* * *
Seven months, two weeks and five days.
He kinda misses being in cryo. At least when he was frozen, he wasn’t aware of time passing.
He didn’t get bored.
He didn’t feel the endless drag of every minute slowly ticking by.
Sometimes he deliberately stops keeping track of the time and the number of days, but that makes time go by even slower.
He can see the time on a red digital clock in the guard office, since it’s situated right across from his cell. He guesses that’s kinda lucky—the prison is a circular shape so many of the cells don’t have the eye line into the office that he has.
He can also see the date—the guards have a paper calendar hanging in the office. They use it to mark down their birthdays and the length of their shifts. One week spent babysitting the world’s most dangerous assassin in a tomb sitting on the bottom of the ocean, then they get rotated out for a two week break.
Bucky never gets rotated out, obviously.
His cell isn’t that bad. He’s got enough room to do some exercising and a small cot to sleep on. There’s a low wall that separates a shower area, toilet and sink from his cot. He can tend to all of his basic needs right in his little cell.
The furniture is all bolted to the floor, which Bucky thinks is a bit pointless.
Breaking anything in his cell is the furthest thing from Bucky’s mind. Nobody ever comes into his cell and he’s never let out. He has no doubt that if he breaks something, they won’t bother replacing it. He’ll be hurting himself more than them.
Trays of food are shoved through a small opening on the bottom of the door three times a day, but the rest of the door stays firmly closed. The guards are too scared to interact with him. Bucky assumes they’ve been told about the trigger words, but maybe they fear that other words could set him off. Maybe they fear that if Bucky did get triggered, he’d tear the cell—and them—apart.
Even when he was in prime physical condition, he couldn’t get out of this cell without his metal arm—which had been removed within hours of him being taken into custody.
And now, after seven months of meager nutrition and very little room to exercise, he’s shed a lot of the Winter Soldier’s bulk. Not that he couldn’t do significant damage to the guards, but getting out of the cell—no, that’s not something that’s gonna happen.
Whether or not he could damage anything or anyone is irrelevant anyway. There are four canisters of deadly gas on the ceiling of his cell. With a single push of a button from a guard, the cell will flood with gas and Bucky would be dead in seconds.
He has to admit they’ve got the whole security thing down figured out, but it makes for an incredibly lonely existence.
Thankfully, he’s allowed to read books, but not paper books. The guards don’t want to risk him triggering himself by ripping apart the book and creating the trigger words from the paper letters, so he’s got a little electronic device installed in the wall above his table. He can read the books that the guards load on it.
The nice guards will ask him what he’d like to read and then load some titles on for him.
The not-so-nice guards will keep the reader turned off.
Clearly, there are those that feel that the world’s most dangerous assassin shouldn’t be allowed to read books.
He has no idea if access to the books is something the other prisoners get, or if it’s something Steve fought for.
If anybody knows how much Bucky loves to read, it’s Steve Rogers.
Ironically, it was because of Steve that Bucky learned to love reading in the first place, so everything’s come full circle.
Whenever Steve was sick, Bucky would spend hours at his bedside (or right outside the apartment door if Mrs. Rogers deemed Steve too contagious), reading to Steve. When Steve was feeling okay, Bucky would help him catch up with school material, but when Steve was feeling terrible and couldn’t concentrate, it was Bucky’s job as Steve’s best friend to keep him distracted. Steve would get terribly jealous hearing stories about what Bucky was doing outside with the other kids in their neighbourhood, so reading to Steve was a better bet for keeping him entertained and distracted from his pain and nausea.
Bucky would grab whatever bits of newspaper he could get his hands on and take advertisement flyers off building walls and read them to Steve. It wasn’t much, but it was a distraction. They didn’t have money to afford even pulp magazines, never mind books, and the library didn’t trust somebody like him enough to let him borrow books. On his really lucky days, Bucky would find discarded pulps or books in trash piles, and as long as they weren’t dirty enough to be a threat to Steve, he’d bring them to the Rogers house and read them to Steve, then he’d give them to his sisters.
As they got older, reading became less of a pure distraction mechanism, and became a source of joy for both boys. When they were living together and had money left over at the end of the month (and none of Steve’s medical bills were too overdue), they’d spend 15 cents on a pulp magazine and read it together when Bucky got home from work.
From time to time, Steve would get hired by the owner of a used bookstore a few blocks from their apartment and he’d be allowed to borrow some of the older titles and bring them home to share with Bucky.
He still can’t get over the fact that he has access to hundreds of books with a swipe of his finger. After decades of struggling to get their hands on any type of book, this is amazing.
It’s almost strange having access to an entire book. Bucky’s used to books missing entire chapters, or even half the story. He and Steve would make up the missing portion amongst themselves, but now he can get from Chapter 1 all the way to the end without any missing, smudged or torn pages interfering.
…spending day after day reading gets boring, no matter how great the story is.
His only real highlight is visits from Steve.
Steve is allowed to visit once a month. Bucky isn’t exactly sure why—he’s sure that Rogers fought them long and hard about it—but that’s the procedure at the prison.
Once a month, the prison rumbles and groans and lifts itself to the surface like it does once a week for the guard transfers. During visitor hours, the prison rises and then Steve comes in to the circular chamber. Sometimes there are other visitors with him. Presumably they’re there to visit the other inmates whom Bucky has never met or even seen. They give Steve a chair and he sits just outside Bucky’s door.
Bucky sits on the floor of his cell, as close to the door as possible without being zapped. Layers of thick glass, metal bars and shimmering forcefields separate him from Steve, but it’s better than not seeing Steve at all.
The glass is completely soundproof so none of the visitors can trigger him. The guards communicate with him through speakers in his cell, but Steve isn’t allowed access to those.
Bucky desperately misses hearing Steve’s voice.
He’s really mad at himself because he can’t remember the last words Steve had spoken to him. During their crazy attempts to dodge the governments of a dozen countries and SHIELD, they hadn’t had a lot of time to talk. Plus, Bucky hadn’t known during their last conversation—whatever it might have been—that he’ll never get to hear Steve’s voice again, so it wasn’t a conversation he’d tried to hold on to.
He’d been the one to turn himself in—negotiating a surrender in secret with Natasha, in exchange for immunity for Steve. He’d been so nervous on the day of the surrender and the whole process of turning himself in that he doesn’t remember what they’d talked about. He remembers he’d had to lie to Steve about the entire surrender—the punk was dead set on spending the rest of his life on the run. But after the third close call with stupid Stark and the rest of the idiots in the span of a week, and Steve being held together by bandages and stubbornness in a damp cave, Bucky had contacted Natasha and told her to arrange for his surrender, in exchange for Steve’s freedom.
She hadn’t been happy about it, pointing out how mad Steve would be, but she acknowledged that Stark wouldn’t ever give in and there was no happy ending to this particular story.
Despite the loneliness of his current situation, he doesn’t regret stopping the constant threat to Steve’s life. The punk may be unhappy with the current situation, but he’s alive.
The only thing Bucky regrets is having forgotten that last, precious conversation with Steve.
He remembers some of their other conversations during months spent running and hiding in motel rooms, abandoned buildings, cabins and caves all over the world—but not their last conversation.
There’s one conversation that Bucky does remember, because it had been life-changing. He and Steve had been hiding out in an abandoned barn near a small town in Canada, and within two days of them being there, a carnival had been set up across the road. Tents appeared, carnival rides had been built and then streams of cars arrived, bringing hundreds of visitors. Seeing the large ferris wheel carrying people up to the sky and hearing the delighted screams of rider on the rollercoaster brought back a lot of memories of Brooklyn and spending their summers at the fair at Coney Island. Smelling hot dogs and listening to the sounds of cheerful music playing made their homesickness even worse.
Then Steve had suggested going to visit the fair. There were tons of people there and nobody would pay any attention to the two of them when everybody had so many other things to focus on. Despite having misgivings about it, Bucky allowed himself to be convinced and they went to the fair. After buying their tickets and joining the crowds of people inside the fair grounds, they wandered around, eating food and gazing in wonder at the new types of rides and games they could see.
When Bucky had said something funny, Steve’s reaction of lightly smacking him on the chest was normal—but when Steve had leaned in and given him an affectionate kiss on the temple, Bucky’s good mood had vanished. Fear had immediately run down his back and he’d shoved Steve away from him, glaring at him. “The point is not to attract attention, Rogers! Remember? How long d’ya think it’ll take SHIELD to find us if we get arrested for being queer in public?”
Instead of the look of shock and fear that Bucky was expecting to see on Steve’s face, a huge smile lit up the punk’s face instead. “Oh, my God—I can’t believe I forgot to tell you! Buck, you’re gonna love this!”
And then he’d proceeded to tell Bucky that queer people are allowed to be affectionate towards each other in public now. At first, Bucky thought it was only a Canada-thing, but Steve had reassured him it was okay in the States too and many other places. Homosexuals were allowed to hold hands and kiss and hug in public without being arrested.
Bucky was so stunned that he’d just stood there, letting the crowd brush past him. “So…so if we were back home…if we were in Brooklyn, we could—”
Steve had nodded, that huge smile still on his face. “You could kiss me and hold my hand and nobody would arrest you for it.”
That wonderful news had lit up within Bucky’s chest, but the joy had been bittersweet. For the first time, he was free to openly love the man he loved…but now another part of his freedom was being threatened. He’d gained the right to openly love whoever he loves, but he was on the run and his physical freedom was on the line.
After he’d surrendered, he’d lost his physical freedom completely.
He doesn’t know who he’s annoyed so badly, but the irony of the situation is crushing. Through a bizarre set of circumstances, he and Steve are both young and alive in a time period which they weren’t supposed to ever see, and they get to live in a time where their love is no longer a crime…but Bucky has to spend these years imprisoned. And because Bucky’s suffering, Steve is suffering right alongside him.
They’ve both gained freedoms they never thought they’d get, but they’ve also lost freedoms they never thought they’d lose.
Some days, Bucky gets so angry at the whole thing. He’s never done anything wrong. He’s spent his entire life working hard to take care of the people he loves. He didn’t start the stupid war and he certainly didn’t choose to go fight in it, but he did his duty. All he’d ever wanted was to come home and get back to his normal life, but somebody somewhere decided Bucky Barnes doesn’t deserve a happy ending.
But whenever he gets angry, he reminds himself to be grateful for what he does have. SHIELD could easily revoke Steve’s visitor privileges, which would take away the biggest source of joy Bucky has left. Bucky’s also glad that they don’t have to hide their feelings for each other. Communicating during their visits is difficult enough, with the constant monitoring and the restrictions that have been put in place. At least they can be open about expressing their love for each other. Or at least—as open as the restrictions allow them to be.
Aside from not being allowed to speak to Bucky, Steve’s also not allowed to write anything. The government fears that Steve will write the trigger words.
They are right to be concerned.
Back when he’d first been captured, they’d done a lot of testing on him. Bucky hadn’t ever known—maybe Hydra hadn’t even known—that he could be triggered by seeing the words written down.
Him thinking the words to himself didn’t do anything, but hearing them or seeing them sets him off. It doesn’t matter if somebody else says or writes the words, or if he says or writes the words—if he could hear them or see them, he’d be triggered.
That’s when they’d decided that the only safe place to keep him is in a tomb on the bottom of the ocean.
When Steve had first started visiting, he’d talked to Bucky and Bucky had done his best to read his lips, which was completely unsuccessful. Bucky had no experience reading lips, and he wanted to catch every single one of Steve’s words, so not being able to keep up with the conversation led to a lot of stress. To his horror, Bucky had burst into tears in the middle of one of their conversations when he’d completely lost track of what Steve was saying. Steve had become alarmed and several frantic minutes had gone by until Bucky could collect himself enough to try to explain the situation. He pointed at Steve and then covered his mouth with his hand.
Thankfully, except where lip reading is concerned, the two of them had always had an easy time communicating.
Steve blinked a few times, then pasted a smile on his face and mimed zipping his lips shut. He switched over to hand signals and resumed his story, hardly skipping a beat.
They’ve stuck to the hand signals ever since, and it works pretty well.
He always starts by waving hello, which Bucky copies. Then Steve points to Bucky and then holds up two hands in a questioning manner. Bucky smiles and nods. He’s fine.
Steve narrows his eyes and mimes sleeping and eating.
Yes, Bucky nods, he’s been doing both. He’s fine.
Then Bucky points at Steve and repeats Steve’s motions, to which Steve also nods.
Bucky doesn’t really believe him. The punk’s looking a bit skinny and there are dark circles under his eyes. Bucky figures he probably looks the same, so they’re both lying to each other.
Then Steve tells him about what he’s been doing.
A circle made with his hands like a little shield means Captain America. Wrists touching and all ten fingers wiggling are Natasha, the Black Widow. They’re going on missions but Steve doesn’t tell him any of those details, he just tries to convey funny stories—who fell off something, who bumped into someone. The punk does really funny facial expressions.
Then he tells Bucky about the latest baseball games he’s watched. Bucky isn’t sure which baseball team Steve’s following—something like that is too difficult to convey with simple hand gestures—but he doesn’t really care. As long as Steve’s telling him something—anything—Bucky will enjoy every second.
Steve takes him through a few games, swinging his arms to mimic hitting the ball, stamping his feet to indicate running and reaching up to the sky to catch balls.
It always lights a warm glow in his chest knowing that Steve is doing his best to give Bucky his favourite hobbies back—as much as he can in the given circumstances.
Bucky nods, smiles and gives the occasional thumbs up to indicate that he’s listening. Sometimes the idiot gets carried away and his gestures get sloppy and too fast for Bucky to follow, but Bucky will flap his hand at him and frown, and that’s Steve’s sign to slow the hell down and do it again.
Steve always stays as long as possible, until the guards are urging the visitors towards the exit.
Then they both stand and try to paste brave smiles on their faces—although Bucky can always see the unshed tears in Steve’s eyes, and he knows he’s no better—and wave goodbye. Then Steve points at his own chest, rubs a fist over his heart, then points at Bucky.
Bucky does the same.
I love you too, punk.
Bucky stands close to the door, ignoring the heat of the forcefield on his face and watches until Steve disappears from view.
Then it’s back to long, boring days of exercising and reading.
* * *
The current guard rotation is composed of not-so-nice guards, so the e-reader has been turned off for two days. It’ll probably stay off for another five days before shift change.
It gives him plenty of time to think, because exercising can only take up so much of his time.
He’s starting to think that his situation is pretty stupid.
Does the government really want to spend money and resources keeping him in this prison for the rest of his life? He might live another seventy or eighty years, depending on how the pseudo-serum ages him. That’s a lot of money and a lot of resources.
Back when he was first arrested, Steve had arranged for a lawyer for him. SHIELD had fought it, the government had fought it, but Bucky had gotten a lawyer.
The lawyer had explained to Bucky that he couldn’t be held responsible for what he did while under Hydra’s control, which the government had ended up agreeing with.
His lawyer had told him that Bucky could probably negotiate his freedom by giving up information about Hydra.
Unfortunately—or fortunately—Bucky’s entire recollection of his time with Hydra is a collection of fuzzy, jumbled noises and colors. The last thing he clearly remembers prior to fighting with Steve on the helicarrier is chatting with Steve, two days before they left for the mission to capture Zola. So even if he wants to trade information for his freedom, he can’t.
But then the government took that option off the table anyway. He could be triggered at any time, making him a permanent threat to society. Regardless of what he had or hadn’t done, regardless of what he did or didn’t remember, he needed to be locked up for everybody’s safety.
Those stupid trigger words will keep him locked up in this tomb for the rest of his life.
He does agree that he’s a threat—they’d shown him video of what he had done to the testing room while he’d been triggered—but if that part himself were removed, shouldn’t that entitle him to freedom?
But there’s no way to deprogram the trigger words.
Or if there is, nobody knows how.
Maybe they can find somebody from Hydra who’s still alive who was part of the Winter Soldier program?
Bucky snorts. Right. Like the government would spend time and resources doing that for him. Steve would do it in a heartbeat, but Steve got into enough trouble when he was helping Bucky. Bucky had a hell of a time getting the punk out of that heap of trouble—he doesn’t want him to get into a new heap of trouble.
So deprogramming him isn’t an option.
So he’s back to only having the tomb as an option.
Whenever he ends up circling back to that conclusion, he gets an unbearable urge to cry.
He doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in this tomb.
He left to fight a war in 1943 and the only thing he ever wanted was to go back home.
Then he fell off a train.
Then he was tortured and brainwashed by Hydra for seventy years.
Now he’s in a tomb on the ocean floor, where he’ll spend the next seventy years.
It’s so damn unfair.
Ever since he was drafted, the only decision he’d ever made for himself was to stay behind in Europe to help Steve and the rest of the Howlies. Everything else had been decided for him.
There has to be another way.
There has to be another option.
* * *
Steve pushes open the door of the small coffee shop and immediately checks the corner table. Natasha is already there, two cups of coffee and a plate of pastries on the table.
He makes his way over to her and drops into his chair. “Hey, Nat. Sorry I’m late. Debrief took longer than I thought.”
She makes a face. “Some things never change, huh?”
He takes a sip of his coffee. She firmly pushes the plate of pastries towards him. He shakes his head. “I’m fine. Not hungry.”
“You’re getting too skinny, Rogers. If you don’t care, that’s fine, but I care, and I know that Barnes must have noticed and he cares. You really wanna cause him extra stress?”
Steve gives her an unimpressed look, but takes a brownie. She smirks triumphantly.
“Well played, Romanov.”
“Oh, please. You’re such an easy person to read. Pretty much the easiest I’ve ever met.”
He throws her what he hopes is a withering glare, but dutifully takes a large bite of the brownie. “You know, I’m getting sick and tired of you and Buck teaming up against me.”
She smiles. “We only do it for your own good, you know that.”
“We were doing fine.”
They both know Steve isn’t talking about today.
She rolls her eyes. “The serum was barely managing to keep you alive, you were both running out of steam and you were both getting cornered more and more frequently. It was only a matter of time before you both got yourselves killed protecting each other. At least this way, you’re both alive.”
Steve snorts. “Are we? I keep confusing this new life of mine with being dead. They sure feel the same on most days.”
She lapses into silence and swirls her coffee in its cup. Steve finishes his brownie and she gestures at the blueberry danish until he picks it up and starts eating it.
“So? Mission went well?”
Steve shrugs. “Yeah. Went fine.”
She gives him a long look. Steve realizes he probably should have tried to sound more enthusiastic about it, but he’s finding it harder and harder to fake his enthusiasm for anything these days.
“You don’t have to keep working for SHIELD, Steve. You know that. Your immunity isn’t—”
“My immunity has nothing to do with it but Ross made it clear—if I want him to do favors for Bucky, I gotta keep working for him. I stop working for SHIELD, suddenly they won’t let him read anymore, won’t give him desert or they won’t let me visit anymore. There’s only so much I can do to help make his life better, I’m not taking the risk that he loses any of that.”
She sighs softly. “I wish I could do more to help you two.”
“It’s not your responsibility, Nat. Life decided Buck and I deserve to have these cards, so this is what we get.”
“You’re my friend, Rogers. I don’t have many of those and I’m not too familiar with how the whole thing works, but I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be trying to help you. And Barnes cares about you way more than your stubborn ass deserves, so he’s okay in my books too.”
Steve smiles. “You are helping, Nat. You can’t get Buck out of that prison and you can’t do anything about Ross being an ass.”
She purses her lips. “I never said I can’t get—”
Steve glares and puts down his danish. “No, stop. That’s not happening. If anybody decides to put their lives on the line to break Buck out, it’ll be me. I’m not risking anybody else.”
“You know Barnes would be mad. He risked a lot to get you immunity.”
“I’ve got immunity but I’ve got about as much freedom as Buck. The only difference is that my prison’s bigger than his. As long as Buck’s locked away, I ain’t free. I’d rather be dead than unhappy, and if Buck was thinking straight, he’d realize that.”
“So you’d rather have him mad at you the rest of your lives?”
“I don’t gotta make that choice right now, because breaking him out isn’t my first choice. I’m gonna keep looking for a way to deprogram those trigger words. Once I’ve run out of all options, then I’ll consider doing something more…drastic.”
He’d already tracked down every last Hydra survivor who had worked on the Winter Soldier program and gotten absolutely nothing useful out of them. He’d spoken to every doctor and psychiatrist who had experience in the field of brainwashing and trauma recovery, but none of them had ever dealt with something like this.
He’d also asked Wanda for help, but she refused to use Bucky as a guinea pig to do something she’d never done before. Not to mention the huge risk of causing horrific brain damage for both of them. Once Steve realized how much of a danger the whole thing was to Wanda, he’d dismissed that option.
Last week he’d met with Thor. If nothing on this planet could help Bucky, maybe something on Asgard could help.
“Did you meet with the big guy?”
Natasha leans forward and raises a hopeful eyebrow. “And?”
Steve snorts and tears a flake of pastry off the danish. “If he had anything good to say, don’t you think I would have texted you last week?”
“So he had nothing?”
“Oh, he had something. A lot of different somethings. The only problem is that all of it’s designed for Asgardian physiology. He asked the doctors and all of them said the risk of causing large amounts of damage were way too high.”
Steve sighs. “I’ll keep looking, but I ain’t gonna consider anything that’ll damage Buck’s brain. He’s been through enough. The last thing I want is to turn him into a vegetable.” He pushes the plate of pastries back and rubs a weary hand over his face. “I’m tired, Nat. I just wanna go home with Buck. That’s all I’ve wanted since 1944 and it’s looking like no matter what we do or how hard we fight, that ain’t ever gonna happen.”
Natasha reaches forward and squeezes his hand that’s clenched in a fist on the table. “We’ll keep looking. And when you’re ready to have a hypothetical discussion over how somebody would hypothetically break out of a hypothetical prison on the ocean floor, we’ll have that chat.”