The first time Maria Hill sees Bucky Barnes in the flesh, he’s on ice, sleeping in cryostasis like the proverbial prince awaiting a kiss.
If she thinks about it in a certain way, she’s going to play princess. Obviously not the traditional way, since the Wakandans are very particular about moiety, and both she and Barnes are Evening, and she’s not actually interested in him that way. But she’s still going to set him free to be who he wants, which is the point of fairy-tales, isn’t it?
However, it’s also very much not in the traditional way, since it basically involves torture.
Luckily for Maria, the Wakandan medical specialists agree with her. Pain and psychological brainwashing is how he was set up with the triggers in the first place, and it will take a similar process to break him out of it.
The most difficult part is persuading Steve.
“We don’t know how he’s going to come out,” Maria argues. “Every other time he came out, he was the Winter Soldier. The documentation we’ve found suggests that the cryostatus acts as some kind of a memory inhibitor, and it may take him days, months, weeks to remember.”
“Then we wait.”
“We wait for his permission to take the triggers out? They’re the reason he went under in the first place!”
“You don’t even know that this technique will work.”
“It worked with Romanoff,” she tells him. “How much more proof do you want?”
In the end, Steve is overridden – T’Challa, T’Challa’s people, Maria, and even Natasha are arrayed against him. He doesn’t like it, and the flame of his gaze promises the equivalent of a cold shoulder for months, perhaps years, but Maria’s lived with colder. And this needs to be done.
“Aren’t you glad you’re not sleeping with him now?” Natasha murmurs as they take the elevator down to the medical wing where the defrosting is about to take place.
Maria doesn’t say she’s glad but she is – all the more because she doesn’t want to do this. She doesn’t want to be the ‘bad guy’, and she’s tired of being the responsible one. But someone had to do this – someone with the knowledge and the access, and the authority, and the reason, and that someone has turned out to be her.
Besides which, she figures the universe owes it to Barnes. He’s been bound in chains for at least sixty years; he has the right to try for free again.
So she waits for the technicians to signal that his vitals are coming back, and his brainwaves are picking up, strong and steady.
“желание, ржавый, семнадцать, рассвет, печь...”
The words echo in his head, every syllable a whip that strikes to the heart, and he fights it, but he can’t, although he tears at sinew and muscle until he reaches bone—no, not bone, but metal—
He drags at his limb, but his arm is no longer there – no flesh, no vibranium, no feeling – just the absence of presence—
“желание, ржавый, семнадцать, рассвет...”
They said he was safe here, but the burning in his brain says he’s not—
They came for him—found him—
You presume he is still a man—
He screams, but there’s no-one to hear. He tears at himself, at the hooks in his head, at the voice that doesn’t stop, can’t shut up, won’t be silent...
“желание, ржавый, семнадцать...”
His throat is raw with screaming, his voice torn and hoarse as he begs—
Maggots gnaw through him, eating his rotting flesh—
His ribs hurt, his wrist and ankles burn—
He can’t do this anymore – he doesn’t have the strength to fight. He writhes and convulses and splinters into fragments. And in each sliver shines a glimpse of what he used to be – a monster, a killer, an assassin—
Barnes is the only Howling Commando to make the ultimate sacrifice...
Everything hurts and he is nothing, all of him bled out into the endless snow, past, present, and non-existent future—
She walks towards him across the churned and bloody snow, barefoot – a woman he can’t see through the blood that hazes his gaze. And the ice melts where she treads, tender blades of grass poking up between her toes – a goddess in a polkadot sundress bringing spring with her.
He blinks, and tears wash the blood from his eyes, bitter regret and the salt of an endless repentance—
A room coalesces around her – plain walls and a blue door. She stands by a mirrored window, facing out with her arms folded – no sundress now, but a plain shirt and trousers, worn almost like a uniform.
Bucky can’t see her face.
But her voice is clear enough as she recites the words—
“желание, ржавый, семнадцать...”
God, not again—
He has to stop her. He needs to stop her. He thrashes at the fastenings that hold him down and realises, with a rush of disbelief, that the bindings around his wrist have come loose—
“...рассвет, печь, девять...”
He tears at the buckle around his waist, dragging at the heavy leather, freeing his body—
There are noises, muffled shouting – Bucky, no! Yet everything in him cries, Bucky, yes!
She hasn’t turned, hasn’t seen him although she’s surely seeing movement in the mirrored glass, surely hearing the sound of him freeing himself over the words that were designed to confine him—
“...доброкачественный, возвращение на родину, один...”
He yanks his feet loose, kicking at the last traces holding him back – and then he’s free. He writhes off the bed in a desperate lunge, and now she turns, her hands coming up as his fingers close around her throat and he shoves her back against the glass with a thud.
“грузовой вагон.” It’s a whisper of breath, gasped from a choking throat, but it’s audible in that moment before the door slams back with a crack of splintering lock.
But all Bucky can see are her eyes – blue and unfocused as she wheezes for breath.
His mouth is empty. His mind is clear. His thoughts are his own. The words didn’t work.
The words didn’t work.
He glances at Steve, at Natasha behind him, at the two members of Wakandan security whose tasers are ready and aimed at him.
He eases his grip on the woman – Maria Hill, he thinks – as relief swamps him, drowning out the terror he felt for those few moments. And the only word he can voice isn’t nice, but at this moment he doesn’t care. She scared him, all the way down to his bones. “Bitch,” he says as he takes his hand from her throat.
In spite of the heave of her shoulders, the corners of her mouth twitch as she sucks in air. “And don’t you forget it.”
The hardest part, Maria thinks, is watching them all dance around each other.
There’s a connection between Steve and Barnes. How could there not be after their shared history? But who they were – in New York, in the war – is nothing to who they are now. Captain America became a hero, and the Winter Soldier became a nightmare, and although the filaments that bind them together are strong, they’re also complicated. They can’t just pick up where they left off.
The relationship he has with Natasha is still more complicated – a handful of missions he remembers in fragments, some training together, and a handful of sexual encounters. It’s not exactly a reliable past, let alone one that lends itself to intimacy. Right now, though, they seem to be meeting on the brainwashing aspect, particularly the Swiss cheese memory which, according to Natasha, may be more of a blessing than a curse.
She hears he has nightmares – no surprise there – and the Wakandans are working with him on counselling thanks to T’Challa’s generosity. Frankly, Maria stays out of it as much as possible.
“Avoiding being strangled a second time?” Natasha asks archly one afternoon.
“It’s high on my priority list.”
Along with many other things, including a number of long conferences with Pepper, and Okoye of the Dora Milaje. There are arguments about Wakandan national integrity, Stark Industries finances and technology, and world security.
She goes back to her guest suite after one of these meetings, wanting nothing more than a long night’s sleep, and finds Barnes waiting outside her rooms.
His gaze rests on the fading bruises about her neck. “How’s the throat?”
“I don’t sound like a sex hotline anymore.”
He grimaces as he shoves his hand through his hair. “Sorry.” He’s had a haircut and a shave, and a change of clothes has made him more like a guy you’d meet on an American city street rather than an assassin and fugitive from international law – but for the missing arm.
“It could have been worse.” Maria figures that’s all the polite chit-chat they can handle and simply asks, “What do you want?”
He sighs. “To go home from the war, marry a good woman, and have kids who grow up in peace and prosperity.”
His words touch a chord in her – not her own, but something she observed in Steve while they were together. Oh, he never said he wanted that of her, but Maria wasn’t so emotionally clueless she failed to recognise the signs. And yes, she’s probably the only woman in the universe who would run away from Captain America wanting to make a home with her.
What can she say? She has issues.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with any of that.”
“Maybe not, but you can tell me what I’m good for.” At her frown, he smiles, thin and bitter. “I’m not the Winter Soldier anymore – not completely, but the blood won’t ever come out, whatever Steve thinks. All I can do is make amends – and Romanoff said you’re the person to talk to about that.”
She’s touched and flattered – sort of. A little disconcerted that Natasha can see her so clearly, perhaps. And not quite ready to answer him straight. A lot of things are still in the air.
“Have you discussed this with Steve?”
“I can’t.” The answer is simple and bleak. “He’s... If he thought I was going back in, he’d come with me in an instant. I won’t do that to him. He’s got— He has a chance at normal. With the blonde. Sharon.” His gaze fixes on her, and Maria’s caught somewhere between horizon storms and a cloudy sea. “You understand, don’t you? You stepped back, too.”
“That wasn’t the only reason.” Maria exhales. This isn’t something she wants to talk about right now – or, really ever – but particularly not with Bucky Barnes. “Yes, I could use you as an operative – one with the judgement to make the calls and not just carry out the mission.”
“Like Natasha. If you’re willing.”
“I get a choice?”
“Yes.” At he sardonic look, she insists, “I don’t want you if you’re not willing.”
Maria doesn’t mean to phrase it that way. Her eyes narrow as he grins – a smirk more suited to Bucky Barnes of the Howling Commandos than the Winter Soldier. She holds up one hand. “Don’t even start with me, Barnes.”
The grin doesn’t abate. “If you say so, Hill.”
The concept of having a future is still a new thing to Bucky. He hasn’t thought about the future in...well, ever. Now there are possibilities he didn’t know existed, chances he never thought he’d have. It’s not just freedom from the programming, but something better – purpose.
Hill lays out her requirements – his assistance in the things that need tidying up, that S.H.I.E.L.D can’t do as an organisation, and which she won’t ask of the Avengers. Someone to stick to the shadows, to move through the world like a spook.
“And if I’m tired of being someone’s tool?”
“Then you walk away. You can let the world rot if you want – it gave you nothing, you don’t owe it anything.”
“Sometimes you do the job because the job needs doing. Sometimes you do the job that’s there because it needs to be done.”
Her eyes are blue like the ocean, a body of water that sinks to unimaginable depths. Bucky suspects most people never make it past the first few yards, let alone to the deeps. And he thinks of Steve, standing in the shadows of the 1941 World Fair: I got no right to do any less.
It’s no wonder his buddy bedded her for the better part of year; she’s the mirror to Steve’s sense of responsibility – an unerring sense of duty.
“I’ll be operating under your aegis?”
“Yes. But you’ll make your own calls.”
“And if it’s not a call you like?”
“I can be persuaded.”
The intent is innocent enough, but Bucky thinks of ‘persuading’ her and can’t help the grin, even though she glares at him.
T’Challa promises him a new arm, remade from the old one that Stark destroyed. “Consider it my apology for hunting you.”
“You had reason.”
“That does not mean an apology should not be given.” T’Challa offers his hand. “Besides, my people have been tinkering with the arm. They have opinions. And plans.”
“Once a test subject...” Romanoff remarks smoothly, drawing both their gazes as she shifts, the high-throated Wakandan gown clinging to sleek curves, without impeding any of her ability to fall into instant attack should it be necessary.
“This time I’m choosing it,” Bucky reminds her, and she if she doesn’t blush, her gaze slides away.
They haven’t renewed their ‘acquaintance’ yet – no more than he and Steve have. In Natasha’s situation...well, she’s sitting in the Wakandan palace, in a Wakandan gown, guest of the Wakandan king, who’s also Evening moiety and looks like he’d be more than happy to risk himself in the bed of the Black Widow. Bucky wants to stake a prior claim. He knows it’s a dangerous thought – and a stupid one. Any idiot can see that Romanoff is a woman who makes her own choices, not a thing to be owned. That doesn’t stop the wanting, but Bucky knows the limits.
Just as he knows the limits with Steve.
It turns out that Sharon-the-blonde is Peggy’s niece, and Steve’s girlfriend of the last three months.
Technically, in a moiety sense, Steve is free for Bucky. But Sharon Carter isn’t moiety, and from the things Steve has said and the way he’s spoken about her, Sharon wouldn’t look on Bucky moving on Steve as anything except a betrayal. So Bucky sleeps alone at night – when he sleeps at all.
His victims clutch at him in his dreams with icy hands, asking him why, begging for a life they no longer have. And he wakes shaking, hour after hour, night after night.
He doesn’t know why he goes to Hill in the end.
Or maybe he does.
A goddess in a polkadot sundress bringing spring with her.
Her eyes leap from sleepy to sharp in a split-second. “Barnes?”
“I can’t sleep,” he says, wearily. “I dream of them – all of them. And I can’t— There’s no-one else—” Too late he thinks of how that must sound. “Never mind. I should—”
Hill catches his sleeve as he turns, and her breath soughs out in a gust that’s as weary as his soul. “You’re here. You might as well stay.”
It turns out that Hill sleeps on the floor. “A bad experience in a Heidelberg hotel,” she explains when Bucky arches his brows at the bedding hauled off the mattress and tucked between the bed and the inside wall. ‘Was that you?”
“If it’d been me, you’d be dead.” Which is perhaps not the wisest thing to say to the woman who’s about to let him sleep in her room. “Sorry.”
She tosses him a pillow and a blanket. “Right now, I’m more worried about you snoring.”
“You’ll be the first to know.”
They settle down in the darkness, side by side, saying nothing. And what kind of woman takes him in stride like this?
A woman who does what needs to be done because it needs to be done.
Bucky listens to Maria’s breathing ease out and closes his eyes.
“Perhaps, when the desperate need for justice is united with holy purpose,
the golem will come to life once more.”
~ David Wisniewski ~