The 107th was being shipping out to Italy. The officers had given the boys one last night of leave, to explore London and drink themselves blind, before they were sent to the front lines the next day. Bucky and another Sergeant named Briggs trailed after a group of enlisted men, wrangling any that looked as if they might stray and ensuring that they would all return to base safely by the designated hour.
As the group shuffled into another bar Bucky lingered outside the door. The sun had set over London some time ago but it should still have been daytime back in Brooklyn. Absently he wondered what Steve was doing. Was he home, finishing up his dinner? Or had he found another job and was out, working himself to death.
This was the longest that Bucky could remember that he’d ever been separated from Steve. It was harder than he’d thought it would be and it wasn’t likely to be over anytime soon. Every morning he woke up and expected to turn over and find Steve, curled into his back. Every day he wondered if Steve was ill again and confined to his bed with no on to take care of him. Every night Bucky lay awake with the fear that he would make it home after the war and Steve wouldn’t be there.
He was barely managing to keep himself under control, keeping himself from deserting and running home, by micromanaging the men under his command. Bucky reached for his breast pocket and froze. Not here he told himself. It wasn’t safe to look at it here.
Noticing that his men were gearing up to cause a ruckus Bucky sighed and entered the bar. He shoved himself through the men to the front of the pack to see what was causing the fuss. Sergeant Briggs had noticed the growing hostility as well and was attempting to turn the group towards the bar but the group’s attention was trained on on a smoky back corner of the room. One of the men, puffed up and sneering, broke from the group and began stalking towards the corner, Bucky right on his heels.
Grabbing the man by his collar Bucky tossed him back into the waiting arms of his compatriots. He had finally seen what captured their attention and he felt his own hostility rising. But his ire was not directed towards the two Asian dame’s sitting in the back corner, smoking their long pipes and speaking what Bucky thought might have been Japanese. Bucky glared fiercely at the man he had tossed; Corporal Harris, who should have known better.
“All right boys,” he said in a bark that he’d been taught special. It easily carried over the noise of the bar. “If you’re drunk enough to be willing to disgrace the honor of the United States Army then it’s past time for you to return to base and your bunks.” Complaints filled the air but Bucky merely smiled. “We are shipping out bright and early in the morning boys! You’ll all thank me in the morning when your skulls don’t feel like they’re splitting open.”
Grumbling irritably, the men reluctantly turned and filed out of the bar. Corporal Harris looked as if he might push the issue, his eyes glaring over Bucky’s shoulder into the corner. But Bucky stood firm and resolute, blocking his path forward. Eventually Harris gave in and allowed Sergeant Briggs to pull him towards the door. Bucky shifted to follow and instead found himself turning on a heel towards the two women in the corner.
He wavered, uncertain. He knew that he should be returning to the base with his men. It wouldn’t do to foster too much resentment the night before they shipped out. But something was drawing him towards that corner.
“Sergeant Barnes?” Briggs called from the door. Bucky paused and waved him on. Then he made his way towards the table in the corner.
As he approached, he realized that he had made a mistake. Despite the long dark hair both of the people at the table shared, only one was a dame. Her companion’s features were soft but, on closer inspection, distinctly masculine. The bar’s low light reflected off his small round glasses as he watched Bucky approach their table, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
The woman was blatantly grinning at him, wicked amusement dancing in her eyes as she raised her pipe to her lips. She blew smoke at her companion and said something to him in Japanese. When he reached their table, they both turned to face him.
“Excuse me for being so forward,” Bucky said. “But, for your own safety, I felt the need to warn you that there are going to be a lot of American servicemen out and about tonight. A lot of them are hurting and wouldn’t mind turning their anger on civilians.”
The man smiled warmly at him and Bucky barely resisted the urge to smile back. Despite Bucky’s warning there was something peaceful about him. He made Bucky feel warm.
“Thank you for the warning Sergeant.” Bucky was surprised to hear that the main spoke with a British accent. “My companion and I had some business to attend to but now that you’re here we will be done soon.”
“Excuse me,” Bucky asked, his eyebrows raised.
“We were waiting for you, Sergeant Barnes.” the woman said in heavily accented English. “You who have a wish for me.”
Bucky shook his head and tried to step away from the table. How did they know his name? They were too far away to have heard Briggs. His rank was obvious from the patches on his coat but there was nothing there to tell them his name. But instead of leaving Bucky pulled out a chair and sat with them at the table.
“What do you mean a wish?” He asked, even though his mind was screaming obscenities at him. These people must be spies he realized. They were going to try to bribe him to spy for them.
“We are not spies,” said the man giving Bucky a knowing look. “But Yuuko felt it necessary that we approach you now or your wish could never be granted.”
Bucky swallowed down his protests, fears, and questions. None of this made any sense to him but the man’s last words settled in his stomach like a lead weight. For most of his life he had only ever had one wish. The thought that his wish would never be able to come true terrified Bucky.
“What do you mean?” He asked. “What does wishing have to do with anything?”
“You have a very important wish,” the woman, Yuuko, said. “It is a wish with far reaching consequences that neither you nor I can realize. But it is a wish that needs to be fulfilled.” She drew in a long breath from her pipe and blew the smoke over his head. For a moment Bucky thought that he could see a shape in the smoke but before he could focus on it, the woman spoke up again. “It is a wish that I can grant, for a price.”
Bucky narrowed his eyes at her.
“I’ve heard promises like that before. From Doctor’s and snake oil salesman all with better pitches than you. What sort of price are we talking about here? Money? Information?” He laughed bitterly. “I’m just an enlisted man from Brooklyn, I don’t have either.”
“No money and no information,” Yuuko said, shaking her head as the amusement left her eyes. It was replaced by something that looked like sorrow “But the price has to be equivalent to the wish. And yours is a very big wish.”
Hope flared in Bucky’s chest. He couldn’t help it. There was something about their meeting that seemed supernatural to him. Something dreamlike. Maybe he was already back at the barracks, asleep on his bunk. Or maybe not. Maybe he was really sitting in the back corner of a London bar about to make an impossible deal with a stranger.
He wanted to believe her, he decided. He had wanted to believe everyone that had told him that his wish could come true. But for the first time, he felt like he had more than hope. Something about this meeting felt inevitable.
“Hitsuzen,” The woman said, grinning again. “A naturally foreordained event; a state in which other outcomes are impossible, a result which can only be obtained by a single casualty and other casualties would necessarily create different results.”
“So our meeting was fate?” He asked.
He’d never been much of a fan of fate. It had always seemed like fate had had it out for him and Steve. It had been fated that Steve’s mother would contract TB after working in the wards. It was fated that he would be drafted, so he might as well have enlisted. It was fate that Steve would die.
“One fate of many,” Yuuko said. “From our meeting today, the future branches off in one direction. In a universe where we never met it branches off a different way. Your wish will...shape the century. Tell me, what is your wish?”
Bucky’s jaw clenched. He didn’t care for fate and he didn’t care about shaping anything. All that he cared about was a young man back in Brooklyn whose body was killing him.
“My buddy Steve is the best guy I’ve ever known.” He lowered his eyes to the table top. “He’s brave and strong and smart and it’s a miracle that he’s still alive. His spirit or his soul or whatever has always seemed gigantic to me. He cares about people and wants to help them. But his Mama used to say he’s cursed. Because his body is small and frail and dying every day.”
Unbidden Bucky’s hand rose and patted his breast pocket. He wanted desperately to reach inside and look at what he’d hidden there. But it wasn’t safe. It was risky to even have it but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to leave it in Brooklyn.
“My wish,” he said as he raised his eyes to meet Yuuko’s gaze. “Is that Steve’s body would be a match for his soul. That whatever curse he’s got on him was gone.”
The man closed his eyes, humming softly. He placed a finger to his lips as he thought. Yuuko sat her pipe down on the table and took a sip from her drink. Bucky bit his lip, feeling his heart sink. Saying it out loud made him doubt.
“A wish like that will require a heavy price,” said the man finally.
“A heavy price indeed,” Yuuko said with a sigh. “For all of his suffering will come to you. Not only the suffering he would have faced in the future but all of the suffering that he had experienced in the past. For this wish to be granted you would suffer for a very long time James Barnes.”
Bucky swallowed. It sounded daunting and terrifying and oh so possible.
“And Steve would be healthy? He wouldn’t have to worry about his lungs or his heart anymore? His suffering would be over?”
“Life is suffering,” Yuuko said. “But he would be healthy and able to live his life to it’s full extent.”
“Then yes,” Bucky said. “I’d already come to terms with the fact that I would probably die over here. Please grant my wish.”
Yuuko nodded to his breast pocket.
“I will also need the picture that you are keeping hidden there.” When Bucky flinched her voice softened. “You know it isn’t safe for you to have it here Sergeant. If someone were to find it the future would branch in an unfavorable direction for you.”
With a heavy sigh Bucky reached into his breast pocket and withdrew the small picture. It was torn from the end of a photo booth reel. Steve’s eyes were wide with surprise, still smiling brilliantly for the camera. Bucky’s eyes were closed and his lips were on Steve’s cheek. Reluctantly he handed the picture over to Yuuko. She smiled at it and tucked it away into a little bag.
“I will keep this safe for you,” she said. “I’m sure that in time it will find it’s way back to you.”
“So what now,” Bucky asked. “Are you going to do some kind of hocus pocus?”
“The wish has already been granted,” the man said. Bucky blinked at him in surprise. “When you gave her the picture it fulfilled your wish.”
“Really? That was it?” Bucky asked. “I kinda was expecting something a little more showy.”
“The best magic is simple magic,” Yuuko said. “It costs a lot less.”
Bucky nodded. He hoped that this was real. He hoped that somewhere back in Brooklyn, Steve was being transformed. That he would be able to run. That he would be able to breathe.
“You’ll see the fruits of your wish soon,” Yuuko said. “And the price will be upon you soon as well.”
This is my price, Bucky thought, months later as he lay strapped to a table in a mad scientist's laboratory. Armin Zola had tortured him, injecting him with drugs than he couldn’t name and burning him with light. But he put up with it, repeating his name and serial number over and over again as he told himself, ‘This is my price’. He was suffering now so that Steve wouldn’t have to anymore.
Then he saw the fruits of his wish and Bucky knew that his suffering wouldn’t be over for a long time.