When James Buchanan Barnes was born, every dog in Shelby, Indiana, howled for five minutes. He was tested for an Ability like all newborns are tested but the doctor assured his parents he was a null.
"Oh, thank you," his mother breathed out, relieved beyond the telling of it.
James' younger sisters followed a few years later, Rebecca Ann and then twins Olivia Elizabeth and Julia Katherine, and they were all nulls, too.
When George Barnes died in the factory accident, Winifred Barnes packed up her children and moved back to Brooklyn with her four children. James was eight, Rebecca five, and the twins three; James cried nearly the whole drive because he was leaving all his friends behind.
Winifred thought he meant the children in the neighborhood, at school. He didn’t.
In Brooklyn, James was always coming home with strays – dogs, cats, birds, rodents a few times. Winifred just thought it meant he was compassionate. Rebecca and Julia thought it was a marvelous adventure but the animals frightened Olivia so James eventually stopped bringing them home.
What Winifred hadn’t told George (or anyone) was that her grandmother had an Ability – not enough to get her noticed, and thankfully the doctor that tested her at birth hadn’t recorded it because (according to family legend) he’d loved her mother. Grandmother’s Ability was a bit of foretelling, and she’d foreseen that a child of her blood would be so gifted the world would tremble beneath it. So when Dr. Brown pronounced each of her children null, Winifred had never been more relieved.
But James spoke to animals like they replied and one time, Rebecca swore he healed a pigeon with a broken wing.
But James was a null. All the Barnes children were. Perhaps one of their children, or one of Winifred’s nieces or nephews would be the child Grandmother saw.
(She chooses not to remember the night George’s eyes were bluer than usual, or that he stumbled home the next morning, from a night out with the boys, when she would’ve sworn he fell asleep next to her. She chooses not to remember the dreams she had for the nine months she carried James, of Abilities so old they were called magic, then, as common as rain.
She chooses not to remember that Grandmother also said the old gods would return because Winifred Barnes is a good Christian woman and there is only one God.)
Sarah Rogers gave birth to a son three days after his father died overseas. Steven Grant Rogers was pronounced a null at birth, and also was so sickly Sarah was warned he may not make it home.
But Steven made it home, and despite all manners of illnesses and defects, he kept surviving.
Sarah herself was not a null, but her small bit of healing touch kept her baby breathing when everyone thought he should die. She wished, now and again, that he had a Talent of his own, to help him – but she knew that might be dangerous. Back home, when she was a girl, the Talented were respected and feared, and she’d known how they were treated in America…
But she met Joseph in Brooklyn, so she couldn’t truly regret leaving home. Leaving brought her Steven, a boy so bright he truly did seem Talented himself.
Sarah’s Talent was small, or else she would’ve healed Steven of every affliction. But Steven lived, and Sarah worked, and they were happy in their small apartment, beloved by the neighbors even while everyone else thought the widow and her sickly son were drains on society.
She shielded Steven as well she could from the harsh words, but Steven was such a clever boy, he knew. He hid it from his ma, though, because he knew it’d hurt her that he knew.
Steven Grant Rogers met James Buchanan Barnes on a hot summer day. Steven was defending a wounded dog from a group of nasty boys; James followed the whimpers and saw the situation in a glance.
They’re going to hurt him! the dog howled when she noticed James. Please help him!
James waded into the fight without a further thought, and now that the dog had two defenders instead of one (and one of whom fought very dirty), the bullies fled. James turned to the boy first, because the dog wouldn’t let him look at her till he had, and the kid was alright, though he had the start of a nice shiner.
The dog had a broken leg and a cut along her flank, but James said, “’s’alright, sweetheart, you’ll see, just hold still for me now, yeah?” and healed her.
Thank you, the dog said, licking him and then the boy, and then hurried off to the pups James could barely hear.
“You’re Talented!” the boy said delightedly.
James blinked at him, bewildered. “I am not,” he said.
The boy squinted up at him, lips pursed. “Come home with me,” he finally ordered. “Ma’s gonna wanna look at you.”
Sarah gently healed both boys and then sat James down to have a talk with him while Steven sketched. “You can hear animals?” she asked and he nodded.
“Of course,” he said. “They talk just like we do. That dog – Nanda, she said her name was – was callin’ for help, and then she wanted to make sure Stevie wasn’t hurt too bad before she’d let me fix her leg and that cut.”
Sarah breathed out slowly, evenly. The boy had no idea – clearly, no one here did, if he truly thought he was a null. “James,” she said, “most people in this world can’t hear animals. Now, I want you to think carefully, please. When you hear them, is it in your head or with your ears?”
James bit his lip and then turned his head, tilting his right ear up. “There are two cats arguing about a rat one of them just caught in the alley down there,” he said, pointing with his chin. “You can’t hear it?”
She listened as hard as she could and then shook her head. “I can barely hear yowling,” she said.
“I can’t hear nothin’,” Steven put in, turning the paper over to sketch on the back.
James looked so shocked that Sarah wanted to pull him into her arms, squeeze tight, and never let go. He admitted, a little shamefully, “I guess it’s in my head.”
“Oh, dear, no,” she said, reaching out to tilt his chin up, meeting his eyes. “Where I’m from, it’s called the Talent of animal speech. It’s the rarest Talent of all and those with it are regarded quite highly.” She smiled at him and was happy when he smiled back.
“Now, James,” she said, letting go and then standing. “I’m going to make you boys a snack while we talk about this. Can you hear all animals?”
“Yes’m,” he said, going over to Steven and peering at his sketch. “Well, not bugs, I don’t think. But we drove up here from Shelby and I could hear all the animals. Stevie, what are you drawin’?”
Sarah glanced over in time to catch Steven’s scowl. “Don’t call me that,” he said, hunching down over the paper. “That’s a baby name.”
“It is not!” James protested. “It’s a nickname. Friends have nicknames for each other, and we’re friends, ain’t we?”
Steven turned around so fast he almost fell out of the chair; James caught him. Sarah thought her heart would burst with joy as Steven asked, “We’re friends?”
“Well, I’d like to be,” James said.
“Then I can give you a nickname, too?” Steven said, sounding hesitant.
“Yeah, ‘course.” James stepped back and held out his hand. “I’m James Buchanan Barnes.”
“Steven Grant Rogers,” Steven replied slipping out of the chair and shaking James’ hand firmly. “If I’m your friend, I’m gonna call you Bucky.”
James laughed. “Well, then I’m’a call you Steve, and sometimes Stevie, if I think you’re bein’ too serious.”
Sarah wiped away tears and turned back to preparing the snacks.
Before sending James home that evening, Sarah told him all she knew about his Talent, which wasn’t much. She’d known a man with a Talent for horses, and another for birds, but they’d kept their secrets. People with weather Talents and animal Talents were highly prized, after all, and everyone knew that in wars, nothing was sacred. This small boy with a Talent for (seemingly) all animals – she worried, though she tried to hide it. She told him to definitely keep it to himself, and wished she could write to Aidan or Brian about their Talents, but knew she didn’t dare risk it.
“I should be gettin’ home, Mrs. Rogers,” James finally said, head tilted again in the way she now knew meant he was listening to some animal somewhere. “Accordin’ to Treg, Ma’s callin’ for me.”
“Who’s Treg?” Steven asked.
“She’s the pigeon who nests near our place – I healed her wing once.” James turned to Sarah and said, “Thank you for your hospitality,” in a clear voice, obviously mimicking somebody.
“You’re welcome anytime, Mr. Barnes,” she replied.
He grinned up at her, turning to Steven. “I’ll come by tomorrow, alright, Stevie? Someone’s gotta teach you how to fight proper-like.”
Sarah shook her head. She’d prefer if Steven didn’t fight at all, but even though he was only nine, she knew that was a foolish hope. She watched Steven watch James go and her breath caught – she recognized that look, for all that they were children. Steven shut the door behind James and then looked back to her. “Isn’t he amazing?” he asked, all lit up in a way Sarah had never seen before.
“He is,” she agreed.
She prayed that night, wishing for the first time that her Talent lay in premonition instead of healing. A boy with the strongest Talent she’d ever seen or heard of, and her Steven already half in love with him – it’d be a hard road to walk, and she prayed and prayed and prayed for them both.
The first time Bucky accidentally called a pack of dogs to defend Steve was also the last. It was too dangerous, and once he caught his breath, Steve blistered Bucky’s ear about pulling such a foolish stunt.
“You’re right,” Bucky agreed, listening half to Steve and half to the various conversations flying around them.
The two safest neighborhoods in Brooklyn were where Steve and his ma and then Bucky lived. People looking to pick fights were always chased away by suddenly-belligerent birds or trailed by dogs or cats, and while the people who lived there found it slightly odd, it never adversely affected them. The Council of Ability, the ones in charge of policing and tracking the folks with an Ability, even sent a patrol around three times, trying to find the source of the animals’ strangeness but there was nothing.
Sarah explained to Bucky (he wanted everyone to call him Bucky now, since there were so many James’ around) once that those with an animal Talent could change the creatures around them. She said that before she moved away from her old home, Brian’s birds had begun acting almost human, sometimes. “It wasn’t intentional on his part, I don’t think,” she said. “Just – bein’ around him made it happen. You understand?”
He didn’t, then. But as the years pass, he notices. He knows that surely the Council must be keeping track, too, and he wants to talk to Ma about it, to explain to Livy (the only of his sisters afraid of animals, particularly dogs) that no animal in Brooklyn, and probably the world, would ever hurt her. But he can’t risk it.
By the time he’s twenty and Steve’s ma dies, three people in the world know about his Ability. Then only two know.
By that point, Europe’s in turmoil and Steve’s been talking about trying to enlist. Bucky and Steve have their own place and Bucky works three jobs, and Steve gets sicker more easily and often than he had before, because his ma isn’t there to heal him anymore.
(She couldn’t use her Talent to heal herself, and the night she died, dogs all over Brooklyn howled Bucky’s grief.)
Bucky’s practiced where he could, trying to make sure he didn’t control the animals – he just wanted to talk to them, not make them do things. And also heal, whenever needed, though he noticed the more serious the healing, the more drained he was, which made sense. (He’d tried healing Mrs. Rogers, and she’d smiled sadly at him. He’d gone walking that night and gotten into a fight, and refused to let any animals involve themselves while he let the man beat him.)
When Bucky sinks into the small pool in his center that Mrs. Rogers told him all Talented have, he can hear animals all the way up and down the Atlantic coast. He knows because he’d described the animals for Steve, so they had sketches to take with them to the library where they looked the animals up. Mrs. Rogers had looked awed, which frightened him, a little. If he strains himself, he can go west, almost to the Rocky Mountains, or down south to the Gulf of Mexico. He doesn’t like listening to fish, though, and he has to stay away from any animals used for food or else he can’t eat meat. He once couldn’t for a week after he talked to a cow.
The Dictionary for Abilities doesn’t have much on Bucky’s Ability. He read the whole thing cover to cover, feeling sick at the clinical descriptions and what the Abilities can be used for. But those with animal speech are apparently the rarest of all, even the weather Abilities, and haven’t been found in centuries. Those that were had an animal or two, like Mrs. Rogers friends back home. Cats or dogs or birds or horses, sometimes fish – but they could speak to only cats or only birds, and sometimes, only to certain ones, ones who’d been around humans for awhile. Bucky tracks down an encyclopedia, telling the librarian who helps that it’s for a school project, and there was apparently a woman, a long time ago, who could speak to cats. When the Council tested her, she could speak to domesticated cats but not the tigers the king had brought over. She was a noble of some sort and the test ended in failure because she couldn’t convince the tigers not to eat her. They’d been starved.
Bucky… stares at the words in horror.
There’s a tiger in the zoo. He’s old and tired. He tells Bucky he’s never been in the jungle. Every animal Bucky sees, he talks to. He helps, where he can. They love him. He loves them. He loves every animal he meets more than he loves anyone except Steve, his ma, and his sisters. And Steve’s ma, too, he loved her.
He thinks it’d be so easy to hate the nulls for what they’ve done. He doesn’t want to fall into that hatred because of Ma, Becca, Livy, and Jules. Because of Steve.
The United States enters the war. Bucky doesn’t enlist, even though Steve tries numerous times under numerous names. The Council sends officers to collect an old man who’s been passing himself as a null while illegally healing the homeless; Bucky watches the arrest with clenched fists and a clenched jaw, and no animal within fifteen miles makes a single sound for the entire ten minutes it takes to haul old Mr. Yates away.
Steve has rants about doing the right thing, and how bullies should be stopped, no matter where they are, and he defends those with Abilities just like he does the downtrodden. He gets into fights all the time and has his whole life. Bucky and Mrs. Rogers used to share commiserating looks and stories about Steve’s foolishness.
When the draft comes, Bucky sighs and goes for a walk. A pretty little mutt of a dog accompanies him; she’s named Nanda for her grandmother, the dog who caused Steve and Bucky to meet all those years ago.
What’s wrong? she asks.
Bucky shrugs. I have to go to war, he replies silently, learning a long time ago that what kids can get away with, teenagers can’t, and men especially not.
Why? she demands, a growl in the words.
Bucky smiles down at her, reaching to rub her ears. It’s the law, Nanda. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I’m gonna need all’a ya to look after Stevie and Ma and the girls, though.
Of course we will, Nanda promises.
And so Bucky goes to training, and then to war. Every recruit is inspected to see if they have an ability they’ve been hiding. Three are pulled from Bucky’s unit, but again, Bucky slips beneath notice. Collins tries fighting, shoving at the officers with his meager wind Ability, and he gets clubbed in the head.
No one notices the dogs prowling around, growling, trying to defend Bucky, and how Bucky’s fists are clenched to keep them back.
Willis and Jackson are returned with the thin collar around their neck that means Ability, with the small gemstone embedded that means they need a superior’s command to use that Ability. No one notices the dogs growl at that, too. Collins is never returned.
Bucky impresses everyone without even meaning to. For the first time in his life, he doesn’t want to do his best but doing anything less might get him or the man beside him killed. Unlike most of his unit, he treats the Collared like they’re men, just like he treats everyone. He finds it bitterly ironic that he’s given command of the five Collared the 107th have – Dugan, Willis, Jackson, Anders, and Thomas. Dugan’s Ability is practically useless (or so it seems, during training): he can make light. Willis and Thomas can throw yellow and green fire, respectively, while Jackson can tell when someone lies. Anders’ Ability is probably the most useful, and when they’re finally sent to war, he’ll be taken from Bucky’s command for it, because Anders can control the very air. He was only caught because he’s not a killer, and Bucky knows that’ll be beaten out of him. But there’s nothing he can do.
When the 107th is sent home for a few days before receiving their final orders, Anders isn’t with them. Bucky breathes out the anger because he can’t afford it. He can’t get caught. He knows what’ll happen if he is, and just how many animals will die pointlessly trying to protect him.
He goes home to Steve and Ma and the girls, he walks around Brooklyn visiting all his friends, and before he leaves, he asks them all to keep Steve and Ma and the girls safe, and then he’s sent to Europe.
The Collared are given to someone else’s command, but Bucky keeps a sharp eye on them, when he can. Thomas, the youngest of the 107th’s Collared, sticks as close to Bucky as he can at camp and on the battlefield, and Bucky seems insanely lucky because animals that normally flee stay close enough to call out enemy movements, and more men live than expected in every battle Bucky’s a part of.
He wants to ask the enemy’s dogs to not talk to him, to not betray their humans, but he doesn’t. If someone has to die, he’d rather it be men he doesn’t know.
When Bucky orders the men around to surrender, he puts all the command he can into the tone. If they keep fighting, they will die. He also orders, with every single fiber of his being, that every animal within hearing of his voice get the fuck away and stay away.
He doesn’t know it, but the command works for a few weeks. It works, in fact, until the first time the creepy little doctor injects him with something that burns. He tries diving into the pool of his Ability for escape and then he blinks open hundreds of eyes.
We’re coming, the dog he’s riding assures him. All of us.
Bucky is in hundreds of animals at once. How? he asks each of them and he understands every answer.
Then he’s shocked back into his own body. The doctor stares down at him in glee. “Wonderful,” the man says, grinning at him. “Soldier, you are very impressive.”
Bucky wants to tear out the man’s throat. He doesn’t know it but animals for hundreds of miles are attacking anyone with a weapon. When he feels the first death (a small cat kicked into a wall), he quickly shouts, Stop! Run and hide! Don’t die for me!
They obey, angrily, and he’s able to focus on the small doctor again. “Where did you go, Sergeant Barnes?” the doctor asks.
“Fuck you,” he answers.
The doctor sighs. “Throw him back with the others,” the doctor orders one of the soldiers. “If he survives the night, return him for the next treatment.”
The Collareds were separated at first, until there were too many prisoners to keep so spread out. It means that Dugan’s back in Bucky’s cell, and Thomas across the way. He’s the only one left who can command them, and on the march to this place, he’d whispered his permission for them to use their Ability if they needed to.
“What’d they do to you?” Dugan demands, lifting Bucky up.
“I don’t even know,” Bucky says tiredly. “Fuck.” He sags into Dugan’s grip, so Dugan and Jones guide him into the corner. He coughs wetly. Whatever the doctor gave him, it’s burning him up inside.
Dugan glares down at him, then at Jones and two other soldiers tossed in with them, Falsworth and Dernier.
The nearest dogs and birds are shouting at Bucky to let them come for him, let them rip the place apart, ravage all the humans who dare hurt him and those under his protection.
No! he orders. No one is going to die for me. Protect yourselves and your own. Don’t worry about me.
He coughs again, sinking into sleep.
After Steve jumps out of Stark’s plane, he’s guided to the factory by a steady stream of dogs, birds, and other various wild animals that should have fled this place weeks ago. They never stay long, just enough to pass him to the next. That, more than anything else, tells him Bucky is still alive. He knows that Bucky never let animals fight for him, so he’s still well enough to keep them from it.
A cat leads him to a secret door, and then a crow taps out the code to open it, and then he’s in. The animals also disappear back into the countryside, but Steve knows they’re there, waiting for Bucky’s grip to slip enough. It’s as frightening as it is reassuring. He deals with guards as he comes across them and when he finds the prisoners, he drops the keys into one of the cells.
“James Barnes,” he says. “I’m looking for Sergeant James Barnes of the 107th. Is he here?”
“They took him to the isolation ward,” a large man in an Ability Collar says. “Gotta be a week ago, now. No one comes back from that.” There’s grief and anger in the words. “That way.” He points towards a corridor.
Steve nods firmly. “Okay, get everyone you can out and make for the trees. I’ll bring anyone I can and we’ll meet up there.”
“Do you know what you’re doing?” a Negro asks as Steve hurries towards the corridor, close enough now for elation to take over the fear. He doesn’t answer because he has no idea what he’s doing. But Bucky’s alive.
He sees a short man running away, and then his newly-enhanced senses hear a series of mutters and he breathes out relief as he follows the familiar voice.
Later, Bucky will realize (and be annoyed about it) that he rode every single animal guiding Steve’s path to Hydra. Escaping into nearby animals was the only thing that kept him sane as the doctor kept injecting and slicing and testing. He left his body behind and so he survived where dozens of others died.
Steve touches him and Bucky falls back into himself, leaving behind an owl watching men stream out of a building and green fire billowing into the night sky.
“I thought you were dead,” Steve says, staring down at Bucky, steadying him with strong hands.
“I thought you were smaller,” Bucky says blankly. Is this a dream? Another hallucination?
“Is there anyone else here?” Steve asks as Bucky lists to the side and Steve pulls him in close.
“No,” Bucky murmurs. “Adams died… yesterday?”
“We need to go,” Steve says, and Bucky just follows along behind him.
Through some miracle, they make it out. The surviving prisoners are collected together in the nearby trees, watching the factory fall in. They’re willfully ignoring the silent animals surrounding them. Dernier, though, watches how the animals all seem to relax as Barnes and the strange rescuer come closer, and then disappear entirely. He mutters to Jones, who passes the message to Dugan and then the other Collared Thomas.
Whatever report is made to superiors about this night, the animals will not be a part of it.
Bucky could get out, just like most of the men rescued that night. The Collared, of course, can’t – Thomas is taken away to be placed in a new unit, but Dugan is allowed to join the team Steve’s putting together. He’s given command of Dugan’s gem and his first order is that Dugan can use his Ability whenever he likes. Dernier, Jones, Falsworth, and another American soldier named Morita round out the team, with Bucky.
Agent Peggy Carter is sharp, and Howard Stark is hilarious and annoying in equal measure. Bucky has some ideas for armor and weapons, and Stark doesn’t take him seriously at first but Bucky’s ideas are sound.
Steve spends most of his time with Phillips and the rest of command; Bucky, though, spends his time with the team, figuring out their strengths and weaknesses. He ignores the way Jones and Dernier watch him, knowing they won’t say anything to anyone else. Every single dog in camp stops by Bucky’s bunk, and so do all feral cats within fifty miles. Unlike the dogs, cats understand discretion so only the team sees them.
Once they’re out of camp and on missions, Bucky knows he’ll tell them about his Ability. He can’t have secrets from a team as close as they’ll need to be, not for something that might be vital in the middle of a battle.
They get their first mission three weeks after the rescue. The dogs follow them to the transport till Bucky orders them to stay. Jones grins down at his hands while Dernier just grins madly.
Their first night out, around the campfire, Bucky says, “So, I have a Talent.”
“We know,” Jones says. “Dernier calls it ‘wild magic.’”
“Huh,” Bucky says. “Mrs. Rogers called it animal speech. So did the books.”
Jones shrugs. “Apparently, the French used to have a lot of them. Some of them could even take on animal shape.”
Steve watches the way Bucky lights up at with a smile; it’s the most animated Bucky’s been since the factory. “Really?” Bucky asks.
The Howling Commandos are successful in every mission. They bring back much-needed intel, a few very important prisoners, and dismantle dozens of Hydra bases. Whenever video is taken of them to send home, the interviewers try to ignore Dugan for being Collared, Jones for being Negro, and Morita for being a Jap, focusing only on Falsworth, Dernier, Bucky, and Steve.
Steve, of course, doesn’t stand for that. “All or none of us,” he tells every single person who tries to stop him.
Steve will not realize how much difference that makes for 70 years, but when the surviving Howling Commandos go home, it’s to a changing world.
Steve very nearly jumps after.
He doesn’t notice all the birds flying towards the mountains until he’s dragging Zola off the train. He looks from Zola, barely conscious in his grip, to Jones, who’s also watching the birds with wide eyes.
“I have to finish the mission,” Steve says without any strength at all.
A bird lands on the top of his head and pulls at a strand of his hair.
“He’s not dead,” Steve realizes, turning back to look at the mountains.
“We’ve got this,” Jones says, grabbing Zola’s arm. Steve can hear the guys in the distance, but mostly he hears thousands of birds. “Catch up when you can, Cap, and bring Sarge with you.”
“I will,” Steve promises. He holds out his arm for the bird, which thankfully flutters from his head to his fist. He easily ignores the talons digging in to tell the bird, “Take me to Bucky.”
It takes the better part of a day, Steve moving at full speed and not bothering to rest. The bird stays with him, as flocks of various kinds of birds keep flying overhead. He finds Bucky on the bank of the river, gravely injured and barely alive. Several bears, wolves, and even some kind of large cat are curled up near him, presumably for warmth, Steve thinks. All of them make room for him without even looking. It’s… a bit frightening, actually, but Steve has to be grateful for it, too.
“Thank you,” he manages, checking over Bucky. The most serious injury is to his left arm, which probably won’t be salvageable because it’s mostly severed. “Oh, shit, Buck.” Steve sags down. “I don’t know what to do,” he whispers.
One of the cats makes a sound, somewhere between a purr and a roar. Bucky moves.
Steve immediately straightens, reaching for him. “Bucky?”
“… Steve?” Bucky mutters. “’s’cold, Stevie.”
“I know, Buck,” Steve says. He will carry Bucky out of here if he has to, but he has no idea if Bucky will still be alive at the end. And Bucky definitely can’t walk himself out.
One of the bears rumbles and Bucky moves again, a little bit stronger. “Bucky?” Steve asks as Bucky –
Sits up. He looks down his torso (which is covered in icy water and blood) and then over at the animals still curled around him to up at Steve. “They said I can borrow their energy,” Bucky mutter, sounding dazed. Then his eyes sharpen and he demands, “Steve, what are you doin’ here?”
“You fell, Buck,” he says. “I followed the birds.”
Steve walks out of the mountains carrying a bird missing half a wing. He makes his way to the nearest village, breaks into an empty house, starts a fire, settles Bucky-the-bird near the warmth, and then prepares a quick meal from whatever’s left in the cupboards.
He takes the night to recuperate, curled up with Bucky-the-bird. While Bucky-the-bird dozes, Steve rambles on about all the things he’s never said – how grateful he is Bucky refused to leave him alone after Ma died, how much he enjoyed sharing that tiny apartment with Bucky, how he’s loved being Bucky’s friend all these years.
He finally says what he’s never had the courage to say before: “I love you, Bucky. And I’m going to spend the rest of my life showing you how much.”
Bucky-the-bird tilts his head and caws, tucking his head in close to Steve’s arm.
Something scratches at the door. Steve focuses his hearing on it and it’s… cats? He stands carefully, still holding Bucky-the-bird and eases the door open to let in half a dozen cats. “Okay then,” he says, bemused, following the cats to the bedroom, where thankfully the bed is still in good shape. He settles Bucky-the-bird on the pillow, watching in amusement as the cats cuddle against him. Steve carefully takes the rest of the bed, finally letting himself chuckle in relief.
Two days after Gabe Jones reports that Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes both fell off a train, they walk into an Allied base and report in. A plan to storm Hydra’s headquarters has already been put into action, but the command team makes a slight detour to pick up their errant soldiers. Sergeant Barnes is missing half his arm and he probably should not be on the mission but he and Captain Rogers refuse to be dissuaded. There isn’t time for a full debrief, and at the moment, it doesn’t matter.
Schmidt thinks himself a god, apparently, and he plans to destroy most of the world to prove it.
For the first time in his life, Bucky asks the animals to actively sabotage humans: the rats in the base, any nearby wildlife, the birds that have been shadowing Bucky since he fell. He pulls knowledge of the base’s layout from them, and he and the team sneak in before Schmidt’s forces know they’ve arrived.
In the battle that ensues, they lose sight of Schmidt but the rats alert Bucky he’s heading for a plane the likes of which no one’s seen before, so Bucky catches Steve’s eye and follows the rats’ directions.
Schmidt dies, victim of his own pride. But they are still in a plane with enough weapons to destroy North America, so Steve looks at Bucky and Bucky looks at Steve, and together, they put the plane in the ice.
Sergeant Barnes wakes first, which is astonishing to the scientists and doctors in charge of the de-thawing process of two of the greatest American heroes. What they don’t know, of course, is that he’s been watching them for two days, through eyes not his own. He can feel every animal within a hundred miles, and if he strains, he knows he can reach farther.
When he first became aware, he heard Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back! echoed by millions of voices before he’d begged, Please be quiet, please. Since his body was still mostly beyond reach, he traveled around from mind to mind, exploring the world. Seventy years later, apparently. He and Steve found by some government agency. Things still wrong in the world, but Abilities weren’t curses anymore, and only the most powerful were Collared.
He and Steve were heroes beyond reproach. They would definitely be pressed into service once awoken, if they were capable.
Bucky decides he would not allow that to happen, which meant he must awake first.
So he does. On a bright Tuesday morning, three months after the finding of the Valkyrie , Sergeant James Barnes blinks his eyes open and looks around. Steve is not in sight but he knows the location of Steve’s room. He’s purposefully waited for the shift change and one of the stray cats that patrols the nearby streets has snuck in to mess with the security room’s guards so no one notices the man in scrubs sneaking down the hall.
“Steve,” he murmurs, leaning over the bed, putting his lips right by Steve’s ear. “Steve, sweetheart, you need to wake up now.” He borrows a cat’s ears, listening. With half his arm gone, he can’t carry Steve out, even with every cat in New York playing distraction.
Steve’s heart speeds up. “There you are, Stevie,” Bucky whispers. “C’mon.” He’s got maybe a minute and then - there. Steve’s not fully conscious but he can hear, so Bucky puts his mouth back by Steve’s ear and he says, “Don’t trust anyone but me. Do not trust anyone but me, Stevie.”
There’s rushing footsteps. He settles on the edge of Steve’s bed, takes Steve’s hand with his, and waits.
Sergeant Barnes should not wake first, on that everyone agrees. He is an un-augmented null, according to every report, so Director Fury raises an eyebrow and orders an entire battery of tests. Sergeant Barnes is not introduced gently to the 21st century. He is an American hero but he’s not Captain America. He goes along with everything without a single complaint and he’s tossed to an entire dozen psychologists and psychiatrists. Zola might have tinkered with him somehow, but the tests don’t reveal anything, and he doesn’t react to the Ability Gem that is tuned to anything from truth-reading to hurricane making.
The day Captain America wakes up, he’s in a room straight out of 1941 and Bucky isn’t there. But he remembers hearing Don’t trust anyone but me, Stevie and so when the woman who is slightly off enters, Steve grabs her by the throat and asks softly, “Where’s Bucky?”
“Captain Rogers,” a tall Negro wearing a long black coat says, stepping into the room. “Release the agent and we can talk.”
“I don’t know who you are,” Steve says, “but until I see Bucky, I’m not going to talk to anyone.” His fingers tighten on the woman’s throat. His eyes stay on the man but he focuses his hearing.
A black cat with blue eyes slips between the man’s feet; the cat has a stub for a left front leg. Steve throws the woman at the man, scoops up the cat, and goes through the wall.
The entire facility is searched top to bottom; Sergeant Barnes is not located. The security cameras stopped working exactly one minute before Captain Rogers regained consciousness and he evaded all pursuit remarkably well for someone who should’ve been completely overwhelmed with the changes wrought over seven decades.
“What the fuck happened?” Director Fury demands.
“We’re working on that, sir,” Agent Coulson tells him.
Director Fury orders, “Work faster.”
“What are we doing, Bucky?” Steve asks as they follow a feral dog out of New York.
“It’s a new world,” Bucky replies, listening through a stray cat’s ears as the director of SHIELD rants at his underlings.
Maybe they’re good guys and maybe they’re not. It’ll take time to find out, and he’d rather it on his own terms than theirs.
The more fresh air he breathes, the better he feels. He doesn’t know if it was the ice or whatever Zola did to him, but his Ability – no, his Talent, it’s getting stronger all the time. He doesn’t know what it means. It honestly doesn’t matter what it means.
He’s alive, and Stevie’s alive, and they’re both free. They’re going to stay that way.