There’s a small box tucked under the bed. It’s hidden, well out of sight, but he knows that it’s there.
Sometimes he wonders what his life would’ve been like if things had just been a little different. If he hadn’t been so damn stubborn. If he hadn’t been so afraid. If he’d just been able to hold on? It’s a whole series of events, a bunch of what ifs.
(The worst part is - he knows he couldn’t have done anything. It’s all the same. No matter what, it all ends with a fall, and he isn’t sure if he’ll ever be able to pick himself back up, if he’ll ever climb to the surface again.)
But. What if.
The world wouldn’t be so grey, then. He still sees in shades of grey and black and white and everything in between. Just like the old photos he pulls out with hands that are far too shaky for everything he’s seen, everything he’s done. The world is greyscale, drab and dirty and ruined by the knowledge of everything he’s been through. Bucharest is a vibrant city; busy, and so goddamn familiar, it pulls at his heartstrings. A city ravaged by war and natural disaster, barely beginning to recover—buildings crumbled, renovated and repaired, but still carrying scars and wounds that have damaged the architecture forever. It’s a fitting place, for someone like him.
Once, in the back of his mind, in the memories he cherishes, the world was bright. There was colour. And sometimes, when he allows himself to sit down on the grungy little mattress, when he reaches down and pulls out the box, when he goes through the remnants of his past life, he sees it the way he used to. He sees blonde hair, blue eyes, a shield: red, white, blue.
He still sees red, even if he wants to pretend he doesn’t. Bloodstains under his eyes, when he closes them and tries to sleep. Screaming at him in nightmares. The star that burns on the arm he tries to keep covered. It pours into the present, in the dark maroon of his clothing – it all bleeds together, past and present and a future, a laughable one. Maybe the world isn’t black and white; maybe that’s the kinder alternative.
He doesn’t know anymore.
The asset doesn’t think.
He’s been taught not to think. He’s been taught not to question – because questioning things hurts. Questioning things means that he’s going to suffer, and it’s better to just do what he’s told. He doesn’t understand the reasoning behind all of that, of course. He just knows, like he knows how to breathe. His mind feels like a blank slate, and he knows that it’s better that way.
He’s the Winter Soldier, and that’s all he knows, after all.
Some people are born different. Some people are normal. He’s not normal. He’s special. He has a purpose that’s beyond the mundane; the asset’s handlers keep telling him that, over and over again. It’s a mantra that must be true, because if it’s not – what else does he have?
Other people have names, but the asset has long stopped questioning it. He’s stopped learning their names, anyway; it’s too hard to keep track. There are too many people coming in and out of his life. He doesn’t keep handlers for too long – and that’s for the best. He simply knows that he exists, that his job is to hurt people. No questions. His job is to shape the future, and he’s the lucky chosen one. Most are too afraid to grab onto fate and manipulate it. They tell him that, again and again, until it’s simply part of his existence, like the beating of his heart.
(they could take his heart away, and they can take anything else, too. The asset knows this.)
Deep down, sometimes, the asset gets flickers of… something. He doesn’t know what the word for it is. He understands a lot of things. He understands strategy, he understands weapons and firearms and knives. He understands that his arm is a weapon – his body is a weapon, his very existence - and he knows how to use it. He knows that when he does a good job, it’s so much easier than when he fails. When he fails, he’s punished, and then he’s sent back to get it right. The cycle repeats, until he’s good enough. That’s what’s important.
The asset – the Winter Soldier, because if he has a name, that is his name – understands the cold, the ice. He understands what happens to him. They can wipe him and freeze him, but this part of his life is burned so hard, engrained so deeply, that he can’t feel warmth anymore. There’s always a chill creeping up his spine; his fingertips feel cold with frostbite, even when the hot sun is beating down on the back of his neck as he stares through the scope of a sniper rifle.
Still, sometimes he thinks that maybe, underneath it all, there’s a glimmer of… something that isn’t cold, or emptiness. It’s a fleeting sensation, a flutter in the pit of his stomach, a strange momentum that almost makes his lips quirk upward into something. A smile, maybe? The asset doesn’t understand fully why people smile. He knows how to wear the look. He’s trained in all sorts of deception, and he knows how to smile, how to put on the charm, how to speak in a multitude of different languages and get people to do what he wants. None of it is real, but… these strange moments, lost in time, they feel as though they could be real. Just maybe.
It’s during a particularly long mission when the asset really starts to notice it. He gets a strange sense of deja-vu, during these longer missions, and he hates it. When the days creep into weeks, and sometimes into months, the asset finds himself acting… erratically. Against his programming. Sometimes, he gets the strangest feeling to just turn around and leave. Sometimes, the asset finds himself thinking.
Sometimes, he wonders what the people around him do. If they have lives, if there’s something to them other than the masks they wear, other than the jobs they carry out. The Winter Soldier doesn’t have any of that, but when he stays awake too long, staring up at the ceiling, the night sky, out into the darkness, he starts to get ideas.
They don’t like it when the asset gets ideas, but in the middle of missions, they can’t drag him back into the ice. They can’t do anything, and it’s the closest he’s ever gotten to a concept that he doesn’t understand. Freedom.
It’s one such night.
The asset doesn’t sleep. He knows he’s supposed to, and his handlers get unsettled by the fact that he’s trained to lie there in the dark, staring up at the ceiling. They’re antsy lately, anyway. The asset knows he’s being increasingly difficult to work with. Everyone is impatient; this mission has dragged out longer than it should. If everyone wasn’t so damn afraid of him out in the field like this, afraid of setting him off, he’d be punished. Conditioned. Reset. All the words they murmur in hushed voices, like he’s an animal, like he can’t understand.
It’d be so easy to sneak out. Has he left before? The asset doesn’t know, but it’s a nagging sensation that keeps clawing back in. Wanderlust. Confusion. There’s nothing but static in his mind, no timeline of any events since the last time they pulled him out. The confusion always sets in the strongest when he wakes up – and then fades into a simple, dull clarity, once he’s prepped and briefed on a mission. The longer they keep him out, though, the fuzzier it becomes again. What was once crystal-clear starts muddling and blurring around the edges. Feelings creep in.
The assets knows it’s hopeless, though – they’ll drag him back, and they’ll make him hurt before they do. He knows that, deep in his soul, and no amount of ice can take that dark knowledge from him.
So, the asset doesn’t leave. He feels the draw, a call for freedom, and he stomps it out. He doesn’t sleep, and they know he won’t. He’s like a cat, pacing back and forth, when the missions run too long. The Winter Soldier’s patience runs thin, and instead of stretching out on his cot, he sidesteps quietly through the room.
There are eyes on him; nobody ever lets him out of their sight. As if he’d run. As if there was anywhere to run.
“The hell you going, soldat?” the question is barked at him, as the asset’s hand – his flesh one – closes around the doorknob. The asset feels the pulsing need to comply, to obey without question, but he’s been out of cryo too damn long. Before he can quite hold it back, his own response comes swift, biting.
“Thought I’d enjoy my night off. Go paint the town red.” With blood, the asset’s mind fills in, bitterly, but it surprises him, makes his lips quirk up into something that’s a real, proper smirk. There’s an echo of something – of saying it before, sarcasm dripping from the words, an arm slung over skinny shoulders…
“You can’t talk like tha—” one of his handlers says, as he’s standing, and the asset doesn’t care. He wrenches the door open, damn near pulling it off his hinges, the gesture itself daring them to just try him. It’s muscle memory, something triggered from the very back of his mind, that has the asset lifting a hand in the air behind him, gesturing as he wanders outside.
(In the very back of his mind, the asset hears the roar of a crowd, gets the strangest sense of something – and then, just like that, it’s gone.)
The night sky is dark. The compound they’ve set up in is isolated – on the outskirts of civilization. There’s no town for the asset to paint, neither metaphorically or indeed with spilled blood. Somehow, that’s better. There are always so many people breathing over him, manhandling him and checking on him. The asset doesn’t get jumpy easily, but when he’s been out of cryo for too long… it starts to make his skin crawl. He wants to run away, wants to find somewhere quiet, alone.
Nobody follows him. The asset cranes his neck, glances backwards, but the door distinctly stays shut. They’re wondering what the hell to do; he’s not stupid enough, not for a moment, to think that nobody’s watching him. There are always eyes on the asset, wherever he goes. He’s unpredictable, chaotic, dangerous.
Funny – how mankind was so quick to create him, to build a soldier that they’re barely able to contain. The asset would laugh at the irony, if he could remember how to laugh, if it wasn’t just a hollow mimic.
It’s silent. There’s no wind, and the night is clear. When they’d arrived, earlier, there’d been dust blowing everywhere. It’d gotten in his eyes, in his hair, made it hard to breathe. But it’s quieted down, and somehow, the Soldier takes comfort in that.
The windows in the compound are boarded up. Apart from a small crack of light at the corners, it’s utter darkness, but for the stars overhead. They’re tiny pinpricks of cold white light, so far overhead. Despite the heavy boots he wears, the asset knows how to walk without making a sound. He’s expertly trained, a well-oiled wheel, and everything is second nature. He feels eyes on him, knows he’s being watched. If he cared to look, he’d be able to pinpoint the exact location of every single sentry. But he doesn’t care, if they let him have this.
There’s no purpose to his actions. There’s no great revelation, as the Soldier makes his way through the dirt. The sound of rock crumbling, dirt crunching, is nearly inaudible, his gloved fingers digging in as the asset pulls himself up onto a ledge and settles down on a jut of rock, a good ten feet off the ground, still in plain view. There’s nothing ‘round the compound, just an old road and dust and dirt and rocks. It’s desert, and it’s cold, but the asset doesn’t care. When you’re always cold, when the chill of ice is always there, it doesn’t matter what the temperature outside is. It can’t be that bad.
Maybe in another world, there’d be a revelation. Maybe he’d remember staring up at a night sky, so different from this one, full of light pollution. Maybe he’d remember a time when there was no such thing as silence – when the walls were paper-thin, and there was the sound of people everywhere. Laughter, shouting, the old tinny radio.
The asset sits in silence, though. One leg dangles down over the rock, the other is drawn up to his chest, arms crossed around his knee. Inside, the asset knows his handlers are wondering what to do about him. They – he, the Winter Soldier – have killed all their targets, save one. The asset doesn’t know why he’s here, what the exact mission is. He doesn’t know who, either. He knows a name, he knows basic details, but they never give him more than that. They don’t want to risk instilling basic human emotion. They don’t want their weapon getting feelings. Building connections. Inconvenient.
This last target is proving exceptionally difficult. They’ve chased the mission all the way through the damn country, out into the desert. It’s only a matter of time, the asset knows, but here he is. He’s staring into the darkness, and he’s wondering why the hell he finds himself thinking about how easy it is to run. He’s wondering why.
The Soldier finds himself thinking abruptly, inexplicably, just how many he’s killed. And, the strangest thing happens – his stomach jolts. He closes his eyes, and for a split second, in that moment where his vision flashes white and red, before fading to black below closed eyelids, he sees a flash of bright, vivid blue. His fingers clench; his hand whirs. It’s hard to breathe.
The moment passes, and the Soldier shakes his head to clear his thoughts. Distraction is bad. He’s on a mission, and that’s the only reason he’s not being dragged back to the ice. They need him uncompromised. Strong. Sharp.
Everything else fades away, and before the asset knows it, the darkness is fading, turning from black to a hazy grey along the horizon line. The sun will rise soon – white and harsh on his skin, burning in, mingling with the ever-present chill, until he feels like he’s burning up alive (if this is living). Nobody has bothered him, and the Soldier knows that he’s lucky, that this is as good as it gets for him. It’s a small blessing.
The sun is nearly peeking up when the door of the compound opens. The Soldier hears it, even with his back turned. He doesn’t bother to turn around; he hears it clang shut loudly, and he can hear the heavy footsteps of someone approaching.
“Target spotted. It’s time to go, Soldier,” a voice says. It’s an American voice, not one of his usual handlers, but does it really matter? The accent is familiar, nags at the very back of the asset’s mind – he doesn’t know why it’s familiar, but there’s an instinct, somewhere, deep down and fighting. And maybe if the words were kinder, if they weren’t harsh, if they weren’t –
The next word is a warning, though, and the asset swallows heavily. His throat is parched. His limbs are stiff from sitting silent and still throughout the whole night. The asset doesn’t feel it for longer than a second, though. Mechanical reflex kicks in, and he draws himself upright, stretching, eyes narrowing.
“What am I really doing here?” the Soldier asks, jumping down from his perch. His feet hit the ground and dust swirls up around his feet. The eyes on him are assessing him, taking him apart bit-by-bit, and the Soldier knows he’s pushing his limits, that he’s just begging for punishment. That’s the number one rule – don’t fight back, don’t push too hard, don’t ask questions, it’ll only hurt in the end.
The man – another American, but not The American, because the asset knows that’s him, and he hates being called that, he hates it in a way he doesn’t know – doesn’t reply, and then… he laughs? That confuses the Soldier. His face twists, just for a moment, before the asset manages to smooth himself out again, before he looks perfect and blank like he should.
“You know enough. Your target’s on the move. Move out, unless you want your failure reported back.”
He doesn’t. The Soldier knows that. Failure is unacceptable; failure is pain. Failure means that this is all for nothing, and the idea of everything being for nothing is unacceptable. There’s no real satisfaction in anything he does. He takes pride in his work, he supposes, but only in the barest of senses that emptiness is better than punishment.
“Ready to comply,” he says the words automatically, eyes narrowing, and then the Soldier pushes past, his shoulder roughly nudging the other man out of the way. He steps inside, for briefing, to strap back into his gear. He has a mission; and so, the asset and the Soldier become one again, hidden behind the mask, and it’s easier that way.
The asset is streaked in blood, streaked in gore and grime and dirt, when they arrive at their next location. He gets the distinct feeling that he’s been here before, but the asset can’t remember when, or how. It’s another blank spot in his mind. His thoughts are scattered.
His handlers aren’t happy with him. He’d questioned, he’d stopped and asked why. The asset doesn’t know why the word had floated through his mind. Orders exist to be obeyed. They don’t exist to be questioned, but he’d hesitated, he’d asked why. It was an inconsequential thing, really, and it hadn’t mattered.
It’s hot as all hell, the sun burning bright fiery red in the horizon as it begins to set, and that’s the only indicator at all to the asset that time has passed at all. There’s sweat mixing with dirt on his skin, smearing and leaving marks across his cheek as he rips his gloves off with his teeth.
His handlers are talking about him like he isn’t there again. Glad that’s over, one is saying in hushed voices, eyeing the Soldier like he’s a caged animal about to snap. And maybe he is. He doesn’t know; he just knows why is echoing in the back of his mind. It’s a strange concept, something he doesn’t understand. It’s a half-formed idea, it’s not what it needs to be.
The asset tips his head. He stares them down, and he doesn’t say anything. Ready to comply, his brain fills in, but that part of him that sought out solace earlier, that part that the asset doesn’t understand, it pushes back. And instead, there’s silence.
Instead, the asset pushes past his handlers. Instead, the normally blank expression muddles, twists into something darker. He hears startled conversation - “what if he--” “leave him, we’ll debrief--” ) - and the asset ignores it.
He can already feel the bitter, icy fingers gripping, sinking in, holding him and not letting go. Debrief. Wipe him. He knows what those words mean, even if he doesn’t fully understand. The blank in his mind, the asset knows, is coming. He’ll be cold soon, so goddamn cold. He always seems to wake up freezing cold and disoriented, with bizarre fragments of memories that they can’t seem to fully wrench away from him.
The dull sound of his tac gear hitting the floor momentarily blocks out the quiet hum of voices in the background. The asset wishes he could turn it all off; the enhanced hearing is helpful, but he finds himself longing for silence. He retreats back into his mind. He closes the door behind him - though he doesn’t bother to click the lock in place. The asset has no concept of privacy, knows he won’t get it. They’ll come fetch him, when they want him, and he will go.
He’s standing in what appears to be some sort of barrack. There’s a row of cots to one side, and to the other, a small stall for a bathroom. There’s lighting overhead, but the asset ignores that, as he steps through the room, to stand before the basin. There’s a steady drip, drip, drip of water, and the asset’s attention shifts to that. It’s a focal point, and he grips at the countertop, keeps his attention there - the sounds of talking in the background, the faint humming of machinery below all of that, it all fades away.
There is blood on his face, and it doesn’t belong to the asset.
It’s a miracle there’s even running water, in the facility they’re at. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and realistically, this compound shouldn’t exist. It certainly shouldn’t have technology, and that realization makes the asset shiver. It makes the hair at the back of his neck stand up for no apparent reason. The asset’s instincts are good - but he’s been so thoroughly fucked with and molded, he has no concept of good and bad anymore. Still, he shudders, and even though the water runs warm, he turns it cold before he splashes it over his face.
There shouldn’t be a mirror in the room, either, but it catches his eye.
The asset straightens, and he tips his head, staring down the reflection that looks back at him.
He looks like shit.
He looks like.
His hair is kept long, and it’s stringy with sweat and grime, hanging messy over his face. The water dripping down his face is muddy, coppery-brown, bringing all the dirt and blood with it, leaving clean tracks behind. There’s a faint bruise on one cheekbone, but already, it’s beginning to fade.
Still don’t heal as fast as Stevie does--
The thought confuses the fuck out of him, and suddenly, he’s taking a frantic step backwards. Suddenly, the asset’s lungs hurt, his heart is pounding. Suddenly, he doesn’t know how to breathe, because there’s panic. He’s drowning, he’s sinking so far below the surface, and just for a moment, there’s a flicker of light up there. Just for a moment, his whole body seizes up with the urge to fight this, to climb, to swim through the mess, but fuck, it hurts.
And then, suddenly?
Suddenly, it’s gone. But when the asset lifts a hand up, when he wipes it across his wet face, even in the faint light, the vivid red splash of blood stares back at him. The whole room is painted in shades of grey - dark shadows, the harsh remaining light of the sunset filtering through a dirty old window. But the blood is red, standing out stark on his pale fingers, smeared across a gaunt cheek.
The door swings open behind him, hitting the wall with a dull thud, one that breaks the silence. It’s one of his handlers.
“Debrief, Soldier,” they say, and the asset quietly nods. He rakes a hand through his hair, entirely out of some strange, old instinct, but that’s where any independent streak goes to die. Because as he turns, the words fall out of his lips automatically.
“Ready to comply, sir,” the asset says, and then he follows his handlers out of the room, down the hall, to a makeshift conference room that adjoins a larger area. In the back of his mind, a voice - not the asset’s voice, someone else’s - asks, almost so faintly that it gets lost in his subconscious, Stevie - who’s Stevie? - Steve?
After the debrief (“target eliminated, good job Soldier”), they let him clean up. This time, the room is sterile and mirrorless. And then, they lead him to the chamber, and with a strange sort of dread, the asset understands why this place seems familiar. He’s been here before. He’s been here, and he’s going back into the ice--
He’s stopped pleading and begging his captors, he’s stopped, except whenever he sees the ice, sometimes it breaks through. No matter how many times they do this, there’s a visceral fear--
It burns through him, it sears into his very being. Every single fiber of his being screams that this is wrong. The Soldier is overwhelmed; he wants to fight back. He can feel the ice gripping at him, can feel the tension in the room mounting as he gazes wildly around. It’s all nameless people - his handlers, soldiers, men with guns, scientists, all people staring him down, waiting.
“Please,” the Soldier finds himself saying, “please--”
But it’s no use. Any words he might have said, at one point, they’re gone from his vocabulary. There’s no way to put word to the emotions, to the ripe rise of fear that makes his gut clench, that makes his fingers frantically scrabble for something to hold on to. There’s nothing, though. The urge to fight is there, but it’s so far away, and instead, he’s taking steps forward, the magnetic draw of the instructions he’s been given hardwired to his brain. His fucked up, stupid, broken brain, he thinks-- a moment of coherency, amidst the madness.
“In,” the handler closest to him says, and the asset feels the cold, unyielding press of the barrel of a gun against his lower back.
“The arm,” another says, “we haven’t done maintenance--”
The Soldier’s arm whirls all on its own, just like that, some sort of weird muscle memory triggered. He doesn’t understand how it works - but the sound of it calibrating has become second nature, the technology so naturally fused into his nerves, an extension of his very being.
“Too risky,” his handler says, “you want to mess with a loaded gun? You know how he gets.”
“I’m--” the asset tries to say, but the words sound cold and dead coming from his lips. Another prod of the barrel of the gun against his lower back, and he winces. It’d be so easy to let them shoot him. They won’t kill him; the asset knows, because if they would let him die? There’s a part of him that welcomes that. He thinks, maybe, distantly, that he’s tried that before.
“You know the drill, Soldier,” the order comes, harsh and barked in a particular cadence, an acrid tone that makes all the fight drain out of the asset, before he even realizes he’s been poised to attack. His mind goes blissfully blank, and he takes a step forward.
It’s freezing. The cold cuts through him, and he wants to recoil, he wants to break free, but instead there’s the hissing of the cryo chamber. There’s ice, instantly searing through his veins, and suddenly, he stops feeling anything except the burning and then, soon, that fades away too.
The cold doesn’t get to Bucky the way that it gets to Stevie.
It doesn’t get properly cold here, not the way he’s heard of it gettin’ upstate. That doesn’t matter, though, not when Steve is practically all skin and bones, not when he’s tiny enough that Bucky could throw him over his shoulder and carry him down the street like a sack of potatoes. (Though if he comments on that, of course, Steve huffs and punches him and knows how to make it hurt. Despite his size, Steve knows how to throw a damn punch, and they both know that’s outta necessity.)
It works out though - works out that Bucky just so happens to not need the hat or the thick wool mittens his ma made him, because he’s crowded Steve up against the paper-thin walls and forced him to dress appropriately so many damn times, it’s muscle-memory by now. Steve always puts up a fight, grumbles about it -- “you don’t gotta baby me, Buck!” -- but he’ll be grateful for it, when the wind’s whipping ‘round them and getting right into his bones.
Bucky wishes they could afford something better. He wishes they could get out of this shithole tenement, that they could have a real place to call theirs, but Steve’s health keeps it hard to hold down a job, and Bucky’s tendency to miss work to take care of Steve doesn’t exactly help with his employability either. Bucky’s parents keep inviting them back, keep pointing out that Steve’s family anyway, and it’s nothing if the two of them just move back in.
Bucky’s feelings about Steve, though, they’re… complicated. That’s what he tells himself, because it’s easier than thinking about the finer details, about the fact that when his invites his best friend out dancing with him, he’s way more interested in Steve than whatever girl he’s got hanging off his arm.
It’s not… not unheard of, if you know where to look, but that doesn’t make it okay, and Bucky? He cares more about Steve than anything else in this whole damn world.
“Buck,” Steve grumbles for the thousandth time, “ ‘m fine.”
Steve’s shivering, though, his shoulders hunched in on themselves. He’s doing that thing that he does, where his eyes burn with a certain intensity that only really sinks in when he’s trying to prove a point. And damnit, Steve Rogers always seems to have some point or another to prove. Bucky wants to tell him to slow down, he wants to tell Steve that damnit, he doesn’t have to always be picking a fight. But hell--it seems like the world’s against Steve, and if he’s bein’ honest with himself?
Bucky’s never been able to say no to his best friend. He’s never been able to deny Steve anything, and that’s the source of all his life’s problems ain’t it.
That’s what’s brought them to today, at least. It’s too cold to be going into the city, and Bucky knows it. He’s okay, but Steve is doing that thing where he crowds in too close, even though he’ll get that irritated scowl if Bucky points out that he’s all huddled into his side for desperate warmth. And Bucky sure as hell doesn’t mind having Stevie close. It makes his lungs seize up and his whole body feel warm and tingly, and that’s not the proper reaction he should have, but here they are.
“You sure, punk?” Bucky teases, eyes bright, as he nudges their hips together.
“Buck,” Steve groans, for the thousandth time today, “shove it. We’re already nearly there.”
Bucky opens his mouth to protest that they aren’t. There’s a streetcar ride to the train station, and then it’s still a journey all the way into the city, but-- they don’t get days like these anymore.
When they were kids, when they were young and life still was just a struggle instead of a constant battle, they’d had days to mess around, to pretend that the world really did just revolve around them. Because ever since Bucky met tiny little Steve Rogers, the world has revolved around him. And yeah, Steve got sick a lot, but before they’d been too old to have fun, they’d spent their summers running around town, getting into trouble and scrounging up coins to buy treats.
Now, they’re scrounging up money to just get by. Bucky works what he can, and Steve’s managed to scrape his way into art school on a scholarship that they both know he’s damn lucky to have got. But someday, someday.
(Someday, they’ll meet girls, and someday, this weird… thing, unspoken between them, it’s gonna come to an end.)
But it’s their day off, and he isn’t gonna worry ‘bout that. Steve doesn’t have school, and Bucky doesn’t have to work for once, and it’s the holidays.
“C’mon,” Bucky says, instead of protesting, instead of suggesting that maybe they should just turn around. The streets can turn into vicious wind tunnels, this close to the water, and they both shudder and snuggle in closer to each other as a particularly rough gust sweeps in, tousles their hair and makes Steve’s bright blue eyes water in a way that Bucky knows stings. He feels that protective instinct rise--and god, he can’t help, the way he curls an arm around Steve’s waist.
Steve grumbles, but he doesn’t protest, and Bucky can feel the jut of bony hip against his fingertips, even through the layers of his threadbare clothing. Fuck. Fuck.
“You’re the one slowin’ us down, Buck,” Steve says back, roughly, and if their breaths catch a little, it’s because they’re bustling as fast as Steve’s lungs will allow them to catch a ride into the city. It’s not because of anything else, nope.
Far off, the Soldier thinks he hears voices. He hears the hiss of gas, feels the bitter, endless chill of ice in his veins. He can hear the steady beeping of a machine.
His eyes flutter.
“... is he…?”
“... that’s not…”
“... should we?”
The Soldier’s eyes feel heavy. His body hurts. It’s so cold. Where is he. Is…?
The sounds outside are growing louder, the voices are melding together, and then suddenly there’s a burst of ice, there’s a wild hissing, and the Soldier can’t move. He can’t breathe, can’t think, and he falls. He’s fallen before, he thinks--he remembers a fall, he remembers a scream, and then there’s nothing.
Steve Rogers has two moods, and Bucky Barnes knows them well. Sometimes, Stevie just has absolutely nothing to say. When his ma had died, it’d taken Bucky days to get anything out of him. It’d taken even longer to get Steve to move out of the shithole tenement he’d shared with his mother when the sickness had really taken hold.
Other times, Steve will never shut up. He’ll run his mouth on and on, to anyone who will listen. He’s always self-righteous and got so much to say about anything. Steve’s views on most things are… radical. He hates bullies, hates violence, says he hates war, but Bucky’s not so sure. He’s convinced himself that socialism, of all things, is on the rise, is the way of the future. And there’s other things that he whispers, hot and full of passion, to Bucky, when it’s just the two of them. There are things Steve has to say that even the rest of the world ain’t ready for, and Bucky doesn’t know if it ever will be.
Right now, though, Steve’s been rendered speechless, and it’s the prettiest damn thing he’s ever seen.
They started hauling the Christmas trees in a few years back, and immediately, Steve’s eyes had gone wide at the suggestion. Bucky’s family has tried to fill the Sarah Rogers shaped void in Steve’s life, but--that’s a hell of a hole to fill, and it’s one that they all know they can’t really succeed in. The trauma is too immediate, too real, and Bucky knows he’ll never be able to help Steve get over it entirely.
The holidays are hard, too. The Barnes don’t really celebrate it, not the way Steve did--religion’s complicated, it’s something that makes his stomach knot itself all tightly wound. And it isn’t like Steve’s religious, but… Christmas, it holds a special place in his heart.
This maybe, kinda-sorta fills just a bit of the void, and that means it’s Bucky’s entire world, giving Steve this moment.
“It’s even better this year,” Bucky agrees, his voice too casual. He can’t help it. He tips his head to the side, hair falling over his eyes, because he can’t pull his gaze away from Steve.
Steve’s got his hands shoved into his pockets. It’s not quite as cold in the heart of Manhattan. The city proper is something else, for a couple of Brooklyn boys--and it’s funny, because Bucky pretends to live it, but he thinks Steve is really the one who falls into his element. Stupid, scrawny little artist Steve Rogers goes wide-eyed and slack-jawed for a moment, every time they come here, but soon he’s weaving his way through the crowds as they wander along 49th, every goddamn time.
It’s not quite as cold, but Steve’s still shivering, and Bucky doesn’t bother to hold back. He wraps an arm around Steve’s shoulders and he guides him, and Steve lets himself go, lets himself be led.
Steve’s the one who always voices passionately about the disparity in income between the rich and the poor. They’re two who grew up on the wrong side of the depression, after all. They can barely get by. They don’t have their own private bathroom, their walls are paper-thin, and there’s barely any privacy. But even Steve can’t deny the beauty, the fact that the average person has been given a real, true gift.
“Where do you think they manage to get a tree that big? Let alone two of ‘em,” Bucky asks, nodding his head. “They gotta be a hundred feet tall.”
“They’re seventy feet, Buck,” Steve retorts - but that’s after a heavy pause, because his eyes are still all wide and full of wonder. Steve has that look on his face that Bucky knows, and moments later, he’s fumbling around in the bag that’s hanging against a scrawny hip. It’s his fancy sketchbook, the one with the heavy pages that Steve saves for special occasions.
“One for each of us,” Bucky grins, nudging Steve’s shoulder with his own, and because he can’t quite help it. “See. That one on the right, the scrawny one? That’s you, pal.”
“Punk,” Steve grouses, and Bucky doesn’t bother to dodge the punch to his shoulder that remark earns him. He deserves it, and besides, they’re both grinning like idiots anyway.
The crowds are bad - they always are, it’s Manhattan, and already, this is becoming an annual tradition, countless others seeking out a strange sort of magical solace that a couple of giant, heavily decorated Christmas trees provide - but the two of them find a spot. Steve pulls himself up onto a ledge (with shaking arms, and only a little help from Bucky) and settles down, book open in his lap, fingers already smudging with the bits of charcoal he’s got tucked in his pockets. Bucky’s eyes widen and he’s torn between staring at the scene before them, and staring at Steve.
Steve always wins out, though. Bucky’s heart rises into his throat, as he stares his best friend down. There’s something that takes over, a peace that enters Steve Rogers’ usually tormented, tight, lookin’-for-a-fight eyes. It’s like a trance comes in, turns his best friend into someone else, and Bucky loves Steve for it, all the more. He loves him, this ridiculous, too short and too skinny little artist punk from Brooklyn.
“Next year,” Bucky finds himself saying aloud, as he pulls himself up, as their shoulders knock together and he feels the faint heat radiating between them. “Next year, ‘imma save up, Stevie. We’re gonna go skatin’, just like them--” and he breaks off, nodding his head in the direction of the makeshift skate pond, full of laughing people spinning around on the ice.
Steve rolls his eyes and huffs quietly, leaning a little closer and bumping their shoulders together just a bit rougher, but his eyes are still fixed on the page. “They only did that ‘cuz this place was a failure. Remember the first year it opened, Buck, ain’t nobody wanted to come down here.”
Bucky does remember, because it’d been the first year Steve’s ma had died. He’d been desperate, frantic, for anything that would make Steve smile again, and it’s not their fault the rest of the city had been slow to pick up on it. It’d been before they’d installed the skate pond, just a tree in an old pit, and still--the light in Steve’s eyes? It’d been worth it, it’s always worth it.
“Just means we gotta share now,” Bucky replies, shrugging, and he feels the niggle of guilt because he should be able to give Steve better. He wishes he had enough pocket change to treat him to something real, to something special.
Steve laughs, because of course he does, and his eyes fixate again on the page, his fingers smudging with fresh charcoal as he rubs shading into the vague shapes taking form on the page of his book. “Save your money, Buck. Bet you could really impress a dame, takin’ her here.”
Bucky’s breath catches, and he hides it expertly with a rough bit of laughter. Yeah, he sees a lot of girls, and yeah, none of it’s ever serious. One girl, cute little blonde thing (because of course he has a thing for petite blondes) had mentioned, with a coy smile, that he’s nice enough, but-- what’s the word she’d used? Distracted?
Yeah, James Buchanan Barnes sure as hell is distracted, and there’s no denying it, not with the way Steve gets that look in his eyes, not with how those beautiful pink lips curl up into the edges of a smile, sitting here, the rest of the world fading away. And if Bucky closes his eyes, leans back and tips his head to the sky, he can imagine the two of them, spinning around on the ice, arms linked. They wouldn’t be able to go fast -- Steve’s heart can’t handle it, or his lungs, but the idea of him clinging to Bucky’s arms, balance shaky, and breath rattling as they laugh together--
Yeah, he’s distracted.
“ ‘s snowing, Buck,” Steve comments idly, with a hint of a grumble in his voice, snapping Bucky back to the present, back to where it’s safe. He shivers a little, because it’s getting colder, and as Bucky’s gaze drifts back to Steve, he’s amused to see the indignant expression in his best friend’s eyes as big, fat snowflakes land lazily on the page, leaving little wet smears in the charcoal.
“Careful, Stevie. Don’t wanna catch a cold,” Bucky chides, and if it’s an excuse to lean in closer, to let Steve curl up against the solid warmth of his body, well. Bucky will take it, because there’s a whole lot unspoken between them, a whole lot that just can’t, because what the hell would the world think?! Steve’s already been given enough of a shit hand, and Bucky won’t, can’t, will never make it worse.
“Shove it, “Steve grumps right back, but he’s leaning in, and he’s smiling in the way that only Bucky can pull out of him, the one where all the fight goes out of his eyes, where he looks… calm. Peaceful. “Gonna wreck my drawing,” he adds, sighing as more snowflakes fall, melting and leaving spots on the paper.
“I think it looks real nice,” Bucky replies, shrugging, and he means it. Steve is the center of his world, and he can do no wrong.
Steve shrugs right back - with no small amount of attitude - and jams a bony elbow right into Bucky’s ribs. There’s a sharp little jolt of pain, one that has Bucky grumbling and laughing all at once, and it hurts, but when doesn’t he ache all over for Steve?
They sit in silence for a while, the snow whirling and falling, the sky darkening as the day fades. The sun goes down so damn early in the winter, and Bucky shivers, but he’s wrapped right around Steve’s fingers, and he won’t dare say anything, not until Stevie’s done his drawing, not until he’s good and ready--
“What do you think, Buck?” Steve says finally, quietly. He lifts the book up, finally, and Bucky turns his gaze down. In the dying light--the day’s fading, fading, gone--he can barely make out the shapes, but Steve’s the most talented guy he knows, and he lifts a hand, reaches to stroke his fingers over the page. Two perfect trees, one just a little smaller than the other. It’s them, through and through.
“It’s -- shit--”
The edge of the page catches Bucky’s thumb, slices across in a neat little line, and Bucky draws back quickly. Not soon enough, though, because as he looks down, there’s a little smudge of red, blood bright and searing, even caught in the shadow, even masked in darkness and--
Did this happen? Is this real?
“Steve,” Bucky tries to say, but suddenly, he’s alone. Suddenly, Steve isn’t there, and there’s no sketchbook in his hands. There’s only red, droplets of bright blood welling up from the cut right in the meat of his thumb, dripping down his fingers, a fuckin’ river.
Suddenly, it’s just cold, and one moment it’s the wind whipping around him and the next--
Bucky Barnes isn’t in Manhattan anymore. Hell, he isn’t in Brooklyn, either. He’s not in New York, and he might not even be in this world anymore-- he just exists, somewhere, lost in time and space, and all he knows is that he’s freezing.
Then it hurts to think, and so he closes his eyes, and he wants to cry, because where is Steve?
It’s disorienting, when they wake the Soldier.
It’s always like this, his mind rattles off, settles upon, and it makes his head spin. Always? Why?
He’s been here before, the Soldier knows, somehow, his hindbrain screaming for reprise. The urge to run is stronger than ever, and if there weren’t heavy hands holding him down, yanking him forward, he would be. His feet are heavy, though--they’re still thawing out, they feel frozen in place.
The light around him is suddenly harsh, bright and angry. It’s blotting away the darkness, but as the asset blinks heavy eyes, all he can see is red. His vision blurs, and the grip on him grows stronger. There’s more than one set of hands, the Soldier realizes.
Everything hurts. It starts with tingling--the feeling of being too goddamn cold, being thrust back into the warmth. It reminds him of being in a place so far away, he can barely hold onto it. It’s right there, the corner of his mind, but when he takes off after each stray thought, it doubles back, gone from sight, out of grasp.
“Don’t fight it, Soldat,” a voice says, rough and breathless, but he’s fighting.
He’s fighting before he realizes it. The pain blossoms stronger-- the tingling is a full on burn, blood rushing through the Soldier’s body as sensation returns, as the ice thaws from his veins. His head is pounding. His shoulder aches, muscles drawn tight and stiff and knotted, joints searing with the weight of--
The soldier blinks, clears the red from his vision, and as the world begins to creep back in, he sees the glint of metal. He can feel pressure, strong, gloved fingers wrapped tight around an arm that he knows is his, but-- it’s not his. It’s a weapon, it’s shiny and metal and bright but there’s so much red, so much blood that’s been spilled--
“Steve,” he says, and for a moment, the Soldier doesn’t know why he’s saying that--but it’s all he can think, all his lips can form.
“Did he just--” the man on his right says, and fingers dig in deeper into his flesh arm, the grip wrenching and tight, enough that it’s going to bruise, enough that it cuts off all circulation and makes him grunt in surprise.
“Wipe him,” the other says, in a clipped, controlled voice, instantaneous. But they’ve trained him well--they’ve trained him, and he can hear the tightly restrained panic. It means something, it means he needs to move, he needs to go, and now--
“No,” he says, and he’s trying, he’s struggling and pulling. It’s not as hard as he thought. There’s a sharp cracking sound, and a sudden cry of outright pain as he feels snapping under his fingertips, as he wrenches free, and he knows he’s broken some bones. Fight or flight has kicked in, and he’s going to fight, he’s gonna get the fuck out of here, because Steve, Steve, Steve-- who the hell is Steve? It doesn’t matter--
“Get him!” the sound echoes through the room after the him as he takes off. His limbs don’t want to move, still sluggish with the freezing cold. There’s the hissing of air all around him still, but his senses are better than that. The Soldier’s mind is sharp, well-trained, and he can hear the heavy thud of boots giving chase. There’s several sets--the two guards following him, a third coming off his right--
He’s in a chamber, heavily insulated, well-lit with harsh, medical-grade lighting. The air is thick and cold, and the Soldier knows he’s underground. His mind is racing, spinning on its tracks to try and connect the dots as he forces exhausted, stiff muscles to keep moving.
There’s a door, reinforced, but it’s still not enough to contain him. Funny, the Soldier thinks, with a half-crazed smile, because they know what he’s capable of. They know, they’ve carefully crafted him into their weapon, but he’s not theirs. He’s the Soldier, but he’s so much more than that, he’s so much more.
A bullet grazes his ear, and he grunts in pain, feels the red explode, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough, and with a sharp grating sound, the metal door is wrenched off its hinges, and he’s running, he’s putting distance between him and his pursuers. The cold is in the past, and the future, what’s ahead of him--
The Soldier doesn’t get that far. He thinks there’s something for him out there, other than pain and suffering, other than killing and death and blood-- but instead, he’s being tackled, the momentum sending him flying to the ground. He’ll kill, whoever’s got him is a dead man--
Instead, the harsh burn of electricity jolts through him, sears him and makes him scream, pained and brutal and they’ve done something to his arm, why does it hurt so badly, it’s like the metal has been replaced with flesh and blood all over again, it’s like the buzz of a bonesaw cutting him, turning him half-machine and ruining whatever humanity exists, all over again--
“Told you the security protocols were a good idea,” a voice says, in clipped, accented German, and the Soldier withers, he crumples, because he knows, he knows--
“Steve,” Bucky whimpers, but he’s powerless, aching and hurting and unable to escape, because they haven’t managed to take away his free will, not yet, but they’ve tamped it down, they’ve cornered him, they’ve added so many safeguards that he knows, in that moment, he’ll never escape.
He’s still trying to struggle, even though it’s futile. He has to, because if he gives up--if he lets them, if he goes willingly, then he really is just the Soldier, just the asset.
They carry him back the way he came, back into the cold. There’s a chair, and his stomach drops, his breath catches, because no, nonononono no, he’s been here before, he’s been here countless of times, and he knows that, he knows--
“No,” he says.
“Yes,” the cold voice says, and it drips into his bones, “know your place, Soldat. You are a weapon of Hydra. You have a very important job, you know. Your work is important…”
And he doesn’t listen, because he can’t, he refuses, but it doesn’t matter. Even if the rest of the facility wasn’t reinforced strongly enough, this was. The straps are pulled too-tight (punishment, in whatever way they can get away with, because even if he forgets, he never truly forgets the pain, they don’t want him to) and they cut into his skin. His eyes are drawn wide, the strap is in his mouth, holding him open and exposed, and he won’t bite down, he refuses--
He always bites, because they say the words. They say them and his fucked up, broken brain, it can’t help but light up in response, neurons firing, flaring to life with the pain that’s burning through him--
He screams, because he always fucking screams, broken and despaired and ruined and why can’t he just die? He wants to die, it’s better if he dies, he can’t keep remembering because in that moment, just for an instant, he knows--
James Buchanan Barnes always remembers, and then it’s stripped from him, wrenched away, and every time, it takes a bit of whatever’s left of his broken soul with it. Every time, he thinks maybe he’s human, and they remind him, with cruel laughter and sharp voices and burning eyes, that he’s only a weapon. He’s the Winter Soldier, the asset of Hydra, and he’s never going to be anything more.
He doesn’t remember who Steve is anymore, and that’s what makes his eyes burn with bitter tears. The Soldier bites down until he tastes blood, until the pain blossoms bright red and wipes everything else away, and he hurts until it all goes away.
There’s a blonde man-- or a boy, maybe something in between?-- wherever he drifts to, and he feels like he recognizes him, but he’s not sure. Frail, young and weak looking, with a face too big for his bony, slender body.
“Hi,” he says, and he wishes he didn’t sound so awkward, so uncertain, because it feels wrong, the tone that falls from his wrenched vocal cords.
The other man lifts his head and there’s a surge of recognition in those bright blue eyes, something that’s fierce, that desperately wells up in his chest. His heart is beating too fast, his lungs are frantic, gasping for air-- who, what, where are they?
“Here again, huh Buck?” the other man says quietly, and he sighs heavily, crowding in on himself, too-narrow shoulders hunching down. His eyes are wet.
Why are his eyes wet?
“Where are we?” he asks softly, and then, “Buck? Who is Buck?”
He doesn’t get a response. Those bright, vivid eyes are focused on him--the other man blinks--and suddenly, it’s all grey, all the color leeching away, like it’s melting from the world, until it’s greyscale, until it’s just shades of black and white and nothing in between, nothing except muted shadows, painted with splotches of dark, visceral blood.
And then there’s nothing all over again, and everything hurts. He screams, and he screams, until he can’t anymore.
“Soldier,” the voice says.
He’s blank. His body aches, and all the asset knows is pain. He doesn’t know why he hurts, but he does. Still, he lifts his head, because they want him to. His jaw aches, and his teeth hurt. His eyes are blown wide, and it’s hard to breathe, but he does, because they want him to.
“Ready to comply,” he croaks out, and it hurts to speak, but he does. Because they want him to. Because he’s the Soldier, and he has a mission.
The asset shouldn’t think.
It’s easier when he doesn’t think.
Other things start to creep in, and he doesn’t understand it. When he’s focused on his mission, the world exists in a broad landscape of black and white and grey - endless grey - and it’s all spattered with blood.
This mission took them back over the ocean, over the great, black depths of the Atlantic, and the asset can’t help but feel a niggle of familiarity tugging at the darkest recess of his mind. He doesn’t like it. It makes him uneasy; it’s distracting, and failure absolutely won’t be tolerated. The entire time he’s crouched in the aircraft, senses flaring, always on edge, always waiting, he gets the feeling that he’s done this before, a long time ago, and there’s almost - almost - a strange sensation of warmth creeping through the cold.
They brief the Soldier on his target, but he doesn’t pay a lot of attention. Some political figure; a high-profile case. “That’s why we’ve brought you, Soldier,” the man says, and for some reason, the asset is glad that his accent is European, though he can’t quite place why. It’s always easier when they sound different.
“You’ll be a ghost story, for this one,” it’s repeated over and over again. The asset nods dully. His hair has grown long again, and it falls over his eyes. He knows what that means. Stealth. Get in, find the target, eliminate the target, get out. No eyes on him; no witnesses.
The asset prefers this sort of mission. It means working alone--minimally, away from his handlers. It makes his handlers nervous, and the Soldier thrives on that, thrives on knowing that they fear him. That’s why they hurt him, right? Because they know what he’s capable of, and they want to remind him that he’s pivotal to their success. He is a weapon.
The asset has no feelings about that. He is a blank slate. He does what he is told, and he doesn’t care about the course of actions he’s setting in motion. He obeys because he belongs to Hydra. And if he lets that slip his mind, it’s his own blood. Every time he starts to slip, muscle memory reminds him of the chair, reminds him of the electricity that surges through him, that fries his brain into obedience all over again.
It’s funny. They leave every other part of him blank, but they keep the memory of pain fresh. It’s easier for them.
Still, when they let the Soldier loose--there’s a shadow that’s lurking in the back of his mind. There’s something familiar, something that he can’t quite understand. He knows to hide it, and he’s an expert at hiding things.
He is a ghost story. He is terror and chaos. When they leave him alone in the desert, in the mountains, when they leave him to brutality and destruction, he doesn’t care about the explosions, the smoking wreckage he’ll leave behind.
Today, they’ve left him in the city. It’s all tall buildings and concrete. The sidewalk is dirty and worn beneath his booted feet. The crowds are bustling. He shouldn’t blend in-- but there’s a black glove over his glimmering, cold hand. There’s a thick black coat wrapped around him, masking the gear underneath. It’s a big city, and everyone prefers their bubble of anonymity, and it works.
The Soldier knows how to blend in. He knows how to pretend that he’s something, someone. He is nothing, he is an asset. He enacts the will of Hydra. He is a whisper of the past, a weapon of the present, the shaper of the future. He knows that he has no real say. The tapestry he is crafting isn’t his own. The Soldier simply exists to obey.
There is no pride in what he does. There is no emotion. It’s best that way.
And so, nobody gives him a second glance. He carries himself with hunched shoulders, slouching in on himself, one arm wrapped around his middle, clutching at the hard, cold iron hidden beneath several layers of fabric. It’s an anchor point; it keeps the Soldier grounded, reminds him that even when they let him have this taste of freedom, he’s here on a mission.
His handlers are never far, after all. And - why should he have intrusive thoughts? He is nothing without Hydra. He has no real thoughts. Push it aside. Forget. They’ve left him an address, a hotel that he’ll check into with a fake ID they’ve given him, and he’ll go from there. That is all the Soldier needs to know.
The first few days are always the easiest, because the Soldier is focused. He’s staying at the same hotel as his target. It’s the same floor; no coincidence. The details don’t matter, because he’s good at what he does. And - despite being in a large city, in the middle of the hustle and bustle, the asset knows what to do.
He makes a routine. He goes for a run in the mornings around the park. There was a suitcase waiting for him on the bed with clothing that allows him to blend in.
The Soldier gets coffee. He drinks it black, too hot, and the acidity of it makes his stomach grumble and the heat sears the back of his tongue. It burns, but the heat flares up within him, and just for a moment, it chases away the cold.
He doesn’t spot his target.
Day two, the Soldier sees his target leaving the front lobby - sees him hail down a yellow taxi cab and hop inside. If this was another mission, the Soldier would have taken chase. It wouldn’t be hard; he’s strong enough, fast enough, he could catch up with a car, leap on the roof, and take it out in a twisted, wrecked mess. It’d be easy. But the words, be a ghost story, they echo in his head, and instead, the Soldier knows the mission will drag on another day.
He goes for a run again, because he’s full of a restless energy that he can’t burn off. The Soldier hates it when he’s left to simply…. Exist. He’s used to routine, used to being pushed hard. He isn’t awake very often - and when he is, it’s because he has a purpose.
No, he does have a purpose, the asset reminds himself. That calms his mind again, though maybe it’s simply the fifteen mile loop he makes easily through the park. There’s a niggle of familiarity in the back of his mind still, though, and the Soldier thinks maybe it’s growing stronger.
Routine is important, even if it’s just a routine of nothing. He gets coffee again, and even though the Soldier orders the same thing, instinctive and without thought, there’s a moment - just a fraction of an instant - where he glances over the menu, where he reads all the different drinks. He’s been all over the world, sent on missions, given assignments, but he remembers nothing. They’re blank, empty voids, and the details are just filler, like grains of sand that have slipped through his fingers long ago.
For just a split second, there’s a concept half-formed in his mind that he could do something different.
But the coffee is black and bitter, and it burns his tongue and scalds the back of his throat. It makes the asset feel, just for a moment, and even if it’s pain, it’s self-imposed - not Hydra- and that feels like a small victory, all on its own.
A few more days pass. Slowly, the asset maps out his target’s routine, figures out the best way to make his move. The details on his mission don’t matter: high profile, political figure. Don’t botch it, don’t politicize it, hide his motive. A random act. Easier said than done.
Each day, the Soldier stops at the cafe. He wonders what a latte is. He wonders about all the sweet, thick syrups that people order in their coffee.
The Soldier has nothing but time to kill (and a target, always a target, but not today), and he’s started people watching. It’s mostly business folk, dressed to the nines in fancy clothing to impress, bustling in and out of the shop constantly with steaming cups of caffeine to get them through the day.
There’s the groups of gossipy women, though. There’s the younger ones. He doesn’t know how he intuitively knows things. Hydra doesn’t let him out on his own very often; he spends most of his time on ice. But-- maybe there was something to him before all of this?
They’re ten days into his mission when the Soldier gets properly distracted.
He’s entering the coffee shop, and the door chimes cheerfully behind him as he lets it swing shut. The Soldier’s hair is freshly washed, curled and damp at the back of his neck. He’s got it tied back, because he’s good at blending in. The Soldier knows how to disguise himself, knows how to become part of the sprawling, urban backdrop. He doesn’t sleep, but he’s been drifting, at night.
The Soldier isn’t used to having a bed. It’s too soft. Too much.
It’s not like he needs to rest, anyway.
It’s a fresh, warm day, the hints of early spring finally chasing away the bitter, lingering remnants of winter. Still too cold. The sun has risen just enough to cast everything in soft, golden light and long shadows, and that’s what catches his eye.
It’s a flash of warm, morning light glinting tantalizingly in soft, blonde hair--and for some reason, the asset pauses mid-step. His eyes widen, his breath quickens, and suddenly there’s a frantic pounding in his chest. It’s - what? His heart? He has been on the brink of death countless times and yet -- yet somehow, the sight of a young man in a coffee shop sets him off.
There’s a quiet whirring, and it almost betrays the asset, the way his hand twitches and his arm tenses, recalibrating, ready to go in for the kill, as the adrenaline starts to course through him. Fight or flight is kicking in, he needs to get the fuck out of here -- his mission --
The blonde man coughs and shifts, and then lifts his head. Their eyes meet, and the asset feels like he’s drowning. Heart pounding, the blood is pumping frantically through his body, his lungs hurt, he can’t think, can’t breathe. The man can’t be older than his mid-twenties, but he’s just a little too-thin, and he’s drawing, a pencil poised in one hand, half-formed sketch on the pages of the book spread out before him, and he’s been here, he’s seen this--
But this man’s eyes are green. The spell breaks. Somehow, the asset’s lungs remember how to work. There’s a whoosh of air as he takes a deep, gulping breath. Breathe. Focus. The Soldier is a hair trigger away from leaping forward, knocking tables over, arm ripping free. There’s red blossoming under his eyelids again, but--
Green. Not blue, green.
It means nothing, but somehow, it’s everything.
The blonde man gives him a long, lingering glance. The Soldier meets his gaze, eyes searching, head tilted; a quiet challenge. But they’re in New York, and the other man shrugs, then looks back down at the page. A smart move.
“Weirdo,” the asset hears the man mutter under his breath, thanks to enhanced hearing, and it almost makes him laugh, dark and bitter. If only he knew.
He orders a coffee, black, voice quiet, restrained and angry, and debates how it would feel, the steamed milk against his tongue. The explosion of sugar over his taste buds; the Soldier almost remembers. It’s far off, from a dream--
He sits down by the window, and sips his coffee. Thinks. His mission takes priority. He must never lose sight of what he is. He is a weapon of Hydra. That is his purpose. The coffee is black and bitter, and it scalds his tongue and burns the back of his throat, just the way he likes it.
It’s nice, having control of his own life, even for a moment, though that thought stays half-formed, just like the Soldier’s awareness of the artist sitting on the other side of the coffee shop. Lurking in the shadows. Taunting.
As he watches the bustling crowds pass by along the sidewalk outside the window of the coffee shop, the Soldier realizes he can vaguely make out his own reflection. His eyes narrow, as he stares himself down, and just for a moment, the barest flash of an instant, he seems… softer. Alive. Vulnerable. Something more than just the Winter Soldier, something more than an asset.
Then it’s gone. The Soldier takes another sip of his coffee. Blank.
The next day, the Soldier has an opening, and he goes for it.
His target finishes business early, and the Soldier watches from the hotel lobby, eyes dark and narrowed, thick jacket pulled tight around him. He’s good at blending in, long hair pulled back from his eyes and tied back, eyes burning bright. It’s still mid-day, early and bright enough that the lurking danger of the city is a far-off thought, barely present.
His target is alone, when the Soldier catches him.
It’s easy, disarming the man with a smile and a handshake. The Soldier knows how to act; he knows how to pretend that he’s a person. He’s so good at it that sometimes, he almost convinces himself. Sometimes.
All he feels, though, is the sound of the man’s neck snapping beneath his metal arm, though, as he crushes his windpipe in the dark alleyway a few streets over.
It’s almost poetic, the asset thinks, as he dumps the body, his gloved flesh hand digging the man’s wallet out of his pocket, how easy it is. There’s a beauty in death; there’s a grace to finishing a mission. Sometimes, his missions are to just cause chaos and destruction. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how the target meets their end--it can be in a fiery blaze of glory, explosions and the scent of gunpowder. Sometimes, he’s coated in blood and grime.
Other times, like today, it’s done quietly, framed like a mugging gone wrong. Nobody will ever suspect. The Soldier pockets the man’s wallet, leaves the body behind, and slips back into the world. He is a ghost story, and nobody will ever know he was here. No evidence. He’s dressed simply, and the glint of his arm is covered.
As the Soldier makes his way back to the hotel to signal all clear, mission complete, to prepare for pick up and debriefing, he pauses. Stops. His body won’t move forward. His mind screams.
He wants a coffee, the Soldier realizes, with a sudden, harsh rise of bile in the back of his throat. He wants. His routine has been broken; routine is important, and suddenly, he has no idea where he is. He has no idea what he is. With the mission complete--
Suddenly, the asset shivers. The weather is mild, but the spring breeze feels cold, biting and getting into his veins, freezing his blood. He’s cold, and nothing makes sense anymore.
The pickup location. That’s where he needs to be. But what are they going to do? Hydra is all seeing. His handlers will arrive. Mission complete. He will be debriefed and dumped back in cryo. He was good; maybe they will spare him the chair but do they ever really?
On instinct, the soldier shivers again and draws in on himself. His shoulder aches, he realizes, and that isn’t unusual. The strange part is that he’s noticing. Pain is everywhere in the soldier’s life, as steady and unending as breathing, as the cycles of ice and burning and hatred and emptiness. But today? Today he feels the creak of bone where the too-heavy metal pulls him down. He feels the tightly drawn knots and it aches to his very core.
He always feels the weight of the arm, a nagging thing, unnatural and heavy, twisted and fused to his bones. When he closes his eyes, the grey cityscape fades away, and suddenly it’s all blurs of black and white and red. There’s red burning against his eyelids, splotches of it like blood spatter and gore. How much death has the Soldier seen? How much fucking war?
“I never wanted to go to war,” he says, and the Soldier doesn’t even realize he’s voicing the words aloud. It’s a funny concept, isn’t it--that he could have a feeling of his own. That… there’s a time, maybe, before he was simply the Winter Soldier. He doesn’t remember that time, doesn’t remember anything other than vague, fuzzy feelings, but just speaking it? It makes something settle in the pit of his stomach, heavy and solid and grounding, and maybe, just maybe--
Instinct kicks in, autopilot, routine. He hurts.
It’s going to rain, the Soldier realizes, the clouds overhead as grey as the world that exists in his mind. He shivers again, because he’s cold, he’s always so goddamn cold, and he hunches in on himself. The Soldier knows how to make himself look smaller and inconspicuous - a feat all in itself, given he’s all muscle and bulk.
He feels small though, and as the rain falls down over his face, wetting his cheeks like tear tracks, the Soldier is cold through his very veins -- it’s like he’s been doused in water, encased in ice. It’s like his heart is frozen, if he even has a heart.
The warmth of the coffee shop barely brings the Soldier back into himself. Routinely, instinct kicks in, even when the Asset can’t find himself. He checks his six, eyes scanning wildly, but it’s safe. Of course it’s safe, it’s a coffee shop in the middle of town, midday-- the suits are at work, and the place is mostly empty.
The asset’s heart is thumping wildly against his chest. He lifts a gloved hand, wipes a trickle of water away from his cheek. His hair is long, lanky, wet and falling over his eyes. It’s hard to breathe. He feels-- something. Wild, lost, confused, unable to breathe, his chest constricting --
Alive? Is that the feeling?
The asset is a machine. The Winter Soldier is a weapon. He’s the fist of Hydra; he is here to enact their will, to change the world.
The girl on the other side of the counter is eyeing him skeptically. “You okay, sir? Can I help you?”
The words hang heavy in the air, and something in the Soldier’s chest jumps. There’s an echo, a memory--there’s blonde hair and bright eyes, there’s a huff of indignant laughter. There’s a strange tang on his tongue, something that explodes over his taste buds, a memory, a whisper, a reminiscence.
“I--” the Soldier says, quietly, hand slipping into his pocket, pulling out the stolen wallet from the man he’s just killed. There’s cash in there, and it feels strange, exhilarating. His instructions, of course, were to make it quick, clean, and to look like an accident. It’s a tiny bit of something, doing this. He shouldn’t be here.
“What-- is good?” the Soldier says, after a heartbeat, a moment’s pause, and the feeling in his chest grows tighter. Something is expanding within him, like his ribs are being physically pried apart to make room. It hurts, it aches; he is on edge. He is a caged animal, about to turn and bolt and run, and the thought of running sounds amazing, to be free…
“Uh, the lattes are good,” the girl shrugs, and she’s giving him a look, one that’s torn between amusement and annoyance. He knows he looks exhausted.
He feels something. Exhausted. Tired.
“Yeah. That,” he says, and something in him breaks. He pays, wordless, and he paces at the far end of the counter.
His grip is always steady; his hands don’t shake. The Winter Soldier is a trained assassin, and it’s been deeply ingrained, etched into his very soul, but right now he can’t. Right now, his fingers tremble, just the slightest bit, when they hand his drink over the counter. Barely noticeable, but he sees it. The Soldier doesn’t understand.
The taste of steamed sugar and milk on his tongue is an explosion as he moves. He keeps it together long enough, head lowered, to make his way outside into the rain again. It’s pouring by now, coming down in thick sheets, soaking him to the bone instantly. It’s cold, but there’s heat burning his tongue, the hot slide of sweet down his throat, soothing and aching and burning all at once. And all he can do is move. Put distance. Keep going.
The sky overhead is gloomy and grey, and as the asset makes his way down the street, past people with umbrellas, past those who were caught off-guard, huddled over with hoods pulled tight, trying to dodge raindrops in a way that’s outright impossible, he can’t stop thinking. He’s so good at shutting off his internal monologue. He’s so good at sweet, blissful silence.
He is a Machine. He is the Winter Soldier.
But as the asset is caught at a red light, stops in front of the crosswalk, all he can see is the bright, vibrant red of the traffic light. It’s a blur, a halo that shines through the rain falling from the sky. He stares--it burns into his retinas, like the red star they’ve etched on his shoulder. It’s red, like the blood he leaves behind. It’s red--like the harsh, angry lines they cut into his skin when he disobeys.
The Soldier is surprised he still bleeds. He shudders and jerks, and reflexively, he takes another sip of his sugary-sweet, rapidly cooling drink.
He bleeds and he heals and he scars. Some of the scars, if they cut deep enough, don’t fade. They go from bright red, to dark and crusty, to pink, and then white and faded--all in the blissful, blank space in between. They are memories, a roadmap to his broken mind.
The scars and the blood, they are a testament to who he is. He is the Winter Soldier. He belongs to Hydra.
But the Soldier doesn’t get nice things, and the sweet of the sugar on his tongue is nice. The red light is mirrored in the puddles beginning to form on the ground, as the asset looks down. He can make out every detail of the worn pavement; the jagged edges of a pothole, filling with water as it falls. The texture of the concrete is bumpy in places, and it reflects hues of red, a strange contrast between dark and color, like blood quietly rinsing away.
He can’t look anymore. The Soldier lifts his head, and he glances around, wildly--
And, just for a moment, as he turns, he catches sight of his own reflection, shining back at him from the window of a nearby building. It’s blurry, obscured by raindrops and rivulets, dark and brutal and all shades of black and white. His eyes are dull, his skin is pale and wet, and his hair is stringy. He’s dressed in dark, muted colours, and despite knowing he’s a machine, a monster, he looks just like everyone else.
There’s a halo of red behind him--shining bright, vivid on his pale skin, a glow that the Soldier can’t escape, and his breath catches.
His fingers clench, and then, suddenly, the light changes--the backdrop switches, from red to green, an explosion in his mind. His head hurts, the Soldier stares himself down for a second longer.
And he sees himself, just for a split second. Cleft chin, bright eyes, high cheekbones, and a cocky smile. He’s going to war, he’s something else, he’s more than just a machine.
Who the fuck is he? What is he?
The Soldier turns on his heel, and instead of crossing the street, he takes off in the opposite direction. He is not the Soldier; he is not the Asset. He doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t know what he is, but he’s something else.
And in that moment, the heavens open up, but the clouds don’t seem so dark. There’s shades of grey, but there’s everything else in there too - blue, dark and stormy, shades of purple and swirls of steel in between. It’s gorgeous and it’s beautiful. The rain pours down, and James Buchanan Barnes isn’t going back to Hydra. He doesn’t know who he is, he doesn’t know what he is. It’s a migraine, a throbbing in the back of his skull, but it’s his.
“Brought you somethin’ Stevie.”
Bucky’s voice is smooth, liquid and velvety and warm, as he nudges the door shut behind him. Their tenement is a shithole, but it’s theirs. It’s usually either too cold or way too goddamn hot--and right now, it’s the late months of winter. The walls are paper-thin and the drafts are at their worst, and Bucky knows exactly how he’ll find Steve.
His smile deepens when he’s greeted with Steve’s slight form, shoulders rounded in. He’s hunched over the table, shadows etched deep on his face from the dim light. The sun goes down so damn early, and Bucky’s been working late, recently. He’s grateful for his job, glad that he’s educated enough to get by in an office these days, but here’s Stevie, working even later, as always.
Steve’s gaze shifts from the page he’s staring down at, up to Bucky, and then back again. His brow is furrowed in concentration; his big hands, too big for his form, are smudged as he draws.
Bucky leans back against the door, and he swears, he could watch Steven Grant Rogers forever. His heart’s doing that thing in his chest again, thumping wildly against his ribs and threatening to explode, and Bucky’s long figured out what it means, even if he’s terrified.
“Gonna stare at me all day, Buck?” Steve asks, finally, and his gaze shifts again - but it softens, the moment their eyes meet. As much fun as it is to rile up Steve, as much as he puts up the facade, protecting himself frantically from the outside world-- it’s these moments between them that Bucky loves the most.
It’s the softer side of Steve, vulnerable, and Bucky’s the only one who ever gets to see it. God, but he cherishes it more than anything in the entire world.
“Bet you aren’t takin’ care of yourself, huh Steve?” Bucky replies, and he shakes his head, but he can’t help but smile. He should chide Stevie, lecture him about looking after himself the way his ma used to, but it’ll do no damn good. It doesn’t help that Steve’s so small, with his shit broken lungs and bad heart, and he always gets so lost in his work. He gets so deep that the outside world fades away, that Steve forgets to eat, to breathe. It’s beautiful but--
“It’s not that late,” Steve replies, frowning just a little, his brow crinkling, hair falling over his face. Bucky’s close enough now that he can’t help but reach forward with his free hand, gently tucking Steve’s hair back, fingers just barely grazing over his forehead.
“Think again, pal,” Bucky shakes his head, “I shoulda been home hours ago. C’mon, finish up your work ‘n I’ll make dinner.”
Steve blinks blearily, and suddenly the world rushes back in. Suddenly, he’s shivering, tugging the blanket he’s got wrapped around his scrawny shoulders a little tighter. “Sorry, Buck,” he says quietly, a bit embarrassed, because they’ve had this talk time and time again, about how Steve pushes himself too far. About how even if he thinks he’ll be okay, the slightest thing can set him off. Missing meals isn’t something his body is great at handling, and if he gets a flu again in the winter, it can turn real easy into pneumonia, and Bucky can’t afford to miss work to stay home with him again.
“Don’t,” Bucky smiles, though, because damnit, Steve is his weakness. “Sit down. Finish up. I’ll throw somethin’ together,” and, with a mischievous little grin and a waggle of his eyebrows, Bucky’s shrugging out of his coat and throwing it over the hook by the door. He shivers; the kitchen isn’t nearly warm enough, but it’s wet and snowy out, again and now that he’s out of the cold, the snow is just beginning to melt into the fabric.
“Besides. Weren’t listenin’. I brought us something,” Bucky adds, and he lifts up the paper bag he’s carrying, making a teasing display of showing it off.
Steve blinks and lowers his pen. “You didn’t have to, Buck, I know we can’t afford it--”
“Shut it, Rogers,” Bucky counters, immediately, and he shuts Steve up the best way he knows how, with a blinding grin and a dangerous flash of his eyes. It’s a challenging look, and if it was anyone else, Steve would be pushing his chair back, would be bracing those too-skinny hands of his flat against the tabletop and closing the space between them.
Anyone else, and Steve Rogers would be picking a fight, would be lashing out against a world that’s just too damn cruel to him. But it’s Bucky, and instead, he’s earned a crooked glare and a grumble.
“You’re too good to me, Buck, ya know that?” Steve says, after a moment, and instead he hunches in on himself further, eyes narrowing and tongue darting out to lick at cracked, dry lips, as he goes back to his work.
“Dunno ‘bout that Stevie,” Bucky laughs, because how the hell is he supposed to say what’s really on his mind? How is he supposed to reveal that, to the very core of his being, he exists for this stupid little kid he’s been chasing around as long as he can remember? He’s not supposed to care so much, so deeply, but all he wants to do is gather Steve up in his arms and remind him that the world isn’t quite so cruel sometimes. All that Bucky wants to do -- and this is the core of the issue, if he’s being honest -- is press his lips to that stubborn-set jaw, to brush fingers through Steve’s hair, to remind him that he’s here, always.
Instead, Bucky mulls around the kitchen. He gets them some food cooking, a heartier stew than they usually can muster up. But Bucky’s resourceful, and he’s got charm, a strong jawline, a cute cleft chin, and he knows how to woo his way into all sorts of mischief.
There’s some leftover bread to soak up the broth, courtesy of a cute gal working at the corner bakery by Bucky’s office.
And, melting on the stovetop, he breaks up the coveted bar of chocolate he’d managed to acquire (“don’t ask”, he’ll tell Steve when questioned), mixes it up with some sugar and the leftover milk from breakfast. It’s a selfish little indulgence, a treat that they can’t afford - that Bucky Barnes knows he doesn’t deserve. But it’s been a cold winter, and his Steve? He deserves the world.
“Buck,” Steve says, when he triumphantly sets down a steaming mug of warm, liquidy chocolate, “where’d you get that?”
“Don’t ask,” Bucky grins brightly. And okay, maybe he’s sating his own sweet tooth, here, but as Bucky takes a sip of the steaming liquid, as he feels the rich, sugary drink warm swirl all the way down to his belly, warming him to the core, he feels home. He feels alive. He’s here with Steve, and this place is a shithole, compared to the actual house his parents own, but it’s theirs.
“You shouldn’t have,” Steve says, but Bucky nudges their feet together under the table, and he shoulders up closer. And it’s all worth it, the way Steve smiles, the way his hands clutch at his steaming cup, seeping up the warmth, breathing in the sweet and the heat and everything is perfect.
“Only the best for you,” Bucky murmurs, and he’s teasing and charming all at once, but if there’s a sharp note of sincerity in his tone, at least Steve Rogers has the good grace to ignore it.
Steve repays him, because of course he does, but it takes some damn time.
It’s a miserable shithole, and Bucky is freezing. He’s always cold these days. He thought back home was colder than anything, but it’s nothing compared to being stuck in the middle of European winter, only a heartbeat away from the broken front lines of a war that Bucky’s never wanted to be a part of.
Well--that’s a lie. He’s always been a fighter. But this feels so much like Steve’s war. It’s not right, Bucky Barnes being an entire universe away from the light in his soul, from the other half, the guy who makes it all worth fighting for. He knows he’s doing Steve proud, though, and that keeps Bucky pushing forward.
On days like these, in Brooklyn, they’d push their little cots together and huddle for warmth under threadbare blankets. Steve would nudge his ice-cold toes in between Bucky’s shins, and he’d grumble and protest, but ultimately, Bucky’d allow it. After all, the cold’s always worse for Steve, with his shit immune system, all skin-and-bones and bad health.
Here, though, at the end of the world, it’s just snow and ice and blistering winds, the copper tang of blood, the sounds of grenades and gunshots, piercing and cutting. And Bucky? Bucky misses Steve. He misses home.
He’s been gone for what feels like years. He tells himself, staring out at the night sky whenever he’s on watch, that when he gets back, he’ll finally pour his heart out. He’ll say everything that he needs to say, and the world can be damned. The world doesn’t want the person that Bucky Barnes is, under the facade. The world sure as hell doesn’t want Steve Rogers, though, and that just proves that the world is fucked up, that none of it matters.
Bucky writes, when he gets the chance. A lot of the letters go unsent, tucked away in the depths of the meager personal possessions he’s allowed. Bucky keeps telling himself that he’s gonna go home when this hell war is over. He’ll go back to Steve, back to Brooklyn, and he’s never going to complain again about the cold. They’ll go to Rockefeller, they’ll see the trees, and each brush of hands will be worth it.
Every time a skirmish breaks out, every time someone comes back in pieces, it breaks something inside Bucky. If he doesn’t come home--who will take care of Steve?
Packages don’t arrive very often. The post is absolute shit and it takes ages, shipping things all the way over the pond, transporting it across the continent and all the way to the front lines. Sometimes, little notes make it through. Bucky’s ma likes to send notes. His baby sister, Becca, she’s growing up, and Bucky’s a world away. If she gets married and he’s not there to see it--it hurts his heart.
It’s Steve’s letters, though, that Bucky lives for.
It’s been a fuckin’ cold night, the wind howling and keeping him awake. The sound is haunting, like the tortured screams of prisoners of war, and maybe that’s what it is, all along. Bucky hates it, but he’s still smiling. He’s always smiling; he’s always doing his best to cheer up the guys.
They’re pushing north, at least. They’re pushing, they’re making ground, and that’s somethin’, right? It’s a faint glimmer of hope on a dark horizon.
“You got a package, Barnes,” his CO says, over breakfast, and tosses a tiny little package in Bucky’s direction. He catches it, and there’s a bubble of warmth that cuts through the cold, cuts through the screams and the terror, because he recognizes the handwriting on the front. It’s undeniably Steve, written in his careful lettering. Just seeing the words--it draws Bucky right the fuck out of this wasteland, hurdles him right back into familiar ground, into their tiny little tenement.
And maybe there’s a little secretive smile curling at Bucky’s lips as he tucks the package discreetly away to look at later, in whatever scarce privacy he can steal. He’ll get teased, of course - “that a dame, Barnes? Who you sweet on?” - but that’s okay, this is just for him.
Later, Bucky’s hands are shaking a little with the cold, but he’s untouchable, because he’s mostly alone in the barracks. He’s been granted a facade of privacy, at least--the lamplight is flickering, and the shadows dance, but he carefully unwraps the thin package Steve has sent, and suddenly, he’s just a kid back in Brooklyn.
The letter is simple, and it’s dated ages ago. Steve’s vague about his health - of course he is; he’s probably sick, and he’s probably alone, and Bucky hates that he isn’t there - but there are drawings lining the margins of the paper that’s been torn out of his sketchbook. There’s pictures of streets back home, of silly little comics, because Steve’s always drawing, always creating these goddamn worlds in his head, entire universes and galaxies, where the poor get to fight for what’s right, where normal people like them can become superheroes--
There’s a portrait, drawn from memory, of the two of them, and Bucky’s smile quivers; his eyes go watery, and he has to blink rapidly, has to push back the wet pricking at the corners. They’re both smiling, and if he looks too deeply, if Bucky lets his imagination wander just a little, he’d think that maybe there’s something, maybe…
He carefully smooths out the paper, working at the creases, and Bucky knows he’s going to cherish every little bit of Steve that makes it all the way here. It’s not enough, but if there’s any sort of God up there (and Bucky isn’t sure, he really isn’t sure of anything anymore), they’ll keep Steve Rogers far, far away from the frontlines of war.
Steve’s got war in his heart, but this is no place for him. This ain’t no place for anyone.
And underneath the papers, underneath the letter that he’ll read over and over again, ‘til the ink runs blurry and smudged under dirty fingers, there’s a little extra bit tucked in the corner of the packaging Steve’s sent. Bucky’s smile widens, even in the darkness, as he reaches in, carefully pulls out a couple squares of chocolate-- his favourite kind, and of course Steve Rogers would know that. Damn Bucky Barnes and his goddamn sweet tooth. Even here, at the end of the world, amidst gunshots and explosions, blood spilling crimson on frozen ground, Steve knows how to make him smile.
“Miss you Stevie,” he mumbles softly, just barely audible, and Bucky carefully pockets the candy, to savour and enjoy when he needs it the most. And, god, his heart aches for his best friend.
The Soldier is shaking. Won’t stop. He doesn’t understand. He’s good at what he does. Better than good - he’s the best, there’s nobody else in the world like him. His work is important. They tell him that constantly. There are so many voices over the years who have repeated the words; uttered praises that make him feel warm, just for a moment.
But there’s still sugar on his tongue, sweet and lingering. There’s a syrupy, thick feeling in the back of his throat, and no matter how many times the Soldier swallows heavily, he can’t chase it away. He remembers-- what?
Vague thoughts; feelings; emotions. He thinks maybe, once, he wasn’t the Winter Soldier, but rather a soldier. The distinction carries weight, but he doesn’t know exactly what it means.
The Soldier doesn’t know how he got here.
He has no concept of time, but the light has faded into the horizon, darkness has crept in, shadows spreading across the sky, and still, he’s here. They are looking for him. The Soldier knows it; he is a machine. He is a weapon, a pet, and his owners are looking.
The urge to turn and run back, to obey, it is overwhelming. It aches at his temple, an incessant thrum that makes his head spin. Sometimes, the Soldier falls to his knees, coughs up acrid bile, saliva and whatever lingering remnants of the food he forces himself to eat spilling like the blood of all his victims. It burns his throat, hurts his eyes, and he feels it.
He is nothing without his masters. Hail Hydra, the words are imprinted in his mind, and the Soldier is terrified. His hair is stringy, his eyes are wild, darting around frantically.
And yet, he tastes sugar on his tongue; his brain is going haywire. Neurons are firing, and just as the wounds inflicted on him have stitched back together and healed over the years, there are pathways in his mind suddenly opening up.
He is nothing, but maybe it hasn’t always been that way.
When he closes his eyes he sees--snowflakes, falling stark and bone-white and wet from a grey sky. He sees red, blood spilling over the snow, pain as he tries to move his broken, mangled arm. He sees shattered bone, he hears the screams. He hears his own scream, but there’s another one, echoed back--
Jolting back to himself, the Soldier bites his lip, hard. It hurts, in an irritating, mindless kind of way, because his pain tolerance is high. It’s high because they’ve made it that way, through pain, through torture. And when he blinks, when he wills himself back into his body, away from wherever his mind is trying to take him--
The Soldier is standing on a street that he doesn’t recognize, but he knows, deep down into the void where maybe a soul should be. There’s a row of brownstones, and it’s an anchor, a familiar ache. He should know this place, but he doesn’t. Or maybe he does. It’s all jumbled, all a mess. When did everything become so hard?
The Soldier’s arm whirs as he moves. It’s beginning to irritate him; it always does, when he’s left alone without maintenance for too long. He’s been modified extensively to support its weight, and the Soldier knows it; they’ve left him awake and hurting and terrified, too many times to count, while they opened him up, fused metal to bone until there’s nothing human left. He needs maintenance.
Another quiet whir breaks through the silence, or maybe it’s a desperate, choked sob. Maybe it’s both.
The Soldier doesn’t want to go back. He stares at the neat line of brownstones and he quietly turns on his heel and moves. They’ll find the body. They’ll know that he’s completed his mission, and that he is not back to the rendezvous point for pick up and debriefing. The asset knows that his job is to obey. The Soldier knows that he’s doing a great thing for the world. And a part of his mind, where there’s still some remnants of a past clinging knows that they’re using him.
A part of him knows that it’s mocking, that their kind words - good job, asset - twist him, break him further, open him up and ruin him. There is no kindness. They will hurt him.
He keeps moving. His arm whirs. His shoulder aches. Underneath the civilian clothing he’s disguised in, the star on his shoulder burns bright and red.
Keep moving. Keep going, don’t stop, it’s a mantra that’s burned into his mind.
The longer that the Soldier goes, the harder it gets. His mind never stops screaming, and he’s craving the sweet, blissful emptiness, the silence that comes with a mission. Something really, truly terrible has happened to him--but with his identity taken away, when he’s not being the Winter Soldier, he doesn’t know who or what he is. And his mind won’t stop screaming.
When he closes his eyes, he sees red.
He’s started to see things. Visions, people who don’t exist, things that aren’t a part of the real world. Hallucinations. The Soldier knows it isn’t real, but maybe it comes from somewhere. Before Hydra had him--did he have something else?
When he closes his eyes and tries to sleep, there’s a flash of bright blue eyes, blonde hair, pale skin and skinny hands, and he tries to hold, to remember. But it slips through his mind like water, like grains of sand sliding through his fingers, lost and scattered.
The Soldier has enough cash to get by; he steals a man’s wallet right out of his coat pocket and slips his ID and credit card. He doesn’t stop moving for more than a night. Brooklyn, for a night. West - across Manhattan, into Jersey. Hoboken. Newark. Down into Pennsylvania. Harrisburg, Pittsburg, further west--
He doesn’t know where he’s going.
His arm aches. The whirring is louder.
“Coffee. Cream and sugar,” the Soldier says quietly, seated at a diner somewhere in the midwest. It’s flat, nothing but fields and farms for miles. It’s one of those shitty dive locations, for truckers and tired commuters making their way across the country.
He isn’t going anywhere. Just moving. But there’s an idea in his mind that he needs to go west. Keep moving. He should leave the country--but there’s an ache in his chest at the thought of going back over the sea. There’s a deep, intrinsic pain tied to the idea of leaving, and so he keeps moving. Stolen vehicles, or cars rented with pocketed ID and card that he abandons at random. In a small town in Ohio, he steals a car that’s idling in a grocery store parking lot.
There’s a twinge of something, a clenching at his heart and a strange reluctance, but he knows he needs to keep going, keep moving, don’t stop.
So he’s here. Hunched over in a diner, eyes frantically scanning the grubby, dimly lit room. It’s late, mostly empty, but the Soldier hates sitting still. He keeps checking his six, a desperate, wide-eyed and feral glance. Check the doors. He’s seated in a booth near the fire exit for a quick escape. He can be out in about ten seconds, if he needs to. That’s not good enough, but it’ll have to do.
Like this, he can keep an eye on the front.
The Soldier doesn’t need weapons to kill. He is a weapon. Even if his mind is muddled, memories jumping around, strange connections beginning to fuse as his broken brain stitches back together, the training is ingrained. He is a ghost story, and he is merciless. The diner is quiet - just a skeleton staff, a couple of truckers, and an exhausted looking couple a few days deep into a road trip - and they’re all unarmed. They would be dead before they could blink. His arm whirs in the silence.
But he’s the Winter Soldier, and even in civvies, he’s armed to the teeth. There’s a .357 - military grade, newest model, sleek and black, because the Soldier can make a weapon out of anything, but he’s got his preferences - tucked against his skin, cold steel biting in, a reminder of the cold that lives within him. The warmth can’t touch him, not even here.
There’s a knife tucked in his boot. A second one - close enough that his flesh fingers can curl around it with a moment’s notice. And always, always, the gears in his arm are shifting, recalibrating. The star burns, it aches and sometimes it feels like it’s his true connection to Hydra. What is he doing? He should turn around, he should go back-- whenever his scattered thoughts focus back in on his mission, on the fact that he is the Asset, he feels stupid. Lost and confused, like a dog that’s desperately seeking its master.
The wide, swinging double-doors that lead into the staff area swing open, and the movement catches the Soldier’s attention. He doesn’t blink, doesn’t move, though he’s aware of the waitress’s motion, as she bustles between booths.
“Here you go, love,” she says brightly, setting down a heavy ceramic mug, steaming to the brim with hot, dark liquid. The Soldier sighs heavily, breathing in the scent. He’s grown fond of coffee; it’s something his handlers never allowed him. The burn feels good.
He dumps in creamer from a little carafe, and a spoonful of sugar, and the sweetness, god-- it feels good, so fucking amazing.
“Long day?” the kind waitress asks. She’s still standing at his side, hovering just a little too close. It makes the Soldier feel caged in, and there’s a niggling urge to shift in his seat. Instead, he stays motionless and takes another sip of his coffee.
“You could say that,” he agrees, easily enough. Making small talk has never been difficult for the Soldier--they’ve trained him well. They’ve trained him to blend in when he has to. The Winter Soldier is good at wearing his human suit, at playing like he’s one of them. And the more his brain starts jumping around, the more the images come back--he gets the feeling that once upon a time? It wasn’t an act. Maybe once, before he was reshaped with a purpose, he used to be someone else.
Maybe it wasn’t always a facade. There’s no going back now, nothing, never.
“Hungry? What can I get for you, hun?” the woman asks. Her voice is warm. The endearment makes the Soldier twitch, just a little. Whir of his arm, blood-red star, all dark shadows creeping in, the white glow of the overhead lights, black and white and grey and blood. A mantra in his head.
“Just the coffee’s fine, thank you ma’am,” he says, and the Soldier surprises himself, with how easily the words flow, with the strange lilt of thick, New York accent that creeps in. Distinctly Brooklyn. The brownstones swim before his vision--and cutting through the dull greyscale, there’s a flash of blonde hair and blue eyes.
The Soldier is glad he’s gripping his coffee cup with his flesh hand, because the way the metal fist clenches would’ve sent it shattering into a thousand sharp shards of glass and rivulets of coffee. Then he’d have to cover his tracks and run, and he doesn’t want to kill anymore, fuck, he doesn’t, and that’s maybe the first time he’s ever had that thought.
“You sure? How ‘bout a stack of pancakes? On the house,” the woman presses.
Shrugging, the Soldier nods, finally. He has a flash of something--he’s seen this woman before. Not this woman, but her type, mothering and caring and taking on the world’s struggles as her own.
“Good. What’s your name, dear?” she asks, a warm hand settling to rest on his shoulder. And that should do it. That should have the Soldier snapping, that should have him surging to his feet, a bloodbath in a shabby old diner in the middle of the US, a story that will go down in history as just another midwestern oddity.
Instead, the Soldier feels all the tension leaving his body. Instead, he takes a deep shuddering breath, and he doesn’t know why he answers what he does. “Steve,” he says quietly, “my name is Steve.”
They catch him a day later.
The Soldier knows he’s being chased. He can feel the heads of Hydra staring him down--can sense their goddamn approach. Come back, they say, you are nothing without us.
The Soldier wants to run. Maybe, with enough time, he could keep running, could get away. But instead, when they run his stolen car off the road, a cloud of dust and squealing tires, he hesitates, just a moment.
It’s enough for them to surround him. The survival instincts kick in, like a caged animal. The Soldier’s arm whirs and grinds, ready for a fight. His jaw clenches, and his teeth are bared, wild and feral. His hair is falling over his face, and there’s a cold sweat breaking out.
But the Soldier hesitates. And then the world goes blurry--and they have him. Someone is speaking, in a cold, accented voice, and no, no-- even as he hears it, the static begins and the Soldier knows he can’t fight back.
Even as he moves to attack, as he tries to launch himself forward, to go for the throat of the closest man, his feet won’t move. The Soldier’s body is betraying him, because it’s not his body anymore. It hasn’t been, not since they turned him into an abomination.
“Steve,” he mumbles, but nobody’s listening, because his mind is screaming, his vision is going blank. He’s surrounded, and now he’s not a Soldier anymore. He’s an asset. The memories he’s slowly begun to patch back together--they scatter, like leaves in the wind. In his mind, there’s a man, bright-eyed and dark-haired, a man with two good arms, and he’s desperately screaming, he’s chasing after something but no, he’s tripping--
He’s falling. There’s a train and he’s falling and his own scream bounces around his mind, echoes and shatters, soundless and brutal. Then the calm washes over him.
“The hell was that, Soldat?” the voice of his handler cuts through it all, washes over him like a cold, icy wind. The Soldier shivers, but it’s familiar. He breathes, and whatever part of himself is still lurking back there, in the very base of his skull, it’s full of self-loathing.
It’s a relief, really. Coming back to this. It’s easier to be the asset.
“Ready to comply,” the asset says, his default response.
“He’s back with us,” another says, evident relief. There’s about a dozen guns cocked at the Soldier’s head though, and nobody’s lowering their weapons. Smart.
“Mission report,” his handler asks. The Soldier doesn’t know this one’s name, either. He doesn’t want to know their name. He does his job. He is shaping the world. He blinks, and he’s still not entirely sure where he is; he’s a thousand miles from his pickup location. Everything is jumbled and scattered and there are entire pieces missing.
“The target is eliminated,” the asset repeats back, mild and obedient. It’s nice, having a simple purpose. Despite that- he shivers. It’s cold. The arm whirs irritably; the gears have begun to grind and click. He needs maintenance. That single thought strikes a chord within him-- and deep down, the Soldier knows. He’ll never be able to escape this. He needs Hydra; without them, what is his purpose?
“Good. Come, Soldier.”
He follows, and whatever urge still exists to fight back, to put bullets and knives and his goddamn metal fist through the skulls of his captors, it slinks back into the dark recesses of his mind.
The Soldier overhears them talking, as they work on his arm. They don’t give him any painkillers. They simply strap him down to the chair, pull off the metal plating, and begin. Each wire attached to individual nerves in his shoulder burns and sends searing-sharp pain through his shoulder. The Soldier hates the mouthguard they shove between his clenched teeth, but he bites down--because, fuck, he’d be biting his own tongue off, otherwise.
They’ve trained him well. They’ve beaten him and worn him down, but this part? This part always fucking hurts. The shoulder is his curse; each nudge of the soldering iron cuts into him, makes his whole body tense and clench. It hurts; he screams.
“He got far this time,” the doctor to the Soldier’s right comments, flipping through his chart. He’s talking, lazy and slow and idle, and the Soldier tries to pick it up, but his mind is buzzing. The shoulder is offline - it’s a heavy, dead weight at his side, but it doesn’t stop the hot pain. His vision is swimming; everything is red and hazy, like blood spattering over the grey, dull existence of his life. Pain is better than feeling nothing, maybe, but--
Another stab, and the pain explodes, blossoming over his entire left side, making the Soldier gasp and jerk. He bites down hard, enough that it’s a fucking miracle he doesn’t crack a tooth. That’s happened before, too-- and suddenly, he’s gasping, flexing his free hand, because there’s a memory there, of shattered teeth and bruised skin, his stump of an arm bleeding freely--the whir of a bone saw--
“... while to find him?” a guard standing directly in front of him is saying, and slowly, the Soldier swims back into the present, his consciousness desperately surging to the surface of the endless, dark pit of pain, despair, incoherence and old, dead thoughts. He’s lost, and it seems impossible, getting past this--it’s easier to not think, to not exist--
“Wasn’t hard,” the engineer working on his arm replies with a laugh. There’s a tap, and the explosion of pain that follows makes him squeeze his eyes shut, because there’s a heavy surge of nausea that’s roiling in his belly, bile that’s burning the back of his throat. It hurts. “See this right here? Tracking mechanism. We’ve always got a rough idea of where he is. Just a matter of hunting him down.”
The Soldier wants to laugh. He’s never stood a chance. Hydra will always find him.
They work on his arm, and once it’s fixed, once he’s been stitched back together and the plates refastened, the mechanical whir of his arm calibrating is smooth. The ache in his shoulder is there, dull and ever-present, but it’s not the heavy, unbearable weight any longer. Hydra does, at the very least, take care of its possessions.
Of course, the punishment is coming, and the Soldier knows it.
When they put him back in the Cryo tank, hours later, one eye is swollen shut. There are heavy bruises mottling his chest, down his ribs, his sides. He thinks one of his hips might be shattered-- it’s hard to say. The cryo always speeds up regeneration. That’s why they always get rough with him. That’s why, even though he wants to kick and scream and protest as the icy air rushes over him, in those final, frigid and terrifying moments before he falls asleep, the asset only feels relief.
At least the cold chases away the fingers of pain gripping at his very soul, crushing him.
This must be a dream. The Soldier thinks he’s had it before; he isn’t entirely sure, though. All he knows is that the blonde man that stares him down with too-big eyes, bright startling blue and so piercing, so familiar, it hurts. He’s had this dream before. He’s seen this guy before.
Maybe it’s someone he killed.
He doesn’t know. They don’t tell him. He knows that, as the Winter Soldier, he’s programmed to recall every detail of his missions only upon command. “It’s for your own good,” they tell him in that patronizing tone, soft and warm and chiding, like a proud parent would be. “If you were to fall into the wrong hands, if you had information to tell, all your hard work could be undone, and we don’t want that, do we?”
“No,” he says aloud, as if he’s hearing it all around him, echoing and clanging against invisible walls--
The blonde speaks, and the Soldier isn’t surprised, but the sound of his voice is so familiar, so achingly close to home, that it hurts. It outright physically hurts him, and he shudders and has the urge to desperately cram his hands over his ears, so that he doesn’t have to hear. It’s hard, it’s so hard--
“Why do I keep seeing you?” he asks, instead, and he tries to take a step forward. He can’t get closer, though--no matter how many steps he takes, it doesn’t cut through the darkness. The floor is like molasses, thick and syrupy and keeping him locked on the spot. Around him, the room stretches forever, into darkness -- (where is he? What is this? Is this what it’s like to go insane, to be trapped in ones mind until it cages them in, forever?)
“Because you can’t get over me,” the other man says, sadly, and those blue eyes cut through the darkness. They’re a beacon, an anchor, the thing that he holds onto. Even the red-hot blood, spilling wet, spraying from slit throats and severed limbs, can’t cut through the brilliance in that single gaze.
“Hydra can’t take you from me. They can try, but if you hold on, if you just don’t let go, Buck, I promise you, you can do this, just listen to me--”
And he can’t move, still, but the other man can. He gasps, lungs rattling, because there are arms wrapped tightly around him. It’s constricting, too tight, bony arms holding him dear and close, like he’s something precious. It makes him feel like he’s more than just a weapon, like he maybe he really could still be more than just Hydra.
“I got ya Buck,” the voice says quietly against his ear, rumbling and low and fierce, “I’ll always have your back.”
It’s so familiar, and Hydra can take his memories, they can wipe his mind, but they’ll never take this. They’ll never be able to entirely cut this connection, and he knows it. Underneath the conditioning, his brain is still frantically working to repair broken connections, to access everything that’s been locked away. Buck. Buck. Who is Buck - it must be him. It must be--
“You’re Steve,” he says, quietly, “and you’re dead.”
He knows this. He knows it the way he knows how to fight; the way he knows that, deep-down, whatever he’s doing for Hydra, it… it isn’t what they want him to think it is. They keep telling him, he’s doing a great thing. He’s fixing the world, shaping it, but--
“You never wanted this,” the man, Steve, he says, and they both know it’s true. “Don’t let them win this one. You can fight.”
But he doesn’t know if he can. His shoulders shake. Even though he towers over the other man -- slight, those arms way too strong for how spindly they are - he feels so small, so tiny and insignificant. If he was better, if he was stronger, he’d be able to break free. Here, in whatever this place is, the dark recesses of a mind that isn’t his own anymore, he knows the truth. He’s not doing good things at all. He is ruined.
“I can’t,” he finds himself saying, and suddenly he realizes he’s got his arms curled around the other man. He can feel the knobs of his spine with his flesh hand, and it’s familiar, it’s like home, like they’re back in the thirties in Brooklyn, and that’s--
“Bucky,” the man says, “you can, I promise, I’ll find you,” and he’s saying more, more, but the world is going hazy. There’s a strange ringing sound in his ears, something piercing and metallic and angry. It hurts, more than anything; his shoulder aches, his chest is constricting, too tight. The shadows are creeping in, and suddenly, all he can smell is the rich copper tang of blood.
He shivers, because he can’t get warm, he can never get warm, he’s so cold.
“Please-- don’t go--” he says, he thinks, but suddenly there’s wind whipping around them, suddenly, everything is red and black, shadows blotting out every bit of colour in the world. He might be screaming, he doesn’t know, but then he’s alone again.
“Steve,” is the first thing the Soldier says, when they pull him out of the cryo chamber. He shivers violently. His fingertips are icy, and his hair is frozen, dripping wet and messy against the back of his neck as he begins to thaw out. The word is clumsy, falling from lips that can’t quite properly form the word.
He prefers it when he comes out of cryo blank, empty, ready to comply. He doesn’t want these weird dreams, these pseudo-memories, because the Soldier doesn’t trust himself. It’s not real, it can’t be real, but why does it keep coming back to that?
He’s disoriented, and he hurts, and as much as he’s trying to push everything away, his mind is desperately scrambling, reaching out for the visions, trying to hold on. He’d seen him, he’d seen Steve, and he doesn’t entirely know who Steve is, but he knows that he keeps seeing him. Is he crazy? He must be insane. He is Hydra’s weapon--and the more he questions that, the more he’s left with absolutely nothing.
His legs aren’t working; they never do when he’s pulled from the ice. The thawing process always hurts in a way that the Soldier can’t process. Sometimes, when he’s good, they keep him under. Usually, they let him suffer through it. Today? It’s excruciating, the tingling hot-and-cold sending sharp pain jabbing through his entire body. It’s like being stabbed with icy knives, and even with his pain tolerance, he wants to scream.
“Steve,” he says again, gasps it out, and the medic at one side pauses mid-step.
“Is he aware?” they ask.
He hates it when they talk around him, like he’s a thing. Like he can’t hear them. The Soldier wants to fight, wants to scream and pry, but his legs aren’t working. His head hangs, shoulders slumped. Water drips from his hair, running icy rivulets down his cheeks, and he shivers. He shouldn’t feel cold, not anymore, not after he’s been here so many times.
Because--this is what he hates the most.
He’s been here before. He’s had this experience. It hits him head-on, like deja-vu gone horribly wrong, because he knows it’s not his mind playing tricks on him. He knows it, intensely and fully. Germany. Siberia. Afghanistan. Soviet. And now, here, somewhere in the central United States--or so he thinks. He’s in a Hydra safehouse. He knows this, and he’s been to countless of these hidden holes, all around the world.
“Haven’t wiped him yet,” the man at his other side responds, and the Soldier knows the voice. It’s one of his usual handlers--one with a penchant for cruelty. The Soldier won’t give the satisfaction of knowing that they’re hurting him, that it’s damn nearly breaking him. He’s broken for Hydra so many times, and he won’t, he won’t, but already, he knows it’s a goddamn lie.
“Is that… safe?” the medic asks, and the Soldier would laugh, if all his energy wasn’t fully concentrated on keeping himself upright. He won’t fall. His shoulder is numb.
“Safe?” he hears the laughter in the other’s voice, even if his head is still bowed, even if he’s staring blankly at the floor and just trying to keep himself upright. He hurts. The stabbing sensation has spread through his whole body. He should be used to the pain by now. He should have learned to accept it. But he’s soft, and right now, he remembers, and it’s so impossible to be the Asset, unfeeling and unyielding, mechanical and deadly.
“You’re looking at the most dangerous creature on earth, and you’re asking me if it’s safe to reprogram him? You really want to see what he’s like, once he snaps out of the stupor?”
“I--” the Soldier tries to reply, but the words come out choked, pathetic, because he can barely breathe with lungs that are still icy. Each breath is a punch of frigid air, everything hurts, and every part of him is quietly screaming. He can’t, he won’t.
“See,” his handler snaps, and the grip on him tightens, the pace picks up as they outright drag him across the concrete flooring. There’s the sound of a door opening, then the resounding, dull thud of it shutting behind them. The next room is brilliantly lit, harsh lighting overhead that casts a strange green hue on everything.
He blinks, and the Soldier realizes his skin is tinged blue. He’s cold.
“Strap him in,” they say, and that’s when he begins to struggle.
He knows that it’s futile. He’s weak, drugs still pumping wildly through his veins, making him heavy and sluggish. His frozen limbs don’t respond - and the arm, hanging at his side, has been depowered, the machinery carefully turned off to preserve it from the cold. It’s deadweight, just like him, just like his floundering mind.
The room is mostly empty, except for the chair. The Soldier sees the goddamn chair, and it’s like a sudden, frantic fear that’s lodged right into his chest. He knows this. He’s been here. How many times have they brought him here? Where is he? He doesn’t think he’s been to this specific location before, but--how many devices are there?
Are there others like him out there? He doesn’t know; can’t think, just--
“Not that,” he tries to plead, and the Soldier breaks. He always breaks. His eyes are wild, frantic, pulsating with outright, livid fear as they drag him across the room. His handler is stoic, steady as always.
“Anything, please, I’ll be good, I’ll listen, I won’t run again--” he tries to say. His gaze shifts to the medic at his other side, the weaker of the two, but they’re already bustling the man away, two guards, heavily armed with rifles aimed directly at him. It’d be better to be shot, the Soldier thinks. It’d be better to die than live like this, and yet, Steve--
He’ll find him, a voice in his head says, but the other one, the one that remembers, is louder.
Steve Rogers, Captain America. He died. How many times hasHydra told him that, in his early days, before they’d figured out how to wipe his memories? Drilled in. He fell from the sky, crashed into the ice, and he’s long dead. A memory. A ghost story. Just like the Winter Soldier.
He stops struggling, as they shove him down.
“Don’t worry,” his handler whispers in his ear, “it won’t hurt. For long,” and he’s smiling, something cruel and bitter, just for a fraction of a second. Just long enough for the Soldier to see it.
And then, James Buchanan Barnes forgets, because they’re shoving the leather strap in his mouth, they’re wiring him in, the restraints pulled so tight it cuts into his skin. And then he screams, and he screams, and he sobs, before it’s over.
The asset doesn’t remember anything except pain when they let him out.
“Mission report,” his handler says, in a clipped tone, and the Soldier begins to speak.
The world is swimming.
James Buchanan Barnes thinks he must be dead. He must be dead, and this is hell, because it sure as fuck ain’t heaven.
He wonders what he did to deserve this, in a moment of dazed delirium, but he knows what he did to deserve this. How could there be any question? Normal people, they aren’t sweet on their best friends. Normal people, they like the dames, they chase skirts as more than just a goddamn weak front, a defense mechanism against the world.
He’s dead, and this is his purgatory. Maybe he should have paid attention whenever he tagged along with Stevie and Sarah Rogers at church. Hell--maybe that’s it. Maybe he’s picked the wrong answer, maybe this is what happens to the boys with no faith. Eternal purgatory. Pain.
His whole body is burning, fire licking at every inch of him. His muscles are tightly drawn and exhausted. Whatever they keep sticking him with, it hurts. There’s giant, blossoming bruises all over his arms. He’s given up on trying to fight, but it’s only because he’s pulled muscles, he’s worn himself utterly to the brink of death.
He keeps collapsing, keeps blacking out. And when he does, it’s Steve he dreams of. Steven Grant Rogers, always picking fights with kids twice his size. Steve, with his black eyes and bloody knuckles, struggling in Bucky’s arms in the schoolyard, wheezing as the asthma exhausts his lungs, makes it impossible to catch his breath.
“Just let me go, Bucky!” he’d insist, “I hate bullies, someone’s gotta teach ‘em--”
Yeah, someone needs to teach them, but Bucky’s alone here. Steve’s way back in Brooklyn. Despite what the letters say, he’s probably gettin’ by just fine without Bucky. Maybe he’s finally met a girl. Maybe he’s finally gonna settle down and stop waging war against the world. In his dreams, Bucky hopes that Steve finds more happiness than he does, because it’s the end of the world, and James Buchanan Barnes is going to die on this examining table, a prisoner of war and far away from everyone else.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been a prisoner, but he wakes up from time to time. The head scientist has a thick accent, switching seamlessly between German and French and English. Maybe if they didn’t keep Bucky so drugged, maybe if whatever they were putting in him didn’t burn him to the very core of his being, he’d pick up on more of what they’re saying. It’s not like it matters; he isn’t getting out of here.
His whole captured unit is going to die here, and Bucky knows it. He’s glad that it has to be him, subjected to this torture, though--because, maybe, he’s just already dead. He’d deserve it, because even now, even here, he thinks of Steve, he thinks of all those nights curled up together for warmth. He thinks of how closely he’s always stuck to his best friend’s side, how much he’s willed life into that barely-beating heart during all those terrifying nights in the hospital.
He deserves this, because it’s wrong, and the angels up in heaven have scorned him. But fuck, in Bucky’s delirious mind, he tells himself that it was all worth it, for the life he got to live. Even if it’s all unrequited, even if he’s going to die before he ever sees Steve again--he’d make the same choices all over again. Forever, ‘til death do them part.
It’s round… four? Five? Of whatever they’re injecting him with, and the doctor seems pleased. Zola, Bucky manages to surmise his name is, in a strange flash of clarity. They’ve given him some sort of serum. The doctor keeps talking about it excitedly with his assistants, and when he gets too chaotically pleased, he always speaks in English.
“The preliminary results are good,” the doctor says, and Bucky’s doing his best to keep conscious, but everything is foggy. The fire is spreading. This is it, he thinks, this is the end. This is how he dies. He closes his eyes, and he drifts away, and in his dreams, he’s got his arms wrapped tight around Steve. In his dreams, he’s brave, he tells Steven Grant Rogers everything he’s always wanted to say. Because Bucky is dying, and at least he’s finally admitting to himself exactly what he’s always felt.
And it’s all worth it, right?
But he’ll think, again and again, that Steve is proud of him somewhere.
He’ll die serving his country in his best friend’s name.
Bucky hopes that Steve goes to see the Christmas trees without him.
Maybe he’ll name one of his kids after him.
And then it’s dark.
But Bucky doesn’t die. And maybe he should have.
He comes to when big, strong hands grip him by the shoulders and give him a good, hard squeeze.
“Bucky? Oh god, Buck, it’s you, I got you--”
Maybe, somewhere along the line, Bucky managed to redeem himself in God’s eyes, because that voice is familiar. Bucky jerks awake, blinking blearily, and he feels like death itself. Every single fibre of him aches. The fire burns, his skin slick with sweat, his eyes red and feverish. His hair is matted to his skull. His clothes are torn and dirty, and he’s pretty sure he’s less human and more a bruised blob of dark, marred flesh.
“Steve?” he slurs, because that voice is his Stevie’s voice, but they aren’t in New York. They aren’t in America. They’re in Austria, in a shitty military science base. It’s winter, and it’s so far away from home. There’s no way.
The man towers over him, as Bucky’s eyes try to focus. He can feel whatever that serum is, pumping wildly through his veins. It’s like poison, rushing, transforming him, doing something amidst the fire that’s wildly licking at him from the inside-out. Something about all of this isn’t right--and his eyes must not be working, because the voice is Steve’s, those hands are Steve’s, the face is Steve’s, and yet, this man is a giant, all muscle and health and vitality.
“It’s me, Buck,” Steve says, though, and the world suddenly rushes in. Relief mixes with a suspended sense of disbelief, and the only thing Bucky can do is laugh, frantic and desperate and so goddamn happy. He’s still half-convinced he’s dead. There’s no way this is real, but whatever, he’ll take this death a thousand times over.
Steve - whatever he is - helps him off the table, and Bucky unsteadily pulls himself to his feet.
“The hell happened to you, buddy?” he asks.
“Later,” Steve replies, “can you stand? Can you fight? We aren’t out yet.”
Bucky’s always managed to pull it together around Steve, and this time is no goddamn exception. The things he’s capable of, all for his best friend, is a miracle all in itself, and that’s never going to end. It’s always Steve, always, all the way to the end of the line.
The strangest thing, the asset muses, is watching the world shift and change. Some of it, he’s directly shaped. Other parts--well, humanity is a fucking plague. That’s what his handlers keep reminding him. Hydra exists to cull the weak, to push conformity on the world. As long as people keep defying orders, as long as they resist, they create wars and fight amongst themselves.
He’s seen a lot. He forgets, but there are bits and pieces. He can recall missions, snippets of conversations, things long past. Howard Stark is dead, and even though the name means nothing to the asset, there’s a niggle of familiarity. A car crash, a woman screaming for her life, the sounds of gunshots. He remembers being praised for a job well done.
Ten days after the death of the Starks, the USSR is finally disbanded and what the Americans (ignorant) call the Cold War is finally ended. The asset has played an important role in that. It shouldn’t matter, but he wants to think that he’s doing some good for the world. Sometimes, when he’s out of cryo for just a little too long, his mind starts wandering. Sometimes, the asset wonders what is good? What is right? And what’s the difference between the two?
His mind is plagued with screams, after all--terror, horror and blood.
When he thinks too long, he wonders if it’s all shades of grey instead of the blacks and whites that Hydra paints.
So the asset does his job. He finishes his missions. He is good, and they don’t hurt him as much. That’s the best way to be. There’s a star on his arm, red and bright, like the blood that he spills. He is a symbol of the best and worst of humanity.
They’ve given the Soldier a mission that’s different than his usual ones.
Normally, he is destruction, a deadly assassin. He makes people disappear. He can be credited with countless assassinations of political figures - presidents, diplomats, other government officials. Important public figures. Innovators, anyone who gains a little too much power, who says something that’s just the wrong side of dangerous. His track record is impressive. The asset doesn’t remember much, but he remembers he has killed; they ensure that.
But today, they’ve sent him on loan to the KGB. The asset is distinctly aware that he has no feelings about anything. He does what he is told, and for now, he is told that this place is where he’s meant to be.
Perhaps the fact that it’s an old ballet studio should be odd, but the Soldier knows there are countless old Hydra holes in various places across the globe, scattered in old buildings, in cellars and dark places. Sometimes, the best disguises are in plain sight.
There are twenty eight girls in the program. The Soldier stares them down silently as they practice, again and again. They’re too young for this, and the sight of it does something strange to his chest. It’s hard to breathe; his heart beats frantically against his ribs. It’s a strange pain, something that isn’t physical at all, but reminds the Soldier of ghostly memories--his handlers beating him to a pulp, a chair that fries his brain, makes him scream. But--
This. This is something different.
The Soldier leans back against a wall; he sinks back into the shadows that stretch across the room. The windows are long and narrow, casting stripes of light across worn floorboards that creak under the slight weight of delicate footwork.
“Ballet is much like fighting,” the stern woman had explained to the Soldier, upon his arrival. “It hardens our girls. It prepares them-- strengthens their minds. If they can master this, if they can push past the physical exhaustion, they will be ready.”
The Soldier understands, as he watches them leap in the air, spin and twist in unnatural ways. One of the girls twists an ankle, and he sees the flash of pain on her young face--just an instant, before she picks herself up off the floor and limps through it. It is admirable, and the Soldier appreciates what they’re doing, on a basic level.
On some level that he doesn’t understand, though, he is screaming. They shouldn’t have brought him here, and he has to wonder if this is just another form of torture. It hurts, it’s burning an icy hole in his chest, and the Soldier doesn’t know why--but he can sense that it’s there, lurking and just out of reach.
The shadows stretch further and further across the room, and the strips of golden sunlight darken as the day passes, hour after hour of strenuous work. The Soldier is just to observe, today. Tomorrow, he is going to help train the girls in hand-to-hand combat and knifework. He’s good at this. Of course, the Soldier prefers the cold scope of a sniper rifle, the blissful, trance-like state he falls into when he’s waiting, a predator seeking out its prey. But he’s the best at what he does, the ghost story of the Cold War, of all the battles before, and he’s been little more than a rumoured whisper since World War II. Of course they want him. If he was capable of having an ego, he’d be feeling a twinge of pride right now.
Instead, as the Soldier stares down the girls, too young to be here, to be doing this, he feels… old. Heavy. Weighed down and disproportionate, with the metal arm whirring irritably and his shoulder aching from supporting it. The red star on his arm is covered up, but the shadows grow darker, stretch wider, until they envelop the whole goddamn room.
When the Soldier closes his eyes, he sees a girl with dark hair and bright eyes. His stomach lurches--because it’s not the ballet studio he’s standing in, not anymore. He can still hear the creak of old floorboards, but instead of barked commands, of muted music and the softest pad of footfalls, there’s chaos. There are voices--girls chattering, the sound of an old, tinny radio playing. There’s the clatter of utensils, pots and pans. There’s the sound of pages flipping, and the scent of something delicious in the air. The dust motes float lazily in the golden, afternoon sun, and he can feel the scratchy fabric of an old bedspread underneath him.
His eyes are closed, but the Soldier knows if he glances to his left, the sunlight filtering in will catch in soft, delicate blonde hair, and his gloved fingers, they itch to reach out, to touch--
“Enough for today!” the instructor barks, and the asset is suddenly back in the present again. Nothing betrays his thoughts, but his eyes open, and his gaze is dark and intent as he watches the girls gather their things. They are exhausted, drenched in sweat, their feet bloody and calloused and blistered. But there’s a determination underneath the exhaustion that the Soldier respects.
“Do you understand, Soldat?”
She is called Madame B. The asset doesn’t ask what it stands for; it doesn’t matter. He does not have a name, and he doesn’t care if others do. What is in a name, really? It’s tied to identity, and the Soldier doesn’t have one of those. He has a purpose, and dwelling on things such as names only distracts from the end goal. It only causes attachment,and attachment only leads to pain. Attachment, memories, feelings, they all mean he goes back to the chair, and then to the ice.
“They are skilled,” he replies, shrugging, his arm whirring and calibrating with the motion. “You are training perfect little soldiers.”
Madame B barks out a bit of harsh laughter, something incredibly cruel and incredibly unladylike. “No,” she says, “I am raising perfect little assassins. There is a difference.”
“Is there?” the Soldier asks, eyes narrowed. Their eyes meet, and he feels as though he’s been plunged into ice, because it’s like looking into the cruel, bitter eyes of his handlers. It’s the look they give him, right before he’s shoved back into the chair, before they clamp him down and shove a gag in his mouth and hurt him, over and over again.
“I like you,” Madame B says, though, in that same voice, and the Soldier immediately dislikes her. He cannot say why; but sometimes, he thinks maybe his instincts are too sharp for Hydra, that as much as they change him, they’ll never take that away. And even if the Soldier knows that ultimately, it’s a futile inconvenience, he finds himself grasping on, holding onto this tiny shred of himself, over and over again.
They say insanity is the act of doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different yield. Well, the Winter Soldier is a fucking maniac, utterly out of his mind crazy. But here he is, watching the entire goddamn world burn.
The Soldier is not supposed to have favourites, but he has one.
She’s easily the best of her class, and he pretends that is why he’s taken such a liking. Perhaps it’s why he set his eyes on her early on, but it is apparent that this girl is simply different.
She’s got bright red hair and sharp eyes, and her face is all angles and shadows, an elegance that fascinates him. She’s still so very young, but the Soldier knows that she will grow up to be deadly and outright beautiful. The Red Room trains weapons, women who know how to use their sexuality and seductiveness, and the Soldier does not fault them for sharpening such a natural gift. But when he looks at this girl-- it breaks him, it wrenches something in his guts.
It’s strange, having a role that doesn’t involve killing. Or maybe this is a test.
Over the years, they’ve… perfected his conditioning. The Soldier knows this because they tell him. The rudimentary technology, it’s been improved, the experimentation finally paying off. The Soldier knows, because they’ve sent him on several missions. They’re important, he’s told. He’s saving the world.
As he flips the tiny redheaded girl onto her back though, with complete and utter lazy ease, he doesn’t quite know what good he’s doing here.
“Fuck,” she hisses under her breath, barely audible, and that in itself is a slip. They are supposed to be mechanical in battle, deadly and graceful and hard. This girl is well on her way, but she is no Winter Soldier. She is not a match for him, and they know it. The Soldier can’t decide who they’re trying to break--her, or him. Maybe both.
He’s always hated killing children and animals. He’s killed both without a second thought, but--even when he’s unflinching, even when he does the deed without hesitation, there’s a part of his mind that screams.
He’s fired into crowds of innocent bystanders and protestors in ‘56 in Budapest.
An orphanage in Czechoslovakia in the late ‘60s, burned to ashes--a loud, vocal response to the protests rattling the country.
America--the ‘70s, Cold War tensions, politicians with a scope aimed at their heads. Presidents, political figures, the wealthy, anyone with pockets too big and a mouth too loud. He’s been there.
All of these things, these acts of violence and horror, the Soldier remembers. They make sure he remembers. They selectively pick and choose the things his brain holds onto. The Soldier knows that before--he was an utterly blank slate. He could recall, on command, where he’s been and what he’s seen.
But now, they leave the carnage with him, a reminder. They’ve gotten smarter, and they’ve gotten cruel, and yet, he obeys. He is shaping humanity, and any urge to run is surgically cut out of him.
And he’s here. In the present. Physically, at least. He is in a ballet studio, and he is training a girl far too young.
“Again,” the Soldier says. He’s pinning the girl down with his metal arm; the plates shift and whir quietly as she struggles in vain. His fingers tighten around her throat, just a little, just enough to make the edge of panic rise. Her eyes go wild and she reaches desperately, aims a kick that he dodges, nails trying to find a bit of flesh to dig into--but all she finds is his bionic arm, something inhuman, something she cannot hurt.
“Fuck,” she gasps out again, the word choked, and the Soldier laughs softly, a quiet huff, because her emotions are getting the better of her. She’s good. She’ll be better, eventually; unbreakable, even. He’d like to see that, and it’s a strange thought--to want something. To want to help someone, to make them stronger, better. It’s so different than what the Soldier usually wants. Usually, he is an empty slate. Usually, he exists to obey, to be Hydra’s pet, chaos and destruction following him. Usually, the only spark of satisfaction is being told that he’s done a good job. When he’s good, they wipe the pain, along with everything else. Everything inconsequential all goes away, in the end.
They’ll probably take this from him, too, but for the moment, it is good.
“Again,” he rasps, voice rough, “you can do it.”
The redheaded girl strains, struggles, and aims a kick at his groin. The Soldier shifts, dodges it, but she catches him in the shin, and there’s a surprising amount of strength and grace there. This girl is all muscle, hardened and beautiful. She will be a perfect Widow, someday.
“Good,” he says, and he releases her, because she’s going to choke if he doesn’t. And though the girl’s expression remains fierce, determined, eyes burning into his--he sees it. The Soldier sees the slight ripple of satisfaction that the praise brings, and he knows, somehow, that this girl is much like him. She hasn’t been broken like he has--but she is broken, nonetheless. She is a marionette, dancing on strings. The only difference is that, sometimes, he thinks maybe he really did used to be someone else. This girl, she’s been theirs to shape from the beginning. He doesn’t know which is worse.
“Come,” he says, the single word a command, but there’s an invitation in there. It’s his flesh hand that he extends, offering to the panting girl. “We go again. Rest first.”
She doesn’t take his hand, instead drawing herself up to her feet, still panting, chest heaving, face shining with sweat. Her hair is messy. Her eyes are locked on his. She might hate him. The Soldier doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care--not really. His job is not for her to care about him. His job is to make sure she can keep herself alive. And the Winter Soldier always takes his job very seriously, because he has nothing else.
It’s an unusual thing to be tasked -- keeping someone alive. The Soldier is usually a weapon pointed at a target. He is precise and deliberate, when needed. Other times, he is chaos and war. But instead, he’s here. He’s in the middle of a dusty old ballet studio, teaching a young girl how to carry on his legacy.
She is a broken creature. She reminds the Soldier of-- something strange. When he looks at her too closely, her red hair and her fierce, determined eyes, he thinks of a baby bird, one that’s fallen from its nest. She doesn’t speak, and her chest heaves as she tries to catch her breath. Her limbs are strong, wiry and all muscle, and she carries herself with such grace, it makes him-- feel.
She is a long way from her nest. Her mother will never find her again. What a strange thought--he is alone in the world. He doesn’t have a mother. He doesn’t have a family. He doesn’t know what it is.
“I can keep fighting,” the girl says, her voice clear and determined.
The Soldier eyes her. He likes this child, he realizes and it’s a foreign feeling--emotions. Enjoying something. His handlers are an inconvenience to the Asset; they are a necessity. The engineers who work on his arm poke and prod at raw nerves, but he needs maintenance. Even when they wipe his memories (and he knows they do; they don’t bother to lie anymore), they leave some. The new commander-in-chief of Hydra is blonde and powerful, with eyes that are piercing, that see right through him.
In the middle of the studio, the Soldier shivers violently. He feels cold to his very core--colder than usual, as if he’s been doused in freezing cold water. He can practically feel it dripping down his arms, beading at the tips of his hair, wetting his cheeks. He feels the phantom of a back-handed slap, sharp and stinging. He feels himself being manhandled, being shoved down, kicked and tormented.
“Come then,” the Soldier ignores it. He pushes through the memories that bubble up, lets himself fall into the deadly calm that takes over when he has a mission. He puts everything into the current task, and even though it’s different, he might enjoy it. He might actually like training someone, teaching this young girl how to keep herself alive, instead of indiscriminately killing.
She’s easy to fight off, when she lunges, but not as easy as she should be. She fights dirty, because he’s taught her how to fight dirty. She uses her stature to her advantage. She’s smaller than him, and quick. When the girl dodges a carefully pulled punch, the Soldier feels a strange burn of emotion--feels pride, or something close to it.
She ducks under him, around, and tackles him from behind. The Soldier shifts to throw her off, but she holds on, twists and gets her thighs wrapped around his neck. For a moment--the Soldier can’t breathe. For a moment, his mind goes blissfully blank, different than it does in a mission. For a moment, he thinks maybe it would be hilarious if this tiny little waif of a girl managed to fucking finish the job, kill him, where everyone has failed.
It’s barely a fraction of a second, though, and then he’s wrenching free, the metal arm whirring as he rips the girl away from his body. The air rushes back into his lungs, and he pins her down, falls to his knees and holds her here. She’s going for the knife he’s got on his hip, and her fingers curl around the handle before the Soldier’s flesh arm knocks her grip free, before he’s fully pinning her.
“Fuck you,” the girl pants. Her hair is stuck to her sweaty face, and her eyes are vibrant. The Soldier keeps her pinned for a moment, and their eyes meet, and--even though she’s young, even though she’s so different, he feels a strange sense of camaraderie. He feels a connection, something tentative, barely-formed. It hangs by a thread.
“Better,” the Soldier simply says, as he releases his grip. He doesn’t bother extending a hand to her, but he draws back, pulls himself to his full height. He towers over her, thick muscle, arm recalibrating and whirring with a mild irritation that makes him roll his shoulder and twitch anxiously. The arm is going to need maintenance soon. He’s been out of cryo too long. The Soldier hates this part.
“Again,” the girl commands, but her breath is catching, even as she speaks. She’s wobbling as she pulls herself upright, and the Soldier gives her a long, appraising look.
“You aren’t a machine,” he tells her. At some point, they’ve switched from English to Russian to back again, seamless and easy. Language, the Soldier knows, is such a deep part of identity. Entire societies are built on a shared language.
He speaks several of them fluently. Hydra has never wiped that skill set -- it helps on missions. He can blend in anywhere, can be the perfect, blank slate that they need him to be. He is both everybody and nobody. And this girl, she is following in his footsteps.
“I want to be,” the girl says, and he wants to shake his head, to tell her no. Instead, the Soldier fixes the girl with a long, calculating look.
“Rest,” he says, “we’ll train more later.”
She finds him later, and she shouldn’t be here, but she’s already so goddamn clever, that he cannot fault her. He doesn’t sleep, of course, doesn’t rest for a moment more than is the bare minimum requirement. She sneaks up on his six; of course, he’s aware. He can sense her, can hear the faintest fall of footsteps, the ghost of a breath.
The Soldier does not acknowledge her, but he inclines his head ever-so-slightly. His hair is growing longer, and they haven’t bothered to cut it; he ties it back, normally, but it’s falling loose, hanging over his eyes. It is, in fact, the strongest indicator of any sort of weakness, of the Soldier letting his guard down. He’ll have to take a knife to his hair and cut it all on his own, jagged and rough along his jawline. Later.
“Do you have a name?” the girl asks, breaking the silence between them.
It’s just shy of the crack of dawn. The other girls will be up soon, and their exhausting cycle will rinse and repeat. The Soldier understands. He knows they are breaking these girls, bit by bit wearing them down until they know nothing else but pain and exhaustion. He knows, deep down, that he has been broken as well. The longer they leave him out of cryo, the more those feelings creep in.
“I have several names,” the Soldier says, with a shrug.
Giving him a room of his own is only a formality. Or, perhaps, it’s to keep them safe- they gave him the highest room in the studio, with an excellent vantage point out of the top window. He is theirs a while longer, but inevitably, Hydra will return for him. The arm whirs; he will need maintenance. As powerful a weapon as it is, the Soldier knows that the delicate electrical work can be damaged. They want him requiring treatment regularly, because he is only pulled out for important jobs. Why they have deemed sending him to the deepest recesses of Russia for this specific project important enough-- it’s not his job to question orders. But maybe, just maybe, a part of him is wondering that. Maybe this is self-awareness.
“Code names, for missions?” the girl says, in that ‘I’m too smart for my own good’ kind of way that young girls are absolute experts at. Something about the tone niggles at the Soldier. Something about the way she says it, cocky and sure-eyed, makes him turn from his spot perched at the window.
She is fierce and young. She’s already dressed for the day, and she has one hand perched on her hip, small body jutted toward him. Oh, she’ll be a vicious little thing someday, the Soldier thinks, but--
For a moment, the briefest of instances, he’s no longer in a dark studio all the way across the sea. He’s somewhere else. The Soldier’s eyes widen, his breath catches. In that split second, he hears laughter, he smells the scent of freshly-baking cookies, bright blue eyes that are wet around the edges from laughing so hard; delicate, almost bird-like features, high cheekbones and thick lashes, and a girl, dark-haired and clinging to his sleeve--
“Come on, Bucky, puh-leeease--”
“I told ya, Becs, you’re too young--”
“-- not fair, I’m telling mom!--”
The Soldier damn near jumps. He shakes his head to clear his thoughts, and he’s here again, grounded and present. It’s happening again, again, and he knows that he needs maintenance. His thoughts become jumbled, and then he becomes compromised. Vaguely, he knows he used to fight it, but now-- now it’s easier to forget, because they stick his head in a blender, scramble him around and leave him blank and confused. It’s all pointless.
“Code names,” the Soldier responds, then falls silent. The girl is watching him warily. They’re like two caged animals, prowling and circling each other. She’s no real threat to him, and yet, she makes him wary. She makes him wary because she is so damn familiar.
“What’s your real name?” she asks, finally.
He almost laughs, and if she wasn’t so young, so naive, he probably would.
“You lose that first,” he says softly, “your identity. Any name that was given to you.”
Her eyes narrow, and in the pre-dawn light, she is even smaller, even younger. “I’m Natalia,” she says, in a way that’s fierce and god-- Becca. Who the hell is Becca? Who is this girl, has he met her before? A prior mission? But she is too young, and the Soldier knows it’s impossible. He doesn’t know her. A phantom of a memory. His mind creates things, he’s been told time and time again. Sometimes, he meets people on missions, and then forgets them, and his mind tries to project that. That’s what the new Director of Hydra told him, and the thought sticks. That’s why they have to wipe him. He cannot trust himself. He is compromised.
“You won’t be,” the Soldier simply replies, shrugging. “You will be a weapon. They don’t allow weapons to have identities. Too dangerous.”
The girl stares at him for a long moment, something fierce, and it’s another one of those instances where the Soldier thinks maybe he should take her hand and run. Maybe there is more out there. A name, an identity, maybe--
And then the moment is gone. The girl relaxes a little, and she scruffs floorboard with the toes of one foot. She’s graceful, holds a delicate demeanor that will get her far, because the Soldier already knows that she’s tough as nails.
“They tell me names are a weakness,” she says, and he knows she’s agreeing. She is fighting, she is holding on, but they will break her. They always do.
“Names are powerful,” the Soldier responds. “Names are-- an identity they can’t take. That’s why they won’t let you have it.” He had a name once, he thinks. Now? He is the asset. He is the Soldier. Soldat, his mind fills in, switching easily, fluidly, between languages. He doesn’t know what he thinks in, anymore, except that it’s all shades of black and white and red.
The girl’s skin is white and pale. Her hair is bright red. Her eyes are dark pools in the dim, predawn light. And he is broken bones and the fresh drip-drip of blood.
“I won’t forget who I am,” she says, finally.
“Go, before they catch you out of bed,” he replies, because the truth is too hard to speak aloud to this girl: you will. They will win; they always do.
She hesitates, almost doesn’t listen, but there’s a creak of a floorboard from out in the hallway, and then, in the blink of an eye, she’s gone, the door quietly slipping shut behind her. The Soldier stares for a long time, before he turns his gaze back to the window and watches the sun rise, far off in the horizon. The bright, golden light is white and empty, as it washes over him. It’s a peaceful moment, but inside the Soldier, a war is waging. It never ends, never stops hurting.
The star on his arm shines bright against the burning metal. It aches, and he rolls the arm, feels it grind angrily in its socket.
The studio has long, near full-length mirrors, and the Soldier avoids them. He dislikes the way they make him feel-- vulnerable and exposed. He is exactly what Hydra wants him to be. He is skilled beyond any of their regular agents. His aim is impeccable, and he’s an expert at stealth, at going unseen. He is nameless and faceless, and he can slip into a crowd and blend in, the metal arm gloved and sleeved and hidden. He doesn’t like keeping the arm covered; it makes it harder to control, ups the temperature to something just the wrong side of uncomfortable. He’s always so cold, and the joint where metal meets flesh is a strange dichotomy when the arm is running just a few degrees too hot.
But there’s something about staring at his own face-- his eyes sunken, cheekbones prominent, jaw just a little too angular, that the Soldier doesn’t like. It’s a strange feeling that something isn’t right, that he doesn’t belong.
For some reason, though-- he’s crossing the empty room. He prowls the halls. As always, he’s been out of cryo too long. It shouldn’t be too long, though-- how long has it been?
The Soldier knows his limits, when his mind starts to play tricks. He’s been told by the engineers over and over, by the Director of Hydra, by his handlers, that he cannot trust himself. It’s part of the danger of his job. He’s been injured before, they tell him. His mind gets confused, muddled, all the old missions run together. It’s safe to put him in the chair. That pain that he can remember, that reflexively wakes him up when he does manage to sleep, the phantom echoes and the nightmares and the memories, those are necessities.
His mind shouldn’t be a mess yet. But being here, surrounded by tiny assassins, it’s fucking him up. It’s ruining him.
And so he’s pacing at night like a caged animal, because if he sits too long, he starts drifting. The Soldier keeps seeing blonde hair and blue eyes, he keeps hearing rattling breath from too-weak lungs, the faintest scratch of pencil on paper. He hears a cough and his head whips around, looking for the source-- but it’s nothing, it’s all in his head.
And so, when he crosses the empty ballet studio, he can't help it. The Soldier turns his head, watches his reflection, dark and shadowed. He pauses mid-step, and the man looking back at him, in the darkness, is him, but--
Instead of a weapon, metal-armed and dressed in black tactical gear, hair long and pulled back into a neat knot at the base of his neck, the Soldier sees… a soldier.
He sees a young man with bright eyes, healthy, full cheeks and a well defined jaw. He tips his head, and there’s the same cleft chin, the same jawline, the same high cheekbones-- and his eyes, god, the shade is still exactly the same, even if years of violence have shifted them. Everything has changed. God, who is he?
“Steve,” the Soldier suddenly says aloud, a revelation.
He always comes back to this point, he realizes. The more he stares at himself, the more he sees, the more the memories flood back in. He remembers a skinny, scrawny blond man--remembers casually throwing an arm, a flesh arm, around those thin shoulders. He remembers hands that are warm, that aren’t always freezing, that are always finding reasons to touch. He remembers the hot body of a woman beneath him, remembers the sweetness, remembers desperately wishing for something else--
Steve. God, he remembers Steve, and it’s a concept, more than anything else, but he thinks, he thinks--
The Soldier is freezing, shivering. There is ice running through his veins, and when he sharply exhales, he is surprised there isn’t a thick puff of condensation in the air. He is unwavering, but he still holds onto the rail running the length of the wall, because his limbs feel weak. His arm whirls irritably, whining in its socket.
The Soldier’s eyes are wild. He remembers the feeling of a smaller, spindly body pressed up against his in the middle of the night. He remembers being unable to sleep--remembers being distracted by the jut of hip that’s under his fingertips. He aches, fully and suddenly, something sharp and real and god--how is this all in his head?
The Soldier doesn’t remember names. He’s had so many handlers come and go over the years. He knows the current director of Hydra, though. The man has taken an interest in him--has made a point of making sure the Soldier knows him. The director always, always reminds him that this is in his head.
“You aren’t real,” the asset murmurs, his voice low, barely audible, though in the darkness it’s heavy. “You don’t exist, Steve.”
But if none of it is real--what is the longing pulsing through his veins? Why are his eyes wet? There are tears running down his cheeks, and his flesh hand lifts, wipes them away with the heel of his palm. He rips his gaze away from the mirror, staring down at his hand. Even in the darkness, he can see the salty glint of tears. He’s crying.
The Soldier wavers.
The inky night is thick around him. It is tangible, wet and palpable in the air, like he can close his fist around it and squeeze the very heart of his emotions into goo. It feels like a living, breathing animal--waiting to cage him in, to constrict his very heart and squeeze the life out of him. It makes it hard to breathe. His eyes are still wet, burning at the corners, and the Soldier can’t look any longer.
He stares down at the floorboards. The darkness is visceral, and he can barely make out the details, long, narrow boards, well-polished, but old. Even with his enhanced vision--he could make a shot in this darkness, he’s sure--he cannot focus.
The Soldier blinks and-- he’s not here. He’s elsewhere. The floorboards aren’t as shiny. Still old. They creak terribly. He’s sneaking back in, way later than he should be-- and the goddamn creak is unpredictable as hell, always gives him away.
“What did I tell you about chasing the dames so late, James Buchanan Barnes?” a woman’s voice says, thick and accented. American. No, Brooklyn, and he doesn’t know how he makes the distinction. It’s just something he knows, the way he knows how to hold an assault rifle, the way he knows how to wield a knife. It’s second-nature, so deeply rooted, the Hydra conditioning can’t keep it buried.
“Wasn’t no dames, ma, I swear,” the voice is his own, but he’s not speaking. It’s echoing around him, in a room that isn’t so dark. There’s the glow of a lamp. There’s the creak of a rocking chair, the quiet sound of knitting needles clicking. He breathes in, and suddenly, instead of old air and the tang of sweat, there’s the soft, homey smell of leftover food, of a candle burning and a flame licking, and god up in heaven.
“Ah,” the woman says, soft and humoured, “Steve, then?”
Steve. It’s always Steve.
If the Soldier’s arm didn’t whir, calibrating as he clenches his hand into a tight fist, he might lose track. It would be so much easier to fall backwards, to simply take the leap and see where it takes him. But he’s confused. His mind is swimming; his brain is a mess. Nothing makes sense.
“You know how it is, ma,” and it’s his voice, isn’t it? It’s jumping in his head, rattling around his already-scrambled brains. He closes his eyes, clenches them so tight it hurts. There’s a headache coming on, thick and throbbing, and god, it’s too soon. It’s too soon for the outside world to crash in, too soon for the depths of his broken mind to pull him down into the void.
“I know,” the woman, his ma, she responds, and he doesn’t need to see to hear the smile. Emotion-- and the Soldier doesn’t understand it, but he knows it. “Do you, though?”
“I--” there’s hesitance, and god, his head hurts. The throbbing intensifies, and suddenly, he’s pitching forward. This doesn’t happen. The Soldier breathes in heavily, bites down, his jaw clenching and his teeth clacking. His hand tightens, re-calibrates and shifts, and suddenly, underneath his fingers, there’s a wrench. The cracking sound of wood splitting echoes through the room as the wooden rail he’s clutching gives, splinters under the hand--
The Soldier blinks and suddenly, suddenly he’s back in the present. Suddenly, he’s staring at his own reflection. Even in the darkness, he sees himself. He sees eyes, blue and bright and wet, cheeks sunken in and sallow, but still him. He sees a person, just for a moment, before he looks away. The splintered fragments of the wooden beam fall to the floor as he relaxes his iron fist, and then the Soldier turns.
What is he? His mind asks, and then, immediately, the response fills in the void that is normally the emptiness: who is he?
“Sit,” his ma says, leaning forward in her rocking chair, and fixing Bucky Barnes with a long, knowing look. She doesn’t have to say any more than she does, and he loves her for it, loves her fiercely and all-encompassing.
The taste of whiskey is still on his tongue, but he’s not drunk. He doesn’t get drunk around Steve, not anymore, because when Bucky drinks, he gets handsy. It’s easy to keep the facade up for a while, but it all, inevitably, comes crumbling down. It always does, because he’s weak, and he’s broken, and he’s wrong.
Bucky kicks his shoes off and takes the time to neatly arrange them by the door, because he’s a grown man, but his mama raised him proper, and crosses the sitting room. His shirt is sticking to his shoulder blades and the small of his back because it’s hot as hell out there. It’s a night in Brooklyn in July, and it’s all sticky heat that doesn’t dissipate. The sun goes down, and there’s no burning at the back of his neck, but it’s almost worse, thicker-- sweat in the air, pulsing like a heartbeat all around him.
The moments tick by, and Bucky doesn’t speak. The house is silent, and it’s nice. His father works long hours and is already in bed. It’s late enough that his sisters are sleeping instead of chattering on and on into the night. The Barnes house isn’t quite big enough for six people, but they’re the type of family that’s close as can be, that will always rearrange and make room. Sometimes, there’s seven of them, because Steven Grant Rogers is basically an honorary Barnes.
His ma doesn’t push the subject. She’s back to working on her knitting, and the needles click quietly, a comforting rhythm for Bucky to fall back on, one that meets the steady knocking of his heart against his ribcage.
“Took Stevie home,” he says finally, “his ma’s off tomorrow, she’ll take care of him.”
Steve’s coming off a bout of the flu, which is just spectacular, given that it’s the middle of July, and if Bucky’s worried--well, he’s always worried.
“Only Steve Rogers could get sick mid-summer,” he ma says knowingly, and she smiles and shakes her head. “That boy’s going to be the death of you, James.”
They both know it, and it’s for so many reasons. Bucky doesn’t talk about how his heart pounds when he curls his body around Steve’s. He doesn’t talk about how the world feels like it’s closing in every time Steve gets sick, every time the doctor makes that face. God, Bucky’s terrified of losing Steve Rogers--afraid of the day when his frail body gives out, when they can’t save him.
And almost as much, Bucky’s afraid of what this tightly wound coil of feelings means.
“C’mon, ma, Stevie ain’t that bad,” Bucky, of course, immediately rises to the defense, leaning forward in his seat. His mother eyes him for a long moment over her knitting, and she smiles, wry and far wiser than anyone should ever be. Winnifred Barnes is a smart woman, smarter than her son, that much is certain.
“How many black eyes has that boy earned you?” she asks.
Bucky knows the answer, because he wears them as a badge of pride. “Seventeen,” he says, without hesitation.
“And I’m sure at least a dozen more to come,” his mother says, and she shakes her head. “Be careful, James. You’ve always worn your heart on your sleeve.”
His ma is saying something, and Bucky knows it. He shifts in his seat; he feels his heart doing that thing it does, whenever he thinks of Steve. He should have stayed with him tonight, should’ve curled up in his too-small cot, pressed chest-to-back and listening to the rattle of Steve’s lungs. Bucky aches when he’s alone, and he knows that ain’t right. He knows, deep down, that they’re closer than two buddies should be, but--
“No such thing as careful, ma, not when Stevie’s involved,” Bucky replies. The click-clack of his ma’s knitting needles pauses, and he lifts his eyes, meets her gaze. The light is soft, the room is warm and dark-- and it’s so vibrant. Browns, warm and chocolate, beige and cream and all the colours in between. Even the shadows are hues of a deep blue, grey, all different colours.
“I know,” his mother says, and she goes back to her knitting, scraps of bright red yarn, a vivid splash against the backdrop of their home. She knows, he thinks, but she smiles her knowing smile and looks at him with so much more kindness than he deserves.
Hydra comes for him, after that, and the Soldier isn’t surprised. He goes, his mind blank, a twisted mess; a canvas splashed with nonsensical splatters of black and grey, white spaces and red swirls.
The girl watches him go, but she doesn’t say a word. The Soldier doesn’t say anything, either, simply lowers his head and stares down with dead eyes. Ready to comply. She will learn--anyone that ever shows her kindness will leave her. Everything ends, nothing is permanent. Trust nobody.
They take him to one of their larger safehouses, and put him in a holding cell. Debriefing, the Soldier knows. They will make him wait. Maintenance, then the cold. He shivers, and hunches over, arms wrapping around himself. His arm, the weapon, it whirs irritably. He needs maintenance. And, inevitably, pain and the chair.
The door opens, after a time. The Soldier doesn’t know how long it’s been. They’re underground, and the harsh overhead lights are the only constant.
“Soldier,” the man says.
The Soldier doesn’t move, doesn’t flinch. He knows this man. He knows him but-- he doesn’t. He forgets. He smiles kindly and carries himself with an air of confidence. He’s dressed in a smart suit, jacket-less, with the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up past the elbows.
“Sir,” the Soldier says, and his voice croaks. Suddenly, his throat is dry. He should not feel the way that he feels, but--suddenly, his heart pounds against his ribcage. Suddenly, he’s fighting to hold himself still, because there’s a voice in the back of his mind that says run, go, Buc--
“I hear you had a little hiccup in your mission,” the voice is kind, but the Soldier hears the ice beneath the friendly demeanor. He shivers, feels it running cold. Suddenly, the room is constricting, the walls are shrinking in on him. Suddenly, he feels vulnerable, exposed, naked. The Soldier hunches in, and he wishes he had his tac gear. He wishes he had his rifles, his knives, but they stripped him of everything. Even the arm isn’t working right. They’ve already removed the other panel, exposed the delicate wiring within; he is helpless.
He is a caged animal. His shoulders shake.
“A minor malfunction,” he says, “I can complete the mission, sir.”
“Hm,” the sound is dismissive. The kindliness in his tone is sickeningly sweet. “That’s not what your files say. Are you having… hallucinations, again?”
The man leans over. One hand braces on the edge of the bench the Soldier is sitting on, too close. Even though the Soldier knows he is better, stronger, with enhanced strength and super senses-- with the arm-- he is terrified. They know how to shut him down. They know all his secrets, make him comply. He is their pet, and this man holds his leash.
His hair is blonde, and his eyes--god. The Soldier’s eyes widen, because this man’s eyes are blue.
“Is your name Steve?” he asks softly, tipping his head and biting his lip until he tastes copper.
There’s a pause, the silence is tangible. The other man tips his head, and even though the Soldier knows that he’s in charge, that he’s an important man, he thinks, maybe, that he used to know him. He looks familiar, in a way that aches.
“We’ve been over this,” the man says quietly. “Steve Rogers is dead.”
“No,” the Soldier says, before he can stop himself. “No, I saw him.”
The man sighs. His hand shifts, brushing against the Soldier’s thigh, and he shudders again, a visceral reaction.
“Steve Rogers died in 1945,” he says. “Your mind cannot be trusted. I know what’s best for you.”
“No,” the Soldier tries to reply. He shifts his weight, shrinking away from the man, and there’s confusion in his eyes as he lifts his head. The man is staring at him, gaze piercing into his very existence, and it hurts, it aches. “No, I saw him, he spoke to me--”
The slap doesn’t hurt. It’s sharp and brutal, but it’s nothing compared to everything else. Still, the Soldier’s eyes water, his cheek burns, and there’s the humiliation, degradation. The Soldier doesn’t react. He’s not here anymore, he’s elsewhere. He’s in Brooklyn, or maybe he’s in the ice, or maybe he’s dead and this is his own personal hell. Maybe they’re all dead.
“Fix the arm,” the man says, straightening, “and wipe him. Start over.”
The Soldier isn’t aware of the other men in the room, not until one of them speaks. “Sir, the new chair, the prototype, we haven’t transported it here yet--”
“Then put him on ice. Move him. Just do it,” comes the response.
The Soldier holds back the desperate, choked sound that wants to escape, because he knows. He knows what’s coming--it’s all rushing back in, vivid flashbacks, dark and visceral. The ice, the cold, liquid poison dripping through his veins. The fear and the pain, the feeling of his mind being twisted, his thoughts and memories being torn away, all over again--
And Steve. Steve Rogers. Captain America.
It’s all coming back, and the Soldier wants to hold on. He doesn’t want to forget, doesn’t want them to take it all away again.
“Please,” he says quietly, and he can’t quite resist. The Winter Soldier would stay silent, but Bucky Barnes lifts his head, his hair falling over his eyes. And he knows it’s futile. He thinks, maybe, he’s asked this before, outright begged and pleaded, and he knows it’s for nothing. But still--
“Please, don’t take it away from me. I’ll comply, I’ll do whatever--” he says, softly.
The man, Alexander Pierce (he knows him, he knows him), the newest head of Hydra, stares at him for a long moment, steady and unmoving.
“Put him on ice,” he says, finally, “and make sure he feels it.”
There’s the physical parts, yeah. Bucky Barnes feels… stretched thin. His muscles ache. His head is throbbing. His feet hurt, and there are ugly track marks on his arms from all the injections, all the needles they stuck him with. But-- the bruises? They’re fading, and that’s… weird. He shouldn’t be healing like this.
He doesn’t say anything. The implications of that are scary.
But the part that hurts the most? It’s not the way his body protests every single motion. Bucky doesn’t want to think it, sure as hell doesn’t want to admit it--but his eyes keep drifting. How can they not?
There’s no denying that it’s Steve. His Steve--but then again, this isn’t his Steve anymore, is it? Because his Steve, Bucky’s Steve, is a skinny little kid from Brooklyn. This Steve is… big. There’s really no other way to describe it. At least a hundred extra pounds of muscle, almost a foot of height, and a newfound confidence that Bucky Barnes can’t deny looks good on him. And maybe he’s the one in the wrong, anyway, because who’s to say that Steve has changed at all, really?
After all, Steve’s always been like this deep down, hasn’t he? Too large for life, and trapped in a body too weak and skinny to make a difference. Nothing has changed, Bucky tells himself, but--
But maybe he’s a bad person. Because Steve doesn’t need him anymore, and that’s a gut-punch if Bucky’s ever felt one.
“The way you keep lookin’ at me,” Steve teases, the moment they’re alone together, properly alone in the barracks. Bucky’s just been released from medical, and if he’s lied to get his ass outta there as fast as possible, well, who can blame him? So maybe he’s developed a sudden phobia of doctors, after his time in Azzano. Can anyone blame him?
“What way am I lookin’ at you?” Bucky retaliates, keeps his voice casual, hides the hesitation creeping in. It’s hard to say. He’s thoroughly shaken. War… it’s changed him. It’s already crept into his very bones. He feels cold all the time, northern Italy and Austria, snow and ice and the steady drip-drop of poison pumping into his veins.
War has changed them both. Bucky instinctively tips his head to look down at Steve, falters just a moment, and instead shifts on his bunk, leans back and plays it off as best as he can.
Steve knocks their shoulders together amicably, and the bulk of him makes Bucky’s mind go blank. He’s not pulling this off at all.
“Like you’re all star-struck,” Steve laughs, and god, that is the same, though it’s just a bit smoother now, from lungs that work properly, that don’t seize up when he laughs too hard. It doesn’t send him into a coughing spiral, not anymore, and there’s a surge of guilt because how can Bucky feel this way? Steve is healthy now, and isn’t that all he’s ever wanted?
“Guess I am,” Bucky shakes his head. He leans forward, drapes his arms over his knees. He’s half-dressed, shirt half-buttoned, untucked and hanging loose from his uniform pants, boots untied and open too. Technically, he’s off-duty.Technically, Bucky Barnes doesn’t owe the US Army shit anymore. His future is… questionable. Nobody’s going to expect him to keep going, not after he’s been a goddamn POW. He’s coming back bruised and broken and scarred, and… well, Bucky is terrified. He’s always been the strong one, always been propping Steve up.
And Steve Rogers? He’s the goddamn picture of perfection. His face is the same, still angular, still that perfect jaw, those sharp, bright blue eyes, the blonde hair.
The same big, perfect, stupid hands--and Bucky jumps, startles out of his goddamn skin when Steve’s hand gently curls around his bicep.
“Sorry,” Steve says, frowning, and he withdraws immediately, “I forgot-- didn’t think-- you probably don’t want to be touched, huh?”
The words sear through him, and god, what did they do? Bucky shivers, and before he can think better of it, he’s reaching-- his fingers are icy cold as they close around Steve’s. Things are so different now. Steve was always the one who couldn’t keep warm; always Bucky, curled around Steve’s smaller frame, getting them both through the cold winter nights.
Now, it’s Steve that he’s holding onto. Now it’s Steve’s grip that is strong, warm, grounds Bucky and keeps him here, in this moment. He’s so healthy, so strong. Bucky can feel the steady thrum of his heartbeat as his thumb brushes over Steve’s wrist, and his heart catches. He doesn’t want to be left behind, and-- suddenly, everything James Buchanan Barnes has ever known is an uncertainty. War has changed them, and they can’t go back.
His ma always told him to be careful, that Steve Rogers is trouble, and she’d say it with a knowing smile and a wry glance, and she’s always known, hasn’t she?
“I’m sorry,” Bucky manages, “I-- it’s just you, I know. You aren’t them.”
Steve watches him for a moment. The silence ticks between them. Bucky wishes they had proper privacy. It’s a goddamn miracle that nobody’s barged in. There’s no such thing as privacy on base, let alone in the barracks. But Steve’s a Captain-- and he’s properly earned that title now, a goddamn war hero--and the entire 107th knows Bucky’s story. This moment isn’t chance.
“You’re looking at me,” Steve says, quietly, frowning, running his own thumb along the back of Bucky’s hand, a soft back-and-forth motion, “like you don’t know me.”
And for another long moment-- for several heartbeats, for a caught breath, seconds ticking between them-- Bucky doesn’t answer. He closes his eyes, tips his head back, and he takes in a shuddery breath. Steve’s hand is warm and strong, all wrapped up in his. His pulse is strong; his heartbeat is faster now. Bucky knows Steve’s heartbeat, knows its weak, irregular rhythm, has memorized it a thousand times over. He’s coaxed Steve back from the brink of death so many times.
And this body, it’s new, but the voice is Steve’s. This is Steve, and why is this so hard?
“I know you,” Bucky says finally, and his voice catches, twists, come out a ragged sob that makes his shoulders quake. He hunches over and tries to stop it, but suddenly, his eyes are wet. Suddenly, the tears are falling, and Bucky can’t stop it, he’s sobbing and shaking, and when Steve releases his hand, it’s only to wrap arms around him.
Bucky has to admit, it’s nice, being the one being comforted. It’s nice, being all wrapped up in Steve. And here he is, so worried that everything’s changed, but Steve’s lips brush the top of his head, and Bucky’s fingers dig into his best friend’s shirt, and it’s the two of them, changed by war, but unchanged in their devotion to each other.
Steve Rogers is his best friend, and Steve is dead.
“Please,” he says, when they drag him out of cryo. He can’t walk. His legs are still frozen, and his lungs hurt with the effort of sucking in harsh, shuddering breaths of air. His head is pounding, the thick nausea that comes with an intense, throbbing migraine damn near blinding him.
They don’t listen.
His arm has been decommissioned. It needs to be rewired, reprogrammed, and he hears snippets of conversation -- they’re going to make it better, stronger. They’re going to add a more accurate tracker. They don’t want him running off.
“ -- he shouldn’t -- “
“ -- trigger phrases --”
“ -- do better this time-- “
“ -- don’t understand why --”
The Winter Soldier would be listening. The Soldier would be ready. He’d be poised to attack, the caged animal that he is. He’d be baring his fangs, he’d be listening for any intel he could possibly get. He would know how to use this against his tormentors.
But as they push him into the chair, as they tighten the leather straps, reinforced with vibranium and utterly inescapable, he is not the Soldier. He is James Buchanan Barnes, and he cannot think. He cannot breathe. All he knows is that it’s their fault Steve is dead. It’s their fault, and they are hurting him. They are taking his memories, they’re wiping it all away.
Maybe the Winter Soldier isn’t Hydra’s creation at all. Maybe it’s his; maybe this is how he copes, this is how he survives. Because Bucky doesn’t know how to survive, but the Winter Soldier does.
That’s his last thought, because they press the gag in his mouth. His teeth sink in, and then it just hurts. It hurts and he screams through it all, in utter agony until he goes limp, until he passes out. And when he wakes up, everything is blissfully blank.
“Ready to comply,” the asset says when he wakes up, and it begins all over again: a cycle of conditioning, of trigger words, of enhancing the wipe procedures. They will fail, but eventually they will perfect their weapon.
The Soldier taps the folder that contains his orders and briefing against the edge of the table. It’s an idle gesture; lately, he’s felt restless. It’s both a curse and a blessing that he’s on ice, more often than not.
Standard routine. Procedure.
There’s nowhere the Soldier feels at home, not really. He isn’t designed to have feelings. Home is something foreign and unfamiliar. Sometimes, when they leave him out just a little too long, he feels a strange ache in his belly. Sometimes, when there’s too many American agents around, when he’s on a mission on US soil, he hears a lilt of an accent that is so goddamn familiar. Sometimes, when he catches a few notes of an old song, sees a stranger sitting at a park bench, reading an old book--
The moments always pass, though.
But this base is familiar to him. It’s one of Hydra’s older safehouses. Mykolaiv has been a shipbuilding city nestled on the edge of the Black Sea for centuries. The Soldier has been here enough that he knows it, even when his mind is blank and smooth around the edges.
His mission is simple enough that the Soldier has to wonder why this is even a job he’s needed on. SHIELD pulled a high-risk target out of Iran and is currently transporting the target across Ukraine. The target is in possession of military knowledge and nuclear technology. The Soldier doesn’t question.
“It’s not in the file,” his handler says, “but you wanna be careful of the woman. She’s a dangerous one.”
The Soldier taps the file again, and then slides it across the table. They only brief him as much as they have to, and they try not to leave a paper trail, where he is involved.
“SHIELD?” he asks softly, head tilted to the side.
“Now,” comes the response, and it’s not his handler speaking this time. It’s an American man, that much is obvious--broad-shouldered, clothed in black tac gear, with sharp eyes and a cruel smile. He takes a step forward, a swagger in his step. This man carries himself with confidence, and even though the Soldier knows he is better, stronger, he is still nothing. He chews at his lower lip, thoughtless and unconscious, and wonders, does he know this man?
“Former KGB. Careful with her. Small, but fierce. She’ll fuck you up good, Soldier,” the man says with a wicked smile, and the way his eyes linger on the Soldier’s face, the way his gaze bores into him, it makes him want to squirm. It’s dehumanizing. It reminds him that he is a possession of Hydra.
It doesn’t matter what he does. It doesn’t matter if the Soldier is shaping the world. He stands, silent and solemn, eyes lifting to meet the other man’s, and though his insides are crawling with a strange feeling that shouldn’t exist, the Soldier’s own gaze is challenging. His metal arm whirs quietly.
The dark-haired man’s lips quiver. His expression fades, and then quirks back into a smirk. It betrays him, and the Soldier knows that, at the very least, he has the advantage here.
“Rumlow,” the Soldier’s handler says, “STRIKE is moving out. You shouldn’t even be here.”
The man-- Rumlow-- barks out a bit of laughter. “Just wanted to see the fabled pet of Hydra,” he says, and the mock-salute he shoots in the Soldier’s direction elicits a sudden surge of something, raw and visceral. React is his first thought, and he almost does, almost lunges. His arm whirs and the plates shift, and he can feel it heat up, a stark contrast to the ice burning in his veins.
The Soldier doesn’t say anything, though. He doesn’t react. In the back of his mind, he hears those god-awful words they say to reign him back in. He can hear them on his handler’s lips. They don’t even need to say them. He has learned. He has been fully conditioned.
Maybe once upon a time, the Soldier would have run. Instead he is broken.
“Guess I’ll see you next time they bring you back state-side,” the man, Rumlow, says, and then he saunters by, passing closer than most would dare, his shoulder nudging into the Soldier’s. It feels like being jabbed with something sharp and icy and brutal. The Soldier pushes it down, down and he shuts off the part of his mind that would care.
He has a mission. His mind goes blank and steely, his back straightens, and his shoulders shift back. Any other thoughts are simply background noise, off the radar, as the asset focuses on his mission. He prepares quietly, dresses and arms himself and then he’s on his way. The world is so much easier when he has a straightforward task to complete.
The Soldier doesn’t like his missions, but these ones are preferable to others.
It’s a covert op. His target is on the run, and the escort with him is a small convoy. They’ve made good time-- from Tehran, across several borders, and finally into Ukraine. They’re headed for Budapest for pickup, the Soldier knows, from his intel. They won’t make it.
He’s been trailing them since he left Mykolaiv. First he headed east--nearly caught them at the border, before they shook the trail. But the Soldier is persistent. He catches them again, follows them back west through the city, along the winding roads of the Black Sea, always barely more than a step behind.
The woman with his target is smart. More than once, she nearly catches sight of him. She always seems to have his scent, and she isn’t afraid of him. He likes her. She’s blonde and fair-skinned, and occasionally he catches sight of her through the scope of his rifle whenever they’re forced to stop. But the coast is never clear.
The Soldier’s instructions for this mission are clear: he is a ghost. He is to be unseen. Get in, eliminate the target, and get out. So he bides his time, he follows, and even when he loses the scent, he picks it up again.
They’re outside Odessa when the Soldier gets his chance. The convoy splits on the outskirts of the city--there’s too much risk, too much attention at going in unified. The Soldier looped around them, made better time, and he’s waiting. His bike is tucked behind the brush, he’s laid out and waiting for the car to go skidding by, and he’s only got one chance--but it’s all that he needs. He is so still, he’s barely breathing. His hands are steady. The arm calibrates, quietly whirring, ready. And through the crossfires, he waits.
The Soldier doesn’t miss. He never does.
The vehicle doesn’t stand a chance against his shot. The blonde woman swerves and tries her best, but his aim is impeccable, and she’s alone. He’s picked his post expertly-- a long, winding road running alongside a cliff. The car spins out of control, the tires smoke, airbags deploy, and in an instant the vehicle crashes through a guard rail and plummets down the sheer cliffside.
There are so many accidents on these roads, nobody will question what happened. Robbers, maybe, if anyone looks closely enough at the blown out tires to realize it’s a bullet hole and not a rock.
The Soldier draws himself up and starts making his way to the cliffside--rifle still loaded, ready. He’s foregone the goggles; the sun is beginning to set, and it’s cloudy out, still light enough to make an easy shot, but no bright rays to mess with his vision.
The car is flipped, the tires still spinning in the air, smoke spewing from the overturned vehicle. It’s shattered glass, blood and wreckage; his eyes narrow. From his vantage, he has a near-perfect view, and yet--
It only takes a moment to see the two moving figures. The woman has pulled his target out of the vehicle; she’s got him draped over her shoulder, and she’s dragging him along with ease. If the Soldier could feel any personal satisfaction from this, he would--she is an admirable adversary, tougher and stronger than he’d expect, given she’s a tiny little thing.
But this is just routine; his job; his mission. He feels emptiness.
The woman is speaking quietly to her charge. With his enhanced senses, the Soldier can almost make it out--she’s speaking Farsi, then Russian, switching between the two. Likely, she’s telling the man to keep his head down, to keep moving. It doesn’t matter, though.
She’s smart. She looks over her shoulder, checks her six, sees him, and despite her ferocity and her training, despite everything the Soldier immediately knows just by looking at this woman, her eyes widen. Just for a fraction of a second, she shows weakness.
She’s covering her mission, her body shielding the man, and it doesn’t matter. The Soldier takes advantage. He aims, and he shoots, and he doesn’t miss. He never does. The bullet lands right where he wants it to--punctures straight through her, directly into the heart of the man she’s shielding.
Mission complete. He licks his dry lips. It’s a hot day, though his skin is still icy cold; the car’s tires are still spinning. The woman has half-collapsed, but she’s made of stronger stuff than a bullet to the hip. She’s wincing, gasping and pressing her palm to the wound, and even from a distance, he can see the gush and spill of red-hot blood. The Soldier breathes in and he can almost smell the tang of it. She’s dressed in black, and it’s soaking through the fabric, pulsing and throbbing.
He knows that his target is dead, and the woman does too. She checks his pulse, and he can see the barely-contained frantic edge to her motions. He cut straight through her, a clean hole, and that would be enough to immobilize most. But even with the pain, even as she winces, she’s still moving.
She is a Widow, he realizes, and the Soldier silently curses his handlers and the shit, half-assed briefing they’d give him. That would have been good to know. He’s encountered Widows before--worked alongside them, occasionally. That part of his mind is intact. That this one has defected… there’s a small part of the Soldier’s mind that is curious.
Be a ghost, his instructions are.
The woman twists awkwardly, pulling herself up. She half-stumbles across the terrain, away from the burning wreckage. The Soldier’s human hand flexes, and he lifts his rifle. She can’t get to cover quickly enough-- he’s a perfect shot. There’s no wind, the angle is right, no sun-- she’s dead. Nobody will question this accident; Hydra will swoop in and clean up any mess, if necessary.
The woman glances wildly over her shoulder again, and through the scope, he sees her--pale-faced, grimacing. She is frantic; she’s gone into full survival mode, all the femme-fatale grace long gone. He could shoot her. He could probably kill her. This woman is nothing to the Soldier.
And yet-- there’s a fragment of something. It’s buried deep down, and the Soldier doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t know it, cannot even begin to explain why he’s lowering his weapon. He doesn’t want to kill this woman.
Perhaps it’s a show of respect. She has seen him, but so have many over the years. He’s been a quiet murmur for decades, a rumor, a story for scared children in the middle of the night. She is a fellow assassin, and even if they are on opposite sides of the fence, there is still something.
Hydra hasn’t conditioned him to have emotions. They want him to be blank, mindless. They want him to obey. And he does. He does. But--
There is a small spark of defiance. The Soldier still has a moment to decide.
He shoulders his rifle. The seconds tick down --
The Soldier shifts his weight from one hip to the other. His arm whirs irritably.
There’s a flash of a girl before him. She is young, red-headed and bright-eyed and fierce--and then she isn’t. Now she is dark-haired, clinging desperately to his arm, whining in a thick, American accent (“but Bucky--”)
The Soldier lowers his rifle. The Widow ducks behind a rock outcropping, skirts the edge of his vision, and then she is gone. She is bleeding out. The ground is dry and barren, and blood splatter follows her, the red sinking into the dry earth and turning black and ugly. He could track her.
But his target is dead. The mission is finished. There is something behind this, but when he tries to probe his mind, to unlock thoughts that have been long wiped away--there is a throb in his temple. The Soldier winces, and his human hand quivers. He makes a quiet sound in the back of his throat, the only thing that permeates the silence.
Some stones, the Soldier knows, are best left unturned. He doesn’t want to go back to the chair. He doesn’t want to feel the surge of electricity, frying his brain, melting him into a quivering mess. He doesn’t want Hydra breaking him down and putting him back together again.
He shakes his head, clears his thoughts. Then, he turns and makes his way back to his bike. He doesn’t chase the Widow. He returns to Hydra to tell them mission complete, to debrief. He is obedient.
The rendezvous point is a little over three hours west of Odessa. The Soldier has been to this safehouse before, and the coordinates are carefully programmed in the part of his mind they leave intact for missions. It’s important, he knows, to keep moving, to keep his tracks hidden. Even in the thick of Eastern Europe, Hydra’s mission must be cherished above all else; their existence kept secret. There is too much political turmoil in the world.
The Soldier meets his handler in the Botanica sector of Kishinev. It’s an unassuming, quiet part of the city-- parks, zoos and shopping centers, suburbs and quiet lives. Nobody suspects a thing. He ditches the tactical gear in favor of casual clothing-- a hooded sweatshirt, a pair of gloves, jeans. The sun has set by the time his bike comes to a halt. He parks on the street, in plain sight (the best place to hide), and is led into the basement of a warehouse for a shipping company.
The debrief goes well enough.
“The target has been eliminated,” the Soldier says, simply and dully, staring down at the manila folder on the table. It’s funny--even an organization like Hydra, sophisticated and always greedily latching onto whatever technology they can find-- still drowns in a pile of red tape and bureaucracy. So much procedure, so many standards and compliances to meet. After this, they will perform maintenance on his arm. The engineers will carefully document any damage, and they will repair any torn wires or connective malfunctions.
They never give him painkillers when they open up the arm. The Soldier has long learned to grin and bear it. As the years tick by, as they’ve increased the duration of his punishment, his conditioning (it all blurs together), he feels… stretched thinner, worn down. Broken.
They discuss the details. There is a buzzing in the back of his mind. He is restless. It’s almost enough that the Soldier asks for it. He hates the pain, the searing, burning, the sensation of neural pathways being twisted and broken, his brain surging and firing in different directions. But the relief, the blissful emptiness, it’s better than this. This is a ghost existing in the grey between life and death. He has one foot out, one tiny step taken into a world where he doesn’t belong.
“That will be all, Soldat,” his handler says. The Soldier thinks, maybe, there’s a hint of satisfaction at his work. It may very well be condescension. It’s hard to tell the difference, and his mind is screaming. The arm whirs, and he shivers. It shouldn’t be so cold, but it is.
“Report for maintenance?” it’s somewhere between a question and a statement. He looks across the table at his handler, as the man stands up and pushes his chair in with a long, scraping sound of metal on concrete.
“Unnecessary,” his handler says. “STRIKE will be here for transport in the morning. They need you back on American soil.”
The Soldier doesn’t react; inwardly, he’s torn. He hates the strange dichotomy that being back stateside elicits in his broken mind. Too many familiar accents, too many familiar sights and sounds. At least here--he can speak in any number of different languages, and they’ll understand. Here, the knowledge he has is surface-level. He can understand exactly why these shitty little slum holes of Hydra’s are familiar.
There’s another niggle in the back of his mind, and he sees a girl again. She’s holding his hand, clasping for dear life, “c’mon, Bucky, I wanna go to the Dodgers game with you ‘n Steve, please--”
“Baseball ain’t no place for a little lady, Becs” a voice echoes back. The Soldier realizes it’s his own, reverberating-- he nearly jumps out of his goddamn skin. His hand clenches into a tight fist, the plates whirring quietly. He has to calm down, the asset tells himself, because he can hear the irritability in the delicate wiring, can feel the arm heat up a degree or two.
The Soldier knows he’s slipping deeper and deeper into a void. At the edge of the precipice dangles everything that lurks at the edges of his mind. He can’t climb high enough, though. There are tendrils of grey swirling around him--cloying, clinging to his senses. Always, he’s reaching, but Hydra pulls him deeper, encompassing his entire reality.
All of this happens in a split second, a wave crashing over him.
The Soldier unclenches his fist. He flexes his fingers, forces them to straighten and relax.
“Understood,” he says quietly.
He doesn’t want this.
He doesn’t want.
The Soldier takes in a deep breath. Outwardly, he is unmoving, stoic and unstoppable. Inside, he is largely a blank slate, but the cracks are beginning to appear. They run deep, to the very foundation of what he is. He is a what. He is a weapon. He doesn’t know if he wants to be; he doesn’t know what it’s like to want.
They release the Soldier to the barracks to wait. Political intrigue is beyond the asset. He does what he is told, and when things get muddy, he relies on the words of Pierce to reassure him that he is doing something important, valuable.
He feels restless, so he changes out of his dusty civilian disguise. There’s nowhere proper to clean up, because it is unnecessary, but there is a small basin.
The Soldier shivers. At least they’re not hosing him down; he hates it when they resort to that. When he comes back, covered in blood and grime and dirt. Even when they wipe his mind clean, those memories come back.
But now, as he stands in front of the wash basin, as he turns the water on - it runs rusty and copper- it’s there, lurking under the surface.
Wars. He’s been involved in a lot of them, and they blur together. He remembers snow, and he remembers sand. Bombs exploding and rifles firing. He sees bodies fall. He sees a car crash, remembers wrenching a trembling body from a car, the screams and pleading before he puts a bullet between their eyes.
God, he’s cold. He shivers, and the cold rush of water flowing over his fingertips can’t wash away the blood. Nothing can wash away the blood. He lifts his eyes, and forces himself to look into the mirror--what is he?
He is a gaunt, ghost of a creature. The scars on his shoulder are thick and corded, and they ache. He tips his head, staring at himself for a long time. The room is silent. They have left him alone, but not really. There are guards stationed. There is an entire team that could take him down, and instinctively, the Soldier knows that they have, in the past.
In the background, there’s the steady buzz of cheap overhead lighting. There’s the echoing sound of footsteps in the hallway beyond. There’s the quiet murmur of men speaking, snippets of different languages.
The arm whirs quietly.
The bad lighting casts long shadows on his face. His hair is long and stringy, falling over his face. There is a smudge on one cheek; he lifts his wet, human hand and rubs at the mark with dripping fingers. The water drips grey and grimy down his cheek.
But his eyes, as he stares at his reflection, aren’t dead. There is something there. There is something vulnerable, he realizes. He doesn’t know why. He killed a man today. He shot a Widow, a woman who keeps tugging at the recesses of his mind.
He doesn’t know why he’s saying it, but it’s a mantra. It’s something to draw strength from. The Soldier wishes he could remember. He closes his eyes, clenching them shut until his vision blurs from black to red. He fights the urge to tear into the basin before him with his metal arm--he could rip it right out of the wall, could send water spraying from the pipes, could put a dent in the wall and turn the whole room to rubble. This is his reality.
The Soldier forces his eyes open again, and for a moment, he sees someone else looking back at him. He sees someone younger, attractive and smiling. He sees someone carefree, with shorter, tousled hair. He sees dog tags hanging down over a bare chest. He feels a hand on his shoulder, outright winces at the phantom heat of fingertips gripping at him.
Then he blinks, and it’s gone. He’s just the asset. But his eyes are the same. They’re soft, and wet-rimmed, and he’s crying, and he doesn’t know why.
James Buchanan Barnes stares at his reflection in the mirror.
They’re in a shithole safehouse at the end of the goddamn world, and he’s tired. God, he’s fucking exhausted, and more than anything, he wants to go home.
They’d given him the option. Retire, take his honorable discharge and his medals. He was a prisoner of war, a fucking freak experiment for the Nazis, and Bucky’s always known it’s the smart choice. He could go home, see his ma, live to see his baby sisters get married. And if he’d had a single ounce of smarts in his dumb head, Bucky would’ve been running back to America.
Instead, he’s following Captain America through the frozen wasteland, into the fires of hell and war, and Bucky knows that there’s never really been any other option. He’s been chasing Steve Rogers around since he was a little kid and he doesn’t know anything else.
The rest of the Commandos are passed out. Dernier’s taken watch duty, even though Steve had volunteered - of course, Steve’s always the first to offer - and Bucky knows he should take advantage. He should be asleep. The horrible, creeping reality, though, is that he’s not tired.
Yeah, his mind is exhausted. But his body? He could keep on going, maybe forever. The urge to sleep isn’t there. Their companions are passed the fuck out, exhausted from fighting their way through another Hydra base, but Bucky doesn’t feel it. He doesn’t feel it the way that he knows Steve doesn’t, and that’s--
Bucky doesn’t wanna consider those implications. He doesn’t want to wonder what the hell Hydra did to him.
He’s been hiding it for what-- a year now? The time has started blurring together. It’s fight after fight, one base after another. It seems like the moment they stomp out one Hydra den, six more pop up. Bucky has to wonder if there’s any goddamn point, if they’ll ever win. He’s starting to think this is a force they can’t beat. He won’t say that to Steve, though. He can’t.
He hears the door open behind him. It shuts, and there’s the sound of the lock turning, and moments later, the reflection of his best friend is hovering over him. A hand reaches out, warm and firm and so goddamn strong, gripping at his shoulder, rough enough that he really feels it.
“Buck,” Steve says. It’s a tone that’s reserved only for him. It makes Bucky shiver, and just for a moment, all the cold is pushed out of the air. For a moment, he’s burning up--there’s the sweetest fire licking at his veins, and Bucky manages a tight-lipped smile. God, hellfire and retribution is all that’s waiting for a fella like him, and he knows it.
“You should be resting,” Bucky chides, and he hopes he sounds casual. He hopes Steve can’t feel his goddamn heartbeat from that simple touch to his shoulder-- but supersoldier senses and all, it could very well be possible. And Bucky knows, more than anything, that his heart is trying to escape his ribs. Goddamnit, every time Steve touches him, it’s always been like this, and he’ll never reconcile it.
Steve could do better. Steve should do better. There’s a fiery redhead with her eye on him, and Bucky knows what’s right, damnit.
“So should you,” Steve replies. His voice is less playful, more serious. Wearing the mantle has changed Steve, but it hasn’t. He’s always had this terribly serious side, always been the hero, but now it’s just more apparent. Now the stakes are higher.
“Not tired,” Bucky says. He should put up the act-- but even if he isn’t tired, he’s worn. God, he doesn’t want Steve to know that they might be more goddamn similar than he wants them to be. He wants to go home. He’d take their shithole tenement over this cold, dark hole in the middle of winter, a whole world away, but he can’t voice that to Steve. He’d never tell Steve just how hard this is for him. Steve is too goddamn good for that.
Steve’s fingers tighten on his shoulder. Bucky fights the urge to turn, to throw himself into his best friend’s arms. He’s always fighting back the urge, and it’s getting harder. Before long, it’ll be unbearable. If things keep going like this, he’s really gonna end up in the depths of hell. Not without you, he said a lifetime ago. Even longer-- to the end of the line.
He doesn’t know which will come first. Their good luck is gonna run out eventually. There’s been too many near-misses, too many happenstances saving them from certain death. Bucky doesn’t know what to believe anymore, but maybe if they do make it home alive, he’ll start praying to a god up there again.
“ ‘s almost Christmas,” Steve comments idly. His hand is still on Bucky’s shoulder. His thumb is stroking little circles over his skin. The gesture is driving Bucky insane, a spread of slow-burning heat pooling in the pit of his stomach. God, not now. Not here.
Bucky knows exactly what time of year it is. The months blur together out here; the only real evidence that it’s been a week or a month or several is the shift of seasons. And now it’s cold. The snow started falling weeks ago.
“What day is it? You know?” he asks Steve, because fucking Steve Rogers has always had the better memory of the two of them, even before the serum enhanced everything. The question comes with the faintest bit of guilt. It’s been months since Bucky’s gotten a letter from his family. They move around so much, always chasing the next target, that post doesn’t make it often. His sisters are growing up, and Bucky’s a whole lifetime away, chasing after the one person he can never really have.
(He’s doing the right thing, though. This is the right thing, it has to be--they’re saving the world.)
Steve shrugs, as if he doesn’t know. “December 15,” he says, though, because of course he knows. His fingers flex, as if he’s gonna pull away. But he doesn’t, and Bucky hates how grateful he is. He hates how his stomach pitches, hates how he remembers the taste of chocolate in his mouth, hates how he can still see the twin trees before his very eyes. Brooklyn, Manhattan - it doesn’t matter. It’s all a lifetime ago. Skinny little Steve Rogers, barely up to his shoulders, and now there’s this strong man standing behind him, broad and powerful, but with those same eyes.
And the moment Steve says the date--Bucky’s senses are overwhelmed. Memories of frying latkes, of baking challah and flickering candles. His sisters bickering over the dreidel-- skinny little Steve Rogers, along for the ride and pretending that there isn’t a hole in his heart. Bucky, watching him from the corner of his eye, throwing an arm over his best friend’s shoulders and trying to tell him, silently, that he’ll be here.
“We missed the tree this year,” Bucky says, because he doesn’t want to focus on the fact that it’s the middle of Hanukkah and he’s a world away. They’re together, and they’d made the annual pilgrimage to Manhattan for years now, ever since Steve’s ma died-- at least, until the war. It’s been a few missed years now, and Bucky supposes that he just assumed they’d have made it home by now. It’s starting to feel like they never will, though.
“Next year,” Steve says. He releases Bucky’s shoulder, fingers forcibly relaxing one by one, his grip lingering longer than it needs to.
Bucky takes a deep breath. He tips his head, and he watches Steve through the mirror. To anyone else, Captain America is looking back at him. Steve’s got that stupid, serious expression on his face, but he’s not fooled, not for a moment. Bucky sees the worry lines etched into his skin. He sees the concern in those bright eyes. He sees Steve Rogers in a way that nobody else can.
Before Bucky knows what he’s doing, he’s wrenching his gaze away. He’s turning, his back to the mirror, the edges of the water basin digging into the small of his back. Steve shifts, and suddenly those big hands are braced on either side of him, that broad body caging Bucky in. God, the heat between them tangibly rises, the air thick with a tension that’s always existed.
“You’re never gonna stop fightin’, Steven Grant Rogers,” Bucky says, and that’s the goddamn truth of the matter. He hates that it’s the truth. He wants to go home. He wants--
“Sure I will,” Steve replies, “when we win. When there’s nothin’ left to fight.”
Bucky wants them to go home. He suddenly doesn’t care about what the world thinks. He doesn’t care that what he needs, more than anything, is something the rest of the world won’t ever understand. Because more than that, he wants them to be safe and happy. He doesn’t wanna be in the middle of a war anymore. His own strength scares him. He’s always been a sharpshot, but his accuracy is freakishly good now. He’s not so different from Steve, even if the physical changes aren’t quite so apparent, and Bucky knows that the war has changed them both. There’s no going back.
“There’s always gonna be somethin’ to fight, Stevie,” Bucky says quietly, softly. He tips his head.
Steve leans in closer, and all the oxygen disappears from the room. It’s hard to breathe, hard to think. Outside, it’s probably snowing, because it’s always snowing up here. The temperature is well below freezing. The safehouse is little more than an old abandoned farmhouse, reinforced with mud for insulation, but not nearly enough. It doesn’t matter, though. There’s always been a fire burning between them, and Bucky will never, ever say no to Steve.
He’s never been able to.
“You think?” Steve asks. The way he tips his head is utterly unfair; he’s always been Bucky’s entire world, but with the serum, the sharp, defined line of his jaw stands out stark in the shadows. Bucky breathes in heavily. He should draw back, should put that distance between him. Something in him is snapping though. The string holding him back, keeping everything all coiled inside--it’s drawn taut. It’s pulling at every bit of his restraint. Bucky’s heart is ready to pound out his chest.
“Punk,” Bucky says, and he can’t help it. He’s reaching forward. Steve’s shucked off the star-spangled uniform. He’s in a pair of fatigues and a sleeveless shirt that’s too blissfully small. His dogtags hang from his neck.
His fingers tangle into the front of Steve’s shirt, and this time, it’s stupid little Steve Rogers who’s breathless. This time, Steve’s eyes are widening, his lips are parting into the cutest little ‘o’. Bucky could punch him, he’s so cute.
Instead, he rises up just a little bit, meets Steve head on, and slots their lips together. He does it fast and quick, before he can second-guess, before he can back out the way he always does. Bucky Barnes doesn’t care. It’s Christmas; it’s Hanukkah. It’s the end of the world, and they’ve been here for ages. There’s no end to the fighting in sight, and he doesn’t care anymore, because they’re probably gonna die here.
There’s no going home for this pair of Brooklyn boys, but it doesn’t matter, ‘cuz Steve is his home, and Bucky’s sick of pretending otherwise. He’s tensed up, waiting for Steve to pull back--waiting for the rejection, for him to pull away.
Instead-- oh, Steve kisses him back, lips hot pressure against his. One of those big hands shifts, an arm slides around him, and Bucky sighs at the warm press of palm against his back. This is insane. They’re only a room over from the rest of the Commandos, but god, it’s impossible to care, because Steve is all he wants. Steve is all he ever wants.
When they part, Bucky’s legs are shaking. He can barely hold himself up. His fingers are tangled in Steve’s shirt, his knuckles white. And god, he can barely breathe, feels like the life has been punched out of him-- and yet, he’s never felt so alive. Suddenly, it’s all worth it.
“ ‘m sorry, Buck,” Steve mumbles, and Bucky realizes he looks just as starry-eyed. It doesn’t matter that Steve’s a foot taller now, that he’s a solid hundred-plus pounds of muscle. It all had to happen to get them right here.
“Don’t be,” Bucky replies, and he means it. He’d follow Steve to his death--he’s said it before, and he means it. There’s no world where he doesn’t belong at his best friend’s side, and this is only the beginning. “Worth every second of it.”
Steve doesn’t say anything. He’s pulling Bucky into a crushing embrace, both arms encircling him. Bucky goes willingly, and it’s too easy to tuck his head up against Steve’s shoulder, to marvel in the strength behind it, the stature of this ridiculous, broad body. God, he loves Steve, and Bucky doesn’t say it, but he doesn’t have to.
“Merry Christmas, Stevie,” he breathes out, quiet, his lips brushing bare skin, just shy of the band of his shirt.
“Happy Hanukkah, Buck,” Steve responds. “I’ll get you home. I promise.”
The Soldier is apathetic to flying. Everything about his existence is a matter of practicality--it’s a means to an end, it gets him from point A to B. The roar of jet engines makes his ears ring with his enhanced senses, but he ignores it.
He sits in silence. It is a cloudless night, and far below, the ocean is an inky black pit. The inside of the jet is plain, drab blacks and greys. It’s cold. The rest of his extraction team chatters on around him. It’s largely an American group (less suspicion), and the sound of English is unsettling, after so much Russian.
The Soldier sits in silence and listens. If he squints too hard, he can see his reflection staring back at him, solemn and inky, in the mirror. The sun will eventually rise, as they make the journey back stateside, but it doesn’t matter. The Soldier is lost, staring at himself, wondering what the hell he is.
There’s motion in front of him. The man from earlier - Rumlow, he’s called - sits down next to him. The Soldier has no concept of personal space --he does what he’s told, and he’s far too used to being poked and prodded-- but it still puts him at edge, how close this man is.
The Soldier breathes in and he can smell the lingering scent of salt and sweat. He shivers. Instinctively, he dislikes this man.
“So,” Rumlow jokes, “they do let the dog out of the cage sometimes.”
The Soldier doesn’t respond. Rumlow laughs and leans in, bumping their shoulders together. It’s something that, on the surface level, the Soldier identifies as a friendly gesture. Coming from this man, though? It makes his skin crawl, makes him want to step away. Perhaps it’s fight-or-flight, instincts that Hydra cannot entirely stomp out. The Soldier is trained well enough to ignore it, but he doesn’t return the gesture, instead sitting motionless.
Rumlow laughs again, though this time, there’s an edge to the sound, something that betrays him.
“Oh, c’mon. Lighten up.”
The Soldier inclines his head a little more. The angle gives him a better look at himself in the window. He is here, sitting in a Hydra-issued jet, under the guise of an organization called Shield. The Soldier knows this. It is programmed deep within his psyche. And yet-- as he stares at his own reflection, at sunken cheekbones and long hair falling in a curtain over his face, he’s elsewhere.
The black, white and grey fades-- instead, it’s all tones of sepia, it’s all dust and grime, as he stands on a street, row upon row of brownstones. There’s dirt smudged on his face and in his hair, and he’s a skinny little thing. There’s a blonde kid at his side, a good head shorter than him, thin as a rail and tough as nails.
“C’mon, Stevie, it’s not worth a fight--” his mind fills in.
“Everythin’ is worth a fight, if it’s the right thing to do, Buck--” comes the response, crystal clear in his head, like he’s heard it a thousand times over. And maybe he has, in dreams, in the space in between. There are years missing from the Soldier’s life; solid chunks gone forever to the ice, the hiss of the cryo tank.
The Soldier’s shoulders jerk suddenly, and the world crashes back in - the roar of the jets. The scent of fuel, the darkness of the world on the other side of the glass. The man sitting next to him, the heat radiating off him, the way he keeps edging closer.
“You okay there?” Rumlow asks, tipping his head. It’s obvious by the way he says the words, that he doesn’t care at all. There’s a derisiveness in his tone that the Soldier has heard before. He’s had plenty of cruel handlers, and Hydra never wipes all the bad memories. They leave just enough of them lingering that it conditions him, reminds him to behave. He hopes this man does not become his handler.
“Fine,” the Soldier responds, because he knows when an answer is expected of him. “Long flight.”
“So you do know how to talk,” Rumlow says. His smile twists into something darker. “Was wondering if maybe they’d fried you one time too many.”
The Soldier doesn’t respond. His mind is caught in two different places. The memories are trying to flood back in but as the years have gone by, they’ve gotten… vague. Harder to reach out and touch, let alone draw back in. It’s like catching water through his fingertips, there for an instant, and then gone.
His lack of response doesn’t matter; Rumlow keeps speaking.
“Might wanna learn some respect, Soldier,” he says, still in that casual voice, with the dark undertone that betrays him. “They’re taking you back to America. We’re gonna get to know each other pretty damn well, huh?”
The Soldier doesn’t flinch, doesn’t shiver. “Looking forward to it,” is all he says, flat and neutral. He doesn’t like this man at all. The lower-level agents are afraid of him and refuse to acknowledge him. This man, this Rumlow, he doesn’t seem to have high clearance, but… he shows absolutely no fear. There is only aggression.
The Soldier desperately wants to ask “who is Steve?” but he stays silent. He chews his lip and bows his head. Staring at his reflection in the mirror is outright torture, his mind screaming, ripping itself apart in an attempt to claw back together the broken fragments of memories that have been stripped from him over the years. Memories, or dreams, or just delusions? Hydra has been telling him, over and over again, that none of this is real.
Steve is a false memory, they tell him. Once upon a time, there was a Steve Rogers, a Captain America, but he’s dead, long dead, he’s been gone since the 1940s. Crashed in the ice, and he isn’t coming out. There’s no way that he knows him, knew him.
He doesn’t know. But he stares at his reflection, bites on his tongue until he tastes blood, and wishes that he could just understand, that he could just know what he is.
In the end, though, all the Winter Soldier knows is ice and pain. They debrief him and throw him back in cryo. The intense chill of the ice freezing him, cell by cell, bit by bit, the excruciating agony--it’s better than living in the world between fantasy and reality. It’s better than twisting all the memories over and over again.
When he wakes up screaming, when there’s a name on his tongue as they drag him out of cryo and to the chair, the Hydra doctor looks pleased.
“New tech,” he’s saying to another man -- Pierce, this is a man that the Soldier knows -- as they strap him in. The Soldier is straining against his restraints, screaming and pleading and begging, because he doesn’t want this, he wants Steve, he knows he’s dead and please, won’t they kill him too --
“I read the reports,” Pierce replies, and he sounds smug, satisfied. He eyes the Soldier eagerly; it’s a look that cuts through the panic, cuts through the desperation. He knows what is about to follow, and when Pierce speaks the words, deeply-programmed commands that he cannot resist, it makes the Soldier shudder, makes him fall silent, limp and pathetic as he collapses back against the restraints. They’re reinforced to address his strength, and he knows that he cannot escape, even if he could fight the cage they’ve wrapped around his mind. It is useless.
“You know the technique we’ve been using -- recovered it from Siberia in the ‘90s,” the scientist says eagerly. The Soldier barely hears, though, the words cutting in and out of his brain, everything buzzing and turning to mush. They’re going to wipe him. He must comply.
“... new intel from Shield… probably Stark… “
“ -- dangerous to keep him here -- “
“... this -- should eliminate the problems -- “
“Wipe him, do it. He’s getting volatile.”
The final words belong to Pierce, and they’re spoken with such visceral disgust, it cuts through him .The Soldier wants to fight. He wants to plead, wants to say no, but--
There is pain, and then there is emptiness, and then nothing. He is ready to comply.
He is frozen. The Soldier knows that, because he is freezing. He’s always cold, but his body is sluggish and won’t respond. It’s like having a fever dream--except instead of sickness-inspired madness, it’s the harsh reality of his blood solidifying in his veins, of cells being suspended in a half-life. It’s a strange sensation--he wants to breathe, to fill his burning lungs, but instead it just hurts.
The Soldier hates dreaming. Or maybe it’s not a dream--maybe it’s existing on the very edge of consciousness.
“Hey, Buck,” a voice says, and the Soldier’s mind jerks to attention.
He knows he’s asleep. He’s in cryo. They’ll wake him up when they need him, but it’s important to preserve his mind, his body, to keep him suspended. It’s for the sake of the world. But right now, he’s somewhere else.
He’s in the middle of a crummy old tenement. The walls are thin, and the ceiling has a crack in it that leaks little trickles of plaster when the upstairs neighbours walk around. It’s gotta be winter because it’s cold in here, a draft that rattles him to the very core. He’s used to being cold, but this is different, this is something else.
“Who’s Buck?” he says, looking around.
The blonde man sitting at the table is watching him, and the Soldier… feels nothing, yet at the same time, he feels everything. He knows that he’s supposed to know this man, but there’s only emptiness. There’s a strange lurch in his chest, his whole being reaching out-- but he comes back empty-handed.
It’s like he’s climbing a cliff, like he’s reaching frantically for something to hold on to, only to sway in the air, to find nothing. There’s a strange hollow feeling, and then the Soldier’s stomach lurches, as he falls backwards, as he slips into the abyss.
The man smiles sadly. He’s disgustingly handsome, even though he’s too thin, even though his face is too big for that scrawny little body. He’s got scruffy blonde hair and bright eyes, and the Soldier feels like he should recognize him.
“You aren’t that far gone,” the man says solemnly. “You know me. You know you can come back from this.”
The Soldier looks down, and for a moment, he startles. His hands are flesh, both of them. There’s no mechanical whir, no uncomfortable weight at his shoulder, nothing aching or hurting. He hurts in a thousand different ways, but the arm.
“I don’t know you,” the Soldier insists, frowning. He looks around wildly; he doesn’t know this place, why is his mind telling him that he does?
The shadows are long. The walls are an ugly, dirty white. The furniture is sparse, and in the background, there’s a tinny old radio playing. A small indulgence, his mind fills in, before it blanks out again. There is a shadow cast on the smaller man’s face. His eyelashes are so goddamn long, and they cast little shadows too.
“You know me,” the man insists, “Buck. You know me, you have to remember, you’ve been trying for so long, please.”
His head aches and pounds, throbbing so hard it turns his vision that blissful, familiar red. The pulsing of his blood is a familiar sensation. Familiarity is good, the Soldier tells himself. This is his mind going fucking crazy. This is what they keep warning him about. The memory of electricity sparking through him, making every goddamn nerve in his body scream-- and fuck. He doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want to hurt.
“No,” the Soldier says, through clenched teeth. He bites his lip hard enough to bleed; the blood tastes familiar, red and bitter, like he’s done this before.
His arm whirs, thank fucking god, and when the Soldier looks down, the plates are shifting, calibrating, silver and shiny. There is no room for color in the world. There is no room for things outside his reality. Anything else is pain. Anything else, he associates with the chair, with memories being ripped away from him.
It’s too much, and the Soldier feels weak. He just wants it to stop.
“Go away, Stevie,” he mumbles, and he doesn’t recognize the nickname, the goddamn endearment. It’s from some dark place of his mind, something that’s been so thoroughly locked away. Maybe he could unlock it. Maybe he could fight it, but-- it’s inevitable, that as soon as he reaches for it, it’s going to be ripped away.
He’s so sick of hurting. He wants to stop fighting, he realizes in that moment. Maybe he was someone else, once upon a time. Maybe for a while, he wanted to figure that out--maybe he wanted to go back.
There’s no going back, though.
There’s no escaping Hydra. They have him. He is their asset. He is the Winter Soldier. The more he remembers, the more he reaches for the past, the harder they wrench it away from him. Every time, he’s hanging by a thread, dangling desperately above the precipice of his own imprisonment. Every single goddamn time--this man, this Steve, an echo from the past, he reaches for him.
Every time, it’s not enough. Every time, he falls, and he is remade. Over and over again. It’s insanity, to think it could ever be different.
“Buck,” the man, Steve, says again.
“No,” he says, and he means it, this time. The world is spinning. Everything hurts, and he wants, he wants so desperately to cross the room, to reach for Steve Rogers and to hold on. But Steve is dead. Pierce told him that. Rumlow told him that. Countless handlers in the past have said it. Steve is dead and he’s gone, and his ghost haunts him from the afterlife. His life is cursed, and it is over. The only thing left are echoes, and they’re driving him mad.
It’s red. There is blood spatter and gore. There are decades of names on his list. His file is mostly redacted, but he still remembers his kills, in these moments in-between. He is a monster. He’s killed hundreds. Innocents. Civilians. Children. What does it matter if he regrets it? What does it matter if he’s spared a few, over the years?
“You don’t know me,” he says, desperate and broken, “Bucky is dead. He doesn’t exist anymore.”
“No--” Steve says, but even as he does, he’s fading away .Even as he says it, the color is dripping from the room, coalescing and condensing into red and black and white. There is nothing left.
The room is empty. The Soldier looks around. His arm whirs. He is not human. Maybe he was once, but he is merely an asset now.
They defrost the Soldier for a very crucial mission. His target is an extremely high-level one, and the stakes are critical. He is being shipped off to the nation’s capital.
“Whatever it takes,” are his instructions, “you need to eliminate the target. They are a severe threat to national security; our future relies on your success.”
Before the Soldier leaves, he glimpses himself in the mirror. He hesitates, just for a moment--just for an instant, the face that looks back at him is vaguely confusing. Dark, long hair falls over high cheekbones, a strong jaw. He looks…. What’s the word?
Melancholy, his mind fills in. He looks sad. He is sad.
There is a word on the tip of his tongue. There is a memory, a phantom, but the Soldier doesn’t quite understand. He can’t grasp at it-- it’s something fleeting, something that’s fluttering at the very edge of his mind. It is a chasm, a recess that he cannot quite leap. Not without you, he thinks, and the chasm of his mind is suddenly burning. There are flames erupting all around him, licking away at the ice that forms his life.
A wave of heat washes over him, sudden and intense. The Soldier’s arm whirs. His fingers, his flesh ones, reach out blindly, seeking something to grip onto. His skin is cool to the touch, but his insides are frozen, like he’s still back in cryo. And his mind, it burns, erupts around him.
Not without you, his mind screams again, and then, another thought-- “hang on-- grab my hand--” and then, and then--
Falling. Air. Ice and snow, and pain. That last part, at least, is familiar, because underneath his tac gear, there are criss-crossed scars. There are phantom pains that will never fade. And yet, underneath it all, the Soldier feels like he’s on the verge of what-- a revelation?
It’s just a second. And then, there’s motion behind him. The door opens, and Rumlow is standing in the doorway, arms crossed, leaning against the frame of it. He looks at the Soldier with that predatory expression that he hates, and licks his lips.
“Ready, asset?” he asks, because he loves calling the Soldier that. It’s a pet name, and he knows what it means.
Just like that--it’s gone. His mind is a blissful, blank slate, and the Soldier knows that this mission is critically important. Fury, Nicholas, J. is his target. He’s been advised that stealth is no longer a concern, that he needs to do anything to eliminate the target. The man will be protected by those loyal to him within Shield. He has been briefed-- the man may have backup. He may be protected.
Eliminate him before backup arrives. Those are his orders.
The Winter Soldier never fails. The world depends on him.
Then the world goes to hell, because there is a man on the bridge, and the Winter Soldier has seen him before.
Hell is freezing cold. Hell is a tiny little scrawny kid that he knows. It’s hot summer days, so fuckin’ humid and pungent that the scent of sweat never fades from the air, the unpleasant creep of sweat running down his spine. His shirt clings uncomfortable to his lower back, catches at his shoulders.
Hell is wanting to be close to the wheezing, skinny body curled up in bed next to him, but the heat makes it too uncomfortable to reach over--
Hell is the fucking freezing cold of northern Italy in the dead of winter and being alone. Hell is no longer being alone--but everything is different. It’s staring down someone he used to know so intimately and wondering how everything has changed. It’s huddling for warmth and wishing that it was so much more.
Hell is Steve, and that man on the bridge-- he is alive.
“Who was he?” he asks softly. Pierce is towering over him, and it’s moments like this where the Soldier realizes that the memories flooding back in are all mixed up. Maybe it’s been Pierce all along. Maybe this is the man he recognizes, and yet--
He barely reacts when the sharp backhand cracks across his cheek, when the pain explodes. It’s nothing compared to what’s coming. It’s nothing compared to the ice, to the pain when they shove him back in the chair and force the restraints over him, when they give him something to bite down on so he doesn’t take out his own goddamn tongue. It’s a miracle that they haven’t killed him, with the extremes they’ve forced on him.
“Nobody. You met him on another mission,” Pierce tells him, and the Soldier knows, deep down, that it isn’t true. He’s fighting desperately trying to break the surface of the reality he’s drowning in, but it’s all frozen over. There’s a thick layer of ice that he can’t crack, no matter how many times he pushes back against it. In his head, the water is black and icy. It draws into his lungs, and he’s drowning through it. He cracks his head, his fists - both human, both flesh - beat into the ice, until it’s all swirled with blood, but it’s lost to him.
It’s too late. They have broken him. He has fought back for years, but they’ve finally managed to beat down whatever he used to be, and there’s nothing left.
But there’s the tiniest voice, deep down, so quiet it’s barely even there, and it whispers: he’s alive.
When he breaks the surface, finally, the world is burning around him. Rubble falls from the sky and into the Potomac. Til the end of the line, the words echo in his head, and the Winter Soldier doesn’t understand them, but they are important.
Steve, that’s all he knows. The man that he’s pulling from the river is dressed like Captain America, but this is Steve. This is his Steve. Blond and too-big, eyes swollen shut from the beating of his own fists. Steve is alive, and he’s here.
“Bucky,” Steve had called him, over and over again. “Bucky.”
He isn’t Bucky, but the Winter Soldier might have an idea of who Bucky was. Bucky is the man who existed before the ice, before the fire, before the pain. He is not Bucky, but maybe once upon a time he was. The world is all black and white and grey and red from all the people he’s killed. The Winter Soldier has just taken out an entire goddamn city, and he’d done it mechanically, without thought, acting under orders.
But-- as he stands on the riverbank, the sky falling down, the sounds of sirens and screams in the background, the Soldier wonders what the hell it’s all for?
The water is black as it laps at the riverbed. As he looks up, the sky is grey with smoke. There is a smear of blood, red and bright and vivid, at the corner of Steve’s mouth. The bruises are grey and black and red and ugly. As he stares down, the Soldier wonders, why didn’t I kill him?
There is a voice answering, in his head, because he’s Steve.
Steve blinks groggily, and he tries to speak, but instead, water bubbles and spews from damaged lungs. It comes out wordless, a useless gesture. His eyes shift, and even though they’re swollen and unseeing-- the Soldier gets a glimpse of a flash of blue, and goddamn, it’s the most gorgeous colour he’s ever seen.
The world is a mess of greyscale. It’s an explosion of violence and gore, of broken, shattered bores and viscera and blood. The asset has spent his entire existence hurting, and yet-- he’s just saved a man. He’s just saved Steve Rogers, the ghost who’s been haunting him forever. This man is supposed to be dead, Hydra told him. Steve is dead. But he’s not.
Those blue eyes are a revelation, and suddenly, the Soldier sees the world. Suddenly, turning his gaze up at the sky, he sees blue peeking through the smoke, through the clouds. The water lapping at the shore isn’t quite so black. And even though Steve’s suit is soaking wet and covered in blood and grime, there’s the distinct red, blue and white.
He isn’t Bucky, not anymore. Not for a long time.
But maybe he’s not the asset anymore, either. Maybe he’s-- just the Winter Soldier.
He stands on the riverbank and he stares down at Steve Rogers. Alive. Part of him wants to stay behind. Part of him wants to wait, but-- he can’t. He can’t. Everything is still so cold. He’s in a strange space, between flames and ice, a little place carved out, and the Soldier knows he just needs to leave.
He leaves DC, crosses state lines into the suburbs of Virginia. Eventually, he breaks into the garage of a house in an upper middle class neighbourhood and steals some tools.
He doesn’t think. He just acts, shuts down the voices screaming in his head. Steve, the Soldier hears himself gasping, followed by -- go back. comply. Fist of Hydra, the world needs you--
Shut it off.
Wincing in pain and biting down on a grease-stained rag to keep from screaming, he works off the metal plating of his arm. He carefully, strategically, removes the tracking devices that are fused to the inner workings. It’s attached to his nerves, and every turn of the screwdriver, every screw pulled loose, every wire that’s carefully maneuvered, it’s like someone is pulling a tooth from his jaw, detaching it from the bed of hot nerves without anything to dull the pain.
The Soldier has tears running down his face and his whole body is numb and trembling from shock as he finishes. But the tracking devices-- all three of them, because Hydra always has backups-- and the self-destruct mechanism have been removed. They always did underestimate him, and the memories, the knowledge, it’s coming back,trickling in. He carefully replaces the little panel on his arm. It whirs irritably, but he feels… free.
Steve Rogers is alive, and the Soldier knows that is enough. He will have to figure that out, but for now-- it’s enough.
And right now, he’s going to steal some civilian clothing and some cash. He’s going to go get himself a hot cup of coffee with cream and sugar. And then, when it’s safe, he’s going to return to the capital. He needs to learn about Captain America. He needs to figure out who he used to be, because even though he can’t go back, even though he’ll never be a person again, the memories will find him.
They will find him, and he’ll be fucking ready for it. Hydra cannot have him again. His memories aren’t weapons to use against him, or something to be twisted and contorted.
They are his. They are Steve’s. And they are both somehow--inexplicably--alive.
He keeps a small box tucked under the bed of his small flat in Bucharest.
Maybe it’s ironic, that he’s ended back here. Maybe that just proves that despite his best efforts, despite his attempts to break the cycle, his life is destined to take him in circles. He doesn’t know, but it’s quiet here. It’s comfortable. The city has been broken down so many times, ruined by natural forces, by humanity and war. It has a rich history, but it’s alive and vibrant. It rebuilds.
Maybe this is just what he wants from his own life. Maybe he wants to rebuild-- to keep the scarred remnants around, never forgotten, but not the focal point of who he is, what he is.
It’s been two years, and he has a small collection he’s acquired, from various sources, some less savory than others, but-- all of it worth it.
Old photos. News articles from the past, from the present. A 1945 article lamenting the death of one Sgt James B. Barnes, killed in action. Another - also 1945, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, missing in action and presumed dead. The articles span decades - though, as the years passed, as Captain America and his most dedicated companion, loyal best friend, faded from the memories of the public.
The most recent article in his sad little collection is the obituary for one Rebecca Barnes - married, but used her maiden name ‘til her death, in memory of the brother she lost. It’s only a few years old, but the ink is smeared with tear stains. He only missed her by a few years-- she left behind kids, grandkids, and he knows… he can never go back, can never find the family he lost.
There are letters, too, all copies - the originals are floating around in the Smithsonian and private collections. One of the first things he did was manage to obtain a shitty old smartphone, and even the most obsolete, clunky thing is a goddamn wonder. The internet is a wealth of information. This? This is the future, and despite everything--sometimes he smiles.
From what he can tell, Steve Rogers himself has been campaigning to get all the relics from the past returned to him. “My personal life doesn’t belong in a collection,” he’d argued passionately, but… well, that’s history, isn’t it? These legacies grow beyond them, develop a life all of their own.
He doesn’t know who he is, or if he has a life. Honestly, whoever James Buchanan Barnes was, he’s a historical figure, now. Someone who helped shape Captain America into the hero he became. A distinguished soldier, killed in action. It’s best that way--separating the man he was from the broken fragments of who he is now. Even if he knows that the Winter Soldier was a product of Hydra, something twisted and shaped by them, even if he knows he fought it, as much as he could-- it wasn’t enough.
At some point, Bucky Barnes gave up and let the bad guys win. People died, and he’ll never be Bucky again, not as long as his arm’s a weapon that’s crushed the life from countless enemies. Not when he’s been used for so long, the means to so many ends. There’s the lives he’s snuffed out, the ways he’s been twisted and broken and defiled. His whole body feels dirty; sometimes, he wakes up gasping and screaming into a sweat-soaked pillow, feeling hands on him, pinning him down.
Sometimes, it’s impossible to hold on to the vibrance of the world, to the swirls of color. Even though the sky outside is the brightest blue, sometimes when he looks out the window, all he can see is foggy grey and thick clouds.
He’s done his best to make this place feel a bit like home.
He doesn’t know what the concept of home even is--not really. He knows what home used to be, but the more he dwells on that, the more he realizes that home is a person, rather than a place. Home is Steve, and the more that he thinks on it, the more he realizes that Steve Rogers wants his old friend Bucky. He doesn’t want the man who spent decades killing; he doesn’t want the former Winter Soldier.
So, he’s made an attempt to forge a different sort of home. There are a few potted plants on the window in the kitchen. The leaves are a bright, vibrant green, and when he waters it properly and ensures he keeps the blinds cracked open enough for stripes of rich golden sunlight to filter through, occasionally bright pink flowers blossom. It makes him smile-- an expression that’s almost nostalgic. It’s the way he used to smile at Steve when nobody was looking, he realizes one day with a jolt, and if that doesn’t mess him up-- well.
Lots of things mess him up. But his little potted plants grow, basking in the golden sunlight, and maybe the world isn’t so black and white after all. Maybe he’s good for something other than killing, because at least he can keep a goddamn houseplant alive.
After a few months in Romania -- or has it been longer? Time doesn’t work properly for him, not anymore, not after having his brains fried so many times -- he starts feeding the stray cats. One of them, a straggly orange thing with bright blue eyes, perches on his window sill sometimes. He wants to let her in, but he doesn’t. He’s too afraid of startling in the night, of being jerked awake by sudden motion, and the thought of hurting another living thing is too real, too goddamn prevalent. He’s terrified of the idea.
But time passes. He feeds the cats. He waters his plants. The world goes on around him. He gives fake names, works odd jobs to pay the cheap rent for his modest (read: shithole) apartment. It’s… not great, but he’s not the Winter Soldier anymore.And his memories are scattered, coming back in bits and pieces, like an old abstract painting.
Some of the memories are nightmares. He wants them gone forever. He doesn’t want to remember shooting into a protesting mob. He doesn’t want to remember killing a politician and his entire family. He doesn’t want to remember training young girls in Russia to fight, to become deadly and ruthless and inhuman.
The memories he does want-- well. There’s only one person in the world who can provide them, and he can’t. He just can’t.
There’s a small book, worn by all the times he’s flipped through it. It’s pathetic, but he doesn’t bother to store it in the box with everything else--because it’s his talisman. Whenever things get too hard, after a panic attack, or in the middle of the night after a harsh dream, it’s his journal that he reaches for. The pages are bookmarked and tabbed. The photos he’s clipped inside are starting to become worn from trembling fingers smoothing them down too many times.
Captain America is a goddamn superhero, an international celebrity, one of Earth’s mightiest heroes. He watches sometimes, on the laptop he bought secondhand. He mooches internet off one of his neighbours, a friendly older woman he carries groceries for sometimes. Whenever a threat arrives, the Avengers show up--and god, it’s hard, watching with frayed nerves when Captain America charges into battle.
But it’s what Steve has always wanted. He loves him. He knows that, even if he’s not quite Bucky, even if he’s not the asset anymore, even if he’s some hideous amalgamation of past and present. He’s loved Steven Grant Rogers his entire damn life, and that will never change.
But it’s not enough. Even if the tapestry of his life is slowly weaving itself back together, the memories haunt him. He is a murderer; he has destroyed so much. His flesh hand, his human one, it’s wreaked just as much chaos as the metal one that whirs. And Steve? Steve is something good and pure, and he knows he isn’t good enough. He never can be.
He will carry the wounds forever. There are the physical scars - messes of jagged flesh that’s been fused to metal, the thinner ones that run in jagged criss-crosses across his body, from wounds that healed quickly, but not quite right, a side-effect of bootleg serum. There are the psychological ones, the nightmares and the scattered memories. Some days, he starts trembling so badly, just going outside, just doing simple chores, that he has to bolt and run, has to find a safe place to hide until he stops shaking, until the screams in his mind settle down to a bearable roar.
And so he exists. He keeps going. He smiles when the little streaks of color work past the trauma and the pain, and he does the little things he can. He helps his neighbours. He says thank you. He works his crappy little jobs and leaves spare bills to the homeless. He feeds the cats. It’s almost enough. Almost.
It’s a cold day in December when it happens. He’s up long before sunrise-- a nightmare, of course, but he’ll staunchly insist he’s just a morning riser. Really, he doesn’t know if he’ll ever get the hang of this sleeping thing, and it’s not like his body really needs it. But the nightmares have been coming in full force. A couple of weeks ago, he swears he had a tail, a blonde woman that looked oddly familiar. She’d vanished before he could turn the tables, though-- and if it was Hydra? They would’ve already come for him.
He’s being paranoid. Must be. But still, he swears he keeps seeing the same woman, over and over again, and god, he just wants to be normal.
Instead, he’s awake long before dawn. He paces, flips through his book, says a quiet prayer. He isn’t religious anymore; doesn’t believe in a God, but maybe someone, something is listening. Maybe he just needs to pray aloud to get it out there. Maybe it’s just unloading his fucking guilty conscience.
He’s drinking coffee, sweetened with cream and way too much sugar, a little treat he allows himself. There’s a strange sense of fantastic rebellion that it instills in him--being allowed to have this. Not worrying about what he’s done, or whether he deserves it. Because, of course, he knows he doesn’t, but he lets himself have it anyway.
It’s still freezing cold out; the heat in his apartment is on in full-force, because he hates the goddamn cold. It still clings to his bones, creeps into the prosthetic arm and makes his shoulder ache, where metal is fused to bone. It weighs him down even more than usual. Outside, the friendly cat that follows him everywhere is meowing to get in, and he wants to, more than anything.
(He makes beds for them, insulates old cardboard boxes with straw and bits of stuffing. His landlord has lectured him for cluttering the fire escape, but he always hauls them back out, the moment an eye is turned. It’s the least he can do.)
There’s a knock on the door, and his whole body freezes up. Nobody visits him. Who would?
He keeps a backpack nearby with a spare change of clothes and faked documents, his journal always close by. He has a few different identities he can recycle, though the thought of leaving, it hurts more than he wants to admit. It aches, because this is a little place he’s carved out for himself, a tiny splash of a cobbled together identity against a world of black and white, against all the opposing forces that he gets lost in, no matter how hard he tries.
Already, he’s reaching for a knife. He keeps over a dozen weapons stashed in his place, guns and combat knives. The arm whirs. It’s ready for a fight.
He keeps the chain in the door as he peeks through the hole. He’s tense, ready to fight or flee, he hasn’t decided which yet, but--
The world explodes. It’s like a grenade, but instead of blood and bone, instead of the ground spraying up in a mess of dirt and stones, tearing limbs and ripping bodies apart, someone threw a paintbrush across the bleak canvas of his life. It is someone staring into him-- into the depths of the former Winter Soldier, a man from another time, lost and wandering-- and finding whatever is left of him. They scraped together the remnants of James Buchanan Barnes, filled in the holes with his sad little life, feeding cats and watering plants and making trips to the market, and for a fleeting moment, he feels whole.
Steve Rogers is on the other side of the door.
He could run. He knows he could. He probably should run. But Steve is there, shuffling his weight awkwardly, kicking at an old, peeling tile with the toe of his shoe. He’s dressed casually, a baseball cap pulled over his eyes, a winter coat wrapped too-tight around his large frame. He has dark circles under his eyes, and his face looks suspiciously wet. But there’s determination there.
“Bucky?” Steve says, softly, his voice low and hesitant. “I-- don’t run. I, uh, I can hear you. You don’t gotta open the door, if you want, I’ll-- I’ll leave. But if you want to talk…”
He stays motionless in front of the door. He’s still gripping the handle of the knife with his flesh fingers. Both of them stand there-- Steve on the other side of the door, and both of them are holding their breath. He can’t. He can’t. This isn’t going to end well. He won’t let Steve realize his best friend is dead, long and gone, that James Buchanan Barnes died when he fell from that train. All that’s left is a ghost. A ghost story.
“Buck, I-- I swear. It doesn’t matter what happened, I forgive you. You gotta forgive yourself, Nat says you--” Steve breaks off, thinks better of what he’s saying, and lowers his head. There’s a hint of a broken, choked sob chasing the words. So he did have a tail.
He almost turns and leaves. He almost does. But somewhere in the back of his mind, somewhere--
He closes his eyes and breathes in deeply, willing himself to calm down. Swimming in the darkest recesses of his mind, he sees Manhattan. It’s the 30s again. Stevie’s ma is dead, and all he has left is Bucky. They’ve got nothing to their names but each other, and it’s perfect.
It’s the 40s, and Bucky’s on the other side of the world. He hurts, and he’s aching, and Steven fucking Rogers marches straight across Europe to rip him out of the jaws of death. He had a chance to turn his back then, too. He had the choice to go home-- and instead, he followed. Instead, he found himself sticking as close as he could, because damnit, if there’s one thing James Buchanan Barnes of the past and whoever he is today have in common? He can’t say no to Steve Rogers. He can’t resist. He loves him. He always has. Hydra couldn’t take that away, and nothing sure as hell can change that now.
Slowly, he drops the knife. It lands on the floor and clatters and bangs. The sound nearly makes him jump out of his skin, but instead, he’s reaching for the door. He pulls the chain free, unlocks it with a quiet click. The door swings open between them, and his fingers shake as he releases it, as he stares.
“I’m not him,” he says, before Steve can say anything else. “If you’re looking for Bucky, he’s gone. He died.”
Steve shakes his head, and his eyes are wet. He’s crying, shaking and trembling. “Buck,” he says, “you look good, you-- you’re alive.”
And he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know, but Steve is here, and he’s crying, saying words, and-- suddenly.
“That’s my line,” James Buchanan Barnes says, shaking his head, and he doesn’t believe it. He doesn’t think Bucky exists anymore, but if Steve says he does-- well, maybe. Bucky Barnes would feed stray cats, he thinks. Bucky would do nice things for people, just to see them smile. Bucky Barnes sure as hell would feel the way he does, with his heart pounding desperately against his ribcage.
“You wanna come inside?” he asks, uncertain of so many things, but… hopeful. Steve nods, and suddenly he’s smiling too, and it’s only a single, tiny step forward, but maybe it’s enough. Maybe.
They have a lot to say, and even though he doesn’t know where to start--god. This is Steve. And he can never refuse his best friend, can never say no, not even after all this time.
Later, after too many cups of coffee, after a lot of small talk, after headaches and tears and so much stumbling over words-- when Steve’s about to leave, the phone number for Bucky’s shitty, several-models-too-old smartphone written on a scrap of paper, he hesitates in the doorframe.
“You won’t come back with me?” Steve asks softly. Before Bucky can respond, he shakes his head. “Sorry. Nat told me not to ask that. It’s just… the holidays are hard, y’know? Alone. I had you before, and I guess I never--”
He breaks off again, looks down.
“I--” Bucky, James, the Soldier, whoever he is, he chews on his lip. He tastes blood, feels the explosion in his mouth, salty and bitter and metallic. It feels familiar. He has no idea who he is. Maybe Steve has expectations of him that he’ll never be able to live up to. But he knows. He knows what the Winter Soldier, the asset, Bucky has done, and he’s here.
“They still put up that giant tree in Rockefeller?” he asks, instead of voicing anything else, instead of bringing up that mountain of uncertainty that still exists between them. He hopes it sounds casual. What were we? He wants to ask. What are we? What will we become? Do you still want me? He can’t ask any of that. But the words hang in the air, tentative, an olive branch extending.
Steve sucks in a breath. “You remember that?” he asks.
Bucky nods uncertainly. “Remember some things.”
“I-- yeah. Yeah they do,” Steve says, in a rush, “ ‘course, it’s not quite the same as back then, but-- I’ll take you. You want to go?” and the desperation in his voice comes out so thick, so sudden, that it’s nearly overwhelming. God, there’s so much there, so much to unpack-- how the hell to process it? Where to go from here?
“I’ll think about it,” Bucky says, softly. “I’ll… text you?”
“Okay,” Steve nods, “and-- there’s always next year, right? If this year is… too much?”
“Okay,” Bucky echoes back. “Yeah. Okay.”
It’s only after Steve leaves that he looks around his dingy little apartment and realizes that slowly, over the past couple of years, he’s filled it with vibrant little knick-knacks. Colored magnets on the fridge. His plants are budding again, little nubs of pink standing out against the bright green leaves. The dish towel hanging from the stove is bright yellow. On the wall, there’s a painting of a cityscape, done in blues and purples and golds. It reminds him of the paintings Steve did, while he was in art school, a lifetime ago.
He wanders his small flat in a daze, and he finds himself standing barefoot in front of the bathroom mirror. As he stares down his reflection, he realizes that he isn’t quite so gaunt. His hair is still on the greasier side, and his haircut isn’t the best, but it’s his hair. He cut it himself, with a pair of scissors, in front of this very mirror. He’s eating now. His cheeks aren’t quite so sunken in. His jawline looks almost noble, even with the stubble of someone who hasn’t bothered to shave in a bit too long.
And-- there aren’t any flashes of the past, there aren’t any memories desperately clattering around in his head, screaming to resurface. They’re there, yeah. It’s all fused together into a twisted mess, what the Soldier did, who Bucky was, who he is now. But maybe-- just maybe-- he’ll figure it out. He isn’t the asset anymore. He isn’t the Winter Soldier, either. But he can still be James Buchanan Barnes, just-- changed. Different. Altered by what he experienced, but… not shaped by it.
Who knows, he thinks, the faintest hint of a smile tugging at his lips, the world not quite so dark, not quite so black and white. Shades of grey blur the lines between good and evil, and he falls right in the middle. Maybe he’ll take Steve up on his offer. Maybe he’ll go. And if not, there’s always next year.
Thank you for reading this mess if you got all the way here <3
I did not expect to have 45,000 words of feels, but I had the best partner I could ever ask for, for my first exchange in this fandom! :D
A million hearts for my partner for dealing with my neurotic ass over the past few months, and if you read, thank you so much! <3