I have a mission for you, soldier.
Sometimes Bucky went days without hearing those words. Then he'd think about going to the market or hauling his dirty laundry to the EasyWash, and a hated voice from the past would echo in his mind. The Russian colonel was probably long dead, but his trigger words lived on, waiting to be activated, ready to hijack Bucky's brain and force him to obey commands. The nights he dreamed of Brooklyn, he jolted awake, shuddering, as the worst trigger of all gripped his heart and mind.
In Bucharest, he dreamed every night, recalling enough memories to fill a damn notebook. He didn't understand why at first. The apartment building he'd chosen was old communist architecture: dreary and grudgingly functional. The neighborhood was seedy enough for residents to avoid eye contact, but not so bad that police hung around. His fifth floor walkup had windows. It wasn't a Hydra cell in Siberia. Bucky could live with institutional green paint and a bare mattress on the floor. He'd paid the landlord three months' rent in cash, shut the door, and stashed his go bag under the floorboards to officially move in.
He'd made a mistake. The cupboards and appliances of the kitchenette were so old fashioned they reminded him of his ma's kitchen. The street markets dredged up fragmented memories of two boys buying soda pop and apples from Moore Street Market. Bucharest wasn't just a place where Bucky could be anonymous. All the remnants of the city's past brought back pieces of his in vivid color.
The dreams taunted him with glimpses of everything he'd lost. Worse, they made him hope that if the mind wipe hadn't been complete, maybe Hydra's brainwashing hadn't been a hundred percent either. This wasn't 1945. Science had advanced so much, somebody might be able to unscramble his brain, deprogram him, whatever the hell it was called. He could go back to Brooklyn, have a drink in a bar and laugh when a girl noticed his cybernetic hand sticking out of his jacket. Say he was a super hero in disguise. He dreamed of laughing with two girls at the Modern Marvels Pavillion. He was a heartbreaker in uniform. The girls were dressed to the nines.
But that was another soldier in another life. He couldn't imagine being that carefree again. Laughing and chatting up women, confident he'd get a kiss or more by the end of a date. The last woman he'd touched had tried to kill him. To be fair, he'd tried to kill Natasha Romanoff too. The Winter Soldier was a relentless bastard. His puppet masters didn't wipe those memories. Bucky remembered every kill.
Occasionally—not often enough to create a pattern—he'd find a dive bar and sit with his back to the wall while he nursed a whiskey or drank a couple of beers. Once he shielded his face using the hood of his jacket or wore a ball cap pulled low, he faded into the background, ignored.
And then he read about the upcoming United Nations conference to ratify the Sokovia Accords.
Representatives from 117 countries were coming together, but the press focused on the division within the Avengers. Inside sources claimed that Steve Rogers, Captain America, refused to operate under the supervision of a UN panel. Bucky carried his newspaper to the closest bar. It was a small place. One barman, one server. He sat at the back table with the best sight lines and ordered a bottle of American beer.
"Are you celebrating?" the redheaded server asked in English. She was young, with a Russian accent and green eyes.
He replied in her native language, "Drinking a toast." Bucky gestured to the newspaper. "To Captain America."
Her face lit up. She wasn't a beautiful Black Widow, but pretty and non-lethal had its own charm. He'd always had a thing for redheads. "He's so cool!" she gushed. English again. Maybe she practiced it with customers. Or maybe his black ball cap made him look American.
Bucky smiled a little, thinking the skinny kid he'd rescued from bullies in an alley had been scrappy but never cool. How things changed.
The redhead gasped when he lifted his beer in a silent toast. "Fullmetal Alchemist! For East European Comic Con, da?" She stared at the cybernetic hand he'd forgotten to conceal. "I have all the Manga and the anime series," she said. "Edward Alric is . . . is . . . ." She giggled. "Not that you need a blond wig or automail limbs to be sexy." When he didn't respond, the redhead licked her lips. "Do you have a wig?"
"Do you have a black catsuit and gun belt?" The instant the words—in English, no less—slipped from his mouth, Bucky stood and tossed enough cash on the table to pay for a dozen beers. In Russian, he said, "It's been nice talking to you, but I have to go."
The redhead held out a paper napkin with "Alia" and numbers on it. "Call me?"
"I don't have a mobile phone."
Her hand and expression fell. He said in Romanian, "Maybe I'll see you at Comic Con." The man he used to be would have loved spending time with a pretty girl at a costumed event. For a few moments, Bucky could pretend that part of him lived in more than memories.
"Look for Catwoman," she said, also in Romanian. Her smile was wistful. She didn't really expect to see him.
He nodded. "Goodbye, Alia."
After that, he stayed away from bars with pretty servers and intensified his daily workouts. Staying in one place too long had dulled his edge. Made him careless. He decided to leave Bucharest the day after the United Nations Conference in Vienna.
And then a bomb hidden in a news van exploded.
Bucky saw the headlines before he reached the newsstand to buy a paper. The suspected terrorist was James Buchanan Barnes—the Winter Soldier. A grainy photograph showed a man who looked a lot like him. That explained the kiosk guy bolting. Time for Bucky to do the same. He'd find a new hideout and track down the asshole who'd framed him.
Steve was waiting for him in his apartment. It was almost a relief. Since the day Bucky had walked away from the riverbank, he'd been waiting for his enemies . . . or his old friend . . . to find him.
"Do you know me?" Steve asked. He was holding the memory book, but being Mr. Ethical, Bucky knew he hadn't read it.
"You're Steve," he said. You're Enhanced, but inside you're the same stubborn pipsqueak who told the bullies kicking his ass that he could do this all day. "Your mom's name was Sarah." She was nice to me. "You used to wear newspapers in your shoes." I would've stolen new ones.
"You're a wanted man."
A statement, not an accusation. Still, Bucky couldn't stop himself from saying, "I don't do that anymore."
"Well, the people who think you did are coming right now, and they're not planning on taking you alive."
Steve wasn't just warning him. He was there to help. To fight beside his old pal to the end, not that Bucky would let him. When Special Forces blasted through the door, all he could think was About damn time. He let his training take over. Disarm. Incapacitate. Escape. He didn't kill anymore, but he was a super-soldier. No one would take him prisoner, and he fought alone.
Steve followed. His eternal tagalong.
Bucky ran faster, fought harder. Stole a bike and raced away. He hadn't pulled Steve out of the Potomac River to get him killed trying to save what had been lost long ago. The world needed Captain America. Not the Winter Soldier. Bucky would make Steve see that, even if it meant taking another fall.
A/N: When I saw the film, the trigger words were so intriguing; I couldn't resist using some of them in a story along with certain events and dialogue. Since Steve mentioned Bucky spending $3.00 (almost $40 today according to an online inflation calculator) trying to win a prize to impress a redhead named Dot when they went to Rockaway Beach, and Black Widow's a redhead, I gave Bucky a thing for them. The redheaded server's name "Alia" was inspired by Black Widow's birth name, Natalia Alianovna Romanova. If anyone smiled over Alia wanting to know if Bucky's hand was part of a costume for Comic Con, I'm a happy writer. The story needed a bit of humor to lighten the angst. After Google informed me that there actually is an East European Comic Con, and it's held in Bucharest May 27-29, 2016, I had to use it, the way I hope readers will be compelled to review this story to tell me they enjoyed it.
ETA that I've posted a sequel of sorts called A Dream Before Cryogenic Sleep that revisits the idea of Comic Con in a conversation between Bucky and Steve and in a dream. :)