It doesn’t surprise the Soldier to read that he was alive, was fighting, in the 1940s, though he knows that people don’t live that long. He is not a person, not really. He is a series of missions, back and back and back. How far back he does not know. He’s been called a demon by some, a creature summoned to do mankind’s dark deeds, and that’s as good an explanation as any. Perhaps the missions stretch back into eternity—he does not know and it does not matter.
What matters is determining his course of action, and determining where his loyalties lie. The first will not be difficult, not in the short term. The Soldier has been left in the cold before: he has covers, safehouses, procedures to follow until HYDRA is ready to take him in again (because HYDRA will always be there: cut off one head and two more rise to take its place). The second, that’s where it gets complicated. He failed his mission. But he chose. How could it be a failure if he chose? What was it that made him so certain that saving Captain America, protecting him, was more important than taking him out?
What was his mission now?
It seems he has a past with Captain America. History says that the man was his commanding officer. That is not enough to explain it; it would not be the first time he had killed a man who once had given him orders. (He does not remember doing this. There is a certain fear in the eyes of everyone he remembers working for, and that is enough.) It’s not normal for the Soldier to take on such a public persona, to work among people for so long. Usually his work requires that he stay in the shadows. Usually his work is quick. He wonders what “Bucky Barnes’s” mission was.
Captain America cannot have been his true commander, he concludes. Captain America clearly bought his cover, actually believed him to be this Bucky. But then, why …? He wishes he could remember. Remembering is dangerous, remembering leads to conflict, and perhaps that’s exactly what’s happening here, but the Soldier knows that if he could remember that one particular mission in the 1940s then he’d know why it felt so imperative that he protect Steve Rogers now. He’d know if that feeling were relevant.
History also tells him that Captain America was a friend. His eyes slide past that and dismiss it as irrelevant, simply a part of the cover. There’s a dictionary in his head that tells him what a friend is, but the word has no real meaning.
His loyalty, he decides, lies with Captain America. It must. And so he makes it his mission to protect the captain. If this is an error, it will be an easy one to correct.
Captain America is easy to find. The Black Widow is teaching him, but Steve Rogers does not belong in the shadows. The captain is working against HYDRA, and the Soldier considers where his duty falls. He will not hinder, he concludes, but neither will he help, other than to guard the person of Captain America.
It is very rare that his missions call upon him to be a bodyguard.
If his mission were anyone other than Captain America, he’d have never been detected, but while Captain America may be a poor spy he is a very good soldier. A lesser man would not have been able to follow the HYDRA agents back to their base, would not have fallen into the trap that no one man, not even Captain America, could fight his way out of.
Two men, though—
Steve Rogers looks at him and says, “Bucky.”
“No,” says the Soldier, because that was a lie, a cover, and if he is to work openly with Captain America now (which it seems he must) then there are things about him the Captain needs to know.
“Come back with me, Bucky,” says Captain America, and the Soldier does, following him back to the safehouse he’s been watching for weeks. No one else is there, though both the Black Widow and Sam Wilson have made appearances there before. “Bucky,” says the captain, when they are alone. “You remember?”
“No,” says the Soldier, again.
“You’re my mission,” says the Soldier. “Protecting you.”
“Who gave you that mission?”
“I don’t remember.” He explains, roughly, who he is. What he is. Usually other people make these explanations to those who need to know, and very few people need to know. He explains that memories are distractions, that the skills never go away but the people do. Explains that he has to know what he was doing, during the Great Patriotic War, as Bucky Barnes, explains that without knowing the nature of that mission he cannot determine how to proceed.
Steve Rogers looks at him with an expression the Soldier does not comprehend. “Bucky,” he says. “That wasn’t a mission, that was you.
“I am my mission,” the Soldier explains. “There’s nothing outside of that.”
“But before,” says Steve Rogers. “That was before—this.”
“There’s no ‘before,’” says the Soldier.
“Bucky,” says Steve Rogers. “We grew up together.”
That was part of the cover, the Soldier thinks. “That’s a lie,” he says. “That didn’t happen to me.”
Now the expression on Steve’s face is one that the Soldier understands. It’s one of pain. Captain America abruptly turns and walks away, but the Soldier hears him in the next room, making a phone call. “Nat,” the Captain says. “I need you here. Bring the file.”
Captain America leaves the Soldier alone until the Black Widow arrives. Most people wouldn’t do that. “Here.” Captain America thrusts a paper folder into his hand. He doesn’t meet his eyes. The Soldier looks over the Cyrillic writing: Item 17. It’s familiar, and he doesn’t know why it should be.
As he reads, Captain America and the Black Widow speak in the next room. They’re arguing about how much to tell him, how much to trust him. The Black Widow has good instincts, and Steve Rogers has a lot to learn. But as he proceeds further and further into the file their voices fade away. This is—lies, he thinks, and then, I was lied to.
Some time after he’s finished reading, Captain America returns to him. The Soldier hasn’t moved. “Bucky …” the captain begins.
“Don’t call me that,” the Soldier says. “I don’t—” He knows, but he doesn’t remember. “That’s not who I am.”
“What do you want me to call you?” Steve asks, hesitantly.
The Soldier has used many names. None of them were his. “Barnes,” he says, after a pause. If Barnes is his name then Bucky must be too but Bucky is an invasion, an accusation, an—invitation. He can’t. “I want to help you take down HYDRA,” he says. Steve smiles and the Soldier has to stop this, has to keep Steve from thinking—has to protect Captain America. “I don’t remember you,” he says. “Facts aren’t memories.”
“You remember something,” says Steve, and that’s true, or why would he have spared his life in the first place?
But the Soldier has a new mission now, a mission he understands. That’s what’s important.
They’ve been working together for a month and a half, and their operation has grown. HYDRA is still a threat, though, still an unknown quantity. “Barnes, I need backup!” Steve calls him. “I’m bringing in two agents, but we’re being followed.” Steve still has a lot to learn about spycraft. Barnes meets them at the rendezvous point, where Steve is accompanied by a man and a woman.
“Agent May,” he says in surprised recognition, and her eyes slide over him cooly. He recalls that the last time they met, he almost killed her. May’s partner, who he does not know, examines him with an unreadable expression. Together, the four of them take out the HYDRA operatives who had been on their tail and make it back to the safehouse easily. Agent May and her partner insist on giving their report outside of Barnes’ presence, which, he thinks, is understandable.
Steve comes to him later. “I’m sorry,” Barnes says. “I don’t know why I remember her when I can’t—” They’ve been working together a month and a half, dammit. “I don’t know why some things are coming back and not—” It’s the missions. It's only the missions that are coming back, nothing before.
“It’s okay,” says Steve, but it’s not okay.
“Steve, if I care about you this much after a month and a half then I need to know what we had before,” Barnes says. “It’s not fair to you to—” And fuck it, it wasn’t fair to him either, knowing what they’d had and not feeling it, knowing it would always be out of reach.
“No,” says Steve. “It’s okay. Coulson told me—there’s a machine in SHIELD custody. It helped him remember—well, something he needed to remember.”
“At SHIELD.” Under HYDRA’s control.
“Yes,” says Steve. “So it’s out of reach now, but eventually …”
He wants to take the forces they had and storm SHIELD HQ right now; with Steve and Natasha and Sam, Carter and Hill and now Coulson and May they could do it, they could—but— “Seventy years, Steve,” he says, instead. “Seventy years of missions,” of being frozen and woken up again and again and again, only to kill, and those were coming back one by one and that was bad enough but all at once and he’s suddenly not sure if the reward is worth the cost.
“Bucky,” says Steve, taking his hands. Both hands. “Whatever you want to do, I’ll back you up, I just—I missed you so much.” Missed, Barnes thinks. Past tense, as if to say you’re here now and whatever you remember, that’s all that matters. Barnes looks into Steve’s eyes. Feels Steve’s hands in his. And Bucky thinks, the reward is worth the cost.