It is said that during the winter months the Bering Strait between Alaska and Chukotka freezes over. At the height of the Cold War, this ice border was patrolled by a specially selected force of covert operatives. These US Special Forces men would patrol the ice in the coldest and harshest months of the year, tasked with making sure the Soviets couldn’t use the ice bridge to infiltrate the United States and bring the war to American soil.
Twenty years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and despite fears of global warming, this ice bridge is active once again. It now forms part of a vital drug-smuggling route between the criminal gangs of Russia and the booming market of American addicts.
For one man, it could be the bridge to freedom or his final downfall. This is his story.
Chapter 1: Volgograd, 1991
"Вернись сюда, вор!"
Get back here, thief!
James Buchanan Barnes, 13 years old, doesn’t stop running. He doesn’t look back, and he doesn’t let go of the bread clutched tightly in his small hand.
He runs like the hounds of hell are chasing him instead of one doughy, balding baker, dressed only in a yellowing vest top despite the October chill in the air.
Bucky, as his family had called him, had been living on the streets along with his younger sister since August that year. He had turned to petty thieving in order to keep himself and his sister — Rebecca, nine — from starving, and the locals were not impressed with thieving children, to put it mildly.
The Soviet Union had one of the lowest records of crime and low prison populations. This first was due to the large police force and a low prevalence of drug use; the second, well—Gulag labour camps weren’t technically prisons.
Bucky’s father had been sent to one of these in August, only a few months after Bucky’s mother died of pneumonia. Born in Russia to a Russian father and an American mother, Georgy Barndyk had grown up in Volgograd before moving to the States at sixteen when his parents divorced. There, George Barnes had flourished, attending college to study politics and graduating summa cum laude with the beautiful Winnifred, who was soon to become his wife, smiling from the graduation crowd.
Lured back by the American diplomatic service, with fluent Russian under his belt and local knowledge of both the country and customs, George Barnes’ dual-citizenship and Americanised name had served him well so far during his career, right up until the election of George H.W. Bush in early 1989. Things had still been fine, and if anything, Soviet-American relations had been improving. However, George Barnes had ingratiated himself with Gorbachev a little too successfully and, upon his failed coup of August 1991, George Barnes — Georgy Barndyk — was arrested and sent to a labour camp.
Bucky and Becca have been on their own ever since. Despite having American citizenship, the young Barnes children are far too scared of the political turmoil and the increasingly violent streets to approach any police that they see. Police had taken their father away; a policeman had struck Bucky straight across the face when he’d attempted to question why George was being arrested. Bucky doesn’t trust the police.
He and Becca live in a disused warehouse along with several other orphaned or abandoned children. Bucky is glad for his sister, knowing that she will stay and watch their stuff while he goes out and tries to get food and money for them. Although there is a lot of thieving between the kids in the warehouse, it never escalates into violence. Anything left unattended is fair game, but they respect each other and live together in relative harmony. Bucky is aware that they’ve had it easy so far. Summer had been warm, even by regular standards, but winter is approaching fast and Bucky and his sister only have one small blanket between them.
This means that as the older brother, he has to step up and make sure his sister neither freezes nor starves to death. She is the only family he has left now and she is his responsibility. Bucky takes his job very seriously. In Volgograd, though, it means joining a gang. Even at the tender age of thirteen, Bucky has already heard enough horror stories about gangs to last him a lifetime. He knows that once you’re in a gang there is no way out; knows that he’ll be trapped for life.
If there is one thing that Bucky Barnes doesn’t want, it’s being trapped in this city for the rest of his life.
He wants to go back to America — to New York, to Boston, to California. To Washington D.C. where he’d been born when his dad had still been stationed in the States. He wants to visit all the places his mother told him about—Michigan, where she grew up, and the university there where his parents met.
Bucky knows if he gets trapped within a gang here in Volgograd, then he’ll die here in Volgograd, and that’s a fact.
So, he steals bread, cheese where he can get it, mouldy apples and crumbling biscuits. He forages through bins, steals only when necessary. He pickpockets, but he has an excellent memory for faces and tries never to pickpocket the same person twice. Tourists are the best, but tourists are thin on the ground now, especially the rich ones.
He steals books sometimes, too. Picks up discarded newspapers whenever he can, tries to find whatever material he can in both Russian and English. They’d spoken both at home; Russian with George and English with Winnifred, and Bucky is determined that neither he nor Becca will lose that fluency. If they are going to escape and make it in the United States, they need to be able to speak the language. As long as they speak English they’ll be able to blend in, but if they turn up looking — and sounding — like dirty Soviet street urchins, Bucky is sure the USA will slam their gates shut without a second glance.
It goes well, at first, and Bucky starts to get too confident, too cocky. He gives Becca (and himself) what rudimentary schooling he can manage in the day-time, goes out foraging and stealing in the evenings, and sleeps curled in next to Becca at night, huddled together to keep warm. A middle-aged woman with two small children and a yappy dog leaves her car unlocked as she dashes back inside just as Bucky is walking past one morning, not even planning on stealing anything. But there, on the back shelf, is a soft-looking fleece blanket, in addition to the one draped over the children’s laps in the back seat. Bucky doesn’t even feel a single twinge of guilt as he swipes the blanket and high-tails it out of there. Becca and him, they need it more.
He manages to steal enough food to get by, and he’s taught Becca long division by the time December rolls around. That’s when the snow storms really start, though. Bucky is sure that they’re worse this year than he’s ever seen before. But maybe that’s because he’s not wrapped up warm at home with his parents, next to a roaring fire and with thick woollen socks on his feet. He had managed to steal the socks for them, at least, and several fires rage in oil drums, but it’s not the same and Bucky misses his parents fiercely, more and more with each passing day.
Maybe that’s why he gets sloppy. There’s a guy sitting on a bench in the square one day. He looks nondescript enough, but Bucky clocks him the moment he walks into the open, and he also notices that his eyes barely ever leave Bucky.
He can feel the man’s attention on him like a sick sort of fever. Is he the police?
Bucky isn't a hundred percent sure, but he's fairly positive the police have better things to do than sit around looking out for street orphans. Why would they care?
He thinks that maybe it’s a gang member, but he doesn’t know what one of those is meant to look like. He knows they have tattoos, and the rumours are they all do drugs and carry wicked looking knives for sticking people with. People like sticky-fingered teenagers.
Bucky isn’t stupid enough to try to steal from that guy, but he can’t see the harm in carrying along as usual. So what if this guy is watching him; what he’s gonna do about it?
So Bucky picks his mark — a well-to-do elderly couple walking arm and arm while the man smokes. She’s wearing a fur coat, and Bucky wishes he could steal that and bring it back to Becca to add to their blankets. It looks so warm that an involuntary shiver runs up Bucky’s back. God, he hates being cold.
The man’s wallet is in his front left pocket—not the easiest one, but Bucky is already tall for his age and the man is stooped with old age. He’ll manage it. Luck strikes him, though, and as he’s walking past, as the man lets go of his wife to throw his cigarette on the floor, she stumbles. Bucky is still a few feet away and he re-angles himself to catch her as she trips, and at the same time brushes up against the man, small hand slipping into that front left pocket.
The wallet is stashed under the waistline of Bucky’s jeans quick as a flash, and the man is only just reaching over to help his wife.
She’s caught her feet with Bucky’s help, and Bucky’s glad. That would have been a mistake, too much of a scene, and he should have abandoned his mark. But it seems fine; he’s gotten away with it.
“Спасибо, большое спасибо.” Thank you, thank you very much.
He extricates himself from the man's effusive handshake and walks quickly — but doesn’t rush — to the edge of the square. He's so busy keeping watch on the elderly couple out the corner of his eye, that he doesn't realise the man on the bench has moved until a firm hand grasps his elbow.
"Nice work there, boy"
Bucky tries to wrench his arm from the man's grasp, but he's too strong.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Bucky returns, coming across exactly like the truculent teenager he is.
“Don't you? Or is that man walking away a few roubles lighter?”
Bucky grimaces but doesn’t deny it. “So what,” he says with a shrug, not even a question.
“I could use someone with fingers like you,” the man says with a lecherous grin.
For a second Bucky's mind blanches in horror. Does he mean...?
The man continues before Bucky has even fully processed the insinuation behind that grin; isn’t sure he wants to explore them. “I’ll give you somewhere to sleep. Food, too. And you give fifty percent of what you steal to me.”
Bucky eyes the man warily. He doesn’t want to give away his spoils, no thank you. He steals just enough for him and Becca to get by. More targets mean more interest, means someone might notice him. It seems like somebody already has, though.
“Winter’s drawing in. Heard it's gonna be a cold one.”
Bucky stares at the man, still not speaking. They’re always cold in Russia, it makes no difference.
“Just you, is it?” the man continues, like he couldn’t care less that Bucky hasn’t replied. “No family?”
Something in Bucky's face must give him away because the man starts to smile.
“What is it? Brother? Sister?”
Bucky’s eye twitches involuntarily, and he knows he’s stuck.
“Sister.” The man's tone rises with his eyebrow. “Safe? She okay sleeping on the streets?”
"We're not on the streets!" Bucky almost shouts as he wrenches his arm back finally. He knows it’s not true though, knows they’re one bad altercation, one bad week away from being all alone on the cold, Volgograd streets.
"A warm place to sleep. A bed. For you and your sister. Guaranteed food. All yours for fifty percent"
Bucky might be young but he's not stupid. If he takes this man's offer, he's in. Permanently. But... A warm place to sleep without having to worry, food, and safety. Or the best approximation of safety they're going to get... He's stealing anyway. This guy clearly likes the spoils of crime without the danger of getting caught; surely his patronage will come with some sort of protection as well.
“Okay.” He regrets the words almost before they've left his mouth, but what other choice does he have?
The man's name turns out to be Markovich, and he himself is the head of the most notorious Volgradi gang. The fact that it was Markovich himself out on the streets that day speaks volumes about how he likes to run his business. Bucky learns over the next few months that Markovich likes to keep a close eye on his empire, likes to know who is doing what, where, and when. He likes to check in even with the youngest thieves right at the bottom of his ladder— treats them well, even knows them all by name or nickname. Markovich knows that you catch more flies with honey, after all. And a gang that loves you is less likely to betray you.
Bucky also learns not to mistake that kindness for weakness or cowardice. That winter, a boy a few years older than Bucky himself is caught skimming off the proceeds he’s meant to give to Markovich, keeping a bigger cut for himself. His motives are good— he’s trying to save money to get married to his girl. Markovich only cuts off his hand, the traditional punishment for thieves.
A woman much higher up in the organisation isn't so lucky. She is one of the people working most closely with Markovich himself, heading up his drug-running operations. Valentina Enkov had been taking a small portion of the smack each month, cutting the remaining drugs with flour to bulk it back out, and running her own operation on the side. She'd thought Markovich a weak and soft man, too interested in keeping everyone happy to be an effective businessman.
Markovich sends her head to her mother, surrounded by fresh flowers. Her body is dumped in an alleyway like nothing more than a piece of trash, left for everyone to see, and to know what happens to people who cross Vasily Markovich.
Being in Markovich's gang really isn't as bad as Bucky had thought. With a fixed address and somewhere to sleep at night, Bucky is able to get Becca enrolled back into school. Now he walks her to the school building every morning before heading out to find his targets. Often he passes by other people he knows, other "associates" of Markovich and they give each other a subtle nod of recognition.
With the safety and security of Markovich's protection over them, Bucky and Becca barely feel the tremor that reverberates through the Soviet Union in the winter of '91. The don’t really notice a difference at first, although now they live in the Russian Federation instead.
Bucky notices eventually, though. As the months pass, as winter turns into spring again, and Bucky's fourteenth birthday passes, he notices.
There are more streets he wants to avoid now, more people looking like they want to follow you at night hoping to catch you unaware, defenceless. There are more used needles lying in the street and people lying comatose next to them to match. Markovich also starts to take a closer interest in Bucky himself. Bucky finds himself no longer only stealing off any mark that he chooses; sometimes now he’ll be given a description, someone to target. Sometimes he delivers packages to and from Markovich. The most frequent of these are to a man Bucky learns is the chief of police, in frequent contact with one of Volgograd's most notorious criminals. If the police are in Markovich's pocket, then Bucky knows that there’s no safer place than under Markovich's protection.
He also manages to keep most of it from Becca. They live in a sort of boarding house with an elderly woman in charge who cooks the most delicious borscht that Bucky has ever tasted, better even than the one their dad used to make. Thinking of his parents hurts Bucky and he tries not to do it too often, tries not to think about how George and Winnifred Barnes would view him now, if they could see what he is becoming.
Because the thing is, the thing that he’s becoming is someone who is good at crime. Bucky is quick, and his hands are even quicker. What's more, he can charm his way out of any trouble— or into it, but most of the time he’s unobtrusive enough that no one even notices him if he doesn’t want them to. People trust him and are already starting to listen to him, even at fourteen. People are taking orders from him and it feels good. It feels good to be in charge of his own life, to know that he is taking care of his sister, and he likes it.
Bucky should have known not to be so naive. If you run with wolves, eventually you'll get bitten by one.
Bucky is fifteen when it all goes to shit. Becca is eleven, and has lost that innocence she used to carry around like a blanket. She still doesn't really understand what happened to their home but she knows that she trusts Bucky. She also walks home from school alone now, Bucky often too busy running errands for Markovich to be there on time anymore although he still tries to walk her there in the mornings as often as he can.
One day he makes it to the school gates a few minutes too late, only to find that Becca has already started walking home without him. He starts to jog lightly in the hope of catching her — he hadn't seen her that morning either, and he likes to catch up with her at least once a day to check if she needs anything.
He catches sight of her in the distance once he turns the corner, but she's not alone. There's a guy walking next to her, body turned to face her as he keeps pace with her down the street. Bucky doesn't know the man at first, but he puts on a burst of speed to catch up, uncomfortable with what he can read from their body language. He's still over two hundred meters away when he finally recognises the guy. It's Artiom. He's in his mid-twenties and he sells heroin, mixes it himself as far as Bucky is aware. Artiom cuts his drugs with whatever he can find — flour, paracetamol, rat poison.
Bucky's never spoken to Artiom, and Markovich doesn't deal with him. Last year, some of Artiom's heroin killed Markovich's daughter, Marina. The only reason Markovich hasn't killed the guy is because he is the son of a prominent local politician. A politician who holds a lot of sway over the local police force and judiciary. Even looking for revenge, Markovich knows a stupid move when he sees one.
Everyone suspects that Markovich is just biding his time, building up his own power and his own influence until he is powerful enough to wipe Artiom from existence without any repercussions. But that day hasn’t arrived yet, and so here is Artiom, harassing his baby sister on her walk home from school.
Bucky isn't sure Artiom is going to live to see that day, after all.
As he watches, Artiom grabs Becca by the arms and pushes her up against the nearest building, forcing his mouth onto hers. As Bucky watches in horror, one of Artiom’s hands stars fumbling with his own trousers, tries to reach up under her skirt.
Bucky's blood boils.
She’s half his size, but fuck does his sister fight like a Barnes. Bucky breaks into a flat-out sprint for the last fifty feet, hand already clutching the shiv he carries with him everywhere now.
He can’t see anything except for that pervert's hands on Becca.
Her cries for help are muffled where his lips are still pressed up against hers, and he is so intent upon his goal that he never even sees Bucky coming.
Bucky lets the momentum of his run carry him straight into Artiom, driving his knife straight up into his back.
Artiom jerks immediately, hands letting go of Becca as he pitches sideways.
"Bucky!" There is no mistaking the relief in his sister's voice, and Bucky takes one quick look at her tear-stained face, ascertaining she’s ok, before shouting.
"Go, get out of here! Run!"
She obeys him immediately, shooting off like a rocket in the direction of home.
Artiom had fallen to the floor, Bucky’s knife still stuck in his back, in the short amount of time it had taken Bucky to check on his sister. Although Bucky’s knife is short, it is sharp, and as blood bubbles up out of Artiom’s mouth, Bucky realises the blade must have driven straight through into the man’s lungs.
He doesn’t care.
He reaches down to extract his knife from Artiom’s back, wipes the blood off on the other man’s shirt, and then he just… turns and walks away. He doesn’t look back. Doesn’t notice the figure watching him from across the street.
His heart is racing in his chest like a fucking hummingbird but he doesn’t let it show. He doesn’t think Artiom has it in him to chase after him, thinks that Artiom is probably going to die, right here on the side of the street. And Bucky doesn’t know what to think about that, doesn’t know how he feels about it.
He’s glad he saved his sister though.
He looks down at his hands and some of Artiom’s blood is staining his fingers, the knife, still. He wipes them hastily on his trousers and tries not to look guilty. It will be okay. It has to be.
He goes straight to find Becca when he gets home, and she looks like she’s waiting for him too.
“Is he… dead?”
Bucky doesn’t reply.
Bucky shakes his head as if warding off a fly and sits down next to Becca on her small single bed, wrapping an arm around her. His sister feels impossibly small and fragile and he sends thanks to a god he doesn’t believe in that he got there in time to stop anything worse from happening.
He blows out a large breath before speaking.
“I think— I think so, Becs… I— Don’t, you mustn’t tell anyone, okay?”
His tone gets more frantic as he speaks, but his grip around his sister doesn’t tighten and she doesn’t sound scared when she responds.
“I know. I won’t.” Her voice is quieter than a whisper as she continues, “Thank you.”
“It’s okay, Becs. We’ll be okay.”
It takes two days for his actions to catch up with him. The next day the rumour of Artiom’s demise is all over the streets, and as Bucky comes up the stairs towards Markovich’s office, he can hear him talking to one of his other men inside.
“Find me, find me the man who did this. I want to congratulate him, for Marina.”
Bucky’s blood runs cold. He doesn’t want to be congratulated, doesn’t want to be celebrated. He’s killed a man, not done Markovich a favour. But of course, in a world of corruption and violence, this sort of thing was only a favour — a trifling thing — after all.