They’ve made camp for the night. At first Bucky’s happy about it, tired of traveling through the goddamn blizzard, but, as soon as they stop, there’s a weird tension in the air and an itch under his skin – he wants to keep moving. Maybe his fellow soldiers sense it, because they give him odd looks, they speak to him in cautious tones, like they think he’s going to up and desert the army in the middle of the night. Where would he even go?
It’s cold. They’ve got some sort of heater set up that everyone is huddled around, talking. One of the fellas mentions New York and how he hopes the Captain appreciates the fact that he could just as easily have stayed home with his gal. Bucky snorts a laugh at that, because it’s not like they actually had a choice with the draft. He gets a few looks when he laughs, and he shrugs – maybe the others aren’t in a joking mood. But the fella from New York - he smiles big at Bucky.
“I’m from New York,” Bucky offers. “Brooklyn.”
“Manhatten,” the guy says, and Bucky nods, not surprised.
“You hear from your gal lately?” Bucky asks. It’s nice to have a conversation, he realizes. It feels like he hasn’t for a while.
“Yeah,” the guy smiles.
“How’s the winter there?” Bucky asks. “It’s not been too cold, has it? It’s not like here, is it? Has she said?”
The guy gives him an odd look. Bucky hasn’t heard from Steve in a while. He thought maybe Steve would write more... maybe the mail was just having a hard time coming through.
“No, it’s not that cold back home,” the guy finally answers, but that cautious tone is back, like he’s worried about giving the wrong answer.
Bucky sighs in relief, and then gives the guy a smile in thanks. The guy gives him a curious look, so Bucky shrugs.
“I got a friend back home, he doesn’t do well in the cold,” Bucky explains. “He can’t breathe right sometimes. I haven’t heard from him in a while...”
He gets a sympathetic look then, not just from the fella that he’s talking to, but everyone else listening too. Bucky shifts in his seat, uncomfortable.
“I guess it’s hard to get the mail through,” Bucky offers his own excuse.
“Yeah, man,” another guy says. “I’m sure your buddy’s breathing just fine.”
“Yeah, yeah...” Bucky nods, but he wishes he hadn’t brought it up now. He wishes he hadn’t put his fear and worry on display like that for everyone to see. It makes it all more real.
“I could ask my girlfriend to check in on him, if you want,” the fella from New York says, pulling a small notebook from his pocket. “Why don’t you write down his address.”
“Yeah?” Bucky smiles, taking the notebook. “I mean... you don’t think it’d be too much trouble?” The guy shakes his head. Bucky writes out Steve’s name and address.
“Thanks,” Bucky says, as he hands the notebook back. Then he realizes that he doesn’t even know the guys’ name. “Uh, I’m Bucky, by the way. Bucky Barnes,” Bucky says as he offers his hand.
“Tony,” the fella says, as he shakes Bucky’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
He circles the group from a safe distance as they move through the woods. He can’t remember who his target is. He treats it as a scouting mission instead, learning their strengths and weaknesses. Eventually someone will come and tell him which one he is meant to kill and he’ll be prepared and no one will know that he forgot. If no one knows, they might not put him in the chair, they might not hurt him. They’ll put him back to sleep in the cold instead – that will hurt too, but not as much.
Gabe Jones has gotten chatty while Steve’s away. Morita too. Peggy’s quiet, probably worried, she watches Bucky a lot – maybe she’s worried that he’s worried too. He’s a little worried. Steve sometimes goes ahead to scout, but he’s usually not gone this long.
Jones keeps asking how he’s feeling. If he thinks he’s up for the fight. Bucky feels fine though, and tells him to stop fussing. Jones was never one to fuss before, and Bucky doesn’t know what’s changed. Now Dum Dum’s the real quiet one, and it all feels odd on Bucky’s skin. He takes watch just to get away from them for a bit... but he gets cold after a few hours, can’t feel his fingers anymore, and decides they’re probably all just worried about Steve too. They’re probably all as tired as he is.
He strides back into camp.
“I’m tired and cold; someone else take watch for a bit,” Bucky orders. Everyone looks up, surprised, but Bucky sees Denier grab some gear to take over the watch. Bucky rubs his hand up and down his numb arm in an attempt to warm up.
“You want us to set up the heater, Sergeant?” Jones asks slowly, like he’s not sure about what he’s offering.
“No,” Bucky says. He wants Steve to come back, that’s what he wants. Steve’s better at leading the Commandos than Bucky is – it feels like everyone knows it too.
“I’m going to get some sleep,” Bucky announces. “Carter’s in charge until I wake up. You can argue with her about who will relieve Frenchy.”
Peggy smiles at that. Bucky can’t remember what she’s doing in the field with them this time. Bucky also can’t remember which tent is his, so he decides to sleep in the truck. He finds a bed already set up in the back and wonders if maybe he doesn’t have a tent. He wonders how he could forget something like that.
He wakes up without an arm. He doesn’t have an arm and he doesn’t know where he is... and worse than that someone has put metal where his arm should be. Metal that moves when he wants to move his arm - but his arm’s not there and the metal isn’t his arm. It doesn’t feel right. He doesn’t know where he is and someone stole his arm and thought he wouldn’t notice – and he’s screaming, screaming, screaming, and he tries to rip the arm off, but it’s too well attached and it hurts, it hurts... and he remembers blood and bone saws and people standing over him and...
...and he’s being held down, robots are holding him down as he screams – there are people, but they’re not there to help him – they cut off his arm and replaced it with metal, they’re changing him... they’re making him into something. They’ve got needles and robots and they’re making him into a robot – they’re injecting him with poison... they muzzle him, block his screams, and he struggles but the robot holds him down, someone electrocutes him... he can feel his strength draining as the poisons take hold...
...He squeezes his eyes shut and keeps them closed...his screams turn to sobs, and they remove the thing over his mouth. His face feels bruised. He feels bruised all over. The robot is still holding him down, even though he’s not struggling anymore – just crying, sobbing, reciting... “Sergeant James Barnes, 32557, Sergeant James Barnes, 32557...” he doesn’t know what it means.
He feels someone wipe the tears from his face. It’s gentle and he doesn’t know what that means either.
“I told you,” a voice says, but he doesn’t think they’re talking to him. “We’ve been lucky up until now.”
“Jesus,” the robot holding him down says. He wonders if the robot holding him used to be a man too. He sounds like a man. “I thought you meant he’d kill us, not...”
“Make us wish it were that simple?” the other voice finishes. “You can let him go now.”
He feels the robot move him. The restraint is gone, but he can’t move his limbs anyway, even the metal arm is suddenly too heavy, unnaturally heavy. He feels himself drifting off.
He feels gentle fingers brush the hair away from his face.
“You’re breaking my heart, kid,” the robot says.
Bucky mostly stays quiet around the Avengers. They’re working together now because they need his help – or, he’s convinced them that they need his help, at least. He doesn’t know what will happen once they complete this mission. He might have to disappear. Steve might not let him – won’t let him, Bucky corrects.
He tries not to make any sudden movements around the others. They’re all so cautious. Bucky thinks maybe they’re a little soft. They’re all too used to being civilians. It’s also because they don’t trust him, Bucky knows – he understands, but it’s still painful. He doesn’t like the idea of never fitting in, of always being feared. They’re friendlier with Dr. Banner than they are with him, and as Bucky understands it, he’s much more likely to accidentally kill them. The only way Bucky would be a threat is if he got his memory wiped again and someone assigned them as a target. It’s in their best interest to keep him close for that reason alone, Bucky thinks – but he doesn’t tell them that. It’s almost like asking for protection and that sits wrong in Bucky’s gut, even though he knows it’s what he wants. Wanting things in general sits wrong in Bucky’s gut, so really this is no different, just a little heavier.
He keeps his head down, speaks only when spoken to. He gives them every bit of information he has on Hydra. Everything he can remember. He sits close to them, but not too close – close enough for them to maybe get used to him being around, but not so close that their fear takes over. He makes sure he’s in sight at all times – so they know he’s not going to run, he’s not going to run ahead and warn their enemies, so they know that he’s committed to the mission and working as a team.
This morning, he finds them eating breakfast together. They look more tired than usual – perhaps they’re as worried as he is. He takes the risk and gives Sam what he hopes is a sympathetic smile. Sam’s a good friend to Steve, Bucky knows. Sam was retired, but he fought again to help Steve, and anyone who’s willing to do that is alright in Bucky’s books. Sam smiles back, just a little bit, cautious... as though he’s testing it out.
“We’ll get him back,” Bucky says, taking another risk and actually speaking first for a change. “They’ll be expecting you, maybe Natasha, but not the rest... and not me.”
It’s not even a large base. Bucky’s not worried about them doing anything to Steve, because he knows they don’t have the equipment – or at least they didn’t when he was there last. It has munitions only – no labs, no cryo-freezers or torture chairs. They’ll have him still in the cage, waiting until the snowstorm lets up and they could fly him out – take him someplace more equipped.
“Eat your breakfast, then,” Sam says with a smile. “We’re attacking in an hour.”
Bucky stares at him. He can feel all the other’s turn to look at Sam – no, look at him.
“We’re still miles away,” Bucky says. “Even with the truck, it’ll take us days to-“
“It’s over the next hill,” Stark says. “You, uh, you were asleep for a while.”
Bucky takes stock of himself and his mind immediately. He doesn’t remember stopping to make camp. His body feels a little sluggish from sleep, which shouldn’t be too unusual, except that Bucky can’t remember the last time he ever felt sluggish – not since he came out of cryo, in any case.
“Did you drug me?” He asks, because he can’t believe that he could just fall asleep like that, not when he had a mission – not when Steve needed rescuing.
“You had a nightmare,” Sam explains, cringing. “You were screaming, and we were worried someone might hear you, so we drugged you – I guess... I guess we used a little too much.”
“Sorry,” Bucky says, because he remembers... he thinks maybe it was his screaming that caused HYDRA to find Steve in the first place. He remembers Steve crouched over him, looking frantic – and Sam yelling that they had to move, they had to get out...
“You’ve got nothing to apologize for, Barnes,” Sam says, and he sounds like he means it. “Now, let’s go rescue your idiot friend.”
Bucky is in the middle of a fight. If he had time to think, he’d probably worry about why it is that he can’t remember when the fight started, who he’s fighting, or what the objective is. He guesses that the bad guys are the ones that are trying to kill him. Maybe he’s dreaming. He’s got a metal arm in this dream. It can punch through walls.
He finds a guy who looks like Steve, only bigger, locked in a cage. He looks frantic when Bucky gets him out.
“Steve!” Bucky says, because he’s happy to see Steve, no matter what size he is.
“Bucky,” Big Steve replies, smiling, but looking worried. “Are you okay?”
“There’s a big green monster destroying the building,” Bucky answers. Dreams are funny things.
“That’s Bruce,” Steve says. “Where are the others?”
Bruce is a weird name for a big green monster. Bucky doesn’t know what others Steve is talking about.
“This is the weirdest dream, Stevie,” Bucky says instead of answering.
Steve looks like his heart is breaking. Bucky doesn’t like the dream anymore.
“Did Peggy ever come with us on missions?” Bucky asks Steve as they fly back to New York. Stark’s asleep. Natasha is putting little sticky bandages on Clint’s face. Bruce is eating his way through their entire stock of food.
“No,” Steve answers.
“Weird,” Bucky shakes his head. “I’ve got this funny memory.”
Steve looks over at him in concern, and Bucky curses himself for bringing it up.
“Relax. It's been years. I’m not relapsing,” Bucky rolls his eyes.
“Buck...” Steve starts.
“I just... I have this funny memory of being in a blizzard with Peggy and the guys – only, Morita looked weird and Jones kept asking me how I was feelin’, and I think I heard Frenchy speakin’ perfect English... and I can’t even remember what we were doing or where you and Falsworth were – maybe scouting?”
Bucky shakes his head, again, as if he could knock the memory into focus, and instead something else comes to him.
“Did a strange girl ever show up to check on you in New York? I thought I asked... no, Tony wasn’t... didn’t we just come from a blizzard? Sam said I was sleepin’-”
“It’s all my fault, Bucky,” Steve interrupts, looking miserable. “I’m so, so sorry – I wasn’t thinking....”
One week previous...
They always knew it was a possibility that HYDRA would attempt to retrieve the Winter Soldier – even after Bucky had officially joined the Avengers. Steve had just never fathomed that they’d be successful.
He and Sam tracked down where they had taken Bucky almost immediately, and Steve thought they had been quick enough – he was sure they had been quick enough – but as soon as he entered the building, all he could hear were Bucky’s screams.
He didn’t think twice about it, he ripped the machine away from Bucky’s head and broke the thing into pieces. It was only after he had done it, that he realized Sam had shouted, “Steve, no!” right before. He turned to look at Sam, and found him with wide horrified eyes. “I don’t think you should have done that.”
A day later, they were in a safe house in the middle of nowhere, wondering who exactly Bucky was going to be the next time he woke up.
“So, let me get this straight,” Bruce said over the phone, the connection weak and tinny. “Bucky was having his brain altered by a sophisticated piece of equipment, and you thought it was a good idea to physically rip that equipment away during a delicate procedure... and you didn’t pause to think that it might make him more unpredictable than if it had been a clean memory wipe?”
“That’s about right, yeah,” Steve said, feeling like an idiot – an idiot who had managed to hurt the one person he didn’t want to hurt. “Every time he wakes up now, or, every few hours, it’s like he’s in a different point in time. Sometimes he thinks Sam is our old pal, Gabe Jones.”
“Listen, I’m not this kind of a doctor. You need to come back and-"
“Steve,” Sam interrupted from across the room, where he had been looking out the window next to Bucky’s bed. “I think we’re being watched.”
And that was when Bucky woke up screaming.