Even before he understood why, he always dreamed of snow and ice and falling, the echo of an anguished cry echoing in the distance. For years, that cry had made no sense, had been in the shape of a word that he had long forgotten was his name, but it had been a sound that haunted him into wakefulness, that made him ache in a place he hadn't understood.
Looking back, Bucky knew why he hadn't understood then -- the Winter Soldier, after all, hadn't had any idea of what a heart was.
For twenty years, that had been all he had been: the Winter Soldier, a man made of nothing but his reflex memories and the programming the Soviets had tortured into his head. His life had been missions and deep freezes and more missions, death and blood and utter indifference to it all. If there was anything that he missed from those years of being a deadly puppet of a deadly regime, it was the ice-smoothness of his emotions, the lack of remorse or regret or want of any kind.
He still didn't like to think about how many missions he had done, how many kills he had had added to his bloody list as the Winter Soldier; the number was one that haunted him almost as much as that anguished cry had -- and still did -- an echo of things he could never get back. His innocence, for one, and his peace of mind, and his trust in himself. And while Bucky Barnes might've had a heart where the Winter Soldier hadn't, it didn't do Bucky any good, not when it remained the most painful wound he carried.
It still amazed him that he had ever been freed at all, so complete was the hold the Soviets had had on his mind, so blank was he to what he had been before. Then had come a day in 1964 and a target in New York, and he had looked through his scope at a man with too-blue eyes and something in him had snapped. The illusion of the Winter Soldier had shattered, leaving behind nothing but broken pieces that he had had no way of knowing how to fit back together.
Bucky, when he thought on it now, wasn't sure if it was a blessing or curse that he hadn't remembered who he had been as soon as the Winter Soldier programming had worn off. He'd been struck dumb, almost as blank a slate as he had been when the Russians had started their work on him, with nothing but the overwhelming knowledge that whatever he needed to be doing, it wasn't killing people with a sniper rifle. He'd left everything he could behind on that hill, outside of that stately manor, and had never looked back.
By some invisible pull, he had ended up in New York City, in Brooklyn, making his way thanks to the little money he had found in his pockets and the ID he had found there. It hadn't taken but a few days for his handlers' extraction agents to find him and try to bring him down, but the reflex memory that had doomed him into service had saved him that day. He had lost them and vowed to continue to do so, even when he didn't know why they wanted him. Nameless and without a past, he had still known that they had wanted him for something very, very bad.
In those years of nothingness, Bucky had tried on a variety of names and occupations, always on the move, chased by ghost of enemies that he worried gave chase. He farmed tobacco in the south, and then worked the river, farther west; there were times spent on trains and in big cities, where he could always find something to do for a few bucks and a handful of cigarettes. He spent one summer in Texas, on a ranch, grateful at the feel of the hot sun soaking into his skin every day while the other cowboys bitched and moaned about the heat. He felt like he'd been frozen for so long that he'd never been warm enough ever again.
There were nightmares in those years, snatches of memories that floated up whenever he had least expected it, flashes of things he hadn't let himself trust. There had been one face that showed up most frequently, sometimes thin and pale and sickly, sometimes strong and square, sometimes covered in dirt and blood, but it was a face that Bucky had thought he knew better than he knew his own. Still, his mind had remained the thing he trusted the least and he hadn't let himself believe in it or in the voice he sometimes heard with that face, the one that made him ache and yet made something inside him fill with brightness.
And then Bucky was, of all things, tending bar in Chicago in the summer of 1965 when someone had decided that maybe a little patriotism could stem the tide of unrest coming out of Bronzeville, and an old Captain America retrospective had started showing at a theater near the bar where he worked. He -- or rather, Smithy, as he had been calling himself then -- had had little interest in a bunch of old movies but the name that struck on something inside him, a resonance that sent ripples through the mostly-still surface of his past. So he'd his dollar and sat himself down for a few hours of thinly-veiled propaganda, looking forward to a beer before he reported for work later that evening. Then the film had started and that face had flashed up on the screen and Smithy had barely made it to out of the theater before he was throwing in the alley behind it, racked with nausea and memories.
Smithy had never made it to work because James Barnes had left Chicago the same day.
It should've been easier with all his memories back and it had been, in many ways. Everything had slotted into order and knew his own story from birth to death and onward, all the things that had made him the jumpy, hollow-eyed man he knew himself as. His rocky childhood in Brooklyn, his years spent scraping with all takers, sometimes for himself and sometimes for Steve, enlisting to fight Nazis, and then his capture at Azzano, and the terrible, terrible things that they'd done to him in the back room before Steve had come to save him.
It had been nice to finally have a name to go with the face and the voice and the feeling, the feeling that was both the best and worst thing he had experienced. But there were other things that overrode that relief. First was the grief, raw and real, when he finally put meaning with the useless trivia that was the fate of Captain America, a patriotic fairy tale that became a dagger in his heart whenever he thought about it -- Steve, dying alone in the ice and snow of the Artic, going to his grave blaming himself for Bucky's own icy fall. Bucky knew Steve well enough to know he had, too.
The truth also beget mysteries, the first of which was the one that faced Bucky in the mirror every morning. Of course, it had solved the one about his strange metal arm, the one he had kept covered even in the hellish Texan heat, but there was also the fact that the face he saw looking back at him wasn't any much older than the one he had seen his last day in New York before shipping out to England to join the 102nd, even though twenty years had passed. If he needed further proof of some disparity, all he had to do was look at any of the many magazine or news article printed about Howard Stark to know what kind of age he should've been seeing on his face, age that wasn't there. Every line and dark circle on Bucky's face was less about the natural progression of time and more about the unnatural things that still followed in his shadows.
A few times throughout the 1970s, Bucky entertained the idea of seeking out some of his old friends -- Morita, Jones, or Dugan, who he was sure would find in America somewhere, or even Stark and Agent Carter, both of whom still seemed as tight with the government as they had during the war. But he had never went through with it, not when he saw the aging faces of other WWII vets when he was barely inching toward looking 30 as he marked the fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries of his birth. There was also a part of him, deep down, that couldn't face them -- especially, Peggy Carter, who never married, who never had a family of her -- when he'd let Steve down. There were so many regrets that crowded in on him where the Winter Soldier had been a perfect, empty vessel and most of those focused on Steve. How he should've protected Steve better, been there with him on that plane, should've killed Red Skull with his own bare hands if it would've spared Steve that lonely, icy death. There wasn't a point in any of those years when Bucky would've have traded places with him to bring Steve back.
The question of his slow-aging always took him back to that horrible dark room in that HYDRA factory, those days of pain and sickness and more pain, days when he wished they had asked him questions that he could've cried out the answers to so that they would stop with their torture. It was only afterward, shaking and shivering with the memory, that Bucky had realized there had been few questions during the time he had spent strapped down in the room that had stank of bleach and blood. It was only forty years out that he realized that he hadn't been interrogated; he'd been experimented on, dosed and injected and stabbed with whatever nefarious solutions Zola and Skull had dreamed up to match the formula Erskine had created to alter Steve. Sometimes, in the darker days of those lonely years, he wondered if he'd wake up one morning and find his own skin peeling away to reveal the same ghastly skull that he faced over and over in his dreams.
When the 1980s came around, Bucky was bored and reckless and lonely. He'd already spent more years living as some kind of ageless shadow than he had as a real person and the prospect of more such decades yawned before him. So instead of the same quiet, nomadic life he'd gotten used to since the day he snapped out of his assassin programming, Bucky went looking for danger. It was a time in international politics where people didn't ask too many questions if they wanted a skilled sniper on their mercenary payroll. Bucky expanded his own list of kills from outside of those he had made in Europe during the war to include targets in South America and Africa, Asia and the Middle East. And it didn't seem to matter how sick he made himself afterward or how badly his hand shook the night before a mission, because some specter of the Winter Soldier seemed to rise up out of him when the moment counted, and his shot was sure and true.
It hadn't taken long to realize that he still wasn't dying and he still wasn't aging; it only took a little while longer before groups like SHIELD and the CIA got a little too interested in him and he had to leave the mercenary life behind. Bucky hadn't really regretted giving it up, except for the ways in which the danger had allowed him to bury all the thoughts that stuck with him in quieter times. Forty-five years after he had died and been raised from the dead, and those memories still stayed with him -- the war, HYDRA, his death and Steve. It didn't matter if he was awake or asleep, really, Steve was always there.
When he had been twenty years old and stupid and blind, if someone had asked Bucky who Steve was to him, he would've said Steve was his best friend. At twenty-five, broken and bruised, he still would've said the same thing, but it wouldn't have adequately conveyed what he felt when he looked at Steve standing next to him in a British bar while he gently flirted with Agent Carter; it wouldn't have expressed the affection and fear, the jealously and concern, the jumble of things that ached in his chest when he saw Steve's smile. From the ages of twenty-five to somewhere around fifty, Bucky would've called Steve a ghost, a phantom that haunted his beleaguered mind, but his smile still had the same power over him. As he started to reach even more advancing years with barely any physical imprint of it on him, Bucky watched the world change from what it had been in the 1940s and, with that, he learned to see things differently. By the time he'd been alive seventy-five years, more or less, Bucky knew there were other, more accurate words to describe what Steve had meant to him all those years but it was an epiphany that had come too many years too late to do anything but add something else to the list of regrets that haunted him into sleep.
Bucky had never known before, that it was possible to miss someone so much, or to miss them forever. But he missed Steve sometimes near the end of the millennium with the same kind of devastating emptiness as he had when Bucky had first left for war or when he had first learned of his death, those decades later. There would never be anything, he had decided, that could fill the Steve-shaped hole in his solitary life and he had stopped trying a long time before.
In the end, he settled down to live a quiet life, at least for a decade or so, in a small town in upstate New York, close enough to the city that he could take the trip in whenever he got that feeling in his blood, the one where he needed to remind himself that the life he still considered his real one, the one from back before the war, still had a grain of reality left in the world that he now called home. When he stopped too long to think about it, it still made his head hurt, the way things had progressed, technology and society, men and women. He had never developed a taste for it himself, which is why he ended up making his living repairing "classic" cars and living the rooms above his garage, as frugal as he'd been sharing an apartment with Steve in Brooklyn a lifetime ago. Sometimes, when he was changing a tire or lifting a car up onto a jack, he thought about Howard Stark's flying cars and grinned to himself a little, though it hurt a little more to do so after he saw that Stark had finally passed on, looking every year of the decades they'd lived.
He still remembered the news of when Howard's son had been believed dead while off in the Middle East somewhere, and how it had been its own pang, both for Tony Stark and for all the normal things Bucky would miss, despite his apparently long, long life. Not that he had ever wanted them before or would want them now, when the only thing he truly wanted was Steve, but it was still another thing to put on his shelf of regrets.
That wasn't the only day he remembered well in the news spectacle that was Tony Stark's life. Bucky also remembered the day the younger Stark was found alive, and the day it was revealed that he was the mysterious super hero, Iron Man. But the real reason he remembered that last day so clearly, so vividly, was that it was just a few days later that Bucky looked up from his breakfast at the local greasy spoon where he ate every morning and saw a strange man studying him with the kind of scrutiny that Bucky had long since shaken off. Out of an old, nervous habit, he tugged on the wrist of his left sleeve to make sure it was covered, although it had been years since he had made skin-colored tattoo sleeves part of his daily life. Under the guise of drinking his coffee, Bucky kept his eyes on the man and took in his own details -- he was black, with a patch over one eye, and some military in the ramrod way he sat in the booth, nursing his own cup of joe. Bucky paid for his meal and left, promising to put the paranoia of the moment behind him when he didn't see the man again.
Until the next day, anyway, when he went to close up shop only to find the man sitting in Bucky's desk chair, waiting for him.
They were still there, those reflex memories, and they made Bucky tense and want to reach for a weapon. Instead, he glared. "We're closed," he told the man. "You'll have to come back tomorrow."
"I'm not here for a tune-up," the man said. "We have other things to talk about."
"Lots of things, you're a very interesting man," the stranger said. "Right down to your name -- Mr. James Rogers."
"It's a name like anybody else's," Bucky shrugged. "I bet even you've got one."
"It's a fine name," he agreed. "Except the part where it's not yours. Well, James is, but I think what's supposed to follow it is Buchanan Barnes instead of Captain America's last name."
There were things that Bucky never let himself hear out loud, for dread of what it would do to him. His real name, and Bucky, were two such things; Captain America was another. He fought back a flinch as he could feel himself grow cold at the threat this man suddenly presented, shards of the Winter Soldier's training rising up when he needed it. "I don't know what you think you know," he told him. "But I'm not interested."
The man stood up. "I think you are," he said. "Or at least you should be." He tucked his arms behind his back and headed toward the exit. "The name's Fury, by the way," he told him. "Nick Fury. And I think we'll be more comfortable having this conversation in your apartment, don't you?"
A cold, ruthless part of Bucky wanted to grab the nearest blunt object and bring it down on Nick Fury's exposed skull as soon as the man turned his back to him but another part somehow knew it wouldn't be as easy as he wanted to think. Instead, he followed Fury outside and up the stairs off the back of the building that led to the little rooms where Bucky endured his long-lived existence.
As soon as the door clicked shut behind them, Fury faced Bucky. "Well?"
"Well what?" Bucky asked. He mentally ran down a list of weapons he had in the house. His guns, his knives, a grenade...
"You aren't going to need any weapons, Barnes," Fury told him, like he could read his mind. "You just need to listen to what I have to say."
Bucky crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall, refusing to cede any advantage to Fury. "Then talk."
"I assume you've heard of SHIELD?" was Fury's opening salvo.
Bucky snorted. "Don't tell me that's who you're with?"
"I'm not with SHIELD," he said. "I run it." He narrowed his eyes. "And I have a proposition for you."
"The answer is going to be no," Bucky said. "So we might as well skip to the part where you get the hell out of here."
"I think you should listen," Fury argued. "I have this project, called the Avengers Initiative. It's a group of highly specialized people who come together when needed to deal with particular kinds of threats. I think your...skill set...makes you a prime candidate for this team."
"Which skill set would that be?" Bucky asked. "You need a mechanic that can take apart a 1964 Corvair?"
"No," Fury said, taking a step toward Bucky. He didn't look amused. "I mean the part where you were Captain America's second-in-command that helped take down HYDRA bases throughout Europe during World War II. Oh, and the little fact that you're a slow-aging, fast-healing super soldier with a bionic metal arm who spent a few decades as a Soviet assassin."
"So you say," Bucky growled.
"So I know," Fury countered. "You think SHIELD hasn't been aware of you this entire time, Sergeant Barnes?" He made a sarcastic cluck of disapproval in the back of his throat. "You didn't come onto my personal radar until the 80s when you were selling out your aim to the highest bidder for a few years, but SHIELD has files on the Winter Soldier going back to the 1950s. It wasn't difficult to match a partial print here and there until the entire picture became clear."
"If you've known about me all this time, why approach me now?" Bucky asked, in spite of himself.
Fury's shoulders twitched in what might've been his version of a shrug. "The world is changing. It's filling up with people with superpowers, people who can't be dealt with by the usual methods. You, Barnes, are definitely an unusual method. But before, I didn't have much use for a head-case, no matter how much of a crack shot he might be."
"So you've been...what? Waiting to see if I cracked up or something?" Bucky laughed, but it wasn't an amused sound. "You're about fifty years late for that, Fury."
"I have been waiting until I could offer you something other than a room in one of our laboratories," he said. "And I can now. A place on the Avengers team, working under SHIELD's purview against threats of national and international security."
Bucky clenched his fists. "No."
"No?" Fury repeated. "That's not the right answer, Barnes."
"Well, it's the only one you're getting from me." Bucky grabbed a hold of the door knob of the door to the stairs, ready to wrench it open. "Thanks but no thanks."
A muscle twitched in Fury's jaw. "I thought you'd jump at the chance to serve your country once again."
"I've bled for my county, more than once," Bucky reminded him, unable to keep the tremor of anger out of his voice. "I've died for my country and it wasn't exactly fun. So, no, I'm not interested."
"Not exactly the attitude I was expecting from Captain America's trusted sidekick," Fury said. "I have to admit I'm disappointed that you don't live up to the legend."
"Don't go there," Bucky warned, finally yanking the door open. "Get out."
"How would Captain Rogers feel if he was here to see you now?" Fury asked.
"He's not, so it doesn't matter, does it?" Bucky returned, each word like broken glass in his throat. "Now, I swear to god, Fury, if you say another word about him, I'll shoot you before you make it out this door."
He didn't like the way Fury's dark eyes lit up as he processed Bucky's statement, like he had revealed more than he'd thought by saying them. "There's nothing I can do to change your mind? Nothing that would make it worth your while?"
"I don't want much out of this world, aside from peace and quiet," Bucky lied. "And that's something you definitely can't offer."
His good eye had wandered off toward a small frame set of photos tacked to one wall, the only thing Bucky allowed himself of his own life. One was of the Howling Commandos, an old publicity shot he had found on the internet and printed out. The other was of Steve, pre-serum, that he had had to pay pretty penny for from a Captain America enthusiast, back in the early 80s. "No," Fury agreed, oddly quiet. "I can't offer you what you want."
There was a stretch of silence before Bucky asked, "So what now?"
"Nothing, I guess," Fury said. "I'm looking for volunteers, not draftees, Barnes," he told him. "If you don't want us, I don't want you. So as long as you continue playing at normal, I don't really need to be bothered with you anymore."
Bucky made an impatient gesture toward the open the door. "I can't say it was a pleasure."
Fury stopped just before he crossed the threshold, bringing himself almost nose to nose with Bucky. "Enjoy your long life, Sergeant," he said, before disappearing into the night, a dark-cloaked figure that had blended from sight by the time Bucky locked the door and dared watch for his retreat out of the door's small window. After a few precious moments ticked by in stillness, Bucky took a ragged breath and finally let himself come away from the door. It was even then he noticed a stray piece of paper on his coffee table, one, that on closer inspection, proved to be a card bearing a hastily scrawled telephone number. Bucky snatched it up and threw it in the trash.
And even though he immediately turned off the one lamp that had lit the dim living room and retreated to his bed, sleep didn't come easily that night or for several of the nights that followed.
Life eventually returned to normal in the wake of Fury's visit, although it took weeks for Bucky to stop jumping at shadows and staring down every new face he passed on the streets. He couldn't stop thinking about his conversation with Fury, though, couldn't stop rattling it around in his head, no matter how much he wanted to forget it had ever happened.
One night, he found himself staring at his photo of Steve, the Steve he had protected all those years in Brooklyn, and he could hear Fury's derision when he had tried to use Steve's memory against him, but the truth was that he had never been like Steve, not when it came to that life-directing sense of duty and honor. Even back before the war, even back when he had been getting ready to ship, it hadn't been duty and honor that had been driving Bucky. He hadn't been scared to go to war or even upset that he was going, but it hadn't burned in him like a calling, like it had in Steve. It was why it had been so difficult for Bucky to understand Steve's frustration when the Army wisely 4Fed his frail, asthmatic body despite the strong, brave soul it housed.
Seven decades on, thinking about Steve was still a strange, sweet pain, one that he could no more abandon than he could the reflex of breathing. It would've hurt worse, he had decided, not to think of him, to try and pretend that his life hadn't been branded by Steve's place in it long before he had been philosophical enough to think in those terms. It was amazing, he often reflected, how much seventy years could both change a man and never leave a mark on him.
Even if he had wanted to bury Steve's memory, it wouldn't have been easy because the rest of the world hadn't quite buried him -- at least, hadn't buried Captain America. He was a story told to school children and in Independence Day specials, a name dragged out for several holidays a year and during most political campaigns. "Captain America" had become a symbol that got bandied around the same way Uncle Sam and Santa Claus were, and Bucky remained incredibly torn about how he felt about the legacy the world had built in Steve's honor. In those empty years, he had reacted to such displays in a variety of ways: sometimes he couldn't help but react with tears of his own, choked and burning in his throat, and sometimes there was anger when someone tried to twist it into something hateful and bitter, but there was always another layer of sadness to it. Because those people, no matter how well-intentioned, they only remembered Captain America -- the strong, handsome soldier in the newsreels and propaganda films, the carefully cultivated image that had sold war bonds and kept spirits from flagging the darkest days of war. There were so few of them left who did, or even could, remember Steve, especially the way Bucky did. Sometimes that dissonance was what drove him into hitching jags of ugly emotion, a weight of sadness-pain-loss that could steal his breath for days. Whatever HYDRA had done to trap him in this almost-ageless body, it hadn't dulled its ability to feel, no matter the source of the pleasure or pain.
Bucky had learned to live with a certain awareness of Steve, one that didn't overwhelm him with the pain or stifle the warmth the thought of Steve still brought him. The photos on his living room wall, a Captain America calendar in the shop, one printed by a veterans' charity every year -- small things that reminded Bucky that he had once been alive but didn't strangle him with the reality of what he had lost.
Sometimes, though, he couldn't help it and he dreamed of ice and pain, and tried not to think of Steve dying the same way he almost had, burning cold and so, so alone.
Looking at the life he had built for himself, Bucky also knew Steve wouldn't approve. Not of the recriminations and regrets, not of the way he had cut himself off from everything outside of what he had to do to survive. He knew Steve would've wanted him to do a lot of things differently -- like helping Fury, for one -- but Bucky had never been as strong or brave as Steve, not when it wasn't personal. He hoped, if there was a heaven, that when Steve looked down on him from on high (because if anyone deserved heaven, it was Steve), he would forgive him for it.
He also hoped, on bleaker days, that if there was a heaven that he'd make it one day, if only to see Steve again.
Fury's visit wasn't just significant because set his paranoia into overdrive for a few weeks or because it made him spend more time than he usually did thinking about Steve and everything he had lost. It also had managed to open up Bucky's eyes to the world in a way he had avoided for decades, made him more aware of world events that he had tried to avoid thinking about. Terrorism, war, corporate espionage that ended in entire facilities being blown up -- it was the kind of thing he hadn't wanted to think about, but now each snatch of a report he heard made a mark in an invisible ledger in his head, reminding him of Fury's words. The world is changing. Bucky wasn't sure if he had been right about everything, but Bucky did see the imprints of extraordinary people in a way he hadn't before. It wasn't just Tony Stark anymore, with his privatization of world peace gig, there were others, too, strange happenings that flicked and prodded at things Bucky had long forgotten. Even a strange little news piece about lightning storms in the Southwest found its own little place in Bucky's patchwork memories.
As much as he didn't want to admit it, there were days when he wondered if he had been hasty in turning Fury away, if he would've best served Steve's memory by protecting the country he had died serving. But Bucky was selfish enough to hate them for that very reason, for being why Steve hadn't remained safe in New York, hadn't been waiting for Bucky to come home when it was all said and done. Instead, he was lost in some wintry grave and Bucky's entire body had been rewired for endless regrets, for a lifetime spent remembering every life he had taken on someone else's call.
At least when he had been doing it for Steve, it had been worth it.
So Bucky didn't try to think of ways he might've gotten in touch in Nick Fury, didn't think about the ways he might've made a difference in the world. Instead, he focused on getting through each day like he had for decades, facing an endless stretch of days to come.
Sir, given certain recent...discoveries...in the Arctic, don't you think it would be a good time to reach out to Sergeant, ah, Rogers?
Why? He's proved definitively that he is not the kind of asset we're interested in at the moment.
But you also said that, with certain incentives like the one we just found, that maybe he could be.
And maybe he can. One day. But right now, he's no good to us and we're no good to him. At least not until we know if it'll even matter, if you-know-who will even gain consciousness again. No need in give Barnes false hope.
I hate to bring this up again...
Just spit it out, Coulson.
Now that Captain Rogers is starting to adjust to his new circumstances, don't you think it's time to, perhaps, let him know the truth about James Barnes?
No, I don't.
Sir, if I may...
Captain Rogers needs the chance to catch his breath before we start throwing more surprises at him, Coulson. I want him to take the time to build himself a new life here in the 21st century -- I don't want him doing that on a cracked foundation, if you catch my meaning.
You're still concerned about Barnes's mental stability?
Hmm, he was tortured, re-programmed, killed dozens of people on our enemies' say-so and, even after he broke through it, he got a little bored in the 80s and started doing it again. What do you think?
Noted, sir. I just think...it could be better for both of them if they knew. About the other.
I know you're hiding a bleeding heart beneath that suit of yours, but we've got more to worry about than the soap opera you're writing in your head. I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm just saying that the timing is. We wait.
Bucky never knew what triggered it, if it was a time of year or an old movie or a snippet of a song, but some days he would just wake up and, instead of opening up shop, he'd jump on his bike and head into the city. New York City, even when he had been young -- actually young -- had always seemed like it was teeming with future possibilities, right down to the promise of chef-less ovens and tire-less cars. It still had that air of the future about it, even when roaming its streets sent Bucky's mind reeling back into the past.
He didn't do much during those excursions; he just wandered around, old sights and new ones. He often ended up in Central Park, doing a bit of people-watching, and usually feeling incredibly envious of all the ordinary people going on about their lives, free to do so without the kind of baggage Bucky carried on his back like the weight of the world. He was sure few of the people he watched on those days had ever killed a man, let alone the dozens he had, some out of duty and necessity, many out of blind loyalty and, later, a terrible kind of emptiness that he had learned to sate with day trips and cigarettes. If there was any upside to having had his cells re-arranged, at least he could smoke to his heart's content.
There were some places he had learned to avoid from early on, namely any place that would smack too strongly of "Captain America." It was amazing that Bucky could love Steve so much and feel so ambivalent toward his alter ego, but he did, even 70 years later. He knew he hadn't hidden it well back then (backthen, always being when he still felt alive) because he'd been confronted about it at least twice -- once by Gabe and once by Agent Carter herself. Gabe had been sympathetic and Agent Carter had been protective (of Steve) but neither of them really had understood it. Although, looking back, Bucky thought maybe, if anyone could've, it might've been Peggy Carter. She had loved Steve, too, both before and after the effects of the super soldier serum, had known almost as well as Bucky had that everything glorious about him hadn't come from Erksine's formula.
New York had erected monuments in Steve's honor, plaques and statues in the wake of his sacrifice but those places never felt like Steve to Bucky. Not the Steve he really thought about in those moments when he was choking on his own sorrow, the one that he had once thought nobody had the good sense to notice outside of him. He had been blind with that, drunk with it, the selfish surety that no one would ever take Steve away from him, even when he had cursed every bastard and snub-nosed dame who put hurt in his eyes. So, yes, Bucky could admit now, he had been jealous, but not in the way the others had chided him over, not in a way that meant he coveted Steve's chance at being the hero, being bigger, stronger, fast. He had been jealous that he hadn't just been his friend, hadn't been just his anymore. Before they had even known who Steve was, Bucky had been willing to follow him anymore; he hadn't needed a super soldier serum to trust Steve's instincts and he hadn't needed a mission to have been ready to die for him. It was a dream he had far less than the ones about cold and ice and falling, but sometimes he did dream himself back on the catwalk in Red Skull's burning factory, completely prepared to perish in the flames if Steve hadn't been following him into safety.
He wasn't sure what the rambling visits to New York City helped, but it did ease something in Bucky's chest sometimes, so he made them whenever he couldn't shake the urge. That day was one of those visits and he had walked and walked in circles, had been to the park and back around, aimless and directionless.
Somehow, he ended up at the entrance of a sidewalk cafe, staring up at a great, ugly building with the name "STARK" on its side in big letters. Bucky snorted.
"You waiting on a table?" a waitress asked. She had long blonde hair and something about the soft, wavy curls of its half-pinned style reminded Bucky of back then. "I think there's one open, in the back."
But Bucky didn't have any desire to sit around drinking coffee in the shadow of Tony Stark's gaudy new building, so he shook his head and continued on his way, pushing through the crowds with no real rhyme or reason. But something -- something he couldn't explain or understand or even really remember, no matter how hard he tried later -- made him decide to glance back over his shoulder as he waited at an intersection and what he saw -- what he thought he saw -- rooted him to the spot with a white-hot crack of disbelief.
Because -- there was a man, a tall, blond man with wide, steady shoulders and a certain military something to his gait, and he was wearing a leather jacket and his hair was just so, and he moved in a certain kind of way, the way he ducked his head like he was used to be shorter, more easily hidden, and the slide of all his muscles in concert was like a miracle and -- and Bucky couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't do anything but stare until tears blurred everything away. It was the closest he'd come to feeling like he was dying in at least thirty years, maybe longer, maybe since the last time he had to dig a bullet out of his own chest.
When he blinked and cleared his eyes, the man -- apparition, because he couldn't have been real -- was gone and people were pushing and shoving at Bucky and he was swept onward out of instinct and preservation. As soon as he could, he ducked into an alley and raised a shaky hand to his face, rubbing at his mouth before the other hand came up to worry his hair, anything to fight through the shaking tremors in his hands.
In all the years he had mourned Steve, that had been the first time Bucky had conjured him up outside of his dreams and it had been so real that Bucky had had to fight against the urge to run after the ghost's fleeting form, to push past the constriction of his racing heart to find him and hold onto him in the way he had failed to do with Steve when he'd actually been in arm's reach.
Bucky thought about how many times his mind had been split apart and slapped back together, about the loose threads of his sanity that he had almost picked at over the years, for want of anything else to do. He wondered if that moment -- hallucinating in broad daylight -- had been the beginning of the end, would turn out to be the harbinger of things to come.
He closed his eyes and leaned back against the brick and did the same, useless thing he had done thousands of times since 1965.
Bucky prayed for a miracle that would bring Steve back to him.
The days had always tended to bleed together for him, to the point where Bucky wouldn't even be sure of which it was if it hadn't been for the mundane tasks of existence, like bills and weather reports and parking tickets, so he wasn't rightly sure how long it had been since he had firmly stopped thinking about SHIELD and Nick Fury and the Avengers before the day that it was rudely thrust back into the forefront of his mind, thanks to an alien invasion broadcast across five networks in crisp high-definition.
Extraterrestrial attack sounded so incomprehensible every time a news caster on TV said it, even though Bucky had lived through experiences that themselves didn't much exist outside of science fiction. But there it was, in glorious color, on every channel he flipped through: some kind of portal had opened up over Stark Building in New York City and the island of Manhattan was being invaded by fierce, nasty-looking aliens who seemed to have little problem with the utter destruction they were leaving in their wake.
For a brief second, the old instincts kicked in and Bucky wanted to be there -- he wanted to be fighting against those invaders with every shred of strength he had, protecting his hometown and perhaps even his planet from such a vicious attack. If it had happened only a day before and he had been there, wandering through those streets, he would've been but Bucky knew that, like much of the rest of the world, all he could do now was watch and wait and hope and pray that the reports of someone leading a resistance against the aliens was fact and not wish.
It took several hours, hours that felt like days, even for someone as long-lived as Bucky, before the news reports began to shift to more optimistic reports -- the portal was closed and the things, the alien invaders, their attack had been thwarted by a group of superheroes who had waded into the fray to protect the planet and the people who had been caught at the center of attack. Then, the raw footage from cell phones and hand cams started to trickle in and the name of those heroes began to take shape: Iron Man, of course, and a great green beast called the Hulk who had once been on the wrong side of the military. There was also a man who looked like a character from a Wagner opera, with long blond hair and a hammer that seemed to allow him to fly around, throwing lightning bolts, so much so that Bucky didn't even laugh at the "God of Thunder" nickname the press went with while they waited for details to emerge. It actually seemed to fit.
There were two other heroes in the group that looked to have no particular abilities outside of deadly training and their moves were familiar to Bucky, who had had about every kind of combat training imaginable in the last seven decades. The redhead woman in the black suit moved with grace and coiled, sleek strength while the archer was artistry itself even as it was highly effective and deadly accurate. They both struck him as faintly familiar in some lost way and he wondered briefly if he had ever went up against them during those last, late missions he'd taken on.
Bucky watched the news snippets on these mysterious and not-so-mysterious heroes with passing curiosity and no little relief, much as he suspected anyone alive was doing that day. But then the network he was watching flashed another piece of footage across the screen, shaky and from a bit of distance, and Bucky froze where he'd been sitting on his ratty old sofa, blood turning from ice to fire and back to ice in a way that should've frightened him. It didn't, though, because he was too busy being shocked and horrified and a dozen another emotions that he didn't think he had in him anymore because there, on his screen, was some imposter wearing Steve's suit and being hailed as the new Captain America.
The worst part was that it looked like Steve, although the suit wasn't the one that Bucky remembered from their campaigns against the HYDRA; what this new guy wore was closer to what he'd seen in the USO posters, the "tights" he had teased Steve about while secretly enjoying how they had looked on him, although Bucky knew enough about the advances in protective fabric to assume that the imposter's suit was probably made of some hi-tech Kevlar-like substance and not the tights that Steve had so hated. He also wore the unmistakable Captain American helmet that obscured his face Bucky's view and made the illusion even more unsettling -- the man was tall, well-built and moved with the well-oiled grace of a man who knew how to use his muscles in battle. But it wasn't Steve because Steve was seventy years dead in the wintry blankness of the Arctic and that was what made Bucky's heart split in two.
Then the footage jumped and this guy, whoever it was, had Steve's shield or one that looked like it and Bucky couldn't stand to watch anymore. He shut off the TV and stared at its dark screen until he was past all thought, everything in his chest aching at the thought of it all.
By the time he stumbled back into his apartment the next morning, after a night spent trying to push himself to the point of physical fatigue and failing miserably, Bucky had almost calmed down enough that he thought he could handle another dose of news, could perhaps see this imposter wearing Steve's symbols and not want to put his hand through the screen at mere idea, but he realized he was rudely mistaken when he caught up on the most recent news reports.
As soon as he heard the word "Avengers" connected with the group of super-heroes who had saved the world, any sense of calm that Bucky had gained evaporated, especially as the reports continued to talk about the mysterious new man who had taken up the Captain America mantle. Who was he? Where had he come from? Why had he chosen to present himself as Captain America, the great late hero of World War II? Bucky didn't particularly care for any of the answers, although his mind kept supplying one, over and over: Nick goddamn Fury.
Bucky managed to watch an interview with a waitress who looked like the one he had seen in the city a few days, with the same soft curls and kind eyes. She was smudged and disheveled but what was most striking was the dreamy awe in her voice as she answered a question. Captain America, she said, he saved my life.
More footage of the man followed, bright cuts of him in action and, god, Bucky could almost believe it was Steve and it was a painful blow to feel so attached to this stranger in his friend's clothes, this imposter that had probably been handpicked by Nick Fury to insult Steve's memory like this. After a few painful minutes, Bucky turned it off again and tried to pinpoint exactly what emotions had swamped over him as he thought about the sheer audacity of what Fury had done.
As much as he stilled ached for the loss of Steve, Bucky had felt numb for a long time, worn out and empty after feeling so much for so long. His grief for Steve had never left but everything less that faded to a kind of dull gray, no extremes other than a few spikes of anger that he knew was probably the result of the stress on his fractured psyche. Thinking about this, though, about how he felt about what Fury had done -- for the first time in a long time, the anger that hit him wasn't icy and calculated, it was a flood of fire and defiance, outrage of the purest form. The more he thought about it, the more incensed he became. Who did this man think he was, to think he could live up to the memory of Steve Rogers? To look so much like him and wear his suit into battle like a modern doppelganger was just as good as the original in a pinch. Steve had been one of a kind in a way that only began with Erskine's formula instead of ending it and the idea that anyone could replace him was a sacrilege, especially to one James Buchanan Barnes. There was no other way he could feel about it.
Still, the question of why burned in his mind and he knew he couldn't do without answers, not when it was related to Steve.
The flare of righteous purpose that ignited in him was surprising but welcome, lighting him up in ways he hadn't been for longer than he could really remember. He supposed it must've been something like what Steve had felt when he talked about serving his country, that dogged sense of duty and pride in that duty; it only made sense that if Bucky was ever going to find that, it would be for Steve. He'd never believed in anything like he had Steve and Bucky wasn't ready to let Nick Fury usurp his image for his own purposes, to act out this farce like no one would object. He might've been the only one left to do so, but Bucky objected.
Bucky -- Sergeant James Barnes, the Winter Soldier -- had a mission once again.
While Steve had always been the tactical genius, Bucky's experience had served him well over the years, especially for the kind of mission he'd been taking to get the answers he wanted. It wouldn't be anything as straight forward or organized as what they had done with the Commandoes; this kind of mission would call on his skills from later in his life, the stretches where ruthlessness and stealth had ruled the day.
Bucky also realized that this couldn't start as a direct assault. He had no idea how to find Nick Fury and not enough resources after living as he had to find him quickly or easily. It would be up to Bucky to find another way in, to find another source of the information he needed. His endgame might've been a confrontation with Fury and his fake Captain America, but his opening move needed to happen somewhere else.
He thought about it for a few days, watching a little more of the extensive coverage that the Avengers were getting in the press, despite the fact that the government, SHIELD and the Avengers themselves were all being fairly close-mouthed, that is. All of them except for Tony Stark, of course, who said a lot of things on camera whenever he had the chance, even when it didn't add to anything of substance. Bucky had watched, in turns ambivalent and amused, over the years as Tony Stark had risen from teenage genius son of visionary Howard Stark to the celebrity he had become, pitied and praised and persecuted depending on the media's mood. He had never been more than polite coworkers with the eldest Stark during the war, but Steve had liked and admired Howard and Bucky had always tried to imagine how Steve might've reacted to the things his friend's son had become infamous for.
It didn't take long before Bucky came to the conclusion that Tony Stark, Iron Man himself, would be the best target for his first fact-finding mission. He was an Avenger, on the same team as the Captain America imposter, so he'd have to at least know something. Stark was also the easiest of the Avengers to track down, going so far as to conveniently having built a tall skyscraper that, at least had once, bore his name. That decided, Bucky moved on to the planning stages of his first strike.
No one ever argued that Stark wasn't a technological genius and that he put his smarts to good use, especially when it came to the security of his facilities. But what Stark tended to guard against was theft, either of physical or intellectual property, and people who wanted to cause him undue harm. Bucky didn't fall into either one of those categories, which would make it much easier for him to gain access. There was also Stark's one great weakness and that was his dependence on technology; for someone as old-fashioned as Bucky, it gave him an advantage that he planned to exploit.
Roughly two weeks after the failed invasion of Manhattan, a shaggy-haired man in a maintenance uniform made its way into Stark Tower through one of the building's service entrances just before the evening rush of people leaving began and he waited patiently until it emptied of people. Like the ghost he often compared himself to in his own mind, he slipped between security checks and cameras, blending in with the skeleton staff that manned the place in its off hours. No one noticed an extra maintenance guy or security guard when there were enough of them roaming the building. It was another stroke of luck for Bucky -- the repair work on the tower after the invasion meant that there were more new faces roaming around, more men that looked like Bucky moving around with purpose -- construction workers, contractors, building inspectors. Again, no one noticed one extra man.
Gaining access to Stark's personal floors would be more difficult but it wasn't anything Bucky hadn't done before, either as the Winter Soldier or when he had worked for hire. It was basic spy work and he was good at it, even after years away. As much as it was helpful, how naturally he could slip back on that mantle, it left a strange pang in Bucky, one more piece of evidence that he was born for the role he had come to play -- liar, killer, machine.
Still, there was a rush of accomplishment that came as Bucky tricked the security system in the elevator to let him up past the public section, farther up into the demolished heights of Stark's personal floors. He'd never gotten the same thrill from rebuilding an engine or repairing a carburetor. The elevator car was silent and smooth as it carried him upwards and Bucky braced himself for what was to come next and felt it like a physical action, the way the Winter Soldier's persona settled over him.
Just before the door slid open on Stark's floor, Bucky huddled in the shadows and waited to see what would happen. When they opened, he heard a friendly voice vaguely reminiscent of Howard Stark ask, "Matthews? What the hell is so important about plumbing that you used your override to get up here at o'god-thirty?"
There was a silence that seemed to drag forever but was probably only a few seconds at most, in which Bucky waited until Stark came into view, a frown pulling at the lines of his goatee. And before Stark's face could even register the alarm rising in the man's eyes, Bucky had stepped off the elevator, a gun calmly aimed at Stark's forehead.
Stark looked like he always did on the television, though dressed more casually in jeans and a loose shirt. There was a drink in his hand and his eyes were focused on the gun.
"Good evening, Mr. Stark," Bucky said, as he let the elevator close, now disabled.
"Sooooo," Stark said with a long, drawn-out breath. "Not Matthews. I guess that answers that question."
"Not Matthews," Bucky confirmed. "But I was hoping we could -- talk."
Stark's eyebrow rose. "It's not really talking if there's a gun involved," he pointed out. He wasn't showing much fear, but fear wasn't Bucky's objective.
Bucky shrugged and lowered the weapon. "I just need answers," Bucky told him. "I don't any vested interest in seeing you dead."
"Good to know," Stark said with a bark of a laugh. "Still, I'm really not much of an answer guy. That's what my staff is for, not that they react well to guns either."
"Iron Man," Bucky said, and Stark tensed. "The Avengers." Stark frowned, eyes hardening. "Captain America."
Stark's eyes narrowed. "Okay, JARVIS," he said aloud, to the air. "I've had enough of our guest here. What gives?"
Bucky almost startled himself when a voice came out of the walls. "He's used crude but effective means to incapacitate the elevators, sir. Security is on its way, however, as is..."
"I'll shoot you before you get the armor on," Bucky cut off the voice, raising the gun once more. In the distance, he could hear a strange whirring noise when his HYDRA-sharpened hearing. "I just need you to tell me what I need to know."
"Maybe if you had asked nicely," Stark said, setting aside his drink. "But I don't take well to threats, especially from crazies who show up looking like they're wandered over from a goth rave. Thanks but no thanks, Morrissey. I'll take my chances on the armor."
The clash, when it finally started, was fast. Bucky was still trying to minimize collateral damage from the mission, so instead of shooting Stark as he'd threatened, he closed the space between them and tried to land a hard, heavy blow with his flesh arm. Stark was faster than he'd expected, though, and Stark dodged the blow, using the momentum to make a dive across the floor as he made a scrambling break for the balcony. Bucky cursed and followed after him.
He managed to get off two shots at Stark but neither was effective. One did seem to graze him in the shoulder but the other bounced away harmlessly as the red and gold metal closed over Stark's compact form. Still, Stark let out a rushed groan before the mask fully closed over his face, telling Bucky his first shot did more damage than he had assumed. While Stark shuffled to gain his balance, Bucky used one hand to eject the clip from his gun as he reached onto his belt for a replacement. Iron Man watched as Bucky cleared the chamber and loaded the next. "You only had two shots in the first one?" Iron Man cracked.
"Armor Piercing bullets," Bucky said, as he steadied his gun again. "I didn't see the need to waste them before."
"Too little, too late," Stark said from within the suit. He lifted his own hand, pointing one of his repulsers at Bucky. "Drop it."
"Who is Captain America?" Bucky demanded. "How did he end up an Avenger?"
"Is that what this is?" Stark asked. "Some kind of super-hero envy? Sorry but Cap's spot is kinda a given. We don't need an alternate, but thanks for applying."
"I don't want to be an Avenger," Bucky snapped. "I turned Fury down a long time ago."
Stark made a show of looking Bucky up and down. "Okay, now I'm hurt. He asked you when he told me no? Typical goddamn Fury, that one."
Secretly, Bucky agreed. "Tell me who he is," he said again. "Where I can find him."
"And that would be...a no," Stark said. "You can ask Fury about that after I take you down."
Bucky twisted just enough to miss the full brunt of the repulsor blast, a move that seemed to make Iron Man hesitate for a fraction but then he barreled forward, planning to land his own heavy-fisted punch. Bucky didn't dodge it; instead, he blocked it with his metal hand, catching the armored fist before it could smash into his face.
"That...was unexpected," Iron Man said as he yanked his arm back from Bucky's hold.
Bucky took the chance to step forward again and wrap his metal hand around the throat of the suit. He couldn't strangle Stark like that but he could see the suit's metal give under his fingers, restricting Stark's ability to take a full breath.
"Tell me who he is," Bucky said again. "Tell me who Fury has pretending to be Captain America and where I can find him!"
He could feel Stark swallow under the vice of his grip. "Not. Happening."
With a great burst of strength that even surprised himself, Bucky shoved Stark away. He watched as the armored man staggered. "You tell Fury that I won't stand for this," he said. "I don't give a damn who he is."
Bucky had come up with a half-dozen clever ways to escape from the top of Stark Tower, depending on how Stark or his security tried to stop him but it turned out he didn't need any of them.
For some reason, Stark let him walk right out the front door.
So, Steve -- okay, Steve's voicemail -- I hope you've found yourself and I hope to god you know how to check the messages on your phone because I really think you need to get back to New York quickly. As in yesterday. Because...well, I hate to say something is wrong because it really depends on your definition, I guess. I mean, no, the Chitauri aren't attacking, Loki's not up to his old ways and global warming is...well, still a threat but hardly something you can fix with your shield. But...if your definition of wrong includes me being attacked by someone spouting craziness about Captain America and wearing the face of your oldest and supposedly deadest bff in the world? Then, yes, something is definitely wrong. So, yeah, you might want to head back, okay? Oh, this is Tony, by the way, in case that wasn't ridiculously apparent before. Um, bye.
Bucky always hated when a mission failed and this time was no exception. While he had escaped his encounter with Iron Man unscathed and with minimal damage on both sides, he also hadn't gotten a single piece of intelligence out of Stark either. All he really had done was tip off Fury that he was pissed off at him which, if it wasn't news to Fury already, had only placed himself at a further disadvantage. It had been sloppy, truth be told, and Bucky could almost hear the remembered echo of the brain-washing he'd been put through reminding him again and again that emotions had no place in the heart of a killing machine.
He still had his anger, though, and, he tried to hold on to it as he deliberated on what to do next. The day after his unsuccessful fact-finding visit to Stark Tower, Bucky didn't even bother opening the shop; instead, he hopped on his bike and went for a long, lonely ride through the quiet back roads, trying to work off the anxiousness brought on by his failure. He didn't deal with it as well as he should've; it made it difficult for him to think about the future when he was reliving his mistakes. It was another reason that Steve had been the tactical genius between them.
It was night when he finally pulled up behind the shop, near the steps leading to his small apartment above it. He had hoped that he'd be tired enough after a day of traipsing around in the country that he'd be ready to sleep but that wasn't the case. It was one of the many side-effects to whatever Red Skull had done to him that had left him ageless -- he rarely needed the kind of sleep he had needed when he'd been normal and he could go for days before true exhaustion caught up with him. Back when he had first come from beneath the Winter Soldier programming and for years after, needing so little had sleep had seemed like a miracle, a reprieve that had meant he had needed to spend less time chasing rest when his rest was plagued by terrible, violent nightmares. Now, however, now that he had gotten most of that under control -- as much as he could anyway -- sleep was a refuge from his thoughts instead of a harbor for them, and he desperately wished he was tired enough to collapse. He wasn't.
Bucky had just turned off his bike and was leading it back into the second of his shop's garages, the one he tended to use for his private use if he could help it, when he heard something. It was soft, barely there, a creak or a squeak, some tiny noise that shouldn't have meant anything. But he was too intimately familiar with his shop and the surrounding neighborhood not to realize that it was wrong, too close and too subtle to be an innocuous noise. He could tell something was about to go down.
That "something" turned out to be an arrow flying toward him, the sound of slicing through the air loud enough to his airs that Bucky managed to throw himself out of its path right before it made contact with his flesh shoulder. He whipped his head in the direction it had come, which was from just outside the open garage door, and saw a shadow duck out of eye sight. Bucky hunkered down behind his bike and then crawled across the floor until he was covered by the tall, rolling toolbox rack.
He kept his eyes trained on the barely-lit darkness of the gravel yard on the side of his shop, even as he reached behind him to feel around for the gun he kept in one of the cabinets outside. He didn't bother with the lock and key, just wrenched it open with the brute strength of his metal arm. There was comfort in the action of wrapping his hands around its grip and settling down to see what his mysterious attackers would do next.
Bucky waited a minute or two but whoever they were seemed to content to wait him out. He snagged a wrench from his toolbox and tossed wrench across the garage, toward the door. He wasn't surprised when another arrow sailed toward it.
He could've pretended like it was a coincidence that he had made a move against Iron Man and now he had an archer after him, but Bucky didn't believe in that kind of coincidence.
"So," he called out, angling himself so his voice echoed out, hard to pinpoint. "Hawkeye, I believe the TV calls you? Who sent you -- Stark or Fury?"
There was a moment of silence, then an answer is a rough voice. "Come with me and you can find out."
"I think not."
"We were sent to bring you in, not kill you," the voice continued. "Although, sometimes I just can't help myself."
Bucky snorted. "I know the feeling."
"It'll be easier for everyone this way, Rogers," the voice said. "Come on out."
Bucky rolled his eyes even though he knew no one could see him. "Definitely Fury," he said to himself. "He didn't even tell him who I really was." Which was another sign that Fury was far from an ideal superior to be working for and a break for Bucky since there was probably a lot that Fury had kept from the Avenger. Like Bucky's metal arm and enhanced abilities. There was another stretch of silence and Bucky eyed the door that led to the second garage, the one closer to the front, the one he actually used for paying repair jobs. It had doors that opened up on two other sides of the building, making it a much better position from which to escape being Hawkeye's target practice.
He took a deep breath, tightened his fingers on his gun, then used the second thing he had grabbed from his toolbox -- the automatic garage door closer.
There was a groan as the mechanics started working to ratchet down the metal door and Bucky dived for the side door as a hail of arrows and bullets started pounding into the lowering steel curtain. Again, he ignored the need for a key and used his strength to yank the door in spite of its lock, but it was worth the damage he'd have to fix as he tumbled into the relative safety of the second garage. He came to his feet, rolled his shoulders, and then move swiftly toward the door that led to the front office.
He didn't get far before he impacted into another solid body, one that came up at him swinging. His gun went skittering out of his hand as he moved to avoid a jab, followed by several kicks.
He should've expected that Hawkeye hadn't come alone, but he hadn't heard any noise that had alerted him to someone else making their way into the shop. Whoever they were must've come in through front and then slipped into the garage while Hawkeye distracted him, he realized. Whoever he was fighting, they were small but strong despite of it, moving with a speed that made it difficult even for Bucky to catch more than a blur as he dodged blows and kicks. He evaded most of them but a few connected before he finally managed to break out of the engagement and slide around the shadow fighter. When he did, he made for the light switch and blinked his eyes closed before he threw on all the fluorescents. A second later, he opened them to see the room flooded with light and a small, red-haired woman -- Black Widow, they called her, also an Avenger -- recovering from the split second of disorientation his trick had caused her.
The window for action was small but it was there and Bucky took it. He launched himself back at her, aiming to catch her around the middle and slam her into line of metal cabinets against the far wall, and he got as far as his arm around her waist. But instead of flying back with the momentum of his weight, she somehow squirmed out of his grasp and vaulted over him, so that she was in a position to land a solid kick to his lower back. Bucky winced, growled, and turned, lashing out with a kick of his own. She let out a soft grunt of her own when his heavy motorcycle boot connected with her knee.
This time he wasn't surprised when another body tried to sneak up on him, and he was ready for it. He twisted in time to catch the bow that Hawkeye had planned to strangle him with out of the man's hands and yanked it out of the archer's hands before he threw it across the garage. Hawkeye's eyes narrowed and he started to take a swing but Bucky blocked it before he had a chance, then turned again in time narrowly miss another punch from Black Widow.
Bucky could hear their ragged breaths as they circled him and distantly he noted that he had barely started to tire. Still, they were both very skilled and he didn't think he could fight them both off for long, not unless he chose to be lethal about it -- something he had promised he wouldn't do since he gave up mercenary killing twenty years earlier. But if they didn't back off, he didn't see where he'd have any other choice.
Hawkeye took the first next shot and Bucky met him for move or move, still aware of Black Widow's presence just behind him, waiting for her chance. He had almost wondered why she hadn't taken it yet when she felt him throw herself at his back, one slim arm wrapped around his neck. Her grip was far too lax to restrain him or restrict his air flow, so he wasn't entirely sure what her play was. He spun around until it was her back that faced Hawkeye instead of his front, then he reached up with his metal hand and began to pull at the arm she had around him.
That was when he heard her voice, soft and low. "I didn't want to do this," she said, and it was shock because the words were Russian, though he understood them perfectly. "Just so you know."
The next shock came as he felt some hard and piercing -- a knife -- come down on his shoulder. It wasn't a new wound or a new weapon, not after his seventy-plus years of sporadic combat experience, but its placement was horrifying accurate, coming as it did at his weakest spot -- the juncture where the flesh of his shoulder met the metal fittings of his prosthetic arm. It was his Achilles Heel and just as difficult to pinpoint exactly; someone, probably Fury, must've told her for her to know to go for it.
He roared his outrage as pain coursed through him, sparks of light behind his eyes, and he wasn't surprised that it was followed by a jab into his neck, followed by the icy-hot feel of some drug sweeping over him.
"I'm sorry, James," he heard her say, already too far into the blackness to register the use of his real given name.
When Bucky finally regained consciousness, he wasn't surprised to find that his hands were confined in some very high-tech-looking shackles and that he was in a small, white room that, while it tried to have aspersions of something less hostile, was most definitely a cell.
He rolled off the cot on which he'd been lying, coming to his feet as he examined his new surroundings with detachment, suppressing any feelings he might've had that wanted to roil to the surface. Everything was eerily white or gleaming metal, from the bed and its white, hospital-smelling sheets, to the brushed steel of the sink and toilet, to the generic scrubs-like garments he'd been dressed in while he was unconscious. There was a chair, also made of metal, all rounded corners to minimize its ability to be shaped into a weapon. The outline of what he assumed was a door was tucked against one wall but there were no visible workings on it, nothing that could be gripped or pulled or tugged. There was also a small, square bit of glass on the same wall, one Bucky had no doubt was actually a two-way mirror.
Definitely SHIELD, he decided with a shake of his head. Somehow, he knew that Stark would've been a much classier jailer.
Bucky wasn't exactly sure how he was awake, taking in the sparse details of his confinement, but he was startled out of the oppressive silence but a voice coming at him through a speaker.
"Sergeant Barnes," the voice said -- female, no-nonsense, but not the Black Widow. "Please seat yourself in the chair and stay there. You have a visitor."
Bucky did as he was told, although he wondered why they bothered. The socket where his skin met the metal of his arm still ached with the Widow's finishing blow and, with his hands confined in metal cuffs that all his exertion did little to yield, it wasn't as if he had chance at a viable escape. Oh, he could probably take several people down just with his bare feet but even he knew he wouldn't get far out of SHIELD's clutches.
Not at the moment, anyway.
As soon as the voice on the other side seemed satisfied that Bucky wasn't going to lunge out of his chair at whoever wanted to step through that door, it slid open and in walked Fury. He looked just like he had when he had approached Bucky those years ago, right down to the eye patch and the long leather coat.
"Sergeant Barnes," Fury said in greeting. "We meet again." He paused. "Under less than ideal circumstances."
It felt strange to be addressed by his real name and rank after seventy years of aliases but he tried not to let it unsettle him. "So we do."
"I assume you know why you're here?"
"Because Stark gave you my message?" Bucky asked, shifting a little in his chair as he watched Fury pace in front of him.
"No," Fury said with a glare. "Because you launched an unprovoked attack on one of my Avengers."
Bucky made a noise in his throat that was reminiscent of a growl. "It wasn't unprovoked," he shot back. "You provoked it."
"And you think an attack on one of his teammates is the way to get Captain America's attention?" Fury asked him. "It's usually the negative kind if it works."
"I wanted answers," Bucky told him. He was leaning forward in the chair and it was taking every bit of good sense and control he had not to jump to his feet, but he had all ideas that he'd pay if he did. "I wanted to who you thought you were to put someone else in Steve's suit and send them out to pretend that he could ever measure up to the real Captain America."
Fury stilled and took a long time to turn his head to Bucky. It was odd but Bucky didn't know why. "Did you have someone else in mind for the job?" he asked dryly. "Maybe you?"
"There will only ever be one Captain America," he growled. "And that's Steve Rogers."
Fury stared at him for a minute. "So that's what this is?" he asked, sounding bored. "You got yourself up in a twist because you don't like the idea of someone else wearing the suit?" He snorted. "You must have it especially difficult at Halloween and Independence Day."
"Don't try to pretend that this is just about a suit," Bucky said. "You wanted the Avengers to work, you wanted them to be wanted. What better way than to trot out some beefed up lookalike in Steve's stuff? Play on all that patriotism? I get it, Fury, it just makes me want to punch something."
"Like Iron Man?"
"Like you," Bucky explained. "But Stark worked in a pinch."
Fury brought a hand up to pinch at the skin between his eyes, like Bucky was bringing on a massive headache. "I approached you about the Avengers Initiative because I thought your unique background would be an asset." He shook his head. "I soon became glad that you had turned us down because I began to think that maybe you would end up being more of a hindrance than a help. I'm not happy to see that I was right."
"I'm not a hindrance," Bucky said, insulted.
"You attacked Iron Man."
"I didn't kill him," Bucky said. "I could've. The same with Hawkeye and the Black Widow. I might not have chosen to get captured, but I chose not to kill any of them."
"And that makes it better?" Fury asked with a snort. "You've killed a lot of people, Sergeant."
"For how long?" Fury challenged. "I thought you gave it up after you stopped being the Winter Soldier but then the 80s happened."
Bucky closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It had taken a long time to be able to live with what he had done as the Winter Soldier and longer still to accept that what he had done in the 80s hadn't been able the brainwashing. It had been about the emptiness inside him that much farther back. "I'm not going to make excuses," he said. "I can't. I also can't begin to explain what drove me to it, either. Do you realize, Fury, that I'm almost a hundred years old?" Bucky lifted his shackled hands and pressed them against his chest. "Between Red Skull's sick experiments and the equally horrible things that the Soviets did to me...I barely age. I don't need to sleep, I can go without eating, I...heal. It finally hit me sometime back then that I could continue to live like this forever and I needed to test that." He could feel his emotion rising and he paused, swallowing. "Should I have done it by killing people for money? No. But I doubt many of the people I killed were any better than the people I was killing them for. And then one day it finally caught up with me and I stopped. And I haven't done it since."
Sometime during his words, Fury had turned away. "You're still dangerous, Barnes. I still can't trust you with...some of the things I'd like to trust you with."
"Then what are you going to do with me?"
Fury's jaw clenched. "I don't know," he said and it sounded honest. "But until I do, you can remain here as my guest."
Fury turned away to head toward the door, a sign that he either trusted Bucky on some level or knew that he could take him down quickly if need be. But then he paused and looked back at Bucky over his shoulder. "How do you think Rogers would feel about what you've done with the last seventy years?"
It was a question that Bucky tried not to ask himself on the endless number of sleepless nights he had passed or whenever he caught a look at himself in a mirror and saw the Winter Soldier instead of Bucky Barnes looking back. But he hadn't been very successful on silencing that voice and the answer had both consoled and despaired him over the years.
"He wouldn't like it," he admitted after a long pause, as he looked for the right words. "But I think if he had experienced even a little of what these years have been like for me...he would understand."
For some reason, Fury's shoulders were suddenly tense. "I guess you'd know," he said before the door slid open and stepped out.
After his little discussion with Fury, Bucky was left alone for hours, hands still held immobile between the steel of his shackles. They weren't the worst thing Bucky had ever endured and so far, SHIELD rated high among the best places he'd ever been held captive. If it hadn't been for the dull throb in his shoulder, he would've been almost comfortable. He eventually stretched back out on the cot to help ease the pressure on his shoulder; he must've dozed a little because he jerked awake at the sound of the cell door sliding open. He looked up, expecting Fury; instead it was Black Widow, face unreadable as she watched him with calm, placid eyes.
She didn't seem inclined to speak. She just tilted her head a little and studied him.
Bucky eventually couldn't stop himself from asking. "How did you know?"
"Know?" she asked.
"About the shoulder," he said, shrugging it and wincing. "Fury tell you?"
"No," she said. She took a step closer. "I learned a long time ago."
"Really?" he asked.
She nodded. "The Red Room, they never forgot you," she said -- again, speaking in Russian. It made the hairs on the back of his neck rise. "Even when I was being trained, they warned about you, taught us your weaknesses. The American. The Winter Soldier. The Rogue." She took a deep breath and switched back to English. "I always wanted to meet the legend."
He shook his head. "I'm not a legend," he said. "I'm just one unlucky bastard."
"Unlucky?" she echoed. "You survived. You broke free. You lived. Sounds to me like you're lucky."
"Sometimes, it would've been easier not to," he admitted. "Look at how well it ended for me." He lifted his shackled wrists in sardonic emphasis of his point.
The Widow almost rolled her eyes, which he took as a victory. "Cheer up," she told him, a tiniest thread of mischief in her voice. "You never know when things might work out to the good."
He couldn't stop himself from releasing a bark of laughter. "You didn't learn that in Red Room, that's for sure."
"No," she agreed, and her expression softened. "Budapest."
With that mysterious rejoinder, she favored him with a small smile before she left him alone to ponder their strange little conversation.
How could you not tell me about this before now?!
I didn't tell you now; Stark did. And don't think he's not going to answer for that after I specifically told him not to.
Why? Why didn't you say anything as soon as I woke up? All this time, he's been so close...
Because the man sitting in that cell is not the same man you knew in 1943, Captain Rogers. Not at all.
But he's really...Bucky.
Yes, he is Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes. Alias Bucky. Alias The Winter Soldier. Alias The Rogue. You don't know the things he'd done. He didn't exactly keep his hands clean while you were sleeping, Cap.
If he's really Bucky? It doesn't matter. Not to me.
...and that's the first reason I didn't tell you.
There were a lot of things Bucky hated about captivity but the most trying was the boredom of it all, especially when he wasn't particularly planning a means of escape. It wasn't that he hadn't thought about it -- he had -- but Bucky knew that he'd probably cause himself more trouble by trying to escape than he would by simply waiting out whatever Fury was up to. If Fury's plan had been to kill or torture him, he would've done it by now, so Bucky was willing to wait to see what Fury had in mind before he made any plans.
He did, though, think a little about the future; he was starting to think it was time to give up his little shop in upstate New York, time to move on and try something different for the next dozen years. His current identity was too well-known by SHIELD and he was starting to feel the prick of restlessness under his skin. Maybe he'd go West again, maybe all the way to the coast. It was something he and Steve had talked about when they'd been kids, seeing all of America, from one end to the other, and Steve had always spoke wistfully of seeing the Pacific Ocean. Even once they had joined the war, Steve never got a chance to make that one dream come true.
A little after the Widow's visit, a uniformed guard brought him something to eat and released his shackles long enough for him to do so, the guard standing watch the entire time. Like the door, the shackles seemed to be controlled remotely, no key involved. There had just been a faint beep and then the buzz of the shackles releasing their hold on his wrists. Fairly ingenious, Bucky decided, as he made short work of the food placed in front of him while staring at the guard. He was pretty pleased that his steely glare was enough to fluster the young watchman before the end of the meal.
After that, Bucky was left alone again to his own devices and that was when the boredom started to creep up on him, leaving him tense and restless. He paced the room as he had earlier, taking in every minute detail in case he needed to know them later. When he had tired of that as well, Bucky sank back down into the chair, shackled hands resting on his knees. He hoped that Fury figured out what he planned to do soon or else he'd be tempted to break out just to relieve the tedium of incarceration.
Gradually, though, Bucky began to notice a strange pinprick of sensation on his back, a weird sixth sense that told him that he was being watched. It was unsettling to be so sure of something he couldn't see but Bucky couldn't shake the eerie conviction that someone was watching from the other side of the small two-way mirror near the door. He didn't like the idea of being under observation, like some animal caged in a zoo for people to gawk at, and the very notion should've made him angry. But somehow, it felt different from that and left him more confused than anything.
He had been staring back at the two-way mirror for several minutes, as if his concentration alone could let him see through the glass. It hadn't, of course, because x-ray vision wasn't part of the package he'd gotten from Red Skull and the Soviets, but that hadn't stopped him from keeping his eyes pinned there, hoping for a glimpse of something that might explain his strange feelings.
Then he heard the voice again. "Remain seated, Sergeant Barnes," she said. "Door opening."
What really caught Bucky's attention, though, was the long pause between her announcement and the actual sound of the door beginning to slide open during which Bucky's shackles released from around his wrists. They fell to the floor with a clatter but Bucky was too busy rubbing at the dull ache in his flesh-and-blood wrist to make it much attention. Finally, the door rumbled open and Bucky tensed where he sat, entire being on alert.
He was expecting Fury or Widow; maybe even Hawkeye or Stark. What he wasn't expecting was the tall, broad shoulders covered in checked fabric, or the blond head above those shoulders, or the timorous blue eyes in between those two points. As if to preserve his sanity, his eyes swept down over boots and long, sturdy legs before they finally lingered on the face, the one that he hadn't forgotten, not in seventy years. When Bucky dared to meet the eyes watching him, the mouth in that unforgettable face smiled, just a little.
"Bucky," the visitor said.
Bucky flinched, icy cold in his utter fury. He was so angry that his good hand shook and he jumped to his feet, warning be damned. "He has gone too far," he said. He turned sharply to the two-way mirror. "Fury! Get your ass in here!"
The man wearing Steve's face frowned. "What's wrong? I..." He took a tentative step toward Bucky, hand outstretched, and Bucky took a step back.
"How did he do it?" Bucky demanded, still shaking with rage. "You even sound like Steve." His voice broke on his friend's name and Bucky could feel moisture gathering in his eyes and he hadn't cried in decades. "How could you, whoever you are, agree to do this? To the world? To me?"
Steve's face suddenly went from frowning to looking wretched, like Bucky's words had been a punch to the gut. Bucky was glad of it. "Bucky," the man said again, using Steve's voice. "You think...? No, Buck, listen -- it's me. It's Steve."
Even before he had finished speaking, Bucky was shaking his head no. "No," he said out loud, still holding his metal hand up to deter the imposter from stepping any closer. "You can't be Steve. Steve is dead. He died. Everyone said so."
"I know," the man said and his -- Steve's -- that voice sounded like it was shaking from emotion, too, just like Bucky's was. The eyes were the worst, though, still framed by impossibly long lashes, and Bucky couldn't look straight at Steve's face while they had this conversation. He couldn't. "But they were wrong. I -- I froze and was in some kind of suspended state and they found me a few months ago and they woke me up and..." It was the man with Steve's face -- Steve? -- who broke off and turned away. "And everyone I ever knew was dead and I couldn't..." He glanced back up, gaze catching Bucky's. "But then you're not. Bucky..."
Bucky tried to think logically through everything he had just been told but he couldn't, not when common sense and distrust and hope all warred inside him, battling for dominance. He knew what it was like to be frozen, to be preserved by ice, and it sounded plausible given what he knew of his own experiences -- and Steve had been the epitome of perfect compared to the haphazard enhancements that Bucky had endured. And, god, Bucky wanted the impossible to be true. He wanted it to be Steve who was watching him nervously from just inside the cell door, his entire frame vibrating with the effort it took him from crossing the floor to Bucky. He had prayed for it more times than he could ever possibly count, nights and days and wars and peacetime, in every spare minute he'd had in seventy long years. He wanted it more than he wanted his own peace or freedom or even his next breath.
But Bucky Barnes was no stranger to manipulation, to deceit, to having his entire brain re-written on a whim. He didn't think Fury could do it, would do it, would go to the lengths Bucky suspected to create a new Captain America but what did Bucky know? He'd have never believed in unkillable brainwashed assassins until he'd become one.
He might've been holding back his own tears but the man in front of him wasn't. Bucky watched in morbid fascination as a single tear slid from his eyes. "Bucky, please," he said in Steve's emotionally choked voice. "You believe me, right?"
So tempting but...Bucky shook his head. "I need, I need something," he said. "I want to believe but I...I'm not sure. I'm not and I can't be wrong. So, you need to prove it to me, if you're Steve."
"How?" came the swift, fierce reply, so much like Steve that it made bile rise in Bucky's throat. "Tell me how and I'll do it. I swear."
"I don't know," Bucky admitted. He had dropped his hand back to his side and his hands were fisted at his sides. Still, he made sure there was a comfortable distance between them. "God, I don't know, Steve. I just can't be wrong or dreaming or hallucinating this. I'll die."
"You're not," he answered, almost like he'd die, too, if Bucky did. "I can...can I tell you something that I would know? Me and you, I mean?"
"Like..." he trailed off, then looked up, hopeful. "What you said about the Cyclone, on the mountain?"
Bucky shook his head. "The team was there," he said. "They could've told someone."
"I..." Steve swallowed. "Okay, something else."
Bucky didn't want to think about it, but it gave him an idea, a terrible but effective one. "How about later that day," he began. "On the train..."
Those blue eyes widened. "Do we really?"
"Right before I..." He couldn't say die because he hadn't, although, in the ways that counted, maybe he had. Bucky continued. "...fell. What's the last thing I said?"
"You can't think of anything else you want to relive?" the -- maybe Steve asked, a hint of exasperation creeping in.
"Quit stalling, Rogers," Bucky ordered. "If that's who you are." He risked a step forward. "What did I say?"
He had a muscle bunching in his jaw but he managed to answer. "You said you had him on the ropes," he whispered. "Just like I used to tell you."
"And what did you say?"
"The same thing you always did," Steve whispered. "I know you did."
Bucky's heart stuttered to a stop. "Steve?" It seemed hard to imagine, after the years he'd spent alone, in penance, in purgatory, that he was getting his miracle. He still wasn't ready to believe it. "Maybe he told someone that, after, maybe..."
His companion moved, faster than even Bucky was expecting, and then there were hands on his shoulders, gripping tight until the metal might've creaked a little. He shook Bucky a little. "Bucky, no," he said. "I never told a soul, ever. But I hear those words almost every time I close my eyes. You have to believe me. I'm me."
"They told me you were dead," he said softly, still clinging to desperate disbelief. "I would've come, if I'd known."
"I know," Steve said and Bucky's heart began to thaw, believing just a little bit more. "I don't blame you or anybody." He let out a strange little laugh. "I just wish you hadn't been alone all this time." Steve's hand came up to his neck the way it had in that hellish room back on that HYDRA based but instead of the quick, friendly clasp, it lingered there, a thumb resting near Bucky's pounding pulse. "I thought you were dead."
The noise that came out of Bucky might've been a laugh, if laughter was painful and choked. "That makes two of us, Steve."
The next thing Bucky knew those strong, strong arms that hadn't been part of the Steve he'd known the longest were wrapped around him in a fierce hug, tight around him like Steve never planned to let go. Bucky let the last of his doubt slide away as he returned the embrace, even raising his metal arm to curve around Steve's shoulder as he held on for dear life. If this was a dream or a lie or hallucination, he just hoped he never woke up because he wouldn't survive the whiplash emotions of it, not after beginning to believe he'd gotten Steve back after all those years.
But it was difficult to not believe when he could feel every inch of Steve pressed against him, could hear his breath, and smell him, maybe even feel the flutter of his eyelashes and the wet of his tears against his skin where Steve's face was pressed against his neck. Even more difficult to believe it wasn't true when he focused on superhuman strength that held onto him, leaving him breathless from its steely crush.
Bucky might not have been able to breathe but it didn't matter because nothing was more important than what it meant.
Bucky's stay at the SHIELD headquarters came to a rather anti-climactic end the next morning when the Black Widow appeared and quietly led him out to a waiting car. Bucky blinked a little at the glint of the early sun on the glass and chrome of the city, earning a smirk from Hawkeye who stood next to the sleek sedan.
"What's going on?" he asked the Widow.
She jerked her head to the left, drawing Bucky's attention toward a motorcycle parked a little farther down the alley, next to which stood its tall, fair owner. Steve had his sunglasses on, too, but his mouth offered a small smile when Bucky looked his way. "Someone vouched for you with Director Fury," she explained. "We're just giving you a ride back to where we found you."
"...and Steve?" he had to ask, even as Hawkeye opened the car door, all but ready to push inside.
"Will follow us," she promised, just before she disappeared into the driver's seat.
Bucky decided to be cooperative since it looked like he was getting away from Fury with only a slap on his wrist for his moves against Stark, although he couldn't stop himself from glancing back every few miles, to make sure that the rumble of the motorcycle he heard wasn't a figment of his imagination. It wasn't, though, and Steve was always there, reassuringly within sight. Bucky wondered if he was jinxing the whole thing with his lack of faith, like a story he'd once heard about a man who almost got his wife back from hell but he couldn't stop doubting, but Bucky just didn't have much faith in him anymore. Maybe he'd learn it again, in the face of what he'd gotten back, but it wasn't something he had on hand at the moment, when he was still half-convinced that he was going to wake up and Steve's return would be a cruel trick of his subconscious.
Finally, they had reached his own little home town and his small garage, left much worse for the wear given the firefight it had been through a few days before. But Bucky noticed that SHIELD had at least been nice enough to repair the outside locks, even if there were still bullet and arrow holes in his garage doors.
"Stay out of trouble, friend," the Widow told him in Russian, as he scrambled out of the car. "And off of Fury's radar."
"I plan to," he said. "Thank you."
She gave him a brief smile, then nodded her goodbye. Hawkeye waved a lazy hand in his direction. Bucky closed the car door and stepped back, watching them drive away. He was much more interested in the motorcycle that rumbled up a few seconds later. It was still a thrill, a fantasy come to life, to turn and see Steve watching him, smiling as he waited for direction.
"Let's put that in here," he told Steve, indicating the garage where he usually kept his bike. "Then we can go upstairs."
His apartment above the garage had escaped the damage the business had gotten when the Widow and Hawkeye had come after him, but Bucky realized it wasn't exactly nice in its best shape. It was serviceable, a place to eat and sleep when the inclination hit him, but nothing much in the scheme of things. Still, it was much better than some of the hovels he and Steve had slept in as kids and Steve didn't seem put off by its Spartan utility once they made it inside.
"Home, sweet home," Bucky said with a mocking twist of his mouth. "Make yourself comfortable."
"Thanks," Steve said absently, ever the polite one. He didn't sit down like Bucky had figured; Steve's eyes were immediately drawn to the photographs on the wall, the ones of Steve that Bucky had practically treated like talismans in the intervening decades.
"You wouldn't believe how hard it was to find pictures of the -- old you," Bucky said. "Especially since I probably snapped the damn thing in the first place."
Steve glanced back at him, pulling his eyes from the photograph. "I can't even imagine," he admitted. "It's all so strange."
"That's an understatement, don't you think?" Bucky asked.
"Probably." His gaze roved over Bucky once again, from the top of his shaggy hair to the toes of his boots. "It hasn't been that long for me," he continued. "But you're -- different."
"It's been a very long time for me," Bucky said. "And you -- aren't."
Steve looked away, clearing his throat. "Fury filled me in on a little," he said. "But I think he just gave me the broad strokes." He made a show of studying the old Commandoes photo. "You've been going, all this time? Since the fall?"
"I don't really remember much of the 40s and 50s," he admitted. "But I've been kicking since the mid-60s, mostly alert."
"I'd like to hear about it," Steve said.
Bucky frowned, something cold clutching in his chest at the idea. "No, you won't," he replied. "Fury must've told you enough. I'm not proud of most of what I did, for good reason."
Steve was silent for a moment. "He told me," he admitted. "Buck, I'll tell you what I told him. It doesn't matter."
"Then he didn't tell you enough," Bucky countered. "Because I did -- it was bad."
"You were brainwashed," Steve objected. "Tortured, forced. That's not your fault."
"Not for all of it, Steve," Bucky told him. "I killed a lot of people when I was in my right mind and I didn't care one damn bit." Bucky turned away, made a show of shrugging out of his jacket, just for something to do, so he wouldn't have to meet Steve's earnest gaze. "There's no way to sugarcoat it."
"I know about that, too," Steve said. "Fury showed me his work-up on you and I still don't care."
Bucky shook his head and headed toward the refrigerator. He was suddenly in desperate need of a drink and glad that he at least could still feel the effects of alcohol. "You can't mean that," he said as he twisted the cap from the bottle with his metal fingers. "You're Captain America."
"I'm Steve Rogers," Steve said and even as Bucky kept himself turned away so he wouldn't have to meet Steve's eyes, he was aware that his friend had moved closer. "And I watched you die and I didn't think I'd ever recover. And I woke up seventy years in the future and then everyone I knew was dead and, still, still, you were the one I missed most of all. I can't imagine what it was like for you, Bucky, or why you did what you did but...if you're looking for someone to condemn you, it won't be me. I'm too selfish for that."
Bucky snorted, then took a long pull of his bottle before he sat the beer on the counter. "The one thing you aren't is selfish, Rogers," he said.
Steve shrugged. "I know I'm not going to lose you again, not when you're here. Some might call that selfish."
Part of Bucky was still waiting for the dream to be over because he still wasn't sure he could trust that Steve was standing there, looking like he had the last time Bucky had seen him, all ramrod spine and wide shoulders, strong jaw and soft blue eyes. It didn't help that Steve was still looking at Bucky like he'd never seen him before or maybe as if he felt the same way Bucky did, that it was a miracle that they were standing there together again.
"You have changed, there's no denying that," Steve continued. "But you're still Bucky. My Bucky."
"Maybe I'm not," Bucky said. He felt trapped by the sweet promise of Steve's words and the closeness of his body, trapped by his own feelings that had had seven decades to hone themselves into a sword onto which he could fall. "Don't let the face deceive you."
"It's not the face where I see it," Steve said. "Although it hasn't changed much. Except maybe..." Steve's fingers against his skin was a shock, a sizzle as Steve touched the skin near his temple, near the outside of one of his eyes. "A few more lines here and there. A little gray, even. But I see you in your eyes, Bucky. That's what matters."
Steve's hand didn't move away, which was odd because Steve had never exactly been the tactile one in the friendship. It was unnerving, especially when Bucky had had years to come to understand why a simple touch did so many things to him, when Steve probably didn't have any idea.
Except that Steve's eyes had somehow been drawn to his mouth, which Bucky knew was frowning. His frown deepened. "Steve?"
Steve's hand jerked away like he'd been burnt and red streaked across his face, blotchy and uneven, as if his blush was the one imperfect thing about him. "Sorry, I..." he trailed off. "Just -- sorry."
In 1930-something, Bucky would've laughed the moment off; in 1940-something, he probably would've smiled a little to hide the ache in his chest, the one that still hadn't made sense. But it was 2000-something and he had had seventy years of grief and want, years and years to become reckless and bold, so he didn't do either. Instead, Bucky stepped up where Steve had backed up, and let his hands come up to cover the flush on Steve's cheeks, sure his metal hand was probably too cold and sleek against the heated skin. "If you want me," he said, deadly serious. "You got me, Steve. Forever."
It would've been true regardless of how Steve felt because it had been the one constant in Bucky's life, but he'd never meant the words more than when he saw a flare of pleased disbelief in Steve's eyes or the way he leaned in just enough that Bucky didn't hesitate to press his mouth to Steve's, somehow soft and undemanding despite the decades of desperation behind it. Then Steve made a surprised noise in his throat, tensing for a long second before he relaxed into it, reminding Bucky that for Steve's greek-god perfection, he'd been kissed exactly twice before that Bucky knew of. He started to pull away and give Steve a chance to catch up but he couldn't because suddenly Steve had a hold of him, hands clutching bruises into the soft flesh of Bucky's hips as Steve pulled him closer, refusing to let go. Bucky kissed him a little harder until he felt the scrape of Steve's teeth on his bottom lip and Bucky's laugh broke their mouths apart.
"Where did you learn that, huh?" he asked.
"I might've paid more attention than you thought when you were romancing all those dames," Steve said. The hint of smile faded and there was just the painful earnestness that Bucky had long known, that had had Bucky beating up bullies on every block in Brooklyn. "I never thought I'd get to do it and not just because you died."
"I had a long time to figure out that I wanted to and to wish I had," Bucky said. "You don't even know, Steve."
"No," Steve agreed. He still hadn't let Bucky go, not that Bucky was complaining since his hands were still on Steve, fingers moving over shoulders and down the rounded muscles of his biceps. "But now, we -- if you want."
"Oh, I want," Bucky assured him with another quick press of mouth to Steve's skin. It was novel to watch his eyelids flutter with the touch. "I definitely want."
"Me too," Steve said with another shy smile, face bright with it. It stole Bucky's breath, the simple happiness there, a foreign emotion for him for so long. But maybe with Steve back, it wouldn't be for long. "I...I wasn't sure I'd know what to do without you around."
Bucky knew exactly what he was like without Steve and it wasn't anything he wanted to be. But if they had been the price he'd had to pay for this, for now, for Steve, then Bucky could accept it without another thought. For Steve. "I don't ever plan on you finding out."
Steve's smile widened and Bucky had to kiss him again, had to keep holding on. If he had a hundred more years to live -- a thousand -- endless days and years to pass because of what he'd become, Bucky wouldn't mind a bit if Steve would be there for them, at his side. He had a sneaking feeling that it would probably take more than death to separate them again, at least if he had anything to say about it.
From the way Steve held on right back, Bucky was pretty sure he felt the same way and, for the first time since he'd opened his eyes to being Bucky Barnes again, he remembered things like hope and faith. They hadn't been as lost as he'd once thought, just frozen somewhere deep inside, waiting to be thawed out and breathed back into life. That it had taken Steve to do it wasn't a surprise.
"So you're saying you ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of danger?" Steve teased, still smiling, breathless and flushed like Bucky had only dreamed about.
"No," he said with a grin of his own. "But Steve Rogers? Him? I'll follow anywhere."