Stop anyone and anything that attempted to get in the way of the helicarriers launching. The cost didn’t matter. Whatever it took. Even if it meant the Asset's life.
The Asset wasn’t alive. Not to HYDRA. The Winter Soldier was their weapon. Nothing more, nothing less. The Winter Soldier was expendable.
“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes….”
A name. What did it mean? That’s not the Winter Soldier’s name. There was no other name. But the man insisted that it was. How did he know?
No time. There was a mission to complete.
Target acquired. Engage.
“You’re my mission!”
“Then finish it. ‘Cause I’m with you, ‘til the end of the line.”
The dam in the Soldier’s mind cracked and crumbled.
There was a man—Steve—outside his front door. The Soldier—James—put a hand on his shoulder. Was that meant to be comforting? Touch meant pain. It always did. Not this time, what did it mean?
The floor collapsed, on instinct he grabbed onto a beam so he didn’t fall. He watched Steve plummet through the glass and into the water. There was a frenzied need to save. To protect. He wasn’t thinking. He went in after him.
He dragged Steve out and left him there on the sand. He didn’t know anything about Steve except that he meant something. He meant something goddamn important.
Not long after the helicarrier went down, he went to a museum and he saw it. There was an exhibit about Captain America and the Howling Commandos. He found himself staring at an enlarged image of a man that vaguely looked like him. He had the same name Steve said, but he was called Bucky instead.
Bucky. A nickname. A start.
He knew nothing about the man in the picture yet he had this feeling that he wasn’t the same. He wasn’t that Bucky anymore. He wouldn’t ever be that Bucky again. Now he was James, or so he thought.
The least he could do was learn who Bucky Barnes was.
“Let’s hear it for Captain America!”
Memories appeared. Incoherently, disjointed, random. He didn’t understand them. They were blurry, only flashes, broken parts of something formerly whole. Just like him. He didn’t know who he was. He didn’t really know anyone in the pieces of a past life that his brain managed to pull out.
When he looked in the mirror, he didn’t recognize himself. He knew that he was supposed to feel connected to the body displayed in front of him, but he didn’t. It was as if he was looking at a photograph of someone he’s never seen before. It shocked him every time he moved and the reflection would do the same. Most of the time he didn’t feel like he resided in his body at all. He was always somewhere off to the left of it, floating. It was profoundly unsettling.
He wrote them all down. No matter how much it pained him, no matter how little they made sense, he wrote down every single shattered memory. None of them made sense. His notebooks were ratty and unkempt from the overworn spines being ripped open to frantically write something, anything down or to retrieve a memory that felt like it was slipping.
If he lost even the smallest bit of what he had gained, he wouldn’t know what he’d do with himself.
That was a lie. He knew exactly what he’d do. The thought lingered in the back of his head at all times; it took up precious space and blocked him from remembering. He stopped himself from doing it twice in the past 12 hours alone. He couldn’t pinpoint what was holding him back. All he knew, because it was surely infused with his DNA from a part of his unknown past, was that he needed to be there. Where was ‘there?’ He didn’t know, but he needed to protect. Why? Again, he didn’t know.
He would try to force himself to remember. That seemed to cause the memories to flea; afraid of being seen, they cowered in the shadows. He stopped doing that, realizing it was futile. It gave him anxiety because he never knew when these fragments would pay a visit.
His metal arm didn’t shake but the rest of his body did; it hummed as if it was mocking him, saying he wasn’t stronger nor better than what HYDRA made him. He believed it. Every sound it made was amplified in his ears; he was constantly reminded that he wasn’t more than a weapon of mass destruction.
James wasn’t sure if he had a heart. He could feel the pulse, dull under his skin. He could hear it beat inside him but that proved absolutely nothing. An image of a man made completely of tin surrounded by trees and a road painted yellow flashed in his mind. He heard the banging of what could’ve been a drum. Just like everything else, it didn’t spark significance. (But that seemed less like a personal memory and more of witnessed memory.)
Occasionally there were bruises and cuts on Steve’s pale skin in the flashes of memories. James wondered, in an inexplicable panic, if he caused those injuries. His blood bubbled savagely while his chest ached in distress at the thought and he didn’t know why. The juxtaposing emotions scared the hell out of him.
Then a part of his brain growled angrily: ‘Protect.’ He had a vague feeling associated with Steve: safety? That was impossible. He was never safe. He never felt safe after everything that happened. There was no such thing for him.
His brain repeated itself, this time borderline violent: ‘Protect.’ He clenched his jaw. Okay. He understood. Not entirely, but enough. He wasn’t allowed to doubt the feeling of safety with Steve, wasn’t allowed to ignore the deep-rooted, animalistic urge to protect.
Was he capable of emotions other than anger, self-loathing, and depression? It didn’t seem likely. Would his jagged edges ever soften? Also unlikely. He didn’t deserve softness, not with everything he had done. He was capable of guilt, too, it seemed. It crushed him.
He refused to ask ‘ who am I?’ and instead he used ‘ what am I?’ He didn’t deserve the humanity of ‘who.’
HYDRA robbed him of everything that made him human. Stripped him down to the core and dismantled his being. Built him back up with replacement parts that turned him into something he couldn’t recognize. Now he was a ghost in his own body, practically dead. He was nothing underneath his flesh and blood. He couldn’t even believe that his bones were his own.
He was a machine. Nothing more, nothing less.
“Sometimes I think you like getting punched.”
“I had him on the ropes.”
He snorted out a quick, disbelieving scoff. It terrified him. James couldn’t control himself, it was an immediate reaction at the broken fraction of a memory. He hadn’t heard himself laugh before, at least not out loud; that was the first time. He’d only heard his laugh in memories, even then it didn’t seem real. But what was funny about what was said? Steve was going to lose that fight if he hadn’t been there.
Steve used to be so small; he would get into back-alley fights. He never won. James—Bucky—was always there to patch him up.
“You’re a punk.”
The majority of his past was still missing in large pieces that he knew were demolished into tiny bits. He didn’t know his age. Or his birthday. Did he like to read? He didn’t know what his favorite color was. Was he a dog or a cat person? He didn’t know how he acted around people he was (supposedly) friends with. What did he use to do for fun? What hospital was he born in? He didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up.
He was missing all the pieces that make him a human.
His chest constricted painfully at an out-of-focus visual, Steve was still blurry but he was there. Steve. He was able to say it as if it was second nature for the word to roll off his tongue.
It was comforting.
Comfort always came at a high price, though. It was never free. At least not for him.
“The man on the bridge. Who was he?”
“You met him earlier this week on another assignment.”
It was familiar. He had his gun pointed, ready, and Steve should have been scared. Why did it feel like he couldn’t breathe?
The sensation was sickening and he knew it well. What was this sensation called? He remembered the fear that accompanied the warmth in his ribcage, like an icicle amidst it all. What did it mean? What was it?
“But I knew him.”
The feeling brought pain. Brought fear. It clawed at his throat and suffocated him. He couldn’t place it but he had that feeling before. It wasn’t unusual yet it stood out in a glaring manner. It was there—it was there when he looked into his master’s eyes. The Winter Soldier wasn’t supposed to look him in the eye. No. Pierce wasn’t his master, not anymore.
He remembered they put the Winter Soldier under.
James knew more about the Winter Soldier than he did himself. He was cursed with the knowledge and excruciating details of every single life he took. He wanted his own memories. He wanted the ones where he wasn’t the Winter Soldier. But was he ever anything besides that? In essence, he wasn’t more than that.
(His days were spotty at best; there were periods where he was lucky to remember a singular thing in a span of a week.)
“Just go, get out of here!”
“No! Not without you!”
His blood felt like it was on fire. There was fire around him. He remembered that. He remembered he could barely walk and his ears were ringing. His head spun and it throbbed with every step he took. It was a familiar feeling. He felt it when he sat in the….
The chair. The image poured freezing water over his entire body. He shuddered. His bones rattled and his metal arm hissed in protest. It hated being disturbed and he hated to disturb it. An ugly reminder that he was capable of so much carnage and massacre.
(He still is.)
He was missing something and the arm seemed to know exactly what it was. He was so close, the feeling was heavy on his tongue and he willed himself to let the sensation spill over. His mouth involuntarily swallowed, sending the sweet taste of victory back into his stomach. He never had the flavor long enough to appreciate it.
Steve was there. James—Bucky—refused to leave even though he was at risk of losing his life. Now every instinct of his went into overdrive at the tiniest hint of danger: get out . James—Bucky—didn’t have that same instinct in that memory.
He wanted to scream about it now.
“Grab my hand—”
He was falling. Steve tried to save him but it was too late. The railing broke. He was trembling, couldn’t stop it. His chest collapsed. His heart spasmed. (His heart. So he did have one.)
Body tingling, he gasped for air. He didn’t know he was choking until oxygen finally filled his lungs. And the Winter Soldier was created when Bucky thought he was going to die in that ravine in Europe.
There was still so much missing, yet he could finally see it. Although cracked and distorted, he saw Bucky Barnes in his reflection.