Author's Note: Not only contains spoilers for Captain America: Civil War, it essentially is a spoiler. Please proceed cautiously.
Memories ricochet off the insides of his skull, like a bullet fired in a steel hallway. He winces, squeezes his eyes closed to fend off the tension; but when he does, he sees images. Fragments of faces, reflections of places like looking into the shards of a dozen broken mirrors. Answers are elusive. He remembers everything; but never in any coherent order, never enough to make sense. And to top it off, he's afraid. The world's top assassin; most wanted man; most dangerous fugitive, he's scared.
What did Hydra put into his head? Will it always be a part of him? He flexes his metal fingers and wishes he could feel pain there, anything to remind himself that he's still human.
"You alright?" Steve asks, craning his neck to see over the back of the quinjet's pilot seat.
Bucky opens his eyes. Feels another pang when he catches Steve's earnest blue eyes. Captain America, the living legend, has gone rogue for him, the Winter Soldier. HYDRA's top weapon. He's more machine than man, but he supposes the guilt he's been feeling nonstop for the last two years is a sign that maybe he's melting.
"I don't know if I'm worth all this," he says at last. He looks out the window to the swirling clouds. The temperature gauge is well below zero. He supposes he should have feelings about returning to Siberia, but if he does they're part of the fragments of emotions and memories that sift through his mind every time he tries to lock onto something. It's easier to focus on the here and now.
Steve sighs and Bucky smiles slightly. Steve has never fought the good fight; he's fought the fights that no one else will. He shouldn't be surprised that the little guy from Brooklyn is sitting in the cockpit with the world's most wanted man in the back, shuttling them off to save the world against every international law out there. "You… they were in your head, Buck," Steve says. He turns to stare out the front of the jet. "You didn't know what you were doing."
"But I still did it." Bucky stares down at his hands: one, calloused and trembling slightly as he slowly comes undone. The other, steady, silver, shining and brutal in its strength and efficiency. "Just because I didn't know, that doesn't change it." It's been the one fixed point in his otherwise wrecked mind for the last two years. Every kill. Every face. Every life. He can't forget. The machine tried to suppress his memories; all it did was scramble them.
Steve is silent. The jet flies smoothly, navigating turbulence with no issue. Would it have been better if he'd never rescued Steve? If he'd gone back to HYDRA and had his mind blended up once again? Or if he'd never come out of cryo to begin with? Steve's a hero; by rights he should have turned him in, or at least let them capture him and lock him up for good. He's too dangerous. That is what two years on the run has taught him: not who he was, but who he is and what he's capable of doing.
All it takes is the words. Simple, unrelated, but just enough to shut him down and make him walk the line between being a raging machine one moment, a calculating murderer the next. Now that he knows, he dreads the day he hears any one of them, and what just one could do. What switch it will flip in his mind. Until he can find a way to undo the programming, he's not really the Bucky that Steve knew, and he never will be.
He wishes he could make Steve understand that. This isn't Brooklyn. They're not a couple of kids, trying to make it in the world. This isn't 1944, and they're not soldiers trying to make the world a safer place. This is now, and they're not who they used to be. They're out of their own times, but can't ever go back in time. They can only go forward, and that's frightening.
Bucky's whole life has been spent following orders, whether of his own accord or because of HYDRA. The last two years have been chaotic and uncomfortable, because he was on his own terms. And now he's forced to see a future where, not only does he lack orders, but everyone is afraid of him and he is afraid of himself. He's not sure he can live with that on top of the guilt.
He wants to ask Steve how he's done it so long, but knows what the answer will be: "It's the right thing to do." That's Steve's answer for everything. The "right thing" seems to be less and less defined though. When does the right thing become wrong?
The pressure is there in his head again, as if his skull is too small to contain all the thoughts stuffed into it. He's spent the last fifty years not thinking for himself. Ever since that day in the Potomac River he's been trying to return to his senses. It's hard. It hurts. He's not sure he has any senses left, some days.
Steve told him he'd be with him until the end of the line. He does remember that. He's held onto that, grasping at it like a lifeline when he starts to lose himself in his mind. He writes down what he remembers, trying to fit the fragments together. So far, Steve's been as good as his word, and that's not surprising. But the further east they fly, the colder it gets, Bucky wonders just where the end is.
And even more, he wonders if he'll make it that far.