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waiting for the winter

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He's a world away from mother now
In this land of smoke and steel
He lies listening for another sound
And he's eaten his last meal

And he knows that winter is coming
And he knows he won't survive
But he's tired of endless running
He won't hide...

And he's waiting for the winter
Waiting for the winter

--Tony Carey


Steve Rogers can't sleep.

He is one of two people currently walking the skin of this world peculiarly, perfectly suited to addressing the gravestone of a friend while that living friend stands beside him. The sharp lines of the words cut into Fury's headstone have not had ninety years to fade and blur, but he knows what they will look like when they do. He can see it, overlaid on the new-cut marble. He can see Peggy vivid and intense, her mouth scarlet and generous and curved, like a ghost over the dying Peggy's face. He can see two ages and neither of them have the slightest understanding of mercy.

He can't sleep because every time he does find himself slipping under it is only a matter of time before he is back in the vertiginous hell of the falling Helicarrier, the stink of ozone and burned metal all around him, his right side a mass of cold fire, fighting the Winter Soldier. Fighting Bucky. Again the past and present lense into one another, he's dangling over another lethal drop, reaching desperately for a hand that slips away from him; and in the present, he lets go. The shield falls away like a toy, inconsequential. I won't fight you.

In the dream Bucky's eyes meet his, and know him, and their cold pours through his bones. You let me fall, says James Buchanan Barnes, and every time, Steve wakes up drenched in sweat, hands shaking.

You let me fall.

I'm with you to the end of the line.

He has no memory of the fall into the Potomac, no memory of a hand materializing out of the ringing gloom to haul him back to the surface, back to life, back to air. No memory of being hauled ashore and deposited without ceremony on the beach. Until he woke in the hospital, the last thing he was aware of was the bitter-ice crack of his cheekbone breaking under the Winter Soldier's fist, the almost euphoric sense of relief, of giving up. He had nothing left, no more strength, no more options. Do it. Finish it. I'm with you to the end of the line.

He was so tired, and it had been so long a life.

Steve can't tell if it's better, the way the dream ends. If it's better that Bucky knew him and remembered who he was, even if that memory was horrible. Part of him was still frozen in that moment when the rail had snapped and he couldn't reach Bucky in time, couldn't save him, couldn't stop it happening. Part of him would always be caught there, in the endless grind of time. Was it better that way than the reality, that the Winter Soldier had just decided it was close enough for government work and slipped away to save himself after beating Captain America senseless?

He doesn't know, and he paces through his darkened apartment, fresh scars angry pink across his side and his face. Steve Rogers is terrible at lying, always has been, and it doesn't matter that he's lying to himself these days. He can't tell anyone about this--who would he tell?--and it's only now, in the slow nights, that he lets himself think about the third option. He does not know if he wants to believe what he thinks he saw, falling away from awareness like a stone into dark water: that fist drawn back pausing, those eyes suddenly focusing on him instead of through him, that implacable shell showing a crack.

Because hope is not a blessing. Hope is, and always has been, cruel.


The arm hurts him all the time now.

He is aware of this the way a man might be aware that it is raining, or that the collar of his shirt is too stiffly starched and rubbing against his neck. Pain has long since ceased to offer any motivational force; he registers the dull ache and the sudden hot stings as something in there makes an intermittent connection, files it away to include in a status report, if one is ever called for. It's not just the arm, either. The way five of his ribs on the right side flare with pain each time he draws a breath has also been registered, as have countless bruises and lacerations, now healing. Slow. It has been a very long time since he has had to heal without the needles and the chair.

He wants the chair. His memory is a series of afterimages interspersed with the haze of thawing, but between the brightness of the outside world (wind on his face, touching his exposed forehead, the odd intangible heat of sunlight) and the dizzy fog he's so used to, the chair had been there. It was shaped to his body, and when the restraints closed around him and held him fast, something about that pressure all around him seemed to activate some deep, deep subroutine left over from a previous program, something that mimicked relaxation. The chair always meant pain, of course, and the headstorms that meant the beginning of a wipe, but it was familiar. He wants that now, that sense of being held and contained, no longer in charge of his body.

The ribs make it hard to breathe. This does not bother him except when he has to do anything that drives up his heart rate and demands increased oxygen. He has noted this, and made adjustments accordingly.

The day he had first visited the Smithsonian--through the back, because metal detectors and the Winter Soldier are not friends--the enormity of what he saw made it easy to dismiss. James Buchanan Barnes was dead, had been dead for decades. Another dead man in a museum full of dead men's achievements. Nothing to do with him.

He hadn't really understood the compulsion that kept him coming back, though. Each week, almost, he found another way into the Air & Space, stood reading the words of the display over and over again until they were graven into his memory. Steve Rogers' best friend. A life outlined in points of time. A childhood, a war. An end. He understood wars and endings. He didn't understand how looking at the dead man's face in the display felt like a dim frozen mirror. Because he had been trained out of introspection he did not recognize in his own mind the awareness that he already knew the answer.

Snapshots: he's in the vault, on the chair, unsettled and on edge. Pierce is there. He says words the Winter Soldier can't hear through the vacuum between here and reality. Vaguely he can see Pierce's lips move, but until a backhand blow snaps his head to the side, the insulation stays patent.

Reconnected, he turns his face back to Pierce. The man on the bridge. Who was he?

You met him earlier this week on another assignment.

He is sick-pale, puking-pale under the remains of the antiglare black smeared round his eyes, under the damp-dark hair hanging in lank clumps. He looks through Pierce, through the wall of the vault, through decades. His gaze is glassy black. Only a thin ring of ice-blue is visible around the vast holes of his pupils.

I knew him. It's quiet, puzzled by his own certainty.

Pierce tells him he's about to change the world. Again. That his work--his work, that's funny--has shaped the century. That things are at a tipping point, and Pierce needs him to do his duty one more time.

But I knew him, says the Winter Soldier, and his mouth tightens for a moment, lost and confused. Pierce stands, giving up on the pep talk.

Prep him.

He's been out of cryo-freeze too long, one of the whitecoats says.

Then wipe him and start over.

He does not protest as they push him back into the chair's embrace, opens his mouth for the bite-guard, still looking at something the rest of them can't see with those black shark's eyes. It is only when the restraints close round his arms and the headpiece rotates to close round his skull that he seems to come back into his body at all, and then it is just to scream and scream and scream.

At the moment he is mechanically shoveling food into his mouth. The can says GIANT(tm) Brand Bite Size Beef Ravioli. He stole a box full of these cans from a truck, at some point in the recent past. The can had a pull-tab on top the way pop cans do. He thinks that's new, that cans didn't always have pull-tabs, but he can't think why this observation is worth the processing time required to note it. The cold squashy lumps inside have no particular flavor. That's familiar, at least. His handlers had fed him similarly tasteless meals when he'd been out of the tank and working long enough to require fuel.

When the can is empty he sets it aside and leans back against the ratty mattress that forms the basis of his nest. He is tired all the time now, despite the food, and he is aware that his chest and arm and side ache, but he does not want to sleep. Sleep--uncontrolled, unmonitored, without the chair to bring him out of it--is terrifying, because he sees things that are not really there. Without the chair he is only aware of what he thinks is real, and when his senses tell him conflicting information, that reality slips a little further each time.

The thing about cryo is that it works fast, so fast ice crystals do not have time to form within the tissues and burst them, leaving the subject a soggy mass of protoplasm; but unlike ordinary freezing, which toward the end can feel almost warm and comfortable, this means it hurts. It hurts every time, and he remembers that through the wipes, because it is not a memory of thought or action. It hurts so badly that he wants to scream, but the sub-zero cold of what's left of the atmosphere in the chamber paralyzes his lungs and throat, and a moment later everything's faded through grey into black as his eyes go still and solid. Time does not pass for him in this state. There is only the astonishing, terrible pain of freezing, and then dim indistinct light and the equally terrible pain beginning at fingers and toes and running up his limbs as he is thawed. He cannot speak for several minutes after the process has begun, but he is capable of dull, thick moaning sounds, and sometimes the dizziness makes him choke and heave with nausea although there is never anything to bring up. This state lasts for anywhere between seven and fifteen minutes by his internal count.

Only now it's going on and on, the sickening vertigo as fluid in his semicircular canals changes state from solid to liquid, and he's not in the chair, he's not in the chair, where is he, what's gone wrong, and all around him through the blur of thawing vitreous humor is bright harsh color, red and white and blue. He reaches for weapons that are not there, lips pulled back from his teeth in a frozen snarl, programming pulling at him in a dozen different directions at once, and out of the swirling starry smear filling his vision a hand appears and wraps around his forearm, and a voice is echoing, foghorning, slowed down out of all sense: I've got you, Bucky. I won't let you fall. I'm with you.

He thrashes awake in the blanket-nest in the boarded-up house in the mortal city, whooping for breath in awful tearing gasps that make him cough and send fireworks through the fractured ribs down his right side, because he knows that voice as well as he knows his own--better, perhaps--and more than anything in the world he wants to hear it again.

"Till...the end of the line," Bucky Barnes rasps, alone and freezing, out of time and out of place.