June 15, 2017:

Cutscene. The past, present, and uncertain future of James Buchanan Barnes.


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jane Foster, Steve Rogers, Peggy Carter, John Constantine, Zatanna Zatara, Jessica Jones, Matt Murdock

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

1931: Coney Island, New York.

"I don't think we have enough train money to get home, anymore."

"Well, where'd it all go?"

"Don't look at me. I only went on the Cyclone once."

"Hold up, Bucky. The price went up on the Cyclone. That's where our last nickel went. Didn't you pay attention to how much it cost before you got on?"

"Aw, c'mon, Steve. This just makes us even for the time Fred punched you so hard you puked all over my shirt."

Fortunately for Bucky, Steve notices a milk cart still finishing its route in the area before he can answer. The sight of it interrupts the boys' argument — they know it's their best bet getting home. They hitch a ride on its back, side by side, legs dangling, heading home together at a comfortable five miles an hour.

They're fourteen and their whole lives are ahead, but there's nothing on their minds now except gladness Steve was well enough to go out on this one day.

1936: Brooklyn, New York.

"I can't see a way clear to stay in college," he admits to his father. "Not with how hard things are."

The disappointment in his father's eyes is clear, but also brief. They're not so bad off as most, but they're not what they used to be, either, and reality is a harsh mistress. "I wish you would consider it," he says anyway. "Your mother and I can make do."

James shakes his head, a slow thoughtful gesture. "Save it for Rebecca. She likes books better than me, anyway. I'd rather be working."

Rebecca does go to college eventually, in 1942, with money saved by her brother's forbearance. She writes letters to him about her classes, and he writes back from the Western Front.

1942: Oran, French Algeria.

His first time firing at other human beings comes almost exactly one year after his enlistment, at the tail end of forty-eight hours of wakefulness, when the exhaustion and strain are so taut in his body that his skin feels like it's buzzing. There has been no rest ever since their landing on the coast west of Oran on November 8th, nothing but loud noises and horrifying smells that play havoc with the imagination.

On the open beaches, sound carries. The intermittent drone of P-40s overhead. The distant shattering boom of cannon fire between the Allied invasion fleet, and the Vichy French vessels out at sea. The saber-rattling chatter of exchanged gunfire.

In a pressure cooker where every passing sound could mean sudden death, men get rendered down into bundles of raw, exposed nerves. Private James Buchanan Barnes is not immune. His fingers itch. He prays nobody in his unit's dumb enough to surprise him without warning, because he has a feeling he'd instantly shoot.

They wind up in a chaotic firefight, in Mediterranean surf already turning red with blood. He fires almost all his rounds high in panic, though he watches one of his bullets inadvertently hit a Frenchman in what looks like his shoulder. He has no idea if it's a mortal wound, if he killed the man he hit, because in the next second the confused throng of bodies low-tides out like the pulling surf around their ankles, and the man is gone.

His first actual kill does not come until later, during the push into Tunisia. He's a corporal now, so it's his lucky task to lead an ambush to deal with a machine gun nest pinning down a few of their units near Kasserine Pass. The terrain is bad and there's no easy way to approach, but they manage it up until the moment of attack.

It turns ugly, there. He loses his rifle and winds up in a brief, bare-handed animal struggle with the gunner. He's still got his knife, however, and that's what winds up going into the gunner's left eye.

It's not his intention. It's just the only readily-reachable target.

Little sticks in his mind about those nightmarish seconds. He mostly just remembers the aftermath: stumbling away, vomiting quietly, then praying. But the one thing that does, is how easy it was to slide the knife in.

1945: The Swiss Alps.

There is nothing but the cold. It is so cold he cannot even feel the pain.

In the years to come, he will wish to God that this was where he died.

1956: The Red Room.

"Smirna," the command rings across the floor. Five young girls snap to attention. This is their graduation test. Only one will pass.

He moves among them, judging their talents, evaluating their skill. They are supposed to attempt to kill him, but everyone knows their real test will be living long enough to impress him. Their opponents are both him and one another, no holds barred, no clear rules to delineate who to attack when, or where.

The least aggressive girl among them is torn apart by her classmates ten seconds into the engagement. The remainder gang up like a pack, the better to live through his attentions.

He kills two outright with sharp blows from his left arm. They do not have the temperament. The remaining two have the requisite canny ferocity, and they snap at one another even as they circle and test him.

In the end, one grows overconfident. She attacks carelessly, and lets herself be caught. He snaps her leg in two places and drops her like meat, and the last girl standing does what she is trained to do. She feeds on the weakness.

He passes her. Then he invites her to attack him alone, and instantly breaks her limbs to show her how far she has yet to go.

The remainder of the day he spends in idleness. He is not sure where his mind goes when he is not working — he seems to lose stretches of time, sometimes — but it does not bother him, nor seem odd. Yakov Vasilevich Morozov did not have much of a life before becoming the Winter Soldier, anyway — or so he was told. He remembers little of his own past, prior to the grenade he's told took his arm and most of his memories on the Eastern Front.

Later that night, a shadow steals into his quarters: a young woman he graduated in a trial like this years ago, who he has been further grooming into a living engine of death. Red-headed and willowy with youth, her dark blue eyes are freshly awakened to a sort of question for which their owner has, as of yet, no answer. He has no answer for that question either, but there is an animal comfort in her warmth, and he has been tired and cold enough to take it.

He is starting to think he might actually care for her, right before the decision is made to return him to freeze.

1979: Kabul, Afghanistan.

The name of the game is provokatsiya. Create a crisis, and twist it to good use.

He has just made a kill that will churn the seas of impending war.

The next day, he will burn an orphanage. The world will blame rebels, insurgents, guerilla elements, because that is how it will look, but he carries the truth in his memory. His alone is the sound of treble voices screaming.

He lingers to ensure the job is done correctly. The smell is stamped indelibly into his memory by the time the structure is ash.

1991: Long Island, New York.

The ink of his sale by the dying Soviet Union is still drying on paper, when Hydra unpacks and resets him again for the first time since the Fifties.

By the time it is over, he is in no condition to know that his second homeland has sold him away.

Since his reclamation by his original masters, life has seemed one long continuous sleep, punctuated by brief dreams of a confusing, nightmarish, and savage quality. In his dreams, people inflict pain on him, and then he inflicts pain on others.

In this dream, someone is saying a name to him. Or is it his name? He does not know. Why did he think of such a thing? He kills the man to stop those questions. He kills the man's wife because she is there.

2017: Ozone Park, New York.

A familiar voice is screaming. He is not allowed to watch, but he can hear. They underestimate the sharpness of his senses.

Somewhere, Jane Foster is being punished for her failure to see what she is supposed to see. Some part of him feels a sliver of pity, but most of him just feels impatient for her to join him.

If she will just accept that what is told to her is law, then the pain will be over.

Now: The Raft, the Atlantic.

Prison is bad enough, without the whole thing being underwater. When the seas are particularly stormy, the whole thing rocks, and vague seasickness adds to the misery of incarceration.

Most of the time, the vague sway of the prison-ship and his own thoughts keep him awake, but sometimes he is unlucky enough to fall asleep. His dreams span a century, and they are rarely fantastical. His mind only has to replay memories to furnish nightmares for him.

The night before the bail hearing, it gives him a hell of a sampling. Eight different parts of his life, across eighty-six years. He wakes sweating and shaking, reaching instinctively towards his right, but Jane isn't there.

The morning after the bail hearing, he's allowed to take a call from an Ida Proctor. He can't place the name up until he remembers his little sister eventually became a Proctor, five years after his death.

That does not prepare him, in any way, shape, or form, for what kind of conversation to expect when he accepts the call. It does not prepare him to hear the crackly voice of a woman in her late sixties at least — the voice of a woman he still regards as 'old' compared to himself — telling him in neutral tones that she is his niece.

"Technically a Salk now, but I assumed you wouldn't get it unless you heard the Proctor. You know that much from visiting Ma, I'd hope. I thought she was just having one of her episodes when she insisted you'd come to see her, walked right back out of the grave not a day older than you died." Ida's voice, over the phone, rasps with age and a lifetime of smoking. "Her darling big brother. I see now you really did."

"It took me long enough to," James says, after a long silence.

"Indeed it did. And a fine way for her darling big brother to conduct himself, keeping her waiting so long," she chides. There's a brief pause on the line, a clicking, like she's lighting up.

"Ma kept photos of you on the mantel," she resumes with an exhale. "Photos and that damned service flag. She and Grandma talked about you all the time. 'Look — your poor brave Uncle James, who went to war, and never came home.' Like growing up with a ghost. And now here you are." Another sigh breathes over the receiver. "And you look exactly the damn same as those photos."

"I wouldn't say exactly the same," James says, because he has no idea what else to say.

"No," Ida laughs. "I guess not, Uncle. I suppose that's what I ought to call you, though you're the spitting image of one of my own sons. My charming young uncle who never got the chance to grow old. Except you did, didn't you?"

There are a thousand meanings in what Ida says, and James hears them all. "Yes," he says. "I did."

Hours before he's to be released on bail, a guard name-tagged 'Erikson,' escorting him back to his cell, tries to provoke him to fuck it all up for himself. But James will not respond, not even when it escalates from taunts to a beating on the very threshold of his cell.

A few minutes in, with James still not having said a word nor lifted a hand to fight back, Erikson finally stops.

"You're not just a fucking traitor, then, I guess," he spits. "You're also a fucking coward."

James sits against the wall where he's propped himself up. He looks up with numb patience. There's a smell in the air of something personal, a certain way this man's eyes glint with a hurt papered thinly over by hate, and nothing he can say will ever salve something personal.

These things, people have to work out for themselves. The best way they know how.

"You know," Erikson eventually says, "When I was a kid, I always wished I coulda met you. You were so goddamned tragic. Only one of the Commandos who died for his country. I went into Army Special Forces because of you. Not a man in there that didn't look up to you in some way, cause you were the first of us. You know that?"

He spits on the floor beside James. "And this is what you really were, all along."

Hauling him up, he herds him the rest of the way back, into his cell.

James is silent and unmoving until the echoes of Erikson's footsteps die away. Then he sits down on the floor, braces his back against one wall, and rests his head tiredly down on his folded arms.

The woman implanting the RFID chip for him has not made up her mind about him. He can tell instantly by her avoidance of his eyes, and the clinical way she handles the entire procedure. Those who have made up their minds about him regard him with some emotion in their gaze, whether hatred or pity.

This woman has nothing but professionalism, even for the way he breaks out in obvious cold sweat at the sight of the needle touching his skin. Even for the way he tenses in his chair. She presses on his hand for stillness, and with an effort he tries to quell the shaking.

“How do you feel?” she asks, more out of habit than interest in the answer. She's seen thousands of nervous patients in her time, and if the Winter Soldier happens to be one, well, what is that to her?

How do you feel, Sergeant Barnes? a different voice echoes in his mind, across the decades. Male. Soft-spoken. Patient, always patient.

"How do you feel, Sergeant Barnes?"

He feels on fire, like bees are tunneling under his skin, like there's thistles in his eyes, but that's too many words for his dehydration-thick tongue to manage. The straps binding him down on the gurney are drawn too tight, leaving him in a constant state of breathlessness. His brain buzzes dully, thinking at a quarter its usual speed, with the aimless, background panic of an animal suffering perpetual low-level oxygen starvation.

"Burns," he hisses through grit teeth, because that's the shortest word he can manage that describes what he feels, and if he doesn't say something he'll be punished. Or worse, his cellmates will be, and they're all looking to him, he's the highest-ranking man left, nothing but a bunch of buck privates and corporals left under his care. Zola harvested the COs first. Stood to reason Hydra's new Übermensch should come from the higher ranks. But none of them worked, and now Zola's picking through the enlisted.

"Where does it burn, Sergeant Barnes?"

James could have taken it if Zola did not use his rank and name. Could have handled some form of dehumanizing address, some reference as an object, an animal, an unthinking thing with no purpose but to suffer in the course of its molding into something monstrous. The incongruity of that respectful address with his actual treatment is too much, and like to drive him mad if he has to hear it much more —

"Everywhere," he says, obedient despite the shame of his obeisance. Defiance buys him nothing but the guaranteed suffering of his cellmates. He knows he will die here, on this table, writhing in agony, another lab rat scratched off and thrown on the heap. But he doesn't have to bring anyone else with him.

Arnim Zola records the observation, and the time — fifteen minutes — since injection. He speaks, but not to James. "Take him back to the pen. Bring Corporal Bergman, if you would."

The journey back is agony. The gurney is not a smooth ride, and every jounce is a poker on the fire burning in his blood. He thinks he's delirious, because someone keeps saying "Mr. Barnes," in the background, and it's jarring, because no one here should be calling him anything but Sergeant, or prisoner, or nothing at all. Mr. Barnes is his father, not him. Where is his father? He wants his father. He wants his mother. He's twenty-six, and he's going to die on a table like a dog.

"Mr. Barnes?"

He realizes slowly where and when he is, and that people have been talking to him for — some amount of time. How much? He seems to be somewhere different than where he was before. The needle is gone, he's lying down on a gurney — he suppresses the instinctive panic — and nurses are asking him if he can hear them.

He does not answer at first. He's still trying to come back from 1943, from that prisoner-of-war camp in the Alps. From his first encounter with the deceptively-innocuous Dr. Arnim Zola.

“Yes,” he finally says, through a mouth gone dry. “I can. I'm fine. Were we finished?”

They were not. This time he grits his teeth and manages to endure through the chipping. Not looking helps, even though it makes him feel less a man.

He can feel the chip itching under his skin, even tiny as it is, the entire way back to Jane’s apartment. Still Jane's apartment, in his mind. It is tempting to think of it as 'home,'' but he resists the urge. Most of him still thinks of the small brownstone he left in 1942 as home. Most of him still misses the parents he left when he was twenty-four, and who he never had the chance to see again before their deaths.

He closes his eyes in the car, leaning his head against the window. His thoughts stray back to that lost span of time, and where his mind was. Back to that freezing month spent under the needle and knife, before Steve showed up in a changed body and pulled him out.

He remembers the day he got an injection that did not hurt — that made him feel alive and awake and like tearing apart the world at its very seams. The memories are hazy, but he thinks he remembers attacking the guards. He remembers their bodies hitting the ceilings, the walls, the way their bones broke in his hands and the look of their blood on the floor. He remembers the look of understated pleasure on Zola's mousy face, when he's finally subdued and brought back to the labs.

The next few injections vary. Some produce that same euphoria. Some make him deathly sick, more sick than any of the previous formulas. He can tell something is being tweaked in his veins, finalized through brutal trial and error.

But what Sergeant James Barnes also notices is that no one else is brought to the labs now — only him — and that gives him something to hold on to through the pain. Through the fear.

And he is afraid. Something is being made of him. He is less himself each day, and more something else.

Something else, he thinks, like Steve is something else when he shows up to save him and everyone else (though in his case, it is only a several-year stay of execution, and in a few years he'll be back under Zola's knife). So his first question is whether it hurt, and when Steve says, "A little," he can't tell whether the feeling in his chest is relief, commiseration, or envy.

The press are relentless in vulture circling around the case, seeking interviews with anyone whose life was touched by the Winter Soldier in some way. There are more than enough people hungry to come forward and speak, and so there is never a dull moment in the coverage.

My son died in Afghanistan, in 1981, stepping on a mine.

My father was a KGB defector. He was killed by this man, with a knife. I was a child, and he did it before my eyes.

My mother was at the Madripoor embassy when it was bombed. She was renewing her passport.

I lost my brother during the Romanian Revolution. He was shot by the Securitate, in the confusion. The riots had escalated so far that they were shooting anything that moved.

Not all of these victims are young, as so many of his crimes are old. Middle-aged women speak of their lost parents. Grandfathers, their lost children. But when they speak, the pain in their voices is undimmed, and the tears come as freely as they did when the wounds were fresh.

He watches all the coverage. The television is always on, always tuned to a channel where interviews are being given. Jane tries to tell him, once, not to watch this, that he doesn't have to. He does not answer, and she does not bring it up again.

There is pain in the faces of his victims, but there is also catharsis. They speak with relief of the fact that something is finally being done. The fact their lives were torn apart by someone's active malice, and not mere happenstance, is finally being acknowledged. Even the ones who express some understanding of this 'Winter Soldier's' situation focus on that last part — that finally, the thing that broke apart their whole lives is no longer being brushed off or waved away as accident or the vagaries of fate.

They are finally being believed, and a sort of justice is finally being done.

He feels that catharsis to be the only thing he can give back to them, in penance for what he took.

He hasn't seen the stars since he got out on bail. It's been overcast day after overcast day. James wonders if God is trying to tell him something — or he would, if his faith hadn't burned out of him decades ago.

He goes up to the roof each night to check the sky, though. The stars have always grounded him, in a strange way, and even more so ever since they became the little guiding lights Jane Foster used to bring him out from the prison of the Winter Soldier.

Maybe it's their universality. He used to look at them when he was homesick, deployed in London or North Africa or Italy, and find comfort in the fact his family and Steve could see the same ones back home. He finds himself using them as touchstones for a much longer list, these days.

Steve Rogers, in between missions of force and missions of peace, finding a few moments for silent, bent-head prayer.

Peggy Carter, a shield between the world and all that would threaten it, unbowed despite the scorn of the very people she would serve.

Jessica Jones, a constant and quiet pillar of support, a woman who understands far more intimately than most just what it feels like to be a passenger in your own body.

John Constantine, just as reticent and guarded as he is, but on rare occasions the only person to cut in close — to ask the questions he knows must be asked, because the guilt in his heart is a twin to James'.

Zatanna Zatara, sweet and thoughtful and fiercely devoted, unfailing and unflinching in her readiness to come to his aid. From the very start, determined to save him from the Winter Soldier.

Matt Murdock, young and in over his head, but ready to meet the battles ahead — taught since childhood to fight uphill, against all odds, always getting back up.

Jane Foster. Jane, whose hands are of a sudden on his shoulders, and whose lips brush against his shorn-short hair. For once, he did not hear her come up to the roof.

He doesn't look back. He knows she is there. Since he walked into her life, she has always been there.

He looks up, instead. The clouds have parted, just a little.

"There is Polaris," he says, and leans back into her arms.

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