"…there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them"
H. P. Lovecraft, The Tomb
When she wakes, the world is cold and white.
Sakura blinks, hands relaxing from their clenched position as she looks around. There is nothing but white stretching as far as her eyes can see. It reminds her of snow but as she bends to touch it, it isn't cold. Nor is it all a solid, uniform substance.
Sakura frowns as she lifts the long white feather between two fingers, rubbing the downy texture. It is a field of feathers.
She digs her hands into the mess of them, wondering how exactly she came to be there. Her brows furrow as she draws a blank. There is just…nothing.
She feels like she's hit some sort of wall.
Her name is Haruno Sakura and she is a shinobi of…somewhere. The harder she tries to grasp it, this thing that is on the tip of her tongue, the further away it runs.
Her hands clench in the feathers, trying to find some sort of substantial hold, something to anchor her to reality.
With a frustrated huff, she stands back up and takes in her surroundings once more. There are no landmarks, nothing to point in a direction to roam. Still, she refuses to stay and sit here, acting the damsel.
For some reason, the very idea puts a bitter taste on her tongue.
So she chooses a direction and strides off purposefully.
Sakura does her best to ignore the eerie prickling at the back of her neck, the utter sense of wrongness about this place. The sky, if it can truly be called that, is as white as the ground beneath her and there is no way to really distinguish the two. She notices the lack of celestial bodies in the sky and finds her pace picking up.
She doesn't understand this place, wherever it is.
Even her outfit, a plain tunic and pants, is as white and pristine as her environment.
Sakura continues on for a time, not knowing if it has been minutes or hours or even days. There is no way to tell. She doesn't find herself hungry or fatigued or parched for water. Somehow, those mortal worries do not apply here.
She falls into a sort of daze, just automatic motion, but she still catches the exact moment the landscape changes.
In front of her is something bright and shiny on the ground.
Sakura darts forward, falling to her reverently beside the thing that has finally broken the monotony of her environment. She frowns.
It's an arm.
It appears to be made of some type of metal, scratched but still shiny. A red star is buffed into the bicep. Sakura presses a hand against it before quickly flinching away.
She eyes the arm warily but it does not so much as twitch.
With light fingers, Sakura brushes away the surrounding feathers and hefts the arm. It is solidly made, a heavy weight within her arms. Sakura's eyes flutter briefly with something that could be characterized as relief.
Here, at last, is something real.
As odd as it may be and certainly as odd as it may look, Sakura decides to take it along with her.
It makes a morbid companion but it is a companion nonetheless.
Sakura finds herself sorely lacking in company at the present moment.
So she makes her on through this white wasteland, her only companion this metal arm that is still strangely warm. She carries it over one shoulder, making her way through the feathers.
It is a strange thing, walking on feathers. Alone they do not hold her weight and Sakura finds herself sinking several inches into the fluff before the compressed feathers can hold her up. She has no idea how deep they go but her attempts at digging through them has proven fruitless thus far. Sakura amuses herself by kicking up feathers around her as she trudges on, unable to sit still.
The arm jerks.
Sakura stops moving, lifting the arm and looking it over. It is completely limp, just as it should be. Innocuous, actually.
Sakura frowns, wondering if she's gone insane as she starts walking again.
The arm wriggles out of her grip, landing on the ground in front of her.
Sakura stares at it, taking in the way it moves by scuttling along on its fingers. The arm faces her for a long moment and Sakura would swear that it is taunting her.
Then it turns and begins to run to the left of her.
It is quite an experience to see an arm run.
Sakura shakes her head, knowing that this place is very strange. The arm pauses and turns back to her, making a jerking sort of motion. Plates along the side of the arm rise and fall, emitting a high keening noise.
It seems to be…calling her.
Sakura wavers for but a moment before following the arm's lead. Really, she has no better sense of direction in this downy purgatory than the arm. Might as well follow its direction.
The arm scurries ahead with purpose, pausing at intervals and making sure that Sakura is still following it.
She doesn't want to miss whatever is ahead.
They move at a quick pace and Sakura is fascinated by how efficient the arm is. It doesn't tire and it scurries along at a pace that could put some ninja to shame.
She is just shy of a flat out run and Sakura feels exhilaration pump heady and strong in her veins. The feathers kicked up around her fall softly like some sort of pseudo-snow.
Her mouth drops open in surprise as she makes out a shape on the horizon line.
A human shape.
Sakura forgets the arm entirely for a moment, Shunshining forward.
The person, a man, rears back as Sakura appears before him. He is tall and broad in shoulder, muscled heavily. His dark hair falls thick around his shoulders. He, like her, is dressed in unblemished white linens. Sakura barely has a moment to notice his lack of an arm before he strikes out at her with the other.
Sakura flips back, eyes narrow.
"Who are you?" he asks, voice hoarse.
"Sakura," she replies, keeping a safe distance. "Who are you?"
"B-James," he says quietly.
Sakura files his quick correction away as she watches him. His bright blue eyes are wide and wild. He's a caged animal.
Just like her.
"What is this place?" he asks.
"I'd hoped you would be able to tell me," Sakura replies with a sigh.
Their conversation is interrupted as the arm moves between them, hopping up and down and making all sorts of mechanical whirls and whines.
James looks at Sakura.
She shrugs. "I found it a while back. It led me to you."
He nods, almost in a daze.
"Is it…is it yours?" she asks. "I mean…" she trails off, not sure how to say it without being insensitive. "It certainly seems to think so."
James nods, crouching by the arm. "I suppose it might be…" He looks up at Sakura, gaze helpless. "I don't really remember."
Sakura nods, swallowing back words about her own lack of memories. It won't really help the situation. "Well, seeing as we're the only two people around, I suppose it's yours if you want it."
James looks at the arm, shaking his head, brow furrowed. His lips curl with disgust and dislike. "No, I don't want it."
Sakura nods, though she sees the way the arm seems to wilt with James's words. Does it understand them?
She kneels as well, patting the hand of the arm in consolation. It twines its fingers with hers, wriggling happily.
James watches this all with a look of distaste but he does not comment. "What do you remember?" he asks.
Sakura shrugs. "Nothing much. My name. My occupation. I've no idea how I got here, do you?"
"No," James replies, taking a seat in the feathers. He sinks in. "I just woke up here among these swan feathers."
"So they're swans?" Sakura asks, lifting a feather with her free hand.
"Yeah," he says, a slight smile curving his lips. It completely transforms him. He's no longer sullen and scruffy. Now, well, now Sakura can see his appeal. "I…I think I used to bird watch. You know, before this."
"I've never seen this many before," Sakura says, running her fingers through the field. It's a strange sensation and for a moment, Sakura is reminded of something else…running her hands through a field of flowers as she chases…someone. Then it is cruelly snatched from her grasp once more.
"Nor have I. This place…it isn't right," James says, struggling to find the right words. "It's not…it's not like the place I'm from. There's no color."
"I feel the same way," Sakura says. "It's missing something. It's sterile." A memory flickers and blooms to life in her head, of a sterile hallway that she runs down, lab coat billowing around her. She was…she was a medic. She frowns, rubbing at the ache that grows in her chest, as something heavy settles there. "It's lifeless."
James nods, eyes lighting. "That's it exactly! This is nothingness personified."
Sakura cannot keep from shivering at his statement. "How do we leave?"
"I don't know," James replies, frustration clear in his voice. "I've been wandering this wasteland for ages. There's just…nothing."
The additional "except you" is left unsaid but clearly understood.
Sakura scowls down at the ground, fists clenching in impotent anger. She hates this feeling of not knowing what to do; of being unable to act; of being helpless.
She starts as she sees the way an unearthly glow licks up her fists.
"What is that?" James asks, voice unnaturally calm. He is slowly scooting away from her, though she cannot blame him.
"I…I'm not sure," Sakura replies, locking eyes with him, "but I think you need to get back. Far back." James doesn't argue, scampering a safe distance away. Sakura glances down at the arm that is nestled in her lap. "You should go too."
The arm shakes itself, moving up to perch on her shoulder. Sakura ignores the creeping sensation that results from the metal fingers gliding along her bare skin.
Feeling guided, Sakura stands, eyes sliding shut as she tries to remember. Her fists are still glowing and that is important. She just cannot remember why.
Her concentration is futile and yields no answers, only more questions. With a sigh, Sakura decides to let go. Her body moves, as if in muscle memory, and her fist strikes the field of feathers.
Feathers go flying in every direction, tickling over Sakura's body as they are disturbed by the impact. Sakura is awed by the impact of her punch, so much stronger than the halfhearted kicks she'd directed at the feathers earlier. There are still feathers below her and she cannot yet see the ground.
"What the hell?" James says, watching the feathers rain down around them. "How'd you do that?"
Sakura shrugs, unsure. "You're going to want to stay close to me. Right behind me."
James sidles up behind her and for the first time, Sakura can appreciate their height difference. He towers over her by a head and a half but he watches her with a look of awed respect. He is warm and real as he follows her command and keeps close.
She strikes with her other fist, driving feathers out of her way.
Adrenaline thrums through her as she settles into a rhythm, pushing the feathers further and further away. The area around her looks like a crater and Sakura punches forward, trying to tunnel her way to the bottom.
Behind her, James coughs and splutters as feathers get sent in his direction, even this close to Sakura. Sakura heaves a sigh, turning to him. He straightens guiltily, placing a smile on his face.
"C'mon," Sakura says, gesturing to her waist.
Unbeknownst to her, the hand makes a "come hither" sign as well.
"W-what?" James asks.
"Grab my waist," she says. "Duck your head and hold onto me. It'll hopefully prevent the feather coating you receive every time I dig deeper."
James frowns but nods in acquiescence, eyeing the metal arm warily. His large hand bands around her waist, anchoring him to her as he ducks to press his face into her shoulder.
Sakura somewhat regrets her generosity as now she can feel him up against her. He is so solid and warm. Something akin to lightning runs down her spine before she manages to shake herself out of her thoughts. She needs to focus.
With a shiver, Sakura begins her work again, ignoring the way James shifts along with her, staying close. They continue on this way for some time before Sakura strikes something with a resounding crack.
She glances back at James who shrugs. Sakura scrambles out of his embrace, shifting feathers out of the way.
She sees bright green eyes and pink hair. Sakura frowns, seeing the figure do the same. She reaches out, attempting to cup the stranger's face. Her hand meets cold glass.
It's a reflection.
A spider web crack runs along the mirror's surface.
"James," Sakura begins, reaching out to him.
The mirror shatters with a deafening sound and they are falling.
The last thing Sakura remembers is James taking her hand, squeezing.
"How is Subject 28?"
"Sedated and disoriented. She won't be causing any more problems."
"Good, very good," Pierce says, eyes glinting eerily against the flicker of the monitor. "And you have started her in the program?"
"She was delusional when we found her." The assistant taps the computer screen, bringing up the log on Subject 28. "We've determined that she was speaking a feudalistic form of Japanese. She gave a completely different year and month when asked." He shrugs. "She's verifiably insane. It'll probably smooth the transition."
"Japanese, huh?" Pierce asks, staring at the woman in the monitor screen.
She is peaceful, seemingly asleep within the tank. Cords are attached to her, pumping a special concoction into her.
"What color is her hair? It seems…unnatural."
"Pink, sir," the assistant replies. "We think it's a quirk in her genetic makeup. She may have some latent mutant abilities."
Pierce nods thoughtfully, eyes lingering on the woman. "Subject 28…code name: Spring Warrior."
"Her code name will be Spring Warrior," Pierce says. "She's Japanese, her hair is the color of their famous cherry blossoms. It's almost poetic is it not? The Spring Warrior and the Winter Soldier, using their gifts to further our cause." He shakes his head, laughing. "I must get back; I've a meeting with an old friend and I mustn't keep them waiting."
The assistant snaps to attention. "Hail Hydra."
He watches nervously as Pierce saunters away, whistling cheerfully.
Bucky awakens with a prolonged groan. He sits up, immediately regretting it as his vision blurs. He lays back down, registering just how odd a position he is in. He is on his stomach, bent over what appears to be a tree branch.
Breathing deeply, he takes in his surroundings. He is immersed in foliage on all sides, a brilliant blaze of reds, oranges, and yellows.
It is a relief after a world of white.
Releasing a sigh, Bucky props himself up into a more comfortable position, rubbing at his sore stomach.
He frowns, looking up. There is no break in the leaves or branches above him.
How exactly did he get here?
He was falling…
His eyes blow wide as he looks around, remembering his companion.
"Sakura!" he calls, voice edged with desperation. He cannot be alone here. Not again. "Sakura!"
The whine of machinery answers him.
Scowling, Bucky strides forward, intent on finding that stupid arm. It isn't hard, what with the way it moans on and on. He swings and scrambles around the branches, climbing up and up. He discovers it perched beside Sakura's head, brushing her hair away from her face. Bucky resists the urge to flinch. The thing is just so unnatural. He can't understand how at ease Sakura is around it.
She is curled up in an opening of the tree trunk. She is so tiny. He hadn't noticed before, what with the way she took charge earlier. He squints at her outfit, a spring green dress with a petal pattern. Hadn't she been dressed in white?
He shakes his head, knowing that his memory, what little of it that he possesses, is faulty.
At least he remembered her.
Bucky crouches beside her, shoving the arm away. It hisses at him, metal plates flaring but it doesn't fight him.
He brushes her hair away from her face, marveling for a moment over how soft it is.
"Sakura," he says, nudging her shoulder. "Sakura, you need to wake up." She grumbles something unintelligible, turning into his touch. He does his best not to think of how warm that small, unconscious gesture makes him as he shakes her shoulder a bit harder. "Sakura."
Her eyes shoot open as she swipes his legs out from under him, pressing her weight against his chest as her arm cuts off his breath against his neck.
Bucky struggles, arching up and wrapping his legs around her and pulling her away. Sakura rolls out of his grasp, back pressed against the trunk of the tree as she takes on a stance that spells trouble for Bucky.
Then she actually looks at him and sags, reaching up and rubbing her eyes.
"I'm sorry," she says in a quiet voice.
"It's nothing," Bucky replies, covertly running a hand over his throat. It is sore and his is bound to be hoarse but he'll be no worse for the wear.
She steps forward, slow enough to allow him to back away if he chooses. He does not. Sakura stops in front of him, moving his hands away and examining his throat with a critical eye.
"You'll have a nasty bruise," she says, her voice an apology. "No damage to anything vital though."
"Thanks doctor," he says, teasing.
Sakura frowns though and the joke falls flat. "Doctor," she murmurs before shaking her head sharply. Her bright eyes meet his. "Where are we?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. I've been awake for only about fifteen minutes more than you. Some type of tree," Bucky says, patting the rough bark of the trunk.
Sakura looks upward, scowling. "We fell. This doesn't make sense."
"Does any of it?" he asks.
"No, not particularly," Sakura says. "Wait, have you been wearing that this whole time?"
Bucky looks down at khaki pants and suspenders thrown over a faded button-up. "No. At least, I don't think so. What about that? Where'd your dress come from?"
Sakura glances down, blanching. "That's…I wasn't wearing that in the other place…"
"Someone's messing with us," Bucky says.
"But why?" Sakura asks. "I just…neither of us remembers a thing. Why us?"
Bucky's eyes narrow as he looks around. "Well, staying in this tree won't help us any."
"You suggesting we climb down?"
"I'm suggesting we climb up," Bucky says. "See if that other place is above here. Even if it isn't, we'll at least get a lay of the land." Sakura hums, hands intently exploring the surface of the tree trunk. "What is it?"
"I…it's nothing," Sakura says, shaking her head. "Just a weird…nothing."
Bucky watches her, waiting for more information. With nothing forthcoming, he nods and searches out the branches above them.
"Got to start somewhere," he says, jumping and catching a branch, pulling himself up.
He turns to offer Sakura a hand, knowing that her lack of height will hamper their progress, but she is already atop another branch, looking at him with a knowing smirk. The arm on her shoulder waggles a finger back and forth, as if chastising him.
Feeling heat creeping up his neck and ears, Bucky turns away and begins to climb.
They continue on this way for some time, just immersing themselves in the act of climbing. Bucky notices the way Sakura huffs over the lack of mobility of her dress but she continues on admirably, even beating him out during their climb.
She's absolutely graceful, he cannot help but notice. She is a natural in the tree, making the way she throws herself from branch to branch look effortless. It is obvious that she is having fun, swinging one armed from some of the branches, wiggling her bared toes. The metal arm curls itself around her neck, like some strange scarf.
"Remembering anything?" she asks, catching the way he looks at her.
"Not particularly, no," Bucky replies, casting his gaze elsewhere.
They continue climbing. Time passes, though Bucky nor Sakura have any real way of measuring it. Higher and higher they go, though nothing about their surroundings seems to change.
"What are we doing, James?" Sakura asks, after what feels like hours.
"Trying to find answers," Bucky replies.
"I don't think there are answers," Sakura says, crossing her arms. "This whole place and the place we were before, they defy logic. No tree is as large as this one."
"Oh really? How do you know?" Bucky asks, pausing in his ascent. In truth, he is doubtful as well.
"I'm not sure…" Sakura says with a frown. "It's just…I know trees. They aren't supposed to be like this! It's too top-heavy to survive, even with a good root system."
"So what do you suggest?" Bucky asks.
"Maybe try climbing down? See if we can get to the bottom of the tree…"
"I don't know if there will be an end to the tree, either way," Bucky says.
Bucky notices the way the arm begins to wiggle against its place around Sakura's neck.
"What is it?" she asks, lifting the arm.
It stretches out, pointing its index finger to the trunk of the tree.
What he sees there causes his hair to stand on end.
There is an opening in the trunk. A polished elevator is now nestled in the center of the trunk, the grating that serves as a door moved aside for them. It is shiny bronze in color and the carpeting is a deep red and something about it calls to Bucky.
Bucky glances at Sakura. "Was that—?"
"No," she whispers, pale as she looks back at him.
"What is this place?" he asks.
There are no answers.
They approach the elevator, Bucky running his hand over it and pressing it against the floor of it to test its weight. It seems sturdy but he is quickly learning how little anything here is as it seems.
"What is it?" Sakura asks, examining it like an animal liable to attack.
"It's an elevator of course," Bucky replies, startled. "Haven't you ever seen one?"
"Never," Sakura says with a frown. "What does it do?"
"It's like a staircase but it does the work for you. The operator moves the crank inside and the elevator goes up or down," Bucky explains. A niggling thought tickles the back of his mind, something about a red suit, fake smiles, and gloves but it flees as quickly as it came.
"So they aren't usually in trees?" Sakura asks.
Bucky snorts at the very thought. "No. Never actually. You find them in buildings."
"Is it safe?" Sakura asks warily.
Bucky shrugs. "Most are. I'm just not so sure about this one."
The arm leaps from her shoulders, landing inside the elevator. It turns to them, waiting for them to join it.
Sakura follows the arm into the elevator, heedless of Bucky's protests. "James, something has finally happened. I think this is the way we're supposed to go if we ever want to get out of here or get answers. Besides," she says as she picks up the arm again, "this little guy seems to believe we're on the right track."
"It's an arm," Bucky points out.
"And this is an ele—eleva—whatever you call it in the middle of a tree. I think we've passed the point of incredulity quite some time ago," Sakura retorts, eyes flashing as she crosses her arms. "Are you going to join me?"
"I…fine," Bucky says in resignation, stepping into the elevator tentatively. He breathes a quiet sigh of relief when it doesn't break beneath his weight immediately. "You need someone who actually knows how to work it anyway."
Sakura steps to the side, watching attentively as he pulls the grating across the open frame. It clacks and clanks as he does so before finally snapping shut.
"So what now?" Sakura asks.
"I turn the lever," Bucky explains, moving the large crank to the right.
Sakura glances up before looking at him. "Is that…supposed to happen?"
"No," Bucky says, glaring down at the crank.
A touch breaks him out of his thoughts. The metal arm is tapping its fingers against his shoulder.
"What?" he asks bitingly.
"I think it wants to help," Sakura says.
Bucky moves to the side, allowing Sakura to step forward. She cups her hands, allowing the bulk of the arm to rest there as it wraps fingers around the crank. With a heave, it pulls it to the far left.
The elevator groans as it sputters to life, beginning to move them.
Only, it moves them down.
"Damn it," Bucky says. "This isn't the way we're supposed to go!"
Sakura turns to him. "Might as well see if there is an end to this tree."
The elevator picks up speed as they go, the world outside blurring before disappearing completely as they become incased fully in the trunk. The elevator is plunged into absolute darkness before lights begin to flicker to life. Bucky fights the creeping sensation of claustrophobia, praying that they will reach the end soon.
Sakura seems to feel the same, sidling closer to him. "It's almost cage-like, isn't it?" she asks in hushed tones.
Bucky nods. The inside of the elevator is fairly well lit from the bulbs situated to one side. He reaches out, taking Sakura's hand. He waits for her to stiffen and pull away. After all, they hardly know each other.
She does not.
Instead, Sakura intertwines their fingers together, clasping his hand firmly to hers.
The elevator continues to move.
Bucky is not sure how long they've been inside or how much distance they've covered. He does know that the elevator continues to pick up speed. He worries that they will reach the end, only to be smashed to smithereens because of the velocity of their travel. His anxiety spikes but he holds fast to Sakura, his only anchor in this surreal reality.
The arm suddenly leaps from Sakura, grabbing the crank and pulling it back to its original position. Bucky finds his feet lifting off the ground as the elevator slows as quickly as it can. A high-pitched squeal rends the air as sparks fly off the sides of the elevator. He wraps himself around Sakura, ready to shield her.
They drop to the ground as the elevator slams to a full stop.
Bucky lifts himself off of Sakura, assisting her to her feet with an apology. She smiles, waving a hand and lifting the arm back to its place around her neck.
"Well done," she tells it.
The arm flexes, seemingly pleased.
Bucky shakes his head, turning to the latticed door. He blanches.
He recognizes this place.
The Asset ducks its head, looking at the Soldier. He is one of the few constants in the Asset's life; its partner in any team mission it partakes in. The Asset does not know how much time has passed since they first met.
They have had different Handlers through the years, but he has never changed.
Nor are they separated.
After all, they are the best pair of assassins anyone could ask for.
The Asset begins to stretch, pacing through its exercises easily. The chill of ice clings to the Asset, permeating beneath its skin. Yet there is a strange feeling rising in its chest, something it cannot remember experiencing before. Giddiness perhaps?
There is a slight nod from the Handler and they are surrounded.
The Asset lifts its padded baton to a strike position. While certainly less dangerous than the Asset's preferred morningstar, the Asset knows how to make even this training weapon lethal. It has done more with less.
"No death," the Handler says, hard eyes focused on the Asset.
The Asset's body posture relaxes slightly, knowing it will have to go easy. They are surrounded by four squadrons of HYDRA agents, all looking nervous and slightly eager. Who wouldn't want to be able to claim to have taken down two of HYDRA's greatest Assets?
The Asset glances at the Soldier from the corner of its eye. The Soldier lifts his chin, stepping smoothly into place at the Asset's back.
This is not the way that they usually operate.
The Soldier is a long-distance combatant, favoring bullets and precision in his attack. As a sniper, his targets do not know what is happening until it is far too late. The Asset, on the other hand, is a close quarters combatant, choosing heavy weaponry, like its favorite, the morningstar, to get the job done. Its flashy preferences create a wonderful distraction for the Soldier. Of course, both can work outside of their comfort zones, but they prefer their areas of talent. Their skills are complementary and make them the perfect partners.
Here, however, they cannot rely on the Soldier's long-distance deadly accuracy.
So the Asset steps forward, clubbing the face of an agent who dared to move too close. The agent topples backwards into his squadron and the Asset presses forward, spinning into the center of the hapless agent's squadron.
The Asset nimbly plucks a long metal rod from one of its assailants.
It is unpadded.
The Asset glances at the Handler who nods his assent.
With a terrifying smirk, the Asset turns back to its opponents, utilizing the longer weapon in its free hand to bowl them over.
The Soldier holds his own as well, darting and weaving among their attackers with a graceful precision. The Asset makes a noise of appreciation as the Soldier drops another agent. The Soldier turns to it, a strange light dancing in his eyes.
The Asset blinks, shaking the strange light feeling away as it lifts one of the agents into the air by the collar of his shirt. The agent, obviously a new recruit, is young and stares down at the Asset with wide, frightened blue eyes.
The Asset drops the agent, stumbling back unwittingly as images assault its mind.
Twisting roots; blood red eyes and thrashing tails; a scarecrow; a red hat with a strange symbol at the center, fire; a mountain carved with faces, faces the Asset recognized; crystalline blue eyes and a promise of a lifetime…
Everything, everything goes up in flames, but not before the Asset sees a white circle, unbroken, unbent.
The Asset comes back to itself, clutching its head in pain. The agents are all neutralized but the Asset does not notice as it finds itself face to chest with the Soldier. He hovers over the Asset, not touching but present.
The Asset's eyes find the red star on his arm and concentrates on that as its pulse returns to normal and the pain eases. The Asset traces shaky fingers along the star, pausing as the Soldier tenses. He makes eye contact with the Asset and nods.
The Asset is about to continue its ministrations when a sharp clap rings out through the room. Both of them leap to their feet, stances spread and faces blank.
The Asset's face is strangely warm but it stifles the sensation.
The Handler marches over to them and strikes the Asset across the face. The Asset doesn't even flinch though it catches the surge of anger flickering in the Soldier's eyes. The Handler turns to one of the scientists and barks, "Shock the Warrior again and put them back in the ice. They aren't ready yet."
The Asset gets one last look at the Soldier before it is guided away into the therapy room.
Then the screaming begins.
Sakura looks around the open area, happy to find that there is some color and sky to their environment. Lights blink and flash, dizzying Sakura with their brightness momentarily. They are surrounded on all sides by machinery and buildings, lit with dull lights that flicker on and off. The place is absolutely deserted and seems to be in disrepair. She has no idea what this place is.
James seems to know though.
"Where are we?" she asks, turning to him and taking in his wide eyes and defensive stance.
"Steve," he murmurs.
"What is a 'Steve?'" Sakura asks, cocking her head to the side. It's an odd word, one that doesn't quite settle on her tongue.
James's lips twitch in what seems to be a smile. "It's a person. I…I remember someone." His eyes are warm and distant. "That little punk."
"Who is this Steve?" Sakura asks, eager to glean more information. Maybe she knows him too. Maybe it will jog her own memories.
"Steve's my best pal," James says. "The pair of us were thick as thieves growing up. Ma always said he was her second son."
Sakura nods, something squeezing her chest as blue eyes flash like quicksilver in her mind. Then the image is gone. She rubs absentmindedly at her chest, frowning. She knows those eyes weren't James's. They were too open, too joyful. She would follow those eyes to the end of the world, if only she knew who they belonged to.
Then again, that was the entire crux of her problem, wasn't it?
Sakura shakes free of her lingering thoughts, allowing them to roll off her back like rainwater. "So you two were brothers?"
"In all but blood," James says. "Actually, we did a silly blood pact when we were eleven so…yes, brothers `til the end of the line."
A scowl overtakes his face as he falls back into his memories.
Sakura can't follow him there. Instead, she nudges him gently in the side. He glances down at her, electric eyes quizzical. "So what is this place?" she asks, gesturing around them. They are still in the elevator. "Where are we?"
"This is a fair," James says, stepping outside of the elevator and inspecting the dilapidated buildings. "Looks like it's been a while since anyone's been here though."
"Never been to one of these," Sakura replies, looking up at the behemoth machines that loom high above her head.
"That's a right travesty, doll," James says, offering her his arm. "Allow me to show you the sights."
Sakura curls her arm through his, moving up against his side. She can feel his breath on each inhale and exhale, the life that thrums through him. It soothes her and she finds her footsteps matching his as he leads her into the fair.
"So you used to come to places like this?" Sakura asks, staring up at the sign reading 'Funnel cake.'
"Anytime we had a penny to spare," James replies, shaking his head fondly. "Sometimes I was able to sneak us in without a ticket."
Sakura grins, imagining a younger James, all elbows and knees, guiding his friend into this place. She doubts he was all that stealthy.
"Got caught a good bit too," James says, ducking his head as a soft smile lights his face. It suits him, takes away the edge and allows his kindness to shine through. "Steve was a good runner though, even with his illness."
"He sounds wonderful," Sakura admits as a shadow crosses James's face.
"Hey, here's the Ferris wheel!" James says, changing the topic of the conversation.
Sakura allows it, understanding. She looks up at the monster of a wheel, baffled. It seems, in contrast to the rest of the fairgrounds, to be in a good state. "What does it do?" she asks.
"This thing?" James asks, patting the combination of metal and wood that holds the contraption together. "This will give you a chance to see the whole park. Hell, you can see the whole town on this thing."
Sakura eyes the Ferris wheel. "How? It isn't moving."
James frowns, looking around. "Well, I guess we need to get it started then," he says, grin boyish.
Sakura follows him sedately as he darts around the area, looking for a solution. Eventually, he comes to a halt at the bottom of the Ferris wheel, eyeing a stand a little way to the side.
"This is where the operator would stand," James says, crouching by it. "I'm guessing this is also how they started and stopped the wheel."
He wraps his hand around the lever that protrudes, giving it a tug.
It doesn't move.
"Scoot," Sakura says, hip-checking him out of her way as she wraps her hands around the lever. It is rusted and old, creaking beneath the strain of her weight upon it. She grunts and feels it give. She pushes it all the way down, waiting for something to happen.
Sakura jumps back as a massive groan shakes the very foundations of the ride. She blinks as James grabs her and pulls her to the ground, covering her with his body. They lie still for several long moments, hearts racing in tandem.
When the world does not shake apart around them, James stands, offering his hand to Sakura.
Sakura takes it, reading the embarrassment on his features. She loses all urge to tease him as she takes in the sight before her.
The Ferris wheel is humming with energy, carts moving in a continuous circle. White fairy lights blink and twinkle from the spokes of the wheel, washing the ride and the people in a warm glow.
"Wow," she murmurs, eyes wide as she takes it all in.
"Told ya this place is something else," James says, staring at the ride with some unreadable emotion. "Magical even."
Sakura nods, still entranced.
James snorts, breaking the moment as he steps forward to the ride. "It moves rather slowly, but it is moving nonetheless. Think you can keep up?"
Sakura smirks up at him, moving past him. "I'm more worried about you to be honest."
James shakes his head, following her lead. Sakura observes that the carts are a dingy white, the dinginess somewhat negated by the soft lighting. They are covered carts, but there are doors running along the side closest to her.
"Stay close to me," she says, moving forward.
She can feel him heed her words, his heat present at her back. She does her best to ignore him, focusing on the task at hand. Sakura darts forward, swinging open the door to one of the carts, and throws herself inside.
James quickly follows, the cart swinging wildly beneath their hurried motions.
Sakura laughs as he bangs his shin on his way in, but they settle in quickly, sitting opposite each other. The arm hops down from Sakura's shoulders, where it was resting quietly, to the glassless window. It moves along the window, pacing in a way reminiscent of a cat.
Sakura pays the arm no mind, instead training her gaze avidly on the world outside. From here, the fairground doesn't look abandoned and forgotten. For a moment, she catches a glimpse of why James loves this place so much.
For a moment, she understands him.
"So?" James asks, filled with unbridled energy as he watches her anxiously. "What do you think?"
"This is wonderful," Sakura replies with a smile.
He relaxes a bit, smile melting away the worry that lined his face. He looks so much younger, freer with a smile.
"Is it the way you remember it?" Sakura asks.
"A bit," he replies. "Glad to have someone to share it with, `specially a pretty dame such as yourself."
Sakura grins, feeling her cheeks warm at his words. "You're incorrigible, James."
His eyes crease up in a smile as he laughs, low and husky. "Yeah, I'm a right rake."
Sakura stares at him. "There's something that I've noticed since we arrived here."
"And what's that?" he asks, leaning forward, elbows braced against his knees.
"Your voice, no, I guess it's your accent, it keeps shifting," she says. "You use these words I don't really know, 'rake,' 'doll,' and so on. It's only just become prominent."
James nods, running a hand through the scruff at his chin. "I hadn't noticed before you pointed it out. Maybe it's because I'm remembering things, people, from my past. I remember where I'm from. I remember growing up in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn and I could always hear the trains rattling by every night. I remember my mom working multiple jobs through the Great Depression to keep a roof over me and my sis's heads. I remember Stevie showing up on the doorstep at fuck off o'clock in the morning, drenched and shivering. I'm remembering how I grew up, the people who were around me all the time." He shrugs. "Maybe I'm just relearning the way I've always talked."
Sakura pats his knee, understanding. "I'm glad," she says sincerely. "I wish I remembered more."
James curls his fingers through hers. She looks up at him. "You will."
His words are a promise, a binding tie that links them even further together.
"So what now?" Sakura asks, clearing her throat.
"Whatever you want, doll," James says with a shrug, stepping out of the Ferris wheel cart.
Sakura glances around, overwhelmed for a moment by the sounds and colors. Her eyes come to rest on one building.
"What's that?" she asks, pointing at the thing that piqued her interest.
It is a rather nondescript building for its color. It is done up in neutrals and looks a little shabby. What catches Sakura's eye, however, is its shape. It is long and winding, twisted around in ways that do not seem possible for buildings.
James snorts, shaking his head. "You would choose that one."
"What's wrong with it?" Sakura asks, curiosity peaked. She catches the slight distaste in James's voice.
"Nothing. It's called a fun house. It…well, it's probably best if I just show you," James says, ambling forward.
Sakura follows along, blinking as they enter the dark building.
They are surrounded by mirrors.
She places her hand against one, furrowing her brow at the squat, stout figure in front of her. It has pink hair, green eyes, and sun darkened skin but few other distinguishable qualities.
"Is this…me?" she asks, leaning her head against the cool glass.
James snorts. "Not quite. That mirror is very unflattering." Sakura turns to look at him but he is turned away, ears red with embarrassment. "That's what this place does. It warps your perceptions. It always messed with my head when I was a kid. Made Steve feel worse about himself."
"Why?" Sakura asks, walking further into the veritable maze.
"Steve was always sick. He may've had a heart of gold and a chip on his shoulder bigger than he was but his body could barely contain his spirit. The sickness took a toll on him and this place made him all the more conscious of his flaws."
Sakura turns back, only to find James is no longer with her. She glances down at the arm resting around her neck in confusion. "James?" she calls.
"Sakura!" she hears in response. "Sakura!"
Sakura runs toward the sound of his voice, barely noticing as the mirrors shift from warped images to normal reflections. "James!" she exclaims, seeing him in front of her. She runs forward to greet him, only to come up against glass.
A thump sounds nearby.
"James, where are you?"
She hears him curse, banging against the glass.
"We'll find each other," Bucky promises. He glares at the mirror in front of him, taking in the snarl that curls his lip. His hand clenches into a fist and he thrusts it forward, ignoring the slicing pain as the glass shatters.
"James!" Sakura's voice calls, pitched higher in distress.
"I'm fine!" Bucky says, chest warm. Her care is a balm to his anxiety over separation.
There is a long moment of silence before a cacophony of chaos greets him. He smirks and pulls back his fist once more. Together they make a music of their own melody that perhaps only they can appreciate.
Bucky ignores his bloodied knuckles as another mirror falls away, leaving him face to face with Sakura. He approaches cautiously, reaching out to touch her hand. He is greeted with warm skin.
Something within him relaxes.
"Sakura," he says, drawing up alongside her. He is reluctant to let her go, some part of him fearing that she will disappear and all he'll be left with is flat, cold mirrors. She seems to feel the same, twining her fingers through his.
"How'd we get separated like that?" she asks. "You were there one moment and the next…you were just gone."
"This place is messing with our heads," Bucky says. "It's just not natural."
"Where to now?" she asks.
Bucky glances around, pausing when he feels Sakura stiffen beside him. He follows her gaze, seeing a mirror off to the side. It is among the lined, uniform mirrors but it is obviously different. It is framed in sterling silver that has not been polished in years. Sakura approaches it, Bucky following behind her. It is difficult to make out their reflections as the glass of the mirror is darkened with age, opaque in most places.
Something settles in Bucky's gut, a worry that is undefinable. "Sakura," he begins.
It is too late.
Sakura reaches forward, brushing her fingers over the mirror's surface. It makes a strange squelching sound and suddenly her hand is consumed. Suddenly, she is completely gone.
Bucky yelps, stepping forward and pressing himself up against the glass.
Bucky nearly screams as he pulls back his fist and drives it into the glass. Nothing happens. He punches the glass again and again, heedless of the way it does not crack. His knuckles are bloody and bruised.
He can't lose Sakura.
He needs her. She helps him keep a tenuous grasp on his memories. She is with him on this journey. Without her, he is alone. Without her, he does not know who he is.
She is his compass.
He does not notice the tears running down his face until he tastes the salt. He slumps against the mirror, shoulders shaking. He is so tired; empty.
"Please," he whispers, forehead pressed against the molding mirror. "Please."
Bucky stumbles as he falls forward, suddenly in a new place.
He looks up, eyes rimmed in red, and meets Sakura's.
The Asset hums as it examines the contents of the briefcase, pleased with the weapons provided. It is not given guns, no, its case is filled with sundry items including brass knuckles, knives, a cutlass, twin tomahawks, and, the Asset's favorite, a morningstar.
"What is that?" the Soldier asks, deep voice a rumble almost incomprehensible because of disuse.
The Asset turns, gazing at the Soldier quizzically.
He fidgets, looking lost for a moment. His eyes pop against the black makeup as he clears his throat. "That…what you were humming. Is it a song of your homeland?"
The Asset hesitates, feeling something niggle at its mind. Gravestones and spinning eyes and red tails and smoke fill its vision for a brief moment before escaping beyond its grasp. The Asset shakes its head, shutting down such disconcerting thoughts.
The only thing that matters is the mission.
"I have no homeland," the Asset replies, closing its case with a little more force than necessary. "I am nothing."
The Soldier nods, gaze going distant once more.
There is an awkward, lingering silence where the Asset cannot help but wonder about the flash of images that crossed its mind.
"When are we starting?" it asks, trying to refocus.
"Tonight," the Soldier replies, lifting one of his rifles from the case and polishing it. He adjusts the scope, looking through it. "You will engage the base. SHIELD may possibly have trained operatives there. If they choose to interfere…" He pats his gun, "they will be dealt with swiftly."
The Asset flexes its fingers around the brass knuckles. "How does the Handler want this done?"
"Efficiently," the Solider says.
The Asset nods, twirling its morningstar in tight circles. A smirk crawls across its face.
"Sakura!" Bucky exclaims, rushing forward in horror.
She is seated upon a pile of strewn wooden pieces, a mountain of what appears to be prosthetic limbs. There is the slightest of smiles on her face as she looks down at him.
And there is a sword through her side.
His vision goes red for a moment as he scrambles over the puppet limbs to her side. His hand flutters, nearly listless because he does not know what to do.
Bucky swallows deeply, assisting her into a more comfortable position. "What happened?" he asks.
Sakura does not have a chance to speak as she finds herself firmly wrapped in a one arm embrace. Sakura allows herself to relax for a moment, inhaling James's scent and pressing her face into his chest. Then she pulls back slightly, looking up into his eyes.
"James?" she says, rubbing at the tear tracks on his face. "James, what happened?"
"I…the mirror wouldn't let me through. I panicked," he replies, pressing his face into her hair. He ignores the way the arm squeezes his shoulder in support. "I'm here now though." He shakes his head roughly. "Never mind that. What happened?"
"Oh, this," Sakura says, looking down at the blade through her side. She does her best to shrug, hindered as it is by the weapon in her. "When I awoke, this was right here." She frowns slightly. "It doesn't hurt or anything. Besides, that isn't important."
"Not important?" Bucky demands. "What can be more important?"
Her smile is breathtaking. "I remember."
He inhales sharply, trying to remember if he has ever seen her happier than this, only to brush up against the unyielding wall of Before. He knows that she is someone from Before, but he cannot quite grasp it.
"Who are you then?" he asks, eyes still trained on the sword in her side. He wants to help, but he fears making it worse.
"I am a shinobi of Konohagakure." She touches her wrists in such a way that is reminiscent of tugging on something, perhaps gloves. "I killed a missing ninja in this cave. It was one of my first major missions. First time to show the world that Akatsuki wasn't as invincible as they seemed."
"And the sword?" Bucky asks, trying to keep his voice restrained and calm.
"He managed to stick me with it before I finished him off," she replies blithely. "The original was coated in poison too."
Bucky makes a strangled noise that he covers by clearing his throat. "And how did you survive?"
"I had help," Sakura says, gaze distant as she looks around the otherwise empty cave. "Guess help is gone."
"No," Bucky says, clutching her hand tightly. "You have me."
Sakura blinks before looking up at him. Bucky finds he was wrong earlier. This is the happiest that he has ever seen her.
She has never been more beautiful.
Heat fills Bucky's face, but he doesn't let go of her hand.
"Be ready to press down on the wound," Sakura says, speaking to both him and the arm.
Bucky nods and the arm does the equivalent with a single finger.
Sakura grips the sword between both hands and grits her teeth against the sudden emergence of pain.
"I'm here, I'm with you," Bucky says, voice quiet but encouraging, "`til the end of the line."
The cave becomes infused with soft green light and suddenly they are falling.
The Warrior adjusts its grip on the morningstar, gaze focused on the Soldier.
He is sleeping, resting up for the mission that lies ahead. They take shifts and the Warrior finds itself fascinated with the Soldier's face.
He is not usually this peaceful in sleep. The Warrior remembers nights at the compound where he would wake screaming. He was always twitching too.
Now he rests and it is a true rest. The Warrior can tell he is in a deep slumber. The Warrior wonders if he dreams.
It never does.
Anything it sees is nightmares: distorted screaming, cherry blossom trees slick with red, and pleading crystalline blue eyes.
The Warrior does not like to sleep.
Instead, it studies the Soldier. He is quite handsome, breathtaking really. His chin clefts and his cheekbones ride high and smooth on his face. He is roughly stubbled and his hair fans out around him like a mane. He is muscular in a rangy, solid sort of way. Without the black eye paint, he seems softer; vulnerable.
His lips are pink and plush. Usually they twist in a dangerous scowl or smirk with predatory intent. Now they are lax and slightly parted. The Warrior can see the wetness left behind by his tongue.
Slowly, tentatively, the Warrior reaches out and strokes its thumb across his bottom lip.
A few things occur at once:
First, the Warrior discovers the Soldier's lips are indeed as lush as they look.
Second, the Warrior's cheeks heat inexplicably.
Third, the Soldier's eyes snap open, metal hand curling around the Warrior's wrist.
Neither of them move, the Warrior doesn't dare to breathe.
The Soldier's eyes remind the Warrior of its nightmares.
Bright, too blue eyes.
The Soldier's eyes slide shut and the Warrior can finally breathe once more. The Soldier slowly relaxes, hand still on the Warrior's. He drags it down against his chest, threading their fingers together.
The Warrior sits, crouched somewhat uncomfortably and keeps watch.
It doesn't remove its hand.
After all, it can feel his heartbeat.
Sakura shivers as she stumbles out of the endless expanse into a metal box. She glances around, frowning at the way the box vibrates beneath her feet.
It's a train.
Sakura moves forward, brushing her fingers against overturned crates. She isn't quite sure what is going on, but she knows this isn't one of her memories, meaning it belongs to James.
The gunshots reverberate through the train cars, making Sakura's ears ring. Her eyes widen.
Sakura darts forward, quietly and efficiently making her way to the door at the far side of the car. She glances through the small window, shaking her head in disgust as she finds it obscured by frost.
Sakura turns the lever on the door, wincing as it creaks beneath her weight. She presses through, moving like smoke along the walls until she is where she wants to be.
She can see James, dressed in some type of uniform and clutching a gun. The arm is with him, curled up and cowering by his side. He glances at her, shaking his head.
Bullets fly above their heads though Sakura cannot make out the gunmen. She frowns thoughtfully as she looks at James's tight expression. Maybe his memory is more in control here than he is…
Sakura isn't given the chance to ponder that thought as she is jostled from her secure location by a concentrated blast of energy. It hurts, the way the blast rips through her skin but she grits her teeth through the pain and begins to heal her skin. There is some sort of metal man, clanking his way toward them.
Sakura glances at James and sees him lying prone, directly in the way of another shot from the metal contraption. Sakura's face settles into a fierce scowl.
Not on her watch.
She runs forward, chakra enhancing her speed and full-on tackles the metal soldier. She underestimated its weight as it punches straight through the side of the train car. Sakura's hands scrabble along the sides of the metal, finally grasping onto a bar.
She clings to it, skin burning from the wind and snow. She just needs to move a bit closer…
"Sakura!" James calls, looking out at her, fear clear in his face. "Hold on."
"Trying," she replies, eyes widening as the metal groans. "Think we have a bit of a time limit."
James stares at her for a moment, conflicting emotions crossing her face. He cannot reach her and he is running out of time. He looks down at the arm, an idea coming to him.
James takes the arm and clasps its palm firmly. He plants his feet securely, leaning his upper body along the inside of the train car. He stretches the arm out to Sakura and not a moment too soon. The metal pipe she has been clinging to gives way as she throws both hands around the arm. She clings to it and makes her way back to onto the sturdy, solid floor of the train.
She, James, and the arm collapse into a pile of shaking limbs and nervous laughter. Sakura barely notices their surroundings fade away into nothingness as she clutches at James. He holds her just as tightly, face pressed into her hair.
"What was that?" Sakura asks, voice still trembling.
"The end of the line for me," James replies. "I stopped being Bucky; stopped being James Barnes. I became a weapon; the Asset." Sakura can feel him shudder; she nuzzles in closer to him to try to chase his pain away. "You were in my position. I fell from the train."
"But you saved me," Sakura says, pulling back slightly to cup his face. She glances down at the arm that has curled up like a cat in her lap. "You and my friend here."
"No," James says, eyes soft as he traces gentle fingers over the arm. "No, you saved me."
Sakura bites her lip, realizing that he isn't speaking about this moment. It's something else. So, they sit in silence, in a vague between-world where nothing exists but the three of them.
"Glad to see you're warming up to my friend here," Sakura says finally, trying to lighten the heavy atmosphere.
James snorts, arm tightening around her in response. "Was gonna happen eventually."
He starts as golden light begins to emanate from beneath their skin. "Sakura," he begins, a panicked warning rising within him.
"It's fine," Sakura says softly, taking his hand. "We're together."
James relaxes into her embrace. "See you soon," he says.
The last thing Sakura sees is the smile curling across his lips.
What was supposed to be just a retrieval mission far below the skillset of the Warrior and the Soldier goes south fast.
The Asset leaps behind a table, resisting the urge to look up at the Soldier's roost.
This wasn't supposed to happen.
It was an easy mission on paper. Enter the remote base stocked with only a skeleton staff of scientists and retrieve the data they were compiling on the Nine Realms.
Only it wasn't. The Asset entered the base alone only to find itself swarmed by SHIELD agents who were far too prepared.
Someone let it slip.
The Asset briefly wonders if this is another test on the Handler's part or perhaps a way to discard useless tools.
It shakes the thought immediately, knowing that the Handler calls them both Assets for a reason.
No, this is someone else within HYDRA, perhaps a mole or someone vying for the Handler's lucrative position. Regardless, the Asset knows that something must be done if it wants to complete the mission.
It kicks the table out in front of it, catching bodies of unsuspecting agents. The Asset does not pay attention as it leaps over the table, striking down an agent with its morningstar. It does not know who among this crowd is SHIELD and who is HYDRA acting as SHIELD.
It doesn't matter as the Asset regards all of them as enemies. It throws shuriken into the sea of enemies, striking them down with deadly accuracy. Still, it cannot calm the fear that rises in the pit of its stomach as it examines its surroundings.
It is not likely the Asset will make it.
It grits its teeth as it grabs an assailant and caves in his skull, using him as a shield as the Asset charges forward. There is carnage everywhere and the Asset's grip on its morningstar slips through the blood.
Gunshots ring out overhead and a half dozen agents drop like stones. The Asset does not bother to contain its grin as it uses the timely distraction to rid itself of a few more pests. The Soldier is on the move in the high rafters, taking out agents in a quick manner. He releases a high noted whistle.
The Asset sticks its hand out, catching the gun thrown its way.
It relishes the kickback as the it fires off round after round, cutting a large swath in the seemingly never ending sea of people. Still, it knows that it must make for the exit soon. They have limited supplies and they are running out fast.
There is a flash up above, light glinting off of metal and suddenly the Soldier is on the ground, walking among them.
The Asset growls, but the attention is no longer on it. Everyone has turned to the Soldier, the first Asset, the Ghost, the myth.
They will quickly regret it.
The Asset throws itself at the people around it, using its brass knuckles to crack bones and eliminate threats. The tomahawks are lost in the struggle as the Asset fights its way to the Soldier. It has to make it; it must make it.
The Soldier is staring at it even as he fights fluidly, brows furrowed. "Go," he says.
The Asset ignores the order, pushing forward.
It is so close.
The Soldier suddenly reels back, expression going slack with shock. Blood blooms scarlet in the center of his chest.
The Asset's eyes go wide as a primal scream rips its way through its throat. "Star!" it exclaims.
The Soldier falls, lost to the Asset's sight.
The Asset's vision goes (not red, surprisingly) green. It does not notice the way that its body is lit with green. It does not notice the way that it has suddenly become easy to get rid of obstacles. The Asset notices nothing until it sees the Soldier's face again.
It kneels at his side, examining his chest. He was shot with an armor-puncturing bullet and it doesn't look good. His face is pale and his breath short as he scrabbles to clasp at her hands.
"Warrior," he mutters, eyes hazy.
The Asset swallows around the tightness in its throat, methodically ripping fabric away from its shirt and pressing it to the wound. "It's alright," it says, "you'll be alright."
"Will you sing for me?" he asks, voice barely a whisper. "That song…the one from before…"
The Asset brushes his hair away from his face, ignorant of the chaos going on around them. The HYDRA agents have revealed themselves and are taking out the remaining loyal SHIELD agents. No one dares to approach the Asset as it is engulfed in an eerie green glow.
The Asset begins to hum, pressing its hands against the Soldier's chest. It can feel the way that the Soldier's breath begins to weaken.
"No," the Asset says. "Star! Star!"
She sees his eyelids flicker in response; he is still there. She won't let him die; not today. It may be selfish, but she cannot let him go.
"I won't let you go, Star," she says, watching as the green light in her hands travel into his open chest. "Not without me."
She doesn't understand what is happening, not really, but she is beyond grateful that his body begins to knit itself back together beneath her hands.
She is healing him.
The Asset presses her face into the crook of his neck, feeling drained. She is covered in blood and gore but she has done it.
The Soldier will live.
She blinks fuzzily as the green light fades and she hears the familiar sound of someone speaking over a radio, "Pierce isn't…get back to the…comply…"
Nearby someone begins to speak in Japanese.
The Asset stiffens, knowing what is next for her.
She will forget again; blank slate; tabula rasa.
"フラワーズ. 従います. 二十八. 夜明け. ウィスキー. 武器. 二番. 解放. 誰も. 十四." The Asset sits up straight, looking at the agent before it. She holds a communication device and the Handler's voice comes through clearly. "Spring Warrior?" the Handler asks.
"Ready to comply."
Bucky opens his eyes as the sun beats down upon him and the roar of rushing water passes over him. He cups a hand over his eyes, squinting.
"What is this place?" he asks, as Sakura sits up at his side.
She stares up at the two statues, something like rueful resignation in her gaze. "This is the Valley of the End."
"You're kidding, right?" he asks with a snort. "Who are these two?"
"Madara Uchiha and Hashirama Senju, the founders of my country," Sakura replies, digging her toes into the grass at her feet. "They fought and died here."
Bucky glances at her, seeing the sadness that clings to her. "But that's not all this place signifies for you, is it?"
She glances at him, before looking away once more, shy. "My teammates always reminded me of them. They were descendants in fact. Always clashing. I thought I was the mediator between them…" She frowns. "Turns out, I wasn't even a part of the equation."
Bucky looks at her, heart squeezing in pain. He loops his arm around her shoulder, drawing her in. "Their loss."
Sakura smiles at him.
"Where's the arm?" Bucky asks, drawing away.
Sakura scrambles to her feet. "It's always come through with us," she mutters, glancing around.
Bucky blinks against the sudden glare in his eyes. He looks up, snorting as he figures out what exactly is glinting. "It's up there," he says, pointing to one of the statues. "At least it didn't end up on the spikey haired one."
Sakura laughs. "At least it's Hashirama," she agrees. "Come on, there's stairs to the top."
Bucky feels weightless as he and Sakura make their way up the statue. They trade stories of their memories. It's the most freedom that Bucky has felt in a very long time. The rough stone is warm beneath his bare toes and Sakura's presence is a constant comfort. All too soon, they are upon the head of the statue and the arm skitters its way over to them.
"What now?" Sakura asks as they take seats on the statue's eyebrow ridge.
The spray of the waterfall hits their legs and Bucky just closes his eyes to accept all the sensations.
"Now we just be," Bucky says.
"And who do you want to be?" Sakura asks guilelessly.
It makes him pause. Who does he want to be? Is he James Barnes, the American soldier? Is he Bucky, the boy from Brooklyn? Is he the Asset, the Winter Soldier? He glances at Sakura, a hazy memory coming to mind.
Is he Star, the man who is Sakura's partner?
"I want to be whole," Bucky says quietly, staring down at the red star etched into the arm. "I want my arm back."
Sakura glances up at him, startled, as the arm begins to wiggle in his lap eagerly. She takes in the resolute set of his jaw. "Alright."
Sakura takes the arm into her hands, hugging it one last time. Strange as it may be, but she has come to feel genuine affection for the inanimate object.
Bucky takes a seat as Sakura kneels at his side and sets the arm against his shoulder. "This might hurt," Sakura warns. "It has been a while since you last wore it."
"That's fine," Bucky replies. "I have you with me."
Her eyes are warm as she regards him with genuine affection. Something settles in Bucky's gut, an understanding that something is about to end, that a resolution is drawing near. He shifts up toward Sakura, tilting her head to his. In his eyes are a question that Sakura answers with a wavering nod.
He pulls back, smiling up at her boyishly. "I'm ready."
"I'm with you," Sakura says.
"Until the end of the line," Bucky says, trying to convey the indescribable emotions he is feeling in those words. From the look on her face, he thinks he might have succeeded.
Sakura presses the arm into his shoulder socket and her chakra suffuses the area.
Bucky ignores the pain, eyes focused solely on Sakura.
The arm slides back into place and Bucky can feel it again.
The last thing he sees is Sakura as they fall into endless white.
He wouldn't have it any other way.
When she wakes, the world is cold and grey.
She takes in the dark, oppressive walls, the metal that incases her within some type of chamber. Sakura glances down, taking in the ice that coats her skin, turning it a brittle blue. She is unsure how she escapes hypothermia, but she also knows that the Handler and his scientists planned for it.
Wouldn't do to have a frostbitten Asset.
Her hands light with green energy and in her anger even the veins beneath her skin glow with incredible power. With ease, she breaks free of her confines.
On the outside, there are machines, curved and wicked. She remembers each of their specific purposes with a grim smile, the tortured screams ringing in her ears even now. However, that is not her main objective.
She turns, eyes alighting on a container much like her own. Sakura darts forward, peering into the rounded window.
Blue eyes stare back at her.
The metal crumbles like wet paper beneath Sakura's touch, so urgent is her need to get to Bucky.
He steps out and directly into her embrace.
Sakura buries her face into his chest, arms clinging as tightly as she can. He is freezing cold but he is so real. She channels chakra through him, heating him up from the inside and preventing any lingering damage from the cold. He smells of sweat and gunpowder and a dampness that will take ages to be rid of. But he is here and nothing else matters.
"James," she says, her voice edged with laughter. "James. Bucky. Star!"
"I know," he says roughly, one arm wrapped around her as the other traces her features, as if he does not believe the sight before him. His thumb catches on her bottom lip and he leaves it there. "I know."
Sakura understands the heat in his eyes, feels it herself. But the time for that, for release, for joy, will come later.
Now, they must escape.
And leave a trail of devastation in their wake.
Something of her thoughts must come across to Bucky in her look as he nods.
They break away from each other reluctantly, grabbing weapons from the arsenal before them. After all, no one ever expected the Assets to gain control of themselves again. Why bother hiding weapons from an obedient dog?
Armed to the teeth, they glance at each other and smile.
Then, they begin the delightful process of dismantling the lab.
With every blow, Sakura feels her heart lift and lighten. Certainly, the blood will always be on her hands, but now…at least, HYDRA will lose all of its progress in regards to the super soldier project. Their data, their progress notes, all gone, consumed by the flames. It will take decades for them to recover.
And Sakura does not plan on keeping HYDRA around that long.
They dump all of the documents on the ground and Sakura ignites them with a well-placed jutsu.
The duo leaves the room, knowing that nothing is left for them there. Systematically, they make their way through the facility, disarming and neutralizing every threat they come across permanently. Unfortunately, the Handler is not among the casualties. But that, too, will come with time.
They raze the facility from the inside out, leaving behind a legacy of ruin.
It is, after all, what they were built to do.
Nothing can rise from the ashes they leave behind; this facility is a lost cause.
Finished with their work, Sakura takes Bucky's hand and heads out into the world. The world of reality, of chances, of possibilities. They leave behind their hell, the place of absolute obedience and emptiness.
The world outside is white.
Snow falls fast and thick around them. It clumps heavily on Sakura's eyelashes and she sticks out her tongue to catch the snowflakes on her tongue. They mix with the ash falling from the facility, a concoction of purity and bitterness.
Sakura squeezes Bucky's hand as she laughs and laughs and laughs. Bucky joins in, laughter deep and genuine as they have their first taste of freedom.
If some tears fall along the way, well, neither one will judge the other.
Sakura looks up at Bucky and knows that somehow, they will be alright.
After all, they have each other.
Happy Friday the 13th!
This one was so difficult to bring make happen but it did and I'm so glad.
Sakura's words in order: flowers, comply, 28, dawn, whiskey, weapon, second, liberation, nobody, 14.
In this particular AU, CA:WS wouldn't happen as Sakura and Bucky escape before they are sent after Steve. However, all their paths would cross as Sakura and Bucky make it their mission to take HYDRA down. SHIELD would still be exposed and things would get back on track after that.
Let me know what you think, lovelies!