War is hell and Bucky is grateful every day that Steve's not here to see it.
It's a selfish thought, he knows, given that it's all Steve wants to do - fight the good fight, stand up for what's right, regardless of personal cost. But Bucky's a selfish person and he wants Steve to stay safe. To stay whole, his faith in goodness and justice intact.
The war breaks people. It's breaking Bucky. Drags him down like a physical weight on his shoulders.
The thought of at least Steve being safe keeps him sane, keeps him good.
The guys around him pine away for the girls they left behind, or the girls they've met along the way. They keep their pictures in their pockets and rib Bucky for being such a ladies man that he gets letters from three different girls, for a while, in the beginning.
Bucky doesn't answer those letters, though, and eventually they stop coming. He doesn't miss chasing skirts, not like he'd thought he would.
Mostly he just misses Steve. Plucking him out of a back alley fight, and sitting him on the counter to patch him up after. How fired up Steve gets when he sees someone being mistreated. The way Steve has to keep pushing back the hair that flops into his eyes when he's bent over his sketchbook, lost in whatever he's drawing.
He misses Steve in a way that scares him, in a way he's afraid to acknowledge. Thinks about him too much. Thinks about the wrong things (pale skin and slim shoulders and blue eyes, and Steve's small form snuggled up next to him under the blankets when it's too cold for them to sleep alone).
Bucky doesn't keep a girl's picture in his pocket, he keeps Steve's letters there instead. A good luck charm, something to keep him from getting irreparably lost in this war, to keep him from giving up. Something worth fighting for the chance to go home to.
He meets a blond boy outside a bar in France. They share a cigarette and Bucky's drunk enough that if he squints, the blond boy kind of looks like Steve, so when he kisses him, Bucky doesn't push him away. He presses him against the brick wall and they stick their hands down each other's pants, frantic and fumbling to get each other off.
He likes it - the deeper rumble of the man's voice, the weight of someone else's cock in his hand - as much as he's ever liked having a hand up some dame's skirt. And that terrifies him. That's dangerous. That's literally illegal, it's a sin, according to everything he's ever been taught. He's not very religious, never has been, but Catholic guilt is hereditary if you're Irish, he's pretty damn sure.
Doesn't stop him from doing it again, two or three times, when the opportunity presents itself.
Azzano, Italy is where it all goes south.
It's a grim but ordinary battle with the Germans right up until it isn't. Right up until some crazy tanks with a red octopus splashed along the side roll up and fire indiscriminately, at Nazis and allied forces alike. The butt of a German rifle hits his head. Things go mercifully dark - no crazy futuristic laser beam cannons, no horrified screams - for a while.
He wakes up a prisoner, being tossed into a cell with the scant remaining members of the 107th. They're put to work, manufacturing weapons for Johann Schmidt of Hydra. Resistance is met with beatings, torture, starvation. Occasionally a small, round man in glasses will pull someone from the cell or the assembly line. None of them ever return.
One day Bucky's luck runs out and Zola chooses him. He's taken to a lab and strapped to a table. Asked questions he refuses to answer with anything other than his name, rank, and serial number. He's poked and prodded with strange devices, injected with concoctions that make every cell feel like it's on fire. He's taken off the table and cut, beaten, zapped with something like a cattle prod, then strapped back down and watched while he heals, just enough for them to do it all over again.
He's left alone in that room on that table for hours at a time, with the knowledge that he's going to die here. That he'll never see the sun again, or eat too many hotdogs at Coney Island, or tell Steve how he feels.
Fuck, if he could just see Steve again, he'd tell him everything he's hidden (even from himself) for so long. It wouldn't be so wrong, would it? The dames don't notice Steve, they don't see past his small frame. Bucky knows Steve is so much more than the frail shell his spirit is housed in. Bucky sees him for who he is, and he's beautiful, and good, and the best and bravest person he knows. He's a stubborn, infuriating pain in the ass, fighting till he's knocked flat to the ground and held there, always goes down swinging.
He'll appreciate Steve, take care of him, love him like he deserves and damn the rest of the world. He will. If he ever gets out of here. If he ever gets one more chance.
It's a chance he knows he'll never get, but he clings to the thought anyway as Zola's experiments bring him further away from himself.
Impossibly, it's Steve who plucks him straight out of hell. Bigger, healthier, stronger than Bucky's ever seen him. It feels surreal, the whole thing, and watching Schmidt peel his face away like a mask does nothing to help him feel more solid.
He feels like the world just stood on its head and he's the only one who didn't get the memo so he's stuck in the free fall instead of clinging to the surface. They make it out and Bucky spends the long march back to base camp staring at Steve and trying to mend the dissonance between what he's seen, what he's endured, who Steve's become, with what Bucky's used to thinking about the world around him.
It's stupid but he's grieving Steve in a way. The guy is right in front of him, whole and healthy, and all Bucky can do is drown himself in missing his best friend as he was instead of as he is. It's stupid and mean spirited, because Steve is healthy now, he's strong, and Bucky shouldn't begrudge him that. He doesn't. He's damn glad Steve's body is no longer a threat to Steve's well-being.
But so much of Bucky's world has changed, and it'd be a lot easier to deal with if Steve didn't change with it.
He sees the way Carter looks at Steve and can't even hate her for it, because she's clearly not just seeing Steve's new, handsome body but straight into the heart of who he is.
This is good for Steve, this is right, he deserves this, not a life spent hiding and lying about who he is and what they are the way he'd have to do with Bucky.
So when he wakes up in the morning after kissing Steve, he buries his feelings deep and pretends he was too drunk to remember, abandoning the promise he'd made himself in Italy.
He falls from a train and is found, more than half-dead, bleeding out into the snow.
They keep him in a metal tube, frozen, until they know what to do with him.
He is back on Zola's table. He is given a new arm. He is given a new gun. He is the New Fist of Hydra.
He is sent to the Red Room to train new recruits - pretty young women in pink ballet costumes. They are weak at the start but molded into deadly elegance by the time their training has ended. Pretty, porcelain dolls come to life and ready to kill.
They bore the Soldier. He teaches them because that is his mission, his job, but he doesn't enjoy it. They are not deadly enough to present a challenge.
Not until Natalia.
She is fire and ice and knocks him flat on his back on the training mat, lighting a spark of interest in him that has remained dormant for as long as he can remember. (He doesn't remember much.)
He teaches her more than the others because she is capable of more. He watches her make her first kill. He sneaks her flowers and trinkets.
She climbs through his bedroom window and they make love, knowing it's dangerous. Knowing it's forbidden.
There is no love or loyalty in the Red Room, not to anything but their mother country.
She helps him remember pieces of his life from before. Not much, just fragments. An American city. A blue eyed man. A name. His name.
They escape but they don't make it far. She is shot, she is dying, bleeding out under his hands. James, the Soldier, panics. He does what he has to do.
He injects her with the serum.
He allows himself to he captured.
If she lives, she'll find him. They made a promise.
He is unmade.
He is broken.
He is beaten, pumped full of electricity, given words that force him to comply.
The Winter Soldier has no past. The Winter Soldier has no future. There is only the target, only the mission.
He kills and kills and kills and kills and kills and kills and kills, for the blond haired, blue eyed man who is his Handler.
Who the hell is Bucky?
Till the end of the line.
He pulls the man from the bridge out of the river and leaves him on the banks.
He sees his own face in a museum and relearns his name.
He watches Steve from afar long enough to ascertain he is safe - still unsure of who he is, whatever recorded history has tried to tell him, just knowing Steve is important.
Then he disappears.
He remakes himself, out of scraps and fragments. Pieced together like a patchwork quilt.
He is James Buchanan Barnes. He is one hundred years old and thirty years old at the same time. He is best friend and childhood companion of Steven Grant Rogers, Captain America.
He was a weapon of Hydra for decades. He's decimated entire families. He's killed countless strangers, and he's killed people he used to know.
He is beyond redemption so he doesn't try. He stays hidden in the shadows.
Bucky is dragged out of hiding when someone bombs the UN in his name.
He fights by Steve's side again, fights for a life he doesn't think he deserves.
When it's all over, Wakanda offers him a chance to heal and he takes it.
Bucky is woken from cryo and told he's okay, that the words Hydra used to control him will no longer work.
He is taken into SHIELD custody and put in the hands of Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow.
It takes a week for him to realize who she is and remember.
Doesn't take much longer for it to fall apart.
It's Bucky's fault. Wakanda has fixed as much as they could, but the aftermath has left him feeling empty and numb. He knows what he's supposed to feel for her but he doesn't, and tries to skate by on faking it as hard as he can.
He should've known she'd see right through that.
It feels like waking up. Like a blurred picture shifting into focus.
Or like in that movie - The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy's house lands and she opens her door and suddenly the world shifts from shades of sepia to full Technicolor.
Bucky looks up from the book he's been reading without really paying attention and finds Steve standing in the doorway. His breath catches in his throat and his heart does... A thing, something he isn't used to anymore, and suddenly he feels. So much. All at once.
He doesn't realize he's even on his feet until he's throwing his arms around Steve, book forgotten on the floor. Steve is solid and real beneath his touch and something slots back into place for Bucky.
"You're back," he says, and thinks - I'm home, I'm really home.