At first, the memories came back in a terrible flood.
It felt like he got slammed with a new memory every five minutes. Smells triggered them, and sounds, snatches of conversation in languages from countries whose governments he’d toppled. It was overwhelming. He wrote everything down. His target in his sights, tedious waits on dark rooftops, stalking through nighttime hallways, training sessions, the chair. He wrote reams of pages every day. He filled notebook after notebook with nightmares he hoped no one would ever read. And yet, when Steve found him in Romania, a year after the helicarriers fell, Bucky remembered nothing of being Bucky Barnes. Nothing at all.
“Your recovery is incredible,” said Helen Cho, during one of the appointments the Avengers had required. “Brains are tricky things, so no promises -- but based on the rate of tissue regeneration I’m seeing in these scans, I wouldn’t be surprised if, sooner or later, you remember everything.”
In another six months, he did. He could corroborate every mission recorded in the files. He could account for every step between being taken out of cryo and being shoved back in.
And he didn't remember a single thing before Hydra.
“There’s no physiological reason for this,” Dr. Cho said to Bucky. “Your brain looks just like it was never damaged. No more traces of scarring or injury anywhere.”
Bucky picked at his hospital gown. “Guess there's no more reason to put me through any more tests.”
She shrugged. “I wouldn’t be able to pick your scans out from a lineup of healthy adults,” she said. “There’s nothing more I can do, because physically, there’s nothing wrong.” She gave Bucky a tentative smile, and asked, gently, “Have you considered the reason might be psychological?”
Bucky saw no point going back to the doctor after that.
At first, Bucky thought he would die. The doctors thought so too; he saw it in their eyes.
He would come to curse God for it, but Bucky survived.
When they thought he was ready, they started on the serum treatment, so that Hydra could complete the work Zola began. After what felt like an eternity in hell, the injections stopped. Bucky was strong now, and always starving.
They kept his single arm wrenched up behind his back, chained to an iron collar around his throat, so that his wrist and neck had bloody sores where he wouldn't stop fighting against the cuffs; they drugged him too, or he would've broken loose. It was dark, and the days bled into each other. He tested the walls of his cell and assured himself Steve was coming for him. Steve would figure out he was alive; Steve would have gone looking for his body. That was how it was at Azzano and that was how it would always be.
It was Zola who came for him instead.
The most dangerous part of any mission was Steve.
Most of the time, the Avengers were more than enough to handle whatever situation cropped up. On the rare occasion they weren't – if a crucial player were out of commission, or a mission went to shit halfway through, or the problem called for a certain set of special skills – that's when they called in Bucky.
He wasn't fond of violence but he didn't mind it, in the same way it was easy to stop minding an injury once the anesthesia set in. Punching out assholes on command was old news; it was Steve Rogers who was the problem, particularly in the quiet moments on the way back afterward, with half the team nodding off where they sat, and Steve, across the quinjet, watching him. Wordless. Like a scientist with a disease under his microscope.
Once they landed at the New Avengers Facility, the team went inside for debriefing. Bucky didn't go in for that. He was always out of there the instant they touched down, except for one time. The arm had taken a bad hit, and if he bent his elbow too sharply it made a grinding noise like a robot being murdered. As the rest of the team straggled across the rooftop landing pad, Bucky hung back at the foot of the quinjet ramp. A biting wind swept across the roof, under the cold stars. Up ahead, the girl opened the door for the Widow, and an arc of warm light spilled out from the bright interior of the facility. The two of them hurried inside; their laughter sounded far away. Bucky had to go in there. He couldn't fix this kind of damage with the small kit he kept at home. Stark had left a lab behind. He had to go in. The wind chilled him through his uniform.
“Hey,” Steve said.
Bucky blinked. Steve hadn't gone inside with the others – he was standing back, Falcon at his side. Falcon's arms folded across his armored chest. Steve was holding his shield in both hands, loosely, the picture of a kid fiddling with the bottom of his shirt. The icy wind had chapped his cheeks ruddy. The look on his face was like a dog dumbly hoping for a treat.
“You can come in, if you want,” Steve said. He inclined his head at the bright doorway. “After debrief, Sam and I are getting drinks. You're welcome to join us if--”
Bucky did what he had to do whenever Steve acted this stupid. He set his face into a scowl and strode off the ramp, straight at the two of them, looking so murderous that Falcon leaped aside; Bucky passed between them like a ghost, brushing within an electric hairsbreadth of Steve. He blew into the facility without looking back.
He remembered where the lab was easily enough, and ended up spending a handful of hours there. He'd figured the arm out pretty well – he'd had to – but it's not like Hydra had sent him out into freedom with a manual and a repair kit. So poking around the mechanical labyrinth in there took a while, and by the time he was done it was the dead of night. Everyone should have been gone. That's the only reason he didn't bother to slip out the back door.
He bounded up the stairs to the ground level and emerged into gloom. The halls were dark. They hummed with the quiet sounds of a building at night; the crackle and buzz of sleeping electronics, the susurrating sigh of circulated air, the loud punctuation of Bucky's solitary footsteps. He went easily through the darkness, thinking about his own shower, his mattress at home. Then he stopped. Somewhere ahead was the low murmur of conversation, interspersed with an occasional echoing laugh. The next hallway ran past a huge common area, which Bucky had never spent time in. He crept forward, rounded the corner. Yes, someone was there – light shone out of the entryway and washed into the shadows at each end of the hall.
The exit was past that lounge.
Bucky heard warm laughter – Falcon's – and then the clink and pop of bottles being opened. “No, no,” Falcon was saying. “I'm telling you—”
Bucky hunched his shoulders. He could slip past the open lounge entrance, like a shadow, and even if they saw him they wouldn't stop him, wouldn't address him.
Inside the lounge, someone said, with laughing protest, “Sam, come on,” and it was Steve. Bucky froze. “I was there! So you've gotta believe me that--”
“No way,” Falcon said. “I'm not falling for that. No more tall tales. And it's ridiculous – bananas--”
“They were different!” Steve insisted.
“A banana plague!” Falcon howled. “You expect me to believe that!”
“Sam, goddammit, you have your phone, just look it up.”
Hidden in the hallway, Bucky leaned against the wall. For some reason, he was smiling.
Liquid burbled as someone in the lounge took a swig. “Aw, pull the other one, old man,” Falcon said. “You remember what bananas tasted like seventy years ago?”
“It wasn't seventy years ago for me,” Steve said, flatly.
There was a second of brittle silence. Then Steve and Falcon both said, “Sorry,” and Steve said, “Don't know what's wrong with me,” and Falcon said, “I know it isn't like that for you,” both talking over each other at once. They stopped, and then both of them said “Sorry” again.
Glass thunked down on wood; the bar, or the table. “I'm cutting myself off for tonight,” Falcon announced. “No need to be more of an asshole than I've already been.”
The chair groaned as Steve shifted his weight. “No. You were right. I know it was seventy years ago.”
“I know it was seventy years ago,” Steve repeated. “I – look –” The silence stretched out for a painful moment. “1925 feels like a long time ago. I was a kid back then. But those years between then and the Valkyrie, I was growing up, I was doing things. All those years after I went into the ice, they – it –”
“It doesn't feel real,” Falcon supplied.
Clothing rustled. Somehow, when he spoke, Bucky could hear the sad smile in his voice. “It's like I fell asleep on a plane and woke up in a different country,” Steve said. “Part of me thinks I should be able to get back on the plane and go home. As if the place I left is still out there.”
“Makes sense,” Falcon said. “Your average person, as the world changes, they're there to see it. They change along with it. You skipped that whole process.” Gently, he said, “You lost a lot, just like that.”
“Yeah.” A long sound of skin on glass; Bucky pictured Steve rolling it in his hands. “And the worst thing is. That Bucky--”
Bucky flinched back. He whipped around; there was a back exit and he would go there, go the long way, quickly, before he could hear any more. He didn't need to. There was a cold stone lodged in his chest and it ached and kept aching, no matter how firmly he told himself this was the way it had to be, that Steve would want it that way, if he had an ounce of sense; because Bucky Barnes was a monster.
When they’d arrived from Romania, Steve took Bucky straight to an apartment in Brooklyn. Steve had already set up a bedroom for him. The walls were hung with a series of beautiful hand-drawn portraits: two boys sitting on a fire escape, their legs dangling over the bustling street below; a kid with Bucky’s face, lighting up a cigarette, hand cupped around the flame that illuminated the wry curve of his mouth; a smiling dark-haired family arranged on the steps of a brownstone.
The pictures made Bucky’s gut jump with adrenaline. He dropped his gaze to the floor.
“I hope you like it,” Steve said behind him.
“Yeah.” What did real people say in these situations? “It's great. Thanks.”
He slept with his face in his pillow, and hurried out the door with his face down every morning.
Bucky lasted one week in that bedroom. Steve smiled a lot at first; big, slow smiles that broke over his face like the sunrise, warm and irrepressible. He liked to tell Bucky terrible stories. “Remember when--?” the stories would invariably begin. Bucky shook his head no. Well, that was okay with Steve, and as he blathered on, detailing ancient history that happened to strangers, Bucky's palms would go clammy, and his stomach would cramp with nausea. In the middle of one of these evenings of torture, Bucky got up, locked himself in the bathroom, went out the window, and was gone, and that was the end of Brooklyn.
No one knew where he lived now. Not Steve – not anyone.
It had been a couple weeks since his last mission. Bucky slept badly, and woke up all at once with his heart racing. Confused nightmare images lingered in his mind; he pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes until starbursts popped behind his eyelids. The house creaked beneath him. Its nighttime complaints were reassuringly familiar. The cold hard smoothness of his left hand felt good on his hot face. He took a deep breath, then another, and relaxed all his muscles into his mattress, letting his hands drop to his sides. He was fine.
In the darkness, a little blue square lit up with a demanding buzz. The burner phone. Going off for the second time, probably – it must have been what woke him up. Bucky fumbled for it, whacked his hand on the radio, swore, and finally snatched it off the floorboards where it lay. On the little display, the text read:
REPORT TO HQ
Bucky stared at it suspiciously.
The phone buzzed again.
Correct codeword, with the stupid happy text face – that was the Widow.
Bucky flicked on his bedside lamp. It sat on the floor, next to his mattress; black shadows sprang out from his table and chair and secondhand hotplate, stretching up to the bare dark beams that crossed the ceiling. The world felt dark and quiet. Bucky's breath puffed out in thin white wisps. When he turned on the radio, it seemed as though the jazz was playing under a layer of silence. Bucky thought of the radio as almost an obscene luxury. Sometimes Hydra let him listen to music as an exceptional reward, if he'd been very good. On a normal morning nowadays, he liked to lie awake as the sun came up, listening to the radio and tapping his fingers to the rhythm.
Bucky rolled fluidly to his feet. He padded over to his solid oak wardrobe, right next to the trapdoor that was the only entrance to his attic room, so he could topple it over in an emergency. He slipped out of his warm flannel pajamas and stood shivering as he folded them and put them away. His Avengers-issue tac suit was armored and black, like the Winter Soldier getup Hydra had stuffed him in, but that was where the similarities ended; the new uniform was plain and utilitarian and looser about the chest. After buttoning a winter coat over it, he could pass as a normal guy on his way to work.
The trapdoor lowered smoothly on well-oiled hinges. Two rough wooden stubs were all that remained of the ladder Bucky had sawed off ages ago – he dropped down easily to the carpet ten feet below, silent and catlike. As he paced through the silent, tomblike kitchen, he reminded himself to do a little dusting. The attic was where he camped out, but he liked to keep the downstairs looking lived-in. If Hydra ever dropped by for a chat, they'd have to canvas the whole place, and Bucky could dive out the attic window, take off into the woods out back.
In the east, above the ragged black line of trees, the sky was lightening to a leaden gray. A few hopeful birds were chirping greetings to the dawn. Bucky stepped out his back door into the snowy yard. His new place was an old house upstate, nondescript and anonymous in its crooked row of similar little houses, battered and grayed by a long winter, beleaguered by drifts of March snow. The windows in the neighboring houses were dark; sleepy quiet lay over the street. His boots made crisp crunching noises with every step he took over to the shed where he stored his bike. As always, Bucky first checked the shed for signs of tampering, an easy enough job in the dim gray light, and then he went inside and searched the sleek black motorcycle for bugs. Only when his caution was satisfied did he walk the bike into the street.
It was a short ride to the facility. The brisk air whipping at his face was pleasant in its way, a sharp kind of refreshment after his bad night. A kilometer from his destination, Bucky dismounted and jogged the rest of the way, leaving his bike stashed in the woods behind him.
“Okay, everybody,” Steve said.
He stood at the head of the attentive group seated on the quinjet. It was a small group this time – Steve had only asked Falcon, Black Widow, and Bucky along, and everyone was dressed in subtly armored clothing that could be mistaken for business casual, nice shirts and suit pants. The Widow's bites looked like fashionable bracelets and Falcon's wingpack was indistinguishable from a normal backpack. Only Steve's shield, trying to pass as an instrument in a huge round case, looked hopelessly awkward.
Though no one except Bucky seemed surprised, there was also a civilian present, a gangling, nervous-looking man in a white lab coat.
“Here's the situation,” Steve continued. “Chronos Enterprises is a small technological research and development firm. They've put out a few patents, nothing earth-shattering. They announced a modest profit in 2015.” Steve named a respectable number. “What doesn't fit is the huge inflow of funding from private investors.”
The next number was much, much larger. Falcon whistled.
As Steve spoke, Bucky leafed through the folder in his lap. Chronos Enterprises occupied two floors in a Manhattan skyscraper. Bucky skimmed through the office layout map and building architectural plans; memorizing them was the work of seconds. One floor was reception, offices, meeting rooms. The second looked to be some kind of huge lab.
Steve said, “The money dried up after Insight, but one significant funding stream was from an account we've identified as Hydra.”
The Widow lounged back, looking like she knew all this already. Falcon asked, “Are they a Hydra front?”
“No idea,” Steve said. “Could be, or could be a case of infiltration. But we know they're working on something Hydra wanted their hands on.” He nodded at the civilian, who jittered to his feet, an anxious smile on his face. “This is Dr. David Henderson. He's the informant who brought Chronos Enterprises to our attention.”
“Hi,” Dr. Henderson said.
Steve settled back against the wall, crossing his arms. “Go ahead and explain what you told me this morning.”
He shrugged uncomfortably. “Like I said, I was brought into Chronos Enterprises to work on developing the prototype.”
Falcon sat forward. “Prototype of what?”
“The temporal displacement initiator field,” Dr. Henderson said, with a miserable sigh. He fretted at the white hem of his sleeve. “It was going to be groundbreaking. Incredible. It would open the doors to unimaginable leaps forward in, in everything, from archaeology to space flight. We were going to change the world. And we were going to be millionaires,” he added, with another saddened frown.
Out of the corner of his eye, Bucky caught Black Widow rolling her eyes. He suppressed a smile.
“I'm sorry,” Falcon said, “a temporal displacement initiator field is what exactly?”
Dr. Henderson dragged a hand through his graying hair. “Well, I suppose a layperson would call it a time machine.”
Steve reacted. Minutely – this wasn't news to him – but, propped against the wall in a pose too stiff to be casual, his eyes flickered downwards, and his jaw tensed. A cold fog enveloped Bucky. He wanted badly to be off the plane. Why did Steve have to bring him on this mission?
“I can see why Hydra was bankrolling this,” the Widow commented wryly.
“For years, it barely worked,” Dr. Henderson admitted. “It sends you back, alright. All our test subjects went back. We only sent them back a week. At first we thought it might be dangerous, you know, having two of these people, doppelgangers running around the office – but they all said they just woke up in their own bodies in the target period. We've never tried to send someone back to a time before their birth – maybe then they'd physically appear in the past --”
“Tell them what the problems were,” Steve interrupted.
“Huge problems!” Dr. Henderson exclaimed. “Furious investors. See, we gave the test subjects these little missions to carry out. Go back and spill your coffee on the carpet, leave a stain, paint a red stripe under your desk, that kind of thing. We'd send them off and go check on the stain or the paint and it would never be there. But the test subjects, they all swore they'd done it. It's got a limit, you know. The temporal displacement effect. No one ever stayed in the past longer than five days, and then they just – got snapped back to the moment they'd left, like a rubber band breaking, and it seemed like when that happened all the changes were erased. Time just went back to the way it was supposed to be.”
“Yeah, this shit is never as cool as it is in the movies.” Falcon's sharp gaze flicked from the scientist to Steve. “Cap, you said what the problems were?”
“We fixed it last week,” Dr. Henderson said.
The quinjet coasted silently through the rolling gray clouds, the faint vibrations of the engine thrumming against Bucky's back where he sat, hands gripping his knees, against the wall. He focused out the windshield, watching lacy shreds of cloud whip past, and thought furiously about what reckless idiots people, and especially scientists, were.
“It's about balance,” Dr. Henderson went on. “The rubber band breaking, launching you back to your point of departure – there's got to be some force pulling you back. Some kind of anchor, tying you to your own time. So we thought, if we could somehow destroy that anchor, sever that rope instead, then the test subjects would stay in the target era and any change they effected would become permanent. And we did it. It worked. The test subjects focus the temporal displacement initiator field on an object, any miscellaneous object, and it – it embodies the anchor effect, it becomes the anchor. Once in the past, all they have to do is destroy the anchor before the five-day time limit runs out and they don't boomerang back to the present. We've done this. We've been doing this all week. It works.”
The silence stretched out in the jet. Dr. Henderson glanced around at each of them, looking for – what? Awe? Bucky heaved out a weary sigh and sat back, crossing his arms emphatically, one over the other. He arranged his face to say and now we have to deal with it. Dr. Henderson hung his head and sat back down.
“I know it's dangerous,” he muttered. “That's why I'm here.”
Steve clapped him on the shoulder as he stepped forward. “We're going in casual to see if we can get the tech before Hydra does,” he announced. “Dr. Henderson is taking us in as prospective interns. And if there's trouble, then there's trouble. Any questions?”
“Nope.” Falcon settled back in his seat and kicked his feet up. “Sounds like a plan, Cap.”
“No sir,” Bucky said.
Steve's gaze shot to his. His eyes were blue as a hot summer sky. A shock of pain like a hit from a stun baton zinged through Bucky's body. His heart hammered. He looked down.
They landed the quinjet at Stark Tower. Stark wasn't there to meet them – small mercies – but they took one of his cars to Chronos Enterprises. Bucky spent the ride staring at his mismatched hands in his lap so his gaze wouldn't be drawn out the window. He tapped a rhythm on his thigh with his metal fingers, shifted in his seat, fretted with the buttons on his coat. Something about New York made him feel like a wild animal in a cage. He knew he'd lived here, in that other life; the city lay somewhere behind the black veil that had been drawn between him and the dead man he'd been. All Bucky could remember of that other life was its brutal end. He didn't want to know more.
The elevator door dinged. They stepped into the reception area of Chronos Enterprises.
It was a boring little room. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on the canyonlike streets of midtown Manhattan; the distant cacophony of traffic filtered up. A potted plant drooped between two uncomfortable-looking leather couches. A bulky blue watercooler burbled in the corner. On the wall over the reception desk hung the words CHRONOS ENTERPRISES, fashioned out of industrial steel.
It was completely empty.
Steve stepped in front of the civilian, and slipped his black instrument case into his hands.
Falcon wandered further in. “Is there a holiday I don't know about?”
“The receptionist could be in the bathroom,” the Widow said.
Dr. Henderson poked his head around Steve's broad shoulder. “We have two receptionists,” he said. “The desk is never unmanned.”
The Widow said, “Maybe today they're using the buddy system.”
The area behind the reception desk could only be accessed via a locked gate. Bucky vaulted over, landing with a hushed thump on the linoleum flooring. The desk area was a mess, strewn with scattered papers and folders and pens and other office detritus that looked as though it hadn't been organized in a year. Bucky brushed few papers aside and picked up one of the phones. The receiver blared a long dull unwavering note into his ear. His skin prickled as his body went on alert. “Phone's dead,” he said mildly.
“Well, shit,” Falcon summarized.
Steve unzipped the fake instrument case and let it fall to the floor with a thump. His shield came up at the ready on his arm. “Natasha, contact HQ,” he instructed. “Get Vision, Wanda, and War Machine down here. We might need them. Dr. Henderson, get back in the elevator, go downstairs, wait on the street. In the meantime, we're going in. Split up, in pairs, stay in touch – Bucky, you're with me. We'll clear the offices, then the labs.”
The door to the offices had an electronic lock for a keycard. They had Dr. Henderson's card, but the lock was defunct, its little indicator lights gone dead, and the door stood slightly ajar, creaking in and out of its jamb in the flow of the air conditioning. Bucky's jaw tightened. He slipped the gun in his thigh holster into his hand. Without needing orders, he slipped behind Steve. Steve took point, and Bucky guarded the rear.
They cleared office after office. It was the same story in every one: empty, computers asleep, papers and files dropped haphazardly, chairs pushed back or tipped over. In one meeting room, a projector still beamed a frozen PowerPoint presentation to an audience of vacant seats. There was no sign of violence. It looked like a fire drill had taken place, but Bucky knew, in his bones, that someone terrible was here.
“Someone came in here,” Steve murmured, and Bucky flicked him a startled glance. They were moving silently down the eerie, brightly-lit hallway. “Took control. Right away.” He pushed open another office door – craned his head around. “No one had time to even reach for a cell phone.”
“So where are they?” Bucky said. They stood in the middle of an empty corridor. The air conditioning exhaled its cold breath out of the vents, and a door creaked on its hinges in the draft. Under these small noises lay the eerie, dead silence that let Bucky know, with total certainty, that they were gone. All of them.
Steve tapped his ear. “Nat, Sam, we're all clear on this side. Found anything on yours?”
Falcon's voice came back, tense and direct. “Clear. Haven't found a soul.”
“They've got to be in the labs,” Steve said grimly, and Bucky nodded. “Natasha, rendezvous with us at the stairwell. Sam, find Dr. Henderson, keep him safe.”
“Got it,” Falcon said.
They met up with the Widow at the door to the stairwell. This door, too, was open, its electronic lock killed. The stairwell curved around a landing before terminating at the entrance to the labs. Steve went up first, his shield high, and Bucky came at his heels, his gun out and ready, like the Widow's behind him. His entire body was a live wire, ready to fire at the smallest noise; a staircase was a good killbox if any hostile upstairs suspected they were coming.
They made it up without any incident. The door to the labs was open and dead, like the rest. The labs themselves were enormous, spreading through most of the floor, with long scars in the ceiling where walls and partitions had been removed, fashioning this floor of a skyscraper in downtown New York into something resembling a warehouse. Bucky had expected it to be crammed with machinery, but instead, in the center of that vast space, there was only one station, sitting alone. For a moment of heart-lurching terror, Bucky saw the chair. Then he blinked, and the nightmare resolved into reality. The computer readouts displayed, not a human body, but the digitized image of what looked like a thick, stubby rod composed of multiple layers of thin dials. Behind the computer was a tall stand, with two curved, menacing arms arching up from it, coming back down and together to meet at a point over the center of the stand, familiar in a way that made sweat spring to Bucky's brow. The rod hung between the arms and the stand, not quite in contact with either. It revolved, suspended, in midair.
Lying prone against the walls were over fifty hostages, bound and gagged. Their eyes were wide and shining; they stared at the three intruders in silent supplication. Fifteen men in lab coats were clustered around the computer readout. They were muttering among themselves as numbers flashed onscreen.
A wordless glance passed between Steve, the Widow, and Bucky.
Steve flung his shield. It exploded into the group of scientists like a dog into pigeons, slamming two of them to the ground, scattering the rest. They pulled guns out from under their coats, smoothly, and Bucky knew, knew, they were Hydra. He threw himself at them, snarling, barely aware of Steve and the Widow at his side. He broke someone's wrist, shot him in the leg with his own gun, whipped that screaming individual over his shoulder and into another man. Someone shouted “Soldier!” and Bucky crushed his windpipe in the strangling grip of his metal hand. Electricity crackled to his left, the Widow, and the shield arced past him in a red-white-blue blur.
It was over in half a minute. The shield sailed back into Steve's hand with a final thump, the last body crumpled to the ground, and they stood surrounded by a fan of unconscious, broken, and dead Hydra agents.
“Good job,” Steve said, satisfied.
“You're making me blush,” said the Widow, with a catlike smile.
Steve strode over to the bound hostages, saying as he went, “Sam, you okay?”
Falcon's response sounded in all their ears. “What do you mean, am I okay? Sounded like you had some action up there.”
Bucky rolled his shoulders. Now that the battle high was fading from his body, it left in its wake the usual empty, grim feeling that always followed violence, highlighted at the edges with a kind of wild hatred that frightened him. Trying to lock the feeling down, Bucky trailed Steve and Natasha over to the hostages.
He knelt in front of a man whose eyes were wet with terror. “It's okay,” Bucky murmured, peeling the duct tape from his face. “You're okay now.”
Dr. Henderson's voice echoed fuzzily through Falcon's mic. “Is it done?”
“Don't worry,” Falcon reassured him. “Everything's been taken care of.”
Steve was kneeling maybe six people away from Bucky, working the gag out of a woman's mouth. It popped free and she sucked in a trembling gasp. “Captain America?” she rasped.
“That's right,” Steve said gently. “You're safe now.”
“No,” the woman said. She struggled to sit up. “The prototype!”
“I would say that's safe too, but I think we might destroy it,” the Widow called, from where she was cutting through the ropes on another hostage.
Dr. Henderson's voice echoed in Bucky's ear. “Then it's time.”
“No!” the woman said again. “It's a fake! This is a trap, the prototype's a fake!”
Through the earpiece, something crunched. Falcon shouted, “Stop!” almost obscuring Dr. Henderson's choking “Hail Hydra,” and Bucky's mind put the pieces together, he'd had a cyanide capsule in his teeth, oh fuck, just as one of the hostages between Bucky and Steve rose from the facedown huddle he'd been lying in. The ropes fell away from his gloved hands, and the false gag dropped from his scarred, twisted mouth. He yanked the rod, the real rod, from under his coat. Its dials were spinning, the cracks in between them blooming with a searing white light, and the glow lit up the ruined volcanic landscape of his face. It was Rumlow.
White lightning leapt from the rod to Rumlow, coruscating in crackling madness around his body.
“Hail Hydra!” Rumlow shouted, and aimed the rod at Steve.
The Widow screamed, “Watch—”
Without pausing, without thinking, on instinct, Bucky hurled himself at Steve. The rod spat lightning, and it caught Bucky up too, stinging all over, crescendoing into agony –
– and then everything went black, and he was gone.
The guards dragged him out of the dark, into a brightly-lit, white-walled room, and threw him into a chair. The piercing light seared his eyes so painfully tears welled up. Through the blurriness, he could make out a smear of color, a blob of peach on top of white, that gradually resolved itself into the labcoat and smug smile that Bucky would always associate with his torture at Azzano. Zola sat across from him. Bucky faced down his nightmare with tear tracks on his cheeks.
“Sergeant Barnes,” Zola said softly. “My greatest success.”
Bucky stretched his manacled feet out under the table. He lounged back in his chair, as insouciantly as he could with his one arm tied behind him, and looked Zola straight in the eye. “To hell with you,” he said. “I'm not yours.”
“Perhaps not. That is, not mine alone.” Zola clasped his little hands together and leaned forward, like he was confiding an important secret. “Sergeant Barnes, you are to be the new Fist of Hydra.”
Whatever the hell that was. Bucky raised his eyebrows.
Zola sat back in his chair. His smug smile deepened. “What that means, dear boy,” he said, with calm confidence, “is that you will obey our every command. You will be a great asset for Hydra. You will fight for us, kill for us, you will reshape the world for us so that Hydra may rise to the supremacy that is our destiny.”
The idea was so preposterous that Bucky laughed aloud, the first genuine peal of laughter he'd had in months. It echoed around the white walls. “I'll die first.”
Zola ignored him. He reached beneath the table and brought out a thick brown folder. “James Buchanan Barnes,” he recited. “Sergeant. 32257038.”
“That's me,” Bucky agreed warily.
“Yes, I stand no chance of forgetting after all those weeks of your dull chanting.” Zola flipped the folder open. With a nasty little jolt, Bucky recognized his own picture in the front, glossy in the bright light. His military file. “The question remains, who is James Buchanan Barnes?” He pulled out a printed sheet of paper. “A decorated American soldier?” The paper wafted to the white floor, and Zola removed another from the folder. “The sniper of the Howling Commandos?” The second paper fell. “A New York boy?” The third. “A loving son? A loyal friend? An honorable brother-in-arms? Captain America's right-hand man?” The folder lay empty on the table.
Bucky made himself wink. “All that and handsome, too.”
Zola hummed in consideration. He peered over the top of his round glasses, watching Bucky for a long, intent minute. His squinty eyes seemed as sharp as needles, boring into Bucky as deeply as if he still lay on that table in the factory. Sweat sprang up on Bucky's brow. He breathed hard and met Zola's gaze.
Zola sat back, and Bucky's shoulders dropped.
“Yes,” Zola mused. “We will see.”
The guards removed Bucky back to the darkness.
The real torture started shortly after that.
Something was wrong.
Bucky came to in a heartbeat and lay as still as he could, eyes closed in a semblance of sleep. Where was he? The mattress he was stretched out on was lumpy, harder than his own, so he wasn't in his attic room. What had happened? There was no beeping of machinery or antiseptic smell to indicate that he'd landed himself in a hospital; horns honked and tires squealed distantly somewhere below, but it sounded like he was still close to street level, so he couldn't be – couldn't be in the lab where –
Bucky shot bolt upright and twisted up to his knees, whipping his gaze around. He was in... someone's bedroom? There was a single window hung with gauzy white curtains, through which pale sunlight fell in dusty shafts. Along the walls stood a plain writing desk cluttered with a mess of papers, books, and pencils; a dresser with a smudged mirror propped up on top; a chair with a dirty jacket flung over the back. Another curtained window beside the door looked into an adjoining room, with the shadowed outlines of furniture visible through the gauze. Bucky was kneeling on the bed, his legs tangled in the thin white sheets.
He stared around in incomprehension. If he'd been knocked out and, somehow, with both Steve and the Widow at his side, recaptured, then he'd be shackled in a base somewhere. This, however, was a normal apartment building. He just knew that somehow. The room held a familiarity that tugged at him, faintly but persistently, as though he'd glimpsed it once through someone else's window.
Somewhere in the building music was playing, sweet and slow, muffled through the walls.
Something sick and heavy started to unfurl inside him. The other possibility: he'd been hit with the device...
Behind him, someone snuffled.
Bucky looked down.
He wasn't alone in the bed. There was a lump under the quilt where another person lay, tucked between Bucky and the wall. A mop of blond hair spilled out from under the covers.
The urge to fling himself directly out the window and escape swamped Bucky so suddenly he had to clench his fingernails into his palms to keep himself grounded. The feeling of wrongness skyrocketed into nauseous dread. Silently, slowly, he untangled himself from the sheets and slipped out of the bed. The wooden floorboards threatened to creak under his bare feet. He took a deep, soundless breath, struggling to tamp down the cold fear rising in his chest. And then it hit him –
Bucky raised his clammy hands. On the left palm, as human as the right, were four red crescents where his nails had bitten.
The rushing of the blood pulsing through his head drowned out the world. As if in a dream, he looked into the mirror on the dresser and saw an impossible face staring back at him: his own face, but changed, smooth-skinned, big-eyed, young, topped with short sleep-rumpled curls.
He was wearing a dead boy's face.
Bucky floated in space as he stared into the mirror. It was impossible, impossible, impossible.
The sound of sheets rustling arose behind him, and a sleepy groan.
Bucky pivoted on puppet strings. The person in the bed was picking his blond head up from the pillow, propping himself up on his elbows to knuckle sleep out of his eyes, and the glimpse of his profile under his hands, the way his hair fell sweetly over his forehead, evoked such deep resonance in Bucky that it set his heart lurching in his chest. It was Steve.
Steve dragged his hand over his face, yawned, and caught sight of Bucky where he stood flattened against the dresser. He froze, and Bucky stared, couldn't stop staring even as his heart lurched in his chest. It was Steve, but bizarrely different, just like Bucky himself. His face was recognizable, but thin and delicate, like someone had grafted the same features onto a frame half the width. His big hands sprouted from slim wrists. The quilt draped over his narrow shoulders. Bucky had seen some pictures of this before he couldn't bear researching anymore, but it was something else entirely to be standing ten feet from the real thing.
Only Steve's clear blue eyes were unchanged, watching Bucky with dawning realization.
The resonance was becoming too much; the old nausea cramped him. Bucky's fingers dug into the knobs on the dresser.
“Don't run,” Steve said.
He sat up slowly and raised his hands in placation, like a man trapped alone with a wolf. Bucky pressed back against the dresser. The knobs dug into his spine.
“When are we?” Bucky rasped.
Steve scooted to the edge of the bed and set his feet on the floor, one at a time, never taking his eyes off Bucky. He was wearing baggy white boxers rucked up around his slender thighs, and he had big feet under sharp ankles. He said, “We didn't live here that long. Most of 1937.”
“1937,” Bucky repeated, and, for a weightless moment like at the top of a rollercoaster, he thought he'd be able to hang on. Then he lost his tenuous grip on panic, and bolted out the door.
The apartment was three small rooms in a straight line, bedroom kitchen living room, with the one door at the far end. Bucky hurtled through the gloom, banging into the kitchen table, vaulting over the sofa. He slammed into the door, reeled back, wrenched it open, and fell into the hallway just as a middle-aged woman emerged from the apartment across him. She gaped at him underneath her graying, perfectly coiffed hair and Bucky bolted past her, across the groaning wooden floorboards, thundering down the stairs, mind gone wild beyond any consideration of stealth. He flew across the small downstairs lobby, and threw himself out the front doors.
It was New York, but not as he knew it.
He stood on the top step of a stoop leading down to a crowded sidewalk. People bustled past, wrapped up in dark wool coats against the bracing air, hats and caps covering their tidy hair. Big black cars crowded the streets, belching exhaust. At the cross street, a tram rattled underneath billboards exhorting him to buy lava soap to remove silver polish from his hands. Another, put up by the National Association of Manufacturers, cried It's the American Way! Overcrowded laundry lines hung between the buildings, a chaotic spiderweb. A handful of kids in suspenders and caps kicked a clattering can around the sidewalk underneath the stoop. The smell, the way it looked, it was all so different, and yet it built and built into the compelling resonance inside Bucky until he had to clutch the railing to stay upright.
There was another difference that was just now sinking in, this time in him. He was different, alarmingly so. The city was loud, but he couldn't hear as far or discern as much as he should be able to; colors seemed weirdly muted; and he felt weak, as he had coming off the rounds of drugs Hydra liked to dose him with. This was the dead boy's body, young, small, and crucially not yet enhanced. He was small, he was weak, he was blind, he was deaf –
“What are you doing, Bucky,” came a dry voice from below him.
There was a young woman standing at the bottom of the stoop. A blue pleated skirt swished beneath her coat, matching the gray-blue of her eyes under her pinned dark curls. She stared up at him with an amused frown and crossed arms.
Bucky gaped at her, beyond speech. She knew him! She knew – not him, but the dead boy. She thought – she couldn't tell –
“On your way to woo a date?” she added, and broke into a grin that she covered with a gloved hand, like she didn't know that no one had spoken to Bucky with this teasing familiarity since Steve had stopped trying.
Bucky, finally, looked down at himself, and saw that he was barefoot, clad in silly yellow pajamas.
“Uh,” he said doltishly, and stood there, stunned.
The front doors slammed open again and Steve emerged, panting, in a loose-fitting white shirt with its buttons done incorrectly, its hem spilling out of his pants. One of his suspenders hung off his hip. “Bucky,” he gasped, seizing him tightly around the wrist – Bucky's heart seized – and then did a double take at the sight of the young woman perched on the sidewalk. “Rebecca?”
Bucky found it hard to look at the wondering, wounded expression on Steve's thin face, but neither could he bear to watch the way Rebecca's face split into a happy smile. “Steve!” she exclaimed. “You're invited too, of course!”
“Invited?” Steve said, and then immediately, “Oh, god, to—”
“Shabbat,” Rebecca agreed. “I was just dropping by on my way to work to make sure Bucky knew for sure that he's obligated to come on Friday.” She gave Bucky a stern look. “Otherwise Ma will cry. Anyway, what have you two been doing? Why are you—” She waved her hand as if to encompass the grand state of their being. “It's indecent,” she added, laughing. “DeeDee will love this.”
“We'll come,” Steve promised, tugging on Bucky's wrist. “But you're right, we should get inside, otherwise Mrs. Walsh will never shut up about it,” and stopped himself, that look of shocked, almost hurt joy on his face again, like he'd just been impaled but couldn't be happier about it. “Rebecca,” he repeated, and released Bucky's wrist. His skin ached like ice had been on it. Bucky could have taken that moment to flee, but stood rooted, watching Steve make his way down the stairs. The battered can came sailing between them and Rebecca, and the group of kids rushed after it, but Steve waded through them fearlessly. He folded Rebecca into a tight embrace. Her eyes widened in surprise, and in some confusion, she hugged Steve back, patting him tentatively on the shoulder.
“There there,” she said, perplexed. “I should, um, get to work. Sorry.”
“Yeah, of course,” Steve said. “Sorry.” They separated, and Steve cast wet eyes up at Bucky like he wanted Bucky, too, to come down and hug this strange girl. Bucky shook his head, firmly, once.
“See you on Friday!” she said, and hurried off toward the tram line.
Steve came slowly up the stairs. He reached out as if to capture Bucky's wrist again, and then folded his arms in to himself abruptly and buried his face in his hands. “Your sister,” he mumbled from under palms. “God, Bucky.”
Bucky eyed him. He made a series of tactical decisions. First was that, as much as he wanted to disappear into the city and then flee somewhere far away, like Antarctica, he could not do so in yellow pajamas; second was that he also couldn't leave Steve to cry in the street; and third was that, despite the overwhelming and horrifying distractions, Brock Rumlow was here, and that had to take precedence over everything.
He nudged Steve's shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “Come inside.”
Steve got control of himself on the way up the four flights of stairs to their apartment. More people were milling about the hallways now, and Bucky received a handful of teasing comments from strangers who thought they knew him. Steve was breathing harshly by the time they had reached their destination; at first Bucky took it for incipient crying, and then it hit him that it was exertion, that Steve was more winded by this short climb than all the battles Bucky remembered fighting either with him or against him. He thought – no, he knew somehow, that when Steve had been small, he'd had problems with his lungs. The sound of his strained breathing echoed in that terrible familiarity inside of him.
Steve had pocketed the apartment key. As he unlocked the door – Bucky, on instinct, knew not to comment about his difficulty breathing – the woman from across the hall was locking up. She sniffed loudly. Bucky glanced over. Apparently, that was the signal she'd been waiting for.
“Mister Barnes,” she said. “I know that you're a fine young man.”
Bucky grimaced. Was he?
“It's unbecoming to romp around in a state like that,” and she continued, with a pointed glare at Steve, “you should consider keeping better company.”
She sniffed again, and marched off with the pronounced clacking of her sensible heels.
The stubborn lock finally gave. “Mrs. Walsh,” Steve muttered, pushing his way inside. “Works as a filing clerk at the police station. She was always nasty.”
Bucky followed him into the apartment. Steve hit something on the wall, and the overhead lights flickered to life. Bucky could see clearly now what he'd only glimpsed in his frantic rush through the dimness. An armchair and a lamp, on a crate full of books, stood next to a bulky sofa that looked like it might be a fold-out bed. Another dresser stood against the wall, and several boxes were stacked haphazardly atop one another, the top one open and overflowing with miscellany. Beyond that, in the kitchen, the table was nothing more than a wooden slab on top of a bathtub. Underneath a tiny recessed slit that served as a window, the sink hosted a handful of dirty dishes. The rooms were separated from each other with walls that had, weirdly, big glass windows.
Bucky stood gazing around. He knew his attic room in his upstate house like the back of his right hand. He remembered the shabby one-room apartment in Romania Steve had pulled him out of. Before that, there was nothing but the cryo tank and a succession of cells in a succession of bases; he could picture himself in a dank basement, awaiting debrief, blood on his hands, shackled to the wall, but he couldn't picture himself here, in a place people knew where to find him, living with a friend, like a person.
“Bucky,” Steve said softly.
Bucky blinked. Steve had settled down on the armchair and was scratching, nervously, at a worn spot in the upholstery.
“How old are we?” he asked. Then he winced. He hadn't known he was going to ask such a pointless question until it was already too late.
Steve took a breath. He heaved his loose suspender up over his shoulder. “It's April second, 1937,” he said. “I asked on the way downstairs. I'll be nineteen soon. You just turned twenty.”
Bucky barked out a sharp, bitter laugh.
“What?” Steve demanded.
“Nothing,” Bucky said. “I don't remember ever being this young.” He turned on his heel, away from Steve's stricken expression, and marched into the bedroom. He slammed the door behind him so hard it rattled in its hinges. Then he turned to the dresser and realized his problem.
“Are these my clothes or yours in here?” he shouted through the door.
“Yours,” Steve yelled back. “Mine are in the living room, because I – uh, I sleep on the fold-out couch.”
“Then why the hell were you in my bed this morning,” Bucky muttered angrily to himself, yanking the top drawer open, even though he knew exactly why, and how infrequently that couch probably got unfolded; thinking about it gave him a feeling of impossible loneliness. The drawer held a boring selection of white or black socks, long white boxers, and white undershirts. Did he have to wear an undershirt under his shirt? Would anyone notice if he didn't? Well, it was another layer of warmth, and in a worst-case scenario could be ripped up and used as bandages. Bucky flung his pajamas to the ground and pulled on the underthings.
“We need to talk about Rumlow,” he called to Steve, hopping on one foot as he yanked on a sock.
“I don't know why he came back so far,” was Steve's immediate reply. “Why not go back to Project Insight? Change the outcome?”
Bucky bit his lip as he stepped into his itchy woolen trousers. “What could he change?” he wondered aloud. “The World Security Council set the schedule. Not much he could do to bump up the launch date. They were already trying to kill you.” His fly didn't have a zip, it had buttons. God, these were strange times. “It's not like he'd have better luck if he went back. Now, though, no serum, so maybe – and he might have more influence—”
Something thumped woodenly in the other room, like Steve had struck the kitchen table. “Sure, influence,” came Steve's voice. “Wanna bet he's been planning this, studying history? If he – Bucky, if he goes to the Red Skull, or Hitler, and tells them the future, he won't just be influential. He could change the course of history. He could win the war.”
Bucky's fingers fumbled at his neck where he was finishing up the last buttons on a starchy white shirt. “He'll be on the first boat to Europe tomorrow,” he said grimly.
“He probably already is,” was Steve's dark reply. “And Bucky...” He hesitated. When he spoke again, his voice was stubbornly firm. “He'll have destroyed the anchor object by now.”
For a frightening, lurching second, the room swam around Bucky. He gripped the dresser and hung on for dear life, listening to the radio that still played in the distance, until the dizziness receded. He remembered what that meant: with the anchor object whole, they'd snap back to the present after five days. With it destroyed, they were stuck here. Forever.
He couldn't do it. He couldn't stay here, in this time, in this city, in this body, as this person. He was going to hop on the next train to nowhere and live as he'd done the first year after Hydra, anonymously, in isolation, thinking he might die and hoping it would be soon.
But then: Rumlow. Rumlow had worked with Bucky on a dozen missions. Bucky had never been a true believer; at Hydra, his one and only god was obedience; but Rumlow was a zealot, and a bully and a sadist. In 1994, Rumlow ran him on an easy hit in the Gulf, and kept him starving for days, just to see if it would make him sharper. When he'd passed out from hunger during extraction, Rumlow had taken that as insubordination. Bucky had been nothing more than a dog back then, and Rumlow had beaten him like one.
He had to take care of this first. Then he could break – but first, this.
Bucky stepped out of the bedroom. Steve was sitting on the kitchen table with his chin propped on his fist; his eyes went wide at the sight of Bucky in the old-fashioned clothing that felt like an ill-fitting costume. Bucky glanced sharply away. It must be like looking at a ghost.
“Your suspenders,” Steve said evenly.
“Thanks,” Bucky clipped out. He snapped the suspenders over his shoulders. They felt strange and constricting. “When's the next one?”
“The next what?” Steve's face scrunched up. “The next boat?”
“If Rumlow is headed to Germany, that's where we have to go.” Bucky propped himself against the wall.
Steve's response surprised him; he laughed. That cynical laughter sounded strange coming from such a young face. “Okay,” he said. He slid off the table and squatted down at the cupboards under the sink. “Let's see how much we have in savings this month.” He took out a glass jar holding a sad collection of crumpled bills and scattered coins. “That looks like about fifteen dollars. What are we going to do for the fare, rob a bank?”
Bucky shrugged. “Yeah, sure.” That had always looked easy enough.
Steve frowned. Something about that expression made Bucky's arms fold across his chest. “Sure. We'll just stroll into the bank, two scrawny kids, and stroll out with the cash. We'll do that this afternoon, then we'll go for ice cream. Why not?”
Bucky's arms tightened protectively. His hands tucked up into his armpits. “So tell me why not,” he said lowly.
Steve set the savings jar on the table with a loud clank. Earnestly, he said, “Bucky, even if we make it to Europe, what then? How will we find Rumlow before he does any damage? Once we find him, how the hell could we stop him? We're—” He gestured expansively at his small body. “Look at us!”
“So what?” Bucky demanded. He shoved off the wall. “It has to be done, doesn't it? Are you saying just give up?” It was unbelievable! “Who are you?”
A foot stomped loudly on the ceiling. Their upstairs neighbor screamed, “Shut up!”
A moment of silence.
“Sorry!” Steve called.
Quiet now, but angry, Bucky planted both hands on the table, and said, “I don't remember you, you asshole, but I know you don't know when to quit. Is that who's speaking now?”
Steve swallowed sharply. He was flushed a dull red up to his hairline. Also quietly, he responded, “I didn't mean give up. I meant we can't go charging in like we would normally, or we'll be living out the century in prison.”
The penny dropped. Bucky reeled back from the table like he'd been slapped. “Jesus,” he said. “You want to live here.”
Steve's back stiffened. “Hey,” he warned.
“Fuck!” Bucky couldn't be there anymore; he strode into the living room. “This is your second chance, is that it? You're not gonna take any risks because it's more important to play house, like you still belong here?”
Steve flinched as if physically struck.
Bucky came apart. He'd been pushing through the crushing horror of being stuck here, like this, until he finally died, on the prospect of throwing his focus into an urgent mission. With Steve insistent on dawdling around, Bucky's control broke like a levee under pressure, and the panic flooded in. He couldn't be here anymore, he couldn't, he couldn't, he couldn't. “Fine,” he said, or felt himself saying; he could no longer hear his own voice through the buzzing in his head. There was a dark coat hanging by the door, big enough, had to be his. He seized it blindly. “Go ahead and play dress-up. But I can't.”
This time no one stopped him as he fled down the hallway. It was easy to disappear; he knew how. Like a wild animal melting into the jungle, Bucky let the city swallow him whole.