He wakes up and there is a man in the corner of his room. He lurks in darkness, all oblique angles in a corner just outside his line of sight, casts no shadows and breathes in silence. The Winter Soldier only knows he’s there because he’s made solely for this, for finding shapes that don’t exist in the darkness, and flattening them before they can morph into something more.
He is awake and this man, he is an aberration.
He is awake and the man in the corner is not his mission. He is awake and he must do as he’s told.
He is awake.
He has a mission is Sarajevo and the man follows like a trail of silence he cannot shake off. The Winter Soldier is made to deduce patterns, cast his light over his victims and see the life go out of their eyes, the will go out of their hearts. He is not designed to fight against a void, to fight silence, emptiness, so he doesn’t.
The mission is not a difficult one, but it is discreet. It takes him less than an hour to go in and out, and another name is ticked off his stitched up, fragmented memory. He is death in its purest, most sacred form, a vision in black and silver with metal glinting on him in the dark and lives sliding off his fingers like molten wax.
“Who are you?” he asks out loud in the silence of the aftermath as the blood dries against his cheekbone. There is no answer.
He is awake and he must do as he’s told. He is awake and this is the price the world must pay for it.
The Winter Soldier does not have memories, but he has noises, noises that come to him in flashes of static, sometimes right before they put him under, sometimes right after.
The noises in his head are echoes of fragments, incomplete names and syllables that don’t string together and colors that blur behind his eyes. Perhaps it is a strangled cry in the distance, a laugh caught at the back of a throat, a note of music floating by itself, unanchored, unfinished.
Sometimes, it is a train, rushing over his ears like white noise.
They put him under with gentle hands and kisses to his forehead, always, always, humming a rhyme under their breath as they slide the rubber between his teeth, force his wet, sweat-stained hair out of his eyes. They tell him to close his eyes and take a deep breath, and then another, and another and they tell him he’ll wake up more beautiful, more lethal, a sculpture, a vision in ice.
Tomorrow, he will wake up and he will do as he’s told.
He is awake and falling, and there is ice crushing his bones and a hand that does not catch him.
He is awake and he will do as he’s told. He is awake and the world must be put to sleep.
He is awake.
There is a mission in Colombo, in Kyoto, in Venice, and the man follows.
The Winter Soldier’s eyes glitter in the cold, hard and unflinching and unforgiving like diamonds that cut glass. He is not used to being seen in return, to being assessed under a gaze that he cannot comprehend. Something itches against his skin, beneath his fingers and behind his neck, and he feels, he feels --
He feels like he’s being ripped apart layer by layer by layer until the man’s gaze dissects him into a mass of cells, the stepping stones of a human being but that isn’t right, that isn’t supposed to be right, for he is a machine forged in cold winters and steel and electroconvulsive therapy. Nothing about him can be unmade.
He wonders, terrified, if this constant stream of pain is what humanity is.
“Stop,” he begs once, twice, thrice, and the word tears away from his throat, visceral and caged. The voice that he hears is not his own, harsh and gasping for breath and scratched beyond repair. Perhaps this, he thinks, is heartfelt.
He is awake and he is ice and he is burning.
In Mumbai, he waits for seventy nine hours to make a kill shot, hidden in plain sight in a crowd of people, drenched in the smell of the sea and tar. It is a city born of summer, a city born of colors and light and voices, foreign to the cold lurking outside. It makes him uneasy, the thought that here he is someone who can pass in a blur, someone who is noticed but not singled out, flinched away from.
At his back, he can follow the gaze of the man who doesn’t show himself, sharp and prickly as the rays of the sun in the clear blue sky. This, he thinks, is cowardice.
He opens his mouth and there are words clawing at the back of his throat, at odds with the grappling blankness of his mind. When he speaks, he speaks only of things that have been drilled into him.
“Mumbai,” he begins, and knows that the man, just outside his area of vision, is listening. “Area: 233 square miles, population: 18.4 million, anticipated temperature: twenty-nine degrees celsius.”
He does not stop speaking until his voice is a monotone, until his throat is parched and his lips crack in the heat. Somewhere out there, there is a man and it is an aberration but he is listening. The Winter Soldier, he is letting himself be listened to.
This, he thinks, is courage.
He is awake and there is a file in his hands and the location of his next mission is Washington D.C.
He is awake and he must do as he’s told. He is awake and the man is gone.
It is an aberration.
A man in a suit and a smile that is all crooked teeth tells him that he’s destined for greatness. He tells him that his next target is a man they call Captain America, that when he completes this mission, he will have achieved the ultimate pinnacle of greatness.
He is cold and steel and does not understand what greatness is. He thinks of the glint in the man’s eyes, sharp and crazed and a little desperate, and if this is what greatness is supposed to look like, it is not what he wants.
He thinks of dark, empty roads in cities with names that twist on his tongue and the silence of a man, a different man, at his back. He thinks of winters and the sound of a train passing by and a hand that does not catch him. He thinks until the rubber is slid, once again, between his teeth and there is a steel mask over the sides of his face and then, he thinks of nothing.
He is awake and there is a hand that does not catch him, does not go away.
Captain America is a file on his lap and his name is Rogers, Steven G. His file has clippings from newspaper articles and mission reports and they say that he, too, is destined for greatness.
The Winter Soldier is cold and steel and does not understand what greatness is, does not understand why greatnesses must cancel each other out.
The file says that Captain America was not always what he is now, that he was once merely a boy, frail and sick and shivering in a small room in Brooklyn. They say that he followed his best friend into war. They say that he died avenging his friend.
There are pictures clipped to his file, a picture of him before, frail and small and pliable and one of him in his uniform, ready for a fight.
The Winter Soldier wonders why a man destined for greatness looks so lost.
There is a hand that does not catch him.
And he’s falling, and he’s falling, and he’s falling.
Captain America looks at his face and stops fighting.
He is awake and he is cold and there’s something bubbling under his stomach that feels a lot like laughter. He looks up and his eyes are wet.
The Captain looks frail and small and pliable and begs to be killed, pinned under his knee and inches from his final, most lasting, punch. He is awake and he must do as he’s told.
He sends the Captain flying, flying into thin air and the acrid smell of smoke and charred remains of dead bodies, sends him flying into the water. He thinks of a train rushing like blood through his ears and a hand that does not catch him.
And then he’s falling, and he’s falling, and he’s falling.
He wakes up and there is a man in the corner of the empty, overturned HYDRA base that is his roof.
He is not a remarkable man. He is smaller and weaker and can be broken into infinitesimal pieces, and he has followed the Winter Soldier all over the world, borne witness to his bloodshed.
He is not a remarkable man but he has a remarkable gaze and a remarkable weapon. The Winter Soldier wonders whether an arrow will be the weapon to bring him down, kill him where a gun, a rifle, the strength of ten men couldn’t.
He is awake and this man, with his sharp eyes and his crooked face, is not his mission.
“Who are you?” he spits out.
The man purses his lips like he’s trying not to smile. The Winter Soldier wonders how he can be amused in the face of death, wonders if it’s ever possible to be anything else.
“I’m nobody,” the man replies.
He frowns. He had been a nobody too, until the Captain had given him a dead man’s name on a bridge that had been burning, burning, burning down.
“My name is James Buchanan Barnes,” he says out loud. These words, they are an aberration.
The man tilts his head. “Yes,” he says finally, “I suppose it is.”
The man gives him a phone and tells him to call when he is ready. He does not understand what being ready entails.
“It’s a burner phone,” says the man. “There’s only one number it’s programmed to call and it’s going to destroy itself as soon as you disconnect. So,” he shrugs, “just call when you’re ready.”
The Winter Soldier is an executioner, swift and clean and precise, but he knows that people, people that aren’t him, respond to the concept of mercy. He wonders if that’s what this is, one last chance to feel the sun on his face before the axe falls. He wants to tell the man that mercy is for humans, for people who are born and for people who have lived, not for a device like him, made with careful touches of a keyboard and a memory that can be reset with a remote-control.
“You can save us both the time and kill me right now,” he says, instead.
The man looks startled. “What, no,” he takes a deep breath. “Look, no one is going to kill you. I was supposed to bring you in, help you recover your memories and all the… gaps you might be having. But I thought you should get a chance to try and do that for yourself, first. That’s why I’m giving you this phone. So you can let me help you when you’re ready.”
The Winter Soldier does not know what he has lost. He does not think he’s ever had anything worth losing, in the first place.
“What do I need to do?” he asks, fingers itching for a file to rifle through, a gun to cradle.
The man stops, picks up his bow. “You walk around,” he replies. “See the world, find stuff you like. And when you think you want to, you call that number.”
He is awake and he must do as he’s told.
He turns around and the man who is a nobody with enough silence to counteract his bloodshed is one step away from leaving. Perhaps, he thinks, they’re not very different, after all.
“Who am I?” he asks and it’s merely an attempt, desperate, empty.
The man turns, almost. “You’re my mission,” he says.
He visits the Smithsonian and spends hours reading a dead man’s story and looking at a dead man’s face. Captain America had said that it had been his name too, once. The Smithsonian is crowds and noise and laughter and wails of children, people milling about, trusting, open, unconcerned like he didn’t just try to end their world mere hours ago.
On screen, the man with his face (or maybe, it’s the other way round, he doesn’t know) smiles at the Captain with a wide-eyed, uninhibited expression of affection on his face that makes something within his stomach churn.
He thinks of his own arm, invincible and undefeated, landing a final blow to the Captain’s abdomen. He thinks of the picture of the Captain clipped to his file, brittle and alive and so completely undefeated and suddenly this world, and all its noise and all its laughter, it’s all too fast, all too much. He longs for silence where there is none, and there’s an itch that grows deeper beneath his fingernail, an itch that makes him want to claw the whole world out of his brain until all that remains is the quiet.
He is, he realizes, horrified, free.
He calls the number on the phone and Captain America turns up outside his base twenty minutes later. This is an aberration.
There is something bitter lodged at the back of his throat, a pit forming in his stomach that he would call betrayal except, except he knows better. A machine, one like himself, does not inspire loyalty, he knows.
“No,” he bites out and takes a step back as the Captain starts speaking and the world around him fills with sounds that he does not understand. His fingers itch for certainty, for silence, for knowledge, and he wants, and he wants, and he wants.
Everything about this is an aberration.
“It’s okay,” Captain America’s voice is deliberately soothing. “It’s all right, Buck, it’s okay, you’re safe. Clint told me to keep an eye on this phone, he said that you would call and he was right, Buck, I’m so pleased you did. You’re going to be safe, you’re going to be safe.”
There is a hand and it is yearning, begging to catch him except he can’t, can’t, he knows how this story goes, he knows that he will fall in the end.
He lashes out, blinded and caged and desperate and the prick of a needle on the back of his neck is almost welcoming, almost home, blissfully silent.
He wakes up and he does not know where he is.
Captain America is sitting by his bed, curled up in a chair that’s too small for him, and his eyes snap open at the slightest movement.
“Bucky,” he breathes in reverence, and something in his heart sinks.
“Where is he?” he asks and his throat is scratched raw.
There is a frown on the Captain’s face. “Where is who?” It’s just us here, Bucky, I promise.”
“No,” he shakes his head, “where is he? The guy who gave me the phone, he didn’t talk, but he said he would--” Help me, he wants to say, he said he would help me, but all the words sit foreign on his tongue.
“Oh, you mean Clint, then, Barton,” says the Captain, “he’s the one who gave you the phone. I don’t know about the not talking part though, he’s never really quiet.”
He frowns. That is not what he had meant, at all.
“He’s not here, Buck,” says the Captain. “He was meant to keep an eye on you, but all that’s over now.”
And he’s falling, and he’s falling, and he’s falling.
He is awake and the world outside, it is burning.
He is awake and there is a hand that does not catch him.
He is, finally, finally, awake.
The Captain tells him that all sorts of information on all of them are now available to the public. There are reports and lists and pages of proof, he says, of all the people they’ve killed, all the people they’ve saved.
In the back of his mind, there is a man in a suit with a fistful of his hair and you are destined for greatness on his lips. He thinks, the lives you save, the lives you take, maybe it is all the same in the end.
“You should read the files, Buck, maybe that will help you trust us,” says the Captain, who tells him to call him Steve and worships a dead man with a lost look in his eyes. So he does
The information he finds is not all new, but it is, at least, enlightening and his fingers twitch between the pages he turns, under the loss he carries with every word he reads. They have all been made, he realizes, burnt to the ground and rebuilt from the ashes, made with iron and forged in steel and loss and blood. Any one of them, with the right motivation, can kill him without looking back.
It is the smallest of comforts, but it is something.
There is a page, previously unseen by him, attached to the file of Barton, Clinton F.
Target: The Winter Soldier, it says.
Immediate Action: Termination.
The file twitches between his fingers and his eyes close, unbidden, with relief.
He watches the man – Oh my god, the red-haired woman (Romanova, Natalia A.) had snapped, just call him by his name already. Stark is starting to twitch every time you refer to us in epithets – sleep for a minute before his hand is at his throat.
Barton’s eyes snap open. For all that he looks disoriented, the Winter Soldier can already locate seven knives on his person. He wonders whether it is uncomfortable, to sleep without your teeth encased in rubber and memories brimming behind your eyelids.
“Barnes, what the hell?” he chokes out.
His hand, on Barton’s throat, does not tighten. Not yet. “You were supposed to kill me,” he says, and is surprised at the flatness of his words. Can machines really be killed or are they merely molten steel, rebuilt into something more lethal?
To his amazement, Barton relaxes. Perhaps he is too used to encounters with death, he thinks. Perhaps he has sensed that this isn’t one of them.
“Yes, I was,” is all he says.
The Winter Soldier stumbles back. This is an aberration, this calm acceptance. Somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, there is a hand. Maybe it’s his.
“Your movements, the data I collected, it helped us track down so many of your employers. It was invaluable,” Barton says.
“I made a different call,” Barton says.
His eyes burn from all the things Barton says, all the things that he doesn’t. He is awake and he wants to be put to sleep with a bullet and a song.
“And the whole world?” he hisses, fingers trembling. “And the whole world was collateral damage? This was the price you set for me, this whole fucking world?”
“I made a different call,” Barton repeats.
He takes a step back, his head pounding in perfect synchronicity with his heart, and the world blurs and he’s back on the bridge again, with a man in a blue costume who wants to die, die, die, and remember, Bucky, remember, you’re my friend, I’m with you, I’m with you, I’m—
He strikes, helpless with anger, and doesn’t realize what he’s done until he opens his eyes with blood splattered on his arm and Barton’s on the floor, a bleeding gash on his cheek.
“You did not do as you were told,” he says, and he is falling, falling, falling down.
Barton smiles up at him from the ground, his teeth full of blood. “Neither did you,” he replies.
“Well, at least you have manners,” Barton tells him and winces at the burn of antiseptic on his skin. “Punch a guy, then stitch him up. I approve.”
“I don’t know why I did that,” he replies truthfully.
Barton shrugs. “It’s okay. I’ve punched my fair share of people too. Tried to punch Thor once,” he shivers at a distance memory. “That didn’t go so well for my knuckles.”
“I don’t understand,” the Winter Soldier repeats. “You should have terminated me. You should have completed your mission.”
“Buddy, if I completed all my missions, half of the Avengers would be dead. I make different calls. It’s my thing.”
He frowns. “Your thing?”
“Well, Coulson called it a complex, and Tasha just calls me a big softie, but it’s definitely a thing. I’m,” he looks down at his hands, human, breakable, tiny, “a big fan of giving people a second chance. Especially when their first has been forcibly taken away from them.”
He is awake and this man says that he does not have do as he’s told. He is awake and this man, whom he had just hurt, is telling him that it’s all right to think for himself. He gasps with a short, sharp ache in his chest, and a part of him that isn’t falling wants to, beyond all logic, stand back up.
“Okay,” he replies, and sets the needle down.
Barton winces and touches his face. “Yeah, let me tell you though, one free punch is all you get. The next time you try, you’re going to have an arrow in a really sensitive part of your body.”
He laughs, startled and thinks of cold, dark nights in cities he cannot name with a plea on his lips. This, too, he thinks, is heartfelt.
“You should talk to Cap.”
He blinks at Barton. “I talk to the Captain.”
“Yeah, and maybe lose ‘the captain’, while you’re at it.” He sighs and mutes the show – is that a cooking show – on television and turns around. “He’s lonely and his sad eyes are, well, they’re really sad. You should talk to him.”
There is a train rushing away from him like white, hot noise and a scream, muffled in the winds. There is a man on the bridge with a dead man’s name on his lips like a prayer and he is begging to be killed. He remembers thinking, is this what I’ve done, is this the pinnacle of my greatness.
“He’s basically a kid and he’s lost and he needs his friend,” Barton tells him. “Think about it.”
He is awake and he does not have to do as he’s told. But he thinks he will do it, anyway.
“I’m not Bucky,” he tells the Captain. “I do not know who he is, but I know that he was your friend. And I will try my best to be that, if you will show me how.”
The Captain smiles at him, beautiful and blinding, with eyes so bright with hope that he has to shy away from them.
There is a hand and he is so close, so close, so close.
The Winter Soldier does not dream but there are noises in the back of his head, lives he does not remember strangling slipping through his fingers, blood he does not remember shedding smeared on his knees.
He sits in the dark on the ledge outside his window and watches the world as it goes on, unknown to him, despite his presence. He wonders whether he will disrupt the traffic below, if he decides to let go. He wonders if there is a hand that will catch him.
“Can’t sleep?” Barton asks from his left. He does not startle but it is close. He shrugs.
“I couldn’t sleep either,” Barton says. He turns around to look at him, at the tired lines underneath Barton’s eyes eyes, the hollowed gaps under his cheekbones, the way his eyes sometimes stare, sharp as ever, at absolutely nothing. For a frightening second, in the dim light cast by the city around them, he is looking at a mirror, looking at himself, laid bare and raw and so terribly empty.
His heart beats hard, hard, hard against his ribcage like something is being taken away.
“Hey, hey,” Barton nudges his shoulder and he startles, realizes that the blood pounding in his ears is his own, the harsh gasps he can hear are falling from his own lips.
“So,” Barton says a second, a minute, an eternity later. “Tell me about New York.”
By the time he begins reciting coordinates, Barton is asleep, half of his torso propped up against his shoulder. Something in his chest unravels.
He is awake and –
He is awake and cold on a ledge outside a window with Barton’s legs propped up on his lap. This is an aberration, but this is not, this is not, this is not. It is not a comfortable position; he will wake up tomorrow morning with his muscles on fire and cramps stabbing at his back.
He is awake and he closes his eyes and he sleeps.
“I think I liked it when I was your mission.”
It is not what he means to say. He means to nudge Barton at his side and ask him to pass the bowl of popcorn. He means to ask him to turn up the volume a little bit. He means to –
“I think I liked it. Being your mission,” is what he says instead, the words terrifying in their sincerity. Maybe, he thinks, it is what he meant to say all along. His heart, it beats, beats, beats in a rhythm that reverberates through his body.
Barton does not turn the television off but he shifts, half turning towards him with an unreadable expression on his face and a curve to his lips that could be a smile.
“You’ve always been my mission, Barnes,” he replies, and perhaps his words, they mean something else, something completely different.
It is, nevertheless, all right, he thinks. He will make it his mission to find out what they mean.
He shifts back a fraction and lets his hand, heavy and cold and inhuman with the sins of a century molded in its arches, rest on Barton’s.
He is awake and beneath his feet, he can feel solid ground where there was once air.
He is awake.