorry," she squeezes his hand and tells him not to worry, that Steve knows too.
There must be some odd expression on his face at her mention of Steve's name and when she touches his hand and he's shocked, because Steve and Natalia are the only ones who've willingly touched him for anything other than assault or examination for longer than he can remember. "He's looking after everything," she says softly and James realises she's in on it too. It's the only thing she says, and the next day the arm is attached.
It hurts like nothing he's ever felt. The technology in the arm the Russians gave him never felt like this, like all his nerve endings were on fire. Evelyn tells him he's fine, that his brain is just adjusting to the neural implant and having nerve endings where there were barely any before. She doesn't let anyone else tend to his shoulder and he's glad for it. He trusts her, in a way. She's never done anything but what she said she would. It means a lot to him.
"They're coming to take you for interrogation in the morning," Evelyn says as she changes the dressing on his shoulder.
She sits with him for hours, working through exercises to teach him how to use his arm again, something intense in the curve of her body where she sits in the chair opposite, her touch gentle as she bends his fingers and wrist and elbow. The more she handles his metal hand, the more it hurts, until suddenly it doesn't as much. "Good," she says when she asks him to rank his pain on a scale of one to ten and the answer is seven when last time it had been nine. "That's what I was waiting for."
She explains that the exercises help to retrain his brain and his body, that he needs to think of the movement while he manipulates his arm because it should help train his brain. "Should?" he asks, brows raised.
"This is a prototype," Evelyn confesses. "Everything works on paper and in the holograms as it should, but from here on out it's the real world." She leans forward, like she's checking the shoulder joint and says quietly, "As long as you look after your shoulder as it heals there shouldn't be any problems. Keep doing the exercises. I'm going to strap the arm into place until later, tomorrow night, hopefully. I know you'll be tempted to use it, when... things happen, but don't. It's vitally important, because I won't be there to fix it if anything goes wrong. Do you understand?"
He nods. Tomorrow, then, he thinks, as she starts to carefully bind his arm up with bandages. The pain has receded to a dull throb, like his fingertips are swollen with blood. "This will stop it from being jostled while you sleep," she says in a louder voice. Once done she says, "I'll check up on you tomorrow," and squeezes his flesh and blood shoulder. "Good luck."
He doesn't make it to interrogation.
Agent Garner and two guards arrive shortly after he finishes his breakfast. He recognises one of the guards from somewhere, the nagging familiarity of his face itching at the back of James' mind. He's given only enough time to pull a SHIELD jacket around his shoulders—the way his arm is bound up he can't pull it on—before they hustle him out of the room.
The agent walks to his front and left and he has a goon behind each shoulder. They're tense, though they try to hide it, like they expect something to happen. James wonders if Steve—whatever this plan of his was—has been compromised. He's ushered into an elevator, an additional guard joining them so he's boxed in. He closes his eyes when the new guard leans towards Agent Garner and says softly, right into her ear in a voice not meant to be heard over the piped jazz and hum of the elevator, "There's no sign of Rogers in the building."
"Maybe the rumours were just that," Agent Garner replies.
So they are worried about their Captain.
James opens his eyes as the elevator continues its ascent and his gaze finds the face of the guard who looked familiar in the reflection in the elevator door. The man looks insolently back at him and he frowns. It takes a moment but then—
Now he remembers. It's the guard who'd spat on him. He smiles sudden and sharp, marking him, and the guard looks nervous and glances away.
The elevator door opens.
Steve's standing there, a pleasant smile on his face. He reaches out to hold the door.
"You're not meant to be here, Captain Rogers," Agent Garner says sharply. Her hand goes to the side-arm on her hip.
"Sorry, Agent Garner, but you have something I need. I suggest you let me take him."
"Can't let you do that, sir," the guard who'd arrived last says, bringing up his gun. It's one of the non-lethal weapons, because no one wants to fire live ammunition at Captain America.
Idly James wonders if it is the standard arming for SHIELD personnel within the office building, or if it's just the ones around him. Perhaps regardless of what they think Charles Xavier did to him, the suicide watch still stands.
"James," Steve says casually.
"Are you ready?"
James can't help his small smile. No one can say the agent and her guards—staring at them, dumbfounded—weren't given sufficient warning. "After you," James says, inclining his head a little. He may be the broken shell of a Soviet assassin, but no one will fault his manners.
Then Steve knocks aside the barrel of the gun pointed at him and puts the man holding it to sleep with his fist. James doesn't have time to stop and appreciate the elegance of the movement though, as he turns, shrugging the SHIELD jacket from his shoulders, and crunches his elbow into the side of the head of the guard who once thought him too weak to fight back. He kicks back at the same time, heel driving into the side of the fourth soldier, who staggers then falls as James turns and smashes his head into the elevator wall.
A trick Natalia taught him takes Agent Garner out and he gently lowers her to the floor.
"She'll be fine," James says.
Steve nods then suddenly he grins brilliantly, reaching out to curl his fingers around James' wrist. He pulls him out of the elevator, and for a sudden, sharp moment James thinks Steve is going to tug him close and kiss him. He's... well, it's crazy but he doesn't think he'd mind.
But Steve doesn't (and maybe James is a little disappointed), he just leads James into the next elevator, which has opened up. "We should be able to get close enough to the roof before they catch up," Steve says. For a moment he looks like he's going to say something else, except instead he reaches out and curves his hand around the back of James' neck, leaning in and pressing their foreheads together. "How's the arm?" he asks.
"Hurts like hell," James admits. He can't help flexing his fingers the best he can—he thinks they're responding better, but with the way his arm is strapped he can't be sure—and the more he does, the more the pain recedes. He hadn't slept much the night before, choosing not to take the painkillers Doctor Li supplied him with since they left him feeling like a zombie.
He doesn't realise Steve's still holding onto his wrist until he feels Steve gently stroke in the inside of his wrist with his thumb. There's something soft and warm in Steve's gaze as he stares at James, like he hasn't seen him for—for decades, not ten or eleven days. The elevator pings.
The door opens.
There are three strike force agents waiting outside the door, and James can tell immediately that they're not prepared, that likely they were just waiting to catch an elevator, not to catch Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Steve darts out and he's quick to engage two of them, leaving the third to James, who makes it easy enough with his startled bemusement.
He strikes the man on the jaw and he goes down hard. James drops to his knees beside him, and another punch stops his groaning. He has a smoke canister on his vest and James frees it, checking the pin is still secure before tucking it into his metal hand. He can manage his fingers enough to grip it and he thinks it might come in handy later. There's also a Glock on the agent's hip and James fumbles to free the gun from its holster, staggering back to his feet just as he hears a shout at the end of the corridor behind him. He doesn't even think, just turns and raises the gun and shoots.
But he's pulled off balance by his new metal arm strapped to his chest, and the bullets, instead of a double tap to the agent's forehead, swing wide and thud into the wall by the agent's head.
"No!" he hears Steve shout as the agent yelps and retreats, and then Steve's there, dragging him away from the downed man and around the corner, yanking the gun from his hand. "No," Steve repeats, pushing him up against the wall.
"You can't—you can't do that, James, you can't try to hurt anyone like that!" Steve says, and James jerks his gaze back up to Steve's face. There's something desperate in Steve's tone, in his eyes.
"But she was going to—"
"I don't care, you can't hurt anyone. Not in this, okay? You have to come through this without reproach. This is my idea and you can't do anything that'll pin it on you."
"But I can't just let them—"
"But you've got a—"
"It's a dart gun, that's all. We're doing this with non-lethal take downs, no killing, no serious injuries. I'm doing this with non-lethal take downs. You're going to follow behind and not touch anyone."
There's the soft tink-tink James recognises from the corner. "Flashbang," he says sharply and Steve crowds him against the wall, hands going up to push James' face away, to cover his ears. As James scrunches his eyes shut, he doesn't know if Steve expects the super soldier serum in his blood to protect him or what, but it doesn't. Steve staggers and doesn't react as two agents round the corner—they have the kind of tranquiliser guns James recognises from when the guards used to bumrush him in his cell, whereas Steve just has a standard two-dart handheld. Well, two darts is all he needs.
He snatches the Glock from Steve's hand and puts out the overhead lights, before dropping it and sliding in behind Steve, curving his hand over the one of Steve's holding the dart gun. The agents at the end of the corridor are just backlit shadows, but it's all James needs as he aims the gun in Steve's hand and presses Steve's finger against the trigger—one, two—and they fall.
"Come on," he says then, releasing Steve's hand and stepping away.
Steve's steadier, though he still blinks through streaming eyes and his voice is overly loud when he says, "This way," tugging James towards the door at the end of the corridor and pushing him through and to the left. "There's a stairwell not too far ahead—we're heading up."
Steve throws him the stupidest, most shit-eating grin James can remember ever seeing on anyone. "I've got friends in high places."
Before James can say anything he hears someone shout, "Stop right there!" a split second before he feels a stab of pain in his thigh. He swears and reaches down, yanking a tranquiliser dart from his leg. His gaze meets Steve. "We have to run," he says grimly, knowing Steve will probably have to carry him soon if he's serious about this escape. Before he was captured by SHIELD he'd never encountered these kinds of weapons, tranquiliser guns in common use against problematic prisoners, the issues of rapid acting, non-lethal dosages resolved. Since his capture he's become intimately acquainted.
But this isn't the same, he realises. His fingers should be numb by now, his steps faltering. Instead he's still strong as he lets Steve shove him in front, to protect him with his own body. There's another door, and then another, and then a heavier, more sturdy door that leads into the stairwell.
He pulls the door open and Steve slips through the gap, and when it swings shut Steve slides the dart gun through the handle to jam the door. "That's not going to hold long," James says, unable to help the critical tone.
"Doesn't have to." And Steve grins again.
"You're enjoying this," James accuses as Steve herds him up the stairs.
"A little." Then Steve's expression becomes serious. "How are you feeling?"
From his time incarcerated, James isn't nearly as fit as he's used to being, and he puffs for breath as they dash up the stairs. "Not tired, if that's what you mean." And that's weird enough. James has been shot up enough times by trigger-happy guards to know he should be comatose by now.
They burst through the door at the top of the stairs and out onto the roof of the SHIELD office, where there's a helipad and a small aircraft that looks like a grossly overweight VTOL fighter jet. "Come on," Steve shouts over the sound of its engines but James baulks.
"Hang on, I'm just gonna..." He turns, catching the door before it shuts again and props it open with his foot. He can hear the agents clattering about in the stairwell and takes the smoke canister from his metal hand, pulls the pin and pops it through the gap, before shifting his foot to let the door boom shut.
"What—?" Steve looks confused. "I told you—"
"It's only smoke. It'll slow 'em down. See? No bang."
Steve gives him a slightly guilty look as if for doubting him again and hustles him to the aircraft, up the ramp and into its cargo bay. There are seats along the walls and James sits heavily with relief. He really is unfit.
"Morning, Carol," Steve says, hitting the close switch for the ramp. "Glad you could join us."
"I hope you know you're going to get yourself into all kinds of trouble over this, Cap," the pilot, Carol, calls back. "Hope it's worth it."
The shining sincerity on Steve's face when he looks at James is embarrassing. "He's worth all of it," he says and James looks away.
"Here," Carol says. "Put this in." She's holding something out for Steve to take. He does, and his hand goes to his ear, so James assumes it's an earpiece. "Sam's got all the birds on lookout; he'll keep you out of SHIELD hands between drops."
"Good to know. Hey Sam," Steve then says with audible relief, in that tone James knows, that means he's speaking to someone only he can hear. He wonders who Sam is. (He wonders who Carol is too, and why she'd do this for Steve.)
"Yeah," Steve says, "we got out clean. Listen, Carol's borrowed one of Stark's off the radar birds and she's going to drop us at one of the old safe houses. We'll take a car from there—" There's a pause. "No, no, you're right, I'm just used to telling you everything." He laughs and it seems sudden and out of place, and it makes James wonder if he ever made Steve laugh with that ease during the war. (It makes him feel jealous too, which isn't something he's too sure about, because what is there to feel jealous over?)
"Nat said what?" Steve says sharply then, to this Sam person in his ear. "What do you mean?"
At first James thinks it's the lurch and sway of the aircraft as it weaves through the Manhattan skyline, but then another wave of nausea hits him, sharp in the gut like a stab and he doubles over.
"James? James, are you okay?"
"I don't—" he stops as he's hit by pain again. "Steve," he gasps, and Steve's there to support him when he reaches out. James grabs his arm. "I don't think they were tranquilisers."
"They weren't," Steve says grimly, crouching beside him. James steadies himself with his hand on Steve's shoulder, before he's grabbing at the material of Steve's shirt, hissing at another jab of pain. "Carol, we're going to have to make an emergency stop. Sam, where does Nat want to meet? ...Okay, will do." He turns to give Carol the location, but James doesn't hear. If he presses his elbow—his metal one, where his arm is still bound—hard enough into his gut it seems to ease the pain a little, changing the focus from his belly to his shoulder and down the arm, where the phantom pain is real again in his elbow and wrist and fingers.
He finds if he flexes his fingers, a faint echo of the exercises Evelyn taught him, it gives him something to focus on and he doesn't even notice the gentle bump as Carol sets the plane down.
"We've got five minutes at best, Cap," Carol says as she opens the back of the plane. A man in a rather garish skin-tight red and white costume comes in, followed by Natalia. There's a bird too, hovering by the costume's shoulder, but James isn't entirely sure he's not hallucinating that part.
"You got here quick," Steve says to Natalia as the man—Sam, James guesses—looks at him curiously.
"You must be Bucky. I've heard a lot about you," Sam says, stepping away from Natalia and Steve, towards him. The movement is carefully telegraphed and non-threatening. So he knows about the Winter Soldier part. James guesses he has to know about the bullet he put in Steve's neck too.
"Call me James," James says around gritted teeth, because Bucky makes his stomach pain worse, even though he knows that, at least, is psychosomatic. "Please." And he manages half a smile because he doesn't want to be rude to this man, Steve's friend. He gets a good vibe from him. Steve likes him and even though he makes Steve laugh and that makes James jealous, James wants to make a good impression.
"All right," Sam says, "James." Then he smiles and James figures the whole Steve-and-the-bullet thing can't be too bad a part of what he's heard. The pain has eased somewhat and he leans back, reducing the pressure of his arm against his belly, and he's able to pay attention to Natalia and Steve's conversation.
"—there's a tracker in the arm, but Stark's virus punched a hole in the firewall and has disabled all of their tracking software," Natalia says. "The tracker can't be removed without damage and they shouldn't be able to circumvent Stark's virus, but if they do then this," and she presses a small object the size of a matchbook into Steve's hand, "will override the signal as long as it's within ten metres, and this," she gives him a palm-sized computer device, "is off the grid and untraceable—you'll have to find your own safe houses, because for both of you I can't let myself be compromised in this."
"You'll tell them you helped us?"
"You know as well as I do that they'll know already. You're too close, Steve, to see what this might do—"
"Look, maybe I should just give myself up," James interrupts, his voice sounding distant to his own ears. He doesn't want either of them to get into trouble.
"No," Natalia and Steve say at the same time, firmly and vehemently. He subsides. Okay, so that would be a 'no' then.
"Lastly, Doctor Li gave me this," and she hands Steve a small hard plastic case, no bigger than Steve's hand. "It's the antidote for what they shot him with. Yes, the antidote." She smiles thinly, and James recognises that smile. In the old days that smile would have meant someone was going to die. He wonders if it means the same now. "There was supposedly a mix up in the ammunition used in the weapon. Instead of the usual tranquilisers, it's a different version that they'd discovered is lethal when combined with compounds made by the Red Room. I was told that the gun had been taken from the wrong rack." She shrugs. "I intend to find out if that is the truth."
"If it's the antidote, why are you only giving it to me now?" Steve protests. "Wouldn't it have made sense to give it to me first—"
"Because you can't give it to him yet. At least like this he's mobile, and will be for the next 24 hours, maybe less because of his health. The antidote will knock him down for at least 12 hours and you can't afford to lose that time. Now go."
"Thank you." Steve squeezes her hand. "We'll be in contact."
"I know." She comes over and cups her hand under James' chin, tilting his head up and pressing a kiss to his forehead. Her lips are warm and soft. ﹤"He will move heaven and earth to keep you safe, even from our own people. You can trust him in everything."﹥
﹤"I... I do."﹥
﹤"Good."﹥ She smiles again, this time a gentle smile he remembers too. ﹤"He is a good man."﹥ She turns back to Steve, the good man, and slips a piece of paper into his hand. "Here. Call it and he'll organise a plane wherever you need it to wherever you want to go."
The number on the paper means something to Steve because he huffs a soft, wry laugh. "Of course he will."
She squeezes his hand and then she is gone, without even looking back. Sam stands too, even as Carol lifts the plane off the rooftop, and he reaches out, squeezing James' good shoulder. "Look after him," he says to James, like Steve's the one who's helpless to fate here.
"I will," James says. He hesitates a moment then says, "I gotta ask... the bird, is it real?"
Sam grins broadly, holds up his hand and the bird—some kind of bird of prey, but James isn't up on his avian species—alights on his wrist, preening like it knows it's there to be admired. "This is Redwing," Sam says. "And he's very real." Redwing cocks its head and eyeballs James.
He shifts a little uncomfortably under the scrutiny. Then Sam turns and with a few quick steps leaps from the rear of the plane. James can't help the way he half-starts to his feet in surprise. But even as he watches, expecting to see Sam fall like a stone, there are wings where there were never wings before, and open mouthed he watches as Sam and his bird catch the breeze and soar.
"Jesus, I'd give it all to be able to fly like that." He sighs enviously, settling back against the side of the plane once the hatch has closed.
Steve has a look on his face like he was going to say something but changed his mind.
"What?" James says. "Just say it."
"It's not—" Steve purses his lips. "You'll take it the wrong way."
"I won't, I swear."
"You can't get annoyed with me if you don't like what I wasn't going to say anyway—"
"Just say it," James says and he's echoed by Carol in the pilot seat, and he laughs. She flicks a grin at him over her shoulder. She's a hell of a good looking lady, he thinks suddenly. She raises a brow like she knows what he's thinking.
"I wasn't going to say that Bucky used to say something like that too, back in the war. He used to watch Toro and Jim, the Human Torch—the original one, I mean—he used to watch them and said if it wasn't for the being on fire thing..." Steve trails off. "I told you you'd take it the wrong way," he says mildly, because James is scowling and can't help himself. That's twice in ten minutes someone's mentioned Bucky.
"He did tell you," Carol calls back.
It's childish to be angry over something he can't help, and something that's his own fault, really, because he prodded Steve into saying it. But he is angry, because everyone wants him to be war hero Bucky Barnes, not James Barnes, who was the Winter Soldier.
Well, bad luck. Broken James Barnes is the only person he is.
"Hey, hey," Steve says gently, sitting down close (too close) beside him. He reaches out and curves his hand around the back of James' neck, but James hunches away from him.
He'll never be what Steve wants him to be and the sooner Steve comes to terms with that, the better.
James finds himself spitting those words at Steve with all the venom he can muster, and the ache in his gut twists to sick satisfaction when Steve flinches as the words hit home and he draws back.
There's hurt in Steve's eyes and apology in his tone as he says, "I know you're not, and I don't—"
"Save it," James snarls and turns away, pulling in on himself. He stays like that, even as Steve tries to wait him out, even as Steve eventually retires to the co-pilot's seat next to Carol. He knows it's his fault this time, because what—who—else would Steve ever be thinking about? But all he can think is that he'll always be Bucky's shadow, the echo of what was and what everyone thinks is right, not what is. He wonders why Lukin didn't make his last memory implant Bucky goddamn Barnes, to really fuck with Steve. At least then he'd have something he could pretend to be from the Winter Soldier's memories, instead of being a man with only a name and the memories Steve showed him.
(He hates that he'd quite easily pretend to be someone he wasn't if it could make this easier.)
He doesn't move as they streak away from New York and SHIELD. He doesn't look up as the plane sets down, as Carol bids him farewell and good luck, as Steve ushers him down the ramp. It's simpler to be on autopilot and ignore the concern in Steve's eyes as he silently does as Steve asks.
They're at an old farmhouse in the country somewhere—he doesn't remember enough of America to even be able to tell where they are. There's an old car in the barn, and Steve throws the bags he'd taken from the plane into the back seat.
Steve looks at him. "We should go," he says, before opening the driver's door and sliding in behind the wheel. After a moment he winds down the window and leans out. "You going to get in?"
"I was going to shut the barn door," James says stiffly.
Steve blinks then smiles tentatively. "Thanks."
For a car that looks like it's been sitting gathering dust in the barn for years, it has a healthy rumble to its engine. The seats are dusty leather, the dash bleached from the sun. James wonders how long they're going to drive for, and realises he wouldn't mind a long road trip. It's been a long time since he's gone on a road trip.
Maybe he hasn't. He can't remember. (It feels familiar, though, but he doesn't think it's any of the long drives toward blood and death giving him the feeling.)
He doesn't want to start this... whatever it is, with ill feeling between him and Steve, so eventually he says, "I'm sorry." It's difficult to apologise even when he means it. He doesn't want to be at odds with Steve, and not just because he gets the feeling that Steve's is going to be the only face he sees for a long time. Not just because Steve is one of his few familiar things in this new world.
Steve looks at him. "It's okay," he says. He means it.
"No, it's not."
"I know you think I only ever see him when I look at you, but it's not true." But since Steve won't meet his eyes, James finds he can't trust Steve's word. He surprises himself by wanting to believe Steve and instead he hums softly, a noise that could be either agreement or disagreement.
There's a nearby little town where Steve picks up some food, and then they settle down for the drive. The background nausea that's been sitting in the pit of James' stomach since they'd fled the SHIELD office sharpens painfully on the drive. "Stop," he says once, twice, three times as Steve pulls over and he retches until there's nothing but bile. The fourth time the pain is intense and there's blood as he vomits. He senses Steve crouch by his side, feels the touch of Steve's hand on his back rubbing gently. He presses a bottle of water into James' hand and he can't hide the concern on his face.
"We should go back," James says, lacking the strength to even pull himself to his feet. His arm, still bound to his chest, weighs him down.
"No," Steve says. "No, you know what they want to do—"
"Maybe it's for the best." He spills water down his chin as his hand shakes. Steve steadies the bottle. "I know you don't want to hear it, but I'm never going to be able to be what you want me to. I've done things... things I can't live with, and you know that." He sees the misery on Steve's face when he looks up. "You do know it. And if we go back now maybe they won't be so hard on you. I'll tell 'em it was my idea to break out, that I—that I blackmailed you into it 'cause of some memory I saw. I'll tell them it's my fault 'cause you'd do anything for me."
Steve shakes his head, and James is sure he's seeing a different person, he's seeing his Bucky behind the scruff of beard and dishevelment as he reaches out and gently tucks the hair behind James' ear.
"You're right, I would do anything for you," Steve says, "but not this." Even before he spoke James could tell by the stubborn set to his shoulder they're wouldn't go back. "Come on," Steve says, hands gentle as he helps James to his feet and back into the car. "Just a couple more hours drive and then you can rest for a while."
Maybe if Steve had seen what he'd done, the way he saw what Steve remembered, then this wouldn't be so hard. Steve can't understand because he doesn't know.
"You know I killed people just 'cause they got in my way, don't you?" James says after a few silent minutes. He stares blankly out the window at the scenery going past and sees faces. "Women, children..."
"Those times I felt I'd done wrong, they took away the guilt so it wouldn't decrease my effectiveness in the field. They'd program me to do whatever it took to complete the hit. To be cold and hard, and if I didn't want to, it didn't matter. I'd still do those things. I tortured a man once, just to find out his wife was with her lover, and then I tortured him too, just to make her scared. I mean, I killed her anyway, but I made her suffer beforehand. As a message to those left behind."
"That wasn't you."
"How couldn't it have been me, Steve? It's all I remember. And if it's all I remember it's gotta be who I am."
The car veers off the road suddenly, and James has to throw out his hand to brace himself on the dash as Steve slams on the brakes and throws the car into park. He's angry and James leans back a little, startled, because he never thought Steve could be this angry. Even when he'd come to the fancy cell to let James know SHIELD wanted to carve his Winter Soldier memories bare, he hadn't been this angry. He can't look at Steve like this.
Steve leans over the stick and his hands are rough as he grabs James, cupping his face and forcing James to look.
"That wasn't you," Steve repeats, his voice rough. "It wasn't you, because if it was you wouldn't feel guilty for it now, and you wouldn't have then either, and they wouldn't have had to take it away to keep you effective. If it was, you would have done everything they asked without question. I've read SHIELD's records on you. You questioned when you shouldn't have, and you even left them once—you left and you came to New York and you were looking for something. You mightn't have known what you were looking for, but you were looking for something, and it wasn't anything to do with the Red Room or Department X or the Soviet agenda or the Cold War. That was you, James."
When Steve stops talking, he's breathing hard and it's hard to meet his gaze, the sheer weight of his belief almost too much to bear.
Then Steve releases him and leans back into his own seat, the heels of his hands pressed to his eyes. "I'm sorry, it's just..." He sighs. "I know it's selfish, but god help me, I've already lost you once, I don't think I could survive it again." He laughs, once, and James knows it's at the irony of their so-called survival; a drone plane and a long drop into icy water.
"I'm sorry," James says.
Steve inhales slowly and then lets it out, lowering his hands. "Me too."
Again they drive, and a few hours later Steve pulls the car over into a gas station and parks in the warm afternoon sun. James curls up on the backseat and he's shivering so hard it almost hurts. There's a little tourist shop annex on the gas station and Steve buys water and soda and sandwiches and three stupidly kitschy blankets which he tucks around James when he returns.
It doesn't really help and he can't stop his teeth chattering. Even though they probably shouldn't stop for long, Steve still slides into the backseat and supports him as he tries to eat without gagging and drink without spilling down his front. James is surprised by how warm Steve is and he's embarrassed by the urge to press against him, to burrow in like he's searching for the source of the heat.
"I hate this. I've always hated not being able to do anything and you've always had a knack for making me feel helpless," Steve says, but his tone is fond not censorious. "Here." He drops two tablets into James' hand. "Take these."
"Nat said the antidote shouldn't—"
"Shh, it's okay. These are just motion sickness pills. I have no idea if they'll help, but they can't hurt, right? They might make you sleepy, though, they always—well, they used to. A long time ago."
Steve smooths James' hair back from his forehead and supports his hand as he raises the bottle of water to wash down the pills. The bitter taste hits the back of his throat.
"We should get going again."
"In a little while."
"Shh. It's okay. I've got this."
He doesn't remember when they start driving again, but Steve holds him until he starts to drowse.
His dreams are unfocused, sinister. He dreams of the Winter Soldier, but it's different; instead of reliving his missions, his kills, he feels like he's being chased. Hunted. He's in the sprawling factory complex he recognises from Kostanay, but instead of being the hunter, he's being stalked down filthy tunnels and through warehouses crowded with packing crates.
He's scared (he's never scared), and his breath catches in his chest as he runs, half-crouched, hands clumsy as he tries to reload his gun (his hands are never clumsy). He can hear his pursuer pounding along behind him. He darts left, then right around stacks of crates, and it's only as he turns right again that he realises he's made the same mistake that his target made, and he can't do anything as the dead end looms, but turn, still trying to reload his gun.
His breathing is loud in his ears and he can't seem to make the gun work. He looks up, as his hunter steps from the shadows. He recognises the man immediately; blond hair, blue eyes, but his arm is wrong: it's made of metal, painted with a red star.
"Steve, please," he says. The Winter Soldier would never plead.
"Bucky," Steve says flatly, and the last thing he sees is the barrel of the gun aimed right at his face; the last thing he hears is the gunshot—
"No!" he shouts, starting upright. It takes James a moment to realise where he is, that he's on the backseat of a car as the scenery whizzes past outside.
"Hey, you okay?" he hears Steve say, glancing back over his shoulder. His expression is one of concern, but it's overlaid for a moment with the cold-eyed ruthlessness from James' dream and James shudders, scrubbing his hand over his face.
"Bad dream," he mutters, and his stomach lurches and twists, and he's not entirely sure it's from the poison in his blood stream.
"Did you need me to pull over?" No, Steve is only concerned. It was a dream. It was just a dream.
He nods jerkily.
Steve pulls the car over and James is out the door almost before the car has even stopped. He stumbles away from the car and then he can't stop. He doesn't know where he's going, just that he has to get away. Dimly he hears a car door open and close behind him.
"Hey, hey, James, wait." Steve comes up behind him, grabs his good shoulder to slow his headlong flight.
"I don't—I can't—" James tries to twist away, but Steve persists, and he finds himself pulled in against Steve's chest, awkward because of his bound arm. But that doesn't stop Steve from wrapping his own arms around James, one hand at the nape of his neck, holding James as close as he can.
"Shh. We'll stop soon and I'll give you the antidote, and everything will be better, you'll see," Steve says soothingly, his hand sliding up into James' hair and James can't help himself from sagging against Steve a little, because the antidote won't even come close to making everything better. Steve gently massages James' scalp (and James closes his eyes because it feels simple and good and so little has felt that way recently).
"Everything is going to be okay, I promise."
The sign says Halifax, Canada.
James doesn't remember crossing the border as Steve pulls into the first motel they come to. The room he rents is clean and neat and James groans with relief as he sinks down onto the bed.
He aches all over. "Can you help me out of these?" James asks, plucking at the bandage wrapped around him.
"Of course, let me just..." Steve sits the bags down inside the door and comes over to carefully unbind the bandages Evelyn used to strap James' arm in place.
"She was helping too, wasn't she?" James asks.
"Doctor Li. Evelyn. She was in on your plan to get me out of there."
Steve nods, with half a smile, half a grimace. "I tried to talk her out of it but she wouldn't listen." His smile widens a little. "Seems you made an impression on her."
"The only impression I made was one of fear. She was scared of the Winter Sold—ow." James winces as Steve peels the bandage away from his shoulder where it's become glued to the healing wound.
"Sorry, nearly there." Eventually Steve tosses the soiled bandage aside. "Evelyn said once we got you out of the office, providing I kept you out of any running battles you should be fine with just a sling."
"Good." He remembers Evelyn lying easily to the SHIELD agent standing watch that the bandages were to ensure his shoulder was kept stable to heal properly, but they hadn't been comfortable. He hopes she's okay.
Turning away to fetch the first aid kit, Steve says, "And she wasn't scared of you at all. Not once she met you." He flicks it open and takes out some swabs. "You can be charming even when you don't mean to be."
James grunts but doesn't say anything, because there's not much to say. He could deny being charming, but the warmth in Steve's gaze flusters him a little and he's not sure what ridiculous thing Steve might say in response. So instead he lets Steve finish checking and cleaning his healing wounds in silence, lets Steve help him out of his singlet and even lets Steve help him out of his trousers, until he's stripped down to his undershorts.
"We're meeting a plane at a private airfield tomorrow morning," Steve says eventually. He has the box that Natalia gave him, with the antidote. "This should have worked through your system by then."
There's a syringe and needle inside, with a small vial of blue liquid, and a blister pack with three blue capsules. "The pills are to be taken 24 hours apart, starting 24 hours after the injection."
It's strangely intimate as Steve cradles his elbow in one hand and slides the needle into his arm. It's the little hurts that James has never been able to stomach and he closes his eyes, breathing out. Then Steve's pressing a cotton ball to the needle prick and setting aside the syringe. "It'll make you sleepy, apparently."
"Hopefully better dreams than what those travel sickness pills gave me," James says a little sourly, before he remembers what's become his benchmark for a better dream and flushes. That's the last sort of dream he needs to be having now, with Steve right here. Steve doesn't query the blush, though he does raise a brow.
But thankfully his sleep is dreamless.
The first time he wakes, he can see Steve's silhouette by the window. He's at the table, reading. James watches him until the shivers subside. At least, he thinks, he's stopped vomiting. Maybe this is the antidote working. He's hot though, and he throws off the blankets, the air cool against his sweaty skin. His shoulder aches deeply, and when he moves it's like he can feel the metal grinding against bone, like the arm is coming free. It's not, because his fingers and hand still respond the way they should, he still can't help the niggling feeling.
The second time he wakes he has his head pillowed on Steve's thigh, and he can feel Steve's fingers curled in his hair. He shifts restlessly, feeling like there's fire in his veins, and Steve shifts, reaching for a cool, damp washcloth and gently dabbing it against James' face and neck, and across his bare shoulders. He's so hot, but so tired. "Here," Steve says gently, and James feels a straw nudge against his mouth. It's watered down juice and cool in his mouth.
He feels Steve's fingers gentle against his scalp and can't help his soft sigh. He likes it.
"What happens when you stop believing in me?" he murmurs sleepily against Steve's thigh.
The hand on his hair stills for a moment, then resumes the gentle stroke. "Never going to happen," he hears Steve say softly but firmly. "Go back to sleep."
The third time he wakes it's full dark outside and he's curled against Steve's side, his head pillowed on Steve's shoulder. He's not so feverish anymore, and he thinks maybe he's past the worst of it. Steve has an arm around him, his other hand curves over James' metal wrist, where his own hand rests on Steve's chest.
James doesn't know better, but he'd swear this feels familiar. As if Steve can sense James has awakened, his grip tightens a little, and James should feel trapped but he doesn't.
He feels the comfort of a child, safe now with Steve, but safe from what? He is the monster in the night, the dark that lurks under the bed. He is the stick used to threaten Russian children to obedience, do what you're told or the Winter Soldier will get you.
"Hey," Steve says softly.
"How're you feeling now?" He feels Steve's hand move from his metal one, to press against his forehead. "You don't feel so hot anymore."
"I feel a little better," he says.
"Good. It's working." Steve's fingers slide down his face, linger against his lips a moment, before he shifts his hand back to his chest. "Go back to sleep, we don't have to leave for the plane for another four hours."
He shifts, curling in on himself more, shifting from Steve's shoulder to his chest. The sounds of the air in Steve's lungs and the thud of his heart pushing blood around his body are comforting. It reminds James of being in the tank, of the comforting shh of liquid, and the heartbeat-like noise of the life support as he was soothed into his long sleep. He lets Steve's heartbeat soothe him to sleep now.
When he wakes for the last time Steve is still asleep and James eases away, sitting up. He feels... not fine, because he doesn't know if he ever has, but better. Weak, and shaky, but better.
James looks down at Steve, this man who holds onto him because he's the echo of a long dead best friend, who may have sacrificed everything to keep him safe and he understands the fact that James took the shot, that he should have killed him, doesn't matter to Steve. He doesn't care that James tried to kill him, that he pulled the trigger. It doesn't matter to Steve at all.
James understands it, but he can't wrap his head around the fact that there's someone in this world who'd forgive something like that. He doesn't think he could.
As he looks at Steve sleeping it occurs to him that he could run. He could undo everything that Steve and Natalia have done for him and go back to SHIELD, who would break him into a million shards. He knows he'd die, this time. This isn't like when his m—like Lukin scraping his memories away. These people, SHIELD, wouldn't take his memories away; they would make him relive every single moment, every kill, in the hope of wringing some kind of truth from it. Or he could run, far away, and never have to be James Barnes or Bucky Barnes or the Winter Soldier ever again. He's got the skills to bury himself forever, and even Steve wouldn't be able to find him.
He could run, and undo everything Steve and Natalia have done. His history is of breaking people's faith and unmaking deals to further his m—Karpov and Lukin and the Red Room's agenda. That's his history, but maybe he no longer has to be the monster history writes him as.
Steve sleeps the quiet sleep of the exhausted, too far under to dream, a white line on his throat the only sign that James had once laid on a rooftop with him in the crosshairs and pulled the trigger. James reaches out and touches the scar with a ghost's touch. It'll fade completely, he knows now.
There may be no outward signs of the scars Captain America carries, but he is the scar Steven Rogers has carried deep inside across decades and the turn of the century.
He doesn't know if he can bear the weight of Steve's belief in him that he is a good person. The boy, the man from Steve's memories may have been, but if there's anything he is not now, it's a good person. When his introspection skirts dangerously close to memories he doesn't want to rouse, not now, he turns away, slipping from the bed.
He's not going to run.
A light outside the motel filters orange through the thin curtains and he picks his way to where Steve left the bags. He's curious as he rummages through Steve's belongings. Clothing, sized enough for both of them, toiletries, the first aid kit with a sling, a pair of black leather gloves, a large sum of cash in various denominations and currencies, and at the bottom of the bag there's a P226, because a man whose weapon is a shield is also a pragmatist and doesn't eschew a gun's necessity.
The gun fits perfectly into his hand. They always did, he thinks. Like his hand was made for them. Guns and knives. He wonders what happened to his knife when he was captured. That one had been with him for a long time. There was a lot of blood on its blade.
The memories he'd shied away from come thick and fast, of course, when he thinks of the knife. He'd been unrelentingly brutal with that blade, and the fact that he did it under orders doesn't help in the slightest. He forces himself to breathe, to think of the man sleeping on the bed who wanted to help him, who was even now completely, willingly vulnerable to the one who'd put a bullet in his throat. James could kill Steve now, could kill him and then himself, without needing the commands programmed in his skull, because he has that free will.
He could choose to end all of this.
He puts the gun back into the bag and releases his grip on the memories, forces himself to think of more banal things. He touches his chin then reaches for the toiletries. Steve would have to have a razor, and the beard really is itchy. It's not a simple safety razor though; no, of course Steve would have to have a straight razor. It's nice though, the handle smooth wood set with mother of pearl.
He stares at the razor and the brush and the soap and something itches the back of his brain. He knows how to use one of these, he realises, if only he could remember the instructions properly. Maybe it'll come to him.
James finds a bowl in the cupboard by the kettle and fills it with hot water from the basin.
Okay, he thinks. Soap. But he picks up the razor instead, looking more closely at it. He wonders if it's something he should recognise from a million years ago—
"James, no!" Startled, he looks up into the mirror to see Steve's reflection's mad scramble across the bed, the way he stumbles, falls to his knees, reaching out and grabbing James' hand.
Steve squeezes and James lets out a soft grunt, releasing the razor. It drops to the floor with a soft thud. James stares back at Steve, confused a moment before he—
Steve's gaze flicks from James' face to the bench in front of him and James can see the moment he realises that this isn't what he'd thought, when he sees the brush and the soap and the cloth lined up, and the bowl full of steaming water.
"I'm—oh my god," Steve says, helplessly. "I thought you were going to..."
They look at each other a long moment before James says softly, "You're hurting my hand."
"Shit—shit, sorry," and Steve releases him like he's been stung. He buries his face in his hands. "I thought—I really thought..." his voice trails off and James realises that it hadn't even occurred to him to push the blade into his flesh. With the gleaming razor in his hand his only thought had been to try and follow those faint, half-remembered instructions.
"I don't like this," James says, touching his beard. "It itches. But I don't think my hands are steady enough." He holds out his hands, the flesh-and-bone one visibly trembling. "And this one," and he flexes his metal fingers, "I don't have the dexterity yet, anyway." He stops, waiting to see if Steve will take the hint.
It takes Steve a moment, his jaw working before he says in a slightly strangled tone, "Would you like me to...?"
"Please," James says.
He doesn't expect—he's not prepared for the way Steve crumbles forward at that single, soft word. He recognises the aching loss and desperation in the way Steve clings to him, head in his lap, from the memories he'd been shown. He wonders if Steve had ever truly let himself grieve for what he'd lost moments and decades before he'd been thawed.
Steve gasps jerkily like he's crying, but his face is turned away so James can't tell, and James hesitates a moment before he lets his hand—the one of flesh and blood—settle on Steve's hair, stroking gently. His hair is silky under James' fingers.
Eventually Steve stops shaking and when he raises his face his cheeks are dry but his eyes are red and wet. His movement causes James' hand to slide from his hair to his cheek, and before he can pull away Steve's lifted his own hand to capture James' and hold it in place.
Steve's closed his eyes and James feels the warmth of Steve's breath against his palm as he exhales shakily, as he nuzzles against James' hand. His cheek is prickly with stubble and his mouth soft when he presses a kiss to the centre of James' palm.
James knows it's only a fancy, but he feels like his heart skipped a beat.
They sit like that, for a long moment, before eventually Steve lets out a shuddering sigh and pulls back, releasing James' hand. He picks up the razor and sits it back on the bench by the basin.
"I'm sorry I overreacted," he says.
"It's okay. You don't have to—just yet, I mean. I want it gone, but it can wait if you're a bit..." James trails off awkwardly. He's not sure if he should have said something else, instead of talking about his awful beard.
Except Steve smiles up at him, his mouth a little squiggly but relieved, and this time he holds out his hand, his fingers visibly trembling. "Probably not right now," he agrees. He closes his eyes a moment, his breath shaky, and James reaches out again and touches his hair, his jaw.
"Tell me—" He stops, winces at how rough his voice is and clears his throat. He gently runs his finger over the line on Steve neck, the scar almost invisible to the touch as to the naked eye. Steve leans into his touch, he realises. Every time, Steve leans into him. Not just now, but whenever they're close, Steve turns towards James like he can't help himself. He knows Steve loved Bucky, his boy sidekick, but now he wonders if it was maybe something beyond brothers. There's the look in Steve's eyes that he sees again and again, and he wonders if it's not just his imagination and his dreams. Maybe Steve and Bucky—
James takes a slow, steadying breath and lowers his hand. "What was the official story about this? What did they say happened?"
Steve looks up at him. "They kept the news of the attack out of the media, and as soon as I could I made public appearances so there's no way Lukin would think I'd been killed. The SHIELD operation when you—to capture you wasn't covered up. The SHIELD PR department had learned the hard way that something like that being covered up tends to cause more questions, so they instead released a statement that they'd neutralised a terrorist who'd been killed during the operation."
"I didn't want them to use the term," Steve says a little stiffly and James can't help but laugh.
"Oh god, Steve, no, I'm not upset about it. I just... I never thought of it like that. Of any of it like that. I was the good soldier who did as ordered. It just happens that what I did were acts of terrorism against sovereign states." He scrubs a hand over his face. "So they told Lukin I was dead."
"Seemed like the best idea to stop them from coming after you."
"Considering how I was found, too." He can still remember the oil-metal taste of the gun barrel, can remember the burning shame. "Makes it pretty clear what the outcome was meant to be. I wish..."
There must be something in his tone, because Steve looks at him sadly and James can't hold his gaze. "James."
"It's not—it's okay, I—I guess I find it easier not to think about the man I was when you're around," James says awkwardly, looking down at his hands, flesh and metal fingers entwined. He can feel a flush burning his cheeks. "You distract me enough from what I was, to want to be... something better."
Notwithstanding what happened in the car, Steve's the only thing in his dreams that isn't corrupted. Even Natalia is something twisted by his subconscious when he dreams of her in what they took away; dreams of her asking for him to be wiped. It's ironic, perhaps, that he thinks his explicit dreams of Steve are less corrupt than anything.
He hears Steve's soft sigh, but doesn't look up. "Besides, I told you I'd let you try. I've got nothing but my word, and I'm gonna do my best to keep it, 'cause it's all I got to offer you."
The memories are still too hard to deal with, and each time he's overcome he thinks it could be so easy to end it all, but some of them, he realises, are already starting to take on that blurred feel, like an old, worn photograph, soft at the edges. He may have remembered everything at once, but the brain is not meant to hold all memories in such focus, and he knows in time they should fade, and while they'll always be with him—and sometimes come back with gut-wrenching clarity—eventually they should be like any memory, not a dead weight in the middle of his brain and unable to be avoided.
Eventually. If he can survive long enough to get to that point. "Why are you doing this, Steve?" he asks. "And don't say for me."
"But I don't—I mean, I am doing this for—"
"No. You're throwing away everything you've ever done for this agency, and don't bullshit me and say this is the only way. From what I know of you, there's plenty other routes you might've taken."
"Would you believe me when I said you're more important to me than everything in SHIELD put together?"
"More important than you being a do-gooder?"
James is rather relieved to know that Steve's capable of an ugly expression, his mouth drawn down into a sour grimace. "I... I looked at what they did to you, the way they treated you—someone who'd been a hero no matter that you couldn't remember it, forced to become this terrible weapon against your will—and wondered how SHIELD's treatment made them any better than the Red Room and the other agencies we fight against. I thought about how you were when I found you... Filthy and sick and they—they abused you, the guards did, while you were a prisoner in their care." Steve scrubs his hand over his face. "I have nightmares," he admits, "of how you were when I found you. Of not going to see you like I did, of them talking me out of it like they tried to do. And I wonder what might have happened to you if I didn't come by when I did."
James thinks that maybe the infection would have killed him, or maybe he would have goaded the guards into doing it instead. "I was just another villain to them, Steve." If Steve hadn't recognised him, if he'd just been any other foreign operative, he'd be still rotting in that cell now.
"But you shouldn't have been," Steve says insistently.
"Why? 'Cause of someone you think I used to be and that only you recognised? You think that the way they treated me is different from the way that they treat any other bad guy that you and your Avengers drag in from tearing up the streets?"
Steve looks troubled. "I've never… None of the times I've seen any of the people we've arrested have they been in a situation as bad as yours. They've always had clean cells and proper furniture and clothing and—"
"Have they? Or is that what SHIELD wanted you to see? Maybe they knew you were coming and made sure they got the house all cleaned up for Captain America."
"Maybe you were a special case," Steve argues, and James can see how bothered he is. "The Winter Soldier nearly killed me, and Lukin programmed you to kill yourself, there were—there were reasons they could have done—"
"And now you're defending them." He knows it's cruel, the way he's twisting Steve up like this, but he can't help it. Steve wants to believe so much that he's doing the right thing, that what happened to James is an isolated incident. Maybe it is, James doesn't know any different.
"If they cleaned house, as you say, because I was coming to see the prisoner, then why didn't they do the same with you?"
James can't help the edge of viciousness in his smile. "You think I would've let 'em do anything but hose me down?"
But Steve won't be baited. "It did happen quickly," he says. "I was discharged from hospital and brought to SHIELD and I asked to see you straight away. I was…" He rubs at his mouth and James doesn't miss the way he runs his fingers down the line of his neck, where a bullet had once entered. "I was pretty mad about what happened to me," he admits, like there's something shameful in being angry at the man who tried to kill you. "I didn't take no for an answer."
"And?" James prompts.
"And they took me through to where you were locked up. I wasn't expecting... well, I wasn't expecting the cell to be four concrete walls and a thin mat on the floor. Or you."
"Or me. That changed things, didn't it?"
"It changed things, yeah," Steve agrees, staring at him for a long moment, his expression inscrutable. James fights the urge to squirm. "It changed everything." He pushes to his feet. "Come on," he says, "we should be going. We have someone to meet, and we don't want to keep him waiting."
It's only a short drive to the private airstrip from the motel. The airstrip is little more than a flat runway of dirt with a small shed nearby. They pull up by the shed door. There's a strange looking aircraft inside, stranger even than the one that Carol had flown when they escaped SHIELD.
There's a man standing by the plane. He's as tall as Steve, but not as broad through the shoulders. James recognises him from Steve's memories, though he's not wearing the tiny, green scaled costume. (James finds he's a little disappointed by that.)
"That's Namor," Steve says. "He's the King of Atlantis, and a good friend. Of both of us." He flicks James a surprisingly impish smile. "Though I doubt he'd phrase it that way. Come on." He grabs the bags from the back seat and gestures for James to follow him across the airfield.
As they approach, Namor gives him a half smile that would be a sneer on anyone else. "When Steven told me you had returned, I thought he'd taken leave of his senses. Again." He waves his hand dismissively. "Hn. I see now that it is you."
James steps forward. "I'm not who you—"
"Who I remember you to be. No, you're not. Come, nothing is being gained standing around here."
They board the odd little craft, and instead of Steve strapping himself in up front next to Namor, he lets James take the seat, and instead pushes back into one of the rear seats, and James can't tell if it's contrived or not when Steve says, "I'm going to have a nap."
He promptly does that and James is left, awkward next to Namor, who he can't get a read on at all.
"So," Namor says, "I supposed I shall be required to listen to the entire, tiresome tale."
James shrugs. "Not if you don't want to." He doesn't miss the sideways glance from Namor, and realises that despite his apparent nonchalance he wants to know the story; perhaps not every gruesome detail, but enough to fill the gaps.
"They found me in the ocean," James says, "not far from where the drone went down. I woke up with no memories. The report said there was nothing but muscle memory and a mental blank slate."
He can tell Namor wants to say something, make some dig, but elects not to. Perhaps it's because it wouldn't mean anything to James. Perhaps not.
"Muscle memory," Namor says musingly. "You don't know your own history, do you? Not as this Winter Soldier, but as the man you were before. Before the ice and the new memories."
"Not really. All I know are... memories of Steve's I was shown."
"Carefully curated, no doubt. Did he show you that it was your own army who trained you to be a killer?" Namor glances over at him. "That they ensured you would have all the skills needed, so when you died and the Soviets pulled you from the water, they had the perfect template to build upon?"
It makes a horrible kind of sense. The report itself that he'd broken into the Department X archives for had been a cold and clinical assessment of his abilities. No indication where these abilities had come from, but he'd had to have had them before he died.
"They went looking for the super soldier, but they found something much deadlier."
"And someone who would break. Steve would never break."
"I don't believe you broke at all," Namor says, "if you did, as you say, wake with no memories. Steven would have broken if they'd found him. He's too... good."
James barks a laugh. "And I'm not good."
Namor gives him a long look. "No, you're not. And you weren't. Good at what you did, perhaps, but not with that untarnished shine Steven had. But then, none of us had it. None of us were good, and even when Steven dirtied his hands he always regretted it on some level, the way the rest of us didn't. I never believed in regretting what's necessary."
"No, I don't suppose you did."
The smile Namor flashes him is sharp and vicious. "Peas in a pod, Barnes. Peas in a pod."
"They have peas at the bottom of the ocean?"
"I do like my surface delicacies."
"Like bagels." He doesn't know why he knows that.
"And beer," Namor says. "Steven appears to be taking your rather unorthodox return in his stride."
James makes a noncommittal noise. "I've got nothing to compare his behaviour with. But he looks at me and only sees his friend that he lost." He's starting to sound like a broken record. He's annoying even himself.
Namor glances over and his is gaze critical. "No," he says. "I don't think so. At first I thought the resemblance uncanny, but now..." He trails off. "I'm not so sure."
"Are you saying I'm not even—"
"No, no," he says irritably. "You're clearly the same person, but I can tell you're different. You carry yourself different to the way the boy did. Your voice is different. This is the first time we've met since the war and even I can tell that. There's no way he could still believe you're who you once were. He might be good, but he's not that good. If he's still here then it's for a reason." He snorts. "Surface dweller feelings. You always make things so complicated."
Outside the window tattered clouds whizz past. He wonders how fast they're going, how quickly they'll get to their mysterious destination. Then the clouds pass and he can see the ocean not far below. Maybe it was fog, he thinks. Maybe they're too low for any kind of radar. Maybe this strange craft is cloaked, in the way the one they stole away from SHIELD was.
Can you describe an escape with guns blazing as stealing away? He doesn't think so.
James glances back.
"Don't assume that you'll never remember anything more. You're not the only one who's spent a long time in darkness. You'll remember when you're meant to remember."
"You didn't strike me as a... a mystic, Namor."
"Mystic? No, I merely understand some of what you're going through." Namor snorts, as if the thought of understanding James is preposterous. "There's a kind of madness that overcomes you when you cannot remember who you are. When you know there is something missing that should be there, but you can't find it no matter how hard you look. If it's meant to, it will come back. I hope for your sake, not for his, that it does." Even though he doesn't know Namor, he can sense that there was genuine affection for Bucky Barnes beneath the arrogance and the bluster.
"Thank you," James says, surprised by sincerity.
"I don't need your gratitude."
"I don't care, you have it anyway." James isn't cross at Namor's reaction. Needling him just seems to come naturally.
Namor huffs, but James can see the twitch of a smile at the corner of his mouth. "Hh. Some things haven't changed a bit."
"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
"I reserve judgement."
The last thing Namor says to James, before Steve wakes and Namor guides the aircraft into a small clearing amongst the trees by a sprawling house is: "Perhaps you should considered leaving, for your sake as much as his."
He hadn't even thought of leaving, but he does now. Steve could do better without him. Go back to SHIELD and James doesn't think they'd sanction him too hard. It's clear that Steve's been heavily compromised in this, and despite the way the agency treated him, he doubts one of their own costumed superheroes would bear much flak.
The Winter Soldier had a stash of guns and cash on each continent, and he doubts that the Red Room, in its day, or anyone from Lukin's Kronas Corporation now, would have organised retrieval, so his own needs for safety and security would be met, should Lukin not believe the line about his death.
He wonders, for a moment, what Namor had meant by saying he should leave for his own sake. He's pretty sure he knew what Namor meant by doing it for Steve's sake—he has, after all, taken him away from the job James is sure he loves, and away from his friends. He's broken the law—probably multiple laws—for James, to get him away from SHIELD.
As much as Steve might want to argue that he doesn't care, that James is worth every minute of this, James knows he's not worth Steve ruining his life over. No one is worth that. And if James leaves then at least Steve has a chance to go back.
What would he do if he left? He doesn't exactly have a broad range of marketable skills. He has a broad range of very specific skills which would make him of interest to a select number of people, none of whom he'd be interested in working for.
Perhaps he could branch out on his own. God knows, he could find plenty of uses himself for his own specific skill set.
It comes to him that maybe that's what Namor meant, when he said James should leave for his own sake. To fight his own demons, and there are so many of them.
He can't get to Lukin, not on his own, and he can't touch Kronas Corporation in any way that would hurt Lukin, but he can go after those still alive who worked for the Red Room and Department X, the scientists and soldiers who made him who he is.
It wouldn't be as hard, he realises, to live with the Winter Soldier's memories when he can do something about it.
Steve taps his elbow and guides him towards the house. "You and Namor seemed to get along," he says, pleased.
"We talked." James hesitates. "It was... enlightening, I guess, to hear stuff from another point of view."
"He liked Bucky well enough, though they never seemed to get along particularly well," Steve says cautiously, acting like James might snatch his head from his shoulders for mentioning the 'b' word. "I think maybe he likes you more."
"Of course," James says and he's not actually trying to be sarcastic, though he suspects by Steve's grimace that that's exactly how it came out. He doesn't know how to apologise. "I'm exactly the kind of rounded personality an arrogant king would like."
The house is surrounded on three sides by trees, the fourth side a clearing where Namor's plane is taking off. It takes James a moment to shuffle through his jumble of memories—he doesn't know this place at all, of course, but there's something distinctive about the trees, the name he should know. Eucalypts, his brain finally offers up, gum trees. The scent is fresh in the air. He remembers the training for the mission that had brought him to a place like this, the difficulty he had learning a passable Australian accent. The differences in the language between Australian and American English hadn't bothered him much; it was just learning new terms for things and some slang, after all, and he'd always been gifted with languages.
They climb three steps to the verandah, and Steve palms open a seamless section of the wall by the door, revealing a touchpad. James can't help his eagle eyes when Steve punches in the door code, filing away the code in the "just in case" part of his brain as Steve holds the front door open and ushers him inside.
He sleeps restlessly, stirring at the sound of fists against leather covered sand. He dreams of a mouth hot on his skin and hands cracking open his chest to release all the butterflies flapping frantically against his ribcage.
"If you want to go, I'll let you," Steve says from the doorway.
James turns from straightening the bedding and raises a brow.
"I heard what Namor said. The knowledge you're alive in the world would be enough, and knowing you're under no one's control but your own." Steve smiles wistfully. "I'd miss you, though."
James huffs softly. "Even though I'm not—"
"James." Steve steps in close and his hands are warm where they settle on his arms, against flesh and against metal. James notices that the scar on Steve's neck is gone, like it never was. Yet it had to be, otherwise James wouldn't be here now. "I know you're not Bucky. And I'll always miss him. He was... very special to me. But you are as well, for different reasons, and I'd miss you too. I'd—god, I don't know but I think I'd miss you more, maybe?" He sighs, closes his eyes a moment.
Then he looks at James, and it's impossible to deny it. Steve truly would miss him. Him. His heart gives a lurch and he swallows, mouth suddenly dry. He had been wrong, every time he thought Steve only ever saw Bucky when looking at him, he had been wrong. Maybe Steve hasn't seen Bucky when looking at him for a long time either, maybe since he first discovered that a man with the face of the dead had tried to kill him.
"Steve," he starts and then stops, because he has no idea what he wants to say. He doesn't know why he does it, but he pushes forward and up, pressing his lips to Steve's. It only lasts a split second before Steve jerks back, his mouth agape in shock.
James doesn't apologise, because he's not sorry he did it (he wonders for a moment if Steve'll be angry, but thinks fuck, Steve is an adult, he can deal with it like an adult), but then it doesn't matter because Steve makes a soft noise, almost a whimper and steps in close himself, his hands sliding up James' arms. His breath is hot against James' lips, then Steve kisses him, an open-mouthed kiss that only lasts a moment more, but makes James' heart pound in his chest like it had just remembered how to beat again.
Steve looks searchingly into his eyes when he pulls back, and James can't tell if he finds what he's looking for. Then Steve smiles and it doesn't matter.
If he wanted to seduce Steve... well, he was taught seduction techniques as good as any Black Widow (though his handlers had quickly realised a knife and a gun were more his forte). He remembers using the tricks he was taught on occasion. The wife of an American diplomat in London, the wife of a West German ambassador, the wife of an Italian don. Not all of them resulted in death, but all were for the betterment of the motherland.
There hadn't just been women, either, though he remembers now that the fact had confounded his m—Karpov, every time it happened. Each incident was carefully excised from his mind, cauterised then, he thinks, by those times they knew he went to Natalia.
The first man he'd been with was Oleksandr Shevchenko, an official stationed in London and suspected of plotting to defect, in a time not long after the Petrov Affair. Oleksandr had been quite young for his position, and not so different in looks to Steve. Blond hair and blue eyes, though not as broad through the shoulders or as tall. James wonders if there had been a reason he'd been drawn to the man; not just because he was the target, but on a deeper level. He'd definitely been Oleksandr's type, and they'd ended up in bed together only hours after James had located him. It had been almost too easy.
The name on his passport had been Simon, and he still remembers the feel of Oleksandr's body pressed against his where they lay, tangled in rumpled sheets on the last day, the way he'd swept his thumbs over James' cheekbones and whispered that although he didn't believe in love at first sight he was willing to make an exception.
The Winter Soldier was not prone to nostalgia, but once he'd secured the documents proving Oleksandr's guilt, he'd killed the man while he slept. He'd looked content in death, despite the blood seeping into the pillow. After the Winter Soldier had cleaned his blade on the sheet, he'd touched his thumb to his lips then to Oleksandr's before he'd left, closing the door softly behind him.
He'd done his research on Oleksandr Shevchenko, and it had paid off, because a seduction is careful and calculated, no matter the reason and no matter the outcome. But here, now, he doesn't want careful and he doesn't want calculated. No, he doesn't want to seduce Steve.
He doesn't know what he wants.
He's saved from having to figure it out himself when Steve leans in again, pausing to give James the chance to pull away as if he hadn't been the one to initiate this to start with. Steve's mouth is warm and this time it lasts a lot longer than a moment. He lets Steve push him down on the mattress.
He wants this.
"You seem pretty okay about kissing another man," he says during a pause after one kiss turns into several. "Wouldn't have thought Captain America'd be such a deviant."
"There's nothing deviant about—about this," Steve protests. James thinks he'd been going to say 'about love' because if there's anything James has learned about Steve since he came into James' cell in the SHIELD office, it's that he's a great, sentimental idiot.
"Is Cap a queer, then?" James asks, his tone amused and malicious, and he can't help hooking his heel over Steve's thigh and pushing his hips up. He feels the rumble of a groan through Steve's body pressed to his.
"I'll have you know that Captain America is a gay icon," Steve says, and there's a rough edge of desire in his tone. He sets his teeth against James' jaw a moment. "I've been here long enough now to know it's a much different world to what I grew up in. I've got nothing to be ashamed about."
"You done this before with your Bucky?" He aims for the catty tone again, but can't quite hit it. The question is too hard to ask. Maybe he's following a path already tread.
"No," Steve says against his throat. "Never."
"You ever want to?"
Steve's hesitation gives him away, and James feels himself withdraw. He can't even help it. "So what if I did?" Steve says, his expression tight and his tone a little angry. "I didn't, and I'm not here now to make up for anything I might have missed out on back then."
God, it's so stupid to be jealous of someone long dead, someone Steve even thinks was—is—him. If it's true it's himself that he's jealous of, and of things that didn't even happen. When Steve shifts, he thinks it's to get up, to stop this, except instead Steve pushes James flat, gripping his wrists and pinning them to the mattress.
James opens his mouth to apologise (even though he couldn't help it, he couldn't help it, it was instinct and self-preservation) but Steve releases his wrists and slides down his body. His fingers curl into the front of James' shirt, digging a little into the flesh underneath, and then he twists his wrist and pulls and the fabric tears away at the side seam. His mouth scalds a path down James' body, mapping the rise and fall of his ribs, down over his belly. Heat spikes low in James' gut when Steve lingers over the three equidistant scars that curve around his side, just above his hip, running his tongue along the line of each scar.
James can't help the way he shudders under Steve's mouth and wonders how many years Steve's been dreaming of doing this. He presses his mouth to scars his Bucky would never have had, though, not when Steve knew him, like he's learning what's new, what's different.
It hardly surprises him that Steve's comfortable with sex; he might look like an innocent with his big blue eyes and sensible hair, but someone who looks like that would be chased all the time and James can tell, by the touch of Steve's hands and mouth, that he's enjoyed being caught more than a few times.
He wonders what it's been like for himself, as James Barnes. As--god forbid--Bucky Barnes. He knows that as the Winter Soldier there was Natalia for love, and Oleksandr and others for the mission. And then he doesn't wonder about anything at all, as Steve's fingers slide down his zipper, and he tugs James' jeans off his hips.
They don't get much further than that, not when Steve's mouth is hot and wet and eager. Steve's not skilled at blow jobs, no, but he's enthusiastic, and it leaves James gasping and twisting, pushing up into the pressure of Steve's tongue, careless of the graze of teeth that makes him groan. He curls his fingers—flesh, not metal—into Steve's hair and tries not to rock against his mouth the way he wants to. He feels his control shred when he looks down; Steve's mouth stretched around his shaft, balanced awkwardly on one elbow and trying to do everything with his mouth as he desperately, erratically jacks himself.
It's not the way James had dreamt it going, but maybe it's even better. It's been years since he's felt flesh against flesh, the warmth of a hand or a mouth. The build is quick and sharp and he shrugs out of the sling while hauling on Steve's hair, hard enough to make him recoil with a yelp. James breathes out hard and wraps his metal fingers around himself for the last few jerks 'til he comes.
Then he hauls Steve up by his collar and kisses him, murmuring, "Let me," sliding sticky fingers against Steve's.
Steve inhales sharply and James knows he wouldn't have been expecting the cool touch of a metal hand. He doesn't take long either, and it's beautiful the way he clutches at James, the way he groans and shudders. He's... noisier than James would have expected him to be, and he wonders gleefully what noises Steve would make if they fucked.
The thought sends a shiver down his spine. He might even find out.
"Oh fuck, James—" is all Steve manages before he comes, fingers tight where he grips James' arms, gasping against James' neck.
James strokes him through it, tipping Steve's face up to capture the pathetic little whimpers and moans with his mouth. He sags heavily over James, his breath hot and damp against James' neck.
Eventually Steve rolls off him, and he shivers at the sudden chill, hitching up his jeans with one hand. His shirt is a torn mess, nothing left to salvage. He wipes his fingers clean on the ripped material and shrugs out of it, flicking it to the floor.
"Why did you stop me? I wanted you to—" Steve stops, and he might be accomplished enough in bed, but he's still enough of what James expected of him to blush and falter on finishing that particular sentence.
James smiles slow and warm. "Come in your mouth?"
Steve lets out a soft, embarrassed laugh. "Yeah."
"You're not sorry."
"No, I'm not." James grins. "Next time," he says, like it's a promise and Steve lights up, unexpectedly pleased.
Steve flops flat on his back next to him, still wearing entirely too much clothing. James starts to reach for him then hesitates, when he remembers he has something else to apologise for. "Before, though," he says, "I'm sorry for it—for the way I reacted. I don't want to, but I can't help it sometimes. I know you loved him, I just..."
"You get jealous."
"Yeah," James says. He's not ashamed to admit it, not now. "It's stupid, I know." And it is stupid. He's never told Steve his own memories have Lukin confirming James was once Bucky and it's ridiculous to think he's jealous of himself but without the memories, Bucky is a stranger to him.
"It's not stupid," Steve says, and gives him a gentle look that shouldn't look quite so charmed given the situation. "I should be more considerate—"
James lets out a noise of frustration. "Don't you dare take this on yourself. I'm responsible for the way I think and you—you've tried to tell me before that it's about me, not him, and I was the one who chose not to believe it, Steve. I was the one who thought I was just a shadow of what you really wanted back."
Steve curls onto his side, reaching out and gently stroking his hand across James' belly. It's soothing. He leans in, presses a kiss against the still-healing scar tissue on James' shoulder, where a deep ache is beginning to set in. "You're the reality here. And I'm here because I want to be, not out of some loyalty to Bucky's memory. I'd never do that to my memories of him, and I'd sure as hell never do it to you, do you hear? I once said I'd never accept he was gone, because you were in front of me, but I was wrong. You're not him and I understand that. He might have been my friend back then, but he's gone and I know it. If you want, I'd have you as my friend because I like you, James. A lot."
James is touched to the quick by Steve's sweet earnestness. If he's still here, Namor had said, it's for a reason. Steve's offering him unconditional friendship, and James' sordid history doesn't matter to him at all. It doesn't even matter that James was the Winter Soldier and Steve's reputation as Captain America can only be damaged by their association, because if it did, he'd never have helped James escape SHIELD, damn the consequences.
He wants it, he realises, but it's difficult to talk of friendship, because the Winter Soldier didn't have a history of having friends. Even Natalia wasn't a friend, not in the sense that he thinks Steve means (although given what's just happened, the spirit, he thinks, is not so different).
Thoughts of friendship skirt a little too close to things he's not keen to think about—poor Winter Soldier, all alone in the world—so he instead says, "Friends?" with a brow raised, schooling his expression into a sly smile. He reaches out, idle fingers trailing over the teeth of Steve's open zipper, the back of his fingers grazing against the soft length of Steve's dick in a way that makes Steve's eyes half-close and he lets out a low sigh that's almost a groan.
"You know what I mean," Steve says, his voice uneven. "It can be anything we want it to be." He nudges James' hand away, fingers closing around his wrist as he pushes him back and over. James lets Steve, lets Steve press his wrists against the mattress again and slide slowly over him, weight heavy in all the right spots. James doesn't usually like feeling trapped, and that's how the way Steve's holding him makes him feel, but this time he thinks he's willing to make an exception.
He packs his bag—the clothes Steve had brought for him, and pinches Steve's straight razor and soap. He leaves the gun, because he has the Winter Soldier's stash of weapons, and he leaves the cash too. Arm back in the sling, he carefully slides the black leather gloves on, and with his sleeve pulled down, his metal arm looks wholly unremarkable.
Steve's asleep on the bed; he'd crashed out hard after round two, and James can feel the pleasant ache in his muscles as he moves, from a much longer, more thorough go around. It's been a long time since he's let someone fuck him and he thinks if he'd remembered how physically satisfied he'd always felt afterwards, maybe he wouldn't have left it so long. (He ignores that it has anything to do with being the Winter Soldier; it's nice to pretend, sometimes, that there's been more to him than just that in the last seven-odd decades.)
He looks at Steve, spread out on the bed. His hair is tousled and his skin smooth where James knows there were marks only moments before. Looking at him like that it's tempting to stay, to slide back into the bed and along Steve's skin, to kiss him awake and go round three, maybe he'd let Steve fuck him into the mattress again, or maybe he'd let Steve suck him 'til he came this time, like Steve had wanted.
Steve is okay with him leaving, right? He could do that. Except then Steve sighs, his hand going out to the empty spot left by James in the bed and shifts restlessly in his sleep when he doesn't find him.
No. James can't stay any longer. They'd talked of friendship, but there are things James needs to deal with, before he can let that happen. Before he can come back to Steve and see what might come of this thing between them with just a little nurturing (whether it's friendship or something more).
There's a notepad and pen in this kitchen and he quickly scribbles a message. It's the only thing he leaves Steve, a simple line; I'll keep my word, it says and Steve should understand. He's not a wounded animal running away to die, not anymore.
He picks up the untraceable hand-held computer Natalia had given Steve and slips it into his pocket, along with the tracker override. Steve's going to go back where he belongs; he doesn't need to be off the radar anymore.
The computer is fairly simple to use and the technology on it makes tracking down the first handful of names on James' list a cakewalk. He doesn't kill them, even though he wants to sometimes, just leaves them bound up and sends a message to SHIELD, usually in the form of exposure to the local authorities, or turning off the tracker override to ping the operatives he knows they have looking for him. It might take them a day or so to discover the presents he leaves them, but he has little care for the discomfort of anyone connected with his former life.
Guards and scientists and agents. He bleeds the information from them—sometimes literally—and leaves it, too, for the SHIELD operatives to find. He imagines that may be why the hunt for him becomes less urgent, why they tend to wait for him to show his face, and then clean up after.
The information he gains from each person fleshes out his list and refines his memories a little further. He finds the continuing existence of some of the more brutal of Deprtment X's agents abhorrent; men and women so welded to the Soviet ideal and the goals of their organisation that they do nothing but curse him as a traitor when he comes to them, no remorse even with their last breath. It's easier, he thinks, to be hard against these people who existed to hurt and break him, to mould him into the image of the ideal killer. Then there were those like Anton Khahil, the head of Department X security in the 1970s, the man who'd led the team which extracted him from the United States when he'd gone off mission.
The man had enjoyed the violent take down of the Winter Soldier, bitter because he was little more than a dog to play fetch. He'd been censured on their return to Moscow for the damage he'd done to the Winter Soldier; not for the broken ribs or the fractured wrist, or even the twisted knee. No, it was the small cut above the Winter Soldier's eye and the distinctive scar it left that Khahil was punished for and he'd blamed the Winter Soldier for it ever since.
Perhaps it was petty to hunt the man across subcontinental Asia like a cat toying with a mouse, because Khahil had known the man who'd once been the Winter Soldier was coming for him, as he'd come for so many of the man's former colleagues.
Perhaps it was because James was struggling with the memories evoked by the other names he'd tracked down, and the information they'd given him. Perhaps he'd become so focused and alone as he used false passports and the Winter Soldier's caches to hop from continent to continent tracking down people who'd fled the fall of the Soviet Union.
Perhaps it was just who he really was, a hardened killer trained in interrogation, and he broke both Khahil's kneecaps with a negligent flick of the wrist as the man begged him to stop, spilling names and stories like the blood that poured from his busted nose and lacerated mouth.
And that's how he finds Roman Walczak. Khahil sobs the name over and over as James presses the crowbar harder against his Adam's apple, that he's still alive though they—Department X, the Red Room, whomever Khahil is working for now—have never been able to find him. Khahil's one remaining eye streams tears as he begs for his life or mercy. James instead kicks Khahil's chair over and the man falls back with a splash into the polluted trough, water sloshing around his head, lapping into his bloody mouth. He'll drown there, eventually, still bound to the chair, and James won't leave any breadcrumbs for SHIELD's little mice to follow this time.
His mind is full of that single name.
He's not going by that name now, of course. He's now known as Francis Theodore, and has been ever since he defected from the Soviet Union in the 70s.
He remembers Walczak's defection. Not in the sense that he was there when it happened, because he wasn't. He was sleeping in a flophouse on the Lower East Side while the scientist Roman Walczak followed in the steps of Vladimir Petrov over 15 years before, defecting to Australia. While the tension between the Soviet Union and Russia had eased, Walczak had been an important part of the KGB's top secret brainwashing program. He remembers the shock and the fury and the fear in the air even as he was wiped clean again, to be put in the tank.
Walczak had invented the original techniques that formed the basis for everything that was ever done to the Winter Soldier's brain. He was the scientist who took Natalia away, once the Winter Soldier's liaison with the Black Widow had been deemed to have run its course. He remembers—though he was never meant to—conversations overheard while waiting to go into the machine. He and Natalia had thought their relationship a secret, but it had been known all along, and manipulated (as every aspect of their life was) as a means to an end for the Red Room.
He finds Walczak living in a cottage in a small country town, nearly two hours out of Melbourne. It's not so far from the house Steve had taken him to when they'd escaped SHIELD, James would think, if he thought about Steve at all.
The situation isn’t ideal; a stranger asking questions about a longstanding member of the community would not go unremarked, even in a tourist town, so instead he falls back on distance reconnaissance, and getting his information other ways.
The man will have to die; this is not something James is willing to compromise on. He feels everything Walczak took away from him in the empty hollow in his gut, in the ache in his heart, and someone has to pay for that, the way he has been paying for decades.
He sets up a base to work from and sets about his surveillance. On the third day, while he's spying on Walczak where he potters around in his garden, Natalia shows up.
He should probably have expected she would be here. It’s only fitting, after all. He lowers his binoculars and stands. "Natalia," he says.
"I've been waiting for you to pick up this lead," she says. "You took longer than I thought."
James smiles grimly. "I had to sift through a lot of memory. I wasn't sure the man was still even alive."
"You know you won't be allowed to kill him."
"No?" He raises a brow. He doesn't for a moment think she is here to stop him, but he's bothered that she's here, that she's been waiting for him. "Perhaps together...?" He leaves it hanging delicately.
James sees the way her mouth quirks into a slight smile. They were good together; their success rate had been the envy of the other operatives. Then she sighs. "Unfortunately, no," she says with clear regret, and he's not sure if it's regret over the target or working hand in deadly hand with him again. "He's under ASIO protection, and for defectors like him—from the Red Room, or any of the secret Soviet projects—they have a line straight to SHIELD for protection against long memories like ours."
ASIO. He snorts. He knows how little threat they pose.
"So they will try to stop me." He shrugs. "Let them. ...Unless that's why you're here?"
Natalia shakes her head. "You will not be allowed to kill him," she repeats. Then she says, "He is a 92 year old man, James. He has lived a full life already, what good do you think killing him now will do?" He stares at her with disbelief.
"Natalia, you know what he took away from me." Us, he wants to say. You.
"And now he is an old, old man, while we are young still, and—"
"No," James says angrily. "He deserves to die. Even if we wanted to, we can't go back to what we were because of what he did. He took everything. And I will make him understand what he took from us before he breathes his last. I will gut him like the pig he is—"
"Is that James Barnes or is that the Winter Soldier speaking?" Natalia's tone is colder than the ice in his blood. There is a reason they called him the Winter Soldier.
He stiffens then snarls a wordless noise of rage. That she has a point makes him even angrier. The Winter Soldier would open the man from hip to hip and let him bleed out while he tried to hold in his guts.
What would James Barnes do?
He yanks his knife out of its sheath and flicks it into the grass between her feet. She doesn't flinch as the blade thuds into the dirt. Of course she doesn't.
He turns, walks away, leaving the knife in the dirt at her feet.
"What do you think Steve would say, if he knew?" she calls after him. She's scored a hit and has to know it, even if he doesn't flinch, even if there isn't a hitch in his step. He hasn't thought of Steve for months. He couldn't think of Steve and do what he had to do just so he could sleep at night, so he could breathe through the nightmares.
Right at that moment he hates her, like he never has before.
He keeps walking.
As little threat as he feels ASIO and SHIELD pose, he takes Natalia's warning to heart. It wouldn't do to give them enough warning. He ditches his reconnaissance plan and settles instead on infiltration. He misses his knife, but the silencer on his P226 should be enough not to attract the attention of neighbours.
The front door is unlocked, and he closes it softly behind him. He moves through the house silently, and it's pretty obvious Walczak isn't inside.
He finds the man in the garden, kneeling by a bed of dormant roses. He's dressed warm against the cold, and he's not surprised to see James.
"She came to see me too," Walczak says. His voice still carries a hint of accent. "The girl. Your red-haired girl. Six or so years ago now, not too long after my Anna died." He pushes himself to his feet, slow and old and careful. "She held a gun to my head too."
Natalia never said anything about coming to see the man. James wonders why she didn't put a bullet in Walczak's head. He remembers the anger and pain in her voice as she said, ﹤"I would have killed them all for us,"﹥ and wonders if it was even real. This man had carved James' brain up, taken away how much he'd loved Natalia, taken away his ability to ever love her again beyond a memory. He'd assumed Walczak had done the same to Natalia too, so why is he still alive now, if she'd held a gun to his head?
It doesn't make sense. She'd warned him off coming here, but he hadn't been able to help himself. Had she been warning him off so he wouldn't learn this? James shakes his head. No, she would never.
"Son, I never wanted to do what I did," Walczak says, holding out his hands. "Vasily Karpov had a gun to Anna's head the whole time. Seventeen years I did as he asked because he said he'd kill her if I didn't. I'm sorry for what I did to you and what I did to the girl, but Anna's safety..." He shrugs, helplessly. "I did everything I was asked, to keep her safe, until we could escape. You can put a bullet in my head, but it won't change that. Hell, at this age I might even welcome it."
He can tell, looking at the old man, that he's not lying. He has no reason left to lie. And James understands it, what he's saying. He would have done the same for Natalia, in the reverse situation, had he been given the chance. The things people do for love. What do you think Steve would say, if he knew? Natalia had taunted him, his knife in the ground between her feet.
He makes the decision that the Winter Soldier never would and slowly lowers his gun.
"I am sorry," Walczak says sincerely, and it takes James a moment too long to realise he isn't apologising for the brainwashing as he says, "Semyorka."
There's a rush of pressure in James' ears, like he's falling. It feels like he's falling.
And then there's nothing.
He's in the back of a vehicle that jolts and bounces over potholes, his face pressed to the checker plate floor. His arms are bound at the wrist behind his back, and he sags a little with relief when he can flex his metal fingers. They didn't disable his arm. It shouldn't be too easy to break out then.
It's awkward to get enough leverage to snap the wire binding his wrists, and he tenses and jerks his wrists apart, anticipating the give of the wire from the pull of his metal wrist.
The only thing that gives is the flesh of his real arm, and the pain is so sharp and unexpected that he gags.
He breathes through it as the van slows and stops. Footsteps—one set lighter, one set heavier—and the creak of the back door opening, letting in the noises of the outside. He can hear leaves rustle, and birds. There's no sound of traffic or civilisation and he tenses. If they think taking him out into the forest to do away with him is going to help, they've got another think coming.
"Wait, Nat, why is there blood, you said he'd be okay—"
"It's okay, he's just cut himself on the wire." The woman's voice is soothing.
"Wire? Why not cable ties? You said he wouldn't—"
"Steven, please." Scorn. "He'd be long gone if we'd used plastic. Any of us would be, you know that. The wire is an adamantium alloy—strong enough for him not to break even with his arm, but not so good on flesh. See? I've been through this too. It's just instinct. He'll be fine. From that, anyway."
The man is definitely an American but the woman's English is without accent. There's something familiar about her careful modulation. She is not a native to the language, he thinks, but she speaks it well enough to pass all but the sharpest ear.
"From that?" the man sounds alarmed.
"I don't know what trigger Walczak used, so I can't guarantee what state James will be in when he wakes."
"I don't understand what you mean."
"Walczak could remember a number of shutdown triggers, but he couldn't remember what each one did. Ideally it would simply put the Winter Soldier down, but some shut him down completely, and... some were used as a reboot, like what you'd do with a computer, to start afresh."
"And you think this Walczak may have used one of those?"
"I have a few concerns, yes," the woman says carefully. "He said he would use the one he thought was the most moderate, but couldn't promise anything. The man is genuine, for all the ill he has done us both. He did not want to hurt either of us."
Steve, James, Walczak, the Winter Soldier. The names all ring bells, but his brain is too sluggish to connect the dots.
There's an explosive sigh. "Do you think if he was rebooted he'd... he'd forget everything that has happened?"
"I don't know. When I saw him before... He's already not the man you remember, Steve," the woman says softly. "He's harder again, angry. More like what I knew. I think that's why he started hurting them, towards the end. They were the ones who did him wrong."
"Like Anton Khahil."
"Yes," she says. "Like Anton Khahil."
There's a pause, then the man says in a voice rough with anguish, "I shouldn't have let him go, should I?"
"I don't know. I really don't know. He's been doing the things he needed to do, and knew he could live with, if he was to live with himself as he is now. Walczak… he needed to confront him. The anger I saw, though... It was the anger of the Winter Soldier, not of James Barnes."
"How do we know if—if that's him in there, or the Winter Soldier?"
"Let me talk to him. You should go, just in case he—I know you trust the Professor removed the imperative to kill you, but I know the Red Room's techniques better than anyone. I know what they can do. I know what he can do. If the trigger has undone whatever the Professor did—"
"You don't think I could take him?"
"Hand to hand?" The woman laughs. It's not an amused sound. "I would struggle to take him hand to hand, and you've never beaten me in a fight yet. And you'd be holding back. I guarantee he wouldn't be." There's a heartbeat pause and her voice softens. "I'll let you know how he is."
"Do you need back up, just in case, then? ...No, okay, no, I know that was a stupid question, I'm sorry. Just. Be careful. If he's like you said—"
"I'll call you if I need to. Now go." There's a long pause and he listens intently to the sound of fading footsteps. Then the woman climbs into the back of the van. "James?" she says, and he wonders if that is his name for this mission. ﹤"Comrade?"﹥
﹤"Natalia."﹥ He remembers her voice now, but can't remember why he's tightly bound in the back of a van. ﹤"Why the bonds?"﹥ he asks as she moves to crouch in front of him. ﹤"Nat, I—I can't remember what happened. Is this a rescue? You know Karpov won't be happy if you've broke cover—"﹥
"Shh," she says, her hand light and cool on the back of his neck. "Vityaz."
He feels the sudden pull of vertigo, odd when he's lying down, and then it's like a light has been switched on in his head and he gasps and recoils, blinking rapidly. "Shit," he mutters into the checker plate floor, his stomach lurches with nausea. "Oh hell, what was that—Nat?"
"I'm here," and he hears the relief in her voice as she helps him into a sitting position, one hand at his wrists. Suddenly whatever is binding them is gone and he winces as he brings his hands around in front, touching the cut on his wrist gingerly.
"Do you remember what happened?" she asks, and glances past him, out the back of the van.
Does he remember—
"Yes," he says. Roman Walczak, who had acted as he did out of love and fear. Roman Walczak, who used a trigger word on him, just as Natalia had. "I wasn't going to kill him, why did he..."
"It was the only way we could get you out before the local authorities showed up. He did the same with me."
"He—he said he did what he did to us because—"
"I know," she says, and her voice is soft. "But you had to find out for yourself."
"You tried to talk me out of it."
She grimaces and shrugs. "You weren't exactly yourself."
Is that James Barnes or is that the Winter Soldier speaking?
No, he supposes he wasn't.
When she glances past him again, he turns. There's no one there. But he remembers, she was talking to... "Steve?" he calls, turning and trying to get to his feet, trying to scramble from the back of the van, but his limbs are like jelly. James holds himself up on the door of the van, peering around, but there's no sign of Steve anywhere.
He turns back to Natalia. "He's—he was here, right?" He's not going crazy, he heard Steve's voice.
She nods. "I sent him away, just in case your programming..."
"Yeah," he says, "and I might have." But he's relieved that Steve was here, that he's not just imagining things. He still feels like his skin doesn't fit right, like he's still not settled into himself. For a while there he was the Winter Soldier again, and it scares him how quickly and easily it happened.
Six months and 90% of the Winter Soldier's caches exhausted on five continents. Never once did he let himself think of the man who'd meant nothing to him and could now mean, James thinks, almost everything.
"How many triggers are left?"
Natalia shrugs. "Walczak could only remember five. That leaves three."
"You gonna run through 'em now?"
She shakes her head. "He couldn't be sure what each one of them would do, and I think it not worth the risk. They are not words to come up in casual conversation. It can wait."
He nods. "Are you—are you staying?"
She shakes her head. "I shouldn't even be here now," she says. "I'm currently on a mission in Colombia."
"No matter what happened to us, you come first." She looks vulnerable and he doesn't like seeing that look on her. "James, all these years if I had known you were still—"
"No." He touches her mouth. "No regrets. Not for this. Not for anything."
Her mouth thins and eventually she nods.
"You always saved me, Nat. And you've done it again now." He grins, a little bit sharp. ﹤"So no regrets, eh, comrade?"﹥
Natalia finally matches his smile. ﹤"No regrets."﹥
"How are you getting back to Colombia?"
"Namor owes Steve a favour—"
"How many favours can he owe?"
"Oh no, bringing you and Steve here after the SHIELD break out wasn't a favour."
James stares at her. "He did it out of the kindness of his heart?"
"A man like Namor has few friends, and less he considers as close as family, or so Steve tells me." She shrugs. "Come on, let's go back to the house. He's really looking forward to seeing you again."
He balks a little, still feeling unsettled under his skin. He wants to see Steve, of course he does, but not like this. Natalia's eyes narrow and he recognises the hint of danger in her gaze, though he's never seen it directed at him before. "What?" he says, suddenly defensive.
"He cares for you deeply and I don't want to see him hurt—"
"You're not gonna give me the 'don't hurt him or I'll hurt you' speech, are you?" James interrupts.
"Steven Rogers is a very good man, beyond the whole Captain America persona. He's been kind to me. I think... I think he could be what you need if you let him. I think he wants to be."
James understands what she's saying, but it skirts close to things he's not yet sure he's ready to think about. He nods. "Can you ask him to come get me in a little while? I just... I need a bit of time to myself." He needs to think. He can't remember when he last had peace and quiet to think, now the urge to hunt down everyone who'd done him wrong has eased, like the Winter Soldier has receded. He feels a weird disconnect like the Winter Soldier is someone distinct, not like the blurring of the lines that had happened when he'd started on his hunt and even earlier, when he began to cope with the influx of memories his own stupid mistake had given him.
"Of course," Natalia says. "I won't be there when you return, though. Namor is on his way."
James nods and reaches out to her. He presses a kiss to the corner of her mouth and holds her close. "Thank you," he says then, sudden and low and fervent, because he wasn't lying when he said she always saved him. Her arms go around him and she presses her face in against his neck a moment.
"You're better as James than as the man I remember," she says. "It was never going to be an easy choice for me between the two of you, even though I know we could never be the same as we were back then. I think I made the right choice."
She presses her fingers to his cheek a moment before stepping back. Slamming the back door on the van, she presses the keys into his hands and it's a tacit example of her trust in him not to flee. "I'll tell Steve where you are."
"Nat?" James calls as she turns away and picks her way through the tall, silver-barked trees, her feet silent over twigs and leaf litter.
"...Are you happy?"
"Yes," she says, "I am," and then she's gone.
Not far from where the van is parked the ground rises to an odd clearing amongst the trees, and he follows the track through the sparse bush to where there's a sharp drop straight down. James peers gingerly over the edge. There's small lake about ten metres below, the water green and dark. He can tell by the way the sides are cut away that it was an old quarry and wonders how deep it is. Finds himself wishing the weather was warmer, because he thinks he'd enjoy swimming for the sake of it. For fun.
The breeze is chill on his face.
He's not sure how long he stands there, a little zoned out, before he hears the soft tread of feet. He doesn't tense, because he recognises Steve's step. "James?" he hears Steve say in a hesitant tone.
"Steve." He turns and smiles.
His foot slips when the clay edge of the cliff crumbles underneath him.
It's a long drop from the cliff to the water and he seems to take forever to fall. He hears Steve cry, "No!" as he falls, both reaching out, but it's too late.
He hits the water hard, the impact forcing the air out of his lungs and the shocking cold making him gasp it back in. Freezing water rushes into his mouth and up his nose, down his throat and he chokes. All he can think is that he's not dead yet, that he should be dead, but there's something not right about the thought and he doesn't know what. The water freezes his metal arm and shoulder joint and his flesh burns where it's melded with cold metal, like his arm has been severed.
He sinks and maybe he should be struggling, fighting against water in his lungs, pushing him down into the depths. It's not him to give up so quickly, but it's easy. Too easy. His mind slips and slows. The surface of the water above is still shattered from his impact, and he watches the light fade and change and then—
A hand grips his arm, his flesh and bone arm, hauling him back up to the surface. He fights this instead, because last time he was pulled from water he was docile and he was dead, and he doesn't want that again. He can't become the man who kills on order again. He lashes out and the hand lets go momentarily, before gripping him again, tighter—a hand on his wrist and an arm around his side as someone swims him back to the surface.
They break through the surface and he expects ocean for miles but sees a clay cliff and trees, and the water in his mouth is fresh, not salt. He hears a litany of desperate curses, gasped around slapping water, in a voice he'd never heard say things like that before, as Steve tows him to the bank and drags him out of the water. It's even colder out than in, now he's wet.
He drags himself to his hands and knees, coughing hard. His metal arm buckles under his weight, but Steve's there to catch him and it's Steve who hauls him to his feet.
"Useless Russian super soldier serum," Steve mutters, rubbing James' arms. Steve's warm already and James presses in against that warmth, his teeth chattering. Steve makes a soft noise of surprise and then wraps himself around James, saying, "Come on, we need to get you back to the house."
James' throat feels raw, his chest heavy. He pushes away from Steve and coughs again, repeatedly until he brings up more water he's inhaled. "Maybe we should get you to a hospital?" Steve says in concern. He's warm everywhere he touches James, even through the wet layers of clothing, although James doesn't know how much of that is in his head.
"But you could be really sick. The water—"
"No hospital." James pulls at his sleeve and shoves his wrist in Steve's face. The wound from only hours ago that he'd cut into his own flesh with the wire has already healed. Unlike Steve, James will always carry a scar, just as the rest of his history is etched into his body, but he still heals rapidly. "'Useless Russian serum'," he echoes mockingly, even as his words devolve into another coughing fit.
He'd understood, finally, when he'd left Steve, what Evelyn had been trying to tell him when she'd talked about kick-starting his metabolism. The ache in his shoulder had been almost unbearable at first, as he'd healed, and he hadn't healed fast. Not like this. Not like now. But once he'd recovered from his incarceration, regained his weight and fitness, it had been a whole different story. He'll never heal like Steve, but his body is no slouch.
Steve wraps his hand around James' arm and tugs him back upright once the fit passes, an arm settling around his waist as he guides James to the path back to the house. "Water in your lungs though..." he says hesitantly.
"I'll be fine," James says firmly. He knows he'll be okay. He's been through this before; once, he remembers, was in Paris while on the run from the gendarme in the late 50s, after a last minute change in the plans of his target had left him running across rooftops, dodging bullets. Another time, not long after, when the Red Room had been running tests on the healing capabilities of the Department X serum they used on their operatives. That's how he knows he'll heal through it. He knows all the things he can heal from. A third time, only earlier than both, and he doesn't remember much except mud and sickness and frantic voices; a memory that doesn't fit. He'd been incredibly sick then.
He has to stop again on the track back to the house to cough hard, and is utterly mortified when Steve sweeps him up into his arms like a distressed damsel once the fit passes. "Aw Jesus, Steve, put me down," he complains as Steve squelches towards the house and this is not the first time he's been hauled around like a sack of potatoes by Steve, though James was smaller then. Younger.
Steve just smiles, says, "You're lucky I haven't got you over my shoulder." James remembers those times too.
He lets James down when they reach the house, and James stands shivering and dripping as Steve opens the door to tug him inside, shutting the door behind them. Steve still doesn't seem to be affected by the cold. Maybe Steve doesn't feel cold anymore after spending so long inside it.
Maybe there's something on his face, because Steve looks at him for a long moment, his gaze softening, before James gives a convulsive shiver and Steve seems to remember that they're both standing there dripping wet. "Come on," he says, and ushers James through the house towards the bathroom.
It's not the first time Steve's had to peel him out of sodden clothing, down to his underwear, and shove him under a shower—the water warm, but only barely, it's all James can stand right now—but it's the first time Steve's climbed in with him, stripped out of his jacket but still weighed down by the rest of his clothes, to hold him up as he shivers. James wonders why he remembers it so clearly; he's sure it's never happened before, he's only known Steve since he came into a concrete cell to see the face of his—
Something is happening to his memory—
"Are you okay?" Steve asks over the sound of the water, breaking his train of thought. "James?"
...But you can call me Bucky...
Cocky little shit. Dangerous. Bully.
He breathes raggedly. Something isn't right—
He becomes aware of Steve's concerned face looming close, the way Steve lightly slaps his cheek. James would have staggered if not for Steve's arm around him. "I'm okay," he gasps. "I'm okay." He's not okay. What's happening to him? He thinks of ice forming around his heart and crackling through his lungs, his blood becoming thick and sluggish. Steve's face, shattered through the water like a kaleidoscope, seen a hundred different ways, days, seen a thousand days and more. He remembers Steve reaching out to him—"I can do it. Steve, I can do it," he shouts. Steve's voice in reply is carried away by the wind, but his mouth forms James' name (no, not his name, the other name he was known by, lifetimes ago), the fear, the plea in Steve's eyes to let go, to drop off and save himself.
But he can't. He's not scared, he's determined, he can do this, only he can do it—
The water is hotter, suddenly. He's bumped the tap and he gasps, because he's not ready for it, because it's scalding against his skin, and it's so immediate it drags him from a past that almost no one living would remember. Almost.
One who does remember is right there with James, both arms wrapped around him now. He looks scared and James is hit with a rush of feeling accompanying the memories of seeing this expression on Steve's face.
"I'm okay," James repeats, and this time his voice is steady. Steadier. There must be something in his tone because Steve relaxes a little and the fear eases. He wonders what it is, if it's something that gives away what has happened.
He's not entirely sure what's happened himself. Somehow, he thinks, he's managed to unlock Bucky's memories, hidden deep in his mind. He remembers the rush of wind again and tries not to shudder. The memories aren't like the Winter Soldier memories; those had come upon him all at once, almost impossible to block out. These new memories are insidious and slot in like they've always been there, except at the same time they're so much more intense. He can't look at Steve without a rush.
God. He's not sure if he wants Steve to know yet. Or ever.
"Hey," Steve says and James shudders when he feels Steve's fingers scrape against his scalp. He's warm now, flushed all over, almost giddy from it.
"You know I didn't do it deliberately, right?" James says. "I didn't jump." It's important Steve understand.
Steve smiles at him, sudden and bright, blinking water out of his eyes. The fear is gone. "I know. You slipped."
"I just wanted to make sure you knew."
"I did. I do." Steve cups James' face in his hands, and says, "I'd like to kiss you now, if that's okay?" like he was holding his breath on James' reaction, like he thought that after everything, James might say no.
Maybe James should say no. "I think I'd like that," he says instead, because he can't help the tight feeling in his chest and the want.
Steve's mouth is as warm as the water. James closes his eyes and leans into it, feeling the teasing, tentative touch of Steve's tongue against his. He groans and pushes Steve up against the wet tiles. Their mouths slide together and James scrabbles at Steve's shirt, glued to his skin by the water.
"Why are you always overdressed?" he growls and Steve laughs. Steve's attempts to strip off look less than graceful, but eventually James can get his hands on bare skin and he presses his mouth to Steve's collarbone. Steve's jeans are a little more difficult to peel down his thighs, but with teamwork they get Steve out of them too, discarded in a sodden heap with his shirt and James' underwear on the bathroom floor.
Then Steve's hands are on his shoulders and he's a little startled by how easily Steve manhandles him, turning him, pressing in against his back. He shudders when Steve nips at the curve of muscle at his shoulder and Steve's not gentle when he wraps his hand around James' dick. Fuck it's hot, it's so hot. He'd been gentle with James the first time they'd been together, too gentle. James isn't used to gentle. He likes it a little rough, likes the way Steve's suddenly gone hot and ruts against his ass, jacking him off in counterpoint. Likes the desperation.
Then Steve stops, shifts away and James feels slick fingers pressing against his asshole. He has no idea where Steve got the lube, but is hardly in a position to care. "You want this?" Steve asks, licking at the water running across James' shoulders.
"Yes, god, yes," James groans, holding himself up on the tiles as he feels Steve broach him with two fingers. It's sudden and burns even with the waterproof slick, but fuck if he's going to complain because it's how he likes it and he pushes back against Steve's hand. He twists and kisses Steve, rocking back against his fingers and forward into the circle of his other hand. James feels like a fire has been lit under his skin.
Three fingers in and James has to brace himself on his hands, his head hanging. It's hard to breathe around the steam, around the need burning him up as Steve's fingers graze against his prostate with each thrust, dragging a grunt from his throat. "You want more?" Steve says, sliding his fingers free. James makes a pitiful noise at the loss but then he feels Steve rub the head of his dick against him and then press in, slowly and steadily. James' fingers squeak on the tiles and he gasps for air.
Fuck, he'd forgotten how good it felt to have Steve inside him.
Steve pauses a moment, his forehead pressed against the back of James' neck, and James can hear his rasping breaths. "C'mon, Steve," James says, and he almost doesn't recognise his own voice for the lust in his tone. "Fuck me."
He shivers when Steve laughs, low and rough. "In a minute," he says. "Promise me one thing."
"Anything," James says, even though it's a stupid thing to say. He's always been stupid with sex and even worse with someone inside him. As the Winter Soldier he'd broken promises that way ("Stay with me forever," was the most common).
"Promise me you won't come."
"Promise me. Not until I want you to, promise me." Steve's fingers tighten on James' hips and he presses himself more firmly into James' ass.
James whimpers. His dick is already aching to be touched.
Steve rolls his hips. "Promise me," he repeats. It's singularly unfair that he should sound so steady.
Again he thrusts. James shudders. It's really a good thing there's nothing to provide friction the way James is braced against the tiles, otherwise he's pretty sure he'd have come already from the command in Steve's tone.
"Steve, I can't--"
"Yes, you can," Steve murmurs--croons, the son of a bitch--running his hand down the arch of James' spine. It should be difficult to tell the warmth of Steve's hand from the water, but James thinks he'd know Steve's touch even if he'd had both his eyes put out. "Promise me, come on, I know you can do it."
He's moving slowly now, slow and erratic and James pants, feeling like he's held up only by Steve's hands gripping his hips. "I p-promise," he manages.
That's all it takes. Steve laughs, sharp and delighted (victorious), and sets about fucking him with abandon. James is glad Steve doesn't reach around and jack him off at the same time--they both know James might've promised he'd try not to come, but he wouldn't have been able to help himself, as Steve slides into him, slick and hot. Steve feels good, too good, and James can't help himself.
"Please," he begs. "Please, c'mon, please..." The Winter Soldier doesn't beg and Bucky Barnes doesn't beg, but James begs, because he needs Steve to take him over the edge.
But then Steve's the one coming, like all he needed was to hear James plead, hips stuttering as he empties himself, and it takes all of James' willpower not to buckle at the knees, not to take his hand from the tiles and finish himself off while Steve's still inside him.
The water pounding against them is starting to run cold, but James barely notices with Steve pressed up against his back, arms around him as he pants against the back of James' neck. Even the feel of his breath against wet skin has a direct line to his dick.
"Steve, c'mon, I gotta..." James says, his voice shockingly rough to his own ears.
"Not yet," Steve says as he slowly pulls out and James' eyelids flutter shut, because every movement feels like molten heat in his veins.
He feels Steve gently cleaning him and has to bite his lip hard not to push back onto his fingers again. Steve laughs softly, his other hand gently massaging the back of James' neck. James feels very much like a passenger to his own need, ramped up by Steve fucking him and kept banked by Steve's hands on his skin, but finds he doesn't mind.
"How about we take this to bed?" Steve says, and James has to look away because even Steve doing something as banal as wiping himself clean with a wash cloth seems unbearably arousing. He has to close his eyes again and focus on the steadying mental tricks he'd learned from a Dutch oma who once hid him from the Nazis behind enemy lines.
"Nngh," James says eloquently.
Steve turns the shower off. "Turn around," he says (and James does, because he has a history of obeying Steve's orders, even if he'd never remembered it before, even if never like this). Steve presses James into the tiles, mouth hot and demanding, and James clings as Steve runs his hands down James' sides, any mental stability completely blown.
Steve coaxes his thigh up, and then Steve's hands are under his ass and he lifts. James can't help laughing, wrapping his legs around Steve's waist and fuck, Steve barely even strains to lift him, carting him through to the master bedroom and dumping him on the bed.
Steve settles between his legs again, James' still-hard dick pressed between them. James trails his fingers down the length of Steve's back and back up, his skin warm and still damp under his hands. James skates his mouth over Steve's jaw, his chin, to his mouth. They lay there, tangled together on the bed for a long moment, trading kisses.
Steve pulls back, propping himself up on his arms so he can study James' face. "You're really okay?" he asks.
James groans and shifts uncomfortably under the scrutiny. "We're gonna do this now?" He curls his fingers through the dripping strands of Steve's hair and tugs. "I'm okay, Steve," he says. "I'm fine. And I'll be even better when you let me come." He drags Steve's mouth back down to his.
It's easy, when all he can think of is the need scything through him, to block out all those little niggles of memory that try to overwhelm him. Steve hadn't lied: this had never happened before, but James can add up the evidence and all Steve's looks and touches just reinforce the fact that he'd wanted Bucky and Bucky had never realised.
(Part of him is childish, he knows, but it's the same part that was jealous Bucky might have tread this path first, so he's not surprised to feel triumphant satisfaction at being the one to have Steve first. It's ridiculous, when it turns out that he was Bucky, but he doesn't care. He was Bucky. He's now James.)
"Wait," Steve says after a moment, rolling off the bed and padding back to the bathroom, still gloriously naked. James isn't sure he'll ever get bored looking at all that skin. He comes back with a bottle of lube, but it's a different one from the one he'd had in the shower.
"What the hell," James says. "Did you come prepared, boy scout?" Not that he'd ever thought that this would or wouldn't happen again. He hadn't thought about Steve enough to make a choice either way.
Steve grins and slides over James. There's something about Steve's skin on his that's intoxicating. He could really learn to like this. "It's a honeymoon rental when it's not being used as a safe house for SHIELD escapees. The owners believe in full and proper service. Besides," and he pops the cap off the bottle of lube, dribbling it over his fingers, "where did you think it came from last time?"
"Last time..." James trails off as he swallows hard. Even as Steve had finished speaking he'd reached down with slick fingers and began working them into himself. James has to swallow again when Steve groans and spreads his thighs a little, giving James a prime view. Steve's dick is starting to thicken again too, and James' breath is none too steady when Steve stops fingering himself a moment to stroke himself a couple of times. "You're too shy to talk about wanting me to come in your mouth and then you—you do that," James complains. He's pretty sure he could get off just watching Steve touching himself alone.
Steve's half shy, half coquettish look undoes him. He knows Steve's flush isn't all arousal and it makes his heart skip in his chest with delight. Christ, the middle of sex isn't the time to be having feelings, he tells himself.
"I want you inside me," Steve says. "Like this. Face to face."
Steve's some kind of sap, James thinks, but his stomach clenches at the thought of fucking Steve and being able to see his face while he does it. James slithers in between Steve's spread thighs, feels Steve's slippery hands settle on his sides. "You know I'm not gonna last long," James warns, braced on one arm as he reaches for the lube. "Between this and the way you fucked me in the shower, I'm ready to go."
"I don't care." Steve has a blissed out look already and James hasn't even started.
He lasts longer than he expected, than maybe he should have, nestled between Steve's legs. It's slow at first; easy, because now he's in control he doesn't feel so much like he's going to explode from the pressure building in his gut and balls, easy, because it doesn't matter that Steve's only just come, he's the peak of humanity and he's nearly fully hard again. At the right angle James' thrusts tear a curse from Steve's lips and he feels Steve's thighs tighten around him.
He moves harder, faster. Desperation fuels his movements and he feels Steve's hand worm between them. "Please," James gasps against Steve's mouth, "let me--"
"Yes," Steve says. James' pulse thunders in his ears, and Steve's permission is all he needs. His hips jerk as he comes hard, pleasure exploding through his whole body from nerve ending to nerve ending, his vision whiting out. He hears Steve's jagged exhalation of his name, feels the wetness against his belly and knows Steve followed.
He presses his forehead against Steve's shoulder, trying to steady his breathing. It's been a long time since he's orgasmed that hard, he can't help the convulsive little aftershocks that run through him when Steve moves, hands restless over his skin. He kisses James, and it's so tender James is almost too scared to look him in the eye for what he might see there.
So he shifts, eases out of Steve and uses the corner of the sheet to clean them both, long enough he thinks for Steve to get whatever feelings he might be having under control. Sure enough, when James glances up at Steve he's watching with a post-coital sleepy-fond look, instead of an utterly enamoured one.
He tugs James back down beside him and James curls in close, throwing his leg over Steve's. "Don't leave," Steve mumbles and breathes out. His next breath is a soft snore.
James dozes for perhaps twenty minutes, pressed up against Steve, before he comes to terms with the fact he's not going to fall asleep any time soon. Don't leave, Steve had said, but James is pretty sure he didn't mean 'don't leave the bed'. No, it's the last time James had slipped out, even though Steve had said he was okay with James leaving, even though he had to have known it was going to happen.
James didn't feel any guilt over leaving. He still doesn't.
He carefully untangles himself from Steve, who makes a soft and pathetic noise in the back of his throat as James pulls away, but doesn't wake.
Pulling on a pair of Steve's sweatpants, he pads through to the living room. There's a familiar large black bag on the floor by the couch, and investigating, James discovers it's all his belongings from the house he'd holed up in while he was scoping out Roman Walczak. Nothing is missing, not even his guns.
It's—okay, it's not like he'd expected Steve or Natalia to take any of his things, but after the moment in the van where he'd thought he was someone he never wanted to be again, and after the way he'd almost lost himself in the hunt for revenge, he'd... well, he wouldn't be surprised if his access to guns, at least, had been revoked.
Pulling out the little computer, he hesitates. There are names left on his list still, and all the information he'd found out about them is encrypted in the computer's memory. He mightn't have a lot of familiarity with this kind of modern technology, but he has his own personal codes that he'd developed, that even Department X hadn't known, and they couldn't take away something they didn't know about.
He doesn't know what to do about those last names. He knows what the Winter Soldier would do, which he suspects is not so different from what Bucky would have done in the war. But he's not sure James Barnes can—will—do that anymore. Not without just cause.
Revenge is not just cause.
He sets the computer aside.
His clothing is in the bag too, and he pulls out a thin long-sleeved top and shrugs into it. It's not cold in the house, and for the first time in a long time he doesn't feel cold in his soul, either, if he has one (he's not sure, thinks maybe if he did it was sold to the devil a long time ago). It's like his memories have thawed him from the inside out.
Maybe it's Steve too, a little part of his mind suggests. He squashes the thought down, but not before his mouth curves in a dopey smile.
There's a television, but James has little interest in television for entertainment's value. He might have missed a lot of pop culture, but he's been active in the world over the decades, and a lot of his missions involved more reconnaissance work and cover than just 'drop in, kill someone, leave'. He's seen television evolve, but has no use for it but for the news (though he'd prefer a newspaper) or catching a game (he'd appreciated discovering sport was televised, though he'd still prefer to see it in person). He remembers his astonishment the first time he'd seen the news in colour.
James fishes out a paperback novel from the bottom of the bag. It's a Winter Soldier habit to keep a book on hand to fill the time, though this isn't the battered copy that had been packed in his kit for most major operations spanning the best part of three decades. This copy of Strangers on a Train he'd picked up in Munich Airport four months ago.
He starts at the beginning as he always does and is thirty pages in when Steve bolts into the living room. Steve's only wearing a pair of boxer shorts and a worried expression.
All tension floods out of him when he sees James sitting on the couch. "Everything okay?" James asks politely.
Steve goes red and scrubs his hand over his face. He mumbles something that sounds like, "I thought you'd left," but doesn't seem keen to offer anything further. Instead he stares at James, settled in and comfortable on the couch, for a long moment, before blinking and asking, "Coffee?"
"Mm," James says, "please," and turns the page.
When Steve turns away James notices the finger-shaped bruises on his shoulder, still luridly coloured against his skin. It's the rapid healing that makes them look so stark, James knows, but still even the sight of them makes him feel a little uneasy. He can't recall gripping Steve that hard in the shower when his brain was assaulted by memories, no knowledge of it from himself, and no flinch from Steve.
He tries not to watch Steve as he moves around the kitchen easy and loose-limbed. Not because of the bruises, but because looking at him dredges up the new memories of old times, and old feelings that twist up his gut. For a moment it's hard for him to remember what's him and what is Bucky.
Bucky had loved Steve, the way Steve loved Bucky, and James—well, he's not really surprised when he realises that. It was a fierce longing, there for so long that it had become background noise because Captain America's boy sidekick had burned from the inside out.
James, on the other hand… he's known Steve for such a small fragment of time in contrast, he doesn't know how he's meant to feel, or if he's even capable of feeling what he thinks he should. What he thinks maybe he even wants to feel. Did Walczak take that away from him when he took Natalia away or did Bucky's memories, lost before Department X, the Red Room, the whole lot of it, give that possibility back to him?
Is it Bucky that he feels now, in the way he feels like he can't quite get enough oxygen, in the way his heart trips to double time every time Steve touches him (looks at him), or is that all James? How honest and sincere is what he's feeling, and does he even want it to be?
If only he knew what he wanted (he thinks he knows and it terrifies him).
"What?" Steve says and James realises that, despite all his good intentions, he's staring.
"Did you get into much trouble when you went back?"
"Some," Steve says carelessly. "But I'm Captain America, so there's only so much trouble I can get into. I think some of them were even a little glad. Apparently I set people's teeth on edge doing the right thing all the time."
"I couldn't possibly imagine why," James says blandly and Steve grins at him. He's better with it now, James thinks. He's more self-aware. There was a time when Steve would have been stiffly offended by judgement on him doing what he thought was right.
Steve carefully carries over the two cups of coffee, and with the scent James is hit by a memory: France, in the war, Steve carrying over two dented metal mugs full of steaming coffee, the kind that tasted like sump oil and had nearly the consistency of trench mud. But they'd drank it, and liked it, huddled together in the bombed out shell of someone's house, too tired to talk. James—Bucky—had fallen asleep despite his best intentions, leaning in against Steve's shoulder.
He wonders if this is what it's going to be like from now on; his life littered with sharp memories cutting their way back into his brain to where they belonged. It's a balance, he realises. Something of Bucky to balance something of the Winter Soldier, and he's the swinging pendulum in the middle.
Steve seats himself on the edge of the coffee table, resting his mug by his side. "You know you can stay here for as long as you want," he says, all seriousness. "No one knows you're here but me and Nat."
"And then you'll go back."
Huh. He's surprised how dismayed he feels at the thought of Steve leaving. It must show on his face (and he's sure he used to be better at masking his feelings than this, as he takes a hasty gulp of coffee) because Steve tries to hide his own surprise.
Steve hesitates and then reaches out, curling his fingers around James' metal wrist. James likes that Steve's okay touching his cybernetic arm. Likes that he never appears to think about it. "If you want me to stay, I will. As long as you want."
"Don't you have a job to get back to?"
With a wry smile, Steve says, "Yeah, about that. Apart from the few public 'I'm not dead' appearances I put in, I've been rotated to inactive duty since that day I came to your cell, since I was considered too distracted to stay on mission. Plus if I'm not there, they can't put me back on duty."
"Aren't you—I mean, don't you feel like you're letting the team down?"
It doesn't feel like it would were it flesh and bone, but James can still feel Steve's hand slide over his wrist to his hand, fingers then twining around his. "I've reconsidered my priorities."
James' mouth suddenly goes dry, and it's stupid that this, of everything, is the thing that makes his heart trip up in his chest. He should let it slide, he shouldn't ask, but he can't help himself. "Why?"
Steve looks at him for a long moment, steadily, and James tries to hold his gaze as long as he can. The Winter Soldier's never backed down before in his life, but Bucky's never been able to hold Steve's gaze for long enough, afraid his own feelings would end up written across his face.
James wavers between the two, but in the end it's not his own feelings but Steve's that make him look away. Bold and unashamed, real 'heart on his sleeve' kind of emotion. Everything James had been too scared to look for earlier.
"That's why," Steve says, squeezing his hand. "I don't care who you were, because it's you, and you're my priority now."
"Above everything?" He's digging for trouble.
He knows he's digging. Steve knows he's digging, and remains serene. "Above most things."
"Like saving the world?"
"Sometimes saving the world means saving one person at a time. I know I didn't give you all that much choice—any choice, really—at the start but I want you to know that to me, you're a priority..." He stops, bites his lip and says uncertainly, "But only if you want to be."
Saving the world is high on Steve's agenda, but James' shiny new memories just reinforce the fact that Steve would always try and save him first. "Just drop off!" Steve had screamed, unable to pull himself far enough up the drone to help Bucky. Bucky had thought the world needed Captain America and not Bucky Barnes.
But Cap had needed Bucky, and Steve needs James, and James is suddenly, painfully glad that Steve never found him as the Winter Soldier—the killer, not the broken mess Lukin tried to leave behind—because he has no doubt Steve would have sacrificed a greater part of himself long before he'd ever be able put a bullet between the eyes of the man who had once been his best friend.
But Bucky is dead, the way the Soviet operative who was codenamed Winter Soldier is dead.
James is what's left. The whole of two separate, ill-fitting halves, and he... he can fill the gaps with whatever it is he wants to be. He can do that.
The realisation should be heralded by a bolt from the blue, an epiphany serenaded by an angelic choir, but instead he feels calm acceptance. He is who he is, not the sum of who he was. And going forward he can be the man he wants to be.
The world blinks back into focus, Steve still watching him uncertainly.
"I won't ask for anything you're not willing to give," Steve says, "but I think you know what I'm offering."
James nods once. He knows. He'll need to take out his own feelings and hold them up to the light for examination before he can commit to anything with Steve, figure out how Bucky's endless longing might fit in with his own feelings, but he knows Steve doesn't expect him to make a decision right now. He gets the feeling Steve would wait forever if he had to. He's waited over 70 years as is; a few more weeks or months won't bother him.
Steve shifts to sit on the couch next to him, leaning in so they're pressed together at the shoulder, and flicks on the television. There's a game on, some local football code that seems to involve lots of running, flying tackles and absolutely zero padding.
"What are you reading?" he asks after a few minutes of wincing and exclamations over the madness of the game. James shows him the cover and Steve makes a noise of approval. "Good book. Have you read it before?"
James huffs a soft laugh. "Just a few times, yeah," he says wryly. Steve raises a brow at his tone and James can't help himself. He leans over and presses a kiss to the corner of Steve's mouth. "Maybe I'll tell you about it one day."
Maybe he'll tell Steve about everything one day.
Steve grins. "I'd like that."