show me where my armor ends; show me where my skin begins.
— pluto, sleeping at last
This first time does not count as much. It was only halfway to the edge. That does not make it much better. They say the first time is the worst, though that is only partially true. It is, by far, the worst thing he has gone through so far. He cannot imagine anything worse than this. The pain is everywhere, burning at the edges of his mind and stabbing into his chest, waves rushing over his head, fire and fire and more fire and it won’t stop, Bucky, it hurts! It’ll be okay, Stevie, c’mon—
It occurs to him that he does not know who Steve is.
He does not register who the voice is calling for. “Sergeant,” he whispers to himself. It is the only thing holding him back from the edge. “32557...038.” A soldier’s last resort.
“Bucky! It’s me!”
There is light, suddenly. “Bucky, oh my god,” Steve gasps, breath hot on his face and hands gripping his shoulders.
Steve’s fingers fumble with the belts holding Bucky to the table. “Hey. It’s me. It’s Steve.”
New York, he places the accent. Brooklyn. Home. The apartment he shared with Steve, before he’d left for the war. The war. He’d left him. Cigarettes. Sketchbooks. Sunsets.
Another hallucination, he thinks, but it feels so real. “Stop,” he pleads hoarsely. He is already at the mercy of the scientist he does not know the name of. They don’t need to make it worse. “I know it’s not real.”
“Come on, Buck,” Steve says, softly, a deep sadness in his eyes, and Bucky is standing and Steve’s arm is around him and he remembers Steve being a lot smaller than this—it can’t be him—but those are the same blue eyes that had the sky trapped in them and this is Steve, it has to be him, and even if it wasn’t real maybe this was the end.
Later, when Steve asks him what they did to him, Bucky shrugs and says he doesn’t really remember. Steve thinks this just means Bucky doesn’t want to talk about it. What scares Bucky is that he’s telling the truth.
There is an abyss in his mind. He cannot go too close to the edge. The wind whips at his face furiously and burns his eyes when he stands at the precipice. Good morning, Soldier, it whispers.
Sometimes he wakes up and he cannot breathe. Steve tries to comfort him, but he does not remember who Steve is.
He always does eventually, at least.
He hated the cold. Not so much for the same reasons everyone else did. Bucky always ran a warm temperature, anyway.
No, he hated the cold because of what it did to Steve. He remembers one winter—their first winter alone in that apartment. Bucky had a small sniffle, probably caught from Steve’s perpetual colds. Snow was falling outside. And Steve was dying.
They didn’t have enough money for medicine. His coughs seemed like they would break him. Bucky went days without food and forced Steve to eat everything he could get. He piled two ragged blankets on Steve and sat up next to him all night and held Steve’s rosary in his hands and Bucky was not religious, but he prayed those nights when Steve lay almost unmoving, skin pale and fragile and cold.
Cold was when Steve always got worse. Cold was when Bucky had to trudge through that storm to get Steve some food. Cold was when Bucky went without blankets so Steve wouldn’t shiver himself to death or something. Cold was worry and fear and I can’t lose him .
The cold was piercing. He could not feel anything. Perhaps it was for the better. He did not feel their needles and scalpels cutting into him, shaping him into their weapon.
The Winter Soldier wakes up cold. It should not matter to him; it is the mission that matters. He steps into the snow without hesitation. Complete the mission, Sergeant.
He pauses when there is the whistle of a train, roaring down the track far above them and echoing through the valley. There is a familiar chasm in his mind, wind howling angrily. It pushes him away when he thinks too much about the train. It does the same when he realizes he doesn’t much like the cold. He wonders why.
He keeps moving forward, though. Complete the mission.
He remembers. He remembers, oh god, he remembers it all. He does not know what is worse—not knowing the crimes he has committed, or this. No. This was worse. He remembers, yes, but that does not change anything. He still has to fight. Still has to kill. They will wipe him again if they find out, that is certain. And this was—oh god, why now?
How was he supposed to complete the mission, when the file he held in his hand was labeled Margaret Carter and there was her picture, red lipstick and all; how was he supposed to fulfill his orders when they wanted red on his hands—and it wouldn’t be lipstick, the Winter Soldier, James Buchanan Barnes, Bucky knows—how was he supposed to keep doing this?
He does not have to worry, it turns out. They wipe him regardless. He is ripped apart and he is sickeningly grateful, because he will not remember having to do this. I’m sorry, he thinks, and then there is a white-hot flash and a long, keening cry that he faintly registers is his voice, and then there is nothing.
It is the first mission that the Winter Soldier fails to complete.
They never send him on that mission again. He suspects that maybe, they gave up on her. Decided she was too hard to eliminate, perhaps. Or that there were other, more dangerous targets to deal with. He only hears whispers of it.
He does not know why—he does not even know her—but there is an unexplainable, overwhelming sense of relief when he hears this.
The Red Room, they had called it. “красная комната,” he whispers to himself, tasting the unfamiliar words. He knows the language well, though maybe not in the way you might think. It is a language of harsh syllables and sharp edges, and it is with that roughness that he has come to know Russian. He knows words like mission and fight and kill . He does not know how to speak to people; has never needed to or been allowed to. It seems as though he will have to now.
They are just children. Their slight frames and wide-eyed faces tug at a string in his chest, one that feels like a remnant of a past life. He ignores it. They are anything but innocent, he knows. But there is an irresistible urge to protect them, like he’d protected—
He does not remember his next thought.
“Зимний солдат,” one of the girls speaks up suddenly. Winter Soldier. He looks up to see her watching him with a conflicted expression twisting her features. Her arms are crossed tightly over her chest, and though her weight is rested on one leg, maintaining a casual position, there's a tenseness to her body like that of a coiled snake preparing to strike, a certain cautiousness to her stance and a heaviness on her shoulders that other girls her age don't carry. But then, she isn't really normal; nobody in this room is, the soldier knows that for sure. “That’s what they call you, right?”
Every pair of eyes is trained on him. He nods once, hoping he understood her correctly. “And—and you?”
“Romanova,” she replies. Her eyes are piercingly green, like a cat's, almost, bright and vivid and unnervingly perceptive. He looks down uncomfortably from her searching gaze. “Your Russian needs some work.”
The Winter Soldier is surrounded by laughter, and he finds himself cracking a smile. It feels almost more foreign than the Russian on his lips.
There is a certain elegance to it, how she slices at him with an outstretched hand and he steps to the side, light on his feet; how he makes an attempt at a spinning kick and she ducks under it, and he lands after the kick and pivots to throw a punch; how they exchange attacks and feints and dodges, never stopping, always moving smoothly, a never-ending dance of death. There is a fierce grin and an almost savage joy in her victory, and an odd warmth rises in his chest. Perhaps he was like this, once. Had he always been good at fighting? He had to be. Fighting was his language. It ran through his veins the same way Russian flowed easily from her tongue.
She is staring at him expectantly. He does not know what she has asked him.
“Sorry,” he says softly. “What?”
She corrects his pronunciation with a smile and then says, “I won. Now do I get to know your name? You know mine.”
“It isn’t that simple, Romanova,” he argues, and she rolls her eyes in such a teenage display of annoyance he almost smiles. Then he wonders when he came to associate that behavior with a teenager. He does not ever remember meeting one until the Red Room.
“I told you, my name is Natalia Alianovna Romanova. Not just Romanova. I don’t like Romanova, anyway, it’s what they call me. I won, at least give me this,” she insists, eyes wide and earnest. Blue eyes and a small, pleading voice and fine, don’t give me those damn puppy eyes and—
“Okay. Natalia,” he amends, shaking off the sudden rush of— were those memories? —“It’s still not that simple.”
“I don’t know,” he cuts in, voice hard and quiet with an emotion he cannot describe. He lets out a long breath and buries his head in his hands, the cool metal on the left warring with the warmth from his right hand, and it only serves to remind him that as much as she makes him feel almost normal, he is not. He does not have a name. He is not human, like she is. Like they all are. People know who they are; they know where they came from and what they have done and who they have loved. He does not know any of those things, despite the flashes of memory that come few and far between. Any more than that and they will strip him of it all again; tearing outwards from his head with a viciousness unparalleled by anyone he's ever fought.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, her face blurred by hot tears he did not realize he was crying. He wipes them away and shakes his head. She has nothing to be sorry for. But he can tell she’s made up her mind. Her jaw is set and her eyes are dark and serious and she is ferocious and determined when she promises him, “I’ll help you. They can’t do that to you.”
Later, in the middle of the night, his door creaks open and she slips into his room. Her face is illuminated by moonlight filtering through the small window high above their heads, revealing a bruise blossoming across her cheek. Yet her grin is fierce and she hands him a file, blood dried on her knuckles but a savage joy in her eyes.
“James Buchanan Barnes,” she breathes, and he stares at her with wide eyes, earth and sky meeting in their shared gaze.
“Don’t touch her.”
He speaks up from where he stands in the back of the room, arms crossed and tensed muscles sharply defined. His voice is low and rough and he hopes they cannot hear it shaking. Natalia’s eyes lock on his and he can see the fear she’s been holding back so desperately. The instructor standing in front of her clears her throat, and Natalia looks evenly at her, face devoid of all emotion. But he knows her; knows how to read the stiffness in her shoulders and the quiver in her lip and the clenching of her fists. She is terrified, and frankly, so is he.
“What did you say?” the woman bites out. The Winter— James , he corrects himself. James swallows hard and his good hand subconsciously grips his metal shoulder.
“Don’t touch her. She hasn’t done anything wrong.”
The woman’s eyes narrow. “Have you not been listening? She has not been focusing like she used to. She is defiant. We cannot tolerate that.”
There is a long silence.
“It’s my fault,” he admits softly, a second before Natalia screams, “James, don’t! ”
Natalia will remember James, he hopes. At least one person in this world would know him as more than just a soldier, even if he himself did not.
It is what he tells himself to hold back the screams. It does not work.
Howard Stark, he remembers. That was the man’s name. Stark had called him Barnes. It stirs something in him that he cannot place.
Barnes? Please, what are you doing?
He had been so afraid.
“James, don’t! ”
The scream is so familiar he hesitates. The redheaded woman scrambles to protect his target. She leaves him no choice.
He shoots her through the stomach. Target eliminated.
Her green eyes are desperate and fearful. He knew her, once.
He is not sure how, but he knows his opponent, and his opponent knows him. Somehow the other man knows just when the Winter Soldier is about to plunge his knife into his neck, and it is wrested from his hands. The shield feels right in the soldier’s hands, like he’s held it before, and he throws it to the side with ease. They exchange punches and he darts nimbly to the side and he sidesteps his kick and there is a certain elegance in the way they move in response to each other, a synchronized dance in which they never touch, and it is like they are meant to fit together but never quite make it.
And then they do.
The man’s voice cracks and there is a painful hope swelling behind his words; it is too good to be true, is what it sounds like he wants to say. The world stops around them.
“Who the hell is Bucky?”
The name is reminiscent of an age of dancing and alcohol and cigarettes and lipstick and women and streetlights and narrow roads and creaking stairs and small apartments; an era that the Winter Soldier has only heard of in passing, but there is a vivid picture that is painted in his mind. The only word he can describe it as is home.
Steven Grant Rogers, he has written on the paper in front of him. It is a subconscious action. He tries to remember when he wrote it. He thinks it was when the doctors came into the room, the familiar sharp scent of antiseptic filling the air. Hospital smell, a small voice in his head complains. It sounds like the voice of the man he had fought, albeit a younger and more innocent voice, but the same person nonetheless.
He scratches a line through the name and writes out James Buchanan Barnes under it. Bucky.
“The man on the bridge, who was he?” he asks.
“You met him this week on another assignment,” Alexander Pierce answers dismissively. “I said mission report, soldier.”
“I knew him,” the not-quite-Winter-Soldier insists. Pierce’s eyes narrow, and he snaps his fingers. The doctors are immediately at his side, reaching out with their gloved hands. He finds that he cannot move from the chair he is lying in. He remembers, suddenly, that he did not like hospital smell very much. It reminds him of death.
“Please don’t make me do this,” the man says, standing across from the Winter Soldier. But he can see the tension in his opponent’s body, how he holds himself turned slightly sideways to more easily access his shield. The Winter Soldier does not respond. There is an incomprehensible sadness in the blonde’s eyes when he pulls the shield from his back.
He does not remember much of their fight. He does not want to. He lets his body take over, lets the memory of his muscles drive him forward. It is the only memory he has left, except for an unshakable feeling that this fight should not happen. When he is trapped under the debris of the falling Helicarrier, he decides that this was the cause of his intuition. This will be how he dies.
And then there is light shining from a gap in the debris and there is warm breath on his face and hands tugging on his shoulders. “I’m not gonna fight you,” the man says. His name is Steve, though the soldier is not sure how he knows that. “You’re my friend.”
He does not know how to react. All he knows is that he has to eliminate the target, regardless of the cost. “You’re my mission,” he growls out from between clenched teeth. His fist connects with his opponent’s face, which seems almost to accept the punch. It is infuriating. “You’re...my...mission!”
"Then finish it.” The words fall from lips dripping with blood. He cracks open an eye to reveal the sky hidden behind golden rays of eyelashes. “ 'Cause I'm with you...to the end of the line.”
The Winter Soldier stops, and the world falls beneath their feet.
He surfaces from the water with Steve in his arms. He does not know why he saves him when Steve is the target. But it feels right, and maybe he was wrong about his mission.
Or he was right, and Steve was his mission. You see, he has never had a mission where elimination is not the goal. Perhaps this mission was different.
“Bucky,” Steve had murmured. It rolls from his tongue the same way words like mission and fight and kill do. Like it is the only word he knows.
His name is Bucky. It has to be. It is the only thing he is certain of in this world.