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sundown in winter

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Ice bit at his fingers. At his nose, his ears. It pierced through his bloodstained clothes and his skin and his flesh. It gored its way straight to his bones. His nerves were dying, but it almost felt as if he could sense each individual cell crystallizing into frozen fractals. The shivering ceased either a few minutes ago or a few seconds ago—he couldn’t tell the difference.

The train. He fell from the train. He was dead, he was sure of it—and yet, even though he tried hard to push the thought to the back of his mind, he knew that he was alive. Or conscious, anyway. Life and consciousness were different. He wasn’t sure what he expected. Certainly not bells chiming and choirs singing to welcome him at the pearly gates, and not the flaming cesspool of sin that was hell. This was a snowy purgatory, the topography painted in stark black and white, the sky always a faded gray.

He had no strength left in him to lift his head to look down at himself. Even though he knew—God, he knew—he was on the verge of bleeding out, he couldn’t tell whether the sticky wetness at his side was the snow around him or the blood oozing from his side. For all he knew, it was the one and the same. His vision was fading in and out, much like his consciousness. Everything became white, like the noise that bled into his ears. The snow became a blank canvas, untouched save for the blotches of brilliant red. And the hum from the river, it became a muted ring. It was all fading. He saw no use for panicking now, though his heart rate still picked up at the thought of whatever came after. James Buchanan Barnes was a dead man.

But he was moving through the snow, the sound of footfall reaching his ears like a silent metronome.

 

 

The Soviet soldier dragged the body behind him. The dead weight and the added snowdrift made it all the more difficult to trek through the terrain, but Russian winters had hardened him to the weather. Milan glanced over his shoulder, first seeing the limp American, then the trail of carmine that followed them. He had only been on patrol, scouting the range when he thought he heard something. Or someone, rather. He sighed, giving the American a once-over before continuing his trudge back to the post. How odd the circumstances. Two men, one alive and one dying, alone among the mountains.

Milan let go of the American’s collar, a thud sounding as the top half of the man’s body fell to the floor. The post was simply a small station; it had a helipad, though, and that was what Milan needed. He had to get a ride back to one of the larger posts, where he could bring the American into the Soviet Union's custody under the discretion of a superior officer. He bent down to check the American’s breathing: shallow, but it was there, much like his heartbeat. He was alive, and that alone was a miracle. Then Milan picked him up again, got the clearance for a helicopter ride, and left the mountains.

In all honesty, it had been awhile since Milan last left his post. He’d never even spoken to the one they called Verenich, who he had been sent to see. Milan looked to the sky, eyes squinted against the weak sunlight reflecting off the endless valley of white, and noted that a storm may be brewing. The guards around the perimeter may not be able to complete their rounds should a blizzard set in.

In his time between getting through the perimeter with a seemingly-dead body in tow and waiting outside Verenich’s office, he learned a few things about the man he was carrying with him. There was a small symbol on his uniform that was stained with blood earlier; Milan had wiped it clean with his thumb. It looked like a bird’s wing, and he knew the man was special right then. Some special group in the United States that took down HYDRA operations almost overnight; the Howling… Howling Commandos? It was a weird name; Milan could be wrong.

A buzzer sounded after a long while and the door he'd been waiting in front of clicked open. Milan bent down to grasp the American’s collar again, hauling him into the room where his commanding officer awaited. A stoic man Verenich was, with a penetrating gaze and a trenchant voice to match. Beside Verenich stood another higher-up—Konin—though he certainly wasn’t an equal to Verenich. Milan was most definitely intimidated by their figure and their stance. It goes to show that he would be an absolutely awful superior.

“What did you bring me, Petrov?” The Russian rolled off Verenich’s tongue like water running downhill. Milan clenched his jaw.

“A fallen American soldier,” Milan said, again setting the body on the ground. He tried hard to ignore the gnarled and bloody stub of an arm. He’d seen wounds as grave or worse than the American’s, but cliché of “you’ll get used to it” simply wasn’t true. He just learned not to react on the outside. One just didn’t forget everything they’d seen. “I believe he fell from the train that runs along the Danube. There were bits of metal around him, like piping, and I heard it pass through not too long ago.”

Verenich said nothing and took unhurried steps towards and around the American, eyes drinking in every detail of his face and uniform. The golden insignia of the Howling Commandos gleamed at him viciously; though it was small, it certainly acted like a beacon, drawing attention to it like moths to a flame. A subtle smirk graced Verenich’s face.

“Call for a nurse,” Verenich said to Milan, “Take him and leave us be. I’ll call you up later about that train.”

Verenich turned to Konin, which signalled it was time for Milan to leave. Milan suppressed a sigh and took the American with him, almost tripping over the weight and hoping to God he didn’t embarrass himself. He left the room, flinched when the door locked shut behind him, and with a body in tow he headed towards the infirmary, muttering a passing comment in Russian to a nurse walking by. However, his brain caught up to him and registered the fact that he had caught a silent snippet of conversation between Verenich and Konin: “I know people who will pay whatever price for him, so long as he doesn’t go to the Americans.”

“You don’t mean…?”

“You know they’re… there was… important… died trying to get.”

He hoped he could figure out what that meant. Sadly, Milan was modest enough to admit that he probably wouldn’t. There was a reason he wasn’t a scientist or even a trusted strategist. Secrets were a big thing in any military or government, and there were protocols to be respected.

Milan had to turn over the American to his superiors. Unfortunately, he didn’t figure out the man’s nam—nothing. And he never would, because all of that information was withheld from him despite him being the person who found the American. Despite the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States being less than stellar, Milan knew that every soldier had a family. Has, he reminded himself. It was sort of a kind of basic respect everyone deserved, he supposed. He saw the wounds, though. He knew the man wouldn’t make it. Milan hoped, as he saw the man for the last time, being rushed into the operation room, that the man’s family would remember him as a good man. And he hoped that a dog tag could be recovered, so that they could have that in case the body never found its way home. He never knew that eventually, it would—in a different way than he expected.

 

Bucky. His name was Bucky.

That was a light. Light. He hadn’t seen that for a long time. Or was it yesterday?

Yesterday he was with Steve. His best friend and fellow soldier. The other Howling Commandos—they were there, too. When was yesterday? Someone found him. He fell. He didn’t see anyone else. Steve tried to get him. Steve tried. Bucky hoped that the mission was a success. They captured… Zola, that was his name. He hoped they did. He hoped for a lot, and that hope was dwindling.

Beep. What was that beep? It sounded like it was close to him, but at the same time it sounded like it was moving away. Don’t move away, he thought. Beep, beep, beep. Steady, steady, like the heartbeat in a living creature. Was it his own? It couldn’t be.

The smell. He knew this smell. Fresh, unnaturally clean. Sterile. It reminded him of white. Something else in the air. Chemicals. It also smelled of sickness, two vastly contradictory things that clashed like fire and water. Sickness and sadness. A hint of chloroform.

Bucky blinked his eyes open. Focus. He couldn’t. Not yet, at least. His head was pounding, and he could feel pain shooting all the way down to his fingers, especially on his left side. Down to the very fiber of his being, he felt the pain. In his muscles. His bones. It was just one of many things he noticed in the room. The pain and the voices.

He heard the voices. If he really paid attention, he could hear the German accent in them. Was it an accent? ...No. They were speaking German. He learned some a while ago; inevitable, considering their enemy. It wasn’t enough to figure out what they were saying. Either that, or they were speaking gibberish. He couldn’t process whatever audio came to his ears, anyway. The ringing drowned out almost everything else.

Though his vision wasn’t clear by any means, he could still focus enough on the blurry shapes to make out a few details. A doctor. A monitor. A tube running from above him and disappearing somewhere beside him. He lifted his hands.

His hands.

Something was wrong.

Metal glared at him from where his left arm should be. He moved his wrists; to his surprise and horror, the metal arm moved alongside his flesh one. And perhaps even more petrifying was the fact that he could feel it. Not in a traditional sense, no. This was more like fuzzy interference in a radio, and like imagining something so vividly you could almost believe it was real. A dream. Still, even though it was muted, he could feel the metal arm move and articulate as if he was born with it.

He was scared of it. At the same time, however, he felt what only could be described as disgusted awe at the technology the arm was created from. What did they do to the rest of him to get the arm to feel? How's it move? He could curl each finger one at a time and even despite the circumstances, he was impressed. And he hated that he was.

A doctor came near him, mumbled some words. Or, at least, it sounded like he mumbled them. A wave of rage crashed over him. His head was still in a flurry, but he could insinuate and put the pieces together.

Bucky’s arm shot out and wrapped its hand around the doctor’s neck. A single thought came to his mind.

Choke.