When you look down
what is there?
You are a walking bag of surgical instruments
shining from the inside out
and that's just
Tomorrow it could be different
When I think of the childhood inside me I think of sunlight dying on a windowsill
The voices of my friends
in the sunlight
All of us running around
--from “Nervous System,” Michael Dickman
PART I: ABYSS
Although you do not remember it you were born in the slick hot July heat, the hazy yellow light of the morning that will never again touch these antiseptic fluorescent hospitals; you were born screaming as your mother stared out at the sky and the tops of buildings, stared out at the city and felt life finally sliding out of her, a pain, a void, something like ecstasy, in those years before everything, before depression and war come again and the slow building up and breaking down of your country. You were born in the hot warm death days of the last war and thrown head-first into a new one, and you did not die in the ice but you will die in the water: finally, finally, you will die in the water, after all this time, as you should have, as was owed to you; you will die, like he did, after a fall.
When did your life become violence? It was not the war that it did it to you, not exactly; it was the back alleys of Brooklyn, strapping boys crushing their fists into your solar plexus, snapping your head back, your ears ringing, eyes out of focus as blood slid down your chin. When you were a child you did not understand what it was about you that made them want to do that to you – you did not understand, you could not; you used to curl up next to your mother, coughing, sickly, and unbeknownst to you she would look down at you, at your ribs standing out starkly through your shirt, you, her boy, her only child, and tell you, hand running through your hair, that you were small, and nasty boys liked to beat up small children. It was nothing to do with you, she used to tell you, and you never quite believed her – but you wished you were bigger, wished that you were not fragile, and sick, and that when you started getting angry, and hitting back, that they did not just laugh, and bat you away, and hit you harder.
You did not want violence but violence was in you, and soon enough he was there – Bucky, Bucky, always taller, smugger, with a swagger even as a ten-year-old, his thick dark fall of hair and his increasingly whipcord-strong body – to hit back for you, if you could not do it yourself. Bucky was violence, too, and he was better at it than you were; he used to get dragged off by the teachers, bloody around the mouth and knuckles, grinning at you like a freak, until everybody was terrified of him, and stopped coming after you out of fear. You didn’t like it, didn’t like being under somebody else’s shadow, except that when you were not at school Bucky did not swagger, just chattered at you, eyes bright, and followed you home, or dragged you back to his place, tucked away behind the couch, your legs kicked out in front of you, his longer than yours, always.
Bucky knew all the stories about the Napoleonic Wars because he had some old beat-up book his father had got him somewhere, secondhand, and still kept his box of toy soldiers under his bed when he was twelve, thirteen, even though he thought they were too trivial, but in spite of all of this Bucky – the Bucky you knew, by yourself, when he was not grabbing people by the collar and slamming his fist into their jaws so hard that it looked like he had dislocated them, when he was not covered in blood – was not violence. Bucky was warm and solid and a bright spark, funny, loyal; Bucky was the only thing you had, except your mother. And when you were sick, and your mother had to leave your bedside to go to work, Bucky would come, after school, and sit with you in the chair that she had vacated, kick his heels up on the blankets and tell you everything about what had happened over the course of the day, and even through your illness you could see the tightness around his eyes, his mouth, that should not have been there: he was only fifteen. You could not die, you thought fuzzily. There was not much point in you being alive – what use were you, what use was your life? – but you could not die for your mother, and also because Bucky could not go on looking like that. And you did not.
Bucky is violence now; he is nothing but violence – and you are, too. You have both grown into violence, into nothing but blood, but bullets, but carnage, but death. You grew into it together and now that you have lost each other it has taken both of you over, run through you like a virus, and you wonder, now, whether maybe you were the only things keeping each other good, human, normal – if you were ever any kind of normal. For you have killed so many, many men. And you think they have mostly been bad men. But you are sure that Bucky, somewhere deep in his diseased brain, has thought the same thing.
Everybody always assumes that those seventy years in the ice were just gone, just a void – you do not know what they were. They were something. Fragments of things. Slippage. Your mother standing in front of the window, sweat on the back of her neck, the back of her dress: apron strings. The oppressive heat of New York summers. The frigid cold of the winter: you and Bucky curled up in front of the heater, blanket around your shoulders, him pulling you closer – you were always so much smaller than he was. Everything slipping away, flickering back to life: the two of you in that muggy tenement apartment, Bucky smoking out the window, sunlight on the floors. Poverty. Nothing at all about the war. Your little hand in your mother’s as you took wobbling steps from one sidewalk to the next. In and out, in and out. Could you call them dreams? You think all of it happened, in some form of another. You don’t know. And then they woke you up, and all of it was gone, wrenched apart, the glare of light impossibly bright against your open eyes, air a slow static shock against your skin, and you were not who you should have been.
They froze him, Natasha said: took him out, wiped his mind, put him back in, over and over again. But you, too, have been frozen, in the dark. And you know that the brain does not ever really, truly, silence itself, not until it is silenced forever, until it goes dark. What was he thinking, you wonder, in all those years of captivity? What was he dreaming about – if you can call them dreams? Did he see you? Were you looking at each other through the gauze of time and the continents, stretching out to each other through paralysis – or was it just blood, just murder, over and over again, until everything else was obliterated?
What have they done to you, you think. But perhaps what you are really thinking, without thinking it, because you cannot, is: what have they done to me.
This is you, now: you are a soldier. You have not been a soldier for very long, not in the grand scheme of things – a couple of years. But that is what you are. That is all that you ever wanted to be, from the second that the war began. Let me go, you said, let me fight, please, I want to serve, I want to serve my country, but what you meant was: I want to help, I want to be useful, please let me do something good, finally, please let me do something that is worth doing. For you never had, you thought, in your life, done anything that was worth anything. You had never done anything that was useful. Bucky, who was by then strapping underneath his shirts, went out and came back from jobs that required him to lift crates full of heavy objects, manual labor that demeaned his whip-sharp intelligence but that was at least useful. You were stuck drifting from job to job, cleaning diners and bagging groceries and getting dismissed from government job after government job, scrabbling futilely around the edges of the WPA – and, finally, huddling in your bed, coughing, sweating, living off of him when you simply could not work yourself. And you hated it. You loathed it. There was something about it that sickened you.
The first time you tried to enlist, Bucky was sympathetic, preparing to enlist himself, packing up, setting his minimal affairs in order. The next week, when you tried from somewhere else, lied about your name and where you were from, he said nothing. And then, when there were just days left before he was set to ship out, and you tried for a third time, you came back in the evening and found him leaning against the window in your apartment, hands on his hips, arms bare, shoulders wider than yours would ever be, and something in you was sick at the sight of it, at what he had been born with by some random twist of genetics, that you were simply missing.
“What the fuck, Steve,” he said, dull evening light glancing over him from behind.
“What,” you said, closing the door behind you.
“Don’t what me, you idiot,” he said. “You think after the second time I wasn’t going to make some calls? I’ve got people fucking looking out for you, you idiot.”
A low flare of anger ran through you. “Are you – did you stop me –”
He rolled his eyes. “No, I didn’t stop you, I don’t know the fucking doctors. I charmed a nurse and told her your sob story, and they all know each other, I don’t know how, and they’re all on the lookout for you, and then she called me up the second she saw you. And then the doctor rejected you because you are obviously not fit to serve in the military, Steve.”
“Just – let it go, Bucky,” you said, rubbing at your face.
“Oh, that’s rich,” he said, sounding incredulous, shifting his weight, and when you looked again he had crossed his in front of him, the muscles in his forearms taut. “Let it go, he says.”
“I don’t know why you’re being so – like this, about this,” you said, leaning heavily against the door. “You’re going. Everybody’s going. I just want to –”
“Everybody’s going but you would fucking die, Steve,” he snaps, and you notice, suddenly, just how tightly his fingers are digging into his arms. “Do you understand me? You would fucking die out there, the second you set foot in combat, if you enlisted, there would be no chance of you getting out, which is why this – crusade you’ve got going on is so fucking ridiculous. You would die.”
“You could die, too,” you told him, staring fixedly at his shoulder to avoid his face. “You’re going to leave, and you could die. And they wouldn’t even tell me.”
He stared at you. “I don’t – Steve,” he said, sounding helpless all of the sudden. “I’m not going to die, Steve.”
“You have no idea whether or not you’re going to die,” you said. It was no use saying that you wanted to be there to protect him, because you had never been able to protect Bucky – it had always been Bucky’s job to protect you. You did not know how to explain to him that if you let him go off by himself out there, into a war, that your throat would feel like it was closing up, that your guilt would be suffocating, that you would worry obsessively, every day, about what might be happening to him. You did not know how to tell him you did not know how to live without him when he was the axis around which your life had turned for so long. None of this had happened yet but your premonitions would be proven correct when he did leave and you were left alone in your little apartment, and the loneliness crushed down on you so horribly that there were some days you could barely bring yourself to get up out of bed. You couldn’t explain that to him, either, not ever: for was he not the one at war? Did he not need the reassuring picture of you at home, his friend, something steady, unchanging?
You thought for so long that you would never be a soldier, and then you became one, and now it is all that you are, and although you can remember the days before the war subsumed you, you cannot totally recover the feel of them, recover whatever it was it felt like to live in a mind that was not always calculating exit strategies, and possible threats, and potential casualties. You remember being a boy in a sickly scrawny body, remember the feeling of Bucky slinging his arm down around your shoulders, practically picking you up as he dragged you along, laughing, but now it has been long enough that you cannot really remember what it was like to be anything other than you are, which is an impossible creature, taller than you ever should have been, muscle-bound, tireless, practically invincible. You wish, sometimes, deep in the darkest core of yourself, that it were easier for you to get hurt, that you could punch someone and watch the skin of your knuckles scab over, that you could really bleed like you used to: for that, at least, would be familiar; that, at least, would be the sharp stinging pain of sensation. Instead you are a smooth perfect being, and Bucky is dead (but not, after all, dead; instead, Lazarus), and the world is gone and born again, and you are a soldier. You know nothing else.
You used to think, sometimes, when you were over there, during the war, about what being a soldier had done to Bucky: it had not suited him. He, too, had been eager to go – that had been part of what had rankled about his insistence that you stay – but you had seen him there, deep in the forest of Germany, and you had known immediately that the war had not been kind to him. The war had not been kind to anybody, but some of them could take it better than others, and Bucky had put up a front, but he had not taken it well. He was off-kilter, out of sorts; you kept catching him looking at you askance, and that, of course, you recognized. It made you want to find some big coat somewhere to hide in – that was an effect you had not had to try to work for, before; it had come naturally whether you wanted it to or not.
“They sure turned you into something else, huh,” he said, the first night after you brought him back, huddled under a blanket, drinking from a flask of something some higher-up had found and given to him.
You shrugged. “I guess.”
“I mean, Jesus,” he said. “It’s one thing for you to be, fuck, all muscled up, but you’ve gotta be at least a foot taller now.”
“Eleven inches,” you said, and he let out a hoarse, humorless laugh.
“Guess you finally made it over here after all,” he said.
“It took a while.”
“Welcome,” he said sardonically, lifting up his flask and taking a long swig. “You want any?”
You shook your head. “Doesn’t work on me.”
He let out a low whistle. “Bad deal,” he said. “I know you’re all – buff now, girls must be lining up to wait around for you to ask them out, but man, I wouldn’t trade booze for anything.”
“Booze over women, huh,” you said, and he grinned, lazy, looking a little more like himself.
“You know I have a penchant for both,” he said, even though he had never actually drunk that much – you thought, instead, of him chasing girls, girl after girl, preening, cocky, charming them all, while you sat back and watched – but then coming home early, mostly, to sit in the window and smoke, looking out at the lights, the street. “Everybody’s starving,” he’d say, and you would sit and watch him, and say, I know, because you were also starving, the two of you, for food and for so many other things, for everything you should have had and did not anymore.
And now here he was, tilting the flask back, throat pulsing as he swallowed. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “So it’s a good deal?” he asked. “The women over the booze.”
“You know I never had much to do with either,” you said, and he let out another burst of choked, miserable laughter.
“I know,” he said. “And now here we fucking are, huh. Here we fucking are.”
“We’re not dead,” you told him, quiet.
“Not yet,” he said, bitter, and rubbed his hand over his face. “Sorry. I just – I thought you were at home, you know. I thought – I thought you were at home.”
You looked at him – he looked so much smaller now, now that you were like this, although of course he wasn’t small; you were around the same height. But you never had been before. He looked small and he looked vulnerable and the urge you had always had but which you had never been able to express – the ferocious animal urge to protect him, to keep him safe – hit you so hard you almost had to bend over, so hard you almost couldn’t breathe.
“What?” he asked, frowning.
“Nothing,” you said. “I’m here but I’m pretty hard to kill, or so they tell me.”
He looked at you for a long time and then smiled a little, slowly, sadly. “It’s easy to kill people out here,” he told you. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
It was easy. You did find out.
“Who the hell is Bucky?” he said, and he was not small anymore but you still wanted to protect him. You still want to protect him. You want to help him so much that your heart is a dead organ in your chest, spreading diseased blood through your body, breaking you down: you have never been in this much pain. You did not know this much pain was possible.
Sam asked what you liked to do and you could not tell him because you did not know. You do not know. Back then (hardly any time ago, in the chronology of your life, and so many, many years of history) it did not really matter: you were all just trying to survive. Bucky was always the smarter of the two of you, although it drove him crazy when you said so, but of course that did not matter: for you were poor, and there was a depression, and you were all starving, although he was still broad and strong, for that was always Bucky, compared to you. What did you like to do, back then? All your pleasures were small. The city on warm days, the steady presence of Bucky at your side through the crush of people on the sidewalk, the library, which was free – nights when Bucky ignored the girls and sat with you in a corner booth of a crummy bar and bought cheap beer and made snide comments about the other patrons and you both snickered like kids, because that was what you were, really: you never stopped being kids, in some part of yourselves, because you had grown up together, even when Bucky was smoking in the window, looking older than he should have, obsessively counting his money, trying to fit in another overtime shift, swearing when he got laid off.
“You should get more friends,” one of the girls at the grocery store told you once, after Bucky came through and made eyes at her and then picked up food for dinner for both of you. For you really did just have one friend, and you weren’t sure how to go about getting more.
“I’m good,” you told her. You were, probably. You felt like you were. You were both fighting so hard to survive that you didn’t have time for things like other friends, though you could have used a dance with a girl once in a while, you sometimes thought, idly – and besides, who on earth was going to befriend you? Nobody so much as looked at you twice, and if they did, it was because they were going to drag you out back and beat you up. Even as adults, people remained predictable. Women, meanwhile, did not see you at all.
Now, you could do anything: Sam said it and you know, technically, that it is true, but you don’t feel the truth of it; you couldn’t hold it in your hands. What on earth could you do, besides this? You are a soldier and you are violence. You know nothing but the sick adrenaline rush of slamming your shield and your foot and your fist into another body and watching it go down; everything else that once distinguished you, that made you somebody, is gone. Your life was eradicated by time, and the one remnant that is left, that was wrenched out of the past along with you, has been dragged screaming back into life, and can look at you with no hint of recognition in his eyes. That is everything and nothing, all wrapped into one. You do not know what that is.
What do you like: you like the old New York, which is now gone; you like the comrades from the war that destroyed you, who have now died; and you loved Bucky, who is – who is – no, that’s not quite right. You love Bucky. Even when you thought he was dead, the verb was not in the past tense; you have always loved him. He was your brother and now he is – you don’t know. He is you on the other side of the veil. He is what should have happened to you, maybe; what could have happened if everything had gone just ever so slightly differently. You wish it had happened to you, and not to him. You don’t know what they did to him but you wish it had happened to you.
All you have left, now, is violence. Come at me, you think. Maybe you’ll win. But they never do. They never fucking do. You throw yourselves against them, against everybody who comes up against you, with everything you have, but even you know, somewhere buried deep inside yourself, that you are desperate for it: please. Please hit me, square in the face; please make my head snap back, make blood run down from my face. It used to be so easy for people to beat you up, and now it is impossible. But that is not all that you want, and in that deep-buried place, the place you never consciously acknowledge, you know it.
The first time you ever met Bucky, other kids were beating you up. This was not an unusual state of affairs. You were trying to fight back, even though your mother had told you not to, that it was too risky; this strategy would, of course, do nothing, but you were fierce in your determination to never let them have the satisfaction of watching you wilt. You would go home, and she would sigh and clean you up when she got back from her job, and put ice over whatever part of you was particularly swollen, and settle you down in the rocking chair with her – her one good piece of furniture, which she told you once your father had made for her, one of the only things she said about him – and stroke your hair, and read aloud to you from whatever she had handy. It did not matter what she was reading: that was not the point. What mattered was that she was reading, and you could hear her voice, echoing inside of your fragile body. She would never leave you, never die, not like he had. You were so certain, when you were that age. You were so completely positive that she would be there forever. But of course she could not be: and indeed, she was the first to go, of all of your people. You got to see it, at least. You never thought you would appreciate that – but you do. You cling to it, now.
They were beating you up out behind the school, on a rarely traversed sidewalk, and you were trying to fight back but your strength was ebbing, for you were weak, and small, and tired. “Look at Rogers,” one of them said, snickering. “What a little wimp. Can’t even stand up on his own.” So you did stand up, staggering on your scrawny ten-year-old legs, eyes out of focus, and waited to get hit again, except that something came out of the side of your vision and slammed the biggest one, the one who had been talking, into the ground.
“You’re a bully, you twerp,” the boy was saying, as you stumbled backwards. The other boys seemed too shocked to do anything. “I should go find your mom and tell her. I’ll make my mom do it if you don’t leave him alone. Don’t think I won’t.”
“Does your mom know my mom?” the boy on the ground said, dazed.
“My mom knows everyone,” the dark-haired boy on top of him said. “And she’s scary.”
“Fine,” the other kid said, pulling himself away. “Get off me. You’re heavy.”
“You hit like a girl anyway!” the boy called out as they scampered away, and turned to look at you. “My mom says to not say that because she could beat up all her brothers when she was a kid but they don’t like it when you say that to ‘em,” he said matter-of-factly. “Makes ‘em feel small and stuff.”
“Oh,” you said. “Most girls can probably hit better than me, anyway.”
“Probably,” the boy said. “I’m Bucky. I’m new.”
“I’m Steve,” you said. “Thanks, I guess. You didn’t have to do anything, though.”
“You already have one black eye and your lip’s bleeding everywhere,” the boy said, raising his chin. “Don’t be stupid.”
You reached up to touch your lip and winced. Your fingers were bloody when you took them away.
“Your mom at home?” the boy – Bucky – asked, and you shook your head. “You gotta come home with me, then,” he said. “My mom’ll fix you up. She’s good at stuff like that.”
“I,” you started, but you couldn’t think of any reason why you should object. You just didn’t go over to other people’s apartments, ever. Nobody ever wanted you to: nobody ever wanted you. But he was looking down at you with his bright eyes that were slightly too big for his face, and his hair was a scruffy dark mess on his head, and his shirt was buttoned wrong.
“Okay,” you said, and he grinned broadly. He was missing one of his front teeth.
He chattered all the way back to his apartment, pulling at the straps of his knapsack as he went, hopping in one direction and the next, short, erratic little jumps, like he was bursting with energy. You had no idea what to make of him and just tried not to stare too obviously. They had moved from Williamsburg all the way down to this part of Brooklyn because his dad had gotten another job, and it was all right he guessed; he missed their old apartment but he liked their new one, it wasn’t that different really, all the furniture and stuff was the same, and he had a couple friends from his other school he was going to miss but they said they would come down and see him in the park on weekends sometimes so it was okay, he guessed, probably. School was the same everywhere, he said dismissively, everybody knew that. You had only ever been to one school and had never had any friends and so could not comment on these matters.
When you got to his apartment building he fished out his key from the string around his neck and unlocked the door and led you up four flights of stairs, clomping his way up, but once he realized you couldn’t go as fast – you had to stop halfway, panting on a landing – didn’t say anything about it, just waited, and peered out the window into the shaft between the buildings, and said that people threw crap out there, and he could tell already that sometimes it smelled awful.
When he pushed the door to his apartment open, it transpired that his mother was not going to clean you up, because nobody was home – except, apparently, his grandmother, because he pointed at a closed door and said, “that’s where Grandma lives, we have to be quiet, if she’s got the door closed in the day it means she’s sleeping.”
“So what does it mean if the door is closed at night?” you asked, and he blinked at you for a moment before grinning so broadly his face looked split in two.
“You’re funny,” he said, with a profound and sheer delight that took you aback.
“Oh,” you said, even though you had just been asking a question. “Um. Thanks.”
“Come on, I’ll get us pickles,” he said, and stood on a stool to fish them off the shelf. “Mom says I shouldn’t have them every day but she knows I do because otherwise they wouldn’t disappear so fast, and she keeps getting them, so she must not care that much. Pickles,” he said, with an expression of absolute seriousness on his face, “are my favorite food. They are the best food. My mom always manages to find them because she knows they’re my favorite, even though she says I shouldn’t eat them all the time.” He got a kind of reverential look in his eyes that you recognized, even if you did not get to see it in your own eyes. “My mom is the best mom.”
(“Here, Buck,” you’d say, all those years later, thunking a jar down in front of him, in a dreary army camp in England. “Found you some pickles.” He’d stare at them for a long moment, and then stare back up at you, and you’d know that you were both thinking of his mother, who was in the ground, just like yours was. And slowly, he’d smile, and your heart would ache.)
You ate pickles sitting on your calves at the chairs at the kitchen table, fingers sticky, but only after Bucky had stared at you for a moment, eyes wide and intense, and jumped off his chair and scurried off to find a washcloth, which he held out to you, dripping slightly. “For your face,” he said, although you’d sort of forgotten it was messed up. You winced when you touched it to your lip, and he kept watching – hovering, you mother would say – while you tried to rub the blood away and pressed gently, awkwardly, at the swollen part. “Is it okay?” he asked, anxious. “Does it feel all right?”
“I mean, it’s split open,” you said. “It’s all right though.”
“If you say so,” he said dubiously, but you just ate your pickle through the other side of your mouth, and he seemed to take this as a sign of your fortitude.
When you were finished, he showed you everything in the apartment, from the radio to his father’s battered collection of history books to the couple of framed old photographs on the wall to the weird floorboard where he was sure German spies had hidden in the war – “or some spies in some war, something exciting, something dramatic and historical” – and then his little corner of the central room, set up behind the sagging couch, with his toy soldiers that were stowed away under his camp bed and his little stack of books and his picture of the Dodgers all lined up that he’d tacked onto the wall. “This is where I live,” he said, with emphasis, bouncing up and down a little bit on the bed.
“Do you like it?” he asked, which was the first time he’d actually solicited your opinion on anything in the apartment, instead of just talking at you. He seemed slightly anxious, as though he really cared what you said in response.
“Yeah,” you said, because even though everything was sort of fraying and dingy, it was. It was nice. He grinned again, a little wild, the gap in his teeth dark and prominent.
He made you stay over for dinner – “oh, hello,” Mrs. Barnes said when she saw you, unfazed in spite of what must have been a lot of bruising, all over your face, and shook your hand very politely when you stutteringly introduced yourself – and you had to call your mother and tell her awkwardly that you were over at somebody else’s apartment for dinner.
“Are you all right?” she asked immediately.
“Yeah, Mom,” you muttered. “I’m fine.”
“Do you need me to speak to her?” Mrs. Barnes asked, and you shook your head, embarrassed.
Bucky walked you home, doing his little jittery skip-hop thing again, chattering away, a habit you would later put down partially to preternatural inclination and largely, also, to nerves. It would never have occurred to you, then, that he could possibly have been nervous. The thought was mind-boggling, impossible, inconceivable. But he walked with you all the way up to your apartment, and blinked owlishly with his big eyes up at your mother when she opened the door and looked down at him.
“Hello,” she said mildly. “And who might you be?”
“James Buchanan Barnes, ma’am,” he rattled off. “Everybody calls me Bucky, though. My mom says James sounds too much like a grown-up. I’m not very grown-up, she says.”
“I see,” your mother said.
“He’s the new kid at my school,” you said, voice reedy. “We – met after school today. He invited me over to his house.”
“We’re friends now,” Bucky interjected. Your mother looked at the two of you for another moment, shrewdly, and then smiled at him.
“I guess so,” she said. “Well, you can come by any time, Bucky. Thank you for bringing Steve home, although I guess now you’ll have to walk all the way back by yourself.”
He shrugged, practically bleeding a ten year-old’s bravado. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “There ain’t nothing out there that scares me.”
Your mother’s lips twitched. You recognized that expression.
“I’m sure there’s not,” she said. “Well, it’s not too dark, anyway. Hurry along, now.”
“Bye,” Bucky said to you, grinning again, and hopped down the stairs two at a time. You looked back up at your mother, who had an eye raised, and shrugged, blushing furiously.
“Well, well,” she said, drawing you into the apartment and shutting the door behind you, tilting your head back to survey the damage. “I see we’ve got a friend after all.”
“I guess,” you muttered, but the next day Bucky found you again, and again, and again: and so he kept finding you, over the years, until you were the one who found him, and lost him again, so fast it felt like nothing more than a blink.
“You knew him,” Natasha says.
“Yeah,” you tell her, leaning into the weapons cache Fury and Hill have got hidden in their ridiculous underground bunker to avoid looking into her face. It’s always best to avoid looking into her face, if you don’t want her to know something. You’re a bad liar, and she is very good at picking out truths.
“How long?” she asks.
“You read the file,” you tell her. “You know the story. Everybody knows. What does it matter, he doesn’t know me anymore.”
“That long, huh,” she says.
“That long,” you tell her, and finally glance over at her, over your shoulder. You’re getting ready for what you’re going to do, for what you have to do, for he who will be waiting for you there, at the end of it. You’ve always felt better, when you’ve had a mission. You don’t feel a whole lot better now.
She’s sitting back, watching you, which must mean that she thinks watching you is more important, or valuable, than whatever else she might be doing right now.
“You got something else you want to say?” you ask her.
“You don’t have any friends anymore,” she says. “Not real friends, anyway. Not yet. You could, maybe, if you play your cards right.”
“Yeah, you keep saying that,” you tell her, turning back to the miniature armory, trying to evaluate, to make calculations, but all you can see is Bucky’s face, Bucky, Bucky, Bucky who had not recognized you, Bucky whom you will see soon, Bucky the ghost, Bucky the destroyer, Bucky the shade: your other half.
“You had one friend and he showed up and tried to kill you,” she says. She can have a way with words if she wants, Natasha, so the fact that she isn’t bothering makes you wince even more.
“I know,” you say.
“He was not a person, when he tried to kill me,” she tells you. “He was just a weapon. He didn’t care about – about anything. Not about hurting anybody, not about what happened to himself. He was just – programmed.”
You swallow, and turn away from the guns, the bullets, the grenades, the tear gas. “I know,” you say. “I could tell.”
She looks almost compassionate. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Watch out.”
“I’ll manage,” you tell her, but you won’t, you don’t think. Not this time.
You have been beat bloody by countless people in your life, more than you could even begin to remember, and for most of your life you would have given anything to dispense of them, to be gifted with some other fate – but you cannot deny, really, that it somehow feels better when it is Bucky slamming his body into your body, his fist slamming into you; you think even the agonizing white-hot burst of bullets feels better coming from him than it would from anybody else’s.
You wish he would stop – please stop, please stop, please remember me, I want to look at you once before I die – because oh, you are going to die. You are not going to turn around and shoot him, you are not going to stop him – you cannot – and so you are going to die. You have something to do first, something that must be done, here, now. You need to save millions of people, and you know that the Bucky that was would have wanted to save them, too: you would like to do this for him. You would like to be useful, for both of you, one last time. You spent so many years being of no use to anybody at all. But once it is done you will have no reason, anymore, to keep fighting, to keep doing this. You will no longer be a soldier, for your war is over, and has been for seventy long years. And if you are not a soldier, then what will you be? Nothing. Nothing but the other half of somebody who is trying to kill you.
“I know you,” you tell him, because you do. “You’re my friend.” And it feels good, the slam of his body against yours, the slam of your head against the metal below, the flare of bullet wounds everywhere – you’re too hazy to tell where, only that they are there, and they hurt. Your body is not the body you were born with, and Bucky’s brain is no longer his own, his arm severed away, so you are not sure what you have to do with each other, anymore: but here you are, your bodies, together, his face his old beautiful familiar face. And that is something, you think. That is more than you thought you would ever get.
Mission, he’s saying, you’re my mission, and as his fist slams into your face you think: yes. You were always his mission, ever since he ran out of nowhere and jumped on that boy who was beating you up, whose name you’ve forgotten; you’ve been his mission his whole life, every time he broke up a fight, helped you home, wiped the blood off your face, rolled his eyes at you, sat with you when you were sick, wandered through the city with you in the twilight, watching out for you: you were always his mission. Your mother told him to watch out for you – you know she did, although you never heard her say it – and he did, for his whole life, until he could not anymore. You have never blamed him. You have only ever blamed yourself.
The end of the line. This is it: you have reached it. This is where it ends. And in some small part of yourself, the part that still sounds like a ten year-old child, you cannot help thinking: recognize me. Please, please recognize me. Just once. Just once? Don’t you remember? All those years? All those afternoons? Our mothers making us dinner? Listening to the game? Hiding behind your sofa, with your toy soldiers? Before we knew anything? Before we knew what our lives were going to be?
Please remember me, you think, as his brutal metal fist slams into your face. Please prove to me that I exist. Please prove it was real. Please prove that I am real. Please, please look at me, just once, and see me.
“It won’t be that bad,” he told you, straightening his new green uniform, that he had so painstakingly starched and ironed, adjusting his cap. “I’ll be back soon enough, this is just training.”
You swallowed. “Yeah, Bucky. I know.”
He stood there awkwardly, by the door, his little suitcase next to him, neither of you sure what to do. For it was only training, but later it would be deployment: later, it would be war.
“Goodbye, I guess,” you said, bony hands shoved into your pockets, trying not to imagine what your crummy little apartment would feel like without him in it.
“I – oh, come on,” he said, stepping forward, and grabbed you by the nape of your neck, and crushed your fragile body against his solid one, and you held on tight, and wished with every part of you that he was not going – but he did. He did.
You were born in July in New York and you are going to die in the deep waters of the Potomac, too many years later. The water is going to fill up your lungs, and they will have to send divers to fish out your body. You will never open your eyes again. Your mind will go dark. You will go to no bright other place. You will dream of nothing: not of your mother, not of Brooklyn, not of Bucky. It will just be quiet, and dark. Oblivion. Your heart is in your throat as you fall, and you think of him clomping down the stairs away from your apartment that first time, ten years old, bright-eyed, unsullied.
Bye, you think, senselessly. Bye.
PART II: HUNT
You wake up.
The fluorescent lights above you do not flicker. They do not buzz. They are steady and unrelenting. They look like you imagine death looks – nerve death, maybe, or just emotional decay. The nurse at the end of your bed stands with her weight on one leg, resting your chart against her hip. They gave her to you, you know, because she has expressed no interest in who you are. She has only done her job. It’s been a long time since you’ve had to deal with nurses. They used to be different, in some ways – in some ways, they haven’t changed at all. But when they treated you before it was because you were scrawny and small and on the verge of death because of your fragile body, not because you had been shot and beaten and nearly drowned. It is not the same.
“Did they tell you,” you start, when she comes over to check the machine next to you, which is beeping, gently, annoyingly. “Did they tell you – what happened? To me?”
She looks over at you, and raises an eyebrow.
“I mean, how I survived,” you say. Sam had not said. People float, man, he’d said. We do everything we can not to drown, if we can help it. But you know you should have drowned. You know it.
“You almost drowned, and then you didn’t,” she says shortly, looking back down at your chart, checking something with her pen.
“Something happened,” you press again. “Something happened, though. They won’t – they keep not telling me.”
She glances over at you, again, out of the corners of her eyes. “I overheard some things,” she says suddenly, brusquely, clicking her pen and staring back down at the paper in front of her without moving her eyes. “They don’t pay attention to you, when you do my job.”
“I know,” you tell her, thinking of Bucky’s nurses, thinking of all the jobs you used to have where people ignored you, and all the things they said.
“You were on the riverbank,” she says. “They found you on the riverbank.”
“But I don’t –” you say, and pause. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I don’t know what was going on,” she says, and looks at you again. Her eyes are sharp. You wonder why she became a nurse, wonder about her family, about her life. You won’t ever know any of it. You aren’t like normal people anymore: you don’t get to find out these things. “I’m not telling you that because of who you are,” she says. “I’m telling you because I don’t think people should be lied to about things like that.”
“Thank you,” you tell her, and she nods, and clicks her pen definitively before tucking it in her pocket and walking out of your room, leaving you to stare up at the lights above you, the steady dead lights.
“You fucking let me in to see him,” he was yelling in the hallway of the hospital, the summer you got so sick you collapsed at work and got carried off to the hospital and put in a room full of other people who were coughing and convulsing, fetid yellow light everywhere, the smell of illness, damp bodies, death. “You fucking let me in, you sons of bitches, he is my family, he is, he is –”
“I need to find him,” you tell them, and Sam lets out a long, low breath, and glances over at her. “I know what happened. I know what happened, and I need to find him.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, man,” Sam says tentatively. “I don’t think – I mean, I’m not telling you what to do, I’d never do that, I just. Even if what you think is true? And you have no way of knowing that it is, I’d like to point out – but even if it is. That dude is not who you think he is. You don’t know who he is. And he’s made it pretty clear he doesn’t want anybody following him.”
Natasha is just looking at you, silent. “Anything you’d like to add?” you ask, calm.
“No,” she says, eventually. “You’re going to do it no matter what either of us says. I’m not going to waste my time convincing you otherwise. Not yet, anyway.” She pauses. “Maybe later.”
“Can you get the file?” you ask.
“I can get the file,” she says.
“Good,” you tell her.
You have always done better when you have a purpose. (You aren’t so different from Bucky, in that way.)
It used to be that people could just – vanish, if you did not want to be found. It was not exactly easy – you needed forged papers, money, determination – but it was doable. Now, though: now you have to be so exceedingly clever. It frightens you, the thought of how impossible it has become, to disappear. If you ever want to disappear (and you do, you know; part of you wants to vanish) you will not be able to. Or you will have a devil of a time trying.
When you were kids, Bucky always used to want to play make-believe – that was what it was, even though he would never have described it that way, because if you had called it that you would have had to admit that it went on for far longer than was considered respectable. He liked imagining the two of you were American spies in the Revolutionary War, or soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars, or cowboys fighting Indians, or adventurers on Mars, or Lewis and Clark – this was a particular favorite, during certain times of the year, in the park. Other boys, you knew, divided into factions, went up against each other; not so you and Bucky. It was always Bucky who came up with the ideas for your imagined worlds – you did not have that particular creative streak – and he never pitted either of you against each other. Not when you were that little. It would never have occurred to you, then, that anything could ever have turned you against each other. It was so inconceivable that it would not even have made you laugh – it would simply have been terrifying.
Bucky wanted to go out into the world and disappear into it, wanted to have an adventure – and oh, he disappeared. He vanished into the forests of Germany, into the underground operating rooms of Russia, into the torture chambers of S.H.I.E.L.D. And now he has disappeared again, into some unfathomable place – and, once again, you will follow him. You did it the first time. You will do it again.
You read the entire file. You make yourself read every page, every single thing; you look at all of the pictures. You do it in one sitting. You thought, when you were young, and naïve, and stupid, that the world would change, maybe, when you got older, and it did: it got worse. Here is Bucky’s unconscious face. Here is his conscious face, his empty eyes, his teeth clamped down around a mouthguard. Here are old Soviet photos of his cauterized wound: clinical, in case they wanted to do it again, to somebody else. They seem to have decided that once was enough, though who knows? Perhaps they simply buried the bodies. Here is Bucky, frozen. Here is Bucky, covered in blood; Bucky, standing spread-eagle to show his wounds; again, to show how they have healed. Here is a list, compiled with excruciating detail, of all the people he was made to kill. Every single person. Most of them are men, but not everybody: women, too. Three children. They made Bucky kill three children. Bucky, who, once he was no longer a child himself, used to watch children on the street and the subway and in the park with a kind of longing and delight that made your heart hurt; Bucky who never truly grew up. He was still sort of a child himself, when everybody he knew died, and so that was how he remained, forever, until they erased him, hacked him to pieces, and put something inside of him that should never have been there.
When you have finally finished you straighten the pictures and papers and close the folder, and slowly get up to turn off the light before wandering over to the window and looking out over the city, this small part of the city where you live but which is not yours, which does not feel like home. You are going to leave this place sometime soon and you will not come back. The last home you had was in Brooklyn, and it was home because Bucky was there, smoking in the window, listening to the Dodgers on the radio, kicking his leg back and forth off the side of your horrible, decrepit sofa, stomping on cockroaches, whining at you to keep him entertained.
Bucky is trying to disappear. You are not going to let him. You have something to do, now, and it is not the way it was before – it makes you feel guilty, that you feel this way; you know you should care more about saving the lives of millions of people than about finding him. But you have done that once. You have fought him once, for the good, and now you have nothing inside of you but yourself, the small selfish core of yourself, and you care more about finding him than you have cared about anything since the ice yielded you up into the world again. It is like steel, the determination inside of you that tells you you will achieve this, that you will find him. Nothing will stop you. You are two sides of the same coin, you and he: he cannot escape you forever. Even back then, if he had tried, he could not truly have disappeared. You would always have found him. And now, you are lucky: you have other weapons on your side.
“I’m sorry,” Tony Stark says from behind his desk. “You want me to do what, again?”
“I need you to help me find James Buchanan Barnes,” you tell him, and he makes an incredulous expression so exactly reminiscent of his father that you can’t even feel sad about it; you just want to laugh.
“The guy who tried to kill you and help blow up – excuse me, murder from the sky millions of Americans and other people around the globe. That guy. You want me to help you find that guy, so you can have your little – emotional reconnection, or something. This is what you’re telling me.”
“Yes,” you say, and he blinks.
“Nice suits,” Sam says from behind you, walking slowly around the room, looking up at all the silent, empty Iron Mans gazing back down at him. Stark’s built his arsenal back up, you guess, since his last incident. They look – intimidating.
“Thanks, that’s great, I’d offer to let you give one a try someday, but apparently I don’t need to, because our mutual friend dumped the entirety of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cache of data on the internet, which includes all of my specs, so we’re going to have a million fucking Iron Men zooming around in these things by this time next year. Thanks for that, by the way, that was very considerate and thoughtful of all of you.”
“Not my style anyway,” Sam says, and a vein in Stark’s forehead throbs.
“Not that many people rich or powerful enough to make your suits, Stark,” you tell him. “You’re the one with a building with your name on it, anyway.”
“You know, they didn’t tell me that when they injected you with whatever magic serum they invented back in the day that you got gifted with inhuman powers of consolation, too,” he says, “so thank you, thank you, I feel so much better now, I could fucking meditate.”
“If you spent so much time looking at that leaked data, you probably noticed Stark Tower was on their list of targets,” Sam says, still peering up at one of the suits. “See, you just get so much more bang for your buck if you don’t have to be powering the whole thing with fuel. S’why I like the wings,” he adds, looking over his shoulder.
“It’s not – fuel,” Stark says, but he’s not looking at him, he’s looking at you. And you know that he knows, that he knew. And there is something in his pallor that tells you that he knows everything: he knows exactly what he did, or almost did. He is not as young as he once was, Tony Stark. You did not know him then, but you have seen the pictures. You have seen his father, when he was a younger man. Stark is a child but he is getting older. You are all getting older.
“You helped them,” you tell him. “You helped them do this.”
“I didn’t know what they were going to do with them,” he says. He still hasn’t gotten up from behind his desk: you wonder if he is afraid of you. Not physically – you’d best him easily if it were just the two of you and your bodies; that’s not up for debate, but here, in this room, he could kill you in a heartbeat. He is afraid of you because of who you are, and what you have seen, and who you used to know. He is afraid of you because he is afraid of his father.
“You knew what they were capable of,” you say. “And you helped them anyway.”
“You and I have slightly different views on world security issues, Captain,” he says, lips curling, but you can still see it in his eyes: the fear. Everything about him, you think, is because of his fear. He is a sad man. He is sad, and he is small.
“You’re going to help me,” you tell him. “You’re going to help me, and you know it.”
“I am absolutely not going to do that,” he says. “You are out of your fucking mind if you think I’m going to help you find that – madman. It’s not like you’re going to turn him in. That would be one thing.”
“If I do find him, who on earth would I turn him in to?” you ask.
“That is the question of the day,” he says. “That is where we find ourselves.”
“You’re still going to help me,” you say.
“And why the fuck would I do that?” he asks.
“Because you feel guilty,” you tell him. “And because Howard knew him. And he would have fucking cared.”
Howard, you know, must have made a terrible father, to have produced Tony, and a worse husband, given his general attitude toward women; you can’t quite bring yourself to care. He was unfathomable to you at the time: you were just sort of speechlessly in awe of him, of his ridiculous – everything. He was a ridiculous person. He was made up of component parts that should not have fit together, but they did, and so there he was.
Howard liked Bucky, although they did not cross paths that often – Howard and Peggy were the team, the duo, firing back and forth and intimidating everybody. In retrospect it is frightfully obvious that they were not and had never and absolutely would never, ever, for any reason, have slept together: he liked her too much. He respected her. Howard did not sleep with women he respected. It was a fundamental and unflattering flaw. But you could not hate him for it – could not even really fault him for it; it was simply part of who he was, simply part of the Howard Stark-ness of him, the fact that he somehow found women in the middle of nowhere in England to seduce, charmingly, skeezily, while everybody watched from afar and was simultaneously impressed and horrifically entertained.
Bucky had Howard down, and made jibes at him, every once in a while, which of course meant that Howard liked him the best, of all the rest of the men, sought him out, sometimes, to make conversation. Howard liked conversation fast and sharp, and you were not good for that, but Bucky was, or could be. But for the most part Bucky stayed with the men, and Howard stayed with the officers, dreaming up whatever bizarre technological advancements he could conceive of, and that was that.
You were the drifter, the one who crossed party lines, back and forth, back and forth – but you did not ever think of it that way until Howard himself pointed it out to you, one rare night at the pub, when you tried to get Bucky to come sit and have a drink with you and Howard and Peggy, and he shrugged, and smiled one of his evasive smiles, and said he was all right with the rest of the gang, thanks, and slipped away before you could say anything back.
“It’s never going to work,” Howard said, when Peggy had gone off to the ladies. “I know you think it will, but it won’t.”
You stared at him. “What?” you asked, feeling like an idiot.
“Barnes,” Howard said, nodding over to where Bucky was sitting with the rest of the men. You glanced over at him just in time to see his eyes sliding away from you. “He isn’t one of us and he knows it, so it isn’t going to work.”
You bristled immediately, and Howard held up a hand. “I’m not besmirching his honor,” he said. “I like the guy a lot. Sharp as a tack. Funny as hell. You’ve got good taste. But he doesn’t want to sit around and be reminded that you’re Captain America all night and he’s some nobody, is what I’m driving at, here.”
You stared at him. “He’s not – that’s ridiculous.”
Howard looked at you, shrewd. “You’re far gone, Rogers,” he said, finishing the last of his pint. “You look like a lost puppy. It would be sickening if you didn’t already so closely resemble a golden retriever.” He got up. “I’m going to go get something stronger, this has been more emotional conversation than I was prepared for tonight.”
You caught up with Bucky as everybody was walking back to the base later that night, ran to catch up with him, pulled him aside. His eyes were bright, a little fuzzy: you really wished you could still get drunk.
“Hey,” he said, and grinned, but there was an edge to it that you recognized, suddenly. “Steve.”
“Hey, Bucky,” you said. “I just wanted to – I didn’t get to talk to you, tonight.”
He shrugged. “You looked like you were – having a fine time.”
“We talked about you, mostly,” you told him, and he gave you a weird look.
“That’s weird,” he said, and hiccoughed. “I hope I made for – amusing conversation.”
“Howard likes you,” you told him, and he shrugged again, turned toward the barracks, and started ambling in the right direction.
“Glad to hear it,” he muttered.
“I don’t,” you started, and frowned, because you didn’t know how to say it. “It was crap, you know. All the – stuff. I was doing. Before.”
He laughed. “I know, Steve. I know it was.”
“At least I’m helping, now,” you told him. “At least I’m useful.”
“You’re more than useful,” he said, with sudden force. “You’re good at it. You’re – you’re really fucking good at it, Steve. You’re good at being in charge of people.”
“I – thanks,” you said. “I guess.”
“I’m not,” he said. “I know I’ve been bossing you around our whole lives but I don’t think I’m actually that good at – you know. Not when it comes down to it. Not when there’s – pressure.” He paused. “We shouldn’t have gotten caught. Back when – you know. Before. I fucked up.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” you told him, and he stopped walking, abrupt, disorienting.
“You don’t know that because you weren’t there,” he said, enunciating very clearly, looking straight ahead of him, not at you. His hands were in fists at his side. “You cannot possibly know that because you were not there and you did not see it.”
“Okay,” you said. “Okay, Bucky.”
“They should all – hate me,” he said. “I think they do hate me. I don’t know why you fucking keep me on, you should get rid of me, I’m dangerous, I’m a liability, I should be behind a desk somewhere, typing Phillips’ reports –”
“There was a captain leading you,” you told him, quiet. “He didn’t have anything to do with it?” He shakes his head, wilting a little.
“I fucked up a – a signal. And they – figured it out. Found us. Made us. You know.” He shrugged, one shoulder. “So. Now you know.” He laughed bleakly. “Everything got turned on its head, didn’t it? You’re the big hero now, and I’m just a – fuck-up.”
You looked down at your feet. “Yeah, I guess I was always just – nobody, huh.”
He turned away from you, eyes wet in the moonlight, rubbing a hand over his mouth. “I really, really just wanted you to be safe,” he said. “That was all I wanted. And I couldn’t even get that fucking right, huh. I didn’t even manage that.”
“Come on, Bucky,” you told him, quiet. “Let’s get you back.”
“I don’t want to go,” he said, voice small. “I don’t – I don’t –”
“I know,” you told him. “But we have to. It’s a war. We don’t have any other choice.” And he let out a long, harsh sob as you grabbed his arm, his waist, and buried his head in your shoulder.
The next morning he was bleary-eyed, hung-over, but he sat down across from you at breakfast and smiled at you, crooked. What else was there to do, after all? For it was war. And you were soldiers.
You keep dreaming of this: no no no I don’t want to go please don’t make me go back in there please don’t make me do it again I want to go home where are they where is he what’s going on what’s happening to me I don’t I can’t what’s going on what’s please I don’t want to do it I can’t do it anymore I can’t do it why are you making me doing it why are you doing this to me what did I do to make you do this to me –
and then you wake up.
“This has got to be illegal,” you say, and Stark actually bursts out laughing, which, as far as you have been able to tell so far, is uncharacteristic.
“This is so far beyond the realm of legality, the word illegal doesn’t even begin to cover it,” he says. “I didn’t give S.H.I.E.L.D. everything, and that’s fortunate, isn’t it, since you guys went and gave it all away. I’m not over that, by the way. I’m not going to get over that. I’m going to keep bitching about that indefinitely. This is the price you have to pay in return for this favor. You have to listen to my extremely valid and lengthy grievances about that intensely fucking dumb decision for as long as I want to air them.”
“Whatever, Tony,” you say, and he hums to himself, already focused on his work.
There are big light maps of – things – in front of you, and he’s moving his fingers over them, over some kind of keyboard below them, and you have no idea what is going on. He’s keeping up a running commentary of whatever it is he’s doing because he needs constant egotistical gratification, and Sam is commenting back, thoughtful, attentive, although you can tell that some of the things Stark is saying are going clean over his head, too: he gets a particular blank-faced expression at these moments with which you feel intense camaraderie.
“How the hell do you know all this?” you ask him, during one of Stark’s very brief pauses.
“You’d be surprised what they teach you in the military these days,” is all he says, and then the pause is over, and the running commentary recommences.
“Could you please,” you finally say, “explain this to me in terms that I will actually understand.”
He lets out a long-suffering sigh, but says, “I’m hacking into, essentially, the mainframe of the US government, to access every piece of intelligence data they have ever collected, and also every piece of security camera footage they have, which is substantially more than the public is led to believe, and then my computers will go through it, and we’ll run through a number of algorithms to pick up any suspicious data that may or may not be related to Barnes’ whereabouts, and also a facial recognition program on the security footage, in case he’s dumb enough not to cover his face.”
You blink. “All the intelligence data,” you say. “What does that mean. How is that even remotely possible.”
“Shh,” he says. “Shh, ice man. Let the grown-ups work.”
Although all the computers in Stark Tower are terrifyingly efficient, they are not as efficient as you are sure their owner would like them to be, so you and Sam have to sit around in a random, featureless room for hours upon hours waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Stark vanishes to places unknown – “you’re all shitty company, I want you to know that” – and eventually it gets late enough that Sam, having walked around the edges of the room to check its security, and been terrified out of his mind by JARVIS, has passed out in an armchair.
Finally, sometime deep into the night, or, really, early morning, Stark pokes his head in. “Got stuff,” he says, and vanishes again.
You get up without waking Sam, and close the door quietly behind you. Stark is waiting in the hallway, leaning against the wall, with his arms crossed in front of him. He’s looking at you with an expression on his face that you don’t like. It might be bordering on thoughtful.
“This way,” he says, cocking his head, and leads you down a hallway into another dark room you don’t recognize, where he plops himself down into a revolving chair and waves his hand in front of him to spread out a whole array of images, of data.
Your heart thuds in your throat. There he is: Bucky.
“He did a pretty good job,” Stark says, leaning back in his chair. “Hardly anything anywhere. I guess nobody’s looking for him.” He glances up at you. “Curiously, that one particular file did not make its way onto the world wide web.”
“It wasn’t official information,” you tell him, feeling ill. “It was all – underground. I mean, lots of it was underground. But that – that was –”
“Particularly so, yes,” Stark says. “Well, here he is going into the metro, and that’s it from D.C. And the only other clear image – there are a few that might be him, it’s hard to say – is from Brooklyn. Makes sense. Your old haunt, right? Looks like this was – Lefferts Garden?”
“Yeah,” you croak. “That was us.”
“That’s the clear one,” he says. “Or, well, that’s from the other side of the park, but that’s where he was going, based on the train it looked like he was about to get on, and this other one – here – where he got off, which is fuzzy but looks the same. Other than that, who knows.”
He’s wearing a baseball cap, a hoodie; he’s got scruff. His eyes are sharp and calculating and hunted, and he is Bucky. You want to reach out and touch him but it is only light, what Stark is showing you: there is nothing really there.
“Where is he now?” you ask. “Do you have – do you know? Is there any way to – to tell?”
“Paris,” Stark says, and you blink. “Or, well, anywhere in continental Europe, would be my guess; he probably hasn’t had time to get to Russia or Africa yet. I seriously doubt he will go to anywhere in Africa, since he has never been there, based on his file. Russia, maybe. Given the circumstances.”
“How the fuck did you get his file?” you ask. You had only given him the photos, to look for his face.
“Don’t ask me such asinine questions,” Stark says. “Anyway, he took a flight from JFK to Charles de Gaulle… five days ago. Evening flight. Red-eye. Used the name Robin Greenhouse, if that means anything to you.”
“That was – yeah,” you say. “It does.”
He looks up at you, expectant.
“I’m not telling you,” you say, and he rolls his eyes.
“Jesus, the thanks you get,” he mutters, and turns back to the keyboard, but your heart is thudding. I’ll be Timothy Bluebeard and you be Robin Greenhouse and we’ll be the best pirates that ever sailed the seven seas: Bucky, ten years old, hopping down from a rock in the park, cheeks pink in the winter cold. Robin Greenhouse was your name, not his.
“How the fuck did he get through the metal detector?” you ask.
“That, I could not tell you,” Stark says, but he plays you the footage of Bucky walking through the airport, casually, like he’s just a normal person, a bag slung over his shoulder, waiting at the gate.
“He won’t stay in Paris,” you say.
“Paris is nice,” Stark says. “Lots of hookers.”
“He hated Paris,” you tell him. “Went once. Did not like it.”
“Twice,” Stark says, quiet now, and you stop, because you remember, too. Bucky has been to Paris twice.
“Well, who knows where he is now,” Stark says, leaning back in his chair.
“Can you do this – over there?” you ask.
“I’m not fucking moving from this chair,” he says with vehemence.
“I mean, can you – look things up,” you say. “He’s got to be leaving – information, expenses, whatever. He’s not a ghost.”
“I can… help,” he says slowly. “It’s not as easy. Your buddy can, too, you know. Sounds like he’s good with computers.”
“Good,” you say. “We’re going to do that.”
Stark sighs. “He’ll have other people after him, you know,” he says. “He’s not exactly well-liked.”
You pause, and think about this. “Good,” you say. “I’ll follow them, then.”
He looks up at you. “You are out of your fucking mind,” he says. “No wonder my dad liked you so much, Jesus. Well, all right. Let’s get you some phones the government can’t spy on.”
There’s no reason the government would have to stop you from flying to France, if you wanted to; you get a fake passport anyway.
“I thought you weren’t a spy,” you say to Sam as he shaves his head with the practiced motions of somebody who knows what he’s doing. You’ve dyed your hair and are working on a few days of stubble, and Natasha is coming later to take photos for your fake passports. (“Is that one of her things, then?” he asked. “Pretending like she’s going to vanish and never be seen again, and then show up to help you out with something two weeks later?”
“I don’t know,” you told him, honestly. “I don’t know her well enough.”)
“You learn something new every day,” he says, peering at himself in the mirror. “I’ve got a taste for law-breaking, now, where else am I gonna get my fix?”
You don’t shower for two days leading up to your flight, and comb your greasy hair over to the side; nobody looks at you twice. Maybe it isn’t as hard as you thought, the disappearing. Maybe people just do not want to see.
“All right,” Sam mutters once you’re up in the air. “I cannot wait until you fucking bathe again, man. You do not smell good.”
Bucky is not in Paris – you know this, deep in your bones, the second you set foot on the grey stone streets, look up at the calm buildings that no longer bear the scars of war – but he was here, and everybody, no matter who they are, leaves traces. You are leaving traces right now: you cannot help it. You just hope that nobody comes looking, or that, if they do, they do not look for the right things.
Stark gives you a map of all the extremely illegal people in the city he thought Bucky was likely to have encountered or sought out. It’s a maddeningly inefficient strategy, but it’s the only one you’ve got while he’s busy sorting through all the digital data he can get his hands on – “look out for a Timothy Bluebeard,” you told him, and he looked at you like you were insane, but that hasn’t yielded anything, either – so you do what you have to, and make your way through the list systematically, at night, when they cannot see your faces. They often do, of course: you cannot control everything. Almost nobody recognizes you; the one man who does is actively trying to kill you, and Sam shoots him in the head. He dies instantaneously. Sam shrugs. “He was going to kill you first,” he says. But you do not think that was really the reason.
Nobody has seen Bucky, they claim, and you think they are telling the truth, although that does not prevent them from trying to hurt you, from trying to get you from behind, to knock your feet out from under you, to shoot you between the eyes, to figure out who you really are and what you are really doing. It gives you a vicious pleasure to slam your feet in their faces, your fist in their guts: they are every bully who ever beat you up, everybody Bucky ever hit on your behalf; they are the people who did this to Bucky, the people who are long gone, whom you can never unbury and torment and kill again. This is all you have got and you find that you enjoy it. You enjoy it too much, probably. You don’t care.
Stark keeps not coming up with anything, but finally, finally, you find a pudgy, aging man in Saint-Denis who listens to you describe Bucky and says, with complete calm, “Ah, yes, I have seen him. It was – three weeks ago, now? You are running a little late, no? But not so late. You may find him.”
“What did he want?” Sam asks from behind you. “What was he buying?”
“Buying?” the man says, confused. “Oh, you are thinking – no, no, it was not like that. He was already well-equipped in that area, I think. He was looking for help with his arm.”
“His – his arm?” you say. “Was it – broken?”
“No, it was functioning quite well, considering,” the man says. “Except for two of his fingers. The smallest two.” He holds them up. “I used to be an engineer, in my past life.” He shrugs. “Strange things happen to all of us, I am sure you will agree. I was very interested to see it, of course; I have never seen anything like it in my life.”
“Could you fix it?” you ask.
“Yes, of course,” the man says. “It is a very complicated device but it is not impossible. It did not take me so very long. But that was not it – he wanted to know how it worked. I do not think he had any idea, really. That was what was interesting to me. He did not seem to have any idea how the thing worked, and yet it was attached to his own body.”
You look down at your hands. “No,” you say. “He wouldn’t.”
“I explained it to him as best I could,” he says. “I do not know how well I succeeded. He knew all about – you know, guns, ammunition, these things. But it is very different to understand that kind of mechanism.”
“He’s smart,” you tell him without looking up.
“Yes,” he says thoughtfully. “That was the impression I had. Still. I do not know.”
“So, what,” Sam says. “He just – left.”
“He wanted to kill me,” the man says. “I can recognize that; I have seen it enough times. He had to force himself not to kill me. But of course he did not do it – for here I am, no? He paid me instead, and asked me not to tell anybody he had been here.”
“And here you are, talking to us,” Sam says.
“Yes,” the man says. “I could tell that he was running from someone. And I think you are the person he was running from, yes?” he says to you. You can tell he is talking to you even though you are still staring at your hands. “But I could tell also that he was hoping to be caught. You can tell if you have seen enough of these people, in your life. And you are not going to hurt him.”
“You sound pretty certain,” you say.
“We can never be certain about anything,” he says. “That is impossible. But I feel close to certain. And that – that is rare.”
You don’t say anything for a long moment, just keep looking at your hands – your two warm, flesh and blood hands, knotted together – before getting up. “Thank you,” you say as you move toward the door. “For helping him.”
“Of course,” he says. “And I will not tell anyone that you were here.”
“Except the people you will,” you say.
“Yes,” he says, lips quirking up at the corners.
“Do you know where he was going?” you ask. “I mean – do you have any idea.”
“East,” he says. “He will go east. He will go back.”
“How do you know he came from there?” Sam asks, suspicious, but the man just looks at him.
“I recognize Soviet workmanship when I see it,” he says. “And there is a red star on there, if you did not notice.”
“Man, you sure run covert ops like nobody I’ve ever fucking seen,” Sam says once you’ve gotten outside.
“I’m not a good liar,” you tell him, and he snorts.
East, east: east could be anywhere. East could be Germany, but you do not think Bucky will go there; he will skirt that if he can get away with it. The passport he used to fly out of the States will be gone, though Tony has it flagged. You want to get on a train, go anywhere: Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Minsk, Moscow. But you have no idea where he is, and you could go picking cities off of a map forever. You need a lead, first. You need something concrete aside from the fact that he went to somebody to look at his arm.
Finally, Stark calls you. “He’s in Brno,” he says. “Of all fucking places.”
“How do you know?” you ask.
“Cam footage in a train station,” he says, sounding viciously pleased. This is the thing about Stark – all Starks, possibly – they just need a puzzle.
Brno. You have never been that far east. In other circumstances you would stare out the window of the train as you go along, fascinated, but you don’t; you just stare vacantly at nothing – thinking, thinking. You are getting closer. You are crawling closer to something like resolution.
“What are you going to say to him, anyway?” Sam asks, looking at you. He’s hardly said anything about – well, anything, this entire time. You shrug.
“I’ll figure it out when I get there,” you tell him. He just keeps looking at you, though, unsatisfied.
“You’re not the same,” he says.
“What?” you say, jarred out of your haze.
“As before,” he tells you. “You’re not – you know. You’ve got this – I don’t know, man. You are fucking focused.”
“I like having – a task,” you reply.
“This isn’t a task,” he says drily. “This is a fucking higher calling.”
“I don’t know,” you tell him. “I don’t – I have to do this. That’s the only – I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just – it’s something that I have to do.”
He sighs, leans back in his seat, turns to watch the countryside fly by. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, you know. If Reilly just – showed up, like that. If he could come back.”
“I’m sorry,” you tell him, but he shakes his head.
“I wouldn’t want it,” he says. “It’d be – he was who he was, and he died. He shouldn’t have died, but he did. That was what happened to him. This – this isn’t right. I wouldn’t want that for him.”
You know what he means – you do, you understand. It is not right, what happened to Bucky – what happened to you is not right, either. But you live in the shadows of the world, now; you are not made for life or for death but for the liminal space between them, that nobody can describe. That is where you and Bucky live – where you will live, until it is time for both of you to go.
“I just keep thinking – if he came back,” Sam says. “And tried to – kill me.” He pauses. “I dunno, man. I don’t know how I’d cope. This seems less crazy than some other options I can think of.”
You look at him, at his clear, still visage. He is still living in his war, too: you can see it inside of him, for all his talk of therapy and support groups and civilian adjustment. If he were not, he would not be here. He would not have followed you to Europe and run away from his life. Maybe he will escape, someday. There is a whole world of people out there struggling forward, like he is. You hope that he gets out. You do not want him to wind up like you – well, nobody will ever wind up quite like you. But even so.
“What if he doesn’t want anything to do with you?” he asks. He will, you want to say, but you know perfectly well that he probably will not. If he did he would not have run. You cannot tell Sam, who is intelligent, and reasonable, the actual answer, which is, I will sit down outside of his door, wherever he is living, and I will wait for him to come out, like a dog; he could kick me every day and I still would not go away, until finally I was dead. There is nothing else for me to do. I cannot do anything else. I cannot go anywhere else. This is it.
You cannot say this because it is insane. So you just shrug, and he shrugs back, and you both turn to watch the trees go by, but you do not see them: you just see Bucky’s arm, and the shadow of the arm that was, and that shall never return again.
He sprained his wrist the summer you were fourteen – badly, just about as badly as it was possible to sprain something without breaking it. His left wrist. The wrist that is now gone. It drove him insane. It was not as bad as having a cast on it, of course – it got better faster than a break would have, and the splint was not as restrictive – but in your memory the whole thing lasted a long, long time, probably because he hated it so much. He could not swim, he could barely run around; he could not do much of anything. You could hardly ever do any physical activity in the first place, although you had always toiled loyally along after him, so you could only imagine the extent to which this was a crisis, a tragedy, a catastrophe: but you could imagine it. And you could see how deeply miserable he was.
“This is garbage,” he muttered, kicking his legs angrily back and forth off of your fire escape. “It’s garbage. I didn’t even fall that hard.”
“Yeah, but you fell the wrong way,” you told him, and he huffed.
“It’ll be better in a couple weeks, the doctor said,” you said, and he slumped over, chin on the railing. Your face was pressed against them; you peered up at him.
“A couple of weeks in July,” he muttered.
“You’ll survive,” you told him. “I promise.”
“It hurts,” he muttered, petulant.
“Sorry,” you said, consternated.
“I dunno which is worse, it hurting or not being able to do anything.”
“I can’t do anything anyway,” you pointed out, and although you really weren’t trying to sound self-pitying, you knew that must have been how it came out, because his face went all strange, and awful, and you leaned back instinctively. “I’m not – that’s not what I meant –”
“You can – you can do things,” he said awkwardly, looking suddenly intensely upset. “Steve, that’s – don’t say that.”
You shrugged, awkward. “I mean, it’s just – it’s true, I just get tired or sick, and all that. It’s – it is what it is. I can’t help it. I can’t do anything about it.” I’ve tried, you wanted to say. But there really was nothing for it.
He looked at you for one more long, consternated moment before settling his chin down on the railing again.
“It’s not fair,” he muttered. “It’s just – it’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair,” you told him. Your mom told you that all the time, running one hand through your hair, touching your fragile neck.
He inched closer to you, until your thighs were pressed together, and you leaned into him, your bony shoulder against his thicker one.
“Someday things will be less unfair,” he said staunchly, and you let out a little huff of laughter.
“Okay, Buck,” you said, and he reached out his good hand to ruffle your hair, and you let out an outraged squawk and ducked away, but not very far.
You check into some kind of – motel, bed and breakfast, whatever – in Brno, with a man at the front desk who’s so far out of it that he doesn’t seem to see you at all, and certainly doesn’t care that you’re paying in cash. Once you’ve gotten up to the room, Sam starts setting up his computers: he hadn’t bothered in Paris, since you both knew Bucky wasn’t there, and besides, Brno is much smaller than Paris, although it still feels large enough: there are a lot of places Bucky could be hiding.
You get Stark and JARVIS on speaker and he starts talking about how to piggyback onto the city’s security system in terminology you can’t follow, although you can follow his bickering with JARVIS, whom you still can’t quite believe isn’t an actual person somewhere, sniping at him.
Eventually, Sam puts them on mute, and does it himself.
When he glances over at you and sees your raised eyebrows, he just smirks a little, pleased with himself. “Like I said,” he says. “You learn some crazy shit in the army these days. And I was always good with computers.”
When he turns Stark on he’s still yammering, until Sam says, “I’m done. Anything else you recommend?” which actually does shut him up, though not for longer than around fifteen seconds.
You sit there all night, while Stark’s programming scans through the city’s security camera footage – “is there any reason you can’t just do this for all of Europe, like you could for all of America?” you ask, and he says, “don’t ask for miracles, pal,” in a tight little voice that might as well be Howard’s – reading through the last week’s police records, while Sam listens to their radio, waiting for anything of note. JARVIS, apparently, is trying to find mob frequencies, mob phones, but Stark isn’t optimistic. “They’re not stupid,” he says. “They won’t use that shit if they don’t have to, and if they do, they’ll just use burners and get rid of them. Plus they’ve probably got somebody over there doing the same things we’re doing. Well,” he adds a moment, sounding almost affronted at himself. “Not exactly the same things.”
“Does it ever bother you,” you ask him some time later, after you’ve read through a series of homicide and assault reports that can’t possibly have anything to do with Bucky –domestic disturbances, family rivalries, everything too banal – “how easy it is to – get at all this stuff?”
“No,” Stark says immediately, calm. “It’s only easy for people like us – people like me, I should say, since you couldn’t turn on a computer without help – and I don’t use my powers for evil.”
“That’s a very black and white view of the world,” you say, and there’s a long pause.
“Sure it is,” he says finally, light, and starts to talk about something else, and you pity him, even though he has so much that you do not. You were right: he is a sad, sad man.
Eventually you have to sleep, super soldier or no, but JARVIS does not, so Stark has him listen to the police scanner for the night. There’s nothing, he tells you in the morning. There’s nothing.
You and Sam walk around Brno the next day, around the old, red-roofed, cobbled city, but more in the outskirts, the run-down parts that tourists do not visit. You do not expect to see anything, to find anything: you just want to know, to have an idea. You get on a tram, look at the people on it, the way they stare down at their phones, their tablets, or out the window, headphones on. It’s a city, just like any other city. Some people are poorer than others. You don’t know why he came here. Maybe he just stuck his finger on a map. There was nothing about Brno in his file – and maybe that was it. So many other cities had been contaminated – but then, he did not need to come back to Europe at all, but he had. He had come back.
You get back to the boarding house in the evening, sit around doing the same thing – except that, around ten, Stark’s voice blares over the speakers, loud and urgent. “Look at – camera 24, I’m patching it through to your screen –”
And there they are, two men in black, running down a side street. Neither of them is Bucky, but there is a shadow turning a corner in front of them that might be.
“Come on,” you say, but Sam has already got his guns strapped on.
“Take your fucking earpieces,” Stark is shouting, and you jam them in as you slam the door behind you, tug your hood up.
They are twenty minutes away by car, so you have to get into a cab, with a driver who looks at you like you’ve lost your minds, but takes you along the insane route that Stark is rattling off into your ear – “they’ve changed direction, they’re going down another street – no, no, north now, not east” – and finally lets you out at some approximate spot near where they might currently be. Stark and JARVIS are now bickering in your ear, and you decide you considerably prefer combat as it used to be, but mostly your heart is thumping in your chest, at how close he is – how close –
You run faster than most people, than almost anyone on the earth. These men in black are fast but they are not fast enough. You slam one of them to ground, and Sam gets the other, tumbling over them in some dark back alley, in a country you have never been, for this is your life, now: this is what your life has become.
“Which way did he go?” you shout at the one below you, and when he doesn’t say anything, just try to throw you off of him, you jam your gun under his chin. You miss your shield, sometimes, but you could get used to this, you think. To the immediacy of deadly force.
“Which way,” you snarl, “did he go.”
He looks up at you, breathing heavily, like an animal, and points.
You run, but the streets are winding, impossible, and Bucky, after all, is a ghost: you can feel the imprint of him here, now, but you cannot find him. He is gone.
Sam is standing over both of them when you get back, both of them at gunpoint. You crouch down in front of them, look them in the eye. “What do you want with that man,” you ask, and they glance at each other.
“If you don’t tell me the truth, I’ll kill you,” you tell them. “And leave you in this alley for somebody to find you.”
The bigger one, the one who told you where to go, licks his lips. “We – we have met him before, that one,” he says hesitantly. “He is – legendary, you know. The – man we work for, he has – enlisted his services before.”
You want to look away, to get up, to leave, to slam your fist into his face so hard it cracks against the wall behind him, to shoot him in the gut so that he bleeds out slow, but instead you make yourself keep looking at him.
“And you heard he was back,” you say calmly. “And you wanted to get your hands on him.”
The man looks at you, and you know: he does not want to tell you yes. But yes is what he has to say.
“He has killed our boss,” the other one says suddenly. “That is why we were tracking him down, you see.”
You blink, turn to look at him. “He – what?”
“He killed him,” he says, and shrugs.
“How many times did he – enlist his services?” Sam asks.
“Twice,” the man says. “As far as I am knowing this, anyway. I am not, how do you say. The most high inner circle.”
“Do you know anybody else who he would be trying to find,” you ask them. “Like this.”
They shake their heads.
“What exactly is it that you guys do?” Sam asks, and they look at each other again. “I just haven’t heard much about the Czech mob, is what I’m saying.”
“Drugs,” the second one says finally, upfront, and the first one winces. “Lots of drugs. Drugs mean – murder. Feud, you know. People go a little crazy in the head, with power.”
“No shit,” Sam mutters, and then, to you, “so, what do you want to do with them?”
“We’re going to dump them on the front stoop of the police station,” you say. “And if they say anything about the man they were chasing, they’re going to get shivved in prison.”
“Be glad I’m not shooting you,” you say as you stand up, grabbing one of them and hauling him up after you. You aren’t gentle.
“All right, so, to review: we’re looking for other people who might have – used him,” Stark says the next day, distastefully. “Charming. Pierce is dead, obviously. They had him for a long time, as far as I can tell. The guy he killed, the Czech guy – Franek – he must have loaned him out to him, for god only knows what reason. But most of the Soviet guys have got to be dead by now, from natural causes or… other things.”
“So he’ll be going – wherever there are people left,” you say, rubbing at your face. “That’s in the file, isn’t it?”
“Not exactly,” Stark says. “We know where he went, who he killed – we think we know all that intel, but we don’t necessarily know who told him to do what, when. The old Soviet guys, sure; they weren’t trying to hide anything from each other. The past twenty years, that’s a different story; Pierce needed some record for himself but didn’t want it to be too clear if it got compromised – which, by the way, is exactly what happened. There’s no record of this Franek guy anywhere, so either those two goons you guys so nobly beat up in the street were lying, or there’s stuff missing.”
“Great,” you say dully.
“Oh ye of little faith,” he says blithely, and you can practically see him pacing back and forth, as though he actually has an audience, instead of just two people listening to him on speakerphone half a world away. “I looked into this Franek guy – well, JARVIS did, JARVIS is handy like that – and let me tell you, the dude had a meth empire to rival – I don’t actually watch that show, you know the one.”
“No,” you say, “I don’t.”
“Breaking Bad,” Sam supplies.
“Thank you for your cultural literacy, Mr. Wilson,” Stark continues, and Sam rolls his eyes. “In any event, there isn’t any official record of communication between him and Pierce, but there were pretty suspicious deposits to Pierce’s bank accounts the same months that this Franek dude got massive shipments of meth delivered to him. So I’d say he was, ah, clearing the path, if you will.”
“Why on earth would he do that,” you say. “It’s not like he needed the money.”
“No,” Stark agrees. “He didn’t. But he liked contacts. And he liked control.”
“So there will be – people he was connected to, somehow,” you say slowly. “And murders.”
“Yes,” Stark says. “Exactly.”
There’s a long silence.
“So how the fuck do we find those people?”
“I already did,” Stark says, sounding criminally pleased with himself. “There are only three, as far as I can tell. One of them’s in the middle of fucking nowhere in Siberia, for reasons that completely escape me. One of them is in Crimea.” He pauses. “The other one is in Kalisz.”
“I don’t know where that is,” you say, but there’s a sinking feeling in your stomach, from the way he said it.
“Five hours by car,” Stark says, and the bottom falls out.
Kalisz is – well, it looks like crap. It is not one of the nicer cities you have been in, but that’s reassuring, in a way; it reminds you of what the world used to be, strangely, although it’s not like that at all, not really.
You don’t have much time to experience it, though, because before Stark has even had time to send you over to scope out the neighborhood where Bucky’s target lives, something slams into the back of your head while you’re walking to the motel from the pharmacy, and everything goes dark.
PART III: CAVE
Easily the most boring thing you ever did in the war was stake out a German outpost for three entire days, waiting for their general to arrive so that the team could go in and capture him. It was just you and Bucky, dug into a foxhole on a hill in the forest, taking turns sleeping, and you were bored as shit. Everybody who has ever been in a war knows that it is, for the most part, mind-numbingly dull; this was a low point.
“I have dirt in places I didn’t know it was possible to have dirt,” Bucky muttered, peering down at their little encampment with his binoculars. “This is insane. He’s never going to show up. This guy probably has nothing to do with HYDRA anyway, who gives a shit.”
“He’s still a general in the German army,” you pointed out, leaning against the back wall of the foxhole. “Regardless.”
“Shut up,” Bucky muttered. “Please, can we play twenty questions or something, I’m going to lose my mind.”
“You always win that,” you said.
“I know, that’s why I suggested it,” he replied, and you smiled. When you looked up he was glancing over his shoulder at you with a funny expression on his face, but his lips quirked up, and he turned back to his binoculars.
“Jones hasn’t slept with his girl from home,” he said.
“What?” you said, off-balance.
“Jones,” he said. “He hasn’t slept with the girl he always talks about. What’s her name. Monica.”
“I – how do you know?” you asked, because according to Jones he – definitely had.
“He’s trying too hard,” Bucky muttered. “I never understand why they try so hard. If you’re going to lie, just – lie, I mean, Jesus. Or tell the truth, the truth will get you anywhere.” He turned around to look at you again, smirking. “Sure seems to be getting you far with Miss Carter.”
“Agent Carter,” you corrected automatically, and he just grinned wider.
“Excuse me,” he said, turning back around. “Agent Carter.”
“That’s not – I mean, I don’t know,” you muttered. “She’s very nice.”
Bucky snorted. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s exactly what she is. I saw her trip a man with so much force he fell flat on his face the other day and then walk away without saying anything.”
“He was probably being rude,” you said.
“I’m sure he was,” Bucky said. “I’m impressed by her – what would Mrs. Feinstein upstairs have said – chutzpah. But I don’t know that I’d use the word nice. She sure likes you, though. And they don’t get much nicer than you, so maybe that’s why. Opposites attract, and all that.”
“I don’t know,” you said again. “That’s not really – I mean, that’s not the point right now, is it?”
He shrugged a little, still staring into his binoculars. You watched his shoulders under his army greens, which were battered and dirty and fraying at one shoulder. “I dunno,” he said. “It’d be nice, I think, to have a girl out here. You’re lucky.”
“I don’t have a girl,” you said, and he slid down back into the foxhole finally, tossed the binoculars at you, and smiled crookedly.
“Sure you do, Steve,” he said.
You looked down at them. “Yeah, well,” you said. “Only took a – magical serum injection to get them to notice.”
When you looked up he was looking at you with sad kind eyes, the kind that you did not see often, but which you recognized well enough. “That’s not why she likes you,” he said.
“Yeah,” you said, but you didn’t quite believe it. “Well, you were the only person who liked me before, so.”
He smiled a little, just one corner of his mouth twitching up. “Well, now everybody else knows,” he said. “Good for them for finally catching up.”
“I guess,” you said, and he pushed out his leg to kick at you.
“Come on, soldier,” he said. “Your turn.”
When you wake up, slowly, groggily, you’re – chained up, one wrist and both ankles, to – something. A wall? A metal beam in a wall? You press your eyes closed again, wincing. Your head is killing you.
When you open them again, you’re faced with the sight of what looks like a long-abandoned basement: nothing but moldering concrete, a camp bed, something that looks like a makeshift kitchen, and a workstation on the opposite side of the room with a greenish fluorescent light flickering on the wall and a magnifying lamp. Bucky is sitting on a stool in front of it, with his arm under the magnifier, doing something you can’t see.
“Hi,” you croak, and he goes still.
“You really don’t know when to mind your own fucking business, do you,” he says, without looking up, or turning around.
“Not lately, no,” you say, pushing yourself up into a more upright position, wincing. You’re my business, you want to say, but don’t.
“It’s sad,” he says. “This – quest. To find somebody who is dead.”
“You don’t look dead to me,” you tell him, and he lets out a grim little laugh, moves his metal fingers.
“I’m nothing,” he says. “But that’s not what I meant.”
You look at him, at the way he is sitting on his stool, hunched over, hair falling over his face. You look at him. You did not have the luxury, before: there were only moments. Him waiting to kill you, his face above yours as his fist crashed into you, threw your jaw almost out of line. Everything was a mad sick blood rush, but now you can look at him, and see him. His arm is on the table in front of him and his right shoulder is hunched to compensate, and his body is taut with muscle but too skinny, you think, underneath it: the muscle is a guise. He looks like he has not showered in too long.
“What are you doing?” you ask. “We talked to – Montreuil, or whatever his real name is, in Paris. He said you were trying to figure out how it worked.”
He goes still again. “Your French is terrible,” he says finally.
“Yeah,” you say, “I know. Yours was always better,” you tell him, and he twitches.
“Montreuil is a bastard,” he says.
“He seemed nice enough to me, for somebody in his line of work.”
“He fixed you up, anyway,” you continue.
“He fixed me up because I would have killed him otherwise,” Bucky snarls.
“You paid him,” you say, and he slams whatever tool he’s been using down on the table next to him.
“Shut the fuck up,” he says, and flips down the panel he had open, so that his arm is long and smooth again, perfect and uncanny.
“It’s sad, you know,” he says, walking around the basement, in a way that you know is supposed to seem purposeful but clearly is not. “This whole thing is sad. That you don’t have anything better to do but chase after some shadow of a person you don’t know anymore, who doesn’t even want you. What does that say about your life, huh? What the fuck does that say about you?”
You lean your head back against the wall. “Why are you coming after all of these people, Bucky,” you ask him. “What does that say about you?”
He takes a jerking step forward, his right hand clenched into a fist, and then stops himself. “Don’t call me that,” he says.
“It’s your name,” you tell him.
“I don’t have a name,” he says.
“Robin Greenhouse,” you say, and he blanches.
“What?” he says.
“Robin Greenhouse,” you say. “That’s the name you used to get out of the States, into France. I don’t know what name you’ve been using since. Not Timothy Bluebeard, I guess, Stark was looking out for that one. I probably should have tried to think up all the other names we used when we were kids, to give him. I don’t know why I didn’t. Stupid. I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly.”
“What the fuck are you talking about,” he says, and you can see it in him, the fear: the lines of his body pulled so tight he looks like he might just snap.
“That was one of my names, when we were playing – pretend games, as kids,” you tell him. “Robin Greenhouse. You were Timothy Bluebeard. You came with them; you were much more creative than I was.”
He doesn’t say anything for a long moment, just stares at you like you’re holding a live grenade. “If that’s true,” he starts, and then pauses again. “If that’s true, why wouldn’t I have chosen my own name?”
You smile up at him, brokenly. “I don’t know,” you tell him. “Why do you think.”
He curls into himself for a moment, and for an instant – just an instant – he looks like a terrified child. But then it is gone.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “I’m going out. Don’t try to get out. You won’t be able to break those, and if you pull that down, the whole building will collapse.”
“Sure thing, buddy,” you say, and he winces again, glares. You want to reach out, grab him, pull him close to you, reassure yourself that he is really there: real, real, real. We are both here. But he will not let you do that. You do not think he believes that any version of him is real – not yet. Not yet.
“Have you done it yet?” you ask when he comes back, carrying a plastic bag full of non-perishable groceries and what look like a lot of very delicate screwdrivers.
“Done what,” he says, without looking at you.
“Killed him,” you say.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, mulish, and you want to smile, at how much he is still himself, somehow, even though he is also not himself anymore at all.
“Bereza,” you say. “I’m probably not pronouncing that right, either.”
“No,” he says from the worktable, back to you. He’s gone very still again. “You aren’t.”
“He was feeding Pierce information about everything going on out here, Stark says,” you tell him. “So he let him off the hook, I guess.”
“Your Mr. Stark seems very well-informed,” Bucky sneers.
“He’s all right,” you say. “I liked Howard better.”
“I don’t remember him,” Bucky says blankly. He isn’t lying; you can tell.
“He liked you,” you tell him. “Me, too, I think. I liked him, anyway.”
“Stop talking,” Bucky says, and swings away from the work station, walks over to the little counter with a hot plate on it, takes the cans he’s bought out of their plastic bag and stacks them next to it.
“What do you remember?” you ask once he’s gone back to his stool, and is just sitting there, facing away from you, not doing anything.
“Stop asking me about that,” he says. “It doesn’t matter.”
“You remember something,” you say.
“It doesn’t matter,” he snarls. “You’re this – pest, you won’t just let it alone. It doesn’t matter what I remember or don’t remember. All of that is done now. Gone.”
“What did he make you do?” you ask. “Bereza. Or however you say it.”
“You don’t want to know,” Bucky says, and flicks the switch on the light, even though neither of you have eaten anything. “I promise, you don’t want to know.”
You’re woken up by the light being turned on again and a bowl of what looks like really horrible oatmeal being pushed at you from across the floor, a spoon stuck in it haphazardly.
“Thanks,” you say. Bucky just grunts.
“What happened to Sam?” you ask after you’ve finished eating.
“I sent him home,” he says, and you freeze. He looks over at you and gets a funny look on his face.
“He’s fine,” he says. “He was travelling under an assumed name. The US government doesn’t like that, so much.”
“Oh,” you say, and he sneers.
“I could have killed him,” he says. “Dropped him in a dumpster somewhere. Maybe I should have. Maybe that would have finally convinced you.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” you tell him, tapping your fingers on the bowl. “He didn’t really have any reason to help me, but he did anyway.”
“Then he’s an idiot,” he says.
“Maybe,” you say. “I’d do the same for him, probably.”
Bucky’s looking at you with something on his face that might be hunger, might be the seeds of jealousy, and it makes you hungry in return: come back, you think, just come back to me. Because you would help Sam; you would do whatever you could to help him, in whatever he needed, unless it meant leaving Bucky behind. Sam knew that, you think. Sam understood what he was helping you to do. Sam will not be surprised to find himself back in the United States, alone, with you vanished into the wilds of Poland. You have thrown yourself into the abyss with your eyes open, with full knowledge of what you are doing – Bucky is down there. And you would rather be where he is.
“He had a – a friend,” you say, hesitant. “Who died. When they were out there – in combat, I mean. He knows.”
Bucky’s face shutters.
“He doesn’t know,” he says. “You don’t know.”
“No,” you say. “I have no idea.”
“You should give up,” he says, and it is the calmest he has been. He looks, deep in his eyes, like he is begging you. “You should give up.”
“I can’t,” you tell him.
“You’re an idiot,” he says.
“So I’ve been told,” you reply, and he winces, and goes back to working on his arm.
“You are so stupid,” Bucky slurred at you, giggling – sixteen, drunk for the first time, you two hiding on the fire escape, terrified, your mother having come home unexpectedly. He was trying so hard not to laugh, not to give you up, your hand slapped over his mouth. “You are suuuuch an idiot.”
“Shuddup,” you hissed back, and he just kept giggling, head lolling down on your shoulder, and that was how she found you, not so very long after, both cracking up, huddled on the corner, and she just put her fingers to her forehead, and tried not to smile.
Days pass. He shows no sign of planning on letting you go. You wouldn’t go, anyway, though you’d like to get up, walk around farther than to the toilet in the corner – you can get there without being let out, and he keeps a gun on you when you do, though there’s a screen, at least, thank god. You have encountered a lot of paranoid people, but nobody this bad.
You are awake, one day – morning? Night? Time has no meaning, here; the sun does not exist, the moon does not wax or wane – and see him carefully stripping his shirt off, to wash himself with a basin of water from the spigot by the drain. You can’t help it: even in the low light of the little lamp by the camp bed, you can see too much not to jerk up, to say something.
“Jesus, Bucky,” you say, and he freezes.
Because it is different, in person, than it had been in the pictures: the scars. There are so many, many scars, more than you had thought. Silver and smooth and hard and knotted and – everywhere; he is a mess of a person, jumbled and put together again. Bullet holes. Knife wounds. Things you cannot recognize.
“Fuck you,” he snarls. “Fuck off.”
“I just – fuck,” you say again. “Fuck, what on earth did they do to you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he hisses, low. “What does it matter what I look like? Nobody’s going to be looking at me, anyway.”
“I – Bucky,” you say, and you have wanted to cross this weird, small space for days, every moment, to touch him, to reassure yourself, but this – this is so much worse. This is horrible. You want to touch them not to prove that they are real but out of the insane childish hope that perhaps they will prove not to be there at all, like all of Bucky’s childish fantasies of war which have been obliterated by the reality of lived violence, and torture, and aggression. You want to revive them all – all of your games, your imaginings, your alternate realities – anything to escape this, the fact of your lives, the things that have actually, really happened to you. But you cannot escape anything that has occurred, for the truth of it lives in your bodies – in this body that should not belong to you and in the limb that Bucky is missing, in the slow destruction that has been wrought on him by those who have owned him, and sent him out to do their bidding, and in doing so ripped him apart.
He stops, his good hand on his hip, and turns around, and you let out something like a groan, because it is worse on the other side. He’s trembling a little – you can tell, even in this bad light.
“This is what happened, Steve,” he snarls. “This is what my life has been. You don’t know me. Stop fucking pretending. And stop – fucking – calling – me – that.” He throws the unused washcloth down in the bucket and it makes a sad little plashing sound.
“I’m sorry,” you tell him, and he just starts to laugh, long and steadily more hysterical.
“Thank you,” he says sardonically, face twisted, terrible. “That means so much.”
He turns off the light.
(But of course the two of you live in a series of eternal recursions and returns, everything doubling over each other, so when, two days later, you finally get him to slide you the bucket of water and the wash cloth – “I smell like crap, Bucky” – he, too, freezes at the sight of your puckering scars: four of them, one for each bullet he put in your body. They are pink, newer than his – not as ugly, you don’t think, but then, they belong to you. You don’t care about them as much.
He looks sick. It’s the worst you’ve seen him look, since you arrived, and it makes your heart hurt, but it’s – good, you think. It’s something, anyway. “It’s all right,” you tell him.
“Shut the fuck up,” he croaks, and that is that.)
He has got something like an arsenal under his work station – though not a truly terrifying one, by the standards to which you are now, regrettably, accustomed – but he does not spend much time on his guns or his grenades or whatever other more complex contraptions he has got stacked up under there. He spends time – obsessive, endless time – on his arm, and you, with nothing else to do, watch him.
“Is there something wrong with it?” you ask, once.
“It’s defective,” he says, simply, curt.
“I thought Montreuil fixed it.”
“He fixed the major problem,” he says. “There are other minor problems that have to be dealt with. I’m figuring them out.”
He is, too: not all at once, not nearly as fast as somebody like Stark would, but he is working through it, slowly, occasionally stomping around when he hits a setback but eventually sitting back down and getting back to it. You aren’t sure what he means, though: it seems to be performing just fine.
(He’s stalling, of course. He’s stalling.)
“Well, I couldn’t do it,” you tell him. “But you always were smarter than me, so.”
“Don’t –” he says violently, reflexively, and then stops himself. Neither of you says anything for a long moment, and then he tosses whatever tool he has in his hand down and slams everything shut.
(“Don’t you fucking say that,” Bucky used to say, vehemently, all the time, whenever you said as much. “Don’t you fucking say that, it’s not true, you know it’s not true –” but it was, you knew it was, you always believed it, and it bothered him so profoundly that you did. You did not think he understood what you meant: it was just that you were proud of him. That was all.)
He gets up and stomps past you, visibly angry, close enough to touch for the first time in this whole miserable time, so you reach out and touch his arm – his good arm, his real arm, the arm that is made of warm flesh and bone and blood, and he flinches away as though you had burned him.
“Get the fuck off of me,” he snaps, voice edging into the hysterical. “Don’t you dare fucking touch me. Don’t you – don’t you fucking do it.”
“Sorry,” you say. “Sorry, Bucky –”
“And don’t you fucking call me that!” he shouts, voice shaking, hand shaking, everywhere a mess.
“I’m sorry –”
“I’m not him,” he says, “I know you think I am but I’m not, I’m not, you’re fucking – delusional, and it’s sad, it’s really sad, okay. I know you guys were – in love, or whatever, and I’m sorry that didn’t work out, but he’s gone and he’s not coming back so you need to just get over it –”
But you can’t listen to anything else that he’s saying, because: I know you guys were – in love, or whatever – I know you guys were – in love, or whatever – I know you guys were – in love, or whatever –
“What?” you say, dumbfounded, and something must be showing on your face, because he stops, and blinks.
“What?” he says.
“I – in love?” you croak. “I – what?”
He looks off-balance suddenly, confused, and takes a step back. “What?” he says.
“What did you just say?” you ask.
He takes another half-step back, shrinking into himself, looking even more disoriented. “But you – you were –”
“Did – did you –” you choke out, over the rushing in your ears, and the frantic rapid thud of your heart in your chest. I know you guys were – in love, or whatever –
“No, I just – it seemed so – I just – I thought –” he’s saying, looking like nothing more than a lost child.
“No,” you say, and you can tell you sound almost hysterical yourself. “No, that’s not – that’s not –”
“Oh,” he says. “Oh.”
“I, um,” you say. “I don’t – know –”
“Sorry,” he says abruptly. “Sorry. I’m going to – I’ll be back later.” And then he’s pulling on his hoodie and his hat, and slamming the door behind him, thudding up the stairs, and your heart is still racing in your chest.
I know you guys were – in love, or whatever – I know you guys were – in love, or whatever – I know you guys were – in love, or whatever –
You and Bucky have gotten into countless spats over the years, mostly small, sniping things, easily resolved, but the only real, substantial fight you got into as kids was the year you were sixteen, and you had a horrible, horrible crush on Maggie McDonald, who was in your class in school – it was remarkable that any of you were still in school, then, but both your and Bucky’s mothers were insistent on this point – and pretty in a round-faced, curly red-haired kind of way, and who barely knew you existed. Bucky found this hysterical, which you thought was rude, since he had kissed at least three girls already by that point, and you had, obviously, barely talked to any at all.
He was good-natured about it, though – you didn’t talk about it much, just pined, and he laughed at you a little and clapped you on the back and distracted you with talk of other things, school and baseball and food and dime novels and lord only knew what else. He was good for that sort of thing. Then, of course, Maggie did actually notice you existed, through some random, long-forgotten twist of school social politics, and started smiling at you in class, like she smiled at most of the other students, and in spite of the fact that the chances of her being amenable to going out with you remained at a steady zero, Bucky chose, in short order, to insinuate himself, take her out one evening, get sodas, and, the story around school went, neck in the park after dark for some time. That was all they ever did, Bucky having no interest in girls in a long-term sense, but when Maggie saw the two of you in the hall from that point on, it was not you she was smiling at anymore, not really.
You had been annoyed at Bucky before – aggravated, even, and very occasionally angry, but that anger had always passed within moments, hours at the most. This was a belly-deep wounded rage that lasted for what felt like an interminably long time, though in retrospect it probably was not very long: time is long, to teenagers. Bucky tried to walk home with you the day after, when the school had been abuzz with the news, grinning, normal, and you had held your body very tightly together and walked as fast as you could, not looking at him at all.
“What?” he asked, skipping to catch up with you, which was not the regular state of affairs. “What’s wrong, buddy?”
“Don’t call me that,” you said, and tried to walk faster, which was futile, because he was taller than you, and obviously in better shape. He was always going to be able to catch up.
“What?” he asked, laughing a little. “What are you so upset about?”
“You know,” you bit out. “Don’t pretend like you don’t know.”
“You don’t mean – Maggie?” he asked, laughing. “Come on, that was nothing.”
“It – wasn’t – nothing.”
“We just, you know, had a soda,” he said. “Not like I can afford anything else anyway.”
“You knew I liked her,” you told him, feeling your face get hotter and hotter. “And you – did it anyway.”
“Well, I liked her, too,” he said casually. “And she liked me. It’s not like people get first dibs, you know.”
“Shut up, Bucky,” you said, turning on your street. “Go away and shut up.”
You left him there, and did not look back.
You really cannot remember how long it lasted – two weeks, maybe, at the outside – but Bucky glared at you in class, and you glared at Bucky, and nobody else noticed, because while Bucky was moderately popular he was mostly feared, and you were a non-entity. It ended, appropriately, on the street behind the school – though it was a different school, and thus a different street – with you getting the shit beaten out of you by a couple of kids who had figured out that, with you and Barnes on the outs, you made for easy picking.
You don’t think this way much, but you really hate people sometimes.
You had blood pouring out of your nose and one eye was swelling shut already, but you were forcing yourself back up, as you always did, with the weariness of a much older, more jaded person. And, just as before, Bucky came out of nowhere, and grabbed the one in front of you, and punched him so hard you thought he lost consciousness for a second.
“Get the fuck out!” he roared at the other kids, who were looking at him like he was some kind of demon, unhuman, and they did not wait around to see what he would do if they disobeyed: they ran.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Steve,” he said, grabbing you by the shoulders and hauling you all the way up. “Fuck.”
“Hey, Bucky,” you croaked out, blinking your one good eye blearily. “Funny meeting you here.”
He reached out and touched your swollen eye very, very carefully, and then your nose, your cheek. “You look like shit,” he said.
“Yeah,” you said with a sigh. “I figured.”
“Come on,” he said, leaning down to get an arm under your shoulders. “I’d carry you but I don’t think you’d appreciate it.”
“I’d kill you,” you told him, and he laughed.
“My mom’s been making really rude comments to me every day for two weeks about – you know,” he said as he half-dragged you toward home.
“I’ve always liked your mother,” you told him, and he laughed, and took you home, and cleaned you off, and held a washcloth full of ice to your face until it melted, and you loved him, but it did not ever occur to you to think about how.
What does Bucky remember? This is the question, the question to which you return, and return, and return: you will never truly know, for there is no exact answer, no list of facts – nobody has that. You, too, have forgotten things, have let things slip away that you are sure you would miss, if only you could remember that they were gone. He will not talk about it, will not say anything – but he remembers something, some things; he looked down at you when you were both falling in a haze of fire and something in him knew you. He must remember things. And he knew – he knew –
You do not know what he remembers, but it is not everything – it is not close to everything. You do not think he wants to. Remembering means knowing what this is, here, now: reality. Life. You do not want to know it. You have not wanted to, but it is where you are; it is what you have been dealt. You cannot escape it – except into him, now, he who has risen from the dead out of the smoke, out of the shadows, a remnant, a relic – but that is not right, either, because he is not his past self. He is very much present. And you do not fully understand what he has done, or what he has endured, for all that the two of you are twinned in space, in time, in all the cosmos.
For it is true that for your whole life, you have only had one person, and though you were briefly out of sync, now that you are here, now that he is what he has become, you are aligned again: you who have both been wrenched out of time, who have spun through the dark, been thrown at unsuspecting targets, you who for so long had nothing to live for anymore except the task, the mission, the good, all of which has become murky and obscured, even within yourself. You have been following each other in some strange off-kilter way for years, you think, and now you have been realigned, slamming into each other, falling apart, your shadows bleeding together until they have fused, inseparable. You and Bucky are not so different anymore. You just wish that Bucky could see it.
But he does remember some things, and you wonder if somehow, in his remembering, he has been able to see some kind of truth – if he has been able to see the truth of things which neither of you could, then. I know you guys were – in love, or whatever. Your mind shies away from it. No, no, no, it was not that. But – you do not know. Your memories are not pristine, either. They are not preserved in amber, entirely, irrefutably true. You remember Bucky and his relentless parade of women, Bucky and Maggie McDonald, Bucky leaning over to you, close, in bars, the smell of beer on his breath, grinning, crooked, the two of you knocking into each other as you walked to school as teenagers, too close, maybe – but you didn’t know, you didn’t have any gauge, because you had only ever had him, and nobody else. And maybe that says it all, anyway. You only ever had him.
Is it enough, though? You loved Peggy, too – there was a shadow over you, when you realized what you had missed. You just never – thought about it. You don’t think Bucky had, either, though you cannot know, and probably never will. But perhaps that is the trick of it: to look at something and see it as it really was, without preconceptions, without bias. To look at something and see simply what is, what was: to see the truth.
“Are you going to kill him?” you ask him the next day. It has been too long. He is stalling too long. He is ready – if he is going to do it, then he will do it. But he is stalling.
“It’s not ready,” he growls from across the room. You are beginning to think that the world was a hallucination, that you have been sitting here in this room with him forever. Time has gone strange, fuzzy, looped.
“It’s been ready,” you tell him, because there was a time when you followed him wherever he wanted to go, where you sat across from each other at the rickety little table in your apartment and he looked at you and listened to what you had to say in a way that nobody ever had except your mother, but those days are gone. You are not that boy anymore.
“You wouldn’t fucking know,” he snaps. “Jesus fucking – could you just shut your mouth? Why the fuck are you here, anyway?” he asks suddenly, putting down what he’s doing and spinning around to face you, hungering for a fight. “You just keep – following me, and bothering me, and – Christ –”
“Bucky,” you say, as gently as you can. “You’ve been keeping me chained up in a basement.”
He stares at you. “I,” he starts. “I –”
And then suddenly he is getting up, and pulling out a key ring from his back pocket, and wrenching the restraints up, and unlocking them. He pulls you up by your shirt, and you stagger to the side, off-balance.
“So go then,” he growls, leaning forward, teeth bared. “Get the fuck out.”
You lean back. “I don’t want to,” you say, and a shudder runs through him briefly that he forces into submission.
“You think I give a fuck?” he hisses, leaning forward, right into your face. “I want you the fuck out. You don’t fucking know me, even if you think you do, and I’m fucking sick of it.”
“I don’t know you, huh,” you say. You can smell his foul breath, this close, but you don’t reach out to touch his shoulders. “Maybe. But you know me. You know who I am.”
His face goes dark with something like rage for a second, and then suddenly his metal fist is slamming into your face, and everything –
When you come to, one fluorescent light is on over the workbench, and the cache of weapons underneath it is gone. There’s one gun sitting on the cleared surface – loaded – and you stare at it for a moment before grabbing it and hurling yourself up the stairs and out into the glaring, unwelcoming sun.
Kalisz really is a dump – a weird place for the mob, you think, but maybe that’s the point. It takes you a few minutes to orient yourself, but you remember where Bereza’s apartment is – an entire building, actually, but he and his family live on the top two floors, Stark told you. He made you memorize the maps and the floor plans on the train, and Sam had rolled his eyes, but you’re grateful now, as you force your way in the back entrance and thunder up the stairs. You don’t care about him – you’d be happy to kill him yourself, you think, for whatever it was he made Bucky do; Stark hadn’t told you. But you do not want to see Bucky standing over a body covered in blood. It has happened too often in his life: you do not want it to happen to him again. Not now, not now.
You ram the door open with your shoulder and stumble upon – middle-aged people eating lunch in a fancy parlor.
“Uh,” you say, as they stare up at you. The women look completely baffled, and not a little afraid – your hair and beard are overgrown, you remember, probably growing out a different color, and you are filthy – and one of the men starts reaching under the table for something.
“Nobody – came here?” you ask. They just stare at you.
“I’m going to go now,” you say, and turn, and run.
You wander the streets with your hood pulled up until the sun sets, looking around at the ruined buildings, the newer ones, the markets with their tacky, brightly-covered awnings, the parks with their unsullied trees. You missed the Cold War, but Bucky did not: Bucky was wrenched in and out of it, for all those years. It makes you shudder, thinking about it.
Eventually you make your way back to – the place he’d been living. You’re lucky you have a good sense of direction, because otherwise you’d be fucked. It looks somehow even sadder now that you are not chained up against the wall, now that you can walk around it and feel the space yourself, the small confines of it, and how he had not seemed to mind. Was this how he lived, you wonder, for whatever value of lived, ever since – before? Denuded down to nothing, to a blank space? He was a tool. He was a weapon. You read the file. They erased him. But to completely erase somebody – you have to believe that it is impossible.
You lie down on his camp bed, and think of Brooklyn, and sleep.
PART IV: OUROBORUS
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Steve?” your mother asked you, when you were a little boy, five, or six.
“I don’t know, Mama,” you said, leaning your head against her hip, as she swung you back and forth over the floorboards, sunlight glancing off of them into your eyes as you looked up at her down-turned face, adoring, adored. “I don’t know. I want to do something good.”
You find him deep in the forest, in Germany, in the burned-out husk of the detention facility where they had kept him, all those years ago: Dangerous Potentially Toxic Material, the English under the German says. Keep Out. But the rules have not applied to either of you for a long, long time. You did not know he would be here: you guessed. And you were right.
He’s standing in the wreckage, burned black foundations and strange collapsed shapes of things you don’t recognize and don’t want to, shivering even though it isn’t particularly cold, and his metal arm is hanging at a weird angle off of his body, pulling his torso down. He starts when he hears you coming, and jerks around, and the look on his face makes you stop.
“Hi, Bucky,” you say, and he wipes at his face with his hand.
“Why the fuck did you follow me here,” he says, but he doesn’t sound angry, just broken, and desperate, and you know that it is time, now: time for everything that has been coming, for all these years, and months, and weeks.
“Well, I lost you one time,” you say. “Twice, actually. That was more than enough.”
He lets out a weird choked noise that might be a sob. “Just – leave, would you please just go,” he says, “would please just let me – would you go –”
“What happened to your arm?” you ask.
“I turned it – I can’t get it off,” he says, practically choking on his words, wiping angrily at his face, at his watery eyes, with his good hand. “I don’t know how to get it off, so it’s just – hanging there, but I can’t – I can’t – I don’t want it – I don’t –”
“It’s going to be all right, Bucky,” you tell him.
“No it won’t,” he screams at you, eyes red and running. “It’s never going to be all right! Don’t you fucking – say that to me! It is never going to be all right!”
“Bucky,” you start, but he just keeps going.
“I killed children,” he shouts. “I killed little fucking kids. Don’t you fucking tell me it’s going to be okay because it’s not, it’s not, nothing is ever going to be okay –”
“Bucky,” you say. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Fuck you, Steve,” he chokes out, “fuck you, you don’t get to tell me that, you don’t get to – say that from your – place up on the fucking – mountaintop –”
“Bucky,” you say, taking a step closer, watching as he steps back, “it’s not –”
“You would never have done it,” he croaks. “If they had gotten you, you would never have done it.”
You stare at him for a moment. His chin is trembling and there are tears sliding down his face and you recognize him because you are inside each other: you have only ever been part of him, ever since you were ten years old, and he hit somebody for you without even knowing your name.
“Yes, I would have,” you tell him quietly. “I would have done all of it.”
“You’re fucking – Captain America,” he spits. “You would never –”
“Do you remember the summer I was sick, when we were – I think we were twenty,” you interrupt. “I couldn’t work, so you had to pay for everything. I just – lay there in bed, all summer. I thought I was going to die, I was so sick, and it was so hot. You worked all day, more than all day, and when you were done you came back and sat next to me all fucking night, until I fell asleep.”
He’s trembling, eyes closed, shaking his head back and forth.
“Stop it,” he’s muttering, “stop it, stop it, stop it –”
“You were good,” you tell him. “You are good.”
“Good people don’t feel like this,” he whispers, eyes pressed shut, one arm curled around him. “Good people don’t – do these things –”
“Bucky,” you say, inching closer and closer, through the ashen remains of the past, of your past, “until you pulled me out of the water, there was nothing I wanted more than to die.”
You have never articulated it to yourself, not in so many words. But it was true. You wanted so very, very badly to be dead. You remember lying there, in the shuddering wreck, as he hit you, and your head snapped to the side again and again, seeing flashes of Brooklyn slide fuzzily before you, and wanting to die. Your life had been so long and so out of joint, and – you knew once you had seen his empty face – it was nothing without Bucky in it. It is nothing.
You thought you could do it, before, you thought you could maybe stagger on forward, clawing through the fog of your life, but now you know. If he is not here you do not want to keep going.
“Stop it,” he’s muttering, “stop it, stop it, stop it –”
You think of all the days you spent in Brooklyn, in the summer, in the sunlight; his bare shoulders in your apartment; the way you used to look at his muscles without noticing what you were doing; his hair smoothed back under his cap; how very, very close he leaned in toward you whenever he had had any liquor in him. You think about the slightly bitter twist of his lips when he left you at the enlistment station on that last night in New York, before he went off with the girls – so many, many girls, always, that he hardly ever slept with – and you think about the way he used to look at you, in Germany, after you had changed, like he was confused by you, grateful and a little longing for something that was now gone – impossible, you had thought, without really processing it. But there it was. You were not the boy he knew anymore and he could not keep people – girls, women – away from you, as he had always done, even while pretending to do otherwise. You think back to the way he threw back his head and laughed at things you thought were not really that funny, and you know. You know.
“We were in love with each other, you know,” you tell him. “We just didn’t know it. I didn’t, anyway. Maybe you did. But I don’t think so.”
He opens his eyes to stare at you. “Why are you saying that?” he says, broken. “Why are you – why –”
“You were right,” you tell him, smiling a little, sad. “It was obvious.”
“I don’t – stop,” he says, broken. “It’s too late, would you just stop –”
“I love you,” you tell him, because you do. You would follow him anywhere, into any undiscovered country; you would disappear with him, if that were what it took. You do not want to live without him anymore.
A long, violent shudder runs through him, and he closes his eyes again.
“Don’t say that,” he whispers, vicious, and you step forward, slow, careful, but he doesn’t move.
“I love you,” you say again. “I’m sorry we were too dumb to figure it out before.”
“You don’t know me,” he says, and his voice is shaking as he opens his eyes. “You don’t fucking know who I am. I’m not your friend. You don’t want anything to do with me.”
“Of course I do, Bucky,” you say, and you smile, crooked. “You’re my mission.”
“When we grow up,” Bucky said, eleven, twelve, lying on the fire escape, kicking his legs off the edge, “we’ll get apartments across the hall from each other, so we’ll never be far apart, and if we ever need to tell each other anything, we’ll just walk across the hall, because we’ll always have a key –”
“Okay,” you said, looking up at clouds drifting across the sky behind the iron bars, feeling his warm body beside yours, at peace, content. “Okay.”
He lets out a horrible groan, and starts to fold down into himself, but you are there to catch him, as gently as you can, for you know that he has not been touched by anybody kind in a long, long time.
“It’s okay,” you whisper, as you curl one fist into his jacket, and pull him up, against you, wrapping an arm around his too-scrawny waist. “It’s okay.”
“I’m sorry,” he’s choking out, practically incoherent through his sobbing, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” but you know he doesn’t have anything to be sorry for, not in the way that he thinks. You get a hand up against the small of his back, under his shirt, and he shudders, and curls into you, and presses his face against your neck, clutches your shirt with his one good hand like you are the only thing that is keeping him from drowning.
You have been thinking, all this time, about all the times he left you: clomping down the stairs when you were ten, walking away to go overseas when you were older, falling down into the infinite abyss – and finally, on the shore, in the basement. But perhaps what you should have been thinking about was all the times he has come back. For there have been so many: the next day, at school, when he saw you, and grinned around his missing tooth, and said, “Hiya, Steve,” like he was so genuinely happy to see you; his loyal returns to your apartment on his military leaves; his impossible resurrection from the dead. But this, you think, is the most gargantuan effort, the most impossible feat he has ever yet achieved. For you are both soldiers, and you have been mired in the deep entrenchments of your battle wounds for all these many years with no relief, and no reprise. Bucky went away to Europe and though he has been in America, he did not ever escape combat. But here you both are, now, deep in the forest in Germany where you lost each other, you thought, forever – and after all this time he has done the impossible. He has come back to you, finally, from the war.