A/N: Many thanks to Lady Pandora for her endless hours of listening to me talk about my ideas, and for all the Betas she's done over the years.
Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage we did not take,
towards the door we never opened, into the rose garden.
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Echoes in the Memory
Steve opened the bulkhead door with his elbow and tossed Bucky ammo for his empty weapon. Together they took out Red Skull's soldier.
"I had 'im on the ropes," Bucky said, both men standing over the dead soldier.
"I know you did," Steve answered with complete honesty, and Bucky believed him.
The whine of an energy weapon alerted them to the presence of another of Red Skull's men. Steve jumped in front of Bucky, bringing the shield up. "Get down!"
The blast tore a hole in the side of the train, knocking both men for a loop. The shield lay in front of Bucky. He picked it up, using it to protect Steve as his friend had done for him seconds before. He fired at the heavily armed soldier, holding tight to the shield.
Another blast from his opponent's weapon hit the shield, throwing Bucky out the gaping hole in the side of the train. At the last second, he managed to grab onto a bent and twisted metal pipe. The icy cold wind tore at his clothes, chilling his hands and face so thoroughly he could barely feel them.
Steve came to the opening. "Bucky!" He climbed out and started toward him. "Hang on!" When he got close enough, he reached out. "Grab my hand!"
Holding on with just his left hand, the fingers frozen to the metal, Bucky strained to reach Steve's outstretched hand, his muscles cramping in the cold. The pipe shifted and one of the rivets popped off, grazing his cheek. Closing his eyes, Bucky resigned himself to dying is this frozen hell.
Then, just as the pipe ripped free, Steve's hand clamped around his wrist. Steve pulled hard, nearly dislocating Bucky's shoulder. His left hand came free of the icy metal, ripping several layers of skin from his palm. They landed on the floor of the train, panting hard and holding onto each other, glad to be alive.
Bucky felt himself sliding toward the hole as the train followed a curve in the tracks. Fearing death, he grabbed for any handhold. His head spun as he was picked up under the arms and carried to the next car. The door closed, and through the foggy mass of cold, fear, and pain, he saw Steve's fist slam into the controls, rendering them inoperative.
Gloved hands grasped either side of his head, forcing it up. Steve's face swam in front of him, blurry, his voice barely audible. Bucky swallowed the bile that tried to fill his mouth when Steve shook him. "Bucky! Say something. Are you hurt?"
Pushing Steve's hands away, Bucky leaned against the pile of metal crates, again rubbing his eyes with the heel of one hand while he did an internal check. Nodding, he propped that hand on his upraised knee. "Don't think so. You?"
Steve chuckled. "I'm okay, but you're bleeding."
"Oh, God! Where?"
"Hold still." He felt hands patting his pockets, pulling something out. Steve yanked off his gloves, and used the wrinkled handkerchief to bandage Bucky's left hand. "You'll live."
"Yay." The lack of enthusiasm in his voice worried Bucky, but there wasn't much he could do about it now. They had a mission to complete. He got to his feet, tugged his blue jacket down, and let out a deep breath. "Let's get this done. That b***** isn't getting away this time."
Somewhere in Europe
In the bombed-out remains of the pub where the Howling Commandoes had spent their first night as a team, Steve and Bucky sat quietly drinking whatever alcoholic beverages they could find. Bucky swayed in his seat as he tried to bring the glass to his mouth, only succeeding in spilling it in his lap.
Grinning, Steve pulled Bucky to his feet and threw him over his shoulder. Bucky made gagging noises. "Oh-oh. I'm gonna be sick."
"It's your own fault, Buck. I told you Dr. Erskine said that the serum wouldn't just affect my muscles. It would affect my cells. Create a protective system of regeneration and healing. My metabolism burns four times faster than the average person."
"Wh' zat mean in English?"
"It means I can't get drunk."
Bucky groaned as Steve carried him down the street to HQ, past the guards and into the bunkroom. Steve laid his friend on a lower bunk, removed his holster and weapon, stashing them under his pillow before removing Bucky's boots, and covering him with a blanket. Steve pulled out his toiletry kit, and had gone only a few steps when Bucky called out, "Thanks for saving my life, Steve."
Steve returned to crouch next his friend's bedside. "You're welcome, Bucky. Does it make up for all the times you kept me from getting beat up?"
Rolling onto his side, Bucky blinked at Steve. "N-n-n-nope." He pulled the blanket up over his head and appeared to fall asleep.
Getting to his feet, Steve whispered, "Jerk," as he walked away.
Bucky's muffled voice called out, "Punk."
It was a ritual they'd engaged in since they were boys.
In the latrine, Steve washed his face and brushed his teeth, feeling more than a little guilty for goading Bucky into a drinking contest he had no hope of winning. On the upside, Steve did put a stop to it before his friend passed out. He'd have one hell of a hangover in the morning though.
Steve changed into pajamas, and returned to the bunkroom. He checked on Bucky one last time, climbed into the upper bunk, and looked up at the ceiling, hands laced behind his head.
At this moment, Colonel Phillips was interrogating Zola. Steve and Bucky had wanted to be there, but the man refused to speak to anyone else. Or rather, Phillips hadn't given him a choice. Whatever Zola had done to Bucky and the others hadn't had any long-term effects aside from providing the men with greater stamina and slightly faster healing. The wounds on Bucky's hand had healed in days instead of weeks. Because they hadn't yet been subjected to experimentation, the rest of the Howling Commandoes weren't told. Steve and Bucky, by mutual unspoken agreement, never mentioned it either.
In the morning, Phillips let them know that Zola had changed his allegiance, and was now working for the Allies. Privately, Steve thought it wasn't worth almost losing his best friend to remove Zola from the Schmidt's influence.
A Few Weeks Later
Steve's fight with Schmidt ended with the demented Nazi's death, but there was still the matter of the missiles designated for major US cities.
Taking control of the plane, he activated the radio. "Come in. This is Captain Rogers. Do you read me?"
"Steve!" Never had Steve been so happy to hear his best friend's voice, to know that he'd made it out alive. "What's your…"
Peggy interrupted Bucky, and in the background, he could hear them switching seats. "Steve, is that you? Are you alright?"
"Peggy, Schmidt's dead."
"What about the plane?" Trust her to think of the greater good.
Hands on the control yoke, Steve held the plane level as best he could with it shaking. "That's a little bit tougher to explain."
He heard Peggy whisper urgently to someone in the background. "Give me your coordinates. I'll find you a safe landing site."
Steve didn't want to do what he knew had to be done, but there was no choice, and he had to make Peggy see it too. "There's not gonna be a safe landing. But I can try and force it down."
"I'll get Howard on the line. He'll know what to do." He hadn't thought Peggy was afraid of anything, but now, she sounded almost desperate. There wasn't time to wonder what that might mean for the two of them if he got out of this alive. With each passing second, his chances got slimmer, and someone had to be the strong one. Before, it was Peggy. It was his turn now.
"There's not enough time. This thing's moving too fast, and it's heading for New York. I got to put her in the water."
Bucky replaced Peggy just for a moment. "Don't be a punk, Steve. We have time. We can work it out."
"Right now, I'm in the middle of nowhere. If I wait any longer, a lot of people are gonna die, Buck." He paused to let the implications set in. "Peggy?"
He wished he could see her face on more time. He'd have to be content with the photo of her in his compass. "Peggy, this is my choice."
The roaring of the engines as he aimed it toward the ocean almost drowned out Steve's voice. "Peggy?"
"I'm here." Peggy's voice was strained, emotional, but she couldn't help it. They both knew if this didn't get done, millions of people would die.
"I'm gonna need a rain check on that dance."
She sniffed, injecting false cheerfulness into her voice. "Alright. A week, next Saturday, at the Stork Club."
"You got it." Hearing the smile in Steve's voice helped somewhat.
"Eight o'clock on the dot. Don't you dare be late! Understood?"
He hesitated, and Peggy almost lost it. "You know I still don't know how to dance."
Knowing this would be the last time they spoke, tears welled up in her eyes. "I'll show you how. Just be there."
"We'll have the band play something slow. I'd hate to step on your-"
Static burst out of the speakers, drowning out Steve's voice.
Frantic, Peggy heard her voice rising. "Steve? Steve?" A single tear escaped and rolled down her cheek. "Steve?"
Silence greeted her final entreaty as Bucky's hand squeezed her shoulder.
New York City
Steve slowly became aware of his surroundings. A radio played softly, not loud enough to cover the sounds of traffic. Everything about the room, the bed, the radio, his clothes, all told him he'd somehow survived ditching Schmidt's plane in the North Atlantic. But how could that be? There were three missiles on board, and it hadn't been an easy landing. He sat up on the side of the bed.
The door opened, and a pretty redhead came in. "Good morning. Or should I say, afternoon."
Everything about her seemed just a little off. Sure, her uniform, hairstyle, and make-up were perfect. Too perfect. "Where am I?"
"You're in a recovery room in New York City."
Something was wrong. The game being broadcast couldn't be live. Steve looked at the woman with suspicion. She saw it, and a flicker of fear shown in her eyes. "Where am I really?"
Her smile faltered. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
He nodded at the radio. "The game. It's from May 1941. I know, 'cause I was there." Getting up from the bed, he took a step toward her. "Now, I'm gonna ask you again. Where am I?"
The next few minutes seemed to happen very quickly. A fully armed squad broke into the room. Steve dispatched them as if they were nothing. He broke through the wall, showing it to be fake, part of a movie set. Behind him, the woman called out, "Captain Rogers, wait!"
But he kept running through the halls and out into the street. He felt trapped in a nightmare where he'd been transported to another planet. There were too many lights, too many people, too much noise. Just… too much. Of everything. He skidded to a stop when several large military type vehicles blocked his path.
"At ease, soldier!" Panting from his run and the strangeness of his surroundings, Steve spun around. The man stood tall and straight in spite of his years. The patch over his left eye added to the disorienting effect. "Look, I'm sorry about that little show back there, but we thought it best to break it to you slowly."
"You've been asleep, Cap. For almost seventy years." In shock, Steve was unable to immediately respond. The older man peered at him with concern. "You gonna be okay?"
Physically, he felt fine. It was his brain-and heart-that hurt. "Yeah. Yeah, I just… I had a date."
The other man's long coat billowed as he approached with his hand out. Steve took it automatically. "Nick Fury. Director of SHIELD."
"SHIELD?" Fury motioned, and Steve followed, his eyes unable to stop scanning the buildings and people around him.
"In your day, it was called the Strategic Scientific Reserve." Another of the soldiers in black opened the rear door of one of the vehicles. His chest was covered with a thick vest, making him look as if he had overdeveloped pectorals. "These men will take you back to the SHIELD facility. Someone will be assigned to bring you up to date on what's been happening since you went into the ice. They'll show you around, answer any questions you have, and once you're settled, we'll talk again."
Steve nodded, and the door closed. Fury smacked the top of the vehicle, and the driver pulled into traffic followed by two more vehicles.
That night, lying in a strange bed in a strange world, Steve thought about those he'd left behind. Bucky, Peggy, the Howling Commandoes, Howard Stark, even Colonel Phillips.
On the table was a thin flat device called a laptop. It connected him to the rest of the world in an instant, allowing him to access the entirety of human knowledge. Yet, the first time he used it he spent thirty minutes watching recordings of cats. The redhead who'd been there when he woke up-she gave her name as SHIELD Agent Amanda Ryder-had been dressed quite differently in dark slacks, a matching jacket, and white blouse. Her hair was still loose, falling past her shoulders. But gone was the dramatic make-up the women had worn in the forties. Steve found that he didn't miss it as much as he thought. He liked the natural look much better.
Rolling out of bed, Steve opened the laptop, and accessed the Internet, typing "Bucky Barnes" in the search field. His finger hovered over the enter key, uncertain if he really wanted to know how his best friend had died. Resolutely, he pressed the button, and was pleasantly surprised by what he found.
"(General) James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes (born 10 March 1917) is the childhood friend of Steve Rogers AKA Captain America, (4 July 1918 - 7 August 1945, MIA, presumed dead). At the start of his military career, he was a member of an elite special unit of Allied soldiers formed during World War II, known as the Howling Commandos…"
It went on to recount Bucky's career in the Army, his retirement at the age of sixty-eight with the rank of General, and his return to the public sector. His current address was listed as Washington D.C. Less than a year ago, Bucky campaigned for, and had been put in charge of creating a Howling Commandos exhibit at the Smithsonian. Under relatives, Steve found the name of Bucky's wife, Connie, deceased. Steve wondered if she was the same Connie who had gone to the Stark Expo as Bucky's date. Her friend Bonnie had been Steve's date, and like always, had ignored him, even when he offered food and drink.
Smiling, Steve shook his head at the fact that Bucky and Connie had four children, numerous grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The one and only time he'd seen his friend near a baby, he looked at the child as if he were a bomb about to go off, never mind holding him.
Scrolling down, he found a recent photo listing Bucky's age as in his nineties, though he looked much younger. It led Steve to wonder what had happened to his friend before he found him in that disgusting lab.
He closed that tab, and opened another, typed in "Peggy Carter", and hit enter before he could change his mind.