Disclaimer: I own nothing and this is my head-canon.
James Buchanan Barnes: A Winter Soldier Story
Chapter 29 – Reputation
This is it, James conceded. You wanted to do this, now do it. But he couldn't get his mouth to open, couldn't start the flow of words he so desperately needed to get out.
Steve and Natasha were nearby—she stood behind him at the back of the couch with her arms crossed; the super-soldier sat on the other couch where James could see his every expression. The message in Steve's face was clear: You don't have to do this if you don't want to.
Yes, James snapped at himself, I do.
"So, maybe we should start with your name." The reporter chimed in, tucking a brown lock of hair behind her ear and exposing pearl earrings. She, out of the three of them, was sitting closest to James on the black leather couch.
"James Buchanan Barnes," He stated shakily, willing his nerves to settle and reminding himself of why he was doing this.
Because it bit back at Hydra. Because the world would come to the wrong conclusions if he didn't tell them the truth. Because he needed to confess it. And because he needed to confess it to someone that wasn't Steve or Natasha—someone who would be cold and clinical.
He gave her the information the Smithsonian already had on him. He told her about his parents, where they were from, how they ended up in Brooklyn, how and when he met Steve as well as the friendship that budded from that meeting. And then he went on to recount the information the Smithsonian didn't have—the personal things, like how he hadn't liked Peggy very much when they first met.
"Why didn't you like her?" The reporter asked. Her name was Kate, but James didn't feel like acknowledging her name. It made this all that much harder to talk about and it was easier to just pretend she wasn't a person. A person with feelings. A person who would pity him. A person who would try to console him. He didn't want it.
"At the time, I didn't realize it, but she was just another reminder of how different my best friend had become."
Steve looked shocked by this sudden revelation, but held his tongue, waiting for James to go on.
"And how did it go, that first moment when you saw that Steve Rogers wasn't the same man you left behind in America?" Kate—no, stop, the reporter—prompted in a kindly tone. It didn't sound like she was hungry for a story, it sounded like she was a sweet therapist. James would have preferred the other one.
He didn't comment. Didn't tell her his true thoughts on that terrifying moment – buckled to a table within the Hydra base, thinking he'd finally lost his mind and had been hallucinating Steve the entire time, only to find himself walking back to base with his friend and learning that he would never wake up from that dream because it wasn't a dream – and James shrugged indifferently.
Much to her credit, Kate didn't press him for an answer and moved on to another question – but James was already lost in a Bucky flashback and his eyes weren't registering the woman on the couch anymore.
"Don't do anything stupid until I get back."
"How can I? You're taking all the stupid with you."
"You're a punk."
"Steve? What happened to you?"
"I joined the army."
"You were captured months later," The reporter stated, as though she sensed James' need to keep this as factual as possible. Bless her, James didn't need to dwell on the feelings that stirred from just the beginning of his story. How was he ever going to get through the whole thing?
James nodded. "We had no idea what we were up against. We honestly thought that Hydra was just another Nazi weapon depot and we'd taken those out with no problem. I didn't have as many men under me as others did, but I was responsible for them and… if I had known what we were walking into…" His cheek muscles tightened and he willed his jaw not to lock up on him. Going on to describe the mass capture of the 107th, James didn't linger on the details, but made sure to pay tribute to the bravery of the men Zola experimented on before him.
"He didn't know what he was doing," James said of Zola. "He was obviously working on it, trying to fine-tune it, and he blasted one of the men with a beam that incinerated them in seconds." James could almost recall the smell of charred flesh, the sight of black ashes lining the floor of the lab, the roll of his stomach as he helplessly watched from where he was strapped to a table himself. "I think he learned pretty quickly that he couldn't replicate Stark's vita-rays."
"But he kept trying to make Erskine's serum?" The reporter wondered.
"I couldn't have known it at the time, but yes." James nodded, lips pursing as he considered what to say. "I had thought he was trying to make chemical weapons."
Kate's brow furrowed. "What made you think that?"
"Out of all of 'em, I think I had the lesser of the symptoms," James couldn't help but scratch at his arm, remembering the sensation of rashes all over his skin. "But the others had open sores, boils, weeping wounds…"
His hands were covered in boils and he was pretty sure his face had a few sores, but the worst of the rashes were on his neck, at the edge of his hairline. If he didn't go crazy from not being able to scratch, he would definitely die from infection within a week. He'd screamed at the others to stay away when the Nazis brought him back to the barred cell – it was a terrifying thought that he might be contagious and he'd already put them through hell by leading them into this place, he couldn't stand the idea of making it worse by infecting them—but eventually his terror won out and he stopped resisting the hands that tried to care for him. Death would come and he wouldn't have been able to see home again, wouldn't have been able to say goodbye to his sister or Steve, wouldn't…
"Mr. Barnes," Kate's soft voice snapped him out of the brief flashback. Natasha's hand was on his shoulder and Steve was standing over him and restraining his metallic arm. His right arm was wet and stinging… he'd unconsciously scratched at the skin until he'd bled.
"I'm sorry," He said automatically, blinking slowly and grounding himself in Natasha's touch. "Um…" Where did he go from here? James glanced up at Steve with questioning eyes, wanting to keep going but unsure of how to start again, but Steve only looked down at him and shook his head.
"We don't need to tell anymore today," Steve said as he wrapped bandages over James' scratches.
We. That's right. James wasn't in this alone. As much as he might like to think he was, James wasn't the only one reliving these memories—Steve was processing every facet as though their hearts were pounding in unison.
"I can handle more," James said, silently asking if Steve could as well. Nodding hesitantly, Steve returned to his seat and Natasha removed her hand from James' shoulder.
"On your return, Captain Rogers formed the Howling Commandos," The reporter must have sensed James' inability to start speaking again. "You fell from a train on one of the missions." He could hear Kate's unspoken question, but she had sense enough not to ask it outright: What happened next?
This was the big mystery to the public, the reason he was sitting down to this interview, and he suddenly found himself without words. If he could have willed the pictures in his mind onto paper, he would have, but that's not how an interview worked. Words. He could do this. He could use words…
Kate turned her head to look at Steve. "Would you mind filling in the gaps? There were rumors you went to look for a body, but it's been difficult to find the official report."
Steve crossed his arms and sat back, scanning their faces. "As soon as we had Zola, I stole a map and a jeep and went back to the ravine. It wasn't hard to find the right spot, the zip-line was still there and I knew enough math to track where we would have been at the speed the train was going." Steve bit his lip for a moment before continuing and James felt a sudden urge to tell Steve this wasn't necessary, realizing just how hypocritical that sounded in his head.
"Peggy jumped into the back of the jeep before I could stop her and I had a one-track mind, so taking her turn back didn't seem like an option. We found the ravine. We found the river. We kept track of where we were on the map…" Steve's eyes went dead as he remembered.
Listen to "The Cold Sea's Embrace" by Patrick O'Hearn
Damn, he was an idiot. Peggy was holding her own in the snow – thank God she was wearing boots and thick trousers or else he'd have offered to carry her or demand that she stay in the jeep—and she was carrying the map, a compass, and a charcoal pen to mark their progress. But he could hear the wolves. He'd already lost Bucky today, he couldn't fathom watching her get torn apart by wild animals…
"Steve," Peggy's voice was heavy with something—sympathy?—and she was pointing further down the river.
Oh, God. Oh, no. Now that he was here, could Steve bear to look? What a time to lose his nerve… but he drew his eyes to the river and saw what Peggy saw.
"Bucky," Steve breathed, eyes roaming over the snow-covered ground and the slow-trudging water of the river—there was a bloody arm in a blue sleeve. Nothing else. And yet Steve knew it was a piece of his friend. His stomach rolled and his body doubled over without permission, but nothing came up as he gagged uncontrollably. As if on cue, three wolves were trotting around the corner, baring their teeth when they caught sight of him and Peggy.
His vision went red. Steve thought of Bucky and the possibility that he might have been clinging to life beside the stream, only to be discovered by predators and made to suffer worse than just the fall. Steve thought of Peggy—loyal, brave, stubborn Peggy—standing behind him with her gun raised at the wild animals.
He wasn't sure who sprang first, him or the wolves, but with the rage coursing through his veins and the serum supplying him with inhuman strength, the animals were lying in ragged pieces all around him in mere minutes.
Steve felt sick, hands coated in blood and grime, the chest of his uniform stained and wet, lungs heaving and that murderous look in his eye – he couldn't face Peggy. Didn't know if he could ever face her again. He was a monster. He feared this was all Peggy would ever see him as now – that vengeful brute covered in the blood of his enemies.
No one except Steve would ever understand why he'd chosen to crash the airplane into the snow, an act that would inadvertently freeze him and bring him to this time, and the thing he heard most was that he should have saved himself for Peggy's sake. There were whole websites dedicated to the idealistic romance they could have had if he had only found another way…
But when it came down to it, he could never have made it work, not with that nagging idea of her picturing the savage who'd ripped the wolves apart with his bare hands, his animalist roars echoing off of the ravine walls. Even if they'd had their happily ever after and she'd told him that it didn't matter, that she didn't think of him that way, Steve would have known it was a lie. He wasn't the icon everyone thought he was, he was a monster.
James was searching his gaze, waiting for Steve to begin speaking again, and could tell that something was wrong. The furrow of his dear friend's brow caused Steve's heart to lighten, a thought occurring to him: If Bucky could be rehabilitated, then there was hope for Steve. If Bucky could be brought back from the countless horrors, then Steve had a chance at living again, too. And, dear God, how Steve wanted to live again…
"We kept track of where we were on the map and eventually found what we believed to be Bucky's remains," Steve stated calmly. "We would later find out that Bucky had been injured in the fall, but since there were wolves in the area, we went with the assumption that he'd been picked apart."
As cold and factual as it sounded in Steve's ears –compared to the memory he held—Kate's wide eyes showed that she was affected by this information. She turned to Bucky with sympathetic eyes, but Bucky only stared blankly at her. It was understandable that James didn't want her pity, but he could at least let her process all of this at her own pace…
"Hydra put me into cryogenic sleep until Zola was free to experiment again." James continued. "They attached a prosthetic limb to me and had done so a few times with a few different models until I was lent to the Russians."
This was the one part of James' history he knew little about—and wouldn't speak of even if he had. He was aware that he had been a teacher at the Red Room, aware that Natasha had been there as well, but neither of them had been able to piece together much from what had happened there. It had turned his stomach when Natasha said she'd been at the mercy of their brainwashing machines, and he wondered what could have prompted them to use the thing on her. They'd been training her to be lethal, pouring their efforts into sharpening and perfecting her—why would they risk wiping her memory?
Even though they barely spoke of it, the answer had been obvious—he and she had rebelled. Both of them. Together. That was the only conclusion they could draw from fragmented memories and the strange sensation that what they did when they were alone had been built upon from something before. Muscle memory didn't happen overnight…
"Would you be willing to tell me about Hydra's treatment of you?" Kate asked.
James sighed. "It gets complicated. I'm willing to volunteer the information, but I'll need you to ask questions."
"Fair enough," Kate had obviously dealt with people who had said that before. "Tell me about cryogenic sleep."
"The machines evolved, but the principle stayed the same." James supplied blandly. "Freeze the body to preserve it. Bring it out with a specified thawing process, program the mind with basic orders and fundamentals, reinforce programming with discipline, and then freeze the subject again when their use has been fulfilled."
"You said they reinforced programming through discipline. What kind?"
"Electric shock therapy. Burns. Withholding food. Vacuum closets."
"What's a vacuum closet?"
James made a motion with his hands. "A small, pressurized space they can suck the air from."
"They'd put you in there if you resisted them?"
"Sometimes they would even if I didn't. Just to keep it fresh in my memory."
Anger and disgust radiated from Steve and James considered asking him to leave, but Rogers must have seen it in James' face because he shook his head and muttered, "I'm not going anywhere."
"Were you able to remember things between the freezes and the missions?" Kate went on with her questions. It was easier for James to think of her as Kate now. She'd proven she could be objective, maybe he owed it to her to call her by her name in his head.
"I could remember Steve quite a bit. He was still getting me into trouble after all those years—Hydra seemed to think they could beat the memory out of me, but he kept coming back." He smiled, hoping it would encourage his friend, but Steve looked nauseous. James knew he could put two and two together. Memories were resistance, resistance demanded punishment, and Hydra knew no mercy.
"A report says that you denied knowing him to his face. If you could remember Steve, why did you fight against him on the hover-battleship?"
He refused to make eye contact with Steve, but he could feel the other man's eyes watching him, waiting for the same answer.
"They used a new tactic," James mouth felt dry and he swallowed painfully. "They associated him with torture. Made me anticipate…" He tried to swallow again, but his mouth was parched and his throat was jagged. "Made me think that he was going to hurt me if I remembered him." James shook his head. "Didn't help that we were pummeling each other while the heli-carrier was going down. S'not easy convincing someone you don't want to harm them while they're defending themselves from you."
I dislocated your arm… James could see Steve mouthing the words at him in dismay.
Kate cocked an eyebrow at him. "Were there others? Other agents like you?"
Steve's eyes went wide and he leaned forward in his seat. "Does Hydra still have them?"
"I don't know." James shrugged, trying not to think about it too hard. "Hydra would loan them out, like library books, but we've been tearing Hydra apart, Steve. Hard to return a book to a burnt-down library."
Kate snorted at the analogy, but she seemed to understand the implications. "Tell me about your missions."
There was a lot James couldn't have said, a lot he withheld for Steve's sake, and a lot he could see Natasha piecing together anyway, but James attempted to be as honest as he could. He had been a machine—fed orders, living without touch, without identity, efficient due to his lack of sentimentality and morals, and threatening only out of necessity. Kate comprehended the distinction there—he had never been malicious, had never taken pleasure from hurting anyone, and had only done what Hydra had ordered him to do because they had stripped him of the ability to resist.
"But make no mistake," James uttered with a low hiss. "I was unstoppable and I didn't deserve empathy because there was nothing to empathize with."
"Your friends didn't seem to think so," Kate interjected, eyes twitching to Natasha, whom the reporter had obviously realized was more important to James than he was letting on. "You look like you're holding your own now—that can only mean they were right."
Listen to "Emancipation" by Helios
James stretched his arms around Natasha, pulling her closer into him over the mattress, curling around her body and breathing in the scent of her hair. He was tired, grumpy, and couldn't care less that he'd just shared his life's morbid story with another person… a person who intended to make it public. James had given her permission, but it had been quick and desperate, as though he were afraid he'd change his mind at the last moment. And this was that moment in question.
"Tell me I did the right thing," James murmured into Natasha's red locks, taking in a deep breath.
"You wanted to fight alongside Steve, but you couldn't do that unless you released a statement that could be verified with what is now publically-accessible proof. You would've been locked up otherwise."
James snorted. Well, it wasn't exactly an encouragement, but he heard the message well enough: the ends justify the means—you get what you want, at the cost of some privacy.
Natasha's soft kisses to his chest were distracting and her fingers at the waistband of his shorts was even more so. "Stop trying to give in to your angst—you've got more important things to think about."
He shuddered under her touch, inhaling sharply. "Like the beautiful woman trying to seduce my troubles away?"
"No, like what your new superhero getup will look like." Natasha grinned, rolling him onto his back and stretching herself over him. "I'm thinking bright blue and fire-engine red to compliment Captain America's original tights. Maybe a small black mask so we can still see your handsome cheekbones."
With a hand over his face, James groaned and attempted to squirm out from under her. "God save me…"
"Red boots that flare at the folds, bulky gloves with—"
"Natasha, shut up." He growled, spinning himself to pin her down beneath him, kissing her to keep her lips from uttering the rest.
re`pu`ta`tion: belief or opinion that someone or something has a particular habit or characteristic
So, 'Sir' went to donate blood and ended up getting sick this last week and a dear family friend in the military has gone missing. In other words, I've been busy taking care of my husband and worrying about my brother. If you have a moment, please pray that we find him. He's been gone a week and has deleted his Facebook and won't answer his phone. I don't care what he's done or where he is, I just need to know that he's okay… D, if you're reading this (small chance, but I'll still take it!) we love you no matter what—please just be safe and come home soon.
One more chapter, my friends, and then this specific story is done—there are a series of one-shots that will be added to it, but the chapter session of The Rehabilitation of James Buchanan Barnes will be done the next time I update.
I'm toying with the idea of a Sam Wilson story because that man just does not get enough love.
If you have any prompts, please let me know! These are the ones I plan on doing soon:
*Steve Rogers becomes small again and must find his new place among the Avengers while dealing with an overprotective James "Bucky" Barnes and questioning his relationship with Sharon Carter
*When a baby shows up on Tony's doorstep, the Avengers aren't sure what to think, but after a week the infant disappears, only to show up now and again over the years. And how are they to take the news that the little girl is Steve Roger's daughter? AND Bucky Barnes'?
*It's April Fool's day and Tony decides to prank everyone living in Avengers tower. When James finds a positive pregnancy test in his bathroom trashcan, he confronts the billionaire to tell Stark he's gone too far—but Stark didn't plant it, so who did? And what is James supposed to think when he mentions it to Natasha and she responds with, "It's not yours."
*How did Sharon and Steve keep their relationship a secret from the others for so long?
Response to reviews:
TardisAJB: Thank you for your encouragement—Yes, Sharon and Steve! :D – and thank you for your comment about the characters' reactions being accurate (I nitpick over the little things in the hopes that it sounds feasible!)
RukiaDeathKuchiki: :D I'm so glad you like it! Sorry about the lag, that was the longest I've gone without updating quickly :P
KnowInsight: Hugs! :D Thank you! Sharon's pretty cool, I wish they'd featured more of her, but I imagine they'll do more in Captain America: Civil War (here's hoping, anyway)
Guest: Oh my goodness, you made me so happy with your review! Thank you!
Avengers 2015: I'm so glad you liked it! :)