Bright blue eyes, hardened from more horrors than any one man should have borne witness to, swept the street on autopilot. They searched for anything out of the ordinary, any worrisome people, anything stirring in the shadows. Although a vital task, he didn't need to narrow his focus on the search. He was used to being a ghost.
The lost soldier continued to walk down the dark street, his eyes searching, but his brain buzzing. It never stopped buzzing these days. He sometimes wondered if the organ was making up for decades of disuse and scrambling. Now he tried to keep his thoughts occupied with facts he had learned and memories that had come back to him.
Bucky Barnes. His name. March 10, 1917. His birthday. 107th. His regiment in the army which took him to the battlefields of World War II. The Howling Commandos. The group of fighters he then joined to take down the Nazi Science Division, HYDRA. The group led by Captain America, a man who he had known almost his whole life. MIA. His official listing after falling from a train traversing through high, snow covered mountains. He read all of this at a museum in Washington D.C.
He had three younger siblings. He was athletic and good in school. He befriended a scrawny kid named Steve who was genuinely kind and had an abundance of stubbornness which he used to adhere to a very strict set of morals. He went on a lot of dates, but never really entertained the notion of anything serious. Then his country went to war and he and Steve knew they would have to step up and fulfill their duty to their country. He trained the scrawny boy for a few weeks, trying to impart him with his boxing knowledge, before they went to the recruitment center together. He made it. Steve didn't. He trained hard and rose to the rank of Sergeant. And then he was on a boat, resigned to doing his duty and returning home, hopefully sooner rather than later. But he never did get to return. These are facts he remembered. They came back slowly, and continued to trickle their way back to his conscious memory.
It was less pleasant memories which came back in a rush. Being tied to a cold examination table and stuck with needles that injected fire in his veins. The feeling of lying in the freezing, wet snow as all of the warmth poured out of his body through his strangely number left arm. Excruciating pain in his temples and the sharp tug of muscles straining as his body convulsed. The weight of numerous weapons strapped to his body. The feeling of warm flesh in his cybernetic hand and the sensation of a heartbeat pounding then fluttering then stopping beneath his fingers. Dozens and dozens of blank eyes, the life having just been extinguished from them. These he experienced in his dreams.
He still had so many questions, and some of them were answered as the memories came back, but some were unanswerable. It was the threat of his dreams being washed in blood and these unanswerable questions that kept him awake most nights. He had spent those nights walking the streets of Bucharest, where he had decided to go into hiding. However, it was beginning to get colder as autumn had firmly settled in, and he knew that this would not be a distraction from his late night problems much longer.
His body tensed, his eyes and ears having caught on to an abnormality on this chilly night. There was a woman up ahead, which was odd in itself. This wasn't a very good neighborhood, and the only young women out on their own were looking for work. She didn't seem to fit that mold. Secondly, she wasn't dressed to be outside at all. She wore short cotton shorts and an oversized, ratty looking sweatshirt. The sound of sharp, panicked breathing met his ears. His flight instincts immediately tensed his body. When her head turned in his direction, he began to turn around and ready his body to bolt.
"Wait!" she called, the plea clear in her voice.
She spoke English; another red flag. He pretended not to hear and continued his calm walk back in the direction he came from. To his alarm, he heard her running toward him.
"Please!" she begged, switching to Romanian. Now that she was closer the distress in her voice was even harder to ignore. All sorts of scenarios began to run through his mind. Surely she was an undercover agent playing the part of an innocent civilian intending to catch him off guard and-
He stopped when she caught up to him, turning to look at her carefully. She had long, dark brown hair that was piled sloppily atop her head with several thick locks falling loose and frizzy. Her eyes were also brown, though they were ringed red as tears dripped from them. Her fair complexion was flushed red and her cheeks glistened with moisture.
"Please," she said again, eyes wide and desperate In perfect, though perhaps accented Romanian, she continued, "I am so sorry, but h-have you seen a cat?"
He didn't reply right away, still skeptical that this was all a ruse. Slowly, he shook his head in the negative. Her face immediately fell, and a small sob parted her lips. The heels of her hands rose to her eyes to stem the flood of tears, and his chest tightened. He was pretty sure this wasn't a ruse. There was no sign of anyone else nearby and someone looking to pick a fight with him wouldn't block their entire field of vision. He knew he should continue on his way, make a few circuits around the neighborhood, and then slip back to his apartment just in case, but part of him didn't want to leave this distraught woman by herself in the dark in this sort of neighborhood.
"Is anyone out here with you?" he asked, mindfully switching back to English.
Her head shot up, immediately alarmed. He couldn't blame her. He was just wondering about her safety this late at night and dressed as she was. If an unsavory character didn't get to her, the cold certainly might. Slowly, her own flight instincts now visibly activated, she began to back away. Her voice quivered as she spoke, giving away her lie as she replied, "Y-yeah, my boyfriend is just down the way looking, but when I saw you, I ran ahead to see if you might have seen anything. But you haven't, so thanks. Have a good night."
She continued to back away and flinched when Bucky raised his gloved hands in defense. "I didn't ask so that I can attack you. I ask because this isn't a place for a lady to be walking around alone."
"I know that," she stated cautiously. "But I don't have a choice. My cat, he's missing. He got spooked and ran out of my apartment. He's old, has always been kept inside, and has been abandoned and sheltered on and off his whole life. I can't leave him to fend for himself out here."
The tears had returned and she tried to wipe them hastily. Something in her words struck a chord in him, and he found himself weighing his options. This woman was clearly not a government operative trying to take him in. He didn't like to fraternize with civilians; he didn't want anyone to remember his face. But this young woman was distraught and putting herself in danger, and maybe helping her could be a drop of atonement in his bucket of sins.
"I can help you look," he offered.
"What? You uh… you really don't have to," the young woman replied warily.
"It's fine. I'm really not going to hurt you. What does your cat look like?"
"He's orange and white," the woman supplied, a chip appearing in her guard of skepticism and leeriness. "He's quite big and really fluffy. He is wearing a red and black plaid bowtie."
"Are we far from your apartment? How long ago did he run?"
"My building is down there," she answered, pointing to a rundown four story brick structure. "He ran about ten minutes ago."
Bucky nodded and headed toward her building, intent on finding any clues that might indicate at least what direction to search in. She trailed behind him, the flip-flops on her feet smacking against the sidewalk as she hurried to keep pace with his longer, hastier stride. He reminded himself to slow down to a more normal walk; she was wary of him enough and he didn't want to arouse any suspicion in her. The first rule of being on the run was to walk, after all.
He meticulously searched the area around the apartment building until his keen eyes spotted a tuft of white hair stuck on a broken piece of a chain-link fence. He turned back to the young woman and indicated the hole in the fence. "Looks like he went through there. C'mon, I'll give you a boost."
Brown eyes looked at him nervously for a moment before hardening with resolve. Wordlessly, she pressed the toe of her flimsy footwear into the fence and hoisted herself up and over the top, landing with only a small stumble on the other side. Bucky blinked his surprise, but then brushed if off. He wanted to find the cat and get the heck out of there.
Once again focused, the former assassin heaved himself over the fence as well, landing much more gracefully and silently than his companion had. She said nothing, and probably didn't even notice the practiced movements of his body as he did so. Again, she fell into step behind him as he began looking around once more. A few minutes later, he spotted a decent sized paw print in a patch of slightly frosted over moss. It wasn't too much longer before his trained hearing picked up on the rustling of leaves and traced the sound to a sparse bush. Nestled within the shedding branches and shaking with fear was an orange and white cat.
"Aslan!" the young woman gasped, rushing to kneel in front of the shrubbery. The cat rushed from its hiding spot and into her waiting arms. She scooped up the fluffy creature and Bucky noted with surprise that she hadn't been kidding about it being a big cat. What the hell kind of cat got that big?
Tears were falling again as she nuzzled her face into the cat's abundantly furry neck, and Bucky took that as his cue to leave. She wasn't all that far from her home and had no reason not to return to the safety of it, so his duty had been fulfilled. Silently, he disappeared into the shadows and hastened back toward home, determined to take a circuitous route just in case this had in fact all been a ruse and he was about to be tracked.
"My name is Bucky. I am healthy. I am hiding well. I am…" The dark haired man cut himself off with a growl of frustration. "This is fucking stupid."
The former assassin had taken to reading a lot during the days. He didn't much enjoy going outside during peak foot traffic times, and so he hid away with books he would check out from the local library. A lot of them were history books. He wanted to find out what had happened since his near death and capture at the beginning of 1945. As he read, more memories came back. It was unsettling the number of events he had played a hand in from behind the scenes. He then began branching out into self-help and psychology texts. While interesting, he was having a difficult time implementing any of the suggested coping skills. Speaking affirmations to himself in the mirror felt disingenuous and sort of crazy. There weren't many honest affirmations to give oneself when one spent the last seventy years murdering people in cold blood.
He tried meditating, but quickly stopped that when rushes of bloody images flooded his relaxed mind. He tried breathing exercises and yoga, but it wasn't very effective given that he didn't know what he was supposed to do and was entirely unwilling to attend a class. Bucky had also tried television to numb his mind while also keeping it occupied, but then his body became too restless. Reading was much more effective. There was something about his hands being weighted down and tasked with the simple, consistent motion of turning pages as his mind was kept busy that settled him quite well.
The only other thing that helped him keep a hold on his sanity was actually the only helpful tip from all of the psychology books. He had become an avid journal keeper. He had several filled up with the things he remembered and was continually adding to them, keeping the documentation of what he knew of himself and his past up to date. He wasn't sure what the future held. What he did know is that he never wanted to forget again.
Bucky nodded once toward the slight, older man stationed at the front desk at the library. The librarian nodded back with a smile. This was their routine every Monday and Thursday. As soon as the library opened, Bucky was there. He milled around for five minutes, deciding which section to peruse, then spent another fifteen making his selections. Within a half hour, he was standing at the desk making small talk with the librarian as his check-outs were processed. Other than early morning passes through the street market and his nighttime walks, this was the only time he really went outside.
"Right on schedule," the old librarian said with a grin. "Son, you're a mite predictable."
Bucky gave a weak chuckle, but said nothing. He silently willed the man to move faster so he could retreat back to his apartment and hide away for the day.
The librarian continued, "I hope you're always in a rush here because you're out doing some exciting things during the day, son. Now's your time to live. You can read all day once you get to be my age, hm?"
Bucky forced a smile, but had a feeling it came out more like a grimace. Knowing that he was actually older than this man, he replied, "Thanks for the advice."
As the soldier-turned-assassin hurried home, keeping his head down as the streets began to fill with the day's crowds, he was disappointed to find that he was actually ruminating on the librarian's words. He didn't take the comments about living before hitting old age to heart so much as he began to wonder how he could possibly live this way for the rest of his life. Despite being ninety-seven, it didn't seem like his end was nigh. Maybe he should try to live a bit more and hide a bit less.
What am I thinking?
He entered his apartment, a small, dilapidated studio. After setting some cheap, too-bitter coffee to brew, he sat down at the peninsula separating the tiny kitchen from the living space with one of his newly acquired library books.
First off, he needed money. He'd been hiding out for a few months and was scraping by off minor theft. He never took more than he needed, but he didn't like that he was taking in the first place. And he really couldn't imagine living cooped up in a shitty apartment reading library books for the rest of his life. The memories were going to keep trickling in, but the questions they couldn't answer – Who is he now? What next? What did he want? – would never be answered the way he was going. Maybe he should try living a little. And if it didn't work, he'd run again.
He poured his coffee, wishing he had sugar, and resolved to try to get out more. But first, he would come up with several escape plans. With that decided, he pushed back his other worries and misgivings and began to read.
The best thing about hiding less was that the odd jobs Bucky picked up – all under the table, physical labor positions – engaged his body. Nothing was ever incredibly strenuous for the enhanced man and the people who hired him were always pleased with how quickly he produced their desired outcomes, but it was enough that his insomnia was somewhat assuaged. He didn't miss restless nights wandering outside or laying on his bed staring at the ceiling. However, now there was even more time for his subconscious to unearth gruesome images.
Bullets zinged by, but there wasn't an ounce of fear in his system. His boots trekked through a sea of blood. Hearing an enemy approach on the right, he lifted his MK .48 and fired. He didn't need to look down the barrel to know he would hit his mark. The weapon was an extension of his arm. His eyes remained locked on his target, a young blonde woman huddling behind an overturned desk. The bullets continued to fly from both sides. Tiring of the unnecessary chaos, he unlatched two grenades from his utility belt, activated them, and tossed them over his shoulder. The explosion and wave of intense heat against his back didn't faze him. He hurled himself over the desk, landing in a crouch before his target. Tears poured from her eyes and mucus streamed from her nose. She was both shaking and frozen with fear.
Without blinking, the Winter Soldier rested the end of his .22 magnum between her eyes. Her lips opened to beg that he change his mind, but he didn't wait to listen. They all said the same things and it never worked. He had his orders. He would follow them. Always.
His finger squeezed the trigger. Hot, scarlet liquid splattered across his face and chest. The scent of iron filled his nose. Still, nothing fazed him. He straightened himself, rising to his feet. Blank eyes gazed back at the destruction that was formerly a library. Broken, burning bodies, pools of crimson blood, glassy eyes staring at him. Silently, the Winter Soldier disappeared into the night like the ghost he was rumored to be.
Bucky Barnes shot up with a start. His hair was stuck to his face and neck, his limbs tangled in a mess of sweaty sheets. He laid back down, chest heaving as he fought for air. Almost immediately, he rolled to his side and vomited. His throat stung, and his eyes burned with tears. Dry heaves continued to wrack his body until he flopped back onto the mattress, exhausted. He had a distinct feeling that no matter how much he tried to live, there may not be much of a life left for a ghost.
A/N: Thank you so much for reading! I've been working on this fic for about a year now. It is completely written and edited, so all that really needs to be done is some formatting and uploading, which I hope to do with more regularity than I have with past stories. Content warnings for this fic include: violence, mental health, chronic pain, and adult situations. If you feel able to handle such topics, I would be very grateful for your continued support of this story.
Also, insert requisite "I own nothing" disclaimer here.