The white fog in his thoughts was retreating.
What had he dreamed of? Snow, maybe. Mountaintops. Wind whipping against his face. He felt it again. The scrape of frost in his lungs and the heavy thud of his heart as oxygenated blood pumped through him again. He’d been here before.
The scrape of metal shearing away and a drop—
The ragged shouts of battle, the crunch of metal and energy—
No. Not this, either.
A faint beep. A pulse monitor. He tumbled forward, but was held in place by straps. Instinct made him reach out to tear the restraints away, to fend off an unseen threat—but his arm didn’t obey.
There was no arm. Not on his left.
Then it all came back.
“James Buchanan Barnes.” The medic looked up from her tablet. Her face was warm, inviting. He’d woken up to far worse. Usually there were guards, machine guns, a cold cement cell. “My name is Claire Temple. I’ve been assigned to your primary care team.”
“Claire.” He tried the name out, let it roll off his dry tongue. Not a Russian name. An unnamed relief trilled down his spine. If anything, there was something familiar in her tone. “You from New York?”
She smiled softly. She had big brown eyes, a few shades darker than her skin, and her black hair framed her face. “You catch on quick.”
“Brooklyn,” he said, by way of introduction. Winced as the sharp smell of newspapers and clink of milk bottles drifted through his memories.
“Hell’s Kitchen,” she said.
“We’re not in New York, though.”
“No.” Her smile faltered. “We’re not.”
Two aides stepped forward to ease him out of the restraints. He squeezed his right hand into a fist and watched the skin turn red. An old military trick to get the blood moving. He took a step forward, out of the cryochamber. Instantly, the aides jumped back and looked somewhere behind him.
He turned to look behind the chamber and found no less than five heavily armed Wakandan soldiers.
His nostrils flared. Same song, different verse. Swung his feet wide and crouched into a fighting stance. His missing arm was going to be a problem, but he’d make do. The IV pole would work well as an early defense, then if he could reach that office chair, use it like a battering ram—
“Mr. Barnes.” Claire’s voice wavered. “No one’s here to hurt you.”
“You don’t understand.” He worked his jaw from side to side. “I can hurt all of you.” It was coming back to him now—Tony Stark. Helmut Zemo. The surveillance tape, and countless more—piling and piling on top of one another, an avalanche of regret. Be ready, something tugged inside of him. Be ready to comply—
“Mr. Barnes, you came here to find a way to stay safe until we could find a cure for what Hydra did to you.” Claire took a step toward him—he sensed it in his periphery. “And your friends think they’ve found just that.”
He surveyed the guards’ faces. Only a trickle of sweat at their temples gave away their nerves. Otherwise, they were soldiers, through and through. Wasn’t much chance he could get out of this without taking a few down permanently. And he didn’t want to. Christ, how he didn’t want to.
He lowered his arm. The guards lowered the assault rifles’ barrels in return. With a curt nod to them, he turned back to face Claire.
“Thank you, Mr. Barnes.”
He pressed his lips into a thin line. “My name’s Bucky.”
“Bucky.” She smiled. “Now, I’ve seen a lot of freaky shit in the past few years, and nothing you can do or say is going to surprise me. But I can’t do this without your cooperation. Can I have that? Will you give me that?”
The itch tugged in the back of his mind. Ready to comply. Ready to comply. But no, she was asking, wasn’t telling, she wanted to help, and she mentioned his friends, and Steve had promised him—
Steve had promised they’d thaw him out as soon as they found a cure. Left him in the Wakandan medical facility, with the best staff in the world, best guards in the world, best-secured country in the world . . . If Steve thought he was ready to wake up, then he was ready.
Assuming Steve was still alive. Or anyone was.
“Yes,” Bucky said. “I’m ready to—” He bit down hard on his tongue. “Cooperate.”
“Great.” Claire looked down at her tablet and swiped through a few slides. “We’ll run you through a few physical assessments first, make sure you’re fully awake and there were no complications in the cryosleep. Administer some localized anesthetics around the site of amputation in case you’re feeling any lingering ill effects. Then you’ll be ready to begin.”
She started walking toward the adjoining room. It looked like a standard physical therapy center, though far sleeker and cleaner than any he’d ever seen before. A few dim memories surfaced—gymnasium mats, concrete, the stink of sweat and fear. This was shiny and plastic and very, blindingly, white.
The guards followed close behind.
“Begin what, exactly?” Bucky asked, as Claire bent over to calibrate some complicated-looking piece of equipment. The aides approached him with alcohol-doused swabs and a pair of contact monitors. His chest tightened, but he held still while they attached the contacts to his temples.
Ready to comply
Ready to comply
“Your therapy sessions.”
It wasn’t Claire speaking. He glanced toward the door, and Sam Wilson stepped through. Steve’s friend—the one with the bird costume. Bucky stood up straighter and raised his arm overhead, obedient, as the aides lifted his shirt to attach more electrodes to his chest. The cold circles of adhesive stung as they clung to the ridges of his abdomen.
“I’m sorry Steve couldn’t be here himself, but he’s a bit . . . tied up at the moment.” Sam shoved his hands in his pockets. “He and I both agree, though, that you’re ready. More importantly, that we’re ready.”
The aides pulled Bucky’s shirt back down. “Ready for what?”
“For you.” Sam grimaced. “Now, I’m a certified PTSD counselor. Just one of my many talents.” He winked. “But even I’ve never tackled something quite so challenging as undoing decades of Soviet brainwashing.”
“Give me your left foot,” Claire barked. “Let me check your range of motion.”
Bucky put one foot forward and waited patiently while Claire gripped his heel and rotated his foot around his ankle. “So you haven’t exactly found a cure,” he said.
“I think we’ve got the closest thing we’re going to get.” Sam shrugged. “Between me, Wanda . . .”
“Wanda?” Bucky asked. Claire signaled for him to change feet, which he dutifully did.
“You know, the Sokovian girl? With the . . . you know.” Sam wiggled his hands and arms around like he was doing some kind of interpretive dance.
“Right.” Bucky forced himself to smile. “And the mind tricks.”
“They don’t have to be tricks.”
“Feet on the ground,” Claire said. “Arm straight out to the side, but not rigid.”
Sam circled around to Bucky’s other side to allow Claire to test his flexion. “And Claire here . . . Well, after she quit her job at Metro General in Manhattan, my friend told me she might be looking for some short-term work.”
“High-paying short-term work,” Claire corrected him with a broad grin. “I just need to get out of Manhattan for a while. And preferably soak up the beautiful scenery here in Wakanda.”
“Yeah, yeah, his highness isn’t going to shortchange anyone here.” Sam rubbed at his jaw. “But the thing is . . . we don’t have much time, and . . .”
“Oh, no.” Bucky dropped his arm. “No, no. Let me guess.”
Sam stifled a laugh. “Go right ahead.”
“Steve did something stupid,” Bucky said, “and he needs my help.”
And like that, the avalanche returned.
An alleyway off of Avenue Q, Tommy O’Malley and his band of thugs, all of them taking turns wailing on Steve and his dumb, scrawny ass. Captain Steven Rogers, picking a fight with the entirety of Hydra. Holding off countless special forces. Stopping Tony Stark.
And all with that wry grin and glint in his blue eyes, never backing down.
“See,” Sam said, “your memory isn’t so bad after all.”
Bucky’s shoulders dropped. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Claire scrolled through some vitals on her transparent tablet. “Everything’s looking solid. Within ranges I’d expect for someone of your, uh . . .” Claire looked him over, one eyebrow arched. “Um, enhanced physique and metabolism. Let me double check with the pharmacologist and we’ll get you started on your doses.”
“Thanks,” Bucky said. And closed his eyes, shaking off another flicker of memory. Dim lights flickering overhead as the watery strains of Tchaikovsky ballets filled the air. The woman counting down, one-two-three, one-two-three, and the long, graceful curve of the redhead’s back—
—could at least recognize me—
He jerked back. “So, um.” Turned to Sam. “How exactly is this supposed to work?”
“I’ve been reading up on your files. Everything we have access to, anyway.” He reached into the satchel slung around one shoulder, but whatever he’d been about to pull out, he thought better of it. “Seems to me, when Hydra conditioned you, they found some way to reassign some of your memories to fit some sort of . . . compliance command.”
Reassigned his memories.
Rusted. Bucky’s left shoulder twitched. A phantom metal limb.
You are to be the new fist . . .
He squeezed his eyes shut to shove away the unwanted memories. “You don’t sound too certain,” Bucky said.
Sam drummed his fingers against the satchel. “What they did to you . . . It shouldn’t even be possible. Who knows what kind of time it took, or weird-ass alien tech they might’ve used. But I think that in a safe environment we can—return those memories to where they belong.”
The memories. The codewords—triggers—memories—inverted and warped around—
Nine . . .
“Pulse rate climbing,” one of the aides called out.
Bucky blinked. Felt the sting of ice against his lips. The charge of electricity dancing across his skin, his temples, worming its way inside his brain—
“No. No, I can’t do it.”
Daybreak . . .
He yanked at the cords connected to the electrodes and tore them away with a snarl.
Something metal clattered behind him. The click of safeties sliding off. The glowing white medical center cut through with cold black concrete. The smell of the cryotubes, that freezerburn stink that never went away.
Survive. Survive and await further instructions.
“Oh, hell, no.” Claire charged toward him.
Claire—Colonel Karpov—no. Bucky staggered back. He was in Wakanda, he was safe, he was safe, they wouldn’t wake him up unless he was safe—
She raised a long, tubed gun. “Please do not make me have to tranq your ass.”
“Bucky, I know this is hard.” Sam was in a wide stance, clutching something in one hand. “But I’m gonna need you to trust me. It’s the only way we’re going to snap you out of this.”
Bucky’s chest was heaving. But the concrete walls were falling away; the corroded taste of water in his mouth was gone. He glanced at the thing in Sam’s hand.
A red notebook, stamped with a black star.
Bucky took a step back. Claire pressed in, tranq gun trembling in her hands. “Don’t make me ask again, Mr. Barnes,” she said.
Bucky slumped forward. The darkness was gone. The words were gone. And all he felt was empty. Scooped out.
“Sam.” He lifted his head. “Steve trusts you.”
“And I trust him.” Sam grimaced. “I’m not gonna lie, man. That’s the main reason I’m here.”
Bucky laughed to himself, bitter. “Don’t blame you there.”
Claire lowered the tranq gun.
“If Steve needs my help . . . I’ll do it.” Bucky’s gaze skidded over the journal back toward Sam’s face. “But I can’t promise it’ll turn out the way you want.”
“All we can do is try.”
Bucky locked eyes with Claire. Her arms were still shaking, so he tried to make himself smile. It didn’t seem to help.
“I’m still not the weirdest thing you’ve dealt with, huh?” Bucky asked.
She let out her breath. “New York’s changed a bit since you were there last.”
“So how do we do this?”
“First, you let the poor lady give you your medicine already,” Sam said. “Then we’re ready to begin.”
Sergeant Barnes, the procedure
“With restraints, if it’ll make you feel better. With Wakandan guards, if you want them or not.” Sam gestured to the soldiers behind him. “Wanda will be there too, but she’ll only act with your permission. If we need to dig in deep.”
The procedure is about to begin
“Sure.” Bucky’s mouth twitched. “I—I think that’ll be fine.”
“All right. One word at a time, Buck.” Sam stepped back and motioned him toward the next room. “We can do this one word at a time.”
Ready to comply.