This mission is one of the weird ones.
The Howling Commandos can spend hours debating whether they get all the crazy jobs because nobody but Steve can handle them, or because the brass have a theory that folks on the homefront will lose interest if they send Captain America out on missions that are ninety percent boredom and ten percent terror instead of the other way around. Lately, though, Bucky has been working on a different theory: maybe Steve’s shenanigans—which tend to be dangerous, against direct orders, and worst of all, successful—have pissed off Colonel Phillips to the point where the guy is actually trying to get them all killed just to get Steve out of his hair.
Today the punishment takes the form of Steve literally kicking in the front door of a HYDRA facility and marching in with his shield up and the Commandos following him with guns blazing, or as the Army calls it, “utilizing the element of surprise.” As plans go, it’s the stupidest Bucky has ever heard and he griped about it all the way here, so of course it goes off like a charm just to prove him wrong. Not that he wants to be disintegrated by one of HYDRA’s horrible death-ray guns, but it’d almost be worth catching a bullet if it would make Steve show a little fucking caution in the future.
Plus, he heals fast now, since Zola pumped all the whatever-it-was into his veins.
So Bucky is in a foul mood when they start securing the base, and it only gets worse when he starts finding stuff that… well, it doesn’t belong here, is what. He knows the Nazis have been looting their way across Europe and sending the treasures back home, so if it were gold, or paintings, or what Falsworth calls “antiquities,” Bucky would be unsurprised to find it in a HYDRA stronghold.
This stuff is something else entirely.
Carter told them all, before their first mission as a unit, that Johann Schmidt, A.K.A. the Red Skull, is obsessed with anything mystical, even though (or maybe because) science made him what he is now. Well, Bucky’s no scholar, but he’s pretty sure this qualifies. Other than the fact that it’s all old stuff, ritual-looking stuff, there’s no rhyme or reason to the mess that clutters every surface in the bunker’s treasure room. Stone crosses and icons of saints are mixed in with carved clay tablets in no alphabet he’s ever seen before, rusting weapons and tarnished jewelry, even some of those little painted statuettes they used to bury with mummies. A wooden panel leans against a wall with a hypnotic arrangement of circles and lines carved into its surface; the last line at the bottom trails off in a long scratch, as if the carver had to be forcibly dragged away.
It’s when he sees the scattering of bones inside a circle on the floor that he knows he’s out of his depth.
He’s tempted to just wedge the door shut and walk away, but orders are orders: anything weird gets kicked up the chain. So he turns and yells over his shoulder, “Hey, Captain Stupid, c’mere and look at this,” and Steve shows up in the doorway a moment later. His eyes follow the same track around the room that Bucky’s did, also lingering on the bones at the end of it, and he says, “This is one for the SSR, all right. Okay, let’s clear out and let the smart people handle it.”
“You better be first out the door, then,” Bucky says, mostly to hide the fact that this place is giving him the creeps. He turns, but he’s still holding his rifle in his right hand, and the stock catches the edge of a nearby table and scatters an assortment of junk. A stream of metal falls to the floor: corroded coins, bracelets, trinkets, a tarnished medallion on a chain.
He’ll never be able to explain what makes him lean down and start to pick things up. It’s not as if his ma is here to yell at him for making a mess. It’s just a thoughtless reaction: he put something out of order and his instinct is to fix it. It’s dumb and he doesn’t know why he bothers.
When his hand closes on the medallion, his left arm goes numb to the shoulder and the taste of metal fills his mouth.
the target’s battered face looks up at him the target’s blood is on his knuckles and there’s something he doesn’t remember something he doesn’t want to remember because he has to finish the mission there’s nothing for him in the world but the mission he has to
—finish the mission—
he knows the target he knows the target’s face but he can’t think about it because he has to keep going he has to
—finish the mission—
Bucky starts to shiver, and his fingers grip the amulet so hard that the rough edge of the metal bites into his skin.
You know me.
No I DON’T—
Steve rips the medallion out of his hand and flings it away, and Bucky realizes he’s on his knees, and Steve must’ve been yelling for a while, because the Commandos are piling into the room to see what’s happening. “Shit, Rogers, we thought you found another HYDRA squad in here,” Dugan says, and Morita says, “What happened? Barnes, are you hurt?” and Falsworth looks around the room and says, “Good God,” and Bucky just wants them all to just stop, and he says, “Sh-sh-sh-shut up,” which is when he realizes his teeth are chattering and his left hand is in a fist he can’t unclench.
Morita looks sick. “Christ,” he says, “nobody touch anything,” and it takes Bucky longer than the others to realize that he’s thinking contact poison. They all hustle back to the doorway except for Steve, who’s holding him up, and Morita, who’s pawing through the med kit as if anything in there would help if Bucky did get a dose of some weird HYDRA drug. Bucky didn’t, though. He isn’t sure what just happened to him, but he knows exactly what’s to blame for it.
He raises his rifle and fires at the medallion four times before Steve grabs his arm and knocks the gun away.
It leads to a fresh outbreak of yelling from the Commandos, of course, but Bucky has a sniper’s eyes now, and he sees what the rest of them miss: the medallion doesn’t move. It wasn’t heavy, and the first bullet should’ve sent it skittering across the floor, but it lies there as if it weighs as much as a tank. At least it’s warped out of recognition now, the symbols around its edge obliterated by dents where the bullets bounced off the metal, and Bucky doesn’t know if that’s enough to take away whatever power it had, but he hopes so.
“Bucky, what the hell,” Steve says.
“L-l-language, Rogers,” Bucky manages, because yeah, maybe he just ran into a magic amulet like something out of H. Rider Haggard but that’s no excuse not to give Steve shit when he has the chance. “I’m okay,” he tells Morita, “I’m f-fine.” But his left arm feels wrong, somehow, too heavy and numb, and he’s still cold. “And shut up, all of you, I can hear you, you know.”
The murmuring from the rest of the squad stops abruptly, and to Bucky’s surprise, Dugan comes over and puts a hand on his shoulder. “What is it, kid?” he says, with surprising gentleness.
“I think something really bad is gonna happen,” Bucky blurts, before he can stop himself.
They all look at him like he’s crazy, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Then Jones, always the skeptic, steps forward, with a snort of derision. “Come on, Barnes, quit with the pranks. We’re supposed to be working here.” He reaches down to pick up the warped metal disc.
“Don’t touch it, Gabe,” Steve says, in his Cap voice, and Jones freezes, then backs away.
Steve turns back to Bucky. “Hey,” he says, in a voice pitched too low for the rest of the squad to hear, “do you have some reason to think the team’s in danger? Because if you do, you gotta tell me. Even if you think it sounds crazy.”
Bucky has to stop himself from reaching up to touch Steve’s face, where the blood was. The guys would definitely never let him live that down. But no, when Steve puts it that way, the team isn’t in danger, and Steve definitely won’t abort the mission if Bucky says it’s just him, and from Bucky, no less. “It’s nothing,” he says, hunching his shoulders and pulling away. “It’s fine. Can we just go?”
He can see Steve fighting his natural urge to press for an answer, and consciously deciding to let it be. Deciding to trust him. In light of what he just saw, it kills Bucky a little, that look. But Steve does trust him, so he just nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Come on, guys, let’s go home.”
Bucky does okay at pretending he’s forgotten all about the treasure room while the Commandos set up camp for the night, some distance from the bunker. He pitches the tent he’ll share with Steve, and starts a fire, and tries to be his usual asshole self when anybody talks to him. But every so often he starts shivering again, and he keeps rubbing his left arm, until Morita finally takes pity on him and says, “You know, you don’t look so good, Barnes. Maybe you’re coming down with something.”
“Maybe,” Bucky says, and sure enough, everybody around the fire relaxes a little as soon as they’ve got the flimsiest excuse for his weird behavior. The Howling Commandos are great at denial.
“Hey, you know what’ll make you feel better, Jimmy,” Dugan says.
“Dugan, you better not even be thinking about—” Bucky is starting to say, when something soft flies through the air and hits him in the face.
Jesus Christ. Of course, knowing that they were walking straight into a HYDRA fortress today, Dugan’s top priority was to make sure he planned some sort of harassment involving the stupid Bucky Bear toy that the real Bucky hates with every fiber of his being. He must make a really great face when he sees it, because even Steve cracks up, the traitor. Bucky snatches the teddy bear off the ground and whips it back at Dugan, aiming for his stupid hat, which he manages to knock off Dugan’s stupid head. It’s a mistake; he should’ve tossed the bear in the campfire instead and been done with it. “I fucking hate you, Dum-Dum.”
“I’m sorry, who was just giving me grief about my language?” says Steve.
“Va te faire foutre,” Bucky says, which earns him a grin and a thumbs-up from Dernier. “I’m turning in.” He crawls into his tent and flops down. At least in here, nobody’s looking at him like he’s crazy.
He lies awake while the guys flap their gums about various things, hoping that’s the end of it, but of course it isn’t, because Jones won’t let it go. “No offense, Rogers,” he says, eventually, “but I never took your buddy for a superstitious guy.”
Bucky is a little surprised that it isn’t Steve who comes to his defense first, but Dernier. “Sergeant Barnes is not a superstitious guy,” he says, slow and careful with his English. “This is why, when he says he sees a bad thing, I believe him.”
Aww, Jacques, you’re a pal. Okay, you’re off the hook about the whole Bucky Bear thing.
“You know, most of the time, I believe in what I see,” Dugan says. “But Jimmy’s not the kind of guy who jumps at shadows. I don’t know if he really got a premonition or something, but it’s not like it’d hurt some of us to be a little more careful.”
You’re not off the hook, Dugan, but thanks anyway.
“You guys are ridiculous,” Jones says. “Nobody can see the future.”
“My ma knew when my father died,” Steve says. “He was in France, and she told me she knew the minute the mustard gas got him. She didn’t get the telegram until a couple days later, but she knew exactly when it happened.”
“I’m sorry, but I agree with Jones,” says Falsworth. “That sort of thing is coincidence at best and wishful thinking at worst, Steven.”
“You’re entitled to your opinion,” Steve says, unruffled. “What do you think, Morita?”
“I think you boys couldn’t handle it if I told you some of the old Japanese stories my grandfather used to tell me about this kind of thing,” Morita says. Which isn’t exactly an answer, but at least it steers the conversation in a different direction: it turns into a ghost story contest, which quickly devolves into a jump-out-and-scare-the-guy-next-to-you contest. He’ll take that over their throwing words like shell shock or combat exhaustion around, any day.
Because if he ever does crack… well, then they’ll send him home, and that can’t happen. Not unless it’s because the war’s over and Steve is going home, too. Because the others, well. The others still see Captain America when they look at him, not Steve. That’s why none of the others will ever really have his back, not the way Bucky does.
When Steve finally crawls into the tent beside him, Bucky waits for him to settle in before he says, “I forgot that about your ma, how she used to say she had the second sight.”
Steve sighs. “Yeah, and your ma told her a good Christian lady shouldn’t say that.”
“I figured it was because she was a good Christian lady that she got it. She knew about you before anybody else, anyway. She used to say God kept you from dying all those times because you were meant for something big. Bet this whole Captain America thing wouldn’t surprise her at all.”
“Flattering your CO won’t get you promoted, Sergeant,” Steve says, but Bucky can tell he likes the idea of his mother being proud of him for all this.
“Remember how she used to call me Jamie?”
“I forgot all about that. You finally made her stop.”
“Yeah.” Bucky's never told Steve that there was one last time, though. The night he’d been sound asleep, and he’d felt someone ruffle his hair, and a voice in his ear said, You look after my boy now, Jamie Barnes, and he'd woken up to find out that Sarah Rogers was dead. Until today, he was with Falsworth; he figured it for wishful thinking. Now he’s not so sure. “So you don’t think I’m crazy?”
“No, I said I believed you about today. I always knew you were crazy.”
“I forgot you, Steve.”
“When I picked up that thing. What I saw, the… the premonition I got,” he says, which he figures sounds less extreme than vision and saner than hallucination. “It was that I, I forgot you. I didn’t know who you were. We were fighting, and I think you were trying to stop me, but I… It felt like I was really trying to kill you.”
Steve pushes himself up on one elbow and stares down at Bucky as if he can see in the dark, which he probably can, thanks to the stupid serum. “I take it all back,” he says. “Gabe’s right. You’re a superstitious idiot.”
“You think we’d ever really disagree on something big enough to kill each other over? Then you’re even dumber than I thought. And any other day, you’d tell me I’m way too annoying to forget.”
“Well,” Bucky says, placated, “this is true.” He hesitates. “Hey, Stevie?”
“If Zola ever… got me again,” Bucky says, with an effort. “If HYDRA made me into something like Schmidt… You know I’d want you to stop me, right? You know I’d want you to kill me before you let me hurt you.”
“If you think I’d let it get to that point, then you can brûle en l’enfer, Barnes.”
“Steve? There’s something you gotta promise me, okay?”
“Bucky, I’m not gonna promise that I’d—”
“Promise me,” Bucky says earnestly, “that you’ll never try to speak French again. Your accent is awful.”
Steve punches his shoulder, lightly. Then he pauses, and grips Bucky’s arm. “Jeez. Your skin is like ice.”
“It’s cold out,” Bucky says, ignoring the fact that there’s more to it than that. His arm doesn’t feel numb anymore, but there’s an ache in his shoulder like it’s been too cold for a very long time.
Steve throws an arm around him, pulling Bucky close against his chest. “This okay?”
“I guess.” Actually, it’s a hell of a lot better than okay. Steve doesn’t mean it the way he’d like him to—never has, never will, especially not with Carter in the picture—but it feels safe, and Bucky hasn’t spent a lot of time feeling safe lately. “Hey,” he says, “will you ask Carter to tell me if they find out anything about that weird necklace?”
“Sure. Doubt they will, though. I think you beat it up beyond all recognition.”
“Yeah, well,” Bucky murmurs, before he lets himself relax into sleep, “I just hope I never have to deal with anything that weird again.”
He never does find out what the medallion was, or what was written on it, or why it did what it did—if it did, in fact, do anything. But he’ll forget all about it soon enough.
It’s 1944, and six weeks from now, Bucky Barnes has a train to catch.