Someone is building machines that look and act like people.
Meanwhile, the Winter Soldier tries to be Bucky Barnes.
A couple months ago, Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out, and suddenly the casual Tumblrite couldn’t walk two virtual steps without getting hit in the face by Sebastian Stan. There were so many gifs, theories, and emotions about the movie that I briefly considered blocking any mention of Sebastian and his character, the Winter Soldier, but as that would actually mean blocking the majority of content on my dashboard, I refrained. And somewhere within the deluge of feels, I found this amazing fic. So all in all, I’m pretty glad I didn’t block anything.
Out of the Dead Land by emilyenrose starts, as most Steve/Bucky fics do, post-Winter Soldier. Bucky, the aforementioned Winter Soldier, waits for a Hydra operative to pick him up after the battle on the Helicarrier with Steve. Hydra, however, has its own problems, and no one comes for him. Convinced that Steve Rogers knows someone who looks like him, Bucky Barnes, and could give this Bucky a mission, the soldier hunts out information on Bucky Barnes and goes to Steve’s apartment, pretending to be Bucky, in an attempt to be useful. The “pretending to be Bucky” bit, at least, doesn’t work out so well for him.
While Out of the Dead Land does focus specifically on Bucky and his mental recovery—the entire story is from Bucky’s point of view—emilyenrose also takes the time to write in a compelling and fascinating plot that is at once an integral part of Bucky’s recovery and yet is not completely predicated around Bucky’s mental issues. Fic that deal with one specific issue is a great way to engage with sensitive issues, and I read a lot of it—but that wasn’t the story I personally wanted to read with Bucky. Fic that include difficult character hurdles as part and parcel of a complex extrinsic plot are hard to find and even harder to write, but if done well, they enhance the character struggles and make them feel more realistic by grounding them in a larger story. That’s what emilyenrose does with this fic, and she does so effortlessly. Robots (built by a familiar villain) who pretend to be your closest friends? And Bucky, who after seventy years of brainwashing isn’t even sure if he is a person? Brilliant combination of plot and angst.
Yet at no point does this fic become a one-note angsty monologue from Bucky. emilyenrose makes good use of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s host of characters—everyone is perfectly in character, and she allows them to be the comedic alternative that Bucky (and Steve) can’t be. For a fic about a brainwashed assassin trying to fight his way back to his humanity, I ended up laughing a lot.
“I’m Tony’s girlfriend, Pepper Potts,” corrected Pepper. “And I don’t set people on fire, Tony, you have to stop telling people that.”
“Right, girlfriend. That’s what I said. Wasn’t that what I said?”
“More or less,” Pepper said, but she was smiling. “And your latest victim’s name is?”
“Sergeant Barnes, ma’am,” Bucky said.
The words fell out of his mouth, almost. He didn’t know where they’d come from. He hadn’t been thinking about what to say. Part of him had already started coldly assessing, because Stark wasn’t acting like he was worried about having the Winter Soldier and the woman he loved in the same room, which meant she had to be a threat of some kind. She can set you on fire. Another part of him felt shyly pleased at being introduced to her, like a person. Something somewhere in the back of his mind was also deeply embarrassed by sitting around in front of a classy dame like that without a shirt on. It wanted him to stand up politely at least. (James Buchanan Barnes, is this how I raised you? it said.)
He didn’t move. He just watched her. That seemed safest.
“Sergeant Barnes,” Pepper repeated carefully, and her brow wrinkled slightly. “That sounds familiar from somewhere. I’m very sorry—have we met before?”
Tony rolled his eyes extravagantly. “No, that’s not where you know it from. He’s Bucky Barnes, he’s Cap’s best friend from the Forties.” Pepper’s eyes widened very slightly. “He’s suffering from a mild case of seventy years of brainwashing, he’s a little bit stabby, and he’s also under the mistaken impression that he’s funny, but he’s okay. I’m considering renaming the Tower again. How do you feel about Tony Stark’s Home For Wayward Supersoldiers?”
Bucky’s internal monologue; Tony being Tony; Pepper can set you on fire. All three characters play off each other beautifully, and as an aspiring writer, the intricate balance of the encounter just makes me seethingly jealous. Please go read it and join in my misery.
You can read Out of the Dead Land here on AO3. At 62k, it’ll take a good bite out of your day, but hey, when has that ever stopped an erstwhile fanfic reader?