A fireball erupted out of the third floor of the Saffman office building, sending a shower of molten glass and ashy debris down to the street below. Bucky dove for cover behind a civilian car, hitting the cement hard. Its alarm was going off, eee-ooo, eee-ooo, eee-ooo, but Bucky hardly registered it. Sound was muffled, distant, like the world had fallen away.
“Come in, Captain America,” Bucky said into his mouthpiece. He sounded like he was underwater. “Barnes clear.” He gripped his gun and peered over the hood of the car. The Saffman building burned white-hot. God fucking damn it. This was supposed to be a reconnaissance mission. They’d gotten reports of Hydra activity in the area, and he and Steve and Sam were just supposed to investigate, see if there was any truth to the rumors.
Looked like there was.
“Captain America,” Bucky said again. “Come in. You there?”
Still no response. His chest tightened. He didn’t let himself get scared on missions, but he didn’t like this silence. “Captain America?” he sound again, louder, more urgent. “Steve?”
And then a voice broke through on the comm. Broken-up, scratchy, still muffled by Bucky’s fucked-up hearing. “—Here. Report location, over?”
Bucky let out a breath of relief. He wasn’t dead. Steve wasn’t dead.
“Right where you left me,” he said. “Got away from the explosion in time. You? Falcon?”
“We’re both fine. Falcon’s flying up to check out possible causes, but if it looks like a combat situ—”
Gunfire cut through Steve’s words. Bucky was struck with a confusing rush of panic. He’d been ordered to avoid high combat situations for the foreseeable future, by Sam and Director Coulson both, but he wasn’t about to let Steve get fucking shot at here in the field.
He jumped up onto the roof of the car, his boots indenting down into the metal. The Saffman building was burning, smoke pouring off of it in thick gray clouds. Something swooped down through the haze, glinting silver in the sunlight—Sam. Bucky couldn’t see Steve, couldn’t see the shooters. He swept his gaze around, careful, steady. He hadn’t done this in a long time—eleven months and fifteen days, that was the exact count. He knew it because he’d been waiting to fight, wanting to fight. It was what he was built for.
And then he saw it, the firefly spots of light in the smoke. Gunshots. He hoisted up his own gun—a little handheld pistol, Coulson didn’t trust him with anything more powerful—jumped off the car, and stalked forward. Hot wind blew his hair away from his eyes, and he remembered combat the way he remembered the war, the Depression, Steve dragging him out of that Hydra base. He remembered combat the way he remembered everything.
The Winter Soldier was a part of him. He’d tried telling Sam, tried telling Steve, but neither of them had understood. Maybe they would now.
Someone shouted, and the gunfire arced toward him. Bucky leapt out of the way, rolling over the hot cement. He’d avoided better shooters than these. He lifted up his gun and squinted through the smoke and found them, lining the balcony of the building across the ally. Four of the assholes. All of them were wearing Hydra uniforms.
He lined up his shot. Eight rounds in his gun. They were still shooting, bullets zinging around him like insects, tearing up the cement. He fired.
Two of them shooters went down. He heard their screams over the roar of the fire. The shooting stopped—the others tending to their comrades. Yes, that was something he knew to take advantage of. People’s sympathy for one another.
He moved forward. Careful, steady. No need to hurry, not with the other two shooters distracted. A few paces closer and he’d get them with the pistol, no problem.
For a second he thought he heard a voice in his ear. Someone saying a name. Bucky. Bucky, stand down. But the voice crackled and cut out.
He raised his gun. A head appeared amid the smoke, a thatch of brown hair. Someone shouted.
The head disappeared.
He moved forward again. The smoke burned at his eyes. He was hearing that voice in his ear again. His handler, had to be—the voice was familiar. Intimate, even. But he couldn’t make out what it was saying.
Gunfire exploded on the cement in front of him. He leapt off to the side, ducking behind a smoldering pile of debris. The last man had a submachine gun pointed in his direction, shots firing everywhere.
“Target acquired,” he said into his mouthpiece.
The static cleared just in time for him to hear, “Bucky! No!”
“Bucky?” he said. The name had a familiar weight on his tongue. For a moment his vision blurred. The world seemed to stretch out like a fever dream. Something wasn’t right.
Gunfire ripped through the debris. A piece of glass, near-molten from the fire, embedded itself in his right shoulder.
“Fuck!” he screamed, pain radiating down his arm, into his fingers. At least he fired with his metal arm. He leapt to his feet, took aim. The whole world was burning. Something was screaming in his ear. Static feedback. It didn’t matter.
He raised his gun, fired off twice to be sure.
The shooter went down.
He dropped his gun. The fire was still raging, black smoke belching up into the blue sky. Blood soaked into his tactical armor. He’d have to deal with that soon. Dig the glass out, patch over the wound. Once his handler cleared him, then he could mess with it.
Something glinted overhead, and he tensed up, lifted his gun—
It was a bird, just a stupid fucking bird, an eagle or something. Bigger than he would have expected. He dropped his gun again. The fire bothered him. It was part of his mission, he was pretty sure, but he didn’t understand what his handlers wanted with a burning building. They were shit about explaining things to him, sure, but he felt like they had explained this, and the memory had just slipped away from him.
And Christ, that screaming in his ear.
He grabbed his earpiece and ripped it away. Now there was just the silence after combat. Crackling fire, gusting wind, the faint ringing in his eardrums. For a flickering moment he wondered how his handler would contact him. He’d just have to explain. The comms were broken. He kept hearing voices. Kept hearing—
He gripped his gun and went on full alert again. The earpiece was gone. He shouldn’t still be hearing that.
Bucky. Bucky! Stop, you can’t—
He didn’t know where the voice was coming from. It sounded like it was caught on the wind, on the smoke. He fired wildly toward toward the fire. Bang bang bang click. He was out of bullets. Why the fuck was he out of bullets? Why the fuck had his handlers sent him out here with just a pistol?
He felt around in his armor. There had to be another clip somewhere. Nothing. A knife? Yeah, he had a knife. He yanked it out, tossed the gun toward the fire. Didn’t need it weighing him down.
“Bucky! Stop! It’s Steve!”
“We’ve got to get you out of here! Coulson said no combat situations until—”
Steve. Steve. The name was a kick in the chest. The knife slipped out of his fingers and clattered against the cement. The pain in his arm lit up like electricity. He clamped his metal hand over the wound. Blood seeped up through his fingers.
“God, are you hurt?”
The voice was right next to him, breathless with worry. That didn’t happen to him. He was trained. He was the ghost, the one who came creeping through smoke and fire.
He turned around, stunned.
And Steve was there, his uniform coated in ash, shield gleaming in the glare of the fire. He dropped it and ran toward Bucky and pulled Bucky into an embrace. Bucky sank into him. His body was familiar. Felt right.
“You’re James Barnes,” Steve muttered into Bucky’s hair. “I call you Bucky. We live together in an apartment on Lilac Street. You leave your dishes out and it drives me nuts.”
Bucky stared up at the smoke. The eagle flew by again. No, not an eagle. A falcon. Falcon. Sam.
“I remember,” Bucky said.
Steve laughed but it sounded like he was crying, too. Bucky was still dazed. He’d slipped back into who he used to be and didn’t even fucking realize it.
“Lilac Street,” Bucky said. “Yeah. We’d come here looking for Hydra—” He turned back to the fire. “Guess we found them.”
Steve hugged him again, and this time Bucky wrapped his metal arm around Steve’s waist—the right arm still hurt too goddamn much—and kissed him. A long kiss, lingering. It tasted like ash. Bucky didn’t care. He needed it. Needed the reminder of who he was now, not who he had been a year ago.
They broke apart. Bucky pressed his forehead against Steve’s, pressed his hand against the side of Steve’s face.
“What the hell happened?” Steve said, voice a rough whisper.
Bucky knew the answer would break Steve’s heart. So he just kissed him instead.
Bucky shifted his weight. He swirled the coffee around in its mug. It was already starting to get cold.
“I just want to make sure I’m not missing anything.” Sam leaned over the table, his expression warm. Concerned. “‘Cause I’m gonna be honest, this may be beyond my abilities.”
Bucky gave a short little laugh, a way of saying, yeah, yeah, I don’t buy your modesty. But Sam didn’t join in.
“I’m serious,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m qualified to help you with this. I mean, disassociating like that—this is a big deal.”
“That’s why I wanted to talk to you.” Bucky spoke into his coffee. He wasn’t sure he wanted to say the rest—that meeting Sam here twice a week, at the same diner for coffee and pie, had been the one thing that really helped him understand who he was. Yeah, Steve had helped him too, telling him the old stories and taking him around to all the spots in Brooklyn where they’d gone as kids, but Steve was helping him see who Bucky had been, and Sam didn’t have those same expectations of the past. Plus talking to Sam was so goddamn normal. But Bucky didn’t know how to explain all that without it coming out weird.
“I think you’re gonna need to talk to a professional,” Sam said.
“Isn’t that what you are?”
Sam sighed and looked out the window. “A medical professional,” he said. “A psychiatrist.”
The word jarred Bucky. It was a like a shock, like the shocks they used to send through him. Psychiatrist. It had a sharpness to it, an edge that reminded Bucky of the titles of the scientists who worked for Hydra, the ones who’d helped create them. He was pretty fucking sure at least one of them had been a psychiatrist.
“No,” Bucky said. “I want to talk to you.”
Sam looked over at him. “And you can, man. I’m not saying—” He pressed his hand against his chest. “Look. I’ve got the training, I went through the classes, and I’m happy to talk to you, help you work your shit out. You know that, right? But something like this is a big damn deal, and I think you’re gonna need to look into medication.”
Medication. Bucky looked down at his coffee. Blood pounded in his ears.
“I don’t say that lightly. But you disassociated. You went back to the Winter Soldier, and—”
“That’s not how it is,” Bucky said, wrapping his hand around his coffee mug. Squeezing. It was his flesh hand. No threat of breaking the damn thing but he wanted to squeeze. Sam still didn’t get it. “I didn’t go back to the Winter Soldier, I am the Winter Soldier.”
Sam didn’t respond, just stared at him across the table. Bucky sighed and pushed his hand through his hair. Strands of it fell forward into his face, like it could hide him from the world.
“You’re Sam Wilson, and you’re Falcon,” Bucky went on. Sam sighed; they’d had this conversation before, but Bucky was going to keep having it until Sam understood. “And the Winter Soldier—it’s part of my identity. It’s not some separate monster that gets switched off and on. What happened out at the Saffman building—” Bucky slumped back against his chair, trying to find the words. Trying to understand, because he sure as fuck didn’t. The diner was almost completely empty—there were a couple of teenage girls in a table in the corner, giggling over something on one of their phones. Ignoring him and Sam both. “I don’t need medication,” he said.
Sam peered at him, head tilted. Appraising him, probably, like the scientists back at Hydra, but Sam at least knew how to do it without making Bucky feel like he wasn’t human.
“Maybe you don’t,” Sam said. “But—and I’m speaking here as your counselor, not just as your friend—I think you need to at least make an appointment. Talk to someone. This isn’t about the Winter Soldier coming back—this is about you forgetting who you are.”
Bucky looked out the window at the city flashing by on the other side of the glass. Not his city, not anymore. He didn’t have a city. But he did have an identity. James Barnes. Bucky. Grew up in Brooklyn, saw the Depression first hand. Fought and died in World War II. Reborn to become a master assassin. It was all the trajectory of his life, one thing leading to another.
His chest hurt. He looked back at Sam, who was frowning at him. He hadn’t touched his pie this whole time here. He was worried.
“What sort of psychiatrist am I going to be able to see?” Bucky said. “Not saying I’m gonna do it, but I’ve got about to talk about—things—so it’s not like I can just look someone up in the phone book.”
Sam smiled. “No. But—I’m sure Tony has some contacts.”
Bucky snorted at that.
“Don’t be an asshole. I can contact Coulson, too. He might have some names. We’ll find someone for you.”
That for you—Bucky knew what it implied. Someone you can talk to about the Winter Soldier. Someone who can know about SHIELD but isn’t tied to Hydra. A hard thing to find, these days.
Bucky picked up his fork and stabbed at the pie. Apple a la mode, although the ice cream had melted down to a soupy mess. As American as apple pie. What a stupid saying. Apple pie was German, really.
“I’ll tell you what I can find out.” Sam sipped his coffee. “Is there anything else you want to talk about? You know I’m listening.”
Bucky hesitated for a moment. He’d already told Sam everything about what happened at the Saffman building. Tried to put it into words, how Bucky had just slipped out of his body and left a shell. Like the last year had never happened. But he shook his head. It didn’t matter that Sam was listening. He didn’t know what was wrong with him.
No one did.
Bucky wiped the sweat off his hands and opened the message and read it there in the park, squinting against the sun’s glare. Still felt strange reading messages out in the open like this, even after a year.
Found a possibility for you. Coulson gave me the name, said he’s done work with the FBI in the past. More importantly, though, he’s already been vetted by SHIELD so no worries on that front, either. You can be completely open. Plus I’ve heard his name bandied around the VA center—comes highly recommended. Top of his game. Give him a call. Just to see, right?
And then below the message, a name—Hannibal Lecter—and a phone number.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Bucky said. He shook his head. Hannibal Lecter. Sounded like the name of a goddamn Hydra supervillain.
“Buck? Everything okay?” Steve jogged over to Bucky’s side, carrying cardboard cups of water in each hand. Bucky closed out the message. He hadn’t told Steve about his conversation with Sam—at least, not all of it, not the part about seeing a psychiatrist.
“Yeah. It’s nothing.” He dropped the phone in his pocket. Steve frowned.
He knew Bucky was lying. Bucky grabbed the water and gulped it down. It was from the outdoor fountain. The water there always tasted like dirt.
Steve was still watching him, still frowning. His cup of water was in his hand, untouched.
“Is it about what happened at the Saffman building?” he said.
Bucky looked away. It was spring, the leaves just starting to bud out on the branches. He had forgotten what spring was like, all that yellow sunlight, all that new life.
“Buck,” Steve said, and his voice was low and wounded and that hurt Bucky more than anything. He put a hand on Bucky’s arm—the one closest to him, the metal one. Bucky shifted his gaze so he could see where Steve touched him, skin on steel. The sensors told him there was a weight there.
“I know you’re keeping quiet about what happened for my sake,” Steve said.
Bucky shook his head.
Bucky looked up at Steve. His heart pounded and it had nothing to do with the run.
“Been keeping secrets for seventy years,” Bucky said. “Hard habit to break.”
He pulled away, started walking back toward the apartment. The fucked up thing was that he did want to tell Steve. Wanted to tell him everything. He wanted to ask him about the psychiatrist, if he thought medication might help—if it would even work. They had similar serums in their systems, making them stronger than an ordinary human and drawing them together in that shared strangeness of life as a super soldier. But God. He’d hurt Steve enough already. He couldn’t bring himself to do it anymore.
Steve didn’t push the issue as they clomped up the stairs to the apartment. He was good that way. Let Bucky heal on his own time. He let Bucky have the shower first, too, although when he nodded at the bathroom and said, “You go ahead, I’m fine,” Bucky saw something in his expression that made his chest hurt. He tried to push it out of his mind.
The water came out too hot. Always did in this place. Bucky stood under the shower head and let it scald his skin. He breathed in the steam with his eyes closed, thinking about Steve. Thinking about that day in Minsk, gunfire everywhere, Hydra agents crawling out of the alleys. Bucky at the center of it all. He hadn’t known who he was then, but he’d had ideas, inklings. He realized later they were memories.
And then Steve had stepped out of the smoke. Gunfire glittered around him like stars. And Bucky just stopped firing. He lost the will to follow orders, and so he stood in the middle of hell and watched Steve Rogers walk toward him, shield down, unafraid.
Bucky opened his eyes. He shouldn’t stay in here too long; Steve needed to wash off, too.
Steve was laid out on the bed sketching when Bucky stepped out of the bathroom. Steam billowed out into the bedroom and hung close to the ceiling, making everything damp. Steve looked up. Bucky was naked except for a towel wrapped around his waist. It’d been ages since Steve seeing him naked had made him feel shy, but right now Bucky felt struck with a strange vulnerability. It reminded him of those days right after Steve had brought him back, when Bucky was so unsure of everything except that deep-rooted affection he felt whenever Steve turned toward him.
“What are you drawing?” Bucky said, grabbing another towel to dry his hair.
Steve shrugged. “Just a sketch. I don’t want to get rusty.” He hadn’t bothered changing out of his workout clothes, but other than that you couldn’t tell he’d just run their ten mile route. Bucky slid down into the bed beside him. Steve moved his hand away from the sketchpad.
“It’s me,” Bucky said.
And it was him, sketchy lines from the waist down. Only his face had really been detailed. He was frowning, a line between his eyes. Staring down at something, a scribbly dark rectangle.
“Did you draw me checking my phone?” Bucky said.
Steve sighed and pulled the sketchpad away. Closed it. “I felt like drawing. It was the last thing I really remembered seeing.” He shrugged. “I like drawing you.”
Bucky smiled. He couldn’t help himself. “You can draw me all you want.”
When Steve smiled back, it looked sad, like he didn’t really mean his smile. A sharpness cut through Bucky’s chest. He should tell him. Explain everything. It wasn’t right to keep secrets from him, especially after what had happened at the Saffman building. Bucky was so used to suppressing down his feelings, even after a year. He and Sam had talked about this: for so long, expressing his emotions had led to punishment. To physical pain. He couldn’t shake it.
“Look. Steve—” Bucky sighed, pushed his hair back. His flesh and blood hand was shaking. He braced himself against the bed and wished all of him could be metal. Maybe then the world would be easier.
“What’s wrong?” Steve set the sketchbook aside and slide closer to him. “Something’s wrong, I can clearly see—”
“It was the name of a psychiatrist,” Bucky blurted.
Steve blinked. He looked surprised. For the first time Bucky wondered what Steve had expected to hear: that it was Hydra, trying to lure him back? That Director Coulson was going to ship him off to some remote corner of the world, where he could work at a desk and never be at risk of disassociating again?
“Sam thinks I should talk to one,” he said.
Steve frowned. “But you’ve been talking to Sam—”
“It’s about medication,” Bucky said. “To help. With things.” He looked down. His metal hand was splayed out against the bedspread. He flexed his fingers, listened to the mechanical whir at the joints.
“Yeah, you’ve got a fucked up boyfriend. Sorry.”
“Don’t talk like that.” Steve’s voice was hard. Forceful. “Don’t. You’re not fucked up.”
It was always strange, to hear Steve say a cuss word stronger than damn or hell. Strange, but it made Bucky grin, too.
“Liar,” he said.
Steve rolled his eyes.
Bucky laid down on the bed, folding his hands over his bare stomach. He stared up at the ceiling fan moving in slowly lazy circles, stirring up the dust motes on the air. Its air was cool against his damp skin. It hadn’t been as hard as he thought, to tell Steve about the psychiatrist.
The weight of the bed shifted; the springs creaked. Bucky dropped his head toward Steve, who had lain out on his side, hands tucked between the pillow and his ear. He smiled a little. For a moment Bucky remembered being kids, the sleepovers they used to have in Steve’s mom’s apartment in Brooklyn, sharing a bed out of necessity rather than desire.
“I think you should do it,” Steve said.
Bucky looked back up at the ceiling.
“If it’ll help you—”
“I don’t think anything can help me.”
“Talking to Sam did.”
Bucky fell silent. Steve was right, of course. He was better than he’d been a year ago. He remembered his own name, for one thing. The problem was that he still didn’t totally understand who he was. Even with his memories. And he didn’t think medication was going to help with that.
Steve reached over and brushed Bucky’s hair away from his forehead—a damp piece of it had fallen in his eyes. He’d hardly noticed. But Steve had. Of course he had.
“It’s just one meeting,” Steve said. “You weren’t so sure about talking to Sam, either, remember that?”
Bucky did, although he didn’t say anything.
“And that worked out. I think you should try.” Steve lifted himself up on one arm and leaned over and kissed Bucky on the mouth. “I just want to see you get better,” he said, when the kiss was over. Bucky blinked up at him, and then he drew his arm around Steve’s shoulders and brought him in close and kissed him again. Easier to kiss than to try and explain for the hundredth time that he wasn’t ever going to get better, not in the way Steve meant.
They pulled apart and rested their heads on the pillows. Bucky had his hand on Steve’s face. He didn’t want to stop touching him. Steve didn’t understand everything about Bucky but he was still Bucky’s lifeline, still a connection to the normalcy that had been ripped away from him when he fell into that ravine seventy-five years ago.
“I can make the appointment for you if you want,” Steve said.
“Don’t be stupid. I can make my own appointment.”
Steve grinned. Kissed him on the forehead. “Then do it.” He crawled out of the bed and peeled his workout shirt away. Bucky rolled over to watch him undress. It was a comfort more than anything else. A reminder that Steve trusted him completely, even after everything that had happened.
“You probably want to give Bruce a call, though,” Steve said, chatting amicably, as if this conversation were as normal as buying groceries. “I mean, if you decide to go ahead with any medication. There might be some possible drug interactions.” Steve paused, head tilted. “I mean, if the medication will even work on you.”
“The thought had occurred to me that it wouldn’t.”
Steve shrugged. “I’m not sure. But if worse comes to worse maybe SHIELD can develop something. They’ve done that with anesthesia before.”
Bucky laughed. It came out more bitter than he intended. Steve raised an eyebrow at him.
“It’ll be a first, won’t it?” Bucky said. “SHIELD-produced crazy pills for one of the Avengers?”
“They’re not crazy pills,” Steve said. “You’re not crazy.” He moved toward the bathroom, glanced over his shoulder at Bucky. “Call the psychiatrist.”
Bucky lay unmoving on the bed until he heard the water turn on in the shower. Another comfort, the idea that Steve would shower with him in the apartment, not worried that Bucky was going to break through the door and kill him. He’d been like that from the very beginning. Even when everyone else was unconvinced that James Barnes was nothing but a brainwashed monster, Steve had never even locked the door when he took his showers. He let himself be vulnerable.
Bucky knew he owed it to Steve to call the psychiatrist. And so he did.
Dr. Lecter’s office was in Baltimore, an hour’s drive from the apartment. Bucky went alone. Steve offered to take him, but Bucky preferred the solitude, and anyway Director Coulson called Steve away on some mission out in Mexico at the last minute. Bucky stayed behind. Not because of the appointment, he knew that. Because of what had happened at the Saffman building.
Bucky parked the car a few blocks away and walked to the address he’d scribbled on a piece of scratch paper. Dr. Lecter himself had answered when he called, his voice soft and accented. Cultured.
“Director Coulson told me you’d be calling,” he had said, which made Bucky’s stomach twist up in knots—he hated knowing people had talked about him when he wasn’t there. “I’m glad to hear from you.”
It was a normal conversation. Pleasant. Polite. They set a date and time. But still, Bucky’s heart was pounding as he made his way along the tree-lined street, old buildings rising up all around him. He felt like he was walking into a mission.
No, not a mission—he never got nervous before missions. He felt like he was walking into the room where they kept the icebox, where they wiped his mind and fed him programming and froze him until his next activation.
Fucking psychiatrists, Bucky thought, just as he arrived at the address.
He hesitated for a moment, peering up at the big brown-brick building. Not too late to turn around and go back. He could call from the car. Sorry Dr. Lecter, got called out. SHIELD business, you know how it is. But then Bucky thought about Steve trusting him in the shower, Steve making the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they’d both loved as kids, Steve pressing him to his chest whenever he woke up screaming with nightmares.
And so he went in.
The foyer was dim and luxurious. It reminded Bucky of hotels he’d infiltrated as the Winter Soldier, five-star places where dignitaries slept peaceful in thousand-thread-count sheets, not knowing their lives were about to end. He sat down on the waiting couch. No fucking magazines, even. Some doctor’s office.
A minute or two went by. Bucky scanned the room, the way he always did in someplace new—old habits. Stairs leading up to a second floor. Window in the landing. A shut door, probably leading into Dr. Lecter’s office. A lamp he could use for a weapon, if it came to that.
The door swung open. A man stepped out. He was as dark and elegant as his surroundings. Well-dressed. Slender, but not weak—Bucky could see that. He’d put up a fight. Bucky would win, but he’d put up a fight.
“James Barnes?” he said.
“Yeah,” Bucky said. He stood up, offered his right hand. SHIELD kept saying they were going to find a way to hide his metal arm but they hadn’t gotten around to it yet. He wore long sleeves right now. Kept his hand tucked in his pocket. Wait until they were in the office to shock Dr. Lecter with it.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Barnes,” Dr. Lecter said. “Please, come in.” He held the door open, gestured for Bucky to go into the office. Bucky did so cautiously. The office was big and spacious and lined with books. There was an opulence to it that made Bucky feel unnerved, as if he were walking into a trap.
“Have a seat,” Dr. Lecter said, and Bucky did, in a chair in front of a window. It was the brightest place in the room. Bucky felt as if he were sitting in a spotlight, all his sins laid bare.
He kept his metal hand in his pocket.
Dr. Lecter sat in the seat across from him. Folded one leg over the other. Balanced a notebook on his knee.
“May I call you James?” he said.
“Sure. Why not.” Bucky’s eyes darted around the room. More ways to escape here. The window, a couple of doors. More potential weapons, too. Heavy stone sculptures, glass from the window. A good place to fight.
“You seem very cautious, James.”
Bucky jerked his gaze back to Dr. Lecter. He was staring at him, his expression calm and dispassionate.
“I’m a cautious sort of person.”
Dr. Lecter smiled at that. “I’m sure you are.”
“Coulson was supposed to give you my background.”
“And he did. I found it interesting.” Dr. Lecter’s eyes glittered. “And upsetting, too.”
“Yeah, well.” Bucky looked toward the window. The sunlight hurt his eyes. “You didn’t have to live it.”
A pause. Then Dr. Lecter said, “No, I didn’t. Which is why I won’t tell you that I understand what you’ve experienced. I can’t imagine it. No one can.”
Bucky kept staring at the window. “What all did you see?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“I haven’t read my own file.”
“And why’s that?”
“Don’t need to. I know what happened to me.” Bucky looked over at Dr. Lecter. “For the first time in seventy years, I actually remember. So no, I’m not going to read the file.”
Another smile. Bucky didn’t like it. The smiles he saw in his day to day life—Steve’s, Sam’s, Agent Creasey down at the SHIELD bunker who always flirted with him—they were bright and genuine. They made him feel happy. Dr. Lecter’s smile just made him feel cold.
“Well.” Dr. Lecter shifted in his seat, poised his pen over the notebook. “What I saw was—not the typical patient profile.”
Bucky gave a short bitter laugh.
“You were taken as a prisoner of war during the Second World War. You were experimented on. You fell from a ravine. You died. You were resurrected and transformed into,” and here Dr. Lecter peeked surreptitiously at his notebook, “the Winter Soldier? A catchy name.”
“I didn’t come up with it.”
“Of course not. You were an assassin for seventy years. And you don’t remember it?”
“I remember it now,” Bucky said. “But while it was happening—” He paused, thinking. “I remembered certain things. What Hydra wanted me to remember.”
“And yes, Hydra. A shocking thing, that infiltration.”
“I didn’t think we were here to talk politics.”
Dr. Lecter smiled. “We’re here to talk about whatever you’d like.”
Bucky slouched down in his seat. He glanced around the room again. All those books. “Sam Wilson sent me because he thought I might need medication. After my—blackout thing. During a mission.”
“Yes, I saw that in the file as well.”
Silence settled around them.
“That’s all I’m here to talk about,” Bucky said. “No offense. But Sam’s already helped me through a lot, and—”
“I understand.” Dr. Lecter sat for a moment. He was studying Bucky, sizing him up, but like Sam he was adept at concealing what he was doing. “I will tell you this, James. I’m happy to discuss the possibility of prescribing medication, but I’d prefer to try other methods first—more unorthodox methods, ones Mr. Wilson may not have seen fit to try with you. I suspect you may be amenable to that? You strike me as an unorthodox person.”
Bucky rubbed at his jawline. “Unorthodox is one word for it.” He dropped his hand into his lap. “Did the report tell you about my arm?”
“The prosthetic? Yes, it did.” Dr. Lecter nodded at the hand still tucked way in Bucky’s pocket. “I suppose you’ve been hiding it from me.”
Bucky hesitated. “I hide it whenever I go out. It makes me too conspicuous.”
“You don’t like being conspicuous?”
“I’m an assassin.”
Dr. Lecter stared at him, his face unreadable, and that was when Bucky realized his mistake. Am, not was. Present tense, not past.
“Is this what happened at the Saffman building?” Dr. Lecter said.
“No.” Bucky sat for a moment. His heart was beating too fast. I am an assassin. It felt right. It felt like saying, I am Bucky Barnes, I grew up in Brooklyn, I was born in 1925. Then he pulled his hand out of his pocket and laid it on chair of the arm. The metal caught in the sunlight and gleamed.
Dr. Lecter said nothing.
“The Saffman mission was different. I forgot who I was completely. I didn’t even recognize my own name. Steve was talking to me over the comm and I thought he was one of my old Hydra handlers.”
“How did that make you feel?”
“It didn’t make me feel anything.” Bucky stopped. “No, I mean—I didn’t feel anything while it was happening. But afterwards—” He shrugged. “I was upset.” He wasn’t sure why he was talking to Dr. Lecter like this. Maybe it was because Dr. Lecter hadn’t acted as if the world had ended when Bucky called himself an assassin. That was a nice change of pace, to be sure. “Steve is—important to me.”
“This is Steve Rogers, correct? Captain America?”
Bucky nodded. Dr. Lecter wrote something in his notebook.
“What are you writing?” Bucky said.
“Just notes for my records. Doctor-patient confidentiality assures no one but myself will ever see them.”
“To help with that unorthodox treatment?”
Another slow, cold smile. “Perhaps. We shall see.” He settled back into his seat. “You say you were upset. Why was that? Because you had reverted to your old identity?”
Bucky shook his head. “I was upset because I forgot myself. I didn’t revert back to anything. This is what I keep trying to tell Sam. Steve, too. They don’t listen. They act like the Winter Soldier was some separate person, like I’ve got—what is it? Split personalities?”
“That term has fallen out of favor—it’s called dissociative identity disorder now.”
Dissociative. That was the word Sam had used, wasn’t it—that Bucky disassociated at the Saffman building? Christ, they really did think he had split personalities. Bucky’d bet good money that was why Sam sent him here in the first place. To get an official diagnosis.
“That’s what I’m talking about, though.” Bucky threw his hands up. “They all think it’s two different people. Bucky and the Winter Soldier. Like Hydra just switched them on and off. But that’s not how it is. I’m one fucking person. Excuse me,” he added, because Dr. Lecter, and this office, did not seem suited to profanity.
But Dr. Lecter just smiled. “I don’t mind extreme language. Go on.”
“I’ve spent the last seventy years not knowing who I was and now that I do know, they won’t letme be that person. Steve’s the worst about it. He acts like it’s still 1939, I swear to God. Like if he puts on Benny Goodman I’ll start lindy-hopping with some pretty girls and the last seventy years didn’t happen.” Bucky slumped down in his chair. “Sam’s better, but still—he won’t let me be the Winter Soldier. I don’t know what he wants me to be. But it feels like—” Bucky looked toward the window, toward the glow of hazy spring light. “Like he wants to take part of me away. Like Hydra did.”
It was the first time Bucky had ever said that out loud, but he realized, sitting in the office, that he’d always felt it, always known it. “They want to do the same thing as Zola,” he whispered, and his thoughts went far away, deep into the past, deep into the Russian wilderness. Electricity so hot and bright it burned away the things that made him good and made him human and left the rest, that propensity for violence, that willingness to hurt and kill, that ability to watch human life drain away in a pool of bright blood and not care.
“James?” Dr. Lecter said softly.
Bucky jerked his head away from the window. Dr. Lecter was watching him, his hand resting on his notepad. Covering his notes.
“Are you all right?” Dr. Lecter said.
“I’m fine. I was just—” Bucky rubbed his head. “Just remembering something.”
“You said they want to do the same thing as Zola,” Dr. Lecter said. “I think we should talk about that.”
“What’s there to talk about?” Bucky twisted the hem of his shirt around in one hand; he noticed Dr. Lecter watching him and stopped. Dammit. He’d let his guard down, given away a tell.
“When you say they, do you mean Steve and Sam?”
Bucky rubbed his forehead. “Yeah. And I wasn’t—they don’t want to do the same thing as Zola. I shouldn’t have said that. That asshole brainwashed me. They just—”
“But you did say it.”
Bucky glared off at the corner.
“They don’t want to brainwash you,” Dr. Lecter said. “Of course not. But they want to take away certain parts of you, is that it? Parts that they don’t like? That they find distasteful?”
That was exactly it. Bucky shifted in his seat. His skin felt too hot. “Yeah,” he said.
“And that bothers you?”
“Why is that?”
Because they wanted to change him. Because they wanted to make him more like them, the American soldiers who’d fought on the right side all these years, who had only fought to help people and make the world better for everyone in it. But he wasn’t like them. Even before he got captured by Hydra he hadn’t been like them. He’d been more willing to look inside himself and find the darkness.
Dr. Lecter was staring at him, waiting for an answer. Bucky fumbled around for the words.
“I’m afraid there won’t be anything left of me,” he said. “If you take away the bad parts.”
And at that, Dr. Lecter smiled.
During the course of that week, he did consider breaking the appointment. Usually after a run or a spar match with Steve, when his blood was pumping endorphins through his system and the sun was out and Steve was grinning at his side and he felt good about the world. But SHIELD still wasn’t sending him on missions, not even non-combat ones, and he kept thinking about that revelation he’d had at the first meeting. No—revelation was too strong of a word. It implied a hidden secret. It was more—a realization. A new understanding.
Sam and Steve wanted to change him, too. Actually, it was SHIELD that wanted to change him, who wanted to turn him into a goddamned superhero. They were more like Hydra than they thought, even after the split and the regrouping and the underground headquarters.
Still, he kept reconsidering.
There was one day when Bucky actually pulled his phone out and dialed in Dr. Lecter’s number. It’d been raining all day, all the new spring growth vivid in the filtered gray light. Bucky always liked the rain, especially warm rain, summer rain. Steve didn’t go into the SHIELD offices that day. Didn’t say why, just leaned into the living room where Bucky was watching TV—something he’d done more and more of this week, without any SHIELD work to distract him—and said, “I’m sticking around. You wanna get lunch?” And they did, walking under a shared umbrella to that cafe on the corner they both liked. Afterwards they went straight up to the bedroom, didn’t even have to say a fucking word about it. Steve stripped Bucky’s wet clothes away and kissed him soft and gentle on the mouth, on the jawline, on the throat. He kissed him all over. He didn’t have to say anything but Bucky knew then that Steve thought he was fine the way he was. Perfect even. Because Steve fucking loved him, loved him right now, in 2015. They’d both changed in seventy years. And that was the God’s honest truth. Not this idea that Steve was trying to turn Bucky into his mirror image.
Afterwards, as Steve was sleeping in the rumpled sheets, that was when Bucky dialed up Dr. Lecter’s office. He stared down at the keypad glowing in his hand. But he didn’t hit the call button, and after a few moment’s time he swiped out of the screen. He couldn’t say why, even, only that he felt a inexorable pull toward Dr. Lecter’s office. It wasn’t desire, nothing like that. Lecter wasn’t even close to his type in men. Nor women, for that matter. But there was an attraction, something unavoidable and mundanely scientific. A magnet pulling toward metal. The ocean drawing in toward the moon. Flowers turning their heads to face the sun. It was the just the way things were.
So he went in to the appointment. Same as before.
“Have you thought any further about what we discussed at our last meeting?” Dr. Lecter said.
Bucky looked at him. Dr. Lecter got right to the point. No throat-clearing, no pleasantries, no did-you-catch-the-Wizards-game-last-night, like there was with Sam. Sam treated him like a friend. Dr. Lecter treated him like a client.
Bucky knew which one he preferred, but he couldn’t say which one he needed.
“Yeah,” he finally said, “I thought about it.”
Dr. Lecter watched him, waiting.
“They want me to be a superhero,” he said. “Like Steve.”
“Is that what you want?”
Bucky looked out the window. The curtains were pulled back, and he could see the street below, leaves blossoming on the tree branches. “I want to do what’s right,” he said.
“It seems a superhero would be a good career path for you, then.”
Bucky laughed. “Would it?” He turned back to Dr. Lecter. “It’s not about being a superhero, joining the Avengers, fighting bad guys. I mean, that’s not the problem. It’s that they won’t let me be me.” Bucky hesitated. “This is all confidential, right? You can’t tell anybody what I say?”
Dr. Lecter’s mouth quirked, just for a moment, into a smile. “Yes, James, I always respect doctor-patient confidentiality. Mr. Coulson would never have sent you to me if that were not the case.”
“Yeah.” Bucky looked down at his lap. At his hand. Metal shining in the sunlight. “Steve’s been making noise about—this isn’t official, it’s not something that’s going to happen—but he’s been talking up me taking his place.”
Bucky’s heart was pounding hard against his chest. He hadn’t told that to anyone. Even Steve hadn’t come out and said it, but Bucky knew him well enough to know. There’d been hints. When I retire…, You catch the shield better than me, that sort of thing. Half-joking about taking a desk job. There had even been a conversation, two or three weeks ago, about redemption. Bucky’s redemption. He didn’t put it that way, of course, but Bucky’d been having one of his bad spells, waking up screaming, wracked with guilt, and Steve had said, “You know you don’t have to carry this around with you. You know you can make up for what you did under Hydra’s control, if that’s what you need.”
“Is that what you want?” Dr. Lecter asked. Nothing in his face gave away his reaction. His expression was clear, unreadable. Like the expressions of the Hydra doctors.
“I don’t know,” Bucky said.
Dr. Lecter tilted his head. He lifted his pen, poised it over his paper. He waited.
“I mean—maybe. I would have wanted it back in the war, you know? I remember when I first saw Steve, saw how he changed—it kind of—it hurt. Like he wasn’t my Steve anymore.” Bucky hung his head, hair falling into his eyes. He hadn’t thought about this in years. Hadn’t let himself think about it. Funny, how it had brought him so much shame back in the forties. Now, it was a teardrop of shame, nothing compared to what he felt when he thought about his work for Hydra.
“I thought, why couldn’t I put on some dumb shit costume and parade around Europe, punching Nazis for the cameras? But the thing is—once we formed up the Howling Commandos, once we actually started fighting, I realized it wasn’t easy for him, being Captain America. He wasn’t just a soldier, he was a symbol. And you want to know the thing about symbols, Dr. Lecter?” Bucky lifted his gaze and found Dr. Lecter staring back at him with those burning dark eyes.
“What is that?” Dr. Lecter said, and the way he asked the question made Bucky think he already knew the answer.
“They don’t get to be real soldiers,” Bucky said. “I’m guessing you’ve never served.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well, it’s not like it is on the fucking recruitment posters, I’ll tell you that.” Bucky leaned back in his seat, let out a long breath. “We actually had to use those guns the actors posed with. Only one thing a gun can do.”
There was a pause. The air seemed to buzz.
“Kill,” Dr. Lecter said.
Bucky heard the vibration in Dr. Lecter’s voice. That tremor of excitement, of interest, rather than fear or disgust. Bucky heard it because he’d heard in his own voice, a hundred times over.
“Yeah,” he said. “Kill. That’s what a soldier does. Steve killed people, too—I mean, we were in a war, and if someone’s shooting at you, well—” Bucky shrugged. “But he tried not to. I mean, he’s a good man. He didn’t like it.”
“And you did?”
Bucky jerked up his head. Dr. Lecter was still staring at him, and for a moment Bucky felt transparent, as if Dr. Lecter was looking straight into the darkest reaches of his brain.
“That’s not what I’m getting at,” he snapped. “My point is that Steve had a reputation to maintain. He was a living recruitment poster. And like I said, they don’t show you blowing a guy’s brains out on a recruitment poster.”
Dr. Lecter said nothing.
“So I did things for him. Things—he couldn’t do. Thing he didn’t want to do.” Bucky looked away. That was the truth of it. Yeah, Steve had to look good and upstanding and all that, but he’d fired his gun and he’d killed and the American people knew it even if they wouldn’t think about it. And Bucky knew that it hurt the hell out of him, killing. Bucky had heard him crying in the dark cold nights, snow falling around their tents, cigarette smoke wafting off of some dumbass who thought he could make the ember invisible. And Steve crying, weeping. Bucky taking him in his arms, kissing the top of his head, muttering that was it going to be all right, he was there, and Steve was safe, and Bucky praying that no one would pick that moment to pull open the tent flap but at the same time being utterly unwilling to let go—
That was why Bucky had killed. Because it didn’t wound him in some place deep inside to watch blood leaking out of a man’s gut, knowing he’d caused it to happen. It just didn’t. Maybe there was something wrong with him, he didn’t fucking know. He wasn’t interested in doing it for fun, nothing like that, but he didn’t have Steve’s sensitivities. And it hadn’t been Hydra and the Winter Soldier Project that caused that to happen, either.
“So what you’re saying,” Dr. Lecter said, his voice cutting through Bucky’s reverie, “is that you don’t feel you belong on a recruitment poster?”
Bucky looked back over at him. The way the sun was coming through the window lit Dr. Lecter up like an angel.
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m not Captain America and I don’t deserve to be. So sure, I want to do good, I want to help people—I even, you know, want to make up for what I did. But I don’t want to do it as Captain America.”
“Who do you want to do it as?”
“Myself.” Bucky lifted his left hand, showing off the metal, the old Hydra design. “The Winter Soldier.”
“The Winter Soldier as a superhero.” Dr. Lecter leaned back in his seat. “Interesting.”
Bucky dropped his hand back down. “Yeah, well, it doesn’t matter, does it? Nobody’ll accept the Winter Soldier’s anything other than a brainwashed Hydra assassin.”
“Do you ever wonder why that is?”
“No, I get why. I just want to make them understand it’s not the case. But they won’t. They refuse to.”
Things went silent for a moment. Bucky could hear the cars on the street below, traffic horns honking, the squeal of tires. City sounds.
“Why do you think they refuse to understand?”
Dr. Lecter was staring at him, waiting for an answer.
“Because they can’t possibly understand what I went through,” Bucky said. “Not even Steve. Everything that happened to him—it was his choice. They don’t know what it’s like.” He paused, thinking. “None of it was my choice. But this identity—it’s part of me now. I want to make it my choice.” He looked over at Dr. Lecter. “Does that make sense?”
“I think it makes perfect sense.” Dr. Lecter folded his legs, his movements careful and elegant. “It’s a reclaiming of your agency. Steve and the others want to take that agency away from you.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“I would.” Dr. Lecter tilted his head. “Perhaps they haven’t considered the ramifications of their actions but I would say very much that’s what they’re doing. Consider this. As the Winter Soldier, you were their enemy—”
Bucky scowled. He didn’t want to consider this. He’d done nothing but consider this for the last year.
“You were a thing to be feared. And so they still fear you. But how can they fear you, their friend? In Steve’s case, his lover? They must separate that fear out. The Winter Soldier represents those aspects of yourself that the other find terrifying.” Dr. Lecter paused. “Those aspects they don’t understand. They can’t understand.”
Bucky sat very still, holding his breath. He was afraid to move.
“The killer,” Dr. Lecter said. “The killer who does not belong on the recruitment poster. They are afraid of him, and so they make him distinct from you. That’s why you can’t make them see.”
Bucky realized he was shaking, tremors echoing up his spine. His senses had gone into high alert, as if he were on a mission. “What are you saying?” he said.
“Only what you’ve been saying.” Dr. Lecter settled back in his chair. “Sam Wilson sent you here to look into the possibility of medication, but I see nothing wrong you. There’s no split in your personality. I believe he and the others have been seeing that split themselves, as a way to do come to terms with a person of some moral complexity.” He gestured at Bucky. “You.”
Bucky stared at him. His heart pounded inside his chest.
“They are superheroes. They see the world in black and white terms because that is necessitated by their job. But you aren’t so restricted. You can see the wider spectrum. And that makes you a frightening figure. To them. But not innately, you must understand.”
Bucky closed his eyes. He tried to register what Dr. Lecter was saying. Something about it felt off-kilter, like a scope that wasn’t focusing right. But it didn’t matter how hard he looked: Everything lined up. He’d come to this place expecting to be told there was something wrong with him, and instead Dr. Lecter had said he was fine the way he was.
Dr. Lecter, Bucky realized, understood. And he was the first who had.
The next week felt like a revelation. Everything was brighter in the world. The air was finally starting to warm up for good. Summer was on its way: swimming pools and hot dogs and girls in sundresses. The happiest memories of Bucky’s life all came from summer.
On Friday, his cell phone rang. It was Director Coulson, calling from the SHIELD bunker on the edge of town. Steve was out on a mission, and Bucky had been feeling good enough that he’d gone for a run by himself, something he never did, instead of watching shitty TV for three hours. The number was scrambled but only one scrambled number ever called him.
“Yeah?” he said, his chest tight. He hoped nothing had happened to Steve.
“Barnes? This is Director Coulson.”
“Figured.” Bucky filled a glass with water from the tap and rubbed the towel across his forehead, mopping away the sweat.
“I spoke with Dr. Lecter on the phone this morning. He says you’re making progress.”
Bucky stopped, water glass halfway to his mouth. He looked down at the dishes in the sink. He should clean those—Steve would complain about them when he got back.
He didn’t know why he was thinking about the dishes.
“Yeah?” Bucky finally said, and then he took a long swallow.
“He did. It was odd, I didn’t think you’d had a chance to see much of him—”
“We’ve only had two appointments.”
On the other end of the line, Director Coulson went silent.
“Sir?” Bucky said. “Everything okay?”
“Two appointments,” Director Coulson said.
“Yeah.” Bucky frowned. There was that feeling again, that sensation that the world was off-kilter, that he was looking at things sideways. “They’ve been fine, both of them.”
“I’m glad to hear that. I was only calling—it seemed strange.”
Director Coulson cleared his throat. “Dr. Lecter suggested I put you back out in the field. Combat situations, specifically. It seemed sudden, and I assumed you’d been meeting with him a couple of times a week, but after only two appointments—”
Blood rushed through Bucky’s ears. He couldn’t concentrate on what Director Coulson was saying. Dr. Lecter tried to get him back out in the field. And not just the field—but in combat. Fighting. The one thing Bucky really knew how to do, and how to do well. Not even Steve had pushed for that after he brought him in from the cold. Steve had wanted to wait, to make sure—
“—odd, don’t you think?”
“I’m sorry, say again, sir?”
“It’s a bit odd, don’t you think? Do you even want to go back out in the field after what happened at the Saffman building?”
Bucky took a deep breath and leaned up against the kitchen counter. His head was buzzing. It reminded him of the shocks they gave him back in Hydra, that blast of power that turned everything white and burning. Something was off. Director Coulson wanted him back in the field.
No, Director Coulson didn’t—there were reservations in his voice. Not even the phone could hide that.
Bucky fumbled around for his answer.
“I’d love to go back in the field, sir,” he said. “Love the chance to prove—to prove myself.”
“You don’t need to prove anything, Barnes,” Director Coulson said. “We know which side you’re on. It’s your well-being I’m watching out for. But Dr. Lecter says you’re ready, and if you think that’s all right, then we’ll send you out.”
It’s your well-being I’m watching out for. No. That was a fucking lie. Coulson was as scared of what Bucky could be as any of the rest of them. Coulson had watched first hand as Hydra had emerged out of SHIELD and Bucky was certain that when Coulson looked at him, that was what he saw. A seed of Hydra planted inside an ally. Bucky was different, Bucky possessed a darkness he couldn’t shake, and that made him suspicious.
He’d prove them all wrong. He would.
Dr. Lecter peered up from his notebook. A beat of silence passed between them.
“Is that not what you want?” he said.
Bucky hesitated. It was raining today, gray and cold and dreary, a recursion back into winter. The rain tapping against the window made Dr. Lecter’s office feel oppressive.
“It’s what I’m trained for,” he said.
“As the Winter Soldier, yes? Which you’ve been telling me in our last few sessions is a part of you.”
Bucky leaned forward. His thoughts were muddled and disjointed. Fucking cold.
“Not just as the Winter Soldier,” he said. “Look, it’s not that I don’t want to fight, it’s just—everyone, everyone, has said that I shouldn’t go into combat and then you—”
“Well,” Dr. Lecter interrupted, “I am the one with a medical degree.”
Bucky was pretty sure this was meant to be a joke. Dr. Lecter smiled, his eyes glittered, and he leaned back in his chair looking satisfied.
“I think allowing yourself to access those parts of yourself that the others find discomfiting will be beneficial to your healing process. The fight at the Saffman building caused you to forget your current self, so yes, I believe a form of exposure therapy will be useful for you. Under controlled circumstances, of course.”
“I hate to break it to you, Doc, but the SHIELD missions aren’t exactly controlled circumstances.”
Dr. Lecter smiled. “Of course not. But I suppose Director Coulson didn’t mention that I suggested you go out into the field solely if you are given a communication line with me, in case of emergencies.”
Bucky’s chest tightened. “No,” he said. “He didn’t mention that.”
“Hmmn,” said Dr. Lecter, and wrote something down in his notebook. Bucky watched him, his hand moving quick and sharp over the paper. This was the sort of shit Hydra did to him, what little of it he could remember—fed him information piece by piece. Lied by omission. Lied outright. It’s your well-being I’m watching out for. They’d said the same damn thing to him, hadn’t they? He could just remember it, although it was fragmentary. Some mission had almost gone south. In China, he was pretty sure. Sodium lights were spilling in through the window. And his handler, the tall skinny one, pacing back and forth in a Hydra uniform, saying, “I’m calling for extraction. We have to protect our asset.”
“I’d like to go back to something you mentioned earlier,” said Dr. Lecter. Bucky jerked his gaze over to him. Felt a weird shortness of breath.
“You implied that your training for combat was not just from your time as the Winter Soldier.”
“Oh.” Bucky let out a long breath. “Well, yeah. I fought in World War II.”
Dr. Lecter chuckled. “I never expected to hear a patient say that.”
Bucky supposed it was funny, in a depressing kind of way, but he didn’t laugh.
“But still, I think it’s important for us to talk about this.” Dr. Lecter settled back into his seat. Poised his pen over his notebook. “Your training in the war—that prepared you to become the Winter Soldier?”
“Sure.” Bucky shrugged and ran his hand through his hair. He flexed the fingers of his metal hand, listening to the machine whir and grind behind the casing. “It would have for any of us.” That wasn’t true. He knew it wasn’t true.
“Remind me, what was your rank again?”
“Sergeant.” The word felt strange on his tongue, like it was from a foreign language. He didn’t think he deserved that rank anymore. It had been stripped of him after everything he’d done when he was under Hydra’s control.
“Did you receive any sort of speciality training during the war?”
The muscles in Bucky’s back tensed. He was being led somewhere, down the dark alley of his memory. The questions were fucking bread crumbs.
“It should have been in my file,” he said.
“Oh, it was.” Dr. Lecter pretended to dust lint off the shoulder of his suit. “I’m afraid I’ve forgotten. I don’t have much of a memory for military jargon.”
He was lying. Bucky could feel it, like a metallic tinge on the air. Playing him, trying to get him to say it out loud.
And he would. Just to see where this trail of breadcrumbs was leading him.
“I was trained as a sniper,” he said. “I had some—some talent for sharpshooting.”
“A sniper. Yes, that’s right.” Dr. Lecter scribbled in his notepad. “An interesting career path.”
“I wouldn’t call it that,” Bucky said. “I had a talent the Army had a use for.”
“And the Howling Commandos?” Dr. Lecter said, looking up from his notebook and locking his gaze with Bucky’s. “Did they have use for it?”
The tension crawled down Bucky’s back, into his arm, his shoulder. He wished to hell he could place what was bothering him about this.
“Yeah,” he said. “They did.”
“How many confirmed kills did you have?”
“I don’t remember.”
Silence save for the rain. Dr. Lecter stared across the space between them. Bucky wanted to leave the office. His good mood of the last week had vanished, replaced with a sick ache in the pit of his stomach, a reminder of everything that he’d done.
“This conversation is making you uncomfortable,” Dr. Lecter said.
Bucky didn’t answer.
“Why is that?” Dr. Lecter was looking at him again. His eyes were bottomless wells. If you fell into them you’d keep falling.
“The past’s the past,” Bucky said.
“But you yourself have said that the Winter Soldier isn’t just your past, but your present. You don’t think your time as a sniper for the US military should be the same?” Dr. Lecter tilted his head. “Forgive me, James, but you seem more bothered by your service in the Howling Commandos than as the Winter—”
“Bullshit!” Bucky shouted. He was stunned immediately into silence, the echo of his outburst reverberating around the room.
Dr. Lecter remained unfazed. “Is it, James?”
“Yes.” Bucky squeezed the armrest of the chair with his flesh hand, relishing the way the sharp modernist lines dug into his skin. “There’s a goddamn museum exhibit celebrating the work I did with the Commandos. I was on the right side of the war, Dr. Lecter. That was not the case with the Winter Soldier. You’d have been an idiot not to understand the difference.”
“Oh, I understand the difference.”
“Then what are you getting at?”
“I’m getting at nothing. Merely making an observation.” Dr. Lecter was still staring at him. The rain fell harder, beating against the roof. “Tell me more about the sort of role you played in the Howling Commandos.”
Bucky took a deep breath. He was not ashamed of this. He had saved people’s lives and he had helped stop a monster, not just from spreading his empire across Europe but from murdering innocent people in camps—he couldn’t even remember when he learned about those camps now, but it was a long time ago, when he was still under Hydra control, and even with everything he’d done the hidden reality of the war had shot him full of horror.
“Same thing I did for the Army,” he finally said.
“Really?” Dr. Lecter frowned. “Even with Captain America leading you?”
Bucky closed his eyes. He wanted to lie. He wanted to lie, but only because he’d been lying about this since he first joined up with the Commandos. It wasn’t what anybody wanted to hear. Including Steve.
“Fine,” he said. “No, it wasn’t exactly the same. There was a—” He looked at the window. His reflection was like a ghost in the glass, turned to static by the rain. “A scrutiny that we didn’t get in the 107th. Fucking cameras always following us around. Steve didn’t like it either,” Bucky added. “He complained about it at night, when the reporters finally fell asleep.” Bucky laughed, remembering. “He just wanted to do his job. I admired him for it, I did. This isn’t about Steve.”
“I didn’t think it was,” Dr. Lecter said quietly.
“Good. Because it’s not. It’s about the damned press. Captain America—he had to act a certain way, you know? It’s like that now, too.” Bucky’s voice hitched. “There are—people—who didn’t want him admitting to being with me. Said it might tarnish his reputation. And not because I was the Winter Soldier, either.”
“Yet he did admit it,” Dr. Lecter said.
“Well, yeah.” Bucky grinned at that, the first good feeling he’d had this whole session. “It’s not like it was back then. I mean, back then we didn’t have a word for it, so we called it friendship, brotherhood, whatever. Both of us like girls, too, so it was easy to pretend it was something else.” Bucky shrugged. “Things are different now. A lot different. And Steve saw that and refused to back down. See, that’s why they chose so wisely when they picked him for the serum. ‘Cause he’s a good man. He knows right from wrong because he just fucking knows. It’s built into his goddamn DNA or something.” Bucky sighed and slumped back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling. “I had to drag his sorry ass out of so many fights before we joined up. He was always going after one bully or another.”
“The perfect Captain America,” said Dr. Lecter.
“Well, yeah. And it’s what I—what I love about him. I want to make that clear. He doesn’t suffer moral ambiguity and he never has. But we were at war.”
That last sentence hung in the stuffy air of the room. Bucky looked down at his metal arm. It looked dull in the gray light coming in through the window. He curled his fingers into a fist and remembered the first time he saw that metal, gleaming in the lights of some Hydra laboratory. It had not felt like a part of him. Not yet.
“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime,” said Dr. Lecter.
Those words cut through Bucky like a blade. He jerked his head up, hair falling into his eyes.
“What?” he said.
“Earnest Hemingway,” said Dr. Lecter. “Writing on the criminality of war. He was talking of the Second World War, actually.”
A heat rose in Bucky’s cheeks. He thought of a forest, a fucking fairy tale forest with dappled sunlight falling through the tree leaves, and him perched in a blind peering through a sight at the Germans down below—the motions were so easy, second nature, like waving hello to a pretty French girl, or lighting a cigarette, or running his fingers across the nape of Steve’s neck whenever they were alone. Line up the cross hairs. Pull back the hammer. Wait. Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Fire on the exhale. Blood erupting in that golden-green sunlight. A man falling down dead because Bucky had killed him.
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” Bucky said. He was lying.
“Yes, you do. This is the root of your anxiety, I believe. You say Steve was a man of perfect morality, yes? Intrinsic morality. And yet he found himself at war. And although it was a just war, a justified war, it was still a criminal act. Necessary, but criminal.”
“Yes,” Bucky whispered, because that was exactly it, that was exactly the thing he’d been too afraid to say all those years ago, when the reporters jostled up against him in some muddy, filthy Army camp, pens scribbling furiously on soaked-through notepads. “There were things—things he couldn’t do. They had fucking cameras following us around us much as they could. For the morale back home. I understood the reasons, but—” Bucky shook his head. “No. It wasn’t just about the cameras. That was the excuse the Army gave us, gave me, they didn’t tell Steve, he would have protested. He would have been furious if he found out.”
“Found out what, James?”
Thunder rumbled through the walls of Dr. Lecter’s office. The rain was like a waterfall against the glass.
“I didn’t do it because the Army told me to.” Bucky forced himself to look at Dr. Lecter. His body felt weighed down, as if he were pinned in place. “I did it to protect him. The first man he killed, some German kid, he cried all night. I saw what it did to him. So I tried to make sure he had to do it as little as possible.”
“You killed for him,” Dr. Lecter said.
Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what Bucky had done, and part of him had liked it. Watching Steve cry until his eye ran out of tears had been the hardest night of his life. Steve had been hopeless against the swelling tide of horror that the war brought sweeping across the countryside. It’d been one thing to go up against Red Skull, a man so distorted by hatred that he’d become a literal monster, but some kid, some kid with a family and a mother and maybe a girlfriend waiting back home, some kid who’d gone to fight just like he and Steve had—that was too much reality. Steve wanted to stop bullies because that was always what he’d done. And some seventeen-year-old kid from Magdeburg wasn’t a bully.
“I killed for the United States,” Bucky said. “I did what any soldier does. But I let Steve be the symbol. It’s what he’s good at. Me, I’d be shit at it.” He shrugged, dropped his metal hand in his lap. He was still thinking about Steve crying that night, mourning the life of a German he’d never been met. His head in Bucky’s lap, Bucky’s hand on his hair, stroking it back away form his face, telling him it was going to be all right.
“Are you sure that’s not what Steve wanted?” said Dr. Lecter.
“What?” Bucky frowned. “Steve didn’t know, I said that—”
“Are you certain about that?”
“Yes!” Adrenaline coursed through Bucky’s system. Rage. “It ate him up from the inside, killing. It didn’t eat up me. So I killed. That was fair.”
“Of course.” Dr. Lecter gazed back at him. There was a blankness in his expression Bucky had never noticed before. It was too carefully concealed. But he saw it right now, in this moment, because he’d felt that blankness himself, when he stared through the scope of a sniper rifle at his victims. As the Winter Soldier, as Sergeant Barnes. “But it seems to me that the reason you feel the Winter Soldier is such an intrinsic part of you is because he was a part of you before Hydra ever found you in the ravine.”
Bucky stared at Dr. Lecter. He didn’t move. It was like being on the front again. One movement and you’d be dead.
“It seems to me,” Dr. Lecter said, “that it was Steve Rogers who first uncovered the Winter Soldier. Who first brought him to the fore. Who first taught him to kill.”
Bucky lashed out, leaping across the room, grabbing Dr. Lecter’s neck with his metal hand. It happened too fast for him to register what he was doing. One moment he was in his chair, anger pulsing through him like the blood, the next he was here, Dr. Lecter’s chair tipped back on his hind legs, his hand glittering at Dr. Lecter’s throat.
“Steve Rogers did not teach me to kill,” Bucky hissed.
Dr. Lecter looked up at him. His eyes bulged, red-rimmed. But he was not afraid.
“Are you sure?” he said, his voice raspy.
Hearing the scrape of Dr. Lecter’s bruised larynx slammed Bucky back down into the world. He released Dr. Lecter’s neck and stumbled backwards. He thought he should feel more horrified than he did. But Dr. Lecter didn’t seem horrified at all. He was smiling, in fact, even as one hand rubbed at the angry red marks already appearing on his neck.
“I’ll have trouble explaining this,” he said. “But don’t worry, James. I’ve had to explain far worse.”
“What?” Bucky was dazed. Had he slipped out of himself again? No, it was about Steve, Dr. Lecter had suggested—
“I’ve worked with many violent patients. It’s a speciality of mine, in fact, and I assure you this is not the closest I’ve come to death. Don’t let it bother you. And I assure you, I always respect doctor-patient confidentiality.” A pause. “Always.”
“Don’t let it—” Bucky shook his head. Everything was wrong. This felt like Hydra mind games, not a therapy session with a SHIELD-approved psychiatrist.
“But you should consider what this reaction implies,” Dr. Lecter went on. “About your history with Steve during the war. An outburst like this always implies that a hint of truth has been uncovered.”
“We didn’t uncover shit,” Bucky said.
“Didn’t we?” said Dr. Lecter. “I can see a hint of Steve Rogers’ shadow in you, James Barnes.”
He smiled again, that cold cruel smile, as the storm rioted outside, and in.
The mission assignment came through two days later. Bucky was still unsettled after the session with Dr. Lecter. Jumpy. He had at least one nightmare that he could remember about killing Dr. Lecter, not just strangling him but shooting him, cutting his throat, arranging a car accident that sliced off his head. Bucky woke up panting, gasping for air, the sheets soaked in sweat and tangled around his feet. Steve was already awake, his lips murmuring against Bucky’s ear.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, just a nightmare. It’s not real.”
Not real. That wasn’t entirely true. But Bucky let himself fall against Steve until his heart rate slowed. He never told him about the outburst in Dr. Lecter’s office. He couldn’t.
They left for the mission after that. Both of them.
It was up in the Canadian wilderness. The Yukon. It might be spring in DC but it was winter there, hard driving winds and lashing snow. When Director Coulson debriefed the two of them in the plane, he looked at Bucky and said, “We think your background could be useful with this.”
“My background?” Bucky tensed. “You want me to kill someone?”
“Jesus, no.” Coulson blinked in shock. “I meant your Russian background. The weather.”
“The weather.” Bucky glanced over at Steve, who was staring down at his file, frowning.
“Yeah. The cold, the snow, all that. We’d get Agent Romanoff but she’s so far underground even I don’t know where to find her.” Director Coulson grinned, but neither Bucky nor Steve returned it. Agent Romanoff. Bucky had seen her a handful of times the last year. Never got too close. She made him nervous, and not because of her hand-to-hand skills or her talent with a gun, but because her eyes contained that flat glassy sheen that said she’d been mind-wiped. And he was afraid of what that might mean for him.
“No killing,” Steve said in a flat voice.
“Well, let’s hope not. This is just an intel mission, scoping out a possible Hydra base.”
The room fell into a pregnant silence. Intel mission. Just like the mission to the Saffman building.
“We do think the environment is going to be the larger cause of concern here,” Director Coulson went on. “So stay warm, you two. By any means necessary.”
He winked. Steve’s cheeks turned bright red, and for a moment Bucky forget what happened with Dr. Lecter, he forgot what happened at the Saffman building, and he laughed.
“Yeah, he gets it.” Director Coulson folded up his report. “But don’t have too much fun out there. You’re on SHIELD time.”
“We’ll try, sir,” said Steve. Bucky laughed again. God, he’d forgotten what delight even fucking felt like.
Coulson stood up and tucked the report under his arm. “You two need to stay in verbal contact at all times,” he said, much more serious now. “Agent Barnes, we’ll have a line sending you straight to Dr. Lecter’s office if—”
“I won’t need it,” said Bucky, his good mood shattered. His metal fingers twitched. He’d come so close to killing him, so fucking close. And yet Dr. Lecter had kept his promise. No one seemed to have heard a word about it.
That was disturbing too, in its way.
“Good luck,” Coulson said. “Prepare for drop in half an hour.”
He left them alone then, with the buzzing of the engine and the windows looking out over fluffy white clouds. Steve peered down at this file, then folded it over and tossed it on the table.
“Got everything?” Bucky said, turning toward him.
Steve grinned and tapped the right temple.
“Fucking show off.” Bucky looked over his own file but he didn’t register anything he read. He kept thinking about Dr. Lecter’s office. Not about the choking. About what had come before it. The idea that he was Steve’s shadow. His darkness.
“You sure you want to do this?” Steve said.
Bucky looked up at him. The lights in the plane were soft, filtered, soothing. Steve looked like some kind of goddamn golden angel. Bucky wanted to kiss him. He wanted to forget how he must look right now, dark-haired and pale, broken down and rebuilt.
“Beats sitting around the apartment watching TV,” Bucky said. He leaned back in his chair, his eyes still on Steve’s face. “Imagine if you had to do that. You’d be losing your mind.”
Steve grinned, looked down at his hands. “Maybe.”
“Oh, there’s no maybe about it. So yeah, I’m sure.”
Bucky wasn’t sure.
“At least we’re working together,” Steve said. “I like it. Reminds me of—of old times, you know?”
Bucky nodded. He looked out the window. The war. It reminded Steve of the war.
When you were the symbol and I was the weapon.
He closed his eyes. Steve snaked his arm around Bucky’s shoulder and pulled him close and Bucky leaned against him. But the war hadn’t been that simple. In Dr. Lecter’s office it had seemed that way but the truth was never that simple, never that black and white. Not even for superheroes.
They passed the time before their drop in silence, leaning up against each other. It was a good kind of silence. Companionable. Like the nights out on the front. Sometimes, there just wasn’t any point in talking.
But then the bubble was broken, and it was time for the drop.
“Last chance,” Steve said as they were standing in the cargo hold, suited up and ready to freefall. “You sure you want to do this?”
Bucky’s heart pounded. He shouldn’t be here. He had attacked Dr. Lecter and there was chance the wilderness would be populated by more than bears and foxes. Sam wouldn’t let him be here, if he’d known about the attack. But Sam didn’t know.
“Yeah,” he said. “I want to do this.”
The red light switched on. The warning klaxons wailed.
And the cargo hold yawned open.
Bucky jumped without thinking, the cold wind battering against his face. He had his hair pulled back but the wind was strong enough to whip it out of place, and the hair snapped and stung against his skin. Steve was a few yards in front of him, at his two-o’clock, looking as peaceful as he had in the safety of the plane.
“You hear me, Captain America?” he said.
“Roger that, Barnes.” Steve’s voice shimmered in the earpiece. Bucky smiled. The landscape beneath them was an endless blanket of white. “Sure is something, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Roger that.”
Bucky could never keep track of the passing of time during a jump. It felt like an hour and it felt like thirty seconds. The fall to the ravine had been the same way, only stretched out to an entire lifetime. He suspected that when he first went on missions for Hydra, he couldn’t handle the jumps, but any memories of that sort of terror had been erased long ago. All he felt now was a vague unease, a sense of things coming apart.
The ground rushed up to meet him, but he knew he wouldn’t die. Not today.
The parachute billowed out and Bucky was jerked backward. Everything was silent on the comm. Together he and Steve drifted down, two dandelion seeds caught on the wind. Nothing stirred in the forest. So far.
Bucky landed hard. Snow puffed up around him. He detached his parachute and pulled out his gun—one pistol, eight shots, just like at the Saffman building. Steve was already waiting for him a few paces away. He had on an all-white version of his uniform but it didn’t matter, not with the shield strapped to his back like a target.
“Hopefully we won’t need that,” Steve said, nodding at Bucky’s gun. Steve’s own gun was still tucked in the holster at his waist.
“Always got your back,” Bucky said, although the words caught in his throat, and for a moment he saw a flash of memory, a man crumpling to the ground with a bullet hole in his head, Steve looking over at Bucky like he couldn’t comprehend what he’d just seen.
“I know you do.”
The memory disappeared. They moved forward. Steve had the coordinates up on the tracker, a little green light blinking in the palm of his hand. He jerked his head to the left and they veered off into the trees. Bucky kept his gun up. Ready to shoot. Dr. Lecter was wrong; he wasn’t Steve’s shadow. He was Steve’s backup. Steve’s protection. Steve sure as fuck didn’t turn him into an assassin.
You were already an assassin.
The wind rattled through the tree branches and sounded like bones. Bucky’s breath condensed on the air, a reminder that he was alive.
Steve stopped, one hand up.
Then Bucky heard it too.
Voices. Distant. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, couldn’t even make out what language they were speaking.
“Careful,” Steve said in a voice like a sign.
Bucky nodded, although he wondered what Steve meant by careful, if he was worried about the voices or worried about Bucky losing himself again.
Bucky tightened his grip on his gun. Steve slid his shield off his back.
They darted forward, sticking to the shadows of the trees. Bucky smelled a whiff of smoke, burning tobacco. The chemical pungency of diesel. The voices were louder. Close. A light flickered through the trees, bouncing around on the snow. He glanced over at Steve. Steve nodded at him, but his face was guarded, concerned.
Just an intel mission. Get in, find what you can. Don’t be seen.
Bucky had spent an entire lifetime not being seen.
He slid through the trees, his body tense, his senses heightened. The light bloomed up ahead. There was a dropoff in the snow, the ground pitching down at an angle. Good. Gave them a vantage point, although it could mean there were guards patrolling the place. Bucky was aware of Steve several paces away, weaving toward the dropoff himself. The shield reflected the light, just like the snow.
Bucky came to the edge of the dropoff. A facility sat in the snow. Ugly gray stone walls, a shoveled concrete road leading off into the woods. One four-wheeler, equipped to handle the ice. And a pair of men standing at the edge of the concrete, both of them hunched over their cigarettes like cavemen over a fire. They were bundled up in white parkas but Hydra could never miss out on a chance to advertise itself. That fucking symbol was stamped on each of their arms. Bright red.
Bucky’s face burned. His flesh and blood hand tingled. He lifted up the gun. It’d be easy, one shot two shots and a splatter of blood across the snow. Take them out, like he’d been trained.
But then he felt a weight on him, and he glanced to his right and there was Steve, watching him through the trees. Steve shook his head. No shooting. Intel mission.
Bucky was able to pick up on pieces of the men’s conversation: it was about hockey, the Senators game last night. Bucky ground his teeth in frustration. Fucking useless.
One man finished his cigarette and it flicked into the snow. The other did the same. They went inside.
Silence. Even with the four-wheeler the facility looked abandoned.
“You okay?” Steve’s voice whispered in Bucky’s ear.
“Fine.” Bucky kept his eyes on the facility. “Wanna move in?”
A pause. The comm crackled.
“Yes. Be careful. Remember—intel. Just need to figure out what they’re doing here.”
“Copy that.” Bucky darted through the snow. He moved the way he had back in Russia, a quick-footed skittering that minimized the crunching beneath his feet. Every now and then he caught a glimpse of color through the white out. Steve’s shield.
Bucky made it to the bottom of the hill. The treeline ended. He stopped, took in his surroundings. No windows in the facility. There had to be cameras but Bucky couldn’t see them. The cold stung at his eyes but he pushed it away like he had a million times before. The comm crackled into life.
“Be careful,” Steve said.
“Always am,” said Bucky. And he looked across the landscape to find Steve crouching behind the trees. Shield in hand. At least Steve wasn’t pretending the threat of violence wasn’t here.
Steve nodded, once, a tiny movement that was amplified by the snow and the silence.
Bucky moved out into the open, crouched low, gun out, senses on high. The silence pounded in his ears.
Something cracked up in the trees.
Bucky whipped his gun around, looking for the target. A clump of snow splattered against the ground. He followed its trajectory to an empty tree branch, tilted at an unnatural angle—
The sun glinted over the dark gleam of a camera lens.
Bucky fired and the gunshot ricocheted out into the landscape, not just a sound but a force. Glass sparkled as it fell to the ground. Snow slid out of the branches.
Someone shouted behind him.
“Move!” he shouted into the comm. “Get back!”
But Steve was already running across the clearing, shield out, preparing to throw. Bucky ducked just as the shield whipped above his head. A strangled cry of pain. He whirled around, ready to shoot.
“He’s down.” Steve’s voice in his ear. “Stunned. Let’s get out of here.”
Steve was right. The Hydra agent was splayed out in the snow, eyes shut and chest rising and falling. The shield was implanted in a tree. Bucky leapt over the agent’s body and yanked out the shield.
He heard a scream.
He heard it twice: on the comm, on the air. And then he was slammed with a crippling pang of fear that turned just as quickly to anger. Steve shouted intelligibly over the comm and Bucky acted by instinct, an instinct that had been implanted in him during World War II and then perfected by Hydra in the frozen battles of the Cold War. He did not forget himself. In fact, it was just the opposite: his focus was on Steve, on saving Steve, on protecting this new life he’d created for himself in 2015.
He saw the two Hydra agents close in around Steve with energy weapons too powerful even for the super-soldier serum. The smell of burning flesh filled the air.
Bucky threw his shield and fired his gun. There was a metallic clang and a thunderous blam blam and the the snow was streaked with red and the two Hydra agents hit the ground and Steve was staring at him in horror.
“Bucky?” he whispered, and Bucky heard the whisper on the comm and read the whisper on Steve’s lips.
“We need to get out of here,” Bucky said, racing forward. “There will be more of them. You know that.”
Steve nodded. His expression was unreadable. He picked up his shield and turned into the trees. The doors of the facility slammed open and Hydra agents poured out. Bucky ran, his eyes on the colors of the shield up ahead. Gunshots rang out, hitting the trees, whizzing past his head. Low-level Hydra agents like this didn’t get much training and were essentially canon fodder, but Bucky knew you couldn’t discount the possibility of a lucky shot.
Steve’s voice come over the comm: “Captain America to Coulson, need extraction immediately. Under fire.”
Bucky ran faster and caught up with Steve. The Hydra agents fell behind them one by one, disappearing into the crowd of trees. Bullets still shattered the tree branches overhead. Bucky tuned them out and focused instead on the steadiness of his breathing. Steve’s breathing was a little ragged, a little hoarse—the energy weapons had done something to him. At least he could still run at speed. At least Bucky had gotten there in time.
They ran and ran through the snow.
They were in their quarters, a cubby hole of a room with enough space for a pair of cots. Steve had already showered and changed into civilian clothes, and he was sitting on his cot, sketching idly on a flimsy notepad with a SHIELD-issued ballpoint pen, when Bucky came in from his own shower.
“Hey,” Bucky said, easing the door shut behind him. He felt better after the shower, where he had turned the water as hot as it could go and breathed in the steam like it could thaw out his insides. Killing those two Hydra agents had felt the way it had when he was working for Hydra—it hadn’t felt like anything. They weren’t innocents, not exactly.
“Hey,” Steve said, not looking up from his sketch.
Bucky sat down beside him. He wasn’t really sketching—just doodling, lines twisting in on themselves.
“You get checked out?” Bucky said.
“Yeah.” Steve tossed the the notepad aside. “While you were in debriefing. The doctor was a nice girl. Smart.”
Bucky frowned. “Everything okay?”
Steve took a deep breath. For a moment Bucky wasn’t sure he was going to answer. But then he nodded, eyes downcast. “Yeah.” He looked up. “Because of you.”
Bucky didn’t say anything.
“She said—they’d heard rumors about those weapons for a while, and that if it’d gone on much longer, well—” Steve shrugged. “I would have died. It would have been like a lightning strike to my heart.”
Bucky felt dizzy. A tight coil of rage curled up in his chest and then dissipated. Steve almost died, and that almost was everything. That almost was the reason Steve was sitting here in front of him, drawing lines in some formless pattern on scratch paper.
This was what the Winter Soldier did. Hadn’t they told him that, back in Hydra? That his work helped keep the Cold War cold. One strategic assassination can stop a nuclear holocaust. Killing can save lives.
He heard that last line in Dr. Lecter’s cultured voice. Killing can save lives. At the base he had slipped into the role of the Winter Soldier but he had stayed Bucky, too. Maybe this is what Sam would call a breakthrough.
“Glad you didn’t,” Bucky finally said.
Steve looked up at him. His expression was hard to read. His eyes looked distant.
“I don’t want to lose you,” Bucky said.
Steve blinked. Bucky’s cheeks burned. He wasn’t one for being showy about his emotions. Even before Hydra, he’d kept things, the important things, pressed down.
“I don’t want to lose you, either,” Steve said. He set the notepad aside. His doodles looked like storm clouds. “And I was afraid—when you killed those men—” He looked up at Bucky and Bucky felt a chill slam straight through his chest.
“You thought it had happened again.” Bucky felt hollow. “Like the Saffman building.”
“You killed those men—”
“They were killing you!”
“I know.” Steve pressed his hand against his forehead. “It’s just—I couldn’t tell. It was like—like before, when we fought—”
Bucky couldn’t breathe. “I did worse for you during the war.”
Steve went still. For half a second Bucky wished he hadn’t said that. But then he realized he didn’t care. He wouldn’t regret speaking the truth.
“We all did,” Bucky said, the words spilling out now. “All the Commandoes. We were soldiers and that’s what soldiers do. Hydra didn’t do anything to me that hadn’t been done in the 107th.”
Steve’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth. Closed it.
Bucky slid off the cot and curled both of his hands into fists. The whir of the gears in his prosthetic were thunderous in the silence of the room.
“I saved your life,” he said in the hard, cold voice of the Winter Soldier.
“I know that, and I’m so, so grateful.” Steve’s eyes shone in the lights. “I just—you can’t do that, not now, not while we’re trying to figure out who you are—”
“I know who I am!” Bucky shouted.
“And I know I’m not the Bucky you think I am,” he hissed. “I’m a killer.”
“Don’t say that.”
“A killer who saved your life.”
“Yes it is.” Bucky whirled around and stalked out of the room. Blood pounded in his ears. The plane engines hummed, vibrating the floor beneath his feet. He imagined that floor opening up beneath him and dropping him to the ground below. Just like what happened seventy years ago. That train’s floor had been vibrating beneath his feet then, too. Maybe a second fall would change him, turn him into the man Steve wanted him to be.
“Bucky.” Steve appeared in the doorway. “Bucky, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
Bucky glared at him. There was that recoil again. Bucky had seen it before, too, that day on the helicarrier, when Bucky had denied their friendship. But he remembered now. His thoughts were clear.
“I’m never going to be you,” Bucky said.
And with that, he walked away.
Bucky stared at him. The office was flooded with sunlight. It reminded him of the whiteout in the Yukon. Dr. Lecter’s face floated in the brightness.
“I killed two men,” Bucky said.
“You’ve killed lots of men. That’s not what causing your concern, is it?”
Bucky went still.
“You almost killed me,” Dr. Lecter went on. “And yet here you are again, soliciting my advice. Not,” he added, “that I mind. I quite enjoy our sessions. Now, tell me what happened.”
Bucky thought about choking Dr. Lecter. He thought about that surge of rage, that suggestion that he was Steve’s shadow. But he was, wasn’t he? He had seen that in the Yukon. A shadow that saved Steve’s life.
So Bucky told him everything. He told the truth. He did not lie through omission. He talked about the mission and the fight afterward. He talked about his anger. He even talked about that moment of warmth, of vulnerability, when he confessed that he didn’t want to lose Steve. And Dr. Lecter listened through the entire thing, nodding, not even taking notes. That was why he could charge what he did, Bucky thought. Because he knew how to listen.
“I see,” Dr. Lecter said, when Bucky had finished. He crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair. “Well. I’d say this is all very healthy.”
This was the last thing Bucky expected to hear.
“Healthy?” he said. “You have a pretty fucked up idea of healthy.”
Dr. Lecter smiled wolfishly. “I told you, I’m very unorthodox.” He tilted his head to the side. “But I do think this is healthy. Do you remember what we talked about during your last session?” His eyes glittered. “That point which made you attack me?”
“Yes,” Bucky said sharply.
“You’re starting to see it, are you not? You said it yourself—you saved Steve’s life and he can only focus on the idea that you are a killer. He can only see your darkness.”
Bucky didn’t move. He was tense—cautious, as if Dr. Lecter were a hostile. Or a mission.
“Because he created that darkness. Don’t you understand, James? He is wracked with guilt over what he did to you. He knows he shaped you to protect him by any means necessary. And when you do, he turns on you.”
Bucky flexed the fingers in his metal hand. Dr. Lecter’s gaze flicked to them, flicked back to Bucky’s face. “He didn’t do that during the war,” Bucky said.
“Of course not. He was still training you.”
Training you. Bucky had been trained. Trained through long grueling hours in the Russian wilderness. Through torture, through heat and electricity and violence. He knew what it was to be treated like a dog. To be abused like one.
“Steve didn’t train me,” Bucky said.
“Oh James,” Dr. Lecter said. “You’re so close to seeing it—”
Bucky shook his head. “Steve doesn’t understand me and he never did. But he didn’t train me.” That word. It clung inside his thoughts, a hook lodged into his subconscious. That word was the key to something he couldn’t see. Something he needed to see.
Something about Steve?
“You are seeing the things you want to see,” Dr. Lecter said. “What sort of man—what sort of hero—turns on a lover for saving his life?”
Bucky didn’t answer. That hook was sinking deeper into his brain. His appointments with Dr. Lecter always felt off, hadn’t they, tipped at an angle? But his life had been tipped at an angle for so long, he had accepted it as normal. Nothing had felt right to him for a long, long time.
“I’ve seen the footage from the attacks on New York,” Dr. Lecter was saying. “Steve Rogers fought like a soldier. He isn’t the star of a wartime newsreel anymore, is he? That shield is a powerful weapon. A guillotine, yes?”
“What?” Bucky jerked his gaze up to meet Dr. Lecter. “A guillotine? What are you talking about?”
“Steve Rogers has spent the last year without his Howling Commandos. Without his loyal sniper. What he trained you to do—”
There it was, the word trained, setting off alarm bells in Bucky’s head. If this were a mission he’d know it meant he needed to abort, to get out, find an extraction point. But this wasn’t a mission.
“—He has learned to do himself, begrudgingly. He has always understood that it’s necessary to kill an enemy. And yet he criticizes you for it? When you’ve saved his life? What does that tell us about Steve, James?”
Bucky shook his head. The sunlight burned at his eyes. This was wrong. “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” he finally said. “You say Steve turned me into a killer, and then turned himself into one?”
“Of course,” Dr. Lecter said. “And he blames you. Blames you for forcing his darkness out into the open. He holds your nature against you, James. Surely you can see that?”
Anger spiked in Bucky’s system. The sunlight flowed through the windows like daggers. It illuminated the side of Dr. Lecter’s face, turning his dark hair golden. Dr. Lecter was staring at him with an implacable expression. He was waiting, Bucky realized. Waiting for a response.
And with a jolt, Bucky was thrown back into the past. The Hydra base in the Russian wilderness. Stone walls, flickering yellow lights. And men who watched him like Dr. Lecter. They stood at a distance as poison pumped into Bucky’s system, poison that made his will melt away, that left him pliable and soft so that when the tortures started those men could record information on their clipboards. Information about his responses to the dosage, to the treatment. To the electricity.
Dr. Lecter was doing the same thing. He had always been doing the same thing. But in this luxuriant office, surrounding by books and dark wooden furniture, Bucky hadn’t seen it.
“James?” Dr. Lecter said.
Bucky stiffened. The gears in his arm ground against each other. Dr. Lecter smiled, just a little.
“I know this is a difficult reality to face.”
Kill him now. The words came to him in Pierce’s voice. Protect yourself. Protect Steve.
“Yes,” Bucky said in a flat and disaffected voice. “Yes, it is.”
Dr. Lecter’s smile widened.
And Bucky thought of Steve’s drawing on the SHIELD airplane, the lines curling in on themselves. A mass of darkness. Steve hadn’t been jealous, or afraid Bucky was taking his place, or whatever else bullshit Dr. Lecter was feeding him. Steve had been afraid. Afraid that Bucky had forgotten himself.
That’s what this was all about, from the very beginning. A forgotten identity. But Dr. Lecter was playing his own fucked up game. He was reaching inside Bucky’s head and sifting through the rubble he found there. Breaking him down. Bucky didn’t know why. He didn’t care. He just knew he had to get the hell out of here. Not kill him, not without cause. He wasn’t a killer. He was a soldier. There was a difference.
“I think I’m starting to see what you’re saying,” Bucky said, looking Dr. Lecter in the eye. His heart rate slowed the way it did when he was on a mission, but he didn’t let his guard down: this was not some drunk ambassador snoring in his bed. Bucky would have to precede with caution.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” Dr. Lecter said. “This is an excellent breakthrough in your treatment.” His eyes glittered. “You’ll see.”
Bucky went straight to SHIELD’s underground headquarters after he left Dr. Lecter’s office. His next appointment was in a week but he had no intention of seeing Dr. Lecter again, not without information. He wasn’t going into that office blind again
As his car sped down the highway and back into DC, Bucky went over the few facts he had about Dr. Lecter. He’d done government contract work. Coulson had recommended him, although that recommendation hadn’t exactly been glowing, more a matter of circumstance: you can tell this guy confidential information. He hadn’t fought in a war. His spoke with a Danish accent, although Bucky’d done enough intelligence work to know that didn’t necessarily make him a Dane.
Those were the facts, but Bucky also had his intuition: the sense of the world being off-kilter when he was in Dr. Lecter’s office, the resemblance between Dr. Lecter’s unorthodox methods and the tactics of the Hydra scientists in Russia. That dull and uncomfortable realization that Dr. Lecter was trying to turn him against Steve. It was too early to discount any possibilities, and so Bucky knew there was a chance that Dr. Lecter was working for someone, Hydra most likely but maybe AIM or one of those lesser crime syndicates that tried to worm their way to the top now and then. Still, Bucky didn’t think that was it. There was a—gleefulness about Dr. Lecter’s behavior, albeit restrained, that suggested he was doing this not for money or power but for the sheer fucking fun of it.
And that actually scared Bucky. He was not a man to scare easily but that did it.
Bucky passed through the scanner at the gate, head sticking out the window while a clean red laser swiped over his eye. The gate screeched open. He gunned the engine and his car roared down the narrow, tree-lined road, winding deeper and deeper into the woods until he came to the bunker entrance. Just a big concrete box with a rusty industrial door, sitting there in the middle of the wilderness. He remembered when SHIELD was housed in a skyscraper made of glass and steel—but then, it hadn’t really been SHIELD, had it?
He parked his car and slapped his hand against the palm reader and the door popped open. He took the stairs down to the lobby two at a time. He felt like he was on a mission.
Agent Hilker was sitting at the reception desk, his skin looking sallow in the fluorescent lights. He glanced up, did a double take when he saw who it was.
“Coulson,” Bucky barked. He didn’t slow his pace. “Now.”
Agent Hilker fumbled around at his desk. A notepad fluttered to the floor. “Do you have an appointment?” he sputtered.
“No. What room is he in?”
“You need to have an appointment, Agent Barnes, you can’t—”
Bucky whirled around. He felt the menace inside of himself, that old Winter Soldier posture. Not, not old. It was who he was.
“I don’t need an appointment,” Bucky said in a low, even voice. He took a step toward Agent Hilker and Agent Hilker flinched back. Bucky flexed his metal hand. “Tell me what room Director Coulson is in.”
Agent Hilker trembled. His hand moved jerkily toward his shoulder holster. Dammit. Bucky leapt, one fast moment like lightning. Slammed up against the deck. Agent Hilker tipped back in his chair.
“Tell me where Director Coulson is,” Bucky said.
“He’s in his office!” Agent Hilker shrieked. “Or he was last I checked.”
Bucky stalked away. His whole body was tense. He knew he shouldn’t have done that, knew Steve wouldn’t have approved. But he didn’t want to screw around anymore. He wanted to know why Coulson had sent him to Hannibal Lecter.
Coulson’s door was closed, but Bucky could hear his voice inside, that soft bureaucratic murmur. It was comforting sometimes. Not today.
Bucky shoved the door open without knocking.
It was just Coulson in there, sitting behind the desk, phone tucked between his ear and his shoulder. He glanced up at Bucky and for a moment Bucky felt vulnerable and stupid, the way he had whenever he fucked up a mission for Hydra, when his handlers were staring down at him and asking him questions he couldn’t answer.
“I’ll have to call you back,” Coulson said.
He hung up the phone and dropped it on his desk. Bucky didn’t move from the doorway.
“What are you doing, Agent Barnes?” Coulson said. “I heard you terrorizing poor Hilker out there.”
Bucky didn’t feel like bantering. It had never occurred to him how dangerous talking could be until he started his meetings with Dr. Lecter.
“I need to know why you recommended Hannibal Lecter to me,” he said.
Coulson blinked, frowned in confusion. “This isn’t about the Yukon mission?”
Cold wind. Blood on the snow. Steve drawing storm clouds on a notepad.
“No,” Bucky said, and he stepped into the office and shut the door. Coulson watched him without expression. “It’s about Hannibal Lecter. Why did you send me to him?”
“Sam was worried about you,” Coulson said. He settled back in his chair. “Dr. Lecter comes highly recommended, and I’d worked with him once before—”
“When?” Bucky darted forward, slammed both hands onto the edge of Coulson’s desk. Coulson sat up, pushing back in his chair. “When did you work with him?”
“On a case years ago. An issue with a witness. I only met him once. Jesus Christ, James, what the hell’s gotten into you?” Coulson’s eyes flashed and Bucky knew that spark of fear when he saw it. “You are—you are James, right?”
“Yes, I’m fucking James.” Bucky stepped back, pushed his hands through his hair. His thoughts were burning. It was like those moment after they pulled him off the ice, when everything was confusing. “Dr. Lecter—who recommended him?”
“What?” Coulson was staying calm, Bucky had to give him that. “What are you talking about?”
“You said he came recommended. Who recommended him?”
Coulson looked at him, wary. “Why are you asking?”
Bucky took a deep breath. He looked over at the shelf of Coulson’s SHIELD memorabilia, one shelf lit with the gallery lights. The other three shelves were empty. He wondered how Coulson could keep that memorabilia on display, after everything that had happened.
“I’ve got a bad feeling,” Bucky said. He looked back at Coulson, who was still watching him. Coulson’s shoulders were tense. Sweat gleamed on his brow. “I don’t think he is who he says he is.”
Coulson blinked. “What? Why not?”
“I just—I can tell, all right? I’ve got a bad fucking feeling. Who recommended him to you?”
Coulson pressed his hand to his forehead. Closed his eyes. “I can’t in good conscious give you a name if you’re going to—”
“Talk to him,” Bucky said. He leaned over the desk, moving in close to Coulson’s face. Coulson didn’t pull back. “All I want is to talk to him.”
Coulson didn’t say anything.
“You want to know the problem?” Bucky said. The frustration was burning him up from the inside. “My bad feeling? I spent seventy years with men playing around in my head. I know what it’s like. And I know that’s what Dr. Lecter is doing to me.”
Coulson’s expression flickered.
“I need to know for sure,” Bucky said. “Give me the name.”
Coulson took a deep breath. Pushed back in his chair. “Fine,” he said. “But if any harm comes to this women, I’ll have an attack team on you so fast—”
“I don’t hurt people who don’t deserve it,” Bucky said.
Coulson lifted his gaze to him. He suddenly seemed very far away. “I know,” he said.
Bucky felt something like a cool brush of air at that. A sense of relief. Someone understands.
“His name,” Bucky said.
“Her name, actually,” said Coulson. “Another psychiatrist. Bedelia. Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier.”
Dr. Du Maurier lived in Baltimore as well, although it was not in the same part of the city as Dr. Lecter’s office. Bucky was grateful for that. He kept imagining Dr. Lecter’s office as a black hole, a place where gravity failed. If he got too close he would be sucked in. He would be gone.
Bucky cased Dr. Du Maurier’s home first, cruising by slowly, taking in the big stately building, the tasteful curtains in the windows, the flowers growing along the sidewalk. He couldn’t tell if she was home or not. It didn’t matter. Bucky knew how to break into a locked home. He’d done worse for Hydra.
He parked his car several blocks away. He walked briskly along the crumbling sidewalks, head down, hat brim pulled low, a thin jacket to hide his metal arm. It was a nice day, sunny, leaves shimmering pale green on the trees. A lot of people were out, jogging and walking their dogs. Bucky strode past them without lifting his face. It was harder being the Winter Soldier, now that this image had been broadcast on television and plastered all over the Internet. But no one recognized him.
At Dr. Du Maurier’s house, he strode up along the side like he had every right to be there—you walk somewhere with purpose, no one questions you. The gate wasn’t locked. He let himself into a courtyard lined with stones and herbs and delicate blue flowers. Dappled sunlight fell through the oak tree growing next door. Bucky sidled up to the sliding glass doors leading inside. Locked. He picked the locked quickly and efficiently, the movements second nature. Then he slid the door open and stepped inside.
It was like being in a museum, or a church. The lights were dim, the furniture was sleek, the paintings were the sort of abstract impressionism that had been shocking when he had been in art school, all those years ago. The air smelled syrupy, a scent like melted gold. He moved forward, his footsteps whispers against the polished hardwood floors. He listened careful, for the sound of inhabitants—a cough, a muffled stomp upstairs. But there was only a deep, buzzing silence.
“Who are you?”
Bucky whirled around, heart hammering in his chest. For a moment he thought he’d heard Dr. Lecter’s voice. But the person standing in the doorway leading out to the hall was a woman, petite and attractive, her blonde hair spilling over her shoulder in one shining wave. It reminded him of moonlight.
“Are you Dr. Du Maurier?” he asked.
She studied him. He couldn’t read her expression. Her face was a mask, pale and beautiful. It reminded him of the times he’d encountered Agent Romanoff. They could be sisters, he thought. And not because they looked alike.
“Yes,” she said, and when she moved toward him he saw that she was barefoot despite her expensive-looking clothes. “I know you.” She stopped.
Bucky didn’t move. He’d brought his knife but he wasn’t here to kill her.
“You’re that soldier,” she said. “The one they thought died during the war. The Howling Commandoes.” She smiled. “I used to read your comic books when I was a child.”
“That’s not who I am anymore,” Bucky said.
“It’s not who I am anymore, either.” She glided into the room. Bucky tensed. But she only walked over to her sofa and sat, legs leaning diagonally, head tilted. “Why did you break into my house?”
“Dr. Lecter,” he said.
Dr. Du Maurier’s expression tightened. It was almost imperceptible. If Bucky had been anyone besides the Winter Soldier, he would not have noticed.
“He sent you?” she said, and he thought he heard the faintest quiver in her voice. So faint, it might have been his imagination. It might have been his own fear.
“No,” Bucky said.
They stared at each other.
“What’s your connection to Hannibal?” Dr. Du Maurier said.
Bucky hesitated. There weren’t words for his connection to Hannibal Lecter.
“He’s my psychiatrist,” he finally said.
“You,” Dr. Du Maurier said. “He’s your psychiatrist.” Her voice was flat, nonjudgemental. “I hope you’ll forgive me if this is intrusive, but I don’t think that’s a wise idea.”
Bucky tensed. “Why not?”
She looked at him again, appraising. She was much more frank about it than either Dr. Lecter or Sam, but Bucky suspected she did it on purpose. A kind of intimidation tactic. He was not, after all, here for therapy.
“There was a story about you in The Atlantic,” she said.
Bucky didn’t say anything.
“I don’t always believe everything I read,” she said, demurely, “but it suggested you had been brainwashed, forced into completing mercenary work for a terrorist organization.”
Bucky shifted his weight. “Something like that,” he said.
“And that’s where my concern lies. You can sit down, you know. There’s no reason for you to stand.”
Bucky looked at her. She gave another smile, smaller this time.
“You’re not afraid of me,” he said.
“Should I be?”
“I broke into your house.”
“Worse things have happened to me. Please, sit.” She nodded at a chair angled in the corner. Bucky walked over to it, sat down. She turned to him.
“How did you get my name?” she asked. “From Hannibal?”
Bucky shook his head. “From Phil Coulson.”
Dr. Du Maurier blinked. “I thought he was dead.”
“They revived him. He told me you recommended Dr. Lecter to him. But here you are telling me that talking to Dr. Lecter was a bad fucking idea. So which is it?”
Dr. Du Maurier didn’t move. “I recommended Dr. Lecter to the government many years ago. He has a special—insight, let’s say, for the sort of psychology SHIELD often has to deal with. I’m afraid Phil didn’t call and ask for a specific recommendation anytime recently.”
Bucky trembled in his seat. “A special insight?”
Dr. Du Maurier didn’t answer for a long time. “Yes. About the nature of psychopaths.”
“And that’s why you don’t think he should work with me? Because I’m a psychopath?”
“You know it’s not.”
Bucky froze. Dr. Du Maurier was staring at him right in the eye. Her face was still a mask. She could hold onto secrets. He knew the type. He knew the type well.
“I don’t know what I know,” Bucky finally said.
“The article I read said that men had toyed with your mind,” Dr. Du Maurier said. “The Atlantic isn’t exactly peer reviewed but you can understand why it might have caught my professional attention. I imagine it caught Dr. Lecter’s attention as well.” She leaned forward, one hand draped gracefully over her knees. Her eyes were bright in the dim room. “Toying with the minds of the vulnerable, that’s something Hannibal enjoys very much.”
The room felt too small.
“Your sessions with him,” she said, very measured, very careful, “they were unusual, I imagine.”
Bucky didn’t answer.
“I suspect he talked of killing. He’s fascinated by the subject.” She leaned back again, and for the first time she looked away, toward the sliding glass door, and her courtyard on the other side of it. “Fascinated by the subject of killers. And why they kill.”
She turned back to Bucky and he jolted to find her gaze on him again.
“Dr. Lecter is brilliant at what he does,” she said. “And he would find in you a brilliant subject. A man who was trained to kill for all sides of a war, a man forced to forget the one he loves—you do love someone, don’t you, Mr. Barnes?”
Bucky thought of Steve. Steve running through the park, the sun turning his hair into light. Steve drawing at the kitchen table. Steve laughing when Bucky accidentally burned the spaghetti.
Steve walking through the smoke that day in Minsk, welcoming Bucky home.
“Yes,” Bucky said.
“That’s what Dr. Lecter wants,” said Dr. Du Maurier. “It’s not enough to turn you into a killer. Forgive me, but Hydra and the US Army did that a long time ago. What he wants—” Dr. Du Maurier looked away again. Her eyes were flat and dark “—what he wants is for you to kill the person you love the most.”
That horrible buzzing silence fell around the house again. Bucky couldn’t breathe. I can see a hint of Steve Rogers’ shadow in you, James Barnes. All this time. Fucking with his head, just as he’d suspected. Twisting the truth around worse than any Hydra agent. Worse than Zola. Worse than Bucky himself.
Bucky stood up, knocking the chair back. Dr. DuMaurier turned to him again. Her hair still fell in that perfect golden wave. She gazed up at him, expressionless.
“It’s worse than you think,” she said softly.
“Worse?” said Bucky. “Worse? What the fuck could be worse than what he’s been doing?” He stalked away from her. He had to get to Steve. Had to pull him in close, kill him, tell him he was never going to fucking kill him, never. Never.
“Isaac Hemming,” Dr. DuMaurier said.
“What?” Bucky turned to her. Hs blood was pounding. He couldn’t stay in here any longer, in this house like a mausoleum. “Who the fuck is that?”
“A name you should know,” she said. “Dr. Lecter is more a monster than you can imagine.”
“What? What are you saying?”
“The name,” she said, and for the first time her voice was forceful, almost sharp. She stared at him, her gazing boring straight through him, and he understood then that she’d been terrified during the entire conversation. He should have seen it earlier; he’d seen terror plenty. Except she hadn’t been terrified of him. And that was the difference.
“Hurry,” she whispered.
The apartment was quiet when Bucky finally made it back home. The lights were off, the rooms still. But Bucky knew Steve was here. All his training as the Winter Soldier meant he could sense the weight of him in the apartment. Even with the buzzing in his head from his encounter with Bedelia Du Maurier, he knew Steve was home.
He didn’t say anything as he threaded through the dark hallway, into the bedroom. Just like he thought. Steve was in there, overhead light off, bedside lamp on, reading a beat-up old paperback of The Catcher in the Rye. Trying to catch up on everything that he missed. He glanced up when Bucky stepped into the doorway.
“Where were you?” he said. “I tried calling your phone—”
“It’s turned off. I was doing something.”
Steve’s expression darkened. He looked back down at his book but Bucky knew he wasn’t reading.
“I wasn’t off murdering anybody, if that’s what you think.”
Steve flipped the page.
“Stop pretending to read. I’m sorry about what happened in the Yukon.”
Steve’s eyes were still on the page. “I’m not pretending to read.”
“Stop bullshitting me, Steve.”
Steve sighed. He slipped a bookmark off the bedside table and slid it into the book. Bucky didn’t move from the doorway. He hated this space between them but he needed to make sure that Steve wasn’t going to recoil from him again. He needed to make sure that Steve could understand.
“You scared me, okay?” Steve squinted up at him. In the yellowy light of the lamp his eyes were the color of twilight. “And what you said—you aren’t a killer. You aren’t.”
For a moment Bucky was nearly swallowed by a wave despair. He still doesn’t understand. Maybe Lecter was right—
He shook his head. No. No way was that motherfucker right about anything.
“Bucky?” Steve pushed forward on the bed, frowning. “You okay?”
“No.” Bucky rubbed his head. “But I know who I am.” And he knew that he did. For the first time in a year, he really, truly understood who he was. He was James Barnes, he was the Winter Soldier. But he was not a weapon. Not anymore.
He hesitated, then he moved forward into the room. Steve kept that intense, meditative gaze on him.
He didn’t recoil.
“To answer your question,” Bucky said, “I was at Dr. Lecter’s office. And then I was completing an assignment for Coulson.”
He hated to lie, but at the same time he understood it was necessary. He couldn’t let Steve know about Dr. Lecter. If Steve knew, if Steve even suspected, he’d run in there like a superhero. And that wasn’t how you dealt with a man like Hannibal Lecter.
Just this one last lie, Bucky told himself. One last lie, to keep him safe.
Steve blinked in surprise. “Coulson?” he said.
“Yeah. Hush-hush thing. But don’t worry, I didn’t kill anyone.”
“I didn’t think—”
“Sure you did.” Bucky sat down on the bed, his back to Steve. The place where his metal arm met his skin tingled. “I would’ve thought it too, I was you.” He glanced over his shoulder. “What happened at the Yukon—that’s who I am now. I know you keep thinking of me as that kid back in Brooklyn, but that kid was lost the minute he shipped off to the front.” Bucky turned away. His face was hot. He would let himself lie about Lecter but he wasn’t going to let himself lie about this, not anymore.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I’m not a superhero, but I’m not a monster, either.” Bucky stared at the floor. His hair fell into his eyes. He clenched his metal hand, the tiny gears whirring in his fingers. “I’m something in between. And I need you to accept that about me, or else this—” This is not the lie you’re allowed to tell “—this can’t work.”
Silence. The apartment walls seemed to crush in on him. Bucky wished suddenly, inexplicably, that he could be outside, in some empty snow-covered field, cold wind at his cheeks, the sky enormous. Him at his most vulnerable was still better than right now, sitting on the bed, the man he loved silent behind him.
And then the springs of the mattress creaked, and Bucky could feel the balance of the mattress shifting, and then Steve was beside him. He turned toward him. Steve was so close. Halfway to a kiss.
“I know,” Steve finally said.
“What?” Bucky hadn’t expected this. His ached with a dull, thudding pain. “You know what?”
“That you aren’t who I remembered. I knew it—” Steve looked away. “I knew it even on the front. You were changed. And damn it Bucky, I still loved you. It scared me, but I still loved you.”
Bucky didn’t say anything.
“And now—what you said—” Steve ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t want you to be me, Buck. I’ve never wanted that. But I was scared, scared that you’d forgotten again. That was worst thing in the world, you staring at me that day on the bridge. I’d finally found you again, and you didn’t remember.” Steve’s head dropped; his hand went to his eyes, squeezing. He was crying. Trying to hide it, trying to be brave. But Bucky knew what Steve looked like when he cried.
“I did remember you that day,” Bucky said.
Steve looked up, eyes red-rimmed, lashes fringed with tears.
“I remembered you,” Bucky said. “They tried to shock it out of me but they couldn’t. You—” Bucky clamped his flesh and blood hand on Steve’s shoulder and squeezed tight. “You were what pulled me out of the fog. Nothing else could have done it. I found myself because of you.”
Steve smiled, gave a hard little laugh.
“Which is why I need you to accept who that is,” Bucky said. “We don’t work the same way. I don’t work the same way Sam does. But that’s what makes us strong. The Howling Commandoes, remember? Each of us had a job. I do the things you can’t.”
Steve shook his head. His eyes glistened. “You don’t have to—”
“It’s who I am,” Bucky said, and he felt the edge in his voice, sharp as the blades of his knives. “Hydra didn’t create me. They exploited me. But I’m on your side now. The right side. The side I choose.”
Steve’s mouth opened. He didn’t speak.
“I need to know you can accept that,” Bucky said.
Bucky did not know what Steve’s response would be. The hesitation was a void, a moment of death. But then Steve nodded, and he said, “I can. It won’t be easy, but I can,” and Bucky knew that there had never been any other possible answer.
“I can,” Steve said again. This time, Bucky pulled him in close, rough like when they were boys, and kissed him. And Steve kissed back like there was nothing in the world but Bucky.
Steve was sprawled out on top of the sheets, naked and snoring. He’d fallen asleep an hour ago, and for the last hour Bucky had lain beside him, thoughts too heavy to sleep. At first he’d replayed what had just happened, the rough and desperate sex, Steve’s hand tight against his waist, Bucky moaning into the pillow. But other thoughts kept sneaking in. Dr. Du Maurier sitting so straight-backed in her mausoleum of a house. The name she’d given him. Isaac Hemming.
Isaac Hemming. It kept circling around his head like a melody.
And then, abruptly: a memory of Dr. Du Maurier’s eyes, flashing with a primal, hollow sort of fear.
Bucky rolled over onto his side. The curtains were pulled open and the light from the street lamps spilled in, a gauzy golden light that made Steve glow. Bucky watched Steve in the quiet of night, tenderness swelling up inside of him. It was like when they were kids, when Steve would be in some fight, trying to take down some bully, and Bucky would have to do the fighting for him. But he’d never minded. Steve didn’t get in stupid fights. When Steve fought, it was for a reason.
Bucky’d been fighting for Steve as long as he could remember. And he was going to keep doing it, now that he knew who he was.
He slid out of bed, his movements careful and measured, the way he moved as the Winter Soldier. He didn’t want to wake Steve. He slipped out of the bedroom and into the kitchen, where Steve had left the laptop on the dining table. Bucky sat down, flipped it open, watched the loading icons swirl into existence. The name was still in his head. The name, and Dr. Du Maurier’s fear, and that unshakable sense that there was something off about Dr. Lecter that moved beyond the manipulation and the mind-fuckery. Bucky had seen enough darkness in the last seventy years, some of it in himself, to recognize it in another person.
He typed Isaac Hemming into the search bar and hit enter. Results flooded the screen. Archived news articles, mostly, from all the big national papers. He clicked on the first link.
New information released in Hemming case
New information has come to light in the case of Isaac Hemming, officials said Thursday.
Speaking at a press conference, Baltimore chief of police Laura Conner said that investigators have learned Hemming had been present at a Baltimore restaurant on the night of his murder. Previously, his whereabouts had not been determined.
“He was eating alone,” Conner said. “It wasn’t until a waiter came forward that we were able to place him.”
Conner stated that this new information provides an excellent lead for solving the gruesome murder case, and her hopes remain high that the police force will be able to catch Hemming’s killer.
Hemming was found dead three days ago, his body mutilated.
Bucky’s heart pounded hard in his chest. Hydra had taught him to track his targets, and even though they wiped him, the muscle memory related to tracking—the close reading of newspaper stories, the casing of neighborhoods—had stayed with him. He knew how to find someone on very little information. Like, for instance, a name.
Bucky clicked through to the next article. More of the same. He followed links until he came to the original reporting, and in half an hour he’d pieced together the story. Isaac Hemming. A dentist in Baltimore. No family to speak of, but a couple of coworkers had come forward to say what a kind and gentle man he was. Bucky knew that was bullshit. A kind and gentle man would have friends to speak up for him, not some dental hygienist whose salary he paid. One of the articles said he liked the opera. This detail niggled at Bucky. It made him think of Dr. Lecter’s office, the rich, opulent furniture, the heavy drapes on the windows.
Specifics on the murder itself were hard to come by, but Bucky did learn that the mutilation involved the removal of organs. A liver, supposedly, or a kidney. What his mother called organ meats when he was growing up. You could buy the organ meats of chicken if you had a little extra cash. He’d never liked them, but it had been his mother’s favorite. Liver and onions.
The name Chesapeake Ripper came up in some of the articles: Could this be the work of the Chesapeake Ripper? they asked. Chief of police Conner said, There’s no evidence this was done by the hand of the Chesapeake Ripper.
The Chesapeake Ripper. Bucky searched that next, and the list of websites flowered out in front of him. Details of the Ripper cases. Theories about the Ripper’s identity. A fan page, slavish and adoring, that gave him a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach.
The Ripper killed in threes, the websites said.
He mutilated his bodies (turned them into works of art, said the fan page, and Bucky frowned at that, and felt something click in the back of his brain).
He took their organs.
Bucky pushed away from the table and closed the laptop. The blue light blinked out, trapping him in the dark. Every couple of years, Hydra brought him out of hibernation to force him to do what he was doing now: investigate a target. Dr. Du Maurier had given him the name Isaac Hemming, but Isaac Hemming wasn’t the target.
Hannibal Lecter was.
The pieces were falling into place. That sense of offness in Dr. Lecter’s office, the sense that something about him was wrong. Broken. Bucky had sensed it before, not just in the men who tortured him for Hydra, but in himself, when he had been out of the ice long enough to be clear-headed, when he had a mission and a target. There had been a pleasure in killing, although it always felt like pitch, like oil, wrapping around his consciousness. When Bucky saw Dr. Lecter that first day in the office, he had known it, then, even though he didn’t want to accept it: Dr. Lecter also knew that pleasure in killing.
Dr. Lecter is more a monster than you can imagine.
Bucky stood up. He had always felt comfortable in the dark. He had always felt comfortable doing the things Steve wouldn’t do.
And then, like that, Bucky understood. Dr. Du Maurier had sent him on another mission. Not one for Captain America, not one even for SHIELD. A mission for the Winter Soldier.
Bucky glanced up at the window over the sink. His reflection stared back him, transparent and ghostly. The light from the stove caught on the metal of his arm, made it glint like starlight.
The Chesapeake Ripper. Isaac Hemming with his missing organ meats. Bucky’s mother, eating liver and onions while he fixed himself a grilled cheese sandwich, the smell turning his stomach.
He understood everything.
It was easy to get the weapon. A long-range sniper rifle like the one he favored when he worked for Hydra, heavy, designed to be fired from some secret place. The only reason Bucky hadn’t been dangerous since he remembered himself was because he didn’t want to be.
Right now, tonight, he wanted to be fucking dangerous.
He’d been to SHIELD’s underground headquarters enough times that he had the place cased; it was simple work to slip in past the guards unseen. He fell into the role easily, as easily as he had that day at the Saffman building—only this time, he didn’t get confused. He was more clear-headed than he’d been in weeks. He moved with a quick professionalism through the SHIELD hallways, dismantling the electronic lock on the armory door with ease. The walls were lined with weapons, firearms and grenades and some alien tech he wasn’t touching. He went straight for the sniper rifle.
He drove into Baltimore, the rifle locked away in his truck. He’d managed to scrounge up some eye black at the SHIELD armory, too, and while he waited at an endless red light at an empty street, he smeared it over both eyes. It was nighttime but the city lights could be a hell of a glare. He didn’t want to miss this shot.
Lecter’s home address he’d gotten as easily has he had Dr. DuMaurier’s; people’s lives weren’t as secure as they liked to think, even the lives of a psychopath who, in all likelihood, was eating other human beings. Hannibal the cannibal, Bucky thought as he neared Baltimore, the lights twinkling up ahead. It fucking rhymes.
He drove past Lecter’s house once. A light was on in the upstairs window; otherwise the place was locked up tight, cozy on its pretty tree-lined street, yellow street lamps pooling on the damp sidewalk. Lecter was probably sitting in that room right now, reading, listening to music, readying for bed. Thinking that he’d gone another day convincing the world he was normal
Bucky looped around the block and parked behind a neighboring building, backing into a narrow little alley. He fired off a couple of shots from a silenced pistol to cut out the nearby street lights, plunging everything into darkness. Then he pulled the rifle out of the trunk, strapped it to his back, and climbed up the side of the building.
It was hard word, the kind of hard work Bucky always enjoyed. The air had a chill to it, the last dredges of winter stirring through the night. Bucky hardly noticed. He crawled up to the roof of the building and stood for a moment in the wind. Lecter’s window was still lit up. Bucky watched it, breathing steadily. He thought of Steve. He would never have killed him. Hydra couldn’t even get him to kill Steve—Steve had been the point of grace, the melody that woke him up out of the darkness.
But there was still that twist of doubt. Lecter had wormed his way into Bucky’s brain. He’d planted those seeds of distrust. He’d done more than Hydra ever had. How long it would have taken for them to grow, to set in roots? To turn Bucky into a monster again? The worst kind of monster, too. At least as the Winter Soldier he had never killed anyone he loved.
Bucky shook his head. It didn’t matter. He was here, on the wind-swept roof, and Hannibal Lecter was inside his house, on the other side of the glowing rectangle of glass. And Bucky had a mission, his first mission as the new Winter Soldier, the Winter Soldier who chose his assignments, who did what he knew to be right.
Bucky walked over to the edge of the roof. He pulled the rifle off his back. Screwed everything into place. Steadied it on the ledge. And then he peered through the scope, straight into that swell of light.
It was a bedroom. Dark walls, satiny-looking comforter on the bed.
And Hannibal Lecter, stepping out of a bathroom, dressed in a robe, his feet bare, his hair wet.
Bucky let out a long breath. His finger was on the trigger.
The wind gusted. He didn’t need equipment for this, not anymore. He could could calculate velocity and bullet angles in his head. He’d done this for seventy years.
Hurry, Dr. Du Maurier had said, her eyes glittering with fear.
Inside his bedroom, Dr. Lecter stopped. He quirked his head. There was an alertness to his expression, like a deer that has heard a noise in the brush.
Bucky smiled. The wind blew his hair. He thought of Steve, a beautiful image to counteract the ugliness that was to come.
Dr. Lecter looked up.
Dr. Lecter looked right at him.
Bucky fired, and he didn’t miss.