Bucky dies, but it doesn't take.
The first time, he's on a Nazi operating table, organs being removed one by one as he watches, belly split open, blood everywhere. When it started, he'd recited his name, rank, and serial number over and over again. Now, all he can do is scream until he passes out.
He comes to with a gasp, jerking against the restraints. There's a ringing emptiness in his head, and he realizes the pain that had become his whole world is gone. He looks down and sees a smooth expanse of skin where there had been a bloody hole. The only mark is a familiar scar, a badge of honor from climbing a fence with Steve when they were eight.
"Now, that is unexpected," the little Nazi says, appearing by Bucky's head like a nightmare. "What have we here?"
"James Buchanan Barnes. Sergeant -- "
"Enough of that," the Nazi says, slapping him hard across the face. "Let us see what else you have to say."
They kill him over and over again, removing his blood, his bones, the brain from his skull. The little Nazi, others. He dies and dies, and each time he awakens with a shudder and a gasp, only for it to begin again.
Finally they leave him alone, and it takes a moment to realize that there are sirens blaring, something going on outside this small, bloodstained room. He's alive and whole, but too tired to even consider struggling against the restraints. Eventually, it all goes quiet, and Bucky is left alone with the sound of his breath and the rush of blood in his ears. He drifts in a sea of silence and remembered pain.
The silence is almost absolute, so it's easy to hear the footsteps when they approach, heavy and slow. Bucky murmurs something, words slurring so not even he knows what he's saying, but then he comes to with a start when the restraints are pulled right out of the operating table. He looks up, eyes taking a moment to focus, and he sees Steve.
But it can't be Steve, not here behind enemy lines, tall and broad and wearing a strange uniform. But it's Steve's familiar face beneath that helmet, even as he effortlessly pulls Bucky up from the table. "What happened to you?" Bucky asks, as Steve drags him down the hall until he can get his feet under him.
Steve's grin is as familiar as his own face in the mirror. "I joined the army."
Bucky doesn't tell Steve about what HYDRA did to him, because he doesn't want to relive it, and because it doesn't make much sense. He knows what happened, but he can't explain it. Or guess at what it means. Or know if it will happen outside of the lab.
Steve -- Captain America -- is a good leader, protective of his men without coddling, treating their little band of misfits like a democracy rather than the dictatorship the army prefers. No one dies in his care, not even Bucky, and they all throw themselves into their mission to wipe HYDRA from the map.
And then there's the train, and even as he's falling, arm torn from his shoulder and wind whipping past his face, Bucky wonders if he'll wake up this time, too, and if Steve will try to find him again, even though he has every reason to believe Bucky is dead.
It was some low-level HYDRA scientist who had found him in the end, wandering lost and confused in the mountains. He'd remembered the strange, undying American, so he'd instructed his men to aim for the head and dragged the body back before it could revive itself. They'd still been on the move, scientist and soldiers and corpse in the back of a truck, when the news of the Red Skull's defeat had swept across Europe. The scientist, who knew how to cut his losses, changed their destination from Berlin to Moscow, and by the time they had snuck into the country, he had a plan that would ensure their request for amnesty was granted. He had been introduced to the organizers of the Red Room, and the Winter Soldier Project was born.
No one knows how many times the Winter Soldier dies, but since the job always gets done, no one cares.
The Winter Soldier's body count is on file, assassinations and coups and collateral damage.The Winter Soldier's apparent immortality is in his file, too, listed among his skills with guns and knives and improvised weapons, with his vital statistics and his language proficiencies and the schematics of his arm. It is an asset taken into consideration when his missions are assigned. It is theorized that the asset dies each time he is frozen, but his deaths in the field are unknown. He works alone, without handler or backup, and the only mind that would remember the deaths is wiped clean before he is put back in his freezer to await his next mission.
He does not remember, he never remembers, but the chill of death and the shock of waking is familiar every time.
He's not sure why he bothers to come back to New York. The fall of SHIELD and the Helicarriers was the end of the Soldier's world and the beginning of...something else. HYDRA has scattered like the rats they are; the Red Room dismantled long ago with the fall of the Soviet Union. As the memories begin to come back -- the man he was sent to kill is Steve, his best friend Steve, who still held out hope that Bucky could be saved even as they fell from the sky -- he hides in an old safehouse the Soldier had set up in the '80s. The appliances are old, the linens are dusty, but the canned food is still good and it's no work at all to patch into the neighbor's Internet and cable lines. It's like countless missions (he assumes), but no one is slated to die at his hands. Not yet, anyway.
He has names from the Smithsonian exhibit and one at a time he researches them all: Dum Dum, Pinky, Jones, the men that had Steve's back when Bucky was gone. And then he looks up Steven Grant Rogers: the sickly boy, the service record, presumed death, recovery from the Arctic, the Battle of New York, the Battle of the Potomac.
Last, he looks up the one name that fills him with an emotion he can't identify. James Buchanan Barnes, son of Ianto Barnes and wife Lisa who died in childbirth. There is one picture of him as a child, buried in the annals of some Captain America website, a grainy shot with no known source. Steve and Bucky are some twelve years old, arms around each other and grinning, Sarah Rogers behind them looking thin and unwell. A dark haired man has his hand on Bucky's shoulder, and that must be his father, though seeing him, he only gets a vague sense of warm hands and the scent of ink and paper. And behind him is a man in a long coat. Uncle Jack , his mind supplies, and he's surprised that he remembers anything at all.
And so he goes to Brooklyn, unsure it will help but drawn there nonetheless. The original old brownstone tenement is gone, replaced by "luxury condos" and a coffee shop. He turns away, ready to return to the safehouse in Queens and collect his meager belongings; Steve is in New York with the Avengers when he's not wandering the globe looking for the man who used to be his best friend, but Bucky (is his name Bucky? Or is he someone else now?) cannot face him yet.
He glances past the crowd in decades old habit, and sees something as out of place as he is, a man out of time. Uncle Jack, or his twin, looking like he hasn't aged a day since he hugged Bucky goodbye before sending him off to Europe. The only difference was the change of coat color from camel brown to the same blue Bucky had worn in the war.
Bucky freezes, but the man who looks like Jack rushes forward, stopping just short of touching him. "I’ve been waiting a long time," he says, while Bucky wonders if he’s finally lost what’s left of his mind. "I know how this must look. There are a few things we never told you."
Bucky barely hears what Jack says after that, and before he can think he’s hugging Jack, face buried in Jack’s shoulder to hide from the roar of sound in his head, the rush of memories behind his eyes. Jack is making soothing sounds above him, and for a moment he’s a child again, running to Jack with a scraped knee or a split lip. Jack holds him just as tightly, and Bucky feels like he’s finally, finally come home.