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swallows still sing

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“Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory. A storyteller can attempt to tell the human tale, can make a galaxy out of the chaos, can point to the fact that some people survived even as most people died. And can remind us that the swallows still sing around the smokestacks."  

― Jane Yolen 

***

 

Bucky doesn’t know why he isn’t dead. He’s prayed for it every time they came for him. He whispers the shma through each and every torture, falls back to cool nights with his family, playing games at the kitchen table. Falls back to his Tatti showing him how to wrap the tefillin around his arm, something Bucky will never do again. Falls back to lighting the Hanukkah candles, his hand around little Sara’s, her face all lit up by the candle light. Falls back and smells his Mama’s rugelach filling their apartment. Falls, and falls, and falls.

The dank and dark of the train seep into Bucky’s bones. He is pressed too close to the others, crowded like cattle. There is no food or water. He can tell the passing of time by the flashes of light and night between slats of wood. Everything is the stink of unwashed human flesh and the beginning stages of death. Sometimes, when the train roars through the night, a feeble voice will raise up a prayer. Bucky never has the will to join in.

There is a place in his head where Tatti and Mama and Rivka and Miri and Sara and he are all still safe together. The place gets farther and farther away with every day of the dark. He knows Tatti is gone, he knows, and he pretends, because it doesn’t matter anyway, he’s never going to leave this place, he may as well already be dead. They keep him in a building in the back of the camp. There are others here with him, but they never speak. It is not like the labor camps, where you might share soft words of comfort in the language of home, familiar sounds and songs and stories, ask newcomers for news of the outside. There is no comfort here, only pain and fear.

He falls while working at Mauthausen and he is terrified. The fear has nothing to do with the mangled mess of his arm, bone and flesh and muscle all wound together in a parody of humanity. People who cannot work get taken away and never come back.

They share a barrack that smells like death and rot and blood. Sometimes it takes a couple of days for a guard to notice that one of them has died, because the smell always lingers. There are only a couple men  left now and Bucky thinks that the man who sleeps on the far end will die soon. He can tell by the wheeze in his lungs that the cold has gotten to him, though they don’t do the cold as much anymore. Bucky thinks it’s spring - the barracks are warmer, smell worse. It doesn’t stop the shivers that come at night. Bucky thinks the cold is the worst, because it never really leaves you. It stays close to your bones no matter how long it’s been.

Bucky remembers waking up to a terrible sort of heat, boiling water falling from cruel hands letting his skin bubble and hiss and he screams and screams. A man stands above him with a watch and counts the minutes as Bucky vomits from the pain.

The shots he doesn’t mind so much, though they leave him writhing in pain for days. At least he is left alone. No one touches him. No one measures how long he bleeds or how long it takes broken bones to knit together. No one tries to sew dead flesh onto him, leaving it there for days as it rots and swells and Bucky vomits again and again until there is nothing left.

The cold is the worst because there’s a moment after his body starts convulsing where everything goes perfectly still. He can hear his Mama’s voice calling to him and it’s sort of like peace. And then there is heat. Unwanted, horrible heat that drags Bucky back and back and back to reality. He pleads and cries for them to please, please just let him die.

*** 

He was sixteen when Hitler stripped them of their rights. He was seeing a girl named Lea with pretty brown curls and freckles on her nose. His Mama and Tatti spoke worriedly in the night and Bucky dreamed of taking Lea out dancing.  He was sixteen when he couldn’t take her to the cinema and he was sixteen when he had his first broken heart.

He was nineteen when they made a law that said his Mama couldn’t work anymore. He was nineteen when they kicked his sisters out of school. He was nineteen when the police broke the doors of his Tatti’s shop, where Bucky worked alongside his father. They tore the doors down at his synagogue. They beat Ida, who was sixteen and went to school with Rivka, when she tried to protect her elderly father. That was the first time Bucky used his fists. It was the first time he really felt fear. He was nineteen when his Mama and Tatti sent Sara and Miri away on the kindertransport , to be taken in by some strange British family. Rivka slipped into bed with him that night, as she hadn’t since they were both children, and cried into his chest. He was nineteen when he came home to find Mama sewing yellow stars onto their threadbare jackets. Their eyes met and Bucky looked away. There was nothing to be said.

He was twenty-one when they came for what was left of his family, dragged them from the home he had grown up in, put them on a train to Terezin. He was twenty-one when his Mama held onto him and cried, and he was twenty-one when his Tatti gripped Rivka to his side, a wild sort of fear in his eyes. He was twenty-one when the guards ripped them away from him, Mama and Rivka to a place far away and unknown, Tatti with a blow to the back of his head. He was twenty-one when he watched blood spread across snow for the first time.

***

Bucky hears the noise but thinks little of it. There has been much hubbub in the last several days, marching feet and shouted orders that Bucky didn’t bother to try and make out.  His head is foggy with pain and hunger and illness. The smell of death sits heavy in his lungs. It has been a long time since the guards last came to check on them, longer still since Zola appeared in their midst or took them to the room with the drain.

The room was probably white once, filled with shiny new silver, but that was long before Bucky came. Now it is the dull brown of blood dried and washed and dried and washed. So much blood pouring down the drain, a hundred thousand tears, too many lifetimes of pain battered into its walls. That is where they take them to hurt them.

There’s incoherent shouting in a language Bucky doesn’t know. A loud crash shakes the building and then there’s a looming figure in the doorway, blocking most of the light. Bucky squints. It isn’t one of the regular guards, but that’s all he can tell with the sun hitting his eyes for the first time in ages and the man backlit, sunlight pouring in around his frame. He’s speaking now, but it’s words that Bucky can’t understand. He’s entering the room. Bucky tries to find fear, but there isn’t any left, so he just lies very still, hoping the guard won’t notice him, will choose someone else instead.

But the man comes straight to him, kneels by Bucky’s bunk. He’s blond with blue eyes, tall and built. Bucky almost laughs and thinks that it looks like they finally found their perfect Aryan soldier. The man is still speaking. After a moment the man pauses, shakes his head. When he speaks next, it is in heavily accented German.

"Sir, my name is Captain Rogers. I’m with the United States Army. I’m here to help.” The words take a moment to sink in. They take their time slipping down into his brain, working their way into his blood and to his heart, where they sit, awaiting confirmation. Bucky thinks maybe he’s finally lost his mind, that this is some strange hallucination and that he’s bleeding out in the room with the drain or shivering in the ice tank. “Are you injured? Can you sit up?”

Bucky doesn’t know. He puts his one hand down on the bed, pushes, tries to sit up. Trembles. The Captain puts a hand on Bucky’s back, slowly guides him to sitting. His whole body shakes. No one has touched Bucky with kindness in a very long time. The Captain’s hand is big and warm. He repeats the question, "Are you hurt?

Bucky shakes his head slowly. His whole body aches and his lungs are heaving, partly from whatever illness has been spreading and partly from choking back sobs. There are shouts from outside and he flinches. The Captain brings his other hand forward and grabs Bucky’s hand, squeezes reassuringly. He turns and shouts back. Bucky is with it enough to recognize English, now, though he speaks very little of the language.

“What is your name?” The Captain asks. Other men are coming in now. None are wearing a uniform. They are dusty and blood spattered and they approach the beds with the same kindness the Captain has shown him.

Bucky ,” Bucky rasps. “ Joshua Buchlowitz.

“Hello Bucky, ” the Captain smiles and it is like the sun coming out. Bucky starts to cry. The Captain pulls out a handkerchief. By most standards it could use a wash, but it’s the cleanest thing in the room. Bucky is caked in blood and old filth, right down to the marrow of his bones. This knowledge has been beat into his skin time after time after time.  The Captain mops Bucky’s tears and then tucks the handkerchief into Bucky’s hand. Bucky grips it tight, feeling like if he lets go this might all be a dream and he’ll wake on Zola’s table once more.

“The guards?” Bucky asks, voice rusty and dry. He cannot remember the last time he has been asked to speak real words, to share a conversation with another person. The time in the dark was a time of screams and prayers and whispered pleas that you knew would go unheard. The captain’s hand slips away for a moment, pulls up a canteen. He opens it quickly and holds it to Bucky’s lips.

“They ran. The war is all but over.” Bucky gasps around the canteen and water spills down his chin, dampens his chest, leaves a line of clean skin along the dirt and grime that he is covered with. Captain Rogers steadies the canteen, strengthens the support on Bucky’s back. “We’re going to get you medical care now. Can you stand?”

Bucky shakes his head. He can barely sustain the sitting position he’s in now, even with the Captain’s support. He cannot remember the last time he walked. He’s not sure he can feel his feet at all. The Captain nods slowly. “Would it be alright if I lifted you?”

In all honesty, there is little that Bucky wants more than to be held by warm, strong hands, and he nods. There is no room left to be ashamed or to fear his own weakness. He is starkly aware of it - starkly aware that since the guards have been gone there was no one to drop him in the corner where the pot is, that he is covered with his own waste products, with vomit and blood, that he has not been washed since the last time they dunked him into the freezing water. But the Captain’s face shows none of the disgust Bucky expects and that is all the dignity Bucky can desire.

Captain Rogers is gentle as he scoops Bucky up, cradles him to his chest like he weighs no more than a babe. He says something in English to the other soldiers, who answer with deference. Bucky listens to the steady heartbeat under his ear, remembers being held by his Tatti .

“The other camps? My family?” Bucky asks with sudden urgency, trying to straighten in the Captain’s arms. Captain Rogers makes a soothing noise.

“Do you know which camp they were sent to?”

Bucky shakes his head frantically, tears clouding his vision and choking him up, a dreadful fear that they are gone like his Tatti is gone, that he will never see any of them ever again, that they are as lost to him as his left arm.

We came from Frankfurt am Main. They took us first to Terezin, but then we were separated. After - I don’t know.”

“Bucky.” The captain’s voice is serious and Bucky meets his gaze. They are moving toward the door and the sunlight is blinding and Bucky fixes his eyes on the Captain’s and ignores everything else. “Bucky, I promise I’ll find them for you. But first we have to get you better.”

“Promise? ” Bucky asks, voice like a child’s.

Yes, ” the captain says solemnly. Bucky blinks back more tears and nods.

They move through the doorway and the sun hits Bucky’s face. His eyes flinch closed involuntarily, but the warmth on his face is more than enough. There’s a breeze too, the freshest air Bucky has breathed in months. It’s chaos outside, a clamor of voices in languages both familiar and foreign. Bucky is glad to ignore it, glad to trust that the captain will take him to safety. He dares to open his eyes. Everything is fuzzy around the edges, like a waking dream. There are soldiers - proper ones in uniforms - everywhere, and other prisoners being herded into groups. Questions and cheers are being shouted. There are nurses in white, too, treating people in open tents or out of barracks. The crowds are suffocating, the endless stream of languages pounds in Bucky’s skull, the stench of unwashed men a different sort of indignity than the smell of death. Captain Rogers bypasses them all, walks by lines of barracks, stride long and confident. No one stops them.

Eventually they reach a remarkably quiet corner of the camp. There are three tents already set up and a small group of people setting up medical supplies and tables, talking over radios, leaning over maps on makeshift tables. The captain pauses momentarily to speak with a fierce looking woman with dark curls. She takes one look at Bucky and quickly waves them on, voice hurried.

Captain Rogers lies him slowly down on a cot - one with a real mattress and blankets and a pillow, and starts to pull back. Bucky grabs the material of his uniform, a strange thing patterned in red and blue. “No ,” He pleads, fear racing in his blood. He had thought he’d run out of fear. “Don’t leave me.”

The captain blinks and gives him a small smile. “I won’t,” he murmurs. “I’ll sit right here, but I need to let the nurses do their work .” Bucky swallows tightly but nods and lets go of the captain. He pulls back slowly and a pair of nurses rush up. Bucky lies there quietly, eyes fixed on the captain, hand still gripping the handkerchief he’d been given. The first nurse pauses above him, asks a question in English, looking at Bucky with kind, dark eyes.

Bucky shakes his head in confusion, looks to the captain for a translation.

Captain Rogers leans closely to him, asks, “Is it alright if the nurses touch you now?”

Bucky cries again. They all flutter around him, asking questions of him and each other and offering him water and a blanket, which only serves to make Bucky cry more.

Thank you, thank you, Captain,” Bucky says. The man looks baffled but still so kind. Bucky had forgotten such kindness existed, that there are people who will treat him as if he is human. He had forgotten that he is human. “Yes,”  Bucky answers, “yes, they can touch me.”

The captain goes soft, reaches out and touches Bucky’s shoulder, face filled with some emotion Bucky doesn’t have words for. He steps back. The nurses work quietly and Bucky lets them. His body has not been his own for a long time and their hands are quick and gentle. The nurses remove Bucky’s tattered pants and cover his nudity with a blanket. They examine his feet and legs, his fingers, the end of his stump, draw quick dry fingers over the skin. He answers questions only when the captain asks. Everything else seems distant and terrifying, a storm that swirls, never ending.  The captain dutifully asks their questions - can you feel this? Does this give you pain? - and the captain meets Bucky’s eyes, shows no sign of flinching from this. He looks on Bucky without judgement.

Bucky catches the pity and the shock and the horror of the nurses, in the soldiers who come and go. He sees the way they look at his scars, his amputated toes, the burns that run up his right leg. The tent fills with a quiet sort of bustle. One, two, three more men are brought in and laid on beds. The captain’s men come and go, exchanging soft English words. It reminds Bucky of quiet days in Tatti’s grocery. There is an awareness that the horrors still wait for him, that his family is still lost, that there are questions about what next and where he’ll go and how he’ll make his way. They feel far away and not quite real, more like an echo than anything else. He can barely think of the next breath, let alone what might come after.

He’s drawn out of the peaceful stillness of his thoughts and breath by the captain’s face growing angry and then sad. The captain turns to face Bucky, that inexplicable soul-deep sadness swimming in his eyes.

They need to take swabs from your genitals, ” Captain Rogers says quietly. Bucky feels his breath hitch. He doesn’t know why - no has ever asked or warned him before they touched his body. Perhaps if they had just done it would just be one more thing, a relatively small one at that, which happened to him. But in this moment it feels so much more than that. It feels like this one thing will strip away the very last shreds of his dignity.

“Don’t look ,” he pleads. The captain’s face creases with confusion, “Please. Close your eyes with me.

The captain nods and swallows. Bucky clenches his eyes closed, hears the captain speaking in English and then his voice - warm and deep and kind - falls into German again. “I grew up in New York. My Da died when I was little and my Ma raised me. We lived in this apartment, just the one room for the two of us.”

The blankets shift, there’s air where there shouldn’t be, and Bucky feels exposed and dirty and terrible. He can feels the swabs, hears the nurses talking in horrified tones, makes a choked little noise. Steve raises his voice, keeps talking in his accented German.

“I used to sneak out to the fire escape late at night, when I thought she was asleep. We didn’t have much of a view - just another building pressed right up against ours, everyone’s laundry hanging in the way - but sometimes I could see my neighbors through their windows and I would make up stories about their lives, about the secrets the bricks between us were hiding.”

The blanket falls back into place. Hesitantly Bucky opens his eyes. The captain still has his eyes closed, is still speaking softly of his childhood. Bucky looks at him, really looks for the first time, without fear of being seen in return. Captain Rogers has pale skin, perfect like the porcelain doll Rivka had gotten for her eighth birthday. Except when he looks closer, there’s a delicate spread of freckles across the bridge of his nose, which is crooked like it’s been broken and healed wrong. There’s dirt smudged across his cheek, along his neck and ears too, like he had splashed water onto his face in a hurry. He is every inch a hero, Bucky finds, and it’s in his not-quite-perfect face, not in the wide spread of his shoulders or the height and muscle that must give him an advantage in a fight. Bucky reaches out and takes his hand.

“Thank you, Captain. You saved me.” The captain opens his eyes. His crooked lips quirk into a smile.

“I only did what was right.

Bucky feels a creeping sense of hope. If there are men like Captain Rogers in the world, it might not be so bad after all.

“And Bucky.” The captain’s eyes are serious and sad, speak of loss and sorrow. “Call me Steve. We are equals in all of this.”

Bucky grips Capta- Steve’s hand just a little tighter, wonders if maybe God is finally answering his prayers.

***

***

 

They stay at the camp for a week and a half. Each day Bucky is able to keep his eyes open just a little bit longer and sit up just a little bit taller. The Captain - Steve, Bucky reminds himself - is often there, though not always. The nurses are kind and speak some German, but Bucky prefers it when Steve is close at hand. He feels a little silly about it and tries not to make a big deal out of it. He doesn’t know much but he has caught onto the fact that Steve Rogers is a very important person. The little group of people who surrounds Bucky and the others treat Captain Rogers with great deference and follow his orders without question.

Bucky doesn’t know why he and his companions are separated from the other prisoners, who have been organized and reorganized by American soldiers, shouts and orders echoing through the camp. Their little corner of the camp remains undisturbed, for the most part. The soldiers and nurses all wear badges printed with the letters SSR, and Bucky thinks that perhaps they are some special force of allied troops, because they seem to come not only from America, but Britain and France as well. It’s hard to dredge up curiosity about  it, though. Bucky sees it all through a fog, everything blurred and abstracted and difficult to see. Though it’s not anything he’s really felt before, it is not unpleasant. In fact, it seems to protect him from the worst of the pain. He is afraid that if he starts asking questions that he will poke holes in the fog and fear and pain and despair will come seeping in again. He lets the daze take him. It’s easier that way.

But sometimes things break in despite his best efforts. The touch of pajamas - proper cotton worn thin but clean - on too sensitive skin. The feel of gentle hands on his body, which has known only pain for so long. The taste of chicken broth, warm and good on his tongue, after months of moldy bread and spoiled meat. The feel of a damp cloth, wiping away the grime. That last one made him cry. The nurses had closed the tent flap - given them privacy as if they are human beings - and had gently cleansed away months of the worst sort of filth, never blinking an eye or wincing away.

There are no mirrors here, and Bucky can only imagine what he looks like. He doesn’t know why these people don’t flinch from him in horror, don’t see him as the monster he has been made into. In the quiet, still moments between visits from nurses and Steve, Bucky runs his fingers over what he can reach of his body. He doesn’t recognize any of it.

But then, Bucky’s not sure he’s the same person who got shipped to this camp all those years ago. They carved away his family and his safety and his dignity, why shouldn’t his body match?

On the fifth day, Bucky can sit up without assistance when he wakes. Steve is there, talking quietly with one of the other rescued men, both sipping steaming beverages out of tin cups. Steve looks up when Bucky pushes himself up and meets his eyes with one of those blinding smiles. Bucky smiles shyly back. Steve lifts a finger as if to say ‘one minute’ and Bucky nods. He glances around the tent. The other surviving man is still sleeping, snoring in a familiar way. Perhaps the only thing that is not new and overwhelming are the sounds the other men make - he has never seen their faces, but he knows the noises they make in sleep and sickness, in pain and desperation.

Outside the open flaps of the tent Bucky can see the sun just beginning to rise. After months (years?) in the dark, none of them have any sense of time and they sleep strange hours. Despite this, there is always someone present when they wake. Bucky appreciates that more than he can say. As Bucky watches the early morning light wash over the barracks and trodden down earth, an urge hits him, deep in his belly. It has been more years than he can possibly say since he has met the morning light with shararit. He has nothing here, nothing at all - not his tallit or his unwearable tefillin or a sidur - but he can pray. He can pray and know that other Jews - those rescued, those still captured, those living in fear and those living far away from war and madness - will also lift their faces to the morning light and thank God. Steve approaches the side of the bed, still smiling.

“Steve ,” Bucky asks hesitantly, “would you help me up to pray? ” So far Bucky has made no mention of his faith. He whispers the shma each night before he sleeps, fearful that he might die before he wakes as he has seen so many do. But no one has noticed. No one has said anything about Bucky being a Jew. They saved him. They continue to save him each day, with their food and their medicine and their gentle hands. Will it all stop if he reveals his faith? If he is open about it, as he has not dared been since he was a teenager in Frankfurt am Main, will they turn him away?

Bucky’s heart is pounding in his chest, but if he is going to die or be abandoned, or once again face hate and hurt, at least it will have been in the pursuit of one last conversation with God.

But Steve does not react in any of the ways that Bucky fears. He just says, “Of course. ” He crouches by Bucky’s bed and Bucky reaches a shaking hand out. Steve grips firmly around his forearm with one strong hand, brings the other around Bucky’s back and easily hefts him to his feet. The whole world grays and spins for a moment before steadying. Steve is looking at him with tight and focused eyes and Bucky manages a reassuring smile.

Could we go outside please?” Bucky asks. “I would like to feel the sun.”

Steve nods. He keeps an arm around Bucky’s back, but it doesn’t feel threatening. It feels like safety. Bucky is barefoot, but Steve leads him over the safest ground to a small tree just to the side of the medical tent. There are a couple sleeping bags and soldiers’ packs wrapped up and stowed away in the shadow of the trunk, and Bucky thinks that this might be where some of the men are sleeping.

It is an odd and alarming realization - to know that there are men, good men, sleeping on the ground while Bucky lies in bed, covered by blankets, his every need seen too; that he, a Jew, sleeps higher than these Christian soldiers. The realization settles deep into his bones and waits there, lurking.

What else do you need?” Steve asks. He pulls back slightly, now that Bucky is steadier on his feet. The ground still feels wobbly and Bucky’s legs are weak with years of disuse. This shaharit would not be a long one. A lightness takes hold deep in the pits of Bucky’s being when he realizes that it doesn’t matter if thisshararit is brief. There will be tomorrow and the next day and the rest of Bucky’s life to converse with God. He feels at ease and at peace for the first time in a great while.

I need to face south east, ” Bucky says softly, smiling, turning his face into the bright morning light. Steve, a true soldier, does not even need to consult a compass before turning Bucky slightly so that he’s facing half into the sun and half out towards a square of trampled earth. There are many people gathered there - some in long lines, some huddled together in groups, some staring blankly in a way that feels terribly familiar. Bucky’s view is blocked by the fence and a large building, but it doesn’t matter. In that moment, Bucky feels as if he can see all the way to Jerusalem. “Stay close, please, ” he requests. Steve nods, still smiling, a soft, content sort of look in his blue eyes.

Bucky closes his eyes. He reaches for the prayers and they flow into his mouth as though they had never left.

He is five and fidgeting inshul while the adults pray the amidah . He had insisted on coming, though his Tatti had told him he would be bored. Bucky wishes he had stayed with the other children to play games. He is ten and reads the words in the sidur while the men bob and dip around him, like sailboats on the sea. He is thirteen and awkward and reads from the torah and his Mama and Tatti smile and cry and sweep him up in hugs. He is twenty and prays in fear for the first time. Mama and the girls stayed at home, but Tatti had insisted that for as long as he could he would go to Thursday services and listen to the word of God and give thanks for all the blessings they have. Bucky tries not to count the blessings they have lost.

The sun rises and Bucky davens. His legs tremble with effort of standing and he cannot yet manage to bow his body, though he ducks his head in respect. Bucky wobbles dangerously and almost loses his place in the amidah, but Steve steadies him with a strong, broad hand on Bucky’s skinny chest. Bucky continues his prayers with Steve’s hand pressed to his heart.

Like this his prayers feel more holy, more heard, than Bucky can ever remember. As he mouths the last of his prayers, Bucky opens his eyes to the bright light of the new day. He turns to Steve and smiles broadly, whispers his thanks reverently. Steve waves it off, but Bucky repeats the thanks more strongly, fixing his eyes on Steve’s.

Steve flushes just a little, looking uncomfortable with the gratitude, but he doesn’t wave Bucky off again.

You’re welcome, ” he says, face and tone echoing Bucky’s seriousness. Then Steve grins playfully, and says, “the nurses are glaring at me. Are you ready to return to bed?

Bucky laughed, free and true. “If I had my way, never, but I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble with the nurses!”

Steve chuckles, an unfamiliar glint of levity in his sky blue eyes. “I appreciate it, ” Steve leans in, face lit with mischief. Bucky’s heart skips a beat, confused and pleased. “ Milly is terrifying!

Bucky laughs and lets Steve lead him back to bed. Despite his token protest, Bucky is glad to be back in the cot. His legs are trembling and tired, his lungs are heavy in his chest, and he feels as though he could sleep a week.

Milly, a fiery redhead who chatters while she works, is berating Steve in English while Louisa, a shy brunette who can’t be more than twenty, takes Bucky’s pulse and listens to him breathe. She makes a thoughtful noise and scribbles down numbers. Next she carefully examines his feet, prodding at the stumps of his missing toes. They ache a little, in a distant sort of way. Bucky lets Louisa work and watches Steve. Despite his rank, the captain is listening politely, a sheepish sort of expression on his face. Bucky grins. He closes his eyes and listens to Milly’s English, to Steve’s quiet yes ma’am ’s, to two soldiers quarreling playfully in French. He listens to the breathing of his companions, to Louisa humming under her breath, to the distant mutters of the other soldiers.

He sleeps.    

Chapter Text

 

It is another two days before the nurses agree that they are ready to travel. Preparations start at dawn, waking Bucky from a restless sleep. His mind seems at war with itself. This place has been both the site of the most horrific cruelty and the most redemptive kindness in Bucky’s life. He wants to leave. He wants never to leave. He’s not sure what faces him, out there, in the rest of the world.

Steve comes by shortly, looking harried and like he hadn’t slept at all, but he still has a smile for Bucky.

Is everything alright ?” Bucky asks, returning the smile. His smiles come easier now than even just a few days past, feels almost natural again.

Steve nods, rubs a hand over the scruff on his face. “Yes,”  he says, but Bucky doesn’t think that’s true. Steve seems distracted and fidgety. Every other time they have interacted, Steve has given Bucky his full and undivided attention. He is the same when he talks to the soldiers and the nurses and the other patients. Bucky thinks that Steve would have to be concerned for that not to be the case. Bucky’s face falls into a glare without him thinking about it, the same one he used to give Rivka when she lied about having eaten at school.

Steve laughs. Bucky blinks, surprised at the response.

I’m sorry ,” Steve apologizes a moment later, still chuckling. “It’s just - you looked just like my ma, just then.”

Bucky glares a little more at that and is pleased when Steve laughs again.

More seriously, Steve adds, “There’s nothing to be concerned about. Don’t worry.

“That’s not what I asked,” Bucky grumbled. “Are you alright?”

Steve looks honestly startled by the question, which surprises Bucky. A man like Steve - American, handsome, strong, a captain - is surely used to people asking after his well being? To people caring? But Steve reacts as though it is utterly foreign, a shy smile spreading across his face that does strange things to Bucky.

“I - yes, ” Steve says softly. "There’s just a lot to do, to move all of us across Europe safely.

"Where are we going? ” Bucky asks - the first question he has asked about his rescuers, about his future. The question quivers in the air, threatening to break the protective fog Bucky has buried himself in.

" England,” Steve answers. "By way of France, I think.”

Bucky sits up a little. As a child he had always dreamed of traveling. Before his youngest sisters were born, he and his Mama and Tatti and Rivka had traveled to Austria together, but Bucky had wished for more glamorous destinations - Paris, London, New York.  

Will we go to Paris?” he asks, unable to restrain his old childhood glee at such a prospect. Steve perks up, a smile tugging at his cheeks.

“Most likely we will, yes. We have to see what conditions are as we travel.”

There’s a brimming excitement bubbling up in him, it feels foreign and familiar and wonderful. Bucky can’t remember the last time he really felt excitement. Apprehension has been a constant companion for many years, always laced with dread and fear.

“Do you think we can see the Eiffel Tower?”

The captain wilts, the smile falling off his face. “I’m sorry. If we go, we’d be staying on the outskirts.”

“It’s alright. I have my whole life now. One day I’ll come back and climb to the very top.”

Steve smiles at that, warming their little section of tent. Bucky smiles back. A sudden realisation comes to him. “ If we’re going to Paris - does that mean, is France no longer under Hitler’s control?”

“Paris was liberated this past summer. The Axis still fight for some parts of France, but it’s a losing battle. It will not be long now.”

Bucky doesn’t have the words to express what that means to him. France had fallen at the hands of the Wehrmacht only months before Bucky and his family were loaded onto a train and shipped like cattle to Terezin. In Frankfurt am Main, there had been celebrations in the streets while Bucky’s family curled together in the dark and prayed. Germany drank wine and toasted their success while Bucky tasted despair for the first time.

We must be on our way soon. Would you like to pray before we leave? ” Steve had stopped by yesterday morning to offer the same and just as he did then, Bucky feels overwhelmed with gratitude for Steve.

Yes, thank you.

It’s nice for me too ,” Steve admits as he helps Bucky up and out of bed. “I used to pray all the time, before my Ma died, but after - well. ” Steve shrugs and glances away. “I think it’s admirable. All you’ve been through and you managed to keep your faith.

Bucky hasn’t really thought about God in the context of what he’s been through. God exists only in the good memories. God is his family, gathered around the same table. God is a warm autumn day, the sun filtering through the leaves. God is the smell of his Mama’s brisket on a cold winter’s day. God is Steve, backlit by the sun, coming to rescue him.

I guess I always believed that there was something good coming. God was always distant. Faith is more - my people. My family. The things we do together, the people we are together .”

The expression on Steve’s face puzzles Bucky. It is part awe and part pain.

Was it not that way for you? ” Bucky asks as he steadies himself. Steve keeps a hand ready, but Bucky no longer needs his support simply to stand. Walking is still difficult and he twines his arm with Steve’s, relishing the simple human contact and the warmth of Steve’s body.

No, not really. I mean, I was taught that God never gives us more than we can handle and that was always hard for me to understand as a kid. And my Ma always told me God had a plan for me, and honestly I never much believed that. And, well. There was always so much judgement. Never sat right with me, the things we judged people for.”

They stop under the tree again. The soldiers’ packs have disappeared and there’s more movement than on the previous two mornings - people bustling to and from two large vehicles. The other tent has already been dismantled and stowed away and Bucky wonders just how long Steve has been awake.

I understand. My family and I are, perhaps, not the most religious. My Tatti was very liberal and involved with the Reform movement. God and faith are what we make them. I want them to be good.”

Steve makes a little noise in the back of his throat and Bucky meets his eyes. Steve’s are blown wide, staring down at Bucky, one hand on his elbow, the other bracing Bucky’s shoulder.

What? ” Bucky asks, puzzled by Steve’s expression.

Steve just shakes his head. “I’m just impressed by you.”

Bucky blushes at that, stares down at his bare, bony feet. He’s missing the pinky toe on his left foot and the two littlest on his right. His remaining toes point at the the dusty brown of the captain’s boots. Bucky is dirty and broken, quite literally missing pieces. His body has been whittled down to a sharp blade of bone poking through flesh and there are parts of him that never stop hurting, no matter the pain medication nurses give him with every meal. He is less than impressive. He’s not even good.

He doesn’t know what to say, so he turns his face into the sunlight, finds the angle he knows points him to Jerusalem, closes his eyes and forgets, just for a little bit.

***

Bucky meets the men he was imprisoned with for the first time as they are being loaded into a large military vehicle. The back is like a truck bed but it has a tall, curved cover, like a covered wagon out of history books. Along each side is a narrow bench, though the part closest to the front is packed tightly with supplies.

Bucky and one other man, who Bucky knows to be Otto from Steve’s remarks, climb in of their own accord - though under the watchful eye of Milly and an Asian soldier Bucky recognizes but doesn’t know. The other man - Ephraim, Bucky thinks Steve called him - is loaded in on a litter. He’s missing his left foot, Bucky sees with horror.

Otto sits down next to him, though with enough distance for both of them to feel safe. “Hi. Bucky, right? That’s what Captain Rogers said your name was.

Bucky smiles, both at the idea that Steve has talked about him and that somehow Steve is still his, even if Captain Rogers belongs to everyone.

Yes ,” Bucky says softly. Once upon a time he had been good with people. Now a surging hesitance lurks in all his words, even with Otto who has suffered as he has suffered. “And you’re Otto ?”

Otto grins and it made him look years younger. Looking at Otto hurts a little. Bucky hasn’t had access to a mirror, is afraid to know what he looks like now. He thinks he has the answer in Otto’s face - eyes sunken and dark in a too skinny face. A dirty fuzz of dark hair is growing in on his head and cheeks. His cheekbones are too sharp in his face and in his narrow jaw and pointed chin you can almost see bone under translucent skin. Bucky shivers a little and looks to the side. A heavy, awkward silence falls. Ephraim sits up with the help of Louisa, who is speaking encouragingly in tones too quiet to hear.

He is harder yet to look at, so emaciated he isn’t much more than a walking skeleton, his face gaunt and lined with the kind of pain that Bucky knows intimately.

Another soldier comes up, this one small and grinning, with a mustache and a stubbled chin. The two soldiers exchange brief words in English, before the newcomer swings himself up into the van beside them.

Hello,” he greets cheerfully. “I am Corporal Jacques Dernier. I’m to let you know what to expect of the days ahead.”  

Bucky’s gut clenches. He doesn’t really want to know what’s coming, doesn’t want to start thinking about the future and afters and where he is going to live and how he is going to support himself, and probably navigating a foreign country, and trying to find his family... Bucky’s breath comes quick and light, making him feel a little dizzy. He fixes his gaze on the bit of blue sky he can see behind Dernier’s head. He is free. Everything else will fall into place. He has to trust in that, if nothing else. God will provide.

Corporal Dernier says, with the same grin. “I know it’s been pretty chaotic so - we’re the special operations unit with the SSR - the Strategic Scientific Reserve, an Allied intelligence agency.

Intelligence Agency - that means spies and undercover work and, Bucky’s brain halts a moment. Because how did he get dragged into that? He’s just - just a Jew.

We are charged with the capture and defeat of the Nazi Science Division, Hydra. Members of Hydra are responsible for your imprisonment and torture.

Bucky twitches. There’s something unsettling about this entire conversation - from having someone to blame to knowing that there’s a whole organization dedicated to hunting the people responsible for Bucky’s hardship. And what makes Bucky so special? To be singled out by this Hydra, to have this whole team of people to rescue him. He doubts the other people at the camp have this - the lines and orders and barely controlled chaos of Dachau in the week after their rescue seemed to suggest that the soldiers could barely manage to control the masses of people they had rescued, let alone care for them. Guilt sweeps Bucky like a cloud. He is nothing more than them, no more deserving than all the rest. He closes his eyes, shuts out the sky.

Over the next weeks we will be traveling through France toward England, where we will coordinate your medical care and begin efforts to reconnect you with your families and make plans for next steps .”

Bucky swallows tightly, a maelstrom of gratitude and guilt and relief and a hundred other things he can’t name settling heavy and hard in his gut.

Captain Rogers, whom you’ve all met, and Agent Carter are responsible for gathering intel and will want to talk to all of you about your experiences. They’ll also be taking family names and sending that info along to the right people. We’ll be keeping a quick pace, but please let me or the nurses know if you’re in any discomfort. We want to make this journey as easy as possible for you. ” Dernier’s face goes soft, unexpected compassion in his dark eyes and sharp jaw.

Dernier looks around at them, eyes kind and mouth smiling. “Do you have any questions?

My family is in Munich,” Otto says, glancing up. “They’re so close - could we not…? ” He trails off. Bucky sees a familiar sort of pain in his eyes, a desperate longing in the shadows of green eyes.

I’m sorry, it’s just not safe. ” Dernier says, sounding honestly regretful.

But the war is almost over, the Captain said,” Otto says desperately.

Dernier shakes his head apologetically. “Yes, the news from the front is good, but we can’t stay in Germany. I am sorry.

Couldn’t we just go find them? And bring them with, please? ” Otto’s voice drops into a pleading whisper that echoes in Bucky’s heart. But Otto at least knows where his family is. Bucky can’t begin to imagine where his family has ended up - except. He brightens a little. Miri and Sara should be in England. He is at least headed in the right direction. He can’t imagine knowing your family is so close and not being able to go to them.

I’m sorry Mr. Kluge. I wish that we could, but our priority is getting you to safety .”

Otto closes his eyes, sinking into himself. Bucky reaches out and put his sole hand on Otto’s shoulder, squeezes tight. Otto winces and looks over at him, eyes wide. Bucky understands: the contact is both terrifying and exhilarating, strange and familiar.

“My family is also in Munich. ” Ephraim’s voice is rough and deep and scratchy, like it has only been used to scream for far too long. “But we must trust the soldiers. If the war is truly proceeding well then we may put them in more danger by going there.”

Tears drip down Otto’s face, but he nods all the same. Bucky watches them, a deep ache burning in his center.

I am sorry,” Dernier repeats, voice soft and sad. “I know that this must be very difficult. A great deal has happened in a very short period of time. I promise that we will do our best to support you.”

None of them have words for that. A shout in English comes - Bucky can make out “Dernier” and “Captain” and “need.” Dernier stands, ducking slightly in the covered vehicle.

Please do let us know if there is anything we can do for you,” Dernier says, before dropping gracefully out of the back of the van. Bucky envies his ease of movement. Milly and Louisa are speaking in English again - well. Milly is chattering and Louisa is listening, a content little smile on her face. They bring them blankets, try to make them comfortable on the thin wooden benches. Bucky closes his eyes and wonders if this is all a dream.

They sit there in awkward silence for at least another half hour. The nurses come and go and occasionally a soldier passes by, sometimes stopping to greet them, sometimes not. Steve stops by right before they leave. He has a smile for all of them as he stands at the end of the vehicle, looking up at them. It’s a strange change in perspective - Bucky is always looking up at Steve. Being higher than him feels discordant, unsettling.

Hello. I wanted to make sure you were all comfortable before we take off! Lieutenant Falsworth, and Milly and Amelia will be riding here with you.” Steve gestures and another soldier steps forward. Bucky hadn’t noticed him, standing slightly behind the captain. Steve has that effect on him. The soldier - Falsworth - is scruffy and serious looking, slight and dark. But like Dernier, he smiles easy enough. “There will be times when we are traveling  through occupied territory. For your safety, please follow any instructions the Lieutenant gives you.”

How ironic it would be, Bucky thinks, to survive Zola, only to die at the hands of desperate Nazis once rescued. A cold shiver slides down his spine. The way his life has gone so far, he wouldn’t be surprised.

Steve smiles reassuringly at them. “We plan to get the most dangerous travels out of the way today. By tonight we should be in France.”

A spark of excitement lights in Bucky’s stomach. There is a little thrill to all of it - to the adventure, to the opportunities that lie ahead. It’s laced heavily with fear, but much of Bucky’s recent life has been and he is well used to ignoring dread.

*** 

Despite Bucky’s initial excitement, the day is dull. They travel through farmland, but even the countryside shows evidence of the war. They pass lines of bodies, bombed out fields, and chains of people walking slowly. Some of them have belongings with them. Most of them don’t.  

As their travels progress they move further away from any signs of humanity. Soon it is all earth and sky and the too loud rumble of the motored vehicles. At first he’s eager to see all these sights, even the ghastly ones, even the empty lands. It’s proof that the world is still there, still exists after everything. There had been days, lying in the dark, where Bucky had wondered if they’d burned it all down, if all that was left was ash. Sometimes he’d wondered if he’d made it all up - his family and the lines of his mother’s face and the scratch of his Tatti’s stubble, and the smell of Rivka’s first cheap perfume, and the sound of Sara’s halting voice reading aloud; wondered if it was all an elaborate dream to escape the reality of his existence. The fields and the sky and the grass and the dirt and the air whisper that it is all real. That out there, somewhere, his family is waiting for him.

The peace lasts an hour, maybe more. But then exhaustion kicks in. Bucky’s body still aches, especially in his feet and the end of his arms and hands, a throbbing pulse that is only more painful for the cool morning air. He’s become accustomed to sleeping as he needs - drifting in and out of consciousness. Some of this is for his body. A lot of it is for his mind. The longer Bucky is awake, the more his thoughts churn and turn and tumble.

The pain when his arm wrenched and tore was nothing compared to what he would face, but he didn’t know that then. The sight of his arm, bone poking out, blood and muscle, sends Bucky’s brain into an odd sort of stillness. His first thought is that a sling will get in the way of his work.

He is carried to the medical barracks by two burly Jews. One whispers the shma in Bucky’s ear and Bucky is grateful.

That’s where he meets Zola.

Zola measures limbs like tailors measure inseams. He draws blood as though it comes from Miriam’s well. He taps on Bucky’s chest and peels back his eyelids to look at his pupils and cuts long lines on his arms and pinches Bucky’s dying flesh. He tsks and writes down measurements and ignores Bucky.

He gets his first shot that day.

The pain roars through him like a lion, fierce and unrelenting. But Zola is always the most terrifying thing in the room. This is the truth that Bucky will come to know in his bones over the next two years. Zola is the only person Bucky ever meets who really, truly, treats him as though he is not even human. Even the guards seem to have some awareness that Bucky feels pain and hunger and fear.

They enjoy the pain and fear, the feed off it like animals, but they know it is there.

To Zola, Bucky is nothing more than a lump of flesh - a golem made of clay - one that lives only when it is convenient to the doctor. Bucky’s humanity is nothing more than an annoyance to Zola, something to be overcome. Bucky learns to be quiet, because the more he screams the more Zola hurts. Bucky learns to hold his breath for minutes at a time, because if he breathes and disrupts the doctor’s work, Zola will crack Bucky’s ribs with chilling precision. Bucky can hold his breath until he passes out.

It’s the accent that breaks him out of it - discordant and unfamiliar, freeing him from the cycle. It’s Milly, whose German is heavily accented, repeating his name. She says Bucky with a lilting twang, drawing the vowel out strangely. She’s sitting across from him now, staring intently. Their little caravan has stopped, but Bucky has no sense of how much time has passed.

It’s Milly who asks if he’s alright in German so broken he can hardly understand it.

I want to go home,” Bucky whispers in Yiddish.

Of course you do, ” Ephraim returns in the same language, startling and soothing Bucky at once. “But we must be grateful for our good fortune. God smiles upon us, does he not?”

Bucky wonders if anyone has ever called Ephraim Tatti .

***

They drive long into the night, stopping only briefly to give people a chance to answer the call of nature. They are fed a light, bland lunch in the back of the truck while the lieutenant watches the road behind them with wary eyes, gun propped up and ready. Dully it occurs to Bucky that they are probably traveling through the land the captain had told him is still contested. 

When they finally stop, Bucky is exhausted. He managed to sleep only briefly in the bouncing truck, his head pillowed on Otto’s bony shoulder.

Bucky is relieved when a halt is called. But though he can’t wait to get out and stretch his legs, they end up sitting in the truck for another half hour. The soldiers call out to each other and the lieutenant explains that they're making sure that the area is clear of threats.

Agent Carter comes for them, face stern but eyes compassionate. Bucky hasn’t interacted with her much. She always seems busy, voice brisk and manner efficient, but she always has a smile for Bucky and the other prisoners. Bucky appreciates that.

She speaks perfect German as she directs them, Otto and he, to the makeshift camp. Ephraim has to wait for the soldiers to carry him to the camp. There’s already a small fire going and several pup tents set up. Agent Carter indicates that they should take a seat by the fire - Otto has to be helped by the nurses, due to an injury on his leg. They’re left there with Amelia as the small camp bustles around them. Ephraim is carried over on a litter not long after by Lieutenant Falsworth and a big man with a mustache who Bucky hasn’t met yet. He’s given a spot close to the fire, leaning against a convenient stone.

Weariness creeps over Bucky as he stares at the fire. It has been a tremendously long day and Bucky’s whole body aches with the travel. His very bones seem to jostle even after they’ve left the truck and are on firm ground again.

Two soldiers, a white man and a black one, argue over a stew pot on the campfire, voices playful. Bucky’s French isn’t very good and he’s not awake enough to make out more than the odd word. The nurses return to look at their injuries and take measurements. Bucky’s glad to be assigned Louisa - she doesn’t speak while she works like Amelia does, doesn’t tsk at his injuries like Milly. She’s quiet and soft spoken, only speaking when she needs to ask him something. They get on in a mix of English and German, but tonight they don’t exchange any words at all. Her soft touch is soothing as she takes his pulse and blood pressure, though he wishes for more. He hasn’t been touched in any way that didn’t involve pain for a very long time. Bucky thinks of being carried by Steve, of the reassuring way his chest pressed into Bucky’s bony body.

Bucky is handed a bowl of food by the Black soldier, and he nods his thanks. He’d never met a Black before the war, but in the camps it became clear to him that they are all exactly alike. They all bleed red and all of their shit stinks.

The food’s some mysterious mix of meat and vegetable and the medic, introduced by Louisa as Corporal Morita, tells him to take it slow. He’s also handed a piece of thick, stale bread. Bucky takes the time to bless his food, though he knows it’s probably not kosher . He can hear Ephraim doing the same - it’s a simple freedom, but a powerful one, and not one of their rescuers look at them askance. Bucky revels in the pleasure of being able to thank God for his food, and somehow that makes the meal more appetizing.

Eating doesn’t turn out to be a simple task, and it takes Bucky several frustrating minutes to realize he can hold the bowl between his knees as he spoons soup into his mouth. It’s difficult to take it slow, after the week of clear broths and bland rice, but Bucky does as Corporal Morita tells him.

Steve wanders over to the fire eventually, Agent Carter by his side. They’re served from the same pot as Bucky was (somehow, that thrills him), though the Captain is served up a double portion. Agent Carter goes over to the other side of the fire, speaking softly with the soldier with the mustache. Steve comes over to Bucky and Otto, takes a seat on the ground, just like them.

I hope the trip wasn’t too grueling,” the Captain says in his accented German, offering a smile.

Not too bad,” Bucky murmurs. He hesitates and then asks, “will tomorrow be as long?

Steve frowns. “I’m afraid so. The next couple days will be the hardest of our travels. Once we reach France we’ll be able to slow our pace. I am sorry, I know the travel isn’t easy.”

“It is good to be moving, no matter the difficulties,” Ephraim says, voice gravelly. Steve smiles at him, looking a little sad.

Still, I wish that we could give your more time to recover before…”

“We’re alright,” Bucky mumbles. He finds himself blushing when the full intensity of Steve’s gaze swings to rest on him. “I - I can see the sun from the truck. That’s enough.

Deep lines etch themselves into Steve’s face as his expression folds into something that looks like grief.

“You deserve so much more than being able to see the sun.”

The captain has to get up, then, to help ready the camp for the night, to talk for a long time over a radio, but his words stay with Bucky. They echo through him, reverberating. He has been taught that all he deserves is pain and filth, to die unknown among thousands. The sun was denied him right along with food and safety and kindness. Seeing the sun again is a blessing Bucky never thought he’d receive.

For Steve to say he deserves more . Well.

The big soldier, the one with the mustache and the bowler hat, comes over then, along with Dernier. Dernier introduces the newcomer as Private Dugan. Dugan doesn't speak any German, and hardly any French, but he and Dernier communicate through an absurd collection of gestures and over the top facial expressions. They soon have the three of them laughing - Bucky's body revels in the unfamiliarity of laughter making his ribs dance and his stomach ache. Dugan, with Amelia translating, tells them many stories of his time in the circus, as a strong man and lion trainer, of his younger sister the fortune teller.

It paints pictures of a whole new world, one that Bucky doesn't really have context for. He's never been to a circus, has only seen pictures in books and in newspapers. It's dazzling and overwhelming, the thought of people out there, living lives so vivid and yet so different from his own. By the time Dernier and Dugan's dizzied and disjointed storytelling is winding to a close, he hasn't really been listening for a while. Ephraim is nodding off against his rock and Otto is looking glazed, so Bucky can't feel too guilty.

The night has come alive while they talked by the fire. Far above them, thousands of stars are burning bright. Winds moves through the thick trees. Louisa walks over to them on quiet feet, crouches down beside Ephraim and speaks to Dugan in English. Dugan nods, gives her a whiskery smile, says something that makes her blush and then gets up, shooting them all a sloppy salute.

" You should get some rest, " Dernier informs. " Another early start tomorrow. "

Bucky nods, but finds he can't find words in any language at the moment. He stumbles to his feet, Otto following close behind. Otto walks with a noticeable limp and Bucky would offer him a steadying hand, if he had one to spare.

***

Bucky lies in the tent, unable to sleep. Otto is already snoring lightly, curled into a ball in the blankets they’d been given (more than anyone else, Bucky had noticed, even the ladies). He lies on his back, staring at the murky green of the canvas tent. Bucky’s not sure why sleep isn’t coming, he’s exhausted. Every bone in his body aches, and all his muscles beside. There’s a dark, swirling fear in his head, something that doesn’t have words or details, just is . A giant, looming beast over his head, a sense that everything is going to go terribly wrong without a moment’s notice. Even the knowledge of Hitler's death does not comfort him or the unspoken fears that shake him to his core.

Bucky huffs out a tight breath, turns onto his stomach. Movement by the campfire catches his eye and he props himself up on his stomach. The position makes his back ache, but relieves the pressure from sores on the back of his thighs.

The captain is crouching by the fire - it’s been mostly put out, just embers and coals remaining. He’s got his hands on his head and his broad shoulders are shaking. It’s so quiet, so still. They’re in Stoffenrieder Forst , Steve had said over dinner, and all Bucky can see is trees in every direction. It’s spring, but the night is cold enough to make Bucky shiver. He watches the captain for a while, but the man doesn’t move. Bucky sees Dugan at the edge of camp, keeping watch, so he knows that’s not Steve’s purpose. Without really thinking about it, Bucky sits up. He reaches for his shoes - a pair of too big, worn down boots - and his jacket. The air bites into his exposed skin and his teeth start to chatter. He’s not quiet or graceful as he trudges over to Steve, and the captain’s looking at him long before he gets there.

Hello Bucky,” he greets in accented German. Steve pats the space next to him on the log he’s perched on. Bucky lowers himself carefully, aware that his balance is sometimes still a little off. “ Couldn’t sleep?”

Bucky shrugs. “ It’s cold, ” he mumbles, for lack of anything better to say.

“Oh,” Steve says on a soft exhale. His face tilts toward Bucky, eyes glinting in what’s left of the firelight. “I - uh, I run warm ,” Steve says, sounding awkward and a little embarrassed, “I could - um .” Steve gestures with his arm and it takes Bucky a second to understand but when he does, it’s exactly what he wants. He nods quickly, scooches a little closer. Steve throws his arm around Bucky’s shoulders, tucks him in close. Steve is warm, like a radiator on a cold day. Bucky can’t help the instinct that has him pressing closer. He’s like a moth to a flame, he can’t help himself. There have been too many freezing, lonely days. The heat, but more, the human contact makes Bucky feel human again.

The night is still. Bucky can hear the rustling of leaves and small creatures, the whistle of the wind through the trees, the crackling of their dying fire.

Steve? ” Bucky whispers, afraid to break the peaceful silence. Steve hums a little, turns to look at Bucky. “Tell me more about New York?”

Steve smiles, a shy little grin that is at odds with his muscular frame and position of power. “My ma was a nurse and worked long hours, which meant I had a lot of time to myself. We lived in a part of New York where - well, where a lot of people who don’t fit in anywhere else live. We were all living all piled up on top of each other. They all used to keep an eye on me, when they could, and my ma would help out when they got sick. We all took care of each other, helped out when things got tough. Mr. O’Connor, across the way, used to help us when things broke. And Elsie, who lived upstairs, used to bring me paper bags from the grocer where she worked, because she knew I liked to draw. Her younger brother George taught me how to throw a punch -”

Steve’s deep voice, rambling on in his accented German, soothes some coiled knot of tension in Bucky. He drifts off with his head pillowed on Steve’s shoulder, the rumble of his voice under his cheek. He wakes sometime later when Steve lifts him, cradles him close like a child, the way he had done when he had carried Bucky out of the hell hole of captivity.

“Steve?”

“Shh,” Steve whispers. “I’m just taking you back to your tent .”

I can walk,” Bucky mumbles, though the last thing he wants is to leave the warmth and comfort of Steve’s arms.

“We’re already here.” Steve lowers Bucky to his feet, but keeps a hand on his elbow to steady him as he slides into the tent. The captain crouches by the mouth of the tent and Bucky is taken back to the first time he saw Steve, framed in the doorway, sunlight streaming in.

Thank you.”

“You don’t have to thank me.”

“Yes I do.” Bucky can’t tell in the dark, but he thinks Steve smiles.

 

Chapter Text

 

It’s another early morning, but Bucky doesn’t mind. Ephraim joins him in prayer for the first time. It’s nice to pray alongside another person again. Ephraim has to sit, uses his hands to keep himself steady on a stone, with Louisa hovering nearby. But he bows his head and prays and Bucky feels at home in the way only other Jews can make him feel.

At home, Bucky’s family didn’t pray everyday. Always on shabbos, and most Mondays and Thursdays they went to shul to hear the parashah. At least they did when it was still allowed. Often, Bucky and his Tatti prayed shaharit together while his mama cooked breakfast. Bucky misses those moments and the quiet love that filled them.

But this moment is not so very different, not really. The soldiers are bent over another fire and there is the gentle scent of porridge in the air. Bucky's stomach grumbles. With Ephraim beside him and the whisper of the wind in the trees, this moment is, in its own way, just as wonderful.

Bucky wonders where his Mama is, where Rivka is, if they're still together, if their camp has been liberated. He wonders about Miri and Sara, and their life in England. They must be so much older now, almost women. They wouldn't have had bat mitzvahs, Bucky realizes with a sudden and terrible pang of loss. There would have been no one to celebrate and acknowledge their passing into adulthood.

Buckys hopes they at least had someone to wish them a happy birthday. He prays that they're still together, that they have been held safe all this time, that God has spared his sisters the terrible burden of life as Jews during this terrible time. If they could not have the comfort of other Jews around them, at least they were spared the horror of seeing them eradicated like rodents, of being murdered or tortured themselves.

Hopefully his sisters have been warm and safe, clothed and fed. Hopefully they have had someone who holds them when they are scared. He puts them in his prayers, asks for God to keep them safe, just a little bit longer, until Bucky can hold them tight and protect them with everything he has left. There is a wish coming together in his head, something that is more pictures than words. He and Rivka, peeling potatoes at the kitchen table. Miri and Sara dancing to music from the radio, and his Mama standing over a pot cooking. And Steve is there too, dancing with Miri, who is somehow still nine years old in his head, half the size of Steve with knees dirty from playing in the street with the boys, no matter how many times Mama has told her not to. It is a hope and a wish, a prayer and a dream that has no chance of coming true.

When they finish their journey, Steve will go back to his life, which is probably peaceful and filled with people who love and respect him. Bucky will have to build a new life. Maybe he'll get some of his family back, but maybe he won't. Maybe they've all died, maybe he will never find them again.

When Bucky opens his eyes he's crying, the sunlight blurring into long streaks. Bucky's not even sure why he's crying at this point. Everything is a hypothetical, everything a maybe. He wipes his face and returns to prayer, determined to find gratitude and hope.

***

As Steve warned the night before, the day is long and exhausting. The black soldier rides in the back with them today. He surprises Bucky with his German, which is quite good and hardly carries an accent. He tells them his name is Gabriel Jones, that they can call him Gabe. He is kind, in a careful sort of way. His eyes carry a wary edge that Bucky recognizes. A Jew and a Black aren’t so very different, after all.

Bucky wants to ask.

He wants to ask if Gabe was allowed in schools with normal folk, if he got to go to the cinema and eat at restaurants and own businesses. He wants to ask if anyone ever made Gabe prove that he’s American the way people made Bucky prove he’s German. Bucky wonders if a girl ever broke up with Gabe cause of what he is.

He doesn’t ask.

***

Though they start the day at dawn, they don’t stop driving until the sun has set. Bucky’s body is stiff and painful and he can’t manage to get out of the truck by himself. Gabe helps him down, hands gentle.

Dinner that night is a quick and quiet affair - there’s none of the talk or camaraderie of the day before. There’s no fire, either, and a chill settles close to Bucky’s bones. Everyone is still and silent, faces drawn with tired exhaustion. Agent Carter and the captain take their dinner on the other side of the camp, their heads bent over papers spread out over the ground and held in place with heavy rocks.

Bucky’s given more food today, his meat and beans accompanied by a drink that smells mildly like the soap his mama uses to wash the floors but doesn’t taste too bad. He’s even given a single biscuit and some chocolate. The biscuit he rips in half, tucking one half into the pocket of the pants he’s wearing. He knows it’s hardly sanitary, but he likes knowing that if he’s hungry later, there will be something to eat.

The chocolate he eats slowly. The taste takes him back, dreidel spinning across the floor, hanukkah candles burning low, his mama’s latkes sitting heavy in his stomach, stealing Rivka’s gelt and letting her chase him around the flat. He’d tasted gelt for the very first time when he was ten. It had only been him and Rivka then, in the years before Miri and Sara, and Bucky had argued that he should get twice as many coins as Rivka because he was twice her age.

The memories make him sad. They also make him smile.

***

Bucky can’t sleep again that night. It’s colder than the night before, and there’d been no fire to warm himself by. It’s dark, too, a sort of intense, heavy darkness that falls like a quilt over everything. Even the nighttime sounds are muffled, like they’re coming from some great distance. Bucky lies wrapped in his blankets, shivering.

Little cries of pain and fear occasionally come from Otto’s side of the tent. Those and the intense dark make Bucky wonder if he'd imagined it all. Maybe he’s still in the barracks, his mind finally fractured into pieces. Maybe there’s no Steve or Louisa, no rickety trucks and dappled sunlight, no chocolate and biscuits.

Bucky slides his hand down to find the pocket of his pants, pulls out the half of biscuit he saved from dinner. He doesn’t eat it, just keeps his hand on it, reminding himself that he’s here, in a dark wood, on an abandoned road, with no one around but people who rescued him and continue to save him each day.

A branch cracks outside his tent and Bucky’s whole body jumps. The tightening of his muscles is followed by a sharp pain, but it’s easily ignored. He keeps his body still.

He’s sure it’s the einsatzgruppen come to take him, to stand him up and shoot him down in the street, leave his blood for mothers and sisters to wash away.

Wind pushes a cloud aside, letting moonlight filter down to earth. And it’s Steve, it’s only Steve, with his kind words and gentle hands and warmth and Bucky’s whole body sighs with relief. He turns slightly, so he can see Steve better. The man paces the dirt road that they’ve placed their tents on. Bucky can’t make out his expression in the dark, only the tense lines of his shoulders. Bucky shuffles out of his blankets. He’s still wearing his coat, the night too cold to face without it, but he slides his feet into too big boots. By the time he looks up, Steve has already come over. He crouches by Bucky’s side, face still made unreadable by the gloom.

You should be sleeping, ” the captain says.

Bucky studies him for a moment. He doesn’t think it’s a reprimand, that the captain is telling him that he must return to bed.

“So should you ,” he dares to say. Steve’s smile glints in the moonlight and Bucky finds that he’s not quite so cold anymore.

I told Dernier I would take his watch. He needs the sleep more than me. ” Bucky doesn’t know what to say to that, but Steve doesn’t seem to be expecting a response anyway. Instead, he just offers Bucky a hand. Bucky takes it and lets himself be pulled to his feet. “Is it the cold again? ” Steve asks.

“Yes .” Bucky agrees. And then, emboldened by Steve’s acceptance, “ And the dark.”

Steve hums a vaguely affirmative noise. Slowly, gently, he wraps one arm around Bucky’s bony shoulders, as he had done the night before. Bucky leans into the contact. Gentle pressure guides Bucky out into the middle of the road, away from the tree cover.

Look, ” Steve points upward.

Bucky tips his chin backs and gasps. The night sky is lit up with stars, brighter than he’s ever seen them, a masterpiece of light and dark.

“In the city ,” Steve says, voice barely above a whisper, “ You could never really see the stars. I didn’t know it - I thought I could see the whole world, right there in Brooklyn, thought I knew everything. And my first night out on the front I looked up and it was like I’d never seen the sky before, not really.”

“My zadie knew all the constellations, ” Bucky murmured at the same volume. “But it was hard to see them in Frankfurt too.”

Steve’s frowning a little now, casting dark shadows over the blue of his eyes. “ Is your grandfather… ” Steve trails off, but Bucky thinks he can guess what Steve wants to ask.

He died before it all started. I’m glad he didn’t have to live through it.”

Steve’s arm squeezed a little tighter around Bucky’s shoulders. A sudden thought occurs to Bucky.

How do you know what zadie means? ” It makes some sort of sense for Steve to know German, as he’s a captain in the war against them. It doesn’t make any sort of sense that Steve should know yiddish.

Steve chuckles. “ Where I grew up there were a lot of Jewish people. Immigrants, like me and my ma. When I was eight, we lived across the way from the Roths - Arnie’s my age, and his Bubbe and Zadie used to watch me and him and his brothers while our parents worked.”

“Jews in America,” Bucky whispered. “Are they - are they safe?”

The captain licks his lips, thinking. “Yes. Not all people are kind, but it is not like it is here.”

“I’d like to go to America,” Bucky says. It’s further than he’s ever dreamed of traveling, but he can’t stay here. Not where his people’s blood fed the earth.

“Then I’ll take you there, ” Steve tells him, smiling. Bucky smiles back.

***

The third day of travel is much the same as the first two. Dugan joins them in the back of the truck and Bucky finds himself eagerly anticipating the day it’s Steve’s turn. He’s saddened when he realizes that, as captain, Steve might never be assigned to riding in the back of the truck.

Dugan is a good companion though, for all that he speaks no German. He makes them all laugh in waves, first Louisa and Amelia fall into fits of giggles and then between bouts of laughter, Amelia translates for them. Bucky hasn’t laughed so much in a very long time - he can’t remember the last time. It must have been before Miri and Sara left on the kindertransport , before his mama sewed yellow stars on all his jackets.

Stories of Dugan’s life are fantastical and humorous - he speaks of his years as a strong man, flexing his biceps and wiggling his mustache. Holding Louisa’s delicate hand in his meaty paw, he shows off his palm reading skills, predicting that Louisa will live a long and happy life, marry the love of her life, and have five children. Louisa protests, but a pleased flush across her cheeks gives her away.

It’s not until later, when Bucky is once again lying awake in his tent, that he realizes that despite all of Dugan’s laughter and stories, he never took his eyes off the road behind them and one hand was always on his gun. A sudden, mindless fear settles in his belly.

It’s dark again and too quiet.

A shout wakes the camp and Bucky’s whole body jerks. He sits up, holding his blankets close. Otto has shot upright as well, and Bucky can see the whites of his eyes in the darkness of their tent. There’s a commotion on the other side of the camp. Bucky takes Otto’s hand in his. He can feel the bones of their hands pressing together. A dark, looming shape comes into view, and Bucky breaks into a cold sweat. He thinks he might be sick.

But it’s only Amelia, sleepy eyed and bare footed on the packed earth that makes up their floor. “ It was only Ephraim, ” she tells them. “There’s nothing to be worried about.

Otto’s shoulders ease and Bucky wants to follow his lead, but the tension that bubbled up in his veins in his fear is hard to get rid of.

He lays awake for a long time after the camp has stilled again, hoping that Steve will come to him again, and ease him to sleep with stories and kindness.

Steve doesn’t come.

Bucky waits, hoping for the comfort of Steve’s presence. The captain has offered it without fail when Bucky has needed it. Bucky had thought, perhaps, they were becoming friends.

Doubt creeps in, slithering like a snake into his heart, while the dark presses down on him like an unliftable weight. Bucky is nobody important, not really, just another bombed out remnant of the war. Steve had been kind to him, but he’d been kind to all of them. Steve has no responsibility to Bucky. Steve is not his friend. Steve does not belong to him at all.

***

The next day, Amelia and Milly ride in the truck with them. Corporal Dernier takes the spot that Lieutenant Falsworth occupied the day before. Dernier on his own is more serious than when paired with Dugan, but he still takes the time to point out interesting or amusing sights along the way; a tree with a malformation that looks like Dugan's mustache, a trio of squirrels sitting on a tree branch chattering to each other. It passes the time, makes the journey easier.

Bucky sits across from Dernier, at the end of the truck bed and lets the sun touch his face. Otto huddles near the back while Ephraim naps, lying in the middle of it all. Milly and Amelia switch between speaking softly in English and sitting in silence. Milly goes through files, makes notes when they're travelling over flatter ground. Amelia uses thread and a safety pin to make a bracelet.

They've been travelling several hours when they come to a stop. Dernier slides out of the truck bed, saying, " One moment ." Bucky grows nervous, sitting there, thinks of all sorts of terrible possibilities. Maybe there are enemies up ahead.  Maybe the guards have come to take them back. Maybe -.

Steve and Dernier reappear at the end of the truck, smiling, and Bucky's stomach unknots.

Dernier explains; " There's going to be a pause here while we scout ahead, but it is safe to get out and stretch your legs."

Steve is also speaking, though in English, probably explaining the same thing to Milly and Amelia. The two soldiers help Otto and Ephraim out of the truck - Otto's leg seems to have stiffened up and Milly encourages him to take a stroll around the clearing while she hovers. Steve easily supports Ephraim on his own and helps him take a few hopping steps over to a shaded spot. Amelia crouches by Ephraim's side and Bucky finds himself standing on his own at the end of the truck. Not really alone, of course. The others are not far, well within range of sight and sound, but Bucky suddenly feels profoundly alone. The last week he has had more human contact than he's had in a long time. Now, not having somebody close enough that he can feel their warmth feels strange, disconcerting. He doesn't want to be alone.

It takes a moment to remember that he is allowed to move, that in all likelihood any one of the people in the clearing would at least pretend to welcome them into their midst. The realization startles him and he looks around at the clearing. Dernier and Falsworth are talking in low tones with Agent Carter at the front of the second truck. Corporal Morita, who has joined Otto and Milly, is watching Otto walk with careful eyes. Bucky bites his lip and hesitates. Before he can make a decision, Louisa comes up to him and smiles.

"Hello," she greets kindly.

"Hello," he replies in the same language. His English is very rusty. He'd learned some as a child, but had never had much opportunity to practice.

"Lunch?" It takes him a moment to understand, but he nods once he does. Louisa smiles again and waves to indicate that he should follow her. She leads him around the truck, coming to a spot in between the two parked vehicles. Dugan is there, unpacking more of the cans that their food had come out of last night.

" Sorry, is cold," Louisa says, as she hands him an open can.

"Is good," he responds, in English, because it makes Louisa smile at him. He finds a place where he can place the open can and steadies himself against the truck to sit. Once settled, he places the can between his knees and Louisa offers him a metal spoon from the pack.  

Bucky closes his eyes and whispers a quick blessing. Hebrew feels good on his tongue, after all this time. He mostly used the language for prayer - his family spoke Yiddish at home and with their Jewish friends - now the language itself feels holy.

The food is cold, as Louisa warned, but Bucky doesn’t mind. He still has to fight the  temptation to dive right in and devour it as quickly as he can but he forces himself to take it slow. He chews each unidentifiable chunk of meat slowly, takes sips of water from a canteen between bites.

Dugan and Louisa speak in English. His voice is boisterous and filled with laughter and he’s always making Louisa blush. Bucky watches curiously. Dugan’s one of the older men, a little grey in his mustache and deep laugh lines in his cheeks and around his eyes. His skin is leathery and brown. Louisa in contrast is pale, with pink cheeks and dark hair. She’d remind him of his his sisters, but she’s much too quiet and shy. Bucky smiles a little at the sky, closes his eyes and lets the sun warm his cheeks.

Hello Bucky, ” a deep voice says. Bucky starts, loses his grip on his meal and flinches back into the hot metal of the truck. He opens his eyes cautiously, body coiled tight.

Steve hovers next to him, blue eyes worried.

Bucky’s meal has spilled across the ground.

I’m sorry. Sorry, I can still -,” he mumbles, reaching down to try and scrape the food back into the can.

It’s alright, ” Steve says slowly, gently. Bucky blushes, glances up. Everyone is watching him and his cheeks heat a little more. But there are no cruel words. “ We carry extra. We’ll get you another. I’m sorry that I startled you.

I - it’s alright. I should have been paying attention .”

That’s our job, not yours, ” Steve says with a grin. Bucky doesn’t have it in him to smile back, just shrugs a little. “ May I sit with you?”

Bucky thinks of the night before, when he lay alone in the dark, waiting for Steve’s kind hands and gentle words. Steve is a good and generous man, but he is not Bucky’s friend. Even so, Bucky cannot turn away his kindness, for there has been so little of it in the world for so long.

Steve’s still waiting, he realizes. “ Yes, please. I mean, of course,” Bucky mutters, flushing again. Steve just smiles and lowers himself down beside Bucky. Steve’s body is so big and warm, but he moves it with such gentle caution, different than any other man Bucky has ever seen.

Louisa brings them two new meals. She smiles and exchanges a couple words with the captain. Bucky watches their lips move, but doesn’t try to understand anything. After blessing his food again, Bucky raises his eyes and realizes that Steve is watching him. His body goes taut and he can’t help pulling the can a little closer. In the early days of the camps, Bucky had always tried to thank God for his food. It had never ended well for him and eventually he’d stopped trying. Steve is shaped like some of those guards, only more , stronger and taller and -.

Something sad and soft passes through Steve’s eyes before he turns from Bucky, focusing on his own meal.

It takes Bucky a while to relax enough to uncurl his body. By the time he’s got his can held between his knees again, Otto and Ephraim are joining them. There’s no sign of Dernier or Falsworth, but the other soldiers are there. They all eat together in a loose circle, even the Black and the Asian. Bucky’s muscles stop trembling.

After lunch, they don’t immediately have to pack up again, which is an unexpected luxury. Bucky has to take a soldier with him when he wants to relieve himself in the woods, but Morita just clears the area and looks the other way. Bucky’s had a lot worse. He tries to walk around the clearing, but after two loops his legs start to tremble and his heart starts racing, just a little, and Milly makes him stop. She puts her fingers on his wrist and takes his pulse and Bucky breathes slow and steady and dreams of the steady pump of healthy muscles, running through the streets, dancing the hora , tickling his sisters til they cry.

One day, he tells himself. One day not too far from now, he’ll do all those things again. For now, there’s a great deal of pleasure to napping in the warm spring sunlight at the edge of the clearing. He drifts in and out to the sounds of their little caravan of people.

All of it is a dreamy haze, not quite real. Agent Carter and Steve go over documents under a tree, talking in quiet voices. Steve’s hair shines golden in the sun and Agent Carter’s lips are redder than blood. Everything is rich with color, the mixed green of the leaves, the sandy brown color of the hair growing in on Otto’s head, the blue of the sky. All of it seems new and overwhelming, like perhaps he’s only experiencing colors for the first time.

For a long while, everything was shades of brown.

Louisa interrupts his rest by crouching down beside him. All three of the nurses wear trousers and button down shirts like men, though their trousers are wider and shorter, tucked into tall boots. Bucky has grown used to it, though he’s rarely seen women wear pants at all.  He thinks it would probably be a terrible nuisance to have to wear skirts in the field. Agent Carter does, but Bucky can’t imagine that much of anything gets in her way, least of all a skirt.

Talk with Captain Rogers ,” Louisa tells him. Bucky stabilizes himself using her arm as he sits up. The first time Louisa had helped him to his feet, Bucky had been surprised by the wiry strength of her body, how easily she took his weight. Once he’s sitting upright, he can see that the captain and Agent Carter are looking over their way. Agent Carter waves him over when she sees him looking and so Bucky slowly, painfully so, gets to his feet.

His body trembles as he walks across the clearing, exhausted from the earlier exercise. Louisa hovers close by his side until Steve meets them halfway and takes Bucky’s weight. Bucky leans gratefully into Steve’s strength, lets Steve guide his body over to Agent Carter and help him to sit.

“Hello Bucky,” Agent Carter greets. She’s sitting on the ground, like he is, but somehow still manages to look put together and on top of things. Bucky’s never met a woman quite like Agent Carter before.

Hello, ” he mumbles, fixing his eyes on the ground.

“We need to talk to you about the camp, ” she says, gentler than he’s yet heard her speak. He flinches nonetheless and Steve puts a solid, warm hand on his shoulder, squeezes. Taking a deep breath, he nods his understanding.

Captain Rogers tells me that your family was taken to Terezin first, is that correct?”

He nods again, licks his lips nervously, and adds, “ My youngest sisters left the country earlier, on the Kindertransport.

“What are your sisters’ names?”

“Miriam and Sara Buchlowitz,” he tells her, heart skipping a beat. Steve had said that he was going to find Bucky’s family, but now it feels real. Now they’re taking the information needed to find his sisters, to bring them back to him.

Do you remember when they left? ” Agent Carter’s questions are succinct, but there’s a kindness in her voice that he didn’t expect and when he glances up, he finds respect and compassion in her brown eyes.

Bucky remembers the day with terrible clarity. Sara had cried and Miri had tried to look brave, but her chin quivered. They carried the family’s only suitcases, packed with their sturdiest clothes, carefully patched by Bucky’s mama over the last week. She’d lovingly stitched their names into every single piece of clothing. The air had been cold and the sky like steel. It seemed like all the color had been sucked out of the world.

January 5th, 1939,” the date sits heavy on his heart. He can still see the blue ribbons at the end of Miri’s braids disappearing into the train, see little Sara’s face pressed against the window. The smell of their freshly washed hair wafts on the air. Bucky swallows back tears.

 

Steve puts a large, warm hand on Bucky’s knee.

 

And the rest of your family ?”

 

We were some of the last made to leave Frankfurt am Main, not until two years after my sisters. We were all together in Terezin for a time. Then I was separated from my mother and sister. They - they tried to separate my Tatti too, but he held onto Rivka and wouldn’t let go and they -,” tears trickle down his face. Blood on dirty snow, Rivka’s teary horrified face spattered red, all of it haunts his dreams. Steve’s hand squeezes, gently, pulling him back to the present moment.

 

Opening his eyes, he’s startled to find that Agent Carter is holding out a handkerchief. It’s white and lacy and has no place here. The sight of it in his hand makes him feel strange, like he’s floating above his skin. His dirty, scarred hand and the absurd brightness and delicacy of the handkerchief may as well exist in different universes.

 

Thank you, ” he mumbles.

 

“And after you were separated from your mother and sister, were you taken straight to Dachau?”

 

“No, ” he shakes his head, half negation, half an attempt to regain his focus, “ No, they took me first to Mauthausen. I was a worker there. I fell and hurt my arm, ” he lifts his injured arm, forgetting for a moment that it’s mostly gone. Looking at the stump makes him sick and he tucks it back into his side hurriedly. “Zola took me to Dachau .”

 

Steve and Agent Carter both lean in, a sudden intensity to their faces. He draws back instinctively, curls in to make himself smaller.

 

I’m sorry ,” Steve says right away, drawing back. “ We didn’t mean to alarm you. We have been after Zola for a long time. We had only suspicions that he was in charge of your... treatment at the hands of Hydra.

 

Oh. I, yes. Yes, he was there. He was always there when they brought new people. Sometimes he brought them himself and sometimes they were brought by others.

 

Sometimes he had prisoners line up outside and he would pace up and down before choosing one. Bucky has never seen this, of course, but he heard the guards preparing and Zola’s slimy voice as he debated which prisoner was stronger and most likely to survive. Bucky shudders, wrapping his good arm around himself in an attempt to ward off the sudden chill that settles along his bones. Steve presses a little closer, holds his arm open invitingly. Bucky blushes, but gratefully moves into his warmth, though he knows Steve only offers because of his kind heart. Bucky almost doesn’t dare look at Agent Carter, unsure of what she’ll think. It’s hardly right, that a captain sit so casually with a man like Bucky, that Steve touch him as though they are equals. But when he looks up it’s to find a small smile on her face, soft and easy. Bucky relaxes a little more.

 

“At some point we will need you to tell us what Zola did to you .” Bucky stiffens, a hundred tortures flashing through his mind, a fierce terror taking his body and mind hostage with ease.

 

“It doesn’t need to be now, ” Agent Carter assures, her voice terribly gentle. “ But in the future, we will need to know. I am sorry. I wish we didn’t have to make you face this again.”

 

He nods and swallows tight.

 

“This is enough for today, thank you Bucky. Steve, would you make sure he gets to the nurses?” The captain nods and gracefully gets to his feet. Steve offers both his hands to Bucky, takes his stump as though it’s no different than his hand. The warmth of Steve’s hand clasped over Bucky’s mangled elbow makes him want to cry.

 

Once Bucky’s standing, Steve lets go, but wraps one arm around Bucky’s fragile body.

“Can you walk? ” Steve asks, face creased with concern and blue eyes cloudy. It isn’t until Steve asks that Bucky realizes his entire body is trembling, that the muscles in his legs are twitching.

 

“I can,” he murmurs, though he’s not rightly sure that this is actually true. Steve looks doubtful and keeps Bucky’s body braced as they turn and start towards the truck, where the nurses are still gathered. The journey is slow and painful.

 

Steve doesn’t ask Bucky if he can walk again. It feels like trust and respect and it makes him strong. His heart pounds and his feet ache and it doesn’t matter, because Steve listened when Bucky said I can.

 

It’s been a long time since anybody listened to Bucky. Every time someone here does, it sends shocks through his system.

 

He wonders if he’ll ever get used to kindness again, or if it will always feel like an unexpected blessing.


Chapter Text

 

They stay in the clearing for another hour or so, but Milly makes Bucky rest in the truck, tsking about too much sunlight. Milly has more German than Louisa, but her accent is stronger and Bucky sometimes struggles to understand her. There’s no mistaking the way she pats his cheek and shakes her head, though.

Bucky’s mama always did that, after long summer days spent outside. She’d lick her thumb and wipe his cheek, as though she could wipe the sunburn away. Alone, lying on his back in the cool, dark truck, Bucky cries.

He’s not sure why he cries exactly, only that everything feels so new and so unexpected, like he is still the child that his Mama shook her head at. Bucky feels tiny and ancient.

He wants his mama’s cool hands on his hot cheeks.

There’s a clatter outside and Bucky quickly wipes his tears away. He doesn’t try to sit up - his whole body hurts. Lying still, waiting, is something he knows how to do. It’s not agonizing this time - he know there’s no pain coming for him right now. Instead, it’s Dugan’s bushy mustache and wide grin. The man’s hands are callused and rough, but he helps Bucky up with tenderness. Once Bucky’ seated, Dugan turns to help Otto and Ephraim up into the bed of the truck. They must be leaving, Bucky thinks, through a tired fog. Louisa and Amelia join them this time. Bucky can hear the men speaking in hurried English outside, but the nurses don’t seem in any rush. They take their usual measurements - temperature and pulse and the like. Amelia examines Bucky’s feet and stump.

"I have cream I’d like to put on your feet, arm, and cheeks,” she tells him softly, eyes wide and kind. Bucky nods, feeling too tired for words. She wipes his arm and feet with a soft, damp cloth, speaking softly as she does. The cream she applies is cool and thick, and is so different from anything that has touched Bucky’s skin in the last years. After, Amelia pulls thick wool socks over his bony feet.

His mama used to make them socks each year, when the seasons started to change. As the winters wore on, Bucky used to slip his socks into Rivka or Miri’s drawer. He hadn’t minded the cold.

There’s no explanation this time, of where they’re going or how long they’re going to travel. The nurses and Morita, who joins them in the back, seem relaxed though, so Bucky lets himself follow their lead. The truck rumbles to life again and Bucky leans into Otto. Otto leans back and they smile tiredly at each other. Otto’s eyes are pink, like he’s been crying. He probably had to talk to Agent Carter and Steve too. Bucky wonders, then, about the family Otto had said he’d left behind in Munich. Does he have younger sisters waiting for him? A mother and father who worry about him? Bucky doesn’t even know if Otto is Jewish. There had been all sorts at Dachau, and they were all the same in the barracks, stacked like furniture, one on top of the other.

Otto hasn’t prayed with he and Ephraim and Otto is hardly a Jewish name, but some people pretended. Some people pretended so hard they forgot. Bucky’s Tatti had scowled at them, people who used to belong with them, but Mama had always held him back.

We’re all trying to survive , she would whisper. Tatti would run his fingers over his yellow star and nod.

Pretending never lasted forever, of course. Eventually someone asked for papers you couldn’t produce, or your neighbor, your teacher, your friend told somebody and the Wehrmacht would come for you. Everyday someone else would disappear from the streets and you never knew if you would see them again. You didn’t know if they’d been taken away, or if they left all on their own, or if they were hiding somewhere, just trying to stay alive.

Bucky didn’t blame the people who pretended. How could he?

He sleeps in fits and starts through the afternoon. Sometimes it’s the truck hitting a bump in the road that wakes him, sending his head into Otto’s bony shoulder. Sometimes it’s the voices of the nurses or Morita, speaking softly in English. Other times he’s not sure what wakes him, but he’s always left with a looming sense of dread.

The sun is still up when the trucks come to a stop again, waking Bucky. He wants to stretch, but his whole body aches like he’d spent all day helping Tatti at the grocery. This time however, no one comes back to invite them outside. Instead, Morita hops down and gives them a quick smile and a gesture that clearly means wait and they sit, the truck still rumbling below them. Panic creeps along his senses.

Morita’s only gone a few moments. Bucky watches anxiously as he speaks hastily to Amelia and then hastens back out of sight. Amelia, whose German is the best of the nurses, turns to them and explains, “We’re supposed to be meeting allies, but they haven’t arrived yet. The soldiers are radioing them now.”

Bucky’s whole body is tight and trembling and on instinct he edges a little deeper in the gloom of the truck. The movement attracts Amelia’s attention.

“It’s alright, Bucky. There’s no danger here.” But Milly’s wary eyes and Amelia’s tense shoulders tell him otherwise. Otto looks anxiously between Bucky and the nurses and Bucky feels bad for making him nervous.

They sit in tense silence for several long minutes before Morita returns, this time with Lieutenant Falsworth. There’s another quick discussion in English, but nothing is translated. Both soldiers climb into the back of the truck.  

The presence of another soldier makes Bucky nervous, his eyes flickering nervously over the road and their serious faces. There’s none of the jokes of that morning, none of the nurses’ casual camaraderie. Bucky’s heart pounds in his chest and his breath comes short, but he keeps quiet, he keeps still. They’re being chased, he’s certain, pursued by the monsters that wear human faces.

By that night, his muscles are trembling with the effort it took to stay so still all day long. Even as the soldiers help Otto and Ephraim out of the truck, Bucky stays where he is. He feels immobilized by fear - first it was the practical fear of German soldiers, of being recaptured, but those things didn’t happen and the fear remains. He’s not sure what he’s so terrified of, only that his whole body is alight with it and he couldn’t make himself move even if he wanted too. The fear is like glue, keeping him where he least wants to be.

The wooden slats and canvas top of the truck are too much like the bunks he slept in for years, dark and musty, with a creeping cold that comes from never being touched by the sun. He wants out , he wants to be able to breathe , but he can’t move, his whole body locked in place as surely as if someone had tied him down. His body hurts and aches and feels strange and far away all at the same time, too close and too far, and too much and too little.

“Bucky? ” Amelia crouches by his side. It’s dark outside and even darker in the corner of the truck. He looks up at her. Her face is kind, concerned, and soft, gentle and pretty and he thinks that she shouldn’t have to look at him. He wraps his arms around himself, shudders as the scarred stump of his left arm touches the whole skin of his right. “Let’s get out of the truck, okay? Surely you’d like to stretch your legs?”

Bucky shakes his head and trembles.

“Supper’s going to be warm tonight, ” she coaxes. “ And there will be more chocolate. Won’t you come out?”

He closes his eyes. Just hours ago, Bucky was so glad to be under the blue of the sky, to not be contained by walls or men. Now it feels too exposed. And yet, at the same time, he feels stifled and trapped and he wants to get out, and he’s lost in the contradiction. Amelia sighs and stands. She pats his leg and Bucky flinches so hard he bites his tongue and blood fills his mouth. He’s left alone for several long minutes, though he can hear the sound of voices just outside.

The truck bed rocks a little as someone climbs in. Bucky’s eyes fly open. It’s Steve, looking terribly concerned and soft and careful. He sits next to Bucky and doesn’t touch him - just sits there, heat radiating off of him. Slowly, ever so slowly, Bucky finds himself melting into that warmth. And when Steve’s arm comes around him, he can’t help but cry. It’s a slow, silent grief, tears dripping down his face like a late summer rain.  

“It’s alright,” Steve says. He pulls out a handkerchief. Bucky still has the other one, the one Steve gave him on the day he rescued him. He keeps it tucked in his jacket pocket. Steve hasn’t asked for it back.  

“I’m sorry. I don’t even know why I’m crying, ” Bucky admits.

“You have plenty of reasons to cry, ” Steve says. “There’s no shame in it.”

There is shame in it, though, there’s shame in everything. Zola had laid it down in Bucky’s marrow as surely as he’d cut Bucky’s flesh and broken his bones. Zola never spoke to him because Bucky wasn’t human, was never more than a living experiment. Bucky had been told that he was less than human for a long time, and it never stuck. Bucky knew humanity and had brimmed with it.

Zola took it away.

And Bucky has no right to be afraid, not now that he’s safe, not now that he’s got the attention of an army captain who surely has more important things to do. He has no right to cry when his tears hold others up. His pain is inconsequential, a requirement for progress.

“Why don’t you want to get out of the truck? ” Steve asks, when Bucky’s tears come to a halt. And Bucky doesn’t know, can’t even remember why he’s afraid. “Is it the dark? The cold?”

Bucky shrugs, then nods his head, then shrugs again. He lifts his arm to return Steve’s handkerchief and his whole arm shakes, little tremors work all the way through to his fingers. He can just barely see Steve’s frown.

“A nurse needs to make sure you’re alright,” Steve says, voice a little stern. Bucky tucks his arm up against his body. Glancing towards the mouth of the truck, Bucky nods slowly. Being out of the confines of the truck will help, he thinks, will remind him that he is no longer imprisoned, but he is not sure he can make it there alone. He doesn’t know how to ask for help, though.

Steve lifts him straight from the bench, as if Bucky weighs no more than a child. Bucky leans into his warmth even as the shame creeps deeper into his bones. Steve hops from the truck, manages to land softly enough that he barely jostles Bucky at all. Immediately there is conversation in English - Bucky recognizes his name and Steve’s, but not much else. Bucky tilts his head back and let the wind hit his tear-wet cheeks. He opens his eyes, starlight blurring in his gaze.

There’s some hustle and bustle, raised English voices and lots of people moving about, but Steve doesn’t put Bucky down. Bucky is glad. Though the fear has subsided somewhat, now that he is out of the truck, there are remnants still clinging to him. The hairs on the back of his neck stand up and his breath comes a little too quick, his heart beat a little too strong.

Before too long, Bucky finds himself lying in a tent. Not the one he and Otto share, this one is shabbier and has been patched in places. He’s been laid out on a pile of folded blankets and more blankets are covering him. Milly is inside the tent with him and Steve squats right outside the flaps, creating a shield between Bucky and the busy momentum of the camp.

Milly’s hands are always warm, even when it’s cold enough to make Bucky shiver. She takes his pulse and listens to him breathe with a stethoscope. Holding a thermometer under his tongue, she takes his temperature and tsks. Milly turns to talk to the captain, voice firm. Bucky watches through hooded eyes. Steve’s face is serious and he nods and shakes his head in turn, but doesn’t interrupt Milly. At the end of her tirade (Bucky doesn’t need English to understand that much), Steve answers, his voice soft and respectful. Milly smiles at Steve and pats him on his cheek. Steve blushes and unexpected humor shoots through Bucky. Discovering that his rescuer blushes like a schoolboy makes the world seem more real. Film heroes never blush.

Sitting beside him, Steve smiles. “Milly says your pulse is a little too fast and your temperature a little low. She says you need bed rest, calm, and a warm room.” Steve’s expression folds a little, eyebrows brought down by worry. “We should reach Paris tomorrow and that should give us a little reprieve, a little time to rest before the next leg of our journey. Tonight you’ll stay with me and Dugan will bunk with Otto.”

Bucky frowns and attempts to sit up. Again, his limbs tremble and his stomach cramps. “ It’s alright. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone.” Steve’s hands come up, one landing on his ribs, the other on his elbow, and gently guide him to lie back down.

“It’s no inconvenience, ” Steve says firmly. “ Milly knows I run warm, you’ll be more comfortable if we can share body heat. And Dugan hates bunking with me, ” the last Steve says playfully, winking a blue eye at Bucky.

“Why?” Bucky asks, relaxing further into the blankets. They catch his bony body, saving him from the painful press of bone against ground. It’s a luxury - and one that he has because someone is going without. Someone gave up their blankets so that Bucky could have a bed in the middle of nowhere. The thought makes him want to cry.

“He says I take up too much space, sprawl all over the place. ” Steve spreads his arms wide in demonstration, and Bucky immediately misses the warmth of his hands. “Once, he says, I smacked him in the face. I don’t believe it though - that man likes to make up stories!”

Bucky laughs and then gasps, his stomach cramping again.

Steve immediately leans forward, all worry again. “ What is it, what’s wrong?

“My stomach hurts, ” Bucky admits. The pain isn’t bad, just an ache, nothing he can’t bear, but Steve is immediately up.

“I’m going to fetch Milly.

“No! I mean, that’s not necessary. I think it’s just - I’ve eaten a lot more than I have in a while. It’s fine. I’m fine.” Steve waffles, half crouched and face concerned. “Really, ” Bucky promises, “I’ll tell you if it gets any worse.”

“Alright, ” Steve says slowly. “But let me just make sure they bring you something light for dinner - no more c-rations for you!” The word c-rations is unfamiliar, but Bucky presumes that it’s what they’ve all been eating for the last couple of days. Steve disappears through the tent flap and Bucky sighs. He was rather looking forward to another piece of chocolate, but he thinks it’s unlikely he’ll get it. Without witnesses to see if he should fail, Bucky attempts to sit up again. His muscles tremble and his stomach clenches, but he manages to get himself seated. The blankets fall down around his lap and he starts to shiver, so he pulls one up past his shoulders, though that still leaves his back exposed.

His trembling starts to fade, but it’s quickly replaced by shivering. It’s not even that cold out, but his body isn’t convinced. He’s about to lie back down, just so he can pull his head under the blankets when Steve returns. He’s carrying a steaming tin cup and a stack of stale looking crackers. A frown crosses Steve’s face when he sees Bucky sitting up.

“You’re supposed to be resting!

“I am!” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “All I’m doing is sitting.

Unexpectedly, Steve laughs.

What?” Bucks asks. He means for his voice to come out a little stern, instead it comes out sounding shy and insecure.

It’s just - you reminded me of me as a child. I used to get sick all the time, you see, ” Steve settles down next to him and hands over the cup. Bucky raises it to his lips, eyes fixed to Steve’s face. His gaze has gone far away, like it often does when he tells stories of his home. Bucky can’t quite picture the captain sick - he’s so strong and healthy looking. Steve must read something in his expression, because he says, “ I know, I know! But I used to be a lot smaller and I would get sick and need to stay in bed for days, sometimes weeks. My ma would always tell me I needed rest, but she never could get me to stay in bed once I had decided I was ready to get out of it.”

Bucky grins, picturing a tiny captain, looking determined and firm, the way he did when he talked with Agent Carter over maps and reports. “I would have liked to have known you then.”

Steve’s expression flickers, pain flashes in the blue depths of his eyes. He quickly pastes on a smile but Bucky, having seen the pain, is not likely to forget in a hurry.

“I would have liked that too.

 ***

That night, after Bucky has eaten his soup and crackers and missed the little chunk of chocolate from the day before, Steve insists that Bucky lay down and try to get some rest while he goes over some things with his unit. Bucky lies down, but he doesn’t sleep. The tent is pitched close to the fire, enough that it warms the air just a little. The fire casts flickering shadows of the soldiers and Agent Carter gathered around. They speak in quiet voices. Bucky still can’t understand the words, but he finds that he can distinguish each voice - there’s Dugan, booming but still gentle. And Lieutenant Falsworth, dry and low. The deep rumble of Steve’s voice underpins it all. Even though Steve isn’t talking to him, isn’t telling him stories and keeping him warm, Bucky begins to fall asleep.

He’s drowsing, somewhere between dreamland and reality when Steve comes back to the tent. The captain shucks his jacket and boots outside the flaps of the tent, carefully places the odd shield that he carries in the corner of the tent, and then crawls inside, settling down beside Bucky in the gloom. He’s close enough that Bucky can feel the warmth radiating off him. Some deeply human instinct makes Bucky push in a little closer. Steve’s body goes a little stiff for a moment and Bucky thinks - he doesn’t want a Jew this close, Bucky is too dirty, less than human, why would anyone want to gather around the fire and warm themselves beside him - but then Steve’s body relaxes and he throws an arm around Bucky.

Bucky’s never slept with anyone’s arm around him before. He’s been the comforting arm before, for all three of his sisters during the long nights and growing fear of their childhoods. But never has anyone held him close and offered comfort from the dark, not since he was a child and could still climb into bed with his Mama and Tatti. It feels -

Bucky doesn’t have words for how it feels -, but it is much, much better than sleeping alone.

As he drifts off he thinks that maybe, just maybe, Steve is his friend after all.

Waking is also better. During the night, their bodies had migrated together. Bucky’s warmer than he can remember being in years, and the shivers and trembles of the night before are gone even when he slowly sits up. His movements immediately wake the captain, who looks more human than Bucky has ever seen him. His hair is mussed and there’s sleep in his eyes. A crease lines his skin where his face had pressed against a blanket during the night.

“Good morning Steve, ” Bucky says, voice a little shy. Something feels different between them, some intimacy shared that Bucky doesn’t have words for. He’s never slept with anyone who wasn’t family before, really. Even in the camps, when you were pressed together like cattle, it wasn’t sleeping together. That was curling up tight and trying not to touch, but bony elbows ended up in bony ribs no matter what you did. It was not the warm comfort of Steve’s heavy arm around Bucky’s thin frame, nor was it the way Steve’s breathing had puffed against Bucky’s face as he fell asleep last night.

Steve smiles, “Good morning, Bucky.” Steve starts to dress with steady hands, easily accommodating for the small size of the tent. Bucky attempts to extricate himself from the blankets, but Steve hurries to stop him. “No, no, you stay here. Milly will want to check on you again before you get up to pray.”

Bucky likes that Steve assumes he will pray each morning, as if communing with God is a given and not a privilege. He watches Steve dress. When Steve had rescued Bucky from Dachau he’d worn a uniform in red, white, and blue. It was unlike any uniform Bucky had ever seen before. Since then, he’s mostly worn sturdy pants and a leather jacket over a plain button down shirt, and that’s what he dresses in today.

Steve had left his undershirt and pants on the night before, and folded the shirt and jacket into a tidy stack in the corner of the tent. He stands right outside the tent as he dresses, and Bucky can see the other soldiers going through similar motions. Steve’s  large hands are unexpectedly graceful as he does up his buttons. Bucky’s never thought about buttoning as something that could be done gracefully, but the quick flick of Steve’s fingers captures his gaze all the same. When Steve looks up after sliding a leather belt around his hips, he catches Bucky watching. Bucky flushes, though he’s not quite sure why. Steve smiles.

“I’ll be right back with Milly, ” Steve says, stepping away from the tent. Weak morning sunlight dances in for a moment, followed by a cool breeze. Bucky shivers just a little and wraps his blankets tighter around his body, trying to capture the heat that Steve had left behind. Bucky rubs sleep out of his eyes and sits up a little taller, rearranging the blankets so they cover up as much of him as he can manage.

Milly crawls in a moment later, already dressed and hair combed and tidy. Steve stays outside as he’d done the night before. There’s not enough room in the tent for three grown adults - it’s a tight squeeze just for two.

“Guten tag Bucky!” She says in her accented voice. The way she and all the Americans say his name is strange - more uh than oo - but he doesn’t mind. Their voices are a comfort to him, always a reminder of when and where he is, and he likes that the way they say his name isn’t the way Germans do. It’s a tiny difference that reminds him when and where he is.

“Guten tag!” he greets softly, offering a small smile. Milly settles herself by his side, opening her little nurse’s kit. The routine is familiar now and he holds out his wrist so she can take his pulse. When Milly is the one taking care of him, Bucky can always tell how well his recovery is going. She makes little tsking sounds when a measurement isn’t quite to her liking, but smiles a little when the numbers are good. This morning is mostly smiles, with just a little frown over his temperature.

She and Steve speak for a few moments in English, Steve nodding seriously and listening intently. Then Steve says something to Milly that makes her frown and she turns back to Bucky.

“May I see stomach?” Bucky frowns a little, knowing Steve has told her that it was paining him last night. It’s still a little sore this morning, but not as bad as the night before.

“It felt better after I ate,” Bucky informs her. Milly turns to Steve for a translation and she nods thoughtfully, reaching out and drawing the blankets away. Bucky shivers as the cold air works itself into his cocoon. Milly barks something at Steve, who draws back from the tent flaps and closes them firmly. He’s alone in the tent with Milly.

And it’s not that he doesn’t trust Milly. He absolutely does.

It’s just -

He feels better when Steve is there too.

Milly indicates that he should lie back. He has to go slowly as he does so, his whole body protesting. His head is aching a little this morning and once he’s lying down he brings his hand to his head and gently rubs his forehead, the way his Tatti used to do for Mama when she got her headaches.

No more Tatti to rub Mama’s head.

“Head pain?” Milly asks and Bucky nods. She hums as she pulls his blankets down around his hips. When her hands gently slide his shirt up to reveal his belly, he finds them unexpectedly warm. Even gentle pressure from Milly’s hands makes Bucky gasp and flinch away. Her face is fixed in a disapproving frown as she examines him. Bucky glances down the length of his body, a little curious. He’s made a point of not looking at himself, not wanting to see the damage wrought to him.

Nausea gathers in the back of his throat when he realizes he can count his ribs and at the bony protrusion of his hip bone, sharp like a blade against his skin. He quickly lies back down and shuts his eyes, one remaining hand fisting in the still warm blankets. Milly finishes her exam and helps him sit back up.

She smiles at him, but it’s not very convincing. Instead of calling Steve in, Milly ducks out of the tent and talks in low and hurried tones. A knot forms at the base of Bucky’s throat. He feels alright, he really does.

The morning after Bucky was rescued, the soldiers carried a body out of the tent on a stretcher. Though covered by a white sheet, the form was obviously human and Bucky knew it to be the man in the bunk closest to his - the one whose breathing had made Bucky think him close to death.

Bucky never knew his name.

Wrapping an arm around his bony body, Bucky trembles. He doesn’t want to die. He can’t have lived through all of this, only to die now, when freedom is so close. The tent flaps open, revealing Steve. The captain’s wearing a soft smile on his face. It doesn’t look false as Milly’s did, but maybe Steve’s just a better liar.

“Am I going to die?” The question pops out of Bucky’s mouth without permission. Steve’s face creases into worry - it’s an easy expression on his face, like it visits too often and the lines are always ready.

“No ,” The captain’s voice is firm and definite and Bucky feels himself start to relax. “You are - I don’t know how to say in German. You haven’t had enough to drink, ” Steve shuffles closer on his knees and takes Bucky’s hand, squeezes carefully. His hand is large and calloused, warm around Bucky’s fingers. “You are going to be just fine. Milly went to fetch some water for you. I’m afraid there’s little we can do on the road like this, but we should reach Paris by nightfall and then we’ll all have a chance to rest.”

Bucky squeezes Steve’s hand in return. It’s solid and real under his touch.

 

***

Milly doesn’t want Bucky to stand for prayer, so he sits beside Ephraim, leaning against a fallen tree. Davening isn’t quite the same, but it’s nice to be shoulder to shoulder with another Jew, to feel the warmth of shared experiences. Ephraim prays with a sort of quiet contemplation that is familiar to Bucky and makes him ache for the synagogue of his childhood.

During breakfast, Bucky has to watch everyone else eat variations of meat and vegetables while he nibbles on some thick crackers and drinks more of the lemon-soap drink. He also has to force down most of a canteen of water, blushing as Milly tells him that they can stop whenever he needs to answer the call of nature and that the most important thing is that he drink. She continues to push fluids on him after they’re settled in the back of the truck and Bucky does begin to feel a little bit better, his headache slowly fading and his stomach settling. He’s encouraged to keep nibbling on crackers throughout the day, rather than having heavy meals.

But it doesn’t matter that he’s not really eating, his stomach sits heavy anyway. He doesn’t like the careful way Milly watches him or the way she notes down how much he drinks and eats and when he pees. It makes him feel broken, like a machine that doesn’t work anymore.

Subject 32 is no longer producing helpful results, they say, the formula must be strengthened again. Subject 32 shows no signs of limb or muscle regeneration. Subject 32 is not sustained on the current formula without substantial increases in nutrition. Subject 32 shows above average recovery rates from minor injuries.

Bucky lies on the table where the guard deposits him and shivers. It’s always cold in this room, and it smells of blood and bleach and the light is always too bright after days or weeks or months in the dark, and Bucky has to close his eyes against the pain of it. He stopped fighting a long time ago.

Every time Milly makes a note or asks him how he feels, Bucky falls a little further into the dark of his mind, but he reports in a mindless voice. This is what he’s good for, all that he has done for years. He is numbers and measurements and nothing more. He holds out his arm for Milly to take his pulse and opens his mouth for the thermometer and doesn’t feel anything. He sends his mind far away, to a different time, to home and family and the shabbat candles and his Mama’s warm challa straight from the oven.

Once he was human, but now he is a half man, never to be whole again.

 

Chapter Text

They arrive in Paris just as the sun is ducking down under the horizon. It is a strange, looming city, filled with holes and bombed out buildings, doors hanging off their hinges. And yet still, there is life. Laundry lines sway between buildings in the evening breeze. A woman calls out to her neighbor from an open window. Two men sit on a street corner, smoking cigarettes. People wave, friendly and cheerful, yelling welcome to the American soldiers on their way back from war. They don’t see Bucky or Otto or Ephraim, who are hidden in the dark shadow of the truck.

There are children in the street, playing in rubble stacked on empty lots, laughing and smiling and Bucky shrinks further into the gloom. He doesn’t belong here among free people. When the truck finally stops, Bucky feels a small frisson of the body halting anxiety of the night before. He doesn’t want to be a bother, so he forces himself up and out of the truck when Morita, who had ridden with them today, indicates he should. It feels like all the people in the street have stopped and turned to look at them. They are bony ghosts in the evening air, made of blood and fear.

Morita, Milly, and Louisa coax them towards the open door of a relatively whole building. A plump woman stands in the doorway, the light and warmth from inside spilling onto the cobblestone road. Dernier is standing with a graying man, speaking in low tones. But Bucky can’t see the captain. He turns suddenly, a strange fear lurking in his stomach.

Steve is crouched in the street, a small collection of children gathered around him. They’re speaking in fast paced French and touching Steve’s shield with curious fingers. The captain holds it out to them and smiles indulgently, listening intently to whatever the children are saying.

Bucky thinks of his prayer, of Steve dancing with a young Miri balancing on his toes, and he aches, for Steve is a man of such overwhelming kindness and generosity. In the week and a half since Bucky was rescued, he has never seen the captain act with anything less than perfect benevolence. Bucky is surely only one in a long line of people Steve has rescued and treated with compassion. The thought shouldn’t make him sad, and he feels immediately guilty for the emotion.

He turns back to the door and lets Milly shepherd him into the warmth of the house. Otto, Ephraim, and he are shown to a large room toward the center of the house. Three beds have been set up within - real beds with mattresses and quilts, a real feather pillow each. There’s even a washroom with running water attached. The plump woman smiles at them, shows them a pile of clean clothes and soft towels. Bucky wants to cry.

“Merci,” he whispers, glancing shyly at her. The woman steps close to him and Bucky flinches a little, unable to help himself. Her eyes go sad and angry, but she slows her pace and moves in a little more. She pats his cheek.

In German she says, “You are quite welcome, my friend. We are glad to have you .”

Tears burn behind his eyes but he has cried quite enough in the last twenty four hours so he swallows the lump in his throat and repeats his thanks. She only smiles this time, and exits the room. Ephraim has been settled on one of the beds and Otto is perched in a wicker chair while Milly put her fingers to his wrist to take his pulse.

Louisa places a gentle hand on Bucky’s elbow and he turns his gaze to her.

“Bath? ” she offers and Bucky nods so quickly he makes himself a little dizzy. She leads him through to the washroom. The large clawfoot tub is already filled, water steaming in the cool evening air. “I be out. Call if need something? ” Louisa says softly and Bucky nods. She leaves the door ajar when she leaves, but Bucky hadn’t even been expecting the privacy of having the room to himself.

Bucky hasn’t been in a room by himself in four years.

Quickly shedding the long sleeved, olive green shirt and brown pants he’d been given, both too large, Bucky doesn’t realize there’s a mirror in the room until he turns around. He starts and almost lets out a shout. He doesn’t recognize the man in the mirror at all.

Bucky knew, in theory, that his hair had been shaved away, that he’d lost a lot of weight. But it’s different, looking down your body as you dress or seeing his wrist completely encircled in Louisa’s dainty hands. It’s quite another to see it all laid out like this. He can see each of his ribs, sharp against his thin, pale skin. His ribs meet his breast bone so clearly that there might as well be no skin at all. The bones of his hips are so evident he feels a little sick to his stomach and his knees look huge on his skeletal legs. Bucky brings a hand to his cheek, feels the blade of his cheek bone and looks at the hollow of his cheek. His eyes are sunken into his head, they’re huge and dark like a monster out of a folk tale. There’s no color on him except for a flush of pink across his face. In some places his skin is nearly translucent, it’s so pale.

He is grotesque - a gargoyle made of discarded human parts, left in a grave to rot. How can the nurses look at him each day? How can Steve smile and touch him as though Bucky is normal and whole? Bucky covers his eyes.

Hot tears pelt down his cheeks.

Oh boychik ,” his mama used to say, patting his cheek and smiling, “ my handsome son.

His own mama wouldn’t recognize him now.  

***

Bucky

***

Bucky pushes the thoughts away. How he looks doesn’t matter. It would not matter if he were the ugliest, most gruesome thing on earth. He must be grateful for the things that do matter. He is alive, he is away from Zola, and one day he will see his family again. Bucky turns his back to the mirror decidedly. His one hand braced on the tub, Bucky carefully steps into the water. Immediately he hisses, finding the bathwater hot almost to the point of discomfort. He grits his teeth and slowly sits.

It’s the perfect kind of pain. The heat melts away the dirt and filth that’s been pounded into his skin. The nurses may have washed him, using warm water and soft cloth, but they could hardly wash away three years worth of filth. The water goes a little gray as he settles into it. For the first time in a long time, Bucky feels completely warm. Even the chill that has lingered close to his bones for many years now seems to have faded. Bucky rubs at his skin a little before he spots a new bar of soap sitting on a ledge above the tub. He takes it slowly, not quite sure if it’s intended for him, but the draw of being really clean is too tempting to resist.

Bucky had always loved baths, even as a child. He had never minded if the water was cold (it usually was) or dirty (Bucky always let his sisters go first). He could linger in the water forever, if his Mama would let him, soaping up his hands and blowing bubbles. When Bucky was very young, when the dark times ahead loomed distantly on the horizon, they’d had a real tub with running water, but Bucky had still been young when they’d had to move to a smaller house. There they’d had a free standing claw foot tub which his mama lovingly filled up with hot water heated on the stove. Mama had lamented the loss, but Bucky had liked the clawfoot tub. All sorts of wild imaginings had been the companion of his youth - he’d pretend that he’d been swallowed by a horrible beast and was sitting in the juices of its stomach, plotting his escape. Or he was on a ship going under way out at sea, fighting for his life. Often, there were pirates.

His ship may have gone under, but he’s been thrown a life saver, and he’s clinging to life with all that he is. Bucky rubs the soap over his skin, trying not to notice too much about his changed body. It’s easy to pretend that it’s someone else entirely - nothing about this body is familiar to him. His skin is sensitive and the soap stings in places, but he continues to scrub away the years of filth until he is pink and glowing. Setting the soap aside, Bucky slides down in the tub, head falling under the water.

The guards hold his body under and Bucky fights, he fights every time. This is not like the other trials - his body fights whether or not Bucky’s mind has given up, an instinctual battle to get air to reach his lungs. They allow him up infrequently - the goal is not to kill him, but to drill cold into each crevice of his body until he is colder than a corpse in winter and then reheat him cruelly, again and again and again. But cold water rushes into his nostrils and pours into his ears and makes his fingers ache every time the drive him under, and the water fills his lungs and he can’t -.

Bucky is pulled, gasping, from the tub, strong hands wrapped tightly around his biceps. He thrashes away, terror gripping him. The hands let him go immediately, the first sign to Bucky’s confused mind that he is not there . Water is pouring down his face and out of his nose and Bucky blinks his eyes open, huddling against the cold porcelain of the tub. It’s Steve, eyes wide and frightened, hovering over the tub. Amelia and Louisa are behind him, masks of panic on their faces.

Sucking in heaving breaths, Bucky shakes in Steve’s grip. Steve hefts him out of the tub as though Bucky weighs no more than a bag of flour and has him wrapped in a towel before Bucky can completely process what’s happened. It’s not until Steve starts briskly rubbing his hands up and down Bucky’s towel covered arms that he notices he’s shivering. There’s no reason to be shivering - the water is still steaming in the tub and his skin is pink from the heat.

“What happened ?” Steve demands roughly. Bucky flinches away, trembling kicking up a notch. Steve quickly gentles his expression and takes his hands off Bucky, stepping back.

“I - I don’t -I, ” Bucky mumbles, not quite sure how to explain. He’d been alright, he really had, until he’d put his head under and then - he shudders. Bucky hunches his shoulders up defensively and tucks his chin into his bony chest. There’s brief conversation in English and then Amelia and Louisa duck out the door, closing it softly behind them.

“What can I do to help? ” Steve asks gently. Bucky shrugs and pulls his towel a little tighter around his skeletal frame, suddenly feeling very naked and very vulnerable. “I have clothes for you, ” Steve adds, slowly. “That’s why I came in. I knocked on the door but you didn’t answer. I - we were worried.”

Bucky glances up tentatively. Steve moves away, gathering up a pile of clothes that were dropped on the ground.

Do you need help dressing? ” There’s no judgement in his tone but Bucky hesitates accepting the offer all the same. A real man should be able to dress on his own. A real man doesn’t almost drown in his bath. Bucky’s not any kind of man at all. But it’s not like he has much dignity left intact. He nods, not meeting Steve’s eyes. Bucky drops his towel, feeling far away from his body, as if he’s still looking at in a mirror. Steve sets the clothes down on the edge of the sink and sorts through them quickly, pulling out a pair of white shorts. Steve crouches down and holds the shorts out for Bucky to step into, like a father might for his young son.

Bucky’s breath catches in his throat. He’s too aware of the way his bones press against his skin, the concave slope of his belly, of the gargoyle-like distortion of his features. Steve’s eyes feel heavy and painful on his skin. Bucky swallows tightly and stabilizes himself on Steve’s shoulder, stepping into the shorts. They’re drawn up his bony legs with gentle hands, and Bucky wants to flinch away. The shorts are too big around Bucky’s hips and they start to slip. No flesh remains to catch them.

Steve makes a thoughtful noise and goes digging in one of his uniform pockets. The captain is still in his travel dirty clothes, the ones he dragged on in the dim light of morning while Bucky stayed safely in his nest of blankets. Every time Steve puts Bucky’s needs in front of his own feels like the first time, startling like bright light after a long dark. After a moment, Steve pulls out a safety pin. Without words, he doubles up the waistband of the shorts so they pull tight around Bucky’s sharp hips and deftly pins them into place. He grins up at Bucky, but Bucky turns his gaze away, unable to meet Steve’s eyes.

“Bucky? Are you alright? ” Steve’s hand folds completely around Bucky’s emaciated hip.

“How can you stand to look at me?” Bucky asks. He feels sick as the question leaves his mouth. How can he stand there and worry about the way he looks when there are still Jews suffering in the camps? When the war still wages? When thousands lie nameless and hopeless in their graves. The way he looks is nothing - a grain of sand on a beach, the tiniest of concerns. And certainly Steve has better things to worry about than Bucky’s self-disgust.

The captain stands and Bucky hunches back, hefting his blade-like shoulders. He doesn’t dare look up to see the captain’s expression. Gently, ever so gently, Steve’s warm hands cup over Bucky’s shoulders.

“When I look at you I only see how strong you are. You have survived so much.”

Bucky bits down on his lower lip and carefully turns his head to meet the captain’s eyes. Steve’s expression is earnest and kind.

“I know it’s silly. To worry about such a stupid thing as my looks, I should be grateful to be alive.”

Steve’s eyes storm over. “No, I - no, Bucky. Gratitude is important, but you should expect to be able to live your life and to have control over your own body. Everything’s been taken from you. And it isn’t right. You’re allowed to feel whatever you want.”

Bucky’s not sure he believes it, so he just looks away again. Steve sighs a little, but doesn’t say anything more. Bucky almost wishes he would.

Steve’s voice was the first good thing for a long time. Even when he cannot believe Steve’s words, his voice is a reminder. Bucky could never have dreamed a man like this up and the hope that came along with Steve stirs whenever he speaks.

The captain crouches again, and unfolds a pair of pants. They fit better than the shorts, but Bucky can’t quite manage the buttons one-handed. Steve hesitates before he lifts his hands, and a pink flush covers his dirt-darkened skin as he slowly does Bucky’s buttons for him. An answering flush builds on Bucky’s cheeks. He would not have expected to be dressing to be so… intimate.

And it’s strange to have a man this close to his body. It’s not like when the nurses touch him - to help him wash or dress or to take his temperature. It’s not done, for two men to help each other with things like this, and for a moment Bucky wishes it were Louisa or Milly helping him with this, so that Steve would not witness his weakness. But Steve never treats Bucky like an invalid, and the nurses, just by their presence, suggest that he is less than able. Even when Steve carried him to his tent, Bucky had never felt that Steve looked down on him. Steve acts like needing help is a completely ordinary part of living, nothing to be exclaimed upon.

Steve finishes the buttons without a word and scoops up the green shirt. Bucky takes it from his hands and pulls it over his head himself. It’s long sleeved and warm, though it’s much too big on his skeletal frame.

“I have some clean socks for you too, but I think I left them in the other room. Would you like to shave? I can grab my shaving kit while I’m out there.” Bucky runs his hand over his sharp jaw. It’s rough with stubble, though the nurses had helped him to shave the day before they left camp. He shakes his head, not minding the stubble on his chin. It reminds him of his Tatti teaching him to shave. He’d felt more a man that day than when he’d stood up for his bar mitzvah. “Alright,” Steve says with a nod, “Why don’t you come through. Milly wants to take another look at you.”

Bucky sighs, but follows Steve through the door into the bedroom. Ephraim is lying on his bed, eyes closed while Amelia listens to him breathe. Otto is curled up in a wicker chair tucked under the single window, looking out at the street beyond. Steve hurries Bucky into bed and then excuses himself with an apologetic smile. Bucky sinks into the soft mattress and pillow, cushier than anything he can really remember lying on before. Milly approaches and begins her exam. Her motions and routines are familiar by now and Bucky feels safe enough to let her at it while he watches Steve, who has approached Otto.

As Milly is tsking over Bucky’s pulse, Steve shepherds Otto into the wash room, closing the door behind them. They’re obviously not taking any chances after Bucky’s misadventure. Bucky feels a little strange, thinking of Steve helping Otto into the tub, though he’s not quite sure what to make of the stone in his belly. Milly interrupts his musings with her accented German. “Give fluids, ” she says firmly, tapping the crook of his elbow. Bucky frowns and looks at her with confusion. She holds up a finger as if to say one minute and disappears out the bedroom door. She returns shortly with a glass jug, some tubing, and a needle, which she shows Bucky carefully.

Bucky feels a flash of fear. Zola used to do this and the liquid had burned and left him feeling sick for days. But - the liquid in the jar had been a sickly green color, not clear like in this one. And Milly has not done anything to hurt him in the week and a half she’s been his care. Still, he can’t help the panic that courses through him.

“Do I need it? ” he asks, voice quick and slurred. “ Can’t I just drink more?

Milly frowns and waves at him in an unmistakable gesture of slow down and then calls Amelia over. More slowly, Bucky repeats the questions to Amelia, voice trembling. Amelia frowns, looking a little sad. “I’m sorry, you really do need some fluids Bucky. You’re very dehydrated. You’ll feel so much better. Ephraim and Otto are also getting them tonight - it’s really important.

Bucky bites his lip but nods. He wishes Steve were there to hold his hand, like the very first time the nurses had examined him. Instead he grips the edge of the bed and closes his eyes tightly while Milly inserts the needle. It hurts, but he’s had a lot worse. Milly gives him a little pat on his shoulder when she’s done and Amelia helps him put the warm woolen socks on and slip under the covers.

It isn’t surprising that he can’t sleep. Ever since the fatigue of the first couple days wore off, Bucky’s body has refused sleep when it is offered. Even here, with the safety of four walls and a roof, the comfort of the bed, and the promise of freedom in the open window, Bucky can’t settle. He lies on his back and listens to the house. The soldiers are exchanging words in the kitchen, voices relatively loud after the required silence of the road. He can hear Otto and Steve in the wash room and Ephraim’s raspy voice asking about Milly and Amelia’s families.

Slowly, the house drifts into a state of quiet. Otto and Steve emerge into the bedroom. The nurses fuss over Otto while Steve carries Ephraim into the wash room for his turn in the bath. Ephraim says something in a low voice that makes Steve laugh. The house settles and creaks. Upstairs, doors open and close. Bucky is tired deep in his body, bones and muscles aching with it. Here in this bed, under the soft quilt, tucked behind the doors of this stone house on a cobbled road in Paris, Bucky misses his family more than he has in a long time.

He wishes he was still home, in his cramped twin bed inside a room so small Rivka liked to joke it was a closet. Rivka, Miri, and Sara had shared the largest room in the house, cozied up in a large bed. Sometimes he envied them that - not just the airy room and it’s two windows or the large bed - but the companionship. From his cramped quarters he could hear them giggling and gossiping long after Mama had told them to hush. Some nights, he’d felt immensely lonely but he’d been very young and very foolish. Lonely isn’t lying awake with your family all around you. Lonely is lying awake in a room so dark you can’t see your own hand in front of your face. Lonely is not knowing the name of the five other men that you hear screaming and crying. Lonely is listening to a man die only meters from you and not being strong enough to get up and go to him. Lonely is whispering the shma to yourself each night, half fearing and half hoping that you’ll die before the sun rises.

Bucky is still lying awake when Steve emerges from the wash room with Ephraim. After Ephraim has been delivered to his bed and the nurses have descended upon him, Steve comes over to Bucky’s bedside.

“May I sit? ” Steve asks, gesturing to a sliver of unoccupied space on Bucky’s bed. Bucky scooches over to make more room, nodding. Steve sits with a smile. Bucky wishes he could ask Steve to tell him more stories of New York, but he feels strange asking that in front of the nurses and the other men. That’s something that belongs to Steve and Bucky and the night.

Can you tell me what happened, earlier? ” Steve’s face creases with worry, brows folding down over his eyes. Bucky looks away as shame bubbles in his stomach. It embarasses him that such an innocuous thing could scare him so deeply, send him hurdling back to different times and places. He doesn’t want to tell the captain, who is brave and strong and so very kind to Bucky. With each passing day, Bucky’s mind feels more addled, like someone had taken a whisk to his brain the way his mama did with eggs.

Steve lies a gentle hand on Bucky’s shoulder and he can’t help but lean into it. “I don’t - I don’t want to talk about it, please. Would you tell me more about New York?”

Steve frowns and Bucky’s chest answers with a growing tightness around his lungs.

“You know you can talk to me, right? About anything?”

“Yes, ” Bucky lets the night air catch this truth. But for all that he knows he can tell the captain anything,  he also badly wants for Steve to respect him, to think him strong and brave. Already Steve has witnessed Bucky at his worst, has seen the fear in his mind catch him and twist him and send him spiralling. The horror of the water closing over his face, sinking into him - that fear is too vivid to share. It’s shameful enough that Steve had to pull him out of the tub like a babe who’d slipped under. And then, for Otto and Ephraim to be treated as children because of Bucky’s mistake -.

Bucky breathes in, trying to ease the tight cage of his ribs binding his lungs. Steve looks down at him, eyes dark with concern, but he doesn’t ask again.

“I didn’t have a lot of people I could trust, growing up. It was hard times and there wasn’t enough of anything to go around. It was hard not to look at your neighbor and think ‘if he wasn’t here, there’d be more for my family.’” There’s a kind of solemnity to Steve’s face that Bucky hasn’t seen before, a grief and an anger, tempered by the resolute glint of his eyes. “And I told myself I’d be a person they could trust, no matter what. Even if we were cold and hungry, I could be a good man. Some days it seemed like that was all I could be. I want you to know that you can trust me, Bucky.

Bucky wants to be able to respond to that, but they’re interrupted by Louisa. The nurse, who is usually quiet and demure, is even more so around the captain. She keeps her eyes on Bucky and there’s a flush across the bridge of her nose that he’s never seen before. Her hands are brisk and cool as she takes his pulse and listens to him breathe.

“Good night Bucky ,” she says, despite her obvious discomfort.

“Good night, Louisa,” Bucky manages the phrase in English and is rewarded with Louisa’s small, pleased smile. After asking the captain, Louisa douses the light as she leaves the room. They’re left not quite in darkness, light filtering through the dark curtains on the window and tumbling through the open door to the hall. Still, this gloom is more familiar, closer to the dark of their nights on the road, and Bucky feels himself relax.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you. You’re the best man I’ve ever known. And you’ve been so kind to me. I -, ” Bucky pauses, searching for the right words. “I want to be worth that. I want to be worth being saved by a man like you.

Steve makes a wounded sound, like a dog being trodden on.  

“You do deserve being rescued. You all do. You deserve to never have needed rescuing in the first place, for people to treat you with respect and dignity because you’re human… ” Hands clenching into fists, Steve trails off. His jaw ticks under his skin. Cautiously Bucky lays a hand over one of Steve’s fists, where it lies on the bed covers. Bucky has long since reconciled himself to the existence of cruelty in the world. By the time the Nuremberg laws were enacted, Bucky was already well used to being treated as less than human.

“Tell me again, what it’s like for Jews in New York? ” Bucky doesn’t dare speak above a whisper. Across the room he can see Otto lying awake. Anger and grief still crease Steve’s face, but his fists relax as he begins to speak.

Did I tell you about the time my Ma let me skip school so we could go to Coney Island?”

“What’s Coney Island?”

Steve blinks his surprise and gives a playful, exaggerated gasp, and plunges into the story.

Bucky can see it in his head - he can taste the salt on his tongue and feel the breeze in his hair. What would it have been like, to have been a boy with the captain? To have been his friend - to take the train with Steve and his ma and maybe Bucky’s mama too, to feel the sunshine on their cheeks and to play like only children can play?

Despite the comfort of Steve’s stories, the soft cradle of the bed, and the warmth of the quilt tucked around him, Bucky still can’t sleep. He drifts in and out, waking to the unfamiliar noises of people moving about in the house, of doors opening and closing, of a cat yowling outside the window. He tosses and turns and his bones ache like they’re still pressed against hard wood. The nurses visit during the night, apologizing in whispers for waking him. Sleep comes easier once he’s disconnected from the fluids, but as the fluids work through his body he has to get up and visit the toilet again and again, leaving him ill tempered and exhausted.

By the time sunlight flickers behind the curtains, Bucky is exhausted. Steve visits early, eats breakfast in the wicker chair while Bucky, Ephraim, and Otto are served breakfast in bed.

Steve waits until they have all finished their meals and their hostess comes to take away the stack of scraped out bowls to tell them the news. He’s sitting by Bucky’s bed and he’s smiling.

There’s been excellent news. Two days ago, Germany surrendered to the Western Allies. Victory has officially been declared in Europe!

Bucky’s breath catches in his throat. Feelings flit like butterflies through his veins and he begins to cry. It has been four years of pain and fear and suffering, many years more of being treated like scum, of not being allowed to see movies or go swimming. The yellow star still hits heavy over his heart. His mama had stitched them to their jackets and they had bled like they’d been stitched to their skin.

Comprehension does not want to settle in his brain. Still, Bucky cannot quite believe that he is sitting in a soft bed in Paris, many hundred miles from the place where he died a hundred little deaths, where he’d been made less than human.

But he is human, and he’s free , and never again will people spit at him in the street and never again will they tear his flesh from his bones and never again will he have to give up his humanity to villains who try to be God.

Steve’s warm hands cup Bucky’s elbows, so slowly and gently that it’s almost painful.

“I’m so happy, ” Bucky cries. “And I’m so angry that it took so long .”

“Yes, ” Steve tells him and his face is so serious and his eyes are so kind. “Me too.

“I need to pray ,” Bucky tells him and Steve nods, acting, as he always has, as though prayer is something Bucky is entitled to, something he can expect to be able to do for the rest of his life without question and without fear.

Would you like to go outside? ” Steve asks, pulling Bucky’s blankets aside. Bucky still feels a little dizzy upon standing, but his head isn’t aching like it was yesterday. Steve leads him into a small yard at the back of the house. It’s walled off, which makes Bucky feel small, like a caged mouse. Praying in the woods had been better, for there was something about the way the trees whipped in the wind and the crackling of the fire that had made Bucky feel closer to God. Paris is not like that.

There are people shouting and dogs barking, the click-click of bicycles over cobblestone, a baby crying in a nearby house. It sounds like home, only there’s no mama fussing in yiddish or Miri and Sara quarrelling over whose turn it is to help mama with the cooking. Somewhere in the distance, bells ring.

Steve points Bucky in the direction of Jerusalem and sits on the ground, leaning against the stone house. The sun is only just rising over the walls, but it is already warm on Bucky’s face.

There is so much to be grateful for today and yet Bucky can find only bitterness and a deep anger that surprises him with its ferocity. His prayers are rages against the world. How is it that people let this happen to him? Why did they wait to save him until he’d been torn apart and sewn back together so many times he doesn’t even recognize himself? Why?

There are no answers from God, that day.

 

Chapter Text

 

They aren’t allowed outside the house and it makes Bucky’s skin itch.

Otto and Bucky are encouraged to take a turn around the tiny courtyard and Dugan brings out a deck of cards and teaches them to play poker. Otto and Bucky have nothing to bet with but a handful of sticks, but they’re both good at it and soon they each have tidy piles of American coins, candies, and cigarettes. Amelia and Louisa sit on the ground against the wall and play a hand game that Bucky doesn’t recognize. Somewhere, a radio plays a familiar melody.

It should be a nice day. The sun is shining and the sky is blue and the war is won.

And it’s all shades of gray to Bucky, a muffled happiness that belongs to somebody else.

Dugan lights Bucky’s cigarette and Bucky raises it to his lips. It makes him cough, makes his chest feel tight and suddenly he’s drowning and he stubs out the cigarette and goes back inside. But the door to their bedroom is closed and he can hear Milly, Morita, and Ephraim talking in low voices.

He doesn’t want to interrupt. He doesn’t want to see Ephraim’s injuries laid bare, or understand any more than he already does why Ephraim is inside while Otto and Bucky are out of doors. Bucky’s not sure if he’s allowed to wander the house, so he sits on the narrow staircase.

Bucky wonders if his mama knows the war is over. He wants to be with her and Rivka. They would understand, he thinks, the tumultuous swirl of celebration and grief that clouds Bucky’s brain.

The stairs creak and Bucky whirls around, heart sprinting in his chest.

It’s a little girl.

She has short sandy hair and is wearing a pink dress and clutching a soft bear.

“Salut,” she says. Her eyes are gray. “Vous voulez jouer?”

Bucky shakes his head to show that he doesn’t understand. She bites her lip and skips down the stairs. When she lands on his step, Bucky can’t help flinching back a little but she doesn’t act like she minds. Instead she slips her hand into his and tugs.

Her hand is soft and pudgy with baby fat. Bucky stares at their hands tucked together, his too pale flesh pulled over bones and her small fingers trying to wrap around his palm. For a moment it looks grotesque, the contrast between them.

But the girl pulls again, making an impatient sound, effectively distracting him. Bucky doesn’t remember the last time he saw a child so healthy and lively. The children in the camp were as still and silent as ghosts, gaunt shadows of their older counterparts. Like the adults, they were made of sharp lines and deep hollows, places where anguish lingers.

This little girl is none of those things. Though her dress is patched and her feet are bare, her body is round and soft with childhood. There’s a healthy pink flush to her cheeks, which are dusted with freckles from days spent outside in the sun.

She points to her chest with her thumb once she is certain that she has his attention.

“Cecile,” she identifies before pointing at him.

“Bucky.” She giggles, showing off a gap toothed smile.

Cecile leads Bucky up to a small room at the top of the stairs. There’s a little bed, tucked under a window which is perfectly angled to leave a square of sunlight on the ground. A worn rug covers the wood floor, and carefully set up on top of it is a collection of wooden figures. Scattered rather more carelessly around these are metal animals and soft cloth dolls, but it is clearly the wooden creations that Cecile wants to share. One by one she shows them to him, naming each one.

It is only when she reaches the most intricate of the carvings, clearly a little girl in a swirling dress, and names it Robert that Bucky figures out that she is not naming the dolls, but the men who gave them to her. Maybe there were others like Bucky and Otto and Ephraim who came through this house, who lay in the comfortable beds and washed in the large tub. A long line of men, Bucky thinks looking at Cecile’s carefully curated collection.

They don’t play with the wooden dolls, who are lined up like they’re on guard at the edge of the rug, but Cecile pushes other toys into Bucky’s hands insistently. It has been a long time since Bucky last played with a child. Rivka had been too old for play like this when Miri and Sara had left, each with a single toy packed into their battered bags. But before, Bucky had often spent quiet winter evenings in the living room playing whatever games his sisters desired.

Cecile is utterly unafraid of him. During a pause in play she draws her finger lightly over his stump. Bucky doesn’t like when the nurses touch it, but their hands are quick and clinical. Cecile touches the mass of scar tissue with curiosity. She giggles when it makes him twitch. It’s easy to forget Bucky’s grim reality in the face of her childish curiosity.  

With Cecile it matters not that he is homeless and penniless, crippled and ill. She has never known him any differently and makes no judgement on the way his body is formed now. Ease falls over him as he allows himself to shake off the garments of pain and anguish. The time passes quickly in her presence. The square of sunlight on the floor has traced a path through the room before someone comes looking for him, and he’s somehow startled when they do.

It comes with a knock on the door, making Bucky’s body jerk back and fold in. But it’s only Steve. Cecile smiles brightly at him and runs over, babbling in French. Steve smiles and nods and replies in the same language and Bucky watches.

Steve’s kindness is formidable and it leaves Bucky rocking in it’s wake. How can a man like Steve exist in the same world as a man like Zola? How can Bucky have been so lucky and so cursed to meet them both?

We were worried about you ,” Steve says, once he’s finished his conversation with Cecile. The little girl slips around the captain and disappears down the stairs, pausing to waggle her fingers at Bucky. “You didn’t tell anyone where you went.

I’m sorry, ” Bucky murmurs, trying to get to his feet. The usual spell of dizziness and nausea floods over him and Steve’s hands are suddenly there, bracing him. “Cecile wanted to play, I didn’t think there’d be anything wrong with it.”

“There’s not, ” Steve quickly assures. “ It’s just - we’re here to protect you. We can’t do that if we don’t know where you are.

Fear and anger war in Bucky. If they are free, if the war is over, why does he still need to be protected? Why does he still need to be guarded and told where he can and cannot go and be kept track of like he is a child?

“I can take care of myself.

I know you can,” Steve says soothingly and his voice sounds almost patronizing to Bucky’s angry ears.

“I want to go outside. I want to walk on roads like I’m human. I don’t want your guards and your rules.” A lump rises in Bucky’s throat and he turns away before the hot coal behind his adam’s apple can turn into tears.

“I’m sorry, Bucky. I didn’t realize - we thought. There’s not an excuse. You should be able to make your own decisions.

Then why do you tell us no?” Bucky insists, fixing his gaze back on Steve’s face. The captain has been so good to Bucky, from the moment he crouched by his bunk and told him his name, and Bucky feels almost guilty now. Steve is the last person who deserves Bucky’s anger. Steve looks away, indecision flickering over his face.

It’s complicated .” Steve starts. He pauses and licks his lip. “The man who had you - Arnim Zola? And the group he was a part of, HYDRA, are still active. They’re still a threat.”

Steve stops again and studies Bucky intensely. Bucky matches his gaze. He feels as though he is being weighed and judged, that Steve is looking for something in the sharp planes of his face and the skeletal remnants of his body.

Bucky had been strong once and he has endured and he will not be looked at and found wanting, not ever again. He is enough.

“Come with me. I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

Bucky follows Steve into the hallway and deeper into the house. There’s another tiny room tucked into the back corner, a mirror of Cecile’s, though this one holds only a mattress on the floor. It’s neatly made, all clean lines and tight corners. Bucky recognizes Steve’s bag against the wall and his leather jacket hanging over the back of a wooden chair. Steve indicates that he can sit on either the bed or the chair, so Bucky lowers himself onto the mattress - bracing his dizzy body on the wall as he does so. This mattress is not as comfortable as the one Bucky slept on last night, and it does something to him, as it always does, to realize that his comfort has once again been put above that of the captain’s or the other soldiers.

The captain sits cross-legged on the floor, making them nearly the same height.

I cannot tell you everything now. It isn’t safe. But you’re right, you deserve to know.” Steve knits his fingers together and stares at them for a moment. Anxiety twists in Bucky’s stomach, seeing Steve’s serious expression, the worry writ into every part of his body.

I’m not sure where to start, ” Steve admits. Bucky doesn’t think there’s anything to say in return. He tucks his knees into his chest, feet resting on the ground. He goes to grab opposite elbows with his hands, but his right hand lands on his stump and he flinches.

He hasn’t touched it yet, not really.

He doesn’t want to know what the mass of scar tissue feels like, or feel the crushed bone and the deformed shape of his arm. He doesn’t want it. Perhaps, if they’d taken the whole thing, carved it out of his shoulder, it would feel complete in some way. Now it is just half a body part, and it makes him feel like he is a sheet of paper torn into pieces and set to drift on the wind.

Part of Zola’s mission ,” the captain begins, “Is to create the perfect soldier, a man who is stronger and faster than all the rest. Many of his experiments were in pursuit of that and in the past he has shown himself willing to risk almost anything to recapture his victims.”

Fear, like ice, slides down Bucky’s throat. The idea that somewhere out there Zola is looking for him, is tracking him down and wants to put him back in the dark and the cold, is perhaps the most terrifying thing Bucky could imagine.

He hadn’t considered the possibility, not really. There had been moments of panic on the road, when he was sure that guards lurked in the shadows, but it had just been fear. It wasn’t real.

Zola is the monster that stalks Bucky’s thoughts, who lies in wait around every corner and behind every darkened doorway. Bucky shudders.

“We’re not going to let him get you ,” Steve promises, leaning close. His eyes are solemn, his face still with absolute sincerity. “I will die before I let him take you or the others again, do you understand?”

The words spill into Bucky’s body, taking up residence in his veins, in the marrow of his bones. He has no doubt that Steve means every word, that Steve would lay his very life down to protect Bucky.

“I don’t know why he’d want us back. It’s clear he didn’t succeed. We are no more perfect men than we are birds in the sky.”

Steve’s hesitation colors the air between them.

“We don’t know that,” his voice is almost apologetic, like he’s taking something from Bucky that he sorely doesn’t want to. “Your bad health might be suppressing some of what was done to you.

What was done to him, like a mouse in a laboratory. That’s what he was, the reason Zola had cut and measured him like a pound of beef. His humanity was nothing, he was an object upon which things were done.

“I’m sorry, ” Steve adds, and his voice is laced with a terrible guilt that Bucky has no understanding of. Steve did not strap him down and inject him with burning liquid, or hold him under freezing cold water, or stitch decaying flesh into his skin, or carve his skin up to watch it close, again and again and again.

“It’s not your fault,” Bucky says.

But Steve looks at him with eyes so full of sadness and grief that Bucky knows he doesn’t believe him. The captain doesn’t respond, but he looks like a man condemned.

***

Dinner is held around a big table in the living room. The couches and arm chairs, upholstered in faded fabrics that may have been colorful once upon a time, are pushed up against the walls. Steve and Agent Carter depart as the food is still being laid out on the table. They’re wearing dressy clothes, poised and polished, and serious expressions.

For Bucky the room is a little colder for Steve’s absence, but the company he finds in his stead is warm and lively. Before they eat, there is a moment where everyone ducks their head. Some say prayers in ancient languages learned at their mother’s breast, some express their thanks in the tongue they use to tell jokes and tease. Still others just sit quietly, heads bowed respectfully, thoughts unspoken.

The weight of gratitude sits heavy on their shoulders, for they all share the unspoken knowledge that they are the lucky ones. Not far from the brightly lit room with the table stacked with plain but hearty food, people cry out in pain, if they are alive to cry out at all.

A dark part of Bucky wonders if anything at all has been solved by the end of the war.

It is hard to stay gloomy, surrounded as he is by good cheer. Conversation is held in a tangle of languages, tripping between tongues like a brook over stones. Everyone seems to speak a little bit of German, and their French hosts speak a surprising amount of English. Bucky can follow only bits and pieces of the conversation, but Otto, who speaks both English and French, translates as best he can.

The night winds on, joyous and vibrant, and for the first time Bucky feels the heavy chains of fear and anger begin to lift. Dugan tells elaborate tales of his circus days, translated in fits and bursts by different people around the table, and shows off his juggling skills with a trio of apples. Cecile forces herself into Dugan’s lap and steals his hat and the soldiers roar with laughter. Modette, the plump woman who’d smiled at Bucky when he came into her house, piles food high up on everyone’s plates and insists that they take seconds and thirds. Bucky is not allowed, of course, but the food is warm and home cooked and he’s happy to pick through his single plate.

For all the cheer and goodwill around the table, Bucky begins to find himself feeling quite overwhelmed. He catches only snippets of conversations as they begin to break into smaller groups.

“Cecile came to us two years ago, her mother was -

“Only two more days on the road before -”

“Headed for a town in England -”

“Do you need supplies? Food? Medical equipment?”

Bucky slips out of the crowded room, his head heavy and dizzied. He stands in the hall, considering the doors on either end. One leads out into the street, to people and the chaos of being alive. The other leads to the walled-in courtyard, protected and still.

Zola has shown himself willing to risk almost anything to recapture his victims , Steve had said.

Bucky turns toward the courtyard, a stone in his stomach.

***

Bucky manages to sleep that night, but he wakes screaming no less than three times. He feels horrible about it, knows he’s waking the entire house, lights flicking on, a nurse coming to his bedside. Each time, a different soldier comes to the doorway, hand on his gun, and talks quietly with the nurse.

His dreams drip with menace, variations on a monstrous tune.

He stands in front of his childhood home, and it’s just the same, only blood covers the doorway and Zola is in the window, his hand on Sara’s shoulders, smiling, and the guards throw Miri and Rivka over their shoulders and carry them into the pit and Bucky can’t move, they’ve carved away all his muscles, he is nothing but bone and fear and horror.

Steve said they’re going to find his family, but what if Zola is there, lurking in their shadows and gets to them first. If Bucky leads this monster to their doorstep he will never forgive himself. The evil that has touched him, scorched him to the bone, can never touch his family.

The captain arrives after the third nightmare. He’s wearing an olive green uniform Bucky has never seen before, pressed and ironed, pinned with shiny medals. His achievements and accolades are laid bare for the world to see, but Steve looks tired to the bone and guilt drips from Bucky’s brain. Steve is much too important to keep awake with his silly dreams. Pressed under the heavy stone of his own self-condemnation, Bucky can only lie there when Steve takes a seat at the edge of the bed.

Milly takes Ephraim to the bathroom, and Otto pretends to sleep while Steve smiles down at Bucky.

“Dreams ?” he asks, voice gentle and without judgement. Bucky cannot answer, for he is the man without muscle, the man without will. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have told you what I did. I didn’t mean to frighten you -.”

“No!” Bucky snaps, flinging himself upward, almost colliding with the captain. Steve steadies him with a hand on either side of Bucky’s body when his quick movement inevitably turns to dizziness. “ I wanted to know. I deserved to know .”

Steve looks at him seriously, studying every line of his face. It feels as though the captain can see down through the murky depths of his soul, to the parts of himself even he doesn’t know. Bucky wishes he could see the captain the same way, but he cannot and perhaps he isn’t allowed to.

The captain is Bucky’s savior.

Bucky is just a Jew.

***

When morning comes, Bucky has not slept since the captain came and sat by his bedside. He does not feel tired. He feels old to his very bones, as ancient as the kotel .

They eat a small, plain breakfast in the gray light of dawn, the soldiers yawning over cups of coffee. Steve is bent over a table in the corner, Agent Carter by his side. The pair wear worried looks and tired eyes, and they lean into each other, just a little, so slight a touch Bucky almost doesn’t catch it.

Afterwards, Bucky and Ephraim are given time to pray together in the courtyard. Corporal Morita hovers in the doorway, wary and watchful, and the chains of Bucky’s fear grow so heavy as to keep his prayers locked in the ground.

They’re loaded once more into the truck, which has been emptied out over the last day. Today there is only the one truck, the one Bucky and the others have ridden in for days now, and the back is crowded. Lieutenant Falsworth, the captain, and Agent Carter ride up front.

Bucky is prepared for another long day on the road, has steeled his mind against the terror that comes for him when there is nothing to do but think. They drive through lonely streets, past bombed out buildings and rubble piled high. Only a few people are out before the sun is up, slipping through the streets like ghosts.

But the truck does not take them far, only to a deserted train station where they board a mostly empty train. They’re loaded onto a medical car at the back of the drab green army train, marked on the outside with a red cross. If Bucky looks at it out of the corner of his eye, it twists into a bloody swastika.

Otto has picked up a book in French somewhere along the way and is content to curl up in one of the narrow bunks. Ephraim is confined to a cot and hooked up to more fluids. Some time in the last day, Ephraim has started to cough, a heavy, wet thing that is all too familiar to Bucky. A hundred men have died with a cough like that in their lungs, close enough that Bucky could hear their last rattling breath.

They cannot be what the captain said. Any strength they may have once had has been carved away in chunks. They are sick and weak, men sliced and whittled away until they no longer resemble men at all.

The perfect soldier, he had said, faster and stronger than all the rest. A man like that would look like the captain, not like Bucky.  

But the captain does not look so strong today. Agent Carter and he are once again bent over a map, this time pinned to the shuddering train wall. They draw lines and marks, consult large stacks of papers. They are both pale in their dark travel clothes and Agent Carter has forgone even her usual red lips. They talk in hushed voices that Bucky can tell, even from the other side of the cabin, are worried and tense.

Bucky wants badly to be of use, but he has nothing to offer.

The other soldiers scatter around the train car. Lieutenant Falsworth and Dugan join Steve and Agent Carter. Jones goes through a stack of letters with a thick black marker. Morita and Dernier doze in their own bunk.

Restless energy prickles under Bucky’s skin. He’s too weak to pace the confines of the cabin for longer than a loop or two. So he paces and sits and paces and sits, the rumble of the train vibrating up through his bones until he thinks he might shake apart.

He tries not to think. He tries not to feel.

***

Despite the relative comfort and luxury of the train car, it is by far the worst day of travel for Bucky. He’d preferred the quiet of the country roads, the false intimacy of their covered truck. The train rockets forward and so does Bucky’s life, to an unforeseeable destination and a future with no promises.

They arrive in Rennes before the sun sets, in the middle of a city that bustles with efforts to repair and forget. Bucky wants to stay in their midst, for he bubbles with the need to do something . But, of course, they are not allowed to stay. They are not even allowed to be seen, instead hurried into yet another truck and trundled through the streets like cargo.

Bucky understands now why it has to be this way, why they are hidden away like they are not fit for other humans to look upon. He understands, but it doesn’t make it feel any less like being kicked in the ribs while he lies in a puddle of his own vomit.

Their destination tonight is an old farm house about an hour’s drive outside of the busy city center. There are no soft beds or hot baths here, only a few empty rooms. They sleep on the floor and it’s less comfortable than sleeping on dirt under canvas tents. Bucky doesn’t want to sleep. The menace of Zola is barely suppressed in daylight, and he knows that the terrors will creep into his dreams like robbers, looking to steal the minimal peace he has gathered.

He is further disturbed by the absence of the captain for a second night in a row. When Bucky dares to ask Louisa where he’s gone, she vaguely says, “ work in town ” in her broken German. Lying on a hard wooden floor, Bucky thinks wistfully of leaning into Steve’s side and looking up at the stars.

The way he sees the captain isn’t altogether healthy, Bucky knows. All the men and women who rescued him are kind, like the captain, and generous, like the captain. And yet, it is Steve who brings peace to Bucky’s troubled mind, who lifted him out of hell and carried him to safety. Bucky finds himself wanting to be close to Steve as often as he can. But their relationship is no friendship. Bucky is just one battered passenger in the ship the captain steers to safe harbor, and before long they will surely have to go their separate ways.

The knowledge is a bruise on his mind, making the wounds already present all the harder to heal.

Bucky tries to fight sleep, running from the promise of nightmares and hoping that he’ll be awake when the captain returns, but the night sinks into his bones, making them heavy and tired. The dreams take hints from his surroundings that night. The wind howling outside the farmhouse walls turns to the screams of Bucky’s bunkmates after their injections. The creaking of the building becomes the wheeze of a saw through bone as his frostbitten toes are amputated. Ephraim’s cough, coming more and more frequently, is an echo of all the men who died through gasped breaths. Like his waking mind, Bucky’s dreams are restless, shifting from place to place and leaving him unsettled. And yet, there is not enough terror in them to properly rouse him. Instead, he’s left in a fluid landscape, images and memories bleeding into one another. In some ways, it’s worse than the nightmares that caused him to scream out the night before.

When he wakes in the morning, he feels as though he hasn’t slept at all. Some time during the night Steve and Agent Carter returned, though they, too, look like they’ve had no rest. Steve’s face, especially, is drawn and tired, and his shoulders are heavy.

That morning, Morita assists Bucky and Ephraim in finding a place to pray, and then quietly stands guard as Bucky turns his body to Jerusalem and his thoughts to God. Bucky wishes that he’d been more studious, more religious. Perhaps, then, he’d know the right words and the proper prayers to say for Steve. All Bucky can offer is his earnest hope for the captain’s comfort and happiness.

After shaharit , Ephraim and Bucky rejoin the others inside the house. Thick porridge has been spooned into chipped bowls. It’s bland and boring, but easy on Bucky’s stomach and he is grateful for it.

Ephraim does not eat. He’d coughed all the way through prayers. Milly tucks him near the wood burning stove and forces a little tea into him, wrapping a thick wool blanket around his bony shoulders. Ephraim has lost what color he’d gained with steady meals and frequent sunshine. His skin is waxy, pulled tight over his bones. Milly, Morita, and Steve have a hurried conversation in the hall outside the kitchen, all of them with worried eyes and pinched expressions.

When they load onto the truck that day, Bucky makes a point of sitting beside the man. He wants to ask questions. He wants to know if Ephraim has a family, if they’d been taken to the camps together, like Bucky and his family. Guilt sits in Bucky’s stomach, making the porridge feel solid and cold.

He hadn’t asked, hadn’t bothered to get to know Ephraim or Otto. These are the only men in the world who can hope to understand what Bucky has gone through. Their dreams are haunted by the same dark figures as his own. They have shared space for months, if not years. Bucky has no way of knowing when they were brought to Dachau, when Zola picked them for his own. But in the time directly before their rescue, there’d been more bodies going out than coming in, Bucky knows that much.

And yet, he hasn’t thought once of seeking comfort from them. Even in the dark, Bucky had never raised his voice to call out to his companions. None of them had. Fear and death were the only languages that made any sort of sense there and no one wanted to speak only to add more of it to the air. He’s listened to the most vulnerable moments of men and never known their names.

It hadn’t occurred to him that he was not alone in that. It’s a sickening revelation. Bucky wants to be a good man, one who offers comfort and kindness to others even in his darkest hours. Bucky tucks his feet up onto the bench. They’re all crowded into the same truck again, so Bucky is pressed between Ephraim and Dernier. Ephraim’s body is radiating heat and shakes with his coughs. The bones of their arms press together.

Bucky doesn’t know how to begin, doesn’t know what to say.

A part of him worries it’s too late, that Ephraim is already dying and it doesn’t matter what Bucky says or does now. “You remind me of my tatti, he tells Ephraim in Yiddish.

Ephraim turns to him slowly, a smile pulling at his thin lips. His eyes are glossy with fever, but in the same language he says, “Tell me about him .”

So Bucky does.

***

Their time on the road is lined with a subtle sort of tension that makes the hairs on the back of Bucky’s neck stand up. The soldiers sit at the end of the truck, dressed in stiff, matching uniforms Bucky’s never seen them wear before. All of them are grim and their hands hover by their guns. There’s no laughter or multilingual storytelling. Even the weather is gray and dull.

But Bucky is determined. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen tonight or tomorrow or the next day. Maybe they’ll be split up, maybe he’ll never see these men again. Bucky knows better than most that you never know what tomorrow will bring.

So he talks to Otto and Ephraim, when the older man is awake, and asks about their families and their lives, about the paths that brought them to where they are now - sick, emaciated men with nothing to their name but the tortures they’ve endured.

Quiet, timid Otto speaks of his days at Munich University, where he fell in with the White Rose. Bucky listens with a sort of awe as Otto describes writing pamphlets, painstakingly copying them thousands of times over with a hand powered duplicating machine, and distributing them secretly throughout Munich. He talks about the last cold days of his freedom, of being caught in the night with his hand on a paint brush, red paint dripping on the floor like blood.

I thought I was so smart and brave,” Otto’s voice is lined with disdain. “ But I was just a child.”

You were brave - you are brave,” Amelia interrupts, abruptly reminding Bucky of their company. Those soldiers who speak German have all turned towards them and there is respect in their eyes and it burns.

Bucky did nothing brave. He stood up for no one. He could not even keep his own family safe.

Otto clasps his hands in front of him and stares at the rocking floor of the truck. “I didn’t understand, not really. How could I? I am not a Jew, or Romani. I have - I had no disability, nor am I black. I didn’t know.”

No one seems to have a response to that and the words hang heavy in the air.

***

Bucky has never been to the sea before, and despite his exhaustion there’s a frisson of excitement under his skin when he realizes what the salty, fishy taste in the air means. They do not actually get to see the ocean, though, not properly. Whoever is driving parks the truck behind a dense copse of trees and leafy bushes and there they stay until well after dark.

They eat cold meals out of cans and are hushed anytime they try to talk. Fear replaces any excitement Bucky might have felt, growing in his body like a virus. His breath comes short and quick; he keeps it shallow for fear of making too much noise. Every whoosh of wind and cracking branch becomes menacing, a soldier come to drag him back to the place of nightmares.

When it’s so dark that Bucky can’t see even a foot out of the back of the truck, the motor rumbles to life again. It seems deafening in the night air and Bucky flinches back into the hard, wood bench. They trundle down an unpaved road, Bucky’s body thrown forward with the tilt of the vehicle. As the racing of his heart starts to quiet, Bucky hears the steady beat of the waves on shore. The chilly night air whips into the truck with surprising strength.

It’s not long before they stop and this time the soldiers hop out the back, hands on guns. There’s a muffled conversation in English and then Dugan and Morita return to help them out of the truck. It’s so dark that Bucky can hardly see the other men or the nurses.

Morita beckons with a soft touch to Bucky’s elbow, coaxing him down the sloped beach. Pebbles roll underfoot and the touch turns firmer, bracing Bucky when he almost falls. They head in the direction that Bucky thinks is the sea and he shivers in the cold night air. It’s not until they’re almost upon it that Bucky sees the small wooden rowboat. The cold slips along his spine, but it’s not just the temperature that makes Bucky shiver.

He still can’t really see the water, but he can sense it, a dark abyss to his right. Panic races through his body at the thought of being on the water with just the creaky wood of this tiny boat between him and it. But he bites his lip and climbs in, lets Morita settle him on a wood bench. Bucky curls his arm around himself and shivers. His teeth start to chatter, sharp against the dull roar of the ocean.

Otto, Dernier, and Louisa join him in the boat, while the others gather around it. There’s no sign of the captain or of Ephraim. But Ephraim cannot walk - he will have to be carried down the perilous slope in the dark. And then - Bucky’s not sure how Ephraim will manage the creaky vessel. The other man had rarely sat up without something to lean against even before he started to get ill. Now, Bucky doubts the man has the strength to hold himself upright at all.

The soldiers carry heavy packs on their shoulders, two of which are packed into the bottom of the boat, while Milly fusses over he and Otto. Thick blankets are tucked around their frail shoulders. Milly speaks sharply to Morita who manages to produce two thick woolen caps from one of the packs. The hat itches against Bucky’s shorn scalp, but it takes the edge off the cold.

We’ll take this boat to a larger ship, out in the channel. We’re going to go in stages,” Dernier explains as Dugan and Morita push the tiny boat to the edge of the water. Louisa and Dernier climb in with the waves lapping at their ankles, but Dugan has to wade in to his knees before he claims the last spot. Both of the soldiers take a paddle. The boat rocks from side to side, the waves splashing up over it’s meager walls, and Bucky’s breath catches in his throat.

The further from the shore they venture, the harder it is to breathe. Only some of that is the fear that grips Bucky. It is so cold that his whole body shudders, his teeth chattering so hard he can’t get in a proper breath anyway. Bucky has been this cold before. He’s been this cold many, many times, when men held him under icy water. He can no more escape this cold than he could escape the hands of his tormentors.

In times of terror, his ribs like a vice around his lungs, Bucky’s thoughts rarely turn to God. There’s no place for God in the depths of fear, no place for anything that might feel like hope. You forget hope the moment your head dips underwater, because there is nothing but the fight for survival.

For years, there has only been the fight for survival.

But he can’t fight this tiny wooden rowboat, can’t fight the soldiers who steer him toward safety, can’t fight the dark night or the choppy waves. And there is hope, so much hope it almost strangles him with its intensity.

Hope for safety, and for peace. Hope that he might soon see his family and that they’ll be able to build a life where they are safe and, more than that, free. He wants for things now in a way he hasn’t let himself since he was a child. And with wanting there is always the chance of being denied, which never hurts any less.

God mingles in his hopes and his dreams, in the unspoken wants of his soul. As optimism blooms again in him, so too does the touch of God’s hand. It trembles in him, this taste of freedom, and he doesn’t know what to do with the frail flame of hope he cradles in his heart. It seems as though anything and everything will snuff it out.

Bucky hears the slap of water against metal long before he can see the boat. He was expecting a military ship, grand and pompous, and is surprised by the humble shipping boat that greets them. All the lights are dimmed, but Bucky’s eyes have adjusted to the faint light of the stars and moon, allowing him to see the ship in the way that it blocks the light. Dugan and Dernier steer the rowboat to the side of the ship. Ropes, attached to winches, are dropped from above and hooked to the boat. A rope ladder follows and Bucky’s stump itches fiercely. He hopes they’re not expecting him to climb that - they can’t be, he thinks. There must be some other way for them to board the boat, for there in no way Ephraim will be able to climb a ladder.

But maybe that’s why Ephraim’s not in the boat.

The thought chills him, more than the cold sea winds. He does not want to be separated from these men, does not want to think that Ephraim’s fate will be any different than his own because of his disability. Inevitably it will be, Bucky knows, for how will Ephraim work when he cannot walk? How will he live on his own?

Dugan and I will board the ship,” Dernier explains, gesturing to the ladder, “And then we will crank the boat up.” He pauses and asks if they understand or have any questions. Dugan speaks quietly in English with Louisa, perhaps explaining to her. When Louisa, Otto, and Bucky have all indicated their understanding, Dernier slowly stands up. He scrambles up the rope ladder with ease, hopping over the side of the ship and disappearing. Dugan follows at a slower rate.

The tiny boat rocks in the water and a new wave of fears breaks over Bucky’s body. It is dark and they are small. Bucky yelps at the first upward shift of the boat and the sound bounces out over the waves. Louisa shushes him, voice frantic and tight in a way that he hasn’t heard before.

There’s a reason they’re doing this in the dark, he realizes, why they hid and waited for night to fall. He tugs his blanket a little tighter around his shoulder and presses his whole arm into Otto. Otto presses back, but they dare not utter a word of comfort.

The upward journey of the boat is slow and jarring. It seems to take forever, though the ship isn’t very big. They lift suddenly in shorts bursts and then the boat rocks in the air. Bucky presses as close to the center of the bench as he can manage, sees himself falling over the edge into a dark abyss that ends with lungs full of cold water. Finally, their little boat comes even with the ship’s wall. Dugan and Dernier are there, waiting, as are a few rough looking men that Bucky hasn’t seen before. They haul the boat in closer and Dugan slowly helps each of them over the side. Louisa first and Bucky last, so that for a moment he hangs alone in the cold night air.

Dugan’s hands are warm, his arms strong as he lifts Bucky, as though he weighs no more than a child, onto the deck of the ship. The floor rocks beneath his feet and Bucky struggles to keep his balance, his right thigh cramping so painfully he gasps aloud. Dugan braces him while Louisa and Dernier help Otto find his balance. They’re hurried toward the center of the boat and then down, into its belly.

It is darker in the hold than it had been outside, no moon or stars to light the way. Navigating the stairs is all but impossible, and Bucky trips and topples his way down like a babe who’s just learned to walk. Bucky and Otto are tucked into a corner between two large, wooden boxes, like luggage. Dernier tells them to be quiet, voice grim, though Bucky cannot see his expression.

He can hear Louisa talking to Dugan, and footsteps on the stairs, and the heavy closing of the door, and then nothing at all. For a moment, Bucky feels like the entire world has vanished.

The waves crash against the hull of the ship. Otto’s breath comes quick and shallow. Bucky’s heart drums a beat against his ribs. Bucky reaches out in the dark, finding Otto’s hand and gripping it tightly. This is too like the barracks they spent years in and he must remind himself that he is not alone, not like he was then. He can feel the clammy touch of Otto’s skin, press his body into the warmth of Otto’s.

They are together in this journey.

***

Hours seem to pass in the indomitable dark of the ship, though Bucky knows it cannot possibly be that long. His thoughts race and tumble, revisiting terrors of the past and dreaming up new horrors in the future. The roll and rock of the ship makes Bucky’s stomach writhe, and he’s glad that dinner was many hours ago.

His whole body jerks, banging against the metal wall of the ship, when the door to the deck is thrown open. Heavy feet fall on the creaky steps and there’s not enough light to make anything out at all. It’s not until the figure comes close that Bucky can see that it’s the captain, Ephraim cradled in his arms. The nurses are behind him, carrying flasks of water and metal buckets.

No one talks as Ephraim is settled on the ground beside them, though the older man shakes and coughs. The noises make Bucky fear that the wehrmacht will hunt them down by the sounds of Ephraim’s illness. The nurses gather round, and their familiar presences are a comfort. The captain crouches between Otto and he for a moment. Bucky can’t make out his facial expressions, but he can see them in his mind’s eye. Steve always has a smile for Bucky, even if it’s small.

“We’re to cross the English Channel tonight. By morning we should reach England. There’s still fighting on the English Isles, but we should be able to avoid it. I’m afraid that it’s important that you stay below deck. The nurses will be here with you, but we’re going to keep the hull shut tight, to avoid suspicion.”

The words coil around Bucky’s lungs and tug, so that each breath is a little harder to pull in than the last.

“We’ll keep you safe, ” the captain promises. Bucky reaches out, needing to touch, needing to know. Steve catches his hand and gives it a little squeeze, always so gentle with him. Bucky wants to ask Steve to stay, to utter more words of reassurance.

Steve is not his friend. Steve is not his at all.

***

The crossing is horrid. All of them but Milly are sick, heaving and wheezing through the night as the boat rocks. The smell of sickness grows and Ephraim’s cough gets more ragged, his breathing weaker. When they relieve themselves, it’s in a bucket tucked behind another wooden box. Bucky can’t steady himself on the rolling floor and has to let Louisa help him.

She’s helped him before, but somehow the shame is more, knowing that Louisa feels just as ill as he does. He shouldn’t be asking this of her, not now, not here. He should be able to function on his own, leaving her free to tend to herself or to Ephraim, or even to Otto, who doesn’t seem to be able to stand at all.

Time seems to come to a standstill, and Bucky feels as though he will be ill and in the dark forever.

Slowly, light beings to filter in from the cracks above them. The rocking slows. Other sounds filter in above the noise of the waves - sailors shouting and gulls screeching, and the boat knocks up against something solid.

When the door opens, the midmorning light is so bright Bucky has to close his eyes. When he opens them, Steve is there, ready to once again help Bucky out of the dark.  They take the steps slowly, Steve bracing Bucky’s body with his. Stepping out onto the deck is a revelation - the sun on his face and the smell of the salty breeze, gulls shrieking and wheeling up above. Sailors shout to each other and water slaps the side of the boat. A rocky arm of land curls around the bay, protecting them from all that lays behind. The land is green, the water blue, and the sun warm.

Bucky breathes it in and turns to look at Steve, a wild sort of grin spreading across his face.

"You’re safe now, ” Steve says, smiling back at him. The whole world seems to radiate with promise. A new beginning dawns, spilling out into the bay, dancing on the peaking waves. Bucky, made brave by the hope he feels, throws his arms around Steve.

“Thank you ,” he whispers. Steve’s arms close tight around him, warm and gentle. Steve touches him even though Bucky smells like vomit, even though his bones are like knives, even though Bucky is an unimportant man and Steve is a hero.

“Things are going to be better from now on. I promise.” And Bucky believes the words, because they come from Steve. He can see the future spreading out in front of him, limitless.

 

Chapter Text











Chapter Text

Bucky’s hand shakes as he reads Steve’s latest letter. Agent Carter had delivered it to him this morning after shaharit. Ephraim and he pray in the shaded courtyard of the Mullion house each morning, hidden between the stone walls of the house and the dilapidated outbuilding.

He’s tucked himself into the crook of a tree’s root and a stone wall. He always read Steve’s letters here, in a place where he knows he won’t be interrupted, with the strong living wood of the tree guarding his back.

Usually Steve’s letters bring peace. He’ll read them over and over again until he’s memorised every word, and the way his l’s loop, the hurried way Steve signs his name. And at night, when the dark brings fear and loneliness, Bucky will take the letters out again and trace his fingers over the familiar ridges and grooves.

This letter brings no peace.

It feels, instead, like a goodbye.

I’m so very glad to have had the chance to know you , Steve writes. He doesn’t say I think this is the end , but Bucky reads it nonetheless. Agent Carter’s face had been grim this morning, when she pressed the letter into his hands, and told him that it would be a while before she could get another letter to Steve.

A stone lodges in Bucky’s throat and he swallows against it compulsively. Steve has to come back. There isn’t another option. Never in his life has Bucky met a man like Steve, who is so kind and brave and generous. He notices his hand crumpling the edge of the paper as it tightens into a fist, and he quickly loosens his grip. After smoothing the letter against his leg, Bucky folds it carefully and tucks it back into the envelope, using his knees to hold the envelope straight.

Winds whip through the brush and catch on the corners of the house while swallows call to each other across the morning air. Like most days in Mullion, the air is cool and damp, bringing the smells of the ocean with it, and Bucky is dressed in a too large wool sweater to protect against the chill. Most of his and Ephraim’s clothes were donated by the townspeople.

Otto’s family had brought his clothes from Munich.

Just yesterday, Bucky had helped Otto move his things to the cottage where his family has been staying, Milly finally having given her permission for Otto to leave her care. Bucky fights the bitter resentment that wants burrow into his being. He is truly glad for Otto and he also knows it’s not always easy. Otto’s family does not - cannot - understand.

It’s hard to watch, sometimes. Otto’s family look at him like they’re seeing a ghost and expectation clouds their every interaction. They forget that Otto can’t walk far. His brother hits him over the head playfully. His father wants to know when Otto will go back to university. When Otto returned to their room each night, Bucky knew the exhaustion on his face. For so long pain and fear were their only companions. For so long they were not even human beings.

It’s not always easy to remember how to be a person, let alone a brother, son, or friend.

Sighing, Bucky stands. He tucks the letter into the pocket of his oversized trousers. The day is sunny which usually means a walk down to the sea shore, but most of the inhabitants of the house are at the small church in Mullion proper. Ephraim and Bucky always stay behind, with one of the soldiers and Milly to keep them company. So when Bucky slips through the kitchen door, he’s surprised to find Agent Carter at the kitchen table. She stands when he comes in.

“Would you like to take a walk?” Bucky hesitates. The letter sits heavy in his pocket, and the memory of Agent Carter’s serious demeanor when she had handed it over is doing nothing to lighten his mood.

But he nods his consent and tucks his hand into his pocket so he can finger the paper of the envelope and feel like Steve is there with them. Often when he and Agent Carter are alone, he is expected to speak of Zola and the monstrous things Zola did to him. Her presence makes him wary now, though he knows there is more to her than painful conversations.

She always makes sure he gets his letter from Steve right away. She never makes him wait.

“Steve says your English is getting very good.”

“I hope so ,” he says, responding in German. It is always strange to speak German in this place and on these roads. Bucky is constantly aware that it is the language of the enemy for the people who live here, even for the kind-hearted teacher who helps him learn English. And yes, it’s the language of his persecutors, of the people who declared that he and his family were less than the ground you walk on. But German is also the language of his childhood - of games with his sisters and lessons from his Tatti, of good night stories from his Mama and conversations with his friends .

The language sits heavy on his tongue now, just as being German sits heavy in his heart. His neighbors and his countrymen had done nothing to prevent the terrible things that that had happened. They had pretended not to see what was happening, but it was all a lie. And now Bucky’s not sure he wants to be counted among them - he’s not sure he wants to be German anymore.

For a while, Agent Carter and he walk in quiet. The roads near the Mullion house are thin and windy, covered with gravel more often than not, and lined with low shrubbery. They’re headed out into the farmland, where great expanses of land spread out before his gaze until they suddenly drop into the cliffs that line the sea. A soft sort of peace settles into Bucky’s belly, as it always does when he walks like this. To see the world is to know that it hasn’t all been turned dark.

“Steve’s letter -, “ Agent Carter hesitates a moment. “ Did he seem alright?”

Bucky blinks, surprised by the question, and peers over at her. Most of the time, Agent Carter looks perfectly put together. Even on the road, her curls managed to be pinned into place and the lines of her uniform stayed crisp. Now, the wind has whipped strands of her dark hair across her face and Bucky sees, for the first time, that her eyes are slightly pink, like she’s been crying.

Agent Carter and Steve are friends - maybe more than friends, though Steve has never said so. They were always close on the road, lots of friendly touches and shared glances across the camp. Bucky thinks, now that he knows Steve better, that the captain doesn’t have many friends. It doesn’t make any sense, for Steve is the best man Bucky has ever known, but it seems true nonetheless.

Bucky considers this as he decides what to say. If it were anyone else, he probably wouldn’t say anything at all.

“I think he was trying to say goodbye .”

Agent Carter purses her lips. Dark eyelashes come down in two quick sweeps across her cheeks.

“Where is he going?” Bucky asks, unable to help the desperate edge to his voice. “He’s going to be alright, isn’t he?

“He’s going after Zola, ” Agent Carter admits, with nothing but the land and the sea and the wind to catch the echoes of the words. Bucky shudders, fear and remembered pain radiating from his bones. He tucks his stump across the base of his ribs and rubs his fingers over the letter in his pocket. “And the man who leads the faction Zola is a part of.

“But the other men, they’re with him, yes? He’ll have back up?”

Yes .” But the word despairs, not offering any hope at all. “ But he would die if he knew it meant the end of Zola.

A cloud covers the sun. The winds twists a shiver out of Bucky’s spine. Birdsong disappears under the rush of blood in Bucky’s brain.

“But I need him ,” Bucky admits before he knows what he’s doing.

“Yes. Me too .” Her voice is rough, like Mama’s used to get when she’d been crying all night, missing Sara and Miri.

Bucky lets go of the letter, sliding his hand out of his pocket, and takes her hand in his. It’s smaller than he would have thought, but strong when she squeezes his fingers gratefully.

They walk for a long time without saying a word.

***

Agent Carter leaves the next morning before dawn. Bucky gives her a letter for Steve, just in case.

Clouds have crowded in over night, and a slight drizzle dampens the grass and trees. Ephraim and Bucky go to their usual place to pray, but it is hard to find words or feel peace in the gray morning. Everything feels muffled, in part by the rain, but mostly by the apprehensive grief that floods Bucky’s system.

If Steve doesn’t return -

If there’s never another letter -

Bucky walks down to the cottage where Otto and his family stay. Ingrid opens the door with a sleepy smile, her light hair in a single braid down her back. She’s about the age Rivka was when they boarded the train to Terezin, Rivka’s curls pulled back with a patterned scarf, her hand clasped in their Tatti’ s.

“Good morning, ” she greets, pulling her house robe around her. Rivka’s dresses all had patches. She had a single yellow ribbon for her hair. “ Otto is not awake yet, but Mama is making coffee?

Otto’s family is kind. They are generous.

“No, thank you. I’ll come back later.

The world seems very large, the sky an oppressive weight upon its shoulders. A restless energy has settled in Bucky’s skin, demanding he do something. Picking a destination at random, he starts to walk. The gravel presses through the worn soles of his too large shoes and the chill morning air makes his breath come a little faster.

In recent weeks, Bucky has walked all of the roads in a two mile radius of the Mullion house, wandered down garden paths, and picked his way along the edge of rocky cliffs. Each day he can walk a little further and a little faster. Milly has cleared him to walk alone and Agent Carter said that Mullion was ‘secure’, meaning that Bucky is no longer shadowed by one of the American soldiers who live in the outbuilding and dwell in temporary housing on the outskirts of town.

Bucky relishes the time alone, though it also scares him. Being alone on the edges of Mullion is like being the only person alive. With only the pounding of the waves, the rush of the wind, and the distant birdsong, there is no fear of capture. It is impossible to imagine being closed in by four walls, trapped in a single bed for months, only ever seeing men who would harm you in every way they knew how. But it is also difficult to remember the close press of other bodies, an arm around your shoulder, a kind and encouraging word.

He escapes from fear in the perfect dread of being alone.

The dampness in the air presses against Bucky’s skin and the wild noises of the land make Bucky feel muddled and distant.

When Bucky had arrived in Mullion, when Steve had pulled him from the awful cabin where they’d been hidden away during the chanel crossing, Bucky had been sure that his time with Steve was coming to an end. There was no reason for Steve to stay in Bucky’s life, after all. Bucky’s just a Jew, just one of probably hundreds of people Steve has saved. Steve had done more than enough without being his friend, and Bucky had felt bad for even wanting more. Bucky had been certain that he was about to lose Steve completely.

And when Steve had been gone the next morning, that fear had seem confirmed. But then the letters started to come. Steve’s looping, graceful words spilled across pages, asking after Bucky, wondering and kind. When Bucky realized that the letters had come to him alone - not to Otto or Ephraim, not at first, not as often, the sharp inadequacy Bucky had felt in the last days of their travels began to fade. Somehow, Bucky became more than just a man the captain rescued.

It stirs an awed gratitude in the depths of his being, and on the worst days, the days where Zola’s dehumanizing torture seeps from Bucky’s pores, it is reassurance. For, Steve saw. He saw what Bucky had become under Zola’s hands, and had lifted him out of it and not pitied or judged him.

Steve listens when the whole world is deaf. Steve sees when the whole world is blind.

And then, when Steve had saved Bucky in all the ways a person could be saved, he cracked open his own heart and showed Bucky what lay within.

And now Steve is out of Bucky’s reach again, just when he’d finally felt that they were friends in the truest sense of the word.

Bucky imagines what it might be like, to be able to protect Steve the way Steve has protected him. Perhaps he’d be a Howling Commando alongside Dugan, Jones, and the rest. And when Steve went to fight Zola, Bucky would be there.

Bucky is stronger everyday, the terrifying results of Zola’s cruelty. He sees better and further, can hear more acutely, and can walk longer distances each day. Once he is truly recovered, what might he be able to do?

He would gladly give every last ounce of his strength to Steve, just to see Steve home safely.

But he can’t. There is nothing he can do except wait, wait and be here for Steve to return too.

***

The days move slowly.

Bucky wakes most mornings with the gray light of dawn, if he sleeps at all. Every night bleeds with the remnants of Zola. During the day Bucky thinks the wounds are closed and starting to scar over, and then he lays down to sleep and it’s like a blade tears him open from the inside.

Steve’s letters had been a balm, something to reach for in the middle of the night when Bucky struggled to remember where or who he was. But now every letter reminds him of the final letter. With each passing day, that letter makes him a little more angry. Steve isn’t allowed to die and he isn’t allowed to leave Bucky behind. Not now, not after everything. The whole landscape of Bucky’s new life is made strange and foreign by Steve’s absence.

During the nights, Bucky isn’t supposed to leave his bedroom. The soldiers pace through the halls and around the perimeter of the house, making the dark of night seem sinister and filled with unknown threats. Now that Otto is gone, the room feels too big and too quiet and Bucky feels tiny, like a blade of grass on the Mullion winds, unable to control his own fate.

As soon as Iris arrives, Bucky leaves the room, not to return until darkness falls. Iris is always kind and the patterns of making breakfast let Bucky’s mind relax, giving the wounds time to close again. Bucky taught Iris to make challa, and now every Friday morning she helps him braid the loaves. The first time he shyly asks her about making a meal kosher , Iris smiles and nods, and every meal after that follows the laws of kashrut . This, even though Bucky and Ephraim are the only ones in the house - maybe in the town - who follow this custom.

When sunlight starts to pour into the kitchen windows, Bucky and Ephraim go out to pray. The tailor in town made them kippot , a gesture that made them both cry. The kindness of the people here never fails to steal Bucky’s breath, simultaneously sending him to the months and years where cruelty was his only companion and to the time in his childhood before he was touched by hatred.

From the moment Iris greets him until Milly shoos him off to bed, Bucky keeps himself busy. After breakfast and shaharit, Bucky visits the doctor. Some days it is only for fifteen minutes, but others the sessions last all day. Bucky solves puzzles and answers questions and runs laps around the courtyard and the doctor takes notes in his untidy scrawl and looks at Bucky as if he is an exceptionally clever dog.

The doctor is not a bad man, but the sessions leave Bucky feeling unsettled and unhappy in his skin. Louisa and Amelia always seems to know and whisk him off to the sea side or on a walk to town. On rainy days, Amelia sometimes convinces Charlie to drive them into Mullion proper to visit the tiny library or to watch the local boys play football in the park.

Most afternoons, Richard’s teacher comes to the Mullion house and teaches Bucky and Ephraim English. She’s also helping Bucky learn the things he might have learned if he’d gotten to finish secondary school. Bucky’s always liked school. Learning new things sends sparks through his whole body, makes his mind race with possibilities rather than fears and insecurities.

Elizabeth, his teacher, says that there’s a retired maths professor in Mullion, and she’s going to ask him if he will come teach Bucky math. Bucky had never, ever thought about university. It was never an option, even before the war and the Nuremberg laws. As a child, Bucky had dreamed of designing flying cars and spaceships that would take him to the moon, but even then he had known that he would be a shopkeeper like his Tatti .

There’s no shop to keep now, and Bucky thinks his Tatti would be awfully proud if he went to university.

Steve promised he’d take Bucky to America. Maybe Bucky’s mama and sisters will come with, maybe they’ll have an apartment in New York and Steve will come to visit. Maybe it will be like people say, a land of a thousand possibilities, and Bucky will study engineering or maths or chemistry.

Maybe he really can be anything he wants to be.

Dreams of the future keep Bucky moving through the endless nights. Weeks pass with no word from Steve or Agent Carter. Once a week an SSR agent arrives late at night, speaks with the doctor and the nurses, and leaves again before breakfast.

Dread begins to settle in Bucky’s limbs, solidifying into something closer to grief. The world echoes his melancholy and rains cover Mullion for much of August, rarely letting up until all the world seems gray and sodden, and Bucky begins to forget what sunshine on the ocean looks like. The swallows and the gulls disappear. The winds howl through the house like wild things.

And then the letter arrives.

***

Dear Joshua,

I write with excellent news! I have tracked your mother and oldest sister down to a displaced persons camp in Germany. I leave today to retrieve them. I expect that we will arrive in two weeks time. Your younger sisters have been located in northern England and once your mother and sister are settled, contact will be made.

Best wishes,

Margaret Carter

P.S. I received a telegram from Steve yesterday. All is well.

***

If the passage of time was slow before, it is nothing compared to the interminable crawl they have slowed to. But the world is alight again, this time with hope and joy. Soon his family will be returned to him, which is perhaps the only thing that can make him whole again.

Bucky bubbles with energy and enthusiasm. He shows Iris how to make his sisters’ favorite foods, teaches Ingrid and Otto their favorite games, and spends hours practicing his English, just in case Miri and Sara no longer speak German. It has been six long years since he’s seen his youngest sisters, watched their worn coats and dark heads disappear onto a crowded train.

For his mama and Rivka, Bucky picks a room with big windows and finds the softest blankets in the house to pile on the beds. Each day he comes and opens the windows so that when they arrive the air will smell like the sea and the sun. He gathers wildflowers and Iris helps him find jars to use as vases. Lucy and her friends make drawings for the walls and Richard helps Bucky collect all the German books in the house to set on a shelf in their room.

Four days after Bucky gets the letter, Iris brings the women from church to the Mullion house. With them comes bundles of old clothes, all of them carefully mended and cleaned. Bucky hangs them carefully in the wardrobe and stacks them on shelves and sits on the bed and cries.

They arrive on a Friday.

Bucky’s sitting at the kitchen table, mixing batter for muffins with Lucy. She’s giggling, telling him about the paper boats her brother had made for her. Music plays softly over the radio and Iris sings along as she washes the morning dishes. The sun falls through the window, painting strips of light across the floor.

The door creaks open on rusty hinges and Bucky looks up, expecting Otto and Ingrid.

His mama’s hair is pulled back by a colorful scarf. Her cheeks are gaunt and there’s a new topography of lines on her face, each unfamiliar, each etched with the years that have passed. Her shoulders curve around her spine as though she carries a heavy burden, but her eyes are blue and bright and just as Bucky’s remembers them.

The chair topples to the ground. Bucky stumbles across the floor, tears already burning lines down his face.

“Mama.”

She catches him and clutches him close, his face tucked into the crook of her shoulder.

“Oh bubbala, oh my boy. I thought I’d never see you again, I thought they took you from me.”

“Mama .” In her arms he is a child, protected from the storm outside his window. Her embrace is as strong as it ever was, made stronger still for the wars they have fought to return to each other.

“Let me look at you, let me see you .” The last thing in the world Bucky wants is to be parted from his mother’s grasp for even a moment, but he draws back and lets her see. He wonders if the pain he has suffered is written into the planes of his face the way it is written into hers. She puts both hands on his cheeks and they are warm and weathered and callused, her thumbs sweeping tears from his face.

People look at him all the time, their eyes like insects on his skin, devouring him and judging him everywhere he goes. But his mama’s gaze is like a blanket tucked around his shoulders. Still, he tucks his stump into his body, aware of all the ways he is not quite whole, not just this most evident one. She finds it and cups the curve of his elbow, drawing it out and up. She closes her eyes and presses a kiss to the flesh, and then another, the way she’d kissed every scrape and bruise in his childhood, when she could make everything alright with her love.

“Mama, I thought they - I thought you - mama.

When she tucks him close again, he sees Rivka standing in the door. Like mama, her curls are pinned back by a scarf and she’s too thin, wearing clothes that are old and patched and don’t fit her.

“Rivka ,” he calls, throwing his good arm out wide and she collapses towards them, tears pouring down her cheeks. Bucky tightens his arms around them.

They pulled Rivka from Tatti’ s arms, on the day they reached Terezin, ripped them apart and Tatti called her name and she reached out, like a child asking to be held, and Tatti fought the guard and broke free and ran across the yard, shouting.

They won’t take you from me. They can’t have you. Rivka, my girl, they won’t take another of you from me. Rivka!

And blood spread across the snow and there was a roaring in Bucky’s head and the whole world went silent and his Tatti didn’t get up, he just lay there in the snow, and Rivka and Mama disappeared behind barbed wire, swept away by a hundred other bodies and Bucky was alone.

“My children, my beautiful, wonderful children, ” Mama whispers. “Here you are, here you are together.

Bucky doesn’t know how long they stand there, the kitchen door standing open, the crackly music of the radio, his mama and his Rivka in his arms.

“Mummy, who are they?” Lucy asks.

“That’s Bucky’s mum and his sister. He hasn’t seen them in a long time.” Iris’ voice wobbles, like she too is overcome by tears, and Bucky can imagine her stroking Lucy’s pigtails.

“Like when Daddy went to war?”

“A little like that, yes.”

“Tatti, Bucky whispers, for he has held this grief alone for so long. “Tatti’s gone, mama.

A sob cracks Rivka open, and she whispers “If he hadn’t tried - if he’d only - I’m sorry, Bucky, I’m sorry, it’s all my fault .

“No,” Bucky pulls back so he can look at Rivka’s face. She’s so beautiful, she’s always been so beautiful, and she has Tatti’s eyes. Age and wisdom have been carved into her face, a hundred pains Bucky didn’t protect her from. “It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault but the man that - the man that murdered him .

“If he hadn’t come after me - you wouldn’t have been alone. Maybe her brown eyes dart to where his stump rests on Mama’s shoulder. Grief whips through Bucky, sharp and bloody. Hasn’t he thought a hundred times, a thousand times, that if only, if only tatti had stayed with him, if only, Zola would have never laid his hands on him.

“That’s in the past. It is what it is.

Rivka shakes her head, throat working.

“Rivka, I’m alright. I’m here. I survived.

Mama trembles in his arms and Bucky remembers that they’re standing in the open door and he looks up. Agent Carter is blotting tears from her face with a lacy handkerchief, while Lucy leans back against Iris’s body.

“Thank you,” Bucky tells Agent Carter. “Thank you for finding them. Thank you.”

“I’m so glad that I could,” Agent Carter smiles through her tears.

“Bucky?” Iris interjects, and Bucky pulls back a little more from his mother and sister, though he keeps his arms wrapped around them. “Why don’t you take them to their room. Lucy and I will make some soup and sandwiches for lunch.”

“Thank you.” Other words seem to have deserted him, for a blinding gratitude pours across his brain like the sunlight on the kitchen floor. “Mama, Rivka. Come, there’s a room for you this way.

They don’t have any things, but Bucky didn’t before he came here.

“Joshua, do you know - did they tell you? If Miri and Sara… ” Mama’s voice breaks and Bucky stops so he can meet her eyes.

They’re okay. Agent Carter found them, they’re going to come here soon. They’re here, in England.

God is good, ” Mama whispers as new tears spill over her cheeks. “Oh God is good. All my children safe." She looks at Rivka and he and Bucky is struck by the moment all over again.

It’s been four years since his mama and Rivka and he were all in the same place, four years filled with blood and blades and pain like he’s never felt before, and yet somehow he has come out the other side and stands with his family again. God breathes into the moment and Bucky feels his presence in every nerve of his body. This is why he lived, this is why he was saved, so he could be here in this perfect moment.

“This is a good place, ” Bucky tells them, taking Rivka’s hand and leading them down the hall. The room he picked for them and for Sara and Miri, when they arrive, is tucked into the back corner of the house, which faces south and gets sunlight all day. “The people are kind and generous.”

“They found you,” Mama asks, “They brought you here?”

“Agent Carter did, and a group of soldiers. They’re not here right now, ” Bucky pauses, Steve’s letter pressing against his thigh, its sharp corners digging into his heart, and hurries on, “But they’ll come back. They brought me here after they saved me. There are two other men here who were with me in the camp. You’ll get to meet them later.”

“Joshua, Mama says softly. “Why? Everywhere people are looking for somewhere to go, and you have soldiers who rescued you and brought you here? ” She raises worried blue eyes to his face, already guessing, already knowing. But Bucky doesn’t know what he’s allowed to say about what Zola did to him. Even if he could tell his mama, Bucky’s not sure he’d want to. He wants to save her the pain of knowing the violence that was done to him. “Joshua, you’re safe aren’t you? You’re healthy?”

“Yes, mama, ” Bucky assures. “I promise. Come see your room. I picked the best one.

Charlie had helped Bucky oil the hinges of the door, and it swings open silently. The sun has been beaming through the open window and warmth spills into the hallway.

“Bucky, ” Rivka whispers. There are new tears rolling down her cheeks and Bucky knows. Even the room in Paris, which had been a stranger’s room that many men had passed through, had been a luxury so sharp it made him bleed.

“I picked the flowers yesterday, ” his voice trembles. He cannot bring his mama home. Tatti’ s books and Rivka’s violin and Mama’s necklaces are long lost. The blanket his bubbe made him before he was born will never lie across the foot of his bed. Tatti’s talit will never drape along broad shoulders.

This room is everything that Bucky has to offer and none of it is his. The blinding kindness of strangers knows no bounds, providing a safe haven for his family. A hundred thousand Jews are adrift, without home or shore to return too, but Bucky is blessed.

“Sara and Miri will share with you when they arrive,” he tells them as tears start to burn in his eyes once more. Mama and Rivka are both crying, and he keeps his stump tucked around his mama’s frail shoulders and his hand wrapped with Rivka’s as he leads them into the room. “There are lots of blankets. And look!”

He lets go and feels immediately dismoored. The last time he let them go he didn’t see them for four years. Panic pinches his throat closed and makes his hand curl into a fist. But they’re here, together, in this unexpected place of peace and safety and it’s going to be alright. Bucky opens up the wardrobe, steps back and away so he can see their faces. “Iris and all her friends collected clothes for you, ” he explains, watching gratitude and joy wash over their faces like a sunrise.

It is a small kind of blessing, to have things of your own when for so long you were not even allowed to own yourself.

Rivka especially had always loved to dress up. By the time she’d been old enough to go out dancing, Jews hadn’t been allowed most places. Sometimes they’d have their own parties, but that was dangerous in its own way. Instead, Rivka would dress up and Bucky would dance with her in the living room, with Tatti playing the violin and Miri and Sara twirling and giggling around the room.

“Oh. Oh Bucky, ” Rivka whispers under her breath as she moves toward the wardrobe. She runs trembling fingers over the dresses.

“This is a good place ,” he tells Rivka and his mama, at a loss for words to explain the people here and how good and kind they are. He knows what is is to be stunned by being treated as a human being and while the blinding shock of it has lessened, he thinks the quiet gratitude will never completely leave him.

“It is, Mama agrees, a familiar smile spreading across her face and making all the years and hardships disappear.


Chapter Text

The days are both easier and harder with his mama and Rivka there. They are, both of them, sick and frail, and for several days the nurses fuss over them, keeping them in bed and carefully feeding them up. They’d seen an army medic, Bucky’s mama tells him, once the camp had been liberated, but in many ways life didn’t change at all. There was nowhere for people to go, even those who were healthy enough to leave on their own two feet.

So it was that thousands of people stayed exactly where they had been, sleeping in the same wooden bunks, and eating the same thin gruel that was barely enough to sustain a child. There was no more forced labor, but the days of stillness were intolerable in their own way, for there was nothing to distract you from grief. And while the violence and vitriol of the SS guards was gone, the gaping faces of soldiers and the rough spraying with chemical and lice treatments were not something any human would want to experience.

Rivka speaks of it openly, but mama tells Bucky only that things were bad, but they’re better now. Mama has always been stubborn though, never letting anyone see her suffer. Even in the weeks and months after Sara and Miri left them, and as conditions worsened every day, Mama had hidden her tears in the dark of night and always had a smile for Bucky and Rivka in the morning.

All of it makes Bucky grateful for the kindness and respect he received from Steve, the Howling Commandos, the nurses, and the SSR. Their hands were always gentle, and they always asked permission.

It is difficult to know that not all Jews have been so lucky, for he is no more deserving of good treatment than any of his fellows. Bucky adds a wordless wish to his morning prayers, a desire to see every Jew in a place they can call home, safe from the cruelty that has cut into his people and tried to destroy them. It doesn’t feel like enough. It itches, somewhere deep inside, to live in peace and comfort while others suffer.

While he can do little for the hundreds of thousands of Jews displaced from their homes, wandering like ghosts over the land, Bucky can offer some of the peace and happiness he has found to his family.

Bucky tries to make the Mullion house a welcoming place for them. He wants them to settle into this good place, wants them to feel safe and well and protected, the way that he does. It’s difficult, though. Mama and Rivka don’t speak any English. Bucky tries to teach them, but he gets frustrated and confused. His teacher tries to help too, but Rivka doesn’t really want to learn English, and though Mama tries, it’s hard for her to wrap her tongue around the strange language.

Mama and Ephraim become friends and spend long hours speaking in Yiddish about their childhoods and raising children in Germany. Bucky likes to listen from just outside the door. He’ll lean against the wall and close his eyes and it’s almost like being back in his bedroom, Mama and Tatti ’s voice mingling with the sounds of Frankfurt Am Main in the night.

Of course, it’s not Tatti.

Mama joins Ephraim and Bucky in the morning for prayers. It’s not traditional, but there’s little room for tradition in their lives, and it is a kindness to pray with other Jews, no matter their gender.

Rivka refuses. She is angry. She says there is no God who could let this happen - not to His people, not to any people.

Bucky doesn’t understand, not really. For while anger and fear dwell in him, they have not carved out a space and called it home. He thinks that anger runs deep in Rivka’s veins, now, and he doesn’t know how to help her purge it. There is too much anger in the world and its violence has ripped Bucky’s life apart. He doesn’t want to see it in his sister.

There had been a time when Bucky was angry. In the first months without Tatti , first at Mauthausen and then in Zola’s cruel clutches. But as hope dwindled and was doused, the anger disappeared too. Perhaps anger is the way that Rivka hoped. But it is different now, and he wants for her to feel the sun on her face and the sea wind in her hair and know that she is alive and safe. He wants her to feel joy again.

As Mama’s and Ephraim’s friendship grows, Bucky thinks that maybe Rivka needs a friend too. He introduces her to Amelia and Louisa, who are always kind and cheerful, but Rivka distrusts them and she gets cold and angry when Bucky brings them to see her.

Mama tells him later that the guards at Ravensbruk were women, that some of them were supposed to be nurses, and under their care wounds turned gangrenous and illnesses festered in one’s lungs until one morning the injured just didn’t get up.

“But they’re not like that, Mama. Amelia and Louisa are kind. They’re good nurses.”

“Oh bubbala,” Mama says fondly, stroking back his hair. Bucky closes his eyes and feels her fingers brush against his skin, a sensation that has always meant love and safety. “You have always been so kind, always seen the world with bright eyes. It is not so easy for Rivka.”

“ I just want for her to be happy,” Bucky tells his mama. “I want her to know that there are good people in the world.”

She will. She needs time.” Mama pulls him closer and he rests his head on her chest. She continues to comb his hair with her fingers, a steady rhythm that pulses like the waves on the sea he has only just discovered and begun to love.

So many good things have happened to him since he left Dachau - wondrous, amazing things that light up his life with possibility. Perhaps, if Steve were here, he’d know the right words to say to Rivka. He’s listen to her, his head cocked and his body quiet, all of his attention on her. Perhaps that would help.

But Steve’s not here.

Steve is far away and is probably in tremendous danger and he may never come back to this place.

“What is it bubbala? What worries you?” Bucky hesitates, not sure how to express his worries about Steve, even less sure of how to explain exactly who Steve is to him.

“Nothing mama, I just want you and Rivka to be happy here.”

“I am happy,” Mama insists, patting his cheek. “And Rivka will get there, don’t you worry.

He lets himself believe her.

***

A week after Mama and Rivka arrive, Agent Carter returns to Mullion, this time with Ephraim’s son. When she arrives, Agent Carter and Milly take him into the room where Ephraim is resting. They don’t come out for a long time. When they do, all of their eyes are red and a familiar, devastating grief weighs Ephraim’s shoulders, even as he introduces them to his son.

Ephraim has two sons, Bucky remembers. Two sons, and a wife.

Lieb is fifteen, like Miri is now, and he looks like his father. He is tall and strong with Ephraim’s long, arched nose. He’s given the spare bed in the room Otto and Bucky used to share, and Bucky does his best to make him feel welcome.

It is hard to see Lieb settle into life at the Mullion house, though. He is easy in a way that Bucky recognizes and desperately wants for Rivka. Lieb gets along well with Otto and his siblings, and he makes the nurses smile. He and Richard become fast friends, and soon Lieb is spending many days a week out with Richard and his friends.

Life returns to them all in turn as families are reconnected and friendships created, as the terror and hatred of the last seven years starts to lift. It is like the color is coming back into the world again and everything is a little more vibrant. The feeling overflows in Bucky and he finds himself smiling more and more, thinking of the future with optimism and excitement.

All of this makes the dark nights even harder to bear. Zola still creeps into the Mullion house as windows cast strange moonshadows and dark corners come alive with monsters. Bucky’s dreams drip with blood. While he rarely wakes screaming anymore, sleep is a constant battle.

Some nights, Bucky doesn’t even try. He sits in the kitchen, listening to the house get quieter and quieter as people say their goodnights and go to sleep. The wind howls outside and cold seems to sink into the bones of the house. Bucky wraps his arms around himself and shivers and doesn’t think about Steve.

If he were a little boy, he could wake his mama when the terrors came. But his mama faces her own demons and he won’t add to them. He doesn’t want her to know the things that haunt him, the tremendous scope of human cruelty that has been carved into the marrow of his bones.

There is no one here he can tell. The nurses are kind and while they know - they saw what was done to him -, their sympathy and horror is too much to bear. To tell Otto and Ephraim is to remind them of their own experiences, which he will not do to them. Rivka is out of the question. And for all their kindness and generosity, the others cannot understand. They did not see and he will not force the knowledge upon them.

If Steve were here…

But Steve’s not here.

***

Not a week after Lieb’s arrival, Agent Carter returns again.

It’s a beautiful day and the sun warms Bucky’s cheeks as he sits outside the kitchen door. The stone behind his back is cool and solid, and the wind has stopped blowing. Rivka sits beside him, wearing a dress the color of the sky and reading. A little smile pulls at her lips and the slope of her shoulders is relaxed. Mama and Iris are inside, making shabbas dinner. They communicate in a mix of German and English but mostly, Bucky thinks, in some universal language of mothers.

Bucky hadn’t slept the night before, but the sun is making him pleasantly sleepy, and with his family near and in the brightness of the day, he thinks he might be able to sleep, just for a little bit. It is impossible for Zola to exist on a brilliant summer day, with the squall of traveling gulls and the mellower song of the swallows that nest in the eaves of the roof filling the air.

Just as he’s closing his eyes and letting his body relax back into the reassuring constancy of the wall, Bucky hears the rumble of a truck. He opens his eyes, moving to get up.

“What is it? ” Rivka asks, shading her eyes as she looks up at him.

“I hear the truck ,” Bucky tells her. She cocks her head, listening intently, and frowns at him. She can’t hear it, Bucky thinks, and he shivers a little. A sensation like ice on his skin creeps down Bucky’s spine. This is another thing that is different now, he thinks, another way that Zola has perverted Bucky’s humanity. He’s not sure what to say to Rivka to explain, knowing inherently that he shouldn’t say anything to anyone about the experiments Zola carried out on Otto, Ephraim, and him. Luckily, the truck is moving quickly towards them, and it is soon audible to Rivka as well.

Her body goes rigid and the pleasant openness of her face closes off and Bucky wants to hold her, he wants her to be a little girl again, who he can protect from all the evils of the world.

The truck rounds the bend and stops on the the dirt and gravel road that leads to the Mullion house. Agent Carter hops out of the front of the cab. She catches sight of him and waves, a gentle wind tousling her curls.

One of the back doors open and a girl steps out. Her brown hair is cropped to her shoulders and the dress she wears is a little too big. She holds a battered suitcase in one hand and a familiar notebook in the other.

Bucky is running before he knows what he’s doing, his feet eating up the distance a little too quickly.

Sara drops her things and meets his embrace, crying. “ Bucky! Brother! ” Bucky twirls around with Sara clutched in his good arm, overcome with joy. He presses kisses into her hair, which smells sweet and clean. Putting her down, Bucky pulls back so that he can see her properly. Her cheeks are round and pink.

She’s healthy. She’s happy. She’s here.

Miri slides out of the truck. She stands there, perfectly still, for a moment. Rivka reaches them, tears already spilling down her cheeks and she pulls Miri into a hug.

Miri is taller than Rivka now.

Bucky stumbles toward them and pulls all of his sisters into his arms for the first time in six long years.

Miri is tucked under Bucky’s stump and when it rests along her back she frowns a little and turns to look at it. Her face goes horrified, jaw dropping open.  

“Bucky! What happened to your arm?”

It’s strange to hear her speak English, even though Bucky’s been preparing himself for it since he reached the Mullion house. Her accent is almost all the way gone and a pang of loss shoots through Bucky. He’s missed so much of her and Sara’s lives. How will they ever make up for the time lost?

“Bucky!” Miri says again, voice distressed. Now Sara is staring at his arm too and Bucky wants to tuck his stump behind his back, hide it completely from view. But there’s no hiding it. His wrist and hand are never coming back. They’re gone forever and he’s going to have to figure out something to tell people. Mama and Rivka haven’t asked, but they know . Not everything, not the extent of what he suffered. But he’s sure they can imagine an injury never treated, a wound turned gangrenous, a limb lost to lack of care.

He lets them think that’s all it was.

But Miri and Sara don’t know, he realizes. It sends a thrill through him, to know that his youngest sisters have been protected, that they cannot imagine the realities that the rest of their family faced.

Just an injury, ” Bucky says, trying to keep his tone calm. Sara had greeted him in German, so he hopes that she and Miri still speak it. He knows how it would hurt Mama and Rivka, not to be able to speak to them.

“But your arm!” Miri returns in the same language, and Bucky sighs a breath of relief. The words are a little slow, like it’s taking her a minute to remember them, but it’s enough to be getting on with.

“It’s alright,” he reassures, “ I still have my health, and that is all that matters.”

She frowns up at him, her brown eyes a little stormy.

“Bucky,” Sara interrupts before the conversation can go any further. She’s still slight and slim, as she always had been, and she stays tucked under his good arm. “ Where’s Mama and Tatti?

Bucky’s whole body goes rigid.

How could he have forgotten? How could he not have thought of this?

When Sara and Miri left them,Tatti was whole and healthy, as strong as an ox, just as he’s always been. He’d kissed them goodbye and murmured blessings with his large hand cupping their dark heads. He’d been tall and solid in the crowd, and when Sara had turned around as she stepped onto the train,  hair blowing across her face, Tatti had waved goodbye.

Bucky doesn’t know what to say. How does he tell them this? How does he explain that their father, the protector and champion of their childhoods, is gone? There are no right words, no touch or attitude to make this okay.

“Bucky? ” Sara’s voice rises, trembling. Miri has gone still, long arms tucked around her ribs.

“Tatti’s gone. ” Rivka says. Her voice is even, though tears of grief join the tears of joy on her face.

“No!” Miri screams, stumbling backwards, away from them. She shakes her head, dark braids whipping through the air. “No! He’s not! He can’t be - he can’t!”

Sara is crying in Bucky’s arms, the broken hearted sobs that Bucky never allowed himself. He can’t let her go and yet, he wants to go to Miri. He wants to make this okay, somehow. They are together, but they are not whole, and the empty places ache all the more for the completion of the rest of their parts.

Rivka strides toward Miri and calmly wraps her arms around Miri’s shoulders. Miri struggles, but Rivka is strong and stubborn and won’t let go. The struggles turn to sobs and Miri collapses into Rivka, body shuddering with grief.

“Tatti!” Miri screams. “No, no. Please. Tatti!

The cries spread out across the low hills and dense brush of Mullion, settling into the craggy stones of the courtyard, finding the quiet place where Bucky likes to pray, sweeping up toward the cloudless sky. Even the birds seem to fall silent in the wake of Miri’s grief.

The kitchen door bangs open and Mama is running towards them. Her headscarf has come untied and flies behind her like the tail of a kite. She walks with a limp, now, and the hitching of her steps slows her down. But there is no pain in the world, no infirmity, no force, that could keep her from reaching them now, Bucky thinks.

“Mama!” Sara gasps, letting go of Bucky and running to meet her. A coal lodges in Bucky’s throat and his eyes burn. Sara’s head still fits under mama’s chin, even though her body has already started to turn into that of a woman’s. Rivka herds Miri towards mama and they all tumble together into a jumble of limbs and love and cries and a joy so tremendous it rips into Bucky’s body and cracks him open.

This is his family. They are here and they are together and they are safe, and that is all that matters in the world.

***

Mama insists on feeding Miri and Sara as soon as the first tremendous wave of emotion passes over them. They’re both so obviously healthy, not in need of feeding up like Bucky had been, like Mama and Rivka and Lieb had been. Though the dresses they wear are patched and ill-fitting, the patches have been sewn with obvious care.

Bucky shows them where they can put their things, in the room they will share with Mama and Rivka. There is no joy at being given a bed, no crippling gratitude at the discovery of clothes in their cupboards. They expect to be safe, to sleep on beds, to be fed, and treated with kindness. Bucky has to hide in the washroom for a moment and cry, offer a prayer of deepest thanks.

Over lunch Sara and Miri tell them about the family they stayed with, an elderly doctor and his wife, in their home in Thetford. They had to take a car and a train to get there, Miri says, and they were the only children who had come on the transport who lived there. Frank and Elizabeth, the couple that took them, had three grown sons of their own, but they were all fighting in the war.

Mama wants to know if they were kind. Rivka wants to know about school and the other children. Bucky can only look at them and wonder at their luck, to be here, together, when so many families have been ripped asunder. Was it God’s hand that kept his family safe? Bucky doesn’t know, for to give credit to God is also to blame Him for the loss of Ephraim’s wife and younger son.

Maybe it is merely chance. Maybe they had all just fallen through the crack of Hitler’s iron grip, or wedged between the grooves of his boot as he tried to smash their people into the ground. It matters not, in the end, Bucky decides. For here they are, together again, safe and well.

Bucky, Rivka, Miri, and Sara sit together around the table, eating their Mama’s kugel once more. It is a scene from a hundred of his childhood memories, but this time is distinct, for there are new spaces between them, the shapes of their relationships changed by the years they have spent apart. Miri and Sara lean into each other as they speak, creating a triangle of space between their bodies that Bucky cannot recognize. They were always close, being only two years apart in age, but as children they often fought. Miri, loud and mischievous, was easily frustrated by the quiet, dreamy Sara, who, in turn, could rarely keep up with Miri’s quick wit.

For all that Rivka is six years older than Miri, they two were always more alike than Bucky or Sara. And Bucky had always had a special place in his heart for his sweet Sara, who liked to sit next to him in the windowsill while he read his stories aloud.

Now, Miri and Sara speak in tandem of the years they spent together. Miri speaks of the struggles of learning to speak English, while Sara tells of their difficulties making friends. For all that they were saved the pains of Germany after Kristallnacht , they have not been spared the horrors of war. There were nights spent huddled in air raid shelters, and Miri tells of watching tanks and ammunition loaded onto trains with other children from her class. They were lonely, and isolated from their people, forced to live as goyim , even as their people suffered.

Still, Bucky is glad and he can see that gladness echoed in the slope of his Mama’s shoulders, and the lilt of Rivka’s smile. Sara speaks of the ancient buildings in Thetford with a wonder in her eyes that has not diminished since her childhood, and Miri tells them of her mathematics teacher, who told her she should go to university one day.

Where will we go after this? ” Sara asks as she helps Rivka gather up the dishes. Mama freezes, looking stricken. She has not thought of it, Bucky knows, for he barely thinks of it himself. There is so much unknown in the future, a tremendous gaping wound where the surety of life in Frankfurt Am Main had once carried.

Steve had offered to take Bucky to New York with him, once. But Bucky doesn’t know if that promise was made in earnest or if it included Bucky’s family. More than that, Bucky thinks that Steve no longer plans to return from the war.

It puts a pit of grief in Bucky’s throat every time he thinks about it, so he does not think about it. But now, suddenly, it makes him angry.

Steve came into his life at the very lowest moment, when his humanity had been taken from him, carved from his bones with a blade made of hate. And Steve became his friend. Not only is Steve the person who lifted him out of the darkest depths of his despair, he also saw Bucky cracked open and opened himself in return. He did not spit on Bucky’s vulnerability, but made himself vulnerable too, so they could be equals.

Bucky has never had a friend like Steve, not even in the days before the war, not even as a child. Bucky has never known a man so profoundly kind and strong and good as Steve, and is still awed and thrilled by Steve’s trust in him.

But Steve gave himself to Bucky, in this small way, in a series of letters where they allowed themselves to bleed onto the pages, and now Steve was taking himself away. Bucky has had too much taken away from him and he wants to hold on to all he has now with a grip of steel, wants to clutch it and carry it with him all his days.

More than that, though, more than Bucky’s grief and wanting, more than the importance of their friendship, is that Steve has no right to give up. This is not the moment where you set down your shield and allow yourself to be hurt, even if your muscles tremble and your vision fades. There is good in the world, so much good, and so much still left to discover. Steve doesn’t get to give up, not when the future brims with possibility.

We will go wherever we want,"  Bucky says, grabbing his mama’s hand and squeezing. “There is nowhere we cannot go.

***

There is a worried ache now, too, for all his strong words about the future. Belief is one thing, but they cannot stay here forever. Bucky resolves to ask Agent Carter on her next visit - she left only hours after bringing Miri and Sara, after receiving a radio transmission that left her worried and tense.

There hadn’t been time to ask, but Bucky thinks he knows it was about Steve. Worry becomes Bucky’s constant companion, an itch between his shoulder blades and a tremble in his hands. He waits for a visit or a letter which brings news of Steve’s death. He waits for the notice that Bucky and his family must leave the Mullion house. And if that news comes before the first, will anyone even think to tell Bucky? He hopes that Agent Carter would let him know, but perhaps after they leave the protection of the SSR she won’t think it important.

Dread sits heavy in his bones and Bucky throws himself into taking care of his family and settling them into life after the war. Miri and Sara fall easily into the patterns of the Mullion house, and it makes Bucky smile to see.

Miri and Lieb strike up an easy friendship, and soon Miri joins him on his trips around Mullion with Richard and his friends. It makes mama nervous, each time Miri leaves the house, but Bucky knows she is glad that Miri is happy, that Miri can so easily find peace.

Sara has always had a harder time making friends, but she gets on well with the nurses, especially Louisa, even though Louisa is so much older. Sara likes to stay close to them, too, does not like for mama or Rivka or Bucky to be out of her sight for too long. Bucky and Sara spend long hours walking around Mullion, through the low hills and along the cliffs that line the sea. Like Bucky, Sara is happy to spend all day sitting on the beach reading and delights in playing in the water on warmer days.

It fills Bucky with a new, steady kind of peace, to see Sara smile and laugh, blue eyes dancing, to see Miri’s ease with people and dedicated happiness. Even Rivka starts to relax, now that they are all together again. She spends time with Sara and Louisa, and even begins to have long, wandering conversations with Amelia.

Miri and Sara have missed much that they should have had over the years. They have forgotten much of their yiddish, which is hard for Mama. They have not kept kosher or observed shabbas since they left on the kindertransport. While many Jewish girls still do not have b’not mitzvah , Rivka has one when she was twelve, and Tatti and mama had planned for the younger girls to celebrate one too. Bucky doesn’t ask, but he’s not sure they would want one now. Miri and Sara had both been too young to come to shul all that often, and had not prayed formally during their six years in Thetford. They show little interest, now, in coming to pray with Ephraim, Lieb, Mama, and him, though they are invited with open arms.

It hurts Mama somewhere deep inside, Bucky knows, though she does not say as much. But he can tell from the way she watches them, the loss and longing in her eyes familiar to Bucky in a way that he does not want to admit to. There is world of gratitude inside him for all the ways his sisters survived, for all the ways they were protected from the cruel hand of war.

But Miri and Sara have spent almost half their lives, now, living as British children do. They speak and act like Richard and his friends, only a soft lingering touch of German in their voices. Bucky cannot help thinking that this is just one more way Hitler has eradicated the Jews. Miri and Sara’s Judaism has been scraped out of them by the gentle hands of their foster parents, who did not let them speak yiddish in the house, who took them to church each Sunday, and fed them bacon each morning for breakfast.

Miri and Sara had not been told that their Judaism made them inhuman, that the way that Miri’s nose was crooked or the thick curl of their hair marked them as unlovable. But neither had they been accepted, encourage to celebrate their heritage and culture, told that they were Jews and they were perfect.

Mama, Rivka, and Bucky did not survive with their bodies and soul intact, they did not survive without religious doubts, but they are Jews, and were prepared to be Jews until the bitter, bloody end. It is a different kind of war, Bucky thinks, when people you care for gently and insistently rub away all that you were before. Perhaps that kind of war is harder to fight, when your enemy is your guardians and your friends and your teachers.

Bucky wonders how many Jewish children disappeared and were recreated as secular, British children. How many forgot the languages of their mothers and fathers, how many spent so many days in church that they forgot the glow of the ner tamid, forgot the sound of the gentle swish of taleisim and the gentle pulse of many bodies praying.

The question comes to him in the middle of the dark night, in the midst of another desperate attempt to avoid the tortures that plague his dreams. Bucky gets up from bed, quietly, so he does not wake Lieb. The notebook Milly gave him lies untouched in the wardrobe, but he knows exactly where to find it. There’s a pencil lying on top of it and he takes both objects to the windowsill, where the light of the moon dances teasingly.

My earliest memory is of being held in my tatti’s arms, watching my mama bring the light of the shabbas candles to her face. Her dark hair is covered in a lace lined scarf that hard times will take from us all too soon. She prepares for the dark, and she is beautiful.

***

Two weeks pass. With his family here, the Mullion house feels more like home than any place has in a long time. But as his sisters and his mama settle in and friendships begin to blossom, Bucky’s thoughts turn to Steve. Ever increasing anxiety stalks his steps, making it hard to feel the joy and love of having his family close.

Rosh Hashanah approaches, and Bucky, Mama, Lieb and Ephraim make plans together. It is their first New Year as free Jews in a great many years, and even more than any year past, it is a new beginning to be marked with care. For while there is much to be mourned, there is still much to look forward to, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seem to mark the end of one chapter of their lives, a time to put away the pains of the past years and to plan for the future.

Even Rivka, Miri, and Sara get caught up in the soft fervor that takes over them. And in the way that they have always been kind, everyone in the Mullion house joins in. Louisa and Iris hover in the kitchen, learning to braid the round challot . Amelia and Rivka travel into town to gather apples and honey, bring back an orange to eat as their new fruit. Bucky and Ephraim debate whether, in the absence of a river, the ocean will serve for taslich .

On the day, before sundown comes and sweeps the New Year into being, the kitchen smells sweet with lekach and tayglach , and the Mullion house is bustling with people. Iris’ entire family has come, and brought their friends with them. The soldiers who guard them play games with the little ones in the courtyard. Otto’s family gathers in the living room, before dispersing and finding a place in the movement of people. Conversations float between languages, drifting out the open windows, and spilling into empty rooms.

Someone brings a violin and Rivka is entreated to play. Milly reveals a recorder and quickly picks up the familiar tunes of Bucky’s youth. Bucky dances with his mama and his sisters and a sweet sort of joy flows over his bones, making pain and fear seem distant and unimportant.

This is what Bucky survived for. For the moments that are so full of love and happiness that every second feels like a blessing from God.

He wishes Steve were there, to share in it with him, so that Bucky could show him how much good is still left in the world, let him see the exultation that can be created by human hands.

Agent Carter arrives in the middle of dinner, bearing a tiny carton of dates that she will not reveal how she managed to obtain, and an expression that makes Bucky drop his bowl, a rush of fear and grief roaring through his body. No one else seems to notice that Bucky’s world has gone still.

Everything vibrates with perfect clarity as Bucky steps out into the cool evening air. His lips taste like honey and the piercing shout of the horn they used as a shofar seems to ring in his ears.

“Steve -” Agent Carter says, her voice trembling so slightly that Bucky’s not sure he’s imagining it, “Steve took a plane down. It was carrying bombs. It was headed for New York. He - he had to…”

It is very cold. Bucky looks up, blinking against the burning in his eyes. There is only a sliver of moon in the sky, the new moon having indicated the beginning of the month and the beginning of the year. The stars are bright, in its absence.

“We’re still looking,” Agent Carter presses her lips together and lifts her chin, looking at him with a wild sort of hope. “People are looking for the plane. We might still - he might still -.”

Bucky nods, but says nothing at all.

They stand there in the cold dark for a long time.

***

Bucky doesn’t say anything to his family. He wouldn’t know what to say if he did. He does not know how to explain what Steve is to him - so much more than the man who saved him, but not so easy as calling him his friend, either. The tether between them is more complicated than any friendship he has ever known.

How can he explain the way Steve made him believe he could be happy again? How can he explain the heady rush of being trusted to carry Steve’s burdens? There are no words for how Bucky feels, no words for the ripping, bloody pain that he carries in his chest.

Mama and Rivka notice, he knows, but they are not in the habit of discussing the hurts they carry with them. They could speak forever of the pain they have endured, and never get to speak of the happy things at all. Perhaps he could speak to Ephraim and Otto, who might be able to understand some of his grief. They know Steve, they were saved by Steve.

But it’s different for Bucky, he knows it is.

The only person in the world that Bucky would want to share this with is Steve. In his absence, the only imaginable alternative is Agent Carter, who left mere hours after her announcement, gone to search for Steve’s body in the ice of the arctic.

So Bucky says nothing. He goes through the motions, but feels like a shell of a person. When he prays, he cannot find God. When he studies with his tutor, he cannot find words. When he walks through the grassy hills of Mullion, he cannot hear the swallows sing.

***

Six interminable days after, Yom Kippur quickly approaching, a helicopter lands in the outskirts of Mullion, just as Miri and Sara are returning from the small school house in town with a group of friends. All of the children stop and stare, pointing and yelling. They crowd into the kitchen where Iris and Bucky’s mama have made an afternoon snack, cream tea cakes and rugelach sitting mixed together on china plates.

The children share all sorts of fantastical imaginings about the helicopter and its passengers, but the soldiers hurry them all inside, expression serious. A duo of soldiers hurry into the truck, guns slung over their shoulders. A buzzing sort of anxiety reverberates between the adults. An excuse is found to keep the children indoors, despite the clear skies and warm sun.

Bucky has been emptied out, and with a sudden certain dread, Bucky is sure that it is Zola come to take him back. Zola will see Bucky’s family, they will all be mice in a laboratory, just when Bucky though they had escaped, just when their humanity has been returned to them. Bucky finds Ephraim, an echoed expression of primal fear in his eyes.

Before they can speak words of fear or determine a course of action, the door to the kitchen opens. Lieutenant Falsworth stands in the doorway and Bucky’s breath catches in his throat. He did not think he would ever see these men again, the ones who carried him to safety.

The lieutenant is smiling as he clears the room, which makes hope break loose in Bucky’s heart. Despite Agent Carter’s ending words, Bucky had not let himself believe that maybe Steve was alright, knowing that he would not be able to bear the pain of loss a second time. The Howling Commandos respect their captain, but they also joke with him and tease him, and Bucky knows that his loss would have incapacitated them just as it did him. To see Lieutenant Falsworth smiling and politely introducing himself to the women and children is to strike flint and see a spark light.

Bucky goes to leave, just behind Lieb pushing his father’s wheelchair, but Lieutenant Falsworth stops him with a hand on his arm.

Wait ,” he says in German, still smiling. “Peggy said you’d want to see him.”

“Him?”  Bucky’s voice breaks, still not daring to think, maybe, just maybe…

“Steve.

The Lieutenant steps away and opens the kitchen door a little wider. And yes, there’s Steve, laid out on a stretcher. His skin is pale and his lips have a bluish tinge that makes Bucky want to scream, but his chest rises and falls steadily and Agent Carter walks quickly beside him, holding his hand.

She, too, is smiling. Bucky’s heart reaches up, like a flower towards the sun, and his own lips lift. Something waits in his chest, making him breathless. It is a small, winged, thing which beats the air in a rhythm that matches the drum of Bucky’s heart.

They put Steve in Bucky’s bed at his insistence. Bucky watches as they tuck the familiar blankets around Steve’s still form. Dugan opens the window, letting sunlight and sea air trickle in. Falsworth goes to fetch Milly and the doctor while Morita takes Steve’s pulse. Bucky fixes himself in the corner and does not move and does not get in the way. After she speaks with Milly, Agent Carter joins him. Without a word, she takes his hand. Bucky tightens her fingers around her dainty hand in a gentle squeeze and she squeezes strongly back.

Together, they watch as the doctor and Milly hook up an IV, pull back Steve’s eyelids to shine light in his eyes, take his temperature and blood pressure. Once, it was Steve who kept watch as people touched Bucky, as they attempted to cure ills they couldn’t see.

Once the doctors and nurses have finished, they all gather in another room, probably to discuss things Bucky’s not supposed to know about. Agent Carter has to go with them, so she gives his hand a final squeeze. “Sit with him, I don’t want him to wake alone.”

And so Bucky does.

He does for three days, barely leaving to use the wash room or eat a little food. He prays in the room, as the sun rises outside the window.  Mama comes frequently, already having decided that Steve is one of hers, bringing Bucky food and water, new books which he reads aloud to the still and quiet Steve. Bucky sleeps in Lieb’s bed at night, although he’s not sure where Lieb is sleeping now. The only time Bucky leaves willingly is when the nurses come to deal with Steve’s more private needs. Steve has always been careful to give Bucky his dignity, and Bucky is glad to have the chance to return the favor.

Steve has frequent visitors. Otto and Ephraim come several times each day. The Howling Commandos are in and out, though Falsworth and Agent Carter are called back to London on the second day. Miri and Sara come in after school and sit on the spare bed and don’t ask Bucky any questions, just do their homework in silence. Once, Rivka sits and plays a slow tune on her borrowed violin, fingering a melody that lingers long after she’s finished.

On the evening of the third day, Bucky sits alone, his knees tucked to his chest. He holds Steve’s hand. He’s just finished Doctor Dolittle, and it sits on the bedside table with Bucky’s half full plate from lunch.

Steve’s fingers twitch.

His eyes blink open, eyebrows drawing down. He turns his head, blinks, and smiles.

Outside, the swallows sing.

fin.