"Old soldiers never die, they just fade away" - General Douglas MacArthur
Steve woke slowly, opening his eyes to his pitch black world. He tried to move, but pain lanced through him immediately so he stopped at once. As his senses cleared, he realized he was laying face-down, breathing in the rancid residue that coated the floor; it smelled like death.
Everything smells like death in this place.
A steady dripping was coming from his left, and underneath that was the sound of distant footsteps. The footfalls were becoming steadily more distant; he supposed that meant that they were done with him for the day.
There were no other sounds in his tiny cell but his own heart beat and rancid breath. In the early days, he had taken to hitting the iron bars with his nails, just to hear something different, to make a tune. When the futility of it had hit him, he had cried for what felt like days; probably had been. He could imagine music all he wanted, try to create it, he could recollect sunny days and picture wide open spaces, but the walls that held him weren't crumbling any time soon.
The only time he got to leave the cell was to go to what he assumed was a medical lab of some sort, but even then he was always unconscious. The guards always knocked him out with an injection before they took him out of the cell. Steve used to think that if he ended up in one of these places he would be stoic, that his beard would drape the floor before he was broken. Apparently, he wasn't made of strong enough stuff.
It had only been six weeks…or so since they took Elena off. She hadn't come back and now after six weeks of constant silence, of constant darkness, of constantly loneliness, Steve was starting to loose his mind. Sometimes, one part of his brain got talking to another, whispering if he was lucky, yelling if he was not. He knew he wouldn't last much longer, not if he wanted to hold onto some part of his sanity.
Steve pushed himself up very slowly, carefully, so as not to aggravate whatever new injury he now had. He was grateful for the complete darkness in times like this; he never wanted to actually see what they were doing to him. He could feel it sometimes, when his fingertips brushed something wet or cold that had not been there before. He tried not to think about it because he knew for sure that if he dwelt too much, he would lose his mind all the more quickly.
This time, it felt as if they had done something to his ribs. Both sides of his chest were screaming with pain and Steve was sure, if he dared touch, he would feel the wet stickiness of his own blood, maybe even the stringy texture of muscle tissue or the hardness of bone. He grit his teeth as he pushed himself up to his knees and bowed his head.
"Vater unser im Himmel,
geheiligt werde dein Name;
dein Reich komme;
dein Wille geschehe,
wie im Himmel so auf Erden.
Unser tägliches Brot gib uns heute.
Und vergib uns unsere Schuld,
wie auch wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern;
und führe uns nicht in Versuchung,
sondern erlöse uns von dem Bösen.
Denn dein ist das Reich und die Kraft
und die Herrlichkeit in Ewigkeit.
*The Lord's Prayer in German*
He crossed himself and, wincing, sat back against the wall. The cold stone was his only reprieve - albeit minute - from the constant burning pain that accompanied his daily sessions. He swallowed hard and leaned his head back against the wall. Pushing out all thoughts of pain, all situational awareness, his mind went blank and Steve was lost to a semblance of sleep.
He woke when he heard the metal door scrape open and footsteps grew slowly louder as they moved towards him. Steve tensed; they only ever opened that door to retrieve him. His ears strained to hear which guard was coming for him. Heavy Feet was kinder, allowing Steve to sit down with his back against the bars before he injected him with the sedative. Whistler was not so kind; he enjoyed pulling Steve roughly to his feet and yanking his head to the side before jamming the needle in as hard as he could. When Whistler came, Steve always woke up a lot more sore than with Heavy Feet.
But the sounds approaching today were different. He could tell it was Whistler because the man was light on his feet, but he seemed to be pushing something in front of him... there was another sound today, it was the same squeaking of the wheelchair he used to collect Steve but it sounded different, as if it were weighed down with something. Steve failed to put two and two together until the vague shape of Whistler passed by his cell and Steve finally understood why he wasn't coming for him; there was already someone in the chair.
Steve strained his eyes against the dark in an attempt to see anything as Whistler stopped the chair, and from the sound of it, used a key ring to open to cell next to Steve's. The wheelchair was pushed into the cell and the unconscious person was pushed roughly onto the ground before Whistler stepped out and slammed the bars shut, locking the door behind him. He passed Steve's cell, jabbing something viciously cold and sharp through the bars as he walked, and cackled when Steve yelped and jumped away from the bars. The footsteps and laughter got further away until the metal door opened and a sliver of light fell through, vanishing just as quickly when the door was pulled shut.
Steve tried to control his breathing as he listened carefully for any sounds coming from the next cell. That had been her cell, Elena's, before they took her the last time...Steve shook his head to dislodge the thought of Elena and sat against the shared stone wall, settling himself carefully to avoid jarring his ribs. As far as he could tell, the cells were built entirely out of stone except for the bars at the front. In the first few days, Steve had run his hands over everything and dug his fingers into ever last nook and cranny before coming to the conclusion that there really was no way out.
He would never wish this torment, this torture, on anyone but he couldn't deny that he was pleased to potentially have a companion once again.
If the person ever woke up.
Steve sat, quiet and listening, for what felt like hours, before he finally heard a low groan. He perked instantly, ears straining as the person started to shift about.
"Wh...wh...w?" A male voice slurred. Coherent speech was always difficult for a bit after the sedatives.
So Steve waited a few more minutes before asking, "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" He was hopeful the man would speak at least one of the languages he knew.
*Do you speak German?*
"Ein bissen," came the reply.
"English?" Steve tried again.
"Fuck...yes. My German's shit. Sorry."
Steve almost cried with relief; he couldn't imagine any more days without being able to talk to someone.
"Where are we?"
Steve grimaced, "Nowhere good."
The man actually laughed and Steve drank in the sound like a man starved.
"Got that, thanks. Nowhere you end up is good in the middle of a war."
Steve decided to go for the truth, as fully as he could give it.
"I don't know exactly where we are. I was at one of the camps when the Doctor came and selected me. They brought me here but I do not know where it is as I was unconscious."
He heard the man shuffling before he sighed, as Steve assumed he pulled himself to a seated position against his own wall.
"You were in a concentration camp? Auschwitz?" The man's voice was strained and he seemed genuinely concerned for Steve.
"Yes. Not Auschwitz. Kraków-Płaszów. Only for a weeks or so before the Doctor came," Steve shuddered as he always did thinking about the camp. But it had been better than this place.
"German, yes." Steve leaned his head back, closing his eyes, "I'm not exactly what Hitler would consider 'Aryan perfection'. They came to my town, rounded up the Jews and took me as well. I suppose I too am less than human in their eyes."
The man scoffed and shuffled a bit. When he spoke, his voice was closer so he must have come over to their shared wall. "That's bull. Everyone's worth the air they breathe. Simple as that. Just cause you didn' look quite right don't give those assholes the right to decide if you live or die. Don't no one got that right."
Steve smiled a little because that had been pretty much exactly what his mother had told him as he grew, and then stopped growing. Everyone was good for something, whether they were big or small; and everyone had a purpose to fulfill. His eyes grew wet with tears thinking of her so he hastily changed the subject.
"And yourself? American, clearly."
The man chuckled, "That obvious, huh? Yeah, I'm American. From New York." He took a deep breath. "My unit...we got hit...most of 'em were killed in the attack. They might've been the lucky ones, honestly." Steve heard his voice catch before he cleared his throat. "Don't know why they didn't just kill me as well and be done with it, but here I am."
"I'm glad you are here," Steve blurted before he caught how that sounded. "Oh! No! I just - I mean..." He sighed. "I have been alone for a very long time. It is nice to hear another voice. That is all I meant."
"I didn't take it any other way. How long you been here, then?"
Steve frowned, thinking. "I don't know exactly. It was summer when I was in the camp...and they come to get me once a day I think...Maybe three months?"
"Fuck. And you've been alone in here the whole time?"
"No...there was a woman. She was here when I arrived but they took her...six weeks ago I think, and she never came back. Her name was Elena."
Steve heard the man whisper a prayer he didn't recognize under his breath and couldn't hold back the sob that escaped when he heard Elena's name.
"We're all children of God. It don't matter what language we speak or religion we hold to. S'all the same under the skin."
"Even still. You didn't know her. So thank you."
There was a long silence - the first silence in weeks that Steve had not longed to fill - before the man spoke again.
"I almost don't wanna ask, but it'll drive me nuts if I don't. You said they come to take you every day. And Elena was taken and didn't come back...What do you mean by that?"
Steve had really hoped that they would be able to avoid that question for a while longer. He didn't want to think about it, much less say it out loud...
He swallowed around a suddenly dry mouth, "Well...the Doctor...his name is Josef Mengele." A sharp breath was drawn at that but he continued, "He told me that much when he picked me at Kraków-Płaszów. He told me he could make me better than I was. I didn't like him but it was not as if I was presented a choice."
"I've heard of him. They call him The Angel of Death." The man's voice was just a whisper now. "What's he doing here?"
"I do not know. His men come to get me. They use a sedative and I fall unconscious right away. When I wake up, I am always back, and I always...hurt. It is too dark to see what he does but I can feel it: sometimes cold, sometimes wet, sometimes...sticky, but always pain. However, as of right now, I am still whole...as far as I can tell."
His voice had gotten more and more robotic as he spoke until it sounded as if he were reciting maths equations for Frau Hassen back in school. The man didn't speak for a long time. When he finally did, it was not a question Steve had been expecting.
"Are you hurt right now?"
Steve nodded before he remembered the man couldn't see him, "Yes."
"Not very, I do not think. I do not think I am bleeding anymore but I-I find it difficult to touch where they work...I am afraid of what I will feel."
The man swore colourfully before taking a deep breath. It sounded shaky when he released it and for the first time, Steve could tell that the man was afraid, deeply afraid.
"What is your name?" Steve ventured.
"Sergeant James Barnes of the 107th American infantry. But call me Bucky."
Bucky laughed, still shaky, but better, "My middle name's Buchanan. Friends call me Bucky."
Steve smiled. He liked being Bucky's friend.
"And what's yours, Invisible German?"
Fighting a smile now, Steve replied, "Stephan. Stephan Roeder."
"Stephan, huh? Can I call you Steve?"
"You may. That is what my mother called me."
Bucky's voice was low, kind, when he asked, "What happened to her?"
"The Nazis shot her when she tried to stop them from taking me. She was only trying to protect me." The tears couldn't be stopped this time.
"I'm so sorry, Steve. She's with God now."
Steve was crying in earnest so Bucky let him be. He could hear the other man praying quietly on the other side of the wall and he drew more comfort from that than he had felt in months.