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miles to go before i sleep

Chapter Text

The target was waiting outside when he left the museum. It felt too early to call him anything else, with his mind still a muddle of instinct and fragmented memory. He couldn't even think of himself as the Winter Soldier, deserter that he was, but he had no other name. He had seen his own face plastered with impunity across the museum, on posters and newsreels, commendations and placards, on a gravestone, along with that of the target, the man he somehow knew. It was easier to continue thinking of him in this way. It simplified the world, dividing it along lines of what was important and what was not, the ending of a single heartbeat, a singular purpose that need not be examined. That he did not know himself was not important. He knew the need to hide his face from the world, to be the ghost, the one who could not be found. 

Yet it had been found in there. There had been an entire room devoted to the face he saw in the mirror, the face he had killed to conceal. And, now across from him, the face he had been ordered to kill.

He knew there had been a memory wipe, and that it had been recent. He could tell, in an abstract sort of way, that he would have been refrozen by now were he still back there. Put away lest he crack like the fragile tool he was. The memory wipe was total; and he could usually only tell it had taken place by the odd blanks it left in its wake, the negative, the absence of proof. That he could not recall his last mission, or that the hair and clothes had changed since his last time awake. He did not allow it to distract him. At least, not until now.

He felt curiously blank as he stared at the target. A face as well known as his own, he would have once said it was because it had been given to him in a folder. Now it was because he had walked through aisles and rooms of a museum dedicated in his honor. It was only in the privacy of his mind-- a place so often trampled and stolen, given to others for their cause and only now vacated, left empty and used for him to make of the tatters what he would-- that he admitted he had known the target well before that.

The target was leaning against a tree, and there was a strange symmetry to their attire. Both wore caps to conceal their faces, jackets, and running shoes. The target’s hat was blue to his black, and decorated with a logo. A letter, the symbol of a sports team, and a corner of his brain provided the name Dodgers, and the word Brooklyn, and it resonated through him as if he were a bell that had been struck.

The target smiled at having caught his eye. It was a shy smile, hesitant, though his body language spoke of confidence so easy it had become second nature. He felt in himself the skittish, animal-like desire to bolt and was poised on the balls of his feet prepared to do just that. The target puts his hands up, open, and though he knew how quickly they could become fists hard and fast enough to rival the metal arm, he was strangely soothed by the gesture and settled, eyeing the target as he approached.

“I thought you might come here,” the target said. “You saw the exhibit?”

It was his turn to hesitate, but then he nodded.

“So you know now? That you’re Bucky Barnes?”

He realized he was shaking his head violently and stopped himself. “We share a face,” he said, a truth even he could acknowledge. There had been more too, a creeping sense of vertigo when he looked at the photos, a split-second where he could remember being on the other side of the camera. But they were only flashes, and could well be only his imagination. Still, he had to admit that the threat model for all of this being an elaborate trap was too high to be realistic. The evidence would have taken decades to plant, and he had always been too careful with his own face. Unless those who kept him had done this. He dismissed the possibility, acknowledging the far simpler possibility that there was a man with a face much like his.

The target nodded, not pushing further, laying out silence like a path at his feet.

“A face, that’s all,” he continued, and that anxious feeling, like something was crawling around inside him and trying to escape, rose again in his throat. He started walking.

The target stepped in front of him. Not stopping him, he could easily walk around, but he found himself arrested. “Where will you go now?”

“Away,” he said. He hadn’t thought that far ahead, though the word Brooklyn rattled at the back of his head, snatching at his attention like movement seen out of the corner of a sniper scope.

“You can stay with me, if you want.”

He stilled. Again, the target was not pushing, not stopping him from leaving. The hands were still flat, open, and unmoving. 

“You don’t have to decide now. But if you want, if you decide it’s something you need, you’re welcome to stay. Any time.” Slowly, the target lowered his hands and reached into his jacket. He tensed. But the target only pulled out a small notebook and, with a stub of pencil lead that had been pinned between the pages, scrawled down an address. The target began to tear the sheet out, then stopped, considering. Then he bent down, hands still open and unthreatening, and placed the notebook on the ground.

He did not move to accept it, and the target stood again and took a step back.

“Hey, you may know all the stuff in there better than I do. But just in case… Y'know, if you’re interested. The address is on the last page. Key’s under the brick outside.” The target’s eyes searched his face at the last words.

It was only once the target had turned and walked away that he crouched down to retrieve it, metal fingers scraping the ground as he lifted the notebook. It was small, no larger than the palm of his hand, and he flipped through it with his thumb. It contained a series of lists, names and places and… things, all scribbled down in the same hand. There were dates next to some of the words, others had little notes explaining their function.

On the last page he found the address. Saw the word that had rung through him, echoing along that fault line that split him through, that threatened to shake him apart along rifts of memories that he did not yet wish to consider as his own. 

Brooklyn.

 


 

He found a train headed to New York, and had no trouble slipping on just as it left the station, metal hand leaving its impressions on the railing as he hauled himself up onto the moving train. It was the midnight run, and the cabins were mostly empty. The few passengers on board were, for the most part, asleep. Normally he would ride on the top of the train, one shadow hidden amongst many, clutching to the edge of the car by the metal arm. But the journey was long, and he had other matters to attend to.

He felt his skin crawl as he walked down the aisles of sleeping passengers. Some gazed at him, sleepily, and an instinct rose in him to snuff those lives out, and with them the curious glances. But he had no backup, no cover and instead he found the first empty cabin and ducked inside, relieved when he could finally slide the door closed behind him. He had stolen a ticket from the pocket of one of the sleeping passengers as he made his way up to show any who questioned his presence on the train, though he did not doubt his ability to escape from, or kill, any who questioned him. But the idea was… unsettling, in a way that it had not once been. He had done undercover missions before, ones that had strict rules against any casualties except the target, but they had been tightly regulated, watched, backed up, supported to hide his identity. He was alone now.

He sat down, and took out the notebook. There were some words he knew in it. Moon landing. Berlin Wall. He’d had a hand in both, and remembered the lab assistants speaking of them afterwards, and for many years to come. There were others he did not recognize. I Love Lucy, Nirvana—his brow furrowed—disco?

The communications networks had changed too since he was last sent out on an undercover mission, some thirteen years before, but he recognized a screen when he saw one and had learned through quick observation how to make use of these new mobile telephones. He held the one he had stolen in the metal hand, and navigated with his right hand as he began to search the terms in the notebook.

He had skimmed through most of the list before he paused, his finger hovering over the screen, and typed in a search for two words:

Bucky Barnes

 


 

The sky was gray, overcast, and the city was equally gray. The cars rumbled through the streets. There were fewer taxis here than downtown, and he thought of how much had changed, and how little, though he couldn't place the source of the thought. He arrived at the address listed, and found a red brick apartment building there, wooden stairs leading up to the door, and the sight rocked him with its familiarity. He climbed the stairs to the door and stopped there, his hand poised to knock. 

The instinct caught him by surprise. The Winter Soldier did not knock. He smashed through windows, doors shattered to kindling under the weight of his fist. He reminded himself again that this was an undercover mission of sorts, that he was not to draw attention to himself. The thought calmed him in the vague, swirling grayness of his mind. The emptiness that occasionally shifted and formed snatches of conversation, a remembered face, before the images melted back into the morass of wiped memories and blood.

This was just another cover identity, one he would shed when the mission was over, when the target was neutralized. There was no shiver running down his back, no sick, twisting feeling in his stomach. If his pulse raced it was not of any importance, only the body’s natural response, like the rush that came before pulling the trigger. An involuntary reaction. He didn’t need to stay here. He didn’t have to knock on this door. But even the thought of walking away caused another panic to rise within him, the one that rode the currents of confusion inside his head.

I knew him.

He started, and his fist came down against the door. The flesh one, otherwise he might have broken through it. It was only then that he remembered the target’s passing words, of the key beneath the brick. He did not even need to look, he could have closed his eyes and found its place and he turned to take it when he heard the door open behind him.

“Bucky?”

It was only the reminder of his cover that kept him from spinning to drive the metal fist through the speaker’s throat. That, and a second instinct, as the sound of that voice spread through him like a drug, relaxing him and twisting him up all at once. He turned, slowly, keeping his arms rigidly at his side, and nodded.

“You came, I didn’t think…” the target breathed.

He didn't answer. There was little need for a weapon to speak, and the target seemed to recognize this because he stepped aside, gesturing towards the inside of the apartment.

“Please, come in. I can make up the guest room for you. There’s a shower, and uh, if you’re hungry I can… make you something.” The target paused, and something soft and bright came over his expression.

“What is it?” he said, and was surprised at the croak of his own voice, rough from lack of use. Not nearly as surprised as the target, but that brightness did not fade as a result. The target shrugged, looking sheepish.

“I’m sorry. I’m just... really happy you’re here.” And a smile broke across his face—

—like a goddamn sunrise—

The words rang through his head, an echo of his own voice, brash and laughing. He saw himself clapping the target against him one-armed, hugging him close, but the target was smaller, scrawny and pale, but with that same smile.

He realized he was staring at the target, the muscles of his face slack, expression blank as the vision faded and the larger man replaced the smaller one. Bewilderment flooded him, and he forced past it, instead walking into the house. He ignored every alarm in his head that warned him against entering a location controlled by the enemy. For some reason, the name no longer applied to the target. It had not applied since he had dragged him from the water, but now especially thinking of him as “the target” felt… imprecise.

He left the matter for later.


It had been thirty-six hours since he last slept, but even so he was surprised to awake, still wearing his shoes, on top of the blankets of the spare bed. He heard the clatter of metal from somewhere inside the house and slipped out of the bed, landing silent on the hardwood floor. He slunk through the hallway towards the sound. The target was in the kitchen, with his back to the door. He was cooking something on a frying pan, flipping its contents with an easy flick of his wrist. He appeared engrossed, not sensing his observer, or if he did he gave no sign of it.

It struck him again that “the target” really didn’t fit the man in front of him. He had read the file, seen the exhibit. Captain America might serve, but it was cumbersome, a rank and title, not a name. Not that he was one to comment, who had only thought of himself as the Winter Soldier for all the decades of his life that he could remember. He studied the man across from him, saw the shield falling from the helicarrier, the target refusing to fight him, even as he tried to break him with the metal fist.

“Steve,” he said. The frying pan banged against the stovetop and the tar—Steve’s back went rigid.

“Bucky?” Steve said, turning around, staring with wide blue eyes. He no longer wore the jacket and baseball cap of their meeting at the museum. Instead, a white t-shirt that outlined his torso, and simple jeans hung over bare feet. Steve was stronger than any man he had fought, but he did not appear strong now. If anything, he looked like the scrawny, frail boy of the flashbacks, stricken and lost.

He shook his head in answer. He was not Bucky, but then he wasn’t the Winter Soldier either. For now he simply… was. He took refuge in the impreciseness of it, of simply being. No identity, no mission except to remain undercover until something gave. He had no long term plans, but thought whatever he must do was somehow here. Finishing the mission or finding a new one, it was all wrapped up in the blond man before him. He could wait. The hopeful set of Steve’s shoulder subsided and he looked back to the frying pan.

“I, uh, made breakfast. More like lunch now, I guess. Do you still like omelets?”

He did not know that he had ever liked omelets. Choosing a meal was something left to targets and missions, their habits predictable, their choosiness a weakness that meant which poison could best be concealed within. There was no element of choice in his own meals. He ate without tasting. But when Steve nodded to the kitchen table, he found himself sitting, accepting the silverware that was passed to him while Steve did what he could to salvage the meal that had been so unceremoniously dropped.

In a few minutes, there was a plate set before him, and on it a rather rumpled looking yellow omelet. It was speckled with other colors, what appears to be vegetables and some meat. He did not examine it. His instincts were warring between the wariness that came with accepting a meal from a recent enemy, and the conditioning that forced him to eat whatever was set before him, without question, when not on a mission.

Logic won out, a reminder that he had come here on his own terms, that he had certainly eluded notice on the way, and that he had already slept in the guest room of this recent enemy, vulnerable to any number of attacks, without consequences. He ate one-handed, holding the fork in his right hand and cutting the omelet into pieces with its edge. He felt an odd sort of self-consciousness that kept him from making use of the metal arm, though the tool had saved his life so many times, and in many ways was his life. But in front of Steve it felt…wrong, like a blemish, and he kept it under the table, out of sight. Steve did not speak as he ate, but did occasionally sneak glances.

After he finished his meal he wondered if he should return to the solitude of the bedroom, perhaps try to sleep again. He was not used to being awake so long without a mission or training to fill his time.

“What did you think of the notebook?” Steve asked.

He looked up from his plate, empty now, that he had been staring at silently as he contemplated his options. He shrugged. “I knew some things. Others I didn’t.” The silence stretched, and once again he had the sense that it was as an invitation. “I didn’t see any pattern to it.”

“There really isn’t one.” Steve chuckled. “I just put down any old thing that gets recommended to me. It’s funny, everyone has a different idea of what was important these last seventy years.” He trailed off. “I, uh, missed a lot of it, y’know. During the war my plane crashed in the Arctic…”

“You were then rediscovered three years ago, and thawed out by SHIELD. The serum preserved your life while you were buried in the ice, a known side effect of the drug,” he interrupted. His voice remained flat, reciting a rote lesson, and his gaze did not shift. “All facts from your file.”

Steve nodded, but seemed unperturbed, as if he were used to people quoting the facts of his life to him. “It wasn’t long after you fell. I got a bit reckless after that. I was…angry. I just wanted the war to be over. I got what I asked for, I guess. It ended while I was on ice.”

“The war didn’t end there,” he said. “It never ended.”

Steve looked up, and his eyes were sad. “No. I suppose you would know that better than anyone.” 


 The next week passed very much like the first day. He would sleep, eat the meals Steve prepared, and speak perhaps three sentences as Steve attempted to draw him out with conversation.

Steve never left the house. What groceries they had were delivered. Once, when the bell rang, he looked to the door and Steve answered his searching look without prompting. “I’ve earned a bit of time off, and the others can handle any trouble. Truth is, I’m afraid you’ll vanish again if I go anywhere.”

He blinked in acknowledgement, but said nothing to dissuade Steve of that assumption. He would leave immediately if Steve did. There would be too great a risk of discovery, of being found in enemy territory by those who were not so forgiving of his past. But so long as Steve was here he could not work up the motivation to go. He felt as if he were waiting, but for what he could not say.

It came to him that night. 


The tiniest movement sent waves of agony through Bucky, and he knew his body had been shattered by the fall. Cold did not even begin to describe the water that trickled around him, over him, dragging him down. It was heart-stopping, it robbed the breath from his lungs with its chill as much as from the impact, and left his brain fogged and numb. That numbness might have been a blessing, if not for the fact that all that remained was pain screaming through his body, tearing his thoughts to shreds.

Somewhere beyond the agony, Bucky remembered. He remembered Steve’s outstretched hand as he fell from the train, remembered looking up as he shrank to pinprick. The explosion of impact. The darkness that followed. It all happened so fast, and yet he could see each millisecond of it as if he stared at the frames of a film reel one by one.

He knew Zola when he saw him, and Bucky screamed, fighting like a mad thing. He tore at his bonds with his nails, struck out with his remaining fist and sheer brute strength, but could only watch helplessly as he was strapped to the operating table. A mouth-guard was shoved between his teeth and the first wave of electricity washed over his brain, removing his memories like a wave destroying lines in the sand. Bucky woke with a metal arm, and half his life stolen away.

It was not over the first time. It took dozens of attempts to wipe his brain clean and he remembered shivering in the cell, searching desperately for the faint flickers of memory in his mind, for any sign of who he had been. Remember, remember, remember, he whispered over and over to the pitiless dark. Remember him, remember your name, remember who you are.

After the next wave he was down to rank and serial number. A string of meaningless phrases that somehow made up an existence. There was something else, something important, that flashed like sunlight in his mind, but he could no longer place it. He stared up at the blank walls of his cell, and felt tears running down his face for reasons he could not name.

There was one more shock treatment before they began to train him. They put a gun in his hand and set him loose at the practice range. He killed two of the guards before they brought him down again. That night they froze him for the first time, and he recalled his last minutes of consciousness the feeling of ice, of the river washing around him and pain aching through every nerve of his body, as he was dragged down into the depths.


He came awake screaming, limbs thrashing, metal fingers shredding the sheets and blankets. The door banged open and Steve was there, clad only in pajama pants, his expression terrified.

“Bucky!” Steve said and dashed to the side of the bed, hands hovering over his thrashing body.  He stopped at the name. His chest was heaving and he looked up into Steve’s familiar face, lips parted, eyes wide. “Bucky, it’s ok, I’m here. You’re safe.”

His arm moved, compulsively, beyond his control and his hand seized Steve’s just as he had tried to all those years ago, just as he had been unable to. Yet he felt nothing, no brush of air or imprint of touch, and realized that he had reached for Steve with the metal arm. He was clenching too tightly, he could tell by the tension that ran through Steve’s arm, how he winced with pain.

“Don’t leave,” he said, and his voice was harsh with panic. He didn’t know why he was asking this, or what he thought to gain. He only knew the shadows were receding with Steve there, the world was no longer tilting on its axis.

“Of course. I’m here, Bucky. I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”

His breathing slowed, and Steve eased into the bed beside him. Their hands remained linked, and he settled back against the pillow. Too soft, but he had never questioned such things. His eyelids fluttered and his last thought before drifting off again to sleep, his fluttering gaze fixed on Steve’s face, was that he needed a name again.

Bucky. It was the name Steve had given him, and as good as any. It felt… right.

Bucky fell back to sleep, and dreamt no more that night.


 The morning sun streamed through the slats in the blinds, stirring him from the darkness of sleep. He grumbled, and moved to turn away from the light…

… only to be stopped.

He—Bucky, he had decided to be Bucky, at least for now—looked over to see Steve beside him on the mattress. He was sitting upright against the headrest, his head lolling against his shoulder. His hand was still wrapped around Bucky’s, tan fingers intertwined with metal. Bucky stared at their hands, then back up at Steve’s face. The light slanted in bars across his features, highlighting his throat and cheek, glowing in his eyelashes and hair.

At Bucky’s movement he stirred, eyelids fluttering, and looked down, smiling shyly. “Good morning.”

“You stayed?” Bucky said, stupefied. Sleeping upright could not have been comfortable, and even if Bucky had done the same many times on many missions, it had not been by choice. The metal fingers had left their segmented imprints across Steve’s hand, which must be numb from the grip. Steve only shrugged.

“Said I would, didn’t I?” Steve said. He adjusted his seat, scooting further onto the bed, then arched his back to stretch, wincing as it popped. At no point did he let go of Bucky’s hand. “That was some nightmare you had last night.”

“I… uh…” His words were changing, his thoughts. When before he had spoken with the cold, simple precision of a weapon given voice, now he had somewhere to stand within his own mind. An island of identity, only a fragment, and made up of the horrors of that first wipe session, of screaming inside his cell, but it was something. A starting point that was altogether separate from the life of the Winter Soldier. “I remember… when it all began.”

Relief broke across Steve’s face, but swiftly behind it came grief, crumpling his expression. Steve clenched his hand harder around Bucky’s. He could not feel it, only saw the knuckles whiten. “Do you want to talk about it?” Steve murmured.

The words stuck in his throat and a shiver ran through him, as he felt for the first time in years the need to speak. The nightmare images were rising in his mind, building in his throat, such that he gasped the words. “Zola. Found me, after the fall, knew it was me. He was looking. Said I had escaped.” He shook so hard his teeth were chattering, but the words were pouring out, halted and stuttering, but bringing a beam of light to thoughts long buried in darkness. “I tried to hold on but c-couldn’t. I f-fell and my name… t-they said I had no name….”

Steve made a soft sound at the back of his throat and bit his lip. He was blinking rapidly, and his lip trembled as he looked up at the ceiling, before turning his gaze back to Bucky. “You have a name,” he said, his voice rough. “James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky. From Brooklyn, the 107th, the Howling Commandos and my…” He stopped, his words choked off. “I’m sorry. Tell me the rest.”

“C-Can’t, there’s nothing. Nothing else,” Bucky said. Nothing else he could put into words without screaming. He tried to sit, pushing himself up with his good hand, but it still shook and he flinched. He could hear it still, his own voice reciting name, rank, serial number, until the words ceased to have any meaning. He saw the coffin-like steel chamber closing around him, the ice flooding his veins and dropping him into darkness that stole consciousness and years. No homecoming from the war, no home to return to at all. Only war without end, as time ran out behind him, and missions lined up before him in a wash of red.

Warmth encircled him and he seized, his body stiffening, before he realized Steve had twisted around and was kneeling behind him. His arms were wrapped around Bucky’s shoulders. He still held the metal hand, pressed now to Bucky’s chest, and his grip was tight, but not so much so that Bucky would have to fight to escape. Bucky’s breath was like thunder in his ears, and the room spun as his every instinct screamed at him to break the grip and pin his assailant to the ground.

Instead he went still, then he tilted his head back, resting it on Steve’s shoulder as he looked up at the ceiling, trying to process it all. The nightmares were losing some of their luster, and he could no longer feel the steel chamber closing around him with such sharp clarity. The memory of cold was beaten back by the warmth of the body pressed against him. Another memory rose, soft where the other was jagged.

Steve, the smaller one, thin and pale and cold, curled up on the shabby bed under a thin blanket. He was coughing deep, wracking coughs, so hard that it reddened his face and brought tears to his eyes. It was winter, and the snow swirled as Bucky shut the door behind him. He kicked off his shoes, hung up his hat and coat, and knelt beside the bed. The floor was cold as ice. Steve forced a grin at the sight of him, tried to gasp out a greeting, waving with his hands to say he was fine, but Bucky wasn’t smiling. Instead he lifted the blanket and slid beneath it, his larger body curling around Steve’s. Before long, even with the thinness of the blanket, the press of bodies and clothes heated the small bed to something close to bearable. Steve’s coughing eased, but he was pale and exhausted. Bucky pressed his chin against Steve’s frail shoulder, then gently kissed Steve’s neck, drawing a fluttering sigh from him. He held the smaller man close, and they drifted off to sleep together, while outside snow fell above the city.

“Your what?” Bucky said. “James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky. From Brooklyn, the 107th, the Howling Commandos and your…your what?” He turns his head to look at Steve, their noses inches apart. “What was I to you?”

“Who,” Steve corrected softly. “You were… my first friend, my best friend, and my…” he took a deep breath, “You were mine.”

Bucky was quiet, his mind drifting back over this newest memory, until he could almost smell the threadbare wool, feel the prickling of his skin as sensation returned to his toes. Remembered Steve’s breathing ease as they melted against one another.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, making a little sound of frustration. “It’s not… it’s not like I owned you. I’m just not… really good at saying it, even now. It’s better today, people don’t have to hide as much anymore. But it was hard then, and it’s hard now. I don’t think either of us had a name for it. All I knew was there were always dames who wanted to dance with you, that you could have had anyone you wanted, but at the end of the night I was the lucky one who got to keep you.”

“Is that what you’re doing now? Keeping me?” Bucky said. His voice was not accusing, it held no tone at all. He was used to being kept, used, released only to be hauled back again and put to sleep.

“I couldn’t stop you from doing anything back then, and I couldn’t now,” Steve murmured. “You can leave whenever you want. But I’ll always be waiting for you to come back, and I’ll be there to save you if you can’t. I always will.” Bucky felt the arms loosen around him, and wasn’t sure he was pleased by it as the other man released him.

And Bucky thought he might not mind so much to be kept, and freed, and brought home again, if Steve was the one to do it.