Steve looks up from the empty lot, and away from the iPhone he wasn’t really looking at, so much as giving himself something to look like he was looking at. There’s a woman beside him wearing an expression best described as ‘helpful’, a grey-and-pink onesie, and sunglasses pushed up into her hair, which is explosively curly. Back in the day, without evil intent, he and his would have referred to her as a ‘brownie’, but both now and then, she’s pretty and all things considered, there are worse interruptions to nostalgia than a reminder that some things have changed for the better.
“Hi,” Steve says, pocketing his iPhone.
“You lost?” she asks, concerned.
“Kinda.” Steve waves at the vacant lot. “There used to be a deli there.”
“There’s a Subway on the next block over,” she says, and Steve’s newly-acquired and still-struggling social radar guiltily erases one assumption of Brooklyn hipster snobbishness.
“I’m not really hungry,” Steve admits, with a quick smile. “I just wanted to see if it was still there. I guess seventy years is a long time for a mom and pop deli to stay in business.”
She gives him a confused, suspicious look for all of a second, catches herself, and says, “Oh, right, you’re Captain America. I thought you looked familiar. God. This happens all the time, I swear – I only moved here two years ago? And every second day it’s like ‘oh that dude looks like Lou Reed, wait a minute, that is Lou Reed’ – only it’s super weird because everyone looks like themselves but not at the same time? Like that’s the same face from TV –“ she waves in the general direction of Steve’s face, which he guesses most of the TV-owning population of the country must have seen on TV a thousand times by now, “– but in real life, everyone looks more ... human. Jon Stewart looks ancient.”
“TV make-up,” Steve confides. “It makes everyone look... more like they’re on TV, you know?”
“Yeah,” the woman says thoughtfully, then adds in obvious self-reproach. “Wow, I can’t believe I suggested Subway to Steve Rogers.”
Steve says, “Hey, I like Subway. You know when I was – before – even MacDonald’s hadn’t made it out of California yet.” He stops and gives her an embarrassed smile. “Which I looked up. On Wikipedia. And now you know,” he adds, as his iPhone beeps discreetly, “superheroes aren’t all as interesting as Tony Stark.”
Gratifyingly, she rolls her eyes. “Good.”
The text – he hates checking them in front of people, somewhere in his heart it feels rude – is a summons, as he suspected. Not urgent, but an appointment he still has to keep. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you--?”
“Wendy,” she says holding out her hand for him to shake. “Kimberly Wendy. I get a first name for a last name just to screw with registers.”
Steve shakes her hand. “It’s been a pleasure, Ma’am.”
As he leaves, he thinks: the deli is gone, but so are the guys who’d never have let Kimberly Wendy into it without yelling hateful things at her. The streets of the city might still be full of hate and questionable ethics – he’s seen the police say and do things that make him want to take their uniforms away and yell at them like a drill sergeant – but he’s yet to find a downside in the world moving forward that way.
He just wishes he’d been there to move with it.
Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, known to his friends as Bucky, wakes to find himself strapped to what appears, from his vague knowledge of these things, to be an operating table. He’s woozy, naked, and mostly numb, and he can’t remember much besides falling, snow, and a lot of horrible pain.
Someone is speaking English to him, in a German accent. In Bucky’s recent experience, that’s not a good sign.
“You’re in a bad way, James,” says the voice. Bucky is vaguely aware of a needle, but he can’t feel anything and the medical setting goes a little way toward soothing a sense of unease. “But we can fix that.”
Bucky closes his eyes almost involuntarily. He’s tired – no, exhausted – and for the time being no one is shooting at him. The important thing, he decides, is that he isn’t dead. Steve will be looking for him. The one thing he can say with confidence is that Steve, scrawny idiot –
Bucky corrects himself, still getting used to the idea of Steve Rogers, muscular powerhouse, with the force to drive his already ungovernable stubbornness.
– Steve, unstoppable hero, whether he likes the title or not, won’t give up. That’s always been his defining characteristic. That and being an idiot about getting into fights he can’t win. Steve will be coming for him – Steve and the remaining Howling Commandos, but most of all Steve. Bucky should, in all probability, do his own end of the fighting and run out to meet his rescuers. Just to show Steve that he doesn’t need to be saved this time.
Bucky’s breathing is shallow and soft. He can hear people speaking German nearby, but he can also pick out medical-sounding words, Latin words, even if he doesn’t know what they mean.
All he has to do is stay alive, and preserve hope. He didn’t die at the hands of Hydra: Steve came and got him. Steve will always come and get him, on the rare occasions when Bucky needs someone else’s helping hand out.
All he has to do is wait for Steve. Steve won’t give up on him.
Steve freezes on the threshold of his apartment, and relaxes only a very little when he recognises the voice greeting him. “Tony, get out of my apartment.”
“I brought you a gift,” Tony says. Steve closes the door behind him, catches sight of his antagonist: he’s wearing a salmon pink suit and has been at a tan bed recently, which has left him looking like a Hostess cake with some fundamental construction issues. There’s a large cardboard box on the sofa beside him, and because Tony is Tony it has a frankly ostentatious red shiny holographic ribbon bow stuck to it. Tony gestures to the box, because Steve might be blind or completely insensate and therefore incapable of noticing the thing.
It’s been hard getting to grips with what constitutes a friendly gesture from Tony Stark. In part this is because Tony Stark is one of the world’s most powerfully abrasive substances, and rubs Steve up the wrong way in roughly the same way that being sandpapered in a burning building would. In part it’s because Tony’s overtures of friendship are often indistinguishable from Tony being an overwhelmingly huge jerk.
“It’s a microwave,” Tony adds, because if there’s one thing he’s identifiably terrible at, it’s surprises.
“I don’t want a microwave,” Steve says, going to fetch a beer for Tony on autopilot and discovering that, as usual, the interloper has helped himself.
“Don’t be a fuddy-duddy,” Tony says, waving the purloined beer at him. “You’re just afraid of learning how to use one.”
Steve stops with his hand on the fridge door handle and frowns the length of his apartment at the back of Tony’s head. “I can fly three types of plane,” he points out, with restraint. “And I can fix most extant Army vehicles on my own. I can use a microwave, Tony.”
Tony’s problem, or one of the many that Steve has been forced to identify so far, is that he assumes that everyone else understands as much about engineering and physics as he does and therefore makes no effort whatsoever to explain himself or his leaps of logic. When he doesn’t assume that – usually after he’s been disappointed in that assumption – he swings too far in the other direction and acts like every other person in the world is impossibly dumb and can’t so much as change a bicycle tire.
It’s a problem a lot of really smart people have, Steve’s aware, but Tony is the only person who manages to turn it into a gaping character flaw you could drive a Boeing through.
“I think you’re intimidated by the LED display,” Tony says with confidence born of absolutely no evidence.
“I’m guessing this is hard for you to understand,” Steve says, leaving the fridge to stand in the space between what counts as his kitchen and what counts as his living space, “but I enjoy cooking.”
“I mix a mean cocktail,” Tony offers, by way of attempted understanding.
It slowly slides into place: the invasion, the artificial tan, the aggressive generosity, the surface confidence. Steve sighs, and leans on the wall. With someone who didn’t annoy him so much, with someone who crossed the boundary from professional to personal without trying to detonate ten things on the way over, he might have leaned on the back of the sofa instead.
“Shouldn’t you be bothering Bruce about this?” he asks, at last.
“He’s in India,” Tony says, and takes a quick gulp of beer that proves Steve’s suspicions to be, if nothing else, not without foundation.
“That doesn’t usually stop you,” Steve points out.
“He went there for ‘peace and quiet’,” Tony adds, bolting more beer.
“Again,” Steve says, “that doesn’t normally stop you.”
Tony sets the beer down on the floor – instead of on the table next to him that has a coaster on it and is there precisely so that people don’t put beer on the floor – and smiles a smile that is closer to a grimace, apparently waiting for something.
Steve sighs again.
“Okay, I wanted to ask you something,” Tony says, deflating. He is, Steve has often noted, a lot less irritating when the fight goes out of him, which is a thought he doesn’t like having. He suspects it’s unnecessarily mean. Tony is a giant jerk but he is, and Steve’s still not sure how this happened, also his friend.
He hopes this something isn’t going to be related to Tony’s well-documented ‘acquisitive’ approach to relationships.
“After New York,” Tony says, and stops.
“Yes,” Steve prompts.
“Actually, you know what,” Tony says, getting to his feet, animated by something uncomfortable. “Never mind. Give the microwave to Goodwill or put it on eBay or whatever.”
“After New York,” Steve says, raising his eyebrows.
“You know Sweden’s trying to vote in mandatory post-combat psychological counselling for all veterans?” Tony says, apparently changing the subject.
“Yes,” Steve says patiently. “I keep up with the news.”
“Good,” Tony says, circulating inside the small living space like an apple in a whirlpool. “Good.”
Steve rubs his face. He feels tired, and irritable, and wishes to God that Tony would learn to deal with his problems like an adult, and stop trying to make them disappear by either drinking them, having sex with them, or buying expensive presents for people at random and trying to fix entire countries at once. There’s something depressingly childish about the way he runs headlong into too-large plans with all guns blazing, ready to take on everything except himself. He’s like, Steve thinks, if Howard Stark were Peter Pan.
“See a therapist,” Steve says, cutting to the crux with the dire certainty that Tony would rather chew off his own right arm than do any such thing.
“Are you?” Tony demands, rounding on him like Steve’s his father.
“Yes,” Steve says quietly, as Tony flounders, and nearly knocks over his discarded beer.
“Battle fatigue –” Steve stops, and corrects himself, “post traumatic stress disorder is a serious problem and one you should take seriously. I don’t want to develop it. It’s normal, sane practice for a soldier to take care of his mind as well as his body.”
Tony stares at him like a dog that’s unexpectedly had his paw trodden on. “I’m not a soldier,” he says, and he sounds like a child again.
“Sometimes you are,” Steve says. “Please go home. Isn’t Pepper going to be worried about you?”
“Pepper’s always worried about me,” Tony says, with a forced grin. “She’s also in Alaska right now, teaching shareholders about the joys of subzero energy generation.” He eyeballs Steve, waiting for Steve to either pass or fail the test of knowing what the hell subzero energy generation entails – Steve guesses superconductors are involved somewhere, but he ignores the test entirely.
“The couch folds out,” Steve says. Tony knows. Steve knows he knows.
He leaves for the bathroom. The future looked like it was going to be a lot of things, from 1945: Communist, maybe, and brighter, always brighter than the things they’d left behind. He’d never really guessed it was going to involve a billionaire super-engineer with a fragile sense of self and terror of sleeping on his own crashing on his couch every so often.
“Welcome back,” says the same German-accented voice as before.
Bucky stares up at an array of lights. Silhouetted against it is an unfamiliar head wearing dark goggles and surgical whites. He wants, urgently, to throw up.
“You will feel a little nauseous,” says the surgeon, which Bucky feels is an understatement: his gorge is rising and he can taste bile in the back of his throat. “It is illusory. Concentrate on my face, and the sensation will pass.”
Bucky considers telling the goggle-wearing owner of the voice to go fuck itself, but the nausea roils and he can’t move his body: if he pukes, he’s gonna drown in it.
He does as he’s told, and the nausea passes.
“Tell me, James,” says the surgeon, adjusting the straps that hold Bucky to the table, “what do you remember?”
Bucky says nothing, and stares blankly up at the surgeon’s face. He remembers plenty, and one of the things he remembers is that he’s not required to answer any question and that he only needs to give his name, rank, and serial number. But until he’s asked for them, he’s not giving those, either.
The surgeon says, “You have sustained several serious injuries, James, I must know that your brain has not also. Can you speak? What is the last thing that you remember?”
Bucky shakes his head minutely.
“Try, please,” says the surgeon with implacable calm. He has a bare head, and no mask: his hair is icy blond, whiter than Steve’s. His lips are thin, but his nose is broad, in that specific way noses have when they have been flattened more than once. If he had bigger ears he might look like a boxer. “What is the last thing you remember?”
Bucky’s tongue feels glutinous and strange in his mouth. He can taste bile climbing the back of his throat, and without thinking about it he stares up at the two black circles upon the surgeon’s face.
“Falling,” he croaks. The bile subsides. The surgeon accepts this answer without changing his expression.
Bucky gears up to face another wave of nausea, but instead of vomit, only brings up the word “Snow” with almost as much pain and disgust.
The surgeon says, “Were you falling, or was the snow falling?”
“Both,” Bucky manages, and the effort is such that he feels as if he is falling all over again.
“Good,” the surgeon says. “Good. It was winter, and you fell. Good.” He taps James’s cheek with a gloved finger, and says, “Open your mouth.”
Contrary still, Bucky clamps his jaws shut. It was winter? How long has he been here? The search cannot have been successful yet. He thinks of Steve, ploughing on through the falling snow, arguing with his superiors, fighting orders to go home: he corrects the mental image to Steve Rogers the recent, resplendent in red, white and blue, with shoulders that could accommodate two of who he once was. The determination is the same unstoppable force.
He must be exhausted by trying by now, Bucky thinks. But he will be here soon.
“Either open your mouth or I am forced to insert instruments to force your mouth open,” the surgeon says. “This is time-consuming and painful for us both.”
Bucky clenches his jaw and thinks about Steve breaking through the door. He strains his ears for the sound of panicked gunfire, but can hear only an electric fan, and the slight echo in the surgeon’s voice that convinces him he is underground.
“This is a bit,” says the surgeon, holding a six-inch-long black rubber cylinder in front of Bucky’s eyes. He seems impatient. “It goes between your teeth, so.” He demonstrates upon himself. “It prevents the patient from biting through his own tongue or snapping his teeth. This is for your own good.”
Bucky scowls at the surgeon, and wills the door to burst open.
“The damage done to your body is considerable,” the surgeon says, and there is definite impatience in his voice now. “We aim to repair as possible but for the work on the nerves here –“ he touches Bucky somewhere in his shoulder, somewhere Bucky thought it was not possible to touch, with the rubber bit.
A white light shoots through the back of Bucky’s eyes and his entire body is hot and electric and furious with pain: as it subsides he can feel his palms and face prickle with sweat.
“– We must work without anaesthetic in order to preserve accurately the sensation and motor – what the word is – transmission perhaps – of the nerve tissues.” The surgeon holds the bit in front of Bucky’s mouth. “Your cooperation in this sees you regain the use of two upper limbs. But it will hurt. Do not compound your suffering with snapped incisors, James.”
The surgeon presses the black rubber bit against Bucky’s tight-locked lips. Even against the bright lights he is obscuring, Bucky can see his eyebrows lift in encouragement. The dark goggles, perfect circles hovering over Bucky’s face in a sea of pale skin, move in alignment as the surgeon’s expression changes to one of beatific enthusiasm.
Bucky opens his mouth, and the bit slips between his teeth. He bites down into the black rubber. It tastes of burning, and of someone else’s saliva.
The surgeon turns away to address some unseen party in the room, and the full might of the overhead lighting array shines down onto Bucky’s face. There is a low-volume discussion in German. A trolley with a squeaking wheel. The sound of metal rattling loose on metal. The smell of hospital, strong and close; the smell of hot metal. The smell of human sweat, his own and other people’s.
He tries to picture Steve breaking down the door, and then the pain starts.
“I’d just like to start by thanking you for your cooperation in this,” says the Resource Liaison for the museum. She is extremely short, and wearing a form-fitting dress that is covered in old woodcuts of sea monsters, no two alike.
Steve is fascinated – the quality of line is surprisingly good – but not quite sure how to examine the draughtsmanship without looking as if he’s being inappropriate. He focuses his attention on her face, which is homely and round. She looks kinda like a female Archie.
“It’s important to us that you’re okay with the tone of the exhibit,” the Resource Liaison continues. Her name, Steve recalls, is something like Rebecca, but not actually Rebecca, and it makes him think of measles for some reason. “And we’re really excited to be able to say that you’ve consulted with us on the accuracy of our material – of course, we do always interview any surviving participants of an era or event when we script for an exhibition,” she gave Steve a hurried smile, “but it’s rare they still fit into their original uniforms for the publicity stills!”
“Hah,” Steve says dutifully. “Did you include a piece on the War Bonds show?”
“Of course,” says not-Rebecca, making a note on her tablet. “It’s an integral part of the Captain America story.”
“I hated that show,” Steve says, with a resigned grin. “Not the show, but the waste of resources. I should have been out there fighting from the start, not trying to talk the Mid-West into buying bonds.”
“The finances for the front line have to come from somewhere,” not-Rebecca says, with a quick blink and a strained smile. “You should have come here last year, for the exhibit on wartime propaganda – not one of ours, it came over from the Imperial War Museum in London – and seen what kind of massaging of the truth we kept up all through the 20th century.”
“I did,” says Steve. “It made me feel glad I’d been asleep.” When the words are out of his mouth he realises how harsh they must sound, but it’s too late to take them back now.
“I think my favourite was the carrots,” not-Rebecca says. She flips through something on her tablet, and Steve recalls her name at last: Rebella, which sounds more like a model of motorbike than a person. “I can’t believe the Germans – and everyone else – actually fell for that as more plausible than radar! Carrots help you see in the dark! Man.”
“They don’t?” Steve asks.
For a moment he and Rebella stare at each other in unblinking deadlock, neither of them willing to be the first to crack. Rebella looks disbelieving and slightly worried.
Steve gives in. “I’m joking.”
She exhales. “Wow, that was tense. Good thing we have a whole gallery on wartime innovations so no one else makes that mistake.” Rebella pauses, and returns to her tablet. “Okay... aside from the War Bonds tour... the Howling Commandos...development process... Howard Stark... the indomitable Peggy Carter – I can’t believe I didn’t get the interview team for her segment, I think she’s just amazing–“
“I’ll tell her you said so,” Steve murmurs.
“—is there anything else? Any childhood heroes we should throw into the mix for a bit of continuity?” Rebella makes an incomprehensible gesture that involves both her hands and most of her upper body, “You know, show the kids that just as Steve Rogers emulated his great hero they too can, in their own way, be just as great as Captain America?”
“You’re not going to use that line to sell breakfast cereal, are you?”
“It’s just that last time someone said ‘kids can be just like Captain America’ they used it to sell a cereal that was I think about 40% corn syrup and there was a lawsuit.” Steve takes a moment to look around the half-assembled exhibit, the Perspex stands and the naked mannequins lying in a pile, and adds, “Bucky Barnes.”
“We got the Howling Commandos in,” Rebella reminds him.
“Bucky Barnes,” Steve repeats, staring at the pile of currently headless mannequins. He tries to remember when his next appointment with Dr Yelland is. “You asked who my childhood hero was. He was generous when he had almost nothing of his own and he was brave without being as dumb about it as I usually was, and –“ he stops, and bites down on whatever wants to come out next. He’s still not up to giving an elegy to Bucky, and that’s all he’s going to do if he keeps talking.
“We’ll get a segment on Bucky,” Rebella assures him, making another note on her tablet. She says in a stage whisper, “Did you know Tony Stark donated three and a half million dollars to this exhibit?”
He could have donated it to a veterans charity if he wanted to apologise, Steve thinks, and hauls himself up for being unkind. Aloud, he only says, “That sounds like Tony. Did he try to turn half of it into the wonderful genius of Howard Stark?”
“No,” Rebella says with a twitch at the corner of her mouth, “he tried to make us take him out entirely.” She checks her watch. “Ugh, I have to talk to the costumiers in three minutes, would you be okay to see yourself out?”
“Sure,” says Steve, amused by her sudden change in tone. “I, uh, by the way. I like your dress.”
“Thanks,” Rebella says, already not listening to him, and reaching for something in her bag.
Steve picks his way out of the maze of unfinished stands and wonders if she’ll stay true to her word, if she’ll pick Bucky out as special. He’d probably have hated that kind of attention, Steve thinks, as he makes it to the exit and sidesteps a school party.
They all turn and stare at him, but he just pulls on a baseball cap and takes the steps two at a time.
Bucky’s not here to argue with the title of childhood hero, Steve thinks. And it’s the living that own the memories of the dead.
He sits down on the last step, and wonders if he should move his appointment with Dr Yelland forward.
“Your cooperation is appreciated,” says the new Kommandant.
Bucky understands that the statement, though general, has been made in English for his benefit. He can’t make himself care. They have tried to teach him German and, since the acquisition of the base by the Soviets, Russian: he is having difficulty retaining abstract information. And he can’t make himself care.
Any day, he thinks. Any day now, Steve will find him.
Dr Rache is convinced that his inability to hold language and non-actionable intel is due to the brain injury they believe he sustained while falling. Or more accurately, while landing very hard. Dr Rache is a specialist on head injuries and therefore would think that, in the opinion of Dr Okhotnik. Dr Okhotnik believes that Bucky’s memory problems are the result of psychological trauma, which as a psychologist, Dr Rache says, is only to be expected. Dr Myśliwy has no public opinion on this because he is a Pole and a robotics engineer and hates both Dr Okhotnik and Dr Rache with equal passion and finds his job demeaning and repellent.
Zola, an elusive figure with whom Bucky has had no contact, apparently believes with cast-iron confidence that this issue can be overcome and will be overcome. The experiments continue.
The new Kommandant says: “The man’s head is cluttered. It is our job to cleanse it and lay down the necessary foundations for building a soldier in service of Hydra.”
Bucky remains slumped in his wheelchair. Months – he calculates, if not years – of work on his arm have led to the wasting of his legs. He is in recovery for this. The muscle mass is increasing in efficiency.
The one image that remains clear in his mind besides the moment of downfall is the one he has invented, time and time again, as he submits to further adjustments of the mechanism that has become part of his body: Steve will come into this room, through the door or the wall or the ceiling, he will drill through the floor if he has to, and he will make all of this stop.
Bucky assumes this is what is preventing him from learning anything he is taught. That, and his complete lack of desire to learn.
“For the execution of this, you will now be working with Dr Ovçu,” says the new Kommandant, Major Stalserdtse. “Who will change her name soon if she wishes to continue her existence as a valued member of the Soviet state, and therefore Hydra.”
Dr Ovçu is dark-eyed, dark-haired, and looks neither Slavic nor Teutonic. At a guess Bucky might once have placed her as Greek, but her name suggests somewhere further to the east. It matters little now what her country once was, for it is all Russia, and as far as Bucky is concerned, one captor is much the same as another.
She says something in Russian, with an accent that is not Russian. Dr Okhotnik looks at her as if she is something he has trodden in while passing an overflowing sewer.
It is Dr Myśliwy who translates this, hesitantly, into English, for the benefit of Bucky. He is unimpressed too: “In this we shall use the electricity to provide a slate that is clean.” He adds something in bad Russian, directed at the Major, and the Major replies:
“Then remove the arm until it is over. There is no advantage in owning a ‘supersoldier’ who cannot obey orders.”
“Who?” Steve asks, staring down at the quiz card. “I... nope. No, no...”
“Who recruited him for our team?” asks a young woman Steve is more or less sure is Madeline. “He doesn’t know anything.”
“Excuse you, he did real good in the history round,” says another young woman, whose name is apparently Frances.
The other two components of the five-person team are drag queens, who introduced themselves as Roxane and Savannah, and Steve cannot remember which is which, only that he was enjoying the quiz right up until the pop culture section.
The day is bright, the sky is blue, the air conditioning – blessed, wonderful air conditioning – is icy enough that he has to keep his arms crossed over his nipples, in this shirt. It is, apparently, ‘Pride’. A new condition for New York City, but one which Steve finds makes him happy. There is a parade. There are quizzes like this one. There are the mandatory collectives of Christians who don’t seem to have understood what Christianity is really about.
On the whole, Steve thinks as Roxane-or-Savannah jokingly upbraids him for not even knowing who Christian Slater is – “Or was” – in between the horrors and the international brutalities, the insidious cruelties against the poor which make his insides hurt every time their effects are evident before him – on the whole, when it’s not making him mad because it’s 2014 and people still say “nigger” and some thoughtful assholes invented some new horrible words to use alongside, when it’s not grinding on his patience that they’ve apparently put people on the moon repeatedly and can 3-D print missing bones but can’t seem to manage to stop declaring war on each other for three seconds, when it isn’t disappointing him with the news that although they can cure more diseases than he could have dreamed of in 1944 they aren’t doing it because public health isn’t considered in the public interest –
– When Steve tears himself away from the news and goes out and talks to people like he is now, there are still things that make him furious with the wasted chances and the endless sadness and the lonelinesses shared by billions of people, but they’re lessened by the chance he has to see what’s gone right, too, and –
“He’s my adopted adorable time-travelling idiot for this afternoon and y’all are just gonna have to stop tryna make him feel baaaad,” Frances says, in what is probably meant to be a Texas drawl to go with her cowboy outfit and which sounds more like Bostonian with a tender part caught in a door. She squeezes Steve’s shoulder in a calculatedly patronising way, and whispers, “The third one is Leo DiCaprio,” loudly into his ear.
“No cheating,” Savannah cries, flailing at her.
– and sometimes he relaxes enough, like right now, to appreciate that the future has a lot of good in it, too.
At the bar there is a group of men in costumes he finds immediately familiar, if a little less impressive when rendered primarily in Lycra and foam – or differently impressive, at least. The colours, too, are funny: a vivid green Hulk with eye-searing purple short shorts, and a lurid red wig on the guy who drew the apparent short straw to represent Natasha, although he’s definitely making the most of it.
His own imitator catches sight of him, and waves energetically, drunk in the middle of the day. Steve waves back, red in the face, and can’t help laughing when the brighter, tighter, and almost as large Captain America cheers at the top of his voice, and starts blowing kisses with both hands.
“You can’t have him, he’s ours,” Roxane shouts.
“We got our own!” calls back the imitation Tony Stark, who has finer facial hair than Tony will ever own, a handlebar moustache waxed into two impressive spirals.
The world he left, Steve thinks, as he turns back to the desperately unfamiliar array of printed faces on his quiz card, wouldn’t have stood for this. They might have turned a blind eye to closed rooms with surreptitious dancing men, but this riot of colour and happiness, of hugs and kisses and men in wigs nearly as tall as they were, this, this explosion of love...
“What’re you giggling about?” demands Frances, poking him in the knee.
“I think I’m drunk,” Steve admits, putting a black X next to a photo of Jimmy Stewart. Jon Stewart. That guy. “And I really, really, really like the future right now.”
“Who?” Bucky asks.
The card is dropped in front of his face again. Bucky squints at it. There is a face on the card. The face is white with dark hair. It is a man. He shrugs.
“No,” he says, giving up.
“That’s you.” The doctor – Bucky isn’t sure why the word comes to mind, but it accompanies the image of a man in a white coat the way that Bucky accompanies his sense of consciousness – removes the card. “Do you remember my name?”
Bucky shrugs. He remembers pain. He remembers pain searing through his scalp, and white light, and pain in his jaw, and pain in his teeth, and pain in his sinuses. He remembers that he ought to have two arms, which he currently does not. He remembers that he ought to be able to move, but he is strapped into place. And he remembers that he is waiting for someone to come and get him.
That part is horribly clear.
“I am Dr Okhotnik,” says the doctor. “You have known me now for three years.”
“I don’t remember you,” Bucky says, and the words come out as a hoarse croak. His throat hurts. He would far rather not speak until the pain in his jaw has subsided.
“Good,” says the apparent Dr Okhotnik. “We have made some progress. If I tell you that Dr Rache has been executed for treachery, how do you feel?”
Bucky shrugs again. He feels something more is expected of him, and his head is throbbing. He wants to close his eyes. His mind feels slippery and unfinished, and when he tries to examine the feeling he becomes abruptly nauseous.
“Who is Dr Rache?” he asks, at last, and the effort makes him want to throw up even more.
“An idiot,” says Dr Okhotnik, abruptly. “You will be allowed to sleep shortly. Would you like that?”
“One more question and then you will be allowed to sleep,” Dr Okhotnik confirms, patting Bucky on the cheek. It is surprisingly painless. Whatever has happened to make Bucky feel as if he has been squeezed violently has clearly had no effect on his face. “What is your name?”
“Bucky,” says Bucky.
Dr Okhotnik seems genuinely saddened by this. “Oh. No, this will not do.” He moves out of Bucky’s line of sight, leaving him to stare up at a circle of five lights. One, two, three, four, five. Dr Okhotnik says something in a language Bucky doesn’t understand: the same part of him that said a white coat meant a doctor says this is Russian. Five lights. S. T. E. V. E.
There is someone coming for him very soon, Bucky thinks, someone who is going to make all of this stop happening, and his name is Steve.
Dr Okhotnik returns with a dark-eyed, dark-haired woman, who appears to also be a doctor. They talk over his head for a while.
Steve is coming to get him.
The second doctor places a metal clamp around his head, with gaps for his ears, and Dr Okhotnik inserts a black rubber bit between his teeth. Without context, and without any understanding of why beyond the sudden urging of instincts stronger than his weak and flagging reason, Bucky begins to panic.
“Nnrrggh,” he says, which is the closest he can manage to “no” with his lips parted and his teeth forced open. “Nnnrghh!”
“Shut up,” Dr Okhotnik says pleasantly, strapping the lower half of his face down.
Bucky tries to thrash, but there are several straps holding his body to the table, at close intervals, and all he can do is tense and relax muscles which feel weaker than they reasonably should be. He makes an attempt to beat the back of his head against the table, but the clamp is significantly stronger than he is.
“NRRRGH,” Bucky repeats, the panic swelling in his chest until it takes over all other sensations. The pain in his head recedes in the face of a desperate need to flee.
Dr Okhotnik says something to the other doctor. It sounds as if he is counting.
“NRGH,” Bucky insists, tears forming in the corner of his eyes with the strain of trying to break his bonds.
Dr Okhotnik stops counting. There is a clunk.
Steve is coming to get me, Bucky thinks, with a manic determination, barely understanding the phrase. He’s looking for me, he’s coming to get me.
The pain enters his skull like an explosion, and it engulfs his consciousness in a ball of light so fierce that it burns away everything he has ever known.
“You,” Peggy says, half-rising from her pillow. “Hello, Steve.”
“Me,” Steve confirms, putting his small pile of offerings on the night stand. “Don’t get up, the nurses said—“
“They just like to keep me horizontal so I can’t see them playing World of Warcraft on the records computer,” Peggy says waving Steve into the visitor’s chair. “There’s nothing really wrong. I’m just old.” She catches sight of his expression, guesses what he’s about to say, and adds, “My body is old. And I’ve done a lot with it, so I really shouldn’t complain.”
“Plenty of time for you to do more,” Steve adds, with the firmness of one wondering how far through death’s door she’d already gone. “Take up surfing.”
“Pfft,” Peggy snorts. “I already did that. Fiftieth birthday present: surfing lessons in Hawaii. I was appalling.”
Steve reaches out and takes her hand. “What’s it like from up there?”
“You should know,” Peggy murmurs.
“Nah,” Steve says, squeezing her fingers gently – they feel papery, but her pulse is vigorous. “I jumped, you climbed. I can’t see any of the intervening space.” He smiles at her as her attention begins to wander toward the TV. “Tell me about the Seventies.”
“Good grief, you sound like my niece. Great-niece. ‘Aunt Peggy, tell me about the olden days’.” She coughs for a minute, and closes one eye to get Steve into focus. “Have you seen the news?”
“Can’t get away from it,” Steve says, pointedly.
“Drones,” Peggy says, bitterly. “Extraordinary rendition. Torture camps. Occupy. How did we get to this?” She gives Steve an impatient look, and sighs. “I know it’s pointless asking you. You missed out on all the interim. But at least you have the benefit of hindsight without the guilt of thinking ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’.”
“Oh, I got all the guilt,” Steve says, a little too grimly. He tries to smile at her. “Maybe if I’d been around I coulda helped.”
“Or defected to Russia,” Peggy says, stroking the top of his hand with her thumb. It feels almost like being licked by a cat, and it makes him feel impossibly sad.
“Hey, I resent that.”
“The Steve Rogers we had files on in 1945 –“
“Has now seen what happened to Communism,” Steve says, working hard to keep the bitterness out of his voice again. “I didn’t want Soviet Socialism, Peggy, I wanted American, democratic Communism. A fair deal for workers and no more starving single mothers.”
“Sorry about that,” Peggy says, gesturing with her free hand to the hospital room and the television. “That didn’t really ... work out, did it?”
She turns away, her hand still caught in his, and stares for a protracted moment at the curtains. Steve waits for her to collect her thoughts, and tries not to collect his too thoroughly. The TV silently demonstrates the advantages of cleaning with a particular brand of detergent that Steve sees he is supposed to recognise from the revolting pink shade of the bottle alone.
The curtains are peach-coloured. The walls are magnolia. They are the colours his mother had aspired to, and the knowledge makes him as sad as the cat-tongue texture of Peggy’s thumb over his.
“There are secret wars,” Peggy says at last, not looking at him, “and there are secret wars. And after a point we’ve become indistinguishable from ‘the enemy’. We have the same lack of remorse and the same shadows to hide our aberrations in. We use the same weapons, we buy them from the same dealers – we have the same methods, and we treat everyone - everyone - as an enemy combatant, no matter how old or young or weak or strong.” Her grip tightens on his fingers. “I would have liked to have died believing that I was fighting for good, instead of fighting for a side.”
“Me too,” Steve says, softly. He pries her fingers loose before they can lock, and holds them splayed between his own. It is a gesture of more intimacy than he was ever truly afforded before he froze, and the thought makes him wish more than anything that he had some way of turning back the clock, and making things different. Back where - when - he came from, intimacy had always been the stumbling block. It is still the stumbling block, he knows, but now there are ways to recognise that, and change that.
“We’d have both have to have died a long, long time ago for that,” Peggy concludes. “Oh, Steve. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to depress you – you came all this way to see me and I’m bitter and bad-tempered today.”
“I’m not exactly cheering you up either,” Steve says, withdrawing his hand with a pat.
“Yes you are,” she says, a solemn and heartfelt contradiction. “You came to see me.”
“You,” says the doctor, who does not spark any sense of recognition in him, “will be subject to some chemical and hormonal alterations over the course of the next year. These will be interspersed with rigorous training sessions. Nod if you understand me.”
He nods. There are straps around his head. There is a metal arm on one side of his body and a flesh one on the other, but they both feel like his.
“What is your name?”
“You will be assigned a code name,” says the doctor, patting him on the cheek. The room is cold, but he finds it does not bother him: the sensation is merely a sensation. “You will answer to The Winter Soldier. If in future anyone asks you your name, you will tell them that.”
The Winter Soldier licks his lips, which have grown dry. He stares at the doctor, who is fat, porcine, and streaked with an array of facial scars which look as if he has taken some sort of explosive to the region of his mouth. “Was there a Summer Soldier?”
“Yes,” says the doctor, assembling something out of his line of sight. It involves a great deal of screwing and slotting. “He failed to accept the formula and died. Slowly.”
The Winter Soldier continues to stare at the doctor with flat eyes, almost dead eyes. The doctor, were he in the habit of studying photos of marine life, might equate them to those of a shark. He says: “I think someone is coming for me.”
“Do you know who?” the doctor asks, stiffening. He continues to screw together what seems to be an infinitely long series of valves, but he is on edge, his face paler than it was before.
“No,” The Winter Soldier frowns to himself, suddenly humanised in one moment of uncertainty. “But I know someone is coming to find me.”
“No,” says the doctor, raising the needle. It is attached to several feet of flexible, opaque tubing, with a metal valve every foot and a half or so. The tubing snakes out of the door: the Winter Soldier lays his head back on the table. “No, there is no one coming for you. We will begin the first course of treatment in three, two –“
It is only at this point in the conversation that the Winter Soldier is aware he is both speaking and listening in Russian.
“No,” Steve says, carefully. The contents of Dr Yelland’s desk are now so neatly arranged that they are in danger of inventing a new geometry to explain them. Dr Yelland has, on previous occasions, tried to make Steve lie on a couch and talk to the ceiling, but Steve only suggests he might try a different therapist whenever Dr Yelland brings this up.
“No?” Dr Yelland asks, tapping the side of his grizzled face. “It would be abnormal not to mourn the abrupt loss of an entire life.”
“I don’t mourn it excessively,” Steve says, his throat tight, and his clothes tighter. When he walked in he wore the casual, loose-fitting wear sufficient for blending into the world he lives in, but here in the offices of the head-shrinker he keeps on the body-hugging comfort of a PT shirt and running shorts, and to heck with whether he looks ridiculous.
“How much is excessive, Steve?” Dr Yelland asks, still rubbing the side of his face with his fingers. As is apparently normal for psychiatrists, Dr Yelland has more tics and twitches than most of his patients.
“However much you say it is,” Steve says, folding his hands in his lap, and sitting up very, very straight. “Put that in the assessment.”
“What I have put in the assessment will not change until you change,” says Dr Yelland, massaging his crows’ feet gently. “In my opinion you are suffering from several psychological problems and the majority of them are anchored in your inability to let go and process what has happened to you.”
Steve stares straight ahead and says, “I have processed what happened to me and I am turning my anger towards productive pursuits and making an effort to integrate into modern society.”
“You’re still angry, though,” says Dr Yelland, making an attempt to smooth down his furiously expansive eyebrows. They alone of his hair have retained their original colour, a flash of deep, anxious red among the steel and white of the rest of his head. Even his lips are a little colourless.
Steve shoves his hands, which have turned into fists without him asking them to, between his thighs, where Dr Yelland can’t see them. He says, “I can’t help that.” He swallows, and unclenches his left hand to gesture at the open fourth-storey window. “The world – the way it is –“
“A certain amount of anger at the state of an unjust world is healthy and positive,” agrees Dr Yelland, before pulling fitfully on his large, fleshy earlobes. “But what you experience is not ‘a certain amount’. If you find almost no surcease in your rage, that is not healthy. If you are unable to grieve fully and without self-recrimination for the act of grieving, that is not healthy. If you rebuff attempts to deepen friendships beyond initial, fleeting contact, that is not healthy. If you cling to the past, to your guilt, to your own loneliness and removal from the world, Captain Rogers, that is extremely unhealthy.” He scratches the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger at the same time. “It is my professional opinion that you are repressing a deep emotional response to a traumatic event and endangering your own sanity.”
“Traumatic event,” Steve echoes. “That was decades ago.”
“Which?” Dr Yelland asks, pleasantly. “The one to which I refer is that of your abrupt waking into a world for which you were not prepared, to find all your previous networks of friendship and intimacy dissolved and decayed. Remember, too, that those ‘decades ago’ events of which you speak – the crash, and your friend –“
“DON’T TALK ABOUT HIM.” Steve clutches the underside of his thighs, straightens his back, and says, “I apologise for interrupting, Dr Yelland, and for raising my voice, but the sentiment remains.”
“—I fear you have rather proved my point,” sighs Dr Yelland. “And it is required of me to remind you that in any patient, a traumatic event of ‘decades ago’ can, untreated, continually eat into their consciousness until there is only pain and sorrow left...” He taps himself twice on each knee. “You have after all shared with me your experience of visiting veterans hospitals: there are men there of my generation whose minds are irrecoverably damaged by decades-ago trauma.” His face softens. “And no one doubts that you are compassionate.”
“You’ve made your point,” Steve says, from behind gritted teeth.
“It may be difficult for you to see your own compassion or to feel its echoes when you are mired, all the time, in this anger,” Dr Yelland says, with a thin smile, “but I assure you, it is there.”
“Time’s up,” Steve says, as his iPhone beeps. The timer on Dr Yelland’s desk vibrates loudly in the silence that follows: Dr Yelland has explained before that he doesn’t like to set timers, but Steve has also explained very firmly that he does like to know there’s going to be an end point on his mandated mental health sessions.
“There is very little point in us continuing these sessions if you are not prepared to do work on yourself in the intervals between them,” Dr Yelland says sorrowfully. He stands. “Please consider that.”
“Fury’s the one who thinks I need these sessions,” Steve says. “Take it up with him.”
“The more you try to get out of it,” Dr Yelland points out, “the more entrenched he becomes in his belief that you need to continue seeing me. Perhaps you should use your exercise periods for contemplation, rather than repression.”
Steve says, “I will see you next week,” and pulls open the door to Dr Yelland’s office a little too hard.
In the waiting area, Dr Yelland’s secretary is talking to someone in a flustered, flirtatious voice Steve’s never heard her use before. He holds onto the door handle, suddenly sure that he doesn’t want to be here, suddenly sure that he should leap out of the window instead.
The besuited back leaning over the desk, one buttock protruding from the wood and the other perched on it, looks familiar. Possibly this is because it is a horrible colour and an excellent fit, but mostly it is because the ends of the short legs have vain little Cuban heels on them.
Steve wonders if he can sink through the floor. Instead, he clears his throat pointedly. “Tony.”
His colleague and technically his friend whirls about and looks slightly sheepish.
“He has been shown his mission?” asks Major Krovoprolitiye. He is balding. He looks as if he has been carved from a lump of granite. His face does not look as if it has ever worn an expression other than his current incongruously whimsical smile. “He has been instructed on his target?”
“Object, item, target,” mutters Dr Žuvimas, under her breath. Major Krovoprolitiye shoots her a look that stops her dead in sentence, and continues to smile whimsically at the room.
The Winter Soldier stands perfectly still and watches proceedings with disinterest until Major Krovoprolitiye turns his attention directly onto him.
“Do you understand what you have to do?” he asks, as if he is talking to a small child.
The Winter Soldier stares at the Major with flat eyes and says in a flat, bland voice that is ragged with disuse and unorthodox therapies, “Enter the home of journalist, Christine Pravdakasyr. Kiev. Neutralise target.”
“She has information relevant to our operations which must also be destroyed,” begins the Major, when a handful of voices cry out at once.
Disengaged from hierarchy as he is, the Winter Soldier knows that interrupted a Major is an offence of no small magnitude. He watches with a small quantity of interest as the interrupters attempt to explain themselves:
“Too complex a mission.”
“We have clean-up teams.”
“We can deal with the data when he has breached the room.”
“Don’t overtax him on his first mission.”
The Winter Soldier absorbs this information and looks to the decision-maker. Major Krovoprolitiye nods slowly, his features vanishing into shadow and reappearing as his head moves beneath the overhead light.
“Neutralise the target.” The Major stops, and stares into the Winter Soldier’s eyes. No one else has done this for more than a year. “Cover your tracks. I wish to see that there has been catastrophic structural failure, or an electrical fire. No one is offended if the rest of the residents are hurt in such an accident.”
The Winter Soldier waits for him to finish talking. When he has, he nods his head. He has trained, and he has learned, and he has gaps in his identity which are bigger than the room in which he stands. He has no memory of the outside world, and more than anything he wants to know if there really is any such place as Kiev.
His answer comes soon enough: he arrives at night, outside an apartment block which stirs no emotion in him that he might call recognition. He climbs out of the back of the van, clad in a long coat which covers his arm, and a scarf which covers most of his face.
The apartment block he already plans to ignite. There will be a ‘gas leak’, and all that is needed is a spark. For now he has to make sure that his journalist, who keeps erratic hours and visits her home rarely, is not missed by this explosion.
He steps into the path of an oncoming woman.
Her face strikes a chord of recognition in his mind. She has the features of the photograph he has memorised. She has the manner of someone wary but not wishing to appear wary. She is carrying a canvas bag full of tinned goods. She has flat shoes and her hair looks grey under the low light, though he knows it to be light brown.
Christine Pravdakasyr catches his eye and flinches back. The Winter Soldier extends a hand, as if in greeting. There is a knife tucked into the sleeve of his coat, ready to slip forward into his hand. He has practiced this manoeuvre over three hundred times.
For a moment he has the belief, from no identifiable source, that someone is coming to save him. Not her, but him. Someone is coming to get him out of here. He shakes his head, and the feeling is gone: there is nothing but object, item, target.
She takes a hesitant step towards him, as if willing him to be harmless.