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autumn comes early

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'I thought you were dead,' are the first words that leave Bucky's mouth when he comes to, like a morbid echo from a past he sometimes thinks it'd be easier to just forget. 'They told me you died.'

Crashed ass-over-elbow into an iceberg, they said; just splinters left and no conceivable chance of survival, they said. We're sorry for your loss, they even said.

But the first rule of SHIELD is that Nick Fury lies. Bucky can't even muster up any righteous anger; he's got bigger problems right now, chief among them the thing where he's in a dark, damp warehouse, beat up, bleeding, half out of his uniform (so much for secret identities) and cuffed to a chair with his hands behind his back. The only part of his body that doesn't scream in pain is his left arm, but he's hyperconscious of the pull of artificial muscles anyway, the scar tissue on his shoulder itching.

And then, oh, then there is Steve, who isn't Steve, who is wearing a solid grey uniform with a red star embroidered over his heart. Steve, who raises an eyebrow.

'I thought you'd be bigger, so I guess tonight is full of disappointments,' he says, and something twists in the pit of Bucky's stomach, cold and aching and god, this can't be happening. Six months he's been in the future, six months of grieving for a hero he had no more claim over than the adoring masses and a man who the adoring masses liked to forget was there under the uniform, six months of wearing red and white and blue like he's not a fucking fraud, and now two months tracking the world's best assassin, but what no one told Bucky is that the world's best assassin is Steve motherfucking Rogers, like Lazarus reborn, with all the humanity left on the other side.

The Winter Soldier's accent is pitch-perfect, his speech patterns, everything. He's maybe two or three years older, his hair is shorter and he needs a shave, but it's still Steve, still as familiar to Bucky as anything in the world. But then he forces himself to look Steve in the eye, to look for recognition there, and that's where the illusion breaks like nothing more than a castle in sand, like glass. The Winter Soldier's eyes are cold, dead in a way they never were even in the worst of the war, void of any emotion.

If Bucky needed any more proof that this is Steve in name only, and maybe not even that, he gets it right then: the Winter Soldier crosses the distance between them and grabs Bucky by the hair, jerks his head sideways so he can stick him with what Bucky really fucking hopes is a clean needle —

'Fuck,' he moans when ten seconds later his system is drowning in sedatives or something worse, 'fuck.'

The Winter Soldier lets him go, and moves to crouch in front of the chair. He cocks his head to one side, and in his hand there's Bucky's headset.

'Cap, this is Romanoff, do you copy?' Natasha sounds angry, which means she must be out of her mind with worry, which means if — when Bucky gets out of here he's in for a world of hurt. Rule one of the Avengers: you do not make Natasha worry. 'Captain, your biometrics are offline, we need you to check in. How copy?' Silence, then: 'James —'

The Winter Soldier switches off the receiver. 'James,' he repeats, eyes narrowed. 'Is that your name?'

'No,' Bucky says, trying not to slur his words, and as deadpan as he can when he's flying higher than a kite. 'They call me that for shits and giggles. They also call me Grumpypants.'

The Winter Soldier doesn't laugh. Bucky didn't expect him to.

'My employers have so many questions for you, James,' the Winter Soldier says. Bucky's name on his tongue is like a purr, except it's also wrong, wrong and mocking. And in all the time they've known each other, Bucky doesn't think Steve ever used his first name.

'Buy me a drink first,' he shoots back. He's too warm, and keeping his eyes focused on the Winter Soldier is giving him a massive fucking migraine so he shuts his eyes and tries to will the nausea away. Panic is creeping up his spine, burning hot, because he knows this: he knows how it works, they'll drug you and poke you and ask their fucking questions, and they'll leave you broken and begging — but there's no they here, no scientists, just Steve.

Steve, who isn't Steve, who needs a shave and whose eyes are dead.

'Killing you isn't within the parameters of this mission,' the Winter Soldier says. 'If you cooperate, you'll live.'

Is that what Zola's goons said? We are not killers, in heavily accented English, the plan is not for you to die. He sure fucking wanted to die, by the end, but then there was —

'Steve,' Bucky whispers, hoarse.

The Winter Soldier backhands him, doesn't even check his enhanced strength, and the force of it sends the chair toppling to the side. It breaks, old dry wood falling apart with a dry crack. Bucky hits the ground and doesn't make a sound, blood welling in his mouth and the concrete floor cold against his face. He grits his teeth and swallows and keeps quiet. Steve leans over him — no, Jesus Christ, this isn't Steve. The Winter Soldier leans over him.

'Who gave SHIELD the intel about Gruzinsky?' he asks, calm and gentle, but that's a lie.

'I got no fucking idea, pal.' Sergeant James Barnes, Bucky thinks. Three two five five seven. Except that's not right either, he's no sergeant any more, got promoted to better match his new uniform, and the numbers on his dog tags are different too. He's as much of a lie as the Winter Soldier, neither of them dead and rotting the way they should be.

The Winter Soldier sighs. 'They must've told you something. You're Captain America.' He says it like that's supposed to mean anything, like SHIELD ever tells Bucky jack shit.

Bucky chokes out a laugh, and presses his cheek to the floor. 'Yeah, you'd think so.' Stay conscious. Don't pass out. Talk your way out of this, Barnes. His hands are shaking too much to try and break out of the cuffs, so he tries to relax, look nonthreatening, more out of it than he really is — which is still plenty. When Bruce went berserk that one time in Stark Tower, it worked, it got Bucky through a close encounter save for a few broken bones. The Winter Soldier isn't the Hulk.

He's the exact fucking opposite, in fact, but all Bucky can do right now is hope for the goddamn best.

'I got no idea what the fuck you want from me,' he says, breath coming a little faster, feeling like the blood in his mouth is turning to ashes. 'So how about I make you a better deal?'

'I don't do deals.' The Winter Soldier straightens, crosses his arms over his chest and from where Bucky is lying on the floor, he can't see that red star.

He swallows around the bile in his throat. 'I'm told I'm hella convincing.'

The Winter Soldier snorts. 'I don't think so,' he says, but his expression shifts into something less blank. He wonders. He wonders what Bucky might offer. Hell, he probably wonders why an American is trying to negotiate with a terrorist; Bucky knows all about that policy.

He also knows about the Winter Solider. Natasha spared them no gruesome details in the debriefing; she listed every civilian, every man and woman and child, all the deaths written off as collateral. She fronted detachment so well she fooled everyone, save maybe Clint, but Bucky knew what to look for. He wonders, now, deliriously, what would Natasha do — and he knows the answer before he's even done thinking it.

She'd survive.

'What, you never went against orders?' he asks, hoarse, the man before him blurry enough around the edges that Bucky could almost kid himself he's talking to Steve and not courting slow and painful death. 'Never been tempted? Never pushed back?'

'I —' The Winter Soldier closes his mouth with an audible click and scowls.

'You have.' Bucky's voice grates in his throat, his heart hammering in his chest. He doesn't know if it's because of the drugs or because he hasn't been this fucking terrified since they had him strapped to a table in the ass-end of nowhere in Austria. 'You have, I can tell. You're not dumb muscle. Maybe you don't remember your name —'

Lightning fast, the Winter Soldier has him by the throat, pressing him into the floor. Bucky forces himself to grin. '— but you can think for yourself, Steve.'

The Winter Soldier lifts him off the ground by the neck, and god, that hurts, everything hurts. But then a shadow passes over the Winter Soldier's face. He watches Bucky with the sort of single-minded intensity that should be goddamn illegal, and it shouldn't go straight to Bucky's dick, but this is Steve, so of course it fucking does. For all the years Bucky had wanted Steve to look at him like that, don't they say be careful what you wish for?

'You're interesting,' the Winter Soldier says, finally. Then the pressure on Bucky's throat disappears, and he drops back to the ground. His right side takes most of the impact, and he groans in pain. He thinks his shoulder might be dislocated, and those are definitely cracked ribs; Jesus, the Winter Soldier really did a number on him. When SHIELD fishes his body out of the ocean, Coulson will bring him back to life just to kill him again.

He spits out blood, and: 'I try.'

The Winter Soldier steps over him and bends down to uncuff Bucky's hands, but before Bucky can move even an inch the Winter Soldier grabs his left arm and presses something small into the centre of his palm. Bucky feels the electrostatic charge go off like a series of fireworks, pure fucking agony in his every nerve ending, sweat beading at his temples, and he lets out a choked-back moan. And then it stops, and he can breathe again. His left arm hangs useless, unmoving, but Bucky forces himself to get up on one elbow.

The hand in his hair makes him jerk back, or try to, but the Winter Soldier's grip is sure. He didn't even take off his glove.

'Keep trying,' he murmurs, low and rough. His fingers tighten in Bucky's hair, and he pulls Bucky up, to his knees.

And then it's not so much talk-your-way-out-of-getting-shot as much as — Bucky hasn't gone down on his knees for a stranger since he was sixteen. But this is Steve, and this is staying alive, and with Bucky's vision blurry from the sedatives, from the pain, the Winter Soldier could almost look like who Bucky needs him to be. He wanted this, didn't he? He always wanted this, in their tiny rented room and before he went off to war, and fuck him if he didn't want this afterwards, too.

His hand doesn't shake all that much when he undoes the Winter Soldier's belt, deactivates the traps and catches. Bucky drags the zipper down with his teeth, and the Winter Soldier breathes out something that could be a laugh.

It's now or never, so Bucky shuts his eyes and just gets to it, he sucks off the Winter Soldier and tells himself this is Steve, this is Steve, so it's okay. They're drunk, or at least Bucky is, too drunk to think properly; and the — Steve fists his hand in Bucky's hair because neither of them knew that Steve could be pushy but that's okay, too. This is Steve, and the pain in Bucky's shoulder and ribs is because of something different and stupid that doesn't matter, and after he's done Steve will tell him what an idiot he is for getting into trouble, and he'll tape his ribs and help him reset the shoulder, but for now Steve's breath hitches and it's him, so Bucky moans around his dick because he can't not.

'You're enjoying this,' the Winter Soldier says, and his voice might be familiar, but Steve didn't sound like that in his entire fucking life, and Bucky nearly chokes, tears stinging in the corners of his eyes.

The Winter Soldier just laughs, breathless. He says something in Russian, low and heavy and maybe amused; there's no way for Bucky to just tune him out, but he damn well tries to — this is Steve, this is 1942 and everything that happened after Bucky shipped out was just a nightmare. Bucky breathes through his nose, knees aching and his hand on the — on Steve's hip is clammy with sweat, because he's drunk. This is Steve, so Bucky swallows him down, fights the reflex to throw up and — and the hair at his temples is sweaty, the back of his neck, Steve's fingers keeping him in place and Bucky forces himself to not struggle.

He's not ready for it when the — when Steve comes down his throat, pulling his hair, so he chokes again but swallows, and when Steve lets him go he drops down to the ground and gags, and tries to breathe. He doesn't want to open his eyes, because then it won't be Steve, will it, but the sound of the Winter Soldier's boots on the concrete floor make him jump a little, and then it's too late.

The Winter Soldier watches him with frank curiosity, one eyebrow raised, but there's colour high in his cheeks and he's breathing fast even as he zips up his uniform pants and resets his belt, all the catches and traps.

'You're right,' he says, and crouches next to Bucky. 'You are convincing.'

Bucky couldn't string together a coherent sentence now to save his life, so he doesn't bother. He doesn't know what the Winter Soldier injected him with, but he's still too hot, burning up like when he caught Steve's scarlet fever, and he has to grit his teeth to stop them from chattering. The ground is a sweet, cold blessing on his skin. Blood roars in his ears, louder and louder.

'I'd say your friends have about three hours to get you to a hospital,' the Winter Soldier says. He reaches out, touches Bucky's cheek — his fingers are freezing and the touch feels like sandpaper and Bucky reels back, gasping, even though the Winter Soldier took off his glove and it's a real touch, no matter how fake. Bucky forces himself to focus on the Winter Soldier even though it hurts, everything, every muscle in his body aching, and the Winter Soldier touches him again, mouth twisting in a smile.

'I want you to remember this, James,' he says, tracing the line of Bucky's jaw. 'You owe me your life. Remember this, because I collect my debts.'

Bucky isn't sure if the sound crawling up his throat ever makes it out of his mouth, or if he just moans in his head. He presses his face into the ground and tries to make his body stop shaking, and then there's the deafening clamour as the warehouse doors slide open; the light that falls in is too much, and he screws his eyes shut. This time he definitely makes a noise, a small pitiful keen. Breathe in. Breathe out.

There is nothing more he'd like to do than just lie on the floor and wait to die, curled up on himself like a sick kid, but a part of him — a part that sounds a lot like Steve, which doesn't fucking help — screams at him to get up, get on his feet, right now, soldier. So he does, he manages to pull himself up on his right elbow. He waits for the nausea to pass; when it doesn't, he lets out something like a broken growl, because fuck, fuck, but then he sees it. His headset, where the Winter Soldier must've dropped it.

No. He left it there, deliberately.

By the time Bucky switches on the receiver, then the GPS tracker, the remains of his uniform are soaked through with sweat and he can barely catch his breath. He rests his forehead against the floor and chokes out, 'This is — Barnes. Copy.'

By the time the team gets there, and Tony busts down the door, and Natasha is checking his pupils and barking at Thor to help her carry him, and Bruce is running back into the quintjet to get his hands on whatever the fuck they have for first aid there, and Clint is sweeping the warehouse for other signs of activity and finding nothing, Bucky feels like he can see everything from outside his own body, like he's a level removed from the real world.

Later, in a SHIELD medical facility in Prague, they get to him in time to counter the neurotoxin Steve injected him with, though the estimate was wrong: there were two hours, and after that there'd be irreversible brain damage. Bucky spends the whole week in bed there, and he's never felt so weak in his life. The white coats only clear him for a long distance flight, and as soon as the team is back in New York Bucky's shipped off to the Manhattan HQ medical division.

Fury pays him a visit, between various teammates checking in to make sure Bucky's still breathing (he has a stack of DVDs from Tony, which he can't watch because his room doesn't have this kind of equipment; he has books and comic books from Bruce, Pop-Tarts from Thor, a magazine about sniper rifles from Clint and a huge Russian doorstopper from Natasha, because she finds it appalling that Bucky never read any Tolstoy).

'Captain Barnes,' Fury says, and waves Bucky off when he tries to get up and salute. 'I'm not here in an official capacity. Agent Coulson will debrief you fully as soon as you're cleared, but I need you to tell me something now.'

'If I can.'

Fury levels him with a flat look. 'Did you get a good look at him?'

Bucky doesn't blink when he says, 'Sorry, sir.'

There's a pause, and it hangs heavy like smoke, but then Fury just nods. He leaves without another word. For a long moment Bucky just stares at the closed door, and carefully avoids looking at the cameras recording his every move. There's a couple of pills on the bedside table; the docs said he might get anxiety, or post-something stress, and to take them then.

Bucky hates drugs, and those that put him to sleep are the worst, but he takes two pills and swallows them dry.

His dreams are always gone when he wakes up; it feels like absolution, but Bucky knows it will pass.