Bucky falls, and Bucky dies. Except it’s not really that simple, because it’s a long fall and he has time to think, and he doesn’t really die, but that’s not something he realizes until much later.
His hand still grips tight onto the bar, even after a stray jolt has knocked it loose and sent him plummeting down the endless ravine. Steve’s face is burned into his eyes like the after-image of a flash-bang, and his own scream echoes in his ears. It’s a pretty shitty way to die, frankly. Bucky has been expecting his own death, of course - they all have, it’s part of being a soldier - but he’d thought it would be something cleaner, like a bullet through the eye, or something more dramatic. He should have been slowly dying in the arms of some gorgeous French dame, or at the very least Steve, because heroic deaths were done either in the company of dames or brothers-in-arms, yet here Bucky was falling down a godforsaken ravine with no one to kiss his brow.
He’d be angry if he didn’t feel so lost.
Bucky hits a rock outcrop at a bad angle and feels his pelvis shatter. He screams, and it sounds like nothing because there’s no one around to hear it. The train is long gone. He hopes they get Zola. He hopes Steve doesn’t beat himself up about this.
He bounces off the canyon wall again, and this time the pain is so intense he nearly blacks out. A heartbeat, and Bucky realizes he can’t feel his left arm any more. He looks over at it briefly, and sees it snapped and mangled beyond recognition. It’s barely attached to him, and the subsequent gush of blood is suddenly the funniest goddamn thing Bucky’s ever seen in his life, droplets of it falling up into the colorless sky.
Another impact. All of the ribs on the right side of his body snap, audibly. At least one lodges in his lung, and Bucky’s sobbing laughter bubbles up his throat. He can hardly breathe. There’s blood spilling out of his mouth and nose, and for some bizarre reason, all his injuries itch like they’re healing, but about a hundred times worse. He sees everything with perfect clarity, from the sharp-bright grey of the sky, to the dull glare of the snow. The air is cold, crisp, and Bucky figures he could do worse for a last breath.
He breathes, and finally blacks out. Bucky doesn’t feel the impact as he hits the water.
Before - before the fall, but after Steve rescued him from Hydra’s lab - Bucky made a hell of a name for himself as a sniper. He’d always had pretty good aim, but the US didn’t have much in the way of teaching resources, so Bucky had contented himself with the occasional crack shot before heading into the fray like a proper infantry grunt. When the SSR took him in for reassignment to the Commandos, they’d initially sent him to the Russians for training, who were the sort of irreverently insane that Bucky could really get behind. As far as they were concerned, if you couldn’t shoot with half a bottle of vodka in you and your ass gone blue from spending 14 hours in a goddamn tree, you just plain couldn’t shoot. Bucky respected that.
So next he’d learned from the best - literally the best. SSR had somehow gotten ahold of some crazy Finn by the name of Simo Häyhä who had half his jaw missing and over 500 confirmed kills and unsurprisingly the Russians stayed the hell away from him. Between endurance training with Häyhä and advanced combat training with the SSR, the six months after his rescue were the most grueling of Bucky’s life. They were also the first time he’d really felt challenged and invigorated. He had found his niche and was excelling at it. Not too shabby for a couple of mouthy brats from Brooklyn, Steve had said, laughing.
Steve tended to forget that Bucky’s job involved a lot fewer heroic entrances and a lot more watching heads explode through a scope than his own, but Bucky wasn’t in any hurry to correct the lapse. Steve needed to keep what little idealism he had left.
But through all of it, the training and the tracking and watching some enormous Super-Soldier with little Steve’s face smash his way through Hydra agents, Bucky knew something was off- not with the Commandos, or with Steve, or with the war, but with himself. A thousand little oddities intruded on - and improved - his everyday life. Like the way his vision was suddenly perfect after a lifetime of needing to squint a little when reading. Or how he never ran out of breath during training, unless he was sparring with Steve. Or how the world around him was suddenly, stunningly clear, and he could make connections and come to conclusions faster than almost anyone else in the unit. Or how once he’d come back from an op with what he’d sworn was a very thoroughly broken arm only to be told it was just a minor fracture. Bucky had laughed it off and let the medics bandage him up, but laid awake all night staring at the canvas of his tent.
Weeks earlier, Steve had told him about Dr. Erskine, about the serum, about Red Skull. Steve’s face was pinched and still in a way that Bucky knew was grief as he’d recited what Dr. Erskine had said about good men and worse men, and about the experiments Schmitt and Zola had done - were still doing. Bucky kept his own expression perfectly neutral, thankful that Steve’s emotions were still too raw for him to notice Bucky’s own discomfort.
Bucky still remembered with startling clarity what Hydra’s technicians had done to him. He could remember every needle, every injection, every unzip of his skin, every sloppy suture done without painkillers. He could remember screaming so hard his throat bled, healed, and then bled again. He could remember being completely certain he was going to die, and actually hoping for it, because the things Hydra had done to him should have killed him but never did. He always healed, and that hurt like hell too, too fast and too draining, the itching of knitting skin almost as bad as the cuts that had split it open in the first place. He’d lost 30 pounds in two weeks and didn’t have any scars.
So while Steve fell silent beside him, muted at the memory of Erskine’s death, Bucky looked down at his perfectly steady hands and wondered- if the serum made good men great and bad men worse, what did it make him?
Bucky falls, but he doesn’t die. Or maybe he does, but he gets better. He’s honestly not sure, because it’s all a sluggish blur. One moment he closes his eyes and blacks out, and the next he’s-
Well, he’s not sure about that either. There isn’t really a ‘next moment’. The fact that he’s even able to contemplate the holes in his memory means that he survived, though that’s about all he’s got for reference. His recollection is muddled, slow, nothing but impressions and half-remembered tails of memory and a few muffled sounds, like everything after he fell took place under water.
He supposes time passes, but he has absolutely no idea how much or how much of it he’s even conscious for. He can’t see, can’t hear, can’t move. The only real impression he gets of his surroundings is ‘green’, which is completely useless. Bucky would be frustrated at it all, but he simply can’t stay conscious or alert long enough to really think. It’s like when he’d been on the table at that Hydra base, but at least this time no one’s jabbing needles into him or cutting him open to see how loud he can scream.
In the tenuous moments of consciousness he manages to grasp, Bucky feels thankful for that. He doesn’t know where he is, or what’s going on, but at least they let him rest.
Then the moment is gone and he slips back into the dark.
Bucky dreams, but he doesn’t know why. Sometimes he’s in a desert, bunkered down under half-submerged ruins and smothered in canvas, face covered to keep him from the biting sand. Sometimes he’s in the mountains, high up on a craggy outcrop, his face and hand protected from the biting chill by damp wool that still smells like sheep. Sometimes he’s back in the temperate forests of Europe, perched in a tree with his face painted in muted greens and blacks, and he can smell the tar-like paint as well as the sharp-sweet of the pines.
In every dream he’s sniping. Sometimes he sits perfectly still for what feels like hours, even though he knows time isn’t real in dreams. He never gets a good look at his target’s face. He always wakes up when he pulls the trigger. It all feels so real - the smells and sounds of the environment, the distant cramping in his thighs and arm, the dreamy float he goes into when he’s lining up a shot, even the sharp rush of adrenaline just before he pulls a trigger - that Bucky wonders if there isn’t something wrong with him. Dreams aren’t supposed to be so vivid, and he didn’t think you could dream about things you’ve never done or seen. Maybe he’s in a coma.
He doesn’t dream of Steve, or any of the rest of the Commandos, or home, or anything but war. Except sometimes there’s a woman in his sights, and he knows - knows, in a way he can’t describe - that she’s his ally, and that he would never hurt her. He watches her move, all coiled springs and deadly movements, and takes out anyone who catches sight of her (there aren’t many). Her hair changes color often, but he knows it’s supposed to be red. She’s got sharp lines and smooth curves, and sometimes she winks at him from afar. Her eyes are always green. She slaughters her way to their target with a horrifyingly graceful efficiency that Bucky realizes shouldn’t be as impressive or attractive as he finds it.
He knows who she is, but every time he tries to remember, the dream slips away.
(Whenever Bucky’s conscious enough to realize he’s dreaming, he hopes he’ll dream of the woman again. She’s the only thing in the dreams that’s alive, and that makes him wonder if they’re really dreams at all.)
A final dream, in flashes;
Steve, finally, and he’s in his Captain America uniform, except it looks different. Maybe Bucky just can’t remember what it’s supposed to look like.
They’re fighting, he thinks, which is strange and wrong, because this is Steve. Steve who absolutely refuses to kill unless he has no other choice; Steve who gives NAZIS a chance to surrender honorably; Steve who has never once in his entire life lashed out in anger.
Steve’s face is frozen in deadly calm, like it always is when he fights, but there’s something in his eyes like tears. Bucky wonders what he did to make Steve look like that.
There are other people in the fight. Or at least he thinks they’re people - there’s some sort of red-and-gold robot firing at him, all sleek lines like something out of a sci-fi novel, eyes glowing with a cold and piercing light; out of the corner of his eye he sees something huge and green and monstrous; he dodges without thinking, and an arrow of all things whips by his head and explodes behind him; thunder roars just overhead, and a huge man steps out of the clouds, lightning in his eyes.
Steve throws something at him. The world explodes in blue and Bucky screams. He doesn’t dream again.
Bucky stops dreaming, and then he wakes.
At first he thinks it’s another dream. It’s been so long (he thinks) since he’s actually been conscious and aware that he’s not even sure what that feels like any more. Just like in the dreams, he’s drowsy and sluggish, his head spinning and his eyes glued shut. There are muffled voices too, which is refreshingly normal. Bucky’s learned to take small comfort in the low vocalizations, as it means he’s not completely brain dead.
If someone had told him that someday he’d be irrationally happy to be only almost in a coma, he’d have asked them what sort of sketch joint they’d been getting their hooch from. Now, the thought still makes him want to laugh, but not out of amusement. He feels hysterical, panicked and claustrophobic as he finally becomes aware to enough to fear being forever trapped in his own head.
Something starts beeping nearby, staccato-fast, and by the time the voices start up again Bucky realizes they don’t sound submerged any more, though the swimmy feeling in his head makes them fade in and out of focus. This input is new, maybe even real, and he struggles towards it, long-unused parts of his brain lighting up as it dawns that it’s finally time to wake.
“-can’t let you go in there alone. What if he tries -”
“We took the chip out, Tony…-sides, that’s my best friend…the same for Rhodey?”
Steve. Amidst the sudden whitewash of sound, Bucky has no problem identifying Steve’s voice. It’s a beacon, a tugboat, dragging his consciousness ever faster towards the surface. Steve is here, so he must be safe; Steve is here, so he must be alive; Steve is here, so he must not be dreaming. He’s achingly glad for that. Bucky doesn’t want to dream any more, doesn’t want to rest.
The beeping sound spikes again. The voices (Steve) pick back up, possibly in response. Bucky thinks he might see light through his still-shut eyes.
“-aking up! I have to—!”
“-dangerous, what if he-“
“Please, just wait…I’ll call, you know I will.”
Sensation creeps back into his limbs, and Bucky feels momentarily nauseous as his inner ear reasserts itself. He’s laying down on something soft. He’s warm - too warm, skin clammy and tight. There’s a hiss-click sound that moves in time with his breathing, and the air smells like cool nothing. Bucky still can’t feel his left arm, and the space where it should be is cold and dead. He hurts in every fiber of his being, and the sensation only gets worse as he drifts closer to the surface. It’s quickly becoming too much, the world over-taxing his senses even as he skittishly tries to draw away from it.
He hurts. He’s scared. He can’t stop shaking.
The beeping gets faster and Bucky’s eyes rove frantically in their sockets. He can feel the panic shooting adrenaline into his system as everything presses rapidly back in on him, a cacophony of sound and light and pain that he is utterly unprepared for. There’s something hard and plastic on his face, and the thought of it makes his throat seize up in visceral response; he can’t breathe. He shakes his head side to side, weak and ineffective, but every system in his body is screaming at him to move.
Footsteps, shuffling fabric, the smell of leather, and the mask over his mouth is gone. Bucky gasps, shudders, arches his back, opens his eyes. Reality snaps back onto him. His vision should be blurry from disuse, his ears cotton-stuffed and his throat scratchy, but he can see and hear and speak perfectly.
Steve hovers over him, blue eyes wide with fear and hope, and all Bucky manages to croak is, “We better have won the damn war, Rogers.”
He passes out again, gentle and slow, and it’s like sleeping.