Woven In My Soul
He staggers without the water’s buoyancy to hold him upright any longer, dragging the heavier than expected bulk of Captain America behind him. His knees threaten to give out, muscles aching, but he pushes it aside. Ignores it like he has learned to do so much else. Pain doesn’t matter when there’s a mission to complete. So long as he can get the job done, his masters are content. Then they wipe him clean and let him sleep. He never likes going back into the cold, but at this moment he craves the silence. His mind is too frantic and full of jumbled thoughts that aren’t his own.
“I’m with you to the end of the line.”
He stumbles then, falling to his knees in the shallow water. On instinct, he swings his right arm out to catch himself and promptly crumples onto his side, swallowing a muffled cry as his arm gives out. He crawls forward, dragging himself by his metal arm, going only a few feet before reaching back and pulling the Captain along behind him. It takes far too long to cover the roughly five feet that separates them from the shore—requires far too much energy as well.
With one final great heave, he hauls the Captain out of the water and onto the muddy bank. His vision is starting to black out around the edges, his brain too full of too many conflicting things. Chief among those are his master’s final commands superimposed with an image of the Captain leaning over him, uniform half covered with a leather jacket and eyes so much younger.
He bites back a second scream as he momentarily levers himself up onto his right shoulder so he can fumble for one of the med-patches tucked into his belt. It won’t heal the Captain’s injuries, but it will stop him from bleeding out temporarily. Long enough for the remnants of SHIELD to come for their Captain. He struggles, body trembling from pain and shock, to remove the adhesive baking on the patch, clamping one corner between his teeth to accommodate his useless right arm. For the first time in longer than he can recall, he’s aware of the grinding of the servos in his hand and fingers as he fights to grab onto the small tab that’s just out of view.
It is not until he’s actually pressing the med-patch to the Captain’s stomach with far more care than he would usually take that he becomes aware of the care that he’s treating the other man with. He pauses, allowing his hand to move up and down with the rhythm of the Captain’s breaths.
“Come on, Steve. Breathe deep. Breathe with me.”
“I know you,” he moans, squeezing his eyes shut tight and dropping his head against the Captain’s side.
Under him, the Captain shifts and sucks in a deep breath. He knows he should flee. The Captain’s people will be arriving soon and he doesn’t want to be here for that. He doesn’t want to go back in the Chair or back to his frozen sleep. He refuses to.
Just as he’s attempting to push himself up, the Captain’s hand clamps down overtop of his where it rests on the American’s stomach. Fumbles and squeezes, holding tight to his hand.
“Knew you were still in there, Buck.”
It would be easy to shake off the Captain’s weak hold. A quick jerk and he would be free to make his escape. Only he cannot move. He stares over at the Captain’s battered face, desperately searching for something that will explain his deviation from the mission. The Captain should be dead, sunk to the bottom of the river, and no longer a threat to his masters. Even now, all he has to do is remove the med-patch and allow the Captain to bleed out. It wouldn’t take long and in that time he could make his escape.
Only he can’t. He’s stuck, just like he was when he’d gone to deliver that final blow on the helicarrier. A shadow of a ghost slides over the Captain’s face a second time. Something almost familiar, but gone before he can latch onto it.
It must show on his face because the Captain’s grip tightens. “Buck, no. Please. Please don’t.”
His eyes track down to where the Captain is squeezing his metal hand. He’s aware of the pressure in an almost distant way, feedback from the sensors not quite registering in his brain. He twitches his fingers briefly, mesmerized by the way the Captain’s thumb strokes across the back of his hand as though it were a real limb. The sensors are nowhere near sensitive enough to feel that gentle touch, but he can almost register a memory of a similar touch.
“Stay, Buck. Please.”
Unable to bear the Captain’s eyes on him any longer, he presses his face against the American’s side. “I’m not him.”
The Captain drops his hand to clutch at the back of his head, fingers clutching almost painfully at his tangled hair. Against his will, he finds himself leaning in closer, all but burrowing into the Captain’s side. His body still remembers things that have long been wiped from his mind—the Captain’s heat and the fact that he knows exactly how to fit himself against the other soldier’s side. Once he settles, the Captain wrangles his left arm out from between them so he’s able to drape the arm across his shoulders. Instinct nearly has him struggling against this new hold until he realizes that it’s a weak attempt at an embrace.
“What the hell was I thinking letting you talk me into this?”
A quiet laugh rumbled against the whole length of his side. Lips pressed to his temple, grin evident against his skin.
“You owe me a warm night in an actual bed after this, Rogers.... What’s Zola doing this high up in the Alps anyway?”
“Quit your bellyaching, Buck. We’ll be back in London by this time tomorrow.”
He shakes off the voice, desperate to roll away from the Captain and his too familiar voice. Even half-conscious, the Captain’s hold on him is tight and all he can do is struggle feebly against the hands holding him with more care than anyone else ever has.
It’s so very tempting to sink into that embrace, but he has a mission to complete. One more kill and then he can go back to sleep. Back to the silence and the burning cold. Back to the Chair and the hum that shoots liquid fire through his veins. Back to—
He only realizes he’s screaming when the Captain weakly curls around him like a protective shield.
“Shhhh.... It’s okay, Buck. I’ve got you. You’re safe. You’re safe, Buck. I won’t let them touch you.”
That litany goes on and on. Words that are meant to comfort the whimpering thing that hides deep down in the darkness. The thing that’s been leaking through more and more since his master had handed him the dossier on the Captain. Slipping through the cracks and all but screaming every time he sees the Captain’s face.
“Stay with me, Buck,” the Captain gasps against the top of his head. It’s more plea than command, desperate begging that makes him want to sneer at the American. This supposedly great captain who should not be so easy to break. “Please stay.”
With a shout that sounds more like a moan, he shoves at the Captain’s chest. His right arm, already a constant throb from the dislocation, is utterly useless, fingers pushing ineffectively at the ground. Each movement wrenches his shoulder painfully, but not enough to stop his struggles. Bile rises up in his throat as the bones in his shoulder grind together, grating and straining the muscles further.
“Bucky! Buck, stop it!”
The Captain releases him so quickly that he rolls over onto his back, wrenching his already abused shoulder even more. He lies perfectly still on the damp ground for a moment, all too aware of the Captain’s gaze on him the entire time. Out of the corner of his eye, the Captain’s fingers twitch, hand reaching furtively towards him. The hand wisely doesn’t cross the invisible centerline that separates them. Even so, each twitch of those fingers is like a claw scraping at the inside of his skull, threatening to dislodge what has been wiped clean so many times in the past.
With a great force of will, he rolls himself further away from the Captain. He manages to get his knees under him and then his left elbow. The constant hum and whir in his left arm has become a whining groan that can’t mean anything good. For the moment, he ignores it, even when his elbow threatens to lock in place as he pushes himself upright.
“I’m not him,” he repeats, voice gravel rough.
The Captain shrugs as best he can from his prone position, eyes tracking his movements even as the right one swells shut. “You’re alive. I’ll take what I can get.”
His right shoulder is jarred painfully once again as he heaves himself into a kneeling position, the pain unexpected enough that he cannot stop the quiet grunt that passes his lips. The agony must show on his face because the Captain is once again reaching for him, palm held up in supplication. He ignores the silent plea and levers himself to his feet. His entire body sways, unbalanced, but he keeps his footing on the uneven ground.
Before he beings to propel himself towards the tree line, his gaze flickers back to the Captain. Overlaid on top of the hulking symbol of American patriotism is a small sickly boy staring up at him with pleading too blue eyes. He shakes his head and the image fades, leaving behind only the Captain.
The Captain with pleading too blue eyes.
“Don’t follow me,” he grunts as he begins shuffling away from the water.
He doesn’t give the Captain time to respond, gaining momentum as he nears the tree line. He forces his pace as fast as his stumbling steps will allow, needing to get far away from the Captain and the effects he has on the whimpering thing in his mind. Each time that pathetic thing calls out wordlessly, the pounding in his temples grows. Things are shattering, breaking apart, and he has no idea how to stop it now that his masters and the Chair are no more. He doesn’t know how long he has until even more things in his head shatter apart and leave him gutted. No longer the Asset, but also not the James Buchanan Barnes that the Captain pleads with.
He is only just disappearing under the cover of trees when the buzzing swish of propeller blades cut through the air in the distance. The chopper is still far enough away that he should have enough time to disappear from the immediate area. Find a place to hole himself up until he no longer feels quite so flayed apart.
Until those too blue eyes no longer hover like specters in his mind.
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The first time he tries to read through the file he ends up hunched over the toilet, vomiting up his breakfast. Steve had known that it would be difficult to read Bucky’s file—to see printed in black and white just what had been done to his best friend—but the realities of just what HYDRA had done is terrifying. Stark shows more affection for his robot helpers than the HYDRA scientists had for a living human being. Even the cold callous manner they described Bucky’s initial injuries after the fall makes Steve’s gut clench and tears fill his eyes.
Intellectually he’d known that Bucky had undergone trauma serious enough to warrant replacing his left arm with a high tech prosthetic. For his sanity’s sake, though, Steve’d kept those notions vague even in his own mind. In the end, it’s the grainy photo of Bucky sprawled out on a gurney, half dead and his left arm a bloody stump that sends Steve stumbling to the bathroom. The thought of Bucky alone and hurt so much that anyone without some version of Erskine’s serum would have been dead leaves him feeling hollowed out and gutted in a way that nothing ever has. Because no matter what anyone tries to convince him, Steve knows that he’d failed Bucky. The one person he loves most in the world has spent the past seventy years in hell and it’s his fault. He’s the one who’d followed orders and brought Zola to London rather than gone searching for Bucky’s body like he’d wanted to. Like he should have. Bucky never would have left him behind and Steve had just abandoned him on the side of a mountain.
This time around, Steve has no intention of abandoning Bucky. It’s why he keeps coming back to his D.C. apartment in between his failed attempts at tracking him down. No matter how idealistic Natasha likes to accuse him of being, he knows it’s unlikely that Bucky will just show up at his door one morning. He can still hope, though. Since their old tenement in Brooklyn was torn down sometime since the war, his D.C. address is the only one that Bucky will know. The only place where Bucky will be able to find him if he decides to come looking. The fact that his apartment isn’t far from the Smithsonian and the largest publically accessible source of information on their lives during the war is something else that Steve hopes works in his favour. The artifacts in the Captain America exhibit are tangible—real in a way that so many of the things Steve’s seen online aren’t. That’s what draws Steve there time and time again. Even though the nature of his covert visits means he can’t touch anything, each time he looks at Bucky’s jacket, Steve imagines he can feel the material under his fingers.
Steve hesitated before reaching for the buckles on his original WWII uniform. Time was critical, but he found his fingers hovering in the space between his uniform and the one next to it. Bucky’s dark blue jacket. The lighter one without the cold weather liner he’d been wearing on the mountain that last day.
Very gently, as though it would disappear in a puff of smoke, Steve brushed his fingers over a rough patch of stitching on the right sleeve near the cuff. Bucky had caught his arm on a broken piece of masonry while ducking for cover during a firefight. The stone must have been sharp because it had torn through the jacket and shirt, leaving a jagged scar on Bucky’s forearm. The rest of the Commandos had hid smirks behind their drinks that night when Steve had gone from stitching Bucky’s arm to patching the sleeve of his coat.
The sound of distant footsteps echoing through the museum corridors snapped Steve back into action. With practiced movements that were almost like muscle memory, Steve stripped the mannequin bearing his body armour down and slipped it into the black duffle he’d brought with him.
If the security guard hadn’t been about to enter the room, he probably would have taken Bucky’s coat as well.
“You gotta stop doing this to yourself, Steve,” Sam huffs from somewhere near the kitchen. “Torturing yourself with that file ain’t gonna change anything in it.”
Arguments spring automatically to Steve’s tongue, but he swallows them all down. He doesn’t have the words to properly explain his need to read and reread Bucky’s file. He can’t even explain it to himself, not really. It’s all rage and guilt and sorrow and something like the strange compulsion to keep looking at an accident site even when you know you should look away. And Steve can’t look away. Not when every word screams out the horrors Bucky endured. It’s a nightmare written in scientific documents and too vivid photographs, made all the more terrible by the fact that Bucky lived it while the rest of the world forgot about him.
Steve desperately wishes that Pierce hadn’t died so easily. Yes, Fury deserved his vengeance for what Pierce had done to him and to SHIELD, but a selfish part of him believes that Bucky deserves it more. Bucky had been wiped and remade over a dozen (and probably more) times under Pierce’s commands and then put back into cryo as though he were little more than a weapon that needed returning to the armoury. So since Pierce and Zola are beyond his grasp, Steve makes a list of everyone else involved in hurting Bucky. He’s not entirely sure what will happen to the people that bear those names. That all depends on what he finds out later.
Steve slumps back into his couch, reverently holding onto the small photograph of Bucky—Bucky, not the Winter Soldier—that he snagged from the inside cover of the file. “I need to know what happened to him, Sam. He’s my best friend.”
“I’m not denying that,” Sam concedes as he crosses to sit in the armchair tucked away in the corner near the record player, cup of coffee in hand. It’s the same place Fury sat the night all of this began. Much of Steve’s apartment still smells like fresh paint from the work he and Sam had done patching up the bullet holes and cleaning away the bloodstains. “But there’s a difference between reading up and what you’re doing. I’ll bet you could recite that whole file to me right now without even trying.”
As much as he wants to justify his need to pour over the details of Bucky’s file, Steve keeps quiet and settles for scowling at Sam. Steve doesn’t think he has the words to explain why he keeps going back to the file. He just needs to know. Needs for there to be someone—someone who loves Bucky—who knows what was done to him and how much he’s suffered over the past seventy years. Because as much as Sam and Natasha sympathize with him and feel outrage on Bucky’s behalf, it’s not the same. Their anger has more to do with the fact that something like this could happen than because it happened to Bucky.
Steve also needs reassurance that something of Bucky is still hiding under the programming. That what happened on the banks of the Potomac wasn’t just a hallucination on his part. He may have been half-conscious, but what he saw was a conflict between Bucky and the Winter Soldier. It was in every line and twitch of his face. Steve has had Bucky’s every expression memorized for nearly a century and they had stood out in stark contrast to the frightening blankness of the machine HYDRA had created.
The most startling and convincing proof of the cracks in the Winter Soldier façade isn’t in the paper files. A day after their meeting in the cemetery, Natasha sent him fragments of a surveillance feed. At first he couldn’t make out anything except a group of what looked like scientists milling about a bank vault. Steve had been about to close off the file when one of the scientists moved and he saw exactly why Natasha had sent him the video.
Bucky, stripped to the waist and reclined on a chair like something out of one of the slasher films Clint had insisted he add to his list, while one of those scientists worked on his left arm. The distant, blank stare that peeked from behind Bucky’s lank hair twisted something in his chest. There was not so much as a flicker of emotion even as sparks erupted from his arm. The quality of the video made it difficult to tell, but as the technician was turning to set aside his tool, there was a change in Bucky. His shoulders tensed and his brows furrowed. The minute shakes of his head and quick sudden intake of breath was the only warning before Bucky lashed out, throwing the tech across the room with a fling of his arm.
And then nothing.
Bucky sat tensed like a coiled spring, but didn’t so much as twitch until Pierce walked in demanding a mission report. Steve’s fingers tensed around the edge of his desk, cracking the wood, when Pierce backhanded Bucky for his failure to respond.
“I knew him.”
That hushed sentence, spoken so quietly that the microphone almost didn’t pick it up, stole the breath from Steve’s lungs as effectively as a punch to the solar plexus. It’s all the proof he needs that Bucky can be saved. That his best friend is still in there, trapped under HYDRA’s programming.
Still, it was somehow worse when Bucky repeated that phrase once Pierce had finished preaching. That tight, grim smile. Bucky knew that something bad was coming. Even though Bucky’s expression had him expecting the worst, Steve was left feeling flayed from the inside out when he saw just what the chair was capable of.
Afterwards he had contacted Natasha, demanding the location of the bank vault where HYDRA stole Bucky away from himself. Steve doesn’t know whether it was the tone of his voice or her own hatred of HYDRA that had done it, but he’d barely gotten the request out before she texted him the address of a building with ties to HYDRA located on the edge of the city. So, aluminum baseball bat in hand, he’d stalked into the abandoned bank, tearing away the gated entrance to the vault with a single hard tug and laid waste to everything he found inside. It was cathartic, in a way, to watch the machine that had hurt Bucky so much crumble to bits under the force of the bat. After only half a dozen swings, the bat was twisted beyond recognition, so Steve tossed it aside then picked up one of steel struts and continued destroying the chair.
Panting more from the emotion of the situation than actual exertion, Steve stared at sparking mess of steel and electronics for several long minutes before tossing the steel strut onto the pile of remains. It was only then that he noticed a second door leading deeper into the vault. Even before he entered that smaller room, a feeling of dread washed over Steve. Despite having read Bucky’s file multiple times by that point, it had still taken Steve a moment to figure out just what he was looking at. When he did, his heart plummeted down to the floor for the second time in less than an hour.
Like the chair before it, Steve took grim pleasure in smashing it into an unrecognizable lump of metal, glass and wires.
When he saw in the newspaper a few days later that the bank had burned to the ground in what was being called a gas explosion, Steve hadn’t thought anything of it. If anything, he’d assumed that it was Natasha cleaning up after him.
Even knowing that both the chair and the crychamber are utterly destroyed, Bucky’s screams continue to echo in the quiet parts of his mind.
“I need to know how to help him,” Steve says, his head tilted towards Sam while his gaze remains locked on the battered cover of the file. “I need to understand what they did to him.”
“Even if what you find out means he can’t be helped?”
Steve scowls, shaking his head. “I’ll never believe that. Bucky’s in there. I’ve seen it. The Winter Soldier wouldn’t have saved my life—Bucky did.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Steve is fully aware of what Sam is trying to do. SHIELD’s psychiatrists had tried to be just as sneaky when he’d first woken up. Sam wants to goad him into an argument to force him to defend his stance so that he can see either how naïve it is or hold onto the truth of it. There’s no denying what Steve saw both that day on the causeway and later on the helicarrier. That beyond the hesitation, he’d also seen Bucky. It had lasted for only a moment each time, little more than a movement behind Bucky’s eyes, but it was there. Bucky’s still there, trapped beneath the Soldier’s programming and that his fall into the Potomac had woken Bucky up even more.
Exactly how aware, Steve can only guess. In the weeks since the destruction of the Triskelion, the Soldier has once again become a ghost, taking Bucky with him. And Steve doesn’t care if it takes the rest of his life, he’s going to find Bucky.
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It’s disconcerting to see his own face staring back at him from the wall of the museum. Not only his face, but the Captain’s as well. In many of the photographs they stand shoulder to shoulder, at ease in each other’s presence. Craving it almost. He is aware of it for only a flicker of a moment, but even through the grainy newsreel footage he can see whatever it is that keeps the whimpering thing—Bucky Barnes—tied so tightly to the Captain.
“No! Not without you!”
He shakes his head, blinking away the half-remembered flames that threaten to lick at his flesh. The flames already consume the wide chasm that separates him from the Captain. They shoot even higher on the echo of an explosion, obscuring the Captain from view. Lost, until the Captain bursts through the wall of flames, hurtling towards him.
He staggers back half a step, bracing himself for a collision that happened seventy years and an ocean away.
“I’m not him,” he growls under his breath, shaking away the half-formed memories creeping in at the edges of his mind.
At least he assumes they’re memories. The place, a gathering site for the patriotically devout, make the shadows that rattle around in his head feel more like memories than the remnants of earlier mission briefs that are starting to seep through the cracks in his programming. Cracks that grow larger the longer he remains out of cryo and free from the Chair.
The bank that housed the Chair is now little more than smoldering rubble. Given all the disruptions going on around D.C. since SHIELD’s fall and HYDRA’s exposure, a fire destroying a closed bank in the middle of the night passed mostly without notice. It was simply one more HYDRA property wiped off the map. As much as he would have preferred a more personal touch to permanently dismantling the Chair and cryo chamber, someone beat him to it. Both had been smashed to pieces with an aluminum baseball bat, the battered, twisted remains of which he’d found lying on the floor near the gated entrance to the vault. He doesn’t need to view the security footage to know who had beat him there. The Captain. Steve Rogers. The centre of Bucky Barnes’ world. Steve Rogers would avenge his best friend, especially since he now has hope that Bucky will come back to him.
The press of bodies in the exhibit is nearly suffocating, people jostling him on all sides without care. Both of his hands are clenched into tight fists, hidden away in the deep pockets of his jacket so no one can see the barely contained tension. At this point, it’s also easier to simply keep the fingers of his left hand curled into a fist. His arm was damaged during the fight on the helicarrier and his subsequent fall into the river, and since he no longer has handlers to order repairs, it has begun to malfunction. He estimates that he has a month at the most before it stops functioning all together.
He hasn’t figured out what he’ll do then.
Going to the Captain—to Steve—is most likely the quickest way to get his arm fixed. The dossier and his own research have revealed that the Captain is friends with Tony Stark and, if nothing else, Stark can be counted on to be drawn to a technological challenge. He’d repair the arm simply to prove that he could.
Just like Howard.
Not for the first time, a voice that is both his and isn’t provides internal commentary. He staggers, nearly losing his footing, as the image of a single car accident flashes across his vision. A woman slumped in the passenger seat while the driver’s upper body lies sprawled across the hood, the rest of his body disappearing through the windshield and over the steering wheel. The unnatural angle of the woman’s neck confirms her elimination. The man, however, is still choking in desperate breaths.
And he hesitates for reasons he cannot explain. It’s only a momentary distraction, though. Howard Stark still dies within a minute of his wife.
Decades later, he stands before a photo of the man and realizes that he had once called him friend.
He returns to awareness crouched over a toilet in the men’s room, vomiting up the egg sandwich he’d eaten for breakfast. What happened on that dark California highway had very nearly repeated itself on the streets of D.C. and in the air above it. Only the Captain’s death would have been so much worse. He is not sure what would have become of him had he killed the Captain. Even with only half-formed thoughts and memories filling his head, he knows that the Captain was important to him. And that Steve was even more important.
A knock at the stall door startles him and it’s only the fact that his shoulder joint is mostly frozen that prevents him from slamming it off its hinges and across the washroom.
“You okay, sir?”
The high, childish voice is unexpected and grating, but non-threatening. He slumps against the metal wall, tilting his head up towards the ceiling and sucking in deep breaths through his nose.
“‘M fine,” he grunts, rubbing the back of his hand across his forehead and dislodging his baseball hat. He glances at the closed door, spotting a pair of scuffed sneakers peeking underneath.
The sneakers shift from side to side, the left toe stubbing at the floor. “You sure? I have some water.” Knees join the red sneakers then a water bottle is shoved under the bottom of the stall door. “My mom always gives me water when I’m sick.”
He hesitates for a moment then reaches across his body to accept the water with his right hand. He hefts it briefly in his palm before closing his fingers around the crinkling plastic. Rather than a typical cap, the bottle has a nozzle he can tug open with his teeth, negating the need to force his left arm into operation. While, for the most part, it hasn’t lost any of its gross motor capabilities, he struggles with fine motor manipulations. He doesn’t even take the bottle out of his mouth to adjust his grip before he’s squeezing a mouthful of water out of the bottle. He swishes the water around in his mouth a few times then leans over enough to spit it into the toilet. The motion sends his hat tumbling to the ground and he leaves it there for the time being. He repeats the process twice more before slumping back against the wall and swallowing down the remainder of the bottle.
The red sneakers are still on the other side of the door. They’ve shifted over a bit and are now very close to the small gap that separates the door from the stall wall. Sure enough, when he angles his head to peer through the crack, he sees a single bright blue eye staring back at him. The eye widens then disappears as the sneakers shuffle away with hurried steps. They don’t flee the bathroom as expected. Instead there’s a great deal of movement from near the sinks, or possibly the urinals, while the child mumbles excitedly under his breath.
Not sure what’s going on and feeling his anxiety levels rise because of that uncertainty, he heaves himself upright, using the rim of the toilet for leverage. He leans down and snatches his hat up off the ground then jams it on his head before opening the door. He’s tense, eyes darting about in search of a possible threat.
There’s only the dark-haired boy, kneeling on the ground near the sinks as he digs through his backpack. A backpack with the Captain’s shield and Bucky’s wings on it.
The excited shout startles him and he has to steel himself to keep from reacting. To remind himself that the child is not a threat. Still, he holds himself tense as the boy launches himself off the ground and rushes over, waving something that looks like an oversized baseball card.
“He looks like you.”
A postcard sized photo of the Captain and the man who shares his face stares up at him.
“That man died a long time ago,” he insists, jaw clenched tight in an effort not to shout at the child. He doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. Ghosts need to remain in the shadows or they run the risk of becoming human again. “Buried in ice and snow.”
The boy’s smile doesn’t waver. He briefly tilts the photo so he can see it then presses a finger to the space next to the Captain’s—Steve’s—smiling face. “They said Captain America was dead an’ he came back. Bucky can come back, too.”
“He’s gone. Erased forever.” He tugs his hat down further over his eyes as he skirts around the child towards the door. He pauses, door pulled halfway open, and glances back at the boy. He appears wilted, photo hanging at his side as he stares after him. Consoling the child isn’t an option despite a sudden compulsion to do otherwise. Instead he jerks his head in an approximation of a nod. “Thanks for the water.”
Hunched in on himself, appearing as non-threatening and invisible as a pre-serum Steve Rogers, he slinks out of the museum and away from the clawing memories. The whimpering thing that he’s always been aware of in the deepest corners of his mind despite the untold wipes is screaming. Demanding to be heard for the first time in seventy years now that it’s finally been given a name. James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes. Sergeant with the 107th. The Howling Commandos’ second in command and sniper. Steve Roger’s best friend. The ghost that has forever haunted the Asset. A ghost that is beginning to feel tangible.
His entire body jerked as though an electrical current had jolted each and every one of his nerve endings. He was lying on a hard, flat surface and when he attempted to move his body, all he managed was a slight sideways twitch of his head. A scream bubbled up in his throat as the fog lifted enough for him to see the mangled remains of his left arm.
A surge of terror-driven adrenaline allowed him to roll off the table, though it failed to keep his knees from buckling and his body from collapsing in a heap.
His body was still going through the motions of falling when a hand latched onto his arm. Then the muscle memory of so many back alley brawls kicked in and was amplified to terrifying levels by the fear coursing through his veins. He moved without conscious thought, taking out a pair of scientists within the space of a few breaths. He only paused long enough to notice this when the mosquito bite prick of a needle jammed to his neck and filled his blood with some type of tranquilizer.
As his body once again crumpled into a heap, he gasped out a plea. A call for help that he knew would be answered.
He tumbles towards the nearest trash bin, the acidic burn of bile clawing up his throat. Going to the museum was a mistake. His head feels too full, pressure building behind his eyes. This is the longest he’s been out of the freezer and for weeks now it’s been getting harder and harder to silence the screaming. The museum only made it worse, allowing bits of Bucky to sneak through and make it more difficult to deny the Captain’s and the museum’s insistence that they’re friends. Were friends.
“You okay, buddy?”
A hand clamps down on his shoulder and he responds to the threat without thought. Plants his feet and twits at the waist, sliding his fisted left hand out of his pocket with the motion of the turn and backhanding the threat.
It’s only belatedly, as he hears the dull thunk of a body bouncing off a brick wall, that he realizes just what he’s done. That there had been no threat. Only a person attempting to show concern for someone who was obviously in distress.
Then he’s bolting. Sprinting away as quickly as his legs and the gathering crowd allows. He’d been a fool to think that he could be around other people, even in the relative anonymity of a public setting. He’s a weapon, good for nothing but death and destruction. With no one left to aim and pull the trigger, he’s malfunctioning.
It’ll only be a matter of time before he self-destructs completely.
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Steve’s tempted to ignore his phone when he sees Tony’s smirking face staring up from the screen. He’s not sure he has it in him right then to deal with the younger Stark. Except he knows Tony. Tony doesn’t believe in answering machines and will just keep calling until he gives in and answers. Or finds some way to hijack his phone and forces the conversation. Not for the first time, Steve wonders how Maria Stark hasn’t already been nominated for sainthood for remaining sane while living with both Howard and Tony. At the very least the woman deserved a medal.
Taking a deep breath, Steve slides his thumb across the phone screen to accept the call. “Tony.”
“I’m not interrupting you rescuing kittens or walking little old ladies across the street, am I?”
“Hello to you too, Tony,” Steve teases as he heads into the kitchen for some coffee.
Natasha had sent over a few files last night that may contain leads on Bucky’s possible movements in the past few weeks that he needs to go through. All indications are that Bucky’s still on the east coast, but it’s just where on the east coast that proving hard to determine. Bucky’s been on his own for nearly six weeks and Steve desperately wants to bring him home. Tony’s call is only proving to be a distraction when he really needs to focus.
“Yeah, yeah. Hi.” Tony sounds distracted which, in Steve’s limited experience, is never a good thing. “So a certain not-so-secret agent lady who could easily kick our collective asses may have mentioned that your sniper boyfriend returned from the dead with a bad case of the—”
“Tony.” Steve grits his teeth, wishing that Tony didn’t like the sound of his own voice so much and would just send a text. “Is there a point to this?”
“Well she may have suggested that I keep an eye on things in your neck of the woods in case the bionic wonder made an appearance. So I may or may not have done a bit of hacking and uploaded some facial recognition software…. Point being, your boy looks to be in pretty rough shape at the moment.”
The security feed Tony forwards to his tablet clenches something deep in Steve’s chest. He feels short of breath like he hasn’t since he suffered from asthma as a kid. Because that’s definitely Bucky huddled in an alley next to a dumpster, curled up as small as someone Bucky’s size can manage. Even the bad quality of the video can’t hide how badly he’s shaking or the panicked look in his eyes when he raises his gaze from the tops of his knees.
“Where is he, Tony? Please tell me he’s close.”
The address Tony rattles off is six blocks north of his apartment behind a coffee shop that Steve sometimes stops at after his morning runs. He drops the tablet and phone onto to the coffee table, bolting out of his apartment so he can get to Bucky before he fades into the shadows again. The cobbled together video feed Tony sent him had started with a man launched from a crowd in front of the Smithsonian, followed shortly by Bucky running off in the opposite direction. Steve doesn’t know what had set Bucky off (because as much as he’d like to deny it, the only way that man could have flown so far was if Bucky had thrown him with his arm), but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is Bucky and getting him somewhere safe.
So Steve sprints, dodging pedestrians and vehicles alike in his rush to get to his best friend. Disgruntled shouts and car horns follow in his wake, but Steve ignores them. There was at least a ten-minute delay from the video being captured and Steve actually seeing it, which is more than enough time for Bucky to disappear once again.
Even with video proof, Steve hadn’t completely believed that he would find Bucky when he got to the coffee shop. In the back of his mind, he half believes that he’s once again chasing after a ghost like he has been since the Potomac. It’s a relief to see a pair of heavy combat boots peeking past the edge of the dumpster when he skids to a halt at the end of the alley. The left boot is planted flat on the ground while the other is propped up at the heel, jittering erratically. Steve’s seen the same thing countless times in the past. Bucky’s right foot always gets twitchy when he’s stressed.
Steve makes sure to keep his footsteps steady and audible as he walks towards Bucky. No good will come from frightening him, though things could go just as badly either way. Because Steve has no real way of knowing Bucky’s mindset or if he’s even thinking like Bucky. The video feed Tony sent only showed that he was panicked, agitated and having some type of breakdown. It’s only the fact that the episode appears to have begun in or near the Smithsonian gives him hope. That maybe it’s the result of Bucky trying to find out more about his lost past. That more of Bucky is breaking through HYDRA’s programming.
At the far side of the dumpster, Steve pauses. “Bucky? Are you okay?”
The right foot stops its rapid up and down movement and, for a moment, Steve fears that Bucky will flee.
Bucky’s quiet, fearful plea brings Steve to his knees. He sucks in several ragged, tearful breaths before stumble crawling the last few feet that separate them. In that moment, there’s no doubt in Steve’s mind that it’s Bucky huddled a few feet away from him. There’s none of the Winter Soldier’s cold detachment Steve heard on the helicarrier, just Bucky. It’s the same voice Steve remembers from Zola’s lab—terrified, clawing at the edges of sanity, and so desperately afraid that what he’s seeing isn’t real. The only thing missing is the endless repetition of name, rank and serial number.
The figure huddled against the side of the dumpster is a heartbreaking shadow of the person Bucky once was. He’s dressed in a pair of tattered jeans, t-shirt and a black hoodie that’s at least two sizes too big, his face mostly obscured by several day’s worth of beard and a few longer strands of hair that have fallen out of the tie the binds the rest of his hair. Non-threatening as he appears, Steve has no doubt that Bucky’s armed to the teeth.
Face to face with the remnants of his best friend, Steve is at a loss for what comes next. Steve had never really planned for what happened after he found Bucky again. Or even really what would happen when he found Bucky. Because of all of the scenarios he’d imagined, Bucky hadn’t been curled up against a dumpster, shivering, and he hadn’t been kneeling in front of him, water seeping into the knees of his jeans.
“Oh, Buck,” Steve moans as he reaches out a hand to cup Bucky’s left calf. He keeps his touch gentle; a reassurance to himself that Bucky’s real and alive.
The answering flinch is expected, but it’s a relief that Bucky doesn’t actually pull away. Instead he uncurls just enough so that Steve can see more of his face. Gaunt cheeks and hollow eyes surrounded by dark bruises remind Steve far too much of those first few days after Zola’s lab. Only now it’s so much worse because this time he is all too aware about just what caused that blank look on Bucky’s face.
“He kept believing that you would come for him,” Bucky murmurs, eyes flickering to the left under furrowed brows. His voice is gravel rough, but Steve can hear the faintest echoes of the Brooklyn accent he remembers. “In the beginning. He would scream for you. Repeat your name over and again until his voice was hoarse or they made him stop.... Why were you so important to him?”
His eyes flick over to Steve at the last, not quite meeting his eyes. It’s frightening to see someone who’s always stood so strong in his memories appear so passive. As though a wrong word will result in some type of punishment. However, the set of his jaw, the way it flexes, and how his lips purse and clench is entirely Bucky.
The words, though, are a punch to the gut so strong that it’s almost a physical blow. Bucky had believed in him, held tight to the conviction that Steve would come for him. And he should have. He should have gone back to that ravine to search for Bucky, the SSR’s insistence that no one could have survived that fall—not even Steve himself—be damned. Bucky would have come for him.
Steve squeezes his eyes shut tight and sucks in a deep breath through his nose, centering himself. What works best, though, is lightly stroking his thumb along the side Bucky’s calf. When he looks back at Bucky, the other man is staring at him intently; the earlier blank look has changed to one of confusion. Confusion that Steve is desperate to wipe away.
“Because all we’ve ever really had is each other. It’s always been me and you, Buck.”
“Me and you,” Bucky echoes, pressing against his temple with his right hand. He huffs out a breath that once upon a time would have been amusement, but is currently far too pained to be anything even resembling mirth. “‘Till the end of the line. You said that on the helicarrier and he started screaming again. He hasn’t stopped.”
Telegraphing his movements carefully, Steve places his hand on Bucky’s right knee, squeezing briefly. “The programming—what they did to you—it’s breaking down, I think. Who you are and who they made you are getting all mixed up. You could... you could come with me. Let me keep you safe.”
Bucky’s entire body tenses, that far away look returning to his gaze. Steve immediately pulls his hands away, holding them up where Bucky can see them. If he thought he was physically capable of it, he would back away to give Bucky more breathing room. But even though he isn’t touching the other man, the familiar warmth radiating off Bucky is comforting. It means Bucky’s really there with him and no longer just the ghost who haunts his memories.
“I won’t force you to, Buck,” Steve is quick to reassure him. “It’s entirely your choice. Just know that I would really like it if you came back to my apartment with me. You always looked out for me in the past. Let me look out for you now.”
The man Bucky is now is a lot harder to read than the one Steve grew up with. The little unconscious ticks might be the same, but Steve can’t figure out what’s going on in his head with just a look the way he used to be able to. The jumble of thoughts that are no doubt trying to cram their way back into Bucky’s head is probably making it difficult enough for him to think clearly without Steve putting this choice before him. But it has to be a choice. Bucky’s spent the past seventy years being told what to do with no room for even the slightest protest and Steve’s not about to continue that. So, even though it would tear out all the little bits of his heart that have finally begun healing in the weeks since he found out Bucky was alive, Steve will let him go if that’s what Bucky truly wants.
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The Captain—Steve—would let him go. He knows that the Cap—Steve has been looking for him since the helicarriers fell from the sky. He’d told the Captain not to follow him, but Steve had done it anyway. One of the displays in the museum had been dedicated to Steve crossing into enemy territory alone and infiltrating a HYDRA base just to get Bucky back. He’d done that without even knowing if Bucky was still alive. Steve had fought that hard to get Bucky back once and now he was prepared to let his ghost leave without a fight.
And Steve really would. As much as he would like to believe that this is just a ploy the Captain is using to forcefully bring him in, Steve’s face is far too honest. His expressions relay his thoughts far better than words ever could. Because words lie. His master had looked him in the eye and told him that he only knew the Captain because they’d encountered one another on a previous mission. The lie had been visible in his master’s eyes, though. A small tick in the outer corner of the right eye while his master once again rewrote his past.
“No one else. Just you.”
The words are a demand and a question all in one. Steve may have destroyed one of the Chairs, but there are others and he won’t go back. He won’t be scrubbed clean again at his master’s whim.
“You won’t have to see anyone else if you don’t want to.” Steve is quick to agree, though the Captain has some conditions. “But there are people who will have to know what’s going on. People—friends—who will start to wonder and get suspicious if I don’t let them in my apartment any more. But they’re not HYDRA. Even if they know you’re with me, they won’t tell anyone else. Not if I ask them to keep quiet.”
Steve’s hands are still hovering in the space between them; fingers turned inward with the desire to touch. He forces himself to relax his posture, aware that Steve’s hands will return once he believes them no longer unwelcome. It’s unnerving that his body seems to crave Steve’s touch. He shouldn’t have such desires or wants, but they are there all the same. As expected, when the tension begins to bleed out of him, Steve places his hands back in their previous positions: one hand wrapped around his calf and the other cupped over his knee. There’s nothing remarkable or intimate about the touches, but they force more tension from his body as Steve’s warmth leeches through the dirty jeans he’s wearing.
“I’m not him,” he insists, needing to make sure Steve is aware. “There are things... bits I remember, but I’m not him.”
Steve merely shrugs, a smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. “And I’m not the same person I was when we got on that train. Doesn’t mean I love you any less.”
Everything about Steve is open and on display. The love he has for Bucky is practically seeping out of his every pore and he finds himself drawn to that warmth like a moth. He feels frozen all the way through except where Steve’s touching him. Even Bucky has stopped his screaming now that Steve is right there in front of him, taking away so much of the tension in his head.
Very slowly, he slides his right hand up his thigh until it’s within a hairsbreadth of Steve’s fingers. Inches it closer until just the very tip of his middle finger is pressed against the side of Steve’s hand.
There’s a beat and then Steve’s hand is enveloping his. He watches the way Steve’s fingers tangle with his own, silently marveling at the easy way they fit.