Off down the hallway, Bucky can hear the remnants of gunfire: SHIELD agents wrapping up the raid. Steve’s there, too, wearing the flag like a rallying cry, shedding his light into cold, dark places.
Far as missions go, this one’s been a cakewalk. They hit the lab hard and fast, in the middle of the night. AIM’s security system needs some work, cause the resistance wasn’t actually very resistant.
Maybe they didn’t know what they had in their hands. That’s the only reason Bucky can think for why something so damn valuable was sitting in a reinforced-glass case on a pedestal, instead of in a vault buried somewhere no one’d think to look.
But whatever the reason, Bucky’s got it now.
The cube is warm, its surface strangely yielding. Its glow is soft and pretty, like the white lights in Macy's at Christmas or the sheen of a half-moon.
And Bucky's heard stories, heard warnings, but all he can hear now is this thing throbbing in time with his heartbeat, little pulses that almost make a voice. "Anything," it seems to whisper.
His left hand’s smooth and sleek and polished, and even on his good days he can barely remember a time when it wasn’t. It can't feel the liquid warmth that spreads through the fingertips of his right hand; he's only aware of something distant and vaguely like electricity singing through the steel.
"Anything, huh?" Away down the hall, a new burst of gunfire breaks out. Bucky glances toward the sound, then back at the cube. He licks his lips, and the world shimmers around him.
He tries it the easy way, the first time, like the coward Steve's never believed he is.
It's 1943, and Bucky's still waking clammy with night sweats, phantom restraints pinning him down and Zola's voice in his head. He's still talking big to cover how he jerks away whenever anyone puts a hand on him. He’s pretending he doesn't see the way Steve looks at him, the way they all look at him, like he's in danger of coming apart.
Only this time – this time when they try to give him a discharge, he takes it. He crams what little he owns in his duffel and ships off for the states.
Before he goes, he slings an arm around Steve's shoulders, trying to ignore how much broader they’ve become. “Quit looking for trouble, you dumb punk.”
And Steve answers, “Wouldn’t be fun anyway, without you around to give a heart attack.”
When Bucky steps onto the ship that’ll take him home, he feels like the weight of the world's slid right off his shoulders.
In Brooklyn, his ma wraps bony arms around him and kisses his cheeks and forehead. The potatoes at dinner have some butter in them, and that’s a miracle and a half all by itself, with the war rations still on.
They put him up in his kid sister’s room, just till he can get on his feet again, and he goes to sleep in an honest-to-God bed. And that first night, when he wakes up gasping, a pinched face and round glasses shimmering like a heat mirage behind his eyes, Becca slips her little hand into his and squeezes.
For an instant he's terrified to squeeze back, sure he'll crush her. But reality seeps back to him – his arm restored to flesh – and he returns the gesture, marveling at how feeble and fallible and human he feels.
“It was just a dream,” she tells him, so solemn, and Bucky looks into eyes the color of his own and thinks, I’m gonna get to see her wedding this time.
Four months later, Steve comes home in a sleek black coffin, draped in a flag.
The second time, Bucky stays.
He crouches in trenches. He puts bullets in spines and hearts and skulls. He listens to the roar of grenades, and his nights are full of electricity and neat gloved hands, and when four months pass and Steve's still there, none of the rest of it matters.
Then comes a day when the air is sharp with winter and Bucky tastes the cold on his tongue. He stands on the edge of an abyss and stares down into it, and his hands sweat in his gloves. The zipline stretches out ahead, final as a garrote on that chill, bright afternoon. He can almost feel the bite of it around his throat, closing off his air and making every shaking breath a battle.
The train rattles under his feet when they duck inside, and the gun is solid in his hands. "Better stick together," Bucky says, and ignores the way his heart is pounding. Wouldn't be fun anyway, he thinks, without you around to give a heart attack. He almost laughs, but it feels like the garrote's still there, and the sound stays stuck in his throat, trapped behind the strangling wire.
He doesn't remember what's coming next. He has the fight back in bits and pieces, fragments of memories that swim up sometimes from the murky pool of his mind. But this? This is vivid color and full speed, gunfire a deafening ratatat down the length of the train. This is a moment that's been burned out of him long ago, and he's living it now in pulse-pounding full intensity.
He doesn't know if it was so nerve-wracking the first time around. He doesn't know if what he felt then was anything close to the gripping terror that's clenched around his heart. All he knows is what will come if he falls, and he knows he can't. He can't do it again.
Steve goes down, and the bullets are rushes of air screaming past Bucky’s head. The shield helps; he can feel the impacts as shots slam into it, meant for his flesh. He plants himself against the train's wall, and he wedges his foot into a crevice in the metal, and the wind howls beyond the yawning doorway. He braces his entire body with white-knuckle force.
He doesn't move from that spot. Not until the last guy hits the ground, and the bullets have stopped flying, and his muscles have gone numb. Bucky hisses air through clenched teeth, and not two feet away, a white canyon's calling him out to meet his fate.
But Bucky's still here, and he's still standing. The hell with fate.
Now the laugh comes, finally, rough and disbelieving. He can feel stinging at the corners of his eyes, and the twist of dread, heavy and cold in his stomach, begins to unknot. He knows how the rest of today goes. He's heard Steve tell it.
Time for them to go round up Zola.
"You coming, or are we gonna wait around all day?" Bucky asks. He turns toward Steve, holds out a hand to help him up.
But there’s blood spattered across Steve's face in tiny flecks.
It starts at his chin, runs up along his jaw and over his cheek. The pattern reminds Bucky of stars in the night sky, and a flash of memory comes over him sharp and sudden: two boys out late in the waning days of summer, air sticky and warm, the roof rough beneath their backs. Above them, the stars were washed out with the city lights, and those two little boys, they'd reached out to hold hands.
"Stevie?" Bucky's on his knees before he knows he wants to move, his hands probing along Steve's uniform to stem the great, growing splotch of red.
Steve's eyes are half-lidded, the way they get just before he drifts off to sleep, and one of the star-specks of blood is vivid by the lashes. Bucky pushes down to stop the bleeding, pushes down hard, but underneath them both, the metal of the train floor is already staining crimson.
"Steve?" Bucky asks again. "C'mon, pal. Say something."
Steve opens his mouth, and the teeth are red. When he coughs, the lips Bucky's dreamed idly about kissing since he was fourteen years old are suddenly slick with blood. "You gotta... gotta keep going, Buck."
"Sure," he says. "Sure I will." But he slips his left hand into Steve's, like they're two little boys up on a Brooklyn rooftop, and he doesn't go anywhere.
He stays until Steve's lungs rattle out the last gasp of air and those barely-open eyes glaze over. It doesn't take long.
When he does it again, Bucky knows.
Out that open door lies a future he's lived already, and pressed up against the wall ends with Steve on the ground, still and cold. So he charges right in – just hefts the shield and rushes them, feels bone crunch under metal.
When he’s done, it’s Bucky on the floor bleeding – but that's okay by him. Cause Steve's getting up again, and none of the sticky red mess pooling at the bottom of the train car is his.
"Buck?" Steve's voice is rough, the way it used to get when he had a cough he couldn't shake. There’s something sharp in his eyes, something frantic, and Bucky can’t stand to look at the lines that crease his face.
But he thinks of blood spread out like stars, and he says, "You gotta keep going, Stevie."
He gropes for his own side, where the pain's unfurling like an old, familiar blanket. He finds the place wet with blood, and he presses in, and he says. "I been in the Army longer than you. You think I don't know how to put pressure on a wound?”
"Bucky," Steve begins. He’s hovering – hesitating – and Bucky can’t remember the last time that happened when they were out in the field. So he reaches with the hand not busy holding himself together, and he gives Steve a shove. "Get outta here. Zola's not gonna wait around."
Steve sets his jaw, and Christ, doesn’t that bring Bucky back? It’s the look that used to come before a back-alley brawl – the look he’s seen too many times to count on the face of a dumb, scrawny kid who’s never known when to give up. "I'll get him," Steve promises. "And then I'm coming back for you. You hear me? I’m coming back."
"Yeah," says Bucky, and he tries for a cocky smile. "You got it."
Then Steve’s gone, and all that’s left is the steady kachunk kachunk of the train on the tracks beneath him. It’s almost relaxing, now that he’s not part of the mad dash to the front. It’s almost comforting, now that he’s staring out the open doorway into the snow. They’ve passed the spot he was meant to fall, already.
Far as ends go, this isn’t such a bad one. Bucky thinks about the people who won’t die if he doesn’t live to kill them, and at some point, he stops putting pressure on the wound. The world gets swimmy at the edges, and he feels an instant’s worth of guilt for lying to Steve before he closes his eyes.
When he opens them, the train and the doorway and the white canyon are gone. In their place is an innocuous room, with unremarkable walls. Beneath him’s a cot that creaks when he tries to move, and every part of him feels heavy.
"Sergeant Barnes?" says a woman's voice. A nurse stands beside him, pressed uniform, sleek black hair. She's pretty; if Bucky could remember how his lips work, he might offer her a smile.
"You got it," says Bucky, and the words are a little wobbly, like he's been drinking. "S'me."
"Oh, thank goodness," she says. "Someone's been asking about you." Her shoes make trim little clicking noises on the way to the door, and Bucky watches as she reaches for the handle. "I won't be minute," she tells him, and slips out of the room.
While she's gone, Bucky remembers how to smile. He stares up at the ceiling like it's the best thing he's ever seen, and he grins until his cheeks hurt. He's got no idea how they both managed to scrape through, but Steve’s been waiting for him to wake up. Here they are, living proof that every once in awhile, something goes right.
When the door opens again, Bucky lifts his head, a casual insult on his tongue by way of greeting. But Carter stands there instead of Steve, expression all business. She looks like she's closed her teeth around something tough and distasteful, but she's got a mind to gnaw through it, all the same.
"Sergeant," she says, and she gives him a little nod.
"Agent," he answers, and gets his hand up for a sloppy salute. It's not regulation, not by any stretch of the imagination. If this was basic, he'd have been bawled out but good. But he guesses there's exceptions for fellas who've lost as much blood as he has, cause Carter doesn't say a word.
"I asked the doctors to fetch me when you woke," she says. "I thought you deserved the full story, properly told."
And suddenly, with a detailed clarity sharper than he’s ever gotten through a sniper’s scope, he can think of only one reason for Carter to be standing in that doorway, saying those words. "Where's Steve?"
Carter comes in, and she closes the door behind her. Then she tells him.
She tells him about a plane on course for New York city, and for an instant, one instant of giddy relief, Bucky thinks that he can handle this. He has the coordinates, after all. He knows where to go looking – how to undo this national tragedy with a little help from the future.
But Carter doesn’t stop. She tells about the plane carrying right on over the ocean, about Howard Stark trying to talk Steve through disarming the explosives on board. She tells him how big the blast radius was.
She gives him the estimated number of dead – nearly eight million – and she hands him a file, and she says, "If you're not feeling ready for it, you might want to wait to look through this."
Bucky waits all of thirty seconds – precisely the length of time it takes her to leave the room.
Then he opens the folder with shaking fingers and sees the pictures: charred husks of buildings, listing and disintegrating into ash. The shattered base of what used to be the Statue of Liberty. A survivor’s camp, where a harried-looking nurse is handing out soup to an old man with a gored, half-melted face.
Bucky thinks of his ma and his sister. He thinks of Ms. Modzelewski, the tough-as-nails old dame who’d rented him his first apartment. He thinks of his pals down at the docks, and the girls he used to take out to cut a rug. He thinks of the pop stand where he tried his first malt – chocolate, thick as sin, the best thing Bucky’d ever tasted.
And he thinks of Steve.
He thinks of a plane up above the cloudline, set to blow. He thinks of Howard’s voice on the radio, tinny and distant, wry and leisurely at first but increasingly tense. He thinks of strong, competent hands on the wires – wonders if they shook.
He pictures that final, awful moment, when Steve must have realized he’d made the wrong call.
And he remembers a promise: “I’m coming back for you.”
It was a promise Steve had tried to keep.
It’s a day early when Bucky interrupts a strategy brief he wasn’t invited to.
Knowing better than to waltz straight in, he does it proper and raps his knuckles on the door, then waits to be admitted. He could probably get court-martialed for the line he's about to feed two ranking officers, but the time and place when he would have cared is miles away and years in the past.
Bucky can think of worse things than a black spot on his record. Hell, he sees worse things behind his eyelids every time they fall closed.
So he steps into the room, aware that he's got three sets of eyes on him. He pretends he doesn't see the impatience on Colonel Phillips’ face, and he snaps a smart salute. “News from the front, sir. You’ll want to hear this.”
Phillips leans back in his chair and folds his arms, and his craggy face looks hard enough to sharpen knives. “This had better be good, Sergeant.”
Bucky gives a curt nod. “A wounded German infantryman had some things to say about the Red Skull before he kicked it. Sir.” And just like that, he has their attention.
Carter lifts both eyebrows, and she says, “You can’t stop after a lead-in like that, Sergeant.”
So Bucky tells them. He tells them about this German soldier he shot, who ended up dying slow. He makes up a death-bed confession for a man he never said a word to, and he puts in real intel – the location of the Skull’s base.
And when he’s done, Phillips has got a gleam in his eyes, and Carter’s looking appreciative, and Steve mouths, “You did good,” when neither of them are looking his way.
Bucky salutes again when he’s dismissed – and one day later, they’re not zip-lining onto a train in the Alps like the calendar says they should. They’ve got somewhere else to be, instead: charging into the Skull’s top-secret base, courtesy a tip-off they never got.
There’s nowhere for Bucky to fall from. The prototype plane meant to carry all those explosives to New York isn’t ready for launch, and Bucky’s there when they get Stark on the radio and disarm every last God-forsaken scrap.
Eight million people live to see the dawn.
The mission’s a success, in every sense of the word – to the Howling Commandos, and to the American public, and to Bucky himself, who just about chokes on gratitude every time he catches sight of Steve’s face.
He couldn’t have thought up a better ending, not if he tried. It’s like the last of the war’s laid out before them, on a straight, even road after picking their way over jagged rocks.
They’re on the front lines like they’ve always been, but something’s changed. The fellas all know the end’s in sight. There are nights with easy drinks and easier words, and Bucky doesn’t dream of being strapped down to a table so much, anymore.
When Steve slings an arm around his shoulder and it’s warm against the winter air, Bucky thinks, You weren’t supposed to be here, still. When Steve asks him what he plans to do when they get back to Brooklyn, he thinks, Neither was I.
Germany’s crippled, and Europe breathes a collective sigh of relief. The war is all but over, and that’s when the rumors start up.
The first one’s so ridiculous that not a one of them believes it – not even Bucky, who should know better. A group of fifteen men wiped out the whole of the 112th in Luxemborg, the whispers say.
After that, the reports won’t stop flooding in. Fifty men to put down thousands. A battlefield choked with corpses. Letters home flying out like flocks of pigeons, bringing bad news.
When Bucky finally sees them firsthand, they’re just outside Versailles. The ground’s rough and churned, mud grooved deep with the tracks of jeeps and the treads of tanks. The sun’s sunk low in the sky, hidden behind flat gray clouds to cast the scene in a strange, wan twilight.
And the men there – they’re wrong.
That’s all Bucky can think at first, and he’s seen things he wishes he could forget. He’s seen buddies blown open by grenades; seen people scream as flames eat them alive. He remembers what he’s done himself, nightmare half-recollections that still wake him retching in his bedroll.
But these men – they move funny. Some look like they’ve had their faces peeled off. Some look like they’ve got nothing human beneath their skin. But they fight like all the devils Father McKinney used to swear were waiting down in hell. They fight with a fury Bucky’s never seen before, and he watches with round eyes as they cut a swath through the Allied troops.
It’s like a thresher working through grain; they fall, and they fall, and they fall.
Zola didn’t have to time to perfect his serum, maybe – but halfway, Bucky thinks, is all he needs to win a war.
“Greetings,” says the letter that comes to their apartment in Brooklyn. It’s addressed to one James Buchanan Barnes, and it looks very official.
Bucky stands there on the doorstep, next to the windowsill with its peeling paint, under the bare light bulb that flickers at night and doesn’t light a whole lot of anything. He stares down at the letter, at the typewriter-straight lines of it, and he finds what he knows is coming: “You are hereby notified that you have been selected for training and service in the Army.”
This time, Bucky rips that letter up into pieces no bigger than dimes, and he stuffs every scrap into the trash. He doesn’t say a word about it to Steve.
In June of 1943, when the World Expo’s in town, Bucky lets the future pass them by.
The night he’s meant to ship out for Europe, he says, “Wanna stay in tonight? Murder and Mystery’s doing one with some dame who shoots people.”
So instead of heading out on a double date with girls Bucky's got no interest in, they throw themselves down on the couch with its ratty old cushions and turn on the radio. Bucky lounges against one arm and props his feet up on a dining chair, while Steve cradles his sketchbook in his lap. They listen as intrepid PI Horace Turner discovers that the gruesome double murder he’s been trying to crack was the work of his best girl, not the tough-talking ex-con he'd suspected.
Across Steve's blank pages, the noir takes shape: sultry, half-lidded eyes and a detective's badge. There's a handgun, too, the shading just right. It’s supposed to be a Remington, Bucky thinks, but the slide’s shape is off, and the trigger’s positioned wrong – and he realizes with a wash of surprising relief that that’s because Steve’s never held a gun before.
That he probably never will.
They listen through to the end, when Horace’s girl tries to put a bullet through his head. They listen to the announcer tell them to tune in next week for more gripping tales of murder and mystery.
Then Steve says, “Hey, Buck? I gotta tell you something.”
Bucky’s risen from the couch, headed for the corner that counts as their kitchen to see about fixing something for dinner. “Yeah?” he asks, distracted.
He’s not expecting Steve to set the sketchbook down and get up, too. He’s not expecting that look – not here and now, on a mellow night like this one, when the sweet strains of Moonlight Serenade are starting on the radio. It’s the look Steve gets before a fight: shoulders back, jaw set, the stubborn way he tips his chin.
He comes right up to Bucky like he means to sock his best pal in the jaw, and for a second, Bucky’s sure that this is going to be about that letter. He’s sure Steve’s found out about it some way or another, sure he’s about to get the telling-off of his life for shirking.
Then Steve takes a handful of Bucky’s work shirt, holding hard and fast, and hauls him in for a kiss. The awkward clash of lips and teeth and tongue is so unexpected it’s done before Bucky has a chance to decide if it lives up to eighty years worth of dreaming. His mouth’s fallen open; he knows he’s gaping like a moron, but he can’t string two thoughts together, much less put them in words.
He settles for the next best thing – just drags Steve in for round two and feels something in him surge with victory when his best friend leans against him and threads an arm around his waist.
Later, when the radio ad for the World Expo promises a newer, brighter tomorrow, Bucky runs the thumb of his left hand over the line of Steve’s bare collarbone. He thinks so long as tomorrow’s as bright as today, he’ll like it just fine.
It is, too. And the day after that. A whole month of tomorrows, and then two. A year of them.
But the thing about tomorrows are, they just keep coming.
Guys they know keep getting shipped off to the front. The newsreels at the start of the flicks they watch at the Elgin show them Captain America: a brawny guy with a big, cheesy smile and wavy brown hair. Bucky throws out three more letters, and the newsreels, they talk about how this ultimate soldier got knocked off on the beach at Normandy. There’s a national day of mourning and everything.
Bucky counts the days, and he does the math, and he feels the first twist of dread.
Those fellas that got sent out start coming back in coffins. The papers tell a bright story, plastered cover to cover with Allied victories, but you can see the truth. It’s written in the worried pinch of faces on the street, in the hollow-eyed stares of strangers.
Bucky thinks of Steve mouthing “You did good,” in a war briefing in some other life. But here and now, they’ve shoved their beds together to sleep wrapped up in each others’ arms, and Bucky tells himself he doesn’t care. He doesn’t.
In December of ‘44, Bucky turns on the charm. He’s heard rent’s cheap up in Maine, and it’d be nice to get some work fishing, what with the war rations getting so tight. He sweet-talks Steve and his ma and his sister into packing their bags and high-tailing it out of New York.
Five months later, eight million people die.
Bucky locks himself in the tiny washroom of their crummy new place in Maine, and he bites his fist until it bleeds.
But the tomorrows keep on coming.
They come until the first German U-boats are reported off the east coast. They come until the headlines scream about Nazi soldiers putting boots on the ground in Jersey. They come until the news stops flowing altogether, and all that’s left are rumors, and hopes, and dreams gone dark as ashes.
Steve learns how to fire a gun, after all.
Lord knows, Bucky tries. He tries every way he can think of and then a few more besides.
He doesn’t even need a bright tomorrow.
He’ll take a version where Stevie never runs fingers through his hair on a lazy Sunday morning. He can do without the sweet uncertainty of learning each others’ bodies by touch in a tent in the dead of winter, their breath fogging the air with every gasp.
Bucky’s ready to die – ready to bleed out on that train, or to take a bullet in the field, or to put a plane down in the ocean in Steve’s place.
He doesn’t have to make it, so long as whatever comes next is clean. So long as the things he’s done and the things done to him are washed away, like river ice after a thaw.
Bucky doesn’t need a bright tomorrow. All he needs is one where he doesn’t fall.
But it looks like the world’s clean out of those, too.
It’s February of 1945, and all that’s on the paper in the envelope is a date, a time, and a location.
“I need a favor,” Bucky tells Dum Dum Dugan, as he hands it over. The cookfire they're sitting next to isn't doing a whole lot to keep back the chill of the German countryside, and it's easy to pretend it's the cold that’s making his hands shake. "A big one," he adds, and he’s proud as hell that his voice is steady.
"Yeah?" Dugan asks him, dark eyes considering under the perpetual brim of his hat. "What kinda favor?"
"One you gotta take my word on," says Bucky.
For a moment, there’s nothing but the crackle of the fire and the sound of Morita snoring, low and persistent, from the tent behind them. Bucky thinks his expression’s neutral – he’s trying for neutral – but hell if Dugan hasn’t got him fixed with this look, the kind that minces around worried.
“Okay, Barnes,” the man says at last, as he slips a thick finger beneath the seal on the envelope. “I’ll bite.” He takes out the folded paper and opens it up – reads the whole contents and flips it over to discover the back blank. “This it?” he asks.
“That’s it,” Bucky tells him. “I need you and some of the Commandos there on that date.” He folds his arms over his chest, because his hands aren’t anywhere near steady. “And I mean come hell or high water."
Dugan’s watching his face as he folds the paper up again and stuffs it back in the envelope. “What kinda welcome party we expecting here?”
“Fireworks,” Bucky says, and licks his lips. “Might wanna bring some of your own.”
Three months later, Bucky falls.
He means to go easy, with some kind of stoic grace. He means to let them drag him off into the future he's planned. But at the last moment, some animal part of his brain rears up, screaming, and he jerks away from the hands that hold him, struggling as much as his broken body allows.
The butt of a rifle ground into the shredded remains of his shoulder puts an end to this final rebellion.
He’s half-awake as they drag him through the snow, conscious of the snail’s trail of blood he’s leaving behind. He’s got just enough awareness to think, over the throbbing pain, I shoulda had them get me now. He thinks it even though he knows, with the cold, dead certainty of having lived this all before, that an extract today's out of the question. Steve needs to get back to headquarters and make his plan – needs to handle that plane, or the good people of New York are gonna be so much strawberry jam, all eight million of them.
The snow does nothing to numb the exposed nerves where his arm used to be. Viscous, strung-out globs of red draggle down from the place below his shoulder.
So much strawberry jam. Bucky retches and stubbornly, stupidly, blinks back the dark.
He’s forgotten most of it – that’s the hell of it. When they burned all the rest out of him, this part got fried away, too. Now he’s got to relearn it all in blade-sharp real time: the windowless cell, the baton they whack him with, how goddamn hungry he gets between the heels of bread they bring him.
He snarls and he struggles and he spits insults their way, just how he’s supposed to. Last time around, he remembers telling himself that if he fought hard enough, held on long enough, someone would come and bust him out. This time – this time, it’s gonna be true.
There’s no way to track the days as they slip past. There’s no way to know if the calendar's coming up on that date in the envelope.
The cell's bare, and he could cover it in three paces if he could walk, though when they're done with him he usually can't. The guards don’t say a word to him except when they’re putting new bruises up and down his sides, and the stump where his arm used to be wakes him from his sleep, raw tendrils of pain that never quite leave.
There’s no way to estimate how close it is to the date he gave Dugan. There’s no way to even guess. But he tells himself: any day now.
They move him on New Year's eve, and the guards complain to each other in Russian, bitterly, about being assigned to transfer some experiment instead of staying home with their families.
Bucky can barely walk; he staggers through the snow, made clumsy with long mistreatment. His one remaining arm is tethered to the chains at his feet. It hobbles his steps and keeps him from lifting his hand; when he falls, twisting his foot on a branch hidden beneath the snow, he goes down flat on his face, unable to brace himself. The man talking about how he got his little girl the wooden puppet she’d wanted from Grandfather Frost hauls Bucky back up by his hair without so much as glancing down.
They bundle him into a train, and for a few hours, it’s warm and quiet and no one touches him. But even better than that, Bucky thinks he knows what’s coming. He curls up in the corner to hide the smile that keeps trying to creep over his split lips, and he does not let himself imagine what will happen if he's wrong.
The facility they take him to is a tiny building tucked in among snow-caked trees. The name’s on the outside, in letters an inch and a half tall: Deutsch Forschungsabteilung Alpen.
They steer Bucky down the hall, to a room that’s been stripped bare. They unlatch his arm and attach it to a thick metal shackle on the wall, the chain just long enough that he can slump into a sitting position if he wants. His heart is slamming in his chest; the blood is roaring in his ears. In another room of this facility, there is a chair all of metal, the gleaming pieces waiting to steal bits of him away.
He hears the gunfire later that night. It’s been seven months since he last saw combat, but the heavy staccato is still so familiar it feels like coming home. There are shouts in the corridor, and Bucky leans his head back against the wall and waits.
A slamming sound begins, hollow and close – over and over – and then the door flies open in a spray of splinters. Jim Morita’s standing there with a Browning cradled in his arms, outlined against the harsh glare of the hall lights behind him. Bucky’s never seen a more beautiful sight.
Morita’s eyes sweep over the scene, take in the man chained to the wall with grim understanding but not a scrap of recognition. Bucky hardly blames him. He must make a sight: some one-armed scarecrow with rags for clothes, covered in damn near a year’s worth of grime.
It’s only on the second pass that Morita’s gaze falters – that his eyes widen – that he lowers the gun and stares. “Barnes?” he says.
“S'me,” Bucky croaks. He can’t remember the last time he spoke, and his voice is rough as shrapnel.
“Jesus Christ,” says Morita, and begins to move. He crosses the room in three long strides, reaches for the cuff holding Bucky to the wall. “Jesus Christ. How are you even here?”
Bucky lets his head fall back against the wall. “Long story.”
Morita gives the wall fixture a yank, and then he turns toward the door. “Hey, fellas,” he yells. “Think I found what we’re looking for. Wanna give me a hand in here?”
“On our way!” It sounds like Jones, and the sudden burst of gunfire is closer, this time. An instant later, Dugan’s broad frame is blocking most of the doorway, then backing inside. Jones wedges himself in the doorjamb, where he peers out into the hall, squinting as he returns fire.
“Anybody got a hacksaw?” Morita asks. He’s already slipping his combat knife from the sheath, sliding the blade in under the fixture on the wall. He works it back and forth, levers up and watches the metal plate come free, just a crack. Too slow, Bucky thinks. It’s too slow.
Dugan turns, face flushed and mottled, the way it always used to get when he’d been too long in the cold. He says, “Why the hell would I have –?” and then he stops asking, cause he’s caught sight of the wreck of a man chained to the wall. “Mother of God,” he breathes, instead of finishing his sentence. “Is that Barnes?”
Behind him, Jones starts – turns just long enough to take a look for himself before he recovers and sends more shots screaming down the hallway. A grenade follows them ten seconds later.
“Quit standing there and help me get him down,” Morita says, and shoves the knife in deeper. An instant later, a clatter of metal on stone fills the room as a ring of keys skid to a stop at his feet.
“Those might work better,” Jones says. “I got em off the guard at the door. Figured we might wanna actually get wherever we were going.”
Dugan’s staring, and Bucky can see the question in his eyes, still unspoken. He’ll get put through the wringer later, maybe even have to cough up some facts about how he knew what to put on that paper in the first place. But now’s not the time and Dugan knows it; he bends to scoop up the keys, tries one by one until the heavy metal cuff cracks open. The skin underneath’s rubbed red and raw.
“Think you can walk?” Morita asks.
“Yeah,” says Bucky. “I got this.” But he doesn't – lists drunkenly until Dugan levers a meaty hand under him to steady him, bear him up, haul him out. Bucky can still hear Jones’ gun echoing off down the hall.
“They closing?” Morita asks, and another explosion shakes the walls.
Jones curses. Then he says: “We gotta go.”
Dugan slings Bucky’s only arm over his broad shoulders, takes most of the weight. “Hear that, Sergeant?” he says. “Time to get moving.”
The hall’s on fire, some wild mix of red shadows and billowing smoke. They step over three stiffs on the way out.
Bucky’s not sure where the reinforcements are coming from, but they’re coming; for every guy Jones puts down, two more round the corner to take his place, and Bucky thinks of that dumb Hydra slogan and bites down on his lip, hard as he can, to keep from laughing till he cries.
They pass polished steel doors and banks of windows with the glass shot out. In one room, Bucky catches a glimpse of a metal chair through the smoke.
Then they’re out in the dusk, in a bitterly cold New Year's eve with snow swirling down from clouds that look close enough to touch. The air’s crisp and clear, free of smoke; Bucky tastes it when he breathes, and it tastes like freedom.
They make it as far as the stand of trees on the near ridge. “We got Falsworth waiting with a jeep,” Jones says. “After that, we’re home free.”
But they glimpse figures between the tree trunks, catch sight of men pulling a corpse from the front seat.
And Bucky knows, knows already when voices raised in Russian reach his ears: it’s too late. Maybe it always was.
The next time, the Commandos bring more men.
Too many to keep hidden, Bucky thinks – because the train keeps right on going, and he never sets foot in Deutsch Forschungsabteilung Alpen.
The time after that, Bucky puts coordinates in the envelope, instructions on how to handle a thaw. He keeps in the date and location, and he gives the whole thing to Stark.
He waits, and he waits, and on New Year's eve, no one comes at all.
The first thing the asset knows is cold.
It eats along his veins and burrows into his bones. It pools in the icy sludge that still clings to him, and it inhabits every drop of the spray turned on him by the men in labcoats.
In his mind, buried somewhere deep, he thinks that cold means other things. He thinks that once, it involved white dust in the air and white mounds on the earth and crude figures of people etched into the ground. He thinks that once, the cold could be avoided; it could be opted out of by coming indoors.
They are fleeting impressions, here and then gone again. The asset has nothing to attach them to, and so he lets them fade away.
The room is plain and tiled, and there is a drain in the center of the floor. The asset watches the water swirl around and disappear down it, and he lies on the floor, shaking. He wonders if the cold will go on forever, but eventually a man comes, in a pressed gray suit, and says, “Is this really what the turnaround’s going to be like every time? I want him out this afternoon.”
One of the labcoat-wearers scrambles forward to turn the water off, and he says, “This is uncharted territory, sir. We can give him another injection, but there’s no telling if it will be any more successful than the first one.”
“Do it,” says the man in the suit, and he leaves the room.
They fill a syringe with murky green liquid and insert a needle into the asset’s arm. It is a tiny prick of pain, nothing at all, but the heat that comes flooding up his arm afterward is a wave, unstoppable. It burns, and it burns, and the asset makes a sound low in his throat, and he vomits into the drain.
They spray him with cold water again, and then six sets of hands haul him to his feet. They drag him from the tiled room, down a long narrow passageway, into a blank place with metal walls. They force a black shirt over his head, maneuver black pants over his legs. The heat has chased away all memory of cold, all knowledge of sensation beyond fire. When the pants are on, the asset falls to his knees on the floor. He retches, and his throat makes a strange barking sound, and nothing comes out except for a thin trickle of fluid.
When he finishes, a pair of hands rubs a towel across his mouth and then pull him to his feet. They push him into the passageway again, and by the time they reach the end of it, his stumbling gait has begun to correct itself. He moves under his own power – not a steady walk, but near enough.
The room they enter next has a plain table of brushed steel. Two hard chairs stand behind it, and the man in the suit sits in one. A man in a labcoat slips into the other. They leave the asset to stand.
“Your target,” says the first man. He slides a plain manila folder across the table toward the asset, who tracks it with his eyes but does not touch. He thinks that he has learned a lesson about not touching. He cannot recall what the lesson is, but the thought of it makes his fingers, flesh and metal both, clench closed against the very possibility. He folds his arms behind his back, and he blanks his gaze, and he waits.
“Open it,” snaps the man, and the asset moves to comply at once.
As he does, there is a sound in the passageway outside. It is a sound the asset knows: the muffled crump of broken bone.
He registers it, but does not concern himself with the source, focusing on the folder as instructed.
The shots ring out, loud in the bare room: one, two, and the men seated at the table slump to the side. Their brains drain slowly down the facing wall, and the asset stares down at his mission synopsis. November 30, 1958 –
“Bucky?” says a voice behind him, and the asset does not turn to face it. His eyes scan over the requirements, over the name of the woman he is meant to kill. She frequents crowded places, he notes; it will be difficult to get her alone. Arson holds potential, for the documents insist that this death must appear accidental.
“Bucky?” says the voice again, and a man comes into view.
He is a tall man, with broad shoulders. He moves with a certain deliberate care that speaks of training in combat, and in one hand he holds a shield, painted so brightly that it could not possibly be used on a stealth mission. The asset takes all this in, and he notes that the uniform is stiff in places, as though to offer a layer of light armor.
Then he observes the man's face.
It has a straight slope of a nose (dripping blood, cause some idiots just don’t know when enough’s enough). It has lashes that frame eyes of vivid blue (the same color as the sky above Coney Island in July). It has lips pressed firm and stubborn (“Cause you ain’t the boss of me, Buck, that’s why”), and they’re saying, “Jesus, Bucky, what’d they do to you?”
The man moves to set a hand on the asset's metal shoulder, where the segmented steel joins with flesh in a mottled sprawl of scar tissue. It is a more tentative touch than that of the men in the labcoats. It is almost uncertain.
Then, suddenly, there is nothing uncertain about it at all. Broad arms are around the asset’s shoulders, holding tight enough to crush. The man is saying, “We’re gonna get you out of here, Buck. You hear me? You’re gonna be okay.”
A man with a thick moustache and a round hat takes the folder from the asset’s hands. He says, “We gotta get moving,” but he growls it, and the asset believes him capable of using the gun he still has pointed toward the door.
They leave the facility flanked by a group of men who move as though they are used to missions of their own. The man with the shield urges the asset along, but does not shove him; when the fire still racing in his veins becomes too much and he stumbles, the man reaches out a hand to steady him.
For an instant, the asset thinks that he can recall another hand, sturdy and thick, holding him up the same way under a sky gone gray and white with winter. Then the impression is gone.
They pile the asset into a plain black vehicle, and they leave the building marked Garfield Park Community Hospital behind. They drive until they reach the edge of the city. Then they change cars, and they drive farther still.
Both times, the man with the shield sits next to him in the back. He inspects the asset: his face, and his hair, and the metal arm. He talks, almost incessantly, but it is not until he ends with: “C’mon, Bucky, say something,” that the asset fixes him with a level stare.
“You keep saying that,” the asset observes, at last given permission to speak. "'Bucky.'" He watches the man’s face begin to fall apart, a slow crease between the brows and a bitter twist to the lips.
The man’s eyes are wet, and that should not make a difference one way or another, but the asset finds that it does. He finds that the sight disturbs him, and so he looks away.
They don’t stop the car until they reach a city whose signs declare it Newton, Iowa. In the time it takes them to reach the destination, it has grown dark. They leave the vehicle with a row of other vehicles, outside a building with plain, white walls that do not indicate what might be inside. At the doorway, a small slide of metal pulls back to reveal a guard who demands a clearance code. As the man with the shield tells him "Violet rum," the asset determines that this method of security is subpar. With the metal slat open, anyone with a gun could put a bullet straight into the guard's eye.
Inside, the hall is lit with long, bright bars lining the ceiling. This time, the asset moves under his own power, and he does not stumble.
The room they bring him to is not bare. It contains a round, wooden table and four chairs with padded leather backs. On the wall, there are pictures: a house near a river, a field of many-petaled flowers, a circular construction of metal outlined against a sky tinged pink and orange. This last draws his eye, sparks a tingle of recognition at the back of the asset's thoughts.
He recalls the rush of waves, the smell of salt, the taste of pink spun sugar on his tongue. He remembers the man with the shield, much smaller, sitting beside him in a metal basket as they spin their slow, rocking way toward the apex.
He remembers smiling.
The asset watches the picture as his escorts exchange words. He watches it as the man with the round hat nods and leaves the room. He watches it, chasing fragments of memories, until the man with the shield says, “Sit down, Bucky.”
The asset is the only one remaining in the room. He tracks the man’s line of sight, gauges that the command is intended for him, and then sits down in one of the chairs.
The man with the shield puts the shield down, and he takes another chair. He reaches across the table with large, calloused hands and sets them on top of the asset’s, deliberately slow. The asset does not draw his hands away. With his right, he feels warmth and texture. With his left, there is no more than a vague sense of pressure.
“Listen to me,” says the man who no longer has the shield. “Your name is James Buchanan Barnes.”
The asset watches the place where those hands rest atop his own, and he does not react.
“We grew up together, in Brooklyn. We were best friends.” There is an edge to those words. There is an inflection the asset is not familiar with. “Don’t you remember any of that? C’mon, Bucky, please.”
The asset has been asked a direct question; he sifts through his recollections to confirm or deny. He remembers the cold, and the bare room, and the injection. There is nothing before that.
Except that somewhere beneath, there is a scrawny blonde boy of about nine, with a scraped knee and the best grin he’s ever seen. There is a man with parted hair and suspenders, sitting on a battered brown couch drawing birds with a stub of pencil. There is his commanding officer, larger than life and better than any of the legends, getting the shield up just fast enough to keep a blast from taking both their heads off.
The asset swallows, and he swallows again. He watches the place where their hands are pressed together, and he makes a strange, wet sound somewhere in his throat.
“Steve?” he says at last.
“Yeah,” Steve tells him, voice unsteady. “It’s me, pal.”
Steve speaks to him for a long time. He tells a tale of a fall and a plane crash, of an envelope with two locations, of first one search and then another.
The man with the round hat appears again in the doorway, with four lumpy packages wrapped in foil. He sets them on the table with two cups, and he says, “I got a couple of melts,” and Steve says, “Thanks, Dugan.” Then the man with the hat leaves.
Steve opens one of the packages and takes out – the asset does not know. Bread, and some kind of meat inside it. They have been driving for a long time, and the asset’s stomach has settled; now, at the smell, it tightens on itself and twists a little. His mouth grows wet.
Steve bites into the bread. He chews, and the asset discovers that his gaze is tracking the motion. He forces himself to stop.
His palms rest face down on the table. He still does not remember the lesson about not touching, but when he considers taking the package nearest him to determine if it, too, holds bread and meat, the hair raises along the back of his neck.
He does not move.
“You hungry?” Steve asks him. “We were driving forever.” He shoves two of the foil packets toward the asset, so that he must shift his hands to avoid coming into contact with them.
“Yes,” the asset confirms, after a moment’s consideration.
Steve makes to take another bite – leaves off midway, frowning. “So aren’t you gonna eat?”
The asset looks at the foil packets resting beside his hands. “Am I?” he asks.
There is no response. The silence is sudden and complete, and the asset lifts his eyes again, certain he has broken some protocol – perhaps by answering a question with a question. The look on Steve’s face is not one that he can parse. It is carefully, carefully smooth, but there by the mouth, a muscle twitches as though in anger.
Steve peels open one of the foil packets and scoops out the bread with meat in it, thrusts the whole thing toward the asset. His hand is shaking. He is shaking. “Yes,” he grinds out.
The asset does not hesitate. He takes the contents of the foil, lifts it to his mouth, and bites down. He does not know what he expected, but it is not this. The taste that fills his mouth is rich and savory, and he holds it there for a long moment, as long as he dares, before at last he chews and swallows.
In his mind a woman appears. She has a hard, pinched face and gray in her dark hair. She is standing over a stove where nothing but potatoes are cooking, and she holds a very young girl balanced on her hip.
Another time, another kitchen. His own left hand, made not of metal but flesh and sinew and bone. He is stirring a pot of cabbage soup, and the smell of it makes him sick. It has been a long time since there's been anything but cabbage soup.
Metal, and bright lights. Waking from a dim fog to needles and tubing, clear fluid with nutrients pumped directly into his veins.
The asset looks down at the meat between the bread, moist and hearty, and the scraps of memories that buzz beneath the surface of his mind all whisper that this is wrong. He does not take a second bite.
Perhaps the confusion shows on his face, because Steve gives him a tired sort of smile. There are creases at the edges. "War's over, Buck. Rationing's done."
And so the asset takes another bite, and one more after that. With the fourth, he finishes the contents of the foil packet.
"Still hungry?" Steve asks him, and when the asset nods, the man who no longer holds the shield nudges the second lump of foil his way. "Have some more."
This time, the meat inside is pale and the taste is milder – and Steve slides one of the cups to him, as well. Inside, there are slivers of ice and a brown liquid with bubbles. It is sweet, so sweet, and it tingles in his throat on the way down.
When the food is gone and the table is clear, Steve says, "We're gonna have an early start tomorrow. Think you can sleep?"
The asset says, "Yes." He will sleep if he is told to sleep; he finds it a strange question to ask.
The building holds another room, with a small cot. The frame is metal, but there are sheets, and a thicker blanket, and a pillow. Steve says, “We’ll have real beds tomorrow. In the meantime, this’ll have to do.”
He hesitates then – searches out the asset’s face with his eyes. “Buck,” he says. “Do you remember anything? Anything at all?”
The asset considers the fragments in his mind. He considers flashes of voices and music, of colors and shapes and sensations. “Some things.”
He is not expecting Steve’s arms around him again, but they come – sudden and tight, holding on to the fabric of the asset’s shirt. “Thank God,” Steve breathes. He stays there for a long time, long enough that the asset can feel the man shaking. When at last he pulls back, he offers a wavering smile and says, “Sorry. Just glad we found you, is all.”
The asset does not know how to reply. But as Steve turns for the door and says, “G’night, Buck. Try and get some sleep, okay?” he thinks that he is glad to have been found.
The asset complies with orders; he lies down atop the mound of bedding on the cot, and he closes his eyes, and he tries to sleep. Despite the strangeness of the situation, the plush give of the blankets, he succeeds.
It is a noise in the corridor that wakes him, hushed voices and footsteps, and the asset rolls from the cot to crouch soundlessly behind it on the floor. There is a strangled sound, cut off abruptly, and then a soft thump. The asset thinks again of the metal slat in the door. He thinks of ineffective security procedures, and he wishes he had been fully prepared for his mission before Steve came to retrieve him. Then he would have been armed.
The men that enter the room are trying to aim for stealth, but to the asset’s trained ears, they are clumsy and loud. He waits for them to draw near – waits until one whispers in Russian, "He is not here."
Then he launches himself over the edge of the cot, graceful and silent. He breaks the first one’s neck, collapses the second’s skull with his metal fist. The men fall, and the asset bends to retrieve their guns.
In the hall, he sees the man with the hat lying dead. His throat is raw where the garrote bit into the flesh, and his face has gone purple from asphyxiation. The asset shoots the agents standing above him, and the shots are loud in the quiet corridor.
The asset does not know where Steve is, but he knows that’s where he needs to be. He sets himself a different kind of target, and he moves methodically down the hall, one room at a time. He leaves seventeen corpses in his wake.
When he finds Steve at last, the shield is on the floor, its owner on his knees. There is a gun pointed at Steve’s temple, and the asset draws up short, a spike of panic hammered into his chest.
“Drop them,” growls the gunman, in Russian. “Drop your weapons.”
The asset does as instructed. To one side, a man in black combat gear approaches with a syringe.
“Hold still,” says the man with the gun on Steve, “Or I’ll blow his brains out.”
“Bucky,” Steve gasps, “Go.”
But the syringe pierces his skin, a tiny sliver of pain, and brings with it vertigo, an indistinct blur, and then black.
The world becomes fragments, barely strung together. Someone is screaming: “Don’t you touch him!” Later, minutes or hours from the first contact with the needle, there is metal against his back and straps across his arms. There is pain. Great, towering, incomprehensible waves of agony that come until his voice gives out with screaming. Then the black comes again.
When the asset opens his eyes, he knows the faded remnants of pain, and the metal chair beneath him, and nothing else. Before him, kneeling on the floor with seven guns trained at his head, is a blonde man whose eyes are leaking.
“This man is your target,” instruct firm words in Russian. A man in a labcoat presses a gun into the asset’s hand.
“Bucky,” says the man kneeling on the floor, voice hoarse and unsteady. “Listen to me. We can beat this, pal.”
The asset presses the muzzle of the gun to the man’s forehead, so gently. Then he pulls the trigger.
The cube's warm in his hands, the surface strangely yielding.
Its glow is soft and pretty, like the stars over the European countryside on some long-ago night.
It pulses in time with his heartbeat, rhythmic and enchanting. He can feel the power pouring off it, can almost sense the way time pulls in at the edges. His left hand clenches so tightly that the grip would have cracked porcelain, dented metal. The cube remains pristine.
“Anything, huh?” Bucky says to it, bitterly. “Yeah, right.”
Off down the hall, there’s still gunfire, scattered and faint: SHIELD agents mopping up the last of AIM’s resistance. Bucky ought to join them, but he just stands there, staring – trying to muster the will for one last attempt.
He can’t find it. What had started as optimism’s gone sour in his mouth.
“Hey, Buck?” It’s Steve’s voice, and Bucky feels something go tight in his chest at the sound.
When he turns to look, his best friend’s standing in a perfectly ordinary doorway, whole and breathing. Unaware that he’s died three dozen times in the last minute – that Bucky could’ve filled a set of encyclopedias on new ways to fail him.
“Extraction in five,” Steve’s saying, but he stops when he sees what Bucky’s got in his hands. His brow furrows, and Bucky remembers putting the muzzle of his gun there, right between those ridges. He remembers the bloody hole that was left behind.
“Is that –?” Steve begins.
“Sure is.” Bucky lets go with the flesh hand, and the soft pulse of the cube falls away, now that only the metal fingers have it in their grip. “New toy for Fury.”
He passes Steve as he leaves the room, so close that their shoulders brush. So close that he can see the blue of Steve’s eyes, earnest and bright as a summer sky.
He thinks, It could have been worse.
“C’mon, Stevie,” he says. “Let’s ditch this thing. It’s nothing but trouble.”