Present: July 2017
Past: March 1943
His son, Ernesto Jiménez thought sadly, would have appreciated a place like Kreischberg.
Tomás de Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of Spain, would have admired the neat rows of cells, and how they were round and in the open, giving easy access to the prisoners. He would have been impressed by the practicality of Hydra forcing the men to build their weapons, and how the fortress had been modified for both manufacturing and experimentation. The people Tomás had imprisoned—for much the same reasons as Hitler; an added millstone to Ernesto's already burdened conscience—had been executed, not made to work until they died of exhaustion. Then again, they had been tortured, sometimes for years. And often without ever even knowing their transgressions.
It was hard to say what was worse.
Ernesto, who had once been Pedro Fernández de Torquemada, had shared neither his son's bigotry nor his ambitions. But he had nonetheless allowed his son to grow into the monster he became. As far as Ernesto was concerned, that made him just as culpable as Tomás for the suffering of the Inquisition's victims. He had joined the Ministry of Time in an attempt to clean some of the blood from his hands.
In this moment, strutting through a prison camp in his impeccable SS Bandenkampfverbände's uniform, being glared at with weary loathing by men he could do nothing to help, it was difficult to imagine he could ever accomplish it. Especially when he already knew his mission had failed.
"I am so terribly sorry, Sturmbannführer Fuchs," Arnim Zola panted, forced into trotting to match Ernesto's rapid strides. "We captured the partisan—"
"Bandit," Ernesto snapped. That was, after all, the name der Führer himself had insisted upon for all undesirables since 1942. Sturmbannführer Fuchs, good Nazi that he was, would certainly use it.
"Yes. Bandit. Of course," Zola stammered. He cleared his throat. "As I was saying, we captured the bandit working with members of the French Resistance in the Alps. I ah, have to say I was surprised to find a Spaniard par—er, bandit—so far north." He glanced hopefully at Ernesto, his glasses lenses glinting. "I suppose you know why he was?"
The look Ernesto gave him would have cowed his son. "What interest the Bandenkampfverbände has with this man is not your concern. What should have been your concern was keeping him alive and contacting the appropriate authorities immediately. Instead, thanks to your incompetence, we don't even have a body." He channeled all his grief at the loss of the Ministry's agent into anger. It wasn't difficult. He hadn't known Eliseo Zara well, but he'd liked him. Eliseo had been recruited out of the 1990s. He'd been a bright eyed new graduate with a PhD in modern history and perfect fluency in French; stultifying with boredom and desperate to do something meaningful with his life.
He'd only been with the Ministry for five years, and now the poor man was dead. The fact that he'd died keeping the timeline of the War intact didn't feel like much consolation.
They crossed out of the new building holding the factory and into the older one. It was instantly colder and darker, smelling of mildew and dust. It reminded Ernesto oddly of descending the staircase at the Ministry, though none of the branching brick- or stonework corridors had ever made his skin crawl like this. Of course, none of the time doors at the Ministry led to a Frankenstein's laboratory where the subjects were living men.
"What did the bandit tell you?" Ernesto kept his gaze straight ahead, feigning mere professional curiosity and none of the concern churning alongside the sorrow inside him. This was why he was here, after all: ensuring that Eliseo's capture hadn't caused a worse breech in history than his Patrol had been sent to repair. At least it had only been Eliseo, captured and murdered by this sycophantic madman, rather than all three members of his Patrol. And Eliseo would have had the satisfaction of knowing they'd succeeded before he died, for what comfort that may have given him.
Jacques Dernier was not a Spaniard, but if a hiccup in fate had caused him to die instead of being imprisoned…if he'd never met Sergeant James Barnes and become a Howling Commando…
Well, the Ministry of Time might have been dedicated to safeguarding the history of Spain, but sometimes that meant ensuring a bomb-loving Frenchman survived long enough to help save the entire world.
"He told us nothing," Zola said, managing to sound both smug and nervous at the same time. "Our prisoners are here for labor and science, Herr Sturmbannführer, not for interrogation." He frowned, pudgy lips flattening into a pout. "Well, other than that strange miniature, erm, television he had with him. At least, that was the only thing I could imagine it might be. He was…"—an artful grimace—"not particularly forthcoming, when questioned about it." Zola gave Ernesto that same obsequiously expectant glance again. "I don't suppose you know what that…tablet thing is?"
Ernesto grunted, ignoring Zola and hiding his relief. "I'll need to confiscate his belongings," he said. "Everything," he added, making sure Zola caught Ernesto's glare with his beady eyes.
"Yes. Yes, of course." Zola nodded so vehemently it looked like he'd bounce his round head off his squat little neck.
Their destination was just up ahead, made obvious by the sickly green light pouring into the corridor. Ernesto squared his shoulders, quietly steeling himself. He knew what was in that room. Everyone with the Ministry's intimate knowledge of history did. That didn't mean he was eager to see it with his own eyes.
"The subject who replaced your bandit is in there," Zola said, apparently managing to confuse Ernesto's disdain for interest. "He's American, like most of the others. Another scrappy one, like the Spaniard you came for. At least until he contracted pneumonia." Zola chuckled. "That certainly took most of the fight right out of him."
"I assume your 'experiments' took the rest."
"Hmm?" Zola blinked, then chuckled again when he seemed to understand what he assumed was a joke. "Oh! No. Actually, he's already survived three days longer than any of the other subjects. So far his prognosis is quite promising."
"Lucky for him," Ernesto said dryly. He stepped through the open doorway, maneuvering the door to block Zola from following him. "I'll be out in a moment." He shut the door in the man's face and locked it. "Puto gilipollas," he muttered, rubbing his face. He took a breath, thinking of how much he dearly wished he could just take his Walther and shoot the unctuous little scientist in the head. Free the prisoners while he was at it. He'd almost assassinated Hitler himself, after all, the first time he'd travelled to this Godforsaken era: a last-ditch attempt to fix the temporal near-disaster that had almost caused Spain to enter World War II. Compared to altering the course of the 20th century, murdering a Nazi war criminal in cold blood and saving a few hundred men felt insignificant.
He couldn't do it, though. Because when it came to conserving history, no act was insignificant. And if Ernesto killed Zola now, it might mean the end of the young Sergeant currently strapped to that lab table and stubbornly clinging to life. And that Sergeant was incredibly significant.
Ernesto took a breath, and went to the nearby desk sitting under the map of Hydra's planned conquests. He glanced over his shoulder at Barnes, but the poor man was either asleep or unconscious. Ernesto watched him long enough to be sure his chest was moving under the tattered sweater before turning back to the desk. Far better for them both if Barnes wasn't awake to ask questions.
And there, just as Ernesto had surmised, was Eliseo's phone.
Eliseo's other belongings were all era-appropriate and unremarkable, and had probably been stolen or burned with his body. But the phone was here, still intact. Zola probably hadn't had the time to take it apart. Ernesto let out another sigh of relief, then tried to thumb the phone on, pleased when it remained dark. As well as being able to call any other phone in any time period—as long as they were in Spanish territory—the Ministry's cell phones had exceedingly long battery life, a vital necessity for a time traveler. But Eliseo had been captured nearly a month ago.
Thank God Zola was apparently too taken with his ersatz Super Soldier serum to have tried powering the 'tablet' with the Tesseract. That could only have ended badly.
"Vaya con Dios, Eliseo," Ernesto murmured, opening his leather coat to slide the phone into the inside pocket of his jacket.
"Vai all'inferno, stronzo."
Ernesto's head snapped up. He was looking right at Sergeant Barnes' open eyes.
They were black in the sickly green light, hollowed by privation and pain. But the defiance and hatred in them burned like Armageddon. If that rage could be weaponized, every Nazi in Europe would be dead.
But Barnes' voice was weak, each word fighting for air like he was still in the grasp of the pneumonia Zola had insisted was gone. There was sweat in the overly-prominent dip of Barnes' throat, the bones of his cheeks and jaw stood out like raw edges under his translucent skin. In the ghoulish cast of green light he looked like an animated corpse, trembling and gasping for breath.
Defiance would fade. Ernesto was painfully aware of that. And when defiance faded, the will followed. And after that there could only be death, of one kind or another.
In roughly two weeks and fourteen hours, Steve Rogers' defiance would create Captain America, reborn in the ashes of this Godforsaken prison. But Ernesto was well acquainted with death; had seen—had caused—more then enough of it for several lifetimes. He'd seen the prisoners in Huesca and could tell which of them would live to cry and rant and endure another day. And which would not.
Barnes' defiance was fading, and when it died, so would he. He might not last two more weeks and fourteen hours.
If Jacques Dernier was necessary to the success of the Howling Commandos, Sergeant James Barnes was absolutely vital. He was the entire and only reason Steve Rogers would slip his leash and meet his destiny. He was the one who recommended the men Steve chose for his team. He was Steve's right-hand man and confidant throughout the war, his stiletto and his bludgeon. Some would even say Barnes' death was the reason Steve had chosen to go down with the Valkyrie, instead of finding a way to escape.
Which meant, ultimately, that the alien invasion of New York had been repelled in part thanks to Barnes.
Of course, roughly two years from now Sergeant Barnes would die and be reborn as the Winter Soldier. There were many people, Ernesto included—Barnes likely included—who would consider his dying prematurely now a small price to pay to avoid the plague the Soldier would become. But the Ministry of Time existed to preserve history as it was, not as they would prefer it to be. That was why Tomás de Torquemada still lived and breathed and destroyed lives in 1482, and why Hitler still did the same. And why Barnes could not be allowed to die before Captain America saved him.
"I've been to hell. It's not so different from here," Ernesto said simply, in English. "At least I assume that's what you said. I don't speak Italian." He took off his hat and put it on the table, hoping it would make him look less like a Nazi. He went closer, lowering his voice though he doubted Zola could hear anything through the thick walls and door. "I know you're in hell, and it will get worse before it gets better. But you will be rescued. Your friend Steve is coming."
"Steve?" Barnes's voice was frighteningly weak, and he blinked like he didn't recognize the word. "Steve…Steve is…?" He scowled, his cracked lips catching on his teeth. He reeked of sweat and stress and illness. "Liar. Y'r a fuckin' liar. He…he's safe. He-he can't…"
Barnes gave up, gasping, seeming to lose strength all at once.
Ernesto glanced around, but there was nothing in the large, terrible room to offer any kind of assistance. He had a small flask of brandy in his inside pocket, far more for the verisimilitude of his Nazi persona than anything else. He uncapped it, took a healthy swig and grimaced it down, then slid his hand behind Barnes' head, lifting him as best he could with the restraints and Barnes unable or willing to help him. Ernesto put the flask against Barnes' lips. "It's brandy," he said. "You saw I had some. It won't hurt you. Drink."
Barnes seemed too confused and exhausted to refuse. He managed a couple of painful sips before he fell back, gasping. He glared up at Ernesto, his eyes like pits in the green-tinged gloom. "Won't tell…you…damn thing."
"I know," Ernesto said seriously. "I'm not here to interrogate you. I'm a spy, working for the Allies." That was technically true, in that Spain was an American ally in 2017. "I am here to tell you to hang on, not lose hope. Your friend is coming for you. You will be rescued."
"Bullshit," Barnes wheezed.
Ernesto took Barnes' nearer hand, holding it loosely. Barnes squirmed it away. "I know it sounds impossible. But I swear on my life it's true. You will be rescued in two weeks. You must survive until then."
Barnes turned his head with effort, staring up at him. Maybe his face held a spark of hope. "No. Get me out now."
"I can't," Ernesto said. "I would if it were possible. I'm sorry. But you must be here when Steve arrives. Too much is depending on it. Besides. If I tried, neither of us would make it out of the building."
Barnes snorted with a weak puff of air. "That's convenient."
"It's the truth," Ernesto countered. "I wish it weren't, but it is. I've stayed too long already." He gripped Barnes' hand again, this time in both of his. "Stay strong, and don't lose hope. You will get out of this, I promise. But you must hang on. I know you want to give up, but you can't. Your friend is coming for you."
"Liar," Barnes said again. He pulled in a breath like it took effort, his eyes sliding shut. "Not…not gonna let 'em…use me—"
"You must." Ernesto snarled, vehemently enough that Barnes snapped open his eyes. "You must stay alive, Barnes!" He took a breath. "Bucky."
Barnes gasped, his eyes widening. "H-how—"
"Because that's what Steve Rogers calls you," Ernesto said.
Barnes blinked, then frowned in confusion. It was almost painful, the patience it took watching the sergeant sort the implications of Ernesto's words through his struggling brain. "You…know S-Stevie?"
"Yes." Ernesto nodded quickly. Of course he knew Steve Rogers; everyone did. He just didn't know him personally. "That is why I know he's going to rescue you."
Barnes swallowed. The movement of his throat looked like it hurt. But finally, finally, his dim eyes were flickering with hope. "How?"
"I don't have time to explain." Ernesto also had no idea how, exactly, tiny, frail Steve Rogers had become Captain America, other than the vague description in his biography. And he doubted knowing his best friend had volunteered for an experiment would be particularly comforting for Barnes right now. He forced a smile. "You can ask him yourself, when you see him. But to do that you have to hang on." He gripped Barnes' lax hand a little tighter, now deadly serious. "Promise me, Bucky. Promise me that you'll hang on. For Steve."
Barnes swallowed, then nodded as best he could. "Promise."
Ernesto studied Barnes' face for a long moment, looking for the sincerity behind the exhaustion, pain and fear. "Good," he said at last, satisfied. He let go, smoothed the filthy hair back from Barnes' damp forehead. "Don't give up. You will escape from here." He said, then made sure Eliseo's phone was secure in his pocket, put back on his hat, and left.
It was very easy to ignore Zola's petulant complaints; much more difficult to stride down the corridor and leave Barnes' to suffer behind him. Even harder when he knew how much suffering Barnes had yet to endure. But for the fate of the world, he would.
Ernesto had done worse things.
Present: July 2017
Past: March 2016
Bucky was pretty sure the man in the nice suit carrying the expensive briefcase was following him.
Bucky pegged the man as in his early sixties, with a kindly, serious face and eyes that looked older than the rest of him. The smile he gave the proprietor when he asked for coffee was a little sad.
But Bucky was sure he'd seen the guy at the newsstand the day before, and the market the day before that, though he didn't have the briefcase either of those times. And his accent when he ordered coffee was off. Just a tiny bit off. Just enough.
There were plenty of foreigners in Bucharest. Bucky was one of them, not that anyone would know. But people in nice suits carrying expensive briefcases didn't generally come to this part of the city at this time of day. The breakfast crowd was long gone. That was why Bucky liked it: midmorning it was easy to take twenty minutes to sip a coffee with his back to the wall and just…relax a little. Compose another letter to Steve he pretended he'd actually write. Pretend he had a real life here, other than just surviving from day to day and trying to remember what it felt like to be human.
Pretend he was safe. But it looked like this fucker with the nice suit and expensive briefcase was about to blow that little pipedream to hell.
Bucky thought about taking the route he'd mapped out and bolting for the emergency exit. He'd run back to his apartment, grab his stuff and scram. Thing was, though, he didn't want to. He liked it here. It wasn't much of a life, but it was his, and he'd be damned if he rabbited if he didn't actually have to.
And, the guy seemed to be here on his own. Bucky didn't know what that meant. Maybe nothing. Or maybe there was a whole phalanx of guys in nice suits waiting outside and Bucky had been too dopy to notice, losing his training (not likely). Or, maybe there was something else going on, and Bucky could give Nice Suit a couple minutes before running for his life.
Because of course the man had received his coffee with a nod an a smile, and was coming right to Bucky's table, exactly the way Bucky figured he would.
Bucky took a deep, wary breath, and pushed the table a little further away from him, to give himself room to move.
"Thank you," the man said in English as he sat down, giving Bucky another of his sad smiles. Bucky nodded in return, not smiling. He wondered if the stranger was thanking him for letting him sit or for not escaping.
Had to be the latter, considering the language. "What do you want?" He kept his voice low, not quite snapping. No Hydra lapel pins at least, to go with the nice suit. Of course that didn't necessarily mean anything.
It also didn't necessarily mean anything that the man looked familiar, from this distance. Bucky bit back the urge to ask have we met before? He was pretty sure he'd remembered all his Hydra handlers and technicians by now, and this guy definitely wasn't one of them. Maybe Bucky had seen him around while Nice Suit was stalking him, but somehow hadn't registered it until a couple days ago. It wasn't a pleasant thought.
"I want to make you an offer," the man said simply. He smiled again, a little wider than the one he'd given the owner of the cafenea. "One you are welcome to refuse." His smile turned into a tiny smirk, but if he'd made a joke Bucky didn't know it. He waited a moment, his thin, expressive eyebrows flicked upwards in mild question. When Bucky didn't respond the man just leaned to the side—slowly, he was obviously no idiot—and carefully lifted his briefcase.
Bucky watched, avid with tension, as the man pushed aside his barely-touched coffee and put the briefcase in front of him on the table. "My name is Ernesto Jiménez," he said. "I work for the Government of Spain. And I think this is yours." Then he pulled out a dark red notebook with a black star on the cover, and slid it to Bucky.
For a long, agonized mass of seconds Bucky just stared at it, heart ragged with fear. Ernesto closed his briefcase again. The click of the clasps was very loud in the near-silence. Then he calmly tugged back his coffee and took a sip, watching Bucky mildly over the rim.
"You'll find everything is in there," Ernesto said when Bucky was still staring at the unopened notebook a minute later. There was a note of sympathy in his voice, like he knew exactly what he meant by everything.
That galvanized Bucky into action. He finally grabbed the book and opened it, though he kept it on the table so Ernesto wouldn't see his hands tremble as he frantically flipped through the pages. Just looking at the list in it's handwritten Cyrillic hurt. But it was there. All of it was there. And now it was his.
"There are no copies," Ernesto said quietly. "I know you have no reason to believe me," he added a beat later, when Bucky finally tore his eyes away from the words to fasten on his face. "But if you remember your past, which I think you do, I can promise you that as of this moment, there is only one person other than you who knows the full contents of that book. And Colonel Vasily Karpov will be in no position to mention them in your vicinity ever again."
Bucky's eyes widened in shock. "How…why…" How do you know him? Why do you know him? He couldn't even say the words tumbling around his head. "Are you Hydra?" he asked finally, voice barely a whisper. But that was stupid. If this man who called himself Ernesto was Hydra he would've used the List, not given the book to Bucky.
"No." Ernesto shook his head. He didn't look offended; more like he'd expected the question. He pulled his wallet casually out of his breast pocket and showed Bucky his I.D. card. It looked as officious and uninteresting as any Bucky had ever seen. "As I said. I work for the Government of Spain."
"Is he dead?" Bucky was silently proud of himself that he sounded so calm. He swallowed down a grotesque lump of sorrow and elation. He'd loathed Karpov, but other than the Chair and the List, and using him for the other Soldiers' punching bag, the man had never been cruel to him. Not like Zola or the others. Karpov had been…not kind. Not gentle. Not good. But…not cruel. Better than what Bucky had been used to before him.
Bucky knew he should probably raise his standards.
"No, he's not dead," Ernesto said, to Bucky's relief and disappointment. "But I can assure you, even death will not allow him to escape the prison he's in now." He nodded at the notebook. "I hope you'll take it as a gesture of good faith, considering I had to go all the way to Cleveland to get it."
Bucky blinked at him. He kept glancing back at the notebook, as if it would leap up and attack him if he didn't. "Karpov's in Cleveland?"
"Not anymore." This time Ernesto's smile wasn't sad at all. "We can bring you to see him, if you want." He made a face. "Not that I recommend it. But you can consider Karpov a gift as well, if you like." He reached out and tapped the edge of the open page. "We won't free him, just like this is yours whatever you decide. But you have abilities and knowledge my government would like to use to prevent a tragedy, and in turn we will give you the means to stop hiding."
Bucky swallowed. He closed the notebook slowly, resisting the urge to tear it to pieces. He'd burn it later, he promised himself. He still wasn't sure he believed Ernesto. What tragedy? How could he, of all people, be the one to help prevent it? But, the idea that it might be over, that he might be safe, able to trust his own mind again….
Ernesto was regarding him blandly, nothing but patience in his eyes as he slowly replaced his card and put his wallet away.
"How can I be sure you don't have a copy?" Bucky asked. Why wouldn't the man, after all? Even if he really worked for the Spanish Government—for any government—and not Hydra, Bucky was valuable. He'd been called "The Asset" for a reason, after all. With the List, Ernesto or anyone could sic Bucky on whomever they wanted.
"Because if we had wanted the weapon, we would not be having this conversation now." Ernesto sounded like he'd expected that question, too. He smiled apologetically. "It would not have been easy, but we're Spaniards. We are good at improvisation. We would have found a way to control you, if that's what we wanted. But we don't want that." He leaned forward in his chair, clasping his hands. The gaze he leveled Bucky fit his namesake. "James," he said. "We want you to work for us. Not as a murderous robot, but as a man."
Bucky swallowed. "What if I say no?"
Ernesto leaned back and shrugged like it was inconsequential. "Then you keep that,"—he nodded at the book—"and we never speak again. You go back to your hovel and spend the rest of your purposeless life looking over your shoulder, waiting for Hydra or the governments you offended to send people after you."
"It's not that bad," Bucky muttered, oddly stung.
Ernesto just arched his eyebrows in polite disbelief. "And," he went on, "in roughly two months, a man named Helmut Zemo, who blames the Avengers for the death of his family, will find a way to destroy them by driving a permanent wedge between Iron Man and Captain America. Previously, he used you to do it. With this." He tapped the notebook again, making Bucky jump. "Now that he won't have it, we are not sure what he will do. But since you were the key to his mission before, he will likely try to use you again."
Bucky went cold and still as his namesake. It was reasonable that if Ernesto had known about Karpov and the book, he might also have advanced knowledge of that kind of disaster, though the "previously" made no sense. But his certainty it would be Bucky who would be the instrument Zemo used to bring down the Avengers…that Zemo would destroy them, using him…
He was halfway out of his chair before he registered Ernesto's hand on his wrist. His left wrist, and not even holding tightly. Giving Bucky plenty of opportunity to break his grip and run.
"Please," Ernesto said, voice gentle and calm. "That wasn't a threat. We want to help you. Please, sit. Sit and hear me out. Then, as I said, you may go. I won't trouble you again." He let go of Bucky's wrist, clasping his hands loosely in front of him on the table. Waiting.
Ernesto seemed like he was very good at waiting.
Bucky sat, fighting to control his breathing. "Do…do I hurt anyone?"
"You did," Ernesto said, using that same bizarre past tense as before. "Not permanently," he added at the devastation that crashed over Bucky's features. "It is actually what Zemo does in your name that is our primary concern." He took a breath. "He bombed the Vienna International Centre, and framed you for it, to flush you out of hiding. His ultimate goal was to use that." He jutted his chin at the notebook again. "In order to get specific information from you."
Bucky clenched his fists on either side of the book. "What information?"
"We don't know," Ernesto said apologetically. "All we know is that it resulted in you, Captain America and several other Avengers breaking international law to enable you and Rogers to go to an unknown location in Siberia. Iron Man followed, but returned alone. Whatever happened in Siberia cemented the rift between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, and with half the Avengers either arrested or fugitives, the team was broken."
Bucky rubbed his forehead. This was a nightmare. How could Ernesto be so calm when he was recounting this fucking nightmare? "What rift? What international law? And why the fuck do you keep saying this stuff like it's already happened?"
"Because it did already happen," Ernesto said flatly. He just nodded when Bucky dropped his hand to stare at him. "I came here from 2017, where this is already the past. The Vienna Centre was destroyed, killing nearly a hundred dignitaries, including the Prime Minister of Spain. And the Avengers unraveled because of the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement curtailing the freedom of superpowered beings that half of them refused to sign." His mouth twitched with rueful humor. "Or, will refuse to sign, in about two months. And…" He took another breath. "Unfortunately, also because of you. You become the drop that overflows the glass, so to speak."
Bucky was outright gaping now. "That's bullshit."
"Is it?" Ernesto gestured at the notebook again. "Does that look like it's been sitting in a basement in Cleveland since 1992?"
Bucky forced himself to look down at the book cover again. He smoothed his fingers over it, feeling the indent of the star. It looked the same as he remembered it, but that didn't mean much. "I don't know," he said honestly. "But even if it doesn't, that ain't proof you traveled through time."
Ernesto regarded him for a moment, then nodded to himself. He deliberately reached into the opposite breast pocket from the one with his wallet, and pulled out a small silver flask. He put it carefully on the table in front of Bucky. "I gave you some of the brandy out of that flask in 1943," he said. "I took a swig first, so you would know it wasn't poisoned, then I lifted your head and helped you drink. And then I held your left hand in both of mine and told you to stay strong and not lose hope. And I made you promise you would survive until your friend Steve Rogers came to rescue you. And you said you would," he added solemnly. "And you did."
"Wish I hadn't," Bucky said automatically, numb. He was shaking, body running hot and cold with the memory and the realization. This was true. It had to be true. He'd never told anyone about the secret agent who'd materialized at his darkest moment and given him brandy and courage. Not even Steve. It would've sounded crazy, and Bucky had felt crazy enough already at the time. "K-kinda thought I'd hallucinated it," he stammered, then had to just breathe until he got his body under control.
Ernesto hummed in acknowledgement and nodded, politely ignoring Bucky's minor breakdown. "Understandable." He frowned. "I'm sorry that I couldn't do more to help you. But even if I'd been able to get you out of Kreischberg, the ministry I work for is not responsible for changing history." His mouth curved in a hint of that same unhappy smile. "Much as we might like to. Our job is to preserve things as they were, no matter how terrible. Because if we don't the result could be worse."
"Hard to imagine anything worse," Bucky rasped. "Why'd you come back here, then? If this shit you're talking about already happened?"
"Because it shouldn't have happened." Ernesto said. "What actually happened, or what will actually happen, is the Accords being thrown out for the garbage they are. There will be no meeting to sign it at the International Center, which will not be bombed." He gestured at Bucky. "You should still be living like this, hiding from your past and your friend. The Avengers should still be heroes."
Bucky blinked at him. "That's…a lot different," he said weakly. "And you want my help to stop it? Why? Why me? And, if it happened, or it's going to happen…" He gave his head a quick shake, already overwhelmed with the mechanics of it. "How did you even know?"
"We know because we're in contact with other timelines. If something goes wrong, the Ministry of that timeline warns us, and we send a Patrol back to deal with it. And we're asking for your help because we know who is responsible for the bombing, but not for the ratification of the Accords. The man we're searching for is smart, patient and highly motivated. But there is no way he could have discovered how to travel in time on his own. We're sure he had help. Help from the same people who changed the outcome of the Accords. People you know intimately."
"Hydra," Bucky spat.
"Exactly," Ernesto said.
Bucky scrubbed his face. "And if I help you, and everything goes back to normal, then what? You're just…gonna bring me back here, say, "Swell, mac, see you later," and scram? With me knowing about time travel?"
"That is up to you, actually," Ernesto said. He leaned forward again. "The truth is, the Ministry could use someone with your skills. We've occasionally had to deal with people with abilities not unlike the Avengers, including enhanced healing and strength. We have capable soldiers, but no one like you."
"I'm not Spanish."
Ernesto waved that away with a very European moue. "We can arrange a work visa. It will all be very aboveboard." He grimaced sympathetically. "You will find that the pay is bad and the working conditions suboptimal. But you will be doing a tremendous amount of good for my country. And, occasionally, the world."
"Like keeping the Avengers from falling apart," Bucky said.
"Like keeping the Avengers from falling apart," Ernesto agreed.
"And I can keep the book? Really?" Bucky put his metal hand on it, as if Ernesto would try to snatch it away from him.
"Yes. Really." Ernesto nodded with relieving immediacy. "Even if you refuse now, that is for you." His smile turned caustic. "After all, it is in the best interests of Spain to ensure the Winter Soldier can't be reactivated."
And most of the other countries of the world, Bucky was sure. He shoved the book inside his zipped-up jacket like an unruly kitten. "Thank you," he said, meaning it.
"It's nothing." Ernesto waved that off too, then took another sip of his coffee. "I have a room in a hotel not too far from here. You're welcome to stay there tonight." His expression was warmly teasing. "You might like a decent shower and an actual bed before we leave for Madrid tomorrow."
"Madrid?" Bucky asked, confused. "You said the bombing happened—happens—in Vienna."
"It does," Ernesto confirmed. "But we will need to go to 2015, and then to Sokovia."
Bucky was still confused. "To find him?"
"To prevent him from having the incentive for the bombing." Ernesto smiled wryly. "I should have said, it is not the job of the Ministry of Time normally to change what happened. Sometimes, however, it's the most expedient way to prevent a calamity."
"The ends justify the means?" Bucky scowled. That was just like Hydra. "Anything for Spain?"
"Sometimes," Ernesto said easily. "And sometimes, it's anything for the world. Preventing the bombing and your being framed for it will benefit many more countries than just mine."
"So, what do you want me to do? Kill him?" Bucky eyed his coffee but he didn't pick it up. His mouth was suddenly sour.
Ernesto's head bobbed back a little in shock. "Of course not! We need you to save his family from Ultron."
"Ultron?" But of course Bucky knew what he was talking about. His memory was near-perfect now that he'd been out of Hydra's clutches and had a chance to heal. "You want me to fight Ultron?"
"No," Ernesto said, as if Bucky's question had been perfectly reasonable. "That might change the timeline too much. We just want you to evacuate a house. And possibly prevent it from being crushed under falling debris. It shouldn't be too difficult."
"Oh," Bucky said, relaxing. A job where he actually got to help people would be fantastic. If that was what he'd be doing for Ernesto's Ministry he didn't give a damn how difficult it was. But, "I'm not going to kill for you," he said, because it was vital Ernesto and whoever he worked for knew that. "I…If I do this job, I'll do what I have to. When and if necessary. But, I'm not going to just…hurt people. I don't do that any more."
"No one will expect you to, Sergeant," Ernesto said solemnly.
"Bucky," Bucky said.
"Bucky. Of course." Ernesto flashed him another hint of a smile. "No one will expect you to be what you were, Bucky," he said. "We are all soldiers when we need to be, and we have all had to make difficult, even questionable, decisions. But they are our decisions, for better or worse. We would never ask you to "just hurt" anyone.
"Good." That was definitely good. He could do that. Even if it did mean taking on the robot army that nearly defeated the Avengers—
Bucky tensed again. "But, the Avengers will be there." He meant, Steve will be there, except it felt both too cowardly and too revealing to say it.
"You'll be outside the city. They won't see you," Ernesto said. Not unkindly, as if he knew exactly what Bucky was thinking.
"Oh, okay. Good," Bucky said on a breath, relieved. One day he'd find Steve again. One day when his head was really back on straight and he knew for sure Hydra couldn't control him. Just…not now.
"Steve became an internationally wanted fugitive for you, in this timeline," Ernesto said quietly.
"Yeah. You said." Bucky swallowed. "The drop that overflows the glass."
"It is not difficult to fly to New York from Madrid."
Bucky nodded, staring down at his gloved hands around his coffee cup. "I'll think about it."
"You should," Ernesto said. "You know," he went on a moment later, "you may not be Spanish, but I think you will still be a good fit with us. The Ministry of Time doesn't recruit people the usual way, with job announcements and resumes and so forth. We travel in time and find people with great talent and nothing to lose. It's ironic, perhaps, but we've given many otherwise hopeless people futures via access to the past."
That sounded too good to be true. Then again, the red notebook was nestled up against Bucky's heart, and he'd just been given irrefutable proof that time travel was real, via the man who, for better or worse, had once saved his life. Maybe some things were just as good as they seemed. "That time in Kreischberg. Did you…travel there for me?"
Ernesto shook his head, momentarily saddened. "It was for another reason. But I knew you would be there, and I could tell you were fading. It cost me nothing to give you some solace."
Bucky eyed the flask. "Could use a little of that solace now."
Ernesto chucked, then dutifully uncapped it and poured a healthy dollop into each of their coffees. "To new beginnings," he offered, lifting his cup.
"To new beginnings," Bucky repeated, before taking a swallow. The brandy burned sweetly going down his throat, a hopeful portent of the future.
What a strange thing it was, to have hope. Bucky hadn't really had any in a long time. He liked it, though. He liked it a lot. Maybe he'd be able to get used to it.
Then again, apparently he had all the time in the world.